Always The Lady

by ReaperWriter

Disclaimer: I don’t own them, I wish I did, but I don’t. However, I write for the love, not for money. Lilian Grace “Lili or LiliGrace” MacKenna is mine, and any use of her must be with permission from me. I’m nice, so just ask.

Summary/Teaser: An old friend of Ezra’s arrives in Four Corners, sparking memories and feelings he thought had died. But will this unusual woman be a friend and ally to the Seven, or a threat to one of their own?

Size: Approx 109K

Four Corners, Early June....

Chris rode into town, tired and dusty. He had just returned from Netties’s, where he had ended up mending part of a fence. The work was hot and exhausting, and the ride back hadn’t helped much. All Chris wanted was to down a good stiff shot of whiskey, clean up some, eat a bit of dinner, and head to bed. It sounded a good plan to him, until JD came scampering up to him. Despite the younger man’s continuing well of new experiences, Chris suspected he would always retain the quality of a jolly puppy.

“Chris!” he called out, just as soon as he saw him. Chris sighed.

“What is it JD? I’m a little tired.”

“Rider came in half an hour ago, Chris. Hitched his horse up at the saloon and headed in. I wouldn’t have thought anything if I hadn’t seen the gun belt. Two six shooters, and a rifle across the back of the horse,” JD got out breathlessly. Chris was now paying full attention.

“You know of anybody in town expecting a visitor?” Chris asked. JD shook his head. Chris sighed again, seeing his quiet evening slipping away. “Well, we’d best head over to the saloon and see what’s what.” JD nodded, trying to look more sheriff like. The two men headed down the street.

+ + + + + + +

Clayton was working the desk of the saloon’s small hotel when JD and Chris stepped in. “Good Afternoon, Sheriff, Mr. Larabee. What can we do for you today?”

“Clayton,” JD said, trying to come across as in charge, “I saw a man come in earlier wearing a gun belt, with a rifle on his saddle. Is he in the bar or did he check in?”

“Oh, the one with the gun belt,” Clayton said, a funny smile on his face. Flipping through the registry book in front of him, he found the entry. “One L.G. MacKenna by name. Checked in about three-quarters hour ago. The luggage arrived ahead on the stage.”

“Did he say what he was in town for?” Chris asked.

“No sir, can’t rightly remember anything being said about why,” Clayton said, closing the guest book. “Only something about cleaning up, then finding dinner.”

“We’ll wait on him,” Chris said, as he and JD moved over to two end chairs near the window.

“You’re welcome to wait,” Clayton said, “but it will be a while before you see ‘him’”. Chris gave the funny little desk man an odd look and settled in.

+ + + + + + +

Half an hour passed, and Chris was wondering if he should have asked about the back exit when JD hit him in the arm, and jumped to his feet, removing his hat. Chris looked up, and was shocked to see a beautiful young woman, maybe 25, in a stunning green dress descending the stairs. Her chestnut brown hair, covered on top by a matching hat, spilled down to her shoulders in carefully arranged curls.

“Gentleman,” Clayton said, grinning, “this is the guest you wanted to see.” Chris felt his own mouth drop, as much as he could imagine JD’s had.

However, before either of them could say anything functional, Ezra stepped out of the bar and gambling hall portion of the saloon, and stopped dead, managing only one loud exclamatory sentence. “Holy Mother of God, Lilian Grace!”

The beautiful woman turned to the gambler in surprise. “Ezra! Ezra Standish What in the name of St. Francis are you doing here!?”

“Me!?” the shocked gambler said. “Lili Darling, what are you doing here, in this middle of no where town?”

“You know this lady?” JD managed to recover his voice. Ezra and the young woman, now almost at the bottom of the stairs, both turned to the two men.

“Forgive my friend’s manners, ma’am,” Chris said, as JD blushed deep crimson.

“Gentleman, may I introduce Miss Lilian Grace MacKenna, also known to the music halls of N’awlin’s as Lili Darling,” Ezra said, taking the lady’s hand, and gently brushed his lips against the back of her knuckles. “Miss Lili was the premiere vocalist in N’awlin’s for much of my stay.”

