Ezra and Inez watched the door close behind Teresa and, for a few seconds, dared not look at each other.
"Well," Ezra said, at last, "whatever Mr Greels business proposal is, I dont think I want to be involved."
"I should hope not," Inezs voice was tight with barely contained fury.
Ezra favoured her with a glance which was both placating and warning at the same time, "Nonetheless, we need to determine what it is and discourage him from pursuing it in this town. And," the warning edge sharpened, "we must remain civil so that he will depart with no suspicion of our young friends presence."
"I know!" Inez snapped then heaved a sigh laced with frustration, "Just give me some time."
Ezra nodded and began to plan aloud, "Obviously, the two of them will need to remain concealed until we can convince him to depart. I have a place in mind which might be suitable."
"People will want to know where theyve gone."
"Called to the bedside of an ailin elderly relative has always been a favourite of mine."
"They dont have any relatives anymore, except each other!"
"Aside from you and I, who around here knows that?"
Inez considered this. As far as she was aware, Teresa had remained quiet about her background. Angelicas conversation tended more towards asking questions than giving answers. At most, people may have known that Teresa was an orphan. A dying grandmother might be half-plausible as a story. She admitted this to Ezra.
He nodded again, "We wont venture anythin, unless asked, but our stories must be identical. These things are always best kept simple. She received a letter sayin that her grandmother was dyin and left straight away. She was headin down to the border in that little wagon of hers and didnt know when shed be back. We dont know any more than that."
It was then that Inez realized a commotion was brewing in the saloon bar and frowned. She had left Buck serving at the bar and suspected that he had lost control of things. She smiled ruefully at Ezra, "Yknow, Im really going to miss my hired help." With that, she squared her shoulders and headed off to deal with the unrest.
* * *
Ezra went to keep his appointment with Malcolm Greel. Lunch had been over long ago and the restaurant of the hotel was well nigh empty, as they took their seats at a table near the window.
"So, Mr Standish!"
"So, Mr Greel." Ezras tone was non-commital but amiable.
"Your mother told me that you were a man always interested in a business proposition."
"Im a man whos always willin to listen to a business proposition but my interest depends on what I hear."
Greel smiled conspiratorially, "I think I have something that may pique your interest."
"Well, would I be right in assuming that men here crave a womans touch and that it may not be to a wife they turn?"
Ezra shrugged, "Several members of the worlds oldest profession have done good business here over the years."
"But as yet, they conduct their business in a haphazard fashion?"
Inwardly, Ezra breathed a sigh of relief. He could see the direction this was heading in. This he could divert relatively easily.
"Well, to tell truth, some years ago, an attempt was made to bring organized prostitution to this town and it met with little success."
Greel frowned, "Why was that?"
Ezra searched for the best way to phrase the explanation, "Well, lets just say that it wouldnt do to underestimate the righteous element in this town."
"Everywhere has its puritans. That usually does nothing to prevent a roaring trade in vice. Why should this town be any different?"
"Well, elsewhere significant members of the righteous element may not have as firm a hold over the forces of the law."
Greel was obviously on the back foot, "I thought you ran the law in this town."
Ezra chuckled self-deprecatingly (although inwardly he sighed, trust his mother to exaggerate to influence he wielded), "Im but one contractor among several and by no means hold the majority say in the matter."
"What about gaming?"
Ezra nearly laughed. This was not the seasoned player hed been led to expect. The man had shown his hand far too early and now desperation was creeping in. Still, best to keep the conversation going as long as was tenable and learn as much as possible.
"Well, some small scale players are tolerated. I myself dabble in it. But I think that a large going concern would be impossible to get off the ground."
"The righteous element?" Greel sounded disbelieving.
"Just so. They will ignore vice if it is modest and unobtrusive, but if you give them a large focus for their zeal... Well, as I said, its been tried before."
"I was led to believe that you would assist me in getting a business started in this town. Ive come a long way to be rejected." An edge of petulance had crept into Greels voice.
