JD was relieved that Jamison was trusting him more now. He had started to let him stay out of the stuffy little room during the day, as long as the older man was where he could watch the house from the outside. The young sheriff was still restricted to the inside of the house, but that was much better than being locked up. Dunne was determined that he would not give Ralph a reason to distrust him. No matter what, he did not want to be put back in the small, hot space any sooner than necessary.

Jamison picked up his rifle and headed for the door. "I'm goin' to split some more wood fer the cook-fire. I'll be right outside. Don't ya go tryin' nothin'." He warned JD as he left the house.

Dunne had been doing his best to stay busy during his time out of confinement, and now he busied himself helping Amy with the lunch dishes. All of a sudden, the young man's stomach began to gurgle, and a strong cramp clutched at his insides. Without a second thought, he bolted for the back door and dashed for the privy. A gunshot broke the silence, and a bullet struck the ground just a few inches from the distressed sheriff. JD came to an abrupt stop and raised his hands away from his body to show that he meant no trouble. "I thought I told ya to stay inside," Jamison's voice boomed from behind Dunne.

Slowly, JD turned to face the older man and spoke to him through clenched teeth. "Shoot me if you have to, but I have to go to the privy," he said as another cramp had him clutching at his stomach. He turned his back on Jamison and bolted for the outhouse. Ralph walked up to wait outside the small building, and he had to chuckle when he heard some very unmistakable sounds coming from within.

Several minutes later, a somewhat embarrassed sheriff emerged to find Amy's father waiting outside. "Ya all right, son?" he asked evenly.

Dunne nodded and spoke to the older man. "I wasn't tryin' to leave. I gave you my word that I would stay, and I keep my word."

Jamison looked straight at the young man and said, "Next time, give me a holler so I know what yer doin'. Don't want to shoot ya for havin' a bellyache." He laughed quietly again and walked back to the woodpile to finish splitting the wood.

JD started walking back to the house and looked up to see Amy watching him from the back door. She looked deathly pale. The gunshot had shaken her considerably, and now the relief of seeing that Dunne was unhurt was causing her to tremble. The young woman turned and went back inside. JD found her sitting in the kitchen with her elbows propped on the table, and her head resting in shaky hands. When he reached the girl's side, he saw the trail of tears running down her pale cheeks. He laid one callused hand on her slender shoulder. "Everything is going to be all right."

Amy Jamison shook her head and sniffed loudly. "No, it ain't all right. Ya gotta find a way to get away from here."

"I gave your Pa my word. I'll see this through." He placed his hand under her chin and tipped her face up to look at him. "I won't leave you to deal with him alone."

"Ya don't understand. I never wanted ya to find out unless ya had to, but ya deserve to know the truth," she said softly between sobs.

"What do you mean, the truth?"

She could not look at him, so she focused her attention on her hands clasped in her lap. "There's a chance that I could be.....that I might be gonna have...." She could not bring herself to say the rest.

Realization dawned on the young sheriff. "Are you tryin' to say that you might be gonna have a baby?" he asked in confusion.

Amy nodded slightly and started to cry even harder.

"But, how? We didn't.... You've never..... Have you?" Dunne barely managed to choke out the words. He closed his eyes and offered a silent prayer that she would not say the words that he did not want to hear.

With effort, she got some measure of control on her tears, before she tried to speak. "I didn't intend fer it to happen. It's just that he was such a sweet talker. I shouldn't have done it, but I just couldn't tell him no, not with him sayin' the things he was." Amy buried her face in her hands and began to sob again.

He looked at her in bewilderment for a moment, and then the truth hit him. "Buck!!! It was Buck!!!" The startled look on the young woman's face confirmed his guess. JD could not help but feel angry, and hurt. "You told me no, but you let Buck have his way with you?" He struggled not to yell, so he would not alert Jamison to the scene taking place inside the house. "When? When was it?" he was shaking with the effort to control his anger.

The young woman could barely speak through her tears. She sniffed and swallowed hard before she managed to answer. "A few days before we...." That was as much as she could manage to say.

Dunne forced himself to sit in a chair facing Amy. He took several deep breaths to calm himself before he spoke to her again. "I don't understand. Why did you tell me no and let me believe it was because you hadn't, when you had?" The anger was ebbing slightly, but a deep-rooted hurt was taking its place.

