Magnificent Seven Old West

by Scribe

Summary: As Chris Larabee comes to grips with being the leader of a rather odd bunch of peacekeepers, he finds that they are having just as much difficulty coping with the change in their circumstances as he. However, with the hanging of his nephew, Stuart James is out for revenge on the men who have more difficulty being friends than being seven.

Author's Note:This is the first part of my 'Seven Scrolls' series, chronicling the progress of the seven and their lives post Obsession. While there are some crossover type stories, these can be skipped if not to your preference. All stories are het based and involve OFC characters as well as the seven getting married and having children.

WARNING: Period-specific gun violence.


The Leader

What on Earth was he thinking?

What had possessed him to agree to this? He should not still be here. He should have gone long before it had come to this. What was it about this town keeping him here instead of moving on? What made it so different from the dozen or so towns he drifted in and out of during the past two years? It was just another town in the Territory, lawless and dust blown. It was not the kind of place where anyone ought to get too comfortable. Enclaves like these had a way of turning on you, like mongrel dogs.

He shouldn't even think of staying, and yet he was still here, with a job no less. A job? That reeked of permanence. He had no wish to settle down. He did it once already, and it ended badly. He had no desire to do it again, to build something and cherish it, only to lose it all with one spark of a match.

He was not ready to care and yet he found himself in the company of six men who were just as lost as he. They looked to him for leadership, and while he didn't show it to them, his stomach constricted tight at the idea of their belief in him, and his mind reeled at the possibility he might end up caring for them. This arrangement had disaster written all over it, and he felt like a man trapped on a wild steed he couldn't dismount. Yet he could pinpoint the exact minute he climbed onto its back, that instant when he looked across the street and made a connection with a set of blue eyes with as much steel as his own.

It was a long time since he felt something inside him stir. In fact, it was a long time since anything had the power to move him and yet the tracker's gaze awakened in him the memory of what it was to give a damn.

Now, thanks to the Judge's speech about standing one's ground, about fighting for what was right, filling his head with idealistic notions that resulted in him taking leave of his senses by accepting the role of peacekeeper. Together with the six men who were his companions of late, he agreed to protect this town for a dollar a day with room and board.

Yep, no doubt about it. Disaster.

+ + + + + + +

The Bounty Hunter

This was a mistake.

He should have been riding to Tascosa to clear his name, not staying in this middle of nowhere town, playing the role of peacekeeper. A wanted man playing at being a lawman, now there was a twist. It was proof he lost his mind. Eli Joe was out there waiting for him, and the longer he stayed away from Tascosa, the harder it would be to prove his innocence. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out what compelled him to stay when he should have been long gone, taking a job no less. It took a week working in a hardware store to learn it was not for him he liked the town even less.

He longed for the open space between settlements, where it was quiet for miles around, and you could sit in solitude, letting the land soak you up to become a part of it. There was none of the chaos that came with too many people crowded in one place, and after a life lived alone, he frankly didn't care for it to change.

Yet, deep inside he knew why he was staying.

It baffled him as much as it probably baffled the man who was the cause of it. It made no sense, but it felt real and binding. He was standing there, trying to decide if he was going to let a bunch of drunks lynch an innocent man, just as the folk of Tascosa were ready to brand him a killer for something he did not do. No one had spoken up for him either. When he got around to deciding he could do something about it, he looked up and found himself staring into the eyes of the Man in Black.

Hell, he still didn't know what was in that stare, but it connected with him on a level he never experienced before. Without saying a word, a whole conversation passed between them across the dusty street, and each man knew exactly what the other was thinking. He didn't know anything about destiny or fate, but the machinery of cosmic design slipped into place, and suddenly he just knew his place in the world, was at this man's side and always would be.

+ + + + + + +

The Scoundrel

What was the point?

Things could never be the same between them again. They were friends once, close friends. Serving together in the war, the man had come through for him in more ways than he could count. He always expected them to remain friends, never imagining anything could ever drive them apart because as men, they were as different as night and day. He loved his women, and he loved carousing while his friend loved only one woman, and he watched in awe, as they made that relationship something so beautiful it took the breath away.

He who was never in need of female company, who knew the whispers of a hundred women who said they loved him and would do anything for him, was envious. He hoped in his heart someday; he would find something just as beautiful.

But it ended with a fire.

Love became a sorrow, so intense even his own heart was nearly shattered by its end. Not only did his friend lose she who was everything to him but also a son, a child who was light personified. The anguish was so deep he feared for his friend's sanity. Determined to be at his friend's side no matter what, he also suffered in silence the guilt at convincing Chris Larabee to spend that night in Mexico instead of riding home to his wife as they planned.

Remaining at Chris's side for as long as he could, he tried to make amends, stopping the anguished widower from putting a bullet in his head. The cost of saving Chris from himself was their friendship. When one witnessed the excoriation of another, there was no going back, and the exposure created a permanent rift between them. In the end, they went their separate ways because even though he stopped Chris from suicide, he wasn't able to keep him from self-destructing into the Man in Black.

Seeing Chris in town again, he felt some semblance of hope. Perhaps their friendship could return to a shadow of what it was but then that pretty newspaper editor made her inquiries about Chris and he unwisely told her what he knew. Buck knew women well enough and easily deciphered the long meaningful look in her dove-like eyes when she asked about Chris. Unfortunately, revealing the truth to her incurred Chris's wrath and drove home how wrong he was about salvaging their friendship. Dead wrong.

And yet he was still here, riding along the Man in Black, hoping against hope, that someday they might be friends again.

+ + + + + + +

The Preacher

God had a funny way of sending him a message.

He thought his faith was a river run dry and his past sins earned him a swift death. Suicide was a mortal sin, and while he turned his back on his faith, there were some lines he dared not cross. But he wanted very much to, because the burden of his trespasses weighed heavily upon him and contrary to popular belief, faith in God did little to make the pain disappear.

He watched the skies for the coming of the crows, deciding it was a sure sign his passing was at hand. Working on the church, he was confident he would never finish it because they would come for him. Eventually, he tired of the waiting and instead sought out the opportunity to for his life to end without committing the ultimate sin.

He had gone to the village thinking he would die. In fact, he was sure of it. It was a foolish and yet noble crusade. What better way to meet the maker than to sacrifice one's life by helping innocents? It was almost poetic.

Then a curious thing happened.

Instead of shirking off the mortal coil, he met six other men who had come together for different reasons to defend the same village but for some inexplicable reason; he felt something he had not felt in a long time - the need to watch over them. As if to confirm this was indeed the sign he was awaiting, the Almighty chose not to let him die even though he came damn close to it. The crows had circled him while the dirt beneath him ran red with blood but they did not feast.

As they circled and circled until they diminished into nothingness, he reached enlightenment and understood that a man with faith was far more valuable than a man of the cloth. God had work for him to do and if it was to play peacekeeper while watching over his companions, so be it.

If not, God would let him know, and the crows would circle again.

+ + + + + + +

The Boy

He couldn't believe it!

He was one of them! Not just a stray they picked up on the way but one of them! Apart of him was still stunned with disbelief these six men, all so capable and the kind he could only dream of being like, wanted him as one of their number. Why did they want him? He was just a stupid kid. He had come to the West full of ideas, read from one too many dime store novels, with no idea fiction and reality were two different things.

People really died, and there was nothing glamorous or noble about it and young men like himself, who didn't know better, were usually the first to be sacrificed.

There was nothing romantic about gunning someone down. Until he took a life, he hadn't grasped that. Only when he saw the light fade from eyes that would never see anything again did he understand he'd taken away everything the man would ever be with a single gunshot. When the Reb soldier died at his hand, he realised he'd sold his soul to the Devil to achieve his dreams. He thought of all the things he wished for when making the journey to the West and it was soiled by one act of violence.

He almost went home.

But then out of nowhere, the big man who seemed to know everything, who could not stop telling him how much he didn't know, said the words that made it alright. For the first time since his mother died, he didn't feel so utterly alone.

As different and as hard as they all were, he seemed to be the one thing they wanted to protect, and while he thought he was old enough to look after himself (thank you very much), it was nice to know he found a family.

Even if they hated his hat.

+ + + + + + +

The Healer

Times are a changing.

Ask him a few years ago if he would count six white men as his friends and he would have thought it was pure insanity. After all, there had never been a white man save one, who treated him as anything but a slave, even after the war. The ever-present glint in their eyes where they sized him up as less than human would always surface and though he was immune to the pain since his plantation days, it still stung. It was not that he was starved for friends and he could certainly find his own kind if the loneliness was too much, but he didn't think friendship ought to be segregated.

When he came to the town, the dust blown place that it was, he was drifting. It was not until he learnt they needed a healer that he chose to stay. In towns like Four Corners, violence was a regular occurrence, and he knew he could help. During the war, he'd learnt a great deal about stitching up wounds and mending broken bones. Under the surgeon's tents, there was only one colour - red.

There was the usual prejudice of course, but being Negro meant it was just the way things were. Besides, the one white man he trusted lived in the area, and after the preacher's service to him in the past, he was not about to let the man wait for death if he could convince him otherwise. There were other friends, some coloured and some white folk but it was friendship at a distance. He did not expect deep bonds to form.

Not until he was almost lynched.

The two men came out of nowhere and why they chose to save him was as much a mystery to them as it was to him. However, that act of kindness led to a kinship he had not expected to feel with them. With the two, they became seven. The old people in the hills always said seven was a number of power and even though he discounted such superstitions in the past, on this occasion he could feel it. Except for the gambler, whose Southern past made it a requirement to be scornful, the others looked at him and didn't see a Negro.

They just saw a man.

+ + + + + + +

The Gambler

This was pure foolishness. Mother would say he was utterly insane.

Since when did he have a compulsion to be a part of the gainfully employed? Especially in this dilapidated collection of dusty buildings attempting to call itself a town? And for a dollar a day? The more he thought about it, the more he concluded he had lost his mind. Protecting law and order when he spent most of his life breaking it, was laughable. For the life of him, he could not understand what was compelling him to remain when every instinct was telling him to run and not look back.

It wasn't as if he made any deep attachments and after his behaviour at the village, his associates were less than friendly and seemed to only tolerate his presence. Not that he cared, not even when he saw the bonds forming between the six men and knew he wasn't included. The boy had been more than ready to incarcerate him after learning of some past troubles in Fort Laramie! After everything they'd been through, he hoped he earned some measure of trust, but the young man merely shrugged his shoulders apologetically before slamming the doors shut on his cell.

Okay, maybe he cared a little.

Even when they needed his help, the Man in Black was perfectly happy to let him languish in his cell rather than ask him for assistance. He knew he erred when he left the scene of their first battle but had any of them realised how hard it was for him to fight his natural inclination to save his skin? While he didn't expect gratitude, he did expect understanding. Instead, he received was a stinging warning from their illustrious leader to never do it again. And with all that between them, he was still staying. Why?

Because he was mad, that was why. Mother would say so if she were here and she would be right. Completely mad.

Chapter One: The Hanging

It was a good day for a hanging.

At least it was in Chris Larabee's opinion. The rain hammered down on the parched and dusty earth, turning fine particles of dirt into a quick forming quagmire of mud. A thick cover of grey cumulus, pregnant with rain blanketed the sky overhead. It was almost noon but the sun was nowhere in sight. The pallor of town was decidedly lacking in any colour, befitting the grim event about to take place. Rain kept most people indoors and only a few diehard spectators were present to watch the proceedings. They stood around the wooden scaffold making up the gallows, shielded from the rain under umbrellas and hats, waiting in morbid anticipation for the dark duty of the day to begin.

Chris was grateful for the sparse gathering. The less people there were, the less chance of trouble. Despite the dismal weather and the equally gloomy atmosphere, the days leading to the hanging was peaceful but Chris knew this could change at a drop of a hat. Even now, the players most responsible for this change in status quo had taken their places, their eyes watchful for anything out of the ordinary.

From where he stood on the boardwalk in front of the saloon, Chris was difficult to miss and the warning in his eyes equally impossible to ignore.

On the other side of the street, Stuart James stood beneath the awning of the hotel, wearing a mask almost as stormy as the weather. Glaring at Chris who was the most visible member of the seven at the present, he conveyed his rage without saying a word. James was accompanied by an entourage of hired guns whose loyalty to their master was evident by their scowls and hostile expressions. Four of them flanked James and eyed Chris with clear dislike. Chris didn't react because he was convinced, they were not alone, there were more of them around, lurking in unseen corners, waiting for James to give them the word.

Chris knew this as surely as he knew the sun would set tonight.

He expected James to make his move long before today but some unfathomable reason the attempt to liberate his nephew from the hangman's noose was yet to come. This bothered Chris more than he'd like to admit. Men like James didn't waste time when they wanted something. They simply reached out and took it. Ever since Lucas James was convicted of the first-degree murder of Four Corner's resident, Mr Potter, Chris had expected some kind of rescue attempt.

Lucas had shot Mr Potter, the owner of the mercantile store and husband to Gloria Potter, in full view of everyone on the street and unfortunately for him, newly arrived Judge Orin Travis. Before Travis's arrival, James and his kin believed they were above the reach of the law. Judge Travis had different ideas on that point.

Judge Orin Travis was one the Territorial Judges appointed by newly installed Governor Lew Wallace. Wallace was determined to bring an end to the lawlessness and violence in the Territory so eagerly reported in most eastern newspapers. Determined to see justice done, alone if necessary, Travis was more than willing to face an amused Lucas and all his cohorts.

Chris wondered how things would have ended up if the seven had not chosen that exact moment to return to Four Corners after their adventure in the Seminole village. Chris would like to think the crusty old Judge would have prevailed, but somehow, he didn't think so. Nevertheless, it was a moot point since the arrival of the seven ensured Lucas was taken into custody and remained as such, despite one failed escape resulting in the seven entering James' property to bring him back.

Their willingness to risk their lives in returning the prisoner gave the townsfolk backbone enough to participate in the judicial proceedings. Travis, ever the shrewd old lawyer, moved quickly to install the seven men as the town's peacekeepers and though the title was not official, it served well enough for Lucas to be tried and convicted of murder. Since the sentence was delivered, the town was gripped with tension. Stuart James would surely not stand for his kin hanging, and the seven were still too new to the community for them to be entirely sure of their protectors.

It wasn't all that long ago, Chris Larabee was the quintessential bad element, and while the seven had a few supporters in the community, they were still viewed with some measure of caution.

His gaze shifted when he saw Mary Travis stepping onto the boardwalk from the offices of the Clarion News with the Judge at her arm. She was clad in dark clothes, with a white lace collar framing her neck, looking ever the respectable newspaper editor. His eyes held hers for a few seconds before he averted his gaze, a sliver of guilt surfacing at the stolen moment.

Forbidden territory Christopher, forbidden territory.

Shaking his head of the thought, he settled his high powered gaze on a safer subject; the Judge. If James' glare at Chris had been hateful, the look he gave the Judge was positively excoriating. James held the Judge entirely responsible for Lucas' situation, even more than the seven. The tension between them was so thick, Chris considered crossing the street and join the Judge and Mary, just in case.

The opening door of the jailhouse put an end to the thought and Chris saw Buck Wilmington step out of the building. His old friend's expression was one of complete seriousness, a far cry from his usual good humour. Nothing good about a day like this Chris supposed. Buck had one finger hooked on his belt, a gesture that on its face seemed harmless enough, but kept his hand within easy reach of his gun if needed.

Buck stepped onto the boardwalk and behind him was Lucas James, whose cocky arrogance vanished from his face the instant he caught his first glimpse of the gallows. A visible gulp made his Adam's apple bob before his eyes began to fill with panic as the reality of the situation finally sunk in. Desperate, Lucas began searching the boardwalk, laying his hopes of salvation at his uncle's feet.

Chris wondered if he felt that much when he gunned down an innocent man. Probably not.

Potter's widow was standing by the doorway to the store she inherited from her husband. Gloria Potter was still clad in the dark clothes of mourning and her children were noticeably absent. Chris assumed the lady felt no need to have her children see the hanging. Knowing their father was avenged should be enough. Her eyes were hard like granite and her jaw set. She was a proud one, Chris surmised. She wasn't going to give Lucas the satisfaction of seeing her grief.

Mary was leaning over Orin's ear, whispering something before she stepped away from the Judge and made her way across the street to Gloria's side. Lifting her skirt above her laced boots, she ran gracefully through the rain to join the new widow at her side. Chris followed her progress all the way to store and only broke away when she squeezed the woman's shoulder in support.

Damn woman, Chris snorted silently, she just can't help herself.

Trailing Lucas out was Josiah Sanchez, the tall, burly preacher stood almost the same height as Lucas and Buck, his face a statue as he played escort. The preacher made some effort to offer Lucas absolution which the arrogant fuck spat back in his face. Not to be dissuaded especially when it was a lost cause, Josiah nevertheless offered a few words so that Lucas would not be entirely devoid of the Lord's favour when it came time to meet him in person.

Only three of the seven were present. The others were posted strategically across town unseen. Their absence was a reminder to James, Chris was anticipating trouble and was keeping him guessing as to where they were. Perhaps the lack of knowledge would keep the man from doing anything stupid. He doubted it would work.

Buck and Josiah led the prisoner from the jailhouse into the rain. Lucas, having found his uncle, pleaded for rescue but the older man remained impassive. It was clear James was anguished about the impending end of his nephew but unwilling or unable to do anything about it. James had a reputation for keeping his hands cleans. Even though he threw his weight about town, he was always careful to ensure he was never implicated.

Even when he engineered the assassination attempt on the Judge's life during the first attempt to try Lucas, he ensured none of the assassins could be traced back to him. As difficult as he was to allow the execution to take place, nothing could be done without risking his freedom.

"Uncle Stuart! You can't let them do this!" Lucas cried out as he walked past James and saw neither his uncle nor his companions were making any effort to secure his freedom.

"It ain't up to me. You killed a man in front of an entire town, and you've been judged." The strain in his voice was clear and shot another glare at Travis, hate smouldering during that brief contact. "I can't help you."


Lucas' panic was complete, and he began to struggle as he caught his first glimpse of the executioner. Even from where he was, Chris could see the man's cries were affecting his uncle, and the Man in Black stepped forward, his fingers moving to his peacemaker in warning. James's face was filled with impotent fury, his jaw ticking as he stepped off the boardwalk and started towards the gallows.

Chris raised his eyes to the roof of the hotel, resting briefly on a faint shape behind the false front of the building. The brim of the hat was barely visible through the sheets of rain, but it lifted in concert with Chris' gaze before a set of cobalt coloured eyes met his own, acknowledging the situation was about to escalate. The brief contact was all that was required before Vin Tanner withdrew into the grey once again. Chris breathed a little easier knowing Vin was there and puzzled briefly the sense of assurance he felt at knowing the tracker was watching his back.

A flutter of curtains from inside a closed window signalled to Chris, Ezra Standish was also in place. JD and Nathan were also lying in wait, pieces on a chess board set before this event. Even though Chris could not see them, he knew they were keeping a close eye of the situation, remaining hidden until their presence was required.

The rain showed no signs of abating with sheets of water continuing to hammer the town. He saw Buck and Josiah forced into the downpour, keeping Lucas between them so he would keep his appointment with the hangman's noose. It was customary these things be conducted in good weather but Chris hadn't wanted to wait. Good weather would bring more people and the situation was explosive enough.

"Uncle Stuart!" Lucas continued to holler; his eyes fixed on James as he moved up the street. Ahead of them, the foot of the steps leading to the gallows platform waited. "You can't let them do this! I'm your kin!"

"Shut up," Buck finally growled, his patience exhausted. This was a bad business as it was without Lucas carrying on like some whimpering sissy, who was not even man enough to answer for what he had done. As far as Buck was concerned, Lucas was getting exactly what was coming to him. Not just for killing Mr Potter, but for God only knew how many other poor souls he'd put into the ground because of his uncle's power. "Try and go out with some dignity would you, boy?"

"Go to hell!"

Lucas' spat the words so vehemently, Chris saw James flinching at the words. The rancher wasn't going to be able to take much more of this, Chris thought, seeing the restraint in James' face beginning to crumble. James shot his men a look, and though he said nothing, Chris knew a signal was nonetheless delivered. Prepared for this, Chris stepped to the edge of the boardwalk, feeling the rain pelt down against the felt of his hat. Looking up, he thumbed the brim of black felt, appearing as if he was adjusting it on his head.

Instead of four men next to James, there were now three men. It was done so subtly James believed Chris hadn't noticed, assuming the gunslinger's attention would be focused on his hysterical nephew but he had. He noticed everything.

By now, Josiah was nudging Lucas up the wooden steps leading the platform on the top of the scaffold. Not an easy thing to do when the man was so reluctant to go. Eventually, Josiah got him there at the point of gun and Chris could tell the preacher loathed taking the action. The condemned was whimpering like a baby, continuing to plead his case to his uncle as he stepped onto the top. Making sure he didn't tumble down the steps slippery from the rain; Buck gripped him by the shoulder to steady his ascent.

Chris remained where he was, meeting the Judge's gaze and conveying wordlessly, the possibility of danger. Travis nodded slowly and then crossed the street, braving the rain as he joined Mary and Gloria. Leaning over to Mary, Chris saw him whisper to the blond woman.

Mary tensed, her dove coloured eyes shifted in his direction for a moment before that determined mask fell over her face, the one he knew to mean she was not about to let anything frighten her off. Why couldn't she be sensible enough to go? Instead, Mary stood her ground next to Gloria Potter, leaving Travis to frown unhappily when his efforts to tell Mary to withdraw fell on deaf ears.

Chris almost swore audibly. Goddamn, she was stubborn. Stephen Travis must have been a fucking saint.

Lucas, Buck and Josiah were finally on top of the platform, sharing its space with the executioner who wore a dark mask over his face. Whatever remained of Lucas' composure crumbled entirely at the sight of the man.

'GET AWAY FROM ME!' He shrieked and made a dash towards to get past Buck and Josiah.

With both hands tied behind his back, Lucas was hardly in the position to offer any resistance when Josiah grabbed him and shoved him towards Buck who caught him and hauled him into position under the noose. Even then, he was not about to go quietly into the night, to struggle and to twist when the executioner attempted to slide the rope around his neck.

Chris paid little attention to this because he was confident Josiah and Buck would keep things under control. He was more interested in what was happening elsewhere. Vin stepped out from his hiding place behind the false front, the brief visibility indicating something was coming. In reflex, unbuttoned the flap on his gun holster, a gesture that did not go unnoticed by James or the seven.

This time, Orin Travis was taking no for an answer, and he ushered Mary and Gloria into the store, pausing long enough to give Chris a nod of permission before he disappeared into the building. Now that Lucas was secured with a rope around his neck, Buck and Josiah were similarly on guard, having seen Chris' signal.

Vin Tanner had a better vantage point than anyone present, so Chris kept his eyes fixed on him. As James' men began spreading out, Chris inched along the boardwalk to the entrance of the saloon was to his back, in case the opening act in the hostilities was blazing guns.

The wet, squelching sounds of hoofbeats penetrated the hiss of rain as horses galloped into the town, splattering mud in all directions as they approached. Chris remained where he was, awaiting their arrival because he knew where they would be going once James made his bid to rescue his wayward nephew. There were five of them, galloping towards the centre of town.

Chris exchanged another brief look with Vin, and the tracker nodded, returning to his sweet spot behind the wooden front of the building. As Ezra would say, Vin was his ace, and Chris did not wish to play his hand until he knew precisely what James had in mind.

Of course, it was not that difficult to figure out, but Chris was never one to underestimate an opponent, no matter how predictable they might appear to be. He always felt it was wise to hold a little something back which in this case, just happened to be a sharpshooter who could nail a moving target at five hundred yards. At night.

The horses and their riders came to in front of the scaffold, prompting to Luas to begin struggling out of his bonds in anticipation of his rescue. Stuart James stepped out from under the awning and was crossing the street towards his nephew, flanked by his men who had their guns drawn, ready to kill anyone who tried to stop them.

"Don't do it, James." Chris stepped into the rain almost casually. "He was tried fair and square. Let the law be carried out."

"You son of a bitch!" James glared at him sharply, hardly pausing in his advance towards Lucas. "You think I'm going to let you lynch my kin?"

"He murdered a man." Chris returned as he placed himself between James and the scaffold "We're going to see to it that he hangs for the crime."

"You forget yourself. Look around you," James laughed gesturing to the men on horseback and those flanking him, whose guns were drawn and more than prepared to turn this into a shooting match at a moment's notice. "You don't have a choice in the matter. And right now, you'd be advised to worry more about your own life rather than Lucas'."

"That's right Uncle Stuart!" Lucas gloated now that the moment of his freedom was at hand. "You tell him!"

"I wouldn't be so sure about that if I were you," Chris responded and glanced past James' shoulder to make contact with the tracker whose rifle was primed and ready to fire.

James followed Chris gaze and saw Vin Tanner's rifle aimed at directly at him from his vantage point. Vin's face was an expression in skilled confidence as he kept his target in his sight, not wavering in the slightest despite the rain was battering down on him relentlessly.

It took James, but a second to realise if he made one move against Larabee, Tanner would take the top of his head off. Elsewhere, a window creaked open, and curtains parted just enough to reveal Ezra Standish at a second storey window, poised to fire at the first man on horseback to fire on his associates. His present location ensured he had the advantages since it was easier for him to shoot them down then it was for them to get a clear shot of him.

Meanwhile, the weather-beaten piece of calico strewn across the crates less than a five feet away from James and his flanks suddenly shifted to reveal the form of JD Dunne. The barrel of both his guns was aimed squarely at the men protecting the rancher. His youthful features dissolved in the mask of fierce warning to anyone making a move towards his friends. Meanwhile, on the scaffold, Buck was smiling at the kid like a proud father.

"Nathan," Chris called out without taking his eyes off James, just in case the man needed a little more convincing.

The executioner removed his mask and dropped it against the platform, the pooling rain on the floor soaking into the dark fabric. Nathan Jackson, the last member of their seat, stepped up from behind Lucas and produced a gun he held pressed against the condemned man's throat.

"I had a feeling you weren't going to be reasonable about this, but I'm chalking this up to the hard situation for you and not take this personally. If you and your boys ride out now, that's where it will end."

"And if I don't?" James hissed, his face reddening with rage because the tables had suddenly turned and he was faced with the question of whether or not he was willing to die to save Lucas.

"If you don't," Chris' eyes narrowed, and the world seemed to be swallowed into the singularity of that icy gaze. "Then you die with him."

James returned the glare with one that was almost as scalding but the truth was, Larabee had him, and he knew it. He was not willing to die for the boy, and the tracker would almost certainly make it a reality if he attempted to push this situation any further.

"I'm sorry Lucas," James spoke after a long pause, his voice strained. "You're on your own. Boys, stand down."

"NO!" Lucas James screamed in anguish as the last hopes for his continued existence died with those words.

"Boss?" One of them looked at James in astonishment.

"You heard me!" James bellowed, not happy to repeat himself when he knew what standing down would mean. "Stand down!"

Their weapons lowered eventually, but the seven were unwilling to assume the danger had passed. As far as Chris was concerned, only James' swift departure out of town would satisfy.

"I think you'd best ride out of here," Chris warned. "While you still can."

"Uncle Stuart! You can't leave me here!" Lucas continued to scream.

"Now." Chris' voice reeked of menace.

"This isn't over." Stuart James retorted, but his tone conveyed surrender in every sense of the word. He was trying not to look at Lucas, trying not to let his nephew's cries for help provoke him into a making a fatal mistake. He knew he could not win. Perhaps he had always known it, but he had to try, and his failure turned anguish into hatred, hatred at the seven men and the Judge who forced him into this position. "You're going to pay for what you made me do today. You, your men and the Judge!"

"Get going James," Chris returned sharply. "Get going before the Judge finds something to charge you with.'

James sucked in his breath as Chris' words had the desired effect. He turned on his heels, his duster spraying water as he started towards his horse. His men threw furious stares at Chris for wounding their employer but could do little more than follow.

"You men," Chris stared up at the men on horseback. "Get going. I ain't gonna tell you again."

With as much hostility as that felt by their master, they dug their heels into their mounts, and the group trotted out of town, taking with them their hatred and vengeance to fester another day.

"UNCLE STUART!" James screamed once more.

His uncle did not turn back and had he been able to see; he would have understood why. James was crying, but he would not let the men who caused those tears to see his anguish, but by God, he would make them pay.

He would make them all pay.

+ + + + + + +

When James and his men had well and truly left town, the execution resumed. For the second act, Lucas James was a great deal more sedate, and there was every indication by his dazed expression he had not truly believed he would die, not even after he had been tried and sentenced. After his uncle's departure, Lucas' struggles or cries for aid ceased entirely. Instead, he seemed to withdraw, his mind trying to distance itself from his body to spare himself the dying to come.

Nathan was more than happy to relinquish his temporary role as executioner to the real practitioner who had come from Eagle Bend a day ago to perform the duty.

The rain continued its relentless downpour, which continued to keep people away from the spectacle, even with the departure of Stuart James and his men. Nevertheless, Chris wanted to make sure James didn't change his mind and double back to make some half-assed rescue attempt. Vin volunteered to keep an eye out on things, with Ezra joining him.

Chris suspected watching a hanging was too close to the tracker's own troubles in Tascosa. Still, Vin had a keen eye for trouble, and Chris could have asked for no better to maintain a vigil. And he supposed Ezra would be of some use too, that is if Vin didn't shoot him first for talking too much.

Mary and Gloria had appeared on the street again, and this time, Gloria's tough mask had wavered a little to show the sadness she felt at the whole proceedings, as if the appearance at the hanging of her husband's killer was obligatory, not intended to provide her with any sense of justice. He was after all, still gone. Hanging his murderer would change nothing.

Chris watched Mary at her side, supposing the golden-haired newspaper editor could appreciate what Gloria was suffering. Mary herself was widowed through violence and her compassion, though rather misplaced when directed at him, would serve well to aid someone else.

Lucas became a little more animated when he heard Orin Travis reciting his crimes one last time and Josiah saying a little prayer for his soul. When the heavy Hessian rope was placed around his neck again, he resumed struggling and soon he was begging forgiveness and pleading for another chance. Gloria burst into tears at that, prompting Mary to try and lead her away but the widow would not go. She merely dried her tears once she had composed herself and forced herself to watch. The lawmen stepped away as Lucas found himself alone on the trap door beneath his feet, his ankles weighted down with heavy sacks to make the end come quick and clean.

It came with a sudden sound of wooden doors dropping and a loud crack of sound that could have wood creaking or something far more insidious. No one wanted to make the distinction, but everyone knew exactly what it was. Lucas' neck snapped like kindling. The weights had done precisely what it was intended to do, ending his life as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Gloria left first, and Mary went with her. The Judge crossed the street to join Chris in front of the saloon. His eyes seemed a little older, and Chris wondered if this was what sentencing men to die did to a person.

JD seemed a little pale and confirmed Buck and Chris' suspicion that it was probably the first time the young man had ever seen anyone hang. The big man who had taken the boy under his wing since his arrival in Four Corners promptly steered JD in the direction of the saloon. The best cure for the young man's state of mind was a good stiff drink. Nathan and Josiah who were grateful to be done with this particular duty joined them at the saloon.

"This isn't over you know," Judge Travis sighed.

"No, it ain't." Chris agreed. "We saw justice done, but as far as James is concerned, we murdered him."

"Unfortunately, he'll want his own justice. It could get dangerous around here." Travis pointed out.

"It's dangerous everywhere," Chris shrugged. 'We'll handle it.'

Travis stared at the younger man for a few seconds, wondering how it was possible for Chris to feel so little because he felt too much for the death of his wife and child. When his son Stephen had died, Travis still had the comfort of a wife, a daughter in law and a grandson. If he had lost them the way Chris had lost his family, he would probably feel as hollowed out as the man himself.

"I have to get back to Eagle Bend tomorrow," Travis volunteered. "Are you boys going to be alright?"

Chris stared at Travis because the crusty Judge's voice had a trace of something that could almost be called affection. "We growing on you Judge?"

Travis chuckled slightly before answering. "Folks around here are just getting used to there being law and order in this town. It'd be a shame for all that to end if you boys were to get yourselves killed. It would be taking a step back and I kind of like the progress."

Suddenly, Mary Travis stepped out of the Potter store and searched the street for her father in law. Chris noticed her eyes brushed his first before she shifted them to the Judge. Seeing her eminent approach made Chris feel the sudden urge to have that stiff drink with JD. He thought of leaving before she reached them, but Chris had no wish to let the old man think he was slighting his daughter in law.

Sucking in his breath, Chris told himself he could endure the meddlesome Mrs Travis for just a few seconds before excusing himself politely.

"How is Mrs Potter?" The Judge asked once Mary joined them.

"Trying to be strong and failing. She's putting a brave face for her children which wasn't helped by that whole scene with James.'

"Unfortunately, I don't think that will be the last we'll hear from Mr James," Travis remarked.

"You think he'll want revenge, Mr Larabee?" Mary asked, directing her question at Chris.

Chris had been avoiding meeting her gaze since she arrived but could not avoid looking at her now that a question was asked of him.

"I'd say so. The only reason Lucas is dead is because of us. He's mad enough to do something about it."

"You think he'll come after you?"

"I think he'll come after us all," Chris stated without thinking.

He saw her shudder slightly and swore inwardly at being so blunt. Then again, maybe it wasn't a bad idea for her to be aware of the danger. The woman was too brave enough for her own good. It was time she understood the dangers she so blithely took for granted when she stuck her nose in where it was not wanted.

"I don't think you'll have to worry Mary," Travis remarked, casting a frown in Chris' direction for frightening her. "James' anger was mostly at me."

"Yeah," Chris muttered, keeping his eyes averted from her. "I'm sure you don't have anything to worry about. Judge, Mrs Travis," he said stiffly before tipping his hat slightly and putting as much distance as he could between himself and them.

At the moment, a drink sounded a lot less complicated than dealing with why Mrs Travis made him so damned uncomfortable.

