Summary: When a beautiful stranger arrives in town following a series of deadly stage robberies, her presence brings uncertainty to the life of one Ezra Standish. Meanwhile Vin Tanner realises his unrequited love for Alex Styles might not be that unrequited after all...
Eighth story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows Convergence.
Papa's Little Dove
The dress mocked her.
Fashioned from silk and delicate embroidered lace, the quality of which was equal to none, it was perfection from the puffed sleeves to the mermaid skirt that swept the floor. The neckline plunged enough to show her ample chest, and the bodice would cling tightly to her impossibly slender waist when worn. It was a gown to tempt men and envied by women.
In it, she was the fairy tale princess in one of those books Papa used to read her as a child. For her special day, he wanted a dress worthy of her, a gown befitting the most beautiful young bride to ever grace the halls of the family parish church. The emerald necklace belonging to her mother and her grandmother sat around the neck of the dressmaker's mannequin, joining the dress in its elegant display. Somewhere on her dresser was a pair of matching earrings, equally expensive.
To Julia, the dress and everything with it was a death shroud.
Slipping all the jewellery into a small velvet box, she proceeded to the mannequin and took the necklace to be worn during her wedding and placed it with the others. It was the second to last bit of business remaining before she left this house forever. Snapping the lid shut, Julia took a final view of the room in which she had grown up. It had been her castle for so long, the ivory tower she occupied as a tenant and never much liked the rent she was required to pay.
This day was always inevitable.
For years, she'd deluded herself with the hope his money would be hers when he died. As long as she could remember, his fortune was the Holy Grail she would use to make her own choices. It was why she tolerated the price of that inheritance for as long as she had.
Her mother, whom she had never met, passed on early in life. Eleanor died bringing Julia into the world, and at the moment where souls pass each other through the threshold of life and death, wife and babe exchanged places in Donald Avery's heart. From her first spirited cry, she became her father's sole reason for being. In the daylight, he lavished his little daughter with every scrap of time possible as proof of his undying love for a woman who died too early.
But in the dark, his love had a price which Julia paid once the lights dimmed and the house was quiet.
To survive him, she became cruel and selfish, taunting the relatives around them with the freedom of her unbridled lust for life. A passion which led her to cultivate dalliances with any man who sparked her interest. Better to be the abuser than the abused. It aided her cause she was an uncommonly beautiful creature capable of manipulating men with a knowing smile and well-placed whisper.
Hers was hair like fire, yet not at all vulgar and crass, but subtle in the way copper shimmered under sunlight. Her emerald coloured eyes showed high intelligence, although she was never encouraged to use it for anything but manipulation. Her skin was flawless due to a lack of employment in any activity that might be considered work. She was created for the sole purpose of seduction, and she knew how to be nothing else.
Julia wielded her power like some men commanded armies, sending others forward to die willingly on the battlefield. For many years, she used the men in her life the same way. For a taste of her skin, they would do and say anything, and she enjoyed her power over them. It inflamed her with a fire nothing could abate, and she had yet to meet a man who was not a fool. Her father continued to adore her and was completely blind to how much she hated him.
By the age of 25, it had been years since she dreaded the turning of a lock in the night. She suspected his appetite skewed to a meal much younger than her and Julia was grateful for it. Their mutual secret meant she could fend off any attempts by him to marry her off and Julia waited in patience, for his eventual death so she could take the fortune she'd earned with her innocence.
But he wasn't done with her yet.
With his health beginning to deteriorate and the realization his days were soon ending, he decided to spare his sweet Julia the agony of loneliness by choosing her future.
His name was Roderick Packard, and he was deemed "new money" to the circles of blue blood society. He was not quite forty, coarse and completely unrefined, but he was also frightfully rich and in need of a wife who would make him acceptable to the world to which he aspired. From the moment Julia met him, she loathed him as much as she despised her father. The very thought of his big, rough hands on her made the revulsion in her stomach surface with such intensity she could barely breathe, and somehow, against all expectations, her Papa had promised her to him.
Julia accepted the proposal quietly, never allowing her father to know just how much she hated the idea. Her relatives, enjoying what they felt was her deserved comeuppance, gloated over the marriage with obvious delight. Julia accepted the situation and allowed the preparations to proceed, all the while wearing the mask of the gracious and dutiful daughter. The wedding day drew closer, and tomorrow she was expected to wear this gown to willingly enter a life of slavery.
It was past midnight when she made her way down the darkened hallway to Papa's study. As expected, the servants and the family were safely tucked away in their beds, unaware of her movements. She was dressed in dark clothes not really her colour, but she wanted to fade into the background, at least until she was out of Philadelphia. Confident no one was about, Julia stepped inside the elegant confines of her father's study. There was no need to light the lamps, she knew the layout of the room from memory. The moonlight pouring through the glass doors was just bright enough to offer further illumination.
The safe was hidden behind her mother's portrait, and before she took it from the wall, Julia paused to take a final glance at it. Her mother stared back at her without judgement, giving Julia comfort on those rare occasions when the night terrors had become too much. She wondered if Eleanor Avery had fled just like her, dying to escape.
Removing the painting, she turned her attention to the safe behind it. She retrieved the combination a few days ago while Papa had gone to visit Roderick Packard to discuss the fortune she would be inheriting once they married. No doubt, Packard would have total control over it, she thought bitterly.
Working quickly, she soon had the heavy door of the vault open. Inside were several inch-high stacks of fresh, crisp bills. Papa did not entirely trust banks, so he always kept enough in the safe to ensure his financial security in the event the establishment attempted to leave him penniless. She knew there was something in the vicinity of $50,000 inside the vault and Julia wasted no time liberating its entire contents.
Suddenly, the room flooded with light. Julia spun around and saw Papa standing before her in his nightclothes with a bewildered expression on his face.
"Julia? What are you doing?"
There was no point in lying. She could see his eyes darting from the empty safe to the leather case in her hand. Very quickly, he would guess her purpose.
"I am leaving Papa," she remarked neutrally. Julia had hoped to avoid this encounter, but now it was here, she supposed she owed him the truth.
"Leaving?" he stared astonished. "You are to be married tomorrow!" he took a step towards Julia. This too, was something she anticipated, and her fingers slipped into the small purse she was carrying.
"Stop where you are, Papa." The derringer stared him in his face before the old man had been aware of his daughter reaching for it inside her purse. The astonishment in his eyes defied description.
"What is the meaning of this?" His shock becoming anger.
"The meaning of this Papa," she said as she moved slowly towards the glass doors, "is that I am leaving this place, and I am never coming home."
"But Roderick..." he stammered, quite unable to believe his cherished daughter was pointing a gun at him.
"Is a pig and before I let you prostitute me to him, I would rather eat this bullet first. Goodbye Papa."
"Julia, you're not leaving! We will talk this out!"
He could not let her go!
"No!" she said sharply, swinging back around to aim the gun at him again. "Don't assume I won't use this Papa."
The ice in her voice was enough to convince him that she would indeed pull the trigger, even if he could not fathom how his daughter had become this cold-blooded thief standing before him.
"I'm not a little girl anymore, and you have made me very capable of pulling this trigger."
He cringed at that. "You're my little dove..."
The phrase made her skin crawl.
"No more," she said firmly. "I endured you for years because I believed your money would be mine. It is an inheritance we both know I've earned. I'll not stand by idly and let you sell me to another man, who'll take control of my fortune and lay claim to my body. The days when I fear a doorknob opening in the night is over. So yes, I am leaving, and I'm taking what is mine. You will never see or hear from me again. Goodbye."
With that, she turned on her heels and walked through the glass doors.
He watched her disappear into the night, still coming to grips with the sting of her words. What had he done that was so terrible? He'd only loved her. Just as he would have loved her mother. The anguish clutched his heart with such pain, for a moment Donald Avery believed he would die. Stunned, he walked to the open vault and saw that she had only taken the money and left the other valuables within. With trembling fingers, he closed the safe door with a soft clang as it locked again and replaced the picture keeping it hidden.
The agony inside his chest went unabated, even when he staggered to his desk. He sat on the leather chair, unaware the cold night air was blowing through the open doors. The only thing in his mind was how terribly wrong he was about his daughter and what that misjudgement was going to cost him.
He knew, without a doubt she meant what she said. Julia Avery would not grace these halls again.
He could have her brought back, but if he did, she might speak about their unique relationship and people wouldn't understand. They never did.
Easing back into the leather chair, he ignored the heart crying out it's warning as it stiffened in pain. It was broken and there was no reason to pick up the pieces. He closed his eyes and waited for the black to take him away to a place where Julia did not hate him anymore.
The Wild, Wild West
"Miss Alex! You can't go up there on your own!" Nathan Jackson ran after Alexandra Styles as she walked down the boardwalk, clutching her worn doctor's bag. It was early morning in Four Corners, and his exasperated voice carried across the length of the town, alerting passers-by to the argument moving quickly towards the livery.
"Look," Alex paused and turned wearily to Nathan, "you can't go because Mrs Doherty won't let a man treat her. I know the journey is a day's ride, but I'll make it. I've ridden trails in England and Europe on my own. I can do this myself."
She was dressed in the riding clothes brought from England even though the weather was too warm for it. Despite the end of summer, the chill had yet to settle into the fall. In truth, she was not that good a rider and did not relish making such a trip alone. Nevertheless, Agnes Doherty, a septuagenarian whom Alex saw regularly, did not come in for her monthly examination. The woman had a bad heart and lived alone. Stubborn and headstrong like Nettie Wells, Alex liked her and worried she might be hurt with no way to get help.
Nathan cursed out loud. “The Territory ain't like those fancy trails in Europe! It's pretty nasty! I ought to be going with you."
"But you can't," she countered, turning to face him. "There are three cases of yellow fever in this town with idiot patients who won't let a woman near them, so you have to treat them. Besides, I'm the only one who can see Agnes, so I'm going to have to go."
With that, she resumed walking once again.
Nathan uttered a frustrated sigh and shook his head as he continued after her. She was right. Even Chris Larabee was aware of the situation when he took the others to escort the stage into town. For the past two weeks, the stage routes were being ambushed somewhere along the trail from Sweetwater, with lives lost. With Vin in Purgatory getting a lead on who might be responsible for these robberies, Chris knew how important it was for Nathan to remain and aid the sick.
However, Nathan was not about to let Alex go riding off on her own either. This was the Territory, where a woman, especially one as beautiful as her, was in real danger of coming to harm. Unfortunately, she possessed a healer's instinct as strong as his, which meant she often went where angels feared to tread. He supposed her dedication ought to be admired, but right now, it was just going to land her in a heap of trouble.
"I appreciate the concern Nathan," Alex smiled at him warmly.
Since her arrival in town, Alex developed a close friendship with Nathan. He reminded her so much of her father it was like having William Styles back again. They not only worked well together professionally, but also understood what it was like to be an outcast among their peers. In their kinship, they became more than just friends. They were family.
"You appreciate it, but you're gonna do this fool thing anyway."
"That's right," she winked and resumed walking down the boardwalk, even more determined than ever.
“Lord give me strength."
"Howdy Nathan." Vin Tanner's voice suddenly came up out of nowhere scaring the bejesus out of him. Nathan spun around to offer the tracker a sharp glare.
"Will you not do that! If I had a gun, I would have shot you dead!"
The tracker had the most annoying habit of being able to sneak up on you without giving away the slightest hint of his presence. Nathan supposed it was what came from tracking buffalo and people, but sometimes, when Nathan's nerves were like they were right now, it was damn annoying.
"Okay..." Vin took a step back looking at him with a raised brow. Nathan was not usually this upset for no good reason. "Something wrong?"
"No," Nathan shook his head, feeling immediately sorry for biting off Vin's head like that. It wasn't Vin's fault he was just a naturally stealthy person. "I thought you were in Purgatory getting leads on these robberies."
"There ain't none" Vin frowned unhappily. "If there is, they did a pretty good job of hiding it. I think I done talked to half of Purgatory and nobody knew anything about who's been robbing these coaches. I tell you, it's like they vanish into smoke after the job."
"My three cases of yellow fever are still pretty bad," Nathan sighed, not being able to offer Vin any help. "I need to be close to town and Miss Alex has got it in her head to ride to the Doherty place by herself to check on Miss Agnes."
Vin knew the terrain well. The Doherty homestead was in rough country, with rocky, uneven ground that was challenging for an experienced rider, let alone a novice mostly accustomed to riding in a wagon.
"Yeah." he nodded, looking at the tracker unhappily. "Mrs Doherty won't see no one but her, so I can't go and have her stay with the yellow fever cases either.”
He glanced in the direction of the livery and saw Alex almost reaching Yosemite's stable where her horse Calliope was kept. Suddenly an idea came to him.
"Vin, you can go with her. It's too late for you to meet Chris and the others."
Vin did not like that idea at all. Not one damn bit.
"No," he quickly stepped back as if the suggestion was hot water scalding his skin. "She doesn't like me too much Nathan. She won't go for it."
It was such an awful excuse, but it was all Vin could come up with on the spur of the moment.
"I'm asking you to escort her on a ride, not marry her! What is it with you folks today? Why has everyone got to give me an argument?" The healer boomed before grabbing Vin by his jacket and tugged him along as he continued after Alex.
"Nathan, this ain't a good idea" Vin protested as he was dragged down the boardwalk by the determined man.
"I'm not listening to you!"
Nathan knew if he let go of Vin, the man was only going to think of a reason to squirm out of this task. Vin and Miss Alex had never really gotten along since her arrival in town. They were so different they reacted to each other like fire and oil. No matter what the subject, it was always guaranteed to end up in an argument. Although he did not wish to inflict their company upon each other, Nathan knew this was the only solution. At least with Vin escorting her, Nathan didn't have to worry about any harm coming to the good doctor. Besides, Vin knew that part of the country better than anyone else. He could make the trip go considerably faster, which was some consolation, Nathan supposed.
By the time they arrived at the livery, Vin had used every possible reason he could think of to avoid accompanying Alex Styles to the Doherty place. Unfortunately, Nathan heard none of it. The healer merely nodded patiently and then continued ignoring every single word Vin spoke before repeating the tracker was going .
Vin was starting to wonder if he really ever had a choice.
"Miss Alex, look who I found to go with you," Nathan announced proudly when they reached Alex saddling her horse in the livery.
Alex started to turn and then stopped short when she saw Vin standing there. Her expression unreadable, she spoke calmly to Nathan. "May I speak to you outside Mr Jackson?"
"No." Nathan shook his head, not about to be drawn into another argument about the suggestion. "Cause you're only going to try and talk me out of it. Vin is going with you."
"I don't need a babysitter," Alex stated firmly.
For weeks now, after an odd exchange at Nettie Wells's home, Alex and the tracker had been giving each other a wide berth. While the moment between them was entirely innocent, the heated emotions engendered by it certainly was not. Now whenever Alex saw Vin, she was filled with confusing emotions that made her stomach flutter and her pulse race. It made utterly no sense whatsoever and was in direct contradiction to the feelings she had for Ezra. Thus, spending a whole day riding with him, where there could be a repeat of what happened, was only courting peril.
“I can take care of myself without needing a man to escort me around like I'm some kind of prized animal!”
"That does it,” Vin bristled in annoyance, just as uncomfortable as she about this. "Get someone else. I just rode back from a den of thieves and outlaws meaner than spit. I ain't going out on the trail so I can spend the whole day listening to that !"
Vin started to head out of the livery while Alex turned back to her horse.
The command in Nathan's voice, rarely used to such a degree, startled both Vin and Alex enough for them to turn around. When they did, the duo found themselves facing the healer who was staring at them like two children throwing a tantrum.
"Now I don't care what petty snit you two have got going," Nathan's eyes darted to Vin and then to Alex. "But you are going with her," he glared at the tracker and then Alex, “and you are going to let him escort you, or else I'll tie you down in the saddle and let him lead you there!"
"I'm fine with that.”
Nathan silenced Vin with a look that would have made Chris Larabee proud.
"Do I make myself clear?" He dared them to defy him on this point. It was not often that Nathan was this riled up, but when he was, he had no patience for any further protest. Besides, Nathan had enough to do without the two of them behaving like spoiled brats.
"Yes," Alex mumble somewhat reluctantly.
"Yeah." Vin nodded a moment later.
"Good," Nathan smiled broadly, his pearly white teeth against his mahogany-coloured skin made it almost a grin. "Now have a pleasant trip."*****
Stagecoach robberies usually took place in a set pattern. Outlaws waylaid the carriage on some forgotten track and ransacked all the passengers' belongings until they found something of value. On some occasions, they shot someone if the victim made an attempt to flee or put up a fight. Most of the time, the passengers knew it was best to give up without a struggle to avoid giving the gunmen a reason to fire.
Not these outlaws, Chris Larabee thought, as he and the four unofficial peacekeepers of Four Corners lay in wait for the arrival of the Sweetwater stage.
Most outlaws had a reputation somewhere, even if it was merely drunken talk over a bottle of piss-poor whiskey. Nothing was known of this group. The men robbing the stagecoaches throughout the area these past weeks were professionals, this much Chris was sure. The varmints knew precisely who was on the stage, and they knew what they were looking for, even before they hijacked it. This suggested to Chris they had become expert through experience.
The only thing Chris couldn't figure out was what possible reason the outlaws could have to kill everyone they robbed.
In the first ambush, the gang murdered everyone including the driver. There were five people on the stage, and all of them were shot, including a seven-year-old child. The infamy of it incensed everyone because it was a completely unnecessary act of violence. Vin examined the tracks when they came upon the scene and knew no attempt was made to interfere with the criminals. The passengers accepted the robbery and allowed the outlaws to pick their belongings clean.
But they were gunned down anyway.
The slaying sent shock waves throughout the area for good reason. Every lawman from Four Corners to Eagle Bend was on the alert for the gang, whoever they might be. The lack of witnesses kept the trail cold. Approximately a week after the first robbery, another coach was attacked, this time leaving Four Corners to Bitter Creek. Once again, the stage was detoured to a disused trail before its occupants were slaughtered. Like the first incident, there were no survivors, and the body count rose to eight.
This time, Chris Larabee was taking no chances. Other towns were guarding their stagecoach trails and Chris did not intend to let Four Corners become the latest victim of this vicious spree. The body of the child killed in the first robbery struck too close to home, especially after Mary's miscarriage almost six weeks before. While she seemed recovered, Chris didn't forget the look in her eyes at the news of that dead child. The boy was no older than her son Billy.
"They should be here soon," Josiah commented, staring up the trail from their hiding place in the trees.
"Unless someone got to them first." JD pointed out that grim possibility and engendered a frown from the older members of the group. No one liked the idea of what that would mean. This whole stakeout was meant to be a preventative measure, not a clean-up operation.
"Always an optimistic soul ain't ya?" Buck patted the young man's back.
"Sorry." JD apologized, not wishing to sound as if he was a pessimist. He didn't think it should be right for anyone to be killed in cold blood the way these victims had been. It left a bad taste in his mouth, how anyone could be so callous. He wanted to find those men just as much as the others, it was just the waiting he abhorred.
"That's perfectly all right, Mr Dunne," Ezra remarked, understanding the boy meant no harm. He was young and felt things deeply. There was a time when they all felt this way, even if none of them would admit it now. "These are unscrupulous men indeed. There is no reason to assume they may not have altered their patterns."
"What do you mean?" Josiah turned to the gambler sharply.
"He means," Chris answered before Ezra could, his eyes never moving off the trail of the anticipated stagecoach, "if they're willing to kill a stage-load of people to hide their identity, then they're smart enough to change tactics to throw us off their trail."
"Precisely," Ezra said with a slight tip of his hat at his leader's direction. "Spoken like a true commander of the field."
Chris did not react to Ezra's compliment if that indeed was what the gambler was aiming for. Instead, he fell silent, watching the road and listening carefully. Realistically, if the stage were waylaid, they would only know it if they were close enough to hear the gunshots. Chris hoped it did not come to that.
"These varmints need stringing up," Buck stated with more venom in his voice than he usually cared to show. The outlaws were most indiscriminate about whom they killed and finding the bodies after their massacre, left an image in Buck's mind he could have lived without.
"We'll oblige them for sure when we find them."
Chris could understand the feelings of those around him and knew these murderers stabbed at the very heart of what they tried to accomplish in Four Corners for the last year. By their presence, the town was a safer place, and each man felt a certain amount of pride in that. All of them considered Four Corners their home now. Chris, in particular, had reason to keep it safe. Billy often returned home by stage, and if they could not put an end to this, his trips home would be less frequent. After her miscarriage, Mary needed to see her son without fearing for his safety.
Time lapsed slowly, and before they knew it, the stage was late. A few minutes stretched into five and then ten. When it was twenty minutes, Chris knew he was not waiting any longer. Digging his heels into his horse, he tore out of their hiding place, giving his companions little warning of his intentions. Accustomed to his behaviour by now, the others quickly galloped after him.
They hadn't travelled far when they heard gunshots in the distance. The sound made them ride faster, racing against time as they tried to reach the stage before it was too late. Chris, as always, was in the lead with JD keeping pace easily. The only reason Chris outdistanced him was because the gunslinger had a head start. Under normal circumstances, JD was capable of riding them all into the ground. Amazingly enough, this was a skill developed in an Eastern school.
The terrain was dry, with the surrounding trees undergoing the process of autumn discard. Leaves covered the ground in an array of bright, vibrant colours. Against the backdrop of a clearer sky than any found across the country, the effect was nothing less than breathtaking.
The gunshots had travelled some distance to reach them, but Chris knew it was not far enough away; they would not reach the beleaguered stage in time.
As they neared the source of the gunfire, the shooting stopped abruptly. It was followed by the terrified scream of a woman.
"Down there!" Chris pointed to a narrow trail away from the main track, just tight enough to fit the stagecoach. The carriage was shrouded by thick bushes and shrubs after being forced off the path if the leaves and broken branches were any indication. If Vin were present, he would be able to tell Chris in an instant. Without the benefit of the tracker, and with the urgency escalating, Chris was forced to go on instinct.
As they broke through the thicket, Chris became aware of hoofbeats that did not belong to his companions. Straining to see through the dense foliage in front of him, he saw riders in the distance, making their getaway. He counted at least five, and they saw Chris. They began firing immediately but were too far away to make an accurate shot. By the time he broke through the worn path of leaves and branches, Chris knew they were long gone.
The realization of this escape made Chris swear until he saw the stagecoach and the bodies.
Christ, not again.
Grimly exchanging glances as their mounts slowed to a trot towards the crime scene, they all feared the worst. The stage lay tilted slightly to the side on uneven ground. The horses harnessed to the wooden carriage were stamping their feet in distaste, made uneasy by the scent of death in the air.
The luggage scattered in the surrounding area seemed to confirm this fact. Ransacked suitcases and trunks were strewn about the ground in an expanding field of debris. It spoke in hushed tones to the violence committed in this grove, far away from civilization. Personal belongings trampled underfoot by the outlaws and their horses, covered the ground as the lawmen dismounted and neared the silent carriage with growing trepidation.
"We're too late," Buck whispered.
He did not want to face another scene of carnage as they did twice before. It twisted his insides when it soon became painfully apparent this was precisely what they would find. The scene before them was no different than the last time, only the location and the faces had changed.
"We don't know that," Josiah said quietly, but no one seemed to speak up in agreement. The outlaws left no survivors previously, and there was enough evidence before them to indicate this time was no different.
Chris looked around, convinced he heard the cry of a woman shortly after the shots. He strode forward, unafraid of anything that could be waiting for him inside the carriage because he and horror were old acquaintances. After finding Adam and Sarah's charred bodies in what was left of their home, nothing had the power to frighten him after such a discovery.
As he rounded the carriage, he caught sight of a woman.
Upon his approach, she looked up at him with the most astonishing emerald eyes he ever saw. They were filled with tears, and those perfect lips seemed to quiver with sorrow as she wept for the four bodies on the grass. Her long, copper-coloured hair was loose against her white skin, which was understandably pale considering the tragedy before her. She did not seem hurt, but the top four buttons of her blouse were undone, revealing enough cleavage to give him concern.
"You scared them away," she fumbled for those buttons with one hand, while the other picked up the gloves resting on a nub of rock nearby.
"Are you alright, ma'am?" Chris worried that the men who had murdered these people, an elderly couple, a middle-aged man who appeared to be the stagecoach driver and a boy not much older than JD, might have harmed her. It was nothing less than a miracle she was alive, although if they had intended to have their way with her, she might be happier with the alternative.
As it was, all the victims were shot in the back of the head. Chris could see the sickening moisture of pulp on their skulls and stepped in front of the woman, obstructing the grisly scene. He knelt down on the grass to help her up.
"They wanted to force me..." she exclaimed clearly distraught, shuddering visibly by the odious notion. The tears started running down her cheeks faster now making them sparkle with lustre.
"You're safe now ma'am," he reassured her, placing his hands on her shoulders to help her to her feet. She slid up with him, never more than a hair's breadth away. Chris could smell the scent of lavender and wondered wildly whether she bathed in it or was it merely perfume. Suddenly, he noticed he was becoming too aware of her and took a safe step back.
"What happened here?" Chris asked, noting the look of surprise on the faces of his companions. Chris was not usually taken in by a pretty face, and he shot them a warning glare about what they could do with their opinions on the matter. Hell, she was a beautiful woman, and he wasn't blind. Besides, Chris was allowed to look if not touch.
He was almost grateful when Buck Wilmington closed in on them, knowing his old friend was in a better position to be of comfort to the lady than he was. For obvious reasons, she made Chris feel uncomfortable, but some not so apparent that put him on guard. Was it right to complain she wasn't killed like the others? Why was she spared?
Buck handed her his handkerchief and produced his most charming smile. She was, in Buck's opinion, the most dazzling creature he had ever seen, and he had considerable experience to be able to make that comparison.
"Now darling," he said with the warmth that Chris would not show, "we're the law in these parts, and we're here to protect you." He gestured towards the others, who were spreading out over the crime scene to make a thorough examination. Only Ezra and Chris remained.
"I was so scared!" She spoke with a soft and breathless eastern accent, holding onto Buck's linen handkerchief like it was made of silk. "They killed everyone for no reason. They forced the coach to this terrible place and killed the driver! Then they made us all climb out while they went through our things, trying to find our valuables. After they took everything, they started shooting."
Her resolve broke then, and she descended into tears, taking refuge in Buck's comforting arms.
Buck was genuinely touched by this poor woman's ordeal and gave Chris a look of helplessness as she wept. Chris rolled his eyes, seeing Buck's interest was more than just offering comfort until he noted Ezra's expression of quiet amusement.
Chris had no idea what the gambler found so entertaining with four bodies and a woman who was frightened out of her mind. Chris made a mental note to be let in on the joke when they returned to town. After the grisly work they would soon have to perform with collecting and returning the bodies to Four Corners, Chris was going to need a little levity. Sometimes Ezra's ability to remain so detached surprised even Chris Larabee.
When she composed herself again, she continued her story, drying her tear-filled eyes as she spoke. "They were going to force themselves on me! I fought them, but there were five, and all I managed to do was pull off one of their masks. I saw one of their faces very well."
That immediately caught Chris's attention. Finally, an eyewitness who could identify one of these bastards! He strode towards her again. "What exactly did you see ma'am?"
"Now Chris," Buck eyed him with reproach. "The lady's been through an ordeal. Can't we spare her this until we get back to town?"
"Yes," Ezra said for the first time. "We wouldn't want this delicate flower to wilt under such strong interrogation. I am certain she will accommodate our questions after she has had a moment to regain her strength."
There was something in Ezra's voice that made the gunslinger look over his shoulder. For a moment, he could not tell if Ezra was serious or not. It sure as hell sounded to Chris like Ezra was almost enjoying this poor girl's suffering. Buck seemed oblivious to it, but Chris had learnt enough about Ezra to pick up the subtle inflections in his voice. This was one of those moments when Chris could not decipher his intentions. Chris was at a loss whether to beat the crap out of Ezra or demand an explanation.
"I don't see why not." Chris conceded, still somewhat bewildered by Ezra's attitude. "They're long gone anyway. We couldn't catch up with them even if we wanted to."
"May I have the honour of your name, ma'am?" Buck inquired, realizing proper introductions had not been made.
"Why certainly, I am Julia Pemberton of Pennsylvania."
"That's a mighty pretty name, Miss Pemberton," Buck said, taking her extended hand and kissing it in that most cosmopolitan way.
Chris and Ezra exchanged knowing glances, deciding Buck had no shame. Granted this female was especially fetching, but Buck might have found a better venue to nurture a future dalliance. For a moment, it seemed neither were aware four bodies were lying in the dirt only a few feet from them.
"I am Buck Wilmington," Buck introduced himself with a smile before turning to his friends. "That there is Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish."
She turned to them. "You are my knights in shining armour, all of you."
Chris cleared his throat and replied uncomfortably, "We should get you back to town Miss Pemberton."
For obvious reasons, Chris did not trust Buck alone with this young woman. When his old friend was anywhere in the vicinity of a beautiful female, Buck didn't have the sense God gave a dog. Chris did not want to chance Buck being distracted on the unlikely chance that those killers were still out there. She was the only witness to the murders, and Chris was not going to risk her safety for any reason.
No, Buck was not the best choice to escort Miss Pemberton to Four Corners. If she could identify even one of the men carrying out these vicious crimes, then she needed to get there alive.
"Ezra," he said quietly motioning the gambler closer. "Take Miss Pemberton into town. We're going to need the coach to transport the bodies."
"Certainly Mr Larabee," Ezra turned to the young woman wearing that same bemused expression Chris was at a loss to explain. What was it he was seeing?
"But Chris!" Buck protested almost immediately for reasons that were obvious to all except the young lady. "I can do that." He marched up to the gunslinger to prove his point, casting another smile in the lady's direction, assuring her he would handle this slight problem of her escort.
"Chris, what are you trying to do to me?" He hissed quietly, grabbing Chris's arms and veering him out of Miss Pemberton's earshot. "Are you trying to ruin my chances with her? That is the most gorgeous filly that ever walked the earth!
Chris shook his head in disbelief, wondering if Buck was serious. It took less than a second for Chris to realize he was.
"Buck," he said calmly, not in the mood for this when people were dying because of the Seven's inability to reach them in time. "I ain't having this conversation with you. I need you here, with your brain any place other than where it is right now. She goes with Ezra."
Buck opened his mouth to protest and saw the icy glare Chris was giving him. It was a lost cause, and he knew it.
"Fine," he said gruffly, throwing Ezra an unhappy scowl. "But I'll never forgive you for this."
"I'll try to get over it." Chris returned, taking a step towards the slightly dishevelled Miss Pemberton. "Ma'am, Ezra here will take you to Four Corners, if that's agreeable."
The young woman looked at Ezra as if noticing him for the first time. Her eyes held Ezra's gaze for a few seconds before she looked graciously at Chris once more with that near-perfect smile on her lips.
"That would be most accommodating, Sir."
Chris walked towards Ezra to have a private moment with the gambler as the lovely Miss Pemberton gathered her belongings from the coach. Predictably Buck was in attendance, providing support to the young lady as they steered around the grisly collection of bodies. By now, Josiah returned and was performing last rites over the dead, even if they were somewhat belated. JD found a quilt from the discarded belongings to cover the bodies to spare Miss Pemberton from witnessing the scene any further.
"Don't let her out of your sight," Chris instructed Ezra, who was still watching the woman under Buck's ministrations. "If she saw them, there's a chance they might come back to finish the job. They've been pretty determined to hide their faces, I don't think they'll appreciate having a witness around to identify them."
"I will ensure the young lady is properly supervised. Mr Tanner should be in town by this time so we can deal with anything should it arise." Ezra reassured the gunslinger.
Chris nodded before letting out a deep sigh. "There ain't no call for this.”
With that, Ezra could not disagree. The carnage resulting from a mere stage robbery was disturbing. There was no reason to kill. From what little Miss Pemberton was able to impart on them, the outlaws had taken precautions to hide their faces. Why do that if the intention to kill was always there? Ezra could understand Chris's puzzlement at the unnecessary shedding of blood and the total lack of discrimination in the victim's selected. "It does seem somewhat overkill for a mere act of theft."
"Overkill is an understatement," Chris snarled. "They kill women and children." His voice was a hard line of barely concealed anger, which was rare for Chris Larabee in Ezra's opinion. Chris had a tighter rein on his emotions than most people Ezra knew. If the gunslinger had chosen to make gambling his profession, he would have had the most perfect poker face.
"There is going to be an outcry until we catch these villains." Ezra reminded. Lawmen in all the surrounding towns, including Four Corners, were under intense pressure to end these killings. It produced unprecedented cooperation between local lawmen in all the communities, and it was more than just being about who caught these men first but ending the threat of them.
