Nothing But Trouble
Three hours had passed and there was no sign of Ezra. Buck, JD and Vin were wondering if they should check on their friend and see if he returned to his room safely. Buck felt it was better to leave them alone. He believed that Ezra went to the hotel to have it out with Miss Douglas, and the both of them were currently busy finding new ways to settle their differences. He certainly did not think it was a good idea to walk in on them while they were busy 'apologizing' to each other.
The batwing doors in the saloon swung wide as a large, burley man entered the building. His brown eyes scanned the room until he found his three compatriots seated at a table near the bar. Taking his hat off, he walked over the to table to join them.
"I saw Brother Ezra headin' fer the hotel. It looks like he turned to the wrong kind of spirits tonight," commented the big man.
"Amanda Douglas is in town, Josiah. He ain't gonna be much help to us 'til she leaves," said Vin. "I wonder what she did that made 'em act that way."
"A woman can get a powerful hold on a man, Vin."
"Well, he's gonna snap out of it, or I'll beat it outta him," stated the man in black seated at the bar.
"A beautiful woman like her; hell, I'd turn to drinkin' too."
Just then, a young boy who worked at the hotel came barreling through the swinging doors like the devil was after him. This young Spanish child was at least ten years old and rose to Chris's waist in height.
"Senior Chris, you must come. Hurry!" he shouted and quickly turned back toward the doors as fast as he could.
"What's the matter?" Chris shouted from behind as he hurried to keep up with the child.
"You must come to the hotel. Please hurry!"
The gunslingers were bewildered as they left their chairs to join Chris. When they reached the hotel, the owner was outside to greet them. The shock on his face showed that this was not a welcoming situation.
"Mr. Larabee, I didn't know what else to do. When the maid went upstairs, she found him lying on the floor," explained the owner.
The men rushed up the stairs toward the room and found the door open. They saw Ezra lying on his back on the floor with a note addressed to him placed on his stomach. A groan escaped his lips as he slowly regained consciousness.
"JD, go get Nathan," ordered Chris as he and Vin tried to help Ezra into a sitting position on the bed. Buck and Josiah searched the hotel trying to catch anyone nearby who might have seen or heard what had happened.
Ezra felt the back of his head where his attackers had struck him and felt a few drops of blood. It was not a bad wound, but he would lay odds that a painful headache would quickly follow. Ezra focused his eyes slowly and took in the surrounding men in the room with him.
"What happened?" Ezra asked in a raspy tone. The pounding in his ears echoed like cannon shots. A wave of nausea slammed him so suddenly he did not know if it was caused by the blow to the head or the large amount of whiskey he consumed.
"'Bout to ask you the same question," said Vin.
By that time JD returned with Nathan. He applied a wet handkerchief to the back of Ezra's head and examined him for any serious damage . While the healer continued his ministrations, Chris read the note that the attackers left behind.
Come to the river by the old mining cave at midnight tonight and bring the book, or you will never see her again.
"Looks like ya have to take it slow for a little while, Ezra. Ya better stay at the clinic tonight in case it gets serious," Nathan concluded.
"A nice soft featherbed in my own chambers is sufficient enough, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan rolled his eyes at Ezra. The gambler was never an easy patient. The only way for Ezra to sit still and be treated would be to tie him up. There had been many cases where Nathan had to threaten to do just that in order to make Ezra take care of himself.
"Ezra, this was found on the floor after we picked you up. Who's Thomas Pepper?" asked Chris.
Immediately, Ezra reached for the note and took it from Larabee's grasp. After reading it he tried to stand, but the overwhelming dizziness forced Ezra to stay seated.
Suddenly, the events of the evening slowly came back to Ezra. He remembered his confrontation with Amanda and spending most of the evening with the whiskey bottle. From there, he remembered staggering to the hotel toward her room, and everything went black after he reached her door.
Amanda ..Where was Amanda? That bastard must have taken Amanda. Panic immediately struck the gambler as he tried to leave the room, but Nathan held him back. Ezra was still too dizzy and weak to fight anyone. Also, Chris wanted some answers.
"Who is he, Ezra?" Chris asked again with more aggression in his voice.
"An old acquaintance and my personal business."
"He's made it our business now, and I want to know about 'em. He took Amanda, Ezra. Now, why would he do that? And, what's this book he's talkin' about." Chris continued to fire questions at him having little patience to wait for a response.