"Im sorry but those businesses just wont be allowed to flourish here. However, there are numerous other venues which may have potential. Ill admit that the details relayed to me by my mother were rather cursory, but she did indicate that you had the backin of a large business venture. Surely they would provide you with the resources to relocate your plan."
"Alright, Ill admit that perhaps I exaggerated my standing in the business to your mother."
Inwardly, Ezra winced at the mans ineptitude. Whatever he did for this corporation, he certainly wasnt one of their valued negotiators. "So, would you like to outline your exact standin to me?"
"Well, I was working my way up. I had gained significant influence with the heir to the business."
"I was instrumental in the procurement of certain pleasures he had a taste for."
Ezra now had to fight to contain his repugnance. This was almost certainly how the man had come into contact with Teresa. But he listened as Greel continued.
"Unfortunately, he was killed which meant that I had to find a new avenue for advancement."
"Im truly sorry but I dont think Four Corners is along that avenue." Alright, hed refused to get involved. Now, how could he get rid of this wretched man?
Greel certainly wasnt in any mood to go. His expression became noticeably defiant. "Well, thank you for your advice Mr Standish but maybe I might inspect the area myself and see if there are some opportunities that have been overlooked."
Ezra managed to hide his concern under a mask of indifference. Just because the man was an inept negotiator, didnt mean that he wasnt dangerous. There was something about him which suggested violence and the fear which he had inspired in Teresa also needed to be considered.
"As you please, sir," Ezra offered with a shrug, "I can only venture my opinions on the matter. However, I do assure you that any of the undertakings you have proposed would be met with vehement opposition. I really suggest you look elsewhere." He stood and tipped his hat, "Good day to you," then made his exit.
As he sat watching Ezra Standish depart, Malcolm Greel finally realized what Maude had been doing when she suggested that he look up her son. She had been fobbing him off because she hadnt thought that it was worth wasting time and effort developing him as a business associate. And now, he son had done the same thing. They had caused him to travel all this way and played him for a fool.
He felt his anger rapidly build until it was fit to explode. If the two of them thought that they could get away with this, they would find themselves seriously mistaken. That bitch, Maude would just have to wait. But before Malcolm Greel left Four Corners, her son would be made to pay dearly.
It was well past midnight when Inez closed the saloon and she and Ezra headed over to the orphanage. Ezra led his horse, quietly muttering reassurances to it and stroking its head, to make sure it made no noise along the way. Inez carried the sack which Teresa had been filling earlier, now well stocked with provisions.
Josiah met them at the door, as if he had had a precognition of their arrival. Or then again, maybe he had just been watching from a window. After the exchange of brief greetings, Josiah answered their first questions before they could ask, "Theyre both fine. Teresas still awake, waitin up for you," as he led them to a room at the back of the house.
As they entered, Teresa looked up from where she sat watching over a sleeping Angelica. Josiah quickly withdrew, as he had already perceived Teresas mistrust, but he murmured to Ezra that he would wait in the next room, in case he was needed.
Despite Josiahs earlier reassurances, Inez had to ask for herself, "Are you both okay, Teresa?"
Teresa nodded, absently stroking her daughters hair.
Ezra walked over and sat down at the foot of the bed with a sigh, "I believe we should define exactly what sort of threat Mr Greel poses to you."
Teresa snorted, "Oh thats easy!" She gazed steadily into Ezras eyes, "If he finds me, hell kill me!"
Inez had taken a position leaning back against the wall with her arms folded, partially hidden in the shadows. "Why?" she asked, her tone dangerously measured, as if she was holding in a terrible fury.
Teresa looked a little startled, even though she knew the anger wasnt directed at her.
Ezra broke in softly, "He informed me that he procured pleasures for the heir to some sort of business empire. I assume that you were one of those pleasures."
Teresa bowed her head. "He found me working in a bar. I was already doing extra work so that I could help a friend pay for food and rent so that she could look after Angelica while I worked. So when Greel offered me the opportunity to make, in one night, enough money for us to live on for three months, I accepted without really thinking."
