Magnificent Seven Old West
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The Reckoning

by Scribe

Summary: The past catches up with Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington when an old enemy from the past surfaces to wreak havoc on their present. Meanwhile the new doctor arrives in Four Corners and changes the life of Vin Tanner forever. .

Sixth story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows The Narrow Margin Between Love and War.


Prologue:

Yesterday

People knew he had demons.

He never spoke of them and people learned quickly he did not like being asked about them. They saw him in town occasionally, riding his soot-colored gelding, with steely blue eyes always looking ahead but somehow aware of everything around him. At first appearance, he looked no older than twenty-five. He was tall, lean; handsome to a fault but could never be considered pretty, with a coldness that kept people away. Those who were the recipients of his high-powered gaze were often unsettled by what they saw. He had old eyes.

They knew Chris Larabee was dangerous. They just did not know why.

Only one person in town knew him with any intimacy and that was a young farmhand at the Blesdoe Ranch. Their personalities contrasted like night and day. Buck Wilmington was loud, confident to the point of arrogance and had a reputation as ladies' man as most of the local girls could attest. When Buck was with Chris, the differences between them seemed more pronounced. Yet the friendship was constant, its roots deep and strong.

Unlike Buck, Chris was not loud. He rarely spoke but when he did, he was always polite. He tipped his hat to the ladies and did not indulge in hard carousing. When he was not with Buck Wilmington, he was usually hidden in a darkened corner of the saloon, drinking alone. Women gossiped behind his back, intrigued by what he was. Some approached him, but he showed little interest. In turn, men viewed him with caution. Although he had yet to draw a weapon on any of them, he was believed to be a gunslinger. He just had the look about him.

Nevertheless, a year after his first appearance in town, Chris remained as much a mystery. They did not know how he earned his living but noticed he was never without money, even if his income was modest. Thus, it was a complete surprise to the townsfolk when it became known that Chris Larabee had taken a job as a ranch hand at the sprawling Westbrook property called Haven. He never seemed the type to work on a farm, even one as large as the Westbrook homestead. However, James Westbrook was known to pay his men well. For someone who might be considering settling down, it was a good a point as any to establish more permanent roots.

Chris Larabee watched the family closely.

There were seven of them. James Westbrook who ran the town likes he ran his property, his wife Eloise, two daughters Lucy and Rebecca and three sons, Isaac, Timothy and Damien who also lived on the homestead. Although he was one of only a small number of workers on the ranch, Chris was careful to stay out of sight. The other ranch hands did not like him much but that suited Chris fine. He was not there to make friends. He kept a close eye on the family, watching their movements like a cat studying the mouse before the attack, committing everything to memory. If he should fail when he finally made his move, it was not going to be due to any lack of preparation.

Although he was careful to study all of them, it was only Damien Westbrook who had Chris' undivided attention. The youngest of the entire clan, Damien owned a mean streak known to most of the young women in town. The more respectable ones would not speak of the abuses they received at his hands, but Chris kept his ears open and knew the look of those who had suffered. Damien liked his sex rough and did not discriminate on whom he chose as his partner once the desire took him.

Now and then a working girl would turn up dead, battered to death. Sheriff Barlow who was bought and paid for by James Westbrook paid it little mind. There was not even the formality of an investigation. No one in town had any doubt as to the identity of the perpetrator of the crime, but it was not wise to make mention of it. Those foolish enough to protest, usually an outraged father or relative, wound up dead.

Had Damien chose to keep his activities within the sphere of his father's influence, it was entirely possible he could have continued his sadistic pleasures for years to come. In Crest Falls where James Westbrook ruled supreme, Damien was safely protected from the law. Threats or monetary gifts to the victims or their families usually put an end to any recrimination after Damien's excesses. But it was only a matter of time there would be a victim Westbrook could not buy or threaten into submission.

Bitter Creek was more than a day's ride from Crest Falls, and it was a large town with a duly appointed Sheriff who took the law just as seriously as the safety of its citizenry. When the daughter of the local postmaster was raped and murdered after a dance, those present at the function identified Damien as her escort for most of the evening. He had been in Bitter Creek to see about buying a new horse and decided to stay for a few days. By the time the girl's body had been discovered, Damien had wisely returned to the safety of Crest Falls, but this time old man Westbrook's influence could not appease the girl's enraged family. Warrants were issued, and Sheriff Allen journeyed to Crest Falls to arrest the boy.

He never returned.

Since then, numerous lawmen were sent out to retrieve the boy, and to date, none of them succeeded. James Westbrook allowed no one to take his son and the men he employed to protect the boy, made it a certainty. The warrant on Damien Westbrook was left outstanding. With each fresh attempt and eventual failure to apprehend him, the bounty on the boy's head rose steadily. A thousand dollars was not a king's ransom for a bounty, but it could buy a good parcel of land somewhere.

It was a bounty Chris Larabee intended to collect.

Chris spent a month on the Westbrook homestead, waiting like a coiled serpent for the perfect time to make Damien accountable for what he had done. There were other reasons at work for his motivation, the least of it being money.  There was also a self-righteous need to see justice done. He was never more dangerous when he believed in something.

Christmas Eve was a time of celebration for everyone in the Haven. Most of the workers on the property whether they were ranch hands or hired guns, had gone to town to enjoy the holiday or were with their families. Chris Larabee had no such obligations to fulfil having become estranged with what family he had left, long ago. After a month of working the cattle and all the other duties that made up a ranch hand's lot, Chris was finally ready to take his leave of Haven.

As he strode towards the main house leading his horse behind him, he could hear the happy voices singing carols within its walls. For a moment, he imagined presents being exchanged under a gaily, colored Christmas tree. He crushed the sentiment it engendered, reminding himself what he was here to do. He had chosen tonight for specific reasons. The hired guns protecting Damien Westbrook had ridden to Crest Falls an hour ago. Chris did not expect to see them before morning.

As one of Westbrook's employees, he could move about freely without suspicion. He could come and go as he pleased, as he would tonight. If all went well, he and Damien would be out of the territory before Westbrook could alert his men.

Chris tethered the animal to the horse rail in front of the house and proceeded up the steps. Stepping onto the porch, Chris circled the large house, taking note of where everyone was. He wished the entire family was not present but knew it could not be helped. It was now or never. Another factor giving him cause for concern was the house was a double-story building, and he knew his vigil was not full-proof since he could not observe if anyone was up there.

Rounding the building, he heard the singing grow louder and arrived at a set of open doors. Peering through it, Chris saw Eloise Westbrook at the piano. Her children were singing Christmas carols around her singing Christmas carols. The scene almost gave Chris pause, but the bounty hunter forced it away when other families were grieving instead of celebrating because of Damien.

He drew both guns from his gun belt and cocked the weapons into readiness. Without hesitating further, Chris stepped through the door calmly, like any visitor making an unexpected appearance.

"Good evening." He greeted.

The first one to react was Eloise. She screamed in fright as she saw the stranger before them. Damien jumped out of his chair and Chris only had to shift the barrel of his gun slightly for the boy to know that it was wiser to remain seated. The others reacted with similar hastiness until the barrels they are staring down, told them differently. Only James Westbrook, seated on what looked his favorite chair smoking a pipe, was unperturbed by the sudden interruption

"Larabee? What is this about?"

The old man was calm, not wanting his family hurt, Chris thought. Good, that was a valuable bargaining commodity.

"Your boy," Chris said simply. "I'm taking him in."

"No!" Eloise squealed as her eyes darted toward her youngest. Damien Westbrook glowered at Chris in black hatred.

"Shut up and get over here." His eyes met Damien's with enough threat in his voice to ensure that Damien obeyed. His bravery only showed itself when he was using his fists on women. With an equal, Damien was not so forward. "Now," Chris repeated.

"You're not taking him." Timothy Westbrook declared imperiously. "We'll kill you first."

"This is not a negotiation." Chris reminded them. "Your boy has an outstanding warrant for his arrest and price on his head. I am bringing him in. Dead or alive is up to you." He looked at James because James was the only one who could decide how this went.

"I took you in, you son of a bitch!" James snarled, rising from his chair. "I gave you a job!"

"And I appreciate it which is why I won't kill the lot of you unlike some other hunters have wanted to do."

Damien walked towards him slowly, and as he advanced, Chris could see Timothy's hand moving out of sight.

"Your hands!" Chris cried out, but it was too late and the whole thing went to hell.

Later, he would replay the incident in his mind, wondering if he could have done things differently. Timothy Westbrook would pull out a six-shooter and Chris would fire without thinking twice. The bullet would slam into the chest of the middle Westbrook son amidst the terrified screaming of his mother and sisters. In a rage, Damien would charge him, and Chris would fire the other gun in he was holding, aiming for the boy's knee. The bullet stuck bone and Damien went down with a cry of pain. Even before Timothy hit the ground, Chris knew he had killed the man

James Westbrook, horrified by seeing both sons shot, would lunge at Chris. The man was older and heavier, but Chris reflexes were fast even for a young man. He sidestepped the charging rancher who went through the doors with a crash. During this time, Isaac Westbrook produced a rifle and took aim while Chris was distracted with the father. Chris dropped to his knees as buckshot flew overhead, knocking his hat from his head. He fired again, needing only one shot.

The shot blew out the back of Isaac Westbrook's skull. Blood and grey matter splattered across the wallpaper with its dainty yellow flowers. The screaming was almost high pitched now and did not come simply from Eloise. Chris turned around when he realized that James had not risen from where he fell. In his charge, the old man had fallen off the porch and was lying on the dirt ground, without moving at all. Slowly, Chris approached him, wondering if the man was playing possum and would attempt a surprise attack. Chris prodded the man's still body with his boot and saw no movement. For a moment, he was puzzled until he turned Westbrook over and saw the unusual angle of his neck.

It was broken. James Westbrook was dead.

Chris regarded the man's dead form and swore under his breath. He never intended to kill Westbrook or his sons. He had only wanted to bring in a rapist and a murder, not become one himself. He knew he acted in self-defense but to the women crying in that house, whose lives would never be same again and whose Christmases from this point on, would be a memory of loss, Chris knew he would always be a murderer.

The ride to Bitter Creek was fast and furious. Knowing that he had only a matter of hours before Westbrook's men came after him, Chris slung the injured body of Damien Westbrook on the back of his horse and sped out of Crest Falls on a full gallop. Despite the urgency of the situation and his ability to stay focused on any situation, he found his mind unable to forget the scene he left in the Westbrook home. He never meant for the others to die. In fact, he had not wanted any of the Westbrooks to be harmed. The sounds of Eloise's tears echoed in his mind no matter how far away he was from Crest Falls.

They were halfway to Bitter Creek when Damien Westbrook finally overcame his injuries enough to speak. "You bastard!" He cried in a half sob. "You killed my father and my brothers!"

Chris blinked slowly, the words stung him more than they should have. Normally, words rarely affected him but today was not an ordinary day. What transpired at the boy's home justified Chris's guilt.

"I didn't want it to go down that way."

"You didn't want?" Damien fairly screamed. His arms were tied, and his leg throbbed in agony. Chris treated the wound enough so that he could make the journey to Bitter Creek. Once Damien was in custody, Chris was certain he would get the attention of the local doctor. In any case, his injuries made him easier to handle and now, Chris did not need the aggravation. He felt bad enough about happened.

"I'm sorry," Chris found himself saying. "I meant to take you without harming your family."

"I still got money," Damien started blathering now it was apparent that no rescue was forthcoming. The darkness behind them offered no sounds of hooves beating down in pursuit. Instead, the plains behind them were silent with the stillness of the night. Even the stars seemed to have disappeared behind the canopy of grey clouds. It did not seem like it was Christmas at all. The realization that he might be facing a hangman's noose brought out his fear. "I can pay double the reward for me."

Chris snorted in disgust, but he was hardly surprised. He almost expected Damien to begin pleading for his life once he became aware of his situation. "This ain't about money."

"What else is there but the money?" Damien shouted in rising desperation. "Isn't that what all you bounty hunters want?"

It was not much restitution but considering Chris had just killed the man's brothers and his father, he was at least deserving of truth regarding why Chris Larabee sought him out. In the distance, Bitter Creek's lights flickered like a beacon of calling to them.

"Do you know who Alice Sullivan is?"

"Who?" Damien demanded, feeling the pain in his shattered knee more acutely than ever.

"I guess they all look the same when you're tearing them to pieces with your hands," Chris said coldly. "Alice Sullivan used to live in Crest Falls. She was the daughter of Jeb Sullivan, the boot maker. Do you remember her now?"

Damien searched his memory. There had been so many women; so many faces begging for mercy as his fists did the talking. Just thinking about how they had whimpered and cried drove any thought of remorse over the events of some hours ago. "I don't remember her."

"She remembered you. She remembered how you raped her and then beat her so bad that her own kin could barely recognize her. She remembered right until the time she killed herself a few weeks later."

Damien knew nothing of the woman in question. The bounty hunter was right; they did look alike when he was enjoying himself. It made no difference whether their hair was blonde or brunettes, blue eyes or green. How they made him feel was all he cared about.

"She was going to marry a friend of mine." Chris continued. "I ain't got many friends but I sure as hell wasn't about to let him ride on up to your father's ranch to try and kill you. Your dad would have put him down long before he even laid eyes on you. So, I made my friend a promise, I told him I'd take care of it myself. So, you're going to Bitter Creek to stand trial for what you done and maybe, just maybe my friend will be able to sleep at nights again."

Damien said nothing for a moment, digesting the information Chris provided. When he finally spoke, there was no trace of the previous fear in his voice. Instead, he answered with a sneer.

"He may be able to sleep nights again, but you won't. You better pray they kill me, Larabee because you'll never be able to stop looking over your shoulder. I'll get you, one way or another, I'll destroy you."

"You can try," Chris replied unperturbed. Threats were nothing new to him.

He was still screaming those words when Chris rode away from the jailhouse, a day later.

Chapter One:

The New Doctor

The woman had spent most of her life travelling. In her mind's eye, were memories of faraway places, India, Palestine and even St Petersburg. She visited the continent and found it charming in the way one might admire a fading beauty, but this journey was different. She had no idea if coming here was a good idea, but it struck her as a place that seemed to need her as much she needed it.

As the stagecoach thundered through the unyielding terrain, she wondered if in all the world, she could have made a less inhospitable choice. When she'd answered the advertisement, she had no idea what the Territory was and after all the rejections, she hadn't believed her application would be answered. Yet somehow it had and later she'd learned she was given the position because no one else wanted it.

Seems the Territory was a less than a hospitable place.

She didn't care, it was a place where she could use the skills she'd spent so many years studying to acquire. Most people had difficulty believing she was a London trained professional although they could not imagine the prejudice she faced in the male-dominated culture where women were considered usurpers, not additions. When her father was alive, it had not mattered. They travelled after she received her degree and he himself, an eminent doctor of some reputation, trained her well. When he died, he did so knowing his only daughter was a skilled physician and surgeon.

The other passengers in the coach regarded her with a mixture of emotions. The women viewed her with curiosity, trying to place the race she might have originated. The men's emotions were easier to place. They saw an exotic young woman with lightly bronzed skin and jet colored hair that stared back at them with warm brown eyes, full of intelligence. She was not Latin, nor Creole and not Negro. What she was, they simply couldn't place.

"Do you have family in Four Corners dear?" An elderly woman inquired. The woman was well dressed and reminded Alex of a dowager, not unlike the ones in England who sat court over enormous families.

"No," Alex answered politely.

"That is a most unusual accent." The woman remarked. Alex tried to stifle a smile because her origins were a point of great curiosity to the dowager. "Is it European?"

"Partially," Alex nodded. "My father was English, but my mother was Indian."

"Indian?" The woman's nose wrinkled in distaste, although she tried to hide it. "You do not look like an Indian."

It took a moment for Alex to realize that the woman was speaking of an entirely different extraction. "Oh no, I'm not an American Indian. I meant India as in the continent in the Far East."

"I see." The woman said uncertainly. India might as well have been on the moon for all these people knew. "Such a long journey to a god forsaken place."

Apparently, it did not matter where Alex was from as long as she was not a native Indian or what they referred to as ‘colored' in this country. As for her description of Four Corners, the woman's view was the general description Alex received from most people about the town.

"And what will you do in Four Corners?"

"I'm hoping to set up a practice." Alex replied, wondering if the Dowager could handle this next snippet of information. Alex was certain that her sensibilities were stretching beyond their limits.

"Practice?" She looked at Alex in confusion.

"Yes," the young woman nodded. "I'm a doctor."

Unlike most of the inhabitants in Four Corners, Chris Larabee was not generally inclined to investigate the newly refurbished Emporium in Four Corners. Despite the fact it was a lavish production of colorful street awnings and full picture windows displaying mannequins garbed in the latest fashions, supposedly stocking everything from ladies' undergarments to an excellent collection of guns, Chris had little or no curiosity to visit the place. When he was finally forced to visit the establishment, it was a trip forced out of necessity than any need to investigate.

The decision to enter the new Emporium was one with which he wrestled with over hours. All morning, he was faced with this uncomfortable dilemma, trying to decide whether it was a wiser choice to go to Bitter Creek to conduct his business privately simply or for expediency, brave the new store in Four Corners. Whatever the decision, he had to do it today. He paced the floors of his small house out of town, like a lion trapped in a cage, puzzling why it was so daunting to carry out one simple task.

After all, in his lifetime he had done a great deal worse. It was not as if anyone would point a finger the moment he stepped into the walls of the emporium and start screaming his presence there. He ruminated on these points for an unusual length of time before deciding to bite the bullet and just go, no matter what the consequences.

All this because he now had a woman in his life.

Chris finally left for town wondering if he ever felt so uncomfortable when he was required to perform this duty for Sarah? He supposed it made all the difference back then, because he was younger, and people expected it from a family man. During the early days of their courtship, Chris felt no embarrassment turning up at her doorstep with flowers and tokens of love. Since he was travelling most of the time, it did not matter anyway. He would normally purchase something out of town where no one knew him or the lady. His anonymity allowed him his dignity.

He stopped in front of the steps leading into the emporium and felt his courage falter. Inside, he could see people going about their business, shopping as if it were the easiest thing in the world. He had seen friends do it with similar ease and yet here he was Chris Larabee, undoubtedly the most intimidating man in Four Corners and all he wanted to do was drown in whiskey and forget the whole idea.

Except tomorrow was Mary Travis' birthday and he had yet to buy her anything.

Chris turned around and took two steps away from the place. It was as far as he got before turning around again once he remembered what he was here to do. It went on like that for the next few minutes, two steps forward, three steps back. If anyone noticed this strange dance he was performing; no one dared to make light of it.

Jesus Larabee, Chris swore under his breath. Stop behaving like a pussy and just go in. It's just a birthday present. No one's asking you retake Atlanta.

Telling himself for the hundredth time that he could handle this, Chris took a deep breath and started up the freshly painted wooden steps.

It was early afternoon, and the emporium was seeing heavy traffic, mostly from the women in Four Corners. Although he saw some men in the vicinity, most of the customers were female. He had hoped to lose himself in the crowd, but that idea, was shot to hell since he was the only one in the group not wearing a full-length skirt. Although he tried to appear completely indifferent as he entered the place, all eyes immediately turned to him. The sight of all the scrutiny almost made Chris Larabee spin on his heels and get out of with his life before telling himself to take it like a man.

A young woman whom he had seen around town, with dark auburn hair approached him gingerly. Chris remembered he had seen her once with Buck and realized her name was Elisabeth. "Mr. Larabee, how nice to see you. Can I help you?"

Chris had almost told her to mind her own goddamn business when it occurred to him that she worked here. This place was indeed large enough to warrant shop assistants, and he was glad he did not say anything rude.

"I'm fine." He said gruffly, trying to move away.

The girl looked at him with a glint in her eyes that told Chris that she knew exactly what he was doing here. "Well, free feel to ask if you require any help." She offered, and Chris slinked away, reconsidering this whole stupid idea.

However, he did not walk out of the store.

After a while, the novelty of his presence disappeared, and the patrons returned their attention to their purchases, although some did meet his eyes with curiosity when they happened by him. Although he was tempted to stay in the part of the Emporium that sold guns and the kind of things men would buy, Chris knew at some point; he was going to have to surface. There was a moment of desperation when he considered the merits of presenting Mary with a good fishing knife; after all, he did not remember her owning one.

His thoughts ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and he realized he was more terrified about being discovered buying something for the woman he loved than having to face a hundred outlaws single-handedly. Finally, he returned to the section of the store catering for the female population of Four Corners. Although the eyes still followed him as he browsed through the goods, Chris could shrug off the attention and eventually felt some measure of ease.

Overcoming that problem led to another. What exactly was he going to buy Mary? He had been three years out of practice, buying anything for a woman. Even if the Emporium was filled with possibilities, Chris had no idea where to begin. He walked past shelves containing clothes, cosmetics, jewelry and the kind of trinkets only women would find interesting, unable to fathom which would be remotely appropriate.

Just handing her flowers would mean that he had spent no time considering her gift and opted for what was convenient. Chris had wanted to buy Mary something special. It was bad enough she didn't want a wedding ring even though they were now intimately involved. While he was grateful she was not rushing him into anything; he did feel as if there ought to be some formal understanding between them.

He was almost ready to give up when he suddenly came across the showcase cabinet at the front of the store. Unlike the others, this one was secured with a locking mechanism with a shop assistant in place. Chris wandered over to the glass case, trying to seem as relaxed as possible. Fortunately, while people knew him on sight, very few liked to approach him.

Chris was never more grateful for this fact than at this moment.

Beneath the glass, was a small collection of cameos, earrings and brooches, resting against a backdrop of sapphire satin. The vibrant color offset the gleaming metal for maximum effect. Judging by the prices labelled on them, he gathered that the gold and silver were not plated but the genuine article. They were expensive but affordable, Chris decided. He did not bother looking at the earrings because he knew selection was an exclusively feminine expertise, but the cameos did appear promising.

The shop assistant, an older woman in her forties, stood by watching in silent amusement as he examined a piece with the ornate engraving of a rose and decided that if he had to make a choice, this would serve.

"Chris?" He heard a decidedly familiar voice behind him and swore under his breath.

Buck. It had to be Buck.

Chris straightened up and tried to inject as much cool into his manner as possible. He looked at the lady and tapped the glass over the trinket before remarking politely. "I'll take this."

She nodded slightly, still wearing the barest hint of a smug smile as she fished a set of keys from the work apron tied over her skirt. "That's a lovely choice. Shall I have it wrapped?"

Chris tilted his head forward in the affirmative and took a deep breath before turning around. "Buck, JD," Chris said indifferently as if nothing about this was out of the ordinary.

Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne stood before him. While JD was merely surprised at Chris' presence here, Buck was wearing a wide, knowing grin on his face. It gave Chris the strongest urge to wipe that smirk off Buck's face with his fist.

"Hi Chris," JD said unaware of what all the fuss was about. "Buck thinks I should buy a new hat." He said gesturing to the worn bowler that had significantly suffered since its arrival in Four Corners.

"Good idea," Chris commented, making no effort to enlighten anyone as to why he was here.

"Shopping Chris?" Buck inquired, looking over the man's shoulder to see what the lady removed from behind the counter. He saw enough to know that it was nothing Chris was buying for himself. "I thought the men's section was that way." Buck glanced in the direction of that particular part of the store.

"I'm just looking around." The man in black remarked icily.

"That will be two dollars, Mr. Larabee." The shop assistant intruded on the conversation, and Chris wondered if her timing could be any worse. Giving Buck a cold glare, he cleared his throat and turned back to the counter.

Buck tried not to laugh, but he was enjoying Chris's uneasiness. He walked next to Chris and looked at what his oldest friend was buying. Chris did not meet Buck's gaze as he counted the wad of notes in his hand and exchanged them for a small box, wrapped dark red crepe.

"Thank you, Mr. Larabee. I'm sure the young lady will appreciate it."

As she turned away, Chris saw that her smirk, but it was nowhere as annoying as the wide grin on Buck Wilmington's face. Although the seven were aware of his relationship with Mary, Chris had tried very hard to keep his feelings for Mary private. This was no easy feat with Buck around. For some reason, Buck delighted in his discomfiture regarding this new relationship although why was beyond Chris' understanding.

"Is that for the fair Mrs. Travis?" Buck inquired innocently.

Chris growled under his breath and stuffed the box in his pocket. "Drop dead Buck."

With that, the evasive gunslinger strode out of the establishment before Chris was forced to shoot him.

JD watched the interplay between both men with no idea what had transpired. "What was that all about?" He asked Buck who had started laughing.

"Nothing JD," Buck replied patting the boy on the back. "That man can shoot a fly off man's nose at 300 paces without even grazing him, but you send Chris to go buy something for a lady, and he still goes completely to pieces."

"Well, maybe it's just because Mrs. Travis is such a lady and all," JD said coming to Chris's defense.

After all, it was no easy thing buying the appropriate gift for someone special. JD endured similar difficulties when he decided to court Casey for the first time. If not for Mrs. Travis, Nathan and Josiah, the whole thing might have ended in disaster. As it was, he ended buying Casey the digger anyway.

"Who's talking about Mrs. Travis?" Buck retorted. "He was like this even when he was courting Sarah."

There were days in the town of Four Corners where people were in constant fear of their lives. It sometimes felt as if every bandit, outlaw, varmint and generally lawless hombre would find their way into the municipality, announcing themselves in a blaze of gunfire leaving innocents dead. The citizens of Four Corners understood this unfortunate as one of the calamities expected when one lived in the West. The gory tales of gunslingers and shootouts greedily feasted upon by impressionable youths reading dime store novels in the East was not fiction to the townspeople. They lived the life portrayed so dramatically in sordid paperbacks.

That was before the Seven of course.

While there was still danger, for this was after all, the territory known as the Wild West, Four Corners was enjoying a period of relative peace. Since the unofficial appointment of the seven as peacekeepers by Judge Orin Travis, Four Corners was safer than it had ever been under the protection any marshal or sheriff. These days, the intervals between one spate of violence and the next had lengthened considerably from hours to weeks thanks to the men who now guarded the town with genuine dedication. In turn, Four Corners embraced their guardians (if somewhat gingerly) and the seven men had become the recognized authority of law.

On this day during one of those cherished intervals of peace, there was little for any of the seven to do. After his experience in the Emporium, Chris had chosen to more familiar territory. He had yet to decide whether disemboweling was too good for Buck or should he remain with the tried and true method of just shooting the man, preferably in the mouth.

While the rest of the seven had the good sense to leave the subject of Mary Travis alone, Buck enjoyed reminding Chris of his sudden change of personal status. He flinched at the word ‘beau' being used anywhere after his name. It was not that he was ashamed of being with Mary. It just that he did not like their relationship viewed under a magnifying glass by every man and his dog.

Ezra was behind the counter, playing bartender while Inez worked the room with a serving tray. They were a good team, Chris noted. Saloon profits had been limping along before the arrival of the sultry woman. Maude Standish, who was part owner of Ezra's saloon had bought a controlling interest and appointed Inez who had been just a waitress at that point, to guard her interests as manager. The result was a sudden rise in patrons who not only came for the drinking but also for the Mexican cuisine at which Inez was very adept at providing.

It didn't hurt being served by one of the most beautiful females in town either.

At the moment, their relationship involved nothing but business. With a smile of satisfaction, Chris wondered if Buck would survive the disappointment if it ever came to pass that Ezra and Inez's friendship was anything but platonic. Chris had seen the look in Buck's eyes when he cast his gaze upon the woman and known the ladies' man long enough to know when he was smitten. While Buck could run a list of all the women he ever had, only Chris knew how many he really loved, from the first to the last.

"Hey, Ezra."

"Good afternoon Mr. Larabee," Ezra said reaching for a bottle of whiskey without having to ask what he was having. Placing a glass on the counter, he slid the full bottle towards Chris who caught it easily. "Is it your turn to do the rounds?"

By that, he meant the regular patrols undertaken by the seven when the town was quiet. It was their way of keeping tabs on any possible trouble before it became out of hand.

"No," Chris responded. "Just here to run some errands." For the moment anyway, none of the others needed to know his shopping escapade. No doubt, Buck would fill them in on every embarrassing detail.

"Hello, Chris." Inez smiled as she breezed past him with an empty tray, joining Ezra behind the counter.

"Does that mean I am liberated from this tiresome chore?" He asked hopefully.

Inez rolled her eyes and exchanged a resigned expression Chris knew all too well. "You know, it would not kill you to do some work around here." She complained.

"Senorita," Ezra said graciously. "I would not dream of intruding on the realm upon which you are so capable of administering."

"Yeah, yeah," Inez nodded sarcastically as Chris picked up his glass and bottle and went to join the others at their table.

"Anything I should know about?" Chris inquired, directing his question at Vin Tanner. Although Vin was not much older than JD, in his absence, Chris could rely on Vin to ensure things ran smoothly like no other in the group. Vin had a quiet strength about him that was steady and dependable. Since Chris had bought the house and land out of town, he relied on Vin to give him accurate intelligence on current events in Four Corners.

"Not much," Vin replied, handing Ezra a deck of cards in an unspoken request for a game. "Just the usual drunks last night but JD put them in the tank to sleep it off. One of the working girls got into some trouble, but we handled it okay."

"Where's Nathan?" Chris inquired, noting the absence of Four Corner's only physician.

"He rode out early," Josiah reported, picking up the cards Ezra was dealing quite deftly around the felt table. "He went out to the Indian village."

Chris remembered. At Kojay's request, Nathan often rode out to the Indian reservation to look in on the villagers. Other than their medicine men, the tribe did not have access to any proper medical facilities. While Nathan could hardly be called a qualified physician, he did know enough to tend to gunshot wounds and minor ailments. He was also smart enough to direct those who required more specialized services to the doctor in Bitter Creek. When he made such trips, Nathan would not be seen until late evening since he spent most of the day either riding or seeing patients.

"Stage is here," Chris remarked as he picked up his cards and glanced briefly out the window.

The stagecoach thundered through the center of town, coming to a halt not far from the only hotel in Four Corners. He took a sip of his whiskey and watched in quiet observation as the stagecoach driver brought the team of horses to a slow, steady halt. Judging by the amount of luggage perched on top of it, Chris guessed that the stage was full today and in his curiosity continued his watchful eye over it.

Involuntarily, the rest of the men found themselves watching the stage also, mostly out of sheer boredom. They were gravitating between the boredom at not having to do but also the reluctance of not wanting to do anything in the heat of the summer's day outside. As the stage door opened, passengers began to file out in a seemingly orderly fashion. It was the last occupant that captured everyone's interest.

"My goodness," Josiah said quietly. "What have we here?"

The young woman who emerged from the stagecoach had everyone's undivided attention at that instant. Not only was she extraordinarily beautiful, but there was also something about her that even made Chris take a second look. She wore her black hair loose around her shoulders, while her brown eyes surveyed the new surroundings with interest. The woman lingered near the coach as the driver began unloading the luggage from the top of the stage. A great deal of it seemed to be hers. Judging by the volume of her trunks and carpetbags, it appeared she was in Four Corners for a lengthy stay.

"Now that is something," Vin said quietly, unable to tear his eyes away from that lovely face, admiring her golden skin and her eyes that called out to him from across the street. For a few seconds, he stared at her, unable to speak, just drinking her in, feeling something in his heart he hadn't felt since Charlotte Richmond walked out of his life. 

Forget it, Tanner, he told himself, you ain't got no business talking to a lady like that. 

But he still couldn't stop staring at her. 

Until now, Ezra had resisted the urge to gawk. In his time, he encountered many women with unsurpassed beauty, too many to be caught by their feminine snares. However, the reaction of the others caused him to look up from his cards and indulge in the gawking they were so openly demonstrating. Typically, anything wearing a skirt was enough to make most of them sit up at attention, but Ezra noticed that Chris was also looking on in interest.

Once he looked, he could not turn away. Even from this distance, it was apparent there was more to this lady than the beauty of her looks. She was exotic and looking at her conjured up images of aromatic spices and tropical heat in faraway places.

"An Oriental Venus," Ezra whispered under his breath.

"I don't believe it," Vin exclaimed. "How does he do it?"

"He must have a sixth sense," Josiah commented as they all saw Buck Wilmington suddenly appear on the street, making a beeline for the new arrival.

"That's one way to put it," Chris retorted, knowing exactly how far south of his waistline that sense originated. "If he were a horse, he'd be the hardest working animal at the stud."

"I'm so glad he isn't wasting away pining for Inez," Josiah said with an amused smile.

Alex paid the stagecoach driver with a gratuity and instructions to carry her belongings to the local hotel when she found herself confronted by what seemed like the welcoming committee. The tall, handsome man came towards her with a wide grin and bushy moustache. He was not unattractive but judging by the way that he was swaggering towards her, Alex guessed his purpose very quickly. She had been around the world enough to recognize the type even if it was only the continents that were different. Without a doubt, this specimen considered himself quite the ladies' man.

"Good evening darling," he greeted her, oozing with charm.

"Hello," Alex said politely in response. Although she could see clearly through him, Alex saw little reason to be rude.

"Permit me to introduce myself," he said bowing gallantly and Alex had to stifle a smile because he performed it like a man who was unaccustomed to such formality. "I am Buck Wilmington."

She raised a brow in silent amusement and responded with her hand extended. "Alexandra Styles."

For a moment, he looked at her outstretched hand unsure of what he was meant to do next. She could almost see the realization flash in his mind as he quickly took her gloved hand and planted a kiss against her knuckles. "Please to meet your acquaintance, ma'am." He offered his most dashing smile.

"Why thank you, Mr. Wilmington," Alex replied as she turned around and looked for the stage driver who was only a few yards ahead and making slow progress to the hotel with her things. Her eyes followed the direction he was heading and saw the hotel that would serve as her temporary accommodation until she was permanently settled.

Alex was hardly surprised when Buck started following her. "What brings such a beautiful woman like you to Four Corners, Alexandra?" Buck inquired, pleased at how well things were going. He always had a weakness for the elegant ones, and Miss Styles (God he hoped it was Miss), was as refined as he would ever come across in this town.

"Call me Alex." She remarked offering him a friendly smile as she stepped onto the wooden sidewalk and continued towards the hotel. While she was aware of Buck following her, Alex was studying Four Corners closely. "I'm settling here." 

As they passed by the saloon, she noticed a handful of men loitering at the door. She counted at least four and found them to be an eclectic bunch. The one in the slouch hat was staring at her with a thoughtful expression that made her pause a moment. Alex returned his stare, wondering what was behind that enigmatic expression.

He has very nice eyes, she thought.

For some reason, she fascinated them as she walked by. Alex wondered at this until she glanced over her shoulder and noticed Buck gesturing at them with his hands. The gesture looked like ‘go away'.

"Friends of yours, Mr. Wilmington?" She smiled, guessing what he was about quickly.

Buck flashed an irritated scowl in their direction before he turned back to her. "You could call ‘em that."

Obviously, they were watching to see how well he would fare with the new lady in town. Despite herself, Alex could not bear to see him embarrassed on her account. Although she could honestly say she was not the slightest bit interested in Buck Wilmington, Alex had to admit; there was something quite charming about that smile of his.

She paused in mid-stride and looked up at Buck. From this distance, his friends had a good view of everything that transpired between them. "Mr. Wilmington," she said breathlessly, imitating some of the debutantes she had been forced to associate with in her youth. "For your kindness, I would be delighted if you would escort me to my lodgings?" With that, she offered him his hand.

Buck's eyes widened in surprise, but he recovered quickly. Throwing a triumphant smirk at the other men, he took the lady's hand, and they proceeded towards the hotel. Once they were out of earshot, Buck looked at Alex.

"Thanks, Miss Styles." He replied, showing her, he was not at all fooled by her performance. "That could have been embarrassing."

Suddenly, he liked her a great deal more knowing that she had just preserved his dignity in front of Chris and the others.

"Well, never let it be said a woman can't save a man's honor."

"Okay," he sighed dispensing with all airs and attempts to win her since it was clear that Alexandra Styles was not easily fooled and probably immune to his animal magnetism. He wondered why it was always the smart ones who could see past it. "Now that I've stopped short of making a complete jackass of myself, I'd like to save my dignity and welcome you to Four Corners."

This time he was genuinely sincere with no hidden motives in the greeting.

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington." She replied graciously.

"Call me Buck." He said quickly. "Alex."

Although it was not proper for him to be calling her by her first name, Buck sensed that this woman was not the least bit concerned by what seemed acceptable. Not excessively anyway. If anything, she sounded a tad eccentric. From the sound of her voice, he knew for sure that she was a foreigner to the country and who knew what kind of strange behavior she brought with her.

"So, Alex," he asked genuinely curious this time. "What brings you to town?"

"Well," she said reaching the doors to the hotel. "I'm here to open up a practice."

Buck looked at her. "Practice what?"

Alex chuckled slightly and then realized he was not joking with her. "A medical practice." 

"You're a doctor?" He exclaimed in astonishment. "But you're a . . . " He stopped himself before he could say it.

"There are lady doctors you know." Alex pointed out, not unfamiliar with the reaction. She had studied medicine in England only to be considered little more than an above average nurse. Why was it so difficult for men to imagine that women could be doctors?