"I hadn't before .... Buck." She wiped at the tears on her face. "He didn't know that it was my first time, until it was too late." The young woman looked away, unable to meet JD's eyes. "He was sorry when he realized it." She paused to take a slow deep breath before continuing. "JD, I really like you, but....."

"You got a strange way of showin' me that you like me," he grumbled.

"It's just that when we.... well, since he could tell that I hadn't before; I was afraid that ya could tell that I had." The tears were threatening again. "I was afraid that ya would hate me if ya found out."

The last of the anger faded, and he gathered Amy against his chest and let her cry. After several minutes, she looked up at him with frightened eyes. "Ya gotta get outta here, JD Pa will make ya marry me, if I don't..."

Dunne shook his head and silenced her protests when he interrupted her. "I'm not leaving. Whatever happens we can't let your Pa find out about Buck."

"But, what if I'm goin' to have a baby? It ain't fair fer ya to have to marry me, fer somethin' that wasn't yer fault." Amy had mixed feelings. She did not want JD to pay for her mistake, but she was also relieved that he said he would stay with her.

"It could've been," he stated evenly. "I've seen what all this is doin' to you and your Pa. Just thinkin' that you might have done something with me is tearin' him apart, and findin' out that you did with someone else could be too much for him. I won't leave ya to have to deal with that." The young sheriff could not help remembering the horrible pain of losing his mother, not all that long ago. "And I can't see you risking losin' your family. I don't think your Pa would be able to handle findin' out about all this." JD picked up her small hand and held it gently in his own. "No matter what happens, you need your family." JD resigned himself to seeing this through to the end, even if it ended in his marriage.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee leaned back in the chair and propped his feet on the railing in front of the saloon. He puffed on a cheroot as he surveyed the quiet streets of the town he had been hired to protect. His gaze fell on the tall, thin man that was headed toward him from the other side of the street. The tracker stepped up on the wooden walkway, leaned back on the rail, and eyed the man in black. Chris looked up at his friend and took notice of the serious expression on the younger man's face. "What's on your mind, Cowboy?"

"Thinkin' on takin' a ride," the sharpshooter responded.

"Anywhere in particular?" Larabee pushed his hat back slightly, so he could see Vin better as they spoke.


"Going to let me in on it, or are you going to do a disappearing act too?"

Tanner chuckled softly and smiled at the group's leader. "I been doin' some checkin' around town to see if anyone knew anythin' about where JD coulda gone."

"What did you find out?" Chris inquired.

"No one knew he was leavin', but old man Grainger said he was havin' trouble sleepin', an' he heard horses go past his place in the middle of the night, the night JD left." Vin knew it was not much of a lead to follow, but he was tired of just sitting and waiting for young Dunne to come back.

"You going to start looking to the west of town?" Larabee knew it was useless to try to convince the tracker to stay in Four Corners. Besides, he understood how Tanner felt. It had been nearly two weeks with no word from JD, and he was starting to worry too.

The longhaired young man nodded and looked off toward the west edge of town. "Reckon if it was him, he woulda passed Grainger's house on his way out of town from the livery."

Chris looked up at his friend and nodded in silent agreement. "Watch your back, Pard."

Vin gave Larabee a smile and a quick wink. "I always do," he retorted and headed off in the direction of the stables.

Chris turned at the sound of footsteps approaching on the boards of the walkway. "Where's Vin headed off to?" Wilmington asked as he tipped his head in the direction the tracker had taken.

"Looking for JD"

"Well it's about time somebody did somethin'. Don't know why ya wouldn't let any of us go before now?" Buck had been trying to convince their leader to allow someone to go search for the young sheriff since the day they found the note.

"How would you like it if I sent someone after you every time you disappeared for a few days?" Larabee knew the ladies man would not take kindly to having some of his trysts interrupted by a member of their group. "A man's got to have some privacy."

"Yeah, I reckon yer right. It just don't feel right that he left the way he did." Wilmington was more worried than he cared to admit, even to himself.

+ + + + + + +

Buck sat staring at the empty glass on the table. It had been a long boring day, and he had had entirely too much time to spend thinking. If he was not worrying about JD, or dwelling on his own problems, then he was wondering about what was really going on between Ezra and Inez. It was painfully clear that the saloon manager was becoming much friendlier with the gambler than with her other patrons.

"Think I'm going to go turn in." Josiah said after failing to stop a huge yawn. "You about ready to call it a night?"

