Magnificent Seven Old West

by Scribe

Webmaster Note: Mostly gen, but some steamy het stuff in places.

"You said my Alvin was a horse thief." Mrs. Darcy, a rather rotund woman, painted in lurid colors, with a scandalous amount of breast showing over the too tight dress that she wore, glared at Mary through the veil of her hat. Her voluptuous bulk filled almost the entire chair she was nestled in until her flesh behind was starting to droop over the edge. Just looking it at her made Mary feel the sudden urge to diet.

"He was a horse thief!" Mary said exasperated, the notice that stated the intention for litigation stared at her from the desk with an accusatory eye. "The man was caught on Kurt Simpson's horse, riding out of town, with Patsy the new saloon girl and two hundred dollars he stole from Mrs. Potter's till. If Chris Larabee and his men had not brought him home, the next time you would have heard from him would have been through a postcard from Mexico." Mary implored; trying not to lose her temper with this obnoxious and stupid woman but realizing with a sinking feeling as her fury began to bubble that it was a battle she would not win.

"You ain't got no proof of that until he goes to trial." She said lifting her considerable posterior out of the chair as she leaned over Mary's desk and met the widow's furious glare, eye to eye. "He ain't been proven to be no horse thief yet and until the judge finds him guilty, my Alvin is still innocent."

"I report the facts as I see them." Mary said slowly, keeping her voice in pace with the counting she was doing inside her mind. Ten. .nine. .

"I'll bet you don't report half the things that get done by those seven lawmen of yours." She sneered.

Mary took another deep breath and decided she was not going to loose it in front of this foolish woman. The venerable Mrs. Darcy seemed to be of the opinion that suing Mary for the princely sum of $5000 for slandering her good name, might make up for the fact that she had married a criminal who probably stole the horse to escape from her. She knew where the woman was going with her current line of remarks regarding the seven so Mary was not quite unprepared for the insults when they came.

"Especially that Larabee." The woman said with obvious derision. "Just because he's your beau, you don't write about half the things he's done. Just innocent folk like my Alvin."

Easy Mrs. Travis, Mary told herself. Just keep counting. Eight. .seven. .six.

"Mr. Larabee did not ride out of town with someone else's horse or a saloon girl." Mary said with surprising amount of dignity in her voice that did not correspond with her immense annoyance. For some reason, Mary could almost empathize why Alvin might have taken flight. No man could stay married to the creature before her without some debilitating results on their psyche.

"I heard about some of the thing Larabee has done. He's a no good gunslinger and they only reason that you ain't writing in your trashy little paper, is cause you're sweet on him." Mr. Darcy retorted, defying Mary to deny her pointed allegation.

"What Mr. Larabee may or may not have done before he came to Four Corners is no one's business except Mr. Larabee's." Mary replied, having just about enough of this vile woman's presence in her office. Mary Travis was a newspaperwoman and a community leader; she did not have to suffer this indignity.

"You would say that!" She hissed angrily, feeling impotent that her cruel barbs was not having the effect desired upon the spirited widow. "It don't matter anyway," she retorted, recovering quickly from her futility with a fresh plan of attack. "I got me a lawyer who made me that writ." She gestured to the piece of paper that Mary had barely glanced at. "I'll take everything you own and then we'll see if that low life gunslinger still wants you when you ain't got a penny to your name. Maybe he'll just keep your around as his whore!"

Five..four..three.. two. .one. .

The counting was not working. Her temper was just as furious and that final insult was the last straw in Mary's opinion. The lithe blond woman stepped from behind her desk and sank her grip into Mrs. Darcy's doughy forearm before the woman could her painted mouth to utter another vicious word. "You have wasted enough of my time." Mary said through gritted teeth. "You are leaving."

"What are you doing?" Mrs. Darcy screeched as Mary grabbed her by the arm and fairly dragged her to the door. The woman had not expected a physical reaction from Mary and had no time to recover her composure until she was shoved out the front door. "How dare you put your hands on my person!" She screamed as she stumbled onto the boardwalk outside the office of the Clarion. Her high pitched voice stopped people in their tracks as they stared at this latest excitement.  "I'll have up for assault!" She shouted angrily.

Mary started to feel a little better and had now recoup from her earlier frustration at trying to take the civilized approach with a verbal attack of her own. "You are on my property and if I do not wish to have you here Mrs. Darcy, I can throw your overgrown behind out on the street! As for this travesty you call a lawsuit, I can get a lawyer as well. Trust me, I'll have you buried in so many court injunctions and delays that by the time a case for slander does get to court, Alvin would have been tried, convicted, served his sentence and out to steal his next horse!"

With that Mary Travis turned around and retreated into the office once more, slamming the door loudly in the woman's face, hoping she would take the hint and go away. As she passed by the window to return to her desk, she saw Mrs. Darcy face glower in crimson rage before she spat coarsely and went on her way with a storm cloud that was almost visible over her head.

Of all the ridiculous garbage Mary Travis had been force to endure since assuming control of the Clarion, that had to be rank as one of the worst. She slumped into her chair, forcing herself to take deep breaths while she tried to calm down from that unpleasant encounter. Of course, the case was ludicrous and Mary had no doubt it would be thrown out of court because Judge Orin Travis was never a man who could swallow legal trickery in any shape or form. Still, it was going to inconvenience her because as this was a case of slander, albeit false, she would be required to defend herself in court. Which meant, she really had to get a lawyer.

There was no God! And if there were, He was having a great deal of fun at her expense.

She sighed and decided that lingering on this unpleasant subject was only going to put her into a worst mood and she did not wish to be venomously tempered by the time Chris came over for dinner tonight. Besides, she was always required to have a sunny disposition because he could be so depressing when he was in one of his moods. Mary loved Chris Larabee more than anything in the world did but some times she just wished she did not have to be so doggone perky to offset his cool, deliberate personality.

Realizing she still had a paper to get out, Mary sighed and emerged from her hiding place behind her desk and went to the printing press at the other end of the room. She looked at the sheets of paper prepared for usage and loaded it into the mechanism. As she had done a thousand times before since assuming sole ownership of the Clarion following Stephen's death, Mary began the work to put out the latest edition of the town newspaper. She left her mind drift as the machine went to work, thinking back to those days when her dreams were far grander and less grounded on making one patch of earth in the Territory a safe place to live.

She was going to see the world and write great stories, at least that was what she had planned when she was 12 years old that is. Her mother had been mortified while her father had just laughed, knowing it was one of those things that young girls indulged in until marriageable age. Stephen had been a godsend then as Chris was now. He wanted a woman who could think, who could hold her own in any situation despite the limitations of gender. Mary had always tried to be that for Stephen, even after he died and left alone. In retrospect, she wondered whether that Stephen had possessed any premonition that she might be forced to carry on alone. When he first died, she had believed she was capable of surviving on her own but eventually, things became easier and she managed and eventually thrived.

And then Chris Larabee strolled into her life and she knew that Stephen and that existence had been left far behind her. Chris stood on the edge of something new and exciting and he beckoned with that cool smile that sometimes bordered on a sneer that she alone had the power to distinguish. Perhaps Four Corners was not meant to make her the intrepid globe trotting authoress she had dreamed of being, however, she could live with it..

As that thought was about to touch her mind ,Mary looked down and saw the ugly smear of black across all her freshly printed pages. A slight leak in the ink well had turned half the already printed pages into an incomprehensible mess!

"No!" Mary grimaced as she tried to shut the machine off from its erroneous yield but the printing press took several minutes before deciding to relent in its task. When the press stopped what it was doing, Mary was left with a stack of ruined pages and a machine that would probably require dismantling and cleaning before she could start work again. Mary groaned looking at those soiled sheet of paper and let out a frustrated cry.


Chris Larabee chose to walk in at this point and the words escaping from the lips of his normally, erudite and elegant fianc 's made him freeze in his tracks. Chris paused at the door, staring at her with his hard blue eyes while she stood before a stack of ink sodden papers, swearing in language he had not heard since the last time he made a visit to Purgatory. The black garbed gunslinger met her gaze when she noticed his arrival and told himself that smiling at this point was a very bad idea.

He made some mental calculations and was secretly surprised that it was not quite one month since the last time she was furious like this. Chris had been married to Sarah long enough to remember that much about women. Mary did not get like this temperamental this often but when she did even Chris knew well enough to ride out the storm by now provoking it.

"I'm guessing you ain't having a good day." He said gingerly.

She glared at him with a look that could easily kill him dead where he stood should she choose to entertain the idea. "No, I am not having a good day. Do you know why I am not having a good day?" She asked, her voice little more than a low whisper.

Chris glanced at the printer and could make a rather educated guess straight off. "That?"

"That and Mrs. Darcy." She snarled, leaving the stack of ruined papers where it was, in plain disgust.

"Alvin's wife?" Chris asked, familiar with the woman in question (he hesitated to call her lady) and could sympathize with Mary if she was forced to endure an encounter with that pain in the ass. Her husband had been trying to skip town ever since Chris had arrived in Four Corners. Not long after meeting Alvin, Chris had the man pegged. There were men who stole horses because they needed the money, others who did it simply because they were thieving varmints and then there was Alvin, who did it to get away from this wife.

"That's her." Mary grumbled. "She's suing me."

Chris stared. "What for?" He would have laughed at the ludicrousness of it except it did not appear as if Mary found the whole situation very amusing.

Barbara Darcy never ceased to amaze him with her antics. She was one of those women who contributed nothing to the community and delighted in causing as much chaos as she could with her scheming and gossiping ways. He was almost curious to imagine the exchange that must have been between his spirited Mary and the screeching harping that seemed to exude from Mrs. Darcy's lips. No wonder, Alvin needed a horse so badly.

"Slander." Mary replied having no wish to go into the details and stormed over to her desk where she found the writ that Mrs. Darcy has served her so proudly.

Handing it to Chris, she folded her arms impatiently while he read it.

Chris studied the contents and met her eyes after a moment, seeing that Mary was taking this very seriously indeed. "The Judge will throw it out of court," Chris reassured her and if not, he saw no reason why he could not have a little talk to Mrs. Darcy and convince her to forgo this entire farce of a lawsuit.

"Chris." She said firmly with a perfectly straight voice. "What if I sold the paper and the house, packed up and moved into your shack out of town? Do you possibly think that I could get some peace and quiet without everything in my life deciding to screw up! I can handle being a housewife again. We can live on a dollar a day. You can go hunting and I'll grow things in the garden. I've seen people do it and churning butter isn't that hard. I understand all you need is a cow."

Now she was starting to scare him.

He had no idea what was more frightening, the fact that she wanted to wanted to grow things or churn butter. In any case, it was time to do something.

"Come on," Chris went to her and took her gently by the arm, as he guided her towards the door.

"Where are we going?" Mary asked as she followed him out, feeling in no mood to protest any more.

"Out of here, you're starting to get weird." Chris retorted and then added as they left the Clarion behind them. "All we need is a cow. .?"

He was never going to reach his next birthday at this rate.

This much Vin Tanner knew as his back remained pressed against the wall of the hallway, groaning mindlessly as Alexandra Styles ran her hot mouth over his throbbing cock. Her hands were firmly pressed against his rump as she forced him down her throat, as far it would go. His fingers ran through her hair, oblivious to all but what her mouth was doing to him. He could feel her hands gently pumping his shaft while concentrating on the rosy tip of his erection, sucking him so hard that he was starting to gasp from the sheer delight of her lips and the pleasure she was giving him.

"Woman, you're evil." Vin muttered softly as she slide her hand over his smooth rear, pulling him deeper into her mouth until he could hardly breathe from the intense pressure of her lips against his rock hard member. His closed his eyes as he felt her lips glide down the length of his shaft once more, feeling the soft scrape of teeth against his skin, making Vin so taut with pleasure he thought he might burst. Somehow he held back, feeling his stomach knot with anticipation with each stroke of her mouth against the sensitive flesh.

"Alex no." He whispered, not wanting to come in her mouth because he knew he was very close to doing so. However, she all but ignored his pleas, reacting to it by sucking him even deeper with more determination. The tight ring of her lips clenched his cock with such powerful insistency that the pleasure of it forced away any further objection from his mind. She continued torturing him this way, feeling cruel as she allowed her hot, wet mouth to stimulate him into a frenzy of orgasmic fury. With her mouth busy elsewhere, Alex slipped her hands between his legs and cupped the heavy sacs that were poised on the edge of release. With the expertise of a surgeon's hands, her palms caressed the velvet flesh until Vin's resolve shattered completely and he descended mindlessly into the pit of ecstasy.

"Oh god, please don't stop." He groaned oblivious to everything now. "Alex you're going kill me."

Perhaps, she smiled. But it would be a little death. Vin could not see her triumphant expression but Alex was nonetheless wearing one. The arousal that gripped her when she made him like this was beyond her ability to describe. She so loved knowing she could reduce him to this mindless wreck that was so enthralled by the sensations he was enduring that Vin could nothing but submit helplessly. Not to say however, when this was over he was not going to deliver a sweet revenge. Part of their sexual conflagration was the ability to deliver upon each other an equal intensity of pleasure.

Alex withdrew slightly, returning her fingers over his stiff shaft to accommodate it while she experimented further with how far she could bring him to the edge. Alex enclosed the tip of his cock with the warmth of her mouth, focusing on that most sensitive of places. She pressed her lips so tightly over that particular area of flesh that Vin wondered what he could have possibly been thinking when he had asked her to stop. She lavished wet heat upon him, stroking and licking the sensitive skin and then swirling her tongue over it while at the same time her lips sucked in forcefully. She teased him with such ruthless application of what her mouth and tongue was capable that Vin could feel his control disappeared with another hungry laving over the head of his tortured cock. He was almost incoherent now as the pleasure gripped him so entirely that he ceased to be care about of anything but her mouth.

Completely unaware that he was doing it, Vin was thrusting gently into her, pulsing past her lips the way he would do if he were penetrating her. He could not fight the urge not to, she had pushed him so far beyond control that he was acting totally on instinct. Alex did not seem to mind because her hand on his rear, pulling at him so that she could move to the rhythm of his trusting hips. She refused to let him surge all the way into her mouth, allowing entry as far as his tip while using her hand to stimulate his shaft.

"Darlin' I need to go all the way." He pleaded; his voice was almost a sob. Alex could sense that he was going to come and soon. With a hint of mischief, she knew just the thing to force him right over that the edge of that orgasmic abyss. Removing her hand away from his trembling shaft, she buried her mouth over his cock as far as it would go, with such swiftness that it was almost to the point of being savage.

"Oh Jesus!" He gasped as he felt himself empty when those lips enclosed around him. His whole body shuddered into utter pleasure as he came crashing down in the wake of her sweet ministrations. Alex held him firm, allowing him to pump every last drop of his seed into her mouth, exulting in the sobs he was making as he went over that edge with a resounding groan of guttural pleasure. She loved the sounds Vin made when he submitted to his climax so completely and almost purred in satisfaction when she drank him like he was most delicious thing in the world. Vin could do nothing but tremble in the wake of the unbelievable release Alex had given him as she cleaned his cock with her wonderful tongue. He could barely stand as the explosion subsided taking with it all the strength in his body.

Alex rose to her feet after she had buttoned him back to respectability since Vin did not seem in any condition to do it himself. As her lover lay against the wall, looking like he might collapse at any moment, Alex could not help but smile at the languid expression that had fallen over his handsome face. Leaning forward, she met his mouth with a seductive kiss, delighting in it when he was almost too exhausted to return the favour.

"I have Mr. Baker coming in two minutes for an appointment." She replied as she stepped back brushing down her skirt to make herself appear the presentable and ever professional Doctor Styles. "He's got this strange rash he calls poison ivy but I have a feeling might be a result of a three day orgy he had in Purgatory." Alex spoke with almost no hint in her voice that she had just turned him into a quivering wreck only a few moments ago. She turned on her heels, her skirt flouncing behind her as she made her way to steps that led down to her clinic.

"That's it?" He asked. "You're going back to work?" Vin managed to find his voice as she started walking away staring at her in astonishment that she was going to leave without satisfying herself. While he felt inordinately indulged, Vin also felt somewhat guilty that he had done nothing for her. Alex had bestowed upon him such a mind numbing sexual experience that he was going to be wearing an inexplicable smile on his face for the rest of the day. Yet he had done nothing for her.

"Yes." She paused looking at him with puzzlement that he could think she was doing anything else.

Vin went towards her, admirably hiding how weak he was in the knees after what she done to him. He slid his arms around her and kissed Alex again. "I kind of thought we'd take care of you now." After all, after she had pleasured him so spectacularly, Vin would not feel right if he did not at least satisfy her needs. "I mean after all that. ."

Alex threw him a smile and broke away, knowing if she remained any longer, she was not going to see her patient. As she stepped away, she planted a kiss on his nose. "I was just saying hello cowboy."

"Hello?" Vin looked at her.

"Yes," she grinned, knowing that he was very confused now. "I find that works better than the word." She would explain it to him later. Right now, Mr. Baker waited.

"You ain't kidding." Vin drawled, unable to keep the pleasured sigh from escaping him when he thought about her method of greeting. He approved quite wholeheartedly but he was definitely going to return the favour tonight.

"By the way," she paused remembering that he had initially knocked on her door for a reason. Alex had just never given Vin the chance to tell her what that might be prior to her deciding that he looked and smelled so good that he required her attentions. "Not that I'm complaining that you're here but you don't usually show during office hours, why today?"

Oh yeah, Vin remembered. He reached into the folds of his buckskin jacket and produced the letter that had Mr. Kelly; the postmaster had asked him to deliver to Alex when Vin had been hanging up a wanted poster in the post office. "I came over to drop this." He handed the white envelope to her. He had noticed that it had come from Denver and wondered whom she knew there.

"Oh." She looked at the letter with its white envelope with little interest.

After a moment of observation, she shrugged, remembering she had a patient due at any moment now and slipped it into her pocket of her skirt. "I'll read it later. Thanks cowboy." She came to him and kissed him on the mouth again. "Will I see you tonight?" She asked as she drew away to the stairs once more.

After what she had just done to him, he seriously doubted that he would be anywhere else. "You can bet on it." Vin smiled wishing she had opened the letter but deciding his curiosity could wait until tonight. "And tomorrow," he added as she descended the flight of stairs. "Hell after today, I'm delivering all your mail."

Inez decided the best thing to do was not say a word because she had to listen to it all around her.

Inez stood at her customary place behind the counter in the saloon, trying not to let the talk bother her. After all, this was Buck Wilmington they were talking about and she should not be surprised by his behaviour, let alone be bothered by his many dalliances. How many times had she heard about the gossip and the rumours about his latest conquests? Most of the time from his very own lips. Inez had known from the very beginning that Buck had insatiable appetite for women which was why she stayed away from him, having no wish to be just another conquest. However, it was fairly obvious both to herself and Buck that theirs was a relationship that went far deeper than his normal acquaintances with the fairer sex.

Inez knew in his way, he loved her and could probably love her as loyally and devotedly as she always wanted, if she would only allow him the chance. Yet every time she turned around, it appeared he was going off with yet another woman and no matter how vehemently she may deny it to others or herself, Inez burned with jealousy. How could she love someone when it was so easy for him to switch his affections from woman to woman?

How could she trust him?

Today was no different that any other woman that had breezed through his life. Rancher's daughter, 20 years old, very beautiful and apparently very accommodating as well. The girl had been virginal until Buck came along and her father was vivid at his daughter's sudden change of her personal status.

"That Wilmington sure knows how to live dangerous." Inez heard a group of men talking against the counter. She recognized them as regulars and forced herself not to listen to their lurid bar room tales about Buck's latest fling.

Lately, Inez had began to question why she spent her nights along when Buck was something spending his nights bed hopping. She was an attractive woman, not spectacular, at least in her opinion but pretty. If she wanted a suitor or a lover, it would not be a difficult matter to satisfy either need. Did she abstain out of some twisted desire to not betray Buck? How could she be betraying him when she had not been near a man since she'd seen him? Besides, once she had entertained ideas about Ezra since she worked so closely with the gambler, not to mention Vin Tanner who was so good to her during that whole Don Paulo situation. OF course, those two men had loves of their own and she was waiting for Buck to stop whoring, go on the straight and narrow before she would allow herself to love him.

She was dreaming.

"Afternoon Inez." Buck Wilmington greeted, tipping his hat in her direction as he stepped up to the counter. Inez looked at him slightly startled at his having entered the saloon floor with J.D. Dunne ever at his side as always while she had been day dreaming. Inez had not even noticed enter the building. The rest of the seven were nowhere in sight with Nathan Jackson probably putting someone together while Josiah Sanchez continuing with his restoration work on the church. Ezra Standish had ambled off earlier, making some remark about having a luncheon date with Julia Pemberton.

"Hi Inez." J.D. smiled, agog with typical youthful enthusiasm. She wondered how he managed to keep that sunny disposition in the face of everything he had seen since he had arrived in Four Corners.

"Hello J.D." She answered, ignoring Buck. "What can I get you?"

"Maybe some of your wonderful home cooking." Buck smiled his most charming, deciding that she was being so aloof because she was busy. The afternoon crowd was already in force with voices rumbling softly in the background as men gathered to drink, play poker or just to get out of making an honest day's living.

"I'll see." She said coldly with none of the usual warmth in her manner that she had reserved for him. "What about you J.D., can I bring you some lunch?"

"Much obliged ma'am." J.D. said removing his hat and placing it on the counter. He sensed the tension between Buck and Inez but like Buck could not imagine what had been the cause of it. J.D. knew that Inez felt for Buck more than she let on and for all his big talk, Buck Wilmington felt something similar. He watched her draw away into the kitchen as she disappeared into the kitchen.

"What did you do to Inez?" J.D. turned an accusatory eye in Buck's direction.

The big man shook his head in puzzlement. "I haven't done anything to Inez." He said with perfect innocence. "She never lets me." He added with a grin and drew a groan of sarcasm from J.D.

However, the kid was right, she did seemed awful ornery at him and for once it did not seem like the good-natured sparring they usually engaged. Whatever was bothering Inez, it was real and serious. Buck did not like the idea that Inez could be angry with him over anything. He loved the woman for god sakes, if she ever consented to be with him, Buck could imagine the heat they would generate with their lovemaking. He knew instinctively that she was a passionate woman. The thought of that dusky skin against his with its exotic aroma just made him twitch with the idea that he ought to find him some female company.

He was getting off the point here.

Buck shook such thoughts from his head and decided that he was unwilling to let the situation remained unresolved. Striding towards the kitchen, he saw Inez busily preparing J.D.'s and hopefully his lunch as well. She was slicing some carrots with her knife and Buck wondered if it was all that wise risking an argument with her when she was armed. She glanced at him with that same stormy look and then returned to her vegetables. Buck was becoming more confused by the moment.

Leaning up against the counter before her, Buck opted for the quiet, sensitive approach. "Inez, darling is there something wrong?"

She met his eyes with a look he could only describe as venomous. "Not at all, Buck." She replied tautly.

"Now it don't look like it to me." Buck responded in his always-husky voice. "It looked like you were kind mad."

"Maybe I am." She said scooping the cut pieces on the chopping board and turned away from him as she dropped them into a pot that was steaming with savour aromas on the stove.

"Well tell me about it." He urged, wanting her to confide in him. After all, they had been through a great deal together. When she had been raped, Buck was so terrified he was going to lose her, he had not dared let her out of his sight. No matter what she denied regarding her feelings about him Buck was perceptive enough to see the look in her eyes to know that she did care for him a great deal.

Inez paused in front of the stove for a moment, trying to decide whether or not it was time to move on or establish the future. After a moment, she whirled around and faced him. "Do you love me?"

The question took him by complete surprise but the answer did not. It tumbled from his lips without any hesitation or doubt that Buck was secretly astonished at the certainty in his own heart. "Of course I do."

"Good," she nodded. "I think I love you." She replied.

Buck started to smile that wide grin that infuriated her to no end and usually precipitated some dumb comment.

"Well," he said inching closer to her until she had to look up to see his face. "How about we go somewhere and discuss it." His fingertip grazed her bare shoulder.

And there it was.

"I may love you Buck but I don't trust you."

Buck looked at her. "Don't trust me?" He said holding his hand to his heart like he was physically wounded. "Darling, I would never hurt you." He continued, stroking her skin with his fingers and Inez found herself responding, against the will of her mind.

"I do not doubt that." She said becoming lost in his touch, wondering how he could be so compelling and so damn infuriating at the same time. "Except that I think you will, even if you don't mean to."

Buck was enjoying her response to him that the statement almost startled him when she spoke the words. "What?"

Inez stepped away and broke the moment. "I love you Buck, perhaps I always have but you love women too much to ever stay faithful to one and I will not share you."

"That ain't true." He protested but knew it sounded weak. By his own actions, he proved to her that she was right because he enjoyed the company of many women and while he could be loyal to Inez, he also knew he could not be certain about that promise. "I can try."

"There is no try with me Buck," she shook her head quickly. "I want to know that for sure. I want to know that when you are not with me, you are not carrying on with some other woman. I am not even sure I can even wait for you to grow up. Its time to move on."

He did not like the sound of that at all.

"Move on?" He said suspiciously. "You mean leave?"

"No," Inez sighed. "I mean its time to put us in the past."

"I will not accept that." He stepped closer to her again. "I got feelings for you like I have no other woman. I know you have the same for me. Maybe I can't stay faithful to you but then again maybe I can. It's a chance like all things are a chance."

"I don't believe in chances," she said abruptly stepping away from him and proceeding out towards the bar. "And I am not waiting for you any more."

With that momentous statement, she swept out of the kitchen, leaving him feeling like a fool because nothing she said was wrong and yet all it was.

Buck Wilmington had the strangest feeling that he was about to lose Inez Rosillios.

Julia Pemberton had a very strange notion of what lunch was meant to entail.

This much Ezra Standish had ascertained but for some reason he was not about to complain. After so many weeks in her company, he had since learnt what Julia's idea of a luncheon was and found no reason to argue with her interpretation of it. They were both presently in her bedroom, with the blinds drawn, feasting on pate and other delectable culinary delights, with a bottle of Chardonnay within arms reach. Ezra decided he could certainly live with her idea of a lunch. Of course the meal had proceeded a most exciting hour of hot steamy lovemaking which left him drained but completely sated, even before they reached for the food.

As Julia naked beside him, completely uninhibited by her nudity while feeding him liver pate on a cracker, life did not appear to get much better than this. For a moment, Ezra felt like one of the Roman Caesars of ancient times and wondered if it would be too indulgent to make the lady a request of a peeled grape. However, in times of crisis, pate would serve just as adequately. Never let it be said he did not know how to rough it.

"Miss Pemberton," he stretched languidly on the not so crisp white sheets of her bed, quite pleased with himself. "I certainly enjoy your concept of lunch." He leaned forward from the pillows when Julia held out a morsel of food to his mouth. He took a bite and she smiled, licking the salt of the crackers form her finger tips with those perfect pink lips. Ezra found himself watching her for a moment, feeling another erection starting to make itself felt.

"I aim to please," she smiled before lowering her head on his bare chest and laving his nipple with the same technique she had used on her fingers.

Ezra closed his eyes and let out a slight shudder but looked at her a moment later. Every time there was a break in the sex and there were not many such interludes for she was an insatiable partner, Ezra had noticed unwillingness on her part to engage in any form of conversation. He had come to learn her habits over the course of time they had shared together and had learnt one thing about her. She did not hold things back and she definitely liked to talk after sex. Her silence now only convinced him something was wrong.

"Is there something wrong?" He asked seriously ignoring the stirring's he felt for a much important subject.

"Nothing." She shrugged and rolled onto her back, staring at the ceiling and losing all interest in pleasuring him since he was more concerned about her emotional health. She should be grateful for his sensitivity but she could not help feeling a little awkward discussing what was on her mind.

"Come on now," he slid an arm around her and stared into those amazing green eyes that held such power over him. "My dear, I know all your little peculiarities, every vicious thought that crosses your mind. Trust me, there is nothing you have done that would possibly shock me. If it makes you feel better, I promise there will be no retribution or judgements if you reveal your latest conundrum."

Julia looked at him, wondering how he managed to keep a straight face when he talked that way. "When you put it so succinctly, how am I to refuse?" She retorted and rolled back to her side to face him again.

"I don't think the other women like me too much." She declared.

Always the consummate actor, Ezra was able to hide his reaction form her. That was the understatement of the year but Ezra kept it to himself. "Well, you did start off on the wrong foot with Alexandra." He pointed out diplomatically.

Julia winced at the memory. How could she forget? Both of them had been rolling around on the floor of her hotel room when Chris Larabee walked into the room and forced them apart. Not to mention what she had actually said to Alex Styles prior to that violent display. She supposed it was understandable that she would be viewed with such distaste with that kind of history between them. After all, she did steal Ezra from Alex and had been less than gentle when she imparted the news to the good doctor.

Naturally, Mary and Inez would rally around Alex in support and it had still remained that way even now. At gatherings, Julia felt like the outsider. In the beginning, it did not matter because she had little feeling for them. As she got to know them, she saw the fellowship of the seven and slowly began to understand the need to belong that even Ezra Standish could not escape. The bond between the seven was visible even to her and she knew while they remained the seven, they would always ride home together. Julia could not explain that intuition but knew that they all had it because it exuded from them like something real and tangible. Ezra was a part of something special and she envied how Alexandra Styles, Mary Travis and Inez Rosillios had become apart of it. Julia was also utterly aware that she was not included in this circle. Her presence was tolerated because of Ezra and nothing else.

Acceptance had never been important to her life before because other women were always seen as competition to her. She had treated Alex the same way because she had wanted Ezra and she had not the faith in him at the time to believe that he would love enough to leave the beautiful doctor for her. However, Ezra's heart was hers as Alex had given her own to Vin Tanner. There was no reason for the enmity to continue and every reason to attempt some reconciliation. The days when she felt the compulsion to view every man was conquest had been broken upon realization that the man she wanted was hers already. With Ezra in her life, not all the old instincts were banished but some had been forgotten.

Still, she felt strangely envious of the camaraderie shared by the seven and moreover by Inez, Mary and Alex. She should be apart of that friendship but she was not. Of course that had almost been entirely her fault. She had burned her bridges with Alexandra Styles because of Ezra and Mary Travis had more or less held her to ransom with her unsavoury past. The only one who seemed to view her with any form of civility was Inez and this had only resulted after their kidnapping experience some time ago. What friendship that had been formed then had been achieved through a life and death experience. Since then, Inez was warm but still kept her distance and it bothered Julia more than she would like to admit.

"Yes," Julia sighed. "I supposed that was my fault."

That too was an understatement that Ezra chose to let slide past him. He wish he could help her with this problem but as responsible as he was for Alex's hurt, Julia had done some cruel things that were even harder to forget. He loved her but he did not absolve her from her misdeeds. The situation she had created with Alex Styles was her own doing and only Julia could end the feeling of tension between them if she wanted to be accepted.

"I'm sure Alexandra will come around." He said although he did not believe it for a moment. From what Chris told him about their quarrel, both women had gone to blows with their fists. This, to Ezra did not appear to be a salvageable situation. Still, Alex had forgiven him and perhaps with Vin in her life and their relationship in the past, maybe she would extend the same courtesy to Julia. He did not hold out much hope for such an outcome but he could not deny Julia that possibility, however remote it might be.

"I do not have patience to wait for it. I must take care of this now."

Ezra did not doubt it. He did not doubt that she would make every effort to win Alex's forgiveness because Julia had proven how determined she could be. Ezra almost felt sorry for Alex and all the grief she was going to endure when Julia embarked on this quest to win her friendship. "Well my dear I wish you the best of luck but you are attempting a most serious undertaking."

"I will think of a way." She smiled defiantly, tossing her red hair back as she offered him an alluring smile. There was the fire of determination in her eyes now and Ezra knew personally how fierce it could be when properly inspired.

Julia would deal with Alexandra Styles later and perhaps there might be some measure of success in her attempts. For now however, she still had a lunch hour to finish and desert to serve. Leaning over to him, she met Ezra's mouth with a searing kiss, which forced him to return in kind. She savoured his tongue in her mouth as her hands stroked his bare chest and moved down the muscle of his taut stomach.

"Desert, Mr. Standish?" She smiled letting her hands drift further down his belly and enclosed her fingers on a most sensitive place.

Ezra let out a soft groan as she moved over him and could only smile as the onrush of pleasure. "I never say no to a full course meal."

 Alex was making a pot of tea for herself and Inez when Mary Travis walked through her kitchen door. It was an hour after her appointment with Mr. Baker, who apparently did not have a case of poison ivy as she had suspected and was not allowed relations with his wife until his ailment cleared. Inez had arrived earlier, having turned the saloon over to Ezra once the gambler had returned from his lunch time engagement with Julia Pemberton with a smile on his face which gave no doubt that food was not the only thing consumed. Like Inez, Mary appeared just as harassed and Alex wondered if she were the only person having a trouble free day.

"So what's been happening?" Alex inquired as she poured her companions cups of tea around her kitchen table, taking note of the frowns they were both wearing on their faces. Alex wondered what could possibly ruffle the feathers of both these women when Mary Travis was the mercurial newspaper woman who had through will alone forged a peace for the town of Four Corners when the seven had arrived in town. Inez was no less formidable. Any woman who could survive working with Ezra while at the same time being able to handle herself in a saloon was not normally beaten by the mundane trivialities of life.

Mary gave her a quick run down of the situation with Mrs. Darcy followed by the almost predictable foul up by the printer was a usual staple of a bad day. She also mentioned with affection how Chris had dragged her out of the Clarion office and took her on a ride out of town, in an effort to pacify her trouble temperament.

"I can never figure that guy out." Alex said with a smile, wondering how someone who seemed so ruthless and aloof could be so warm and tender at the same time. Still, Mary was one of those people who tended to bring out the best in people.

Alex guessed that not even Chris Larabee was immune that power. "Most of the time he looks to be a complete pain and then he does something really unexpected."

"Chris is like that." Mary nodded sipping her tea, with a bittersweet smile on her face as she remembered just how tender he could be. Riding with him had calmed her down considerably and lifted her spirits although he was still very confused about the whole concept of her idea to churn butter. "Still waters run deep they say."

"Very deep." Inez agreed. "And then are some men who are exactly what they appear to be. Drunken, hard living, skirt chasing buffoons."

Mary and Alex exchanged a glance and said in unison. "Buck?"

Inez let out a huffed breath. "Buck." She conceded begrudgingly. "I love that man. I do not for the life of me know why! He is such an unmitigated pig when it comes to women but I love him! I knew when he decided to defend me against Don Paulo that I was making a bad deal."

"He's just one of those men, Inez." Mary tried to defend Buck. "He loves women. He loves them so much that he just has no will power." Wait, she said to herself, perhaps this was not the best tact to take.

"I know that." Inez sighed, propping her cheek against her hand on top of the table. "I told him that I would wait for him no more." She declared imperiously. "I cannot spend my whole life waiting for him to grow up."

"Hear, hear." Alex and Mary cheered her on. "You're a beautiful woman Inez," Mary pressed. "You can do better and have a great deal more security knowing that whoever he is will not be chasing half the ladies in town."

"Exactly." Alex laughed and then remembered something. "Reminds me, I got a letter today." She reached into her pocket and pulled out the white envelope that she had forgotten about until this point. "Vin brought it to me a while ago."

"I thought he didn't come to the clinic during the day?" Mary remarked.

"Why?" Inez looked at Alex puzzled as the young doctor started to tear into the crisp white paper of the envelope.

"Oh," Alex looked up as she realized a question was aimed at her and replied distractedly. "He walked into the clinic the day I had to lance a boil off Mrs. Harrington's rear end. Vin never got over the shock and we agreed he'd not come into the clinic during office hours. He comes through the kitchen door when he does turn up during the day."

"What?" Inez started laughing loudly, trying to picture the look on the tracker's face as that discovery. Mrs. Harrington was almost 200 hundred pounds of blubber in tight works boots. Mary joined in and they both giggled like silly schoolgirls for the next few minutes. Meanwhile, Alex who had unfolded her letter and was reading it with careful interest.

"What did Mrs. Harrington do?" Inez had to ask.

"Not much." Alex replied. "I had a scalpel to her butt, she was not about to make a fuss." The doctor answered, still focused on her letter but did pause long enough to add with a slight smile. "Although I think I almost had to give Vin a sedative."

That only succeeded in drawing out another bout of even more riotous laughter as the two women laughed so hard, they were almost giddy by the whole idea. "I don't think I can ever look at Vin with a straight face again." Inez snorted, trying to speak through her giggles.

"Funny," Alex mused. "Vin said the same thing about Mrs. Harrington."

She barely heard the explosion of laughter that followed because she was too surprised by what she was reading.

"What is that?" Mary asked finally, feeling a little disappointed that Alex was not joining in their laughter at the humour of the situation.

"Sorry," Alex apologized as she looked up at her friends. "I have been invited to give a talk at a luncheon for the Society of Woman's Studies in Denver."

"You're kidding!" Mary exclaimed. "How exciting!"

"Apparently, some of your columns regarding my work has reached them and they want me to give a talk about being a professional woman and physician in the frontier." Alex said with some astonishment. She knew Mary occasionally mentioned her name as well as Nathan's in the Clarion News when she was forced to perform some medical treatment untried. There were also occasions when Mary needed quotes on the status of victims or criminals whenever there was any trouble that made the news.

"See," Inez beamed. "She made you famous."

"Hardly famous," Alex remarked but could not help feeling some measure of pride because it felt good to be recognized by an organization of note as a doctor, even in this fashion. "Still," she was unable to suppress a smile. "It's a nice to be appreciated."

"So when do you have to be there?" Mary pressed, happy for Alex.

"A week from today judging by the date." She frowned. Obviously mail travelled slow in these parts and Alex wished she had more time to make such a trip. Denver was almost 500 miles away. She would need to get there by train and then there were her patients. "I can't just leave."

"Yes you can." Inez said without question. "Alex are you mad. This is a great honour. You have to go."

"But Denver is so far away." She said with hesitation. "I don't even know my way around the city."

"You're a world class traveller whose crossed the Gobi Desert. You can survive in Denver." Mary glared at her impatiently. "Stop making excuses." Suddenly an idea came to her and she liked the notion the moment it popped into her head. Four Corners was driving her crazy, that much was obvious after today. Perhaps a little trip away might be just the thing she needed to revitalize her frustrated state of mind lately. "I'll go with you."

"What?" Alex looked at her. "All the way to Denver?"

"Yes," Mary nodded, liking the idea the more she thought about it. She would not mind a trip to the city, with its hotels and theaters and lets not forget the shopping, she reminded herself mentally. A few days away, pampered by the temptations of the big city was something Mary could endure for a few days. "I can cover the luncheon for the Clarion. You know, local doctor makes good in big city."

"That's a great idea." Inez sighed, wishing she could go. "I'll miss you two but it's a wonderful opportunity."

"What are you talking about?" Alex stared. "If Mary and I are going, so are you. They sent me an extra ticket for a travelling companion." It was after all the done thing. Women were not meant to make such an arduous journey alone. No matter how forward thinking the society might be, they could not break the bounds of that particular convention.

"I couldn't!" Inez protested. "Who would take care of the bar?"

Mary rolled her eyes. "If I can leave the paper and Alex can leave the practice, you can certainly leave the saloon in Ezra's hands for a few days."

"Besides," Alex added her voice to Mary's persuasive argument. "It will be fun. Think about it room service, running hot water bath?"

"And room service." Mary repeated "Let not forget that."

Inez bit her lip and considered their idea. It was certainly inviting and she had more than enough money saved to indulge in such a trip. She supposed she could leave the saloon in the hands of Josiah that would take care of the place and ensure that it was still standing when she returned. In any case, Alex was right, it would be fun and with all the emotional confusion of her relationship with Buck Wilmington, Inez would certainly enjoy the time away, if only to clear her head.

"Alright," she nodded decisively. "Let's do it."

"Great!" Mary giggled, feeling more enthusiastic about this forthcoming trip than anything else that had happened lately. "Now," she eased back into her chair and let out a sigh. "I've just got to figure out how to break it to Chris."

"And Vin." Alex agreed, seeing the fly in the ointment. She would miss him terribly but there was no way in hell that she was taking him to the ladies' luncheon. After seeing Mrs. Harrington's naked posterior, that would probably send him over the edge once and for all.

"Ah," Inez gloated with some measure of satisfaction. "I now see the advantageous of being unattached. I am free spirit able requiring to make no explanation to any man. I can tell you now with absolute certainty that they are going to hate this idea."

"Of course not!" Mary protested, knowing that Chris was not that stubborn. After all, she was going away with two women to Denver for a few days, what could be more harmless than that. She resented Inez implying that she had to explain herself to Chris and retorted full of indignant outrage. "I'll have you know that Chris will have no problem with this."

"Mary this ain't a good idea." Chris Larabee replied when Mary told him of her plans later that evening.

How does Inez do that? Mary swore under her breath while she told herself that she was not going to get upset by his negative view of her trip to Denver. After all, he was just being Chris, a trifle too protective for his own good but still, he was only concerned about her welfare and she could not fault him that. Besides, they were courting now and so she had to afford him some small say in how she conducted herself.

"Why?" Mary looked at him as she stood by the stove, preparing their dinner to serve. She put down both plates and stared at him, hands on her hips full of defiance.

Chris knew the stance well. It was one that usually indicated that she had made her mind up and he could either go along with it or shut up. He was about to give her a dozen good reasons why she should not go when Chris remembered how she had looked this morning when he had walked into the Clarion. He had noticed the exhaustion in her eyes, not just in a physical sense but the evidence of mental weariness was very prominent. Suddenly Chris realized that perhaps he was wrong. Maybe she did need to get away and do things that normal women do, like taking walks in manicured parks and going shopping with other women. Mary always did strike him as being out of place in the rugged town that was Four Corners. She should have been going to society teas and knitting things in a parlour somewhere in the east.

"You're right." He said conceding defeat because it occurred to him that she needed the time away from this place, to just be a woman and not the paragon of the community and defender of Four Corners. Besides, Chris knew if he said no she was just going to go without his blessing anyway. That is what came of falling in love with a strong willed woman who was capable of being just as stubborn and ornery as he could be. "You should go."

"Really?" She said with a hint of surprise that he had given in so easily after his initial distaste to the idea. Mary joined him at the table and sat down on his lap, meeting his lips in a deep searching kiss to which Chris reacted to immediately.

"Just don't get into any trouble." He growled as their kisses intensified.

"Do I ever get into trouble?" She looked at him innocently, when she pulled away for a moment.

Chris did not even dignify with that with an answer.

Alex was up to something.