She looked up again, nervous for their reactions. She couldnt see Inezs expression which was obscured by shadow but Ezra reached across to give her a brief reassuring pat on the shoulder. The sad but grateful smile they had both seen before flitted across her face again, but she still had to look away from them both, before continuing.
"He took me to a house which James Muldoon kept for such pleasures. Its true that Muldoon was the heir to a business. His business was corruption and his hobby was depravity. He used me for a day and a night and after, when he paid me, I told him that I wouldnt do it again. He didnt like that answer and told me that I would come whenever Greel came to fetch me and perform whatever services Muldoon asked me to."
She shuddered at the memory. "I didnt have anywhere to go. It went on every couple of days, for about five or six weeks and Muldoon was getting more violent all the time. He did keep paying me though and I stored the money away, planning to flee but never getting around to it."
She paused and took a deep breath, "Then he found out about Angelica. We were at his house when he told me that he had followed me home one night. He told me next time to bring my little girl. I refused and then he went berserk. He kept hitting me and then he said that he would take Angelica and there was nothing I could do about it. I grabbed something heavy, I dont even know what it was, and I just kept hitting him until he stopped moving."
She was visibly shaking now. Inez had come out of the shadows to sit beside Teresa and placed an arm around her. "Its okay," she reassured but Teresa seemed unable to stop talking, her words spilling out in a rush.
"He was dead. There was blood everywhere. I panicked, grabbed a large coat to cover the blood on my clothes and fled. Muldoon had that small pony and wagon parked outside, so I took it. He had some more money in it and in the coat. I collected Angelica and divided the money Id saved with my friend. We fled in different directions."
Ezra also approached Teresa and knelt in front of her, placing a hand on her knee to gently claim her attention. "Its alright. Youre both safe here. We wont let them find you." Teresas story had confirmed some suspicions he had already been forming and it truly sickened him.
The likelihood of discovery had to be determined, before a course of action could be decided.
"Youve been workin in the saloon for several weeks, what if someone asks after you or Angelica within Mr Greels hearin?"
Teresa shook her head, "I used the name Teresa Moreno in San Francisco and no one there knew Angelicas name at all."
Inezs eyes narrowed, "So whats your real name?"
Teresa regarded her steadily, "Teresa Antonia Velasquez."
Ezra smiled, "Fair enough." After all, following a profligate use of pseudonyms in the past, he had introduced himself as Ezra Standish from the beginning of his stay in Four Corners. What the hell, as far as he was concerned, your name in Four Corners could be considered your name for life.
A few more points still needed clarification, "So, was it only James Muldoon who was aware of Angelicas existence?"
Teresa shrugged helplessly, "I dont know. I think so. Why?"
"She might be better off stayin here. If Greel doesnt know her, he will assume shes just another one of the orphans and leave her alone."
"No!" Teresa shook her head vehemently, "Im never leaving her with anyone again! Never!"
"Alright then, well just have to hide you both." Ezra smiled and sat back on his heels, "Theres an old mine in the hills which the Kelly gang used as a hideout, before my colleagues and I put an end to their activities. I know for a fact that, as of two days ago, it was still unoccupied."
"The wagon you stole, was it the same one you drove here?" Inez asked.
Teresa nodded, "Yes, Greel might recognize it."
"Dont worry. Ill take care of it while Ezra takes you and Angelica to this mine."
Tears were forming in Teresas eyes, "Thank you, both of you. Thank you for everything, not just this." She looked at Ezra, "And to think I nearly shot you, this morning."
He laughed shortly, "Please dont dwell upon it. If I had suspected that someone was colluding with a person like Mr Greel, well then I might have entertained homicidal thoughts as well."
Teresa managed a small smile but then became serious again. "Be careful of him. Hes a very vicious man and he wont go quietly. And if he finds out that were here and lets Muldoons father know..."
"We will ensure Mr Greel departs and that both he and Mr Muldoon senior remain ignorant of your whereabouts."
"I really cant thank you enough."
"Thanks are unnecessary. After all, speakin for myself, I am bein paid the exorbitant wage of one dollar per day to protect the innocent in this town."
