Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in July of 2004.
Disclaimer: Don't own, no money, yadda yadda....
Rating: PG, mild violence
Comment: Thanks to Carla for the beta.
Completed: January 2000
Chris and Vin watched as a rider galloped into town, pulling up in front of the saloon. A raised voice brought their attention back to the rancher standing in front of them, outside the jail.
"So, what are you going to do about it, Larabee? My cattle are being stolen, my water poisoned and my men are quitting." The man stood with his hands on his hips glaring at the two lawmen.
Vin glanced at his friend, seeing the determined set of his blue eyes. Chris released an audible breath and eyed the irate man. "We'll look into it, Mr. Reidman." He knew this wouldn't satisfied the frustrated rancher. It didn't satisfy him, but it was all he had to offer at the moment. Many of the surrounding ranches were having similar problems. Someone was making life very difficult for them, if not downright dangerous. The seven gunslingers who protected the town had been trying to get a lead on who might be responsible, without much luck.
"Well, you better, I won't be run off my land, you hear!" Mr. Reidman stepped off the boardwalk and headed to the mercantile.
"We better catch who's doing this, before someone gets killed," Vin said to his stoic friend.
Chris leaned against the railing, pushing his dark hat back upon his head. Things had been quiet for a long time, until the past month, when the railroad started making noise about running a line near by. They had been buying up land to the north, but Judge Travis had checked and found no shady dealings going on. Chris wasn't convinced. People would do a lot when it came to money, especially the kind of money the railroad was offering for private land.
The hurried rider had leapt off his horse before it even came to a stop. He raced into the saloon, throwing the bat-wing doors aside so hard they banged on either side of the wall getting the attention of several early morning patrons.
"Where's the doc?" he anxiously yelled, his eyes scanning the dimly lit saloon.
"Easy fellow, what's this all about?" Buck asked, stepping away from the bar.
The man was covered from head to toe with dust, except for around his eyes where he had rubbed them clean. He shook a hand through his hair trying to rid it of the annoying dust. "I need a doctor," he repeated.
Nathan stood up from the table he was sharing with JD. "I'm a healer."
The man took a cursory look at the tall, black man. "There's sickness in Porterville," he explained, stepping up to the healer.
"Isn't that the small squatters camp outside of Eagle Bend?" JD asked.
"Yeah, I'd rode hard all the way here," he exclaimed. Buck noticed that the gentleman kept shifting from foot to foot and looking over his shoulder.
"What's the problem?" Nathan inquired.
"I think it's smallpox!" The room became very quiet.
"Let me get some stuff and I'll be right with you." Nathan looked towards Buck then rushed upstairs. The man turned to leave.
"Hey, do you need more help?" Buck asked, stepping forward.
The man turned and stammered as he continued to back out of the saloon, "Uh, no, it wouldn't be a good idea, the less people exposed the better."
Buck considered this a moment. "Yeah, you're probably right." He then returned to the bar and the breakfast that was now waiting for him.
The man exited the saloon to find Josiah outside stroking his horse.
"Is this yours?" Josiah asked, running his hand over the brand. It was familiar, but he couldn't remember where he had seen it before.
"Ah, yeah," the man answered, getting very nervous looking up at the large gunslinger.
"Fine animal," the large gunslinger remarked, handing him the reins. Josiah noticed the gentleman's nervousness and eyed him suspiciously.
He had never seen the gentleman before and wondered why he was here.
At that moment Nathan came out of the saloon. "Okay, I'm ready, let's go." Nathan mounted his horse, which was tied to the nearby post and turned to Josiah. "Tell Chris I'll be back in about week." He mounted his horse and added, "Medical emergency." Then broke his horse into a gallop to catch up with the other rider.
Josiah nodded and watched the two ride out.
Buck came out of the saloon, a young blond woman hanging on his arm. She giggled at something that the gregarious gunslinger whispered in her ear. Buck stopped when he saw Josiah standing by the hitching post, staring up the street. "What's wrong, Josiah?" Buck asked, seeing the perplexed expression on the ex-preacher's visage.
"Where's Nathan goin'?" he asked, still watching the retreating back of his friend.
"There's a smallpox epidemic in Porterville," Buck absently answered.
"That's a long way," Josiah murmured to himself, but Buck caught it.
"Yeah, and that guy rode it all the way."
Josiah looked back in the direction that Nathan had gone, the two men now out of sight. That sure was a fine animal for someone from Porterville, and the horse wasn't even lathered, Josiah thought. Well, maybe he rested before coming into Four Corners. Josiah shook the thoughts away, for now.
The afternoon stage roared into town kicking up the dry dust and sending it swirling up into the dry air.