Wilmington looked at the preacher through slightly unfocused eyes. He had drunk more than he had intended, and he was feeling the affects of the alcohol. The ladies man shook his head and responded carefully, "Think I'll just sit here a bit longer. Not quite ready to give up an' go to sleep yet. Got too much on my mind."

"I'm sure he's all right, where ever he is." The preacher laid a big hand on his friend's shoulder. "Try not to worry so much."

Buck stared into his glass with bleary eyes. "Got more on my mind than just the kid."

"Anything you want to talk about?" the older man offered.

Wilmington shook his head sadly. "No. Just wishin' I could go back an' undo somethin' I wish I hadn't done."

Josiah was not used to seeing the ladies man like this, and his expression showed his concern. "You sure you don't want to tell me about it? Sometimes talking has a way of helping you to sort things out."

"This time, I gotta sort things out fer myself. Thanks fer the offer." The more days that passed the more he was tormented by thoughts of the trouble that he might have caused for an innocent young woman. He had been such a fool. Buck took another swallow of the whiskey in his glass and felt the familiar burn as it reached his stomach.

"Suit yourself, but you know where I am if you change your mind." The older man hauled his large frame out of the chair and headed out the swinging doors, leaving his friend alone at the table.

A short time later Inez came around and started prodding people toward the doors. It was time to close, but those that still had drinks would be allowed to finish them before they had to leave. Usually, she would leave the task of clearing out the stragglers to the bartender, and she would go on back to her office. Tonight was different. Instead, she headed up the stairs. The gunslinger decided that he had to know if she went to her own room, or to Ezra's. He waited until the bartender was busy with something in the backroom, before he struggled up the stairs on unsteady legs.

The gambler watched the stairs through the small opening he had left when he pushed the door closed. He had nearly given up and decided that Wilmington was not going to follow Inez up the stairs, when he caught a glimpse of him as he made his way up the steps. Quietly, the southerner pushed the door the rest of the way closed and signaled to his guest that they had company outside in the hall.

Buck stopped outside Ezra's door and listened. It was not long before he knew that Standish was not alone.

"Ummm..... I have waited all day for that." The sound of the female voice was soft and silky as she expressed her pleasure.

The sound of a soft moan from the southerner caught Wilmington's full attention. "All I have been able to think of, is how much I have wanted to hold you." The words were followed by another low moan.

Inside, the couple stood facing each other with huge grins plastered to their faces. It took a great amount of effort to keep from laughing as they both played their roles. It might have been easier to sound authentic, if they actually touched each other, but they were trying to keep things on a purely business level.

An odd noise in the hall brought their attention to the closed door. It sounded suspiciously like something heavy had landed against the door. Ezra eased himself to the door and quietly removed the key from the keyhole. He peered through the hole, but he could not see a sign of anything outside the door. Suddenly, his eyes grew wide and his mouth opened slightly, as an unsettling thought struck him. The gambler silently knelt down on the floor in an attempt to see under the door. There was a space of about two inches at the bottom of the heavy wooden panel. The dim light coming under the door was mostly blocked by a large object. Slowly, the southerner raised himself from the floor and drew Inez farther away from the door. "It seems that our scheme may have had some unexpected consequences."

"What are you saying, Senor?" the lovely woman whispered.

"I am saying that the object of our deception appears to have collapsed against my door." Ezra was more than a little chagrinned at this unexpected complication to their plans.

Inez stared at him in dismay. "What shall we do now?"

"As I see it, we have two options. We open the door and the charade is ended, or you can stay here until Mr. Wilmington manages to remove himself from the vicinity," Standish replied as quietly as possible.

The Mexican woman thought for a moment before she responded. "What do you suggest, Senor?"

"I, for one, abhor abandoning an enterprise before I have seen it to completion," the gambler responded. "However, it is your reputation that is at stake, and I do believe the final decision should rest with you." His green eyes watched her intently as she contemplated her options.

"I will wait," she stated flatly.

The waiting soon grew tedious, and the two began to grow sleepy. Ezra had graciously insisted that Inez take the only chair in the room, and had sat perched on the edge of the bed. The sound of raspy snores could be heard from outside the door. It was going to be a long night. The gambler began to nod off and jerked himself upright to keep from falling off the bed. He looked across to the woman in the chair and saw that she had finally succumbed to her body's need for sleep. It was apparent that Buck was not going to rouse anytime soon, so some other arrangements were necessary inside the room. The southerner got up, removed one of the blankets from the bed, and turned back the remaining covers. Very gently he lifted Inez from her place in the chair and carried her to his bed. As he laid her on the mattress, she jerked as she came suddenly awake. "Senor, what are you doing?"