That drew a laugh from Teresa. "Innocent?" she queried and then began to list her transgressions off on her fingers, "Adultery, theft, murder. What exactly do you call a sin, Mr Standish?"
Most people who knew Ezra Standish would have been shocked to discover that it was actually a subject which he had reflected upon at some length. He smiled and offered, "I believe that sin is a stain upon the soul. And the undiscoloured nature of your soul shines through in you every word and deed."
Inez stared at him, surprised by the revelation of hitherto unknown depths in this man she thought she knew so well.
Teresa laughed again, this time so loud that Angelica stirred and blinked her eyes open. "You should have been a preacher, like your friend, Mr Sanchez." The young mother told Ezra.
Ezra shrugged, "Well truthfully, it is a vocation which I have attempted, on occasion."
Now both Inez and Teresa were regarding him incredulously.
He favoured them with a wicked grin, "If approached with the right attitude, it can be a remarkably lucrative profession."
Inez rolled her eyes, Teresa laughed again and Angelica finally became fully awake. The childs eyes lit up, "Mr Ezra!"
"Hello, Little Angel. Are you ready to go on a short journey?"
She tilted her head and gave him her standard quizzical expression, "I suppose so. Where are we going?"
"Were going to live in a cave for a little while, Angelica," her mother explained.
"Because we cant stay here for a while."
Angelica had heard phrases like this before but they had never filled her heart with dread like they did now. "Will we come back?"
Teresa couldnt lie to her. "If we can."
Angelica stared mournfully at the man who had, only yesterday, told her that they would be friends forever. He broke instantly under her gaze, "Its alright, Angel girl. Inez and I will visit as often as we can."
Teresa also tried to reassure her, "And Mr Ezra, I mean Mr Standish, is going to take us to the cave."
Angelica couldnt help grinning at her mothers small slip of the tongue. Ezra was also smiling as he said, "It would be best if the three of us go straight from here. Inez will return to saloon and make sure the wagon is taken care of, as well as anythin else that is required."
The saloon manager nodded, "Ill tell Josiah were leaving."
She opened the door and looked out but didnt move. A few seconds later, the preacher appeared at the door. Before anyone else could speak, he offered, "You can take my horse as well. Best not to tax Ezras too much, if youre travellin some distance."
Teresa regarded him suspiciously, "Were you listening to us?"
Josiah smiled, "No, but it was obvious that a journey was planned when those two arrived." He looked pointedly at the sack which Inez had had brought with her, now lying in a corner.
Teresa looked abashed. She actually had no problem with those she called "God-loving" religious people, like Josiah, it was the puritanical "God-fearing" type she objected to. And Ezra and Inez trusted this man, so maybe she should have given him more credit.
"Im sorry," she muttered.
Josiahs smile became warmer, "Thats alright, little sister. Sometimes, it may seem like there are devils on every corner but occasionally youll find one whos an angel in disguise."
"Bearin in mind, that Lucifer himself was an angel before he fell," muttered Ezra.
Josiah raised an eyebrow at him, "Thank you, Ezra! Was it really necessary to undermine my metaphor?"
Now it was Ezras turn to look abashed and mutter, "Sorry." There was something about Josiah which occasionally made him feel like a chastened schoolboy.
Teresa picked up Angelica, wrapping her in the blanket from the bed, and the group moved outside to where the horses waited.
Ezra took Angelica from her mother, as Teresa mounted Josiahs horse. Before he could pass her back, the child slipped her arms from the blanket and wrapped them around his neck, whispering conspiratorially, "Well be back, Mr Ezra, I promise. Because you and me are going to be friends forever, arent we?"
"Never doubt it," he whispered back, before handing her up to her mother. The childs words warmed his heart beyond all reason and he realized again how painful he would find it, if the Velasquez family did have to leave the area permanently.
He glanced over at Inez, with her somber but steadfast expression, and drew a little strength from her gaze. He knew it was unreasonable, but he felt like the darkness around them was closing in.
