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A Weekend With Maude

by Scribe


Prologue:

The Venerable Mrs Standish

She had been in the game long enough to know that she should not have done this.

From the first moment she had been instructed in the art of the con, one rule had been stood above the others in all the lessons that had come and gone over the years. Under normal circumstances, she paid close heed to it, understanding that its importance was not at all idle and for those who lived the life, it was a discipline that had to be learnt to stay alive. Adhering to its instruction had made her reputation as a professional grifter and she had enjoyed a lengthy career, where most would have ended up in jail o r worse by the time they reached her age. Still, she knew that she had kept her years well for a woman with a grown son and a trail of victims across the nation. All of which who never knew how they had come to be taken until their pockets were empty and they were scratching their head in confusion, wondering how that had come to be.

Maude Standish knew she had erred when she abandoned the rule of selecting oneís mark carefully.

The man had been rich and arrogant and as soon as Maude had entered his presence, she knew that she had found her next victim, despite all instincts that indicated to her that the man was dangerous. However, his disagreeable manner had all the more convinced Maude she could best him at the game she played so well throughout her life and thus caused her to throw caution to the wind. Maude began her latest escapade, proceeding to unwrap her deception with the intricacy of an onion being peeled layer by layer. Men who were rich were often easy to deceive and though his eyes revealed a ruthless and shrewd nature, Maude knew he was just a susceptible to the flattery and seduction that was an inherent weakness of the gender.

They had met in New Orleans, that pearl in the South that Maude had spent a great deal of time when she was in the mind for some rest where she used the sabbatical to conjure her next money making scheme. In truth, she preferred to conduct as little business as possible in New Orleans itself because she had been cultivating something of a reputation as a respectable widow. It amused her to move in the circles of the cityís social elite, watching the best families jockeying for position as they tried to maintain their foothold on the ladder that kept them on rung above everyone else. Maude knew she somewhat mystified them. Here she was, a woman of breeding obviously but whose manner was so unusual, they had no idea what to make of her and were too afraid to distance themselves in case she turned out to be someone important.

It was this mystique that had drawn Jethro Lewisham to Maude Standish although in truth, she had been aware of him long before had presence of mind to cast his eye in her direction. She knew that he had money. In fact, the intelligence she had gathered on him uncovered that he had a great deal of it. His appearance in her life was rather fortuitous since Maude discovered she was in need of a hefty sum of money to invest in a venture that had arisen at the same time. It would not only allow her the chance to compete with the best of her peers, but also give her the opportunity to pay a call on her darling son.

It was all this factors and perhaps the fact that Lewisham was such an arrogant specimen of masculinity that Maude found herself abandoning the rule of paying close attention of what kind of man he was before launching into her latest scheme to dupe out of his money. She did not require any flamboyant scheme to take it, merely incite his interest in a series of card games that progressed over a number of weeks. Each time they played, she would lose enough to convince him that she was a worthy opponent but still one he could beat despite the challenge she offered. Their games grew in intensity until finally, one warm night in front of the greater part of New Orleans society, Maude was ready to cast her well-woven net over the good Mr Lewisham.

The game was blackjack and it started with small, even bets that everyone was capable of covering and could afford to lose without too much embarrassment. Maude bid her time carefully, never showing that she was a master with the cards and never allowing anyone at the table to suspect that she was any more than a mediocre player. She maintained this illusion particularly for Lewisham because he liked to win and more over, he liked doing it in front of an audience. Maudeís interest in him had been inspired when she had seen him goad a man who had everything to lose including his pride, play the game of his life in a most public arena. The years had taught how to harden her heart against sentiment but even she tended to gravitate towards the mark who deserved it, not the one who was likely to put a gun to his head and blow it off because they had lost everything.

She had watched Lewisham capture the manís pride in the palm of his hand and crush it without mercy while wearing smile of sadistic relish on his face. It had angered her because there was no joy in a victory like that and the man who had been defeated had thrown himself in the river following the incident. Perhaps, it was sense of outrage over that which had motivated Maude to decide that Lewisham needed to be taught a similar lesson on the kind of prey he selected. As she sat around the felt covered table that evening, playing that final game with Lewisham, she played modestly to begin with, her skills gaining momentum as the stake started to become more and more exorbitant. The others at the table started falling a way, like an oak that sheds its leaves in winter.


Lewisham never suspected that he was being led to the slaughter, contenting himself in the arrogant belief that she was playing this well because of an extraordinary stroke of luck. After all, the lady had proven what kind of player she was on numerous occasions and he had more than enough money to run her into the ground if this bout of fortune remained much longer. People started to gather around the table, aware now that a great upset was taking place. Those who had been defeated by Lewisham were exultant that perhaps the great man might suffer some of the indignity he had inflicted upon other and very soon, the table was surrounded by half the reputable supper clubís clientele.

As the evening progressed, the stake became more than just sizeable. It became a small fortune. Maude had a tidy nest egg put away for her retirement but she was willing to risk all to cover her bets because she knew with a clairvoyance that made her one of the best that she could beat him. Lewisham on the other hand, saw the money as little importance. It was the principal of the thing that held his concern most. He refused to be beaten by a woman! As a gentlemen of the south, it was a blow to his ego he could not endure and he stayed in the game out of sheer stubbornness in the belief that a woman could not best him at anything, least of all a game of blackjack.

Unfortunately, it became painfully obvious who the better player as the night continued.

Card after card was dealt and the luck of the evening seemed to be resting firmly in the lap of the elegant Mrs Standish with her smiles and genteel southern etiquette. However, in the depths of her eyes, he was certain the sparkle of victory he saw there was actually the triumphant glimmer of someone who was publicly humiliating him with intent. Yet he could not withdraw without similarly embarrassing himself. Thus he was forced to remain at the felt covered table, playing side show freak to the gawkers who wished him to see him beaten, who wished him to be the beast that she, the lion tamer was whipping into submission.

It continued into the night, the game of chance being played with only one winner emerging throughout the countless hands that were dealt with each upturned card. Lewisham sat stonily through the last of it, aware that all eyes were on him, watching and waiting to see if he would cry surrender or would he let the sour wave of defeat sweep him to its inevitable conclusion. A part of him was astonished that this seemingly harmless widow could reduce him to such humiliation. However, another part of him, the part that made him the calculating and ruthless man that he was, was starting to see through the veneer of respectability Maude Standish wore like a fairyís glamour.

He started to understand just how cleverly she had played him with her alluring smiles and sea coloured eyes. As his mind descended into a red haze of vengeance, he began to see things with clarity of mind that had previously been lulled into complacency until this moment of shame. It was astonishing how such unpleasantness could focus the mind so singularly and yet in doing so, had made him understand that he had been fooled long before he had ever sat at this table with the venerable Mrs Standish. She had prepared him and basted him and finally served him like a Thanksgiving turkey at a feast of her making. The rage he felt while staring across the table at her, the father into defeat she plunged him was beyond reason. He had killed men for less.

He promised to do the same to her.

By the time the final hand was dealt, the pot sat at a hefty sum of five thousand dollars and exclamations of anticipation were heard with each card presented before the opponents and the banker in the final dealing. Throughout it all, Mrs Standish had appeared glacial in her concentration and further served to convince him that she had tricked him in the most common way possible, the hustle of a con. He had been conned into believing that she was a weak, mild mannered widow who had some scant skill in the game when in truth, he now suspected that she was possibly one of the most skilled players he had ever encountered. Such skill does not come easily; it is acquired from a lifetime of practice such as the skill of wearing so many masks.

Mrs Standish was a woman of masks, he decided when he put down his cards in that final moment of their tournament. He swore as he saw her present her perfect hand of a pair of spades, a jack and an ace, that he would strip down those layers and learn who it was that had deceived him so easily. He wore a smile of gracious defeat as she thanked him politely while receiving an ovation of congratulations from the onlookers whom had witnessed the achievement of her victory with so much finesse. Lewisham chose not to make a scene as he saw her collect his five thousand dollars, certain that he would have time for retribution at a later date.

When Maude saw the look in his eyes following their game, she knew she had made a bad mistake for he bore the look of a man with vengeance on his mind. While the money he had been forced to relinquish was hardly a great sum to him, Maude knew it was more than just the money that had inspired his hatred, it was her victory. She had delivered the humiliation she had wished upon him but in doing so had prodded into wakening a terrible creature of revenge that would not be satisfied until it had feasted upon her. Despite herself, Maude felt a certain amount of anxiety staining her triumph.

At first, she was uncertain how he would revenge himself upon her. Certainly, he would want a restoration of his lost prestige but that would require her to play him again and lose. He would be a fool to embark upon that course of action because he could not guarantee that unless he had something most compelling to convince her to let him win. She remained in New Orleans for a few days, biding her time even though she felt fear in not knowing how he was going to hurt her. Maude feared nothing in her life, not danger, not humiliation, not even making an honest living and yet she felt it creep up on her the more she waited.

Finally it came. Inquiries were being made about her past, questions asked about where she had come from and who she had been prior to her establishing herself in New Orleans. Maude understood immediately that Lewisham was trying to find out just who had duped him and knew the moment he had those answers, he would come after her. She cared little for her reputation in New Orleans even though she would miss the place if driven from it, however, it was merely one city and Maude was anything, if adaptable. She could find a new place easily.

However, sullying her reputation in society was only the first step. She had met enough men like him to know that his revenge would not be satisfied so easily. There would be more. The question was, would she remain to find out what he was capable of doing to her? After careful deliberation, Maude decided she would not and immediately began settling her affairs in town. Disappearing without a trace was something Maude Standish was most adept at doing and in the space of two days, the respectable widow had sold up and moved out.

By the time Lewisham had any idea that she was gone, Maude Standish was already on her way to visit her son and those nice friends of his, whom she was certain would protect should any harm chose to follow her.

It was time to visit Four Corners again.

Part One:

Thank God its Friday

It was going to be one of those days.

The sun had yet to set on this particular Friday but Mary already had this premonition that it was going to make her pay for every inch of sanity, the closer she arrived to the weekend. She had woken up this morning, all fired up with purpose and determination to undertake tasks she normally abhorred, deciding that since she was ahead of schedule with the paper and her domestic duties, she would attempt the dreaded chore of sorting out the books. Book keeping was something she detested and understood why every accountant she had ever met was a spiritless creature devoid of personality and character.

While it would have been more expedient to have her book keeping taken care of professionally, Mary could not bring herself to tolerate the expense when she knew the only reason she would be doing so would be a lack of desire. In fact this entire argument was nothing new. Each time she sat down to do the books, she found herself debating over this same question over and over again before she would begrudgingly come to the conclusion that she could do it herself. It had become a strange sort of pre-book keeping ritual with her that had began about the same time she had to assume the financial upkeep of the Clarion following Stevenís death.

Thus she had come into her office this morning, with her pencils sharpened and cup of coffee in hand as she sat down to the daunting work. Since Chris and the seven were out of town for a few days, escorting yet another wagon train of settlers further west, Mary had in mind to take advantage of the quiet. Surprisingly enough, Chris had taken Billy with him since there was little trouble expected and the sevenís escort was more obligatory than from any real need of protection. She could not help but smiling at how thrilled Billy had been to go with Chris on this trip since it was the last chance they could go away together before school started. A wave of affection filled her knowing that he had taken Billy with him, to give her a few days alone, aware of how the years alone had allowed her an appreciation for solitude that was sorely lacking since they had married and Billy was home permanently.

Mary had appreciated the few days alone at home and until this morning had been using her time most productively. Finally this morning, when she had made the momentous decision to get this unsavoury job over and done with, she had sat at her desk preparing to launch herself into the receipts, invoices and ledgers like a woman possessed, unwilling to surface until she had accomplished her goals. Then the first caller arrived at her office and whatever plans she might have had for the rest of the day was effectively shot to hell, as Chris might so eloquently describe the situation in her place.

Oh bull, Mary though to herself. If it were Chris in this position, heíd just shoot them.

Naturally, the caller ended up being Mrs Janet OíLeary, one of the most overbearing personalities in Four Corners who found it her mission in life to point out to anyone what she perceived was improper in her opinion. As soon she had entered Maryís office, the editor of the Clarion News had actually considered ducking out the backdoor before she was seen. Unfortunately, Mrs OíLearyís bulk allowed her to move with surprising agility and she was in the room before Mary could make any kind of escape. The situation was not improved further when Mary discovered the reason for Mrs OíLearyís visit.

"It's that Mexican."

Mary had simply stared at her, perfectly aware of whom she meant by that definition which oozed with insult even though none of it was spoken openly but implied with every nuance of her upturned features.

"You are referring to Inez." Mary said stiffly, having some idea where this was going and being unable to deny that eventually the issue would come to bear even though it did not surprise her that Mrs OíLeary would be the one to rear its ugly head first.

"Yes," Mrs OíLeary replied, unable to hide her distaste by the fact that Mary referred to her in the first name and was obviously unashamed to be in her company despite the situation the woman now found herself in. "You should not be associating with her in any way, after all, you are a decent woman with a strong voice in the community and your association can only bring harm to your good name."

"My association with Inez is nobodyís business but my own." Mary stated, rising from her seat as she revealed to Janet OíLeary, with little regard for the consequences to herself or her so called reputation, where her loyalties stood on this subject. "Yes, she is in the family way and she is unmarried but she has always been an outstanding member of this community ever since her arrival, not to mention my best friend in this world. She has supported me through the best and worst of times and I refuse to allow small minded prejudice to influence my friendship. Now, is that all you wanted?"

"Well!" Mrs OíLeary said exclaimed with a loud huff. "I see that my advice is wasted on you. I should have expected this deterioration in your sensibilities when you married that thug!"

Now Mary was really starting to get angry and Mar infuriated was never a good thing. "That thug as you call it," she returned vehemently, "is the reason this town is still in one piece and not descended into the seventh level of hell running rife with outlaws and murderers! Who I associate with and whom I marry is none of as my thug of a husband would say, of your goddamn business, so if you please Mrs OíLeary take yourself out of my presence! Iím sure a lady of your breeding can remember the way out!"

In retrospect, Mary decided she probably should not have lost her temper.

Perfectly aware that she would probably have reason to regret her actions with Mrs OíLeary later and resolving herself to try and make some form of apology when the smoke had cleared from the room, Mary returned to the task at hand. She managed to get through ten minutes of shifting through receipts and bills, finding some amusement in the fact that her household expenses now listed items like flour and gun oil in the same breadth. Mary began scribing the figures neatly in the ledger when suddenly she found herself interrupted once again.

With an inward groan, Mary saw the arrival of James Stoner through the doors of her office. Stoner was the owner of Murphy's Saloon, having bought the place several months before. Ever since he had assumed ownership of the establishment, Mary had been hearing complaints of watered down drinks and prices that were too far exorbitant in comparison to the other saloons in town. There were also rumours that the man had crooked dealers in the saloonís gambling hall and Ezra Standish had personally attested to the fact when Mary had asked him to sit in on a few games. Her editorial in the Clarion News had been direct and factual which was utterly damning for Stoner, who appeared none to happy as he walked into the room.


"Mrs Larabee," he said hotly, unafraid of hiding the true extent of his outrage behind any false masks of civility. "I demand that you print a retraction of this slanderous piece of fiction!"

"Really?" Mary eased back into her chair, accustomed to such displays from those she had represented favourably in her paper over the years. Although she had to remain impartial as a journalist, Mary could not admit feeling some measure of indignation at this manís feigned outrage, considering that nothing she had written about him was untrue, nor was it any surprise to those who chance to visit his establishment. In truth, her article had served to vindicate them in bringing attention to the unfair treatment they had received at the gambling tables of Murphyís Saloon.

"Exactly what part of my editorial did you find to be unfair Mr Stoner?" Mary returned, meeting his dark eyes with the intense gaze of her own.

"Iíve lost half my clientele because of you!" He ranted angrily, clutching his copy of the paper so tight in his fist that his knuckles were almost white.

"Then perhaps you ought to start running some honest games?" She challenged. "If you think my editorial is scathing, wait for the time when you have a customer who decides to take exception to the way you run your tables. I guarantee you, bad press will be the least of your worries."

He could say nothing to that remark but Mary saw his eyes narrow with hatred and something snide and vile crept into them as he leaned across the desk and returned her stare with a wicked gleam. "Youíre might uppity, arenít you?" He glared at her with a slight curl of a smile on his lips. It was filled with all things reeking of sleaze and filth. "Now that youíve married Larabee. Makes you think you can treat people anyway you like, knowing heíll protect you"

"Get out." Mary said coldly, having heard enough inferred about her relationship with Chris to last her a lifetime.


He had left but not before uttering a few more insults about herself, Chris and the newspaper and knew that they were idle and he had waited until after the gunslinger had left town to make his displeasure known to her. Although she was somewhat bothered by the encounter, Mary shrugged it aside after she had consoled herself with a hot cup of tea. Such things were part and parcel of her life as a newspaperwoman and she had become accustomed to all aspects of it, unpleasant and pleasant a long time ago.

By lunch time, she had still gotten nothing done and Mary was starting to wonder if they were gremlins at work that were determined to keep her from this chore. After making herself a sandwich and declaring a secret vow that nothing was going to keep her from finishing her book keeping, Mary sat down to her desk once more. She had picked up her pencil and was about to put lead to paper when suddenly another knock on the door of her office made her groan in disbelief while at the same time causing her to snap the sharpened point of her pencil.

And so it went for more less the entire afternoon. No matter how much she tried to get the work done, she was inundated with one inane request after the other until Mary was starting to believe fate was trying to send her a message that book keeping was not her true calling. As if she had no idea of this already from the stunning progress she had made so far. However, she was determined and resolute and not to mention more stubborn than any mule that had ever brayed its defiance upon the Earth. With singular focus that was Mary Larabeeís finest quality, Mary dealt with her endless flow of callers, answering questions that ranged from Audrey Kings inquiries about school books to David Adamís need to know when the judge was in town next so that he and Susie Parker could tie the knot.


Amazingly enough there was still a good deal of afternoon left by the time she had ceased to become the fountain of knowledge for all of Four Corners. With a good hour two remaining before the sun would set on the day, Mary decided the coast was finally clear for her to complete her own goals. The more she hampered in this duty, the more stubbornly she pursued its achievement even though she hated doing it. It was the principal of the thing. When Mary Larabee said she was going to do the book keeping, there as no power heaven or earth that would stop her.

"As God is my witness, I will get this done!" She declared boldly and sharpened her pencil yet again.

Mary let out a deep breath, certain that gods were listening and could not be foolish enough to intrude upon her when she was so fiercely devoted to what lay before her. Opening the ledger once more, she let her gaze drop to the clear white page when suddenly, the door knocked again.


"What is it with you?" She looked up to the heavens in exasperation. "All I want to do today is to finish this stupid job!"

In answer, Gloria Potter swept into the office and declared that she had a new improved recipe for apricot chicken that just had to go in the recipe column in the next edition of the Clarion News. Mary listened to the woman quietly and then replied sweetly. "Of course, whatever you want, Gloria." She smiled and then showed the woman out of the office after accepting the submission.

Once the door was closed, Mary returned to her table and regarded what was before her. "Okay," she nodded in barely concealed fury. "I give up!" She picked up the collection of papers on her desk and threw it in the air. Sheafs of bills and notices drifted slowly to the floor, leaving the room in quite a state of disarray.

"Happy now?" She cried out tempestuously and made on further declaration before storming out of her office. "I can take the hint!" She was right. It was one of those days and she had a feeling it was not even over yet.

********

Bored. Bored. Bored.

That was what Alexandra Styles was at the moment. The whole Friday had been a loss ever since she woke up this morning and had more or less progressed the same way. While her patient roster was full and she had much too occupy her time should she chose to tackle the tedious pile of paperwork that remained untouched on her desk and had been that way for several days now, Alex could not bring herself to do it. She stared at it, stacked in several different ways as if the organisation would make the chore any less tiresome and then arranged it back the way she had it in the first place. Even her patients seemed to have ailments as equally mundane as the paperwork she was attempting to avoid during the regular intervals of their arrival.

Lumbago, sprains and aches were what she was forced to contend with today and Alex was almost hoping someone would come in with something severe so that she could at least break the monotony of the day with an ailment that was remotely challenging. Unfortunately nothing of the sort appeared on the horizon and after hours of prescribing all manner of remedies for an entire plethora of minor ailments, she knew that she was more than ready to send away the next person who came in with a rash or something as similarly mediocre.

Alex almost slammed the door on the last patient for the day and glanced at the clock and noted that it was still mid afternoon. Returning to her desk, she flopped in her chair and knew the reason for her impatience with the day and everything had transpired since this morning. Alex hated to admit it, in fact she felt so silly and incredibly female just for even thinking it but the truth was not something easily hidden from and begrudgingly, Alex knew the reason for this dark mood was simple enough to answer.

She was missing Vin.

He had been gone for almost a two days now and it was to Alex chagrin that she missed him terribly. A part of her felt embarrassed that she should feel his loss acutely, after all, she was hardly a teenager. She was a grown woman and she ought to be able to tolerate the departure of her lover from Four Corners for a few days without feeling like this. Still, during the few days since he had left with the rest of the seven to escort yet another wagon trail to safety in their new lands, Alex could not help counting the hours to his return. It was worse at night because she was accustomed to having him in her bed and she had spent the nights of his absence staring at the ceiling, counting sheep in an effort to bring on sleep. Inevitably it would not work and Alex would find herself counting the sheep she was shooting and found that was invariably more pleasing.

Alma Smith who had brought in her little girl Eve, had left behind a small container of soapy water with a rather odd looking device that was used to blow bubbles. Purely out of boredom and she was very bored, she picked up the thing at the edge of her desk and dipped the instrument into the depth of the soapy water and blew through the ring that would produce the bubbles. The first one popped rather unceremoniously and was not very sizeable. During her physical examination, Alex had seen Eve blow quite sizeable bubbles and wondered why someone with a degree could not achieve similar skill.

Very soon, her office was popping with wet bubbles that were no way as impressive as anything young Eve had managed to achieve and yet Alex had really nothing better to do but to keep trying. It became a matter of principle that she should be able to attain the same results as the young girl, after all, she was an adult, although anyone seeing her at this moment could argue that point. Besides, she was a doctor who had been to college, what did it say about her if she could not blow a sizeable bubble that a seven year old was able to do with ease?

She was engrossed in this endeavour when Mary walked into her office.

"Busy?" Mary looked at her with a look that spoke volumes and did much to alleviate some of the annoyance that Mary was feeling as she saw Alex surrounded by soapy bubbles, concentrating on blowing more with the same determination on her face as when she conducted surgery.

"Donít knock it until youíve tried it." Alex said with no sign of repentance on her face as she continued with what she was doing, her brow wrinkling in chagrin when her latest creation did not reach its expected size.

"Who am I to argue in the face of insanity," Mary grumbled and pulled up her chair. "Do you know what I have been trying to do all day."

"Iím guessing not this." The doctor said with a smile and caused Mary to burst the bubble she was working so religiously on expanding before its escape into the air.

"I have been trying to do my book keeping all day and itís been one constant interruption after another. Do you know something, I think there is a conspiracy a foot in this town to see to it that I wallow in a mess of financial confusion." Mary declared, with every indication that she believed in this outrageous allegation

"Oh good," Alex retorted unperturbed. "Reality."

"If you were a good friend," Mary gave her a look. "Youíd be trying to make me feel better. What about that Hippocratic oath youíre always telling me about, to render aid where possible?" The editor of the Clarion News challenged the doctor with a hint of accusation.

"Okay," Alex paused and thought a moment. "Want to try?" She smiled mischievously and handed her bubble maker towards Mary.

"Its frightening to know that you conduct surgery on people." Mary pointed out.

"Oh all right," Alex rolled her eyes in sarcasm. "You know, you are extremely high maintenance. However does Chris put up with you during that time of the month?"

"I donít know," Mary said letting a slow smile steal across her features now that Alexís lunacy was starting to affect her and remarkably, making her feel a great deal better for it. "However, it seems to coincide a lot with his going hunting or fishing with Billy."

"And I thought that was some father Ė son male bonding thing." ALex laughed as she put down the container of soap, having decided that she would return later and master it. "Come on Mrs Larabee, Iíve got the perfect remedy for what ails you."

"What?" Mary asked suspiciously as she saw Alex grab her purse and gesture her to follow.


"Why ice cream of course." Alex looked at Mary as if it were the most perfectly obvious thing in the world.

"Ice cream?" She exclaimed. "Thatís your prescription?"

"Iíll have you know my younger patients have never complained." The doctor remarked as Mary rose to her feet and started following her out.

"They better have chocolate." Mary grumbled as they left.

**********

She could hear their whispers despite her best attempts to ignore them.

Inez Rosillos knew that eventually the talk about her present state of health would reach her ears even though she had told herself repeatedly that it did not matter. She had chosen to have the baby in spite of the social stigma and everything else that came with being an unwed mother. The hardest hurdles she would have to face would come after her baby was born and she was unwilling to let the wagging tongues of the town gossips influence her decision or marred what she had deemed the best achievement of her life. While it would be simpler if she just relented and accepted Buckís proposal of marriage, she was more afraid of being his wife then she was of having this child. Still, that did not change the fact that the town saw her as little more than a wanton who had been ruined.

Thanks to her friends who weathered the innuendos and the pressures for them to disassociate themselves from her in her shame, Inez knew she could endure the trials ahead. However, there were times such as these when the pressure simply gnawed its way through the protective barriers she had erected over her emotions to keep the snide words and the vicious comments away from her heart. She was almost six months into her term and the pregnancy was showing most prolifically now. Even though she still worked behind the bar, Rain had taken over most of the duties when it came to serving and to Inezís surprise was quite good at fending off customers with more than liquor on their mind. It also helped that Rain was the sweetheart of one of the seven men who guarded town and any insult offered to the young woman would be taken with great exception by every one of them.

Inez was mostly spending time in the kitchen these days, cooking for the paying customers and was fortunate that most of the clientele in the Standish Tavern had more than enough moral flaws of their own to be concerned with her pregnancy. In her circle of friends, the birth of her baby was viewed with a great deal of jubilation and her unmarried state was a subject avoided by everyone. They knew that Inez and Buck had a lot to work through and held their opinions to themselves, which further inspired Inezís gratitude. Ezra had been strangely helpful in the saloon, ensuring that she never overdid it and occasionally relieving Rain from bar tending when she was needed to assist Inez.

Buck had been busying himself with getting this horse ranching venture of his, Chris and Vinís off the ground so Inez did not see as much of him as she normally did. Although the three men were still part of the seven that represented the law in Four Corners, they were spending the days that did not require their vigilance in town, working on the new business of establishing a horse ranch on the piece of land Chris had purchased. That Buck had involved himself in this enterprise had gone some way to showing Inez that he was thinking of the future and to her absolute astonishment, she also realised that he was directing all his energies towards it instead of the women he pursued on an almost daily basis.

Unfortunately, he would have to a great deal more to do before she was convinced that he could be husband to her.

Inez knew she was being selective and particular at a point where she could not afford to be. Her determination to have this baby on her own terms was the reason for this reception she had received upon entering the Pemberton Emporium. As she walked into the main floor of the building, she noticed the eyes that immediately latched upon her, passing judgement at the swell of her belly under her clothes. It incensed her deeply that they could think of nothing else but their high minded principals and completely forget that there was a child involved in what they perceived as ruin. In retrospect, she should have let Julia pick some things out for her but Inez refused to hide. She was carrying a child in her body that she would love and cherish, she saw no reason to feel shame or cower in the shadows like a criminal.

She had come to the Emporium to purchase some maternity clothes because what she had been wearing the past few months had been let out as far as it would go and it was time to purchase appropriate garments before she grew any larger. Inez held her head high as she walked past the matrons with the whispers of gossip and their cruel stares, making her way the counter in order to receive help in making her purchase. She wondered how long the gossiping would continue and told herself again that talk could not hurt her. Instinctively, her hand fell to her stomach and she stroked the taut flesh gently, wondering if the child inside could feel her soothing touch.

After a moment of waiting, she glanced sideways to the sales clerk who was attending on a woman who had just reached the counter. Inez waited patiently for them to finish, guessing it must just be an oversight when suddenly, another woman appeared beside her who gave her a totally deriding look of disgust before the sales clerk attended her having dealt with her previous customer. She too, gave Inez that same look before flashing a smile at the respectable housewife and asked in a perfectly syrupy voice how she could help.

"Excuse me," Inez declared, having tolerated enough of this behaviour, perfectly aware that she was being ignored. "I was here first."

"Iíll be with you as soon as I finish with Mrs Cartman." The girl whom Inez knew to be Selma Altman said with a haughty voice. Both stared at her with reproach at having the audacity to speak out when she ought to be grateful for any assistance at all.

"She was here after me." Inez persisted, feeling crimson embarrassment flood her cheeks but was too stubborn to let this go. She would not be treated like a criminal because of her baby.

"If you will just wait your turn...." Selma continued to insist in that utterly condescending voice.

"How can I wait my turn when you seem to have no idea when my turn is?" The Mexican stated, bristling with annoyance.

"You ought to be grateful youíre not run out of town!" Mrs Cartman chose to speak up at that point, echoing the words of every god fearing, supposed Christian woman in the premises. Her statement garnered a rumble of disagreement throughout the room and Inez felt their vicious barbs even though she could not hear them.

"If you do not wish to wait," Selma looked at her coldly. "Perhaps you ought to leave."

Inez was about to respond when suddenly Julia Pemberton appeared out of the corner of her eye. Julia had witnessed the entire incident and was hiding just how furious she was behind a mask of cool indifference. She stepped behind the counter and beckoned to one of the other clerks who was currently stacking some shelves.

"Betsy, could you please deal with Mrs Cartman." Julia ordered and Betsy, whose last job had been washing clothes for two bits and was one of her more reliable workers, immediately took Selmaís place in attending Mrs Cartman. The woman stared at Julia in distaste but was not about to object to anything she might have said because Julia Pemberton was not only extremely wealthy but the Emporium was a godsend as far as the female population of Four Corners was concerned. Since its establishment, it was the only way in town where the women of Four Corners, could enjoy some of the offerings that would normally require a trip to Sweet Water or Bitter Creek to appreciate. It would not to do to anger the person who owned it and had the power to bar her from its premises.

Once Betsy and Mrs Cartman were taken from the equation, the rest of the room seemed to return to normal leaving Selma in the hands of her employer. "Selma," Julia said after they were no longer on display to the rest of the store. "Youíre fired."

"Julia," Inez spoke up quickly, not wishing this course of events.

"Inez, please." Julia silenced her with a look and turned back to the astonished Selma, who was attempting to stutter a response. "I will give you a weekís severance pay along with what is owed to you but you will finish up at the end of the day. Now I saw that disgusting display you just afforded to not simply a customer but a personal friend of mine. I am in the business of making money and hers is as good as anyone in this building. I will not have you insulting my customers because of your personal prejudices. So I want you out of my Emporium and out of my sight by the dayís end."

"Miss Pemberton pleaseÖ" Selma implored, "I really need this job."

"Julia," Inez protested, knowing why Julia was doing this and although she felt some measure of satisfaction seeing this girl get her comeuppance, she did not want to be responsible for Selma losing her job. "Iím sure she did not mean to be rude."

"Did you?" Julia looked at Selma critically. "I did not hear you atttempting to apologise to Miss Rosillos for you behaviour. In fact, an apology would go a long way to convincing me that you are the kind of person that I want working in my store."

Selma swallowed hard and turned to Inez, feeling humiliation seep into her face as she was forced to regard the woman who had been the cause of this crisis but having no choice but to give into Juliaís demand. "I am sorry I treated you badly, Miss Rosillos. It will never happen again." She said slowly, hating every word that she uttered.

"Itís quite all right." Inez answered shortly, not stupid enough to think that this apology was motivated by anything more than a desire to keep her job. Still it was better than nothing.

"Good," Julia said with a smile, pleased to wring that apology from Selma, even more so because the girl had been loathed to do it. "Now that we understand each other, you may go back to work and donít ever let me see a repeat of what you did today or you will be out on your rear so fast you wonít know what hit you. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes Miss Pemberton," she said softly and slinked away from them both, grateful that she was still employed.

WHen she was gone, Inez turned to Julia. "You did not have to do that."

"Oh yes I did." Julia said firmly, taking her by the elbow and leading her deeper into the store. "She serves as an example to the others. Your money is as good as anyone elseís in this place and I wonít have their small minded behaviour treat you like a leper."

"Thank you," Inez said gratefully. "Unfortunately, this is only one place and I have to deal with this everywhere."

"I guess you do," Julia sighed. "But this little slice of heaven is my domain and I say what goes in here. By the way, what were you trying to buy?" She inquired, bristling with annoyance at Selmaís behaviour when she recalled how Inez had been snubbed.

"Maternity clothes." She gestured to her protruding stomach. "I am starting to get strangled in my old clothes."

"Well," Julia smiled warmly, "Iím sure we can do something for you. Come this way."

************

To christen the opening of the schoolhouse, Four Corners was hosting a dance at the premises a week from today. Considering that such social events were rare in the town, most of the single women in town were all agog in preparation of it. Invitations were exchanged between sweethearts, dresses ordered and all kinds of pre-dance preparations were taking effect across town. Casey Wells had more or less expected JD to take her to the dance, as it was whenever such thing took place. She had been his girl for quite some time now and it was expected of him but a conversation between Beth OíKeefe and some of her friends that Casey had chanced to overhear had given her cause for great concern.

"I hear Jenny is ordering her dress from the Emporium, special." Beth had droned in her perky yet totally annoying voice as far as Casey was concerned.

Beth was the kind of girl that men naturally were naturally. In fact, she and all her friends seemed sculpted that way with their perky noses, their lady like manner and hair that never seemed to have a strand out of place. They were always seemed to epitomise what she could not be, sickly sweet, perfect in their execution to find amusement in whatever a man said, no matter how stupid it sounded and be overall utterly mesmerising. Casey had never been able to do that. It was not that she could not if she did not really try but there was more to her than perfume and lace. She was certain JD knew that. However, he had still run off with that lady bounty hunter and seemed to react to a radiant smile whenever one was flashed in his direction.

"Iím having mine made." Beth continued unaware that Casey was close by listening from the inside of Gloria Potterís store.

"Whoís taking you?" Lucille Rodney asked.

"I donít know yet." Beth replied in that singsong voice of hers that indicated she had someone in mind but was being coy about revealing who exactly the candidate was. "There are so many."

"Come on Beth," a voice Casey did not recognised prompted. "Itís only a week away!"

"I was thinking about JD Dunne." She declared and Casey had to stop herself from going out there to Beth and beating the snot out of her for daring to make such a statement. Fortunately, Casey managed to restrain herself and continued to listen, wishing to know why Beth would think that JD would even think of taking her to the dance.

Unfortunately, as she listened on, it appeared that Beth had several valid points even though it was pointed out that JD already had a girl.

"Have you seen her?" Beth exclaimed. "Sheís probably going to wear the same dress she wore the last time there was a dance and sheís always in pants. I think heís just going out with her because heís being nice. After all, look at her!"


By this point, Casey had heard enough and she had come away from the store almost in tears, unable to deny to some extent that some of what Beth had said was not completely untrue. She was hardly conventional like other girls and she did not wear dresses nor did she talk sweetly to JD like other girls were meant to talk to their sweethearts. She tried to remember the last time JD had brought her flowers and seethed with annoyance when she remembered the last thing he had gotten her was a farming tool. What was worse, he thought she would really appreciate a gift like that.

Thus she found herself in the Emporium with all the money she had saved for a rainy day, preparing to buy herself a dress and show them all that she could be just as pretty and genteel as the next girl when she walked into the dance with JD. However, coming to that decision was only the first step. Upon entering the establishment with its rows and row of dresses and accessories and having no real friends her own age to help her with the monumental task she had set herself, Casey realised she had no idea what she was looking for.

She wandered around the store for a short time, trying not to feel as completely overwhelmed as she did while all around her, other women and girls her age made their selection with almost flawless ability that she did not seem to possess. Its no wonder JDís eye seemed to roam so easily, how could she keep him when she could not make a simple decision on something that every other woman in the world seemed to find no difficulty in making.

"Hello Casey." She heard Mary Larabee greet as she and Doctor Styles were walking past the aisle she was standing in for the last ten minutes.

"Hi." Casey responded somewhat distracted as she continued to ponder the selection of clothing before her and found that she was unable to make a decision on anything.

"Buying a new dress?" Mary asked, seeing the girlís frustration in written all over her youthful face.

"Trying to." Casey frowned. "I ainít having much luck."


"Thatís because you donít know the rules." Alex spoke up exchanging a slight smile with Mary, relating in a glance that the girl needed help but was probably too proud to ask for it.