"Shhhh..... Mr. Wilmington continues to rest against the door. I thought it best if you take the bed, and I will sleep on the floor." Ezra smiled at her warmly as he tugged the blankets up to cover his unexpected overnight guest.

"Thank you," she said sleepily, and she pulled the covers closer around herself and closed her eyes.

Standish sighed heavily as he thought about sleeping on the hard wooden floor instead of in his own bed. At least the floor would not have lumps, like the ones that plagued him when he had to sleep on the ground. He yawned deeply and decided there was no sense in waiting any longer to settle himself on the floor. After turning out the lamp, he rolled himself into his blanket and promptly went to sleep.

It was after daybreak when Inez woke up. She got up and leaned down to see if she could tell if Buck was still propped up against the door. The line of light under the door was unbroken, so she chanced to crack it open a fraction of an inch to peek outside. When she did not see any sign of the gunslinger, she opened the door a little wider. The hall was deserted. Softly, she closed the door and moved back across the room to where the gambler lay sleeping. Gently, she shook him awake. "I thought you might want to move to the bed."

Ezra was confused as he looked at the Mexican beauty leaning over him. He finally remembered why she was here, and why he was on the floor. "I beg your pardon?" The gambler was not sure what she was suggesting.

Inez smiled at his flustered expression. "Senor Buck is no longer outside. I am going to my own room now." She saw understanding dawn on the southerner. "Thank you, Senor, for your kindness." His lovely guest moved away and left his room.

Ezra got to his feet and stretched some of the kinks out of his back. His eyes felt like they were full of sand, and his eyelids felt like they were made of lead. He took the few steps to his bed and flopped facedown onto the mattress. The gambler was asleep before he could pull up the covers.

+ + + + + + +

Vin searched for three days before he finally began to feel like he was making some progress. He had been systematically making the rounds of the outlying farms and ranches. When he reached the Jennings farm, he got the first information that gave him any hope of finding JD. It seemed that Art Jennings had gone to Ralph Jamison's farm to delivery a milk cow that Ralph had bought from him. Art said that Jamison had been acting kind of strange. Not only hadn't he asked Jennings to come inside, but he had been very eager for him to leave as quickly as possible. According to Jennings, Ralph was ordinarily a very hospitable man. It could be that Jamison had something pressing that he had to do, but it was still worth checking out.

The tracker cautiously approached the farm. Nothing seemed unusual, but he had a nagging feeling that something was not right. As he rode toward the front of the small house, movement pulled his attention to a line full of clothes that were hung to dry in the breeze. His eyes fell on a familiar shirt. He would have recognized it anywhere, because he had teased JD over his awkward attempts to mend a jagged tear near the bottom edge. Instantly, the tracker became wary of his surroundings.

Inside, the occupants of the house heard the sound of the approaching horse. Jamison hurried to look out the window to see who was there. He recognized the tracker, and he turned to glare at Dunne. "What's he doin' here?" he snapped at the younger man.

JD glanced out the window and was surprised to see Vin reining his horse to a halt. "I don't know."

"You stay in here, an' don't ya try nothin'." Jamison warned the young sheriff. Ralph opened the door and went out to meet Tanner. He carried his rifle casually in his hands, and he made a show of recognizing Vin and leaning the rifle against the post of the porch. "Mr. Tanner.... What brings ya way out here?" he asked cordially.

The sharpshooter remained on his horse, and he leaned forward to rest his arm across his saddle horn. The action made him seem to be relaxed, but in reality, it placed his hand very close to the shotgun that was slung to the saddle. "I'm lookin' fer some information. Thought maybe ya could help me." The lawman watched the farmer for any sign that he was going to reach for his rifle.

"Don't know if I can help, but I'll try," Jamison said amiably. "What kind of information ya lookin' fer?"

"Well, fer starters, I'd like to know how JD's shirt ended up on yer wash line." Vin saw Jamison's eyes narrow slightly at the mention of the town's sheriff.

Ralph glanced at the clothes that were flapping in the wind, and then he looked back at the mounted gunman. "Don't rightly know what yer talkin' 'bout. Those shirts are all mine." Jamison was beginning to get nervous.