"You can't go nowhere right now, Ezra. You gotta wait 'til yer head clears," ordered Nathan as he wetted the cloth and passed it to Ezra.
After having no luck with the patrons, Vin and Buck left the hotel to find some sign as to which direction the perpetrators may have headed. JD was working crowd control trying to break up the curious stares forming in the hallway. Josiah and Nathan stayed by their friends' sides. Ezra glared at the curious onlookers until Chris closed the door. The gambler did not enjoy being stared at like an exhibit at a museum.
"It's a long story, Chris, and I haven't much time until midnight."
"Then, ya better start talkin' 'cause we're goin' with ya."
At first, the faint white light reminded Amanda of the mythical story about spirits taking alighted path to find heaven, but as the light grew brighter, the pounding from her head and her jaw brought her back to the awful reality of her situation.
She moaned softly and tried to shield her eyes before opening them and discovering where she was. The hard gravel ground caused pain to shoot through Amanda's back as well as the ropes that cut into her arms and legs. She could smell the cold humidity and hear echo sounds of water dripping from a far distance. Amanda guessed instantly that she was in some type of cave, but she had no idea where.
"Well, she's woke up boys. Go tell the boss," said a low raspy voice calling from a distance.
Amanda tried to focus her eyes in the damp blackness, but she could only see moving shadows. Several faint voices began chattering at once, all of them were male.
"Yer a pretty little thing. It'll be fun havin' you around," said that voice again. A chill ran down Amanda's spine as he spoke.
Amanda pushed herself up into a sitting position and tried to focus her eyes on her attacker. A set of rotten teeth mixed with a foul smell was hovering closely over her. At that moment, two other men entered through the cave's mouth and strolled over to the bewildered captive. When their faces came into view. Amanda recognized them immediately. The taller man smiled as she stared at him in shock.
"Well, Miss Douglas, we meet again," he sneered. "I wish it were under better circumstances."
"Silas Albertson. What is the meaning of this?" she demanded. Standing behind Albertson was Missing Teeth, grinning like the cat that just caught his canary.
"My real name is Thomas Pepper, Madam, and I had you brought here to discuss a little business with you. Since you refused me earlier this evening, I am giving you a second chance and a little more incentive."
"There is nothing you can say that will condone this outrageous behavior," she demanded. Amanda showed no fear as the other men kept eyeing her.
"I'm not asking for forgiveness. I am demanding for your cooperation, and who knows, you might even like the idea."
"Your sales techniques leave much to be desired. Right now, I will reject any idea you pitch to me."
"Let me tell you the rest of the story about William Rothchild," Thomas said as he ordered for a canteen of water to be brought to his prisoner. "This is a part of the story that only William knew, and thankfully, he included it in his diary before he died.
"My travels in Egypt helped in my discovery of the thief that stole a priceless artifact from a private Egyptian collector around the time that Rothchild was pirating with Captain Rodriquez. The thief hid away on board a ship that was attacked by Rodriquez and was killed by one of his men.
"The artifact was then looted with the rest of the ship's treasure and taken to the New World. The story about the ship, you already know. The artifact was one of the items rescued by Rothchild before the ship went down," Pepper continued.
"And how does this story involve me?" Amanda asked keeping her hard exterior about her.
"You will help me find that artifact, my dear," he said with a smile of satisfaction.
Amanda retained her 'poker face'. It was an ability she learned from Ezra. She missed her gambler now more than ever. If only he and his friends could find her and get her out of this mess.
"You must be mad if you believe I will help you after this."
"You will, once you understand what we are looking for. It is a link to the greatest discovery of all mankind."
At first, Amanda was a little intrigued, but the look in Thomas' eyes changed her mind. She had seen that look before in men that she had worked with. She also saw it in her father's and her brother's eyes on occasion. It was maddening obsession for treasure worth more than mere historical value.
"What discovery? I've never heard of anything you are talking about."
"I'm talking about the mask of Sheba. King Solomon had the mask made into the Queen's likeness as a gift. It was made with gold from the fabled mines of King Solomon. It was kept in Solomon's Mines for centuries until it was stolen and exchanged hands throughout history. It proves that King Solomon's Mines exist, and it may even provide clues to the location of the Mines."
Thomas waited for a response, but Amanda was too stunned to speak. When he heard nothing from her, he continued.
"Don't you see? This mask is only the beginning, the location of the most elusive treasure man has ever known."