+ + + + + + +

Within the confines of the saloon, things seemed much simpler, and Chris was happy to forget his conversation with Mrs Travis for a time, especially with the assistance of a bottle of whiskey. He doubted James would be back until he was ready to collect Lucas body for burial. As far as Chris understood it, the rancher had left instructions to the undertaker that Lucas was to be interred on the James' spread.

Chris suspected James never thought those instructions would be carried out since he planned to rescue Lucas long before his appointment with the hangman's noose. In some ways, Chris felt a little sorry for the rancher at having to face the death of his kin and be helpless to prevent it. Unfortunately, Lucas did not engender much sympathy from anyone. Still, Chris knew how hot the blood could run when it came to the matter of vengeance, and he had a premonition it wouldn't take long for Stuart James to plot his own.

When he arrived at the table occupied by the other men, Chris noted Buck was already plying his young companion with liquor. JD seemed to need it as he downed the contents of his glass with a sharp tilt of his head. The alcohol seeping into his system did very little to return the sparkle to those youthful eyes, and Chris knew from experience liquor could only make the pain go away for a little while, not remove it completely.

The mood around the table was sombre despite the sounds of people chattering enthusiastically, glasses clinking against each other and the trickle of fluid from various bottles. Saloon girls working the room sauntered through the crowd in brightly coloured clothes hiding worn and dour looks, attempting to catch the eye of those seated at the table. Only Buck offered something of a response as he made promises of an interlude at another time.

Chris sat down heavily and reached for one of the empty shot glasses in the centre of the table. Helping himself to the bottle of Red Eye, he filled the shot glass to the brim and drank the fluid quickly, before moving to replenish it again.

"That was a chore I could do without," Chris remarked when he finished his second glass and began working to a third.

A rumble of agreement followed his statement as the others showed their own discomfort at the day's events.

"I ain't ever seen a man hang before." JD swallowed, starting on his second glass. "It's different to shooting him."

"It sure is," Buck agreed. "You don't have to think when you're defending your life but to watch it done slowly, that takes something out of you."

"He was so scared," JD replied, looking to his older companions, hoping to see if there was something in their experience that would allow this feeling in his gut to go away. He did not feel anything for Lucas James, and in his heart, he truly felt the man deserved to die but watching it happened made him feel hollow, and he could not comprehend the reason for the feeling. "You could see it in his eyes how terrified he was. You don't see that when you're fighting."

"No," Josiah muttered sedately as he sipped from his glass and stared into its contents as if the swirls might provide some revelation. It didn't.

"You don't." He answered after a moment.

"Mr James was pretty torn up," Nathan remarked. "When he calms down, he is gonna start wanting to take it out on someone." The healer pointed out and put on the table something that had concerned them all since James' outburst.

"He might take it out on us," Buck suggested.

"He might," Chris tilted his head forward in the spirit of a nod. "I don't think so."

Outside, the pelting of rain against the muddy ground was temporarily interrupted by the creak of hinges when the batwing doors swung open. The five men at the table shifted their gazes to the entrance to see the arrival of the last two members of their set. Ezra was removing his duster and shaking the water from it while Vin just shook his himself of the excess moisture that clung to his buckskin coat. Both men looked as waterlogged as the duty of surveillance would have left them, and Buck raised his hand instinctively to one of the barmaids in a silent request to bring them another two glasses and a fresh bottle.

"He go straight out?" Chris asked as Vin settled into his chair.

"Yeah," Vin responded in his usual quiet voice. "Just rode on out and didn't look back."

"I honestly do not think he could bring himself to watch the event," Ezra offered.

"As I said, he's gonna be mad when he finally calms down," Nathan repeated. "He'll be back."

"I'm not sure if it will be us that bears the brunt of his anger Mr Jackson," Ezra remarked offhandedly as he poured himself a glass of whiskey.

"What do you mean?" Nathan stared at Ezra sceptically, still of the belief that there was very little about human nature that Ezra could accurately guess unless of course, it was for a con. "Some people feel take a lot of exception to kin being killed. Mr James looks to me like he'd feel it his duty or something to take revenge."

"A wasteful expenditure of time," Ezra retorted sipping his drink.

"For you maybe," Nathan muttered under his breath with just enough derision for Ezra to notice it.

The gambler's expression did not show the insult had registered, but it was clear he heard it. "I mean to say that the Judge would most likely bear the brunt of Mr James' anger since it was the Judge who precipitated the entire matter of a trial."

Vin Tanner threw Nathan a brief look of disapproval, and the healer was somewhat taken back at its intensity before realising Vin was not entirely impressed at the remark he made at Ezra's expense. Nathan wondered why Vin would feel so strongly for Ezra when they barely spent any time in each other's company and were as different as two men could be. Nathan was almost prepared to question it when Vin's gaze moved away from him and rested on the gunslinger.

"Ezra's right," Vin remarked in a clear show of solidarity for the gambler which reflected in a flicker of surprise in Ezra's eyes. Vin made no reaction to noticing it and continued speaking. "We're just hired guns, we're getting paid for doing what we done but the Judge, the Judge he pushed this. He's the one who went after Lucas in the first place, who insisted on there being a trial and it's the Judge who sentenced him to hang. If James is gonna go after anyone, it will be the Judge."

"When's he leaving town?" Buck inquired now that this possibility was voiced.

"Tomorrow," Chris replied. "I'm thinking we might give him an escort as far as we can, just to make sure he gets off okay."

"Good idea," Josiah agreed. "What about Mrs Travis?"

Chris' sudden gulp did not escape those at the table, and he raised his eyes abruptly to the preacher. "What about Mrs Travis?"

"Well Chris," Nathan looked at him. "It stands to reason since she's his kin, she'd be in trouble too. If he wants to get revenge on what the Judge did to Lucas, Miss Mary might be the closest thing he can get to it."

"I suppose," Chris shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "You know her best," he said to Nathan. "You and JD can keep an eye on her for a few days."

"I don't know about that," Nathan straightened up in his chair. "She's awful independent. She ain't gonna like us keeping an eye out on her, less she knows why. Maybe you ought to talk to her first."

"Look we're doing this for her own good," Chris snapped. "If she don't like it, she can come to talk to me, and the only thing I'll be telling her is to either put up with it or take her chances with James alone."

The six men at the table exchanged short glances all around, most saying the same thing although JD was not quite adept at catching on entirely. Chris' behaviour was somewhat volatile when it came to the subject of the newspaper woman.

"I'll say something to her," Vin volunteered, always quick to diffuse a tense situation. "She don't bother me much."

"I didn't say she bothered me," Chris stared at the tracker sharply.

"I didn't say she did," Vin returned coolly, more amused by Chris' reaction than anything else. Of course, he had noted the way Chris seemed to avoid Mrs Travis. He noticed everything that came into his presence. He had a suspicion of why Chris felt so strongly in the company of the woman but did not mention it to the gunslinger himself, mostly because he had no desire to be shot full of lead by a man he was starting to call his best friend.

"Alright," Chris remarked pushing himself back into his seat. "As long as we got that clear."

"Oh I think we all got it clear Chris," Buck retorted, no small measure of sarcasm in his voice as he made that statement.

Chris shot a venomous look in Buck's direction but his old friend seemed to shake it off. However, Chris noticed a cooling in their friendship of late and could not deny feeling some guilt as to being the cause of it. In truth, he treated Buck badly considering how much the man had put up with him following Sarah and Adam's death.

Buck had refused to give up on him even though a lesser man might have moved on. Following the death of his family, Chris had moved through his life in a stupor with Buck taking care of most things afterwards. He remembered Buck helping him to bury them, but after that, things got a little vague. This had much to do with the fact Chris had spent the first six months in a drunken haze. He could not even count how many times he tried to end his life and knew Buck was the reason he was still here.

After he had started to come out of it, he was embarrassed at having Buck see him so vulnerable It from there the rift between them began to form. Buck, sensing that he needed to give Chris space, finally departed and though Chris knew he should have said something in that parting, he did not, and Buck left without Chris even saying a word of thanks.

Buck pulled him through the most painful period of his life, but the truth was their friendship had been damaged irreparably in the process.

He certainly knew Buck did not deserve having a razor held to his throat for the sin of telling Mary Travis something of his past and still, Chris had not apologized even though Buck had done it innocently with no intention of malice.

Since then their relationship had been distant. Buck made no further comment about the episode, but Chris sensed his hurt. The aloofness in the way he addressed Chris was apparent, and it appeared Buck was consoling his wounded feelings by pouring his attention into JD, someone who could be helped who would not end up turning on him.

The funny thing was, there was a time when Chris would have welcomed Buck's indifference. Until recently, he wasn't even sure he wanted Buck to get into his business again, but now that it was a reality, Chris could not help but miss the meddling good intentions of his best friend just a little. If that alone did not cause a rift in their friendship, Chris' relationship with Vin Tanner added another deep groove as well. After all, Buck could not be blind to how close Vin and Chris were despite knowing each other for a very short time.

The sad truth was, they had crossed a line with their friendship the day he had taken Buck into account over the whole affair with Mrs Travis, and they both knew it. Perhaps in that instant, Buck realized the Chris he knew was gone.

Chris looked across the room and saw Buck making some comment about that ugly hat that JD insisted on wearing and hoped Buck fared better with JD than he had with him.

"How long do you think it will be before James make his move?" Nathan asked. "He might be inclined to do it sooner than later."

"I wouldn't expect him tonight or tomorrow," Vin responded. "He'll be more interested in burying his dead. Once that's done, he'll turn his attention to the Judge."

"Good thing the Judge will be leaving then," Josiah responded.

"But Eagle Bend isn't that far away," JD spoke up. After travelling to the West all the way from New York, he measured distance in far more miles than the space it took to get from one town to another. "If he's mad enough, can't he follow the Judge there?"

"Possibly," Buck entertained the notion. "He might not be so eager to go after the Judge in a large town with witnesses. After all, taking out a Judge would bring down the Union Army."

"Gentlemen if I might interject?" The syrupy voice of Ezra Standish entered the equation again. 'Mr James is a man of means. If he chooses to take revenge on Judge Travis, he may not soil his hand or that of his men; he has to means to pay very well for it to be done by someone who is accustomed to moving covertly."

"So basically we're not going to be able to do very much for Travis," Vin muttered, unhappy that there was nothing to do but wait and see what Stuart James was planning.

"We go with what we've already decided." Chris retorted. "No point twisting ourselves up when we have no idea what James is planning if he is planning anything at all. Man says a lot of things when he's angry. He might decide to do nothing and if that's how it goes, good. If not, we'll handle it."

An awkward silence followed because nobody liked the prospect of doing nothing but Chris was right. Until they could be sure that there was anything to do, they had no choice but to wait.

Unfortunately, waiting was something none of them was very good at,

+ + + + + + +

A short time late when the rain had abated somewhat, and the others had scattered, Vin and Ezra found themselves facing each other in a game of cards.

Buck had run off to make a date with one of the saloon girls, and JD went to sleep off the effects of too much alcohol. Nathan had returned to his infirmary, while Josiah decided to spend some time working on that dilapidated structure he was so determined to turn into a church. Chris, who preferred to drink alone, disappeared with a bottle of whiskey to his room and though Vin had only known the gunslinger a short time, had no wish to be around the man when he went on that binge.

The rest of the seven had learnt early on that it was unwise to remain in Chris Larabee's proximity when he was particularly broody.

Thus he and Ezra found themselves alone together in the saloon for a time. The present assortment of patrons did not appear to be worth Ezra's attention and the instead the gambler took a moment alone in the company of the tracker to satisfy his curiosity.

It was not easy to know Vin Tanner, Ezra had decided early on. He was the most enigmatic member of the seven next to Ezra himself. Vin did not say much but Ezra was certain little got past the tracker. His manner was affable and he was difficult to provoke, unlike his darker clad companion who'd revived the lost art of glaring as a method of articulation.

"That's it," Vin tossed his cards on the table. "I'm done playing with you.

The last four games had seen Ezra winning, and if Vin continued to play with the gambler, he was going to be broke, and he could not afford to be, on a dollar a day.

"I assure you its skill," Ezra defended himself before the tracker had a chance to accuse him of cheating as no doubt Mr Jackson would do if he were present.

"I'm sure it is,' Vin retorted, thinking he was protesting too much for it to be true. "I just ain't no match for you when it comes to cards that's all."

"May I ask you a question?" Ezra asked after a moment of silence.

"Sure," Vin shrugged, hoping it was nothing personal because he did not like those kinds of inquiries.

"You stood up for me earlier. Why?'

"You act as if it's such a big thing." Vin retorted.

"In my case, it usually is." Ezra volunteered after another pause. "People do not often stand up for me. I would like to know why."

"You had a point to make, and you were right," the tracker raised his half-filled mug of beer to his lips.

"That is not what I was talking about. Mr Jackson was clearly remarking regarding my character."

"I noticed," Vin nodded. It was not hard to see that the rest of the seven viewed Ezra a little more distantly then they did each other. Nathan's feelings bordered on disdain contempt even though Ezra's initial prejudice towards the man had not surfaced since returning from the Seminole village. Chris always seemed to pay more attention when it was Ezra, he sent out to do something and JD's feelings were made clear when he had locked Ezra up in jail.

"So answer the question," the gambler asked. "Am I suddenly your favourite charity?"

Vin could see the outrage at someone feeling pity for him in Ezra's eyes. Ezra was proud, but Vin was not blind to how damn hard he was trying to be better. The others didn't notice it, but Vin did. Vin knew what it was like to be outside looking in and in some way, he still felt like that here in Four Corners.

This was the first time in his life Vin felt a part of anything, and he appreciated why Ezra might want that too. If he could make it a little easier for the gambler by being in his corner now and then, why not? Certainly, no one had done it for him when he was in Ezra's position, and he always wondered how things would have been if someone had extended him that kindness.

"I don't believe in charity Ez," Vin met his eyes. "You came back and you didn't have too. If you had kept riding on, no one would have blamed you. We would have been as good as dead back there and no one would have said you were a fool for saving your neck. As it was, if you hadn't have come back and distracted them long enough for Chris to think of something, we wouldn't be here today."

Ezra dropped his eyes to the floor because he did not wish to show Vin the emotion pooling within them at the words the tracker had just spoken. He rarely was touched by anything but Vin's sentiments at giving him some credit for what was the hardest choice he had ever made in his life; did penetrate that mask of cool deliberation he always wore around himself. "You seem to be the only one who feels that way."

"Nathan is a good man, but you gotta remember where he came from. He'll come around once he gets to know you a little better and once he gets past the fact everything Southern isn't to blame for his being a slave."

"I behaved poorly towards him during our initial encounter," Ezra confessed, still a little ashamed.

"And you've also saved his life and fought at his side a couple of times since then. He'll come around, just like the others. They just don't know you."

"And you do?" Ezra looked at him with a raised brow.

"Not really but I know I trust you," the tracker returned. "That's enough for me right now; we'll work out the rest later."

"You surprise me, Mr Tanner," Ezra said with a little smile. "I did not think that was possible any longer."

"Anything is possible Ezra. Like you buying me a drink for instance."

"I suppose I can manage since I have most of your money," the gambler chuckled.

"That's what I get for being nice to you," Vin muttered before he raised his glass and clinked it against Ezra's.

Chapter Two: Taking Care of Business

The loud and insistent rapping against the door of his room in the lodging house produced only one question of Chris Larabee's mind when he was finally induced from his drunken slumber. Who the fuck had such a monumental death wish?

The sound invaded his consciousness like dynamite exploding, with such abrupt bursts his ears were ringing. It didn't occur to him the percussive nature of the knocking was most likely amplified by the bottle of whiskey; he shared his bed with the night before. Chris' second thought after identifying the cause of his pain was whether or not he ought to be answering the door with or without his gun because he was sure as hell was going to shoot somebody for waking him up like this.

Cursing loudly as he staggered out of bed, Chris was barely able to process being awake let alone the racket was coming from his door, playing havoc with his disposition as well as a raging headache that had made itself felt with consciousness. Wincing at the sour aftertaste in his mouth, Chris reached for the gun belt slung across the corner of the bedpost and fumbled as he fastened it around his hips.

Thank Christ he'd fallen asleep wearing pants, so he didn't have to deal with which leg went where in his present condition. Barefoot, he padded towards the doorway, his footsteps clumsy and loud, eliminating all traces of his usual stealthy approach.

Pulling the door open (almost off its hinges as a matter of fact) Chris was confronted with the blinding glare of the afternoon sun. It brightened up the walls of his dark room and penetrated his retinas all the way to the back of his skull with almost surgical precision. For a few seconds, the gunslinger's vision was a kaleidoscope of shapes and dark spots as his eyes adjusted to the (morning or afternoon?) light. When his focus finally sharpened, Chris wished he hadn't because it was Mary Travis standing at his doorway, staring at him impatiently.

He was not in the mood for this.

The good widow Travis tilted her head towards him, sniffed the air in his general location and then pulled back, eyeing him critically.

"You're drunk."

"No, hungover," Chris clarified. "Drunk was a few hours ago. What do you want?"

It was at this point Chris noted Vin was standing further along the corridor, looking not only uncomfortable but also somewhat apologetic for not keeping the woman from seeking out Chris.

Apparently, Vin's attempt to 'talk' to the lady about accepting protection in the wake of Lucas James' hanging had gone down well.

Chris had wanted to avoid talking to Mary himself because he knew the arguments, she would throw at him about invading her privacy and Chris had no patience for it. When Vin offered to do it, Chris was happy to relinquish the duty to the younger man. Of course, Chris should have known better. As much as he relied upon the tracker to watch his back, Vin's experience with women was too scant for him to be able to deal with someone like Mary.

It was like sending a rabbit to deal with a grizzly.

"Mr Tanner tells me that I am to be under guard."

Chris rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. What he needed was a good dose of the proverbial 'hair of the dog' to get through this encounter, but since that wasn't happening until after he got rid of Mary, he would simply have to put up with her. Fortunately, he was capable of making any discussion between them end as quickly as possible. If there was one thing good about being the bad element, it was being able to send decent folk scurrying when needed.

"That's right,' he spoke through the hand rubbing his forehead. "You're the closest thing the Judge has to family. After what happened to Lucas, James might try to return the favour in kind." He hoped making his point so bluntly would scare some sense into the woman.

Her expression hardened, and she met his gaze with equally set eyes. "I can take care of myself enough to ensure I do not need babysitting, Mr Larabee. I seriously doubt Mr James can enter this town without giving his presence away. In any case, two of your men looking over my shoulder seems a rather wasteful use of resources."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" Chris started to turn back into his room, since as far as he was concerned the discussion was over.

"Keep an eye on her Vin," He remarked in a more civilized tone, a distinction that did not escape Mary.

Vin glanced at the widow and saw that despite Chris' efforts to withdraw, there was no way Mary was allowing this to end with that. He saw her starting to get very mad and wondered if this was not the time to take a step back and let them kill each other.

"You are hardly in a position to be the judge of anything!"

Chris paused and craned his neck enough to show that he had heard her. "What does that mean?"

"It means," she said smouldering with fury at being told what to do as if she were a child. "That your judgement is hardly reliable when you reek of alcohol. Orin is not paying you to be a drunk. He is paying you to protect this town."

Sweet Christ on a crutch, Vin Tanner, thought in disbelief as he heard her say those words. The woman had a pair on her.

The gunslinger turned around slowly, his jaw tightening with a fury equal to or perhaps even greater than the one provoking her to flung such words at him. Turning around, the stare he aimed at Mary was merciless.

Mary immediately regretted her words. His glacial expression and the cold she could feel emanating from his hard stare was almost a physical sensation. His glare raked across her skin and she was suddenly more aware of his infamous reputation than she had ever been before. She wondered what she was thinking, provoking this dangerous man who often ended his fights before they even had a chance to begin, by merely treating his enemies to that fearsome stare. She had only to cast a sidelong glance at Vin to see the alarm on the tracker's face to be reminded of this unbidden truth she'd blinded herself to because the town needed him so desperately.

"Now you listen to me, Mrs Travis," Chris took a step forward, and Mary found herself taking a step back until her back was pressed against the wall, trapped.

Chris paused near enough to ensure she could not get past him and he had no intention of allowing her to do so until she listened to what he to say, whether or not she liked it. Lifting her chin, he captured her gaze in his before he spoke, his tone low, almost seductive.

'I don't give a flying rat ass whether or not you think I reek of alcohol as you put it. Just because I decided to stick around does not give you any goddamn right to tell me my business. I don't give a damn whether you're Travis' daughter in law or not. Out of respect to the Judge, I'm keeping an eye on you because I know it will hurt him to see you strung up by your neck the way Lucas was. Vin and Nathan will be around, and you will give them cooperation or I swear I'll lock you up in the jailhouse until I'm sure it's safe. Do we understand each other?"

Mary swallowed thickly, trying not to give him the satisfaction of seeing her afraid. Her cheeks flushed red with anger, and her lips thinned with humiliation because she only had to look into those eyes to know that he would do as he threatened, just to show her he could.

"Yes," she whispered, her eyes dropping, wanting to hide the tears that were threatening to spill from her eyes. "I understand perfectly."

"Good," Chris stepped back, satisfied his point had been made, before turning his back on \the trembling Mrs Travis. "Like I said Vin, keep an eye on her."

Vin did not at all approve of how Chris had spoken to Mary, but he suspected part of it had to do with the gunslinger's feelings for Mrs Travis. For her own good, Chris was going to protect her whether she liked it or not. If it was necessary to be brutal in its execution, so be it. Vin knew enough about Chris Larabee to understand when it came to the safety of those he cared about; he wasn't above overkill to prove his point.

"Sure Chris," Vin nodded, revealing nothing in the brief moment of eye contact.

With that Chris returned to his room, slamming the door shut on both of them.

+ + + + + + +

Orin Travis was not at all happy to leave town with the prospect Mary might be in danger, but after much convincing, the Judge decided he could rely on the seven peacekeepers to ensure his daughter in law was safe. If nothing else, he was sure. The old man was perfectly aware of how headstrong his daughter in law could be and knew it would take someone just as formidable to see to it that Mary's fierce need for independence didn't place her in jeopardy.

Like Chris Larabee.

When Orin finally departed, he did so with Josiah and Ezra in his company. Although the Judge was leaving Four Corners on the stage, Chris saw no reason why he, Josiah and Ezra could not journey part of the way to ensure no one was lying in wait to ambush the Judge.

The journey was tense with Josiah acting as a buffer between Chris and Ezra. The preacher wished a different complement had been chosen to accompany the stage since the mix of Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish was like putting dynamite and fire together, although he was hard pressed to say which was which. Outwardly, Ezra did not display any redeeming features. He was by nature a creature whose stock and trade was deception, but there were occasions where something else surfaced long enough for Josiah to know that there was a decent person under that slick exterior.

Unfortunately, that side of the gambler made its appearance rarely and almost never in front of Chris Larabee whom Josiah was convinced had already made up his mind about Ezra. Still, Josiah could not understand why Ezra was allowed to remain in the group if Chris thought him to be so unredeemable. Whatever his reasons for keeping Ezra Standish a member of the seven, it was clear that the two men were as different as night and day and their personalities reflected this contrast most prolifically when they were in close proximity.

In the distance, the stagecoach continued its way to Eagle Bend, having finally satisfied Chris' confidence it could manage the trip without incident. They were a good half a day's journey away from Four Corners, and Chris spent the trip home wondering in what form Stuart James would exact his vengeance on Judge Travis. Not knowing for sure in what shape this vengeance bothered him to no end.

Since taking on the role as one of the town's unofficial lawmen, Chris tried to foresee danger to keep it from culminating into violence that usually left innocent people dead and the town being shot up again. The community, in general, was anxious enough about their presence without gunfights in the street to add to that paranoia. Chris took his responsibilities seriously even if he knew he wouldn't be too broken up if he rode out of town the next day. At the most, he'd miss the rest of the seven, but he had no real attachment to Four Corners.

Overhead, the sun was high in the sky, and the heat was indicative of a cruel New Mexican summer, a fact that Ezra seemed to point out at least once every ten minutes. The southerner was not hiding his disdain at having to endure the noonday sun on what had turned out to be a pointless exercise since it appeared James was nowhere in sight and the Judge was on his way to Eagle Bend without incident.

Josiah decided Ezra liked to talk, not merely to hear himself speak but also to pass the time. His topic of conversation on this occasion was to complain about the insufferable weather and the game he could be playing in the lovely cool shade of a saloon somewhere. Chris had barely said three words on this particular journey and Josiah guessed it might have something to do with the fact Chris' private drinking session the night before might have had consequences this morning.

Ezra's prattling became a drone the two men almost started to ignore, allowing the sound to be absorbed into the skin rather than the ears. Fortunately, the gambler came to the realization he was complaining excessively and was reaching the limits of his companions' temper. Deciding for his own safety a change of subject was in order; he began a 'faithful' retelling of some of his adventures before arriving in Four Corners.

After a while, Josiah found himself listening intently to Ezra despite himself and drawing a good deal of amusement from the gambler's stories. Chris on the other hand, made no offerings to the conversation, sitting silently in the saddle as they continued onward.

"So what did you do in Laramie that made Travis remember you so well?" Josiah asked as the sun began to disappear into the clouds behind them.

"Oh it was nothing too illegal," Ezra shrugged, supposing it was only a matter of time before someone brought that up. He saw no reason lie about it since they all knew what he was before he had joined up with them and their opinion of him could not get any lower than it was already.

"I admire your ability to make such a measured judgement," Josiah remarked with a little smile. If anything, Ezra could be entertaining.

"Thank you," Ezra smiled, flashing a gold tooth in his direction. "I prefer to think of it as being an eternal optimist."

"That's one way of putting it," Josiah remarked, raising a brow. "So what did you do?"

"Well, it was a lucrative little scheme concocted by my dear...." Ezra started to say when he paused and collected his thoughts, brushing away what he was going to say and issuing the version he preferred using instead, "by a dear friend. He had this idea of performing a little sleight of hand for the benefit of a local jeweller."

"You mean cheating." Chris looked up from under the brim of his hat and retorted.

The word stung despite Ezra's efforts to hide it, but as always, the gambler was careful not to show how he really felt about Chris's statement and continued speaking as if nothing was wrong. "Now if you're going to heckle the performance, Mr Larabee, I cannot continue."

Chris snorted and faced front, an indication that he was not interested enough to make further comment, thus allowing Ezra to continue.

"As I was saying," Ezra faced Josiah again. "My partner entered the establishment and proceeded to reveal a tidy sum of cash for the purchase of this rather valuable bauble; I believe it was necklace. The store owner upon receiving the tidy sum I believe it was 500 hundred dollars, produce the necklace and was about to complete the transaction when I entered the room and proceeded to introduce myself as a servant of the law."

"You pretended to be a lawman?" Josiah asked, his face furrowing with disapproval.

"I have even played a Jewish Rabbi and stop interrupting; I am coming to the best part of my tale," Ezra said reproachfully, like an unhappy magician playing to a particularly inquisitive child.

"Sorry," Josiah remarked. "Please continue. I wait with abated breath."

"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit," Ezra pointed out.

"I'm tall enough not to care," Josiah retorted smoothly, drawing a chuckle from the gambler who continued speaking with that quip served back at him so expertly.

"Well, I was superb in my performance as a purveyor of justice and convinced the man that the monies he was about to be paid with were counterfeit notes, a suggestion which shocked him to no end, I can assure you. I offered to take my partner into custody, and the jeweller was most grateful for that little task and was more than happy to turn over both money and the necklace to me for evidence in the forthcoming trial. I even wrote him a receipt."

Josiah broke into a soft rumble of laughter as Ezra grinned triumphantly. "So you got away with both?"

"Well," Ezra frowned darkly. "I managed to elude justice for a time, but my partners chose to abscond with our earnings at first opportunity. Leaving me to face the music so to speak while she... I mean he returned to St Louis."

"This partner of yours wouldn't happen to be a woman would it?" Chris looked over his shoulder with a faint smile, that revealed that he had been listening to the tale and had been amusing by it as much as Josiah.

Ezra let out a sigh. "I see it will be difficult to keep anything out of your purview Mr Larabee."

"And don't you ever forget it either," Chris replied, warming a little to the gambler but not enough to figure him out completely yet.

"She have a name?" Josiah inquired.

"Not that I care to remember," Ezra answered, having no wish to open that particular can of worms with anyone, least of all those in the present. "Nevertheless, she was one of the craftiest members of her sex that I have had the misfortune to encounter."

"So you got done in Fort Laramie because of a woman?" Chris stared at him. "Never figured you for having a weak spot for the opposite sex Ezra."

"Well I am not made of stone Mr Larabee," Ezra replied, knowing his situation in Fort Laramie was nowhere that simple, but he was not going to explain to the gunslinger why. "After all, I think it's safe to say we've all fallen prey to a beautiful face at some point in our lives."

"Not me," Josiah retorted. "My biggest concern these past few months is trying to decide whether or not it is time for me to meet my God."

"You are a complex man, aren't you?" Ezra remarked. "However, I did not mean in the recent past."

"A man of the cloth isn't likely to make those kinds of mistake Ezra," Chris pointed out.

"Alright then," Ezra turned to him. "What about you?"

"We're not talking about me," Chris said with just enough edge in his voice for Ezra to understand that it was not a subject he was going to discuss in an open forum.

Ezra knew enough about Chris' history to probe deeper and sought to recoup the momentum of the conversation by moving towards another subject. "I suppose there is not much chance of the opposite sex being much of a distraction in Four Corners, Mr Wilmington's record notwithstanding. Although Mrs Travis is a lovely morsel indeed, I am rather surprised she isn't inundated with suitors. If the lady were not so respectable, I would not mind calling on her myself."

"She's more trouble than she's worth," Chris found himself saying. "And you got enough of that on your own as it is."

"Mrs Travis is perfectly charming and very intelligent," Ezra retorted, never shying from coming to the aid of a lady, whether or not she was present or aware she needed assistance. "In a geographical location where the most valuable commodity out here other than livestock is members of the opposite sex, I would think that Mrs Travis would never be in need for company. Besides, never let it be said that I am averse to immersing myself in a little trouble occasionally."

"She is a fine woman," Josiah remarked. "A woman like that tends to change a man."

Chris said nothing, disliking the whole notion of Mary and Ezra in each other's company. He was right of course. In the territory, men outnumbered women one to twenty and someone like Mary should have been in no small need of gentleman callers. However, just thinking about Mary having anyone call on her made Chris uncomfortable and he forced his mind to stop thinking of it since there were more important things concerning Mrs Travis at this time.

"Let's just keep her alive for the moment."

"Well James was meant to be in town today to claim Lucas' body," Josiah announced quietly. "One of his men rode into town last night and told the undertaker to get it ready for moving."

"I suppose Mr James would want to bury his nephew on the family spread," Ezra suggested.

"I would say so," Josiah responded. If he had a family, he supposed he would want the same, no matter how they ended their lives. "Maybe he's calmed down."

"He won't," Chris answered shortly, his eyes facing front into the distant horizon at something only he could see. "He's just taking care of business."

Josiah's eyes moved towards Chris' direction. "Business?"

Ezra who was aware of Chris' history knew what Chris referred to and chose to spare the gunslinger of explaining to Josiah by stepping in first. "He is carrying out his familial obligations to Lucas first. Men like James are methodical; they will take care of their own, shunting aside vengeance to deal with immediate concerns. Once Lucas is in the ground, then and only then will he address the idea of vengeance."

"So Mary is probably safe tonight," Josiah remarked.

"As safe as she can be," Chris shrugged. "But James isn't the kind to get his hands dirty. He'll come after her but not in a way that will incriminate him. Ezra's right about that."

"Twice in as many days," the gambler muttered under his breath. "Does that mean that I will have to forgo my evening to relieve Messrs Tanner, Dunne and Jackson from guarding the fair widow?"

"They have been at it all day," Josiah pointed out. "Considering how happy she was about someone guarding her, they probably need the break."

"I'll do it," Chris said sharply, giving Ezra a look.

Ezra stared at the dark glint in Chris' eyes and wondered what he had done to garner such a venomous stare. His suggestion was meant to be a show of consideration for his friends not to inspire the annoyance of his leader. For a moment, he was puzzled until he saw Josiah attempting to suppress a little smile that Chris was oblivious too. Ezra blinked in realization and wondered if he was monumentally blind for not seeing the obvious signs he was wandering into forbidden territory.

"I suppose you think me incapable of keeping the widow under guard," Ezra insisted, wanting to confirm his suspicion.

"I can handle her. You can't." Chris retorted stiffly. "Knowing Mary, she'll run rings around your southern chivalry."

"If you say so," Ezra replied, valuing his life enough to not wishing to be caught between Chris and Mary, especially when the gunslinger's feelings for the lovely woman was not as glacial as he liked everyone to believe. Josiah's expression when Ezra glanced his way told him without a doubt that he was on the right track.

"Trust me," Chris responded. "I'm not looking forward to it."

For some reason, neither of them believed him.

+ + + + + + +

James did not meet anyone's eyes as he rode through town, not even the lawmen who aided the Judge in the death of his nephew. When he made his way through the main street, he kept his eyes facing forward, giving no one the benefit of his gaze. The town of Four Corners had never meant anything to him, and after what had happened to Lucas, he dared say he hated the place. He didn't even hate the lawmen that made it possible for that Judge to hang Lucas. How could he hate them when they were like mongrel dogs acting in accordance to their nature? They were being paid to do what they did best and while he wanted them gone, hate was an emotion they did not deserve.

Judge Orin Travis, he did hate.

He hated the man with a rage that knew no boundaries. He wanted the man to suffer as he had, to watch someone he cared about strung up by the neck like a dog. James wanted Travis to feel that pain as he suffered it. When he was done with Lucas today, after James had seen to it the boy be laid to rest in a manner befitting one of his kin, then he would turn his attention to making sure Travis understood that agony.

He hated Travis and he hated this town. The town that his ranch and others like it had given life to. The people of Four Corners owed their lives to him. Without the cattle ranchers, there would be no towns. Folk had forgotten their place, forgotten their allegiance to him, all because Travis walked into town, waving about the rulebook and giving them the audacity to sit in judgement over Lucas. Twelve men had found his nephew guilty but as far as James was concerned, they were all equally guilty of murdering Lucas.

