Magnificent Seven Old West Universe
Travelling Companions

by LaraMee*

This story was moved to blackraptor in March 2022.


It was supposed to be a nice, easy trip. The two men had been enlisted to take a prisoner to Euba Flats for Judge Travis then take a few days off before returning to Four Corners. Taking the prisoner had been simple, the man hardly speaking for the entire trip. The trial had been quick, the man quickly confessing his guilt and accepting his punishment. It had almost been too easy.

The return trip had begun just as easily, the two peacekeepers enjoying the fine weather as much as the other man's company. Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner rarely needed more than a word or two to convey their thoughts to one another, and this trip was no exception.

But when they reached the dirty little cluster of tents and rough timber shacks known as Belson, everything changed.

They entered the town to find a crowd circled in the street, cries and cheers filling the air. From their vantage points atop the big, black horses, the two men quickly saw the reason for the commotion. Five men were in the center of the crowd, roughly tossing a young woman from one to the other. Her clothes were torn and she was bleeding from a variety of minor wounds. She cried out from time to time as she stumbled from one man to the other, only to be slapped, pinched, hit, clawed, or roughly kissed before being sent to stagger across the dusty street to the next man.

"Ah hell," Vin grumbled angrily at the sight. Turning to his companion, he saw similar feelings reflected in the blond's face. "You grab th' lady an' head outta town, I'll watch yer back."

"Vin - " Larabee's protest was cut off as Tanner dropped to the ground and burst through the crowd, men and women scrambling to get out of his way as he entered the center of the action, firing his hogleg into the air. All Chris could do was to spur Pony into the midst of the dumbfounded townspeople, grab up the battered young woman, pull her across the saddle in front of him, and bolt down the street without his black gelding breaking stride.

While the townspeople struggled to comprehend what had happened, Vin called out, "now y'all jist stand easy. Me 'n m' friend don't take kindly t' watchin' a woman bein' man-handled. Y'all jist back off, 'n we'll be on our way."

"Who th' hell do y' think y'are?" One of the men barked angrily. "Y' ain't got any idea a what y' just done. That there bitch - "

"Now, that ain't no way t' talk 'bout a lady," Vin interrupted.

"Lady, hell! That's nothin' but a stone-cold killer. She's an outlaw, 'n d'serves ever bit a what she got!"

Vin opened his mouth to continue the argument, but was surprised to find himself flying through the air to land hard on the ground. While he tried to clear his startled mind and focus his foggy vision, the sharpshooter felt himself being roughly pulled to his feet and pulled along the dirty street. When he could finally gather his thoughts and see beyond the black spots and fuzzy edges, he realized that he had been striped to the waist and roughly bound between two uprights at the edge of the boardwalk

"Now, y' meddlin' fool, yer gonna find out what we do t' folks that put their noses in where it don't b'long," the man he had been arguing with said. He stepped around to look into the sharpshooter's face. "We're gonna give y' somethin' t' think about th' next time y' think about buttin' in on others business."

Vin glared at the man and opened his mouth to deliver another retort. But the only thing he managed to do was scream as fire burned across his back. He arched forward as far as his bonds would allow, trying desperately to get away from the pain, but was rewarded with yet another rip of pain as the lash of a whip was sent across his back. And another. Another. Another. He stopped counting as darkness closed in around him.


Chris slowed and finally stopped a mile outside of town, only then really considering the woman draped across the saddle before him. She was half-conscious, moaning softly as he pulled her from the horse's back. She lay listlessly in his arms as he placed her on the ground.

Straightening, Larabee scanned the horizon for sign of his friend. He cursed under his breath as he saw no one riding toward them. "Where the hell are you, Tanner?"

"No!" The young woman shot up from the ground with a cry, only to drop to the ground again.

Chris knelt beside her, one hand gently cupping her cheek. "You're all right, Miss. You're safe."

"Wh... who are you?" Her tone was cultured, and reminded the gunman of Ezra Standish.

"My name's Chris. Listen, my friend's still back there, and I'm worried something's happened to him. I'll leave you the canteen and bedroll, but I've got to go find him."

"Yes... alright. I... I hope you f-find him... well," she moaned softly, her eyes closing.

"Me, too," the gunman muttered. Not liking the thought of leaving the injured young woman alone, Chris knew he had no other choice. Vin would have caught up with them by now if he could. Something had to have happened. Spreading his bedroll over the battered young woman and leaving his canteen beside her, he re-mounted his gelding and wheeled back toward the town they had just come from.


He hadn't managed to stay unconscious for more than a few minutes. The pain dragged him awake so that he didn't miss a minute of the agony. He felt the whip dig into his flesh again, then felt blood fill his mouth as he bit through his tongue to keep from screaming again. He didn't want to give the men brutalizing him the benefit of hearing him respond to the pain.

Somewhere at the fringes of his mind, he registered a gunshot. Then he registered the fact that there was no fresh pain building on what already tore through him with each bite of the lash. Finally he heard a voice. Chris. Larabee had returned.

"Get away from him. NOW!" The blond barked out his orders, never doubting that he would be obeyed. Stepping down from the saddle, he strode over to where his friend hung. Carefully wrapping an arm around the other man, he growled, "cut him down... no sudden moves."

No one moved for several seconds, leading Chris to fire his Colt into the dust between several sets of boots. The men scattered, but one scuttled closer, drawing a knife and sawing through the thick rope around Tanner's wrists. As he came loose, Vin slumped against his friend, only barely conscious.

"Vin," Larabee muttered against sweat-soaked hair, "you've gotta stay with me, pard. We've gotta get you onto the saddle, and I'm gonna need your help."

"'K... kay," Vin moaned softly.

While the blond held off the townspeople, they managed to get the Texan into the saddle. He slumped forward against the big black's strong neck, barely able to hold onto the reins. Nearby, Chris retrieved the man's clothing from where it had been thrown in a pile at the edge of the boardwalk. Keeping his Colt trained on the man he had settled on as being the leader, he hoped that the others would have enough loyalty to, or fear of, the man not to hinder their escape.

Guiding Peso into the middle of the street, he slapped the horse's rump, sending him out of town at a run. He did his best to ignore the weak cries from the man on the broad back, but they echoed in the sudden quiet. He followed close behind, his gun trained on the milling crowd.

As soon as they were out of range Chris caught up with the other man, grasping at the halter to slow the big animal down. Bringing both horses to a halt, he grabbed at Tanner as the younger man started to fall. "Whoa there, pard."

"Chris... I... I cain't r-ride... much... much... much farther," Vin managed to grit out the words.

