Fallen Angel

by LT

Part 1 - 2 | Part 3 - 5 | Part 6 - 7
Part 8 - Epilogue


The next day dawned bright, a freshness filling the whole town as the sun poured down from a cloudless blue sky. The general hustle and bustle of Four Corners seemed to proceed with a lighter step than normal. Even the town grouches seemed to put their sour dispositions on hold for the day.

The seven lawmen had each completed their daily chores and were enjoying a beer outside by the table on the boardwalk. None of them were keen on burying themselves in a dark gloomy smoke filled room today. The beautiful day and the pleasure of their friends’ companionship were all they required.

Chris took off his black hat and ran a hand through his blonde hair. He wore it short now. It seemed his whole persona had changed the day Mary had said she would be his wife. He no longer wore black, preferring blue and green shirts. The green ones Mary always said made his eyes shine brighter. He chuckled to himself at the thought. He had to admit that he liked the way his wife looked at him when he wore the green shirt though. He knew he liked to see her in soft blue dresses. It seemed to bring out the sheen of her pale gold hair. He wouldn’t mind a daughter that looked just like her mother.

Vin sat with his legs stretched before him, one ankle crossed over the other. His slouch hat was pulled low over his eyes. Not one of the others could tell what was going through his mind but if they had to guess, to a man they would say his mind was on the petite brunette just across the street. They probably would never have guessed though the direction his mind was headed in. Vin never talked about Ibis and the things they did when alone but all his friends were well aware of how his face lit up when she approached. None of the others knew that just the night before, Vin and Ibis had made love for the first time. None of them knew that Vin’s desire to make the brunette his wife was scattering all other thoughts from his mind. Vin was sure that Ibis loved him, for she had declared that almost a week ago and her every action reaffirmed her declaration. Last night, Vin had told the vivacious brunette with the sweet smile that he no longer wanted to live without her in his life. He had asked her to be his wife as they lay in the afterglow of their first coupling. The woman has tensed, tears springing to her eyes, as she lay holding him tight. His heart had broken when she refused but he understood that she was already married. This situation was not like the one with Charlotte though. Somehow, the two of them would find a way around the marriage she had agreed to with Rufus Wiggins.

JD and Josiah were playing checkers as they sipped their beers. The ex-preacher sat with a look of total contentment on his aging face. He had stopped dreaming of one day finding a pretty, intelligent, soul mate to fill his empty bed. Although the quixotic of the Seven, he had been content to remember, savoring the romantic trysts he had enjoyed if too briefly in his younger days. The day Dr. Amanda Elder had dropped into the lives of the Seven, saving Buck’s life when they had all given him up for dead, had been the best day of not only Buck’s but Josiah’s life too. From the first conversation, both Josiah and Amanda had each found an individual that could soar the heights with them. Amanda understood the longing in Josiah to atone for the acts of aggression that had led to his parting with God. She also understood his guilt in regards to his sister, Hannah. Amanda had eased his soul, allowing him to find happiness for the first time in years. At the same time, Josiah understood the tough, determined woman who had fought her way through medical school and was determined to serve as many people as she could. Although he worried when she was gone, he endorsed her practice of riding the circuit to bring medical care to those in small communities that could not support a doctor. He saw the look of gratitude in the faces of the patients she saw in Red Bow and Bitter Creek and Dust Bowl and the ten others hamlets that his wife traveled to on a regular basis. He liked to accompany her but he had obligations of his own to see to. Their love and trust of one another stayed a constant even when they were apart.

The youngest of the Seven was deeply engulfed in the arms of love but he and his young paramour had not made the final commitment to one another yet. JD figured that if Buck could wait until he was thirty- two to get married and Josiah could wait until he was fifty, then he didn’t need to rush into marriage. Casey didn’t seem to be in a big hurry. Hell, she was only eighteen and she still preferred horseback riding to snuggling. No, he couldn’t exactly say that. Saturday night, in the haystack outside of her Aunt Nettie’s cabin, Casey had shown a willingness that had startled the young man. Surprised but more than agreeable, the two young lovers had enthusiastically but clumsily succumbed to the heady urgings of their young bodies. JD thought that it was the best feeling he would ever experience. Little did he know that it would only get better and better with time and practice.