Vin knew exactly what that was but as he stared at Alex perched on top of him, her dark hair cascading over her bronzed shoulders, he knew this sweet pleasure she was giving him had a price tag attached to it. She smiled at him as her hands roamed the length of his smooth and taut chest, delighting in the tension in his muscles. Over the past weeks, she had come to learn every intimate detail of his body and delighted in exploiting the weaknesses she found. Vin had no idea that she was could be such an exciting lover but adored the heights of pleasure she thrilled in making him reach.

She took his hands in hers, forcing him to cup one breast in his hand which he did so without question, his fingers curving to its swollen shape. Alex slipped her fingers over his; gently guiding and instructing him on just how hard she wanted him to knead. He could see her licking her lips in anticipation, her tongue sliding over those that seductive mouth that was capable of bringing him to such mindless pleasure that he could barely breathe let alone think. Just remembering how she had used those lips to suck and stroke his hungry cock made him shudder with delight.

Vin obliged her, smiling as he pleasured her with his hand that was squeezing her breast intently while rubbing his palm against the erect nipple that quivered when he ran across its pointed tip. Watching her eyes cloud over at the sensation made his cock harden and Vin continued fingering the nipple, driving Alex to the edge of her control as it hardened under his ministrations. However, she did not lose control, not at all. Instead, Alex raised his other hand to her lips and began sucking insistently on each digit, with long, seductive strokes, letting him see her tongue running over the callused skin.

"You are driving me insane woman." He grumbled as his erection strained for her. The feel of her smooth thighs against his hips and the knowledge of the wet recess in between was enough to make him throb with yearning to sink his hard member into her warm depths. When her mouth enclosed around his fingers, he could not keep the image of how she had used that same tongue earlier today from his mind. It only succeeded in making him so hungry for her that he was fighting the urge to keep himself from taking her there and then.

She slipped his wet fingers from her mouth and moved his hand to cup her other breast. Vin complied immediately and began massaging them as her hands slipped over his, helping him tantalize her with his expert touch. Vin teased the nipples mercilessly until they became so tight under his fingertips that they were half their normal size. Alex threw her head back and started to moan softly, her hair swaying like a curtain of jet as he intensified his attentions to the hard points that produced such pleasurable sensations. Her skin felt hot and fevered against his and the desire to sink into her flesh was so overwhelming that he could only react by grabbing her by the hair and forcing Alex to his mouth.

Alex did not protest as he felt his tongue probed past her teeth, pushing its way into her mouth, needing no consent. She felt her heart quicken at the invasion, her tongue submitting to the presence of his as it drew from her lips all the pleasure it could extract. One hand was planted firmly in her hair, luxuriating in the strands while he kept his mouth firmly on hers, allowing Alex no escape even if she was insane enough to want such a thing. His other hand was sliding up and down the length of her shapely form, his palm enjoying the feel of her curves as he glided past its smooth texture. His skin felt so cool against hers, which was fevered by comparison and Alex wondered how he managed to smell so good.

Suddenly, Vin rolled her around in the bed so that he was positioned on top of her. She enjoyed it when he took control and submitted gratefully when she felt him raise both arms over her head and pin them there with one of his own. He gave her a wicked smile as his other hand cupped the breast that was tight and firm because of the muscles that was pulling it upward. The nipple lay exposed and begged for the touch. However Vin dug his fingers into the soft skin of surrounding flesh, rubbing it with such force that Alex felt the breath escape her lips from the awesome feeling. When he finally reached her nipple, Vin took such special delight in teasing the erect nub that she was soon descending into complete bliss as she cried his name with abandon.

Hearing her call his name like that almost brought Vin to the edge of his limits. His cock was twitching with hungry insistence as it gently rubbed against the inside of her thighs. The tip seemed to burn each time it made contact with her skin. Finally, he could bear no more to be kept from her moist inner passage and ran his hand along the curve of her body before hooking her leg over his hip. Vin groaned himself when his skin made contact with the slick moisture in between and knew that she was ready to be taken. Without warning, he plunged into the depths of her, impaling Alex in an instant with the full length of his throbbing manhood.

"Oh god Vin." She cried his name as her back arched, her body pushing into his chest with the sudden intrusion. Her muscles contracted around him, gripping him with such intense pressure that Vin was felt the air escape him from the incredible sensation. The velvet warmth of her sheath felt impossibly tight and heightened his pleasure as he began to fuck her with hard, powerful strokes. He did so allowing Alex no time to catch her breath, pounding into her until he could feel the tip of his cock impacting at the end of her inner passage. The pleasure of that was beyond description as he buried himself to the hilt with each delicious stroke. Vin had to bite down or he was going to come immediately from the sensation and he wanted it to last for as long as he was able to hold back.

His fingers dug into her breast as he slammed into her brutally until she was crying out his name in ragged sobs. He loved the sound of her breathless voice when she cried out for him, begging him to fill her repeatedly. Alex's body was heaving under him, covered in a fine sheen of sweat as she squirmed, doing an exotic dance as she shuddered and trembled while he penetrated her with his unrelenting pace. Her other leg was wrapped around his waist now and her hips thrust forward to meet his compelling rhythm.

Vin. Vin. Vin.

Vin heard her singing his name until her voice descended into whimpers from the pleasure he was forcing her to endure. Vin began to feel that familiar rush of desire that preceded his climax. It was building inside his iron hard manhood with each gush of heat that enveloped him. Vin held back, feeling himself tense as he thrust into her with such savage intensity that he could not longer keep the groan that escaped from his lips.

"You're so beautiful," he whispered in her ear as he continued to hold her down, while slamming into her with such determination that he could feel himself tumbling head long towards his own release. Vin could feel himself starting to succumb to the pleasure of her inviting warmth, teasing his cock, while creating friction against him with the fiery meeting of flesh.

Alex's taut body bounced against him each time he penetrated her, until he could feel the points of her nipples pressed firmly against his chest. That was enough to snap the resolve in him, breaking it like kindling as the peak of his own endurance was finally reached and he could no longer control the urges inside his raging cock with a release that was now inevitable. Suddenly he felt her tense beneath him and her whimpers became strained gasps as she stopped moving. Her breath was caught inside her chest as her eyes clamped shut and Vin felt her cresting that final wave. Her inner passage tightened impossibly around him as her the barrier to her orgasm was breached and shattered.

"Vin!" She cried out as he felt it wash over her.

"Oh Christ," he moaned joining her cries when he felt the crushing pressure around his cock that all but destroyed whatever scant bonds of control that he had left. Vin felt himself explode inside of her, emptying the full rush of his seed deep into her body with the flood of his powerful climax. It washed him away in such a tidal wave of pleasure that he could nothing but gasp incoherently as he dug his nails into her hip, pulling her closer as he strained to reach the core of her with each surge of semen that escaped him.

Vin collapsed on top of Alex completely spent, releasing her hands at that moment only to have them slide down his back and then encircle him in pure content. He was breathing hard into her hair, while at the same time savouring the scent of their love making in her wet skin. They lay against each other panting and heaving as their bodies recovered from yet another extraordinary session of raw sexual desire. Vin could not imagine how he had ever done without her. What she had done to him since that first time was beyond his ability to express. In his whole life, he never felt so loved or happy and each time he made love to her, that joy was impossibly magnified a thousandfold.

She stroked his back, savouring the smooth skin and the curve of taut muscle. Alex loved how his weight felt against her body especially after sex. He was breathing her in, Alex smiled, aware that he did that even though she never made mention of it. If she did, he might stop an Alex liked the breathless sigh that Vin made whenever he did that.

"So," he propped himself up on his elbows and met her dreamy gaze with that faint smile of his. "Was this supposed to make it easier?"

"What easier?" She sighed; her eyes were still closed.

"To tell me you were going to Denver."

Alex's eyes flew open and she stared at Vin with surprise. "How did you know?"

"I talk to Inez before coming up here." He grinned, remembering how excited the lady bartender had been when she had returned to the saloon late this afternoon. While he would miss Alex while she was gone, he did know that it was important for women to get out on their own and do women things. It was just one of those mysteries of the gender that he as a man had no business interfering with. "She told me that you, Mary Travis and her were planning a trip to Denver."

"It was meant to be a secret." Alex frowned wishing Inez had not made mention of it. "I was going to seduce you and then break it to you gently." She said half-joking and half-serious.

"I thought so." He replied, sliding next to her onto what was fast becoming his side on her brass bed. There was a curve in the mattress he had been carefully cultivating over a period of several weeks now, since it was impossible to take her back to his wagon.

"You might have told me." She looked at him critically, feeling rather guilty that she had been caught with such ulterior motives.

"Are you crazy darlin'?" Vin drawled as he rolled onto his back with a satisfied groan. "I was having too much fun having you trying to break it to me gently."

There was no mistaking the look of mischief in his eyes as he did that.

"Very funny." Alex retorted and promptly hit him with a pillow.

Part Two

Unexpected Guests

"What are you going to do without me for a week?" Mary asked as the stagecoach driver started loading her luggage and that of her travelling companions on top of the carriage. The time towards her trip to Denver had hurtled by so fast that Mary could not believe that it was only a few days ago that she had sat at Alex's kitchen table and made the decision to leave Four Corners. She fought the urge to act responsibly; ignoring the practical voice in her head that said this entire expedition was a lesson in frivolity. She had duties to fulfil a newspaper to get out and yet despite all those very good reasons, the one that gave her reason to pause the most was this black garbed gunslinger before her.

Chris showed no signs of being disturbed by her impending absence, while wearing that usual dispassionate mask over his handsome face as he saw her to the stagecoach that would soon be ready to depart. He was accustomed to her leaving town on occasion whether to see Billy or visit friends. Most of the seven had turned up to bid the ladies good-bye, although only Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner has more personal reasons for doing so.

"I reckon I'll get some peace and quiet." He replied nonplused.

In truth, he would miss her terribly; especially at night. Chris had become accustomed to falling asleep with the soft warmth of her body in his arms. How many times had he drifted into pleasant dreams amidst a shimmer of gold hair in breath's reach?

"Liar." Mary declared, perfectly aware that she would be missed because she could not deny feeling the same loss that came over her whenever they were forced to put distance between them. They had endured much together over the years since they had come into each other's lives. Chris and Mary had become so much apart of each other's existence even before acknowledging how they felt, that it was impossible to imagine the absence of either.

A faint smile penetrated his indifferent mask at that point when their eyes met, dispelling that steely gaze that intimidated so many people and put the fear of God into enemies. "Try not to get into any trouble." He remarked, saying it just to annoy her.

Mary let out a frustrated groan. "How many times are you going to give me that warning?" She looked at him critically because that was a staple of their conversations during the days preceding this journey. For some reason he managed to work that in no matter what they were discussing and his ability to remind her of this during their most intimate moments made Mary wonder if Chris thought she was some kind of lightning rod for discourse. It was only after consideration of just how many times that he had actually come to her rescue because of some hotheaded; impulsive act that Mary had to admit he might possibly be justified in his concerns. After all, she had burned down a house, inflamed a bunch of lunatic cultists to pursue her and that was just the highlights.

"As many as it takes." Chris stated firmly, enjoying the red flush of annoyance creeping into Mary's face.

"I'll have you know that this is just going to be a nice, simple trip." She said with utter innocence in her eyes that he did not believe for a second.

"Uh huh." He looked at her skeptically because with Mary, that was how these things usually started, with the words nice and simple.

"I promise you," she repeated herself haughtily. "I will not get into any trouble while I'm away from you. Besides, even if I do get into it, how do you know I can't get myself out of it?"

Even as she asked that, she could see the sarcasm that shot straight into his face as soon as the words had left her lips. "On second thought." Mary interrupted quickly before Chris could open his mouth to respond. "Never mind."

The smug look on Chris' face was enough to make her blood boil but Mary could not help laugh as she leaned over and kissed him gently on the lips. Mary knew he was just teasing her and she enjoyed it when he dropped his guard down long enough to display the dry wit that lay hidden behind his somber expression. Once these occasions were rare but of late, they were starting to increase the more he became used to having her in his life.

"I'm going to miss you." She whispered in his ear.

"I'll probably miss you too." Chris responded once she had parted from him.

"Probably?" Mary looked at him in mock outrage and slapped him on the arm.

"Likely." He tried again, still teasing her with his eyes and his slight smile.

"Likely?" She shook her head in disbelief. "You're not very good at this are you?" She eyed him mischievously.

"Not very." Chris chuckled not about to let her in on just how much he would miss her. Mary had rekindled his soul the way nothing had since Sarah and Adam. The months following their initial declaration of love had been heady ones. Even with tragedy intermingled; Chris would not have traded those moments with her for anything. Of course he would miss her. She had brought hope into his despairing soul and had all but given him a new lease of life with her smile.

"That's what he says." Buck Wilmington snorted, announcing his presence as he walked past the couple and the stage while making a beeline towards Inez. "He'll probably be drowning in whisky like a sick puppy before you're even out of town."

Chris rolled his eyes before flashing Buck a filthy glare that said volumes. "Buck, remind me to your kick your ass when the women are gone."

"You can try Chris." Buck said gleefully, always amusing himself at Chris' expense. It was so good to see Chris slowly returning to the person that he was before Sarah died that sometimes, Buck could not resist but help the process along.

"I can stand to see that now Chris." J.D. urged as he stood next to Inez, wishing the sultry barmaid farewell on her trip to the big city.  Although he would not miss Inez the way Chris would miss Mrs. Travis, J.D. knew that he would not be happy until Inez had returned to Four Corners. Ever since her arrival in town and her business partnership with Ezra, Inez had paid special attention to him because of his youth whenever he came into the saloon.

She always made sure that he was eating right and last summer when he had a case of the fever, she had sat by his bedside and cooled his brow at the height of his delirium. J.D. had gone to sleep feeling her soft hand on his forehead and her voice lulling him to sleep with some Spanish tune that had no words he could understand but felt soothed nonetheless. It almost reminded him of how his ma had taken care of him when he was a boy.

However, Inez was more than just that to J.D. She was the only other person other than Chris Larabee who was capable of taking down Buck a peg or two. They often indulged in playing some awful practical jokes on Buck when the man sorely deserved it. Despite the farcical torture they forced Buck to endure, J.D. knew that there was something between Buck and Inez that was not spoken of or revealed to anyone. Even though they argued and fought publicly, J.D. believed that there was more to them then any of them had suspected. More than anything, J.D. would love to see Inez and Buck together, even though he sometimes thought that he might be a little in love with her himself. It would be hard not too for she was so wonderful in ways he was never capable of explaining.

"Remember Josiah," Inez stared at the preacher. "I'm trusting you to see to it that Ezra does not let things go to hell before I get back."

"I do resent the implication that you feel I cannot be trusted Miss Rosillios." Ezra grumbled, as he heard Inez give Josiah instructions about the saloon that should have come to him. For reasons he could not possibly fathom, his partner seemed to think that he was completely untrustworthy. It was not like he had burnt the place down or anything although, she had never left the saloon in his charge long enough for such a catastrophe to happen. Nevertheless, Ezra knew he was justified in feeling slightly perturbed that Inez had asked Josiah to supervise his attempts to run the saloon in her absence.

"The lady is wise as she is beautiful." Josiah said with a smile. It was nice to know that he was the only one that Inez trusted with the saloon.. Since assuming partnership interests in the saloon, Inez had always come to him when she was required to leave town. While Ezra may be part owner of the business, she knew that he had no taste for any kind of work or 'menial labor' as he put it. Left to his own devices, the gambler would idle away the profits in front of a card table. Josiah was good at motivating people by gnawing at their conscience and for some reason the preacher had a particularly strong effect on Ezra.

"You would said that." Ezra retorted. "Am I to assume that I am to tolerate Mr. Sanchez's supervision for the entire time that you are away in the city?"

Inez looked at him and smiled sweetly. "You can because I would like there to be a saloon when I get back."

"Gentlemen," Buck interrupted their conversation over the sound of their chatter at his arrival. He was wearing an expression on his face that seemed to border on the serious. Although with Buck it was difficult to tell. They so rarely saw him serious to tell the difference "May I have a moment with the lady?"

Inez's mood darkened, not wishing to get into any kind of deep discussion with Buck about their nonexistent relationship. After their last encounter, this was more or less a permanent state of affairs. Why did he have to confront her about this now? She did not want to talk and felt some dismay when she saw J.D., Ezra and Josiah starting to step away. The rest of the seven were aware of the tension between Inez and Buck over the past few days and while Ezra had made some attempt to ask her about it, Inez had largely discussed with no one except Mary and Alex.

"Have a good trip." Josiah said tipping his hat at her as he withdrew.

"Spare a thought for those of us languishing in this arcane place when you are indulging yourself in the excesses of high urban living." Ezra sighed, kissing her hand in that continental way that sent many female hearts a flutter throughout Four Corners.

"Don't worry, I'll fill this shopping list of yours to ease the pain." Inez replied, remembering the list he had produced when he had learnt she was going to Denver. Apparently, she was going to spend at least one day there shopping for men clothing, toiletries and haberdashery. According to Ezra, it took work to look as good as he did.

"You are a Goddess." He grinned.

"Shopping list?" J.D. asked as he followed Ezra away to afford Buck the privacy he desired with Inez.

"I shall see that I will just have to educate in some of the finer things in life. ." Inez heard Ezra say as he led J.D. away.

She turned around to face Buck impatiently, wishing not to discuss this subject because she was confused about the whole issue of their 'relationship'. Buck dispelled the look of good humor he wore for everyone's benefit and met her gaze with the closest thing to thoughtfulness that she had seen in them in recent months. Sometimes, she could become lost into that gaze because she could tell that there was more going on behind those blue eyes. Buck Wilmington had touched her heart from that first moment but she was a proud woman who felt her love needed to be earned not given about freely. She had run from Don Paulo because he had wanted to take her when he could not earn it. Buck had earned her love but he did not earn her trust and Inez had come to realize that the two things were vital to each other's survival.

"What is it Buck?" She asked curtly.

"Inez I don't want you going way like this." He said quietly.

"Like what?" She stared wondering if he thought she was going to run or something. "I'm going to Denver for a few days with Mary and Alex. That is all there is to this."

"There's a lot of things between us that need saying." He struggled to say, finding difficulty in reaching in the dark well within where he kept his innermost thoughts. "I don't want you to go without at least trying to make some effort to try."

He had to tell her something. Since their conversation in the kitchen, he had this terrible aching inside his stomach that would not go away for anything. It lingered there, whispering possibilities in his mind, such as having Inez walk out of his life and never come back. She had been so unexpected that he had not known what hit him the first time he saw her in the saloon. Buck did not know much but he knew he could not bear her leaving him.

"Buck," she replied sharper that she would have liked her voice to be. "There is nothing to say. You are what you and that is the way it is. I do not expect you to change."

"But. ."

"I've got to go," Inez turned away and kept walking. Buck did not follow her, she did not expect him to. He was too proud for that especially when it came to her. A part of her felt guilty because he was trying so hard to explain himself and yet she refused to hear him out. Inez knew if she listened to his promises and oaths, she would only be swept up in another tidal wave only to watch it crush her hopes later. Inez climbed into the stage that was almost completed loaded with their luggage only since no other passengers were travelling today and waited patiently for Mary and Alex.

Buck gazed at her in silent ache as Inez disappeared into the carriage, wishing that there were something he could say to her to reassure her that his feelings for her were real. They were very real indeed. He loved her only while all the other women were merely company. While he understood her reservations, Buck could not make that final sacrifice that would seal the breach that was now widening between them past the point of no return. Turning away because he felt impotent at being helpless to resolve this situation, Buck turned around and saw Alexandra Styles imparting an almost as complete series of instructions to Nathan as Inez had done earlier to Josiah.

"These are all the names that you can keep an eye out for. Mr. Baker will be back regularly for his treatment, Janet Lowing looks to be getting some sort of an ulcer and Noah Kelly's bandages will need to be changed tomorrow. I'd keep a close eye on that one if I were you. He hurt the arm while out on the trail during that wet patch a few days ago. I'm worried it might turn gangrene if we're not careful." She said all this in one breath much to Nathan and Vin's disbelief.

Nevertheless, the healer nodded patiently as he listened to her speak. Vin was not so that accommodating and chuckled quietly to himself as he heard Alex run off a hundred orders to Nathan.

"Don't worry Miss Alex, I'll handle things." Nathan said trying to pacify her and then remembering that he had given her a similar list when he had left town last, so really he was in no position to be annoyed. They both felt passionately about their skill and patients, enough so that leaving them were like severing some unseen umbilical cord. It was a source of great pride to Nathan that Alex respected him and his skills so much to allow him access to her patients. Other doctors would not be so trusting.

"Quit nagging the man." Vin drawled, pulling Alex away from Nathan to take a minute alone with her before she had to leave.

"I am not nagging." She protested and threw Vin an irritated scowl of mock offence. "You're just saying that 'cause you're going to go to complete pieces without me." She smirked at him imperiously.

"You wish." Vin said with a smile, even though she was absolutely correct. Still he was not about to admit it to anyone, least of all her. "I'm going to rustle me up some trouble when you're gone. Maybe go do some hard drinking in the saloon and then go whoring with Buck." He replied sounding perfectly serious even though he was not.

"Oh wonderful," she said sarcastically. "Then I'll have to the get poison ivy story from you instead of Mr. Baker."

"How do I know what you're getting up to in Denver with all those city men folk?" He turned an accusatory eye in her direction. "Might be I'm just getting in trouble before you do." He grinned.

"The only trouble I am going to have is when I have to give a speech." Alex replied firmly, her arms were folded now. A stance Vin was very familiar with, particularly when they were engaged in one of their verbal jousts. Those instances had not decreased, no matter how much they meant to one another now. Vin and Alex seemed to have volatile temperaments when they were together and even more fiery love making sessions when it was time to make up. "Then I'm coming straight back." She concluded.

"That just means you're the one whose going to be missing me." He pointed out. "I ain't too fussed when you get back." He remarked with a glint in his eyes full of little boy mischief.

"Well," she smiled sweetly. "We'll see who misses who when you have to sleep alone in your wagon tonight."

"Will you two cut it out!" Nathan finally groaned, having listened to this by play long enough. He had not meant to eavesdrop but the voices could be heard clearly form where he was. "Just kiss the woman goodbye Vin!" The healer grumbled. "Its like watching two alligators trying to mate."

"I'll have you know that's a vicious rumor started by someone who has seen us argue." Alex deadpanned before she met Vin's gaze and they both laughed softly. "He just doesn't understand us."

"I give up on the two of you." Nathan said throwing his hands up in a gesture of defeat.

Vin and Alex shared a few more seconds, chuckling at Nathan's confusion before Alex looked into Vin's blue eyes. "I will miss you cowboy." She smiled. "But I'm not going long."

"I may miss you too." Vin replied, never one to let her get away with anything or show weakness. However, he sealed his remark with a gentle kiss to the lips he would miss dearly while she was gone. "Have a good time, darlin''." He said in that soft voice of his before adding in a louder tone. "And don't get into any trouble."

"Why does everyone keep saying that?" Alex retorted.

Sanderson knew he was in trouble.

The rendezvous to meet Seacourt had not gone well. He was at the appointed place and time waiting anxiously for the arrival of his contact when he saw them appear in the darkened alley where the meeting was to take place. Seeing them had caused him to flee because he knew it was imperative that he reached Seacourt before it was too late. In desperation, he had run straight to the train station and took the first outbound service from San Antonio, leaving his pursuers behind.

Or so he had believed.

He had disembarked at Eagle Bend believing the place to be small and obscure enough to wait out the time while he contacted Seacourt again to arrange another meeting. Pacing his hotel room like a caged animal, Sanderson kept close eye on the package that he had risk life and limb to acquire. He knew that it was the key to a heinous plan that could easily break the back of the country, should the men pursuing him get their hands on it. Fortunately Seacourt had come through and arranged a new rendezvous point.

He had spent the evening in Eagle Bend to terrified to leave his hotel room in case the enemy had tracked him down and were at this moment scouring the streets for him. Sanderson knew that if he could hold out until tomorrow to keep his appointment with Seacourt then his troubles would be over. Seacourt was one of the best of them, if not the best. He was a world away from Warren Sanderson who mostly played the part of courier, ferrying important sensitive material from one place to another.

The man who had given him the package was dead and in his last dying breath had imparted to Sanderson, its terrible purpose. Sanderson who was only meant to deliver the package back to Washington soon found himself the prey in a deadly hunt as assassins pursued him across the West. The next morning, following his clandestine entry into Eagle Bend, Sanderson prepared to leave the hotel for the train station once more. Seacourt should already be in town and would probably be making the same journey to keep their rendezvous if he was not already there.

He had no sooner left the hotel when suddenly, he saw the two people who had tracked him relentlessly no further than a few metres away when they turned up the boardwalk that would take them to the front steps of the hotel. Sanderson froze and tried to retreat but it was too late. They had seen him. He was barely thinking when he had started to run back into the hotel, disappearing through the front lobby past the surprised clerk and almost running straight into a bellboy carrying a handful of luggage.

The two assassins, the most notable a tall, blond man with long gold hair and a handle bar moustache pulled out his gun and would appear to have no trouble snapping him with his bare hands if required. He reminded Sanderson of the picture he had seen once of Viking conquerors. However, his companion was a raw boned female who wore man's suit and looked as lethal as her dead eyes implied. It was obvious that she was calling the shots between the two of them. Sanderson scrambled through the innards of the hotel, trying desperately in any way to keep them from narrowing the gap. He tipped shelves over and pushed people to the floor, he had even considered hiding but found little time or opportunity.

Finally, he broke through the kitchen and tipped a pot full of hot, bubbling concoction onto the floor. The meal splattered in all directions and rolled across the floor as its flow widened across the smooth surface. Sanderson ran through back door, mindful of the chef's who were screaming furiously at the sudden disruption of their kitchen and the destruction of a fine meal. He was hardly aware of them and looked over his shoulder long enough to see the huge man topple over by the slippery soup underfoot.

The two were relentless in their pursuit and Sanderson was unable to shake them no matter what he did. They dogged his steps all the way to the train station and it dawned upon the man that he might not be able to lose them at all. He knew that certain death awaited him if he fell into their hands and was prepared for this possibility. He could not function in this business without being aware that this was a possibility. However, he could not risk his death allowing the terrible secret he had uncovered to remain hidden. Somehow, Seacourt had to know what was transpiring but Sanderson had no idea whether the man was on the train or not.

He arrived at the Eagle Bend train station to see that the place was full of commuters preparing to board the train to Denver. He searched the faces and saw nothing of Seacourt among the passengers. With a sinking feeling, Sanderson realized that he would have to come up with a plan of his own. He could not see the duo hunting him but assumed they could not be far behind.

As he advanced onto the platform, he searched the faces around him, wondering if he was being foolish by what he intended to do. He caught sight of her mostly because of the gold hair. You really could not miss the luxurious wave swinging down from her neck as she waited with two similarly stunning women as they lingered on the platform. However, it was the small carry basket she carried that captured his attention the most. Its design was open and allowed anything to be slipped into its depths if one felt so inclined to, which he did.

Sanderson looked over his shoulder and saw the duo appear on the platform. The man was crimson with rage and it appeared that they were dispensing with the formality of taking him discreetly. Breaking through the crowd rudely, they advanced towards him quickly and Sanderson knew he was out of time. Running forward, he ran straight into the woman, dislodging the basket from her grip and sending it and its contents tumbling to the floor.

"Oh Madam, I am sorry!" He quickly apologized.

Mary Travis looked at the man with annoyance as she saw her personal items strewn across the platform floor. "Really Sir," she huffed angrily as she bent over to pick up her bag. "You might watch where you are going."

Sanderson could feel the approaching footsteps of his pursuers and quickly picked up some of the items, using a little slight of hand to include in her belongings, the package that he had been carrying.

"Are you alright Mary?" The exotic looking woman behind her asked.

"I'm fine." She grumbled snatching her things from the ground and shoving them back into the basket.

"I am so clumsy." Sanderson declared feigning regret at his trespass and gestured to the objects he had in his hands that were ready to be returned to their rightful owner. Mary held the basket open with a scowl on her face as he deposited the items into it. She hardly noticed that she had been given something else. Once the package was safely hidden in his opinion, Sanderson looked frantically over his shoulder and saw the man and woman almost on top of him.

"I do apologize Madam," Sanderson said hastily, preparing to run and then almost as an afterthought added. "If you are ever in trouble, find Jeremy Seacourt."With that bit of advice, which she received, with a look of bewilderment on her face, he started running past the three startled women.

Sanderson had no idea where he was going but decided the train would serve at this moment, he ran past the conductor, who barked at him in anger as he boarded without showing his ticket. The man had neither time to argue that when suddenly he saw two more intruders on the locomotive. The trio disappeared just as suddenly as they appeared, running down the length of the aisle between compartments. Sanderson ran through the empty carriages, hoping to find escape and knowing futilely that the best he could hope for at this point was to lead them away from the woman, whoever she was.

Finally, he arrived at the baggage car and found that there was nowhere to go. The wall of luggage inside the compartment was locked from the outside and the only way out was through the door in which he entered. Panicking, Sanderson tried to back track but it was too late. The two closing in and they knew he was cornered. Taking a deep breath, he reached for his gun but the woman had drawn hers before he had even slipped past his jacket to acquire it.

"You're given us quite a chase, Mr. Sanderson." The woman said smoothly as she and her companion entered the baggage car and slid the heavy wooden door close with a loud thud. Sanderson swallowed thickly and retreated into the back of the car, almost tripping over the luggage that was stacked haphazardly about.

"I fail to see why." Sanderson replied, trying to sound brave but not quite managing it. He was not an impressive specimen of manhood, somewhat weedy looking with a pale completion and watery colored eyes. While she was breathtaking with her dark mahogany hair and her near rose red lips. Her eyes were blue like an ocean but devoid of anything that could be considered human. She wore the suit of a rich Mexican gentlemen the outfit hung of her in a way that was totally seductive and left little to the imagination. She stared at him beneath the brim of her hat with what could patience.

"You have something that belongs to my employer." She said coolly.

"Belongs?" Sanderson laughed at her choice of words. "He stole it!"

"Whatever," she dismissed the particular details of the issue. "We will have it back now."

"I don't have it." Sanderson replied, aware that the huge man behind him was glowering in anger. His clothes were covered in food stains from his spill earlier and obviously, he was wishing to return Sanderson the favor.

"Check him Burke." She ordered.

Burke said nothing but stepped forward without question. He put his huge hands on Sanderson who struggled meekly before the woman raised her gun at his face showing in no uncertain terms what would happened to him if he did not comply. Burke searched through his person and clothes for the package and looked up at her a moment later when he did not locate it.

"He's clean, Selena." He informed her dutifully.

"Where is it?" The woman who he now knew as Selena asked Sanderson.

"I gave it to Seacourt." Sanderson lied and hoped he was good enough at it to be believed.

"You have not had a chance to make contact with Seacourt." She retorted but Sanderson saw the uncertainty in her eyes.

"Nevertheless that's where it is." Sanderson repeated. He was sweating profusely but it had nothing to do with the heat. Selena stared at him with narrowed eyes, trying to determine if he was lying or not.

"Maybe we should look around and find Seacourt." The blond behemoth suggested.

"Yes, we should." she agreed. "However, I suspect that he is lying to us." She said glaring at Sanderson with a penetrating gaze meant to extract information.

Sanderson tried not to flinch as he returned her stare wondering how such a lovely woman could be so markedly evil. "You ran into a woman earlier on didn't you?"

Sanderson tried to hide the reaction but could not. He blinked and swallowed, all but giving away what he had been trying so desperately to keep from her.

"Did you see her?" She looked at Burke.

"Yeah," he nodded. "I saw her."

"Well Mr. Sanderson," Selena met his eyes once more. "That effectively ends your part in this matter. Whatever shall we do with you now?"

Sanderson could find no answer as he saw Burke advancing towards him. .

"What was all that about?" Mary Travis asked Inez and Alex perplexed as they resumed boarding of the train, in the wake of the strange encounter a moment ago. The other passengers were making the same exodus from the platform while being bid farewells from relatives and friends. Seeing all of them made Mary feel a twinge of longing that Chris had not opted to see her off from Eagle Bend. However, she could understand his reasoning against doing so. Four Corners required his presence.

"Who knows?" Inez shrugged. "He looked a little crazy to me anyway."

"Seacourt did he say?" Alex looked at Mary as they climbed up the steps one after the other, while handing their tickets to a conductor who promptly led them down the aisle, by passing other passengers for the private compartment they had secured themselves.

"Yes," Mary nodded, still wondering what the man had intended when he made his offer of assistance. "Jeremy Seacourt." There had been some to be some measure of urgency in his voice and Mary's journalistic nose for a story immediately sensed that there was more to him then met the eye. She made a mental note to seek him out when the train was underway to Denver. Suddenly Chris' remark about staying out of trouble came to mind and Mary frowned slightly, telling herself that doing her job as an investigative journalist was not getting into trouble, it was providing a service to the greater community.

Yeah, try that line on him and see what he says. Mary thought to herself.

"You work fast," Alex teased. "You're not long from Four Corners and already you're getting men throwing themselves at you for assistance."

Mary rolled her eyes in sarcasm. "Oh that's what I need, another man in my life." She retorted. "Its not like the one I have doesn't make me tear my hair out as it is."

"Hey," the doctor laughed. "I'm just getting used to having one in my life."

"As opposed to none." Inez pointed out. "At least you don't have a philandering fool who thinks he may love you but not quite enough to give up that several dozen other women he has hanging around him!" There was a little more passion in her voice than she intended and her vehemence only brought a knowing smile to her companion's lips.

"Well I wouldn't know about a dozen," Alex sighed. "Just having Ezra do to it to me once was enough. I swear, it was the first time I had ever thought about taking a scalpel to anyone for purposes other than surgery." Even though she had more or less forgiven Ezra for that trespass opting to keep him as a friend, albeit never a close one, it still galled to think about that terrible day when the news of his infidelity was impressed upon her so prolifically.

"Look at this way," Mary reminded. "If Ezra had not been a two timing pig, you would not have discovered how wonderful Vin is."

"Exactly." Inez responded and was able to add further. "And he must be pretty wonderful, if that smile he's been wearing lately is anything to go by." She looked at Alex with a suggestive gleam in her eye.

"I refuse to comment." Alex laughed as the conductor showed them to the private compartment they had reserved for themselves. Since this journey to Denver had been an exercise in indulgence and Alex was the one more able to afford the luxury, she had decided to satisfied this particular whim for privacy during their journey.

However, upon entering the compartment, the three women to their shock found that they were not meant to be having complete privacy after all, with the presence of an unexpected guest.

"What are you doing here?" Alex exclaimed unhappily at the sight of Julia Pemberton already nestled comfortably in one of the seats waiting for their arrival.

"I had business in Denver and when I heard that you three were also making the trip, I knew you would not mind my company." Julia said making no move to leave her seat.

The conductor frowned at her and said sternly. "Ma'am, you ain't meant to be here. This is a private compartment."

"I'm sure my companions would not turn me out." She looked at the three surprised faces before her. Alex's expression was quickly descending into pure dislike, which was hardly surprising, because that's how the doctor always looked at her. Mary seemed to be debating at whether she should be allowed to remain while Inez merely shrugged her shoulders, in an indication that she would not get caught in anyone's crossfire.

"You thought wrong." Alex said curtly. "Out!"

Mary winced, not wishing to create a full-scale situation with the tension that existed between Alex and Julia. She could not understand what Julia Pemberton was doing on this train or why the woman was making the trip because she for a moment did not believe a word the Easterner had said about going to Denver on business. Still, Mary did not like Julia where she could not keep her eye on her and at some point, she and Alex were going to have to resolve this enmity between them.

"Alex," Mary spoke up. "Maybe it would be alright if she stayed a bit." She looked at the doctor with a look that pleaded Julia's case.

Alex groaned knowing that it was nasty to throw the woman out and had she not decided that she was ready to extend the woman some forgiveness after the incident with Randall? There were too many sins on Alexandra Style's conscience already. She did not need another and besides, if truth were told, Alex was far happier with Vin Tanner than she could ever be with Ezra Standish. If it was not for Julia Pemberton, Alex would never have gone to Vin and the bliss that followed their first coupling would never have been.

"Okay you can stay." Alex groaned in distaste. "But only because of Vin."

"Vin?" Julia looked at her in confusion. "I don't understand."

"You don't have to." Inez said abruptly, knowing what Alex meant. She was relieved that Alex had relented because she did not feel right about turning Julia out either. Despite her odious nature, there was something strangely likeable about this scheming witch. Inez could not understand why that was. Perhaps it was the way one admired a mountain lion for its inherent beauty even though it could tear your throat out any minute. "Just shut up and stay." She ordered.

"That's alright." Mary turned to the conductor. "We're fine with her being here."

He scowled slightly, still uncertain about allowing this and then realized that there was no reason to cause a fuss if the ladies were satisfied with this end.

"Ticket please." He said to Julia, trying to recover some measure of control in this situation instead of feeling foolishly inadequate.

Julia handed it to him with a smug smile that only serve to infuriate him when she looked at him with those taunting emerald eyes of hers. He clipped the ticket and handed it back to her before departing from the compartment, unable to stand up to the scrutiny of that icy gaze.

"What are you doing here?" Mary asked again once the compartment door had slammed shut.

"I told you business." Julia repeated, knowing that she was probably not going to be believed but not particularly caring at this point. She had manipulated the situation well so far and she would not give up her intention to win these women so early in the game. "I thought it might be fun to join you."

"Fun?" Alex looked at her skeptically. "How could being in a train with you for the next five hundred miles be fun?"

"Now come on," Mary said sternly before this got out of hand as it was threatening to do so rather rapidly at the moment. Julia's presence was like a match to the powder keg that was Alexandra Style's memory. It would not take very much to cause an explosion and produce a fiery death for all involved.

"Let's not do this." Secretly, Mary was furious at Julia for provoking Alex like this.

"Are you still upset about that whole thing with Ezra?" Julia retorted never one to back down from a challenge or a warning for her own good. "Why do you care? I actually did you a favor."

"Excuse me?" Alex demanded, outraged by Julia's interpretation of events even though she was a little accurate. "Is that what you call it?"

"Julia, this is hardly the time to discuss this matter." Mary spoke up, sending daggers at the woman for a multitude of sins, the least of which was intruding on a trip she had no business being a part of and bringing up such a volatile subject.

"Why not?" Julia exclaimed, turning her eyes at Mary. "She's been stewing about this for ages when we all know that she most likely slept with Tanner while they were out there in the mountains together. Come on, you were missing for three days. Are you expecting us all to believe that nothing happened?"

Alex dropped her jaw in outrage and said with controlled fury. "I did not sleep with Vin when we were out there! Just because you found it easy to seduce Ezra does not mean the rest of us has to do the same whenever we're alone with a man."

"We're not talking about me, we're talking about you and what the esteemed Mrs. Travis will not voice is that we all wondered what happened during those three days and nights. Even if she is too gutless to admit it."

"I think no such thing!" Mary declared furious, feeling heat seeping into her cheeks in exasperation. She was now seriously regretting ever convincing Alex that she could stay.

"I'll have you know," Alex said hotly protesting her innocence. "That nothing happened between Vin and I when we went to find Agnes Doherty! He was a perfect gentleman at all times!"

"Not that perfect, since you were doing him less than six weeks after your heart was supposedly broken." Julia retaliated. "Let's face it, something happened between you two and would have happened any way, even if I had not come along."

"That's it!" Mary roared furiously before this conversation turned into a physical altercation. "YOU SHUT UP AND SIT DOWN." She glared at Julia with a glint of iron in her eyes, which was impossible to ignore by anyone including Chris Larabee when she exerted that much will upon them. Turning to Alex, she spoke with just as much intensity. "YOU CALM DOWN."

"Okay." Alex said starting to feel a little silly as she lowered herself down on the seat.

"I'm fine." Julia retorted.

"I said shut up." Mary repeated herself sharply, not wanting to hear another sound out of Julia. For awhile at least. Beyond the window of the compartment, the train had started moving slowly. Beneath their feet, they could hear the coming to life of enormous pistons that rolled the locomotive forward. Eagle Bend started moving past them, beginning them on a journey that in light of recent developments was no longer as entertaining.

"Oh wonderful." Inez sighed having been silent throughout most of the quarrel between Alex and Julia and was now unable to ignore the heavy pall of tension that filled the compartment in the wake of that argument. "This is going to be one long trip to Denver."

Selena and Burke had gone through the most of the train by the time the sun started to the set in the horizon and Eagle Bend was far behind them. They were still in the Territory and the country in this part of it was bare and flat, with nothing as far as the eye could see but desert and sand. The had searched the train as best they could trying to remain discreet as they sought the woman with the long gold hair with whom Sanderson had made contact with shortly after his demise.

Selena knew it was possible that Seacourt was on the train so her search had double intention. If Seacourt was here then they would have a real problem, for the man was known as being thorough and very good at what he did. Seacourt would not have missed much and if he had been on the train when Sanderson had run into the woman, he may have forgone the need to assist his colleague in favor of retrieving the package whose importance far outweighed the cost of one man.

Seacourt's type could make such distinctions for the cause, which was precisely why he was dangerous, and Selena was determined to end the threat he posed before he reached the woman. Unfortunately, neither Burke nor Selena had spotted either the blond woman and Seacourt and hoped as they moved into the more exclusive areas of the train that they would not remain out of sight for long. Her employer was not a patient man and a great deal was riding on the retrieval of the package in the woman's presence.

Selena moved through the aisle of the private compartments, studying the faces within through the glass panels on the door. Most of the compartments were occupied so Selena and Burke were treated to a wide assortment of people as they walked past nonchalantly like a couple taking a walk to stretch their legs. At this hour of the evening, people were snacking on meals either bought on the train or whatever they brought with them, as was the practice on such journeys. Children were curled up on the seats fast asleep; other people were burying their noses in books while some were merely passing the time away watching the scenery sweep past their window.

They were almost to the last car when Selena caught sight of four women inside a private compartment. The glimmer of gold hair caught her attention immediately for there was no way to mistake that cascade belonging to anyone else. Showing no signs of recognition as she walked past, Selena and Burke continued to the end of the carriage before pausing to discuss their next move.

"That's her." Burke said decisively.

"I know." Selena replied. "I don't think she'll pose too much of problem. We'll do this nice and quick." She smiled at the big man before leading him back to the compartment.

The tension in the compartment was so palpable it could almost be sliced through with a knife. Alex was in a filthy state of mind at the presence of Julia Pemberton and Mary was quietly watching both attempting to keep the peace from erupting to the fiery confrontation earlier. Julia seemed nonplused by all the aggravation she was causing, oblivious to the dark mood that followed her arrival into their circle. Inez did not hold much hopes of it improving the closer they reached to Denver.