"I know but . . . ." He tried to speak but whatever he was going to say faded in his throat. "We knew a doctor was coming sometime, Nathan told us, but we expected a . . . "

"A man?"

"Are you really a doctor?" Buck could not imagine that this beautiful, refined woman could be in such a line of work. During the war, it was necessary for women to work in army hospitals as nurses. He knew many women in the city chose that line of work as a career but to become an actual doctor? Was it even legal?

"Class of 77." She replied as they reached the entrance to the hotel. "Now if you excuse me. I have to get settled."

Buck returned to the saloon and found the others at their table and resuming their interrupted card game. He could not wrap his mind around the idea of a lady doctor in town. Less than a month ago, Mary Travis told Nathan that their quest to find a doctor willing to start a practice in Four Corners had finally come to fruition. The town had difficulty in filling the position because no respectable doctor wanted to practice in a place like Four Corners. Doctors preferred larger towns where there was access to hospitals and proper facilities. Nathan welcomed the assistance because the black man was realistic about his capabilities. As he had explained to the rest of the seven, it was one thing to knit broken bones and sew torn muscle. However, it was another matter entirely when one had to perform major surgery or offer diagnoses on serious illnesses. For that, they required a professional.

"Hey Buck," Chris teased. "It looks like you swept the lady off her feet."

"That was no lady." Buck sat down heavily, still stunned. "That was the doctor."

Chris' eyes widened. The gunfighter put down his glass and sat upright. For Chris, it was more of a reaction than anyone had seen him display in months. "You're kidding."

"I thought the doctor was a man," Josiah said looking confused.

"Wait a minute," Buck suddenly realized how they could have misunderstood the gender of their new medical practitioner.

Call me Alex.

"Alex Styles." He declared, stumbling onto the answer. "Her name is Alexandra, but she likes to be called Alex. That was probably why Mrs. Travis thoughts the doctor was a man. The telegram probably said Alex Styles, not Alexandra . . . "

For Buck, this was quite a leap in deductive reasoning. It was a trait he did not display often enough for Chris' liking.

"A lady doctor." Ezra sighed. "Now that is an interesting turn of events. I guess it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility." 

"The Indians have had medicine women for as long as there have been tribes. I don't see what's so strange about it." Vin replied, true to form, was very rarely startled by anything. His unflappable persona was one of the reasons why he and Chris Larabee got along so well.

"I've said it once, and I'll say it again, it's gotta be the water in this town." Buck mused as if he were a man ensnared in a bad dream. "First, we got a newswoman, then a lady bartender, now a doctor." His eyes narrowed as terrifying possibilities reared its ugly head in his overactive imagination and Buck leaned forward and whispered. "It's coming you know, they'll be taking over everything and keep us around just for the breeding."

"You wish." Inez snorted as she walked past him with a tray of drinks.

Her departure followed an explosion of laughter from everyone except Buck who really was serious about the point he was trying to make. It took a few moments for everyone to settle down again before Chris remarked. "A doctor is a doctor I suppose. Besides Nathan could use the help." 

After all, Mary had shown this town it was entirely possible for a woman to run a newspaper and raise a child at the same time. It was not that much of a leap for the folk of Four Corners to grasp that the same could be said about a lady doctor.

"Well, I ain't going to see her," Buck said defiantly. "It just ain't right."

"I'll keep that in mind the next time you get shot up." Chris retorted. For some reason, the idea was not difficult to accept once the initial surprise had worn away. However, it was also possible that Chris was biased in this situation. He liked strong women, not to mention the independent ones too.

"I'll stick with Nathan." Buck retorted, unwilling to concede any point yet.

"Well," Vin shrugged, looking at the others with a faint smile. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."

Nathan Jackson knew he should have headed home sooner. Aside from his stop at the village, he's stopped at the Bennington place to check on the infant daughter suffering from colic. Nathan had prepared an herbal remedy he hoped would help. Except when he arrived at the farm he discovered many families sorely needed his services in the surrounding properties, and they had gathered to have him look at a variety of ills. He helped where he could but some of it was beyond him, and once again, he hoped the new doctor would arrive soon.

Sometimes, he wished he had the formal qualifications to go with the ability but understood that it was a reality impossible in this day and age. When he had escaped from the plantation to join the Yankee Army, Nathan's only concern was the emancipation of his people. He knew most northerners did not like Negroes any better than southerners, but at least in the north, a man did not have to live with years of slavery. It was almost providence that he found himself at a field hospital for the duration and those years had opened possibilities he never imagined.

He watched the doctors and nurses going about their duties, mending broken bones and torn bodies, trying to make a man from the patchwork of blood and flesh. Nathan observed and learned, never thinking for a moment he would be called on to perform a practical application in the years after.

These days, he received very little monetary payment for the services he did perform, but what he did earn, he saved diligently. Someday, he would finally have enough to buy a parcel of land, and then he would marry Rain. Nathan met Rain when the seven originally came together to protect the Seminole village from which she hailed. Ever since then, he made monthly trips to the place, sometimes in between as well, to visit the beautiful young woman and check up on the progress of the village.

Despite his relief that Four Corners was finally getting the services of a qualified medical doctor, Nathan could not deny his apprehension as well. After almost getting lynched by a drunken mob of men who held him responsible for the comrade he had been unable to save, Nathan knew there were some things beyond his ability to prevent. As much as he knew, Nathan had to admit there was a lot he did not know about medicine and he was unwilling to gamble with anyone's life to prove otherwise.

While there was an illogical fear of becoming obsolete with the arrival of the new doctor, Nathan knew better than to submit to such nonsense. How many times had Nathan was run ragged because he was juggling the physical welfare of everyone on his solitary shoulders? Not to mention performing his duties as one of the town's lawmen? No, he was not threatened by the arrival of the new doctor, not at all.

Nathan continued riding into the darkness, feeling the aches in his muscles becoming more acute the closer he got to Four Corners. He wondered if there was any trouble today but dismissed the notion quickly enough. Chris would no doubt have the situation well in hand if there were any problems. If anything, the gunslinger could get astonishing results from the most unlikely people.

Suddenly, he heard horses in the distance. Trees shrouded the immediate area, so Nathan reached for the rifle slung neatly in its pouch on his saddle, just to be safe. His eyes scanned the area, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. As he progressed further into the wooded area, Nathan wondered if it might not be wise for him to take an alternate route. He had chosen this path because it would take some hours off the journey, but he did not want to get himself killed either by getting ambushed. Suddenly, he wished the others were with him.

Nathan was still wrestling with the idea of turning back when he arrived at a clearing. Men were waiting there on horseback. Through the darkness, he counted at least four. It was too dark to see their faces, and that alarmed him. They barred the path ahead and somehow; he knew they were waiting for him. He just did not know why.

"Good evening," Nathan said warily.

"Good evening nigger." The man replied derisively.

The word stung, but Nathan was no fool. This man was trying to provoke him into doing something rash. He said nothing as he thought quickly about what to do. "I don't want any trouble."

"Too bad nigger. You got it."

Without any warning, he pointed his gun at Nathan and fired. He kept shooting until he emptied the entire chamber into Nathan Jackson. The healer was knocked off his horse by the time the second bullet had reached him. The horse produced a startled neigh and bolted into the dark. The last thing Nathan was aware of before the pain took him was the man looking down at him dispassionately.

"The others are going to be harder."

Chapter Two

Twilight Maneuvers

 "I hope this ain't no wild goose chase," Buck grumbled as he rode alongside Vin and Chris.

It was close to midnight, and the three men rode away from Four Corners when Nathan Jackson failed to return. Although reservation was some distance out of town, the ride back to Four Corners did not justify the healer's continued absence. It was seriously out of character for Nathan to go wandering off without telling anyone first. Since becoming the unofficial guardians of Four Corners, Chris was conscious of the fact that the seven men were targets for outlaws and bandits who might think the town was easy pickings. In the last year alone, there were many encounters with such men who did not forget easily. If Nathan had come across one of these men alone…

Chris did not like to think of the possibilities.

"It's only an hour's ride or more to the reservation," Chris replied. "He should have been back by now."

Because of the warm day, the night was quite pleasant. The day's heat could still be felt, but the temperature was mild with a faint breeze sweeping across the plains.

"He may be off with a girl for all we know." Buck continued complaining. When Chris had told them, they were going in search of Nathan, Buck had been making good headway with a new saloon girl named Doreen.

"No that's you, Buck," Chris said shortly, perfectly aware why Buck was so anxious to get back. "I'm sure the girl will wait." There was enough of an edge to his voice to tell Buck enough was enough. Chris was genuinely concerned about Nathan, and until he saw the healer for himself, they would continue looking.

"You think he might be in trouble?" Buck inquired, realizing that Chris's concerns about Nathan were nothing to take lightly. Chris had a keener sense of trouble than any man alive did, and Buck had learnt throughout the years not to underestimate his instincts.

"Better safe than sorry," Chris replied, not prepared to voice the worst at the moment. He had a feeling that there was something wrong. Nathan rarely chose to stay away from town overnight. The black man had a strong sense of responsibility when it came to his healing abilities. He would not simply take off without telling anyone.

"Stop a minute," Vin remarked and pulled the reins to dismount his horse.

Typically, Vin preferred to do his tracking during the day, where it was easier to read the signs in the light. However, he was a capable night tracker when it was required. The plains had offered little evidence of Nathan's presence, but now that they were approaching a belt of trees, he wanted a closer examination. Chris and Buck held back as Vin stepped onto the ground and examined the terrain until the tree belt some yard away.

"Four may be five men on horseback." Vin suddenly announced. The markings on the grass and dirt were a language unto themselves for an experienced tracker. He studied the state of the marks before him and formed some other conclusions. "The tracks are pretty fresh. Last few hours I'd say."

"I didn't see anyone new coming into town," Chris stated. "Someone would only come this way if they're heading to town. There's nothing else in this direction other than Four Corners. Long way to come for not going into town."

"We don't know that for sure." Buck declared. Ever the optimist, he hated to think the worst in any situation until they had proof of it before their eyes. "I mean, there could be travelers passing through or something."

The possibility existed, but somehow Chris could not abandon the instinct something terrible had happened to Nathan Jackson. He lived his life playing hunches like this and that he was still alive was a testament to its accuracy.

"Or something is what I'm afraid of." He said before nudging his horse forward, leaving Buck and Vin to follow.

 They found him a short time later.

Chris saw him first. His body was a dark silhouette on the ground, but Chris knew the moment they had entered the clearing that it was Nathan's form before them. He jumped off his horse and reached Nathan in two long strides. Buck and Vin were not far behind him.

"Nathan!" He called out.

There was no answer, and that hollow feeling in Chris' gut constricted further. Chris dropped to his knees when he reached Nathan and immediately felt moisture underfoot. When it seeped through the fabric of his pants, did Chris realize that it was blood. It was almost a puddle underneath Nathan, and Chris found himself staring at a hand that was practically drenched when he had touched the ground.

"Jesus." He managed to say and then turned to Nathan who was lying face down. Chris only had to pull him over to see the severity of his wounds. "Buck! Vin! Get over here now!"

Both men were at his side in minutes, and the healer remained unconscious. Even in the dark light of the moon, they could see the entry point of several bullets across the man's chest.

"Is he still alive?" Buck demanded.

"Barely," Chris replied, feeling his neck for a pulse. When he did so, he noticed another wound across the man's throat and Nathan's breathing was ragged.

"We got to get him back to town," Chris said getting Vin's help to drag Nathan to his feet. The injured man showed no signs of movement and his body was a dead weight that only added to their fears.

"You've got the fastest horse, Chris."

"Right." Chris agreed. "I'll meet you boys back in town."

"You mean Eagle Bend." Buck reminded. "That's the nearest doctor."

"Eagle Bend's too far," Chris said savagely. "He won't make it."

They carried Nathan to Chris horse and draped him over the steed rear. It would not be an easy ride, but Chris could think of no other way to get Nathan to Four Corners any faster. He cursed himself for not having the foresight to come looking for the man sooner. As things stood, it was a minor miracle Nathan was not already dead. Chris had been unable to gauge the man's injuries closely, but he could tell the multiple bullet wounds were the cause of so much blood loss. The man was bleeding like a stuck pig.

"But you don't know if that gal's good enough to put Nathan together!" Buck insisted. He knew nothing of Alex Styles and liked it even less than he now had to entrust a friend to her ministrations.

"Get over it, Buck." Vin snapped. "We don't have a lot of choices."

"I'll see you in town," Chris said before he mounted his horse and dug his spurs into the animal, sending it bolting forward. Without further delay, both men and animal galloped into the dark towards town, racing against the clock that was ticking against Nathan's life.

 Alex almost fell out of bed when she heard the pounding at her door.

For a moment, she sat up in the darkness, without any clue as to where she was. Realization flooded back into her mind, as the noise seemed to grow in urgency and pitch. Swearing under her breath in a most un-ladylike manner, Alex stumbled out of bed and blindly reached for the silk robe hanging off the edge of the bed. She swung the door open as she pulled the robe around herself. Alex found herself staring at one of the men she remembered seeing in front of the saloon earlier today. The expression on his face matched the black of his clothes and immediately put Alex on guard.

"What is it?"

"A man's been shot." He said abruptly. "He needs a doctor."

Upon hearing that, Alex was wide-awake. "Wait a minute." She said withdrawing into her room. "I'll get my bag."

Judging by the fact that this stranger had beaten down her door at this time of night told Alex how badly the man was injured. Knowing she would regret the haste later, she put on her slippers and grabbed her worn leather medical bag at the foot of the bed and emerged once more. What she was wearing was probably highly inappropriate for the occasion, but it was warm and covered all of her. It was a notch above being stark naked, but she had a sense that time was against her.

"Where is he?" She asked the man.

He said nothing in response but turned away from her and strode down the hallway, expecting her to follow. A few people had peered out of their rooms to investigate the commotion, and Alex felt some embarrassment as she hurried after the stranger.

"How bad has he been shot?" Alex asked as they stepped out onto the night air. As the cold air nipped at her skin, she suddenly wished she had put on more clothes.

"Can't say," Chris answered tautly. "There's a lot of blood loss. I saw a wound on his throat and at least one at his chest."

Alex considered the information and then inquired. "How's he breathing?" She asked as they made a beeline for the saloon.

Chris was suddenly aware that her questions were for a reason and he took more careful note of his answers. "He's having trouble breathing," Chris answered after a moment. "It's pretty ragged."

"Okay." Alex nodded decisively. "After you take me to him, I need you to go to my room again and get a black trunk. All my surgical instruments are there. I can't say for certain, but it sounds like your friend might have respiratory trouble, which could mean a damaged lung."

"What else do you need?" He asked as they burst into the saloon that was empty except for the seven and Inez. Nathan was laid out on top of a table as Josiah held a bloodied cloth over the man's throat. He looked up at them with more fear in his eyes than Chris had ever seen in Josiah before. He and Nathan had been friends much longer than the seven had been together and the helplessness in his eyes was apparent.

Alex did not answer. Instead, she went directly to the injured man. The others in the room stepped aside as the young woman put her bag down and removed the bloodied cloth Josiah had used to stem Nathan's bleeding. Alex examined the injuries and knew immediately this man's life was hanging by a thread.

"Are there rooms here?" She asked no one in particular.

"Yes," Ezra replied quickly. "You can use my lodgings." He answered concern etched all over his face. Even though Ezra and Nathan had begun their relationship on the wrong foot, there was no doubt he now considered the healer one of his best friends and that no sacrifice was too much.

"Get him up there," Alex ordered a course of action already set before her. "I need lots of hot water." She looked at Inez. "Keep boiling it until I say otherwise. "

Inez nodded and hurried away to the kitchen while Josiah and Ezra lifted Nathan gently off the table and started up the stairs. Alex turned her attention to JD and Chris. "What are you waiting for?" She barked. "I need that trunk!"

"Yes, ma'am," Chris replied and walked out the door with JD following close by.

When they were gone, Alex hurried up the stairs the men had disappeared with her patient. She found herself at the head of a narrow hallway. She assumed the man who had offered his lodgings was situated at the end of the corridor. The other doors were locked shut and Alex concluded saloon girls were conducting ‘business' in those occupied rooms.

When she entered the room, the two men had already placed the injured man in the bed. The amount of blood on their clothes and the crisp white sheets heightened her concern. He was losing too much blood, and she didn't have a nurse to conduct a proper transfusion. She'd have to stop the bleeding first. If she didn't, it would not matter how well she put him together. He was still going to die.

Josiah and Ezra stepped aside and let the woman take charge of the situation. Both felt similarly helpless as Nathan continued to bleed before them.

"Can you help him?" Josiah asked, trying to understand how God could allow this to happen to Nathan of all people. Seeing his friend so close to death made him question his belief in the Maker.

"We need to get these clothes off him." Alex ignored the question asked but looked at them as she made the statement. She removed a pair of scissors from her bag and began snipping the clothes of Nathan's bloodied torso. As she cut strips away of soiled material, her breath caught seeing the extent of the damage. Three bullets had penetrated his body. The most prolific of these wounds was to the man's chest. Judging by the location of the entry point, he was exceedingly lucky that the bullet had not penetrated his heart. Unfortunately, the near miss was only marginally better. Instead of hitting the heart, it had entered the patient's lungs.

"He's drowning in his blood." She replied. "Where's that damn trunk!" She swore. She had to get into his chest, and she had to do it now.

No sooner than she had uttered those words, Chris and JD arrived carrying the trunk.

"It's here," Chris replied, having heard her outburst.

They set it down at the foot of the bed, and Alex hurried to it and unlocked the chest. Swinging it open, the men saw why she had needed the box so urgently. Inside was a wide array of surgical instruments, scalpels, tweezers and such, all gleaming under the light.

"Can you help him?" Josiah asked again, needing an answer.

"I don't know." She finally answered, appreciating their concern was deep, and they needed to hear something positive. Except Alex did not want to lie to them. "His injuries are severe. I can't make you any promises."

"Who did this to him?" Josiah swore angrily.

"Someone ambushed him." Chris shook his head, wishing more than anything he could answer Josiah's question. The ordinarily serene preacher was understandably angry. It was Nathan who brought the preacher to the family of the seven. Chris himself was similarly enraged, but he was capable of controlling his emotions better. The images of Nathan's body in that puddle of blood stayed with him all through the hard ride back to Four Corners.

"Why?" Ezra asked. "Of any of us, why Mr. Jackson? He was just a healer . . . " His voice trailed off as the gambler tried to understand the reasoning. At least if they understood, perhaps they could then do something to avenge Nathan, instead of sitting on their hands having to rely on this stranger to save one of their own.

"Look, you can debate this later." She interrupted. "Right now, I need to get this man's chest open, and I'm going to need one of you to assist me." She looked at the four men in the room.

The boy positively turned ashen at the prospect of assisting in surgery and Alex decided then and there he would faint at first sight of an open chest cavity. The older man was reluctant but not as shaken by the idea. She had a feeling he would have forced himself to help her even if the possibility terrified him.

The men exchanged glances with uncertainty. Alex did not blame them for viewing her request with trepidation. She had seen the bravest men shirk from the possibility of surgery. Assisting in the process seemed doubly terrifying. Nevertheless, no sooner than she had spoken, Chris stepped forward before she could say anything further. He was unprepared to let the others do anything he was not willing to do himself. Nathan was his friend, and Chris was not about to let him die because he was feeling squeamish. "I'll do it." He said firmly.

"No," Alex shook her head. "You're not sterile." She saw his face hardened as he prepared to protest. "Look I'm sorry. You've been riding most of the night, you've got dust and dirt all through your clothes. I've got to open up his chest right now, and you'd be more of a risk to him than you would be helping."

The man in black glared at her with penetrating eyes unaccustomed to being refused on many things. However, she also saw her patient meant a great deal to him, and that meant his wounded ego would have to come second to what was necessary.

"I'll do it," Ezra said stepping forward. "I have been inside all day. I am not exactly as fresh as a petunia, but I think I will suit your hygiene needs."

"Good." She nodded. "We don't have much time. Everybody else out, now." Taking a deep breath, she whispered under her breath. "I need to get to work."

It was the wait that Chris Larabee hated more than anything else.

His mind took him back to an earlier time when he was a different man. It was a hot night like this one, and he had promised her he would be home before the baby came. Of course, he was late. She was never angry, but he knew she was disappointed when he broke his promises. He broke his last promise to her the night he came home from Mexico and found her screaming his name, as the baby prepared to make its arrival. He remembered never being so scared in his entire life during those hours after he had summoned the doctor and was forced to wait outside while his son was being coaxed into the world.

Now, as he waited with Josiah and JD while Alex Styles and Ezra fought to save Nathan's life, Chris was reminded of that terrible memory. A bottle of whisky sat unopened in the middle of the table, while Inez hurried up and down the stairs with hot pitchers of water, to sterilize the instruments the doctor needed for surgery. An hour after they had been ushered out of the room upstairs, Buck and Vin made their arrival back to town.

"What's happening?" Buck demanded as soon as he had cleared the doors and seen them waiting.

"The doctor's with him," JD answered. "She says he's hurt bad."

Buck could well believe it. He saw the same thing Chris had seen and known they could not have reached Nathan any later or else he would have died. It was a minor miracle that he had clung to life for so long. Perhaps healing so many had given Nathan the will to survive.

"We found Nathan's horse," Vin informed Chris as they joined the rest of the seven at the table. "Those tracks we found earlier were all over the place where we found him."

"I don't understand why," Buck said genuinely bewildered. "I mean Nathan's a healer for god sakes. Until he hooked up with us, he'd never crossed anyone."

"I found the empty shells," Vin said grimly. "Whoever shot him tried to empty every bullet in the chamber into him. They wanted him dead Chris."

Chris nodded, digesting the information. He could understand one or two bullets being wasted to dispatch a potential threat if that was how the men who had shot Nathan perceived him. However, firing all rounds at a man indicated a more personal reason. It felt like vengeance, but Chris could not guess why. "We need to talk to Mary." 

"Mary?" Josiah looked at him in puzzlement.

"She's known Nathan longest since he's been in town," Chris pointed out to the preacher. "If he made enemies here, she might know who they are."

"Where's Ezra?" Buck inquired, noticing that the gambler was not present at the table. His gaze shifted as he saw Inez coming down the stairs, looking exhausted. The sultry bartender had spent the last hour running up and down the stairs, providing the doctor with hot water to sterilize her instruments for surgery.

"He's up there with her." JD gestured to the top of the stairs. "She said she had to perform surgery on Nathan and she needed Ezra to help."

"What's happening Inez?" Chris looked at the woman as she came towards them.

"I did not get much of a look," Inez confessed running her hands through her dark hair while Buck rose to his feet and pulled a chair out for her. "Miss Styles would not let me get to close to Nathan. She said something about keeping the field sterile."

"She's got a real thing about that," JD replied. "Just like Nathan." He added remembering the healer's predilections. Suddenly, JD fell silent because Nathan was fighting for his life and the boy did not like facing the possibility that Nathan could die. He tried to imagine living in Four Corners without the sympathetic man who always had time to help everyone, no matter how dangerous the situation. It just did not sit well with JD that someone could act so cowardly and ambush a man who had saved so many of their lives.

"He ain't going to die," Buck said confidently. "If that pretty gal says she can put him back together again, I'm sure she will."

However, he did not seem as sure and didn't even make a snappy remark when Inez wrapped her arm around his and squeezed it tight. Buck saw she understood he was putting up a brave face because he had to hope for the best. Buck Wilmington was incapable of facing the worst.

"I'm going to talk to Mary." Chris rose to his feet, unable to stand sitting around anymore. He needed to act, and he needed to do it now.

"Chris, it's way after midnight," Vin called out as the leader of the seven strode towards the doors of the saloon.

"I know." He replied, having already considered the late hour. However, he knew Mary well enough to know she would resent not being told immediately. Nathan was her friend. She had once faced a group of murderous drunks with a shotgun to save his life. No one who put themselves in the line of fire like that would do so unless they had an excellent reason. Late hour or not, Mary would want to know about Nathan and Chris might be able to get the answers as to who might have done this to him.

Ezra watched her work and could not help being impressed by her skills. There was no doubt or hesitation in her face, just the marked determination to get the job done and save a life. All other thoughts of propriety were brushed aside as she began to cut into the ruined flesh of Nathan Jackson. Until she had cleaned the blood off his body, with Ezra mutely holding a tray for the disposal of the bloodied scraps of clothing, he had not realized the extent of the damage. There were three bullet wounds across Nathan's body. There was a bullet wound in the throat, one a fraction off center from his heart and another in his side.

Her concern was mostly centered on the bullet lodged in Nathan's lung. Ezra could well understand why. Even from his secondary position, he recognized the shallow breathing coming from Nathan; the breath growing more labored as time drifted past with uneasy pace.

"The wound in the throat is mostly superficial." She explained as she started cutting into the skin to remove the bullets in his torso. "If he lives, the worst it will cause is a temporary halt of his singing voice."

"He does not possess one worth the loss." Ezra joked; attempting to sound smart, but the remark emerged as a whisper.

Nevertheless, Alex threw him a bemused smile before turning back to her patient as she held back the torn tissue that had soaked the bullet in its folds. "Get that long nose clamp." She gestured towards the instrument, partially immersed in a tray of hot water, on top of the trunk. Ezra reached for the tool and handed it to her. However, Alex did not take it from him.

"Now, I need you to lean forward." She said looking at him intently. "Can you see it?" She nodded at the opening in Nathan's flesh that she was currently holding apart with what she called a rib spreader. Ezra strained forward and saw a glint of dark grey almost obscured by blood. It could hardly be recognized as a bullet, but there was no doubt as to what it was.

"I see it." He said swallowing hard. Although Ezra did not want to appear squeamish, the sight of all that blood was disturbing him. Nevertheless, the gambler retained his composure in front of the lady.

"I have to keep the ribs apart so that we can get to the bullet." She explained hoping that he had the nerve to do what she was about to ask of him. Alex could see beads of sweat under his forehead that had nothing to do with the summer heat. Like most shooters, he was only accustomed to causing the wounds. She doubted if he had ever seen the consequences of a gunfight once the actual shooting was done. "I need you to reach in with those clamps and remove it."

His eyes flew to hers immediately. For a man accustomed to having most situations well in control, her request had almost reduced him to panic. His eyes darted from Nathan to Alex, as he struggled with the impulse to refuse. "Madam, perhaps that would be a task better suited for you . . . ."

She cut him off before he could finish that sentence. "I'm holding him open so that the bullet can come out. This is not up for negotiation. The bullet has to be taken out now." Alex said firmly, emphasizing in her tone the urgency of the situation. Ezra wanted to run out of the room and ever forget that he ever volunteered to help her, however, to do so would be to doom Nathan to death. He would deal with his apprehension later. Right now, Nathan needed him.

"Just reach in?" He looked at her anxiously.

"Yes." Alex nodded. She saw the stark terror in his eyes when she had made the request and admired him for being able to put aside those fears for the sake of his friend. Until now, she had not paid him much concern because her attention was focused on the patient; however, she was now glad that she had. Alex lingered on her observations for a second before returning to the matter at hand.

Ezra met her eyes once more and saw the young woman give him the go-ahead to begin. Taking a deep breath, he reached into the narrow opening and tightened the clamp around the hard projectile. The bullet was slippery with blood and fluid. Somehow, Ezra managed to retain his grip and withdrew the clamp gently. The shell remained trapped in place, gleaming with moisture. Ezra was transfixed by it for a moment, trying to associate this small projectile with the significant injuries it had inflicted on Nathan.

"Nicely done." Alex smiled. "You've got great hands."

"Well," Ezra shrugged as he dropped the bullet into a small steel receptacle. "I have been told that on occasion although I prefer to display my skills in more monetary pursuit."

"I look forward to seeing exactly what you mean by that," she winked before returning her attention to Nathan. There was still much to do, and time was not much more time than they had before.

While they entered the next phase of the procedure, Ezra could only remain in silent contemplation as to what she meant by that remark.

There was a time when it was unthinkable for him to appear at her doorstep at night but one of the first things Mary had done with the change in their relationship, was to give him a set of keys to her house. Since they shared the same bed more than twice a week, it was necessary for Chris to make discreet exits in the early hours of the morning, since he was adamant about guarding her reputation. So far, his clandestine departures had gone mostly unnoticed by Four Corners, and until there was some formal declaration about their relationship, he wished it to remain that way. Mary's position in Four Corners relied upon her virtue as an upstanding, member of the community and Chris did not want it sullied because of him.

It was dark in the Travis house which was hardly a surprise considering what time it was. When he was not with her, Mary was an earlier riser, and that meant she went to bed at a reasonable hour. Considering what she took on each day, he supposed it was necessary for her to get her rest. Under normal circumstances, Chris would not dream of waking her, but he did not relish facing her wrath if the news of Nathan's injuries were kept from her until morning.

It was never wise to provoke her temper.

Chris moved silently through the house and made his way upstairs, trying not to make a sound as he climbed up the stairs. The wood creaked underneath him but not enough to cause any concern. The lamp dimly lighted the hallway on the wall, which Mary had taken to lighting in the event of his nocturnal visits. Her bedroom door was slightly ajar, and Chris entered the room to see her lying serenely among the crisp white sheets. He could hear her soft breathing and the iridescent glow of her skin under the moonlight.

Chris admired her sleeping shape for a moment, watching the luminous skin rising and falling. Her gold hair was splayed around the pillow, and although she was wearing a nightgown, the urge to slip into the covers with her was overwhelming. He leaned over and brushed his fingers against her cheek, savoring the silky texture against his palm.

Mary stirred slightly at his touch, and her lashes fluttered as her hand reached for his. A slow smile stole across her face when she looked up at him.

"Hi." She said dreamily.

"Hello." He returned her gaze and leaned down to meet her rising lips. It was hardly a passionate kiss, but it was more than enough to completely lose himself in the power of her.

"Come to bed," she whispered invitingly, and Chris almost did before he remembered why he was here.

"Mary, I have some news." He said with enough of an edge in his voice to put Mary on guard. Immediately, the tender moment between them faded, and she returned his stare, aware that something terrible had transpired.

"What is it?" She asked, starting to sit up.

"Nathan's been hurt." He said quietly, ignoring the curvaceous outline of her body beneath the thin cotton of her dress.

"Hurt?" Her blue-grey eyes widened. "How?" She gasped.

"All we know is men ambushed him on the way back from the reservation," Chris replied automatically and fast becoming weary of having to give that same answer repeatedly.

He saw her face cloud over with the same confusion that had gripped all of them when this information had been made known. She sat quietly for a moment, digesting the terrible news. "I'll get dressed." Mary pulled the covers aside and rose from the bed. Chris watched in silent appreciation as she padded to her wardrobe and let the nightdress fall from her shoulders. "How badly is Nathan injured?"

The image her alabaster skin was immediately driven away by the darker memory of how he had found Nathan Jackson flashed in his mind. Chris opted to give Mary a slightly more sanitized version of what he had seen. "He took a couple of bullets. The doctor is with him now."

Mary looked over her shoulder, blond hair swaying across her bare back like a shimmer of gold. "Doctor? What doctor?"

"She got in today," Chris answered, realizing that Alexandra Styles would have seen little reason to report to the newspaperwoman when she had arrived.

"She?" Mary looked at him hard.

"Alex Styles." He reminded her so that Mary would realize that ‘Alex' was not necessarily a male name.

The realization that the doctor was female was not as much of a concern to Mary as to how Chris knew her. Nevertheless, she would query the acquaintance some other time. "What does she say about Nathan?" Mary inquired as she covered her bare skin with layers of slips and undergarments.

"It's touch and go." He said grimly. "He lost a lot of blood Mary." His eyes involuntarily indicated to her that while they should hope for the best, the possibility of the worst had to be kept in mind as well.

"Who would do this?" She said she disappeared into the washroom attached to the bedroom. "Could it be some of the men you have encountered in the past year?" He heard her ask.

Chris shook his head in response. "Could be but I don't think so." He replied considering the question with more in-depth scrutiny. "They waited for him out of town, so someone knew he was going to the reservation today. They wanted to get him alone. I don't remember Nathan crossing anyone in the last year that they would come after him specifically. If anyone was a target, it should have been me."

"Now Chris," Mary appeared from the washroom, drying her skin with a small towel. Still clad in a slip and petticoat, she placed herself on his lap and slipped her arm around his neck. She knew where he was going even before he voiced it. "This is not your fault." She declared firmly, refusing to tolerate any guilt on his part. He already blamed himself for too many things in his life that went wrong, and she was not prepared to let him assume responsibility for another. "Nathan would have gone to the reservation even if the whole Confederate Army was coming after him. You had no reason to talk him out of going. Besides, I doubt if you could have anyway. Trust me, I know him longer than you do."

"You're pretty when you're bossy." He said with the barest hint of a smile.

Mary returned his smile and kissed him lightly on the nose before she got up to get dressed again. He was starting to take heed of her little snippets of advice, sometimes involuntarily. However, Mary could make him feel light in the darkest moments of despair that was part of the reason why he was so in love with her.

"Anyway," she said slipping on an apricot colored dress with a modest neckline, he had seen her wear when she was not required at the Clarion. "If what you say is true then whoever shot him was after him."

Her conclusion was one he had reached himself. "Yeah," he nodded. "So, would you know if he had enemies before the rest of us came to town?"

She contemplated the question as she braided her hair. "Before you arrived in town, Nathan was only healing. He did not do anything else. Most people were nervous about having a black man being the only doctor around, so he stayed pretty much out of sight."

"That's what I thought." He said unhappily. It was clear something was bothering him beyond the obvious.

"What is it?" She asked concerned.

"Can't say." He replied honestly. "But I hope it ain't just the beginning of something worse."

Two bullets were removed from Nathan Jackson's body, and he was still breathing. As far as Alex was concerned, this was a good sign. She had been working solidly for almost two hours now, trying to repair the torn flesh the bullets had created so that her patient would have half a chance of surviving the next few hours.

Muscle and sinew were sewn together with catgut, allowing Nathan's damaged lung a decent chance of recovery. Statistically, it was possible to survive with one lung. Alex did not want to discount in before every effort had been made to repair the damage. The bullet she had removed from his side had penetrated the liver, but fortunately, that organ was regenerative, so his natural processes would soon take up whatever repairs she had made.

Her hands were covered in blood, cleaned only when she paused intermittently to soak her hands in pure alcohol, an action Ezra was familiar — dropping the last instrument into a bowl of hot water, cleaning the stains off the strong surgical steel. She wiped the sweat from her brow with her forearm and turned to Ezra. "I can do the rest on my own." She said breathlessly, obviously exhausted. "You can go if you like."

He was tired, and he did want to go, but something would not let Ezra leave just like that. He had watched this woman do work that would make most men shudder, without reservation because it was her calling to do so. "I prefer to remain." He said sincerely. "What else is there to be done?".

"Now?" She glanced over her shoulder at Nathan. "Nothing really," she answered. "I'll need to bandage the wounds, but that's all I can do. I've administered a morphia, so he'll be asleep for some time. He has lost a lot of blood so I may have to enlist one of you to donate blood for a transfusion. However, he survived the surgery, so that means he is strong and a fighter. A good combination."

"I can personally attest to both those qualities in Nathan," Ezra replied. "You'll have no shortage of benefactors for your transfusion."

"Good," Alex nodded with a smile.

"Miss Styles," Ezra added. "My friends and I had reason to doubt your skills when you first arrived. I for one do not have any further doubts as to your qualifications."

Alex was in the process of bandaging Nathan's wounds when she heard him say that. The woman paused for a moment and looked over her shoulder. "Thank you. I know it was hard coming to me for help."

"His life was all that mattered." Ezra glanced at Nathan who was oblivious to everything around him.

"You are all very close, aren't you?" She observed the camaraderie between the men ever since she arrived in town and later when the man in black had come to her help. She guessed it was not easy for any of them to trust strangers, but a deep fear for one of their own had forced them to put their faith in her. She felt privileged by that.

"Without becoming unnecessarily sentimental," Ezra tried to sound non-committal. "We are comrades in arms and perhaps brothers in our self - imposed exile."

"It's good to have friends." She agreed as she fastened a metal clip to hold the bandage in place around Nathan's throat. With that, she had done all that was possible for the healer. Now it would require something beyond what she had learnt in medical school. Nathan's face had taken on an expression of peaceful slumber, and Alex hoped his dreams were pleasant. She replaced the linen around him with fresh sheets and bundled the soiled ones to dispose of. Finally, she pulled a blanket over him and stepped away.

"It's up to him now." She sighed washing her hands in the basin of hot water Inez had provided. She looked down at herself and saw that her clothes were stained with blood and would require laundering if they were at all salvageable.

Ezra could see the shadow in her eyes and knew the minor miracle she performed tonight had taken its toll on her as well. At that moment, she looked a universe away from the beautiful woman who stepped off the stage this afternoon. With a sudden flash of insight, he looked at her and had to ask.

"Have you done this before?" It never occurred to him to ask until now. Earlier on, she had acted with such confidence that they had all believed she must have been a seasoned physician. However, now he was not so sure.