Nathan sat on the steps beside Buck. The two men were comparing notes on house building. Nathan was in the process of building a small house on the outskirts of Four Corners. Rain didn’t appreciate the noise, dust, and bustle of the town. She had grown up in a small village where the quiet of the woodland was just steps from her door. She was unsettled in the growing town. She yearned for a patch of garden, a bubbling brook, the chirp of crickets to sing her to sleep. Her husband had found a small piece of ground not far from town that met all of his young bride’s desires. The home he was building was not as large as the Wilmingtons’ but would suit the Jacksons just fine. He still could recall Rain’s face when he presented her with the land the day after their wedding. The look of pure joy on her face would stay with him the rest of his life.

Buck enjoyed helping Nathan with the building of his house. He tried to get out to the site as often as he could. He remembered the effort the whole town had put into his home. It had overwhelmed him when he saw the completed house. He could never have imagined that so many people would be willing to help him in his time of need. Although it had been JD’s idea, the entire population of Four Corners, well almost all, had enthusiastically given their time and effort to complete the homestead when Buck had succumbed to the stress of both physical and mental trauma and had slipped into catalepsy. Although he still found it difficult to believe at times that he was a husband and a father, he was flourishing in the reality of his life. He simply adored his son and was looking forward to the arrival of the next baby which was due in five months. He wanted a girl this time, one that looked just like his amazing wife. Every time he held Ezra John, he realized the headiness of the miracle that had been bestowed on him. He turned his head to look at his old friend, Chris Larabee, and a wistful look crossed his face. He now knew the extent of the feelings that Chris had had when he and Sarah had welcomed Adam into the world. And he never, ever, wanted to experience the grief that loosing them had caused Chris. He was ecstatic for his ‘brother’ who had again found love and would soon have a baby of his own to give his whole heart to once again.

Buck then glanced at the gambler. He had ridden the circuit with Ezra that morning and the two of them had discussed Angelina. Buck tried to make Ezra understand some of what the Mexican woman was enduring but Ezra had not grown up that way. He had been shoved aside, taught to depend only on one’s self. The only lesson he knew of others was to watch them for opportunities and to be careful of betrayal. The fact that he cared for Angelina so deeply was a tribute to his heart finding a home in Four Corners, the trust that six other men gave him, and the inherent goodness in the man’s soul.

Buck stood up and walked into the smoky saloon. He made his way to the back and entered the kitchen. His wife was busy at the oven, her back to the entrance. She was humming as she worked and Buck stood, silently watching. As she turned, a pan of cooked burritos in her hands, she smiled. The tall lanky man before her was grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

"What is making you so proud of yourself this afternoon, husband?" She set the pan down on the counter and made her way to stand in front of her one true love.

"I have you for a wife." His voice was husky with passion and he leaned forward to kiss his wife, his arms wrapping possessively around her back. He closed his eyes, savoring the taste of her mouth, the warmth of her body. He never wanted the kiss to end but finally, he withdrew from her lips. "I love you, Inez."

She swallowed hard, her feelings for him almost overpowering her. As a young woman in her village, she had dreamt of finding a love so complete but she had never even come close. Every other man had left her hollow, wanting more. Her mother had said she was too picky, that she should just settle for one and make it work. She had rebelled, knowing that she would someday find the love she desired. The day Don Paulo had attempted to rape her in front of the whole village was perhaps the best day of her life although at the time she had been terrified and so alone. But her flight from the young don’s advances had led her to a dusty town in New Mexico and to the love of her life. No matter what, she would never take another man to her bed. Her love for the town’s Lothario had made her complete and she knew he owned her heart for the rest of time.

"Mi amour, le corizon perdido enti. I am yours for all time." She tilted her head and they kissed again, a long passionate kiss that left both of them breathless.

"I don’t want to wait for the night, Inez. Be mine now!" He whispered against her mouth. His desire for his wife was constant and sometimes, as now, painful. One hand cupped her behind and pulled her tight against him. The other hand entwined itself in her hair, drawing her head back so that his lips could find the soft skin of her neck. He breathed in the scent of cinnamon and wild flowers that was hers alone. He moaned into the hollow of her neck where it met the shoulder.

She pushed against him with her hips, his desire for her hard against her stomach. Her arms wrapped tight around his waist, she whispered, "I want you so much, my love. Don’t stop, please, don’t ever stop."

He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the stock room at the back of the kitchen. They had availed themselves of the sturdy table on numerous occasions for they never seemed to tire of their joining. Buck slung the few items on the table to the back of the small room and laid his beautiful wife on the table. He pulled the strings tying her blouse together and loosened the peasant top she wore. As was her practice, she was bare beneath the cotton material. His mouth quickly found his target and he consumed her flesh greedily.

"Lay down Buck, I want you now." Her dark eyes were black with passion, her lips swollen with desire. She pushed against his chest and he backed off. She sat up, her tongue slowly licking her bottom lip in anticipation.