He had to shake off this uncalled for foreboding. He would make Greel realize the pointlessness of his quest and he would leave. Teresa and Angelica would return to Four Corners and the saloon. Any other course of events was completely unthinkable.
But still a dark voice nagged at him as he mounted his horse and waved a quick au revoir to Inez and Josiah. The completely unthinkable had been known to happen.
Malcolm Greel had enjoyed an informative week since his conversation with Ezra Standish.
He had long known that the best way to get to a man was via those closest to him and Standish appeared to have a veritable plethora of friends and associates in Four Corners. The question was which would be the best focus to attack first.
Greel had first considered his saloon paramour but she had people surrounding her constantly. Also, by all accounts, she was quite a feisty little fighter. It would be difficult to control a showdown if he used a blow against her to instigate it. If he was going to attack her, she would have to be drawn out more into the open first.
Standishs six law-keeping associates were similarly problematic. They watched each others backs and, although one occasionally ventured out on his own, even the young sheriff might prove difficult for Greel to handle on his own. This would have to be a carefully executed plan, no point in making reckless mistakes.
Greel had also contemplated something directed against the woman who edited the local newspaper. She seemed to be prominent in this close circle of friends but, like the saloon manager, she was rarely alone. The black-clad gun-slinger who seemed to lead the group of law-keepers, kept a very close watch on her indeed. Now that was a man Greel didnt want to rouse without a significant force to back him.
The obvious target and the backing he needed both, more or less, fell into his lap. The young sheriff had fiancée who lived with an older female relative on a farm some distance out of town. Greel had been looking over the place from a distance, trying to determine the best point of attack, when he encountered someone else with the same intent.
It had been an odd but fruitful meeting. At first, scruffy outlaw and the well-dressed man from San Francisco had regarded each other mistrustfully. Until the latter, risking a throw of the dice, commented, "A peaceful and picturesque little property, isnt it? It would be tragic if something were to happen to those two ladies."
The slowly growing smile on the others face told him that his estimation of the man had been correct.
"Yeah, was thinkin the same mself."
"If I might ask, what led you to those thoughts?"
"Ymight say I had a score to settle with that little girls truelove and his friends."
"How interesting. One of those friends has been causing me trouble. It would seem that we do indeed have the same interests."
It didnt take long for he and Carlton Walsh to form an alliance of extreme convenience to them both. As far as Greel could see, they seemed to go a long way towards balancing the each others deficiencies.
Greel found Walshs tactical planning so inadequate that he found himself wondering why the outlaw had not ended up swinging from a noose long ago. On the other hand, the man did lead a moderately sized band of seasoned cut-throats which would provide Greel with the backing he needed to take on Standish and his associates.
Furthermore, Greel had made an interesting discovery when he overheard the Wells girl discussing something with her sheriff boyfriend in the saloon. A quite unexpected bonus.
There was one crucial factor that he failed to take into consideration. When he and Walsh performed one final reconnaissance to double-check their focus of attack on the Wells farm, they completely failed to observe Vin Tanner, eavesdropping on their conversation from a tree branch above them.
But then again, most people would have.
* * * * *
Ezra was the last to arrive for the meeting at the restored church. The seven of them had got so used to meeting there that theyd never bothered to change venues. Even though, these days they occasionally found themselves dodging the "Womens Auxillary Flower-Arrangin Taskforce" (as Ezra called it). On this particular evening though, they were the only occupants and when Ezra entered, he found himself the sole focus of attention.
"At last," said Chris, "now maybe you can tell us why your new friend has it in for Casey an Miss Nettie"
Ezra stared at him, "Well perhaps, if I had the faintest notion of what you were referring to."
Chris assumed his cold, not-taking-any-nonsense voice, "Malcolm Greel."
Ezra paled visibly, "What about him?"
"What about im? Man comes to town a week ago. Talks to you a couple atimes then goes nosin around. An now Vin tells me that hes plannin with some outlaw to take a swipe at Miss Nettie."
