RESCUED
Magnificent Seven Old West
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Identity

by Scribe

DISCLAIMER: All the characters from the "Magnificent Seven" T.V. series are property of Trilogy Entertainment, The Mirisch Group, MGM Worldwide.


Prologue:

Trouble

Staring into the mirror some years later, Maude Standish could not picture the person she saw in her reflection as being the one she had once been. In her life, she had played many roles and it was ironic that the one she mourned most was the one she had swore would never play. She wondered how much of life was actually one's own and how much was left to the whim of destiny because she was certain that in choosing to live her life as she willed, she had thrown down a gauntlet before Fate and challenged it do make her do different. It was a dare Fate had no qualms of taking and she had never regretted what it placed in her way, though there were many occasions during the course of her life where she had wished the outcome of things had eventuated differently.

She could have done anything with her life, she could have married well and be one of those fortunately vacuous beauties whose sole lot in life was to be the lady of the manor or in the case of a well bred southern woman, a plantation. Her family was not terribly wealthy but by no means poor either. Her education had been thorough and her childhood not at all spectacular. No one was ever able to understand why she was the way she was. How an aberration such as her could be cultivated in a society where a woman's place was without question and her only duty to serve the man who became her husband. From the very onset of her life, Maude had battled tradition, often at her own peril. Her parents did their best to raise her in the traditions of the southern aristocracy but it became quite clear that she was too spirited to be bound by such restrictive constraints.

She was well educated and her lessons were absorbed with much enthusiasm although her eyes always seemed to glaze over once the instruction was directed at how she should behave to be considered a young lady of good company. She endured the condescension of the tutors who more or less considered her a means of income rather than a student with genuine ability to learn. Their teachings were indifferent, caring little on whether or not she learned, so long as she impressed those who would maintain the income. By the time she was eighteen, she was inundated with eligible suitors from the surrounding plantations. The irony of it all was that despite her sharp intellect, she was an extraordinary beauty that allowed everyone to assume she was incapable of rational thinking. Fighting this unfortunate perception had only serve to anger those around her until one day, she came across a startling revelation.

To play the fool would allow her to learn the things they thought beyond her capabilities. In the two years that followed, she played the persona of the vacuous female in the company of the arrogant gentleman and ladies who sought to label her one of their own. However, in secret she watched, she watched the games they played and learnt that smiles and flowery words were warfare disguised and the sharpest point was not necessarily the ones that drew blood. She learnt how to deceive, to hide what she was, to use weakness to her advantage and to reshape herself to be something entirely different, something that had little use of the life that they expected her to lead.

Maude's talent for the shell game came soon after.

It was easy for a young lady in her station to learn how to con and cheat those who thought her incapable of doing so out of their money. At first, her ruses were small and simple and her looks were almost always the impetus that disarm the mark, ready for the picking. She discovered that she was very good at it and found that for the first time in her life, she was beating everyone at their own game. It was an euphoric feeling. Her nest egg grew and she remained poised, like a trapdoor spider, waiting for her time to come. She could feel it inching towards her, an inner strength and confidence that told she was ready to try this out on her own, without the safety net of her friends and family to squeal about their lost prestige when her cons took them for every thing they were worth. She had principles of course, that she would never cheat anyone who did not in some ways deserve it. When she left home, there was no reason to look back.

Why was there when she enjoyed a freedom she had never known. Leaving little more than a short note, confessing her desire never to return, she traveled through the south, enjoying her new found independence and though the money she saved always dwindled away, she found herself capable of earning more without ever prostituting herself in the process. As the years moved by, she found that she was very good at the art of the con and understood that perhaps this was what she was made for, since she seemed to fit nowhere else. Whenever she was not running a con, she played poker, following the high stakes games wherever they went and often coming away with the winning hand. It was a delightful time to be alive and she enjoyed every moment of it.

At least until the day she was caught.

A mark with whom Maude had swindled a good deal of money out of had done the unthinkable, called attention to his gullibility by approaching the law about her activities. A somewhat powerful man, he had insisted that she be arrested. Doing the only sensible thing a lady of her delicate refinement could do with the threat of incarceration hanging over her, she left town quickly and assumed she had made good her escape when days after her flight, no one had come looking for her. Pleased that she had escaped unscathed, it was not long before she resumed her activities once more, after all it was not wise to rest on one's laurels if a lady was to survive in this world without a man to provide for her. Although in truth, she resumed working because she enjoyed it.

His name was Marshall Peter Reeves and from the first moment Maude had found herself in his power, she realised she was facing trouble in a manner she had never before conceived. It was not just the fact that the man was capable of seeing through every attempt she made to be free of him but rather the way he looked at her. Maude swore, when he smiled at her, her heart began beating inside her chest in a way she had always thought would make her no better than those insipid young women she had tried so hard not to be. With a dimpled smile and the devil's own charm about him, Maude found herself on the defensive because she stood on the edge of unknown territory. Even though their initial days together saw him escorting her to face trial in some backwater town where the crime had been committed, Maude found her attentions focussed less and less on the fact that she might be placed in jail but rather on her captor.

He did not seem to notice her affection and remained indifferent to the fact that he was delivering her to a jail sentence, once they reached their destination. This only infuriated Maude all the more. In all her life, she had yet to meet a man who was not in some way affected by her beauty on some level. The Marshal revealed nothing of the sort and he was unfailing honest and principled. What was worse than the fact that she was afflicted with the malaise that made her a simpering wreck, daydreaming about the way he smiled at her or seemed to aim long stares in her direction, saying nothing about was behind it, was that she could love someone like him. A straight and narrow lawman with principles and high-minded ideals about justice, was this God's idea of a cruel joke?

When they reached their destination, Maude had come to the conclusion that whatever she felt for him was her own private hell for he certainly did not care about her in return. Long stares and little words laced with ambiguity meant nothing because he was going to hand her over to her judge and walk away. Maude did not know what was worse; that he did not care or that she was going to jail. He had left her in the hands of the local sheriff, tipped his hat in her direction after she was placed in the jail cell and waited for a moment until they were left alone before he spoke.

"You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen and probably more trouble than I deserve." He said simply and then walked out, leaving Maude a bundle of nerves because she had no idea what had just happened. Did he care for her or not? She was so furious at his leaving her in such a state she was almost ready to shoot him.

She did not know how long she waited in that cell while her fate was being decided and it was to her utmost annoyance that she found herself more concerned about how he felt about her rather than the possibility of incarceration. For three days Maude remained in that cell never seeing his face and telling that it was quite all right if she never saw him again because she wanted her life to return to some semblance of the normalcy that it had before she had become his prisoner. Maude was most content to let this happen when all of a sudden the sheriff told her with some disappointment that the charges were dropped and that she was free to go. At first Maude thought that her mark had wanted her freed to carry out some terrible revenge upon her. However, when Mary stepped outside the jailhouse, she found Peter waiting there for her.

"What do you want?" Maude had said stiffly, her nose in the air as she walked past him to the nearest hotel.

"I just wanted to make sure they let you go." Peter responded with that damnable smile on his lips, the one she could never read as he fell into stride with her.

"Why?" Maude retorted. "So that you can catch me if I try to break the law again?"

"If I wanted that, I wouldn't have talked the judge into letting you go." He answered.

Maude paused in her footsteps and looked at him. "You were responsible for my freedom?" Her eyes narrowed in confusion. "Why?"

He took a deep breath, still staring at her as if he knew more than he was telling. "So I can marry you, why else?"

"Marry you?" She exclaimed with incredulity "You seriously think giving me my freedom means that I'd be grateful enough to marry you? You arrested me! You dragged me half way across the state and left me to languish in a cell for the past three days! Aside from that which to you might be a whirlwind courtship, you're a marshal! A do gooder! If you're trying to save my soul, you have made the largest mistake since Eve thought that apple might be a good snack!"

He had taken one step closer to her, until they were staring at each other face to face, that smile still on his lips and the sparkle in his sea colored eyes mesmerizing her. Maude found his closeness uncomfortable and wanted to step back but everything about him had power over her and she could not understand it. In all her life, no man would ever effect her in quite the same way. She could smell the light musk of his cologne and study the strength of his jaw. However, what captured her attention most was the intensity of the emotion in his eyes. It was raw and powerful, like the man himself and though there was still some resistance left in her because she was after all Maude Standish, she knew that she was almost as lost as he.

"Marry me anyway." He repeated himself, confident that he was right about how he felt about her and what he was certain she felt about him.

"Do you know what I am?" She asked, swallowing thickly as he slid his arm around her waist and it felt so right there that Maude did not move away or complain that it was inappropriate for him to be so forward with her in the middle of the street.

"Yeah," he nodded. "Trouble."

"And you still want to marry me?" She asked, wondering if he was insane or delusional. Perhaps both.

"That's about the size of it." He nodded and did not allow her to say anything further when he sealed the discussion with a long, passionate kiss.

The moment Maude felt his lips against her, she melted into his arms. Everything about him swept her off her feet with unconditional love and desire. In all her life, she would never experience a kiss with as much jarring intensity as the one she had first shared with Peter Reeves. Her lips parted for him and as he explored her mouth, his arms tightened around her body, until she was trembling from his touch. The power of him was beyond belief and for a woman determined to control every aspect of her life, admitting she loved him was the most wonderful thing she had ever done. By the time he pulled away to let her catch her breath, Maude thought she might faint.

"You're crazy you know that?" She managed to say.

"Probably." He agreed with a smile.

"Just as long as we have that clear." Maude responded with dignity. "We have to tell the preacher that one of us is sane."

They were married that day itself and for the next three years of her life, Maude played a role she never thought she could even though she was never conventional about being his wife. Peter seemed to enjoy that part of their life together and accepted her eccentricities with good humor because all she was, is exactly what he fell in love with. By the time their son Ezra had been born, Maude could not imagine how she had been so wild in her youth.

Until the day Peter was taken away from her and everything changed.

Part One

Mothers and Sons

War had come to Territory.

Some would say that it had been around for some time with cattleman and homesteads battling it out with acts of violence that seemed never to end. In the counties of Colfax and Lincoln, the war raged on with such fierce intensity that the violence seemed never ending. Casualties mounted in numbers that would have been consistent with an open declaration of war and though it had been almost three years since its beginning, there finally appeared to be some end in sight. Since becoming Governor, General Lew Wallace who had replaced Samuel B Alten, a member of the powerful faction known as the Santa Fe ring, was working hard to remove all traces of corruption that had escalated the situation to its present state. Of course Four Corners was not immune to warfare that existed between the settlers and cattleman. The townís experiences with men like Stuart James and Guy Royal had made that impossible. Fortunately, the presence of its seven peacekeepers had ensured that the violence did not reach b oiling point as it had in so many other counties that had become in so many other surrounding counties.

Unfortunately, Four Corners did not escape the violence even if they did exist on the fringes of the Lincoln County Wars. The region had been experiencing its own troubles ever since Hannibal Julius had lit a match to the Territory with his incendiary words of statehood, sparking a resumption of the Plains Wars many had thought hopefully was over. Despite the fact that the insurrection by separatists' Indian tribes who believed the only way to ensure the survival of their race was the complete eradication of any white man they saw. Sporadic raids on small towns and homesteads had forced the seven to make periodic patrols of the outlying properties, just to ensure that they could keep on top of any war party that might get it in their minds to gain a few white scalps as trophies. This, coupled with the warring factions of landowners and settlers, the region was so unsafe that it was no wonder that calls for statehood had been rejected in the nationís capital.

Ezra Standish did not concern himself over such things because one as jaded as him was inclined to believe that it was none of his business. Such brush fires had a tendency to put themselves out with time and in its own fashion. Four Corners though touched by such matters had not become embroiled too deeply in it, although the arrival of Benjamin Bosshard had caused some concern to the seven. Bosshard had a reputation of in league with one of the architects of the trouble in Lincoln county, Laurence G Murphy. Murphy's part in the Lincoln county wars was well known and the fact that one of his agents was in Four Corners did not at all sit well with Chris Larabee. The gunslinger whom at one time would probably have been hired by men like Murphy for their little war, was not about to see Four Corners descend into the chaos that had afflicted the rest of the Territory. Rumor had it that thanks to Governor Wallace's vigilance in ensuring men of character were appointed to positions of power, suc h as Judge Orin Travis, the war would run its course in a matter of months.

Chris had no intention of allowing Four Corners to be the venue of its last stand.

While Chris had not done anything over to indicate that Benjamin Bosshard was less than welcome in Four Corners, the gunslinger and the rest of the seven had been keeping a close eye on the man since his arrival in town. Ezra himself had engaged the man in a game or two at the Standish saloon and though there was every indication that Bosshard was a man who would not hesitate to put a bullet into another if his interests were endangered, Bosshard had been nothing but amiable during their play. Still, Ezra had a talent for reading people and he could not deny that despite the civility of their exchanges, Bosshard's true personality was hidden beneath a social veneer, which he employed for those who were not his enemies. Suffice to say, Ezra suspected the man bore a mean streak that it was not in his wisest interest to incur and knew wisely when to withdraw when their card playing games tipped too much in his favor.

Nevertheless, he did managed to learn what Bosshard was doing in Four Corners even if that answer made the normally imperceptible Mr Larabee even more on edge than usual. Ezra could tell that Chris anticipated trouble and the truth was, Ezra did not think him far wrong even if there was no evidence of it at present. Men like Bosshard would create chaos eventually, it was just a matter of time for it to realise its form. Bosshard claimed that he was here to expand his business interests. While he had done nothing against that law that could allow the seven to act, Ezra suspected that if his business interests were anything like what the Lincoln County Wars were about, then Four Corners was in for something of a storm.

Ezra glanced at his pocket watch and noted that the stage was running a little late. He had been watching the depot where the stage usually came to a halt from the jailhouse, anticipating its arrival at any time and was somewhat chagrinned that it was taking so much time to do so. The rest of the seven and their ladies, including his own were at the Lucky 7 ranch, aiding Vin Tanner in his efforts to build his home. With Alex now in the family way, Vin was determined to build a permanent abode for himself and his wife before the arrival of their child. Despite himself, Ezra could not keep from smiling at the thought of the wild and wooly tracker as a father. It was almost as unlikely as Ezra becoming one himself.

Even though Julia had said nothing about it, Ezra could tell that it was difficult for her to see her friends moving on with their lives. Mary was now a wife and mother, just as Inez was and now Alex was joining that set. Casey was still too young to be married and after what Neil Blackwood had done to her, she needed some healing before she could take that step. Ezra empathized with her completely. Rain and Nathan had also been talking about marriage recently and even had Josiah considering the possibility himself. While Julia did not make any demands of him, he could tell by the glimmer in her eyes that she thought about it a great deal more than she cared to admit it. Ezra wished he could oblige her because he truly did love her and she was the only woman he could ever imagine wedding but the truth was, there were wounds inside of him that were far from healing. Until that happened, he was not fit to be a husband let alone a father as Vin would soon become.

His friends seemed to sense that there were some demons he was trying to overcome and did not bring up the subject with him. Even though Chris, Nathan and Josiah were the only ones excepting Julia who knew what had really happened to him at Julius' hands, Ezra could tell that the others could sense that something was wrong even if they did not know precisely what. It was a testament of their friendship that neither, Vin, Buck or JD ever questioned what it was that caused him to withdraw so much into himself during those first few weeks. They showed their loyalty and the strength of their camaraderie by now asking because there were times when friendship was being there when someone needed you without ever knowing why.

He wished the same applied to his mother.

In a matter of minutes, or whenever the stage felt deigned to enter the locality of Four Corners, Ezra would be faced with the one person he had no wish to see at this time. Maude Standish had always been able to see straight through him and the notion that she might discover what had been done to him was more than he could stand. Unfortunately, he could not tell Maude not to visit Four Corners because doing so would only inspire her curiosity even further and there would be nothing to prevent her from coming to town and learning what it was. Thus Ezra found himself stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place with no solution in sight and unable to tolerate the possibility that his mother might know of his disgrace.

Unfortunately, there was nothing to stop it from happening unless he could hide it from her and Ezra had never been able to hide very much from Maude. Although theirs was hardly the relationship that existed between most mothers and son, take the relationship of Mary Larabee and young Billy as a stark example of what theirs was not, Ezra and Maude were still close. She was the one person other than Julia who loved him for what he was, even when that was a peacekeeper in a small dusty town earning a dollar a day. She was also the only person who had been able to see past his defenses into person inside and Ezra was terrified that what she would see upon casting her gaze for the first time was not her son but a man sullied by the filth of another.

Even now, despite how much Josiah had tried to counsel him into believing that what had happened was not his fault, that everything that had been done to him and everything he had done in turn was the product of an act of brutal violence, Ezra could not believe it. He still woke up screaming at night from nightmares that made the actual event seem almost painless in comparison. He still had trouble feeling Julia's caresses on his skin and was unable to do any more than kiss her. Inwardly, he wanted her badly but the prospect of intimacy frightened him. Part of him knew, though he despised admitting it that there was a moment in that horrific experience with Julius where he had actually enjoyed it. He knew that he was being unfair to himself by thinking that since he was heavily drugged at the time and he suspected that Julius had doused the room with a fair amount of Julia's perfume to confuse his already addled mind.

Ezra suspected the reason he feared touching Julia was for the fact that what if the experience with her did not compare to those few misguided moments? The possibility that Julius had stirred such desire in him that could not be rivaled or bettered by the love of his life was something he could not even begin to imagine. The horror of it was beyond his ability to comprehend and so he stayed away from her at night, being unable to love her, being unable to think of a future where they would be married with children in their lives. He prayed that time would make it go away, would drive away these demons into the night and Julia had assured him that she would wait for as long as was necessary for him to overcome them. He just feared that one day she would realise that it was taking too long and leave him anyway.

The sudden thunder of horses captured Ezra's attention and he looked up to see the stage rolling into town, kicking up clouds of dust as it moved through the main street. Ezra rose to his feet and started across the street towards the depot where the stage would undoubtedly come to a halt. Glancing at his pocket watch, he estimated that he had enough time to see Maude to her hotel room before he rode out to the ranch to join the others. While he had no wish to partake in any form of menial labor, the times when the seven and their entourage gathered around to enjoy the day were occasions he would not miss for even the most highest stakes games of poker. If anything, these outings did more to soothe his troubled soul than all the time in the world.

The stage had come to a halt when Ezra stepped on the boardwalk at the other side of the street. As he made his way down the walkway, offering an obligatory wave back at Gloria Potter who had been so good to offer him the same, he saw that the stage coach driver was already beginning the ritual of unloading his passengers baggage. Undoubtedly the bulk of whatever was perched on top of the carriage would be Maude's. His mother still believed in appearances and her trunks, filled with ancient masonry from Rome, was meant to convey that, much to the dismay of those who had to unload it. Ezra watched as the door to the carriage was opened and people began to emerge from within the old Concorde.

Ezra took a deep breath and steadied himself, preparing to show the mask he hoped would fool Maude into believing that her darling boy was just the same as she had left him. It was possibly the hardest role he would ever have to play in his life for Maude was almost as sharp as Chris Larabee when it came to seeing through people's facades. If he were unable to maintain it, she would know everything and Ezra could not face that possibility so he could not fail.

His preparation was interrupted by her familiar voice. "Ezra, darling!" She called out as she stepped onto the boardwalk after one of the other passengers had helped her out of the carriage.

"Mother." Ezra produced his most charming smile and took her hand in his to offer her a continental greeting. "How was your trip?"

Maude Standish did not respond for a brief second, choosing only to gaze at her son for a second or two because something had caught her attention even though she not certain of what it was. Nevertheless, it had given her reason to pause and not pursue it because her instincts told her that it may lead somewhere that was not entirely healthy for her son. It was a mother's instinct, down to the raw and primeval level, to the naked ape that knew just from a whimper or the unsteady release of breath that her child was unwell. Perhaps she had not been the most conventional mother but he was her son and she loved him, no matter what he might think and she knew that moment she laid eyes on him, despite his efforts to employ the guises she taught him, that something was wrong. And it was through that same understanding that only seemed prevalent to those who had given birth and nurtured young life that formed their immortality, that she could not make mention of it until he was ready.

"Yes," she smiled her most dazzling, mirroring his facade with one of her own. "It was a pleasant enough journey." She kissed him lightly on the cheek.

Ezra felt a swell of relief at her lack of reaction to his well placed facade and took that as a sign that she had not noted anything unusual about him. That alone almost forced a sigh of relief from him before he remembered that he had nothing to be relieved about and showing it might engender questions in itself. "So how is St Louis?"

"The same," Maude shrugged. "I thought I might visit for a while, perhaps make some attempt to convince you that you are wasting your god given talents in this dusty town."

"Mother....." Ezra started to protest.

"Don't worry," Maude sighed. "I know how attached you are to this place and if it were not for the fact that Julia is here ensuring that you are not going completely to waste, I would be besides myself."

"Thank you." Ezra gave her a look. "Its nice to know you have so much faith in me."

"I can't help it." Maude replied as they walked to the hotel. "You could have done anything with your life, anything. The fact that you choose to play lawman, it just astonishes me."

"Perhaps there was someone in our family history with a good sense of morality that has unleashed itself upon me." Ezra retorted.

"It's likely from your father." Maude responded, not thinking until she had said it.

"My father?" Ezra stared at her somewhat surprised. "I thought you said he was the best con man in the Territory? Hardly someone with a great deal of moral fibre."

Maude swallowed, cursing herself for being stupid enough to let it slip. This was what came with old age, she fumed inwardly, blurting out things that had no business being said. "I'm sorry," she said tautly. "In my opinion, he had an abundance of it."

"Do not apologize," Ezra responded quickly. "This is the first that you deigned to volunteer more than two words about him. It captured me by surprise."

"I've told you about your father," she retorted a little defensively, even though she knew that he was telling the truth. She did not often speak about her husband to Ezra.

"Not a great deal," Ezra pointed out. "You've not been entirely forthcoming on that subject."

"Thatís ridiculous," she said stiffly. "Iíve told you all there is to know. If there isnít any more, its mostly because we did not spent all that much time together."

Something in Maudeís tone told Ezra that it was probably wisest to leave the subject alone. Considering that he had secrets of his own that he did not wish her to know, he could respect her desire for privacy. Deciding that a tactful change in subject was required, Ezra cleared his throat and allowed a few seconds to pass before speaking once again. "Well I shall settle you at the hotel where I am certain you will be fleecing the patrons of the saloon there in no time. As for me, I have an engagement elsewhere."

"Oh?" She met his gaze. "And what would that be?"

"I am joining my friends at a house raising." Ezra returned and enjoyed the expression on her face when her nose wrinkled up in disgust.

"Please do not tell me that you are preparing to soil your hands with carpentry? I had thought I taught you better than that."

"Relax mother," Ezra chuckled. "I have no intention of building anything, just provide moral support to those who will." He grinned, his gold tooth gleaming under the light.

"Thank you," she said with a relieved sigh. "I take it Julia is there as well?"

"She is." He answered.

"You know Ezra," Maude remarked as she fell into stride with him. "It is about time you consider marrying that young woman."

Ezra stiffened, wishing she had brought up any subject but that one. He was already feeling bad enough on his own without his mother adding more fuel to fire. He knew that Julia wanted to marry him but his reasons for holding back were good ones and he had no wish to see Maude involve herself in the situation, which she was likely to do when she thought that he was in need of some extra prompting. The danger in her interference was not the fact that she might convince him to marry but she might discover why he was so reluctant to do so.

"I will when the time is right." He answered with enough of an edge in his voice to give her very indication that he did not wish to continue discussing this topic either.

"If you are insistent on residing in this locality, you might as well embrace all the trappings of domesticity Ezra. You are not growing any younger you know?"

Ezra snorted. He wondered if he had ever been young. Had there ever been any moment in his life where he had not felt jaded and cynical. Life had been aging him prematurely for years. The only difference was now his body was catching up to the rest of him. Following Hannibal Julius, Ezra felt like he had gone on for too long and should seriously start to consider the merits of simply shutting down. Certainly he had been too ravaged to ever take joy in feeling anything again. He knew that he was just feeling sorry for himself, that perhaps in time his dismal outlook over his existence might change but that time was now and he was far from recovered, even though the urge to put a bullet in his head had long since passed. Unfortunately, the temptation of it still lingered in the background of his mind, whispering to him softly that in its embrace, there would be no pain or suffering, no need to make decisions he found himself unable to face, just the cool breeze of oblivion on his skin.

"MotherÖ." Ezra started to say when Maude conceded that she was now going to get anywhere with him on this subject either.

"Alright darling," she cut him off before he could say anything else. "I will not make you squirm any more than necessary, although I must say I have not seen you so peevish in quite sometime."

Ezra did not know what to say to that but was grateful enough that the subject was done with. Now if he could just leave her to her own devices at the hotel then he might garner a little breathing space to think up just how he was going to manage keeping her at armís length for the rest of her stay in Four Corners.

"Ezra," Maude suddenly declared. "I think that I will forgo the usual bout at the tables this afternoon."

Ezra paused and looked at her, having a terrible premonition in that second what she was about to say. "In favor of?"

"Joining you of course," she answered, confirming all his worst suspicions in that simple response. "I think I would like to catch up with Julia and Inez."

"Of course," Ezra nodded, giving up the effort to make an argument because it was just the way his day was going. Sometimes, it was best just to give up trying to survive the cards that Fate saw chose to deal and endure the game until it was done. Hopefully this would be the last surprise of the day.

Ezra had no idea how wrong he would be.

+ + + + + + +

Alexandra Styles Tanner was not a happy woman.

Initially, discovering that she was with child had been a warm and happy experience and she had certainly come across enough expecting mothers in her time to know that there was nothing to keep her from being active until the last trimester of her pregnancy. However, she found that she now fatigued easily despite being able to cope with a demanding workload on most days. It irritated her beyond reason that she could not do the things that always came naturally to her. What made this all worse was the fact that no one had said anything to keep her restrained and mindful of her condition. They did not have to because she knew it herself and hated to admit that she was going to make changes to her lifestyle for the duration of her pregnancy.

Vin was no help either.

Well thatís not entirely true. He was plenty of help in areas where she had always been self-sufficient and Alex really hated that. There were days when women did backbreaking labor, whether or not they were with child and Alex could not understand why she could not be like them instead of relenting to the limitations of her own body. She hated it that she could not go riding to the Indian village like she used to because a woman in her condition should not be going out across the Territory when the times were so uncertain. That in itself had nothing to do with her condition but Alex was certain that the trouble had coincided with her pregnancy just to inconvenience her.

Her rationale was not what it was either.

Her moods seemed to swell or deflate at the drop of a hat. One minute she was screaming at Vin telling him that he was impossible to live with and the next thing she was sobbing for even raising her voice to him. In any case, he was almost as confused as she was at times. Then came the physical changes and suddenly she was ravenously starved for intimacy, a side effect Vin did not seem to mind although it seemed to manifest at the most inconvenient times. This intermingled by the fact that the sight of food could send her into a mad fit of retching, was a source of great consternation to Alex. While the bouts of morning sickness had started to fade, though not entirely, Alex did not appreciate what it felt like to in the same situation she had seen so many of her patients through.

"Oh come on, its not that bad," Mary responded as they sat in the spot that Alex had deemed would be her garden once the house was erected. Not too far away, she could see the superstructure of the house being constructed with nails and wood. The house was somewhat an ambitious enterprise, far larger than the Wilmington home which the seven, including Ezra amazingly enough had constructed. Although the gamblerís capacity for house building had only gone as far as supervising before he earned a sound soaking in a near by water trough. The Tanner home required a clinic along with a house and the construction of the house was a little more specialized. Even though it was far from completed, Alex could not deny that the shape it was taking was very pleasing indeed.

Even though the reason for their gathering was to build the house, it did not appear to be a chore for the men involved. Josiah had taken the lead mostly because he had the most experience in house building, having rebuilt the church that had been little more than a crumbling pile of debris when he had happened upon it. The preacher had also aided in the same way when the Wilmington home had been constructed and it was a testament to his skill how well it had turned out. On the grass near by, babies Elena Rose and Michael were entertaining each other. While Elena Rose was taking her first tentative steps, Michael was content to follow her around on all fours. Billy and Lilith were off exploring somewhere and the women of the seven were enjoying the warm summer's day.

"Oh really?" Alex stared at her with a brow raised. "I remember how charming you were when you carrying Michael and might I say that you have no reason to be so comfortable."

"I was not that grouchy." Mary pointed out hotly, her nose raised in dignity.

"Sure you werenít," Inez remarked with a little chuckle. "The unfortunate thing is, you were like that before the pregnancy."

"Oh you should talk," Mary stared at her friend. "We all remember what you were like when you were carrying Elena Rose. You were downright scary!"

"Not to mention always hungry." Julia pointed out.

"Well that's natural." Audrey responded. "I remember when Lilith was born. I thought I was going to die. I could not decide which I rather have more, the morning sickness or the appetite."

"But I'm tired all the time," Alex grumbled. "I am a doctor and I know everything I'm feeling is natural but I can't help wondering why I'm not coping with this as much as I would like. I mean I use to cram my days with so many things and always have time for myself, now I'm barely able to stay awake at the dinner table."

"But you do too much Alex," Rain reminded her. Working with the doctor as her nurse had taught Rain that much about Alex's work habits. "I have seen what you try to do everyday and there is no way that you can maintain the pace you do with the baby coming."

"I mean really think about all the things you do," Mary replied. "You run a practice which is not only centered in town with patients coming to see you, you also make house calls around the area, not to mention making occasional trips to the Indian Reserve and on top of all that, you still have to play wife. It's quite a pace."

"Well if that's the case," Alex said with a smug smile. "How do you manage to run the paper, look after two children and God knows how, manage to stand being married to that?" She waved a hand in Chris' direction. "All without getting absolutely insane?"

"Well," Mary ran an appreciative eye over her husband and remarked with a devilish smile. "He has his good points?"

"And would that be somewhere behind his jeans?" Julia asked with a wink of mischief in her eyes.

"Oh yeah," the women all remarked in unison, crooking their neck just a little to admire the derriere in question before they all erupted into laughter and drawing its owner's curiosity as he glanced in their direction. Chris wondered for a moment what they found so funny before deciding that it was probably not worth the effort trying to figure out.

Women, he snorted.

"You know Julia," Mary looked at the lovely Emporium owner once the moment had faded and they returned to some semblance of sensibility. "You and Ezra have been engaged forever. When are you two going to get married?"

Julia shrugged wishing this subject had not come up. It was difficult for her to watch her friends moving on with their lives, travelling along the path of marriage and motherhood, leaving her behind even though for all intensive purposes, she maintained a facade of indifference regarding the subject. The truth was; she wanted very much to be married to Ezra but the fact of the matter was, he simply was not ready. Julia loved him enough to allow him the time to heal after his horrific experience at the hands of Hannibal Julius. She could see in his eyes the effect it still had upon him and did not press him with issues he was in no position to cope with. It did not help that not all their friends were unaware of what had happened to him as those who did know, maintained the secret of his ordeal. Ezra was having enough difficulty with them knowing the truth to be able to bear all his friends becoming privy to what he considered his greatest shame.

"Oh there'll be plenty of time for that," Julia answered, producing a smile of confidence that everything was as it should be and that the situation as it stood was precisely what she desired. She dared not mention it to the others that there was a problem because in doing so, she might have to explain why it had originated and that would lead them straight to Julius. Ezra's esteem was barely holding together with the knowledge that some of the seven knew of his ordeal. Julia dare not imagine how his state of mind would deteriorate if his secret were out in the open.

"I agree." Rain remarked since she and Nathan had discussed the subject in passing.

"Aunt Nettie won't let me think about it until I'm older," Casey volunteered, not wishing to let Julia feel as if she ought to be pressed for an answer. Instinct told her that there was something in the titian beauty's eye that indicated "I guess she wants me to do a little growing up first."

"What about you Audrey?" Mary asked, glad that Casey had joined in. The girl had been all too somber lately and today was the first time in too long that she seemed somewhat recovered from her abuse by Neil Blackwood.

"Oh we have some ways to go yet before we're ready for that." Audrey chuckled. "I'm somewhat happy with the ways things are at the moment. They'll change when they're ready."

Julia did not respond to that statement because she knew that change was not all it was meant to be.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra arrived at the ranch a short time later with Maude and did not all appear happy to be having his mother in his company. Chris Larabee could understand his apprehension, aware that Ezra had been edgy ever since the lady had announced her intention to visit. No doubt Ezra was terrified that Maude might inadvertently stumble upon the secret her son wished no one to learn. Although Chris and Maude had never really been close enough to consider themselves friends, they had both held a healthy respect for one another and the part they played in their son's life. Maude seemed to appreciate that Ezra's allegiance, no matter how baffling it may be to her was Chris Larabee's first even before herself. Chris considered this an unfair comparison because Ezra's regard for both of them differed diametrically. In this instance, Chris wondered if perhaps Ezra would benefit from Maude learning the truth. Even though he hardly remembered his own mother, Chris did recall enough about Brigid Larabee to know that there were some wounds only a mother could heal.

He had only to watch Billy with Mary to know that to be the absolute truth.

"I see you gentlemen have progressed considerably in your endeavor without me." Ezra remarked as he examined the work that the rest of the seven had managed to complete in his absence. The framework of the house had been constructed above the stone foundation of floor and another few weekends of hard work would see the home completed in plenty of time for the baby's arrival.

"Don't think we noticed just how long you managed to stay in town picking up Maude, you lazy varmint." Nathan retorted giving him a look.

"Now gentlemen," Ezra pretended to be mortally wounded by the insinuation as he sat down on pile of planks that would make up the walls of the house. "It was not my fault the stage was delayed. I am completely innocent."

"Sure you are," Buck drawled as he and Vin carried out one the planks towards the framework. "Not that you could have done much if you had been here any way. Giving you hammer and nails is almost akin a loaded gun to a baby. Just plain dangerous."

"Are you suggesting that I am ill equipped to handle such a simple task?" Ezra inquired.

"Definitely." JD returned with a devilish grin.

"Well who am I to argue with that," Ezra joined in with a smirk. "After all a gentlemen does not engage in menial labor."

"Oh hell." Vin groaned, rolling his eyes because he had heard this particular remark too many times already. "Thanks for coming anyway." The tracker returned. "I'm sure you wouldn't mind making the coffee run."

"The coffee run?" Ezra asked innocently.

"Meaning go us get some." Chris growled in a tone that was mostly one of mischief than actual menace.

"I refuse to get you men coffee at this hour. Surely it must be time for something a little stronger?" He asked.

"Just get the coffee." Vin retorted. "We can't be getting liquored up when we're building my house!"

"This is an embarrassing use of my talents." Ezra complained as he started to stand in order to approach the ladies where the hot brew was presently residing.

"Hey Ezra," Chris called out to Ezra as a thought crossed his mind. "Any trouble in town?"

The mood immediately shifted from levity to some measure of seriousness, as Ezra understood fully what Chris was asking him. Ever since Bosshard had arrived in Four Corners, the former gunslinger was poised and waiting for trouble. Four Corners had been fortunate enough to avoid becoming entangled in the mess that was the Lincoln County Wars but that did not mean that situation could not change with Bosshard's arrival. Chris had no intention of allowing things to deteriorate to the point it had in those other counties and was certain to keep watch on everything to ensure that. Unfortunately, he could not harass Bosshard when it did not appear as if the man was breaking any laws at the moment. Bosshard was being patient in making his move and though the urge was to throw the man out of town on his ear was tempting, Chris knew he had to be equally patient.

"Everything was peaceful when I departed." Ezra answered, wishing to reassure Chris that all was well while they enjoyed their sojourn here. "Mr. Bosshard was nowhere in sight. After his late bout of gambling which I can personally attest to, I would not be wrong in assuming he is still in bed."

"I hope so," Chris answered. "I don't like him or the kind he hangs with. He knows too many powerful men to not let it get to his head. I can smell it on him."

"Your impressive olfactory skills aside, we need to be cautious in this matter." Ezra pointed out. "You are right, he does have powerful friends and if we err one wit in our dealings with him, they will devour us whole."

"Ezra's right Chris," Buck agreed, having been a law man once before to know that while the forceful method of immediate action produced far better results than sitting by and waiting things to happen, this was one instance where an exception had to be made. "We don't watch our step with Bosshard, he's gonna bring all his friends into this and then there'll be no way to keep 'em out of Four Corners."

"I guess so," Chris frowned still believing that the best way to save themselves a great deal of trouble was to simply shoot the man. "But he's in town a reason and I'm telling you, whatever it is, its can't be good."

+ + + + + + +

After Maude had spent some time catching up with Julia and the rest of the women, even the charming Audrey King whom she had met several terms before and thought to be a suitable match for Josiah Sanchez. While Maude had been the object of his affections some time ago, she had never considered him any more than a friend and was glad to see that someone else was able to offer him the companionship she could not. Josiah was a romantic who craved something permanent while Maude had enjoyed his company during her visits to town and had no wish to lengthen their association beyond those parameters. Julia was keeping well but there was a shadow in her smile that Maude had not seen before and could not deny worried her. This reaffirmed Maude's earlier suspicions that something had happened to Ezra that no one seemed good enough to tell her.

She bided her time and waited until Josiah had taken off alone to retrieve something from the barn before taking the opportunity to have a private word with him. They had always been honest with each other and Maude was certain that if there was something important that involved Ezra, Josiah might be the one to tell her about it. While he did not openly betray confidences, he had a way of making people see the things that they usually missed on their first viewing. Certainly what ailed Ezra was beyond Maude's ability to decipher and she detested the fact that her lack of knowing might keep her from helping him, if that was what he truly needed.

She found Josiah in the barn, searching through the supplies for the house for the bag of nails he had been sent to gather. He looked up at her approach and straightened up immediately, a hint of puzzlement on his face as he wondered she had sought him out. Maude looked over her shoulder and ensured that no one, especially Ezra was near by when she made her inquiry of him. "Hello Josiah," she greeted pleasantly enough. "I thought I might have a word with you alone."

"Certainly Maude," Josiah said pleasantly enough, not understanding what they could have to discuss alone but he was curious enough to let her state her reasons for herself. "What can I do for you?"

Maude took a deep breath, bracing herself for his reaction before she opened her mouth and stated her request directly. "Josiah, what has happened to my son?"

A flash of anxiety appeared in his dark eyes and disappeared just as quickly as his psyche caught off guard moved quickly to hide his initial response. "What do you mean?" He asked slowly and Maude knew without doubt that he was lying to her.

"Josiah," she met his gaze. "His my son. Granted, I was not the best mother in the world but I still love him and I still worry for him, even now and I know just by the look in his eyes that something has changed for him. I don't understand it and something of its power frightens me. I am assuming that as his friends you know what has happened to put that look in his eye."

Josiah swore inwardly, wondering whether he hated lying more than he hated the fact that maternal perception had allowed her to see something she should not have. "Maude, I don't know what you are talking about" He despised lying to her but he would not betray Ezra's confidence in this matter.

"Josiah please!" Maude exclaimed. "I need to know what's wrong with him. There's something wrong I can tell. Its not just him, I can see it in Julia too. What is so terrible that they cannot even tell me?"

"What makes you think I would know if he wouldn't even tell you?" Josiah countered, hoping that a stiff debate to the contrary would prove to her that he knew as little as she.

"I know how he feels about me Josiah," Maude returned, steel in her voice but also a great deal of dignity as well. "I have made choices for both of us that were necessary for the time. He believes that I abandoned him as a youth, perhaps I did but I have reasons that I'm sure he has not thought of. I did everything I had to for his sake and I am not ashamed of it, nor do I choose to explain myself. I have no doubt that he thinks me a poor mother, that I am more interested in money and the con more than I do for him. That has always been a lie. He's been the best of me and the one thing left in this world that I love more than anything else. I am his mother and I can tell when he is in pain and right now, there are wounds in his eyes I cannot even fathom and I need to if I am to help him."

"Maude," Josiah found himself breaking a little but not enough to give her what he wanted. "You need to talk to Ezra about this, I can't help you."

"You mean you won't." Maude stared at him with hard eyes.

"I mean I can't." Josiah retorted, feeling worse for keeping it from her but it was not his decision that she should know the truth.

"I can help him Josiah," Maude pleased. "Whatever has happened to him, I can help him."

"Not through this," Josiah relented enough to offer. "There are certain things that only he can deal with and this is one of those. Press the matter and you will do more harm than good Maude. Take my advice on this and let it go."

"I can't." Maude declared hotly. "He's my son and I would not be any kind of mother to him if I let him bleed away before my eyes."

Josiah wanted to walk away and leave this subject alone because honestly he did not know how she would react to hearing the news that her son had been raped by a man. How did a parent endure that kind of knowledge? There would be no outlet for retribution either since Ezra had taken care of that himself and how would Maude react to knowing just how Ezra had exacted his revenge? Whatever she was, however the law may be bend around her at times, she was no murderer and Josiah doubted she raised Ezra to be one either. How would she take the knowledge that her darling boy as she was so fond of referring to Ezra had castrated his violator only to suffocate the man with his own genitals?

"Maude," Josiah looked at her sympathetically wishing she could understand that his silence was not due any real desire to hide from her but out of a genuine wish to help Ezra. "I know you want to help but you need to give Ezra his space on this matter. If you push him too hard to tell you the truth, you might break what little is holding him together."

Her eyes widened. "Is that serious?" She asked, her voice hushed.

"Yes," he nodded reluctantly "Its that bad."

"And you'd let me languish with that knowledge only?" She accused. "He's my son!"

"And he's my friend." Josiah countered. "I care about him almost as much as you do and I will not betray him. If you wish to learn anything further about this, you will not learn it from me."

With that, Josiah brushed past her, unwilling to say anymore. If she wanted to find out the truth, she would have to get it from Ezra or not at all.

+ + + + + + +

A sensible woman would have left after her husband died but Gloria Potter was anything but that.

Instead of leaving town after the murder of her husband, Gloria had chosen to remain in Four Corners to run the store he had left behind. She did this not out of any fondness for the people or the locality but rather for the fact that she refused to let adversity defeat her or allow her children think that it was simpler to run away instead of standing their ground. Their father had been gunned down in his store, refusing to be bullied and though it had ended tragically for him, he had died a man, proud and defiant, ready to defend what was his. It set him apart even in death because the rest of Four Corners had been prepared to let his murderer, the wayward nephew of cattle man Stuart James, get away with what he had done until the arrival of a tough Territorial judge that ensured that justice was done.

With the aid of the seven, Judge Orin Travis had seen her husband's murderer pay the price and her decision to hold her ground seemed to be a good idea. With the seven men becoming the town's peacekeepers, Four Corners was afforded an unprecedented period of stability that had not been known since its formation. At first, the town seemed wary of the seven men because they were hardly the kind that inspired trust. They were an eclectic bunch to say the least. Composed of a hardened gunslinger with a notorious reputation, a bounty hunter who in turn was being hunted, a gambler, a healer whose only crime seemed to be his color and a ladies man whose eye for the ladies was almost as vast as his appetite for them. Add to this a preacher who no longer wore the cloth and a boy with more taste for adventure than he had sense and they were a deadly combination.

However as time went on, the men began to embrace Four Corners as more than just a place where they were being paid a dollar a day to defend, but rather as their homes. They settled, they married and still remained the town's peacekeepers. With the security they brought, a new prosperity settled in Four Corners. Prompted by the railroad and thanks to the lack of lawlessness, which was running rife through the rest of the Territory, Four Corners had become an attractive place for investment. The Potter goods store had also prospered during this time and her children were growing up without having to face the hardship she had known in her younger years.

Unfortunately, the years of security had also lulled her into a false sense of complacency and never more so than at this moment when she faced the three men in her store. She had been cataloging her inventory when she had heard the sound of her doors closing, followed by a shadow that descended upon her as the sunlight disappeared and was replaced by the cool sensation of danger. She knew dangerous men when she saw them but until now, had not realized that they were chameleon like that could appear and disappear at will. When she had first met Mr. Benjamin Bosshard, he had been pleasant enough, almost charming to a point but as he stood before her now, with two very formidable men at his side, he appeared to be neither.

"Can I do something for you?" She asked anxiously as they advanced upon her. It did not escape Gloria's notice that one of the men, the one Bosshard called Marks, a tall beefy looking man who look uncomfortable in his suit and looked more at home wearing work clothes had suddenly chosen to take point at the door.

"Yes I believe you may," Bosshard smile and approached the counter behind, which she was standing. The second man in his entourage, Spencer was moving slowly towards the edge of the counter, as if trying to get behind it in order to reach her.

Gloria swallowed, wondering what gave him the right to be so audacious by coming in here and attempting to make threats. Even though he was smiling at her, the gleam in his eyes was predatory.

"I'll do what I can to help," she responded, knowing that she probably would not like what he wanted of her.

"I'm glad," Bosshard responded menacingly even though his voice was almost pleasant. "I would hate to see this go badly. You have a lovely young family, it would be tragic if anything were to happen to them."

The threat was clear and Gloria felt her nerve giving away and her impatience increasing. She wished he would just get to the point. She could not believe that only days ago he had been discussing with Mrs. O'Leary how attractive he was. Bosshard was a man in his late fifties with dark brown hair turning rapidly into gray with a thick bushy moustache. His face was handsome enough but the gleam in his eyes could change his entire persona from charming to terrifying with surprising ease. "What do you want from me?" She finally demanded, conscious of Mr. Spencer standing too close for comfort now.

"Your store." Bosshard said simply and directly.

"What?" Gloria exclaimed.

"I believe there is no need to repeat myself Madam," Bosshard retorted. "You heard me the first time. I want your store."

"Why?" She asked blankly.

"That is none of your concern." Bosshard's face hardened even further, as if he felt insulted at her impertinence for asking.

"It's not for sale." Gloria stated boldly, certain of that fact. This was her husband's legacy to her. He had died protecting it. She was not going to give it up for anything nor would thugs who wanted it different run her off.

"We'll pay you generously." Bosshard tried the direct approach first. He always preferred to settle things amicably before he was forced to use harsher methods to obtain what he wanted.

"I thank you for that," Gloria said politely, "But it's not for sale. I am sorry."

"This is not a negotiation." Bosshard retorted sharply. "We're making you an offer but when its rescinded, you will not get another chance to change your mind."

"I won't change my mind," she declared. "This is my store and it will continue to be my store. You don't scare me." A surge of courage came upon her as her anger began to mount, despite her situation. She knew it was unwise to provoke these men but somehow she was certain that the reason for their lack of interest in the store had much to do with the seven riding out to the Lucky Seven ranch today.

"I had no intention of scaring you Mrs. Potter," Bosshard returned with a predatory gleam in his eyes because he knew exactly what was needed to force her into submission. She was ignorant of this fact so far and he intended to remind her just what she was risking by her defiance. "However, you have several young children under your care and children are clumsy in their youth. I would hate to see anyone of them involved in an unfortunate mishap that could result in injury or at worst death."

"You leave my children alone!" Gloria hissed, surging forward until the only thing that kept her from Bosshard was the counter between them. Spencer had not moved to stop her although he remained ever present in her peripheral vision. "I won't be chased of by the likes of you! You think you can scare me? All I have to do is tell Chris Larabee that you're doing this and he'll come down on you so hard, you won't know what hit you!"

"Now you listen to me bitch!" Bosshard's hand was around her neck so fast Gloria barely had time to withdraw before his fingers pressed into her skin, forcing the scream that attempted to escape her lips back down her throat. "I'm going to have this store one way or another. You can sell it to me or I'll burn it down and open my own, suffice to say I don't appreciate competition in any shape or form! You will sell to me or I'll have Mr. Marks over that gut that litter of yours one by one. You think running to that two-bit gunslinger is going to help? By the time he comes after me, I'll be pissing on your children's dead bodies! Do you understand?"

He would do it too. Gloria could see it in his eyes the terrible spite that lay beneath his blue eyes. He would kill her even if he did not get her store, just to leave an indelible stain upon what he could not have. He would poison the well of her life if he did not get his own way. Men such as this terrified Gloria to no end because they would not stop. Even if Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven managed to drive him away from Four Corners, it would change nothing for him. He would go away just long enough to let down their guard and then he would come back and likely murder her children in their beds, leaving her alive to suffer the guilt of her refusal.

"Yes," she nodded, tears running down her cheeks from her defeat more than the pain of his rough handling. "I understand."

"Good," he smiled, releasing his hold of her. Gloria dropped onto the counter, taking deep and hungry breaths as the air that was denied her a moment ago, once again flooded her lungs. "I'll give you a day to think about my offer and I suggest you think of it carefully. If you run to any of those seven lawmen and cause me any inconvenience, I will make you pay a thousand times before I am done with you. They may drive me from town but I'll kill your children first. Make no mistake on that."

