~~ The South Wind ~~

by TJ

Morning arrived in Four Corners and the town went about its usual business. The peacekeepers were again gathering at the jailhouse. The healer had been the first to arrive, bringing with him some breakfast for himself and the kid.

The ladies’ man came bounding into the room in an unusual energetic mood. "Morning boys," he quipped before moving to the stove to pour himself coffee.

JD looked at his friend hesitantly. "You're in a fine mood this morning, Buck."

"Yeah," Nathan added. "Must mean he had more than himself for company last night."

The rogue laughed happily. "I did indeed." Quickly swiping the kid's last piece of bacon, he grinned. "Mighty fine company she was, too."

"Hey..." JD objected loudly. "Get your own." With no desire to lose anymore of his breakfast, he moved his plate out of Wilmington's reach.

The door opened and three sets of eyes focused on the tracker as he lumbered in the door. Varying degrees of amusement could be read on the faces.

Buck’s laughter grew louder and swiftly became contagious. "Just what in the hell, did you get into last night, cowboy?"

The question was meant to annoy the sharpshooter but Vin’s mind was too turbulent to care. Tanner looked like he'd been dragged through hell and back and hadn't slept for a week on top of it. "Spent the night tossin' and turnin' in ma wagon. Didn't get much sleep." Reaching for a cup, he knocked it on the floor.

Showing his concern by gathering up the cup, Wilmington poured the man a coffee "That’s kind ‘a obvious." he quipped.

The tracker and the ladies’ man sat down at the desk.

Dunne tried to hide his amusement. "You look like hell, Vin." His observation was matter-of-fact.

Accepting the coffee from Wilmington, Tanner huffed. "Feel like it, too."

Clearing his plate and moving it to the table beside the door, Jackson looked at his friend questioningly. "What's wrong, Vin?"

The sharpshooter looked at Nathan and tried to figure out how to answer his question. The simplest way seemed to be straight out. "Reckon it was fine tah start," he smiled. "They was nice... invitin' like. I didn’t pay 'em no mind," he looked at the healer and nodded. "When JD took watch I was ready for some sleep." Straightening in his chair, the tracker continued. "But every time I closed my eyes… they was there."

Always interested in a good story, JD was more than curious by now. "Who?"

"Not who, kid... What! ...A voice. Couldn't make out what it said but it wouldn't shut up..." Vin drifted off. Clearly unsettled, Tanner swallowed down some of the black liquid. "And them eyes..." he blurted out. "They was beautiful... but they just kept staring at me..."

The sharpshooter's recollections were interrupted as Josiah entered the office. He anxiously looked around the room. "Where's Chris and Ezra?" he asked of no one in particular.

"Well... we can assume Standish is still curled up in his feather bed," Jackson mused.

The tall rogue raised an eyebrow. "Chris stayed in town last night, so he might be havin' breakfast with Mary and Billy."

"Alright!" Josiah commanded. "JD, you go get Ezra out of bed."

The kid looked at him in horror.

"What's up, Josiah?" Buck questioned.

The preacher seemed a little apprehensive as he looked around at the gathered men. "I found some interesting information on Athena," he replied. Sanchez wanted to relay his discovery because he needed to know if the other found it as strange as he did. "It’s best we hear it together." His eyes came to rest on the Kid.

Getting to his feet and heading for the door, Dunne complained loudly. "Jeez... all right," he huffed. "You know Ezra's real grumpy if he gets woke before he's ready," he mumbled as he closed the door. It was obvious to all that the kid wasn't happy.

Wilmington was snickering to himself when Josiah spoke again.

"Buck, you go get Chris."

"Can do my friend," Buck quipped happily. Setting down his coffee, he got to his feet and headed for the door.

The Travis kitchen was a flurry of activity as the newspaperwoman jostled papers while trying to get her wayward son fed and off to their makeshift school. Billy had finally finished his breakfast and was collecting his books and coat.

Mary was wearing her printing apron and was proof reading an article when the boy announced he was ready for school. "Let me see you," she put down her paper and moved over to her son. Straightening his shirt collar, she pulled his coat on properly. "Yes, I think you are ready," she fussed as they walked toward the door.

The ladies’ man entered as the widow reached for the knob. "Mornin’, Mrs. Travis," he tipped his hat. "Hey there, big fella," he added, ruffling Billy's hair. Turning his attention back to the lady, Buck continued, "You seen Chris this mornin', ma'am?" he asked, looking around the room.