Tanner had heard enough. In one swift motion, he pulled the shotgun from its place on his saddle and pointed it at Ralph Jamison. "I'd appreciate it, if ya would step away from the rifle." He motioned with the barrel of the scattergun to where he wanted the older man to go. The Jamison moved slowly in the direction the young rider had indicated.

"Now, let's try again. How did ya come by JD's shirt?"

Ralph was visibly shaken by suddenly finding himself at the wrong end of a gun. He jerked at the sound of the latch on the door, as the door was opened slowly from within. JD Dunne eased out onto the porch and moved slowly toward Vin. When he was standing at Peso's side, he reached up, placed his hand on the barrel of the shotgun, and gently pulled it from the stunned tracker's hands. "You don't need that, Vin," the younger man said calmly.

Tanner stared at his young friend in complete astonishment and then looked at the gun that his friend now held. "What's goin' on J.D?" the tracker asked in confusion.

"Come over here, so we can talk." Dunne signaled for the sharpshooter to follow him farther from the house, so they could talk privately. The tracker climbed down out of the saddle and followed the younger man, but he kept a cautious eye on Jamison, who still stood only a few feet from his rifle. "Vin, I appreciate all the trouble you went through to find me, but it would be best if you went on back to town."

"Ya ain't serious are ya? We've all been worried that ya was in trouble, an' ya expect me to just ride away." He thought JD knew him better than that. "I ain't goin' nowhere 'til ya tell me what's goin' on. I get the feelin' somethin' ain't right 'bout all this." He struck a determined pose.

"I'll tell you, but you gotta promise that you won't tell the others," Dunne offered.

"Ya know I can't go back and tell 'em I didn't find ya," Tanner stated flatly.

"Tell them you found me. I'm all right and I'll explain to them myself when I get back. Can you do that?" JD countered.

"I can, if it's that important to you." The tracker did not like keeping secrets from the others, especially from Chris, but he felt that was the only way he was going to get to the bottom of things.

"It is."

"All right, I won't say where you are or why, but now you tell me why." His voice was calm and quiet, but his manner was insistent.

Dunne turned his head and looked back toward the house where Amy had joined her father on the porch. The sharpshooter followed the younger man's gaze and then looked back at the sheriff with questioning eyes. JD sighed in resignation and stared at the ground at his feet as he replied quietly. "Amy was the girl I took to the loft." Tanner opened his mouth to speak, but he stopped when the younger man held up his hand and shook his head. "Let me finish, please." With that, he continued to tell the whole story, leaving out only the part about Amy being with Buck and not him. "So, you see why I want to do my own explaining when I get back?" He asked hopefully.

The tracker nodded slowly. "Yeah, reckon if it was me, that would be somethin' I'd rather other folks wouldn't go tellin' about me. I give ya my word; I won't say nothin' 'bout any of that." He clamped a big hand on Dunne's shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze. "Ya sure about stayin' here?" he asked.

"I'm sure," JD smiled. "Thanks for looking for me. It's good to know that someone missed me."

Tanner chuckled softly. "We all did. Hell Buck's been goin' loco tryin' to figure out where ya took off to, and worryin' 'bout if ya was all right."

"Tell everyone that I'll be back as soon as I can."

The tracker returned the shotgun to its place on the saddle and climbed back up onto the big black's back. "Ya be careful." He turned Peso toward town and urged him away at a slow trot.

Dunne watched his friend ride away and then walked back to the house. He stopped a few feet from the porch and looked up at the father and daughter who waited there.

"Yer stayin?" Ralph inquired in amazement. "Why? Ya had yer chance to go."

"I gave you my word," JD replied as he looked the older man straight in the eyes.

"That ya did, son. That ya did." Jamison picked up the rifle that was still leaning against the post. He took it inside and hung it on its pegs on the wall. When he returned to the porch, he added, "Reckon I could use a hand with a few things around here, if you've a mind to."

"I think I just might have a mind to," JD said with a smile. He fell into step at the side of Ralph Jamison, and they headed for the barn.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner had ridden on into the dark, so that he could get back to town with the news that he had found their wayward sheriff, and that he was all right. It would have been wise to stop for the night and start out again in the daylight, but the moon was nearly full. It gave out enough light to see by, if he stayed on the road instead of taking the shorter route across the uneven countryside. He was eager to get to town, but he would not risk injury to his horse to get there an hour sooner.