"Oh this is ridiculous." Inez declared sick and tired of this. "We were meant to be having fun on this trip." She pointed out to the other three women in the room with him.

"We as you, me and Mary. No one invited her." Alex glared at Julia with undisguised hostility. "Why did you come anyway?"

"Oh are you asking?" Julia replied. "I mean are you really interested in knowing why or are you just going to use it as another reason to blame me for Ezra?" She eyed Alex critically.

"Yes," Alex bit down any effort to be rude. "I would like to know."

"Alright then," Julia nodded allowing her gaze to sweep across their faces. "Because you didn't ask me."

"What?" Mary exclaimed, surprised enough to verbalize it. "Why would we? You have not exactly endeared yourself to us since arriving in town."

"That's putting it mildly." Alex grumbled before receiving a stern look for Inez to keep silent. Inez had a feeling that Julia was about to tell them something important and she for one, wanted to know the woman's reasoning for barging in on their vacation.

"I know," Julia sighed wondering if she really wanted to do this. She was never comfortable exposing her more sincere feelings and this instance was no exception. However, she knew if she wanted to win her friendship, it was going to require some measure of honesty on her part. "Maybe I felt a little badly about how I treated you Alex." Julia replied meeting her gaze. "I knew a simple apology was not going to be enough so I thought if I came with you on the trip, we might get to know each other."

"A simple apology would have done fine." Alex sighed, knowing she was being a little hard nosed even though she no longer felt any anger towards Ezra. She had more or less forgiven him even though he had more reason to be guilty than Julia did.

"I seriously doubt that." Julia deadpanned.

Alex found that she could not refute that statement no matter how much she may hate to admit it. She was about to respond when suddenly, the compartment door slid open.

A woman and a huge man stepped into the compartment. Mary noticed the woman first, mostly because she was clad in men's clothing although the cut of the material allowed no mistake to be made on her gender. Mary watched her in those clothes fascinated because she had never worn pants in her life and thought it looked convenient, especially when riding.

"Good evening." The woman greeted.

"This is a private compartment." Mary reminded, wondering why these strangers were here.

"Yes I know it is," the woman retorted and suddenly produced a gun from nowhere. Behind her, the man produced a shotgun that had been sawn off. It looked a little like the Winchester that Vin Tanner carried but the similarities between the two ended there.

"What is this?" Alex demanded.

"Quiet." The woman said sharply. "I am not interested in the rest of you. Just her." She moved the barrel of the weapon in Mary's direction.

Mary's eyes widened as she saw the weapon aimed in her direction. "What do you want with me?" She asked trying not to let the fear get the better of her.

"You have something that belongs to my employer." The woman declared, her eyes running over Mary as if she had it hidden on her person.

Mary stared back at her completely puzzled. "I think there's been some mistake. .."

"No mistake." The woman retorted. "You had an encounter with a Mr. Sanderson."

Mary did not recognize the name and still wore that blank look signifying that she had no idea what this woman was referring to. "I don't know a Mr. Sanderson." She retorted trying to convince her that this was all some terrible mistake. She did not know anything about the mysterious object that this stranger alluded to be in her possession or somebody named Sanderson.

"The man who ran into you." Inez suddenly declared, the knowledge coming to her in a flash of insight. She knew there was something strange about that man and then realized what must have happened when he had collided into Mary. The memory of Mary's personal items scattering across the platform came to mind and Inez's eyes sought out the basket that was still lay hidden beneath Mary's seat.

"Mr. Sanderson." The woman nodded, confirming Inez's guess.

"Why he hardly said anything to me." Mary implored. "He ran into me and cause me to drop half my belonging on the floor but we had no conversation and he certainly did not pass me anything that might belong to your employer."

The woman did not seemed convinced and kept her gun trained on the others when she looked over her shoulder and gestured at Burke to step forward. "Search her."

A faint sort of smile crossed his lips at that instruction as he gazed over Mary's form with a look that was not only savory but also very close to a salacious leer. Seeing the glimmer in his eyes made Mary recoil instantly, deciding there and then she would not let this man put his hands anywhere on her person.

"Don't touch me." She warned, feeling terribly vulnerable because she knew there was no way she was going to stop him if he did not relent.

"Don't worry," he smiled in a truly repulsive way. "I'll be gentle."

"Stop it!" Alex cried out and took a step forward only to be halted in place by the gun jammed into her side by the woman.

"This will be painless unless you give me trouble," she warned and gestured for Alex to return to her original place. The doctor's eyes clouded in anger but she knew that there was little she could do about it. Reluctantly, Alex withdrew, unable to stand seeing the fear in Mary's eyes as the man approached her and she was powerless to fend him off. He practically towered over the widow and any fight she put up would be more or less a gesture in futility. His strength along could overcome all of them.

Mary knew she was not going to let this man touch her. Where the hell was Chris when she needed him? Mary thought frantically as he put her hands on her shoulders and slid down her arms more slowly than was required. Clearly he was enjoying sliding his hands down the length of her arms while Mary had to bite down to keep from reacting violently and doing something that they would all regret. He enjoyed her helplessness and Mary swallowed hard when his hands dropped to waist and slid up. When he reached the curve of her breasts, he did not pause and allowed his hand to cup its rounded shape.

That did it.

Before she even knew that she was doing it, Mary brought her knee up sharply and felt her knee connect with the soft flesh in between his legs. He let out a strangled cry and doubled over in pain as his knees buckled underneath him. His face turned crimson with rage as he fell to the floor in genuine agony at her feet.

Julia saw the woman with the gun aim in Mary's direction after the widow had incapacitated her companion so completely with every intention of firing.

Thinking quickly, Julia grabbed the emergency lever and yanked hard. A loud screech of metal grinding against metal tore through the air with an initially low whine that became deafening in a matter of seconds. The entire locomotive heaved in protest as pistons were locked into place and carriage cars shimmied like ripples through water. The train came to an abrupt halt with a powerful shudder than threw them all off their feet by the sudden stop. When she saw the woman fall, Julia reacted quickly, making an effort to snatch the gun away that gave her such an advantage over her captives. However, before Julia could retrieve it, she tightened her grip and refused to surrender the weapon.

"Help me!" Julia cried out for anyone as she struggled for the gun and was mildly surprised when she saw Alex's hand lash out and strike the woman across the face. The woman released her grip of the weapon and felt back as Julia took hold of it.

"Don't move!" Julia ordered and then decided that was not quite enough retribution in her opinion. Without warning, she struck the woman on the back of the head with the gun and sighed in relief when she slumped forward unconscious. Julia was still in a state of mild disbelief that she had attempted something so fool hardy but realized that there was not much she could do when her life was in jeopardy. However she could not resist one little indulgence when she glanced at Alex who was wincing in pain because her knuckles were not used to such labor. "What is it with you and faces?" Julia asked.

"I just picture yours and it comes naturally." Alex said sweetly and turned around to face Mary and Inez. "Is everyone okay?" The doctor in her searched for injuries and was grateful that there were none.

Outside, they could hear the confused voices of passengers who were trying to ascertain the reason for the locomotive's abrupt stop. Footsteps were running up and down the aisle outside along with the train conductor who was searching for some emergency that might warrant the disruption of the journey.

"Not him." Mary looked at the man who was still very much conscious. Even now he was struggling to rise and Mary did not want to face his wrath when that happened. "We've got to get out of here before he gets up."

"I'm going to cut your out your heart!" He snarled putting his point across with far more accuracy then she was able to convey to her companions.

"On that note," Mary stared at the others. "Can we please get out of here?"

"No arguments from me." Julia replied loudly, the gun still in her hand. For some reason, she felt a great deal more secure with it in her hand. The man's companion was still lying on the floor dazed and Julia did not anticipate it would take her long to recover.

"You go!" Inez ordered as she dropped to her knees and fished out Mary's basket from the shadows.

Predictably, Julia ran out first while Alex and Mary lingered behind long enough to ensure that Inez was going to be following them when they hurried out of the room into the aisle outside. The corridor was full of people peering out of their respective compartments, full of question at the sudden break in the journey. Conductors were trying to explain the situation as the women of Four Corners put as much distance between themselves and their would be attackers.

"Where are we going?" Alex cried out.

"Off this train." Mary said without hesitation.

"Off the train?" Julia retorted. "We're in the middle of nowhere!"

"Would you rather stay and deal with that ape?" Inez returned as they reached the exit that would take them out of the carriage.

"Good point," Julia grumbled, realizing that they really did not have a choice in the matter. She was the first to reach the exit way and hoped this was not a bad idea when she pulled open the door and let the night air sweep into the confining space. Outside, the night was clear and they could see across the terrain for some distance in the moonlight. With any luck, the train would be underway again before the their two assailants could guess where they had gone.

That is if luck was with them at all.

At the moment, Mary Travis was not entirely sure if it was.

Selena woke when the sound of the train chugging into motion roused her from her temporary blackout. Her head throbbed painfully and she looked up to see Burke still lying on the ground, clutching the portion of his anatomy that had suffered the crushing attack. He was struggling to get on his feet but his progress was slow. There were no sign of the women anyway in the compartment and Selena winced knowing that they were probably running to the conductor for assistance, for all the good that it would do them.

"Burke." She groaned.

"They got away." He grunted, pulling his enormous bulk onto the seat as Selena sat up from the floor.

"Obviously," she retorted, wincing as the room spun a little. Her head swam for a few minutes after shifting into her upright position. The quarry had fled leaving most of their belongings and that gave Selena some measure of hope in locating them. She reached for one of the bags near her and rifled through the belongings, finding little of interest that could aid them in their search. Her head still throbbed painfully but the discomfort was staring to become replacement by intense anger that these four women could have overcome Burke and herself.

She examined the objects in the bag, ignoring a purse full of money, some cosmetics and other incidentals that were common to any women travelling over a distance. However, it was a crisp open envelope that captured her attention. Selena pulled out the enveloped and studied the name written neatly across the front.

"Alexandra Styles." Selena responded out loud for Burke's benefit. "Of Four Corners."

"There's deep in the Territory," Burke recognized the town if somewhat vaguely. "I thinks its near Sweet Water."

"Well that's something." Selena said rising to her feet and noted with chagrin that her gun had been taken. "I'm going hurt the bitch that hit me." She hissed under her breath, feeling the sting of her head injury almost as profoundly as the bruising along her jaw. It gave her some satisfaction knowing it had taken two of them to disarm her. Unfortunately, it was not that much satisfaction especially when she had to explain to their employer where his property had disappeared.

"I want the blond." Burke snarled angrily. "I want her and then I'll kill her."

"That's up to you," Selena shrugged, not wanting to contemplate in depth too much what Burke would have in mind for the woman. When properly inspired, her partner could be quite savage to say the least and it took quite a bit for him to make a personal request while they were undertaking such a contract. "After we've found what we're looking for."

Mary Travis watched the train disappear into the night while she and her companions lay crouched in the darkness, watching to see if anyone had come after them. The train had pulled away and continued onward to Denver, oblivious to the drama that was unfolding for the passengers left behind. She continued staring at the train as it drew further and further away, stealing the pinpricks of light escaping the windows of compartments along the carriages. Once it was far enough away, only the full moon above their heads offered any light in the pervading darkness of the terrain before them.

"Well we're safe." She sighed turning away from the locomotive now that it had disappeared completely into the horizon.

A coyote in the distance chose to make its presence known with a loud howl that tore through the night in one long note. While they could not see exactly where it was, they knew the animal was not when it finished it song, Julia quickly spoke up. "I beg to differ."

"Oh give it a rest." Inez retorted, not liking the situation any more than the Emporium owner did but it was not like they had a choice in the matter. "We had to get off the train. I don't know about you but I'm sure they killed that man who ran into you."

"You too?" Alex met her gaze in the darkness. "I had a feeling by the way he looked that there was something wrong."

"So what are we going to do now?" Julia asked, really unconcerned with why this had happened since that question was not as imperative to their survival as what they would do next. She was not good in the wilderness and detested being in any kind of outdoor situation. Looking around the sparse landscape, Julia felt her skin crawl at the realization that this was as outside as one could get out here.

"I noticed a town a few miles back." Mary replied, recalling the collection of dusty buildings and dilapidated homes that looked like Four Corners when she had first arrived in town. The place was so small that it had not even warranted a stop by the train as it rumbled past. "If we start following the tracks, we're sure to run into it."

"I remember that town." Julia retorted thinking she had never seen a more odious place in her life and how the west seemed to be littered with such depressing communities. "If I recall it was a little more than a few miles back."

"We do not have a choice." Inez retorted as she started walking back towards the train tracks. She was glad that she was now wearing flat soled shoes because the trek back to civilization was going to be anything but pleasant. At least they would be travelling by night, which meant being sparred the ordeal of traversing this terrain in the heat. "I seriously doubt that we are going to run into a stagecoach or wagon any time soon."

"I'm with her." Alex declared and started following Inez's lead.

"I hate the outdoors!" Julia grumbled as she started after them.

They had not progressed very far when they realized that Mary was still rooted to the spot. The blond woman was staring in the direction of the train, her face unreadable as she breathed heavily.

"Mary?" Inez called out. "Are you okay?"

Mary almost laughed but could not quite manage it. She spun around to face the bartender with a dark expression on her face, which was somewhat of a feat considering she was surrounded by the unyielding blackness of the night. "I can just hear him now." She said with a hint of exasperation intermingled with frustration in her voice.

"Him?" Alex asked.

"Chris." Mary replied almost through gritted teeth. "All week before we left, he only had one thing to say to me. Just one thing!" The widow was working herself into a righteous state of anger at this unexpected turn of events that had occurred through almost no fault of her own.

"I know." Alex closed her eyes and grimaced realizing that Vin had pretty much said the same thing.

"Stay out trouble, Mary." Mary muttered loud enough for them to hear as she picked up her skirts and started walking. "All he asked me to do was stay out of trouble. .."

Part Three

Card Sharps

"I cannot believe she left without telling me." Ezra said staring at the folded note on his table. It had been left peeking at him through the crack of her front door when he had gone to the Emporium and learnt from the staff there that Julia Pemberton had not been in all day. Deciding to investigate, he went to her house and found the note that had been waiting discovery all day. Upon reading it, Ezra learnt that Julia had taken herself off to Eagle Bend in the small hours of the morning to meet the train that Mary Travis and her company would be taking to Denver. Ezra tried to picture the response her arrival would engender and found a bemused smile stealing across his face with almost involuntary action.

"Miss Julia ain't exactly the most forthcoming woman in the world." Nathan said sympathetically as Ezra complained. "She pretty independent when she wants to be." Nathan pointed out since Ezra should be aware of that more than anyone else in the room.

"I know." Ezra sighed. He had thought himself spared by the absence of female company suffered by most of his friends when Julia had not been invited on the Denver trip. He realized that she had taken the rebuttal badly but Ezra was realistic enough to know that it was no more than she deserved. After all, even Ezra had trouble with accepting how she had behaved towards Alexandra and it had taken his dangling her off a building before he could forgive her for that sin.

"Get over it." Vin grumbled, downing his third drink in the last hour. He was determined to drink as much as he could until the ache for Alex no longer existed. He knew he was being ridiculous pining for her but the last two months with Alex had been as close to heaven as Vin Tanner had ever thought he might find on this earth.

Outside the saloon, the sun had set over the horizon and Four Corners had descended into a curtain of black. Most of the seven were present, however, the atmosphere in the tavern seemed somber instead of lively as it was apt to do at this point in the evening.

"Is that your third Mr. Tanner?" Ezra looked at him critically, knowing Vin usually did not drink so much. The tracker had not voiced his feelings but it was blatantly obvious to everyone present, that he was missing his doctor severely and was drowning his sorrows in the bottom of a whisky glass.

"Ain't that your fourth?" Vin returned such as sharply.

Look at you two." Nathan laughed, offering no comfort because he found the whole scene incredibly amusing. "They ain't been gone for more than a day. You're like a bunch of lovesick cows." The healer could not keep the grin from crossing his face. "Ain't that right Buck?" Nathan asked Buck who was sure to contribute with an equally glib remark.

However, there was no answer.

"Buck?" Nathan looked over his shoulder at the big man who was at the bar drinking.

"She wouldn't even let me say anything." Buck looked up and said but not actually registering anyone in his mind. "She just walked away." J.D. met Nathan's gaze with a helpless shrug, since the young man had been at Buck's side all evening trying to console him that Inez was really coming back. Buck was convinced something awful was going to happen to the sultry bartender that would prevent her from ever returning to Four Corners.

"Oh Christ." Chris Larabee rolled his eyes and wondered how some of the bravest men he knew could go completely to pieces with their women out of town. Sure he missed Mary but in truth, he had to admit he was accustomed to her leaving town.

For both Vin and Ezra, this was the first time they had been apart from their lady loves and it was anyone's guess what was going through Buck's mine about Inez. With Vin, the passion for Alex was new and it did not help that they had spent almost every night together since that first time together. While Vin spoke nothing about his sleeping arrangements, Chris knew Vin had not been spending much time in his wagon. Not to mention that unlike Ezra who was older and had a great deal more experience with women, Vin was a virtual novice at this.

Although Chris relied on Vin like no other in the group, it was easy to forget that Vin was a young man, only a few years ahead of J.D. It was his intelligence and years living in the wilderness that marked him a world of difference from J.D. Still for all his wisdom, Vin was young man who was most likely truly in love for the first time in his life. Chris was not so old that he could not remember how that felt. A small smile crossed his lips when he thought of the damn fool things he did when courting Sarah.

Alex and Vin had been virtually inseparable following the situation with Randall Mason. When he was not at the saloon or performing his duties as one of the lawmen in Four Corners, he was with Alex. Chris had to admit he was surprised at how flawlessly their relationship had progressed. The refined urbanite had surprised Chris with her easy acceptance of everything Vin was. It was not uncommon and did send a few tongues wagging when she went riding with Vin without a horse of her own. She was often seen holding on to Vin as they were tearing out of town on Peso, disappearing for hours at end. Like Mary, Alex ignored the gossip because very little about her was conventional.

"How do you handle being away from the fair Mrs. Travis?" Ezra asked, taking note of the sarcasm in Chris' declaration.

"I handle it fine." Chris said, not wishing to discuss his feelings and threw a dangerous look at Ezra for bringing up the subject. For all the mellowing he might be accused of over the past months, he had not softened that much to tolerate intrusions into his personal life.

"No offence intended." Ezra threw his hands up in the air. "It looks like I shall have to suffer with the rest of you." He glanced in Vin's direction and then at Buck, whom J.D. was still trying to console.

"Ah the love of a woman," Josiah sighed, enjoying this side to his companions. "Nothing finer." The benefit of age had left him with fond memories that kept him warm at nights so he could tolerate the lack of a woman in his life.

However, Josiah's dry wit did allow him to enjoy the struggle endured by his younger friends.

"What about you Nathan?" Ezra said deciding Nathan was probably more accessible about such things than Chris. Besides, it did not seem like anything else was going to be discussed this evening. No one was in the mood for much celebration. The problem with true love was that it did not allow any of them to indulge in the company of working girls or any other soft round form that gave comfort in the night. "How do you tolerate your prolonged distance from Rain?"

"I got my work," Nathan said honestly. "People need looking after so much in town, I ain't got time to think about how much I miss her. But that's the way it is and I got to accept it until I'm ready to settle with her permanent."

"And what do you do when you ain't busy Nathan?" J.D. asked, finally tired of trying to unsuccessfully improve Buck's mood.

"I take a lot of cold showers." He grinned and elicited a round of laughter from everyone, including Chris.

"It seems to me, things were a lot simpler when there weren't so many women in town." The young man replied and drew a stern look form Ezra, Vin and Chris.

Even Buck had looked up long enough from his depression to make comment."Don't even think that, J.D." Buck shuddered. "No women in town?" The big man declared. "There ain't nothing finer that seeing a set of nice, round. ."

"Buck." Josiah warned. "Impressionable youngster in the vicinity?"

"Eyes. I meant eyes." He changed tact quickly.

"Good save Mr. Wilmington." Ezra shook his head with a slight smirk. "I see you've emerged from your melancholy." He looked in Buck's direction.

"Yeah," Buck grumbled. "I have come to a conclusion about Inez." He announced to the others.

The rest of the seven looked on in interest, wondering what gem of knowledge Buck would care to illuminate in their presence. With Buck, it was always entertaining. "We are all ears." Ezra prompted.

Actually, Chris was just in the middle of debating whether this would be a good time to go home while Vin had decided he was not quite drunk enough yet and wanted another drink. Josiah was tending bar so he would have to get the bottle to help Vin reach that end. J.D. was always interested in any nonsense Buck had to say and Nathan listened because he had nothing better to do.

"It's a trap." He said decisively. "She's trying to lasso me in."

"I beg your pardon?" Ezra looked at him blankly.

"Its true." Buck retorted, convinced that his theory was sound even though his companions were staring at him with disbelief. Even J.D. was having a little difficulty swallowing this particular idea.

Nevertheless Buck continued speaking despite his less then enthusiastic response from his comrades in arms. "She's got that nesting instinct. You know the one I mean. The one where they start to get older and the future starts preying on their mind and they think that its time to land a man or else they gonna grow old alone and die. She's playing hard to get, that's all it is." Buck grinned triumphantly. "And there ain't no way Buck Wilmington is gonna fall for it. No one woman is going to catch me in any snare. I'm too smart for her." He met their gaze with a wicked gleam. "As a matter of fact, I'm so over Inez, I'm going to find me some female company. You boys can mope around here if you like but ol' Buck ain't gonna be pining for anyone."

With that, he rose from his seat and strode purposefully out the batwing doors, leaving his friends in stunned silence. It was almost a full minute when someone spoke and surprisingly enough, it was Vin who did.

"You can almost hear the rattling in his head when he walks." The tracker said downing another full glass of whiskey.

"I think Inez has finally wised up to him." J.D. said in the lady's defense. He normally always defended Buck but in this instance he could understand Inez's feelings. J.D. thought highly of Inez and knew she cared deeply for Buck but could not trust him enough to give herself over to him. J.D. would have like to have seen them get together but he did not like the idea of Inez wasting away, hoping that Buck would some day come to his senses while at the same time, going through the women in town like there was no tomorrow.

"I think Inez was always wise to him." Josiah remarked. "She's just never did anything about it until now." The preacher said in his low deep voice. "There comes a point in love when reality must take precedence."

"Where the mind takes control instead of the heart." Ezra agreed. "Inez is a smart woman, much too smart for the likes of Buck."

To that no one could disagree.

It took the women most of the night to reach the town of Stone Creek.

They were tired, aching and worst of all broke, since in their hasty departure from the train, only Inez had the foresight to take Mary's bag and that was because she suspected Sanderson's mysterious package was inside its confines. The town was quiet and dark, with only light emanating from the saloon.

Predictably, at this time of night it was the only place still open for business. Thanks to their lack of funds, a room at the hotel seemed well out of their price range and all four women were starting to get very ornery, besides feeling weary and exhausted from their long hike to town.

The saloon seemed even seamier than the Standish Tavern if such a thing was possible. Everything about the place warned away the presence of women and it was not the sort of establishment that they that should frequent at any time. Unfortunately, they had little choice at the moment since it was the only place that provided some form of cheap lodgings. Before approaching the main entrance of the saloon, it became necessary for the women to take stock of their finances.

"I've got some money in my purse." Mary remarked as she noticed Inez carrying it. "But it's not much. I wired some money to a bank in Denver because I did not want to carry cash." She explained.

"All of mine was in my purse which unfortunately, is still on the train." Alex grumbled. "But I can have Four Corners' bank wire me some money in the morning." She sighed, looking at the saloon with visible distaste at the possibility of having to spend the night there.

"It does not help our situation tonight." Inez pointed out with a similar expression of unhappiness. She did not like the idea of spending a night in a saloon. It was different when it was a place she knew well and managed herself, but this was a strange town with none of the seven were here to protect them should anyone take in mind to do them harm. Four women in a rough place like a saloon were very easy and attractive targets. "What about you Julia?" Inez turned to the petite redhead.

"Well I do have emergency money," Julia replied, bending over and reaching into her boot. She produced a painfully thin roll of notes. "It's hardly enough to pay for anything more than a room or two in this wonderful establishment." She said sarcastically.

"It's better than nothing." Mary pointed out as Julia handed it to her. Mary counted the meager collection and frowned at it being not more. This was meant to be a leisurely trip to the city not an escapade into the wilderness. In hindsight, she could safety say that if she known how the day would have turned out, she would have certainly brought more currency with her. With a sigh, Mary decided they probably all felt the same way.

"Okay," Mary took a deep breath looking to the faces around her as she explained the situation. "We get a room for the night and lay low until morning when I can wire Chris to come get us." Even as she said those words, Mary winced slightly, trying not to picture the look on Chris' face when he received a telegram from her telling him that she was stranded in a strange town with dangerous people after her. If Chris ever let her out of town on her own again after this, it would be to be a minor miracle, she thought glumly to herself.

"Oh that will be great." Alex groaned, mindful of the same warning from Vin. "We're never going to live this down you know." She met the widow's gaze.

"Can we do this later?" Julia whined. Her feet ached and she was hungry. This was no time to be quibbling about what the men were or weren't going to do when they arrived in this godforsaken hole For herself personally, she would be so ecstatic about being delivered from this place, and she hardly cared what they thought. "I'm tired and I'm hungry and I want to go to bed." She replied walking towards the saloon without any reservation about the place or the danger lurking behind the batwing doors or the sounds of men laughing amidst rowdy music.

"She does her best work there." The doctor muttered as she reluctantly followed Julia's lead.

Mary watched them get ahead for a moment before turning to her best friend. "Inez, I don't like this." Mary confessed, unable to hide the concern on her face that went deeper than just their immediate situation. The encounter with the two strangers had rattled her. In particular, the threat made by the gigantic Mr. Burke for the injury she had delivered to him. "Those people will still come after us."

"I know." Inez nodded, understanding Mary's fears and her reservations. "But Julia's right, we need to rest. We've been walking all night. We'll think of what to do tomorrow." She offered Mary a comforting and supportive smile.

"We might be safe for tonight, "Mary considered. "But it will still take time for Chris to reach us." Four Corners was almost a hundred miles from here and that was a lengthy journey to make on horse back.

"And they may get here first." Inez concluded, seeing where Mary was going with this. The solution in her mind was clear enough but its application was another thing entirely since they did not even have enough money to leave town. "We've got to raise some money to buy some horses or get the stage out of here."

"That will be a neat trick." Mary sighed as she started walking after Alex and Julia who had disappeared into the saloon and were eliciting some loud wolf whistles and calls that could be heard from outside the noisy building. Mary took a deep breath as she prepared to walk in herself door, steeling herself from the barrage of bad behavior she would soon have to endure and feeling like a Jonah about to meet his whale.

Inez said nothing but she did have an idea.

"Come on Alex," Inez urged from inside the confines of their dingy room. "You can do it. I've seen you."

Naturally, upon seeing four women enter the establishment, the saloon manager had automatically decided to up the rent on his lodging so that they could afford little more than one room for all four of them. While the difficult task of deciding who would get the bed and who would be forced to sleep on the grimy floor had yet to arise, it was only a matter of time before the mood got very ugly in the room. There was only one way to avoid this outcome of bloodshed and that was to convince Alex to agree to Inez's plan.

"I don't know," Alex groaned reluctantly as she sat on the bed, massaging her aching feet. She wanted to sleep and forget about the situation they now found themselves in, not undertake the demands of Inez's request. "I'm not really that good."

"I've seen you do it with Ezra." Inez pressed on much to the confusion of Mary Travis and Julia Pemberton who was staring at the doctor in question about this particular skill that was obviously not pertaining to her medical knowledge.

"What were you doing with Ezra?" Julia glared at Alex, since that particular subject was her exclusive territory and she was highly possessive on who had use of it.

Alex glanced sideways and shot her an icy glare before turning back to Inez. "Yes but that was just the two of us and I never got the impression that he was not on to me." She implored.

"What are you talking about?" Mary looked at Inez and Alex blankly as they debated this point.

"Poker." Inez stated. "I've seen Alex throw games while playing with Ezra."

"I thought you couldn't play." Mary turned to her, with accusation. "In fact, I've seen him beat you a lot."

Alex rolled her eyes and met Mary's gaze. "Of course you did." She retorted. "Can you imagine what I'd have to go through if I actually beat him? He's a professional gambler for God sakes, can you imagine the humiliation to his ego if I started beating him as his own game?" Alex answered and then gave them a guilty stare. "So whenever we played, I'd let him win."

Julia could understand the logic behind Alex's actions knowing how highly Ezra regarded his gambling skills. It would utterly kill him to know that she had been letting him win and Julia seriously considered the amusement of telling Ezra of this little truth. She would save that little morsel of news when he was being particularly difficult with her. "So, I gather you play well."

"I would not say that." Alex said modestly. "When I was in medical school, I used to play with the other students and then I did Europe and spent six months in Monte Carlo. They have gambling casinos everywhere there."

"How did you know for sure Inez?" Mary asked, wondering how the bartender had stumbled onto such an interesting secret. Surely it would have been difficult to ascertain just from watching Alex and Ezra play.

"I came into the clinic and saw her giving a patient a game. She did not play like she did with Ezra. If the patient had not already had his pants off, I think he would have lost it." Inez smiled, recalling the scene with some amusement.

Immediately Mary and Julia turned to Alex and looked at the doctor in question.

"I had to apply some solution to an infected wound, it was three step procedure!" Alex said exasperated. "Alright Inez!" She stood up exasperated. "You convinced me. Just keep it to yourselves please and how much money do we have left anyway?"

"Two dollars," Mary sighed as she studied the scant amount in her hand and decided that it would have to do for what Alex had in mind. "I can't give you the rest, I'm going to need it for the telegram."

As far as Alex was concerned, Mary could keep all of it. The doctor did not relish the prospect of venturing into the sea of drunken men downstairs and attempt to hustle them into a card game. Unfortunately, Inez was right. They needed money and they needed it fast or else the two psychopaths on the train had a real chance of catching up to them. Alex did not like the possibility of encountering the duo any more than the rest of her companions. "It will have to do." She climbed off the bed.

"I'm going to find the telegraph office and see if I can't appeal to the operator to send a message tonight." Mary declared purposefully. "If we send it now, Chris will get it first thing tomorrow." There were not disagreements with that plan. "Inez, you and Julia stick close to Alex. Safety in numbers that sort of thing."

"Okay," Inez nodded. "Julia do you still have that gun?"

"Right here." Julia patted the pocket where the weapon was safely hidden.

"Bring it with us." Inez ordered. "It's going to be rough down there. We may need it."

The saloon was lively enough as it was but with the arrival of the three women, it seemed like everything had slowed to silence as hungry eyes followed them down the stairs from the rooms above. It was obvious to everyone that these were no saloon girls but ladies although the question remained why would they be in such inappropriate establishment. It appeared as when they descended, as if no one was interested in anything else that was transpiring in the room.

"Oh this is going to be fun." Alex muttered, feeling like a Christian about to be fed to the lions. Everyone from the painted saloon girls, to the drunken men at the bar, to the more sedate groups around the tables to the bartender held their image until they reached the floor and faded into the background of


"Just be calm and everything will be fine." Mary instructed as she broke away from her friends and made her way through customers and disappeared out the door. Alex did not share her optimism.

Inez scanned the room and noticed the only group who was not paying attention to them. These were the men seated at the felt covered table indulging in a game Inez recognized immediately as poker. She looked at Alex and gestured the doctor to follow her as they wove through the crowd trying to avoid roaming hands as they past by some of the rowdier groups. There were four players at the table and judging by the pot piled in the center of the table, Alex knew her two dollars was not going to buy her into it. While she did not voice the potential problem to Inez, Alex considered furiously what she would have to do solve this particular hurdle. Inez was correct in stating that this was the only way out of their present predicament.

"What are you doing?" Inez hissed when she saw Alex beginning to undo one of the buttons on the cuff of her shirt.

"That's a high stakes game there," Alex gestured in the direction of the table. "Two dollars is not going to get us in. We need to front a suitable stake."

Inez's gaze darted to the table and realized with dismay that Alex was right. There was a lot of money piled in the center of the table and she saw ten dollars notes in the collection. She even saw a gold watch and a heavy signet ring in the mix. "What are we going do then?" Inez hissed with disappointment.

"Relax," Alex said coolly, knowing it was never wise to show fear when it came to playing such games of chance. During her years at medical school, Alex had sat up nights at the club with some of her fellow medical students playing the game after they had overcome their prejudice enough to invite her to join them.

"I've got something to play with." Once the cuff was loosened, Inez saw a glint of gold slip down the doctor's wrist where it had been concealed under the material previously. It was a thin gold bracelet with intricate links that looked exquisite against her dusky skin.

"My father bought it for me." Alex explained as she undid the clasp and removed it from her wrist.

"Alex, you can't use that." Inez quickly protested even though she knew it was truly the only way. Still, the sentimental value of the object alone was worth more than using it as a stake in something as vulgar as a poker game. "We'll think of something else."

"There is nothing else." The doctor retorted. "Don't worry," she assured Inez. "I don't intend to lose it."

While Inez and Alex advanced upon the gamblers, Julia Pemberton was having no difficulty being the center of so much attention. While the former stayed away from the men they had passed, Julia smiled and greeted anyone who tipped their hat in her direction. The leering eyes of men were something she had become used to over the course of her life to date. She knew how to handle lascivious stares and lustful leers by using just enough wits to stay ahead of them. She battered her eyes at some, offered intent stares at the others and ensuring that they were kept off balance always. Her come hither looks had confused enough men in the room for them to take their time deciding if they would approach the women or not, which was exactly what Julia wanted. She hastened her pace just in time to see Alex and Inez approach the table.

"Good evening gentlemen." Alex introduced herself by stepping right to the edge of the table.

Four sets of eyes looked up at her. Two were well dressed and did not appear that different from Ezra Standish, the third looked as if he had just come riding off a cattle trail while the last man looked more like one of the denizens of Purgatory. Their eyes studied the three women with equal parts lust, curiosity and indifference. It was the older man in one of the fancy suits that responded to their greetings "Good evening ladies, to what do we owe the pleasure of such lovely company?" His gaze moved from Alex to Inez and then Julia respectively.

"I was just watching your game." Alex answered politely. "That's some serious money you're playing with. Any chance a wayward soul like myself could be dealt in?"

The men exchanged glances and then started to laugh. Alex was infuriated by their condescending behaviour and fought the urge to make some glib remark to vindicate herself when Julia leaned over and whispered in her ear. Julia knew enough about the doctor to know that was just hot headed enough to respond to their behaviour in extreme hostility. "Take it easy," she said quietly. "We're here to take their money. Be nice. These are men, they have to be handled delicately."

Alex said nothing and ensured that the anger she felt did not reach her eyes or her mouth where they could have evidence with it. Despite her chagrin, Julia was right. She had to restrain her annoyance. Instead, Alex took a deep breath and turned her high powered gaze at the man who had spoken "I'm so glad that you find my interest amusing Sir," she said with such sickly sweet politeness that Julia would have been proud. "However, I was serious in my intent to play."

"Poker ain't for no woman." The cattle man growled. He was a huge man, dusty and grizzled, with a ten gallon hat and a craggy face that spoke much about his tolerance.

"I'm afraid that my friend here is correct," the first man responded. "Women cannot appreciate the delicacy and subtle intricacy of such a game. Men are risk takers by nature and women are not capable of the bluff."

"I see." Alex smiled, feeling both Inez and Julia squeeze her arms on either side simultaneously to remind her of restraint. Alex gave them both a sarcastic frown before returning her attention to the man, while envisioning the space his beady eyes and the slick dark hair to be occupied by the cross hairs of Vin's Winchester. "I have no wish to intrude on this bastion of male dominance but it does seem quick shocking to me that you gentlemen could be intimidated by a lady?"

They bristled visibly at that remark. Their annoyance moving across the table like a ripple in a stream Alex hid her satisfaction as she saw the cattle man glare at her while the quiet dandy in the corner merely looked on in amusement, even if his attention was firmly focused on Inez. He tipped his hat ever so slightly in her direction before offering her a smile which the bartender received with some measure of surprise. Whoever he was, he stared back at Inez at with the most intense blue green eyes she had ever seen and there was no doubting that the interest in his well chiseled and handsome features was more than fleeting.

Inez was almost grateful when the fancy man addressing Alex spoke again because it gave her an excuse to stop staring at the handsome stranger like a teenager. "No woman intimidates anyone at this table."

"Then let me in." Alex said smoothly with a look of challenge, daring him to prove otherwise. She held out the strand of gold for all of them to see and announced with similar deliberation. "This is my opening stake."

The men eyed the gold bracelet and came to a decision faster than Alex had expected. After a few seconds, the man who had been doing all the speaking, rose to his feet and pulled out a chair for her. "Madam." He said with a smile. "Please sit."

Alex let out a silent sigh of relief and sat down at the chair. However, she was no fool. She detected the resentment in his eyes at being cornered like this. With the exception of Inez's stranger, all of them were wearing thinly concealed distaste on their features at the prospect of playing this game with a woman. The man slid over a deck of cards in her direction. She looked at him questioningly.

"You're the dealer." He said with a hint of triumph. He was trying to scare her off, this much Alex could tell. As the dealer, she stood to make the money but it had the double edged sword of possibly losing her a great deal of it as well if she had to cover the bets of all the winners. Nevertheless, if that was how it was to be, Alex could accept those terms. Besides, she really had no choice to be selective. Still, Alex threw Inez and Julia too, a smile that revealed the confidence that exuded from her when she picked up the deck and started shuffling. Her hands moved so fast as she manipulated the cards to her will that even Inez had widened her eyes at the level of dexterity.

Surgeon's hands, Inez decided.

"I guess that makes it dealer's choice." She said to them showing them absolute no sign of fear. Alex knew what they were trying to do of course. In medical school, she had been forced to endure the same kind of treatment. They were trying to rattle her, trying to see if they could break her resolve. Fortunately that had been tried already by better men then at this table and she had so far managed to prevail. She shuffled the cards deftly, performing those fancy tricks she never let Ezra see while they had been courting.

"Gentlemen," she replied when she split the deck and met their eyes with a confidence that was mostly image than how she truly felt. Still, the key to poker as Ezra Standish had once said, was all in the bluff. "The game is five card stud, deuces are wild and the Jack of Spades is the death card."

The telegraph operator, an elderly woman who went by the name of Doris Stanley was none too impressed when Mary pounded on her door at that hour of the night.

It had taken knocking on a few doors and having to face some very irate inhabitants of Stone Creek before they would stop shouting loud enough to give her the information. Mary had come away from some residences almost certain that she would have been shot had she not vacated the premises once she coaxed the information out of her.

Doris lived on the edge of town naturally and Mary felt more than a little nervous walking through the darkened streets, in search of the woman. There had been barely enough to register everything that had gone on since she climbed aboard that train that Mary still had no idea what was the reason for all this excitement and danger. A man named Sanderson had bumped into her, possibly passing on some material, although she had no idea when this transfer might have taken place, before telling her to seek help in the name of Jeremy Seacourt.

Sometimes, Mary wondered if her life was the nexus that drew such strange occurrences to her. She certainly thought Chris believed it, if his reaction to her 'adventures' were anything to go by.

Still, she did have to admit that it was always seemed to happen her.

When she finally knocked on Mrs. Stanley's door, the woman had thought her mad until Mary had somehow convinced her to shut up long enough to explain the predicament she and the others in her company presently found themselves in. Mrs. Stanley was quiet a reasonable woman once she was fully awake and the situation had been explained to her. She had welcome Mary into her home and offered her a hot cup of coffee as she readied herself in presentability so that she could go to the telegraph that adjoined her home.

Mary had composed a short succinct note informing Chris of the situation, she, Inez, Alex and Vin found themselves in and tried not to picture the look on his face or on the others for that matter when he received it. No doubt, the repercussion resulting from today's events would the source of great amusement for Mr. Larabee and associates for some time.

After the message had been sent, Mary thanked Mrs. Stanley who warned her she ought to change lodgings immediately for the saloon was no place for a decent Christian woman to reside even for a night. Mary tended to agree but declined to mention the difficulties they were facing by their lack of funds. As she returned from Mrs. Stanley's home back to the saloon, keeping watch on every shadow because she was still jittery from the threat made by the imposing Mr. Burke. She had no doubt those huge hands could snap her neck easily and not to mention, the cold deliberate look in his lady companion's eyes.

It was one thing to see that in that in a man's eyes. She had become familiar with the ruthlessness that made Chris Larabee what he was. His penetrating gaze alone was enough to send shudders through most people and when she had first met him, Mary could not deny how intimidating he had been to her. The woman who had threatened them had she called 'killer eyes'. There was no doubt in her mind that Sanderson was dead at the hands of Mr. Burke and his lovely companion. Sanderson was dead and they were coming after her because she supposedly had this mysterious item.

Mary also knew that that they would have searched the train after she had escaped with the others. Once that search was complete, she was certain they had the foresight to realize that their quarry had disembarked and in doing so, they would repeat the same action at the next stop or sooner, depending on how desperate the need. Mary was being optimistic when she believed that they had a few hours, they had less. The duo would be making their journey on horseback, not foot like they had and so the gap narrowed again and time was running out. She was almost relieved when she saw the lights of the saloon again, glad that she had not been accosted on the street for travelling at such a late hour. The saloon showed no signs of abating in its revelry as the music and the gay voices were still echoing through the streets. A number of horses were tethered to the hitching post indicating that there was still a sizeable volume of people enjoying the entertainments within the building. She wondered how Alex was doing at the card table and could not suppress a smile when she thought of how Alex had pulled the wool over Ezra's eyes when she had made him believe she knew nothing about cards.

Mary stepped through the bat wing doors and searched the room for her friends. This time, her arrival was no longer the novelty it was and while a few brows were raised, no more attention other than that was paid to her when she stepped into floor of the saloon. The smoke from cigars had created a thin veil above everyone and the customers were well and truly descending into the worst of inebriated behaviour. Some where slouched on tables, looking quite pathetic indeed while others staggered about with working girls making complete jackasses of themselves. Mary ignored them and spotted the card table in the corner of the room. She saw Inez and Julia on either side of Alex, as the doctor numbered one of the players at the table.

"How are we doing?" Mary asked as she stepped up along side Inez.

"You must see it to believe it." Inez gestured towards the table.