"No, actually," Mary began, "I had thought I might see him for breakfast but he hasn't been around." Conscious of the time, the woman guided her son through the door and into the street.

The tall rogue followed right behind.

"Is there something wrong, Mr. Wilmington?" the widow asked curiously. She always tried to be on top of local news and she'd heard of a stranger in town.

"Oh... no, ma'am!" Buck tried to steer her away from the subject at hand. Knowing Mary Travis the way he did, the man knew she'd be looking for a story and they didn't need her causing problems with the visitor before they knew what was going on. "We were just gonna have a meetin' and we was waitin' on Chris. Josiah sent me tah look for him."

"Well, I'm afraid I can't help you, Buck," Mary smiled as she straightened Billy's coat again.

"Ah... ma," the boy protested.

"Would ya like me tah escort Billy to the exchange, Mrs. Travis?"

"I can see ma self tah school," objected the younger Travis.

"Billy!" Mary scolded. It was obvious that she did not approve of her son's pronunciation. "You know better." She turned to Wilmington and conveyed her disapproval with a glare. "No, thank you, Buck."

Stifling a smirk, the rogue cleared his throat. "All right, thank ya, ma'am," he tipped his hat again. "I'll try someplace else." Stepping off the boardwalk, the ladies’ man removed his hat and scratched the back of his head as he looked around. A customary action Buck engaged in when he was thinking too much, he replaced it and headed off down the street.

The ladies’ man was moving back toward the sheriff's office when he spotted the town's newest visitor heading in the direction of livery. Briefly thinking over yesterday's display, Wilmington was more curious than he cared to admit. He followed the man down the alleyway and out to the meadow, exactly as he had done the day before.

Still hidden behind his duster and hat, the stranger stood in the tall grass with his hands outstretched slightly in the air.

Although Buck still couldn't see the man's face clearly, he could swear that his eyes were closed.

The minutes ticked slowly by and the ladies’ man simply stood and watched.

The stranger neither moved nor spoke.

Wilmington was perplexed yet again. What the hell's he doin?

Suddenly there was a noise in the distance.

The rogue watched in amazement as the big gray came into view and slowly made its way to his owner. The horse nuzzled the man's hands as they met and the stranger nuzzled back.

Buck smiled. It was rare to find another man who cared about his animal, the way Wilmington did about his own. It was rarer still to find a horse that returned the affection. For just a moment, the ladies’ man was jealous. You idiot! Buck chastised when he realized he'd let his guard down.

The horse was at arm’s length and the man stood completely still.

Wilmington tensed. He was ready, should the stranger draw on him.

But that didn't happen…

In a slow, almost graceful movement, the man lowered his head before turning to look at the tall rogue over his shoulder. He smiled at Wilmington for what seemed like forever before turning his attention back to the horse. The pair slowly walked into the field.

Buck felt like a fool. He’d played right into the stranger’s hand. And yet... somehow the peacekeeper felt that the man didn't mean him any harm. But, …he wasn't completely convinced… he just had a feeling. Shaking his head at the whole event, Wilmington turned and walked back towards the sheriff's office.

Six peacekeepers were gathered in their office awaiting the return of their seventh. All had reported the previous night's activities to their leader when the door opened. Wilmington walked in and took up a place beside Dunne.

The kid looked at him oddly. "What happened to you?"

Buck looked at him questioningly. He hadn't even considered that he might look different after his encounter with their visitor. His didn’t even realize that his face was still flushed. Shrugging his shoulders, the ladies’ man did his best to provide an answer. "Didn't reckon one of Tanner's feelin's would rub off on me," he said bluntly. He was still a little uneasy about what had happened.

Vin looked across at the rogue with more than a little smirk on his face.

Larabee's expression made it clear that he had no idea what his oldest friend was talking about.

"I do realize it is exceedingly early, Mr. Wilmington," Standish began. "But do you feel yourself capable of making any sort of coherent statements this morning?" Although it was too early for the gambler, he could still muster his characteristic sarcasm.

For his part, the rogue was even more confused with the statement than he was with what he had just witnessed. "What?" he looked at the southerner with an exasperated glare.

"I dare say your previous uttering requires a little more explanation."