With that, he gestured to his men and left the store, moving out of the premises like shadows that had fallen and disappeared with the shift of light. For a few minutes after he was gone, Gloria remained where she was, breathing hard and trying to come to grips with the situation that had been trust upon her. If she went to the seven, she had no doubt that Bosshard would make good on his threat. However in remaining silent, she would have to give up the store and leave and that would raise as many questions about Bosshard as bringing his crimes to the seven.

No matter how she looked at this, she could not win.

God help her, what was she going to do?

+ + + + + + +

Maude had been especially quiet since they had left the ranch and headed back to town. Ezra wondered if something was wrong with his mother but dared not ask her in case what was on her mind was his strange behavior. Even though she had said nothing, Ezra could not be certain that Maude had not noted anything wrong with him. She was one of the sharpest people he knew and her ability to read him was too honed for her not to suspect even the slightest thing being amiss. Most of the seven and their ladies chose to return at more or less the same time and they made up a small convoy as they rode into town together. The sun had disappeared behind the horizon an hour ago and Ezra was in the mood to indulge himself in a good game of cards at the Standish Tavern to finish the day off.

Maude would no doubt join him in such a venture and Ezra could not help feeling some eagerness to watch his mother in action. She was truly gifted in being able to fleece hapless victims of their hard-earned cash by pretending the vacuous southern belle with no idea how to play. The conversation home had been strangely sedate, not merely from Maude but also from Julia although there was no mystery as to why that was. When a number of women got together, invariably the conversation would fall upon the subject of marriage with its focus on those among them who had yet to make their nuptials. Ezra decided that after he had delivered Maude to the hotel, he and Julia needed to talk. So far she had been unfailingly supportive of him and his difficulties but she needed to know that this state of affairs would not last indefinitely; just until he had a little more time to heal.

They were almost to the hotel when suddenly Maude, who was sitting next to Julia on the buggy Ezra was driving, suddenly sat up straight. The action was so abrupt that both Ezra and Julia noticed her reaction. The lady's eyes were fixed on only one point ahead of her and it was not hard to see that the object of her undivided attention was a man. He had just stepped onto the boardwalk from one of the saloons in town, accompanied by two companions and proceeded to take a languid stroll towards the hotel. For a moment, Maude said nothing as she simply stared, her gaze never leaving Benjamin Bosshard as he continued on his journey, oblivious to her deep scrutiny.

"Mother?" Ezra asked, somewhat concerned by the way she was looking at Bosshard. Ezra was able to judge his mother's moods most of the time but he swore that right now, when she stared at Bosshard, her face disintegrating into mask he did not recognize, it unnerved him. "Is something wrong?"

"Of course not darling," she averted her gaze to him almost mechanically, after Bosshard had entered the hotel, answering him with a smile on her face that did not seem quite real. It resembled one of those careful fabrications she often used just before she took a mark for all he was worth. "I just thought he looked like someone I knew. Who is that gentleman?" She asked with almost polite interest.

"Oh that's Benjamin Bosshard from Lincoln County." Julia answered before Ezra could. "He's been in town this past week on business."

"Business." Maude nodded as if absorbing the information and filing it away for future reference. "Mercantile?"

"We are not entirely certain," Ezra answered, feeling his insides tense although he did not know why. "He is an associate of Laurence Murphy which gives Mr Larabee some measure of concern."

"I see," Maude nodded in understanding. "I take it this is the same Mr Murphy that caused all that trouble in Lincoln County and that nasty business that had the Governor Alten removed by the President?"

"Yes," Ezra nodded, knowing his mother long enough to know that there was more to her interest than she let on. Clearly, she knew Bosshard from somewhere but had not known his name. It was puzzling. "This man that Mr. Bosshard appears to remind you of mother, who was he?"

"Nobody." Maude said distractedly as the buggy came to the hotel and halted by the walkway before it. "Its nothing important darling," she smiled at him. "Ezra, I am tired. I think I shall forgo the nightly activities and turn in for the night."

"Well certainly mother," Ezra answered, becoming more and more anxious about Maude's aberrant behavior. She was not usually one who fatigued or came down with the vapors like other genteel women and there was something in her manner regarding the subject of Mr. Bosshard that disturbed him. He wanted to question her further on the subject but supposed she also had a right to her privacy, lord knows he was keeping enough away from her himself to make demands.

"I shall meet you for breakfast tomorrow if you like." He offered.

'That would be lovely," Maude replied automatically as Ezra climbed out of the buggy to help her down. Once she was on the sidewalk, she leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "You will sleep well tonight won't you dear?"

"Of course," Ezra nodded, puzzled by her behavior but had little chance to ask her anything further because she pulled away from him and swept through the doors of the hotel a second later.

"That was odd." Julia stated once Maude had disappeared.

"It was somewhat disconcerting." Ezra agreed, still staring after the doors. "I have not seen her quite so distracted."

"I'm sure she knew him." Julia stated, her brow wrinkling with just as much concern as Ezra's.

"I am certain she did." Ezra stated finally turning back to his fiancťe. "I simply don't understand why she pretended she did not."

"Perhaps it's a personal reason." Julia pointed out.

"Personal?" He stared at her. "I am her son."

"Ezra!" Julia laughed a little. "She may be your mother but she is a woman first. You are more than old enough to understand that. I'm sure there are numerous aspects of her life that she has not told you simply because it is none of your concern."

Ezra frowned at that. He never thought he would dislike the idea of his mother keeping secrets from him, after all, he was hardly a little boy whose was bound too tightly to her by apron strings. Still, Maude and Ezra had a closer relationship than most even though he could not deny her ability to see through him so easily made him vastly uncomfortable at times. Nor could he deny that their relationship has seen some troubled waters ever since he decided to settle in Four Corners as one of the town's peacekeepers. Maude had been disappointed in him for wasting what she considered to be his 'God given talents'. Ezra had never found it difficult to leave that life behind because it had been all he had ever known and inwardly, though he admitted it to no one, he had loathed that existence.

"I suppose," Ezra sighed and glanced at Julia. "I suppose, I should have no business attempting to unwrap the mysteries of one woman when I should be concentrating on you."

Julia looked at him startled, not expecting that response. "What do you mean?"

"I know you are unhappy that we are not married yet Julia." He pointed out.

Julia saw no reason to deny it because he would know that she was lying. "Of course I am disappointed." She said in a measured voice, not at all filled with anger or regret just acceptance of the situation as it stood. Julia was like that, a survivor who always adapted to adversity, be it physical or emotional. "I love you and I want to marry you but I also understand that you need to heal and though I look forlornly at the others around me, I know that someday we will be together. Ezra, things are never conventional with us, haven't you guessed this by now?"

Ezra nodded with slight chuckle. "I did notice."

"I can wait for you," she smiled resting her hand on his cheek as she looked own at him from the seat on the buggy. "I can wait forever because I love you. I may wish things were otherwise sometimes but that's the truth."

"I love you," Ezra found it easy to admit that when she said such things to him and once again, he thanked the deities that seen fit to have him tortured at Julius' hands, had also been kind enough to give him someone like Julia who loved him so unconditionally.

Julia was about to respond when suddenly a gunshot shattered the serenity of the night air. Ezra immediately turned away from Julia and hurried into the hotel where the gunfire had originated. It did not take him long after he had penetrated its confines to know where exactly the commotion had began because the greatest concentration of reactive voices were coming from the hotel saloon. People were standing in the way at first but when Ezra fought his way through them, they realized who was attempting to reach the nucleus of the commotion and readily stepped aside for him, He was after all the closest thing to lawman amongst them. There were shots in the center of the melee and the corresponding reaction of the onlooker's made it difficult to discern what was being said.

When Ezra arrived at the center of the saloon floor, he found himself faced with an incredible scene; one his mind almost had difficulty processing at first Being held back by two of his companions while Benjamin Bosshard himself lay on the floor, clutching his bleeding shoulder, was Maude. One of Bosshard's associates had a large fist wrapped around his mother's wrist, trying to force the small derringer out of her grip. The other was keeping her restrained in a similar manner as Maude flung curses at Bosshard that left Ezra's jaw agape in astonishment. Indeed the shock was evident on everyone who watching and Ezra did not realize that Julia was behind him until he heard her verbalize her astonishment.

"Oh my God Maude!" Julia cried out.

"Let me go!" Maude hissed at the two men who were holding her.

Ezra reacted almost instantly in coming to his mother's defense and had his guns drawn, his Remington and his derringer, aimed squarely at both men, more than ready to shoot if they did not obey his order to release Maude.

"Let...her...go." He ordered in a low and deadly voice.

"She just shot me!" Bosshard roared angrily, holding his bleeding shoulder which to Ezra's eye did not appear as serious as it looked even though the blood and pain made it difficult for Bosshard to make that determination himself.

"Mother, did you shoot this man?" Ezra stared at her trying to hide his own shock and maintain a look of impartiality even though he knew she must have done it because she was still holding the gun. The two men were having a great deal of trouble trying to keep her from pulling the trigger once more and Maude's eyes revealed a look of fury that Ezra had never in his life seen.

"Yes I did!" Maude barked as she maintained that enraged glare on Bosshard. "I've waited too long for this! I will kill you!"

"I've never seen this woman before in my life!" Bosshard retorted in outrage as some one of the saloon patrons helped him to his feet.

"Of course not!" Maude shouted back in defiance, almost breaking free of the grip that held her as she hissed that statement. "Why would you? You never saw me even though you did everything to ensure that we were hunted like animals but I was too smart for you! You expected me to be one of those foolish frontier wives who did not know how to care for herself. I did know how to look after myself and I saw to it you never got your hands on either me and my son! Nor will you ever!"

Now Ezra was starting to get confused. "Mother, what are you talking about? How do you know this man?"

"I know this man because," Maude averted her gaze from Bosshard and met his eyes finally. "He' murdered your father."

Part Two

Recollections

After three years of being his wife, Maude had finally become accustomed to the life though as the wife of Marshall Peter Reeves, she was allowed much latitude in her behavior. Peter himself was content to have her the way she was, unconventional to the core even if his sense of justice would not tolerate the shell game no matter how much he loved her. However, he did not seem to mind when she occupied her time managing the local saloon, aware that she was more than able to look after herself in such places and she needed something to do during those times when he was out in the trail. Peter was aware that she was a social creature and would not consider attempting to pin her down when the thing he loved most about her was her sense of freedom and independence.

Of course things had to change a little by the time Ezra was born. He arrived on a balmy night, an easy delivery that soon turned into anxiety when the child failed to cry out after the obligatory slap on the behind. Eventually, he was coaxed into offering a whimper, much to the relief of his parents and a slight frown that indicated that he was not all pleased to be inconvenienced in such a manner. His features were mostly Maude but Peter was there too, in the shape of his face, the dimpled smile and the refusal to be beaten on anything. Maude was especially pleased about that. It would lend well to his skills when she finally taught him how to play poker. Until she met Peter, Maude had never considered being a mother and she certainly did not think she would be any good at it. Perhaps in the final analysis, it would be decided that she was not but in those first few years she had made a valiant, determined to conquer this like she had conquered everything in her life.

She never believed that there could be fulfillment in being a wife and mother but there was. However, she was not bound by the precept of what either of those two roles was supposed to be, rather fashioning it into what she thought it should be for her own sake. The end result was the discovery that women who became wives and mothers without losing themselves were the ones who were truly blessed and the husband who supported them in all things, were equally fortunate. With her world seemingly complete, Maude did not think it could ever end. Perhaps the happiness of the past three years had lulled her into a false sense of security. Peter Reeves was filled with high minded ideals and a sense of compassion that was lacking in most and being around him made it easy to forget that most people were very different indeed.

After three years of marriage, Maude knew when Peter was troubled even though he returned home that night, appearing as if all was well. She had made it a habit of reading people and this had not changed, especially when it came to her own husband. She watched him playing their favorite game where Ezra would pretend to be an acrobat using his father's arms as a trapeze. Peter adored his son and it was rather an amazing transformation from hardened lawman to loving father but somehow, Peter never seemed to have trouble being either one of the two. On this occasion, he seemed tenser than ever even though his outward facade was one of complete composure. Maude said nothing, refusing to show her concern in front of Ezra and it was their rule to discuss such things when their child had been put to bed. Even though Maude was certain that Ezra would not understand a word of what they were saying, it was better to be safe and sorry.

"Its nothing," he had said.

"You are clearly bothered Marshall," Maude stared at him as they lay in bed, face to face under cool sheets as they spoke in soft tones that would often lead to a more heated exchange. Outside the rain came down in loud buckets, with intermittent rips of thunder cracking the air. Despite the rain, the temperature was hot and humid, making their skins glisten with moisture.

"Just some trouble I see brewing up." Peter replied, running his hand along her curved form, concealed beneath the thin sheet. "It's not bad yet but it could get that way."

"Tell me." Maude persisted, knowing that it did bother him and his reluctance to say more was only further evidence of how bad the situation was.

"There's a war coming." Peter had said simpler.

"Oh some day it will happen," Maude shrugged, assuming he meant the growing division between north and south. The animosity that was growing between the two sometimes made it feel that the only way to establish any real unity was to allow the country to rip itself apart first. Maude hoped it would not happen in her lifetime. "The differences between North and South are growing deeper as the time goes by."

Peter looked at her. "I didn't meant that."

Her brow furrowed in confusion. "Who then did you mean."

"Land owners and the new settlers." Peter sighed. "More and more people are coming into the Territory, Maude. They come here chasing dreams and they're willing to do anything to see it happens for them. Unfortunately, those who were already here are just as determined to protect their own interests. They don't want to see grazing land for cattle become homesteads and they have the money to see that it happens. Out here, the law is just the man behind the badge and a man can be killed."

Maude tensed, not at all liking to think of that possibility. One of the things that preyed most upon her mind, even more so since Ezra was born, was the fact that as lawman, his existence was poised on a knife's edge. Even though they did not always notice it, death loomed in the background and they knew it was there. The idea of losing him frightened her, not because she would be alone with his son but she could not imagine her existence without him. Maude did not fall in love easily but once it happened, she was a slave to her heart and the fear of losing what gave her life meaning in a way she had never dreamed, was utterly terrifying.

"Don't say that." Maude responded. "I don't want to even think of that."

"It could happen Maude," Peter pointed out, having no wish to lie to her. "You have to understand that it can and know what to do if it does."

Maude met his eyes and responded by moving towards him and capturing his mouth in a lingering kiss. For a few seconds, she felt his tongue probing past her teeth, his hands touching her body and feeling his heat against her skin, thinking that if he was taken away from her, she would die from the sheer anguish of missing all this.

"Don't ask me to do that Marshall," she whispered, using her nickname for him to make her feel that things were not at all serious but rather still in the realms of discussion, not some reality that might make itself felt soon enough. "Don't ask me to go on without you."

"I'm not," he said seriously. "But I want you to promise me that if anything happens to, you'll take Ez and disappear. I've made enough enemies being a lawman to know that they might not be satisfied with just killing me. I don't mind dying Maude but I do mind it if they hurt you or my son. If I'm gone, you have to protect him. I trust you better to do that, than any man alive."

"You know I will," she said quietly. "You know I'd never let anyone hurt my darling boy."

"Thank you Maude," he answered relieved. "If anything happens to me, you will be all he has."

"I promise you Peter," Maude nodded. "I'll walk through hell before I let anyone hurt him."

"Mommy." A small voice came from the edge of the bed and both mother and father looked up to see Ezra staring at them, clutching a blue blanket that had been with him since birth.

"Hey big man," Peter sat up first, grateful that the boy's arrival had put an end to their discussion. "What's the matter?"

He did not answer but explained himeslf by scrambling onto the mattress with the clap of thunder that followed that question. He burrowed under the sheets and soon found himself nuzzling comfortably between his parents. "Scared daddy."

"It's just thunder," Peter smiled giving Maude an apologetic look for making her so frightened earlier on, even if it was necessary. "Its just nature letting you know who is the boss, that's all."

"That's right my darling," Maude ran her hand over her son's velvet cheek, knowing that the sensation would chase away the demons in the night that only children ever seemed to see. "It can't hurt you."

Ezra did not look so certain until Peter leaned close to his ear and answered. "I tell you what, why don't you sleep with you ma and me tonight and we'll make sure nothing harms you."

Ezra beamed at that suggestion and nuzzled closer to his mother who took him into her warm embrace and held him there while his father had changed positions so that he could do the same to Maude, keeping them both safe.

+ + + + + + +

Although Ezra had protested, there was no argument he could use that prevented Maude Standish from being taken to the jailhouse after she had shot Benjamin Bosshard. Chris could not blame Ezra for that because he would have preferred to talk to Maude about what she had done in less imposing surroundings. Unfortunately, shooting Bosshard as she had, in front of the entire town, when the man had done nothing to her, demanded such decisive action or else the seven would be accused of showing favour with an attempted murderess because she was family. Thus Chris had no choice but to adhere to the demands that she be placed under arrest because of her actions towards Mr Bosshard, who so far appeared to be a law-abiding citizen. Maude however, did not seem at all conscious of what she had done and was led away from the hotel without any protest, unlike her rather agitated son who was in a state of shock.

The incredulity generated by Maude's act of violence seemed to diminish once she was inside the jailhouse. Chris did not think Ezra would stand for it if she were placed in a cell and was not about to find out for sure so for the moment, he instructed Maude to sit down in the main room of the building and explain herself. After her assault, the lady had become strangely quiet, which was very out of character because Maude always had something to say, eve if it was worth the hearing. With the exception of Buck, more or less all of the seven were present for the interview, mostly because as annoying as Maude could be, she was in some ways family.

"Maude," Josiah took the lead since he was closest to her other than Ezra who was still dazed from the entire incident. "Why did you shoot him?"

The others were seated in various places across the room, their attention singularly focussed on the woman before them. Vin had taken point at the door, keeping an eye out in case Bosshard's men decided to avenge his assault by Maude in kind. Chris remain behind the desk, watching the woman closely in that inscrutable way he did everyone he came across. JD seemed more confused than anything else. His opinion of Maude was not exactly high but he did not think her capable of murder until now. Nathan's attention was more focussed on Ezra, wondering how this was effecting the southerner. Ezra seemed deep in thought and following the incident, reacting enough to send Julia home and to ensure that no one else got close enough to his mother to do her any more harm than she had done to herself.

"He had it coming." She hissed. Her blue eyes ablaze with cold fire.

"Why?" Josiah asked again, aware that there was an old hurt buried under all that rage and wondered what could have made Maude angry enough to take such direct action. Her idea of torture was a slow offering, not this violence.

"You said he killed my father." Ezra blurted out and crossed the space between them. He leaned over and stared into her eyes. "What did you mean?"

The others simply stared in shock because Ezra had not told them that part yet. He wanted Maude to tell him face to face when they were behind close doors, not in front of the entire town.

"Ezra are you serious?" JD asked in shock.

"That's what she told me," Ezra nodded looking at him mother. "She said that Bosshard murdered my father."

"He did murder your father." Maude raised her eyes to punctuate her point. "I saw him do it. He shot your father in cold blood and if I hadn't taken you and run, he would have killed us both just out of spite." The venom in her voice as she spoke those words surprised those who bore witness to it.

"Why ma'am?" Nathan asked, wondering what Ezra's father could have done to earn such hatred from an enemy. "Why did he hate Ezra's pa that much?"

Maude expression changed at that moment as if she had been inadvertently led to some place she did not wish to go. The anger in her eyes gave way to confusion and uncertainty which no one in the room missed following its display. "Because Peter wasn't afraid of him or his friends. They could buy the others off but they could never buy him. In fact, all the bribery seemed to do was make Peter angrier, more determined to see them fail. He was stubborn that way! He never knew when to walk away! Even for his own good!"

Ezra was becoming more and more bewildered by what she was saying. "Mother, what exactly did they wish him to do?"

"They wanted him to look the other way, to ignore what was happening." Maude responded, offering some snippet of information but not enough. "He would not. He was too responsible for that."

"I do not understand," Ezra shook his head. "Look away? Why would a riverboat gambler be paid to look away?"

"Because he wasn't one, was he Maude?" Chris Larabee was staring at her, the truth having unfolded before him because he was impartial and observant of people and lies. He understood what Maude could not say, the truth behind Ezra's father which the gambler himself had never known or suspected for that matter. It made sense great many things, Ezra's childhood of being shunted from place to place, not because his mother was trying to forget he existed but rather to hide him from those who might harm him and why she abhorred so much Ezra's role in Four Corners. When one understood the truth, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place without difficulty.

"What?" Ezra turned to Chris, wondering what the gunslinger saw in his mother's words that he did not. "What are you talking about?"

"Your father," Chris said simply before regarding Maude once more. "He was a lawman wasn't he?"

Ezra's expression was one of stupefied shock. "What?" He gasped and glared at Maude in accusation. "Mother?"

Maude could not look at him, she did not have the courage. All these years she had kept the secret thinking she had done Ezra a service by not telling him the truth but at this moment, she realised that her motivations had been selfish. She had not wanted to tell him of his father because she feared he might end up the same way and Maude could not bear that at all. She had lost Peter that way and she could not imagine losing Ezra to the same fate as well. However, Ezra had still become what his father had been before him, even without knowing, as if destiny would not let him escape no matter how hard Maude tried to protect him. When she first learnt what he was doing in Four Corners, she almost collapsed from the shock and yet she knew of no way to tell him the truth without Ezra believing she had lied to him all these years.

"I'm sorry Ezra," she swallowed, her gazed fixed firmly on the floorboards before her. "I never wanted to lie to you but it was necessary. I had to protect us."

"TELL ME!" He demanded so sharply that the sound made them all jump by its intensity.

Maude was effected most by it and she raised her eyes to his with great reluctance. "Chris is right." She confessed, the words coming out of her slowly and painfully. "Your father was a lawman, a US Marshall as a matter of fact. We were married three years before that man out there murdered him."

Ezra did not know what to say. His mind felt numb with shock and as he stared at his mother, so many things throughout his life that had seemed odd even cruel some times, fell into place now that he knew the truth. The furtive glances sent his way by family members who begrudgingly took him in after Maude had placed him in their care, their detachment and their dislike all made sense to him. All his life he had thought it was because they felt him to be inferior but perhaps it had been because they were afraid of the danger his presence might bring to them. His childhood had been partly to blame for his being the person he was, always feeling the outcast and having to fight for every inch of belonging to whatever group he found himself. It had been no different becoming a part of the seven even though the outcome was very different from all those other attempts.

"You lied to me." Ezra stared at Maude in accusation. "You said he was a riverboat gambler. You said he died accidentally. Was his name even Standish?"

Maude dropped her gaze again.

"That was not even his name?" Ezra gasped in horror.

"No," Maude shook her head; tears glistened in her eyes as she spoke each word tainted with remorse. "His name was Peter Reeves. He was a good man who believed in justice and doing what was right. I loved him more than I have loved any man and the time that I was wife to him, was the best in my whole life. When he died, the better part of me died with him but he made me promised to keep you safe and I was going to do that even if it meant hiding from you the truth about being his son. It was the hardest decision I had to make but I could not let them harm you as they did him."

"That may have been true in the beginning," Ezra stared at her, not about to deny that if protecting him was what had motivated her lies in the early years of his life, then it was justified. However, that did not excuse her for continuing the ruse for so much longer than that. "But there was no reason to keep the truth from me over such an extended period of time. You may have been protecting me but there was a time when I became old enough to be able to make that choice for myself. You should have told me."

"Ezra," Maude tried to explain herself, her anguish choking the life out of her as she tried to make him see that she had done what she had for the best of intentions. "I'm sorry. I thought if I told you, you'd try and take revenge on those men and they would kill you! I was just trying to protect you!"

"PROTECT ME!" Ezra growled." How could you possibly think that this would benefit me? All my life I thought I could not be any better than I was because of where I came from. Now you tell me that my father was a Marshall who died for something good and worthy but was not quite important enough for me to know about? How could you think that to be a kindness and what do you think has changed now that you've tried to shoot Bosshard?"

"I wasn't thinking!" She exclaimed. "When I saw him after all these years, I just wanted him dead!"

"Ezra take it easy," Josiah spoke up in the lady's defense, capable of seeing that she was clearly distressed by all this.

"This is not your concern." Ezra said coldly.

"Ezra, can't you see she's torn up enough about this?" Josiah ignored the sharp retort.

"Josiah," Chris warned, able to see the storm brewing on the gambler's face despite the man's best effort to keep his rage in check. "Don't."

However, Josiah was just as obtuse as Ezra was on this point. "Ezra, Maude was not doing this to hurt you."

"Josiah," Ezra took a deep breath and glared at the preacher. I know you mean well but this is something I need to discuss with my mother alone."

"Ezra's right, let's give him a little space," Chris took the gambler's cue and spoke up to give mother and son the privacy they deserved.

The situation as it stood was difficult enough for both Maude and Ezra alike without having an audience to witness their troubles. Chris knew that Josiah wanted to help and still felt guilty about how he had reacted when Ezra had been raped. Josiah had rebuked himself for not being able to see that their friend was hurt and the result of his earlier lapse forced the preacher to be especially vigilant when it came to Ezra's welfare. Unfortunately, this was one moment when Ezra did not need assistance but rather distance. Obviously in light of Maude's startling revelations, which to tell the truth would have floored Chris himself had he been in Ezra's situation, Ezra was probably trying to come to grips with the reality of his beginnings. Where a man came from had a big impact upon his life. Chris himself knew that much of who he was had a great deal to do with the General. He wondered how it would effect Ezra now that the gambler had discovered his father was a marshal and a pretty good one by the sounds of it.

"Thank you Mr. Larabee," Ezra glanced gratefully in Chris' direction as the rest of his friend decided that for the moment they would best serve him if they were elsewhere.

JD regarded him sympathetically, more than aware of how damning secrets about one's lineage could be. He himself had come face to face with that realization in recent months and while Ezra's father was nothing like the monster that Neil Blackwood was, JD could not deny it was nonetheless a shock. Buck Wilmington made no reaction at all, simply because it was the proper thing to do. Ezra and Maude needed to deal with this, without having bystanders watching their actions in discussing what was clearly a very personal issue. Vin Tanner was also eager to leave however, his reasons had more to do with the fact that he believed they had no business being an audience when what Ezra needed so much was privacy. In that he and Ezra shared a common trait; they liked keeping counsel to themselves. Even though Ezra often verbalized his opinions to everyone in hearing distance, what the gambler felt deep down inside was something he allowed no one to see. With the exception of Chris, Vin was probably th e only one who could understand it.

Josiah was naturally reluctant to leave. The older man wished to remain, in only to mediate. The storm brewing on Ezra's face indicated that the gambler was angry and justifiably so, however, Maude obviously had good reasons for what she had done. She would not feel the remorse she did if such was not the case. However, there was something in her eyes when she had spoken of her dead husband, something that looked as if her heart broke each time she thought of the man, a deep burning love that had not died despite the time and separation of mortality. He wanted to protect her from Ezra's wrath because she was a woman who rarely showed vulnerabilities and at this moment, she was a wound open and raw. However, the choice was not his to stay and with the others moving out of the room, he realised he could not.

Nathan was the last to leave, even when the others were in the process of shuffling out of the room. The tall black healer stood his ground, his dark eyes meeting Ezra's in an affirmation of friendship. Inwardly, Nathan was cursing. Ezra did not need this burden right now. Hannibal Julius left many wounds inside him after the attack upon him, wounds that were still far from healing. Ezra needed to overcome those injuries to his psyche before encountering fresh pains. Nathan felt angry at Maude for doing this to his friend at this critical juncture. Sometimes, he wished his ability to heal was not limited to flesh alone.

"Ezra," Nathan met his gaze. "Are you gonna be okay?"

Ezra knew what he was asking. For the last two months, Nathan had been the one person he could speak to about anything. While Josiah had tried to help, Nathan was more inclined to listen which was what Ezra needed the most. He allowed Ezra to prattle on, not saying a word because he knew that talking about it was the best thing for Ezra rather than being inundated by well-intentioned advice. Ezra did not say much about the attack itself but rather spoke about his nightmares and his inability to think of marriage at this point, without going too much into detail because that was just Ezra and it was all right by Nathan.

Ezra returned Nathan's gaze, touched by the effort and nodded slowly. "Not entirely but one thing at a time."

"You know where I'll be if you need me." Nathan offered.

"I think I shall take you up on that offer, Mr. Jackson," Ezra retorted, glancing briefly at Maude to indicate that his feelings of betrayal still remained.

She did not look back.

+ + + + + + +

While Ezra Standish was dealing with his mother, Benjamin Bosshard and his companions were tending to the wound he had incurred at the lady's hand. Fortunately, the injury was superficial and the local healer's offer to assist was not required as Bosshard had not intention of letting a black man treat him. He had been in enough gunfights in his life to know how to treat minor wounds although he had to confess that this was the first time he had been gunned down by a woman in a hotel saloon. Within the confines of his hotel room, Bosshard tried not to flinch as one of his associates, Spencer examined the injury closely. The bullet had passed through his body and resulting in damage that was mostly limited to musculature.

"So do you have any idea who she was Ben?" Spencer asked as he dabbed the ruined flesh with a warm cloth, following the extraction of the bullet. Fortunately, the bullet from the derringer had not caused as much damage since Maude had not been close enough when she fired the gun and the weapon's range was so limited. Still, it was enough to make his employer extremely grateful that the lady had not been that good a shot.

"She thinks I killed her husband." Bosshard, ran a finger over his moustache as he pondered the question. "Unfortunately, that does not narrow it down. I've killed a lot of husbands in my time."

"What's to stop her from doing it again?" Mark inquired. "She seemed pretty mad at you Ben."

"I considered that." Bosshard nodded. "Tomorrow, I want you to find out everything you can about her."

"What about our plans here?" Spencer looked up at him.

"This changes nothing," Bosshard said sharply. "We're losing ground thanks to our new governor and if we don't do something fast, everything we know and the people we represent will not survive. I don't intend to see things change in the Territory. I'm prepared to do everything to make sure it stays the same. Four Corners is a gold mine waiting exploitation. Unfortunately, we have little time to act. With more and more settlers coming in and buying land, setting up homesteads, the place is ripe to make a lot of money."

"What about the law in this town?" Spencer inquired. "Larabee's keeping a close eye on us and that Potter woman doesn't look like she's going to give into us easily. I'm guessing that she's gonna be trouble."

Bosshard tended to agree with the man's assessment of Gloria Potter. The lady was still too proud to be subjected to coercion. These frontier types often were. Women in this part of the world tended to get tough very quickly. The nature of their existence made it essential. Unfortunately, all this tenacity accomplished was unnecessary complications in Bosshard's plans. However, he had encountered much tougher opponents in his time and he had always won the day. Gloria Potter would be no different.

"I think you're right about the woman," Bosshard nodded. "Let's give her a day to consider our offer. In the meantime, move onto the hardware store and the Emporium."

"The Emporium?" Spencer looked at him uncertainly. "Isn't that Pemberton woman the fiancťe of one of those lawmen?"

"Yes," Bosshard answered having thought out the situation. "However, I've been doing some digging about Miss Pemberton and I think I know just the thing to make her sell."

"Like what?" Marks inquired.

"Well it appears the woman has no history prior to arriving in Four Corners," Bosshard said with a smile, pleased that he had invested a little revenue towards investigating the Emporium owner prior to his arrival in Four Corners. When he had first turned an eye towards Four Corners, Bosshard had pinpointed the businesses he was interested in buying. At present, it seemed like the Emporium was the most lucrative of these purchases. However, the same methods that were employed upon the other owners could not be used in the case of Julia Pemberton. Her association with the seven men who acted as the town's peacekeepers meant that Bosshard had to be slightly more creative in dealing with the titian haired beauty. "She came to town with a great deal of money and set up the Emporium, falling into a relationship with the gambler that runs with Larabee."

"That crazy woman's son," Marks pointed out.

"That's the one." Bosshard nodded, recalling the dapper southerner who had swept his would be killer away after her assault. "Apparently some months ago, a Pinkerton detective came searching for a Julia Avery."

"That our girl?" Spencer looked up at him as he unrolled a strip of cloth that acted as a bandage for the cleaned wound.

"Julia Avery," Bosshard seemed to smile despite the sliver of pain he felt as Spencer began wrapping up his wound. "Daughter of Donald Avery, a real estate tycoon. Seems the man is rich and she's his only daughter. According to the detective that our people talked to, Clemens was his name, the lady took off with a good deal of her daddy's money and set up shop in town. When Clemens came looking for her, she made sure he didn't tell daddy where he could find her. The only reason we manage to get Clemens to talk was by breaking a couple of bones."

"Very nice," Marks grinned, having seen the lovely Ms Pemberton in the flesh during his stay in Four Corners. "If she don't sell us the Emporium, maybe we can sell her to the old man."

"Exactly," Bosshard smiled even wider. "Although it would be a pity if she were to be difficult. The lady is a very tasty morsel indeed."

Spencer and Marks knew that their employer's interest in Miss Pemberton was anything but passing in that regard and considering who the lady called her paramour, it was potentially dangerous for Bosshard to be entertaining the notion of anything more than a business arrangement. Bosshard had a tendency to get very obsessed about the women that caught his interest and there was more than one occasion when they were forced to discard the dead remains of those who were no longer the flavor of the month. For the sake of their plans in Four Corners, he hoped the same enchantment had not fallen over Bosshard in the case of Julia Pemberton.

"What about Larabee?" Marks spoke up, reminding Bosshard that they had other concerns in Four Corners, beyond Julia Pemberton. Chris Larabee's reputation was known before the gunslinger had become a member of the Magnificent Seven and the man's prowess with a colt was not to be underestimated as should any of the men who rode with him. For the four years since they had been in Four Corners, the seven had ensured the peace, which suggested that Larabee and his men were a force to be reckoned with.

Bringing up Chris' name caused a scowl to form over Bosshard's eyes and he stared at them with a dark expression on his face. "Larabee can't stop us from carrying out our business in town and when we get what we want, it will be too late. However, the key to keeping him in line is family. I've dealt with men like Larabee who think that they're above being threatened just because they're on the side of law and order. You tell Larabee that you'll hunt down his wife and children and he'll do something stupid just to stop you, I guarantee it."

Bosshard remembered the numerous times he had put that plan into practice and could attest to its success. "When he does," Bosshard gazed at both Spencer and Marks with a menacing smile, "we'll make sure we're there to see that he regrets it."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra paced the floor of the jailhouse.

He did that because he was so angry he could not speak and if he did so by saying whatever was on his mind at this time, he just knew that he was going to say something he would regret. He tried to think about everything he had known about his father, which was to say, not much and tried to draw upon his own memories of the man, the ones that were independent of Maude's description of him. The images were vague and distant. His memories were composed mostly of emotions coupled with trace images he was more capable of feeling then he was of actually visualizing in his head. He knew his father had loved him because there were memories of embraces, smiles and the comfort of strong arms holding him and telling him that he was loved. There was still a part of Ezra that longed to know more about that voice but years of experience and the natural detachment of age had made him brush it aside as just one more of those unnecessary trappings of childhood.

When he was old enough to ask, he had inquired of Maude who his father had been. She had been vague and gave him mere fragments that he was soon to learn would be the most he would ever gain from her regarding this particular subject. Later on, he conceded that it had to do with the fact that Maude still pined for her dead husband and the more Ezra became aware of her as a person, realised that his father would always be the only man, to ever be the love of Maude Standish's life. With that in mind, Ezra let the subject alone, being content to wrap himself in the comfort that he was not a mistake his mother had to live with but rather, the product of two people who had been very much in love. He did not question it because there was a time when be believed exactly that, that he was a mistake begotten of his mother who was shunted to so many relatives because that was all she could think to do with him. Even now whenever she angered him, he often reverted to that inclination.

However, he could no longer do that any more because what he knew about his past amounted to a lie and he was certain of nothing about himself, not even where he came from.

"Ezra," Maude finally spoke, unable to bear no more the silence that had followed the departure of the others from the room. She wished Ezra would say something but so far, her son had not deigned to make his feelings known. "Please say something."

Ezra paused in his steps and looked up at her. "What do you wish me to say exactly mother?" He stared at her with cold eyes, burning with anger and betrayal.

"Anything," she said trying not to weep or to show her fear at what he would say now that he knew the truth. She had known for so long that this day would come even though she dreaded it. "I need to know what is on your mind."

"What is on my mind?" He turned on her as if something inside had burst free with that statement. "What do you think mother? You have told me next to nothing about my father and what I knew I became accustomed to because I thought you were in pain over his loss and could not speak of him. I spared you my questions because I could see that it hurt you to talk about him but I never imagined for a moment that you could be lying to me! You have used me in your cons. You raised me from childhood to become this version of your own desires and you have even sought to give me some rather painful lessons in humiliation when you thought that I was not living up to your expectations of what I should be! However until now, I never thought you capable of lying to me about something as important as this!"

"I did it to protect you!" She stood up and came to him.

Ezra stepped back and glared at her, stopping her advance by the anger in his eyes. "Tell me," he said barely able to control himself from screaming. "How lying to me about my father, was protecting me."

"Bosshard would have killed us both if he knew where to find us!" Maude started to explain never feeling more in need of eloquence and yet lacking it then at this point. "He was a vindictive man who was reputed to hunt down the families of his enemies just out of spite, even though there was no longer any reason for it. He hated your father because your father could not be bought and when Bosshard came after him, he promised that he would not stop until we were dead with him."

"That is not good enough," Ezra replied. "That explains why my father died but not why you maintained the deception. If you have told me that I would have been just as cautious as you."

"NO!" Maude snapped. "You would not have been cautious! You would have insisted on taking your revenge upon him and getting yourself killed! I would have lost you both!"

"You had no right to deny me that choice!" He growled angrily, forcing her back into the chair in which she had arisen earlier. Maude dropped into it heavily as Ezra leaned down towards her, making her look into his eyes and know his anger. "You took from me my father, someone I barely remember but know I loved because I remember how it felt to be his son! Bosshard killed him in the flesh but what you did was no better, you killed him in the memories of those he sacrificed his life to save!"

"Don't you dare say that!" She slapped him hard across the face and saw his eyes harden against he pain as if he was beyond it somehow. The action ended up hurting her more than it did him.

"Peter was the only man that I ever loved!" Maude cried out, "the three years that I was married to him were the happiest of my life! All that we dreamed and wanted for the future died with him and I had to make hard choices for us to survive! Bosshard and his friends were powerful men! Your father warned me before it happened that if he were to die that I was to do everything in my power to keep you safe! I had no family, no friends who dared help us and they were coming after us. I didn't even know who Bosshard was but I knew he was coming, so I did the best that I could. I took you and I ran. I changed my name to Standish which was my family name and disappeared!"

"You should have told me," Ezra muttered, his own eyes filling up with moisture. "I needed to know that I was his son."

"Why?" Maude asked. "Is it not enough that you loved him?"

"No it wasn't!" Ezra roared, angry because he had to explain it to her. "All my life I have been this," he looked down upon himself as if he were something distasteful. "I have stayed this because I believed I could not be anything else since both my parents were the same. I thought that it was in my blood to live this life. If I had known that there was a possibility of there being more, I would not be where I am today. You took that away from me and I cannot forgive you for that."

"Ezra," Maude started to sob hearing that. "Please don't say that."

Ezra was not listening. He started to walk towards the door. "I do not know what is to be done with you at this point," he muttered softly, not certain if she was listening and certainly not caring. "You have attempted to murder a man in cold blood and that must be answered for."

"What about Bosshard!" Maude cried out. "He killed your father!"

"Yes," Ezra nodded. "He did and he should pay, once I figure out how that is to be done exactly."

"I will kill him before I let him leave Four Corners," Maude said viciously.

Ezra turned to her again; feeling a little shaken about everything that he had learnt today but also by the vehemence in her voice. He had no doubt that she would carry out that threat. As angry as he was with her, Ezra was not about to let her do anything foolish. "You will stay away from him."

"I will not!" She declared almost astonished he could suggest it.

"Yes you will," he said with enough command in his voice to ensure that he was obeyed. "You are accusing him of a thirty year old crime to which I doubt that there are any witnesses. You kill him and you will be spending the next thirty years behind bars if you make it that far and are not sentenced to hang. If you care about nothing else, you can at least spare me that horror. He will not escape but I need to think this out."

"We have to do something," Maude retorted defiantly, unprepared to let matters rest at just that. For so many years, the image of her husband's killer had remained in her mind and she had used it to keep her mind sharp for her own sake as well as her son. Never once in those years had she acted out of any need for vengeance, merely survival until the dreams of justice became as forgotten as the person she had been during her years as Mrs. Peter Reeves. Now Ezra was grown and more than capable of defending himself. He was beyond Bosshard's reach and Maude could finally turn her thoughts to satisfying her feelings of anger and despair at having the only man she had ever loved taken away from her so prematurely. "All these years, we lived with what he did to us but I'm not going to let him get away with it any more."

"You will do nothing," Ezra ordered harshly. "Not a thing, do you understand me?"

"I will not allow him to get away with it." She said defiantly.

"I am not asking you to allow that," Ezra returned. He needed time to come to grips with what he had learnt today as well as formulate some kind of plan on how they would handle this situation. Allowing Maude to simply kill Bosshard was out of the question. Bosshard had powerful friends and that was no less true now then it was all those years ago when he and his mother had been forced into hiding. Any act of vengeance about Bosshard would bring down the wrath of those powerful associates and he had no wish to see Maude endangered in that fashion. However, the man had murdered his father and that had to be answered for. "But Bosshard still has his connections and if you were to strike at him, it will not end this. At the present, the best protection we have is that Bosshard does not know who you are. The man has had a bloody career and no doubt he has made many a woman a widow. While his unaware of you, we have time to decide what we are to do about him."

"Am I to remain here?" Maude asked after a moment, realising rather begrudgingly that her son was correct. She did not cared little for the consequences to herself but her son was another matter entirely. "I did attempt to shoot him."

"I will discuss the matter with Mr. Larabee," Ezra sighed, wondering how they could avoid keeping his mother in jail. Although he did not voice it, Ezra knew it would not take long for Bosshard to discern Maude's identity and when that discovery was made, he rather not have his mother be confined to the jailhouse when the man came hunting for her. "I don't believe anyone, other than Bosshard that is, will object to it if you remained in town while we send for the judge to deal with the matter."

"The Judge?" Maude stared at him, not at all liking the idea that Orin Travis was going to be brought into this. A lifetime dedicated to the shell game still made Maude a little apprehensive when dealing with any office of law enforcement, no matter how trusted the man behind the title was.

"He has to be brought into this mother," he met her gaze and softened a little seeing her worry. "We cannot show the good folk of this community that we are beyond the law. They have enough difficulty seeing us as more than seven drifters that took up residence in town. If we were seen to be protecting our own, it could undermine whatever respectability we have managed to procure."

"I understand," Maude replied and surprised herself because she truly did. With so many of the men now settling in the small community, Ezra included, she could understand why he would like to protect his position. "Shall I stay at the hotel?"

"I think not," Ezra retorted immediately. He did not relish the idea of his mother sharing the same roof with the man whom she had attempted to shoot a few hours ago. "Perhaps you should reside with Julia for the duration."

"I do not wish to impose." Maude responded, aware that her son and the Emporium owner were on intimate terms. Though for the sake of appearances, they were always the picture of propriety, Maude could tell by their body language towards each other that Julia and Ezra shared a physical relationship. She did not disapprove because she knew the two were madly in love with each other and marriage was just a matter of time.

"You will not be." He replied.

"I noticed that," she remarked offhandedly. "Care to tell me why?"

Ezra shrugged, realising that she was asking for more than he was willing to divulge. With a sigh of disappointment, Ezra guessed that she had noticed his behavior and her question was an inquiry regarding that. His feelings had not changed; he was not ready to tell her the truth, if ever. What happened to him was an ordeal Maude did not need to know, especially in light of what she had told him about his father, a Marshall who would never found himself in the situation that had allowed him to become Hannibal Julius' victim.

"There is nothing to tell." Ezra answered after a lengthy pause. "Come along," he changed the subject abruptly, hoping to propel her past the moment. "We should make our start to Julia's."

"Something has happened to you," Maude declared, refusing to let him get away from her that easily, even as he made his way to the door. "Hasn't it?"

Ezra let out a heavy sigh and met her eyes once more as he paused at the doorway. "Yes," he nodded, allowing her that much but no more. "Something has."

"Why can't you tell me?" She implored.

"Because I cannot even face it myself." He replied softly before he walked out of the room.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan had every intention of being on hand for Ezra following his discussions with his mother regarding her startling revelations and suspected that the Standish Tavern would be the gambler's first destination after talking to her. Nathan waited at the bar nursing his drink as he tried to imagine what was going through Ezra's mind following Maude's admission. Secrets were dangerous no matter what their content and their power was great. They saturated into one's being and left an indelible mark behind. Nathan knew precisely how they could effect a person. For so many years, Nathan had thought his father was a coward for never standing up for his mother against the white masters at the plantation where he had grown up. Only recently, had he learnt the unpleasant truth; it was not his mother that his father was attempting to protect by submitting to their master's desire but rather him. The overseer at their plantation had demanded sexual favors from his mother or else the man would have sol d Nathan, only seven at the time to another plantation. His father had been powerless, having faced the unimaginable choice of sparing his wife's honor or seeing their child taken away from them.

Learning the truth had allowed Nathan to see his father for the tragic figure he was and it had given new depth to their relationship for what remained of his father's life. Before Jebediah had passed on from consumption, he and Nathan forged a deeper understanding of one another and Nathan wished inwardly that he had known the truth because it would have changed so many things between them far sooner. His opinion about his father was nothing in comparison to what Ezra must be enduring presently in learning the truth about his father. Nathan had seen it Ezra's eyes when Chris had forced Maude into revealing that his father had been a marshal. The expression on Ezra's face had been one he could not even begin to describe and Nathan had seen him at his absolute worst of late. Nathan kept tell himself as Chris ushered them out of the jailhouse that Ezra did not need this now. He was barely holding his own after what had happened to him with Julius and this could destroy any progress he had mad e during his recovery of the last two months.

"Hey I thought I'd find you here." Vin Tanner remarked as he suddenly appeared next to Nathan at the counter. The tracker was the only person that Nathan knew who could sneak up on anyone, even in a broad daylight or across a crowded room with no one noticing him in the slightest.

"Hey Vin," Nathan greeted as the younger man slid into the stool next to him.

"You seen him yet?" Vin inquired, glancing around the room in an obligatory gesture even though he knew that Ezra was not present.

"No," Nathan shook his head somberly as Vin ordered himself a drink. "It shouldn't be too long though. Once he gets done talking to Maude, this is the first place he's gonna come."

"Can't say I blame him," Vin sighed. Like the rest of the seven, Vin was just as shocked by the news about Ezra's father. "A man goes through his whole life believing one thing about himself and then finding out that he's been lied to by the one person whom he should be able to trust above everyone else. I don't envy him."

"Well he and Maude have a peculiar kind of relationship," Nathan pointed out. "They're always playing games with each other. I guess being what they are, they can't help it."

"But that's not all Ezra is," Vin pointed out. "We know he ain't as bad as his mother. A dollar a day ain't worth his time or trouble. We both know he could make a lot more money in places like Eagle Bend or Sweet Water. He stayed here because of us, because he wanted to be a part of something."

"We all want that." Nathan pointed out but he knew Vin was right.

"Not like Ezra." Vin said firmly.

"No," Nathan shook his head in agreement about that point. "Not like Ezra."

For a moment, neither of them said anything, as they were lost in their own thoughts about how they would face the situation if it were they in Ezra's place. They could not come to a satisfactory answer. Finally it was Vin who broke the silence by moving to a different subject all together and the real reason why he had sought out Nathan this evening.

"Nathan, how soon are you and Rain away from getting married?"

Nathan turned to Vin, rather surprised by the personal nature of the request. Vin was not one to make such inquiries because he was so fiercely private himself which made Nathan wonder what was on his mind by this question. "I don't know," Nathan shrugged. "I would like to wait until I became a real doctor but lately, I've been thinking that it ain't fair to Rain to make her wait. Why?"

"Well its Alex's idea really," Vin shrugged, wishing that Alex had made this offer to Nathan herself but she had the idea that it would be better received coming from Vin. "Once the house is finished, we'll be moving to the ranch. For the last two months of her time, I think she wants to stay close to home so we'll set up the clinic there. I've build her a place for it but that means her house in town isn't gonna get much use. Alex though that perhaps you'd like to move in there."

Nathan's eyes widened. "Are you kidding me?"

"No," Vin shook his head, uncertain for a moment whether or not Nathan was pleased by the idea or incensed. "I mean you've been paying rent for ages and if you moved into the house, you wouldn't have to since you're taking care of it and you need a place of your own. I mean you could do up the infirmary just the way you want it."

"That's a mighty generous offer," Nathan remarked, a little astonished by the prospect of having new premises, not to mention a home right above it. "I don't know what to say."