He smiled and succumbed to his wife’s desire.

"Chris! Chris, Mary needs you!" Ibis came running from the newspaper office, ink still covering her hands. She spotted the six men sitting outside the saloon and she ran straight for them. "Chris, she needs you right now!"

All six were immediately on their feet. Chris moved forward to meet the young brunette who was quickly approaching. "What’s wrong with Mary?"

"She said her water broke and she needs you and Dr. Elder. I think its her time, Chris. Hurry!" The young woman was frantic. Her friend was bent over in pain, beseeching her to find help.

"Josiah, get your wife. Vin," Chris broke into a run, knowing his best friend would take care of Ibis. He wasn’t ready for the arrival of the baby. He still had doubts about loving another infant as he had Adam. But his beloved wife needed him and he would be there for her.

Vin gathered the scared brunette into his arms. "Its alright, sweetheart. Amanda will take care of everything. It’s just a baby."

"Little do you know, Vin Tanner. It could be a long time and the pain is terrible. Poor Mary, we need to help her." Ibis wanted to return to the Clarion office but Vin held her firm.

"Let Amanda take care of her. Chris is with her. Its all gonna be okay."

Buck and Inez came out of the saloon. "What’s the ruckus?"

"Mary is going into labor, Buck. Nathan is already headed that way and Josiah went to fetch his wife. Inez, Mary may require your presence." Ezra glanced at the Wilmingtons and noticed the disheveled look of their clothing. He grinned in acknowledgement. Inez left her husband’s side and hurried to her friend. Ezra shook his head. "Mr. Wilmington, I thought you had set aside your randy ways for the pleasures of marriage."

"That is one of the pleasures of marriage, Ez. I can’t get enough of the woman. She’s got more moves than a contortionist in a side show."

Ezra looked appalled. "That is definitely more than I needed to know, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck broke into a belly laugh and then, clapping his friend on the red coated shoulder, the two of them made their way over to the Clarion office to lend their leader support.

Several hours later, Mary was still clutched in the tendrils of painful contractions. The process was not going as quickly as she or her husband would have liked. Amanda and Inez were with Mary. Casey, Rain, and Ibis sat in the kitchen, preparing coffee for the men and keeping water hot for when Amanda might need it. Gloria Potter was keeping Billy busy, saying the adults didn’t need him underfoot. Vin, Nathan and Ezra sat quietly in the office playing cards for toothpicks. They were all too nervous to fully concentrate on their game. JD and Josiah sat outside on the boardwalk, quietly talking about babies, family, and love. Buck had lead Chris out back to the porch swing. The two sat mostly in companionable silence.

"Buck, I don’t know if I can go through this again."

"Well, Stud, it’s a little too late to be backin’ out now." Buck grinned sideways at the extremely apprehensive man beside him. Chris had been nervous when Adam was born but not like this. This was a combination of anxiety and dread. "What’s goin’ on, Chris? You already know you can be a good father. You’re not like me, you’ve had experience." As the words slid past his lips, he wished he could take them back.

"That’s it exactly, Buck. I don’t think I could survive buryin’ another child of mine. Hell, Big Dog, I doubt if even you could get me through it if something happens to this one." A tear fell silently down the gunfighter cheek.

Buck had never seen his long time friend so scared. He had seen the man charge a hill knowing they couldn’t make it to the top alive. He had seen him face three to one odds with only three bullets left in his gun. He had seen him face down some of the fastest guns in the West and live to tell the tale. And during all those times, Larabee had forged ahead with ice in his veins and a cold glare in his eyes. But now, with the impending birth of his child, fear seemed to leak from his pores.

"Chris, this is life happenin’ here. Ya can’t take it back and ya can’t predict what will happen in the future. But it’s the way of things, Pard. People die and babies are born, not to replace the deceased but to fulfill their own destiny. You learned to care again when the seven of us got together. You learned to love again with Mary. Now your gonna find that ya got enough heart left to fill it with this young ‘un." Buck put his arm around Chris’s shoulders. "Once they put that little bundle in your arms, ya won’t doubt one minute more."

Chris turned his head and saw the sincerity on his old friend’s face. He had been thinking about something for awhile now and the answer was suddenly clear. "Buck, will you be the godfather again?"

The rogue’s eyes misted up and he swallowed the lump in his throat before answering. "Ya sure?"

Chris nodded. Buck had been Adam’s godfather. He had loved the boy almost as much as Adam’s parents had. He had never done anything that would harm Adam in any way and he had been there to entertain, teach, comfort, and explain. Yes, Chris was sure.