"Oh..." Buck hesitated. "Ever… get one of those feelin's?" he questioned slowly.

Several heads acknowledged that they might understand what Wilmington was talking about.

"All the time," Vin piped up. There was just the slightest hint of 'I told you so' in his voice.

Buck scowled at the tracker.

"So what feeling did you get?" Larabee questioned sarcastically. He’d experience a few of ‘those feelings’ himself, now and then.

The ladies’ man considered the question and decided it was best to just relate the story as it happened. As he explained about last night and this morning, the others listened quietly.

Tanner seemed to become uneasy during Buck recollections but he chose to say nothing.

It was only when Wilmington related the non-threatening feelings under the stranger's stare that the silence was broken.

"You mean… a man smiled at ya and you went all gooey!" JD blurted out.

Buck swiped the kid across the head. "NO!" he said, quite exasperated with Dunne's statement. "I just felt like he ain't here to hurt us... that's all."

"There may be something to your vision, son," Sanchez spoke up. "In fact, I may have an explanation for the way you felt."

Everyone shifted their attention to the preacher.

"Go on, Josiah," Chris prompted.

"Well, I did a little reading last night. I knew I'd heard the name Athena." He held up a book on mythology. "Sure enough, I found it. This text relates stories from the ancient world. Rome, Greece and the likes." He looked around to confirm that everyone was still with him and continued. "The Greek deity Athena was indeed the god of war." Josiah could see some of the others shift in their stance but he continued. "This god didn't wage wars though. Athena was not a fighter... but a protector for all who fought."

"So... what," the kid interrupted. "He’s gonna protect us in a fight."

"Now that ain’t such a bad thing," Nathan added optimistically. "We could use someone to protect our backs once in a while." He raised his eyebrows and smiled. "We've been alright of late, mind ya."

"There is one more important point I must make, brothers," Josiah spoke again. "Athena was not a god…"

"But you said..." JD interrupted.

Josiah laid a hand on the kid’s shoulder and continued. "Athena was a goddess."

The room was silent as the six peacekeepers digested what their oldest member had just relayed.

JD turned slowly to look at rogue. "A woman?" he almost choked on the words. Putting a little distance between himself and Wilmington, the kid spoke gruffly. "Figures!"

For his part, Buck was grinning from ear to ear. A woman! Now that just might explain a feelin' or two.

Standish raised an eyebrow. "I find it hard to comprehend that the creature we observed parading into our little community yesterday, could possibly be of the female persuasion."

Jackson nodded. "I agree with Ezra."

The tracker suddenly changed the conversation. "What about the wolf?"

Buck looked at the sharpshooter with a confused look on his face.

"You get a good look at it?"

"Horse ain't had no blanket on since sundown, Vin."

"A wolf!" Tanner repeated to himself. He looked up at the ladies’ man. "What kind?"

It was obvious to everyone present that the sharpshooter might be on to something.

"Just looked like a plain ol’ gray wolf."

The tracker was silent as he moved around the table. He considered the facts for a moment. They rode south into town... It was a westerly crosswind that told him of their approach...The eagle! "Did you see any mark on this..." he considered Josiah's last remark, " his rider?" What if he found another sign?

"He's..." Buck too was considering the preacher's words. "Still covered up. Ain't had no chance to see the face, let alone any markin's." Wilmington shifted position as he thought about it. "Hell, it could be a woman, I suppose... What you lookin' for, Vin?" he glanced at the tracker.

There was a long pause before the sharpshooter spoke. "Another wolf?"

The remaining members of the group were completely lost by this point.

Jackson frowned. "I don’t follow ya, Vin?"

The sharpshooter seemed to be referring to something he’d learned living with the Indians but no one was sure.

"An old tale… I heard once," Tanner slowly responded. He wandered over to the door. "A legend…" Clearly, the tracker was unsettled about something but no one understood his meaning.

"I need time..." Vin glanced at Larabee. "I'm gonna take a ride..."

Chris nodded as his best friend reached for the door and opened it.

The Seven peacekeepers stood motionless as the object of their discussions stood in the open doorway.

Mrs. Travis had joined Gloria Potter as they watched their children wandered down the street toward the town's makeshift schoolhouse. It seemed that the grain exchange served as many a missing building in their small town and neither woman was sure if things would change once the new schoolmistress arrived. Seeing her friend back inside the general store, the newspaperwoman was about to turn back towards the Clarion when she caught sight of a stranger walking back from the livery. The man wasn't overly tall but he reminded the widow of another dark clad figure that paraded around town.