"We'll stop as soon as we get to where I left the lady, it's less than a mile. Think you can hold on that long?"

"R-rec... reckon we'll f-find... out."

With a gentle squeeze to one arm, Larabee simply nodded and started both horses off once more. They rode at a slower pace, giving Vin a chance to rest. They arrived at the place where Chris had left the young woman, and he frowned in puzzlement. The blanket was spread neatly on the ground, the canteen lying beside it. As if waiting for Vin.

"What the hell?" He couldn't understand it. If she had been taken by force, things wouldn't be so neatly arranged, but why would she leave on her own? Deciding he would have to ponder the mystery of it later, he pulled up, and helped Vin from the saddle. The sharpshooter leaned heavily against him, a strangled cry sneaking passed half open lips.

Settling the injured man belly down on the blanket, Chris surveyed his injuries. Many of the whip marks were shallow, barely bleeding now. There were a few, though, that had bit deep into the man's flesh. One even showed a hint of bone at Tanner's left shoulder. That one worried him most of all.

Putting aside his worries, Chris set out to clean his friend's injuries and bandage them with the supplies Nathan always made certain were in their saddlebags. While he bound the wounds, he kept an eye out for signs of the woman, and at the same time watched their back trail for signs of pursuit. He couldn't believe that, as angry as the people of Belson had been, they wouldn't come after them.

"Chris," came a soft, pain-filled call.

"Right here. Lay still, you're going to be fine."

"S-sure don't feel... feel like it," came the reply.

With a compassionate smile, Larabee said, "don't imagine it does. Reckon you'll be feeling those cuts for a while, too. Sorry, pard," his smile faded, replaced with a solemn expression. "I should have stayed back there."

"My ch-choice, Chris. We both had... had a job t' do... y' done yers." Tanner's voice faded as the pain threatened to overwhelm him once more.

"I guess," the blond said, not convinced at all. He finished binding Vin's injuries just as he heard a soft footfall. Grabbing his Colt, he turned warily to face their visitor. Then he sighed and put away the weapon as the young woman they had rescued came into view. "Good way to get yourself shot."

She blanched then blushed before replying, "I'm sorry. I became worried... went to see if I could... well, I'm not certain what I... I was looking for. I was just... just..." she stopped then began to fall to the ground. Larabee was at her side in a heartbeat and pulled her into his arms. Carrying her back to where Vin lay, he placed her carefully on the ground beside his friend.

"Thank you," she said in a trembling voice.

Larabee was once more struck by how out of place she seemed. Not only her voice and way of speaking but her clothing spoke of wealth and breeding. At least what there was left of it. "I've got a spare shirt, if you'd like something to put on."

"I am in your debt."

He smiled then retrieved his shirt from his 'bags. Handing it to the woman, he averted his gaze while she removed the tattered remains of her own blouse and replaced it with his gray one.

"I'm decent now," came the soft voice.

Turning, the blond smiled. "Looks better on you."

She giggled softly, then touched her hand to her face. "I hate to t-trouble you, sir, but... could I have a drink?"

He brought the canteen over, handing it to her and then watching to make certain that she was able to handle it alone. She took a long swallow then handed it back to him.

"Might I... I mean... well, you look like a gentleman who... who would have something a bit... stronger?"

Grinning now, Larabee produced his silver hip flask and held it out to her. He watched with awe as she drained off a good amount of the flask's contents. Then he took the flask back from her, taking a drink before recapping it and returning it to the pocket of his duster. He reached out and gently touched her jaw, which was showing a patchwork of colors all ready. "We need to get you to a doctor."

Smiling, she lightly touched the hand on her cheek. "I'm fine, really. It looks much worse than it is." Then tears filled her pale blue eyes as she shot a look toward the injured tracker. "How is your friend?"

"In need of a doctor, too. We need to get under cover someplace quick, to let him rest up. Then we'll get him home so Nathan can tend him."

"I know a place... it's only a few miles away, a small cabin. It's been abandoned for some time. Would that do?"

Nodding, Larabee said, "sounds just fine."


The ride was slow and painful for all of them. While Vin and the young woman, who had introduced herself as Maeve Tanith, suffered physically, Chris suffered mentally. Each time his friend flinched in his arms, or moaned as pain ripped through him, he was wracked with guilt. He should have stayed... should have watched Tanner's back. Literally.

"There it is."

Chris snapped back to reality as the soft voice to his right brought him out of his thoughts. He looked in the direction she indicated, and saw a small, weathered, cabin less than a quarter mile away. It was sheltered and secluded amongst the trees. As long as they were careful, they could stay there for days without being seen.

"Sure no one's around?"

"No one," she responded.

Nodding, Larabee steered Peso toward the little shack. He knew he was placing a lot of faith in a woman he didn't know. Knew that he could be walking right into a trap and taking Vin with him. Knew that he needed to remain on guard. And the entire time he considered the predicament, he was guiding the big black horse toward the shack.


The shack was dusty and rundown, but habitable. Chris managed to get Vin into the little room, laying him belly down on the blanket Maeve spread out. Insisting that she settle on a fairly stable chair, Chris quickly worked to make their presence unknown, and the little hiding place livable. Picketing the horses between the shack and the surrounding trees, he carried their tack inside, depositing it in a corner. Working to build a small, smokeless fire in the long unused fireplace, he warmed water so that he could clean the wounds suffered by not only his friend, but their new traveling companion.

Miss Tanith sat quietly in the chair, watching the gunman without comment. From time to time she rubbed absently at her shoulder, or her face, or at some other place that had suffered an injury. As the blond looked in her direction, she managed a wan smile.

Walking over to kneel before the young woman, Larabee looked into her face and said "how are you feeling?"

"I'll be fine, kind sir. My injuries are really quite superficial, especially in the face of your companion's maladies. Is he... will he be... all right?"

Shrugging slightly, the gunman said, "I think so, but I'm not a healer. As soon as we can get him back to town, I'll know more."

"How soon will you... will we be leaving?"

Surveying his friend's listless form, Chris said, "I want to stay here at least 'til tomorrow. He needs to get some strength for the trip. We're at least a day away from town."

"Do you... we... have enough supplies to make the journey?"

Considering their situation, eyes still on Tanner, Larabee said, "yeah, we ought to be fine. There's a little creek out back, and we can make do with the food and supplies we've got. Don't worry about anything, we'll be fine."

"Oh, I won't worry... I won't worry in the least."

Something in her voice caused the gunman to turn from watching his friend. He found himself looking down the barrel of his own gun. He cursed himself as he looked down to verify that his Colt was missing from his holster. Heaving an angry sigh, he lifted his hands up and away from his body. "What the hell are you planning on doing?"