"The rules?" Casey looked at her, wondering what other mystery about dress buying she knew nothing about.

"Yes," Mary said with a faint smile. "Itís been awhile but I believe that you are not supposed to buy anything alone. Itís always wise to have other women with you to make offer a second opinion. Now did you have an eye on anything special?"

"No." Casey shook her head. "Nothing at all. I donít buy a lot of dressed but when I heard what Beth Parker said that I always wear the same dress and she doesnít know what JD sees in me, it just made me so mad!" She went on for another few minutes, relating the terrible conversation she had been privy to that was the cause of this sudden urge to buy a dress.

Mary and Alex listened to the girl in complete sympathy, aware of what it was like to endure peer pressure at Caseyís age and recalling secretly between themselves how they had been none too conventional in her youth. At Caseyís age, Mary was more interested in travelling to far off places, writing stories that would make her world famous. Alex on the other hand was doing just that, except instead of writing stories, she was dreaming of becoming a doctor so she could work along side her father. It appeared that they were none too conventional and both women felt a certain kinship to Casey who was struggling to find her own place in the world.

"I think you need the same thing I do," Mary said with a sigh after Casey had vented her frustration to Alex and herself.

"I agree." Alex said beckoning to Casey to follow. "Come on, you look like you need some ice cream too."

"Ice cream?" Casey exclaimed with surprise.


"It's whatís she telling everyone today," Mary smiled.

"Okay," the girl said uncertainly and followed them both, pleased to be invited by two such accomplished women whom she trusted enough to ask for help with her problem.. "You think they got chocolate?"

**********

Maude Standish arrived in Four Corners and was somewhat surprised when her son who had the uncanny ability to sense it the moment she stepped off the stage did not beset her upon yet with entreaties that it was time for her to be leaving. Four Corners had not changed much of its look since the last time she visited and Maude spied a few new buildings had emerged in the locality. While the community still had the look of a frontier town, it did seemed to be thriving even though it was still a few notches over primitive. She could never fathom what it was Ezra saw in this place that kept him rooted here and decided that there were aspects of her son that was a mystery to her at times.

Having stepped off the stage, Maude directed her luggage the hotel she once owned and took note that the place seemed to thrive even though the money that had been acquired when she sold it was long spent on her exorbitant tastes and other investments. With Ezra being strangely absent, Maude had no choice but to pay some local boys to carry her luggage to the establishment even though only one of those trunks were filled with anything of value and the others was for show. Although she had been travelling for most of the day, she had been trapped inside the confines of the Concord for so long, that she needed to stretch her legs with a walk. Having already wired her reservation to the hotel a day ago, she knew she was not required to be present to have her luggage sent to her room and immediately took off in search to find her son.

Naturally, that search took her to the Standish Saloon, the only piece of property Maude had owned in this town and had every intention of signing onto Ezra one of these days. As she approached it, she was pleased to see a steady stream of customers entering and leaving the premises and once again commended her choice in selecting the resourceful young Mexican, she had placed in charge of the business as Ezraís partner. No doubt, that state of affairs would have incensed her son to no end but then Maude liked to keep Ezra on his toes, even though he was now a grown man.

Upon walking through the bat wing doors, Maude was immediately greeted by the wolf calls and suggestive entreaties made by men who were enjoying the libations served readily on the premises. Being the lady that she was, she ignored most of these and searched the room for Ezra or any of his friends only to find that he was not present. Maude frowned, wishing that he were here because now more than ever, she needed his assistance. It was just like her darling boy to give her such inconvenience. She should have known he was going to give her trouble the day she discovered he didnít like to breastfeed.

Behind the bar, a rather charming young coloured girl was holding her own over several men who were making saucy remarks while waiting for their drinks. The young woman tolerated this innuendos, showing she had more steel under her than most people knew by her manner and gaining Maudeís instant respect, even if the owner of the Standish Tavern was somewhat confused at why she was there. Where was Miss Rossillos? All the faces around her were strangers and right now, Maude was even longing to see JD Dunne, the young sheriff who had dared to lock her in jail during her last trip.

"Hello dear," Maude greeted as she reached the counter and immediately captured Rainís interest. "Could you tell me where I might find Ezra Standish?"

"Iím sorry," Rain replied, wondering who this stranger was inquiring after Ezra. "He has left town for a few days. He is escorting a wagon train further inland."

A wagon train. Maude could only shake her head in resignation. It really did kill her to know that he was really a lawman in this town. With his talent, he could have done anything. Certainly, not play constable for this one horse town. "I see," she sighed heavily. "And when will he be back."

"In a few days." Rain answered. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" She asked helpfully, aware that her answers had been of no help to this woman.

"Thank you dear," Maude replied graciously, looking around the place with impatience that none of her plans were coming to fruition. "You could tell me where Miss Rossillos is?"

"Of course," Rain said with a smile, pleased she could do something for this woman whose identity she was burning to learn. "Inez is at the Emporium."

"Emporium?" Maude remarked with interest, unaware that such an establishment had been built since her last visit. She supposed that would have been a lucrative venture indeed in a place like this, with its scarce luxuries. "I was not aware there was one."

"Yes, the Pemberton Emporium. If youíre looking for Ezra, you probably want to see Julia Pemberton. Maybe she can help you." Rain offered with no idea that Ezra was probably waking up in a cold sweat somewhere.

Maude looked sharply at her. "What exactly is her relationship to my son?" Maude found herself asking.

"So you are Maude!" Rain exclaimed, pleased that question was finally answered. "I should have guessed it was you. Josiah did say you were a great lady. I have heard a great deal about you. I am pleased to meet you." She held out her hand in greeting.

Maude took the extended hand in response but still wanted an answer. "Thank you dear," she said warmly. "Now about Miss Pembertonís relationship with my son?"

"Oh," Rain suddenly realised why Julia was such a mystery to Maude and flinched at unwittingly having disclosed something she should not have revealed. "Iím sorry. Julia and Ezra have been courting for some time now."

"I see," Maude nodded slowly, hiding her annoyance behind a well-practised smile. "How interesting that Ezra chose not to tell me about her." In truth, Maude was furious. She had received a dozen letters from him in the past months and not one word had been spoken about his having a woman in his life! It was not that Maude was jealous of Ezra meeting someone, after all he was a grown man and it was inevitable that he would. However, the secrecy annoyed her for they had never had any in their relationship. While the nature of their business kept stock in facades, Maude could always count on complete sincerity in her with Ezra.

"How do I get to this Emporium?" Maude asked again, showing no signs that she was upset.

Rain gave her quick directions and watched Maude Standish sweeping out of the tavern, with purpose in every step as she made her departure. Once the lady was far away enough not to hear, Rain let out a groan of frustration at her own stupidity.

"Ezra is a dead man." She exclaimed and knew that she was not far from wrong in that assertion when both Maude and Julia got their hands on the gambler.

************

"Oh Inez, I am sorry." Mary said regretfully, hearing from about the reception the Mexican had received from the other women in town when she had entered the Emporium. Ironically, Mary, Alex and Casey had arrived in the cafť/ ice creamery to find Julia and Inez already there. Very soon, all five were at the table relating their daily experiences and Inez had revealed what she had been enduring all day because of her pregnancy. For the moment, it appeared that Inez was the winner in the competition in who had suffered the most.

"Its all right," Inez sighed, feeling a little better having her friends around her offering support while gorging themselves on chocolate ice cream. "I have to expect this sort of thing." She remarked put more chocolate sauce in her bowl of vanilla confectionary.

"Itís none of their business anyhow." Casey stated boldly, taking the initaive to add something into the conversation. "Youíre having a baby and thatís the most special thing in the world." The young woman beamed at Inez in youthful enthusiasm. Although Nettie had frowned upon the illegitimacy of Inezís baby, her aunt had kept her opinions to herself and believed that it was best that Casey made up her own mind about how she felt regarding her continued association with the lady.

"You said it Casey." Julia threw a smile in her direction because her words had echoed all their sentiments. "Now whatís this about you needing a dress?" Julia asked, recalling Maryís words on the subject earlier.

"I need one for the dance next week." Casey volunteered, feeling very comforted by having all talk to her like she was an adult not talking down to her like most women older than her tended to do.

"Beth Parker has thrown down the gauntlet." Mary declared imperiously. "Miss Pemberton, you who are known for your style and grace, can you help our young friend in a selection?"

"I think I can manage," the emporium owner smiled graciously, lifting her head with dignity as she answered. "Weíll have a look at whatís in store later, Casey."

"Thanks Julia." Casey said secretly delighted that she was having the assistance of Miss Pemberton who was clearly one of the prettiest women in town help her in this matter. If she could look half as good as Miss Pemberton than Beth Parker was really going to eat crow for her unkind words. "I really want to look pretty for JD."


"And to rub it in that girlís face." Alex reminded. "Letís not forget that." She grinned mischievioulsy before swallowing a spoonful of gooey chocolate ice cream into her mouth.

Suddenly, Inez saw a familiar face enter the cafť and immediately rose from her seat to wave the new arrival over. "Maude!" Inez drew the woman to their table. Maude burst into a smile as she caught sight of Inez, perfectly aware of the Mexicanís impending baby from Ezraís letters and immediately wondered how her son could include that tidbit but not mention anything about a woman in his life. Once again, she felt her annoyance bristle.

"Maude." Julia whispered. "You donít mean Ezraís mother?" She stared anxiously at the direction of the well-dressed woman coming towards them. Julia knew almost nothing about Ezraís mother except that Josiah seemed to long for her visits to town. She was not prepared for an unexpected visit by Ezraís mother!

"Thatís her," Mary answered, seeing the immediate nervousness creeping into Juliaís face at her answer and understanding her apprehension. How many butterflies had been in her stomach the first time she met Stevenís mother? Thank God, Chris had spared her that terror.

"Ooh, the dreaded mother-in-law." Alex teased and received a sharp slap from Julia across the arm before Maude reached them.

Greetings and salutations were made all around the table upon Maudeís arrival and introductions were made, since Maude had never met Alex, Casey or Julia prior to this visit. Once the initial cordialities were made and Maude had nestled herself at the table to join the group, Julia found herself the nerve to speak.

"What brings you here to Four Corners, Mrs Standish?" No one else spoke for a moment as they allowed Maude and Julia a wide berth to familiarise themselves with each other since they shared a common interest.

"Well I came to see Ezra of course and hoped to take him away little trip but I hear heís out of town." The widow said staring at Julia in silent scrutiny. She could not fault Ezraís taste that was for certain for Miss Pemberton did appear to be very beautiful and judging by the premises of her Emporium, was also a woman of some fortune. While marrying for money was always a good reason to launch into such a commitment, Maude had hoped that Ezra would have selected his choice for a more emotional reason. While she was never one swayed by sentiment or romance, Maude had loved Ezraís father a great deal and had never truly recovered from his death, which was why she had never chosen to marry again.

"On a wagon trail with the rest of the seven." Mary added helpfully, also aware as Alex, Inez and to certain extent Casey, that Maude was studying Julia carefully, probably trying to decide whether or not she was good enough for her son.

"How unfortunate and you my dear," Maude turned to Julia. "How long have you been seeing my son?"

"A few months." Julia answered, never feeling more self-conscious in her life. Maude was keeping her in silent observation, she could tell just by the look in the womanís eyes. Probably sizing her up like all this southern dowagers tended to do when potential mates turned up for their sonís affections. She had seen the same pattern of behaviour when she had been Julia Avery in that whole other life.

"Iím afraid you have me at a disadvantage." Maude confessed. "Ezra has written nothing about your relationship in his letters."

"Oh, that Ezra," Inez quickly interjected, seeing the dark look forming on Juliaís face and she knew exactly what the redheadís temper could be like when property inflamed like it was now. "He forgets everything."

"You mean nothing?" Julia asked slowly. "Not..a..word?"

"Not at all my dear," Maude answered, starting to empathise with Juliaís sense of outrage because it appeared that Ezra had been keeping secrets from both of them.

"He can propose to me but he wonít write his mother about me!" Julia roared in indignation and everyone except Maude eased away from the table before things got really ugly.

"Julia take it easy," Alex said hastily. "I am sure he has a perfectly good reason for not telling Maude about you."

"Like what?" Julia whirled around to the doctor, defying her to provide one and Alex had to begrudgingly admit that she had no idea why Ezra would have done that and hoped she had enough bandages to put Ezra back together when Julia finally caught up to him.

"Are you telling me, my son proposed to you? He finally gave someone that ring heís been hanging onto all these years?" Maude declared with surprise, having no idea that Ezra was so serious about anyone and feeling similarly incensed at being kept from that knowledge.

"Ring?" Julia looked at her and asked slowly. "He..has..aÖring?"

"Oh boy," Mary groaned, seeing the situation deteriorate from bad to worse. As both women stared at each other, sharing similar thoughts of dismemberment for the one man, Mary could only hope that wherever Ezra was, he would be staying there for a while because he was not going to live long enough to see the day through when he got back. In desperation, she could think of only one thing to say that might remotely pacify the torrent of angry emotions churning at the table before them.

"Ice cream, anyone?"

Part Two:

A Weekend Away

"Iím going to kill him." Julia Pemberton kept repeating even though her friends had tried to drown her sorrows in chocolate ice cream and were now of the opinion that sweet confectionery was not going to be quite enough to soothe this normally cool and collected redhead from unleashing her fury. They had been trying for quite some time now to shift Juliaís thoughts away from its notions of homicidal slaughter to calmer state of being. Unfortunately, their efforts had hardly made and dent and it was starting to look as if something stronger was going to be required.

Something like scotch.

"Now my dear," Maude said making some attempt to calm the young woman down after they had departed the Emporium and retired to the saloon. It was Mary who had suggested the move since it was decided that it would do no good for the employees of the establishment to see its owner in such a state of distress and had opted for the privacy of the saloon. At this time of the day, the saloon was in the limbo state that existed between the end of the afternoon drinking session and the onset of the evening revelry. For the moment anyway, the premises were empty while Rain and Inez prepared for the arrival of the evening crowd, the working girls and just about anyone who wanted a drink and a good time.

"My Ezra can be awfully forgetful about such things." She replied, even though Maude was still secretly hurt that Ezra would keep something like this away from her. Judging by the young womanís reaction to Maude not knowing anything about her especially after a proposal was made, it would only be the natural thing to expect form a relationship this serious.

"Iím still going to kill him." Julia continued to muse as Inez poured her another drink.

"Sheís been saying that for the last ten minutes," Casey remarked, being new to Julia Pembertonís more volatile moods, having only seen the woman as a picture of calm elegance prior to this occasion. "Is she okay?"

"Sheíll be fine," Mary said with a reassuring expression on her face. "Sheís just angry at Ezra."

"Angry?" Alex retorted. "Thatís putting it mildly. If she doesnít stop saying something else, Iím going to prescribe something."

The six women were presently sitting along the bar counter, nursing an assortment of drinks ranging from hard liquor to sarsaparilla (for Casey), trying to console Julia as she seethed in so far non violent rage about Ezraís deception not only of her but also his mother. It did not make matters any better to know that Ezra had in his keeping a wedding ring, he reserved for the future Mrs Standish, which he had never presented to Julia or even mentioned, despite the fact that he had made a proposal to her some months before. Julia downed her second glass of scotch and gave everyone at the table a sense relief that she woman was capable of handling her liquor since none of them relished having to carry her out of the place. Still that would be a mild reaction in comparison of her more baser desire, which was to ride out to where Ezra presently was and kill him.

"Iím fine." Julia mumbled after awhile. She was incensed beyond belief that Ezra had not bothered to tell Maude about her but for the moment, it appeared that there was nothing to be done about it until the rat fink bastard returned from the trail with the rest of the seven. "Iíll be fine until he gets back. Iím sorry Maude," Julia remarked with a perfectly calm voice, "you do realise I have to kill him."

"I find killing to be an extremely inefficient form of revenge," the older woman said with a smile, having to admit liked Julia Pembertonís fire. "It might provide momentary satisfaction but for a truly lasting effect, we need to make him suffer a little."

"Well," Mary spoke up. "We could get Alex to play cards with him again." The editor gave Alex a look of mischief as she recalled how Alex had once played a public game of cards with Ezra in the saloon sometime ago. Although Alex had spared him the embarrassment of beating him before the whole of Four Corners, she had folded with a royal flush, which she revealed to Ezra after he was done patting himself on the back at how well he played.

"No thank you." Alex retorted, shaking her head defiantly as an indicator on how she felt on the subject. "It took him long enough the last time to get over it without his knocking on my door everyday demanding a rematch. He was starting to scare my patients."

Maude looked at her immediately. "I never figured a respectable doctor for being so talented. My Ezra is extremely skilled, itís rare for him to be beaten fairly."

"She is really good." Inez commented having heard that last snippet of conversation as she emerged from the kitchen with Rain, carrying a tray containing food that smelt really tasty. The enticing aroma wafted throughout the room and managed to do the impossible of forcing away the stench of liquor that had seeped into the walls of the building after so many years of abuse. No sooner than she had set it down, the women began picking a the piping hot food.

"She played so well once that we barely escaped with our lives because the men she played with thought Alex was hustling them." The Mexican further added.

"Oh must we relieve that?" Mary groaned, burying her face on the counter, remembering her role in that incident.

"I am intrigued." Maude said, wishing to hear more since the wheels inside her mind were already turning. She had originally come to Four Corners to gain the company of her son on her intended venture in Eagle Bend. However, since it appeared he was unreachable, she did not mind the company of someone who was just as accomplished a player since the enterprise in Eagle Bend promised a great deal of money to whomever won, not to mention the prestige. Besides, it was always safer to travel in numbers, even if those numbers did not include a man. "Just where did you acquire this skill?"

Alex frowned, always becoming a little embarrassed when she spoke about her gambling skills. "I learned a little here and there." Alex shrugged. "When I was travelling with my father, there was not a lot to do but learn to play cards for the hours I spent on trains and caravans. Not to mention I played a lot in medical school."

"How interesting." Maude mused, deliberating on this interesting piece of news and wondering whether or not she could use it to her advantage.

Inez who knew her better than any one else at the counter, immediately recognised the calculation in her eyes because she wore the same look that Ezra did whenever something devious was taking place behind his sea coloured eyes. "Alright Mrs Standish, what is your mind?" Inez looked at the woman closely as Rain served the food around the table.

"Well," Maude gave Inez a knowing smile. "Since you asked. I had come to Four Corners for a particular reason."

"Really?" Mary remarked with a hint of sarcasm, aware of Mrs Standish reputation as something of a con artist, proving the apple never fell far from the tree where Ezra was concerned. Still, one had to like Maude, despite her duplicitous manner. It was not easy for a woman to live life on her own terms and yet Maude had done so spectacularly, proving to all that she was a force to be reckoned with. Even though Ezra sometimes feigned frustration in her presence, Mary could tell that the gambler was somewhat in awe of his mother.

If Maude noted the derision in Maryís voice, she did not react to it, continuing to relate the reason for her presence in Four Corners and wondering if Doctor Alexandra Styles was the kind of person who would accept the challenge of the kind she was about to put forward. "I had hope to convince my darling boy to accompany me on a little trip to Eagle Bend. It appears that there is a gathering for those whose proclivities are inclined towards games of chance and it is drawing the attention of the very best players in the Territory."

"You mean a gambling tournament of some kind." Alex looked up, her interest piqued. "Whatís the stake to get in?"

A slow smile stole across Maudeís face realising the doctorís interest was more than just passing. "A thousand dollars."

"A thousand dollars!" Mary and Casey exclaimed in a mixture of shock and astonishment which was further exacerbated when that figure did not seem so daunting to Alex who took on an expression on her face that the editor of the Clarion knew to be careful consideration. It was the same face she pulled whenever she was preparing to cut open a man or make a particularly difficult diagnosis.

"Alex you canít seriously be consideringÖ." Mary started to say when Inez jumped in.

"Do you even have that kind of money?" The mother to be asked.

She did as a matter of fact. Thanks to her inheritance, she had that and quite a bit more. How much she actually had would surprise them all if they knew just what that inheritance entailed. Alex had not even told Vin about the true amount of her legacy, knowing how uncomfortable the tracker was already in regards to her financial situation when compared to his. Normally, indulging in something so exorbitant was not her way since Alex had become used to a rough and tumble existence travelling across the world with her father. It was only until after she enrolled in medical school did Alex become introduced to creature comforts.

"I may have." She said quietly, not wanting to show just how much her interest was piqued and it was piqued quite a bit. With Vin away for the weekend and Alex seeing no patients and having nothing better to do, the idea of a high stakes poker game was actually quite inviting even if it was not exactly the proper way for a lady to be spending her time.

"Letís go to Eagle Bend." Julia suggested, finally deigning to say something more than her intention to murder Ezra. "We havenít been away together for a few months, letís just take a weekend for ourselves."

"Oh noÖ" Mary started to protest. She was married now for goodness sake! She could not just up and leave at a momentís notice without telling anyone. Not that she needed permission mind you, she was after a grown woman after all and if she wanted to go away with some dear friends for a weekend in Eagle Bend she did not have to have Chris blessing. Besides, what possible problem might he have with her going away? It was not like there was going to be repeat of the incident that took place when she had gone to Denver.

"Come on Mary," Alex urged. "Think about it, room service, hot baths and indoor plumbing and letís not forget, room service again. The last time we went away together, it was an ordeal. This time we can do it right."

Mary felt her resolve starting to slip because she did want to go. Realistically, she was never going to shake the persona of reliable community member long enough to have some fun while she was in Four Corners. How she was regarded in this town made that a virtual impossibility. "I suppose it would not hurt if I took a few days in Eagle Bend, I can drop in on Orin and say hello to Evie."

"You too Inez," Julia added, seeing Mary starting to capitulate. "You need to get out of this place more than any of us." The Emporium owner pointed out. After what she had seen Inez endure today at her establishment, Julia was convinced that this was only the beginning of the stigma Inez would soon have to live with, the more prolific her pregnancy became.

"No, I couldnít possibly." Inez protested, not wishing to venture anywhere into the world with the way she was at the moment. "Who would look after the saloon?"

"I can." Rain stated firmly. "In fact, I think you should go." The young woman stated firmly, knowing more than anyone just how much of a difficult time Inez was having. It was easy enough for her to hide it from the others whom did not see her on a daily basis. However, Rain worked with Inez closely and she saw all the emotional highs and low the woman endured, not just from the cruel words of the townsfolk but from the sheer pressure of what she was undertaking alone.

"I cannot afford it." Inez declared sheepishly, feeling embarrassed at having to make this admission. "I have to save money."

"Then consider this an early gift for the baby." Juila declared, "youíre coming with us and itís on me."

"I could not let you do that." Inez stated, not happy to receive charity from anyone, least of all her friends.

"You can and you will," Julia stated. "Besides, I need to do something positive or else Iím going to ride out to where Ezra is and kill him."

"I rather you not do that dear." Maude remarked with a faint smile. "Not until I get my hands on my darling son first."

"You should go Inez," Casey declared, wishing she was going because it did sound like so much fun but Aunt Nettie would never let her go all that way alone, not to mention the final demands of such a trip.

"And maybe you ought to as well." Alex glanced at Casey, not missing the slight longing in her eyes at having to miss out on such a journey. It was not lost upon the doctor that the girl seldom got to go anywhere and for once, Alex was determined that was not going to be the case. "If I can talk your aunt into it, would you like to come with us?"

Casey positively beamed in delight. "Really?" She gushed with awe at even the remotest possibility. "I would love it butÖ" she paused a minute realising that she could not impose a financial burden like that upon her aunt who was barely making ends meet.

"But nothing." Alex said abruptly, almost clairvoyant in knowing that was what was concerning the young woman the most. Since her relationship with Vin, Alex had been spending as much time with Nettie and Casey as the tracker himself, enough to know that like Vin, she considered both of them family and it was not as if she did not have the money to spare. "Itís settled. Iíll talk to Nettie and pick up any expenses. It will be my pleasure, Casey."

"Oh Alex," Casey tried to hide the emotion welling in her eyes at Alexís gesture. "Thank you so much."

"Donít get too excited," Alex replied quickly. "I still have to convince Nettie about this."

"Rain," Inez looked to her newest bartender. "You sure you donít mind staying here and looking after the bar?" In truth, Inez wanted to get away from Four Corners for awhile and was grateful to Julia for the financial aid that would allow her to do it. Although she was heavily pregnant, she knew this would be the last opportunity to enjoy herself like this before the baby came. Still she felt guilty leaving Rain like this and indulging herself.

"I shall consider it a challenge and besides, someone has to tell the men something when they get back." Rain declared, reminding them of the one point they had all seemed to have overlooked.

"Oh yes." Alex replied. "I forgot about that. Vin wonít have a problem with me going anywhere." Alex replied even though if he knew what was the reason for her trip, it might be another thing entirely.

"Well Ezra ought to be lucky that I am going away," Julia hissed, her anger at Ezraís deception had not abated and she knew that when they faced each other again, he was going to have some explaining to doÖbefore she knocked his block off.

"Iím sure he had a good reason." Inez voiced, feeling some unfathomable need to speak up in the gamblerís defence since both his mother and the love of his life were adamant in spilling blood.

"Do you really believe that?" Mary asked her quietly.

"With Ezra, who knows." Inez declared, throwing her hands up in a gesture of futility.

"Well, if you intend to accompany me on this venture, I should like to leave as soon as possible. Preferably in the morning." Maude allowed her gaze sweep over the women before her.

"That would be difficult since the stage does not arrive in town until Monday." Mary pointed out.

"Iím afraid that will not do." Maude frowned because they were required to be in Eagle Bend on Sunday night for the gathering. "If we wish to go, we must find some alternate forms of transportation."

"Well," Mary shrugged, considering their position. "What we could do is ride to Sweet Water in a carriage and then take the train into Eagle Bend."

"That would work." Alex agreed. "Sweet Water is not that far and we can take turns at the reins." She glanced briefly at the others who nodded their approval to her plan.

"Okay then, Iíll go talk to Mr Samuels about hiring a buggy big enough for us all." Mary said smiling, finding herself looking forward to spending a few days away from Four Corners with her friends. It would certainly break the monotony of the weekend and besides, Chris had wanted her to have some quality time to herself. As far as Mary was concerned, he had not been specific about where she was doing that and thus could hardly object if she decided to take a little road trip, could he?

"This is becoming quite an adventure." Maude retorted, uncertain whether or not the company was to be appreciated, since it appeared she was not going to have just one companion on this trip to Eagle Bend but five. While she would have still preferred Ezraís company in case they ran into Lewisham, there was something to be said about safety in numbers. Besides, Maude wanted to become better acquainted with Miss Julia Pemberton since Ezra had cared enough about the young woman to propose, something that Maude had known he had never done before. Her son was like her, a scoundrel and she was aware of the string of women he had left in his wake whenever the fancy took him to satisfy his urges in that way. However, had no time had he ever mentioned marriage or even brought up the subject without breaking into a cold sweat.

"Just donít get into trouble." Rain stated and immediately garnered four very strange looks from those present at the table.

Finally, it was Mary who spoke. "Why does everybody always say that?"

**********

Although it took some convincing, Alex managed to induce Nettie Wells into letting Casey join them on their trip to Eagle Bend. The young woman was ecstatic at the possibility, having never been allowed to travel further than Four Corner for most of her life. While Nettie was uncomfortable about Alex paying for Caseyís expenses during the journey, the doctor made the entreaty that it was for Caseyís benefit to see what was out in the world. The girl was almost eighteen years old and she had never been anywhere without her aunt. Alex argued with more sincerity than she might have admitted to that it was time for Casey to see what was beyond Four Corners and who could be a better chaperone that Mary Larabee? With that in mind, Nettie finally relented and the next morning, the group prepared to leave town for Sweet Water.

Rain carefully paid attention to all the instructions both Inez and Alex gave her, since the saloon was going to be her responsibility for the next two days. Alex had taken the liberty of wiring Doctor Keogh in Sweet Water and let him know that she would be away for the weekend and would be referring all her patients to him. The doctor had sent a return wire that he would be happy to spend the weekend in Four Corners while she was away and that pleased Alex even more. On occasion when neither she nor Nathan were present to deal with the ill health of Four Corners, it was some times necessary for her to enlist the aid of the old physician in Sweet Water who was most accommodating. In the meantime, Inez was somewhat cautious about Rainís ability to handle the drunks in the saloon for such an extended period of time. Although Rain had shown herself more than capable of dealing with the rowdier patrons of the establishment, Inez was reluctant to simply leave things in her hands while Inez went away on a frivolous expenditure of time.

"Donít worry," Rain said for the hundredth time that morning as she helped Inez with her luggage into the back of the carriage parked in front of the saloon where the group was congregating. All had been asked to pack light and no carried anything large than a single valise for their trip. "I can take care of things, I promise." The young woman reassured Inez as the pregnant woman pulled herself into the carriage with a slight groan.

"Take it easy." Alex warned cautiously, making certain that Inez had the most comfortable part of the buggy to endure the trip. Mary and Alex had agreed that they would take turns at the reins since they had the most experience handling a carriage of this size. Julia did not complain since she was still engrossed in thoughts about Ezra and taking the reins of a contraption like this required concentration, none of which was in her possession at the moment.

"Iím fine." Inez said as she sat between Julia and Maude which was just as well Mary found herself thinking as she looked over her shoulder from her position at the head of the buggy to see how everyone was placed with climbing on board. While both women had the same instinct to disembowel Ezra, that was as much as they had in common and their unceremonious meeting had plunged both into some very traditional but turbulent waters. She could tell that Julia was still nervous about being around Maude because she was Ezraís mother. As much as Julia might be angry with Ezra at this point, she still loved him and it was important to be liked by his mother.

"Tell me if it gets to rough." Mary remarked as Inez settled into place and gave her a gesture of thanks at the inquiry.

"Donít worry," she said with a smile. "If I can endure fighting off drunks in my saloon, I can certainly sit through a trip to Sweet Water."

"When are you due my dear?" Maude inquired, aware that Inez was carrying an illegitimate child but having experienced and generated enough scandal in her life time to be immune to the social taboo of the Mexicanís situation.

"In about three months." Inez said with a smile. "I am hoping for a girl."

"Sensible choice," Maude agreed. She genuinely liked Inez and had been impressed with the woman from their very first meeting which was partly the reason why Maude had allowed Inez managerial control of the saloon. "Boys are so much trouble."

"Besides," Alex spoke up as she and Rain secured the last of the luggage into the back and rounded the corner of the buggy. "There is a certain poetic justice in Buck Wilmington having a daughter." The doctor said with a smile of mischief.

"Donít remind me." Inez groaned, not wanting to imagine what Buck as the protective father would look like. She had enough trying to picture Buck being able to remain in a monogamous relationship for more than two seconds. However, to his credit he had been abstaining from the company of other women since he had learnt about the baby or at least had been making a concerted effort to do so.

"You ready Casey?" Alex regarded Casey who was siting next opposite Inez and the others. Casey had been sitting quietly, listening to everyoneís conversation and not contributing because she was still a little shy and felt somewhat out of depth in the company of her older peers. From her visits with Vin to the Wellsí property, Alex had come to grow very fond of Casey and liked being on hand to answer the question, she was sometimes to embarrassed to ask Nettie about.

"Sure am." Casey beamed, unable to hide how thrilled she was at going on this trip. Casey was wearing a dress and surprised Alex with how much prettier she looked once she was out of menís clothes. If she wore dresses more often, there would be no reason for girls like Beth Parker to make fun of Casey because the girl was quite the beauty. She just did not show it.

"Come on Alex," Mary urged, wanting to get moving before it became too late in the day and they had a great deal of ground to cover if they wanted to reach the train that was departing Sweet Water, late this afternoon. "We need to get going."

Alex, who was the last one of the group who had not boarded, immediately swung around to face Rain. "Doctor Keogh should be here within the next few hours." Alex replied as she started to climb into the carriage. "Heís rooming at the lodging house while heís in town but Iíve told him to use my clinic for any consultations. Iíve directed him to you so expect him to come calling."

"Alex," Rain let out a deep sigh, having heard all these instructions, two sets of them in fact, one from Inez and now from Alex. "I know exactly what to do. Trust me."

"Get in the carriage!" Julia said exasperated, echoing the thoughts of everyone else who was waiting impatiently for Alex.

"Okay, okay!" Alex grumbled, casting her a dark look before deciding that they were right. The sun was starting to arch across the sky and it was a good idea that they covered some distance before it was noon. "You know youíre just grumpy because of Ezra." Alex teased.

"Keep it up," the Emporium stared at her darkly. "I might just tell Vin why youíre really going to Eagle Bend."

"Touchť." Alex frowned and then got into the carriage.

**********

The girls had not been gone for more than a few hours when disaster struck.

Oh No!

That was the only that would come to mind when Rain stared across the floor of the saloon, almost half a day after her friends had left town for Eagle Bend and she found herself staring at Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven enter the saloon. Stop being ridiculous, Rain told herself, wondering why she should feel this sudden tightening in her chest at the return of the townís lawmen. After all, Nathan was with them and she would no doubt be thrilled to see the healer once her immediate horror had faded. Still Rain could not help wonder what they were doing back. She was certain Mary had said the seven would be gone for at least a few more days.

Outside it was storming heavily and as they entered the saloon, the seven began removing their long coats, shaking off the heavy droplets of water from their wet oilskins. Despite the coats, the men looked soaked to the bone, which was hardly surprising considering the intensity of the rain beyond the walls of the saloon. When it had started to come down, Rain had found herself feeling some measure of concern at how her friends were faring in this weather. The rumble of thunder rolled through the air with shocking regularity and occasionally a flash of lighting was prolific enough to be seen through the window.

"Howdy Rain." Vin Tanner greeted as he and Chris Larabee reached the bar first. Behind them, Nathan flashed her a warm smile of greeting while Josiah, Buck, JD and Ezra immediately gathered around their favourite table and promptly sat down. All of them looked wet and tired and Rain did not envy them for having to ride through such miserable weather.

"Hello Vin." Rain responded trying to hide that there was anything wrong. "Youíre back early."

"Yeah," Chris replied taking of his hat and running his fingers through his wet blond hair. Like the rest of the group, he looked just as soaked and worn. "The settlers figured they could make it on their own and since we didnít run into trouble for most of the way there, we guessed they were right and started for home yesterday."

"Hey Rain." Nathan greeted as he leaned over the counter and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek. "Howís things been while weíve been gone?í

"Oh same old, same old." Rain shrugged, knowing that eventually, in fact sooner than that actually, she was going to have to tell them about Mary and the others. "You boys look thirsty, Iíll get you something to drink." She answered, swearing at how skittish she looked.

Rain had good reason to be concerned because Chris Larabee had caught on quickly to her behaviour. Chris who had an uncanny ability to read people, could tell when someone was hiding something and was more than certain after a few seconds of careful observation that Rain was in that state of distress. He said nothing however, waiting until she served them all their drinks and returned behind the bar, trying to hide that expression on her face before Chris whose patience was not at all what it was today, decided enough was enough.

"Okay Rain," Chris responded, letting out a deep breath as he spoke. "What is it?" The gunslinger eyed her sternly.

"I donít know what you mean." She said feigning ignorance notice even Nathan staring at her strangely as if there was something in her eyes was giving the three men before her concern. Finally Rain decided she could not keep it from them anyway. The first time Chris went home and found his house empty, he was going to come marching back for answers. She might as well save him the trouble besides, Mary had just taken a trip to Eagle Bend for the weekend, as did all the other and in Ezraís case he ought to be damn grateful Julia was not here.

"Alright," Rain let out a sigh. "Mary, Inez, Alex, Julia and Casey have gone to Eagle Bend for the weekend."

Chris said nothing at first because there was no reason to be alarmed even if he did remember what happened to his wife the last time she and her friends had taken a trip. Prior to their marriage, she often visited Eagle Bend, not only to see the Judge and Evie but also too see Billy when he had still conducted his schooling there.

"What for?" Vin asked, disappointed that Alex was here because he had so looked forward to seeing her.

"Well Maude came into townÖ." Rain started to say.

"Maude?" Both Chris and Vin looked up sharply and exclaimed in unison, putting down the glasses in their hands down on the table with a slight thud.

"Please donít say Maude Standish is with them." Chris nearly pleaded, started to feel a headache coming on as well as that small voice in the back of his mind that was only heard when trouble was coming. Strangely enough, the last time he had heard that voice coincided with Maryís trip to Denver.

"They left this morning together." Rain answered reluctantly.

"Ezra!" Vin looked over his shoulder and barked. "You know why your mother was in town?"

Ezra was in mid swallow and almost choked upon hearing that. The gambler had to steady himself or else he would have fallen out of his chair. Scrambling out of his seat, whatever poise and agility he was known to possess was replaced by a clumsy attempt to reach the counter as quickly as possible. With almost wide-eyed fear, Ezra hurried next to Vin and asked, "what do you mean my mother was in town?" His heart started pounding in his chest at the horrifying possibility that Maude might have been in Four Corners while he was away.