Alex met his gaze uncomfortably. "I have assisted in minor surgery before but no," she shook her head putting to rest that question. "I've never operated on my own before."

"You should have said something." He declared, remembering how terrified he had been to remove a bullet with a pair of clamps simply. He could not even begin to imagine how frightened she must have been to conduct the surgery all on her own for the first time.

"You didn't ask." She half smiled. "Besides, if I had said something, none of you would have let me do my job, and he would have died. Isn't that true?"

Remembering how Buck had behaved earlier that afternoon and Chris's startled discovery that their new doctor was a female, Ezra could not defend his friends by saying otherwise. "You are correct." He nodded. "We would have been blinded by our concerns for his wellbeing. I thought you were a doctor."

"I am a doctor being a lady doctor in this day and age is akin to practicing witchcraft to some people," Alex tried to explain as she began packing up. "It has been made clear that we are not wanted. I applied for a dozen position across Europe in the worst places, and they still would not accept me because of my gender. I read somewhere that they were desperate in the American West for good physicians, so I took a gamble and came out here."

Ezra understood what it was like to be on the other end of a male-dominated society. He had seen his mother battle it all her life. While she used schemes to succeed in her ambitions, Ezra knew if she had been a legitimate businesswoman, she would have been a tycoon by now. These days, things had improved considerably. However, progress still rarely allowed for the influx of women into professional fields to be treated indiscriminately. "You have my respect, Miss Styles."

It suddenly occurred to Alex that she had no idea what this man's name was. "What do they call you anyway?"

Ezra smiled his most charming dimpled grin and replied gallantly. "I am Ezra Standish at your service."

"And him?" She glanced at Nathan.

"He is Nathan Jackson. Until you arrived, he was the local healer."

"Local healer?" She asked not understanding.

"During the War of the States, Nathan had been assigned to a northern hospital. He gained considerable knowledge regarding the healing arts. In this locality, he's offered his services to mend broken bones, treat gunshot wounds and a small variety of ailments. It was his idea that Mrs. Travis began a search for a qualified doctor. Nathan did not feel he was qualified to do any more than that. Before your arrival, he was sending people to Eagle Bend if anything was beyond his ability."

"What happened to him?" Alex asked, wondering why a man liked this deserved to be shot so savagely. It sounded as if Nathan Jackson was a caring and responsible man who appeared to value the sanctity of life above all else, too much to end up in such a sad state.

"All we know is that he was ambushed on his way from his monthly examination of the people at the near Indian reservation," Ezra answered, feeling his jaw tighten with anger at the person or persons who had taken part in such a cowardly attack. Now the immediate danger had passed, Ezra had time to feel the rage buried until now. Like the others, he wanted retribution.

"There was a lot of anger behind this. Anyone of those bullets could have been fatal. Whoever shot him wanted to leave nothing to chance." She pointed out.

Ezra nodded in agreement. His instincts warned him of something on the horizon. Nathan's attack seemed to be the opening act of a drama that may have grave implications for the seven lawmen of Four Corners.

When Ezra and Alex finally made their appearance downstairs, everyone who mattered was present in the saloon, waiting for news regarding Nathan's condition. The moment they appeared, Josiah rose to his feet and quickly asked.

"How is he?" The preacher looked at Alex intently. Indeed, all eyes turned to the young woman wearing nothing more than a robe stained with blood.

"If he survives the night, he'll have a good chance," Alex replied honestly.

She saw a wave of genuine relief move through the room like a ripple of water and realized Mr. Jackson had a great many people who cared for him

Inez had taken to serving cups of coffee to those present. It gave her something to do while they waited. The room had been almost deathly silent in the hours before Ezra and the new doctor's reappearance. No one wanted to wish the worst but then again, what they saw of Nathan's condition, did not inspire hope. Josiah seemed to be the worse for it because Josiah's relationship with Nathan preceded the formation of the fellowship. Mary Travis was similarly concerned, Inez noticed. The pretty young widow spent most of her time next to Chris. No one made a note of their intertwining fingers beneath the table.

"Would you like some coffee?" Inez inquired of the new arrival to Four Corners. Doctor Styles looked almost pale, which was saying quite a bit considering the dusky color of her skin.

"No." She shook her head politely, but her eyes noticed the bottle of whisky in the middle of the table. Without saying anything else, she poured herself a glass on approach and down it with one sharp tilt of her head. The men looked at her with some surprise although Ezra, Mary and Inez noticed that she was shaking slightly. Once the amber liquid had disappeared down her throat, Alex looked up at the others. "I needed that."

Once she had composed herself, she spoke again. "Someone should stay with Mr. Jackson. I don't think that there will be any complications, but I need to get cleaned up." She gestured to her soiled clothes. "I'll try not to be too long, but he really should not be alone."

"I'll do it," Mary spoke up, rising from her chair. "Thank you, Doctor Styles."

"Call me Alex," Alex answered, unaccustomed to that title just yet. She had earned her diploma long ago but had seldom been called Doctor by anyone, that it felt somewhat unsettling hearing it now.

"Can we see him, ma'am?" Josiah inquired. His initial fears had dissolved somewhat because Josiah had faith in Nathan's ability to endure. He sensed the sincerity in the new doctor's diagnosis and took comfort that God was at least giving Nathan a fighting chance at survival.

"Of course." Alex nodded, admiring the concern they all shared. "However, he needs his rest so one or two at a time." In truth, Nathan Jackson would be oblivious to any visitation by his friends, but the gesture was more for their benefit than his own.

"Thank you, kindly ma'am." He said politely and then proceeded up the stairs without any further hesitation.

The grim atmosphere in the room had abated slightly now that they had some hopeful intelligence regarding Nathan's condition. However, the underlying anger remained concealed under the acknowledgment that their immediate crisis had passed. Chris surveyed the faces around him and saw that the weariness in all expressions. It was after all a few hours away from dawn, and most of them had been awake all night.

"Ezra," Chris turned to the gambler who was slipping on his coat. "Why don't you walk Doctor Styles back to the hotel?" They had things to discuss, and as much as the woman had proven her ability, she was still a stranger, and Chris was unwilling to make her privy to his plans to deal with this situation.

"That's not necessary," Alex started to say, but he froze the protest with a cold stare. Somehow, Alex had the impression she was getting an escort no matter what she thought.

"Yes, it is," Chris said hardly registering the protest, and even if he did, he ignored it. "Ezra?" He met the gambler eyes that immediately discerned that was a motive behind the sudden gesture of chivalry to the lady.

"Mr. Larabee has spoken," Ezra said understanding what Chris was alluding. "I would not bother arguing with him. I have found it to be a pointless exercise."

"Trust me," Mary remarked, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. Mary, more than any person in the room, could understand what it was to be in Alex Style's position. The exasperation and frustration that Chris Larabee was capable of engendering was something she was thoroughly familiar with. "I know."

Chris gave Mary a look before he returned his high-powered gaze to Alex. "Thank you for what you did Doctor Styles. We'll be sure to expect you back when you're ready."

"Well," Alex let out a sigh of weariness ignoring the almost obligatory response. "I had help." She glanced at Ezra. Despite herself, Alex could not shake the belief the imperceptible Mr. Larabee was summarily dismissing her. Although the idea raised her ire to no end, Alex was too tired to deal with it. The day had been exhausting as it was. She needed a bath and a good night's sleep but would settle for the first since she had a patient.

"Shall we?" Ezra gestured towards the door.

 Once they were gone, Chris could talk freely. While he meant no disrespect to the new doctor, Chris was wary of anyone he did not know well. The people in the room shared more than friendship. They had seen out danger and other trials together. He knew without a doubt that everyone presents shared the same commitment as he did. By that same token, Chris knew each of them shared his outrage at this cowardly attack on Nathan Jackson.

"We can fill Ezra in when he gets back," Chris said opening the conversation; they were all waiting to here. Each one of the remaining seven was poised to act, and they required only Chris's word to do so.

"Vin," Chris began after considering what course of action they ought to take. "You and I will ride out to the reserve at first light. I want to know if Chanu or any of his people saw anything that might help us. Whoever shot Nathan knew when he was leaving the reservation to ambush him further up the trail. They would have had to be keeping a lookout to know when he started riding back to town."

Vin seemed to agree with Chris' assessment, recalling what he observed from the tracks he'd been able to see. "I want to look at the place in daylight too, make sure I didn't miss anything in the dark. Maybe check out Purgatorio too."

The tracks he had seen headed away towards Four Corners, but since they were working on the assumption that the men had not come here, there was little else in this direction other than Purgatory. Beyond that was too much of a gap to the next town for them to attempt the ride without a stopover for supplies. Not only was the collection of shantytowns the most uncivilized place in the territory but it was also the home to many murderers and cutthroats. There was no better hiding place for a group of murderers.

"Good idea." Chris nodded and saw Mary frowning slightly, a hint of worry in her eyes.

Mary had not sought to change him because Chris believed what he was excited her a little, but she was a woman who felt things deeply and had already lost one man to violence. It was understandable if she did not want the same thing to happen to him.

"Buck, JD." He looked at the two friends. There was a great deal of ground to cover, and Chris had a feeling that time was not on their side. "I want you to talk to everyone in town. Go do the rounds of the other saloons in town to see if anyone knows anything about strangers asking after Nathan." Buck was always the best man to send out for such an investigation. He had a naturally disarming manner that made people unafraid to talk to him.

"I'll get on it," Buck said nodding firmly, knowing the procedure well enough to have a few ideas of his own. "JD and I might also talk to the folks at the hotel and maybe look around the lodging houses to see if anyone new has come into town and laying low."

"Worth a try." Chris agreed. He did not think Nathan's attackers would be foolish enough to remain in Four Corners, but then very little about this whole affair made any sense. It was wise to be thorough when so much about this situation was puzzling.

"I can wire the judge," Mary suggested, wanting to help in her own way. Nathan was one of her closest friends in Four Corners. She liked and respected the man who gave so much of himself. "I know it's unlikely to be a random attack, but there might be someone out there we don't know about whom Nathan might have encountered. Perhaps someone who did not want to be found."

"She's right." The bounty hunter stated. "We're assuming it was someone who had something against Nathan. Could be just he got in their way." It was not unheard of for such a thing to happen. There were so many outlaws running loose across the Territory, and it was quite possible for an innocent bystander to become caught in their crossfire.

"Mary and I will take turns looking after Nathan." Inez offered. "I'm here more than you are Mary. It would be easier for me to look in on Nathan while I'm working. Besides, it's usually quiet during the day."

In retrospect, Mary could not deny her friend's words. She had a paper to run, and Inez was correct about being in closer proximity to Nathan since it was unlikely he could be moved from his room for some time. "Thank you. I'll take over in the evenings."

"Uh Chris," JD suddenly spoke up as a thought occurred to him. The young men rarely offered an opinion, preferring to allude to the wisdom of his older companions. However, he was forced to speak because as of yet no one else had considered the notion. "What if they come back?"

Everyone stopped talking.

"Come back?" Mary exclaimed having none of the restraint possessed by the men in the room. "Why would they come back?" However, judging by the look on Chris and the others, it appeared that even though they had not considered the possibility before, it now left a feeling of unease in its wake. JD had brought up a very valid point.

"They were damn sure trying to kill Nathan." Buck retorted, remembering the blood he had seen in the dark sand. His stomach hollowed at the sight of the puddle when he realized the blood belonged to Nathan. "If word gets out they didn't finish the job; they may come back to do it right."

"I'll stay behind with Ezra," Josiah announced his return to the table as he walked down the stairs. "We'll make sure nobody gets near Nathan unless they want a priestly send off to God." The hard edge to Josiah's normally soothing voice was enough to send a shiver of ice through most of them. Josiah was always the level-headed preacher who never had an ill word for anyone no matter how much they might deserve one. Seeing him so determined, unsettled everyone including Chris, who was usually unperturbed by anything.

"Alright then," Chris decided that it was time for them to turn in on that note. "Let's rest up," he said rising to his feet. "It will be light in a few hours, and we've all got jobs to do."

There was a hunt to begin.

 "So, do you have family anywhere?" Alex heard Ezra ask as they started walking back to the hotel. She was still somewhat disgruntled about the abrupt way she was ushered out of the saloon. While she did not expect them to fall over her in gratitude, it stung a little knowing that she was so easily discarded once her usefulness to them had ended.

"Family? No. My father died about a year ago and my mother when I was a child."

There were relations on her father's side of the family, but they were so scandalized by William Styles's decision to marry a local in India, they'd cut all times, and Alex grew up never knowing them. In truth, Alex didn't mind. Her mother's people were also gone and being alone had allowed her to take charge of her destiny.

"What about you? Do you have family here?"

"Only my mother," Ezra said quickly. "And she stays away long enough to suit us both."

"There sounds like a story behind that," Alex laughed. "So, what do you do in Four Corners?" Outwardly, Ezra Standish looked no different from any European gamblers she had seen abroad, who moved from one place to another in search of the best stakes.

"Little as possible," he remarked and was pleased when she uttered a soft laugh. "I own the saloon." Actually, he shared ownership with his mother, but there was no reason to offer this beautiful woman that much detail into his business affairs. "It's just a little distraction during my stay in this fair municipality."

She liked the way he spoke. "You remind me of an English professor I used to have."

During the surgery, there had been little opportunity to study him personally beyond the need to decide if he was capable of helping her during the operation.

He was very handsome. That much could not be denied. Without even having to know it for sure, Alex was certain that boyish smile saved him from numerous untenable situations. There were not many men she encountered who was able to wear that roguish charm while possessing the visage of the perfect gentlemen. This was the kind of man that could drive the woman he loved him to distraction, even if she savored every illicit moment of her journey there.

If one could overlook the flaws hidden by that charming exterior, that is.

"The joys of private school." Ezra shrugged, unable to decide whether he ought to smother her in usual charming manner towards the ladies or to try a more genuine approach. Instinct told Ezra to attempt the later. For some reason, he had a feeling Alex Styles would be able to see through him if he tried something as clumsy as that. Ezra had no wish to present any façades to a woman with such a sharp intellect. Despite himself, he had a weakness for strong women, a residual effect of being raised by an equally strong mother, who had taken a man's game and turned it into an art.

"I remember," Alex said understanding all too well. "My poor father had decided when I turned thirteen it was time I became a proper young lady. This was after spending the first thirteen years scrambling across the world with him. I lasted about a year and a half before the mistress wrote him with a polite but firm request to take me away."

Ezra tried to imagine this elegant woman as a scrappy tomboy and could not picture it. "Well I was not so extreme," Ezra answered after a moment. "I just kept writing these letters to my mother, informing her I was going to take up the priesthood. She was so horrified by the prospect of a son of hers becoming a man of the cloth that she arrived to withdraw me from school within the month."

"I had to convince him not to send me to a nunnery. I don't think I ever saw my father so angry with me."

"I am glad you were spared that fate," he said gallantly. "I for one would think it a terrible misfortune to men everywhere."

"Why Mr. Standish," she said as they reached the doors to the hotel. "Are you trying to charm me?" There was a hint of teasing in her voice.

"Certainly not," he answered, with a look of mock hurt. "After everything we've been through?"

On that note, she sobered remembering that he had been through something of an ordeal. "I could not have done it without you, Mr. Standish." She said honestly. "It was hard enough for me, and I could not imagine what it was like for you."

"He's my friend," Ezra replied without hesitation or thought. "I could not let him die when it was in my power to help him."

"Under the circumstances, you acted admirably." Alex commended. "I've seen men faint at the sight of all that blood."

"How do you cope?" He asked, genuinely curious. It seemed like such a terrible vocation for such a refined woman. "It cannot be any less daunting for you."

"My father gave me a piece of advice once." She said softly, remembering the old man with a pang of grief that still felt raw after a year. "He said the flesh is like sculptor's clay and when the pieces are broken, it's best to treat it as such."

"Does it work?" He looked at her skeptically.

"Not one bit." She retorted. "But the memory of my father does." With that, she took a step towards the open doors of the hotel. "Goodnight Mr. Standish."

Ezra tipped his hat slightly. "Goodnight Doctor Styles."

She looked up at him as the moonlight danced off her skin and offered him a dazzling smile. "Call me Alex."

Ezra found himself smiling. "I would be honored to, Alex."

She disappeared into the building, leaving him standing on the walkway, staring after her.

Chapter Three:

Opening Moves

JD Dunne arrived at the jailhouse the next morning, feeling like a hundred miles of bad road. Although he was anxious to begin his investigation with Buck for any leads on Nathan's attackers; he would be lying if he didn't wish for a few more hours of sleep. In truth, none of the seven slept for more than a few hours since they disbanded from the saloon. No one could sleep with the memory of Nathan's horrific injuries still fresh in their mind. JD tossed and turned in his sheets, trying to force away images when it could have been easily any one of them in Nathan's position.

It was during such moments that JD was forced to take a hard look at the life he chose for himself. When he was a boy, he wished for nothing more than to be one of the legendary gunmen he often read about in the dime store novels. Their rough and tumble existence left a profound mark upon him and as soon as he was old enough to leave home, JD took the first stage out West. Fortunately, as he was to learn, he had survived the grim fate of other starry-eyed young men on the same mission when he had joined up with Chris Larabee.

He had not joined up as the others had. JD had followed the seasoned men until they relented and allowed him to their circle. Although he sometimes felt intimidated by their experience, JD knew they were as close as family, and they protected their own with just as much intensity, which was probably why Nathan's attack incensed them all so much.

His duties as sheriff were quite routine since Chris was really the one running things. It was a situation which JD did not at all mind. His visit to the jailhouse was mostly for housekeeping. He checked on the welfare of the one prisoner currently being held and saw that the drunk had effectively slept off the previous night's libation and was eager to get home. JD released him with the obligatory warning and then eased behind the sheriff ‘s desk to examine the morning's mail. These were usually federal warnings about who was in the area, a few wanted posters and such.

JD scoured through them with little interest, doing so because it was one of the more tedious requirements of the Silver Star he wore on his breast. Most of it was discarded in the wastepaper basket under the desk. He got to the wanted posters and unrolled them from their brown wrapping so he could pin them up on the wall. The faces he came across belonged to men who looked every bit as mean as the list of charged tallied against them. It was the last one that caught JD's interest.

"Oh hell!" He exclaimed as he stared at the face and the angry words beneath it.

The poster rolled back to its curled position as JD jumped from his chair. He grabbed the length of paper and ran out of the jailhouse, praying he would catch Vin Tanner before he left with Chris for the reservation.

"Is Vin here?" JD asked as he burst through the batwing doors of the saloon. Only Ezra and Josiah were present, and with a sinking feeling, JD realized he might be too late.

"What's wrong?" Josiah inquired without bothering to answer the young man who was quite out of breath by the time he reached them, clutching the roll of paper tightly in his grip. There was a genuine alarm on JD's face, and after last night, the preacher wondered what else could have happened.

"It's this." He said coming to the table where Ezra and Josiah were having breakfast. Both men quickly moved aside their plates as JD rolled out the document for their viewing.

WANTED FOR MURDER

VIN TANNER

REWARD

$2000.00

DEAD OR ALIVE

"How does this happen?" JD looked at the two men in question. "I thought the reward on him was five hundred dollars!"

"It appears not," Ezra said looking just as mystified. It was almost unprecedented the amount for a reward should surge so dramatically, particularly when the criminal in question had committed no further crimes since the original charge. However, it was there for all to see in plain black and white, so it was no mistake.

"He's going to have every bounty hunter in the Territory after him," Josiah remarked unhappily and studied the poster with scrutiny. Like Ezra, he knew the unlikelihood of this sudden upswing in reward money. Five hundred dollars might be a princely sum but not enough to risk the wrath of the six men Vin rode with if anyone attempted to collect the bounty.

Two thousand dollars, however, had a way of making even a sensible man take stupid chances.

"Has he left?" JD asked in vain hope. Vin had to be warned about what was coming his way. Not just Vin now but Chris, since it was likely that he would become caught in the crossfire. Not that either man had any trouble defending himself, but two thousand dollars went a long way and could pay for a dozen hired guns. Against those odds, JD was not so sure the two men could prevail.

"At first light, I believe," Ezra replied trying to decide what to do. Vin had made it no secret that Four Corners was his present address and it would not take long for anyone wishing to claim this exorbitant sum of money, to find their way here. "We're going to have to rearrange our plans." Ezra decided, hoping Chris would not mind him countermanding his orders, but the situation seemed to demand it.

"Mr. Dunne, you need to go after them." Ezra declared, gaining a silent nod of agreement from Josiah who looked up long enough from his examination of the wanted poster. It might be a good idea that Vin to give Four Corners a wide berth while they dealt with this current predicament.

"Okay," JD answered without question. Not only was he pleased to be trusted to undertake this job alone, but he also understood the urgency of the matter. Vin needed to know of the threat to his life. They all knew that if Vin Tanner did not want to be found, there was not a bounty hunter in the world who could track him. However, Vin still needed the warning to make that timely disappearance.

"Wait a minute," Josiah spoke up before JD could make a hasty departure. The preacher had sat up in his chair and was leaning in for a closer look of the paper. "Ezra, look at this." He gestured the gambler to some fine printing on the bottom of the poster.

"I hope you found that it was printed on the 1st April and it was late in arriving." Ezra deadpanned as he leaned over to where Josiah was pointing. Somehow, he did not think that Josiah had found some legal loophole. Most of the bounty hunters would hardly see past the numbers let alone take the time to read the rest of it. However, after a moment, he looked up at Josiah. "Is this right?"

"What?" JD asked, not liking the idea that something was going on beneath his notice again.

"It says here," Ezra met the young man's gaze with confusion of his own. "That the federal reward is a still five hundred dollars."

"I don't understand," JD said blankly. "If it's still five hundred dollars . . . ."

"It means," Josiah answered for the benefit of the uninformed, "the two-thousand-dollar reward was put up privately."

"Privately? You mean someone is doing this to him on purpose?"

"It appears that way." Ezra retorted. "I think you better make haste young man," he prompted JD to get moving. "I'll tell Buck what's happening."

"I'm on it." The young man swept out of the saloon, filled with purpose at being assigned this vital task. He liberated the poster from Josiah before leaving, so he had something to show Vin and Chris when he found them. After he was gone, Ezra turned back to Josiah. "You have a feeling that there's an ill wind blowing my friend?"

"We need to find out who put up this money." The preacher pointed out.

"I agree." Ezra nodded. "With Nathan's shooting, it seems too much of a coincidence."

"At least it puts paid to rest on whether Nathan's attack was personal," Josiah commented. Like Chris, they had all believed this was because of some unknown vendetta against Nathan Jackson. However, with this latest turn of events, it appeared that they were partially correct. The vendetta was personal, but it seemed to be against more than just one of them. If what he suspected was true, Josiah realized that this was only the first act of a larger play.

"It somewhat complicates matters." Ezra sighed because he had come to the same conclusion. "Our field of concentration had just widened considerably. We have made a great many men angry at us over the last year, and it is going to be difficult to narrow it down."

"They'll overplay their hand." Josiah drawled. "They always do."

Ezra was about to question the preacher on how he had come to that reassuring conclusion when he saw Inez coming down the stairs from the rooms above the saloon. She looked weary, and Ezra felt somewhat concerned at the dark circles under her eyes. She kept a vigil at Nathan's bedside for most of the night and still managed to wake up early enough to make them an excellent breakfast.

"Inez, you look exhausted." He stated and rose to his feet, pulling out a chair for her to sit.

The bronzed skin beauty did not refuse, and her acceptance convinced him more than she needed to rest. He poured her a cup of coffee and lay if before her. Inez offered him a smile, radiant even when she was so tired. It was easy to become trapped in that flicker of beauty, even for a moment. "Thank you, Ezra." She replied warmly.

"How is he doing?" Josiah inquired. He had been up to check on Nathan a few times himself, but Inez had been spending most of the time with him. It was necessary for Josiah and Ezra to remain in the saloon with as wide a field of vision in the unlikely event that Nathan's would-be killers returned.

"He sleeps," she said with a shrug. "I give him his medicine like the doctor says, every four hours."

"Doctor Styles made a few returns throughout the night and the morning, to check up on Mr. Jackson's progress," Ezra informed him dutifully.

"We can take turns for a while." Josiah offered; not blind to how weary the young woman before him appeared. She was a good woman, he thought silently to himself, rare in her capacity for compassion despite that fiery temper and iron-clad spirit. "Why don't you get some rest?"

Josiah was one of the few people Inez trusted to behave responsibly. If it were Ezra making the offer, she would be reluctant to accept. However, Josiah was an entirely different matter. She knew he could be relied upon with complete trust to undertake anything asked of him. "I think I might take that offer." She said trying to stifle a yawn. "Wake me in an hour or so."

"Anyone see JD?" Buck Wilmington's irate voice broke the back of the conversation as he made a sudden entry through the doors of the saloon. Buck had been supposed to meet JD at the jailhouse some time ago, and the boy's absence gave him concern. Buck had taken JD under his wing since the young man's arrival in Four Corners, and he often felt responsible for his welfare.

"He's on his way to find Chris and Vin," Josiah replied automatically.

"He's supposed to be helping me to talk to people around town about what happened last night," Buck grumped as he walked towards their table.

"Something came up. Sit down." Josiah said in that voice which broke no arguments.

Immediately Buck tensed, sensing some new peril on the horizon. Inez, who was just as much in the dark, shared his same look of puzzlement. "What's happened?"

"The reward on Mr. Tanner has just risen to two thousand dollars."

"Two thousand dollars!" Buck practically roared. "I thought it was five hundred dollars!"

"Someone has put a private bounty on our Mr. Tanner," Ezra informed entirely accustomed to Buck's outbursts. He had seen them on numerous occasions before. "I sent JD after him to inform him of what has happened."

"We're going to have every two-bit hustler who thinks he can handle a gun come riding into town looking for him." Buck glowered.

"Who would do such a thing?" Inez demanded with more feeling in her voice towards Vin then she cared to show. Buck stared at her for a brief instance, taking note of the display. Inez felt a great deal of tenderness towards Vin Tanner for he, along with Mary Travis had convinced her to stop running from Don Paulo when he had discovered here. Vin, who knew more about running from the past than anyone, had been the first person to offer her his unconditional support in her decision to remain. While their relationship had never extended beyond friendship, they were nevertheless very close, and she worried for his life under this sudden turn of events.

"I don't know." Josiah sighed loudly, wishing Chris Larabee was not always so right about things getting worse.

The woman who entered Mary Travis' office had only been a resident of Four Corners for less than two months. Since her arrival, she caused much gossip in town as locals tried to discern her origins. Not much older than Mary herself, Victoria Kendall arrived in Four Corners and promptly established the Emporium which was so popular with the women in town.

From what Mary had been able to learn of her origins, Victoria was unmarried with a sizeable fortune of her own and quite the adept businesswoman. Although Mary had little occasion to interact with her during the past months, their few meetings had always been warm and friendly. Nevertheless, Victoria's presence in her office did cause some surprise since it was usually her business partner, the somber Mr. Wilkins who did most of her errands.

"Victoria." Mary rose from behind her desk and came to greet the auburn-haired woman. Although she could never be called a beauty, Victoria had intriguing green eyes that seemed to negate any lacking she may have in physical attributes. "How nice to see you."

"Likewise, Mary." Victoria smiled at her as the two women returned to Mary's desk. She took the seat that Mary offered and waited until the widow was herself seated before continuing.

"What brings you here?" Mary inquired. "I hope the advertising in the Clarion suits your purposes still?" The Kendall Emporium had been using advertising space in the Clarion News ever since it opened. While the size of the advertisements had decreased, they were now a regular fixture in the newspaper. They also added much-needed revenue to the profits for which Mary was grateful

"It does," Victoria replied. "I came here on a private matter, Mary."

"I see." Mary sat straight in her chair, a stance she usually took when she was preparing to listen closely. "What sort of matter?"

Victoria hesitated and shifted uncomfortably in her chair. An expression stole across her face that seemed to border on distaste and reproach. Mary wondered what could be so terrible that she had such difficulty voicing it? "There's no way to put this delicately, Mary." She said after a moment. "So, I guess I'll just have to say it."

"Say what?" Mary asked with rising curiosity.

"About your relationship with Mr. Larabee."

Of all the things that she could have said, that was the thing Mary had least expected. For a moment, she was left completely speechless. When she recovered enough to respond, her thoughts were racing. "What relationship with Mr. Larabee?" She answered trying to feign ignorance.

"There has been talk around town that you and Mr. Larabee are involved," Victoria remarked, watching her closely for a reaction.

"There has always been such innuendo," Mary replied coolly. "Mr. Larabee and I are just friends."

"Look," Victoria sighed. "It's none of my business what you do with your personal affairs Mary, I mean I've seen him. He is a handsome man. However, the talk I have heard indicates you are having an intimate relationship with Mr. Larabee, and you should be very concerned whether or not it's true or false."

Mary did not know how to respond because it was true, and she was uncertain whether she was prepared to lie about it.

"I've heard the talk," Mary lied. "It's been going on since he arrived in town. Most of it is attributed to the fact he deals with Judge Travis through me. I am the seven's liaison with Orin. That's as far as it has always gone."

"I'm glad," Victoria said with a relieved sigh. "When Mr. Wilkins told me someone as claiming Mr. Larabee was making some offensive remarks about the two of you, I was certain that it was a lie. After all, attractive he may be but what decent woman would throw away her reputation on a gunslinger of all things?"

Mary managed a faint smile. "Not a very proper one I suppose."

Despite what was said, however, Mary refused to believe that Chris would make light of their relationship to anyone. She knew how he felt about her and most she knew how difficult it was for him to admit to those feelings. Someone in town had nothing better to do than spread malicious rumors about them and Mary was going to ignore it.

"Well," Victoria rose to her feet on that note. "I just thought you should be aware. Please don't take my informing you as interference."

"Certainly not," Mary offered the woman a reassuring smile. "I appreciate the concern."

She followed Victoria to see her out of the office, all the while hiding the butterflies in her stomach. When Victoria was gone, Mary found herself in a state of panic. Rumors were nothing new to her. Since the arrival of the seven in Four Corners, such stories had been whispered about her relationship with the men and, Chris. Most of it was ignored as idle gossip and largely ignored, but Victoria Kendall's intelligence struck close to home. Could anyone have seen Chris leaving her house in the middle of the night? She knew Chris took care not to be seen but not even he was infallible. It only took one person.

She decided that she was not going to become paranoid. These were rumors, no different from the ones that had emerged since the first time Chris Larabee had walked into her office.

It would blow over soon enough.

Buck Wilmington was not having a good day. If truth were known, he was having a lousy and unproductive morning. So far, he had been through every gin joint, hole in the wall bar and watering hole in Four Corners and had yet to find anything to indicate strangers with an excessive interest in Nathan Jackson. No one new had displayed any interest in any of the seven for quite some time, and it did not take him long to realize there was nothing to find. He had even gone to the hotel and convinced the hotel clerk to let him study the register book. However, as he had already found in the lodging houses and hostels he had visited earlier, no one had registered that could be considered dangerous.

Buck had gone so far as to question some of the newer arrivals and found little to implicate them in Nathan's attacks. It would not have been so terrible if he had not learnt something else equally disturbing if not life-threatening. By the time he returned to the saloon, Buck had heard so many outlandish stories that his temper was teetering on a knife's edge. To say nothing of how Chris Larabee was going to take it when Buck had the enviable task of telling him what he learnt.

"What is going on in this town?" Buck asked out loud when he returned to the saloon later that morning.

Josiah was upstairs with Nathan while Inez rested, so Ezra was tending bar, with his gun close at hand and his derringer safely hidden out of sight.

"Whatever do you mean?" Ezra responded, pouring him a drink because it looked like he needed one.

Buck came to the counter and slapped his hat hard against the bar. His anger clearly shown in his face. It was unusual for Buck to be angry about anything, Ezra had observed in the past because Buck was one of the most agreeable people he had ever met. On rare occasions, when Buck did get upset, he was a fuse burned brief and would settle down after a short while.

"I have heard nothing about strangers in town." Buck grabbed the drink and downing it with a sharp tilt of her head before sliding the shot glass back to Ezra for another hit.

"That was always a possibility Mr. Wilmington," Ezra answered. "Expecting success, the first time around is somewhat unrealistic."

"I don't care about that!" Buck said sharply and drew a startled response from Ezra, who was starting to see a larger problem. Buck leaned further over the counter towards him and spoke in a hushed voice as if what he had to say was too terrible to voice out loud. "I heard nothing about Nathan, but I heard plenty about Chris and Mrs. Travis."

Ezra's eyes widened in astonishment. "What?"

"It sounds like all of Four Corners wants to know how long Chris and Mary have been knocking boots."

"Aw hell," Ezra swore uncharacteristically. "What do you mean all, exactly?"

"Everyone!" Buck retorted. "They think he's been sleeping with her!"

"There's always been loose talk about Mr. Larabee and the fair Mrs. Travis." Ezra countered, hoping Buck's information was wrong and the good lady's reputation was not as tattered as it appeared.

"Not like this." Buck returned with a hard edge to his voice that convinced Ezra that he was right. "I was ready to call someone out over these stories. I'm telling you, we've got to put a stop to it."

"Exactly how would we do that Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked sarcastically. "This is not the kind of thing you can put down with a gunfight."

"Well, we can't just stand by and let the lady's reputation get dragged through the mud! Can you imagine how Chris will be when it gets to him?"

Ezra could imagine quite vividly precisely what his reaction would be and while the specifics eluded the gambler, it would no doubt be colorful indeed, if not somewhat fatal. "Buck, this is the one thing they have to deal with themselves. Now, we all knew this was going to happen sooner or later. They've been together for almost a month now, and at some point, the word was bound to get out. The only solution to this problem is if they solidified the nature of their relationship with says a wedding ring?"

"Chris is not going to like being pushed into a wedding," Buck said without a trace of doubt in his voice. It was hard enough getting the gunslinger to admit how he felt about the widow and acting upon it, let alone dangle the prospect of marriage in front of him.

"Well, perhaps he is just going to have to grow up." Ezra retorted with just as much directness. "It's not about him. It's about Mrs. Travis. We owe her a great deal."

Buck could not refute Ezra's words. The gambler had made his point with complete accuracy. Chris was always mindful of Mary's reputation, knowing she placed a great deal more than just her life on the line when she spoke out in their defense. Until now, she remained unscathed despite the niggling rumors known to surface from time to time. However, things had changed considerably in the last month between Chris and Mary. Now, there was truth to the intimacy of their relationship.

"Now what's happened?" Josiah asked, having heard the fervent conversation below and had come out to investigate.

Buck and Ezra exchanged glances, wondering how they were going to put this. Ezra finally looked over his shoulder at the preacher and remarked. "Let's just say; we may have to buy rice."

"I don't want to know." He headed up to Nathan's room.

It was almost noon by the time JD Dunne arrived at the Indian village and found Chris and Vin. The two men were sitting around the campfire at Chanu's tent when JD came bounding up to them out of breath. Upon seeing the youth, both men immediately suspected the worse and rose to their feet.

"Chris! Vin!" JD gushed, "I'm glad I found you."

"What's wrong JD?" Vin asked first.

"This," JD said panting as he reached them. He handed the poster to Vin who promptly unrolled it. Without saying anything, Chris came alongside Vin to look at what made JD ride all this way to deliver. After perusing the rolled-up poster, Chris decided he had very good reason indeed.

"What is it?" Chanu inquired, realizing that something terrible was being hurled at his friend, who happened to be the only white man he trusted.

"Looks like things are catching up with me," Vin said handing the poster to Chris who wanted a better look. "Two thousand dollars is a lot of money."

"Josiah said it wasn't right." JD pointed out, remembering his conversation with the preacher and Ezra before leaving Four Corners.

"Yeah, I see it." Chris nodded in agreement.

"What?" Vin turned back to the gunslinger, to see what it was he had missed.

"Someone put the reward up," Chris replied, still studying the document. It says the Federal reward is still five hundred dollars."

"That's right," JD added. "That's what Ezra and Josiah said. They think someone else put the money to up the reward. Someone who has something against all of us, not just Vin."

That did not sit well with Vin because he knew what was coming. He was a bounty hunter himself once, and he knew how powerful the lure of two thousand dollars could be. "They'll be coming in herds. That's too much money to walk away from."

"Then you can stay here." Chanu offered, remembering he owed a life debt to Vin Tanner. Thanks to Vin, everyone in the village was spared a fiery death in the wake of his wife's murder. Vin and Josiah had uncovered the truth about Clare Mosely's relationship with Chanu and who murdered her. The townspeople led by Clare's father, her murderer, were prepared to burn the village to the ground in revenge for her death. Since then, the two men had become fast friends, and Chanu was aware of Vin's troubles in Tascosa.

"Thanks, but I ain't putting anyone in danger," Vin replied quickly. "They come looking for me; they're not going to care about who they kill in the process."

Chris had to agree with that assessment. However, Vin could not return to Four Corners that much was clear not until they figured out a way to deal with the situation.