Once in town, the tracker took time to care for Peso before heading off to look for the other peacekeepers. There was little doubt that he would find some of them at the saloon. He pushed his way through the swinging doors and grinned when he saw all five men seated at their usual table in the back. "If yer all in here, who's mindin' the town?" he asked amiably as he joined the other men.

"Ya seem to be in a good mood. Does that mean that ya have good news?" Nathan asked hopefully.

Tanner smiled and nodded to his companions. "Yeah, I found 'im."

"Well, where is he?" Buck could not contain his relief at the news. "Did he come back with ya?"

All eyes turned to the tracker as they waited for his response. "Nope, he didn't come back, an' I can't tell ya where he is."

Wilmington looked like he was ready to climb over the table and shake the information out of the younger man. "Why the hell not!" he demanded.

"'Cause I told JD I'd let him do his own explainin' when he gets back." His tone clearly indicated that he intended to keep his promise. "I will say that after thinkin' on things; I agree with what he's doin'."

"Did he say when he'll be back?" Chris was as hungry for information as the others were, but he knew it was useless to try to get Vin to tell them what they all really wanted to know.

"No, just that he'll be back as soon as he can." The tracker settled back in his seat and began to work on emptying the glass of the beer that had been brought to him. No amount of questioning could drag any more from the lawman.

Ezra glanced at his pocket watch. It was nearly eleven. Buck was the one who was supposed to make a patrol of the town at that time. Even though things had been very quiet lately, the men continued to keep a close eye on the town. With an exaggerated yawn, he stood up. "If you gentlemen will excuse me. I find that I am unusually fatigued. I think it would behoove me to retire early this evening." The gambler made a show of trying to stifle another yawn. "Gentlemen, I bid you good night." The southerner casually made his way up the stairs and to his room, where Inez was already waiting.

The men, who remained at the table, looked at each other in surprise. "That ain't like Ezra to go to bed this early. Ya reckon he's gettin' sick or somethin'?" the healer asked.

"Or somthin'." The ladies man grumbled under his breath. He took time to finish his beer before he had to start his rounds of the town. "Goin' out back. Then I reckon I should get started," he said reluctantly.

Ezra stood at the window in his dark room, watching the area behind the saloon. It might take a while, but Buck would eventually make an appearance there as he made his patrol. All the men always made sure to check out the back of the buildings as an extra precaution for the inhabitants of the town. As he waited, he contemplated this evening's planned deception. He feared that it would prove to be the most difficult of all that he had been required to do thus far. Until tonight, there had been almost no physical contact between Inez and him, but tonight it would be necessary in order to be convincing. He was unsure about how to approach this encounter, and there was not going to be much time for him to decide. His mind knew that this was simply a business arrangement, but would his body cooperate with his mind? There was no escaping the fact that the saloon manager was a very attractive woman. The last thing he wanted was to find himself having a noticeable "physical" reaction to the lovely Mexican woman. He glanced across the room to where Inez stood waiting by the lamps. The glow from the wicks was barely visible, because they had been turned down to the point of almost going out completely. The faint light only served to make her appear even more exotic than usual. Ezra gave himself a mental shake. He was definitely going to have to come up with a way to keep his mind on something completely unappealing, if he had any hope of avoiding a very embarrassing situation. What could he think about while she held him that would push away any pretense of desire? It was a safe bet that thinking of any woman would not work. It had been quite a while since he had been with a woman, and as much as he hated to admit it, he did have the same carnal urges that other men had. He could try thinking of a man when he found himself responding to Inez. The gambler had never had any inclinations in that direction so that should serve as a good deterrent, but who should he think about? Suddenly, he got a mental picture of one time when he had accidentally come upon Buck in one of his more amorous encounters. He had seen the man kiss women before, but never like that one time. It was as if he was trying to see how much of his tongue he could get down the poor woman's throat. The southerner shuddered at the memory. He smiled inwardly, and he knew that he had his shield. All he had to do was think about what it would be like to be on the receiving end of one of those kisses of Buck's, and all desire would disappear. He made a face in disgust, as the visual picture popped into his mind. The gambler hoped that the image would not continue to interfere with his amorous assignations after this con was finished.

"Do you see him yet?" Inez asked softly.