"I know" Chris nodded somberly. "I'm starting to think this is not about a robbery."
Ezra looked at him, interested in where that well-honed intellect was leading Chris Larabee. Ezra had seen Chris given clues that were absolutely meaningless to the others, only to craft an entirely plausible theory. He had a logical and deductive mind capable of taking apart a problem to its bare elements and then devising an equally reasonable solution. If Chris thought there was more to this than just petty theft, then Ezra believed him with complete faith.
"She's a pretty woman," Chris remarked glancing in the direction of Miss Pemberton who was returning with a small valise in her hand and Buck playing escort.
Ezra had to agree with him with the change of subject and his observation of the young woman. Miss Pemberton was charming. He found himself invariably comparing her to Alexandra, who was very attractive herself, except Miss Pemberton knew she was beautiful and Alex viewed her features as another reason why she was not taken seriously as a doctor.
Still, Ezra had to admit, those copper coloured locks were quite mesmerising...
"Mr Larabee, as Mrs Travis's beau, you should not be noticing such things."
Chris scowled at him because the gunslinger truly detested that word. It was a full month since Chris and Mary went public about their relationship, and even if the town was hardly surprised, Chris found people who previously avoided him were now speaking to him like they were old friends.
Suddenly, he was being invited to church socials and asked to participate in local events. He was actually invited to a barn raising a few days ago. Chris could still remember the laughter when Buck heard that. Not to mention the invitations to dinner whenever Mary was out of town for the day. For some reason, they believed he was incapable of feeding himself when she was not around to cook for him. Nevertheless, he bore the embarrassment in silence even though it gave the rest of the seven much fodder for amusement.
"I have two words for you." Chris glared at him.
"I think I know what they are." Ezra chuckled.
"Well Mr Standish," Julia announced her return with another one of those practised smiles meant to dazzle, "I am in your hands."
Ezra smiled faintly, trying to remain polite even though he was perfectly aware of what was going on. "I shall try to handle you delicately," he responded with every ounce of southern chivalry in his voice.
Buck kept his frown in place, clearly unhappy that Ezra was escorting her to town. Ezra wished he could tell the tall cowboy that he had no reason to worry. After all, he already had the affections of a woman he cared for deeply, he was not foolish enough to toss everything aside for someone who appeared to be more window dressing than an actual person.
"Miss Pemberton," Buck said to her, "it would be my pleasure to call on you in better circumstances."
"You have been most kind, Mr Wilmington," she gave him a look of suggestion hinting her interest was more than just fleeting. "I should be delighted to have your company at a later date."
Buck grinned at that, thrilled with his success. He offered a triumphant look in Chris and Ezra's direction before Chris finally stepped forward and took him by the arm.
"Come on, Buck." He towed his old friend away from the engaging Miss Pemberton.
"I'll see you in town!" He cried out as Chris distanced them both from Ezra and her.
"Are you ready Miss Pemberton?" Ezra said, shaking his head as he turned around and walked towards his horse, making no offer to help her with her valise.
She was waving goodbye to Buck when she noticed Ezra leaving. With the slightest hint of a frown, Julia hurried after him, somewhat confused that her usual repertoire was not working with this dapper young man.
Julia knew the type of course. She had met a few Southerners in her lifetime, although she could not say she had ever slept with one. He was a southern dandy, probably used to mint juleps and sitting on the porches of large plantations while their slaves fanned the heat from their 'oh so gentle' brows. Julia did not like their way of life. The women in that world were even more repressed than the blue-blooded aristocracy she just escaped.
They did not speak immediately after departing from the site of the latest murder but rode in silence for some distance. Ezra tried not to pay attention to the way her hands were wrapped around his waist or how she placed her breath near his ear. He smiled faintly at the obvious tricks, wondering how long it had been since he last fell prey to such blandishments.
To her credit, she played it well. Any woman who could make Chris Larabee notice her was quite formidable indeed. When Ezra scratched the back of his neck in irritation as a subtle signal for her to stop whatever it was she was trying to do to him, he heard the slight huff of disappointment.
"Have I done something to offend you, Mr Standish?" she asked in that sweet voice of hers.
"Not at all, Julia," he replied as they moved out of the wooded grove and rejoined the main trail back to town. After what they had discovered, he was looking forward to dinner with Alexandra. "I am, however, curious."
"Curious?" He did not need to look behind his shoulder to know she was looking at him with a look of wide-eyed innocence.
"Yes," Ezra nodded. "I've never met any villain who, intent on violating a woman, is good enough to allow her the time to remove her gloves and place them aside."
For a few seconds, she did not answer. When she did finally respond, her voice was full of wounded indignation. "Whatever do you mean? Those men were going to rape me!"
"I doubt it,” Ezra replied. “You're not the first woman these men have encountered during these robberies, and no violation occurred on those occasions. I suspect you bought yourself some valuable time by being a little more accommodating."
"How dare you!"
Ezra felt a sharp slap on his back, to which he only grinned wider.
"You vile beast!" Her anger was quickly followed by the predictable onslaught of tears.
"You are wasting your time."
"You are a horrible man!"
"You misunderstand me, Julia," he replied calmly, showing no indication of being the least bit affected by her tears. If anything, it only served to confirm his suspicions. After being raised by Maude Standish, Ezra was accustomed to every act of guile by a conniving female, known to man. "You did the intelligent thing. You used the resources available to you and escaped the encounter with your neck in one piece. You bought yourself some valuable time with the ploy. Although had we not come along, I am certain they would have killed you anyway."
There was a slight pause before he recognized the sounds of a nose being blown and sniffles subsided, followed by the heavy sigh of a charade dispelled.
"Are you going to voice these suspicions?"
"Of course not," Ezra replied, unsurprised by this sudden about-face. "Call it professional courtesy."
"Yes, Miss Pemberton, if that is really your name, I have been in this game when you were still deciding what to wear on your society debut. It is my gift to spot a con a mile away, and you, my charming Julia, were impressive."
“Well, I do try,” she said with a smile.
"Brava," he chuckled. "Truly, you should be on the stage. I shudder to think what new depths of vile you could bring to the role of Lady Macbeth or perhaps even Helen of Troy."
Julia didn't know if she ought to feel angry or amused by his ability to see straight through her. She often expected suspicion from women because they felt so intimidated by her, but it was novel coming from a man. He was absolutely correct of course. When the stage had been robbed, and Julia saw what they did to the others, she made them the only offer she could to save her life. As odious as it was, she would have allowed those men to touch her, even if it was a stall for more time while she came up with another plan.
"And how did you come to be the law around here?" Julia questioned after a moment, suddenly curious about him. "You hardly seem the type to be playing constable."
"I seem hardly the type for many things" Ezra deadpanned, glad she dropped her attempts at trying to trick him. "Let's just say, even a con man needs to retire. I own a saloon in town, and it is in my best interests for law and order to be maintained. Until our arrival, there was a decided lack of it in Four Corners."
"So I've been made aware," Julia replied. Her annoyance at him fading because it was liberating to be herself for a change, without the persona she was forced to maintain around men to get what she wanted. "I would not have bought the Emporium if I had known this area was running rife with highwaymen."
"The Kendall Emporium?" Ezra said with some measure of surprise. "I am sorry to tell you that particular establishment was burnt down.” Ezra thought back to that terrible business with Victoria Kendall and her vendetta against Mr Larabee.
"I know, but it will soon be rebuilt and open for business."
"You selected a very unusual choice for a new business," he remarked. Personally, he didn't see the lady as the type who would be interested in business. Women like Julia Pemberton preferred being waited on hand and foot, to be adored up close and adorned in the best.
He wasn't wrong, Julia had to admit. What had been in her mind when she bought the property? Julia wanted somewhere far away from the world of Philadelphia, and the Territory was the perfect place to hide from the likes of her father, and possibly Roderick Packard should he take it in his mind to find her. After all, she had left him at the altar, and he struck her as the kind of man who would be small enough to crave vengeance for his wounded ego.
Before her flight from Philadelphia, she read about the opportunities found in the Territory, with the coming of the railroad. While it would have been easy for her to jump a steamer and cross the Atlantic, Julia had found the idea of building something in a new frontier challenging. She was through being cared for and pampered. From now on, she was taking charge of her life.
"I agree" Julia replied after a moment, “but it shows promise and I wanted to build something on my own, without anyone telling me how to do it or whether or not it's proper."
Ezra raised his brow at that remark. "My dear Miss Pemberton, you surprise me. It appears that you may not be as shallow as you seem."
"Why thank you, Mr Standish," she produced a genuine smile instead of one for the benefit of others. "I am so honoured you have favoured me with some measure of depth. The lawyer who sold me the business was not so optimistic. He believed a woman of my delicacy would not enjoy a place like Four Corners."
Julia did not add that at the time, she had been sharing the delightful Mr Porter's bed, and he practically begged her to marry him by the time she boarded the train to Eagle Bend. He would have said anything to keep her, and she was never one to squander a good accountant.
"On the contrary," Ezra answered, oblivious to her current line of thought, "Four Corners seems to attract strong women. As you will later learn, and it is a fair warning to you now, Mr Larabee is involved with a highly spirited newswoman who wields considerable influence in town. My own business partner is a lady. My saloon would probably fall to pieces without her, and we have a lady doctor.”
"Oh, that's a shame," Julia said disappointed that the beautiful Mr Larabee was taken. Usually, that would not stop Julia, but she could not afford to alienate an influential member of the community in which she was trying to establish herself. Alas, Mr Larabee , she sighed. It was not to be.
"One other thing," Ezra warned since they were now having this very frank conversation. "Mr Wilmington considers himself to be quite the ladies man, and while I believe his interest in you may be purely carnal, he does seem more taken than usual. If you have no serious affections for him, I would prefer you did not trifle with his feelings. He is my friend, and I would not appreciate it if you hurt him."
"Why Mr Standish," Julia returned coyly. "Perhaps, this is motivated by a little jealousy?"
Ezra laughed. "Hardly Miss Pemberton. I am engaged elsewhere.”
"Truly?" she asked, her interest suitably piqued. Ezra Standish was a most intriguing man. Despite his manner of supreme confidence and his clairvoyance in reading her so accurately, Julia sensed intriguing depths to him.
Now that she was aware of him being forbidden fruit, he just became a lot more interesting.
Peso, the horse, was not happy, but then neither was Vin Tanner.
The ride to Agnes Doherty's place began with silence with neither Alex nor Vin speaking unless it was absolutely necessary. After begrudgingly forced to obey Nathan's demands, they set out from Four Corners, trying not to fall into old patterns by antagonising each other. Since that business at the creek by Nettie Wells' property, Alex and Vin had given each other a wide berth, recognising they had strayed into uncharted waters.
Along with the awkwardness between them, the situation was not improved by the unseasonably hot day. Their journey to Black Peak Mountains, where Agnes lived, would require the crossing of the Badlands, an unforgiving stretch of dry flat terrain with baked mud and no water until Whisky Creek. While they were accompanied by shady trees and cool grass plains early on in the ride, by the time they crossed over, the temperature was rising into the air as waves of shimmering heat.
Vin tried not to notice Alex suffering under her heavy riding cloak although he questioned, why in the hell was she wearing something so ill-fitting for the weather. He could see the perspiration glistening against her golden skin as she struggled with the temperature, all the while trying to conceal her discomfort. If nothing else, he admired her stubbornness. This was a woman who refused to show weakness under any circumstances.
She followed him for the first hours of the ride and Vin would glance over his shoulder occasionally, to see how she was faring as he led them through the bitter landscape. Vin wondered if it had yet to occur to Alex their trip would most likely end up becoming an overnight stay, because she wasn't a strong enough rider for them to make it back before dark. Coyotes made it a point to scavenge at night, searching for animals dead or dying from dehydration or sunstroke, whichever came first.
As it was, Peso was expressing his annoyance with disgruntled whinnying at being forced to cross the mud cracked ground. Once past the Badlands and Whiskey Creek, a steep trail awaited them before they'd reach Agnes' farm. It was not a farm, really. Just a homestead on the side of Black Peak Mountain. Richard Doherty believed there was gold in its hills and wanted to remain close to the mother lode he never found.
"How are you doing Alex?" Vin finally broke the silence when they left the Badlands behind. He wiped the sweat from his brow beneath his favourite slouch hat. They were not that far from Whiskey Creek, and Vin knew they would have to stop to water the horses and take a break. Vin needed one before the trek up Black Peak. Personally, Vin was looking forward to the interlude, and by the looks of her, so would Alex.
"I'm fine, Mr Tanner."
Behind Vin's horse, Alex decided she was at the end of her patience in regards to her wardrobe. Firstly, her riding cloak was going to have to go. For someone who dressed for practicality, she cursed herself for being remiss in not buying new clothes to suit the climate of the Territory. The cloak which she wore when riding in England was entirely inappropriate for this heat.
As a doctor, she knew if she did not shed the thing, she would be in real danger of dehydrating. Still perched atop Calliope, Alex divested herself of the garment. Beneath the cloak, she was dressed in a white cotton shirt buttoned up high, a maroon coloured vest, and a long dark skirt. Undoing the top buttons of her shirt, she let out a sigh of relief when fresh air breezed down her chest. It allowed her to maintain her modesty and achieve some comfort.
Vin craned his neck to watch her perform this little task behind him, admiring the slender neck exposed by the part of white cotton while glimpsing enough cleavage to be tantalised by what he imagined instead of seeing. Catching himself, he shook the thought out of his head, once again furious for allowing himself to fall into this situation.
"Whisky Creek is up ahead," Vin announced, deciding it was best if he looked ahead and not anywhere else. "We'll stop there for a while."
"You know," Alex sighed, feeling a great deal more comfortable now and a lot less hostile, "if I weren't sure Agnes was in trouble, I wouldn't mind going for a swim.”
Vin resisted the urge to conjure a mental image of what that would look like.
Instead, he regarded the noonday sun and squinted away the bright glare in his eyes. "I can't say I blame you. Today's a scorcher. Don't feel like fall at all."
“It never gets this hot in England. All that happens during autumn is rain and fog,” she dug her heels in and prompted Calliope forward. Throwing him a sidelong glance, Alex wondered how he could remain so unaffected with that thick buckskin coat of his. While there was a thin film of sweat covering his skin, he showed no other signs of suffering in this temperature.
Autumn? Vin knotted his brow until he realised she meant the fall.
Once they were riding side by side, Vin was able to admire the skin exposed by her unbuttoned shirt collar before facing front immediately, abashed by his behaviour. More so because she was oblivious to it, or more importantly, oblivious to him .
"This is nothing. A couple seasons ago, it was so hot we had grass fires. Killed a lot of livestock and people too. Land's harsh if you ain't ready for it."
"I know. That's why I'm worried about Agnes." Alex frowned, recaling how the woman looked during her last visit into town. Nothing Alex could do would convince the lady to remain in Four Corners with the condition of her heart the way it was. Now Alex was painfully aware of how extreme heat like this could exacerbate an already tenuous state of health. As it was, she secretly feared it might be too late.
"She's very old, and her heart is not good. I tried to talk her into staying with Nettie or somewhere in town, but she's thick-headed and stubborn.”
"Well, you ought to know.”
“I'm a doctor, I'm trained to help when I can. Agnes is my patient and my responsibility,” Alex huffed and then added, “You know I could have made this trip on my own. If Nathan were not so damn protective, I would have."
"You would have gotten lost in an hour, and I'd still have to come looking for you. This saves time.”
Alex bristled and then for reasons she could not explain, said smugly, "I'm sure Ezra would have done it.”
Now it was Vin's turn to bristle, feeling that involuntary pang of jealousy at knowing it was Ezra who had her affections and not him. "Then Ezra would get lost, and I'd still have to come find you both .”
Alex glared at him with annoyance. How did Vin Tanner become one of those unexpected mysteries of her life? Of the seven, he was the one she least understood. From all accounts, when Vin was not around her, he was a man of few words, unflappable and stoic. The only time he seemed to be vocal was when he was around her, and their relationship seemed to consist of verbal jousting where they were trading barbs at each other. It was familiar and comfortable.
Until that night at Nettie's place.
Alex still didn't understand what happened between them. One minute she was standing by the creek, overwhelmed by the surgery she was forced to perform on Ezra and the next thing she knew, Vin was there, soothing her trembling hands.
Blushing at the memory, she was grateful her colouring hid her reaction from him. The tracker was staring at her thoughtfully with those blue eyes of his. Once again, she had to look away, confused because she knew she cared for Ezra and enjoyed spending time with him. God, she even considered sharing her bed with the gambler and would have gone through with it already if not for one little thing.
Ezra never made her breath catch the way Vin did when he took her hand that night.
Noticing his silence, Alex let out a sigh, not wishing to expend the energy being mad at him. "Let's just call a truce, shall we? At least for the rest of this trip. It's hell enough as it is."
"We can always turn back?" Vin winked at her.
"Now see," she rolled her eyes in exasperation. "What am I going to do with you?"
“I got a few ideas,” he was grinning at her wolfishly.
"In your dreams Mr Tanner, in your dreams" she laughed indulging his flirtation a little.
Vin knew he shouldn't be baiting her like this because he derived much pleasure from it, but he was convinced she enjoyed it also. Of course, she had no idea how he truly felt about her, and Vin was more determined than ever not to reveal his true feelings.
Still, there were moments when he saw something in her eyes, where they touched something in each other, and she recognised it too before inhibition and obligation to Ezra forced her to brush it away as little more than imagination. Everything she did and said made Vin twist with a desire so intense it was hard to breathe at times. From the day she breezed into town, he was just as mesmerized as Ezra, but circumstances placed the gambler in a position to win her favour first, and so Vin stepped aside.
Because he was not going to behave like he had with Charlotte.
He genuinely loved Charlotte, loved her with a passion so fierce it robbed him of all good sense until he realized what he was trading for that love. Keeping Charlotte meant losing the friends who had taken away the unbearable loneliness of his existence, and his self-respect at knowing he stole another man's wife.
When he sent her back to her husband, Vin knew it was not only for her sake but for his as well. Later on, he questioned if Charlotte was searching for something her husband could no longer provide, and he was just convenient. Hell, that whole trip with the wagon trail had gotten all of them thinking about putting down roots with someone special. Even Chris.
But as much as Vin and Alex argued, he admired her as more than just the object of his affections. Here was a woman whose concern for others was forcing her across the Badlands because it was in her nature to heal. She burned with such dedication, it engendered the fierce desire in him to protect her from those who would take advantage of that kindness.
Vin had not encountered many women in his life. Except for Charlotte, the women he knew were mostly paid for. Living alone, the chances to get to know women were hard, especially when there were so few of them in the Territory other than working girls. Since living in Four Corners, it just did not feel right to take up with them not like when he was living his nomadic existence, where he was allowed some measure of anonymity. Vin was a private person and felt it was no one's business but his own with whom he kept company.
Now with Alex around, he could not even take comfort in the girls at Purgatory because he just knew he would end up wanting it to be her. Sometimes, when they were arguing, Vin would find himself wondering if Ezra had made love to her yet.
The thought was enough to make him sick with envy.
"Hey, I thought you were supposed to be leading this expedition,” Alex teased, oblivious to what was going on in his head.
Blinking, Vin realized he was lagging and immediately nudged Peso forward to take up position next to her once more. She looked at him with a meaningful smile, and he wondered what she was thinking.
"Sorry, I'll try not to get left behind."
"You better. I wouldn't want to have to come looking for you."
Vin could only laugh. "I feel safer already."*****
It was early afternoon when Ezra and Julia finally arrived in Four Corners. Overhead, the blue sky vanished and was replaced by thick clouds, amassing to chase the sunshine away. Although it had yet to arrive, there were the signs of an impending a rainstorm. The air felt damp as Ezra observed the cumulous overhead becoming thicker with each gust of strengthening wind. Considering what Chris and the others would soon be escorting to town, the weather seemed to suit the occasion.
In anticipation of the coming storm, people were beginning to get indoors. It was a weekday, and usually at this time, the streets were crowded with people going about their business. Now, he could see them scattering to their houses as he and Julia rode by. Some paused long enough to take note of the beautiful stranger nestled comfortably behind him, but their curiosity was soon outweighed by the low rumble of thunder in the greying sky.
"What a charming town," Julia remarked, her green eyes surveying the community in which she had placed so much hope. It was, as she expected, one of those dreary rural towns where everyone was either a farmer or a farmhand. It was the kind of place where someone of her refinement could sweep into town and establish herself quickly with a bit of coin.
"It has its moments" Ezra did not miss the distaste in her voice.
Their journey back had been illuminating, and while Ezra did not know exactly everything about Julia Pemberton, he did know this was a woman accustomed to getting her own way in all things. Judging by the advances she made to him on the ride to town, she had very little scruples and even fewer inhibitions. To a certain extent, he was almost curious to see how she would fare in Four Corners.
In some ways, she reminded him of Maude, though he was not about to make mention of that. Still, she lacked the killer instinct or the Machiavellian cunning of his mother because no one had actually said no to her in her whole life.
"There is your Emporium," Ezra pointed out as they trotted past the burned-out wreck of the Kendall Emporium. The place was hardly in any position to provide a fitting first impression, but when Ezra glanced over his shoulder at Julia, he was surprised to see her expression was thoughtful, not dismayed.
The structure was still intact after the fire set by Victoria Kendall, and although it was in severe need of repairs, the building appeared sound. Four Corner's fledgling fire service had done an admirable job of dousing the flames during the fire. While they were unable to save much of the stock, the walls were still standing and required only minor reinforcement to make the building safe.
"I'm afraid it's not much to look at," Ezra added as he looked over his shoulder at her.
To his amazement, Ezra saw those incredible eyes light up as she studied the building. He could actually see the possibilities of the place dancing in her eyes as she stared at it. That surprised Ezra because she struck him as manipulative and shallow, with the arrogance that only came with being one of the idle rich. Yet when she stared, Ezra realised she was serious about building something for herself in this town.
"It doesn't matter" she replied quickly, sounding like an eager teenager when she spoke. "I have the capital to restore the place. Perhaps I'll hire a dressmaker on-premises who can do alterations and have a little place for tea for customers.”
"An audacious plan.”
"Not audacious, just common sense. It is done in the city all the time. I do not intend to do anything that grand of course, but smaller and more personal. Communities like this do not take well to strangers, so I am going to have to get some local support. Who was this friend of Mr Larabee's again?"
"Mary Travis" Ezra replied, trying to hide his surprise by the enterprising nature of the chameleon-like Miss Pemberton. "I had no idea you were so determined."
"I am done allowing anyone to tell me what I can or cannot do," Julia stared at him hard. "All my life, all I've ever heard is how I don't need to think or just wait until I get married, to do anything. Maybe if I can make this work, it will not matter how pretty I look."
Ezra could understand the need to be more than what everyone expected you to be. Had not his life followed the same path? Ezra was raised to believe he was going to be bad from the day he was born because he was Maude Standish's son. First by the relatives on whom he was thrust upon and by Maude herself, when she decided he was old enough to learn the trade. Until he came to Four Corners, Ezra Standish never believed he could be anything else.
To his utter horror, Ezra realised he was warming to this little schemer.
Deciding a change of subject was definitely in order since he was not about to chart these waters with her, Ezra snapped his heels against his horse and moved it quickly past the Emporium towards the hotel.
"I am assuming you kept your finances in a bank and not on your person?”
"What fool would?" Her gaze was still fixed on her Emporium and what it was soon to become.
Ezra had no comment. He kept his money tucked safely in his right boot at all times. He trusted neither wallets nor banks. "I shall take you to the hotel where you can refresh yourself."
"You were meant to protect me," she reminded.
"The hotel is presently occupied by a good assortment of individuals. I am certain that if outlaws were attempting to do away with you, they would allow some time to pass before making an attempt. In any case, I will not be very long. I need to confer with my associates and apprise them of the unfortunate situation with the stage."
"Yes, that was awful," Julia admitted with a shudder.
Even when she pulled a gun on her papa, she did so believing the shock alone would have kept him from trying to interfere with her departure. She had never killed anyone in her life and had no desire the first to be her misguided father.
"They will be coming into town soon," Ezra replied unhappily. He would have to ask Mrs Travis for a manifest of the doomed passengers to present to the undertaker.
"Are you going to see your lady doctor?" Julia asked with a hint of jealousy. Throughout their journey, she hated how he refused her advances and the affection in his voice when he spoke about this Alexandra. Disappointed, Julia lamented the one interesting man in town being taken! How very inconvenient.
"That is none of your business," Ezra suddenly regretted speaking so much about Alexandra to Julia. He could not explain why.
"I didn't mean to offend," she pouted slightly.
"I told you," Ezra caught a glimpse of it and rolled his eyes, "that does not work on me. Your power to move me, Miss Pemberton, is slight."
She let out an audible sigh of resignation. "You cannot fault a lady for making an attempt.” And then as quickly as her mood had darkened, it brightened up again. “So, where shall we have dinner?”
"Dinner?" Ezra met her gaze sharply. "I believe I am otherwise engaged."
"You are meant to protect me. I did see those killers, you know the only eye witness?”
Damn, she was correct. Ezra could not ignore the truth of that statement. Chris wanted her protected and explicitly instructed Ezra not to let Julia out of his sight. As much as Ezra wanted to go find Alexandra, he had a responsibility to the leader of the seven. It had taken a long time for Ezra to earn Chris's trust again, and for some unfathomable reason, the gambler was not about to squander it.
"You do seem to have a point,” Ezra frowned, knowing she had him over a barrel in this instance. "I will accompany you to your hotel and allow you to freshen up, but I warn you, if these men intend to harm you, we may have to move you to a safer location."
"Mr Standish," Julia grinned with triumph in her voice, "I am in your hands."
"I am rejoicing inside.”*****
The rain started to pelt down in huge pregnant drops by the time the stage made its arrival in Four Corners. News of the robbery reached the community, Despite the storm, people were on the street when the carriage rolled into town, escorted by the lawmen. Residents stood on the boardwalk under shop awnings, they peered through their windows and out their doors, observing in silence the unofficial cortege moving through the muddy streets.
Mary Travis stood outside the door of the Clarion watching Chris Larabee leading the solemn parade through the centre of town. She could tell from this distance he was angry, even though nothing reflected in his face. The others with him were also gripped in melancholy, and she felt sympathy for their feelings at their failure to prevent the killings. Even though their actions saved one victim from death, it did not lessen the fact four others had died.
Chris raised his eyes as he passed the Clarion on his way to the undertaker. The rain spilled over the brim of his hat as he searched the faces and saw the only one he cared about. Mary was staring at him, her blue-grey eyes conveying the sorrow she felt for the victims and for him. Chris was warmed by her concern. She knew he had a tendency to blame himself for these things and was always on alert to give him a sharp kick to his senses whenever she felt he deserved one.
Unfortunately, this time nothing was going to help until he found these murderers.
He saw Nathan standing at the top of the stairs leading to his infirmary, wincing at the sight of the stagecoach. He did not seem surprised, which meant Ezra had given him fair warning of what they would find. Senseless death bothered Nathan the most and Chris could understand why he was so driven to save every life, no matter what the consequences to himself.
As they passed by the hotel, Chris saw Ezra and Julia Pemberton together. Chris tipped his hat at the gambler as they passed and was glad to see the gambler following his instructions to keep the young woman safe. Julia's eyes were fixed on the carriage, and Chris reminded himself he would need to question her once this particular task was done.
It was a miracle she survived the killing spree.
Actually, it was no miracle at all. It was the outlaws' lust that saved her. That and the timely arrival of the seven. Miss Pemberton could give them an accurate account of what transpired from the time the stage was forced off the track until the last gunshot was fired at the final victim. More importantly, she could give them a place from which to begin their search for the murderer.
"We've got to stop this" Buck said riding alongside Chris as they made the last leg of their journey.
Through the teeming rain slowly gaining momentum with high winds whipping it into a thunderstorm, he saw his friend's eyes were just as hollow as his. Buck hated senseless killing.
"You and me both Buck" Chris remarked, hating the look he saw on people's faces. Even though they did not speak it out loud, Chris could see the accusation in their eyes. He and the other six represented the law in Four Corners and were charged to protect the citizenry from the scum committing the murders.
No doubt, the sheriffs in Bitter Creek, Sweetwater, and even Eagle Bend were feeling the same pressure.
"I hope Vin found something in Purgatory," Buck remarked.
Now that he mentioned the tracker, Chris realized he hadn't seen Vin when they entered town. Chris felt a flare of hope that Vin might have remained in that shantytown of outlaws and bandits because he might have a solid lead on some information. At the moment, Chris was ready to ride out with his men to scour the plains until they found something.
He did not want another experience like this again.
"I didn't see him around, He might have found something if he's still there."
"Let's just hope nothing found him.”
"Cut it out, Buck," Chris looked up at him. "You're a lousy pessimist."
Buck managed a sad smile and wiped the rain from his face. "Well, I can't let you have you hogging it all can I?"
Arriving at the undertaker, the tall thin man in the customary dark suit made Chris uncomfortable. The undertaker always studied him as if he were readying a box for Chris. Right now, Chris wanted to be as far away from him and his establishment as possible. He wished to get out of the rain, where he could drown in a bottle of whiskey and be with Mary, and he wasn't very particular in what order that came.
More importantly, he wanted to speak to Julia Pemberton and to hear her account of what she saw, because Chris Larabee sure as hell was not going to make this ride again. The next time he rode into town bringing bodies, it would belong to the outlaws who did this.
An hour later, the group found themselves in Mary Travis's kitchen after the grisly work of delivering the bodies was concluded. Mary wired Sweetwater to inform them of the murders and to ask for a passenger manifest. As she brewed coffee and handed them towels to dry themselves, Chris had Ezra bring Julia Pemberton so she could finally relate her account of events and offer some description of the man she had seen.
Since it appeared Vin had not returned from Purgatory with any useful information, the young woman's eyewitness recollection was all Chris had to solve these murders.
"Boy it's really coming down out there," JD stared out Mary's window at the garden outside. Sheets of rain shimmered through the air as the grass drowned in puddles until the patch of green turned the soil into mud. The wind was howling, and JD saw trees battling the gusts as leaves struggled to remain on the swaying branches. There was no sign of any sun, and the heavy dark clouds were being whipped by the wind into a wild frenzy.
Ezra said nothing but his thoughts were with Alex at this moment wondering whether or not she was all right. He was none too happy to learn of the quest she embarked upon earlier this morning, and though he was certain Vin would see no harm come to her, the ferocity of the storm was worrying.
"We can hear it, Mr Dunne," Ezra said with a little more sharpness to his voice then he intended. Immediately after, Ezra felt guilty when he saw JD's fallen expression. "I apologize, my young friend, I didn't mean to bite."
"That's okay, Ezra." JD nodded in understanding and realized he should be quiet anyway while Chris was trying to conduct his questioning of the lovely Miss Pemberton.
"I'm sure she's fine, Ezra," Mary said quietly. "Vin knows what he's doing."
Ezra offered the pretty widow a warm smile and understood then what Chris Larabee loved so much about her. Mary Travis was one of those rare people who saw the best in everybody and whose desire to help was tempered with a genuine kindness that was all too lacking in this world. He supposed anyone who could bring comfort to the tortured soul of the gunslinger must be pretty exceptional.
At this moment, Ezra thought she was too.
"You are a lady without peer,” Ezra took her hand and kissed it gently.
Mary laughed softly before they both turned their attention back to Julia, who was seated at the kitchen table with Buck nearby as if he was standing guard in case Chris's questions became too hard. Mary could tell by the look in Chris's face her lover was almost at the end of his patience with his old friend's interference.
"As you can tell ma'am, this ain't the first stage that has been robbed. We've had two other hits in two weeks with almost a dozen people dead."
"How awful" Julia exclaimed, her lips quivering in typical doe-like fear. "I am fortunate to be alive."
"Yes, you are darling," Buck said interrupting before Chris could ask another question. "It would have been a loss to men everywhere."
Although no one voiced it, almost everyone in the room had their personal reactions to the display. Josiah merely shook his head in disbelief. Nathan stifled a silent snort of derision. JD watched the master at work in fascination, while Ezra and Mary exchanged glances that spoke volumes. Chris just glowered.
Miss Pemberton returned his smile with a quick bat of her lashes and revelled at how easy it was to make men like this squirm. "Why Mr Wilmington, you are so sweet."
"Buck" Chris said almost as sweetly. "Can I see you for a moment?"
"Sure, Chris" Buck followed Chris as the gunslinger walked him towards the back door.