He did not know how he would destroy Four Corners but he would. He swore it when he learned Lucas was dead. But for now, the town could wait, however. Right now, James was interested in the main protagonist in the death of his nephew. Once Travis was dealt with then he would take care of the town.

Travis, like Four Corners, was marked.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner allowed JD and Nathan to keep watch on Mary when Stuart James rode into town that afternoon to retrieve his nephew's body. Mary was working at the Clarion News, and though he suspected she might be tempted to appear on the street when James arrived in Four Corners, Vin had instructed Nathan and JD to ensure she did not.

Everyone else seemed to be present when the rancher moved through the main street, flanked on either side by his men as he headed towards the funeral home. People tried not to stare as he rode past them on the street, but there was no doubt he commanded the town's undivided attention.

Buck and Vin maintained their observation from under the awning of their favourite saloon, seeing to it that James was aware of their presence even if he wasn't planning on causing a ruckus.

"You think there will be trouble?" Vin asked Buck as they watched the rancher and his entourage ride towards the funeral home.

"Probably not. I think he'll be more interested in burying his dead instead of picking any fights."

"I'm glad the Judge ain't here," Vin remarked as they both continued to keep their eyes fixed on James. The rancher was almost at his destination now, and the town's fascination with watching him make that journey dwindled with people returning to their own business, retreating insides stores and disappearing from windows.

'Travis is a smart man. Probably figured he's being gone wouldn't cause a ruckus when James came to get the body."

"I suppose," Vin muttered, his hand still grazing the butt of his mare's leg in anticipation of trouble. "I guess Chris was right about that."

"So what else is new?" Buck said crisply.

Vin had not known Buck that long, but he knew the man was very seldom perturbed about anything. Buck was easily one of the most affable people Vin had ever known. Sometimes the man's gregarious nature and general love of life felt overwhelming to Vin who was so reserved and solitary in contrast but it was impossible not to like Buck for that very thing.

Indeed other than himself, Buck was the only other person who did not judge Ezra harshly, and while Chris' strength bound the seven together, it was Buck who provided its heart. Vin admired that, and he respected Buck's ability to feel so much and lack of fear at showing it. Therefore it surprised Vin somewhat to hear the brusque tone in the ladies man's voice.

"Something up with you and Chris?" Vin asked Buck, his gaze shifting towards the older man in a sidelong glance. He was still watching James closely but was now alternating that observation by periodic glimpses in Buck's direction.

"There's nothing up with Chris and me." There it was in his voice again, an unusual harshness that was felt alien in Buck's tone.

"Doesn't sound like it," Vin pointed out.

"Well, what would you know junior?" Buck declared. "Just because you and Chris are plenty close now, doesn't mean you know everything there is to know about him."

Stupid! Vin swore at himself inwardly. Was Buck jealous of his friendship with Chris? He supposed it was possible since he and Chris had been almost inseparable since their first encounter. Buck had been Chris' friend for more years than he could count and he supposed it might be possible Buck would have some issues about their friendship. "I didn't mean to say that I know everything about Chris, Buck." Vin tried to regain some ground. "I mean you've known him longer."

"And you think that means anything? It means nothing. I'm nobody to him, just some guy he used to know."

"That ain't true. When we hooked up to go to the Seminoles, you were the first one he thought of."

"Maybe," Buck stared at Vin and unleashed what had been building up inside him for some time now. Inwardly, he knew he was unfair taking it out on the younger man, but the truth was Chris would never stick around long enough to hear what he had to say. "But how long was he in town before he decided to look me up? I was there the night his son was born; I stood up with him at his wedding. Hell, I helped him put Sarah and Adam into the ground that terrible night and still, it took a job to get him to come find me."

"I'm sorry," Vin found himself saying even though he knew that Buck wasn't angry with him really, just hurt. Besides, if he were in Buck's place, he might feel the same. "Maybe he's got his reasons. I don't think he means anything by it."

Buck let out a short sigh and then cracked a sad smile. "He probably doesn't. I guess there are just some things that can't survive a friendship. I knew that when I was helping him through it and I hoped it wouldn't make a difference in the long run but I guess that it did after all. Things have changed between us and it ain't ever gonna be the way it was before. I just have to accept it."

Vin wanted to tell him he was wrong, but he could not and felt inordinately guilty he was partially to blame for the widening rift between the two old friends. He was not blind to the fact Chris looked to his counsel more than he did Buck's and since they had met, both men were drawn together in a bond that felt more like blood than friendship. Somehow, Vin had usurped Buck's place at Chris' side without even realizing it, and though he knew that he could not change what had happened, he did feel bad for it especially when Buck was stinging at a loss.

Instead, Vin remained quiet, choosing to let the awkward moment of silence dissipate as they continued to watch James dismount from his horse and stride into the undertaker's office.

+ + + + + + +

The two lawmen continued to keep close eye on the rancher as he entered the funeral home to claim the body of his nephew, made no attempt to hide their scrutiny. James ignored them because he had more immediate concerns at present and it was a loathsome enough task without letting himself become distracted with thoughts of vengeance. An accounting of all wrongs done to him would come soon enough, but for the moment, he would bury his nephew.

Lucas had requested a burial at the ranch even though he always believed that his Uncle Stuart would rescue him long before those instructions would ever be needed. He honestly believed he would be delivered, that he would not face the hangman's noose. The unfortunate thing was; James believed the same.

During the trial, he had paid for the best attorney money could buy but unfortunately not even the fancy legal trickery could discredit eyewitness accounts of Lucas shooting a man in cold blood, not when one of those witnesses was the presiding judge. James remembered a time when the people of Four Corners would be so intimidated by him, they would not have dared pass judgment like that on his kin. But they had, and Lucas was sentenced to hang.

James had exhausted every possible favour to have the sentence commuted, but with the eye of the entire country aimed at the Territory and its lawlessness, even those whom he had called friends once were unable to help. He considered breaking the boy out of jail, but there was no way he could do that without implicating himself and the only thing James cared more about than Lucas was himself. He wasn't about to risk his freedom for anything, not even his nephew.

It was sheer desperation that compelled him to roll the dice on a rescue attempt on the day of the hanging. He should have known that it was doomed to failure. Only, Larabee's misguided efforts at clemency kept the rancher from prison for the attempt.

"I'm sorry Mr James," the undertaker remarked, his expression of sympathy was well practised, and in this instance, well employed.

James did not answer because he was confident the sentiment was disingenuous. He had no need of sympathy from a member of the town responsible for Lucas' death. The undertaker withdrew in the shadows, attempting to give him some measure of privacy. A gesture James did not appreciate or feel was required. Everything that was his nephew was gone; there was no need to reminisce with a corpse.

James lowered his gaze into the pine box on the table within the inner recesses of the funeral home. The coffin was still uncovered, and he had avoided looking at it from the instant he entered the room, but there was no avoiding it now.

There was no sign of the violence that killed Lucas, just the peaceful expression of one who died too early. He was clad in his execution clothes, with the collar of his shirt buttoned up to hide the discolouration of skin where his neck was broken. His eyes were mercifully close, and James swallowed thickly, remembering the child Lucas had been, the youth he had cherished and the man he had become, tough and understanding of his place in the world.

The older man ran a finger across Lucas brow, thinking of the sister he buried first and the promise made to look after her son, the promise he failed to keep. With no children of his own, Stuart had always assumed Lucas would be his heir.

All that was would never be now, the dreams of the future vanquished with a snap of rope on a stormy day.

He blinked and felt moisture in his eyes, but he would not weep. He would not show the Undertaker his wounded heart; they didn't deserve to know they hurt him. Replacing his stoic mask once more, the vulnerability he exposed briefly was crushed into oblivion, and he turned away from Lucas to face the Undertaker.

"I don't need to see any more. Seal him up, and I'll take him home. He deserves to be with the rest of his family."

The undertaker nodded for it was not in the man's habit to say any more than necessary. Most folks in James' position weren't in the mood for conversation at times like this. He had taken care of Lucas the best he could and now the body was no longer his to attend. Stepping up to the table where the coffin was situated, he began the process of sealing the box for its transport out of town.

James was unable to watch any longer and hurried out of the room, joining his men who were awaiting him outside. Upon leaving the room with its waxy smell of death and chemicals, James sucked in his breath and steadied himself. It would not do to look shaken in front of his employees, even if this was one of those rare occasions where it was perfectly permissible.

"Boss, you okay?" His head foreman Bruce Hawkins inquired of him in genuine concern. Hawkins was a good man who had been in his employ for more almost a decade. He was fiercely loyal and was willing to do a great deal when asked.

"Yeah," he nodded slowly, trying to get the smell and the sight of Lucas out of his mind.

"We'll make them pay for this Mr James.'

"We will," James nodded. "I've seen to it."

Hawkins did not need any more explanation than that. He was aware of the stranger's arrival at the ranch this morning and knew whatever discussed would most likely have to do with Judged Travis and this misbegotten town. He hoped whatever James had planned for the Judge and his kin would be equal to the pain the rancher was suffering at the death of his nephew.

Even then, it could not be enough.

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Buck were on their way to the Clarion News to relieve Nathan and JD from guarding Mrs Travis when the stage from Bitter Creek rolled into town. Prior to his departure from town to act as escort for Judge Travis, Chris left them with instructions to keep an eye on any strangers who might suddenly appear in town. Ezra's comment that a man like James would contract the grisly work of exacting revenge made Chris painfully aware any new face should be regarded with caution.

While Vin was sceptical that James would make his move so soon, Chris was not that easy to sway. As far as the gunslinger was concerned, people were at their most vulnerable when they made obvious assumptions.

Chris knew something was going to happen. It was just a matter of when.

"I wonder how Nathan and JD did with Mrs Travis," Vin remarked as they lingered on the boardwalk, watching the disembarking passengers from the stage with mild curiosity.

"Oh Nathan and Mrs Travis have been friends for quite some time I hear," Buck explained, reminding Vin that Nathan had been in Four Corners almost a year before the seven had come together. "It's JD whose gonna be sweating."

"She ain't that difficult," Vin shrugged. "I found her kind of nice."

"Oh she's nice enough," Buck quickly recanted because he could never bring himself to think unkindly of Mary in any way. "She's just real headstrong about what she wants, and she doesn't want protection. Nathan can hold his own but JD's just a kid."

"JD's a smart kid," Vin spoke up in the young man's defence. In truth, Vin was not that much older than JD but upbringing made them poles apart and he was tempered with more experience in his short life than JD had even begun to imagine. "He'll figure things out on his own."

"I don't doubt that," Buck said quickly, trying to hide how much he thought of the younger man. "But someone's gotta watch his back. He's full of dreams about what the West is supposed to be and has no idea how it really is. He's learning it a little now but not enough to keep himself from getting killed if he does anything stupid."

Vin could not disagree with that much of Buck's insight into JD because he was right. JD was full of dreams, and while Vin could not berate anyone for that since he had a few secret ones of his own, he did agree the West a dangerous place and the Territory was even worse. Had JD not hooked up with them when he had first arrived, who knows what would have become of him?

He was about to comment further when a man stepped off the stage that immediately gave Vin cause for concern. For a few seconds, Vin stared at the stranger with the hard eyes and even harder face. He was a little older than Vin but the differences in their demeanour was marked and Vin knew without even meeting the man, this was someone dangerous. The tracker's sixth sense about these things was seldom wrong.

The stranger's gaze moved across the town as if he were sizing it in some way. However, upon catching sight of Vin and Buck, he quickly ceased the practice as if scalded by their scrutiny. Instead, he returned to the activity of unloading his belongings from the coach. Both lawmen noticed there was not much of it and guessed that the new arrival was not staying long in Four Corners. He kept his eyes conspicuously away from their direction before he moved with the rest of the new arrivals towards the hotel. Even as he walked away from them, the clothes he wore did not appear to suit him. He was wearing the clothes of a farmer or a man accustomed to hard labour but his manner was anything but.

"What do you make of that?" Buck asked.

"I don't know," Vin drawled, feeling the tension in his bones because the man looked like he was trouble but whether or not that had anything to do with Mrs Travis was another thing entirely. It seemed awfully quick for James to have someone already in town to do his bidding. "He's here for something other than a visit that's for sure."

"You thinks he's here because of James?" Buck ventured a guess but there was more than a hint of doubt in his voice. Like Vin, he was at a loss to decide whether or not this stranger had come to Four Corners because of Stuart James or for some other reason entirely. He just knew the man was up to no good.

"Could be," Vin admitted even though he felt it unlikely. "If he is here because of James, he's moving faster than any of us thought. So much for a mourning period."

"We ought to keep an eye on that boy," Buck remarked, his eyes following the stranger across the street to the hotel before something caught his attention and drove all thoughts of danger and Stuart James from his mind. "Well, what have we got here?"

Vin knew Buck well enough now to recognize that tone all too well. He followed the big man's gaze and was unsurprised it had latched on to a young woman who was being aided out of the stage. She was a slender thing with pale skin and fine chestnut hair, held together with a lacy piece of ribbon. She was not exactly a ravishing beauty but the word coming to mind when Vin studied her, was sweet. Her hazel eyes looked about apprehensively and Vin could tell that she was a little shaken at being here alone in a strange place. She seemed to flinch when the stagecoach driver pointed her in the direction of the hotel as if he could harm her with his words alone.

"Now a lovely young lady like that shouldn't be roaming around this town alone and unescorted," Buck was already walking towards the girl like a bear towards honey. Vin rolled his eyes in resignation, concluding the only way of stopping the Lothario for the object of his next conquest was to shoot him, and Vin was not about to do that; yet.

Buck intercepted the young woman as she was making her way to the hotel and judging by her expression upon seeing him, Vin estimated she was no happier at being confronted with him them she was with the stagecoach driver. However, Buck did not seem to notice and launched once again into his charming best as he greeted the young woman who stared at Buck in wide-eyed anxiety.

"Well hello there darling," Buck greeted with a wide grin that was known and proven scientifically, to reduce many a female to a series of girlish titters. "I see you're just off the stage and I thought it would be the proper thing to do to come and offer a lovely young lady like yourself a warm welcome to our little town. My name is Buck Wilmington, and this here is my friend Vin Tanner."

Buck removed his hat and nudged Vin in the ribs gently to do the same. The tracker rolled his eyes and did as he was instructed, hoping that they could conclude this embarrassing bit of business and get back to keeping an eye on the other new arrival in town.

"Please to meet you, Mr. Wilmington," she answered after a moment of careful examination. "Mr Tanner."

"Now what's a pretty thing like you travelling all by yourself in town?" Buck asked.

"Well I came looking for my uncle," she offered nervously, still debating whether or not they could be of help to her, Vin ventured a guess.

"Well we're the closest thing to the law in this town," Buck said quickly. "Maybe we can help you find him?"

"You're the sheriff?" She looked at Buck dubiously, and Vin decided the girl did know a thing or two.

"Well he used to be the sheriff around here," she declared. "Sheriff Doohan?"

Buck and Vin exchanged glances, familiar with the man whom she was referring to. Doohan was the town's last sheriff before the arrival of the seven. When those crazy Texans had been preparing to lynch Nathan for supposedly causing the death of their trail boss, Doohan's reaction was to jump someone's horse and ride out of town.

The man had not been seen since.

Now it appeared this poor young lady had made a rather arduous trip for nothing. Vin did not relish having to tell her the truth, but the way Buck was shifting about uncomfortably where he was standing indicated the big man was even less pleased about delivering such bad news.

"Ma'am I'm sorry," Vin spoke after a moment. It was probably best that such news came from him since it would effectively ruin any chance Buck had with her if he were to deliver such bad tidings. "As far as we know Sheriff Doohan left town some time ago. He ain't been seen since."

There was no reason to tell her that the man had run out of town sporting a yellow streak as wide as the Rio Grande.

"Oh no!" She gasped in dismay, her lips trembling in shock from such disappointing news. "I came all the way from Sweet Water to find him. He's the only kin I got!"

"Now, don't you start crying," Buck exclaimed when he saw the first glimmer of moisture from her eyes. There was nothing he could stand worse than seeing a woman cry, especially a pretty one. "We'll figure this out."

"I can work," she stammered looking up at Buck when he placed his hand on her shoulder and tried to offer a strong show of support that he knew what he was doing. "I just needed a place to stay to get started that's all. I can sew pretty good."

Her distress affected Vin as much as it did Buck and the tracker found himself feeling for this delicate creature who had suddenly found herself alone in the world, with no one to help. "What about Mrs Travis?" He ventured a guess.

"Mary?" Buck stared at Vin.

"I'm sure she'd be willing to put Miss....Miss....." Vin glanced in her direction. "What did you say your name was?"

"Jenny," she swallowed, wiping the tears from her eyes. "Jenny Miller."

"Mrs Travis is pretty nice," Vin continued, paying close attention to her for the first time. She was not extraordinarily beautiful like Mrs Travis but there was a radiant loveliness about her that appealed to him now that he noticed it. "She's the owner of the newspaper."

"You think she'd let me stay with her?" Jenny asked nervously, offering him a little smile that lit up her face in his opinion.

"I don't see why not," Vin responded and stepped forward. "Let me take that for you, Miss Miller."

"Call me Jenny," she replied as she allowed him to take the carpet bag valise she was carrying.

"Buck," Vin looked to the ladies' man. "Why don't you keep an eye on the hotel, see what our friend is up to. I'll take Jenny to Mrs Travis' place."

"You'll take her?" Buck glowered and then noted the way the young woman was staring at Vin and realized that any chance he might have had with her had more or less dissipated once Vin stepped in and made his suggestion.

"Yeah," Vin looked back at him innocently, unaware that he had done anything wrong. "Like you said, he could be one of James' men."

"I remember," Buck growled slightly and then realized that Vin was right, the man did bear watching. Besides, Buck could afford to be a little magnanimous when it came to the ladies. After all, he was never starved for company, and there were more than a few saloon girls to pick from in town.

Besides Vin had never shown any interest in the opposite sex since Buck met him and the older man suspected it might have to do with the fact that Vin was too shy to approach them. Oh, he could talk to them well enough if it had something to do with protecting the town or just general conversation but anything that might lead to more, sent the tracker into full retreat. It was quite astonishing when one realized how capable he was in every other aspect.

"I guess I could keep an eye on him," Buck added after a moment. "Vin, could I have a minute before you and Miss Jenny here run off?"

"Sure," Vin nodded as Buck stepped out of the young woman's earshot and bid him forward. "What is it? You need some backup?"

"No," Buck frowned. "I think she likes you." He pointed out, glancing over Vin's shoulder at Jenny before returning his attention to the tracker.

"What?" Vin hissed, throwing a glance at Jenny.

"You heard me," Buck whispered. "Now remember to play it smooth like you are now..."

"Will you cut it out?" Vin snapped. "Just because I'm being nice to her, doesn't mean anything!" The tracker hissed defensively, feeling damned uncomfortable now at the possibility.

He never knew how to talk to women in that way, and now Buck brought it up, Vin was doubly self-conscious. Turning back to Jenny, he shook Buck's words out of his head and tried to focus.

"Remember pard," Buck grinned devilishly after him. "Smooth."

Chapter Three: Guarding Mrs Travis

He supposed he could have lumbered Ezra with the duty of guarding Mary Travis later that evening, but Chris was in no mood to hear the gambler's complaints on the subject and Josiah was just too soft around the widow. Thus, Chris Larabee decided the task for keeping watch over the lady this evening would fall to him alone. Upon returning home to Four Corners after escorting Judge Travis' stagecoach to Eagle Bend, the three lawmen went their separate ways to rest up for the evening duty of taking up the watch on Mary.

Since he was going to be in the company of a decent Christian woman, Chris opted for a bath to wash the dirt off after the dusty ride. After that, he enjoyed a meal at the lodging house he had taken up residence at since arriving in town. He joined the others at the saloon briefly and learnt Buck and Vin were still at the Clarion News.

Chris arrived at the back porch of the house not long after to hear chatter and laughter emanating from behind the door. He tapped lightly, wondering what was going on in since Vin and Buck were supposed to be guarding the woman, not entertaining her with parlour tricks. The ladies' man was probably doing all he could to charm the lovely widow.

Once again, Chris stiffened involuntarily at the notion. He had considered what Ezra said about calling on her and wondered how many other members of the seven thought the same. Buck, Vin perhaps? Josiah was certainly a few years older than Mary, but it would not be improper for him to call on the lady while JD was still unable to say much to the woman without stammering a little. He supposed he could not blame the kid for that. Extraordinarily beautiful women had that kind of effect on young men.

Nathan, of course, was a non-issue. The tall, dark man had enough trouble coming to terms with the fact six white men were willing to die for him to deal with the social taboo of turning his eye to a white woman. Besides, Chris sensed Nathan was still pining a little for Rain, the lovely young woman he'd left behind in the Seminole village.

When the door swung open, Mary was standing before him, still wearing a smile from the amusing conversation she was having with Buck and Vin. Upon seeing him, however, the smile faded, and her expression evolved into a frown.

"Mr Larabee." She said stiffly. "Come in."

Chris opened his mouth to say something in response when she turned on her heels and retreated into the door, her skirt flouncing behind her as she did. Judging by her aloof manner, Chris guessed she was still smarting from their argument earlier this morning. That was her problem he thought to himself. He was too concerned with keeping her alive to be polite. Besides, she needed a guard and that was that. Nothing she had said this morning was going to convince him otherwise.

Chris followed her through the door emptying into the kitchen. Seated around the kitchen table were Vin, Buck and a young woman he didn't recognize.

"Hey, Chris." Vin greeted.

"Vin, Buck." Chris met their gaze. "What's going on?"

"Mrs Travis was kind enough to make us some supper," Buck explained even though the dishes on the table made that rather obvious.

"The least I could do," Mary smiled warmly in their direction. "After all, guarding me is important work." She shot Chris a look of sarcasm.

A moment of awkwardness filled the room before Vin spoke up once more, dispelling the tension in the room with a necessary change of subject. "Chris this is Jenny Miller; she'll be staying with Miss Travis for a while." He gestured to the young woman seated at his right with a little smile, taking Chris' attention away from Mary.

"Yes," Mary responded stiffly. "Jenny is Sheriff Doohan's niece."

Chris remembered Doohan briefly, recalling the cowardly man riding out of town on someone else's horse when the Texans were looking to lynch Nathan.

"Ma'am." Chris tipped his hat at the young woman politely but said nothing further. He was examining her closely because he was by nature a suspicious man, and there was no law written anywhere that said a pretty face was incapable of causing harm.

"Well Jenny," Mary turned to the young woman unable to believe how frosty the atmosphere in the room had suddenly become. "If you come with me, I'll show you to your room."

"Thank you, Mrs Travis," Jenny answered. Raising herself off her chair, she followed Mary out of the room but not before she cast a lingering glance at Vin from over her shoulder.

Once she was gone, Buck shoved Vin a little, almost toppling the younger man out of his chair and confirming Chris's long-held suspicion that some boys never grew up, they just grew moustaches. "She definitely likes you Vin."

"No, she doesn't," Vin stammered, looking slightly embarrassed by the notion that he could be the object of any female's desire. "She's just grateful for me being nice to her; that's all."

"You want to fill me in?" Chris asked as he lowered himself into a vacant chair.

"It's nothing," Vin shrugged. "I just pointed her in this direction when we found out she had nowhere to go. Besides," Vin glared at Buck. "It's not her we have to worry about, it's the other one."

"The other one?" Chris' brow shot up immediately.

"Yeah," Buck's tone became all business. "JD and Nathan are keeping an eye on him. Came off the coach this afternoon, looking mighty suspicious. He dresses like a farmer but he ain't one, I'm sure of it."

"He's registered at the hotel under the name of Ray Waldon," Vin responded. "I told Nathan and JD to watch him. I got a feeling he ain't in town for the sights."

Chris' gaze shifted towards the path Mary took out of the room. "I'll keep an eye on her tonight. You boys take off and get some rest. Come find me a few hours once you're done getting some sleep."

"You're going to stay here?" Vin stared at him.

"Yeah," Chris asked puzzled. "Why?"

"Oh no reason," Buck remarked exchanging an anxious glance with Vin. "It's just that you and Mrs Travis don't exactly get along."

"I'm going to be seeing to it that no one comes in to shoot her. I don't have to get along with her for that."

"You know Chris," Buck sighed. "If you'd just be a little nicer maybe it might pass the time a little smoother."

"I don't need to be nice. I just have to keep my eyes open. Besides, she'll be going to bed soon and it makes it better that she's got another woman in the house. Keep things respectable."

"Was there ever any danger that it wouldn't be?" Buck looked at him in question. "The lady don't like you too much if you didn't notice. I doubt she'd be sweet on you for any reason."

"There are a lot of things I don't need right now Buck," Chris threw him a sharp look. "A woman being sweet on me would be somewhere on top of the list."

"I don't know," Buck muttered sarcastically. "Seems to me you could use a little loosening up."

"You got something on your mind Buck?" Chris glared at Buck in challenge.

"Okay," Vin spoke up before the situation deteriorated any more than it was already threatening to do. "That's enough. Buck, let's get going. Chris, we're gonna leave you to it."

Without waiting for a response, Vin grabbed Buck by the arm and stood up. Both Chris and Buck were still staring at each other with hostility, and Vin knew there was a time when they would have to air out all the issues, but this was not it.

"Come on."

Buck broke away from Chris' gaze and reached for his hat. Placing it on his head, he did not meet his old friend's eye as he responded. "Fine by me."

The two men left the room with Vin pausing long enough to tell Chris they would be back later. For a few seconds after they were gone, Chris wondered what it was Buck intended to say to him before Vin's timely intervention. Buck was still pissed at him from that day in the barber shop and as much as Chris wanted to dismiss Buck's bruised feelings, the truth was he did feel badly for overreacting. After all, it was Mary who inquired after him and Buck was being his usual self, trying to help a lady in need.

"Are you sure I can't..." Mary started to say as she stepped into her kitchen and stopped short when she saw Buck and Vin were no longer there. "Oh did Mr Wilmington and Mr Tanner leave?"

"Yeah, I thought it would be a waste of resources if they hung around while I was here."

Mary gave him a venomous look but did not bite at that remark. Instead she began clearing the dishes from the table, trying not to look at him while she did. Chris remained seated, searching for something to say to dispel the tension but nothing seemed to come to mind. From beneath the brim of his hat, he caught her stealing glimpses at him, pretending as if he did not bother her at all. He in turn, watched her work, studying the line of her jaw, the silk of her lips, the tendrils of golden hair curling beneath her ear.

Ezra was correct; she was a very beautiful woman.

"What?" She asked sharply, putting down the plates against the table when she unable to bear his intense scrutiny any longer.

"Nothing," Chris responded dropping his gaze and feeling somewhat foolish at being caught staring.

There was another pause before she shifted her eyes towards him again and asked quietly, "have you eaten? I've got some more of this stew left if you're hungry."

"Thanks," he replied injecting a good deal more warmth in his voice than he normally reserved for her. "But I got something at the lodging house."

"Will you be here all night?" She met his eyes, still very much intimidated by him.

"Most of it." Chris answered. "At least until one of the boys comes to take my place."

"Shall I make up the extra room?" She inquired.

"No," Chris shook his head. "I don't plan on sleeping. I'll be fine right here. I got a book."


"Really." Chris noted her surprise and wondered did she think him a complete barbarian who did not read anything unless it was a wanted poster. "Sun Tzu."

"Sun Tzu?" She stared at him in wide-eyed astonishment. He might as well have been standing on his head for the reaction he received.

"Yes," he nodded. "The Art of War. I do read you know."

"I'm sorry," she apologized immediately, staring at the floor in embarrassment at her presumption. "I didn't mean to infer that you were uneducated. It's just that you don't strike me as...."

"Being civilized?"

"Of course not!" Mary's cheeks flushed with colour. 'I don't know what I mean." She picked up the plates and hurried away, dropping them into the steel basin on the countertop for washing. "You make things so difficult sometimes."

"I don't mean to," Chris found himself saying and wondering where this admission was coming from. "I just like being left alone."

"That's very odd considering you surround yourself with six men." Mary pointed out as she started rolling up her sleeves to wash the dishes.

"I don't surround myself. I just ride with them." Chris returned, careful to stress the difference to her.

"Mr Larabee," she asked after a moment. "Do you really think I'm in danger?"

Chris paused a moment and noticed the anxiety in her eyes she'd tried so hard to hide.

"Please, I need to know." Her eyes pleaded with him for the truth, and Chris could not find it in himself to refuse her.

"Yeah, I think you are. I think that he'll come after you because he can't get to anyone else."

Mary sucked in her breath. "I didn't expect you to be quite so honest."

"I'm sorry; you asked."

"How long will you have to keep protecting me?" She asked softly, processing his words.

"For as long as it takes. Until he stops being mad."

"That could take years." She swallowed. "You cannot protect me for all that time."

"Don't tell me you're getting tired of my company already,' he joked, suddenly wanting to dispel some of the fear he saw in her lovely blue eyes.

"I treasure the moments." Mary smiled faintly and then sighed. "This would be so much simpler if Stephen were here."

"Would it?" Chris looked back at her. "Seems to me the only thing that would change is that James would have three targets instead of one. You, your boy and your husband."

"I didn't mean that Mr. Larabee. I miss Stephen obviously, but also the little things. You know what I miss most? " Her gaze drifted away to a place only she could see and for a moment, Chris didn't think she was so much talking to him as she was talking to herself.

"I miss making him coffee. I used to be able to judge my day by when I made him coffee. I always knew the day was starting when I made him coffee for breakfast and it was ending when I made coffee after dinner. He would drink it before he went to bed. Lord knows how, since it's supposed to keep you awake, but he used to sit in his chair in the parlour reading whatever book he happened to order from Eagle Bend, drinking his coffee. I can't seem to get used to the fact I don't make it for him anymore. Of all the things I won't ever be able to do for him, that's the one I miss the most. Bizarre, isn't it?"

Chris closed his eyes, appreciating all too well what she was feeling. The ache was so intense he couldn't dismiss it and almost against his will; he found himself speaking.

"Dumplings on Sunday."

"I beg your pardon?" She stared.

"I miss dumplings on Sunday. She used to make them every Sunday, no matter what. Never on any other day of the week, just Sunday. She ever told me why and I never asked, I thought there would be plenty of time."

Mary did not need any clarification on who 'she' was. Encouraged by his admission, the pain in his eyes was so naked and raw, she felt her heart ache in empathy. She knew oh so well how he felt.

"I didn't mean to intrude Mr. Larabee when I asked Mr. Wilmington about your past. I guess when I learned you lost your family, I thought it might help you to talk to someone who understood what it felt like to go through such loss. When Stephen died, all I kept hearing from people was how much they understood what I was going through and they just couldn't. I am sorry if I intruded upon you. It was not my intention."

"You're forgiven," Chris relented and accepted her apology because he could see she was attempting to make amends for causing the rift between himself and Buck.

After a moment, he added. "I can't talk about it Mary. I'm not ready for that. I appreciate you want to help but I'm a long way from dealing with any of it."

"When you are ready, I'd like to hear more about your wife. I think I would have liked her."

A swell of emotion rose inside of him, and this time, it had nothing to do with Sarah. Deciding unequivocally, he had no business feeling such things; he shut them down immediately.

Chris swallowed and felt a rush of emotion for the woman before him; he had no business feeling. "Probably, you're as stubborn as she was.'

'I imagine, that's a necessary trait of being married to you, isn't it?' She smiled.

'I guess,' he managed a laughed, and for a few second, they held each other's gaze, aware they'd reached a kind of detente in their relationship. For now, it would do.

+ + + + + + +

After following their quarry from his hotel to a repast at the local restaurant and then finally to the saloon, JD Dunne had concluded he had no patience for surveillance work. Fortunately, Mr. Waldon had done nothing out of the ordinary, beyond what followed a long coach right. Nothing in his movements indicated any interest in the owner of the Clarion News and JD began to question whether Buck and Vin were right about this man's intentions in town.

"I don't know Nathan," JD retorted trying not to look in Waldon's direction from their table. "He don't look to me like no killer."

Nathan had to agree that at this moment, Waldon who was entertaining a curvaceous saloon girl on his laps did not appear to be interested in anything beyond the night's entertainment. Still...

"He don't look right," Nathan declared. "Sure as hell ain't no farmer that's for sure."

"Patience Mr Dunne," Ezra remarked as he shuffled a pack of cards. "Mr. Jackson is correct in his observation but we cannot play our hand too soon."

"Is everything a gambling metaphor with you?" Josiah asked with a little smile.

"Absolutely Josiah," Ezra grinned. "It's always good to stick to the themes one is accustomed to."

"Well I can tell you," Buck retorted as he leaned towards his glass for a sip. "He ain't going anywhere tonight. Not by the way he's pawing the lovely Miss Lucille."

"Are you sure?" JD asked, cocking his head slightly at the sight of how the man was running his hands over the lady's curves. JD swallowed, feeling a little embarrassed by the display, especially when he was so inexperienced in the matters dealing with the opposite sex.

"Trust me," Buck met his confused expression with a wolfish smile, "that boy's got only one lady in mind and I guarantee he don't intend to kill her."

"A simple yes would have sufficed Mr. Wilmington." Ezra quipped. "However, I do believe you are correct. I see no reason why myself and Mr. Sanchez cannot handle keeping an eye on our amorous friends."

"You just want to hang around here and get someone into a game of cards," Vin gave Ezra a knowing look.

"I cannot tell a lie but, since it is likely that Miss Lucille will be entertaining Mr. Waldon there on these premises, it would be a good idea for us to remain here to ensure that he is exactly where he is."

"You just want to stay so you can take someone for all their money," Nathan snorted derisively.

Ezra pretended he did not hear that remark and ignored it. "Gentlemen I think I need a refill.

Excuse me." With that he rose to his feet and went to the bar, leaving the others at the table.