"Rain here says that Maude arrived in town yesterday." Nathan explained.

By now the others had come to the counter, drawn by curiosity at Ezraís odd behaviour. "Whatís going on?" Buck asked as he arrived next to Chris nursing his drink.

"The girls are gone." Chris replied. "With Maude."

"Do I dare ask that by all the ladies you also meant Julia?" Ezra asked, clearly distressed by the notion that Julia might have met Maude, though none of the others at the bar except for Rain had any idea why that would upset the gambler so much.

"Its too late Ezra," Rain decided to spare him the agony of not knowing since funeral arrangements needed to be made when both Maude and Julia got their hands on him. "Maude met Julia."

"On my God." Ezra dropped his head on the counter hard enough for his skull to make a fair whack on the wood. He continued thumping his head lightly as his friends looked on in confusion.

"Ezra, whatís wrong?" Vin asked completely perplexed. "Why donít you want Maude to meet Julia?"

"Because I have not told my mother about Julia yet." Ezra confessed raising his head long enough to down the contents of his glass and gesturing to Rain, he would like another. Rain nodded sympathetically and filled his glass as the reaction to his statement moved across the bar.

Chris Larabee actually laughed.

He had been married long enough both times to know what kind of mess Ezra was in and he had to admit, Chris would rather face a firing squad then the trouble that Ezra was facing when both women had him in their sights again. "Youíre going to be a dead man, Ezra." He chuckled, feeling some of the trepidation about Maryís whereabouts slipping away with that news.

"She is going to kill you." Buck agreed with Chris just firmly, familiar enough with women to know how they were liable to react to this.

"Which one?" Chris asked. "Itís a coin toss between Maude and Julia."

"Your compassion is overwhelming Mr Larabee." Ezra threw the gunslinger a look before draining his glass again and having the feeling he was going to have to drink a great deal more before the horror subsided.

"So why did they go to Eagle Bend?" Vin asked, moving off the subject of Ezraís impending doom.

"I donít know," Rain lied. "I think Maude had some business there and Alex thought it might be fun to get away for awhile." She explained. "After all, they didnít expect any of you back for a few days. Alex talked to Nettie and they took Casey with them too."

"Casey?" JD perked up, disliking the idea that Casey would have anything to do with Mrs Standish. After all, Ezraís mother was not exactly the most respectable person in the world and any business that Maude may have up her sleeve was not necessarily honest as he had learnt when he had been forced to arrest the woman during her last visit to Four Corners. "Casey went with them too?"

"Well Inez could use a few days away from here," Buck confessed, completely aware of how Inez had been treated by the rest of Four Cornerís lately. He wished she would just accept her proposal so she would be rid of the insults and cruel barbs being thrown in her direction. Buck could not count how many times he had been forced to silence someone who had cast aspersions on the virtue of his lady while he had been in the bar or around town. He could appreciate why she might felt the need to escape the stigma of being an unwed mother for a few days in Eagle Bend.

"So could Mary," Chris replied, surprising himself with how calmly he was taking this news. True, he was slightly concerned with Maude being in the equation but then Mary had probably gone up to Eagle Bend to visit the Judge and Evie Travis so he could be assured of her safety.

"She is going to kill me." Ezra kept musing.

"And by the way," Rain leaned closer because she was enjoying his discomfirture a little, remembering how Julia had reacted to the news Maude knew nothing of her existence. "Do you really have a ring you keep for the future Mrs Standish?" She teased.

"Oh no." Ezra dropped his head on the counter again. "Please do not tell me my mother told her about that too." He almost begged.

Rain could only nod to the affirmative.

"You have a ring?" Josiah looked at the gambler in surprise.

"Itís a family heirloom I have had in my keeping for some time," Ezra confessed, reaching into his jacket and fishing out the said bauble. Presenting it to the others, the ring was a band of silver with a signifcantly sized diamond fixed in place.

"Very nice." Buck whistled as he admired the piece of jewellery. "And youíve never told Julia about this?"

"It never came up in conversation." The gambler sighed.

"I was wrong Ezra," Chris spoke up, unable to hide his amusement in his ice coloured eyes. "Youíre not going to be a dead man, you are one."

"Hell Ezra," Vin added. "I donít know nothing about women compared to you but even I know you donít hide a ring like that from your sweetheart."

"Thank you for that stellar observation," Ezra grimaced and replaced the ring back in his coat pocket. "So what did my mother want in town anyway? It cannot have just been simply to cause as much discourse in my life as possible."

"She had some business thing going on in Eagle Bend that she wanted you for but since you werenít here, she managed to convince Alex to join her." Rain answered.

"Wait a minute," Ezra met her gaze. "Maude wanted Alex to go with her to Eagle Bend?" The gambler asked suspiciously. "She asked specifically for Alex?"

It started to dawn on Rain that she might have said too much already but unfortunately, it was too late. "Well not specificallyÖ" she stammered, wondering if she was cursed with a terminal case of being a blabber mouth.

"What is it?" Vin looked at Ezra in concern, seeing something in the gamblerís face that gave the tracker reason to fear, particularly when it involved Alexandra Styles.

"Well there is only one reason that my mother would wish Alexandra to accompany her anywhere in lieu of my absence, particularly if mother knew that Alexandraís skills did not just pertain to doctoring." The gambler stared at Vin as if daring the tracker to guess what that might have been.

"Oh Christ," Chris groaned. "Its poker game isnít it?" The gunslinger caught on quicker than Vin did.

"Exactly." Ezra nodded unhappily.

"Are you telling me that your mother dragged Alex off to a poker game?" Vin almost cried out in horror and then reminded himself that this was Alex, dependable, reliable, sensibleÖoh hell, who was he kidding, she would have gone without a second thought! Maude would not have needed to drag her merely offer her the challenge of playing the game with some very capable opponents. As much as he loved Alex at times, her determination to prove she could do just as well as any man if she so desired, hampered her normally rational judgement.

"What so wrong about her going to a poker game?" JD asked, ever the innocent in these matters even though he was starting to get concerned about the tension that was seeping into Ezraís voice. "I mean Alex can play pretty well."

"I have no doubt as to the veracity of Alexandraís skills but the kind of game that would attract my motherís attention would require money and a great deal of it. The men that engage in this kind of competition is not the sort any of us would like the ladies to be keeping company with. I do not wish to sound alarmist but perhaps we should think about taking a quick trip to Eagle Bend."

Chris swore under his breath, debating whether or not he ought to go. He trusted Mary enough to know that she would not willing endanger herself by entering a situation that she could not cope with. Then again, trouble seemed to some particular preference for his wife like no woman alive and when she was together with Alex and Inez, who should not be underestimate even though she was six months pregnant, the combination was ultimately explosive. Still, how much trouble could she possibly encounter on the way to Eagle Bend?

"Iíll go with you." Chris sighed not even bothering to answer that question.

***********

The weather had turned bad when they were about two hours out of Four Corners. It rolled in with the wind across the clear blue sky, curling balls of grey clouds like tumbleweeds across the desert, turning its crisp colour into a dismal shade of mottled grey. The rain came soon after. It fell to the earth in large pregnant drops of water, splattering wide as it impacted on roof of the carriage in their slow progress to Eagle Bend. The rain was not too much of an inconvenience but it soon evolved into more than just a spring shower. The wind was picking up and blowing hard at the trees, bending their thick trunks so far back that it looked as if it would snap at any moment.

"Perhaps we ought to think about stopping." Inez said as she looked out of the window at the grey clouds marshalling themselves for a worse torrential onslaught.

"Weíre in the middle of nowhere." Julia replied unhappily even though she could understand Inezís reasoning for a break in the journey. The wind was battering the carriage rather relentlessly, swaying it from side to side as they continued on the trail that was muddy and uneven now. It was starting to play havoc on everyoneís constitution.

"Iím worried about Mary." Alex declared, ignoring their remarks because Mary had only the benefit of a slight canopy to keep the weather from her unlike them who were safe and warm inside the carriage. Leaning out the window, Alex tried to catch sight of the blond who appeared drenched to the bone and singularly harassed as she attempted to battle the weather in her undertaking as driver.

"Mary!" Alex called out over the sound of rushing wind that whipped at her skin as they rode deeper into the storm.

"What?" Mary replied, wiping more water from her face and wishing that she had worn some heavier clothing because she was wet to the skin. Unfortunately, the nearest shelter was a small town called Coventry and it would take them three miles off the trail to Sweet Water should they choose to divert. There would be no way they would make the train to Eagle Bend this evening should she decide to make that detour. Not that she wanted to. Coventry had a notorious reputation and Mary did not wish to discover if the rumour she head heard were true or not, first hand.

"We have to stop." Alex cried out. "You canít drive in this weather. Youíll get chilled to the bone!"

"I already am chilled to the bone," Mary retorted, having past the point of being chilled and entering the realm of numb some time back in their journey. "But thereís not much we can do about it if weíre to make that train."

"Damn," Alex swore as the doctor continued to lean out of the window. "Well at least, letís stop for awhile. Iíll take the reins and you can dry off."

Mary did like the sound of that.

She was colder than she would like to have admitted and slipping into something warm appeared extremely inviting. Before her, the landscape was gloomy and grey, reflecting the same dismal colour in the sky as she looked for some shade under which to bring the carriage to a halt where they could take shelter for sometime while she and Alex made the exchange in drivers. She spotted some trees in the nearby distance and was about to nudge the horse in that direction when suddenly a loud crack of thunder was heard. It was loud enough to make her jump and startle the horses considerably. Both animals reared up on their hind legs and bolted forward before Mary knew what was evening happening.

The sudden surge forward tore the reins from her fingers as the horses sprinted forward, terrified of the sound that had sparked this sudden burst of speed and oblivious to the carriage it was pulling. Mary scrambled to find the lengths of leather and saw to her dismay that they had were dangling precariously towards the underside of the yoke that harnessed the horses to the carriage. Retrieving it was going to be perilous but not as dangerous as allowing the frightened animals to gallop out of control like this. The carriage began to shudder as the animals moved off the known trail to Sweet Water towards terrain that was covered in thick grass and shrubs.

"Whatís going on?" Alex shouted as she peered out the window. Inside the carriage, similar cries of concern were being uttered from her friends. She pulled herself back in time as the branch of a tree almost knocked her out of the window and saw the carriage veering dangerously close to the trees that were nowhere on the trail they were meant to be taking.

"The thunder spooked the horses!" Mary cried out as she held onto the railing of the driverís seat and lowered herself down so she could reach the errant reins. "I lost the reins!"

"Mary be careful!" Alex stared on with fear, knowing how serious an injury it would be if she were too fall in this dangerous attempt to get the horses under control.

"Believe me," Mary retorted as she struggled to reach for the reins that was only inches away. "I am completely aware of that!"

The thunder was still roaring around her ears, only now its rumble was combined the with rushing of wind and the pounding hoofbeats of horses against wet mud. The carriage was rolling over some very uneven terrain and if something was not done soon, she could not be sure that the structure could take this kind of abuse. Leaning over as far as she could, Mary felt her knuckles go white as her fist tightened around the railing, holding on for dear life as she struggled to reach for the reins. She bit down, forcing away her fear as she persisted to breach the miles of those few short inches. It did not help her co-ordination that the carriage was shuddering violently each time it rumbled forward without a driver, over very uncertain terrain.

Finally after what seemed an eternity, Mary felt her fingers touch the rough leather of the reins and she immediately grasped wildly to gain a more secure hold. Gaining a firm grip, she quickly pulled back and retreated to her seat, letting out a deep breath as she placed herself back in position at the head of the carriage. "I got it!" Mary exclaimed in exultation as she leaned back and shouted to her friends, wanting them to be relieved of their anxiety and to be assured she would soon have things under control again.

Suddenly, the carriage shuddered with a massive jolt that followed the snap of wood so loud that Mary could hear it through the storm around her. The carriage dropped violently to its side, tossing the editor of the Clarion News from her seat at the sudden shift. Mary let out a frightened scream as she was flung from the carriage as it kept going past her. Landing hard on the wet grass, there was final moment of pain before everything went black and she knew no more.

Inside the carriage, similar pandemonium ensued as the remnants of the rear wheel fell away from the carriage, dragging the entire structure through the mud. Nothing could be heard beyond their frightened cries, not even the sound of wood scrapping against wet earth as they rumbled forward at a sharp incline. Eventually, the drag proved too much for the horses and the devastating pace of their fear that had been the cause of so much havoc broke under the strain of the weight pulling back at them. Inside the carriage, everything that had not been bolted down had gone flying through the air and the interior was covered with hats, scarves and purses that been snapped open, spilled its contents everywhere.

When they had come to a stop, it was Alex who had come to her senses. It was the doctorís spirit in her that brought lucidity to her mind first because the instinct to help the injured was most prevalent in her thoughts. Looking around, she saw the dishevelled faces about her, appearing frightened and breathless as they finally came to a halt from the nightmare of the last few minutes. Outside, the rain was still battering down upon the top of the carriage, creating a pitter patter of sound that seemed so out of place considering the inside of it looked as if someone had shaken it like a rattle.

"Is everyone alright?" Alex inquired immediately and then turned to Inez first because she was the one who was most vulnerable of them all. "Inez, are you okay?"

"Yes," Inez nodded, feeling her weight pressing into Maude as the carriage rested at an incline. Her pounding heart had started to slow down but like all the women present with her, she was shaken. "Iím fine." She answered quickly. "Iím just a little jittery."

"What happened, Alex?" Casey asked. "It felt like the horses were out of control."

"Horses." Suddenly, Alex remembered Mary. "Mary!" The doctor scrambled towards the door and was forced to traverse up the end that was tilted upward because she could see the door nearest to the ground was jammed against the muddy ground.

"Oh god." Julia exclaimed in realisation and wasted no time in following the doctor as both women struggled to emerge from the carriage. It took a few minutes to climb off the side of buggy, which was as they guessed, tilted sharply on one edge where a wheel should have been, with the axle buried deep under inches of mud and dirt.

Alex felt her body ached slightly as she disembarked from the carriage, having been tossed around within its confines quite violently when the wheel had broken. Julia as always, managed to look impeccable despite whatever calamity took place. The Emporium owner clambered out of the doorway, following Alex closely as the doctor rounded the side of the carriage and hurried to the front where the driverís seat was located.

"Mary!" She called out and felt dismay when she heard no answer.


She gave Julia a fearful look, trying not to convey just how frightened she was of the silence. Alex was the strong one, that was the given. She was required to make a glib remark or bring humour to their situation no matter how bad it was. Mary was the leader; they were drawn to her just like the seven were drawn to Chris. It had nothing to do with the fact that she belonged to Chris or their natures were so strong willed, it just felt natural for the women who loved the seven to regard Mary in the same way. It was unexplainable.

The horses were still but Mary was missing.

The driverís seat was vacant and without even offering the instruction to each other, both women began fanning out, searching through the lengths of grass and shrubs for any sign of the Clarion Newsís editor. By this time, Maude, Inez and Casey had also emerged from the carriage, sensing some urgency in Alexís manner and her abrupt departure. It was still raining hard but none of them cared, not even Maude when she realised that someone was seriously hurt and for the moment, she was in this together with the women who were searching desperately for their friends. She saw the concern in their eyes and felt a surge of envy wondering what it was like to have friends who cared so much and while standing in the middle of nowhere, being soaked to skin, Maude finally understood why Ezra was so bound to Four Corners.

"Spread out!" Alex ordered the others. "Weíve got to find Mary. I think she was thrown."

"Oh my god!" Inez exclaimed, horrified by that notion and how seriously injured her best friend might be injured following such a fall and looked around anxiously, trying to spot her through the blanket of grey that covered the landscape.

"Inez, take it easy." Julia replied automatically. "I know you want to help but youíve got more than just yourself to think about." The emporium owner warned. "Casey, could you please stay close to Inez?"

"Sure, Julia." Casey nodded, trying to hide her own worries about Mrs Larabee. Mary had been the first person who treated her like a young lady, not some misfit who wore menís clothes and did not know the first thing about behaving like a proper lady. The group spread out across the area, trying to find Mary through the dense covering of vegetation that was prevalent in this area. The longer it took for them to not find Mary, the deeper their fears became. It did not help that the rain was getting heavier and visibility beyond a few feet was becoming impossible.

Alex refused to give up and kept walking, creating a wider gap between herself and the others as she followed the grooves in the mud where the axle had torn up earth and mud as it was dragged along the ground. The trail was not that difficult to follow, even for a rank amateur like her and for the moment, it was the only thing Alex could think to do to find Mary. Their belongings left a tell tale trail of the course they had taken when the horses had gone on their detour. As Alex continued to look for Mary, she felt a tightness in her chest at the realisation that they were in the middle of nowhere with a carriage that was just as trapped as they were in this harsh terrain. If Mary was hurt, then Alex was the only chance that she had to get any medical help and Alex was not going to stop looking until she found Mary Larabee.

She left the others behind as she continued on into the rain. After awhile, she looked over her shoulder and could only see the faint silhouette of the carriage in the rain and nothing else. Ahead of her, she could only see more trees and tall grass but no sign of Mary. Despite her efficiently cool nature, Alex was starting to become extremely agitated about their present situation, particularly with not finding Mary. No one knew they were here except for Rain and the men would not be back for days. Of course, it would not take long for Vin to track them once they did know but that was not the point, what if Mary needed serious medical attention now?

"This is all my fault." Alex grimaced, confident that no one was going to hear it. "Iím just as bad as Ezra. Going to Eagle Bend for a poker game? Christ!"

"Do you mind giving the self recrimination a rest?" A voice spoke up wearily. "I could really use your help here."

Alex swung around and saw a hint of blue that she had missed earlier because she was so busy berating herself at her stupid actions earlier. Mary Larabee was sitting up not too far from the grooves in the soil Alex had been following, covered in mud and bruises where she had found herself after regaining consciousness from her fall. An explosion of relief escaped the doctor in a loud sigh as she immediately ran forward at the sound of Maryís voice.

"I found her!" Alex called out to the others, hoping they could hear her over the rain as she hurried through the tall grass, almost losing her footing in her eagerness to reach Mary. "Are you okay? Can you move? Tell me where it hurts if you canít!"

"Slow down," Mary grumbled with calm she was amazed she still possessed even though every bone in her body ached and her head swam a little. "I was almost killed for God sakeís. I canít process so many questions at once."

"Iím glad to see you too." Alex retorted as she skidded to her knees upon reaching Mary. Outwardly, the editor of the Clarion did not appear to have any serious injuries but it was difficult to see through all the mud that was covering her clothes and skin.

"What the hell happened?" Mary groaned as she rubbed her forehead in effort to dull the throbbing pain she was feeling. The vertigo in her head had ceased but she still had difficulty focusing.

"One of the wheels on the carriage broke." Alex informed her dutifully as the doctor began examining her with deeper scrutiny. "Must have ran over something when the horses were out of control."

"I can believe it," Mary replied, remembering the violence of which she had been thrown from the carriage to the ground. For a brief instance, images of pain and flying through the air filled her mind and she found herself short of breath as the fear of the moment grasped its clammy hands over her heart. Mary crushed the feeling ruthlessly; knowing it would so her little good at this time. "Is everyone else okay?" She asked, hoping that Alexís answer would distract her own fears from surfacing again.

"Yes," Alex responded, continuing to look Mary over for any signs of serious injury. "Weíre all a little rattled but weíre okay. Can you tell me where it hurts?"

"Oh just about everywhere." She said with a half smile, trying to inject some humour in the situation before she really started to become scared at the situation they now found themselves.

"Can you narrow it down a little?" Alex asked, indulging Mary her little eccentricities, understanding the emotions that motivated it.


Alex shifted her attention to Maryís leg and found that her right ankle was sprained. Other than a mild concussion, the woman had amazingly come through her ordeal without any serious damage and that gave Alex cause for some relief even though they were far from safe. There was little Alex could do to heal Mary's sprain without taking her back to the carriage where her medical bag was presently located. Unfortunately, the rest of their luggage was strewn across the trail the carriage had taken when it had been sent of out control by the horses.

By this time, Julia and Maude had reached them which was just as well because it appeared Mary was in no condition to walk anywhere when Alex had finally helped her to her feet. As soon as Mary had put any weight on the tender limb, a soft cry of pain had escaped her and she found that she was balancing herself on Alexís shoulder before Julia arrived and lent the shoulder of secondary support. Slowly, the quartet returned to the carriage, following the trail of their possessions, not to mention the deep grooves in the soil to find the others once again.

Since the only shelter seemed to be inside the carriage at present, the group immediately took refuge within its cramp confines so that Alex could tend to Maryís legs while at the same time, the group could decide what they ought to do about extricating themselves from their present predicament. Upon further examination, the carriage did seem as irredeemable as it looked did. Nothing remained of the wheel other than some rather large pieces that were no use to anyone to say nothing about actually being functional again. Worst of all, there did not appear to be a spare, although in truth it would have made very little difference if there were since none of the women had any idea how to replace a damaged wheel. It appeared that for the duration, the carriage was just as stranded here in this wilderness as they were unless someone came up with a plan.

"Okay so what do we do?" Julia asked as she took a bite of the sandwich she was presently holding in her hand. Fortunately, they had packed some food for the journey and while each one of them would have killed for a warm cup of coffee at this point, the repast though meagre, was welcomed.

"Well I say we unhitch the horses and two of us go for help." Mary suggested as she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, trying to move into a more accommodating position. Now more than ever, she noticed how small and tight their present location was and knew that they had to get out of here soon before tempers started flaring.

"Where to?" Julia asked, not knowing the territory with any kind of familiarity.


"Coventry is near here." Casey suggested, being the only other person in the carriage besides Mary who knew the local territory.

"Coventry?" Alex cast a questioning glimpse at Mary, unfamiliar with the place. She did not even think she had ever heard anyone mention the place before this moment.

"Itís a small town but not one Iíd like to recommend we go to." Mary said frowning, having heard some of the reports about the community and knowing for certain that they should avoid the place if it was all possible, if even half of what she had heard was true.

"Why is that?" Julia asked, unable to ignore the look of worry on Maryís face at the thought of them even visiting the town.

"I have heard stories about their sheriff." Mary confessed reluctantly and knew like they all did that they had little choice. Coventry would have to be the place they would need to go to seek help. Four Corners was too far behind them and Sweet Water was too far ahead. However, everyone listened closely as Mary explained what she knew about the infamous Sheriff Pierce of Coventry. "Heís meant to be as corrupt as they come and twice as mean. Most of the reason why people do not stop in Coventry is because theyíve had most unpleasant meetings with the man."

"How far is that from here?" Alex questioned, taking note of the caution in Maryís voice but determining that they had little choice in the matter. If Coventry was the closest place to find help, she did not see any other alternative but to go there.

"A few miles, no more." Mary answered unhappily. "I would not recommend going there." She declared firmly, seeing the determination in Alexís eyes at their next course of action. "Perhaps we should try for Four Corners." She suggested even though it was highly doubtful if anyone would take heed to that idea.

"We should go to Coventry." Maude interjected. "We simply cannot remain out here the whole night. Aside from the fact that you are injured Mary, there is no way we are all going to be able to stay for any length of time in such unpleasant surroundings, not to mention we have a train to catch."

Alex looked at Maude in astonishment. "Forget about the train. Weíre not going to make it!"

"I assure you that come tomorrow when the first card is dealt in Eagle Bend, I intend to be there." Maude retorted defiantly, unable to believe that she was going to miss the biggest game of the year because of this minor hiccup in her travelling plans. "I think we ought to go to Coventry and acquire some alternate means of transportation. It would make the most sense."

"I donít knowÖ.." Inez offered her reluctance. "If this man is as dangerous as Mary says then perhaps it would not be wise to tempt fate by placing ourselves anywhere near him. You know how we attract trouble."

"I would not have guessed." Julia met the womanís gaze sarcastically as she let her eyes sweep over their surroundings.

"Casey and I will go to Coventry." Alex stated and noted Mary about to protest. "Now before you argue with me Mary," Alex quickly cut her off before any sound could escape her lips. "Hear me out. First thing Iíll do when I get there is send a telegram to Four Corners letting Rain know whatís happened. Then Casey and I will see about getting someone out here to put a new wheel on the carriage or to hire a new one all together. In any case, we should have no reason to make any contact whatsoever with this sheriff."

"I hope so." Mary said dubiously, unable to deny that she did not like this idea at all. "If you knew half the stories Iíve heard about this sheriff, youíd know why I really donít want either or you there."

"Look," Alex sighed; not relishing the idea of running into this man herself because the fear she was seeing in Maryís eyes was nothing to disregard easily. "Itís got to be me and Casey. I donít ride very well but Iím sure as hell better than Julia."

"Hey!" Julia exclaimed with mock hurt. "Iím getting better." She protested.

Alex met her gaze and then replied with a completely straight face. "Moving right along. Inez on the other hand is in no condition to ride anywhere in her condition which just leaves me and Casey since Iím assuming youíre going to want to stay here, Maude?"

"You are skilled as you are perceptive." The older woman said with a smile.

"I thought so." Alex rolled her eyes. "Itís so nice to know weíre in all this together."

Part Three:

A Visit to Coventry

Upon riding into the locality of Coventry, Alexandra Styles came to one firm conclusion; she did not like the place.

If a town could reflect an inherent deterioration of its moral centre in the wooden walls of its buildings, in the paint that covered the store signs or in the fibre of dresses worn by the women sweeping across the dusty boardwalks, then Coventry reeked with the malevolence. After they had unhitched the horses from their damage carriage, Alex and Casey had ridden towards Coventry, despite Maryís continued protestations that this was a bad idea. Unfortunately, with the rain showing no signs of abating and nightfall approaching rapidly, the women of Four Corners were left with little choice but to resort to this course of action.

Having changed into fresh clothes and donning riding coats for trip, they were still nevertheless soaked by the time they entered town. Most of Coventryís residents were indoors but a few people poked their heads out long enough to observe their arrival. Their faces revealed intimidation and fear and Alex could not help but wonder how one man could inspire so much terror in the local populace and decided that she would heed Maryís advice to not encounter him if it was humanly possible. Coventry was not a big town. In fact, it was a good deal smaller than Four Corners with most of the businesses in town converging on the one street.

However, unlike Four Corners, Coventry did not appear to be thriving. It lacked the hustle and bustle of a community on the road to progress. Even on rainy days, there was still a lot of coming and goings at Four Corners, enough to remind everyone who lived there that the future was an endless string of possibilities waiting to come off the next stage. Coventry did not possess that vitality. What it did have was a pall of gloom that nestled over the town like a thick veneer of dust. If Alex was forced to put a name to the atmosphere, she would describe it as being stagnant as if held in place without hope of change ever.

"I donít like this town." Casey whispered as she let her eyes survey the town before her and felt something sinister about Coventry she could not define even though nothing had taken place that would indicate any danger.

"You and me both." Alex shuddered but tried to remain centred because Casey needed to see it. "Letís just find the livery and see about buying another carriage, Iíll settle for a wagon if need be."

"Why?" Casey looked at her confused. "We only need a wheel."

"Yes," Alex agreed. "Unfortunately weíll need someone to change it and I prefer that we do not have any more to do with Coventry than absolutely necessary. I think Mary was right, the sooner we get out of here, the better."

Hearing Alex speak that way made Casey nervous because nothing fazed the doctor. In that respects, she was a lot like Vin Tanner, except that Alex did not take things quietly when things got the better of her. Casey had come to consider Alex like a big sister she never had because Alex was brave and smart and always willing to listen whenever Casey needed to talk. If Alex was afraid then Casey believed with complete faith that there was good reason to fear.

They did not get off their horses as they continued through town, knowing instinctively that while they were near their mounts, there was chance of escape. The duo continued to the livery, deciding that was no need to waste time with sight seeing and found the establishment in question soon enough. It was located to the edge of town where most places like this were often situated, mostly because the riders who stabled their horses and carriages here preferred to take the fastest route of Coventry once the decision was made to depart.

The livery was as ramshackle as the man who ran it. He was an old codger with missing teeth and was dressed in overalls that hung off his bony frame. He regarded the duo with a salacious leer that immediately made Alexís skin crawl as he approached them. Judging from the selection of wagons and buggy becoming rustier with each drop of rain that fell upon them in the open, Alex gathered they would be lucky to leave this place with something that could even be yoked to a horse without falling apart completely.

"What can I do for ya?" He asked, wearing that stupid grin that made Alex want to take her business elsewhere. Unfortunately, she had no choice since he appeared to be the only livery owner in town and Alex had a feeling he was more than aware of this fact too, which probably attributed to the smug expression he was wearing on his leathery face.

"Iím looking to buy a carriage that will take at least six people." Alex replied while Casey looked around at what was available. It had been decided prior to their arrival here that Casey had a better eye for what they were looking for than she did and Alex would be relying upon her knowledge to make the purchase. Aside from her small buggy, Alex had very little need for such things and would have no idea what would make a good acquisition based on her own judgement

"How far youíre going?" He asked, still eying them both like they were tasty slabs of meat. His leering gaze made Alex uncomfortable and the doctor felt like she needed a bath to wash the stink of his lewd inclinations off her skin following this encounter.

"Four Corners." Alex answered, not wishing to let him know anything more than was utterly necessary. Four Corners was roughly the same distance from here to Sweet Water so if he was making the inquiry for reasons that might pertain to the kind of transportation they needed, it would be almost the same as telling them where they were really going.

"HmmmÖ." He considered, running his thumb over his stubbled chin as he walked along the selection of wagons and buggies Casey was perusing. As noticed before, the selection was hardly impressive and appeared to be second hand goods that had been accumulated over time. They were left out in the open, forced to endure the elements with hardly any time spent towards maintenance. Alex had a feeling, they would come away from here with a wagon that was barely road worthy let alone comfortable.

"What about this one?" He directed her attention to a rather rickety contraption that did not look as if it would go ten paces with one person let alone the six that were required to make the journey to Sweet Water.

"Mister that thing is falling apart." Casey blurted without hesitation as she wrinkled her nose in disgust that he would try to pawn off such an obvious wreck upon them. It was insulting and demeaning to both her and Alex. "There are cracks in the wheel and it would just go to pieces the first bump we hit."

The livery owner frowned at the young woman darkly as he realised that he was not dealing with two uniformed women he could swindle out of their money with cheap goods. In an instant, all his hopes of making some profit out of this venture and ridding himself of what was normally immovable goods, were dashed with Caseyís well informed response. "Well, it could use a bit of work." He muttered reluctantly, unable to think of anything else to say that would salvage his dignity.


"A bit of work?" Casey snorted derisively, unprepared to give him the chance and shook her head in disgust as she regarded another wagon located not too far from the one he was attempting to foist upon them. While it was hardly aesthetically pleasing too look at, it did seem to appear sturdy enough for their purposes, unlike the ownerís preference whose condition was so dilapidated that it was danger to anyone who purchased it. "Weíll take this one." Casey stated decisively, with a tone in her voice that required no argument from anyone. Upon making that statement, she glanced at Alex and offered something of an explanation regarding her choice. "I know its pretty old looking but I think its in good shape to get us where weíre going." She avoided speaking their true destination since Alex had gone out of her way not to mention it earlier.

"This one?" The man complained with a slight whine to his voice. The rig in question was one of his better pieces of stock and he knew that he could not bluff his way into acquiring an exorbitant price for it with this young lady who appeared to know what she was talking about.

"Weíll give you thirty dollars for it and not a penny more." Casey met his eyes firmly and set her jaw firmly, revealing that she was not open to negotiation on this point. However, she did take a momentary glimpse in Alexís direction and was rewarded with a slight nod of approval from the doctor.

The man frowned unhappily because it was indeed a fair of price. Unfortunately, it was not the large sum he had hoped to trick them into paying and yet despite his chagrin at being outwitted out of his money, he was still too filled with greed to turn down what was offered. "Alright then," he grumbled, deciding that something was better than nothing and it was not as if customers were beating a path to his doors these days. "But you can hitch it up yourself." He retorted spitefully, still seething with annoyance that he had been outsmarted by a slip of a girl and wishing to dispense some revenge for her audacity.

"I can do it." Casey volunteered, taking away that meagre attempt to salve his wounded pride by showing him that she was not in the least daunted by the chore. Alex wanted a conclusion to this transaction as quickly as possible and followed the man towards what served as his office at the far end of the building. For some reason, Alex felt it wise to transact this deal with the appropriate amount of paperwork to prove the purchase.

"Iíll be back in a minute." Alex replied, making her way down the dirt path that led around the livery as Casey withdrew to get their horses and harness them to the new wagon.

Leaving Casey behind as they rounded the building, Alex reaching into the pocket of her coat where she carried a good amount of cash with her in the event of an emergency. After their last trip to Denver where they had been stranded without money and she had been forced to play poker to keep herself and the other fiscally secure, Alex decided that she would not fall into the same trap again should anything happen during this trip. Thus Alex ensured that she had left Four Corners, she had done so with a healthy amount of cash in her purse in case of an emergency which in this instant had proved to be a fortunate undertaking.

Casey had just dropped out of sight by the time the strange man appeared out of nowhere. His presence immediately eradicated the expression of annoyance worn on the livery ownerís face with one of apprehension and downright fear.

The man was in his early to mid thirties with dark coppered coloured hair and deep hazel eyes that bore into her as let his gaze sweep up and down her form. Judging by the slight curl of his lips, he approved of what he was seeing. He had well chiselled features that could be considered handsome if not for the hint of menace reflected in his eyes when he looked upon her.

However, it was the Silver Star pinned on the lapel of his coat that caught her eye the most.

Alex had to admit he was not what she had expected of a sheriff with a notorious reputation even if he did strike her as being somewhat predatory, although he was nowhere in the calibre of Chris Larabee who sent shudders down her spine by simply staring at her. For some reason, his attention was solely focussed on her which only served to make Alex more nervous but not as apprehensive as the livery owner next to her.

"Sheriff." The man said swallowing hard, unable to hide the anxiety in his trembling voice.

"Good evening." The lawman replied coolly without looking in his direction, his eyes never moving away from Alex even as he spoke. "What are you up today Roy?" He asked casually but that was danger in his voice.

"Iím just selling this young lady here a wagon, Sheriff." The old man answered nervously, licking his lips and avoiding all eye contact with the sheriff as he glimpsed Alex briefly before lowering his eyes to the ground..

"Really?" He said with a faint smile. "I ainít seen you around here before." His eyes took on a sparkle of interest Alex knew all too well and only served to increase the tension already easing into her bones.

"Iím merely passing through Sheriff." Alex replied politely, wishing nothing but to put the entire subject of Coventry far behind her when she rode out of this place.

"Thatís Sheriff Dylan Pierce." He added as if it was important that she knew his name.

"Please to meet you Sheriff." Alex continued to maintain her civility towards him before shifting her attention to the livery owner, who sensed something bad was coming their way but had not the courage to speak it. Alex wished only to conclude her business quickly so she could be on her way back to Mary and the others. With a sigh, Alex supposed it was too much for her to hope that their trip into Coventry was going to be anything but routine. "We agreed upon $30 dollars did we not?"


"Yes maíam." The old man returned just as quickly, somehow appreciating her need to leave even if her reasons were diametrically opposed to his. The sheriff seldom took an interest in anything that did not serve his purpose in some way and his presence here did not bode well for the young lady or her companion.

"Good," Alex said with a faint smile retrieved the small purse with its snap lock from her coat. She prised it to reveal a wad of bills, she would sooner have kept a secret from either man. Unfortunately, with both standing so close by, she had little choice but to expose her financial state since she wanted to pay the livery owner and flee the inquisitive stare of Sheriff Dylan Pierce.

"Now where does a coloured girl like you get money like that." Dylan asked, making no attempt to hide the malicious intent of his words or the obvious insult.

Alex tensed immediately, sensing he was trying to bait her and choosing not to let him provoke her into doing anything foolish that may allow him to gain the upper hand. Her eyes met the livery owners and he conveyed a silent look of sympathy which did not bode well for the situation that she now found herself embroiled in.

"I inherited it." She said shortly, deciding that was all the explanation that was needed as she met his eyes unafraid of showing her contempt as his earlier jibes.

"Coloured people donít have enough money to live, let alone leave anything to their kin." He said with a sneer that was completely deriding and meant to engender some sort of reaction.

"Iím not a Negro." Alex said icily, denying him that satisfaction and continued to pay the livery owner his $30 dollars.

Wasting no time once the transaction was concluded, Alex turned away to leave when suddenly, a hand wrapped itself around her arm.