“He really is being too kind to me gentlemen,” Lili said, laughing. She continued down the last few steps. Turning for a minute, she smiled at Clayton. “Did you get my goods squared away in the safe?”

Clayton smiled and handed her a slip of paper. “Just need you to initial next to the inventory, Miss MacKenna. Two Colt side arms, one munitions belt with forty rounds, one Winchester rifle, one sawed off shot gun, two bowie knives, three throwing knives.”

“Thank You, Clayton,” Lili said, turning back to the men she had been speaking to. “Ezra, may I buy you and your friends dinner?”

Ezra still wasn’t over the shock or the fact the lady had just attested to quite an arsenal, but his incessant need for control refused to allow him any show of surprise. “Lili, this is JD Dunne, sheriff of Four Corners, and one of my associates, Mr. Chris Larabee.”

Lili shook hands with both men, an amused smile running over her face. “Why Ezra, running with law men and gunfighters? You have changed. It’s a pleasure to meet you gentlemen, please join us for dinner.”

“I just came in from a long day’s ride, and I’m afraid I’d be poor company,” Chris said. “And I believe JD is having dinner with his friend Casey. Another time, perhaps.” Both men touched their hats. “Ma’am.”

As they headed out the door, JD shot a look at Chris. “We still don’t know what she’s doing here.”

Chris smiled softly, chuckling just a bit. “I’m sure she’ll be a lot more receptive to Ezra than she will to us.”

+ + + + + + +

“So Ezra, shall we get a table?” Lili asked. Ezra stood for a moment, assessing her with his poker face while fighting his own emotions and memories. Her poker face was just as good. After her initial shock at seeing him, she had shifted back into the same unreadable expression that adorned his face.

“Lili, perhaps another time,” Ezra said. She didn’t flinch.

“Surely you won’t force me to eat alone on my first night in town, Mr. Standish,” her voice taking a slightly cooler tone for just a moment. Then it immediately softened again. “Please Ezra, for old times sake. We were once friends.”

The southerner felt his heart beat a bit faster and noticed, for the first time, the gold and porcelain pendant around her neck, hanging from a spun gold chain. Memories flooded his mind of a time when he thought he could finally trust someone, care about someone without them hurting him, even if they did not know how much he cared. The late night conversations in the colorful cafes on Bourbon street, after she had finished her shows for the evening. Their habit of stalking certain books in the book stores. Occasionally, Lili would even gamble with him. She was as good as he was, maybe better.

New Orleans, Five Years Previous

Ezra sat sighing. New Year’s Eve had come and he had no one to spend the evening with. To his knowledge, his Mother was in Alabama hustling Yankee carpetbaggers. A man like Ezra Standish didn’t make friends; hell, he hardly made acquaintances. One did not become acquainted with those you took money from. Friends gave you a conscience, and that was something a con man could nere afford, not that he didn’t have standards. Never take all of anyone’s money. Always target those who could afford the lose. Never cheat a woman. Still, Ezra was what he was, even as he flipped the cards over on his game of solitaire. However, that the knowledge did not make the loneliness on nights like these any easier.

“Monsieur,” a waiter next to him said. Ezra looked up to see a brandy snifter of good cognac on a tray which the waiter set in front of him. “From the Mademoiselle at the table near the window. She says, if you wish someone to make conversation with, you might join her.” With that, the waiter made his way back towards a table of more boisterous celebrants of the coming New Year. Ezra looked where the waiter had directed and saw a lovely young woman, perhaps twenty one or so, sitting at a table alone, sipping her own cognac. Her hat covered her eyes with a small black veil, so he could not tell the color, but he could tell she was beautiful. Her nut colored hair, deep brown with dancing gold and bronze highlights, could be seen cascading in careful curls to her shoulders. Her gown, a moss colored gray green, was lovely, yet conservative. Obviously, a lady of taste. Ezra stood and walked over.