"Leaving," she said simply.

Suddenly gone was the quiet, confused young lady. In her place was a hard-edged woman who, Chris was certain, would just as soon kill him as look at him. He glared at her, but found that it had little effect. "You're going to kill us?"

"No. Despite what others may say, I'm not a murderess. All I want is a horse and a canteen. I'll take the rest of your weapons, but I'll leave them outside for you. All I want is a chance to get away."

"So... y' d-did th' things... things they said y' done," Tanner's voice was a raspy whisper.

Glancing over at the wounded man, Tanith said, "most of them, I suppose. I'll take the gelding, the other one looks more capable of getting you both to your destination. Now, gentlemen, your weapons."

He let his frustration be known, but Larabee gathered up their guns and turned them over to Maeve.

The young woman smiled, a cold, calculating smile. She hoisted the weapons in her arms and backed quickly out the door, kicking it closed as she moved out into the sunlight, leaving the two peacekeepers in her wake.

Chris stood stock still in the middle of the room, cursing the woman, their luck, and himself. He started toward the door, but Tanner stopped him.

"Wha'cha plannin' on doin'... gittin'... gittin' yerself killed?"

"There's got to be some way," the blond muttered as he turned back toward his friend. "There has to be a way to stop her."

"She's got all th' guns, pard, an' somethin' tells me... she c'n use 'm."

"Guns aren't the only thing she knows how to use," Larabee growled.

Managing a weak smile, the sharpshooter rasped, "she didn't ask us... t' rescue 'er... we done... done that ourselves."

"I know." Deciding that he would have to worry about the woman later, the gunman turned to checking his friend's injuries. With a single exception the gashes caused by the whip had ceased bleeding. The deepest wound, across Tanner's shoulder, continued to seep, blood staining the crude bandage. Chris dug through the supplies Nathan diligently kept them supplied with, searching for something to pack the angry gash with. He grumbled, wishing he had paid more attention to what the healer did when one of them was hurt.


Frowning down at the semiconscious man, the gunman said, "what?"

"Pack 't... with cob... cobwebs. It'll stop th' blee... bleedin'."

"You sure?"

Managing a brief nod, Tanner said, "yeah."

Deciding that the younger man probably did know what he was talking about, Chris scoured the little cabin, finding several webs. Carefully pulling them from the walls, he brought them back and knelt beside his friend. Removing the bandage, he wadded the strands up and pressed them into the worst part of the whip mark. Replacing the bandage, he settled back, watching as Vin moved restlessly on the blankets. Lifting the tracker's head, he awkwardly fed him water from the canteen then lowered him back. He watched as his friend drifted toward unconsciousness. Dampening his handkerchief, he stroked it across the feverish face.

They had to move, and soon. They needed to get back to Four Corners, where Nathan could care for Vin's injuries. They needed to go home.


The night seemed an eternity. Chris kept watch for their pursuers, kept watch in case the woman returned, and kept watch over his friend.

On his part, Vin spent the night restless with pain and a growing fever. He muttered from time to time, words unintelligible to his companion. His sweat-soaked head tossed and turned as he fought the horrors brought on by his tortured imagination. Larabee did his best to watch his friend's back, bathing the man's face with a damp rag, feeding him more of the precious water, and talking softly to the unconscious man. He left Tanner's side only long enough to retrieve their weapons and check to see that Maeve had, indeed, left not only their guns, but Peso behind. Relieved to find that she kept her word, at least, he brought their things in, picketing the big black just outside. That accomplished, he found a small spring nearby and refilled the canteen before returning to the little shack.

By morning, neither man was in good shape. The gunman felt as if his eyelids had been painted with sand and a persistent headache pounded behind them. His neck and shoulders ached as well, and he craved a bottle of whiskey and his bed. He went outside to ready the sharpshooter's horse before he roused Tanner. Vin was still feverish, and Chris knew he had to get him to town soon. Helping the injured man to sit up, he let him lean against his shoulder while he assisted him in taking some water.

"We... leav'n?"

"Yeah. Figure the quicker we get you back to town the better."

"Been hurt... been hurt worse."

"Judging by the number of scars I've seen on that hide of yours, I imagine you have. You've got a fever, though, so I figure there's infection building up. Nathan can keep it from getting out of hand."

With a sigh, Vin managed, "okay."

Settling for wrapping the blanket around the lean man and draping his own serape over that, Chris helped Tanner to his feet and half carried him out to where Peso stood waiting. As they approached the big horse, he threw his head with an impatient snort.

"Knock... knock 't off, mule," the bounty hunter growled.

Larabee chuckled as the animal snorted again, shook his head, and settled to stand quietly. He helped Vin onto the broad back, then took the reins, starting off walking.

"He c'n... c'n carry 's both," the younger man groused.

"I know, but we've got a way to go. No need to tire him out too early." Behind him, the big horse whickered and butted his head against the man in black's shoulder. "Knock it off, mule, or I'll climb up there with rocks in my pockets."

Vin managed a hoarse laugh, then bit off a groan as the movement of the big horse beneath him jarred his throbbing back. He shifted in the saddle, trying in vain to find a comfortable position, finally holding himself as still as possible and leaning forward over the saddlehorn.

They traveled throughout the morning, stopping as the sun reached its zenith. Helping Vin to the ground, Chris held him upright, half carrying him to sit in the shade of a big tree. The sharpshooter moaned as he settled on the ground, leaning gratefully against his friend as Larabee helped him drink from the canteen. Together the men lowered the lean Texan to his stomach on the ground, where he drifted to a light sleep.

Larabee fixed a small fire, setting the coffee to heat beside it and a skillet of beans to cook as well. While lunch warmed he managed to gain his feet, groaning as he felt several blisters rub and break as he did. He limped to where Peso stood patiently, giving the big animal a drink of water from his hat. As the horse drank he watched the countryside for signs of their being followed. He had been expecting at least a token search party to come after them, but it looked as if he were wrong. He hoped he was at any rate.

Moving gingerly back to where Tanner lay, he checked their lunch. Turning, he found himself being observed. "Thought you were taking a nap."

"Hell... ain't done noth... nothin' t' be sleepy fer."

"Figured being whipped counted for a hard days work."

With a wan smile, the sharpshooter rasped, "reckon."

They lapsed into silence once again, both men more comfortable there than in a conversation. Larabee helped his injured friend sit up long enough to eat and drink, then settled him back to the ground while he hurriedly ate his own meal. That finished, he cleaned up the campsite and readied them to move. As he helped Vin to Peso's back, the semiconscious man clasped his arm.