"Four Corners!" the stage driver shouted as he jumped down to the ground. He opened the stage door and presented his hand and a toothy grin. A delicate, gloved hand took the gallant offer and was assisted down the two steps to the boardwalk. The stage driver could not remove his eyes from the beautiful, raven-haired woman. Her high cheek bones and thrusting breasts making her vision of loveliness. Her black almond shaped eyes gave her an exotic look against her porcelain skin.
Ezra stepped out of the saloon and squinted up at the afternoon sun. He looked towards the stagecoach hoping to see some worthy prospects for a card game later. Instead, what he saw made his heart stop and his knees almost buckle. It took Ezra's entire prestigious upbringing to keep from racing over like a school boy, or like Buck. The stage driver was in the process of bringing the woman's luggage down as Ezra stepped up to her and graciously tipped his hat.
"If I may be of assistance, Madam." His southern drawl was laced with obvious admiration. He couldn't remove his eyes from her delicate features.
"Why, Sir, that would be most appreciated." Her voice was as sweet as a bubbling spring. Her full lips soften into a smile and the world as he knew it ceased to exist.
The stage driver brought her bag down and handed it to Ezra, who took it without removing his eyes from the face of the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. He offered the woman his arm. "May I escort you to our fine hotel?"
She smiled and slipped her arm into his. His whole body reacted to the touch and he had to suppress a shudder of excitement.
"Now, may I be so bold as to ask your name?"
The woman gave the well-dressed and handsome gentleman a very vigorous appraisal. Caught in the act, she blushed slightly, but did not look away. "Jasmine Steiger, but you sir may call me Jasmine." Ezra was mesmerized and didn't hear when she asked, "And you, Sir?" She squeezed his arm to get his attention and asked again. "Sir, are you all right?"
"Ah, yes, quite, I'm so sorry. I'm Ezra Standish, but please call me Ezra." He hadn't been this flustered since he was a boy. He furtively took a deep breath to compose himself. "And what brings you to our quaint back-water town?"
"Well, my husband died a few months back." Jasmine bowed her head in homage, dabbing at her dark eyes with a handkerchief.
"Oh, that is a tragedy," Ezra tried to put as much sympathy as he could muster into the words.
"Well, not totally," Jasmine quietly remarked, a devilish smile tickling the corners of her mouth. "He did leave me a sizable fortune."
Ezra almost fainted, beautiful and rich. He could hardly stand it, this was a dream come true.
"I needed a change of scenery, too many memories." She again dabbed at her eyes with a white handkerchief.
Ezra didn't have the heart to tell her, he could see right through her mock sense of grief. He just assumed that she had been trapped in a loveless marriage and was just trying to keep up appearances. He had seen it numerous times with the women back east. Widows feigning sorrow over the lost of their husbands, when inside they were jumping for joy and figuring how to spend the money that was left to them. The teary eyes and dark dress was all for appearance sake. No one showed their real self or their true feelings in upper society. Everyone wore a mask of self-assuredness and confidence. Ezra had learned early on to maintain his own self-preservation mask. To show ones true feelings, or weaknesses as Maude put it, was to invite someone like Ezra or Maude to take advantage.
"Of course, I understand." Ezra nodded. They continued slowly down the boardwalk. He was acutely aware of all the stares they were attracting, or rather Jasmine was attracting. How he would love to walk with this woman down the festive streets of Atlanta and take in a show and dinner at one of the many theaters. He would give up his life of conning for this woman. This sudden thought jumped into his mind and surprised him so much he stopped in his tracks. He had just met her, how could he think... He smiled at her quizzical expression and continued walking.
"I decided to travel and see some of this wild and gorgeous country. I do hope to reach California eventually, but I wanted a taste of a real frontier town," Jasmine explained.
"Well Miss Jasmine, I am elated that you decided to taste our humble, yet growing municipality."
JD burst into the saloon, in his usual flurry of excitement and raced up to Chris and Josiah, who were lounging against the bar. The regular afternoon crowd looked up at the enthusiastic young sheriff, who was gasping for breath. He removed his hat and swept his hair back from his faced. "Did you all see who got off the stage?" JD looked towards the door and then back to Chris and Josiah who were smiling.
"Yeah, she was definitely one of the lord's earthly visions," Josiah remarked, trying to keep a straight faced.
"She was gorgeous! I think she's from St. Louis and she's rich."
"Well, that explains Ezra," Chris chuckled. He had saw how enamored the suave gambler was with the woman. He had to admit, she even sparked a little fire in him. He wondered what she was doing in these parts?
"I hope brother Ezra is careful," Josiah spoke, seeming to read Chris' thoughts. "Something that fiery could have a dangerous spark inside, one he could get burned on," Josiah exclaimed. JD looked completely baffled, but Chris knew what the ex-preacher was saying. All men had a propensity to think with the wrong part of their anatomy, and even though Ezra Standish believed he was above such bestial tendencies, he was not infallible.