“I thank you for the drink, Miss,” he said. “But, I am afraid I am not in the market for a companion.”

“Sir, I believe you mistake me,” she said, pulling up her veil to reveal a pair of deep brown eyes, pools of chocolate that seemed bottomless, and yet guarded. “I am a vocalist at a few of the local clubs, and I have finished my show for the evening. As I am new in town, with no family here to speak of, I was merely hoping for a bit for friendly conversation for a while. I do find holidays a time when no one should drink alone.”

Ezra listened to the delicate, pure contra-alto voice. This creature was totally enchanting. “I do deeply apologize, my dear lady, for my most egregious mistake. I do hope you shall forgive me. My name is Ezra Standish, originally of Georgia.”

“Forgiven and forgotten, Mr. Standish. I am Miss Lilian Grace MacKenna of Massachusetts originally, though I shall be making my home here for now at least,” she responded warmly. “If you would care to join me, you are most welcome.”

“Thank you, Miss MacKenna,” he said, taking a seat. “I do believe I shall accept your invitation.” Ezra Standish removed his hat and took a seat.

He sighed just a bit, looking back up at her sparkling brown eyes, the color of rich chocolate. “Who am I to refuse a lady anything?” Ezra said, the poker face never slipping. “Inez,” he called, taking her arm and leading her to the upper dining area of the saloon floor. Pulling out a chair, he waited until Lili was comfortably settled, before seating himself. Inez came over, and Ezra ordered the house special.

The two people sat in silence for a while, just looking at each other. Finally, Lili broke the silence that had engulfed them. “What possessed you to leave New Orleans, Ezra?”

“How’s your husband, Lili?” Ezra asked, getting to the point. “Or have you parted ways?”

Lili looked hard at his unreadable pokerface. “Ezra, have you been drinking heavily? Or did something hit you on the head? I have never been married.”

“Lili, when I arrived back from Baton Rogue, Mother informed me you had left on a wedding cruise,” Ezra responded. Lili’s eyes flashed with anger for just a minute, then switched to a look of humor.

“So I can assume you never received the note I left with Maude then?” Lili asked politely, sipping her whiskey.

“No, mother never handed over any missive in her possession. Though I should say that your leaving a note would raise you in my esteem. I could hardly believe that you could not wait for me to return, so that I might at least attend the happy nuptial,” Ezra replied, mainlining his shot, before pouring another one.

Lili just shook her head gently. “Ezra,” she said seriously, in a quiet voice. “You were my only close friend and the nearest thing to family I had in New Orleans. Do you think I would wed without you present? Do you remember Alexander Southington?”

“Yes,” Ezra said, thinking back on their early days in New Orleans. “I do believe he owned the Orpheus Club and the Tres Belle, two of the music clubs where you sang.”

“And do you remember his son Owen, who managed the Orpheus, and his charming lady friend, Eliza, who greatly enjoyed my singing?” Lili asked, as Inez sat another round of drinks and their food in front of them.

“Yes,” Ezra said, still making no connection.

“Alexander also owned the showboat Dixie Angel, the one he used to send his son and his new wife on a wedding cruise up to St. Louis . The wedding cruise I was hired to sing on,” she said, merriment twinkling in her eyes as she bit into a piece of roast. “My compliments to your cook, this is an excellent roast.”

Ezra just about gagged on his bite of potatoes. Sing? On the wedding cruise, she had been entertainment? I will kill Mother! “Once again, my dear Lili, it appears I have acted to hastily. I do hope you shall except my apologies.”

Lili registered what Ezra’s question in answer to her first inquiry actually implied. “Ezra, are you telling me you left New Orleans because you were under the impression I had gotten myself in the matrimonial way?”

Ezra said nothing, pulling the pack of Faro cards out of his pocket and began shuffling them. Lili heaved a quiet sigh and ate a few more bites. Outside, dusk was settling over the town of Four Corners, and Lili was aware that she needed to go stable her strawberry roan, Berowne, at the livery.

