Gordon Hill was in a frenzy. Standing in front of the full-length mirror surveying himself, he was yelling at everyone and anyone who was within earshot. The steward laying out his clothes was getting the worst of it although the local sheriff was running a close second.

"Not that jacket!" He yelled for the fourth time, "I want the dark green one! " He had obviously found out about the gown purchase. "And this tie is worthless! Get me another." The offending tie went flying out the door behind the running steward and the jacket.

"I swear to you Gordon, not me or any of my men ever saw her come into town. None of us has seen her. If she is here, we don't know where."

"Well what the hell am I paying you for then? You are all a bunch of useless idiots and you will be lucky to have a job come next election!" He threw another tie onto the floor in disgust. "Get the hell out of here and do your job. And keep those hounds of yours out of sight tonight. I want people to feel at ease, not like they are surrounded by outlaws. Give them the night off or something. They might be more productive that way."

The sheriff left in a hurry before anything worse could be said.

Gordon reached over and picked up the parchment that was on the table. He held it up to his nose and took a deep breath with his eyes closed. It smelled like her. He would never forget that smell. Powdery, lemony, unique. He read it again. Even her handwriting was intoxicating.

Gordon, I am delighted to take you up on your kind offer of entertainment this evening. I have a small proposal for you, and if all is successful, I am sure you will find a suitable, alternate companion or two for my escort and his needs, and we might all find ourselves in a position to be mutually sated.

Senora Hannah Maria Esperanza

He could not, had never been able to, get her out of his mind. The look of her, the smell of her, and the way she had about her. Thoughts of her drove him crazy in the dark of night. He remembered the one and only time he had ever felt her in his arms. 20 years ago, she was a struggling, rangy young thing, but he knew she was special. He had never felt so tharwted in his entire life as he had when Carlos had shown up to claim his daughter. That incident had spoiled him for any other woman, and he took it out on each and every one he had ever had. It had made a natural cruel streak in him turn very nasty indeed. But he certainly didn't feel cruel right now. He had an unexpected fluttering in his stomach. He was nervous, but knew without a doubt, that whatever she wanted, he would give it to her if it meant having her at his side for even one night. He silently pulled on the new jacket the steward was holding out for him and surveyed him self in the mirror thoughtfully. "Take flowers to each hotel in town until you find her. She is staying somewhere and she deserves a proper welcome."

"Yes sir." The steward practically ran out of the room while Gordon Hill finished dressing. He tucked the note into his breast pocket, held his hand there for a moment as if to make sure it was safe, and then walked slowly out of the room.

She surveyed her hair once more then turned away from the mirror with a snort. She never did like doing her hair all up and fancy like this. She liked it long, free, and loose, or braided for riding. This was totally impractical. She had no idea how beautiful she truly was. She had been one of the boys for her whole life, and part of her attraction was her innocence in how she affected the people around her. 'Well,' she thought out loud, 'it's just going to have to do.' She stood up and brushed out the front of the gown. It was exquisite. Ezra had done a perfect job in picking it. It set off her coloring nicely and made her normally very blue eyes have a hint of green to them. It also made the red highlights in her hair very vivid. The pearls and ribbons wound through her hair gave the impression of a crown, and she wore a simple, solitary gold cross, attached to a piece of green velvet ribbon at her throat. She looked at the bouquet of gardenias that had been brought up earlier and plucked a single flower, tucking it behind her ear. Then, with a quick kiss to the cross, she left the room.

All of the boys were in the lobby downstairs waiting. They were each lost in their own thoughts and were looking off in different directions. Ezra had been the only one watching the stairs, and when she appeared he couldn't hold back a low whistle as his breath was taken away.

They all turned to see what had caught Ezra so off guard and each had a unique reaction. Josiah's eyebrows were raised high and he gave a small shake to his head as she started down the stairs.

Buck stood up straight as an arrow and tipping his hat said 'My, oh my!" Nathan had a big grin on his face and said, "This can't be the same ol' gal that was caked in mud and dust yesterday, can it?"

"Is it too much, do you think?" Hannah asked seriously as she reached the bottom of the stairs.

"Oh, contraire Madame. You are a vision of beauty, and sure to cast a spell on whomever should lay eyes on you this evening." Ezra picked up her hand and kissed it softly. He didn't feel the need to mention the spell he had already been captivated by.

"Well Ezra, I never thought I would say this, but for once, even your words do not do this lady justice." Josiah had taken off his hat to her.

"Are you implying you could do better my friend?" asked Ezra.

"Not at all, not at all my friend. I am only saying that some things are beyond any words that a mere mortal man could ever speak." He put his hat back on and patted Ezra on the shoulder with a smile. " I think we have all just lost a little piece of our hearts tonight."