Ezra swept into the saloon with the exquisite woman on his arm. Everyone turned to look at the handsome couple as he escorted her to a table in the corner, pulling out her chair and enjoying the envious looks.
"Well, I guess it would be inhospitable not to go over and introduce ourselves," Josiah exclaimed as he removed his hat and tried to slick back his graying hair. Chris watched with a bemused grin as JD checked over his appearance and tried to remove the dust from his pants. Chris shook his head and began to walk over, furtively glancing at his own appearance.
Ezra looked up as his compatriots neared, the smile he had reserved for Jasmine remained on his face. JD and Josiah clumsily removed their hats, again Chris had to smile in amusement.
"Ah, my fellow cohorts, may I introduce Miss Jasmine Steiger of St. Louis."
Chris and Josiah nodded slightly. Josiah glanced sidelong at JD and reached over and closed the young gunslinger's mouth. At that moment Buck rushed in and yelled, "Hey, Chris did you see who got off the stage...?" Buck stopped in mid-sentence as he saw his four friends in the company of Jasmine. He quickly removed his hat and looked abashed.
Ezra shook his head in embarrassment at the gregarious cowboy. He ignored the interruption and continued, "I would like to introduce Chris Larabee our esteemed leader, Josiah Sanchez are resident, part-time, spiritual guide and young Mr. Dunne our local law enforcement." Ezra glared at Buck who didn't even see him since he couldn't remove his eyes from Jasmine. "And this here is..." Ezra cleared his throat, getting Buck's attention. "Buck Wilmington our local Casanova."
Buck immediately bent over and took Jasmine's hand. She smiled up at the magnanimous cowboy.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, gentlemen. I've heard many stories about you gentlemen when I reached Arizona, but aren't there seven of you?"
"Yeah, Nathan Jackson our healer is out healing and Vin is who knows where," Buck absently added, his brown eyes now staring unabashedly at the young woman.
"It's a pleasure to meet you and welcome to our town," Chris exclaimed, tipped his hat and turned back towards the bar. Josiah and Buck grabbed JD and pulled him reluctantly away.
As the four men returned to the bar, Buck turned to see Chris staring down at his beer. Buck looked over his shoulder to see Ezra and Jasmine now deep in conversation. He had to force down a lump of jealously.
"What's wrong, Chris? Don't tell me you don't find her the most beautiful creature you've ever seen?" Buck asked.
"No, she is beautiful, there's no doubt about it, but what is she doing here?" Chris picked up his beer and took a long swig.
"Chris, you're hanging around Vin too much, you're getting to suspicious," Buck gently admonished.
"Maybe," he muttered, still unable to shake the feeling of dread which had settled into his heart.
Over the next couple days Ezra and Jasmine were inseparable. They would be seen taking long rides together and strolling down the street late into the evening.
Early one evening, Ezra and Jasmine strolled down the street listening to the twangy music coming from the saloon. The night was warm, which only added to the euphoria of the moment. Ezra had never felt so complete as he had these past couple of days. His whole life always revolved around the next con, the next poker game, now all he could think about was the beautiful woman standing next to him. They found themselves alone just outside of town the setting sun throwing a orange aura across the desert floor. He turned to Jasmine, placing his hands on her smooth slender shoulders. Her dark eyes gazed up into Ezra's own green orbs.
"Jasmine." He bowed his head a moment. "Have you considered maybe staying here, with me?"
Jasmine placed her hand on Ezra's cheek. He was an extremely handsome and caring man. Her heart fluttered every time he touched her. She stared into those green eyes, so trusting and full of love. When he found out the truth behind why she was here, would those emerald eyes still hold that love?
"Yes, I have, but it is impossible," she sadly said.
Ezra's brow furrowed. "Why, I don't understand?"
Jasmine pulled away and turned her back on Ezra, wrapping her arms around herself. "I need to go and soon, please don't ask me why."
Ezra came up behind her placing his hands on her shoulders and gently kissing her neck. "Then I'll come with you."
She turned around, Ezra's hands never leaving her body. "Oh, Ezra, I..."
"Shhh." Ezra brought his lips to hers, pressing them firmly against her full, parted lips. For a moment she melted into his embrace then suddenly pulled away. Fear and sadness contorted her face. She turned and ran back to town leaving a desperately confused Ezra standing alone.
Chris entered the sheriff's office to find JD and Buck in a rather intense argument. "I tell you Buck, it's not natural. Ezra hasn't even touched a deck of cards since she arrived," JD declared. The two looked up as Chris entered.
"What do you think?" JD asked the stoic leader.
"About Ezra and Miss Jasmine?" Buck explained.
Chris shrugged, "I don't know, what am I supposed to think?"
"It's just weird that's all," JD added as he got the coffee pot and poured coffee for Chris and Buck, then settled back behind his desk.