"You sure look like it to me." He replied, daring her to say something else he could use to his advantage, since he was enjoying this exchange and was not about to let end his fun just yet. He could see the spirit in her eyes, just waiting for the right amount of goading to bring it forth. He guessed that she was magnificent in her fury and he wanted to see for himself if what he imagined was true.

Alex snatched her arm viciously from his grip and glared sharply in his direction as she prepared to walk away. "What I am in none of your business. I have broken no laws and I appreciate you let me be on my way."

Alex made another attempt to draw away when she felt him renew his grip on her arm. This time, there was no mistaking that he was not about to let her go anywhere. She forced herself not to get afraid or unduly alarmed or worse yet, lose her temper because the consequences of that could only make things worse and escalate what was already transpiring now. "What do you want?" She asked slowly, hoping that there was someway to reason with him.

By now, the livery owner had taken his money and had chosen wisely to withdraw, leaving her to the ministrations of Sheriff Pierce because he had no wish to be caught in the Sheriffís latest game of cat and mouse. Particularly, when the young woman before him was the mouse. Alex saw him depart hastily and took note briefly that he was heading in the direction they had just left Casey. She did so hope the bastard had enough courage to tell Casey to get out of here before this situation deteriorated any further, although judging by the firm hold that Dylan had on her, Alex had a sinking feeling it was already there.

"Iím afraid it is my business," he said taking a step closer, his voice was almost husky as he maintained his vise like grip on her arm with such power that she could feel his nails digging into his skin. Like he was speaking to a lover, he lowered his lips to her ear and said almost seductively, "I think you stole that money and Iím obligated as a servant of the law to arrest you on suspicion of theft."

"What?" Alex stared at him in mixture of disbelief and pure astonishment that he would make some an outlandish charge. "I am medical doctor and you have no right to assume that just because I am coloured that I cannot have earned that money on my own!"

"A doctor?" He recoiled long enough to snort in derision as he met her gaze, with clear amusement in his eyes at the statement. "There are ainít no coloured doctors, least of all one thatís a woman. Now the only way that you could more earn that money on your own is on your back and Iím guessing," he let his eyes move up an down her body making no attempt to hide the hunger he felt for her before adding. "That youíre pretty good at it."

Alex lost her temper and slapped him hard across the face in outrage. His head snapped back in pain but he recovered almost immediately. Reacting swiftly, he took hold of the hand that had delivered the blow and pinned it to her side where it could offer no more injury or insult. "Now in my town, prostitution is illegal and will get you thrown in jail, plus I confiscate all your ill gotten gains." He almost grinned with pleasure as he made that statement.

"I am not a working girl!" Alex cried impotently, knowing that there was nothing to stop him from locking her up in his jail if he was determined to do it. This town was his exclusive domain and Alex started to understand why everyone was so terrified of him. If she had any sense about her, she would have felt the same but there was too much defiance in Alexandra Styles to capitulate to anyone, even this man who had the power to shoot her down dead or worse if he felt like it.

"Prove it, darling." He grinned and before Alex knew what had happened, a set of handcuff snapped around her wrist and brought home just how trapped she was.

 

********

When the liveryman had told her to get out of here quickly, Casey had ignored him because she could hear the commotion in which Alexandra Styles seemed to be at the centre. Refusing to abandon Alex, at least until she knew what was going on, Casey crept to the side of the building and peered around the corner with the stealth she had learnt to use when hunting with JD. As she looked over the edge of the building and saw what lay beyond, Casey discovered a scene that gave her great cause for concern. Alex was at this moment, arguing most rigorously with a man who was dragging her away from the livery, almost kicking and screaming with handcuffs binding one of her wrists to him.

Casey saw a glint of metal on his chest and immediately withdrew, knowing that Alex had fallen into the hands of the notoriously corrupt lawman that Mary had warned them about so strenuously. Her first instinct was to rush out there and lend her assistance to the doctor but after a split second later and a moment of careful reflection, Casey decided that was a bad idea when it was likely the man would arrest her too. That would not help Alex one bit and worse yet, with both the horses in her keeping, the others would have no idea what had happened to either of them or have any way of getting help.

As she saw Alex being dragged further and further away, the doctorís voice of outrage soon became distant and Casey came to an agonising decision when she heard it fade away completely. Casey could only hope that Alex would understand why she had chosen to abandon her for the moment. Glancing at the horses hitched up to the wagon, Casey knew that the best hope Alex had of freedom now was if she were to reach Mary Larabee. Mary would know how to best proceed in freeing Alex. If Casey went half cocked, she was only going to make things worse and the situation did not need any help from her in its deterioration.

Hating herself as she withdrew, Casey hurried to the horse and wagon waiting for her and rode out of Coventry, hoping that she could summon help for Alex before it was too late.

**********

"I knew it!" Mary Larabee swore when Casey returned to her with news of Alexís incarceration. "I just damn well knew it!"

"I didnít know what else to do." Casey exclaimed, mistaking Maryís distress at the situation with anger directed at her.

"Oh no Casey," Inez quickly spoke up as they remained inside the shelter, taking refuge from the rain as this new predicament reared its ugly head amongst them and demanded attention. "You did the right thing by coming back here."

"Casey Iím not angry at you," Mary replied, realising that Casey had misconstrued her anger completely. She reached for the girlís hand so that Casey would see that Mary was not at all furious at her but at the situation. "Iím angry that this has happened." Mary had foreseen all this taking place just as surely as if she had observed the entire incident through a crystal ball. If there was someway for trouble to find them, Mary was certain it would, even if they sought sanctuary on the moon to escape it.

Unfortunately, berating herself or cursing at how these things always seemed to happen to them was not helping Alex. The doctorís incarceration in Coventry could not continue even though Mary at this point had no idea how to free her. With Chris and the rest of the seven out on the trail, even if Mary and the others were to return to Four Corners, it would be a pointless gesture because the men would not be there to help them. In the meantime, under no circumstances was Mary prepared to leave Alex in the hands of that son of a bitch wearing a badge in the town of Coventry.

"Mary, what are we going to do?" Julia asked her from across the carriage. Outside, the sun was rapidly setting and it would be a pitch black night indeed with all the rain clouds blanketing the light from the stars and the moon when twilight was finally came upon them. The rain had abated somewhat but the chill in the air was from more than just the cold. "We canít just leave her."

"Weíre not going to leave her." Mary stated firmly and pushed herself off the seat. Her ankle still ached but she could move on it now, albeit her steps were tainted with an uncomfortable limp but the pain was beside the point at this time. Helping Alex out of her prison was. Climbing out of the carriage, Mary stepped out into the rain and had to admit the teeming rainfall against her skin aided in settling her furious emotions. She could feel the wet almost sizzling off her crimson cheeks as she tried to think of some way of this conundrum.

"What are you suggesting we do?" Maude inquired from inside the carriage. While she was not unsympathetic to the doctorís position and would surely miss her presence at the table at Eagle Bend, Maude was sceptical as to what five women were able to accomplish in the face of the crisis at Coventry. "It is best that we ride on to Sweet Water and enlist the aid of the local lawmen there. They should be able to extricate the doctor from her unfortunate circumstances."

Mary whirled around and sent a glare of ice in Maudeís direction. "WeÖareÖnotÖleavingÖAlex." She said slowly, pronouncing every word with mercurial fury just so the older woman would make no mistake about her feelings on this subject. "This man is dangerous and he arrested Alex for no good reason other than he could which suggests to me, he might actually have more sinister plans for her than we might think. Whatever those intentions are, I do not wish to know and I am certainly not going to tuck tail and pray some lawman at Sweet Water can get Alex out of if before she finds out first hand, do I make myself clear?" Maryís eyes blazed as she spoke.

Maude swallowed, realising how intent Mary was and while she might be dubious as to what they could do to extricate Alexandra Styles from the clutches of the vile Sheriff Dylan Pierce, she could not ignore the fierce determination in her voice. "I certainly did not mean any offence, Mary." Maude quickly recovered from the dressing down, with the skill that could only be exhibited by a cat landing on its feet. "I am just doubtful of how we can help Doctor Styles."

"In that much I share you concern." Mary frowned as she looked up into the sky, feeling the cool rain against her skin strangely soothing, even if it did not help with a solution to their immediate problems. Mary tried not to fear for Alex and hoped the doctor was unharmed and knew that she would not remain that way indefinitely if she was. After a moment, she faced her companions still under the shade of the carriage. "I think we should ride into Coventry."

Four faces looked at her blankly.

"You must be joking." Predictably it was Maude who spoke first. "What do you wish to accomplish by all of us going into that godforsaken community? You already saw what he did to Doctor Styles, how can you assume that any of us will fare better?"

Mary had braced herself for the protests and was hardly surprised that Maude would be the most vocal detractor of her plan. The others however, did look similarly concerned as to the possible result of such a flimsy plan. In truth, Mary had no idea what to do about freeing Alex. She did know that they could not remain hidden here, sitting on their hands as they tried to come up with a plan. "We will fare better because we are white. From what Casey tells us, all this started because Pierce knows that Alex is vulnerable because she is not Caucasian."

"You are assuming a lot." Maude stated.

"Yes she is," Julia nodded. "But Maryís right." Julia like all of them was not blind to the difficulties endured by Alex at times simply because she was not the picture of white purity. "He would not have done this to Alex if she was a white woman. We may be in danger going into Coventry but weíd be no different from anyone else in the place."

"So weíre going to save Alex?" Casey said feeling infinitely relieved that decision was finally made because she was still not very happy about leaving the doctor behind and god only knew what Alex was enduring in her incarceration.

"Something like that." Mary shrugged. She had no plan, no idea of how to free Alex once they entered the town limits. All she had was this overwhelming urge to do something. The rest would come later.

Hopefully.

*********

Alexandra Styles did not feel afraid even though she found herself behind bars.

What she felt was rage, pure unequivocal rage at this shocking situation she found herself in. Pacing the floor like the caged animal she was, she was a thundercloud trapped in the cramp confines of a cell inside Coventryís jailhouse. The room stank of urine and God knew what else and Alex was reluctant to touch anything let alone rest her body on the filthy mattress that passed for a bed in her dungeon. Through the thick bars of her cell, she glared at the man who was responsible for her incarceration, wishing more than anything that she were a man so she could beat the crap out of him.

Where was Vin when you needed him?

He watched her. Eyes keeping pace with her as she bounced back and forth from one end of the room to the other almost fascinated with what he was seeing. He knew that she was no whore. She did not carry herself as one did but there was something about her that was hardly conventional. Neither did she appeared to be coloured. There was something in her features that did not look Negro and he was mesmerised by what she was being neither coloured nor Creole and yet unable to distinguish what she actually was.

"You might as well cool your heels Darliní" he said with a faint smile as he observed her, the way the spider watches the fly trapped irrevocably in its web. "You ainít going nowhere."

Alex glared at him as he sat at his desk, feet resting on the table while he examined the engagement ring Vin had given her with interest. Prior to forcing her into this cell, he had relieved her of any jewellery that was on her person, including the bracelet that her father had made a present to her before he died and her engagement ring. The loss of both inspired her utmost fury and she could bear the absence of neither. Even the trouble she now found herself in was minute in comparison to that desire.

Alex did not answer him when he spoke, choosing instead to continue her pacing as an act of defiance as well as a way to temper her anger. She had no idea what he want even though he was studying her carefully, taking note of everything she was doing inside his jail with mild interest. It could not be just about the money, Alex thought to herself. No one goes to so much trouble for a hundred dollars. True it was a good sum of money but hardly princely. She held no fears of a prolonged incarceration because Mary and the others knew she was here and would summon help soon enough. Still, it was the mystery that made her all the more apprehensive.

"This is a pretty fancy ring." He commented, still studying the bauble with great interest. "Wedding ring?"

Alex looked at him sharply. "Engagement, if you must know."

"Expensive." He remarked. "Too expensive for a nigger to afford. Sure you didnít steal this too?"

Alex let out a cry of exasperation and declared. "What Stone Age rock did you climb out of to assume that any person whose skin is not white is incapable of making money?"

"Never met any that didnít have two bits to his name." He said simply.

"Well, if it makes you feel any better that ring did not come from a Negro." Alex retorted, hoping the information would satisfy his curiosity and would go some way to helping her get the ring back. "It came from a white tracker." Alex hated describing Vin this way but knew of no other way to convince the man that she was not a working girl.

"A white man gave you this?" Dylan said with a raised brow. "Must be pretty special for him to spend all this money."

"So he tells me." Alex replied sarcastically.

"You really a doctor?" He asked, putting down the ring on the desk with the rest of the personal effects he had absconded from her upon tossing her in her cell.

"Give me a scalpel and Iíll prove it to you."

He laughed shortly and stood up from his desk. Walking across the floor, he joined her in front of the cell and looked through the bars at her. "Maybe you ainít no working girl. You sound like you got a lot of book learning so I might be inclined to believe you?"

Alex stopped pacing and took a step towards the bar, standing close enough to reach him. She could almost guess what was coming but held her tongue to see if he was just as predictable as she believed him to be. "How nice." She tried to hide the sarcasm and disbelief from her voice as she spoke. "And pray tell what do I have to do to convince you."

"I donít know," he let his eyes shift over her in unmistakable hunger. "Youíre a smart woman, youíll think of someway to make me believe it." His voice was husky as he made that loaded statement.

Alex decided to play the game just a little more and took another step towards the bars, until she was close enough to reach him. Running her tongue over her lips, Alex purred as she saw him respond to the change in her body language. After a moment, when his eyes were mesmerised by the action of her lips, Alex spoke with seduction oozing off each word.

"IÖ.wouldÖ.ratherÖ.rotÖ.inÖÖhere."

His expression turned dark and he stepped away, furious that she had managed to pull his desire for her out into the open. He was not a rapist but he wanted this exotic looking creature and was determined to break her, one way or another. "Well see if you feel the same after a month in that cell." He retorted viciously, his pride obviously stinging from what she had done and unwittingly gave Alex a great deal of satisfaction by his angry response.

"I can hold out. Can you?" Alex demanded. "I have people who will come looking for me including the tracker who gave me that ring. How are you going to explain it to them when they tell you I really am a doctor and that money you confiscated was stolen from no one?"

"This is my town." He glared at her, still angered from when she had tricked him earlier. "No one walks out of my jail unless I let them go and trust me, no one will come looking for you by the time Iím done with you."

Something in his words chilled Alex to the bone and she questioned the wisdom in baiting him and secretly prayed that Casey had reached Mary and the others and summoned help. She did not know what Sheriff Dylan Pierce had in mind but Alex was quite certain that she did not wish to find out.

**********

They were almost to Coventry and Mary was no closer to coming up with a plan to rescue Alex as she had when they had first set out to help her. She knew her silence as Casey rode the wagon closer to the town, was disturbing the others because they looked to her for answers since this was her grand scheme and she had none to give them. As it was, Maude had been a constant thorn in her side, making offhanded remarks at how this was a foolís errand, as if Mary was not aware of this fact yet. She was perfectly mindful that they were four women against a sheriff who was armed while they only had Juliaís derringer as protection. She wished more than anything that Chris was here but understood that she could not rely upon him to protect her from everything.

The rain had stopped and the stars were starting to appear through the grey clouds that had followed them most of the journey here. With the presence of moonlight, they were finally removed from the pitch-black darkness they had dogged them all the way here, which also did little for their already depleted morale. This trip to Eagle Bend was already more than any of them had bargained and although none of them spoke it, they were all worried about Alexandra Styles.

"I do not suppose you have come up with an idea of how to help Doctor Styles?" Maude Standish asked once again and just as regularly, Mary had to stifle the urge to throttle the woman.

"Iím working on it." Mary muttered in annoyance, wondering just how much more of this she could take before her temper flared.

"You better work on it fast." Maude retorted. "Weíre almost there."

"Maude will you just shut up!" Julia finally snapped and surprised them all by being the first one to lose her temper. "We are not leaving Alex in the hands of that sheriff! The poker game can wait already!"

"Well," Maude huffed in annoyance at the sharp rebuke. "Iím starting to understand why Ezra did not wish to tell me about you."

Mary could see Juliaís ire being well and truly inflamed by that remark and the redheadís temper was about to flare in the display that Mary had been trying so hard to keep under control herself when Inez broke into the conversation.

"Alright you too," Inez said firmly. "This is not the time or the place to get into this argument. Maude, Mary will think of something and Julia, you can kill Ezra later. For the moment, we are in enough trouble without the two of you behaving like children."

"Sorry Inez," Julia cast a dark glare at Maude, telling her in that one look this conversation was by no means over, merely postponed.

Confident that the clashes of personalities had passed for the moment, Mary turned her attention to the road ahead and let her gaze sweep across the terrain when suddenly, through the darkness she spotted a building in the distance. The darkness made it difficult to see what it was but there were pinpricks of light shinning through the windows.

"What is that?" Mary asked because the place did not look like a homestead and it was rather far away from town to be a mere dwelling.

"Oh thatís the convent." Casey declared as she continued to take the reins. "Alex and I passed by it when we went to town the first time. Its full of nuns."

"Nuns." Mary mused for a moment, letting an insane idea take shape in her mind and tumbling inevitably towards a plan that was just as absurd but strangely enough, one that might actually work. "Casey, take us there." Mary instructed.

Casey looked at her in obvious bewilderment. "Why Mary?"

"I have an idea." Mary replied, as Casey directed the wagon off their path to Coventry and started traversing down the gentle slope that led towards the building of brick and mortar.

"Whatís on your mind?" Inez asked at the realisation they had taken a detour.

"Well," Mary said reluctant to reveal her plan just yet because she wanted no one to try and talk her out of it just yet. "Iím not sure but if weíre going to get Alex out, weíll need a little distraction."

"Like what?" Julia inquired, just as curious to what Mary had in mind.

Mary paused, trying to decide whether or not she should tell them what she was planning and decided that she had little choice but to do so since she could not accomplish the undertaking without their participation. Mary outlined what she had concocted in her mind briefly and saw their faces take on expressions that bordered somewhere between astonishment and amusement.

"You are insane!" Maude exclaimed. "I will not do it."

"Okay," Mary said prepared for Maudeís declaration well in advance. "Weíll let you off the convent and pick you up on the way back. We donít really need you for this."

"You are not leaving me in the hands of those pious spinsters." Maude retorted automatically.

"Well make up your mind because weíre almost there." Mary answered as the wagon rapidly approach the stone fence that surrounded the building. The nunnery or church, whatever it was, appeared to have been in its present location for quite some time and was easy to overlook because it did not seem very large. Mary had heard one of these places in Vista City but not so close to Four Corners. She supposed even in the Territory, there was still a need for such refuges.

"Mary, do you honestly think this will work?" Inez asked, having heard her part in the plan and was to confess to feeling some reservations in her ability to undertake it.

"I canít say," Mary replied honestly, "unfortunately, itís the best idea I have at this time. If anyoneís got any better ideas, Iíd like to hear them and I do not mean any suggestion that involves abandoning Alex and continuing to Sweet Water to catch a train."

Instinctively, everyone looked at Maude.

"I will adhere to your insane scheme." Maude answered with a slight huff to her voice. "However I do so under protest. I have played many roles in my life however, this is not one of them."

"Donít worry Maude," Julia said with a faint smile. "If I can pull it off anyone can."

"Iíll say." Inez smirked.

Julia gave her a look and retorted sarcastically. "Wanton." She teased Inez who promptly responded in kind.

"Tramp."

"Children." Mary interrupted this scintillating conversation as they crossed the threshold of the conventís fence line. The convent building was surrounded by a sizeable vegetable garden and Mary saw the shape of a barn in the near distance, no doubt where their animals were kept. Although the sun had set, it was not that far into night and hoped the inhabitants of those hallowed walls would not be too annoyed by the arrival of strangers who had an unusual request to make of them.

***********

Alex finally relented and decided she would get some sleep. Although lying on the bed made her skin crawl, Alex had little choice because she could not keep pacing indefinitely, no matter how angry she was at the situation she now found herself in. As she lay against the wafer thin mattress, she tried not to think about who had last occupied this bunk or pay attention to the musty smell that emanated from it. Her jailer remained at his desk, shuffling through paperwork and occupying himself with the minor details of law enforcement as if he was afraid to walk out and leave her alone.


Alex could not fathom his reasons for keeping her imprisoned like this. She knew he was attracted to her because she could see it in his eyes and in the response that had engendered so much anger when she had tricked him earlier. However, if he was attempting to seduce her by these actions, then his method seemed to leave a lot be to be desired. It was not to say that he was not handsome. He was actually very handsome but not in the way that held any interest for Alex, who considered Vin Tanner to be the ideal in her mind and knew by comparison no one else could ever compete.

As she tried to go to sleep, she wondered where Vin was at this moment and wished more than anything to have him here because he would make short work of this upstart sheriff who presumed to think her a whore and had stolen away her most treasured possessions. Even from where she was lying against the lumpy pillow, she could see the glint of metal through at the edge of his desk that was her engagement ring. Instinctively, Alex reached for the finger it was normally worn and felt naked without it being there. She had not taken it off since the day Vin had given it to her and she really hated that she had been forced to remove it like this.

Alex wondered how long he intended to keep her for he seemed very confident that no one would come searching for her when it was obvious to all that eventually someone would. He could not be so stupid as to maintain his belief that she was a working girl, not after he had examined all her personal effect carefully and must have surely come to the conclusion that she could not be that at all. He remained in the jail house keeping a vigil over her, as if he had captured something he was uncertain of what he would do with now that it was in his power.

Unable to sleep with on the uncomfortable bunk, Alex finally sat up in the bed and gave up altogether. "What do you want with me Sheriff?" She broke the silence in the room.

He paused what he was doing and met her gaze. "I do believe you committed a crime in my town."

"I committed no crime and we both know it." Alex answered, surprising herself with the lack of anger in her voice as she addressed him this time.

"You ainít prove that yet." He challenged as he returned her stare. "When you do, Iíll be happy to let you out."

"Just how am I supposed to do that?" Alex countered sarcastically. "Without surrendering my virtue that is?"

"Iím sure youíll come up with something." A slow smile ran across his face, filled with suggestion. "It depends on who gives in first."

Alex almost snorted in derision. "I have been told that I am as stubborn as a mule so I would not hold my breath if I were you waiting for that to happen. Then again on second thought," she eyed him wickedly. "Perhaps you should and I can get out of here when your replacements shows."

"My, my, my, you are quite the firecracker ainít you?" Dylan laughed, finding amusement in her attempts to insult him and only succeeded in strengthening Alexís resolve to keep him from what he wanted.

"Iíve heard that once or twice in my life." She sighed, lying back on her pillow since it was obvious she was not going to get any answers from him. Perhaps when she woke up, she might find this entire situation to be nothing more than a very bad dream because she had no wish to retain any memory of Sheriff Dylan Pierce.

"So you got a name," he asked, unprepared to let her rest now that she had started him talking. "Doctor?"

"None that I care to tell you." Alex replied automatically.

"Come on what could it hurt?" He prompted. "Youíre gonna be here awhile Iím sure youíre gonna get sick of me calling you Ďhey youí after a spell."

Alex flinched and supposed it would not be such a terrible admission if she could just get him to shut up. "Alex."

"Thatís a boyís name." Dylan sat up in his chair and leaned towards her.

Alex rolled her eyes. "Its short for Alexandra."

"Fancy name." He commented. "Iíll call you Lex."

If anything could break the calm that she had been attempting to maintain, that was it. Alex sat up in her bed against and fairly roared. "Donít you ever call me that! No one calls me Lex you hear me! No one! Least of all some crazed hick sheriff whoís got delusions of godhood because heís wearing a fucking badge!"

"My goodness," he said thoroughly enjoying her fury in all its fiery splendour. "Did I strike a nerve, Doc?"

Alex fumed, feeling furious at herself and him for her outburst. She had not meant to become so angry but when she had heard him call her Lex, an appellation only her father had the right to use, it had snapped whatever resolve she had been struggling so hard to maintain in the face of this bastardís unjust imprisonment. She wanted to hurt him for everything she had endured this day, not only in her physical confinement but the insult made to her pride. She was a doctor, not some working girl! She had a right to have money just as anyone in the world without being arrested because it was unfathomable to this fool that someone with different coloured skin could acquire money legally.

She refused to answer him any further, nor was she going to cooperate in any way with his lustful intentions to have her capitulate before him. Before that day came to pass, she would see herself damned in hell for all eternity first. Alex remained where she was on her bunk bed, seething with fury and praying for the time when Vin and the seven would arrive and ram that smug smile down his throat. As a person who possessed almost boundless compassion, Alex was shocked by how much that thought sustained her.

Suddenly, the door to the jail house knocked and the triumphant smile he had worn upon engendering her outraged response quickly faded to a more serious tone. The knocking on the door was not a light tap, but a heavy rapping that indicated some urgency for whomever wished entry into the place. He immediately jumped out of his chair and hurried to answer the door, casting a glance of suspicion at her as he hurried away. Despite herself, Alex sat up in her bunk, hoping against hope that perhaps Mary had found way to extricate her from her present difficulties.

No sooner than he had swung the wooden door open, a female voice that Alex immediately recognised as Juliaís filtered into the room. "Sheriff Pierce, I understand you have our doctor here?"

Alex could only stare as she saw them enter the office, barging in with such speed that the sheriff himself could hardly offer protest as their entry into his jailhouse was met with jaw agape. As she saw her friends playing out a scene that looked straight out of a page from Shakespeareís lesser known comedies, Alex had only one thought in her mind.

Well thatís something you donít see every day.

Mary, Julia, Maude and Casey were garbed in the sombre clothes worn by nuns and appeared to be playing the part as well as Julia and Maude entered first, offering a supportive arm to Inez who was dressed in the same thing Alex had last seen her.

"Sheriff youíve got to let Doctor Styles go!" Mary implored as Julia and Maude led Inez to the chair in front of his desk.

Inez was muttering in Spanish, grasping her swollen and obviously pregnant abdomen in pain as Julia and Maude fluttered around her, crossing themselves and utter prayers to God for her prolonged safety.

"What the hell is going on?" Dylan demanded, unable to fathom how his normally quiet office could suddenly descend into this chaos.

"We were travelling to Mexico when our wagon ran into trouble!" Mary said hastily, hoping her act sounded as convincing as the insanity they were attempting to perpetrate. "We are expected a mission across the border and we sent our doctor to purchase a new wagon. It was all the money we had from our orphanage fund, except she never came back and now Inez, the daughter of patron in the town we wish to set up has gone into labour! You must release the doctor now."

Just to make her point, Inez let out a harsh cry of pain that made Dylan jump with fear as she clutched her belly and made her agony heard most vocally.


"Sheís really a doctor?" Dylan looked at Alex, not having really believed his prisonerís outrageous claim completely until now.

"One of the best!" Mary implored further. "This is her medical bag." Mary presented the familiar worn leather case that Alex carried around with her and was an inheritance from her father. Snapping open the bag, she showed the startled sheriff its contents that included instruments that could only belong to a physician.

"It hurts!" Inez continued to wail, sending Maude and Julia into an even more frantic fit of praying and crossing.

"Oh you must let her out!" Maude came to him and started pulling at his lapel. "Sheís in terrible pain. She canít hold out."

"For Chris sake Dylan!" Alex had jumped out of her bunk and ran up to the bars so that he could see her, now that Alex had found herself part to play in this charade. "Let me out so I can help her!"

For a moment, he was torn at what to do as he was surrounded by nuns, a pregnant woman crying out in pain and a lady doctor who was prepared to have his hide if he let her anywhere near him. Still, he could not deny that the woman in his chair did appear to be in agony and there was no mistaking that she was in the family way.

"I canít feel the baby any more!" Inez squealed again, deciding the Sheriff needed just a little more of a push to do what they wanted.

"Oh No!" Casey brought her voice to the fray and started whimpering in fear. "Sheís going to lose it and weíll neve be allowed to set up our mission!"

"Alright!" Dylan exclaimed in frustration, unwilling to let a pregnant woman die right before him especially with a roomful of nuns bearing witness to the whole affair. He hurried to Alexís cell, pausing long enough to remove the keys that were hanging from a rough nail embedded in the nearby wall. Alex stepped back in the cell as he came to the door and slipped the heavy key into its slot, opening it with a heavy twist of his hand and snapping the locking mechanism out of place. The door swung open and Alex did not waste any time emerging from her prison and making her way directly to Inez, who was giving the performance of her life.

"Sister.. Mary," Alex turned to Mary who was advancing upon her as she knelt down in front of Inez. "I need my bag."

"Of course." Mary nodded as she hobbled forward, trying to hide the injury to her ankle and not look even more ridiculous than she already felt in this costume. When she had informed the Mother Superior at the Convent of the Blessed Heart what she intended, the lady had been most cooperative, being aware of the sheriffís reputation. Although the nun had thought Maryís plan bordering on the insane, it also seemed to be the general consensus of everyone who knew of it. Mary knew this could work if enough insanity could be thrust in the face of the good sheriff to confuse him long enough to spring their trap. A momentary distraction was all they needed and with Inez being six months pregnant, her condition seemed tailor made for the occasion and the plan Mary had conjured in her mind was out of desperation more than anything else.

Alex lifted Inezís skirt and pretended to perform and exploratory examination, an action which only made the sheriff recoil further away in a mixture of derision and outright nervousness. Men were never very good in situations like this, Mary had guessed and the plan further proved its viability, the more anxious the sheriff appeared to be.

"Sheís dilated." Alex exclaimed to those who were presented.

"Whatís that mean?" Dylan demanded, unfamiliar with such medical terminology.

"It means, she about to go into labour." Alex retorted.

"Oh praise the Lord," Maude gushed. "To be present in such an hour. Sisters I believe we need a few more Hail Marys to christen the birth of new life."

Almost on cue both Maude and Julia lodged into a recital of prayers that only drew a groan of exasperation from the sheriff as he tried to come to grips with everything that was happening around him and wondering if any of this was real.

"Weíre going to need water, lots of it." Alex continued to play the part as she rummaged through her bag noisily. "Unfortunately, I do not think she can deliver this baby naturally."

"Goodness!" Mary cried out and looked at the faces of her sisters, trying to convey her shock. "What is to be done doctor?"

"I have to cut her open, now." Alex said firmly.

"Cut me open?" Inez squeaked, hoping to God their plan had reached fruition by the time that particular bluff needed to be called.

"Iím afraid you are going to need a caesarean and very soon." Alex looked at Dylan and added. "Iím afraid Sheriff, its going to have to done here." Without saying another word, she brushed all the paperwork on his desk to the floor and thumped its surface as an indicator of where she intended to perform the surgery.

"On my desk!" Dylan exclaimed in nothing less than horror. "You canít operate on her on my desk!"

"Thereís no other choice!" Alex retorted fiercely. "If I donít cut her open in the next three minutes, the baby is going to die! You have to let me do this!"

"Aw hellÖ" the sheriff declared unable to believe how he had stumbled into this position. "Alright then, get on with it!" He said in exasperation, not having much choice in the matter.

"Sisters, me must pray!" Maude motioned Julia and Mary on their knees and as Mary started to descend, she who was closest to Dylan pulled the sheriff by the arm in an entreaty to join them. Unable to think of an argument to decline and not wishing be rude to a bunch of nuns, because as corrupt as he was, he still had some principles. Meanwhile Maude continued on her prepared speech, delivering her lines with all the aplomb that it took a life time as a grifter to accomplish.

"Oh heavenly father," she looked to the sky with almost angelic fervour in her eyes. "Let us pray that this arduous undertaking comes to pass and that the child to be born will enter its life through your grace and glory." She cast her gaze at everyone present and declared. "Repeat after me."

No one was paying much attention to Casey.

Casey Wells who throughout all this commotion had been moving unobtrusively behind the sheriff, once they had discovered he was alone in the room, found herself in place to act finally. Dylanís attention was gravitating between the praying going on while he was on his knees and the birthing about to take place on his desk. Either way, he was a man who looked utterly confused and totally distracted by everything that was taking place around him, particularly when the circumstances were a little above the ordinary. It was not everyday a man could confess to being invaded by a group of nuns and with a pregnant woman about to have her baby in his office.

He hardly noticed her slipping into position behind him or seeing her remove the derringer that she had secreted under the heavy robes that she was wearing. Casey who was better with a gun than any of them, though she seldom had a chance to prove it, swiftly retrieved the weapon and took a step forward with the weapon aimed firmly in Dylanís direction. The sheriff had no inclination as to what was coming his way until he heard the audible click of a trigger being pulled in his ear.

"Donít move or Iíll blow your head off." Casey said firmly.

Dylan froze as he felt cool steel against his head. "What the hell is going on here?" He demanded as his eyes moved across the faces before him. The praying ceased immediately following his heated question and without missing a beat, Mary reached around him to retrieve the gun that was nestled in his holster. Alex immediately stepped back and Inez put an end to her performance as the troubled woman in labour, when she rolled off the desk.

"Sheriff." Alex said with a smile. "Iíd like to introduce you to my friends, Sister Mary, Sister Julia, Sister Maude and Sister Casey, who has a gun to your head and knows how to use it. Oh and lest I forget, kudos to the pregnant lady, the dazzling Miss Inez. Inez take a bow."

As a storm cloud started to form on his face, Inez did a slight curtsy in his direction, inflaming his anger even more until his jaw tensed in rage. Still, he was not about to argue the point with the weapon pressed firmly against the back of his skull. Alex dropped to her knees and picked up the handcuffs that were lying strewn on the floor when she had brushed everything off his desk. Tossing it to Mary, the orchestrator of this charade immediately snapped one wrist band around the sheriffís hand.

"Get up." Mary ordered as she turned his own gun on him.

"How far do you think you bitches are gonna get before I hunt you down?" He declared impotently even though it was a futile threat and they knew it. He could feel his bile rising in his throat as his fury bubbled at what was taking place inside his own jailhouse, not to mention his own town! The indignity of it was more than he could stand.

"Not far." Mary retorted as she gestured him to the cell that Alex had just vacated. "However, it might be wise that you know who youíre dealing with. You come after us and it wonít be us youíll have to deal with, you better be prepared to deal with Chris Larabee and his men."

Dylan Pierce might have been a self important and dangerous man but he knew of the seven who were charged to protect the town of Four Corners, in particularly Chris Larabee, the gunslinger whose fearsome reputation from all accounts was richly deserved. Reluctantly, he moved towards the cell having no choice to comply. "So you whores are from Four Corners."

"Shame on your Sir," Maude returned swiftly. "Speaking that way about nuns."

With both Casey and Mary keeping their guns trained on him, they ushered the sheriff into the cell and slam the door shut behind him.

"Come to the bars." Mary instructed and when he refused, cocked the gun once more, convincing him that even through she was a woman, it was not wise to underestimate her. Mary was more than prepared to shoot him, completely aware that no one in Coventry would mourn the loss and might actually award her a medal for carrying out a public service. With just as much hesitation, Dylan came forward and Julia who had some idea of what Mary intended when he came close enough, immediately snapped the other band of the hand cuff around the thick metal bar.

Once that was done, Mary lowered her weapon and turned to her friends. "Letís go." She ordered.

Alex who was seeking her ring and bracelet, spotted her treasured possessions through the mess of paperwork on the floor and stashed both items into her pocket as Julia, Inez and Maude started towards the door.

"Well Sheriff," Alex could not resist saying as they departed. "I guess youíll never know who can hold out longer."

"This ainít over!" Dylan growled as he glared at her with rabid fury through the bars of the cell he was effectively trapped within. "Iíll find you! I promise you!"

However, the words were lost because Alex was already out the door with Mary and Casey following close behind. In front of the jailhouse, the wagon waited for their arrival. Julia was already taking the reins and waiting long enough for them to climb into the back tray before she snapped the length of leather hard and sent the horses surging forward at top speed into the night leaving the town of Coventry far behind them.

Part Four:

The Road to Eagle Bend

Chris Larabee and the rest of the seven, except for Nathan rode into Coventry during the hours of the early afternoon the very next day after their womenís dramatic escape from the jailhouse. Nathan had opted to stay in town and play doctor with Alexís absence from Four Corners. Of course, they proceeded into town with no knowledge of that incident, led here only by the trail that had been left behind when Vin Tanner found the damaged carriage abandoned on the main route to Sweet Water. Despite the fact that Vin had investigated the surrounding area where the carriage had been found and discovered the tracks of a wagon and the horses that had been yoked to it leading away from the crash site, Chris could not help feeling apprehension at the whole state of affairs.

Its not that he worried that something happened to his wife and her friends following the accident where their carriage had lost its wheel, it was just that such calamities usually followed an entire string of such incidents whenever his wife was concerned. If it were at all possible for her to fall into an outlandish situation, he had no doubt that Mary would somehow manage to accomplish it. Now with the added element of Maude Standishís presence, he dreaded to think what Mary was embroiled in. Sometimes, he wondered whether he had given up the simpler life when he had chosen to get married. Whoever said domestic bliss was something to be cherished had obviously never been married or completely insane.