"You may be accurate in that assumption friend Josiah. And I think our Mr.Tanner surely must have our Miss Lady Luck with him" He had a wistful look on his face.

"Well, okay then." Hannah took a deep breath. "I wish you all luck and Godspeed. If luck is truly with us, we will all meet soon with Mr. Tanner's freedom in hand. In case we don't see each other for awhile, I just want you all to know I couldn't have wanted for finer companions. It has been an honor riding with you and you won't soon be forgotten." She touched each man on the cheek as she spoke, then took Buck's arm. "Shall we?" she asked.

"I am with you all the way my lady." said Buck, and they stepped out into the street with a flourish.

"You, dear lady, will not be forgotten at all." Ezra was talking to her back as they stepped down the street. He headed to his post at the big hotel. There was a game to be played, and tonight, he was just the man to be playing it.

Josiah sat in the chair on the porch and pulled his hat down over his eyes. Nathan went off towards the doctor's office, and there was now no turning back.

Buck and Hannah strolled leisurely down the street arm in arm. Anyone watching would see simply a striking couple going for a night on the town. He leaned towards her and took a deep breath of the flower in her hair.

"I wish we were here under any other circumstances" Buck said with a hint of regret.

"If my heart weren't taken Buck, I could be tempted myself." She gave his arm a squeeze.

"What happened back in town? With Vin, I mean." He honestly wanted to know.

"I don't know." she looked up at him seriously. "It was like I could feel him before I ever saw him. Then when I saw him, it was like I had always known him. He was just there, in my head. It was a part of me that I didn't realize was missing until I saw him. It feels something like fate. You do believe in fate, don't you Buck?"

"I believe in something. You could call it fate. The way things just are the way they are supposed to be sometimes. Like pieces of a puzzle falling into place."

'That's it exactly. A puzzle falling into place." She had a small smile.

"What if it isn't the same for him?" Buck was asking sincerely. He had a natural desire to protect her and was concerned for her well being. He knew Vin was a loner and suddenly couldn't bear the thought of her being hurt.

"It's not important. I feel how I feel. That is all I have control over, if you could call it control!" she gave a nervous laugh. "You can't live your life only thinking of life's compensations. It is what it is, and I think you just have to live to be true to yourself. He has my heart and soul just as if we had been lovers for a lifetime. Maybe I knew him in another life. My mother would know. She was very wise about these things. She would understand. It was how she loved my father."

Buck gave her arm a little squeeze. "Well, Miss Hannah, even though my heart is broken, it could be mended slightly if I could call you my friend." He gave his best 'Buck-is-a-charming-guy smile' as she squeezed his arm right back and said "Always."

She took a deep breath and they stepped up to the mansion.

Ezra had a pile of money out on the table and was pulling in yet another winning pot. "Amateurs." He snorted to himself. It was a busy table though, and he wasn't truly disappointed to be taking their money. He just would have liked a bigger challenge doing it. He had noticed a fair number of badges on the men around the table though and decided to venture into a conversation with them, if any of them had enough brains to hold a conversation, that is.

"You boys must have a pretty tolerant employer" he started shuffling the cards and looked disinterested in any answer.

"What makes you say that?" This fellow was one of the least intelligent looking ones in the bunch.

"Well, you do seem to be wearing badges, deputies I would assume. The last few towns I have been in, they weren't allowing their federal or civil employees to be gambling or carousing while keeping the peace. Something about a conflict of interest or such." Ezra started to deal the cards.

"Yeah, well, it's a pile of horse crap if you ask me, but it's the same here. We were supposed to be working tonight. Some big horse crap thing for the Governor. Sheriff came a couple of hours ago and told us all to take the night off. Get lost, blend in. Gave us a bonus too. He's part owner of this place, so it's my guess he knew he'd be gettin' his bonus back one way or another. Horse crap if you ask me. Only kept a couple specialty men in the alleys in case some little filly the Governor's had his eye on tries gettin' away on him. Governor don't take no for an answer to anything, specially the women. Got a mean streak in him that man does. I saw a pretty little gal who tried to say no to him a few years ago. It took her 6 months to heal up, and she still has scars. She ain't pretty no more. Horse crap, that is. "

Ezra poured the man another drink and tried to erase the picture his mind conjured up at that comment. The man seemed to be an expert on horse excrement. Lovely. He was trying to look disinterested, but he wanted to jump over that table and go stop Hannah so bad it almost hurt. 'Keep talking' he thought to himself, but out loud he said "Is that so? Sounds like a 'charming' man."

When he tipped the drink back, Ezra refilled the glass again.

"Thanks mister, much obliged."