Mary's eyes tracked the man as he walked across the street.

Suddenly he stopped and turned his head, almost as though someone had called his name. Each movement the stranger made was as if played out in slow motion.

The widow moved back towards Potter's Store and slipped inside. She watched through the window as the stranger stepped slowly towards the sheriff's office and stood silently outside the door.

It seemed as if the man stood waiting for several minutes before it opened. Mary frowned. He didn’t knocked! How did they know he was there?

Without warning, the stranger was jerked inside the building and the door slammed loudly behind him.

Mrs. Travis was certain that someone had grabbed the man and pulled him inside forcefully. Immediately thinking of the story potential behind what she had just witnessed, Mary headed towards the sheriff’s office.

They had all been surprised when the tracker had opened the door to find the stranger standing there. What had surprised the six men more, however, was the way Vin had reacted.

Tanner grabbed the visitor by the collar, dragged him roughly inside and slammed the door. The tracker was uncharacteristically angry as he pulled off the stranger's hat and duster.

The visitor made no attempt to fight off the sharpshooter’s actions and a long braid of dirty blond hair fell from beneath the hat.

Vin continued to pull at the clothing.

As the stranger's coat was removed, it became evident to all that this was indeed a woman. A white woman at that! She was now wearing only a vest, shirt and pants. Her colts were belted tightly to her hips.

The sharpshooter slowly lifted her head to stare into her eyes. He pursed his lips defiantly as he recognized the piercing hazel orbs from his dreams. Something inside Tanner was driving him to find out why she was really here. His senses had been messed up for almost a week now and if that old tale was true… there could only be one explanation. Spinning the woman around hastily, Vin threw her over the desk.

Still she made no move to object.

The tracker continued his onslaught as he pulled at the girl's vest. He yanked the shirt out of her pants and pushed both garments toward the back of the girl's head.

The soft curves before them escaped no one’s notice and Jackson could hold his tongue no longer. "What you doin', Vin?" Nathan moved instinctively to protect the woman.

Pulling the healer back, Josiah spoke calmly. "Let him alone, brother!" Tanner was frantically looking for something and Sanchez could feel that his young friend desperately needed to find it.

Mary could hear movement inside the sheriff's office and then what sounded like an argument. Never having been accused of keeping her nose from other people business, she swung opened the door.

The newspaperwoman was immediately confronted with a scene she would never have expected to see. There in front of her, was a young woman being forcibly laid over a table. A man Mary believed she knew was trying to remove her clothing and his fellow peacekeepers stood by, apparently doing nothing about the situation. "What's going on?" she questioned. There was a hint of disbelief in her voice and a whole lot of anger.

They all realized immediately, what Mary must be thinking and Larabee grabbed her arm and tried to escort the woman from their office.

The widow was having none of it as she pulled her arm from his grasp. She wanted an explanation and the look she bestowed on all of them was worthy of Chris himself.

As the blond tried again to get Mary out of there, he shot the tracker a comparable look.

Tanner let up on his victim and the woman slowly straightened up. Mrs. Travis and The Seven peacekeepers watched in silence as the woman transformed herself back into the strange figure that had presented herself at the door, just a few short minutes ago. Straightening the duster on her shoulders, she proceeded to tuck her hair up inside her hat.

Dunne’s mouth had hung open for the past few minutes. He couldn’t understand what had just transpired but he also couldn’t grasp why the woman had appeared at the door in the first place. "How'd you know we was talkin' 'bout ya?" JD asked inquisitively. He could think of no other reason why she had come to their office.

It was clear that the stranger was considering the question as she calmly walked past the widow and stood in the doorway. "He who sees… tells all," a soft voice replied before she walked out and closed the door behind her.

A long, uneasy quiet settled over the room and no one seemed to know what to do next. The happenings of the last few minutes had left them all lost.

Mrs. Travis broke the silence. "Would someone please care to explain?" she asked, instinctively looking at the leader of The Seven.

Chris had no idea how to answer her. He wasn't sure he understood himself. He shot the sharpshooter his infamous glare once more and then gave Mary his best smile. Opening the door and guiding her through it, the blond made a suggestion. "Let's get some lemonade."