Thus by the time he and his party entered the town limits of Coventry, they were ready to find the nearest saloon for a drink. If luck were with them, they would find Mary and the others still in town where logic dictated they would be resting following their ordeal in the carriage. Unfortunately Chris knew better and figured that the chances of that happening were about as remote as Buck entering a monastery and swearing to a life of celibacy. Leaving their horses at the local livery since the animals had been on the trail for quite some time and needed water and rest, Chris and the others had started to leave the place when they noticed the collection of wagons and carriages for sales. It stood to reason that the wagons the girls had taken had to come from somewhere and this was as good a place as any to start.

The young man who tended their horses could not answer their questions regarding the purchase of any new wagon that might have taken place the night before but helpfully directed them towards the saloon where his father, the owner of the establishment was known to inhabit. The young man did add that it was likely that a sale had been made recently since his father was only known to visit the saloon when he had the money to spare and business had not been that brisk lately. Casting his gaze over the dreary town, Chris could well believe it and wondered about the gloomy pallor of the community, which seemed no different from Four Corners and yet suffered, a malaise of stagnancy that seemed hard to explain.

Upon entering the saloon, all eyes shifted to them, as was the practise in so many others like it. The patrons of the establishment glanced briefly at the new arrivals, paying little more than a few seconds of attention before returning their eyes back to their drinks, the working girls who were perched on their laps or to their card games. The bartender, a traditional type with slicked hair parted in the middle, while wearing clean crisp clothes hidden behind an apron, regarded their approach with a little more interest.

"What can I get you boys." He asked politely.

"Red Eye." Chris answered.

"Me too." Vin added with the others all giving their preferences to the man who promptly went away to fill their orders.

"Not exactly a thriving little community is it?" Ezra remarked as he let his gaze sweep across the room and noticed the dour atmosphere of the place. Something was wrong but Ezra for the life of him could not put his finger on it.

"No," Josiah agreed as the bartender returned and started pouring their drinks into shot glasses. "Looks a little dead around here."

"Kinda strange actually," JD answered feeling a slight shudder, unable to explain the uneasy feeling in his bones. This place reminded him of Jericho, the sinister little town where weary travellers pausing for a good nightís rest could find themselves permanent guests of the local prison by the time the dawn broke the next day.

"Well letís just find this Parsons and keep going them," Vin drawled and prompted Chris into motioning the bartender towards them again.

"Iím looking for a man called Parson?" Chris asked once the bartender reached him.

"Over there." He gestured to the livery owner who had taken residence with a saloon girl at a table at the far corner of the room.

Chris glanced in the manís direction and nodded. "Vin, come with me." Chris instructed. "The rest of you stay put. Donít want to spook him if all of go up to him."

"I am certain that you will handle the matter with your usual tact." Ezra retorted, returning his attention to his drink. Ezra had been in a foul mood for most of their journey with his normally acerbic remarks laced with an edge of annoyance that was hard to ignore. The truth was despite his desire to find Julia and Maude as well as the rest of their party, he was in no hurry to face Julia. If he knew his redhead at all, she was not going to be entirely thrilled when they met again. In fact, if he should come away from the encounter alive, it would be quite an improvement to the fate he had imagined for himself. He could not blame her anger of course, he should have told Maude and could not to this moment, understand why he had not. However, he had just about as long as it took to find her to come up with a reasonable explanation.

Ezraís remark barely registered as Chris and Vin approached the livery ownerís table. Besides, they were used to the gamblerís foul mood and knew it had to do with his impending death when Julia got her hands on him. The man was so engrossed in the plump beauty he was trying to charm with his money that he did not see the two lawmen until they were almost on top of him. Although it appeared to Chris and Vin that while he had the money, he was more or less assured of a sure thing and need not have bothered. Still it was impolite to point such things out especially when they needed information from him.

"You Parson?" Chris asked as he and the tracker pulled a chair each and sat down at the table, not bothering to wait for the man to respond.

Parsons broke away from his intimate murmuring in his lady friendís ear and looked at them both, taking note of the guns carried by both men and wise enough to know that it was best to cooperate. "Could be." He said after a moment, swallowing hard and telling Chris by that one action that this was a man who spent most of his time cowering under one rock or another. "What do you want?"

"Just a couple of questions." Vin said politely, being the more approachable of the two. Chris could be intimidating even when he did not wish it and at this moment, they needed Parsonís help in their quest to find Alex, Mary and the others.

"Do what I can." The man answered clearly relieved and started to gesture to his shapely companion to leave when Vin interjected quickly that she could stay if he liked. The allowance pleased Parsons who offered the tracker a nod of appreciation as he waited for their questions. "What do you need to know?"

"Iím wondering if you seen any strangers in town yesterday. A couple of women." Chris asked. "Their carriage hit some trouble a couple of miles from here and it looks like they might have come into town to buy a wagon."

His faced changed immediately. "Those are your women?" He asked with a hush.

Immediately Vin and Chris exchanged brief glances. "You saw them?" Vin asked quickly, suddenly expecting the worse because with Alex, Mary, Julia, Inez and now Casey and Maude, one could not imagine anything else.

"Two of em," Parsons responded, remembering the encounter well and wishing it had gone better for the ladies in question. He hated bringing bad news to these men but then he had felt guilty himself that he had been unable to do anything about it except take their money and warn the younger one to leave while she could. "Came into town to buy a wagon. Young girl picked one of my best ones. Shrewd little negotiator she was."

"Casey." Vin said to Chris automatically.

"Well the other one, I canít say what she was but I donít think she was a nigger."

Vin immediately tensed and Chris spoke out before the tracker did anything foolish because Parsonís remark had not meant to be offensive, just an observation. "Easy pard." Chris said putting a hand on the trackerís shoulder.

Seeing Vinís reaction told Parsons, just what Alexandra Styles meant to him and he was more guarded with what he said next. "I didnít mean to be rude," he apologised quickly. "Just didnít know what she was thatís all."

"Go on.í Vin said tersely. "What about her?í

"The sheriff put her in jail." Parson replied remembering how guilty he felt that he could do nothing to stop him but not amount of chivalry however rate the emotion might emerge in him was going to make him face Dylan Pierce.

"Iím going to kill him." Was all Vin could say and started to rise out of his seat.

"She ainít there now!" Parsons quickly exclaimed, just as aware as Chris that the tracker was about to march straight over to the jailhouse and demand her release, probably at gunpoint.

"What do you mean?" Vin glared at him. "Where is she?"

"They escaped. A bunch of nuns broke her out of the jailhouse. Locked the sheriff up in his own cell and took off."

Chris could only stare. "AÖbunchÖ.ofÖ.nuns?"

"Yeah," Parsons nodded and continued. "Craziest thing I ever heard but Frank Welker tells me thatís what he saw. These four nuns and a pregnant lady went into jailhouse and rescued your lady friend." Parsons looked at Vin.

"Four nuns?" Vin turned to Chris and thought exactly the same thing. "You donít thinkÖÖ.."

"It was them." Chris groaned. Of course it would be them! Was he ever wrong about Maryís capacity for trouble?

"You know these nuns?" The woman at the table finally dared enough to speak.

"One of them is my wife." The gunslinger sighed.

"Mister, thatís sick." She retorted and Vin found himself biting down on his lip to keep from laughing when he saw the expression on Chris Larabeeís face at that remark.


"She ainít a nun." Chris barked back at the woman and prompted her to be silent once again. "I gather they left town after that." He said with a weary sigh.

"Yep," Parsons nodded and then added. "Mister, if those are your women you better find them cause you sure as hell donít want the sheriff to get there first. He was plenty mad that they got the drop on him and he rode out after them meaner than hell itself. Dylan Pierce ainít your regular law abiding Sheriff, if he finds them first heíll hurt em. Only reason Iím telling you this now is cause you look like you got as much to lose as I do."

"When did he ride?" Chris asked, the tone of his voice shifting from annoyance to pure menace with that single piece of information.

"Early this morning," Parsons answered automatically, noticing the change and deciding that this stranger in black was no one to cross at any time. He only hoped that the grim son of a bitch could kill Sheriff Pierce and free Coventry from the lawmenís chokehold on it.

"We better get going." Vin declared, already having risen from his chair.

Chris could not argue with him. If Dylan Pierce had harmed one hair on any of the women the seven were pursuing with such vigour, then there was not a corner on this earth the man could hide before they tore out his heart.

**********

Mary stared out the window of the dining carriage on the train to Eagle Bend and felt strangely content that nothing out of the ordinary had taken place in the last 12 hours. This trip had already become more than she bargained for and the only thing that saved it from complete disaster was the fact that they had managed to board the locomotive without incident. She had been half expecting Dylan Pierce to pop out of the woodwork somewhere, to make them pay for his humiliation imprisonment inside his own cell. Unfortunately, the sheriff had not made an appearance and they were able to reach Sweet Water without incident and check into a nice hotel where a good nights sleep was had by all. Predictably, Maude had made inquiries about catching a train to Eagle Bend the next morning and thus they were here, resuming their journey if somewhat later than anticipated.

"I still canít believe what we did last night." Casey declared as they all sat at their table in the dining carriage, watching the sparse terrain of the Territory rumble while enjoying lunch. "I never thought weíd get away with it."

"I know I wish I could freeze the moment." Alex grinned, unable to remove the smile across her face each time she saw her friends dressed up in the holy habits of a nun.

"Donít remind me." Julia groaned, pouring herself another cup of tea and trying to hold the pot steady as she did so since the carriage rattled slightly. "Iím amazed I remembered any of those prayers."

"Oh but we must give credit where credit is due," Inez declared having finished her second plate of sausages and presently picking off everyone elseís dish. "Maude, you were outstanding. I loved it when you made everyone kneel and pray."

"Why thank you." Maude replied graciously, unable to deny that she was somewhat amused by what they had done last night. She had not had so much fun playing such a simple game of trickery in a long time. "This is after all what I do."

"Well you do it well, "Mary added her voice to Inezís compliments. "I think you had Pierce so off balance he had no idea what was happening."

"I think you all did." Alex laughed, unable to hide her gratitude that all of it had been done for her. "I know I shall never be able to forget it."

"And we will not be telling any of the men about this." Mary declared firmly, her eyes moving across the table so that they would get the idea that she was not joking. "After what happened to us the last time, the last thing we need is for the men to know that we broke Alex out of jail dressed up as nuns. Chris will never let me leave town again with you ladies, if he were to now."

"Yes," Alex seemed to agree with that assertion. "I promised Nettie that I was taking Casey on a nice trip to Eagle Bend, not turning her into some kind of jail breaking outlaw."

"Aunt Nettie would never let me leave the farm if she knew that." Casey nodded her approval to Maryís plan even though she found what they had done terribly exciting and wished she could tell JD, if it was not for the fact that he would tell Buck and eventually it would get back to Chris.

"Iím just glad its over." Julia sighed. "Iím just looking forward to some shameless pampering when I get to Eagle Bend."


"I want to go shopping." Casey spoke out. "Iím sure Iíll get a nice dress there for the dance."

"Oh thatís right," Julia remembered Caseyís determination to upstage the young ladies at the schoolhouse dance next week. "Donít worry Casey, you and I will scour the shops until we find something that will bedazzle JD and rub it in that snotty girlís face." Julia who knew everything there was to know about humiliating other women when it came to competing for a manís affection, found some satisfaction in being able to use such evil powers for good.

"And I need maternity clothes." Inez spoke up, having decided that she might as well take this opportunity to do some baby shopping as well.

"So while you two are attempting to conquer the gaming tables," Mary looked at Maude and Alex, "weíll be roaming the boulevards of Eagle Bend shopping. I think itís an amicable arrangement for us all."

Suddenly, Mary saw Maudeís expression shift to one of quite amusement to that of fear. The change in the older womanís eyes was slight but Mary caught it and immediately looked over her shoulder at the direction Maudeís attention was firmly placed. The man who entered the dining carriage was well dressed and in his late fifties, with dark eyes that were set close together and his eyes was as firmly fixed on their table as Maudeís was upon him.

"Maude what is it?" Mary asked immediately, feeling apprehension in the level of concern being displayed by the woman who rarely seemed unfazed about anything.

Maude did not answer as Jethro Lewisham approached the table slowly. Maude swallowed, having suspected that he might have followed her but not knowing for certain until now. She had travelled to Four Corners hoping that Ezra would come with her to Eagle Bend as a little bit of insurance just in case the man had opted to pursue her. She remembered how badly he had taken his defeat at her hands in New Orleans and had suspected that his rage might not be so easily satisfied without vengeance. In the chaos of everything that had taken place prior to her departure from Four Corners, Maude had completely forgotten that he might still be after her.

"Maude Standish," Jethro announced himself upon arriving at the table. "What a pleasant surprise."

The look of fear she had worn briefly was quickly discarded and Maude faced Jethro with a charming smile as if they were nothing more than two friends who had come across each other on the way to Eagle Bend. "Why Jethro." She said with a smile. "How nice to see you again."

"Arenít you going to introduce me to your beautiful companions?" He asked, letting his eyes move across the faces of the women were present at the table, giving them predatory looks as well as one of appreciation because they were all singularly lovely in their own way.

"You are such a charmer." Maude said injecting as much casual ease into her voice as possible but Mary could tell that it was forced and decided to play along with the facade for now. For some reason, Mary had this premonition that it was a good idea to do so.

Introductions were made all around and Jethro regarded the ladies with polite and atypical southern charm, barely batting an eyelash at Inez or Alex who would have been something of an affront to the atypical southern gentlemen unless he was very liberally minded. "Well you keep yourself in most fetching company Maude," Jethro said with a smile as he remained standing. It was not lost upon anyone that Maude had not asked him to join them at their table. "You left New Orleans rather quickly," Jethro continued. "Am I to assume that you are also going to Eagle Bend for the game?"

There was no point in denying that Eagle Bend was her location when it was clear that Jethro had every intention of intercepting her when she appeared at the tournament. "Thatís right." Maude replied. "You know I cannot resist a challenge."

"I hear the opening stake is quite substantial." Jethro continued. "How fortunate that your luck at the tables in New Orleans paved the way for this little trip." While there was no bitterness in his voice as he made that remark, Maude knew better. He was still seething in rage at his public defeat and Maude knew that he was here for a reason although she could not guess what that might be just yet.

"Yes it was," Maude said with a smile, still trying to feign the same facade she had played in New Orleans.

"I expected to see your son with you." Jethro remarked, meeting her firmly in the eye with a look of predatory deliberation that made Maude shudder. "I hear that he is quite the gambler as well. It must run in the family."

"Ezra will be joining us in Eagle Bend sometime today." Maude said quickly, realising that he must have investigated her background thoroughly to be able to track her here as well as learning about Ezra.

"I do hope so." Jethro answered and flashed a smile that bore no warmth or humour. "I look forward to meeting him." With that he tipped his hat at them and continued to the far end of the room and took a table for himself, where he could observe.

"What was that about?" Julia hissed in Maudeís direction once he had gone. "Ezraís not meeting us in Eagle Bend." She declared.

"Whatís going on Maude?" Mary asked, knowing that man was not a friend under any circumstances. "I donít think his running into you was a coincidence."

"He gave me the creeps." Alex added helpfully.

"Well," Maude sighed, having no choice but to tell them her history with Jethro Lewisham since it appeared that he was going to be following them all the way to Eagle Bend, with whatever sinister scheme he had in mind, no doubt encompassing her travelling companions as well. "I met Mr Lewisham in New Orleans and we played a series of poker games, which I took care not too win, initially."

"Oh hell," Alex groaned, realising what Maude was getting at. "Maude, did you hustle him?"

"Hustle is such a crude term my dear." Maude pointed out. "I prefer something a little more civilised, like say 'saved the best for lastí."

Julia rolled her eyes. "That is not a man who takes defeat well." She did not know Jethro Lewisham at all but she knew his kind because Julia had ample experience with men, to know the ones that were dangerous and the ones who were paper tigers. Jethro was no paper tiger. The intense dislike and hatred in his eyes was apparent and when he spoke to Maude earlier, he had practically smouldered. "I did not like the way he said he was looking forward to Ezra coming here. Why would he?"

"I wondered about that." Maude met her gaze, admiring Juliaís acumen in latching onto that point. "If revenge is what he is after, Ezra being here would serve no purpose."

"Unless his revenge involves Ezra." Casey blurted out as she drained the contents of her cup.

Maude stared at her, realising that he child might be correct and disliking that idea a great deal. Her son though capable of looking after himself, was still her son. It was one thing playing with his mind and torturing him with some of her more creative schemes but she would not let anyone hurt him or place him in a position that might endanger his life, particularly because of her. "Thank God, he was not in Four Corners." She said clearly relieved.

"That does not help our situation." Mary retorted. "If this man canít get to you through Ezra, weíd better be doubly careful about keeping him from you. I think weíre safe in numbers," Mary continued, thinking a solution out of their problem. "Iíll go see Orin when we get to Eagle Bend and see if he canít help us out of this situation."

"I do so hate bringing the law into this." Maude frowned unhappily.

"We donít have much of a choice." The editor of the Clarion stated. "You yourself, know this man is capable of harming you. Would you really want to risk it?"

Despite herself, Maude knew Mary was right and was grateful that Ezra had not indeed told her about Julia Pemberton before her arrival in Four Corners. If Maude had let that slip during their card games, she would have made Julia just as much a target as Ezra was now. "All right, if you think if best." Maude relented on that much because she did not wish Julia to know that she might be vulnerable.

"You know for once," Inez sighed as she eased back into her chair, having picked everyoneís plate clean by now. "I would love it if we could go somewhere without getting into trouble. I mean what it is with us?"

"Its like," Alex tried to think of someway to articulate what was on her mind. "We are the supporting cast of a greater drama and occasionally, when we get the focus, it has to be a fun filled adventure to prove that we are more than just pretty faces."

"Absolutely." Mary agreed with a sigh.

"I wouldnít know," Casey replied, "itís the first time for me."

"My life is a never ending adventure." Maude retorted before the group turned their attention to Julia and waited for an answer. The redhead shrugged her shoulders and merely retorted.

"I donít care where I am in the scheme of things as long I get to kill Ezra at the end of it."

 

*********

Dylan Pierce arrived in Sweet Water late in the afternoon.

Once he had been freed from his shameful imprisonment inside his own cell, only one thought encompassed his mind with absolute conviction. He was going to find the women responsible for this and make him pay. He had guessed by now that they were not nuns and worse yet, wherever they were at this moment, they were laughing at his captivity. Nobody laughed at Dylan Pierce. Nobody. Least of all some coloured whore with her equally deceitful friends.

It did not give him pause that they were from Four Corners or that they might have some connection to the Larabee gang that protected the town. He had faced far worse in his life than seven lawmen and come out alive and kicking. Besides, he would have dealt with those women long before they ever had the chance to return to Four Corners and tell anyone about him. Following his release, Dylan had proclaimed to his deputy that he would be gone for a few days, hunting the fugitives who did this. Of course Waylon had been smart enough not to make any comment, since the entire town had seen the departure of the women even if they did not know that he was trapped inside the jailhouse.

It was easy enough to find their trail once he talked to Parsons whom had declared that they were on their way to Four Corners. Having found their damaged carriage on the main track towards that town, it was soon obvious that the ladies had been coming from Four Corners, not going towards it. Thus it was easy enough to come to the conclusion that they were going to Sweet Water, not Four Corners. His anger had made his journey to the Sweet Water pass quickly, since he pushed his horse beyond its limits in the desire to sate his anger.

It had been a long time since he had done anything out of vengeance instead of pure profit, however, it had been a long time since anyone had inspired the rage that the woman called Alex had inspired. It was made worse by the fact that he had wanted her and perhaps let his desire for the woman force him into the situation where Waylon had to let him out of his own cells! Dylan remembered his days in Kansas City when he was working along side James Bracken, one of the meanest men he ever knew. Bracken had taught him everything he knew about the life and killing for money until one day he came up against Jack Nichols who more or less ran the town and did not take too kindly to Brackenís efforts to usurp territory. The resulting blood bath had more or less annihilated all of Brackenís gang. Dylan had escaped but barely.

Determined that he would not die by the Nicholsí hands, Dylan fled Kansas and rode out west, finding Coventry not long after he arrived in the Territory. The sheriff was an old man and Dylan made short work of him before assuming the badge the man wore and calling himself Sheriff Pierce. Yes, he had liked the sound of that very much and decided that Coventry would be his very own fatted calf, carving it piece by piece over the years as he gathered enough money to quit the west forever. The people in Coventry had resisted at first and it required a few dead men before the point was put across finally that he would not be leaving unless he was in a pine box. As of yet, there had been no one in town that could make this a reality and so he stayed.

Truth be known, things were starting to get a little routine until he saw that extraordinary creature with her golden coloured skin he knew was not that of a Nigra but could not think of what she might have been. He knew if he did not act, she would have run out on him and there was very little that Dylan Pierce wanted that he did not get. From the moment he had seen her, he had wanted and her and had decided that much without any doubt whatsoever, even if getting her to stay would be something of a problem. Except he had more than he bargained for because she was a doctor. Despite the ruse that had tricked him into his cell, the bag he had seen did belong to a physician and she handled the instruments the way he handled his guns, with familiarity.

It angered him to know that she was beyond his reach. The tracker that she had spoken about was none other than Vin Tanner, Chris Larabeeís trusted second whom Dylan knew to be one of the best bounty hunters in the business before a price was put on his head that no bounty hunter has yet been brave enough to collect.

Arriving n Sweet Water, it did not require much time to question the local hotels and find that she and her friends had arrived late the night before and left early the next morning, with instructions to the porters to send their bags onto the railway station. There was only one train departing from Sweet Water at that time of the day and its destination took it to Eagle Bend. Although he debated maintaining the pursuit since he could not be away from Coventry indefinitely, he knew that he would have no other chance to reach her unimpeded if he did not confront her at Eagle Bend. Once she returned to Four Corners, Dylan had no illusions that he would be set upon by the Larabee gang, in particular, by her paramour, Vin Tanner.

Dylan was neither afraid of such an eventuality nor did he care. He had faced far worse odds in his lifetime, during the war in Kansas City, he had found himself in even more untenable situations to be ever afraid of anything ever again. No, he wanted to reach her without interference, he would let nothing get in the way of his revenge and in this life, there were few things that Dylan Pierce found himself a slave to. The need to satiate a wrong was one such thing.

And that one thing would make him chase her to Eagle Bend and perhaps even to hell itself.

*********

It was late afternoon when the ladies finally arrived at Eagle Bend, carefully avoiding any possible contact with Mr Jethro Lewisham even though Mary did not believe that evading the man was going to a worth while expenditure of time since he knew exactly why Maude was in town. It was getting late in the evening and she knew both Alex and Maude were eager to get to the hotel that was being host to the gamblers and confessed some measure of curiosity to seeing the gathering for herself. It might make for interesting reading in the Clarion, particularly since one of the players were a regular visitor to Four Corners. Mary had a feeling Alex would like her involvement to remain discreet.

Eagle Bendís Desert Sands Hotel was everything that an oasis was meant to be in the sense that it was luxurious and welcome sight for weary travellers. From the extravagance of the main lobby, to the porters and bellhops running about in their maroon coloured uniforms, ferrying luggage of hotel patrons up and down the carpeted floor, the hotel reeked with opulence. It was exactly what Mary needed, considering their journey here had been fraught with so much drama.

The Desert Sands Hotel was a multi storied structure with steam powered mechanical lifts carrying passengers to the loftier levels of the building. As Mary and her company entered the front lobby, she saw a layout of the hotel and took note that it boasted an in house restaurant and theatre and extensive gambling hall which held the most interest to Maude. Approaching the front desk, Mary looked forward to soaking forever in hot tub with running water and room service. She felt slightly ashamed at her decadent predilections but she doubted that anyone of her companions had thoughts that did not alter too differently from hers in that regard.

There was also every indication that the gambling tournament Maude had travelled so far to attend was in full swing as they entered the premises and saw the men in their sharp suits and dapper manner strolling up and down the place, leaving no doubt as to their profession. Mary never thought she would say this but she now realised that Ezra was atypical of a professional gambler and wondered how the southerner would take to knowing that he looked like any other card player. They came in every type, some wearing expensive clothes and some not, but they all looked the same nonetheless. Surprisingly, the game was not terribly indiscriminate and Mary spied some ladies in the stable of gamblers present.

Upon arriving at the front desk, it did not take the clerk long to find the reservations made prior to their departure from Four Corners and hand them their room keys. Maude had taken care of her own accommodations earlier and secured herself a private room, while Julia and Inez shared a double, while Alex took a suite for herself, Mary and Casey to cut costs since Alex knew that like Inez, Mary was a on a budget these days.

"This is so exciting!" Casey gushed as the young woman swept through the rooms of the suite as if she were a little girl in a carnival, dazzled by the lights and everything about it. In this instance, Casey had examined every room carefully, enjoying everything from the richly coloured draperies, to the large bay windows that gave a magnificent view of the city below, not to mention the bathroom which was a religious experience for both Mary and herself.

"Iím glad you like it," Alex said stretching out on the divan and taking a moment to catch her breath now that she was finally able to put her feet up. "Its nice to know that my money is good for something."

Although Mary had offered to share the cost of the rooms, Alex would hear none of it citing what good was her money if she could not put it too good use, besides she liked indulging herself and her friends and knew that Mary needed this time away. The editor of the Clarion News took so much on herself that it was easy for Four Corners to forget that she had a life of her own. People often looked upon Mary as the reliable and responsible community leader, who could be counted upon to remain strong whatever the situation. They tended to forget that her energy was not inexhaustible and sometimes, the burden of all their hopes could be a terrible weight even on her formidable shoulders.

"This is quite a suite," Mary commented. "Thank you for this."

"Donít mention it," Alex smiled, considering Mary Travis Larabee one of her closest friends and being privileged to know someone who could often be a force of nature almost as awesome as her husband. "Iím glad to see you and Casey having some fun. Besides," Alex laughed. "If I am going to do something as sinful as play in this poker game, I might as well do something positive to offset that."

"You think you can win Alex?" Casey returned to one of the wing chairs near the divan that Alex and Mary were presently occupying in similar states of weariness.

"I donít know." Alex answered honestly. "Itís more the fun of playing really than actually winning. I used to get so sick and tired of hearing people say Ďshe canít play cause sheís a womaní. Believe it or not, whether its here in America or across the globe, it all comes out the same way."

"You donít have to tell me." Mary remarked, completely aware of what Alex was talking about. "When I decided to become a newspaper woman, thatís all I heard about, especially after Steven died. They knew they could I could write but running a paper, that was something else." She frowned, recalling all the objections and words of discouragement she heard during those first few months. It seemed about the only person who did not think she would fall flat on her face was Nathan Jackson. Back then before the arrival of the other members of the seven, Nathan was the only one who believed in her and Mary had never forgotten it.

"Is it always going to be like that?" Casey asked, wondering if women would always be treated as frail and weak when their very survival in the west should have been proof enough that they could survive any calamity. "For women I mean? I can ride, shoot and hunt like any man and yet, they all think Iím strange because I can do all those things. Am I really?"

"Of course not." Alex said automatically and genuinely meant it. "Iíd love to be able to do some of the things you do Casey but I was not brought up that way. My father wanted me to experience as much as any man but he still raised me to be a proper young lady. He even tried sending me to boarding school, for all the good that did."

"Likewise." Mary added. "I grew up in Boston where my mother spent her days with society ladies, having tea and kinds of things that meant nothing to anyone but themselves. I hated it because I was only meant to look pretty until someone married me. Having thoughts in my head that went beyond marriage and high society was not acceptable as far as my mother was concerned. Thank god for my father."

"So are your parents still alive?" Casey asked, having never heard Mary speak about her family back east.

"My father died a few years ago." Mary confessed, trying not to feel sadness at the memories of the man who raised her and allowed her the freedom to experience his world of words and truth. "My mother is just fine where she is, playing court over my sisters and their children. I was always the odd one out anyway."

"Has she ever been to see you?" Alex inquired, wondering if Ezra was not the luckiest one of them all when it came to family because for all her vices, Maude seemed determined to be apart of his life.

"No." Mary said trying to hide her disappointment the last time she wrote and made an invitation to her mother to visit. Actually, although she told no one about it, Mary had invited her mother and sisters to her wedding even though she was not surprised when the reply came back declining the request. She had thrown the letter away, too upset to continue reading the almost obligatory response that cited the difficult journey or the season was not quite right for such a trip. "I donít really want to start explaining my life in Four Corners to her anyway."

Sensing that there was more to it than just that, Alex decided a tactful change of subject was required. "Well," she looked at Mary. "If you want to take that bath, I might go see what Julia and Inez want to do for dinner. Iíll have to go register for the game and put down my stake. Casey, do you want to come with me?"

Casey who was more than eager to explore the rest of the hotel did not turn the offer and gave an enthused answer to the affirmative.

"All right you two," Mary called out as Alex and Casey started to leave, "donít get into trouble."

Alex rolled her eyes and threw Mary a look as she and Casey were walking out the door. "Look whoís talking."

********

Casey had never been inside a gambling hall like this one and the experience fascinated her like everything else during this trip. Unlike the seedy gambling rooms in Four Corners, there was some measure of respectability as she wandered through the carpeted room, with its felt covered table and luxuriant surroundings. The men and women sitting at the tables were dressed elegantly in evening gowns and such making Casey who was still clad in her travelling clothes, feel somewhat plain. She wished more than ever she had more than one dress that she could wear so that she would blend in and not be so conspicuous.

She knew she should not wander off but could not see the harm in it since she was still remaining inside the confines of the hotel, besides, Alex was busy registering for the tournament which Casey understood would take place in a matter of hours. In the meantime, Casey saw no reason why she could not conduct her own exploration. She walked through the gambling hall and soon arrived at the empty stage where the evening performances had yet to begin. The billboard displayed the shapely image of a chanteuse who went by the name of Cynthia Watson. Judging by the expressive rendering of Miss Watson, she appeared to be quite the beauty and Casey wondered if she was truly that enchanting in person. Somehow she doubted it.

"Hello Miss Wells." A voice said behind her as she was studying the play card and made Casey spin around in surprise, when the voice was undoubtedly masculine. Casey looked behind her and found herself staring at Mr Jethro Lewisham, the man whom had given Maude Standish such cause for concern earlier.

"Hello." She said quietly, trying not to show that he made her nervous.

"I apologise." He remarked graciously, eying the young woman carefully as he spoke and knowing that if any information of use was to be had, she would be the easiest one of the group from which to extract it. "I did not mean to startle you. I merely came to say hello since I recognised from our earlier encounter."


"Oh." Casey answered and then added. "You didnít scare me," she said quickly. "You just caught me by surprise, thatís all."

"Of course." He answered smoothly and then regarded the play card she had been studying prior to his interruption. "She is quite the singer, Miss Watson." He remarked.

"You seen her sing before?" Casey asked, her curiosity getting the better of her and she thought to herself that it could do no harm to be civil to the man. After all, he did not seem to making any threatening moves towards her.

"Once in New Orleans." He replied with a faint smile, pegging her for an atypical country farm girl who had never really been anywhere in her life until now. This was going to be easier than he thought. "She does a rendition of Red River Valley that brings tears to your eyes, you should attend her performance."

"Maybe I will." Casey said evasively. "It depends on what the others are doing."

"Naturally, you must adhere to the planned agenda." He replied, with no sense of malice in his voice. "Iím assuming you will be at the gambling tables when Maude decides to clean up?"

"No," Casey shook her head because Aunt Nettie would definitely not approve of that and she did not have much interest in watching cards being played all night. "Thatís for Maude and Alex only. Iíll probably go with Mary, Julia and Inez."

"Yes," Lewisham recalled the other women in the stable he had encountered. "I am assuming this trip to Eagle Bend was just a short respite from the dreary life at Four Corners."

"Yeah," Casey nodded. "Maryís the editor of the newspaper and she has so much to do sometimes, I think she just needed to get away and Inez wanted to shop for the baby but mostly I think they wanted to get Julia out of town. She was still pretty mad at Ezra on the account of his not telling Maude about her at all since heís her beau and all."

"That would make any woman most upset." Lewisham smiled, showing no signs that the young lady had revealed anything significant. As far as he was concerned, her words were exactly what he needed to know. Initially, he had intended to use Ezra Standish to make Maude capitulate to his desires, however with the absence of the gambler, those plans had been placed in jeopardy until now.

If he could not have Ezra Standish, then Julia Pemberton would do just as nicely.

**********

Chris was hardly surprised when he and the other arrived at Sweet Water earlier that day and found that Mary and the rest of the women had hoped on a train to Eagle Bend. On horse back, the journey would not take much longer but it did disturb Chris to learn that Dylan Pierce had also made inquiries after the ladies and was also making way to the Eagle Bend in pursuit. A man so determined to find his quarry, did not harbour good intentions and increased the urgency of the lawmen to get to Eagle Bend before it was too late.

Riding out of a Sweet Water after a short respite where they had taken food and allowed the horses to rest, Chris did not feel the annoyance he normally felt at Mary for taking off like this and as per usual getting herself into all kinds of trouble. He supposed that is why he loved her so much, that ability of hers to make his life completely unpredictable in a time when he had become so jaded about everything that transpired within it.

"You know," Ezra remarked as they rode on the trail to Eagle Bend. " I think I have heard of this Dylan Pierce."

"From where?" Vin asked automatically, having a bone to pick with the man for the insult offered to Alex.

"I think he use to run with James Bracken." Ezra replied.

"James Bracken of Kansas City?" Chris looked at him.

"You know him?" JD asked.

"Only by reputation." Chris answered, remembering what he had heard about the man in the days when such things held interest for him. "I know that he was carving himself a nice slice of Kansas City."

"Precisely." Ezra took up the reins of the narrative. "Unfortunately, he ran into the charming Jack Nichols whose progeny we are all terribly familiar with. Nichols did not appreciate the competition and apparently embroiled Kansas into a war where Bracken did not emerge victorious, let alone alive. I believe that Pierce was one of his men. As far I recall, Pierce disappeared from Kansas and had not been seen since."

"Well I guess we know where he went." Josiah replied. "When you donít succeed in a large town, whatís to do but to move on to some place smaller?"

"I canít understand what he wanted with Alex though." Buck added. "I mean Parsons said she had money but not enough to lock someone up and bring down the kind of trouble that heís doing now. Look at him, heís following her all the way to Eagle Bend. Why?"

"I do not know about you Mr Wilmington, but most lawmen who are locked up in their own jails by a group of women dressed up as nuns can be somewhat offended by the gestured, not to mention humiliated. To someone like Pierce who had been ruling Coventry supreme for the time he has been there, it can be somewhat damaging to the ego." Ezra pointed out.

"I canít believe Casey got dressed up as nunÖ." JD mused, unable to picture his girl in a habit and playing such a dangerous game with the Sheriff of Coventry.

"I have to confess that I would have dearly loved to have viewed that performance." Ezra replied, unable to keep the slight smirk from his face as he pictured Julia and Maude both in nunís habits.

"I think youíre going to even love the performance even more when you have to explain to Julia why you didnít tell Maude about her." Buck could not help but remind that gambler of that tiny little fact.

"Do not remind me." Ezra remarked, not looking forward to that episode when it finally came upon him. He was not looking forward to giving his explanations to the woman he loved, when even he had no idea why he had not done it.

"What were you thinking Ezra?" Chris asked, having been married long enough between Sarah and Mary to know that what Ezra had done was a hanging offence to most women. "You know what women are like. I once forget an anniversary and almost got killed for it."

"Chris it was your first one." Buck pointed out, remembering the incident well.

"You would remember that wouldnít you?" Chris gave him a dark look.

"What happened Buck?" JD asked eagerly. Chris rarely talked about those years of his life. Since marrying Mary Travis, he had become more forthcoming with his past even though it took some prodding to discuss those things. JD guessed that being with Mary had eased Chrisí pain in remembering the family before her and now made it possible for him to look back upon those memories without feeling the anguish of their loss.

"She threw me out of the house." Chris said with a fond smile, images of Sarah in her spectacular rage surfacing in his mind with bittersweet poignancy. It was becoming easier to talk about her and Adam now and while he was hardly a fountain of revelation, Chris found he did not mind looking back on his life with her and sharing those memories with his friends on occasion.

"Spent the next week trying to make it up to her." Buck added with a wide grin.

"And youíre still in a lot more trouble than I was Ezra." Chris said with an evil smile across his face when he noticed Vin had not spoken. The trackerís mind was more focussed on reaching Eagle Bend and getting to Alex before Dylan Pierce. His mood served to remind Chris that Mary too was in danger and Chris nudged his horse to come along side of Vinís.