"So, you have the whole evening to drink and be merry! What luck for you. Is the town pretty quiet then? What if something happens? Are we safe here?" Ezra tried hard to sound like he was truly concerned.

"Oh, hey, nothing to worry about here." The man tipped his drink again, and it was just as quickly refilled again. "Like I said, the specialty men are out there, and there's four of them. No one shoots better, especially in the dark. And the rest of us are here. The Governor don't like no surprises, or ruckus. He likes things smooth as horse crap. No need to worry about anything."

"Well, that certainly makes a man feel substantially better." Ezra clapped the man on the shoulder and then picked up his cards to continue playing. He didn't leave until the man was snoring on the table.

Josiah had spent time on almost every porch up and down the street before he finally made it across the street from the Governor's house. He saw a good spot, complete with chair, near a doorway and headed over at a leisurely pace. He put his feet up this time as he pulled the hat back down over his eyes, and readjusted his poncho so that he had easy access to his pistol. He had seen two men on his way over that looked like serious business to him. He wanted to be prepared, so he kept his hand lightly on the handle and settled in for some more waiting.

Nathan had finished his visit with the local doctor and had gone back up to the rooms. Everyone had packed their bags and put them in a pile by the door. He didn't see one for Hannah, so he went into her room to find it. He could smell her perfume, and lingered over the flowers for a minute. As he gave them a brush with his fingers he saw the card from the Governor and thought, 'Well, her plan has worked so far.'

He thought it odd that her bag wasn't packed, and he knew they weren't leaving her behind, so he decided to pack it himself. He was leaving the room when something on the pillow caught his eye. He looked at it thoughtfully and then slipped the item into his pocket and left the room.

It didn't take him long to haul everything to the barn, as they had all packed light. Next he refilled all of the canteens. They had ridden hard to get here, and would be riding harder to get back. Not much time to stop. He had the most gear as he had picked up quite a few medical supplies while visiting with the local doctor, so he distributed it between them. He took his time getting the horses ready. He didn't want to be too early and have someone wonder what he was up to. He finally sat on a bale of hay and started sharpening his knifes to pass the time. He checked his pocket watch often, and when it was time, he silently led the line of horses out through the back and down the alley. He hadn't gone far when a figure suddenly appeared before him and Nathan instinctively reached for a knife.

"What in the blue blazes!" Nathan exclaimed under his breath. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack Ezra? What are you doin' out here, I thought you was supposed t'be keepin' an eye on things at the saloon?" He wiped his forehead off with a handkerchief and replaced the knife that he had instinctively pulled.

Ezra raised his eyebrow at the knife.

"Well my friend, I thought I might be of better use by saving your hide before you got into too much trouble. I was lucky enough to find a wellspring of intelligence, even though it cost me a dollar or two. Money well spent though if it keeps you from getting your unsuspecting head blown off and our trusty steeds confiscated." Ezra looked quite pleased with himself.

"Well, would you like to share that information with me or were you going to hoard it all to yourself? Nathan still looked a bit miffed at being caught off guard.

"Why don't we just go tie up the horses over here and I can show you what I am speaking of" grinned Ezra.

They got the horses taken care of and proceeded to walk carefully over to the next alley. Ezra held up his hand and put a finger to his lips. Then he pointed at his eyes and then again around the corner. Nathan got the idea and took a peek around the corner without speaking. There was a nasty looking fellow with a rifle slung across his knees kicked back in a chair not 20 feet from them. If Ezra hadn't shown up, well, Nathan didn't even want to think about that. He gave a nod to Ezra and they backed up quietly.

"There's another lovely gentleman in the next alley" whispered Ezra. "How would you like to proceed? Or should I say, which one do you want?" He gave Nathan a grin that showed off his gold tooth.

"I'll take the second man" Nathan didn't like having to do this, but he knew it was a matter of their survival. He slipped off into the darkness.

Ezra decided to take a different approach. He knew he smelled like a saloon, heck, he had spent the entire evening there, so he set off at a wobbly pace whistling a cheery tune, very off key. When he reached the alley, he turned down it and noticed the man was waiting for him. Ezra pretended not to notice him and continued on his merry, unsteady way. He turned toward the building when he was only a few feet from the man, and acted like he was going to do his business right then and there. He broke off the whistle, and the struggle with his pants as the man reached him.

"Hey buddy, whadda ya think you're doin' out here?" he snarled.

"Well sir, I believe I was about to relieve myself of some well earned whiskey, and then I shall journey on to find some other form of entertainment." Ezra was none too steady on his feet and actually almost fell into the man, who pushed him back up with a hiss of disgust.