“Look, Ezra, I rented a suite here for the next week at least,” Lili said, demurely dabbing her lips. “Number 8. I need to go see that my horse is stabled and cared for, and if I find a competent blacksmith, get him reshod tomorrow. Please come see me. Whatever the time. I’ve missed you.” With that, Lili pulled some coins out of her purse, walked over to the bar, and paid Inez for their dinner and drinks. She also paid for a bottle of whiskey to be taken to Ezra, guessing her friend the Gambler needed it.

Glancing once more at him where he sat, head down, shuffling his cards, she shook her head and headed outside to take care of Berowne.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra played over the conversation in his mind. She wasn’t married. She never had been. It was typical of his mother to pull something like this on him. Lili and Maude never had a congenial relationship. Maude had berated him for making any sort of attachment to anyone. After all, attachments to places and people just weren’t good for business. Lili found Maude overly conniving. With their continued acquaintance, Ezra had begun to employ less tricks in his profession. Hell, he even considered giving up the business altogether and going straight. The two of them painted the town together, going dancing, dining, and playing all over New Orleans. On Sundays, Lili insisted on her need to attend Episcopalian services in the morning, and then the two of them would go for a ride in one of the cities parks. Sometimes, they would stalk the bookstores of the French Quarter, looking for their favorite tomes. Somewhere along the way, Ezra’s feelings had deepened from acquaintance to friendship and then to something more. Love was the last thing he had expected or desired to have happen, especially when Lili seemed to show no signs of returning the emotion.

Ezra grimaced as he thought of a time a month before his ill fated trip to Baton Rogue. He had passed the shop window with Lili just once, but he remembered her stopping to look. It was a small jeweler’s shop, and displayed in the window were a collection of necklaces with pendants. All were gold, and the pendants held small porcelain miniatures of nature things. The loveliest, in his opinion was a rose. A week later, Ezra had an excellent night’s work, and when he met up with Lili, he was prepared to celebrate. However, his friend looked sad. She asked him if they could spend time together another night and excused herself.

Ezra, completely deflated, had left to walk the streets for a while. He ended up in front of the shop, which had a closed sign on the door, but a light still burned inside, he could see the jeweler rearranging his counters. He had knocked on impulse, and when the man came to the door, inquired on the price of the pendant. The jeweler sold it to him for a pittance of what it was worth, saying no one wanted roses this year and he was glad to be rid of it.

Ezra drifted back out of the past and focused again on his cards, wondering finally what Lili was doing here. She had never told him. He decided it was something he needed to know. He took a fresh shot of whiskey and started a game of solitaire in order to prepare himself. Courage, Ezra. Courage.

+ + + + + + +

Yosemite stared at the pretty lady who was feeding her horse in his livery. It surprised him that she had owned the horse, since the saddle was a plain working saddle, not the type used by a lady at all. He had to admit though, the beauty of the well kept animal matched the loveliness of his owner.

“Thank you, Mr. Yosemite,” Lili said, handing him the empty feed bag. She had paid for a week’s board in advance, as well as a shoeing. Berowne looked grateful to be resting. The ride for the last few days had been rough, since she had spent it away from civilization. Berowne was tired, she was tired, and they both needed a good bath. Yosemite’s assistant would take care of the bath for Berowne, while she had washed up before coming down for dinner. Now, she planned to go up to her room, read for just a bit, and then turn in.

She swept out of the Livery and headed back to the saloon and hotel. She made her way upstairs, unlocked her room, and entered quietly. This was the sitting room, well furnished with a small table and two chairs, and a chaise lounge for a couch. There was also a wide screen blocking a small lady’s sized tub and wash table. Through a door covered with a lace curtain was the bedroom, with a medium sized bed, small wardrobe, a rocking chair, and her own trunk, which had arrived on the stage early the same day she had. Lili slipped into the bedroom, and began undoing the buttons on her blouse. There were days when she wished she could simply dress as men do all the time. It was easier to get in and out of and wasn’t nearly as heavy. Sliding out of the blouse, she reached back to unbutton her skirt, allowing it to slip to the floor. She stepped out of it, and began to undo the hooks on her corset, which covered her camisole and pantaloons. As she dropped the restrictive undergarment, she breathed out a sigh. She hated that thing. Even though she didn’t lace it insanely tight, it was still uncomfortable. It felt good to be in the cool camisole and pantaloons. Lili sat down on an old rocker in the corner, unlacing her boots. Soon, she was padding around in stocking feet. As she sat down and began removing her hair pins, something brushed her arm and she looked down to see her pendant.