"Maybe it's time to make tracks." The younger man glanced towards the horizon, and Chris could guess what was on his mind. JD stared at Chris, trying to prompt him into saying something before Vin rode out of here for good.

"No, it isn't," Chris interjected. "You'll go to my place and stay there. I'll get back to town and get Mary to wire the judge. Maybe he can find out who upped the ransom. Worse come to worse; I'll ride out to Tascosa myself and beat it out of them." There was enough threat in his voice for Vin to know that Chris would do just that if he felt it necessary.

However, Vin was not done protesting just yet. He felt uncomfortable at having to hide away while others protected him. "I don't know Chris. This is my problem."

"No," Chris shook his head and turned those piercing eyes on him. "It isn't. Someone's coming after us." He stated firmly. When Nathan was shot, Chris hadn't been sure, but this situation with Vin had confirmed the fact. "The only reason for a reward to be hiked up like this is not so that you'd hang. That was already going to happen. Someone did this to drive you out of town."

"Divide and conquer?" JD exclaimed, remembering enough about school to make that judgement.

"For starters," Chris nodded. "Nathan was first. Now it's you." He did not say it out loud, but they were all wondering who was next.

It was mid-afternoon when Inez emerge from the saloon for the first time in almost 24 hours. Since she started working early yesterday, things had moved at such harrowing pace that there had been barely time to catch a breath. Although she did not mind looking after Nathan, she was glad when Mary came to take over for a while. It allowed Inez the chance to run some errands of her own.

As she made her way to Mrs. Potter's general store, she ran a list in her mind of all the things needed for the catering she provided in the saloon. Business had been brisk since patrons learnt they could get food as well as liquor at the saloon and some preferred to remain at the bar instead of having to take their custom to the hotel. The atmosphere in the saloon was more comfortable for men unaccustomed to the refinement of salad forks and dinner plates boasted by the hotel.

As she made her way across the street, Inez considered the gossip that Buck heard about Mary. Inez did not make any judgements on Mary or her relationship with Chris. Mary Travis was as proper as any woman she had ever met, and she did not bestow her favors lightly. She loved Chris Larabee, and Inez believed Chris loved her. It was up to them to decide what was proper behavior in their relationship, not a bunch of narrow-minded people who should be minding their own business anyway.

At the moment, Buck and the others had yet to decide whether they should bring news of this to Mary's attention. So far, it was just harmless talk by local busybodies, but Inez knew Mary would want to put a stop to it, even if she did not care what anyone thought about her love affair with Chris.

At this time of the afternoon, most of the residents had withdrawn from the afternoon heat to their homes or any place providing ample shade. In this instance, Inez was glad of the quiet. She needed to do her inventory purchasing quickly before the evening crowd turned up at the saloon expecting dinner. Usually, she would have done this kind of shopping earlier but this whole day had been one unscheduled drama after the other.

Inez barely had time to think let alone get herself organized. It was almost reaching the end of the trading day and it would not before the shopkeepers started closing up for the evening. Hopefully, this meant that there would not be many people in the store and she could make her purchases quickly.

Stepping onto the wooden sidewalk, Inez studied the grocery list in her hand as she headed towards Mrs. Potter's general store, barely aware of anything else around her. The swiftness of the hand enclosing her mouth and dragging her into the narrow alley between the shops, gave Inez scarcely any time to register it until the shadows enclosed around her. When the sunlight disappeared from her skin, Inez knew her chance of escape had similarly dissolved.

She felt her toes scrape against the ground as she was dragged down the small alleyway, seeing a wall of wood blur past her as she struggled helplessly. The grip of her kidnapper was firm enough for her almost to be lifted from the ground. Desperately fighting the blind panic threatening to take away any ability she had to fight, Inez bit down hard on the hand over her lips. She caught a sliver of skin between her teeth and ground hard until she felt the salt of blood in her mouth.

A soft grunt of pain exploded in her ear, and she felt the grip around her slackened. Inez was poised to run as her feet fell flat against the ground but no sooner than she felt the gravel underneath her soles, was she spun around viciously. Inez had barely time to catch a glimpse at her attacker when a fist slammed into the side of her jaw. It hit with such force she spun around on her heels, her head spinning in tandem with the red flare of pain.

"Whore." A decidedly male voice replied on the heels of the black veil that fell over her eyes.

It did not take long for the first bounty hunters to find them.

Chris was surprised how quickly such news travelled in a place where information could be weeks old before being passed on. Chris, Vin and JD rode away from the reservation shortly after JD had arrived with his news. The decision made was for them to travel together until they reached the fork of the road taking Vin to Chris's property. Although Chris was tempted to go with him, it was apparent someone with money, and a burning desire for revenge was working not just against all of them, and Chris had to find out who that was. Such an investigation needed Mary's resources and the Judge's connections.

They were only a short ride from the fork they were confronted with five men on horseback. Chris had no idea how long they were waiting in the scrub for them to appear, but he recognized one from Purgatory.

"We don't want no trouble Larabee," the leader, a heavy-set man with a missing front tooth who went by the name of Dawkins addressed them as they faced each other. "All we want is your friend." He gestured to Vin, whose fingers were poised on the butt of his mare's leg.

"You're not taking him, Dawkins," Chris said almost bored. He knew the men riding with Dawkins. While they called themselves bounty hunters, he knew they spent most of their time whoring and drinking, trying to evade the lawmen who no doubt had their faces on a poster somewhere. Dawkins was a hot-headed, arrogant man who thought two thousand dollars was a fortune and was fool enough to try for a reward that only seasoned professional hunters would attempt to claim.

Vin had remained at large for so long because he was a professional bounty hunter once and those in that select circle knew five hundred dollars was not worth the risk in bringing him in. Of course, things would change now, but Dawkins would be the first of the stupid to try.

"They say you're fast Larabee.' Dawkins looked at him, unflustered by Chris's cold stare. Vin and JD knew better. The fat idiot was too stupid to recognize how close he was too dying. "I say you're a coward hiding behind the skirts of your six friends." A series of derisive guffaws broke out from Dawkins' men.

Chris seemed unperturbed by the comment. He saw Vin's jaw tightened and JD fidgeting as if the slight to Chris' reputation was more than he could handle. Chris raised his steel colored eyes to Dawkins and nodded. "You could say that." Without warning, Chris went for Peacemaker, drew and fired before Dawkins' fingers could graze the butt of his gun. "Once."

There was only one shot, but Chris rarely needed more than that.

The bullet blew the back of Dawkins' head apart, sending grey matter in all directions as blood splattered on his companions. The body teetered for a moment on top of the frightened mare and then fell to the ground in a heavy thud. His companions went for their guns as the horse tried to sidestep the body underfoot, but sound found themselves staring down the barrels of Vin's shotgun and both of JD's drawn weapons.

"I don't suppose any of you were out riding last night?" Chris inquired politely because Dawkins would not be above ambushing and shooting one man. There was no need for intimidation because the dead body pooling blood beneath them was enough incentive.

The weedy looking man who looked at him with rotten teeth and overgrown hair was the first to answer, ever mindful of the weapons trained in their direction. "We don't know nothing." He said quickly, not requiring Chris to make another point. "Dawkins convinced us to come after Tanner. Said that there was easy money to be made."

"How did you know where we were?" Vin demanded. No one had known they were heading towards the Indian village this morning and they had left Four Corners' early enough not to be seen.

"I don't know," the man said with genuine fear. "Dawkins was talking to someone from Four Corners. They said the nigger got shot."

"His name is Nathan!" JD growled. He hated that damn word.

"Who said Nathan was shot?" Chris glared at them with an indication that he was tired of this conversation.

"Dawkins didn't tell us who told him!" He exclaimed fearfully. "Just he knew your friend was shot last night, and chances were good, you'd go out to the village. It was two thousand dollars! Dawkins said it would be easy money!"

Chris considered the man's words. If anyone had known where Nathan was shot, it was probable they might assume his friends would ride out to the village to investigate. Almost everyone knew Vin's relationship with Chanu, and it would be sensible also to believe he would accompany if not lead such an investigation to the village.

"I suggest you boys take your friend and start riding back to Purgatory about now," Chris said finally, deciding these men had little else of use to impart. "If I see any of your ugly faces again," he glanced down at Dawkins so that they would understand the implication. "I may not be so forgiving."

He did not need to say it twice.

When the group of would-be bounty hunters were out gone long enough to assure Chris, they would not be making any renewed attempts to retrieve Vin. The lawmen resumed their journey home. The encounter had given Chris some valued insight, and it also explained a few things, if not opened some possibilities, he had not considered earlier.

"I think whoever shot Nathan is no stranger." He announced.

"Yeah," Vin nodded in agreement, starting to see the pattern forming as well. "I think you're right, Chris."

"Why?" JD asked predictably. Being young and inexperienced as he was, it was sometimes easy to forget that he was not as adept as recognizing the more devious processes of human immorality.

"They seem to know a lot about us," Vin explained for his benefit. "They knew me well enough to know that I'd go to the Indian village and they knew enough to know which way Nathan would come back and that he'd gone alone. This is somebody in town, Chris."

"What about those ranchers?" JD suggested, remembering their encounters with Stuart James and Guy Royal, two powerful ranchers whom the seven had occasionally had chanced to cross swords with previously. James and Royal were indeed rich enough with the connections to Four Corners to fall suspect to what Chris was alluding to.

"They don't have too many friends in town after they tried burning it down," Chris remarked. "Still, all this sneaking around doesn't seem to be their style. They just kept themselves from prosecution." Despite his doubts, however, Chris was not about to discount their possible involvement either. He was not a man to take risks on maybe, and he had stayed alive by taking no such chances.

"We'll ride out there tomorrow," Chris said to Vin and JD. "Shake them down a little."

"Could be interesting," Vin said with a faint smile.

"In the meantime," Chris replied having reached another decision in light of what just happened with Dawkins and those other men. "I think you'd best come back to town with us."

Vin opened his mouth to protest when Chris cut him off. "Just for the night." He retorted. "I don't want those men following you back to my place when you're alone."

"I can take care of myself," Vin replied, slightly offended that Chris would believe those bunch of drunks could ever sneak up on him.

"I know you can, but I'm not sure what else is going to happen when the sun goes down tonight," Chris replied, unable to deny this uneasy feeling in his stomach. "With Nathan down, we're short a man, and we can afford for you to hiding out if we need you."

JD who never liked the idea of the seven separating added his voice of support to the debate. "Come on Vin, you know he's right."

"Thanks," Chris gave JD a little smile for the help.

"All right," Vin said dubiously, still believing this was some ruse to protect him. "I hate to see what you mean by something else happening."

The sun had disappeared beneath the uneven horizon of buildings in Four Corners. The busy sounds of people and horses were gradually replaced by the myriad lights peeking through the windows in the wake of the setting sun. At night, Four Corners took on a different kind of life. The hotel bustled with the lively energy of guests dining at the elegant restaurant before taking a before or after dinner stroll through the town like it was the Galleria in New Orleans. Cheerful music would inevitably flow through town as someone took the keys of the old piano in the saloon; also the same one loaned to the church on Sundays to play a robust tune.

Before the arrival of the seven men, such entertainments often spilled into violence, keeping away the more respectable folk away. However, with the presence of law in the town, such fears were forgotten, and people enjoyed themselves freely.

On these nights, Ezra Standish would hold court at the central table in the saloon. The gambler would host a game of poker with visitors to the establishment or with his comrades in arms (who knew better than to let him deal) while Inez tended bar and fought off the unwanted attentions of Buck Wilmington. Between the gambler and the barmaid, a merry night was sure to be had by all.

Except for tonight, she was nowhere to be seen.

Earlier that afternoon, she left the saloon to runs some errands and Ezra was still awaiting her return. As the hour grew closer to the arrival of the evening crowd, his concern for her absence had dwindled from mild annoyance to genuine worry. While they shared no intimacies, Ezra came to learn her habits well, and if there was one thing he knew about the lady, it was that she was notoriously reliable. When she had not returned after almost being gone for three hours, Ezra's grew concerned.

Especially when he was running back on forth along the counter, trying to serve drinks thirsty and impatient customers who were well armed, without any complaint and Inez occupied his thoughts were. With Nathan requiring protection in the room above, Josiah could not leave to help Buck search the town for her and Ezra felt equally helpless, having to remain here to provide Josiah back up as well as run his business.

He wished Chris and the others would get back so that they could tear the town apart searching for Inez. Every time they seemed to defy things to get worse, it invariably did. Ezra was starting to wonder if this was god's twisted idea of a joke.

"Ezra," Buck said fighting his way through the crowd of drinkers to reach the counter.

"Any sign of her?" Ezra asked hopefully, even though everything in Buck's manner indicated otherwise.

"No." Buck shook his head, with an expression in his eyes Ezra had only seen once. It was the moment when Don Paulo claimed victory and stated that Inez was his to take out of Four Corners. Ezra had seen it then, that spark of fury so alien to Buck's nature that for a moment, the gambler thought Buck was going to shoot the Don right there and then.

He cared about Inez that much.

"This is ridiculous," Ezra exclaimed. "Why would they go after Inez? It does not make any sense."

Buck looked up at him and said softly. "Doesn't it?"

For a minute, Ezra did not understand and then it came to him. If there was one thing that Ezra and Buck Wilmington had in common, it was how they felt about Inez. Though the nature of their affection differed in its intimacy, it was no less potent.

Ezra loved her as well, but he loved her as a friend, a confidant who listened to him in his worse depressions before smacking him on the head and telling him to get over it. Inez knew how to bring out the best in him because she believed there was something inside his jaded exterior worth saving. Such faith was too precious to be blighted by anything as fleeting as romantic love. Losing her would hurt, more than Ezra Standish dreamed possible.

"I hope Mr. Larabee is not going to be much longer," Ezra said softly. "It appears it's going to be another long night."

"Why?" Chris asked stiffening with suspicion, trailing Vin and JD as he moved through the crowd and caught the tail end of Ezra's conversation with Buck.

"Inez is gone," Buck said turning around to face his old friend.

Immediately, the three arrivals tensed as Ezra went back to serving, allowing Buck to fill them in. "She went out a few hours ago, and no one has seen her since."

"What do you mean no one?" Vin demanded. "This ain't that big a town."

"I'm telling you," Buck retorted sharply, wondering how he could be any clearer. "She's gone. She was going to the general store when she left here. Mrs. Potter tells me she never got there!"

"Easy Buck," Chris said calming his friend down. Chris was perfectly aware of how Buck felt about Inez, even though he acted like an idiot in front of her. Buck used to behave the same around another woman like that once, and he'd almost married her. "We'll find Inez."

"I've looked everywhere, Chris! No one has seen her! Hell, I even asked Mary! You've been out of town all day. You've no idea what's been happening!"

"Buck," JD quickly spoke up, possibly being the only one other than Chris who might be able to calm Buck down when he was this way. "We'll look again, and I'll come with you."

Buck took a deep breath; aware he was starting to lose control of himself. He stared at JD with his earnest expression, who turned to him for guidance and knew he had to show a better example for the boy. JD looked up to him so much; he couldn't bear to disappoint him on top of everything else that was happening now.

"I'm sorry Chris," Buck said in a calmer tone. "Something is going around town. It's like there are enemies everywhere."

"I think that's the plan." Chris pointed out. "Ezra. You stay here in case she comes back. We're going to take another look around town."

This was not just another rumor. It was becoming a full-blown scandal.

Mary Travis had come to this conclusion by the end of the day, following Victoria Kendall's visit. She decided to ignore the rumors and innuendo, attributing them to just more malicious gossip that had dogged her ever since Chris came riding into town. However, as the day progressed, it became apparent it was more than just another rumor. She had three cancellations for advertisements in the Clarion News and at least a dozen for subscriptions. The cancellations came from people whom she had known for as long as she had lived in Four Corners, with little or no explanation.

While the cancellations had yet to affect the paper's circulation numbers seriously, it did leave her shaken. Mary could not bring herself to leave her office all day out from the fear of what might be waiting for her when she left. In truth, her reputation was not the end all and be all of everything, but she did not wish to see it sullied either. Mostly because it would damage the newspaper upon which her livelihood depended. The paper paid for her living in Four Corners; it was how Mary put Billy through school. Without it, she was a woman without income and a husband for that matter.

She had not left the office because she was unwilling to deal with the glare of so many judgmental eyes waiting for her. Victoria Kendall was one of the more prominent people in town and if she knew about it, so did most of the community leaders in Four Corners. A group, Mary still hoped she was a part.

More than anything, Mary wished Chris was here. She needed to talk to him. When she had gone to check up on Nathan a short time ago, he had yet to return from the reservation and Mary did not feel comfortable confessing such intimate difficulties in the light of Inez's apparent disappearance.

Mary prayed that her best friend's disappearance had nothing to do with the events of the last twenty-four hours. Nathan's shooting, the increased bounty on Vin Tanner's head and now Inez' disappearance, someone was striking at the heart of the seven. It concerned Mary, someone with so much venom might have Inez in their power.

She went into the kitchen and was making herself some tea to steady her spiraling nerves when suddenly; she heard a tap on the back door. Mary thought it might have been Chris and hurried to open it. Even though he had a key, Chris still knocked unless he entered the premises late at night, as he had done early this morning. However, when she peered through the glass, Mary gasped and almost tore the door of its hinges as she swung it open.

"Oh my God," Mary exclaimed as her hand went to her mouth in horror."

Mary was near speechless as she stared at her friend whose face was covered in blood and bruises. One of her eyes was so swollen. Mary didn't think she was able to see out of it. Inez's arm hung at an odd angle as if broken and she was shaking so badly as could barely remain on her feet. The clothes on her body were soiled with blood and mud, and Mary noticed how they were torn as Inez held the tattered fabrics in place with her good arm. Her feet were bare and it looked as if she had been running for her life from whoever had done this to her.

"Some men, they took me and . . . and . . . " she stuttered, so distraught she could barely get the words out.  "They were going to . . . " Inez burst into fresh tears 

"Oh, Inez!" Mary ran forward and took the woman in her arms as Inez began to weep, her resolve collapsing completely at that moment. Her body shuddered as she sobbed into Mary's shoulder, the aftershock of an ordeal so terrifying she could barely articulate it.

"It's alright," Mary said taking the same tone she used with Billy when he cut his finger and or had fallen. "It will be okay Inez."

But to Mary, the promise felt hollow.

Chapter Four:

Voices from the Grave

Alexandra Styles looked in on her patient several times that day, oblivious to his crises embroiling his friends. Her inquiries regarding the investigation of Nathan Jackson's attack was met with polite explanations from Ezra Standish of things were progressing accordingly.  Concluding her interest was unwarranted, Alex chose to concentrate on her patient and finding suitable premises for her new surgery.

She spent some of the day investigating potential venues, without reaching any decisions, although one or two held promise. Thanks to English law, Alex was able to control much of the sizeable inheritance left to her by her father, and while any transactions needed to be conducted through agents thanks to the peculiarities of American financial law, she was able to live comfortably. Nevertheless, she had no wish to squander her money or live permanently in a hotel. 

What Alex wanted most right now, was a home of her own a nail in the wall without concern. 

Refusing the numerous dinner invitations, she'd received today. Women in the Territory were scarce, and she had to admit to some disappointment in not receiving one from Ezra Standish. He was the only person in Four Corners she really with any depth but accepted the gambler had more pressing concerns at the moment. Instead of inflicting herself with the company of someone she could not abide, Alex chose to dine alone in the restaurant.

It was not long after she sat down and ordered a meal. She saw Mary Travis entering the dining room.  A notable buzz ran through the room when the golden-haired newswoman appeared, with more than a few furtive looks thrown in her direction. Alex raised her brow at this, wondering what warranted such behavior from the good folk of Four Corners. However, it lasted only as long as it took for someone to notice the bloodstains on the woman's lavender colored dress. 

Alex was on her feet immediately and Mary's gaze, already searching the restaurant, fixed on her. The widow crossed the floor as Alex dropped her napkin gently onto her plate and went to meet Mary, wondering if Nathan Jackson's condition had changed. Mary was clearly distressed, and by the time Alex met her in the middle of the room, Alex realized she was downright panicked. What in god's name had happened?

"Mrs. Travis! What is wrong?"

"I can't discuss it here." Mary swallowed thickly. The blond woman looked around nervously, conscious of the eyes staring at them both. Things were bad enough without the entire town becoming aware of the possibility Inez might have been assaulted. "Please, you must come with me."

She was in such a heightened state of anxiety that there was no question in Alex's mind about refusing the request.

"Of course," Alex nodded, and the two women hurried out of the dining room, amidst the inevitable rise of speculation following their departure.

Mary did not speak until after they were well out of the hotel and hurrying down the wooden boardwalk leading. Alex did not question where they were going, but she was worried her patient's condition had taken a turn for the worse. As far as Alex could recall, she left Nathan in satisfactory condition. Of course, he was still seriously injured, and his health could deteriorate for any number of reasons

"Can you please tell me what is wrong?" Alex questioned once they were far enough away from eavesdroppers and prying eyes.

Mary paused a moment, clearly distressed. "I need you to go to my house. My best friend, Inez, she's been attacked!" Her voice faltered, and Alex understood just how bad the situation was because it appeared Mary was fighting to maintain her composure. Alex could see she was barely able to keep from sobbing and was holding herself together out of sheer will. "She's hurt." 

"Hurt? How?" Alex questioned. 

"I'm not sure! She's in a poor state" Mary snapped, descending into the black well of despair when her mind cast back to images of Inez at her doorsteps. Mary prayed her worst suspicions weren't correct. Inez had not admitted anything like that happened, but her condition was hard to ignore. 

"Mrs. Travis!" The doctor grabbed Mary by her shoulders to try and settle her down. "I'm going to see her, nothing will stop me from doing that, but you need to calm yourself." Alex tried to inject as much confidence in her voice to make Mary Travis understand the need to remain calm.

"I can't calm down!" Mary practically roared, removing herself from Alex's grip abruptly. "You didn't see. You don't know what they did to her . . . ." Mary could barely contain the unbelievable rage and disgust she felt churning in her stomach. She was so angry she could hardly think. Four Corners was her home! To think men who brutalized a woman to such a degree could be allowed to roam free in the place where she lived and hope to raise her son, shook Mary to the core.

Alex nodded gravely realizing at last what Mary was alluding to. The same wave of outrage gripped her, and she forced herself to remember she was a doctor. A patient needed help. 

"I'm sorry . . . Mrs. Travis, I mean Mary. "You need to be strong for Inez." Alex looked into her eyes and stated firmly. "You are not any good to her the way you are."

On that note, Alex reached her. Mary suppressed all the anger and bitterness she felt, focusing her energy on the support Inez would soon need. Mary began to calm down, breathing a little easier. "You're right," she swallowed hard. "I'm sorry." 

"Where is she now?" Alex asked now that Mary was more coherent.

"At my house," Mary answered and started walking again. As they made their way down the main street from the hotel, Mary saw Chris emerge from the saloon with Buck, Vin and JD following close behind.

"Chris!" Mary exclaimed, never feeling more relieved to see him. She did not care what anyone thought of her reputation any more, not after what might have happened to Inez. In the scheme of things, what other people thought about her mattered little now. Mary picked her up her skirts and crossed the street, before running straight into Chris's arms. Right now, she needed to feel his reassuring arms around her. She needed to hear his voice whispering in her ear, telling her everything would be all right because when Chris Larabee said it, it almost felt real.

He felt her arms wrap tightly around him and knew immediately something was wrong. She was not open to displays of affection like this and grip indicated this was more than just happiness to see him. When Chris straightened up, he looked into her face and was mildly shocked by what he saw there. She was distraught and now that far from hysterical.

"What's happened?" He asked, feeling tension knot his insides. If anyone had hurt, her . . . .

"It's Inez. She's at my house."

There was more to it than that. Mary's eyes more or less said it even if she not could tell him outright. Buck and Vin had heard enough to enter the conversation. Predictably it was Buck who started firing questions at her even before Chris could think to ask them. 

"Is she okay? Is she hurt? Where has she been?" The big man demanded until he noticed Alex Styles was walking towards the Clarion's office. Chris saw the color drain out of Buck's face as the lady doctor strode forward with a purpose unknown to them but could not be anything else. 

"Inez!" Buck started forward, but Mary reacted instantly to stop him. 

"No!" She hissed with more command in her voice than Chris had ever heard her use. The lawmen froze in his tracks. They all did. Mary met Buck's gaze so that he would understand what she could not say. "You can't go in there, Buck," Mary said trying to be kind because she knew just how much feeling there was in his eyes, how much fear she had seen when he understood Alex Styles was going to her house for Inez.

"She's gonna be alright. Ain't she?" His voice was soft, almost as if he needed to hear it even if it was untrue.

"She's been hurt, Buck." Mary could not bring herself to say the word, even though it hung in the air like a pregnant drop of water, waiting to fall. She turned to Chris and said softly. "Could we take this inside, please? It's not something to be spoken out in the open." 

"Jesus." Buck realized at last what the horrible truth in her eyes might be. Understanding escaped his lungs like air trapped for eternity. "Did they touch her?"

The anguish Mary saw in his face reached into her soul and burned its memory there forever. "I'm not sure," she admitted readily, feeling the beginnings of her tears at the memory of Inez's state. "Please," Mary implored, starting to feel the loss of her emotional control. "You can't go in there yet! She couldn't take seeing anyone right now!" 

Buck stared hard at Mary for a long time. She could see the rage in his eyes give way to a stronger emotion. She did not doubt that if Inez were indeed defiled, Buck Wilmington would kill every last one of them. However, he stood before her, shaking so hard from the rage but somehow reining it, banishing it to a place where it could be utilized later because Mary was right. 

"Chris, I'm going to back to the saloon." He said with a measured but thready voice. "I'd appreciate it if someone brings word to me when the Doc knows how she is." 

Chris watched him walk towards the jailhouse, knowing exactly what was running through his mind. It had been a long time since Chris had seen Buck Wilmington this way and the gunslinger had hoped he would never have to do so again. 

Not since Alice.

Alex found Inez in a tub of cold water.

The water had turned red from the blood she was washing off her skin. She had been so desperate to erase the stink of her attackers from her body that Inez had not bothered to heat the water or acknowledge her arm was broken. Alex paused at the door to the bathroom and watched her scrubbing the blood from her skin as Inez tried not to weep.

 As the blood came off her golden skin, Alex saw the bruises left behind no amount of soap or water could ever wash away. Alex's much vaunted professional detachment hollowed at the sight of the bite marks in her neck.

The injuries on her body could be hidden, but those inflicted on her face would not be so easy to disguise. The attractive features of the woman Alex met the night before was now marred with split lips, a jaw contorted by swelling and an eye battered so severely it was swollen shut. Alex doubted that she was even able to see through it. Alex could not even begin to imagine what this poor woman endured at the hands of the monsters who did this.

"Miss Inez," Alex announced herself.

Inez did not look up. "Go away." She said, biting down as she fought the urge to cry. Inez was not going to let them take away her dignity as easily as they had tried to violate her body.

This was never going to be easy. Alex had expected that much. When she had been practicing with her father, she encountered this. Her father always ordered her away, but it was a crime that had no geographical boundaries. Wherever there were cruel men, there were still women who suffered like this. 

"Miss Inez," Alex said gently, "let me help." 

"I don't want any help." Inez retorted, continuing to scrub her neck hard until the tough bristles made her skin raw.

"You're hurt." Alex tried again, refusing to give up. This was not a matter for debate; Inez had severe injuries needing treatment. Her healer's instincts would not allow her to withdraw. "Your arm appears to be broken. I need to set it."

Inez paused, considering her words even though she seemed farther away than Alex could reach. The doctor hoped she would not have to.

"I can't wash the smell away." She whispered, looking up at Alex for the first time. "Why?"\

"Because it's not on your skin anymore," Alex answered honestly, knowing of no other way to respond. She did not know if Inez was raped, but it was clear she had faced that danger, and it had left its mark upon her. "It's in your mind, and that's not something you can wash away."

"When I was little girl," Inez said, turning her head enough to meet her gaze. "My mother used to tell me I would be a beautiful woman when I grew up. So many things were possible for me because of this face. She said beautiful girls grew to marry rich men and get to live in villas with servants and fine carriages."

"I think I remember my father saying something like that too," Alex confessed, missing him profoundly now because he would know the right words to say.

"Do they all say that? "I did not want to be beautiful because I knew if I were, it would mean no one would care what was in my heart. Beauty had cost me everything that meant anything to me. I ran from my home because a man wanted to own this beautiful face and me. I protected my honor by leaving it all behind. I find a place where I think maybe I can get by on what's in my head, and I am reminded again there is a price that comes with beauty." She laughed without a trace of humor. "I think I am not so beautiful now."

How lucky Alex had been to be protected by a father who tried to shield her from such cruelties. His biggest fear was her inability to make her way through the world without him, and he'd prepared her, he'd cultivated her mind, made her love medicine as he did so she'd have a trade no one could dismiss. Even if she couldn't be a surgeon in any European hospital, just having the skills meant she'd always be able to earn a living.  He never wanted her forced into marriage with anyone she couldn't stand to survive. 

If it wasn't for him, she could have been in the same situation as Inez. 

"You're beautiful Inez," Alex stepped forward, noting Inez's soiled clothes and began searching the room for a robe.  "You're hurt, but you can get better, and you're strong so you can heal." 

Inez said nothing, letting the scrubbing brush slip from her hand before watching it disappeared in the murky red water.  She started sobbing, and despite the calluses, Alex was told she had to develop to practice her craft, Alex abandoned it to offer this undefeated woman her compassion and sympathy with a comforting embrace.

When Alex emerged from the guest bedroom that Mary had prepared for Inez's use, she found most Buck, Chris, Vin and Mary in the kitchen downstairs after Alex prescribed Inez mild sedative to help her sleep. Although she had composed herself enough by the time the painkiller became effective, Alex knew that there were deep wounds that no amount of medical knowledge could heal. Unfortunately, Inez was the only one who could decide how to administer her recovery.

The same atmosphere she had walked into the night before after Nathan's surgery, awaited Alex now. Only this time, they were waiting to hear how badly Inez was hurt. While Nathan's injuries were more severe than Inez, Alex wasn't sure if Inez's mental wounds weren't worse. 

Ezra was the last to arrive, having turned his saloon over to the ministrations of one of the more trustworthy working girls whom Inez once selected in the unlikely event either of them was indisposed. Leaving JD with Josiah to keep watch over Nathan, Ezra had bolted to the Clarion News when he learnt Inez was found. 

"I've given her something to sleep," Alex announced upon gaining their undivided attention at her entry into the room. Why is it she only saw these people under such circumstances? "Her arm is broken, and three of her ribs are cracked. There was a great deal of bruising, but nothing that will leave any permanent effect." 

Alex decided not to brutalize them with the ugly details of Inez's injuries, particularly the bite marks and cigar burns. They were outraged enough by the whole affair, and while their faces showed concern for Inez, Alex saw their fury was barely contained.  In Buck Wilmington, his expression was beyond rage, and certainly beyond Alex's ability to describe it.

"I suggest she stay here for a while." Alex looked at Mary. It was apparent they were close friends, and Inez would need all the support she could get. "She will need time to recuperate, preferably without having to deal with people."

"She can stay here as long as she likes," Mary stated, requiring no thought whatsoever on the matter.

"I will give you some medication for her in the event she has difficulty sleeping," Alex added.

"Is that necessary?" Mary asked. She felt completely out of her depth in this matter because she could not even begin to imagine what Inez was going through.

"Yes," Alex answered without hesitation before she realized she needed to explain further. "She was not raped, but it was close. From what I was able to get from her, they took her somewhere in the woods to do it." Alex's stomach knotted at the idea of being trapped somewhere in the middle nowhere, with monsters intent on harming and no help in sight. "She fought them hard, which explains her condition. From what she tells me, she pretended to lose consciousness, and when they turned their back on her, she made a run for it. She was out there in there running from them for hours. It's a miracle she wasn't caught." 

At least that was something, Chris thought, but it was cold comfort to Buck for whom this entire situation was all too familiar

Chris, who was the only one who had any practiced control over his emotions, let out a deep sigh and moved onto the burning question in all their minds. Buck, Ezra and Vin were too close to it, and Mary had fallen silent again. The widow had been sitting quietly, staring into the black depths of her coffee cup, as if the dark could offer her some insight into why this had happened to Inez. "Did she say who they were?"

"No," Alex answered automatically, anticipating the question. "She wasn't able to see them. They were wearing something over their faces. She told me a little of it when I was setting her arm. There were three of them. They dragged her off the street and knocked her out. When she came to, she couldn't recognize where she was but judging how long it took her to get back. It was someplace out of town."

Buck's knuckles turned white.

Knowing Chris was unsatisfied with that information, Alex wondered if he would make some clumsy attempt to question Inez later. Hoping to prevent any such action on his part, Alex further added. "She is extremely traumatized, Mr. Larabee. The experience is bad enough without having to relive it repeatedly. I am sorry there isn't more information to impart, but as her physician, I'll be damned if I let anyone try getting it from her."

"Lay off, Chris," Buck warned, taking his attention away from the very determined Alex Styles. The threat in his voice was clear. Chris let it go understanding what was motivating Buck's rage. Chris, more than anyone, knew what Buck was going through and was willing to make allowances for his behavior.

Despite what Doctor Styles believed, Chris had no intention of questioning Inez further, even though he would have liked to do so. Although the woman could be overbearing, Chris admired the new doctor's resolve to protect her patient. In that way, she and Nathan Jackson had much in common.

"Why, Inez?" Vin quickly interjected, trying to diffuse the powder keg of tension in the room. Emotions were running hot all around at the moment, and it would not help things if they started fighting amongst themselves. Inez was his friend too, and he cared for her deeply, but Vin did not want their tempers to become more of a liability than it already was. It was clear to him the men who had abducted Inez had intended worse to engender this very reaction. "I don't get it. She's our friend but we ain't any closer than that. There was no reason for this."

"You think it's the same men who shot Nathan?" Mary asked, shocked by the possibility that someone could be so callous as to use Inez in such a terrible way simply because of her association with the seven.

"Someone is going to a great deal of trouble to inconvenience us," Ezra said taking a sip of coffee 

Alex noticed that his fingers were wrapped so tightly around the cup that he was in danger of breaking if he did not loosen his grip. She wondered what exactly was the relationship between the gambler and Inez. Despite his outwardly calm manner, her insight was telling her that he was barely maintaining his composure.

"Inconvenience!" Buck exploded at his choice of words. "You call what they tried to do to her an inconvenience!" He started towards Ezra intending to carry out the threat his voice implied.

Ezra held his ground, but Chris was not about to let this turn into a brawl. The man in black stood up from his chair and intercepted Buck in two smooth strides. Chris locked his fingers around Buck's arm in a secure grip and held firm. 

"Stand down Buck," Chris ordered coolly even though his voice oozing with predatory command. 

"Go to hell," Buck said, yanking his arm away sharply. His anger had gone beyond his ability to control, and he no longer gave a damn about trying. "I been through this once already with Alice, I want whoever tried to do this to Inez sent to hell."

With that, Buck stormed out of the kitchen, slamming the front door on his way out and leaving his friends staring in stunned silence.

No one spoke for a few seconds because they were reeling in shock at Buck's uncharacteristic outburst. The enraged man was a far cry from the good-natured person they had become accustomed to knowing over the last year. They knew he cared for Inez a great deal, and while they understood his rage at her assault only too well, there seemed to be something else driving his anger.

"What's gotten into him?" Vin said mystified. "I ain't never seen him like this. I know Inez is hurt bad, but it could be worse."

"It's not his fault," Ezra said quietly. "I am experiencing similar feelings towards our unseen enemy."

"It looks to me like someone is trying very hard to hurt all of you and if you don't mind me saying so," Alex added her voice to the debate. "It's working. Whoever this enemy of yours is, they know you very well, and they are making their attack very personal."

"Absolutely." Chris agreed, glad that there was one other person in the room was thinking clearly.

"So, we are looking for someone with the means and the motive." Ezra sighed. "There is any number of people that fit that description. Unfortunately, Nathan being a Negro, made him an easy target. Except ourselves and Mrs. Travis, who else was going to make a fuss about a black man being shot?"

"True." Mary found herself admitting reluctantly. Even though it was impossible for them to see Nathan as anything but their friend, it was easy to forget that not everyone in Four Corners felt the same way about him. The war of the states was still fresh in the minds of many people and many who still considered Negroes to be a slave race.

"Putting the price on my head from five hundred dollars to two thousand makes me a tastier bounty. Whoever did that had to know that I'd rather leave then let this town suffer because of me. They also know my connection to the Indian village."

"But then what possible reason could anyone have to hurt Inez?" Mary looked at the faces in the room, hoping that they would have an answer. "There has been no indication that Buck and Inez had a relationship at all. It's been more adversarial than romantic."

"Who is this, Alice?" Vin asked.

"I have no idea," Ezra confessed. There had been so many women in Buck's life; it was almost impossible to pinpoint one particular name. In the last year or so, Ezra had been privy to dozens of women who had breezed in and out of Buck Wilmington's bed. Although, he had to admit being unable to recall an Alice at any point.