"Move on partner, and move on now." This fellow was such a bore, thought Ezra. He reached out to shove Ezra one more time. Quicker than the eye could see, Ezra had a thin rope around the man's neck and was pulling tightly.

"No need to be so rude my good fellow." Ezra didn't let go until the body slumped at his feet. He drug the man back to the chair and positioned him just as he was. He emptied out the rifle chamber before setting it back in his lap, then used the rope to tie the man upright. He looked up and down the alley, and ran lightly to the main street, again looking both ways. Nothing unusual happening there he turned and ran back down to the other end. Nathan was just coming around the corner and looked pretty grim. He was wiping off one of his knifes and placed it back in the sheath. Ezra knew better than to ask.

"Is that all of them?"

"There are 2 more, but my well spring passed out cold before I could discern their location. I would assume that they are positioned somewhere around the Governor's mansion. Should we leave the horses, or move them down with us?"

"Let's keep them as close as possible" said Nathan, and they went to retrieve them.

They found one more man and dispatched him with relative ease, but they couldn't find the fourth, so they went to their position and proceeded to wait.

Josiah looked like a man having the siesta of his life, but his eyes under the hat brim never left the man over in the shadows by the mansion. He knew by instinct that this man was trouble and was not about to let him out of his sight for a moment. He was good at patience and waiting. He could wait with the best of them, so wait he did.

She could feel his eyes on her the minute she walked through the door, and it made her feel filthy. Buck must have felt her tense up because he leaned over into her ear and whispered "You okay Miss Hannah? We can still turn around."

She gave him a grateful look "You know I can't do that Buck, but you are truly a gentleman for giving me yet one last chance at redemption"

She could say no more. He was there.

"Well well, Miss Esperanza, you look absolutely exquisite. I cannot begin to tell you how delighted we are that we find ourselves graced with your company this evening. Cultured people can be few and far between here in these outlaw lands. I do believe that it has been to long, and I hope that we can rectify that in the future." He brought her hand to his lips and she was forced to look coquettish as he placed a light kiss on it. The blush was real. Only Buck knew it came from disgust.

"Why Governor Hill, I am looking forward to this evenings entertainment. I have heard that after dinner the entire party will be moving over to the new theatre to see a play? How delightful."

"Gordon, please, and if I may, Miss Hannah? Your companion would be?" He held out his hand to Buck.

"Gordon Hill, this is Mr. Buck Wilmington, we happened to be staying at the same hotel and Mr. Wilmington had no dinner plans. I hope you don't mind? "

"Not at all, welcome" replied Gordon.

Buck abhorred it, but shook his hand for the show and gave a big grin to boot. "Nice to meet you Governor, I've heard alot about you."

"And you chose to come anyway. Remarkable." Gordon gave a politicians smile.

"Well, I heard you set a great table, and that's hard to turn down sir." Buck rubbed his stomach in anticipation.

"I hope we don't disappoint then." He offered his arm to Hannah, "May I?" She silently took his arm with free hand and they proceeded to walk into the party.

After too many introductions, he left them to speak with other people. Hannah gave a sigh of relief. So did Buck.

"I can see the non-attraction" Buck grinned at her.

"I think that we should split up soon. I must get the papers from him before dinner. The sooner the better. I will give them to you as soon as I can without being noticed. I am sure you can find something to catch your attention for a few minutes?" There had been quite a bevy of young women smiling and flirting with Buck ever since they walked in. He didn't look very sad at the prospect. Out loud he said, "May I get you some punch Miss Hannah?" She nodded and off he went. It took everything she had not to grab him back.

Gordon was there in an instant.

"You look beautiful Hannah. It seems you are more beautiful each time I see you. You deserve to be a civilized woman. Not some trail hand full of dust and mud." He gave her a long look that made her skin crawl. "Now, am I mistaken, or was there a reason you came tonight. I seem to recall something about a trade...or as you so gently put it, a negotiation. We seem to have a moment or two to talk. Your new friend looks a bit occupied."

Buck was playing his part well and was circled by ladies giggling and waving their fans about madly.

"Ok, right to the point then. I like that. Here's the deal. There's a man in Four Corners about to be hung for a crime he didn't commit. The only chance he has at life is if you give him a signed pardon. That's what I want from you."

He gave a soft laugh. "You are just like your father. Softhearted, always rooting for the underdog, lost causes. What is this man to you?" He was careful not to look at her. She was thankful for that.

"He is nothing to me. I have yet to meet him."

"Why would you come all of this way to save him then?" This time he did watch her face.

"Because it's wrong, because he was once of the Kiowa people, and because I couldn't live with myself if I didn't try." He could see the truth on her face.