New Orleans, four years previous...

Lili had taken to doing shows exclusively for Alexander Southington at his two music halls, the Orpheus Club and the Tres Belle and had been given a personal dressing room at both. She finished her set for the evening and entered her Orpheus Club dressing room. Sitting down at her dressing table, she had just begun to undo her gown’s buttons when she saw it. The package sat with a rose across it, the lower stem covered by a rolled up parchment. She took off the attached ribbon and unrolled the scroll.

Lili Darling~

Roses shall lose their beauty
As shall this one, in time
The other shall never lose it’s beauty
But it shall never compare
To the beauty of you.
I only wish I had the courage to
Tell you in person.

Lili smelled the lovely cream colored rose, her favorite kind, and looked down at the small, lovely box. Opening it, she caught her breath. It was the pale pink rose pendant. The one she had seen and loved at the jeweler’s. She simply couldn’t believe it.

She sat staring, trying to discern the meaning. She often received gifts from stage door Johnnies, but they were kept away from her dressing room, and all gifts were held in the office for her. No one could get this far back stage unless they were known and had previously visited her here. There was only one such person, Ezra.

He had remembered. He had gotten it for her. He had given her gifts before, but never anything so beautiful, or expensive... and that poem. Lili reached out a shaky hand, trying to reconcile what it meant in her mind. She had been attracted to Ezra since the beginning, and over time, she had fallen for him, mind and soul. But at the same time, Lili had fought the emotion. Shadrach, her fiancé, was only a year dead. Could she forget him so easily for one so different?

Picking up the pendant, she held it against her skin. It looked perfect. She carefully secured the necklace around her neck and let it fall. The weight felt natural, and she left it be. Whatever it would mean to him, she was not about to take the necklace off.

Lili paused in her movement. What might have been if not for Maude? The woman was so different from her own parents, and yet in a way they were the same. William and Eleanor MacKenna had wanted to control every single aspect of her and her brother Billy’s lives, just as Maude seemed to think she could control Ezra.

Shaking her head, Lili quickly removed the rest of the pins and the comb holding her hair in place. It fell in a long, curling curtain to just past her shoulder blades. She picked up her brush and began running it through her hair. After getting all the tangles out, she headed over to her trunk and pulled her nightgown and dressing gown out. She swiftly changed into the night gown, laying the dressing gown over the rocker. She had just begun to plait the thick brown hair, with it’s threads of gold and bronze, when the knock came at the door.

“Who is it?” Lili said, placing the ribbon in her hand down on the table, and picking up a small derringer that had been hidden in her hand bag.

“It’s Ezra, Lili,” came the soft southern drawl from the other side of the door. “May I come in?”

“Hold on just a minute, please,” Lili said. She ducked into the bedroom and pulled on her dressing gown. “Come in Ezra.”

Ezra nervously open the door and found Lili, in her dressing gown, sitting at the table plaiting her hair. Next to her on the table were a ribbon, a hand mirror and brush set, and a small handgun. The last item did nothing for his nerves. “I do apologize, Lili Grace,” Ezra said. “You are preparing for bed, I should come another time.”

“Nonsense,” Lili answered. Deftly finishing her plait, she picked up the ribbon and tied off the braid. “I do believe, Ezra, when I issued the invitation that I did say anytime. Have a seat.”

Ezra sat. “Lili, I am sorry for my earlier behavior. I have been the very essence of an ass in this instance, and I do apologize.”