"Weíll get to her in plenty of time pard," Chris assured the younger man.

Vin did not answer but hoped Chris was right. From what he had heard about Pierce not only from the residents of Coventry and now with this new information from Chris and Ezra, Vin had reason to worry. Dylan Pierce was fixated on Alex for a reason and while he might take his vengeance on all the women for their humiliation of him, Vin was certain Pierce was reserving his worst for Alex.

"I hope youíre right," Vin remarked. "Or thereíll be hell to pay."

"Actually," Chris said with something of a faint smile crossing his face as he thought of what his wife and her friends were capable of when left to their own devices. "Iíd be more worried about what theyíd do to him."

*********

It was time to put his plan into action.

Following the conversation with the young Miss Wells and discovering just what Julia Pemberton meant to her son Ezra, Jethro Lewisham could finally put into motion his plans regarding Maude Standish. He was determined to win back his honour and proved to all those present that he was better than her and always had been. The slight to his ego at being defeated by a woman was more than someone of Lewishamís stature could endure and he had followed her to Eagle Bend in order to reclaim his honour and mollify his wounded pride.

Upon learning all there was to know about Maude Standish, Jethro formulated a plan of sorts that depended on the presence of her son Ezra for it to work. Unfortunately, when he encountered her on the train to Eagle Bend, those plans had been put astray when he learnt that her gambler son was not accompanying her in the journey. Something in her guarded manner on the train, told him she was afraid of something and trying hard to hide what that might have been. For a time, Lewisham had debated at what he was going to do, unwilling to let this go until satisfaction was received.

Until Miss Wells had unwittingly revealed Julia Pembertonís importance in the whole affair.

The saloon inside the hotel was as lavish as the rest of the premises and the man who waited to meet him seemed out of place in his dark coat and fearsome scowl. As Lewisham jointed him at corner booth, it was easy to see his vocation in the craggy lines of his face and the southerner was able to deduce quite a bit of the man without hearing him speak a word. No doubt, he had spent much of his life on the wrong side of the law. There were enough scars on his face to prove that he had been in trouble at one point or another, even to the extend that Lewisham would venture a guess and say he had spent some time behind bars.

Whatever his background may have been, their association had been established by a mutual friend who had recommended him as a man who got things done and was willing to do so whatever the task if the money was right. With what Lewisham had in mind, he needed someone who was trusted and absolutely reliable. His honour demanded nothing less. Sliding into the darkened leather seat at the far end of the room, he ordered himself a drink as his new associates awaited for the trivialities to be dispensed before they could get down to business.

"Mr Coltrane." Lewisham spoke to the grizzled man in his late forties, whose face was hidden under the stetson he was wearing and whose bulk made people keep their distance. He was burly in stature and was a bear of a man by all accounting. "You come highly recommended."

"Atkinson says you have a job for me." He replied, chewing on tobacco as he spoke.

"Nothing terribly dangerous but slightly illegal." Lewisham drawled in typical southern charm. "Is that a problem for you?"

"Not if the moneyís right." He retorted, his voice sounding a deep rumble that never quite articulated into speech in his throat.

"Weíll discuss price later," Lewisham said impatiently, more interested in seeing if Coltrane could carry out the undertaking he desired. The plan was for nothing if the huge man could not accomplish what was required.

"Whatís the job?" Coltrane asked after a moment, seeing the southerner was hurry to get a move on and guessed that there was some time factor at work here.

"I need you to kidnap a young lady." Lewisham dropped his voice an octave as he made that admission, unwilling to let anyone hear what he was proposing.

"For how long?" The man asked without batting an eye lash. This was not the most heinous request that had been made of him and in his time, he had done worse. Only his victims could attest to how much more if they were alive to make the complaint.

"Just for the evening." Lewisham answered. "You see whatís going on around here?"

"Some kind of poker game." Coltrane remarked, letting his gaze sweep across the saloon and spotting at least a dozen known card shark common to the Eagle Bend locality.

"Itís the poker game." His new employer declared. "I care not that I win this little match but I do intend to beat one woman in particular and to do that you must perform a little kidnapping for me. I want her held captive for as long as it takes for me to finish my game with the lady in question and then you may release your prisoner."

"Shall I take her out of the hotel?" Coltrane inquired, not adept at unravelling the entire machinations of Lewishamís plans but not particularly bothered about doing so either. His part in the drama had been explained and beyond that, he was not overly concerned with what Lewisham intended to do or was hoping to achieve.

"Not necessary." Lewisham shook his head and saw a number of problems with taking that route. "Just keep her in one of the rooms. We donít want to cause any more trouble than necessary." He wanted to defeat Maude Standish and humiliate her in public as she had done him in New Orleans and thus made him a laughing stock of high society. This would not only vindicate him but would also prove to Maude Standish what it was to trifle with the likes of him. He doubted that she would show her face in New Orleans after he had trounced her completely at the gambling table, particularly when she was coerced into it. That would give him a great deal of satisfaction indeed.

"Is woman alone?" Coltrane asked referring to the unwilling charge he would soon be assuming control of.

"No," the Southerner shook his head in response. "She has friends but they are all women. I would not consider them to be a formidable presence although I would recommend that you take her when she is alone to avoid complications."

"How long do I keep her under wraps?" The big man inquired further as a barmaid brought them another rounds of drinks after Lewisham had finished his own and motioned for another serving.

Waiting until she had served them their drinks and departed, Lewisham did not answer until they were left alone once again. "However long it takes for me to beat Maude Standish." He said firmly, as if there were no room for negotiation. "When you leave here, you will do immediately what I ask and find Julia Pemberton." He continued. "She is in Room 435 with another lady. I have procured you a room on another floor where you will keep her hidden until I return after the tournament. Following the match, we will release Miss Pemberton and you and I will go our separate ways."

Out of curiosity, Coltrane found he had to ask. "Whatís so important about this girl anyway?"

"Sheís the key to my victory over Maude Standish." Lewisham said with a smile of barely concealed malevolence. "She humiliated me before everyone I know in New Orleans and unless she lets me win when I face her at the tournament, I will make Julia Pemberton disappear and ensure her son knows that his mother allowed the woman he loved to die. I trust if it came to that eventuality, you will not have a problem with it?"

Coltrane shook his head and answered before downing the contents of his glass. "As long as the moneyís right, nothing is a problem."

Part Five:

Unexpected Engagements

Julia Pemberton examined herself in the mirror for one last time before she and Inez made their way to dinner, joining Mary, Alex, Casey and Maude who were probably waiting for them in the restaurant already. She saw nothing in the mirror that was of any surprise, she was as always immaculately groomed for whatever the evening held in store for them. Following a repast at the hotel restaurant, the ladies of Four Corners had decided they would linger briefly to witness the card tournament that Alex and Maude would be participating in before moving onto the theatre where they would watch the performance of Cynthia Watson. Casey was eager to attend her first theatre engagement and none of the older woman could deny her the experience, particularly when she was so eager to go.

"Are you ready yet?" Inez asked impatiently as she waited at the door, her annoyance at the delay showing clearly in her face as she huffed by the entrance to the room.

Julia smoothed down the skirt of the deep indigo coloured dress she was wearing and decided that since she was not going to be in the company of a man, it was somewhat redundant that she attempt to look her best. Besides, at that particular moment, she did not have an overtly high opinion of the species on the whole, still unable to forget that Ezra had lied to Maude about her, not to mention keeping the ring he intended to give his future bride a secret from Julia. Each time, that memory returned to her, the beautiful Emporium owner found herself becoming more irate at his duplicity. While they had both admitted to their secrets and she was no one to throw rocks from her glass fortress, she was properly incensed by his actions.

"Hold you horses." Julia grumbled as she emerged from her room after grabbing her purse from the bureau table and hurrying to join Inez whose impatience was starting to show. "You know, Iíll be glad when you have this baby."

"Oh really?" Inez said looking at her with folded arms, a universal gesture of sarcasm as far as Julia concerned. "Enlighten me on why?"

"Then youíll just be grouchy instead of constantly annoyed." Julia said with a smile. "Besides, you only want to get out of here because you are hungry."

"You said it." Inez return her smile with one that was lacked with wickedness. "Never get in the way of a pregnant lady and her food. I have seen the menu down there and time is wasting."

"Youíre scary when youíre hungry." Julia retorted as they slipped out the room and she locked the door behind her. "How much more of this do I have to put up with?" She inquired, observing the swell of Inezís belly under the loose fitting dress the mother to be was wearing. In the outfit, Inez hardly looked clumsy or awkward but seemed to glow in the way that was unique to a woman in that state of health.

"Another three months." Inez remarked and let her hand gently caress her stomach as if she shared some empathic link to her baby that Julia could never understand until she had the experience herself.

"What are you hoping for anyway?" Julia asked. "Boy or a girl."

"I do not know really," Inez remarked, giving the matter serious thought for the first time. "I was so busy trying to think about how I was going to provide for it without Buck and everything, I never gave the matter much thought. At this point, I am more concerned whether it will be born healthy. The sex does not really matter."

"There is something poetic about Buck Wilmington having a daughter though," Julia could not keep from teasing. "I believe the Buddhists said it best. Itís almost karma."

"Karma?" Inez looked at her, knowing very little about the world beyond hers even though she seemed very wise most of the time. Her knowledge was not about books but about life and Inez was still undecided on which was more useful.

"Yes," Julia answered. "They believe that how you conduct yourself will affect the way your life transpires. They believe if you are good to someone, someone will be good to you, itís a cosmic pay back I suppose." The redhead explained, although she did not think she was very clear. However, what she had intended to say did reach Inez who understood completely.

"You think it would be justice for Buck to have daughter and have to protect her from someone like him?" Inez replied after a moment as continued down the corridor towards the lift that would take them to the lobby of the hotel. After a moment of reflection, Inez found herself responding. "I think I like the sound of that."

"I thought you might." She grinned as they waited for the lift to arrive.

Inez did not make mention to Julia but now that the subject had been brought up, she thought deeply as the to gender of her child, knowing ultimately it was unimportant but in the scheme of things, it was time that she gave the matter serious thought. A girl born to a mother with a sullied reputation would have that mark follow her all her life. It was different for a man who could make his own way in the world. For a girl, where everything depended upon who she would marry when she became a woman, such a stain was not to be taken lightly. Inez was not ashamed of the decision she had made to keep her child and stay in Four Corners but suddenly, she found herself worrying about her childís future.

Of course the simpler solution was to marry Buck who was attempting to make some effort to prove that he could be a worthwhile husband. She knew he loved her and she loved him deeply but she had conditioned herself for so long to stay away and keep him at armís length that she was almost as trapped in the cycle of her stubbornness as he was. She knew that part of the reason he had become partners with Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner was to prove to her that he was thinking of the future. He could not remain a lawman living on a dollar a day indefinitely. If there was one thing that Four Corners had proved to everyone who had sought refuge in its dusty confines, it was the fact that the town seemed to be a haven for the outcasts.

Amazingly enough to her utter astonishment, she also discovered that he had been keeping his hands off the local ladies. In fact, the rumour she had been hearing of late indicated that Buck Wilmington was no longer chasing every piece of skirt in town and had apparently taken some kind of oath to reman true to her. Inez had almost refused to believe until she tried to recall when she had seen him with another woman since he had learnt about the baby and found to her surprise, that she could not recall him in the company of anyone.

"Julia," Inez spoke after awhile. "Youíve known a lot of men havenít you?" She asked quietly.

Julia looked at her, trying to decipher what purpose was behind that question. She had never made any secret of the fact that she enjoyed the company of men and it was to her surprise that she found that Mary, Alex and Inez hardly cared. Of course, their initial meeting had made that difficult to hide but they did not treat her like some wanton. She supposed that it could be attributed to their own affairs with the men in their lives but Julia did not believe it was that. All her life, her power to enchant the opposite sex had made her an outcast among the women of her family and the more they ostracised her, the more determined she became to steal their men.

It was different with the friends she considered dearer than sisters. There was no need to steal their men because they did not see her as a threat and furthermore, Julia had finally found the one man who had her heart without question, there was no need to seek another although there were moments when she missed playing the game. "Why do you ask?" Julia asked suspiciously once she redressed Inezís question.

"Do you think Buck can keep it up?" Inez mused, unaware that Julia was not privy to her thoughts of the last few minutes.

"From what I hear, he has no trouble at all." Julia said with a salacious smirk that engendered a sharp look from Inez. "Sorry," Julia apologised quickly. "Keep what up?"

"This act of his of being responsible and not chasing after every woman he sees." Inez remarked as the doors of the elevator opened and they both stepped inside and informed the elevator attendant which floor they wanted to go.

"What makes you think its an act?" Julia asked in Buckís defence. "He has been trying so hard to prove to you that he is not just a big oaf. I donít think itís an act and believe me, Iíve known enough men in my life to spot a line."

"I canít go on like this." She looked at her stomach and the child that neither could see but whose presence was almost as palpable as if they could see it slumbering in the womb. "Sooner or later, I must be married."

"I know," Julia agreed, even though she hated to admit it. Julia admired Inez a great deal for the decision she had made. A few months ago, Julia had found herself in the same position and had not been able to face the situation with half the courage that Inez was displaying now. She had taken the easy way out and regretted it bitterly, while she would defend Inez to the death over the Mexicanís decision to keep her child, they all had to face the reality of the situation sometimes. "You can always count on me to be your friend in whatever decision you wish to make Inez but you know as well as I do that the repercussions of this will not affect you the worst."

Inez swallowed and rubbed her stomach again. "I have been hoping that I could shield my child from that but I cannot even shield myself and I canít leave Four Corners because I have nowhere else to go to raise my child. I have a job at the saloon and it is not the way I wish to find myself when I had a baby but I have no other choice."

"Inez," Julia asked seriously. "Do you love him."

Inez started to pause when Julia cut in abruptly. "Donít think about it," she replied. "Donít put all those logical reasons in front of the question, just answer what I asked, from the gut. DoÖyouÖlove him?"

Inez nodded slowly. "Yes." Her voice was almost a whisper. "I love him but I donít know if thatís enough."

Julia rolled her eyes. "Listen to me," she said firmly. "I have done things in my life that I am ashamed to admit let alone deal with when I sleep at night. When I came to Four Corners, I was leaving more than my family behind, I was leaving me and I thought that if I wanted that new life, I would have to hide who I was and never let it be known to anyone because the truth was too horrible. Then I met Ezra, who saw through the smiles and the charm because he was exactly the same and you know what I knew I loved him before the sun set that day. I hated that I loved him but the strange thing was, it worked out because sometimes, its just crazy enough to and if you love someone, the rest will work it itself out."

"Ezra is not Buck." Inez pointed out.

"And Buck is not Ezra." Julia countered.

Inez could not argue with that and decided the subject would bear further thought later since they had reached their floor. Pulling aside the lattice network of the elevator door as the main lobby appeared before them, Inez noticed it was no less busier than the last time they had been there. She could see Mary at the other end of the room waiting for their appearance and took a step out of the lift when suddenly, a hand shoved her forward roughly. She stumbled forward as she heard Julia turning to the elevator attended who had committed the act.

"What are you doing?" She demanded angrily when suddenly he grabbed hold of her arm and immediately slid the gate across once again, sealing her inside the narrow space with him.

"Julia!" Inez exclaimed as she saw the door closing behind her when she had recovered her step enough to turn around. Before Inez could do anything else, the elevator was already moving upwards, taking Julia and her mysterious assailant with it.

"Inez!" She heard Juliaís frightened cry as the elevator rose to loftier heights, until the redheadís voice was only a faded echo in the distance. Frantically, she slammed her hands on the button that might bring it back to the lobby once more but she knew it was a futile effort.

Mary who had been on her way towards Inez, having sighted her best friend disembarking from the elevator was running through the lobby in an effort to reach Inez. Her rapid pace, as well as Inezís desperate cry earlier had brought the attention of the other patrons as well as the hotel administration to investigate.

"Whatís happened?" Mary asked, with Casey not far behind.

"Some man just kidnapped Julia!" Inez exclaimed, her eyes still darting up the elevator where the duo had disappeared.

"What?" Mary replied and immediately let her eyes move to the golden hand above the elevator doors, which indicated which floor it had travelled to before coming to a halt. The length of brass did not stop until it had reached the very top floor although Mary did not believe that Juliaís kidnapper would remain there very long if that was even his final destination.

"He just pushed me out of the elevator and kept going up!" Inez explained quickly as Mary pushed her way through the patrons and met the hotel manager who had emerged from his office.

"Madam," he declared officiously, being one of those men who spent all his life indoors and would not know a hard dayís work even if it bit him on the rear end. "You and your companions are creating something of a commotion."

"Iím sorry about that," Mary barked, not about to tolerate any of this. "Unfortunately, your elevator attendant is the real culprit since he chose to kidnap my friend."

"I beg your pardon?" He stammered, his face almost turning ashen at the prospect. "I assure you that our employees come at the most stringent hiring process. Why I check their references myselfÖ"

"I donít have time to debate the issue." Mary said abruptly. "You need to get your security people to block of all the exits out of this place so he doesnít try to leave with her? Miss Pemberton is a person of some importance and if anything happens here, Iíll have a Federal Judge in here to review your conduct in this matter!"

He swallowed hard, deciding he was not prepared to call her bluff because whatever the motivation, the guests of the hotel were ultimately his responsibility. "Iíll take care of it immediately." He said straightening up immediately, full of false bravado. "I assure you that your friend will not be taken out of this hotel."

However, Mary had a feeling that this was not all the point of the exercise.

**********

Half an hour later, Mary reported to Maude and Alex who had been waiting in the hotel restaurant with puzzlement why their companions had yet to arrive, what had happened. For most part, the older woman took it with amazing calm even though they were all aware of whom was responsible for this and why. Maude should have expected this. Somehow, the moment she had seen Jethro on that train, she guessed that this would happen. Now it was here and it was up to her to clean up the mess since it was hers to begin with.

"What are we going to do?" Alex asked as they sat around the table they should have been dining at for the evening meal, instead of trying to figure out their next move in order to help Julia.

"I donít know," Mary said honestly, taking a sip of water from her glass. "The hotel manager says no one has left the hotel."

"So they might still be here." Inez declared. "That would make sense. Why go through all the trouble of trying to sneak Julia out of the hotel when its just as simple for him to hide her in a room somewhere and wait out whatever it is, theyíre planning."

"How did Lewisham find out of about Julia anyway?" Alex asked no one in particular when suddenly, she noticed Caseyís stricken expression. The girl appeared so distressed that Alex was moved to respond immediately. "Casey, whatís wrong?" She demanded, unable to fathom the sorrow on her face.

"Itís my fault!" Casey exclaimed with anguish crushing her youthful features. "I told him about Julia and Ezra!"

"Oh Casey," Mary sighed, knowing the girl would not have done so intentionally but that did not lessen the impact of what had came out of her unwitting disclosure.

"I didnít meant to!" Casey continued to ramble on. "We were talking near the theatre and it just slipped out, I didnít know it meant anything until Julia was taken. Alex, Iím so sorry!" She wailed, almost in tears from what she had done.

"Hush now," Maude said soothingly, unable to bear the girlís guilt because Lewisham would have found out anyway at some point. Casey had just narrowed the margin of time taken for him to learn the truth. Maude had no doubt that if he could not have manipulated her this way then he would have found another, perhaps one even more lethal. "Its not your fault and no one here believes that." Maude remarked with more tenderness than she felt even though she was seething inside at Jethroís actions.

"Absolutely," Alex offered the young woman a look of understanding, completely aware of how innocently phrased words could create such mischief. "Besides, its pointless debating the how of the situation but rather the why?"

"Agreed," Mary nodded, squeezing Caseyís shoulder and showing her that she no more blamed her for Juliaís kidnapping than anyone else at the table. "Right now, we have to know how to get hre back."

"Iíll go to Lewisham," Maude said firmly. "Iíll go to him and see what he wants." Maude surprised herself at the admission, because she really did intend to do just that. She would go to Lewisham and beg if necessary for him to release Julia Pemberton. If Ezra was so guarded about telling his own mother about the young woman, Maude could only fathom one reason for it.

Ezra hated showing weakness to Maude Standish. It was neither his fault or hers that he was this way. All his life, he had lived in her shadow. When he was a boy, he lived with the stigma that someday, he would grow to be just like her. Maude had been selfish in her youth when Ezra was a child and she admitted that had she known what she did now, she would not have left him in the hands of her relatives. He had spent years in their keeping until Maude realised what he had been enduring and decided to take him on the road with her. She could guess the cruel taunts and the jibes that he was nothing but a grifterís son. In the dark recesses of her mind, where she visited only at night, Maude had some idea of the hell Ezra had suffered growing up as the unwanted child of a mother who cared only for herself.

Even when he was older, she was always there to cast a blight on everything he was . First she made him what he was, which effectively meant moulding him in her image and was forced to confess rather shamefully that she infected everything that meant anything to him, even the saloon he tried so hard to make a success. Her interference had cost him ownership of the establishment and damn near any semblance of feeling they might have had for each other. It was no wonder he did not tell her about Julia, look what happened within a few days of meeting the young woman? Maude knew that if anything happened to Julia on account of her, she could never do enough to earn her sonís forgiveness and she was not about to risk his love.

Not even for her own pride.

"Are you sure Maude?" Inez asked, wishing it did not come to that but for the moment, they needed to know what Lewishamís intentions towards Julia and what was the whole purpose of her kidnapping.

"I have no other alternative," Maude replied, trying to sound brave. "If anything happens to Julia, Ezra will never forgive me. Our relationship is tenuous at best and I am unwilling to risk destroying what is left because I could not give in. Besides, it is my fault that Julia is in danger."

To that, none of the women at the table could disagree but that did not change things as they stood. However, Mary was unwilling to simply wait until Lewisham produced Julia whenever he felt that satisfaction had been achieved. "In the meantime," Mary declared. "We need to find Julia ourselves."

"If sheís still in the hotel, that makes things somewhat easier." Alex agreed, all thoughts of her participation in the tournament forced from her mind with the advent of her friendís kidnapping.

"But how do we look in every room?" Casey looked to her older companions because she could not imagine how they could accomplish the undertaking of Maryís suggestion.

"I donít know." Mary mused, easing back into her chair. "But if heís not taken her out of the hotel then sheís still here and we will have to search all the rooms."

"Mary, this is a big hotel. It could take us hours." Alex pointed out. "Not to mention the fact that we donít have access to any rooms except our own."

"You wonít have to." Maude interrupted their deliberation. "Iím going to Jethro Lewisham and agree to whatever demands he makes for Juliaís return and thatís all there is to it."

"Maude," Mary placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, revealing that Maudeís sincerity was not in question and none of them questioned it. "We know that you want to do what is best but we donít know what this Lewisham wants and the price he demands for Juliaís return may not necessarily be one that you can pay."

"I cannot let him harm her. Ezra would never forgive me." Maude said softly.

Mary could not argue with her on that fact, considering the depth of the relationship shared between Julia and the gambler. For some reason, two morally bereft individuals had filled a need within each other than made them not only better people, but also taken a way that isolation that had been part of them for so long. Ezra who always seemed to be an outcast even though he rode with the seven had been much happier since Julia came into his life. Everyone who knew him with any intimacy could see that he truly loved her and Juliaís personality seemed to match Ezraís almost like a glove.

"I have an idea." Inez spoke after a moment, adding a much-needed glimmer of hope in their presently gloomy circumstances.

"What is it?" Alex asked first.

"I know how we can get into the rooms. At least some of us." The Mexican barmaid allowed her gaze to sweep across the table, hoping her suggestion was not as outrageous as it was going to sound when she voiced it.

"Well I wonít be able to do it of course," Inez continued explaining while avoiding the gist of her plan. "In my condition, it would just give the whole thing away, not to mention Juliaís kidnapper has seen me so heíll know something is wrong the minute he lays eyes on me."

"How?" Mary sat up in her chair and leaned across the table, her brow knitting in confusion as she noted the deliberate attempts by Inez to stall at telling them.

"But you, Casey and Alex should manage just fine." Inez spoke hastily, almost ranting her words faster than her mind could keep up. "I can look at the open places in the hotel, you know boiler rooms, basements that sort of thingÖ."

"How Inez?" Alex asked again, her voice starting to exhibit her suspicion.

With a loud sigh, Inez told them.

"Oh NoÖ.." the doctor started to groan as they all looked at Inez blankly. "Does this humiliation never end?"

"Not bad." Mary was forced to concede even though she was not looking forward to participating or carrying out any part of it. Unfortunately, at this time, it appeared that they had little choice. If they wanted to recover Julia at all, this was the route they were going to have to take and it seemed no one had any better ideas. "It could actually work."

"Why did I know you were going to say that?" Alex grumbled, not at all impressed with Inezís brilliant suggestion even though like Mary, she had to admit they had little choice in the matter. "You know, I would love our weekends to go smoothly just once without us having to play dress up!"

"I think its fun." Casey spoke up, with a grin.

Mary, Maude, Inez and Alex looked at her at the same. "Fun?" It was Mary who asked.

"Yeah," Casey smiled, "I ainít been in so much trouble in all my life or have this much adventure."

"Happens to us all the time." Alex sighed. "All right," she looked at her other companions. "I suppose if weíre going to do this, we better start now."

"Right," Mary nodded. "Maude, you go and see Jethro Lewisham and see what he wants. Try and get him to meet you down here. Iím not too happy about you being alone with him for any reason."

"I can handle myself." Maude said slightly offended that this young woman would presume to tell her how to conduct herself. She was no amateur.

"Iím sure you can," Mary said not too kindly, since she was in no mood to argue with the woman. "Youíve done swimmingly so far. However, for the moment. You will send a message to his room and have him meet you here. Weíve got enough to worry about with Julia missing without having to worry about you as well."

Maude bristled but could not deny Maryís words and despite the slight to her ego, she had to admit that Mary was right. Lewisham was unpredictable and that made him dangerous. She had no idea what kind of game he was playing but she had no intention of being at a disadvantage any more than she already was. "Fine." Maude retorted. "As you wish."

*********

Julia was not happy.

In fact she was far from it. Tied to a chair inside a room, where her jailer kept close eye on her as she struggled to break free of the ropes that kept her trapped, Juliaís humour at her situation was just about exhausted. How is it that they never seem to be able to have trouble free vacations? She was wearing soundlessly under the rag tied across her mouth, wonder if it would have shocked her captor to hear the language she was so vehemently uttering.

"No use struggling maíam." Coltrane remarked as he noted the redhead struggling in her chair. For himself, he had ordered food prior to their arrival here and was taking full advantage of room service and all its accompanying benefits. "You might as well sit still for the time being."

Juliaís emerald coloured eyes flared and she said something that did not at all sound polite through the gag although Coltrane could not make out what it was. Instead, he shrugged and down his glass of whisky while continuing to feast on the meal before him. "Suit yourself." He retorted, guzzling his food in a manner that indicated he was not one for manners. "But you cause me any more trouble than necessary and I got ways of making you sit still I guarantee you ainít going to like."

That made her stop struggling immediately, mostly because she did not want to find out what those ways were and the threat seemed ominous enough. She glared at the man and remained seated, trying to think her way out of present predicament. Shortly after he had kidnapped her into the elevator, the man had gagged her and brought her to this room and while Julia had not been able to see what room number it was, she knew she was on one of the highest floor of the hotel building. It was to her greatest chagrin that there would be no rescue forthcoming from Ezra and somehow, she did not think Mary was going to pull another rabbit out of her hat as she had done with Alex and Sheriff Pierce. However Julia was going to get out of this situation, she would have to do it on her own.

At the moment, the chances of that appeared remote since she was bound and gagged. It was the cloth that was tied around her mouth that hindered her non-existence efforts the most since she was unable to use her baser talents to free herself from confinement. Somehow, she had to convince him to remove the gag and started thinking furiously on how she could accomplish this minor feat. She glanced at him surreptitiously and saw him guzzling his food and found herself understandably repelled. He was not an attractive man even though he was huge and appeared as if he could break her in half should she make any foolish attempts at escape.

Julia coughed.

It was a light cough to begin with. She created just enough of a rumble in her throat to show that she was being irritated by the cloth and trying to hide it. He looked up at her long enough to ensure that she was not making some effort to be difficult before he returned to his almost empty plate. Julia paused a moment before starting to clear her throat again, pretending that the gag was hurting her throat but she was attempting to stifle her coughs so that he would not think she was making trouble. After a few minutes, he looked up at her again, having heard the muffled cough and irritation in her throat.

"Whatís wrong?" He demanded roughly.

Julia shook her head as if to answer that nothing was the matter. However, she still made those pathetic gagging noise, which only served to shorten his patience in trying to understand what she was saying. Finally, he pushed himself out of his chair and advance to her. His massive form towered over her as approached and made Julia rethink this idea of trying to escape because he was physically very imposing.

"Iím gonna take this gag off," he remarked as he knelt down before her. "You give me any trouble and Iíll hurt you." He said firmly. "Make no mistake on that. Man who hired me, didnít say what state you had to be in when it was all said and done."

Julia nodded slowly in a gesture of compliance as Coltrane started removing the gag from her mouth. Once it was removed from her lips, Julia immediately started taking deep breaths, feeling glad to free from the infernal piece of cloth. She took a few more hungry gasps of air before raising her eyes to meet those of her captor and flashed him something of a grateful smile. "Thank you." She said softly, adding just enough suggestion in her tone to indicate she was not just grateful but interested in a way he had not anticipated. "I would have done anything to be free of that thing."

He stood up abruptly, unable to deny the seduction in the tone of her voice was not compelling, if indeed that was what it was. No one could blame him for the reacting this way after all, she was a exceedingly beautiful woman. He had noticed it earlier but upon closer observation had realised that she was far from just fetching. "Just make sure you keep quiet." He grunted as he returned hastily back to his seat, aware that she could make him compromise this whole job if he did not ignore her.

Julia watched his reaction, knowing perfectly well that she had captured his interest enough to cause him to become just a little bit hot under the collar and decided she would have to keep stoking that interest until it evolved into a means of escape. The idea of even touching him was repulsive but Julia was a realist and a survivor. She had one weapon in her arsenal and for most part, it often worked to get her out of more trouble than she would let anyone know. Of course, the very idea of touching him in any shape of form was enough to make her stomach turn but Julia nonetheless had a very strong constitution.

"So how long do I have to stay here?" She asked, keeping that sliver of seduction in her voice as she spoke.

"No more than a day, Iím told." He replied, seeing no reason why she should not know. It might help in keeping her still if she knew she was not going to be incarcerated for very long.

"Well thatís a relief," Julia let out a breathy sigh. "I think I can endure a day in your company Sir." She smiled.

He looked at her oddly as if uncertain of how to take that remark. "Whatever." He remarked abruptly, not knowing what else to say.

"I donít suppose I could get something to eat?" Julia asked with a careful bat of her eyelashes.


"I ainít stupid enough to let you loose." Coltrane retorted, side stepping her obvious attempt to have her loosen her bonds.

"I did not expect you too." She said smoothly, perfectly prepared for the response. "Youíve got some pieces of fruit there, maybe you could just feed it to me."

"Feed it to you?" He swallowed.

"Yes, just put it to my lips and let me do the rest." She smiled.

Tentatively, he picked up a piece of sliced apple and brought it forward. His fingers were almost trembling when he held the fruit to her lips and watch them part as she started nibbling on it. Of course, she did this most erotically, performing the act with light flicks of her tongue and sensuous movement of her lips that kept him utterly mesmerised before she finally consumed it all. Coltraneís Adamís apple was bobbing up and down nervously, not to mention anticipation when she asked again.

"Another." Julia smiled and decided that this was going to be a lot easier than she thought.

*********

Maude Standish saw him enter the dining room after the rest of her companions had gone. As ordered by Mary Larabee, Maude had reluctantly summoned Jethro Lewisham to the table, in order to find out what his intentions were regarding this kidnapping of Julia Pemberton. While they were preparing to being the search of the hotel, it was part of Maudeís role in this divisionary tactic to stall for time to find out what exactly was Lewishamís plan. Obviously, he wanted vengeance for his humiliating defeat at her hands in New Orleans but Maude knew her mark very well. While it would hurt her relationship with Ezra should anything happen to the fair Miss Pemberton, Lewisham did not gain anything by that except the satisfaction of knowing that he had done this thing. However, Maude never thought that would be enough for the man.

Jethro sighted her immediately and made his way across the floor of the restaurant before joining her at the table. He walked in with such arrogance, it looked as if he was joining the lady at her table for a dinner engagement, instead of discussing his terms of blackmail. Maude hid all signs of hostility from her face, learning that the best way to proceed in a uncertain situation was to play it cool until she could decipher his intentions.

"Maude." He tipped his hat slightly and then removed it all together which was the proper custom for a gentlemen to do so in front of a lady.


"Jethro." She replied. "Iím glad you came."

"I imagine you would think so." He said with a smile and gestured a waiter forward. A smart young man approached their table and was given an order of drinks by Jethro before withdrawing again, leaving them to their privacy.

"One of my companions, Julia Pemberton has been kidnapped." Maude began.

"Yes I heard," Jethro smiled. "Tragic."

"Jethro," Maude continued. "I am no fool. I know you are responsible for this."

"Perhaps I am and perhaps, Miss Pemberton has decided to take a turn of the city, one can never say really." He met her eyes with a widening grin of triumph which only further infuriated Maude, even though she hid her anger well beneath a veneer of southern charm.

"We both know that you did." She insisted. "Now why donít you save us a lot of time by merely telling me what it is you want?"

"I like you Maude," he said sitting up in his chair. "You were always direct and to the point, except when you were cheating me in front of the entirely of New Orleans society."


"I had a good run of luck." Maude feigned ignorance to that. "It happens."

"I am not a fool madam," his expression darkened. "After the fact, I took time to learn about your reputation to discover that you are no amateur when it comes to games of chance. You have acquired most of your properties and fortune through such means, which is why I know that I was always an intended victim. You fleeced me as completely as you did all those other fools you have encountered in the past."

Maude did not take offence at his words, considering he had said nothing that was untrue. She was not ashamed to deny it and was pleased that no charade was required in her further dealings with him. "And now you have kidnapped Julia for what? To make me suffer for that interminable mistake?"

"If I did arrange it, then I suppose that I would be in a unique position to gain the advantage, wouldnít I?" He said before picking up his glass of cognac and taking a sip.

"I guess it would." She sighed, wishing he would just get on it with it because her patience was wearing thin. "Although if you harm one hair on her head, my son would hunt you down and kill you." Maude declared.

"He would never get close enough." Lewisham retorted. "And I have more than enough men at my disposal to ensure that he never even try. Besides, I do not wish it to come to that if it can be avoided and I assure, that it can is entirely up to you."

Maude knew that he was not making an idle threat about Ezra and even though her son had the companionship of six very capable men with whom he rode, she was not about to risk his life for anything. It was bad enough that she had embroiled Julia Pemberton in this kind of danger but to know that she was responsible for Ezraís own peril was more than she was willing to endure. As much as she hated it, she was going to have to play Lewishamís game to save both her son and the woman he loved.

"All right," Maude replied, conceding defeat in the heavy sigh and the slump of her shoulders. "What would you have me do?"

"Now thatís the spirit," Lewisham grinned again, triumph exuding from every gloating nuance of his face. "I knew that once you understood your situation you would be eager to deal. I always knew you were a reasonable woman, Maude."

"Get on with it." Maude hissed, wondering what was worse. The fact that she was force to capitulate to his demands or the incessant gloating that he was inflicting upon her now.

"It is nothing too demeaning or odious I assure you," he continued in that infuriating voice of complete victory. "I would like you to enter the tournament as you had intended. I will be doing the same."

Maude felt her stomach lurch inside her skin because she had some idea of where this was going and did not like what she would be required to do. Swallowing hard, she forced herself to listen as he lay down his demands, feeling impotent with fury that she could do nothing to stop him. If there was one thing that Maude Standish despised most of all, it was being bested and this man had all the cards and she had no choice but to obey. "And?" She asked slowly.

"The manner of the competition will see to it that within the course of the night, you and I will face each other at the same table. When that happens, I expect you to emerge from our tournament the winner. I wish to beat you Maude, I wish to beat you in front of all your fellow gamblers, in front of your peers. I want you beaten by a mark and I want them all to see it. You see Madam, after what transpired in New Orleans, I feel it only fitting that I return the favour."

"I see." Maude said quietly, knowing that what he intended to do would humiliate her as publicly as she had done him in New Orleans and understood at last, what it as he had to gain by kidnapping Julia. "What guarantee do I have that you will let her go after that?"

"None." Lewisham said curtly. "However, if it matters any to you. I give you my word that following your defeat, I will have her released within the hour."

Maude nodded and ventured to ask. "What if I donít agree to this."