"And what makes you think I would do this for you. You won't even sell me your cattle. What do you have to offer me? He was rubbing his chin, but was taken totally off guard by her simple answer.


He was visibly shaken.

"I am not sure I understand you" He didn't know what else to say.

"It's really quite simple. You give me the signed pardon, now. I am sure you can find a couple of willing companions for my chaperone over there. You get me. Tonight. For one night only. Make your decision quickly." She had given Buck the signal and he was starting to make his way slowly back to them.

"Mr. Wilmington will not mind this arrangement? Does he know what you are doing?"

"He knows nothing except he was being escorted to a fine dinner. We've never met before this afternoon. He won't mind, he will look at it as though he is getting two for one. I need your answer now Gordon." She watched Buck meander his way back.

Gordon looked as though he couldn't believe his ears.

"One whole night. With you, alone? What guarantee do I have you won't take the pardon and leave. I will give you the pardon in the morning."

"I will have the pardon now or I will go. I want it official Gordon, with your seal and signature. I want it to be irrevocable. All you have is my word, and though you don't know much else about me, the one thing you do know is that my word is good."

"I have your word?" Buck was almost upon them.

"My word." She looked him right in the eye just to make sure he saw what was there. He saw that she knew exactly what she was getting herself into and for whatever the reason was, he really didn't care. All he knew was that he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything before.

"Done" He brushed past Buck almost at a run.

"My, my. Someone is in a hurry for something. I take it your offer was acceptable to him?"

"We will soon find out. Get ready to leave if he isn't back here in 10 minutes."

They worked their way over to a quiet corner and Hannah sank into an overstuffed chair. She had not realized how tense she was until this moment. She felt like screaming. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion and time seemed to have stopped. What if she was wrong, what if he changed his mind? What if.... she couldn't stop thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Suddenly a servant was there offering her an envelope on a silver tray. She looked around and saw him watching her from across the room. She held it for a minute and then slowly opened it trying desperately to look disinterested. There it was. His freedom, forever. She checked the seal and the signature. She asked the servant for a piece of paper and a pen, and he watched her quietly. She folded the paper and the servant walked straight to Gordon. He opened the note, and with a small smile, sat at a small table and wrote his reply. She, and Buck, watched him carefully. The servant came back with the tray. She opened the note and was satisfied. She folded the note in with the pardon and put them both back in the envelope and tucked them into her pocket. Then he was there, with 2 lovely girls at his side.

"Mr. Wilmington, may I introduce Miss Belle and Miss Suzanne? They are very anxious to meet you, and I believe it will now be my honor to escort Miss Hannah to dinner as well as to relieve you of her company for the rest of the evening." He stood to the side.

"Why, that is an awfully generous offer Governor Hill, if that is what Miss Hannah wants, then who am I to argue?" He was awfully good at this big, dumb, handsome cowboy thing. "Thank you for your company Miss Hannah, and enjoy the rest of the evening." He bent to kiss her hand then rubbed his own hands together as he turned to the two ladies. They giggled in return.

Hannah stood and turned to Gordon offering her arm, and they moved to go. "Wait, Miss Hannah," Buck put a hand on her shoulder "I believe this is yours." He handed her a lace hankie that had fallen from her lap when she arose.

"Why thank you Buck. Enjoy you're evening also." She touched his cheek and then he was off. She tucked the hankie into her sleeve and they went in for dinner.

She could taste nothing. It was a meal fit for royalty, but she honestly couldn't tell if it were good or not. She knew she was eating, her arm was moving up and down, her mouth moving. She could feel the false smile on her face, and she was nodding an answer to the stranger seated next to her, but she could not have said what the question was. There was a lump the size of Texas in her stomach. It was all mechanical. Buck seemed to be enjoying himself, but she caught the occasional concerned glance he threw her way. Gordon was all hospitality, making sure her glass was full, checking her plate, asking after her in a very doting way. He would be a good companion, she thought to herself, if he wasn't so despicable deep down inside. Time was moving excruciatingly slow and she had to refrain from continually looking at the clock in the hall. After what seemed like a month, the servants were finally clearing the table and bringing in dessert and sherry. She hadn't touched the wine at dinner, but allowed herself a small shot of the sherry. It felt like fire going down her throat. She had no idea how she was getting through this evening. It felt like a lifetime before the hall clock finally chimed the arrival of 7:30.

Gordon stood up and placed his napkin on his plate. "Well folks, the theatre is calling! Shall we prepare to go?" He reached for the back of Hannah's chair and put his hand under her elbow to help her stand. All gentlemanly politeness on the outside, but she knew inside this man was a different story all together. The guests all headed for the entry where servants were helping with jackets and wraps. During the bustle, she felt a squeeze on her arm as Buck was being helped into his coat. She gave him a wry smile and a slight nod of her head as he was hustled past her. Gordon was making sure that they were being left at the end of the line. As the last couple was walking out to the veranda the man turned to wait for them.