Chris said nothing, but he was secretly debating whether or not he should tell the others about Alice Sullivan. Perhaps if they knew why Buck felt so damn strongly about what had happened to Inez, it would make it easier for them to understand the demons he was facing at this moment.

"Chris?" Mary recognized the look in Chris' eyes that said otherwise.

There was hesitation in his manner as he tried to decide whether he could trust Alexandra Styles and furthermore, whether he was willing to talk about Alice Sullivan. It was so long ago, but the memories were vivid, almost as vivid as Buck's terrible anguish. However, Buck's behavior demanded an explanation from his friends and the woman who had saved Nathan's life and come to Inez's aid without question did the rare thing of earning his trust.

"This goes way back," Chris finally responded, never for a moment believing how difficult it was to let those first words slip past a lifetime of guarded privacy. He saw confusion in their faces as no one seemed to understand the relevance, but Chris knew of no other way to even begin telling the story. "I was 19 years old when I joined the Union Army. It was as bloody as most wars got, and I saw a lot of good men die. Things like that can change a man, kills the person he might have been and leaves a stranger in his place. I wore the blue for three years, and when it was over, I was different."

"You were a Union soldier?" Ezra said with some surprise and a hint of skepticism. Chris' personality did not lend itself well to authority, but then as Chris had already stated, he was 19 years and probably nothing like the dangerous man they now knew.

"A lieutenant when the war ended if you believe," Chris said with a faint smile. Somewhere in the ashes of the farm where Sarah and Adam buried was also the remains of a blue uniform and a sabre buried in the rubble. "After the war, I travelled around a lot, didn't feel the need to settle anywhere. I got into bounty hunting because I was good at it, and I knew I wasn't going be much of a farmer."

Mary listened with as much fascination as the others in the room did with her. Before Sarah and Adam, almost nothing was known of Chris Larabee's origins beyond the fact he was a gunslinger. Mary had never intruded on that earlier life because it felt like prying. She loved him enough to allow him his secrets and was patient that he would tell her when it was right for him to do so. While she regretted the circumstances under which he was forced to reveal himself, she was nevertheless curious.

"I ended up in Crescent Falls where I ran into Buck. We served together during the war." Chris thought about that meeting. Had it been that long already? Sometimes, Chris could hardly believe the speed at which time travelled. "He wouldn't leave me alone. Every time, he rode in from the Bledsoe ranch, if he saw me in the saloon, he'd come over and try to get friendly. Buck seemed to think I needed the company." 

"I can't imagine why," Ezra remarked with a straight face.

Chris threw him a look and then continued. "Buck was a ranch hand with Keith Blesdoe. Believe it or not, he was actually engaged and was saving most of his money to marry this girl. She was a pretty thing and his first real love. I've never seen him fall so hard." 

Images of the lady in question brushed past his memories — Alice with her blue bonnet, hiding her sun-streaked hair and her laughing green eyes. Chris had to admit to being taken with her even though she was always Buck's. "Her name was Alice Sullivan."

It was hard for the others to imagine Buck to be so smitten by any woman enough to think of marriage. If anything, Buck had always shown how reluctant he was to the idea of matrimony, but then this offered some explanation about that as well.

"Back then, Crescent Falls was under the control of a rancher named James Westbrook. Westbrook owned most of the town and the sheriff too. He had three boys; one of whom was called Damien. Damien had a reputation for hurting women all across town. Of course, his daddy saw to it that the law didn't touch him, and his men had a way of convincing anyone brave enough to want justice to think otherwise." 

Chris did not need to elaborate. Everyone in the room was aware of that kind of persuasion. 

"Buck had just left town for a couple of weeks on a cattle trail when Damien Westbrook came across Alice. When he was done with her, you could barely recognize her. He raped her, but that was not enough for him. He liked to hurt, and Alice had no one to protect her except a father who was too old do anything but drink himself to death after."

"How did Buck take it?" Mary asked, understanding the pain she saw in Buck's eyes so much better now. No doubt, he was being subjected to the return of some long-buried nightmares. To have the same thing happened to someone once was bad enough, let alone enduring it a second time. Fate could sometimes be very unkind. Her heart went out to him wherever he was at this moment.

"He didn't know, and by the time he got back, it was too late. She killed herself." 

Chris remembered how he rode into town and heard the news. Buck had yet to return from the trail and was not even aware his bride had been violated, let alone suicided. Someone told Chris that she had drowned herself in the river, wearing the dress she would have been married in a few short weeks later. Chris rode out that very night and found Buck, deciding his best friend was not going to hear the news from any stranger.

"Did they get him?" JD asked, thinking if it were his fiancée, the man who dared hurt her that way would not be still breathing.

"The law in Crescent Falls did nothing as expected, and I stopped Buck from doing anything stupid." Chris volunteered. "A man with urges like that will eventually make a mistake, and so I made Buck wait. Not long after, Damien went to Bitter Creek and ended up murdering a girl up there. This time, not even his daddy's money was going to save him. However, James Westbrook was not going to let his boy go to jail, so he took Damien back to Crescent Falls and made sure no one came for the boy. Anyone who did usually ended up dead."

"Don't tell me this scoundrel got away with his crime," Ezra exclaimed with unconcealed disgust. 

"No, he didn't," Chris replied shortly. "Bounty hunters came and went, some dead and some alive, but eventually Damien Westbrook did hang."

He remembered accompanying Buck to Bitter Creek for Damien Westbrook's trial. The rapist was entitled to a jury of his peers, and his family money had brought the best lawyer in town to defend him. Unfortunately, there were just too many witnesses who had seen him with the murdered girl and eventually, other young women from Crescent Falls surfaced to tell their story. With James Westbrook dead, they had little reason to fear any repercussions of their actions. The jury had deliberated for less than a day before they found Damien Westbrook guilty.

"Who brought him in?" Vin probed further.

"Chris did," Buck said, announcing his return. He seemed calmer than when he left, and the expression of regret on his face told them he had used the time alone to calm down. "Chris spent a month at Westbrook's' property working as a ranch hand and on Christmas night when all the hands and hired guns had gone to town to celebrate, Chris went in and got him."

Chris' gaze dropped to the floor because that was one night that he had no wish to remember or relate. The memory of the dead still bothered him, even now Chris wondered if Sarah and Adam's death was punishment for his actions that night.

"You promised me you would handle it, and you did." Buck looked at Chris with a look of apology, laced with the barest hint of a smile. After a moment of unspoken regard, Buck turned to Ezra. "I'm sorry I was out of line, Ezra."

"It's been forgotten Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said graciously in complete sympathy. "I understand what you're feeling."

"I don't think you do," Buck replied without any trace of malice, but it was the truth. He doubted anyone could appreciate what he was going through. "But, I appreciate the sentiment."

"Well, I have to go," Alex said, deciding she could not remain here for long. She had another patient to deal with, and her visit to Nathan Jackson was already delayed longer than she would have liked. Despite his stable condition, he was nowhere out of the woods, and she wanted to keep a close eye on him until then. Alex could hardly believe the last two days. It seemed that she had arrived right in the middle of some dime store novel that was quickly spiraling from one terrible event to another. "I need to see how Mr. Jackson is doing."

"Ezra, go with her," Chris replied automatically.

"Are we on that again?" Alex complained. "I do not need an escort."

"Doctor Styles." Chris stared at her with those intense blue eyes that immediately conveyed to her that she was not going to win any argument against this man. "Dangerous men are running out there who may not appreciate the help you've been giving us. We're not letting put your life at risk without at least making some effort to protect you. So, get used to one of us being around you for the duration."

"Your kindness is overwhelming." She said dryly before letting out a visible groan of exasperation and turning to Mary. "Is he always like this?"

Mary rolled her eyes. "Don't get me started."

Although the saloon was not far from Mary Travis' home, the silence between Ezra and Alex seemed to stretch that small distance longer than usual. She knew Ezra was consumed with thoughts of Inez' welfare and so she did not force conversation from him. After having to treat the woman's injuries, Alex did not feel the need to speak either.

"Inez is a survivor Ezra." Alex broke the silence. "She'll come through this."

Ezra looked up at her, and at that moment, he seemed nothing like the sophisticated, charming gambler and con man she had come to know. In his blue eyes, she saw sorrow and grief.

"I feel like I should have been able to prevent this. It never occurred to me that Inez might be in danger. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense they would strike at her to get to us. Besides Mrs. Travis, she is the only other person who means that much to us, not just Buck."

"You can't blame yourself. It's not your fault."

"I know that," Ezra answered but sounding not at all convinced of what he was saying. "It's just that she means a great deal to me. Until I arrived in Four Corners, I sadly lacked in any real friendships. Besides the men I ride with and Mrs. Travis, Inez is the only other person I can truly call a friend."

"Is just friendship?" Her curiosity was getting the better of her.

"While Buck Wilmington may hope to conjure something more than friendship in his relations with Inez, I do not. She's like the sister I always wanted and never had. The woman acts as my conscience, and god knows I've gotten to use to her being around in the last few months."

She nodded at his answer and Ezra wondered if she was interested in reasons other than curiosity.

Even though he had known her for less than a day, he was attracted to her. How could he not be, she was lovely and judging by her actions, kind and compassionate.

"Miss Styles, I would like to be with you on a slow riverboat sailing the Mississippi with New Orleans behind us." He stared into her brown eyes that flowed into his soul like warm chocolate. "I'd like to see the lights of a river in your eyes and see the wind in your hair. It would be truly heavenly to gaze upon you at that moment, Miss Styles." 

"Now, how am I supposed to let you call me Miss Styles when you say things like that?" She smiled, grateful her coloring hid the blush on her cheeks. Men always found her attractive, mostly because of her skin. It was a novelty. Once they discovered she was a woman of strong opinions and independence, their interest dwindled rapidly. Alex was okay with this, conditioned by her father to ignore her reliance on her looks, though he did insist on comportment.   

"I don't know," Ezra said, taking a step closer towards her and was encouraged when she did not move away. "It just doesn't feel right to call you, Alex."

"Doesn't it?" She responded, becoming aware of his closeness and was unable to ignore the effect of this intimacy on her. She could feel his breath brushing against her skin, leaving slivers of tiny delight in its wake. "What would you call me then?"

"Beautiful," he said without having to think twice. His voice was husky, and Ezra could see the slight part in her lips that whispered its desire to him. "Enchanting." He drew even closer to her until he could feel the rough fabric of her dress against his waistcoat. "Maybe just, Alexandra."

For the first time since she had breezed into town, he saw her self-assured manner evaporated. He could feel her breath caressing his skin, and her perfume lingered just enough for him to savor it with relish. He was never so presumptuous with any woman, but he had the feeling Alex did not like to be treated as if something to be worshipped or adored, as southern men were taught to do with women. For as long as he could remember, he had been told to treat a woman like a lady when it was better to treat them like a person.

Tentatively, his hand slid into hers, fingers interlocking and delighting in the seduction of touch. He let his thumb circle the small of her palm slowly, his fingers stroking each knuckle with delicate care, feeling the curve of bone and the velvet softness of her skin. He felt Alex shudder at the subtle movements of his fingertips across her flesh and felt a corresponding chill of pleasure. Wordlessly, he raised her hand to his lips, never once marring the moment with anything as banal as conversation. 

Reality intruded with the loud and abrupt creak of a plank from further up the boardwalk. Alex snatched her hand back as if scalded and Ezra took a respectable step backwards as their eyes followed the approaching of a passer-by with no idea what he had interrupted. 

"Perhaps, we better see how Nathan is doing." Alex swallowed thickly, trying to dispel the flushed feeling running through her.

"I think that would best." Ezra cleared his throat with similar discomfiture to ignore disappointment at the opportunity lost.

"Vin, I want you to stay out of sight tomorrow, but I still want you in town," Chris said after giving thought to what they should do next. The situation has escalated beyond any of their worst imaginings, and it was time to go on the offensive before things deteriorated any further. Mary's kitchen was becoming an unofficial venue for their council of war and Chris did not intend to waste what little time they had left before some other crisis appeared. Their opponent was orchestrating a chess game with the seven already several steps behind.

"That's not a good idea, Chris." Vin pointed out. "Men are going to be coming after me." 

He refused to endanger anyone else because of him. A two-thousand-dollar reward was going to bring out some of the best professional bounty hunters in search of his head. These were ruthless men capable of anything. Vin shuddered to think what they would do to those around him to collect that bounty.

"I know, but it's not wise to separate right now." The leader of the seven had come to the firm conclusion that their enemy was attempting to divide them by attacking the people around them as they had done with Inez. The state Buck was in and to some extent, Ezra, confirmed this much to him. "Mary, if you don't mind, I'd like Vin to stay here."

"Certainly," Mary agreed without hesitation. After what had happened to Inez, Mary was going to have her hands full looking after her friend. Besides, her reputation was safe with Inez in the house. "You're welcome to remain as long as you like Mr. Tanner."

"I don't want to intrude, Ma'am," Vin said quickly, showing in his expression aimed at Chris, just how much he did not like this idea. 

"You'll be protecting Mary and Inez, Vin." Chris retorted before any further argument arose on this subject. "After what happened to Inez, I'm not happy to let either of them out of my sight."

"Chris, I still have a paper to run . . . " she pointed out. While she was willing to accept some protection, she had other responsibilities too.

"Mary," Chris met her gaze with a look of determination that told her it was unwise to argue. He would be unmovable on this subject. "These men are capable of anything as we've found out and I won't let them harm either you or Inez any more. I also don't want you unprotected while this thing is still going on."

"Alright," she conceded the point, knowing that he was right — this time. However, on reflection, she realized the men who abducted Inez were still out there and in light of the rumors circulating town about her relationship with Chris, it was safe to assume she had made herself a ripe target.

"Chris," Buck spoke for the first time. He had been quietly drinking his coffee, trying to keep thoughts about Inez far from his mind. However, the notion of Vin staying at Mary Travis' home brought to mind something else that happened today. "Maybe Vin staying here is not such a good idea."

Chris turned to him and wondered if anyone was listening to him today. "Why not?"

Buck shifted uncomfortably where he stood, uncertain of how he was going to tell his friend about the gossip that had been running rife through town about him and Mary. Buck was not even sure Mary was aware of the situation. He wondered if he should be the one to tell them. As the silence grew louder and all eyes were looking to him for an answer, Buck decided he did not have much choice, and Chris and Mary had a right to know.

"I've been hearing talk all day," Buck said reluctantly.

"Talk?" Chris looked at him, not understanding.

While Vin and Chris seemed unaware of what he was talking about, Buck saw Mary's face tell a different story. She had been seated at the kitchen table, and as soon as he made mention of ‘talk', her eyes dropped, unable to meet his gaze. She knew, Buck decided. She knew what was being said and was still willing to have Vin in her house, despite the rumor mongering that would build into a frenzy when his presence was discovered. God, what a woman.

"I didn't find out much about any strangers in town today, but everyone was talking, alright." Buck volunteered reluctantly, his eyes still on Mary.

"About?" Chris wondered since when had it become so painstaking to make Buck Wilmington talk.

"About you and Mrs. Travis sleeping together."

Chris blinked and stared at him in a mixture of astonishment and pure outrage.

"WHAT?" He exclaimed in the angriest voice Mary had ever heard him use. It made her jump. "Who's been talking?"

Vin immediately put down his cup of coffee and strode in between them. "Take it easy, Chris." He said firmly.

Chris paused and turned away, looking at Mary and realizing at that moment, nothing that Buck had said was surprised her. She was aware of the gossip and had said nothing to him!

"Mary?" He looked at her sternly.

"I had a visit from Victoria Kendall this morning," Mary admitted reluctantly, knowing there was no avoiding it now. While she had not deliberately kept the scandal away from him, she had to confess a certain hesitation in bringing it up. In all truth, there had been hardly time to think about the lady's visit earlier when so much else was happening around them.

"Who?" Neither Buck nor Chris recognized the name.

"Victoria Kendall," Mary repeated. "She's the owner of the Emporium."

"Oh yeah" Buck retorted feeling some of his humor return. "Chris is pretty familiar with the Emporium."

Chris threw him an evil glare before remarking sharply. "This is hardly the time, Buck."

Nevertheless, Buck was smiling, and that was a good sign, Chris had to admit, even if it was at his expense. "I've never seen her."

"How odd," Mary mused, thinking that everyone must have been aware by Victoria Kendall by now. Her arrival in town and the establishment of the Emporium had attracted much attention. "She's the woman who is always escorted by a man named Wilkins. Surely, you've seen Mr. Wilkins. He is a big man with a very odd scar running on the side of his head like he had been hit with an axe or something."

"I know him." Vin offered having seen the man around town on occasion. "I've seen him at the hotel, but I thought the lady was his wife."

Something about how Mary had described the man suddenly jarred loose a memory in light of his recent recollection of his past. It rose up in his mind like dank water from some forgotten pool in his mind and what emerged was not all pleasant. Chris looked at her sharply. "Sort of dark hair with not much on top and a big moustache, like Buck's?" He probed, suddenly having an awful feeling about the elusive Mrs. Kendall and her unseen companion.

"That's him." Mary nodded in answer. "You have seen him."

"No." Chris shook his head. However, his face belied his words. "What did she say, this Mrs. Kendall?" Chris replied softly, not interested in her answer because his thoughts were too preoccupied with Wilkins and the possibilities that came with him.  If it weren't his recollections about the Westbrooks, Chris would not have even considered it.

"Only that she heard stories about us," Mary said unhappily that they were back on this subject. It seemed as if Chris did know Mr. Wilkins but was being very evasive about it. She made a mental note to question him about it when they were alone. "She came to warn me that the town was talking about me and that I should be concerned. Mr. Wilkins claimed you had been telling people about us."

"That's a lie." Vin retorted before Chris could open his mouth to defend himself against such an allegation.

"I know that," Mary replied, meeting Chris's gaze with a look of affection. "However, she thought I ought to know."

Chris gave her a smile meant only for her, pleased that she trusted him enough to know he was incapable of doing anything of the sort. However, things were falling quickly into place now that he had somewhere to begin. After a moment, he took a deep breath and uncovered their next course of action. "Mary, I need you to wire the judge." He instructed after a moment. "I need him to contact someone at Tascosa and see if the reward money came from Crescent Falls."

Both Buck and Vin turned to him immediately.

"Crescent Falls?" Mary exclaimed in surprise. "Why Crescent Falls?" Then she recalled the story that Chris had told them earlier.

"Because this Mr. Wilkins sound a hell of a lot like Willis."

"You don't mean Saul Willis?" Buck's eyes narrowed in recognition of the name. Suddenly, he had a good idea of what was going through Chris' mind. It now made sense why neither of them had the chance to come across the man. If he were who they think he was, Wilkins would have taken great pains to avoid them. Even after thirteen years, he could not afford for them to recognize him. Both Buck and Chris knew Willis or Wilkins as he now called himself, on sight. If either of them had seen the man, this twisted plan of vengeance might have died before it even had a chance to begin.

"I'm going down there, Buck." Chris announced firmly. Now was as good a time as any. "You are coming?" He needed answers and he no longer believed that they could afford to wait.

"Damn, straight," Buck said without question and in complete agreement now that he knew who they might be up against.

"What's going on?" Vin demanded, exasperated at being left in the dark. "Who is this Willis?"

Chris and Buck exchanged glances, and the look in each man's eyes spoke volumes regarding their certainty that this was their mysterious opponent. Finally, it was Buck who answered. "He was one of the hired guns at the Westbrook place."

Nathan Jackson was alive. 

No one was more surprised by this than Nathan himself. The first thing to convince Nathan he was in the land of the living was the clunky sound of a piano playing in the background and the low rumble of drunks in the saloon. It was just his luck to be shot and be required to convalesce over a saloon. The noise did nothing to alleviate the throbbing pain in his head or the sharper pain that seemed concentrated on his torso and abdomen. 

As he tried to gain his bearings, a difficult enough task considering everything in the room was spinning about uncontrollably. It was at this point that he arrived at the brilliant deduction perhaps he should try to get up. That effort caused pain so intense it was enough to force his teeth together and extract a groan of exquisite agony.

"Nathan?" He heard Josiah's voice call out to him.

Despite the pain, his head felt light as if filled with cotton instead of flesh and bone. It took time to focus on Josiah's voice or the man's location in the room. At least he was able to hear Josiah footsteps approaching and after a moment of haze, saw enough of his surroundings to know that he was in Ezra's room above the saloon. He could see one of Ezra's familiar tailored coats hanging off the hook against a wall and a robe draped over the bedpost. 

When Josiah finally appeared at his side, the preacher was wearing a wide grin on his face, obviously pleased at seeing Nathan finally re-join the land of the living.

"It's good to see you brother," Josiah replied, pulling up a chair to the side of the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I been dragged under a stagecoach." Nathan croaked, his voice little more than a squeak. Instinctively, he reached for his throat and felt the bandage wrapped tightly around his neck. Tugging gently at it in irritation, he was rewarded with a fresh bout of pain as the ruined neck throbbed at his touch. In frustration, Nathan made another attempt at sitting up before he was forced to reconsider in light of the effort it took and the pain it engendered. Finally, he decided he ought to take the advice given to his comrades when they were injured and just stay where he was. 

"Settle down Nathan," Josiah said, placing his hand on his bare shoulder, requiring little effort to keep Nathan in bed. "You've been hurt bad. I wouldn't try moving around too much."

Nathan nodded weakly and then remembered the events that had brought him to this bed. The memories were as hazy as his senses, but enough of it returned in a swirl of images for him to recall some things quite clearly. Livid in his mind were the four men who had waited for him in the darkness of the night, taunting him with words like nigger before everything dissolved into a blaze of gunfire. The ground had claimed him with such speed that he still remembered dirt grinding against his cheek and the fearful awareness of the dying to come. 

"I remember." He said softly.

At this point, Nathan regained enough of his faculties to become curious about the fresh bandages around his body and the fact he was indeed alive after such severe injuries. It appeared he had been under the ministrations of a skilled surgeon because the healer in him remembered how badly he was hurt. Since he was the only person close to being a doctor in these parts, Nathan wondered who had taken care of him. "Did you get the sawbones in Bitter Creek to fix me up?" He inquired.

"No," Josiah shook his head. "There wasn't time to get you to Bitter Creek. The new doctor arrived the day you went to the village."

"Lucky for me," Nathan mumbled but felt some relief his injuries had been tended to by a professional and not some horse doctor. Although he could not see the injuries beneath the bandages, Nathan knew he was under the care of a capable surgeon because he was still alive.

The door swung open with a gentle creak, and a decidedly feminine voice entered the room. "How's my patient doing Josiah?"

"He's awake," Josiah announced cheerfully.

"Now, that is good news." Nathan saw Ezra's voice responding with just as much pleasure. The gambler was wearing a genuine grin of happiness on his face, and Nathan wondered just how long he had been unconscious to receive such an overwhelming show of affection from these usually dispassionate men. However, his attention was focused mostly on the woman who was his doctor. She was stunning, although she did not look at all like a Negro or an Indian. He had no idea what she was except she bore the refined polish of western culture. 

She breezed past Josiah who immediately vacated his seat for her and stood aside while she conducted her business with Nathan. "How are we feeling Mr. Jackson?"

Nathan found his voice although a moment later, he wished he had not. "You're the doctor?"

"Well enough to be chauvinistic, I see," Alex replied unperturbed as she began carrying out a quick examination of his bandages and his general physical state.

"I'm sorry Ma'am," Nathan apologized with embarrassment. "Miss Travis said nothing about the doctor being a lady. I was just a little surprised." He admitted honestly. "You do good work. By rights, I should be dead."

"Well, thank you," Alex said, seeing the sincerity in his apology. By the deep concern shown by his friends, Alex guessed Nathan was a good man and an exceptional healer.  From what Mary told her, Nathan had been the sole provider of medical help in this community.  An amazing effort from a man whose experience came from a field hospital. 

"How bad was I hurt?" He asked although Alex guessed he was intelligent enough to have some idea.

"Do you want the technical version or the layman's terms I give to your friends?" She winked at him playfully. He managed a small laugh and that pleased Alex considerably. Someone had once told her humor was the best medicine, and she had used it enough in the past to know it was true.   

"I do believe we were insulted," Ezra remarked, meeting her gaze with a look of mock hurt

"We'll live." Josiah deadpanned, as he was more interested in her evaluation of Nathan's recovery.

"You were shot in the chest. The bullet missed your heart but penetrated your lung and almost collapsed. The second bullet went through your liver, but I found no bullet and an exit wound. I did what I could through surgery, but this is frontier medicine so I will be honest with you, recovery will be slow. Your throat was grazed, but that injury is mostly superficial. The bullet caused some mild swelling, which is why you're not in the best singing voice. "

"So, I'm alright." He said with a weak smile.

"Better than most with your injuries," Alex added for the benefit of Josiah and Ezra who needed to hear at least one person in their life would recover without any permanent effects. She wished she was able to help Inez with that much certainty. "Then again most people don't have the friend you do either." She remarked, casting a gaze at the two men standing vigil at the foot of his bed. 

"Thank you, Miss," Nathan replied, glancing at them gratefully. He felt a certain amount of burden eased from his shoulders, knowing that his recovery would not be detrimental to the health of Four Corners since it appeared that the new doctor had things well in hand at the moment.

"My pleasure, Mr. Jackson," She smiled warmly, "I have no intention of becoming the only practicing physician in this town."

"Nathan," Josiah said coming forward, with a decidedly serious issue to discuss. Alex gave him a cautionary look that implied she did not wish him interrogated. Josiah could ask his question, but Alex did not want Nathan upset in any way. He was simply too weak to cope with the stress of such a thing. "Do you know who did this to you?"

Nathan thought back to the events of that night no longer requiring fighting the haze that seemed to have lifted from his mind. His strongest memories were that of the man who had shot him, not the others with him. Ironically when his assailant fired his weapon, the flash created by the explosion of gases had lit the man's features enough for Nathan to recognize him. He remembered feeling some confusion as to why in a split second before the bullet tore through his body.

"I don't know his name," Nathan said, taking a deep breath and felt the action difficult. "But he's a friend of that lady who owns the Emporium." 

"You mean Mrs. Kendall?" Ezra exclaimed, knowing the woman well. When she had first arrived, he had entertained notions of charming the homely lady, made attractive by her sizeable fortune. However, Ezra learned she was in the company of a Mr. Wilkins, a somewhat shady looking gentleman who created gossip regarding the mighty scar running along the side of his face, and he abandoned the idea.

"You know this person?" Josiah looked at Ezra in question.

"Why yes," he nodded mutely, mystified as to why this man would want to shoot Nathan. "I have seen him on occasion with Mrs. Kendall, but why would he want to attack Nathan?"

"Perhaps, you should ask him." Alex declared.

"I think that's an excellent idea." Josiah agreed. "Come on, Ezra." He gestured to the gambler before turning to Alex. "We'll leave JD here to keep an eye on things. You think you can keep Nathan company a while?"

Alex glanced at Nathan and nodded with a smile. "I think I can manage."

As the two men started to walk out, Alex called out to Ezra before he left the room. "Mr. Standish?"

Ezra looked over his shoulder at her.

"Don't assume that everyone is susceptible to that charming smile of yours." She said, trying to hide her concern for his welfare. "Watch yourself."

"I never refuse the advice of a lady." He smiled, tipping his hat to her before disappearing out the room after Josiah.

Nathan watched the exchange between the two of them and realized then there was more to their subtle looks and gestures that anyone might have guessed.  When they were alone, Nathan stared at her and remarked with genuine sincerity.

"Miss, you're in more trouble than I am."

 

Chapter Five:

Crescent Falls

It was raining the night he rode away. 

He remembered looking up at the sky, searching for the stars while indulging a rare hope that one of those twinkling lights was Alice telling him she was okay. Thick cumulous clouds of grey glared back at him, allowing no such revelation, choosing instead to mirror the dark in his grieving soul. 

In truth, he had tried to keep a brave face for as long as he could. He could not bring himself to disrupt Alice's eternal rest with his sadness. She used to delight in his ability to make her laugh and being unable to do so now made her seem farther away than death had already taken her. When Chris had found him on the trail, he knew she was gone even before the words were spoken. He had not understood how he knew, but he sensed her slipping away from him, even before Chris arrived to confirm the fact. 

The funeral was over by the time he returned to Crescent Falls. All there was left for him was to say his farewells to a wooden cross with her name scrawled upon it. He remembered standing before the fresh mound of earth, trying to associate it with her and being at a loss to understand why he could not see her in the dirt. He had not cried then. He refused to allow the town to see Damien Westbrook had taken that from him too. The well of grief remained hidden even after Chris had brought Damien to Bitter Creek and a hangman's noose.  

He left Crescent Falls forever almost a month after Damien had swung. It would be some months before he and Chris ran into each other again, but he always expected they would. Something about their friendship was incapable of dissolving no matter how much time had passed. He quit his job with Keith Blesdoe, who understood his pain and the need to remove himself from all that would only remind him of the bride that would never be his. 

He was a young man with a wad full of cash meant for a parcel of land and a proper honeymoon. It was later spent on drinking himself into oblivion for the next six months. What had at Crescent Falls and immediately after it became a blur that no longer held any significance to him. It was the journey to leave it behind that remained affixed in his mind.

The rain had been relentless, pelting down on him with such force his hat drooped around his ears and not even his oilskins were able to keep out the large droplets of water. His horse trudged through the mud and water, unhappy about travelling in such weather but almost empathically understanding its master needed to be away from the place left behind. He had barely noticed the dreadful chill in his bones as he rode through the night, putting distance between himself and that wooden cross in the churchyard.

In the darkness of wet and cold, he finally shed the tears that had remained pent up for so long. It was possibly the first time in his life that Buck Wilmington had cried. He swore it would be the last.

"Buck, are you okay?"

The voice brought him back to the present, and Buck glanced sideways to see Chris staring at him with concern. He shrugged off the memories, remembering that they were riding to Crescent Falls for a danger steeped in the present, not for the relic of some ancient pain.

"Yeah," he nodded. "I'm fine."

"Nothing much has changed," Chris commented, knowing how difficult this journey was for his friend. The two men had been riding most of the night. The conversation had been short and obligatory because each was battling their demons, the closer they came to the town. In the years since Alice, both Chris and Buck had given Crescent Falls a wide berth. For differing reasons, neither wanted to return to the town that had been the cause of so much violence and heartache.

"Towns like these usually don't. Things that happen get forgotten, and before long, no one remembers why or care when they do." Buck sighed. Although the track had changed, they would occasionally come across a turn of a road, or a tree stooped over in gnarled familiarity that triggered memories of the times they might have ridden by it. Not much was seen in the darkness but a brief moment of illumination from moonlight told them they were going in the right direction.

"Have you been back here since then?" Chris asked.

"No," Buck said shortly. "Do you go back to the farm?"

By the farm, Chris immediately realized he was talking about the abandoned Larabee property that once was home to Sarah and Adam.

"Only that one time," Chris confessed deciding Buck had made his point. He had no wish to revisit the homestead he had shared with his wife and son. Crescent Falls had the ignominy of feeling the same way to Buck.

"After you brought Westbrook in, I didn't see the point. Nothing for me there except bad memories."

"Fair enough," Chris said sympathizing. He wished he could say something to Buck that would make the hurt go away, but he was never very good at offering comfort. Nathan and Josiah were so much better at these things. However, Buck's silence, which was rare for Buck, prompted him to make some attempt. "Buck, Inez will be alright." He began wishing he had something more to add than that seemingly cliché response. "She's a strong woman. She'll recover."

Buck stiffened. Inez was still a fresh wound in his mind, tender and painful. He had not seen her before leaving for Crescent Falls, and he did not know whether he wanted to or not. "I know that, Chris. "If Willis is behind all this, you know why he picked Inez, don't you?"

Chris knew perfectly well why Inez was |elected. It had nothing to do with her being a friend of the seven or being exceptionally desirable. It had all to do with her being the woman of Buck Wilmington's supposed dreams.

Since her arrival in town, he had been pursuing her affections as a man possessed. Everyone in town knew about his feelings for Inez after the very public duel that he had fought in her honor. Despite the fact the relationship had not progressed beyond their verbal jousting, it was no secret; theirs was a romance in the forming. People watched in mild fascination, knowing it was a matter of time before the fiery relationship was finally consummated.

"You know what I can't help thinking." Buck swallowed thickly, staring at the trail ahead, unable to meet Chris' gaze. "Maybe if I hadn't run after her like I did, if I didn't make it so plain that I wanted her, maybe those men wouldn't have hurt her. You know they did it because it was a way to get at me. Just like Damien got at Alice." Even as he said it, the words felt revolting in his mouth.

Chris knew. He had known even before Buck had voiced it himself. Chris had hoped it would have escaped Buck's attention, but then Chris was often in the habit of underestimating his friend. He knew what would come with that realization, the guilt and self-loathing he lived with every day of his life. Even now, with Mary in his life, he could not wholly dispel it. 

"That's not true, Buck." He said hoping he sounded a damn sight more convinced that he felt.

"Yeah, it is Chris." Buck looked at him, and Chris saw the glistening in his eyes. "You know it." 

Buck's ability to bounce back, to see the good in every situation was why they had remained friends for so long. Despite everything, Buck always tried to be the perennial optimist that chased away the darkness from Chris soul. Chris valued that part of Buck and viewed it in envy because he would never know what it was like to feel so completely, without fear or reservation. Buck enjoyed living his carefree life despite the hurdles placed before him while Chris had to struggle every inch of the way to experience the slightest variation in his guarded existence.

"Listen to me," Chris said firmly, unprepared to let this go any further. "Alice was not your fault." His voice was sharp, and his tone was one that Buck was unable to ignore.

"Damien Westbrook raped her and beat her. She took her own life because of that. You did not kill Westbrook's family, I did. I'm the one who shot them all to hell and probably pissed off their hired gun so much he's come after me by taking revenge on everyone I care about. That includes you. What happened to Inez is his way of getting back at me by doing the one thing that would break you. Don't give him any more help."

"But…" Buck opened his mouth to speak, but Chris did not give him the chance.

"No buts. I need you clear and I need you focused. We don't know what's waiting for us in that town and I need to know I can't count on you? Can I?"

Buck took a deep breath. He had not agreed with what Chris had said but the words penetrated. "You can count on me, Chris."

"Good." Chris nodded slowly. 

Despite their understanding, the mood remained tense. Buck's silence was unnerving. Under normal circumstances, Buck's prattling would be incessant, and Chris had become accustomed to it during long journeys. Now it just bothered him.

"Today is Mary's birthday, you know," Chris could feel the wrapped box still inside his coat pocket. With everything that transpired over the past two days, there had been no opportunity to give her the present he had bought her. He also realized he had not even offered her a birthday wish and felt inordinately disturbed by the fact.

"I guessed," Buck replied, with a hint of the old Buck in his eyes. "I've never seen you jumpier than when you have to buy for a woman."

Chris glared at him. "I bought Sarah presents."

"Chris," Buck met his gaze sarcastically. "In the eight years you were married to that saint, did you ever buy her anything in town?"

His non-committal shrug was answer enough.

"Chris," Buck took a deep breath and decided to speak his mind while they were on the subject of Mary Travis. "You know you're going to have to do the right thing by her."

Chris shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, disliking any mention of this subject. Buck immediately read his body language as a warning to leave it alone, but today, Buck cared little for his welfare. Mary was his friend too, and the repercussions of the town's knowledge of her relationship with Chris would undoubtedly have a severe effect on her standing in the community. Mary functioned because she was considered a town leader, virtuous and brave, with particular emphasis on virtue.

"She's a good woman Chris," Buck continued, even though Chris was no longer staring at him but glaring into the dark as if will alone could deafen him to Buck's words. "Once people start talking, we both know they won't stop. If Willis is behind it, then chances are he's been watching you and Mary for some time now. Lord knows, he got a bead on the rest of us. Chances are good; someone has seen you leave Mary's in the morning. Her reputation is already in trouble, and she needs the paper to survive in Four Corners. You got to do the right thing and ask her to marry you."

"I asked her to marry me." 

"You did?" Buck looked at him in surprise. "What happened?"

"She said no." Came the taut reply.

"No?" This was getting even more bizarre by the minute. "Did she say why?"

Well, he revealed this much, Chris thought with irritation. There was no reason to keep the rest of it a secret. "She said we're not ready to be married."

Buck was right. It would be so much simpler if they were just married and he did want to marry her. He had not wanted anything so much since Sarah. He loved Mary with a passion he could hardly believe at times. It was not the soft, subtle kind of love he shared with Sarah where every experience was new and fresh. His passion for Mary was intense and paralyzing. When they made love, it was not just an act of consummation. It was a marathon of torrid, steamy, sensuality. He could go mad from the desire of just thinking about it. How was any man supposed to keep himself away from that once experienced?

"And what did you do?" Buck probed further, knowing Chris was not prone to such revelations and took advantage while he was in mind to talk.

"I said okay." He looked at Buck quizzically, as if there could be any other answer.

Buck rolled his eyes and looked at him incredulously. "You said okay and left it at that?"

"What was I supposed to do?" Chris barked back. He found himself examining his actions that day coming back from Sweetwater and wondering if what he had done was wrong in light of Buck's expression at this moment.