As he made his way across to the saloon, Larabee could see Vin sitting outside their office. It had taken most of the morning but the gunslinger had managed to convince the newspaperwoman that there wasn't a story to be told here. Chris wasn't sure if she believed him. He had tried to distract Mary by suggesting that she get ready for her trip tomorrow. They had no idea why or how long the stranger would be in town… maybe it was a good thing that the widow was leaving for a while.

Glaring at Tanner once more, the blond entered the Standish Tavern and headed to the corner table.

Like all good proprietors, Inez immediately sensed the gunslinger’s mood and grabbed some glasses and a whiskey bottle from behind the bar.

Buck had seen his oldest friend heading for the corner booth and quickly joined the leader as the pretty senorita made herself scarce. "You get her calmed down?" Wilmington asked, not really expecting a response.

Larabee poured himself a shot. "He said anything yet?" Chris asked of the reclusive tracker. The blond was none to calm himself right now and he emptied the glass quickly.

The rogue filled his glass and swallowed hard. "Not a word. Just sits out there with his eyes closed." He topped up both, near empty containers. "Can't figure what's gotten in to him."

Joining his fellow peacekeepers, Sanchez spoke softly, "Who's to judge what drives a man to do anything, son?"

"Come on now, Josiah," Wilmington retorted. "What we saw in there ain't the Vin Tanner we know." He poured the big man a whiskey.

"All men have their demons, Buck. None of us really know him well enough to see inside his heart." Raising eyebrows almost simultaneously, the two men looked at their leader. If any of them might be able to explain the sharpshooter's actions, it was Larabee.

Catching the questioningly looks, the frustrated gunslinger swallowed down another drink. "Don't look at me!" he rose to his feet. "I ain't got a clue," he looked at the others before turning for the door. "But I’m aiming to find out!" he called back.

Buck and Josiah looked at each and shrugged. They swallowed down their drinks knowingly getting ready for the storm that was coming.

Vin was still sitting against the porch of the sheriff’s office but it was the stranger that held Larabee's attention as she emerged into the sunlight. For the first time she was outside without the duster, yet her thigh length coat still hid her female shape well. A brief remembrance of her curves flashed through his mind as Chris watched her slowly walk across the street.

Making her way to the tracker she stood silently in front of him… and waited.

Several long seconds passed before Tanner looked up.

Their exchange was silent but Larabee had no doubt that they had spoken.

Getting to his feet, the sharpshooter entered the jailhouse.

The woman followed him and closed the door.

Chris slowly crossed the street and casually peered through the window of their office. The two inside had moved to the back of the jail and stood in silence. The woman slowly removed her hat and smiled alluringly at the tracker.

For the first time, Larabee noticed her beautiful hazel eyes. They seemed to see right through his best friend.

Removing her coat, the stranger slowly began to unbutton her vest and shirt.

As she turned from his gaze, the sharpshooter remained motionless in front of her.

The gunslinger wasn't sure what he was watching but he couldn’t pull himself away. He was both mystified and curious at the events unfolding in front of him.

Her clothing probably completely unbuttoned, the woman looked over her shoulder at the sharpshooter.

Appearing to respond to her gaze, Tanner reached for her shirt.

For an instant, Larabee considered going to the woman’s aid but this time the tracker's actions showed no violence, as they had done earlier that day. The blond watched and wondered as his friend slowly pulled the shirt down the woman's shoulder. Her soft, naked skin revealed a mark. Chris tried to see the blemish clearly but Vin was partially blocking his view. Must be what he was looking for!

The tracker caressed the shape gently then lowered his head.

The gunslinger could see it clearly now. The mark looked to be a tattoo… maybe… another wolf. A red wolf! He frowned. Thought there weren't any of them left. He continued to watch as the tracker let the woman's clothes go.

She stood quietly re-buttoning her shirt and vest. When she was done, she turned and smiled softly at the sharpshooter before replacing her hat and coat. The couple exchanged no words during all this time.

As walked toward the door, Chris slipped around the corner of the building and into the shadows.

Exchanging one last glance with Tanner, the woman walked away as silently as she had arrived…and this time the tracker watched her go.

As she reached the other side of the street Vin turned his head slightly. "You can come out now," he said quietly.