"Thanks George, but you and Marguerite go on ahead. Miss Esperanza and I have a pressing business matter that cannot wait. We will be along shortly." Gordon had his best politician's smile on.

"Are you sure? We don't mind waiting Governor, do we dear?" "Certainly we can wait" answered his wife.

"No, really. It's very kind of you to offer, but it's just cattle talk, very boring. We will be right behind you." And then the last couple was off down the street. There was no one in sight except for the man sleeping on the porch across the street. Gordon closed the door and turned to her. Somehow the servants had all managed to disappear, like they had never been there at all. "Now, about that pressing business matter...why don't we go up to my room and see what kind of deal I have struck?" He motioned to the stairs and there was nothing for her to do but take a deep breath and go to her fate with her head held high.

Nathan was getting edgy. "I sure don't like the feel of this place. I will feel alot better when we are well on our way out of here.'

"I echo your sentiments exactly my friend." Ezra took a peek around the corner. "I think we should start heading over there." He pulled his pocket watch out for the tenth time. " It is nearly the bewitching hour and it just would not do to be late for our own escape." He pocketed the watch again and started to move quietly. "I am going through the house Nathan. There is a back entrance, and I have a bad feeling. You should take the horses on over to the other side of the house, less people to see us leave from there." "Are you sure you want to go into that house Ezra? That wasn't part of the original plan. What if you alert someone?" Nathan was always a worrier.

"I do believe I could come up with any number of plausible excuses for me to be there if I should become detected. You're concern is truly touching, but unnecessary my friend." And then he was gone. Nathan slowly led the horses down the back alley to wait.

Josiah gave his legs a good stretch. He felt like he could ride all night, he had been resting so long. He had his eye on the fellow beside the house and was just wondering what to do about him when the problem was solved for him. Buck came stumbling down the walk and ran smack into the surly looking man.

"Hey! Watch where you're goin'" the man pushed Buck backwards.

"Sorry pard', but I seem to have forgotten something inside." Buck slapped the man on the back as he slurred his words together.

"Ain't nobody goin' inside anymore tonight. Whatever it is it will wait until tomorrow. Governor left word not to be disturbed. Besides, you need to sober up some. Git on out of here or I'll make sure you sober up in a cell" he gave Buck another shove.

"Oughtn't to be so rude friend." Josiah had quietly stepped over to them.

As the man turned to see who else was there, Buck straightened up and said without a slur, "I'm sober enough to do this" and gave the man such a right hook that Josiah had to catch him to keep him from falling on the porch.

"Nice one Buck" He said as they dragged him to the side of the house.

No sooner had they rounded the corner when the door opened and Gordon Hill came storming out of the house. They kept to the shadow as he slammed the door and stomped off down towards the theatre.

Josiah looked at Buck and they quickly moved over to the other side of the house. Nathan was waiting there and handed Josiah his reins. Buck was nervously looking up and down the road. "Where's Ezra?" He went through the back door to make sure everything was okay" Nathan told him in a whisper. Buck rubbed his moustache. "Something's not right...I'm going in." He handed the papers over to Josiah, who gave him a thoughtful look. "Just in case" and then he was gone.

Ezra was just coming through the hall when the front door opened and closed quietly. He gave a quick look, saw Buck and gave a low whistle. Buck motioned for him to go around through the dining room and Buck went through the study but they saw no one. When they came back to the hall Buck gave a look up the stairs and bounded up them two at a time with Ezra right on his heels. They looked in doorways all down the hall, and suddenly Buck gave out a low moan. Ezra was right behind him when Buck rushed into the master bedroom and his heart felt like it was going to pound right out of his chest.


Vin lay lost in his own thoughts. Judge Travis and JD were still pouring over law books. They were strewn all over the room. Mary came and went quietly bringing food, offering encouragement, and trying to tidy up after the Judge.

Chris was wound as tight as a rattler waiting to strike. There was a small mountain of smoked cheroots growing around his feet. Every once in awhile Mary would stop and put her hand on his shoulder, but he was a rock. Inside he was swirling with emotions that he couldn't afford to let anyone else see. He had lost his share of loved ones already. Whether he liked it or not, Vin Tanner had become a part of him and he refused to lose anyone ever again. Whatever it took, he would not let that happen, he swore to himself silently. He gave Vin a long look and Vin gave back a barely perceptible nod. He knew what the angry man was thinking. They had that between them sometimes and it made him feel as if they were brothers from another time.