“I forgive you, Ezra,” Lili said. “After all, I am sure Maude is the responsible party in our little miscommunication. Please don’t give it another thought.”

“You know, Lili Grace, you never did answer my question earlier today,” Ezra said, opening his flask and taking a drag of his whiskey.

“I’m in town on business,” Lili answer. She stood up, took the mirror and brush, and walked through the curtain to her bed room. Dropping the items into her trunk, she pulled out a bottle of cognac and a brandy snifter. She returned to the other room.

“We don’t get much call for chanteuses in these parts,” Ezra said, watching her sit back down and pour herself a drink.

“I’m not singing professionally anymore,” Lili said, taking a sip of the liquor. “I found it got boring after a while. I’ve taken on a more pioneering line of work.”

“How so?” Ezra asked. Pioneering? What on earth?

“Well, there aren’t many ladies in my line of work,” Lili said. “I’ve taken up hunting bounties.”

Ezra spit out the sip of whiskey he had just taken. “Good Lord, Lili Grace, have you lost your ever loving mind?”

“Really, Ezra, don’t be so shocked,” she replied, taking a towel from the table and handing it to him. “I’m good at this, very good, and there was nothing left for me in New Orleans when you left. Shadrach and I...” she stopped, thinking back on her fiancé, gone now almost eight years. “We always meant to come west, so I found something to bring me here.”

Ezra was silent. He knew Lili blamed herself for Shadrach’s death, for her entire family’s deaths. They had all died when an epidemic of cholera struck the tiny Massachusetts farming village she had grown up in. The entire township was wiped out, only five people survived. Ezra knew Lili felt guilty for surviving when everyone else she loved died, and she felt horrible for not being able to do more. Her father, a gentleman farmer, had her educated well, and she held a teacher’s certificate, but he had scorned her wish to go to a women’s school for medicine.

“Lili,” Ezra said, taking a new sip of whiskey, “How on earth did you become a bounty hunter?”

“I met a man after I left New Orleans, Tom Corbair. He’d been in the business for years, but he wanted to try a new idea. Send a lady in to talk to the man in question, make sure it’s him, and then help him capture the guy. I reminded him of his little girl Rebecca, who died, and he took me on. It was a great plan, and we worked it for about a year. Then, old Tom got sick. He passed on easy, but he left me everything. Set me up in the business, and once I got going on my own, I realized I could do the same job by myself. Been working that way for almost two years now,” Lili replied.

Ezra couldn’t believe his ears. “Lili, what are you doing here?”

“I’m working, Ezra. I got word a man was in this town, who’s wanted in Texas. Name’s Tanner, Vin Tanner,” Lili said. Ezra paled noticeably.

“Lili, leave in the morning. Go after someone else,” he said, his stomach churning.

“Ezra, what the hell do you mean?” she said.

“Vin Tanner is an innocent man. Further, he is one of the seven men who keeps this town safe and peaceable. Anyone of those other six men would die before letting Vin go back to a lynching,” Ezra replied. “I am one of them, Lili. Vin Tanner is my friend, and I will not let him be taken.”

“Heavens, Ezra,” Lili said. “You’ve turned law on me?” Ezra nodded solemnly, letting his eyes tell her what he said was true. “Ezra have you ever known me to be heartless?”

“Of course not, Lili,” he said.

“The one reason I got on with Tom so well, is cause if he wasn’t convinced a man was guilty, really guilty, he wouldn’t take him in.” Lili said. “Let me meet with your friend. You set the ground rules. If I believe he’s innocent, I walk away. I might even be able to help him. If I believe he’s guilty, I reserve the right to pursue him. Deal?”

“Lili,” Ezra said.

“Ezra, I trust your judgment,” she said. “At this point, I’m guessing the meeting will be a formality.”

Ezra sighed and sat back, thinking. He knew Vin was an innocent man. Lili would see it too. “Tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll meet at the jail around noon, but the only way Chris will agree is if you come unarmed.”