Chris opened the door suddenly and shoved Buck outside without another word. As Buck opened his mouth to speak, Chris cut him off abruptly. "Get out and don't come back until I'm done."
With that, Chris Larabee slammed the door.
Mary gave Chris a look of dismay. "That was rude."
"But not undeserved" Ezra pointed out. "Mr Dunne perhaps you ought to join our local Lothario and smooth his ruffled feathers at the saloon. Tell Inez the drinks are on the house."
"Sure Ezra" JD glanced at Chris, who nodded his permission for the young man to go. No doubt, Buck would be incensed, but he knew Chris well enough to realize when he was becoming a strain on the gunslinger's patience. In a moment, the young man had slipped out the door, and Chris resumed his interrogation without interruptions.
"Why Ezra" Josiah looked at him in surprise. "That's uncommonly generous of you."
"Not really" Ezra returned. "Inez knows which bottle to use when the drinks are free."
"Now," Chris turned his attention back to Julia, who was watching the interplay between the group with some amusement, "Miss Pemberton, can I ask what you saw?"
Dropping the charade of feigned gentility, Julia decided Mr Larabee's patience would not extend to her if she chose to play the wounded bird. She could see the intensity in his eyes and knew this was not a man to be trifled with. He wanted answers, and she had no doubt he would keep her here until he received them.
To a certain extent, Julia did want to help him find the murderers who slaughtered those innocents on the stage with her. She wanted those men to pay for her humiliation, and on a lesser note, the lives they took. Besides, it might be one way to show Ezra Standish she was not all bad.
"Certainly, Mr Larabee" Julia nodded, her voice sounding all business now. The change was almost instantaneous, and everyone in the room noticed it. Only Ezra was unsurprised. However, his eyes kept darting to the window while thoughts of his lady doctor no doubt filled his mind. "As I told you before, we were only a few hours from Four Corners, and the driver had told us we might even arrive ahead of schedule."
"We heard gunshots," Julia said, remembering the fear in the carriage as the first sounds erupted...*****
Mrs Henderson squealed in fright, dropping her velvet purse onto the floor as her frantic eyes looked to her husband. Unfortunately, he was just as scared. Both of them were past the day where adventure or excitement held any sway for them. They had the look of urbanites, with their store-bought clothes and the slight tinge of accent that might have been Irish.
She remembered the couple prattling on about seeing the country, now the factory was sold and the children were at school. She had not paid much attention because her mind was still preoccupied with her escape from Philadelphia. She banked the stolen money almost immediately under the name of Pemberton, a former lover from years past. Julia Avery had ceased to be for the last six days.
"Be calm love," the old man said "if it's a robbery we can handle that. We've seen them in the city, haven't we?" He tried to sound reassuring and held his wife's hand in his as if willing his strength into her frail disposition.
She nodded meekly, but the fear did not fade from her face and was not likely to with the sudden surge in the speed of the carriage
Julia looked out and saw the horses thundering alongside the stagecoach, a problematic accomplishment with the stage rocking dangerously from side to side as it trundled across the uneven terrain. She peered out of the window long enough to see a branch snapping in her direction before a strong arm yanked her back into the carriage.
"Stay inside, Miss!" The fourth passenger ordered as she fell back into the cushioned seat.
"I think there are five of them, Mr Baker" Julia reported, starting to feel the charged excitement of the whole situation. She had read about stagecoach robberies in the west but to actually experience one was another thing entirely.
Suddenly, the group found themselves tilting to one side of the carriage as the stage made a sharp turn. The gunfire ceased for now, but the carriage was on different terrain for it no longer swayed from side to side but shuddering as if the ground beneath was hard and rocky. Mrs Henderson started to whimper in fright and no matter what her husband said, could not keep her from crying out each time that they hit a particularly nasty bump.
By now, Julia was using the walls to keep herself from being shaken into nausea. The novelty of the experience had faded into genuine terror that her life might be in danger. Suddenly, she remembered the little money in her purse. The bulk of the fortune stolen from her father was now sitting in a bank awaiting use in her new life when she arrived at Four Corners. She slipped what notes she possessed into her boot, prepared to leave a few sheaves to satisfy the thieves.
"It's slowing down!" Mr Baker announced, and Julia realized he was correct. The shuddering was abating, even though they were treated to a few jumps and rises over the next few minutes before the carriage came to a complete halt.
Julia resisted the urge to look out the window even though from what she was able to observe from her seat, they had undoubtedly moved off the main trail. This new place was densely wooded with branches and trees looming over the coach. For a few minutes, no one spoke as they listened carefully to horses soon surrounding the stationary carriage. There were voices here and there, angry, deep voices spoken with a Southern and Texan drawl. The words were clear, and the threat was even more explicit.
Inevitably, they heard the soft thud of the driver dismounting the front of the carriage before hearing a loud booming voice shout at them from outside the door.
"Get out! All of you!"
Reluctantly, Baker went first. He was the only able-bodied man in the carriage, even though he had confessed to being a travelling salesman. His fear was apparent by the way he kept straightening his tie. Julia followed him next because she wanted this over and done with. Let them finish their thievery, she cared little for the pittance she would lose, even if they did find the money in her boot.
The five were staring at the passengers when they emerged, studying all of them carefully as if look alone could decide how much each of them was worth. They shoved the stage driver into the forming group. Their clothes were nothing unusual for men of this region. All, however, wore hats with bandanas hiding their faces. Julia knew immediately all of them were professional outlaws, except for one. His fingernails were clean and manicured while the others were covered in dirt. She took a gamble he was the leader and filed that information away for future use.
Mr and Mrs Henderson were the last to emerge, and upon their arrival, the four with the dirty nails begin ransacking the luggage loaded on the upper side of the carriage. The leader started to rummage through their wallets and purses, taking cash only and discarding the rest. His men conducted their search and were not very thorough. They created more mess than finding anything of value. Very soon, the grove was covered in an array of objects, clothes, brushes, shoes and socks that Mr Baker sold to general stores across the Territory. The passengers watched and waited, knowing that this could not go on forever.
The leader called out to the pack after a while. His voice sounded muffled through the cloths. He told them that it was enough, it was time to go. The others disembarked the carriage and came to join him at his side. There was a moment of pause when Julia tried to comprehend what they would do next.
When they killed Mr Baker, it was almost a complete surprise to her.
Julia was so horrified by the sight of blood exploding from his head, spraying the coach with his flesh and grey matter she barely had time to scream before they turned the gun on Mr Henderson. What she could not do, Mrs Henderson was able to produce in a loud and piercing scream that seemed to fill the world. Birds were startled out the trees, frightened by the sound of violence. Mr Henderson took a bullet to the head and had no time to utter a cry as it tore through his head and took away his life before he even hit the dirt.
Mrs Henderson was hysterical by the time the leader did the same thing to her. The shrill cry cut short by the eruption of gunfire. The kill was almost execution in style, with one bullet to the head. Julia had been around enough guns in her life to know that the shots were not random. She had little more than a moment to spare when she saw that gun move in her direction before she cried out in desperation.
"Wait!" she called out, gambling her life on the most fragile of all enchantments.
He paused, if only because he was curious as to what she would say.
"I'll do anything if you leave me alive" she reached for the hair perched upon her head and removed the pin holding it in place. Copper coloured hair fell around her shoulders as her fingers moved to the high buttoned blouse she was wearing. Her fingers trembled as she loosened them and watched the reaction of the men before her. By now, she released enough buttons for them to have a clear picture of what she was offering. The leader's eyes met hers, and she knew with certainty he would take the bait.
Slowly, she removed her gloves as he came forward, the others were watching with leering eyes while their guns were aimed at her direction. He buried his face in her chest, and she tried to quell the revulsion at feeling his lips tasting her skin. Her eyes were fixed on the bodies before her, so she knew what she risked was far more than her dignity.
Suddenly, hoofbeats could be heard in the distance. The noise was loud and fast approaching them. The leader recoiled, raising to shoot when suddenly, he realized his bandana had slipped off his face in his moment of lust. Julia saw that he was a young man, clean-shaven, no more than twenty-five, with dark hair and sharp blue eyes. He raised his gun to shoot when the others hurrying to their horses, barked at him to get moving.
She saw the confusion on his face as he tried to decide what to do, while the thundering horses in the distance became visible. With a look she could only describe as anguish, he turned and fled...
For the delicate sensibilities of those present, Julia sanitised certain events in the telling of the tale.****
This was really starting to turn into a bad idea.
Unfortunately, by the time Alex Styles made this discovery, it was far too late to turn back, and she was not prepared to face the embarrassment of admitting to Vin Tanner she might have made a mistake. Perhaps it was not so wise setting out from Four Corners to render aid to Agnes since at the moment, Agnes might be in a better situation than the one Alex and Vin found themselves.
While they were crossing the Badlands, the temperatures had soared so high it was almost stifling to breathe the warm air in their lungs. Once they spanned its expanse, Vin noticed a sudden shift in the wind, and by the time they reached Whiskey Creek, he predicted a change of weather was coming.
After a short interlude at the waterway, Alex was eager to continue their journey, even though Vin was becoming increasingly worried about the dark clouds in the sky. She didn't share his concern, since the grey skies, so commonplace in England and cooling air, served to make the journey more hospitable in comparison to what it had been earlier. However, by the time they reached the foot of the Black Peak Mountains, it began to dawn on Alex what Nathan meant about the terrain being treacherous.
Alex spent most of her life in carriages, as was the custom for women in the Old World. Riding like this was a relatively new experience, and she had not been forced to test her skills to the fullest until this moment. She also knew Vin was conscious of this point and saw him keeping a close eye on her as they started up the steep incline. The track meandering through the dense growth barely allowed space for a horse and rider, let alone Agnes's wagon. She wondered how the old woman did it.
It made matters even worse, those harmless grey clouds overhead soon evolved into a raging thunderstorm that battered them relentlessly with huge raindrops that soon became sheets of water pouring from the heavens above.
Vin kept glancing over his shoulder at Alex in concern because it was plain she was having trouble staying on Calliope. With the terrain the way it was, if she were to fall, she could injure herself severely. He could tell she was afraid, but her stubborn pride was keeping that fear silent. Vin considered his options before finally addressing the issue.
"I think you should ride with me.”
"Ride with you?" she looked at him uncertainly. "Why?"
"Calliope is making me nervous," Vin produced a lie she would accept without thinking he was casting aspersions on her ability. "I don't think she's handled this kind of track before. When a horse gets skittish like this, they're liable to throw the rider off. This ain't the place for you to take a tumble."
Alex could not disagree with him as she examined the treacherous slope on either side of the trail, obstructed by shrubs, trees and the occasional rock protruding from the shale ground. She did not relish the injuries she would sustain if Calliope did indeed do what Vin feared. Alex knew her inexperience would keep her from remaining in the saddle if the horse displayed such behaviour.
"What about Calliope?" she felt a little more anxious than she would like to admit.
"I'll tether her to Peso and just lead her along." Vin offered as he brought the gelding to a stop in the middle of the track. He looked up into the sky and could see neither cloud nor sky. The whole world above was nothing more than a canvas of grey raining down upon him. He climbed off the horse and felt his foot sink a little into the muddy ground.
Behind him, Alex followed suit. The riding cloak she'd put back on when it started raining, now hung off her like a blanket of water.
Vin stared for a moment, taking note of just how soaked she was since the shirt she wore was now plastered to her skin, leaving nothing to the imagination. Vin shook the effects of the tantalising image from his mind and returned his attention to her horse.
The whole procedure took a few minutes, and when Calliope was finally tethered behind Peso, Vin climbed back onto the animal and offered his hand to Alex as she climbed up to him. It took a further few seconds for Alex to position herself comfortably behind him before she slid her arms around his waist.
The moment he felt her arms around him and the weight of her chest pressed against his back, Vin realised just how bad an idea this was. He froze, feeling her warm breath against his ear, the sensation magnified because they were both wet and cold and naturally drawn to the heat of each others bodies.
"Come on Peso," he urged the horse forward as he reminded himself to concentrate on getting her to the Doherty place and ignore any stirrings inside him that could become downright uncomfortable if he wasn't careful.
Alex said nothing as she held on, but that awareness of him invaded her senses. She tried to ignore the delightful smell of him so near, and the taut muscles of his stomach as she hung onto him, knowing with every fibre of her being she ought not to be feeling such things. It was wrong. It was carnal desire because of their closeness that is all. Alex explained away the reaction was purely physical, almost scientific.
This was what came of keeping Ezra at arm's length and no doubt once she and Vin returned to Four Corners, everything would be normal again. All this was, was the rain and cold, she told herself firmly. Nothing to do with Vin Tanner at all.
Except her stomach was fluttering again.
When Vin and Alex finally arrived at the homestead, they were not only soaked to the skin but chilled to the bone. There was no light to welcome their arrival, and the whole place seemed so quiet it sang a foreboding note. The house was not very big, and it was difficult to see the lay of the land in the pitch-black darkness. Thankfully, Vin had an excellent night vision.
"Stay where you are," he ordered as he climbed off the horse.
"You will not get any argument from me," Alex replied, feeling very tense with all the darkness around her. Was it possible Agnes was hurt or dead? Why were there no lights?
"That's a change.”
"You are funny," she rolled her eyes.
Vin soon became little more than a vague shape walking towards the outline of the house. She could hear the trees rustling in the distance and listened to what she guessed might be the sound of a shutter banging against the window. She swallowed thickly feeling a little anxious.
As he kept walking, Alex called out, "Mr Tanner?"
"Yeah?" he turned, reaching the front door.
"Talk to me, would you? I'm not my best in the dark."
"I think you'd do just fine in the dark."
Even if she couldn't see it, Alex knew he was grinning.
"Will you just go find Agnes!" Alex groaned in exasperation. After the ride they had just taken together, his flirtations were getting on her nerves.
“Going" he chuckled and twisted the doorknob before gaining entry into the house which was little more sizeable than a cabin.
Alex heard the door swing open and his footsteps as he disappeared through the entrance. There were a few seconds when she lost sight of him entirely and could hear nothing but the hooting of owls and thunder clapping in the night. She told herself he was quite capable and nothing could possibly happen to him inside a house.
Even if it was a house belonging to a frail and helpless old woman, still missing and potentially incapable of stopping anything from harming her if it set its mind on doing so.
In fact, the more Alex travelled along that line of thought, she realized it could be watching her right now, using the sound of pouring rain to mask its approach towards her, having waited until Vin was far enough away to...
Alex jumped out of the saddle at the sound of Vin's voice and slipped unceremoniously off Peso thanks to the slick leather of the seat. Vin caught her before she hit the ground, but the unexpected weight tipped him over, and they both landed on the wet earth.
"Really Vin! Must you just sneak up on me! You scared me half to death!” She growled as she picked herself up off him.
"You know," he grumbled standing up, feeling just as cold and miserable as she was. “It would be a lot easier if you'd just admit this was a bad idea."
"Agnes was in trouble!"
"Well she ain't here!" he snapped, feeling his ire surge as well. They were out in the middle of nowhere, caught in a storm because she was too pig-headed to consider the possibility that Agnes may have left for some other destination.
"What do you mean she's not here?" Alex snapped as she swept past him and made her way to the house.
"I'm telling you, she ain't in the house!" Vin repeated himself as he followed her. "It doesn't look like anyone has been here! Did you ask around town before you decided to come out here?"
Alex froze in her steps. She turned around slowly and looked at him. Well in his direction at least. It was still very dark.
“It never occurred to me...." she realised with dismay. “Agnes always comes to see me when she's in town."
The words died in her throat because she had not anticipated that the old woman might have returned to Four Corners. Of course, it was possible but unlikely because Agnes was very set in her ways. Still, her habits were not set in stone.
"That's just great!" Vin was visibly angry at being dragged out here without her checking all the possibilities. "So as far as we know, Agnes could be living it up in the hotel in Four Corners?"
"I suppose," Alex bit her lip guiltily, feeling somewhat ashamed and unable to refute his anger because he was entirely justified. She had not checked, and she should have. Now they were in the middle of nowhere, a day's ride from Four Corners and stuck with each other!
Could it get any worse?
"Well, that's it," Vin throwing up his hands in surrender and exasperation. "I'm going in there to get dried off and warm. Are you coming?"
“Obviously. I'm not going to stay out here."
"Good," he grunted as he strode past her. "We're going to have to spend the night."
Alex stared as she watched him go.
Yes, it could get a good deal worse.*****
Julia slept alone.
Not only was she unhappy to be without company in her hotel room, worse yet it was not Buck Wilmington's presence she craved. The man had been at her side all night while Ezra withdrew to his saloon, where he was no doubt waiting for the return of his precious doctor.
For some reason, he no longer wanted the responsibility of guarding her, and it was a task Buck Wilmington and JD Dunne was eager to take on in his absence. Julia felt the sting of rejection for the first time in her life and came to the firm conclusion she did not at all like it.
She tossed and turned in her sheets, knowing there was no reason for her to be enduring the night in solitude. All she needed to do was crook her finger, and Buck Wilmington would be more than happy to oblige. He was mildly attractive and had all the indications of being an exciting lover if she chose to allow him the pleasure. Except there was only one problem.
She wanted Mr Standish.
In her entire life, she had never had a man say no to her advances, no matter how overt she behaved. Not only did he reject her favours, but he also acted as if she were a sheet of transparent glass, to be seen through with absolute ease. She knew he was aware of her as a woman because not even his nonchalance could hide his reactions to her. However, his desire was tempered with the knowledge of what she was, and that kept him away from her. Julia had known him for less than a day, but already she was more intrigued by the gambler than any man she had ever met in her life.
She knew she could break down his defences, provided his doctor stayed away from town a few more days.
Tomorrow, she would move her belongings to the home of Mary Travis to stay until the outlaws were caught. For the moment, Chris Larabee believed she would be safe in the hotel. Knowing Ezra was more vigilant than Buck in her presence, the gunslinger appointed both of them to guard her during the night. Thus both Ezra and Buck took a room at the hotel and were no more than two doors down from her bedroom.
Chris doubted that anyone would make an attempt on her life so soon, but he wanted to take no chances. Although it was quite apparent that nothing she did would ever turn the gunslinger's head from the formidable Mrs Travis, Julia had come to possess a healthy respect for him. She had no doubt he would find those outlaws eventually. It was just a matter of time.
Suddenly, she heard the sound of a doorknob twisting through the continuous pitter-patter of rain against the ceiling. She sat up immediately, wondering if it was Buck showing more backbone than she believed he possessed by attempting a midnight dalliance. She would not mind his attentions really since it appeared sleep was not forthcoming, and she needed to release the pent up desires inspired by Ezra Standish.
Besides, it might even prove mildly entertaining.
As the crack of the door widened, Julia lay back in bed, rolling onto her side as she removed her nightgown and tossed it aside in anticipation of the man's arrival. However, it opened just wide enough for her to see a gun barrel making its appearance instead of a man. It took a few seconds to register the danger before the gun discharged. Julia let out a short squeal of fear, rolling off the bed onto the floor with a loud thud as the bullet tore through the pillow where her head would have been. Feathers and cotton erupted from the burnt fabric, drifting through the air as he cocked his weapon and fired.
Julia screamed again as the second gunshot was heard, this time it shattered a window and created a spray of glass on the floor. She cringed further beneath the cover of her bed, trying to think where she had kept the derringer and realizing with dismay it was in the trunk on the other side of the room. Missing a second time, the shooter did not bother to make another attempt as the pounding of approaching footsteps signalled the arrival of her guardians from down the hall. Julia let out a sigh of relief, hearing their impending arrival while scrambling for her nightgown.
"You check on Miss Pemberton!" She heard Buck cry out as he ran past her room, continuing down the corridor in pursuit of the assassin who almost ended her life. Julia thanked God she had been unable to sleep, knowing that had the murderer caught her unawares, she would be dead by now.
"Julia!" Ezra called as he burst through the doors. Ezra's eyes searched the room and feared the worst when he saw feathers and cotton floating across the bed and floor from the punctured pillow.
Julia stood up to show she was unharmed while at the same time slipping her nightgown over her naked form. When she pulled the fabric over her head, she observed Ezra who was barefoot and wearing only pants with an unbuttoned shirt hanging loosely from his muscled body. He let out a sigh of exasperation at the sight of her undress before remarking sarcastically.
"I was going to ask if you were alright, but somehow a more important question just came to mind."
"Really?" she asked, trying to sound brave, but the attempt on her life had shaken her as she climbed over the bed to avoid the broken glass on the floor. "What would that be?"
"Do you always sleep in the nude?" he asked, seemingly annoyed even as his eyes were moving up and down her body, revealing his interest was more than just curiosity.
"I thought it was Buck!"
"Well naturally that explains everything," Ezra deadpanned and then asked in a more serious tone. "Are you hurt?"
"No," she said, hugging her body as she felt the slight chill in the air. "I'm fine." She could not tell if it was because of the temperature or the experience she had just endured. Julia sauntered towards Ezra until she was standing inches away from him. "I would have preferred it to have been you."
Ezra almost threw up his hands in exasperation.
"Please, do not embarrass yourself." He started towards the door, suddenly feeling like he needed to help Buck.
"Embarrass!" She exclaimed in outrage. "Why can't you admit you want me? I could be your greatest experience. I could be the one to tell your grandchildren about!”
Ezra's expression was unfathomable. "I have no affections for you, Miss Pemberton. I have been charged to protect you because it is my duty to do so. Nothing else."
"It's wouldn't be so bad," she purred as she approached him. "I will still respect you in the morning."
Ezra felt her soft skin against his own and immediately felt unspoken desires flare up inside him. However, he forced them aside ruthlessly because he was not going to betray Alexandra Styles, no matter how much of a temptation Julia Pemberton was proving to be. It was bad enough he recognized a kindred spirit in those amazing emerald eyes, but now she was offering herself to him, and Ezra was only human after all.
God, he wished Alexandra were here.
"Get dressed. We need to find you some other accommodation. This establishment is obviously not safe after this recent intrusion."
At that moment, he saw Buck walking down the hallway. Buck's return indicated he was unsuccessful at capturing Julia's would-be assassin. Ezra swore under his breath, knowing this was just the first of these attempts. While Julia lived, the killer risked exposure, and that was good enough reason in Ezra's opinion to remain vigilant protecting her. Buck swiped the wet hair from his face, and it looked like he was soaked to the bone in his long johns.
"He got away," Buck announced unhappily. "Varmint had a horse waiting for him."
"I am the last one to question a gamble, but this attempt has a hint of desperation in it. After all the outlaws' efforts to remain anonymous, I am surprised they made such a foolhardy attempt."
"Is she alright?" Buck asked, itching to enter the room to see for himself.
"As well as she can be" Ezra grumbled unable to hide the chagrin in his voice which Buck immediately picked up on. "We need to remove her from the premises."
Buck nodded in agreement. "Damn that was fast. How did word get to them so fast she was here?"
Ezra could not answer that question and had a feeling that Chris was right. This was more than just about a robbery. The problem was if it was not about theft, then what was it about?
Forces of Nature
It was quite possibly the most uncomfortable night Vin Tanner ever spent anywhere.
This included the time he was thrown into a Mexican jail in the heat of summer with two drunks who threw up repeatedly throughout the night, and then wallowed in their vomit while they slept. Vin remembered the foul stench that almost made him beg for a hanging as the sound of flies buzzing around the piles of regurgitated mucus, hounded him into the night.
This was slightly worse than that.
The trip to the property was difficult enough with the constant arguments and the heavy tension of unspoken attraction between them despite Vin's refusal to act on it, or Alex's tenacity for self-denial. The idea of spending an entire night with her, in the same room, since Agnes's cabin gave them no privacy, both terrified and excited him at the same time. Vin Tanner did not want to be in this predicament, and he was sure by now neither did Alexandra Styles.
After they entered the cabin and Vin lit a lamp to illuminate the room, Alex realized just how difficult the next few hours were going to be. Although she was committed to her courtship with Ezra Standish, she found Vin compelling in a way that was becoming difficult to ignore the more time she spent alone with him. Her feelings laid in wait for weeks now, simmering under the surface, like the depths of that creek where this began.
Obviously, Richard Doherty's dream of gold never matured since the cabin was barely functional. There was a wood floor, and the room had a stone fireplace on one end and a bed on the other. A round dining table with chairs stood before the stone hearth and a small space for cooking. It was confining enough to ensure Vin and Alex would be very aware of each other with absolutely no room for escape.
Alex still felt a little strange using the cabin without Agnes's permission. Even though there was little choice in the matter, she felt uncomfortable about trespassing in someone's home. Agnes might not appreciate the intrusion. Then again if Agnes were to appear and threw them both out, Alex would not mind either.
Vin could tell Alex was uncomfortable by the way she was pacing the floor while he was trying to light a fire. Agnes left plenty of wood in the wood box next to the fireplace leading Vin to conclude her trip if she did indeed leave for Four Corners as he suspected, was a hasty one. He hoped the woman was alright.
Occasionally, Vin would catch a glimpse of the doctor glancing at him with a look in her eyes devoid of her usual defiance. In fact, she looked nothing like the confident, no-nonsense woman capable of sewing up flesh like he darned his stocks. Instead, she reminded him of a young deer, skittish and afraid of every sound. Vin wondered if he did not frighten her a little. Although he pretended not to notice, Vin could see her shivering in her clothes and worked harder to get the fire going.
"We're going to have to get dry," Vin commented after the kindling caught alight. The twigs quickly ignited the heavier logs, wrapping tongues of amber flame around the bark as the fire began its work. Within minutes, he was savouring the feel of the heat radiating from the roasting pieces of wood, deciding this moment would only be fully complete if there were coffee to accompany it since he could use a cup about right now.
"I know," Alex agreed, aware if they did not get out of their wet clothes, they were in real danger of becoming ill. Somehow on top of everything else taking place today, being held up here for days to recover from a nasty cold was not an experience she wanted to endure. She needed to return home as soon as possible, away from this place, and more importantly, away from him . As it was, the idea of being trapped here in this cabin for the whole night was making her anxious. "We're going to catch something if we stay in these clothes much longer."
"I have some fresh clothes in my saddlebag. What about you?"
"This is it." Alex frowned, gesturing to her wet clothes while feeling supremely foolish for not bringing extra garments with her. At the time, she really thought she'd be back in a day and felt ridiculously stupid by that misjudgement.
Vin was sure she was blushing but did not press the point because the situation was awkward enough as it was.
"We'll think of something later," he muttered before excusing himself to go tend to the horses.
The tracker stepped out onto the porch, taking a breath of the damp night air. Now more than ever, he wished Nathan had found someone else to escort Alex to this place. Someone safe and reliable like Josiah or Chris, anyone but him. How was he going to manage the entire night with her alone?
Vin stepped from under the porch and let the rain wet his skin, cooling the heat of his turbulent emotions. Even when he was with Charlotte, Vin never felt anything remotely like this. Vin knew what it was like to want someone, but this was the first time he ever hungered for them. He stood under the rain, allowing the water and the wind to sweep his mind into a calmer state of being. It ran down his face, allowing Vin to taste its refreshing moisture in his throat before he released a deep breath.
He could do this.
The barn lay in the distance, and although Vin did not wish to make the walk across the muddy track, he was unprepared to leave Peso and Calliope out in the open to endure such inhospitable weather. He led both the horses into the barn and noticed with a frown; there was no wagon in sight, or any horse to pull it. The stables appeared empty, and upon further investigation, Vin learnt the most recent spores were a few days old. With rising annoyance, Vin was now almost certain Agnes Doherty was either in Four Corners or in some other town. Wherever she was now, the old lady left some time ago.
Cursing silently to himself, he retrieved his saddlebags and realized on his way back, he should have asked her if there was anything she wanted from her own. Bristling at the thought they made this journey for no good reason, and were now stranded here for the night was just intense enough for Vin to not really care. Besides, the woman didn't even bring a change of clothing with her! With that in mind, he doubted she had anything in her saddlebags that would be of any real use tonight, and since there was only one bed, Vin thought it wise to bring his bedroll with him.
Before he started entertaining ideas that would get him into any more trouble than he already was.
The first thing he noticed upon returning to the cabin was the pleasant smell of piping hot coffee. The aroma tantalised his nostrils, filling every corner of the cabin when he came through the door. The next thing Vin noticed after that initial enchantment was Alex was making it, and she was doing it wearing nothing but a blanket over her wet undergarments. Her clothes were hanging neatly across a chair in front of the fire and Vin could only stare as he saw the enticing sheen of her damp hair against her bronzed shoulders.
She caught the expression on his face and the unmistakable desire in his eyes. Her cheeks flushed with heat at the unexpected reaction before she recovered enough to respond, wishing to propel him past the moment. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Yeah," he said quickly, trying to hide what was so apparent on his face. "It might just make up for all the hell you've put me through today."
He came forward and accepted a cup from her while Alex took up position next to the fire, kneeling close enough so her face was bathed with the amber glow.
"You are never going to let me live this down are you?"
"No,” he wasn't about to lie to her about that. “Especially since it looks like Agnes has up and gone away," he downed a mouthful of coffee, allowing it to warm him inside on its way to his belly.
"What do you mean?" She looked at him hard, hating the triumph in his voice.
"I mean her wagon and horse are gone," he exclaimed, remembering how annoyed he was to be in this untenable situation for no good reason at all.
"I'm sorry to inconvenience you," Alex huffed, rising to her feet with great dignity while clutching the blanket around her as if it were protecting more than just her virtue. "I thought she was in trouble."
"You thought wrong.”
"Look," she glared at him, really upset now, "I didn't need you to come out with me."
"I didn't need me to come out with you either," he rose to his full height and stared down at her. "But it wouldn't be so bad if you could just admit this was a bad idea."
Vin wondered if she had any idea what kind of position she placed him in with her impulsiveness. Vin did not want to be alone with her, where her very presence taunted him with such desire he could barely think, and yet were he to succumb to it, he would end up betraying a friend.
Alex stared at him, her eyes blazing. "Never.”
This was a bad idea, and Alex knew it, but she was not about to tell Vin or let him know she felt the same way. He was unbearable enough knowing she had dragged them into this mess, but to admit defeat before him as well, that was even worse. Thanks to her, they were now trapped in this cabin until morning at least, far away from home and about to kill each other. She was prepared to admit responsibility. She just was not ready to do it to him.
Just like at the creek, Alex suddenly realised Vin was standing only inches away from her. She could smell the musk of his wet buckskins, and the scent of his skin taunted her. She stared into the depths of his blue eyes. Once again, he was taking her in with that same unreadable expression that so mesmerized her at Nettie's. This was wrong, and she knew it, but he smelled so damn good it was impossible to pull away.
Drawn to each other in a bruising kiss, its power over them was near total.
When Alex's confusion gave away to consent, the growl of urgency escaping Vin made her lips part for him like a sensuous flower. With hungry pleasure, she savoured his tongue probing past her lips, stroking the inside of her mouth. He tasted her like she was something beautiful and exotic. Lost in the yearning for him, Alex felt her cheek caressed the stubble on his face, as his lips took from her everything they wanted.
It wasn't as if she hadn't been kissed before. On the contrary, she'd shared a few with Ezra Standish, but not like this. Once again, she could feel his touch all the way to her toes, where with Ezra it was restrained, pleasing but never all-consuming. Alex marvelled at the power he had over her, or could have over her if she allowed it. As he continued to kiss her, his chest pressed against her own, Alex swore she could almost hear the rhythm of his heart beating in concert with hers.
"Vin," she whispered, but the words died in her throat as his mouth slid down her neck.
Hearing his name slide off her lips was almost as satisfying as the rest of intoxicating taste. Vin's mind was so far away at the moment, he could scarcely believe this urge to possess her was coming from inside him. Even with Charlotte, there was some measure of control, some restraint to keep him centred on what he was doing.
Wit Alex, his desire was all-consuming, his passion was like a force of nature sweeping him away. All of her was much better than he imagined. Her scent, her taste and her touch brought out in him a raw craving for her he never dreamed existed. God, he wanted her so much...
Suddenly, Alex shoved him away violently and ran out the door before he knew what was happening.
It took a moment for Vin to get past the haze of raw desire to realize she had run from him. The door was wide open as he stumbled outside after her, trying to ignore his shock at her abrupt departure. Alex had not gone very far, she was only a few feet away from the door, letting the rain soak into her skin.
He knew she was crying even before she turned around to look him in the eye.
She stood upright, covering herself as best she could with her arms, an expression of intense shame etched in her face. The sight of it drove a stab of pain through Vin's heart when he finally understood without her having to speak,why she had pulled away.
"I'm sorry Vin," she wept softly. "I want you so much it hurts, but this isn't right. I made promises to Ezra, and I can't just disregard it!"