"He has a hard time letting anyone in". It was Mary who had come to sit for a moment.

"Can't really blame him. Look what happens when he does."

"A person could miss out on alot of things by shutting themselves off from living." She looked wistful as she leaned on the jail cell bars.

"Can't change a man's nature. Just remember Mrs. Travis, just because a man can't talk don't mean he's blind.' Vin gave her a wry smile.

"Well, think of that, you comforting me! Some support I've turned out to be!" She chided herself and pulled out her basket of dinner. 'You haven't eaten much of anything Mr.Tanner, please, take some dinner tonight." She held it out to him.

"Can't say I have much of an appetite for food lately Mrs. Travis, but I am obliged to you for thinking of me."

"I sure hope Hannah knows what she is doing. I have heard things about this Governor Hill and I am afraid his reputation does precede him. She never was one to shy away from anything that needed doing though." Mary picked at a biscuit.

"What do you know about her Mrs. Travis?" Vin tried to look disinterested, but his heart was racing at the thought of her.

Mary took another bite of her biscuit and settled back in the chair. "Well" she started, "The Esperanza's were here long before me that's for sure. Her family has a big spread up to the North of Four Corners. Her mother was related to the Kiowa tribe up there, medicine woman of some renown,"

Vin had had a feeling about that and was not surprised by that information.

". and her father was Mexican, part Mexican at least. They have always been a decent and well-respected, honest family. Hard working, and always ready to lend a helping hand when needed. Her older brother Carlos was supposed to inherit the ranch, but took to the village instead. I heard the family supported the decision and he married a young girl up there, has a family of his own now."

Vin couldn't help himself from listening intently. "I can understand a man who chooses that lifestyle." He hadn't meant to speak out loud, but Mary kept talking as if she hadn't heard.

"Hannah took to cattle ranching like most women take to baking apple pies" she continued with a smile. "She's a hard worker like her father, loves to ride and be out under the sky, and built an honest and reliable reputation for herself throughout the state. Her father wanted her educated as well, so she did some schooling in the North somewhere. Hated it from what I heard and it wasn't long before she had talked her way back home to doing what she loved. Her father said she was as free a spirit as her mother. They help the town as well as the village, and anyone is welcome to a meal, healing or warm bed at the ranch. I don't think that family has ever turned anyone away lacking for anything."

"You sound alot alike Mrs. Travis" Vin said in a quiet voice.

Mary looked thoughtful for a moment. "I suppose we could have become quite good friends if our circumstances would have been different. I chose marriage and a family life, Hannah Esperanza chose freedom" She looked shocked at what she had just said and started to stammer an apology, she hadn't meant to disclose such a thought to anyone, ever, and was mortified.

Vin put his hand over hers and said softly "I understand what you mean Ms' Travis."

Chris stubbed out another cheroot and turned his head slowly back to the street with a thoughtful look on his face.

Vin stared out through the bars with a thoughtful look of his own, sorting through all of the information he was hearing.

"When she's here, she comes through town a couple of times a month for supplies and the like, but we never get to talking much. She's a pretty quiet sort. Some men take offense to her ways of dressing and the like, but I actually always secretly thought it to be quite practical." She gave Vin a bit of a conspirators smile. "Personally, I quite like her and think I should make more of an effort to know her better. There! That shall be my resolve for the day!" She got up to collect the basket. Vin realized he had eaten quite a bit and was thankful to her for the reprieve.

He watched her leave, watched Chris watch her leave and lay back down on the cot. He caught Chris' look just before he put his hat over his eyes, but ignored him and let the intriguing thoughts of her fill his head as he drifted off to sleep. He welcomed the dreams when they came.

She was face down on the bed and he had to put his ear to her face to see if she was still breathing. He looked at Ezra and they both gave an audible sigh of relief. The back of her gown looked like it had been shredded. Her hair, which had been so beautiful, was disheveled all about her, the pearls strewn about the bed and floor. Both men had seen alot in their day, but neither were prepared for the condition of her body. It looked as if she had been beaten within an inch of her life, and probably had. Buck's face was red with the barely concealed rage, and Ezra, for once in his life, was speechless. She was bleeding from the many cuts and welts that had been laid on her back with what appeared to be a leather strap. Ezra picked it up and threw it back down in revulsion. The two men looked at each other not quite knowing what to do. Then Buck started moving. He ripped the rest of her gown off as Ezra stared astonished. "She won't be wantin' to see this again I dare say" and he threw it to the ground. "Ezra, find something to cover her with, and hurry. Who knows when that son of a ...will be back."