His face became that of stone. "If you do not agree to what I want, then I promise you that by the time you move onto your next opponent, she will be dead. You can explain to your darling son, how you allowed the woman he loved to die for the sake of a poker game. I am certain that he will be more than understanding regarding your decision."


As much as Maude might loathed to admit it, it appeared that Lewisham was right in that sense. Ezra would never forgive her if Julia Pemberton was found dead on an account of her refusing to be beaten in a poker game, reputation or not. She had no choice but to agree to what Lewisham demanded, even though it stung to the very core of her that she was required to make such a choice.

"It appears that I do not have much of a choice, Mr Lewisham." Maude said icily, unable to look at his face because the urge to claw his eyes out with her nail was overwhelming.

"No you donít," he agreed readily and drained whatever was left in his glass before he rose to his feet. Now that he had sufficiently enjoyed seeing her squirm, he looked forward to their next meeting where he would have further cause of relish when she was forced to endure defeat at his hands in front of her fellow gamblers and conmen. Picking up his hat, he straightened it on his head before bowing graciously as he prepared to depart.

"Until next time, Mrs Standish."

*********

"This is so embarrassing." Alex replied as she and Inez started pushing the trolley along the first floor of the hotel, whilst wearing a maidís uniform. Inez remained in her own clothes and only separate from her whenever someone else was approaching. Having slipped into the maidís quarters earlier, she, Casey and Mary had borrowed three uniforms and then reported for duty where she was handed a trolley of fresh towels and other hotel accessories and a heavy set of keys to next three floors of the building.

"Relax," Inez hissed as they started searching the room. At this time of the evening, most of the hotel patrons were downstairs, enjoying dinner or partaking in the entertainment to be found in the establishment. Where the rooms had been occupied, Alex had merely hung her head down, placed fresh towels in the place before making a hasty retreat. "Youíre doing fine."

"I am so glad you think so." Alex retorted, unable to deny that she was hating the indignity of all this. Wasnít it bad enough that she had been locked in jail once this trip. If someone were to suspect that she was anything more than what she appeared to be, Alex could very well find herself back in another cell, this time with legitimate charges of misconduct. "As a doctor, this is incredibly demeaning."

"Oh youíll get over it." Inez sighed, having heard this complaint every time they prepared to breach the door of another room that required inspection. "Think of it this way, at least you donít have to do this for a living."

Alex could not argue with her there but she still loathed playing the part of maid. Unfortunately, this charade would continue until they searched the hotel thoroughly and found some traces of Julia. Picking up two more towels, Alex headed towards the next door with her skeleton key and knocked loudly on the door. "Room service." She called out, waiting to see if there was a response. After a moment, it did not appear to be and Alex continued to unlock the door to make sure.

Inez waited patiently in the hall as Alex investigate the room for the next few seconds before emerging once again, without the benefit of the towels, deciding it might improve the chances of not being discovered if she at least did some of the things a maid was supposed to. As it was, Alex felt ridiculous in this maidís cap and dark uniform but conceded that it was necessary for the charade. She hoped Mary and Casey had better luck.

"That one is clear." Alex retorted. "Did you have any luck downstairs?"

"Not at all," Inez frowned. "I checked the back rooms in the kitchen, store rooms, even the basement and was told by one very annoyed janitor that the place was off limits. Luckily, I manage to check the place out before I actually got found out so thatís clear anyway."

"So theyíre definitely in the hotel rooms." Alex decided. "Any clues as to what we will do if we actually see her?" The doctor inquired since this was mostly Inezís plan.

"I suggest a discreet exit before we go get hotel security." Inez replied.

"In that case stay out of sight when I go into the rooms," Alex suggested. "If I donít come out, you can go for help."

That was a good idea because at not time did any of the women intend to confront Juliaís kidnapper on their own. The incident with Sheriff Pierce was all the excitement they could endure for this particular weekend. As it was, Inez did not believe for one moment that that they would ever go on a vacation alone again. Their track record for these excursions was never any good and this weekend was proof enough of the fact that even unintentionally, they had not trouble landing themselves in hot water. Inez supposed if there was some consolation to all this, it was the fact that Chris Larabee and his men would never know it.

"I wish the men were here." Inez nevertheless replied, even though the thought to the contrary had just crossed her mind. "Theyíd have this dealt with in a minute."

"Yeah," Alex nodded ruefully as she took more towels of the trolley and prepared to make a repeat performance on the next room. "Chris does have a way of making these things uncomplicated as hell. I would have loved to have Vin around when we ran into that sheriff. He was very creepy."

"What did he want with you anyway?" Inez asked, having never gotten a satisfactory answer regarding that particular aspect of the break out in Coventry.

"I donít know," Alex said genuinely perplexed. "I think he sort of liked me which is quite a horrifying concept." She admitted with a slight shudder. After Randall Mason, Alex found any man with an unusually strong interest in her to be rather disconcerting. It was a situation that Inez herself was very familiar with, considering her own experiences with Don Pauloís son. "Hopefully, when we get back to Four Corners, we can talk to Chris about doing something to help those poor people in Coventry."

"Youíre up." Inez reminded and Alex felt silent as she stepped up to another room and knocked lightly before calling out. "Room service."

********

"I need to use the water closet." Julia announced after she had been sitting in the chair for more than two hours. The muscles in her rear end were numb and she sorely needed to stand and stretch her legs a little. For the last hour or so, she had been carefully using every seductive trick in her arsenal to make her jailer drop her guard and for most part she had succeeded. He had fed her and allowed her to keep the gag off but now it was time to make another request of him and she hoped she could be convincing enough to make him believe that this was no trick.

He stared at her critically, trying to assess whether or not she was attempting some form of trickery or whether the request was genuine. Still, there was hardly anywhere she could go even if he were to permit her the use of the water closet. Their room was situated high above the ground and the only window in the small room was barely large enough to let light through, let alone a woman with all her finery and coverings to slip out. Besides, there was nowhere for her to go but down even if she did make the foolish attempt and it was not a journey she would survive.

"You make one wrong move and youíll know about it." He warned as he finally made his decision. Circling around her in the chair, he knelt down and loosen the ropes around her wrist, keeping careful eye on every movement she made as her hands were finally free.

Julia stood up immediately, feeling like a cat that awoke from a long sleep and shook some feeling back into her legs. "Thank you." She said gratefully and started towards the room where the amenity in question was awaiting. He shadowed her closely, proving that he did not quite trust her yet and hesitated when she moved to close the door behind her.

"I assure you Sir," Julia replied as she saw his hand on the door as she attempted to close it. "I am a lady and I must insist upon my privacy in some things. Besides, where on earth do you think I could go?" She looked at him in question, complete innocence on her face as she asked.

"Okay," he finally relented pulling his hand away from the door. "But you try anything funny and I will break down the damn door, you hear me?" He threatened with complete sincerity in his eyes as he glared at her and left Julia with no doubt that he was making the warning with complete menace.

"I swear on my honour." She replied with as much dignity a lady of her station could offer. Except of course she had no honour, never did and had no problem with swearing upon it if it meant that he would let her shut the door.

Julia closed the door behind her and immediately looked around the small room. There was a small latch on the door knob that allowed her to lock it from the inside and she did so immediately, knowing that should he decide to barge in, she had no way of stopping him. The frame and the door itself seemed to be weak, not at all the sturdy construction that she was accustomed to in Four Corners. The water closet in her room had a window and Julia knew that she could fit in easily. She had a small frame that was hidden beneath the dress she was wearing and peered out the glass opening to see if escape was possible. The ledge that it emptied onto was narrow and dangerous. It did not help that they were quite a distance from the floor, she could see people moving up and down the street below her and knew that it was this way or not at all.

"What are you doing in there?" Coltrane demanded.

"Iím almost done, can a lady have a little moment to herself!" She pretended to feign outrage as she proceeded to lift herself through the window, while telling herself repeatedly, not to look down while she was doing it.

She slipped through the window fairly easily and had no idea how she manage to remain on the narrow ledge when she left the room behind her. With her back pressed up against the side of the building, Julia had barely enough space for herself to move. She supposed it was some consolation that her small size allowed her to traverse the narrow ledge because there was no way her jailer would be foolish enough to follow her on this near suicidal course. Julia started moving slowly away from the window, intending to put as much distance between herself and the room as possible.


She reminded herself not to look down but it was difficult to keep her eyes from the ground. As it was dark, no one had noticed her presence yet but it did not help that a light wind was blowing at her and bird seemed to be taking up residence along the ledge and seemed to fly in all directions upon her approach. She could hear him demanding where she was and knew it would not be long before he broke into the room and discovered what she had done. Julia had no wish to fall prey to him once again.

Perhaps fall was not the best words to use in this instanceÖ..

*********

Damn!

Coltrane swore under his breath when he banged on the door and the lady inside showed on signs of emerging. He should have guessed that it was a trick. She had been priming him with her purdy voice and the way she worked her lips when he had fed her. Coltrane felt singularly incensed at having fallen to the most common of feminine tricks and despised being bested by a woman. He was about to kick the door to the room open when suddenly, he heard a slight knocking on the door.

"Room Service." A decidedly feminine voice sang out.

What else could happen? The man groaned as he crossed the floor in a number of long strides and almost pulled the door off its hinges when he opened it and found himself staring a pretty blond with towels in her hand and wearing a maidís uniform.

"What do you want?" He growled at her but had no effect in intimidating her by his hostile manner. Instead, she brushed past him and stepped into the room.

"Room service Sir," she said brightly. "Just replacing your towels." Her eyes studied the length of the room and caught sight of the chair and the ropes that hung off it. Mary pretended not to notice and placed the towel down on the near by side table before making a hasty retreat out of the room once again.

"If you need anything further, be sure to let us know." Mary kept her voice neutral when suddenly Coltrane placed a heavy hand on her shoulder, completely aware of what she had seen.

"I donít think youíre going anywhere." He said tightening his hold around her when suddenly Casey stepped before the doorway with the gun they had taken from the sheriff aimed firmly at his chest.

"I think youíre wrong Mister." Casey warned, staring at him with just as much intent to shoot him as he intended to keep Mary prisoner. "Let her go."

"You must be her friends." Coltrane grizzled, visibly angry if the dark storm on his face was an indication of his emotional state at this point. He released Mary seeing Casey cock the gun once more, inciting him to hurry up and release the woman. However, without warning, he shoved Mary hard, sending her straight into Casey who reacted by pulling the gun back in case she accidentally pulled the trigger. The momentary distraction was all Coltrane needed and he started towards them.

"Run!" Mary ordered Casey as the young girl lost her grip on the gun and realised that they were both defenceless against the hulk coming at them. Without thinking, Mary pushed the trolley in front of him. The heavy metal frame slammed into Coltrane, forcing him against the wall. The big man reeled from the impact and recovered quickly. Mary paused long enough to see him getting to his feet before she started running, taking the same route down the hall that Casey had taken.


Coltrane was torn at who to pursue. Did he chase after his prisoner or did he go after the women who could bring the law down on him. Deciding it matter little which he picked, he went after the prey he could see first and ran down the corridor taken by the two women who had discovered his secret.

**********

Julia looked at the drainpipe with dismay.

It ran down the ledge and would have to be passed if she was to make it to the other side of the hotel. For some reason, her kidnapper had yet to come after her or even attempt to make an appearance at the ledge. His absence was even more disconcerting than any attempt he made to pursue her. She could not understand what he was doing and expected a hand to pop through these windows at any moment and drag her back inside.

Once again, she scolded herself for looking down and Julia took another deep breath to steady her nerves. She could do this. Slowly, she turned around on the narrow walkway, trying to keep her jittery nerves to a minimum as she found herself facing the wall. Taking another deep breath as her nails dug into the stone as if that would stop any descent should she slip, Julia inched one foot out from the safety of the ledge and tried to slip it past the drainpipe while maintaining her footing of her present location

The metal felt smooth as she forced her body past it, placing all her weight on the foot that was all the way across already. She slid across the wall and the drainpipe, keeping her body pressed up against the wall as firmly as possible when suddenly, she heard something crumble. Julia eyes moved to her foot as she saw in slow motion, the ledge giving way beneath her booth. Fragments of stone crumbled as she found herself standing on nothing and struggled valiantly to grab something and keep herself from falling. Her hands wrapped around the length of drainpipe but the weight of her body pulling against it snapped the clamps holding it in place.

Julia let out a short scream as she felt air beneath her and had a thousand frantic thoughts running through her mind as she envisioned her end coming to greet her in a rush of air and the hard slap of the ground beneath her. However, she did not continue to fall even though what she felt beneath her feet was not ground but air.

The drainpipe had indeed detached from the side of the building but it had not snapped off. Instead, like her, it was dangling precariously over the ground. Julia looked down and realised she was hanging in midair high above the ground below. As he hands dug into the metal, she could think of only one thing to do.

Scream and scream very loudly.

Part Six:

Conundrum

"What makes you think theyíre staying here?" Chris asked Ezra when the six lawmen had ridden into Eagle Bend late that evening.

"I know for a fact that this hotel is a favourite of gamblers in the Territory and if there is any kind of meet taking place, this would be the location. If not the ladies, my mother at least will definitely be here." Ezra replied as a matter of factly, accustomed to his motherís habits and indeed that of the community that would host such a function.

Chris looked over the building before him and had to admit that its opulence would undoubtedly attract Mary to the promise of room service and internal plumbing. While he did not berate her for wishing to indulge herself in this way, as her husband, he had to wonder where the financing for this getaway was coming from and why she had never suggested that they spend a weekend at a place like this. Although in truth, he had to confess Mary could not be blamed for thinking that he would not be caught dead luxuriating in the suite of a hotel, especially when his idea of luxury was a clean glass at a saloon.

"Well Mary does have this thing for room service," he grumbled, not meeting anyoneís gaze as he made the remark because if anyone made any comment about it, he was likely to shoot them. "Sheís probably here too."

However, Ezra did not answer. In fact, none of the men riding with him were making response because they could hear above the slight breeze blowing in the night and the sounds of people moving through the streets, either on foot or on horse and carriage, something desperate was harkening them from above. Chris followed the gaze of his friends as well as a growing number of people on the street that were also staring into the air.

It very quickly translated that the sound they had heard was in actual fact a scream and upon closer observation of what they were all staring at for the past few seconds, it was a scream belonging to someone they knew. As Chris caught a glimmer of red hair swaying in the wind, the woman who dangled precariously above the ground was, kept from certain death only by drainpipe and her tenuous grip of it.

"Is that who I think it is?" Buck gasped, as he was the first to voice the realization among them.

"Unfortunately it is." Ezra said recognising that red hair with even more speed than Chris. Climbing off his horse quickly, he did not bother to hitch the animal to the nearby post before he started running towards the main entrance.

"Buck, go with him!" Chris ordered. "Weíll get the horses and meet you inside."

Buck who was already dismounting his horse as were the rest of them, offered Chris a quick nod in compliance before grabbing a length of rope from his saddle bag and hurrying after the gambler who had disappeared through the main doors of the establishment. Meanwhile the crowd observing the drama above had become considerably thicker with people pointing up in the air at the sight of Julia holding on perilously to the drain pipe she could not possibly cling to indefinitely.

"You think Pierce is up there?" Vin asked, wondering where Alex was in all this. As it was, none of them had been disappointed in their belief that their women were capable of landing themselves in more trouble than humanly possible when left to their own devices.

"I donít know," Chris replied. "But weíd better get up there before one of them kills Ezra." The gunslinger said unable to let a faint hint of a smile cross his lips.

"One of them?" JD asked blankly, not understanding. "I thought it was only Pierce who was after the girls." The youth looked at Chris and Vin in question.

"He means what Julia will do to him when he finally gets to her." Josiah grinned.

*********

"What was that?" Inez looked at Alex as they continued pushing the trolley down the hall and were somewhat disturbed by this point that they had not encountered Mary or Casey. They had been moving progressively through the floors and should have run into their companions by now. It bothered both women greatly that they had not yet encounter the rest of their search party and upon reaching the floor where Mary and Casey were meant to be, immediately found evidence of an upturned trolley.

However, it was not the scenes of violence that gave the duo the most concern but the one room in the corridor whose door was wide open. As Alex and Inez entered its confines to investigate, fairly confident by now that the room was unoccupied, they stumbled upon the scene of the crime where Julia Pemberton had been held against her will. Evidence that Julia had been trapped here was apparent by the ropes that hung loosely off a chair in the middle of the room but that was nothing else to indicate where Julia or her kidnapper might be now.

After a few minutes examining the room closely and finding nothing significant that could help them further in their search, Inez started to worry that they might have been wrong. That Juliaís kidnapping may have been for reasons other than revenge at Maude for her humiliating defeat of Jethro Lewisham. They were about to leave the room in order to find Mary and perhaps rethink their strategy when suddenly a high pitch scream sailed through the air that halted them both in mid step.

"I think that was Julia!" Alex exclaimed, answering Inezís surprised question a few seconds before.

"Where was it coming from?" Inez asked once again because there was something about the scream that sounded odd and distant and yet extremely close at the same time. She did not have long to ponder the question when a repeat performance was given and it was very obvious from which direction that terrified shriek was emanating. Alex and Inez gave each other both looks of horror before scrambling for the nearby window and peering outside to see Julia Pemberton hanging in mid air, further along the building.

"Oh my god!" Alex gasped as she saw Julia trying to keep a hold and knowing that her own weight; slight as it was, was working against her, nor did the drainpipe she was clinging to look particularly strong enough to withstand the drag that was pulling it downwards. "Julia!" The doctor cried out, wishing to let the woman know that help was on the way.

Julia shifted her head slightly and caught sight of her friends, relief flooding into her face immediately upon seeing them. "Thank God! Get me down from here!" She screamed, her hair was billowing in the wind and Alex could see her skin almost white from sheer terror.

"Donít worry!" Inez cried out, lending her support. "Weíre getting help. Just hang on!"

"Are you kidding! Where the hell do you think Iím going!" Julia more or less roared. "This is hardly the time to be funny!"

"Sorry!" Inez winced at her choice of words and immediately turned to Alex. "You got to get help. You can move faster than me, Iíll get to the room with the nearest window to her."

"Okay!" Alex nodded wildly, deciding that was sound advice and Inez was right, in her present condition the lady bartender was not going to be able to move as fast as Alex could on foot. "Here, take these!" She tossed the skeleton key towards Inez who caught it with an outstretched hand in one sharp movement.

Both women hurried out of the room at the same time but split on their divergent courses upon reaching the door. Inez moved further along the corridor, trying to make a rough guess as to which room would bear the window closest to Juliaís present position. She saw Alex disappearing around the corner and guessed that the doctor was forgoing the wait for an elevator, opting instead to take the stairs. When Inez reached the room she thought might lead her to Julia, the pregnant barmaid rapped loudly on the door and hoped its occupant did not think her insane for barging in like this.

However, instead of a prompt report, she was greeted with silence and thus incited her to use the keys that Alex had been so specific about giving her before the doctor had gone for help. Opening the door quickly, she burst into the room and found it as empty as her unanswered knock had indicated. Inez hurried to the window and found Julia still struggling to maintain her grip of the narrow length of piping. Fortunately, her estimate had been correct and she found herself only a few feet away from the frightened Emporium owner.

Inez looked around for something that she could use in substitution for rope and finally settled her choice on sheets, since nothing else would suffice. Yanking the crisp white sheets from the near by bed, she twisted it around until it looked remotely capable of holding Juliaís weight before pushing open the window and leaning out of it as far as possible. Her swollen belly made movement awkward but Inez was determined not to let Julia down. Literally. Swinging the sheet out as far as it would go, the length of fabric swept past Julia as Inez shouted.

"Julia!" Inez shouted. "Grab hold of the sheet!"

Julia stared wide-eyed at the flimsy length of fabric was about to do nothing of the sort. "Are you out of your mind!" Julia shouted back, telling herself for the hundred time not to look down. As it was she was trying not to hear the shouts of horrified spectators below her who could do nothing but gape up her dress and offer little else in the way of salvation. "That piece of scrap is not going to hold me!"

Inez groaned and had to admit that it was not much of a choice but at the precise moment, she could think of nothing else until Alex got here with help. "Itís the only thing that will hold Julia! Trust me!"

Julia swallowed hard, trying to control her trembling which only serve to make her body generate sweat and moisture on her palms was something she really did not need at this point. What on earth had made her think that this had been a good idea? She gazed at the sheet flapping in the wind and knew with reluctance that Inez was correct, this was the only way. "God, I hope you are right about this Inez, because if I die I am never going to forgive you!"

"Iíll keep that in mind," Inez rolled her eyes as she hung to the other end of the sheet tightly as she saw Julia loosen her fingers of one hand around the metal drainpipe and slowly reach for the sheet.

"One more thing," Julia looked at her with frightened eyes. "I need you to make me a promise in case I donít make it."

"Of course youíre going to make it!" Inez declared but decided to allow Julia her idiosyncrasies at this point since she would have agreed to anything to make the woman reach for the lifeline before her. "What is it?"

"I want you to promise me," Julia swallowed, closing her eyes to control her growing dread at what she was about to do. "That if I die, you will still kill Ezra for me."

Inez was about to respond when suddenly she heard decidedly familiar voices behind her. "Wait Julia!" Inez shouted as she looked over her shoulder and saw the miracle of Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington running into the room. The two lawmen had guessed the approximate floor that Julia was hanging from and had been drawn here by the sounds of Inezís voice shouting instructions at Julia when they emerged from the stairway. Inez had never been more grateful to see either men or the rope that Buck was carrying in his hands.

"What are you doing here!" She had to ask.

"We will explain that later." Ezra said hastily as he forced himself past Inez and leaned out the window. "Buck, give me the rope." He demanded and was immediately handed the length of hessian as Inez withdrew and allowed the space to work.

"Julia, catch the rope!" Ezra called out as he prepared to swing its end towards her.

Julia turned sharply at the sound of his voice and stared at Ezra for a few seconds with an expression that was completely undecipherable to him. For a minute, he thought that the sheer terror of what she was experiencing had robbed her of her senses.

Unfortunately, it was not terror that Julia was presently gripped with. Her emerald coloured eyes flared in outrage before she started shouting back at him. "You lying, no good scum! If you think Iím going to let you save me, you are wrong! I would rather hang here all night then let you rescue me, youÖ.youÖliar! Why am I not good enough to tell your mother about?"

"JULIA!" Ezra exclaimed flabbergasted, unable to believe that she would bring this up at the time like this. Did women have no sense of urgency at all? "This is hardly the time for us to discuss this particular upset!"

"Oh really?" She glared at him defiantly, still clinging on tight and not willing to make one move toward the rope on a matter of principle. "I am not letting you rescue me, you lousy, lying snake! And whatís this about a ring?"

"For God sake, Julia!" Ezra groaned, unable to believe she was taking him to task about this now. "You do not have time to be choosy about this so just grab the DAMN rope!"

"Over my dead body!" She retaliated furiously, oblivious to how perfectly accurate that statement would be if she did not obey his instructions.

"Oh for crying out loud, get in here Ezra!" Buck said finally, his patience having worn thin at last with the both of them. Buck stepped forward and yanked Ezra away from the window before taking his place at the window. Julia still appeared very afraid even though she was clinging onto her anger at Ezra almost as steadfastly while she was holding onto the drainpipe that was the only thing keeping her from a premature demise.

"Come on honey," Buck said. "Grab the rope now. You ainít got a lot choice and we both know it." Buckís voice was firm but commanding and Julia knew she was behaving foolishly but the danger she was in did not lessen her outrage at Ezraís actions. She was still angry and now looked forward to getting to safety so that she could proceed to make him pay.

Taking a deep breath, she stretched out slowly while her other arm was still wrapped around the length of metal that had been keeping her alive for the last ten minutes or so. It was a strain to reach the rope dangling before her and her muscles ached as she forced them to cooperate since they were unaccustomed to any difficult labour. However, with Inez, Buck and even Ezraís gentle coaxing, her fingers finally touched the hessian fibres of the rope. When her fingers made contact, Julia immediately brought it into her palm and she gripped it tightly.

As soon as Julia had the rope in her hand, Buck and Ezra quickly took up the slack and hoped she would be able to hang on when she finally relinquished her hold the drainpipe completely. Julia looked up at them and knew that she had to let go while at the same time, hold on tight so that they could pull her to the window. Closing her eyes, she took another deep breath and steadied herself once more. Her heart was pounding so loudly in her chest, Julia was surprised no one could hear it.

"I can do this." She told herself and tightened her grip around the rope, coiling it around her arm as she prepared to let go of the length of metal that had been her salvation until now. Slowly, her fingers inched away from the smooth finish of metal until the rope was supporting her entire body. With a loud gasp, she switched her grip to the rope and found herself swinging forward with a loud squeal.

"Julia!" Ezra reacted immediately, his own heart gripped with terror because for a moment he thought she had lost her hold and was plunging to the ground. Fortunately, the shift in weight on the rope had propelled her against the wall but caused no more mischief than that. She was still hanging on valiantly, her knuckles turning white as she clung to the rope for dear life. "Hang on Darling," Ezra called out to her, trying to reassure his love that everything was going to be all right, no matter how bleak it may now seem.

"Will everyone stop saying that! Of course Iím going to hang on!" She shouted angrily.

"Well, at least, sheís in good spirit," Inez said with a smile before she noticed both Buck and Ezra giving her a look which indicate quite clearly that they did not share her evaluation of the present situation.

Both men immediately set to work pulling the rope upward, paying careful attention to the effect of the fibres as it rubbed against the concrete edge that lead to the window. Julia was a petite woman so it was not difficult to hoist her to safety once she had a firm grip on the rope and now that they were putting their backs into it. Inez grabbed her hands as soon as the bartender was able to reach them and immediately helped to pull her over the narrow ledge before the both of them tumbled to the floor. For a moment, they were a tangle of skirts and hair which provided for a rather amusing scene had any of the men present had dared to laugh.

"Are you alright?" Ezra extended his hand forward as he want to help Julia to her feet following her ordeal. The emporium owner was breathing hard, trying to shake away the intense fear she had been gripped with until only a few seconds ago. She took Ezraís hand and stood up shakily, taking a moment of silence to regain her equilibrium.

"Letís not do that again soon." Inez said with relief, glad that everything had ended well.

Julia nodded and met Buckís gaze. "Thank you Buck." She said with faint smile. It was all the gratitude she could handle showing at present. Her knees still felt weak and she thought she might collapse at any moment until she remembered something elseÖ.


"You lying scum!" She grabbed Ezraís hat and smacked him with it and continued doing so without any signs of pausing or any recollection that Inez and Buck were watching this display with a mixture of confusion and amusement.

"Julia!" Ezra started to stutter in explanation as he fended off her blows.

"You bastardÖwe have been together for almost a year! I almost had your baby and Iím still not good enough to tell your mother about!" She shouted as she flung his hat back at him.

"It never came up in conversation!" Ezra protested meekly as Julia vented the full torrent of her rage, pent up after days of suppression. "I just never found the right time!" He tried to answer but she was so angry he doubted she was actually listening to him. "I was going to write to her and tell her everything about you but I never found the opportunity! You must believe me!"

"Never found the opportunity?" Julia glared at him. "What? You could work me in by starting a new sentence?" With that she threw a fist into his jaw and knocked him off his feet.

The punch hardly registered but she heading towards the door before Ezra had time to recover and could only call after her in desperation as he scrambled to his feet in pursuit. "Come on DarlingÖ."

"Donít you call me Darling!" She whirled around and snapped. "You never get to call me honey or darling or Julia! In fact, just donít call me!" Without saying another word, she swept out of the room with Ezra chasing after her helplessly, crying out apologies as they progressed down the corridor.

When they were finally gone, Inez turned to Buck. The argument between Julia and Ezra had driven away the need for conversation at the time but now that it was momentarily quiet, Inez turned to Buck in order to find out what they were doing here in Eagle Bend. Buck who had no qualms about Inez spending some time away from Four Corners, perfectly aware of how much difficulty she had been enduring because of her unwed state, had been pleased to know that she had taken some time to herself. However, he was not at all surprised that they had attracted trouble along the way.

"So what are you doing here?" She asked as the two of them walked out of the room. Inez hoped the owner of the room would not be too distressed at their brief intrusion.

"Well Chris got it in his head that Maude was going get all of you into trouble." Buck replied honestly. Lately, their relationship had become a great deal more amicable then it used to be with the bouts of fiery confrontation dwindling to a minimum. "Besides, I think Ezra was hoping to get here before Maude let the beans spill about him not telling her about Julia."

"Oh did he call that one wrong." Inez chuckled. "We did have a bit of an adventure in Coventry." She confessed, liking the way they could talk to each other now and finding some measure of surprise in the fact that being with Buck was not as difficult as she originally envisioned.

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "We heard about your run in with Sheriff Pierce and thatís why we thought weíd better keep riding to find you. Seems heís after you girls."


"What?" Inez exclaimed, genuinely alarmed and then realised something else. "Buck, when you came up here, did you take the stairs or that elevator?" She asked quickly, feeling trepidation rising with each second that her mind continued on its present path.

"The stairs why?" Buck did not miss the look of fear in her eyes.


"You didnít see Alex?" Inez asked again, starting to feel the edge of panic sneaking up on her now that she had been told that Pierce was in Eagle Bend, having pursued them all the way from Coventry. Inez should have guessed their escape was not as easy as it might have seen.

"No, we didnít." Buck said quickly. "Inez, what is it honey?"

"Alex hasnít come back." Inez replied, meeting his gaze. "She went down for help and sheís not back. Where is she Buck? Why isnít she here yet?"

***********

Ten minutes earlier, Alexandra Styles had raced down the stairs, full of anxious desire to summon the help that Julia Pemberton so desperately required. She rushed down the flight of stairs, often descending two steps at a time, moving a top speed because she knew as well as Inez, Julia could not hang on indefinitely to the narrow drainpipe that was the only thing that kept her from falling to her death. Pausing a moment as she reached the end of the flight, Alex took a moment to catch her breath before resuming her journey.

As it was evening, most of the hotel patrons were out and about, having ventured out of their rooms for dinner or to sample the entertainments offered by the establishment. The hotel lobby was thus quite crowded and Alex found that once she had emerged from the stairwell into the main floor of the building, she was literally lost in bodies moving back and forth, going about their business. She headed towards the front desk, assuming that would be the best place to summon help. Fortunately, the hotel manager whom Mary had threatened earlier was manning the counter and Alex knew she would not have the tedium of explaining the whole situation to him from scratch.

She was almost to the counter when suddenly, she felt a hand grab her arm roughly. Alex reacted swiftly, turning sharply to face the person who was handling her so roughly when she found herself staring into a face she would rather have not seen again.

"Hello there ĎDoctorí." He looked at her garb and took note of what she was wearing. "It looks like you and your friends have a thing about dressing up. What game are you playing now?" Sheriff Dylan Pierce glared at her, with no intention of letting her go.

"Let me go!" She hissed, trying to pull herself free of him but his grip on her was strong. "What the hell do you want?"

"What do you think?" He met her gaze. "Youíre an escaped prisoner, Alex and Iím bringing you in." He started leading her in the direction of the main entrance to the hotel when she caught sight of another familiar face. Buck and Ezra were moving through the crowd and at top speed. It was likely that they might have seen Julia outside because they paid little mind to anything else as they hurried to the staircase she had just taken to reach the ground floor.

Her heart began to swell with hope at the sight of the two men because if Ezra and Buck were here, was it possible that Vin was too? She made no reaction that she recognised the two lawmen who brushed past herself and Dylan, knowing that it was vitally important that they get upstairs and help Julia who was in even more urgent need then she was. Besides, it looked as if Dylan intended to take her to Coventry and it was a long ride there. She was certain that some form of help would come to her by then.

"I may have escaped from your jail but you had no cause to hold me in the first place!" Alex said angrily as they continued towards the entrance of the building. In the crowd that surrounded them, no one could see the gun he had pressed firmly in her ribs and each time she hesitated in her steps forward, he reminded her of its presence by a firm jab.

"Sure I do." He replied. "You were impersonating a doctor, a habit which by the looks of you is a well established pattern so who knows what else you might have been up to. As an officer of the law, its my duty to hold you until I can establish whether or not you might have committed any other crimes as well."

"Youíre out of your mind." Alex retorted as they stepped out into the night air. She looked around the street, in the hopes of finding some way to escape this man when she caught sight of Vin and the rest of the seven at the hitching post nearby. She had no idea what her fiancee was doing in Eagle Bend and at this moment she did not care but she had never been so happy to see him. However, the tracker had not seen her yet and at the pace they were moving, might not be do so until it was too late. Alex was not about to leave Eagle Bend with this maniac and knew she had do something to alert Vin to her situation.

"I SAID LET ME GO!" Alex fairly shouted as she attempted to break free once again, this time with more vehemence than she previously displayed inside the hotel. "TAKE YOUR GODDAMN HANDS OF ME!" She barked at him fearlessly, aware that he was more eager to get her in his jail rather than being forced to shoot her. If he did so in the middle of a public street then he would be required to explain why he was doing this to the real law in Eagle Bend.

"You settle down or so help me I will put a bullet in you!" Dylan returned just as loudly and wondered what had suddenly sparked this burst of defiance.

The commotion had just the desired effect for Vin and Chris immediately shifted their gaze in their direction. The trackerís eyes widened as he saw Alex staring at him with what was clearly fear and he did not say anything for a moment, taking note of the man who had a firm hold of her and deciding very quickly that this must have been the infamous Dylan Pierce.


"Chris," Vin started to say and shifted his gaze to not arouse the suspicion of the Sheriff who had not yet realised what Alex had done to draw his attention.

"I know." Chris replied just as coolly, playing along just as Vin had done so. "I see it. Donít let on. Letís see where heís taking her." Chris turned to JD and Josiah who had also seen the exchange and were poised to act. "You two find Mary and the others, Vin and Iíll will take care of this."

"You sure?" Josiah asked cautiously.

"Yeah." Vin nodded. "We can handle this."

Alex did not make any further resistance once she realised that Vin had seen her and understood the situation she was embroiled. She only hoped that he was not far behind because her display had served to put a decidedly sharper edge to his manner and Alex guessed he was suspicious about what he had done if not what exactly. He moved her in the direction of Vin and the others and Alex guessed that was where his horse must have been hitched.

"You better have brought another horse because I am surely not riding with you Sir." She declared hotly, as he steered her towards Vin and Chris who pretended to tend to their horses, carefully keeping an eye on her without being obvious, waiting for the moment when they could wrestle her away from the man.

As they walked past the two lawmen, Chris suddenly shoved Vin roughly. "You trying to double cross me pardner?" The tracker staggered backwards, reeling from the blow.

"Iím only taking whatís mine!" Vin growled just as menacingly.

"Well I think you got enough already!" Chris barked and went for his gun and Vin did the same, removing his Winchester from his holster and preparing to fire as the crowd around them gasped in fear and began vacating the area hastily, having no wish to become caught in a gun battle. Chris kicked the gun out of Vinís hand, sending the Winchester flying and promptly throwing a fist in the younger manís face. Vin stumbled backwards and collided with Dylan Pierce.

"Get off me!" The sheriff growled menacingly.

"Didnít mean anything by it," Vin pulled away, "just having a little to do with my friend over here."

"Well keep it to yourself." Dylan retorted as he started moving again when suddenly, Vin dragged him backwards before the man had a chance to react, separating him quite effectively from Alex who took the opportunity to break free. She ran towards Chris, deciding that next to Vin, any position near the gunslinger was a safe place to be.

In the meantime, Dylan tried to swing his gun around to shoot when Vin slammed his head into the sheriffís, delivering a rather brutal head butt that more or less drove any coherent thought from his mind at the moment. Taking advantage of his disorientation, Vin snatched the gun from his hand and threw another punch in the manís face, bringing him down without further resistance. Dylan fell down heavily as Vin turned his own gun on him.

"You alright?" Vin asked Alex as she approached with Chris.

"Yes," she nodded with a wide smile, delighting in seeing him here even though she was somewhat confused as to what had precipitated his sudden appearance in Eagle Bend but knew those questions could wait until later. "Youíve got to help Julia!" She said excitedly and looked up at the building where she had last seen the woman dangling in the air. However, Julia was no longer there and Alex let out a sigh of relief, assuming that Buck and Ezra must have already participated in bringing her to safety.

"I think Buck and Ezra have already taken care of that," Chris assured her and took note of Vin motioning Dylan to his feet. The sheriff glared murderously at all three of them, realization in his face at who had come to Alexís rescue and was now puling his own gun on him.

"You people are interfering with the law!" Dylan said impotently. "That woman is an escaped prisoner."

"Shut up." Chris retorted sharply. "We know exactly what kind of law you practise down in Coventry and you had no reason to arrest her in the first place."