"Y' ain't walkin'... Chris. We c'n move fa... faster if yer ridin', and I'd... jist 's soon get home. Reckon we c'n... make town by mid... night that way... too." He didn't add the fact that Larabee was going to come up lame if he continued to walk. Boots were not made for long walks on the prairie.

Larabee sighed and contemplated his friend's words. He knew Vin was right. His feet were a constant source of pain, arrows of fire shooting up his legs each time he took a step. It didn't take very much for him to agree with the younger man. Carefully he pulled himself up into the saddle in front of Tanner, letting the injured tracker lay forward against him. Taking up the reins, he said, "come on, mule, let's go home."


They rode the rest of the day and on into the night, stopping only long enough for Vin to gain what little strength he could to continue the journey. By the time the moon rose full in the sky, shedding its silvery light across the landscape, he was out cold, slumped heavily against Larabee's back. The man in black couldn't help but sigh when he saw the faint outline of Four Corners silhouetted in the darkness. Carefully pulling both of Tanner's arms forward and clasping them in on hand, he coaxed the big horse forward as fast as he dared.

They reached the stairs to Nathan's clinic, Peso blowing and heaving as they stopped. Chris slid from the broad back and carefully pulled Vin to the ground. The sharpshooter rallied to the point of being able to stand with his friend's help and, together, the two men made their way up the stairs. As they limped and stumbled across the wide landing, the door opened and a sleepy Jackson stepped out.

"Good Lord, can't you two ever manage to take a trip without gatherin' a whole new set of scars?"

Grinning, the blond managed to grate out, "don't reckon we can."

Shaking his head, the dark healer took Vin, lifting the slender man into his arms as Tanner's strength gave out. Checking to make certain that their leader was able to follow, he returned to his clinic.

"It's his... back," Chris grated out as Nathan neared the bed. He watched as the healer adjusted his hold and lowered Vin face down on the mattress.

Straightening the long limbs and pulling the serape and blankets from his upper body, Jackson left the oblivious man's side and turned to the man in black. "Now, sit down before you fall down, and tell me what happened."

As Larabee gratefully dropped to one of the chairs in the room, he couldn't help but groan as the pain in his feet seemed to grow with less weight on them. "We got into a mess with a mob... Vin ended up getting whipped. Most of them are minor I think, but there's one on his shoulder that's bone deep. It's been close to two days now, and he's fevered. Reckon there's some infection. I cleaned them out as best I could and put cobwebs in the deep one to stop the bleeding."

As the blond talked, Jackson began laying supplies out, preparing to minister to the injured man. As he did, he prompted, "and what about you?"

Waving him off, Chris said, "just blisters from walking."

"Why were you walking?"

Sighing, Larabee contemplated not answering. It was bad enough to acknowledge that the young woman had taken advantage of them, but to admit she had managed to take his horse was down right painful. Finally he told the former slave everything. Other than a smile, the big man said nothing.

Morning found both men sleeping peacefully. Nathan had managed to clear out the infection that was causing Tanner's fever and feed the tracker one of his herbal brews. He had helped Larabee to ease out of his boots and socks, and lowered the abused feet into a tub of hot water and medicinal herbs. Settling the blond into a rocker, he got Chris to drink one of his teas, then covered him with a blanket as the exhausted gunman fell into a deep sleep.

As morning waned, a knock at the clinic door announced company. Buck Wilmington poked his head inside, shaking it when he saw the two patients. "Figured at least one of 'm might be up here since Yosemite said he found Peso on the street while ago. What happened?"

"Ran into some trouble... as usual," Jackson said, shaking his head. "I think maybe we ought to keep these two on a short leash for a while... lettin' 'm go off alone don't seem healthy."

"Don't need a babysitter," the words rang with a soft growl. The two men looked to see Larabee observing them from where he sat.

With a chuckle, Wilmington said, "not from where I stand... and at least I can stand."

"Go t' hell, Bucklin," came a slow drawl from the bed. Vin managed to peer over his shoulder, and the big ladies man found himself the recipient of not one, but two glares.

"Well, you boys just rest. Reckon I'll go see t' takin' care a th' town. Yosemite said to tell y' that th' horses 'll be fine with a little extra care. He wrapped Pony's leg and said - "

"Pony?" Chris sat bolt upright.

Frowning, Wilmington said, "yeah, he was standin' by the door of the livery this mornin' and Peso was over here by the stairs. Yosemite said - "

"But Pony was stolen!"

Wilmington's frown deepend. "Chris, I saw 'im myself, not twenty minutes ago. What are you talking about?"

"That woman... Tanith... she took Pony, day before yesterday. She left Peso because she figured he could get us both back here, but she took Pony. Did Yosemite say whether there was anyone around when he found my horse?"

"Didn't say. I'll go see what he can tell me." With that, the big man left the clinic.

Chris leaned back in his chair, his eyes moving to lock with Tanner's. They shared the same thought.

Maeve Tanith was in town.


Buck, JD and Josiah canvassed the town, trying in vain to find the woman who had stolen Chris' horse, to no avail. Finally, having asked questions of every adult in town and the older children, they returned to the clinic to report their lack of findings to the blond.

"I don't understand this at all," Larabee said quietly, "there wasn't a stage this morning was there?"

Shaking his head, Wilmington said, "nope, and there haven't been any wagons to leave town since last night, neither."

"Then she has to be here, somewhere, "the blond said in growing frustration.

"Hidin'," Vin said softly, "but where?"

"Why would she hide? Does she know you boys were comin' here?"

Shaking his head, the gunman said, "I never told her specifically, just that we were heading for home and that we'd find medical care here..." he paused, adding, "I think I mentioned Nathan's name, but nothing else."

"Well, unless she asked someone specifically if we had a healer here with the name of Nathan, I doubt that would make a difference," Josiah said.

Nodding in agreement, the blond frowned, "where's Ezra?"

Shrugging, the big ladies man said, "didn't answer his door, and ain't at th' saloon. Horse 's still here, so he didn't leave town."

"That doesn't strike you as odd?"

"Figured he's spendin' time with one a th' ladies at Virginia's."

Something didn't sit well with the gunman. He knew that none of the men were particularly good at leaving word when they left for some reason, but Ezra wasn't fan enough of the 'great outdoors' to just wander off. Unless he was doing as Buck said, wiling away the afternoon in one of the rooms at Virginia's, then something was wrong. "Go check," Larabee said softly.

"All right," the big man nodded and slipped from the room.

"Vin, lay still," Jackson's voice drew their attention. The men looked to see him grabbing hold of a trembling Tanner as the thin bounty hunter struggled to move on the bed.