“It’s a deal,” Lili said. Ezra stood to leave. “It’ll be all right, Ezra.”

“Goodnight, Lili,” Ezra said.

“Night.” Ezra left and headed down the stairs of the saloon hotel. He headed off into the main room of the bar, and he saw the two men he was looking for, at a table in the corner. Ezra grimaced before setting his poker face. This was not a conversation he wanted to have with either Vin or Chris.

+ + + + + + +

“SHE’S WHAT?!” Chris Larabee yelled at Ezra. The southern gambler winced. “And you took it upon yourself to arrange a meeting with this woman and Vin?! Are you out of your poker playing, con running, cotton picking mind?”

“Chris,” Vin said quietly. The gunslinger looked over at the tracker. “Chris, she’s doing a job. Same job I used to do. The fact she plans to meet me and hear my story is better than if she just ambushed me on the street. Hell, she even agreed to come unarmed.”

“I still don’t like it,” Larabee growled.

“Mr. Larabee. Chris,” Ezra said, dropping the formality and his voice to just above a whisper. “Lili and I were once the best of friends, until my mother found a way to separate us. She is a good person, and I trust her implicitly.”

Chris drew up short. It took something special to gain any kind of trust from the gambler. He and his men, even after their years of riding together, had only recently come to a place where the gambler knew he could depend whole heartedly on them. What had the lady been to Ezra, when they knew each other? Something seemed to be lurking on the periphery of the conversation. Something Ezra was not prepared to share.

Vin smiled at the gambler. He couldn’t fault the man for trying to protect both him and the lady. Hell, if Larabee had found out without Ezra telling him, Miss MacKenna would probably have been shot by now. Vin looked at the gambler, sensing what he guessed Chris could vaguely feel. It was like looking in the mirror of when Chris looked at Mary. At some point, the gambler had loved the bounty huntress, and if Vin were more of a betting man, he would guess the southerner still did love her. “The meeting will be fine, Chris. Plus, we can always have Buck and JD pull some stunt if I have to ride out of town.”

Chris shook his head, annoyed. “Fine. Just fine. But, if she pulls anything, Ezra, I will have your hide.” The gambler nodded, and stood to head for bed. “Night, Ezra.”

“Good night, gentlemen.”

Vin sat back and took a sip of the beer he had been nursing. Chris took a slug from the near full bottle of whiskey. “You know he did the right thing, Cowboy.” Vin’s quiet drawl quietly broke into Chris’s combined seething and confusion.

“I know he did, Vin,” Chris replied. “But hell, I would feel better if you could just leave town for a while and wait her out.”

“Chris,” Vin said. “Chris, if it’s not her, it’ll be someone else. Hell, if Ezra’s right, and she ends up a friend of ours, maybe she’ll have some idea how to help clear me, or at least take some heat off me.”

“Damn, Vin, if it wasn’t for Eli Joe,” Chris said, taking another pull off his bottle.”

“Stop it, cowboy. Eli Joe died because there was no other way,” Vin said. “We’ll figure something out.”

“Ezra had better be right, is all,” Chris said.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah had agreed to take patrol the next morning for Vin. Chris knew the young tracker hadn’t slept well, and told Vin to sleep in a bit. He knew the tracker wouldn’t take the advice, but at least he wouldn’t have to be watchful with his mind busy. The peacekeepers all planned to meet at the jail at quarter to noon, except Ezra, who would bring Lili over at noon, making sure she was unarmed. As the preacher came in, a few minutes early, with an all quiet report, it was obvious that everyone was on pins and needles. JD was looking at the latest batch of wanted posters, but the one he was ‘reading’ was upside down. Buck was pacing back and forth behind the kid, causing the floor to creak with every rotation. Chris sat, spinning his revolver checking and rechecking the loading. Nathan sat in one of the spare chairs, sharpening his knife on a whet stone. Vin stood against one wall, trying to blend in. Josiah sighed and sat down on the edge of the desk. He had yet to see the lady who JD described as positively beautiful, but he found it mildly ironic that a ‘little lady’, as Buck had taken to calling her even without meeting her, could cause such apprehension among his friends.