"Oh my lord!" Mary exclaimed and quickly softened her voice because she was breaching some protocol of the gambling table. The pile of money at Alex's corner of the table was enough to widen Mary's blue grey eyes in pleasant surprise.

Not only was Alex wearing her bracelet once more but with the exception of the handsome stranger whose eyes appeared only interested in Inez, the other men around the table seemed decidedly unhappy that Alex was capable of playing such a ruthless game of poker. Until now, Mary had been skeptical when Inez had claimed that Alex was a formidable card player because after all, Ezra was the best gambler she knew. However, seeing the pile of money which no doubt would end their financial worries at present, made Mary reevaluate that assessment. Even Ezra would be impressed by how much the doctor has so far won.

"Did she win all that?" Mary whispered in Inez's ear.

"Yes," Inez nodded clearly disturbed by something but she was not voicing what that may be. She did not like the expression on the faces of the men being beaten so completely by a woman and not even a white woman for that matter. Inez could feel the tendrils of tension snake up her spine, raising the hairs on the back of her neck as they made their ascent. Mary caught the concern in Inez's eyes and glanced at the other opponents at the table and took note of the dark look in their eyes as they stared at Alex, who was waiting for them to place their bets.

Alex turned her card and revealed another queen, the third once so far in her collection. The men's eyes widened and the cattle man threw flipped his card over in a gesture of defeat. "I'm out." He said gruffly, glaring at Alex in undisguised hatred. His obvious hostility made Mary even more nervous and the widow could see the situation escalating to boiling point.

"Anyone else?" Alex looked at the faces before her and saw no other takers. "Alright then," she sighed and presented her final card. "Four queens gentlemen, I believe the game is mine."

"I say you're cheating." The cattle man rumbled with his throaty voice. "Ain't no woman who can play cards like that."

"Or any man who can play that badly." Alex replied caustically glaring at him with unconcealed contempt before she continued collecting her winnings.

"Let it go." Inez's stranger remarked casually, showing no signs of the enmity she saw in the other's faces. In fact, he was the only one at the table who did not show any form of resentment at Alex's success at the table. "The lady won fair and square."

"I say she's cheating!" The cattle man roared and reacted by slamming a very large knife into the center of the table, pinning the thickest pile of the money to the table. Alex showed no signs of fear but she was maintaining her cool mostly because she was unsure of how to react.

"I tend to agree with my colleague here." The man with the beady eyes replied, looking at Alex with similar distrust. "I believe we have been hustled."

The stranger was about to react when two of the cattle man's companions who had sauntered over quietly, grabbed him and restrained his gallant attempt to intervene on the behalf of the ladies. Alex forced herself to remain calm, even though she knew that this was about to get very ugly, very soon. "I don't cheat, gentleman." She said icily, hoping reason alone would avoid a situation. "I won fair and square."

The cattleman took a step towards her when suddenly an audible click stopped him dead in his tracks. He looked down at his left flank and saw Mary Travis had jammed the barrel of the gun that Julia had taken when they left the train, firmly into his ribs. During his heated posturing at Alex's guilt, Inez had slipped Mary the weapon. Chris Larabee had given Mary lessons and Inez knew for a fact that Mary was now a very good shot. Besides, Inez had never fired a weapon in her life and did not want this tenuous situation to be her christening moment.

The second man at the table started to move but Julia reacted almost as quickly, the thought flashing so fast in her head that she barely stopped to question it when she saw his hand drop to his gun. Julia grabbed the bottle next to him and promptly smashed it across the back of his head. The glass shattered loudly as he fell forward, his head without uttering a sound, hitting the table hard.

Julia swallowed thickly and turned to Mary still somewhat astonished at what she had just done. "Maybe we should leave now."

"Get his gun." Mary ordered with perfect calm that was in contrast to Julia's wide eyed panic. However, the petite redhead did manage to nod wildly as she reached into the man's holster and hastily undid the flap before pulling out the weapon. "Alex, get the money and let's go." Mary replied without missing a beat, her eyes still focused on the men before her, conveying in her ice cold gaze that she was not afraid to fire.

By now, the rest of the saloon was aware of the altercation but had yet to make any move to intervene. Fights like this were not unusual but it was the first time, it had been undertaken by four women. Alex pulled out the knife in the table and collected her honest winnings despite the assertion of the men at the table. Inez was opening Mary's bag for her and she quickly stashed the notes inside its confines, not caring if a few stray dollars fell out. The men around them were poised to attack, this much Alex could tell. Not even the threat of Mary's gun pointed at one of them would change that eventuality once the opportunity presented itself.

"Alex, take the gun from Julia." Mary instructed, her eyes never leaving the men at the table. At that moment, she seemed perfectly in control of everything and Alex had confidence that Mary knew what she was doing. Alex nodded and took the weapon from Julia because there was no way her father was letting her travel the world with him, without having some knowledge of how to defend herself from the dangers that lurked throughout it. Mary knew that Alex could handle a gun. Julia did not resist as she relinquished the weapon. The Emporium owner was better with derringers than she was with large hand guns such as the one she had been holding.

"We'll get you, you whores!" The cattleman's companions shouted at Mary. They were still holding the stranger would have tried to intercede on their behalf.

He seemed calm actually despite the circumstances and Mary swore that she saw a hint of a smile across his face as if he were amused by what was transpiring.

"Don't make shoot him." Mary cocked the gun and jabbed in deeper into the man's ribs, making him flinch slightly. "Without looking over her shoulder, Mary shouted more orders. "Inez, Julia get outside and find us some horses."

Inez and Julia nodded and hurried out of the saloon as Mary and Alex kept theirs gun poised to fire. Mary started to move first, Alex giving her plenty of cover as she pulled the big man along with her retreat. With a gun set to blow away most of his innards, he did not protest as he was forced to play hostage while the two women made good their escape. Alex waited until Mary had withdrawn far enough for her to start moving as well. Her gun did not waver from the men who still posed a threat and Alex kept her eye trained on them in case any way made any moves that might indicate such intentions.

"Come on Alex!" She heard Mary cry out.

Alex hastened her pace, moving past the shocked faces of men and women who could scarcely wrap their minds around the fact that four women had just walked out of a possible bar room brawl with their hides still intact.

"You ain't getting out here alive, you bitches!" One of the men holding on the stranger barked at her.

Alex all but ignored the impotent attempt to shake her resolve as she finally reached the bat wing doors that led out into the cool night. The draft tingled her skin, signaling the open air as her back pushed through the swinging door and stepped out onto the board walk outside. She did not turn her back on the saloon until after she was well clear of the door and their line of sight. Mary still had her hostage but by now, Inez and Julia were on horseback. A mare and a gelding waited for Mary and Alex having been untethered by Inez when they had first emerged.

"What are you going to do now?" The man sneered. "You're going to have to move away to git on that horse and I ain't gonna let you do that."

"Oh really?" Mary looked at him with a glacial expression on her face. Faster than anyone would have given her credit, the widow brought down the gun across the back of the man's neck. He let out a soft grunt before dropping to knees and collapsing on the floor with a loud thud

Alex stared at her in admiration. "Nicely done Calamity Jane." The doctor grinned and Mary gave her a look as the two women hurried to the horses and quickly mounted them. As they did so, the cattleman's companions finally burst through the door.

"Let's go!" Inez shouted, digging her heels into the side of her horse and sending the animal bolting off just as the men began firing. Julia followed closely, dropping low as the bullets whizzed past her. She looked over her shoulder long enough to see Mary and Alex riding hard behind them in close pursuit. Somewhere in the explosion of gunfire and pounding hooves, Julia heard voices shouting after them.

"Hey that's my horse!"

Riding forward at full gallop, the four women rode out of Stone Creek, looking like something out of the Apocalypse with their hair trailing behind them and their skirts, blowing in the wind. They rode hard and fast for a long time in the darkness, not caring where they went or pausing long enough to catch their breaths. Mary wanted to put as much distance between themselves and those men who would not doubt make them pay for such a public humiliation, not to mention the fact that the horses they were currently riding were stolen property. There were places in the Territory that would hang a man for less.

It was almost an hour of pushing their animals at frantic pace did they dare to slow down long enough to take stock of what they had just done. The horses moved into a light trot as they rode alongside one another, moving across the dark terrain with no idea where they were headed. This part of the Territory was unfamiliar to them and Mary started to feel the same apprehension that time was closing in on them.

"I don't believe this!" Julia exclaimed first for she was most overwhelmed after her sheltered upbringing in the civilized world of Philadelphia. She had not experienced any kind of physical danger to herself until she chose to make the journey to the West and start a new life. Since that decision, her life had been one crisis after another. "We have just stolen horses! We are horse thieves! We'll have criminal records! I'm supposed to be respectable!"

"Hey, we did not have a great deal of choice in the matter!" Mary snapped angrily, feeling the back of her patience snap with that one outburst. "Those men were going to hurt Alex because it's not possible that a woman might beat a man at poker! They would have thrown her in jail, assuming they were that civilized." Mary glared at Julia, sending the woman into silence with that fierce gleam in her eyes. She was not happier about the situation than any one else but necessity required that she act in the manner she did.

"Thank you." Alex said gratefully, knowing that Mary had reacted that way out of fear for her life.

"Well," Inez sighed. "You did win all that money. It solved one problem at least." She glanced at the bag peeking through the saddlebag at her. "Now we can hold up somewhere and wait until Chris and the others get here."

"Chris!" Mary groaned in realization. "I sent him a wire that we'd be in Stone Creek." Suddenly the image of him finding out she was in trouble again, superseded the shock he would be in for once he and the seven actually arrived in Stone Creek and discovered what she and the others had been up to.

"Well," Inez thought quickly. "When we get to the next town, just send him a wire in Stone Creek, telling him where we are." She suggested.

Mary looked up and replied with some surprise. "Yes, that would work."

"Assuming we get to another town," Alex remarked allowing her gaze to move across the landscape. The land ahead was flat with nothing but mountains in the distance and sparse vegetation scattered across the ground. The stars were shining brightly overhead and there was some beauty to what they were seeing even if it did seem a little desolate and barren. "I wish we had a map of this area. I would really like to get to a hotel and a bed."

"For once I agree with her." Julia retorted. "This trip has been more than I bargained for."

"Well look at this way," Inez quipped. "You are getting to enjoy bonding process you were after." The woman offered Julia a smile and under the circumstances, it was rather infectious. Before long, the still quiet of the night was filled with the momentary laughter of all four as they forget their present troubles for a short time.

After they had composed themselves once again, the seriousness of their situation returned to them and Julia found herself asking. "Do you think those men will come after us?"

Unfortunately, Mary believed they would. "I think so." She nodded. "We humiliated them in front of everybody, that type of man don't forget easily. We have to keep moving until we get to a town."

There was a visible groan at the prospect of riding continuously in search of civilization but each of them knew that it was a necessary evil. Until they got out of sight or at least until the arrival of the seven, none of them would be safe. If those men at the saloon did not get their hands on them, then it would most likely be the lethal duo that had ambushed them on the train. Mary was only certain of one thing as they kept riding into the night.

This trip to Denver was going to be memorable.

Once the four women had made their escape, the men in the saloon who had restrained him had lost all interest in Jeremy Seacourt. They were too liquored up and furious to contend with him when there were four women somewhere in the Territory who had stolen away their manhood in the most resourceful manner it had been Jeremy's pleasure to witness. Even now, he could not wipe the amused smile off his face when he pictured the whole scene in his head.

From the exotic looking creature who had imposed herself on their card game, to the golden hair goddess who had held everyone at bay with her steely eyes and not to mention the fiery redhead whose use of a liquor bottle was memorable to say the least. However, the woman Jeremy recalled most was none of these. The sultry lady with wild dark hair and the loveliest face he had ever seen was the one who captured his attention the most. She reminded him of all things untamed, wild and spirited. In her dark eyes, he could see the raging of a thousand storms and wondered what it would be like to be carried away by such gale force presence.

He wondered how they had come to be in Stone Creek or in a saloon for that matter because none of them looked at all comfortable at being inside the establishment. It was almost as if they were forced there out of necessity, although their ability to handle adversity impressed Jeremy Seacourt to no end. In any case, he knew he could not linger on the identity of the Latin temptress who had captured his attention so completely when he had a job to do. Sanderson had checked in on the train and Jeremy assumed he would be in Stone Creek which was their secondary meeting place in case of trouble. However, Sanderson was nowhere to be seen and Jeremy was starting to assume that he would never arrive. Thus, he was faced with the dilemma that the enemy may already have the precious item he was searching. That however was the worst case scenario and while Sanderson may not have kept their meeting, Jeremy knew the man was a loyalist and would never allow the package to fall into wrong hands even under the threat of death. Still, if Sanderson had made alternate arrangements then Jeremy was similarly lost for there was no way to know what those arrangements might have been if Sanderson was dead.

Somehow, he had to find out what happened to that package.

"Mr. Larabee!"

Chris turned around and saw Franklin, the town's telegraph operator, flagging him down as Chris walked down the street and crossed the street in front of the telegraph office. It was almost noon when Chris had returned to Four Corners, having gone home to his shack since Mary was not in town and he had not wish to sleep in her bed when she was not there. It just felt too empty for his liking.

The telegraph operator had seen him through the window and he was passing and had hurried out to greet him.

"Mr. Larabee!" He said out of breath as he hurried towards Chris, clutching the piece of paper in his hand that was addressed to the notorious gunslinger. "This came for you early this morning."

Chris looked at him puzzled as Franklin handed him the piece of paper, knowing it could not possibly be Mary because she would still be on the train to Denver. He was secured in the knowledge that she could not possibly get into any difficulties while she was on a moving train. It was probably from the Judge or some of the other towns. It was well known that he was the law in town these days and anyone requiring to reach him on an official matter might well employ this method to contact him.

"Thanks Franklin." Chris replied as he unfolded the paper and read the content.

Franklin saw no change in Chris Larabee's expression except maybe a tightening in the muscles of his jaw. The gunslinger said nothing, sucking in his breath before nodding his thanks at the man and walking of without any further communication. However, as Franklin turned back to his office he heard a very low hiss that could have come from anywhere but made him look over his shoulder at the gunslinger nonetheless.

"Goddamned, I knew it!"

Chris stormed into the saloon wondering why he was at all surprised by the contents of the telegram before him. He should have known that if there was some way for Mary Travis to attract trouble, she would find it, even if was on a speeding locomotive. When she got together with Inez and now Alex, it was like setting a match to a gunpowder and watching it explode. For some reason, that triumvirate was so volatile that Chris wondered if it was in the best interests of mankind to keep each of them locked up. Now with Julia Pemberton in the mix, God only knew what was happening out there in the town of. .

Chris glanced at the telegram again. .at the town of Stone Creek.

Chris consoled himself with such thoughts because being mad was the only way he could keep the fear of something terrible happening to Mary at bay. His love for her was so deep that the thought of danger anywhere near her person stole his breath away and left a sharp ache in his stomach that would not be dispelled until he was sure of her safety. After losing Sarah, Chris knew he was overly cautious with Mary's protection but damn, didn't she give reason to though. There was no woman alive who was capable of landing herself in more hot water than Mary Travis. He supposed that is why he loved her so much that she knew how to take risks and enjoyed the thrill of danger.

Mary liked bad elements in her life, he found himself thinking with a smile. Chris entered the saloon and saw everyone in their usual places. The saloon was relatively quiet with a few people scattered in corners while the temporary waitresses that Inez had hired in her absence moved around the room, ensuring everyone's glass was never empty for long. Some looked up at Chris as he entered but most were too busy drinking to care. His friends however, met his arrival with little more than a slight nod of acknowledgment as Chris swept through the doors and headed straight for them.

Ezra was holding court at his favourite table, playing cards with Nathan, Vin and Buck. Since the saloon was not too busy at this hour of the day, Chris attributed Josiah's absence to the preacher returning to his church to tend things there. He was after all the closest thing to a spiritual guide in Four Corners and his time had to be allocated as such. With custom so slow, Josiah probably felt it was safe to ease up on his supervision of Ezra as per Inez's orders. Chris assumed the same situation with J.D. Dunne's lack of appearance. The young man who made it a point as the town's official sheriff to conduct a daily patrol of the streets, was probably out doing the rounds of Four Corners before he would eventually work his way back to this spot.

"Saddle up." Chris announced shortly, bringing an abrupt halt to the conversation around the table. The four men at the table stared immediately at him in question.

"Where're we going?" Vin drawled with little enthusiasm as he put down his cards slowly and somewhat gingerly on the table in the space before him. It was unusual for Vin to appear so disinterested because usually, Vin only played poker when he had nothing else better to do. The young tracker always seemed poised for action and hated being indoors more than he had. Most of the time, he liked sitting outside the saloon, where he could keep open sky in sight.

However this particular morning, Chris noticed Vin seemed a little slower off the mark than usual and attributed this sudden shift in behaviour to the raging hangover he must surely be suffering after getting blind stinking drunk the night before.

"Stone Creek." Chris retorted, trying to stay cool and telling himself silently, over and over again that Mary probably had a perfectly good explanation that would completely exonerate her from how she had become embroiled in yet another situation.

"Stone Creek?" Nathan looked up at Chris in question. "Ain't that about a hundred miles up north?" The healer inquired having ridden through the town some years back. It was not a pleasant place to be, Nathan decided from the memory of his visit.

"About that." The gunslinger nodded although he had pegged it at about 120 miles. Still, it was a good distance away and at least a full day's ride from Four Corners which only made Chris more impatient to get going. It was bad enough that Mary was in trouble but it infuriated Chris that he might not reach her in time because of the distance.

"Why are we going to such a godforsaken place?" Buck questioned, knowing the town in his travels as well and was reluctant to make the journey there. He was quite content to enjoy the relative calm that Four Corners was enjoying and did not wish to make the long ride to Stone Creek. Besides, if Buck's memory served, it was not much of a town, just a place one passed by on the way to Denver that was not even worth the stop.

"Because the women are there." Chris stated barely able to hide the smouldering anger in his voice as he spoke.

"The women?" Ezra met his gaze and immediately sat up in his chair as did Vin, who looked up at him intently at that announcement. "As in Julia, Mary, Alexandra and Inez?" The gambler asked, his voice rising an octave in astonishment.

"Those women." Chris said emphasizing each word with careful deliberation.

"What the hell are they doing there?" Vin demanded with just as much vehemence. "They're supposed to be on a train to Denver!"

"I don't know." Chris retorted, his irritation growing by the minute because the information in the telegram was so scant. He was burning with need to know what was happening with the woman he loved who was at so far out of his reach at the moment, Chris could not stand how helpless he felt. He needed to get riding soon, just so that he could feel as if he were doing something. "All it says in this telegram, is that they're in Stone Creek without money and in trouble. The word trouble was underlined." Chris said through gritted teeth.

"Well that took a little longer than I expected." Buck said with a perfectly straight face even though a smirk seemed more appropriate considering the tone of his voice.

"How you reckon that?" Vin looked at the older man as he stood up. Vin felt his head ache at the sudden movement and knew it was going to be one long ride to Stone Creek with his head the way it was. However, like Chris, Vin wanted to get going now. While he did not share Chris' sixth sense that Alex could become embroiled in anything dangerous, he knew how wilful she could be when she felt threatened. For her sake as well as anyone she might encounter, Vin wanted to get to her immediately.

"Well I expected them to get into some trouble as soon as they left the train." Buck replied, trying to hide his own concern for Inez's welfare under that usual cocky sense of humour and the smug expression that was creeping into his features. "I am impressed they held out this long."

"I find your humour ill timed Mr. Wilmington." Ezra replied, slipping on his coat and hat as he readied himself for the journey. Unlike the rest of the ladies, Julia Pemberton was nowhere as resourceful and Ezra knew she was next to useless in a crisis situation. "The ladies could be in deadly danger."

"Sure they are." Buck responded standing up. "That's the only kind they ever get into. Remember when they burnt down the Chesterton place?" He reminded. Who could forget the next day when both Inez and Mary suffered from a massive hangover and then had adverse reactions to Buck's sure fire remedy for the affliction. "Then Mary got tangled up with that crazy Indian cult."

Chris rolled his eyes remembering that incident all too well. Mary had gone on some insane quest to discover the nature of some mysterious artefact. The whole incident has the finesse of a cheap dime store novel.

"Don't forget Miss Alex riding off for Mrs. Doherty and then later on she done gone after Vin when that Mason fella was in town." Nathan added, feeling the need to alleviate some of the burden from Mary's name as he looked in the tracker's direction. Vin shifted uncomfortably but could not suppress the smile on his face when he recalled both those incidents. Those had been interesting days between doctor and him and despite himself, he could not view it unfavourably.

"Are you done?" Chris snapped, not appreciating the reminders of just how much jeopardy each woman was capable of finding themselves despite the limitations of modern technology. He was eager to begin their journey and did not want to know all the things that could be happening to Mary and the others while they were wasting time here.

"Shall we get Josiah and J.D.?" Nathan asked as they group walked towards the door with Chris in the lead.

"No." Chris said firmly. "Someone's got to stay behind and look after things." He made a mental note to stop by the church on their way out of town to let Josiah know what was happening. While it was relatively quiet in Four Corners at the moment, the journey to and from Stone Creek would still take at least two days and it was necessary for someone to remain behind and keep an eye on things. Chris had no idea how long they would be gone but he did not want to leave Four Corners completely unprotected for any length of time.

"I hope they're all right." Vin found himself mumbling as they stepped out into the light. The bright glare of the sun made the tracker flinch. Oh yeah, he was going to be in great shape to go rescue Alex.

"Oh come on," Buck said attempting to assure the young man who was no doubt worried about Alexandra Styles. "How much trouble really could they possibly get into?"

No one bothered to answer but the looks he got from Chris, Ezra and Vin respectively, spoke volumes.

Part Four

Armed and Dangerous

This was the only way to forget a bad day.

Mary Travis found herself thinking as she sank into the luxuriously warm water of her bath and felt the weariness ooze out of her bones the deeper she immersed herself. Resting her head against the edge of the porcelain tub, she wondered if Chris had arrived at Stone Creek yet and found herself flinching involuntarily despite the pleasurable sensation of relaxing in her well deserved respite. Mary tried to imagine what would run through Chris' mind when he arrived in that town and found out that they were probably wanted for horse theft. Knowing Chris, he would say nothing. At least to none of the seven any way, he'd just wear that impassive mask that he always wore, keeping a steely gaze on everything while he avoided disclosure.

Until he got his hands on her and then he would be very vocal.

They had ridden half the night, almost believing that they would never find another town in the darkness. Finally, a few hours before dawn, they sighted the distant lights of a town that sat further along or down the railway line, there was no way to tell until they had a look at a map. A great deal larger than Stone Creek, the town of Winston Falls looked every bit the thriving frontier community. Thanks to Alex's poker winnings, the ladies were able to check themselves into a somewhat respectable hotel and catch up on some well-needed sleep. Mary and Alex had shared a room since it was decided in light of what had transpired in the last 24 hours that it was not wise for any one of them to be alone.

Considering how Alex and Julia felt about each other, Mary decided the doctor should bunk with her or else they would end up killing each other if forced to share the same cage. Alex had taken her bath earlier and was presently ordering them some breakfast before the four of them got together and decide their next move. As far as Mary was concerned, there was only one thing to do and that was to sit still and wait for Chris to arrive. She supposed they could have taken the stage but somehow Mary's instincts told her that it would be safer for everyone concerned that they had the seven's protection.

Somehow, their attackers on the train had given Mary the impression they would not relent in their pursuit and should they appear again, Mary did not think she could squirm out of their clutches a second time. As it was, Mary could hardly believe from which hidden well of courage she had found the strength to get Alex and the others out of the saloon without getting seriously hurt. After she had mounted the horse and left the town behind her, Mary had ridden alongside the others silently, even though she suffering an anxiety attack of almost biblical proportions. Her heart pounded in terror from the sheer realization of what she had done, not to mention the lightheadedness that almost made her faint from relief that she had not gotten herself or her friends killed or worse.

A sudden knock on the bathroom door, snapped Mary out of her thoughts. She looked up from the frothy water to which she had been staring aimlessly and looked to the door in response.

"Yes?" She asked.

"Can I come in?" Alex's voice sang out.

"Sure." Mary called out since the soapy water gave her some measure of modesty. A moment later the doorknob twisted and Alex Styles walked inside, still drying her hair with a towel and clad in a complimentary robe.

"Breakfast is here." Alex announced as she sat down in the chair where Mary had hung her clothes. Unfortunately, there had been little time to have them laundered because they could not stay in such plush surroundings for too long. The only reason they had selected this establishment was because it had a front desk that manned at the early hours of the morning when they arrived.

"Great," Mary said running the sponge over her arm, washing away the dirt and sweat that had accumulated since they had begun this journey that spiraling into nightmarish proportions. Mary had even considered writing an article titled 'holidays from hell' because this entire trip to Denver would certainly qualify as something of a page from Milton's Paradise Lost. "I'm really starving." The widow admitted.

"Well, I'm glad we got some sleep." Alex yawned even though they had slept most of the morning and early afternoon away. It was scandalous how late the time was for she was accustomed to walking up early even when Vin shared her bed.

"I had no idea you were such an accomplished gambler." Mary teased seeing Alex roll her eyes in embarrassment at the realization that her secret was out.

"I had no idea you were so good in a crisis situation," Alex returned. "Chris would have been proud."

"That's not the word he'd use." Mary deadpanned and started working the sponge on her other arm.

"Julia's right you know." Alex said suddenly, feeling very melancholic thinking about the secrets that she kept hidden. While she was friends with Inez and Mary, the doctor revealed very little personal information about herself. She just never felt right with such disclosures.

"About what?" Mary said distractedly, scrubbing a particularly ingrained piece of grit from under her nails.

"About something happening between me and Vin at Agnes Doherty's cabin." She replied softly.

Mary looked up immediately, her blue grey eyes meeting Alex's with no hint of reproach but simple curiosity. She edged closer to the edge of the bath facing Alex and leaned over. "Really?"

"It was not anything like Julia thinks." Alex admitted quickly before Mary thought of it as anything more than it was. "It was a strange trip to begin with." She said with a faint smile. "I didn't want him to come with me and we argued almost all the way until we got to Agnes' cabin and had to stay the night."

Mary hid the smile that threatened to steal across her features, remembering how Alex's experiences with Vin touched a chord of familiarity with her own relationship with Chris. However, she said nothing, allowing Alex to continue with her sudden confession.

"I never felt as much with Ezra as I did with Vin that night and we didn't do anything more than kiss." Alex replied, omitting the almost heavy petting they had indulged in briefly. "I felt passion for the first time in my life and it was raw and hungry. It just took my breath away." Alex sighed. "I guess when we got back to town, I knew I had a problem but I could not bring myself to just discard Ezra. It was not right."

"Fortunately, he did that for you." Mary frowned. She wondered how Ezra would have taken it he knew that by taking the honourable course of simply telling Alex about his intentions towards Julia, he might have been surprised by how accommodating Alex might have been in light of her own feelings for Vin.

"Yes he did." Alex replied with a slight nod. "I guess I really should not be so mad at Julia should I?" The doctor hated admitting wrong about anything, in that she and Mary shared the same traits. However, Alex was a mystery of cool detachment at times and it had taken sheer perseverance on Vin Tanner's part to bring the woman beneath to the surface.

"Well you have good reason to." Mary said gently, knowing that this was difficult thing for Alex to overcome. Julia had been most cruel in the manner in which she imparted the news of her relationship with Ezra to Alex. She had been nothing less than brutal and the scene that followed if Chris description was anything to go by, was not something easily forgotten. "I take it this soul searching has come about because you're ready to move past your anger towards her?"

Julia was never going to likeable, either by Mary or Alex for two differing reasons. However, it was not lost upon them that Julia had attempted to fit into life at Four Corners as well as in the tight knit group that was the seven's circle. Neither was Mary blind to how she had been held at arm's length and Mary felt a sliver of guilt creep into her conscience knowing that the woman probably deserved the benefit of the doubt or the very least, a second chance.

"Not quite," Alex replied with honesty, "let's just say I'm looking into it."

Considering what they had been through together the past 24 hours, Alex felt somewhat petty clinging to her old hatred and had spent much time pondering the question of her attitude towards Julia Pemberton. Unfortunately, it was not a subject that yielded any easy answers. Finally, Alex decided that she had better things to discuss at this point and moved for a change of subject. "So what's our next move? Do we go home?"

"No," Mary responded with a decidedly harder edge to her voice when the subject of their current situation arose. "I have a feeling those people may either be waiting for us there or they'll be on route. If I know Chris, that telegram would have sent him riding towards Stone Creek. Don't forget, we left all our luggage behind and our personal items, it would not be hard for them to track us back to Four Corners."

"So we stay here?" Alex asked. "That's risky if those men from the saloon come looking for us." She pointed out.

"I know," Mary responded as she started running the sponge down her leg, realizing that she had spent enough time on her hands. "Not to mention anyone else. I think we should move to more discreet accommodations, a lodging house perhaps and stay out of sight."

"I wish I knew why there were after us." Alex grumbled standing up to leave so Mary could have the rest of her bath in peace.

"Inez seems to think Sanderson might have slipped something into my basket when he ran into me." Mary answered, having heard Inez's suspicions during their arduous ride to Winston Falls. When Mary considered that possibility, she realized that Inez must have been right because the duo had been in pursuit of Sanderson when Mary had encountered him. Had they seen the collision, it would have led them to the conclusion that caused them to seek out Mary on the train and the patterns of events that followed made perfect sense in that light.

"Like what?" She looked at Mary with surprise and curiosity.

"I have no idea." The newspaperwoman confessed. "In all the confusion, I have not had the chance to look at it. I think its time we did though, when we get together."

"Not to mention working out who Seacourt is." Alex reminded.

Mary kept all these things in mind, wondering who the elusive Mr. Seacourt were and what part he played in this unraveling mystery. This was more than she bargained for during this supposedly leisurely trip to Denver. She paused upon ruminating that point and several other considerations before she met Alex's gaze. "You know something," she sighed. "I am not looking forward to Chris finding us."

Now it was Alex's turn to stifle a smile as she tried to picture the scene that would be when the fiery newspaperwoman and the gunslinger finally saw each other again. Alex used to think that she and Vin had some heated exchanges but they were nothing in comparison to the all out warfare practiced by Chris Larabee and Mary Travis that had everyone running for cover. In some instance, it was almost entertaining watching the inferno that usually ensued.

"Don't laugh." Mary caught the glint of amusement in her eyes. "He is never going to let me live this down." Suddenly Mary narrowed her eyes and stared at Alex with a perfectly devilish look on her face. "Neither is Vin going to let you forget this either. If I am not mistaken, I was not the only one offered a warning."

"Yes." Alex stopped smiled and scowled. She said nothing for a moment and then spoke after a short time of reflection. "Maybe there's still time to jump a train to Mexico."

It was well after dark when Chris Larabee and company came riding into the fair municipality of Stone Creek.. Chris had no idea who was happier about reaching their destination, the horses or their human riders. Spurred on by concerns for their respectively female halves, the men had pushed the mounts hard to make the journey from Four Corners before the end of the day. By the time they had reached the small forgotten town that did not warrant a stop by the Denver train, the horses were near exhausted and Chris and the others were not far behind.

After leaving their horses at the local livery so that the spent animals could get some decent rest and feeding, the men headed towards the local saloon.

According to Mary's telegram, the lack of money had forced them to seek lodging in the establishment and when Chris walked into the place, his stomach hollowed at Mary being forced by circumstances to stay in such a unsavoury conditions.

"I do not think I like the idea of any of the ladies being forced to seek refuge on these premises." Ezra stated the obvious as the five men walked into the saloon. However, his attention had already shifted to the felt table where a group of players were congregated for a game he knew all too well. For some reason, two of the men, cattle drivers by the looks of them, were wearing noticeable bandages around their heads.

"You and me both." Nathan agreed, looking around the collection of worn tables and similarly unhygienic clientele scattered around the room.

Chris said nothing, merely content to exchange a hard stare with Vin that conveyed the tracker was not happier about the accommodations the ladies were forced to endure the night before, not to mention the sight of this place only heighten his fears about their safety. They stepped up to the bar and Vin let Chris do the talking since Chris had a way of prying answers from people like no one else could. The same saloon owner, who had overcharged Mary Travis the day earlier for accommodations, greeted the lawmen with a smarmy smile that seemed to ooze distrust from the visitors.

"What can I get you boys?" He asked, a cigar protruding through a mouth full of bad teeth.

"Whiskey and some information." Chris said quietly, leaning up against the counter while staring at him intently. Buck was allowing his gaze move across the room as usual, never being one to sit still even for a moment while Ezra's found himself drawn to the game being played in the corner. Only Vin and Nathan were paying any attention to Chris' attempt to garner some information about the women.

"Whiskey will cost you," the man replied turning to retrieve a bottle from one of the dusty shelves behind him. He returned with a full bottle and five glasses before adding further, "so will the information."

"I'll see if it's worth paying for first." Chris said coolly.

"On the information?" The man asked still wearing that shit-eating grin that Chris wanted desperately to wipe away with his boot. The gunslinger was already in a foul mood and fixing for a fight. This whole situation with Mary was playing havoc with his tightly wound emotional control. Until he knew that she was safe, he was in the mood to do some serious hurtin'. If this asshole behind the bar did not start giving him answers soon, Chris was liable to start on him.

"On both." Chris retorted gruffly. "I'm looking for four women. Said they were paid room and board here last night." He focused on the man's eyes because Chris could tell in a second if he knew nothing or was hiding something.

The man's reaction seemed to imply the latter but fortunately, he had good sense enough not to keep it concealed for too long. He betrayed his knowledge by immediately straightening up, the grin fading from his face as realization flooded into his eyes. "They your women?" He asked, his eyes narrowing as he studied the five strangers before him like they had just walked in this second and not a few minutes ago.

"Yeah, what of it?" Vin said getting off his elbows until he was staring at the man eye to eye, with an expression on his face that left no room for the saloon owner to doubt that any offence would be taken at great exception.

"They're horse thieves." The man retorted, with a hint of relish in his voice at being able to impart such salacious news to this tough band. The need to gain the upper hand in some small way overrode his baser instincts to keep his skin intact. His grin seemed to stretch wider across his craggy face as he spoke and infuriated Chris to no end that the gunslinger could almost predict what was going to happen, although amazingly enough the outburst would not come from him.

Vin Tanner was already running on a short fuse.

He had been forced to ride on a day when he was enduring the worst hangover since man first decided to put alcohol to his mouth and imbibed freely before discovering the terrible consequences the next day when he woke up in his own vomit. To say nothing of Vin's present state of mind, regarding the woman that he loved and the possible danger her life might be in to be in to allow him to tolerate this man and his sneering face with any ability whatsoever.

Almost with a flash, Vin grabbed the man's head and slammed it hard against the counter, toppling over the empty glasses he had placed there earlier, sending the small shot glasses skittering to the floor. Some smashed, most did not. The reaction in the saloon was tepid to owner's predicament. A waiter or two stepped forward to help their employer but Chris need only turn a steely gaze at their direction for them to freeze in their tracks and make a wise withdrawal. Around them, some of the customers were looking up in concern but not enough that would inspire them to offer the beleaguered saloon owner any assistance. Chris was almost disappointed when no one turned up because he wanted to hurt someone too.

"As you can see," Ezra spoke up try to be the voice of reason, having turned his attention back to his friends in light of the small commotion taking place before him, "my companions are somewhat lacking in enthusiasm for your particular brand of humour. I take it by your earlier reaction that you do know the ladies in question?" The gambler asked, offering a charming smile that paled the shit-eating grin the saloon owner had worn in comparison. No one could do smug better than Ezra Standish, Chris had decided.

"And what do you mean, they're horse thieves?" Buck demanded for that was a serious crime to be accused of in any shape or form. He could hardly imagine Mary Travis or Julia Pemberton getting up to such mischief. Of course, Inez had been accused of the crime once but that was because of Don Paulo and after Alex Styles had gone riding after Vin, to save him from bounty hunters, Buck was ready to believe she was capable of anything.

"They shot up the place last night." The man said hastily, taking particular note of the sawn off Winchester that was prominently displayed in Vin's holster from his awkward position, pressed up against the counter. In fact, all he could see was that weapon. "Hustled some of my customers and then took one of 'em hostage."

"Hustled?" Chris declared, thinking he had heard wrong. Mary, hustling? Mary could not even lie with a straight face. Julia Pemberton was another story entirely but he was not about to voice that at this moment at least in Ezra's presence. Alex maybe and Inez definitely but what would possess them to try something so stupid in a place like this? Did they have any idea what could happen to them? This place was not just rough. It was dangerous. There were men who frequented place like these who had no trouble harming a woman or worse for no other reason than her being there.

"Yeah, the real pretty Creole, she was playing cards with Albert and Lansing over there. Hustled them into letting her play and then took all their money."  The saloon owner spoke not an easy thing to do with half his face pressed to the counter top by Vin Tanner who had yet to ease up on his interrogation technique.

"Creole?" Nathan mused trying to decide whom the man meant when he suddenly realized that for someone who was unaware of her parentage, they might choose to describe Alexandra Styles that way. "Miss Alex, playing cards?" Nathan said with disbelief.

"Alexandra does not play cards well enough to hustle." Ezra pointed out instantly, wondering why he had fabricated such a fantastic thought.

"See Mister, she don't play cards." Vin hissed with a hint of savagery in his voice and shoved the man's head harder against the counter until he grunted his pain quite audibly. Vin was aware that Alex had played cards with Ezra when they had been together but she had always given him the impression that she was not very good, which made the validity of the man's claim all the more suspect.

"I ain't lying!" He cried out desperately, the pain having snapped the back of his defiance. "I'm telling you, she sat there at that table as good as you please and all took all their money. Just ask them." He waved frantically in the direction of the felt table that Ezra had admired when he had first entered the room.

"Maybe you should be asking us." A new voice full of gravel and spit retorted behind them.

The five lawmen turned around and faced the speaker. Vin too, whose grip was still firmly on the saloon owner with no signs of releasing the man, faced the two men and the cadre of others who were inching closer to surround them. The leaders, Lansing and Albert had come to investigate upon hearing their names mentioned while at the same time realizing that these men bore some connection to the women who had humiliated them so publicly the night before. Injury and lack of resolve had kept them from going after the women the night before but that still did not mean that their need for revenge was any less.

"Those bitches belong to you?" Lansing, formerly known as the cattleman that Mary Travis had taken hostage glared at Chris with obvious anger demanded angrily. "Look at what they did to us!" He gestured to the bandage on his head.

"Mister, I wouldn't go telling too many people that women did that to ya." Buck retorted, unable to resist the opportunity to have some fun at the man's expense. However, the ploy was just a tactic to detract anyone from seeing his fingers move gently towards his gun and undo the flap.

"They pulled a gun on us!" Lansing shouted indignantly, inflamed by the humiliation of incurring such injuries by a woman, particularly a polished and refined lady. "The little blond plum stuck a gun right in my guts, told me she'd shoot if I even breathed." He said venomously, his eyes showing just how much hatred he had inside him.

Chris could almost see the slow glances of his friends turning to look at him with that statement even if he were not focused on Lansing and counting how many of his men were preparing to enter the fight that was coming. The gunslinger reacted long enough to close his eyes, suddenly overcome by the slight throbbing in his temples that threatened to escalate into a full-blown headache the more he uncovered Mary's exploits. His mind whirled with only one thought as he heard Lansing recall the tale as to how Mary had held a room at bay by taking him hostage.

I knew those shooting lessons were a mistake.

"And the other one stole our money!" Albert, the man that Julia Pemberton had so ceremoniously brained with a bottle of cheap tequila added his voice into the lists of complaints. "Hustled her way into our poker game with her pretty smile and sweet talking voice and then stripped us blind."

"I'm telling ya, Miss Alex don't play poker." Nathan insisted while Vin tried to picture Alex at the table with these men, playing a game of high stakes poker. The idea almost sent him into sensory overload and made his head ache with a surge of pain caused by stress to add to that of the hangover.

"How much did she win?" Ezra asked, best qualified amongst all of them to know whether Alex could play poker or not. In truth, he knew she could never play the game well enough to outwit these men out of so much money. It had to be a mistake. Besides, he had beaten her so many times because she had shown no skill to play the game whatsoever.

"Almost $250 dollars!"

If Ezra had been drinking, he would have choked.

"How much?" Buck exclaimed, never one to hold back on an unspoken thought. "How did you know she was hustling?"

"No woman could play cards that well unless she was cheating." Albert retorted, his hand slowly shifting to his gun because he was spoiling to get his revenge upon the men to whom the women obviously belonged. Chris watched the subtle movement towards his gun; his own hand already nestled comfortably on his peacemaker. In fact, everyone seemed more than prepared for the onslaught to follow and Chris hated to admit it but damn if he wasn't ready for this!

"Alexandra cannot play cards." Ezra insisted, still unable to shake the possibility that Alex might have hidden her skills from him. "In fact, I've beaten her several times."

"Then maybe she's hustled you too." Lansing sneered, finally saying what none of the lawmen were too tactful not to point out to the gambler.

"Hustled me?" Ezra said filling up with indignant rage and was starting to share Chris Larabee's desire to shoot something. "I will have you know Sir that I do not get hustled. Alexandra Styles did not hustle me and I assure you she cannot play poker to any degree that it could be considered a hustle. If she did beat you, it must have been because you are an exceptionally poor specimen of gambling expertise."

"Hey!" Vin looked at Ezra with annoyance. "How do you know she can't play!" He said rising to the occasion for the love of his life. "You weren't here!"

"Mr. Tanner, the only game that Alex ever played with any expertise was Go Fish!" Ezra retorted, for some reason feeling very threatened by this whole suggestion that Alex could play poker because if she could play poker this well and he had beaten her so many times, it led to two very unhappy conclusions. One that she had let him win or. .actually there was no second unhappy conclusion, the whole let him win possibility was bad enough as far as Ezra was concerned.

"Maybe she didn't want put you to shame." Vin retorted.

"Ain't this precious?" Lansing sneered at the comic relief these two men were providing.

"Get over it you two!" Buck hissed in disbelief but not as much disbelief as Chris Larabee.

"This ain't the time for it." Chris said loudly and sharply enough for both men to fall silent, realizing that their credibility as tough men of the law was suffering from this display of sentiment and wounded pride.

"Where did they go?" Chris turned his attention to Lansing, daring him not to answer while his fingers grazed the butt of his peacemaker, poised to draw the moment he saw a shift in the man's eyes.

"They stole horses and ran off into the night." Lansing declared. "Good thing too cause we would have showed them a thing or too, like maybe what its like to have some real men." He grinned salaciously.