"Ah, hell, Nathan, 'm jis' tryin' t' turn over. Tired a bein' on m' belly."

"Well, you let me help, I don't want you tearin' nothin' loose." The dark healer put gentle hands on the smaller man and shifted him to his back. Placing several pillows behind the man, he also placed one so that he didn't put a lot of pressure on the deep gash on his shoulder.

Smiling his thanks, Tanner whispered breathlessly, "thanks Nathan," as he sank wearily into the pillows.

"You just remember, you ain't up to doin' a lot of movin' around right yet," Jackson said. "Just you lay still and rest for now."

Vin sighed, nodding in agreement as he accepted a mug of one of the former slave's herbal teas. He sipped it as he waited with the others for Buck's return. They continued to try and figure out where the mysterious Maeve Tanith could be, but none of them could offer an explanation as to where she had disappeared.

A few minutes later, Wilmington returned, a frown on his handsome face. "He ain't over at Virginia's, neither."

"Buck, go check his room. Don't leave until you either get an answer or break in the door."

"All right," Wilmington agreed, turning on his heel and leaving once again.


Ezra Standish slipped up the back stairway and into his room. His arms were filled with bundles from the Potter's store, as well as a covered basket from the restaurant. As he unlocked the door to his room, he said softly, "it's only me."

As he entered the room, he found his unexpected guest still curled up in his bed. She was wearing one of his nightshirts, her dark hair loose and spread across his down pillow. Smiling as she looked up at him, he said, "I've brought you some clothes, as well as some food. Neither are up to your standards, my dear, but I'm afraid they'll have to do."

"They'll be fine. I'm sure your eloquent tastes will show through, despite whatever limitations this miserable little town may have."

He found himself bristling at the term 'miserable little town', and shuddered when he considered his reaction. He couldn't actually be offended by her slight, could he? Forcing a chuckle through clenched teeth, the gambler set the bundles of clothing on the foot of the bed, then placed the basket on the bedside table. As the woman pushed herself up in the bed, he fussed over her, adjusting the pillows and straightening the bedding. Spreading a towel over her lap, he produced a tureen of soup and two bowls, as well as a smaller basket of biscuits. Dipping soup out into each bowl, he handed her one, then settled in the nearby rocking chair with his own.

They ate in silence, comfortable with one another's company but at the same time uncertain of what to say. Since she had come into the saloon last night, just as he was extinguishing the last of the lanterns, he had been both delighted to see her, and uncomfortable with her presence. He knew only too well that, wherever the raven haired beauty was, trouble followed.

Sipping her soup and nibbling at a biscuit, the woman watched her benefactor. He had changed since last they'd seen one another, although she wasn't quite certain as to how. All she knew was, she wasn't comfortable with it.

"Word has it that you've taken up permanent residence here," she said finally.

"Permanent? Doubtful, my dear, I cannot foresee me drawing my last breath here. No, this is no more permanent than the name I'm called." She giggled coyly at that, and he smiled broadly flashing his gold tooth. The lady didn't have to know the truth, after all. Their relationship had been built on anything but.

"Well, I'm happy to hear that, darlin', I truly am. I must say that the thought of you becoming a respectable member of society was a bit frightening."

"Respectable? No risk of that happening Angel, believe me."

"Angel! I haven't been called that for... for years," she smiled wistfully, enjoying the chance to see him again. "And I dare say you haven't been called - "

"Oh lord, don't say it!" He paled and cut her off.

"But darlin', what's the matter with being called - "

"No! Please, I beg of you, do not say it!"

She giggled, but relented. "All right, I won't. But do tell me what they call you here."

With a sigh, he said, "why?"

"Well, so I'll know what to call you, silly."

"You told me that you didn't want anyone to know you're here... that you're hiding out from the men who attacked you." He couldn't help recalling his first sight of her after so many years. She had been standing there in the doorway, trembling and battered. She had told him that she had been attacked on the trail as she came to see him, set upon by several men she had bilked at the gaming tables in... "where did you say you'd been riding from?"

"What? I didn't, love. Honestly, I can't tell you what the name of the little dust bowl was. Is it important?"

Important? Of course it was. It was one way of knowing whether or not she was telling the truth. He doubted she was, of course. The pretty brunette was not familiar with honesty. "No, of course not, Angel. I was just wondering."

She nodded and they both returned to their meals. Afterward, he stepped out into the hallway while she cleaned herself up and changed into the clothing he'd purchased. Leaning against the wall, arms crossed across his chest, staring at the floor, he looked up when he heard the door to his room open. Ezra couldn't help but smile at the sight he beheld. Dressed in a pale blue dress that matched her eyes, her long dark hair drawn back with a matching blue ribbon, she could easily pass for a respectable young woman. Of course he knew the truth.

"You look lovely."

Smiling, she said, "thank you. I must say, gingham isn't nearly as coarse as I thought it would be."

Sighing at the slight, intended or not, he managed a smile. "Yes, well, one must make do with what one has I'm afraid."

"Too true." She was cut off as they both heard the sound of boots coming up the stairs. Ushering her inside, Ezra closed the door, throwing the latch as he did. With a wave of his hand, he shooed her to the bed, out of the line of sight should he have to respond to the knock he suspected was coming.

"Ezra? You in there? C'mon Standish, wake up, it's important!" Buck's voice came through the door, loud and booming. "C'mon Ezra, Vin's been hurt, an' we need y' to help out."

His head snapped up at the man's words. Vin hurt? Then something drew his attention to his companion, and he saw a strange look cross her battered but beautiful features. And he knew, as sure as he knew he was standing there, she had some hand in it.

Pulling his shirt out of his trousers and unbuttoning it part way, the Southerner cracked open the door. "Vin's been injured? How badly?"

"He'll live, Nathan said he'll probably be up and around in a day or two, long as they get his fever down. Him and Chris ran into some trouble over Belson way, and Vin got tore up some by a whip."

"Whipped?" The gambler's throat went dry at the thought of his chivalrous friend being whipped. "Why?"

Shaking his head, the big man said, "rescuin' some pretty young thing. Then she thanked 'm by stealin' Pony. The horse showed up here late last night, though, so we figured the lady's here, too."

"Has she... has she committed a crime?"

"Ezra, horse stealin' is about the worst crime there is out here, you know that."

"Yes, but if the horse has been returned - "

"She left Chris an' Vin in the middle a nowhere, down a horse, and Vin hurt. Might not be hangin' offenses, but I sure 's hell wanna give 'er a piece of my mind."