Buck chuckled to himself at the young naive sheriff. He had noticed how all Ezra's attention was now at the disposal of the beautiful woman. He did envy the suave gambler, but Ezra deserved a break. One other consolation, everyone's been able to hold on to their money longer.
"I just don't want to see us break up because of a woman," JD exclaimed.
Buck and Chris stared at the young sheriff in confusion.
"She's heading on to California, what if Ezra decides to go with her?" he explained to their perplexed faces.
Buck set his coffee down the thought had never occurred to him. He looked over at Chris, who raised and eyebrow, but didn't say a word.
The saloon was crowded and Buck was bellied up to the bar when he felt a delicate hand on his shoulder. He turned expecting to see one of the barmaids, who he kept frequent company with, and was surprised to be gazing into the dark eyes of Jasmine.
"Ah, Miss Steiger, where is Ezra?" he stammered, looking past her to search the saloon.
"Please, call me Jasmine and is that how you greet a woman?"
"No, of course not." Buck squirmed slightly, not sure what to do, but as he stood and looked into one of the most enchanting faces he'd ever seen. His resolve melted. Even Ezra would agree, all's fair in love and war, and with that thought Buck placed his arm across her smooth shoulders and smiled.
Josiah and Chris stared at Buck from their table on the other side of the room. "Brother Larabee, I think there's going to be trouble," Josiah casually remarked. Chris nodded in agreement taking a swig of beer and raising his eyes as the anticipated trouble walked through the swinging doors.
Ezra entered through the front and swept the room until his eyes locked on Buck and Jasmine at the bar. The rage that built within him was something he had never experienced before. He strode to the bar and grabbed Buck's arm flinging it off Jasmine's shoulder, which turned Buck around to face him. Chris and Josiah could see Buck's astonished face. "Oh, Ah Ez, listen..." Ezra's fist connected with Buck's jaw, sending him to the floor.
"You Mr. Wilmington, are a cad!" Ezra shouted, his face flushed in anger.
"Now just a damn minute, Ezra!" Buck blurted out, checking to see that his jaw wasn't broken. Chris and Josiah remained seated, but their attention was now on their two friends. Josiah watched as Jasmine quietly slipped out the door.
A jealous rage flared in Ezra's green eyes and before he realized what he was doing his hidden derringer appeared in his hand. Chris and Josiah stood quickly, their chairs scraping the wooden floor. The bar became deathly quiet as everyone watched the confrontation, which was unfolding before them.
"EZRA!" Chris shouted. This seemed to bring the jealous conman back to his senses. He lowered his gun and turned on his heel, leaving without saying a word.
"What in tarnation was that all about?" Buck yelled as Josiah offered him a hand up.
"I do believe the green-eyed monster just reared its ugly head."
Buck rubbed his aching jaw.
Ezra walked out back and leaned against a post. He took a deep breath of the clear night air and held it. He couldn't believe what he had almost done. He thumped his head against the post a couple times and scrunched up his face in anger. He had almost killed Buck, for a second he had wanted to. The thought scared him more than he wanted to admit to anyone, including himself.
Buck was making his rounds later that night. He could hear the boisterous laughter emanating from the saloon. He reminded himself to talk to Ezra as soon as possible and hopefully straighten out any misunderstanding. He certainly didn't want a woman coming between their friendship. Buck shook the door knobs of the bank assuring himself that it was locked. He then turned and headed across the street towards the mercantile when a shot rang out.
People piled out of the saloon searching the darkness for the source of the shot. Josiah was the first to see the slumped form in the street and raced over. Chris and Vin close behind.
"Oh lord it's Buck!" Josiah stated as he bent down next to him, placing his hand over the bleeding wound in the cowboy's side.
"Let's get him inside, someone get Mary," Chris ordered as he and Vin carefully picked up the unconscious cowboy.
Chris met JD and Josiah outside the saloon, the morning sun now completely over the horizon.
"How's Buck?" JD asked.
"Mary says he should be okay, he's going to be laid up for a while," he replied. He turned to Josiah. "Is he in there?" Josiah nodded.
Chris, JD and Josiah entered the saloon to find Ezra still in the clothes he wore yesterday. He was sitting quietly at a table, absently shuffling a deck of cards.
Chris sat down across from him. "Where were you last night?"
Ezra stared silently at the queen of hearts in his hand.
"Buck was shot last night," Chris quietly voiced.
Ezra raised his head to meet Chris's stoic stare he leaned back and let out a breath and running his hand through his blond hair. "Is he?"
"He'll be okay, Mary's taking care of him. Now, where were you?"
Ezra bowed his head the weariness he felt evident in his face. The usual clean-shaven appearance was gone, replaced with a stubbled and dirty countenance. "So, you think I'm responsible?" He didn't hide the malice of his words.
"We don't know what to think. We only know you haven't been yourself since Miss Steiger came to town," Chris answered.