"Say yes," Vin prompted. "You know Alex sees you as family and so do I. If we ain't gonna live there no more, I can't see anyone else more fitting to take our place than you."

"Let me talk to Rain," Nathan said after a moment, still a little stunned by the offer. "I'll let you and Alex know but in the meantime, thank you Vin."

"Don't thank me," Vin retorted. "It was Alex's idea though I think it's a good one."

"It is," Nathan agreed. "Just caught me by surprise that's all."

"Well let us know when you're ready," Vin replied finishing his drink and standing up. "I've got to get going. Somehow, I'm gonna have to find some pie for my wife or she's gonna start eating the furniture."

Nathan chuckled, perfectly aware how voracious an appetite expecting mothers could be and sympathized with Vin's situation. "Try Mary." He suggested with a smile.

"I would," Vin nodded as he started to pull away from the healer. "If I could stand having to put up with the stupid grin Chris is gonna give me when I ask."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan did not have long to wait until Ezra appeared. Vin had not been gone for more than half an hour and Nathan was through his second drink when he saw the reflection of the gambler entering the Standish Tavern through the glass wall behind the bar counter. Nathan did not react immediately to seeing Ezra slip through the batwing doors. He watched the man's reaction, trying to gauge his state of mind as Ezra's eyes swept across the floor of the tavern searching for a friendly face. It did not take long for Ezra to spot Nathan and Nathan did not turn around to give Ezra any indication of having been seen until after the gambler started towards him. Ezra's shoulder were slightly hunched as if there were some great weight upon his shoulders and had anyone been privy to the discussion in the jailhouse, they would have understood what it was.

Ezra slipped into the stool that Vin had occupied a short time ago, not meeting Nathan's gaze as he ordered himself a drink. When it came, Nathan noticed that it was not just a shot glass of whiskey but rather a whole bottle. It alarmed the healer inwardly because the gambler had not been drinking like this since the aftermath of his assault. Nathan wondered how much different this was to that ordeal because in a manner of speaking, Ezra was just as tormented by what he had learnt from Maude. Everything he believed about himself was now askew by the discovery that he was the son of a marshal not a gambler. Nathan had seen how the realization had effected him and had remained here in order to be of some help to his friend, or at the very least, allow Ezra to know that there was help if he needed it.

Ezra did not speak until he poured himself a drink. "What are you doing here?"

"I needed a drink," Nathan lied.

"After so many years in my company, is there nothing you learnt from me?" Ezra turned to him slowly.

"Meaning?" Nathan returned his gaze.

"Meaning," Ezra retorted with a hint of exasperation. "I thought I taught you to lie better than that."

"Well," Nathan replied, returning Ezra's little smile with one of his own. "It's hard to shine when in the presence of the master."

"Flattery will get you nowhere," Ezra frowned and faced front again. "I take it you are here as your self-appointed role as the custodian of my emotional well being?"

"Yeah," Nathan nodded seeing no reason to lie. "How are you doing?"

"Not well," Ezra frowned. "I left mother with Julia for the time being but that's no solution. She attempted to shoot a man in cold blood before the entire town. I fear that her residence with Julia's will be temporary. We may have to return her to the jailhouse tomorrow."

Ezra was right about his assertions. Chris Larabee had wired the judge upon leaving the jailhouse, anticipating that they would have to have some form of judiciary consequences for Maude's attack on Bosshard. Unfortunately, whether or not Bosshard could be implicated in the murder of Ezra's father was another thing entirely. However, they proceeded, there was no denying that things were about to become very unpleasant for Ezra and the seven.

"We'll figure something out," Nathan said reassuringly, hoping that would help lift Ezra's spirits even though he was not very optimistic about his chances.

"I do not know who I am anymore Nathan," Ezra found himself confiding. "Everything I am, everything I thought I was is suddenly changing. I wish things would remain stationary for a time."

"I know," the healer said sympathetically. "Sometimes change is good. Things stay the same too long and you lose your edge."

"My edge is as sharp as I can tolerate it at this time with all the changes I have been enduring lately," Ezra said automatically. I never thought I would say this but I almost longing for the days before I came to Four Corners, when not caring suited me well." He admitted somewhat ashamed.

"After what you've been through, that's understandable." Nathan pointed out.

"You are a good friend Mr. Jackson," Ezra met his gaze. "I shall need good friends and equally good counsel in the days to come."

"You know you can count on all of us." Nathan declared firmly.

"I know that but my actions of late has left me unsure of my judgement. I murdered a man out of vengeance Nathan." He said continuing to stare into Nathan's eyes to see if the man would flinch. The healer did not.

"He had it coming." Nathan stated firmly and for once did not feel any remorse in advocating the violence that had been visited upon Hannibal Julius for his unspeakable actions towards Ezra.

"Yes he did," Ezra agreed readily enough. "However, I am not proud of what I did Nathan. I pride myself of being in control and what I did to him was an act of butchery that I will not soon forget. However, now I learn that my father was murdered and taken from me in a similar act of hatred, am I to take vengeance upon Mr. Bosshard as I did on Julius? How can I tell my mother that she cannot harm the man, that she ought to let justice take care of him in due course when I could not wait when wreaking my vengeance upon Julius?"

Nathan did not know how to answer and he had a feeling that if they did not produce one, Maude would attempt to find it herself and destroy Ezra in the process.

Part Three

Unfolding Truths

After what had taken place the previous night, Julia was hoping that the next day would be a little less dramatic than the one before it. When she had left her home, Maude was still breakfasting, confessing no desire to leave the premises. The lady appeared as she always did, on top of things even though the situation with Bosshard was not discussed in any detail. Their conversation at the dining table was polite and awkward and there was no denying they were dancing around the issue of Maudeís attempted murder of Benjamin Bosshard. Ezra had told her briefly what had caused Made to behave so violently and she swore inwardly at the startling revelation that had become known to him because of it. Although Julia wanted badly to question Maude about the exposed truth, she kept herself from doing so until she was able to speak to Ezra first.

Instead of heading directly towards the Pemberton Emporium, Julia made her way instead to the Standish Tavern where she was certain Ezra would be at this time of the morning. He usually stopped there to have what he considered to be breakfast, in his case a cup of coffee embellished with something a little stronger than sugar. After his experience with Julius, it was more the other than coffee these days. While it made Julia uncomfortable to see him drink so much, she knew that it was one of the side effects of his terrible ordeal and one which she would have to tolerate until the pains he had suffered were not as acute as they still were. In the past two months, Ezra had made some way to recovery but he was far from being the man she had fallen in love with. Julia understood that it would take a long time for him to heal. After what he had endured, it could be no other way and she tried to help but being as undemanding as possible.

It was difficult to do this and have no one to confide to about it, not even her friends. Ezra already hated the fact that Chris, Josiah and Nathan was privy to his shame, expanding that circle would mortify him with horror and she would not put him through that for anything. However, Julia could not deny that it was difficult to be so strong when she could talk to any of those men because men simply could not understand how she felt being in the position she did. For them, it was a matter of being there for a friend who had been degraded and humiliated. For Julia it was far worse. It was having to prove that the assault would not change her love for him, even when he was unable to show any intimacy. For Ezra, a lack of desire on his part would mean that somehow, he had asked for what had happened to him, that somewhere deep inside the one experience with Julius could be compared to the other with her.

She knew that there were things about the ordeal he did not tell her, things so terrible that it simply could not escape him other than in flashes of blind panic in his sea colored eyes. The presence of a horror so profound would emerge and then disappear so quickly that anyone else might have questions its existence. However, Julia knew that it was real and understanding that, she also understood that she had to remain strong for him no matter what because one day, when that pain finally took its toll upon his psyche, he would crumble. When he did, she would have to be there to pick up the pieces if she ever wanted the man she loved back again.

However, fate it seemed was prepared to make that healing process as slow and torturous as possible with the skeleton that had fallen out of the Standish closet to land right at Ezraís feet. Part of the reason Julia had limited her conversation with Maude had been because she was somewhat angry with the woman for putting Ezra through this. It was not right that he should have been given such devastating news about his past when he had so much to cope with already. Almost every aspect of his life had been affected by Juliusí attack and the one thing he could rely on despite all the damage inflicted was who he was. Now even that was taken away from him. Even though he had displayed an outwardly calm faÁade the night before when he had brought Maude to her house, Julia could see that he was shaken to the core by what he knew and with Maude present, there was no way for them to talk about it.

Julia entered the Standish Tavern and found Ezra at his usual table, staring into empty space while a cup of coffee stood motionless in his hand. The tavern was not very busy with Inez moving around the place, serving customers. She glanced at Julia with a smile but did not approach as she guessed Julia had come to see Ezra and would most likely prefer some privacy. Instead, she contented herself with a little smile of acknowledgement before going about her business once more. Julia thanked Inez silently and went to join Ezra at his table, wondering what must be running through her fiancťe's mind at this time. He had endured so much lately that she wished he had been spared this calamity. Unfortunately, it appeared it was not meant to be and so she resolved herself to weather this storm with him as she had done so on many occasions prior to this.

"Ezra," Julia said with a warm smile showing that her spirits were nowhere as deflated as her thoughts when she reached his table.

Ezra blinked as if just noting her presence, the far away distant look in his eyes fading away to be replaced by the abrupt return to reality. "Julia," he said offering her a somewhat disjointed smile of response. "What are you doing here?"

"I came to see you," she replied, sitting down next to him. "We did not have much time to talk last night."

"There is not that much to talk about," he sighed sipping his coffee. "Mother has pulled another sleight of hand and turned a riverboat gambler into a marshal."

"Ezra Iím sure thereís more to it than that." Julia stared at him, wishing he would tell her what was on his mind. He was closing himself off again and she knew how dangerous that could be when there were so many open wounds inside him of late.

"Perhaps a little more," he confessed, aware that she was worried about him and was trying to help. "Everything I ever knew about her seems to have change Julia. I spent my life thinking that she had shunted me aside because she had not wished to be saddled with a child. I thought that I was an inconvenience she had to suffer. I never gave her the benefit of the doubt believing it could be any more than that. She has carried the truth inside of her and never exposed it because she feared for my life, she thought she would lose me just as she lost my father. I once told her that she cared for me as much as a cat cares for a litter, I was so wrong." He dropped his gaze to the tabletop, the emotions overwhelming him for a brief instant. He could not bear to face Julia until he composed himself.

"Walk with me," she asked standing up, her hand extended towards him.

Ezra took the gloved hand stretched towards him and allowed Julia to link her arm through his as they left the Standish Tavern together. Outside the tavern, it was a perfect spring day with the sun peering a wide eye over the town and such favorable weather usually brought people out into the open. Despite the comings and goings in the street, they were just another couple, a familiar sight to those who resided in Four Corners. Ezra applauded Julia's practicality since there was no better way to ensure their privacy by carrying on their conversation in a crowd where people were too concerned about their own business to pay much attention to them. Ezra was glad for the time alone from everyone, where he could show a little vulnerability to the one person who accepted him for what he was and loved him for all the things he was not but aspired to be.

"So you were wrong," Julia answered now that they were alone and not as noticed as they were. "You're the not the first human being to suffer that indignity and you surely won't be the last. Heavens know we all make mistakes and you were more than justified in feeling as you did. Maude should have told you."

"She has given me compelling reasons why she could not," he responded, trying to be sensible about this.

"That does not make it right," Julia returned meeting his gaze. "Ezra, a great deal of what you are was shaped by how you feel about yourself and even though I love you and I think you are an exceptional man, you don't believe that."

Ezra turned away. "Because it is the truth."

"No it's not," she sighed, wishing he did not depreciate himself the way he did. "You are what upbringing made you as I am what my father made me. We have our demons the both of us that have blighted our pasts but we've managed to rise above that. I am what I am now because I wanted more and you are here for the very same reason. The difference between us is I know I deserve my second chance while you seem to think you're not worthy of it."

"I am not a good person," he declared. "I try to be but I am not like the others. I do not have Chris' strength or Vin's honor. I do not have Nathan's nobility or Josiah's empathy. I doubt I ever had JD's innocence and I certainly do not have Buck's boundless compassion. I am an oddity among them even now."

"Oh that's nonsense!" She said impatiently. "You may be a little jaded but I have never found you lacking in any of those qualities and neither do the rest of your friends. Before we came here, we were both drifters who never had a place we belonged and so we behaved like outcasts. We thought we could never be accepted for who we were until we met the friends who were willing to give us a chance who perhaps in some part understood that being befriended was something new to us. You have only to look at how Chris, Josiah and Nathan have protected your secret and rallied around you since Julius to know that."

"You know me so well its disconcerting at times," he remarked softly.

"That's because I love you and I've been where you are, though not to the same degree I suspect." Julia placed her head on his shoulder as they continued to walk down the boardwalk towards the Pemberton Emporium. "Your mother was wrong to hide what she did but she did it out of love. Yes, she lied to you and that was wrong but she did because she cared deeply, something that you never though she did before. Take comfort in that and also in the fact that you are also your father who was a good man who died to protect you. I've always seen that nobility in you Ezra, now you know where it came from."

"I followed in his footsteps and did not even know it," he managed a little smile.

"No wonder Maude had kittens when she found out what you were doing here," Julia responded. She tried imagining what it must have been like for the lady, all her efforts to keep Ezra bound to her that he had done exactly what she had feared he would do, follow in his father's footsteps after all.

"Yes," Ezra nodded in agreement, understanding so many things now. "Unfortunately, that leaves me with a rather unpleasant legacy. Bosshard killed my father and I cannot allow that death to go unpunished. Maude wants to kill him and she says it with such anger I know that if a way is not found to bring the man to justice she will kill himself even if it meant hanging for it."

"Is there nothing you can do to using a legal avenue?" Julia asked frowning, appreciating how Maude must have felt. If someone had killed Ezra in cold blood she would be more than prepared to kill that person with her bare hands.

"I doubt it," Ezra shook his head. "I cannot keep my mother's anger on hold forever and obviously killing him is not an option though he should deserve nothing less. I feel the same rage but I know that revenge by taking a life is no answer and once done, takes something out of a person that is not quite replaceable. Murdering in cold blood, no matter how justified takes its toll."

Julia did not ask him to elaborate because she knew he was referring to himself even if he did not say it. While she did not know the exact specifics, Julia did know that Ezra had killed Hannibal Julius. When Chris and Ezra had returned from Julius' hideout following the Indian uprising across the Territory, Chris had merely reported that Julius had been killed when they had attempted to capture him and bring him to justice. However, those who knew what Julius had done to Ezra knew that there was more to it than just that. One only had to look in Ezra's eyes to know that however Julius had met his end, it was Ezra who had introduced him to it. Julia did not blame her lover for his actions because if given the chance, she would have gratefully put a bullet between the bastard's eyes herself. Ezra had never spoken to any one of those who knew the truth about the killing and none of them asked. They did not want to know because they could not say they would have acted any differently than h e in his place.

"Then what is to be done?" Julia asked, hating to see Bosshard get away with the murder of Ezra's father.

"I do not know," Ezra said genuinely at a loss. "I know I have to do something. I owe it to my father to avenge him but I want justice."

"Well if what Chris says is true, he has been involved in a great deal of death. Maybe that's why he's here and it's just a matter of waiting him out."

"Mr. Bosshard is a crafty player Julia," Ezra said dubious that his father's killer would make a mistake that would allow Ezra the means to obtain justice for that murder. "I am certain that however he chooses to operate in Four Corners, he will do so taking the greatest of precautions. He knows Mr. Larabee is watching him closely. However he moves, it will be covertly."

"No one is infallible," Julia retorted with just as much skepticism that Bosshard could attempt any wrong doing in Four Corners and not be held accountable. The seven had their own way of dealing with their enemies, even if it was not always the most obvious methods. "He will make a mistake and then you'll get him."

"I hope so," Ezra sighed. "Or else I may end up being present at my own mother's hanging."

+ + + + + + +

Julia and Ezra went their separate ways just before she arrived at the Pemberton Emporium. Ezra was heading towards her home to see Maude and she supposed under the circumstances, they had a great deal to discuss which did not require her presence. Ezra had a key to her house anyway so he was more than capable of letting himself into home to wait for Maude in the event that she had left the house. Julia doubted it however. Maude should have been in jail for what she had attempted to do to Bosshard, even one as flamboyant and outrageous as Maude could sometimes be was not foolish to flaunt her freedom before the entire township who might yet demand that she be returned to the jailhouse. Besides, Julia had a business to run and if she left it to its own devices every time the seven was in crisis, she would run the place into the ground by now.

Julia entered the premises of her Emporium, now the largest mercantile store in the whole of Four Corners. Providing essentials from clothes to house wares and servicing the surrounding homesteads in the regions for those who found it too difficult to go to Sweet Water and Eagle Bend for such essentials. Julia had been careful not to overlap the services provided by Gloria Potterís Goods Store and the hardware stores that sold farming supplies as well. With the boom times that Four Corners was presently experiencing, there was prosperity for all of them and Julia felt it contributed to the sense of community if she did not take such a competitive edge to the business. Besides, she counted herself as a member of the commercial section of Four Corners and it would not do to alienate her comrades by stealing their patronage.

Julia swept through the main part of the floor, earning greetings from her staff; young women of Four Corners who would have otherwise left town in search of work elsewhere. Julia had a fondness for hiring women who had nowhere else to turn to perhaps feeling a sense of kinship with them in their displacement. It was good to know that whatever else may go wrong in her life, this place would continue to function and in functioning, always give her something in which to remind that life went on no matter what hardship that may come her way. Julia did not deny that she loved the place dearly because it was the first accomplishment of her life that she was truly proud of. Here, she had shown that she could be more than just the sum of her beauty, that she was capable of being intelligent and surviving on her own without a man to take care of her.

Reaching her office, Julia twisted the doorknob and entered her private sanctum to find that she was not alone. Seated before her desk was Benjamin Bosshard, waiting for her. The only evidence of his injury was the sling his arm was presently resting in and beyond that, he seemed almost relaxed in his manner. The two men with him, Marks and Spenser were standing. Marks remained next to Bosshard while Spenser took point at the door. When Julia had entered the room, Spenser had closed the door behind her and for a brief instance, Julia wondered if this was not some retaliation for what Maude had done the night before? Certainly, she had been in dangerous situations enough times in the past four years to recognize that this one had fallen into the same category.

"Miss Pemberton," Bosshard beckoned her in, as if this was his office and she were the visitor. "Please come in."

Julia tensed but did not wish to give them the satisfaction of allowing them to see her worry. Instead, she raised her head proudly and continued towards her desk as if she had nothing to fear from these men who were exuding sinister intent with every passing second. She placed herself behind her desk before she trusted herself to speak and the glimmer in the trioís eyes merely confirmed the menace of her situation. "Mr. Bosshard, I see that you are recovering following last nightsí incident?"

"I am well even after your soon to be mother in law attempted to murder me, yes." Bosshard responded, scrutinize the woman before him carefully and finding himself confessing secretly to himself that she was indeed a ravishing beauty, one he would have enjoy having within his power.

"Did she have cause?" Julia countered.

"She is mistaken me for someone else I am certain," Bosshard responded with a smile. "A woman grieving husband may do strange things, I am willing to leave it at that for now if she does not attempt to repeat the performance."

"How kind of you," she answered sweetly. "Now what can I do for you?"

"To the point Miss Pemberton, I like that," Bosshard leaned forward, his lips pulling back into a smile that Julia recognized all to well as desire. She had seen it enough time in men who wanted something of her, who were willing to say anything just so she would bestow them with their favors. It made her skin crawl seeing it again after all these years.

"Your business is rather impressive." Bosshard continued as Julia eased back into her chair, preparing to absorb every word of his discussion. She did not like where this was going at all but resolve herself to hear him out before making any comment.

"Thank you," Julia said politely. "It has been a work in progress."

"I would agree," Bosshard resumed speaking. "In fact, given the right amount of working capital and direction, the store is capable of expanding beyond what it is now into something that could become a mercantile centre for the entire region, perhaps even eclipsing that of larger towns like Sweet Water and Bitter Creek.

"It probably does," Julia returned smoothly. "However, I am as expanded as much as I want for the moment. I have a healthy clientele and enough of a profit margin to keep the business and myself quite comfortable."

"Well let us get down to business," his voice became harder, losing a little of its initial charm. "I would like to buy the Pemberton Emporium. It is just the kind of investment opportunity I am looking for in Four Corners and I am prepared to pay very handsomely for it, enough to ensure that money is not a problem for you again."

Julia merely stared at him. "Money has never been a problem for me Mr. Bosshard and while I thank you for the offer, I am not interested in selling."

Bosshard exchanged a glance with Marks next to him before turning to Julia once more and his eyes became hard and Julia felt a knot in her stomach that anticipated that the civilized tone of this discussion was about to change. "You should take our offer. A lovely woman like you should be travelling the world, seeing the sights instead of languishing here in the desert. The lustre will fade from your petals."

"I have no desire to go anywhere," Julia retorted, with an edge of dislike to her voice. "This is my home. My friends are here and so is my family."

"Strange," Bosshard said nonchalantly, "I was under the impression that you had no family in Four Corners, that you originated from say, Philadelphia?" He looked her straight in the eye.

Julia was taken by such surprise that it was impossible to keep him from seeing how shocked he was by that statement. Even though she rushed to compose herself in order to keep herself from giving anything away, Julia knew that it was a redundant gesture. "Why would you say that?" She asked, clearly shaken.

"Because the Averys originated from Philadelphia? Did they not?" Bosshard started to smile, knowing that he had her and was unafraid to use what he knew to force her cooperation.

Julia tried not to show her horror at his knowing her identity but she was panicking and slowly sliding into greater fear. This man was not like Mr. Clemens who could be threatened into remaining silent. He was a man accustomed to getting what he wanted and right now, what he wanted was her beloved Emporium. Forcing herself to remain calm for it would serve nothing if she lost her head and followed her first impulse which was to finish the job Maude had started, Julia regarded Bosshard once more. This time, she displayed a visage that was perfectly comfortable with what the man had stated, even if it had come wholly too late to be of any use other than to maintain what was left of her dignity.

"I will not sell." She said firmly, wishing to see what it was he would do when her refusal was made clear. Obviously, he meant some sort of coercion that much was clear but she wanted to see how far he was willing to take it.

Bosshardís shoulders slumped forward slightly, as if he were pretending to feign some disappointment in her choice. "I am determined to have this place one way or another Miss Pemberton. I was hoping that this would remain amicable, that I would not have to press the issue but my desire for this place will not relent me from the course I must take to acquire it."

"I do not respond well to threats, Mr. Bosshard." Julia glared at him.

"I was not threatening you Miss Pemberton, I was telling you a fact." Bosshard returned her gaze with just as much venom. "If you do not sell me this establishment, I will see to it that your father Donald Avery learns of your location. Unlike that Pinkerton lackey, Clemens, I cannot be sold or bought off, not unless its in accordance with my own terms and I think we have established the price for my silence."

"And if I sell you this place, what guarantee do I have that you will not expose me anyway?" Julia responded with her voice barely a whisper. This was her worst fear since coming to Four Corners, the possibility that her father might find her. She had more than enough money to ensure that whatever she had taken from her father could be replaced but even so, it would be exposing him to her life here and she wanted those separate worlds never to meet ever.

Bosshardís hand snaked over the table and began stroking her forearm lightly, a gesture that reeked of intimacy which she did not require any explanation. Juliaís reaction was next to immediate, she pulled back her arm and spat at him, visibly disgusted. "Get out of my office!"

"I see that courtesy was a wasted effort on you," Bosshard wiped away the spittle on his face and stared at her hard, all pretext of civility having been abandoned now. "You have heard our terms. If you wish to bring your loverís friends into this situation, that is your affair but be warned. Even if Larabee does succeed in chasing us out of town, I will still ensure my last act in Four Corners is to ensure that your father knows where you are to be found. If I am not mistaken there is also a matter of a fiancťeí is there not? One in Philadelphia that would be most interested in your whereabouts since you left him at the alter in humiliation?"

"I said get out!" Julia repeated herself, becoming angrier at the moment, her emerald eyes blazing in fury because each word had the desired effect of piercing through her skin and reminding her how vulnerable the foundation of her world was built upon. No one knew about her past Ė only Ezra and he was in no condition to deal with someone like her father and Roderick Packard, the man she had jilted at the altar when she ran from Philadelphia almost two years ago.

"Come on," Bosshard glanced at Marks and Spenser, a little smile on his face as he gestured to his companions that it was time to depart. "Letís give the lady a little time to consider her situation."

The triumphant gleam in his eyes convinced Julia more succinctly than any words that Maude might have been able to impart upon her, just how vicious a creature it was before her. Now she could believe that this was the man who had murdered Ezraís father and had earned Maudeís undying hatred. At the precise moment, Julia was not that far from pulling a gun out on him herself. The three men left the room without saying anything further and for a few seconds after they had left her office, she could do nothing but stand there frozen in rage and dismay. She did not know her nails were digging into the polished wood of her desk until she was forced to draw breath and upon doing so realized that she was shaking.

Sliding into her chair, she considered what she would do. There was a time when news like this would have sent her running but she could not even think of that now. Ezra needed her and she had promised that she would not abandon him. After all that he had been through with Hannibal and now learning that Bosshard was now responsible for the murder of his father who was nothing like Ezra had thought he was, it would too much of a blow if she were to leave him. How would she be able to do so without his believing that it had something to do with what Hannibal Julius had done to him? She could not and that was all there is to it. However, the alternative in staying was to give up her Emporium and the only thing worse than running away was to see it in someone elseís hand. Julia could not endure it.

Yet she had no choice. If she did not do as Bosshard asked, then her father would come here to Four Corners. He would bring Packard with him and with Ezra being less than capable of marrying her at this point, Packard might get into his head to think that she was still his access into Philadelphia high society. At the very least he would demand marriage and the at the worst, he might demand vengeance for making him a fool in front of everyone in Philadelphia when she had run away. In either case, there was no way she could win without hurting Ezra or herself and in this instance when faced with those choices, there was only one thing to do.

She had to give up the Emporium because nothing could be as important as Ezra knowing she would always be there for him.

The idea made her groan inwardly and she was almost driven to tears at the prospect of selling to an animal like Bosshard but what else could she do? Even if she did bring this to Chris Larabee, it would not change the fact that all Bosshard had to do was tell her father where she was and his revenge for her defiance would be complete. Giving up the Emporium would seem a small price to pay in comparison to the calamity her father could bring to her life if he found her. No, she could not go to Chris and frankly, she did not wish everyone she cared about other than Ezra and Mary to know that she had spent the last two years of her life in Four Corners lying to them about her origins. The price of their friendship was worth her Emporium, no matter how much it pained her.

As she sat at her desk, coming to grips with what she was going to be forced to do, Julia could only curse at the fact that Maude had not killed the bastard when she had the chance.

+ + + + + + +

"So did you send a wire to the judge?" Vin Tanner asked as he met Chris outside the telegraph office later that morning.

"Yeah," the gunslinger nodded somberly as he walked down the steps to join Vin as they made their way to the jailhouse. "I doubt he will be here any sooner than a day though."

Chris wanted something of a judicial decision made on the situation with Maude and Benjamin Bosshard sooner rather than later. He hoped that they might be able to convince the Judge that Maude had been acting under severe mental stress when she had seen Bosshard and did not shoot him in an act as cold blooded as it initially appeared. Unfortunately, there was only her word that Marshall Reeves met his end at Bosshardís hand and the Judge though fair was often reluctant to act without evidence. Aside from that, Chris did not want to see the lady imprisoned for the crime when her sonís emotional stability depended on his being able to protect her.

"I guess Maudeís going to keep staying at Juliaís." Vin shrugged, appreciating the situation as it stood but he did not think the town was going to sit still for Maude being given such luxury accommodations during her incarceration, particularly if Bosshard planned to make an issue out of it.

"I guess so," Chris frowned. "I wonder if Bosshard knows who she is yet."

"I doubt it," Vin offered. "If Bosshard is as fired up to wipe out the whole family after killing Ezraís dad, as Maude says he is, then he would have killed her as soon as she accused him. My guess is he doesnít know and thatís probably the only thing thatís keeping her safe."

"I wouldnít bank on that being a secret for much longer," Chris pointed. "By now, Bosshard is turning over every rock and talking to anyone he can about who Maude is. Heís not made his move simply because heís gathering information. Once he knows who he is dealing with, heíll try to kill her and Ezra too."

"We wonít let him get that far," Vin pointed out.

"No we wonít," Chris agreed firmly on that point as they crossed the street and stepped on the boardwalk that led towards the jailhouse. "However, Bosshard has powerful friends left over from the wars in Lincoln county. When the fighting was at its worst, they didnít care who they went through to kill the people who stood up to them. I know a couple of sheriffs and marshal who didnít survive thanks to Bosshardís friends and their hired guns. He has money to hire a lot of them. Marks and Spenser were probably working for the Santa Fe Ring themselves, for all we know. Bosshard was their enforcer and I donít doubt those guns answered to him for them."

"Still donít understand what theyíre doing here," Vin retorted. "I mean with the new governor and everything, that kind of thing is done with. Hell even the President has done something to put a stop to it. So what do Bosshard and the men he works for, want with Four Corners?"

"I donít know," Chris replied, disliking the fact that he had no answer for Vin or for himself for that matter. His gut instinct told him that Bosshard was up to no good but he could not just go up and accuse a man of committing a crime when there was no evidence to the fact.

"They there are, moving through town like they were tourists or something," Vin remarked, glancing towards the Potter Goods Store.

Strolling past the store was Benjamin Bosshard with Marks and Spenser in tow as usual. It appeared as if the man had been coming from the direction of the Pemberton Emporium. Other than a sling, Bosshard show no further signs of the violence that had involved him and Maude Standish the night before. Bosshard in particular appeared very proud of himself as he tipped his hat in Gloriaís direction. However the lady did not seem at all pleased to see the man. Her expression was dark and she glared at him with such intensity that both Vin and Chris could tell that there was real hatred behind her eyes. Turning on her heels the moment they past, Gloria disappeared into the store with an almost visible cloud of anger following her.

"What was that all about?" Vin asked.

"I donít know," Chrisí jaw tightened. "But I donít like it. Did you see how she was looking at him?"

"I reckon I did. It looked like she was angry as all hell with him." Vin replied.

"I think Iím gonna go find out why." Chris retorted and abruptly changed direction from the jailhouse, heading towards Gloriaís store instead.

"I think Iíll come with you." Vin responded in support of that decision. The two lawmen strode through down the boardwalk, capturing Bosshardís eyes before he disappeared into the hotel. For an instant, Chris thought he might have seen some concern moving across the manís face as he and Vin approached the widowís store but the moment was fleeting and Bosshard was soon out of sight.

It did not take either of them very long to enter the premises of the Potter store where they found Gloria behind the counter, attending a gaggle of housewives as they completed their purchases. The women chattered frivolously about the usual gossip and topics indulged by those of their ilk, paying little attention to the gunslingers in the store. However, despite Chris and Vin's efforts to fade into the background in order to allow the widow time to deal with her customers, they noted that Gloria was very aware of their presence, even though she said nothing to them in greeting when they first entered. She raised her gaze furtively but upon making eye contact with them, turned away quickly, almost as if there were danger in holding that connection for too long. Vin knew enough about body language to know that the woman was extremely uncomfortable about them being near her. The tracker did not mention it but her behavior did not escape Chris' attention either. While Chris did not have his tracking skill, the gunslinger was capable of reading people just as perceptively and Chris could see that Gloria was troubled by their presence eve if he could not fathom why.

Eventually the customers departed the store and the two lawmen were afforded some privacy in dealing with the widow. Gloria seemed even more anxious at their presence and said nothing as she pretended to be overly concerned with arranging some stock on her shelves as she continued to ignore them. The behavior was very unlike the woman they had come to know and call a friend the last four years. It was finally Chris who broke the silence, in an effort to understand the problem.

"Gloria, is something wrong?" Chris asked.

"Of course not," Gloria retorted. "I'm just pretty busy today Chris, I don't rightly have time to stop and chat."

"That's fair enough," Chris nodded while Vin stepped back, allowing Chris to speak to the woman while he kept watch out in the street to see if their presence here sparked any interest in Mr. Bosshard. "I just thought you looked a little upset."

Gloria looked up from the shelf where she had arranged the packets of sugar into neat rows and produced a rather forced smile; "I'm fine Chris. There's nothing to worry about."

"I see," Chris replied, not all accepting that answer as the truth but not about to plunge in with an accusation. "I see you've met Mr. Bosshard."

"Yes," she answered, her back facing him. "He has come in here on occasion."

"I hear he is interested in investing in businesses here," Chris replied. "Was he interested in yours?"

"Mr. Larabee," Gloria whirled around and glared at him. "I don't think its any of your business."

"Gloria, I'm just curious." Chris answered, garnering the reaction he had almost predicted when he made that statement. He did not miss how she suddenly referred to him as 'Mr. Larabee' again. Suddenly, it appeared as if he had just taken on the task of protecting Four Corners again.

"Your curiosity is not my business to satisfy. If Mr. Bosshard and I have business, that is our affair not yours. Kindly leave me store." She said hotly.

"I apologize," Chris responded. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"I am not upset!" She hissed. "I am busy! I thank you to know the difference. Now Good day." With that, she stormed away from him into one of the backrooms, leaving Chris and Vin behind, gleaning all they could from the encounter. Both men exchanged glances for a few seconds before they left the premises, not about to speak about what they had seen or suspected until they were outdoors and away from the woman.

"Okay," Chris said with a long drawl. "What do you make of that."

"She's pissed off." Vin retorted as a matter of factly, gaining a look from Chris as he said it.

"Besides that." Chris returned sarcastically.

"She ain't pissed off at us." The tracker said firmly. "She was pissed off something else but we just happened to be there."

"If you were in the army, they'd call that officer thinking." Chris shook his head and muttered with a little smile. "You're right though, she was plenty mad and it weren't at us. It was at Bosshard."

"Yep, I reckon you're right." Vin agreed readily enough. "Question is why?"

"Not just why," Chris answered, his body tensing in anticipation of danger when he thought about Gloria and her reaction to them in her store. "I want to know why she's so afraid of us knowing that she's angry at him."

+ + + + + + +

Since Maude was more or less under house arrest at the Pemberton home, Ezra felt it his duty to remain there and keep an eye on his mother during her incarceration. Although he was still very angry with her, he did not wish to see her act any more rashly than she had and jeopardizing her future such as it was already. Inwardly, he feared what would happen when Judge Travis arrived in town and a trial did move on ahead. Evidence against Maude was damning. She had walked into a crowded room and pulled the trigger before a dozen witnesses with the intention of killing Bosshard. She also believed him to be her husband's murderer, which meant that her actions were premeditated with Maude being in control of her faculties at the time. Travis was a good man but he was also a judicious man and there was not one ounce of proof to implicate Bosshard in the crime of murdering Ezra's father. Maude had not even known his name until yesterday.

That aside, the identity of his father has almost a surreal quality about it all. All his life he had believed one thing about his father and had accepted the man for what he was; a riverboat gambler. It made perfect sense to Ezra that his own life had turned out almost the same way because the traits of both parents were in him and hard to circumvent. Now he learnt differently and in learning the truth began to understand why it had been so easy to stay here and play peacekeeper because that too was a part of his lineage. He did not come entirely from stock whose entire purpose was the acquisition of money by duping and deceiving those who had had it but also from that which protected the weak. In understanding the truth, he also understood himself. Did the idea of staying here to protect Four Corners strike a chord in him because it was some subconscious homage to the father he no longer remembered?

"Ezra, you haven't said two words to me for the last hour," Maude gazed over the edge of her cards where they had been playing a game of poker for the last two hours.

Ezra did not raise his eyes to meet hers and continued sorting out the cards in his hand as they were seated at Julia's table. "What would you have me say?"

"Anything." She replied softly. "Tell me what has happened to your life since I last saw you."

"Nothing of consequence," he said indifferently, hoping she did not intend to go down that road where she wanted to know what was wrong with him. On top of everything else, he did not think he had the patience to endure that too.

"Something has happened to you my darling boy," she insisted, seeing the flicker in his eyes that was more than proof that some calamity had befallen him. Josiah would not speak of it to her but Maude knew that it must be bad because the preacher had wanted very much to tell her but was bound by the promise he made to Ezra to remain silent. "I gave birth to you Ezra, I know that there is something about you that is different."

Ezra shrugged feeling uncomfortable about the whole subject. "Its nothing I wish to discuss mother."

"Why?" She asked, unable to understand what could be so awful that he could not confide in his own mother.

"Because I cannot." He swallowed and threw a number of cards down as his discards and replaced them just as quickly.

"Is something wrong between you and Julia?" She ventured a guess even though it felt as if she were grasping at straws. There was a rift between her son and the woman he loved; she had seen it since her arrival but the nature of it confused her. While there was distance between them, there was also love, just as strong as before.

"Heavens no," Ezra conceded that much to her. "If there is one thing upon which I have been able to rely upon it has been Julia's love."

"There seems to be a curious sort of detachment in your relationship." Maude pointed out.

"I suppose," Ezra shrugged, hating the fact that Maude had seen so clearly through it. "It is only temporary, until I am......"

"Better?" Maude finished off his sentence before he could.

"Mother please," he stared at her, almost pleading. "Do not ask me. I cannot bear for you to know. I have never asked you anything in my whole life but I am asking you this now, if you love me as much as you say you do."

"There is no if," Maude returned, feeling somewhat hurt that he could be so cruel in his demand. "I do love you."

"Then do not inquire any further into this." He replied. "It gives me comfort to know that you see me as you always have, I do not want that to change."

"It could never change Ezra," Maude responded, almost shocked by the intensity and the need in this demand of his. "I love you, you are my son.

"Mother, please..."

"Alright," Maude found herself acquiescing to his wishes even though she hated the idea of it. She needed to know what was wrong because she was almost certain that she might be the one to help him and he did need help, no matter how much he despised admitting it. She knew she was much to blame for his solitary nature. In leaving him with relatives who had treated him as outcast, he could be molded no other way. She had taught him to keep his emotions inside himself, to never show one's true feelings because that would only compromise the deception they were attempting to carry out in the eternal shell game that was their lives. However, she expected that he would always trust her but somehow it did happen in that fashion. Somehow, in his efforts to shut out everyone, he had also locked her out of his heart and no matter how much she tried, Maude had never really been let back in. She had lost him a long time ago and part of it was her own fault.

"I won't ask again," Maude sighed.

"Thank you," Ezra responded with relief even though he was not naÔve enough to think that was the end of this discussion. His mother, if anything, was persistent and she would continue to hound him about this issue until one of them gave in or until they went their separate directions. Ezra hoped it was the latter because he just could not bring himself to tell Maude what had happened to him and how he had behaved in the wake of that assault, especially now, when the subject of revenge was so prolific with the appearance of Benjamin Bosshard. How could he tell her that it was wrong to simply shoot Bosshard after what he had done to Julius in vengeance? The hypocrisy of it was too much for him and even now, as much as Ezra hated Julius for what he had done, Ezra did not know whether he had done the right thing by killing the man. While he could not deny that he wanted the man dead, he still was uncertain whether or not he had wanted to be the one to do it, especially in the ma nner in which he had. There were still too many nights behind him where he had spent the night pondering that question and too many ahead where he would be plagued with the nightmares of what he had done.

It was ironic, Ezra thought to himself. In killing Hannibal Julius, Ezra had ensured the man would be with him forever.

+ + + + + + +

Nine year old Robert Potter or Robbie as his mother and most of Four Corners knew him knew that he was late home. He had not meant to be, aware that his mother did not think it appropriate for a boy his age to be out after dark. He had not meant to stay out so late but he was playing with Jeremy Conklin and the time simply slipped away from him. However, Mrs. Conklin had invited him to have a little bit of cornbread and before he knew it the sun had set on the horizon and it was almost supper time. Mr. Conklin had ushered him off, citing that his mother would not wish him to be out in the streets after dark. Robbie did not see what the problem was; after all, the town was nowhere as rife with lawlessness as it had been when his father had been murdered. Bad men did not last long in Four Corners with the Magnificent Seven around, he had told Mr. Conklin who had snorted in annoyance by the suggestion and told him to get going.

Mr. Conklin did not care very much for the seven but fortunately he was in a minority. Whether or not he knew it, Chris Larabee and his men were the subject of hero worship to many young boys in the town of Four Corners, Robbie included. Billy Travis was considered unimaginably lucky to have the hardened gunslinger as his step father and the game of cowboys and Indians had taken on a slightly more personal edge by it becoming the game of the seven against outlaws. Some liked to play Chris for he was most impressive of all with his dark clothes and his seasoned look, while others like to be Vin Tanner, the tracker whose equal could only be Davy Crockett. Robbie personally liked the personal of the gentlemen gunfighter and gambler that was Ezra Standish and had been practicing the card tricks though he never managed to do the tricks he saw the gambler performing when the man was bored and seated outside the jailhouse.

The streets of Four Corners were not entirely devoid of people despite sunset. Stragglers left from the day's shopping remained in the boardwalks, making final purchases while the regular saloon goers began drifting towards their favored watering holes. Robbie glanced at the jailhouse and saw no sign of the gambler and decided that Ezra was probably already inside the Standish Tavern, playing cards like the suave gambler he was. Robbie was a little disappointed but he would spy a glimpse at the gambler tomorrow. The Potter house was on the other side of town and Robbie noted that the Goods Store had already closed for the night. With a hint of dismay, he realized that his hopes of reaching the house before his mother were dashed. He did not like incurring her anger but supposed he had it coming. She did worry about him and his siblings for good reason. After all, with their father gone, they were all she had.

The memory of his father was fading away in his mind even though Robbie wished it were not so. He remembered what the man had looked like and that he had loved his family but the more specific memories were starting to fall prey to time and Robbie feared one day he would forget altogether. He supposed as long as he remembered that his father was a brave man who had died standing up for himself, Robbie would never really lose the essence of what he was and it was important for the young man to keep that much alive in his heart at least.

He was approaching the Standish Tavern, within sight of the beam of light pouring out the bat wing doors and just on the edge of sight of those entering the establishment, when suddenly he felt someone emerge from the crack between the buildings like shadow play in the moonlight. His young mind had little time to register the shape when he felt a large hand cup over his mouth, lifting him off the ground as he was pulled back into the darkness. Robbie opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out through the thick palm keeping his silent.

"Got him." An unfamiliar male voice stated once they were within the shadows again.

Robbie struggled hard, every ounce of strength fighting the unseen abductors who had him well and truly in their power. Kicking and trying to scream, the boy was seized by terror until he felt his head slam into the wall and everything went black in a burst of pain.

+ + + + + + +

Gloria Potter could not eat.

She noticed her children occasionally stealing glimpses from her as they rose their eyes furtively from their food to note her demeanor. She supposed they believed she was angry with Robbie from being late back for supper, not understanding that it was the last thing on Gloria's mind. She loved her son dearly and she knew him well. He may be a little late for supper on occasion but never to this extent. At first she was merely annoyed that he was absent when they had sat down to the meal. However, as dinner continued pierce through the next hour, she started to fear the worst. Bosshard's threats had been in her mind ever since the man had insinuated himself into her life with his demands but they did not seem real until Robbie failed to appear for supper.

It was bad enough that Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner had come into the store today, obviously guessing that there was something wrong and Gloria felt ashamed at being so rude to them but she simply could not confide in the two men. She had hoped to avoid endangering her family by remaining silent, aware that Bosshard would make good of his threat to harm her children simply out of spite if she spoke to the lawmen of her troubles. She would have liked nothing more than telling Chris of her situation but he could not offer round the clock protection for her children to ensure Bosshard did not harm them and that was a risk to their lives she was not willing to take. However, the point seemed moot now with Robbie's absence growing lengthier with each passing second and Gloria prayed inwardly that Bosshard was not the reason for it.

There was no cause for him to harm Robbie; she had not spoken to Chris or Vin. In fact, her rudeness ensured that they would not be visiting her store any time in the future. Bosshard had no reason to take such steps with her. The more Gloria debated the situation in her mind silently before the dinner table, the more fearful she became about where Robbie was and the extent of Bosshard's vengeance upon him. She tried to tell herself that he would not harm Robbie until he acquired what she had - her store. However, the motives of such man were beyond her ability to understand and she found herself coming to the unhappy conclusion that she could not predict what Bosshard would do with Robbie, what he would do even if she sold him the store. He just as might kill her and her family to ensure her silence.

Suddenly she heard a soft sound on the back porch and before she knew what she was doing, Gloria had left the supper table and was running to see if it was Robbie returning home. Her heart pounded with hope as she reached the doorknob and twisted open, praying that her son would be standing before her. Unfortunately, her arrival into the back porch was met with silence and only dark shadows appeared in place of her son. Her shoulders sagged visibly and she wanted to let out a cry of anguish and disappointment but could not because she did not want to frighten the other children. She stared for a few seconds at the darkness, trying to compose herself because she could not return to the table appearing distraught.

"Hello Gloria." A voice reached out of the shadows and forced her to stay.

Gloria froze; knowing without any doubt who it was that had spoken and had her suspicions confirmed when Bosshard stepped out into the dim light emanating from the house a second later. The man was alone and Gloria searched the darkness briefly, wondering if perhaps Marks and Spenser were somewhere out there as well, watching and waiting to do their master's bidding. Had they waited in the shadows for Robbie and snatched him on his way home? Is that why they were not visible now? Because they were somewhere out there with her son?

"Where is he?" She asked, not even bothering to make the accusation because she knew he had taken Robbie. There could be no other reason for it.

"Safe." Bosshard retorted, not about to hide what he had done. He wanted her to know that he had power over her and was unafraid to use it.

"You bring him back!" She came towards him but Bosshard grabbed her by the throat, less than vulnerable even with one arm in a sling. He held on fast, keeping larynx trapped between his fingers as she started to choke, her hands pulling away ineffectually at the arm who had had her firmly in its grip. Bosshard let go abruptly and Gloria fell onto the porch, a small cry of despair escaping her lips when she landed.

"What did you tell Larabee?" Bosshard demanded.

"Nothing!" Gloria wailed. "I told him nothing! Please don't hurt Robbie. He's just a little boy."

"He will never get beyond that unless you tell me what I wish to know," Bosshard retorted, not at all prepared to believe that her conversation with the gunslinger was as benign as she made it out.

"I swear!" Gloria cried out. "I told them nothing. They asked me about you investing in the area and I said that I didn't know anything at all."

There was just enough desperation in her voice for Bosshard to believe that she was telling the truth. Besides, she was too terrified to let any of her children come to harm. However, he enjoyed the power over her and he liked making one as strong as she squirm under the pressure. "Then why would they seem so interested in you?" He persisted. "Larabee did not just decide to question you for nothing."

"I don't know!" She started to sob. "He just came in and I didn't say anything. Please don't hurt Robbie, he's only nine years old."

Bosshard smiled at her disintegration, enjoying the moment for all it was worth. "I am not completely heartless madam, I will not harm the boy but he'll stay with me for awhile."

Gloria raised her tear stained eyes to Bosshard. "What do you mean?" She asked fearfully. Her lips were quivering in anticipation of the answer.

"Until I conclude my business in Four Corners, I think that it would be best if young Robbie were to remain with me for the time being, as insurance." Bosshard replied.

"No," Gloria shook her head. "You can't do that!"

"I'm afraid I can." Bosshard started to turn away. "It will give you incentive to remain silent. I do not wish to have Larabee calling before I conclude my business in town."

"Please don't do this." She begged.

"Don't worry," Bosshard smiled, pleased at the way this meeting had gone. "As long as you keep your mouth shut, Robbie will be safe. Know that if you mention this to Larabee, I will send him back to you one piece at a time."

Gloria watched him disappeared into the shadows, still weeping and desolate in the fact that she could confess her agony to nobody. He had her and he knew it. To get Robbie back, she would remain silent.

She had no other choice.

Part Four

Acquisitions

It was astonishing, how easily the walls of her domestic bliss had crumbled when the trouble started.

The town of Eagles Nest was not New Orleans or St Louis but Maude loved it none the less. Peter had grown up in Colfax County and she liked the idea of settling in his hometown because it gave their new family a sense of continuity when Ezra was born. As towns went, Eagles Nest was small but thriving. The collection of ranchers in the immediate area had given its life and the town relied heavily on that pastoral industry for its existence. Maude had never paid much attention to the politics of the community mostly because such matters often bored her and Peter was never quite around enough to worry much about it either. Since being a Marshall required him travelling across the Territory, what time he was at home was spent with his wife and later on child as well.