"No, but if he started on the other side of town it could be some time yet." Standish said as he continued to peek around the edge of the curtain. A couple minutes later he saw movement behind the saloon. Someone had come out the back door. As the figure moved out into the moonlight, he saw that it was unmistakably Buck Wilmington. He signaled to his companion to be ready and watched as Buck made his way out to the privy. This was even more perfect than he could have planned. When the ladies man exited the outhouse, he would have a clear view of the back of the saloon. There was no way he would miss seeing the display they had planned for him.

Ezra watched intently until he saw the privy door start to open. He signaled to Inez to turn up the lights, and the room was instantly filled with a bright, warm glow. The couple blinked several times to allow their eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness.

Wilmington stepped out of the privy and started walking back toward the saloon. A brightly lit window on the second floor caught his attention. As he watched a shadow moved in front of the window. The silhouette was undeniably that of Ezra Standish. The shadow man busied himself by removing his gun belt and laying it aside. The hat, jacket, and derringer rig soon followed. Buck was just about to start walking again when there was more movement in the room above him. A second shadow joined the first one. It moved up behind the gambler and slid its arms around his waist. Wilmington was rooted to the spot. He was sure that the second shadow was Inez. He would know her shape anywhere. As he watched, the southerner turned in the woman's arms and pulled her to him in a fierce embrace.

'Think about Buck,' Ezra kept repeating in his mind, as his arms slipped around the lithe body of the beautiful saloon manager. He pulled her to him and pressed his face close to hers. Their lips did not touch. Instead they touched their cheeks together just at the side of their mouths. "Do you think Senor Buck is watching?" She asked in a whisper.

"I would wager my last dollar that he is most definitely observing us at this very moment." The gambler slid his hands up the woman's back, curled the fingers of one hand into her hair, and pulled her head back to expose her throat. Her scent was so enticing. 'Think about Buck,' he reminded himself again, as he pretended to nuzzle at her neck. Soft hands pulled his face back to hers, and she ran her slender fingers through his hair.

Buck felt his chest growing tight, and he realized that he had been holding his breath. He filled his lungs and forced himself to blink as he stared at the shadow play on the curtains of the Standish's room.

Inez slipped her hands between them and began to work at the buttons of Ezra's shirt. "Umm....I do not recall any mention of disrobing in our plan," he said in a strained voice. 'Think about Buck,' his inner voice repeated.

"It is only your shirt Senor," the Mexican woman responded, and she continued to undo the buttons.

'Think about Buck,' he repeated as his mantra as her hands slid up his bare chest and pushed the shirt off his shoulders. He gave in and let the shirt slide off his arms and fall into a heap on the floor.

Buck continued to stare wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the object of his infatuations continued to caress the gambler.

'Think about Buck, Think about Buck...Good Lord have mercy....' Ezra did not know how much more of this he could handle, and he decided it was time to bring it to an end. In one swift motion, he lifted the small woman into his arms and carried her in the direction of the bed. He leaned down to sit her on the edge of the mattress and then sat down a couple feet away from her. The con man drew in a very deep, shaky breath. He was sure that he would not have been able to avoid thoroughly embarrassing himself if the charade had continued much longer. Finally, the southerner managed to get to his feet and slipped around the edge of the room to the lamps. He lowered the wicks on both lamps at the same time, so it would look like a single light being extinguished. He left one barely burning, so that it could be lit again later. It did not put out enough light to be seen from the outside. Standish crossed the room to look around the edge of the curtain. Wilmington was indeed standing outside; his face clearly visible in the moonlight. The gambler watched as the ladies man finally walked toward the back of the saloon. The sound of the slamming door rang out through the still of the night.

"He has gone back inside," Ezra announced, somewhat unnecessarily. He moved to turn the lamp up slightly before he returned to where Inez sat, smiling at him.

Inside the saloon four pairs of eyes stared in surprise as Buck slammed the door on his way in from the outhouse. The big man's expression was unreadable. It was impossible to tell if it was anger or hurt that clouded his features. He stormed through the room and pushed his way out the batwing doors. "Now what's eatin' at him?" Nathan looked at Chris and asked.

"Don't look at me. For all the time I have know him, I still don't have any idea what sets him off like that." The leader of the peacekeepers glared darkly at the still swinging doors of the saloon.

Wilmington strode angrily down the wooden walkway. He just could not figure out what Inez could possibly see in Ezra that she did not see in him. Just when he thought he was starting to really understand women, one did something completely unexpected. "Women! Who needs 'em," he grumbled under his breath as he continued walking away from the saloon.


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