Larabee shouldn't have been surprised that his friend knew he was there. He emerged from the shadows and sat beside his friend as Tanner settled back to his chair. "She know I was there, too?" he asked. Chris already knew the answer.

It’s strange how silence can say so much… but when it passed between these two men, the quiet was almost deafening.

His previous anger seemingly lost on the wind; Chris had a thousand new questions. "What did she mean earlier, Vin? When she said, ‘He who sees’?" The words the woman spoke that morning had been playing repeatedly in Larabee’s head.

The tracker considered the question and the best way to answer it. He knew the others didn't put a lot of stock in the ways of the Indians but this seemed the only way he could explain. "Ya know the Indians are… connected tah nature more than... us?" he looked at the blond before continuing. "Most tribes believe there are folks who are connected more others… folks who can see... things," he began but paused purposely. These things were hard enough for him to accept sometimes. "She reckons I'm one of 'em."

The thoughts racing through the gunslinger’s head were as confused as he was. "And the tattoos?"

"His is a gray wolf... hers is red."

Chris frowned. "The horse?" He hadn’t believed it possible to be even more confused than before.

"She needs his wind to cool her fire and guide her on her quest."

Larabee looked intently at his younger friend. The references were clearly Indian in origin and made little sense to him. Perhaps he could move the tracker forward. "What's she here for, Vin?" he questioned before bowing his head. Larabee wasn't sure if he really wanted an answer. He wasn’t even sure he would understand what his friend might say.

"Well… near as I can remember… she's probably here to guide us..." Tanner looked at this leader. "It's her reason... her purpose."

Chris considered the sharpshooter for a minute. He could read a mixture of curiosity and worry written all over the man’s face. "She's no Indian, Vin... How'd she get that mark?"

"Reckon Josiah's right when he says she's here to protect us. Don't quite see how we's goin’ on a journey though." The sharpshooter looked about town at nothing in particular. He knew he was probably making little sense to the gunslinger.

"You ain't no Indian either!" was the blond's next remark. He was still trying to focus on why Vin understood all this stuff.

There was a slight ring of humor in the sharpshooter’s voice. "If'n ya got the gift, don't matter none where ya come from!" He knew this woman would have grown up around the natives and learned their ways, as he had done. The tribes, in turn, would have only bestowed the symbol upon one who deserved the honor.

Tanner was beginning to remember different parts of the stories he had heard more than a dozen years ago. It all seemed to make perfect sense. The woman obviously shared a oneness with the spirits. There would have to be some reason why she needed their guidance. Her calm innocence and trust would give her easier access to those she needed to teach and each lesson would impart knowledge and wisdom only to the intended recipient. The red wolf would guide many men on many types of journeys.

"How's she gonna protect us?" Larabee continued. "... And who's going on a journey?"

His friend considered the reply carefully. Didn't matter what Vin said, his leader wasn't going be happy with the answer. He took a deep breath and spoke as calmly as he could. "Reckon she only saw four of us… when she first opened her eyes!"

Evening had come to Four Corners and four of The Seven had gathered at their usual table.

"What’d you mean just them four?" Nathan asked of JD.

"I'm just tellin' ya what Buck told me," he related.

"It really isn’t clear why you gentlemen are so concerned about this issue," Standish put into the conversation. "It's not as though you were gazed upon by this mysterious young lady."

"Don't know as I'd call her a lady," Buck mused as he joined them. "Reckon she could use a lesson or two."

JD mused the thought. "Sounds like she's here to teach you a thing or two!"

Wilmington wasn't at all comfortable with the idea of this 'red wolf' guiding him through some 'journey'. "I ain't lettin' her get near me," Buck said confidently.

"While I do believe this would be a first for you, Mr. Wilmington," the southerner said smugly, "I am inclined to agree with you whole heartily."

None of the men noticed the stranger as she made her way into the saloon and sat across the room.

Larabee had followed close behind and joined the others at their table. "Boys," he nodded as he sat.

"Who’s lookin' after the woman?" Nathan asked.

Chris bowed his head then looked over his shoulder. "Seems she's doing the watching right now." The blond indicated her attentive gaze to his fellow peacekeepers.

The four other men followed his gaze and then looked at each other in surprise.

Buck braved another look then quickly averted his eyes and took a sip of his beer. "Don't look now..." he snickered.