Vin waited until Ezra was out of earshot, which in a room bar room filled with people was not far, before he turned to the healer.

"Nathan, that's enough." His tone was hard enough to belong to Chris Larabee's and had everyone's undivided attention. None of them had ever seen Vin raising his voice and though he was far from yelling, his tone indicated he was not happy. "Do you hear me, that is enough."

"What do you mean?" Nathan stared at the tracker, astonished by the genuine anger in his eyes.

"Everyone deserves a chance," Vin said firmly. "Even Ezra. None of us at this table can call ourselves respectable and hell knows Ezra the least of all but I'm not coming down on him for trying to be better. He didn't have to come back for us Nathan. If he were as bad as you make him out to be, he would have kept going and we would all be dead. The fact is he came back, he came back and he's putting up with every one of us giving him shit for fighting everything he is to ride with us."

"You heard him when he first met up with us..." Nathan started to say.

"Yeah, I did," Vin cut him off because it was an old argument and one that had been disproved time and time again the last few weeks. "I heard him, and I didn't like it much either, but has he done or said anything like it since we've came from the Seminole village, has he?"

"No," Nathan was forced to admit. "He hadn't."

"Now you're always saying people can be better. It ever occurred to you that's what he's trying to do? That maybe knowing you as person is making him better?" Vin stared at him hard and wanted everyone to know it was not just Nathan that he was talking to but all of them. "If that man can overcome his prejudices, maybe you should too.'

The conversation ended abruptly when Ezra returned with his drink and noted an awkward silence around the table.

"Is it me or is this table surprisingly morose?" He looked at the faces before him.

Nathan roses to his feet. "I'm going to get some rest," he muttered, unable to look at Vin or Ezra as he departed.

Vin looked at Nathan wishing he could understand the words spoken were not out of anger but a genuine desire on his part to see Ezra get the same chance they were all given. The tall man hurried away from the table, disappearing out of the bar a second later.

"I think I might join him," Josiah added a second later, thinking that Nathan might need some company after being dressed down like that. Josiah did not think it was undeserved because it took an injustice for Vin Tanner to make himself heard so prolifically and Josiah himself could not deny that Nathan was hard on Ezra.

"What is something I said?" Ezra asked when the preacher departed.

+ + + + + + +

"Nathan!" Josiah Sanchez called after the healer as he strode out of the saloon in the direction of his infirmary.

The tall black man paused long enough to see who had called after him, his face a dark storm as his eyes met Josiah's before he resumed walking once more. Josiah let out a sigh realizing he was not going to talk to Nathan unless he caught up with the healer. Hastening his pace, he closed the gap between them before Nathan reached the foot of the stairs leading to the rooms above the hardware store that made up his clinic.

"Nathan, stop!" Josiah called out.

"You're gonna tell me I'm being too hard on him too?" Nathan spat back.

"No, I'm not but, you are."

Nathan froze in his steps and turned around to face Josiah. "Do you know what he and his kind have put me and my people through? Do you?"

"No," the preacher shook his head. "I don't, and I never will. I pray to God and I thank him for that but Vin's right."

"He wouldn't even ride with me before!" Nathan exploded. "He's a liar and a cheat and all he cares about is money!"

"If he was all that, then what is he doing here?" Josiah challenged. "He's trying to be different Nathan and, in this place, we're getting a second chance to be what we could never be anywhere else. A few weeks ago, the best that I could hope for is to die. I wanted it Nathan. I wanted it to end just so the hurting would stop but the good Lord send me a message in the six of you. When you get messages like that, you tend to think on them a bit. We've never fit in anywhere because we're misfits in one way or another but somehow, here, we fit. Don't you think Ezra deserves that chance?"

"He'll turn on us," Nathan declared.

"You don't know that," Josiah returned. "And if you don't mind saying so you're the probably the only one that could keep that from happening."

"What?" Nathan stared at him in astonishment. "Me?"

"Because of all of us, you're the one whose respect he wants to most. He's never said a word to you after that first time. Since we got back from the Seminole village, he's ridden by you, fought with you, watched your back and trusted you enough to put him together. What do you think that means Nathan?"

Nathan closed his eyes and cursed.

"God," he let out a soft exclamation. "I swore I was never gonna be like those people who looked at me and only saw a black man. I swore I would never judge a man the way I was judged because it was wrong and here, I am doing it to Ezra."

"Be his friend Nathan because I think you can make a difference to him."

"I don't know if I can," Nathan confessed. There was just so much anger inside of him to dispel. What Josiah asked was difficult, but Ezra had shown he was trying to see him as a friend, so Nathan could not in good conscience deny him the same courtesy. "But I'll try."

"Good," Josiah said with an approving smile, never doubting Nathan in that respect. Nathan was an honourable man but living with a lifetime of pain left scars no amount of good intention could erase. After all, who healed the healer when he was hurt?

"Vin can sure make himself heard when he wants to, huh?"

"Yeah," Nathan cracked a corresponding smile of agreement. "Boy's got the damnedest sense of nobility I've ever seen. It's kind of nice to know he'd fight for anyone of us if he has to. I hope Ezra appreciates it."

Josiah hoped so too but he had a feeling that from now on, if Ezra did not, Nathan would remind him.

+ + + + + + +

The departure of the rainy season brought upon the town of Four Corners, a balmy, humid night where the air was heavy with warm moisture. Mary lay in her bed, feeling most uncomfortable as she felt the sheet plastered to her skin where exposed. She felt a film of moisture beneath her hair that was damned near maddening.

Tossing and turning, she stared at the moon hanging in its fullness in the night sky and wondered if the rest of the guests in her house were having as much trouble sleeping. Jenny had turned in early and considering the journey the young lady had taken, Mary was not surprised that she would be worn out.

Under normal circumstances, Mary would be hard pressed to offer a stranger her home, but the poor child had no one and she knew what it was like to be a woman alone in the West. Any manner of misfortune might befall a decent woman if she did not have some assistance. Besides, the girl claimed to be a seamstress and since the last woman to call herself had left town for some place safer, it was good to be able to fill the vacancy.

Besides, it was good to have company, especially when there was a possibility that Stuart James might have hired an assassin for her disposal.

On that note, Mary wondered if Chris Larabee was still downstairs in the parlour keeping a watch on things. She rolled onto her side towards the window, allowing the faint whiff of cool breeze to sweep in through the opening and wash all over her. Knowing he was down there made her feel better even though there was still this wall of tension between them.

Fortunately, their talk had improved things a little and Mary wondered what he must have been like when he was married. She could not quite picture him as a man with a family, especially a wife and son. Yet he must have loved them so much because the pain in his eyes was acute, she wanted to hold him just to offer comfort.

Closing her eyes, she tried to sleep because she had much to do tomorrow and because thoughts of Chris Larabee would not make that happen.

Rolling onto her back, she forced herself to relax when suddenly, she felt a hand cup over her mouth. Mary's eyes widened, and she was staring into a face masked with a scarf below the eyes covered with a wide brim hat. She started to move when something cold and sharp, pricked her skin near the belly and she froze.

"Your time is up Mary," the voice speaking was low and menacing. "We're gonna string you up, the way the Judge saw Lucas James strung up. We'll dangle you at the end of a rope and ask him how it feels to let one of his own get hung without being able to do anything about it. You'll hang with no way or no one to turn to for mercy. Start counting your day's Mary, you've got a death sentence hanging over you and the end of it, a hangman's noose."

With that, the hand disappeared from her mouth and the figure slipped out of the window like the gust of wind blowing into her room earlier. Mary sat up immediately after he had gone, breathing hard as she clambered out of bed. Running out of the room, she hurried down the stairs still clad in her nightdress but not daring to stop and give her intruder time to escape.

Her pounding footsteps down the steps brought Chris to her immediately.

Chris stopped short as he saw Mary bounding down the staircase, clad only in a flimsy nightgown with flowing blond hair bouncing off her shoulders. She looked at that moment, like some wild, untamed creature and the sight of her made his breath catch.

"What is it?" He demanded as soon as he recognised her wide-eyed fear.

"Someone was in my room! He went out the window."

Chris' jaw tightened, and he bolted towards the front door because any intruder making an exit from the lady's bedroom would have to come down in front of the Clarion News offices. Unsheathing his gun from his holster, Chris went for the door, with Mary following closely behind. He raced through the quiet office and exited through the front entrance, bursting into the night air in anticipation of trouble.

Outside, there was no signs of life.

Chris was confronted by the silence of a street in the small hours of the morning. His eyes swept across the street and saw no one about. He stepped away from the Clarion and paused in the middle of the street facing the building, in particular the window leading into Mary's room. There were neither signs of life nor any evidence of forced entry. Not even the saloon was open at this hour.

"Do you see him?" Mary asked as she came up alongside of him.

"No," Chris said tautly and searched the street once more. "There's no one out here Mary."

She looked at him in dismay. "There has to be! He was in my room! He put his hands on me and told me I was going to be strung up the way Lucas was hung!"

"Did you see how he got in?" Chris asked perplexed how anyone could have entered the place without his having seen them.

"No," she shook her head looking around the empty street. 'I was trying to sleep, and my eyes were closed.'

"Mary, no one came past me."

"But that's not possible." Mary exclaimed. "He came into my room! I saw him leave Mr. Larabee!"

"Mary, are you sure?" Chris stared at her. "Could it have been a dream?"

"It wasn't a dream!" She burst out. "I am not deranged. I saw a man in my room and he threatened me!"

"Okay, okay," he placed his hand on her shoulder and made her calm down a little because she was becoming extremely agitated. "I believe you."

It was at this point he remembered what she was wearing, and she was out in the open. He could see her slender form beneath the sheer fabric and the curves it barely contained. Removing his black duster, he draped it over her shoulders. "I think you need to wear this."

"Oh," she blushed realizing that she had rushed out of her room without even the benefit if a shawl. "I didn't think...."

"It's alright," he said gently. "You had a little scare."

"I'm not crazy Mr. Larabee," she repeated herself as she pulled the duster around her shoulders. "I did see him. He was wearing a hat and he spoke in low voice, like a hiss. His face was covered with a scarf or something. I'm not sure. I know I wasn't dreaming because I couldn't sleep!"

"Mary," Chris said once more hoping his reiteration would put the matter to rest. "I believe you.'

"Is something wrong?" Jenny asked emerging from the door of the Clarion offices. The younger woman was wearing a heavy cloak as she came towards them looking puzzled. "I heard noises."

"Everything is fine," Mary went to Jenny. "It appears I may have had an intruder."

"How awful! Are you alright? He didn't do anything?"

"No, no," Mary shook her head and reassured her guest as to her wellbeing. "I don't suppose you heard anything outside your window?"

"I thought I heard something moving outside," Jenny glanced at Chris anxiously. "I thought it was a bird or something. It wasn't very loud."

"You heard it too? Then I was right!"

"I told you I believed you," Chris looked at her.

"I know, but it makes me feel better knowing that someone else heard something and I'm not crazy. I'm a journalist, Mr. Larabee, corroborating sources is part of my trade." She said officiously.

"I'm sure it is."

"Chris!" Vin called out as he appeared out of the shadows. The tracker was fully dressed and appeared as if he had been on his way to take over the duty of guarding Mrs. Travis.

"Vin," Chris strode towards the tracker. "You see anyone around?"

"No," Vin shook his head in answer. "Why? What happened?"

"Someone was in Mary's room." Chris answered grimly, disappointed that Vin had not seen anyone and this intruder whomever he was had managed to slip by all their noses like a ghost.

"You alright ma'am?" Vin turned to her automatically and asked.

"I'm fine." Mary sighed and placed an arm over Jenny's shoulders. "We both are as a matter of fact. Whoever it was also went past Jenny's window."

Vin immediately shifted his gaze to Jenny whose lips curled into a welcoming smile when he looked at her. "Is it your turn to look after Mrs. Travis now, Mr. Tanner?" She asked softly.

"I guess so," Vin answered shyly. Thanks to Buck, he was now self-conscious at the idea Jenny might be sweet on him. Vin was not entirely certain how to react to that. He liked Jenny. She was pretty, and her smile tugged at him when she aimed it in his direction.

'You've done enough tonight Mr. Larabee," Mary said gratefully. Strange how she had dreaded it when Buck told her Chris would be taking over the nocturnal shift of her protection detail. Until their exchange earlier, she was convinced murder was going to come out of it. "Thank you for keeping an eye on us."

Chris met her eyes and found himself thinking the same thing.

"You weren't as much trouble as I thought you were going to be. I'm kind of disappointed."

"I'll make it up to you next time," Mary looked at him sarcastically.

Chris rolled his eyes and turned to Vin. 'I don't know whether I ought to be leaving you Vin. I mean this guy could be still around."

"I wouldn't mind the company," Vin confessed. "But I reckon you need the rest. So, I'll be fine. If I'm lonely, I'll go find Ezra."

+ + + + + + +

"What about Buck?" Chris asked since they had been sort of paired together since the delegation of duties had begun.

"You think that he'll be alone when I find him?" Vin met Chris' eyes with a raised brow.

Ever since his arrival in Four Corners, Vin was certain Buck Wilmington rarely spent his nights alone. He was almost always in the company of a saloon girl. Most of the time he didn't even have to pay for their company. Buck claimed that it had to do with knowing how to please a lady.

"Good point. Find Ezra."

Fortunately, the rest of the night passed without incident although Chris wanted to know how they entered the house and then leave it without being seen. At no point during the night had he fallen asleep or lapsed in his duty as Mary's sentinel. Mary claimed she had been awake but didn't hear an intruder coming through the window even though her eyes were closed at the time. The how of it disturbed him.

In any case, Chris woke up the next morning getting very little sleep after devoting most of the night to the problem. When he joined the others in the saloon for breakfast the next morning, he was no closer to finding an answer. Vin and Ezra were absent from the table when he joined the others. He wanted to know what Mr. Waldon was doing when Mary's intruder had paid a call on her the night before.

"There's no way Chris." Buck stated firmly. "I have it on good authority that he was with Miss Lucille all night."

"That can't be," Chris insisted. "Someone was in the house last night. Mary saw him, and that Jenny girl heard him outside the window."

"Chris, I was next door with Annabelle," Buck retorted. "He was there all night."

"Let me guess," Josiah rolled his eyes. "Cause you were there all night?"

"Well it's rude to run out on a lady after being in her company," Buck said hotly as if it were a rule set in stone that ought to have been common knowledge for everyone.

"JD," Chris regarded the youngest of their group, deciding he did not wish to hear another one of Buck's tales of conquest over the opposite sex. "You were keeping watch on him. Did he leave?"

"Not unless he went through the window," JD said confidently. He took the tasks Chris Larabee delegated him very seriously indeed. Unlike his older mentor who should have been getting some rest instead of locking lips with the latest in a long line of women, JD had taken point at the saloon. He had kept an eye out for the man all night to ensure that he did not leave the premises without JD knowing about it.

"Is it possible it may not be Waldon?" Nathan suggested the only other alternative.

"Anything is possible," Chris scowled, disliking the idea that they had no inkling as to who had slipped into Mary's room last night. There was something comforting in having at least one suspect because it gave them some idea of what course of action to take. "I mean someone else could have sneaked into town without us knowing. Why waste all that effort?"

"What do you mean?" Josiah asked Chris.

"Well, Mary said her 'guest' last night threatened to string her up the way Lucas was strung up." Chris explained.

"Nice," Buck frowned.

"He came into her room, not making a sound and threatened her," Chris chronicled the events as he saw them so that he could make his point clearer. "Then he left. Why?"

"Why?" JD exclaimed. "Isn't it good he left, instead of hurting her?"

"Yeah it is," Chris responded, aware that JD often spoke without thinking and had not the experience to see the puzzle he did. "But he could have killed her there and then. Why tip their hand like that? I mean we all know James is behind this, but we can't prove it, but we'd still take steps to protect her."

"Pretty sure of themselves," Josiah commented.

"Yeah," Chris agreed, having reached that same conclusion. "Why are they so sure of themselves? After making a threat like that, they got to know that we'd be watching her like a hawk and, yet they take off as if it's going to be so easy to get to her again when the time comes for them to do it right."

"I don't like it Chris," Buck shifted in his chair and sat upright, a gesture which often indicated that he was through talking and wanted action taken immediately. "I say we ride down to James' ranch and make him call off whomever it is that's trying to hurt Mary."

"Somehow, I don't think that's going to work," Josiah spoke up, ever the voice of reason. "We've got nothing to prove that he's set this up."

"I know," Chris nodded unhappily. Even the nature of the threat delivered to Mary did not implicate James specifically in any way even though it could come from no one else. "But I think we should let him know that we'd be going after him if anything happens to her. What we need is a little show of force to make him reconsider."

"He could also get really pissed off and decide to make things worse," Nathan pointed out.

"That's true," Chris could see that possibility as well. However, it was not without its merits. "But if he were to do something rash, it could give us something to work with."

"That's a big gamble you're taking with Mary's life," Buck retorted, disapproving of any plan that would see the woman placed in any danger. Even though he had no romantic aspirations where Mary was concerned, she was a fine woman and a staunch ally of the seven ever since they arrived in town. Even though she could be rather straight laced at times, it was clear she believed that their presence in Four Corners was a benefit to the town and fought to ensure their continued tenure as its peacekeepers.

"I don't gamble Buck," Chris said coldly, somewhat annoyed that Buck would think him taking careless risks with Mary's life. "However, if drawing out James is necessary to keep her safe, then I'm willing to give it a shot."

"I hope it's a good shot," Buck retorted, not about to blind himself or anyone else to the consequences if they failed. "Because if we're wrong then she's as good as dead."

+ + + + + + +

"Madam you spoil me with this hearty selection," Ezra Standish remarked charmingly as he and Vin were treated to a sumptuous breakfast at the table of Mrs. Travis. Although the rest of the night ambled along without incident, Vin and Ezra remained throughout its length, nonetheless, passing their time playing cards. Now the same table was laden with a breakfast, tempting Ezra who rarely had breakfast, with the delightful aromas of sizzling bacon and eggs and freshly brewed coffee.

"Well, that's the least I can do for you Mr. Standish," Mary smiled. "I was able to sleep much easier knowing that the two of you were down here."

"It was our pleasure ma'am," Vin answered, pausing long enough to make that statement before digging into the food once more.

Both Mary and Ezra exchanged amused glances at each other as Vin ploughed into the food, once more reminding everyone who might forget just how young he was, and he had an appetite to match. "I'm just glad we didn't have any more trouble."

"I still wish I knew how that man managed to get into my house without Mr Larabee seeing him." Mary sighed as she sat down to the table and poured herself some coffee. "He does not strike me as the type to let anyone get past him."

"He ain't," Vin spoke through a mouthful of pancake.

"Mr. Tanner," Ezra winced at the lack of table manners being exhibited from the tracker, "perhaps you'd let me to do the verbalizing while you're still enjoying your gastronomical experience."

Vin glared at him through narrowed eyes and continued to chew.

"You are correct about Mr Larabee's powers of observation. I am somewhat curious as to how an interloper might have entered your premises with seemingly wraith like prowess." Ezra declared as he took a sip of his coffee.

"I wish I knew." Mary replied. "But he must have come from inside the house. The window was only slightly ajar, he would have to open it to get in and I didn't hear it.'

"Good morning," Jenny said quietly, almost sneaking into the room.

Mary wondered if the girl's background made her uncomfortable in large groups of people. With everything that had transpired in the past day, the widow felt somewhat guilty she and her guest had not had the chance to talk. "Good morning Jenny, this is Mr. Ezra Standish, one of the town's peacekeepers."

"Hello, Mr. Standish." She glanced at Ezra briefly and waved a little, but her attention was solely fixed on Vin. "Hello, Mr. Tanner."

"Hey Jenny," Vin managed to swallow (half a side of bacon mind you) and not choke so that he could respond to her greeting.

It was beyond Ezra's comprehension how a man as self-assured at Vin Tanner could be so awkward around women at times. Buck had filled Ezra in on the meeting between the tracker and the latest unattached female to arrive in Four Corners. At first Ezra was certain Buck was exaggerating just how shy Vin was around the woman because Buck could never tell a story without embellishing it a little, particularly when it came to matters of amore.

Now that he saw the two in the same room together, he could appreciate why Buck had found it so amusing. Ezra made a mental note to give Vin a little talk about handling women. Besides, if he did not do it, Buck would, and Lord only knew what sort of advice the ladies' man would give Vin. Probably the kind that would get him slapped.

Ezra turned his attention to the young lady who was so obviously smitten by Vin, and her sweet and unassumingly manner had completely bewitched the tracker. On face value, they were a perfect match. Both were people who did not like to be noticed, who tended to fade into the background. Jenny could never be considered a great beauty, but she was lovely in her own way.

As she approached the table, she did not look directly at Ezra and kept her eyes lowered in subservience. Here was a woman used to talking orders all her life and did not feel herself worthy in the company of others, even though there was no reason for her to feel that way. In that sense, she and Vin had a great deal in common.

"So, Jenny, what do you plan to do today?" Mary inquired as she handed the girl a plate so that she could partake in the breakfast prepared.

"I've got a little money saved," she offered meekly. "I thought I might find a little place to rent."

"Well that's a number of places around town," Mary said helpfully. "I'm sure I could help you find something."

"I also think I'll need to get a horse of my own," she added. "But I'm not sure how to get one." Raising her eyes shyly, she gazed at Vin with a long meaningful stare. "I wondered if you would help me pick one Mr. Tanner. You seem to know all about horses."

Ezra found himself observing the interplay between the two with great interest. At first it was merely to see whether Buck's description of Vin's behaviour was accurate. But the more he saw Vin and his lady fair, something began gnawing at him. By all rights, what was transpiring between Vin and Miss Jenny Miller seemed completely innocent, yet Ezra couldn't help feeling something fell out of place.

Ezra remained silent for the rest of breakfast, offering obligatory statements when it was required of him but mostly continuing his scrutiny of the fledgling couple. There was something not quite right about her. After watching them together or more precisely watching her, Ezra was noticing cracks in her persona that were cause for concern.

He was not one to cast aspersions on the reputation of a lady. He was still too much of the southern gentleman for that. However, he was also a gambler and a con man and, in his time, he had known deception in all its forms and no one was able to practice the art with as much expertise and skill as the female of the species. Using womanly charms as a means of manipulation was as old as the battle of the sexes. Even the most benign of women employed it at one point or another.

As Jenny was doing now.

Ezra knew a performance when he saw one and he was almost certain Jenny was playing a role, specifically for Vin Tanner. Unfortunately, there was nothing the gambler could do about it. He had no proof of her duplicity other than his suspicions and with Vin liking the girl, Ezra was not about to accuse her without evidence. Vin clearly liked the girl, that much Ezra could tell but if he was wrong, he would do irrevocable harm to the tracker's blooming relationship. Not to mention, lose the friendship of the one person in the cadre of seven who saw him as more than just a cheat and a con man.

And yet if he were to do nothing, there was no guarantee Vin's heart would not end up broken anyway.

Chapter Four: The Game

The man peered across the street at the hardware store.

The sun setting over the horizon signalled the official end to the trading day in Four Corners. The owner of the establishment went through the motions of locking up, shifting display stock from front porch to the inside of the store for the night. The secret observer watched the proceedings at the Watson Hardware store for the better part of the afternoon, ever since he and his companions rode into town looking for a speedy way to finance their trip over the border.

The last time he came through town, Four Corners was relatively easy pickings. Despite the presence of a sheriff, there was little reason to fear because the former peacekeeper of Four Corners was more concerned with preserving his life than he was enforcing law and order.

On this occasion, Murdock rode into town and found that things had changed considerably.

For starters, the notorious gunslinger Chris Larabee had taken up residence in town with him six, equally formidable men who were acting as the law. Although Larabee didn't frighten him, Murdock was by no means a foolish man. Seven against four was almost double the odds, and he was in no hurry to risk his life when it was simpler to wait until dark and then converge upon his target.

Murdock had no reputation to speak off so when he and his men rode into Four Corners, the peacekeepers merely acknowledged their presence, nothing more. The tracker kept a close eye on them for most of the day which was part of the reason why Murdock carried out his surveillance through the batwing doors of the saloon situated directly opposite the hardware store. After a few hours, the tracker seemed satisfied Murdock was in town merely as a stopover on his journey elsewhere and had gone about his own business.

The hardware store had been doing brisk business all day. Murdock spied a steady stream of customers flowing in and out of the place, purchasing all manner of goods from garden tools to gunpowder. He didn't see Watson leaving the store so he assumed the monies from the day's takings would still be on the premises. When the outlaw saw the store lights start to dim, he nodded slowly at his friends across the table and rose to his feet slowly.

Hardly anyone paid attention to him as he made his way out of the saloon. The room was already filled with customers who were either drinking, gambling or carousing with accommodating saloon girls. There was no sign of the peacekeepers as he exited the room, pleased he could fool the tracker into thinking that his intentions in Four Corners was entirely innocent.

He stepped out into the night air and saw the silhouette of Mr. Watson through the window of his store, no doubt going about his business in preparing to close shop for the day. In a short time, his friends would be taking up position, if they were not already.

Murdock ambled forward across the street, appearing no more suspicious than anyone else in town. With the sun's descent into the horizon, the number of people on the street evaporated, having gone home and sitting down to supper or something of the like. It worked out rather well for Murdock because the less people about the better. He had no wish to draw attention. By the time the alarm sounded, he had planned to be on his way out of Four Corners.

Murdock unfastened the flap on his holster once he was hidden beneath the cover of the awning running along the front of the building. Searching the length and breadth of the boardwalk, he proceeded only after he saw no one of concern. The doors of the store were still open even though the establishment was closed for the night. He could hear Watson within the premises and took that as all the prompting he needed to put his plan into motion.

Entering the door, the bell clanged overhead but Murdock expected this. Closing the door behind him quietly, it felt like a redundant gesture after the sharp sound of the bell. Watson stood in the centre of the room, pushing a broom across the floor. The man paused immediately and raised his head, meeting Murdock's gaze

"Store's closed Mister." Watson said politely.

"You got time for one more," Murdock returned.

Watson's shoulders tensed, showing his realization trouble had just come through his door. The man's face hardened like Murdock's own. "I don't think so," Watson inched towards the counter.

Murdock could guess what for and drew his gun. "Stay where you are, old man," he warned, cocking his gun for good measure. "I don't want to cause a ruckus by killing you but I will if I have to.'

Watson swallowed, revealing enough fear in his eyes to be mindful of the fact Murdock would kill him but not so much he was willing to give up yet. The old man had a lot of spirit, Murdock gave him that, but in this instance, it would serve him no good except perhaps to get him killed.

"What do you want?" Watson demanded.

"Everything in your till."

Watson's expression reacted immediately and the look on his face was one of outrage. Murdock could see him restraining himself from balking at the idea mostly because it would have been a fatal mistake if he had. However, his response though calm was no less yielding. "There ain't that much in it." Watson returned. "It's been a slow day."

"Nice try," Murdock retorted, almost laughing at the attempt to deter his interest. "But I've been watching you all day-old man, and you got a lot of people coming and going into this place. I reckon you got a nice day's earnings in that till and I plan on helping myself to it. You just stay put and everything will work itself out."

Watson glared back at him sceptically but did nothing further to exacerbate the situation. The old man stepped aside and allowed Murdock a clear path to the counter where the till was awaiting the outlaw.

"Smart man," Murdock commented as he made his way to the counter, his eyes never leaving Watson as he moved. His gun was aimed directly at the shopkeeper but his free hand was already inching towards the metal till. "You stay smart and cool and you'll live through this."

"Just take what you want and get out!" Watson said harshly, not about to let the man think this was a friendly transaction when what it was, was a robbery, plain and simple.

"You settle down old man," Murdock shot him a venomous glare silencing Watson in his tracks. "I ain't got no patience with old coots who don't know how to shut up when it's good for them. I'm taking your money, just accept it and keep a cool head so I don't decide to kill you. Keep testing me and I'll show you how wrong that can be."

Upon reaching the cash register, the outlaw immediately opened the till where he saw an assortment of bills in their abundance. He managed to stuff them into the pocket of his large coat without ever removing his eyes from Watson, whose face had turned a deeper shade out of anger at the outrage he was forced to endure. Murdock did not think the man would make any move to stop him but the outlaw was seasoned enough to know anger could make people do the most foolish things and Watson had just enough spirit in him to be trouble.

If it were not for the fact Murdock was attempting to make a discreet exit out of town with his booty, he would have already shot Watson and ended the threat of him.

When he had completely emptied the register, Watson found his voice once more. "You got what you want. Take it and go."

Murdock sneered menacingly. "You've mighty accommodating Virgil," he slammed the till back in with a loud clang of steel meeting steel. "I might come back and see you sometime, maybe take advantage of your hospitality again." His lips curled into a little smile of promise that only serve to turn Watson a deeper shade of red.

Outside, the approach of horses told him it was time to go.

"I wouldn't go running to the law either old man," Murdock warned as he made his way to the door. "If they come after me, they had better kill me or else I'll come back here and I'll kill you. Make no mistake on that." His eyes narrowed with conviction and saw Watson shuddering a little because the old man knew that the threat was real.

Murdock turned his back on Watson, hurrying out the door into the cool night air. Two of his men were outside keeping watch on things while the remaining two retrieved the horses that were now waiting at the hitching post in front of the store. Murdock sucked in a breath of satisfaction at how well the job had gone. Of course, it was never wise to be too optimistic about such things, especially when they so close to success. Perkins and Collins emerge from their hiding places now they were sure the town's peacekeepers hadn't stumbled onto their activities this evening.

"Let's go," Murdock declared, pausing at the doorway as the duo reached him.

"Ain't no sign of any of them lawmen," Perkins, a short, stout man with a balding head and a handlebar moustache, stated upon joining his leader.

"I told you that tracker wouldn't give us trouble," Murdock said confidently.

"I wouldn't say that," a new too soft voice entered the mix from behind them.

Murdock started to turn but the cocking of a shotgun froze him in his steps as did his two companions whose first instinct was to go for their guns.

What stopped them was the appearance of Chris Larabee, stepping out of the shadows as if he had always been there. Larabee's gun was already drawn and through the darkness, they could see the glint of metal from the peacemaker he carried and used with such ruthless efficiency.

Neither Perkins, Collins or the riders on horseback were so easily appeased and immediately drew on Chris and began firing. The gunslinger retreated into the shadows to take cover from the bullets whizzing in his direction while Murdock, Collins and Perkins took advantage of the confusion to escape the aim of the Winchester behind them. Murdock leapt out of its path when his ears rang with the loud boom of discharge. It was followed by an equally piercing scream.

It came from Perkins who took the blast from the shotgun meant for him. The short man staggered back, his face a rictus of pain as he regarded the crimson spread across his chest with transfixed horror. The tracker wasted no time in priming the weapon once more, aiming this time at Collins who was shocked into swinging his gun at the lawman.

The tracker was too fast for him and unlike before where the confusion of situation led to Perkin's death, this time there was no hint of distraction as he fired. Another boom followed and this time it was Collin screaming as the spread of pellets destroyed his kneecap and drove him into the dirt. Murdock felt himself swelling with rage as he saw another friend go down. Forgetting he was trying to save his own skin, he ran straight for the tracker, barrelling into him with enough force to send them both sprawling.

Vin knew the instant he lost his gun. He felt it tumble from his hand, followed by the heavy sound of metal striking wood. Murdock scrambled over him, still carrying his own Remington revolver still in his hands. As they hit the floor ground hard, Vin saw Watson emerging from his store long enough to pick up the rifle.

However, Vin's most immediate problem was keeping Murdock from taking aim at him and as the man preparing to do just that, Vin slammed his fist into the man's wrist, causing enough pain to force Murdock's hand away from Vin. The gun came loose in his grip and tumbled away.

Murdock reacted quickly and threw a fist at Vin's jaw, snapping his head back against the hard floor. For a second, Vin felt his head swim with everything becoming momentarily dizzy. Another fist connected with his jaw, further disorientating him. The pain forced a surge of adrenaline to rush through him and Vin recouped enough to block the next strike that came at him. Bringing his knee up, he landed it against Murdock's back, throwing him forward. The outlaw grunted in pain as Vin threw him off and got to his feet again. This time, Vin took advantage of Murdock's efforts to get upright by throwing a kick that connected with the underside of his jaw.

The kick was not quite fatal but more than enough to bring down Murdock without further difficulty. The outlaw fell on the floor once again, his head making a fair whack, as it knocked hard against the wooden boards. Vin took a deep breath and wiped the rivulet of blood running down the corner of his lip before he turned to Watson who was still holding the mare's leg.

"Find yourself a shady spot Virgil," Vin advised the older man as he retrieved his gun.

"I think I'll do that," Watson remarked, more than happy to comply with that request.

Vin nodded slightly in gratitude for that and hurried out the door, mindful of the bullets that were being fired from the two men. Thanks to Murdock's surveillance, it was not easy to get anyone other than himself and Chris into position to smoke out the man and his accomplices. Vin was certain Murdock was up to no good but he couldn't be sure if Murdock's companions were in on the job.

Emerging into the night, he saw the two riders being hemmed in by gunfire coming from a window. Through the curtains, he could tell it was Buck was ensuring that the two men did not get away. Their horses were bucking anxiously, trapped by the bits in their mouth from moving too far despite their instincts to flee.

Vin's arrival turned one of their attention to him and as the man proceeded to fire, Vin jumped out of the way, landing on the boardwalk before he scrambled behind the nearby column. The distraction was enough to allowed Chris a clear shot and it seemed to rise above the sound of all other gunfire when the leader of the seven pulled the trigger. His target cried out in pain as blood sputtered out of his chest following the penetration of the bullet. He toppled from his horse to the ground in quick succession, creating a cloud of dust as he landed. The other shooter realised that he was suddenly alone and Chris noticed a shudder in his expression that might allow them to end this without further bloodshed.

"Drop your gun now and no one else has to die!" Chris shouted during the pause.

"How do I know you'll keep your word?" The man cried out, clearly afraid of the consequences if he did not.

'You're still alive,' Chris shouted back.