"You're supposed to sweep the gal off her feet. Tell her you don't care to adjust, and you can't wait! Jesus, you were married to Sarah for eight years, did you learn anything about women?"

Chris was starting to get angry. "I learned plenty."

"Obviously, not enough." Buck retorted. "Chris, it's plain to see she's scared."

"Scared of what?"  

"Scared of losing her independence, of getting hurt again! Who knows? She just is, and you don't help much by letting her stew instead of asking her what the problem is."

Chris wanted to retaliate, but little that Buck said was untrue. When Mary had refused his offer of marriage, how hard had he tried to convince her otherwise? As Chris recalled, he had opted to let things stand because it did seem less complicated than making their relationship official. Perhaps Buck was right. Maybe he should have made more of an effort to convince her.

Or maybe Mary wasn't the only one who felt afraid.

Mrs. Kendall occupied a suite of rooms above the Emporium, accessible by a set of steps at the side of the building. In the last two months of her occupation in Four Corners, she was a staple at numerous town functions and was soon considered one of its more prominent citizens. The elusive Mr. Wilkins was at her side always, providing fodder for whispers and speculation regarding the nature of their relationship. Although he claimed to be her business partner, he did not appear the type to be concerned with books and ledgers. If anything, he seemed a man more comfortable with a gun in his hand. 

Both Ezra and Josiah checked their guns as they made their way up the wooden steps, just in case they encountered any trouble. In truth, neither expected any difficulty since they doubted Wilkins would place the lady in danger, but then they knew nothing regarding the nature of their association and so things as always, were in doubt.

Ezra kept his derringer tucked neatly beneath the folds of his jacket as they reached the doorway. In the window, they could see the light radiating from the partially parted lace curtains. There were sounds behind the door, so they knew someone was up and about. Although it was dark, it was still early enough to be respectable and certainly appropriate for a lady to have gentlemen callers. 

"What do you know about the woman?" Josiah inquired after they had knocked on the door and waited patiently for the shuffling feet they heard behind it, approach to allow them entry. 

"Very little," Ezra replied. Josiah was aware of his designs on Mrs. Kendall, even though nothing had come of his interest. With the arrival of Alexandra Styles in Four Corners, any such dalliance seemed miles away and fortunately so. "I know she is extremely wealthy and has no family to speak of. However, these are bits of intelligence I have garnered from local gossip." 

"Gossip seems to be the special of the day." Josiah had a particular dislike for those who indulged in the uncontrollable urge to speak idly about others. "You sometimes wonder why God cursed us with the ability to speak." 

"Because sign language is too difficult to learn, Josiah."

The preacher gave him a dark look just before the door swung open and they found themselves facing a young woman Ezra had seen once or twice in the Emporium. He could not remember her name except she had offered him a smile as she breezed past. Obviously, her duties also extended to be a companion to Mrs. Kendall as some rich ladies were inclined to have in the cities. 

"We're here to see Mrs. Kendall," Ezra said politely before taking his hat off. 

"Is Mrs. Kendall expecting you?" The young woman eyed Ezra and Josiah with obvious scrutiny. 

"Sadly no," Ezra offered her his most charming smile. The one he used to display when in the process of charming an easy mark into handing over all their money. While the purpose was different, he hoped it would nevertheless serve in gaining their entry into Mrs. Kendall's presence. "However, the matter is of some urgency." He decided to omit using Wilkin's name because he did not want the villain to take flight. 

"Well," she shrugged. "You may enter, but I cannot guarantee that Mrs. Kendall will see you." 

"I understand," Ezra replied, giving Josiah a look to let him do the talking. Once they were inside, there was nothing that would keep them from speaking to the widow, not after her ‘associate' had so cowardly gunned down Nathan. 

Led through a narrow corridor, they eventually arrived at a sizeable parlor. Mrs. Kendall came to in Four Corners with minimal furniture of her own and judging by the pristine state of the furnishings, Ezra assumed almost everything present in the parlor was recently purchased. Ezra had been among enough opulence in his life to recognize the authentic Persian rugs on the floor, and the upholstery was from the most delicate fabrics. Perhaps he had underestimated the size of her fortune. 

"Wait here." The girl said coldly and disappeared into one of the connecting rooms. 

Ezra glanced over his shoulder at Ezra who had removed his hat was studying the room with sharp observation. 

"Charming young woman." 

"Obviously not as charming as the good doctor," Josiah replied with a faint smile. 

"Whatever do you mean Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra feigning innocence. He did not even know how he felt about Alexandra yet, how could Josiah? Besides, something about the preacher, knowing he was anything but indifferent to the doctor made him uncomfortable. He had grown accustomed to letting the others think he was impervious to a pretty face unless he wished it. Admitting he was just as susceptible as falling head over heels as the next person was too much for him to bear. 

"I think you know perfectly well."

Ezra was about to make a devastating rebuttal that would end all of Josiah's speculations when Mrs. Kendall made her appearance. His earlier judgement of her had not changed. Victoria Kendall was a homely looking woman who would undoubtedly marry someday to a man interested in her fortune. She was rarely seen wearing anything bright and cheery, and the dark brown of her clothes only seemed to add to her gloomy disposition. 

"Mrs. Kendall," Ezra said politely. "We have not been formally introduced." 

"You are Ezra Standish and Josiah Sanchez." The woman said shortly and bid them sit on the very uncomfortable looking chairs. 

Reluctantly both men sat down, and Ezra saw her companion standing in the corner of the room, eavesdropping on their audience out of sight but clearly in earshot. Victoria seemed to be staring at them hard, making Ezra feel uncomfortable by the scrutiny. The feeling put him on guard. A sidelong glance at Josiah indicated the preacher shared the same opinion. 

"We are grateful that you have seen us without an appointment, Mrs. Kendall." Ezra began. "I realize it is highly inconvenient." 

"It would be less so if you got to the point, Mr. Standish." She said coldly. Her arms were folded in impatience and Ezra had a feeling Alexandra was correct in this instance, his natural charm was not going to let him get very far in this instance. 

"We are looking for Mr. Wilkins." Josiah retorted with as much iciness to his voice. He knew she was playing a game with them, and even if the rules were not known as of yet, he did not intend to waste his time staggering in the dark. 

"Mr. Wilkins?" Her response was practiced. "Whatever do you want with him?" 

There was just a hint of surprise to add with a touch of puzzlement, all in all, an impressive bit of method acting. If it were not for the fact that Ezra had been taught by the best, he would not have picked it up. Instead of telling Josiah to keep quiet and allow him to speak, Ezra decided he was going to take a note out of Chris' book and observe while Josiah went on the offensive. 

"He shot a friend of mine," Josiah answered, deciding not to spare her any knowledge. Perhaps, he could shock her into revealing something. 

"You mean the nigger?" She looked at them with wide-eyed surprise, but Ezra could see the malice in her eyes. 

"His name is Nathan Jackson," Josiah said slowly, emphasizing each word for good measure. "He's a good man and a damn fine healer. Your Mr. Wilkins shot him in cold blood."

She barely registered that part of the conversation. "Mr. Sanchez," she spoke to him like an unlearned child. "You may shave a dog and teach it to walk upright, but that does not make him a man." 

Before Josiah could react, Ezra enclosed his fingers on the man's shoulder. Ezra silenced him with a look and turned to Mrs. Kendall, understanding there and then what kind of woman she was and what sort of game she was playing. 

"That is one opinion, Madam." He said unwilling to show weakness. "But the law of the land says shooting a Negro even if he's been shaved and walks upright like a man, is still first-degree murder. You can help us bring Wilkins in, or you can stand with him when he hangs." 

"You know it was the best thing for this town." She continued, unfazed by his threat. "A nigger has no place working black magic on decent white folk. Of course, getting rid of him didn't change things either…" 

"Don't," Ezra warned, knowing where this was going. 

"Now that they have some colored trash impersonating a doctor." She said it with a smile. 

That did it. 

"That trash as you call her," Ezra stood up in white-hot outrage. "Is more woman and more human than you'll ever be! I know your kind Madam, you sit around in your parlor with vinegar in your veins, thinking about the good old days when beaus would come calling for you, hoping that money would do what the lack of beauty and intelligence cannot. You may vilify the good doctor Madam, but when it's all said and done, she is the one who keeps life in this world, while the only way you will produce it is to hope the alcohol is strong enough to dull the disgust of your would-be husband!" 

"How dare you!" Her companion rushed out of the shadows to defend the woman whose pallor was almost white from the brutal if somewhat deserved a response. It appeared that Mrs. Kendall was not good at taking the insults as much as giving them. 

"Get out!" The young woman raged, glaring at Josiah to remove Ezra from the premises. He need not be reminded twice as he started pulling Ezra out of the room. The gambler was glaring in open fury at the woman who had dared to impugn the name of Alexandra Styles. The words she had used had almost made Ezra forget he was a gentleman and Ezra was barely aware that Josiah was removing him from the room until they were out the corridor. She was still raving when they reached the door. 

As Josiah closed the door behind him and they emerged once again in the night air, he was in a mild state of shock. In the year since he had first met Ezra Standish, this was the first time Josiah had seen him so angry about anything. Well, there was that time he and Maude were having a price war between the hotel and the saloon, but that had been about money.

"I had no idea," Josiah said, staring at him with a faint smile. 

"What?" Ezra snapped, still glaring over his shoulder as they put more distance in between themselves and odious Mrs. Kendall. 

"That you were so smitten." 

"I am not smitten." Ezra turned back to him sharply. "I have a great deal of respect for Doctor Styles." 

"Obviously." Josiah retorted without any trace of belief in his words. "Unfortunately," Josiah sighed, returning to the issue at hand. "We didn't find out anything about Mr. Wilkins."

"She wouldn't help us even if she knew. I saw it in her eyes. I can spot a con a mile away, and I'm telling, she's not what she appears to be. Everything she said to us was for the sole purpose of provoking a response, perhaps to detract us from what she did know about him." 

"Why?" Josiah asked out loud, not expecting an answer. 

"I don't know," Ezra replied anyway. "However, I have a feeling the truth is in her relationship with him. I want to know what he is to her." 

Josiah looked at him. Suddenly Josiah guessed there was more to Ezra's reasoning than just the slight to Alex Styles's good name. Although he rarely used it for anything other than furthering his monetary pursuits, Ezra's intellect was formidable. Almost as impressive as Chris Larabee's. "What's on your mind, Ezra?" 

"I cannot explain it," Ezra said honestly, but he could feel this gnawing at his inside with unrelenting persistence. "But I am starting to wonder if Wilkins is really the enemy."

The saloon seemed to be the only place in Crescent Falls that was still open at that time of night. Chris and Buck entered the half-empty establishment with little more than a curious glance in their direction at their arrival. Although Crescent Falls was hardly a big town, even Four Corners eclipsed it for size; the reign of the Westbrooks had established a malaise of indifference that prevailed even after so long. It was a place with too many daughters buried in tragic circumstances that were best left unspoken, and thus, Crescent Falls became a place for keeping secrets.

The two visitors from Four Corners made their way through the faces that were drinking, playing cards and enjoying the hospitality of the working girls that were moving throughout the room in their lurid colored clothes and brightly painted faces. Despite the entertainment, the atmosphere seemed to exude a feeling of grim acceptance. That much about this town had not changed, Chris decided. It was like this when he left twelve years ago. It was no different now.

"What can I get you?" The bartender, a fat, unkempt man with a bushy moustache not unlike Buck's without the appeal asked him. 

Buck looked at the man carefully and recognized the face. "Lucas?" He ventured a guess. The years had affected Lucas with a few extra pounds under his belt and a few more strands of grey in his hair. He was an ornery cuss back then, and Buck had no illusions that time had changed that disposition for the better.

The man called Lucas returned his gaze with as much scrutiny, trying to place the face. "Wilmington?" Lucas had never called him by his first name. Buck remembered that it was the bartender's habit to call everyone by their surnames. It hailed back to Lucas' days in the army.

"Yeah," Buck grinned. "How you are doing?" He extended a hand.

Lucas smiled widely. "I haven't seen you around in years." The man replied. "Didn't you used to hang with that gunfighter, Larabee?"

Chris looked up at him, wondering what other stellar character references Lucas was going to unearth from his memories of thirteen years ago.

"Yeah," Buck replied, giving Chris a mischievous smile as he nodded. "That's him. So how about something to drink for me and my friend here?"

Lucas turned to Chris as if it was the first time he had realized that Buck had not come into the saloon alone. Chris responded with a slight tip of his hat, hiding much of his face in the dim lighting of the bar. During the years when Chris used to frequent this establishment, he always drank alone unless Buck happened to be in town. He doubted if Lucas remembered his face enough to recognize him after all these years. Furthermore, with his history in this town, it might be simpler for Buck to get information without Lucas privy to Chris' identity.

"So, what brings you back?"

"Just passing through." Buck lied. "So, what's the news?" 

"Ain't much happened since you left," Lucas replied, tactfully avoiding all mention of the Westbrook family out of some desire to prevent the opening of any old wounds. At the time, everyone knew about Alice Sullivan, and though they felt for Buck Wilmington's loss, no one was willing to take on Damien Westbrook or by extension, his father.

"What happened to the Westbrooks?" Buck asked, putting paid to that consideration. 

Lucas let out a relieved sigh, his fears about offending Buck allayed. In retrospect, the old man decided that it was natural that Buck would wish to know about the Westbrooks, considering how that family ruined his life. During those dark years, Lucas was almost grateful that his wife had borne him sons, so he needed never know the shame visited upon the daughters of so many friends in town.

"Eloise didn't last too long after Damien was hung at Bitter Creek," Lucas explained, pouring himself a drink as he talked. "The two girls got married, and Haven passed into their hands. I think Rebecca moved up east with her husband, some doctor from Philadelphia if I recall correctly." Lucas sifted through the memories before bringing forth the image of a callow faced man with steel-rimmed glasses. Lucy stayed on Haven for a while. She ran Haven with her husband for about eight or nine years before he died. They never had any children, so she sold up and moved back east, with Rebecca, I was told."

"What about Saul Willis?" Buck eased gently into the purpose of their journey here. Although Chris seemed to be observing the crowd behind them, Buck knew better. The gunslinger was listening closely to everything that said even though he appeared indifferent to his conversation with Lucas.

"There was no call for his kind after James died." Lucas retorted, unashamed about hiding his obvious distaste. 

James Westbrook used his hired guns to intimate everyone in Crescent Falls at one time or another. They were his personal guard, protecting him and his family. How many friends had died because of their refusal to let it go after Damien raped or murdered their daughters? Lucas lost count, but he felt no love for the Westbrooks or their trained killers.

"Most of them left although I think Willis stayed on to look after the place before the girls got married. He was mighty friendly with Lucy Westbrook until she got married. After that, he stayed on as Haven foreman. He disappeared when Lucy sold up."

"You wouldn't know where he went, would you?" Buck asked, pretending to make it sound like a joke. "I wouldn't mind running into him and having my gun go off in his face. By accident, mind you." He grinned as he laughed out loud.

The joke was not that funny, but Lucas laughed nevertheless. "Too bad, I don't know. That be something to see. He just up and cleared off with one day but then Willis didn't have many friends in town. No matter how long Damien Westbrook lay buried in the ground, people remembered how Willis protected him. "

"It was a nice idea." Buck half smiled, even though he was disappointed there was nothing useful to be learned. He glanced in Chris' direction and saw by the man's expression that it was time to go. Both of them downed their drinks and Buck tossed a couple of coins in Lucas direction after some obligatory attempts at a farewell.

"Hey, Wilmington," Lucas called out as he saw the back of both men withdrew. "Best thing that ever happened to this town was Chris Larabee bringing in Damien Westbrook. If you ever see him, tell him we appreciate what he done."

Chris said nothing as he heard that strange show of gratitude. Buck nodded mutely, knowing how Chris felt about the events preceding his capture of Damien Westbrook. They were not actions that made Chris proud, but Buck nevertheless responded warmly to Lucas' attempt. "I'll be sure to tell him next I run into him."

When they had left the saloon behind them and were out in the fresh air once more, Chris turned to Buck. "I don't think I want to come back here anytime soon." He replied, surveying the town limits before him. 

Crescent Falls was smaller than Four Corners. It had probably been around a great deal longer, but there was a stagnancy about it to suggest it would one day slip into history as little more than a footnote. The town was dark and silent at this hour of the morning, and Chris wondered if it was worth finding a place to bunk for the night before continuing their search at first light. He disliked the idea of staying here, and he found himself longing for the raw vitality of Four Corners. Perhaps he was mellowing in his old age. 

"Tell me about it," Buck remarked, scanning the empty streets lined with a sparse collection of buildings that faded out of memory as soon as the image had passed his eyes. "But there is something I gotta do while I'm here."

He need not say what it was because Chris knew. He was half expecting Buck to make this request even before they approached the saloon. However, Buck had wished to get down to business while the saloon was still open and there was someone they could questions about Willis' fate and the Westbrook as well.

"I understand." Chris nodded and followed Buck quietly as his friend made his way towards the churchyard.

Mary could not sleep. Her thoughts were filled with Chris, and she found herself wondering where he was at this moment. Had he reached Crescent Falls yet? The sleepless nights when he was away, was becoming a recurring theme in her life. Despite her confidence in his ability to take care of himself, she could not help worrying a day would come when there would be someone faster and better than he was.  

She tossed and turned in her sheets, trying to get comfortable enough to sleep and finding that it was hard to do without Chris. In the past weeks, she had become accustomed to his warmth in her bed and was starting to wonder how she had ever managed without him being there. Despite herself, Mary was beginning to look forward to the time when there would be no covert departures in the early hours of the morning, and they could finally see out a sunrise together. 

Perhaps, it was time to accept that proposal of marriage. 

She loved him. She knew that without doubt or hesitation. When they were together, it was like nothing Mary had ever known, even with Steven. Steven had been her first lover, and nothing he ever did seemed wrong, but with Chris, every moment of their lovemaking left her breathless. They did not just make love; they drank each other with a passion so wild and unyielding she felt literally swept off her feet. His power over her was nothing short of devastating. 

The idea of marriage frightened her. 

There was no reason to question what kind of husband he would make because his mourning for Sarah and Adam proved he would be a devoted one. As for Billy, her son loved him almost as much as he loved his mother. With guilt, Mary realized she had not told Billy about her relationship with Chris. She had told no one at all, except Inez.

Mary rolled in her sheets once more, trying to fluff up her pillow when suddenly; the sound of breaking glass shattered the stillness of the night air. She sat upright immediately, eyes wide and completely awake. Within a second of her awareness of the sound, she heard footsteps emanating from the next room, which Vin was currently occupying. Mary climbed out of bed and peered through the crack to see Vin moving in the corridor outside. He was carrying his gun, and even though he was wearing trousers and a half-opened shirt; it was evident that the sudden intrusion caught him by surprise.

His keen eyes caught the movement in the crack of the door, and he turned to her. "Stay where you are."  The tracker instructed. 

Mary retreated into her room as Vin padded down the corridor to greet the interlopers when she suddenly remembered Inez. Throwing caution to the wind, Mary crossed the hallway and entered the room where Inez was sleeping. Judging from the sounds and voices below, the intruders numbered more than one, and Vin was alone. Mary did not intend for them to be any more of a liability to him than they already were. He could get kill himself trying to protect them.

Closing the door behind her, Mary tried to ignore the signs of impending violence in the voices that whispered faintly below. She heard her name mentioned and knew they had come for her. After everything else that had happened, Chris was right to believe Mary required the protection. Mary sometimes, wondered why she even bothered doubting on such matters. He seemed to have the uncanny ability to predict the absolute worst in any situation. 

Inez was still asleep, no doubt the effects of morphia dulling her usually acute senses to excitement taking place around her. As much as Mary hated rousing her from her slumber, there was little choice in the matter. Somehow, she had to get help. Mary hurried to the side of Inez's bed and started shaking the Mexican to wake her.

"Inez!" Mary hissed. "Wake up!"

The quiet shuffling and whispering voices suddenly erupted into gunshots that shattered the night with its booming roar. Mary jumped at the sound and covered her ears as more shots rang out, followed by shouts and crashing objects. The ruckus did what Mary had yet been able to do, broke the back of Inez's fitful sleep. The woman's eyes flew open, and she sat up suddenly, her body covered in cold sweat as she awoke from one nightmare to another.

"What's happening?" Inez demanded with palpable fear in her eyes.

"Someone's in the house," Mary replied, her gaze darting to the door, half expecting someone to burst through. Suddenly the sounds shifted from gunfire to shuffling. She heard objects crashing against the floor and shattering, making such a terrible noise that Mary prayed for Vin's safety and that half the town was privy to what was happening inside the walls of her home.

"We must get out of here," Inez whispered, straining to move out of bed, despite her broken arm.

Mary saw her flinch in pain as she attempted to move and thought quickly. They could not hope to escape the house with Inez in this condition, but they had to get help, making a quick decision that Mary prayed was the correct one, she looked at Inez. 

"Get under the bed!" She said quickly and ran toward the door. Twisting the key in a full circle, Mary heard the locking mechanism fall into place. Of course, it would provide little resistance if they chose to break it down and Mary saw the dresser against the nearby wall.

"What are you doing?" Inez asked as the Mexican climbed out of bed with a great deal of effort. Her injury was dulled with the morphia but made her movements sluggish.

Using all her strength, Mary dragged the dresser across the floor, causing its legs to screech against the smooth surface. She paused midway to catch her breath, ever aware of the noises below that had not abated. Without a doubt, Mary knew Vin Tanner was doing everything possible to keep their intruders from coming up here. Hopefully, he would not have to do it for long. It took one more concentrated effort before the dresser had slid across the doorway and would offer formidable resistance to anyone attempting to force entry.

"I'm going for help," Mary said as she hurried to the window and slid it open. "Stay put, no matter what."

Inez nodded weakly, in no position to protest. She dropped to her knees and slid under the brass bed, hoping that the linen and bedding would hide her presence beneath it. Mary saw her disappear under the flow of lace trimming before she climbed through the open window. The gush of fresh air immediately blew the curtains with its gentle breeze. If the unthinkable should happen and the men did break into this room, Mary hoped they would believe its occupants had escaped the open window.

Stepping onto the roof of her back porch, Mary hurried to the drainpipe running up the length of her house. It was not the best escape route in the world, but it would be infinitely safer than trying to reach the ground by the stairs. While she had faith in Vin's ability to defend himself, even she had to recognize the odds were against his fighting off what she guessed was at least four men. As she reached the drainpipe, Mary told herself not to look down as she wrapped her fingers around the length of metal tubing that led to the ground. 

It was not lost upon her she seemed to have learnt how to make such escapes from her house in the dead of night since meeting Chris Larabee. The steel was smooth, and Mary told herself to hang on no matter what when she finally placed her weight upon it. Her descent was quick, and Mary prepared herself to fall when she stepped off the room. Fortunately, the protruding wall clamps that slowed her journey at each encounter punctuated her sharp descent. When her feet finally touched the grass of her garden, Mary was left with little more than badly scratched hands.

By now, the commotion created by gunfire and breaking glass in the middle of the night had the effect of igniting lights all across the immediate vicinity. She heard a moan of pain as she ran under her parlor window and froze because she knew it had belonged to Vin. Mary remained hunched over in the darkness, terrified but listening closely at the violence carried out inside her home. For once the voices were no longer disjointed and vague, she could make words.

Forget the women. This could work better.

Take Tanner. There's a two-thousand-dollar reward on his hide!

Mary started to gasp at that but covered her mouth with her hand to keep the sound from giving her presence away. Poor Vin! Someone had to help him before these animals took him to Tascosa! She looked around frantically, hearing the approaching voices of help in the distance but knew they would not arrive soon enough. Mary had never felt so helpless in her life.

Mary remained where she was for a few minutes, listening in dreaded silence as the voices speaking decided to leave, taking Vin Tanner with them. She could hear their arguments becoming desperate as they wrestled with what to do in light of Vin's unexpected presence in the house. Judging from their angry voices, the men had come for her and Vin's attempt to thwart their kidnap attempt had only succeeded in allowing him to be caught.

Where's your gunslinger friend now? Your reward will give Dawkins a good burying'.

She heard the litany of insults hurled at Vin as the men moved across the house towards the front door. The door swung hard against the wall as they left her home, and she heard horses neighing in the dark. Mary felt her heart sink as she listened to the sudden pounding of hooves against the dirt road, growing distant as the intruders made good their escape. 

An escape that left Vin Tanner firmly in their clutches and on his way to a hangman's noose.

No more than half an hour had passed when Mary found herself standing before Ezra, Josiah and JD as they prepared to ride. More than anything, Mary wished Chris would be riding with them. His absence seemed to make Vin's capture feel even worse than ever, although they understood his reasons for going. The three men had arrived at Mary's house shortly after the intruders had gone, finding the widow crouched in the darkness in the wake their flight. Mary had told the lawmen what had happened to Vin in the hopes that they could reach his captors before they got too far away.

"Mrs. Travis, I don't advise you staying in your house tonight," Josiah said firmly, as he slid his shotgun into his saddle.

"With all of you gone," Mary said unhappily. "I really don't think it will make that much difference where I stay the night."

Despite himself, Josiah had to agree with her assessment of the situation. With Nathan out of the equation, while Chris and Buck were in Crescent Falls, they were seriously below numbers and could ill afford to leave anyone behind.

"I'll stay behind." JD offered, knowing that he agreed with Josiah in disliking the idea of leaving Mary or Inez alone. Both women meant a great deal to him in different ways, and JD could understand Josiah's apprehension.

"Look," Alex spoke up. Ezra had sought her help a short time ago in light of this latest crisis. With Inez herself injured and their needing to leave Four Corners immediately, there was no one to tend to Nathan who far from being well enough to be alone. It was Alex herself who stressed the necessity of Nathan requiring constant care and, so she was more than willing to lend her assistance now that the need arose. "How about you and Inez taking a room in the saloon. Inez can make it here on her own two feet, but there is no way Nathan is capable of movement. Maybe there's some measure of safety in numbers."

"It's better than nothing." Mary agreed with that as an option. "I have a shotgun I know how to use if anyone comes knocking."

"I do not like the idea of you having to defend yourself that way, Madam." Ezra declared with as much distaste as the men saddling their horses liked hearing it. However, they did feel better knowing she was armed.

"I'm sure I can stay." JD looked to them both, hoping that they would tell him he was right.

"You can't stay," Mary stated before either Ezra or Josiah could. "They've already made one attempt at my life tonight. I don't think they'll be coming back until they've regrouped a bit. In the meantime, if Mr. Tanner reaches anywhere in the municipality of Tascosa, they will hang him. It's more important you get to him than playing nursemaid to us." She gazed at the sunrise that was starting to make its imminent arrival in the distance. "Besides, it will be daylight soon. Chris and Buck will be back."

JD looked at her skeptically. He was young, but he was not stupid. Mary had not expected the ruse to work, but she needed to convince him to go. Vin had risked his life to save her and Inez. She was not prepared to let him hang, under any circumstances. It would be sunrise in a few short hours, and Chris had made no indication that he would be staying away for any length of time. As far as she knew, he was going to investigate Saul Willis, Wilkins, or whatever his name was, before coming straight back to Four Corners.

"We'll be fine, Mr. Dunne," Alex added her voice to Mary's argument and hoped it would convince the young man to go.

"All right," JD admitted reluctantly. As sheriff of Four Corners, he felt obligated to protect everyone, not just Vin Tanner but Mary Travis and Inez who meant so much to Buck and Chris. "I hope you're right."

As JD turned back to this horse, Ezra approached Alex.

"You will be careful." He said, staring at her critically, with enough edge in his voice to make that an order.

"Definitely." Alex smiled at him. "Don't get anything shot off, I have to fix."

"I'll keep that in mind," Ezra smirked.  "I'll see you when I get back."

*******

ALICE SHELBY SULLIVAN

Born 1848

Died 1866

Forever loved by all who knew her

Buck stared at the tombstone for a long time in silence.

A caretaker was employed by the parish to take care of these markers of marble and stone since Buck noticed an absence of weeds and other wildlife around the patch of earth where Alice Sullivan was laid to rest. In the dark, this place was just as gloomy as the day he stood before this grave when it was freshly dug. In the daylight, a tall elm tree gave shade to the tombstone that eventually replaced the wooden cross and marked Alice's place in the cemetery.

He knew he was a coward because he should have returned long before this. Closing his eyes, he tried to force away images of sun-streaked golden hair and laughing eyes telling him repeatedly that she loved him with all her heart. Buck had not realized how much he missed hearing her voice telling him that.

Her father's grave was not far from hers. Buck was able to do that much for Jeb at least. The old man never recovered from Alice's death, and with each day that followed, Buck knew he would join her soon enough. Alice was all he valued in this life, and with her passing, lost the only reason to continue living.

Chris was standing at the edge of the cemetery, allowing him his privacy.   Chris had enough grief of his own not to wish to partake in someone else's. Besides, Buck had asked Chris to let him do this alone. He stood before Alice's grave, saying farewells he had not been able to make during the funeral, talking to her as if they were still lying on the grass staring into the sky like they used to so long ago. She was his youth, and when she died, she took it with her. After a while, Buck came to realize he was lucky to have known her at all and that alone allowed him to go on without her.

After what seemed an eternity of time, Buck turned his back and walked away from Alice Sullivan's grave, vowing to come back even though he knew deep inside this place would not see him again. He continued walking back to Chris weaving through the cemetery with its macabre crop of protruding tones, indicating the lives ended, the hope gone. It was almost an accidental when Buck came across what appeared to be a family plot enclosed in a low metal fence. Upon casual investigation, as he walked past, Buck felt his stomach lurch as he discovered it to be the Westbrook family plot.

Feeling the need to stand on Damien Westbrook's grave, he stepped into the arena of bodies. The largest of these monuments to the family who ruined so many lives belonged to James Westbrook. Resting at his side was Eloise, which was natural, he supposed. All were ornate productions of angels and gargoyles that spoke volumes regarding the wealth of the dearly departed. The Westbrook boys were before their parents, with almost identical tombstones except for the inscription. With a breath he had not realized was held, Buck let out a sigh when he saw Damien's.

There was one other grave present, placed at the corner of the plot. Buck deduced this to belong to the Westbrook in-law, whoever he might have been. Out of curiosity, Buck walked towards the marble headstone for a closer look. The inscription he read made his blood turn cold.

"Aw, hell!" He whispered as awareness entered his mind a split second before Buck started running to find Chris.

Chapter Six

The Symphony of Fire

Vin Tanner was in trouble.

He had been in trouble before, and sure enough, this was how it felt. Although he had yet to decide how much trouble he was in, his preliminary findings were leaning towards pretty bad. Actually, in all honesty, he was sure he'd been in worse predicaments before, but at present none of those occasions came to mind. It probably had to do with his aching head, a result of his going hand to hand with one of Mrs. Travis' intruders. At this moment, he would give almost anything for a drink to dull the throbbing pain on the back of his head.

That or have the very pretty doctor look at it. Cut it out Tanner, Vin told himself, Ezra's already staked his claim.

He wondered which was worse; the fact that he was going back to Tascosa to hang or that he would be delivered by four idjits who had the fever of two thousand dollars in their eyes. His reputation as a bounty hunter was going to take a bruising for this. Vin could have held them off if he was not so preoccupied from keeping them from the upper floors where Mrs. Travis and Inez were hiding. All it took was a momentary lapse, and one of them had managed to sneak up behind him and deliver a halting blow.

At least they took him instead of them Vin thought.

The other consolation came from knowing somewhere in the darkness behind them. His friends would be coming for him. The only question was how long he could delay his captors until the others could catch up with them. At present, they were riding hard and fast away from Four Corners. In that much, these men were not utterly incompetent. They knew Vin Tanner had friends who would stop at nothing to retrieve him and while they could not know Chris Larabee would not be among the seven, their fear of him kept up their pace.

The men who had inadvertently captured him were the same men who tried to liberate him after he; Chris and JD had left the Indian village. These were men who were unaccustomed for this kind of work, with their stinking whisky breath, their shaky hands and beer gut threatening to spill over their belts were stupid and deaf since they'd ignored Chris warnings.

Vin took stock of where he was, knowing that they were not very far from Four Corners. Instead of taking a more shaded route where there was a chance to hide in the bushland, the four had chosen to take the easiest and most direct path towards Tascosa. On the face of it, the plan was not a bad one. Once they reached Tascosa and unloaded him at the jailhouse, the seven would have more significant concerns than taking revenge on the men who had turned him in.

But the tree belt was in sight, and if Vin could make there, under cover of the thick scrub, he had skill enough to even the odds significantly. The only problem in this plan of his was getting this caravan of horses to stop and judging by the frantic way they were proceeding; it seemed unlikely.

Well, there was one way.

Vin could think of no other way to separate from them even if the risk to himself was extreme. He had known men who had broken their necks this way and even then; they had the use of both hands. Still, he would rather get it over and done here than in front of an audience in Tascosa with a low-cost burial on Boot Hill.

Vin was placed on the horse trailing the group because one of the other riders was leading his mount. Apparently, they did not trust him enough to allow him control of a horse. He watched them thunder ahead, keeping a close eye on the fast-approaching tree belt. Occasionally, their leader, the man whom Chris warned to return to Purgatory looked over his shoulder to see if he was still with them. Vin had kept a vigil on these instances, noting that the length between each inspection was widening. He waited until the man, whose name was Glassop, cast another routine gaze over his shoulder, sneering at him with his rotten teeth when their eyes made contact briefly.

Vin let a few more seconds past after Glassop had faced front again before unhooking his feet from the stirrups of the saddle. Once his feet were free, Vin had to fight to remain seated, as he started bouncing about unsteadily. Taking a deep breath, he steadied himself as much as possible before throwing his leg over the animal and feeling the rest of him roll over just as precariously. Vin hit the ground with his shoulder and felt something snap almost immediately. He did not stop rolling for a few more seconds, and the dawn became a blur of color before he finally stopped.

The first time he was aware of, besides the flaring pain in his shoulder was the cries of the men who discovered his escape. Vin scrambled to his feet and started running as fast as he could. Although the sunrise was imminent, there was still enough dark left to aid his escape if he could make it to the trees. Vin did not look back. There was no need for it. Even as he made his desperate dash for freedom, he could hear the horses coming to a halt as the direction of the hoof beats changed abruptly. The voices were crying for him to stop, and he expected the bullets would soon follow.

No sooner than the thought has crossed his mind, he heard the eruption of gunfire. None of the men looked like very good shots, but Vin hoped there was still enough distance between them to be out of range their weapons. The blade of dry grass hurt his feet, but Vin was beyond caring. He had barely time to get dressed and grab his gun after hearing the first sounds of entry emanating from Mrs. Travis' parlor. A bullet whizzed past Vin's ear and answered any remaining doubt as to whether or not he was past the weapon's range. He began weaving as he ran; hoping the erratic movement would confuse their ability to target him. It was a grab at straws, he knew but the tree line was only a matter of feet away, and he could not afford to be shot now.

They were closing in on him rapidly when Vin reached the cover of the first row of trees that thickened the deeper into the scrub he went. Things began to stab at the soles of his feet, and for the first time, Vin allowed himself a moment to look over his shoulder. The horses sounded close, and when he glanced over his shoulder, he learnt just how close they were. Vin had less than a minute before they would reach him, trees or not. He could not keep going because as adept as he was with the land, he did not know this terrain and was not about to gamble on with life on what may be. He almost tripped over a log that had been covered by grass and moss to such an extent that it was practically invisible in the thicket. Realizing the opportunity, Vin paused long enough to find its hollow entry before crawling into it. He managed to fit inside its narrow confines with just enough room to spare. It was not the best of hiding places, but it would serve to hide for the moment and give him time to recoup. 

Vin held his breath as the horses thundered forward. He could see their rapid advance through a knot of curled wood that allowed a crack of the outside world. The men were staring ahead and did not look as if they intended to stop. He froze as the hooves pounded towards him and felt the ground rumble as the animals leapt over the obstruction without missing a beat or giving it any thought. Vin did not dare move although he could hear the horses continuing onward, the sound of their hoof beat, fading into the distance.

Vin let the silence continue for a few seconds more before he finally decided to move. His pursuers were not stupid. At some point in the chase, they would realize that he was not ahead of them and backtrack. That narrow margin of time was all Vin Tanner had to formulate some kind of a plan. Despite himself, he hoped Josiah, Ezra and JD were on the way because, without a gun or a knife, he felt damn vulnerable.

This brought him back to his original assessment of this entire episode.

He was in trouble.

He had been in trouble before, and sure enough, this was how it felt.

On the other side of Four Corners, Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington were engaged in similar thoughts as they raced back to town after a hasty departure from Crescent Falls. In light of Buck's discovery in the cemetery, there was hardly time to lose, if they were not already too late. As Chris tried to focus on reaching the town, he forced away fears for Mary's welfare and wondered how he could have placed her life in such danger for so long, without even being aware of its existence.