In retrospect, Maude realized just how much she had been deluding herself with such ignorance because so much had been happening and she had never once considered what ramifications that could have to her life. For the three years until Peter died, she had cloaked herself in a dream world, completely forgetting how fragile dreams could be and that there was always someone waiting in the shadows to take it away again. In the years that followed, Maude had never allowed herself to have dreams again, never allowed herself to feel because the open wound Peter left behind had never healed. She pushed her son away and turned him into a stranger without ever knowing what it was she was doing until it was too late, until she looked at him one day and saw a man bleeding because he had inherited her wounds.

It started as most things started, with one little incident that soon snowballed into more. A neighbor of theirs James Pennyworth owned a small store selling hardware and mercantile goods. It was a thriving business and one that he had worked very hard to build. Maude and the rest of Eagles Nest did a great deal of their shopping at the Pennyworth store and Mr. Pennyworth himself was a pleasant enough man and had endeared himself to the community as one of its most valued customers. It was of no surprise when Pennyworth enlisted in the aid of a lawyer Thomas Cotran in order to handle some of his business affairs because the store was prospering and the man chose to make investments in the booming enterprises that were being formed across the Territory.

Hiring a lawyer had been the smart thing to do, Pennyworth had thought. Unfortunately, hiring Thomas Cotran was not wise. Very soon, Pennyworth was faced with investments failing simultaneously, taking much of his fortune with him. Then when he was barely holding onto his store to provide for his family, Thomas Cotran produced a hefty bill for legal services with demands of immediate payment. Pennyworth balked at first but it soon came to pass that the demand was air tight and legal with no recourse but to capitulate to Cotran's demands. Faced with the prospect of a jail sentence for debts incurred, Pennyworth had little choice but to turn over his store and its holdings to Cotran in order to make the payments.

The town rallied around Pennyworth but there was an underlying feeling of uneasiness because Cotran had powerful friends and there was talk that he would soon be running for the US senator. The man who were aiding him in this endeavor began to make their presence felt and suddenly, Pennyworth found his supporters had dwindled because they feared sharing his fate. Pennyworth was a proud man and he was determined that justice was done. Going after Cotran, Maude watched the poor man gunned down in the streets by a Laurence Murphy and a young protege, she would not know until many years later was Benjamin Bosshard.

"It's awful, how does he get away with it?" Maude asked Peter across the supper table a few nights after Pennyworth had died. Peter had been tracking a bank robber across the Territory and had been gone long enough to miss the climax of Pennyworth's troubles with Cotran.

"Cotran has powerful friends," Peter pointed out, bouncing Ezra on his knee even though he was meant to be feeding the child. Unfortunately, what Maude was presenting to him now was nothing out of the ordinary. A lawyer swindling his clients out of their goods in order to make a grab for land or other such properties was becoming an all too regular an occurrence. "He's got the support of a lot of ranchers around this town."

"In the old days," Maude gave him a look of mischief, "I'd be able to get that money with a little slight of hand." She winked.

"Please don't joke about things like that," Peter chuckled, even though he knew that she would be more than capable of conning the pants off Cotran without any difficulty. However, Cotran's reaction following that would be extreme to say the least and Peter did not even want to imagine Maude placing herself in such danger. "He's a dangerous man and he knows it. Cotran is counting on his rancher friends putting him in the Senate. This land grab is his campaign fund because he doesn't want to be beholding to any of them once he makes it."

"You seem to know a great deal about Mr. Cotran's business," Maude responded, staring at her husband with some measure of concern because it appeared as if Peter knew a great deal more about Cotran than previously thought. She wondered what had brought the man to the Marshall's notice and whether or not engaging the lawyer was wise. Suddenly, she had a premonition that there was danger fraught with the Marshall's interest in Cotran. A fear seized her heart that he the consequence to himself could be grave. It had always been there. One could not love a lawman without feeling it but it was never as acute until now. "Are you planning on going after him?" She asked, unable to hide the anxiety from her voice.

"He's stealing the land from under these people," the Marshall said firmly, his paused knee causing a mutter of disapproval from Ezra who stared at his father in question, a small pout on his face. "Someone has to do something. I've been paying close attention to Cotran and his friends for some time now Maude."

"I see," Maude muttered, recalling the conversation they had not long ago about protecting herself and Ezra if anything happened to him. He had not wanted to elaborate then but now she had understood that he was not just talking about his job in general but the danger that could arise if he chose to pursue men like Cotran in a bid to bring them to justice. "If you say these men are powerful, you could be looking at a world of trouble Marshal. I don't want them to hurt you."

"Maude," he offered her a warm smile. "Its what I do."

"I know," she swallowed thickly, watching him with their son and feeling this sense of dread she could not define overcome her. Her instincts in such matters were very strong. They had to be for her to live the life she had prior to meeting him and Maude could not deny that there was something about this whole affair with Cotran that made her uneasy. She had not worried when it was merely a discussion with the marshal but now that she knew that he was actively seeking some way to bring them to justice, she felt tendrils of anxiety reaching up her spine because her senses warned that this would not end well. "But you have a family to worry about."

Maude never thought she would ever hear herself using such words to impose her will upon him but she was now afraid. Having seen Pennyworth gunned down in the street, with no one standing up to help him had been a sobering experience. She had never remained in a place long enough in the life she had led., to see injustices done. However, now that she lived in Eagles Nest and the Territory, which was known for its violence, Maude worried about the Marshal and the enemies he might make when combating the lawless elements within it.

"Maude," Peter reached across the table and took her hand in his, intertwining his fingers in between hers. "I love you and I won't take any unnecessary risks but this is what I am. I can't change myself."

"I did," she countered. "I became somebody else because I love you. I never questioned that it was wrong and against my nature, not when my heart was telling me it was right. I don't expect you to change as I did but I do expect you to remember that we need you, almost as bad as the town needs you. Alive, you can fight these people but dead, you're no good to anyone."

"I won't lie it can't happen," Peter said truthfully because he loved her too much to lie to her. "But Cotran's going to make a run for Senator and it scares me to death what a man like that can do in power. The ranchers are using him to become more and more powerful. I know what they're doing, they're protecting themselves by chasing away any homesteader that might take up land they could use for grazing. This is only the beginning. The West is opening up and more people are going to be coming here in the future. It may take years but it will happen. If someone does not stop these men here and now, then those people will arrive to find themselves besieged on all sides with no help in sight."

"You are disturbingly brave," Maude frowned. "I abhor it."

"No you don't," he grinned that dimpled smile that was capable of erasing any anger she had because of him. "You love me playing the odds. Its what you would do."

"Not at the expense of my own hide," she retorted. "I know when to get out when the odds are against me."

"I promise you," he said aware that all this was coming from her fears for his life. "I will not place myself in unnecessary danger for either of you," he winked at Ezra who was proceeding to eat mash potato with hands, before he turned back to Maude. "I'll be careful." With that he brought her hand to his lips and kissed it gently, sealing his reassurance with a more physical gesture.

"I'll hold you to that Marshal," Maude sighed, not at all confident despite his assurances. She knew the man she loved and he was too courageous to be bound by that promise. He would help no matter what the risk to himself and God help her, she adored him because of it.

+ + + + + + +

With all the troubles Ezra was presently enduring, Julia made no mention of being blackmailed by Benjamin Bosshard. There was also the possibility that Ezraís reaction upon hearing such news might fuel an already incendiary situation and she knew that he was struggling to keep Maude from doing anything rash without having to worry about his own temper as well. However, the silence could not be maintained utterly. If she handed her Emporium over to Bosshard, Ezra would want to know why because he was perfectly aware that she loved the place and had always vowed never to part with it. To Julia, the Emporium was something precious and was treasured by its owner. While the description might be a little fanciful, it was not incorrect. The Emporium had allowed her to be the person she always wanted; someone who was more than her beauty. Giving it up was like surrendering a part of herself. However, she had no choice. The alternative was to let her father find her and that was something she co uld not endure for anything.

She hated her cowardice because even she knew that someday she would have to face her father. There was an inevitability about this which seemed incontrovertible the more time passed. Sometimes, she would wake up in the night, in the hours after Ezra had left her bed and feel its weight pressing against her. It would have been so simple if she could simply turn her nose at Bosshard's threats and dare him to do his worst but she could not. She was not ready for that yet. She wondered if she ever would be. For the moment at least, Ezra had enough reason to hate Bosshard without Julia exacerbating the situation with her news. His behavior was so unpredictable these days, she had no idea how he might react in light of everything he already knew about the man. Julia had no wish to be the match that ignited an already tenuous issue.

Thus, she had to make her decision to sell the Emporium appear genuine because anything less than an absolutely masterful performance would be looked upon with suspicion, not simply by Ezra but also by Maude. Both were experts in character study and unfortunately she was one of their favorite subjects. However, Julia knew that she could hide almost anything if she wished it. She had hidden her utter loathing from her father for so many years, this would be no different. She just wished it did not hurt so much in choosing what she had. It did not seem fair and though there was more than one occasion where she had almost faltered and told Ezra about the truth but the fears would always come back and consume her whole and her terror forced her to maintain her silence.

She made her first overtures at telling Ezra the truth, the next day when she declined to go to the Emporium that day, citing her refusal to go because she was weary of the place. In a way, it was not exactly a lie. She could not bear returning to the Emporium when she knew that she would have to give it up. As it was Julia had no idea how she would be able to stand living in Four Corners, once the place was sold to Bosshard. She did not think she could endure seeing her beloved Emporium in Bosshard's hands.

"Weary of it?" Ezra looked across the table at her in surprise. He had arrived that morning to take breakfast with Maude and Julia and was rather surprised to see the lady still in her robe. Usually by this time of the day, Julia was dressed and ready to leave for her day at the Emporium but on this occasion, he entered the house and found both Maude and Julia in their dressing gowns having the morning meal.

"Yes," Julia said breezily. "I do get tired of it sometimes Ezra. It's a great deal of work."

"I always had the impression you were a workaholic." Maude teased. "You always seemed so dedicated and if I might add, a real head for business."

"I prefer to have a body made for sin." She answered with a small laugh.

"A worthy ambition no doubt," Ezra replied, not at all finding this a joking manner because he knew how much she was dedicated to her business. "However, you've always seemed to love the challenge my dear."

"And the challenge has been conquered Ezra," Julia remarked, preparing herself a cup of tea with exaggerated care, anything to distract her from meeting his gaze because she was certain if he saw her eyes, he would guess the truth immediately. She was never able to hide anything from Ezra. Perhaps that was why she loved him so because he saw all of her, despite her pretexts. "I've made a success of the place. I turned it from a small little business into a lucrative trade. Now perhaps its time to look at a new challenge."

"A new challenge?" Ezra raised a brow at her, wishing he knew what was going on. Julia did not at all seem weary of the Emporium when he saw her yesterday. In fact, he had distinctly recall hearing her prattle on for a few seconds about some calico that she was buying for Vesta City. She had been filled with excitement and there was that glimmer in her eye that was always present when she was talking about the Emporium. He could not believe what he was hearing from her now nor could he for the life of him imagine why she would be saying it. "Julia, the Emporium is not some bauble you can toss away when it no longer suits your fancy. It is a vital part of this town's commercial future."

"Ezra," Julia sighed, wishing he would just let the subject drop. Did he not know that this was killing her? "I have no intention of simply shutting down shop. You are right of course. The Pemberton Emporium means too much to the people of Four Corners to simply close, I would naturally find someone who would buy it at a vastly inflated price. After all, the point of business is to make money is it not Maude?"

"Of course my dear," Maude agreed but Ezra could see in his mother's eyes that Maude was just as perplexed by Julia's decision as he. She had known Julia long enough now to know that the young woman loved her little business and she was not the flighty sort whose preoccupations were fleeting. It took work to build the Pemberton Emporium into what it was as well as a streak of iron, Maude could not believe that kind of resolve would be flawed with such dilettante thinking. "However, it is an extremely profitable business to be selling even at an inflated price."

"Well I have investments elsewhere," Julia responded keeping her gaze fixed on a rose but embroidered on the tablecloth. "I am sure I could make up the difference. Besides, the price I would get for the Emporium would give me working capital to try something new, perhaps a hotel or a gambling house? Casinos if managed on a large scale could be a veritable gold mine. Would you not like that Ezra?" She smiled. The three of us can be partners."

"An intriguing idea," Ezra muttered, lying through his teeth. "Perhaps one that should be given some thought after you have considered all the facts regarding the sale of the Emporium."

"I've made up my mind." Julia said firmly, surprising them both. "I intend to sell."

"You have made up your mind?" Ezra stared at her. "Julia, we have only began to discuss this subject. How can you arbitrarily make such a decision?"

Julia rose to her feet, feeling her anger at the unfairness of this whole situation get the better of her. "I can Ezra because the Emporium is mine. I do not need to consult you on what I choose to do with it. You are not my husband yet." With that, she swept away from the table and left him and Maude staring after her in shock.

Ezra blinked, not because of her words but because she had never spoken to him in such a cutting manner before her. However, it was not just her manner that troubled him so was the fact that there was something hidden behind all that anger and exaggerated sense of outrage at his presumption. Was she hiding something from him? What? They had never kept secrets from each other even though Julia was by nature a creature accustomed to deception. Her whole life was a faÁade of appearing the good and dutiful daughter while only in the shadows was she whom she had dared to be. Ezra and Julia had endured each otherís worst and yet there was never an occasion where they had not been able to tell each other the truth even if it was difficult sometimes and there were things that could not be spoken on. Through those moments, they provided each other moral support and particularly of late, Ezra had realized how important that could be.

"Thereís something wrong." Amazingly this statement did not escape his lips in a moment of distraction but came instead from Maude.

"I think that it is a distinct possibility," Ezra readily agreed.

"She loves that Emporium." Maude stated. "I could never imagine that she would consider selling it."

"Neither did I." Ezra confessed. "She has always claimed it would never change."

"People do change," Maude pointed out although she tended to agree with Ezraís initial assessment that Julia adored the place too much to give it up.

"Not that much," Ezra said shortly. "Excuse me mother, this bears investigation." He rose to his feet from the table.

"Ezra," Maude quickly spoke up. "Perhaps you ought to give her some time on this. She did seem rather upset."

Ezra did not deny that but something about her words particularly stung; the remark that she was not his wife yet. Was she alluding to the fact that most their friends were now married and they were not? Before his experiences with Julius, they had actually agreed to set a date for their wedding. Now Ezra could not even think of that day without feeling cold tendrils of sweat running down his back. He kept wondered what would happen on the wedding night when Julia touched him and he discovered the sensation had not been as pleasant as those first few minutes with Julius when he had been confused and disorientated. The possibility of that happening frightened Ezra so much that he could not even entertain the notion of marriage until he was certain what the outcome would be.

Unfortunately, it was also unfair to place such limitations on Julia whom up till now had been completely supportive in all things. It was Julia and his friends who had helped him through the aftermath of Juliusís attack and while the six men he rode with had no expectations of him, the same could not be said for Julia whose relationship had a different dynamic altogether. He wondered if her behavior this morning had to do with being unable to cope with his detachment. Knowing that she might have reservations about their relationship suddenly brought to home just how much he could lose if he did not convince her that he cared, that there was some future for them. He prayed that her decision to sell the Emporium did not have deeper reasons, which saw its root in their unsteady relations at moment.

Ezra left the table and went to Juliaís bedroom. He was not surprised when he found the door locked. It would be a simple matter to turn away and deal with this later but he could not stand her being hurt for any reason, particularly if he was the cause. If he had done this to her, if he had made her want to sell the Emporium, perhaps as a prelude to leaving Four Corners forever, Ezra would know what he had done to make her feel this way and rectify it. Losing her was not an option. When he had first emerged from Juliusí attack, Ezra had thought that driving her away would be the most merciful thing for the both of them but then he realized that if he gave up Julia, he would be making the single worst mistake of his life. He loved her. Through all the heartache and anguish that had been engendered because of Hannibal Julius, that was one thing he could be certain of without doubt or hesitation.

"Julia," Ezra said after a moment. "Please let me."

"Go away," Julia snapped through the barrier. "Iím tired of talking."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Julia, this is foolishness. I thought we could discuss this like adults."

"I have nothing to say, I donít want the Emporium any more and that is my decision, not yours!" She returned sharply.

"Agreed," Ezra nodded. "I am sorry I was not more supportive of your decision. I was just under the mistaken impression that you would never part with the Emporium. I always believed that you adored the establishment."

There was a slight pause and Ezra wondered if he had convinced her that his intention earlier, was not to impose his will upon her but rather an expression of genuine puzzlement at her decision. He really hoped that such was the case.

"Not anymore," she answered after a moment and there was something about her voice that immediately told Ezra that she was lying.

"Julia? Are you crying?" He asked because that was certainly what it sounded like.

"No!" She protested but he knew that it was a lie, as her answer had been. "I am not."

"Open this door." He demanded no longer wanting to carry on this conversation through a locked door. He could not bear the sound of her tears and worse yet, knowing that he is the cause of it. "Please."

Thorough the smooth polish of the door, he could hear her sucking in her breath before she twisted the doorknob open and faced him again. Although she was no longer crying, her eyes showed every evidence of it. She was clearly distressed despite her best efforts not to show it to him and Ezra deduced that whatever was worrying her was serious indeed.

"Julia what is it?" He asked her quietly, unwilling to pass the threshold of her doorway until she told him.

"I just need a change," she confessed, rebuking herself for being so weak. Why couldn't she hide how she felt about her agonizing decision? There was a time when she could disguise anything? Had the years in Four Corners made her that soft?

"I understand," he responded warmly but something about her manner still felt wrong. "However, you are not prone to being so emotional without good cause."

"How do you anything about me lately?" She answered almost on reflex. She was not angry but the words had slipped out on first impulse.

"What does that mean exactly?" He stared at her hard, feeling a little defensive that he might have ignored her needs during his own troubles.

"Nothing," she turned away wearily. "It is nothing."

"You brought it up." He pointed out, not wishing to let it go at that.

"I am putting it down again," Julia declared hotly, moving deeper into the room and prompting Ezra to follow if he wanted any answers. She placed herself at her dressing table and began brushing her hair, trying not to look at his reflection in the mirror as she did so.

"Julia," Ezra walked to her. "Something is troubling you a great deal. Beneath all this venom is the reason for it. Please tell me the truth. What is it? We have faced much worse you and I and it has never fractured us the way we at this moment. I do not wish for us to start experiencing such difficulties."

Julia softened and met his gaze. "You're right," she tried to smile but did not manage it. "I just wish things were different between us. I wish I could touch you without you flinching. I hate Julius for what he did to you because of that, because making love to me is now something that is an effort for you rather than a pleasure."

"It will not always be that way," he tried to convince her, knowing that he could offer her nothing more substantial than that and it frightened him because it was not enough. She might leave him on that basis alone and who could blame her? He placed his hand on her cheek and saw her lean into his palm as if it were something she had not felt against her skin for too long. She closed her eyes and continued to caress her cheek against his hand as she savored the sensation.

Julia opened her eyes after a moment and saw Ezra staring at her with hunger in his eyes. He pulled her to her feet roughly, hands on her shoulders as he pressed his mouth against hers. For a few seconds, what they argued about was so far away, it barely registered in either of their minds as their tongues dueled in heat, his hands running through the tousled luxury of red hair. It felt so good to touch him again, to feel the faint musk of his skin within her lungs, to feel his hard body pressed against him. She had forgotten just how much she enjoyed making love to this man and how their passion has incendiary enough to lit the sheet when they came together.

Ezra reveled in the taste of her, telling himself that it was too long. He needed her so much. He could smell her perfume and tried to recall the last time he had scented it so close. His mind began drifting back to the memory and suddenly, without even realizing it, he was winding down a path of memory he had no business witnessing. With shocking clarity, it came upon him the exact moment he had last been in a situation like this. It was not with Julia or even in this house, it had been with Julius. Julia's perfume had tricked him into believing that he was with her, instead of Hannibal. The unfolding truth came just before he felt Julius first agonizing trust into her body.

"I can't!" Ezra gasped, pulling her away from him and disentangling himself away from her as if he were scaled.

Julia did not resist at all. It was a scene she had endured too many times during the last two months to be surprised by it. Her disappointment and frustration surfaced for but a second as she felt herself descending from the heights they had been starting to reach. She wiped her lips and straightened her robe, trying not to appear as scalded as she felt. "It's alright," she whispered softly, feeling the tears threatening to come again but this time, she forced them away because she would not hurt him by allowing him to see them. She could endure anything for him. "When you are ready I will be here."

"I am sorry," Ezra's face contorted into despair, mortified by his inability to be a man to her as well as bleeding for the pain he had caused her, the pain he could see reflected in her eyes. Ezra looked at her helplessly and whispered, knowing his words were meaningless. "I wish it were different."

"I know you do," she sighed, reminded now that she was truly in this situation alone. He was not ready to be burden with her difficulties, not when he was so far from recovery. "Believe me that helps."

And yet even as the words came from her lips, Ezra knew that she was lying to him. That there was more but after this, he did not feel as if he had any right to ask.

+ + + + + + +

Mary Travis had a dozen things to do today and as she ran off the list in her head, she wondered what madness made her juggle so many things at once in her life without going absolutely insane. She was wife, mother, newspaper editor and sometimes, community leader and the moment, it appeared as she stared at the long list of groceries she required for the house, shopper too. She supposed she could send Chris on this errand but men had no sense of logic when they went shopping, having recalled what he did the last time she sent him to do this particular chore. It was not easy explaining to a man that just because creamed corn was on sale at 2 cents a can, it was no reason to buy ten of them, especially when no one in the house ate it.

What was to be done with the man? Nothing that could be spoken about in polite company, Mary thought with a devilish smile that no one who came upon her would understand.

Mary walked towards the Potter store when she saw Gloria stepped out of the premises and locking the main doors behind her. Once she had done so, she began to paste a sign on the door, a sign that elicited a gasp of shock by those who had been about to patronise the sore. Gloria did not seem to be listening despite the astonishment engendered by her customers and instead hurried down the steps, to put as much distance between herself and the Potters Good Store as possible. Mary stared after her briefly before hurrying up to the doors to read the sign that had given the rest of the townsfolk such a shock. Pushing past the others who were buzzing with question after reading for themselves the content of the sign, Mary rested her gaze on the scribbled words written.

"Selling the store!" Mary exclaimed, suddenly empathizing with the shock felt by the others.

If there was one thing Mary could be certain of it was Gloria Potter's dedication to remaining in town and more importantly keeping her husband store alive. Mary hurried away from the group and saw Gloria departing not far away. The newspaperwoman hastened her pace and caught up with Gloria no time. Both women had been friends for as long as they had lived in Four Corners. Mary and Gloria had always shared a kinship because they were both alone with children to care for, attempting to make their own way in the world after the premature end for both their husbands.

"Gloria!" Mary called out.

Gloria paused and winced inwardly, not wishing to talk to Mary of all people. If there was anyone who would not understand the choice that she had made, it was Mary. Mary was privy to her hopes and dreams in the wake of her husband's death. However, Gloria would have to convince Mary of her earnest desire to sell the store or she would never get Robbie back. Mary's word carried great weight with her husband Chris Larabee. If Mary could not be convinced then it would enflame Chris' suspicions even more. Already the gunslinger was certain that there was something taking place between her and Bosshard. While this would more or less convince him there was; she still had to show Chris that her reason to sell was her own desire not because Bosshard had forced her to do so. Any suspicion she brought upon him would result in Robbie's death so Gloria would reveal nothing to her friend.

"Mary," she regarded the newspaperwoman.

"Is it true?" Mary asked out of breath, unable to imagine that Gloria could be embarking on such a course. It seemed almost unbelievable.

"What?" Gloria asked indifferently.

Mary could not believe she would feign ignorance ."Gloria, is it true you're selling the store?" She demanded.

"Yes," Gloria nodded, almost detached in her response. "Why?"

"Why?" Mary shook her head unable to believe the lack of emotion in the woman's voice as she spoke about something that had meant so much to her. "I thought you would never sell. You said you'd never do that. I can't believe that you would!"

"I have children to take care of Mary," Gloria met her gaze sharply. "I was offered me a fair price. In fact it's not just a fair price, it's a handsome one and I would be a fool to simply ignore it. With the money he offered me I can take the children back East and set us up. I won't have to live with all this constant danger."

Mary could not accept it. She knew Gloria all too well. The lady had considered Four Corners her home for too long to suddenly make an about face. "You said this was your home, the home you and your husband were going to build. You said nothing would ever drive you away from it because his death gave you the right to stay!"

"Things change!" Gloria snapped, not wishing to discuss this. "I do not wish to remain in town any longer. I am sick of the killing and the danger we seemed to get here all the time because of those seven men!"

Mary's jaw dropped open in shock, unable to believe that Gloria could say such a thing. "How dare you?" Mary glared at her in a low voice. "How dare you say that those men are responsible for the death that's been in this town when you know that it isn't true! They stood up for your husband when no one else would! When the rest of the town was willing to let his killers go free, those men saw to it that justice was done even before they were paid a dollar a day!"

"I'm sorry," Gloria recanted, knowing that her words were spoken in anger and that Mary was right. The seven had not been responsible for the violence and since their arrival in town, things had only become better for Four Corners. "I did not mean it that way. I am just tired of this life Mary, I need to go."

"I don't understand," Mary whispered "This isn't you Gloria."

"Yes it is," Gloria turned away and started walking. "You just haven't noticed."

Mary did not know what to say, feeling a little guilty because she had been so caught up with things taking place in her life she could not honestly say things were harder for Gloria or not. Inwardly, she had felt ashamed by her lack of notice. "Gloria," Mary called out.

Gloria paused. "Yes Mary?" The older woman looked back, resignation in her face.

"If it is the right thing for you, I wish you all the best." Mary said warmly, trying to smoothen their argument by offering her belated support.

"Thank you," Gloria whispered softly. "I appreciate it."

"So you sold the store," Mary sighed. "Who bought it?"

"Benjamin Bosshard." Gloria answered, hoping her response would not engender the response she feared it would.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

"Benjamin Bosshard?" Mary stared at her aghast. For a moment, it was beyond registering that Gloria could sell to someone like Bosshard, whose infamous reputation was well known and in particular after what had surfaced in the last few days regarding his involvement in the death of Ezra's Standish' father. Mary was well aware of Bosshard's activities in even greater detail than most. As a journalist she had been unable to ignore the goings on in Colfax and Lincoln County where nothing less than a range war of sorts had been declared between the homesteaders and the ranchers. With gun battle and colorful characters like Billy the Kid, Clay Allison, Mariano Leiba of Bernalillo, and Vincente Silva playing active part in the drama, the only thing more unbelievable than the lawlessness was the casualty rate.

It took a presidential order to remove Governor Axtel to restore some semblance of order but the Sante Fe Ring that had instigated all the violence had no disbanded. Thomas Cotran was still in power and pulling the strings behind men like Senator Elkins and Laurence Murphy. Bosshard was a known associate of Murphy and like Chris, Mary worried that the present governor's desire to stamp out the corruption in Lincoln and Colfax had instigated Bosshard's interest in Four Corners. It was now an interest that had now developed into a foothold with Bosshard's acquisition of the Potter Goods Store.

"Gloria, how could you?" Mary asked, when she finally composed herself to speak. "How could you sell to a man like that? How could you give him a way into our community?"

"He offered me a good price!" Gloria snapped, about to burst into tears but knew she could not show weakness because Mary would use it to get the truth from her and Gloria could not allow that. Her son lived because she had agreed to play Bosshard's game. She dared not defy him when Robbie's life hung in the balance of her actions. She could not. "I had to take it!"

"You put your own petty need for money above the town's safety?" Mary retorted. "Don't you know what he is? Don't you know what he could do now that he has a way in?"

"I don't have to explain myself to you!" Gloria fairly shouted. "I did what I have to do! Now leave me alone!"

With that, she spun on her heels and stormed away from Mary, leaving the newspaperwoman immediately regretting her harsh words and determined to find out the truth because she knew Gloria's explanation was not it.

+ + + + + + +

Benjamin Bosshard was very pleased at himself. He studied the signature on the papers in his hand and took some satisfaction in the scent of fresh ink that was still seeping into the fiber. As he sat at the breakfast table, the sunshine poured through the windows caught the slick moisture of the ink, causing it to gleam slightly in the light. Bosshard took pleasure in following the curve of ink that formed Gloria Potter's signature, enjoying it very much when the woman had arrived earlier this morning to sell him her store. He particularly liked her begging for the release of her son and her reaction to his response that the boy would be kept in his power for just a little while longer, giving her an added incentive to keep her mouth shut about the sale. In a small town like this where everyone knew each other's business, the sale of the Potter store would undoubtedly be a shock and Bosshard did not wish to have Gloria complicating matters when he had yet to finish his dealings in tow n, by speaking out of turn.

With the Potter Store securely in his possession, Bosshard could not turn his attention to the acquisition of the Pemberton Emporium, surely the rosiest plum in the pickings at Four Corners. He had no doubt that the lovely owner of the establishment would deny him the Emporium, especially after seeing the fear in her eyes at the possibility of her whereabouts being known to her father. Of course, the more Bosshard pondered the situation, the more attractive the notion of taking more than just the Emporium became to him. She was indeed one of the loveliest women he had ever laid his eyes upon and she was spirited. Spirited women were always of great interest to him, particularly when he had the means to break them. Julia would do just about anything to keep her father from intruding on the happy life she had built here. It was dangerous to entertain any thoughts about her but Bosshard could not help wonder if the gambler with whom she was so closely affiliated, had any idea who she was. &nbs p;

How far would she go to protect that secret? Once the Emporium was sold, Bosshard intended on finding out.

He was entertaining himself with this delicious possibility when Spenser entered the room. His associate had been out seeking information about Maude Standish, the woman who attempted to murder him in the saloon two nights ago. As he thought about the lady, his arm instinctively twitched and he felt a flare of anger at her attempt to kill him. She had failed and the only reason he had allowed Marks and Spenser to kill her where she stood was the fact that she was mother to one of the seven lawmen in Four Corners. Bosshard was already treading a fine line with their leader Chris Larabee, who was a sharp intellect that recognised danger when it came riding into town, even when the man was uncertain of what shape it was.

"What have you found?" Bosshard looked up at the man as he approached the table and took the seat next to his employer. "Quite a bit," Spenser answered as he started to pour himself some coffee. "I had to send a few telegrams and grease a few palms to get what we needed but I have a rather complete history of the woman."

"I am waiting with abated breath," Bosshard returned sourly, showing his impatience in the glare he sent in Spenser's direction.

"Well her name is Maude Standish and she hails from one of those rich southern families that went penniless after the war. Apparently, they disowned her years before that and she's had an interesting career as a con artist and a gambler."

"An intriguing woman. However, she claims that I have murdered her husband. Any information on that?" Bosshard asked and raised his cup to drink."

"Yes," Spenser nodded automatically. "According to this, she was married to some marshal, he apparently died in the town of Eagles Nest about three years after, leaving her with a son."

Bosshard looked up sharply at Spenser. "Are you telling me that Maude Standish is Marshall Peter Reeves' wife?" He demanded.

Spenser did not expect that kind of a reaction and immediately checked the information he had received. "Yeah," he nodded slowly once it was confirmed. "She was married to Marshall Peter Reeves, you know him?"

"I killed him." Bosshard said venomously. "In the town of Eagles Nest about thirty years ago. He was a self-righteous son of a bitch who was getting into Cotran's business. Tried to charge Cotran with fraud and arrest Murphy and me for murder."

"I'm guessing you got him first." Spenser responded, aware that there could only be one response to a man like that, swift and decisive action. Spenser knew Thomas Cotran enough to know that the lawyer would not have tolerated any challenge to his rising star. Cotran had wanted public office and would have eradicated any threat to that dream with extreme prejudice.

"Yeah we got him but not at first," Bosshard whispered, his mind tumbling into memories of the Marshall, a man he had especially hated because of Reeve's bold defiance. He had swore to Reeves as the man's blood spilled into the ground before him, that he would find his wife and child and kill them. He had sent Reeves into hell knowing that. Unfortunately, Reeves was not a fool and however he managed to smuggle his family out of Eagles Nest, he did so without leaving any trail. For years after that, Bosshard had searched for the widow and the brat, determined to splatter their brains across Reeve's tombstone. However that desire had never came into fruition and after almost five years of searching, Bosshard gave up, deciding that fate would one day act in his favor and bring them to him.

Like it had now.

"I guess I didn't know what I was dealing with," Bosshard sighed in understanding. "Reeves married himself a con artist who is very good at hiding. That explains why we never found the bitch and her brat. All this time I was looking for a poor widow and her child when I ought to be looking in gambling houses and casinos. I promised Reeves I was going to spill their blood on his grave. I do not intend to break my promises, especially now when Mrs. Reeves had delivered herself so conveniently into my hands."

"Back then, it couldn't have been easy to kill a US Marshall," Spenser pointed out, wishing to hear more about this than Bosshard was volunteering.

"It wasn't," Bosshard agreed. "We didn't wan to do it, at least not without good reason but he was a smart bastard who couldn't keep his mouth shut. Paying him off didn't work. Damn near shot me for even making the offer and called me Murphy's lapdog. I wasn't letting him get away with that but Murphy and Cotran wanted to let things settle down but they didn't know what they was dealing with, I did. I knew Reeves wouldn't just let things go. He was one of those lawmen that really believed that tin star can save him from anything. He went about Eagles Nest raising all kinds of hell with the people in town, making them unafraid to stand up to us. When that happened, Cotran didn't have a choice, we had to kill. He thought he was untouchable, I showed him how wrong he was. I killed him and there was not a person in that town who would raise a finger to help. After that I disappeared out of town for awhile, Cotran said that it was a good idea I made myself scarce. That was fine with me, I wanted to find Reeves' family but by then she had disappeared and like I said she was very good at hiding."

"I don't know whether we ought to make a move against her yet." Spenser pointed out. "Her son is a lawman in this town and if we go after him, Larabee will come down on us like an ill wind."

"I know," Bosshard agreed with that warning and turned to Spenser with a vicious gleam in his eyes. "So I do the next best thing for the moment. If I can't have Reeve's son or his wife, then I'll satisfy myself with the boy's woman. With what I know about her, she won't have any choice in the matter but let me take her."

Part Five

Power

Maude did not see her husband's killer but she certainly heard him.

They were having dinner that night when the door knocked loudly. Peter had been somewhat distracted lately and Maude had the feeling it had to do with his investigations into Thomas Cotran. It appeared that the incident with Mr. Pennyworth was only the first of many such swindles that were taking place in town. The local sheriff had asked for Peter's help in combating the problem since a Marshall might have the authority he lacked to do something about the worsening situation in Eagles Nest. Unfortunately, Sheriff Oatley was killed a week later and what had only been cursory investigations by Peter into Cotran's affairs suddenly gained urgency. The Marshall had opted to stay in town, attempting to uncover as much evidence as he could about Cotran by talking to other clients who had been similarly cheated as James Pennyworth.

Although Maude understood the necessity of what he was doing, she could not deny that a part of her was a little afraid of where this investigation might lead. After hearing of how Pennyworth had been gunned down in the street and the murder of Sheriff Oatley not long after, she felt rising fear about what Cotran and the men around him were willing to do to protect him. However, she remained silent about her fears because Peter was a lawman and she had known this when she had married him. It was unfair to start making demands of his profession when she knew what it was she was letting herself in for. She loved his courage and his determination to do right and if he stopped being all those things because of her than she had done nothing less than rip out the heart of what he was. She loved him too much for that even if she was terrified of losing him.

When the door had knocked, silencing their dinner conversation so abruptly, Peter had bid her to stay at the table with Ezra. However, she could not help notice that he went to answer the door with his gun tucked firmly in his hand. Holding Ezra, Maude crept up the hallway, whose long passage provided the perfect amplification needed to eaves drop and hid in the shadows listening. Peter was attempting to lower his voice when he spoke, no doubt to keep her from hearing what was being said. Unfortunately, she did hear and in hearing, her heart clenched with alarm.

"Mr. Cotran asked me to pay you a courtesy call, Marshall."

Maude recognized the voice as that of Murphy, one of Cotran's men. He had been present when Pennyworth had been murdered and was also credited with the death of Sheriff Oatley.

"Is that what they call it these days, Murphy?" Peter had returned coolly, perfectly aware that the visit was a warning.

"Now Marshall," Murphy drawled with menace oozing from each word he spoke. "I'm just offering you some friendly advice. You don't spent much time in Eagle Nest so you don't know how things work around here."

"I know enough," Peter retorted, the tempo of his voice indicated he was getting angry at being talked down to as if he were a fool. "I know that Cotran is a swindler and not just a swindler, a murdering swindler."

"That Sir, is slander." Murphy declared, with a hint of outrage in his voice. "Since when is it illegal to have one paid was is owed?"

"Its illegal when a slick lawyer with more nose for money than the law, decides to abuse the trust placed in him by those who entrust their livelihoods into his care." Peter said sharply. "That Sir, is not slander but a truth that Cotran is living out this moment at the expense of Eagle Nest. I won't allow it to go any further than it already has, you can tell him that."

"What are you going to do?" Murphy sneered. "He hasn't done anything wrong."

"Then he won't mind if I contact the Federal bar Association and discuss it with them. I'm sure the letter I'm going to write about what he's doing here will interest them a great deal. I may not be able to arrest him but I sure as hell can cause enough stink with those Federal boys to have him disbarred! It's going to be tough to swindle people without a license to practice law."

"You wouldn't dare...." Murphy hissed real anxiety in his voice for the first time.

"Try me," the Marshall said coldly.

"You're a dead man Marshall," Murphy warned. "You hear me, a dead man!"

"If you don't get off my porch, you'll be one long before I am." The Marshall punctuated that statement by producing the gun in his hand and aiming it at the man's face.

"This isn't over," Murphy warned impotently but his withdrawing footsteps indicated otherwise. "You here me Marshall? It ain't over!"

Maude slumped to the floor, still holding Ezra as she heard Murphy screaming those words.

+ + + + + + +

When Chris learnt about the sale of the Potters Good Store, his first reaction was anger. Anger because he had known something was wrong with Gloria, he had felt it in every fibre of his being but the lack of cooperation from the lady herself had prevented him from investigating the situation any further. However, it was incontrovertible now that Benjamin Bosshard was out to practice the kind of Ďbusinessí that turned Lincoln and Colfax county into a war zone. In those beleaguered communities, men like Bosshard who owned mercantile businesses that dealt in staples, would allow settlers to purchase their goods on credit, allowing them to accumulate vast sums of debt in such a manner and then demand lump sum payments. Unable to pay in cash, the settlers would have no alternative but to relinquish their land in order to make restitution, making their creditors richer than ever.

The practice, mostly inspired by cattle barons and ranchers who were attempting to drive out the homesteader at any cost, was at the heart of the Lincoln Ė Colfax County Wars. Opposing factions, attempting to stop this exploitation had turn the area into a no manís land rife with lawlessness. Hired guns had thrived there because there was always someone to kill and the infamous Billy the Kid had been borne of such violence. Chris knew that by acquiring the Potterís Good Store, Bosshard who was lackey to men like Thomas Cotran and Lawrence Murphy who were the main practitioners of such dishonesty, was now in the position to do the same thing in Four Corners. No doubt, he would get plenty of support from men like Guy Royal and Stuart James who had always disliked the influx of settlers into the community. The unfortunate part of the whole situation was the fact that as abhorrent as the practice was, it was not illegal just dishonest. Unfortunately, though it may seem amazing, the one did not often mean the other.

Chris could run him out of town but Bosshard had money and influence enough to see to it his exile would not last indefinitely and the seven men who were responsible for law in this town would find themselves accountable. Chris did not entirely care about the dangers to himself in that respect but he objected to doing something that would remove the seven from their position and leave Four Corners undefended from Bosshard and his plans. As much as Chris hated it, he had to show restraint even though his first impulse was to go to Bosshard and shoot the man. It was bad enough that the Judge was due in town today tomorrow to deal with Maude Standish, with only her word that Bosshard was guilty of any crime but the fact that the man might be running rife through his town, was enough to drive the gunslinger to distraction. Particularly when there was nothing Chris could do about it at this point.

He knew that Ezra was watching the man closely and if the truth were known, Ezra was an unknown factor he could not rely upon too closely these days. Although Chris trusted Ezra as much as he ever did, the fact of the matter was Ezraís ordeal at Hannibal Juliusí hands had left him something of a wild card. In the past, Chris could always rely upon the gambler to keep a cool head. In fact, next to Vin, Ezra was the one who could most remain calm under pressure. These days however, he had many demons to deal with and was more inclined at striking at the heart of his pain rather than considering his actions first. Chris had said nothing because he was the last person on this earth to point out such failings to another human being, not after what he had been like when the seven had first formed their fellowship.

It was bad enough that Bosshard was responsible for the death of Ezraís father and so far, he had shown remarkable restraint in not reacting but Chris knew that he was also under a great strain to keep himself in check. Chris wanted justice for Ezra but he did not want his friends succumbing to the darkness inside himself given birth when Julius had tortured him so viciously. Chris did not wish to see Ezra lashing out at Bosshard in an act of vengeance that would most likely destroy his friend rather than see justice done. Bosshard was no fool. His actions to date in Four Corners ensured that he was a law-abiding citizen going about his business. Despite what was known about Bosshardís shady past, a judge might be inclined to think that Ezra had killed an innocent man, if the gambler was prompted into doing anything rash. Chris was determined to see that this did not happen. He had stood by and let Ezra kill Julius, an action which still haunted him although he comforted himself in the fact that if anyone had deserved to die that way, it was certainly Julius. However, this was different. Bosshardís innocence or guilt lay solely with Maude Standish and on that basis, Chris had reason to doubt. That doubt alone was enough to make him hold back on his opinion.

"How did he do it?" Chris mused to himself as he sat inside the Standish Tavern at their usual table, pondering the news Mary had delivered to him a short time ago regarding the Potter Store.

"Do what Chris?" Buck Wilmington inquired.

The mood around the table was tense because Chris was tense and it translated to all of them. Ezra on the other hand was merely quiet and that was usual for him these days, even before his mother rode into town and tried to gun down a man in front of a dozen witnesses. They continued to play cards, going through the motions of relaxing when they were all thinking hard about what Mary had told them. Each man knew Gloria Potter well. The lady had been one of their strongest supporters since their arrival in Four Corners. Each had formed their own opinion of the woman and that opinion did not correlate with the action of selling the store, which her husband had died to protect.

"How did he get her to sell?" Chris raised his eyes to Buck and then the others.

"It must have been a hell of a good price," Josiah frowned, having enough conversations with the woman to know that she had always been determined to stay in Four Corners, no matter how difficult things became for her and her family. She had always claimed that being run off by outlaws would only allow them to win and make her husband death for nothing. Josiah was in as much disbelief as the rest of his companions that she could make such a bout face.

"Was it a price she could afford to turn down?" Ezra inquired. "We all know Mr Bosshardís habits. His reputation in Colfax and Lincoln speak for themselves. He is a protťgť of Thomas Cotran who made his fortune as a lawyer by swindling his clients out of their money. Could he have done something of the same here?"

"No I donít think thatís the case here," Nathan replied. "Mrs Potter ainít fool enough to be tricked. She may be a woman but sheís a shrewd about money."

"That may be," Chris spoke up, agreeing in part with some of Ezraís assessment even though he suspected that much of it was motivated by Ezraís personal feelings about Bosshard. "I think Ezra is right in a small way though. I think that he bought the store as a precursor for making a grab for land like he did in Lincoln. Buy a goods store and let people make purchases on credit."

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "Iíve seen this kind of thing before in Texas. People were buying stuff on credit until they owed so much money it was like in the hundreds of dollars with interest of course and the next thing you know, the store wants their money and the only thing they got to pay with is land."

"And you think Bosshard wants to do that here?" Buck asked. "Why?"

"Because theyíre almost finished in Lincoln and Colfax. With Governor Axtel out of office, the Santa Fe Ring donít got the protection they used to, or half as much money. The new Governor has been appointed by the President to clean up the mess down there so everyone is being watched real close. Four Corners may be a little rough but it ainít got the near the reputation that Colfax and Lincoln counties do. I think theyíre expanding their business interests here because the law ainít looking closely in this direction."

"And now heís got a way in because of Gloria Potter selling him his store." JD pointed out. "I never imagined sheíd do that."

"She seemed very nervous when we talked to her yesterday morning," Vin pointed out. He recalled the meeting inside her store where Gloria had ordered him and Chris out of the place when Chrisí questions became to invasive, though Vin did not think that they were but Gloria seemed to take offense nonetheless. "Especially when Chris asked her about Bosshard. We caught her looking at him from her store earlier and it seemed like she could have killed him where he stood so I canít imagine her selling to him less than a day later."

"Unless she didnít do it willingly," Buck said sipping his beer and peering over the edge of his glass at Chris, his eyes filled with suggestion.

"Iíve been thinking about that," Chris confessed, having mulled the thought around his head about that particular point. "Gloria doesnít scare easily though. Iíd like to know what he has on her that would make her that afraid to stand up to him and give up her store."

"Maybe I should ask her," Josiah suggested. Sometimes being an ex-preacher tended to make people let down their defenses, even someone as stubborn and determined as Gloria Potter. "She doesnít mind talking to me most times," Josiah explained. "I guess she still sees me as a man of the cloth."

"I donít know Josiah," Chris shrugged unsure of that point winning the woman over in this instance. "I think sheís very scared and while she might think of you as a preacher under normal circumstances, this ain't one of those times. If we try and push her, we could make things worse."

"Especially if Bosshard has warned her from speaking to us," Ezra suggested.

The rest of the seven, except for Chris glanced in his direction. "You think?"

"Itís worth a try," Josiah offered. "If we can get her to tell us what he has on her, maybe we can help her."

"Maybe," Chris pondered the question. "Or maybe it might make things worse. If Bosshard is threatening her, he might be smart enough to use whatever it is he's got against her to see to it that she don't talk to us."

"That makes sense," Nathan retorted. "They're bound to know that as soon as she decided to sell, there would be questions, especially from those of us who knows her well. That's why she was so short with you Chris, she probably wasn't supposed to tell you anything."

"What if she does tell us the truth?" JD asked once more. "Can we do anything to help her? I mean the store will still belong to Bosshard.

"It wouldn't be a legal sale if she made it under duress," Buck explained. "It's almost certain that Bosshard is holding something over her head. Mrs Potter's a tough old bird. No way she'd just up and sell without good reason. I reckon Bosshard is blackmailing her someway."

"You know," Vin suggested. "If Bosshard wanted to land grab this way I kind of think he would have gone for something bigger than Mrs. Potter's store."

"What do you mean?" Chris gazed at the younger man who appeared to have stumbled across something they had yet to discuss.

"Well think about it," Vin said, tossing the idea around more than putting any real stock into it. "If you wanted to get lots of people owing you money, why settle for Mrs Potter's store? Sure it does brisk trade but its small pickings. If you really wanted to make some money, you'd go for the Emporium."

Ezra was raising his glass to his lips when those words escaped Vin Tanner and for a moment, it did not register. However, that moment was brief and when they sunk into his consciousness, the idea that screamed out at him was so loud that he was surprised the others could not hear it. Suddenly, Julia's behavior made sense. Was she not doing the exact same thing that Gloria Potter had done? Contemplating the sale of the Emporium that was not only her livelihood but her life and one that she loved almost as much as him.

"Damn!" Ezra Standish swore so loudly that he silenced that room immediately and drew an astonished expression from those seated around him.

"Ezra what?" Nathan stared at him in confusion, speaking not merely for himself but the rest of the gambler's friends who were presently staring at Ezra in surprise.

Ezra could not answer for a second. His mind was reeling and he was rebuking himself for being so obtuse. How could he have not guessed the truth before now? Suddenly everything he had gone through with Julia fell into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He had attributed her decision to his behavior of late and realised that had he not been so self conscious, he might have realised the truth; that she was being blackmailed in very much the same way Gloria Potter was. Ezra knew that there was no conceivable reason why she would part with her beloved Emporium and why she had been so anguished about the making the decision. If he had not been so absorbed in his own securities, he might have been able to see past her lie and understood that she needed him for a change.

"Julia," Ezra spoke finally through clenched teeth. "She told me morning that she intended to sell the Emporium."

"He couldn't be that stupid," Nathan started to say, almost sputtering with the same outrage that Ezra was having great difficulty keeping in check at the present moment. "I mean surely he'd know that she'd tell us?"

"Not necessarily," Ezra mused lowering himself into his seat. In stumbling upon this unsettling truth, Ezra tried to understand why Julia would have chosen to keep this a secret from him. Why did she lie to him? Was she afraid that coupled with what he already knew about Bosshard's murder of his father, Ezra would do something rash if he learnt that Julia was being threatened? Or was the reason even simpler? That with all his present difficulties, she did not want to burden him with her own situation. He was shocked at that being the answer and wondered how Julia could think such a thing. However, he answered his own question before the thought had left his head. She had not told him because she did not wish to make his feelings against Bosshard any more incendiary than it already was. After what he had done to Hannibal Julius, how could she be certain that he would not react in much the same way.