The man did not answer even though his gun was held ready to fire. An eternity of seconds passed where the streets were deadly silent, save for their own breathing. Chris could tell that the man wanted to surrender badly but sometimes, fear made a person do strange things and Chris would not give him the benefit of doubt until he relinquished his guns.

Chris glanced sidelong at Vin who was meeting his gaze from where he was. Vin's expression mirrored his own thoughts and once again, Chris marvelled at the tracker's ability to know exactly what he was thinking because their minds were so much alike. Vin had no more idea than he did how this was going to play.

After what felt like an interminable amount of time, the man lowered his gun with defeat etched in his eyes. "I give up." He called out into the darkness at the faces he could not quite make out and the voices that were prepared to kill him if he did not yield.

"Drop the gun." Chris repeated.

There was another brief pause before the gun fell from his hands, landing on the ground impotently. From the shadows, the hulking form of Josiah Sanchez appeared on the street. His Schoefield was aimed straight ahead and his eyes did not waver from the enemy as he collected the gun the outlaw had dropped on the dirt. Only when Josiah had the weapon in hand, did Chris let out a breath that their night's activities were over. He sheathed his gun and started toward the injured man at the doorway of the store, not to mention Murdock who was still unconscious.

"You okay?" He asked Vin as he strode towards the tracker, noting the weeping sliver of blood at the corner of his lip.

"Yeah," Vin nodded slightly. "Didn't break nothing that won't heal."

"Guess you were right about him," Chris remarked glancing at Murdock who lying on the floor of the hardware house unmoving.

"I need help here!" Collins wailed as he held onto his bleeding knee. "You can't leave me to bleed to death!"

"Now that's a tempting thought," Chris gave him a look of indifference.

"I reckon we ought to help him," Vin remarked with a playful expression in his eyes. "I mean we don't want him to die or nothing and skip having to spend the next couple of years in jail."

"That's what I like about you Vin," Chris grinned. "You always know how to put things in perspective."

+ + + + + + +

Once the streets had been cleared, with Collins being dispatched to Nathan's care while Murdock continued the rest of his stay in Four Corners from inside the jailhouse, Chris and Vin decided to look in on Mary. He wished the situation with James and the threat on Mary's life could be handled with as much ease as their dealings with Murdock and his gang. As of yet, nothing had transpired to give any indication to Chris and the seven the danger to Mary was passed. The strange quiet following James' last trip to Four Corners continued, making everyone nervous from the waiting.

Chris hated that more than anything else.

He wanted something to happen so he could resume keeping his distance from the lady. Even though they had come to an understanding of sorts, Mary made Chris extremely uncomfortable. The reason was obvious but it was something he dared not give credence to under any circumstances. Before coming to Four Corners, each night saw him plagued with dreams of Sarah and Adam trapped inside a burning house. Drinking himself into a stupor had been the only way he'd been able to cope.

Yet since arriving in Four Corners, the dreams were growing infrequent. He still had them but the blinding intensity of them was diminishing. Memories of Sarah and Adam still haunted but the nightmares that gripped him so tightly were now spaced by pleasant dream of white gold hair.

He just didn't know what to do with that.

Once Murdock and his men were dealt with, Chris and Vin made their way to Mary's to take over Ezra's watch. Even though neither man said it out loud, they knew they could not keep watch on the widow indefinitely. Mary was right. It was waste of resources to have one of them guard her day in and day out, to say nothing about the effect on the woman to live with the constant reminder someone was attempting to kill her.

Unfortunately, Chris could see no way out of the situation, not until James made a move or Mary's mysterious intruder chose to make an encore.

As they walked to Mary's, Chris noted Vin's pace was brisk in comparison to the stealthy and laconic way he moved. A little smile stole across Chris features when he guessed why. Jenny Miller was still residing at Mary's and Chris had a feeling both women enjoyed each other's company so much the arrangement might become permanent. It certainly made guarding Mary a good deal easier with a second female presence in the house.

When Chris had first met Vin, he guessed the younger man's experience with women to be minimal. Seeing him around Jenny seemed to confirm it. It was a mystery to him how one of the most confident and bravest men he knew could seem almost school boyish when it came to the opposite sex.

In retrospect, he supposed he should not be surprised at Vin's reaction to the young woman who seemed to take a rather pointed interest in him. Their relationship at this time were little more than stolen moments of wistful stares and the stuff teenagers cut their teeth on to prepare them for a mature relationship when it finally came along. A part of Chris wanted to warn Vin to take it slow because he was so inexperienced but another part of him had no wish to tell another man how he ought to be feeling about a woman.

Perhaps someone like Josiah was capable of giving Vin some advice. He supposed if there was any one who could give good counsel about women it was Buck, but Chris could not bring himself to inflict his over-enthusiastic old friend on Vin who was painfully shy about discussing such things. Knowing Buck, who had about as much subtlety as he had restraint, would probably overwhelm Vin, the result of which could only be a homicide. Definitely not a good idea, Chris told himself.

Sooner than he would have liked, they arrived at Mary Travis' home. Chris felt his nerve leave him as Vin knocked on the door and wished he had let Vin take care of this alone. After all, it hardly needed both of them to keep an eye on the widow. The only reason he accompanied Vin because the tracker was easily distracted by Jenny and Chris did not want anyone getting hurt because their defences were down.

The door swung open and Chris faced the second unknown in his life. He found his breath catch at the sight of her and needed a moment to compose himself as he stood by the doorway, trying hard not to gawk. It was not as if she were naked or anything. She had merely freed herself of the tight coiffeur she wore all the time to let her hair flow loosely around her shoulders. There was no trace of the proper newspaper editor or community leader. Chris could only see the woman. And being a woman, she was completely oblivious to the effect she had on him.

"Evening ma'am." Vin greeted, snapping Chris out of his reverie.

"Is it time for the changing of the guard already?" Mary asked, her brow cocked over one eye in amusement.

"Something like that," Vin remarked with a smile.

"Well, you best come in," Mary responded, turning on her heels, retreating through the doorway, unaware that the flounce of her golden hair had drawn another involuntary sigh from Chris.

Goddamn it, Chris cursed under his breath as he followed Vin and Mary into the house via the kitchen. It always felt more appropriate to enter the home that way. Even though nothing improper was taking place, Chris did not wish to start tongues wagging on innuendo alone. Mary was one of their most ardent supporters in town (Lord only knew why) and that support was strengthened by her role as a community leader. He had no wish to see that reputation sullied.

Upon entering the kitchen, they saw Ezra at the kitchen table once more, playing a game of solitaire. The gambler was almost done and appeared to be getting weary of the whole duty of guarding the lady. A twinge of jealousy coursed through Chris as he wondered whether Ezra was taking the time to familiarize himself with Mary. After all, he did express an interest in her.

"Vin!" Jenny suddenly emerged from the adjoining room. Her face etched in worry. "I heard shooting. Are you alright?" She asked.

Chris stifled a smile as he saw Vin tripping over himself again, trying to respond.

"He'll live," Chris spoke up deciding to rescue his friend.

This seemed to satisfy Jenny somewhat, and she let out of a sigh of relief as she stared at Vin with clear adoration in her eyes.

"I'm fine," Vin shrugged. "I got into a tussle with Murdock, but it didn't hurt much." He met her gaze with a little smile, pleased at her concerned but still uncertain about how to regard it all.

"I take it you came through the altercation without any lasting effects, even without my help?" Ezra retorted, somewhat irritated that he had been forced to remain here and play babysitter. When he had heard the gunfire, it had taken every ounce of discipline not to run out and help. However, Ezra had followed Chris Larabee's lead long enough to know that the gunslinger would not appreciate it if he had left Mary's side.

"Well enough," Chris replied. "Their whole plan hinged on us not knowing what they were up to but thanks to Vin, that didn't happen."

"Is Virgil alright?" Mary inquired after the shopkeeper who was one of her friends in town.

"He's fine ma'am," Vin answered automatically. "He knew how to hold his own with someone like Murdock."

"You're hurt," Jenny noted the redness around his lip. "You need something on that."

"I have some ointment...." Mary started to say.

"Vin and I will find it," Jenny beamed and took the tracker by his hand and led him out of the room before Mary could say anything further.

Chris forced himself to stifle a laugh at the hopelessly bewildered look on Vin's face as he was led away like a calf to the slaughter. When they were gone, Chris raised his eyes to Mary and added with a little smirk. "I don't think I've ever seen him that scared."

"Well she is very taken with him," Mary chuckled, perfectly aware of what he was talking about. She knew how shy Vin was around women and having Jenny in her company the past few days had made the newspaperwoman privy to the girl's affection regarding the tracker. "I think they could make each other happy."

"I just hope it doesn't get him shot.'

"You're a cynic. Besides they're young only once."

To that Chris could not disagree but before he could respond, he noted the look on Ezra's face. It wasn't the usual smug expression the man wore on his face. In fact, now that Chris paid attention, Ezra was staring after the departed couple with a look Chris could only describe as troubled. If there was one thing Chris had learnt about Ezra Standish since they started riding together, it was the fact the man did not like to expose his true emotions. He buried his feeling behind the facade of the perfectly bred southern dandy.

It was one of the reasons Chris found it so hard to trust him because the gunslinger could never figure out what was going on behind those sea coloured eyes. Yet, at this moment, Ezra's emotions were naked on his face.

"Ezra," Chris spoke up and brought the gambler's attention straight back to him.

"Yes," Ezra shook his head of the distraction, and the mask fell over his face again.

"I think Vin will be able to handle things around here for a while," Chris remarked.

"I would not mind remaining," Ezra giving Chris his complete attention now. "After all, Mrs Travis here is such polite company."

"Flatterer," Mary flashed him a smile. "But I think you would prefer to play something other than solitaire and I am not in the position to accommodate you."

"In more ways than one," Chris pointed out.

"Mr Larabee!" Mary stared at him in shock. "Mr Standish has been a perfect gentleman!"

"I didn't mean it that way," Chris quickly interjected. "I meant I don't think you want to be playing poker with him."

"I hope so," Mary turned her nose up and started out of the room. "I'll see you both later then. I have things to attend to."

Ezra looked at Chris blankly attempting to ascertain what that exchange had been about when the widow left them alone in the room. "Mr Larabee, are you alluding I have immoral intentions towards Mr Travis?"

Chris rolled his eyes. "Christ, that's the last time I make a joke around you."

"Well you do it so rarely, one is taken off guard when you do."

"Funny," Chris growled. "Actually, I was more interested in knowing what's wrong with you."

"With me?" Ezra's eyes widened at the question. "I am perfectly well. There is nothing wrong with me."

"Oh?" Chris returned just as sharply. "You look like you swallowed bad rotgut or worse a minute ago when Vin and Jenny left the room. You got eyes for her?"

Ezra's jaw dropped in outrage. "Mr. Larabee, I realize that I am not exactly the most trusted member of our cadre which is understandable considering my actions during our first adventure, however, I am not so low as to lust after the objects of my associates' affections. I have no interest in either Mrs. Travis or Miss Miller, rest assured."

"I couldn't care less if you had any interest in Mrs Travis," Chris said defensively but had to concede he owed Ezra an apology, especially when the gambler looked genuinely hurt at the suggestion. "But if that ain't what you're after with Jenny, I want to know what's got you so worried. I saw how you looked at them when they left here."

Ezra shrugged, his polished manner appearing decidedly uneasy. "It is nothing."

"It don't look like nothing to me."

"I could be wrong."

"I don't care if you are. I just want to know." Chris' patience was beginning to dwindle rapidly.

"I do not wish to hurt Mr. Tanner when all I have are suspicions. If I am wrong...." Ezra stumbled on the word, unable to say it out loud and hating the fact he was in this position to begin with.

"Ezra," Chris was starting to get really concerned now. "I don't want him hurt either but I need to know."

"If I tell you what I think then I run the risk of alienating the one person in our group who thinks me worthy of knowing. I will not risk that on a suspicion." Ezra declared in a voice Chris never heard him use before. It was devoid of all his exaggerated refinement and polish. If anything, it was so earnest Chris had difficulty believing it was coming from the same man who turned tail and ran out on them at the Seminole village.

But he was not the same man, any, more was he?

Even though he was a complainer and a general pain in the ass, Ezra had done everything Chris asked ever since he was allowed back into the fold. Nor had he given Chris any reason to think he might carry out a repeat performance of what had happened at the Seminole village. It shamed Chris inwardly to think Ezra felt the only person who trusted him among the seven was Vin.

"Let's take this outside," Chris ordered.

"I will not change my mind," Ezra said defiantly.


Ezra cursed, unable to ignore that order and promptly followed Chris out of Mary's kitchen door. Both men left the house and emerged onto the street where they could talk freely without interruption.

"Ezra, I'm done arguing with you about this. Tell me."

Realising he had no choice Ezra let out a groan of exasperation. "I want your word that you will keep this confidential."

He would not yield until he had that assurance. Men like Chris Larabee did not give their word easily and would not break it once it was given.

"I give you my word. Now, what is it?"

"I do this under protest."

"Ezra...." Chris began to wonder if shooting the gambler in the kneecap might move things along.

"I do not trust Miss Miller." Ezra finally admitted. "I do not think her feelings for Mr Tanner are entirely genuine."


Of all the things he could have said, that was the one Chris least wanted to hear. "What makes you think that?"

"I cannot give you specifics," Ezra tried to explain. 'I made my living being able to read people and my instincts tell me that she is false, that she is using him."

"For what?" Chris asked, feeling anger at the thought of someone playing with Vin's affections like that.

"I do not know," Ezra confessed. "Perhaps she is working for James but if the intended target was Mary, she has had plenty of opportunities to do great harm to the lady, and as of yet she has not."

Chris' mind whirled back to the night the intruder entered Mary's house. Part of what made him so furious was the fact the stranger had entered the home without Chris seeing it. Now that Ezra made his suspicions known, Chris wondered if the reason was because they had been in the house to begin with? But if, Ezra was right, what was Jenny's plan? She should have had plenty of opportunities to kill Mary by now and what about Vin? What was the purpose of playing with Vin's affections?

"If she was up to no good, then why is she taking such an interest in Vin?" Chris mused.

"I do not know," Ezra responded, revealing just how troubled he was about this. "I only know I have in my time seen a great many performances and I am sure this is one of them."

"We can't tell him," Chris said quickly, coming to the same conclusion Ezra had been wrestling with. "We don't know for sure, and until we know, we can't tell him."

"Then you understand my dilemma. He cares about her a great deal."

"I know," Chris sighed. "He's young. You could probably count the women he's had with one hand by the way he's reacting to her."

Ezra nodded in agreement. He considered these points earlier and was no closer to a solution than Chris. Still, it felt good to voice his suspicions so that he could hear if they were crazy or not.

"Judging from her behaviour the moment she arrived in town, her object has been to ensnare Mr Tanner. It is possible she may have chosen him exactly because of that.'

'It might not have anything to do with James at all,' Chris suggested. 'It could be just a coincidence.'

"He does have a price on his head," Ezra reminded. "Five hundred dollars might be reason enough to do go to the trouble of gaining his trust."

"That's not enough for a bounty hunter to try and get him past us and Vin's not that stupid. He'd never let someone get the drop on him even with a woman."

Ezra was not so convinced about that. While Ezra thought highly of the tracker, he was more objective about Vin's ability to see an attack coming if it was shrouded by Miss Miller's wiles. "The question is, what do we do about it?"

"Nothing," Chris said firmly. "There isn't anything to do but keep a close eye on her. Unfortunately, we can't accuse her of anything because of a feeling."

"I dislike being so helpless.'

"I know the feeling," Chris confessed softly.

Unfortunately, until opportunity allowed, there was nothing they could do but hold back and hope Vin did not get too hurt when the truth unfolded.

+ + + + + + +

Mary Travis was in her office working on the latest edition of the Clarion News the next morning with Chris Larabee once again in her company. Having him so close to her was especially distracting when he was oblivious to the effect, he was having on her.

Even as she attempted to edit the article she was working on, Mary could not help but look up occasionally at the gunslinger who was stretched out on the chair opposite her desk, his nose firmly planted in the book he was reading. She noted it was a different book and wondered just how literary he was or for that matter how much of his intelligence was masked beneath his infamous reputation.

"Mr Larabee," Mary looked up impatiently after a few minutes, concluding she would get nothing done if she kept gawking at him. "I don't think I'm in any immediate danger at this moment. You don't have to stay here and nursemaid me. I'm sure I'll be fine."

Chris lowered his book and regarded her like a parent trying to impart something of importance to an errant child. "We've been through this before. Until we know what James is up to, you need to be protected."

"I realize that," Mary groaned. "But I don't think that he will be making any attempts on my life at this moment."

"We don't know that," Chris retorted. "In fact, we have no idea what's he up to which kind of makes things worse since we can't prepare for it."

"What makes you think it's me he'll go after?" Mary asked with exasperation seeping into her voice. "He has made no attempt to harm me in almost a week, and you have been guarding me day and night. Maybe he's given up."

"He won't give up," Chris said firmly. "As far as he's concerned, we're entirely responsible for what's happened to Lucas. He wants revenge, and if he's done nothing about it yet, it's only because he hasn't figured out how."

Mary groaned in exasperation, resigning herself to his protection since nothing she said was going to convince him otherwise. "You are an exceedingly stubborn man,' she declared with a frown.

"Yes, I am," Chris was not about to dispute that fact but neither was he about to let her talk him into anything as foolish as leaving her unguarded.

Mary eased back into her chair, deciding to go back to work since it was clear he was not going anywhere. Turning to the papers on her desk, she noted he was doing the same to his book. They would just have to tolerate each other no matter how uncomfortable it was.

Chris allowed himself a little smile, secretly pleased his presence was somehow ruffling the prim and proper persona of the woman when suddenly, a sharp cry was heard through the ceiling of the office.

"It's' coming from upstairs!" Mary exclaimed, but Chris was already running into the hallway that joined her office to the rest of the house.

Chris bolted up the stairs, recognising the frightened cries as those of Jenny Miller. The young woman had returned home some time ago and announced that she was taking a little siesta in her room. As he reached the top of the stairs, he heard the scuffling of feet belonging to more than one person. Unholstering his gun he caught his first glimpse of Jenny, wrestling with a man in the middle of the hallway.

Standing taller than her, he stood over Jenny with a scarf covering his face. He could have been Waldon, but Chris was not sure. The hallway was not well lit, and with the window directly behind him, his features were hard to make out. Upon seeing Chris, the man directed the gun aimed at Jenny's head towards him.

"Drop your gun, or I'll kill her!" The man hissed.

"Please Mr Larabee!" Jenny cried out, tugging frantically at the grip around her throat.

"I won't let him hurt you," Chris assured her. "Let her go. I don't want to kill you but I will."

"You forget who's holding who Larabee!" The man sneered.

"Don't assume that I can't kill you just because you have a hostage." Chris returned sharply. It was not entirely a bluff but if all possible, he preferred it not come to that.

The man's eyes narrowed with anger at Chris' threat, and his arm tightened around Jenny's throat, forcing her to choke. Her eyes stared at Chris in wide-eyed terror, and he hoped Mary was sensible enough to get the others when he had come up here.

"Please help me!" She pleaded.

"Yeah Larabee," the man taunted him. "Help her by putting down your gun."

Chris aimed and answered coldly, "that's not going to happen."

"Then kiss this little girl goodb...'

He never finished the sentence as Chris pulled the trigger and the bullet slammed into the shoulder connected to the arm holding the gun. Jenny screamed at the sound.

The shooter cried out as severed nerves immediately forced him to relinquish of the gun. It clattered to the floor as Jenny continued to scream. As Chris advanced upon him, the man came to his senses through the pain of his injury and shoved Jenny forward with his good arm. She stumbled into Chris, driving them both to the ground in an ungainly tangle of limbs. With Chris momentarily distracted, the assailant turned tail and ran. He headed towards the window, and Chris got to his feet just in time to see him smashing through the window.

Leaving Jenny to tend to herself, Chris followed the sound of shattering glass and peered through the window to see the man in the street below. He had landed badly and was hobbling towards a horse that was hitched to a post nearby. People on the street gave him a wide berth, reluctant to interfere with what appeared to be a dangerous man.

Chris retreated the way he came, pausing long enough to see Jenny was alright before he was racing down the stairs again. Mary was nowhere to be found as he sped through her kitchen, wanting to reach the intruder before he took off. No doubt the editor of the Clarion News had followed his instructions for once and sounded the alarm to the rest of the seven.

Emerging through the kitchen door, he saw the intruder had already mounted his horse. Chris cursed and dashed for it anyway, hoping to at least squeeze a shot at the man before he could get away. Skidding to a stop in the middle of the street, he saw the man's back drawing away as horse and ride galloped out of town. For a moment, he almost put a bullet in the man's back but the memory of having sustained such an injury during the war kept him from pulling the trigger.

When he did pull the trigger, the bullet escaped the barrel of his gun and nicked the departing on its rump. The animal reared up violently. Jenny's attacker, already burdened with a useless arm, was incapable of keeping himself in the saddle. He was thrown violently, and Chris swore when he saw what was about to happen.

The intruder landed on his head, and the large squelch that followed impact was nothing less than bones snapping. He lay on the ground after that, a small cloud of settling dust around him as his neck remained twisted at that chilling angle that could only mean a broken neck.


Audible gasps of disapproval followed his angry exclamation, and a small crowd began to form around the man as Chris strode towards the dead man. His peacemaker still clutched in one hand.

"Chris!" Buck Wilmington broke through the bystanders watching the proceedings. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Chris nodded grimly. "I think I did him more harm than he did me. I thought by shooting him off his horse would keep me from having to put a bullet in his back. Seems that backfired."

"Any idea who he is?" Buck lowered himself next to Chris who was examining the dead man.

Upon removing the scarf covering the man's face, Chris saw a nondescript man in his mid-thirties, with thinning hair and creases in his skin from too much work in the sun. Not a local. This was the face of a stranger.

"Not a one,' Chris answered grimly.

Initially, Chris had thought the assailant was Ray Waldon, but now it appeared their surveillance of Mr Waldon had only served to distract them from the presence of this man, whoever he might have been.

"What the hell is going on here?" Buck voiced Chris' frustration most succinctly. "I was sure that Waldon was our man."

"So was I," Chris empathized with Buck's feelings on the matter. "Guess we thought wrong."

Like Chris, Buck was convinced Waldon was in some way connected to this whole revenge scheme on Mary Travis. While he did not exhibit suspicious behaviour, Waldon's skulking about town was cause for concern.

"Someone's playing with us Chris, I'm sure of it."

Chris tended to agree, but the point of the game was elusive. Everyone in their suspect pool was disproven. Waldon was not the threat they had perceived him to be, and the dead man in front of them had allayed Ezra's suspicions about Jenny. Was James playing them all with some deeper agenda in mind or was someone else in the equation? The answer eluded him, and it was galling.

"Did this varmint hurt Jenny?"

"No, scared her some though. He was going to kill her."

"Why?" Buck looked at him confused. "She's got nothing to do with the James'. Hell, she wasn't even in town."

Before Chris could answer, he saw Vin and Ezra striding towards them. No doubt they were summoned here the same way Buck was. Vin's expression was stony and Chris could understand why. It was a good thing Jenny's intruder was dead because Chris wouldn't want to be the man facing the wrath he saw reflected in Vin's eyes at that moment.

"Is that him?" Vin demanded once he was upon them.

"Yeah, broke his neck when he fell off his horse." He explained miserably, dearly wishing the man was alive so that he could provide them with some answers as to what James' plan was.

"Just as well," Vin grumbled.


"How is Jenny?" Buck asked the younger man, hoping to diffuse a little of his anger by directing his thoughts elsewhere.

"She's okay," Vin frowned, still dismayed by her state when he had left her with Mary and Nathan. "She's just a little shaken up."

"Did she say what happened?" Chris inquired. "I got there and found her in a tussle with this son of a bitch."

"Miss Miller informed us she heard a noise coming from Mrs Travis' room and upon investigation, she ran into her assailant," Ezra explained.

"Wrong place at the wrong time huh?" Buck sighed shaking his head. "Good thing Chris was around. It could have gotten ugly."

"Yeah," Vin met his friend's gaze. "Thanks, Chris."

"Well it's safe to say we ain't delusional about Mary needing protecting," the gunslinger sighed. "We're going to have to keep a closer eye on her."

"You would think that James would get better help," Buck stated as Chris and the others turned back to Mary's house.

"What do you mean?" Vin stared at the man in question.

"Well coming after Mary in broad daylight, not even waiting to make sure she's alone. I guess good help is hard to find these days." The ladies' men mused.

"Yes," Ezra Standish said with an unfathomable expression in his eyes. "Very hard to find."

Chapter Five: The Quiet before the Storm

Ezra left the Travis home once the excitement with the intruder had settled down. He was eager to put some distance between himself and the gunslinger who was in an almighty foul mood following the death of their only lead. Naturally, Vin opted to remain because he wanted to keep an eye on Jenny and despite himself, Ezra did not have stomach enough to witness it because he just knew he would wind up saying something that might make matters worse.

Earlier on, Ezra had felt he acquired a partner in misery regarding his suspicions about the young woman, but after the day's events, even Chris seemed to think it was an unfounded suspicion. As far as Chris was concerned, Jenny's near-death experience exonerated her and condemned Ezra's concerns to oblivion. Disappointed, Ezra decided the safest place for him right now was at the saloon, where a game of cards would allow him to contemplate his untenable situation.

As he entered the saloon, Ezra remained fixated in on the entire episode with Jenny and her would be killer. The whole incident was so clumsy and reeked of a staged performance. Ezra was convinced her life was never in danger and was designed to tricking them into believing she was an innocent bystander. Had she perhaps overheard his conversation with Chris Larabee the night before and taken steps to address their suspicions?

Once again, there were too many unanswered questions. Was Jenny attempting to fool Vin or Mary or all of them? Her attachment to Vin made no sense unless it was a bounty she was trying to claim and Ezra had real fears of the tracker's safety. A man in love did foolish things. He let his guard down and made poor decisions. Ezra feared Vin was being manipulated into a position that would leave him vulnerable. Yet despite the looming disaster, Ezra could do nothing to warn the younger man.

Praying he was wrong, Ezra was in a decidedly black mood as he pondered the situation.

"Boy and I thought I looked depressed." A voice behind him snapped Ezra out of his ruminations.

Pausing in mid-step, Ezra waited for the familiar voice to catch up with him, even though he was not entirely comfortable about being in the man's company.

Catching up, Nathan did not return Ezra's glance with the usual animosity. If anything, the healer's expression seemed concerned. Uncertain how to take this, Ezra tipped his hat slightly in greeting.

"You can hardly be blamed for being depressed," Ezra remarked amiably, determined to be civilized towards the tall, man in the hopes of being treated in kind. "After all, you among us had the unsavoury task of handling the unfortunate soul who met his end today."

"Dead bodies don't bother me much," Nathan shrugged as he joined Ezra on the boardwalk after coming from his infirmary. "Besides he had it coming."

"Then what pray tell has you in such a melancholy?" Ezra inquired as the day turned slowly into evening. An amber curtain of colour had overtaken the sky, and it was not only lovely to look at but also soothing, particularly to two people who often found themselves as opposite ends of a spectrum.

"I'm missing Rain." Nathan confessed, shrugging his shoulders "When we left the Seminole village, I thought the breathing room would do us good. We got so close in such a short time, taking a step back where I got my head together would be a good thing."

Ezra was somewhat surprised Nathan was confiding something so personal and this inspired his desire to help since the man was making the gesture. "The lady was fair and I sensed a real connection between you. When such connections flower so well from the onset, it's worth cultivating. It's when you have to work too hard to keep things alive, that when things fall apart.'

"Maybe you're right," Nathan sighed. "Maybe I'm thinking with my head too much when I ought to be listening to my heart. People have disappointed me in the past Ezra; I'm not used to trusting them so easily."

"I noticed," Ezra responded almost automatically and then wished he had not said that.

"I suppose I deserved that," Nathan said with a sigh, showing Ezra he wasn't offended by the jibe.

Ezra was not about to refute him. However, he was not about to be ungracious about it either. "My conduct upon our first meeting did justify much of your distrust. I do not blame you for your behaviour since."

"That's kind of you," Nathan replied. "Unfortunately, I can't let myself off that easily. I'm sorry Ezra, I've been hard on you and it was wrong."

"Apology accepted Mr Jackson," Ezra responded pleasantly surprised. The healer was a proud man by nature. It could not have been easy to apologize for his behaviour when it was usually Nathan who occupied the moral high ground.

"I can't say I won't come down on you like a buffalo when you behave like a cheat, but I'll try to keep it in perspective. Besides, I like to think of you as my special project." He clarified.

"Oh wonderful," Ezra rolled his eyes. "Am I to assume you believe me redeemable now?"

"We'll see," Nathan grinned mischievously, determined to treat Ezra with the same warmth he regarded the rest of the seven. "Now that I've told you why I'm so down, why don't you tell me why you look like someone stole your favourite pack of cards?"

Ezra stiffened, uncertain whether this newfound trust was enough for him reveal his thoughts on Jenny. Then again, Nathan had made an overture to him tonight and if they were to have any lasting friendship, he would have to take a gamble on the healer. Besides, Nathan was also very level headed and impartial. It was possible that he might be able to counter Ezra's beliefs about Jenny with some legitimate arguments. If so, no one would be more pleased than Ezra himself.

"What do you think of Miss Miller?" Ezra asked gingerly testing the waters with that simple question first.

"Miss Jenny?" Nathan looked at him and noted that he was serious about the question. "She's nice, I guess. I don't know her enough to offer much of an opinion. She's kind of quiet like Vin I guess, probably why they get together so quickly."

"You do not find her manner a little theatrical?" Ezra probed gently again.

"I haven't been around her long enough to notice," Nathan retorted. "Why?"

"She makes me uneasy," Ezra confessed after a noticeable silence. They had reached the saloon but paused outside the door to discuss the subject at hand before they became engulfed in the sound of clunky piano music, chattering voices and clinking glasses.

"How so?" Nathan raised his brow and stared at the gambler who seemed earnest in his discomfort about the whole subject.

"I do not trust her. I think her motives in Four Corners is nowhere innocent.'

"Vin likes her," the healer pointed out. "He seems to trust her."

"I know," Ezra sighed, and Nathan realised this was at the core of Ezra's dilemma. "He does not appear to have a great deal of experience with the fairer sex so he may not know how to recognize the kind of deception she is practising."

"That's true," Nathan had to concede Ezra's point on that issue. "Vin is a bit shy around the ladies. Did you tell Chris?"

"I did," the gambler answered. "However, after what happened to the lady and the scoundrel in Mrs Travis home, it is difficult for Mr Larabee to believe she is guilty of anything."

"Well, she did almost get killed." Nathan reminded.

"Did she?" Ezra countered immediately. "Did she really? The whole attack was a lesson in foolishness. Attacking Mrs Travis in broad daylight, when Mr Larabee was in the house? We both know Chris would not allow her to be harmed."

That was true, Chris Larabee could be deadly serious when it came to protecting anyone under his care. In the beginning, Chris had been the most aloof among them even with his symbiotic connection to Vin. During their mission to protect the Seminole village, the rest of the seven mattered to him and once he counted them as his friends, protected them like a wolf guarding his pack.

"You could be right Ezra," Nathan agreed begrudgingly. While it would be so easy to assume that the gambler was being overtly suspicious of a sweet young woman, the point Ezra made had validity and was worthy of examination. Unfortunately including Nathan in this discussion had not led to a resolution but another person who was just as helpless as he. 'Do we tell him?"

"We cannot," Ezra declared. "She has worked her wiles upon him with expert handling. If we told him now, he would only think us worse for it."

"So, what do we do? If she is what you think, we can't sit by and do nothing."

Ezra sympathised with Nathan's exasperation. He was experiencing a great deal of it himself, and the lack of an answer was infuriating. "Unfortunately, all we can do is watch and hope that we can save him from himself when the times comes."

"That's not much comfort," the healer remarked, and Ezra had to agree with him. "But you're right. I just hope that we won't have to do that literally, saving him I mean."

Ezra hoped the same, but he saw no way out of this predicament without Vin getting hurt.

+ + + + + + +

"Chris, you should go," Buck said to the gunslinger who remained in the Travis household for almost the whole day following the incident with the intruder he had inadvertently killed.

"No," Chris shook his head as he and Buck sat in the kitchen. Upstairs, Mary was getting ready for bed while Vin and Jenny were outside in the darkness, taking a moment alone. "I'm staying here. I'll be fine."

Buck swore inwardly, knowing perfectly well what was going on with his old friend at this moment. He had seen this behaviour on numerous occasions before, and after how pointedly Chris told Buck to mind his own business, Buck debated whether he should say anything at all. Nevertheless, as much as Buck was hurt by Chris shunting him aside, the man was still his oldest friend and Buck would never give up on that friendship, no matter how much of a jackass Chris was being.

"Vin and I are gonna be here," Buck insisted, not wishing to let this go when it was obvious that Chris was tired. Still, Chris dropping his guard was never in question because the man had the devil's own concentration when it came to the protection of someone he cared about. "You don't have to stay. Get some rest and come back in a couple of hours."

"I'll be fine," Chris growled under his breath.

"Chris," Buck sighed wishing he was not so stubborn about such things. "We won't let anything happen to her."

Chris bristled immediately, disliking the implication Buck was making. "It's got nothing to do with her."

"Sure, it doesn't," Buck was accustomed to dealing with Chris when he was in denial about things, especially personal matters.

Chris caught the gleam in Buck's eyes and immediately flushed with annoyance. "Buck, how many times do I have to tell you to mind your own business?"

Buck felt his own ire emerging at Chris' word. "If I had minded my own business, you'd be lying in a grave somewhere with a bullet in your brain."

Chris shot a murderous glare at his friend and stood up. "Well, I don't need your help anymore. I can take care of myself just fine."

"I'm sure you can," Buck's expression became hard. "I don't know why I give a damn. I mean it's not like I haven't learnt that I ain't the one you listen to, any more have I?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Chris realised they were on route to the heart of their quarrel.