"Chris, we have to stop and let the horses rest." Buck implored, knowing just worried Chris was. Both their horses had been travelling for most of the night. If they did not break the journey by allowing the horses to rest and get watered, the animals would inevitably collapse from the exhaustion and neither of would reach Four Corners in time.

"No." Chris was unable to tolerate such a delay and dug his spurs into his horse only to be warned by a strained grunt. With a sinking feeling, he could feel the animal desperately trying to keep up with his pace and knew that it would not. They needed to stop and soon.

"Chris!" Buck cried out again, matching his horse pace for pace. "We have to ease up now!"

"Damn it!" Chris swore as he pulled the reins abruptly and the horse came to a near screeching halt, kicking its hooves at the sharp pull of the bit in its mouth. Buck repeated the maneuvers, and soon, both animals were at a standstill. Both animals were breathing in deep, labored breaths.

Buck had wanted to stop here because he had caught sight of a narrow creek capable of providing their mounts with enough water. For the pace the animals were keeping because of the urgent need to return home, Buck knew they needed watering quite a bit. Chris was not happy to stop, and Buck could see him fuming as he dismounted his horse and led it to the edge of the water. Even Chris had to acknowledge their limitations. Pushing the horses would only injure the animals and keep them from reaching Four Corners at all.

"I should have known there was something strange about that whole outfit," Chris muttered under his breath.

"How?" Buck retorted sarcastically, never having patience with his friend when he was like this. "It was an Emporium; hell I didn't think there was anything strange about one going up in town."

"Why would anyone want to set up in a place like Four Corners?" Chris countered. "It's barely livable now! Why set up a business in a town where there are gunfighters and shoot outs, and God knows what else!"

Buck rolled his eyes, knowing when Chris was starting to panic. "Chris! You gotta calm down, or you're not going to be any use to her!"

The words felt like lashes against his skin, and Chris knew Buck was right. He was panicking, and that was not a good state of being in when there was so much at stake. Mary needed him alert and in control, not like this! Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Chris Larabee forced away from the turmoil of emotions into that place where they could do little harm. As he felt his rampant emotions subside inside him, he began to feel the detachment return with welcoming relief. Chris was back now. He had been gone for a time there, but now he was back and focused.

"Okay," he said, facing Buck a great deal calmer. "Let's think this through. They came to town, set up residence and got people to trust them."

"Opening up a business like an Emporium is likely to do it. The women in town have been flocking to since the doors open." Buck agreed, watching his horse Beavis drink water from the creek in hungry gulps.

"Meanwhile," Chris continued without ever sounding like he had been at the raw edge of panic only a short time ago. "They watch us close and get to know the others we ride with. Getting to Nathan is easy as we already guessed, he's black and other than us, no one really cares what happens to him, even if he is a healer."

"A few might." Buck protested disliking the idea that it would be so easy for Four Corners to shrug off Nathan's death after everything he had done for the community. "But not enough." He had to agree begrudgingly.

"Yeah," Chris nodded. "Him, they shoot because they can. Vin, on the other hand, has a death mark on his head. No one would be willing to go against the seven of us for just $500 but $2000? That's different. They figured offering the reward money would send enough hired killers to Four Corners to collect. Maybe it would cause enough trouble that the town itself might want Vin to leave."

It was a plausible deduction Buck decided. Small towns had a way of turning on people when their safety was threatened. While they may enjoy the peace that the seven men brought to Four Corners, the majority of the town viewed the seven with some trepidation. If Vin's bounty were to create the kind of danger that Chris believed, Buck did not doubt that there would a town meeting and a quick decision to drive the mountain man out of town. "So once this is over, we get Orrin Travis to pull some strings at Tascosa and let them know that the bounty is back to $500."

"I'd say we have to prove that there is no reward to collect." Chris phrased what he had to say next with a little more tact. "Getting back at you was easy as we both know."

"Inez." Buck nodded, not requiring Chris to say it out loud. "After Alice, they knew it would drive me crazy. Killing her would just make me mad but leaving her alive, where I would be reminded every day of what happened to her. It takes a special kind of hate to come with a plan like this."

"Well, they've had a long time to think on it, Buck." He answered softly, remembering the haunting words of Damien Westbrook that had echoed in his mind ever since the name Saul Willis was mentioned. Until the visit to the cemetery, everything had been speculation. He knew he was grasping at straws when he connected Mary's description of the unseen Mr. Wilkins with Saul Willis. When Inez was attacked, it felt like the past had caught up with him. He and Buck rode to Crescent Falls more out of a need to eliminate the possibility than actually believing Willis could be behind their present troubles after all these years.

"Which brings us to you." Buck declared finally.

Chris turned away, staring at the stream of water meandering past him. "That's easy." He said without even needing to consider the question in any depth. There was only one thing that could hurt him more than anything else in the world. "Mary."

"Mary." Buck nodded without any disagreement. She was Chris Larabee's Achilles heel. Even if there were nothing between them, it would have still been the case. Chris had been risking his life for the widow ever since he arrived in Four Corners. Buck had lost count of just how many times Chris had gone riding off to her rescue. That alone convinced the resident of Four Corners just how much he regarded Mary Travis. Suddenly, another thought entered Buck's mind. "You know Mary said it was the Kendall woman who brought the news of those rumors to her. What if it was Willis who was doing the spreading?"

Despite keeping tight control over his emotions after his earlier display, Buck spied an involuntary tightening of Chris' jaw as that subject was brought up. "It doesn't matter," Chris said coolly. "Everyone still knows about us."

"What do they know?" Buck countered. "If we can prove that Willis has a personal vendetta against you to everyone, why wouldn't they believe that he was slandering Mary to get to you?"

"That would still imply she means something to me." He retorted.

"True," Buck conceded, not bothering to deny that point. "But there's a hell of a difference between her meaning something to you than you sleeping with her, isn't there? Enough to prove her good name and keep her reputation in the community."

Buck was right, Chris found himself realizing. There was a huge gulf between him caring for Mary and Mary conducting an inappropriate relationship with him.

Buck waited for Chris to respond to that, but when the gunslinger remained silent, guessed Chris was considering his words carefully. Mary's reputation and her standing in the community meant more to him than his own life. He was proud of what she was able to do, although he did not always agree with her stubborn need for independence. Spirited with an indomitable will, Chris did not want to see her name dragged through the mud because of some enemy from his buried past.

"Come on," he turned to Buck. "We better get going."

There was not a lot of dusk left as Mary and Alex sat in the saloon over a pot of coffee. After the night's excitement, neither found they were able to sleep and spent most of the night talking at the table customarily occupied by the seven. Inez was asleep in her room upstairs, and Nathan was similarly indisposed. Mary was pleased that at least some of them were able to rest. The shotgun that usually resided in her office was propped up against the table in anticipation of any new danger. Although Mary and Alex and had not spoken about the seven whose absence at the table was profoundly felt, the men were never far from their thoughts.

"It's almost dawn." Mary sighed, peering out the batwing doors at the veil of amber trailing the indigo colored sky. "I wonder if they've caught up with Vin?" Her blue-grey eyes surveyed the scene outside the door, and it was hard to imagine that there could exist such violent amongst such peace.

Alex shrugged, unable to answer that question. Her own thoughts were not far removed from that of the editor of the Clarion News. Despite her determination not to worry needlessly, she found herself concerned about how Ezra Standish and his friends were faring. After being on her own for so long, it was a new experience to be sitting around worrying about so many people. Until his death, Alex's world had included only herself and her father. Now it was only her, and she found herself caring about a whole slew of people, the least of which was a smooth talking con man and gambler with a tendency to sound like a dictionary.

Life could be most unexpected.

"I don't know." Alex mused, not wanting to imagine what the men were up to at this point. She did not know how she could maintain her professional cool if she had to put Ezra together. "This town is more than I bargained for." She found herself confessing instead.

Mary did not show her smile that stole across her face at Alex Styles remark, but after a moment, she stepped away from the doors and returned to the table wearing an expression of complete understanding. "It sneaks up on you," Mary replied, sitting down at the table again. "I never thought I'd get used to living in a place like this."

Memories of her first days in Four Corners flashed through her mind as she recalled those distant times. "When I first got here, I hated it. I thought Steven and I had gone mad to leave Boston for this place. I couldn't keep the dust off anything. Everyone thought I spoke too much for a woman, and no matter what I did, I couldn't make jam to save my life." She laughed, remembering how Steven would hold her in his arms while telling Mary with utmost confidence he believed in her. He had been so confident she would have something to contribute to their life here. Steven always had faith in her, no matter how disillusioned she became. In that way, Chris Larabee and Steven Travis were very much alike, except Chris had more faith in her than he had in himself.

"Then one day, I'm sitting out my porch, and it's a warm summer evening. Steven was gone, and Billy was with his grandparents. I had lived here for almost eight years with hardly any awareness of how much time had passed. I was staring at the sunset, and I realized I would never see one like it in Boston. It's quite something you know," Mary spoke with a fondness in her voice that revealed her deep affection for the town. "The first time you're settled enough in a place to enjoy the quiet and hear the crickets making their noises while the birds sing far above your head. That's when I knew Four Corners was my home." 

"I never had a place to call home," Alex admitted with a faint smile. "I didn't mind really because it was the way things were. My father was a doctor, and he had this dream to write a book about world medicine. We went halfway across the world, interviewing recognized practitioners, medicine men, witch doctors, soothsayers and Chinese acupuncturists. I could speak a dozen languages by the time I was fifteen and had most of what he compiled is in my head somewhere. He wanted me to be a doctor, and I wanted to share the dream with him bad enough to go to medical school." Alex swallowed, feeling an aching loss in her heart for the man. It was almost a year since his death, and while she had become used to him being gone, Alex still missed him dearly.

"Did he write his book?" Mary asked, fascinated by the prospect of such a globetrotting endeavor. She was almost envious at some of the things Alex had no doubt seen in her travels.

"No," She shook her head sadly. "He was a wonderful doctor but not much of a writer. Most of his notes are in one of the trunks I have yet to unpack."

"You miss him a great deal, don't you?" Mary said sympathetically, understanding the grief in her eyes all too well.

"I do," Alex confessed without embarrassment. "But you know something? I didn't realize how displaced I was until after he died. When we were moving around from place to place, there was never any chance to discover how much our lives were devoid of people. We never were stayed anywhere long enough to make friends or attachments. Even when I went to medical school, I was a bit of pariah because I was a woman."

"I can understand that." Mary knew precisely what it was like being underestimated or excluded merely because of gender. "Being a newswoman can be almost as discriminating."

"The funny thing about Four Corners is that I've been allowed to practice more medicine in the past two days on my own, without some man hovering around me to be sure I made no mistakes than I have since left medical school!" Alex exclaimed with a look of wonder on her face at how this small town in the middle of the infamous Territory could fulfil so many unspoken dreams. "I just cannot believe it."

Mary was about to answer when suddenly; she saw a figure approach the batwing doors. Instinctively, she reached for the shotgun and stood up noisily as she aimed. Her finger tightened around the trigger prepared for anything while Alex took up position behind her. The doctor did not want to be anywhere near that weapon when it discharged. However, when the doors swung open, Mary and Alex found themselves staring at Victoria Kendall, who was staring down the double barrel with a mixture of surprise and shock.

"Victoria!" Mary exclaimed, lowering the weapon immediately.

The owner of the Emporium was visibly shaken and stammered a reply and did not relax until Mary had removed her from the weapon's sight. "I heard the excitement at your home earlier, and I felt compelled to see if you were alright." She replied, moving deeper into the saloon, now that she was confident that the danger had passed. Victoria wore riding clothes and Mary had no idea she was such an early riser. Then again, a great deal remained a mystery about Victoria Kendall.

"I'm fine," Mary reported, grateful that she had not pulled the trigger in haste. She dreaded to think what would happen if she had actually fired. With her reputation already in tatters because of her illicit affair with Chris Larabee, it would be the height of scandal to be labelled a murderess as well. At the very least, the Clarion's circulation could drop sharply, Mary thought absurdly. "You should not have troubled yourself, Victoria," Mary put the gun down on the table as she went to greet the woman. "Especially at this hour."

"Nonsense," Victoria smiled amiably. "I often go riding early in the morning. Besides, I had to know you were. We are, after all, friends."

Although the woman's concern touched her, Mary hardly considered them friends, more like acquaintances. They had barely spoken to each other a dozen times since Victoria Kendall's arrival in Four Corners. However, Mary was never one to turn down an overture of friendship. She did wonder if Victoria was aware of Mr. Wilkins's terrible past and considered enlightening her on that subject.

However, judging by the sallow look of her, Mary wondered if Victoria had guessed her associate's part in the drama that had been playing for most of the night, and on a larger scale during the past 48 hours. Mary crossed the floor of the saloon to meet Victoria's outstretched when suddenly, the woman grabbed her wrist and yanked her forward before she had any idea what was happening. The action caught her by such surprise that Mary was unable to respond until he felt an arm enclose around her throat.

She saw Alex reacting almost instantly. The doctor made a desperate bid for the gun on the table as she jumped to her feet and reached across the table for the weapon. The chair she had been occupying fell backward and made a loud bang against the wooden floor on impact. Unfortunately, Mary was soon aware of the decidedly loud click of a gun bolt in her ear.

"I wouldn't," Victoria warned coldly, pressing the barrel of a pearl-handled pistol hard against Mary's forehead to illustrate the point.

Alex swore under her breath and slid back from the table, realizing that she was too late to help either Mary or herself for that matter. Mary could see the rising anger in her face as Alex withdrew her advance, feeling helpless as she met Mary's frightened gaze.

"That's it," Victoria goaded as Alex returned to her original position near the fallen chair. "Nice and slow."

"Victoria, what is this all about!" Mary demanded furiously, trying to break the chokehold on her throat. Her struggle only prompted Victoria to shove the cold steel deeper into her skin, forcing Mary winced in pain. Part of her felt incredibly stupid for walking straight into this dangerous situation. There were times Mary wished that she would take stock of Chris' warning that not everyone out to be given the benefit of the doubt. With Victoria's connection to Saul Willis, it was the height of gullibility for Mary to assume that she was not involved in his crimes.

"Shut up!" The woman hissed sharply. Victoria glared at Alex and then took a tentative step backwards, moving towards the doors. Trapped in her secure grip, Mary could do little to resist with Victoria's forearm digging into her throat. She was already finding it a little difficult to breathe, and Victoria's grip seemed to tighten as they moved backwards. Mary had no illusions that Victoria would drag her if necessary. When the woman reached the batwing doors, she called out into the night.

"You can come in now, Saul; it's clear."

Alex contemplated going for the shotgun during this brief distraction but abandoned the idea when she saw the appearance of the big man that stepped through the door. Judging by his bulk and size, Alex did not doubt he could overpower her easily. If first impressions were anything to go by, then Alex was of the firm conclusion she did not want this man angry with her. Even though he was wearing a dark brown suit and a tanned duster, the evil glint in his eyes negated any trace of civilization in his demeanor.

Without even knowing it, Alex knew this man was a killer.

He stared at her for a moment with a hard expression and instinctively. Alex knew he was following her gaze to the shotgun and was completely aware of her intention to retrieve the weapon. He dropped his hand to the gun belt around his waist and grazed the butt of his gun with the tip of his fingers, a clear enough indication of the consequences should she attempt it. He flashed a small smile and then shook his head as if to reinforce the warning.

"Get the shotgun, Saul," Victoria instructed immediately. He looked almost ready to snap to attention at her orders, stepped forward without question, and liberated the shotgun from its resting-place. As he slipped the weapon under his arm, effectively robbing Alex and Mary of any chance at escape, it did answer the question of who was in charge here.

Once she and her companion were the only ones armed, Victoria released Mary by shoving her forward. Mary staggered forward before dropping to her knees, her hands clutching her sore throat as she hit the wooden floor. Without thinking, Alex ran forward immediately, her healer's instincts taking precedence before any thoughts of her personal safety. The prolonged grip around Mary's throat had turned the widow a shade pale and Alex cause for concern.

Both Victoria and Saul stared at both women dispassionately, with weapons pointed.

"What do you want?" Alex asked because Mary could not. The widow was still on the floor, recovering as Alex helped her to her feet.

"I had not meant to make you apart of this little drama." Victoria retorted with staring at Alex with unconcealed hatred. "You're just a half breed passing through town, not at all of any concern to me."

"How disappointing." Alex retorted, not about to give this woman the satisfaction of reacting to her vicious remark about her parentage. "I am going to feel left out."

Victoria's eyes narrowed, robbed of the response she had desired. "However, after the way that bastard Standish spoke to me, I think I will include you after all. If only, just to displease him. Perhaps I will give you to Saul. He's rather disappointed he missed his chance with the Mexican after she managed to get away from him."

Alex felt her stomach hollow in disgust when she realized Victoria Kendall's meant Inez. Immediately she glared at the man who was wearing a greedy look of desire as his eyes moved over the length and breadth of her body. "You're going to have to do a lot better than that to scare me, Mrs. Kendall." She replied defiantly. Insults had very little power over Alex. 

"How could you?" Mary found her voice at hearing that. "How could you let these animals loose on a woman like that?"

"Not I," Victoria said triumphantly enjoying Mary's outrage at least. "Saul and some of his friends. I believe you almost met some of them this evening."

The men who had taken Vin, Mary realized. "Why are you doing this?" She demanded. "Him, I understand but you?"

"My reasons are not for your hearing, Mary." Victoria retorted. "All you are is the instrument of my revenge. The worm need not know the fisherman's reason for the catch."

"I'll die before I let you use me as bait for Chris." Mary spat angrily at her.

"Bait?" Victoria turned to Saul, and they both started laughing, giving both Mary and Alex the ominous feeling that their situation was declining rapidly unless help came very soon.

"Is that what you think?" Victoria turned her vengeful gaze on Mary. "I don't want Chris Larabee dead. I want him alive. What good is killing him? I want him to suffer every day of the rest of his miserable life, knowing that everything he cared about has gone up in flames. I did not have the fortune to deal with him before his wife and son died. I would have liked to be responsible for that but you, my dear Mary, who is his whore. You will do just as nicely."

Mary cringed at those words knowing that if Chris discovered he had come too late to save her life; he would blame himself for the rest of his days. The possibility of him living his life burdened by such guilt was more frightening to Mary then dying. The pain would be brief for her but eternal for him.

"Why?" Mary found herself with nothing left to say but that one thing. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because she's related to Damien Westbrook," Alex answered before Victoria could. Suddenly, Chris Larabee's story had come to her in a flash of insight. He had taken Damien Westbrook at Christmas, which usually meant the entire family had to be present. Westbrook's family would have had to know who had taken him in to hang.

Mary's eyes filled with understanding upon that realization. "Of course." She said, almost calmly. "That's why you want Chris to suffer because you suffered. Is that it?" Her voice filled with pity.

"You don't know anything!" Victoria stepped forward abruptly and struck Mary across the jaw, with the gun in her hand. Mary hit the ground, feeling a haze of red descending over her as she felt the pain of a dislocated jaw.

"Do you know what he did!" Victoria snarled, almost frenzied in her rage. "He killed them all! Your precious Chris Larabee! He murdered my father and my two brothers, and then he got his forty pieces of silver when he sent Damien, my baby brother, to hang!"

Mary wanted to respond, but she could not. She could feel blood filling her mouth and Alex on her knees beside her, trying to examine the damage. Despite the pain, she refused to believe what Victoria was saying. Whatever Chris Larabee was capable of, Mary knew he was not a cold-blooded murderer. 

"Don't try to talk," Alex said, ignoring the ravings of Victoria Kendall while she tried to do something for Mary. "I think your jaw might be fractured." The discoloration was quickly spreading across her creamy skin in tendrils of indigo and red.

"That's enough!" Victoria grabbed Alex's arm and pulled her away from Mary, shoving her aside. "It doesn't matter what's broken!" She said viciously, motioning Saul forward. The big man came forward and hauled Mary off the floor roughly while Victoria used her gun to prompt Alex to her feet.

Mary let out a grunt of pain as she felt her jaw starting to swell and the pressure building up against the side of her mouth. As she looked into Victoria's eyes, Mary knew without a doubt the woman was insane, and when she met Alex's worried gaze, it was apparent the doctor knew it too.

With daylight fast approaching, Vin Tanner was aware it would also see the end of any advantage he would have over his captors. As expected, it did not take long for the men to realize that he had tricked them and begin backtracking. Vin had squeezed out of his small hiding place, trying to think of a plan that would allow Josiah and the others the time to reach him before the men recaptured him.

Running in the opposite direction from where the horses were heading, Vin began widening the distance between him and the riders. He did not want to risk coming out into the open where he could be seen easily. However, it did bring forward another dilemma. How would Josiah know to come this way instead of continuing onwards to Tascosa?

Suddenly, he heard the rustling of leaves and branches behind him and realized that a horse was coming in his direction. Vin thought quickly, finding no place he could hide despite the density of the flora around him. His eyes found a strong length of branch running above the trail the horse would surely follow and came up with a desperate idea. Finding the tree was growing from, Vin scaled it quickly, ever aware of the approaching hoof beats closing in on him. The bark dug into his bare feet, and Vin wished more than ever he had bothered to put his boots on.

As it neared, Vin was able to identify only one rider coming his way and that simplified matters a great deal. He reached the branch in question, just as the horse ran across the track beneath him. Vin remained poised until the time was right and then let himself fall over the edge. He dropped squarely onto the rider, sending them both crashing to the ground. The horse stumbled by the sudden displacement of its owner before recovering enough to take off.

The man on the ground was momentarily dazed, but Vin did not give him a chance to pose any threat. He could already see the man's fingers moving towards the gun in his holster. Throwing his fists forward, Vin felt knuckle connect with bone as he struck jaw. The man fell backwards with little resistance and Vin jumped on top of him, pummeling him with blows until he no longer moved. When it was apparent that there was no fight left to subdue, Vin liberated him of his gun and ammunition. The tracker would have preferred to have the man's horse, but he was grateful that he was now armed at least.

"Andrews!" Vin heard a voice call out in the distance. "Where the hell are ya!"

Vin immediately bolted for the cover of some bushes as he heard the approach of another horse. Somehow, he didn't think the same trick would work twice. Taking cover, he decided his next move. Searching for a place to hide, Vin knew if they saw him, they would wear him down like a pack of wolves running a dear to exhaustion. Hidden behind the tree, he saw another rider break through the thick wood to investigate the whereabouts of his comrade. Vin recognized this man as the one who had given him the deep gash on the back of his skull and the one to whom Chris had made his warning the day before. While Vin was confident he could take the man in unarmed combat, the time do so was something Vin did not have in abundance.

Aiming carefully, he waited for a clear shot and aimed for the man's arm. He fought the impulse of shooting to kill. The price on his head would stand whether he was delivered dead or alive. These men would lose nothing by choosing to kill him if he caused them enough trouble. Vin pulled the trigger and shattered the silence of the morning air by sending a bullet through the man's shoulder. His would-be hunter uttered a little cry of pain before falling off his saddle and onto the ground.

Vin did not wait around to see how he was, hurrying towards the horse before it could bolt as the other had done. Grabbing the reins, he cast an obligatory glance at the wounded man, seeing the angry red stain of blood expanding from his injured shoulder. Vin was a good enough sharpshooter to inflict worse if he desired it and wondered if the man knew how fortunate he was that Vin had not chosen otherwise. It took a few seconds for the mountain man to settle the animal since it had been badly frightened by the sound of gunfire.

He knew the others in the hunt would not be far behind now they had heard the gunshot. He mounted the animal to vacate the area as quickly as possible. Nestling himself comfortably into the saddle, Vin kicked in his heels and grimaced at the feel of the hard metal stirrups against his bare feet. The mare broke into a gallop just as he began to hear the rapid approach of the injured man's companions. He drove the palomino at full gallop, keeping his head low in expectation of the inevitable gunfire that would follow. There was only a narrow lead between them, and Vin was painfully aware of how far away Four Corners was. While he hoped Josiah and the others were coming after him, Vin knew better than to assume they'd reach him in time.

He glanced over his shoulder and saw the other men arrive. They were leading the horse escaped him earlier. The injured man was on his feet by now and shouting orders to the others as he climbed onto the saddle. Very soon, the trio was riding hard after Vin. Deciding his only hope was to keep ahead of them, Vin tried to widen the distance between them. Digging his heels into the mare's sides, he heard the sound of gunfire erupt in the still quiet of dawn when he broke through the tree line and returned once more to the open plains.

Despite the air rushing past him, Vin could hear their hoof beats thundering loudly behind him as the bullets flew by. He returned fire of his own and made every shot count as he had only a few shells left to him and it was a long ride back to Four Corners. Although he feared injury, he feared losing his horse to the bullets even more. The mare was all that stood between him and the men who drag him back to Tascosa.

Slowly, the horse began to make some headway, descending the crest of the plain before them with enough speed to leave the bounty hunters further behind. Vin glanced over his shoulder one final time when suddenly, he became aware of one of them aiming at him with a rifle.

Vin had honestly believed none of those men capable of making the shot. Whether or not it was skill or blind luck, the discharged bullet slammed into his chest with such force that he barely had time to cry out. Despite the expanding core of agony that swept him up in exquisite waves, Vin managed to stay on the saddle. However, the damage was done. A glance at the wound saw his shirt becoming saturated with blood. He could feel its slick wetness running down his sides and along his stomach. Each gallop forward forced a groan past his gritted teeth. 

Vin knew he was having difficulty controlling the mare when reins threatened to slip past his weakened grip. The injury was going cost him dearly, and he did not need to look over his shoulder to know they were gaining on him. Vin was not prepared to die but faced the possibility as he faced everything in his life, with calm. He wished he could disconnect things the way Chris did and force it someplace where it would not harm him, but he wasn't Chris.

"Okay," he whispered to himself. "If that's the way it's gotta be, so be it."

If they wanted their two thousand dollars, they were going to have to earn it.

Somehow, without his guidance, the mare had made it across the next field although the gunmen were bearing down on him rapidly. Coming to a firm decision, Vin decided he was not going to play a game of cat and mouse with these men. He was going to end this thing right now. Pulling the reins up abruptly with whatever strength left to him, Vin was almost thrown off palomino when it reared its hind legs at the action. The mare neighed angrily as the bit dug into its mouth, protesting further as Vin made the animal turn around to face the oncoming riders.

With considerable difficulty, Vin loaded all the remaining bullets he had into the chamber of his gun and raised his arm to fire. He felt no fear at the possibility of dying. A man could die at any time, but not many could choose how they would go. He decided that he was going to have that much at least. He raised his arm and placed the enemy in his sights.

With almost serene calm, Vin Tanner pulled the cocked the gun and pulled the trigger. The bullet discharged from the weapon knocked one man's hat off his head. Vin saw the rabid gleam of greed in his eyes suddenly whither into a new emotion, fear. Without drawing a second breath, he pulled the trigger again, and this time, there was no close shave. The bullet smashed into the man's bald forehead. From that range, it did not make a spectacular exit as Chris Larabee had done for their companion Dawkins. However, Vin felt some satisfaction at seeing him a spot of red flare into a thick river of blood that ran down his face an instant before he fell from the horse and disappeared into stalks of sunburnt grass. Although the other men were reaching point blank range, Vin did not allow that factor to cloud his measured calm.

It would not be long now, Vin decided, before one of their bullets found its way home and finished the grisly work partially begun.

Without hesitation, Vin pulled the trigger for the final time when suddenly, a new eruption of fresh artillery exploded around him. The sounds whizzed past him like before except these were not coming at him but from behind him, instead. Vin turned around as he heard the fresh chorus of gunfire like it was the sweetest sound in the world. It was almost with a smile that he saw Josiah, Ezra and JD riding forward with guns blazing. No sooner than he had faced front again, he saw what remained of the bounty hunters cut down like straw. Only their horses continued the journey while their master felt into the field of gold like weights disappearing to the briny depths.

"Took you long enough," Vin said weakly when the others finally reached him.

"Your captors were determined to make it to Tascosa in one day's ride." Ezra pointed out, nudging his horse forward so that he could take control of Vin's own. Although he hid the concern in his eyes, Ezra could see the blood soaking through Vin's shirt.

"Vin, you're hurt!" JD exclaimed, never one to miss the obvious.

"It's just a scratch." the mountain man replied, trying not to show the pain he was in despite the severity of his injuries. In that way, Vin was like Chris Larabee, who seems to have difficulty allowing anyone to witness such displays of their mortality.

"Can you ride?" Josiah asked firmly, knowing the question was obligatory. "It would take time to reach Four Corners, and Vin did not appear to have much strength left in his wounded body."

"I'll probably need some help with the reins." He mumbled.

"I got it," Ezra said, taking the strips of leather in his hands. "Try to hold on Mr. Tanner," the gambler remarked. "We'll have you in the ministrations of good Doctor Styles in no time." He said, trying to sound confident even though he was just as worried about Vin's condition as Josiah and JD.

"Now that's something to look forward to." Vin sighed as he slumped forward in the saddle, finally giving in to the pain and the black that had been on the edge of his consciousness.

She had heard the yelling and the muffled crashes through the crack of her bedroom door. She has listened as Mary argued before a sound that could only be flesh struck violently. She forced the gasp, escaping her throat into silence, listening in rising fear at the scuffle of feet that soon evaporated into the nothingness of quiet.

Inez remained where she was, too afraid to move but unwilling to cower in fear either. She knew her friends were in trouble, and she was witness to enough of the proceedings to know what fate the enemy had planned. Nathan was in no position to be of any help. She knew the men were gone and realized with almost agonizing frustration that she was all that stood between Mary Travis, Doctor Alexandra Styles and fiery death.

Inez remained crouched by the door, trying to sum up the courage to stand up and do what was needed. Her arm still ached, and her ribs were in no shape to allow her to perform any activity, let alone carrying out any rescue. However, as the seconds stretched into minutes, she knew that there was no one else. Part of her was terrified to venture out of this room, to face what lay in the world outside. The memory of the previous night, hearing their voices taunting her with the worst as she lay crouched in the darkness, terrified out of her mind return to her.

Stop it!

Inez screamed silently in her mind. Stop it! If she remained where she was, hidden in the dark, in fear of her own shadow, Inez would lose the friends who had stood by her, and she would never forgive herself.

It was a sacrifice she was unwilling to make.

Inez rose to her feet and stepped out of the room, feeling her body throb as she padded towards the staircase that led to the floor of the saloon. Mary and her captors had left a few minutes ago, but Inez had heard enough to guess where they were going. Victoria Kendall wanted Chris Larabee to know pain the like of which he could never endure.

To do that, she intended to leave him a legacy of fire and pyre on which Mary Travis would burn.

Chris let his gaze move across the wreckage of Mary Travis' parlor and knew that he and Buck had returned to late from Crescent Falls to be of any help to her. There were spots of blood on the floor, and the walls riddled with bullets. Judging by the state of the room leading to the stairs, someone had broken in through the front door before engaging in a firefight. There did not seem to be a lot of blood, certainly enough to have come from a gunshot wound.

Refusing to think the worse, he started up the steps only to be greeted by Buck who had gone up to investigate while Chris was occupied downstairs.

"No one's up there.' Buck offered as he came down the stairs, wearing a grim expression on his face. "I found the door to one of the rooms partially barricaded but no sign of anyone or anything. I don't think they got up that far. I didn't see no bullet wounds."

"Which doesn't answer the question where they are," Chris said abruptly and spun on his heels before striding out the door.

"Well if there was trouble," Buck hurried to catch up with him. "Vin wouldn't have let them stay here. They may have gone to the saloon or someplace safer."

Chris had already thought of that and was making his way towards the establishment even as Buck let the words escape his lips. Once again, the panic that had threatened to overwhelm him during his journey back to Four Corners reared its ugly visage in his mind.

"Assuming," Chris responded as they walked to the street. "Vin isn't hurt himself. I saw blood on the floor."

Buck's color changed, and Chris saw the worry in his eyes thicken so abruptly that he had to turn away from Chris. "If they've hurt Inez again, I'll kill them," Buck swore under his breath.

They arrived at the saloon to find it empty at this time of day. It was just after dawn, and the place closed an hour ago. However, Chris saw a pot of coffee on the table and went straight for it. Feeling the smooth surface with his hand, he noticed that there were still some traces of warmth left in the quickly cooling beverage.

"It's still warm." Chris looked at Buck. The table had all the signs of being recently occupied, but the saloon was just as empty as Mary's house.

"Ezra!" Chris head Buck call as he ran up the stairs to find the gambler.

Enough of this, Chris decided. He was not about to waste time trying to find the others when Mary and Inez's life could be in danger. Chris hoped the others were not here for a good reason and he had to believe that Vin was absent because he was with Mary and Inez. Having charged the mountain man to protect the two women, he was confident that Vin would not shirk that responsibility even under the threat of death. Chris sincerely hoped it had not come to that.

Buck reappeared a moment later, looking bewildered and concerned. "Nathan is up there asleep, but no one else is." He reported. "I don't understand this, where is Josiah, JD and Ezra? They should be here!"

"They should be," Chris nodded. "But they aren't, so we're just going to have to deal with this ourselves and work out the details later."

"That's all well and good," Buck retorted. "But we don't know where anyone is or if anything has actually happened to them."

As unlikely as the possibility of the absence of his friends and the woman he loved could be explained rationally, Chris did not believe it for a moment. "Doesn't matter," Chris retorted, turning back to the batwing doors. "We're going to the source of the problem now."

To that, Buck found he could not disagree. It was time Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington finally met Mrs. Victoria Kendall.

"I can't understand a word you're saying." Alex retorted as she struggled with the ropes keeping her hands tied around her back. "And would you stop speaking, you have a broken jaw." She had no idea why she concerned herself with Mary's injuries when it seemed to be a moot point at this moment. If Victoria Kendall were allowed to feed her insane desires for revenge against Chris Larabee, a broken jaw would be the least of Mary Travis' problems.

Mary had been trying to speak through her broken jaw and for obvious reasons, was not very intelligible. If the intensity of her muffled words measured her anxiety, Alex would then surmise the widow was very unhappy indeed.

"What damn difference does it make!" Mary snapped. Forcing her mouth to co-operate in spite of the pain of the fracture inflicted by the steel of Victoria's gun, Mary's words sounded slurred. As soon as the words left her sore mouth, she felt slivers of pain from the action and groaned visibly.

"I have no idea! I am trying to remain calm under pressure."

Mary rolled her eyes in disbelief as she contemplated their situation. Victoria and Saul had taken them to the newly constructed Emporium and left them in the basement, bound and helpless. Surrounded by faceless mannequins and other items that would never see the light of day, the two women were kept out of sight while Victoria carried out her plans for vengeance. Mary could hear their footsteps across the floor above her head, and the sound served only to heighten her apprehension.

Victoria was determined to make Chris face his worst nightmare again by losing another woman he loved to a fiery death. At the moment, it was far more important to Mary Chris did not endure that fate than the risk to her life.

"All the gunslingers in the west and we have to get one who knows how to tie knots like a sailor!" Alex complained angrily as she felt the coarse ropes rubbing her wrists raw each time she renewed her efforts to loosen them. "I can't even get this knot to budge!"

"We better think of something," Mary grunted an answer, wincing once more as she spoke through her injured mouth. "I had a list of things to do today, none of which involved getting burned to a crisp."

"I admire your ability to joke at a time like this." The doctor said sarcastically and then added with less calm. "What is it with you, news people? Stop talking! You're making that jaw worse!"

"Thank you so much, Doctor Livingstone." Mary knew the woman was right. Her jaw ached terribly, and she shuddered each time she felt the grating of bone against bone. She felt as if a weight was pressing up against a cheek, and the pressure inside her mouth was growing by the minute. However, in the rare instances when deranged family members were attempting to murder her in vengeance of a loved one, Mary Travis preferred not to go quietly.

With Chris and Buck at Crescent Falls, Josiah and the others trying to find Vin Tanner, there was no help coming, and their bantering reflected this seemingly hopeless situation. With growing realization, Mary and Alex concluded they would only free themselves from this present predicament by their own resourcefulness.

At the moment, neither was rising to the occasion with any dignity.

"She's insane, you know," Alex remarked unable to forget the deranged gleam in Victoria Kendall's eyes as they brought here. Although, there was only one question that Alex had hesitated in asking. However, if she was going to die because of the Man in Black, she was going to ask the question.

"Do you think he did it?" She asked, finally. "Do you think Larabee murdered her family?"

"Chris is a lot of things," Mary said with a soft voice that had nothing to do with her injury. "He is not a cold-blooded murderer although," she sighed heavily. "He usually has better timing."

"I wouldn't mind seeing that for myself about now."

Suddenly, the footsteps overhead ceased abruptly, followed by an uncomfortable stretch of silence. For a moment, neither Mary nor Alex spoke as they waited in rising anxiety for some new threat to appear on the horizon. Victoria had stated her intentions with such relish that the captives knew the quiet was merely a prelude to the final act in Victoria Kendall's play of vengeance.

A drop of fluid appeared through the fissure of floorboards, unnoticed at first until it became a droplet large enough to make a soft but noticeable sound as it impacted on the ground in front of them. Another droplet followed in quick succession until it resembled a leaky roof during a rainstorm. When the droplets had formed sufficient quantity to become a pool, a strange odor wafted through the air. Its stink was pungent and somewhat disorientating.