"King Solomon's Mines is nothing more than a myth. Men have searched for centuries and never even found any proof. This mask may not even have belonged to the Queen of Sheba."
"Those men did not have the key to finding it. And as for the mask, how do you know that it didn't belong to her?" he asked angrily.
Amanda shook her head in disbelief. How could she get into so much trouble? Her new expedition was only a fact-finding mission that offered no problems whatsoever. This time, she was not even looking for trouble, and it found her.
Amanda began to worry each time she stared into Thomas' eyes. He was completely mad which made him even more dangerous than she dreamed. She had to find a way to escape and quickly.
"I had my men search your room for that diary, but they didn't find it. I assume you have it stashed someplace; with a certain gambler in that little backwater town, maybe?"
Amanda stiffened at the mention of Ezra. Now, what was Thomas up too?
"In case you are wondering, Ezra and I are old acquaintances. So, imagine my surprise when my prize historian and my old adversary are on 'intimate' terms with each other," Thomas laughed. "Small world, isn't it."
Chris, J.D., and Josiah examined the ransacked room while Nathan attended to the dazed gambler seated on the edge of the bed. The room was a complete mess. Clothes were thrown all over the floor. Important papers that Amanda had brought with her were carelessly pulled out of her leather bag and tossed everywhere. Even the feather mattress was on the floor with the blankets and quilts lying in a heap near the corner of the room.
Whoever these people were, they were obviously looking for something and believed that Amanda had it. Yet, Ezra knew the man who abducted her, this man wanted revenge. Chris was determined to get to the bottom of it if they were going to save Amanda.
"Who is Thomas Pepper?" asked Chris.
Ezra was still light-headed from the blow to the head and was slightly incoherent to fully understand the question. He took an unusually long pause to process the information before answering it. The hesitation had more to do with wanting to keep that part of his life a secret than the shooting pain he was experiencing.
"That ..Mr. Larabee .is a personal matter," Ezra answered while rubbing the back of his neck.
He watched as Chris' face turned from pink to bright red with anger and frustration in a matter of moments.
"Yer 'personal matter' just got public. I wanna know who this guy is right now."
Ezra and Chris stared at each other until the gambler decided that it was useless to argue. It was a waste of precious time that Amanda did not possess, and he knew that he would need his friends' help to save her.
"The gentleman in question is a wealthy man from Chicago who invested a large sum into a cotton gin cooperation operated by a southern businessman and his inspiring mother. Who was also a partner in the venture."
"And that 'southern businessman and inspiring mother' would be you and Maude," Josiah concluded.
"You are correct, Josiah. My mother and I were the creators of that particular investment scheme, and we left the city with a wealthy sum."
There was no surprise in the story the gambler was telling. Ezra's friends knew all about Maude Standish and her schemes. For years the woman had worked her conning skills up and down the Mississippi River, teaching her abilities to her son when she did not abandon him with other relatives. Ezra resented his mother for his dysfunctional childhood, yet he took her teachings to heart and became her partner in a few scheming enterprises. The gambler even developed a talent for the 'art'.
"Mr. Larabee, time is a luxury I do not possess. I must depart immediately if I am to reach my destination before midnight."
"Ya can't ride like ya are, and ya can't go by yerself," stated Nathan.
"If I do not follow the instructions to the letter, Nathan, they will kill her." The irritation in Ezra's voice was becoming apparent. It surprised the others to hear such emotion because Ezra worked hard at suppressing his feelings, even to them.
"Well, ya still ain't goin' alone. We'll try to stay back and cover ya, but it looks like there's more than just revenge he's after." said Chris as the men filed out of the hotel room to make last minute plans.
Mary Travis hurried through the hotel doors and ran straight up the stairs toward the men standing in the hallway. The moment she heard of the break-in she immediately headed for the hotel.
"I came as soon as I heard. What happened here?" she asked breathless and with concern.
At first, Mary was curious about the break-in, but her curiosity turned to concern when she found out from the desk clerk that Amanda was the kidnapped victim.
"Chris, do you know who might have done this?"
"Mary, you ate dinner with Amanda Douglas tonight. Did ya see anybody suspicious talk to her?"
"Well, there was Silas Albertson. He said he was in town looking for some land for an emporium he wants to open. Amanda and I were discussing the background history of a British sea captain named William Rothchild who may have explored this area as a Spanish sailor 200 years ago. Amanda was studying this Captain for research she was working on.