Alex wasn't stupid. She knew perfectly well what would happen if what went between them continued. Alex understood the friendships of the seven, the bonds forged between these men who were like brothers. From Ezra to Nathan, she cared about them, cared about the women who loved them and knew if she did this, she would be the cause of a fracture that might never be repaired.
Vin tried to hide the anguish in his face and thought he did quite an admirable job of it. Of course, she was right. He valued Ezra's friendship too much to throw it away like he almost certainly would if he made love to her. Vin was not willing to steal another man's love again. He learned that much from Charlotte.
"Come inside," Vin said evenly, trying not to show how much this hurt him but understanding he had brought this partly on himself. He made the first move. "I promise I won't do anything."
She nodded slowly, fearing nothing of the sort from him because he was an honourable man and no matter what she might tell herself later, Alex knew Ezra would never make her feel the way Vin did.
The following morning saw not the rising of the sun but the continuing fall of rain.
The Territory was accustomed to enduring worse weather than this in its time, so a hard fall rain was considered little more than a staple of the season. Usually, it would be tolerated with little more than a shrug by its inhabitants as one of those things that came with living in the Territory. Except this time, with everything taking place around him, Chris Larabee really wished it would clear up.
While Chris was confident Vin could handle almost anything thrown at him, he was unable to deny the concern he felt by the prolonged absence of the tracker. Chris was reaching the point where he would be unable to simply shrug off the situation, but that moment had yet to arrive.
With the attempted murder of Julia Pemberton the night before, it was apparent the threat he perceived was not a product of his imagination. He believed the attempt was inevitable even if he did not expect it to arrive so soon. The young lady spent the night at Mary's, but it left a great deal to be desired as a hiding place. Most people knew Mary's connection to the seven, not to mention to him personally, and it would not take a great leap of deduction to guess Julia would take refuge in her home.
Fortunately, it was Mary who finally produced a solution by offering the use of the old Travis place. Since the fire that almost killed Chris and Billy when the discovery of her husband's killer had come to light, Mary conducted enough repairs to ensure it was habitable. She intended to rent it out for extra income since she had no intention of ever living there again.
While Julia did not appreciate the idea of being moved so far out of town, she accepted her life was under real threat after the attempt the night before. Much of her annoyance was due to her impatience to begin work on restoring the Emporium. Still, Chris was adamant she remained under protection since she was her only link to the murderers.
Besides, he never really liked that Emporium anyway.
"It's not much," Mary confessed as the two women arrived at the property that afternoon escorted by Chris, Josiah and Ezra. Buck and JD were making the rounds through town, trying all their contacts again, now they were armed with new information about one of the men they were hunting.
Obviously, the killer knew Julia would be taken to Four Corners, but Chris was surprised he would risk coming into town so soon after the robbery and murders. It indicated to Chris there was some importance attached to him not being identified, beyond the obvious fear of capture. If he was desperate enough to come into town, then maybe he was desperate enough to make a mistake. In either case, Chris was leaving no stone unturned.
"It will do Mrs Travis," Julia remarked politely, even though the place did look primitive. She supposed this sort of rustic dwelling was typical of country homes. Considering it was a good idea to keep in the woman's good graces, Julia resisted the urge to tell Mary how she really felt.
"I have tried to keep the place up since the fire," Mary explained as they pulled their cloaks tighter before making the dash from the wagon to the front porch to avoid the rain. "But I really must confess I have personal reasons for not coming here more often."
Mary and Julia trudged over the muddy ground, raising their skirts high enough to avoid getting dirty before arriving on the porch.
"Why don't you sell it?"
"I thought about it, but I decided I would keep it for my son Billy. This is his home too, and while I find it difficult to be here, he may not." Mary let her gaze sweep across the spread and felt a tinge of sadness when she remembered how Steven loved this place. They had ridden across the area, searching for the perfect home to raise their family when they came across this patch of earth with its trees and green grass, falling in love with it at once.
"I'm sorry," Julia said automatically, detecting the grief in the widow's eyes. "I appreciate your hospitality," she remarked, realizing now how difficult it must be for Mary Travis to be here.
She was starting to understand Ezra's sentiment towards these people, even if he seemed in every way the scoundrel. It was not the security of a home or his precious Alexandra that kept Ezra bound to Four Corners, it was the camaraderie of the people around him. He wanted to belong, and Julia supposed she could understand that too.
It led Julia to the understanding if she wanted him, she would have to become a part of his world.
"Well it can't be a good endorsement of Four Corners to be caught in such awful circumstances," Mary continued speaking, oblivious to Julia's thoughts at this moment. "Here you are choosing to invest in the local area and have all this happen to you. It was the least I could do."
"Well, thank you," she was genuinely touched as Chris and Josiah emerged from the house.
"Is everything alright?" Mary asked the gunslinger. The lawmen made a quick inspection of the place, making sure it was fit for Julia's use.
"Seems to be," Chris said shortly. "We've made sure there's plenty of firewood and supplies for the next two days. We'll be taking turns keeping watch on you."
"Including Buck?" Mary could not resist teasing him on this point, and even Julia had to chuckle slightly.
Chris gave Mary a look. “No.”
Buck would be too distracted by Miss Pemberton's charms to be an effective watchdog. The men who robbed the stage did not believe in taking prisoners as their actions so far proved. As sure as he was about Buck, the man lost all good sense when it came to women. Buck's attention was prone to wander in the presence of a pretty face, and Chris was not putting him in a position to get his head blown off, as well as the person he was charged to protect.
"I need him to go to Purgatory, maybe see if anyone matching Miss Pemberton's description has blown in since Vin left."
"I wonder how Vin's doing," Josiah said in that deep voice of his while peering over the porch to take note of the rain that showed no signs of abating. The wind was picking up again, and around them, the trees were swaying back and forth from the rising gale. It only brought home to them the missing friends who should have been home by now.
"Considering he and Alex are together, probably not well," Mary laughed and then turned to Julia to explain the joke. "They don't exactly get along."
"That's putting it mildly" Josiah sighed. "Even if he were shot to pieces, bleeding to death and strung by his toenails, he would still rather have Nathan fix him up instead of Doctor Styles."
"You know," Julia found herself commenting, "there's a fine line between love and hate."
From an outsider's point of view, it was evident something was happening between Alexandra Styles and Vin Tanner, Ezra had no idea about. The gambler at this moment was riding along the perimeter of the property, ensuring no one had seen them arrive.
"I hope it's not that fine." Chris frowned, hoping her observation was wrong, but her offhand comment hit home.
Vin had a history of reaching for unattainable women. Charlotte came to mind most prominently. Even though the relationship had disaster written all across it from the very beginning, Vin plunged in headfirst, utterly oblivious to the consequences to himself and to Charlotte. Of course, the others were perfectly aware Charlotte was using the tracker. Her unhappiness with her husband made Vin's sensitivity an attractive alternative, and it still angered Chris to know the hurt she caused Vin when it finally ended.
While Vin never confessed to having any feelings for Alex Styles, not that he would talk to Chris anyway, the gunslinger was forced to admit he did get very vocal around her. Watching Vin and Alex battle it out was sometimes reminiscent of his arguments with Mary. God, he hoped it was not that reminiscent because like Charlotte, Alex belonged to someone else.
"Amen to that," Josiah said, thinking the same thing.
Mary did not want to remain at the property for too long, so she and Chris returned to Four Corners while Josiah and Ezra began the first watch. The two men immediately began playing cards, an enterprise that bored Julia to no end. She walked through the house, being driven mad by the incessant fall of rain dogging her arrival at Four Corners. She wanted to be in the town where she could begin work on her emporium and make a start on the new life she fled Philadelphia to begin.
She lapsed into silence, lamenting the fact she had run from Philadelphia to be free of one man only to become imprisoned by another.
"You seem awfully quiet my dear," Ezra remarked, noticing her pace the floor like a caged cat. Somehow the analogy suited her. Despite the fact he appeared wholly fixed on the hand before him, Ezra noticed her movements across the floor. When she was quiet and not flirting shamelessly, Ezra was able to see the beauty that undoubtedly brought so many men to their knees. Yet there was also strength in her, and Ezra suspected it was mettle underestimated because Julia was so beautiful. He wondered why she fled from her past. Although she had confessed to no such thing, he knew she was running.
She had the manner of someone who did not want to look behind her.
"I am just thinking about your robberies."
"It's a bad business" Josiah commented. "They've killed women and children, old and young. There doesn't seem to be any set pattern."
"Yes," she nodded, unafraid of speaking about such grisly business. After seeing the deaths up close, very little could shock her. "It seems extremely random, and like overkill."
Ezra turned to her sharply, as if she had said something important, but for the life of him, he could not understand why. For a few seconds, he said nothing as the thought moved around his head, trying to find substance. Finally, it slipped away completely and whatever was left was only an uncomfortable taste in his mouth he could not quite fathom.
"So, where are you from Miss Pemberton?" Josiah asked since the silence in the room was making the atmosphere somewhat awkward.
Ezra watched her for a reaction because it was the one subject Julia seemed reluctant to discuss, her origins before arriving at Four Corners. Suddenly, almost as if it were a mask she was slipping over her features, Julia produced a persona capable of handling Josiah's inquiry convincingly. It was almost entertaining to watch, Ezra thought.
"I am from Pennsylvania." Julia approached the duo before settling into one of the empty chairs to observe their card game for something to do.
"You came out here all on your own?" Josiah said with surprise, because she was really a young woman, despite her looks. It did not seem proper for a young lady of her breeding to come to such a frontier place like the Territory.
"I had to. My father had this odd idea I should be married."
Julia saw no reason to hide that part of her past. If they had no names to trace, her privacy was still ensured. Besides, she liked the calm of the preacher for some reason. Surprisingly, Josiah reminded her of her father in the days before his darker impulses came to light. In the days when she still trusted him.
"Really?" Ezra found himself asking with more interest than he ought to feel.
"Yes." Julia brightened by his concern. Was Ezra jealous? She did so hope he was. "He arranged a marriage for me to this most odious man. Of course, he was rich but truly unredeemable in any shape or form. I loathed him from the moment I laid eyes on him."
"I gather you told your father you weren't going to marry this man," the preacher guessed.
"Eventually." Julia allowed herself a satisfied smile remembering the look on her father's face when she made her announcement to depart. She would have almost risked telling Packard to his face just to see his reaction. "He did not understand and decided to disown me."
"That is unfortunate" Ezra said barely concealing his disbelief, even if he wasn't going to expose her to Josiah. "How did you manage?"
"I had a rich aunt, who refused to see me ruined," Julia glared at him with a well-hidden scowl aware he saw right through the lie. "She left a sizeable trust at my disposal, and I heard about the opportunities to be had in the new West, I came here."
"The new West is somewhat overrated," Josiah pointed out as he finally showed Ezra his hand. "Too many folks come out this way, expecting to find streets paved with gold and then learn otherwise. I do hope your situation turns out better than those poor unfortunates."
"I don't want to find streets of gold," she replied, knowing his words were only out of concern. Julia found herself warming to the preacher and felt it necessary to justify her actions. She suspected it took quite a bit to earn this man's respect and for some reason, Julia wished to. "I just want to build something of my own that does not require me marrying wel, or having some man to look after me forever. I'm done with relying on the opposite sex for assistance."
Then with a sweet smile, she added. "After this situation is resolved, of course.”
“Of course,” Ezra replied with a smile and wish the affection he felt for her would simply go away.*****
"You ready?" Vin asked Alex as he peered through the cabin door.
"Yes," she nodded, allowing her gaze to sweep past the rustic home that was the scene of so much turmoil the night before. It had gone by quite innocently with Vin honouring his word to keep his distance, not that she ever doubted he would. The atmosphere now hung with an uneasy silence that neither was willing to break.
As she walked out, Alex pulled the door closed behind her, hoping it would not only keep away intruders but also trap the secrets within. Vin said very little to her throughout the remainder of the night. However, Alex had no doubt she was in his thoughts since he was most certainly in hers. She had no idea how she allowed things to progress as far as they had, and now was at a loss at what to do. No matter what, Alex could not ignore how Vin made her feel. She never had a lover before, but last night, if it were not for her obligations to Ezra, Vin would have been her first.
She forced all these thoughts away when she joined him outside, unable to hide from the knowledge things between them could never be the same again, not if she wanted Ezra in her life. She pulled the hood of her cloak and saw he already mounted Peso and was waiting patiently for her to do the same. Neither could meet the other's eyes because the memory was too fresh. Alex hurried past him, saying nothing as she climbed on Calliope, so eager to begin this journey back to Four Corners that she barely noticed the rain on her skin.
Right now, the most important thing in her mind was to return to Ezra and never think of what happened last night again. In time, she might let go of the guilt that would follow her whenever she looked at Vin and remember what almost was.*****
The effects of the terrible weather did not abate with their departure and only seemed to increase the atmosphere of unresolved tension between them as they descended the steep hills. The wind howled its protest as the horses moved slowly down the sharp incline, trying to navigate the ground of shale and rock. In some places, the shale had washed away so thoroughly the soil lay exposed until the rain invariably turned the clay into mud. As they continued down the main track, Vin was very conscious of the trees whose branches were twisted so viciously by the gale, they hung precariously over the path threatening to fall at the slightest gust.
The path had deteriorated badly, with trees uprooted and were now lying stretched across the muddy track. It concerned Vin enough to forget the night before and focus on the problem at hand. He knew it was for personal reasons they both wanted to return to Four Corners, and for the most part, Vin was the first to admit it was safer they be around their friends instead of alone. However, he was starting to see the danger in continuing. The storm was quickly turning into a calamity that could cause them serious harm if they kept going.
"Alex," he looked over his shoulder and saw her wiping wet strands of hair from her eyes as she tried to see through the rain pounding at her relentlessly. "We can't keep going."
Alex nodded, half expecting this because she was not blind to the weather. It did seem treacherous out here, and the clouds overhead showed no signs of dissipating. The storm had dug its heels in and did not appear as if it would yield for some time. While she was fearful of what else might occur between them, she would not gamble with their lives again. Had she listened to him earlier on, they would not have found themselves in the present situation.
"Is it safe to turn back?" It had been a struggle trying to reach this far. Although she did not have the expertise with the land he had, Alex knew the road, now a slick, muddy mess, was too dangerous to cross.
Vin considered the possibility. He would have preferred to find shelter somewhere and wait until the worst of it passed by, but the weather was too harsh for anything other than the sanctuary provided at Agnes Doherty's farm. However, they were also halfway down the hill by now, and it would be too difficult to backtrack. The only choice was to continue down to more solid ground. At least then they would not be in danger of taking an unfortunate tumble if the horses missed their footing.
"We'll keep going until we get to the bottom of the hill."
"Are you sure that's wise?" She swept her gaze across the somewhat treacherous terrain.
"We're more than halfway down," he nudged Peso forward. "We'll take shelter once we get down this hill."
"If you say so," Alex answered sceptically, feeling a little uneasy with the whole situation as it stood. She was afraid if Calliope slipped, she would not have the expertise to keep the horse under control and could be unseated. Alex was aware of the terrible injuries resulting from such falls.
After a moment, she nudged Calliope alongside Peso, feeling the need to clear the air. They had been avoiding any conversation for some time now, and she thought that they needed to speak of it before returning to Four Corners. "
"Mr Tanner, we need to talk."
Vin glanced sideways and said simply. "I think you can still call me Vin."
“I wish you would not make this so hard."
Vin returned her gaze with some irritation. "I ain't making anything hard. Looks to me like we said everything we needed to, last night."
Well, she could not fault him on that brilliant deduction. "I realize that, but I don't want you to think I do this sort of thing all the time. I care for Ezra."
Vin flinched slightly at her saying those words. How many times was she going to rub that in his face? He was aware of how things were. While he might not like it, Vin accepted it was how it was to be.
"Look," he glared at her feeling a little more hostility than he intended, "you and Ezra are together . I know that. I always knew that. You don't need to explain anything or make right what happened. I reckon it's best if we just leave it be."
"Fine," she whispered softly, stung by his rebuke. Alex wanted to apologize for her behaviour, but she'd unwittingly upset him again. Digging her heels into Calliope, she sent the horse trotting forward, leaving him behind because it was apparent he was hurt.
"Alex!" Vin called out before she got too far ahead of him. The track was unsafe as it was, without her trying to traverse it on her own. She may be an excellent doctor, but she was unskilled at reading the land or seeing the danger in the tracks.
No sooner than he spoke those words, Vin watched in horror as the ground beneath her fell away in a loud rumble. The weight of animal and rider loosened the last clumps of earth holding the trail together, and the soil tumbled free in a wall of mud. She barely managed to utter a scream as both Calliope and Alex disappeared into the wake of the landslide. The horse struggled to drag herself back to the top of the peak frantically before her weight dragged her down with the rest of the mudslide. Alex, on the other hand, was already swept downward. She disappeared in the descent of mud and earth.
Peso reared on his hind legs as he staggered backward in fright, utterly aware of what he had seen. Vin managed to stay on the horse, but he lost sight of Alex disappearing down the hill.
His voice was almost a scream as he leapt off Peso and ran down the track, hoping she was riding the crest of the landslide and not buried under a ton of soil. If that happened, there was no way he could reach her before she suffocated.
Vin skid down the muddy incline, calling out her name but seeing nothing but ragged holes against the hill where constant erosion and water seepage had collapsed its insides. The sudden avalanche was soundless, except for a low rumble that died almost as quickly as it began. In the aftermath of the radical shift of earth, the hills returned to the sounds of wind blowing through the trees, rustling leaves and water falling pitter-patter against the ground. His heart was pounding as he felt the slippery mud beneath him, adding speed to his rapid descent.
For a moment, blind panic gripped the tracker when he could not see her. The idea she might be buried so far beneath the soil he could not reach her terrified him to the core. There was only one thing worse than knowing she would never be his, and at this moment Vin knew perfectly well what that was.
It was knowing Alex was dead .
"Alex!" he called out, feeling a cold fist tightening around his heart as he landed on the mound of wet soil that had piled in the wake of the collapse.
Calliope was lying on her side. The mare was covered in mud and raised her head weakly as she tried desperately to rise to her feet. As Vin scrambled over the dirt towards the animal, he knew Calliope would not be able to stand again. The break in her leg was evident from where he was. Vin paused as he reached the animal, running his hand over her wet flank, hoping the touch would soothe her fear. He could see Calliope's nostrils flaring as she struggled to rise, followed by the plaintive nicker of despair when she could not. It stabbed at Vin's heart to see the animal in such torment, and knew his course was clear.
Sliding next to Calliope's head, he ran his hands over her, trying to calm her down and keep her from making another attempt to stand. She breathed easier at the feel of human contact, unaware even as Vin was trying to soothe her fears, he was reaching for the gun in his holster. He kept the weapon out of the animal's sight, moving it gently into position so Calliope would die without the fear that came before the end.
"It's okay girl," he said quietly. "No more pain."
With that, he pulled the trigger.
The sound exploded in the air, cutting through the fabric of all other noises with the overwhelming ability exclusive only to guns. Startled, birds flew out of the trees overhead, frightened into the rain by a sound almost as loud as a thunderclap but not quite as comforting as all things in nature tended to be. Calliope's eyes glazed over as her head dropped back into the earth, a thick rivulet of blood exuding from the entry wound as Vin drew away from the carcass.
Suddenly, he heard a weak voice and remembered Alex.
Vin saw an irregular shape of mud and earth heave, not too far from him. Jamming his gun back into his holster, Vin pushed himself down the slope, allowing the dirt to carry him down toward the moving shape jarred into consciousness by the sound of the gunshot. He reached Alex as her head lifted into view, followed by her arm trying hard to break free of the mud.
"Alex!" Vin grabbed the exposed arm and immediately began digging up the soil around her. She was not buried deeply at all, but the weight of mud and clay against her cloak made mobility difficult. Vin sank his fingers into its woollen fabric and yanked hard backward, splattering himself with mud as he swung it aside. Pulling her gently by the arm, Alex rolled out of the earth, coughing hard as she tried to expel the dirt in her throat. She was completely covered with mud, and her hair was stuck to her scalp in thick, grainy strands, yet Vin thought she had never looked more lovely.
"Are you hurt?" he asked as he rolled her onto his lap.
It took a moment for her to answer as she stirred from the dark nightmare of sand and mud. Vin saw no signs of broken bones or detect any blood as he held Alex, who was trembling in his arms. However, she was so covered in mud it was difficult to tell.
"No," she coughed, expelling more earth from her mouth. "Not really. My leg hurts. Am I moving my ankle?"
"Yeah." Vin nodded worriedly, seeing her foot move. "It's moving."
"Then it's just a bad sprain," she muttered as she decided to lie perfectly still in his arms for a moment. Her head was swimming, and she felt the pain of cuts and lacerations across her arms and chest. "What happened? Did I slip?"
"No," Vin shook his head, brushing a smear of mud from her face. The raindrops were washing some of it off her skin but not enough. "Landslide."
"Oh," she nodded still quite dazed, her eyes closed. "I thought I was shot for a minute there. I thought I heard a gunshot."
"You did," Vin said sombrely. "Calliope was hurt really bad."
Her eyes opened at the understanding of what he was trying to tell her. "My horse...."
"I'm sorry, Alex," he started apologizing, hating to tell her such news after her terrifying ordeal. "Her leg was broken. It wasn't right to leave her in so much pain."
Alex looked away, trying to hide the tears that filled her eyes at the news of the mare's death. True, she was not the best rider and horses in general, tended to frighten her a bit, but Calliope was the first horse Alex ever bought herself. Mary and Inez had gone with her to the Roberts Stud in Bitter Creek to buy the animal. Alex remembered running her hands over the smooth sheen of the animal's flank and knowing with some unexplainable instinct she could get along with the mare.
"Was it quick?" She managed to ask after a while.
"I made sure it was," Vin reassured her, able to see how the loss of the mare was affecting her. He had Peso longer than he could remember, and considered the horse not just his main form of transport but a trusted companion. Peso shared Vin's life with him when there were no other to share anything. He would feel just as devastated by the loss of that devoted animal.
"Thank you," Alex whispered and lay on his lap for a moment before struggling to sit up.
"No, you sit still for a minute," he rested a hand on her shoulder to keep her where she was. "Just catch your breath while I figure out what we're going to do next."
"Okay," she nodded, grateful he was here with her. After a moment, she spoke. "Vin?”
"Yeah?" he asked distractedly as his eyes surveyed the terrain for an alternate route down the hill. He no longer wanted to take the main track because it had been cleared of trees and lay open to the elements. Such factors allowed the rain to seep through the soil and create the calamity that almost killed Alex a moment ago. He was not risking her life like that again. He was supposed to be the best damn tracker in the Territory so if there was a safe way down this mountain, Vin Tanner was going to find it.
"Do you think horses go somewhere when they die?" She asked quietly, needing to believe Christian dogma was wrong, that animals did have a soul, and there was a paradise waiting for them at the end of their lives.
Vin looked down at her in surprise, thinking how far removed she seemed from the efficient doctor who was used to giving him orders and going off to tend all kinds of ills without fear of God and heaven. He wondered if Ezra ever saw the vulnerable side of her Vin was often fortunate enough to glimpse. The gambler never seemed to be around for those occasions because he always needed tending in some way, and it occurred to Vin she was probably so strong for that very reason.
"I reckon so," Vin answered softly. "I think there's a place for everything that lives and breathes. Just because we don't know about it doesn't mean it ain't there. We don't know where heaven or hell is meant to be either, but we still believe."
"I called her Calliope after a Muse. I always thought it was a pretty name, and she was such a beautiful horse."
"It's a pretty name."
"Vin?" she asked again, this time looking at him directly. "Is that short for Vincent?"
Vin stared at her because he honestly did not know. Before his mother died, she imparted to him he was a Tanner, specifically Vin Tanner. He was too young to remember much else about his life with her, except she sort of reminded him of Nettie Wells. There were no records or papers to contradict the claim, and he went through his life needing no proof to know he was a Tanner.
"I don't know," he shrugged, wishing now he did.
She smiled at him and touched his face. "It's a nice name too."*****
By the time the sun set on the day, Chris Larabee knew one thing, he was going to find Vin Tanner and Alex Styles.
He could not explain the instinct telling him they were in trouble, but he learned never to question it. True, the Doherty place was almost a full day's ride from Four Corners, but he knew Vin, and even with the rain, the tracker should have returned to town by now. With the outlaws responsible for the stage robberies and murders still at large, Chris was painfully aware of how much danger Vin and Alex could find themselves if they were to encounter these men.
With Nathan and JD taking up the watch at the Travis place, the rest of the seven were gathered in the saloon around their usual table. As usual, Buck was disappointed he was not assigned guard duty over the fair Miss Pemberton and had the strangest feeling Chris did not entirely trust him. Nevertheless, it allowed Buck to make the trip to Purgatory where he was able to meet some willing female company, as well as stumble across a vital lead on the outlaws.
"I'm telling you, Chris," Buck said with a smile as he leaned across the bar, waiting for Inez to bring his drink, "I was cooking today. By the way, Lydia says hello."
Chris frowned at the mention of the working girl he visited a few times in the past. Chris had not called on her since he and Mary started their relationship, and felt a little uncomfortable at the mention of her name. He knew Buck was just throwing that at him in payment for keeping him away from Julia Pemberton.
"Get on with it" he growled, slapping a card onto the table as a discard. He had little patience with Buck's prattle, with Vin and Alex yet to return.
"Right," Buck continued, taking some satisfaction in his annoyance and feeling suitably vindicated. "Anyway, I met this girl, and I'm telling you she had the best..."
"About the robberies Buck!" Chris glared at him. "Jesus!"
"Okay, okay," Buck winced, trying to pacify Chris when he realized just how black a mood his friend was in. By the looks of Ezra and Josiah, the condition seemed to be catching. "You know there was a time when this used to be such a happy group."
"Maybe," Inez announced, finding time to serve him his drink now, "if you just tell them what they want to know and stop flapping your lips about your many conquests, they might be happier."
"Jealous darling?" He gave her one of his suggestive smiles. "All you gotta do is say the word."
Inez rolled her eyes in disbelief, slamming his glass down in front of him, spilling most of the white frothon the table, before sweeping away to deal with the rest of the customers. Buck sighed, knowing it was just a matter of time before she succumbed to him, but wished the wait wasn't so long.
"Mr Wilmington." Ezra finally spoke, exuding calm even because, like the rest of them, Ezra wanted to know what Buck learned in Purgatory. He was in the same frame of mind as Chris Larabee, although he had better patience than the leader of the seven. "It would be a great help to us all if you just told us what you have discovered."
"Sure." Buck sighed, deciding that there was definitely no room for levity with this group tonight. "As I said, I was cooking tonight," he picked up his drink and came to the table. He flinched a moment at the wet around the glass and wiped his hand on his coat after setting it down again. "I ran into this working girl Elisa after I said hello to Lydia. She keeps her ears open for information while she's with her customers, tries to make money off what she can sell, so Lydia tells me."
"The throes of passion can loosen the tongue," Josiah remarked and then added. "Literally."
"Exactly, I had to pay her a couple of bits, but I managed to find out she knows this dealer who supplied horses to five men each time they went out on a job. He wouldn't say much except he knows they're up to no good because they're always after fresh horses and paying him in cash. That's why he can afford to come see her as often as he does."
It was not much of a lead, but Chris admitted it could be something. One of the reasons why it was so difficult to track these men was because they never seem to be riding the same animals. It was smart, changing mounts after each robbery. He knew how distinctive some animals could be, making it easy to identify the owners. Everyone in Four Corners knew his black gelding on sight, as well as Vin's horse Peso. "Does he have a name?"
"No." Buck frowned, wondering if that omission by Elisa was intentional or not. She claimed she did not know, but he had the feeling she was trying to coax him into paying more for the information. "But she did say he was coming back tomorrow."
"That's the first real evidence we've had since this began." Josiah looked at Chris, who had to agree with the preacher.
"Buck, you go back to Purgatory and wait this guy out," Chris said fingering his cards with mild attention to the game since his mind was singularly focussed on how they would deal with this potential lead. "When you get him, I want you to make it very clear if he doesn't tell us everything he knows, we'll take him in as an accessory to the fact."
"Can we do that?" Buck stared at Chris.
"I don't think this town is going to take to kindly to the man who supplies these bastards with their horses so they can do their killing." Chris looked at the other two men who nodded their agreement at his sinister intent. "You tell him we'll haul his ass into town and let a lynch mob deal with him."
"You're a vicious man," Buck grinned.
"But he does have an excellent feel for strategy," Ezra grinned with a slight tip of his hat to Chris in admiration, which the gunslinger returned in kind.
"In the meantime," Chris put his cards down. He couldn't concentrate on the game when there were too many other concerns on his mind at the moment. "You mind taking a ride with me Preacher?" Chris glanced at Josiah.
"Where are we going?" Josiah inquired, still looking at his own hand.
"I want to take a ride to the Doherty place" Chris confessed. "Vin and Alex should have been back by now."
"I'll come with you" Ezra suggested, glad someone was thinking along those lines other than him. He did not want to sound like the worried suitor, but with another night descending upon them and no sign of either Alexandra or Vin, Ezra could not help being concerned.
"No, I need you to stay with Julia," Chris said automatically, knowing how distracted a man worrying about a woman could be on the trail. "Besides, Nathan may need to get back to town to tend to his yellow fever cases, and JD needs someone to ride shotgun with him."
"I could do it," Buck offered enthusiastically.
"No, you can go to Purgatory," Chris said without even looking back at the man. "You got a job to do there."
"But Chris..!" he protested, sounding like a little boy.
"I don't want to hear it, Buck" Chris repeated with enough of an edge to his voice to make it count.
Buck knew the tone well enough to know it was pointless trying to change his mind. "You are really starting to cramp my style."
"You'll survive," Josiah remarked with a hint of a smile. "Besides, I get the feeling she's not interested in you Buck."
"What do you mean?" Buck demanded, horrified by the notion someone may have already obtained the young lady's affection during his absences. Even Chris stared at Josiah in surprise, while Ezra seemed more glacial than ever.
"I think she has a taste for something Southern," Josiah glanced in Ezra's direction.
"That is your imagination talking Mr Sanchez," Ezra protested immediately but knew he did not sound convincing. Josiah was correct of course, Julia wanted him and only him. While it did something to the ego to know that, considering that Alexandra was out there braving God only knew what, it made Ezra feel terribly guilty to think some other woman was vying for his attention.
"Is it?" Chris looked at him with one of those shadowy smiles. "She did ask for you specifically to guard her."
Ezra shifted in his seat. "That is not my fault." The gambler threw down his cards, disliking the tone of this conversation immensely. He was having enough difficulty with the subject of Julia Pemberton without it becoming a matter of public debate. “Mr Larabee, I feel you should omit me from guard detail."
"Can't," Chris said simply, not allowing Ezra to squirm out of it that easily. "With Vin gone and Nathan needed in town for doctoring since Alex is not here, we're pretty shorthanded."
"What is it with you?" Buck accused Ezra. "You're always getting the best ones!"
"I am not getting anything!" Ezra protested with uncharacteristic emotion. "I am not the least bit interested in the charms, or anything else for that matter, of the fair Miss Pemberton, no matter how many times she offered me her attention during the night!"
It took a second for Ezra to realize what he had said before noticing the amused expressions on Josiah and Chris, not to mention the angry glowering on Buck's face.
"She asked you to sleep with her?"
"I have nothing further to say." The gambler rose to his feet. "I shall ride there now and perform the task you have set for me, Mr Larabee. Would you please find Alexandra?"
With that, Ezra stormed out of the room, leaving an air of astonishment behind.
"I knew it" Buck grumbled after he left. "This is all your fault, Chris."
Chris turned to him incredulous. "How?"
"If you didn't insist on keeping her away from me, she wouldn't have fallen into Ezra's arms. It's bad enough he's got that pretty doctor to himself and now Miss Pemberton too? You know Chris, you ought to pay more mind to those of us who haven't found the loves of our lives. After all, you've got Mary now, so you can't appreciate the problems the rest of us have to go through." Buck was rambling, but he was genuinely disappointed to think once again, another beautiful woman had slipped out of his reach.
"Buck, just get riding to Purgatory" Chris sighed wearily, suddenly feeling he was the keeper of an insane asylum.
"Fine," Buck stood up from the table, "send me away like I'm some wayward kid."
"It would help if you stopped acting like one," the gunslinger pointed out.
"I know when I'm not wanted." Buck huffed with offence and took the same route Ezra had just taken, storming out of the saloon with Josiah and Chris staring after him. Their gazes were still fixed on the batwing doors after the tall man had left. For a long moment, neither said anything.