Nodding quickly, the smaller man said, "yes, yes, of course. You're right. I only meant... well, I wondered what it was that you needed me for?"

"Wondered if you'd seen the lady for one. For another, if you haven't, we need you t' help look for her."

"Yes, of course. I'll finish dressing and join you downstairs in five minutes."

Nodding, the ladies man said, "all right, five minutes."

Closing the door, Ezra quickly fastened his shirt and tucked it in as he listened to the retreating footsteps in the hallway. When he was satisfied that Buck was out of hearing range, he turned to the woman, green eyes filled with rage. "My God, what were you thinking? How could you have left them like that... and after they came to your aid, too! I have half a mind - "

"Well, thank you," she cried out indignantly. "How do you know I was involved in any way?"

Taking a step forward, his hands balled into fists, he said through gritted teeth, "because I know you, and that is very much something you would do. I had hoped to find you changed, Angel, but I see that you are still that cold, calculating and manipulative - "

"Well what did you expect!?" She cried out. "What else was I to do? You weren't around, I was left to fend for myself. I did so the only way I knew how. If that offends your newfound sensibilities, then... well, I'm sorry."

He glared at her, half tempted to just shoot her and be done. But he knew he couldn't. Knew that, at least in some respects, she was right. Lord help them both. Hanging his head, he said, "I'll go and see what I can do to... to send them off on a wild goose chase. Don't leave here until I return. We'll... we'll decide what to do when I return."

Without another word, he left, locking the door behind him.


Chris had eased into a pair of moccasins, his feet too sore and swollen to attempt his boots. He limped across the room to where Vin was struggling, once more, to get up. "Where the hell do you think you're going?"

"Ah hell, figgered I could git outta here 'fore anyone come back."

"Get back in that bed, you stubborn Texan. I didn't lose the top two layers of skin off my feet getting you back here so you could get up and undo Nathan's handiwork." He stood over the slumped man, glaring.

"Ah hell," Tanner repeated as he lowered himself back to the mattress. He had to admit that lying down felt a whole lot better than moving around at this point. The fever and pain were wearing him down far more than he wanted to let on, even to himself.

Smiling as he eased down onto a chair, Larabee said, "where were you thinking about heading, anyway?"

"Jist goin' t' th' privy," he stared wide-eyed at his friend.

"Yeah, and I'm supposed to believe that."

'S th' truth, Chris. I 'preciate all y' did t' git me back here 'n all. I ain't aimin' t' do nothin' foolish."

"Well, you do, and I'm gonna have your hide." The two men looked up as Nathan Jackson entered the room. He stared down at Vin, arms crossed across his chest. "You thinkin' on leavin'?"

Trying once again to look innocent, the sharpshooter said, "like I's tellin' Chris, Doc, I jist needed t' go t' th' privy."

"Uh-huh, well I've got a chamber pot right under the bed - "

"Ah, hell, Nathan! I cain't use them things, y' know that. Now look, I ain't that bad off, s'jist a little fever - "

"Not to mention your back looks like raw meat," Chris interjected.

Giving the man in black a look that clearly asked, 'who's side are you on?' the young man said, "ain't that bad."

"Like hell it ain't." Nathan frowned down at his patient. "Vin, I want you to listen to me. I had to stitch three or four of those gashes, not to mention the one I'll have to stitch up when I know for certain the infection's cleared up. Right now, I've got it covered with a poultice, so the last thing I need you to do is move around a lot. Now, if you can mind 'til later today, I'll check it and, if it's clean, I'll stitch it. When I can do that, I'll let you get up. Deal?"

Sighing when he realized that this was going to be his best offer, the younger man nodded. "Deal."

"Deal?" Ezra chimed in as he entered the room along with Buck, JD and Josiah.

"Well, nice of you to join us," Chris quipped.

"Yes, well some of us were... occupied... late into the night."

Turning to JD, Wilmington crowed, "told y' I smelled ladies perfume when I was up there at his room!"

"Shoot, Buck, you were probably smelling yourself," the youngest of their number teased.

"All right," Chris' voice cut into the merriment. "We've got other things to discuss right now. There's still no sign of the woman?"

Shaking his head, Josiah said, "no one's seen her, and we've looked in any empty buildings and storage areas. There were no wagons that went out of town, and all the horses are accounted for."

"Well then, that means she's still got to be here," the blond was becoming impatient.

"There is another possibility," Josiah said quietly.


"She could be out there, on the prairie. Your horse could have come back on his own."

"My gut tells me different," Larabee said with a shake of his head. "She's here."

"I must ask this again, as I did with Buck earlier. Why is it so important that we find her, since you've recovered all of your belongings, and both you and Vin are on the mend." Ezra kept his gaze firm, looking squarely at the gunfighter.

"Because she didn't intend things to end up this way. The woman is no good, and I want to find her. I'd be surprised if we didn't find a warrant or two out for her arrest. If so, I figure we've got a duty to see that justice is done."

"Justice? Justice!?" He knew he needed to shut up, but didn't. "We've watched justice beaten into the ground more than once, I dare say. And, as for warrants, well, I dare say that more than one of us has our picture gracing law offices from one end of the country to the other... Mr. Tanner included of course. And we're supposed to believe that justice is your only motivation?"

Glaring at the smaller man, Chris said quietly, "no, it's not. My first motivation is to pay her back for what she did. Vin risked his life to rescue her, and she thanked him by leaving him in the middle of nowhere, feverish and hurt. I don't know about you, Ezra, but I don't take kindly to people doing that to a friend."

"Ah, now we're getting to it. You're protecting a friend. Well, tell me, Chris... would you do the same for JD or Nathan? Would you do it for me?"

Looking calmly at the other man, the blond said simply, "yes."

Standish opened his mouth, closed it, opened and closed it again. He was speechless.

"Ezra," Buck broke into the silence, "just which lady did you have up there with you?"

"Jees, Buck," JD complained. "Can't you give it a rest? We need to concentrate on finding this woman."

"I'm bein' very serious, Kid," the big man said. The others looked at him, realizing that the roguish former lawman had not returned to his preoccupation with women. "What woman, Ezra?"

"A gentleman does not discuss such matters," the Southerner said.

"Especially when he's hidin' something. What are you hidin' Ezra?"

"Buck, just because you think you smelled perfume - " JD began, only to stop when the big man held up a hand.

"Are you hidin' this woman Chris' lookin' for? Is that who's in your room?"

"How dare you insinuate - "

"I ain't insinuatin' a damn thing, I'm sayin' it outright. Are you hidin' her in your room?"