"I’d be honored, Chris, just like I was before."

"Then it’s settled."

"So, Stud, wha’cha gonna name the boy?"

Chris looked at his old companion questioningly. "What makes ya think it’ll be a son?"

"It’s what’s right."

Chris smiled, the fear suddenly gone. "Quentin Vincent Larabee. Nobody names their kid Buck!"

The lanky regulator backed away aghast and then, he laughed, a full bodied sound that had the man in black laughing along with him.

That was how Amanda found the two, side by side, enjoying life, as old friends should.

"Excuse me, guys, but Chris might want to come in and greet his son. He’s a keeper, Chris, and Mary is anxious to have him meet his daddy."

Both men stood and quickly made their way inside.

Most of the seven and their wives or lovers were in the kitchen, eating the supper that Rain and Ibis had made while awaiting the birth. Chris, Mary, and Amanda were still doting on the newborn. Inez entered the warm cheery room and made her way to her husband’s side. He immediately rose, giving her his chair to sit in.

"You doin’ okay, Mex?" he asked out of habit.

"I’m just fine. I am missing my baby, though." She looked wistfully at the man she loved.

"Ah, shit, Mex, Angelina’s gotta be wonderin’ where the hell we are! We should a been home hours ago." Buck looked upwards, running his hand through his hair. "I’m sorry, I got to talkin’ to Chris and I forgot Johnny."

"Never fear, Buck, I shall ride out to your abode and inform the lovely senorita of your whereabouts. Would you like me to accompany your sister into town, Inez?" Ezra stood and reached for his hat, not even asking if the Wilmingtons would be heading for home. He missed seeing Angelina today as he had promised her he would.

"Nah, Ez, we’ll be heading home before long but if ya could tell her why we’re late, we’d be appreciative." Buck chuckled at Ezra’s enthusiasm.

"It would be my pleasure, Mr. Wilmington."

"I bet it will, Ez."

Ezra winked at the big man and exited the building before any other comments could be made. He whistled to himself as he saddled Chaucer and headed west to the Wilmington homestead. He was in a great mood and he was in love. He rode with a light heart and a blind eye. He never saw the two riders behind him.

Rufus had been watching the activities at the newspaper office for most of the afternoon. Since hatching his plan, he had not found the opportunity to put it into action. He was a patient man, having been a trapper all his life but his patience was running low. His son was whining constantly, since Rufus wouldn’t let him drink or gamble and he had nothing to keep him occupied. Rufus decided his son was spoiled. As he watched into the early evening, he saw the gambler leave the newspaper office alone and head for the livery. He quickly got up and made his way to where Cyrus was waiting.

"Quick, boy, get the horses. We got a thievin’ gambler to pay a call on. He must be headin’ home all by his lonesome."


As Ezra approached the house, he called out loud and clear so that Angelina would know who was coming in. It was dark and the moon was only half full. As he was dismounting Chaucer, Ezra caught sight of the front door opening.

"Angelina, its me. Don’t worry, everything is okay." The Southerner tied his cherished horse and made his way to the porch. He could see that the lovely young woman held the baby in her arms. He grinned as he climbed the stairs. "Hello, my darling Angel." He kissed the young woman’s cheek. "And how are you tonight, Master Wilmington?" He ran a loving hand over the boy’s dark hair.

Angelina looked around Ezra, trying to spot her sister and brother-in-law. When she didn’t see them, she turned inquiring eyes back to the man standing in front of her.

"Buck and Inez will be along shortly. Mary had her baby about an hour ago. She had a boy but it took awhile. I realize one of us should have ridden out here to tell you but we all got caught up in the moment. I’m sorry for the worry we put you through, Sweetheart." He touched her cheek softly and she smiled up at him. "He’s a perfect boy and they named him Quentin Vincent Larabee. Apparently, Quentin was Mary’s brother who passed away a few years ago. Both Mary and the baby are fine."

The young mute nodded her head and held John out so Ezra could take him. She lifted her hand up as if drinking and then questioned Ezra with her facial expression which he was becoming very familiar with.

"Yes, I would love something to drink. How about some coffee?"

Before she could turn to go inside, they heard the approach of horses. Expecting Buck and Inez, neither of the two was on guard until the strange horse walked up close enough to the house for the rider to be seen. Ezra recognized him immediately, having seen him in the saloon over the past week. The man had long grayish red hair tied back from his face by a leather thong. The eyes were cold and cruel. His clothing was leather, both top and bottom. And in his hands, he carried a buffalo gun which was aimed at Angelina.