Ezra had to sit down. He and Inez had kept an eye on Greel as much as possible while he was in town but they couldnt very well go traipsing around everywhere the man went without arousing suspicion. Ezra was unaware that Greel had developed an interest in Nettie and Casey Wells, but he realized that the mans only probable motive was revenge for the dismissal of his business proposal.
He looked up to see six pairs of eyes watching him expectantly. "My mother met him in San Francisco and referred him on to me. He proposed a business deal which I refused and I dont think he took kindly to that."
"An ya didnt think tmention it to the rest of us?" the anger in Chris voice crept up a notch.
Well, if the truth were to be told, Ezra hadnt mentioned it because he feared that in discussing it, he might have let slip something about Teresa and Angelica. His compatriots had easily accepted his explanation that they had gone to the deathbed of Teresas grandmother and hed always been one to let sleeping dogs lie.
"I didnt think it was relevant to any of you." It sounded feeble, even to his own ears, and it nothing towards mollifying Chris.
"An now because hes sore at you, hes gonna make Miss Nettie an Casey pay the price?"
Ezra rallied. That was a bit much, although perhaps essentially true. "I assume that we plan to take measures to avoid it."
Vin stepped in before Chris anger achieved incoherence. "Yeah, I overheard em plannin to hit Miss Netties place at dawn. So were plannin to be waitin for em."
"Unless, of course ywanna talk to this guy like businessman to businessman, an ask im to play nice," Buck suggested with a provoking smile.
Ezra was not at all pleased by the comparison, "Mr Greel is a well-dressed thug, not a civilized entrepreneur, and I would speculate that a man of his vicious tendencies would not be amenable to negotiation."
"So ya dont think its a good idea?"
"Ive heard better."
"Well then, I spose its lucky that Chris has a plan."
Ezra looked over at their black-clad leader, not terribly surprised. So, it was not as if his input was urgently required, a plan of action had already been formulated. However, he knew that Chris rarely let such things stand in the way of a decent inquisition, if he had decided that one of his men required censure.
"Well, now that you have delivered your reprimand, might I be enlightened about the details of this strategy?" Baiting his leader was a simple pleasure, which Ezra had yet to grow weary of.
But Chris had obviously regained some of his equanimity because he responded in a similar vein.
"We tried to keep it simple for ya."
Ezra raised an eyebrow at this insinuation that he was unable to cope with complexity, but said nothing as Chris continued.
"Vin tried to get Miss Nettie to leave the farm for the night but she had one of those stubborn turns of hers and shell only go as far as the barn. An of course Casey wont go any further."
Ezra allowed himself a small smile as he pictured the confrontation and when he caught Vins gaze, the tracker shrugged sheepishly and muttered, "Yeah, it was a kinda short discussion."
"So the two of em are goin to sleep in the barn with Buck an JD to protect em. Vin an me will wait in the house. Josiah an Nathan will keep an eye out from that little clump of trees to the north-west."
"Youll be coverin the other end from behind the corral an that little cattle pen of hers. Well be relyin on you to make sure they dont escape that way."
Ezra favoured them all with a self-deprecating smile, "Well, as yall know, reliable is my middle name."
That drew several snorts of laughter and even Chris allowed himself a grim half-smile.
"So when will we commence implementin this little scheme?" the gambler queried.
"Ymean when are we gonna get started?" said Buck, "Well, we were just waitin on you."
"Well then, if I might briefly return to the saloon to effect a change of attire," Ezra lifted one lapel of his coat to draw their attention to it, "Scarlet is a rather inconvenient colour to be wearin, if one is attemptin to remain inconspicuous."
"Never worried ya before," Buck observed.
Chris however, recognized the merit of the suggestion. In fact, if Ezra hadnt done so, he would have suggested it himself.
"Well meet you at the north end of town in twenty minutes."
Ezra nodded and tipped his hat to the group as a whole as he departed. Most of the others followed, also intending to collect items they might need for the overnight stakeout. However, Chris drew Nathan aside at the last minute.
"It really might be a good idea for you to stay in town. With Doc Elliot off visitin his daughter, youre the only medical man left in this place."