"You know something, Josiah?" Chris was still staring out the door as if he could see through the wood at Buck saddling his horse and preparing for his journey to Purgatory once again.
Now Josiah did turn to the gunslinger, feeling some confusion for gratitude he had not earned. "Thank you?"
"Yeah," Chris nodded, picking up his glass because he really needed a drink now, "for being the only one other than me who's older than twelve."
Liest and Retribution
Buck Wilmington arrived in Purgatory sometime in the dead of night and found the shantytown alive with activity as always. Purgatory never slept, the way one might imagine Hell was incapable of doing so. Some of the more righteous citizens of Four Corners described the place as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Buck had no idea where either of those places were, but if it was anything like Purgatory, it could not be all that bad.
Purgatory was located within a canyon, surrounded by high walls of rock with only one way in or out. Its history was checkered, and Buck remembered hearing about its existence as far back as the war. It had always existed and who or why the first operator of liquor and women set up here still remained a mystery. Over the years, it became an infamous part of the Territory; a monument to the lawlessness that ran rife throughout the new West until the coming of the lawmen.
It attracted the worst of men and was home to working girls and moonshine distillers who wanted the freedom to trade without the inconvenience of bible bashing matrons, screaming their dogma of evil and hell. The men who came here had little fear of God, and the only religion they aspired to was the law of the gun.
In the past two years since Buck Wilmington and his friends put down roots in Four Corners, they occasionally visited the place, mostly for the pleasure of paid female company. Despite Chris's reluctance to admit it, the gunslinger usually came to see Lydia, the working girl they'd rescued from Wickestown. Of course, now Chris and Mary were openly courting, the man stayed as far away from here as possible. Buck wondered if Mary had any idea about Lydia and decided it was probably best she did not.
Buck, on the other hand, knew just about every woman in the place even if he did not bed them all. He was seldom in need of paid female company and indulged in it only when he was in the area. They liked him, which was hardly surprising. Women, in general, found Buck quite pleasing; both as a lover and as a person. Their treatment of him reflected their affection. On this particular night, he indulged himself a little even though after the fact, he did feel somewhat guilty since he was meant to be working. However, the news about Julia Pemberton bothered him to no end, especially when she had offered Ezra her favours.
Buck was really starting to wonder if his animal magnetism had abandoned him.
Nevertheless, he spent the evening with the charming young lady who went by the name of Gillian. After the encounter, Buck found himself a stool and took watch in some unobtrusive corner in one of the many saloons giving him a clear view of Elisa's tent so he could keep watch on her customers. The weather was still bad, with rain coming down the tents and makeshift shelters housing the bulk of Purgatory's business. Elisa's place was little more than a canvas tent, but it kept the rain out although Buck knew personally a little water would be of little hindrance to any man wishing to satisfy his natural urges. Elisa indicated to him she would be partial to letting him know when the horse trader departed. After all, she needed to make a living.
Buck was never one for surveillance and soon found his mind wandering to the situation in Four Corners. He was still incensed by Ezra getting to Julia Pemberton first. However, he had to admit never guessing under her prim and proper exterior was such a forward young lady. He heard of some city women who behaved that way but never saw it for himself.
As it was, Buck often wondered how far Ezra had gotten with the lovely Doctor Styles. Ezra was too much of the gentlemen to tell anyone if he had or not, but judging by the way he reacted about Julia, it seemed to Buck Miss Pemberton's feelings towards Ezra may not be so one-sided at all.
Buck glanced at the tent where Elisa conducted business and saw a man emerge. She said her farewells to him with a lingering kiss before the man tipped his hat in her direction and went on his way. As he departed, she glanced Buck's way and shook her head to inform him this was not the man he sought. Buck frowned and returned his attention to his drink, disliking the waiting more than anything else. It left him too much time with his thoughts and thinking too hard, made his head hurt. He would prefer to visit some of the young women in Purgatory who would no doubt enjoy his company after the sorry bunch he'd seen moving through this place today.
He wondered if Vin was this similarly bored during the young tracker's time in Purgatory. He doubted it since Vin had perfected the art of sitting quietly and watching. It was all Vin ever seemed to do these days, and it saddened Buck to know his friend was still pining for Charlotte. Buck hoped Vin was not in any trouble out there since he was probably suffering enough playing escort to Alex. The two of them were likely ready to rip each other's throats out by now.
Suddenly, he caught sight of a man entering the flap Elisa was holding open for him. Her eyes raised long enough to meet Buck's, which was all the sign he needed to know this was the man he was waiting to appear. Buck drained the rest of his glass before striding towards the counter, paying for his drink. He kept a close eye on the tent as the time passed, remembering the promise he made to Elisa not to barge in on them. Considering the value of the information he would be receiving in return, he did not mind honouring that agreement.
Buck lingered inside the saloon for the next twenty minutes, trying to look inconspicuous while waiting for the man to conclude his ‘business' with Elisa. Finally, when Buck's patience was starting to wane, he emerged from the tent, wearing a smile on his face which clearly meant he received his money's worth. Elisa glanced in Buck's direction again, and Buck knew he was free to act.
Buck waited until he had put a little distance between them, but not enough to risk losing sight of him. Not that the man was easy to lose anyway. He looked like an undertaker, and Buck wondered if Elisa was mistaken about him being a horse breeder. As Buck followed his quarry through the rain, he wondered if all undertakers looked like thin vultures.
Predictably, the man had only come to Purgatory for one reason, and now Elisa had properly satisfied him, was heading for his horse to return to his more respectable life. He did not notice Buck in pursuit because he was more intent on reaching his horse and limiting his time spent in this inhospitable weather. Buck waited until he neared his horse and was preparing to mount the animal when Buck appeared out of nowhere and grabbed his leg with a vicious pull.
He lost his footing and tumbled off the horse, landing on the muddy ground with a slight splash on impact. As he scrambled to his feet, clearly enraged, and was prepared to protest the point when he found himself staring at Buck's gun aimed right between his eyes.
"Howdy pardner," Buck said politely. "I didn't mean to be rude, but I wanted your attention."
"What the hell do you want?" The man demanded angrily, trying to clean the mud off his dark suit with little success.
"You've been selling horses," Buck cocked the gun, so the man knew he meant business. "Five of them as a matter of fact, to men who pay you in cash."
Recognition drained into his eyes, despite his best attempts to hide it and Buck knew their hunch had been right. He did know something. The question was; did this man know something about the robberies?
"Are you the law?" The man asked suspiciously, unable to decide from the look of him if Buck was or not.
"Close enough," Buck said, taking a step forward. "I want to know everything you do about these men who see fit to gun down unarmed women and children.” Buck showing it in his voice in no uncertain terms what would happen if he dared to refuse.
"I can't tell you!" He said desperately, backing away as if he was preparing to run. Buck tightened his finger around the trigger of his gun to persuade him otherwise. The man's eyes widened as he saw Buck's stony expression and guessed correctly the threat made was not an idle one.
"They'll kill me." He cried out, trying to make Buck understand his situation.
Except Buck had seen the bodies of the dead close up and nothing this coward could have to say would erase the horror or his part in it. "I'm ain't hearing what I want to know Mister." He took a step forward and jammed the barrel right against the man's throat. "Start talking."
The man's Adam's apple bobbing nervously as he spoke. "I don't know much except that they bought more horses from me yesterday." He quivered at the feel of metal against his skin. His eyes kept darting from Buck's dark eyes to the gun at his neck. "They said they were for a job today. Apparently the last one cause they weren't going be needing me after this."
"Where?" Buck pressed, shoving the barrel deeper against the man's throat until Buck could feel the tissue of larynx providing an obstruction.
"Bitter Creek to Four Corners." He replied finally, letting the words slip out of his mouth as if he was exhaling a breath held too long.
"You better not be lying to me." Buck stepped away. A noticeable sigh of relief flooded the man's eyes when Buck withdrew the gun from his neck. "You ain't that hard to find, and the law is just looking for someone to hang over those murders. You gave those men their horses, that makes you an accomplice. Just think on that."
With that, Buck gestured towards the man's horse, and he understood what Buck was alluding to. Without wasting any time, he climbed onto the animal quickly, desperate to put some distance between himself and the lawmen. Buck watched him ride out of the narrow mountain pass and did not turn his back on the snivelling coward until Buck was sure he was gone. The man struck him as one who would find little difficulty in putting a bullet into him when his back was turned.
Once he was gone, Buck made an immediate beeline to his own horse because he had to reach Four Corners fast and round up the others. As far as he knew, the stage from Bitter Creek was due in town late this afternoon, and if they could catch it before it left, they might be able to provide a secret escort when the outlaws attacked.
They had one chance left at this, and Buck did not intend to waste it.*****
"No luck?" Mary asked Chris meeting him outside the Clarion after his long ride with Josiah searching for Vin and Alex. The preacher had taken himself into the saloon for a well-deserved drink after the wet trip and Chris was looking forward to a hot meal himself.
"No." Chris shook his head unhappily. "I'd like to have gone all the way to the Doherty place but with this lead Buck may have found at Purgatory, I don't want to be too far away when he gets back."
"I know." Mary felt the same apprehension for their absent friends. "Maybe they decided to stay on, what with the weather and everything." She glanced at the grey sky. The rain was no longer pounding but was still teeming around them.
"I sure hope not," Chris confessed, and Mary saw his concern was not just about their welfare. It was more profound than that. Something was bothering him, something he did not want to speak out. After Julia's remarks regarding the nature of Vin and Alex's relationship, Chris found himself unable to stop thinking about it until a few observations of his own surfaced and put light to a potentially explosive situation.
"What is it?" She urged because there were no secrets between them.
"I seen how he looks at her Mary," Chris finally replied. "He's hiding it, but he's got feelings for her. Enough to make me worry how it could end up." Chris hated interfering with Vin's relationships, in anyone's for that matter, but he was aware of how hot passions could run between even good friends for the hand of a lady. He did not want to see that happen between Vin and Ezra.
"Vin wouldn't do anything," Mary stated but looked clearly disturbed at the possibility. It never occurred to Mary Vin felt anything for Alex. After all, he rarely spoke to her and went out of his way to avoid the doctor, even when he was injured and sorely in need of help. "Alex is with Ezra."
"That didn't stop Vin from running off with Charlotte."
"That's not fair," she spoke up in the tracker's defence. "Charlotte practically threw herself at him. Vin doesn't have much experience with women. Of course, he's going to be overwhelmed when someone like Charlotte pays any attention to him. Alex is different. She knows better, and she cares about Ezra.”
Chris frowned wishing he could let this uneasy feeling in his stomach dissipate. Since when had his world become about this? He felt like he was the head of a large family, and it was falling in his lap to keep everyone in line.
"I hope you're right."
Suddenly, they heard the thunder of hoofbeats tearing through town, and both Chris and Mary turned to see Buck Wilmington riding hard towards the saloon, probably in anticipation of finding his friends. The couple crossed the road and hurried to the establishment as Buck dismounted his horse and hastily tethered it to the hitching post.
"Buck!" Chris called out as the tall cowboy strode towards the saloon.
Buck whirled around as he saw them and paused mid-stride. "Chris, I got a lead. They're going to hit the stage that leaves Bitter Creek this afternoon. If we can get there first…"
"We can give the stage an escort and catch these bastards." Chris finished off seeing where he was going with this. "Okay, you find Nathan. I think he's at the infirmary."
"I saw JD getting ready to ride," Mary announced. "He's going up to the house to relieve Ezra."
"We don't have time to get him," Chris said abruptly. "We'll be hard-pressed making it to Bitter Creek as it is. Mary, go get JD and tell him to meet us here. We've got a stage to catch."*****
Where the hell was JD?
Ezra paced up and down the floor of the Travis place, feeling more trapped than he ever felt in his life. Julia watched him from her chair, reading a book Mary lent her earlier today, appearing ignorant to his plight even though she was the cause of it all. After the exchange with Buck in the saloon, Ezra rode back to the farm, thinking to himself how wrong everyone was. Julia was merely infatuated with him. What could she possibly see in him any way other than a gambler and a rogue?
The answer frightened him.
Julia saw nothing else and still wanted him. He had been with enough women in his time to know what she was after was not conquest, even though it began that way. In the days since Ezra started guarding her, the gambler noticed a genuine attempt to get to know him. She questioned where he was from, was impatient with him when he tried to avoid the seedier sides of his life and most of all, she liked what Ezra was, and felt a thrill of excitement at the life he led.
Strangely enough, she also understood the need to settle here. They were all misfits in some way who found a home in Four Corners, Julia was trying to build the same security for herself and saw through the façade of profit he wore over his true feelings.
There was no need to hide what he was with Julia because they both had their secrets and felt no immediate hurry to disclose them to each other. He thought about how he hid aspects of himself from Alexandra because she was frightfully honest and deception just was not in her vocabulary. He was drawn to Julia even though he knew he would never trust her completely. Still was that really required?
"Mr Standish?" Julia finally spoke, becoming weary just watching him. "Is there something wrong?"
Ezra turned to face her, looking as if nothing was driving him to distraction at all. "Why do you ask?"
"You seem a little preoccupied." She remarked and then returned to her book.
"I am concerned about Alexandra."
"I'm sure you are," Julia replied, not looking at him as her attention was focused on her book.
"I am." He insisted. "Why do you sound so sceptical?"
"I'm not." She laughed, wondering what was running through his mind all of a sudden. For the past two days, she used every trick to seduce him, and none of it worked. She listened to what Josiah told her during their periods together and realised perhaps, she was going about this the wrong way. Julia knew she penetrated the wall of Ezra's resistance, but he was still holding fast in honour of the doctor he cherished, but she was almost certain, did not love.
"I will not give up Alexandra for you."
Julia almost reacted in surprise but managed to conceal her shock enough to put down her book and look at him, as if she were mildly curious, nothing else.
“I never asked you,” she answered and then came to a decision. She was going to speak plainly since nothing else had worked, none of the seductions, manipulations, or flirtation. Sincerity was her last hope.
“Ezra I want you. You are the most exciting man I have ever met, and I am supremely attracted to you because you see through my flaws and know exactly what I am. You're probably the only one who ever has, and I've insisted on pursuing you because you're simply too good to let slip by. But the fact is, you do have your doctor in your life, and I'm unprepared to bear the guilt if you throw her away for me."
"That choice is mine." Ezra found himself saying, knowing without doubt, this was no performance on her part. He had seen a thousand cons and a dozen speeches like this but knew deep in his heart, she was not lying to him. "I would never make you feel that way. I care for Alexandra and no doubt, I will bear the brunt of much guilt if I choose to abandon her, but I would never make you pay for my decision."
"I guess we will never know."
What came next was the result of the instantaneous attainment of clarity Ezra would never again know. Covering the space between them in two smooth strides, he enclosed his fingers around her arm and raised her to her feet. Startled, she dropped the book, letting it fall on its face as Ezra drew her to him. Sanity made a final rallying cry before the madness swept it away, where he questioned what he was about to do since the aftermath would leave everything in his life a shambles.
Since she arrived in town, he avoided her touch. Dreading it actually, because he knew once he slipped over the edge, there would be no going back. Ezra wondered whether he ever had a choice. Julia Pemberton, if that was indeed her name, was the first woman he really understood, like an extremely well-made timepiece and he was the only watchmaker capable of maintaining it.
Before Four Corners, he would have already bedded Julia and thought nothing of the fact he was openly courting Alexandra. However, since his arrival in town, Ezra tried to be a better man, even an honourable one. Yet from Julia's debut as the lone witness to the stage robbery, to a stunning performance capable of unbalancing Chris Larabee, Ezra watched with secret fascination, this titian-haired beauty's struggle to be more than what she was.
Oh, Ezra understood that part most of all.
Julia was self-serving, arrogant, and devious, but those were skills cultivated to mask pains he could not imagine, just as his own tools of the trade had its foundation in a sad past. Listening to Julia's dreams of her emporium, her desire to be her own person was so reminiscent of the watershed changes he made in his life the last two years, it almost felt like déjà vu. Trying to maintain his honour was the only reason he kept her at arm's length, but he knew, just knew deep down inside, he had been waiting for someone like Julia all his life.
When he kissed her for the first time, it was like kissing fire.
His intense passion drove both of them against the wall, knocking over a chair as her back met the obstacle of wood. His lips devoured hers, exploring, tasting, and feeding off her desire for him. Julia parted her lips, revelling in satisfaction as the invitation waiting days for a response, was finally accepted. As they came together in the flesh, Ezra found himself thinking they were two titans about to do battle to claim the field. Like Petruchio, he was not about to be ruled by his Katarina.
Whatever the outcome, they were both fools trapped in the same cage.*****
The stagecoach rumbled out of Bitter Creek on schedule, under the watchful gaze of numerous men with different reasons for their attention. According to the passenger manifest, the carriage carried only three travellers, and on this occasion, this state of affairs suited all parties well enough. As the stage departed Bitter Creek, Chris Larabee and the lawmen at his side followed close, careful to keep the carriage in view while remaining at a discreet distance to continue their pursuit concealed.
"I sure hope you're right about this Buck," Chris remarked as they travelled in the wake of the stage, following the fresh tracks in the wet mud while keeping a close eye on the surrounding landscape and poised to act at the first sign of trouble.
They were only an hour out of Bitter Creek, and Chris did not expect company so soon, but his gut instinct told him danger was close and he relied on the feeling enough to know it was seldom wrong despite his admission to Buck. So far, nothing had appeared could be considered trouble but Chris hoped this would change. For once, he welcomed the danger because it would put an end to this spree of murder that terrified travellers throughout the area. The citizenry needed to feel safe while travelling through the Territory, and until these outlaws were caught, an essential line of transport was effectively severed.
More than that, he wanted to catch these bastards before they had a chance to disappear and start this entire cycle in a new place, where more lives would undoubtedly be lost. Men, who killed like this, would invariably get a taste for it and such addictions were difficult to discard.
"He was too scared to lie," Buck said firmly as he kept pace alongside the gunslinger, taking no offence at Chris' doubt. It would be a cold day in hell when Chris did not have faith in anyone except himself. Buck sometimes wondered what it was like to be that confident. "Besides, I kind of think he never expected the victims to be women and children."
"But he didn't have any trouble taking their money." Chris said automatically, remembering the assassin who had told him how killing Sarah and Adam had been ‘just a job'. Chris had no sympathy for those who profited from the death of others. Men were born with the ability to choose because it was a God-given right. The only person to blame when things went wrong was oneself, not the circumstances.
"I suppose." Buck disagreed, but he was not going to argue the point.
He saw the look in Chris's eyes when they found the victims of the first robbery and almost felt the same outrage seeing that dead child. Buck remembered seeing the same look in his friend's face the morning after returning from Mexico. Buck never forgot the intense sorrow when Chris found Adam, his small body charred and broken. He never wanted to see that kind of pain again and knew no words could ever justify anything these outlaws had done or the men who helped them.
"Hey Buck," Chris said suddenly, feeling a need to speak because he felt a little guilty over his treatment of his old friend during the past few days regarding.
"Yeah, Chris," Buck asked, watching the road ahead intently, studying the tracks before them.
"She was just using you, you know."
Buck turned to Chris, unable to fathom what the gunslinger meant by that remark. "Excuse me?"
"I think she was using you to make Ezra jealous," Chris replied, understanding the beautiful Miss Pemberton's behaviour once Josiah had made the statement that she had only eyes for Ezra.
Buck frowned, hating to think he was being used but unable to deny it was probably true. Chris didn't miss such things. Actually, it was a small miracle when he even bothered to notice. Then again, Mary had a significant effect on him. He was starting to mellow again, shifting from that dark place he was for so long after Sarah and Adam's death back into some semblance of a human being. He wondered if Chris knew how accessible he was these days with Mary in his life.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Buck said with a sigh. "My animal magnetism ain't what it used to be."
Chris chuckled softly. Good ol' Buck, never one to bear a grudge. It was one of the reasons why they were friends for so long because, through Buck, Chris was always able to share in some part of the light in his sunny disposition. Had it not been for the good-natured cowboy, Chris doubted what condition he would be in following the wake of Sarah and Adam's death. There were moments of such darkness Chris actually considered eating a bullet. Only Buck pulled him out of that pit and gave him the chance to find some kind of happiness with Mary.
"I wouldn't worry about it," Chris answered. "There are good ones, and then there are the ones who are nothing but trouble. I get the impression she's trouble ."
"Stop it, pardner," Buck grinned. "You're getting me all depressed again. You know nothing fires me up more than a challenge."
"You don't need that much of a challenge." Chris laughed when suddenly; he caught sight of something in the corner of his eye and the humour drained from his face immediately. In the distance, just emerging from the horizon, were a group of riders. They were still far enough in the background to have not seen either Buck or Chris, but that would not last.
"Buck hold up," Chris ordered, pulling the reins to his gelding and bringing the animal to an abrupt halt. The horse whinnied its protest but nevertheless did as commanded. Chris motioned Buck to the cover of some trees nearby where they could examine the approach of the riders without notice.
"You think it's them?" Buck asked as they moved behind the safety of a large shrub effectively hiding them from view as they continued their observation.
Chris did not answer until the riders became more visible. They were making rapid progress across the plains, and their direction showed they were headed for the stage rumbling through the trail up ahead. The light drizzle of rain made it difficult to see their faces clearly, but what Chris did see left no trace of doubt in his mind.
They were all wearing scarves over their faces.
"Let's go." Buck urge.
"Not yet," Chris said, watching them intently. Four riders were taking up the same route recently traversed by the stage. Chris wondered at this because he was led to understand there were five men not of four. His eyes scanned the surrounding area for the missing man but saw no sign of one and the others were hell-bent on reaching the stage. Chris let them disappear out of sight before turning to Buck.
The two lawmen lunged out of their hiding place, their horses sprinting forward in a full gallop. This was the closest the lawmen had come to catching the men wreaking terror over the area with their brutal crimes. The horses crossed the terrain quickly, splattering mud in all directions as they thundered forward in close pursuit of the would-be hunters. Up ahead, the stagecoach rumbled onwards, oblivious to the peril coming their way but for once Chris was unconcerned.
It was time to bring an end to this.
The stagecoach continued up the weathered track leaving deep indentations on the grounds as it travelled towards Four Corners. The stage driver kept his senses alert and took note of everything taking place across the quiet landscape around him. The lessons of the past three robberies were etched into his mind. With so many already dead, he was taking no chances in falling prey to the villainy of outlaws capable of gunning down innocent civilians to mask their identities.
Despite the rain teeming down around him, the icy chill in the weather was making the horses move faster. The cold air sent a surge of exhilarating through their enormous lungs as they galloped ahead through the mud while navigating the trail as if born to do nothing else. He saw little reason to assert control over the reins and hung on just enough to let them know he was still in charge. He trusted the animals' instinct to find the best route over the slippery track since they knew better than he ever could just what sort of terrain they were best able to traverse.
When a man was accustomed to living the life he had, it became easy to distinguish the sounds made by every horse. It took years to master the skill where one could differentiate between one set of hoofbeats and another, but it was a skill he possessed. The first signs of trouble emerged when he heard the sounds that did not belong to his team of stage horses. He could tell by the uneven rhythm of their approach this was not a group riding in tandem but individual riders all with differing pace.
Glancing over his shoulder at the direction of the new arrivals, he saw the figures in the distance approaching rapidly across the soaked golden fields. Four of them, he quickly counted. Wasn't the number of outlaws terrorising these hills meant to be five? He pondered the question briefly but decided not to take any chances. Four or five, they were still riding hard after the stage. Reaching for his gun, he kept the weapon in his hands while still holding court over the horses before him.
For a moment, he entertained the notion that the riders might simply be fellow travellers on the same track, journeying to some destination of their own. They were still far enough away to support this illusion of security, so the driver kept his gun close by while maintaining a watchful gaze. His eyes alternated from the road ahead to the one travelled recently, and the distance between the wooden carriage and the men were dwindling swiftly. He could see the bobbing heads of their horses as the animals galloped forward, their powerful and sinewy muscles surging ahead under a veneer of dark silk.
He knew they would overtake the carriage because it was slow and cumbersome, and the animals behind it were sleek and fast. It would not take very long before the space between horse and carriage narrowed until there was no separation at all. Inevitably, they would diminish the slim lead that the stagecoach had somehow managed to achieve.
The seconds started ticking away at the final minutes of the pursuit, and the driver sighted their hidden faces beneath the wide-brimmed hats. Using an assortment of scarves and bandannas, their concealed visages only confirmed their identity to the stagecoach driver in the only description that mattered.
"They're coming!" The driver yelled out to the passengers inside the carriage.
Looking over his shoulder after this duty, he found they had narrowed the lead yet again. The time in which they would reach the coach shortened to a matter of minutes only. Reluctantly concluding force was now necessary, the driver cocked his gun kept in reach for safekeeping and sighed in disappointment at the impending gunfight. He hesitated in firing first for he was never a believer in violence, understanding it as a necessary evil all men must sometimes suffer.
When he saw the horse only inches away from the back wheels of the carriage, he knew the time had come to fight. The bandits determined to reach the stage gave him little choice to do otherwise.
Until now, he achieved some measure of success in his attempts to keep in front of them, even though it was no more than a hair's breadth of space. When the riders open fire, he ducked. Bullets whizzed past him, and he heard one of the shots as it passed by his ear, making him shudder at how close it had truly been. He glanced at the road ahead, knowing it was imperative the stagecoach remained on the given track and not be forced off the trail into the shrubs. Still, he needed to fight too.
He squeezed off a series of shots, discharging half the load inside the chambers before and noted with some satisfaction when one of them dismounted a rider. The man tumbled from his saddle, rolling across the muddy track before disappearing into the grass flanking the road.
The driver watched long enough to see the fallen man slip from view before returning his attention to the team of horses pulling the carriage forward. The sounds of gunfire frightened them, and now they were surging ahead, too gripped by fear to take note of where they were headed. Taking advantage of their panic, he snapped the reins forward, spurring them on to a faster pace; using the sudden burst of speed for however long it lasted.
The bullets came again, this time more quickly. Some impacted on the wood of the carriage, creating splinters swiftly swept away by the rush of wind and speed. The driver ducked and weaved, all the while maintaining control of the horses starting to falter after such relentless pace. It was almost with a sigh of relief when he saw two other riders, even farther behind the outlaws closing in at their own heady pace.
The driver heard an explosion of sound too close, and suddenly, there was a flare of white-hot pain as one of the outlaw's bullets struck flesh. He grunted in pain as his muscles reacted involuntarily, forcing him to drop the gun. It slid across the roof before coming to rest against the railing, beyond his reach. He would have tried to retrieve it except he was now driving the stage with one hand. Blood started to pulse from the wound with every flex of muscle even if he suspected the bullet passed through flesh only, avoiding bone.
The team was too large to control with one arm, but he made a valiant effort to try nevertheless. His handicap meant the temporary gap would now be swallowed up by his struggle to keep control. The outlaws continued firing, picking up the scent of the proverbial blood in the water. Being in no position to return fire, the driver kept his head down and concentrated on keeping the stage on the wet trail.
The constant rain over the past few made the track treacherously slick, and at the speed they were currently travelling, disaster was being courted, and the driver knew it. It would not take much for the stage to lose a wheel or worse yet, be run off the road. None of which seemed quite as bad as what would happen if the outlaws caught up with them.
Not if but when he thought to himself. Capture was inevitable now.
The horses were gaining quickly and carried the riders alongside the stage close enough to be dangerous to everyone involved. The firing ceased, there was no reason to with their guns only inches away from the windows, they aimed firmly in the driver's direction.
The driver ignored the instruction, struggling to keep the pace up, but the pain was starting to wear him down. He could feel the warm ooze of blood running down his sleeve, creating a stain soaking the material of his shirt. He saw the lawmen in the distance, narrowing the gap between the stage and outlaws and was satisfied his surrender would be temporary.
The outlaw shouting the order, fired a bullet near the wooden seat to solidify his point. Tiny splinters of wood dug into the driver‘s skin and elicited a small curse under his breath. He pulled the reins gently, and the group of horses feeling the pressure in the bit began their gradual halt. It did not take long before the stage stopped entirely by the side of the muddy track.
The driver watched the short-lived triumph of the bandits upon the realisation they were being pursued. Their reaction if anything was predictable. The driver saw the confusion as they sought the answers in each other's eyes. Initially, baser instincts told them to run, but the lure of this last job was simply too good to resist. He could see them come to the decision they might be able to take the two men coming toward them with guns drawn. The odds were two to one, and there were still the hostages in the stagecoach. He knew what they were going to do as surely as he heard the thought echo in their minds.
But he knew something they didn't.
"Now!" Josiah Sanchez shouted and rolled off the side of the stage before the men on horseback could shoot him. He dropped to the ground as the outlaws open fire. Fortunately, the carriage provided him with ample protection from the bullets. Josiah landed on the mud and remained where he was, secretly hiding the grimace of pain caused by his injured arm.
Inside the carriage, Nathan Jackson and JD Dunne showed their faces through the window. No longer playing the part of passengers, their guns were aimed squarely at the outlaws whose murderous spree was now about to end.
"Move, and we'll kill ya!" JD barked angrily. Both barrels stared the gunmen in the face, and they had only to look in his eyes to know he would not hesitate to shoot them down.
The bodies JD saw in the aftermath of the robbery left him outraged, and JD's eyes reflected the burning hatred he felt at the murder of those innocents. These men callously gunned down unarmed men, women and children whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The leader of the pack, a man whose features were concealed behind the blood-red scarf he wore reacted swiftly, surprising Nathan and JD because, despite their foresight in replacing the actual passengers of the stage, the riders had the high ground on their horses. The plan needed Josiah to be present once the outlaws had been ambushed, to cover them from above until Chris and Buck arrived. Unfortunately, they had not counted on Josiah being shot and lost that precious asset. No plan was truly foolproof, as they were soon to discover.
The leader was close enough to one of the horses to strike it hard on the rump. The animal snorted in surprise and was startled into galloping forward. The stage rumbled away, taking JD and Nathan with it while Josiah scrambled in the dirt, clutching his bleeding arm without a gun.
The leader's eyes crinkled, and Josiah knew he was smiling behind his mask as he raised his gun to fire when suddenly his chest erupted in a flare of blood. The others looked at the direction of where the bullet had come and because Josiah had no gun. They went for their weapons but could not do anything else before another eruption of gunshots. Josiah kept his head down to avoid being caught in any crossfire. While he remained on his knees, he looked up long enough to see the other two men dispatched just as quickly before joining him on the dirt in slightly worse condition.
Josiah stood up shakily when the proverbial dust settled, and the bodies moved no further. As Chris and Buck came riding up to him, Chris was holstering his gun while Buck was sliding his rifle into its holster in the saddle. Both dismounted their animals and hurried towards the preacher.
"You don't look so good Josiah," Buck commented with concern at the sight of the blood on Josiah's fingers as he attempted to stem the flow on his injured arm.
"Josiah?" Chris asked quietly, examining the arms as he approached. "How bad are you hit?"
"I'm okay," Josiah reassured him, glancing at the wound with a slight wince. It was still pulsating fresh blood each time he moved and decided that it would help if he stopped doing that very same thing. "Bullet passed clean through."
Behind them, they heard the rumble of the coach returning with JD at the reins and Nathan at his side. The young man had no trouble leading the animals to his friends, and Chris noted this was just another one of those amazing skills JD seemed to possess, surprising them all. Nathan, on the other hand, searched the group for signs of injury and immediately fixed on Josiah. The healer jumped off the stage before the carriage came to a complete halt and was striding towards the preacher.
"Let me have a look at that," Nathan demanded as he approached Josiah. His tone would tolerate no arguments on the matter.
"Well that does it then," JD said, looking distastefully at the bodies who would not require any kind of medical attention, ever again. The outlaws remained where they fell and did not seem so menacing when they lay on the ground covered in blood and drying mud. "We stopped them."
There was almost pride in his voice as he said that and Chris supposed ending the threat of these varmints was something to be proud of. The leader of the seven could see very little pride in any of this after the innocent deaths these bandits left in their wake, and maintained his stoic mask.
"Yeah." Buck grinned just as equally gratified. Buck found it difficult to think of the dead and preferred to focus on the victory they had just won even if the price was too high by Chris's reckoning. "This calls for a night of solid drinking and anything else that might come along."
There was no need to elaborate on what ‘anything else' might be.
Chris was more concerned about how Josiah was faring under Nathan's insistent ministrations. Despite Josiah's claim that he was superficially wounded, Chris would not rest easy until Nathan told them so. The healer was the only one among them who was qualified to say for sure how well Josiah was doing and that included Josiah himself.