"Mr. Albertson was very intrigued in her studies, and he himself had information about the Captain. He even wanted to join us on our riding trip tomorrow morning to a cave where the Captain may have camped before advancing East. She gave me to keep the Captain's diary to read for a background study."
Chris' ears perked up when Mary mentioned the diary. Perhaps that was what these men were looking for when Amanda walked in on them. She may have surprised the men, and they kidnapped her to try and find out where it was.
"Where's the diary now, Mary?" Chris asked anxiously.
"I have it in my office. I'll go fetch it."
Mary was out the door just as Ezra tried to stand again. As he made it to the dresser where Josiah laid Ezra's guns, he felt an overwhelming nausea. He knew that time was running out, and he needed to get going. He overheard Chris and Mary talking about the diary, and he, too, believed that the diary may be the key. Ezra headed through the door and to the stairs before a parade of hands grabbed his shoulders trying to stop him.
"Hold it, Brother Ezra," said Josiah. "We'll back you up, but ya gotta be patient. Yer still not clear-headed yet."
"Amanda will have a more serious dilemma than my little head injury."
"We found some fresh tracks out back o' the hotel. They lead outta town toward the river," said Vin when he and Buck rejoined the others at the stairs.
J.D. filled them in about Thomas Pepper, Ezra's involvement, and the diary that Chris suspected was what Pepper's men were after. Chris had an idea about bringing them out into the open using the diary.
Ezra was hesitant at first. He really wanted to do this alone. Pepper was his problem, and Amanda was his obligation. He did not want to involve his friends in something that may prove too dangerous for everyone. He also did not fully trust Chris' plans. The last time Chris had a plan that included him in any way involved Ezra wearing a dress and posing as a saloon singer. But, Ezra knew that neither he nor Amanda had a chance of escaping without help.
Thomas Pepper would probably have at least a dozen men in his employ. He would need them in order to keep Amanda in his custody without any problems. Ezra knew how Amanda did as she pleased and hated any restrictions against her will. It was the reason why Ezra found it so hard to believe that Amanda would be into marriage so easily. He smiled as he imagined what kind of trouble she must be causing for Pepper.
"We all know they want ya to come alone, Ezra, so you ride alone with the diary. Buck, Vin and me will ride ahead and come in the canyon from behind while Josiah, Nathan, and J.D. will follow behind ya. Once we're there we'll surround 'em," stated Chris as the men headed for the livery stable.
Mary handed over the diary before Ezra rode away toward the river. With the diary in their possession, Chris hoped that it would be enough to give them the advantage they needed. For once, he hoped that Ezra's silver tongue could con Thomas Pepper for a second round, or at least by them some time. Every second would count.
As midnight loomed closer, Amanda carefully surveyed the area and the men who held her hostage. The bright full moon softly glowed through the mouth of the cave where she was imprisoned. The pebbled ground made her seat immensely uncomfortable. Even the dampness and the sound of dripping water was becoming unbearable.
Amanda's hands were tied behind her back which only increased her discomfort. Pepper wanted her to have some free movement to study the diary once he got his hands on it, but he felt it was wiser to keep her restricted until the exchange was made.
Pepper really had no intention of letting Amanda or Ezra go once the diary was in his possession, and Amanda knew that. She had to find a way to escape, or they were both dead.
Pepper's men continued to play cards while occasionally stealing glances at their prisoner. Amanda would catch them watching her and match them stare for stare. Each of them smiled and gazed down the length of her body mentally undressing her. Amanda felt a cold chill run down her spine but refused to look away until they turned away first. She learned that staring was a way of showing dominance to most animals.
The battle of wills continued for several minutes until Thomas Pepper entered the cave. The men turned away like children returning to their schoolwork when the teacher entered the classroom.
Thomas paused for a brief moment allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness before seeking out his bait. He smiled and casually strolled over to her. Amanda could tell that he was confident his plan would work. If he only knew how sharp the sandstone rock was behind Amanda's back. It could easily slice the rope binding her hands together.
"Well, it's almost midnight. Would you care to wager whether or not Ezra will appear?" he asked.
"You are wasting your time, Thomas. Ezra cares little for me, and if he did come, his friends would not be far behind."
"Ezra has no friends, my dear. I've known the man longer than you have. He may be a dishonest conniving bastard, but he will do the gentlemanly thing and try to save you."