"What did Julia say Ezra?" Chris asked, watching the gambler closely. He could see the darkness in Ezra's eyes as the threat to Julia materialized and hoped that this had not pushed the man over the edge.

"Very little." Ezra muttered almost to himself. He was still to dazed and angry at himself for being unable to see what was right in front of him . How could he have been so mistaken about Julia? He should have known that she was in trouble! She had been so afraid and he had been unable to see it! Of course, Ezra had been unable to see a great many things of late and this only brought to home just how detached he was from the woman he loved. It was more than just a physical disconnection but an emotional one. Oh he showed he loved her but he kept telling himself that his ordeal at Hannibal Julius' hands gave him the moral justification to be so detached. He had a plethora of excuses as to why he could not commit to her but none of them seemed at all important at this moment.

"Ezra?" Nathan prompted again, seeing his friend had lapsed into thought again. Considering what Ezra had just found out, it was completely understandable.

"I apologise," Ezra rose his gaze to his friends and took a deep breath. "She stated that she wished to sell which I found rather abrupt considering that she adored the place. The Emporium was where Julia said she became a whole person because she discovered she could be more than just a beautiful face but someone with a mind capable of taking care of herself. I was rather astonished that she could even consider it but she was so angered by my inquiring why she wanted to sell that I eventually let the subject drop."

"That's more or less how Mrs Potter was," Vin pointed out. "Bosshard must have gotten to Julia the same way he could have gotten to Mrs Potter."

"What could he have on her though?" Josiah asked.

Vin, JD and Ezra exchanged brief glances since they were the ones present to meet Mr. Clemens, the Pinkerton detective who had come searching for Julia some months ago. Vin nodded gently at Ezra, indicating that Chris needed to know the truth. Ezra tended to agree because he trusted everyone at the table like brothers and knew that what was said in secrecy would go no further than this point if he so desired it. Ezra took in a deep breath and hoped Julia would forgive him for divulging her secret because he was almost certain that this was what Bosshard was using against her. He would tell the others the truth first and then decide whether or not he was going to remove Bosshard's head from his body.

"Her father." Ezra admitted after a time.

Chris' eyes met his sharply. "What about her father?" He straightened up in his chair and held Ezra's gaze.

"Her father is Donald Avery, a real estate tycoon. A man with a great deal of money with an unnatural fixation to his only daughter." Ezra said in a measured voice, hoping he did not need to explain in detail what he meant by that statement. However, judging by the darkening expressions on all the faces before him, Ezra guessed he did not have to. Their eyes spoke volumes.

"Jesus." Buck Wilmington exclaimed softly.

"When Julia arrived in Four Corners, she had in fact fled from a wedding arranged by her father to a man named Roderick Packard," Ezra continued to explain. "Packard is twenty years her senior and only wished for the marriage in order to gain swift entry into Philadelphia's high society. When Julia fled, she took with her a sum of $60,000 in order to set herself up here and remain hidden from her father. Last year, a Pinkerton detective arrived in Four Corners searching for Julia but she and I managed to convince him to go back the way he came without revealing Julia's whereabouts. Unfortunately, before his departure, Clemens indicated that Julia's father had not relented in his search even after all this time and Clemens had spoken to enough people around town for them to guess that it might be Julia whom he is searching for. If Bosshard made inquiries after Julia in order to find something to coerce her with, he might have stumbled onto that information."

"She stole $60,000?" JD asked, unable to even imagine such a sum of money let alone knowing someone who was smart enough to steal it and get away with the crime.

"Yes," Ezra nodded, noticing the uncomfortable expression on the faces of his friends with that aspect of his explanation. "She still has all of it. Apparently, the Emporium and certain business investments have seen to it that she has earned that money back and then some."

"Why don't she give it back?" Josiah offered. "Perhaps he might leave her be if he has his money back."

"No," Ezra shook his head. "His obsession with her is more than just monetary." Ezra did not wish to go into too much detail regarding the exact nature of Julia's relationship with her father, deciding that was information that was not required at this time. "That amount of money would leave a trail back to Julia and she has no wish to see her father or have him trace her. Besides, its money that he would hardly miss. The man is worth millions."

"So you think Bosshard found about Julia's dad and is blackmailing her into selling him the Emporium." Nathan concluded.

"I would almost guarantee it," Ezra retorted, his jaw tensing in anger. "First the man kills my father and now he threatens the woman I am going to marry. I think it is time to deal with Mr. Bosshard."

Ezra started to rise out of his chair when Chris spoke up curtly. "Ezra sit down."

Ezra stared at Chris, unable to believe that the gunslinger was telling him to stand down. Bosshard needed to pay for making his Julia weep as she had done when she told him about selling the store. He saw her heart break at the telling and Ezra never wanted to know that kind of pain in her eyes again. It was bad enough that he had caused her enough heartache in recent months, he was not going to let someone else do the same. "Are you telling me to do nothing?"

"Of course not," Chris returned, perfectly aware that Ezra would not stand for that in any shape or form but then neither would he if someone made such a threat to Mary. In fact, he would probably be less restrained than Ezra was being right now. "Unfortunately, we can't just rush in blindly. You threaten him and he'll take it out on Julia."

"He would not dare touch her." Ezra hissed, his hand inching to rest his fingers against the cool steel of his Remington revolver.

"He doesn't have to touch her to hurt her," Buck reminded. "Not if he's got her running scared of her father. All he has to do is get word out and Avery and we'll be left with the same problem."

"Oh maybe," Josiah sucked in a deep breath and hope his suggestion was not going to be balked at since it seemed like the most logical explanation even if it was a little difficult to consider it that way at first. "Maybe we should just let Bosshard make good his threat."

"Josiah that would bring her father here!" Nathan stared at him, trying to comprehend if Josiah's logic in all this particularly after what they had just been discussing. "We'd be letting Bosshard win."

Ezra held Josiah's gaze for a moment as it dawned upon him what the preacher was alluding to. Perhaps it was time that Julia faced this particular aspect of her past. This for dogged Julia for too long and each time the mere possibility arose that she might be forced to face her father, the woman's first impulse was to run or to capitulate to demands such as the one that was forcing her to sell the Emporium. He knew that the reason for her intense was the belief that her father would force her to abandon the life she had built for herself in Four Corners if he were to discover her whereabouts. However, a great deal had changed since she had fled Philadelphia in order to start her new life. She was no longer alone. In Four Corners, she had friends who would fight for her, most of whom were seated at this table right now. If Donald Avery came to Four Corners with designs of reclaiming his daughter, Ezra knew with confidence that none of them would allow it.

"You are suggesting that we allow Bosshard to tell Avery where she is?" Ezra voiced.

"Yes," Josiah nodded. "She can't hide forever. Eventually her past will catch up to her. If it's not because of someone like Bosshard, it might be another detective, one you can't convince to look the other way. Maybe its time that she faced him."

Ezra considered the idea. "If it were my choice to make Josiah, I would agree with you but it is not." He looked up and swept his eyes across the table. "It is Julia's choice. I can offer the suggestion when I see her but I cannot force her to face him. I will not."

"That's fair enough," Josiah nodded in understanding. Ezra was right; it was not their decision to make Julia face her demons. "However, you are the one person who might be able to convince her that it is time to stop running because we wouldn't let anything happen to her."

"That's right Ezra," Buck added. "If her father comes looking for her, he'll find all of us and we're not letting him take her anywhere if she don't want to go"

Ezra's lips curled slightly as he exchanged a brief moment of warmth with the friends at the table and felt singularly proud to count himself as one of their number. "I will relay that message to her when I see her. However, now that we are aware of the nature of Bosshard's business interests in town, what are we to do about it? I will belay my plans to kill the son of a bitch for now as you asked Chris but I will not allow him to make any further threats against Julia."

"We got him for blackmail that's for sure," Vin pointed out.

"Not necessarily," Chris quickly interjected. "We got to get Gloria to talk and if we don't know what he's got on her, she isn't going to help us. As for Julia, I rather not put her in that position yet and we have no idea how Bosshard is going to react if she says no to blackmail. I'd say getting the Emporium is more important to him than just getting his own back if she refuses to sell it to him. He might be provoked into doing something more direct."

An idea began to form in his head as Chris made that grim statement and for an instant, Ezra could not imagine how he was even considering such a plan. However, it had come upon him so suddenly and with such clarity that he knew it could work. Since Maude had told him the truth about his father and Bosshard, Ezra had been wrestling with the dilemma over what to do about it. He was unprepared to kill Bosshard the way he had killed Hannibal Julius because he knew the kind of nightmares that would plague him because of vengeance and Ezra was enduring enough of these as it is to wish inviting more upon himself. However, Bosshard had murdered his father and that had to be answered for. The man he might have been and the father he had never known demanded justice. Unfortunately, at the time there did not seem any way of extracting it that would not destroy him in the process.

"Perhaps this is the way we force Bosshard into the open," Ezra found himself stating for all to hear and hoped he was not being too presumptuous considering he had not even confronted Julia with the fact that he knew what was behind her abrupt decision to sell the Emporium. "We do not know what it is Bosshard has over Mrs. Potter but we do have some idea of what threat he might use against Julia. To solidify his interests in Four Corners, he must have the Emporium. Chris is right, if she refuses to sell he will take more direct action and perhaps that is the only way we will be able to trap him."

"Ezra that's kind of dangerous," Nathan retorted. "He's already proven himself a killer by what he done to your pa. Are you willing to put Julia in that kind of danger?"

"It would not be my first choice," Ezra answered. "However, I think we could guarantee her safety by remaining in close proximity. We would have to stay close in order to be present when Bosshard makes his move."

"We'll keep an eye on her up close and from afar," Chris stated, showing his agreement of Ezra's idea. "If he makes any move towards her, we'll get him. That is if she agrees to this." He looked questioningly at Ezra. "Do you think she's liable to?"

Ezra shrugged since that was the only unknown in their present discussion. He hated using Julia's vulnerabilities to trap an animal like Bosshard when what should have been done was a swift bullet to the back of the man's head. He had promised his mother that he would deal with his father's killer but Ezra was not about to ruin everything in achieving that goal. This would see that justice was done as well as protecting Julia and the rest of Four Corners from Bosshard's sinister plans. "I cannot say until I have asked her. In this one issue, she can be most intractable."

"Do what you can," Chris said gently. "In the meantime, Josiah you talk to Mrs. Potter, see if you can get her to talk to you. I don't like Julia being the only evidence we got against Bosshard. If we got Mrs. Potter to talk, we'll have a stronger case for the Judge when he arrives."

"I'm going to keep on eye on Bosshard," Vin volunteered. "When things don't start to go his way, I'm sure he's going to get more help than what he's got now. Man like that is used to doing things in numbers, I'll make sure we have some idea of what's coming at us when he decides to up the stakes."

"I suppose all that is left for me to do is make the opening move," Ezra sighed as the outline of decisive action was finally mapped against Bosshard.

Now came the difficulty; convincing Julia to play the part of bait.

+ + + + + + +

Julia finally willed herself to return to her office at the Emporium. Until she actually sold the business, there were still day to day affairs that required her attention. Even though it pained her to sit at this desk with the knowledge that very soon, everything around her would be sold off to ensure Benjamin Bosshard's silence regarding her whereabouts; Julia bore it stoically because that was how it was to be. She had entered the room and placed herself in her chair, oblivious to the questions and requests of her staff who had been waiting for her return to the Emporium ever since she stumbled out of the place more or less in a daze, following Bosshard's cruel demand.

Julia allowed her gaze to sweep past her office, which was not terribly luxurious, as offices went. It was more or less a small back room that had been converted into what it was at present, with a window cut into it so that she could see the day light and the floors and walls covered with polished wood. Thanks to Mary, Julia had learnt some aspects of clerical work so she did not require a secretary though one of her suppliers did make mention of it to her. Julia had shrugged off the suggestion because doing her own filing and maintaining her books and records gave her a sense of accomplishment. Perhaps it was simply because no one had thought she would be able to be so precise in her thoughts. Until then, everyone had seen her as the wayward child of a rich aristocrat whose substance went only as far as her beauty and her ability to charm men. For Julia that had been a hollow pursuit indeed. Being accepted for being something else was no acceptance in her opinion.

The Emporium had given her a chance to be what she was and took pride in those characteristics that had been deemed socially unacceptable. She studied the ledger books, bound in leather, the filing cabinet with all its paperwork. The appointment book on her desk and the shelf of buyer's catalogues. In the insanity that went with being the lover to one of the Magnificent Seven, this place had been the center of the storm that was her life. It had given her stability and a sense that no matter how terrible things became; she could rely on this to remain unchanged. She thought of her office being occupied by Benjamin Bosshard and it made her shudder with despair. Julia could feel the venom surge inside her veins but it was a sour feeling because she was helpless. He had exploited her fears and there was nothing she could do about it. She was almost ready to kill him for that if it was not for Ezra.

Ezra needed her to remain strong for him.

If one thing could be worth the loss of her Emporium it was Ezra and Julia was willing to sacrifice it if it meant that she could remain at her lover's side. She could have brought her situation to him but at this moment, he was already dealing with the fact that Bosshard had murdered his father. If Julia were to tell him that Bosshard was also threatening her, there would be no telling what he would do and Julia would not be the match that ignited that situation. Ezra was hurt and she had to protect him as best as she could. She would give him the time he needed to think up some way to bring Bosshard to justice but she would not act as a catalyst.

"Wool gathering?" An unfamiliar voice asked, slicing through her thoughts.

Julia looked up from her desk and was rather startled to see Benjamin Bosshard and his companion, Mr. Spenser standing before her. Julia's reverie had been so deep she had hardly noticed the men entering the room, though she was unsurprised that they had done so without announcing themselves. She supposed as far as they were concerned, they might were as good as being the Emporium's owners and had no need to stand on ceremony. She raised her eyes to Bosshard who had reached her desk, glaring at him with all the hatred she could muster because he had the unfair advantage over her and Julia hated him for it. If it would not hurt Ezra more than her, Julia would have been glad to plunge the silver letter opener on her desk into his hateful face and relish in screams of his agony.

"What do you want?" She asked barely able to keep from screaming at him.

"I think you know," Bosshard smiled. "I want the Emporium."

"I think you are aware that I have no choice but to sell," Julia said after a long pause. The words escaping her lips as if each syllable left a terrible taste in her mouth. "Draw up the papers and I shall sign it but until then, this place is mine so I will ask you to kindly get out!"

"I'm afraid that's no longer enough," Bosshard's eyes narrowed and his lips pulled back into a sneer of triumph. He leaned further across the desk, until his face was inches from hers. "I've recently come into some intelligence that requires me to alter our agreement somewhat."

"What kind of intelligence?" She asked. Her insides were starting to knot as she stared into his eyes and realized that he was too smug. The expression on his face indicated triumph, not just at acquiring her Emporium but more than that. It made her skin crawl because she remembered how he had looked at her before. It was a look laced with desire and hunger. The notion made Julia's physically ill for she was past the days when she would use her sexuality to meet her own ends. The idea of sleeping with someone else other than Ezra was abhorrent to her especially when she loved him so much and the idea of betraying him in that way was almost as offensive as the act itself.

"Maude Standish is Peter Reeves wife." Bosshard responded slowly, watching her reaction and relishing how she cringed slightly at his knowledge of the truth. To her credit, she returned his statement masterfully, even though it was a pointless exercise.

"Now you know why she attempted to kill you," Julia said nonchalantly. "I do not see what it has to do with the sale of my Emporium."

"I'm afraid it changes quite a great deal madam," Bosshard reached for her cheek and did not give Julia the chance to back away when he sunk his fingers into her auburn hair and felt her firm.

"Let me go!" She cried out in pain upon feeling the pull from those strands of hair.

"You would be well advised to remain silent," Bosshard returned sharply, pulling even harder. His eyes bore into hers as he spoke. "I know who that bitch and who her whelp is! If you do not want me to fill this town with a hundred hired killers before the day is out; you will hold your tongue. The only reason your precious Ezra still lives is because I want this town, lock stock and barrel. Your emporium is the way to get it. If it were not for that, I would have wiped Reeve's wife and son off the face of the earth already. I will curb my vengeance for now Miss Pemberton but I expect to be well compensated for that."

"You have the Emporium," Julia grunted, refusing to let her see her pain even though it was reflected in every line of her grimaced expression. "I'll sign the damn thing over to you!"

"That is not enough," he lowered his face to her and claimed her mouth in a demanding kiss.

Julia reacted immediately, her whole body repulsed by the taste of his mouth on hers. Her nails sunk deep into his cheek and pulled back viciously, extracting a cry of pain and outrage from Bosshard. He pulled back from her as Spenser moved in quickly to grab Julia from the back, pinning her arms to her side and ensuring she had no escape. Bosshard touched his cheek and came contact with the warm sensation of blood running down his face. His teeth were bared in anger at the injury and when he raised his eyes to meet Julia's again, she saw that it was almost yellow with fury.

"This could have been pleasurable," he said coming towards her and despite her efforts to struggle, she could not break free of Spenser's grip. She considered screaming but that would do little good and in the amount of time that it would take for someone to come to her assistance, Bosshard could have already done his worst.

"I would rather die first." She returned venomously, unprepared to beg for anything.

"I would not kill you Miss Pemberton," Bosshard retorted. "I would kill your lover."

"You wouldn't dare," Julia shouted angrily. "You even try going after him and the entire seven will serve you your guts on a platter!"

"I have done worse than see seven men dead," he snapped. "In fact, I have been preparing for that eventuality since coming to Four Corners. Do you think I would be foolish enough to attempt any dealings in this town without more than two men at my side? Just because you cannot see my men is no reason to believe they do not exist. They're out there waiting for me to give the word and they'll bath this town in blood, starting with Reeve's brat, then his wife and the rest of the seven. If I'm feeling charitable, I may not wipe out the entire brood seems it appears that there is a lesson to be learnt here in leaving loose ends."

Julia did not know if what he had claimed was possible. There were many villains in the past who had made such grandiose threats against the seven and who had failed in the attempt. However, she now lived in a world where Ezra Standish was kidnapped by Hannibal Julius and then brutally raped. After that, no one, even Chris Larabee, could take anything for granted any more. She did not believe he would be able to kill all the seven and their families but did she believe that Ezra could be hurt? Absolutely. Bosshard would wait until he was alone and then kill him and the man had patience, he had shown that by how capable he was to hold back his men until the time was right. How could Julia know when it would be safe for Ezra.

"What do you want?" Julia asked finally, although she had a good idea of the answer.

Bosshard smiled in triumph. "If I cannot have my vengeance on Reeve's wife and child, I will have you."

Julia's entire being balked at that horrifying possibility. "Over my dead body!" She spat at him.

Bosshard's reacted with a backhanded blow that caught Julia on the jaw and almost toppled her out of Spenser's grip but the man held her steady and so Julia swayed in his arms with disorientation and the flaring pain that burnt the tender flesh where he had struck her. "You will sell me the Emporium and you will come to me or I'll swear to you that I will kill him. Even if I have to abandon my interests in this town, I will gladly do so if I have the pleasure of knowing that you will be seeing my departure from Boot Hill!"

Suddenly, the door swung open and Ezra stepped in.

"Ezra!" Julia cried out instinctively, never more relieved to see him, not because he would put an end to this present ordeal but also because he had entered before she was forced to make an agreement with the devil that would see her soul traded along with her virtue.

Ezra's expression was unreadable. When he had come to Julia's office, it was to discuss with her rationally that he knew about Bosshard's attempt at blackmail. He had arrived at her door and heard voices. For an instant he thought that she might be discussing matters with staff and had held back but when he heard her fear, he knew it was anything but that. Now he was faced with the scene of Spenser holding on to Julia, clearly against her own will. Her cheek welting with color where Bosshard had struck her and, as Ezra had been able to determine in the last few seconds of listening had been threatening her with more than just the revelation of her whereabouts to her father. The man had dared to force his Julia by threatening his life.

The awkwardness of the position he found them in had him in the advantage. Spenser had to release Julia before he could go for his gun. Bosshard, who was attempting to appear the benign businessman, was not carrying. Ezra drew his Remington before Spenser could reach the butt of his gun.

"I would not." Ezra said with a glacial edge to his voice that made Spenser's hand fall lifelessly to his sides at the realization that he would never reach his gun if he continued the attempt. Ezra's other hand was also occupied with the small derringer in its harness slipped comfortably into his palm at the smooth activation of its mechanism. The smaller weapon was aimed squarely at Bosshard. "Julia," he regarded his frightened fiancťe'. "Come here."

Julia did not waste any time obeying his instructions. She quickly hurried away from the two men and took her place behind Ezra. "Ezra don't kill him," she begged. "He's got men hidden away somewhere."

"It seems to be my dear," Ezra answered; his eyes still fixed on Bosshard. "That I would be perfectly justified in killing Mr. Bosshard at this point. He was threatening you."

"I'm unarmed Standish." Bosshard retorted cockily. "Are you going to shoot an unarmed man?"

"I do believe that your compatriot is carrying Sir," Ezra responded silkily. Ezra was hiding how furious he was. He saw the bruise on Julia's face and knew that he should kill Bosshard for the outrage but he was not going to do that. Bosshard was unarmed and despite his timely arrival, killing Bosshard in cold blood here and now was going to unleash a great deal of bloodshed, particularly after what Julia had said about there being men hidden away somewhere. A bloodbath was what Chris wanted to avoid and as much as Ezra wanted to kill the man for what he had just done, Ezra knew that he would have to show restraint once more. He was done killing anyone in cold blood.

"Your father was a lawman," Bosshard snorted, trying to provoke Ezra into doing something foolish that would give him the advantage. Bosshard was confident that Ezra would not harm him despite the fact that he had murdered the gambler's father. These lawmen were all the same. They were all trapped by their codes of honor. "He wouldn't approve of his little boy turning murderer."

"He probably would not," Ezra agreed, being goaded just enough at that point to decide that even if he did not kill Bosshard at this moment, a lesson needed to be imparted to the man nonetheless. "However, thanks to you I did not know him so I cannot be certain of anything he would approve."

Without warning, Ezra pulled the trigger.

Julia let out a short cry of fright at the discharging weapon but Bosshard's scream soon filled the room and eclipsed her voice. Spenser reached for his gun, only to have a bullet slam into his palm. The lackey groaned in pain at the bullet penetrating his hand. It drove Spenser back into the wall, clutching his bleeding hand in pain. Bosshard had gone down whimpering. Julia was standing behind Ezra fearfully, wondering how badly Bosshard was hurt. His cheek was splattered in blood and he was holding the side of his head in agony, blood running thick rivulet over his hand. He raised his eyes to meet Ezra's as he body trembled from the gunshot would he had sustained.

"Get out." Ezra ordered, glancing at Spenser briefly. "Get out before I decide to take any more exception to your vile behavior towards my fiancťe'."

"You'll pay for this!" Spenser hissed angrily as he hurried to Bosshard who was sill on the floor. "You and those lawmen are going to pay!"

"I'm sure." Ezra retorted stiffly, reminding himself of what he and the others had discussed earlier. This episode would no doubt lend itself well to their plan of provoking Bosshard into acting rashly, giving them the opening they needed to do away with him permanently. He watched indifferently as Spenser helped Bosshard to his feet, the white of his shirt, red with blood and felt a hint of satisfaction.

Consider that a down payment, Mr Bosshard, Ezra thought.

"You just made a fatal mistake boy!" Bosshard groaned painfully as he was helped shakily to his feet. Despite the pain he was suffering, Bosshard's eyes filled with hatred and Ezra knew that he was precisely at the place the seven had wished him to be. Anger had clouded his reason and his actions after this would be tempered with vengeance. The man was still clutching the side of his head, hiding the injury whose proof was in the bleeding.

"It will not be the first time." Ezra responded smoothly, aware that behind him, Julia was trembling. Possibly because she now understood that Bosshard's hatred would also extend to her and he would make them both pay for what Ezra had just done.

"This changes nothing!" Bosshard glared at Julia, her earlier belief about his hatred for Ezra now including her, proven by the hate filled look he cast upon her. "I will have your Emporium and when he is dead, I will have you!"

"I think you are done Mr. Bosshard," Ezra cocked his gun once more, indicating that the two men better be quick about their departure or else he would reconsider letting them leave with only minor injuries between them.

"Not by a long shot!" Bosshard hissed as he and Spenser when towards the door of Julia's office. "You will pay!"

Ezra gaze shifted away and glanced at the floor for a moment before he called out. "Oh Mr. Bosshard," Ezra called after him almost smugly. "You seem to have left part of your ear behind."

+ + + + + + +

An eternity of minutes passed after Bosshard and Spenser had gone before Julia was finally able to rest easy. The first thing she did was embrace Ezra hard, her body shuddering as she wept in his arms and took comfort in his presence. Ezra held her gently, whispering soft things in her ear that things were going to be alright, allowing her to be swayed to the silky sound of his southern drawl and allowing her to forget for a moment, the predicament that Bosshard had placed her. She did not know how long she remain in his arm, relishing the feel of him and allowing the horror of her earlier situation bleed away in the security of his embrace. She felt his lips nuzzling her hair, his hot breath against her scalp and enjoyed his heat. She wished they could stay like this forever even if it meant having the rest of the world stand still.

"Julia," Ezra spoke her name. His voice switched from the smooth caress of comfort into something stronger and more commanding.

"Yes Ezra," she said dreamily.

"Why did you not tell me what Bosshard was doing?" He asked.

Julia looked up at his eyes and he saw guilt and fear immediately flood into those pools of emerald. She pulled away from his abruptly as if touching him would also make him similarly tainted. "I didn't want to worry you. You have so much to deal with lately. You did not need this too."

"Julia," he stared at her in shock "I will deal with my problems in time but this is something you should have told me. He could have hurt you!"

"He did hurt me!" She snapped, pointing to her bruised face. "He threatened to tell my father about where I am if I didn't sell him the Emporium Ezra! What was I supposed to do?"

"Tell me for starters!" Ezra retorted. "You are not the only person he is blackmailing! We believe he had induced Gloria Potter into selling as well!"

"I couldn't!" She cried out. "I didn't want you to do anything crazy! The man has murdered your father and somehow you haven't killed him. You've kept a cool head and I didn't want to make things worse by telling you what he was trying to do to me!" She sobbed in anguish. "I was trying to spare you any more hurt!"

Ezra came towards her and took her face in his hands. "It would not spare me any hurt to know that you are suffering on my account, dear Julia. I love you and while I cannot deny that I want to kill him for what he has done, I am not fool enough to risk my future with you because of some misguided need for vengeance. I know what its like to exact revenge, coldly and brutally. I have let it stain my hands and no matter what I do for the rest of my life, I will never be truly free of it. I am not sorry of what I did to Julius but I do regret his dying. I would not make that same mistake with Bosshard. My father was an honorable man, far more honorable than I have ever been but even I will not besmirch what his sacrificed himself to give me, a full life, a life I want to spend with you"

Julia blinked, feeling the emotion well up inside her as she gave herself over to his words. She thought of all the others that Ezra had mentioned in town, suffering quietly as Bosshard used their demons against them. What did he use against Gloria Potter? The widow was one of the forthright people Julia knew and there was very little that could frighten her. In a small voice, she met Ezra's eyes and whispered, "I don't want my father to find me."

She could not bear him finding her, not now when she had built a good life for herself in Four Corners. Julia knew that if Donald Avery were to learn of her whereabouts, he would do everything in his power to take away that life. Tear started to run down her cheeks as she made that admission. "I didn't know what else to do."

"Julia," Ezra took a deep breath and ran his finger over the tender flesh of her jaw where Bosshard had struck her. "I know you are afraid of your father finding you but it has to happen sometime. We cannot keep running from him, living on the hope that he will never find you. If he is as determined as he appears to be, we cannot outrun him forever."

Her brow furrowed as she began to comprehend what he was trying to say. "Are you suggesting that I let him find me?"

Ezra could see the pure terror that sparked in her eyes at the possibility of being find out. However, he needed to convince her. For Bosshard to have power over his Julia was something that Ezra could not abide and he would do anything to make her see that there were some evils that needed to be faced in order to vanquish others. "Yes," he nodded. "Let him find you"

"Are you insane!" She exclaimed backing away, not wishing to her this but Ezra's grabbed her arms and forced her to remain where she was and listen to him.

"No I am not insane," Ezra retaliated. "I love you and I also know that nothing short of death would ever allow me to let you go, especially when you love me just as much. If your father comes looking for you, we will face him together. Not just you and I but the rest of our friends. Nothing your father did could ever make us abandon you."

Julia was trembling because she wanted so much to believe him but she was so afraid. "You don't know him Ezra," she started to weep. "You don't know what he is capable of! He loves me to the point of madness! I sometimes think he is insane! He smothers me in love but it is the vilest kind!"

"It is true," Ezra had to concede this point. "However, I have seen the utter worst of human ugliness of late Julia and if your father tries to take you by force, I will stop him. This is our home, the place we intend to raise our children. I will allow nothing to change that. If your father comes for you, he will not only have to come through me, he will have to come through everyone in town who knows and loves you. Josiah alone would break him in half first."

Julia wiped the tears from her eyes, wanting so much to believe him but she was frightened and Ezra had no idea what her father was capable of despite his brave words. However, there was one thing she could not deny; he was right. She could not keep running. If she left this place and start a new elsewhere, there was no telling that her father would not find her there too and then she would be forced to run again, until the freedom she had fought so hard to acquire would become meaningless. And she did not want to leave Four Corners and her friends. She had the family she had always wanted and after what had happened to Bosshard, she could not be sure of what he would do even if she gave him the Emporium. Ezra had hurt him badly and Bosshard considered her as much as an enemy. Chances are, even if she did surrender the Emporium to him, he would tell her father anyway and then she would have still lost the place she had built with so much hard work.

"I am scared Ezra," she confessed and yet Ezra could see that she was starting to capitulate. "I don't want to do this."

"I know," he reached for her hand and was gratified when she placed her small palm in his and allowed him to pull him forward. She went into his arms once more, resting her head on her shoulder as he held her. "I know you are frightened but I promise you that I will not let him take you away. You are my reason for living, the one person that makes all that I have endured worthwhile. Whatever happens when your father arrives, we will face it together."

Julia believed him. If she could believe nothing else, even in her own strength, she believed him when he said she would not be alone. The prospect of facing her father terrified her still but in the last few minutes, what he had said made sense. Their lives could not truly begin until this was dealt with. She could not be truly free to live as she wished if she feared discovery at every turn. What happened when they were married and when they had children? Would she uproot her entire family to escape her father? Her father had blighted her life too much already, she would not give him any more power over her existence then he had managed to steal and by the same token, she would not allow a stranger like Bosshard to manipulate her every again.

"Alright," she nodded." I won't run and I won't sell the Emporium. Bosshard can make all the threats he wants but I won't give in."

"Good," Ezra smiled. "Because I have a feeling that things are going to become a little more difficult for Mr. Bosshard."

Julia did not ask Ezra to elaborate, but if the glint in his eyes were any indication then Mr. Bosshard should be afraid. Very afraid.

Part Six

Flight

The Marshall came home early one day and Maude knew there was going to be trouble.

The expression in his eyes said as much and even though she had anticipated it since hearing that exchange between him and the two strangers some nights ago, seeing it there finally drove home to her the reality of it all. She saw his face, etched in worry he was trying to hide desperately from her and knew that it was terrible indeed what he had had understand in the last few days since that ominous visit. She had known violent men in her life. Being in the con game, it was not possible to avoid such men. Their stink filled up the gambling dens where she frequented and the one-horse towns she breezed into briefly before swindling the locals out of their money and drifting out again. It took some effort to avoid them and the derringer she carried in those days saved her life more times than she care to admit.

If only it was that simple.

"What is it?" She had asked, holding Ezra in her arms. The child seemed to sense that something was wrong and the atmosphere drove him into silence as his father paused at the hallway, staring long and hard at his mother, trying to hide the fear he so obviously felt, not for himself but for his family.

"You need to leave," Peter had said softly, his eyes dropping to the rugged hallway, almost as if he were ashamed to face Maude.

"Leave?" Maude came forward. "What do you mean leave?"

"I mean you need to get going tonight." He raised his eyes and made contact with her once more and Maude saw the terrible anguish in his face. His eyes were glistening with emotion as he took in the sight of the wife and child who meant more to him than anything in the world. He had dreamed of growing old with them but he knew that could never be. They were after him now and they would not stop until they had him. If it were just his death that they were satisfied with, Peter could have tolerated it. After all, he was a lawman and the life of a lawman demanded certain risks. He had lived with the possibility of an early grave ever since he put on the tin star. He had hoped through the normal course of events that perhaps he might live to see his son grow to manhood and age through the years with his wife but he also accepted that he could die early.

However, those who were coming after him did not merely want his life. They wanted his family's too and that was something that Peter Reeves could not allow no matter what it cost him. He knew Bosshard and his reputation. They said that once Bosshard embarked upon a quest of vengeance, he would not pause until he had eliminated the entire family. The man had the belief that the surviving family of a fallen enemy would be a mistake that would return to haunt him and so he was taking no chances. Reeves had embarrassed him before Sweeney and Cotran when Bosshard had attempted to ambush him some days earlier. Reeves was too much of the professional to be caught so easily and his evasion of the trap set for him had lowered Bosshard's standing in the eyes of the men who employed him. It was a trespass for which he could not forgive Reeves and had thus sworn to destroy the Marshall and his family.

At first Reeves thought it to be the arrogant ravings of a murderer but then he heard that Bosshard had acquired men to ride with to fulfil his quest and they were only less than a day away. Peter had that much time to ensure that Maude and Ezra were sent somewhere safe. He considered going with them but he knew that would not stop Bosshard, the man would keep coming and coming. His reputation had him pegged as being relentless and eventually, Reeves knew that he would be cornered and with him, his beloved wife and child upon whom Bosshard would satisfy his vengeance.

There was only one way to protect Maude and Ezra and that required him to make the ultimate sacrifice. He would stay behind and give Bosshard the bloodiest fight he could manage before the bastard and his men killed him but while he died, he would do with the knowledge that Maude and Ezra would be far away from the place where would finally fall. They would be safe because his Maude was smart and beautiful and she would know how to hide well. If Reeves had faith in nothing else, he had faith in Maude being able to hold her own.

No one would ever harm her or her son if Maude Reeves decided that was how it was going to be.

"Peter," Maude begged, her heart pounding with fear. "Please tell me what is wrong. Don't ask me to leave without giving me that much at least."

"They're coming for me." Reeves said finally, unable to lie to her any more because she was his wife and she had a right to know the danger that was coming for all of them. "They won't be satisfied with just me. The man, who wants to kill me, wants the last thing I see before I die is him killing you and Ezra. I won't let that happen. That's why you have to go tonight."

Maude was already shaking her head. "No," she stared at him in horror at the mere suggestion. "Don't ask me to do that."

The sorrow in her voice reached out to the infant in her arms and he started to wail too, a pitiful sound that tugged at the hearts of both his parents and immediately hastened his father to take him from his mother's arms.

Reeves held his boy in his arms, wondering how a tiny bundle of life could feel a space inside himself that he never dreamed was empty to begin with. Ezra had that power over him, just as Maude had his heart in the palm of her hand. He stared at his son's cherubic face, wet with tears and wondered what kind of man Ezra was going to be without him. His heart almost broke at that thought at all the things he knew he would never get to do with his son but was willing to sacrifice knowing that Ezra would get the chance to do them even if he wasn't around.

"Now Ezra," Reeves said softly. "That any way of a strong young man like you to behave, especially in front of your mother?"

The child stopped crying and listened at his father, wiping his wet eyes with a balled fist. Reeves doubted that the words held any meaning for his son but he supposed the tone might have a little more impact. Ezra watched Reeves with those sea colored eyes that were all Maude's. At that instant, the Marshall decided that this was his finest creation and even the badge he was going to die for would not mean as much as knowing his son would live to grow up and know all the promise that life had to offer.

"Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do Ezra. There's no getting past it and it may hurt to give up what's safe for the unknown but it has to be done because a man can't be a man unless he knows how to gamble on the extraordinary."

Reeves knew his son could not comprehend his words but as he looked into those eyes, Reeves swore that Ezra had understood.

+ + + + + + +

"You should have let me kill him," Maude said to Ezra when she was told about what had been transpiring between Julia and Benjamin Bosshard.

"Mother," Ezra sighed as he faced her across the parlor of Julia's house, "that is not productive at this point."

Ezra had escorted Julia home following their encounter with Bosshard in her office at the Emporium. Despite how timely Ezra's arrival had been, Julia was nonetheless shaken by the entire episode and fear that there would be repercussions for her act of defiance beyond Bosshard's threat to reveal her whereabouts to her father. Maude had told her how vindictive Bosshard could be and coupled with an agenda the man was determined to fulfil in Four Corners, made a dangerous combination which could incite the man to take more immediate action. She did not doubt it when Bosshard had claimed to have men waiting only his word to act. Neither could she forget the threat he had made not only to her but also to the seven and their families. While she and Ezra had only themselves to be concerned with, the same could not be said of Chris, Buck and Josiah. They had children in their lives, children who were vulnerable without them and Bosshard did not discriminate when it came to the age of his victims.

"Ezra," Julia spoke up interrupting the duo. "You have to warn Chris. He's said he would go after everyone if he did not get what he wanted. He'll do the same thing to Mary, Inez and the others, that he did to you and Maude."

Ezra froze at that notion and glanced quickly at Maude who nodded slightly, supporting that belief. "That's how he gets his revenge on those he kills Ezra, he makes them pay through their families. He did it to your father by trying to hurt us and now he'll do the same to you and your friends."

Ezra feared that both Maude and Julia might be right. He had acted out of anger when he heard Bosshard threatening the woman that he loved and despite his earlier agreement with Chris to remain calm, Ezra could not help himself but react after hearing the vile things Bosshard had said to Julia. As it was Bosshard was lucky to come away alive instead of simply missing an ear although he was certain that Bosshard would not view himself as fortunate when he looked in the mirror and saw his mutilate deflection. That thought alone brought a smile to Ezra's lips and a feeling of relish filled his bones that was more satisfying than he liked to admit because it resembled closely his mindset after dealing with Hannibal Julius.

"I am afraid that you might be right," Ezra agreed begrudgingly, cursing himself for letting his anger get the better of him. He should have just hastened Bosshard on his way when he had entered Julia's office not provoked him by shooting at him. While the scoundrel clearly deserved what Ezra had done to him, it was unwise to incite a man who had a great deal of hired muscle behind him to act in vengeance, especially when the seven had no idea of what numbers they might be forced to deal with. Ezra only hoped that Chris would understand that he was motivated by his desire to tear Bosshard from limb to limb because of Julia. Then again, considering how Chris reacted to anyone threatening Mary, Ezra was certain he would.

"Julia, mother," Ezra glanced at the two women. "I want you both to pack yourself a bag." He instructed.

"Where are we going?" Julia asked, not pleased to be running from her home. All she wanted to do following that horrible encounter with Bosshard was get under the covers of her bed and hide there indefinitely.

"Away from here," Ezra returned automatically, his tone indicating that this point was not up for negotiation. "I doubt the man will make reprisals tonight but that will give us time to vacate you from the premises while he recuperates. When he takes care of his injuries, I have no doubt he will want his pound of flesh as well."

"I will not run for him again," Maude stared back at her son defiantly. "I have done that far too much already. I will face him Ezra," she said determinedly. "I will face and I will kill him!"

"MOTHER!" Ezra almost shouted but his voice was not sharp but rather controlled and loud. He crossed the floor and was standing before her in a matter of seconds. "You will pack your things and be ready to leave by the time I return. I am not for one instance allowing you to remain here where I CANNOT PROTECT YOU!"

"I don't need your protection," Maude returned with just as much vigor. "I can take care of myself. I will not run from him."

"You are not running," Ezra glared at her. "You are making a strategic withdrawal. For the moment, I want you and Julia out of the line of fire while I attempt to deal with this man before he sends God only knows how many hired guns he must have in his employ to hunt us down and kill us!"

"Maude," Julia spoke up. "Ezra is right. He said as much to me when he was threatening me. He'll come after all of us, including the children. He says he has men waiting in the wings, just in case Chris and the others decided to give him trouble."

Maude felt herself conceding to Ezra's demands even though she hated the idea of taking flight from Bosshard. She had spent so many years hiding from Bosshard and making sacrifices because it was necessary to keep herself and Ezra alive. She had sacrificed her identity as Peter's wife, being unable to keep even his name because that might lead Bosshard to her and her young son. She had taken to travelling and attempting to support Ezra by returning to the life she had turned her back on when she married Peter. In the process, severing any chance of having a remotely normal relationship with her son whom still looked at her as if she had abandoned him in his youth. She had told Ezra next to nothing about his father because she feared he would grow up hating the man who had murdered Peter and seek out Bosshard to carry out some plan of vengeance that would get him killed.

"Alright," she said after a moment. "I'll go."

"Thank you," Ezra said letting out a sigh of relief as he took his mother's hands in his and stared at her eyes. "Mother I know this is difficult for you but I promise he will trouble us no more after this. My father will be avenged but I will do it in a manner that will not dishonor him or me as his son."

"I know," she nodded slowly turning away. "You remind me so much of him sometimes it hurts." The glacial expression in her eyes he had always known melted away, revealing the woman who seldom revealed herself to anyone, even him. "I tried to make you like me so I wouldn't lose you and all I did was push you farther away. I hate Bosshard for that Ezra. I hate him because he made it necessary for me to do that and now that's this gap between us I can never cross because I don't really know you do I?"

"Of course you do," he said evasively but she was right. She did not know him at all. She had an impression of him but not what made up his heart. If she had, she would have understood that he had been searching for a place to belong all his life and had found it in Four Corners. However, Ezra had no wish of hurting Maude any more than she was already and right now, he needed to do as he asked while he sought out Chris. He was hoping that Chris told him that he was reacting because he did not want to uproot everyone by such threat but he had a feeling Chris would take what he had to say very seriously. After all, it was Chris who had been most aware of Bosshard ever since he arrived in town.

Julia did not wish to interrupt the moment Ezra was having with his mother and knew that in the days to come, mother and son would have to start engaging in some honest conversations with one another. It appeared to Julia that both of them had to escape the mire of secrets that kept them apart. Ezra knew next to nothing about the father who had died to protect him and Maude while Maude struggled to understand the wounds that she alone might be able to help Ezra heal if only he trusted her enough to tell her the truth about his ordeal.

"Ezra, please be careful," Julia spoke, returning Ezra's attention to her once more. She walked to him and held his face in her hands, joining their lips together in a kiss of affection.

When Ezra felt her mouth on his, suddenly he did not feel the need to push away as he savored its power over him. She tasted so perfect for him and he realized in that instance, that had Maude not been here and their situation not so grave, he would not have minded indulging himself in the sensations she was engendering in him. Perhaps seeing her in danger had made him appreciate how much she meant to him. When Bosshard had put his hands on Julia, Ezra was ready to kill him there and then. The idea of Bosshard touching Julia intimately made Ezra sick to his stomach and he knew that he would not allow her to be abused in such a vile manner. He had pictured how passionate their love making was and suddenly felt a longing in the pit of him that it had been too long since he heard her cry out his name in the heat of pleasure.

"At the moment, I am more concerned about your welfare in my absence rather than my own safety," he answered when he pulled away, though rather reluctantly. Their eyes met for a brief second and he saw that Julia understood what he was feeling and felt for the first time that things between them might be right again. "However, ladies," Ezra broke away from her and responded to both Julia and Maude, "we are somewhat pressed for time. If you would please?"

Julia nodded quietly but though she was pleased with the sign that things between there were evolving, she was still fearful. "Alright Ezra, just be careful. I don't want him to hurt you."

"Yes my darling boy," Maude agreed. "Do watch your back around that man. He may be hurt now but he will kill us all for what's happened."

"I think that was always the plan," Ezra said grimly as he started towards the door. "Sooner or later."

He would have preferred later.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra proceeded to the Larabee home first. At this time of night Chris would be at supper with his family and though Ezra hated to interrupt the man whilst he was engaging in such a domestic past time, he did not think the news he had to impart upon Chris could wait. Besides, any threat to his family was something Chris wanted to be apprised of immediately. Considering what had happened between himself and Bosshard earlier, even if that were not true, Ezra felt that Chris ought to be warned of what was coming their way. Ezra was mindful of his journey to the Larabee home, remembering that it was on such a dark and silent night that he was captured by Hannibal Julius and since then, he had not been able to let down his guard. The night was no longer a safe a place it had been for him once because its shadows could be deadly.

Ezra arrived at the back porch and tapped gently on the door, hoping that Chris was home because he did not want to tell Mary that there was a situation because the lady would know his presence here at this time of night could only mean that. Ezra had only a moment to wait before he heard footsteps proceeding Chris' arrival at the door.

"Ezra?" Chris looked at him from the open doorway. "What's up?"

"I am afraid a situation might have developed," Ezra said after a moment's pause.

"Situation?" Chris asked, his body tensing. The family man sharing supper with his kin was now gone, replaced by the hardened gunslinger ready for trouble.

"It is my fault," Ezra confessed readily. "I went to see Julia and found her with Bosshard. He was attempting to blackmail her into compromising her virtue in order to keep him from harming me."

Chrisí jaw stiffened in reaction as the blue of his eyes became sharp points of black obsidian. He thought of how Ezra must have reacted upon seeing Bosshard touching the woman he loved and understood entirely that any over reaction made by the gambler could not possibly be enough to avenge such a crime. If someone had been presumptuous enough, not to mention in possession of one monumental death wish, Chris would have reacted with probably less restraint than Ezra must have shown upon coming across such a scene.

"What did you?" Chris asked. There was no trace of accusation in his voice just the need to gauge how serious the situation was in order for him to formulate their next step.

"I did not kill if that is what worries you," Ezra said quickly. "I did however, give him something to remember the occasion." There was a hint of guilt on the gamblerís face coupled with an equally portioned amount of satisfaction as he made that reply.

"Ezra," Chris started again, his patience becoming strained.

"I may have relieved him of his ear."

Well, that was probably a little better than amputating the manís genitals and using them to choke him to death, Chris thought silently. "Oh so you didnít get carried away." He deadpanned.

"Droll Mr Larabee," Ezra retorted before adding. "Prior to my mutilating him, Mr Bosshard was posturing that he had men laying in wait in the area and that if she did not capitulate to him, he would have them eliminate all of us, including our families. It did not sound like an idle threat. Considering how he avenged himself upon my father, I think we have to take him very seriously particularly in light of what I have just done to him."

A bubble of anger surfaced inside of Chris as he looked over his shoulder at his home and at the wife and children he could not see but knew to be there. It did not surprise him that it had come to this. Ever since Bosshard had turned up in town, Chris had known a showdown with the man would be inevitable. Chris had been paying close attention to the events taking place in Lincoln and Colfax ever since he became a lawman in Four Corners because he had guessed that eventually the malaise that affected those counties would come to his town. When Bosshard had arrived, he knew that time had come. Changes in local government had ensured that men like Thomas Cotran for whom Bosshard was employed could no longer terrorize those areas as they once had and logic dictated that he that they would soon branch out trying to continue their practice of land snatching in a new areas.

"I agree," Chris nodded. "It was bound to happen sooner or later. Bosshard knows thereís only so far he can go with us watching his every move. Now that Juliaís standing up to him, heís got no choice but to take this town by force."

"What about Gloria Potter?" Ezra inquired. "I cannot believe the lady would not simply capitulate and sell her store without good reason. We should learn what he has on her too."

"One thing at a time," Chris said quickly, having already considered that but was more worried about Bosshardís threat to kill the seven and their families. He was accustomed to enemies attempting to use his loved ones as bait but threatening to kill them outright even after the seven themselves were dead was particularly insidious. It inspired Chrisí deepest sense of outrage not to mention his extreme desire to rid the world of the man once and for all. "First we take care of our families. Where is Bosshard now?" He asked tautly in that no nonsense tone that even Ezra knew better than to provoke.

"I assume he would be in his hotel room or on his way to a physician to have his ear mended." Ezra answered with a small smile.

"Then we have a few hours before he decides to make his move." Chris surmised and considered their next actions carefully. At the moment Bosshard would be mending his wounds but it would not take him long before he would be demanding revenge and Chris intended to have those who could be harmed well out of the way before that happened.

"I have told Julia and Maude to pack." Ezra answered, in anticipation of what Chris would say.

"Tell them to get to Buckís," Chris nodded in approval at that suggestion. "Iíll tell Mary and the kids to do the same. After you do that, go find Josiah and Nathan. Iíll get to Vin and JD. Tell them the same thing, pack up Audrey, Lilith, Rain, Casey and Nettie and get to Buckís."

"Nettie will not be too impressed by that." Ezra pointed out.