Nathan Jackson saw the reaction crossing four faces simultaneously. Oh hell, the healer thought as the first blow was struck, predictably by Chris Larabee, straight across Lansing's face that almost lifted the man off the ground and send him crashing into a table, amidst the scream of the working girl and the customer who was still occupying it. With that, the entire room descended into the pandemonium of a good old fashioned bar room brawl. Chairs began flying across the room, punches were thrown and bottles were smashed as fists went in all directions. Surprisingly enough the hand to hand combat had been used in favour of gunplay, which was singularly safer in such close quarters.

The whole thing lasted about twenty minutes. When the dust had cleared and the other patrons of the establishment had gone running for cover behind the counter or out the front door or window, which ever came first and was closer at hand, the five lawmen of Four Corners surveyed the damage. Somewhere in the mess of broken bottles, shattered glasses and the debris of destroyed furniture; Chris Larabee spotted the bleeding face of Lansing underneath the remnants of a collapsed table. Chris had come out of it quite well actually, suffering no more than a bleeding lip from a shard of glass that had nicked him on the way past. He grabbed the man's leg and pulled him out from under the fragments of broken wood.

"Don't make so much noise." Vin complained, similarly searching for the saloon owner who had made good his escape during the fight. The tracker's head was still throbbing and wished more than ever Alex was here. She could give him one of those pills that were supposedly guaranteed to soothe headaches. "I can hear everything ten times louder." He spotted the man quivering behind the counter and reached for his Winchester.

"Hey there," Vin leaned over and produced the sawn off shotgun aimed clearly in his direction. "Now that we're through asking nice, where did the ladies go?"

"I don't know," the man shook his head frantically, in shock at the destruction on his premises and by the certainty that a wrong answer would get his head blown off. "They took horses and they left town! That's all I know."

"I do believe he's telling the truth." Buck replied pulling the chair someone had broken over him from around his body. The big man noted the acrid smell of loosened bowels that was filling the air.

"Oh now that is disgusting." Ezra retorted, straightening his tie and collar that had been pulled out of dapper perfection during the altercation. "Sir, you are never going to pass health and safety regulations for this establishment with such a slovenly constitution."

"That's a pretty nasty shiner you got there Ezra." Nathan pointed out, examining the swelling on the Southerner's face.

"What?" The gambler looked at his reflection through the sheet of broken glass behind the counter and winced at a huge purple bruise that was forming under his eye. "Damn, purple is not my colour."

"I wouldn't say purple," Buck leaned over with a grin. "Try black and blue."

"Your compassion is overwhelming." Ezra frowned. "Unfortunately this entire episode led us no closer to the ladies except in us learning that they are capable of embroiling themselves in more discourse than any of us could have possibly given them credit."

"I told you," Buck said trying to mask his deep concern for Inez with a humorous air. "I told you not to underestimate them."

"Where are they!" Chris barked at Lansing who was too incoherent to say a word. He merely looked at Chris with a dazed expression as the gunslinger shook him by the head while holding it off the floor by the hair.

"He's out of it Chris." Vin replied impatiently and threw a venomous gaze at the saloon owner who was still trembling in his own filth. "So's this one, or might as well be anyway."

"Excuse me?" A rather portly woman said meekly as she entered the saloon entrance. She looked at the five men with nothing less than fear and Chris could not blame her considering they were standing in the middle of a saloon that looked as if a cannon had been shot at it and unconscious bodies strewn everywhere.

"Can I help you ma'am?" Nathan asked, knowing how ridiculous courtesy must seem in the midst of this entire ruckus.

She tried to gain courage by Nathan's politeness by the healer could see it was Chris she wanted to speak to and it was Chris whom she was more afraid of than any other. That was not a hard feat of course, Chris Larabee had that effect on people.

"I'm Doris Stanley," she said trying not to quiver when she spoke. She stood by the doorway and seemed unwilling to come any further, as if stepping deeper into the room was like walking off a cliff. "I run the telegraph service."

Immediately Chris paid attention. Telegraph? "Is it Mary?"

Doris' fear evaporated once she heard Chris call Mary by name and realized that there was more to their association than the young widow had led on. "I got this telegram late today, addressed to a Mr. Chris Larabee to be identified by his black clothing." Her eyes moved up and down the length of the gunslinger's apparel. "I guess that's you."

"What does it say?" Chris said abruptly and received a reproachful frown from Nathan who felt Doris should be treated with some courtesy because she looked so afraid of them.

"It says that should a Mr. Larabee come to town, I was to inform him that Travis and party are currently in Winston Falls." She replied nervously.

"Winston Falls?" Ezra blurted out. "Where is that?"

"Thirty miles north of here." Vin said automatically. There was not an inch of space across the Territory that he was not familiar with. "It's a larger place than this."

"Hell Purgatory is larger than this." Buck retorted and looked at Chris. "Can we at least get something to eat before we get going again?"

"I don't think this place is serving Buck." Chris looked around and noticed the hasty departure of the Doris Stanley. He let her go seeing that she had delivered her message from Mary and it appeared they had another long ride ahead of them. Chris sighed and started out the door towards the livery once more.

"I swear," Ezra sighed as the realization dawned upon all of them and the group resigned themselves to be on their way as they gravitated to the door, side stepping debris and unconscious brawlers. "I am starting to question whether it was entirely wise to let them out of the kitchen."

"The last thing Alex does in the kitchen is cook." Vin muttered and found himself grinning.

"There he goes again with that smile on his face." Buck exclaimed before the group left the saloon and began the tedious journey to Winston Falls. "What is the story with that?"

"Trust me Buck," Chris replied, feeling infinitely better now that he had beaten the crap out of someone. "If you ever want to have dinner at Alex's again, you don't want to know."

It was pure luck.

Selena did not know whether providence was smiling upon her and Mr. Burke or the devil was telling her he was willing to pay to get her soul. Whatever deity she chose to thank, the evidence before her was clear enough, as was the opportunity. She and Burke had climbed off the train and began searching every little dirt town since the encounter with the woman on the way to Denver. They had arrived in Stone Creek only to hear stories of four women who had gone riding off into the night after helping themselves to some horses and money. Apparently, the local sheriff was still getting around to the warrants but did not seem eager to send a posse after a bunch of women. This served Selena well, as they required no interruptions in their own hunt for the women.

However, the search had been cut shot when they were called onto deliver a status report of their progress to retrieve the package to their employer who was waiting for a meeting in the town of Winston Falls. Selena and Burke had just left their mounts at the local livery on their way to the Preston Bank owned by their employer when lo and behold who should see walking across the street? The very three women whom they had been searching for so insistently gazing about furtively about as they made their way to a lodging house. The blond whom Sanderson had come into contact with and to whom Burke had a personal if not physical grudge was nowhere in sight but Selena was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Considering the debacle that this entire episode was quickly descending into, she was eager to take her breaks where she could get them.

They followed the women to the lodging house, ever careful to keep an eye for the last in their party. Selena did not doubt she would eventually surface and if she did not, the loss of three friends would certainly make her willing to negotiate for the retrieval of the package. In any case, Selena was tolerating no further mistakes because she was certain her employer would feel the same ambivalence and to Selena's distaste, would end their employment relationship fatally.

When Seacourt saw the arrival of Selena Quint and her faithful companion, the behemoth Mr. Burke in the town of Stone Creek, the man had known with certainty that Sanderson was dead. He mourned the death of the man he had hardly known before this assignment as little more than a courier. In truth, Sanderson was never meant to become a field agent of this nature and Seacourt mourned his death by strengthening his resolve to bring his killers to justice. However, despite his innate need for vengeance, baser instincts to the oath he pledged his life took precedence first. He could not understand why Selena and Burke were here if Sanderson was dead for he could think of no other way they could have known about the rendezvous point. Not to mention that the package he had protected with his life would no doubt be in their hands already if Sanderson had died by their ministrations.

However, it soon became very apparent to Seacourt that Selena and her partner were conducting a search. He stayed out of sight, observing them at a distance and then questioning the people they had encountered for information. As adept as Selena Quint could be at this profession, she was still by Seacourt's estimation little more than a hired gun, albeit a rather charming one, but still a paid mercenary while Seacourt did this for a living to a cause higher than himself. It was to his utter surprise that Seacourt learnt that what Selena was after was not an elusive package but the very four women he had unsuccessfully and in retrospect, redundantly tried to assist the night before.

The women were a wild card almost as wild as card as one of them had played at the gaming tables in the saloon. Seacourt could not understand what Selena could possibly want with these four different women who did not seem at all comfortable playing fugitives, even if they did handle themselves very well. He was forced to remind themselves that seeking these four out was still job and had nothing to do with the fact that the Mexican in the group had the most enchanting smile he had ever seen in his life.

So Seacourt followed Selena and Burke at a distance, keeping far enough out of sight to be completely concealed, while still maintaining the pursuit. He followed them across thirty miles of harsh terrain to arrive at a relative rustic oasis in the territory by the name of Winston Falls.

"So its all about thing?" Julia stared at the piece of metal before them.

It was a square block of steel, with intricate engravings worked on by a master craftsman. When Inez had finally pulled it out of Mary's bag and unwrapped the plain brown covering to find the object wrap in silk, it was enough to make the newspaper woman go running for the telegraph office to send a wire to Chris immediately. Upon realizing what it was the duo in the train had been so determined to possess, the women moved lodgings immediately and agreed there would be no safety until they were no longer in possession of the item.

"Its enough." Alex sighed looking at the object that was lying on the bed next to Mary's basket. "There are people who will kill for this thing." She frowned, wrapping it up in its silken covering once more.

"We've met them." Inez pointed out as she went to pour herself a glass of water from the pitcher located on one of the tables in the room. "I think we need to find a Marshall or something when the men get here."

"You know I never thought I'd say this," Alex sighed slipping the package back into Mary's bag and sliding the basket under the bed where it was out of sight. "But I'm going to be glad to have the guys rescue us from this mess for a change. I have the strangest feeling we were over our heads the minute we stepped onto the train."

"All that money. ." Julia sighed. "Fifty dollar notes for as far as the eye could see. You could buy yourself a kingdom for that."

"Or an extremely devaluated country like this one would be if those plates are even used." Alex retorted. "I can't believe we are in possession of currency plates!"

"I can't imagine how they would even get their hands on something like that." Inez replied, sitting in a chair while Julia lay draped over the bed, where she had stared wistfully at the plate for some moments and Alex had paced around the place, repeating how much trouble they were in.

"I don't think the US government makes them very accessible," Alex replied. "However, a very skilled engraver may be able to make one."

"You mean this thing probably isn't even a legitimate plate?" Julia exclaimed, feeling her dismay at so much easy money in reach and not being able to touch any of it. Only Ezra could share her sorrow at this point.

"Not if they're chasing it the way they are." Inez retorted. "I wish we knew who Seacourt was." She sighed. "Sanderson said, if we needed help to find Jeremy Seacourt."

"Except for all we know, Seacourt could be his dentist." The petite redhead quipped.

"Must you always be so negative?" Alex looked at her with a hint of sarcasm but not real malice. After having that discussion with Mary earlier today, Alex had decided to try being a little less hostile towards Julia, even though it was a hard habit to break.

"Call me the voice of reason." Julia replied in deadpan. She was not really offended because she had noticed a slight thaw in Alex's behaviour towards her and decided that an improvement, no matter how slight was still an improvement.

Suddenly the door knocked and Alex immediately went to answer it, assuming it was Mary Travis since the widow was due back any time from the telegraph office following her latest message to Chris Larabee. Hopefully, he was already on route and Vin would be right along side of him. At this moment, Alex wanted nothing more to be in the tracker's arms again. The man had the uncanny ability to make things better. .

Alex opened the door and found herself staring at Burke and Selena.

"Don't even think about screaming." Selena said before Alex could open her mouth to warn the others. The gun in Selena's hand was aimed right at her stomach. "Step away from the door." She ordered.

Alex swore under her breath but had not alternative but to comply to the woman's demands. Reluctantly, Alex stepped away as Burke and Selena pushed their way into the room. The reaction was swift; Inez leapt out of her chair while Julia sat up startled at the presence of the new arrivals.

"I'll give you the same warning." Selena said icily. "Anyone of you make one unnecessary sound that I do not ask for and it will be very unfortunate for all of you. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal." Alex said sarcastically.

Selena regarded her response and lashed out, striking Alex across the face with a fisted blow. Alex felt her cheek flare in pain as she staggered back. She recovered quickly enough, even if she was slightly dazed and was tempted to fight back when she heard the audible click of Selena's gun aimed at Inez, indicating what would happen if she made that attempt. "I was merely paying you back for the train." The woman replied with a smile. Burke sniggered behind her, enjoying the display very much.

"Where's the other one?" She demanded.

A furious exchange of glances across the rooms united the women in a show of solidarity that no information would come from them willingly. When Selena's question was met with silence, the mercenary seemed unsurprised. "That does not matter. She will walk into our little drama soon enough. Now where is the package?"

"I don't know what you mean." Inez said bravely, glaring at her in open defiance even if she was forced to display it in this limited fashion.

"Please don't play games with me." Selena walked straight up to her and pressed the gun barrel firmly in her throat.

"Wait!" Julia shouted before Alex could. "We don't have it!"

"Of course you don't," Selena glared at her with obvious disbelief.

"I'm telling you the truth." The Easterner said with enough panic in her voice to tell Selena her fear was genuine as well as the words coming from her lips. "We unpacked it and found out what it was." Julia explained, letting the lies come from her lips faster than she could think to stop herself. "Mary knew that it had to be used to make counterfeit notes, that's why she's not here! She's taken it to the sheriff to hand it in!"

"You're lying!" Selena hissed at this new development. She cocked the trigger against Inez's throat, as if to illustrate the point of what would happen.

"I'm not lying!" Julia implored. "I swear! Mary took it with her!"

"Shit!" Selena swore viciously and glared at Burke. "We better get back to Preston." She said visibly unhappy at reporting this snippet of news to her employer.

"He ain't going to be happy." Burke pointed out.

That was the understatement of the millennium. "Alright," Selena thought quickly. "All of you, on your feet now!"

Reluctantly, Julia climbed off the bed and joined Inez at her side, while Burke was still keeping a close eye on Alex.

"It appears ladies," Selena smiled as she gestured towards the door, "we are going to take a little trip."

Mary had just sent her next telegram to Chris, hoping her instructions to Doris Stanley was clear enough for interpretation. Having unveiled the mysterious package that Mr. Sanderson had deposited into her basket, Mary now understood just how much trouble they had stumbled into. She did not know much about counterfeiting or engraving but the workmanship of the plates convinced her that if used to print notes, the counterfeit currency would have been almost certainly good enough to pass. Even Mary was aware of what could happen to the economy of a country if these notes were entered into circulation. She now understood the persistence of those who had attempted to retrieve it and knew that she was correct in waiting for Chris' arrival.

Having turned the corner of the street towards the lodging house, Mary had taken no more than a step when she saw something that sent her retracing her steps to avoid discovery. For a moment, her heart skipped a bit as her pulse began the racing at the sight of the two strangers that had attacked them on the train, leading Inez, Alex and Julia out the door of the building. Judging by the somber expressions on the faces of her friends, Mary assumed that they did not wish to make the journey. Mary watched with wide eyed fear as the group descended down the stairs, with the woman standing very close to Inez, close enough to be holding a gun to her if Mary's guessed was right.

Mary took a deep breath trying to decide what to do. She watched them disappear down the street and only dared to emerge from her hiding place behind the corner of the board walk when they could no longer see her. When they had put enough distance between them and Mary was certain that the crowds in the street this afternoon would provide her with suitable cover, she stepped out and began following them. She walked slowly, knowing that surveillance was not a skill she had in any abundance. Fortunately, the group did not go far and Mary was surprised to see her friends being ushered through the front door of the local bank.

The widow was at a loss of what to do as she hastened her steps and paused in front of the hardware store next to the bank. Mary watched people filter in and out the front door, revealing that it was indeed a legitimate business but Mary could not understand why they would be taken to such a public place? Mary considered going to the sheriff and then decided that was a bad idea. She did not doubt that they were all wanted on charges of horse theft and entanglements with the law was the last thing she wanted to deal with at the moment. Mary could not understand why they were taken? The plates were in the room with them, if Inez and the others were captured there, surely their kidnappers would have found the object?

Unless they did not find it and Inez, Alex and Julia were being held until it was produced.

Mary thought furiously, realizing that if there was any hope for her friends then she would have to do something now and she would have to do it alone. Of course, she had no idea how to storm a bank no less and rescue her them but those were minor details she would solve as she went along. Mary turned away from the hardware store and was about to return to the hotel in order to retrieve the package for that was her only bargaining point at the moment and she would need it to barter for the lives of her companions. Suddenly, she caught sight of something beneath the canvas sheet on the back of wagon holding stationary along the sidewalk. The wagon was unmanned and no doubt its owner was presently in the hardware store, purchasing goods.

Mary saw the box staring at her and slowly a plan started to form in her head. She had promised Chris Larabee that she would not get into any more trouble and since this whole situation more or less decided that promise had not one she was going to keep, Mary decided to take it one step further.

Without saying another word, she reached under the canvas and pulled out the box. It was heavy but she could manage it and did so without being seen.

Hurrying away from the scene of her crime, she wondered how much of a criminal record she would have by the time this whole thing was over. .

Lawrence Preston had a dream.

He wanted to be rich. He was already rich but he wanted to be so rich that it positively boggled the mind and he wanted to be that way for no other reason, than the challenge of aspiring to see it done. He had indulged in legitimate forms of achieving his gold and soon found it inadequate to the herculean task he had set for himself. Thus, he began indulging in other avenues of reaching his goal and until this point had been making steady progress.

While most men might have baulked at the idea of hiring a female mercenary to handle his shadier dealings, some could not even fathom the existence of such a thing; Preston had found Selena Quint to be quite the professional. In fact, he had never found reason to complain until this instance and it particularly irked this time because the job to which he had assigned her to was the most important undertaking that he had ever set him to accomplishing. Now thanks to circumstances and he was starting to question was not pure bungling, months of hard work was in jeopardy thanks to the three women before him less one who was still at large, with his property in her possession.

He was not very impressed.

"So am I to understand that your companion had my plate?" He glared at the women from behind the desk, inside the manager's office of the bank. The manager had been dismissed for the day while Preston had commandeered the room to conduct his business. He owned a number of local banks scattered across the Territory, mostly because some investment adviser had convinced him the merits of having one's foot through the door in the frontier.

"Answer him." Selena ordered sharply when none of the women chose to answer. They were seated on chairs facing the desk with Burke and Selena keeping a vigil on them while Lawrence Preston held them a captive audience.

"Yes." Inez said sarcastically and fell silent again. She sent an icy stare at Preston as she was forced to speak.

"And what would her name be?" Preston asked again, emerging from behind the heavy walnut desk to pace the floor before them. He was not a very impressive man, dressed in fine clothes but bearing what seemed like a permanent sneer on those otherwise ordinary features. In a crowd, he would be utterly unforgettable if not for the money at his disposal. He studied at them with watery coloured blue eyes like they were something that should be dissected to satisfy his curiosity.

"Who?" Alex quipped and promptly felt Selena shove her head forward roughly. The doctor winced but offered no more than that.

"Mary Travis." Julia answered and received furious stares from Alex and Inez respectively. "They have all our identification anyway," the Easterner spoke in her own defense. "They have the names, just not the faces."

"Very astute." Preston said offering her a smile because she was an exceedingly beautiful woman. He did not care much for the other two but he found all that red hair charming and perhaps worth a night's amusement. "So I take it Mrs. Travis has my property?"

"Yes," Julia nodded, continuing the lie she had used earlier to keep the duo from searching their lodgings and finding the package. Julia knew that as long as they were not in possession of their prize, they would not kill her or her friends. "Mary took it to the sheriff."

"You will retrieve it." Preston said shifting his gaze from Julia's expression of fear to Selena's colder visage. There was no question that the instruction was not a request. He expected it done. "Kill the sheriff and anyone else who might have seen it but do so Selena."

"What about these?" Selena nodded in answer and gestured to their three hostages. "We can let them go with what they know."

"Agreed," Preston nodded. "Keep them here until nightfall." He said taking a step towards Julia. He reached for her chin and let a finger stroke Julia's cheek. When she pulled away in disgust, he balled his fist and met Selena's eyes after a flash of hatred surfaced in his own. "Then kill them, including the other one." He retorted and then sent a cold smile of satisfaction at Julia for her trespass.

"Yes Mr. Preston." Selena replied coolly, not really expecting anything different. In this type of business, it was never wise to leave loose ends. Besides, this entire enterprise had been one fiasco after another and Selena had no wish to leave any remnant behind that could remind her of this miserable experience.

"I do not want the bodies found." Preston continued as if the three intended victims were not even in the room. "Once you have my plates, we will meet again in Fort Worth." He gave his instructions like a general about to go into battle, pacing the carpeted floor before them as if he were working out strategies inside his mind.

Alex, Inez and Julia exchanged glances, realizing that their all their lives had suddenly been shortened to a scant few hours unless they thought of a way to escape their current situation. Unfortunately, with the two mercenaries behind them, whom they now knew as Burke and Selena, holding guns to their heads, the chances of that seemed unlikely and they doubted that the lawmen of Four Corners were going to come riding to their rescue in a blaze of glory.

Suddenly, without warning, a tremendous explosion shattered the silence of their thoughts and office. The shock wave sent shudders throughout the building, shaking the foundations until streams of plaster were shaken loose and drifted through the air. Everyone in the room collectively jumped at the sound and it was Preston who found his voice first.

"What the hell was that?" He shouted as he heard screams and panicked cries beyond the office doors.

The words had no sooner past his lips, when another explosion rocked the building. .

Of all the plans that Mary Travis had ever concocted in her head, it was quite possible that this was the worst. Actually worst was an incorrect word, a more accurate description was perhaps desperate. This was the most desperate plan she had ever had. After returning to the lodging house and searching the room thoroughly and then to her chagrin realizing that her friends had hidden her bag in the most obvious place which was incidentally the last place she looked, Mary had returned to the bank.. At first she thought of the most effective way to implement her foolhardy rescue attempt, asking herself what Chris would do in this situation, then of course, she remembered that it was not a fair comparison.

Since Chris would not have gotten into trouble in the first place!

Mary returned to the bank, armed with a dozen sticks of dynamite and a gun carefully hidden in her basket. She strolled into the premises looking like one of the customers as she stood at one of the tables, pretending to work through some deposit slips. In the mean time, Mary watched surreptitiously the people going in and out of the door, counting how many there were and taking note of the premises as if she was about to rob the place instead of simply bringing it down over their heads. She could not see Inez and the others in the immediate vicinity but had noticed the door to the manager's office. If her friends were anywhere, it was in that room.

As discreetly as she could, Mary produced a stick of dynamite; one of several actually tucked in the waistband of her skirt. Secretly, she hoped that the room was large enough and strong enough to endure the blast without toppling the entire roof and burying them all in a mountain of rubble and debris. No one paid much attention to her when she struck a match and even less when she tossed it to the corner of the room, looking up only at the sound it made when it hit the floor. The hiss of the fuse sparked some interest as a teller wrinkled his brow while shuffling some notes, trying to decipher what the strange sound could be and noticed Mary crossing the room but heading not towards him but to the farthest end of the room.

Mary dropped to her knees and covered her ears as the fuse burned to its end. Only then did the tellers behind the counter and the iron bars protecting it, look at her strangely, wondering what she was doing until they followed her frightened gaze and rested upon the stick of dynamite that sizzling to its explosive finale.

The explosion was loud and destroyed everything in close proximity to the nucleus of the blast. Wood floorboards buckled under the force of the shock wave and burned lustily as the concrete walls shuddered and plaster crumbled to the floor from the cracks in the brick. Furniture in the immediate vicinity was completely obliterated, their smoking embers covering the floor as the room descended into panic. Mary did not allow the bank's staff to regain their composure. Being ready for the pandemonium had given her a head start at recovery and she stood up straight and silence them with the gun she had produced. Mary aimed it at them with the convincing portrayal of someone who was not afraid to fire.

"Get out." She said coldly, waving them towards to the door with the weapon.

"Are you crazy!" One of the tellers shouted angrily, still unable to believe a woman could have caused this chaos. "You could have killed us all!"

"I still can." Mary cocked the gun just to demonstrate her resolve. "Now get out!" She barked. Hesitation ebbed away as the bodies filed past her, eager to escape this madwoman who was armed with explosives and bullets. They had not even started to file out of the room when Mary produced another stick of dynamite, which only created more pandemonium amongst them, as they rushed to escape. Mary was hardly concerned about them; it was what was happening behind that door which worried her most.

The only reason they had not emerged yet was because they were too busy trying to understand what was happening. That state of affairs would not last for long. Mary lit another stick of dynamite and threw it at the door, hoping no one was anywhere near it. The building was solid concrete but it was not that strong that it could withstand any more bombardment by such explosive force. It could easily crumble the entire structure like a house of cards. Still, she could think of no other way to help Alex, Inez and Julia.

Once again, she took cover behind the counter as the fuse began to sizzle. .

The doors were blow off their hinges. Strips of wood flew in all directions as the group inside the room ducked for cover. Smoke filled the air as more plaster started to rain down on them as well as the debris of the blast. However, for the three women whose lives were in the hands of those who intended taking it soon enough, the opportunity to escape was too good. Alex jumped to her feet first, pulling her chair from under her and swinging hard against Burke, who was gaping at the door and the partially blown away doorway. The walls were starting to heave as if the concussion it was enduring was too much for it. The big man turned around just in time to see the heavy chair smash into his body. He let out a slight groan of pain as he staggered against the wall.

Selena in the meantime swung the gun at Alex to shoot but Inez grabbed her arm and forced it aside. The gun fired but the bullet dug harmlessly into a wall. The mercenary who had better skills than she did was not about to let go and once again, it required Julia's intervention to even the odds. Digging all ten digits into the woman's hand, Julia pulled back handful of dark mahogany hair, dragging her head with it. Selena let out a slight scream of pain as she fought the two women off and felt her grip on the gun she was holding starting to slip. It dropped to the floor as Inez scrambled to pick it up.

"You stupid bitches!" Selena snarled furiously. "I'm going to cut your fucking hearts out by the time I'm done with you."

Alex in the meantime had noticed that Preston was moving towards her and between the recovering Mr. Burke and him, was at a loss what to do. She picked up another chair because Burke was the greater of two evils. This time, because the man was on his knees, Alex was able to break the chair over his head. The resounding crash dropped him to his knees again before the strength drained form his body. His enormous bulk collapsed under the intense pain and he fell forward, his face meeting the floor first with a loud thud.

"Nice try but not good enough little girl." Preston slipped his arm around her throat and trapped Alex in a forceful arm lock. Alex struggled to free herself but his grip was strong and vise like around her neck, not to mention that he was fueled by the outrage of what was happening.

"I wouldn't say that." Mary stepped out from the smoke and debris, gun aimed firmly at the man who had Alex so helplessly in his grip. "Let her go." Mary said in her strongest imitation of Chris when he was at his bad element worst.

"Ah our last player." Preston sneered. "You have my plate."

"You have my friend." Mary retorted. "Let her go or you won't have your head either."

"You don't have the guts to pull that trigger." He taunted her, glaring at her like she was some stupid female.

Mary was about to prove just how wrong he was.

"I had the guts to blow up your bank." Mary said with a smile of her own. "Now let her go!" The widow shouted.

Preston swore loudly and shoved Alex forward as he realized that he was in no position to bargain with a gun pointed at him. Alex was still coughing from the tension around her throat and massaged her neck as she staggered forward. She seemed shaken but as Mary had come to know about Alex, very little could phase the doctor for too long. She recouped her strength and hurried to Mary before hearing the widow quickly respond. "My basket is out there, get it and get out, we'll meet you outside. You too Julia!"

"No arguments from me!" Alex croaked through her sore throat and disappeared out the door.

"Come on," Mary gestured towards Inez and Julia to leave Selena alone since Inez had more or less taken her gun from the women. "We're getting out of here."

Julia let go of Selena's hair, letting the woman fall to her knees as Inez aimed her own gun at her. Frightened and feeling completely out depth by resorting to such physical displays of violence, Julia heeded Mary's advice and hurried out to join Alex. The mercenary glared at both women with black hatred as they ran past her, heading towards the door where Mary was waiting for them.

"We'll hunt you down!" Selena screamed with uncharacteristic fury. "We'll find you!"

"You have to catch us first!" Inez snorted as she joined Mary at the door.

Mary fumbled the stick of dynamite tucked in her clothes before handing it to Inez. "Light it!"

Inez's eyes widened in shock until she saw Mary was completely serious. The blond woman handed her a match and turned back to Selena and Preston, keeping the gun trained in their direction and leaving Inez to do what she asked. Inez's hand shook as she lit the length of fuse extending from the actual gelignite.

Selena and Preston's eyes revealed genuine fear as they saw the fuse sputter to life and then began to burn strongly. The small flame started eating its way towards the reactive chemicals.

"Throw it and get the hell out of here!" Mary ordered her best friend.

It was one order she did not have to repeat twice as Inez flung the dangerous item into the room, letting it disappear within the shadows beneath the desk before she ran out of the place as per Mary's request. Preston and Selena's gaze followed the disappearing stick of dynamite, desperately fighting the urge to lunge after it because they were terribly aware of the gun pointed at them. It was precisely the reaction Mary was hoping for.

"You got don't have a lot of time," Mary said with a smile as she took a hasty step back, preparing to make her own departure. "Better start looking now."

With that, she turned on her heels and exited the building as Preston and Selena went scrambling to put out the fuse because they were not going to get out of there before the dynamite blew the room apart.

Part Five

Wanted: Dead or Alive

"I can't breathe!" Mary gasped as she clutched her stomach and struggled for air. The lack of oxygen reaching her lungs had little to do with the fact that she, Inez, Alex and Julia had raced across town in a desperate bid to get as much distance between the bank and herself. Instead as they came to a pause in an alley away from the crowds who were rushing towards the commotion she had created, the adrenalin that had spurred to her rescue her friends had more or less dwindled. Like a cold splash of water against her skin, Mary Travis realized with sudden and acute clarity what she had done.

"What is it? Are you hurt?" Alex asked as she approached Mary upon hearing the widow's laboured breathing. Meanwhile Inez kept a vigil at the mouth of the alley to ensure no one was in pursuit. Fortunately, the alley did not culminate in a dead end as it ran between the large hotel and large general store. Outside in the main street, they could heard frantic voices shouting with excitement as the commotion regarding the destruction at the bank spread through town like wildfire.

"No, I'm not hurt!" Mary exclaimed, with nothing less than pure panic in her blue grey eyes as she looked up at Alex with wide eyed fear. "I just blew up a bank!" At the time, she had felt no fear, no worries about what she was doing only the welfare of her friends had been paramount in her mind. However, now that the danger has passed for the moment at least, the enormity of what she suddenly overwhelmed her. Mary found herself leaning against the wall breathing hard, almost doubled over as she struggled to breath while at the same time coming to grips with what she had done.

"You came to our rescue!" Julia reminded. "It was extremely brave! I am sure Mr. Larabee would have been proud."

"Don't mention the C word!" Alex hissed at the petite redhead because she knew just how Mary would react to that comment.

"Oh my God!" Mary groaned in realization just as Alex had predicted. The doctor winced grimaced as Mary descended into darker depths of despair while throwing Julia a frowned look. "I forgot about Chris!"

"If it makes you feel any better, we're in the same boat." Alex implored. "People saw us all leave!" The doctor said trying to help Mary breathe normally before she had an attack of serious hyperventilation. "Vin is never going to let me live this down either."

"Not to mention, Ezra." Julia retorted. "When I think of the smug way he is going to stare at me, full of southern superiority, I just want to wipe that slimy grin off his face. ."

"Hey!" Alex said to Julia sharply. "Let's not lose it here." She turned to Mary once again. "Mary, you did what had to be done. If it was not for you, we'd still be trapped in there with that lunatic and his hired killers."

"Yes, I know but I blew up a bank!" Mary declared frantically. She could not even begin to imagine the world of trouble she had descended upon herself and her companions. The entire town would be mobilized and hunting for their heads.

"Chris is going to kill me!" Mary gushed, shaking her head in disbelief at her actions since leaving Four Corners She hardly recognized herself in the wake of the things she had been called on to do during this trip. "He is literally going to kill me."

"Of course, he's not." Alex rolled her eyes in exasperation wondering how someone as cool as Mary Travis could go to such pieces. In light of what she had just done to save them all, it seemed somewhat trivial to be worrying about what Chris Larabee would do. Although secretly, Alex would give her right arm to see the look on the gunslingers face when he came riding into town and found out that Mary blew up a building and was probably wanted for bank robbery or destruction of property, which ever came first. In fact, now that Alex thought about it, the look on Chris' face would almost be as priceless as the look on Vin's face when he learnt of their adventures.

Suddenly, she could understand why Mary was hyperventilating.

"Well think of it this way," Alex sighed unable to see anything positive now that she had a chance to consider the situation in depth. "Chances are, you will be locked up with the rest of us long before Chris could ever get his hands on you."

"Alex!" Julia swatted her on the arm. "This is hardly the time for your twisted sense of humour." The eastern glared at her reproachfully.

"I'll have you know Vin loves my twisted sense of humour." Alex said in her most dignified voice and then turned back to Mary. On a more serious note, she leaned closer to the widow whose breathing was still frantic. In a completely different tone of voice, Alex decided to lay it on the line for her. "Mary we need you to be strong for us or none of us will get out of this alive. So please, pull yourself together because we need to decide what to do now. It won't be long before Preston comes after us and you know he will because we still have what he wants."

"Come on Mary." Julia lent support to Alex's argument now that the doctor was making the effort to reach the widow sensibly instead of her half witted attempts at humour. Julia found that Alexandra Styles often resorted to that habit whenever she felt threatened. Julia could not blame her or Mary for being so shaken at what was happening to them, not when she felt similar tendrils of fear sneaking up her spine as she recounted how easy Preston had found it to order Selena to have them all killed. She had no doubt whatsoever that if not for Mary's timely arrival, they would have been dead by nightfall.

"We better get moving!" Inez cried out as she came running down the aisle towards them. The lady bartender stopped short when she saw the group had frozen in place like flies trapped in amber. There was no time for such delays, not when it appeared she had seen Selena and Burke on the street combing the area for them. "What are you waiting for?" The Mexican looked at them in question. They had to get moving now.

"Mary's a little upset." Alex explained glancing at the newspaperwoman's direction.

"I'm not surprised! She just blew up a bank!" Inez retorted and then saw how quiet Mary was. It was too strange for her to deal with and in truth, they had not the time for it. "Don't worry, I've seen her like this before." The bartender reassured the other two women as she took a closer step towards Mary before giving the widow a gentle shove. "Snap out of it!" Inez barked without any tact whatsoever. "Those two are on the streets out there looking for us. We've got to leave now." Instinctively, Alex and Julia's gazes shifted involuntarily at the direction from which Inez had just come.

Inez's words seemed to reach Mary and the blond let out a deep breath, dispelling her fears and calming herself at the same time. After a moment, she looked up at them and allowed her gaze to sweep across their faces as she felt the same surge of adrenalin rushing through her veins that had allowed her to rescue them so fearlessly. "Let's get off the streets first," Mary said quietly. "We can decide what to do when we are not exposed for anyone to just find us."

"It's a plan." Inez threw her a comforting smile as Mary started walking down the opposite direction of the alley.

As they started walking, Alex noticed Julia Pemberton eying her with an accusatory gleam in her emerald coloured eyes. "What?" Alex asked, feeling self conscious by the woman's gaze.

"Why didn't you think of that?" Julia asked with a smug smile.

"Oh shut up." Alex retorted and walked on ahead with Julia wearing a satisfied smirk.

Mary strode down the alley, trying to decide what to do when she saw the rear entrance of the hotel. With the need to get off the streets imperative now, it seemed like no better place than any other to seek refuge while they came up with a new strategy. Obviously now it was impossible to remain in Winston Falls with the destruction of the bank not to mention the formidable presence of the mercenaries who were not doubt hunting them at this moment. Once the pandemonium caused by the bank had died down, questions would be asked and no doubt blame would require assignment. The staff inside the damage premises had seen her and would undoubtedly offer her as the only suspect.

"In here." She said to Inez as Mary gave the door knob an experimental twist and found to her relief that it was not locked.

"Good," Inez let out a sigh of relief. "We really need to get out of town."

"We'll never make it out of here unless we can get past those two not to mention the law, when they get around looking." Mary replied as they entered the building.

"You think they will?" Julia asked, her eyes darting around the kitchen area they had entered.

"I guarantee it." Alex retorted, returning the suspicious looks being flashed by the kitchen staff as the four women intruded on their domain. The Four Corners quartet attempted to look casual as they moved through the tables where kitchen hands were preparing food while chef stood over steamy pots and pans and performed their culinary expertise of the aromatic concoctions within.

Leaving the steamy heat of the kitchen, they proceeded down the corridor that would eventually take them to the front desk of the hotel when suddenly Inez caught sight of something that gave her an idea. "Mary," she hissed. "In here."

The woman quickly slipped into the room without hesitation and will full expectation that her companions would follow. Mary wrinkled her brow in confusion as did Julia and Alex until they saw the sign on the door.


The three women entered the room hastily and shut the door behind them once they were through . The room was filled with hampers that were filled with laundry awaiting the wash. The smell of detergent was heavy in the air as Inez went rummaging through the clothes. There hats awaiting brushing down perched on shelves, along with shoes that needed cleaning and linen and other garments. Several wash buckets and an internal pump stood on the left wall of the room, no doubt where the actual laundering would take place.

"Please tell me, you're joking." Julia said with distaste as she saw Inez fish out a pair of dark trouser from one pile and slung it over her shoulder. "Please tell me you're not expecting us to do what I think you are." The easterner wrinkled her nose in obvious dislike to the possibility of what was looming fast into reality.

"It's the only way." Inez replied without looking up at her as she continued her search.

"Inez is right," Mary agreed. "Everyone is looking for four women, at least they will be soon enough." The editor of the Clarion News took a tentative step forward, examining which hamper she would begin her search and decided very quickly that the one closest to her was as good as any. "We can't keep up this game of cat and mouse any longer. We've got to stay in town long enough for the men to find us. If we keep running from town to town, we're definitely going to get ourselves caught or killed."

"But they're all dirty." Julia whined as she saw Inez having selected herself some rather drab clothing The lady bartender wasted no time in starting to remove her clothes. "Hurry up!" Inez urged as she prepared to strip down her skirt. "We don't have a lot of time!"

"Come on Julia," Alex sighed as she took the woman's elbow and led her forward towards the motley collection of clothes. "Its time to find you that special look."

Seacourt was on a quest. He had seen the destruction of the bank and saw the four women making a hasty departure. In the pandemonium of crowds that filled the streets, attracted to the commotion, he had lost sight of them and was now forced to search the place until he located them again. For some reason, Selena and Burke were also in pursuit and their desire to find the women only served to convince Seacourt that he needed to find them first.

With the presence Lawrence Preston, Seacourt did gain an advantage because he finally a name to which he could place the mastermind of this operation. He knew Preston by reputation. The man was one of the richest people in the United States. Preston owned everything from banks to gold mines to factories is New York to vast tracks of fertile land in California and throughout Texas. It was impossible to adequately pinpoint the complete sum of his assets because Seacourt was certain that not even the government could keep track of his net worth.

Preston had always been a suspect but until now, no conclusive proof had ever linked him to any illegal dealings. However, even Seacourt had underestimate the grand scheme he had in mind with the package that Sanderson had discovered. At the moment however, all Seacourt had was supposition. The hard evidence he required to finish Preston once and for all would only come he could find those four women and find out what they knew.

Somehow, they were the keys to the whole thing.

"I am not leaving this room." Julia Pemberton said defiantly. "I will not be seen like this." She folded her arms in protest as she stared at her companions in a show of refusal.

Mary rolled her eyes in exasperation, a feeling she was certain was collective among the rest of them at this moment. It was bad enough that Julia was right, they did look silly and it was uncomfortable and the smell of some of these clothes were bad enough but at the moment, their options were limited. Julia stood in front of them wearing a badly fitting brown suit that hung off her small frame like a blanket but fortunately, the shapelessness of the man's suit was enough to hide her other more feminine features.

"Julia we don't have time for this." Mary growled, feeling a slight itch under her neck where the flannel of the shirt she was wearing and was forced to adjust the collar once more to make it partially tolerable. "We need to get out of sight and trust me, we will attract attention if they find us in here!"

"Why can't we book ourselves into a room here and just hide!" Julia asked, not at all eager to emerge in any public place looking like this.

"Because they will find us!" Inez snapped just as annoyed. She adjusted the suspenders she was wearing when she felt the pants she was wearing starting to slip down her hips. How on earth did Vin Tanner wear these things! Inez was tempted to ask but decided she would not be improving the current mood in the room.

"All right, I'll handle this." Alex spoke up, trying to be the voice of reason in all this because she was not happy wearing this disgusting shirt with its smells, or tucking her dark hair under a dusty hat and the whole idea of wearing pants felt odd and uncomfortable. To say nothing of the chaffing. "Julia, you can come with us willingly or I can drag you out there kicking and screaming. The choice is up to you. Remember, I still have all this hostile feelings towards you just waiting for release." She narrowed her eyes as the woman to show her just how serious she was.

"You wouldn't." Julia retorted, taking a cautious step backwards and glanced at Mary and Inez.

"She would." Mary nodded with a wicked smile.

"Oh just come on!" Inez groaned and started out the door.

"Okay!" Julia released a loud cry of exasperation as she realized that she was out voted on this point three to one. "I'm going! I'm going! But I swear if Ezra sees me like this, I am forgiving none of you."

"We'll try and live with the pain." Mary remarked as she followed Inez out.

"And take that floral hair clip out of your hair," Alex suggested as Julia started to put the slouch hat on her head. "Who ever saw a man with flowers in his hair?"

They moved through the hotel quickly, making their way through the corridor with as much speed as possible in their hasty need to leave the premises immediately. Winston Falls was a large town, larger than Four Corners and hopefully big enough so that they could hide their faces for the few hours it would take for Chris and the men to arrive. Hopefully, the law in the town would be searching for four women and not four men in ill fitting clothes. As they stepped out of the main entrance of the hotel, Mary could still see the attention still focused on the damage she had inflicted upon the bank. Groups of people were gathered around it and Mary recognized some of them as the bank tellers as well as tall imposing men wearing the Silver Star of the law who were questioning witnesses. While the explosions had not caused the structure to collapse, the building did not look very safe either.