"Evenin’ folks. I’d drop that fancy gun of yours, gamblin’ man. Unless ya want me ta shoot her here and now?" The old man smiled evilly.

Ezra started to undo his gun belt, thankful that he had his derringer in the arm holster under his shirt sleeve. Just as he was dropping his weapon, a voice came out of the dark.

"He’s got a funny little gun up his sleeve, Pa. I’ve got him in my sights if’n ya want ta git it."

The voice was familiar. Ezra thought a moment and then remembered pulling the derringer on the young trapper about a week ago. He turned his head slightly towards the area where the voice came from. "My dear young man, I have no need to be carrying my derringer tonight."

The older man had alit from his horse and was making his way up the steps. He still wore a grin on his ugly face. Quicker than the conman would have thought possible, the man grabbed him by the arm. The spring device forced the small gun into his palm. "Not a smart move, Mister." As the trapper grabbed the gun from Ezra’s hand, he slammed his elbow into the lower part of the gambler’s ribs.

Ezra grunted and stumbled back a few steps, grateful that the blow had missed the baby. John started to cry and Ezra held him firmly against his chest protectively.

"What do you want?"

"Ya got yerself a mighty fine house here, Gamblin’ man. And a right pretty little woman ta go along with it. S’pose ya bought it with the money ya stole from poor unsuspectin’ workin’ folk."

Ezra didn’t even try to correct the man. He had to stall, try to keep the man talking until Buck arrived for support. He had to protect Angelina and John. There was no choice but to go along with the foul man before him.

The young trapper had moved into the light from the open door and had a hand on Angelina’s arm. Her eyes shown bright with fear, her body trembling.

"I’ll give you all I have inside but please, let her go. She’s not well. Please, take your hand off of her." Ezra didn’t bother to look at the boy. He could tell the old man called the shots.

"Cyrus, take her out to the horses." Rufus held the huge rifle steady in the middle of Ezra’s chest. "You want to know what I want? I want my wife back. You bring me my wife and I’ll give ya back yers." He spat a wad of tobacco at Ezra’s feet.

"Your wife? I’m sorry, my good man, but you have me at a disadvantage. Who, pray tell, is your inauspicious bride?"

Rufus glared at Ezra, completely baffled by the man’s ten-dollar words.

"Your wife, man, who is your wife?" The gambler was almost afraid of the truth.

"She goes by the name Ibis. Some damn Indian name. I call her mine. I been trailin’ her for a while now and I know she’s in that town of yours. I also know ya run with a gun wheelin’ pack. I see a hair of any of their heads, and I kill yer wife and the baby." He reached out and grabbed John by the arm, pulling the boy painfully from Ezra’s grasp. Ezra tried to hold on to the baby but the trapper didn’t release his grip and Ezra knew the tug of war would only hurt John so he stepped forward again and let go of his godson.

Johnny screamed in fear and pain. The man didn’t smell or look like anyone familiar. He sensed the man was evil and he wanted the security of his family. He wailed pitifully but the outdoorsman ignored the baby, holding him loosely, his forearm around the child’s middle.

Reflexively, Ezra reached out for the distressed child. "Please, take me and leave them alone. I’ll get you whatever it is you want, just leave them here and unharmed." He had never begged for anything so dear to his life before. He was prepared to do anything to save their lives.

The trapper saw the look of abject fear in the smaller man’s eyes. He had won. He would get both his wife and the money. By tomorrow morning, he, his son , and his wife would be headed back to the mountains where they belonged.

"You meet me at the crossroads out by Sand Creek at dawn. Ya bring me Ibis and all of my money that ya stole from my boy. I promise ya, I’ll let the woman take care of the squailin’ brat and we won’t touch either of ‘em. But, you don’t show or I see any of your cronies, he’ll be the first ta die. We’ll take her and believe me, she won’t like what happens to her. You got that, Fancy Pants?"

Ezra gulped back the fear that threatened to strangle him and nodded his understanding. His eyes sought and found those of Angelina. "I’ll be there." He turned to face the bastard in front of him. "If either of them are harmed in any way, sir, you won’t want to still be alive when we find you. My friends and I are prone to action and we can be very inventive when the need arises. I will do as you say because both souls are very dear to me but, don’t you break your word or you will find death to be a very painful experience." The last sentence was hissed softly for Rufus’ ears alone.