Nathan shook his head, "Seems tme that I should be where Im most needed. An tnight, Id say thatd be with you folks. Both as a medical man and as another gun twatch ybacks." He flashed a brilliant smile, "Cant be havin Ezra goin round sayin hes more reliable than me, now can I?"
Again Chris managed a half-smile, "No, spose not. But ybetter take care."
"Always do, Chris. Be seein ya at the north end of town."
As Chris himself stepped outside, he wasnt surprised to see Vin leaning against a post, waiting for him.
"Not really Ezras fault, Chris," the tracker said mildly.
"I know," Chris replied. Hed already come to the same conclusion but he still thought that it was always a good idea to keep Ezra on his toes. "But if hed just tell us these things, itd probably be a whole lot easier."
"Yeah, well," Vin shrugged, "Ive bin thinkin. That fella I saw with Greel looked kinda familiar. Not sure, but I reckon e mighta bin part of that gang that turned up in town bout a month back."
"Didnt Josiah say at the time that theyd probly be back?"
"Yeah. So it seems Greels gunnin for Ezra an that other fellas probly gunnin for all of us."
Chris nodded, "Could be. Come on. Wed best get goin."
"Yeah, Im kinda lookin forward to seein the looks on their faces. Greel reckoned hed use all the confusion hed be stirrin up to soften up is next target. Reckon hell be mighty surprised"
"So yreckon theyll come in from the west?" Chris continued the conversation as they walked to meet the others.
"Yeah, cause they said they were headin up to some old mine in them hills to the west. Must be their hideout. Could be the same one the Kelly gang used."
The hour of reckoning was at hand. A virtually undetectable lessening of the darkness was beginning to touch the eastern sky.
Ezra (now wearing a coat of dark forest green which blended nicely with the foliage behind him) noticed a barely distinguishable form approaching his position behind the cattle-pen at the south-eastern corner of Netties homestead. He soon identified it by the distinctive bowler hat perched on its head. It was not unknown for Malcolm Greel to wear similar head apparel but he stood at least a head taller than the approaching figure.
"You okay, Ezra?" it asked in a loud whisper.
"Mr Dunne," Ezra replied, in equally hushed tones, although he failed to notice that his voice had also acquired a stern, almost Larabee-like quality, "shouldnt you be seein to the safety of your fiancée?"
"Its not quite dawn yet, an I jus wanted to check you were okay."
"I hope youre not expectin our adversaries to ride into view punctually when the cock crows and the first rays of sunlight stream across the ground. And why this disproportionate concern for my well-bein, anyway?"
"Well, I know that Chris put yout here on yown because he was kinda mad at ya."
Ezra smiled at the lad, who was far too kind-hearted for his own good, "Its hardly an unfamiliar state of affairs and anyway, maybe he was just takin into consideration my well-known tolerance for proximity to livestock."
JD grinned. Being so near the cattle was probably offending Ezras sensitive nose. When Chris wanted to get back at someone, he always did a damn good job of it. "Yeah, maybe."
He knew that Ezra was right and he should get back to Casey. But after being cooped up in the barn all night, listening to Bucks endless banter and advice, he was tempted to delay his return. It wasnt that he didnt like Buck and respect what he had to say, but after a while, it could become a bit wearing.
"So this fella Greel sounds like a real nasty piece of work."
Ezra considered Teresas experiences, "So I have been informed, by a most reliable authority."
"Well I caught im listenin in to what me an Casey were talkin about in the saloon the other day. Really gave me the creeps."
"What were you discussin?"
"Oh, um...I think she asked me where Teresa and Angie had got to. I hafta say, I didnt know Teresas grandma was still alive."
The hairs on the back of Ezras neck stood on end, as JD obliviously continued on, "Couldnt see what Greel found interestin in that. Cant help feelin sorry for her mself, I remember nursin my mama when she died..."
JD felt his arm seized tightly and looked up to find Ezras expression as close to frantic as he had ever seen it.
"JD, when exactly was this?"