"Where to now?" Inez whispered as they continued further away from the centre of town. They kept to the board walk that run up the length of the town, never making eye contact with anyone while keeping their faces to the ground.

"I'm not sure." Mary said as she brushed past the people going in the opposite direction, taking care to keep her face hidden beneath the hat she was wearing. In fact, they were all forced to don a varying collection of head apparel because there was no other way to keep their hair hidden.

"These pants are killing me." Julia complained through gritted teeth when there was no one near them.

"Grin and bear it." Alex hissed, just as irritated by this costume she was forced to wear. "We're all chaffing."

"Quiet!" Inez suddenly spoke up as she caught sight of Selena and Burke who appeared through the narrow crevice between a lodging house and some other building. The duo was about to cross the street and would head straight at them! Fortunately, neither had not seen the women yet or if they did, certainly did not recognize their quarry immediately. In any case, it was not wise to allow them the chance to do so. Inez looked around and saw a door with a sign that said 'welcome all' and decided it was as good a place as any to make a hasty retreat.

"Come on!" She said quickly and hurried up the steps into the inviting doors of the large house that sat almost at the far corner of town. There was little time to argue as Mary went after her into the building closely followed by Alex and Julia. Casting a glance over her shoulder as she disappeared through the door, Mary noticed that Burke and Selena were oblivious to their flight. The mercenaries were still on the other side of the street, still surveying the area as she disappeared indoors.

The first thing Mary noticed when the door closed behind them was the colour of the wall paper. It was deep burgundy shade that while being an interesting choice seemed somewhat garish against the polished wooden banisters and the smooth paneled floors. A huge chandelier hung in the front foyer as and a rather heavy women in bright colours greeted them through the velvet curtains that led from an adjoining room.

"Well hello there." She smiled, her face almost pink from the liberal application of rouge across her skin. Mary was sure the beauty spot on her cheek was hand drawn. "What can I do for you boys?"

"Boys?" Mary said trying to do her best imitation of a male voice and then cursing silently to herself and wondering if this humiliation would ever end.

"Oh I'm sorry," she replied coming towards Mary and slipping and gloved arm around her shoulder as she lead Mary through the curtains. "I should have said young strapping men. Now you tell ol' Betsy what's your pleasure."

"My pleasure?" Mary asked finding it difficult to keep her voice so low and she was getting more confused when she passed through the red velvet curtains that led to the next room.

The room was dimly lit, with the same dark curtains covering every window that might allow natural light. The same brocade patterned burgundy paper covered the walls and with occupied wing chairs and divans stretched across the polished floors. There was the faint aroma of incense burning in the room for the scent reminded Mary of roses or something whose scent was just as sweet. The chairs were occupied by men who were in turn being 'entertained' by women clad in their underwear. It took Mary approximately two seconds to realize exactly where this place was that Inez had deemed to be an appropriate.

"Where the hell are we!" Julia hissed when the realization struck her and she looked around like a deer trapped in a hunter's sights. She had heard about this places and knew that her experience in Wickestown was not the normal way such 'houses' operated. Although there was some fascination in her mind about the establishment, it struck her with a splash of cold water that ol' Betsy thought they were men or young strapping men who were in need of her girls' expertise. Julia's disguise allowed her to pass for a young man but it wasn't that good.

"I think we have a problem." Alex replied in the understatement of the year.

"Gee, you think?" Julia shot her a venomous look.

"Quiet!" Inez looked at them both sharply. "Do you want to give this thing away?"

"Give what away?" Julia whispered angrily. "I am not going upstairs with a working girl. I can tell you right now this disguise is not going to fool her for long if she expects me to have sex!"

"Inez is right," Alex gripped Julia's arm to remind her to lower her voice. "Just shut up until we figure this out and Inez," the doctor looked at the lady bartender. "Next time, do you think you could just take a quick look at where we're going before you say 'this way'?"

Inez frowned and turned back to Mary who was staring at Betsy with wide eye terror as the woman apparently explained what was available and whom they could do it to, with or without the benefit of hot oils and minty gels.

"Don't worry sugar," Betsy said oozing tender concern. "My girls are clean and they know how to take care of first timers like all of you." Betsy let her gaze move across the face of the 'young men' in front of her.

"But. ." Mary opened her mouth to speak when Betsy waved to some unoccupied young women at the far end of the room who immediately began sauntering towards her in a most seductive fashion. After being chased off a train by hired killers, being forced to face off with angry gamblers in a saloon and having to blow up a building to free her friends, Mary Travis felt genuine terror that surpassed all that in the light this new horror.

"Charlotte," Betsy replied, ignoring Mary's protest which she put down to youthful inexperience. "Now I want you to take this handsome boy upstairs and show him what it takes to be a man."

Somehow, Mary just knew she was not going to rise to the occasion. Charlotte slithered up to Mary and reached for her hat before the widow could stop her. Mary made a wild grab to prevent her from reaching the dusty hat but it was too late. Golden hair spilled out from beneath it, falling around her ears as everyone in the room stared at her in shock.

"You're a girl!" Betsy exclaimed outraged. Charlotte took a step back and dropped the hat on the floor.

"This was a mistake. ."Mary tried to explain and wondered what story could even sound remotely plausible to this woman at this moment. It did not take Betsy to make the leap to realize that all four possible customers were women instead of men. Her eyes narrowed in anger as she glared at them before her crimson face paled enough for her to respond. The men in the room were scattering for the door, as if the presence of women who weren't working girls had killed their romantic ardor. Only a few remained who were unperturbed by the extraordinary turns of events. Mary assumed these were not the customers who were married.

"Look honey," Betsy said placing her hands on her hips and glaring at Mary critically. "I know they go in for that strange stuff in the big cities but my girls don't do that sort of thing."

Alex had to ask. "What sort of thing?"

"You know, women who like laying with other women. My girls are strictly for men only." Betsy replied in no uncertain terms.

The jaws of all four women dropped collectively in outrage.

"We are not here for anything like that!" Julia declared indignantly.

"Then what are you here for?" The Madam demanded.

"Nothing!" Inez said quickly putting a stop to this before it got even further out of hand. "Mary pick up your hat and let's just go!"

Mary could not fault that reasoning, wondering if she would ever live down the mortification of this sorry mess and prayed if there was a God anywhere in the universe, that Chris would never find out about this particular leg of her nice simple trip to Denver.

"Without doubt," Mary groaned as they left the establishment and stepped onto the boardwalk again. "That was the single most embarrassing moment of my life." Her pale skin was almost red from the shame at being ejected from the brothel so unceremoniously.

"I didn't know what the place was!" Inez spoke out in her defense. "I just thought we had to get off the streets!" As she made mention of that, she allowed her gaze to move across the street and to her relief saw no signs of either Burke or Selena for the moment. At least for the immediate present, they were safe.

"I can't get the idea out of my head." Alex mused, looking somewhat dazed herself.

"What idea?" Mary looked at her in question.

"The idea of that woman thinking we were into that strange stuff."

"Oh please!" Julia exclaimed with disgust. "Must we relive that whole sordid episode?" She cried. "Its bad enough we're wanted for blowing up the bank but now, thanks to Inez, they'll think we're bunch of sexual deviants as well."

"Suffice to say, the posse that comes after us will be very motivated." Alex could not resist adding.

Despite the urgency of the situation, they could not help but laugh at that prospect and after the absurdity of where they had been, it almost seemed perfectly natural to be laughing on the board walk like loons, even though there were mercenaries hunting them at that very moment. The women indulged in few seconds of jovial relief before Mary sobered up first and decided on their next plan of action.

"I think we should split up." She suggested.

"Good idea." Inez agreed. "As long as we are four, they can track us."

"Is that such a good idea Mary?" Alex inquired. "We've been doing okay so far because we're together. I don't want to think what could happen if we're alone."

"We don't have a choice, we need to get indoors and hide out. I say we try the saloon." Mary suggested. "It's not the kind of place that would ask too many questions if we got lodgings. I say we split up and make our way there."

No one could deny the logic of her claim and reluctantly, Mary broke away first deciding to take the initiative. She continued down the boardwalk to the only saloon in Winston Falls that had lodgings. Meanwhile, the trio behind her lingered to talk for a while before scattering at regular intervals until they were all finally on the way. Mary hurried to the saloon unhampered and for the moment, unrecognized. Occasionally, she was forced to tuck her hair under the hat when a loose strand threatened to give her away.

For the time being however, the law in Four Winston Falls was more preoccupied by taking down names to organize a posse to hunt down the women who had brought so much chaos into their normally quiet town. It gave Mary some comfort knowing that they believed she and her party had already departed the town. It never even occurred to them that their suspects were still in town. Mary saw now reason to change that perception because it eliminated one hindrance while allowing them time to try and think of some way to deal with the other.

Mary kept her eyes trained for either Burke or Selena as she journeyed to the saloon, hoping that their absence before her did not mean that Inez, Alex or Julia had instead encountered them. She knew that Burke wanted to hurt her personally because she had incapacitated him in the train. Selena however frightened Mary even more because there was no personal agenda in her actions. The mercenary looked at her like a job that needed doing.

Suddenly without warning , a voice spoke in her ear. "Which one are you?" The decidedly male speaker asked with complete politeness.

Mary practically jumped out of her skin as she looked to her side and saw the handsome stranger who had come to their defense in the saloon at Stone Creek. However, she was not fool enough to trust him. "You're a long way from Stone Creek." Mary pointed out.

"So are you but I asked the question first." He reminded her with a charming smile. He was dressed impeccably, looking not all that different from Ezra Standish at that moment. He had dark mahogany coloured hair and soft blue eyes that stared at her with the barest hint of amusement reflecting form its depths.

Mary had no intention of answering him, not when she had no clue as to who he was and how he had managed to see through her disguise to recognize her so easily. "I won't answer until you do."

"Spoken like a woman." He declared. "Although your clothes could use some work and a wash." He noted with a wrinkled nose.

"Sir, I am in no mood for levity." Mary said coldly, continuing to walk although she was uncertain whether or not she should continue to the saloon. If he was one of Preston's cadres, there was no way she was leading him to the others.

"Neither am I." He said firmly. "And you do need my help if Burke and Selena are after you."

Mary froze in her tracks as her eyes snapped to meet his. "Who are you?" She finally asked, realizing that her need to know outweighed the risks.

"My name is Seacourt." He introduced himself, tipping his hat slightly..

"Jeremy Seacourt?" Mary exclaimed.

"Yes," he nodded, taken back by her knowledge. "How do you know. ."

"Sanderson." The widow said excitedly, feeling a flood of relief that finally someone had arrived that could actually extricate them from this mess. "I'm Mary Travis." She introduced herself deciding that she had little choice but to trust the man.

"Well Mary," Seacourt said with a smile, realizing that she was willing to trust him with the admission of her name. "I think we have a great deal to talk about."

Inez was almost to the saloon when she ran straight into Selena and Burke.

At first, neither recognized her and Inez dropped her gaze to the ground and she attempted to move past them, to afraid to breathe. The mercenaries continued walking a few more steps in the opposite direction, moving towards the hotel again when suddenly Inez heard their footsteps pause. Although there were people all around her, Inez could still hear Selena and Burke in particular. She kept walking, forcing her fear away while acutely aware that they had stopped and were regarding her with recognition.

Inez panicked and started running, which was the worst thing she could have done because it erased any remaining doubt in their mind as to who she was. Inez bolted forward, looking over her shoulder long enough to see Selena and Burke shoving everyone aside in their pursuit. Inez saw the saloon ahead and realized with anguish that she could not go there because to do so would mean exposing the others to them and she was not prepared to lead these killers to her friends. Ducking into an alley in an effort to evade them, Inez felt her heart pounding in her chest as she tried to lengthen the gap between them.

At least the pants made it easier to run, she decided as the walls of the alley narrowed beside her as she entered its confines. Inez could feel her energy start to give out as her legs started to weaken but she forced herself past the walls of woods and brick, assuming that the alley would empty into a backstreet where she could then disappear.

Unfortunately, all she ran into was a wall.

The alley had been cordoned off by another building and Inez's eyes widened in fear at the trap she had ran willingly into. She could hear their foot steps grow louder in intensity behind her as she ran to the door of one of the flanking buildings, shaking frantically at the lock so that it would open. The door refused to budge thanks to the padlock that was firmly secured. Inez let out a small cry of frustration before wondering if it was possible to get past them if she ran up the way she came.

They stopped running when they saw there was no where left for her to go. Despite the futility of the effort, Inez nevertheless tried to get past them. She surged forward, hoping to propel herself ahead with enough speed to slip past the narrow space between them and the wall. However, she had no sooner taken a few steps forward when Burke moved to intercept her. He caught Inez easily with one massive arm and slammed her hard into the brick.

She could see stars in her eyes when she felt her head swim from the impact against the wall. With Burke's considerable weight pressing her against the building, Inez could manage little more than a weak struggle. Her hat fell from her head, spilling dark hair over her shoulders, leaving them no doubt that she was indeed their prey. Still it was not in Inez's nature to endure anything without putting up a considerable fight first and she writhed and pushed in her vain attempt to be free of his grip.

"I would not waste my time." Selena spoke as she came slowly up to Inez, her gun drawn. "I've seen Mr. Burke break men bigger than you with his bare hands, you will not break free." She leaned close to Inez's ears and whispered softly. "You and your friends have caused myself, Mr. Burke and our respectively employer a great deal of trouble." She hissed. "How do you think, you should repay us for that inconvenience?"

Inez spat in her face.

Selena lashed out with a balled fist and connected with the side of Inez's cheek. The Mexican let out a soft cry of pain as the mercenary dug a gloved hand into her dark hair and yanked her hair with such vicious force that Inez could only twist her head painfully to curb some of the pain.

"You're a feisty one aren't you." Selena smiled, wiping the spittle from her face as she glared at Inez with dark eyes. "Well feisty one, I think I had just about enough of your and your stupid friends so here is the deal and listen carefully, because it's the only one you're going to get."

"I will not help you do anything!" Inez hissed, still determined not to show fear even though that was all she could feel. Burke tightened his grip around her as she felt a resurgence of courage and struggled to break free of him again. However, he was still too strong for her.

"Your help is not required." Selena said with a predatory gleam in her eyes. "Only your presence."

She nodded slightly at Burke who in turn snapped his head forward, slamming against Inez with so much power behind the impact that the women in his grasp could do nothing but slacken in his grip as she fell unconscious immediately.

"Shouldn't we have questioned her?" Burke asked once he had swept Inez into his arms.

"No," Selena shook her head. "We are through chasing through town like a bunch of bloodhounds looking for these bitches. We finally have something to bargain with," the mercenary said as she started walking out of the alley, with every expectation that Burke would follow her with their prize in hand. "Next time, they will come to us."

Thanks to her fortuitous meeting with Seacourt, it was her new found ally that procured her and the others lodgings at the saloon while they awaited the arrival of Chris Larabee and company. Mary had a dozen questions for Seacourt but waited until the others arrived. However, as time went on and Mary paced the floor of the dingy room above the main floor of the saloon, it was obvious that one of them was missing. Alex had been the last to arrive, having been directed to the room upstairs by the saloon owner who had been well paid by Seacourt to remain silent about their presence in the establishment.

Alex walked into the room and was immediately bombarded with questions from Mary and Julia, although the sight of Seacourt in the room also gave her some of her own to ask them in turn.

"Have you seen Inez?" Mary demanded as soon as Alex had shut the door behind her.

"No," Alex shook her head. "Not since we split up. Isn't she back yet?"

"We haven't seen her," Julia said freeing herself of her hat and running her fingers through her red hair, to loosen the knots accumulated during its confinement. "She never came back."

"I knew we should not have separated!" Alex swore and saw the expression on Mary's face before quickly responding. "I'm sorry Mary," she replied apologetically. "I know it was the only way to get here safely."

"Not all that safely." Mary frowned, worried because she knew as they all did that if Inez was not here it was because she had been prevented from reaching them.

"Three out of four isn't bad." Alex replied trying to make the woman feel better after her faux pas. She could see the lines of worry on Mary's face and knew that these were accusations Mary had already made to herself.

"The good news is I don't they'll harm her." Seacourt made himself heard, wanting to be of some comfort because it was obvious how close these women were.

Alex turned to him and then to Mary. "Who is this person?"

"That's what I want to know," Julia added, shifting her gaze from Mary and Alex to the handsome stranger who was suddenly in their midst and seemed to know an awful lot about what was going on. Mary had not bothered with the introductions when she had arrived because the widow was still on tenterhooks about Alex and Inez.

"Alexandra Styles, Julia Pemberton, meet Mr. Jeremy Seacourt." Mary introduced as she continued pacing again. She could not relax, not while her best friend was out there somewhere in the clutches of people who would not hesitate to harm her for a piece of metal that could topple a nation into chaos.

"Ladies," Seacourt tipped his hat in their direction briefly. "I am pleased to finally make your acquaintance."

"Mr. Seacourt," Alex responded in a slow measured voice, the clinical detachment of Doctor Styles oozing into her lovely features as she regarded him. "I hope you do not think it rude of me if I were to show some mild irritation and inquire WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?" She demanded. "Do you have any idea what we have been through in the last 48 hours? Could you please explain to us who these people are and how we can get them to stop wanting to kill us?"

Seacourt did not at all seem ruffled by Alex's outburst. In fact he could understand their outrage and wished he could help, however there were still a few gaps in his knowledge that required filling before he could adequately respond to her demanding questions. "I have no idea why they are after you. Do you?"

"I do." Mary sighed and produced the plate that was nestled in the inside pocket of her coat. "A Mr. Sanderson slipped this into my possession."

"You've got it!" Seacourt practically snatched it out of her hand and quickly unwrapped the silken covering around it. In a moment it lay exposed to the man who studied it carefully, almost with an expert eye. "I have been tracking this thing from San Antonio." He explained looking up at Mary as he spoke. "How did it get to you?"

"Sanderson ran into me," Mary answered and went on to relate how Burke and Selena had come after them on the train to Denver, forcing them to flee into the night after an unceremonious disembarkation from the locomotive. While he was aware of what happened to them at Stone Creek, she did explain how Inez, Alex and Julia had been captured by the villains and how she was forced to free them.

"I knew there was a good reason to blow up a bank." Seacourt smiled much to the chagrin of the blond in front of him who threw him a filthy look in turn.

"I am glad you find this so amusing Mr. Seacourt," Mary said folding her arms and staring at him critically. "Now, what is your part in all this?"

"Well," he replied, still unable to wipe that amused smirk of his face. "I work for the government, the Secret Service to be precise."

"You mean like those men who protect the President!" Julia exclaimed with surprise and a hint of girlish excitement.

"That's not all we do," Seacourt answered good naturedly, accustomed to that response from most people. Secret Service men tended to work in the shadows, their presence formidable by their absence. "Aside from body guard detail, we also protect the sanctity of the US government, its ability to function. In this case, the economy of the country. There are three men in the United States who can do the kind of work it took for this plate to be created. These are highly skilled craftsman who are under surveillance at all times."

"I take it without their knowledge." Mary started at him with clear disapproval. This was after all America, land of the free and her journalistic sense of liberalism found such surveillance offensive. Still, this was not the time to voice her politics.

"Mouse won't play if it doesn't think the cat's away." Seacourt remarked and then continued "As of three months ago, one of those men had a very generous amount of money placed in his bank account. Of course, he used an assumed name to hide the money trail but we nevertheless traced it to him. After which we kept a close eye on him, watched his movements very carefully over the next few months. It didn't take us long to discover what he was doing."

"So why didn't you just arrest him?" Alex asked.

"Someone commissioned him to make these plates and at the time we didn't know who that was. Selena Quint and Mr. Burke, who I gather you know very well were the intermediaries at almost every point. We never actually saw where the money was coming from so we couldn't move until then. By the time the plates were ready however, we decided not to wait any longer because we just could not let them be used to make counterfeit currency. It was decided to bring in the good Mr. Lane and the plate and slap him with a ton of indictments before offering him his freedom in exchange for his cooperation."

"I am guessing this flawless plan did not go as anticipated?" Julia looked at him with sarcasm. She hated being embroiled in what was fast appearing to be a bureaucratic bungle of epic proportions.

"The agent involved in bringing him was neutralized and Lane was also killed in the process. Before he died however, Agent Drake managed to dispatch the plate to one of our couriers. However, by then Selena and Burke were aware of the exchange."

"Sanderson." Mary replied nodding in understanding. "Sanderson was the courier."

"Yes," Seacourt nodded sombrely. "He was not much a field agent. All he ever did was deliver messages and documents. This was beyond him but he still managed to keep ahead of them." There was a hint of admiration in Seacourt's voice as he spoke about the late Sanderson.

"Is he dead?" Alex asked quietly, feeling some measure of remorse for this man whom they had met for only a matter of minutes. She felt the death of anyone to be a personal loss because Alex Styles was in the business of saving lives, even the ones who did not require a doctor's expertise.

"They found him when the train got to Denver." Seacourt met her eyes with genuine sorrow in his. "His neck was broken."

"Burke." Mary stated without hesitation. She had seen the size of those hands and knew they were capable of breaking bone with ease. With a shudder, she remembered the threat the mercenary had made and hoped he was not taking out his frustrations on Inez.

"Probably." He sighed.

"And now they have Inez." Julia pointed out. "So are we going to do?"

"There's only one thing to do." Mary whispered as her blue-grey eyes swept across all their faces and they stared back at her in anticipation of some idea at what she was about to say. "We give them the plate. Its what they'll be asking for anyway, if Inez is still alive."

Seacourt agreed with her assessment. "I'd almost guarantee it."

"We have no assurance that even if do give them the plate they'll let us alone or give us back Inez," Alex pointed out suddenly. "You already said that they took precautions to hide Lawrence Preston's complicity in all until this point. He was prepared to kill all of us to hide his secret, any exchange they set up is going to be a trap. We're a loose end."

"You're just a fountain of optimism aren't you." Julia grimaced, not at all happy to hear those words but completely aware that Alex was probably correct in her assessment of the situation.

"She's right though." Seacourt responded. "Any exchange they set up will be a trap."

"Is it still a trap if we know what's coming?" Mary inquired. "They don't know about you, Mr. Seacourt. They'll just be expecting us three."

He started to see what she was getting at. "No, they don't, do they?" A slow smile crossed his face as an idea formulated in his mind.

"I sense you have a plan Mr. Seacourt, do we get to know what it is?" Alex asked, hoping that his scheme would not go as awry as the government's original plan to corner the counterfeit ring and its master. Inez's life hung in the balance of their success in how ingenious he could get. She was tired of this whole business and wanted it put behind her. After all, she was meant to be giving a speech tomorrow in Denver not preparing to walk into a life death situation with a megalomaniacal tycoons with delusions of grandeur.

"A little bit of plan." He flashed the young doctor a debonair grin and then presented it to Mary and Julia as well. "Are you ladies game for some excitement?"

The three women exchanged glances as if that was not already painfully obvious.

It was Mary who finally answered. "After blowing up a bank, anything else is a tough act to follow."

When Chris and the others arrived in the town of Winston Falls, it was well into the night but for some reason, the streets were extremely crowded. The five lawmen from Four Corners rode through the busy main street of town and immediately headed in the direction of livery to stable their horses. This time, Chris knew that the horses needed a lengthy period of rest after submitting to the exhaustive demands of their owners. It was not to say that they were not similarly fatigued as well. The five men had been riding almost all day now and were no further to finding the women, despite the trail of breadcrumbs left in the form of Mary's enigmatic telegrams.

By now, Chris Larabee was almost ready to foam at the mouth. Part of his fury had to do with the fact that he knew nothing of the peril that Mary Travis and her companions now found herself in and that lack of knowledge left him ill equipped to help her. The others in the group were similarly distressed. Vin had descended into a foul mood that was unusual for the unflappable tracker and sharpshooter which no doubt had something to do with the hangover he was suffering. Buck in the meantime, seemed to find the whole thing rather very funny. Chris wondered how much of his humour was not some attempt to hide his own fears regarding the safety of Inez or the uncertain ground his relationship with the beautiful barmaid now found itself.

On the other hand, Chris was certain than he and the others with him were ready to shoot Ezra.

Ever since they had left Stone Creek armed with the knowledge that somehow Alexandra Styles had managed to beat seasoned poker players out of $250, Ezra Standish had been torturing himself with notions that Alex might have let him beat her at poker during all their games together. The gambler had spend most of the journey there debating the subject until the very idea of poker made them all meaner than spit and ready to kill somebody. In this case, being Ezra.

Nathan however, seemed most relaxed and the healer appeared to be enjoying some enormous joke that he was not letting anyone else participate. Chris was almost tempted to ask him what was so funny if his mind was not so wrapped around what Mary was doing at this moment and how much trouble she was getting into. After Stone Creek, his estimation of much trouble Mary could get into would require serious evaluation.

Before leaving the town, Chris had consulted the law in the and discovered that there was indeed a warrant for the arrest of the four women who had stolen horses the night before. The sheriff, a man who understood professional courtesy, was quite reasonable when the situation was explained to him along with the extenuating circumstances. Somehow, Chris had managed to convince the man to drop the charges with assurances that the animals would be returned to their rightful owners soon enough. As for the charges of assault brought on by Lansing, the sheriff had more or less dismissed those claim because witnesses present had testified in favour of the women, stating much of their actions were in self defense

The lawmen left the livery once the horses were properly stabled and made their way through the town which was strangely lively for that time of night. People were gathered in the main square as Chris prepared to search all the lodging houses, knowing that is where Mary and the others would chose to be if they were attempting to remain out of sight since their lives were under threat.

"We best split up." Chris told Vin as they moved deeper into town. "We gotta check all the lodging houses, boarding homes and hotels. They may be hiding from someone but Mary knows they still have to be somewhere we can find them."

"Right." Vin nodded in agreement as they arrived in front of the courthouse and saw the sheriff addressing the crowd.

"Wonder what's going on there?" Buck inquired as the five paused at the scene of the gathering. Horses were mounted and ready to be ridden with people carrying torches and rumbling with descent. Men were loading their shotguns and various other armaments as if in preparation of one hell of a fight.

"Looks like they're fired up about something." Nathan commented.

"Yes," Ezra agreed, if the dark faces in the crowd were anything to go by. There was no doubt in the gambler's mind that there was definitely something unpleasant going on with this community at present. The feverish hunger in their eyes made his skin crawl. The group was quickly descending into mob mentality, a situation that did not bode well for whomever all this aggression was intended. "The mood does seem decidedly ugly."

"We think they went up towards the hills!" The sheriff who had taken centre stage before the mob announced loudly. "Mr. Preston here tell us they got a way with about $500,000 from the vault of the bank after blowing it up and the man who brings in these four dangerous women will be get a reward amounting to the sum of $500 a head!"

Four women?

Chris Larabee's eyes immediately widened and shot a glance at the sheriff who was no doubt organizing a posse to pursue the bank robbers. Without skipping a beat, he strode to one of the men in the crowd gathered before the lawmen and yanked the first person he came across away from the main body to have some questions answered. Chris did not believe in wasting time after hearing a statement like that.

"Did he say that four women robbed the bank?" Chris asked.

"Yes Sir," the elderly man nodded as if this was the most exciting thing to happen to the town in ages. He certainly did not mind being pulled away from the group when he was able to relate what he knew on the subject to the four strangers. "Four women robbed the bank just this afternoon."

Chris exchanged a glance with Vin whose hand immediately flew up to the bridge of his nose as he attempted to dispel the sudden return of his hangover. Buck was staring open mouth and Ezra could hardly say anything because the idea that the four in question were Julia, Mary Alex and Inez was too much for him to comprehend or articulate into any coherent glib remark. Nathan simply wore an expression of disbelief as the man related the story of how four women had blown up the bank this morning using dynamite and then robbing the vault of half a million dollars.

"Any idea what these women looked like?" Chris had to ask, praying that this was all an unhappy coincidence and Mary was in a room somewhere, waiting patiently for his arrival. Perhaps it was a gang of four other women who happened to be in town at the same time with the same tenacity for trouble. Chris knew he was deluding himself but it was almost an unconscious need to rationalize what was happening.

"Don't know about the other three." The man drawled in response, aware that he had the undivided attention of all five men even though he was not certain why. "But Cam Davis who works in the bank, said the leader of the gang was a pretty little thing. Long gold hair and eyes like a dove he said but then Cam can lay it on a bit thick. Anyway, she done walked into the bank and blew up the place with sticks of dynamite. Damn near brought down the ceiling before she and her gang ran out of the place and left town."

Long gold hair. Chris rolled his eyes and swore silently under his breath. Eyes like a dove. Of course, who else would it be?

While Chris thought this, the muscles in his jaw tightened involuntarily. Vin who was standing next to him had let out an exhausted sigh of frustration as the tracker shook his head, almost unsurprised by the story. Somehow, just when he thought that Alex could not get into any more strife, the woman had managed to out do her previous accomplishment The expression on his face was one which Chris could understand most profoundly.

"You talking about them girls who done rob the bank?" A strong female voice entered the fray. "I saw 'em too."

Chris looked up and saw the woman who had spoken and immediately came to the conclusion that only Mary Travis could blow up a bank and still manage to make it the least outrageous thing she had done that day. Chris decided that he was nowhere close to just how much worse this possibly could get when he saw the arrival of the woman into their conversation. There was no question in his mind what she did for a living since her clothes were quite a loud statement of her occupation. He was almost afraid to ask how she and Mary's path had crossed. Like the rest of the town, Betsy had emerged from her place of business to see what all the excitement was about only to discover how much of it had to do with her personally.

"Yeah Betsy?" The man asked with interest. "When did you see them?"

"They came into my place," Betsy announced to her neighbour and her new audience who was listening to her story with something akin to shock and astonishment. She questioned the strange looks on their faces as she spoke but found little reason to hold back as she related her tale. After all, it was so very rare that men were willing to listen to her simply talk instead of paying for the privilege of something else. "Four of them, dressed in men's clothes. They were trying to lay with some of my girls."

The mental picture of Mary in men's clothes attempting to have sex with another woman would normally be reason enough for quite an interesting midnight dream for Chris Larabee, however on this particular occasion, the gunslinger almost turned ashen with disbelief. "They did what?" He asked slowly.

"They came into my place." Betsy said impatiently wishing this dark clothed stranger would keep focused so she would not have to repeat herself since she wanted to move on to the more salacious excerpts of her story. "Looking for women. When I told 'em my girls don't go in for that sort of thing, they left."

"What sort of thing?" Vin ever the uninformed at times in such matters, found himself asking although the idea of Alex in men's clothes going into a 'house' was more than his mind was able to process. Suddenly the hangover that he had believed gone and banished, had returned to his head with a vengeance following this latest snippet of new regarding the exploits of Mary Travis and company.

"You know," Betsy looked at Vin like he was a naive kid. "Women laying with other women."

"That's disgusting!" Nathan exclaimed although he could not deny the image in his head was undeniably tantalizing.

"But strangely arousing." Buck replied and garnered a filthy look from both Vin and Chris. "Aw come on!" Buck looked at them in protest. "Are you telling me you never thought of two women at once?"

"Who hasn't!" Chris snapped. "Just not Mary!" And then thought guiltily to himself, liar.

"You mean two women together at once?" Vin mused, drifting into the possibility with all sort of exciting visual accompaniments flashing in his mind as he wrapped his mind around the idea. Alex on her own was an experience but with another woman...

"Yeah," Buck said with a smile, knowing exactly what was running through the younger man's mind. "I done it once when I was up north. You ain't lived until you've had twins."

Chris rolled his eyes and snapped. "Buck!"

"Sorry," Buck apologized clearing his throat and then whispered to Vin. "I'll tell you about it later."

"Mr. Wilmington, you exceed yourself." Ezra said feigning similar distaste. He tried to see Julia in men's clothes and could not imagine anything more amusing. He was going to have a great deal of fun at her expense when he found her.

"Come on," Chris said as he strode away from the crowd because he did not want them townsfolk to have any idea that they were in any way associated with the four fugitives. Once they had put enough distance between themselves and the mob, the group grappled with the new information they had just been provided with.

"Do you think they're still in town?" Buck inquired. "I would be riding hard and away if I knew a posse was coming after me." The big man offered.

Chris would tend to agree, except this was Mary. "I don't think so. They got rid of the dresses because people would be looking for four women not four men, which means. ."

"They could still be in town." Vin caught on quickly. "Dressing up as men is their way of hiding out until we got here."

"Exactly." Chris nodded firmly. "Mary knows they can't keep running from whoever is after them and a posse on top of that. I think she'd wait us out so we can help them."

"So its back to the lodging houses, hotels and boarding places." Nathan declared. "If they're in town, they're probably in a room somewhere laying low."

"That's about the size of it." Chris answered, praying silently that Mary had no further surprises up her sleeve. He did not know how much more he could take before he was forced to do something violent to cope with the frustration. "Vin and I will take this end of town." Chris ordered. "Nathan, you, Buck and Ezra go that end."

"Sure Chris." Nathan shook his head in consent as Ezra tipped his hat in the gunslinger's direction before the trio started working their assigned section of the town.

As they drew away, Chris heard Ezra's voice inquire of Buck. "Twins Buck?"

Chris narrowed his eyes and met Vin's before rubbing his face with his palm.

"God give me strength." He said through gritted teeth.

"Hey Pard," Vin said with a slight smile. "You really shouldn't have given Mary those shooting lessons."

Predictably, Chris swung and Vin ducked, chuckling.

Part Six


The fort had seen better days.

During the Mexican War, it had been a bastion of Santa Ana's claim to the territory and like the Alamo had seen a great deal of blood spilt within its walls during that terrible conflict. Since that time however, it had been abandoned with the withdrawal of the Mexicans and left to languish under the elements Most of its walls had collapsed and only some rooms remain intact to be neglected by future generations. Much of the structure lay exposed to the weather and the terrain surrounding it was flat, with sparse vegetation allowing little chance of enemies approaching the place unseen.

Having little choice but to deal with Lawrence Preston now that Inez was in his clutches, Mary heeded Seacourt's advice to make the exchange on her own terms.

She sent a note to the mogul at his plush accommodations at the hotel and informed him that if he wished to deal, he would have to bring Inez and meet them inside this old, abandoned relic of the past. Realistically, she expected Preston to attempt a double cross. Alex was after all correct in bringing up the valid point that Preston could not afford loose ends and that she, Julia and Mary had all fallen into that unfortunate category as far as the man was concerned.

They rode to the fort in the darkness, aware that what they were riding into was so far above their heads that it practically reach stratospheric altitudes.

Still, they had little choice in the matter, especially with Inez's life hanging in the balance. They had set out so earlier so they would reach the fort before the appointed time. Seacourt had his own part to play during the exchange and he needed to do anonymously. At this point, Preston still had no idea that the Secret Service Agent was at all involved in this affair. If any of them were to get out of this thing alive, Seacourt had to be in place before Preston and his henchman made their appearance. Nevertheless, in the slim hope that Chris might arrive in town sooner than she had expected, Mary had left word at the saloon where she was going to be, having used a considerable portion of Alex's winnings to bribe the man.

The fort was quiet as a grave when the three women arrived. They rode their horses through the open gates since the wooden doors had been vanquished long ago, to be used either as firewood or having been destroyed away during the war when it had been its time of brief glory. As Mary directed her horse into the compound, she could not help feeling a cool chill running through her as she the studied the place. The crumbling brick walls and the long dark shadows running across the premises looked eerie as they struggled for light under the illumination of the full moon. Mary could not help feeling that there was something sinister about the place and wondered what horrors had it seen in its time. She knew this mood was mostly attributed to her own fears regarding Inez's safety.

Seacourt dismounted first and helped Julia Pemberton off the animal. "Put the horses somewhere close by," he instructed as he searched through his saddle and produced a rifle. He stepped away from the horses and he moved deeper into the compound, surveying the structure as he sought his perfect vantage point.

"Do you think this will work?" Alex asked as she climbed off her own horse and started leading the animal that had carried Seacourt and Julia, along with her own to an unobtrusive corner of the compound, near the arch of the doorway, just in case they needed a speedy getaway.

"I don't see why not." Mary replied as she joined Alex with her horse. "After all, they're expecting just the three of us. The surprise will give us some kind of an advantage."

"You hope." Julia said dryly, not at all optimistic about their chances at all. "We're assuming a lot that they're coming alone. Preston has money, he might be bring more men with him."

"That's true." Seacourt replied as he drew further away from them. "However, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it." He answered as he hurried up some steps that lead to a secondary floor of the building surrounding the compound. He studied the view it gave him of the space below him and knew that it was a good a place as any for him to take up position.

"Ladies!" He called out once they had tethered the horses and had returned to the centre of the compound. "Try and keep your back to this side of the building and look around for cover, if I start shooting, you're going to need to get out of the line of fire."

Mary nodded and quickly scanned the area, with Alex and Julia doing the same as they sought a suitable place of refuge once the bullets started flying. Mary hoped it would not come to that but they had to be realistic. Both she and Alex were armed and were reasonably good shots but Julia's only knowledge of weapons had to do with a two shot derringer and her skill did not extend past shooting at point blank range. If worst came to worse, she knew Alex and her could hold on their own in a gunfight but Julia needed to safe haven.

"God I hope we don't get ourselves killed." The Easterner grumbled. "This is such a bad idea."

"Can you please stop saying that?" Alex groaned. "Try and have a little optimism will you?"

"I have the optimism that they are going to kill us." She returned.

"Well I try to look at the positive side of things," Mary admitted. "If I die, then Chris can't spend the next six months gloating over me saying 'I told you so'. There are some thing's that even death cannot eclipse."

"Spoken masterfully, I admire your ability to prioritize." Alex chuckled and saw Julia rolled her eyes in distaste.

The Emporium owner did not want to die, neither did she crave adventure like her two companions. She wanted peace and quiet, with the occasional bout of fiery sex while living a life of quality through the means she had stolen from her father. Why did fate keep throwing her head first into danger? Ever since her arrival into Four Corners, Julia had been faced with more life and death situations than she had ever dreamed possible. She did not think she was that bad a person to warrant such bad luck. And then again. ..

"I give up." Julia frowned. "I sometimes wonder whether its worth leaving town at all after what we have been through the past two days."

"I can't say I disagree with you," Mary sighed, recounting the wild sleigh ride that had been the past two days since they boarded the train at Eagle Bend. "If I never get on a train, it will be too soon. Give me the boring mundane existence of the paper any day. I can even stand to endure Mrs. Darcy coming into my office and giving me hell."

"Let's not lose all sense of reality here." Alex warned. "After all, it's not like you had that boring a life in Four Corners. With the men in our lives, dull is not what we were meant to have. Let's face it, we seem to attract as much trouble as they do."

"Only they're better at getting themselves out of it." Julia pointed out and the three women looked at each other and laughed shortly, enjoying the moment in the face of all the danger that was too come and despite their mutual anxieties over the fate of Inez Rosillios in the hands of Lawrence Preston.

"They'll never let us live this down, you know." Alex sighed after a moment when their laughing had ceased.

"Tell me about it." Mary frowned. "I can't just hear Chris now." She sighed. "All he did was ask me to keep out of trouble. Since I've left Four Corners, I almost got caught in a bar room brawl, taken a hostage, stolen a horse, blown up a bank and not to mention almost got more than I bargained for when I went into a bordello. All this after I promised I would not get into trouble and intended nothing but a nice, simple trip."

"Well," Alex replied with the same forlorn expression on her face. "If it is any consolation, you won't be alone in your misery. Vin said the same thing to me. I have the impression those men think we are a handful."

"Gee," Julia remarked with a faint smile, her arms folded as she stared at them with the smug expression on her face. "I can't imagine why, after hearing of your exploits in the past. Burning down a house Mrs. Travis?" She then shifted her gaze to Alex. "Were you the same person who took off over the hills in a storm to reach a patient?"

Both Mary and Alex looked resoundingly guilty.

Finally it was Alex who finally spoke. "They couldn't just take her. It had to be Inez, they took."

Julia threw her a look. "Very funny." She glared at the doctor sarcastically.

"Who's joking?" Alex returned with a satisfied grin.

In their determination to find the women in their lives, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner scoured the town relentlessly, finding every possible establishment that might provide accommodation in Winston Falls. At the same time, they were treated to the tales of their exploits in the gossip floating around town about the four who had robbed the bank. The posse had taken off for the hills, intent on apprehending the criminals who had not only robbed the bank but also stole dynamite off the back of someone's wagon. The logic of the sheriff in charge of the expedition was questionable when he has somehow came to the conclusion that despite all evidence to the contrary, the women had nonetheless left town and thus a posse was required to maintain the pursuit. His conclusion was based on the fact that the women had left the bank on foot and no had actually seen them leave. Nevertheless on this sterling evidence, the man had ridden out of town with 20 others in attendance.

Chris decided they were too stupid to know any better and allowed them to go, deciding that he would prefer their absence when he finally found Mary. Chris wanted to get Mary and the others as far away from this place as possible, once they caught up with their wayward lovers. With the sheriff out of town, it would eliminate the complication of dealing with their supposed criminal records until after they returned to Four Corners. When Winston Falls was far behind them, they could decide how to proceed with the charges of bank robbery and God only knew what else.

"I hope Buck and the others have better luck." Chris grumbled as Vin and he finally arrived at the crowded local saloon. So far, their search had yielded little results and both men were equally frustrated and suffering filthy moods.

A drink was definitely in order and if they found no further news to the ladies' whereabouts, perhaps a fight as well.

"Somehow I doubt it." Vin retorted as they both navigated through the crowd of drinkers, drunks, working girls and other patrons of the establishment.

"I know, I know," Chris sighed as they reached the counter and found a bit of space to occupy. "It would be too easy for them to just stay put and let us find em."

"I had no idea having a woman in your life could be so much trouble." Vin remarked as he waved the bartender in their direction. Like Chris, he needed a drink badly as well.

"You don't know half of it yet, pard." Chris retorted. "You and Alex have only been together for a couple weeks, wait until it's longer."

Despite Chris' obvious annoyance, Vin knew that he did not feel as persecuted as he sounded. Every one of the seven had noticed the change in Chris Larabee since Mary had entered his life as more than just a friend. On the surface, he was still mean and somber, dispassionate about most people and things, downright ornery at times and almost as sharp with his tongue as he was with his gun, but the despair that had been so much of his character was gone. It had disappeared in the thaw that followed the wake of Mary's warmth in his soul. For a long time, Vin had envied Chris' relationship with Mary even before Alex entered his world and turned it upside down. Despite his complaints, Vin knew Chris secretly worried about Mary's life as much as he was concerned that all four women were somewhere raising hell.

"Can I asking you something pard?" Vin asked suddenly.