Cyrus had thrown Angelina up on Chaucer’s back. He came back to the porch and took the baby from his father’s arm. John was still wailing and Cyrus held him at arms length as if he were a sack of foul smelling laundry. He handed the baby up to Angelina and she immediately began to sooth the infant’s fears.

Ezra watched the transfer. At least Angelina held his godson now. Before he could return his attention back to the old man, a rifle butt smashed into his ribs. Down he went, the air knocked out of him. Cyrus began to lead Chaucer away from the house. Angelina turned as far as she could, her tear filled eyes straining to keep contact with the man she loved. From his knees, Ezra stretched out his hand toward the scared Mexican woman, trying to give her something to hold on to. She stretched out the arm that wasn’t holding John. A silent promise was made. And then the rifle butt crashed down on Ezra’s skull and he fell, face down on the pine boards of the Wilmington’s front porch.

"Did you see the look on Chris’s face when he held that boy for the first time? I tell ya, Mex, it did my heart good to see him so … Ah hell, I can’t even describe it." He turned to his wife who sat beside him in the buggy and suddenly, the mood changed. "I stuck with him as long as I could after the fire but the look in his eyes, it tore at me every day that we spent hunting for that bastard. Even when we met up again, that look was still there. I felt responsible for puttin’ that look in his eyes, Inez. We shoulda come straight home after the sale but I, I just had ta have me a fling and Chris, well, he just went along with it. Honey, I loved Sarah and Adam like they was my own family. That boy was somethin’ special."

"But tonight, when Amanda laid that baby in his hands and he pulled it close up to him, that look was gone, maybe for the first time since we rode into the ranch and smelled the smoke." He slipped his arm around Inez and pulled her tight to him. "I think it was the third best day of my life, today, right behind the day you said I do and the day John took his first breath."

"Do you know what I thought of you the first day I saw you, Buck Wilmington?"

"No and I’m afraid yer gonna tell me." He leaned towards the lovely Mexican woman and buried his face in her hair.

She snuggled in closer to his side and settled her hand in his lap. "I thought you were shallow and vain and very virile. I was wrong on two accounts. I know just how virile you are now, don’t I?" She waited for his laughter to subside. "My wonderful husband, you are the most insightful, caring man I have ever met and I love you so much I don’t ever want to be without you. I am truly grateful that you never listened when I said nunca."

Buck guided the horse and buggy into his yard and jumped down to help Inez out by the front door. "Didn’t see Ezra pass us but his horse ain’t here."

"Maybe he put Chaucer up in the barn with some food. You know how he dotes on that animal." Inez took her husband’s hand and they proceeded to the steps leading up to the porch. One step from the top, they stopped, both staring at the motionless body of Ezra Standish.

Buck sprung into action. He knelt by Ezra’s head and felt for a pulse. The fear subsided some when he found it to be strong and steady. He slipped his arms under the smaller man and lifted. "Honey, get the door."

Buck carried him to the parlor and laid him gently on the settee. The gambler moaned when he was settled on the soft surface. From there, Inez took over.

"Get some water and towels and bandages." She ordered and then turned her attention to her friend. "We’re here now, mi amigo. It’s all right."

Buck moved quickly, rounding up the items needed to tend to Ezra’s injury. As he pumped the water, his hand stopped in mid stroke. His heart constricted and a fear like he had never known gripped him. The medical supplies forgotten, he ran up the stairs and into John’s room. He scanned the interior and then made his way to Angelina’s room. Still, he found nothing out of order. Almost tripping over his own feet, he dashed out the back door. He searched the darkness for any sign of movement. Finally, he made his way back into the parlor. Purposefully, he marched to the settee and pushing his wife aside, he lifted the gambler by his ruffled shirt.

"Where are they? Dammit Ezra, where are they?" The man in his grasp began to stir upon hearing the fear and anger in the voice.

"Buck, he’s hurt! Leave him be!" Inez tried to force her way back to Ezra’s side but her husband was an immoveable force. Her mind was on the injured in front of her. She didn’t comprehend the words Buck hissed.

"Goddammit, Standish, who took my son?" Buck’s hands trembled as they shook the Southerner. Ezra’s eyes flew open and he tossed his head to see his surroundings. All he saw were the parents of his godson, the child he had allowed to be taken by kidnappers.

Inez was now well aware of her husband’s distress and the reason for it. She stood and ran to all the places Buck had just checked. She screamed her sister’s name. She shouted her son’s name. Her knees suddenly seemed as if they were made of jelly and, as she reentered the parlor, she sank to the floor, her whole being filled with despair. She wailed her alarm to the empty house.