The minutes ticked slowly by. Chris was getting more and more agitated when the door to the jail opened, and Lili, wearing a moss colored riding suit, entered ahead of Ezra, who pulled the door shut. Lili immediately felt as if she had stepped into a den of sleeping bears. She hated the feeling of being unarmed. She had carried a gun ever since she had left her birthplace to go up in flames back east. Different guns over the years, but always something. She felt downright naked without it.

“Gentlemen, may I introduce Lilian Grace MacKenna,” Ezra said, trying to cut the tension. “Lili, you met Mr. Larabee and Mr. Dunne yesterday.” Lili nodded at the young sheriff and the gunslinger. “The gentlemen leaning against the desk is Mr. Josiah Sanchez, our closest thing to a man of God in this town. Behind Mr. Dunne is Mr. Buck Wilmington.”

“Pleasure, Miss Lili,” Buck said.

“This gentlemen is Mr. Nathan Jackson, our resident medical authority, and the gentlemen against the wall is...”

“Vin Tanner,” Lili finished.

“Miss MacKenna,” Vin replied. “I appreciate ya agreein’ ta this here meetin’.”

“Well, Mr. Tanner,” Lili said. “We are part of the same profession. It’s a question of honor.”

“Can we get on with it?” Chris growled, shooting Lili his characteristic glare. Lili returned his gaze without a flinch, smiling softly.

“Mr. Tanner, can you tell me what happened in Tuscosa?” Lili asked.

The other six settled in as Lili took a seat across from where Vin was standing. “I was goin’ after an outlaw name of Eli Joe. Just outside Tuscosa, I came across a man’s body. He fit the description of the man I was looking for, and he had some papers on him that identified him as Joe. So, I took the body into town. Turns out the man was a local. The body had been left for me to find, and the town decided I was the one who killed him. They weren’t willing to wait for a judge, and set about preparin’ a hangin’. So, I got the hell out of there.”

Lili sat for a moment, thinking back on the information Tom had given her in their long hours of tutelage. Eli Joe was one of the meanest cusses on the wanted lists. Tom had refused to go there, saying he knew his limits. When he was dying in Santa Fe, he had made her swear she would leave that one bounty be. Vin Tanner wasn’t the first hunter to fall for that particular trap, but the others had been hung.

Ezra looked nervous, trying to read Lili’s poker face. He knew she was weighing the story Vin had just told her, and he wondered what she was thinking.

Lili finally said, “Well, I’d say you’re a lucky man, Mr. Tanner.”

“Why?” Chris asked.

“Because Eli Joe pulled that same scam on at least three other hunters that my mentor knew. They are all in boot hills in various towns, with their necks snapped. You can stand down, gentlemen, I am not about to take in an innocent man,” Lili said. Nathan, Buck, JD, Josiah, Chris, and Ezra automatically relaxed. Vin stared at her.

“How do ya know I ain’t lyin’?” he asked.

“Two reasons,” Lili said. “Number one, Ezra trusts you, and that is something that don’t come easy. If he believes you’re innocent, I’m inclined to agree.”

“And the other reason?”

“Never take up gambling for a living, Mr. Tanner,” Lili said. “You’re eyes are too honest.”

“I do believe you have hit the nail on the head, there, Miss Lilian,” Josiah said, laughing. Vin stood and walked over, shaking her hand.

“Thank ya, Miss,” he said.

“Boy, I am not some school marm. I think you can call me Lili,” she said, laughing. Ezra broke out in a real smile.

“What are your plans now, Lili?” Nathan asked.

“Well, I am paid up at the hotel through the end of the week. After that, I don’t know,” Lili said. “There are a few other outlaws in the region I could go after, I suppose.”

“What do you say we all head over to the restaurant for lunch?” Chris said. The six men agreed, and Lili found herself smiling. Ezra had gotten himself some good friends, which made Lili feel better.


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