"Probably not," Chris agreed of the feisty old woman but at this moment, his desire for her to leave her home in favor of a safer venue was not up for discussion. Nettie meant much to all of them and it was knowledge too common around town to chance that Bosshard might not use it to his advantage. He did not relish the almighty fit that Nettie would put up once she was told to vacate but under that hardened exterior was a sensible woman who would know that it was for the best. "Unfortunately, Iím not changing my mind. Although," he added with a hint of a smile completely out of place in the moment, "Iíll leave it to Vin to tell her."

"Coward." Ezra chuckled softly before they both realized their levity was only because the alternative would be fury and that was counter productive at the time.

"Thanks," Chris retorted. "But its gotta be done nonetheless."

Ezra nodded in agreement with Chrisí strategy. The Wilmington spread was far enough out of town for them to decide where they would go from there. Neither Chris or Ezra had any idea of how much real time they had but this had to be done first and foremost. None of them could focus on ridding Four Corners of Bosshard and his men without first ensuring their families were protected. Once the women and children were there, Chris could figure out their next step, since allowing them to remain there would not do at all. It would be a simple matter for Bosshardís men to find out where Buck Wilmington resided with his family since he was one of the seven and that was a risk Chris would not be willing to gamble on for anything.

"What then?" Ezra inquired.

"Iíll figure that out when we get there." Chris said shortly. "For now, I want them away from here."

Ezra nodded in understanding before he met Chrisí gaze. "Mr Larabee, I am sorry about precipitating a situation that may have endangered us all. I should have tried to be more restrained than I was but seeing how he was man handling Julia, it provoked a response I could do nothing to prevent."

"Donít Ezra," Chris said quickly, gesturing at his friend that there was no need for apologies. In his place, Chris would have done far worse and had so he was not about to admonish Ezra for it. Besides, he did not even like the idea of Bosshard attempting to coerce her into compromising herself so he could not imagine what must have been going through Ezraís mind when he was confronted with the situation. "Things happen. Iím through trying to figure out why it does or bitching at how I could have stopped it. These days Iím more mindful at ensuring it doesnít happen again."

"Thank you Chris," Ezra answered gratefully, glad that Chris did not hold him responsible for what was going to happen now that he had well and truly rolled the dice on Bosshardís anger. He supposed this would make things easier. With Julia willing to stand up to Bosshard, his attempt at blackmail was out in the open and with any luck; the others who were forced to endure similar coercion would also speak out. Ezra hoped this number would include Gloria Potter, once they learnt what it was Bosshard had on her that made the normally sturdy widow yield so dramatically. However, with Bosshard now clearly guilty of committing a crime, there were also the other dangers.

The danger that he would try and kill all of them to hide it.

+ + + + + + +

"I want him dead!" Bosshard spat angrily within the confines of his room at the hotel.

"Hold still Ben," Marks ordered as he attempted to stem the bleeding that was flowing from the ruined flesh of that was once his employer's ear. Unfortunately, there was little to be done other than to stop the blood flow in order for Bosshard to make the ride to Sweet Water, the location of the nearest doctor who was not a member of the seven or one of their wives. It was easier said then done as Bosshard had worked himself into a right murderous stage. Marks had ridden out to the camp where Bosshard's hired guns were biding their time, in order to check on the progress of the Potter child who happened to be in their care for the duration. The boy's disposition was less than pleasant but then Marks expected nothing less since he was virtually abducted from his mother. However, this was of no concern to him. His only care was to see that the boy was unharmed before he returned to Four Corners once again.

"Don't tell me to hold still!" Bosshard barked. "You try holding still with half your ear shot off!"

Standish was a good shot Marks had to admit. It took skill to clip an ear instead of burrowing a small bullet into a man's skull or target the hand trying to go for a gun. He glanced at Spenser and saw the man wrapping a bandage around his wounded hand, cursing softly under his breath, no doubt at Standish. Marks however, was more concerned about Bosshard who was so agitated at the moment that it could not be good for a man of his age. "Ben, calm down. You gonna make the bleeding worse!"

The possibility that his condition might deteriorate further than the pain that was currently enveloping him gave the older man reason to pause. "I want him dead." Bosshard hissed, his voice had became soft but no less menacing as Marks continued to work on him. "I want him dead just like his father. I want him and all those bastard lawmen but not before they see their wives raped and their children murdered. I want Julia Pemberton to curse the day she ever laid eyes on me!"

Mark sighed, perfectly aware by now that there was no calming his employer when he was in this state and who could blame him? The woman had proven to be more trouble than she was worth and Bosshard had not hidden how partial he was to her even though she was clearly Ezra Standish' property. Marks was surprised that Bosshard had left the room with his life after being told that Standish had walked in on them while he was trying to force the lady into doing something that no decent woman would agree to. Not to mention the fact that Bosshard was already responsible for murdering Marshall Peter Reeves, Standish's father.

"What are we gonna do about it Boss?" Spenser asked, just as incensed by what had happened as Bosshard himself, although he did not suffer as badly as his employer.

"I'm done playing it civil with this town and those lawman," Bosshard glared at him, his eyes full of burning hatred, not merely for Ezra Standish but for the entire town of Four Corners. "We're going to take this town one way or another. When we're at Sweet Water, I want you to ride out to Mallaeson and tell him to ride into town with the rest of the men."

"Are you sure Ben?" Marks asked, wondering if it was wise to expose themselves in such a manner. Cotran had told them to remain inconspicuous since the present governor was using any excuse he could to come down on any holdings that might be connected to the Santa Fe ring.

"Of course I'm sure!" Bosshard growled at the thought of being questioned. "I want to turn Mallaeson loose on them! If they think just because they're seven, they got nothing to fear, then they're in for a big surprise." Malevolence oozed from every word that escaped his lips. He wanted vengeance so badly he could taste it. He wanted to kill that Pemberton bitch in front of her lover, just before he pulled the trigger on Standish himself. He had missed the opportunity to do so when he had killed the Marshall because the Marshall had been smart enough to hide the family before it had gotten to that but it won't be the same this time.

Mark said nothing more for a few minutes because Mallaeson and the twenty men that Bosshard had kept in wait around the locality of Four Corners were hardly subtle men. He had seen Mallaeson's work and shuddered inwardly at the amount of destruction the man could cause with his gang of cut throats. For years now, Mallaeson had been under the exclusive employ of the Santa Fe Ring, riding against the Regulators led by Billy the Kid as the notorious outlaw waged his war against those who had killed his friend and benefactor for a time, John Tunstall. Mallaeson was a brutal sadistic killer and he had been most effective driving homesteaders from their lands for ranchers willing to pay for the privilege. The men loyal to him, Jacques and Stephens were as equally savage and had a taste for killing lawmen in particular. Marks wondered how they would fare against the seven men who defended the town of Four Corners.

Apparently, Bosshard was going to see to it that he find out.

"Ben," Marks spoke, choosing to play devil's advocate because Cotran was not someone he wished to make an enemy of, especially because of something that Bosshard might have done in the heat of the moment. They had an objective in this town and unleashing Mallaeson and his men on Four Corners would only produce a blood bath that would bring the attention of Governor Lew Wallace this town and that was trouble they did not need. "Is that wise? I mean Cotran said that we should keep a low profile. You know Mallaeson is a little crazy. He'll burn this town down and I don't think that was what Cotran had in mind when he wanted to stake a claim here. With the railroad bringing more and more settlers this way, this is going to be a gold mine pretty soon."

Bosshard tilted his head slightly, his eyes narrowed into yellow slits of rage and Marks could tell immediately that his employer was furious by the reminder of his responsibilities. Spenser had gone very silent as if he had no wish to be embroiled in a discussion that would turn into a screaming match in quick time. Marks swallowed, almost regretting having spoken but he reminded himself just how merciless Cotran could be when he was disappointed in those who acted on his behalf. Marks had no wish to suffer the man's wrath because of Bosshard's ill judgement.

"What are you saying Marks?" Bosshard hissed. His voice was cold and sinister.

"I'm saying is that maybe we should let it go." Marks offered after a moment, reluctance in every word spoken.

"You mean let that southern bastard get away with mutilating me!" Bosshard roared.

"No, not let him get away with it!" Marks tried explaining himself quickly because Bosshard's temper was quick to ignite. "Bide our time. Let's get what we want and then take them out quietly."

"NO!" Bosshard fairly screamed and pulled away from Marks. He whirled around and stood up before his henchman, appearing like a dark angry god at the mere suggestion of withdrawal. "I want him dead! I want his bitch of a mother dead! I should have killed them when I killed Reeves but they hid from me and I never got the chance to finish what I started. Well I'm going to finish now and not just them, but all his friends and their women! When they're all dead and I have that bitch Pemberton in front of me alone again, I'll teach her what it is to say no to me!"

Marks glanced at Spenser and saw his counterpart shaking his head in the realization that Bosshard was beyond reasoning. Bosshard wanted vengeance and by God he was going to get it.

Even if he had to use a devil like Mallaeson.

+ + + + + + +

When Vin Tanner had left the Standish Tavern with the rest of his companions when they went their separate ways, his thoughts were preoccupied with a notion he had not brought up during the discussion. It was mostly centered around what he had said to the others about keeping an eye on Bosshard and the possibility that man would turn to force in order to reach his ends when he was unable to do so by coercion and blackmail. Men like Bosshard did not leave things to chance and Vin could not imagine him walking into a situation with only Marks and Spenser as his allies, not in a town like Four Corners where there were seven lawmen. It was entirely possible that Vin was wrong, that Bosshard had anticipated accomplishing his designs in Four Corners by the methods he had employed on Gloria Potter and attempted to do so on Julia Pemberton, but Vin did not think so.

He had men waiting for him somewhere, Vin was sure of it.

After he had left Chris, Vin had saddled up Peso and ridden out of town, suddenly feeling this urgent need to confirm or deny his theory. He could feel things coming to ahead even though the seven had decided upon moving slowly as they enclosed their net over Bosshard. Vin was certain that the man would not be so confident about what he was doing in Four Corners unless he had significant ace up his sleeves and Vin had a troubling notion what that ace might be. As he left Four Corners behind him, riding deeper into the descending twilight, Vin considered where Bosshardís men would hide if they were required. Purgatory was a pretty safe bet since outlaws took to using it as a stopover on their way to Mexico. It was also the only place within fifty miles that provided relatively discreet lodgings to men who did not wished to be noticed.

Vin knew that Chris would probably spit knowing he had gone up to Purgatory alone but Vin did not see the harm in it, particularly when he had no wish to call anyone out, merely observe any new faces before riding back to Four Corners. Upon approaching Purgatory some hours later, he noted that not much about the place had changed. It was still a collection of dirty, mud brick buildings held together by stray bits of wood and earth and reeked of horse manure. Even though it was dark, the atmosphere was lively with drunken men staggering across the street, worn saloon girls escorting their charges for the night to dingy hotel rooms or back alleys whichever came first. As one who once found a place like this to be very much the norm of his life, the routine was nothing that Vin had not seen before.

Part of the reason Vin had not asked Chris to accompany him on this journey was mostly because of Maria, the lovely saloon girl who had for a time been Chrisí lady friend whenever the gunslinger was in need of female company prior to his relationship with Mary Travis. Maria had also been their eyes and ears in Purgatory, providing useful information to Chris mostly because of her affection for him, Vin guessed. It was in this capacity that she was murdered by Hannibal Julius and his Citadel when they had taken up residence in Purgatory for the time being. Vin was certain that even though Chris did not speak of it often, he still blamed himself for her death.

Without the benefit of Mariaís observations, Vin would have to learn what he could about Purgatoryís latest residents himself and he dismounted at the largest saloon in town, which was only so because part of its premises included a canvas tent connected to the building where the saloon originated. Tethering Peso to the hitching post at the foot of the boardwalk leading across to the batwing doors of the establishment, Vin could hear clunk music emanating from a piano inside the place, with voices speaking in both Spanish and English but were lace with the same unrestrained revelry.

Vin stepped through the doors and saw that the saloon was a full as he had suspected it would be. His arrival garnered little more than a glance from those who were already there and Vin did nothing to inspire any further interest as he made his way to the bar. Leaning across the counter, he was soon approached by a rotund Mexican wearing a filthy apron whom asked in broken English what he would like to drink. Vin ordered himself a shot of whiskey and sent the bar tender on his way to fill the order. He waited until his drink had come and he had taken a taste from the less than hygienic shot glass before turning to face the rest of the bars patrons.

For one thing, the place was filled with an unusual amount of white men. Normally, the bulk of Purgatoryís residents were Mexican banditos and a collection of regulars that Vin had become familiar with since his settlement in Four Corners. The new arrivals were hired guns. That much was for certain. The leader and there was no mistaking that he was the leader of the group, sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by a group of equally lethal men who were carousing with the saloon girls present. The man was not much older than Chris but the reflection in his eyes set them apart distinctly. His eyes were sinister, full of edge that was harsh with no compromise. There was also a sneer to his face that was unsettling; a perception that Vin could not fathom but knew was capable of much violence. He was holding one of the Mexican saloon girls on his lap and judging by the glimmer in her eyes, she was not happy to be the one who had captured his attention. Her body language told Vin she wanted to leave and as much as Vin would like to help her, he had no doubt that he would be set upon by the dozen or more men in the room, should he make the attempt.

Vin tried not to stare for too long because that would draw undue attention to himself, especially when he was outgunned as he was at this moment. The man who held court with the others was familiar to Vin and the tracker tried to recall when he had seen the face before. He wished it was possible to inquire the manís name but he decided that would be a bad idea if the question was not received well. Instead, he turned his back to them and listened quietly to their chatter, hoping that he might garner something of importance.

As luck would have it, it did not take long for that to happen as the men were on their way to a good drunk and the alcohol had loosen their tongues considerably. The wall facing the saloon was covered in a glass and Vin as able to maintain his observation without turning around, which was just as well because he had no wish to fight all these men alone if he were caught spying. The leader of the pack, the man that struck such a chord of familiarity with Vin, had said little and was instead allowing the others to do the talking while he enjoyed his time with the saloon girl who was barely tolerating his ministrations.

"How long are we to remain here Mal?" One of them asked, his voice was heavy with an accent that sounded French Vin supposed, although the tracker had not heard many French accents to be able to be so certain.

"Until we get word Jaques," their leader responded after a moment, lowering the bottle that he was taking a swig of and placing it on the table. "Bosshard said it wonít be long."

"Bosshardís biting off more than he can chew." Jaques grumbled, his was face with a thick neck and a heavy greying moustache, not unlike Buckís although the man had thick eyebrows to match. He reminded Vin of an Alaskan lumberjack and would give Josiah a run for his money in a hand to hand confrontation.

"Bosshard is just following his orders," Mal answered. "We know who really pulls the strings."

"Them boys up in Lincoln," another voice entered the fray and this time the speaker was a man dressed in the clothes of a Mexican bandit though he was not Hispanic in origin. He reminded Vin a little of Raphael in his dress but he was very definitely Caucasian.

"Does that mean weíre under orders too?" Jaques laughed loudly, almost in provocation.

"You know better than that." Mal retorted with enough edge in his voice to tell the big man that he was unimpressed by that line of reasoning.

"I am just tired of waiting around here," Jaques recanted defensively, not wishing to raise his leaderís ire any further. He could tell that Mal was just as bored with waiting around here as he but he was able to hide it a good deal better.

"It wonít be for long," Mal drawled. "Sooner or later, them boys up in Four Corners are going to find out what theyíre up to and then weíll have to move in and take care of them."

"I hear theyíre a tough bunch," the one dressed in the suit remarked. "Larabeeís supposed to be riding with them."

"He is," Mal nodded, inadvertently gaining Vinís full attention now. "But men with families get soft and weak. Bosshardís got the right idea, get the family, you get the man."

"I always like entertaining the ladies," Jaques grinned and the salacious implication in his voice almost tempted Vin into shooting him there and then but the tracker remained silent, opting to listen further rather than give himself away with fatal consequences.

"Well there are seven of them," the third man chuckled. "I hear Larabeeís wife is quite the beauty. Just your type Mal."

"I suppose that itís only fitting that once I kill him, I claim whatís his. I kind of like the sound of Mallaeson Davis taking Chris Larabeeís lady."

Mallaeson Davis?

Vin recognised the name immediately and upon realizing whom Bosshard was sending against them, decided that he had heard enough to inspire him to get leaving for Four Corner this minute. Davisí reputation was more than infamous, it was down right frightening. In Lincoln and Colfax he had been the shadow of destruction that allowed men like Bosshard and all the others to do their worst. One of the Sante Fe Ringís worst enforcers, much of the bloodshed that had been caused in the war that had raged on for the past five years in Lincoln County was largely attributed as Davisí handiwork. Lawmen sent after him by Governor Wallace often found themselves dead and the fact that he was here with his notorious gang of cut throats with an eye for Four Corners drew and involuntary shudder from the tracker.

Finishing his drink quickly, Vin made his exit as discreet as his entrance, appearing to be just another traveler passing through Purgatory from one place to another. Mallaeson Davis and his men hardly noticed his departure. They appeared more interested in the escalating tempo of their debauchery then to pay attention to a drifter who looked no different that any other that had ventured into the saloon since their arrival in town. Vin took advantage of their disinterest and reached Peso without incident. As he began the ride home, he supposed he ought to take comfort in the fact that his suspicions that Bosshard might have an unseen ace up his sleeve but damn he just hated it when he was right.

+ + + + + + +

"You did what by yourself?" Chris demanded when he met Chris in the street some time later.

The two men had run into each other in transit, ironically enough on the way to see each other at their respective homes. It was Vin who managed to break his news first and the reaction engendered from his old friend was more or less what he expected although he had hoped Chris would be more concerned with the information rather than taking account of the fact that Vin had acquired it alone. Of course, Chris would not be Chris if he were not excessively protective of the men he rode with and by extension, the family that came with it.

"You heard me," Vin retorted, preparing the inevitable rebuke.

"You could have gotten yourself killed!" Chris declared hotly.

"I could have," Vin nodded and then pointed out. "But I didnít."

"You still might," Chris glared at him sweetly.

"Youíre a real hoot," the younger man grumbled.

Chris sighed dispelling his annoyance at Vin taking off on his own because he knew it was a pointless exercise telling him not to. Neither heaven nor hell could stop Vin Tanner when he got into this mind to doing something he believed with absolute certainty to be the right thing. Chris did not know whether or not he ought to be grateful for his friendís resolve or shoot out Vinís kneecaps to save himself the worry. Still, Vinís little adventure did provide them with the confirmation they needed to prove that Bosshardís threat was not an idle one and that Ezra had been right to sound the alarm upon its hearing.

"Mallaeson Davis," Chris shook his head in disgust. "That bastard brought Mallaeson Davis to my town."

"Yep," Vin nodded somberly. "He and his gang. I counted more than a dozen of them in the saloon. There could be more."

"It fits with what Ezra had to say," Chris rose his eyes to meet Vinís as they continued walking. Vin noted they were still heading towards his house and held off on questioning Chris as to why that was because it appeared that the older man was about to explain.

"What was that exactly?" Vin asked, seeing the tension in Chrisí eyes and become aware that something was happening, something dire.

"That Bosshard had men lying in wait for the right moment," Chris answered. "He and Bosshard got into a tussle tonight. Seems Bosshard was trying to force Julia into something compromising."

"She alright?" Vin asked automatically, feeling his insides knot with outrage that must have been a splinter in comparison to what Ezra must have felt.

"Ezra got there in time but he gave something to make Bosshard think twice about doing it again." Chris concluded and Vin could tell by the expression on his face that it was extreme.

"What did he do?" Vin spoke, almost afraid to ask but knowing that he would probably do something similar if it were Alex in that position.

"Shot the manís ear off," Chris retorted with the barest hint of a smile on his lips.

"Ouch," Vin winced but was in complete agreement with Chris that Bosshard had deserved worse. "I reckon that pissed him off some."

"I imagine it did." Chris replied and then added. "He made threats Vin, threats against us and against the women."

Vin tensed. He recalled what Mallaeson had said about killing a manís family to kill the man, that it was Bosshardís way of defeating an enemy. He had proven that he was more than capable of carrying out such a threat with the murder of Ezra's father and the "Heís gonna go after our families, ainít he?" Vin declared, not even requiring Chrisí response to confirm it.

"Yeah," Chris nodded slowly. "I think he is. Iíve already told Mary to start packing. Ezra has done the same for Julia and Maude. Youíre going to tell Alex. I want the women and children packed and ready to leave tonight. Weíll get them as far away from here as possible before we decide what weíre going to do with Bosshard. One thingís for sure, weíre not leaving them here to fall prey to someone like Mallaeson Davis."

Vin was more than agreeable to that, even if he had to hog-tie Alex to see that it was done.

+ + + + + + +

It did not take much time to gather the women together although none of the ladies were very happy to be leaving town in the dead of night. JD had already left Four Corners, with the intention of reaching Casey and Nettie in order to appraise them of what had happened and to escort them to the Wilmington place. As of yet, Chris had not decided what they would do once arriving at Buck's, knowing that their stay there would be brief until a more permanent solution could be made. Unfortunately, Inez and Elena Rose would also be required to leave their home since they were in as much danger as the rest of the women in the lives of the seven peacekeepers.

"I still think this is a bad idea," Maude complained as she and Julia climbed into the surrey in the shadows of the livery stable.

"Mother please," Ezra responded wearily, not wishing to argue this matter any further because they needed to get started to Buck's as soon as possible and Ezra had no wish to delay any one by having Maude be difficult. He understood her reasons for wishing to remain but having heard the news that Mallaeson Davis, himself, was under Bosshard's employ with designs of striking not only at the seven but the women in their lives, he was determined that she not be here when they came into Four Corners.

"I should not have to run from him again." Maude said turning away in disappointment as Ezra loaded her belongings and that of Julia's into the back of the small carriage. "I've done that enough in his life."

"You are not running from Bosshard," Julia responded in an effort to make Maude feel better and to keep his mother from taxing Ezra's patience any further. She understood the gravity of the situation after Ezra had explained who Mallaeson was and she had no wish to meet such a vile man face to face, especially when that meeting would only compromise Ezra's ability to fight them forces gathering against the seven men. "You're retreating to let Ezra and the others deal with him. Besides, we'd only get in the way."

"I suppose," Maude sighed, clearly unhappy by the younger woman's sensible statement. "I just know I should have killed him with that first shot."

"Well in future, select a weapon a little more effective than a derringer," Ezra retorted as he rounded the carriage once more and faced both women again.

"Ezra," Chris called out through the darkness. "They ready?"

Ezra turned to Chris Larabee who was standing next to the carriage where his own family was settling themselves in for the journey ahead. Mary had placing Mikey in his bassinet while next to her; Billy kept watch on his younger brother since she was required to drive the carriage to Buck's.

"More or less," Ezra answered.

"Good," Chris nodded in approval before turning back to his own family. Mary tried to hide the worry in her face because she too, knew of Mallaeson by reputation. As a newspaperwoman, it was possible that she had more knowledge about the notorious enforcer than Chris himself did. It was not lost upon him that at the mention of Mallaeson Davis' name Mary had given him almost no argument about leaving her home with her children. "I'm sorry you got to leave like this Mary."

"I know Chris," she reached for her husband's face and soothe his worried expression with a smile. "It's for the best. I don't want the children here anymore than you do if Davis comes this way."

"It won't be for long," Chris assured her and meant it. "I promise."

"I'll hold you to that," she responded and kissed him gently.

The moment lasted briefly with the arrival of Vin who was leading Phoebe, Alex's horse towards them. Phoebe was presently pulling the doctor's buggy behind her as Nathan carried in each hand Alex's small carpetbag and Rain's belongings. The tracker brought the mare and buggy to a halt before rounding the animal in order to join Alex. The lady doctor seemed unhappy about leaving but Vin was not going to entertain any notion about Alex remaining. After what he had heard in Purgatory, there was no way he was letting her or their unborn child remain in town when Mallaeson and his men came riding into Four Corners.

"I don't like leaving you like this," Alex declared sourly as Vin led her to the side of the buggy so that he might help her climb in. Rain would be accompanying Alex in her buggy during the journey to Buck's and though the rest of the seven would be escorting the women out of town, Vin was happier that Alex would have company.

"Its you whose in more danger than I am," Vin pointed. "You and the baby."

"You're not being over protective because of that are you?" She stared at him in accusation.

"No," he lied. "You just need to be away from here. I can't be worrying about you both while fighting Bosshard and his men."

"Alright," Alex conceded the fact that she could be more of a hindrance to him by her presence than an asset. "I'll go but you promise me you'll be careful."

"I always do," Vin smiled faintly and kissed her on the forehead.

"Don't worry Miss Alex," Nathan Jackson who was standing next to Rain added. "I'll watch his back."

"And who is going to watch yours Nathan Jackson?" Rain returned her lover's attention back to her with that question.

"Someone will," Nathan smiled as he looked into her face and saw her worry despite her imperious tone. "Someone always does," he said confidently. "Once we get going to Buck's, things won't seem so bad."

"Things are always bad when you are in danger Nathan," she stared at him, his words unable to soothe her worry. "I do not know how you would expect me to believe otherwise."

"Rain," Nathan said in a tender voice. "I'll be okay but you need to be away from here when those men come. Chris is right, you're no good to us here where we'll go crazy trying to protect you. You need to go someplace safe so we can do what we got to."

"I know," Rain answered with an exasperated sigh wondering why it was danger always found them. "I just worry about you."

"I worry about you too," Nathan lowered his lips to her and gave her soft kiss of affirmation. "I promise, I'll be careful."

Rain was about to answer when they heard the rumbling noise of Audrey's buckboard approaching them. Josiah was at the reins, with Audrey and Lilith at his side.

"You okay with this Audrey?" Josiah asked quietly as they came upon their friends awaiting them to make the exodus out of town.

"I don't have a choice do I?" Audrey looked at him. She hated the fact that she had to run but when Josiah had explain how callous were the men that would be coming for them, she had little choice but to comply. After all, she had understand the consequences of loving a man like Josiah and he was more than worth the occasional bout of trouble that seemed to come their way.

"I'm sorry," Josiah's gaze dropped, his low rumble of a voice almost fading into nothingness.

"You shouldn't be," Audrey said lifting his chin so that he would look at her once more. "I love you for what you are and that means accepting everything else that comes from being in your life. I don't regret that for a moment, even if it is a little bit of an inconvenience at times."

"I love you Audrey," Josiah found himself responding to her warmth and felt supremely grateful to his God that he had sent Audrey into Josiah's life. Pulling up the reins, the horse came to a pause and Josiah met Audrey's lips in a tender kiss that promised the warmth of a log fire and the comforts of passion that was familiar and enduring.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra watched his friends with the women in their lives, talking as if they might not see tomorrow and realized that this was no different than the moment his father had shared with his mother on the last day of his life.

He hoped it did not end the same way for them as it did for his father.

Part Seven

Rescue

War had come to the Territory.

For years Chris Larabee had watched it brewing beyond the boundaries of Four Corners, hoping that the town he had grown quite surprisingly to cherish, would avoid becoming embroiled in the malaise that had consumed the rest of the Territory. He watched as honest lawmen and crooked politicians fought it out, some fighting for the cattle ranchers and some for the homesteaders. The battle was had been bloody with no clear winner although the ranchers seemed to be left in better condition than the homesteaders. However, it was clear that their supremacy was coming to an end even if the day would not be for quite some time. With the appointment of Territorial Judges like Orin Travis who saw the seven's installation in the town of Four Corners as its peacekeepers, Chris had thought that the war that had raged throughout the Territory was winding to a close.

Unfortunately, the arrival of Benjamin Bosshard had shown Chris that the neutrality of Four Corners was about to be tested and with the introduction of Mallaeson Davis into the equation, the complexion of their situation altered dramatically. With the enforcer and his gang certain to beset the seven once Bosshard gave him the word, Chris knew he had to draw out a battle plan while they still had time. Chris hoped to minimize the danger not only to the seven but also to Four Corners itself when the gang of outlaws rode into town. For the moment however, the primary concern for Chris as well as the rest of the seven was their families. With Bosshardís pattern of vengeance clearly aimed at the families of his enemies, Chris did not think his reaction following Ezraís news to be any kind of over reaction. Bosshard had murdered Ezraís father and spent the better part of a decade searching for the Marshalís family, Chris had no doubt that he would do the same to Mary and the others if given the o pportunity.

The Wilmingtons were entertaining a full house as the small convoy from Four Corners arrived at the homestead with Chris in the lead, informing Buck that his family was in as much danger as the rest of them. While Inez packed her things for the journey with the rest of her friends, the seven men sat down to discuss where it was their womenfolk would go for the duration. Chris wanted Mary and the others to be as far away from Mallaeson Davis and his gang as possible and hopefully, their departure from town had been done with the maximum veil of secrecy, giving Bosshard no clue where they could have gone. However, it would not take long for them to notice the absence of several of Four Corners most prominent citizens and inspire a search. Chris intended to have all the women and children as far away from here as possible by the time Mallaeson turned his attention to them.

"So where are we taking them?" Buck asked anxiously. Like the rest of the seven, he had heard about Mallaeson Davis' role in the situation and was not happy that a sadistic brute like that might be placing Inez and Elena Rose in his sights.

"How about Judge Travis?" JD offered, hoping that a large town like Eagle Bend might make Davis think twice about coming after their loved ones.

"We ain't exactly popular there." Nathan reminded them. "I don't think that Sheriff has forgotten about how we kept my pa from hanging." When the seven had stood up for Jebediah Jackson after he had murdered the former overseer at the plantation where he and his family were slaves, they had permanently ran afoul of the local sheriff who thought they were protecting Jebediah and keeping justice from being done. Even though that sheriff had since been replaced, the man still resided in Eagle Bend and was quite to remind everyone how the seven had stood against their town. No, Nathan did not feel entirely happy about entrusting the fate of their loved ones in the uncertain atmosphere of Eagle Bend, even if Judge Travis resided there.

"I agree," Ezra pointed out unhappily. "Besides, I think taking the 'brood' to Judge Travis might be somewhat obvious. If I were a betting man...."

"Now that's an understatement if I ever heard it," Josiah drawled, unable to resist the glib remark even though the situation was tense.

"You are a veritable court jester Josiah," Ezra retorted but his response was just as amused at Josiah's remark. "However, if I may continue. I do believe Nathan is right. Eagle Bend is not a viable hiding place."

"I figured more or less the same," Chris answered as they sat beneath the porch of the house while inside the sound of women chattering could be heard.

"What about the Indian Reservation?" Buck suggested. "I seem to recall those folks out there owing us one for what happened with Chano and Claire Moselley."

"No good," Vin answered first. "People know we got close ties there. If they point the finger that way, it won't be just the women that get hurt. Mallaeson and his bunch ain't got no love for the Indians either and the way things are after Julius got those renegades riled up, it could be almost as dangerous as leaving them in Four Corners."

Chris thought deeply, hearing his friends throw ideas forward and finding each solution inappropriate for their purposes. No, they needed something that no one in town had any inkling about, a place that was completely isolated and well fortified. He thought of Mary and his two sons, of Elena Rose and Lilith, of the child slumbering in Alex's belly and knew that whatever place they chose had to be absolutely safe. He thought of the stories he had heard about Davis, about the bloodshed he left in his wake and knew that none of the solutions offered so far could serve their purposes or allay his fears. He was about to leave nothing to chance. They had come a long way and they had build lives in Four Corners, lives that were very much symbolized by the feminine voices emanating from the house and the sounds of children that felt like sunshine in the soul. When they had first come together, they had never suspected that their odyssey had just began.

Becoming seven had changed everything for them.

Suddenly, it came to Chris and he raised his eyes sharply, making contact with Vin first who knew immediately that his best friend had come up with an answer. He was leaning against the hitching post and straightened up. Vin who had been facing him did the same thing and they both turned slightly towards the others, as if this was something that they would do together. The others noted the solidarity of their movements and suspected that their leader had reached a solution. They held their breaths in anticipation, waiting for him to speak.

"The Seminole village." Chris spoke after a moment. "It's far enough away from here and hard to find if you don't know where it is."

"Yeah, you're right, " Vin started to nod. He had not known exactly what Chris would say but he had seen the light in his friend's eyes to know that he had an answer of some kind. Now that Chris had revealed what it was, Vin agreed with him. It was a good idea. When they had first traveled to the Seminole village, it had required the Indian Chief to lead them to the small community in the mountains. The village had been established for runaway slaves and had been isolated enough to ensure that they remained free for a long time. It was seldom visited by outsiders and was safely anonymous. Thus, even if Mallaeson had some idea where Alex and the others were, he would have a difficult time finding his way to the village.

"That's a good idea," Nathan spoke up first, knowing the place better than most of them from his frequent visits back to the place when Rain still lived there. "The Chief will take good care of them and even if Mallaeson does find his way there, the Seminole know how to hide and see to it that he never reaches the women."

Chris hoped it did not come to that but for right now the Seminole village was the best that could be afforded in terms of safety and considering the time constraints left to them, it was an option they had to take. He looked at the other faces around him and waited to hear them voice their agreement as well before he made any final decision even though the truth was, they really did not have much of a choice. This was so far the best solution to their difficulties and despite the rustic and remote setting of the Seminole village, it was undoubtedly the safest place for their loved ones to seek sanctuary for the moment.

"Hardly the most lavish place for either my mother or Julia," Ezra frowned aware of the arguments he would receive from his mother anyway, when it was disclosed where they would be headed. "However, I am certain they will manage."

"Like the man says," Josiah drawled. "We don't have much of a choice."

"Casey will be fine," JD said confidently before adding, "Nettie ain't happy to leave her home so one place is just as good as any other for her."

Chris let a small smile cross his lips when he remembered how difficult it had been for Vin to convince the lady to leave her home. His best friend was one of the most fearless men he had ever met but even Vin seemed to quake in his boots a little when Nettie's dander was up. Fortunately, Vin's determination not to let Nettie remain had won the day and the old woman had begrudgingly admitted that anything that made Vin dig his heels in with that much stubbornness deserved her obedience. It was just as well because Chris was certain that had Nettie continued to protest, Vin would have reached his goal by hog tying the lady and taking her away across his shoulder.

"We're agreed then," Chris stated with finality. "We'll send them to the Seminole village. Buck, you and JD go with the women. Make sure theyíre not followed to where theyíre going."

"When do you we leave?" Buck inquired, although he guessed by the urgency of the situation that it would be soon. At the moment, Bosshard was still licking his wounds but soon he would seek out vengeance and Buck would feel a great deal more secure if their families were well away from the area before that happened.

"Immediately," Chris stated firmly as Buck had expected he would. "Get all the supplies they might need for the trip and get going. The sooner theyíre heading away from town the better. I want to take advantage of the night as much as possible. It will lessen the chances of their being seen leaving."

"What about us?" Ezra inquired.

"Weíre heading back into town," Chris explained. "There are a couple of things I want to look into before Mallaeson and his men turn up."

"Like what?" Josiah inquired.

"Like what Bosshard has on Gloria Potter." Vin surmised easily enough, knowing his friend well enough to make that assessment.

"Right," Ezra agreed immediately. "I assume it must be damaging indeed if it is enough to frighten such a strong willed woman into capitulating. I suspect he probably threatened her family. Being a woman alone with a gaggle of children to feed can place one in a vulnerable position."

"Thatís probably the only thing that could make Mrs. Potter run scared," Chris ventured a further possibility. "It wouldnít surprise me if Bosshard threatened her children."

"That would certainly be in keeping with his methods so far." Ezra concluded.

"We better be sure before we do anything," Vin retorted. "I donít want Mrs. Potter or her kin getting caught between us and Bosshard when things finally come a head."

"Vinís right," Chris agreed with the younger manís remark. "Thatís what weíre going to do first when we head back to town. One way or another, weíre going to finish this." The gunslingerís lips curled into an angry sneer.

Ezra Standish said nothing but he had no doubt of that whatsoever, even if he had to take care of it personally.

+ + + + + + +

Less than an hour later, the carriages were loaded with supplies, the women and children headed off to the Seminole Village with Buck and JD playing escort to ensure no harm befell there during the journey. As anticipated, Maude was unhappy about being sent to an Indian village to hide from Bosshard and Ezra had the impression that it was not the accommodations but the thought of not being on hand to witness the manís comeuppance herself that had his mother so resistant. However, after much debate and the threat of tying her up and putting her in a wagon himself if she did not agree, Maude found that she had little choice but to comply with her sonís wishes and Ezra hoped that was the last he would hear of the matter.

After another emotionally charged farewell, they bade the ladies off on their journey and returned to Four Corners. As they rode into town, the atmosphere seemed charge with expectation. The town almost had an uncanny sense went it came to trouble and it was reflected in the quiet streets as the five men returned to town since their hasty departure the night before. Chris wondered if Mallaeson and his men were already here and that alarmed him because he had hoped that Mary and the others might cover a little more ground before the outlaw and his mercenaries began hunting for them. However, it became apparent that there was no such danger at the present time as the peacekeepers rode to the Standish Tavern. He supposed the disappearance of the ladies might give the town some indication of danger since there could be no other reason for such a hasty evacuation.

"You go on ahead," Chris said to his companions as they dismounted in front of the tavern and had done tethering their horses to the hitching post. "Iím gonna see Gloria Potter." He announced.

"Iíll come with you," Vin offered predictably and Chris accepted his attendance with a slight not.

"Ezra," Chris regarded the gambler. "Find out what you can about whatís happened since weíve been gone." He punctuated the order with a sweeping gaze across the streets of Four Corners, before returning his eyes to Ezra once more. "Itís seem pretty quiet around here and its making me nervous."

"I can appreciate that," Josiah remarked with the same uncertainty as he regarded the community. The air was heavy with something that felt a great deal like danger but as of yet, the streets seemed quiet.

"You think theyíre here or that theyíve been here?" Nathan inquired, referring of course to Mallaeson Davis and his gang.

"Possibly," Chris shrugged, but somehow he did not think so. They had been openly vulnerable when they had ridden into town. If there were a time to pick them off one by one, that would have been it. Mallaeson was not known for his subtlety. When he came after the seven, they would know it. Chris hoped that it would not happen for at least a day, giving Buck and JD enough time to return to them. With the number of men that were known to ride with Davis, Chris would prefer if their own complement were full before the seven was forced to deal with them.

"Keep your eyes open," Chris remarked, offering that last piece of advice to his companions before he and Vin started towards Gloria Potterís home while the others continued towards the Standish Tavern. Vin and Chris did not progress too far along their journey when they saw Gloria emerge from one of the side streets, her eyes finding them immediately. The expression on her face indicated that she had been seeking them ought and she raised her skirts slightly as she hurried towards them. There was no doubt in either of their minds that the lady was frightened. However, Chris could not imagine why since she had capitulated to Bosshardís demands and sold him her store. By rights, she ought to have no reason to fear as gravely as she appeared to at the moment, although Chris could not say that he would be entirely at ease either if anyone had that much power over him.

"Chris," Gloria reached them in the middle of the street. Her cheeks were puffed and she was breathing hard as if she had been scouring town for some time in her efforts to find him.

It was not lost on Chris that they were suddenly on a first name basis again. Certainly, her manner was a world of difference from the hostility she had shown them earlier when they had tried to inquire what was wrong.

"What is Gloria?" Chris asked exchanging a knowing glance with Vin that they were about to be hit with something new.

"Its all over town," Gloria gasped, pausing in the middle of the boardwalk. She was so flustered that she barely noticed the curious glances she was acquiring from passersby in the street. "Ezra shot Bosshard."

Chris nodded grimly, guessing this much when he saw how silent things were. "Yeah he did. Apparently, he was threatening Julia."

"You canít hurt him!" Gloria cried out. "You canít do anything to harm him!"

"Heís broken the law Gloria," Chris said firmly. "He was blackmailing Julia into selling him the Emporium."

"Whatís he got on you maíam?" Vin asked before Chris could. What was she so afraid of? Surely she had to know that with Bosshard now exposed, she need no longer have any fear of him threatening her family.

"Nothing." Gloria muttered, still feeling some resistant to telling them the truth even though she was starting to understand that if she did not, no one would be able to help her or Robbie when the shooting started.

"Gloria," Chris sighed, seeing the fear in her eyes and wishing badly that she would confide in them so that they could help her. "You have to trust us. We wonít let anything happen to you or your kin but we need to know whatís going on."

"You canít make that promise!" She exclaimed, almost breaking down in tears.

"Why?" Chris took her by the shoulders and made her look up at him.

"Because they have my son!"

Both men fell silent immediately. Of course, they had suspected something in this nature but they had not realized that Bosshard would go so far to kidnap a child. However, it made perfect sense when Chris thought about it. After all, Bosshard had been attempting to operate in secrecy and kidnapping Gloriaís child would not only ensure her cooperation but her secrecy since her first impulse would be to run to the seven for help. Finally he understood why she was so afraid now and why she had been so unwilling to speak to them, especially with that kind of threat looming over her head.

"Is that why you sold the store?" Vin asked, even though it was a foregone conclusion.

"Yes," she nodded, all resistance gone now that they knew the truth. "They took Robbie on his way home from the Conklins'. I havenít seen him in almost two days. Bosshard said Iíd have him back as soon as he was done in Four Corners. He didnít want me coming to you with the truth."

"They wouldnít be fool enough to keep him in town." Vin ventured a guess.

"No," Chris agreed with that assumption. "Too many people to keep a child hidden like that. Iím guessing the boy ainít in Four Corners."

"You donít think heís with Davis do ya?" Vin raised his gaze to Chris but could tell the gunslinger had already come to the same conclusion. The idea that young Robert Potter could be in the company of a man like Mallaeson Davis made Chrisí blood boil. The man was very indiscriminate in his murders and it made little difference if the victim was a full grown adult or a child. However, Chris did not think Bosshard would kill the boy just yet, not when he could be used an instrument of obedience for his mother.

"Its more than likely." Chris nodded.

"Mallaeson Davis?" Gloria asked fearfully, recognizing the name immediately. There were few people who did not know who the notorious outlaw was even though his crimes had not touched the community of Four Corners. The lurid tales of his murders graced most publications even the Clarion News on occasion.

"Yeah," Chris nodded reluctantly, not wishing to worry the widow any more than she already was but Robbie was her son and she deserve to know the truth, no matter how unpalatable it might be for her to hear it. "Bosshardís got him waiting in Purgatory. Iím guessing after Ezra shot him, Davis will be headed this way."

"Oh my God!" Gloria cried out in horror. "You mean my Robbie has been with that animal!" The idea that her son was in such close proximity to a ruthless killer sent fresh slivers of terror through her, as if she was not already on the verge of complete panic. She grabbed Chris shirt and stared at him with tear filled eyes. "You have to help him!" She pleaded. "I'm sorry I didn't come to you! I was so afraid that he would hurt my children but you have to get my Robbie back! Please!"

"Gloria, we'll do what we can," Chris tried to reassure her but knew it was a futile gesture. No mother faced with such news could be expected to remain calm when she loved her children as much as Gloria did. "I promise you, we'll find your boy."

"Oh thank you Chris," she started to sob loudly, garnering the attention of those around them that looked at her with concern. "I've been so scared ever since I heard about Ezra! I thought he would hurt Robbie out of spite."

"I don't think he'll do that," Vin said quickly, trying to allay the woman's fears. "He needs your boy alive to keep you in line, I don't think he'll risk hurting him." Of course what Vin did not say was that with Gloria taking them into her confidence, Bosshard had no use of the boy at all since she had defied him. However, he was not about to bring that up just yet. Right now, Gloria had to believe her son would be returned to them.

"I hope so," she said unconvinced. She gazed at them with the knowledge that she would have to trust them to return her son to her, no matter how much anxiety she was feeling in the moment at their ability to do that. "Please bring him back. I don't know what I'll do if something happens to him."

"Gloria go home," Chris looked her in the eye. "We'll go after Robbie but you need to watch over the rest of your kin, make sure they're safe while we're getting him back."

"Alright," she nodded, just grateful that there was something she could do while she waited for them to act. "I'll do that. Thank you Chris," she swallowed thickly, wiping the tears from her eyes and calming herself down because it would do no one any good if she was hysterical.

"Gloria," Chris repeated himself. "We'll find him."

She met his gaze and held it for an instant, knowing in that moment that he would move heaven and earth to see that his promise was kept. For Gloria, that was enough and she finally turned away, leaving the two men in order to go home to protect the rest of her children while they retrieved Robbie.

Neither Vin nor Chris said anything for a few seconds after the lady had withdrawn, choosing instead to watch her put some distance between them as she faded into the people on the street this morning. Once she was gone, it was Vin who stirred first, raising his gaze from beneath his hat to Chris.

"You really think we can get the boy away from Davis?" Vin inquired.

"We got no choice," Chris drawled. "We have to. Now that everything is out in the open, heís got no reason to care whether or not Gloria talks to us. It makes no difference to him whether or not the boy is alive. Knowing Bosshard, he might just have Davis kill Robbie out of spite."

"Looks like weíre headed for Purgatory," Vin said sucking in his breath.

Chris did not look at him as he agreed with the trackerís statement. "Looks that way."

It appear their meeting with Mallaeson Davis would come much sooner than any of the seven had expected.

+ + + + + + +

Maude knew she was insane.

She should not even be entertaining the idea but she could not help herself. The further the caravan she was travelling drew away from Four Corners, the more she became preoccupied with thoughts of Ezra facing that dreadful man as Peter had once done. Despite there being marked differences in the occasion, Maude was terrified he might end up the same way. Once again she rebuked herself for not being a better shot when she had pulled the trigger on Bosshard a few nights ago. She was disappointed that after years of hiding and dreaming of vengeance, she had failed to the rise to the occasion and had allowed Bosshard to survive the encounter to wreak more mischief upon those she cared about.

The mood among the women was generally quiet. Each seemed embroiled in their private thoughts. Mary was busy fussing over her children and Maude suspected that the exaggerated care was more for her benefit rather than that of either Billy or little Mikey. It might be Maryís way of coping with the worries she had regarding Chrisí well being. Maude herself was engaged in a similar activity, continuing to shuffle a deck of card in her hands as if the dual colored suits could give her some comfort. Julia Pemberton seemed content to stare aimlessly into the parch landscape through which they were traveling.

The young woman had not said much since their departure and Maude had the feeling that she was regretting being the cause of this entire situation coming to ahead. None of this was her fault, Maude snorted to herself. She had no reason to feel guilt when it was Bosshardís own dark machinations that had forced the situation to take the shape it had. However, she supposed that there would be no convincing Julia otherwise until Ezra returned to them safe and sound. Unfortunately, Maudeís nerves were no calmer either and she was in no position to offer her sonís fiancťe any comfort.

Her concerns centered mostly on her departure from Four Corners. Once, long ago, she had been sent on a similar journey as this, under the guise of it being for her own protection and the consequences of that departure was to watch helplessly the man she loved die in the street. Now her son was sending her away from a situation that was too much akin to how his father had died that she was able to think of anything else. For so many years, Maude had protected Ezra from Bosshard and his killers to avoid just this very possibility. She had sacrificed their relationship for his safety and only she knew how much that distrust she saw reflected in his eyes for her had really hurt.

For too long, Ezra had believed himself to be a burden in her life. Maude supposed he could not be blamed for thinking then. What else was a child supposed to think when he was shunted from relative to relative? Maude would have liked nothing more than to keep her son close to her in those early days but it had not been possible when Bosshard and his men were searching for a mother and a child. Maude had believed it would be simpler if she was on her own, to throw suspicion off herself if any of Bosshardís lackeys were to come across her. She also knew that it was no life for a child as young as Ezra to be travelling with her when she was moving from one con to the other. After Peter had died, she had only herself to rely on for financial support and it was much easier for her scams to reach fruition without a child in tow.

When he was old enough, she kept him with her but by then it was too late. There was a rift between them that could not be breached and no matter how hard Maude tried to teach him the trade that kept them both one step away from destitution, she sensed his study was half hearted. When she told him about his father, she had masked the truth and unwittingly cemented Ezraís belief that being a part of the con was all that he was good for since he was genetically predisposed thanks to his parentage. Maude knew that it was wrong to keep Ezra from knowing about his father but she feared losing him the way she had lost Peter. For too long after the Marshalís death, Maude lived with the very real fear that Bosshard would find her and made good on the threat to her and her son. It had been so branded upon her psyche that there came a time when Maude started to believe anything was justified in keeping that threat from becoming a reality

The lie had followed her for years and now in the open, it had damaged what little trust that Ezra held in her. She knew that if he were to face Bosshard, even with his six friends at his side, he could still be killed. Maude had been just aware of the numbers in Bosshardís arsenal that had driven Chris Larabee to send them away from town with such haste. Anything that could give the hardened gunslinger such cause for concern did not bode well for the seven and Maude was left with the terrible possibility that she might outlive her son just as she had outlived his father.