Ezra tried to get up, to go to her but Buck still had hold of his shirt. The gambler turned his head slightly and came face to face with the distraught father. Ezra’s heart shattered as he saw the terror etched in the big man’s face.

"Two men, trappers, they took Angelina and John. I couldn’t stop them, Buck. I was afraid they would shoot and hit John. I am so sorry, Buck, I didn’t know what else to do. Oh, Inez, please forgive me."

"Why? Why would they take my son and Angel?" Buck’s hand released its hold on Ezra and tears fell down hardened cheeks. All feeling drained out of him, all but the pain that centered in his chest.

"They want me to meet them at dawn. The man wants his wife and the money I won from his son. He thought Angelina and John were my family. Oh God, Buck, I don’t know what to say to you. I was suppose to protect him and I failed so completely. And my beautiful Angel, I promised her no one would hurt her again and look how I let her down. How can I say I love her and then let some miscreants take her right out of my grasp?"

"Son of a bitch, Standish, this was because of your gamblin’? My family’s destroyed ‘cause of your love of money?" Buck had made his way to his wife’s side and he held her tight, rocking her while she cried into his shirt.

"Yes. I will get them back, Buck, I swear I will. But we have to go to town and get Ibis before I can proceed to the meeting place." Ezra sat up and felt his head spin, his stomach turn flips.

Buck didn’t comprehend the gambler’s statement at all. What the hell did Ibis have to do with his son being kidnapped? "What are you talking about, Ezra?"

"Ibis is the old trapper’s wife. He wants her back. I have the feeling she’s a more important possession to him than his money. We will have to deliver her to him to retrieve John and Angelina."

"Then let’s get to town. Come on, Mex, I swear I’ll get our son back." He lifted the petite woman and carried her out to the buggy. He held her tight as Ezra grabbed the reins and urged the horse to hasten back to Four Corners.

The horse raced into town, the buggy barely staying upright as the gambler snapped the reins once again down onto the horse’s back. Lights appeared in windows as the buggy rushed by. Citizens wanted to know if their regulators would once again be put to the test. They went back to bed when they realized it was two of the peacekeepers making the racket.

Vin stepped out onto the street, Mares leg in his hands. Ibis had been with him and now she stood right beside him. Both waited for the horse and carriage to come to a halt in front of the Clarion. JD raced across the street, pulling up his suspenders as he ran. Josiah appeared on his front porch, followed closely by his wife. Nathan and Rain made their way down the two flights of stairs and trotted over to where the occupants of the buggy were dispersing.

Chris came out of the newspaper office. His face was already set in his cold hard glare. He sensed danger for his "family" and he was ready to meet it head on. He had told Mary to stay inside with the children but he doubted she would listen. As exhausted as she was, she still was a reporter and one of the leading townspeople. She would want to know immediately what was going on.

"Ezra, you’ve been hurt. Nathan, bring him to my office." Amanda instantly went into doctor mode. She was on her way to her office when Ezra’s voice stopped her.

"There is no time for medical ministrations, Madame. Perhaps you could take Mrs. Wilmington to your office, however. I believe she is in dire need of your attention."

"What’s going on, Buck?" Chris was at his old friend’s side. He could see how distraught the tall man was. It was bad!

"They took my son, Chris. Him and Angelina, they’re holdin’ ‘em for ransom of sorts." Buck’s voice was strained, barely recognizable. As the women assisted Inez to the Sanchez residence, the men gathered inside the newspaper office.

Chris eased Buck down into a chair. The dark haired rogue was in shock and unwittingly did whatever Chris asked of him. He sat with his head in his hands, his soul empty except for the all consuming need to retrieve his son and sister-in-law.

Chris looked up at Ezra. "Sit Standish, before ya fall. What happened?"

Nathan assisted Ezra to a chair and then quickly looked over the laceration at the back of his head. The bleeding had stopped and the Southerner seemed to be alert, both good signs.

"Thank you, Mr. Jackson, but there is precious little time if I am to meet their deadline. The old trapper and his repugnant son rode into the Wilmington homestead shortly after I arrived there. They took me by surprise as I was expecting Buck and Inez to come riding in. They absconded with Angelina and the infant. There was precious little I could do without repercussions to the innocent." He took the cup of coffee Josiah handed him and continued. "They are willing to exchange Angel and John for the money I won off the younger one and the old man’s wife. I’m sorry Vin but I will be forced to turn Ibis over to him."

Vin’s complexion paled at the mention of his lover. "What the hell! What’s Ibis got ta do with this mess?"