"Thank you." Alex replied giving the man a smug smile before remembering something else. "Chris, you need to find Mary. I think she and Casey are in trouble."

"Trouble?" The gunslinger looked at her. "What do you mean?"

"Well itís a long story but I think theyíre still in the hotel and there might be someone after them." Alex answered, remembering the scene that she and Inez had stumbled upon when the found the room where Julia had been held captive.

"Go on Chris," Vin said automatically, his eyes still fixed on Dylan. "You go find Mary, Iíll drop our friend here at the sheriffís office here in Eagle Bend until we can work out what to do with him permanent."

Chris nodded slightly in his direction and hurried off, confident that Vin could handle things here while he went to extricate Mary from whatever calamity she had landed herself in now. He had thought that once they had caught up with Pierce and the women, it would signal an end to the quest they had embarked upon since leaving Four Corners. Unfortunately, as Chris was now realising, it was never that simple when it came to his wife.

Once Chris had disappeared into the hotel, Alex found herself next to Vin after retrieving his Winchester, which had been lying on the ground unclaimed by its owner. She handed it to the tracker who had not taken his eyes of Dylan all this time. Without looking at her, Vin remarked with a faint smile. "What are you wearing?"

"Itís another long story." She sighed. "What are you going to do with him?" Alex glanced at Dylan still feeling some measure of fear from the man who had almost spirited her away to jail a few minutes ago. However, she had to admit, having Vin here with her now went a long way to dispelling her anxieties to something of a tolerable state.

Dylan who took some exception to being spoken about as if he was not in their presence bellowed angrily at them. "Iím a goddamn sheriff! You ainít got no right to do anything with me! You got a price on your head Tanner, that makes you an outlaw!"

"Thatís right," Vin drawled seeming unconcerned by any of the valid point brought up in the manís tirade. "But that still donít mean I can run you into the real law in Eagle Bend for preying on all those people in Coventry and falsely arresting Doctor Styles."

"She ainít no doctor!" Dylan growled in angry retaliation and feeling more impotent in the face of his captivity.

"Thatís enough outta you." The tracker shot him a look that held more menace than any bluster he was attempting to convey. "Sheriff I would be more than happy to put a bullet in you, so donít give me an excuse."

"You wouldnít dare." Dylan replied defiantly. "You ainít got the stomach for it."

Without saying another word, Vin raised the Winchester that Alex had returned and cocked the gun directly in the manís face with an unwavering hand that held no misconception as to what his course would be if Dylan did not shut up. He pulled the trigger loud enough for it to sound clearly in Dylanís ears and Alex gazed at her lover anxiously, wondering for a moment whether Vin would actually shoot the man. As much as he might deserve it, she could not tell what Vin was planning to do and prayed that Dylan would do as he was told. It was the look of fear on Alexís face that did more to convince Dylan that the tracker was serious and he swallowed hard, deciding that for now he would obey.

There would be another time for revenge and Dylan Pierce knew how to be very patient.

"Fine." He muttered and turned his back on Vin, who promptly jabbed the barrel of the weapon into his back and urged him forward.

Alex let out a sigh of relief and fell into stride with Vin, sliding her hand in his free one as they started walking to the sheriffís office further up the road. People were giving them a wide berth because they had seen the guns that were being wielded and had no wish to become caught in yet another fight.

"So you want to tell me why youíre wearing that?" Vin asked again.

"Not particularly," Alex replied with a wry smile almost bordering on embarrassment. "But suffice to say, I donít think Iíll be taking any trips out of town by myself for awhile."

"Good," Vin retorted, still very much focussing his attention on Dylan, perfectly aware that his prisoner was a dangerous man and not prepared to give him any advantage or allow himself to be distracted by Alex, no matter how much he wanted to take her into his arms rights now. "Cause I donít think I can keep up with you woman."

"You just say that because you love me." She teased and Vin broke into a genuine smile of agreement.

"Oh Jesus," Dylan groaned. "Just shoot me now."

**********

Mary and Casey were in trouble.


They were in trouble because a man the size of a house was maintaining close pursuit as he chased them halfway across the hotel for the past ten minutes. Despite their best efforts to elude the kidnapper, Coltrane kept them in sight and proved that he was an expert at ferreting out damsels fleeing from his attentions with startling accuracy. Although, most of the hotel patrons had seen the man tumbling after them, it appeared none was willing to intercede on their behalf. Considering that Coltrane was a behemoth of a man, it was extremely understandable why none of them would wish to face him.

Running through the restaurant of the hotel, they had collided with two waiters and a desert trolley laden with food. Although Mary had tried to apologise to that family that was covered in pastry, Caseyís cry of fear as they caught sight of Coltrane following them into the room made that a moot point. Mary had no idea of where they were going or how long they could keep ahead of the man. She had not idea whether Coltrane worked alone or did he at this moment have an accomplice that was closing in on them with every intention of trapping them in a net. Whatever the strategy, Mary decided the best thing she and Casey could do was keep ahead of him and try and deal with whatever came next.

Following their hasty departure from the restaurant and discovering that Coltrane was still behind them, Mary tried frantically to decide what to do next. The most logical course of action was to get out of the hotel or find its custodians but to do that required time they did not have, especially with their pursuer following so closely.

"What are we going to Mary?" Casey asked desperately as they paused briefly at a door which led to the stage entrance of the theatre. Already the theatre guests were filling up the floor and waiting in expectation for the show to begin. Mary looked over her shoulder and saw no signs of the kidnapper following them and wondered if he might have relented and returned upstairs. Mary could only hope that Julia had taken the time to escape while they had been leading her jailer about on this merry chase around the hotel.

Suddenly, he emerged from the restaurant and caught sight of them. His momentary pause broken as he started running towards them, pushing everyone unfortunate enough to be in his path out of the way.

"In here!" Mary cried out, gesturing Casey to enter the stage door. Conceding that it was their only course of action, Casey went through first, running through the darkened passageway that led backstage. Their footsteps were loud against the hard wooden floor and even eclipsed the voices they could hear on the other end. Mary hoped that the man had not seen them take this route but knew that he probably had and whatever concealment this path offered was only fleeting. They reached the end of the narrow stretch of corridor to emerge behind the scene of the stage, where props and theatre people were readying themselves for the coming performance.

Despite the dusty atmosphere of grey and unpainted floorboards, there was enough colour in the costumes, props and background scenery to offset the balance into a healthy mix of liveliness. Women in colourful costumes were walking back and forth, some in garishly full length dresses and others in more scandalous outfits, tolerated only because it was part of the life. Seeing them gave Mary an idea.

"We need to get out of these clothes." Mary declared because they stood out like sore thumbs in their maidís uniform.

"Into what?" Casey asked breathing hard and feeling vulnerable because she was no longer armed.

It was a sentiment that Mary could well understand and wished more than ever that she had never considered this foolish idea of taking a weekend on her own. It never worked out well and invariably required Chris to pull her fat out of the fire. Unfortunately, on this occasion her husband was no where in sight (which was just typical) and she would have to fend for herself. Mary thought quickly and looked around their new surroundings when she saw more doors at the rear with stars painted in faded gold on its surface.

"Into that dressing room." Mary said hurrying to the door first. "Thereís sure to be something in there we can slip into that will let us blend in."

"Are you sure?" Casey looked at her uncertainly, feeling unease creep into her bones for some inexplicable reason. However, any reservations she might have had were quickly shunted aside by the sound of heavy footsteps emanating from the stage entrance they had just emerged. Without any question of it being fact or not, Casey just knew it was the kidnapper and realised they had little choice but to follow through with Maryís suggestion.

Running into the first dressing room, they were confronted by a rack of dresses that were identical to the costume being worn by most of the lady performers loitering around backstage, taking their cues and waiting for the eminent commencement of the performance. It was perfect, Mary decided. Donning on of this colourful dresses would ensure that they would be lost in the crowd and allow them the avenue of escape they so needed.

"Put this on." Mary ordered, grabbing one of the dresses of the rack and handing it to Casey as she hurried to the door and shut it behind them, giving them a moment of privacy as they changed. Once it was secured, she took one of the costumes for herself when she noticed Casey regarding the outfit with some distaste. "What is it?" She asked, wondering why the girl was having trouble with such a simple request, particularly at a time like this.

"Have you seen this thing?" Casey retorted, not ashamed to admit she was embarrassed to put on this costume which was not only exposed most of her bosom but displayed way too much of everything for her liking. It was the kind of thing only a working girl would wear in its crimson and black lace glory.

"We donít have time to be selective." Mary replied and hastened to remove the uniform she was wearing, deciding she would have to take the lead if Casey was to be coaxed into wearing the outfit. She could not blame the girl she supposed Casey had been raised very conservatively with Nettie taking a close account of how she conducted herself. Casey hesitated for a few more seconds but seeing that Mary was willing to put on this outlandish costume went a long way to convincing her that she should followed suit.

In a few minutes, both Mary and Casey were clad in their new disguises and looked a far cry from how they had appeared a few seconds ago. The dresses were a tight fit and Mary kept pulling at it, trying to coax the material into covering more of her bosom since the cut was emphasising more of it than she found to be acceptable or tolerable. Casey, in the meantime, seemed to fit her costume well but she looked just as uncomfortable as Mary did.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door. "Girls, youíre on in five minutes!"

Mary stared at Casey blankly before answering. "Weíll be right there." She answered sweetly, having no intention of making that curtain call.

Whoever was on the other end of that door was satisfied with that response and withdrew promptly, leaving Mary to ponder their next move. Only after they were greeted with more silence for a few seconds, did the two women emerge from their hiding place. Outside, they could see their pursuer walking around the place, trying to find them in the flurry of colourful costumes and performers moving past him. Mary observed through the crack of the door until finally he disappeared from the backstage altogether. She let out a sigh of relief and pushed the door further open to emerge.

"I think heís gone." Mary said with a smile. "Now all we have to do is get out of here and get Julia help."

"Iím glad." Casey replied, anxious to get out of this dress because the combination of satin and lace was making her itchy and hot. They stepped out onto the main floor of the backstage when suddenly, a weedy looking man appeared out of nowhere and started ushering them towards the stage

"You too are going to be late." He barked. "You should be taking your places now."

"ButÖbutÖ" Mary stammered in protest as the man prompted towards the stages, still concealed behind the large velvet curtains.

"Miss Cynthia does not like to be late on her opening night," he continued to say, even though to Mary it might as well have been gibberish. "You two girls mess her debut performance and sheíll have you out on your ear." With that, he pushed them both out onto the stage with the rest of the assembled performers.

One of the women, wearing the same costume hissed in their direction. "Take your places! The curtains is about to go up!"

Mary and Casey froze simultaneously like deer caught in a hunterís sights.

**********

Chris had asked around and soon discovered that two women were seen being chased by a man through the restaurant where they had caused a great deal of commotion. Judging by the description provided, it appeared Mary and Casey were on the run from the mysterious assailant Alex had not the time to explain to him earlier. As he looked around the theatre, he saw seats filling with spectators for the performance about to begin and the house lights were starting to dim, indicating that the curtain was supposed to go up.


He let his eye scour the room before it became dark and he could see nothing of Mary or Casey which only added to his apprehension of what might be happening to them at this moment. Finally, the room had finally reached its desired state of darkness and the master of ceremonies emerged from the wings, dressed in his fine clothes and addressed the audience. Chris who remained close to the entrance to the place did not sit because he was not staying, preparing instead to resume his search for Mary and Casey.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Desert Sands Hotel is proud to present to you that eastern beauty, that songbird that is known throughout the entertainment world as the one definitive voice of heaven, I present to you Miss Cynthia Watson!"

The curtains started to part and Chris lingered more of momentary curiosity to see the woman who had earned such a grandiose introduction. While the lady herself had not appeared on stage as of yet, she apparently had a large supporting cast that was already present in order to give her arrival a hint of dramatic glamour.

It took him less than a second to spot Mary.

"OhÖChrist." Was the only thing Chris could manage to say.

For a minute Chris thought he was mistaken and had to blink twice before he realised that it was indeed his wife on stage, attempting very unsuccessfully to mimic the movements of those around her. Next to her, Casey Wells was even more awkward than she and Chris started to feel a pounding headache emerging from the centre of his brain.

Why am I not surprised?

Chris watched in a mixture of astonishment and downright amusement at his wife attempted to keep up with the rest of the performers on stage whilst wearing a look of utter terror more potent than any he had ever seen during a dozen countless adventures. Despite himself, he could not help but feeling a smile cross his face as he saw her wishing to be anywhere else but where she was and Chris wondered if there was any way he could rescue her from her current predicament.

As always however, the decision was taken out of his hands when a rather large man ran out onto the stage, shoving the performers aside as he ploughed his way towards Mary and Casey. Chris was already moving through the aisle between the seats, hurrying to deliver Mary from this latest development in her show business career.

"Mary!" He shouted as the stage started to descend into pandemonium while the rumble of confusion at whether or not this was a part of the show or something else began to run through the audience as Chris drew both guns.

"Chris!" Mary exclaimed as she and Casey were preparing to leave the stage in an effort to escape. Chris was almost to the stage and Mary let out a sigh of relief even though the kidnapper was only a few feet away from her.

"Get down!" He shouted and without question Mary dropped to her feet, dragging Casey down with her as she saw Chris preparing to shoot. Chaos filled the room as screams were heard at the sight of guns being drawn but Chris paid attention to none of these, working his way through the musicians at the foot of the stage and finding the small steps leading to the main floor. The big man had paused long enough to see the gunslinger coming towards him and realised at that moment that though he was armed, the man had the drop on him. For a moment, he deliberated whether or not he was willing to confront the stranger in black who felt imposing even to him.

He had not even drawn his own guns yet; there had not been time with the performers scurrying off the stage to avoid being caught in gunplay. Even the audience was at this moment, unable to decide what was happening and wisely, some were starting to depart the theatre hall. The first rule of being a hired gun was to walk away alive and if he were to draw right now, the man in black would kill him with ease. Coltrane considered his position and guessed that he was in trouble not just here but with the law already. They might not be willing to let him become just one of dozen outlaws that roamed the territory what he had already done but if he were to make this a shooting match, then the law would hunt him down and kill him.

Chris saw the big man stop his advance and holster his gun, giving him a look that conveyed much in a long stare. For a moment, words were not needed as they spoke their silent language when finally, the kidnapper tipped his hat in Chrisí direction and started to withdraw into the wings of the stage until he disappeared altogether. Chris returned the gesture before he vanished and when he was certain that this was no double cross, Chris turned to Mary.

Iíll bet youíre wondering what Iím doing here." Mary said hastily seeing the knowing look in his eyes that nothing about this was surprising him. "Itís a really good story. In fact, youíll laugh when I tell it to you. I know I laughed, just thinking about it, even now."

"Yeah," Casey agreed, "itís so funny."

Chris stopped them both with a look and said. "NeverÖtellÖ.me."

*********

Maude hated to lose.


However, she had never despised as much as she did than at this moment. Here she was, sitting at a table playing what should have been the best game of the season, before all the best gambling talent in the west. Instead, she was now in a position where she had to do something selfless for the sake of her son and hating every minute of the fact that she loved Ezra enough to do it thankfully. She supposed it would not seem so intolerable if Jethro Lewisham were not sitting across her at the moment, leering with triumphant satisfaction that she was willing losing because he was holding her possible daughter in law hostage as blackmail to ensure her cooperation.

They had played several hands now and even though Maude could have trounced him severely on numerous occasions, she was forced to remember that Julia Pemberton was in his clutches. Maude was unwilling to risk her life for anything, no matter how much she wanted to beat this smug bastard in front of her. She stared at the hand before her and felt her heart sink at the collection of queens and aces in her hand, knowing that she had more than a fair chance of defeating him if only she could have been allowed to play fairly.

Maude looked at the eyes around her, filling bile rise in her throat as they waited in anticipation for her next move, knowing that he had raised the stake again and it was up to her to meet that challenge or fold her cards in defeat. Her eyes moved across the gambling hall and took note at the gathering around her table seemed particularly thin while most of the spectators had opted to watch a real game where two players of equal skill were pitting their wits against each other. She could not blame them for ignoring the disgusting display of her defeat at Lewishamís hands.

"Are you going to raise me Maude?" Lewishamís voice broke through her thoughts and brought her back to the reality of her situation. He was daring her to do so, trying to see if she would chose her own pride over her sonís happiness.


"I have not done deliberating." She replied, trying to maintain some semblance of dignity in the face of her humiliation. Maude had no idea it could be so hard.

"This is a game of chance madam," he sneered. "Not a shopping excursion. Make your choice now."

Maude swallowed hard, feeling a lump in her throat because she could not delay her surrender any longer. He knew it as well as she loathed admitting the same. She understood why Ezra had not told her about Julia Pemberton and that realization made her course all the more clear. Her son had not wanted her to meddle with the relationship and bring it to ruin which mean this was more than just a dalliance for him. He loved the girl and quite deeply. Judging by how angered she had been by Ezraís omission, Maude sensed Julia loved her son with just as much passion.

She could not bring them unhappiness just because of a card game.

There would be a chance to save face later, Maude told herself as she reached the final decision. The Indians believed that people had spirits guides. If Maude had such a creature keeping watch over her, then she would assume that it was a feline of some variety because she had always manage to land on her feet. She would survive this and she would get her revenge tomorrow. For the moment, only one thing mattered to Maude Standish. Ezraís happiness. Taking a deep breath, she lifted her chin with typical defiance and met his gaze directly. "It is always wise to retreat so one can fight another dayÖ." Maude started to say as she began to lower her cards.

"And then again," a new voice entered the fray. "Its also wise to seize the day."

Maude looked up and found herself staring at Julia Pemberton, who appeared very much her own person without the imprisonment that had kept them trapped as Lewishamís creatures. Standing next to her, almost like a miracle was Ezra and they both approached the table and drew with them an number of interested onlookers who were wondering what this latest drama was that was unfolding at this previously uninteresting corner of the tournament.

Lewishamís face displayed his outrage and he opened his mouth to speak when Ezra cut him off. "Sir, I do believe my dear mother had something to impart upon you?" The gambler remarked with a twinkle in his eyes as he regarded Maude. When Julia had calmed down enough to tell him what was happening, the both of them had made their way here, hoping to keep Maude from surrendering her dignity as well as her reputation as one of the best card players in her attempts to save Julia from harm.

"She was about to fold." Lewisham said through gritted teeth, aware now that his hopes of defeating Maude were slipping further and further out of reach.

"I was about to do no such thing," Maude, ever the consummate professional returned smoothly, trying to hide the smile that threatened to sneak across her face as this latest development. "Mr Lewisham, as my son said, it is always wise to seize the day."

Jethro Lewishamís face turned a shade redder as he prepared for the inevitable defeat that she was about to deliver upon him. "Do your worst Madam," he warned. "When you are done, I think you find that the accounts between us are far from in order."

"Iím afraid that they are." Julia replied coldly. "Or I will tell anyone who will listen, in particular anyone with a badge that you organized this kidnapping and if they donít believe me, I am certain the gamblers in this establishment will be interested to know how you intended to cheat them all by your actions. They are not so particular about evidence and have a strange code of honor if Iím not mistaken. If you make it out of Eagle Bend alive, I will be surprised."

Lewisham could say nothing and turned away from the redhead, choosing to vent his angry glare at Maude who declared loudly. "I call, Mr Lewisham." She pushed the matching stake into the middle of the table and backed him into the proverbial corner. "Letís see what youíve got?"

He lowered his cards to the table almost slowly, his hand trembling as he swallowed hard, his Adamís apple bobbing up and down nervously. Finally, he swore loudly and tossed his cards the rest of the way, revealing an incomplete straight that was worth nothing.

"Oh that was most unfortunate." Maude replied automatically and did not hesitate when she presented her cards. "Full house."

Lewisham rose to his feet abruptly, pushing his chair out so forcefully that it fell noisily to the floor behind him. He could not even look at Maude as he tore away from the table, swearing loudly as he broke into the crowd, pushing his way through the spectators before disappearing all together.

"Ezra darling," Maude eased back into her chair as both Julia and Ezra joined her at the table. "You timing as always was impeccable."

"Why thank you mother." Ezra removed his hat and placed it next to her considerable winnings. "It was not lost upon me that you were willing to sacrifice your reputation for Julia." He reached for her hand and lowered his lips to the gloved knuckle.

"Yes thank you Maude," Julia said warmly.

"How on earth did you escape?" Maude asked.

"Its too long a story," Julia sighed. "Suffice to say, Iím glad that you did not have to lose to that pig."

"Although Julia dear," Ezra replied after a waiter had taken their order for drinks. "There is really no such thing as a code of honor among con men and gamblers. We are a deceptive lot." He pointed out.

"Donít I know it," she scowled at him. "And donít Julia me. Youíre nowhere out of trouble yet. However, I did take a little bit of poetic license with my little speech." Julia admitted.

"Well you delivered your lines masterfully," Maude complimented. "I was impressed."

"Thank you," Julia said with a smile. "You and Ezra are not the only ones who know how to run a con. Iíve been there a few times myself."

"Oh Ezra," Maude looked at her son with a warm smile. "I like her."

Epilogue:

Homeward Bound

Maude did not win the gambling tournament but she was one of the last players at the table when the final hand was dealt. While she was disappointed that she had not won, there was no shame in being defeated by a legend like Brett Maverick, who proved to everyone once again, why he was truly the best at the game. Jethro Lewisham did not remain in Eagle Bend after his defeat, particularly when he learnt that not only was Maudeís son present to protect her from any further mischief he might conjure up, Ezra Standish appeared to be in the company of five rather formidable lawmen.

No doubt, Lewisham would emerge sometime in the future to cause her more discourse but Maude had severed her ties in New Orleans prior to her departure and knew she had allowed enough time to pass since her last visit to St Louis to return there without incident. Besides, Maude knew how to watch her back. She had made countless enemies in her life and had always managed to stay one step ahead of them. Lewisham would be no different and if by some instance he decided that he would like to take another shot at her, Maude knew she could always run to the protection of her darling son.

Ezra spent the rest of the evening trying to not feel any disappointment that he had been forced to miss such an auspicious tournament, particularly when all the greats were present and he had been unable to pit his own skills against any one of them. Still, he had hardly the time to feel too badly since he had to spent the rest of the evening convincing the love of his life that he was not the lowest thing to emerge from the primordial ooze since the arrival of the tube worm. Although they had presented some measure of solidarity when confronting Jethro Lewisham when he was holding Maude to ransom, things were far from right between them.


Ezra had no idea that Julia could be so angry. In truth, he had never seen her rage inspired so prolifically when it usually culminated in some form of acerbic wit or deviously wicked scheme aimed at whoever had provoked her ire. He supposed he could understand her anger although he did not know how to explain to her why he had done what he had since he himself could not fathom what had kept him from telling her about Maude. In any case, since they were forced to remain in Eagle Bend for the night, Ezra found himself very much alone when it came to retire and realised it would take more than an apology to fix this situation between himself and Julia.


It was going to take a ring.

Thus he waited until the next morning after Inez had left the suite she and Julia were sharing, apparently intent on mounting a formidable shopping expedition for maternity clothes, an endeavour that was even more amusing when she allowed Buck to accompany her. The former Lothario felt the need to share in the complete birth experience, much to Inez chagrin and would not let the Mexican bartender rest until she relented and let him come with her. Ezra would be surprised if Inez did not kill him before they returned.

Knocking on the door, Ezra waited patiently outside in the hallway, wondering what approach to use when she finally let him in. Of course there was no guarantee that she would, she was still very angry. He could not blame her for that since it was rather an underhanded thing he did. It was just that Maude had a tendency to ruin everything that he touched and as he thought about, he supposed that constituted much of the reason why he had kept Julia a secret. He did not want Maudeís interference to ruin this too. Julia meant too much to him for that.

"Good morning Julia." He said oozing charm as she swung the door open and stared at him.

"What do you want Ezra?" Julia responded by turning on her heels and returning to what she was doing prior to the interruption, leaving the door parted for him to enter. Ezra walked into plush surroundings, admiring the room she had spent the night and frowning with distaste as he recalled the saloon where he and the others had slept, since none of them were comfortable with staying at a place like this.

"Julia, how many times am I going to have to say sorry?" He exclaimed with a hint of exasperation in his voice. He hated this unhealthy atmosphere between them and wanted things to be the way they were before he had left Four Corners.

She was walking back to her bedroom when she paused and looked over her shoulder at him with a look of mischief in her eyes. "Until I say stop." A hint of a smile crossed her face as she said that.

"You must be joking." Ezra looked at her and saw that she was not.

"Well," Julia retorted. "In that case, be prepared for a lot of lonely nights Mr Standish." With that she resumed her journey to the bedroom.

"Come on Julia!" Ezra cried following her. "You cannot leave me to languish like this." He implored as he breached the walls of the bedroom. Julia was packing her things into the valise on top of the mattress, preparing for the inevitable departure at some point today.

"Oh yes I can." She replied shortly as she folded her things neatly and placed them inside the bag. "In fact, you will be languishing for quite a while."

"Julia," Ezra swallowed, knowing he was going to have to say something other than desperate pleading to make her understand that he had not meant to hurt her or insult her in anyway. Reaching inside his coat, he removed the ring which he had carried around for so long and intended for one special person. This morning, he had set out early and found himself a jeweller to have the ring cleaned and polished before being placed in the velvet box that he was about to present to Julia. "I apologise for my mistake in not telling my mother about you. I swear to you it was not out of any sense of reservation about is. You know that I love you and always will but my mother has a tendency to meddle in my affairs and I did not wish that interference in our relationship."

Julia could tell when Ezra was lying and knew that he was telling her the truth at this moment. Whatever was being said now, was coming from straight the heart and she felt her anger dissipate in the face of his honesty. Besides, he had proven a number of times, how deeply he felt for her and despite her reluctance to admit it, Julia knew it was only her pride that had been hurt, nothing else.

"Ezra, you ought to know better than that." Julia sighed. "Your mother could not come between us unless you let her." She stared at him at him as if he were an unlearned child.

Men could be so thick sometimes.

"You do not know my mother." Ezra frowned.

"Well Iíve had a chance to get acquainted and I have to admit sheís growing on me." Julia replied with a small smile of reconciliaion. "Of course it also helps that she will be leaving soon so I can tolerate the momentary inconvenience."

"After awhile, everyone does." He grinned, genuinely pleased to see that she was thawing out somewhat. "Regarding the other matter to which I was remiss," Ezra cleared his throat as he took a step closer to her. "You have every reason to be angry and on this I have no excuse except to say that I should have given this to you long before this because you are the only person I can imagine wearing it." With that, he presented her with the velvet box.

Julia did not react as she took it in her hand and opened it to be greeted by the sight of a most delightful looking band of silver with its prolific gem twinkling light in every facet. "Its beautiful Ezra." She said quietly. "But I donít want it."

"What?" He looked at her. "If this is because I did not present it to you earlier..."

"It is and it isnít," she said quickly, trying to reassure him she was not angry that he had not given it to her before now. "I am mad that you held it back from me but I also like things the way they are between us right now. Donít you?" She met his gaze.

Ezra could not lie. He did like the freedom of their relationship. While they were very closely attached to each other, Ezra like the fact that he could enjoy the intimacies of being with her without being trapped in a domestic situation, to which he was not yet ready to commit fully. He had a feeling that Julia was enjoying being her own person and was unprepared to let that go either. Marriage was something neither of them had given serious thought to and the existence of a ring should not be the reason that they be goaded into it prematurely. "I suppose I do." He replied, never loving her more than at that moment.

"So," she closed the lid of the box gently and handed the box back to him. "When we are ready to do it, I would love to wear that ring. In the meantime, if you ever do anything like this again, I will have to kill you."

"Actually," Ezra remarked, slipping the ring back into his pocket. "Since weíre on the subject of disclosure. At what point are you going to tell me whether or not you have any family thatís likely to emerge out of the woodwork one of these days?"

"Thatís different." She said evasively and then added with a conspiratory smile. "Weíre talking about you not me."

"I see," he folded his hands and stared at her critically. "Do you not think that is something of a double standard?" He looked at her with an accusatory glint in his eyes.

"It is." She neared him and wrapped her arms around his neck. Her lips brushed gently against his neck as she whispered in his ear seductively. "However, if I plead my case in just the right way, do you think we could just skip the subject?"

As her mouth started attacking the sensitive skin of his neck and Ezra gave himself to her tender ministrations, he could only grin. "Madam, you do know how to drive a hard bargain."

With a smile, Julia replied. "Not yet but soon."

************

Chris and Mary had decided to remain in Eagle Bend to spend a few days with the Judge and Evie Travis who had been asking them to stay for quite some time. With Billy boarding with Audrey King and her daughter Lilith, Mary was confident that Billy was in good hands as Audrey seemed to have a knack for entertaining both children. Besides, they had not spent any time alone since their honeymoon and Mary was astonished because it was Chris who made the suggestion. She had the impression that Chris was somewhat offended that she never suggested that they go to a luxurious hotel for the weekend but then Mary could never imagine Chris indulging in that kind of opulence. Still Chris had surprised her on numerous occasions during their marriage with things she never imagined a hardened gunslinger might do. Like taking up horse ranching for instance or going into partnership with Vin and Buck for such a venture even though it seemed like a natural progression of the way things had been going lately.

Since Alex had paid for their suite for the next two days, she had offered it to Chris and Mary. Alex was pleased that her friend was going to get some use out of it as the doctor had than her fill of adventure and of Eagle Bend being eager to return home to Four Corners. Dylan Pierce was still languishing inside Eagle Bendís jail and Judge Travis had promised to keep him there indefinitely while at the same time, checking with Kansas City to see if the former henchman had any outstanding warrants on his head. In any case, he had been charged with kidnapping as well as a slew of other crimes the inhabitants of Coventry were willing to testify now that the proper authorities had answered their prayers of deliverance.

It was about midday before the entire group chose to return to Four Corners with Mary and Chris bidding them farewell in front of the hotel as the party prepared to leave Eagle Bend. Mary was secretly thrilled to be spending two blissful days alone with Chris since her weekend had gone so badly but she was still sad to see her friends departing.

"I canít believe how stuff you women need." Buck complained as he waited impatiently on his horse and commented to Inez. When he had volunteered to go shopping with Inez, he had assumed they were alone and did not realise until after they had embarked upon the expedition and found that it also involved Casey and JD. Both men had suffered incredibly as they followed each woman into what felt like every store in the town.

"You wanted to come." Inez pointed out as she sat next to Casey on the wagon. "I told you what we were going to be doing." It was not to say that having Buck and JD around during their shopping trip had been any more tolerable for herself or Casey either. The men had bordered on rude as they stood in the stores waiting, obviously bored and not afraid to voice their impatience each time Inez or Casey decided a fitting was required for any garment they wished to buy before a decision could be made.

"I know," JD added. "But I canít understand why youíre buying a new dress Casey. I mean itís only a dance."

Julia rolled her eyes. "You men can be such morons." She shook her head in disbelief.

"Yeah JD," Casey snorted. "Its not like I bought the dress for you or anything." Casey said with a slight hint of teasing in her voice. Although she had bought the white gown with its pretty rose bud print with every intention of wearing it when she arrived at the dance at his arm, there was no reason for JD to know that.

JD did not like that idea at all. "What do you mean Casey?" He demanded, much to the amusement of his older companions who were more seasoned and knew when a girl was playing a man for a fool or in this case JD. "Who did you buy it for?"

"Itís none of your business JD." She replied haughtily.


"Casey, thatís not funny." JD insisted. "I want to know." Suddenly, JD had this strangest premonition that he was going to be asking this question numerous times before he reached Four Corners.

"JD," Buck shook his head in disgust. "Ainít I taught you anything? You donít beg a woman! Have some dignity for Christ sake." The older man leaned over and swatted him over the head with his hat while JD was still persistent in his desire to learn just whom Casey had intended that new dress for.

"Sure Buck." Chris said with a completely straight face while winking in Inezís direction who knew better on that subject. Buck saw where Chrisís gaze was going and threw the gunslinger a dirty look. Considering how Buck had been trying to win Inezís favour, he was the last person on Earth to rebuke JD about dignity.

"Some friend." The man scowled in his direction as the others started to laugh.

"So Mr Larabee," Ezra said ignoring the juvenile antics taking place between his friends and turned to their leader. "I gather you will be taking a few days for yourself with your fair lady?" He tipped his hat in Maryís direction respectfully.

"Yeah," Chris nodded, throwing a faint smile at Mary as he nodded in answer. "Weíll ride back in a few days. If you could just let Audrey know to keep Billy for a few days, weíd appreciate it."

"I am sure Master Travis will keep himself entertained." Ezra sighed, guessing that he was going to be plagued by Billyís infatuation with Julia for the duration of his parents absence. "Where is Mr Tanner anyway?"

Just as Ezra asked that question, Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles appeared out the main entrance of the hotel. Vin had his hand securely on Alexís and was fairly pulling her out onto the board walk as they argued loudly upon their approach.

"Five minutes!" Alex exclaimed. "All you had to do was give me a lousy five minutes!"

"You said that an hour ago." Vin grumbled, clearly unimpressed as they returned to their friends.

"Iím telling you, he was bluffing!" She protested. "I could have beaten him."

"You had two pair!" The tracker exclaimed.

"Yeah but he didnít know two pair of what!" She retorted.

"AlexÖ.." Vin looked over his shoulder. "You lost $200 dollars!"

"I would have got it back!" She insisted.

"Jesus!" Vin said exasperated. "Get in that damn wagon before I really get mad." He ordered.

"Youíre no fun." She pouted and begrudgingly obeyed as he went towards Peso.

"Trouble in paradise?" Chris asked.

"She got into a game with that Maverick guy." Vin explained, throwing Alex a look as he mounted his horse. "If I didnít drag her out of there, she would be in the same state as Ezra when he lost to that old gambler a couple months back."

"Must we bring that up?" Ezra groaned, remembering how he had been consistently defeated by an elderly card sharp who had managed to cheat him out of everything including his clothes and forced him to walk the streets of Four Corners in nothing more than a table cloth.

"Iíll have you know that I could have beaten him." Alex replied, her voice full of dignity as she made the statement.

"Sure you could." Vin retorted and then turned back to Chris. "We better get going before she decides to jump the wagon and go back in there."

"Very funny!" Alex sang out.

"Just a moment," Ezra remarked. "I do believe Mr Sanchez is escorting my mother here. She intends to spend a few days in Four Corners before making the trip back to St Louis."

"Probably a good idea with Lewisham out there." Chris agreed. Although Ezra did not believe Maude would not have any more difficulty with Jethro Lewisham, Chris was not so sure and felt that a few days in Four Corners was probably a good thing. It would allow Lewisham some time to calm down and ensure they did not run into each other while on route to their respective destinations.

"I felt the same way." Ezra answered, having aided Maude to reach that decision by convincing her strenuously the night before.

Maude Standish emerged from the entrance following that statement, as always at Josiahís arm that always seemed at his most gallant in the presence of the lady. They were laughing quietly as if sharing some intimate joke, which immediately made the gambler sit up in his horse uncomfortably, as if what was going on between the two was making him exceedingly nervous.

"Oh Ezra," Maude beamed as she came up to them. "I have the most wonderful news." She glanced at Josiah. "Should I tell them Josiah?" She asked, her voice sounding coquettish and complete unlike his mother that Ezra immediately felt all the hairs stand on the back of his neck.

"I think you should." Josiah replied, facing Ezra with a smile that froze the blood and was full of smug satisfaction. "After all, he is your son."


"Not for long." Maude replied and inspired all their curiosity with her unspoke announcement even though she and Julia had planned this the night before as a means of gaining vengeance on Ezra for lying to the both of them.


"Mother, you are scaring me." Ezra said suspiciously.

"Ezra donít be silly," Maude declared reproachfully. "Its nothing terrible at all." She said this while linking her fingers through Josiahís in a clearly intimate gesture that made Ezraís eyes widen. "Josiah and I are going to get married."

"Married!" Ezra exploded as the others around him burst into laughter. Even Chris was grinning and trying hard not to let a snigger escape him but the look of utter terror in Ezraís eyes at this shocking revelation was not giving him any help. "Are you insane! You canít marry Josiah!"

"Now son," Maude looked at him sternly. "You are grown man now. This should not be of surprise to you."

"You are joking with me arenít you?" His eyes shifted between Maude and Josiah to see which of them would crack first and tell that this was some ruse they were playing with him.

"Just call me dad." Josiah grinned and Ezra almost choked on his spit.

"Ezra," Julia called out, unable to stand seeing her lover suffer any more but could not keep herself from enjoying one last piece of revenge.

"What?" He looked at her stricken.

"Now," she said with a wide and devious smile, almost as devious as the one Maude was wearing on her lips. "Now, we are even."

The End