"How is he?" Chris asked Nathan, ignoring JD and Buck as the two men planned the evening debauch they would no doubt enjoy upon their return to Four Corners. He strode over to the healer, who by now, had torn open Josiah's bloody shirt and was taking a closer look of the injury. From where Chris was, he could see the small dark circle of ruined flesh that was covered in blood.
"It's a flesh wound.' Nathan confirmed Josiah's earlier allegation. "It's worse than it looks but the bullet passed clean through."
"I'm glad you think so," Josiah grumbled, flinching a bit when Nathan made a temporary bandage to stem the bleeding until they returned to Four Corners where he could treat the preacher at his infirmary with better instruments and medical aids.
"You're tough." Chris smiled faintly. "We'll get back to town and buy you a drink to wash down the pain or better," he glanced at Buck and JD, "if those two have their way."
"Well, I guess it's over then," Josiah said studying the dead bodies around him. The outlaws looked no different than any other they had run into since becoming the law in Four Corners. Strange how the resemblance was only apparent after they had paid with their lives and were strewn across some forgotten place with their life oozing into the sand. Suddenly, Josiah became aware of Chris studying the bodies with a look in his eyes that did not seem so convinced.
"What happened to the fifth man?" Chris found himself asking although he did not expect an answer.
"You don't think he went after Miss Pemberton, do you?" Nathan asked, hoping they would not return to the Travis Place to find a nasty surprise waiting for them. The healer had a great deal of respect for Ezra Standish and knew the gambler was more than capable of protecting the lady from one man; however, they knew almost nothing about this gang of bandits. Who was to say that the band of outlaws was not more extensive than initially perceived?
"I don't think so," Chris responded, unable to say how he knew it. "Still, we ought to get back to town anyway."
Although he did not voice it, Josiah knew why Chris was impatient to get back to Four Corners. Now this problem with the outlaws was more or less concluded, he knew what was next on Chris Larabee's agenda.
Finding Vin Tanner and Alexandra Styles.*****
Well, I do believe you have done it now, Mr Standish.
Breathing in the scent of her hair, the thought ran through Ezra's head even as he felt exhilarated by the smell of wildflowers.
He tried so hard to stay true to Alexandra, to fight the attraction sparked into being the moment he saw this little schemer. Was his surrender always inevitable?
It was not just that she was beautiful. Beauty was the least of the things that charmed him so much. If so, he would never have strayed from Alex for anything in the world. Although he was wise enough not to voice it, Alexandra's natural beauty would always be more compelling than the devastating seduction Julia Pemberton exuded from every pore.
No, he was in love with this little wanton because in her eyes, there was no deception he had not tried already, no trick Ezra had not learnt years before and best of all, no con she could play he could not beat. He saw all things in her that challenged his baser instincts and it was a gamble so wild Ezra could not walk away for all the beautiful doctors in the world. He knew he was a fool to let Alex go, but he was starting to believe it might be a kindness to her as well.
Besides, Ezra knew inwardly the commitment Alex wanted was something he could never give her, no matter how much he might force himself to aspire to it. Nevertheless, he did feel some measure of guilt for what he would do when she returned to Four Corners. The least Ezra could do was tell her face to face.
"You are quite exceptional, Mr Standish." Julia smiled, rolling on top of him as they lay spooned together on the bed after their intense lovemaking. "I shall have to keep you close at hand always."
"You may try Miss Pemberton," he replied, letting his hands caress her thighs as she straddled him. "However, you will find that I am not as enthralled as you think."
"How so?" She pouted while twirling a lock of red hair falling across her face.
"I have not thrown away the love of a good woman so that I can be a cuckold to anyone who captures your passing interest. Never play that game with me, Julia. I care about you, but you are not so charming that I will not leave you should such intelligence reaches me."
"You think I would do that?" She looked at him, realising he was serious.
"I know you would if the opportunity arose. Restraint is not in your vocabulary, is it?" He ran his fingers along her lower back and watched her shudder slightly at the feathery touch against her skin. "This may come as a shock to you and believe me, it came as a bigger shock to me first, I find myself in love with you and expect the same kind of consideration should you wish to be a part of my life."
Her temper flared a moment at the suggestion and then realised he was absolutely right.
Julia had given him no reason to believe she was capable of staying faithful to him, and now he was hers, Julia knew she did not want him gone. He made love to her the way no man had ever done, and for a woman who believed herself incapable of feeling anything real for any man, the discovery she loved him was a welcome one.
Julia wanted to be good for him. She wanted to love him because he was worth loving, even by someone as broken as she. Julia wanted the fairy tale prince she read about in books before her father tainted all the purity in her. She looked at Ezra and saw a thousand adventures with him that only required her loyalty to enjoy.
"No, it isn't,” she admitted, “but I came here for a new start, so I don't want to be that person anymore.” She admitted quietly, understanding the need she saw in his eyes. Ezra wanted Julia to be a part of his life, but he was not about to sacrifice his self-esteem for her. It impressed Julia because no one had actually made the request before.
Most of the men she knew previously expected it as if it were their right, and she belonged to them like some object. At the time, it served her purpose for them to believe she did. No more, Julia came to Four Corners because she wanted more than to be someone's wife or mistress or both. She was more than her looks, more than her ability to seduce, and she was smart. Smart enough to leave Philadelphia behind, smart enough to buy this business and envision the possibilities to help it thrive.
With Ezra, she could have more.
She saw a kindred spirit, someone who loved her for every devious bone in her body and wished nothing more than a similar commitment to him. There was no need to hide behind an alluring smile because Ezra could see straight through it. The freedom to simply be was something Julia was never allowed to experience. She was always something to someone.
To her father, she was the wife he lost. His dark love ensured she would never be able to sleep with an unlocked door ever again. To men like Packard, she was a beautiful thing to adorn their homes and their social standing. She had no more substance to them than an expensive painting. The only thing she ever wanted in her life was to be seen as more than just a face.
"I am in love with you, Julia," Ezra responded with a softer tone aware he was harsh with her, but she had to know the rules from the beginning if she wanted to play. "I have not felt this way towards any woman in my life. I thought I did about Alexandra, but I cannot deny it was an attraction to her spirit, not love. I have done her a great wrong, and I will have to live with the consequences, but it will never affect how I feel for you. I simply cannot stand the thought of sharing you with someone else."
Julia let the happiness steal across her face and nodded in understanding. "I don't think I can stand the thought of you being with anyone else. I think I love you too Ezra and God help us, I don't know which of us is the bigger fool."
"I rather leave that question open for the moment." He grinned and then slapped her hard on the rump.
"Hey! That hurt."
"Not as much as your reputation if the others come back and find us like this." Ezra climbed out of bed. "Besides, if you intend to be a businesswoman in this locality, you must act the part. I am certain you can manage to put your impressive skills as a thespian to work."
Julia gave him an imperious look as she walked out of the room towards the heap of discarded clothes outside.
"Mr Standish, after your request, I am afraid that my best performances are going to be for you only ."*****
The town was a flurry of excitement when the bodies of the outlaws were brought into town. After the sombre arrival of the stagecoach previously, this occasion was markedly different from the previous times when the lawmen returned with the bodies of victims. The rain more or less stopped, with only a few scatterings of grey clouds in attendance, trying hard to sprinkle some drizzle on the drying landscape.
Chris sent JD to the Travis place to tell Ezra to escort Julia Pemberton into town so she could identify the man she saw. Although one of the outlaws were missing, the town was nonetheless elated at the deaths of the remaining four since it saw an end to the siege they were enduring these past two weeks.
Mary seemed to be the only person who did not look uncomfortable at being present at the undertaker's gloomy offices. As a journalist, she covered numerous stories about outlaws and thieves, not to mention obituaries. Her vocation brought her in contact with the mortician several times/Mary's familiarities with the place allowed her to visit its premises without any lasting effects. She was present now because this was news to be featured in the Clarion News in the next edition. As a journalist, she wanted to be close at hand to get her facts of the situation.
"They don't look so dangerous now," Mary said to Chris as he and Buck assisted the mortician with the bodies.
"Dead men seldom are," Chris remarked as Buck helped with the loading of the last corpse onto the wooden table for treatment. It was hard to believe the men who had caused so much grief over Four Corners, Bitter Creek, Sweetwater, and Eagle Bend should end up so ignominiously after creating such a wave of terror.
"How's Josiah?" Mary saw the preacher being led away by Nathan to his infirmary. She could only guess he was injured. Although since he was walking when they departed, she assumed his injuries were not too severe.
"He's okay," Chris answered shortly, watching the mortician cover the bloody bodies with a white cloth that quickly absorbed the blood and left vibrant stains across its surface. Even though the rain had driven away most of the summer heat these past few days, the inside of the room felt icy cold, and there was a smell to it that made his skin crawl. He did so hope Ezra arrived with Julia Pemberton soon.
"Chris," Buck came up to both of them, looking even more ill at ease than Chris himself if that was possible. "If you don't need me, I'm going to get a drink." He cast a distasteful glimpse around his surroundings before meeting Chris's eyes again. "This place gives me the creeps."
"Go on," Chris gestured towards the door. "Mary and I will wait for Miss Pemberton to arrive."
Buck frowned, once again reminded Ezra made the conquest before he did. "You had to remind me." He glared at Chris good-naturedly before sweeping out the door.
"What's that about?" Mary looked at Chris in question.
Chris had no intention of voicing Julia Pemberton indiscreet behaviour to Mary, especially in this place, so he merely shrugged in a non-committal way. He was almost grateful when Julia and Ezra chose to enter the premises at that moment, followed closely by JD who was eager to be a part of the drama when Julia identified the man who had tried to rape her.
"Are those the men?" Julia asked, a little daunted by the outline of bodies underneath the sheets.
"That's right," Chris nodded. "Do you think you can identify the man you saw?" He knew how delicate the dispositions of some women could be. Thank God the women in his life did not know the meaning of the word.
Julia cast an uncertain look at Ezra, who nodded at her in some secret gesture of support Chris and Mary did not miss. Neither said a word, allowing the implications to slip past in light of the present situation. "I am certain you are up to the task, Miss Pemberton."
Julia swallowed hard and took a slow step forward. The mortician stepped aside after he lifted the veil on all the dead faces lying in wait for her. To her credit, she held up well even though her horror at seeing the corpses bloodied and broken was all too apparent in her wide green eyes.
Ezra was close at hand, ready to come to her aid if it was required. A few minutes seemed to stretch into eternity as Julia made her grisly inspection. When she reached the last body and gazed into its dead face, she let out a sigh of relief, grateful the chore was now over.
She took a deep breath and came back to the group, forcing the revulsion from her face as she tried to forget the faces she had just seen, knowing they would not be forgotten for some time.
"Well?" JD asked first, displaying the impetuousness of youth. "Was he there?"
She met Ezra's gaze wishing she could tell them what they wanted to know but found herself compelled to tell the truth. These were the rules Ezra demanded of her, and she intended to prove she could live up to his expectations. Turning to Chris, she shook her head slowly.
"I'm sorry, Mr Larabee, the man I saw is not among the dead."
It took the better part of the day, but eventually, Vin found a way down the hills that didn't require travelling the perilous track that almost cost Alex her life. Although Vin offered to let her rest for a while, knowing she suffered a shock when swept away by that landslide, Alex assured him she could continue, even if she was a little shaky after the experience. Ironically, once Vin began searching for an alternate route through dense foliage surrounding after they strayed off the track, the rain dwindled from downpour to a light shower.
Alex, who was covered from head to toe in mud did not seem to mind as the droplets of water cleansed her skin. With Calliope gone, she was forced to ride with Vin and felt self-conscious of being so near him in her present dishevelled state. Vin promised her they would stop at the river once they descended the hills, so she could get cleaned up properly although Alex would prefer they kept going. Washing in the river was not as enticing as a hot bath at home. Strangely enough, she no longer felt uncomfortable about riding double with him. After her ordeal, it was a relief to be able to wrap her arms around him and rest her head against his shoulder after he mounted Peso to begin their journey home.
Vin savoured the feel of her soft breath in his ear. The hair on his neck stood on edge each time a wisp of warm air caressed his skin. He wondered if she had any idea at all what it was she did to him. Cursing himself every time the thought crossed his mind, Vin could not forget how it felt to touch her during those few short minutes in the cabin. Just the memory of her lips against his and the taste of her skin aroused Vin so much he could barely think. Vin was glad these episodes took place while they were riding, so she was unable to see just how much he was being affected. The embarrassment of that would be more than he could stand.
They spent most of the day riding through the rain as Vin navigated Peso through the treacherous terrain of jagged rocks and creeping foliage, threatening to topple the horse at any moment. Unlike the open plains, the vegetation covering these hills was hardy and unyielding. Thick vines and bushes with painfully sharp thorns scratched them as they moved by, while every patch of green threatened some form of danger, lashing at them as Peso struggled to get by.
After a while, it almost felt like the thick canopy of green would never yield and they would be lost forever in this labyrinth of trees and shrubs. Despite her twisted ankle, the scrapes and bruises received during the landslide and their attempt to weave a path through this dense growth, Alex felt strangely at ease. Usually, in a situation where she found herself out of depth, and this certainly qualified, she would be frightened and agitated. Yet Alex felt no such fear and knew it was because Vin was with her. She found herself able to rely on him with complete confidence, and that was something she never allowed herself to do with anyone.
Thus, it was to no surprise when they finally escaped the hills and levelled off unto flat ground, signalling the end of the treacherous terrain they were forced to endure all day. Alex saw the open plains before her and despite it dull, grey pallor thanks mainly in part to the rain, she found herself letting out a sigh of relief.
"River won't be far from here," Vin remarked simply, showing his own elation at leaving the mountains behind with one of those faint smiles of his.
"Thank God. I need to wash."
He looked over his shoulder and let his eyes move up and down her body before muttering. "I don't know, you look alright."
"Coming from you, that's not exactly a compliment. You always look like you need a bath even when you're clean."
Which was true. Vin admitted he always looked like he had just come from a particularly hard ride even though he spent most of the day in the saloon. He was just one of those men who always appeared scruffy, no matter what they were doing.
"I knew you being quiet was too good to last." Vin teased as Peso started trotting at a faster pace, now the ground beneath his hoofs was steadier. The animal was enjoying moving without fear of losing its footing.
"I held out for as long as I could. I thought I'd give you a break after what I put you through the last two days."
"It's going to take a hell of a lot more than you just being quiet to do that." Vin taunted her in return.
"I'll buy you a drink at the saloon." Alex quipped aware he was baiting her, as he always did for some unimaginable reason.
"That ain't going to do it. After having to put up with you for two days, I'm gonna need a whole bottle." The mischief in his voice was unmistakable.
Alex was discovering it took quite a bit to draw Vin into a conversation. He was mostly quiet, always reserved and seemingly unflappable about most things, except her. Apparently, she was the only thing capable of making him vocal. Still, she liked his dry sense of humour because it was similar to her own.
Her profession made it necessary to always wear a façade of detached calm. To be the cool, mercurial physician, Alex was forced to develop calluses around her emotions to maintain her distance. It didn't always work, but it was there nonetheless. She did not know why Vin erected his walls, but she noticed when he lowered them, it burned hot. They had that in common too.
They were both feeling a little better, now they were out in the open plains, and with the river not far in the distance, their tempers were better. For the first time since this whole ordeal began, there seemed to be some end in sight.
"I take it you're never going to let me live this down?"
"Not for a while," Vin answered in that soft voice of his. "Or at least you do something else that changes my mind you ain't a bad-tempered mule that needs a good whipping."
"Why thank you. For a minute, I thought you were going to insult me." She laughed, horrified by the comparison but unable to keep from finding it funny. "You must have known I've waited all my life to hear man describe me like an animal with an attitude problem."
"Actually," he grinned, enjoying this bantering himself because it dispelled the awkwardness between them. "I actually was thinking more in the lines of a nag."
After what happened in Agnes Doherty's cabin, they had crossed a line in their relationship. Ezra was still looming in the background, keeping a watchful eye over them even in his absence but at least Vin knew he wasn't alone in his attraction to her. While she may choose not to act on it, they could at least speak to each other without any awkwardness.
"Nag!" She exclaimed and slapped him on the arm. "You're lucky you don't need any medical treatment, Mr Tanner, I would surely make you pay for that remark."
Secretly, Alex was pleased they were back to their former adversarial positions after what happened the night before. It was too easy for her to start replaying the events in the cabin when she was ready to throw out all good sense just to have him touch her. The thought made Alex blush, and she dispelled it before it took any root.
"They're probably going crazy wondering what happened to us." Alex sighed.
"Maybe," Vin replied, knowing for a fact Chris was never quite happy unless he knew the whereabouts of his friends at all times. It was not that the gunslinger did not trust them to look after themselves, but Vin had this idea Chris was so fiercely protective because he felt he failed Sarah and Adam and was not about to repeat the mistake.
"I think Chris would be more worried about those outlaws actually." Alex pointed out, remembering the hollow look in the gunslinger's eyes when they brought in the boy. Although the young victim left them all outraged, Alex knew Chris felt the death most profoundly since he knew what it was like to lose a child to violence.
"He has plenty of room to worry about a lot of things. Besides, he knows I got a good sense of the land to keep us out of too much trouble."
"Oh, really?" She peered over his shoulder and caught his eye. "We've made stunning progress so far."
"I could have left you buried under all that dirt." He reminded her pointedly, and Alex had to concede defeat to him on that point.
"Okay," she whined. "You got me there."
Thinking about the landslide only serve to remind her that Calliope was gone. Alex never thought she would become so attached to the horse. However, Calliope had been her chief transport getting around Four Corners, hitched up to Alex's buggy. "I wish Calliope had made it though."
"I'm sorry I couldn't do nothing for her. Her leg was broken. It was better if she went that way instead of suffering more than she had to."
Alex understood, aware he wouldn't have made the decision lightly. She trusted him enough to know he did what he believed to be right. Alex shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, her body aching in places she forgot were there. Leaning forward, she rested her head against his back, the full weight of her chest pressing up against him. Vin, who became acutely aware of her whenever she did this, had come to realise this usually meant she was exhausted and needed to rest.
Except she was probably too proud and stubborn to admit it.
How could any woman be so beautiful and so exasperating at the same time? Vin asked himself and knew there was no adequate answer to that question. It had to do with what made his blood boil with heat each time she was near him. It was part and parcel of who she was, and Vin was accustomed enough to her moods to know how to handle it.
"Do you need to rest?"
This was a recurring theme all day. No matter how tired she was, Alex was adamant she not show weakness in front of him. He wondered why, and guessed it had to do with her being a doctor. Maybe she had to be like that so the men doctors wouldn't think she wasn't good enough to be in their company.
"I'm fine." She said a little guiltily and quickly straightened up. "I'll get some rest when we stop at the river. I'll be fine to keep going after."
"No, when we get to the river, we're stopping for the night."
"I don't need it," Alex said hotly. If there was one thing she hated, it was being coddled because she was a woman. Of course she was tired, but so was he and he had been doing all the riding.
"Yes, you do. We're taking a break."
The river appeared before them and Peso's excitement was reflected by the increased pace of his advance. The horse slipped into a smooth gallop, eager to taste the water and quench its thirst after a hard day's riding behind it. The sun was already starting to set. The rain was still teeming, but the wind had died. For the most part, it looked calm.
"I'm telling you I am perfectly capable of continuing on this journey, Mr Tanner." Alex insisted as they reached the banks of the waterway, with its currents sweeping along in an almost lethargic flow.
Peso needed no encouragement as he waded into the water, allowing the swirling moisture to soothe the hooves forced to travel over jagged terrain for so long. Vin allowed his trusted companion to indulge in the freshwater while listening to Alex argue she was more than capable of riding on into the night, even though it was apparent to him she was exceedingly tired.
"I say we rest anyway." He was weary of this argument because he knew she was being stubborn just to prove a point, just like she would not admit rushing off to Agnes Doherty's aid was a bad idea. Especially without checking to see if the woman was in town first. He wondered if the old lady had any idea what they were going through just because she failed to keep her doctor's appointment.
"Vin," Alex wanted to get home to Four Corners sooner rather than later. Yes, she was tired but spending another night out in the cold and dark, particularly with him, was temptation she would prefer to avoid. "I can make it. I don't need you to feel sorry for me."
"That's it," Vin growled, deciding enough was enough. He saw Peso was almost knee-deep in water and knew he was probably courting death, but this was one of those times where it was necessary to take the buffalo by the horns or in this case, the doctor .
Without warning, he gave Alex a little shove.
She let out a short scream before hitting the surface, her entire body was swallowed up the river for a few seconds until she appeared again when her feet touched the ground. The water was deep enough to cushion her fall and give her a good soaking at the same time without being caught by the river's currents. Alex sputtered in fury as she struggled to stand, the weight of her wet clothes making it hard to do so.
Vin knew he should not smile because it was exceedingly dangerous to do so, but the smirk appeared on his face anyway.
"You bastard!" She cursed as she struggled to her gain her footing, trying to brush the wet strands of dark hair from her face. Alex glared at him as he looked at her smugly.
"You did say you wanted a bath." He looked down at her without one wit of repentance.
"I suppose I did." She smiled sweetly before reaching for him and yanking him forward by his coat. He hit the water beside her with an even louder splash that made Peso move away in caution, in case the insanity displayed by his master and the female was catching.
Alex watched in smug satisfaction as Vin rose to his feet and gave her the filthiest of looks. He snatched his hat, threatening to float away and put it on his head, only to have its brim sag down around his ears.
"That wasn't funny." He grumbled as he waded towards Peso.
Alex was still smirking as she remained where she was. Although she was not going to admit it, she did need to get cleaned up. There was mud in the most uncomfortable places on her person, and Alex wanted to look partially civilised when they reached Four Corners.
"Strange," she smiled triumphantly. "It seemed funny to me."
"Keep it up, and you'll be walking home."*****
Chris Larabee stared into the amber depths of his whisky for the second straight minute without touching the glass. He was doing that a great deal today and if he was forced to pinpoint when these sudden lapses began, Chris knew with confidence he could name the exact moment.
"Are you going to drink that?" Inez inquired, having noticed he had not touched the glass since she set it down minutes ago and went to serve other customers. When she returned to the corner of the counter he occupied, she found him still staring at the golden fluid as if trying to find answers in the slack swirl of its contents.
Chris looked up at the curious gaze of the sultry bartender, who was standing curiously before him, with her hands on her hips, while grasping a serving tray. She, who was Mary's best friend, stared at him with concern.
"I'm just thinking."
"Those must be deep thoughts. I thought you'd be celebrating your victory with the rest of your friends." Inez tilted her head past his shoulder to the others at their table.
Chris glanced over to see Buck and Josiah engaged in a hearty drinking contest, with Nathan and JD urging both competitors on to new lows of inebriated behaviour. Ezra was absent because he was escorting Miss Pemberton back to her hotel and mentioned something about dinner. Mary was busy writing her article, and Chris found himself alone with his thoughts for company and a nagging feeling he could not let go.
"They'll make up for me being here." Chris shrugged, still distracted by the sharp instinct telling him something was wrong without having any proof whatsoever, often turning out to be right. Tonight, he could have done without it.
"You deserve to celebrate a little," Inez pointed out, leaning against the counter when she poured herself a drink to join him for a moment. It wasn't busy in the saloon, despite the riotous behaviour displayed by his comrades. The evening crowd would come in soon enough and Inez did not particularly miss their presence since it gave her time to catch her breath. "Those men have paid for their crimes."
"Yeah, they have." He agreed but did not appear very convinced.
"Are you worried about Vin and Alex?" Inez asked, knowing Chris felt strongly towards Vin Tanner whose relationship with the gunslinger was the closest in the group.
While they were always seven, Inez knew from her friendship with Vin, the group really formed when Chris Larabee gave him a subtle nod across the street, without ever speaking the words they were not going to let a bunch of drunks hang Nathan Jackson. From that silent understanding, so much had changed.
"I am," he admitted but the gnawing at his insides was not because of the tracker or the doctor. Vin could take care of himself, and he was more than capable of taking care of Alexandra Styles as well.
Besides, if something terrible did happen to the duo, then it would make no difference if he worried or not. It was already too late. However, Chris preferred to think Vin was holed up somewhere waiting out the bad weather. Now that it was starting to diminish, he did not doubt they were on their way home and expected to see Vin any time soon.
No, his uneasy feeling came from Julia Pemberton's inability to identify the man she'd seen among the dead outlaws. It confirmed there were indeed five men, and where was he now? Why had he allowed his gang to carry out that last job without him? It made no sense. Chris usually had some idea about the bandits they were chasing, but these varmints left him bewildered because everything they did went against what was typically expected of such men.
"You want to know why, don't you?" She asked after a moment.
Chris met her gaze; bewildered for a second, she could have made such an accurate guess. Women's intuition, he snorted silently to himself, he had seen it at work before. Sarah and Mary had it, Alex almost certainly did, and now Inez too. He wondered what was this power allowing them to know a thing with such confidence. A question for another time, he supposed.
"I guess I do."
"Is it not good enough they are caught and made to pay for their crimes?"
"No, not until I have my answer.” Chris had no idea why he placed such importance in the absence of one man. For all he knew, the missing man could have left early or might have been killed by his partners, scum like these had no trouble turning on each other when the lure of money became too tasty. Inez was an excellent sounding board. Usually, it would be Vin, but God only knows where the tracker was. The friends behind were celebrating, and he didn't want to intrude while Mary was probably hard at work on her article.
Maybe a fresh perspective was what he needed. “There's just something wrong about all this.”
"What?” Inez prompted, giving him an opening.
“I don't know,” Chris frowned. "Why kill all those people? There ain't no reason for it. No one saw their faces to be able to identify them. There was no point gunning down every single passenger when their faces were hidden. Hell, Vin was framed for killing a man, and they got a $500 bounty on him. Why kill so many and risk being marked for life?”
Inez could understand his confusion. “It does seem very senseless without cause.”
"Yeah, I mean, why shoot a child? Shooting a kid is going to make sure every lawman will be hunting high and low for your hide even if they don't know who you are. Killers like that have a way of being caught."
"Maybe," Inez replied, thinking hard. "Maybe, the child's death was to make a point."
"A point?" He stared at her, unable to imagine what message that tiny dead body could convey to anyone other than rage and revenge. It would make everyone rabid with anger until the demand for justice went screaming from every town and its lawmen. The hunt for the men responsible would be relentless, there would be no pause until the guilty was brought in. Hadn't that taken place exactly? Hadn't Eagle Bend, Bitter Creek, Sweetwater and Four Corners mobilised to stop the carnage?
A thought occurred to him then, and it made him freeze in shock when he started to realise, he might have his answer.
"What if," Chris said softly, the light flickered in his ice coloured eyes as the idea started to gain more traction. “What if, that's what they wanted? To drive every lawman crazy?"
"For what purpose?" She leaned forward, intrigued by how his mind worked and how quickly it locked onto a train of thought once once the right element was introduced.
Chris started drumming his fingers along the counter, letting the idea gain momentum in his head, knowing he was on to something substantial and just had to keep working on it to unravel the truth. "Money?"
"They would have received a great deal from all those robberies." Inez pointed out.
"Did they?" Chris questioned. "Some folk travel with a lot of money on the stage and some don't. With the telegraph and all, it ain't necessary to carry lots of cash. Banks have a way of transferring things around on you. But say it's about money, how would they know who was on the stage with what? If you want fast money and weren't afraid to kill, there are surer ways of doing it, instead of gambling on what might be on a stage."
"I don't understand. "If the outlaws did not rob and kill those people for the money, why bother at all?"
The answer was so clear.
“It has to do with money,” he said finally. “Just not on the stage.”
With a grin, he knocked back the half-empty shot glass on the counter. Swallowing down the whisky, he leaned over the bar and pulled Inez to him, planting a kiss on her forehead.
"Why Mr Larabee," Inez laughed as he started moving away from the counter. "People will talk."
"Let ‘em." He grinned and swept out of the saloon before she had a chance to say anything else.*****
Chris was so fired up by his discovery he went straight to the Clarion News because the writing of Mary's article could wait. Now the idea was fully formed, he could not let it go. Stepping out into the evening air, he looked up at the sky and noticed the grey clouds amassing once again. It looks like they had only passed through the eye of the storm because the rumble of thunder promised more inclement weather. Strangely enough, the eye of the storm seemed applicable in this situation as well.
"Mary!" Chris called as he went through the office entrance of Mary's home and newspaper office.
She was at her desk when he entered the front door, putting the finishing touches to her headline article for the next edition of the Clarion News. She had written the tale of the capture with a sombre note to it since the conclusion of the outlaws' spree was only more death. There was nothing to gain by making their arrest sound like an epic of grand proportions. With so many innocent people dead because of these men, ending their bloodbath was more a question of justice rather than victory.
Mary heard Chris's arrival and immediately rose from her chair as he came striding through the door. For a moment, she wondered what had happened. She did not want to think another crisis had emerged so soon after putting an end to this latest situation. Was Four Corners some sort of magnet for this kind of trouble?
"What is it?" She asked, hoping nothing was wrong. Worries about Vin and Alex surfaced in her mind.
"I had an idea." He pulled up a chair and sat down. "What if we were set up?"
Mary's eyes widened as she returned to her desk. "What do you mean?"
"For two weeks, we look under every rock and hole in the wall joint for this gang, and we find nothing." Chris eased back into his seat, allowing his mind to fully travel the wild speculative course he latched onto. If Vin were here, he would be throwing this hypothesis at the tracker because Vin possessed as much a honed intellect as himself or Mary Travis. In Vin's absence, Chris had to break his own rule about bringing any unpleasantness to her but right now, he needed her help to think this through.
"They hardly left any clues for us to find them." Mary pointed out. She'd seen his eyes blaze like this before and was delighted by the almost youthful wonder in them. Chris Larabee was never more alive than when he had a challenge before him. "They were very thorough."
"Were they?" He asked pointedly. "They ransacked all the bags and trunks for money like a bunch of amateurs. There was stuff everywhere. Maybe it wasn't to find anything but for show."
"For show?" She questioned. Chris had never let her anywhere near the murder scene, but she knew they were brutal. No one who came across the aftermath of the robbery murders was left unscathed. The visual impact of what they saw was etched on their faces.
Was it because it was meant to be the desired effect?
"Think about it," he said in that smooth voice of his. "You kill a bunch of people and have every lawman in the Territory chasing after you. When they're nasty like these robberies were, most won't try to bring you in alive. It set the whole Territory chasing after a gang, when we should have been after one person, one person who had everything to gain.”
"The fifth man." Mary mused as she latched onto the same thought now he planted the idea in her head.
"What if Buck didn't stumble onto that information?" Chris pressed on. "What if he was meant to find it? I mean this fifth man, he's smart. He managed to keep quiet enough to commit three stagecoach robberies. You think he's going to be dumb enough to let someone from Purgatory get into his business, and pass it on?”
"So, you think this mysterious fifth man planted the working girl with the information." Mary guessed, following the pattern of his thoughts enough to know where he was going with this. “But why?”
“Because the other four are loose ends. They were sacrificial lambs, and with them dead, we wouldn't be so fired up to find him because the robberies and murders would stop. He could fade away with the money."
"Except Julia has seen him."
"What does that matter now, if he takes himself across the country to say California or the east?" Chris countered. "She can identify him, but we need to find him first and that ain't going to be easy to do."
"All this for less than ten thousand dollars?" Mary sighed, unable to imagine the estimated haul of money for the robberies being worth the death of so many people. Bank robbers had stolen more for less effort. It was perplexing.
"It might be more,” Chris replied. “We just don't know. I think it has to do with a lot of money, but I can't imagine how he would have made it. There haven't been any bank robberies in the past two weeks, no army shipments that might have been ambushed. In fact, nothing has been going on to need that much of a distraction.”
Mary could see his genuine confusion, and she shared in it wholeheartedly. Mary was often impressed by Chris's ability to work such problems out. What would he have done with his life had he not chosen the path he had?
Mary and Chris sat quietly for a moment as they tried to untangle this problem together. Chris's fingers were drumming on the desk softly, his eyes far away as his mind sought an answer. Mary wished she could help him unravel the mystery before him. Despite his belief in her intelligence, she had no answers for him. He was the one able to see through lies and deceptions, but it was a talent emerging from the darker side of him, one she could never understand.
Mary found herself thinking about all the lives changed with these deaths the past few weeks. All the fathers and mothers, now absent from someone's life. The boy who had died had the consolation of knowing he would leave no parents to mourn him, for they had fallen right beside him. She wondered how many homes across the Territory and the East who were grieving relatives who never return to them, how many changes would take place because of ….