"She is the man’s wife, Mr. Tanner. And he wants his possession returned to him. He is a vile human being but the truth of the matter is this, Vin. He will murder the baby and then defile Miss Recillos if Ibis isn’t returned to him at dawn. I have no doubt the abominable lout will do as he says. He is used to getting his own way, making his own laws. He knew I would acquiesce to his desires." The gambler ran a hand across his face in defeat. Once again, he had let all of them down.

"No, ya ain’t gonna take her nowhere! There’s got ta be some other way. We can’t just trade one life for another, Chris. She can’t go back to that monster. He’ll kill her, he’s tried before." Vin turned to his best friend for support. He didn’t get it.

"Don’t see any way around it, Vin. Angelina is innocent in this and John, well, I won’t let another child die if there is anyway to stop it. She married the man. She’s a part of this whether you want her to be or not." Chris’s hand remained on Buck’s shoulder. He could feel the anger and trepidation that warred for control of the lanky body. He squeezed the muscle, trying to connect, to lend his support. "Where are you supposed to meet him, Ezra?"

"The crossroads by Sand Creek. I realize the difficulty of getting our sharpshooter near the site, as it is flat, barren desert. Obviously, the old man knew the same. I will do my very best to return with all three but my priority will be the baby and then Angelina. I am sorry, Vin, but as I see it, Ibis is the man’s wife. I have no doubt that if it comes down to her being taken, then you will be able to track their progress and retrieve her." Ezra stood, preparing to go get the money and another horse.

Vin moved to block his way. "Hold on a second, Ez. You’re talkin’ about givin’ up the woman I love and I ain’t goin’ along with it. I’ll head out now and get into place. I got ways of hidin’ that none of you know about. They won’t see me, I swear."

Chris mulled the situation over in his mind. He pictured the barren land near the crossroads. The sharpshooter was the best he had ever known with a long rifle. If anyone could pull it off, Vin could. "If you go now, you should be in place before first light." He left Buck’s side and made his way to Vin’s. In a low whisper, he made himself clear. "If the boy is hurt in any way, I will take action. Do you understand?"

Vin gazed into the cold green eyes, knowing exactly what Larabee meant. Chris was determined that Buck not go through the suffering he had when his son died. The sharpshooter nodded once.

"I want to go with you, Vin. I’m a good shot with a rifle and I’m small, easy to hide. You show me what to do and I swear I’ll do it." JD was not going to sit back in town and let kidnappers kill his namesake. He was cool about it, determined that his youth would not be a question in this matter.

Vin’s eyes met Chris’s and then he replied, "Get your rifle and meet me at the livery in five minutes. Leave your hat and coat behind."

Suddenly, Buck was on his feet. He hadn’t said a word since entering the newspaper office. He had let the others discuss his son’s well being. He had silently listened to their plans. Well, no more.

"I’m going to bring my boy back. He’s my son, my responsibility. No one else’s." His midnight blue eyes which normally were full of light and laughter were black with rage. He cast his gaze upon all six men, daring them to tell him no. "Any of you think you can stop me?" he hissed, his voice a growl of violent danger.

"Yes, I will."

All seven men whirled to face the woman standing in the doorway. Amanda quietly walked into the room and straight up to the man whose life she saved almost one year ago. She stood toe to toe with him, not intimidated by his glare which at the moment puts Chris’s to shame. "The only place you’re going is to my clinic, to your wife’s side. Buck, she’s in distress. Her baby son and sister are gone, perhaps never coming back. She needs you to be there with her or she might lose another child. And I don’t think she could endure that. Let the others handle bringing John back."

It was a long minute before the stiff muscles of resolve loosened and the man before her buckled. "The baby’s in trouble?"

"Inez is having cramps. She’s got to relax or she’ll have a miscarriage. Don’t let that happen, Buck. Go to her and reassure her that her son and sister will be alright." Amanda moved out of the way and, after another moments hesitation, Buck took off for the clinic.

Chris turned to the three men who were going to bring back the life blood of the "family". "That man’s heart will never heal if Johnny dies. It’s in your hands now, don’t let him down."

All three nodded solemnly and left to prepare.

Buck entered the room where Inez lay on the bed. She was curled in on herself, her sobs shaking his thin frame. Without thinking twice, he lay behind her, pulling her close to his body, wrapping his big arms around her. He kissed her neck, her hair, and then whispered in her ear, "I have all the faith in the world that both of them will return to us safe and sound. You have to believe with me, darlin’. Those men have covered my back for over three years now and none of us have passed on, have we? They’ll be back with John, I know they will."

He cried silent tears as he held his wife tight.


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