"Sure," Chris nodded, noting the serious look in Vin's eyes. He was always serious about something but this time there was more to his question than mere curiosity.

"Can't say I'll answer though." Chris added after a moment.

"I reckon that's fair." Vin replied with a small smile. "How come you and Mary ain't married yet?"

Normally, Chris would take the question offensively as he took all inquiries into his personal life but he knew that Vin did not ask such things lightly and if he asked, he must have a good reason for doing so. "I'm getting around to it." Chris admitted. "Its enough knowing that she's there right now without there being any need for a ring to come into it. I know how I feel and I know how she feels."

"But don't you think about the future?" The young man pressed.

"Sure I do," Chris replied. "The future's a funny thing though, it throws stuff at you. I'll know its time when it don't hurt so much thinking about Sarah and Adam. Mary understands that."

Vin nodded without answer but Chris could see that there was something else on his mind. It was easy to forget how young Vin Tanner actually was. Despite their close bond, Chris had at least ten years on Vin, perhaps even a little more. Vin had lived his life without experiencing very much in life. Most of it had been spent alone or in places where it was not necessary to form bonds of friendship or love. It was not that Vin isolated himself on purpose but until Four Corners, it had never occurred to the young man how important it was to have people in one's life. Even someone as jaded as Chris Larabee understood that much.

"What's on your mind, pard?" Now it was Chris' turn to be intrusive.

"I never thought much about the future." Vin admitted. "When it come, it would come. There didn't seem to be no need to plan for it cause it was just me."

But it was not just him any more, Chris realized. Now there was Alex. "You worried about Alex?"

"She's smart and she's beautiful and she could earn a living even if she didn't have money that her pa left her. I don't know what I can offer her."

Chris had similar thoughts when he had first turned up at Sarah's doorstep and almost got a butt full of rock salt shot at him. He had pondered all those questions and somehow while she was alive they had made it work even though he had no idea at the time what he had to offer her. "That ain't your choice to make Vin." Chris said feeling his age at that moment. "Considering we find her and Mary before they don't decide to hold up a train or go riding after the entire Mexican army, its Alex's choice, not yours. I've been where you are and I asked all the same questions but these things have a way of panning out."

"I know I can't stand to be without her." Vin replied, showing a side to himself that was almost a privately hidden as Chris' own feelings for Mary. Vin would speak about this to no one else, that much Chris understood.

"Look," Chris sighed. "Lord knows I ain't the authority on women but you'll know what to do when the time is right. Just hang on there awhile pard, time takes care of things all on its own."

Vin was about to respond when the bartender he had flagged earlier on had made his arrival. The tracker forgot what he was going to say when Vin noticed the man observing Chris with a strange expression on his face. He was a heavy, unshaven specimen with a dirty apron and weeks growth on his face. Chris raised his eyes to meet the man's, ice blue points of steel returned the stare with penetrating invasion. The man flinched as most people usually did under the glare of those eyes.

"Can I do something for you?" Chris asked.

"You wouldn't be Chris Larabee would you?" The bartender asked gingerly because the gunslinger before him looked very intimidating in his black garbed outfit, not to mention the intensity of that aloof stare.


"Nothing." The bartender responded and then saw the darkening expression on Chris' face and decided better against it. "I got a message for you." He swallowed thickly and ducked beneath the counter.

Both Chris and Vin went for their guns, ensuring that the man did not emerge with any fatal surprises. The man stood up and saw the weapons drawn, his eyes widened in fear but he had not reappeared armed. Instead, his grubby fingers slid a piece of folded paper across the counter towards Chris.

"A boy left that for you." He answered quickly, his eyes still very much focused on the peacemaker within easy reach of Chris' hand.

"A boy?" Vin exclaimed and then realized that it could be Mary that the man was talking about. After all, in men's clothes it was possible that she could pass for that.

Chris quickly unfolded the piece of paper, having guessed the exact thing. He wondered what Mary had in store for him now as he read the contents quickly.

"Inez has been kidnapped." Chris said informing Vin as he went along. "Apparently Mary has something that the kidnappers want and they're making the exchange at an abandoned Spanish fort a few miles out of town."

"Alone?" Vin exclaimed.

"I guess." Chris said unhappily. He crushed the paper in his hand and looked up at the bartender. "Do you know where there's an old Spanish fort?"

"Its about five miles out of town." The man said quickly, having no wish to alienate the stranger. "Northwest."

"Let's go." Chris said rising to his feet. "We'll find the others on the way out."

They heard the horses coming in the distance and took cover inside the dilapidated building. Mary, Alex and Julia kept themselves hidden as they saw four riders enter the compound. The woman they had come to know as Selena Quint was in the lead, behind her was Lawrence Preston and Inez. The enormous Mr. Burke was the last in the group. It appeared that Seacourt's suspicions were correct that Preston trusted no one and did not believe in using hired guns without whom he did not have a previously relationship. Hired guns that he found in any local saloon were liable to talk if someone paid them enough and Preston was just paranoid enough to refuse exposing himself to that kind of danger.

Inez did not seem any worse for her experience but Mary could see the mild swelling on her cheek even through the dim light of the moon above them. It was a clear night so visibility was good, a fortunate happenstance considering the situation they now found themselves in. None of the Four Corners women made themselves visible until after the riders had dismounted the horses. Seacourt had given Mary specific instructions and she knew well enough to adhere to his advice instead of doing anything foolish simply to salve her own ego that she was capable of taking care of herself.

"They must be here." Selena said to Preston as she looked around the compound for any signs of the quarry. "Their horses are here." The female mercenary pointed out.

"Well they must be hiding." Preston retorted and he kept close to Inez. Should anything happen that they were not ready for, the young woman was his insurance policy to get out of any altercation alive.

"Not hiding." Mary Travis remarked stepping out of the shadows. "Just waiting for an opportune moment."

Burke's eyes narrowed as she appeared. The cold hatred in his eyes was obvious and Mary was glad that she held a gun in her hand. Relief flooded Inez's eyes at Mary's appearance while Preston and Selena looked merely contemptuous as well as aloof.

"Where's the other two?" Selena asked.

"Around." Mary said abruptly, refusing to allow her any more targets than she already had. Mary knew that they would not honour their agreement for a fair exchange. As soon as the plate was produced, they would undoubtedly attempt to kill Mary, Inez, Alex and Julia without any hesitation whatsoever. The four women of Four Corners were a loose end Preston could ill afford and Selena was his loyal employee, committed to see that her master came to no harm.

"I am impressed, Mrs. Travis." Preston said clapping his hand. "You have led my people around on quite a chase. I had no idea the west bred such hardy women."

"Save the compliments," Mary retorted. "I have what you want, let Inez go."

Before Preston could answer, Selena grabbed Inez by the hair and jammed the gun into the woman's throat with a flash of movement that was lightning in its speed. "Let's understand each other, Mrs. Travis," Selena said coolly. "You will give us the plate right now or I will put a bullet through her head.

Mary gave Inez a pained look as she wrestled with what to do. The icy glare she received from Selena indicated that the woman would have no hesitation to pull the trigger if she was put to the test. Although Inez tried to hide the fear in her eyes, Mary could see it despite her attempt to be brave and defiant. Inez said nothing to sway Mary's decision, although she winced as Selena tugged on her hair to hold her in place.

"All right!" Mary called out, acquiescing because she had no other choice for the time being. "I'll give you the damn plate, just don't hurt her."

The smile of triumph that stole across Selena's face made Mary wish she could wipe it off with her fist. "You see Mr. Preston," Selena glanced at her employer. "They can be reasonable, you just have to know how to phrase the question."

"I shall never doubt you again my dear." Preston said with equally slickness in his voice.

Mary reached into the coat and produced the engraved plate wrapped in silk that had been the cause of so much discourse to both the women of Four Corners and to the people it belonged to. She took a tentative step forward, crossing the space between herself and Lawrence Preston's company. Mary tried not to feel fear as she approached slowly, one hand wrapped so tightly around the gun in her grip that her knuckles were almost white, while the other clutched Preston's prize.

"This is far as I go." Mary said as she reached a few feet of Selena and Inez. Dropping to the ground, her eyes never left the woman as she placed the object on the gravel surface. Upon doing so, Mary rose to her feet again and took a step back away from the plate. "I've given you what you want, now please let Inez go."

Preston stepped forward to the space she had just occupied and picked up the plate. He slid it inside the fold of his jacket while Burke held his gun poised in Mary's direction, in case she attempted to harm his employer. Mary watched the plate disappear into his coat and then saw the man withdraw to his position beside Selena once again.

"Well you see, we do have a problem." Preston answered while meeting Selena's gaze. The mercenary was smiling in anticipation of the words he would soon deliver to this golden haired widow. "I have become accustomed to a certain anonymity and not to sound to cliched you simply know too much about me to be allowed to live."

Somehow Mary was not surprised. "We had a deal." She reminded the man even though she was perfectly aware that it was a futile gesture.

"You had a deal," he replied coolly. "I, on the other hand do not negotiate."

Turning to Selena and Burke, he said simply. "I will take my leave of this unpleasantness now. Kill them all and make certain the bodies are not found."Without even blinking and eye, Selena immediately turned the gun in Mary's direction however, the shot fired first did not come from her gun. The bullet impacted on the wall behind her and Inez pulled free in the chaos that followed. Another shot rang and others followed in quick succession as Mary ran for cover, hoping that Inez was behind her. Unfortunately, it took less than a split second for her to realize that her best friend was not.

Seacourt had sent Selena and Burke into disarray as they tried to ascertain where the gunfire was coming. However, Preston had more baser concerns in mind. He grabbed Inez and shoved a gun into her side, forcing her to follow him away from the shooting, towards the horses who were stamping their hooves, trying to free themselves of the tether in a fit of furious neighing as the gunfire sent them into wave of panic.

"Seacourt!" Mary shouted as she ran towards a stone column. "Help Inez!"

By now, Preston had already forced her onto a horse under the threat of the gun. The man quickly climbed up behind her, with his weapon ever pointed in her direction as he dug his heels into his mount, who was only to eager to leave the premises. The horse bolted forward, a streak of brown thundering through the compound, kicking up dust and gravel as they disappeared out the door. Mary watched them leave and shouted again. "Seacourt! Go after Inez."

The Secret Service agent emerged from his hiding place and looked over the edge of the wall, into the direction Preston was escaping not only with the plate in his possession but also an innocent woman he would not doubt kill, when she could serve no more use to him. "Can you handle this?" He shouted as Mary started firing at Selena and Burke who were driven behind columns to avoid being shot.

"We're going to have to!" Mary barked back as she saw Alex emerged from the building to take up position further along the next column.

Seacourt did not waste any time getting to ground level. The man moved swiftly, dodging bullet as he leapt to the ground from half way up the stairs. Mary watched briefly as he ran to their horses and quickly mounted the first animal he came to. Struggling to calm the terrified horse, Seacourt was soon riding out of the compound, taking the same route as Preston in the villain's flight from the scene.

"What happened?" Alex shouted as she fired at the direction of Selena and Burke after Seacourt has made his dramatic exit from the scene.

"Double-cross!" Mary cried out. "Just like we thought."

She sent another bullet at Selena's direction, seeing the woman approach them as she ran for cover along the columns that held up the second floor of the building. The woman moved with amazing speed and the darkness did not help the situation much either. Mary had not much experience with guns even though she made a displayed a convincing act that she could use it. She continued firing at Selena, trying to halt her progress in reaching them until they were no more bullets left in her gun and Alex had to take up the slack while she reloaded. How on earth did Chris manage to live like this? Mary asked herself, unable to believe how terrified she was even though she was forcing herself to retain a cool head. Suddenly, she realized something in her desperation to stop Selena.

Where was Burke?

The question was answered no sooner than the thought had crossed her mind. She looked up to see him rushing straight at her. Mary let out a short scream as he slammed into her bodily, throwing the gun out of her hands and scattering the bullets in all directions.

"Mary!" Alex screamed, turning the gun to fire when suddenly she heard bullets impact in the column behind her. Fragment of brick and plaster bit into her skin as she swung around and saw Selena making a fast approach. Torn between helping and allowing Selena to reach them, Alex hid behind the column struggling to decide what to do. Finally, she could only return the mercenaries fire as she saw Mary lying dazed on the ground with Burke standing over her only meters away from where Alex now stood. Alex fired, keeping careful count of how many bullets she was discharging. When she heard Selena pause to reload, Alex turned her attention to Burke.

"Stay away from her!" She shouted.

Mary scrambled to her feet, feeling pain in her side where she had hit the wall. There were scratches on her skin and a little blood oozing from a wound under her hair. "Run Mary!" Alex shouted because she knew she would only have the advantage momentarily. Mary did not need to be told twice, she bolted past the man and hurried towards the horses. Alex kept the gun trained on him, even though she could see his body poised to run after Mary in pursuit.

The shattered silence of the night by a gunfire signaled the end of Alex's momentary advantage over Mr. Burke. The doctor's attention was quickly returned to Selena who had finished reloading and was now allowing her partner the window of opportunity to pursue his quarry. Alex was forced back into the safety of the column, hoping Mary had enough time to get away from the monster whose hatred seemed very personal. Alex prayed that Mary could stay ahead of him because she hated to think what the man had in store for the widow, if he got his hands on her.

God, she wished Vin was here.

Seacourt located them in the distance.

Thanks to the flat plains of the terrain and the full moon overhead, Seacourt could see the trail of dust glittering in the moonlight as Preston's horse galloped at full stead in his attempt to escape. The Secret Service man dug his heels deeper into the side of his mount, forcing the animal to pour more energy into closing the gap between its rider and the man he was pursuing. Seacourt was not about to let either the plate or the woman come to any harm and he hoped that Mrs. Travis and company were faring well on their own.

As resourceful as the women had proven to be, Seacourt had difficulty leaving any damsel in distress, even if it was to save another. He also knew just how formidable Selena Quint and Mr. Burke could be and it only heightened his concern for the women's welfare. Suddenly, he saw one of the riders on the other horse fall to the ground rather abruptly. The figure landed hard but picked themselves up quickly and started running. Unconsciously, Seacourt knew it was the woman making her own desperate bid at escape from Lawrence Preston.

She started running through the night as Preston turned his horse around and started galloping after her, unwilling to allow her freedom. The woman was running fast, her dark hair trailing behind her as she continued forward, putting enough speed in her advance to seem like she was sprinting.

Unfortunately, the horse that was giving chase was able to make up the distance in no time at all and Seacourt watched in frustration as Preston bore down on her. The woman dropped to her feet abruptly, lying on the ground and almost bringing the horse to a screeching halt. Like all well trained horses, the animal dug its heels in and almost threw Preston out of the saddle. It refused to step over the prone human, conditioned long ago to avoid such action.

The woman was clearly afraid but she remained where she was in the dirt, while the horse stood its ground, despite Preston's best efforts to make it trample her. The horse refused obliquely and in the gleam of moonlight, Seacourt saw him remove his gun and take aim. The Secret Service agent was faster, pulling out the gun in his holster and requiring half the time the tycoon did to lock his target into his sights. From this distance, it was difficult for him to make the shot but Seacourt knew at the very least, he could frighten the horse into throwing the man off.

Which was precisely what happened.

Inez heard the crack of gunfire above her head and looked up in time to see Preston's horse buck violently on its hind legs. She heard Preston utter a surprised cry as he fell off the animal. Scrambling to her feet, she saw his gun fly out of his reach and followed its descent until it disappeared into the darkness where it was of little use to any of them. Since their departure from the fort, Inez had scarcely given him to time to breathe let alone ride as she struggled to escape. Knowing that he would not shoot her just yet because he needed a hostage with the man on horseback closing in behind them, Inez had used that knowledge by being as difficult as possible. She bit, she kicked and fought until he had not choice but to release his grip of her. The moment that had happened, Inez had allowed herself to fall off the saddle.

Aware that he was powerless over her without his gun, Inez stared running in the direction of the man who was closing in on them. Hopefully, he could take her back to Mary and the others. She looked over her shoulder and saw Preston lying dazed on the ground after the horse had thrown him. The threat he posed seemed to have passed and Inez turned her back on him when suddenly, she heard the click of a gun through the silence of the night.

"Stay where you are." He warned, pointing a small derringer in her direction.

Inez froze and turned slowly to see the weapon he had pointed at her. It was no different to the gun that she had seen Ezra wear under his sleeve and knew from experience that while the weapon appeared small, it still could still kill her. Inez was still debating whether or not she could make a run for it when she heard Preston continue speaking.

"Don't even try and make a run for it my dear," he said slowly rising to his feet. "You're still my hostage and I won't let you got that easily."

"I would rather die than let you use me." She said with a surge of contempt.

"It may come to that." He said coldly and then let his gaze shift to the rider that was fast approaching them. While he still had his hostage, there was a good chance of getting out of this alive.

Inez thought quickly, realizing that if Preston were to leave this place with her in his power, her life was as good as over anyway. He would not hesitate to discard her as soon as her usefulness to him was at an end. Thinking hard what to do as she walked toward him, Inez saw his eyes darting back and forth from her and from the man who had saved her life earlier by causing Preston to be thrown off his horse. A plan formed in her head, not so much of a plan really, more one desperate act of salvation that might get her killed but might also give her rescue valuable time to reach them.

She watched his eyes move back and forth, alternating from her face to the horse that was now only a few hundred yards away. Inez had no doubt that it could close the space between them in seconds and so she had to act now. The split second that Preston turned his eyes away from her, Inez rushed at him, her hands grabbing the gun and pushing the barrel upwards. In shock, his fingers tightened instinctively and the derringer expelled its first bullet with a loud boom. Inez used both hands as she struggled with Preston. He was stronger than her and ultimately would win in a contest of strength but Inez had not expected anything else.

"Let go you bitch!" He swore as he yanked his hand away with one vicious pull. The recoil of his arm let the gun fly out of his grip and the loss of it, made Preston see nothing but crimson rage. "You whore!" He roared and struck her with one balled fist. She felt backwards to the ground like a lifeless doll, feeling the pain momentarily before adrenalin forced her to kick out her foot and connect with his knee. The impact against the joint brought Preston down like a ton of bricks. He howled in pain as he drop to the dirt ground and Inez quickly scrambled to get away from him.

Preston crawled after her, inspired with enough brutal rage to know that he wanted her to feel some of the pain he was presently enduring. The anger at the unraveling of all his plans had stripped whatever civility he had left in his mind and replaced it with a savage brute requiring revenge. He grabbed her leg and yanked back forcefully, causing Inez to fall face first into the dirt. His grip around her ankle was strong and despite her efforts to free herself, Inez let out a frustrated cry when she felt herself being dragged backwards to him.

"You're not getting away that easily!" He growled. "Not after all the trouble you and your friends convince me. If my plans are to end because of your interference, rest assured you will bear the mark of my displeasure!"

However, no sooner than those words had passed his lips, their attention was captured by the thunder of a horse galloping up to them. The rider practically leapt out of the saddle as the horse ran past them. He landed on top of Preston, causing the villain to cry out in pain as the stranger's weight crushed him on impact. Inez felt the grip around her ankle disappeared and she scampered away, across the ground when she saw the stranger throw a fist into Preston's face.

The tycoon fended off some of the blows and managed to deliver one or two himself but clearly his opponent had the advantage. A series of well placed punches, followed the sickly sound of bone impacting hard against flesh and the brief battle was over. In the darkness, Inez saw Preston struggle no more and went limp on the ground. The stranger picked himself up and then went through the motions of dusting the dirt from his clothes, all the while, his eyes were focused on Preston to ensure the tycoon was not attempting to deceive them at just how unconscious he was.

When he faced Inez for the first time, the bartender realized she recognized him.

"I know you." She stared breathlessly as he started walking towards her.

"Yes," he said warmly, offering his hand to help her off the ground. "I believe your friend took a great deal of my money at the poker table."

Inez remembered the handsome stranger who had been the only person in the saloon who had defended them. Despite the life and death situation that had threatened her only moments before, Inez could not help being lost into those intense coloured eyes that smiled at her with a pure magnetism. "Gracias Senior." She said smiling back at him. "I am in your debt."

"I like the sound of that." He said with a cocky smile. "Jeremy Seacourt at your service and you are Inez Rosillios."

"So you are the mysterious Mr. Seacourt." Inez blushed as the way his eyes studied her with its powerful gaze.

"I am." He replied and then took a step closer to examine the bruise on her face. "Are you hurt?" His fingers brushed lightly against her cheek. Normally, Inez would not dream of allowing any man so close to her. In fact, there had been no man who had effected her this strongly since Buck and Inez was surprised by how familiar he felt despite having been only formally introduced a few minutes ago.

"Just my pride." Inez answered, allowing his hands to move across her face and was surprised by how much she enjoyed his touch against her skin.

"If you're up to it," he said standing only inches away from her. "We better get back to your friends. I don't like to think that they're up against Selena and Burke themselves."

"Yes," Inez suddenly remembered the others and scolded herself for behaving like a teenager. "What about him?" She gestured to the unconscious Lawrence Preston lying on the ground.

Seacourt looked over his shoulder and said with a wry grin. "He'll be out for hours. Glass jaw."

Alexandra Styles did not like guns. She did not like guns or violence. As a doctor, such displays always seemed odious, even though by nature she was a physical person. Her hands were her trade and so Alex had learnt to utilize them to their fullest capacity. She was never a woman who believed that any job was too much for a genteel lady of proper upbringing. She supposed if she had believed anything like that, there was no way she could have endured cutting up cadavers in medical school However, guns were another thing entirely.

Her father had made her learn to be proficient in their usage because it was a necessary precaution when one travelled across the globe to places that bordered on savage. He was determined that she see all of it but he was also realistic enough to know a woman was doubly endangered in such remote places. Still, Alex did not like using them and she even liked it less that she was presently involved in a gun battle with a psychotic mercenary with homicidal tendencies.

She wanted to be done with Selena Quint because Alex had seen Mary running away from Mr. Burke and knew that if someone did not help the widow, it was going to end badly.

It was going to end badly for Mary and it was going to end badly for Alex, because she was out of bullets.

The final click of the empty chamber signaled the end of all her ammunition as the gun in her hands took on the usefulness of a paper weight. The silence that followed that click was ended by the footsteps of Selena crushing gravel underfoot when she emerged from her hiding place. Her look of triumph alone made Alex wish the woman would just shoot her. Alex had no idea what would be worse, death at her hands or the gloating that would lead up to it.

"Well, well, well," Selena smiled as she walked toward Alex fearlessly. "It does seem that our little gun battle is over."

Alex scowled and said nothing. There was little to say really and she had not thought of any clever last words that would make this moment any bearable.

"No glib remarks?" Selena taunted. "I am disappointed. It's been awhile since I've enjoyed this so much but I think I shall savour it. Perhaps I will let you die after I show you what Mr. Burke does to your friend Mrs. Travis. Would you like to see his handiwork? He really is an artist with flesh."

"Could you just kill me and get it over with?" Alex retorted, unable to hold her tongue and spotting something in the corner of her eye that made speaking suddenly imperative. "A bullet would be merciful compared to your dramatics. Let me guess, failed career on the stage? Too many big words in Shakespeare?"

"Highly amusing." Selena prepared to strike her when Alex caught her hand before it could touch her face.

With a cool and measured voice, Alex glared at the woman as she held Selena's wrist firmly in her grip and responded. "You want to shoot me, pull the trigger and do it but if you try to lay one finger on my person, I will break every damn bone in your hand and trust me, I aware of which phalange breaks the easiest and which will not be repairable."

Selena's face clouded in rage, disliking anyone to have the advantage over her, psychically or mentally. She raised the gun to fire when suddenly, she saw something in the doctor's eyes that made her turn around sharply and fire.

"Julia!" Alex screamed as Julia Pemberton cried out in pain when the bullet entered her arm. The piece of wood that she intended to use as a weapon fell from her grip. The Easterner who had been hiding in the shadows all this time had been watching the exchange between the doctor and mercenary. When Alex had seen her emerge from her hiding place, the doctor had started talking to distract Selena from her advance. Julia staggered back, clutching her bleeding arm as Selena's attention was momentarily focused on her. Deciding that she had just about enough of this vicious woman, Alex kicked the gun out of her hand with a high kick that would normally be impossible in a long skirt. She watched the gun fly out of Selena's grip and wasted no time in rushing the woman. At the moment, her only concern was Julia Pemberton and the injury that was oozing blood all over her arm.

Both of them slammed into the wall but Selena recovered quicker because she was used to such physical displays of violence. Selena grabbed Alex's hair and pulled the doctor down as her knee connected with the woman's chest. Alex let out a grunt of pain as she dropped to her knees and Selena retaliated quickly, allowing her no time to recover as she kicked Alex with her boot and sent her sprawling . Alex felt her jaw starting to ache as Selena moved away in search of her gun. Knowing it would be bad for everyone involved if that happened, she scrambled to her feet and jumped on top of Selena before the woman could get very far. Her weight bringing down the woman as they both struggled for dominance in the dirt.

Julia saw Alex fighting valiantly and though her arm felt like hot knives were currently doing a dance against her skin, knew that the doctor was no match for the mercenary. Alex was bravery personified but she had her limitations and this situation was one of them. Julia groaned a she forced herself to her feet and stumbled forward to the spot where she was sure Selena's gun had landed. Her emerald eyes searched the ground where she had seen the weapon fall, hoping to retrieve it before it was too late. Finally, after what seemed an eternity especially with her arm throbbing with pain and the sickly smell of blood staring to make her swoon, Julia saw the glint of metal under the moonlight.

"I thought you were going to break every bone in my hand!" Selena sneered as she dug her nails into Alex's throat.

"Unlike you, I don't have a problem delivering a convincing performance." Alex groaned as she struggled to pry Selena's fingers from her neck. Alex was having difficulty breathing as the woman's tightening grip around her throat and blocked off her air passages.

"Still with the funny remarks, doctor?" Selena retorted and saw a piece of rock lying within arm's reach of them. Forcing her forearm across Alex's neck with such force that the doctor began to choke, Selena used Alex's disorientated state to reach for the rock. She was preparing to bring in it down on the good doctor's head when suddenly a shot rang out.

Alex's eyes widened as she felt the hands around her throat slacken. Selena looked down almost in wonder at the blood that was splattered across Alex's shirt and face as she realized it was her own. Alex saw the gaping wound in her chest as the blood started oozing from the gunshot wound in thick rivulets.

Selena's eyes registered another moment of clarity before it clouded over by pain and the dying to come. She opened her mouth to speak but the words never came. Alex shoved her off easily and Selena rolled onto her back, still trailing blood.

Alex sat up and saw Julia had drop the gun. The barrel was still smoking when the Easterner dropped to her knees in pain. Her hand immediately returned to clutching her injured arm and seeing that wound was enough to snap Alex out of her shock and sent her running towards her injured companion.

"Bitch." Julia muttered as she examined the injury to her arm and decided the sight of all that blood and torn flesh was more than she could stand. As it was, she was starting to feel woozy.

"Let me look," Alex skidded next to her.

"Is she dead?" Julia asked as Alex began tearing away at the shirt sleeve to get a better look at the wound.

"I don't know." Alex replied, in no particular hurry to find out. Her compassion was limitless but the woman's attempt to kill her was still to fresh in Alex's memory to overcome the hurdle of her reluctance to help Selena who was certainly the more injured of the two. Examining the wound carefully, Alex let out a sigh of relief when she discovered that the injury was not as bad as it looks.

"It's just a flesh wound." She replied. "Bullet went clean through your arm."

"Just?" Julia complained. She was in pain and she did not care who her whining. "It hurts!"

"Of course it hurts!" Alex rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You've been shot, you're just not going to die." The doctor offered with a sarcastic smirk.

"I thought you doctors were supposed to be compassionate." Julia grumbled as Alex started cleaning the wound off with the piece of torn shirt.

"Okay," Alex retorted, more intent on stopping the bleeding than this banter with Julia "You alabaster skin will not have too much of a scar."

"A scar?" Julia wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I am known for my flawless skin!"

Alex gave her look and hoped she was joking. "You are kidding aren't you?"

"What?" Julia returned her stare. "You're the only whose allowed to make smart remarks?"

"Good point." Alex nodded with a smile and returned to work.

Mary Travis was in trouble.

She had tried to make it to the horses when Alex had given her the opportunity to put some distance between herself and Mr. Burke but unfortunately, the man moved with surprising speed despite his considerable bulk. He was almost on top of her before Mary could even climb onto a horse and the only thing the widow could do was scrambled beneath them as she ran towards the stairs leading to the upper levels of the fort.

Burke had caught up to her easily, throwing her to the floor as he weigh slammed her small frame into the ground. She felt all the air forced out of her body as he landed on top of her, her bones feeling as if they would snapped under his weight. For a moment, Mary lay on the ground, uncertain whether the stars before her were up in the sky or the result of a concussion. In any case, she was quite disorientated as she struggled helplessly against his bulk.

"Not so smart now are you?" The main whispered in her ear. His breath against her skin making her stomach heave. His huge had grabbed both her arms and pinned them over her head helplessly while the other snaked under her shirt.

"Get off me!" Mary screamed helplessly as she felt his callused palm move roughly up her rib cage with every intention of cupping her breast.

"Not until I have my taste." He grinned with a totally evil sneer. "I'm going to take it out your hide," he said burying his face in her neck. Mary felt a wave of revulsion as his wet tongue touched her skin which snapped something inside her irrevocably. Acting purely on an instinct of survival and half out of her mind with disgust, Mary lunged up and took his ear in her mouth. She bit down hard until the salt of his skin became the metallic taste of blood. She ground her teeth down until the she could feel the skin breaking and tearing.

He screamed loudly as he tried to free his ear from her sharp teeth and even more vicious mouth. His withdrawal allowed her enough space to position her knees and push feet against his stomach. With every ounce of strength she could muster, Mary forced her legs out and threw the man off her, almost tearing his ear off his head during his abrupt ejection. She heard him scream and did not wait to see if he was following her. Mary rolled onto her stomach and forced herself on her feet as she heard him groaning in pain behind her.

"I'm going to kill you!" He shouted and Mary had no doubt he would do just that.

Mary ran along the top of the fort, trying to decide which was to go. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Burke coming after her, blood pouring from the ear she had done so much damaged to. His face was crimson with rage and just the look of him made Mary shudder with fear. She hurried to the stone palisade that ran along the edge of the fortress wall and looked down. The drop would kill her if she attempted it but there was a narrow enough ledge to support her frame but not his. Out of sheer desperation Mary scrambled across it. As she dangled and prepared herself to drop, Mary tried not to look down. .

The first thing Chris Larabee saw when he and his companions finally reached the Spanish fort was the sight of his fiancee throwing herself over the stone edging that sat on top of the fortress. Clumsily, she pulled herself over the ornate palisade and dropped to the ledge a few meters below her. She landed badly and almost skidded off the side in a fall that would have done her serious damage had she not regained her balance. Mary had not seen him yet because her attention was focused on the man who was swearing profanity at her as he tried to decide how he was going to reach her.

"Is that Miss Mary?" Nathan asked, straining to see even though there was no one else who had gold hair like that.

"That's Mary." Chris said digging his heels into his horse and sending the animal surging ahead "Vin!" He barked at the sharpshooter who immediately broke Peso into a gallop to keep up with the gunslinger.

"Can you take him?" Chris asked as they neared the base of the wall. Vin was Mary's only hope now. Chris was good with a gun but he was not certain he could make the shot required across that distance, especially at night.

Vin Tanner did not speak as Peso continued forward, accustomed to his master's habits. Vin removed the Winchester from his holster and took careful aim, his keen blue eyes locking on to the target that was attempting to climb over the wall to reach Mary. The widow was moving further along the ledge, attempting to widen the distance between her and the attacker who would soon join her there.

"I got him." Vin said coolly and pulled the trigger.

Mary almost fell off the ledge when she heard the thundering sound of a shotgun being fired. She grabbed the wall and managed to stay upright as she saw Burke spasm in pain as the shotgun shell entered his body. He was half way across the stone edge when the impact of the shotgun blast sent him clean over the edge.

Mary heard him utter a cry as he fell past her and landed into the ground below. His body made a sickening squelch as it landed as bones snapped and his head split open like a ripe melon. She turned away from the sight of blood and gore than splattered against the dirt, feeling ashamed at the relief she felt over his death.

When she saw where the blast had come from, Mary found herself thanking God and any other icon of the faith she could think to name at the moment. Chris Larabee edged his horse towards the base of the wall and looked up at Mary. Next to him was Vin Tanner and Mary could see the silhouette in the darkness of three other men approaching.

"Hi honey." She grinned sheepishly and waved.

Chris' expression remained impassive. There was no sign of anger or relief. In fact, he had one of those expressions on his face that was so completely enigmatic that she had no idea what was going through his head at this time.

"I'll bet you're wondering what I'm doing here." Mary said hastily. "It's a really good story. In fact, you'll laugh when I tell it to you. I know I laughed, just thinking about it, even now."

"Just. .stay. .where. .you. .are." Chris said slowly. "I'm coming up there to get you down."

"It wasn't my fault!" Mary exclaimed, protesting her innocent because she could see the accusation in them now. Chris made no response and nudged his horse forward towards the entrance into the fort.

"Are you all right Mrs. Travis?" Vin called out lingering behind for a moment.

"I am for now." Mary sighed as she dropped to the ledge and sat down with her legs folded. "I don't know well I'm going to be when Chris gets up here though."

Vin managed a small smile and waited until Chris had disappeared into the fort before he answered her. "Don't mind him, ma'am. He's plenty glad to see you safe." The tracker replied. "Although he's liable to be a little ornery for awhile."

Mary exhaled loudly. "So what else is new?"

"Look!" Julia exclaimed excitedly when she saw Chris Larabee ride into the compound. The gunslinger immediately dismounted at the sight of Alex and Julia, particularly with Julia appearing injured. Alex who had heard the gunshot and had no idea what had happened to Mary since she was reluctant to leave Julia who was still bleeding, left the Easterner long enough to hurry towards Chris as soon as he climbed up his horse.

"You got to get up there!" Alex said frantically. "That ape is up there trying to get his hands on Mary."

"It's alright," Chris reassured her. "Vin took care of him. He ain't doing nothing to Mary." The gunslinger replied confidently. "Mary's safe." He told the doctor and shifted his gaze in Julia's direction. "Julia's been hurt." It was not a question. With Chris Larabee, little ever was.

"Just a flesh wound." Alex replied dutifully. "I've stopped the bleeding."

Chris was about to respond when they heard Mary's voice calling out from above. "Hey is someone going to get me off this ledge!"

Alex bit down the urge to laugh when she saw the dark expression on his face. However, considering that she was up to ears in as much as Mary was, especially when Vin made his appearance, Alex felt obligated to try and offer some defense. "Actually, it's a really funny story how this happened. In fact when you hear about. ."

"I know," Chris stopped her with a look. "I'll laugh."

With that he strode past her, hurrying up the stairs. Alex was about to turn back to Julia when four other riders entered the compound and among them was Vin. The tracker met her gaze with almost as impassive a stare as Chris Larabee had given her a moment ago and Alex could only guess what was running through his head. Ezra Standish however, did not need to hide his emotions. He dismounted his horse the moment he saw Julia and broke into a run towards her. Buck Wilmington was searching the compound and Alex knew that he was looking for Inez.

Vin climbed off his horse, showing no signs of any concern on his face regarding her welfare. If anything, that unflappable expression was even more deep set than ever. He walked up to her and stared for a moment with his arms folded in the familiar lean she found so very endearing, gazing at her intently with his deep blue eyes.

"Hello cowboy." She smiled, trying to be just as nonchalant as he was even though she was bursting to wrap her arms around him after the last two days of being certain she would never see him again.

"This ain't Denver." Vin replied, enjoying the fact that she was squirming like a guilty child. He liked it when Alex did not have quite everything under control. She was never more attractive to him when she was out of her depth and all fired up for a fight.

"Oh really," Alex retorted, feeling her ire raised. "I would not have guessed."

"Looks like I'm going to have to keep a tighter rein on you." Vin sighed, enjoying her chagrin very much indeed. He could see that familiar fire burning in her eyes. "Can't have people thinking I'm a man who don't know how to keep my woman in line."

"I see." Alex frowned and then marched right up to him. Pulling him to her by the collar of his buckskin jacket, their mouths met in a fiery kiss of passion that despite Vin's supposed ambivalence, the tracker returned with searing intensity. His arms wrapped around her and held her close to him as he expressed in his own way just how pleased he was to have her back in his arms, safe and sound.

Alex and Vin started laughing softly when they parted from the kiss, staring into each other's eyes and delighting in the twinkle of affection they both saw there. "Are you alright?" Vin asked softly, this time there was no hint of teasing or amusement in his voice.

"Yes," Alex nodded. "I don't ever want to go through what we just did the past two days."

"You mean the bank robbery part or the whore house?" He couldn't resist mentioning.

Alex groaned visibly and buried her face in the crook of his arm. "Don't remind me." She replied, her face blushing with embarrassment. "I don't know what's worse. The fact that that woman thought we were young men looking for. . .you know what or that we were women looking for other women."

Vin knew that she was seriously humiliated by that entire experience but he could not help laughing at the humour of it all. "I can't say really," he tried to stifle the smile but it escaped before he had a chance to stop it. "Its kinda interesting picturing you with another woman."

Alex's jaw dropped her jaw open in outrage. "Vin Tanner, that is disgusting!"

"Hey," Vin retorted in defense. "I ain't the one who went in there looking."

"Now, let this be a lesson to you." Ezra said scooping Julia in his arms as he carried her to his horse. Although Alex had bandaged her arm well both the healer and the doctor were agreed that Julia needed to have proper medical care as soon as possible. "Never leave town without telling me." He said with that annoyingly superior tone of his.

"I'm injured, can't I be spared the lessons?" Julia complained as she rested her head gently against him and kept to herself how pleased she was to feel his arms around her. "I thought you'd be happy to see me again, beside yourself with worry and all sorts of things."

"Not after hearing you were soliciting company in a local bordello." Ezra could not help mention and succeeded in having Julia smack him across the shoulder with his good hand.

"We will never speak of that again, Mr. Standish."

"Of course not." Ezra chuckled. "How about your stunning sense of fashion?" He retorted instead and garnered a most savage glare from Julia's emerald eyes.

"Pay him no mind, Miss Julia." Nathan said examining the bandage Alex had placed around Julia's wound since the doctor was busy sharing a moment of intimacy with Vin. "He was like a lost puppy all the time you were gone."

"I was not." Ezra protested most vehemently and threw Nathan a filthy look for undermining his fun with Julia's adventures over the past few days.

"Did you really miss me?" Julia found herself smiling. "I left you a note." She pointed out, enjoying his discomfort at having his feelings exposed so blatantly by the healer, especially since he had just tortured her only a few seconds earlier.

"I have grown accustomed to your presence." Ezra said evasively. "The lack of it gave me a moment of pause. Only a moment though."

"Don't believe a word of it Miss Julia," Nathan added quickly, allowing Ezra no quarter for retreat. The woman was injured and Ezra was making her feel most inadequate, someone had to defend the lady. "That first night, he was sitting in the saloon looking like he had not a friend in the world."

"Mr. Jackson," Ezra grumbled. "If I ever speak to you again, it will be too soon."

"So you didn't miss me." Julia pouted and looked at the direction of Vin and Alex who were engaged in a passionate greeting. "I'll bet Vin missed Alex." She looked at Ezra critically.

"He sure did," Nathan announced. "Drank himself stupid until we had to carry him back to the wagon. Then he puked his guts out the next morning." The healer volunteered with a perfectly devilish expression on his face.

"Hey!" Vin's cried out indignantly. "You want to shut up Nathan?"

"Really?" Alex grinned. "That is so sweet. Do you have a hangover honey?" She teased.

Nathan was enjoying this immensely as Vin gave him a dirty look as he helped Ezra with Julia. It was not often that Nathan had so much fun at the expense of his friends but for some reason, a rarely seen streak of mischief was running through him today. Perhaps, it had to do with everything he had seen the past two days in his friend's state of mind and the absurd adventures of their lovers.

"Mr. Jackson," Ezra frowned. "You are simply endearing yourself to us all."

The return of Inez with Jeremy Seacourt put to rest the fears held by the others, especially Buck Wilmington over Inez's safety. The bartender and the Secret Service man returned to the compound shortly after all the arrival of the Four Corners' lawmen and introductions were made all around. While Ezra, Vin and Nathan offered Seacourt gratitude for his assistance to the ladies, Buck seemed strangely distant, mostly because he recognized the look on Inez's face when she looked at the stranger.

"Hello Buck." Inez had greeted once they had a moment alone.

Buck kept glancing at Seacourt who was engaged in conversation with Vin and Ezra. Nathan and Alex were more interesting in how Julia was doing. It was anyone's guess what Mary and Chris were up to. Whatever it was, Buck had no doubt it would be anything but explosive. As he looked at Seacourt, he noticed the stranger meeting his gaze as if not comprehending Buck's interest in him. Well he should, Buck thought ruefully. After all, Inez was his girl.

"Are you okay?" He asked first, unable to dispel this knot in his stomach. All the way here, Buck tried to imagine trying to live with the knowledge that any harm had befallen her. He never realized there could be an even worse pain that that. The possibility that she might no longer love him and her heart may have gone to someone else.

"I'm fine." She said quietly. Inez had come to one conclusion when she had ridden back with Jeremy Seacourt. As attractive as he was, no matter how much she had been drawn to the man, caring for him in any way would only be using him as a substitute. It was Buck she still wanted even though he was too stupid to mend his ways. She was not ready to let him go yet and until faced with death and the possibility of loving another, Inez had not realized just how much he meant to her. "I'm a bit bruised but I will live."

"Seacourt seems like a nice fella." Buck said trying to hide the pain in his eyes as he said those words. He had no right to be jealous, no matter how much he might hate the idea of her being with anyone else. For once, he had some idea of what Inez had been enduring.

"He does." Inez nodded, understanding now what she was seeing in his eyes. "I like him a lot."

"You do?" His heart sank at those words.

"I do," she answered, unwilling to make this easy for him even if her heart did well and truly belong to him. "But I still love you."

Buck met her gaze with surprise. "You do?"

"Absolutely." Inez answered. "However, that might change one day." She pointed out.

"Not if I can help it." Buck grinned. "Miss Inez, I am going to sweep you off your feet."

"Sure you will." Inez rolled her eyes in scepticism, not believing him for one moment and finding that it was not so hard to bare. She was attractive to other men and if she should like one of them as she had liked Seacourt, she was not about to waste her time pining for Buck Wilmington.