Her mind trailed off as the thought fixed itself in her mind.
"Chris." She said suddenly because she had it. She had it!
Chris met her eyes and recognised the glimmer. "What?"
"The victims, Chris," Mary whispered. "We don't know anything about the victims."
It took Chris a split second to catch on. "Can you wire Bitter Creek, Sweetwater and Eagle Bend tonight?"
"Yes," she said with a widening smile. "I'll bang down the door until Franklin lets me in, but I can."
"Good," He nodded rising to his feet. "You get everything you can on the people who died, even the ones who don't come from the Territory."
"Where are you going?" She asked as she saw him making his way to the door.
"I'm going to Purgatory," Chris replied as he swung open the front door. "I've got a date with a working girl named Elisa."
“Just what every fiancée wants to hear.”
Chris flashed her a grin and headed out.
"I don't believe this!" Alex complained as the rain pelted down against the small tent serving as their only protection against the elements.
Vin kept silent, trying to maintain his stoic calm as Alex went on a tear. It did seem as if they were jinxed. Shortly after convincing Alex the sensibility of stopping for the night, he'd set up the tent for her because the rain had been light at that point. No sooner after she'd washed up, the weather shifted again, and the light shower was banished in favour of the torrential downpour threatening to bring down the tent over their heads.
"What's next?" She said exasperated, feeling cold and miserable in her dirty clothes. "A cyclone?"
Vin listened to her tirade, unable to blame her for her anger. It seemed nature was taking some particular delight in making their journey back to Four Corners as long and arduous as possible.
"Settle down." He growled impatiently. Did she think that he was any happier with the situation?
"Settle down? You try doing that in this!" She gestured to her clothes, sodden in mud and water. The rain was so heavy, they couldn't even light a fire and the way the wind was blowing outside their tent, it was not going to be long before the gale made short work of this temporary shelter.
"Look, I ain't any happier about this than you are, but there isn't much we can do about this. SO CALM DOWN!”
Vin's unflappable façade collapsed with a resounding crash. After the last two days, it had been coming. Did she think he was any happier about this? All Vin wanted to do was climb into his wagon back in Four Corners, where he would be warm and dry and be allowed to drink himself into a suitable stupor, enabling him to forget this entire miserable experience.
Alex knew she was working herself into a righteous wrath and putting his patience to test, but the anger she was usually able to control would have none of it. She wanted to be in her home, with a warm bed and a good book. Alex was tired and hungry, and another night in these cramped surroundings with only Vin as company was leading into a situation Alex might not be able to walk away from. She had no intention of repeating the incident at the cabin.
"This tent is not going to hold."
Vin rolled his eyes in similar annoyance. Of course, he was aware the tent was not going to hold! It was not meant for this kind of weather. It was meant to protect him from a light drizzle because most people had sense enough to get shelter before the harder stuff came down.
"I know that." Vin bit back tautly. His voice was now a thin line of anger, pressed firmly under the weight of his desperate attempt to keep a rein on his own temper. She was sitting before him cross-legged, hugging her arms around her knees as she raged on about how unfair this was. Vin who had tried to get some rest had stretched out, on the off chance he might get some sleep. However, with Alex's complaining the way she was at this moment, meant not only was he not going to get any sleep, but he was also going to be treated to a full-blown tantrum.
"How can you be so calm about this?"
She felt butterflies in her stomach just looking at him, trying not to become intoxicated by the sight of his handsome face, even if it was hidden underneath stubble and wet hair. She wanted to snuggle up to him, wanted him to keep her warm and with his too soft voice caressing her ear.
"There's nothing I can do about it, that's why." Vin glared at her for a moment before lying down to sleep, so she'd get the hint.
"Are we going to spend the entire night out here?" She questioned again and proved otherwise.
Vin tried not to swear under his breath, and he opened his eyes again and said with increasing tension to his voice. "For now."
"Is it safe out here?" Alex inquired again. If they kept talking, then perhaps they would not be engaging in any other activities. Who knows what could be running through his mind right now?
"Okay," Vin let out a frustrated sigh and threw his hat on the ground as he raised himself to a sitting position. "We're going."
Alex looked at him in surprise. "Now?"
"Yes, now!" He snapped as he crawled out of the tent.
Alex scrambled after him but did not emerge into the rain. "But it's raining out there!"
"Really?" Vin barked back as he began to dismantle the tent around her ears. "I hadn't noticed!"
"We can't go out like this!" She declared as Vin started to pull the small stakes holding the tent to the ground swiftly. At this point, Alex realised she may have been a little unreasonable.
Vin shoved the stakes covered in dirt and mud into one of his saddlebags before dropping to his knees. "Get on the horse." He ordered in a voice that indicated he was not in the mood for an argument.
"No," Alex said somewhat timidly, not liking the shift in his manner. She was used to him being restrained, and this side of him intimidated her slightly. "It's too wet to ride."
Vin grabbed Alex's arm, dragging her out of the tent, which collapsed behind her by the sudden action. Alex let out a short squeal of outrage as she was forced into the open air. With his hand clamped firmly around her wrist, Vin headed towards his horse, pulling Alex along who was too astonished to put up a fight until he was halfway across the campsite nearing Peso.
"Vin Tanner, let me go!"
He said nothing as always and paused only when he reached his horse. Without saying another word, he put his hands on Alex's hips and lifted her up, so she could mount Peso. Alex climbed on, dismayed at his behaviour while at the same time furious.
"Are you insane? We can't ride in this!" The rain was all through her now, and Alex had to brush the wet strands from her face to see him.
Vin ignored her and continued dismantling the tent. In a few seconds, it was completely collapsed, and Vin continued with the work of gathering his things. He was tired of everything, tired of her complaints and damn near ready to shoot her if they did not get back to Four Corners. He needed a drink so badly that if he did not get one tonight; he was not going to be responsible for his actions.
"Vin we can't ride in this weather!" She declared as he completed his work of clearing the campsite and strode back to Peso with an unreadable look in his dark eyes. She could see the line of his jaw set firmly as he climbed onto the horse.
"We're going." He said simply.
"But…" Alex tried to protest but Vin cut her off before she could say anything else.
“I DON'T WANT TO HEAR IT!”
He dug his heels in and prompted Peso forward through the pouring rain in the direction of the river. The water was choppy, but the horse was used to swimming through worse. Vin was sure he would have no difficulty in crossing the distance. If Peso was not up to it, well drowning was not such a bad way to die either. In any case, it would finally be quiet.
"What's gotten into you?" She asked innocently as they edged towards the embankment.
Vin resisted the urge to shove her off the horse again.*****
He knew he should not be making this journey alone, but Chris had to know if what he and Mary suspected was right. The weather was starting up again, and Chris wondered if the rain was linked to his state of mind. Without offering any explanations to his companions, he mounted his horse and started the ride to Purgatory. After the day he put in, Chris knew it was wiser to leave the trip until tomorrow when the rain had eased off. However, Chris couldn't wait, he needed his answers, and he needed them now.
All this time, they operated under the assumption the victims of the stagecoach murders were random, unfortunate in their lot because of where they found themselves during the robbery. It never occurred to anyone, perhaps the victims themselves were the key to the whole mystery. As he confessed earlier, Chris never understood why it was necessary to kill all the passengers. That point stuck in his mind because no matter how much he looked at it, it made no sense.
There was no good reason to kill all those passengers other than the ones he and Mary suspected. Her intuition the victims might be the motive for the killings now brought new possibilities to light, particularly about the fifth man. Even before arriving in Purgatory, the leader of the seven knew what he would find there. Buck's lead had come too quickly. He realised it now. Before this afternoon, there was no chance to question it because they needed to reach the stage swiftly. After the losses during the first three robberies, the lawmen couldn't risk Buck's news was anything but genuine.
But if it was not genuine, if the information was planted and they were set up, then they played executioner, so the mastermind of these crimes could escape without suspicion. The idea the bastard who engineered the deaths of so many, escaping with his loot unscathed made Chris Larabee sick to his stomach. It reminded too much of how Cletus Fowler had died, protecting Ella Gaines, who was the real killer of his wife and son. Chris was not letting the mysterious fifth man have that pleasure.
He arrived in Purgatory a short time after leaving Four Corners. He rode at full gallop using Mary's horse instead of his black gelding because the animal was exhausted after the run from Bitter Creek. Homer was fresh, and although he was not very fast, the horse was reliable and could endure this pace.
Chris knew from Buck Elisa was one of Lydia's girls, and he was familiar with the area where Lydia ran her business. He had not seen the working girl for some time now since Mary became more than just a figment of his nightly fantasies. Chris had no difficulty staying faithful to one woman. He managed to do so for all the years with Sarah and found it easy to slip into old habits now Mary was a part of his life.
It was easy enough to find Lydia's tent, but not easy to face Lydia.
He had no idea why he should feel anything, after all, theirs had been a purely business arrangement. He hoped Lydia was not with anyone because he didn't want to go barging in on her. Chris found the tents occupied by Lydia's girls. It was not far away from the saloons that were little more than tin sheds and tents. Chris approached the thick canvas of Lydia's tent and listened carefully. It was quiet inside, and there were no sounds of speech or anything else that might indicate she was conducting business. After a moment, he lifted the flap and slipped inside.
The woman who looked over her shoulder at him had light golden hair, not the white gold of Mary's but close enough. Her face registered surprise as she put down the brush with which she was using to comb those long, sensuous strands of hair, which he knew from personal experience were luxurious to the touch. Her robe was open, revealing the undergarments beneath.
"Well, as I live and breathe." She said with a genuine smile. "Chris Larabee."
"Hello, Lydia." He tipped his hat lightly and allowed the rain gathered on his brim to dribble slightly.
"I hear you're courting that Mrs Travis in Four Corners," she said rising from the dresser she was seated at and sauntered over to him. Chris ignored the seduction in her eyes as she approached.
"Yeah." He nodded in answer, seeing no reason to lie. It was public knowledge now.
"I never figured you for going respectable on me." She smiled, placing her hands on her hips as she regarded him.
"Never happen." Chris shook his head and returned her smile, glad she held no hostility towards him.
"She's a good woman," Lydia commented with genuine sincerity. "You're lucky to have her."
"So she tells me,” Chris managed a faint smile before he became all business again. "Lydia, I need your help."
"Let me guess, you want one of my girls for that friend of yours, what's his name. Tanner?"
Chris looked up at her, wondering what on earth gave her that idea? "What makes you think that?" He asked before he had time to consider whether he really wanted to know.
"Only one of your men I ain't seen here." She replied, surprised it was not the reason. "I guessed it had to be because he's shy or something."
Well, she was half right. Chris had never seen Vin here. For some reason, the tracker stayed away from working girls, even before Charlotte and Alexandra Styles came into his life. He could not understand the man's hesitation, for he was young and must have needs, but this was not Chris's reason for coming here and frankly, discussing his best friend's sex life or lack of, was making him uncomfortable.
"I need to find a girl named Elisa," Chris responded instead.
"Sure," Lydia went to the flap and pulled it apart and pointed to one of the tents situated directly in front of the saloon. "She's in that tent over there. I think she's got someone with her."
"That's too bad.' Chris reached into his pocket and took her hand to place some money into her palm. "This will make up for whatever I'm going to do in there."
Lydia looked at him, warily. "Chris, I won't let you hurt her." She said firmly, determined he understood that clearly. Lydia was extremely protective of all her girls, and Chris had no wish to incur her wrath, but he was going to get his answers.
"Neither am I." He replied, leaving, “but she's going to answer me, one way or another."
While Lydia was free when he entered her tent, upon approaching the canvas shelter where Elisa conducted her business, it was apparent she was not similarly unoccupied. Chris hated barging in on anyone in such a vulnerable position, but at the moment, he did not care. Chris was convinced the woman in played him and his friends as fools and was paid for her trouble. As he approached the tent flap, he could hear the heated breathing and pleasured sighs coming from two distinct voices but allowed nothing to deter him as Chris strode into the shelter dripping rain as he entered.
Elisa looked up at him and screamed.
The man beneath her did the same as well.
Chris looked at him with recognition, tipping his hat in greeting at the startled man who had thrown Elisa off him by now, and was scrambling to find his clothes.
"Good evening Reverend.”
The gunslinger shifted his gaze away from his nudity at the spiritual leader of Bitter Creek who was grabbing his clothes and hastily slipping on his pants. Whatever sexual ardour may have been in his mind before Chris's abrupt entry was almost certainly quashed when he stumbled out of the tent, too choked with horror and humiliation to say anything in response.
"You bastard!" Elisa said, covering her nakedness with a sheet as she glared at him. "How dare you just come in here! He was a paying customer.!”
"I wouldn't worry," Chris took a step towards her, which made the girl retreat in fear. Her dark brown hair was tousled around her face and judging by the shapely curves beneath the sheet, he could well understand why she was so popular. "I've already paid Lydia for your time."
"What do you want?" She demanded suspiciously.
Chris could see the fear in her eyes, but it was fear mingled with recognition. She knew who he was, and that was surprising considering he never laid eyes on her before. He crossed the room in two strides and took her arm firmly, just in case she had it in her mind to run. He had no patience to try and find her should that happen. "Who paid you to tell Buck about the horse trader?"
Her eyes narrowed enough for Chris to know she was perfectly aware of what he was referring to. Chris almost expected the lie that would soon come from her lips.
"No one paid me. I told him because he put the word out with Lydia."
"I don't have time for this." He glared at her with his intense gaze, telling her this was not the time for deception. He was able to reduce men to quivering mounds of terror with that high-powered gaze of his that saw all and reflected the predatory danger inside him. "I know you were paid and I know you were paid specifically to tell Buck about the horse trader." His voice reeked with menace.
His hand dug into her forearm with such force she released a slight gasp of pain.
"I don't know anything!" She whined.
"Okay." He nodded but did not relax his grip. "I'll just take you back to Four Corners and have you charged as an accessory to several counts of murder. By the time you get out, you'll be too old for this game." He started dragging her towards the tent opening before adding. "If you get out that is."
"No! I didn't do anything!"
"Don't misunderstand me," Chris stared at her with hard eyes. "I am not offering you a choice. You tell me what you know now, or I will take you back to Four Corners. This ain't no negotiation."
She started to cry, a predictable tool in her arsenal but one which had little effect on him. Frantically, she looked around, trying to decide what to do as they approach the opening in the canvas. She knew she was not strong enough to deal with life behind bars and was also aware of Chris Larabee's reputation. If he decided she was going to jail, then Elisa did not doubt she would arrive there, unless she acted quickly.
"Wait!" She cried out finally, hating him for forcing her to capitulate.
Chris paused as a gust of cold wind blew through the opening of the tent. The rain outside was still fierce, and he had no wish to drag this girl through the downpour, so he did hope this was a genuine attempt to give him what he wanted and not some desperate act designed to trick him into releasing her. If not, his reputation was going to need serious work.
"Who paid you?" He asked once more, slowly and deliberately, pinning her fear with an icy glare.
"I don't know his name!" She exclaimed. This time the tears coming down her cheeks did not seem false, but Chris was in no hurry to release his grip of her arm. "He only started coming here a few weeks ago. He was young, about twenty or twenty-five, I think." Elisa was speaking faster now, the truth spilling from her lips now the barrier holding her silence in place was gone.
She went on to offer a description that was not too dissimilar from what was given to Chris by Julia Pemberton. Elisa's account was more descriptive since she spent several sessions with the young man.
"Sometimes he came alone and sometimes he came in with four others. I've never seen them around either. I think they were from up north. I heard them talking about the Rockies and Canada. He wasn't though. I think he was from back East and his hands were soft, not like working man's hands you know?"
Chris did know. It was easy to tell what vocation a man was in by merely glancing at his hands. Soft hands indicated a life spent in leisure, without having to work or ride for that matter. Leather reins tended to leave its mark on the skin, especially over the years of prolonged use. "Go on."
"Early this week, he came up to me and offered me some money. Said that there'd be more on the way if I did this little favour for him. He told me if anyone came asking, I was to tell them about this one particular customer I had, one who bred horses."
And there it was.
A perfect plan to get rid of his partners while allowing the law to believe the murders were over since the guilty were punished or dead. There was almost a beauty to the symmetry of that plan and how easily Chris Larabee and his friends had danced to this secret play, without ever realising they were on someone else's stage.
"Alright, I believe you," Chris let her go, convinced she had told the truth. He hated being anyone's tool, but that is precisely what had happened. They were used. All of them. Himself, the friends he rode with, this foolish young woman with her promises of money and most of all, the fools who had trusted their unseen leader. They had entrusted him with their lives, unaware they'd done his dirty work and become his scapegoats, allowing him the perfect escape.
This was not over, Chris decided as he started back to Four Corners.
Not by a long shot.
Three days ago, her life was simple.
In fact, it settled into a nice routine. After the nomadic existence of Alex's youth, travelling the world with only her father for company, life at Four Corners was as close to perfect as she could imagine. Her medical practice was becoming a community staple. Her friends included an eclectic group of lawmen, in particular, a healer who reminded her so much of her father, it was like having the man back again. She was also courting a suave, dapper gambler with big dreams and a penchant for making every word sound like Shakespeare.
Riding back to town, Alex kept thinking about Ezra and how he charmed her from the very beginning with his dimpled smile and sardonic wit. While there was no formal understanding between them, they were courting, and he seemed perfectly at ease with her calling as a doctor. Before she arrived in Four Corners, the men she encountered would either belittle or be intimidated by a woman professional. Ezra was a pleasant surprise.
With the town limits of Four Corners rapidly approaching in the distance, Alex knew something had changed.
Vin Tanner had come out of nowhere and literally, sweeping Alex off her feet. When he took her hand in comfort all those months ago, the spark between them was completely unexpected. She had simply stood there, staring at him while experiencing the cliché emotions of a romance novel heroine. Breathlessness, excitement and butterflies in the stomach, things she never felt once in Ezra's presence.
Naturally, Alex ignored it. Attributing her response to Vin as the result of her emotional state at the time, Alex gave Vin a wide berth, and since the tracker did the same, there was no reason to think about it anymore. Until Agnes's cabin.
Even now, Alex could scarcely believe the intensity of what took place between them. If she had not come to her senses at the last minute, Alex had no doubt she would have surrendered to him. What was worse, Alex had a premonition if she pursued it, what passed between them had the potential to be beautiful and lasting.
But Alex still cared for Ezra and took the commitments she made to the gambler seriously. Despite his seemingly confident nature, Alex was not blind to Ezra's insecurities about himself. If she were to simply discard him for one of his best friends, it would hurt him, to say nothing about the potential break between Ezra and Vin. Such a rift could fracture the unity of the seven, and it was a risk Alex would not be a party to.
Yet even as she thought all these things, Alex knew the situation was far more complicated. Alex cared for Ezra, but what she felt for Vin made those affections seem pale in comparison. Would remaining with Ezra be a kindness when everything inside her yearned for Vin Tanner's touch? Alex hadn't lied when she admitted she wanted Vin so much it hurt. When she drew away and saw the hurt in his eyes, it had broken her heart as much as it did his. Even now, the need to tell him she cared was overwhelming if not for the damage she knew it would cause.
For the first time in her life, she didn't know what to do.
It was almost one o'clock in the morning, and Four Corners was still obscured behind the curtain of rain that hounded Alex and Vin throughout their entire journey home. It lay mostly in the dark, glittering with stray lights like a jewel against a sheath of blue velvet. Like this, without the bright light of the sun illuminating all glaring flaws and the dusty veil left in the wake of horses, wagons and people, it was beautiful.
Alex was glad to be home, but she also knew nothing would ever be simple again. The past three days brought too much to light, and now Alex was not entirely sure how she would cope with Vin Tanner in the future. How Alex ended up in the middle of a triangle, she did not know, but no matter what her course, someone was going to get hurt. Yet how could she deny what she felt for Vin?
It was a situation she was convinced Vin was very aware of since he was sombre and broody throughout the last leg of their journey. Her attempts to speak to him was rewarded with grunts and single word answers. Alex couldn't blame him for being angry at her. Her rising panic at being alone with him for yet another night, made her irrational and childish, straining even his formidable patience.*****
Vin was not speaking for good reason.
He was angry with himself and at her for all the things he could not change. He didn't know what was more infuriating. Was it the idea Alex thought being alone with him was so unpleasant she had done everything but say ‘stay away'? Or was it worse than that? She bore no feeling for him at all, and the incident in the cabin was one big mistake for her?
In either case, it did not matter. Once Vin and Alex reached Four Corners, what took place in the confines of Agnes Doherty's cabin would be forgotten by both. He would return her to Ezra, knowing with rising jealousy it would be Ezra on the receiving end of her kisses and it would be Ezra who would make love to her one day. His heart ached just thinking that.
Why were the women he cared about always taken?*****
Four Corners was mostly asleep at this time of night as Vin and Alex rode through the muddy streets. The only place open at this time of night was the Standish saloon, and it was a good bet most of their friends would be in attendance. Ezra rarely slept early because the bar was his private playground and he would continue to play until he ran out of fools with money. Considering they were gone for almost three days, Vin thought it a wise idea to let someone know they were back safe and sound.
"I need a drink," Vin spoke for the first time in hours as Peso struggled miserably to reach the hitching post and the water trough next to it. The animal needed a long rest to recuperate after the ordeal today. Vin hated forcing Peso through such weather, but he wanted to get Alex back to Four Corners before one of them said something they could not take back and would regret. He also wanted her away from him, so he could disappear inside a bottle and forget all about her.
For a while, at least.
"I second that." She agreed quietly, surprised he'd said a word after the long stretch of silence. "Ezra and the others are probably still there."
Vin stiffened at the mention of his rival's name but made no other reaction beyond that. Ezra was his friend who staked his claim on Alex first. Vin was not going to let his desire for Alex come between their friendship.
"Yeah, they probably are."
Vin dismounted the horse when Peso finally reached the hitching post. Glad to be out of the saddle because he was aching all over, Vin wanted nothing but sleep after the pace they travelled. As he helped Alex off the horse, Vin felt that familiar charge of heat between them and saw she felt it too. Setting her down, they held each other's gaze for a long time, before Alex leaned forward and pressed her lips against his in a soft kiss.
Vin hated how much he wanted it to go on forever.
"Vin," she said, pulling away, wanting to explain. "If it wasn't for…."
"Yeah." Vin cut her off before she could say more. "I know."
Stricken by the hurt she saw in his eyes, Alex turned away quickly, not wanting to look. She hurried up the steps leading to the batwing doors, leaving a little piece of herself with him as she went.*****
"Alexandra!" Ezra exclaimed the moment she walked through the doors. The gambler dropped his cards on the table and practically leapt out of his chair, striding towards them. The rest of the seven, those still conscious that is, turned sharply at Ezra's announcement and followed his advance across the saloon.
"Ezra!" She smiled as they both met in a warm embrace and a firm kiss of happiness and greeting.
Ezra practically swept her off her feet once she was in arms reach, grateful to see her alive and well.
"Where have you been? I have been worried, sick!" He then took note of her appearance. "Good God, what happened to you?"
"What didn't?" She gushed and started to relate the events following her departure from Four Corners in one long, continuous sentence.
Vin appeared in the saloon at that point and was quickly surrounded by his friends. Chris stayed where he was at the counter because the tracker would join him soon enough. He watched the younger man fielding questions about where he and Alex had been the past few days, while Buck slapped him on the back and told him it was good to see him.
Vin smiled faintly but said no more than that, but Chris saw something in his eyes recognisable to the gunslinger but no one else. JD began relating in slurred drunken speech what had been going on the past few days during his absence as Vin made his way through the room, pausing long enough for Ezra to thank him for looking after Alex.
Vin and Alex regarded each other briefly before she returned her attention to Ezra whose arm was still around her. Vin continued towards the bar, hiding any trace of emotion, concealing just how much it galled him. Buck continued to blather in Vin's ears about how they captured and killed the outlaws and about the woman who was an eyewitness. Chris saw him approach and guessed the outlaws were the furthest things from the younger man's mind.
Vin reached the bar and appeared almost relieved when he caught sight of Chris.
"I knew he'd come riding up out of nowhere!" Buck grinned as he called out to Inez to bring his returning comrade a drink.
The bartender immediately appeared with a shot glass of whisky and stared at Vin with concern.
"You're absolutely soaked." She exclaimed seeing the water dripping off his clothes and the buckskin jacket he wore.
"It's raining pretty fierce out there," Vin said quietly, offering a polite nod of thanks as he took the shot glass and downed it in one gulp.
"I'll make a bed up for you upstairs," she gave him a look telling Vin she was not accepting any argument from him on this matter. "I'll run you a bath if you like?"
"No," Vin shook his head. "Just a bed will do and maybe something warm to eat." He asked hopefully, aware it was late and the kitchen was usually closed at this hour.
"It will be my pleasure," Inez smiled at him warmly, pleased he was back safe and sound.
"I suppose I better be getting JD to bed too." Buck sighed, seeing the youngster staggering about like a newborn calf. Nathan was trying to steer him towards a chair without much success. Josiah was starting to doze off in his chair. "Lord knows the only thing holding him up is his boots." Buck turned to Vin and gave the tracker a warm squeeze on the arm. "It's good to have you back Vin. If things weren't so crazy around here, we would have come after you."
"We were okay," Vin assured the big man touched by the sincerity behind that admission. "We just got caught in the rain and decided to hold up somewhere until it eased off. When it didn't look like it would, we thought it best to try and get back into town anyway."
"Can't have been nice," Buck replied. "You both must have driven each other crazy."
"Something like that," Vin grumbled and quickly searched for the bottle Inez left behind.
Chris did not say anything until Buck had gone to help Nathan with JD, who was starting to protest he was not a kid any more and could handle his liquor, an argument that lost its impact by the shade of green he was turning.
"How you doing, pard?" Chris spoke for the first time.
"I've been better," Vin answered, downing his second drink. He hoped by the time Inez had a bed ready for him, it would be a third or fourth.
"Everything alright?" Chris asked, his gaze shifted long enough in the direction of Alex, who was being escorted out of the saloon by Ezra, before turning back to the tracker.
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," Chris nodded, understanding everything in that one response. "It's over now, ain't it?"
Vin did not want to meet his eyes because Chris Larabee was possibly the only person who could see through his unflappable mask to know just how heartbroken he felt right now.
"Yeah," he said after a moment because Chris would appreciate his feelings and leave it at that. "It's over."
Chris turned to the counter and refilled his glass and left it just at that because that was how Vin wanted it.*****
Julia was unable to sleep and wished Ezra was here with her. The memory of their lovemaking kept her awake, dreaming of a repeat performance sometime soon. She never believed any man was capable of wielding such carnal power over her, but Ezra was an incredible surprise. She had been with numerous men before, but none aroused her or satisfied her in the way Ezra Standish was capable. She knew she loved him without a doubt, and it was a wonderful feeling to know it was reciprocated. To have someone like him, who knew everything about her, still, want her was something Julia never expected to find in Four Corners.
She heard voices outside her window and felt compelled to investigate. Chris saw no reason to have her sequestered away at the Travis place since the bulk of the gang was killed and doubted there would be any more attempts on her life. Tomorrow, the guards would resume their vigilance, but for tonight, she had the privacy she desired. Julia took up a room in the hotel again and was pleased to be back in town although it meant Ezra could not be a nightly visitor until she found a house of her own. His dedication to her reputation was endearing.
Peering out through the window, she saw the rain against the glass and wondered if it ever stopped raining in this town. Two people were walking along the boardwalk, and Julia immediately recognised Ezra as one of them. Almost immediately, Julia guessed Alexandra Styles had finally made her return to town. A smile formed on her lips knowing Ezra's was well and truly hers now but upon closer examination of the good doctor, understood why it was so difficult for Ezra to make a choice in her favour.
My God, she's beautiful!
Julia found herself thinking and this was quite an effort on the part of Alexandra Styles, considering she looked like she had quite literally been put through hell. If she was like this now, how did she appear usually? Julia saw women like this before, whose beauty was such it literally took the breath away and yet she could not understand the logic behind not using that tremendous power. They chose to hide it away beneath a veneer of respectability and convention or in Miss Styles's case, behind a worn doctor's bag.
Suddenly, Julia felt her confidence in Ezra waver. What if he was swayed by the enchantments of Doctor Styles and chose not to abandon her? Julia could not bear seeing him with someone else. She was sure of this now. She moved heaven and earth to get him; she was not about to lose him. Her green eyes watched the couple walk down the boardwalk, laughing and talking as if they were never apart and as if Julia Avery, no, Pemberton did not exist. It made Julia seethe in rage Ezra might not make good on his promise to tell Alexandra about her.
Perhaps it was too hard for Ezra, Julia decided, stepping away from the window once they faded from view. She sat down on her bed, contemplating the dark thoughts simmering inside her jealous mind.
Maybe, she would spare Ezra the pain of telling Alexandra Styles the truth. Yes, she would do that for Ezra because she loved him. She would take the brunt of the doctor's anger because she loved Ezra, and she was not allowing anything to get in the way of her being with him.
Julia Pemberton had sought her whole life for someone like him.
She was not going to let him go.*****
"What did you find?" Chris Larabee asked the moment he walked into Mary's office the next morning.
With the return of Vin and Alex, he could now focus his attention on finding this elusive fifth man whom he was certain masterminded the entire plan and sacrificed his partners to escape into obscurity. Their only lead to finding him was through the victims he left behind. Chris was confident Mary was correct when she came up with the idea of the victims being the key to the whole mystery.
"Not much," Mary confessed, having only collected the wired information a short time earlier.
Franklin was not very impressed with her when she pounded on his doors late yesterday evening. However, when she explained to him the urgency of the situation, the telegraph operator was more accommodating. Telegrams were sent to Bitter Creek, Sweetwater and Eagle Bend respectively. She did not expect all the answers to be presented first thing this morning and was surprised by the amount that did await her when she awoke.
"Most of the passengers were from around these parts. Mostly farmers, horse breeders that sort of thing." She presented Chris with the list she complied, and the gunslinger studied the names and notations under it. He tended to agree there was nothing about them to raise suspicion.
"Of course," Mary added. "We haven't got the responses from back east yet. Those will take a few more hours, if not towards the end of the day."
"I suppose." Chris frowned, not liking the wait but realising it was necessary.
"Are you going to find Alex and Vin today?" She inquired, moving off the subject a moment because she knew the delay would only make him stew with impatience.
Chris winced, realising he had yet to tell her about Vin and Alex. "They came back last night."
"Thank Goodness! How are they? Where have they been?"
"Apparently, they tried to sit out the rain," Chris explained it as Vin told him. "They waited as long as they could but decided to come back when it looked like the rain wasn't stopping. Alex got caught in a landslide, and her horse got hurt. Vin had to put it down."
"Not Calliope!" Mary said in dismay, knowing how attached Alex was to the horse. After a moment, she threw Chris a furtive glance and asked gingerly. "Anything else happened out there?"
Chris looked at her and guessed her meaning immediately. "Now Mrs Travis," he said with a hint of reproach. " Whatever do you mean?"
Mary huffed in sarcasm and shot him a withering look. "You know perfectly well what I mean since you're the one who put the thought into my head. Now let's hear it."
Chris laughed shortly, remembering why he loved this woman so much and wished Vin could have the same kind of happiness. "Something happened up there, but Vin won't say what."
"You don't think…." Mary looked at him in suggestion.
"No," Chris shook his head. Vin did not give Chris the impression he had come away from his journey with Alexandra Styles with anything remotely resembling a fond memory. "He's even quieter than usual and doesn't want to talk about it."
Mary could understand that. Vin Tanner was an extremely private person. Even more so than Chris, she sometimes believed. It was near impossible to breach the walls of his personality. It was an even greater mystery why they were in place at all. While Vin was not marked by tragedy as Chris had been, he did spend a great deal of his life alone. She would have thought the idea of human contact would be appealing to him after such a lengthy period of isolation.
"Maybe he'll come around later." Mary sighed, deciding to return to the work ahead. "Since you've got nothing better to do, you can help me cross-reference some of these names in the list with Steven's files. There might be something useful in there that could help us."
Chris sighed and picked up the list, not relishing the idea of paperwork but could think of no excuses to avoid it, at least none Mary would find believable. "You're a tough woman," he grumbled. "Making me work like this."
"Well, you're a tough man," she smiled as she stood up and went to the filing cabinet. Rummaging through the stored folders, she pulled out a thick stack and handed it to Chris.