No!

The horror of that screamed so loudly in her head, she was surprised Julia who was next to her did not hear its frightened wail. She could not let Ezra die! However, she was powerless to do anything while she was trapped in this caravan, headed towards an undiscovered Indian village in the hills. They almost to Seminole community with Buck and JD having left them a short time ago to complete the rest of the journey now that it was certain that they were not being followed. Rain had taken the lead with Alex, since the duo had been to the village on numerous occasions before this. The night was bleeding away into the dawn and they were all very tired from the journey but the caravan had been instructed to continue ahead until they reached their destination so the village was not far ahead now.

Unfortunately, the closer they reached their destination, the more Maude was being bombarded with this overwhelming need to do something. She was never very good at being one of those women who were contented to sit at the sidelines while the fate of their men was being decided without them. For so many years, she had protected Ezra from Bosshard and now she was being asked to stand aside and let him fend for himself. Her maternal instinct would not allow her that luxury.

"I cannot do this," Maude muttered.

Julia turned to her. "Do what?" Her brow arched in suspicion.

"I cannot stay here and let him face that man." Maude turned to her.

"You have to," Julia said firmly, seeing the calamity that was threatening to emerge in the face of Maudeís indifference to Ezraís plan. "Maude weíll only get in the way."

"He my son." Maude declared firmly, refusing to let herself be swayed by any argument, no matter how sensible they may be. "Iíve protected him this long from that animal, I refuse to stop now."

Julia had been holding the reins to surrey they were riding but suddenly, Maude wrenched the strips of leather from her gloved hands. "Maude, what are you doing?" Julia demanded.

"Iím going back to Four Corners." Maude said stiffly. She pulled the reins, directing the surrey to turn away from the path it had been travelling steadily upon for some hours now.

"No!" Julia cried out, attempting to wrestle the reins from her, refusing to allow her to do this foolish thing that would no doubt cause more Ezra more harm than good. "Iím not letting you do this!"

By now, the commotion caused by their voices had drawn the attention of the others and the procession came to a halt. Maude knew she did not have time to debate the situation with Julia or the others because no doubt, they would try and stop her from leaving as well. Without giving Julia any warning, she shoved the younger woman off the surrey, unseating Julia who tumbled to the hard ground with a short cry of surprise. Once Julia was off the carriage, Maude grabbed the reins once more and glanced briefly at the Emporium owner who appeared dazed but relatively unhurt.

"I am sorry about this Julia," Maude apologized, genuinely sorry about what she had done to make her escape. "But I must do this."

"Youíre not going to be helping him!" Julia managed to recover enough to say that as she struggled to her feet.

However, Maude was not listening. With a snap of her reins, the surrey rolled forward abruptly, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust in her wake. Julia scrambled to her feet and saw the carriage rumbling away into the distance. She called out after Maude but knew her words would have little hope of stopping the woman.

"What happened?" Mary demanded when her wagon reached Julia.

"Maudeís gone back to Four Corners," Julia shook her head in disapproval before she dusted herself off. Other than her disheveled state, she had suffered nothing worse than some scrapes.

"What!" Mary exclaimed in shock. "Why?"

"She thinks she has to protect Ezra!" Julia cried out in exasperation.

"Protect Ezra?" Mary mystified expression deepened. "How does she think she can do that?"

"She canít!" Julia grumbled. "Mary I have to go after her!"

Mary was already shaking her head in disapproval of this idea. "Julia, I donít think thatís a good idea."

"Youíre probably right but so is letting Maude get to Four Corners with the way things are down there." She retorted.

Unfortunately, Mary could not tell Julia she was wrong about that assertion despite her natural inclination to convince Julia otherwise. Hopefully Julia would be able to reach Maude before either of them reached Four Corners. Whether or not Julia could convince Maude to return with her once that happened, was another thing entirely.

+ + + + + + +

After more days than he could care to count, the outlaw Mallaeson Davis was finally visited with some news he could stomach after too many days languishing in the small Mexican town of Purgatorio. While the provision of ample liquor and women was always a welcome distraction, he and his men were beginning to get restless and were craving for excitement that would pit them against the peacekeepers of Four Corners. The stories that he had been hearing about the so-called 'Magnificent Seven' were more than enough to inspire his interest and Davis did so like a challenge. He had heard the Larabee had a fast gun and was eager to see if that reputation was justified.

Fortunately, it appeared that his time in Purgatory was just about done with the arrival of Bosshard's chief lackey, Marks. Davis has become accustomed to seeing Marks at Purgatory, usually ferrying messages to and from Bosshard who was never content unless he knew exactly what Mallaeson Davis was up to at all times. Davis liked to think it was because Bosshard was a little afraid of him despite the fact that he was the man's chief enforcer. Bosshard was well aware of what he was capable of doing even to those he might perceive as acquaintances. He supposed that it was his savagery that kept him employed by the Santa Fe Ring. After all, in the years Davis had been in their service, the organization had very little to complain even though it was becoming apparent that the stranglehold they had been able to maintain over the Territory was coming to an end. This attempt to garner new territory in Four Corners was just another desperate attempt to regain ground lost by government mandates and T erritorial Judges who ensured that the justice was done.

None of this effected Mallaeson Davis to any great extent for there would always be need for men like him and if not, the south of the border ensured that his way of life would not come to an end for quite some time yet. For the moment, he pledged his allegiance to Bosshard and his ilk because it kept him and his companions in liquor and woman with more than their healthy shares of mayhem and killing. Beyond that, Davisí needs were scarce. However, he could not deny that he was tiring of their tenure in Purgatory and wished to complete their business in Four Corners, especially with the seven lawmen who had earned such a reputation in the vicinity.

For the moment, they were all listening to Marks relating the latest news from Four Corners, in particular the episode between Bosshard and one of the peacekeepers. The information drew great amusement from his men even though they all knew that Bosshardís injury, most of which was to his pride, would require their involvement to salve. It suited Davis just fine; he was itching to pit himself against Larabee anyway. If it was simple revenge that allowed him to do so, Davis had no complaints.

"What about the boy?" Jaques inquired.

The French born outlaw had been mostly responsible for Robbie Potter ever since he was brought to Purgatory to be held hostage for his motherís silence. Jaques had considered this beneath his dignity, a situation not helped since the child was not taking his incarceration well and had been branded by the Frenchman as a whiny brat. Davis, who had seen the man slit open pregnant women in extreme bouts of savagery, knew Jaques was more than capable of killing the boy if given leave to do so and was probably asking the question so that he could terminate his tenure as babysitter by doing just that.

Marks paused a moment as he considered the question and then replied simply, "kill him."

The order had come from Bosshard himself so it did not prey heavily on Markís conscience to give such an order. Since it was very likely that the seven lawmen and their women would be dead by dayís end, the time of subterfuge was over. It was also a good way to see to it that Mrs. Potter remained silent about their business if she were given a pointed example of what would happen to the rest of her children if she were tempted to speak.

"When do you want us to move?" Davis asked since that matter was more or less settled with that simple instruction. He needed no clarification.

"Tonight," Marks declared firmly. "Bosshard wants you to hit their homes first and then the town itself. The Emporium is to be burnt to the ground."

"Whatever you say," Stephens drawled, thinking of what he would need since he had ridden through the town and saw how large the structure was. It had to be a controlled burn he thought or else a fire of that size would take half the town with it.

"Where are you and Bosshard gonna be?" Davis asked, wondering if Bosshard would care to get his hands soiled on this occasion. Judging from what Marks had told them so far, this was no doubt a personal issue with Bosshard and Davis would have been surprised if Bosshard did not wish to take charge personally.

"Bosshard wants to take care of Standish," Marks retorted which was of no surprise to anyone. "You can have the others. Burn the bodies when youíre done."

"What about the women?" Jaques asked, drawing a snigger of throughout the room since most of them had the same intentions regarding the subject.

"Thatís up to you," Marks returned, knowing the treatment of the women was also part of the lesson of terror that needed to be conveyed to those who might think of standing up to them. "Just kill them when youíre done."

"You donít have to worry about that," Jaques grinned and the malevolent gleam in his eye left no mistaking that he would neglect that order.

As Marks continued to drone on, Davisí mind drifted away and he consoled himself with the fact that there was now end in sight to the present boredom when the sun set on this night. He was eager to show the Magnificent Seven just how wrong they were about that particular appellation.

+ + + + + + +

"So whatís the plan?" Vin asked as Chris, Ezra, Josiah and Nathan rode towards Purgatory.

Not long after they had spoken to Gloria Potter on the street, the lawmen were riding hard out of Four Corners, bound for Purgatory. At the time, they had given little thought as to the specifics of their rescue mission, only that it had to be done and quickly. With things coming to ahead with Bosshard, there was no telling what the man would do to young Robbie Potter now that he no longer had any use for the boy. Chris had promised Gloria that he would return Robbie to her safely and it was a promise he intended to keep. He had no wish to see the widow and her family suffering because she was unfortunate enough to become caught in the crossfire between the seven and Bosshard.

"We get the boy out." Chris said simply as they rode towards Purgatory.

"Undoubtedly Mallaeson Davis would be the childís minder," Ezra pointed out as the distance horizon began to reveal the uneven shape of the small Mexican town. "It will not be a simple matter to bypass him to reach the boy."

"Well think of something," the gunslinger retorted, not about to let the details bother him even though he knew he should. Unfortunately, they had no idea where the boy was being kept which made things a good deal more complicated.

"Chances are Davis wonít consider the boy that much of a problem to keep him close by," Josiah pointed out.

"Maybe we ought to get you to sing again Ezra," Nathan found himself remarking, casting a look of mischief in the gamblerís direction.

Ezra threw back a dark glare at the healer and retorted sweetly. "I think Iíve done my turn in female garments. Perhaps it is your turn Nathan."

"As interesting as that sounds," Chris interrupted the conversation before anyone got the idea of putting Josiah in a dress and that was something Chris truly did not want to see, "I don't think that's going to work with Davis."

"I don't know what else is going to." Vin pointed out, unable to think about how they would sneak past Mallaeson Davis and his men, especially when they needed to find a young boy who may or may not be in Purgatory.

Chris considered the possibility, wondering what would distract the group long enough for someone to reach the boy. Davis would probably keep Robbie close by which meant that it was possible the boy was being held at the premises the gang had inhabiting of late. It was a slim hope but one the seven had to exploit because there was simply no other alternative. Having come to the shaky conclusion of where the boy might be left Chris with another problem. They needed a distraction and one that would ensure the outlaws attention would be away from the boy when he was being rescued.

The answer came to Chris Larabee almost immediately but knew that it was risky, as it was desperate. It would mean bringing the confrontation between the seven and the gang far sooner then Chris would have liked but he supposed this was never going to be easy. However, in the fragmentary beginnings of the plan that was forming in his mind, he understood that it was this way or not at all.

"I have an idea," he gazed at his friends after a moment.

"I ain't gonna like this am I?" Vin spoke up almost immediately after he caught sight of the look in Chris' eyes.

"Probably not," Chris confessed readily and saw the other's sharing the same expression of concern, mirroring the tracker's in almost exact intensity. "But it's the only shot we going to have at this."

Ezra Standish let out a deep sigh before remarking, "I have a feeling we are going to miss the plan that involves one of us in a dress."

+ + + + + + +

Robbie Potter has spent much of the last three days being kept in a room above the cantina/ saloon where the Davis gang had been enjoying the pleasures afforded by the rough and tumble border town. It was a place of odious smells, of regular gunfights where men lay dead in the street and whose boots were more likely to be claimed before their bodies. It was a place where his life hung suspended on waning thread that could snap at any moment despite the cruel taunts of the men who said that he would remain alive as long as his ma cooperated with some friends of theirs. He tried not to listen to the sounds coming from the other rooms, some violent, others lustful, aware that it was not meant for his hearing but unable to keep the noise from entering his head.

He cried a lot and felt weaker for doing it. He wanted his ma but did not dare voice that desire because that would make him look weaker than he already did. He was only a little boy but he knew instinctively that he had to be a man if he wanted to survive this. Robbie thought about his father and wished that he would come to the rescue before he remembered that his father was dead and no one would be coming for him. Robbie remained within the confines of the small room that had been his prison for days, hoping that the big man with the gruff accent would not be back to check on him. Instinctively, the bruises on his arm where Jaques had grabbed him started to throb even though Robbie knew that it was most likely a mental response rather than a physical one.

He did not like the way Jaques looked at him and there was such sinister intent in the man's eyes that Robbie had no doubt that Jaques would kill him if his ma did not do exactly as she was told. A part of Robbie was furious that they had treated his ma this way. Fresh tears formed in his eyes as he thought about his ma and what she must be enduring while he was gone. She worried so much about him and his siblings that Robbie knew this would just be tearing her to pieces. He wished he could make the men who were holding him hostage suffer just as much as his ma probably was at this moment. Unfortunately, he did not know if he would survive long enough for that.

His room was located above the saloon and as Robbie gazed outside, felt his heart sink once more because he was reminded that it was too much of a drop for him to make any attempt at escape. When he was first placed in this room, he had considered the idea but soon changed his mind when he realized what a fall from that height could do to his young bones. Besides, he doubted that anyone would help him if he hurt himself and would only succeed in engendering the wrath of Jaques who would no doubt assist him in breaking a few more bones for the attempt at escape. The people of Purgatory did not look as if they would be eager to help him.

If Ma dared to tell Mr Larabee, things would be different. He just knew the gunslinger and the six men who followed him would be riding in here at a momentís notice to save his life. He thought of Jaques and the others outlaws whose company he had been forced to endure and knew that none of them could hold a candle to Chris Larabee or his personal favourite of the group, Ezra Standish. Ezra would take care of them easy, Robbie sighed. However, despite his fanciful imagination, Robbie knew that neither Chris nor Ezra would be coming to rescue him. How could they, when they did not even know he was gone? Ma would be too afraid of anything happening to him to be able to confide in the lawmen that kept Four Corners safe.

As he gazed outside the window, he saw the inhabitants of Purgatory going about their business. These were mostly composed of working girls and outlaws who used this place as their oases from the law and from the desert. A Mexican in a poncho was laughing his way across the street, his face hidden by a large sombrero. In his arms was a pretty Mexican working girl that was enjoying his attentions even though he could barely walk straight. Robbie wondered if he was a part of the gang downstairs before turning away in realization that it mattered little whether or not he did because he was not going to help Robbie either.

Nobody was.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner moved swiftly through the horses that were hitched in the immediate vicinity of the saloon where the Davis gang had been spending most of their time and sliced through the leather pieces that held the saddles on top of their horses. The reality was that this tactic would do little to slow down the gang once they got it in their mind to come after the seven but the few minutes of time it afforded he and his companions to get away could be the difference between life and death. Vin had been chosen for this particular duty since it was relatively easy for him to fade into the background and remain unseen. In his buffalo and bounty hunting days, Vin had been able to sneak up on many a prey utilizing this ability at stealth.

Having made the latest saddle useless to its rider, Vin raised his eyes and searched the street for Chris Larabee. The gunslinger was proceeding on horseback through the street, his duster pulling down heavily at his sides since he had filled it with bottles of liquor ready for use. Vin sucked in his breath, aware that it was time to find Peso because once Chris started, they were going to have to move really fast. The gunslinger was fast approaching the saloon where the Davis gang was undoubtedly making their own preparations to come after them and their families in Four Corners. Vin had made a quick survey of the place when the seven had first arrived in town and knew that not only Mallaeson Davis was here but also Bosshard's lieutenant Marks.

Chris noticed Vin in his peripheral vision and tried not to draw too much attention to the tracker by his gaze. The rest of the community in Purgatory had already noticed the gunslinger garbed in black, having the unmistakable aura of someone who was not to be trifled with or tolerated being interfered with. The locals kept their distance as Chris brought his black gelding to a halt past the hitching post and almost to the doors of the establishment where Davis and his men were known to be. He glanced upwards with an imperceptible gaze, as if will alone could let him see through the dusty walls of the building. However, Chris knew that he would have to take the next step on faith alone because that was the one thing he could count on when it came to the men he rode with.

Without delaying any further, Chris dipped his hand into one of his pockets and extracted the bottle of liquor that was corked with a strip of cloth. Dangling its end against the cheroot in his mouth, it did not take long for the fabric to start burning. The flames did not take long to begin its journey to the flammable liquid contain within the glass and Chris wasted no time in tossing it through the doors, not bothering to wait for the sound of crashing glass before he lit another.

The bottle impacted less than a second and although Chris did not see its landing, he heard it well enough. The crashing sound of breaking glass was followed by a familiar sound of escaping gas that could only be a fire igniting across the floor. He heard a few screams and guessed that the alcohol he had used as a propellant had unfortunately doused some of the patrons when it had splattered free of its confines in glass. Chris hoped that it was only Davisí men who had been harmed but did not allow the possibility to weigh too heavily upon his conscience since it was a child they were attempting to save. He did not wait to hear any more before he tossed the second bottle into the saloon, attempting to light as many as the makeshift explosives he had on his person before he was forced to flee. He hoped Ezra was making good use of the distraction he had provided for he feared that it would not last too much longer. Chris was in the middle of lighting the third bottle when the first patrons of the saloon emerged. Smoke had started billowing out of the windows in thick dark columns and both workings girls and drinkers were stumbling frantically out of the batwing doors.

Chris had barely enough time to toss the third bottle into the saloon when he saw Mallaeson Davis appear through the doors, weapons drawn. Chris dug his heels into his mount and sent the gelding forward into a robust trot. He did not intend to stick around long enough to cross swords with Davis, just enough to let the man know that a gauntlet of challenge was being thrown at his feet.

"They say you're plenty tough Davis," Chris sneered as he drew his gun at the man who was searching the area for the person responsible for the attack on him and his gang of outlaws.

"Who the hell are you?" Davis glared at him.

"Larabee!" Marks exclaimed the instant he staggered out the door and caught sight of the gunslinger.

"Larabee." Davis' eyes narrowed in calculation at the sight of the enemy that he had been so eager to kill in Four Corners.

Chris dug his heels into his horse once more, forcing the animal into a gallop now that Davis knew who he was and made one final remark to provoke Davis into coming after him.

"You come see us in Four Corners now," Chris called out with a hint of challenge in his voice. "That is when Bosshard lets you off your leash!"

Davis' face contorted in rage. "You just signed your death warrant Larabee! I'll be coming for you all right! You and your whole fucking family!"

Chris flinched as he heard those last words while riding away to join Vin and Josiah. He had no doubt that Davis would make good on his threat, especially if the hatred in his voice was any indication. The gunslinger shook away the vicious words, knowing that he could not waste time dwelling on them when it was far more important that he concentrate on ensuring Davis' threats did not become a reality. He had played his part for the purposes of their plan to rescue Robbie Potter.

Not it was up to Ezra.

+ + + + + + +

"I do believe that is my calling card my dear," Ezra said gallantly to the young woman named Helena who had aided him in carrying out his ruse to slip past Davis and his men.

"My pleasure Senor," Helena smiled alluring at him as she tucked a number of bills he had given her as reward for her cooperation, in between her cleavage.

Ezra discarded the poncho he had worn onto the floor they had procured for the purposes of the illusion they had manufactured just as pandemonium broke out downstairs with the shattering sound of glass. No doubt Chris had made the opening move in his attempt to distract Mr. Davis and company. Ezra could hear sounds of shouting and feet making a mad scramble across the floor as a loud swoosh swept the building that could only be the sound of alcohol being ignited by fire. Hurrying to the window, he peered out and saw that some of Davisí men had made a beeline for the door and knew that he had a narrow margin of time in which to act. Fortunately, there were not many rooms in the establishment so his search would not take too long.

"It would be advisable if you vacated the premises my dear," Ezra stated as he crossed the floor towards the door. "I have a feeling things are about to become very warm."

With that, Ezra left the room and stepped out into the hall noticing that several people were hurrying out of the rooms, the women were running out the back stairs while the men, most likely from Davis cadre of outlaws, were hurrying down the steps to investigate the commotion. Ezra noticed that only one door remained unopened and ventured a guess that it might be the room he was seeking. Drawing his gun, he made his way unnoticed in the panic and twisted the doorknob. It did not surprise him that it was locked. Taking a step back, Ezra did not stand on ceremony and proceeded to deliver a swift kick to the door. It came apart from the hinge easily, swinging forward forcefully before meeting slamming onto the wall.

He paused for a moment, waiting to see if anyone was guarding the boy and was grateful when he was greeted with silence instead of bullets. He supposed that the cutthroat outlaw probably did not consider a young boy much of a threat, at least not enough to post a few guards. Entering the room, it did not take him long to find his quarry who was quivering behind the bed from the fear of all the chaos that was taking place around him. However, upon seeing him, young Master Potter become decidedly animated.

"Mr Standish! You came!" He stared at Ezra with nothing less than awe and wonder. "I just knew you would!"

Ezra was somewhat confused. "You knew I was coming?" He gazed at the boy bewildered.

"Sure I did," Robbie said enthusiastically as he emerged from his hiding place. "I knew that if ma told Mr Larabee, youíd sure to come."

"Well we cannot disappoint such faith can we?" Ezra smiled faintly and gestured the boy to come towards him. He could hear more and more bottles being broken and knew that Chris would soon face the full wrath of Mallaeson Davis and his men so it was imperative that he and the boy leave immediately. "Come on Master Potter, we do not have much time to spare."

Part Eight

Parallels

She knew there was something wrong because the townsfolk seemed to hush with silence each time she walked by, holding Ezra in her arms as she ran her errands for the day. They would steal glances at her from the corner of their eyes, trying not to stare but unable to stop themselves, as she moved among them, seemingly oblivious to their stares. The atmosphere in town was thick with tension. Something was about to happen and everyone was aware of it except her. It created icicles of fear on her skin and she clutched Ezra tighter in her embrace, forcing a little whimper from his cherubic lips by the time she had started for home. Maude felt her chest pounding with anxiety, unaware of why she should feel such fear but knowing without doubt that something was wrong.

She turned the corner to her home when she saw three very formidable looking men ride up the main street, capturing the attention of those who happened to see their arrival in town. Maude did not recognize any of them as she went on her way. Yet, as they rode past, she saw one of the men, a sinister looking creature with a thick dark moustache cast his gaze upon her as if she were the only thing on the street worth seeing. For a moment, Maude considered running because something about his look frightened her.

However, his interest was nothing more than a long stare which faded away once his mount took him further into town. Maude continued home, trying to shake the anxiety born of his interest and hoped that the Marshal was not too far away. Sometimes, only Peter could make her feel safe again. Ezra seemed to be just as unhappy by the encounter because the whimper had become tears and until she rounded the corner and saw their home in the distance, the child did not stop crying despite her efforts to cajole him into silence. Maude wondered if he sensed the tension in the air and guessed that it might be possible. Her son may not know exactly what was going on but he had her instincts and sometimes that was enough to detect trouble.

As she neared her home, she saw the Marshal's horse Sundance, tethered to the hitching post at the side gate. Although she was pleased to see him back, her brow furrowed in puzzlement because she was certain he had stated he would not be back for at least two days when they had last seen each other. Hastening her pace home, as she always did at the prospect of seeing him, Maude brushed aside the concern because she supposed he would explain it soon enough. Hurrying up the cobblestone pathway, she arrived at the door and was glad that Ezra had settled down. Before she even reached the doorway, the Marshal had swung the door open, in anticipation of her arrival.

The expression on his face froze her in her tracks.

"What is it?" She asked softly.

"Come inside," Peter beckoned just as quietly before his eyes shifted past her, scanning the area the way prey sought out the presence of the hunter. It was disconcerting when she understood that he felt as the former.

Maude did not argue and followed him into the house when he retreated first. It was not lost upon her that he stood by the doorway and ensured that she was inside before he closed the door. That and the fact that he was holding his gun when he had come out to greet her.

"Peter what is it?" She demanded angrily, her fear making her temper short. Maude glanced away for a moment, trying to compose herself when she noted a carpetbag seated in the floor of the hallway.

Her carpetbag

She turned to face him, eyes staring at him in accusation. "What is going on?"

"You need to leave." He said abruptly, sheathing his gun in his holster. "Right now."

"Leave?" She stammered in confusion. "Why?"

He did not answer that question but continued speaking. "The carriage is packed and ready to go. I've put all the things that Ezra might need for the trip and a few supplies. If you leave now, you can get to the stagecoach in Valmont in plenty of time to catch it. From there, it will take you out of the Territory. You can make your way to New Orleans. I'll find you there."

"Peter I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what's going on!" She shouted and startled Ezra in her arms who promptly started crying again.

"Maude, I don't have time to debate this with you!" He barked. "I want you to go now. There isn't time to waste! I have to get you both out of here while I still can!"

Suddenly a flash of insight came to Maude and she stared at him in understanding. "I saw some men riding into town."

He did not answer but then he did not need to.

"They're here for you aren't they?" She asked, her voice almost a strangled whisper.

"No," he shook his head grimly. "They're here for us."

+ + + + + + +

It was the hardest ride the five men had ever made to Four Corners, a situation not helped by the fact that they had a young passenger with them. Prior to their departure from town, Chris had wisely told a few of the townsfolk that trouble was coming their way. The people of Four Corners had enough experience in these matters to have some idea of what to do. By the time, the lawmen had Four Corners in their sights; the town was strangely deserted as people went to ground by returning to their homes and keeping their heads down until the crisis had passed. Chris had passed on similar instructions to Gloria Potter before they set out to rescue Robbie. Considering how vindictive Benjamin Bosshard had proven himself to be, Chris could not discount the danger to Gloria and her family when Mallaeson Davis and his gang finally came to town.

They had not seen Davis on the journey back from Purgatory but Chris estimated the outlaw would not be far behind him. What they had done in Purgatory had provoked the man into acting and Chris had every faith that if he wasnít after them now, he soon would be. In any case, it was just a matter of time. Riding into Four Corners, Chris was glad to see the streets devoid of people as he led the way to the livery. Behind him, Vinís mareís leg was drawn and held in the trackerís hand, primed to fire if anything came after them or got in their way during the journey. Josiah and Nathan were riding in flanking positions near Ezra, protecting the gambler because of the child he was carrying on his horse. Young Robbieís expression was one of muted fear. The boy was trying hard not to show his terror but it was glaring back at them from his wide eyes.

They arrived at Yosemiteís livery without incident and Chris was gratified to see that the curmudgeon in charge of the place had wisely taken cover as instructed when they had left town to retrieve the boy. When Chris dismounted from his horse, preparing to stable it, he heard familiar voices calling out as the others did the same. Buck and JD were hurrying towards them from the direction of the jailhouse. No doubt, they had arrived in town to find it much the state that Chris had hoped it would be and had feared the worst as to what was happening.

"Whatís going on?" Buck demanded as he reached Chris. "Whereís everyone."

"Hiding." Chris answered abruptly.

"Why?" JD asked before Buck could.

"Weíre about to have company," Vin retorted as he climbed off Peso and began leading the horse towards the stables.

"Company?" Buck looked at his companions for answers, feeling as if he had walked into the middle of a play.

"Davis." Chris explained, aware that Buck was about to start bellowing if he did not get answers soon. Patience was not a virtue the big man had in any large quantity. "Bosshard kidnapped Gloria Potterís boy Robbie so that sheíd sell. Thatís what he had on her. He kept the boy with Davis at Purgatorio. We just went and got him but we couldnít do it quiet like and itís a good bet that Davis is on his way here right now with his men."

"Hell Chris," Buckís expression etched in concern. "Canít leave you boys alone for a minute can I?"

"You know us," Vin retorted as he paused next to them. "Always out for a fun time."

"How much time do we have?" Buck asked, facing Chris again.

"I donít know," Chris answered honestly. "Iíd reckon theyíd be right on our tails."

"That ainít much time." Buck pointed out.

"No it ainít," Chris agreed and decided there and then that they needed to move quickly even if Davis wasnít right behind them. "Vin, get up high to the granary, you too JD." He instructed rapidly, thinking up his strategy as he spoke. "When those outlaws come riding in, I want you to be able to take as many of them down before the element of surprise is gone."

"Weíre gone." Vin nodded slightly and glanced at JD to give him a minute to put Peso away before they went. The tracker led his gelding into the stables with JD following closely.

"Ezra, Nathan," Chris turned his attention to the gambler who was standing close to Robbie Potter as Nathan gave him a quick once over to make sure the boy was no worse for wear following his ordeal as Davisí prisoner. "Get the boy to his ma and then take point in the main street. Keep out of sight for the time being."

"Thy will be done Mr. Larabee," Ezra tipped his hat. "Nathan, you heard the man."

"Youíre okay son," Nathan ruffled the boyís hair. "You come through it pretty good. Now letís get you to your ma."

That seemed most agreeable to the young boy and he revealed his pleasure with a little smile for he was eager to see his mother again after everything he had been through. Nathan and Ezra set off to find Gloria Potter who had been instructed to take refuge within the schoolhouse with just as much haste as Vin and JD had taken their orders. Only Josiah, Buck and Chris remained which just how the gunslinger had planned it. There was one other thing that needed dealing with now that Mallaeson Davis and his outlaws were coming to town and Chris preferred it to be handled by anyone else other than Ezra Standish.

"Buck, Josiah, Iím gonna need to run a little errand. I need you both to run shot gun." Chris replied once the gambler and the healer were out of sight.

"What is it?" Buck stared at Chris, seeing the dark intensity in his eyes.

"Bosshard," Chris said icily. "I want him found. Heís at the heart of all this and if we can get our hands on him maybe we can keep this from getting as bad as its liable to get."

"You think Bosshard can call Davis off?" Josiah ventured a guess.

"I donít know," Chris replied honestly. He did not picture Davis as a creature that could be reined in for too long and certainly their actions in Purgatory had enraged the killer enough to ignore the orders of his master. Chris had no doubt that the rope by which Bosshard had Davis tethered was very fine indeed since the manís blood thirsty nature was well known throughout the Territory. Chris suspected that most of the time, Bosshard simply unleashed Davis upon his enemies before stepping back to let the manís natural savagery run its course. In the case of Four Corners, it was almost certain that was what would happen, especially after they had inspired Davisís anger as they had by snatching the boy from right under his nose.

"Probably not," he said more decisively a fraction of a second later, having given the matter further thought. "I just donít want Bosshard running around loose when all the shooting starts. Him or his friend, Spenser."

"I'm all for that." Josiah nodded in agreement as well as Chris' decision to handle the matter amongst themselves instead of including Ezra. The situation between Ezra and Bosshard was volatile enough on its own without the inclusion of what was coming at them from Purgatory. Josiah guessed that Chris was still hoping to keep the bloodbath to a minimum even though it seemed rather impossible with the players that were involved in this particular crisis.

"Well let's do it then," Buck frowned, wishing they did not have to go around Ezra like this but supposed Chris was right. Bosshard had already murdered his father and attempted to force himself upon Julia, there was only so much a man could take before restraint gave way and Buck was somewhat surprised that Ezra had not snapped already.

It was a redundant statement as Chris was already striding forward purposefully towards the hotel where Bosshard was staying. Although Bosshard and Chris had been aware of each other's existence ever since the man had arrived in Four Corners, neither had meet face to face. As Buck watched Chris making his way forward, his black duster billowing behind him and the brim of his hat pulled down low, Buck had no doubt this first meeting was going to be eventful.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner emptied his pockets of the ammunition that did not fit in his gun belt, certain that before this was all over, he would need them. Placing them neatly at the place he had selected as the best vantage point when Davis and his men came, he checked his rifle carefully, ensuring that the weapon was in perfect working order. In the horizon, he could see no sign of the approaching enemy, but like Chris, he knew they were not far behind. It would not be long before they arrived. Men like Davis were surprisingly predictable. No matter how much they claimed to owe allegiance to another, it often became apparent that they were slave to their egos more than any other person. Mallaeson Davis was no exception to this rule.

Chris had wounded his pride with the rescue of Robbie Potter from right under his nose. The ruse the lawmen had perpetrated was one of desperation but it had worked and Davis would not soon forget that insult. Like Chris, Vin did not think Davis nor his men would waste any time in riding towards Four Corners. Their rage was fresh and revenge spurned them on with more determination than even the most powerful intoxicant. Vin had heard about Davis' terrible wrath and those helpless victims that had stood in the way of the Santa Fe Ring and had paid the price for their defiance. He had heard the stories and felt doubly grateful that Alex and the rest of the women were well away from here. The thought of Mallaeson and his men anywhere near the woman he loved twisted his insides with a rage equal to the one that was bringing the outlaw and his gang here.

Next to him, JD was conducting similar checks on both of his guns. The youngest of them hardly looked that as he made a routine examination of his weapons. His eyes were focussed, his fingers moving deftly over polished steel. Even though he still bore a youthful countenance, everyone in the seven knew that JD was no longer the child he had been when he stepped off the stage not so long ago. He would always be young to them but in his own right he was a man and a rather formidable one at that. Despite all the growing he had done, Vin could tell that he was a little afraid of what was coming at them. Vin did not blame him. Only a fool did not feel fear.

"You okay JD?" Vin asked once he had nestled his own gun on the edge of the roof, using the wooden edge to steady his mare's leg and his aim.

JD looked up from one of the twin Colt 38's he was currently inspecting. In truth, the weapons were always in good working order but at the moment, JD's fastidiousness had more to do with needing something to do rather than anything else. "I'm fine Vin. Just a little nervous."

JD was unashamed to admit it. If it were Buck, he would rather have died than made that confession. As much as he cared about Buck and saw him as a brother and a friend, Buck could sometimes make him feel like such a child and right now he id not need that. Vin on the other hand, seemed to take such answers with as little fanfare as possible with his eyes always reflecting empathy.

"Ain't nothing wrong with that," Vin drawled, his gaze not meeting the younger man's but heading out towards the horizon. Vin was keeping a watchful eye on things no matter what. There was no way on this earth that anyone was going to sneak up on them, not on Vin's watch that was for certain. "We've got a lot of trouble coming at us. I'd like to avoid it if I could."

"You Vin?" JD looked at him. "I didn't think you were afraid of anything."

It was true. JD really believed that. In the face of danger, Vin could be almost as glacial as Chris. When he believed in a cause, nothing could stop him from carrying it out to its end. He was more than determined about such things, he was downright stubborn and heaven help the man who got in the way of that determination. JD admired Vin because he was not so much older than JD himself. Sometimes the younger man wondered what it was that had shaped Vin's life, made him so much older than his years. JD wondered whether the sacrifice of innocence to gain that much experience was worth it but he did not have courage enough to ask Vin about it.

"I'm afraid of a lot of things," Vin admitted with a little smile. "I just try not to think about them and focus on what's ahead. You know like checking my guns and stuff."

JD chuckled slightly, feeling a little less edgier that he was not alone in his feelings of anxiety. "Do you think that we'll be able to stop them?"

Vin contemplated his answer. There were at least twenty in Mallaeson Davis' numbers. They had faced that many before but it had been victory won through a great deal of luck and no small amount of effort. Chris could have enlisted the aid of the townsfolk but he could not bring himself to do that when it was only the seven that Davis was after. To involve the rest of Four Corners was to risk their lives unnecessarily. The rest of the seven agreed with this reasoning. If they all were killed today then it would only be their lives that were lost, not some innocent who might have lived if he had not chosen to cast his lot with the peacekeepers. The seven could take the gang of outlaws, he was sure but they would do it by the skin of their teeth if they succeeded at all. He looked at JD and saw that the kid needed to know that they would make it. If JD thought Vin believed it, then he would do so as well.

Right now, belief was just the edge the boy needed to survive the day.

"Yeah," Vin answered in his too soft voice. "I think we're gonna have a tough time of it but I think we can take them."

Relief flooded JD's face and Vin knew that his words had gone some way to reassuring the younger man of their chances. Unfortunately, something else caught his attention that negated his ability to feel some measure of success at making JD feel a lot better about what they would soon be facing. In the distance, the cloud of dust was barely visible to anyone else who might be staring into the horizon but Vin had the far seeing eyes of a hunter, honed through years of watching the creatures he tracked and studying markers in the land where none appeared to be. His eyes narrowed as they shifted away from JD and remained singularly focused on that fixed point.

"They're coming." Vin said simply.

+ + + + + + +

Chris motioned Buck and Josiah to hold position once they reached the top of the stairs leading to the corridor and the room where Benjamin Bosshard presently resided. They had been careful to remain unseen when they approached the hotel, not wishing to give Bosshard any warning of their arrival. A wise man unleashing what he had in the town of Four Corners would have left by now, being content in watching the destruction he was going to cause from afar. However, Chris knew that Bosshard was too arrogant for that. He would remain in town, determined to watch the death of his enemies because the desire to show them in their deaths that he was the instrument of their end was too much for the man to resist.

Bosshard was still here in town. Chris was sure of it.

Buck and Josiah waited in the stairway, their guns drawn as they watched Chris walk silently down the corridor, making nary a sound in his approach to the door. Being around Vin and his own experiences had taught the gunslinger all he needed to know about stealth and when he reached the door to Bosshard's room, he paused long enough to listen. There were voices behind that door, not loud enough to hear words but clear enough to know that one of them belonged to Bosshard. Chris felt his jaw tense and his fingers tightened around the peacemaker he had drawn long before reaching this point. Glancing at Buck at the end of the corridor, Chris nodded in answer to whether or not Bosshard was in the room.

Chris sucked in his breath and when he released it, his foot slammed against the wooden door and sent it flying open. He was through the threshold in less than a second after the sound brought everything into speedy motion. Bosshard who was on the chair started to rise quickly and Spenser who was pouring his master a drink, dropped the bottle immediately to make a desperate attempt to retrieve his gun.

"I wouldn't." Chris cocked his gun once in the lackey's direction; the glint of menace in his eyes indicating clearly what would happen if Spenser's fingers completed the journey to his holster.

Spenser's jaw set in anger but was unable to call the bluff when that icy glare was piercing his skin with its intensity. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down nervously as he came to the conclusion that he would not survive if he chose to draw. His hand dropped after a moment in surrender.

"On the floor." Chris repeated himself as footsteps pounded up the wooden floorboards, bringing with them Buck and Josiah as Chris stepped deeper into the room. Now that they were present, Chris could shift his attention to Bosshard who was standing up, his face reddening with fury as Buck went to remove the gun Spenser had dropped on the floor at Chris' behest.

"Mr. Bosshard," Chris stared at Benjamin Bosshard. "I thought it was about time we met."

"On the last day of your life Larabee," Bosshard sneered, angry but unwilling to concede anything just yet. "On all your lives." He barked at Buck and Josiah.

"Or yours." Chris retorted. "We know about Davis."

"Knowing about him doesn't mean you can stop him." Bosshard returned, unperturbed that the enemy knew his ace in the hole. "Mr. Davis is extremely effective. He'll kill you and then he'll get better acquainted with all your families. I hear the women in your lives are extremely comely. That was half the reason Mal was so excited about killing you."

"Sorry," Buck hissed, trying to ooze his good-natured charm when all he wanted to do was tear the heart from this son of a bitch. "Saw that coming too. The ladies are gone and where they are, ain't no where you'll be finding them anytime soon."

Bosshard's face darkened at the thought that his revenge might be incomplete. "I'll find them." He returned in a low voice. "When you're dead and buried, nothing will keep me from feeding them to Mal."

"Like you found Ezra and Maude?" Josiah asked, unable to resist deflating that arrogance ego just for one second. "Seems to me that you missed the mark there too."

"Get moving," Chris waved the barrel of his gun just enough for Bosshard to get the message that they were leaving this room.

Next to him, Josiah and Buck took similar charge of Spenser who did not dare to meet Bosshardís gaze. His employerís expression was dark and stormy and no doubt if they survived this day, Spenser was resigning himself to bearing the brunt of Bosshardís anger. The small group advanced to the door, with Chris maintaining his sharp eyes on Bosshard at all times. The hope that they might have reasoned this out was dwindling, if there had been any at all. Chris supposed that he should have known better but had felt obligated to try finding a peaceful solution. Unfortunately, Bosshardís manner indicated that nothing less than all their deaths would satisfy him and Chris was not about to give him that pleasure.

"Malís coming isnít he?" Bosshard asked, guessing there must be some reason for their actions. For all the weeks he had been here, Chris Larabee had made no effort to meet him face to face. Bosshard could only deduce that the reason for this belated meeting had to do with a change in the status quo. Bosshard had sent Marks to give the outlaw the word to ride into town tonight but there was an urgency in Larabeeís actions that indicated that perhaps Marks had disobeyed him, that Mal was not coming tonight but rather right this minute.

"We got Robbie Potter back," Chris said coldly. "You donít have anything to blackmail Gloria with."

"Iíve got her store," Bosshard returned triumphantly as they made their way down the stairs. "Signed seal and delivered."

"A deed signed under duress doesnít constitute as legally binding." Josiah retorted, not about to let the man think he had won something.

"Youíre going to take me to court?" Bosshard laughed derisively. "Youíre not going to survive the night."

"We donít have to take you to court," Chrisí voice escaped him in a low hiss. "Thereís a friendly judge who will see it our way. In any case, youíre done in this town."

"Pretty big talk considering youíre all going to die." The man snorted.

"We ainít dead yet," Buck retorted. "And I wouldnít be too sure that we wonít take you with us. Like Chris said, youíre over."

They reached the hotel lobby and proceeded out the door. As they made their way out, Chris noted that the establishment was quiet. Sensibly, Mr. Heidegger, the owner of the Gem Hotel had taken Chrisí instructions to stay out of sight until after the trouble was over. A few people still lingered in the saloon because for them, not even a gunfight was going to get in the way of their drinking time. Chris decided nothing was going to change their minds and supposed they would have sense enough to put their heads down when the shooting started. Keeping the barrel of his gun pressed firmly in Bosshardís back even though he would never consciously shoot a man in the back if he could help it, they ushered Bosshard and Spenser into the street.

No sooner than they had emerged, JD Dunne who was at this moment taking point on the roof of the granary because next to the Emporium, it was one of the highest structures in town, immediately called out to the gunslinger.

"Chris, theyíre coming!"

+ + + + + + +

Maude watched from behind the window of the hardware store as the announcement was delivered to Chris at the front of the hotel. In her purse, she carried a revolver, having learnt her lesson the first time around that she needed more than a derringer to carry out the task she set herself. She watched Chris react to the news and felt her insides seething with hate when Bosshard looked over his shoulder at the gunslinger to display what was clearly a gloating smile of triumph. She would have killed him there and then except he was out of her range and she had no wish to harm Messrs., Larabee, Sanchez or Wilmington in her effort to do so. Thus she waited in patience as she saw Chris complete the journey across the street with Bosshard and his man, Spenser.

Despite the escalating urgency of the situation, Chris did not shirk from his intention of putting Bosshard where he would not cause any harm. She saw him march her husbandís killer towards the jailhouse, no doubt intending to leave him there until the present crisis was done so that they could deal with him later. A part of Maude wished it would be that simple but she knew that powerful men who would do everything in their power to see his release protected Bosshard. She could not take that chance. This man had taken the Marshal from her. He had ended the life of the only man she had ever loved and denied Ezra the chance to know his father. When Maude thought of just how much would have been different if Peter had lived, it stoked her anger into white-hot fury.

Perhaps if Bosshard was dead then perhaps Davis might desist in his attack against her son and his friends. Surely, Davis could have no reason to continue the bloodshed when his master was dead. Maude hoped this was the case but she would have no answer until Bosshard was killed. Chris Larabee had entered the jailhouse with the rest of his companions and Maude waited for him to emerge from inside the empty hardware store. She could hear them beneath the floorboards, covering in the basement in order to keep away from the line of fire. Considering the troubles this town seemed to have, a precaution like this was second nature by now, Maude thought to herself.

Less than a minute after they had entered the jailhouse, Chris, Josiah and Buck appeared again. Chris appeared to give them instructions and the men scattered, no doubt to position themselves for the battle they were about to fight with Bosshardís hired killers. Once they were all gone, she stepped out of the hardware store, aware that she did not have much time to do what was necessary since she had no desire to be caught in the crossfire between the seven and Bosshardís outlaws.

The only killing that interested her today was that of Benjamin Bosshard.

+ + + + + + +

Julia dismounted her horse at Yosemiteís livery and felt a sliver of trepidation at why there was practically no one about. Not only were the streets devoid of people but there was an eerie silence about the place that most would associate with a ghost town not a thriving community like Four Corners. She wondered where Ezra and the rest of the seven were at this time and suddenly felt a profound need to see them in order to feel some reassurance that she had not made a terrible decision in coming back here. However, she had no doubt that if Ezra were to see her back in town, their reunion would be anything but happy. The gambler had specifically told her that he wanted her to be as far away from Four Corners as possible when trouble came, not be right in the thick of it as she was now. However, she was not entirely sure if what was taking place at this time was trouble but rather a brief interlude.

Sweeping across town with as much stealth as she was capable, Julia relied upon the buildings of Four Corners to provide her with cover as she tried to find Maude. The silence in the streets brought to mind an image of a battlefield just before the fighting began and the notion only made her more frantic to find Maude and get out of town. Pausing at the foot of building that house Nathanís infirmary, Julia allowed her gaze to sweep across the town. She felt it somewhat disconcerting that she could not see any of the seven even though in this atmosphere, she was certain they were around somewhere.

Suddenly, from the corner of her eyes, she caught sight of Maude emerging from Virgil Watsonís hardware store. Maude had the look of someone who knew exactly where she was going. Julia watched for a moment as Maude crossed the street quickly, her destination almost certainly the jailhouse. Holding back briefly, she observed Maude stepping onto the boardwalk before finally closing in on her destination. Pausing at the jailhouse door, Maude's sweeping gaze across town forced Julia to retreat behind a corner to keep from being seen. A second or two passed before Julia dared to look around the corner once more and caught sight of Maude's skirt disappearing through the open doorway of the jailhouse.

Julia took a deep breath, debating whether or not it was wise to follow Maude. After all, had she not wanted Bosshard dead herself? Allowing him to die would solve the problem of her father finding out her whereabouts. What right did she have to deny Maude her vengeance when Julia herself would be driven to the same thing if anyone took Ezra from her in the same way? The debate, such as it was, did not last long for Julia because she remembered the most important reason why she could not let Maude murder a man was Ezra. With everything else he had gone through these last months, she would not let him have to deal with his mother falling prey to the consequences of her vengeance. Ezra had suffered enough.

Bracing herself, she stepped out into the street once more, prepared to take the path Maude had taken and save the woman from herself before she caused any damage that was beyond repair.

+ + + + + + +

"I won't go without you!" Maude shouted.

"You don't have a choice!" Peter said grabbing her by the arm and towing her towards the door. "I can't fight those men if I have to worry about you and Ezra. You need to be away from here Maude."

"Peter please," she implored helplessly as he steered her out of their home. She felt their whole life together contract into a fleeting moment about to be lost. She could sense it with every fiber of her being. She knew that if she were to walk out of this house, it would be the end and she would never have it back again. She could not bear it. She could not bear life without him but somehow, she felt it coming at her, almost like impending doom. "Don't make me go."

Peter closed his eyes, wishing he could hear none of her words, feeling his heart ache in pain at having to deny her because he wanted to run with her, just as badly as she did not want to leave him. He had never thought a man in his line of work could be happy but the three years with his Maude and little Ezra had been the best of his life and he would not trade that for anything. Even if his life was forfeit, at least he had touched paradise for a time. In his line of work dying young was something he had accepted would happen the longer he stayed behind this badge. He had accepted it. However, living if Maude and Ezra were dead was something else entirely and that thought alone hardened his heart into granite.

"Maude," he blinked his eyes open and stared at her with full composure. "Those men are going to come after us. At best, they'll kill you both, at the worst, they'll keep you alive and make you suffer a hell like you've never known just because they know it will make me twist and turn in the grave. I won't let that happen to you. Maude, if you love me, you will leave. Don't put me in a position where I may have to watch you and my son die."

"You're telling me to leave you to die!" Maude cried out.

"No," he lowered his lips to her forehead. "I'm asking you to live, for me."

Maude closed her eyes and felt tears running down her cheeks because she had never been able to refuse him anything. She loved him too much to ever say no to him and though it drove a knife inside her heart agreeing to what he asked, she knew that she would comply in the end. "Alright," she swallowed, wiping the tears from her wet cheeks. "I'll go but you promise me that you will not stay here any longer than you have to. You don't need to die anymore than I do."

"I promise," he answered. "Once I know more of what's going on, I'll high tail it out of here myself."

Maude nodded slowly, accepting his words even though they both knew he was lying.