Confusion and concern mingled on JDs features, "About two days ago. Why?"
Ezras mind raced. Two days ago, and he had visited Teresa and Angelica that night. He always checked if he was being followed, as did Inez, but he had no idea what stealth Greel or his associates might be capable of. And anything could have happened in the past twenty-four hours.
"JD, youve got to make my apologies to the others. Ive got to go. If Greel finds Teresa and Angelica, hell kill them."
JD nodded mutely. He knew that the others still saw him as a bit naive but he wasnt stupid. He could see from Ezras reaction that something he had said to Casey had put Teresa and Angie in deadly danger. He would do anything he could to help.
"And youll have to cover my position for me," Ezra added, barely containing his anxiety. He was somewhat reassured by the resolution he saw in the young mans eyes.
The gambler briefly clasped JDs shoulder and said, "Tell the others Im sorry." Then he turned and raced towards the woods behind the house where group had tethered their horses.
JD watched him go. "Take care of em, Ezra," he whispered. Then he closed his eyes and sent the same plea heavenwards.
In the barn, Casey was becoming increasingly restlessness due to JDs absence.
Casey exhaled loudly in frustration. "I should know by now, when he says five minutes, he means more like half an hour."
Despite his own growing concern, Buck grinned at her, "Ycant start keepin tabs on im yet, Casey. Hes still got a week or two of freedom left."
She threw him a filthy look, then sighed, "But what on earth is he doin out there?"
Her aunt glanced over, "Patience, child. JD can take care of imself."
"I know but if he doesnt get back soon "
Her words were cut short by the thundering hooves of several horses. All three of them went to the window of the barn to investigate.
"Bout fifteen of em," Buck grunted, "an theyll be reckonin they have the advantage of surprise."
"So?" asked Casey.
"So, thats quite a lot of men to attack a coupla ladies with, specially while their sleepin in their beds."
"How long ygonna wait?"
"Until Chris gives the signal."
As they had been speaking, they had watched Greel delegate three of his men to go into the house. Not long after they entered, a volley of shots rang out.
"That signal!" Buck grinned and began firing at the group of outlaws, as did Josiah and Nathan from their position to the north-west. From behind the cattle pen, where JD had gone to talk to Ezra, gunfire also sounded. But, although Buck couldnt clearly see who was firing, it sounded like only one pair of six-guns. And that was odd because he knew that both JD and Ezra each carried a pair.
The gangs numbers were rapidly being cut down, as they tried to return fire in all four directions.
Malcolm Greel had quickly recovered from his initial shock. So, this part of the plan had been uncovered. The enemy had been lying in wait and now held all the advantages on this ground. They would need to escape and regroup with as many men as they could.
He heard Walsh yell, "Lets get outa here!" Good to see that they were thinking along the same lines. The only problem was that all their avenues of retreat seemed to be cut off.
Greel looked at the penned in cattle. If he could get them panicked and cause some kind of stampede, they would easily overrun whoever held that position behind them. He changed the direction of his shooting, aiming at the cattle and turned his horse towards them. From the corner of his eye, he saw Walsh follow suit.
The cattle were initially a little slow to move but, by the time Greels horse reached the cattle pen, they had knocked down the far fence and, like himself, were making an enthusiastic break for freedom. He found himself virtually swept along with them and, turning to discharge a few parting shots, found Carlton Walsh (but no others) at his heels.
The approaching stampede had taken JD completely by surprise. And, in that instant, the Boston-raised lad would have sworn that hed never seen anything so terrifying in his life. He would have been surprised (and a little disheartened) to learn that, as stampedes went, this was a relatively small version.
He stood rooted to the spot, firing a few shots which did absolutely nothing to deflect the oncoming tide of cattle. His stunned mind quested for a suitable course of action, but came up with no answers.
Rather belatedly, it occurred to him to run. He turned and got as far as a small clump of trees, before he was hit forcefully from behind. He was thrown forward but never remembered hitting the ground. There was an explosion of pain inside his skull, then utter darkness.