Ezra's temper flared, and he advanced upon the bigger man, fists raised. There was fire in his eyes, his face almost the color of his jacket.

"Enough!" Larabee's voice once more drew the attention of everyone in the room. Tuning his gaze to Standish, he said, "what are you hiding? Is she in your room?"

"I don't have to answer to you!" He wasn't certain why he was risking everything he'd worked so hard to build over the last several months, but didn't back down. Couldn't back down. She had always brought out the worst in him.

"Fine, then I reckon you don't have a problem with us checking your room?" Chris had yet to raise his voice, but his growing anger could still be felt.

"You don't have any right to interrogate me, or violate my privacy! You find clear evidence that I have some guilt in all this before you take that step."

"That a threat?"

"Take it as a promise. If you push this issue, I'll resign and ride away."

"You're sure as hell not givin' us a reason to believe you're not guilty somehow," Buck barked. "You're only makin' it clearer by the minute that you are hidin' something... or someone."

"Why are you so defensive about this?" Josiah asked. "Is Buck right... are you hiding her?"

"Back off!"

"What is it, Ezra? What are you hiding?" Chris pulled himself to his feet and limped across the room to stand before the smaller man. "I want an answer."

"No, you demand that I bend to your will, just as you always do. The great Chris Larabee, so noble and righteous! Self-righteous, if you ask me. I owe you no more than anyone else."

"What are you hiding? Are you hiding her? Who is she Ezra? Why is she so important?" Larabee shot questions as quickly as he shot his Colt.

"She's my wife! Are you satisfied?" Then his anger left him as quickly as it had built, leaving Standish to slump, head down. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he repeated softly. "She's my wife."

Silence fell over the room, growing until it became an eighth entity. Six pairs of eyes stared at Standish as if he had grown a second head or, even more frightening, stooped to manual labor. Finally, the tracker, rallying to sit up in the bed, voiced what they were all struggling to put into words.

"Yer married?"

Sighing, pinching the bridge of his nose in an effort to stop the pain trying to take up residence there, the gambler said, "that is usually what having a wife means, yes."


"Many years ago."

"How many?"

"It's not important."

"How come y' never said nothin' b'fore? How come she ain't visited b'fore?"

"It's, frankly, none of your business."

"Didn't mean nothin' by it, it's jist - "

"Vin's just saying what we're all thinking, Ezra," Chris took back the conversation. They all knew about Maude, of course. Other than that, they each knew bits and pieces of the Southerner's background. But just how much did they actually know the man? "It took us by surprise. But, if you are hiding that... woman... I want to know."

"Is she due to be arrested for anything?"

"Don't know yet, but if she is, I will make certain she's taken into custody."

Nodding, the smaller man looked around at his compatriots. He had spent several months in their company and had, in some degree at least, grown fond of each of them. He didn't want to lose what he had given up so much to foster, especially for someone he hadn't seen for years. Good Lord, had it actually been years?


Jumping as he realized he had allowed his thoughts to take over, the gambler looked at the man in black. "I... I don't believe I have anything to say right now."

Glaring hard at the grifter, Chris said, "then we'll just go take a look for ourselves."

"But, this is unfair! You can't!" His protests were cut off as Buck and Josiah stepped up on either side of him, each taking an arm. With Chris limping along ahead of them, JD at his side, the five peacekeepers moved from the clinic, leaving Vin and Nathan behind.

Sinking back on the pillows, Tanner drifted off into a light sleep, mumbling "married?" as his eyes closed.


Patrons in the saloon stared, open-mouthed, as the little parade strode through the saloon and up the stairs. Turning to one another, they immediately began to gossip, in hushed tones, as to what was going on.

The objects of their gossip marched up the stairs, going directly to the room Ezra kept above the saloon. Standish had ceased to protest their actions, and walked quietly between the two bigger men, head downcast. He barely looked up when they reached his door, and Larabee demanded the key. Fishing it out of his pocket, he handed it over.

Larabee opened the door, and the five men entered. Looking around, they each wore a frown. The room was empty.

"Where is she?"

No one had an answer for the gunfighter.


Ezra Standish was outraged. He had given so much of himself for the town and the other peacekeepers, had given up time that could have been better spent at the gaming tables. And how was he thanked? With the clank of metal as the cell door was closed and locked. He glared at the other men, only to see three of them looking back with anger and disappointment. The fourth, JD Dunne, wouldn't meet his eyes.

It wasn't as if he hadn't been treated like this before, even by these men, but he thought they had been able to get past the distrust. It seemed that he had been wrong. Nothing much had changed.

"All you've got to do is tell us where she is, and we'll let you out," Larabee said. He leveled a glare at the gambler, but there was something beneath it. Hurt. Chris Larabee was hurt that the Southerner had chosen to protect the woman who had been the cause of Vin's injuries rather than remain loyal to his friends.

The others moved away, leaving the jail as they returned to search for the mysterious Maeve Tanith. The blond remained behind, simply staring at the man in the cell.

"Would you expect less?" Ezra asked quietly. He stood close to the bars, staring back at the man in black. "Would you expect me to give up my wife to you so readily? I do have loyalties, Mister Larabee... however, not all of them are to you and this town."

"I know that she has to have been important to you for you to be married to her. But you've worked to build something here," the gunslinger said quietly. "Is it so easy to give it up for a woman that you haven't seen in... in years?"

Standish sighed, and dropped his head. Closing his eyes he leaned forward, pressing his forehead against the bars. As if from a distance he heard Larabee leave the jailhouse. A few minutes later he scuffed across the cell and dropped to the narrow, hard cot. Leaning forward with elbows propped on his knees, he lowered his head to rest in cupped palms.

"Come here often, darlin'?"

The man looked to find a pair of seductive - and icy - eyes looking back at him. "What the hell are you doing here?"

The woman sighed, "I'm not certain, really. I was on my way out of this dusty little hole when I saw those men marching you in here. For some reason - I am at a loss to explain why - I realized that I couldn't just walk away. I had to come see you... to see if you're all right."

"I'm fine. You need to go. The others... the others are looking for you. Go to the stable, you can have my horse. She's in the third stall on the left - "

"Come with me," she said quickly, cutting him off. The woman's pale blue eyes sparkled. "Run away with me, darling. We could head back East - "


"But we were so good together! Can you sit there in this deplorable place and tell me that you would rather stay here than go with me? We could have such amazing and wonderful adventures - "

"Stop! Right now... stop. I don't know what you have in mind, but I know that it can't be anything that I care to share." He stood and approached the bars once more, wrapping each hand around one. He saw hurt in her beautiful face, then saw it pushed away, saw the woman's eyes grow cold. Taking a deep breath, he said, "I do miss you, Angel, and I think of you nearly every day. But it can never be... we aren't healthy for one another."