"You assume too much, Mr. Pepper. You are even underestimating his associates. Many men have tried to second-guess them, and you will be no different."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that if I were you," said Thomas before he leaned over and grabbed her painfully by the back of her neck. "When this is over, my dear, you will learn to be more respectful toward me .in more ways than one." He smiled.
Thomas forced a kiss on Amanda's lips. After a few seconds of struggling, Amanda managed to twist away from his grasp. She watched as Thomas smiled. She knew that he enjoyed her in pain and that only fueled her anger. She made a promise to herself that after she escaped, she was determined to see that man suffer.
Thomas' smile faded after Amanda spit in his face to show her contempt. He raised his hand and slapped her across the face. Amanda fell to the ground but quickly recovered long enough to kick him in the shin. Thomas lost his balance and almost joined her on the ground.
The men quietly snickered at the physical confrontation before them. This woman had a fighting spirit. She was the kind of woman that Missing Teeth would love to take advantage of.
The pain from his shin drove Thomas crazy. He ignored the laughing from his men and grabbed Amanda by the shoulders forcing her to her feet.
"Your first lesson begins now," he said forcefully. "I'll send you back to Ezra Standish in pieces."
Thomas was about to hit her again when one of his men keeping watch warned him of a rider approaching. He pushed Amanda back to the ground and headed for the exit.
"Looks like your gambler has arrived. We'll finally find out how badly he wants you back," Thomas turned his attention to his men. "I want two of you to watch her while the rest of you get out of sight above the canyon. Watch out for those other six men. They will be arriving at any moment. Once I have the diary, take them all out."
The three left the cave with Thomas while Missing Teeth and his shadow partner at the hotel remained to stand guard. As soon as Thomas was out of sight, Amanda continued rubbing the ropes against the stone. She still felt the sting from his slap on her cheek and tasted the few drops of blood oozing from her lower lip. She ignored the pain and concentrated on the ropes.
Amanda watched the two men while they were distracted by the mysterious rider coming to their camp. She knew that now was a perfect chance to escape. She hoped that she would be free in time to save Ezra.
Ezra rode his horse hard in order to get to the cave before midnight. When he reached the river, he saw the flickering of campfire lights from a distance. The canyon was dark like a hole through the center of the Earth. Although the moon was full, the high canyon walls shadowed the dismal area. Few trees were able to grow from the lack of sunlight. It was definitely a good place for an ambush. Ezra hoped that his friends would make it in time in case of any trouble, and he would bet that Thomas Pepper would do his best to create some.
The cool breeze from the river combined with the eerie sense that eyes were watching him sent chills down Ezra's spine. Through the foggy mist of the late night a dark figure appeared from the shadows as the gambler neared the cave. Ezra casually touched his left coat pocket to feel the outline of the diary as well as his gun hidden inside his coat. He felt he needed the physical assurance; especially, since the lamb had just entered the lion's den.
"Ezra Standish," spoke the dark figure as he stepped out of the shadows. "I laid down the odds that you would come. Miss Douglas disagreed. My guess is she saw through that clean, gentlemanly act you perform so well."
Ezra remained on his horse and held his tongue. His anger grew as he listened to this man rave, yet he retained his usual calm demeanor waiting for the right moment. He had to do buy Chris some time to get ready.
"After what I heard that transpired this afternoon between you and the young lady, I thought she was one of your marks you just brushed off."
"Don't believe everything you hear," replied Ezra.
"Enough with the pleasantries. Did you bring the diary?"
Ezra reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the leather bound diary. He waved it in the air to show Thomas. The gambler stared into Thomas' eyes carefully searching for any sign of a double-cross.
"I have maintained my end of the agreement, Pepper. Now, it is your turn."
"Bring the woman," ordered Thomas.
Missing Teeth heard his boss's order and went back into the cave to retrieve the little troublemaker. He wondered if his boss really was going to give up the lady to that fancy peacock for a worn down old notebook. Rather than play these games, they should just shoot the gambler and take the book.
By the time Missing Teeth had found Amanda, she had already managed to free herself of the binding ropes but kept her hands behind her back.
"Well, Missy, looks like that gambler came after all. But don't fret none 'cause we'll have lots 'o time together after he's gone," he said licking his lips in satisfaction.
"I would not bet on it if I were you," she said.
Missing Teeth took her arm to help her to her feet when Amanda kicked her right foot into the man's groin. Missing Teeth doubled over in sheer pain giving Amanda the chance to swing a hard left hook knocking the man to the ground. The punch knocked him senseless for a few seconds until Amanda grabbed a large wooden stick and slapped him across his back. Missing Teeth fell forward and blacked out completely.