The woman got up and moved to the poker game that was going on in the saloon. She pulled some money from her pocket as she sat at an empty chair. The men at the table seemed to object but held their comments as they saw her money. If this foolish woman were apt to play a little card game or two, they'd be more than happy to take her money. No woman could play cards!

Buck glanced at Ezra. "Guess she’s calling you out first," he mused again.

The gambler did not take Wilmington’s tone lightly and tried to ignore the comment. He watched intently though as the dealer shuffled the cards. The southerner’s keen eye observed little skill in any of the hands. Bets were laid and draws were made.

The conversation continued for some time at his own table but Standish paid no attention. His eyes were glued to the poker game and he didn’t miss the fact that the woman succeeded in losing fifteen dollars in three hands.

Somewhere in the course of the game, Vin had joined them. The other men all seemed to sense that the tracker was more like himself than he had been in days. He sipped on his whiskey and watched the gambler as he practically cried over the money that the other men had succeeded in taking from the stranger.

Standish looked at the sharpshooter and licked his lips. "Are you quite certain this 'woman' is not here to cause us bodily injury, Mr. Tanner," the question was laced with cynicism.

"She's a fire waitin' tah happen, Ezra!" Vin smirked. "Can't promise nothin’."

The gambler huffed loudly. "How very reassuring!" His eyes were still fixed on the poker game of which he desperately wanted to be a part.

"Come along now, Billy," Mary urged her son towards the waiting stage. There was no real hurry though. Their transportation wasn't due to leave for fifteen minutes.

The younger Travis was searching the town behind him as he reluctantly followed his mother. "Where's Chris?"

"I'm sure he’ll be along shortly, son," Josiah answered. He walked beside the newspaperwoman carrying two of her bags.

"Thank you for your help, Mr. Sanchez," Mary spoke as she struggled with the bag she was carrying. Chris had been right when he told her that she'd packed too much.

"There he is!" Billy shouted. Dropping his bag, the boy ran down the street and leapt into the gunslinger's arms.

Mary turned to look after her son and smiled at the way Larabee cradled the child lovingly. The curl of her lip slowly waned as she found something else to watch instead. Down the street, the newspaperwoman could see Vin sitting outside the hotel. The young woman, he had apparently accosted yesterday, sat beside him. Neither appeared to be talking.

Chris approached with Billy in his arms. As they paused briefly to pick up Billy's bag, Larabee spotted a familiar suspicious glint in Mary’s eyes. He followed her gaze and took a deep breath. The blond’s mind raced as he dug for answers to the questions he knew were coming soon.

It didn’t take long. "Billy... take your bag and go with Mr. Sanchez," Mrs. Travis directed.

The young boy looked intently at the gunslinger.

Smiling at the boy, Chris motioned toward the preacher, "Go on, Billy." He knew that Mary's inquiring nature had gotten the best of her yet again. Larabee also knew that she wasn't going to leave quietly unless she was sure everything was all right.

Mrs. Travis folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. "You told me you suspected the stranger was carrying a knife yesterday," she started out. "If she's a criminal how come Vin is being so nice to her today."

The leader was thinking on his feet. This would have to be good. "Tanner's still making his apologies, Mary... you know how bad he feels if he makes a mistake. None of us knew she was a woman until…" The gunslinger paused and looked away.

The newspaperwoman remembered what she had witnessed. She decided to give the man a second. She too, looked away

Chris took a deep breath and continued. "You know Vin’s shy around women anyway. He just feels real bad is all."

Mary knew that at least that part of Larabee’s statement was true. The sharpshooter wasn’t comfortable around most women. And, if yesterday's search had been a mistake, then he would most certainly feel bad about it. Treating a woman, the way he had would make him feel even worse. "Then she's not a criminal?"

Chris shrugged. "Not as far as we can tell," he answered her quickly. "She's not been forth coming about why she's the way she is… but seems like she'll be gone by tomorrow. We'll just let her ride on her way."

Mrs. Travis looked intently at the gunslinger. It was so hard sometimes, for her to figure out if he was telling the truth, or not. She smiled at him, truly only believing part of what he had said. The widow looked one more time towards Tanner. She bowed her head slightly before nodding. She really didn’t have much choice other than to believe what Chris was telling her. Turning, she continued her trek to join Josiah.

Larabee breathed a sigh of relief before picking up her bag and following, shaking his head all the while. He’d convinced her for now. It would be enough to see her safely on her way.


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