"Ezra, the whole saloon saw you pull a gun on Buck last night," JD added plaintively.
"So, where were you?" Chris asked again.
"I went for a walk, Mr. Larabee." He paused, then added, "And I was quite alone."
"Sorry Ezra, but I'm going to have to place you under arrest until we figure this thing out," JD stated as he stepped forward, removing his handcuffs. Ezra calmly stood and presented his wrists to the young sheriff.
"I quite understand, Mr. Dunne," he replied, but his eyes didn't match his words. JD led Ezra out of the saloon as Chris and Josiah remained.
"You don't think he did it, do you?" Josiah asked Chris.
"Ezra is a lot of things, but a killer is not one of them. Something strange is going on and I think it all revolves around our Miss Jasmine."
It was late when Jasmine entered the jail, causing JD to stand quickly, knocking over his chair.
"Sheriff, may I see the prisoner?" she asked.
"Ah, of course," JD blustered.
Jasmine went to the cell where Ezra laid stretched out on a rickety cot. She couldn't tell if he was awake or not until he exclaimed without opening his eyes.
"You shouldn't be here."
Jasmine gripped the bars of his cell. "I'm so sorry, Ezra, this is all my fault."
Ezra's heart melted and he slowly sat up. "No, it's not." He came to the bars and wrapped his hands over hers.
Jasmine looked again into Ezra's deep green eyes and she whispered, "Oh, Ezra forgive me?"
Ezra smiled. "For what?"
"For this." Jasmine turned. JD was busy making coffee as Jasmine quietly stepped up behind JD and raised her handbag. She clubbed the young sheriff on the back of the head watching as he slumped to the floor.
"What are you doing?" Ezra yelled out at her, not believing what he was witnessing.
"Isn't it obvious I'm breaking you out," she calmly stated as she reached into JD's only desk drawer and pulled out the keys and Ezra's pistol.
"No Jasmine, I'm not leaving."
"Oh, did I say you had a choice."
Ezra then noticed how Jasmine's entire demeanor suddenly changed, even the way she held herself was different. Two burly men entered the jail. Jasmine casually walked over to the unconscious JD and pointed Ezra's pistol at his head. Ezra clenched his teeth, his heart tearing to pieces in his chest.
Jasmine handed the keys to one of the men, who walked over and opened the cell door. Ezra walked out defeated between the two men. Jasmine faced him. "I'm sorry, everything will be explained later and you and your friends won't be harmed." Ezra could only stare at the woman he thought he knew, a woman he had fallen in love with. He bowed his head and walked out. One of the men picked up JD and threw him over his shoulder.
Chris, Josiah and Vin stared at the empty cell. "I don't get it, if Ezra is innocent why would he break out? And why would JD go after him alone?" Vin asked.
"I don't know, but that just adds to everything else that's been going on lately." Chris turned to the tracker. "Vin, you stay here in case one of them comes back. Josiah and me will go after them."
Chris and Josiah headed out, hoping to find their two friends safe. The two lawmen passed the time in silence for a couple hours, both loss in different thoughts. As the morning sun broke the horizon they stopped to rest in a small wooded glen. Josiah sat against a large tree his hat pulled down over his eyes. He felt more than heard Chris step up and kneel down besides him.
"Something is not right, brother Larabee," Josiah stated as he pushed his hat up and looked up at Chris. Chris stared off towards the distant hills. "Nathan is called away, Buck is shot, and now Ezra and JD have gone missing."
Chris stood up and bit his lower lip. "We're going back." He turned and walked back to the horses. Josiah didn't question decision, he to felt something was not right.
Vin stayed in the jail cleaning his guns while he waited for someone to return. He didn't believe Ezra or JD left by choice and the thought was really starting to gnaw at him. The jail door opened and interrupted his thoughts. He looked up to see Jasmine standing there out of breath, her eyes darting back and forth.
"Oh Mr. Tanner, I'm so glad I found you." She placed her hand on her heaving breast.
She wasn't really his type, but there was no denying she was beautiful, and a man would have to be dead not to feel some stirring.
"Mr. Tanner, Ezra wishes to return he knows he made a terrible mistake. He wants to know if you could smooth things over with Mr. Larabee?"
This was completely out of character for Ezra and warning bells immediately went off in Vin's head. "Ezra wants me to talk to Chris for him?" Vin asked unbelieving. "Where's JD?"
"I don't know, Sir. Ezra came to me just a little while ago and asked for my help. I couldn't turn him down. You know how it is, don't you, Mr. Tanner?" Jasmine smiled embarrassingly. Vin found her totally mesmerizing, but he was also very suspicious, something did not feel right.
"I want to see Ezra, take me to him," he demanded.