Amanda sighed in relief and hid in the shadows near the cave's entrance. She knew the other man was just outside and the noise would bring him to her. She did not have to wait long before the other man came into view.
"What the hell ?" were his last words before he joined his friend on the ground in an unconscious heap.
"Do you know what you are holding, Ezra?" sneered Thomas.
Ezra slowly shook his head and dismounted his horse to face him. He knew that Thomas was playing games with him, and he was more willing to indulge him. There was not a con game invented that he could not work. One thing he learned from this man during their last encounter was that Thomas loved to talk.
"Should I hazard a guess?" he asked sarcastically.
"What you are holding is a map to the key to our future. I will be willing to share it with you, of course. Since you have the best influence over our little adventuress, I'm sure you can persuade her into joining our guest. As I recall, you have quite a talent for influencing people to do whatever you want."
"This was merely a ruse to bring me here in order for you to extract your revenge." Ezra prayed that was all it was, but his instincts warned him that was not the case.
"You are half right. You are just the icing on the cake. I had intentions of kidnapping Amanda ever since I learned that she was researching William Rothchild. I needed her and the diary. It was a stroke of luck that you just happen to be involved with her."
Thomas reached down and removed his gun from its holster showing his next move. It was exactly what Ezra was waiting for.
"And since you brought the diary to me, you have outlived your usefulness."
Thomas drew his gun. Amanda jumped out of the shadows and slapped Thomas across the back with the stick that she was caring. Ezra quickly whipped out his derringer he always hid up his right coat sleeve and pointed it at the fallen man in front of him. Suddenly, without warning, a bullet whizzed past his ear barely missing him before hitting the ground.
"GET DOWN!" Ezra screamed as he grabbed Amanda and headed toward the cave for cover. Gunshots exploded from above as Thomas' men aimed for the couple below. Another shot hit the ground nearly missing Ezra and Amanda before they reached the mouth of the cave.
Ezra wanted to shoot back, but with the fog and the darkness, he could not see anything to shoot at. Where was his backup? Surely they would have arrived by now. He never felt so helpless.
"Well, this is a fine rescue," Amanda said. "Where are you other friends, and what took you so long? I spent the entire night tied up with a group of lunatics."
"So nice to see you too, Darling," Ezra answered.
"We got 'em boys. Open fire," a voice shouted from above.
Chris heard the first shot a few yards away from him. He motioned for Buck to close in. One of Thomas' men kept shooting and shouting until another shot hit the man in the shoulder. He lost his balance and fell backwards into the canyon. His screams echoed over the canyon walls even after his body hit the ground.
Chris rode through the mist to the place where the man fell and peered into the canyon. Then more shots echoed the canyon and flew past Chris' head. Another shooter took aim and fired several shots at the gunslinger. Both Buck and Chris ducked behind a set of boulders frantically searching for the mysterious gunman.
"Buck Get down!"
"Where are they? Ya can't see shit in here," screamed Buck.
From a distance Vin could see his struggling friends. He also had a fair view of the second shooter a few yards behind a large oak tree. Vin took aim and lodged a bullet in the shooters left shoulder. After he saw the shooter go down, he motioned for Buck and Chris to follow.
Thomas Pepper recovered from Amanda's attack after the shooting began and took cover behind a large crack in the canyon walls. He hid in the shadows wondering if his men were winning the battle or if those gunslingers were ruining everything. He heard hoof beats behind him and crouched lower, hiding from for whoever was coming.
The shots forced JD, Nathan and Josiah to ride harder into the canyon. Even though they were in a hurry, they were careful not to ride too closely to the fight, fearing that they might ride into the middle and get shot in the crossfire. They dismounted and left their horses before venturing further into the canyon.
The third outlaw could only hear shots ahead of him and assumed that his partners had already taken care of the gunslingers. Everything was going according to plan from what he could see. He saw his boss run for cover after the first shot, and the gambler grabbed the woman and headed for the cave. While the shots were firing, he kept his eye on the gambler waiting for a clear shot.
"Chris .Ezra ..Are ya alright?" shouted Nathan.
"Mr. Larabee, your timing is impeccable," responded Ezra.
As Ezra stepped from the shadows of the cave, the shooter found his opportunity and took it. His shot grazed Ezra's shoulder. Nathan instinctively ran to the gambler's aide while the men searched the canyon walls for the shooter.