+ + + + + + +

The cloud of dust had dissipated and in its place were men on horseback. Vin Tanner watched them thundering towards Four Corners, appearing like the apocalyptic horsemen who had suddenly multiplied in number to bring certain death. At first they were indistinct, faces of anger and savagery, it was hard to tell one from the other. Their fury seemed to bleed into one after the other. It was like watching a whole not individuals. Vin saw the others spread out across town. JD had moved to the other edge of the roof, guns drawn. Vin and JD would be the first to encounter the invaders although in truth, it was more he than JD. The tracker already had his mare's leg poised to fire and was lowering himself to take careful aim as soon as the enemy came into range. Even though he could not see, he knew that the others were also fanning out across town, taking up optimum position to make their stand. He hoped he could lessen the odds for them a little and blinked slowly focussing his vision.

The group of men had crossed what was considered the outskirts of town, entering unknowingly into the tracker's field of vision. Vin had removed his hat, so he would not give himself away while JD crouched low, attempting to do the same thing. He glanced apprehensively at Vin, trying not to show that what was coming at them had some power over him but Vin knew that it did. Davis had an infamous reputation that someone like JD who had been influenced by the tales of the West in determining his life's choices could not be ignorant about. Vin shifted his gaze long enough to show JD he was aware of the young man's stare and they were in this together and he could rely on that if nothing else.

Vin turned his attention to the approaching riders who were well pass the town's boundaries and were also within the range of his mare's leg. He allowed them to get a little further, until there were buildings around them and streets ahead. It clouded their perception, allowed details to become obscured so they would not notice him until he had pulled the trigger.

"Its show time, JD." Vin said coolly and pulled the trigger.

The first bullet tore through the air and slammed straight into the man called Jaques shoulder. The Frenchman howled angrily a split second before he was toppled off his horse. Vin hardly paid attention as Jaques hit the dirt, trying madly to scramble out of the way before horses that could not stop in time ran him down. Vin was already targeting his next victim. The sound of open fire had scattered the riders and they split up in several directions in order to confuse the sniper who had already brought down one of their number. That suited Vin fine because it allowed him time to take care of the enemy in sections. Besides, he had anticipated this course of action once the element of surprise was exhausted. He tried to aim for Mallaeson but the man was much too crafty for that.

JD had emerged from his hiding place and was helping Vin cut down as many of the riders as he could possibly manage, shooting with both guns. The young man had learnt through experience to time each shot consecutively so one might be mistaken into believing that there were two men shooting at them instead of one with two guns. Mallaeson Davis slipped out of view and some return fire was coming their way. Bodies began to littered the dusty street and seeing how precise Vin was with the rifle, inspired JD to give the tracker cover when they were being fired at.

Vin winked at JD in thanks and began firing again, making every shot count because soon the riders were going to wise up to this attack and get closer to the buildings or worse yet, dismount and come after them on the roof. Vin knew he had only another few minutes left before he and JD would have to think about joining Chris and the others on the ground. He lowered his head as another bullet struck the wood near his position and sent splinters that force him to turn away. Meanwhile JD was firing both guns at the men taking refuge under some awnings in order to escape Vin's line of sight. The youngest of the seven quickly shifted his position to ensure that none of them had a clear shot of Vin and sent enough bullets into the air to keep them from locating the tracker with any ease.

Suddenly JD saw two men darting into the granary despite his best efforts to keep the hired guns away from the building that had allowed them to cause so much damage to the enemy's ranks.

"Vin!" JD called out getting to his feet. "Two of them are in the granary!"

Vin looked up just in time to feel a bullet smashing through the fleshy part of his thigh. The tracker cried out softly as the bullet escaped the fabric of his pants and created an expanding crimson stain where it had exited. Bullets began to riddle from under them and JD hurried over to Vin, barely avoiding being shot.

"We got to get off this roof." Vin grunted, stating the obvious and controlling his pain by the grimace on his features.

"I don't think we're going to be able to go up the way we came," JD pointed out.

Vin looked around, trying to think despite the sound of gunfire tearing through the roof. One of those bullets were bound to meet their mark eventually and Vin did not want either of them to be hurt any more than they were already. Glancing off the edge, he surveyed the uneven skyline and saw the only way out, though it was not his first choice as an exit.

"There." Vin nodded in the direction they were going to have to go.

JD's eyes widened. "Vin are you kidding?"

"Trust me," Vin sucked in his breath as he attempted to stand. "That's the last thing I'm doing. Come on!" He grabbed the younger man's shirt and started running towards the edge of the roof, hoping that he could bear the pain long enough to make the jump.

"Oh shit!" JD hissed as they went over the edge and landed on the roof of the bank a good ten feet from the top of the granary.

JD landed well enough but Vin's injured leg gave in as soon as he touched the hard stone roof of the building. His knee slammed against the surface, drawing another cry as he rolled across the roof from the force of his landing. JD immediately scrambled to Vin when the tracker did not get up immediately. Vin was lying on his back, his hand still grasping his rifle as he stared up into the sky overhead, an expression of stillness on his face.

"Vin! Are you alright?"

It was a moment before he answered. "Yeah."

"Can you get up?" JD inquired, his eyes fixed on the wound.

"Yeah but I'm not gonna." He replied.

"Why?" JD asked puzzled.

"BECAUSE MY LEG IS FUCKING KILLING ME!"

"Oh." JD answered and supposed he could give Vin a minute or two.

+ + + + + + +

They had lost Chris.

One minute the gunslinger had been at their side and then he was not. Buck and Josiah found themselves taking refuge inside Digger Dan's Saloon, holding up a handful of outlaws who were hell bent on driving them out of the establishment by putting as many holes into it as possible. While Buck had positioned himself beside the batwing doors, Josiah had opted to make his stand at nearby window. Beyond the filthy glass pane, the former preacher could see at least five men, one of them he recognized from Vin's description to be Stephens, one of Davis right hand men. Stephens was evidently preparing to use the same trick that Chris Larabee had used to distract the outlaws when they had rescued Robbie Potter. Josiah had only to see the bottle being handled so carefully by Stephens to know that the man did not plan on drinking its contents.

Josiah took aim with his Schoefield revolver hoping that he would hit Stephens who was preparing to launch the bottle through the doors of the saloon. Although Digger's place was hardly their favorite watering hole, Josiah had no wish to see it burnt to the ground. However, it was difficult to take aim when bullets were flying through the window, threatening to take out his eye even as he tried to make the shot. Above and beside him, bullets tore through the glass window, creating ragged fissures where it did not shatter completely. Bottles on the far wall were being broken at regular intervals, until the floor became wet with alcohol and the fumes filled the walls of the room.

"Buck!" Josiah finally gave up trying and regarded Buck who was reloading his gun after sending a murderous assault of projectiles at the group of men attempting to burn down the saloon around their ears. "I need cover!"

"Say when!" Buck shouted as he finished his reload.

Josiah faced the window again and saw that Stephen was one step closer to constructing his little incendiary device and knew that if he did not hit the man soon, they were going to be in a great deal of trouble.

"Now!" He shouted.

Buck wasted no time and immediately began firing a round at the thickest past of the gathering. He drove some of them back and gave Josiah a clear line of sight to Stephens for a fraction of a second. Josiah was no sharpshooter like Vin but he was a damn good shot and squeezed the trigger with almost careful deliberation, even though the urgency of the situation did not allow the time for such consideration. The bullet escaped Josiah's gun with a loud bang even though the noise of gunfire was all around them and he should not have been able to tell the difference. However, he was of the opinion that one always heard the shots that mattered and this was no exception. It struck the bottle after Stephens had lighted the sliver of fabric that acted as something of a fuse. Glass and fluid sprayed in all direction. The bullet had not struck bone or flesh but for Stephens that hardly seemed to matter.

He was covered in alcohol and provided the flame with the fuel it needed to burn. The front of Stephen's clothes burst in flames and the man let out a scream of fear borne from the most primeval of terrors, the fear of fire. Within seconds, the fire had spread until his torso was encased in heat and he staggered out into the street, arms flaying about in desperation trying to put out the flames that he had intended for them. His companions attempted to aid him but by the time Stephens ended up on the street, it was more or less decided that the blaze around him was too much for them to risk coming to his assistance. Taking advantage of the confusion, Buck took the opportunity to dispatch them as they were momentarily caught by the dance of death before them. Josiah flinched as he heard Stephen's screams, not intending that fate for the man even if he had intended it for them.

When Stephens dropped to the ground, kicking and screaming, his entire body aflame, Josiah found he could stand it no more and fired another shot. This one was almost as carefully measured as the one that had placed the outlaw in this predicament. However, while that had been an act of self-defense, the second shot was one of mercy. The bullet struck Stephens in the skull, halting his screams and his agony swiftly. His flaying limbs dropped heavily to the ground, twitching one last time before he stopped moving altogether. Josiah closed his eyes for a moment, trying to make peace with his God over what he had done but wondered if he had as much forgiveness for himself as the Almighty had at what he had done.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee was not so much lost as he was tracking his own prey. Following the outbreak of gunfire, Chris had seen Mallaeson Davis break off from the rest of the group, leaving his men to commit as much mayhem as they could without him, while he followed his own agenda. Chris watched Davis dig his heels into his mount and pull away from the direction of the granary where Vin was evening up the odds for his friends. A few bodies littering the street leading to the granary had confirmed Vinís accuracy as a marksman for none of them got up again when they fell. However, Chris knew that once the trackerís location was discovered, the outlaws would converge upon the granary like a pack of hungry coyotes. Chris hoped that Vin had sense enough to get out of there before that happened.

Davis had seen the danger posed by the marksman and had steered his mount away from the kill zone, leading it to the boardwalk. He and his horse continued deeper under the town by taking the boardwalk. Keeping his head down low, the outlaw was able to make good progress through town, the sound of hooves against the wooden panels each time the animal took a step. He was easy enough to find, especially with all the chaos that was going and Chris had been forced to shoot it out to keep on the trail. Not knowing where the others were concerned him a great deal but he had no time to deal with that at this time, first he wanted to know where Davis was headed.

It did not take him long to learn what had been Davisí destination when he saw the outlaw dismounting his horse and striding through the office of the Clarion News. Chrisí jaw set in anger, aware that there could only be one reason for Davis to go there and that was to carry out his threat of harming Chrisí family. The gunslinger entered through the front door not long after Davis had disappeared, keeping his head down as gunfire whizzed through the air, slamming into walls and shattering glasses at periodic intervals. Chris slipped through the open door of the Clarion News and paused upon detecting the sound of footsteps moving rapidly through the building from where he stood. No doubt, Davis was searching the home for its occupants. Inwardly, Chris thanked God for the foresight that made him send Mary and the boys away.

Chris moved through the hallway that led to the top of the stairs, knowing each and every floorboard well enough to know what creaked and what did not. Sneaking into bed after a night at the saloon with his friends in the hopes of not waking up Mary had taught him that much at least. He heard a growl of dissatisfaction through the roof above him and guessed he was hearing Davisí frustration at not finding Mary or the kids. Chris pressed himself to the wall, waiting quietly in the shadows as Davis came down the stairs. He appeared soon enough, cursing under his breath as he descended the staircase. Chris waited until he was almost down before slipping his arm through the railings and grabbing Davisí foot hard. The action caused the man to lose his footing and he fell off the steps in a spectacular tumble, complete with colorful expletives to match.

Once he was on the floor, disorientated by the fall but possessing enough faculties to draw his gun, Chris stepped out of the shadows to promptly kick the gun out of his hand. The weapon sailed across the room, disappearing behind a divan. Davis seemed to stagger and Chris started to bring his own peacemaker to bear when suddenly, Davis lashed out across with surprising speed, sweeping his own gun out of reach. His eyes widened as he recognized his attacker and his voice escaped him in an angry snarl.

"Larabee."

With that he lowered his head and launched himself into Chrisí direction. Davis was a tall and robust man, his head slammed into Chrisí torso and propelled him into the divan, which was ill equipped to handle either manís weight and tipped over it over. Both Chris and Davis went sprawling with Davis being on top when they both landed on the hard floor. Chris felt his back meet the obstruction of wood a second before he saw Davis about to strike. Reacting swiftly, he brought his knee up and kicked hard. The tip of his boot connected with the back of Davisí head hard and unbalanced the outlaw enough for Chris to throw a punch, which effectively threw the man off him.

Chris rolled onto his knees just as Davis threw another punch and this one caught him on the jaw, sending him to the floor once more. However, Chris recovered faster and braced himself from falling over quickly. Throwing out one leg, he planted a foot firmly in Davisí stomach and knocked the wind out of him. Using his momentum, he used one of his knees as a pivot and faced Davis once more, throwing a second and a third punch while the outlaw was recovering from the strike to his torso. Chris went to strike again but Davis caught his arm and brought his head forward, slamming his head against Chris and dazing the gunslinger.

"Iím going to kill you Larabee," Davis gloated menacingly as he caught sight of his gun, exposed by the divan that had fallen away. He scrambled for it and Chris knew that if the man were to get the six-shooter, he would be done for. Looking around quickly for something to defend himself, most preferably his gun, Chris only found one of Maryís vases (the one he really hated) lying on the tapestry rug on the floor. It had survived the fall because of the covering, its flowers sprayed around it like a crown. Chris wasted no time and grabbed the ceramic receptacle and flung it forward hard. The object hit its mark dead on. The ceramic shattered into fragments upon impacting against Davisí skull. The outlaw went down without a word as pieces of porcelain broke around his ears. Chris watched his eyes daze with pain before he fell flat on his face unconscious.

Chris sucked in his breath and looked at the wreckage of the room, guessing it was not so bad and went to retrieve his gun which he had now had time to seek properly. He turned to pick it up when he heard something moving behind him. Swinging around almost in what was pure instinct, Chris fired at the same time Davis who had not been as incapacitated, as he seemed pulled the trigger. Chris bullet caught Davis dead centre but he felt his shoulder flare in white-hot pain as lead passed through it and was abruptly halted in a juncture of bone. Davis felt backwards, appearing to spasm in pain as he hit the floor, the front of his shirt wet with blood as he landed heavily.

Chris reached for his shoulder and saw that while he was not hit seriously, he would need medical attention soon. His right arm ached in pain as he walked towards Davis. Upon reaching the man, Chris dropped to his haunches, examining the man gingerly in case Davis tried to play possum with him again. However if he was, Chris estimated he was doing a superb job of it, as his pulse was thready and he glared at Chris on approach.

"You better kill me," he warned murderously. "I wonít stop coming after you."

"I donít have to kill you," Chris said coolly. "In fact, I donít have to do a damn thing but watch you bleed to death."

Davis eyes showed no fear. "Man canít live forever. Iíll die soon enough but not before I meet that pretty little wife of yours."

"Youíll hang long before you meet my wife." Chris returned.

"You think so?" Davis let out a throaty chuckle. "Iíve been threatened with the noose before, ainít got there yet."

"It wasnít me bringing you in," the gunslinger said firmly. "Iíll get you there and Iíll see you stay there."

"Never happen lawman," Davis gloated.

Chris was tired of this conversation and threw one punch that ended the conversation abruptly. Davisí head slumped to the floor, knocking against wood with a slight thud. Chris glared at him, his shoulder stinging with pain over that and replied icily. "Never say never."

+ + + + + + +

Maude entered the jailhouse just as the sound of gunfire ripped through the air and shattered the uneasy calm that had befallen Four Corners. She slammed the door close behind her, thinking it would protect her from the carnage outside, so that she could do what she came for before Bosshardís men overran the town completely. Stepping inside the gray walls of the building, she saw her quarry almost immediately. He had rose to his feet at her arrival and now his hawkish features were staring at the bars at her with a look that bordered caution and curiosity. It infuriated her to no end that the list did not include fear because he should be afraid, very afraid.

"Mrs. Standish," Bosshard drawled confidently as she swept deeper into the room. "Or shall I say Mrs. Reeves?"

"You shall say nothing," Maude warned as she revealed the gun in her hand. "Because Iím going to kill you."

"I guessed as much." Bosshard responded, "I guessed you would turn up sooner or later."

"Well you were right," Maude stepped closer to the bars. The hand clenching the gun was unwavering and her eyes were like sharp points of steel. She could hear nothing beyond the walls of the jail, not the voice of men trying to kill each other, not even the gunfire that attempted to deliver that death, just Bosshard's hateful words. For so many years, she had waited for this moment, waited for a chance of vengeance. Now it was just her and Bosshard. She hardly noticed that there were too many in the cell, just the one who killed Peter.

"I've waited for this my whole life," Maude hissed glaring at him. "I want to see you die the way you watched Peter die."

"He died a coward," Bosshard came to the bars and sneered. "He died a coward on his knees begging for his life!"

"You're lying," she said simply, not all swayed by his attempt to provoke her. "I know you're lying."

"How could you know?" He asked derisively, "he had you all squared away so that I couldn't get too you. You weren't there and I was. He begged like a baby for his life. He would have licked my boots clean if I had asked."

"Shut up!" She shouted, her temper getting the better of her. "None of that is true."

"How do you know what's truth or not?" He raised a brow in challenge.

"I know, you son of a bitch," Maude sucked in her breath. "Because I was there."

+ + + + + + +

She should have left as he instructed but she could not. Instead she rode out of town and paused at the home of a local farmer and his wife whose acquaintance she had made during her stay in Eagle Nest. Maude knew it was foolishness but she could not help it, she could not leave him. Maude gave instructions to the family that should she not return, they would see Ezra back to her family down South. Knowing that she was insane for even contemplating this, Maude set out for town once more after her son's safety was secured. She rode back in the darkness, returning to town unseen.

Even from afar, she heard the gunfire and felt her heart stop at the absolute clarity of knowledge that those shots were meant for her Peter. Hastening back to town with her heart pounding in fright, she knew inwardly that she was too late, she would never reach him in time. Maude had borrowed some clothes form the farmer and had entered Eagles Nest appearing most masculine. Her disguise was good enough to fool because she had dealt in illusion long enough to know how to display one quite satisfactorily when the occasion demanded.

The streets were devoid of people in the face of the violence. The only ones who were out tonight were the men hunting Peter. Maude told herself that she was mad to even think of doing this. She followed the sound of bullets, each escaping projectile making her move faster before it was too late for Peter. It did not take Maude long to work her way to the center of town and in the street between the sheriff's office and the saloon, she finally found Peter. He was not dead yet but he was close to it. He was on his knees, bloodied from numerous shots, his gun in his bloody palm. His killers surrounded him; one of them being the man who had taken such interest in her earlier that day. The defiance in his eyes was pure Peter Reeves and she knew then and there, he never had any intention of joining her in New Orleans. He had stayed back to fight them because of Ezra and her, to give his killers an offering that would keep them from his wife and child.

"Where are they?" The man with the angular features and the moustache barked at them.

"Where you'll never find them," the Marshall said coolly, even though his blood was running the ground around him wet.

"I can find anyone," the enemy lowered his face to the Marshall's so that the wounded hero could see his nemesis eyes once.

"My wife isn't just anyone," Peter returned proudly, his chin up and even though he was about to die, even though he was the one who's body was bleeding and broken, he still made his enemy look small. "She'll disappear, she knows how. She always has. You have no idea how much trouble I had tracking her. Marrying her seemed the only way to keep me from having to do that again." His voice lapsed away, as if he was no longer talking to the man but rather reliving his memories, saying things he needed to say. "You can search forever but you won't find her unless she wants to be found and then you better pray to God that you don't turn your back on her because she's a hell of a lot smarter than I am."

Maude felt her heart twist in anguish. Tears ran freely down her eyes and then she saw him turn in her direction. His assassins did not notice the slight shift in his gaze because the Marshal knew how to be subtle. It did not surprise Maude that he had seen her because he had a keen eye and was almost uncanny in his ability to locate prey in almost total darkness. Their eyes locked briefly and in that instant everything they would ever say to each other was delivered in that deep gaze. He dared not spend more time than necessary in this endeavor before he spoke once more to the enemy.

"That's why I will always love her with all my heart."

"Not any more," the man she would someday come to know as Bosshard sneered and pulled the trigger.

He was dead before he even hit the ground and Maude had to bite into her knuckles, tasting blood, while forcing herself to keep from screaming when she saw everything that meant anything to die before her eyes. The bullet had penetrated his skull, sending fragments of brain matter in all directions thanks to the shot being administered at almost point blank range. She did not see his face when he finally landed on the dirt and to this day, she was grateful for that much because she did not think she could have lived with the nightmares that resulted from seeing the final expression on his face. The last thing she saw of her husband was the widening pool of blood under his head.

She made a silent oath then, that his killer would pay. She did not know how or when but she knew they would pay.

Even if it took a lifetime.

+ + + + + + +

"I should have killed you in the hotel," Maude said softly, her memories dissipating into nothingness once more. "I missed my opportunity and allowed you to bring more grief to the ones I care about," she cocked the gun. "No more."

Bosshard took a step back, realizing in that last instant, having seen kinder eyes on hired killers than he did on the woman before him, understanding that there was no bargaining or price that would satiate her vengeance. She was going to kill him. He opened his mouth to speak but no sound came out of him because there was nothing he could say to change the mind behind the eyes boring into him with such fury he thought he might have been looking into a mirror for its intensity. For the first time, fear began to invade his thoughts. The night, when her son had taken his ear off, it had caught him by surprise and when the pain had dulled enough, he had felt rage but no actual fear.

Not like now.

Maude took aim, poised to fire when the door flew open.

"Maude, don't do it!" Julia exclaimed.

Maude turned her head towards her son's lover and the momentary distraction was all Bosshard need to reach through the bars and grab the lady's gun first. Fear had made him fast and he responded like a man half his age. His hand slipped through the bars and yanked the weapon from Maude before she had time to realize what he had done and that the table were now turned.

"Well, well, well," Bosshard's smile gleamed with triumph when he held Maude's gun in his hand, aimed clearly at her. "Looks like I may survive this night yet."

"Julia get out of here!" Maude ordered, prepared to die but not about to see Julia harmed for her incompetence.

"Yes," Bosshard glared at the lovely owner of the Emporium he would not never have, remembering what she had cost him the night before. "Run little Julia, see if you can get far enough away to escape me."

Julia swallowed thickly, dismayed at what her good intentions had done. Maude was now unarmed and Bosshard was. Julia had less than a second to ponder this situation before the sound of a single gunshot filled her world.

"NO!" Maude fairly screamed as she watched Julia sink to her knees, the young woman's dress ballooning around her as she stared at her torso in dazed surprise, noting the crimson stain that was expanding across the cool fabric of her cotton dress with something akin to morbid fascination.

"Don't you move bitch!" Bosshard roared when Maude tried to take a step towards her.

"Go to hell!" Maude hissed in a mixture of anguish, heartbreak and unbelievable shame at what her machinations had wrought. She had not been afraid to die when she had embarked upon this course but never at any point, did she imagine she would cause Julia to be in this tragic circumstance.

"Not before you!" Bosshard barked. "You want to help her, get me and Mr. Spenser out of this cell and we'll leave you be. You could get her help and save her life. Don't help me and I'll kill you right now and you can both die!"

Maude's eyes filled with tears as she faced her impossible decision. She had no delusions that Bosshard would kill her the minute she allowed him freedom from his present location. However, what if he was telling her the truth? Could she afford to deny him if there was even the slightest chance of being allowed to help Julia? The young woman dying before her was the love of her son's life, the one woman he had dared pledge himself to after being so lost and alone for too many years. Because of Maude's insistent desire for vengeance, Julia was going to die and Ezra would never forgive her for it.

"Alright," Maude answered, feeling as defeated as she was. "I'll do what you want."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra knew he was insane.

He thought he saw Julia entering the jailhouse but he knew that was impossible. She could not be here because he had personally seen to it that she was on her way to the Seminole village. Yet he knew that he was not prone to delusion and if there was even a chance that she could be in Four Corners with all hell breaking loose, Ezra intended to pursue the matter as far as it went. The fighting was fierce but as near as Ezra saw it, they were holding their own, with the possibility that they might even win the day. He and Nathan had been watching each other's back as they dealt with Davis' men one by one, until of course, Ezra had thought he had seen Julia.

"She's at the Seminole village!" Nathan called out as they made their way to the jailhouse, dodging bullets, delivering a few of their own and lowering the numbers against them along the way.

"I beg your indulgence Mr. Jackson," Ezra returned as they reached the boardwalk and gained some measure of protection by the added cover overhead. "If I am wrong about this, no one will be happier than I."

"You got that wrong!" Nathan declared, deciding that he would stay with Ezra because someone need to keep the fool from doing something that would get himself killed. Besides, if Nathan had thought he had seen Rain here amongst all this chaos, there would be no stopping him either.

Ezra did not answer Nathan's retort as he reached the open door of the jailhouse and stepped inside the room. What he found there was the stuff of nightmares. He saw Maude about to release Bosshard from his incarceration. Bosshard, who held a gun in his hands and was taking aim at the sight of him. And then there was Julia. When Ezra saw her, his mind went numb and everything that transpired after her discovery was not even a conscious thought but rather reflex. Ezra was barely aware of his brain giving the rest of him instructions when he raised his arm and pulled the trigger, again and again, ejecting one bullet after another, until the chamber of his Remington was exhausted and six bullets were tearing through Bosshard's body. Not even one of the projectiles grazed the bars because Ezra was a crack shot and it was going to take a power greater than what was present to keep Bosshard's death from coming to him.

Once there was nothing left in his gun and Bosshard had slumped to the floor, trailing a large smear of blood down to the base of the wall that became his final resting place, Ezra's mind finally regained some measure of recognition. However, what he woke up to was nothing he had ever wanted to experience. He was at Julia's side in a second and a second more saw her in his arms. She was not conscious and her alabaster skin took on a pallor that was almost ghostly. There was blood all over her and when he took her in his arms, his hand became red with it.

"NATHAN!" Ezra screamed, gripped in a panic he had never known as he tried to stop the blood flowing out of his lover's body.

"Ezra, I'm sorry!" Maude was at his side. "I didn't mean for this to happen!" She stammered as Ezra started to shake Julia, desperate to revive her. He hardly heard a word Maude said. In fact nothing seemed to register except the fact that Julia was dying in front of him.

"I'm sorry!" Maude cried over and over again weeping pitifully.

"Nathan!" Ezra shouted again, hearing none of this and had not realized the healer was in the room with him but was retrieving Bosshard's gun before his companion, Spenser had a chance to put it to any further mischief. Nathan's first impulse was to go to Julia but he knew that Ezra was hardly in the state of mind to take care of this and so it fell to him to ensure that the situation was safe before he could deal with a patient.

"Ezra let me look," Nathan demanded coming between the gambler and Maude who was sobbing openly because she had been the cause of this.

"Julia," Ezra pleaded with the unconscious Julia, still oblivious to everyone else in the room. "Speak to me. Say something!"

"Ezra, let her go," Nathan tried prying the gambler's arms from around the wounded woman with little success. "I need to see her to help her."

"Don't do this Julia," Ezra begged further, becoming more and more frantic when he saw no response from Julia. He would have sold his soul a dozen times over if only for a glimpse of the familiar light in her emerald colored eyes. "Don't leave me. I can endure perdition's fires and the torture of a thousand demons but I cannot go on without you. Please give me a sign that you've not left me behind!"

"Ezra, if you want me to save her then you have to let her go!" Nathan tried again and finally, his words managed to reach the fog in Ezra's mind because the southerner's grip slackened enough for Nathan to be able to take charge of the wounded woman.

"You have to save her Nathan," Ezra stuttered, his hands covered in blood. Nothing much of his smooth, refined manner remained. "Please, I beg you. I do not know how to go on without her! I don't want to if she dies!"

Nathan had never seen Ezra this distraught, not since that night when he had woke up screaming following the attack by Hannibal Julius where not even sleep offered him any respite from his ordeal. He was sobbing at the sight of blood on her clothes, at the ragged entry of the bullet wound and the red stain that was her life all over his hands. Nathan wished he could say something to reassure Ezra t but he could not. As he examined the seriousness of the wound and remembered that the outside the jailhouse was a scene of violence even bloodier than what was in this room, he did not know whether or not he could help her.

And if he could not help Julia then he would have almost certainly failed Ezra as well.

Epilogue

What Matters Most

By the time the sun had set in the horizon of what was a very long day for the seven, most of Mallaeson Davisí men had either met their maker or reached the conclusion that the notion of taking the town was generally a bad idea. The lawmen had managed to hold their own and kill a good deal of their number, capturing the ringleaders among them including Davis himself. Jaques and Stephens were dead and Marks, their only connection to Bosshard had wisely chosen to disappear before things deteriorated further. Bosshard lay in the jailhouse, quite dead and with him any possibility that they would get payment for their services. By the time dusk fell, the men were on their way out of the town, swearing vengeance but inwardly pleased that they were leaving with their skins. Despite all this however, there was no victory for the seven. Not when Chris had found Ezra and Nathan and discovered what had happened in the jailhouse.

"How is she?" Chris asked Vin quietly while lowering himself into the chair across the hall from the tracker, after he, JD and Buck had returned to Nathan's infirmary. They had finished dealing with the last of Davis' men and the outlaw himself was now seeing the world through the sturdy bars of his cell in the jailhouse.

Vin was tightening the makeshift bandage across his leg as a temporary treatment until Nathan was able to deal with his injury. Chris had a similar treatment around his shoulder however, he understood that Nathan's attentions were needed elsewhere at the moment.

"There's been no word yet," Vin offered, glancing in Ezra's direction and feeling his chest tighten in sympathy for what the gambler must have been feeling at this time. "Nathan said she was hurt pretty bad though."

Chris nodded slowly, wishing there was something he could do to help but this was one arena in which Nathan knew the best and had to be allowed the freedom to do it without interference. If anyone could save Julia it was Nathan Jackson. "How's Ezra doing?"

Vin's lips tightened in a thin line and an expression of worry crossed the younger man's face. "He ain't said a word since he sat down. Just keeps staring into empty space. Even Maude can't get a word out of him."

At least that he could understand. If it he in Ezra's position right now, silence would be the last thing Maude would receive. The sheer irresponsibility of what she had done made Chris' head swim from anger and he could not imagine what Ezra must have been feeling. Neither Maude nor Julia should have been in town. The whole point of escorting them to the Seminole village in the first place was to avoid this tragic possibility. Maude was sitting across from Ezra in the narrow hall outside the room where Nathan was fighting to save Julia's life. The lady was clutching a handkerchief but the evidence of tears was clear from her stricken eyes, staring at Ezra, imploring forgiveness in her tortured expression and receiving none from his anguished face.

Buck walked to Ezra and offered the gambler a show of support by squeezing him gently on the shoulder. Ezra's eyes raised briefly to meet the big man's before receding into his somber visage again. Buck sighed heavily and turned back to Chris and the others, knowing that there would be no consoling Ezra until they had word that Julia was going to be all right. At the precise moment, the chances of that did not appear too good. Chris had seen the spot where Julia had fallen in the jailhouse; he had seen the pool of blood seeping into the wood. There was too much of it to convince him that she would survive the night without a great deal of luck. Chris wanted to say something to Ezra but the words would seem shallow right now because they had seemed shallow to him when he had lost Sarah and Adam and even though Julia was not dead, their effect upon the gambler would be the same.

Thus Chris remained silence and the rest of the seven did the same, driven to do the only thing they could do as friends, simply be there.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra did not say anything because he was numb.

His heart seemed to be shrinking inside his chest, disappearing as the seconds ticked by and the stretch of time since he had held Julia in his arms lengthened into eternity. He started thinking that if enough time went by, his heart might vanish all together and this terrible feeling that his world was about to splinter would disappear with it. He thought of all the terrible things he had endured of late and laughed inwardly when he had carelessly thought that he had lost everything that mattered and nothing else could hurt him as much again. Why did people offer fate such challenges when it was almost a certainty that the gauntlet thrown would be picked up? Why were they so blind at what there was left to lose until it was taken away from them? Is that what was going to happen to him? Was he to lose Julia to learn how much she meant to him?

God, he could not even begin to imagine it.

The mere suggestion that she could die drew a cry of despair from deep inside him. It clawed its way from the depths of his soul to make itself heard until his entire being was shaking with anguish. His mind became frozen with horror, locked in a repeating loop that kept saying the same thing; he could not live without her. He did not want to know how. Ezra hardly noticed that he was staring into nothingness as these terrified thoughts raced through his mind or that his fists were knotted at his sides so tautly, that his knuckles had become white from the pressure. His jaw was clenched and he was trembling ever so slightly, like a coil winding up with tension, ready to spring at a moment's notice.

Through the fog of his sorrow and desolation, he heard his mother's voice addressing him and for the first time in untold minutes, stopped to listen to what she had to say.

"Ezra," Maude was speaking. "I'm so sorry. I did not mean for this to happen. I was just thinking of that man and what he had done to us."

Ezra raised his eyes and they were cold as the heart of a dead sun. "Mother, I do not wish to hear it."

"Ezra please," Maude blinked and fresh tear ran down her cheeks because she felt so terrible for what had happened. "I wanted to make that man pay for what he had done to your father but I never expected this."

"Enough!" He hissed, his voice like lashes against the skin. "I do not wish to hear anything from you at this time!"

"I'm sorry!" She burst out in tear. "I am so sorry!"

"Sorry?" He rose to his feet and was before her in seconds. "I asked you to do one thing! One thing and that was to let me handle Bosshard. Not only did you blatantly ignore that request, you almost got yourself killed and in the process may have cause the death of the only woman that has ever meant anything to me! I do not care for your apologies at this time, Madam!"

Maude was weeping harder now and was too shaken to notice Josiah attempting to intervene only to have Chris hold back the preacher because this issue was between mother and son.

"If she dies," Ezra glared at her. "I will never forgive you."

"Don't say that," Maude wept helplessly, "you can't mean it!"

"I do not know what I mean at this time," he said feeling the energy drain out of him. "I only know that vengeance solves nothing. I did not want to kill Bosshard. I wanted the law to deal with him, the law my father obviously respected and relied upon and was willing to die for. I know what vengeance does mother, I have seen it at work personally and I have learnt that you cannot avenge anything without sacrificing a part of yourself or in this case sacrificing those that you love."

"She'll live," Maude whispered. "She's strong." It was more of a hope that it was fact and Ezra could take little comfort in it.

"She is everything." Ezra turned away from her. "She is the one person who has ever loved me unconditionally, who knew all my faults and follies and cared nothing about them because she I was what she wanted. She had stood by me in the worst of things and I never appreciated how terrible it would be if she were not merely gone from my life but also from this world." His eyes glistened in moisture and he swallowed hard to maintain rigid composure but it was a mask that those who were watching nearby could see through easily.

"I have not told her that enough lately," his voice drifted away. "I kept thinking there would be time enough and that the important things, the things that matter could wait for another day. However, that is not entirely true. Time waits for no one and if you do not seize the moment, then it will slip past your fingers leaving nothing but regret in its wake. I have wasted so much time of late, thinking about things I cannot change, allowing it to have power over me when it should have been I that took charge of it. I shunted my life aside because I could not let go and Julia was lost in that shuffle"

"I don't understand," Maude exclaimed. "What happened?"

Ezra turned to meet her gaze. "It is not important." He surprised himself because this time he really meant it. It was not important. Everything that happened with Hannibal Julius seemed so far away now and all that mattered now was the continued existence of Julia Pemberton. He blinked slowly and felt a tear escape him involuntarily before he wiped it away with his sleeve. "Nor that it matter any more. The only thing that does is Julia and I may have already lost her." Ezra muttered as he walked away from his mother and his friends, coming to a pause near the window where he could lose himself in his thoughts of regret once more.

His friends wanted to help him but at this point there was little they could say that would make things any better for him. All they could hope to do was offer support by their presence and be there for him if the worst happened. Each time he thought of that possibility, his heart tightened his chest so sharply that he thought it might burst from sheer despair. How could he go on without her? He had considered leaving her once, running away to spare himself the horror of losing her love. How could he have been so selfish when all she had done since learning of his ordeal with Julius was to show him that nothing could ever change how she felt even when he felt revulsion at touching her?

He was terrified that he would never have the chance to make it up to her if she died and he also knew with utter conviction that there was a price to vengeance that was never worth the paying. When he had killed Julius, he had understood some part of it but the death of Bosshard had driven the lesson home. Ezra hoped Maude had learnt something too. He had tried so hard to teach her differently, mostly because he feared for her life, never thinking that it could cost Julia's life instead.

Suddenly, a door swung open behind him and Ezra knew that it was the door to the room where Julia was being administered aid by Nathan. The creak of hinges was followed by heavy footsteps and Ezra remained frozen to the spot, not wanting to turn around to see Nathan's eyes telling him before the healer could even speak that Julia was gone. Ezra did not wish to see the others standing up or hear Maude moving quickly forward, even though it was he that Nathan most wanted to address. Ezra could picture in his mind's eye, Chris Larabee taking the initiative, imagining the words that were being spoken even as they were being uttered.

"How is she Nathan?" Chris asked, aware that Ezra had not turned to face the healer, probably because he did not wish to see the worst in Nathan's eyes.

Nathan sucked in his breath, "she's hurt real bad but she's going to make it."

"Oh thank God!" Maude gushed, her face dropping into her cupped hands from sheer relief.

The effect of Julia's continued survival was no less profound on the rest of the seven. Josiah in particular, let out a heavy sigh and muttered something under his breath Chris was certain was a prayer of gratitude towards his God. Expressions of pleasure swept through all the faces before the gunslinger, however, Ezra's back remained turned and what he was feeling was something the others could only guess at, although it was almost certain to be relief. They were almost certain that they themselves would feel the same intense emotions that Ezra must surely be experiencing at knowing the one that they love would live.

They were right because all that rang in Ezra's mind, as the news impacted upon his consciousness was one simple realization.

Julia was still with him. He had not lost her.

Ezra's entire being shuddered when he heard the news. He remained turned away, unable to face anyone as he came to grips with the fact that his Julia was not going to die. It seemed as if entire soul breathed a sigh of intense relief at the revelation, even though there was apart of him that was still scarcely able to believe that it was true. The image of how she had looked in his arms, how her blood had stained his hands had been seared into his memory and until now, he was terrified that it would be the last image he would have of her. For a few seconds, he merely stood there frozen and not daring to take a breath because he might just burst into tears from the gratitude of knowing that she would live and that was too emotional a display for him to endure in front of his friends.

He sucked in a deep breath, allowing the act to steady him before he turned and around to face his friends. There would be hiding the gratitude at Julia's well being but Ezra wanted to be composed nonetheless. He was still too much of a private person to have his feelings displayed so openly for all to see. He had not meant to show so much emotion but Julia was the only thing he knew that could make his tightly wounded up manner become so completely unraveled. Fortunately, he knew his friends would understand the lapse eve if he was not entirely comfortable with it.

When Ezra turned around, the first one to speak was Maude.

"Did you hear Ezra," her voice was full of hope begging for forgiveness. "Julia's alright. She'll live."

"Yes, I heard," Ezra nodded, giving his mother a look of tenderness he hope would dispel the harshness he had shown to her earlier. In the last few minutes, he had understood why she had done what she had. He remembered his fury when he saw Julia lying there on the floor of the jailhouse and knew that he had been a slave to his emotions when he started firing at the man, not stopping until he was dead. His mother had waited a better part of her life to avenge her husband and feeling the same anger and injustice that Ezra had felt briefly when he took Bosshard's life once and for all. He could not imagine what it must have been like for his mother and in that lack of understanding, appreciated why she behaved as she had. He knew that she would never consciously place Julia in harm's way and what had happened was just an unhappy set of circumstances which, fortunately, did not as conclude tragically as it could have.

Mother and son gazed at each other in a momentary exchange that the others in their company were discreet enough not to point out or interfere. In those few seconds, Maude's eyes softened seeing the forgiveness in her son's eyes as well as reassurance that things between them were right again. Even though she only smiled slightly at the understanding between them, inwardly she was weeping in relief. When she had saw Julia fall, Maude had been gripped with a terror at not only losing a friend but also causing the death of someone so precious to her son, a trespass she was certain he would never be able to forgive. She had sinned enough by keeping the truth about his father from him, a father whom he obviously wanted to know and perhaps live up to but never could because of her falsehoods. However, there was a chance now, a chance for her to repair the damage by giving him the truth and once this was all over, she would do that.

She would do it because Ezra deserved the truth and Peter deserved to have his son know it.

"Thank you Nathan," Ezra met the healer's eyes with gratitude.

"Don't thank me," the healer gestured towards the door. "Julia's the one who deserves most of the credit."

"Well she's a tough little lady." Josiah pointed out.

"I can attest to that," Ezra smiled at the tracker before returning his eyes to Nathan. "Can I see her?"

"She's not awake," Nathan pointed out. "She could be out for hours."

"I know," Ezra replied. "I would still like to sit with her."

"Sure," Nathan did not have to heart to say no to her and if it were him in Ezra's position, not even a healer's word would stop him from being at her Rain's side.

"I knew she'd make it," Buck patted Ezra on the shoulder as the gambler walked past.

Buck's smile was so wide across his face that it was impossible for Ezra not to feel its warmth flooding into him. However, there was one thing he had promised himself he would do if Julia were not taken from him today. He had left it too long already and had she died, he would have lost the chance to make things right between them, as he should have done long before this.

"Josiah," Ezra turned to the preacher. "I have something of an important request."

The others looked puzzled, wondering what could be so important at a time like this. Surely, Ezra's first thoughts would be Julia but as the gambler voiced what he required of Josiah, they were all very pleased with what the gambler had to say.

"Are you sure?" Chris asked, not wishing Ezra to make the decision on the spur of the moment, particularly after the day they have had. Emotions were running rife through all of them and as pleased that he was at Ezra wanting to do this, the leader in him still could not let go enough to allow Ezra to make a mistake if he was not ready.

"Absolutely," Ezra spoke with complete confidence. "I should have done it long before this. She deserves it."

"I agree," Chris cracked a rakish smile. "She does."

"We'll I'm not doing it," Vin said with a look of petulance about him. "Ain't it JD's turn now?"

"Because I don't got your hair," JD retorted and earned a little shove from the tracker in the process.

"I believe, I can handle it Mr. Tanner," Maude waded in smoothly before the conversation deteriorated any further. Besides, she was more than happy to participate in what she thought to be a long overdue decision by her son.

"Thank you mother," Ezra replied gratefully and noted Vin's sigh of relief with amusement.

"I'd be honored Ezra," Nathan stated softly, the tall man's eyes full of emotion.

Was it only three years ago they viewed each other with such hostility? It was amazing how they had both grown as friends and men to reach the point they found themselves in today. Ezra supposed their friendship had not merely been a learning experience for him and Nathan but for all the seven. Each in their own way had used their close bond to become more than they were originally and in that growth came a unification of their souls that still left all of them closely linked to one another, despite the love and families that had evolved around them.

It was good to know that after all this time, they were still seven.

+ + + + + + +

The first thing that Julia noted when she awoke that she was still alive.

When the world poured through her eyes and reminded her in a tapestry of images swirling in on her brain that she was conscious, she had rather surprised by the fact. In too vivid detail, her last memory returned to her, flooding her thoughts with terrible pictures of Bosshard and Maude screaming, culminating in a single gunshot that made Julia gasp in fright, even if it was a memory in her head. She would have sat upright abruptly, if not for the terrible weight pressing down on her chest and this sharp serrated pain, which made itself, felt with each attempt at movement.

"Oh God." Julia whispered as waves of pain bombarded her relentlessly. It forced her to push her head back down on the soft pillow in the room, her mind was starting to recognize as Nathan's infirmary, in order for it to ebb away.

"Let that be a lesson to you," Ezra's voice spoke softly in her ear. "Don't move."

Instinctively, she turned her head in the direction of his voice and saw herself staring into sea colored eyes that sparkled slightly at contact with her emerald on. "Ezra," she said softly, her voice feeling little more than a squeak in her throat.

"Do not talk," he stilled her lips with his finger. "You need to save your strength. I..." he paused a moment as his own voice chose that particular moment to waver. "We," he said after a moment, "we almost lost you."

Julia could well believe it by the exhausted look of him. It appeared he had been sitting next to her bed for quite some time. His burgundy coat was hanging at the corner of this chair and his shirt was loose around the collar and his slip tie, hanging undone. His eyes seemed hollow with worry and Julia could tell by the redness that perhaps he might have shed a tear or two for her as well. His weary state kicked in her own impulses to make him feel better despite his condition. "You could never lose me," she smiled and then remembered something. "Is Maude alright?"

"Yes," he nodded, taking her hand in his and kissing it gently on the palm before holding it to his face. The smooth of her skin and its scent, all Julia, gave him strength. "She is fine. She is rather apologetic at the danger she placed both your lives but in all other aspects, my mother is in one piece. I think she might have even learnt something."

"Yeah," Julia winced as the pain throbbed in reminder. "Never try to help anyone, you get shot at."

Ezra chuckled a moment, thinking how much he loved her because she was so like him at times. "I am sorry for everything I have put you through these past months."

"Oh Ezra," Julia's eyes softened but there was also a hint of impatience in her voice.. "I told you before I love you. I love you no matter what. Whatever happens, we can face it together."

"I am glad you feel that way," his lips crooked into a smile, dimples appearing in his cheeks and for a second, Julia thought she might have been staring at the dapper southern gentlemen who had viewed her with such amusement when they first cast their eyes upon her. She had probably fallen in love with that smile then even though she had not dared to admit that any man could take her heart in those days.

"Marry me." He asked softly, his eyes twinkling with mischief.

"I thought I agreed to do that already," Julia remarked with a raised brow, as best as she could manage in her condition anyway.

"I mean right now." He clarified.

Julia's eyes widened. "You mean now, now?"

"Is there some difficulty?" Ezra stared at her.

"No," she shook her head. "I thought you wanted to wait....."

"I've waited enough," he said abruptly. "You were right and I should have trusted you. You were willing to marry me despite everything that has happened and I should have known better than to question you or myself in how we feel. I almost lost you today Julia and I would have done so without ever realizing that you mean more to me than any of the fears and traumas I have suffered of late. I should always known but it took seeing you almost taken away from me to understand. I do not wish to make that mistake again. Marry me Julia, marry me right now for I intend us to waste no more time."

Julia felt tears in her eyes as she swelled with emotion. She wanted nothing more than to be his wife and even if this was not the wedding she dreamed off, just being able to say the words to each other and meaning it would be enough for her. "Yes Ezra," she swallowed. "Yes."

And so it was, that Ezra and Julia were married on that day itself, with Chris giving the bride away as much as Chris could with Julia being bound to her bed. Maude took her place as the matron of honor since neither Vin nor JD wanted that distinction, even if Vin's hair did make him appropriate for the part while Nathan stood at Ezra's side as the best man. Josiah made the short ceremony all the more poignant with his eloquent words of love overcoming all obstacles and in Ezra and Julia's case it was certainly true.

As far as both the bride and the groom were concerned, a formal celebration with all their friends, most notably Mary and the rest of the women, could wait until things in Four Corners was right again, following the tumultuous events of the past days. For the moment however, they were man and wife and that seemed to be the only thing that mattered.

+ + + + + + +

The butler's name was Carlisle and he had been in the household for the past twenty years.

Initially, he had been just another servant in the but through years of loyalty and unswerving service to his employer, he had been elevated to the head of the household staff. It was a great responsibility that he took very seriously and he commanded the staff the way a general sent troops into battle. The mansion was one of the finest in Philadelphia and the family to whom Carlisle was in service was almost as equally noted. Their name and their fortune demanded an image of austere opulence that the rest of Philadelphia society had no choice but to measure up to even though they almost always failed.

Of course lately, the family's prestige had taken a bit of bruising. Carlisle did not speak of these things himself because it was certainly not good form to do so but the inevitable chatter of the maids and the rest of the staff reached his ears and he took note of some of the gossip. In truth, Carlisle knew a great deal himself but he did not speak of it. After all, the issue was one of great sadness to the master. The man had doted on his daughter and how had she repaid him? She had run off after purportedly emptying a good deal of what was in her father's safe and jilting the man she was to marry on the eve of their wedding. The poor master had almost died from the shock and the scandal was rife for months, harming the family irrevocably.

Carlisle himself never thought much of young Julia. As far as he was concerned she was a capricious child full of questionable behavior, undeserving of her station in life. Carlisle could not imagine why the master had been going to such lengths to trace the girl when it was better for all that she remained hidden. Unfortunately, a father's determination could be unquenchable and in the case of Donald Avery, it was damn near inexhaustible. Carlisle was aware of the expense that the master had gone into hiring detectives to find the girl and most of them had been an exercise in futility, since none had ever produced any tangible results.

Like this one for instance, he thought as he gazed at the letter sitting on top of the others on the silver tray that he was bringing to the master's office. Although Carlisle was not prone to shifting through his employer's private correspondence, he could not help but notice the worn looking envelope whose origins were from somewhere in the heart of New Mexico, written by someone called Benjamin Bosshard. No doubt another fortune hunter seeking to take advantage of an old man's folly.

Miss Julia was gone. Why couldn't he just accept that?

The End