Vin turned to the desk to retrieve his hat, at the same time Jasmine raised her handbag and struck Vin over the head. Again two burly men entered the room and quietly picked up the unconscious bounty hunter and dragged him out. Jasmine removed the rock from her handbag and used it to weigh down the wanted poster she laid on the desk top.
Chris and Josiah returned to Four Corners and entered the jail expecting to find Vin. Josiah was the first to notice the rock sitting on the desk and went to pick it up. He looked down and picked up the wanted poster with the picture of Vin. He turned and showed it to Chris. "Someone wants us to believe that Bounty Hunters have Vin."
Chris stared at Josiah. "That's five." He held up his hand.
"Mr. Tanner, Mr. Tanner." Vin could hear his name, but it sounded like his ears were stuffed with cotton. He slowly opened his eyes. His head throbbed, and he realized he was on his side on a dirt floor the smell of manure heavy in his nose. His head started to clear slightly. "Mr. Tanner, your wits are in dire demand." Vin bent his head up and through squinted eyes made out Ezra and Nathan. He slowly managed to sit up and leaned against the wall.
As his surroundings came into focus he furrowed his brow in confusion.
"Ezra? Nathan? JD?" Vin shook his head slightly to throw his long brown locks out of his face. "What are you all doing here and where are we?" He looked around noticing that they were being held in a very upscale stable. They were at the far end near four empty stalls. He could hear a couple horses up near the door.
He looked at his three friends and noticed their hands were also tied behind their backs. "It appears we are the victims of some unknown plot with Miss Jasmine being behind it all," Ezra sadly replied.
At that moment the large doors at the far end of the stable opened and three men, followed by Jasmine, entered the dimly lit stable and stepped up to the three captives. Vin recognized the older gentleman immediately. He was a heavyset man with dark hair, graying at the temples. He had the look of someone who was use to the best in life and would get it any way he could. His dark eyes were sunk under heavy brows, and he carried a riding crop, which he habitually slapped against his thigh.
"Duncan Radcliff! You son of a bitch! What's this all about?" Vin demanded of the elderly man. Him and Chris had had several run ins with the cattle rancher, mostly about his cattle, which he let graze on other people's land.
"Well, Mr. Tanner you are a bonus. Boys, Mr. Tanner here is worth $500." The two other men, who Nathan and Ezra recognized as the ones that brought them to Radcliff's ranch, smiled greedily.
"What are you up to?" Vin repeated.
"It's really quiet simple, you seven stand in my way of buying up the land around the town. Now, with your numbers whittled down to just two, my boys should be able to go in finish the job. When there's no one left to protect them the town's people will be more than happy to sell to me. I plan on having a railhead and stockyard built, saving me countless hundreds of dollars in driving my cattle. It's called progress."
"You can't do that. This is all some of those people have, you can't just chase them off," Nathan remarked.
Mr. Radcliff sneered down at the black man, then smiled. "Oh I can and will. It's getting too crowded here anyway, my cattle and horses need more room. I tried to discourage the surroundings ranchers by poisoning their water, running off their stock and threatening their men, but nothing seemed to be working as long as they knew they had you gunslingers around. You seven have been a thorn in my side since you came here." Jasmine moved up alongside the elderly man.
"And what part do you play in all this, my dear?" Ezra sneered. His eyes burned with betrayal, but inside his heart broke.
"Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet my daughter, Katherine," Radcliff stated, placing a fatherly arm around his daughter. "And her fiance, Greg Brice."
A tall, lean young man stepped forward. A malicious smile gracing his harden visage. "My Katherine is a pretty fine actress," Brice sneered.
Ezra's mouth dropped open.
Ezra noticed that Katherine didn't seem happy by the compliment. Actually, she was having second thoughts about everything. She hadn't planned on falling in love with the suave conman. She cringed when Brice put an arm around her, but he didn't seem to notice.
Duncan Radcliff smiled at the shocked expressions on the four lawmen's faces. "She has been away at school over in Europe most of her life so was a perfect candidate for our little charade. It was perfect really, so easy to get you all alone and take you all out one by one."
An evil grin formed on Ezra's face, which sent a shiver down Katherine's spine. She wanted nothing more than to end this and start over with him.
"Well, you did give me a memorable night," Ezra said slyly.
Katherine's father turned and glared at his daughter who stood stunned.
"You whore! you slept with him?" Radcliff spat.
"Father... no," Katherine pleaded trying to deny the allegation. He didn't listen as he swung and slapped her across the cheek sending her to the floor.
Greg Brice glared at Ezra who maintained his smug grin. Brice looked down at Katherine who was still on the floor. She looked over at Ezra, her hand on her red cheek. "Touché! Mr. Standish," she quietly sneered. She felt Brice's arm roughly pick her up.
"We will turn Mr. Tanner in for the reward. The other three will happen upon unfortunate accidents," Radcliff exclaimed.