As the men fanned out to search for the shooter, Thomas Pepper was already making his escape. He had his horse hidden in the brush beside his hiding place for an easy escape in case something went wrong. He underestimated the gunslingers and their weaknesses, especially Amanda. But no matter. They may have won the battle, but they have yet to win the war.
When the shooter tried again, Vin followed the smoke trail until he saw a shadowy figure moving in the grass. He aimed his rifle and fired. The figure fell down the canyon wall until he slammed into the ground below and died.
"Ezra, are you alright?" Amanda cried rushing to Ezra's side.
"Ezra's fine, Ma'am. Just a little scratch," said Nathan.
"Chris .Thomas Pepper is still at large. I heard galloping just as the gunplay had ceased," informed Ezra.
"We'll find 'em in the mornin'. Let's get back to town."
Amanda helped Ezra to his feet and gave him a deep intimate kiss before punching him squarely in the jaw. Ezra staggered backwards and almost fell into the dirt again.
"I see you are grateful for the rescue as usual."
"Oh no, quite the contrary. The kiss was for the rescue. The punch was for getting me kidnapped in the first place," Amanda concluded before mounting Ezra's horse. "Well, what are we waiting for? We have work to do."
Ezra merely smiled as he mounted behind her. That's the Amanda that I love, he thought as he took the reins and headed back to town. This was one girl he would have to fight to keep.
Ezra spent two days in his room and in the saloon recovering. By now, the bullet wound looked more like a fingernail scratch, and Ezra was back to his usual routine. Amanda never left Ezra's side once they got back to town. It was Chris' idea to keep an eye on her since Thomas Pepper was still at large.
Ezra also wanted to spend as much time with her as he could. There was a lot of talking that they needed to do, especially about this marriage deal she made with her family.
While Amanda and Ezra were making up, Amanda spent as much time as she could trying to decipher the diary. She read it twice before finding a passage that was quite interesting. It described a mysterious island in the gulf of Mexico, a part of a series of small islands spread south of the mainland. If the mask really did exist, than it was quite possible it was hidden on that island. While having a quiet dinner together seated at a secluded table in the restaurant, Amanda told Ezra about her idea.
"Whatever happened to your little research expedition you were about to complete? Not to mention your promise to marry in two months. Now, you wish to go searching for a mask you did not believe existed," said Ezra.
"What if he is right, Ezra? To find King Solomon's Mines will be extraordinary. At the very least, the mask alone will be a priceless treasure for the museum," pleaded Amanda. "As for my marriage .I realize now that I cannot marry this man. There is too much work to be done .And, I have personal reasons as well."
"I suppose there is no point in changing your mind. I have learned that it is almost impossible," Ezra said with a smile.
Amanda took his hand in hers and stared into those gorgeous green eyes. The only problem she had about leaving again would be leaving Ezra. Keeping in touch with him through letters was not like actually being with him. Her career made it difficult to hold a long distance relationship. If she left again, she would never know if she would ever come back, and she wanted to more than anything. At that moment, she knew that she loved him. It would be foolish to return to New York and marry a man she hardly knew when she was in love with the man she was with right now.
"It doesn't have to be this way. We could go together. I don't think I could leave if I knew that I would be leaving you."
Ezra was a little surprised by her last statement. He expected her to be upstairs packing and leaving by morning, whether Chris wanted her to or not. He never thought that she would give everything up and stay if he decided not to go. After all, she was willing to marry a complete stranger for money a week ago. Now, she was giving that up too.
He wondered how his life would change in the town if they stayed together. But he could not ask her to give up the lifestyle that made her truly happy, nor could he see leaving his newfound friends in this town. If she asked him three years ago, he would have jumped at the chance.
On the other hand, there was the fame and fortune that came with finding these artifacts. Oh yes, definitely the fortune, he thought to himself. Maybe there was a bright side to this.
"Perhaps we should sleep on it until morning," he said with a smile on his face "After all, it may take some time to reach a decision, and we would not want to rush things."
Amanda smiled and nodded in agreement. Another day would not really matter. She had the diary and all the time in the world. She imagined what her life would be like traveling around the world with Ezra, or even staying and settling in this little town. Either way, she felt that tomorrow would definitely bring a new adventure unlike anything she had ever experienced, and she was ready for it.
Let the adventure begin .
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