"I think you know," Buck returned, filling a torrent of emotion escaping him like a tidal. "When Sarah and Adam died, they took the best of you with them and the best of our friendship. I understand it's gone and I can accept it. I know that things will never be what they were again. We've both moved on but don't you for one minute think that I will ever stop being your friend, no matter how much of a bastard you behave."

"You had no right to tell her!" Chris snapped.


"SHE ASKED!" Buck roared back. "What was I supposed to do? Lie that we were friends? Although I supposed that ain't half wrong, now is it?"

"You don't like things the way they are, then leave!" Chris shot back, cursing himself as he said it because it was entirely undeserved. Once again, his temper had gotten the better of him and now it had led to him saying something unforgivable. He could see the hurt in Buck's eyes and the big man sucked in his breath as if Chris had hit him although its effect was the same

"Maybe I will," Buck said straightening up. "Maybe I will."

With that, Buck retreated from Chris and strode out of the kitchen without saying another word. He slammed the door as he left and the sound startled Chris even though he should have expected it. After Buck left, Chris wondered how he allowed things to deteriorate so badly. Lowering himself into the chair again, he wondered if Buck would indeed leave. Probably not, he told himself. JD had become Buck's project and the older man would not leave the kid when he was so needed. Still, knowing that the rift between them had suddenly became wider did not please Chris at all.

"You handled that well," Mary remarked walking into the kitchen, privy to what took place between the two men. She didn't mean to eavesdrop neither man had been exactly quiet.

Chris retreated behind his hard-exterior shell, not wishing to discuss such a personal matter with her and feeling somewhat embarrassed at being overheard.

"It didn't sound like nothing."

"Just a little disagreement," Chris grumbled.

"It doesn't sound like that," she persisted. "You told Buck to leave? How could you do that?"

"It's none of your business!" He snapped at her exasperated.

Mary was not at all intimidated. If anything, she rose to the challenge beautifully.

"Can't you see how hurt he is? He's not stupid. He knows your relationship with Vin has supplanted the one you had with him. He accepts it but still cares about you and the problem with you and Vin, is that you're both too much alike. You'll never get an argument from Vin the way you would with Buck, because you both think the same way. There are things that cannot be left unsaid Chris. There are some things that must be spoken in spite of friendship, no matter how much they hurt or displease you. Mr. Wilmington knows that and he's willing to risk your anger to be honest because that is what true friends do.'

"He had no right to tell you about my wife and son," Chris barked.

"That fault was mine," Mary insisted. "I shouldn't have asked. It was my meddling, and some desire of his to see you happy made him tell me about your family. Don't you see, I've lost someone and you've lost someone, I think Buck felt if you could talk to someone who knows what it's like to lose everything that matters, it might make you feel better about things."

"I need to mourn them to feel better." Chris stared at her.

"You have mourned them for three years, and I am sure if your wife is here, she'd be the first to say that after mourning comes healing. Buck was just trying to help you do that."

Chris opened his mouth to speak but could not think of anything to refute her statement.

"I wish people would stop trying to help me. I don't want anyone's help. They're gone, and I haven't yet dealt with it, that's my choice."

"It is," Mary agreed with that. "But you can't take out your anger on Buck. It's not right. Even you know that."

Damn it, she was right. He was angry all the time and when he wasn't angry, he was despaired. He moved through his life with an open wound slashed across his heart, never knowing a moment's peace because it felt empty and desolate. The pain of their loss had not diminished in three years although the urge to kill himself had. Until a few weeks ago, his life had been progressing with him going through the motions like a sleepwalker. Yet he knew the sleeper was starting to awaken. People were starting to mean something to him again.

"Hell," Chris cursed and then rolled his eyes in frustration. "Has anyone told you that you can be damned annoying?"

"On several occasions but I deal with those comments in the same fashion you do, with complete indifference."

Chris gave her a look of annoyance. 'Thanks.'

"Always pleased to help," Mary said smugly, and it drew a slight chuckle from him.

Mary found she rather liked the smile on his face and wished he did it more often. However, one miracle in a day was enough for her.

"You should go talk to him." She suggested.

"Don't you know when to quit when you're ahead?"

"No," she shook her head. "I live for pushing the limits of my safety."

His brow rose sharply, "I sort of noticed that."

"But I'm right," she insisted.

'Jesus,' he shook his head in exasperation. 'You don't give up; do you?"

"No, especially when I'm partially to blame for this situation between you and Buck," Mary stated.

"It's not your fault," Chris shrugged. "Mostly it's mine. I guess things are changing between us and neither of us have quite caught up. I'll talk to him tomorrow after we've both calm down"

"I hope you do," Mary replied softly. "He's a good man with a big heart but he bruises easily."

"Don't I know it," Chris rolled his eyes, aware of that much when it came to Buck. Chris just hoped Buck stayed put long enough for him to tell his old friend that.

+ + + + + + +

Vin saw Buck storming out of the house and let out a groan. Once again, he'd been the cause of the growing rift between the two men though he had no idea how to fix it.

"I should go after him," Vin said to Jenny with whom he was seated on the swing on the back porch.

"I don't think that's such a good idea," she said softly, glancing anxiously at the retreating form of the ladies' man. "I think he might need to calm down a little."

She was not blind to the expression on Buck's face as he left, nor were either of them able to avoid hearing the shouting between Chris and Buck.

Vin turned his attention to the lovely young woman seated next to him and could not deny he was reluctant to leave her side just yet. After what she'd been through today, it seemed a little insensitive of him to go rushing off, especially when she wished him to remain in her company.

They sat on the swing seat, staring into the descending blanket of stars, speaking of trivial things whose only purpose was to prolong the time they spent together. Vin who was not exactly the most verbose person or charming in speech, found it easier than he thought it would be to carry on a conversation with a woman when the subject was himself.

"Besides," she said to him with a little smile. "I like listening to you talk."

He liked sitting by her and watching her eyes soak him up. He liked how she smelled and wondered how women managed to smell so good all the time. He breathed in her rose water scent, aware women were partial to it, and immediately attached the aroma to the memory of her. Under the moonlight, her hair seemed to glimmer and Vin thought he could spend the next month immortalizing her in one of his poems.

"Ain't got that much to say," Vin replied after a while. "I think this is the most I've done in months."

"You've got a nice voice," she smiled sheepishly at him, her eyes suddenly becoming very preoccupied with the pattern on her dress. "I like it."

"I like yours too," Vin returned, feeling his inside swell with anticipation.

"I was so scared," she shuddered and inched a little closer to him. 'I thought he was going to kill me. If he had, I would have died and have done nothing with my life, nothing at all."

"Don't say that. You're here ain't ya? You're smart and you're pretty. You gone out on your own when most girls would have upped and married the first guy that asked her. I think that makes you special."

"Only reason I 'm not married is no one's ever asked me," she said shyly. "I'm just not pretty enough to catch anyone's eyes, but I'm not sorry," she raised her eyes, and they sparkled at Vin. "If I had married, I would never have met you."

Vin did not know what to say, but there did not seem any need for words when she sat up, pausing the gentle motion of the swing and rested her hand on his lap. He swallowed slightly as she leaned over, her loose hair gently caressing his cheeks as her lips met his in a soft kiss. She tasted sweet, and he opened his mouth to feel her tongue dart past his teeth and drive all sense from his world.

His body flushed with arousal as his hands slid up her arms, his palms soon caressing her forearms gently. He could feel her hands on his face, touching his skin while kissing him at the same time. It was easy to get lost in the power of it, and it had been a long time for him. He was not a man who went to working women often and when he did it was only out of the most desperate of needs.

Still, despite her intoxicating feel, Vin knew that this was not right. He was here to protect Mary Travis, and this was only distracting him. Besides, he was mindful of her reputation, and Vin pulled himself together long enough to push her away gently.

"Not like this," he said breathlessly. "I want you so bad but not like this, it ain't right."

She was panting too but managed to steady her breath considering his words. She looked at him curiously then, in an expression he could not quite fathom. If he had to put a name to it, he would have sworn she was more surprised than hurt.

"I don't care," she said trying to kiss him, only to have him draw away.

"I do," he kissed her gently on the forehead. "I want you so much Jenny," he admitted, wondering what kind of fool the others would think him for pushing this beautiful young woman away. "I want you so bad it hurts but I won't take advantage of you."

"You won't be," she insisted. "I want this. I want you."

"You don't know me," he returned. "You don't know what's in my past and it wouldn't be right until you did. I don't feel like this a lot, but I want to do things right by you."

"You're a rare man, Vin Tanner," she said softly in a voice that was different from the one she used before.

"Thanks," he smiled, glad that she understood his reasoning. He did so want her badly, and after this exchange, a cold shower was definitely in order. "I hope you understand. I want to see more of you, but I think we ought to take it slow."

"Whatever you want is fine with me," she smiled, kissing him again but this time without as much passion as earlier. "I better get inside," she rose to her feet, leaving him on the swing alone after she entered the house.

Vin sat there for a time, pondering his feelings and thinking to himself this was the absolute worst time in his life for a relationship with a woman. His future was up in the air, and he had no idea if he would be alive in a week or dangling from the end of a rope when bounty hunters inevitably came hunting for him. He couldn't even think about marriage, not with that hanging over his head.

As it was, he worried about the safety of the men he rode with. They at least can take care of themselves but Jenny could not. The same threat that endangered her today could easily come from a bounty hunter or some other varmint looking to use her to reach him.

All this preyed heavily on his mind and yet he couldn't forget how good the kiss had tasted on his lips. It felt so good. After that the working girls, he had gone to was to satisfy a need, he craved a deeper connection. Jenny was getting him inside him and that too was dangerous. It could get him killed. Nothing blunted a man's edge worse and Vin knew if he courted Jenny, it was a disaster waiting to happen.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington did not go to the saloon. On his way there, his rage took on a different turn and he started to wonder why he bothered sticking around at all. Chris certainly didn't need him to hang around and be a constant reminder of a life that was no more.

Buck wondered if Chris knew how much he missed Adam and Sarah too. Sarah had welcomed him into her family and loved him like a brother. To little Adam, he had been Uncle Buck who would let him get away with things his pa never would. Buck had in his own way, loved as much as Chris and it had broken his heart to find their corpses. Still Buck had set aside his grief to help Chris through his, not that it mattered.

So why was he still here? Why was he reliving his own pain by attempting to help Chris deal with their loss? It was pointless, and Chris did want his help anyway. Buck took all this into consideration and concluded it was best he moved on.

Making his way to the livery where his horse Beavis was being stabled, there was nothing keeping here really. Sure, he liked the men he rode with and he would probably miss the kid but Josiah and Nathan would watch out for him. Besides, he had his fill of trying to help people who did not acknowledge the effort. How many times had JD told Buck he was grown enough to take care of himself and who was Buck to think any differently?

Buck entered the livery and located his horse in its stable. He had very little in the way of belongings and what there was could be picked up at the lodging house on his way out of town. Four Corners could function just as well on seven peacekeepers instead of six. As he prepared his horse for the trip, he concentrated on where he might go, instead of why he was doing it. Nor would he tell the others he was leaving.

If they needed to know why he was certain Chris would enlighten them. It was a coward's way out and he knew it.

Better than facing the others because then he might not be able to leave. Facing them would only make him remember how much he would miss them all. He would miss playing cards with Ezra who had a great sense of humour when he wasn't spouting incomprehensible words like some damn sissy. Not to mention teasing Josiah about women because the old fool was such a romantic soul when it came the opposite sex while Vin and JD listened on in experienced disbelief. All the while garnering a look from Nathan who did little to hide his opinion that all 'white folk' were a little crazy.

He would miss Chris too.

He did not know why he should miss the ornery cuss who had not been the same since Sarah and Adam. The man he had known was nothing more than a shell of what he once was even though Buck saw glimmers of life through the ashes on occasion. It was this that had kept Buck coming back for more, trying to reach his old friend, only to be disappointed with fingers burned back to the bone.

"Buck?" Buck heard a voice behind him as he was saddling his horse. Buck groan inwardly upon hearing it. Of all the people to find him here, he wished it had been anyone but who was standing behind him right this minute.

"Yeah JD?" Buck did not turn around as he answered shortly, but he heard JD come closer. The kid's horse had come down with a case of colic a few days ago, and JD was keeping a close eye on the animal to make sure there was no recurrence.

"What are you doing Buck?" JD asked coming around Buck so the older man could see him and he could look Buck in the eye.

"What does it look like?" Buck said shortly as he continued with what he was doing, unable to look JD in the eyes as he was doing it.

JD could tell by the expression on Buck's face that there was something wrong. How much JD knew about Buck would have surprised him if the older man was aware of it. Buck was under the impression since JD did not know anything about life in the Wes. He did not know anything in general. In truth, he knew a great deal he was not confident to voice often, and he knew his friends.

Buck was clearly troubled. His first instinct was to get someone and tell them what Buck was planning to do. Josiah perhaps or maybe Vin. He knew instinctively it was best not to let Chris become involved in whatever problem Buck was having. Chances were, he was likely to be the cause of it. Nothing else seemed to get Buck's attention, except maybe him.

"It looks like you're leaving," JD stated, hoping that he was wrong, but he was certain that he was not.

"You got it, boy," Buck retorted and continued to tighten the straps laid out before him.

"Why?" JD asked puzzled. "Why are you going?"

"Because its time." Buck returned, wishing he would go away. Didn't he know that this was hard enough already without having to explain himself?

"It's time?" JD declared, wondering if Buck thought him foolish enough to accept that lame excuse as a reason. "That's all you've got to say?"

Buck stopped and raised his eyes to JD. "Yeah, that's all I got to say and what's it to you anyway? You're always telling me that you're big enough to look after yourself, well here's your chance to prove it."

"I know what I said," JD snapped, feeling a little hurt Buck would use that in their argument, but he could see Buck was hurting too and he could afford to be a little magnanimous for all the times Buck had been there for him. In their first adventure together, JD's impetuousness had almost gotten Buck killed and JD was not about to forget that, nor was he about to withdraw when it was so obvious Buck needed help. "But I'm just a dumb kid. Since when did you start listening to me?"

"Since I smartened up," Buck replied. "I ought to leave well alone, let you deal with your own problems. Problem with me is I can't seem to get it out of my head when I'm not needed. I keep butting in and that just gets people madder."

So that was it.

JD did not have to be blind to know there was something going on between Buck and Chris. He did not know exactly what but he knew that it had to do with Chris's wife and child. Even JD knew that was one subject no one ought to discuss with the gunslinger, not even a friend who was as close as he and Buck Wilmington had once been. Even Vin Tanner who was closer to Chris these days knew how to leave that subject alone.

Still, Buck wasn't Vin. He did not know how to butt out when necessary, and his determination to help placed him in the vulnerable position of being told his assistance was neither wanted nor needed which JD had no doubt Chris made clear to him.

"Your problem is you don't know the fights you can win and the fights you can't."

Buck stared back at him. "What makes you say that?"

"Because I may be a dumb greenhorn from the East, but I know when to stick my nose out of another man's business."

"What are you talking about?" Buck demanded, feeling the rage filling him at JD's presumption. What did the kid know about anything? He was a baby in diapers when Chris and Buck's friendship began.

"I'm talking about you trying to help Chris. Some people can't be helped, Buck! That doesn't make you any less for trying, and it doesn't mean you should take it as your own fault you couldn't do anything for them."

"What do you now about anything?" Buck hissed coming towards him. "I was there when his wife and son died. I was there when he had to lift their bodies out of that burning wreck of a house, to see their charred faces and their dead eyes. I had to help him bury them! I was there for everything! I was there to see him go to complete hell because of losing them!"

A fountain of sorrow escaped him as he spoke and emotions, he kept in for so long found expression as he faced this...this boy and purged himself of them. They were things he had told to no one. Thing he kept buried deep inside him because they seemed incidental compared to Chris' own pain. JD listened without speaking, his eyes dark and suddenly, he didn't look like a young boy any more.

"I loved them both. I loved Sarah. She made me feel welcome in that house. I miss her dumplings on Sunday and the coffee she used to make. I miss how much she'd tell me that someday I would find someone like her and I miss how I used to pray she was right. And Adam," his voice started to break. "I never knew what it was like to have my own child but the first time I saw Chris hold Adam, it was like my soul had woken up and I had something to look forward too. I think my heart melted the first time the kid called me Buck. They were my family and I loved them! I was so sick with envy over what Chris had there were times it actually hurt and then that night when he wanted to come home, I convinced him to stay with me in Mexico. I talk him out of going home!"

"It's not your fault," JD said softly, his eyes staring at Buck with sympathy. All those years that Buck had been there for Chris, supporting him through the worst of his grief, giving all his strength to the gunslinger who never had any idea that Buck had submerged his own agony too. Who was there for Buck? Nobody, that's who. "You didn't know something like that was going to happen."

"That ain't no excuse!" Buck snapped, feeling tears starting to fill his eyes.

"There's nothing to excuse," JD replied, wanting to help and knowing he had to. "It just happens. Fires happen Buck. They happen every day, like floods and lightning strikes. It was an act of God that took Sarah and Adam away. It wasn't anyone's fault. You've tried to help Chris when I think the person who needed help was you."

"But if I help him," Buck swallowed, "then maybe I won't feel so bad."

With that, the long-held sob escaped him and Buck turned away, not wishing to let JD see if own grief and for a moment there was no sound except Buck shedding the tears that had waited so long to come. He wept silently for an interminable amount of time, feeling weak for showing the younger man his vulnerability and yet unable to deny that it felt good just to let out his sorrow, instead of hiding it for the benefit of someone else.

"Buck," JD spoke after Buck had regained some measure of composure. "The only one who can make you feel better is you. Chris has his own way of dealing with what happened, and you have to let him find his own way back. My ma always said there were some roads you can't walk for another person and it's not good pushing them when they aren't willing to walk it."

"Your ma was a wise woman," Buck said quietly. "I guess I can't be expected to help Chris when I can't even help myself."

"You cared about his family like your own and it must be awful to lose that. I know my world ended because of my ma but I had to let her go Buck," JD spoke with wisdom beyond his years. "I had to let her go or else I wouldn't have been able to leave to find my own way. I don't know whether this is what she would have wanted me to do but I can't spend my time worrying about whether she'd approve. I know this is right for me and sometimes you have to let go to do what's right for you."

"I guess you're right," Buck said wiping his tears and facing the young man once more. "Thank you, JD."

"I don't need thanks from you Buck," JD looked at the older man not quite finished with him yet. "I need you. I don't know how to make it on my own just yet, and without you looking over my shoulder being a general pain in the ass, I won't see my next birthday."

"You trying to get me to stay?" Buck raised an eye at him.

"Something like that," JD replied, glad he did not have to be any clearer.

"You got Nathan and Josiah to watch your back, not to mention Ezra, Vin and Chris. Why do you need ol' Buck for?"

JD dropped his gaze to the ground, studying the hay with scrutiny. "Because you saved my life and you're always there to answer even the dumbest questions I get into my head. You don't wait for me to tell you what's wrong, you just seem to know. Only my ma watched out for me the way you do and if you go, I'll miss you." JD volunteered, feeling a little embarrassed. He did not think he could stand if Buck made a joke about his feelings at this moment and squirmed a bit waiting for the rogue to speak.

Buck was not about to do any such thing. He could see JD's difficult in making that admission and feeling touched because the young man had forced himself to say it because he knew that was what Buck needed to her.

"Thanks, kid," Buck responded, emotion choking his voice from escaping his lips. "I needed to hear that you know."

"I know you did," JD smiled.

Buck sucked in his breath and let the anger and frustration bleed out of him. It left him hollowed out and raw, but Buck realised he'd held on these emotions for too long and they needed release. He never for a moment imagined it was JD who would make him give up his innermost pain, but he was glad of it, nonetheless.

"You want to help me unsaddle this horse?" Buck asked as he gazed at Beavis briefly, knowing neither of them were going anywhere tonight.

"I used to be a stable boy Buck," JD reminded as he and Buck turned towards the animal. "I can do this stuff with my eyes closed."

"Yeah, yeah," Buck retorted with a little mischief in his voice. "All that smarts and you can't even buy yourself a decent hat."

"I told you Bat Masterson wears a hat like this," JD reminded him immediately.

"You ain't Bat Masterson," Buck reminded.

"So you keep telling me," JD declared as he started to undo the saddle straps before him.

"But you're alright," Buck grinned squeezing his shoulder. "And that's good enough for me."

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt uncomfortable sitting alone in the parlour of the Travis house even though he was keeping watch on Mary and Jenny. After his argument with Buck, Chris had decided belatedly to take the ladies man's advice and get some sleep. Personally, Vin did not think this too bad an idea since the gunslinger was in a foul mood as it was and exhaustion would exacerbate the problem. He had been taking watch for almost the entire day and while Vin was pleased to see Chris getting along better with the fair Mrs. Travis, he did need the rest.

That was several hours ago and the ladies had gone to bed, leaving Vin on his own until Josiah or Buck came to relieve him. Although after the argument he and Jenny overhead between Chris and Buck, Vin did not expect to see the ladies' man well after daybreak. No doubt, Buck was somewhere consoling himself the only way he knew how, in the arms of an accommodating saloon girl. V

If this were the plains, he'd relish the solitude with only his harmonica to keep him company. Out there, he had the freedom to recite the poetry that seemed to form in his head at times of quiet serenity. However, he was in Mrs. Travis' home and with the two women sleeping upstairs, he certainly could not play the harmonica and wake them up with the noise since he didn't know any songs, just tunes to break the monotony of the night.

With his mare's leg resting comfortably on his lap, Vin resisted the urge to go to sleep and passed the time with the deck of cards Ezra had left behind, attempting to learn some of the tricks the gambler performed with such ease. Except when he tried, the results were embarrassing with the cards flying everywhere when he made a mistake. At least he was alone for that although the ticking from the clock almost sounded like laughter.

Suddenly, he heard footsteps coming down the staircase and tensed. For a moment, he thought it might be trouble, but when he listened, hearing the soft sounds that could only be bare feet against the wooden floorboards, he rested easier. In a moment, he saw Jenny descending the staircase, wrapped warmly in a thick robe and a high-necked nightgown. Her hair was loose, and though the clothes she wore were very appropriate for a good Christian woman, Vin could not help thinking how lovely she looked.

"Hi," she greeted upon reaching the floor, her voice nothing more than a whisper as she tried not to wake Mary who was still asleep upstairs.

"What are you doing up?" Vin asked still seated in the wing chair.

"I couldn't sleep," she confessed readily. "I thought I'd come down and make myself some hot cocoa. Would you like some?"

The tracker found his stomach leaping in excitement at the idea. He was at almost adult age the first time he tasted chocolate and had a liking for it. Unfortunately, he never seemed to master the art of making it and concluded it was magic only women could perform.

"Yeah," Vin smiled. "I wouldn't mind some."

Or the company, he thought as he saw Jenny retreating into the kitchen. He wondered if he ought to follow her in so Jenny didn't have to bring it out to him like she was a serving maid. Upon entering the kitchen, the aromatic smell of hot cocoa immediately taunted him and he took deep breaths of it. Lowering himself into a chair, he watched with her weaving gastronomical magic into two steaming cups.

"I guess it's been a hell of a day for you," Vin spoke up, hating the awkward silence between them, especially after their kiss earlier. "A lot has happened."

"Not all of it was bad," she smiled as she turned around and approached him with the two cups. Placing one before him, Jenny then sat down in the chair next to his own. "Some of it was very nice," she added, a pink hue creeping into her cheeks.

"I reckon it was," Vin agreed and took a sip of the hot cocoa, which tasted heavenly. The initial taste flared through his senses and made him take a second, deeper sip of the beverage.

They did not speak for a few seconds as Jenny watched him drain the contents of his cup before she spoke again. "I enjoyed kissing you, Vin," she smiled. "If you have let me, I would have done things to you would have something to remember forever."

The tone of the conversation surprised him, and the longing in his gut made itself became acute "What do you mean?" He stared at her, wondering when she had become so forward.

"I don't make it a habit of offering myself to men," Jenny said leaning towards him and kissing him deeply.

Vin tasted chocolate in her mouth and hungered for more. For a few seconds, she indulged him, allowed his hands to run over her back. She felt so dreamy that after a while all he could feel was this hatred for the material making up her robe. He wanted to touch her so badly, to make love to her. He never felt so at ease with anyone, her kisses made him feel drowsy and warm.

The realisation that she drugged him came too late.

She pulled away as the effects of the drug started to take effect, and the room began to spin. Jenny stood up and watched as Vin tried to regain his equilibrium with little or no effect. Vin stared at her, watching her transform from the sweet, sensual young woman who awakened his desire for love with her soft words to become someone with cold eyes, staring him down with the expectation of his eventual collapse.


"I'm sorry Vin," she sighed with genuine sorrow. "I really did like you, but the fact is, business is business, and I don't have a lot of time. Mrs Travis and I have an appointment to keep."

Vin opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out and the next thing he knew, he was on the floor of the kitchen with the colour bleeding out of his world as his mind lapsed into deep, despairing darkness.

Chapter Six: Exchange

Mary's mouth hurt.

She opened her eyes to the rumble of wagon wheels beneath her cheek and her jaw throbbing. For a few seconds, memory eluded her as she struggled to remember how she had come to be here. Opening her eyes did nothing to dispel the darkness around her. She could see nothing of her surroundings.

The air was dank and musty and when she lifted her chin, felt the top of her head brushing against the layer of calico confirming she was in a wagon. Instinctively, she tried to use her hands but found her wrists were bound as the rope pinched her skin painfully. Her ankles were similarly restrained, and after a few seconds of futile effort, she gave up trying to free herself, surrendering instead to the pain warming the side of her face.

Tasting blood in her mouth, Mary knew by the tenderness of her skin scraping the wooden boards beneath her; she was probably sporting an ugly bruise that ran up to her eye. She wanted to cry out but knew it was pointless. She was undoubtedly far from town or anyone who could help. Inwardly, she groaned at her foolish trusting nature.

Chris Larabee was right. She had no business being in the West when she was so ready to believe in the goodness of all people. Thinking like that in the Territory of all places, was the most sure-fire way of getting oneself killed although if this wagon reached its destination, she would only make this mistake once.

What a fool she was, inviting a stranger into her house with no idea who or where the girl originated. The little schemer had insinuated herself into Mary's life, into the lives of her friends, with Mary suspecting nothing until it was too late.

Until she woke up in the dark and found...

+ + + + + + +

...someone in her room.

Mary opened her eyes just in time to see a shape looming over her. Before she could cry out, a fist connected with her face, ending the effort before it even began. Knuckles impacted against her jaw, sending her head flopping to its side. The pain was followed by a wave of disorientation and for a second, she was aware of nothing but room spinning around her.

As she struggled to regain equilibrium, she became aware of her hands being bound and the sharp bite of hessian against her flesh returned some measure of clarity to her.


The scream earned her another blow, this one harder than the last. As she saw stars in front of her eyes, she wondered if the tracker had heard her.

"Shut up!" A voice hissed, and Mary's eyes flew open in recognition.

Astonishment filled her as she saw Jenny Miller glaring at her smug satisfaction. Eyes previously soft and unassuming were now hard and cold. The hard glare made her flinch. Mary opened her mouth to speak, wanting a reasonable explanation for an unreasonable situation.

She never had the chance. Jenny stuffed a rag into her mouth, muffling the words in her throat. All she could do was glare at Jenny with accusing eyes as she attempted to speak words without sound. Jenny's smile seemed to grow at this, as if she was enjoying Mary's reaction a great deal. God help her, Jenny was relishing it.

"I'm sorry," Jenny finally addressed Mary after a few seconds of gloating. "I can't have you screaming and bringing your tall, dark and handsome gunslinger here, not when we have places to go and people to see."

Mary tried to respond but gave up because her words were unintelligible. She tried moving her hands released another groan of frustration when she realized the ropes were secure around her.

"Don't bother," Jenny retorted unimpressed by her attempt. "I tie good knots."

Where was Vin? Mary thought frantically as she glanced anxiously for the door. Did Jenny incapacitate him? Instinctively, her mind screamed impossible but then Mary remembered how Jenny treated him and a surge of anger rose in Mary at how artfully the girl had manipulated the tracker. Just as artfully as she used her innocence to beguile Mary for the same ends. Mary felt colossally stupid for being taken in so easily by such an obvious method of deception.

Almost as if she knew what was thinking, Jenny spoke again. "If you're expecting Vin to come rescue you, I'm afraid I've taken care of him. Such a sweet boy but sadly, I've never cared much for sweet.'

Suddenly, Mary heard footsteps coming from downstairs. Her heart swelled with the hope it was one of the seven who'd come to check on Vin. She wriggled again, hoping to break free but it resulted in Jenny striking her again. This time the blow was not meant to incapacitate her but to warn into her silence. Her heart pounded as those steps neared and Jenny took up a flanking position by the door.

When the door swung open, and Mary stared at the new arrival, her heart sank.

It was Ray Waldon.

Mary knew who he was because she had seen him on the street and paid attention because Chris Larabee suspected him of having something to do with this whole revenge scheme. Unfortunately, as the days went on, the seven had become frustrated by the lack of any suspicious behaviour and had started to think they were wrong. Now she wished she could have told them they were correct. Not that she would be seeing the seven anytime soon.

he full scope of Jenny's deception unfolded before Mary when she saw the young woman leaning towards Waldon to give the man a bruising kiss. Silently, Mary ached for poor Vin who had fallen for the girl hard. As she watched them, Mary began to understand how cleverly they had all been played.

In retrospect, it made perfect sense. Jenny and Waldon had arrived in town together. To detract suspicion from herself, she played the helpless young woman in need, feigning attentions on a tracker who was taken in by her gentle disguise. It was Vin who brought her into the house, believing she needed help, aware Mary's compassion would welcome the girl into the house. Meanwhile, Waldon would lead the seven in circle, distracting them from Jenny.

"Is he tied up?" Jenny asked when they had parted.

"Yeah," Waldon nodded. "He ain't going anywhere. I've got the wagon outside so we'd better make a move on."

"Good," Jenny glanced in her direction. "Our package is ready for travelling."

Waldon walked over to Mary and eyed her appreciatively with a leer that made the newspaperwoman shudder in revulsion. She struggled again to free herself but it was a futile effort. Jenny was not lying about tying good knots. She was true to her word and in being so, ensured Mary remained trapped in her unfortunate circumstances.

"Pretty little thing," Waldon remarked, reaching for Mary's hair. Mary flinched at his touch but did nothing to deter him. A second later and he was rubbing strands of her hair through his fingers, savouring the feel of them as Mary showed her disgust in her expression.

"Am I having some competition?" Jenny inquired as she came along side of Waldon.

"Never honey," Waldon grinned and left Mary's hair alone in favour of kissing Jenny passionately again.

Once more, Mary's heart went out to Vin even though she was in more trouble than he right now. The tracker genuinely cared about Jenny, and it infuriated Mary she'd taken advantage of that affection. Thankfully, Jenny and Waldon's cavorting didn't continue for much longer, and they soon returned their attention to her.

Waldon wrapped his arm around Mary and lifted her off her warm bed. In retaliation, Mary squirmed and wriggled, not about to make Waldon's job any easier.

"Quit it!" Waldon growled.

"I'll handle this," Jenny said sharply, and Mary looked up just in time to see Jenny coming at her with one of Steven's leather-bound books.

The woman wasted no time and smashed the books in the side of Mary's face for enough force to send her ears ringing and an explosion of pain coursing through her mind brought with it the black of unconsciousness.

+ + + + + + +

Now she was here. Travelling to parts unknown without any idea if Chris or any of the seven for that matter, knew that she was gone. Her face throbbed as the wagon continued to travel and Mary struggled to maintain her composure even if she had every reason to be terrified. Straining to listen for any conversation above the sound of the wagon's rattle and the hoofbeats of horse, she was greeted with silence which served to unnerve her even more.

Was Vin still alive? Jenny had been so confident he could pose no threat to her and that made Mary fear for the younger man's safety. With Jenny's cruelty exposed and her ability to manipulate Vin into a vulnerable position, had it been enough to kill him? Mary hoped not. While Jenny had not claimed to work for Stuart James, Mary could not imagine any other reason for this abduction.

At least now she knew how the intruder had entered her house without Chris Larabee being aware of it. There had been no intruder, just Jenny cleverly disguised so Mary would not recognize her. The man Chris had killed was no doubt one of Jenny's agents, playing a part to convince everyone she was an innocent caught up in affairs beyond her control.

Now all Mary could think about was Jenny's threat of a hanging.


+ + + + + + +

On the floor of the Travis parlour, someone else was being awakened just as rudely as Mary Travis.

Vin Tanner heard his name exploding in his ears and was torn abruptly from the comforting darkness he had lapsed into when Jenny drugged him. The usually quiet voice of his best friend became as loud as a thunderclap and Vin's eyes flew open at its sharp impact upon its consciousness. When he heard Chris calling his name again, awareness flooded his mind, crowding him like flashes of lightning.


Chris shouted as he helped Vin off the floor of Mary's parlour where he'd fallen unconscious.

"Chris," Josiah interrupted his efforts to rousing as the preacher inspected the contents of the mug lying next to the tracker. Josiah had taken the whiff of the substance on his fingertips and winced, detecting something that did not all, smell like chocolate and milk. "Something is in this."

Chris's jaw tightened as he understood. "Josiah, get Nathan."

Josiah did not have to be told twice and left the room. Vin was alive but that did not mean whatever he was drugged with hadn't harmed him.

"Vin, wake up," Chris barked out again, this time pulling Vin's arm over his shoulder and heaving the tracker to his feet.

Vin's feet struggled beneath him as he groaned out loud, much to Chris' relief. It was the first sign of life the tracker had shown. Dragging him to the nearby divan, Chris lowered Vin into it. For a few seconds, his verbal displays were little more than sharp grunts. Chris did not want to press but he needed to know what had happened. With both Mary and Jenny missing, time was of the essence.