"You have changed!" She spat the words out disdainfully. "What happened? What made you so... so weak?"

He stood back from the barred wall, folding his arms across his chest. "Perhaps you consider it weak... I don't."

The raven haired woman shook her head, a look of pity masking any pain that remained. "Maude was right, she said I wouldn't recognize you as the same man I married."

"Maude," he huffed the word angrily. "I should have known that she would figure into this tale at some point. I suppose she told you just how disappointed she is in me."

"Yes, she did," the woman who called herself Maeve answered matter-of-factly.

Ezra couldn't keep the pain from showing in his handsome face. No matter how much he distanced himself from that needy and abandoned child, he still hoped that - one day - his mother would show him some small measure of love. Shaking off his morose thoughts, he said simply, "I take it that I haven't given you anything to make you think otherwise."

"No, you haven't." She moved away, going to the desk set on one side of the room. Rummaging around in the drawers, she picked the lock on one, finding the heavy key inside. Returning to his cell, she shoved it into the lock, twisting it with more force than she needed to.

Pulling it open, she said, "there. Don't let it be said that I left you without a chance of leaving this place. What you do from this point forward is completely up to you."

He stood looking at her as she stood framed in the cast iron doorway.


Chris returned to the clinic while the others returned to searching for Standish's wife. He entered to find Nathan prodding at Vin's shoulder. The sharpshooter's eyes and lips were squeezed tight, the color draining from his features as he endured the dark healer's ministrations. Larabee strode over and sat on the edge of the bed. Without a word he offered his friend his hand, letting the injured man squeeze it as tightly as he needed to.

Jackson continued to poke and prod at the injury, draining the infection from the open wound. As it cleared, blood oozing from it clear of the yellow pus, he said without looking up, "ain't gonna get easier. I've gotta clean it out with carbolic."

Tanner's only response was a groan, and he squeezed his friend's hand even tighter. He might feel self-conscious later, but for the moment all he cared about was holding the pain at bay. He tensed, waiting for the fire to burn through him. He wasn't disappointed, as Nathan poured a healthy portion of the liquid to finish cleansing the wound. Other than a sharp hiss of air and a grunt, the sharpshooter was silent. His grip tightened reflexively around the blond's hand, until the blood drained from the man's fingers.

Both men sighed in relief as the former slave finished cleaning the angry wound. Then came the next torture. "I'm gonna go ahead an' stitch it. I think it'll be safe now."

"Damn," Vin hissed through clenched teeth, his voice muffled by the pillow.

As careful as possible Jackson stitched the wound closed, grateful that Larabee was there. The blond, one hand still clasped in Tanner's, held the wide shoulder still with the other. His eyes flicked from Vin's face to where the healer pierced the ragged flesh and drew the heavy thread through it. He knew only too well how much it hurt, and rubbed the sweat-soaked flesh compassionately.

"Done," Nathan announced softly a short time later. With Chris' help he bandaged the wound and settled the sharpshooter back into bed. While the blond lifted the semi-conscious man up, he fed him one of his teas. The injured tracker was soon drifting off to sleep. With a nod of his head, he led the other man out onto the landing.

"He gonna be okay?"

"Yeah, he'll be fine. I'll probably let him out of here tomorrow evening, as long as there's no sign of infection, and the fever's gone."

Relief filled the handsome features, and Chris leaned tiredly against the railing. "Good."

"How 're you feeling?"

"Like I walked a whole bunch of miles," one corner of the wide mouth quirked up in a smile. "I'm fine. And I promise to soak my feet tonight before I go to bed."

The other man chuckled, "just see you do. Now... what about Ezra and that woman?"

The blond's features darkened. "He's locked up in the jail. The others are looking for her."

"Locked up? You locked up Ezra?"

"Didn't see any other way."

"Any other way? To what?"

Looking across the landing, locking eyes with the other man, Larabee said, "to keep him here."


Chris Larabee walked into the dark office, letting memory take him to where the lamp sat. They had scoured the town, but there was no sign of the woman. He had ordered the others to stay away from the jailhouse, but to keep an eye on the doors in the event Mrs. Standish decided to visit her husband. The gunman hoped that several hours sitting in the jail alone would give the man time to think.

Lighting the lamp, he turned to look into the cell. His mouth opened in shock as he stared through the open door. Stared at the man sitting on the narrow bunk. After a few moments he stepped across the room, leaning against the metal doorjamb. Standish looked up at him, a small smile playing across his lips.

"You look surprised."

"Gotta say, I am," Larabee admitted.

Shrugging, the smaller man said, "you warned me once before about running out on you."

Shaking his head, Chris said, "she was here."

"That's fairly obvious."

"You could have left with her."

"Yes. Is it that much of a surprise that I would stay?"

Larabee wasn't certain how to answer that. He wasn't certain what he had expected. There were still times he didn't trust the Southerner, he couldn't lie about that. Standish's love of gold often clouded his judgment. At the same time, he had shown himself to be a good man time after time. That he had kept his marriage a secret wasn't that much of a shock. All of them had past lives that they kept to themselves, that was just the way it was. Ezra didn't owe them an explanation. And he had stayed. Suddenly, Chris realized the truth. "No, I guess it isn't a surprise at all."

Nodding, the other man said, "you won't find her, you know. My dear wife is as proficient at hiding in plain sight as Mr. Tanner could ever be. The chances are that she's already gone."

Larabee nodded. He wasn't happy about it, but he also knew that Standish was telling the truth. Pushing himself off the cold bar, he turned and started away. Standish's voice stopped him.

"The door is still unlocked."

"Yeah, it is. Reckon there's no need to lock it." Without another word, he left the building.

Ezra watched the man in black disappear. He couldn't help but smile, even as he shook his head. He doubted that he'd ever understand the enigmatic gunman any more than he understood his own actions. He had been truthful, though, about the woman. She wouldn't be found if she chose not to be. He wondered if he would ever see her again, and was surprised when he felt a pang of loss at that thought.

Picking up his hat, the handsome gambler placed it on his head, then pushed himself up off the cot. Walking across the room, he doused the lantern before he stepped out into the night air. Taking a deep breath, he let a smile play across his face. There was a hint of something in the air, and he fancied it to be freedom... or perhaps it was friendship. His gaze turned toward the lights of the saloon, pulling his ever present deck of cards from one pocket. His smile broadened as he stepped off the boardwalk, striding confidently toward the beckoning lights.

The End

* Author is deceased