Ezra ran out and was back in a flash with some sort of nightdress. "Must be a servants room next door," he said with a shrug. They carefully lifted Hannah and averting their eyes as much as possible, they first wrapped the sheet around her wounds, then slipped the nightdress over her head. "We've got to get her out of here fast" said Ezra, checking out the window. Buck went to pick her up and gasped at the swelling of her face. One eye was already turning an ugly black and blue. Ezra ran his hand lightly over the discoloration while Buck lay her gently over his shoulder. "I hope I am the one to hand out the retribution this man deserves " he whispered. Something caught Buck's eye as he turned to go. He picked it up and tucked it into his jacket pocket before he carried her out of the room. Ezra had also seen something, and picking up the gardenia she had so carefully placed behind her ear, he put it to his nose and then in his pocket. He raced out after Buck, gun cocked, and carefully scouted their way back out of the house.

The other two looked astonished as they came hurrying out of the house. "Quick man, let's get the blue blazes out of here" hissed Buck handing Hannah over to Josiah. Josiah took his poncho and wrapped it around her while Buck jumped onto his horse. He reached for her and carefully tucked her in front of himself and was off before anyone could say another word. They quickly mounted and were after him leading Hannah's mare behind them.

Buck kept up a hard pace and the other men were right on his heels. Nathan caught up to him and tried to talk but Buck had the grimmest look on his face Nathan had ever seen. He pulled back a bit to Ezra and Josiah and got their attention. "I don't know what happened back there Ezra, but that girl doesn't look well and I'm thinkin' maybe I should have a look at her."

Ezra gave him a grim look of his own.

"Trust me Doc, you won't want to be looking at this at all."

Josiah looked at both of them and spurred his horse up to Buck.

"Buck, we are gonna have to stop soon or this pace will wear the horses down right quick. And whether you like it or not, that girl is hurt and someone is gonna have to have a look at her. I know that there's a stream up ahead about a half mile, with a cliff overhang. We could pull up there for a rest and have a good lookout at the same time. We won't accomplish anything by killing either the horses or her."

Buck had an anguished look on his face but gave a nod and Josiah took the lead.

They soon arrived at the spot Josiah had picked out and he was right. There was a great overhang to light a small fire without being seen, as well as fresh water and grass for the horses. Ezra leapt down from his horse and went to help Buck with Hannah. Josiah tied the horses to a picket while Nathan got a blanket and lay it out under the overhang. Ezra gently lay Hannah on her side and listened again for her breathing, and sighed when he heard it. They had ridden hard and covered alot of ground without realizing it. The sky was turning with the dawn.

'I need to know what happened" asked Nathan with a serious look to his face.

Buck and Ezra just looked at each other, then Ezra said "We better get some water boiling, I think you might need it, and anything else you have handy in that do-dad bag you always carry."

Buck gathered more wood while Ezra and Josiah got water, and Nathan pulled his saddlebags completely off, not knowing what he might need. As the fire caught and started to blaze, Buck began to gently remove the poncho, then the dressing gown as the other two men looked on astonished. With the lightening sky, it was easy to see her condition as Buck gently opened the sheet covering her back. Ezra helped keep her as covered as possible while they gently unwound the sheet they had wrapped her in. The men could see the blood long before the sheet was off and they were sickened by the sight of her back as it was revealed to them. Nathan hissed as he leaned down with a wet cloth and got to cleaning the blood away. The look on Josiah's face said more than any words could have. "I'll take watch, and pray someone shows up to pay for this. I always did have a bit of a problem turning the other cheek." He climbed to the top of the overhang with his face grim.

"What can I do to help" asked Ezra. 'Keep bringing water' was Nathan's reply. "I've seen many a whippin' in my time, and none were pretty, but this, this is just pure hatred and I've never seen anything like it. I'll do my best, but she is in bad shape." No one spoke for a long time. Nathan washed her wounds, stitched some of the worse ones up, and applied a salve he had in his bag to others. Then he went to get Hannah's saddlebags.

"She hadn't packed when she left. I thought it was just an oversight at the time, but now I think that girl didn't expect to make it out of there. She's got clothes here, and someone's got to get some of them on her." Buck reached out and took the bag but didn't look up. He dumped the contents out and found britches as well as a shirt. "I'll put the shirt on backwards so you can dress the wounds easier". "Good idea Buck" Nathan patted his shoulder as he and Ezra went to empty all of the dirty water and give Buck some privacy. When they got back, he had her decent and covered, so Nathan tore some strips off of the sheet and placed them lightly over the wounds and did the buttons up on her shirt. "I've done what I can for the obvious wounds, but I think she might have a concussion from that hit to the head. All we can do now is wait." Buck got a pot of coffee going and even Ezra pitched in by making some kind of stew for them to eat. Then they all sat back to wait.