Whether or not Seacourt knew he was being discussed, the government man approached them. He stepped into the fray gingerly, knowing instinctively that something of importance was about to be discussed.

"I've got to get going." Seacourt said to Inez . "Preston's still in the middle of the desert and I've got to get the plate back to Washington so it can be destroyed."

"I'll be sorry to see you go Mr. Seacourt." Inez said genuine regretful about his departure. He was an interesting man, not to mention attractive who had saved her life. As a matter of fact, he had saved all of them by his timely arrival into their affairs.

"Well," Seacourt smiled at her, wondering how a jewel of such beauty could languish in a place like Four Corners. He liked to call on her some time but was realistic about his ability to do so. Seacourt rarely stayed in one place long enough to make acquaintances. "Its been interesting." He replied and took a step forward before something crossed his mind and Seacourt decided that there was no reason he should not act upon the sudden impulse.

Without giving her time to resist, he pulled Inez to him and met her mouth in a passionate kiss. Inez did not resist, enjoying the taste of his mouth against hers as he expressed his goodbye. The others looked away discreetly, although Buck narrowed his eyes when he saw Ezra stifling a smile while Nathan started chuckling. Buck glared at the couple in their passionate exchange and felt some outrage at the man taking such liberties with his Inez.

"That was nice." Inez smiled as they parted.

"Well, if you ever get sick of waiting for this idiot you love so much," Seacourt grinned drawing away. "Look me up."

"That's a real nice offer," Buck stepped forward and slid his arm around Inez's shoulder protectively. "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Seacourt laughed and tipped his hat at her. "I'll be waiting."

"Get on the horse." Chris said to Mary abruptly when it was finally time to go.

"But, if you just let me explain. ." Mary started to say when Chris silenced her with a look.

"You're not being very fair." She grumbled as he stared at her with a stern expression. "I mean it's not like any of this was my fault."

"Of course not." Chris finally spoke. "You didn't steal horses or blow up a bank." He said helping her climb into the saddle.

The rest of their company was smart enough to remain silent while the duo battled it out. They had become accustomed to Chris and Mary's arguments over the months and knew that it was never wise to get in the cross hairs of that mess. Neither of them took prisoners in such altercations and it was best to keep one's head down and out from the line of fire.

"I did do that but those were mitigating circumstances." Mary protested as she waited for him. "I had to rescue Inez, Alex and Julia."

"Did it ever occur to you to go to the sheriff?" He looked over her shoulder.

Mary had to say no. "Are you ever going to let me live this down?" She glared at him with fire in her blue grey eyes.

Chris met her gaze and thought a moment. "No." There was almost a twinkle of amusement in his eyes but Mary was too annoyed to see it.

"Bastard." She swore under her breath.

"Outlaw." He grunted with a smile.





Getting Even


Thanks to Jeremy Seacourt, when the group returned to Four Corners, they were able to do so without the fear of a posse bearing down on them to arrest Mary, Alex, Julia or Inez for various crimes ranging from bank robbery to wanton destruction of property. Using his influence as a government agent, Seacourt had spoken to the local authorities and convinced them to drop the charges since their intervention had saved the United States government from a potential fiscal disaster.

The engraved plate, they were later told was soon in the hands of the Treasury Department where it was promptly melted down. After leaving them, Seacourt had gone to retrieve Lawrence Preston whom they were told was languishing in a federal prison awaiting trial, before they had even saddled their horses to return home. It appeared that the justice system moved with incredible speed when it came to men who would attempt to destabilize the economy of the nation.

There was only one thing that concerned Seacourt as well as Mary Travis was the fact that when it was time to collect the bodies. Selena Quint had disappeared from where she had fallen. The blood that had seeped into the earth where she had been shot was abundant enough to believe that even if she had escaped, the woman could not have gotten very far. The bullet that Julia Pemberton had put through the mercenary was substantial enough to be fatal and yet Alex could not shake the uneasy feeling that she might have survived.

In any case, Selena Quint was just as wanted for a multitude of crimes as her former master.

The journey back to Four Corners saw a slight detour to Stone Creek where as promised to the local sheriff; Chris Larabee delivered the horses stolen by Mary and the women during the flight from the saloon, back to their rightful owners.

Mary was not happy to return to the town but did feel obligated to pay a call to Doris Stanley to thank her for her assistance in passing her message of help along to Chris. The woman was most curious as to the nature of Mary's relationship with the gunslinger and seemed somewhat disapproving after Chris and the others had torn up the local saloon during their brawl.

In the meantime, Ezra who simply had to know whether she had thrown all their poker games was badgering Alex to distraction. Although he remained close by Julia and was attentive in every way to her injuries, he still found enough time to sidle his horse alongside Alex's periodically during their ride home to convince her to play him again. After awhile, the doctor was so irritated by the constant harassment not merely by the gambler but also by Vin who was determined as a point of honour that she proved Ezra wrong about her gambling skills. Alex was almost tempted to strangle them both.

While Alexandra Styles found herself caught in a tug of war between Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish, Inez and Buck's conversation during the trip home were strangely silent for two people whose encounters were normally so very fiery and spirited. Yet both were deep in thought about everything that had transpired during the sojourn from Four Corners. Until now, Buck had always assumed that she would be there for him, waiting for the day when he finally ready to settle down and raise a family.

Even when she had stated so clearly that she was done waiting for him and that she was moving on, there was a part of Buck that refused to believe she might make good on her threat. While he took her concerns to heart and was somewhat hurt when she had snubbed him before her departure from town, Buck had conceded that she did have a right to be upset. Still, he never imagined that someone else might come into the picture so soon.

Seeing how she had behaved towards Seacourt had frightened the hell of out Buck Wilmington and finally he was forced to concede that he did not want to lose Inez under any circumstances but had no idea what he ought to do to keep her either. He knew he was not ready to make the commitment and he was not about to enter any relationship with Inez prematurely because he was afraid of losing her. That just did not seem fair to Buck. He cared too much about Inez to risk his resenting her in the years to come if he entered anything he was unprepared for.

Buck Wilmington could only come to one conclusion as they rode home to Four Corners; he had a great deal of thinking to do.

And then there was Chris and Mary.

The leader of the seven and the newspaper woman had bickered constantly. Actually, she bickered and he merely gave her one of those long cool stares that served only to raise her ire more. Despite the circumstances, Chris enjoyed watching her trying to explain herself. He remained silent, completely aware that his lack of speech would only drive her to distraction. As far as Chris was concerned, he was entitled to a little payback after the hell she had put him through the past few days.

Unfortunately, by the time they returned home to Four Corners, Mary had ceased to find his annoyance tolerable. None of what transpired over the past few days had been her fault really, even though she had to concede that she did take a man hostage, hold an entire room at gunpoint, stole horses, not to mention blowing up a bank and taking refuge within a bordello. Okay, so he had some reason to be mad.

"You know, it was not my fault." She said for the hundredth time as they entered her house in the dark of night. The others had scattered to their respective homes and lodging houses, undoubtedly exhausted from their ordeal these past four days. Ezra wanted to get Julia home as quickly as possible while Vin and Alex just wanted to get home.

"I know." Chris replied as he followed her into the hallway after Mary had closed the door shut behind her.

"No you don't know," Mary glared at him with an accusatory glare. "You say you know but you don't know and you're thinking that I don't know that you don't know either." She retorted before her brow knitted in confusion as she replayed that sentence and tried to see if she could understand it herself, let alone expect him to.

Her choice of words only forced a smile across his lips despite himself. Chris cleared his throat and returned her gaze. "Naturally." He answered with the same somber expression once he managed to compose himself. Still, had she looked closely, Mary would have seen the twinkle in his eyes.

"Ooooh!" Mary huffed and turned on her heels. How could he stay so calm like that? Did nothing every get under his skin! With a sudden start, Mary realized that she did know of something that might bring down the walls of superiority from which he was presently looking down at her. She paused in mid stride and turned around to face him. She knew she was not being fair but obviously more persuasive methods were going to be required to snap Chris out of his dark mood. Besides, she had to do something to make him feel better or he was never going to let her leave town again. Her lips curled into a smile of pure evil as she took a step towards him.

Chris knew the look as well as the gleam in his eyes. Instinctively, he found himself thinking; things were about to get interesting.

"Chris," she said in a voice that oozed pure sex. "I guess I did misbehave a little."

Chris swallowed, suddenly aware that she was going to play dirty. Real dirty. He should be walking out of here with his skin intact and his virtue in place, but the luster of her lips as she ran her tongue over its soft pink silkiness kept him rooted to the spot. He felt a little incensed that she was resorting to such tactics but found it quickly diminishing with the seduction that was coming at him with the force of a locomotive.

"Mary, don't even think about it." He warned. "I ain't doing it this way." It was true. He did not want her just because she was trying to pacify his anger. It felt wrong somehow. Although he was starting to wonder why he was giving her such a hard time.

Wrong choice of words, Larabee.

"I'm sorry," her mouth met his as they stood in the middle of the hallway. "I don't rightly know what you mean." Mary looked at him with pure innocence before leaning down to kiss him again.

Her tongue slid past his lips and explored the inner recesses of his mouth; taunting his with slick and seductive movements as Mary pressed herself against him. Chris felt the heat of her body against him and immediately felt stirrings that did not correspond with the irritation he felt. He knew what she was doing and decided that she not going to get away with this. However as her hands slid over his back and through his blond hair, tipping his hat so that it fell to the floor, Chris wondered if he was not being just a little unreasonable.

"This is not going to work." He mumbled when she parted long enough to allow him to catch his breath.

"What's going to work?" She asked softly before loosening her hair from the bun that held it in place. Her hair spilled over her shoulders like a golden cascade and took his breath away as it crowned her lovely face. Despite himself, he felt becoming increasingly aroused, as she lowered her head to his meet his lips once more, except this time it was not his mouth she sought but the sensitive skin of his neck. Chris felt himself weaken at the knees as Mary started nipping gently at the flesh, her tongue doing all sorts of sensuous things as he staggered backwards and came to a stop at the wall. There was a moment of clarity when he wondered if the front door was locked, however as her tongue started licking him gently across the collarbone, Chris decided he did not care.

People ought to knock anyway.

He became aware of her palm sliding down the length of his taut body and closed his eyes at how slowly she glided over her skin, forcing the fabric of his clothes to aid in her caresses as she moved towards his dark trousers. Chris had no idea under the right ministrations; his shirt could produce such pleasurable sensations. Her fingers came to halt at the waistband, before an index finger slipped behind the tough material and belt to trace a seductive line over the velvet soft skin beneath his stomach. Chris closed his eyes and shuddered as he felt his manhood straining to be free of his clothes. Mary slid her other hand lower until her palm could feel his growing erection struggling to meet her bare skin through the cloth.

Mary looked up at Chris and purred. "Why Chris," Mary met his hungry eyes with a wicked gleam in her eyes. "You're not that mad at me." She smiled and removed her hand, feeling him shudder at the sudden withdrawal. However, she did not give him time to protest as her mouth met his again with rising desire of her own. She could feel the heat inside her body at the anticipation of what was waiting for her beneath those too tight pants of his. However, Mary was not about to forget that he had been mean to her so he could just wait a spell while she tortured him a bit.

Chris closed his eyes, running his fingers through her hair as she started working on the buttons of his shirt. He was perfectly aware of what she was doing of course and Chris convinced himself that no amount of teasing by those soft pink lips even when they were at their worst, could convince him to ever let her out of his sight again. Still, it was hard to stay at all objective when Mary's mouth started moving down his neck, her tongue laving every inch of skin in its downward descent. His cock was throbbing so hard behind his pants that Chris knew that he had to get out of them quickly or else he was going to explode from the sheer anticipation of her what her lips were doing to him.

The buttons of his shirt came undone and Mary started kissing his chest with soft, innocent kisses that reminded him of his first lover, a sixteen year old who had took delight in exploring his body because it was new to her. Mary lavished him with soft, innocent kisses across his chest reminiscent of a young girl trying to seduce a man for the first time. She carefully avoided his nipples even though she knew perfectly well how sensitive they were to the touch. Her lips against the nubs of erect skin that were hardening with each kiss planted near or around the tender flesh, was driving him insane.

"Mary. ."he tried to speak. "You're going to pay for this." However the pleasure forced him to close his eyes shut and draw his breath into ragged pants as she started licking the skin around his nipples with long, wet lashes of her tongue.

Her hands had pinned his to the wall, so he could not even direct her where he wanted her to go. Her grip was firm as she held him in place, fully aware that he was fighting her even though she was pleasuring him. He wanted to be in control. In fact Chris Larabee absolutely craved it in almost every sexual encounter.

Not this time.

When she took his nipple into her mouth, she did so with brutal force. She plucked it into her mouth, gripping the tip with her teeth before her tongue laved it in hard, forceful licks. She could feel him wanting to cry out but he was fighting hard to maintain his dignity. His stomach muscles were clenched to keep himself from verbalizing his pleasure but the cock that was starting to peek through the top of his waistband was telling her how utterly aroused he was. As her mouth worked on his nipples, alternating from side to side as she nibbled, nipped and then laved the tip in hot, wet strokes, Mary slid her hand down to his groin and wrapped her fingers around his erection over the fabric.

She looked up to see the muscles in his jaw tighten as he fought to remain silent but the pleasure of her hands as she slid up and down his shaft was beyond description. Mary was capable of driving Chris so insane with desire that their couplings almost set the sheets on fire at how much satisfaction they could achieve from pleasuring each other. However this was the first time she had ever taken charge like this. Her initiative was not only tantalizing, it was making him so hard that if she did not do something very soon to alleviate the pressure building in his cock, he was not going to be responsible for his actions.

Suddenly, he felt her slide further down his body as her hands started working the buttons of his trousers fee. God, he was so ready for her to do this! He stared at her mesmerized as she smiled at him; the pure lust in her eyes was enough to make his jaw drop from the sheer expectation of what those incredible lips had in store for his tortured cock. She undid all the buttons and the last thing he saw as his pants were pulled down to his knees, was the crown of gold hair before she slid his hard member as far down her throat as she could.

God, God, God. He was not going to make it.

He tried to hold back, tried to bite down hard so that she would not force it from him but the moment he felt her soft lips sliding up and down his shaft, culminating with an insistent laving on the tip of his cock, his defenses were effectively destroyed. His hands released were running through her hair in complete abandon as she sucked his cock into her mouth with such relish that he had no idea where he was and did not care when he finally surrendered and gave her what she wanted.

"Oh God Mary," Chris groaned out loud, making himself heard and not caring that he had. "Don't stop," he cried again. "Please. ."

Mary tried to smile which was an effort in itself, considering what she was doing and abandoned the idea as her hands massages his heavy sacs, full of semen awaiting discharge. Chris was thrusting into her mouth, his hips swaying back and forth as she gripped his cock with mouth, allowing him to slide so far down her throat that she could gag if she were not careful. However Mary cared little for the discomfort, more enthralled by the idea that he was moaning and groaning with a total lack of control, something he rarely displayed in their lovemaking. She had always let him take the initiative but decided now that had been a mistake.

Still, he was very close and she could not deny how much she wanted to feel this beautiful cock slid into her with its unrelenting ability to make her just as oblivious to anything. She left his mouth and heard the groan of disappointment that escaped him as she slid up to his mouth once again. She kissed him passionately as his hands started tearing at the buttons of the dress she was wearing.

"I want you to take me Chris," she whispered heavily into his ear just before she started sucking the lobe into her mouth. Her tongue ran along the crest of his ear and whispered again. "Right now Chris. I want you take me right against this wall."

Chris smiled at her; one of those smiles that was almost a cruel sneer. Roughly, he ripped the dress from her shoulders, his large hands taking delight in the luxuriant feel of soft skin as he forced the material away and revealed naked flesh. His mouth dug into her neck as he felt the feverish need to taste her as completely as she had tantalized him with her sensuous mouth. What would not come free in his hands, Chris tore without hesitation. The seconds it took for her chest to be free of clothing were seconds too long before Chris slid his mouth over the rosebud nipple on her heaving chest.

Giving her no quarter for preparation, Chris took the tiny nub of dark pink flesh in his mouth and sucked it past his teeth. Unlike him, Mary had no fear of giving herself fully over to desire and the groan of pleasure that escaped her lips as her fingers dug into his back expressed it most clearly. Her skin tasted so good, it never ceased to amaze him how powerfully arousing the salt of her flesh could be in his mouth.

"Oh Chris," she sighed breathlessly as he manoeuvred her around until it was Mary whose back was against the wall. His hand slid up the folds of her dress, until his palm met the firm flesh of her thigh. He tugged at the material, cursing the stockings that kept him from bare skin until finally they were discarded and all the other garments hidden beneath the length of her skirt. He travelled along the gentle curve of her bottom, grabbing its smooth roundedness and relishing the feel of it as he hooked her leg over his hip.

Instinctively Mary ground her pelvis against his, the length of his manhood pressing hard against her leg as he nursed on her nipple hungrily, wondering if close was ever going to be enough when lost in thrall of that insistent nibbling that was sending waves of delight through her. Half delirious with sensory overload, Mary slid his dark shirt over those well honed muscles, groaning with pleasure as she felt the taut skin under her palms. He dropped his arms long enough to discard the shirt completely and it joined the growing pile of clothes on the floor. She ran her hands over his bare back and moaned at how hard the muscle was before her nails raked across them in a spasm of desire.

Chris closed his eyes shut as he felt himself hardening at her sharp nails across his skin, finding pleasure in the pain as she no doubt left red welts across his back. The onrush of feeling shattered the last of his resolve and he left her mouth long enough to divest her of the dress that kept him from having her naked against him. The bundle of cloth slipped from her like a curtain falling. It revealed magnificence in every curve of her breasts, in her slender hips, even in the way her leg had snaked over his hip as his fingers trust deep past the thatch of golden hair that preceded the throbbing folds of her inner passage.

Chris met her mouth fiercely at the same time his fingers were probing inside her. Her gasp was silence by his brutal kisses and she could hardly breathe as she felt him explore her femininity with every intention of finding the weaknesses that would break her into a thousand pieces. His mouth moved over her lips, kissed her flushed face, moved to her ear lobes before devouring the soft flesh where neck and shoulder joined. He remained poised over her, bracing his weight against the wall with one hand while the other prepared her for his eventual entry. They were both naked in the hallway, if one considered the trousers wrapped around his ankles as his being still dressed, beautiful bodies glistening with a fine sheen of sweat as they moved towards apogee.

"Please Chris," she moaned as he felt his fingers pressing gently against her moist walls, each touch sending a surge of warmth coursing through her body. She wanted him so badly, no needed him to be inside her as he drove her beyond arousal, beyond need, beyond caring. "I need you so much." Her breathless voice began to take on the fluidity of a whimper and the desperation in her demands collapsed whatever restraint had thus held him back so far.

She was so wet that it was relatively easy for him to find his way inside her as he positioned himself so that he could impale her deeply with that first initial thrust. The air in his lungs was forced from Chris Larabee when he pulled her leg further around his waist until she was standing on her toes of her other foot when he finally forced himself all the way in with one brutal thrust of his hips. Chris clamped his eyes shut, biting down hard as he buried himself deep inside her, immediately falling prey to the intense pressure of her muscles as they crushed his throbbing cock with beatific pleasure.

"Mary. ." He whispered as he began to pump into her hard and forcefully, watching her eyes glistening as her swollen lips quivered with wave after wave of pleasure. "God, Mary." He wanted to sing her name each time he felt himself impact against the abrupt end deep inside her. She was shuddering in delight; her golden hair tossing over shoulders as her head started to sway from side to side from complete abandon. Her hands had dropped down to his rump and she wall pulling him deeper as she started moving with him, until each stroke was making them bounce off each other.

Chris started gasping as he continued to thrust into Mary with such brutal force that his knees felt ready to give out if he dared to pause and allow himself to catch a breath. He had no idea when he was moaning out loud with her because he was too lost with the pleasure of what he was now enduring. Each hard stroke made her grind her hips against him, until she was squirming from the fullness of his engorged cock inside her.

Her mouth met his with feverish passion, until they were breathing each other's heated pants as Mary started to feel herself slip over the edge. His tongue thrust into her mouth as forcefully as his manhood was turning her insides into quivery mounds of tingling flesh, moving with the same rhythm until she felt the last vestiges of sanity, snap with a final rush of explosive pleasure. "Oh lord," she cried out as she felt herself swept away on the crest of a brightly coloured wave. "Chris!" Her body bucked against his in total surrender.

When Chris felt her go, her warm fluids all around his hardened cock made his let out a groan of relief because he knew he could not longer hold on. Her muscles tightened around his erection with such merciless application of crushing pressure that it snapped his control like kindling. She had broken him with such intense pleasure that the satisfaction escaping him when he ejaculated was beyond description. He had been flying so high that when he finally crashed, there was no adequate way to prepare for it.

"Mary!" He growled her name full of guttural intensity, like it was more than a word but the impetus through which he drew breath to live or the hope that allowed him to wish for tomorrow.

He continued pumping into her, forcing all his seed into the deepest crevices of her body, watching the glow in her cheeks as she smiled at the sight of his pleasure. The meeting of hot juices was so sweet, so wonderful that Chris could only collapse against her, knowing the wall was the only thing holding him upright. Chris swallowed thickly as he felt her hold him in her arms, in the way that made him feel so good to be alive where there had only be darkness in his soul once. Chris rested his head against her shoulder, enjoying how she stroked his back with her fingertips.

Mary sighed in complete contentment as she luxuriated in the intoxicating scent of him in her lungs. It was even more tantalizing intermingled with the salty smell of their heated bodies after their lovemaking. She rubbed her cheek against his hair, enjoying how wonderful he felt inside her even when he was spent and the frantic passion of a short time ago had melted into something less torrid and steamy.

After awhile he looked up at her, his normally cool blue eyes were warm and twinkling, despite his exhaustion. "I suppose you think this means I'm ready to let you out of my sight again." He teased.

Mary sighed with contentment and responded with the same breath. "I know it does."

Chris looked at her. "You're pretty confident there Mrs. Travis. How do you know for sure?"

Mary met his gaze with a smile. "I know for sure because unless you want to be spending the next six months in your shack alone, that's the way its going to be."

"You'd miss me as much I miss you." He declared confidently.

"I'd be willing to make the sacrifice." She said firmly.

"I had no idea you were so mercenary," he grinned, knowing that she was merely joking with him. Besides, confining Mary to his rules was like trying to lasso a twister and make it stay in one place, utterly pointless. She would get into trouble no matter where she was, that much Chris had come to learn about her long ago.

"I've learnt a few things since I've became such an outlaw." She joked and saw him chuckle slightly at the name he had been teasing her with since their reunion in Winston Falls.

"I noticed." He grinned. "There's just one thing though," he met her eyes seriously.

"What?" Mary asked genuinely puzzled at what he was about to spring on her now. Frankly, she was no longer in the mood for surprises.

"Well, I thought we'd go up to your room," he said suggestively. "And then I'd like to see what you'd look like in my shirt."

Mary did not whether to oblige or hit him. She ended up to doing the former.

"Will you two kindly get lost!" Alexandra Styles growled as she stood in the middle of the boardwalk, glaring at the two men. Vin Tanner on one side of her and Ezra on the other. She felt like she was in a tug of war between these two men although the only ones liable to get torn limb from limb would be themselves, if they did not leave her alone.

"Come on Darlin'," Vin said tenderly, using that husky voice of his that was so irresistible to her, except today. Alex was far too annoyed to let any of his cajoling or coaxing get to her. "It's only a game of poker."

"Exactly," Ezra added his voice to the argument in a renewed attack of solidarity between the two. "Just a friendly game of poker. One game, we do not even require a stake. I just want to satisfy my curiosity."

Alex let out a visible groan knowing that she was not going to get a moment's peace from either of them until she agreed to play Ezra and prove the legitimacy of her gambling skills. Although Vin had been good enough not to mention it during their first night together in days, giving her some respite after their journey from Winston Falls, he had been gently inferring that she ought to satisfy Ezra's burning desire to know if she could really play or not. Alex had no wish to meet Ezra at the gambling table mostly because if she beat him, he would hound her to death until he finally returned the favour by beating her.

Frankly, Alex had too much going on in her daily routine to be distracted by such competitive nonsense.

"Why is it so important that we play Ezra?" Alex replied as she continued walking towards Gloria Potter's store to stock up her pantry. After almost a week away, she was in severe need of groceries. "So I won a few dollars." She shrugged her shoulders, trying to down play the incident as much as possible. "I could have just been lucky."

"Darlin' you won $250 in one night." Vin reminded dutifully. "Not even a working girl flat on her back for a week straight could make that kind of money."

Alex whirled around and glared at her lover tempestuously. "Do not mention working girls or bordellos in my presence Mr. Tanner." She said icily.

"However, he is apparently correct." Ezra retorted. "Even on a good night, I can come away with a hundred dollars that is of course, the losers do not get perturbed by my luck at the tables. Sometimes, these skills are so hard to live with."

Alex and Vin exchanged glances before rolling their eyes collectively in a mixture of disgust and sarcasm. "And you want me to play poker with that?" She eyed Vin critically.

"I know you can beat him." Vin said confidently.

"No you don't know!" She gushed furiously. "You want me to play so that you can know and personally, I don't care if you don't know whether or not I can play because it's not that important!"

"It is to me." Ezra spoke up indignantly. "How can I live with myself knowing that a woman has thrown all her games of poker with me? How am I supposed to look in the mirror?"

"You better," she snapped. "Or else you'll cut your throat shaving."

With that, she entered the store to do her shopping. Fortunately, neither of the men followed her and Vin found himself laughing at her departing remark to Ezra. The gambler fumed at not getting his answer and sent Vin a dark look when he heard the tracker's laughter. "I thought you were on my side?" Ezra complained.

"I ain't on no one side," Vin pointed out quickly so that Ezra would not misunderstand. He wanted Alex to play because he believed she could do it and because Ezra needed taking down a peg or two after claiming that all Alex could play was 'Go Fish' when it was obvious that she quite skilled to take money from those men. "I just want Alex to beat you, that's all."

"It will be stone cold day in Perdition's Fire before a woman beats me at poker other than my dear mother." Ezra said full of pride. Only Maude had ever been able to beat Ezra at poker and that was mostly because she had taught him everything she knew. .well almost everything, that's why she could still beat him. However, to think that a scholarly female could beat him at his own game was more than he could stand. He had gambled in some of the finest places in America and to know that Alex had thrown her games with him, incensed him down to his egocentric core.

"That may be," Vin grinned wickedly. "But I still say she's going to kick your ass."

Alex emerged at few seconds later to find them still waiting outside the store for her to emerge. Alex saw them both and let out a frustrated groan. "I hope you're both still here out some overwhelming need to help me with my bags."When she was greeted with two guilty expressions, Alex shook her head and disgust and turned on her heels to leave them both behind. "Vin," Alex said before leaving, "if you wish to see me for any other reason, I will be cooking dinner tonight. You can join me if you wish but there will no more talk about gambling."

"Sure." He said hurrying up to her before she left him behind. Vin made her turn around and look at him and Alex was treated with an expression of apology and affection in his small smile. "I understand." He said stroking her cheek with his hand. "I'll see you tonight."

"Okay then," Alex replied, somewhat taken back by the sudden withdrawal on this subject but deciding that she was not going to complain. "I'll expect you this evening cowboy." She offered him an uncertain smile.

Vin turned back to Ezra who promptly hissed. "You traitor!"

"Now Ezra," Vin looked at him reproachfully as Alex started walking away, holding his hand to his lips to signal the gambler's silence. "If Alex doesn't think she's good enough to play you then I don't think its right to force her. I mean just because she's real smart and pretty and a doctor, doesn't mean a lady is any good at poker."

Vin said this loud enough to be heard and succeeded most spectacularly. Alex whirled around and glared at him with narrowed eyes, reminding him of those furious looks she used to give him when they were in the heat of one of their more intense verbal jousts. Even though her colouring was all-different, Vin could tell that her cheeks were flushed just by the way her teeth were biting down to control her anger. She dropped the bags on the floor and stormed up to him, practically smouldering from rage.

"You low down, dirty rat." She growled quietly. "You know I can play him under the table any day of the week and it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a woman!"

"Then prove it Madam." Ezra grinned, appreciating completely the deviousness of Vin's plan and was able to take the rest from here. Vin had given him a convincing platform to make his final argument.

"Alright," she nodded, deciding that she was going to make them both pay for this. They wanted her to play poker? Fine, she was going to play. "Set it up." Alex said with a glacial tone to her voice. "I'll meet you in the saloon in an hour and bring your money. We're playing for real."

"I shall accept your challenge." Ezra smiled triumphantly at Vin who was trying to wear a neutral expression on his face. In truth, the tracker was wondering just what he had sacrificed in order to gain this particular victory. After all, he had used the unfair advantage of exploiting her abhorrence to being considered anything less than equal because she was a woman.

"And you," Alex turned to Vin and grabbed him by the collar of his buckskin jacket savagely. "You had better be so prepared to make it up to me tonight because I am going to have you begging for mercy!" With that, she picked up her groceries and stormed off.

Ezra and Vin watched her go before the gambler turned to the tracker. "Mr. Tanner?"

"Yeah?" Vin said distracted, admiring how seductively her body moved when she was good and mad.

"I think finally understand why you have been walking around here with that grin on your face. You lucky bastard." Ezra remarked, following his gaze.

Vin was still staring after Alex when he said with a grin. "Ain't I though?"

The game had been going on for an hour now.

Somehow, everyone of the seven had managed to be in the saloon for the gambling stand off between Ezra Standish and Alexandra Styles. Even Chris and Mary were present, just to see what the conclusion to this test of wills would be. In fact, it seemed that the saloon was unusually busy today in the wake of the news that Alex and Ezra would be playing a hand of poker solely against each other. No one spoke as the cards were dealt by Josiah who was sitting in as dealer, since no one could find a person with a more impeccable qualifications than the preacher.

The table occupied by the two players was an island in a sea of bodies who kept close watch but remained far enough away to catch every detail of the event. Even Inez, who was behind the bar, was paying close attention to the proceedings as she moved along the length of the counter, ensuring that all the patrons were rarely dry for more than a moment.

"Inez," Buck interrupted despite the tension in the room.

Inez whose eyes were darting from her customers to the gambling table in the centre of the room was in no mind to be distracted by Buck when there was so much going on around her that required her attention.

"What?" She asked quietly, feeling it inappropriate that he be speaking when it was already so quiet.

However, Buck had more important things on his mind rather than Ezra's need to prove himself better than a woman. Since Seacourt had proved how easy it was for him to lose Inez, Buck had been deep at thought trying to find a solution to his dilemma. However, nothing had presented itself and he realized that for once he was going to have to make a decision instead of running away and putting it off, like he did with almost everything else in his life.

He was not willing to risk losing Inez under any circumstances.

"I need to ask you something." He said straightening up and speaking most formally.

The tone of his voice immediately made Inez meet his gaze, because he did not normally look so serious. Buck was all about carefree fun and even though he was utter scoundrel, Inez had to admit rather begrudgingly that it was one of his most endearing qualities. God help her.

"What is it?" She asked, wondering if something was wrong. She could not imagine what that might be since all their friends were presently in the room, a captive audience to Ezra and Alex's display.

"I want permission to court you." He said taking his hat off his head as he asked the question.

Inez's eyes widened, from surprise or astonishment, she was unable to say for certain at the moment. For an instant, she thought he might be joking with her but when she saw that earnest expression on his face, she realized he was completely serious about it. "You're not kidding."

"Of course not." He said trying to hide his exasperation. "What was so funny about him wanting to do the right thing by her? "I would like to court you and I promise there won't be any other women in my life. I am going to do the right thing by you."

Inez was still too astonished by this sudden pledge of commitment. She knew what was at the heart of it of course. Jeremy Seacourt's interest in her had frightened him. On their way home, he had been so attentive to her, despite his attempts not to bring up Seacourt's name. Obviously, this idea to court her had come from some fear of losing her.

"Ain't ya gonna say something?" Buck asked, unable to fathom if her silence was a good thing or not.

"Is that what you want Buck?" Inez finally responded, meeting his blue eyes and loving him more than ever for willing to do this just to keep her. Just when she thought that he was a complete ass, he did something that was utterly charming and flattering.

"Of course it is," he said firmly although she could tell by the look of him that he was not sure about this at all. It was some desperate bid to ensure that he not lose her to someone else as he had almost lost her to Seacourt. "I don't want to lose you." He insisted, clearing away any doubt in her mind.

"Senor Wilmington," she sighed. "I have been thinking a great deal lately and I know that you were frightened by Mr. Seacourt but my feelings for you have not changed. I still love you, idiot that you can be and I know your wish to court me is because of some fear that I will run off with someone else."

"That ain't true." Buck hastily countered but knew deep down inside that she was right.

"Buck," she reached for his hand and held it. "I may meet someone else some day and I may not. For right now, I can wait for awhile." She smiled. "When you are ready to come to me with all your heart, I will be more than happy to let you court me."

Buck looked at her uncertainly, not knowing what to say. In a way, he was almost relieved but also wondered if she had ulterior motives for turning him down. However, no sooner than the thought crossed his mind, he knew that Inez would not lie to him. Their relationship may have been fiery, spirited and barely bordering on civil at times but lies and deception was in neither of their vocabularies.

"I am going to marry you some day you know," he said firmly with no doubt or hesitation in his mind. That much he was clear on anyway.

"Maybe you will." Inez smiled and then added with a mischievous gleam in her eye. "Or maybe if you wait too long, someone else will."

"Don't count on it." Buck grinned glad that things were somewhere back to normal between them. As normal as they could be anyway. "I'll fight em for you."

"Then let us pray for your sake, it is not a battle of wits." She laughed and went back to serving customers again.

"You better treat me right," he called after her. "You ain't getting any younger."

Inez threw him a tempestuous look and responded in kind. "And you're not getting any smarter."

It had come down to this.

All their money was now in the middle of the felt covered table. There was no doubt in anyone's mind by now that Alexandra Styles expertise did not merely include doctoring. She was indeed a formidable poker player. She had held her own against Ezra throughout most of their game and they were almost evenly matched with neither gaining the advantage. Skill had brought them to this point in the game and now it was left solely in the hand of chance to decide who the winner would be.

While Ezra seemed nervous mostly because he allowed himself to be preyed by thoughts of losing to a woman, Alex on the other hand seemed cool as ever. For her, the gambling had been the least of her concerns. She had been forced into this match by duress and revenge was her only agenda. She was rich enough to be able to stand the loss of the money should it come down to such an outcome and they were less than a hand away from that final moment of truth.

Vin was standing next to Chris and Mary, pleased as punch because as far as he was concerned, he was vindicated in every way, no pun intended. Alex had proved she could play poker better than Ezra or any of them had given her credit. While he would love to see Ezra put in place by being defeated by her, it no longer mattered whether or not she won. She had proven Vin right and that was a victory that was terribly satisfying, if the look on Ezra's face was anything to go by.

"How did you get her to play?" Chris asked as the three of them stood by the bar, watching the proceedings

"It took some convincing." Vin swallowed, not wanting to discuss really how he had manoeuvred her into agreeing to participate in this venture.

"How?" Mary pressed, "I thought Alex was adamant about not showing her gambling skills to anyone."

Vin cleared his throat and then told them.

Mary laughed at hearing how Alex's refusal had been circumvented. "You are a brave man Mr. Tanner." She chuckled, picturing the calamity that was coming at the tracker at full steam when this was all over.

Chris merely met his eyes with a steely gaze and remarked. "I guess there's no kitchen table in your immediate future pard."

"Chris!" Mary exclaimed reproachfully and smacked him on the arm.

"That's all right ma'am." Vin answered good naturedly. "Just don't take no trips to Sweet Water when the Davis gang is supposedly roaming the place."

"You weren't going bring that up again Vin." Chris turned to him with a hint of annoyance.

"And you were going to leave the kitchen table out of it. ."

"Boys!" Mary interceded. It was hard to remember they were grown men when they were like this. "And I use the term very accurately here, you're causing a scene."

"Sorry ma'am." Vin replied and turned back to the game before muttering softly with a faint smile. "Davis gang, my ass."

Chris sneaked a grin and retorted. "Like you've ever eaten food on that table. ."

Mary rolled her eyes in exasperation and mumbled. "Men. Can't live with them, can't shoot them."

"Do you think Miss Alex will win Nathan?" J.D. asked as they continued watching the display like spectators at a gladiatorial match.

"She might." Nathan had to admit as he sat at the table with J.D. and Julia Pemberton. He did not like the idea of the young woman moving about after less than a week sustaining her injuries but Julia had been adamant about being present during this match. He could not blame her. After hearing about Alex's skills in that saloon with those tough men, seeing her beat Ezra was almost worth the effort of escorting Julia to such seedy surroundings.

"I didn't know she could even play." J.D. said confused. "I mean she always lost when she played Ezra before."

"It's the oldest trick in the book," Julia said to the younger man. "No faster way to catch a man then to let him win."

Nathan gave the woman a stare and then frowned as he remembered all those games of horse shoes he played with Rain on occasion when he visited with her at the Seminole village. In fact, she never ever seemed to win when they played and suddenly, Julia's words started to leave a very unpleasant taste in his mouth. What if Rain were doing the same thing that Alex had done? Suddenly, the idea of riding out to the village to challenge her to a game was starting to look very attractive.

"The oldest trick in the book?" He looked at the Emporium owner.

"There's only one other older." She mentioned with a smile, seeing the kernel of suspicion she had planted in his wrinkled brow.

"What's that?" J.D. had to know.

"Let me demonstrate." Julia replied taking a deep breath and then saying in her sweetest voice. "Why J.D., I can ride and shoot better than you can." Reverting back to her own voice, Julia then added. "Then of course she lets him beat her at all those things."

"But that's what Casey said to me when we first. . ." His voice trailed off as the realization hit him and both Nathan and Julia started laughing as the young man understood how completely he had been snared by the most ancient of feminine arts.

Julia was in good spirits today because earlier that morning, Alex Styles had paid her a visit at her home. It was the first time the doctor had ever deign to call on her. They had shared tea, trying to move past the awkwardness that had still lingered even after their adventures in Stone Creek and Winston Falls.

Necessity had brought them to a temporary truce but now it was over they were back to where thing had been when they had originally left for Denver.

"I won't lie." Alex had replied. "We didn't get off on the best footing. Stealing another woman's man is never the perfect ice breaker to begin a friendship."

"I'm sorry it went that way," Julia apologized and was surprised when she actually meant it. "I won't lie and say that was a different me because that sort of behaviour has been the heart of who I am. I'm finding a new way to live and its taking some getting use to."

Alex had nodded imperceptibly and then added. "But you were right. Things with Vin had started progressing beyond my control and perhaps it would have ended between myself and Ezra anyway. You were just the catalyst to make things move a little faster."

"I behaved badly," Julia admitted freely. "I cannot take away the pain I caused you so I am only going to apologize once."

It was enough for Alex because the doctor took a deep breath and remarked. "I don't know whether we'll be the best of friends, at this point I'm not even ready to admit that I like you. However, you saved my life and that counts enough to make us sort of even."

It was not the best response that Julia could have hoped for but it did prove that there was nothing Julia Pemberton could do if she set her mind to it.

God, it was good to be bad.

"Are you raising the stake Alex?" Josiah asked now that it appeared that the two parties were down to their last dollar.

Alex stared at the lonely dollar note on her corner of the table and felt that she had played well enough to prove that she was good enough to give Ezra Standish a run for his money. This was never about winning. She took a deep breath and looked at the preacher who had been dealing the cards all this time and had been wearing that bemused expression every time he saw a bead of sweat running down Ezra's forehead.

"No," she sighed and gave her cards one final look of disappointment. "It's not worth my time."

"Then you fold?" Ezra said almost exclaiming it for the entire crowd to hear.

The relief in his voice was unmistakable however. Not only was she good, she was very good and he had not met such a formidable opponent since he had left the bright lights of New Orleans and Charleston. Half way during the game when it appeared she might actually win, Ezra was visited with horrible visions of being defeated so publicly; knowing everyone would take great delight in amusing themselves over his loss especially at the hands of a woman.

Alex nodded sombrely. "I guess I do." She threw Vin an apologetic look that showed her regret not being able to win for him.

The tracker smiled warmly, telling her in his cool stare that he did not care for such things. He was proud of her anyway because she had actually made Ezra sweat and that was something almost no one did without the aid of firearms or a particularly large Bowie knife.

Satisfied that she had his support, Alex lay down her cards and turned to Josiah. "I fold."

The sound broke out around them was a mixture of cheering and disappointment as supporters of either opponent voiced their feelings on the outcome of the game. Ezra presented his cards and revealed a full house, a formidable hand to say the least. Easing back into his chair, he wore a smug grin on his face as he rested on the laurels of the sizeable pot before him.

"That was well played Alex." Josiah commented as he collected the discarded cards and started returning them to the deck. "You could not have played any better than Ezra here. It was just luck."

"Yes," Alex said innocently. "Luck does seem to be the vital ingredient."

"Miss Styles, I must say I am impressed." Ezra, ever the gentleman, added politely. "You were a challenging opponent."

"Why thank you Ezra." Alex smiled as she rose to her feet, tired of sitting on this hard chair. "I hope your curiosity is properly sated." She replied as she saw Vin coming to join her at the table.

Around them, the crowd had started to dissipate with the end of revelries, bets made were being settled and the tense atmosphere of the saloon soon disintegrated into something closer to the norm. In either case, Alex had no intention of remaining in such seedy surroundings but she did have one final thing to impart upon the gambler now that they were no longer the centre of attraction.

"By the way Ezra," Alex said quietly, her eyes darting around so that no one would notice her words or what he would discover after she had revealed her parting gesture. "You know that situation between you and me with Julia?"

Ezra knew perfectly well what she meant by that as Josiah picked up the cards she had placed face down when she had folded. "Of course and you know I still feel regret at how I behaved towards you."

"Whatever," Alex dismissed it with a shrug because she had dealt with that hurt long ago but had yet to find the opportunity to avenge herself until now. "I just thought I'd let you know, we're even."

Ezra did not understand and Alex swept out of the saloon without another words, bringing confusion to Vin who was about to join her at the table. Ezra started after her in confusion. "What does that mean?" He asked Vin and Josiah. Vin shook his head blankly, having no idea what Alex meant by that enigmatic statement.

"I think it means this." Josiah said barely stifling a guffaw as he revealed her hand to Ezra and Vin. The tracker started laughing and Josiah found himself unable to resist joining in that infection expression of amusement as Ezra stared open mouth at the cards Alex had held when she had chosen to fold and let him win.

A perfect Royal Flush.

The End