"Vin," Chris tried again. "What happened here?'

Vin's vague expression suddenly sharpened, and the tracker stiffened, his hands clenching into fists.

"Is she gone?" His voice was like ice.

"Yeah, Mary's gone." The gunslinger replied, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. He was fighting to keep the worries about the lovely newspaper editor from clouding his judgement but there was no denying, her absence was affecting him more than it should.

"I mean Jenny," Vin repeated himself. Once again, his voice was cold with an edge to it Chris assumed was worry for the girl.

"They took her too," Chris answered, having no wish to lie to Vin about this. He deserved the truth.

"Jenny wasn't taken."

"Yeah, she was," Chris replied, misunderstanding Vin's words of denial. "Vin, we'll find her."

"Chris," Vin started to speak but the words failed him. He felt so ashamed and used, he could barely think. Never in his whole life had he been played so easily and for someone as naturally cautious as he, the situation was wholly unacceptable. What hurt most was that he truly cared for her and now it appeared the object of his affections was an illusion. Clever trickery disguised by a sweet smile and lying words. He had been such a fool. If it was possible to hide away in mortification, he would have done it but the truth was, he had not that luxury.

"Vin, what is it?" Chris asked, his gut tightening as his suspicions regarding that strange smelling cup of hot chocolate began to take shape.

"It was Jenny." Vin finally responded, the words leaving a bad taste in his mouth as he said them. He tried to hide the shame in his eyes as he told Chris the truth but it was impossible. There was guilt all over his face. "She drugged me. Put in a cup of hot chocolate. I didn't know what hit me."

Damn. Damn. Damn.

Ezra was right. Chris cursed inwardly, feeling his anger swell at how preventable all this could have been. Ezra had pegged it and Chris should have acted before it came to this. In attempting to protect Vin, he ended up hurting the tracker even more.

"It's okay Vin," Chris patted him on the shoulder, knowing his friend enough to know that it would not help. "She fooled us all."

"How could I have been so stupid?" Vin asked himself as he stood up shakily. He did not care how awful he felt now, he was going to make amends for the foolishness that had allowed Mary Travis to be spirited away from Four Corners right under his nose.

"Vin, it wasn't your fault." Chris countered his argument, expecting the man's recriminations. "She played us all for fools."

"She played me, Chris," Vin hissed angrily. "She played me because she knew the rest of you would trust her because I did."

Chris flinched, and Vin was alert enough to catch the flicker in his eyes.

"You knew?"

Unable to lie, Chris answered honestly. "I suspected."

"You suspected?" Vin's expression turned from accusation to a hurt even deeper than what Jenny had inflicted upon him. "You suspected, and you didn't say anything?"

Chris swallowed thickly, finding no way to explain this without revealing he'd stood by and watched Vin being tricked into caring for Jenny when he'd suspected the truth. Despite Ezra's warnings, Chris had chosen to remain silent.

"We didn't know for sure." The gunslinger stammered. "We suspected something...."

"We?" Vin barked. "Who's we?"

Chris winced. 'Me and Ezra.'

Chris made a mental note to apologize to Ezra for how badly he'd screwed this up.

"You both knew?" Vin's eyes filled with shock as well as hurt. "Neither of you could tell me?"

"There was nothing to tell Vin," Ezra Standish entered the conversation, having arrived just in time to hear the discussion with the rest of the seven.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Vin demanded staring at both Chris and Ezra in anguish. "Even if there was nothing to it, you should have told me! I had a right to know!"

"We thought you cared about her, " Chris started to say. "We didn't want to be wrong."

"No!" Vin snarled. "You just didn't think I would trust you enough to think you might have been right, I would have put a woman I just met over you!"

"Mr. Tanner, that is my fault." Ezra found himself speaking out and hating himself for being so noble by trying to spare Chris. "I was the one who advised Chris we should be cautious. I had a feeling about her but I did not wish to jeopardize your happiness on so flimsy a suspicion. If there is anyone to be blamed in this matter, it is I."

Chris stared at Ezra with some measure of surprise, taken back at the gambler's willingness to fall on his sword for Chris. Suddenly, he was reminded of Vin's words to him about Ezra, that Ezra was trying hard to be counted as one of the seven, overriding his baser instincts to be a friend they could trust. Sometimes the gambler stumbled because his love of money was not a thing easily overcome, but he was trying and never was that more apparent, than at this moment.

"I didn't think it was a good idea either," Chris added his voice to Ezra's, not about to let the gambler take the fall for him. He was just as responsible for Ezra not telling Vin.

"You should have told me," Vin whispered, not caring which of them was more responsible, just the fact they'd hidden it was bad enough. "You should have told me before I started to care."

With that, the tracker walked out of the room without saying another word.

Chris felt his heart sink as he watched Vin leaving, suddenly aware the tracker might get on his horse and leave Four Corners for good. He cursed himself for remaining silent when he should have told Vin instantly before the tracker became too involved with Jenny Miller. A surge of rage frothed up inside of him when he thought about the young woman who had been the cause of so much pain to his friend and knew he would not rest until he caught up with her.

"Someone should go after him," Nathan spoke first after Vin had gone.

"No," Buck shook his head. "Let him be."

"Let him be?" Nathan stared. "His heart's in pieces, and you want to let him face that on his own."

"Some things you have to face on your own," Buck stated firmly. Of anyone in the room, it was Buck Wilmington who had a better understanding of the heart than anyone present, and Chris knew from experience he was seldom wrong about such things.

"He's smarting some," Buck explained over Chris' thoughts. "He just needs a little time to deal with what's been said and what's happened. When he's ready, he'll come back."

"Buck's right, he'll join us when's he's ready," Chris said softly, and for a few seconds, both men stared at each other. Wordlessly, Chris conveyed as best he could that he would always need Buck's friendship even if it was not what it once was.

Buck broke contact first, hiding how much Chris' support meant to him. For the first time since coming to Four Corners, Buck had a sense perhaps their friendship might survive the fire. It was evolving into something, something better, but it would survive.

"So, do we have any idea what happened?" Ezra Standish inquired, pushing past the moment.

"Vin didn't tell me much, but I'm guessing Jenny drugged him and went after Mary," Chris said grimly, trying not to think about what could be happening to the woman now.

"There was no sign of a struggle," Josiah offered. "But that doesn't mean anything. Jenny could have had help. The man who broke into the house was obviously let in by her, that's why he was able to get past us."

"It was a ruse," Ezra added. "A little bit of deception to make us let down our guard about her. I think she may have suspected I had doubts and moved quickly to ensure she was seen as a victim, not a possible threat."

"Well, it worked," Josiah snorted derisively, disliking how Jenny had taken advantage of Vin's affections.

"Well at least now we know for sure that Waldon's involved," Buck added bitterly.

Chris nodded. There had been no time to tell Vin what brought him to the Travis place to begin with. An hour before Chris found Vin unconscious on the floor of the parlour, Waldon disappeared. The seven had scoured town searching for the man to no avail. Now it appeared Waldon and Jenny were working together all along.

"Someone has to tell the Judge," Josiah met Chris' gaze.

The gunslinger flinched at the thought. Orin Travis had asked them to protect Mary and they had failed spectacularly. There was no doubt in his mind Stuart James was behind all this. If so, Chris did not want to imagine what awaited Mary once she was delivered to the rancher. James wanted to make Orin suffer as he had suffered when he was forced to watch Lucas die and Chris had a feeling that whatever James' plan, Orin would be taking an active part in it.

"Well at least we know what Mr James plan was;" Ezra sighed as he lowered himself into one of the wing chairs in the room. "Miss Miller and Waldon came to Four Corners together."

"It makes sense they're working together," Josiah agreed. "He blows into town, drawing our suspicion, making us focus all intention on him and in the meantime, Miss Miller plays the part of the helpless young woman, stranded in town with no one to help. Latching onto Vin and making him care for her so we would overlook her as a threat.'

Nathan shook his head in disgust, hating how he'd been taken in too when she was supposedly attacked by the intruder that Chris ended up killing. The tenderness with which he treated her as she looked at him with eyes fluid and afraid, drawing emotion from his heart with each word she spoke. How much worse was it for Vin?

"We don't have much time," the gunslinger said after a moment, tearing their empathy from Vin back to the situation at hand. "They're probably taking Mary to James now."

"So, we're going to the ranch?" JD asked.

"No," Ezra responded before Chris could. "Mr James is no fool. He would be aware his ranch would be the first place we would seek out Mrs Travis once we've ascertained her disappearance."

Chris did not respond. A course of action had presented itself before him. It was risky and something of a gamble with the consequences being extreme if he was wrong but there was no other alternative. Orin Travis was the key to this whole scheme. He was the one who pressed for Lucas to stand trial. It was also his sentence that saw Lucas swing.

Whatever revenge James was about to take, it would be aimed squarely at Orin. James would want the Judge to have his heart cut out the way his own had been cleaved when he was forced to watch Lucas die. It was why Mary was not killed outright. Simply murdering her wasn't enough, James wanted to Orin to suffer and Chris had a terrible feeling he knew how it was to be accomplished.

"Saddle up," he said suddenly. "We're going."

"Going?" Buck stared at him. "Where?"

"Eagle Bend."

Chris' answer drew now measure of small surprise from his companions with Buck asking the inevitable question. "You sure that's where she's been taken?"

"No," Chris retorted as he stared at them all with a slight sweep of a gaze that touched all their faces in an instant. "She's not being taken there, but that's where the message to the Judge will go."

"I don't get it," Buck replied and was about to delve deeper into the question when Ezra, understanding what Chris was inferring, spoke first.

"He'll want the Judge to be there when they kill her." Ezra whispered, his face twisting with horror.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, impressed at the gambler's acumen. "James will want him to watch her die just like he had to watch Lucas die. If we get to the Judge before that message comes, we might be able to stop James from killing them both."

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner did not go far.

He made it as far as the hitching post outside the Clarion News office before he was forced to catch breath. Despite his anger at Chris and Ezra for harbouring their secret, it was his foolishness that allowed Mary to be kidnapped. Foolishness and wishful thinking that someone could look at him and see more than he was; a wanted ex-bounty hunter who could not even read or write his own name. What arrogance had made him believe any woman, any decent woman would want him? He was mortified by his own naivete.

Now Mary was out there somewhere, captured and held captive by someone he believed to be true. He was the one who suggested Jenny stay with Mary while she was finding her feet, giving her access to her prey with no obstacles. He could not be more responsible for what mischief was now taking place if he had chosen to put a gun to Mary's brow himself.

He had no business helping anyone when he was so easily deceived. Vin's eyes swept across Four Corners and wondered how he could be trusted to enforce law in this town when his behaviour was no better than a love-sick kid. If this had happened to JD, at least there was an excuse. He was a grown man. He should have been able to see through her guise.

Vin was so engrossed in his thoughts he didn't hear Chris Larabee coming up behind him.

"Go away," Vin said listlessly.

"Sorry I can't. I need you."

"For what?" Vin barked at him. "For someone to get Jenny in his sights before going to complete pieces if he has to shoot her?"

He could hear Chris draw a laboured breath behind him. "No, I need the best tracker in the Territory, who just so happens to be my friend."

"If I were your friend, you would have told me," Vin spat back.

"I should have told you," Chris conceded, not about to deny that. "I was wrong not too. You were right, I didn't want you to choose her over us if we brought you what we thought about Jenny. To be fair, after what happened to her with the intruder, I thought she was alright. I never thought it was a way to make me think she was innocent.'

"She was smarter than I was," Vin returned softly, his face turned away from Chris so the gunslinger could not tell how hurt he was even though Chris could feel it in every word he spoke.

"She tricked all of us Vin," Chris replied. "Not just you. You have no reason to feel guilty over what happened. It could have been anyone of us. She just picked you for some twisted reason."

"Because I was easy to fool," he answered. "I want you had Chris. I want a wife and family someday even though I got a price on my head. I want those things but it's hard for me. I ain't got Buck's charm or Ezra's fancy way with words. I ain't got much in the way of schooling so what else is there left for any woman to want. When she looked at me, I thought she cared. I really thought that finally someone could see me for what I was. She made me believe that."

A resurgence of hatred filled Chris at the woman making Vin feel like this. If she were in front of him, he would have strangled her.

"Vin, when the right girl comes along, she'll know you straight away. It won't matter who you are or what you say; she'll just know you."

He was never good at these things, but he remembered how it was for Sarah and him. He had only to meet her eyes that one time and suddenly, nothing else in the world mattered. It was that perfect. He wanted Vin to know that feeling, and he wished the tracker was spared this but he couldn't afford to spend too much time nursing Vin's bruised heart.

They had to get moving to Eagle Bend this instant.

"Vin," Chris continued speaking. "I wish I could leave you alone. I wish I could let you get out your hurt the way you need to but I can't. They've got Mary and if we don't find them soon, they'll hang her the same way Lucas James was hung. I need you to come with us and I need you do it now."

Vin took a deep breath, trying to will the hurt away but it would not go without a fight. He'd deal with this in his own way, but right now, he had to pull himself together. He owed it to Mary Travis.

Vin exhaled loudly and turned around to face Chris once more. "You can count on me."

"Thanks Vin," Chris said genuinely pleased that Vin was coming him. Chris just hoped he could hold himself together when he faced Jenny Miller again.

+ + + + + + +

After what seemed like a whole day of travelling though it could have been easily just a few hours, Mary finally felt the wagon coming to a halt. The side of her body lying against the floor of the wagon was numb and she shifted again, hoping to ease the burden on her shoulder. The wagon jerked forward as it came to a stop, rolling her onto her back abruptly, forcing her to stare at the calico overhead. Her throat was dry from the gag in her mouth and the throbbing at the side of her face had diminished to a dull ache eclipsed the pain in her shoulder and neck.

Knowing what awaited her now the journey had ended, Mary felt a resurgence of panic.

Throughout the journey she heard the intermittent voices of Jenny and Waldon in conversation. They were careful not to say where they were headed, certain she would probably eavesdrop when she awoke, as if she had any choice in the matter when she was trussed up like a fatted calf in the back of the wagon. They spoke of incidental things like where they would go after this, apparently New Orleans and how they would luxuriate with their hefty reward for delivering her. She did discern however, Jenny and Waldon were in fact agents of Stuart James, confirming the rancher's involvement once and for all.

Now the wagon stopped, she heard other voices and wondered what was going to happen next. She did not have long to wait with the wagon now stopped and she heard approaching footsteps against the gravel. The calico was suddenly torn from over her head and a burst of light from the morning sky blinded her temporarily by its glare. Mary flinched as she tried to focus and saw Waldon and Jenny standing at the edge of the wagon, presenting her like a prize to Stuart James who was staring at her dispassionately.

"As promised Mr James," Jenny smiled triumphantly.

Stuart James looked down at Mary. His expression stony as he stared at the woman who was to be his instrument of revenge. "She doesn't appear as formidable as she usually does." He pointed out.

"Take away the pen and paper, she's just another loud mouth woman with too much time on her hands and no man," Jenny sneered.

Mary glared at her, wishing to speak for herself in this matter but prevented by the gag. She chose instead to look away, not wishing to let the assassin know how her taunt had affected her. Instead, she took a moment to study her surroundings. Judging from the sparse vegetation around them, Mary guessed they were deep in the barrens of the Territory. There were tracts of desert, inhabited by Indians who knew how to survive and generally shunned by homesteaders because of the lack of water. The area in which she found herself was no different. There was nothing for miles around except a small cabin that appeared to have been a way station for the stagecoach when the route still travelled through this vicinity.

The number of horses congregated near a small pond indicated that James had come with a good many of his men. Mary guessed James was not about to take the chance Jenny wasn't followed and Mary wondered if the seven had any idea of where she was. Jenny had made no mention of what she had done to Vin Tanner, and so Mary was left with the fear she might have killed the gentle young tracker to kidnap her.

The possibility of that weighed heavily upon her mind, and she thought of what effect his death could have on Chris Larabee.

Chris had lost so many people in his life already and she was not blind to the deep friendship he shared with the tracker. It would hurt the gunslinger immeasurably if Vin were dead and Mary was convinced what rehabilitation Chris was undergoing would end abruptly if that were to happen. He would be driven so far into himself that the rest of the seven would never be able to pull him out of it.

Mary did not want to consider what affect her death would have upon him.

"Get her out of the wagon," her attention was returned to James when he issued that order.

Mary felt arms around her and started struggling when Waldon reached for her and dragged her out of the wagon. The gag shook loose from her mouth, and Mary gulped air greedily as she licked her lips, trying to wet her throat so that she could speak.

"Let me go!" She cried out hoarsely and winced because her throat hurt from being forced to work after such a prolonged silence.

"Settle down!" Waldon growled.

"You snake!" Mary took the opportunity to snipe at Jenny. "I invited you into my house!"

Jenny stared at her as if she were an over-indulged child and laughed a little. "And I appreciate it. It was so much easier to do my job."

"What is your job? Whoring?" Mary found herself saying viciously. "You didn't have to do that to Vin to stay in my house!"

Waldon stared at Jenny in bewilderment at her words and Mary realized Waldon was unaware how Jenny acquired the seven's trust. Even though it would avail her nothing, Mary was furious enough with the woman for what she had done to risk a few bruises by telling him the truth.

"Didn't you know?" Mary asked Waldon snidely. "That's how she got the others to trust her. She was all over Vin Tanner, made him think that she wanted him. I wonder how far she went."

"Shut up!" Jenny hissed, slapping her across the face, much to the amusement of James' men who were watching the proceedings close by.

"What's she talking about?" Waldon stared at Jenny.

"Nothing," Jenny said nervously, pointing daggers at Mary's direction.

"It wasn't nothing to Vin," Mary added, wishing Jenny to pay some retribution for exploiting the tracker's vulnerability. "You made it sound like you were so in love with him."

"I said shut up!" Jenny screamed and pointed the gun had in her keeping directly at Mary.

"Don't even think about it!" James retorted, grabbing her hand and shoving the weapon away from Mary. "She's my property do you hear me? I'll decide how she dies."

Jenny was fairly seething with rage, particularly when Waldon was staring at her hard. Mary smiled contently to herself, pleased she managed to vindicate Vin in some small way, even though ultimately it would avail her nothing. Still, after the way Jenny had played her and so many others, Mary was satisfied with sowing the seeds of discord at Waldon, who was obviously very jealous of his lover.

"Just if I get to do it," Jenny said finally, her eyes still fixed on Mary. "I want to be the one to make her swing."

"I think I can accommodate you," James said amiably as Waldon carried Mary to the old cabin, leaving them behind. "In the meantime, you have other tasks to take care of if I'm not mistaken?"

"Yes," Jenny nodded, grateful for the pleasure of snuffing out Mary's life herself. As it was, she had a good deal of explaining to do to Waldon, who was no doubt soldering at the what the bitch editor had told him. "It's all a part of the service."

"Good," James said with approval. "Just you make sure that Travis knows if he doesn't get here by tomorrow noon. We'll kill her instead of him."

Jenny nodded. "Don't worry, I'll see to it that he knows exactly what's at stake."

+ + + + + + +

Less than a day later, Orin Travis found himself staring at the note delivered to him at his home in Eagle Bend. Ever since he had arrived in Four Corners and arrested the young man for murdering a shopkeeper in cold blood, he knew that there would be consequences for his determination to see justice was done. However, he could not bring himself to turn a blind eye to the murder, no matter how powerful the forces rallied against him might seem. He knew he was being stubborn and it could cost him his life but Travis cared little for his safety when it was placed in the defence of an ideal.

The law was not merely a codex by which society was functioned. It was the written word of justice, and Travis believed it sacred. As a young man, the law was words in a courtroom, with cases argued and points made. When he came to the West, he learnt it had to be fought for and sometimes paid for in blood.

Stephen shared his convictions and went into the world, willing to fight for what was right. Even if he did it with truth instead of applying law, it still justice. Travis was proud of his son and equally proud of the daughter in law he married because if Stephen's convictions had been strong, Mary's were damn near invulnerable.

Stephen died because of the absence of law and it became Travis' mission in life to ensure what happened to his son would never happen to anyone else. His arrival in Four Corners was the first step in bringing the law to the town and he knew that he would face stiff opposition. In hundreds of towns across the Territory, there was always someone like Stuart James, who thought wealth gave them the right to make a mockery of justice when it suited them.

As a result, Lucas' birthright did little to frighten him and no matter what the consequences, Orin was determined to see the man pay for the misery he had caused.

Then Fate took a rather curious hand in the situation and offered him assistance in the form of seven men, one of whom reminded him so much of Stephen it broke his heart to see him. Chris Larabee was in many ways so much like Stephen but he was also different. It was his words that convinced Chris to stay with his six companions and together justice became more than just wistful thinking in Four Corners.

Now he was in a position of having to pay a terrible price for enacting that justice. He had no guarantee James would not let Mary go even if he did turn himself over to the rancher but Travis had no choice, he had to try. He could not allow Mary to be harmed because of his choices. His grandson Billy could not be allowed to lose another parent. The boy was traumatized enough by the death of his father, Travis did not want to imagine what it would do to Billy if he were to lose his mother as well.

Looking around his home, Travis immediately began preparations for travel to the rendezvous point named by James' agent. The instructions were clear; he was not to be followed or else Mary would be killed. Travis had no intention of reneging on any of those instructions, at least not yet. No doubt, James had people in Eagle Bend keeping an eye on his movements, ensuring he did nothing to alert anyone to his difficulties, in particular any of the seven.

Fortunately, Evie Travis had selected this weekend to take Billy to visit her sister because Travis had no wish to explain to his wife what he intended to do.

He did not take much with him, just enough to ensure he arrived at his destination. He took a gun with him but he was certain he would never have the chance to use it. Normally, he travelled by stage but on this occasion, his own horse was needed since his destination was nowhere on a stage's route. Travis' preparations were brief and by the time he ventured out of his house, it was late evening.

He had until noon tomorrow to arrive at his destination or else Mary would die.

+ + + + + + +

From a distance, Chris Larabee watched Orin Travis leave his home through Vin's spyglass.

The seven had been in Eagle Bend for some time now and had taken point to watch the Judge's house, believing James would contact the older man to tell him about Mary. For James to have the vengeance he desired, he needed Orin Travis present. No doubt he would have offered Travis some an exchange but the truth was, neither Mary nor Travis would be left alive.

"The Judge is moving," Chris announced.

"You were right," Buck pointed out. "They did want him to be there personally."

"Can't have a hanging without an audience,' Chris said coldly. 'Although he probably told the Judge he'd let Mary go if he turned up.'

"I find that extremely unlikely," Ezra drawled from behind the rock they were hiding.

"He can't afford to leave witnesses behind," Josiah replied in agreement. "He'll let Travis watch it first and then kill him too."

Suddenly, Chris stiffened where he was standing, his breath quickening. Vin could tell immediately that the gunslinger's second theory was just confirmed.

"Someone's following him," Chris stated with almost a hint of satisfaction.

"How many?" Nathan automatically asked.

"Just one," Chris replied and he blinked as the spyglass told him who it was. For a second, he debated whether to tell Vin but then concluded that they had been hiding enough things from the tracker already. "Vin, it's Jenny."

Vin fought the natural impulse to snatch the spyglass away from Chris and see for himself. He reminded himself there were larger stakes here and that was the safe rescue of both Mary and the Judge. He would hold Jenny to account over her actions later. Right now, his friends needed him and he was not about to become any more of a handicap then he had already been.

Conscious of everyone trying to avoid his gaze, Vin added, "she's making sure no one follows him."

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Too bad, she didn't make sure none of us weren't following her."

It was time to go. The seven had a hanging to stop.

Chapter Seven: The Face of a Stranger

It dawned on Mary sometime during the day it was probably best if she did not keep looking out the window.

From the window of the small office in the disused waystation, Mary was provided a grim preview of what Stuart James planned for her. At first, Mary could only stare at it in mute horror before she wrenched her gaze free of it, forcing herself to look away before she started screaming in fear. In the end, focusing her attention on she avoided looking at it entirely, not an as easy to do since what stood outside her window was the instrument of her death.

Telling herself Chris Larabee would come riding to her rescue was the only thing that kept Mary from completely descending into panic.

At least they left her untied, guarded by one of James' men who observed her every move in her small cage. In the next room, she felt some measure of satisfaction witnessing the rift formed between Jenny and her lover Waldon after Mary's remarks about Jenny's behaviour towards Vin. Compared to the hurt Vin must surely be feeling, Jenny deserved everything she got.

Stuart James remained silent. He was not speaking even though it was obvious his plans were reaching an endgame. Beyond the walls of his temporary hideout, the rancher's men were preparing themselves for whatever it was that James had been waiting for most of the morning. James seemed oblivious to everything transpiring around him. Wherever he was, Mary was sure there was some part of the powerful man who knew how dangerous the course of action he was about to embark.

"James," Mary took a deep breath and hope this was not a mistake. The man may have been ruthless, but he was not foolish. Even if he did manage to kill her, his actions would not go unpunished. Orin would know that he was responsible, especially when he learnt the way she was killed. Perhaps if she could reach the part of him that recognized self-preservation, she could avert disaster for everyone concerned. "This isn't going to bring Lucas back."

James turned his attention in Mary's direction, almost as if he had not taken stock of her presence beyond the fact, she was a tool he needed for his revenge.

"I told you we should have kept her gag on." Jenny stared at her reproachfully. The woman's lips curled in an ugly sneer that took whatever beauty she had and made her look hard and vicious.

"I wasn't talking to you Jenny," Mary hardly wasted her time by looking at her. "I was talking to Stuart."

"We're not on a first name basis Mrs Travis." James allowed himself to be heard for the first time, but his voice was cold and detached. His gaze may have been resting on Mary, but she was certain that he did not see her, only the instrument of his revenge.

"You're about to murder me," Mary returned smoothly, undaunted by his manner or by her fear. "I think that allows me a few liberties."

"Maybe we should just cut out your tongue," Jenny warned with a sinister glint in her eyes.

Mary let out a groan of annoyance, wishing the woman would shut up. Hadn't she done enough damage already?

"That won't change the fact that your lover thinks you're a whore," Mary retorted sweetly, hoping the crude remark would give her and Waldon something to quarrel about while he was in here. Mary saw Waldon twitching uncomfortably, especially after James' men sniggered under their breaths.

"I'm going to really enjoy watching you hang bitch." Jenny soldered with fury, straining against her overwhelming desire to hurt Mary because James had his own punishment in mind for her. It further incensed the assassin her lover was making no move to defend her against Mary's taunts because of the seed of suspicion planted in his head. If anything, he seemed more and more infuriated by the concept that she might have betrayed him.

"I'd advise you keep your mouth shut Mrs Travis," James warned Mary, seeing the discord she was creating between his help. He did not care if Jenny or Waldon killed each other; he just did not need the complication before Travis made his arrival here.

"Don't make your death any more inevitable than it has to be," James added.

"If you think that I'm just going to sit by quietly while you decide to kill me, you've got another thing coming." Mary returned sharply, her anger manifesting in a surge of courage. She could deal with dying, but she would not walk out of this life simpering or begging. "Don't mistake yourself into thinking this is justice or retribution James," she continued speaking, daring them to silence her. "This is murder pure and simple. Just like Lucas murdered someone!"

"Lucas didn't deserve to die!" James shouted the first trace of emotion she had seen suddenly surfacing in his heated response. "He was all the kin I had left. That damn Judge law railroaded him!"

"Railroaded?" Mary stared back at James incredulously, wondering was he really that delusional or did he really believe Lucas was an innocent in all this. "James, the entire town saw Lucas shoot Mr Potter in cold blood! He wasn't even armed!"

"That's what the Judge made them say!" James shouted back indignantly, refusing to entertain the slightest notion that could be true.

"You can't possibly believe that." Mary stared at him in astonishment, unable to believe how much James' had blinded himself. "Lucas murdered a man. There was no conspiracy, only justice."

"Shut up!" James shouted. "I know the truth and when the Judge gets here, so will he."

Mary's eyes widened understanding finally what the plan was for her. She stepped back into her cell, unable to say anything else because the full measure of his plan was revealed. He was going to make Orin watch her hang. When she first saw the gallows being constructed outside her window, she'd assumed he'd planned to kill her in the manner Lucas was executed.

It never occurred to her he intended to make Orin watch.

She was still staring at the wooden frame when she heard Jenny's voice saying smugly behind her. "I guess you're not a smart as you think huh?"

Mary did not dignify the remark by meeting the woman's gaze. Instead, she could only stare at the gallows and pray the seven arrived before time ran out for her and Orin.

+ + + + + + +

"There's at least six of them," Vin Tanner stated, lowering the spyglass before scrambling beyond the edge of the rocky hill he and the rest of the seven were using to observe the proceedings in the way station.

They followed Jenny from Eagle Bend, keeping enough distance behind her so that the young woman did not suspect she was their link to finding Mary. Chris was right when he assumed James wanted to inflict upon Orin Travis the same torture he was forced to endure when he watched Lucas hang. With Mary captured, all he needed now was the judge to make his revenge complete.

The seven had arrived in Eagle Bend, careful to observe Travis from a distance, aware James' agents were probably doing the same. Chris was convinced Travis would be coerced into exchanging his life for Mary. The proud man would never allow Mary to be endangered because of him and wouldn't hesitate to surrender himself if it meant saving her life. Part of the exchange would include a demand for Orin to come alone, without his seven protectors.

Chris had expected someone would be watching the Judge to make certain of it, but he hadn't counted on that someone being Jenny Miller. Once she was certain Orin was coming alone, she'd taken a shortcut to the waystation, and by that point, Vin knew where she was headed and was able to get there before the Judge made his arrival.

"That's not including Jenny, Waldon or James." The sharpshooter added as he joined his comrades, trying to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Once again, Chris felt the need to strangle the woman for the pain she caused his friends by her deception. Not merely for breaking Vin's heart but in also tricking Mary into trusting her.

"How far away would the Judge be?" Buck inquired, noticing Vin's tone but making no comment. They had a job to do here, and it was best they got it over and done with quickly.

"Not far," Chris responded. "I think the shortcut she took saved her about an hour but no more than that. He should be arriving soon."

"How do you think James will play this?" Josiah asked.

"I'm not sure," Chris answered truthfully, hoping they could do this without putting Mary in any more danger than necessary.

"Well there's not that much daylight left," Vin remarked studying the sky. "It took a good part of the day getting here. He may want to do this at night."

"Makes sense," Josiah drawled. "We certainly don't want to murder in broad daylight."

"It's not gonna get that far," Chris snapped. 'We're getting her out before that.'

Embarrassed by his vehemence, Chris looked away to regain control of his composure. He realised he was showing more emotion than he should, but he couldn't help it. In the last few days, he had come to know the woman as more than just the respectable community leader and proper newspaper editor. True, she could be infuriating, downright irritating and stubborn but she was also brave and compassionate, warm and wise.

They had just begun to know each other, leaving behind their previously adversarial relationship to become friends. He didn't want that to end.

"We will not have much time once the Judge appears," Ezra pointed out. "James is not a foolish man. This venture has its risks. I dare say he would attempt to expedite things as quickly as possible to prevent any possibility of anyone discovering what he is doing here."

"We won't reach her if we move now anyway," Buck stated. "They'll kill her before we even get within ten feet of that place. Just so that she won't talk."

"Or implicate James," Nathan added.

"We'll wait until dark or at least until Travis gets here," Chris said finally. "We can't do anything until then anyway."

Chris hated himself for saying it, but it was the only intelligent thing to do. Vin scrambled back up the slope to continue his surveillance of the way station again. The tracker had been silent and sombre throughout their journey here, speaking only when he had some information to impart. No one made any attempt of drawing him into the conversation and were mindful of his bruised feelings.

"Poor Vin," JD muttered under his breath once the tracker was far enough away not to hear.

"Chris," Buck suddenly spoke up. "What are we going to do about Jenny when we catch up to her?"

"The law deals with her," the gunslinger said firmly even though he did entertain some rather violent thoughts toward her for what she'd done. "We'll keep Vin as far away from her as we can. I'm sure that if she gets in a bind, she'll try to use him but I'm saying this right now, she does not get away."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had wished to speak to Vin since the truth about Jenny was revealed, but the tracker was hardly in the mood for conversation. As the sun lowered into the horizon, bleeding the light out of the sky, Chris took over the watch and relinquished Vin of the duty despite the tracker's protest.

Upon returning to his comrades, Vin sat apart from the others to be alone with his thoughts. Still smarting from being duped by Jenny, Vin didn't want company and was grateful when his wishes mostly respected.

Ezra, however, was not one of them. The gambler felt responsible for this situation and for Vin's heart being broken as it was. No matter how much Nathan and Chris told him it was not his fault, Ezra found he could not absolve himself as easily as the others.

He should have said something. He should have warned Vin before the tracker started to care for the girl. Vin was right, Ezra had not trusted him enough to think he might take the words of his friends over a woman and shamed the gambler a great deal. Since joining the seven, Vin was the one person who trusted him unconditionally, despite what he had done at the Seminole village.

"Go away Ezra," Vin stated when Ezra sat next to him.

"Not until you hear me out," Ezra returned without hesitation.

Vin bristled and said nothing. However, he did not move.

Ezra took that as a hopeful sign and continued, "Vin I am sorry. I should have spoken sooner, but you were right, I was afraid I might lose your friendship by speaking out. You were the only person here who defended me and believed I was worth trusting. I feared losing that and in doing so, caused you hurt.'

'No shit, you should have told me.'

"I know," Ezra was not about to argue on that point. "I saw how happy you were with her and I hoped I was wrong. I didn't want to risk bringing my suspicions to you and jeopardize anything you may have together."

Vin did not speak for a few seconds. His eyes lowered into the ground as if he were trying to find the right words to say. "I ain't mad at you Ezra, not really. I ain't happy you didn't tell me about her but I ain't mad either. I should have been able to see that she was lying to me. What good am I if I can't see through a woman?"

"If you think you are the first man in the universe to be duped by the charms of a woman, I think you are about to sorely disappointed," Ezra gave him a look. "If you ask any man here, I am certain they would have some tale of horror recounting their experience where the fairer sex has made a complete and utter fool out of them."