"Oh my god," Alex exclaimed, identifying the smell first. "It's lamp oil."

Through some miracle, Inez had made it into the building without being seen. Having peered through one of the glass windows of the Emporium, she witnessed in rising horror at the sight of Saul and Victoria Kendall emptying bottles of lamp oil over everything. The thick viscous fluid was soon smeared over walls and cabinets, dripping off any surface that was smooth enough to allow it flow. With a sinking realization, Inez guessed Mary and Alex were probably imprisoned somewhere, helpless while building around them was in preparation to become an inferno.

She circled the building, opting to enter through the rear entrance of the building, utilizing the same path Mary and Alex had been forced to follow on their way to their prison. Fortunately, their captors left the door unlocked, giving Inez a way onto the premises. Every step made her body ache in protest. She was in little condition to affect any rescue, but the reality of the situation gave her no other alternative.

Inez was terrified of encountering the man who might have been responsible for her rape because one of the voices had seemed familiar. She had no idea what she would do if forced to face him again, and the thought frightened her so much, she almost turned around to run back to the saloon and hide. If Inez did that, Mary and Doctor Styles would die. No, she couldn't do that.

Navigating through the smaller rooms, she kept clear of the main floor, while testing every door and inspecting every room for some indication as to where the duo might have placed Mary and Doctor Styles. It was not long before she found herself at the door leading to the basement and heard the frightened voices behind it. With a surge of excitement, Inez realized she knew those voices and immediately reached for the handle when suddenly; she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"Well, well, what do we have here?" Victoria Kendall asked, and Inez felt her heart freeze in her chest. Turning around slowly, she swore under her breath and made a silent apology to Mary and Alex for failing them.

"Saul!" The woman screeched, beckoning her companion from the front room.

Inez's eyes widened as she saw him approach. Deep wells of hatred rose from the pit of her stomach, knowing this was the man who hunted her like an animal the night before. Seeing him in the flesh, instead of the dark, faceless figure tormenting her in her darkness, surfaced a powerful surge of rage Inez could ill contain. Without warning, Inez rushed at him with a speed she knew not she possessed, moving past Victoria in a blur of color before sinking her long nails into his face and raking as much flesh she could on recoil.

He uttered a sharp cry and lashed out fiercely, striking her against her bruised face with the back of his hand. Inez fell to the floor with little effort on his part, but she hardly felt the pain in light of the immense satisfaction of seeing his face torn by her hand. At the very least, he would never be able to look in the mirror without remembering who had scarred him this way.

"Bitch!" He snarled and moved towards her, with every intention of killing her.

"Saul, we don't have time for this!" Victoria stopped him in mid-stride. "Let's just light this place and go! We can watch them burn when we ride out of this godforsaken town. Throw her in the basement with the others…" She ordered him with an icy glare the man could not refuse.

Saul glared at Inez, seething from his injuries and unsatisfied that his desire to kill her with his bare hands would not come to pass. He started toward her when suddenly; they heard sharp rapping against the glass of the main doors. The sound froze the moment, and Inez strained to look at who the unexpected visitor might have been, what she saw renewed her belief in her god. Inez never thought there could be a more wonderful sight than that of Buck and Chris waiting for someone to answer the door, could exist.

Without hesitation, Inez saw her chance and took it. "BUCK!" She fairly screamed.

"You little whore!" Victoria Kendall swore and sent her boot flying into Inez's tender ribs. The kick wrenched an agonizing scream from the fallen woman that almost eclipsed the first. Inez rolled onto her side in pain, feeling the pain tear a sob from her body as she curled into a fetal position before everything went to hell.

Chris heard the scream and met Buck's gaze in instant recognition.

"Buck, around the back!" He ordered as he ran forward, smashing through the glass and wood with little thought of injury to himself. Trailing shards and fragments, Chris entered the Emporium just in time to be greeted by a series of gunshots. Throwing himself behind some shelves, he scrambled to the edge of the wooden constructions and began returning fire. It was at this point Chris noticed an all too familiar odor. Fortunately, he had soaked none of the inflammatory material on himself and was tempted to shout a warning not to shoot before it occurred to him that its presence might be intentional.

No sooner than the thought had crossed his mind, the sparks from their weapons did what he feared. The inner half of the main floor burst into flames, fire running up the length and breadth of the room, following the trail left by the oil that Saul and Victoria used to douse the place. As a bullet slammed into the ceramic pots behind him, Chris ignored the fragments pelting his back to focused on the immediate problem. He peered past the safety of the shelf to see Saul shooting at him with both guns blazing. He waited for a pause in the volley of bullets before returning fire.

Bullets whizzed past his head, striking the shelves behind him and splintering wood in all directions. The glass windows behind him had shattered spectacularly, and the sound of gunfire exchanged was becoming deafening. He heard Saul scrambling forward when Chris was forcing to reload his weapon. He was uncertain of how much ammunition Saul had on his person but knew his supply was not inexhaustible. With the fire quickly consuming everything before him, Chris realized with a start, Saul did not mean to kill him but instead delay him from reaching Mary.

Where the hell was Buck? He cursed under his breath as he saw the fabric in those section of the Emporium ignited with a fiery speed was almost beautiful. The smoke was becoming thicker now, and Chris could feel it burning his eyes slightly. He heard coughing somewhere and gathered it was Saul. Realizing that time was against him, Chris sought a faster way to end this firefight.

The flames were quickly finding fresh fodder to feed its insatiable lust, as more and more items started to burn. The veil of smoke drifting past Chris previously obscuring his vision was now making it hard to breathe. This could not go on much longer. He had to reach Mary. Chris looked at the shelf behind which he was hiding and then noticed several more leading up the aisle to where his nemesis was taking cover. Some had already fallen prey to the fire, but most were still intact and standing.

An idea borne of desperation sprung to mind when Chris realized they could continue firing at each other until they ran out of bullets or die in the flames that were engulfing everything around them. Chris could accept the dying, but doing so would doom Mary to the same fate. Taking the chance at ending this quickly, Chris shoved hard against the shelf until it teetered on its edge. A final push sent it toppling forward. Taking the opportunity while he could, he ran down the aisle, as Saul became aware of what was coming at him.

As the enemy crawled to get out of the way of the shelves collapsing upon each other like a game of dominoes, he forgot about Chris Larabee for the moment. The lapse lasted no more than a second, but it gave Chris enough time to bring him down in a full body tackle. Saul fell backwards, his gun flying out of his hand as he landed on top of a table containing some glass bottles of perfume. The older man recovered quicker than Chris gave him credit, elbowing him in the chest. The gunslinger fell backwards and kicked out his foot, striking the man's jaw and sending him reeling.

Elsewhere, Victoria Kendall watched and waited.

Buck hurried around the Emporium; unknowingly taking the same route as Inez. Her terrified scream was seared into his mind, and despite the urgency of the situation, he did feel some pleasure when she called for him, not Chris.

Buck burst through the rear entrance, his guns drawn as he moved carefully through the corridors that meandered through the rooms in the building. He generally knew where he was going, but it was difficult to see now that the fire was raging out of control. There was thick smoke billowing through the passageway and Buck could see tendrils of orange flames running along the rafters above his head.

"Inez!" He called out, trying to fan the flames from his obscured vision so he could see her. He had heard her scream not once but twice, and he was sure she was in agony the second time. He did not know what frightened him more, the fact she was in the hands of such vile folk or that she had actually screamed in terror. He had never heard her scream in fear of anything. She was his proud, defiant and outrageously brave Inez and anything that could frighten her frightened him.

"I'm here!" Buck heard her cough in response and thought it the sweetest sound in the world.

She was still on the floor, doubled over by a door, hugging her legs in pain. It was an instant later Buck was aware there were other cries for help emanating from the entrance. With a surge or relief, he knew that it was Mary and Alex. Dropping to his knees to help her, Buck moved to pick her up when she waved him away.

"Not yet," she groaned. "Mary and the doctor are down there!"

"What are you doing here, honey?" He asked as placed his hand against her cheek. He could feel the heat of fire against her skin and knew that the flames were coming closer to them.

"I had to help them." She whispered. "She was going to burn them like Chris' wife and son."

Buck's jaw tightened hearing that, needing no further incentive to smash his boot hard against the lock and tearing it from the wood. It slammed open against the wall and recoiled, but Buck shoved it aside and hurried down the stairs. The basement was filled with grey smoke, and when he reached the floor; he saw the faint outline of Mary and Alex coughing wildly, their faces covered in soot.

"Thank god!" Alex exclaimed with noticeable relief. "Get us the hell out of here!" She shouted in unconcealed panic. Mary's eyes reflected the same sentiments, but her eyes searched the stairway behind him to see if anyone else was coming.

"Chris?" She managed to ask.

"Upstairs dealing with Saul," Buck said abruptly, more interested in cutting away the ropes that held them down rather than answering any questions. He had managed to forget about Chris fighting Saul Willis and Victoria Kendall in his haste to free the women. Now, he was suddenly concerned he ought to find his friend. However, first things first. The long-bladed knife that had been a gift from Vin cut the hessian ropes quickly, snapping each sturdy fibrous strand with little or no effort. Alex was freed first, and she got to her feet, almost like it was a race she could not run fast enough.

When Mary was freed, they hurried up the staircase with Buck leading the way. When they reached the top, he dropped down and swooped Inez in his arms with one swift movement.

"Inez! How did you get here?"

"I couldn't let them hurt you both," Inez responded, her arms sliding around Buck's neck and finding comfort in being able to hold him close.

"Thank you, Inez," Alex squeezed her arm warmly. "You are the bravest woman I know."

"Come on, ladies," Buck interrupted as his eyes searched the smoke for Chris but could not see him. He didn't want to leave Chris behind, but he knew Chris would want him to get the women to safety before making any attempt to help him. The fire had snaked its way further down the ceiling of the corridor and was starting to turn the powerful beams of wood into cinders. It would not be long before it all came down. "We've got to get moving."

Following Buck's lead, the group hurried down the corridor; trying not to breathe in any more of the harmful smoke and ignore the flames that were following them in close pursuit. When they finally emerged into the morning air, its untainted scent went a long way to lifting their frightened spirits. Outside, the residents of Four Corners were becoming aware of the fire, and some of them were gathering on the streets, trying to mobilize the town's fledgling fire fighting force with some difficulty.

It was Alex who noticed that Mary was not with them.

The blade caught his skin and cut open a sizeable gash in his arm. Chris winced slightly but managed to catch Saul's hand before the man could sink the blade into another part of his anatomy. Saul had produced the Bowie from inside his boot and had so far managed to avoid all attempts Chris made to remove the weapon. Around them, the ceiling was on fire and threatening to collapse at any moment.

"You'll never get to her in time." Saul smiled maliciously as he lunged at Chris with his other hand. "She'll burn like the other one burned."

Chris ground his teeth, forcing away the man's taunts because he knew better. Buck would find Mary. He had to believe that or else, not even his life would matter. He blocked Saul's blow and slammed his forehead hard against the bridge of the man's nose while keeping a firm grip on the hand holding the knife. Saul recoiled in pain, blood gushing from a shattered nose. Taking advantage of his disorientation, Chris forced the blade backward in one final and conclusive show of strength.

The blade impaled Saul Willis so completely, sliding through his chest like a hot knife through butter that Chris felt its sharp tip strike the floor beneath him. Saul's eyes widened in an expression of surprise before the life drained from him entirely and his face contorted in a silent cry of agony. Chris felt his body slacken before his head rolled back, hitting the wooden floor in a final death knell.

Breathing hard, Chris rose to his feet and turned to find Mary when suddenly, he heard the familiar click of a gun cocking. Through the smoke he saw her for the first time, eyes glaring at him with venomous hatred that had been raging with more heat than this fire could ever imagine. She stepped out of the smoke; gun pointed firmly at him intending to kill him in the next few seconds.

"Hello, Lucy."

"I'm honored, you remembered." The woman who was called Lucy Westbrook said coldly, approaching him slowly. Before he died, she wanted to see his eyes. The flames were all around them. She supposed hell must feel this way. It gave comfort to her universe to know that he would go first.

"I didn't. Not until I went to Crescent Falls with Buck, and he saw the Westbrook family plot."

"You were always thorough." She smiled without a trace of humor. Her eyes were dark pits of hatred he was intimately familiar. Chris wondered for how long she had fantasized this moment in her mind, replaying the scene of vengeance she would create for him. "I suppose I should have expected it."

"Why, Lucy?" Chris found himself asking. "Why now after 13 years?"

Her eyes narrowed as the question bounced off her. With a slow smile, her fingers tightened around the trigger and responded. "Why not?" She said coldly. "Do you think there is a statute of limitation on what you did? You murdered my father and my brothers for what? A little whore who probably had it coming? You hung Damien for that?"

"Damien deserved to be hung," Chris said with no intention of saving his life by lying. "He raped and murdered a whole lot more women than just that little whore as you called her. I wasn't going to hurt anyone that night, but I was going to bring an end to him, one way or another. I gave your father and brothers a choice. You may not remember that, but I do."

Strangely enough, when he was berating himself over their deaths the past few years, that was a detail always forgot, that he'd given them a choice at life. It was more than the Westbrooks had ever given anyone else.

"A choice!" She glared at him as if the notion was absurd. "You think that offering my family a chance to serve a Westbrook as a sacrificial lamb is a choice!"

"I gave them as much of a choice as they gave the law who tried to bring your brother in," Chris replied, mindful of the fire was blazing around them or the ceiling on the verge of collapsing the entire building around their ears. Chris could feel the hot flames prickling his skin, and the rising temperature was running sweat down his forehead. If he had been any farther away, he might have tried to escape, but she'd gun him down if he tried to move an inch.

"Do you know what it's like to watch your mother wither away and die?" She demanded, showing the first weakness in the mask of fury she was wearing. "When you killed my father, you should have killed her. Instead, you made her suffer the agony of burying her husband and her sons! I suppose I should feel something knowing that you suffered the same, but it's not enough!" She snarled fiercely, riding high on a surge of hatred from which there was no return. "I want you to scream from the pain the way you made my family suffer! I'm going to put you through hell!"

"Victoria." A new voice called out calmly.

Victoria looked over her shoulder just in time to feel the hard steel of a cast iron pan slam into the side of her head. The force of the blow almost lifted her off her feet as she fell backwards. She went down without a sound or a shriek, the concussion of sound vibrating through the cackling air for a few seconds. Mary watched her fall dispassionately before dropping the pan onto the floor with a loud thud.

Chris, who was staring at her with a widening smile of relief when she looked up at him and returned his grin with the best-disjointed smile she could manage with her fractured jaw before replying. "No one is going to put you through hell but me."

He let out a short chuckle and then came forward to grab her hand. "Come on," Chris said, pulling her towards the open door. He took note of the ugly bruise on the side of her face and reminded himself to ask about it later. "We've got to get out of here."

There was no time for warm reunions; the Emporium was a fiery death waiting to happen. The heat and smoke were starting to overwhelm them, and he was surprised neither of them had succumbed to it yet. He hesitated, remembering Victoria lying in the heart of all that fire and knew that he would not allow her to die. He was not going to be responsible for the death of another Westbrook.

"You go on," he urged Mary as he took a step towards the unconscious woman.

Suddenly, any good intentions he might have had regarding Mrs. Kendall ended with the powerful crack of a ceiling beam giving way. He looked up long enough to see the length of flaming wood bearing down on them before he was forced into movement by Mary's firm grip on his hand. They ran out of the Emporium, barely a step ahead of the descending rain of wood and flaming debris. Crashing through the door, neither Chris nor Mary were aware of the glass and shards clinging to their skin until they had cleared the building.

There was already a small crowd forming outside the Emporium, with frightened faces trying to comprehend the drama unfolding before them. The building was ablaze with a fire so thick that no amount of water was going to save it. Thick columns of black smoke rose into the blue morning sky. Chris and Mary watched the sign over the door curling with heat before engaging in a warm embrace, not caring whether the entire town was watching or not. All that was important was the fact that they were alive, and the ordeal of the last few days had finally ended.

So much for the Emporium, Chris sighed. Good, he hated the place anyway.

"You're hurt." She mumbled through her injured jaws, seeing the slash on his arm after they had parted.

"It's nothing," Chris replied, far more interested in the discoloration on her cheek. "What happened to your face?"

"Alex thinks my jaw is fractured." Her slurred words indicated as much.

"Figures that wouldn't be enough to stop you talking."

+ + + + + + +

Since arriving in Four Corners, Alexandra Styles was assured of one thing. She was not going to be bored.

Even though her clothes still reeked of smoke and ash, after narrowly escaping incineration at the hands of Victoria Kendall, she found herself using the premises belonging to Nathan Jackson, the local healer who was her first patient in town, treating the latest victim of the woman's vengeance. She had already tended to Mary's bruises and a dislocated jaw at the widow's home, but the injury sustained by another of the town's seven lawmen was severe enough for her to need a proper place to work.

He was unconscious when she saw him and recalled fleetingly before the more urgent business of saving his life took hold of her attention, he was the one in the slouch hat who had been staring at her the morning she arrived. The one with the pretty eyes. Unfortunately, she had little time to think more about it, because the wound he sustained was grievous. In truth, she was somewhat surprised he managed to fight off the men who inflicted it.

It was not to say he wasn't exceedingly lucky. The bullet hit him in the lung and managed to avoid the heart. If it had penetrated any part of that organ, Alex knew for sure he would not have lived long enough to be brought to her. This time, without the aid of a nurse or Ezra Standish who was playing the part of constable to the town, Alex set to work repairing the damage, ensuring the vital functions of his body continued without disruption.

When it was all said and done, she collapsed in one of the chairs in Mr. Jackson's Infirmary and studied the place. While it was no traditional doctor's office, she was impressed by what she saw on the shelves and the healer's treatment benches. His instruments were clean and well cared for. The medications stored were some she knew and used herself. He also appeared to have a good understanding of herbology, which not many western practitioners subscribed to, but which Alex swore by. Travelling the world with her father taught her the sum of medical knowledge was not confined to the expertise of western doctors.

Not to say that Mr. Jackson's efforts to educate himself was any less formal. Whether or not he knew it, his small collection of books and periodicals were indicative of all physicians. Every doctor worth their salt had a small medical library, even herself. Her books were still in a trunk at Heidegger's Hotel, waiting for a shelf to be placed on once she found herself some premises.

Mr. Jackson's books included old, worn textbooks on biology and to her surprise a copy of Florence Nightingale's 'Notes on Nursing for the Laboring Classes', and JH Barnes's book on surgical nursing. Both would not have been easy to come by, and she made a mental note that when she unpacked, there were one or two essential omissions in his library, she had the power to remedy immediately.

Knowledge should always be shared, her father used to say and considering what was in her mind as she nursed the cup of tea she made herself, he would approve of what she intended to do. She was a mixed-race woman of color who had fought to gain her medical and surgical license. If not for her father, she would never have even been admitted to medical school, let alone be allowed to qualify. Also gaining her degree did not make her a physician in the eyes of her peers. She had been driven halfway across the world, to this small dusty town to be to able practice medicine.

Even with those hurdles, she couldn't even begin to imagine what obstacles Nathan Jackson must have in his way.

Sweeping her gaze across this small infirmary, she suddenly understood Mr. Jackson very well and recognized the passion for healing that was all but unquenchable. There were those who became doctors for the money and prestige, but Alex and Nathan Jackson, it was a calling as fierce as any religion. Life was the god they worshipped and the flesh, the altar upon which they practiced. She didn't know how things were going to be in this town, but she knew one thing with absolute certainty, she was going to help Nathan be a better healer if he would let her.

Her father would have expected no less.

"Aw, hell . . . "

Alex allowed a small smile to cross her lips at the exclamation and set down the cup on the bench next to her. Lifting herself from her seat, she went to the bed her patient had been occupying since she completed the life-giving surgery.

He was lifting his head, his expression one of unhappiness, not because of the fresh bandages across his chest but the fact that he was in a state of undress. When he was brought to her, he was covered in dirt and blood after his ordeal with the men hunting him. There had been no time to properly clean him up because the urgency of his wounds made the need for surgery immediate. Only after it was done and he was unconscious, Alex was able to give him a light sponge bath without the awkwardness that it would entail.

"Don't worry Mr. Tanner," Alex announced herself. "Your virtue is intact. I promise."

He shifted those blue eyes in her direction and stared for a moment, his ire at being naked disarmed at the sight of her. Clearing his throat, Vin was almost afraid to ask. "You . . . ?"

"Yes," she nodded. "I'm afraid I had to clean you up. Your injuries are quite severe, and I was not risking your life with an infection that might be caused by lack of hygiene."

"I ain't no pig," he countered, annoyed for some reason she might think so.

"I never said you were," she came up to him and checked his bandages, noticing he went very still when her fingers made contact with his skin. Men and doctors, she thought to herself and continued what she was doing.

Vin tried to ignore the delicate touch of her fingers against his skin or the way her hair seemed to sway in front of his face as she leaned over to examine him. He could see the shimmer in her dark locks and closed his eyes, trying to regain his focus. How was it that Vin was in pain, though not as much as he ought to be, and yet noticed everything about her? She smelled of rose water, and when she smiled at him a moment ago, he thought his heart would shatter by how it made him feel.

"Am I gonna live?" He asked, clearing his throat and trying to regain his composure, all of which she did not notice.

"Of course," she straightened up and smiled at him.

That damn smile, Vin thought, maintaining his composure as she looked at him. That bullet to the brain smile that reached right down his throat and tore out his heart. When she stepped off the stage two days ago, the world had stopped spinning for a second, because deep down he knew, in no way that made sense, she was made for him. He should have said something to her then, and now it was too late because Ezra had staked his claim and the ache he felt in his chest was almost as wide as the hole Glassop and his men had put there with a bullet.

"Thank you," he said quietly looking away from her because if he kept looking, Vin was going to do something stupid, as he'd done with Charlotte and that was not going to happen again. He'd nearly broken his friendship with Chris, almost lost his place among the seven because of his love for Charlotte Richmond. Vin wasn't going to do anything so reckless ever again. As much as it ached for him to stay away from this beautiful woman, he was going to have to do it.

"You're probably not hurting as much as you should," Alex explained, utterly oblivious to what was going on in his head. "I've administered morphia to dull the ache a bit, but you're going to need plenty of bed rest for at least two weeks. Do you have lodgings?" She asked because he looked like one of those frontier types who probably slept under the stars or something.

"I got a wagon," he explained, trying to keep his eyes from her face because if he kept looking at her, Vin was going to become more lost in her loveliness and right now, he needed to detach himself from her.

"That will not do," she shook her head. "I'll talk to Ezra, see if you can't stay at the saloon where Mr. Jackson is currently convalescing. You need to be somewhere I can treat you both."

"I'll be fine," he said gruffly. Her calling Ezra by name made him bristle with annoyance.

"Mr. Tanner," she stared at him, not understanding the hard edge to his voice. "You are seriously hurt. You could have died if the men who shot you were any more accurate. Please," she reached for his shoulder. "For your own sake, take my advice."

Her hand on his skin felt like sparks of lightning, and he raised his eyes to hers to see her staring back, with no idea of the power she had over him. It was going to be this way from now on, wasn't it? Vin cursed himself. She was going to plague his nights and torture him with longing. As Vin stared into her face, he also knew he would never be able to deny her anything even though to her, he was nothing but a patient.

"Alright," he said finally, surrendering because that was all that was left for him to do. "Do what you gotta."

"Good," she smiled at him and didn't know it was an action that did nothing but drive the blade in his heart another inch deeper. "Don't worry. I'll get you on your feet in no time and be out of your hair."

Vin Tanner said nothing to that because he knew she was wrong. He wasn't going to shake her any time soon. Not when a smile could make his heart beat just a little faster, and the smell of her now was going to fill his days forever. Even that odd accent of hers sounded like music to his ears, and he knew nothing was ever going to be the same again.

Jesus Christ, what the hell was he going to do?

Epilogue:

Changes

"So, how are my patients doing today?" Alexandra Styles inquired walking into the saloon. It was a week since the Emporium burned down and she was such a frequent visitor in the establishment no one even bothered pointing out that it was inappropriate for a woman to be there.

It was the first time that either Nathan or Vin was allowed out of their rooms since sustaining their injuries. Once the strength had returned to them, both men used the energy to make themselves the most troublesome patients it had been Alex's displeasure to treat. It was impossible to make them sit still for one moment, and while Nathan understood the importance of staying put to keep stitches intact, Alex actually considered tying Vin Tanner to his bed at one point and keep a guard on him.

"Fine now that we're out of bed." Vin smiled at the pretty doctor.

"I see," Alex noted the bottle of whisky on the table and in particular, the shot glass in front of Vin. Without saying another word, she took the glass away and set it down on someone else's table. "Enjoy."

"I was drinking that."

"I told you." Nathan laughed as he studied the cards dealt in his game with Josiah and Ezra. Vin gave Nathan a dirty look while Josiah chuckled, and Ezra revealed his amusement in a smile.

"And I told you," she looked hard at Vin. "No drinking, no smoking, nothing for the next three to four weeks. You have a chest injury, and I did not put you back together, so you can wreck it all by polluting your system will all these . . . ."

"Libations?" Ezra offered helpfully.

"That." Alex retorted. "Mr. Tanner, don't force me to get ugly with you. If I have to, I will have you strapped down if that's what it will take for you to obey doctor's orders."

"Ouch." Nathan winced at the thought. "I think she means it, Vin. By the way ma'am, could you please check on Mrs. Lawson? Her baby is due in a few weeks, and she was worried the birth might be a breach."

"Okay," Alex nodded. "I will go see her later today, anything more I need to know about?" She inquired.

Alex and Nathan had come to an understanding regarding their shared responsibility of Four Corner's medical health. For his own sake, Alex advised him against attempting any surgery. She knew he was forced to perform it on occasion, but the truth was, should anyone choose to take it up with the law, Nathan could find himself in serious trouble. She respected his ability because there was no doubt in her mind he was remarkably suited for medicine and made a mental note to see if there was anything she could do to help him gain formal qualifications for his skills.

"Not that I can think of." He answered as he discarded some unwanted cards from his hand. "Things can get slow when someone doesn't come gunning for us. It just gets routine."

"How dull," she sighed, checking Vin's bandages much to his chagrin. "After my first two days here, I don't think I can handle the boredom."

"It doesn't last that long," Josiah replied. "Something always happens around here. At least, we get a rest in between."

"I have no trouble in believing that vile creature was a sister to a scoundrel like Damien Westbrook," Ezra remarked, still unable to forget her harsh words about Alex. Her body had been sent back to Crescent Falls at the request of her sister Rebecca who lived in the east. As Buck discovered in the cemetery when he inadvertently stumbled upon that headstone, Victoria Kendall was no fabrication of Lucy's vengeance. Victoria was merely her middle name, and Kendall was her married name. The gravestone Buck Discovered had read David Kendall, mourned by his wife, Lucy Victoria Kendall.

"Well, revenge is a double edge sword," Josiah remarked. "When you carry that much hatred around for so long, it is a matter of time before it taints the soul."

"Hers was a soul very tainted." Alex retorted as she moved to inspect Nathan. Having firsthand knowledge of the woman's rage, Alex could attest to that fact with complete conviction. She could not forget the deranged gleam in the woman's eyes as she casually condemned Mary and Alex to death that terrible morning.

JD Dunne walked into the saloon, his eyes moving automatically in their direction as he approached their table. The young sheriff had been at the jailhouse most of the morning, taking care of some loose ends to this whole Kendall affair since Mary Travis was at home recuperating. He never knew how much he hated the paperwork of his profession or just how much of it the widow took off his shoulders. He made a note that when she was ready to return to the Clarion and work, he was going to buy her some flowers in appreciation of the things she spared him from doing.

That is if Chris didn't mind.

"Hey JD," a chorus of voice greeted the young man as he approached.

"About time," Ezra rose to his feet after folding his hand. "I require you to take my place, young man." The gambler stepped away from the chair as JD slipped into it, momentarily distracted from his current line of thought.

"Sure," JD responded and then tried to remember what he was going to say as he sat down and watched Josiah began dealing the cards around the table. His eyes moved across the friends at the table and only when it came to Vin, did the memory returned to him sharply. "Vin, I got good news."

"Just don't say it's anything to do with cigars and whisky, I might start to cry." He retorted, giving Alex a dark look.

The adversarial nature of his relationship with the doctor was all in good fun. He liked her spirit and was disappointed Ezra had a claim on her affections already.

"No," JD said, wondering what that was all about. "I just got a wire from Judge Travis." He replied, remembering the contents of the telegram he received not more than an hour ago. "Chris was right. The money for the reward on your head did come from Mrs. Kendall."

"Nothing new there," Ezra replied. "The lady was determined to cause as much grief as humanly possible."

"Anyway, Judge Travis had talked to the sheriff's office in Tascosa and requested that they send out telegrams everywhere saying that the $2000 reward ain't happening any more. The price on your head is back to $500." JD announced happily and wondered why Vin had not greeted the news with more enthusiasm.

"Well, that's something anyway." Vin sighed. "I can live with a $500 bounty. I prefer not to, but I ain't going to complain."

"That will be a first." Alex quipped before turning to Ezra once she was satisfied at the progress of the two men. Considering her plans for the day, she wanted to ensure that they were in satisfactory condition to be left without her ministrations for a few hours.

"Are we ready to go?" She looked at Ezra, who was straightening his hat in readiness to depart.

"Where are you two going?" Nathan asked, marveling in the strange relationship developing between Alexandra Styles and Ezra Standish. There was a time when Ezra did not even consider a friendship with Nathan worth having because of color. Now it appeared that it was difficult to imagine that prejudice had ever existed in the Southerner. Nathan supposed it was a sign of growth although Miss Styles was very beautiful, and that was incentive enough to overcome any hurdle.

"I need to buy myself a house," Alex announced. "I can't stay in a hotel forever, so Ezra and I are going to look at a few places around town." With everything else that had transpired lately, Alex had little time to unpack, let alone set up a practice.

"Buying a house takes money." Josiah pointed out. "You haven't even sent out a bill yet."

"That's okay," Alex replied as she turned to leave. "My father left me money."

Letting the lady walk out first, Ezra turned to his friends and smiled with a longing sigh. "Be still my beating heart, and she's rich too."

With that, the gambler hurried after the object of his affections before she put too much distance between them.

"I don't know what she sees in him," Vin grumbled after they had gone.

"Whatever it is," JD said with typical youthful tact. "I hope it ain't catching."

+ + + + + + +

Inez never thought she would say this, but she didn't like Buck when he was well behaved.

She could not understand why this was so, considering how annoying he usually was. Instead, his conversations were utterly devoid of flirtation, and he'd been hovering around her to ensure she did not aggravate her injuries in any shape or form. His sensitivity to her situation was sweet but strange.

At this moment, he was helping her in the kitchen, chopping up vegetables and kneading the dough, eliminating any of the strenuous work involved in catering for the saloon crowd. He did so without complaint, in a manner so utterly unlike Buck Wilmington that to Inez's shock, she missed it.

She wanted the old Buck. The Buck who used follow her around the saloon, trying to convince her that he was the one for her and that they should seal this discovery with a nighttime dalliance. She missed the overt flirting, the brazen pickup lines and the forward manner bordering on scandalous. Inez did not know why she missed it and had since realized that it was one of life's mysteries, sort of like the shroud of Turin.

She knew the story about Alice Sullivan. Ezra related to her Buck's tragic past with the Westbrooks. Inez could not associate the Buck she knew with a younger man who was devastated by the loss of his would-be bride in such a horrific manner. Nor did she blame him in any way for what had happened to her. By his actions, Inez could see that he was trying desperately to make it up to her.

A part of her would always have nightmares, and the wounds of her assault were still fresh in her mind. However, when she had gone into the Emporium to help Mary and Alex, Inez had realized she was not broken or defeated. Like Alex had said because she was strong, she would heal, and she had a place among friends who would be there for her.

Now, if she could just get Buck back to normal . . .

"Buck." She was seated on the kitchen chair, watching Buck slicing some carrots with difficulty. He was making a good attempt at trying to slice them evenly, but as she watched him handle the knife, Inez knew it would not be long before someone found a finger in their stew.

"Yeah?" He looked up at her.

"I will get better."

Buck stopped what he was doing immediately and met her eyes. His face betrayed his feelings, and Inez knew he was relieved to hear that even though he would not say it out loud.

"Are you trying to tell me nicely that my carrot slicing is bad?" He joked even though the humor did not reach his eyes.

"No, I'm trying to tell you I know what you are worried about me, and it is not going to happen to me. I promise you."

Buck's gaze dropped to the floor as he considered her words.

"I just never had a chance to talk to her, you know?" He said finally, meeting her gaze after deciding he would talk about Alice. "It all happened while I was out on the trail, and I didn't know anything until it was too late."

Inez climbed off her chair and slipped her good arm around his neck. "It was not your fault, Buck." She said tenderly, resting her head against his. "I was luckier than your Alice, and I won't deny I am shaken by what happened, but I have friends to help me through this. Your Alice did not. She was young and afraid, and I feel sad for you that you could not help her, but you are helping me."

"Really?" He said taking comfort in knowing that his efforts the past week were noticed and appreciated.

"Yes, but I think I miss the old Buck." She allowed a faint smile to steal across her face.

Buck's expression widened in surprise. "You're kidding me."

"No," she shook her head. "I truly miss the old you."

"Well," Buck leaned in close before Inez pulled back, still uncomfortable about any man being so close.

"Buck?"

"Yeah?"

"I do not miss the old you that much." She said, staring at him hard.

"Right." Buck took that as his cue and stepped back. "I'm a jackass . . . ." He apologized before turning to the vegetables waiting for his attention.

"Carrots?"

"Carrots, Buck."

After all, it was not often she had help, and it would be wrong of her not to take advantage of it.

It was almost evening and the sun begun to set on the horizon of Four Corners. Chris Larabee stared at the retreating sunshine and wondered if the world was always this beautiful or that had he only now started to notice it. It had been a long time since the sunset had any power over him and he found himself gazing into the world trailing into the night with unspoken appreciation. Next to him on the swing, Mary Travis was dozing lightly against his shoulder.

Since the truth about Victoria Kendall became public knowledge, the rumor mongering about their relationship had ceased. Buck had been correct in assuming people would think the scandal was a result of Victoria's revenge. Of course, the town gossips will always be whispering something or other about them both, but eventually, it would be forgotten like all the rumors before it.

But Chris had taken Buck's advice to heart about there needing to be some understanding about his attentions towards Mary. Although he did not want to bring up the question of marriage, Chris had begun openly courting Mary so that the town would have some idea of their relationship, without escalating it into anything it was not. For some reason, Mary had found the whole concept somewhat amusing.

She uttered a soft sigh that moved across his cheeks in a light flutter, engendering a smile as she shifted position in the seat and caused them to sway forward gently. Mary opened her eyes and saw Chris looking at her. She tried to smile, but her face ached too much. As it was, she was miserable having to wear the thick bandages around her head, Alex had insisted upon to heal her fractured jaw.

"Sleep well?" Chris asked as he kissed her lightly on the forehead.

Mary nodded since she was under strict instructions not to move her jaw muscles more than she had to.

"You know," he said with a devilish smile. "It's different you not being able to say anything. I can finally get a word in edgewise."

That remark was met with a sharp jab in the ribs. It was not lost on Mary Chris was taking advantage of her inability to speak. Chris found himself laughing at the scowl across her face.

"Now you're going to feel really bad when I give you this." He reached into his pocket and produced the gift he had bought at the ill-fated Emporium. He presented it to her and delighted in the surprise reflected in her blue-grey eyes.

"Consider it a late birthday present."

Mary unwrapped the delicate wrapping and was gasped openly at the trinket within. She kissed him tenderly on the mouth after running her fingers over the delicate engraving of a rose on the cameo. It was indeed one of the loveliest things she now owned. It surprised her he was capable of buying such a thing for her and even more impressed by the fact he remembered her birthday at all, especially after everything that happened the past week.

"Now," he said with a more serious note to his voice. "Let's talk about getting married."

Mary stared at him in surprise. How could he expect her to talk about such an important subject when she could barely articulate a word without wincing in agony? Did the man have no shame?

"You see," Chris continued. "This is the perfect time to talk it about since you can't say a word. So, if I say, let's get married tomorrow. You can't say anything. I could even say, let's do it in the saloon, and all you could do is nod."

"Never!" Mary boomed, and then swore loudly in pain. She held her face in pain before slapping him across the shoulder again.

"Or I could just tell you that I was joking."

Mary narrowed her eyes and steeled herself to endure momentary discomfort for the chance to mess with his head. He certainly had it coming for his obvious enjoyment of her situation.

"Yes." She said carefully, not aggravating her injury any more than necessary.

Chris stared at her. "What?"

However, she did not respond and instead rose to her feet, wearing a smile as she sauntered towards the house.

"Mary," Chris jumped off the swing and started following her into the house. "This ain't funny. What did you mean yes . . . ?"

THE END

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