Katherine's jaw fell open. "No father. You promised me no one would be killed."
Radcliff's face turned dark as he gripped his daughter's arm. "Listen, to me. I told you this had to be done to save the ranch. There's no turning back now my dear, you're in this as deep as I." Katherine bowed her head in shame realizing her father was right.
She shrank from her father's glare. He was right she knew what she was doing, but she also thought that no one would be harmed. She also hadn't planned on falling in love. She looked back towards Ezra who wouldn't meet her eyes. Her father grabbed her face forcing her to look at him. He looked back at Ezra then to her and smiled. "So you fell for the con man did you." She pulled her jaw out of his grasp. Radcliff shoved her towards Brice, who grabbed her and dragged her out. "Well, enjoy your last night, we're off to finish off the rest of the famous seven," he sneered, laughing as he walked out of the stable.
"Well, at least you got in one last lick there, Ez," Vin chuckled. Ezra smiled, but inside his heart was breaking. He had been taken, conned by a beautiful face. He always thought he was beyond such devious tactics, that he could see through any subterfuge. His heart had betrayed him, but maybe he had allowed it to.
"I'm sorry, Ezra," JD whispered. He saw the hurt in the conman's eyes and knew that Ezra truly had feelings for the conniving woman.
The four men tensed at the sound of boots coming towards them. "Well, here comes ugly," Vin remarked as one of the guards appeared over them.
The huge guard glared at the long haired tracker bringing his booted foot into his side. Ezra, Nathan and JD winced as the breath was stolen from Vin's lungs. He laid on his side gasping, his eyes shut tight. The guard grinned and moved off to the side.
"Mr. Tanner, a word of advice, when one is tied, one should refrain from insulting comments," Ezra kindly chided.
"I'll remember that for next time," Vin gasped.
The helpless lawmen heard the sound of thundering hooves pass by the stables.
"Shit, we have to do something? Chris and Josiah won't stand a chance against all those men," Nathan declared straining against his bonds.
"And what would you suggest, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra replied a little more sharply than he meant to. He was also very afraid for his friends. He turned to the sound of Vin's violent struggles against his bonds. Vin yelled out his frustration.
Ezra cocked an ear to the door when he thought he heard a thump outside. He leaned forward to see the huge stable door open and Katherine's lithe form slip in. He watched as she approached the guard placing a hand on his chest. The guard smiled down at the beautiful woman. "Be a dear and saddle my horse," she asked.
"Sure, Miss Radcliff." He turned his back and it was the last thing he would remember. Katherine stood over him a moment the rock still in her hand.
She looked at the man she had fallen in love with and knew he despised her. Without saying a word she came up behind Ezra who followed her with his green gaze. He felt her cut his bindings and brought his hands forward to rub his wrists his eyes still locked on her.
"I'm sorry," she softly said. She went to the others and cut them all loose. "Your horses are out back."
Vin, Nathan and JD ran out. Ezra turned and stared at the woman who had made a fool out of him, though his heart didn't recognize the insult. She bowed her head, not sure what to expect from this enigmatic man. She felt him grab her shoulders, pulling her close. Their lips meshed in a quick, hard kiss. "Thank you," he said and raced out after his friends leaving her dazed and confused.
Chris and Josiah stood over Buck's bed. He was sitting up with his side wrapped.
"So, what do you think is going on?" Buck asked Chris who stood looking out the window of the second story building.
"I don't know, but someone's gone to a lot of trouble to diminish our ranks for some reason," Chris explained.
Josiah noticed Chris' stance change and came to the window. The two men looked out to see the lights of several torches approaching the town. "Looks like we're about to find out, brothers."
Buck tried to get out of bed, but only managed to bring a flare of pain across his side. "You stay down!" Chris exclaimed to his wounded friend.
"No dice pard, by the looks of things you're going to need all the fire power you can get. Now give me a damn gun and help me to the window," Buck said, glaring at Chris.
Chris looked at Josiah who only shrugged, knowing the gregarious cowboy would do it anyway. They helped position Buck alongside the open window then took off. Buck looked out and for a moment he hoped his missing friends were safe. He checked his ammo. Chris took up position at the jail as Josiah headed to the church. Both men knowing the odds were definitely not in their favor. The dark-clad gunslinger wondered what had happened to the others and hoped they were still alive somewhere. His thoughts were interrupted by the first of twenty riders entering the town.
Chris recognized the man out front as Duncan Radcliff and things started to fall into place. He knew the man was greedy and had tried to buy up property earlier last year. Apparently, he decided to try other means to get his way.
"Okay, men, I want this town burned to the ground. Without a town most people will leave," Radcliff shouted.
Chris took aim at the nearest man, who held a torch and followed him as he nudged his horse towards the mercantile. He never made it.
Chris' shot struck the young man in the shoulder, causing him to drop the torch, which smothered in the dirt. Everyone scattered.