"This is more than that," Vin grumbled. "I should have known."

"Vin," Ezra sighed. "You made a mistake because you are human. I made a mistake for not telling you, and you forgave me readily, a gesture I for which I am grateful. However, you should reserve the same compassion for yourself. In your position, if I had felt strongly for her, I would have made the same mistake.'

"I just wish..." he started to say when suddenly, Chris skidded down the slope.

"Travis is here."

+ + + + + + +

The first thing that caught Judge Travis' eye as he entered enemy territory was the newly constructed gallows situated at the far side of the way station building. The sun had taken the day behind the horizon with tall shadows stretching across the wooden scaffolding to make it appear even more ominous than it already was.

Travis did not show fear. He did not believe in it. However, he worried for Mary and the sight of the construct, gave him a clear idea of what James intended to do. He did not care if he lived or died, but Mary's fate was another matter entirely. It was his choice to try Lucas James and his sentence that saw the young man meet his end. Mary had no hand in it, and she should not pay for his choices.

Travis' arrival prompted James to step out of the building once he was alerted by his men. As soon as he was near enough, they swarmed around the Judge like insects, with guns drawn menacingly, daring him to make a move to justify killing him on the spot.

While Travis was prepared to die today, he was not ready to do it before he knew Mary was safe. Raising his arms to show them he was unarmed, Travis guessed Mary was most likely in the abandoned outpost and his arrival would no doubt mark the commencement of the activities James had planned for his vengeance.

"Where is Mary?" He demanded.

None of the men answered him, and Travis wondered if she was still alive. Was it possible they killed her already? His heart started to pound with anxiety at the prospect. Suddenly, he saw James and a strange woman emerge from the station. They stared at him with cold eyes with the rancher wearing an expression of absolute hatred.

"I warned you this day would come, Judge," James declared as he stood on the steps of the building.

"You did," Travis nodded. "I'm here just like you asked and I'm sure you saw to it that I wasn't followed."

"He sure did," Jenny smiled cockily. "You were a good little boy Judge, didn't misbehave one bit."

"Where is Mary?" Travis ignored her, more interested in the welfare of his daughter in law rather than the ravings of one of James' lackeys.

"She's alive," James assured him. "But not for long. Get him off his horse." The rancher ordered one of his men, his voice full of venom.

Travis did not protest as he was pulled him off his saddle. He'd expected some measure of rough handling as he dismounted his horse and was shoved towards the steps. Travis raised his head with dignity despite the forces rallied against him. He was incapable of showing any other face and glared at James as if he were the one with the upper hand.

"I'm here now. Let Mary go." Travis demanded.

"You're not in any position to make demands Judge," James hissed. "I told you a long time ago to let this go. You didn't. What happens to Mary is on your head."

Travis stiffened in anger even though he should not have been surprised James was reneging on his promise to release Mary. "I don't need you to tell me that. "I just figured I'd see your double-dealing for myself."

"You got a smart mouth, old man," Jenny retorted. "I guess you Travis' are alike. I wonder if you swing the rope the same way."

"Shut up," James turned to her. He wanted this grisly work over and done with. He wanted vengeance, and he would have it, but he had no stomach for relishing it as she did. Lucas' death demanded retribution.

"This isn't the time to go soft, Mr James." Jenny stared at him.

"I said shut up," he repeated himself, no small measure of warning in his voice as the words escaped him.

Jenny silenced herself, but she was fuming at being dressed down in front of the Judge.

The group moved into the way station with James leading the way. Travis was surrounded by the rancher's men, ready to shoot if he made the slightest attempt to escape, not that he would. As long as Mary was their hostage, Travis was their creature

Before entering the building, James issued silent orders to the foreman of his hired guns, a tall, heavy-set man named Hawkins who disappeared shortly after they stepped inside the building. Travis searched the area the moment he entered it and caught sight of Mary who was languishing within one of the empty rooms.

"Orin!" She cried out as she saw him.

"Mary, are you alright?"

"I'm fine," she answered, unaware he was staring at the dark bruise on the side of her face with concern. "Orin, you shouldn't have come here. It's a trap!"

"Keep your mouth shut!" Mary's jailers silenced her with a cruel backhanded blow, and she tumbled to the floor without saying another word.

"You son of a bitch!" Travis broke free and tried to go to her aid, forcing one of the men to slam the butt of his rifle into the Judge's stomach. Travis crumpled to his knee, coughing loudly as the wind was knocked out of him. In the background, he heard Jenny Miller sniggering at the turn of events.

He knew it was foolishness, allowing his temper to be provoked and giving them an excuse to brutalize him but Travis did not care. He would not see Mary treated that way, for all the good he was able to do for her. He felt hands grab his arms, dragging him to his feet. Despite his pain, Travis managed to stand up on his own, requiring no aid from those whom had inflicted this hurt upon him. He was more interested in Mary.

Travis got his wish when he was shoved into the same room with her. His daughter in law was already on her feet, wiping away blood from the corner of her lip. She hurried next to him, ignoring her own injury as she helped him from the floor where he had been thrown, ignoring the cruel taunts and sniggers of their captor as she did so.

"Orin, are you alright?"

"I'm fine," he muttered as he sat down. "I'm sorry about this Mary. I didn't mean for you to pay for my choices."

"Don't be silly Orin," Mary brushed aside his apology. She admired him for his convictions because there were not many men who were willing to stand up to tyrants. Picking up his hat, she dusted it off before putting it on his head. "This was not your fault. You did what was necessary, what I expected you to do. No, I'm afraid if anyone is to blame it's me. I allowed that woman into my home. I thought she needed help, but it was all a trick. She was working for James all along."

Travis glanced at the woman who was walking out of the room, evidently having had her fill of gloating for the moment. "I wondered who she was."

"Just someone who is an extremely good actress," Mary frowned, trying not to look out at the window because now that Travis was here, the gallows seemed even more ominous than ever.

"We all get fooled Mary," Travis said with a little smile.

"Not like this," Mary swallowed. "You know what he has planned don't you?" She met his eyes.

His nod was imperceptible, but it was clear he knew.

"Yes," Travis answered after a few seconds. "I know what he plans to do."

"Whatever happens," she reached for his hands. "I want you to know that it was not your fault. He never had any intention of honouring any exchange. It was always going to be about both of us, not just you. I don't hold you responsible and neither should you."

Travis smiled faintly, admiring the courage in her eyes and wondered where that inexhaustible fountain of strength found its source. Certainly not from the upper-class Boston elite from whence she hailed.

"Mary, I don't feel responsible. James has made a mistake. He can't see that the trouble he's in."

"We're in more trouble than he is at the moment," she pointed.

"Have faith Mary dear," Travis smiled. "We'll get through this, I promise."

+ + + + + + +

It was not long before Hawkins came for them.

Mary could not understand how Travis could remain so calm as they were ushered out of their room, guns aimed firmly at their backs, being forced to march to their deaths. Mary wished she could be just as composed as her father in law but her stomach was twisting itself into a fine collection of knots, intensifying by the fact she knew what was coming.

They emerged into the night with the darkness making her heart pound faster. She could hear voices in the twilight and felt her stomach clench as they were escorted to the gallows. Mary could see its silhouette against the indigo sky.

"I told you I was going to be the one to put the rope around your neck," Jenny sneered into her ear as she came up behind Mary and pulled her away from Travis.

"Get your hands off me," Mary hissed wrenching herself free, but the liberation was brief before Jenny regained her hold, this time twisting her arm behind her back with enough force that any further struggling Mary made might snap the bone.

"I'll break it if I have to," Jenny warned. "So, you mind me and walk where I tell you too."

"You go to hell," Mary spat.

"You'll go first Mary," Jenny sneered with triumph. "I'm going to enjoy this."

Mary looked frantically around to see where Travis was, but she lost sight of him as she was forced to take the path towards the gallows. Her fear was so thick it was almost choking her, but Mary was not about to give those watching the satisfaction of seeing her fear as they turned her into a sacrificial lamb.

Already there was Stuart James. His expression was unreadable, and Mary thought his eyes looked somewhat glazed, like a man who embarked upon a course of action and had discovered along the way that it was not where he wanted to go but had no power to stop the journey.

She stopped short at the foot of the steps leading up to the platform, frozen for a minute as she saw the swinging noose. For a second, the reality of her situation seemed to crowd in on her and her breath caught in her chest. Until this moment, everything had a sense of unreality about it, as if she expected the seven to come riding in at any moment to rescue her.

She did not want to admit most of her hope rested on Chris Larabee.

Now, with the illusion was stripped away, there was the only stark reality. Mary was going to die. She thought of Billy, of how this would affect him and wailed inside her soul not leaving her son an orphan. Breathing hard when Jenny shoved her forward, she almost felt flat on her face on the steps but had somehow managed to remain on her feet because of Jenny's ruthless grip.

Only when she reached the top of the scaffold, did she see Orin ushered to James' side. The rancher wanted an unimpeded view of the Judge's face when she was killed in front of him. Seeing Orin allowed Mary to regain her composure, she would not let him see her fear, not even when Mary sighted the noose dangling only a few yards away from her.

"Time to die," Jenny replied as she forced Mary underneath the rope.

"Go to hell!" Mary hissed, trying not to lose control when she felt the Hessian rope against her skin.

Hawkins who was also on the scaffold, came to Jenny's aid as Mary began to struggle. Mary saw Travis staring at her. His expression was pained as she felt ropes being tied around her wrist as Jenny drape rope around her neck.

Her reason left her when she felt it circle her throat. Squirming in Hawkins's grip, Mary suddenly felt the noose tighten, digging into her neck and managed to see Jenny pulling the slack so she was forced onto her toes to keep from choking. Gasping, Mary struggled to breathe as she glared at Jenny's sneering face.

Good God, the woman was insane.


The gunshot was so loud, Mary jumped startled. As the sound ran in her ears, she realised the pressure against her throat suddenly eased, and the rope above her head fell free, tumbled around her legs. Tugging at the noose around her neck, Mary was gasping as she heard the reaction to the shot. Clutching her throat, she became conscious of Jenny rushing at her. Acting on pure instinct, Mary bent over and ran straight at the woman, headbutting Jenny in the sternum hard enough to shove her over the edge. With a shriek, Jenny fell off the platform, screaming in outrage.

The second gunshot fired penetrated Hawkins's chest. Blood spread across his chest in a crimson pool as the man staggered backward, having been taken by such surprise he did not even cry out. One, two steps and he tumbled over the edge of the scaffold, landing with a dull thud after crossing the short distance. Alone on the platform, Mary had no doubt the bullet had originated a Winchester rifle belonging to a certain tracker who was one of seven.

If Vin was here, then so was Chris.

The thought surfaced so quickly in her mind; she barely had time to ponder the importance of it and her blue eyes searched the darkness, trying to see where he was. Chris was nowhere to be seen, but Mary observed James's men scattering in all directions, trying to regroup after the eruption of gunfire. Deciding her own position was hardly ideal, Mary raced to the steps leading to the ground, eager to get out of the line of fire.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner aimed again, this time he turned his sharpshooter's eye towards the men flanking James and the Judge. Taking a deep breath and releasing it, he squeezed the trigger and sent the bullet forward in a crack of thunder. With the rest of the seven already in position, Vin's role as a sniper would clear the way for them to reach Mary and the Judge. Each shot was delivered in calm deliberation, despite the chaos that followed it. Vin kept funnelled his angry emotions to fuel his concentration.

Even from this distance, he had seen how eager Jenny was to put a noose around Mary's neck, and how spitefully she'd behaved by pulling the rope tight so the widow would choke even before the scaffold doors open beneath her feet. Her face illuminated by the full moon, she bore no resemblance to the girl he had cared for. The bloodthirsty triumph on her face at being the one to send Mary to her death wasn't lost on Vin and for the first time, realised what kind of person she truly was.

For the first time, it sunk in that Ezra was right, it wasn't his fault. He had been played for a fool by a consummate actor. Even now, Vin was astonished by her stunning cruelty. No one could have been fully prepared for Jenny's masterful performance as an innocent while harbouring such evil inside her.

Another bullet exploded out his gun, this one killing the ranch hand standing next to the judge, giving Travis the opening he needed to aid in his defence. The old man reacted swiftly, snatching the dead man's gun before he even hit the ground. Meanwhile, James was scurrying for cover, seeking refuge while his men protected him against the seven men he knew was here by now.

Vin was about to fire again when suddenly, he glimpsed Jenny getting to her feet at the base of the scaffold. Following her gaze, his stomach clenched when he realised, she was glaring at Mary's direction. The blue glow of the moonlight twisted her expression of malice into something supernatural, and he knew what she was thinking at that moment. She intended to kill Mary.

Quickly shifting the direction of his aim, Vin was prepared to put a bullet through her when suddenly, like the vile stench of fetid water, the emotions he felt for the young woman rose to the surface. For a brief instant, the memory of her kisses brushed against his skin, just like her sweet words whispered in her ears. She'd been so convincing, he thought as the heart in his chest ached with pain. When she kissed him under the stars, the affection in her eyes seemed so real. Except it wasn't, it was all a part of her plan to trick him.

That alone made him squeeze the trigger...

...but instead of his ears filling with the sound of an exploding bullet, he was met with the audible click of an empty chamber.

"Shit!" Vin swore, realising he needed to reload. Reaching quickly for the bullets he'd lined up next to him, Vin reloaded his rifle. Even as he did, he knew he was too late, he wouldn't make the shot as she was moving quickly out of range. Oblivious to how close she had come to dying at his hand, Jenny continued her pursuit of Mary Travis who was running off into the night, trying to get out of the way, so the seven took care of business.

Damn, he cursed. Vin had already failed Mary once. He was not about to do it again. Chris and the others were in position, and it appeared the Judge was holding his own as he took refuge in the darkness surrounding the scaffold. James was trying to reach the horses although Chris' plan had dealt with that avenue of escape. Vin could afford to leave this ridge because he was confident his comrades would be able to handle things, even without the help of a sharpshooter. Helping Mary seemed to be the more important task right now.

Besides, it was time Vin met the real Jenny Miller face to face.

+ + + + + + +

Chris hated waiting until the eleventh hour to move in on the Judge and Mary but knew they had little choice in the matter. The plan hinged on James having the pieces for his vengeance in place. Once the rescue got underway, Chris knew James' first thought would be to flee. If nothing else, the rancher knew how to save his own skin.

While all eyes were focussed on the procession moving Mary to the gallows, Chris crept into the old stables attached to the waystation. James and his men had left their horses there while they waited for Travis to arrive. Entering the open doors, Chris immediately began unlatching the gates of every occupied pen. Already panicked by the gunfire from Vin's Winchester, the beasts were stamping their hoofs against the old straw anxiously, growing increasingly agitated. Once the gates were open, Chris got clear of the minor stampede as they bolted towards the door.

Taking cover in one of the disused stables while he waited for the animals to thunder past, Chris hoped their fear took them a long way from here. Chris had no intention of allowing James to escape when suddenly, a blast of gunfire exploded around his ear. Chris had barely enough time to throw himself behind a wall before bullets tore into the space behind him. He landed heavily on his shoulder, feeling bone crack and cursing when he was certain that he had dislocated his shoulder.

He rolled onto his stomach, cursing as he heard footsteps running into the stable with him. They were followed by voices he did not recognize as belonging to any of the seven.

"They let the horses go!" Someone shouted.

"I didn't see anyone come out," another voice returned, and Chris knew instantly it was James. "They're still in here. Fan out!"

The throbbing in his injured shoulder was intense, but he endured it. Chris wasn't certain how many men were in the stable with him, but he was confident he could get past them. His injured shoulder was not his shooting hand, and as long as that worked, he'd handle everything else. Keeping low, he listened carefully, identifying the sounds in the stable despite the gunfire outside.

The amount of dry hay against the floor blunted the noise from footsteps, and Chris risked peering past the wall he was hiding behind when another barrage of gunfire forced him back into place. The wall in front of him, splintered as it became riddled with bullets.

Time to make a run for it, he decided.

Bracing himself, he bolted forward during the lull of reloading, his guns blazing before he threw himself into another pen. Someone uttered a cry, and Chris guessed he'd hit someone. Something moved above, and Chris looked up to see one of James' men overhead in the loft, attempting to ambush him. Chris drew without a second thought and the man uttered a cry as his body became riddled with bullets. He jerked about spasmodically before tumbling off the edge, landing on the hay with a sickening squelch.

More gunfire broke out, but this time it wasn't directed at him. He nursed his shoulder for a few minutes as the back and forth of bullets continued beyond his sphere. Then rather abruptly, it all fell silent, and Chris wondered how a stalemate was reached. Moving cautiously to the door with weapons drawn, he was poised to shoot if called upon.

"Chris!" He heard Josiah.

Chris let out a sigh of relief and emerged to see the tall preacher with a firm grip on Stuart James.

"Good going Preacher,' Chris commented.

"I'm glad I could be of help," the big man winked and then noted the two bodies strewn across the stable floor. 'You didn't do so badly yourself.'

"Don't you believe that for a second," Chris responded before turning his attention to James.

"I told you to let it go," Chris glared at James, his eyes boring holes into man's skull.

"You and your men murdered my nephew!" James hissed, so deluded by grief, the fiction of Lucas being wronged was beginning to feel real to him.

"Nobody murdered your nephew Stuart," Josiah responded. "Lucas killed himself, and you're doing the same foolish thing by trying to avenge something that was never wrong, to begin with."

"If it weren't for you and that damned Judge, Lucas would be alive!" James screamed, starting to become more and more unhinged the more he shouted. Chris wondered if the man wasn't letting the grief drive him into madness.

Chris shook his head and turned away, leaving him to Josiah's capable hands because he wanted to find Mary.

"This isn't over," James shouted defiantly. "Do you hear me! Mark my words, I'll make you and Travis pay for what you did to Lucas! Not just you but the whole goddamn town! They betrayed Lucas to that Judge, and I'm not going to forget it. YOU HEAR ME LARABEE, THIS ISN'T OVER!"

Chris stopped listening.

+ + + + + + +

The gunfire had ceased by the time Chris emerged into the night. James hadn't brought a large complement of men since he never factored in a confrontation with the seven in this plan. Much of the work had been done by Vin, whose skilled marksmanship had taken down most of the rancher's hired guns from a distance, allowing the rest of the seven to close in. Once they became aware of the odds, the other gunmen opted to surrender if it was the only way to survive the night.

Approaching the gallows, he searched the night for the blonde widow, glad she had the sense to keep her head down until the shooting was done. Catching sight of Judge Travis, Chris strode over to the old lawyer, grateful to see he had come through the fight relatively unscathed. Nathan was tending to a gash above the man's right eye while Buck, Ezra and JD were dealing with what was left of James' men including Ray Waldon.

"Good to see you're in one piece Judge," Chris responded upon reaching him, genuinely meaning it.

"No doubt, thanks to your help and your telegram," Travis answered.

Shortly before leaving Four Corners, they'd sent the Judge a telegram, warning him of Mary's abduction and what would most likely be the result of it. Travis had been instructed not to leave for the rendezvous with Stuart James until the seven had arrived in Eagle Bend so they could follow the agents sent to watch him, from a distance. It had been a risky plan, but the gamble had been worth it.

"Is Mary safe?" Travis asked, assuming her lack of presence here meant she was with one of the seven.

Chris stiffened. 'She isn't here?'

Come to think of it, Chris realised, he hadn't seen her since the shooting had started. Now that the fighting was done, she should have reappeared, making the usual nuisance of herself.

"No," Travis shook his head. "We lost sight of her after the shooting started. I assumed that you got her to safety?"

"Nathan?" Chris shot the healer a look. "Did you see where she went?" Chris fought to keep the emotion and the worry out of his voice.

"Sorry Chris," Nathan shook his head. "I didn't see her."

"Damn!" Chris swung around, his shoulder flaring in pain as he surveyed the area. It was not equal to the tightness spreading across his chest as he searched the darkness.

"Hey, anybody see Vin?"

+ + + + + + +

Mary stopped running when she finally ran out of breath. Although the gunfire had ceased, she was left with the quandary of being unable to tell what the outcome of it was. A part of her wanted to go back and investigate, but another part argued the sensibility of remaining out of sight. If the seven were unable to stop James or his men, then it would be up to her to get help. Mary looked around her surroundings and discovered she could see very little except she was surrounded by desert in all directions.

She stood in the middle of the parched terrain, thoughts racing at what she ought to do. Without the gunfire, the silence felt eerie, and she wanted badly to re-join the others, suddenly aware of how vulnerable she was out in the open like this. Anything could happen to a woman out in the Territory alone and usually did. Not that what she escaped was any better.

Mary was ruminating on this when suddenly she saw heard someone running at her. She spun around just in time to see Jenny coming at her with what appeared to be a branch from an old tree. Ducking low, she barely avoided being struck and stumbled onto her dirt, when she lost her footing.

"You bitch! You think you're getting away from me?"

The woman screeched like a banshee and Mary scrambled away, wondering if Waldon knew his lover was utterly insane. Jenny brought the tree branch down again, forcing Mary to roll over to avoid being hit. The wood dug into the ground, creating a divot in the dry dirt. Scrambling to her feet, Mary started running, having no wish to get into a physical confrontation with the woman. The mania in Jenny's eyes told Mary she'd lose that contest.

Frenzied or not, Jenny was not about to let her escape and in a last-ditch effort to stop Mary, threw the branch like a spear. The blunt edge of it struck the back of Mary's head, sending waves of pain through her body as she stumbled forward. Landing hard against the ground, Mary's head swam with disorientation as her forehead scraped the ground.

Get up! Get up! Get up!

Mary told herself as she felt the pain throbbing inside her skull. She had to get up before Jenny caught up and was clinging to that thought when suddenly, she felt Jenny's knee driving into her back, pinning her against the dirt once more. Fingers dug into her hair, yanking her head back painfully and Mary's hair spilled free from its restrictive bun.

"I'm going to do this myself," Jenny hissed, breathing hard but triumphant. From the folds of her dress, she produced a thin-bladed knife and pressed it against Mary's throat. "I should have done this myself. Ray's so angry with me because of you, and you're going to pay."

"No, she's not."

Both Mary and Jenny found themselves staring at Vin Tanner had come out of nowhere, his rifle primed and ready to fire. It wasn't hard for Vin to track either woman down since neither had made much effort to cover their tracks. Once again, the madness in Jenny's voice chilled Vin to the bone, and he wondered at her ability to hide it behind such a pleasing shape.

For a second, no one spoke. Time froze around them as Vin glared at Jenny, the rifle steady in his grip as he maintained his aim.

"You going to shoot me, Vin?" Jenny broke the silence, her face melting into the visage of the sweet innocent he'd come to care for.

"If I have to," Vin's voice was hard, almost merciless.

"You don't want to hurt me, Vin," Jenny said sweetly. "Not for her."

"Let her go, Jenny. I ain't gonna tell you twice."

"But Vin," Jenny pressed the blade against Mary's throat and broke the skin. Mary let out a soft groan of pain. "You can't do it. You love me."

"Liked maybe,' Vin returned. 'And that was someone else, not you.'

"I'm still your Jenny," she insisted. "When I kill this bitch, I'll show you that I am."

"No thanks," Vin answered coldly and pulled the trigger.

The bullet caught her between the eyes. He could have tried to wound her, but Vin knew with every breath there was in her body, she would try to take Mary with her and Vin wasn't risking the widow for anything. Death had caught Jenny by such surprise; she barely had time to scream. Vin watched the back of her head explode outwards, spreading blood and brains across the dry, desert sand.

Vin closed his eyes and lowered his gun, a little piece of him dying inside at what he had just done. She never really existed, the girl he kissed under the moonlight. She'd been his illusion, and in the days to come, he hoped thinking that would make it easier to bear because right now, his heart was breaking.


The minute Vin returned with Mary, Chris knew what had happened.

There was a finality to the single gunshot fired in the distance, that resonated through all of them. James and his men were tied up at the waystation, their prison for the Judge and Mary becoming their temporary cell. Once that bit of business was carried out, they fanned out in search of Mary until the rifle blast froze them all in their tracks.

Vin and Mary emerged from the darkness, drawn to the light of the campfires. The surge of relief that flooded Chris when he saw Mary was stronger than he liked to admit and for the first time, was forced to concede he might have some feeling for the widow. It was unformed and vague, but there was no denying the spark she seemed to ignite whenever he was in her presence.

But that was a long way off yet. He was still too filled with Sarah and Adam.

Right now, Chris was more concerned about Vin.

When they first return to the others, Vin and Mary's appearance was met with gratitude. Mary ran straight into the Judge's embrace, and when the old man held his daughter in law, his stony demeanour wavered enough for everyone to know how just how much it meant to him to have her back safely. Travis was not an overtly sentimental man, but his eyes spoke volumes as he hugged Mary back.

When she parted from the Judge, Mary's gaze sought out Chris and though nothing was said, their eyes remained locked for a few seconds. At that moment, Mary understood they had reached a watershed moment, and things may never be the same between them again.

"Glad to see you're safe and sound Mary," Buck Wilmington declared with a grin, bringing them both back to the now.

"Thanks to all of you," Mary smiled, and Chris noticed that she did not look at Vin when she said that.

"What about Jenny?" JD asked. "Where is she?"

Vin looked away for a moment and his blue eyes, often reflections of his soul and his mood, turned black as he answered. "Dead."

"Mr Tanner I'm sorry." Ezra stared at the tracker with a concerned expression on his usually unreadable face.

"What happened?" Travis asked.

"She was going to kill me," Mary spoke up and spared Vin the anguish of saying it himself. "If it weren't for Vin she would have. Jenny was insane. Even when Vin pointed his gun at her and told her to stop, she wouldn't. I don't think anything would have made a difference. She wanted me to die."

Chris had a feeling despite Mary's efforts; Vin was not feeling so easily absolved. Walking past them once Mary had explained, no one was in the mind to stop Vin. Chris's jaw tightened watching the young man leave, his pain following him like red trails of blood. The gunslinger would have preferred to be the one to pull the trigger on Jenny Miller, to spare Vin the agony but fate was a capricious thing. It was seldom kind.

"Chris," Buck stared him straight in the eye. "You need to go after him."

Chris sucked in his breath and nodded. Buck was right. Someone had to say the words to make this situation mildly tolerable for Vin, and it had fallen to him. Buck knew people, and if he felt Chris needed to do this, then he wasn't going to question it.

In affairs of the heart, Buck knew his stuff.

Chris gave Buck a little smile to which his old friend returned. For a few seconds, unspoken words passed between them and whatever rift there was between them melted away. Their friendship may never be what it once was, but it would survive.

"Buck, can you and Nathan go see about finding her body? I don't want Vin to have to deal with it any more than he has to. Mary, you think you can show them where it is?"

Mary understood what he was going to do and why. 'Of course.'

Chris gave her a look of gratitude. "The rest of you hitch that wagon and get James and his men ready to travel. The sooner we get the hell out of here, the better."

To that, no one could disagree.

+ + + + + + +

He found Vin preparing Peso for travel at the campsite where they'd left their horse.

The tracker had heard him coming and paused what he was doing until Chris reached him. Truth be told, there was no way anyone was sneaking up on Vin. Chris had learnt this much about the man in the short time they had ridden together. The tracker had an almost uncanny sense of hearing and smell, traits probably necessary during his days as a buffalo hunter.

"I don't want to talk about it," Vin said before Chris could speak.

"Fair enough," Chris nodded in understanding as he paused behind Vin. The tracker made no effort to face him, and Chris was not about to press the issue on that point. "You don't have to talk, just listen."

He saw Vin stiffened as if he was going to protest before thinking better of it and then abandoning the idea.

"You did what you to Vin. You didn't kill out of anger, or spite or any of the resentment you felt for her because of what she did. You pulled the trigger to save a life."

"You don't know that," Vin returned. "I don't even know that."

"I know you," Chris replied, "and that's enough for me.'

"You don't know how angry I was," Vin confessed turning around to face him. "She played me for a fool Chris!"

"I know," Chris said sympathetically. "I wanted her dead too, Vin. I wanted to do it myself because of what she did to you. The only reason you fired on her is because she gave you no choice. If you want to blame someone for her death, blame her. Don't blame yourself."

Vin resumed what he was doing, unable to look at him.

'Vin, I blame myself every day for what happened to my wife and son Vin. I know if I had been home that night, they would still be alive. It's a guilt that's torn me up inside, that's changed more than just my life. It's changed me. I know the man who was husband to Sarah and father to Adam is dead. My guilt killed him. I'll never be that man again and I sometimes I miss him. Don't let the same thing happen to you, not for someone like Jenny. Trust me, Vin, you don't want the horror of looking into a mirror one day and having no idea who's staring back you."

Vin didn't speak but the words penetrated. Yeah, his heart was broke alright, but he had no wish to lose himself because of it. Chris' life was a cautionary tale to that effect.

"I think I could have loved her Chris. As crazy as she turned out to be, I really think I could have fallen in love with her."

"Maybe you could have, and someday you will. Don't eat yourself up over her because she was too twisted to know how precious that was. Look Vin, I ain't gonna lie. Its gonna hurt like hell but tonight I realised, it doesn't hurt forever.'

Vin nodded, his back to Chris because he didn't trust himself to meet the Man in Black's gaze.

"I'm gonna head out on the trail for a couple of days. I need to be alone for a while."

'Alright,' Chris nodded in understanding. Vin was raw right now and if the best way for him to heal was to spend some time alone, so be it. Chris would not intrude on that.

"Sure," the gunslinger smiled faintly. "You go on and do what you have to do. We'll take care of this."

"Thanks," Vin tipped his hat at Chris and mounted Peso.

Chris watched the tracker disappear into the night. Chris knew Vin would be back among them soon enough because he was part of the seven and more importantly because Vin was a part of him.

+ + + + + + +

"I can't believe it," Josiah Sanchez said as he downed his glass of Red Eye.

"Believe it," Chris frowned as he eased back into his chair at their usual watering hole and signalled a passing barmaid to bring him another drink.

It had been two weeks since Stuart James was brought in for the attempted murder of Mary Travis and Chris had honestly believed that would be the end to the rancher and his delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately, a whole bunch of fancy lawyers had seen to it James walked free, citing psychological stress and a whole bunch of incomprehensible medical terms that impressed the judge and the jury. Nor did it help that James was brought in by seven gunmen with less than stellar reputation.

As a result, the man's sentence was suspended, and Stuart James was a free man.

"You think he'll stay away from the Judge and Mary?" JD asked, unable to believe how the law could allow this to happen.

"I don't think he'd be foolish enough to come after them again," Nathan retorted. "Not after Judge Cahill had to say about him being the prime suspect if any harm came to the Judge and Miss Mary."

"Gentlemen," Ezra Standish lowered the paper he was reading. "I think it's safe to say that one who is rich can get away with anything. Take this fellow here," the gambler glanced at his paper once more. "Donald Avery, real estate tycoon worth millions, according to this article has been accused of numerous crimes that miraculously seem to evaporate. Men like this make criminal charges disappear and unfortunately, that is a fact of life."

"Great," JD frowned. "So, you're saying if we're rich we can do anything and not answer for it?"

"Most of the time," Ezra sighed. "Mr Avery here has rather made an art of it, no doubt like so many others before and after him."

"Stop reading that," Nathan remarked grabbing the paper away from him. "You're only torturing yourself over that guy's money."

Ezra smiled faintly at Nathan, somewhat aware over the past two weeks that the healer had taken it upon himself to rehabilitate Ezra into a slightly tolerable human being with scruples. It amused Ezra to let Nathan think that he could succeed. "I am merely gaining intelligence regarding the man and his fortune, who knows he might have a daughter who seeks her thrills with charming professional gamblers."

Josiah rolled his eyes. "Dream on Ezra."

"How come we never see Vin anymore?" JD inquired, missing the presence of the tracker around them.

"He's around," Chris drawled. "Just needs some quiet time on his own occasionally."

"Can't say I blame him," Buck remarked. "Boy got his heart cut out because of that girl. I keep convincing to come to this place I found, but no, he won't hear anything of it. I mean he's only a little older than JD, he's gotta have needs."

"Jeez Buck," Chris winced. "Let the man alone. If he needs company, he'll take care of it himself."

"Mr Tanner is not the kind who partakes in the company of ladies of the night Mr Wilmington," Ezra nodded in agreement.

"Well, what about the rest of you?" Buck looked around the table.

Nathan raised a brown and stated. "And this is where I decide I'm going to my infirmary."

"And me to my church." Josiah retorted.

"This wouldn't be Wickestown would it?" Chris asked.

"You know it?" Buck stared at him, his face lighting up.

"I've been there a couple of times." The gunslinger drawled. What he didn't say was he knew a rather charming working girl there who went by the name of Lydia.

"Well I'm taking JD there," Buck announced and JD just about choked on his whiskey.

"You are?" The young man gaped at Buck with the expression of a doe caught in a hunter's sights.

"Sure," Buck grinned. "It will make a man out you."

"I'm already a man," JD protested.

"Trust me; you'll be a grown man after this."

"Mr Wilmington, you are the basest creature that has ever lived, you know this don't you?"

"So, you'll be joining us?" the big man treated Ezra to a mischievous grin.

"I think not," Ezra retorted haughtily. "I prefer to find company with women that won't require me to get poultices from a doctor after the event. Besides, it's too much trouble.'

"Trouble?" Buck snorted. "How much trouble could you have with a working girl? It's not like she was a wife or anything."

"If I seemed to recall, you having no problem getting in over your head in places like that Buck," Chris gave him a look. "In fact, I remember pulling your ass out of the fire quite a few times."

"Well I can assure you that I'm not gonna get into any trouble at all," Buck said empathetically. 'I'm taking JD to Wickestown, and that's all there is to it. You're welcome to come along if you want Chris."

"I might just do that," Chris smiled.

"I mean honestly," Buck frowned, wondering if his friends considered him a rowdy buffoon. "How much trouble could I possibly get to in Wickestown?"


Next Story: The Faithful

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