Radcliff turned his horse around in a circle, searching. "You're out numbered and out-gunned Larabee and if you ever want to see your missing friends you'll ride out of here now!"
Chris answered Radcliff, by shooting the man next to him. Buck started picking off the riders from his vantage point, until he was discovered and forced back. Radcliff's men soon discovered where Chris and Josiah were holed up and the gun battle began in earnest. Both lawmen were able to hold their own and take out a couple of the hired men. They knew it was only a matter of time until they were over-run.
Chris hissed as he felt the bullet bite into his shoulder. He ignored the blood running down his arm and continued to shoot wondering how Buck and Josiah were faring?
Chris heard the addition of added guns and the change in the battle's tempo. He cautiously raised his head and looked out to catch a glimpse of Ezra's red coat and heard the sound of Vin's mare's leg. He smiled when he heard JD yelling for him and Buck. Nathan, Vin, Ezra and JD did the only thing they believed they had time to do. They figured they had the element of surprise in their favor, so charged into the fray with guns ablazing, catching most of Radcliff's men unaware. The fierceness and accuracy of the four men was enough to change the tide. Chris, Josiah and Buck once again added their firepower and soon were hearing the retreating hooves of any men who could still sit a saddle.
Katherine had waited outside of town until the gunshots had died down. She couldn't believe how worried she was for Ezra. She wasn't sure if they had any chance of a life together, but she had to find out.
Greg Brice had stayed in the shadows of the alleyways and watched as Radcliff's men retreated. He cursed Larabee and the others. All his plans were washing away. He had planned on marrying Katherine and finally taking over the Ranch. Duncan Radcliff would of course have a terrible accident and he would become the largest and richest land owner in the territory.
He saw Ezra atop his horse and aimed his gun. He would at least get some satisfaction at killing one or more of the Seven. He fired, knocking Ezra from his horse.
Ezra grabbed his shoulder as he struggled to his feet to face the man, who stepped out of the shadows, his gun aimed and ready.
Greg Brice knew that Katherine no longer loved him and he suspected this man had a lot to do with that.
"You all ruined everything," Brice sneered.
Ezra only smiled. "Sorry, it's in our job descriptions to ruin the grandiose plans of raving lunatics," he jeered.
"Brice, stop this!" Katherine yelled. "It's over!" She had dismounted and was approaching the two men.
"Shut up, Katherine. I told your father you were too much of a risk. He counted too much on your devotion to him," Brice sneered, his eyes not leaving the man standing before him.
Brice's grin fell when he heard the sound of a hammer being pulled back. He sidelong glanced at Katherine, who now had a gun pointed directly at him. "I can't let you kill him," she said, finding it funny that she felt so calm. She glanced over at Ezra whose eyes were locked on Brice.
Brice sneered and prepared to pull the trigger. "You can't shoot me," he snarled.
Ezra closed his eyes then flinched when he heard the shot. He looked to see Brice staring at him in disbelief. Brice pivoted around to face Katherine bringing his gun up and with the last of his remaining life pulled the trigger. Ezra watched in horror as both Katherine and Greg Brice fell to the ground.
"Noooooo!" Ezra ran to Katherine and lifted her up by the shoulders once again falling into her liquid pools that stared up at him. "NATHAN!" he yelled over his shoulder.
"I'm sorry, for everything," she quietly said reaching up to stroke his face. "I do love you."
Her eyes slowly closed. "And I you." Nathan and Vin appeared at his side.
"Vin, take her up to my room quick," Nathan ordered.
"No, I have her." Ezra lifted her up wincing slightly at the pain in his arm. Nathan saw his blood soaked shirt and shook his head. Vin followed close behind in case Ezra didn't make it to the clinic.
It had been a week since the attack. Buck, Chris and Ezra had finally been allowed to leave the clinic. Buck was still under strict orders from Nathan to see him once a day to check his side.
Chris found Ezra sitting alone at his usual table, examining a bottle of whiskey.
"It works better if you drink it," he said as he sat down next to the somber gambler. He knew that Ezra blamed himself for the trouble they had. He hadn't seen through Katherine's ruse, blinded by love or lust, he wasn't quite sure what.
"Not always, Mr. Larabee, sometimes it makes you do things you later regret," Ezra somberly replied.
"You know Buck forgives you for pulling your gun on him."
"I know Mr. Larabee, I just haven't forgiven myself for being taken in by a pretty face."
"Well, we've all been there." Chris uncorked the bottle and poured them each a shot.
Ezra made his way up to his room. Slipping out of his jacket he sat down at the small desk and pulled out a piece of paper and ink well. He thought a moment then dipped his pen into the well.To: Tucson State PrisonDearest Katherine,
I hope this letter finds you as well as can be expected under the circumstances. I count the days until you regain your freedom....