Chris frowned as he eyed the collection distastefully before deciding that he was going to have to do this. "I had to find me a working woman."*****
Alex woke up the next morning, relishing the joy of being in her own bed once again. She returned home the night before and slipped into a warm bath, having little care about what time it was. Alex was determined to wash away the last two days, like a bad dream. Outside, the rain had finally stopped, and the blazing sun through her window indicated it was going to be a lovely day.
As she prepared to get on with her day, the situation with Vin seemed far away for the moment. Eventually, she would have to sit down and seriously consider what she wanted. Her heart was making demands of her, her mind was not yet ready to accept. For now, she simply ignored the whole situation.
Getting dressed, she made a mental checklist of the things she needed to do and reminded herself to drop in on Mary Travis to catch up on all the news. Judging by what Ezra had told her briefly last night; Four Corners had quite an eventful few days. Mindful of how tired she would probably be this morning, Ezra had invited her to lunch at the hotel.
It felt good to brush her hair and put on some fresh clothes after having been wearing nothing by soiled and wet garments for the past two days. However, she did feel a slight prickling in her throat and was alarmed by what that could mean. She supposed it was not unreasonable to assume she would come down with a cold, considering she endured the elements for almost two days.
Nevertheless, the sickness had not caught up with her yet, and before it did, she was determined to have a good day. Very soon, she was dressed, having slipped into a plain violet coloured cotton dress with a scoop neck which she completed with a shawl and slippers, before making her way to the front door to leave. As she was about to open the door, Alex caught sight of a folded piece of paper slipped through the crack beneath.
Intrigued, she reached for it and unfolded the crisp white card, which soon revealed itself to be the complimentary stationery of the Four Corner's Hotel.
We must speak.
Julia Pemberton. The name sounded familiar. Alex tried to place it as she folded it up again and slipped the note into the pocket of her dress. She was down the steps and into the street when Alex remembered she heard the name from Ezra the night before. It was the eyewitness they were protecting. Ezra related how the seven was charged to guard Miss Pemberton since, at the time, she was their only witness to the murders on the stagecoach trail. Alex questioned why Miss Pemberton would request such a clandestine meeting but guessed there was only one real way to find out.
It was not quite noon yet, and she had time before she was to meet Ezra at the saloon. Alex hated arriving there in the middle of a game because it meant that she would have to wait until he was done and she disliked loitering about the establishment. It was one thing to go there when people required doctoring, but like Mary Travis, she did not make it a habit to frequent the saloon more than necessary.
She walked through the street, waving greetings at everyone who tipped their hat in her direction and offered salutations. The bulk of Four Corner's residents were out in force today, now the sun finally made an appearance after almost three days of unyielding showers and storms. The ground was still muddy, so people kept to the boardwalk, staying well out of reach of the horses and wagons splattering mud in all directions.
Alex loved this town and could honestly say it was her home now. It had taken so long to find a place for herself in this world, and while Four Corners was not exactly Paris or London, it was good enough for her. It did not take long for her to reach the hotel and even shorter time to be shown by one of the polite hotel attendants to Julia Pemberton's room. Alex was still puzzled by why Julia wished to see her and deduced she probably needed something to calm her nerves.
Poor thing, Alex thought. It was bad enough to be the sole survivor of a murder spree but to be the only witness, with her life threatened as well? Alex felt a wave of sympathy for her. She arrived in the hallway and saw Chris Larabee stretched out on a chair near the woman's door. The gunslinger was reading a book but noticed her the moment she appeared.
"Hello, Alex." He greeted pleasantly in that silky voice of his, wondering why she was here.
"Is she still under protection?" Alex asked, puzzled. "I thought you'd caught the outlaws."
Chris nodded. "We did, but the one she identified is still missing."
"How awful. Do we even know who this person is?"
"Getting there." He shrugged.
Most of the information on the stage passengers revealed nothing out of the ordinary, and until they heard about the Hendersons who were from the East, Chris knew the fifth man could still be in the area. He had taken pity on his comrades who were massively hungover this morning, and decided he would guard the fair Miss Pemberton while they were recovering.
"Why are you here?"
"She asked to see me." Alex gestured towards the door.
"Something wrong with her?" Chris asked in concern. He saw Julia when he had first arrived, and the young lady's appearance did not indicate anything requiring a doctor's presence.
"Not that I know of." Alex knocked on the door gently. "She just wanted to see me."
For some reason that bothered Chris, though he could not figure out why.
"You wanted to see me," Alex asked as Julia showed the doctor into the parlour of the hotel room.
Since it was apparent Julia was going to be staying in the hotel for a while until she could secure herself a house, she indulged herself by taking up residence in the only suite in the hotel. It was not lavish by city standards, but it had a small parlour for entertaining and a separate bedroom.
"Please join me for tea," Julia smiled politely; examining Alex closely. It was as Julia suspected the night before. In the light of day, Alexandra Styles was even more beautiful than ever and could give her serious competition for Ezra's affections unless Julia acted now.
Both women sat down before a table laden with the accoutrements for what Alex remembered as Devonshire tea, so favoured in England. That is tea with scones and jam. Of course, most Americans had no idea what the term meant since most of them still thought of her reference to tea as an evening meal somewhat odd, as they preferred to call it dinner.
"There is no delicate way to put this." Julia began once she poured them both a cup of tea and the pleasantries had dwindled to a point where there was no longer any way to delay the inevitable.
"I am a doctor, everything you say will be purely confidential." Alex tried to put the other woman at ease. After all, she knew how difficult it was for some patients to be honest about what was ailing them.
"All right," Julia answered, deciding that this was going to be easier than she thought. The woman really had no idea, did she? "It's about Ezra."
Alex blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"Ezra Standish is in love with me." Julia saw no need to mask the truth in any flowery language to lessen the impact of what she was going to say. No matter how it was related to the doctor, it was never going to be taken well.
For a moment, Alex thought she misunderstood. What was this woman talking about? Alex saw Ezra last night! She was on her way to meet him for lunch at this very hotel! The idea he could have done the very thing she managed to resist, infuriated her. No, Ezra was better than that, he would not be so deceitful.
“I think you're mistaken. Ezra and I have been together for some time now. He doesn't love you."
Alex wondered if Julia was one of those women with a mental disease that caused fixations and obsessive behaviours.
"He told me he loved me," Julia met her eyes with a hint of a smile. "Did he ever tell you?"
“That's none of your business,” Alex snapped and inadvertently answered Julia's question. What nonsense was this? Ezra stood at her door last night and told her after escorting her home how worried he was about her. She thought about their dinners at the hotel, their buggy rides, and walks. How dare this twisted woman tried to infer Ezra could be so dishonourable.
Then again, hadn't she held him at arm's length since the encounter with Vin at Nettie's? No, that wasn't fair, she had not changed her behaviour and was more devoted to him because of it.
“So that's a no,” Julia said smugly. The doctor was not quite ready to accept it yet, so Julia piled on. “Of course, he told me himself, you and he are merely courting. There's nothing formal in your relationship, so he is within his rights to go elsewhere.”
“Ezra Standish is an honourable man. How dare you slander him?” Alex got to her feet, not about to listen to any more of this woman's delusions.
"I've slept with him. I know you haven't." Julia announced, and Alex froze in her tracks.
Slowly, the doctor turned on her heels with her eyes blazing. "That's a lie.”
"I assure you it's not. We made love during the afternoon the outlaws were caught. The others left Ezra alone with me while they went to intercept the stagecoach. It was just Ezra and I, alone at the Travis place all afternoon and trust me, he needed the affections of a woman. I'm told he's been celibate since he met you.”
"You're lying," Alex whispered, very near the edge of her tight emotional control. She was trying not to believe a word this woman was saying, but the fact was, Ezra, did tell her he was guarding Julia Pemberton at the property once owned by Mary Travis. In fact, Julia had no reason to lie when it was easy for Alex to confirm it with Ezra or Chris.
"He's a beautiful lover." The titian haired siren continued, now only inches away from where Alex was standing. Julia wanted to see the look in the doctor's eyes when she told her how beautiful the union had been. Such confrontations always empowered her like an elixir of fine wine. "You're a fool for staying away from him for so long. I have had a great many men in my time, and he was easily the best. You should see the darling way his eyes become dark green when he's just about to….."
Alex slapped her before she could finish that statement.
Like the hellcat she was, Julia's reaction to the attack was swift. She lunged at Alex like a coiled snake, while the doctor was reeling from the fact she was angry enough to strike someone. Nails sank into her arm, and Alex let out a small cry of pain, recovering sufficiently to slam an elbow into Julia's chest to push her away. The smaller woman took a step back and crashed into the table, sending the teapot and cups clattering to the floor noisily. Alex turned away, unwilling to humiliate herself in a further show of violence when suddenly she felt Julia's nails in her loose hair.
Twisting around painfully, Alex tried to wrestle Julia's hands from her dark hair and in doing so, succeeded in making them both lose their footing before falling to the floor with a loud thud.
"Let go of me!" Alex shouted as she wrapped her hands around Julia's throat to make her release her grip. This was mortifying! It was beneath her!
Julia let go long enough to sink those nails into Alex's arm and make her bleed under the cotton of her dress.
At this point, the commotion was loud enough to cause Chris Larabee to come smashing through the door. He took two steps into the room and was struck dumb by the sight of Alex and Julia rolling around the floor like brawling children. His arrival provided enough of a distraction for Julia to release her grip on Alex. Feeling her arm sting in pain, Alex threw her fist forward and connected with the smooth line of Julia's jaw.
"What the hell is going on here?"
Alex scrambled away and glanced briefly at the blood oozing through her dress as Chris stepped between them as Julia was now on her feet. The Easterner ran straight for Alex when Chris barred her from continuing any further and said very firmly. "That's enough."
Alex felt hot tears running down her cheeks, as her mind was too wrapped around the possibility Ezra might have actually slept with this…this witch!
"I'm sorry, Chris," Alex mumbled dazed, trying to stop the tremor in her voice but could hear it herself she was failing. She was mortified by this disgusting display and was completely ashamed of herself. Without saying another word, Alex fled the room, too embarrassed to face Chris or anyone else for that matter.
Chris watched her leave, seeing the anguish in those brown eyes and decided he was not going to just let her go. In all the time he had known Alexandra Styles, Chris had never seen her so distraught. She was not a woman who went into hysterics because he had seen her work flesh so ruined it would make most men puke, while she barely flinched. Chris turned sharply towards Julia and spoke in a voice that was nothing less than menacing.
Alex was hardly aware of the curious looks she was receiving when she stormed down the street, making a beeline for the saloon. Ezra was most likely there since their lunch plans the night before involved meeting each other at the bar first.
Lunch, she snorted. He's already had his feast!
Blood oozed from the scratches in her throat, the crimson stain spreading beyond the four lines of red into one big mess. The pain hardly registered. All Alex could think of was the possibility Ezra stood in front of her yesterday and told her a bald-faced lie. How much could he have missed her if he slept with that red-headed Jezebel!
All these years, she tried to be calm, to be measured in all things. As a woman, she knew how easy it was to let her passions run away with her and Alex swore she would never allow her sentiments to get the better of her. When she began courting Ezra, she did so against her better judgement. Men like Ezra could not be tamed. Their first love was the game, and a woman came a pale second. She gave him the benefit of the doubt because she saw more than what everyone else did.
"Alex!" Chris caught up with her. "What's happened?"
"Did you know?" She whirled around and stared at him.
"About Ezra and her!"
Oh hell. What else could make two women go entirely insane?
"I don't think there's anything to know." He placed his hands on her shoulders so she would stop and catch her breath. As it was, he was trying to think of something to say to calm her down while at the same time defend Ezra. "They were never alone together….."
Oh hell . Chris remembered he was the one who told JD not to relieve Ezra yesterday while he was guarding Julia at Mary's place. They were alone together for almost the entire afternoon and suddenly the little exchange Chris noticed between them in the undertaker's office, made sense.
The slight pause was all the proof Alex needed, and she shoved his hands away from her shoulder.s “That, that, SCUM SUCKING, TWO TIMING PIG!”
She stormed towards the saloon, leaving Chris to wonder if Ezra had any idea what was coming at him.*****
Ezra glanced at his pocket watch and prepared to leave the saloon to meet Alexandra at the hotel.
Perhaps he should not have made the suggestion since she was probably still exhausted from her ordeal in the wilderness.
Not that he was in any great shape either. While he was suffering from the same hangover, like the rest of his associates, Ezra was determined to look his dapper best. The others were sprawled out on their chairs, their hats covering their faces, or heads resting on the table to hide away from any bright light. Buck was in such a state he did not indulge in his daily habit of harassing Inez who was moving through the room, dispensing meals to paying customers. JD actually looked green while Josiah hit underneath his hat and said nothing. Only Nathan and Vin were in any condition to give Ezra a decent game of cards.
"Ezra!" He heard a voice bark so sharply he was actually startled. Looking up, he saw it was Alex bursting through the batwing doors.
At least he thought it was Alex, it was hard to tell because she was very dishevelled, bleeding and wearing a storm cloud on her face that made what the town endured the past three days seem mild in comparison. She was in such a state she captured everyone's attention as she walked into the saloon. Even Inez was staring at her in shock.
"Alex, what happened to you?" Inez came towards her in concern.
Alex did not answer as she walked past the bartender, her eyes focused firmly on Ezra. She was neither interested in talking to anyone else or explaining herself for that matter until they had words.
"Alexandra, what has happened?" Ezra demanded, his eyes shifting to the stain of blood he was seeing on her shoulder.
"Don't Alexandra me!" Alex snapped barely registering Vin and Nathan at the table. Right now, there was only one thing she wanted. "Did you sleep with her?"
Oh damn, damn, damn!
Ezra swore inwardly, wondering how on earth she found out about Julia and before deciding it was not really important at this moment. From the corner of his eye, he saw Chris enter the saloon unsurprised by the scene greeting him. Buck was staring at him with a widening grin while JD seemed merely confused. Josiah and Nathan were glaring at him with accusation and disapproval respectively, while Vin's expression was utterly unreadable.
"I can explain…"
And there it was. Confirmation. For a moment, Alex almost hoped Ezra would deny it, but instead those three words were spoken with the weight of a door slamming shut for good.
"You did ." Her voice was a strangled whisper.
"It was not my intention to hurt you," Ezra tried to explain but knew it sounded feeble. Alex's eyes were filled with pain, but also with betrayal.
"It is a little late for that,” Alex hissed and spun around to leave.
A small titter of laughter came from the men at the bar who were not apart of the seven. Under normal circumstances, Ezra would have reason to take offence, but at the present time, he had more significant troubles to contend with.
"Alexandra, it was not like that at all!" Ezra hurried to catch her. He had to explain, at least make her understand it had nothing to do with her.
"Oh, you have an explanation that makes this better?" She paused long enough to ask, her voice still cold and hard, oblivious to how public this discussion was becoming. The entire town knew he was openly courting her during the last month. There was not going to be any hiding the truth if even half of what that red-haired witch said was true. That he loved her. Just thinking about it made Alex sick to the stomach.
"I accept men have...needs,” she glared at him. “I accept I could not expect you to be celibate, but you could have chosen better! If you had gone with a working girl, I could understand it. I wouldn't like it, but I would have understood, but you chose that repulsive creature who absolutely adored telling me how much she enjoyed your affections yesterday afternoon!"
Ezra was beyond horrified. He saw the tears streaming down her face and could find nothing to say in his defence because he did behave abominably, nothing could ever change that. He wanted to say something, but explanations and everything else died in his throat as she waited for him to speak.
When he did not, she merely nodded in understanding. "We are done , Ezra Standish. Don't ever come near me again."
Ezra watched her disappear out of the room, feeling as if she had taken all the air with her. His dismay and shock was a tightening knot in his chest, and he watched her go feeling like something that should have been scraped off her boots. No one said a word in the wake of her departure and Ezra looked around the room nervously, unable to ignore the accusing eyes staring at him.
"If you will excuse me, gentlemen," he said to his friends, his voice sounding dazed and distracted.
"I need to take my leave of you." He strode towards the door where Chris was standing when the gunslinger grabbed him by the arm and kept him still.
"Leave her be," Chris warned quietly.
"I have to explain…" Ezra started to stammer like a child who had been well and truly caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "I cannot just leave it like this."
"You can, and you will . I'm not judging you Ezra, but she's in no mind to listen to anything you have to say. Leave it be until she calms down."
Alex was his friend, and in the short time, she had been in Four Corners had impressed the gunslinger with her cool head and her determination to heal no matter what the consequences to herself. He remembered that terrible period after Mary's miscarriage where Alex remained close by, taking turns with Inez to ensure the woman he loved was never left alone when he could not be present.
"But..." Ezra wanted to protest. He never meant to humiliate her this way or hurt her so publicly. He still could not believe what Julia had done and scolded himself because he should not have been surprised. Suddenly, the mortification he felt in the wake of Alex's sorrow was quickly fuelling into fury at Julia's actions.
"Ezra, I'm your friend, and I'm telling you, leave her alone. You'll do more harm than good by trying to see her now."
If anything could deter Ezrafrom what he intended, it was the possibility he might hurt Alexandra any further than he already had. Ezra nodded slowly and felt somewhat touched by Chris's sensitivity.
"Thank you, Mr Larabee," Ezra said quietly. "If you release your grip on my person, I give you my word I will not approach Alexandra."
Chris believed him and did so immediately. Ezra took his arm back and straightened his jacket before walking through the doors. Chris watched him go and noticed the gambler was not heading in the direction of the doctor's clinic but instead was making fast tracks towards the hotel. The gunslinger let out a sigh, feeling sorry for the betrayal he saw in Alex's eyes and made a mental note to have either Inez or Mary call on her.
Chris ambled into the saloon, ignoring the rumble of gossip following Ezra's departure. No doubt, the word would soon be across town like wildfire although Alex was discreet enough not to mention Julia by name so there would be some doubt cast over the identity of Ezra's paramour for a while. Chris took the seat previously occupied by the gambler and saw everyone still astonished by the scene between Alex and Ezra.
"I can't believe Ezra cheated on Miss Alex!" Nathan was the first to break the silence. If Nathan thought it would help, he would have gone after Alex because they had become very close since the doctor's arrival in Four Corners. However, Nathan held back because Chris's words to Ezra was good advice to them all.
"Have you seen Miss Pemberton?" Buck exclaimed in surprise at the healer. "That's a very sexy woman."
"Oh yes," Josiah drawled from where he was sitting. "What a truly exquisite piece of work indeed. So few women can exercise such discretion.”
"I cannot believe that Ezra!" Inez grumbled as she stormed past. "Just when you think he could not sink any lower!" The bartender disappeared into the kitchen with her tray and her apron and exited a moment later, wearing neither. No one had to ask where she was going, and Chris was glad Inez saved him the trouble of asking her to check in Alex.
"I hate to be in Ezra's shoes," Buck whistled as he saw the woman he cared for walking out of the room. "Then again, I never thought he had it in him to be such a heartbreaker either."
Chris did not listen to the banter of his friends as they discussed the situation Ezra now found himself. Instead, his attention was focused on the one person who had said nothing during this entire episode.
Vin Tanner knew Chris was expecting him to make comment, but honestly, nothing came to mind. The scene he witnessed earlier between Alex and Ezra was as much a shock to him like everyone else in the room. He could doubly understand her outrage at discovering Ezra bedded Julia Pemberton when she had found herself in the same position with him and managed to restrain herself. The irony of it was not lost on Vin.
Still, Vin had no wish to prey on her wounded heart at this moment. He knew Alex well enough to guess that there would be no way Ezra could explain his way back into her affections after such a betrayal. Vin had heard the tone of her voice when she told Ezra they were done.
He had no doubt she meant it.
He felt sorry for Alex, and it was taking all his control to not rush by her side and offer his comfort. Instinct told him it was best to let Alex recover from this without his interference. When the sting of what happened passed, and she was clearer about her feelings, Vin might pay a call on her then.
But not before.
Mary Travis had no idea of the drama unfolding around her when she arrived at the saloon shortly after the explosive confrontation between Alex Styles and Ezra Standish. When she walked through the doors, she noticed the aftermath of that spectacular quarrel that had taken place in her absence.
Chris was at his customary position, holding court over the men who were the law in Four Corners. It was not her custom to enter the saloon unless she had to and the men who were present knew she only did so when the need was warranted.
"Chris." She said as she approached. "I've got the wire from Eagle Bend." She gestured to the piece of paper clutched in her hand.
Chris did not say a word as he took the paper from her and read its contents carefully. In the meantime, Mary noticed that the group was unusually quiet even for men with hangovers. Her journalistic instinct immediately picked up something was amiss.
"What's wrong?" She looked from face to face; not particular about where the answer came.
Chris shrugged, and Vin remained stoic as ever. JD looked to the others to answer the widow, while Josiah and Nathan exchanged glances that spoke volumes. It was at this point that Mary noticed that Inez was not present, which was odd because this was the saloon's lunch hour, and Inez was normally run off her feet at this time.
Finally, it was Nathan who answered. "Miss Alex and Ezra had a quarrel."
"Really?" Mary asked curiously. "What about?"
Nathan looked uncomfortable and did not wish to talk about any woman's indiscretion to another, but he supposed Mary eventually would learn about the whole sordid tale. He met Chris's gaze as if seeking permission to impart such scandalous information to her. The gunslinger had not looked up from the paper in his hand and hardly noticed that Nathan was staring at him. Mary caught all the silent signals and soon became impatient with the stalling.
"It couldn't be that bad."
"Oh, yes, it could." Buck found himself muttering under his breath.
"Apparently Ezra has been getting very friendly with Miss Pemberton," Nathan finally answered, trying to think of a delicate way to put this.
"How friendly?" She asked, her voice suddenly laced with suspicion when she realised what he was getting at.
"They know each other in the biblical way," Buck replied, tired of seeing Nathan struggle to explain.
Mary's eyes widened. "You're joking!"
"Nope." Buck shook his head. "Alex was in here a while ago tearing strips off Ezra cause Miss Pemberton told her to her face."
Buck neglected to add the said coupling had taken place in the house Mary shared with her husband. Although Mary had lent her home to be used as a safe house to protect the safety of Julia Pemberton, it had been assumed that protection was meant to extend to her virtue as well.
"Poor Alex!" Mary said horrified, understanding where Inez was at this moment. If it was not for the information she discovered about the murdered Henderson couple, she would be on her way to finding the doctor as well.
"Yeah." Buck nodded sadly. "She was pretty upset. Ran out of here in an awful state."
Mary turned to Chris; clearly disturbed by what she had heard but knew that particular situation could wait. Right now, they still had a murderer to catch. "As soon as I heard about the son, I got the Sheriff in Eagle Bend to wire the college where he is meant to be."
"What's going on?" Josiah asked, wondering what had engrossed their leader to such an extent.
"I think I know who set us up." Chris volunteered, finally. The others knew they had been tricked after his return from Purgatory with news of Elisa's duplicity. Buck had been none too happy to learn he had been a cog in someone else's plan and he was deceived so easily by a working girl.
"Who?" Nathan sat up in his chair.
"Apparently, Mr and Mrs Henderson, two of the victims who were killed on the stage when we found Miss Pemberton, has a son."
"A son?" Buck did not get the connection.
"I wired a friend of mine who owns a paper in Chicago," Mary took up the narration. "Apparently, the Hendersons' have a son with massive gambling debts. He has been raking up some hefty markers, and it was rumoured the amounts were so large Mr Henderson refused to settle them."
"You mean this kid might have planned this murder to get rid of his gambling debts?" Buck exclaimed, horrified that anyone could commit such crimes against his own kin.
"It was never about gambling debts," Chris said coolly. "It's about the inheritance of almost a million dollars."
"A million dollars!" Buck almost fell out of his chair. JD reacted for the first time with something other than a feeble smile.
"That's worth killing for." Josiah nodded in understanding. "Quite ingenious actually."
"Exactly," Chris continued. "He comes out west, knowing his parents plan on taking a trip out this way. He organises men stupid enough to buy into his story that he'll share the loot with them, assuming he ever told them about it at all, and didn't just convince them that the stage robberies would be worth the money."
"They killed all the people in the first two robberies so by the time they get to the third one, the one the Hendersons' are actually on, no one would consider this was about an inheritance. They would think it's just part of the pattern." Josiah spoke out loud, following the train of Chris thoughts.
"And Junior walks away with a million dollars." Nathan finished off.
"So, what now?" Buck inquired. "Is he still here?"
"That I don't know." Chris frowned. "If he were smart, I'd say no, but he'd still have to come back here for the inquest, and that may be a problem since Julia can still identify him. He has to get rid of her first."
"Well Ezra is with her at the moment," Vin remarked for the first time. "Maybe one of us out to get over there. Ezra ain't the best person to be guarding her life right now."
"I'd like to be a fly on the wall for that particular conversation," Josiah said with a hint of a smile.
"They deserve each other." Mary huffed in annoyance, unable to believe Ezra was capable of such behaviour, particularly to someone like Alex.
Vin rose to his feet and looked at the gunslinger. "Maybe I ought to go over there and see if they're okay. Ezra ain't gonna be in the best mind to be guarding her if this guy is still around."
"Good idea." Chris nodded in agreement, knowing Vin just wanted to get out of here because he needed something to do.
The ramifications of what had taken place had far-reaching consequences, not merely in Ezra's relationship with Alex. It had the potential to change things significantly between Alex and Vin. Vin made up his mind the night before she was beyond his reach. As hard as it was to make that admission, Vin knew he could accept it. How was he to know that Ezra would choose someone else? Vin thought him mad at the very least. If Alex was his, Vin could hardly imagine thinking about another woman, let alone cheating on her.
And now the possibility existed Alex could be his after all.
All he had to do was give her time.*****
Ezra Standish was angry.
He seldom felt the need to waste the energy on anger, but today, he was happy to expend as much time and effort to the whole venture. As he strode towards the hotel where Julia Pemberton was currently in residence, Ezra had never felt more ashamed of himself in his life. The very public exchange between Alexandra and himself hardly bothered Ezra.
After all, what had she said that was not true? He behaved in less than gentlemanlike fashion when he had taken up with Julia. Of course, he had every intention of making Alex aware of the situation with a modicum of sensitivity and grace, not in the vile manner in which Julia must have imparted the news. The look of betrayal in Alex's eyes was something he would not soon forget, and as he hurried through the front lobby of the steps towards the rooms upstairs, he wondered if it was at all possible to repair the damage.
He knew there was no possibility of rekindling anything between them, not after this. However, they would have to live in the same town, and he wanted them to remain friends on some level. Ezra had intended on waiting a few days before telling Alex that he wished to dissolve their romantic relationship. He would have started seeing Julia a short time after and no one would have been hurt or disgraced as they had been today.
"Was that really necessary!" Ezra demanded as he burst into the room and found her fixing her hair before the dresser mirror. Except for a stain on the parlour rug, there was no sign of the altercation earlier.
Julia turned to face him, a dark bruise forming under her jawline. She curled her lips into a pout and came towards him. "Now, I only did it for you."
"For me?" Ezra almost shouted at her as he slammed the door behind him. There was no need for Four Corners to know any more about his relationships than they already did. No doubt, it would be spread across the town in lurid detail in the coming days.
"Explain to me madam," he said, grabbing her arm and forcing to sit. "How you could even imagine that I would be impressed by what you did today?"
"I did it for you." She snatched her arm away and glared at him. "I wanted to spare you the pain of telling her."
"I care about her, damn you!" Ezra growled, never feeling so infuriated in his entire life. "I may not love her, but I do care about her and what you did was inexcusable whatever the motivation!"
"Would you have even told her? Would you have prolonged the situation by coming up with some quaint explanation to salve her ego!" She honestly did think she had acted appropriately.
"Of course, I would have told her." He said astonished that she could even think such a thing. "What do you take me for? You ?"
Julia recoiled at the insult but understood that he was angry and probably did not mean much of what he was saying. Despite his seedy past, Ezra Standish had a streak of righteousness, which she loved and admired. It was sometimes necessary to circumvent it for her purposes.
"You're a good kind man Ezra, and I love you, but the fact of the matter is, you would have hurt more by not telling her the truth and I don't think you had any intention of doing so."
"Whether I did or not is none of your damn business! You hurt and humiliated her in public!"
"I'm not the one who made it public!" She cried in her defence. "She did when she hit me!"
"If you were not a woman, I would hit you too!" Ezra snapped and decided that this was pointless, she did not think anything she had done was wrong, and God help him, he chose to throw his lot in with her. Ezra knew he had no one to blame for himself. He turned on his heels to leave the room, unable to bear being in the same space as her at this moment.
"Ezra! Where are you going?" Julia cried out, seeing he was leaving. He was very angry with her now, but it would not last, she just knew it would not. It was best to leave him be to calm down. Later on, she would make amends for this unpleasantness.
"Far away," he said sharply as he strode towards the door, intending to never lay eyes on her again.
Julia watched him go, feeling some semblance of apprehension as he slammed the door behind him. The sound made her jump, and for a brief moment, she entertained the notion he might be true to his word and not return. The idea of losing him terrified her, but she knew she had done the right thing to secure his affections. He would have just wasted time trying to make it easy for himself and Alex Styles and just complicated matters a great deal more. In this way, she was solving the problem for everyone.
The door swung open after a pause of a few minutes and Julia felt her heart flutter in anticipation of Ezra's return. She knew he would come back!
Except the man who entered the room was certainly not Ezra Standish...*****
Ezra had not made it out of the hotel premises when he saw Vin Tanner approaching in his direction. Ezra let out a slight groan, having no wish to face any of his friends after what had happened in the saloon. Right now, he wanted to hide somewhere and get drunk, not necessarily in that order. As it was, he felt like such a complete brigand, he did not need the rest of the civilised world, pointing it out to him.
"Hey, Ezra." Vin greeted as he met the gambler on the foot of the steps. Judging by the dark cloud on his face, Vin assumed he had already had his audience with Julia Pemberton.
"Did Mr Larabee send you to ensure I would not be bothering Alexandra?" Ezra snapped, irritated to the extreme by the situation without having Chris question his word after it had been given so sincerely.
"Take it easy," Vin said, trying to pacify him. He was making no judgements on Ezra. He felt a little guilty because Ezra's current problems proved decidedly advantageous for him, although he was not about to admit that to the gambler. "Chris didn't send me. We think we know who the fifth man is and he still might be after Miss Pemberton."
Ezra glanced instinctively over his shoulder in the direction of the hotel. Suddenly, he felt guilty about being so cross with Julia considering what she was enduring the past three days. Not just the continuing threat to her life, but facing gunmen who would have undoubtedly raped and killed her, if the seven had not reached her first.
"I apologise," Ezra said with genuine regret. Vin was the most private man he knew, and he did not offer judgement or counsel where it was not required. Ezra should have known better than to lash out at the tracker when it was himself he was furious with. "I shall guard her. It would appear she is now my responsibility."
"Want some company?" Vin asked, seeing the sincere regret in Ezra's eyes and guessing his feelings for Julia Pemberton was not some sordid tasteless affair. He really did care about the woman.
"I would appreciate that Mr Tanner." Ezra sighed. "You know I never meant to hurt Alex. It just happened."
Vin could appreciate how easily that could be. After all, he had no choice in the matter when he fell for Alex. Sometimes, the heart wanted what it wanted.
The two men made their way up the staircase towards Julia's room when Ezra caught sight of her door, slightly ajar. He had distinctly remembered slamming the door in his angry departure and wondered why she would leave it open like that.
Suddenly, Ezra's mind was filled with stark fear when he realised he had left her alone with a killer on the loose! He reached the room in an instant, unaware he was running until he barged into the room panting. The signs of violence were evident, a toppled chair, a length of curtain draped haphazardly against the floor, hanging by the wooden runners by the remaining strands of thread.
"She is still in the building," Ezra said as Vin came up alongside him. "We did not see them come through the front door."
Vin nodded. "I'll look downstairs. He may have seen us standing outside!" With that, the tracker hurried out the door.
Ezra thought quickly as he roamed through the suite, ensuring that Julia and her assailant were not cleverly hidden in the room as unlikely as it might be. His heart pounded in his chest, aware the killer had no need to keep her alive for any length of time. Her attacker's main aim would be to kill her and then get away clean without being seen. Wherever he chose to do it, it had to be private. He could not risk being identified once again.
What had he been thinking? Ezra thought to himself when he stormed out of here and left her alone. He had been so furious at what she had done that he had hardly concerned himself that the fifth man might still be in town. Although Chris and the others believed he was far away and would be foolish to come after Julia, Ezra was unaware of the new evidence coming to light since he had walked out of the saloon.
He stepped out onto the corridor and listened carefully. There were the usual sounds of people going about their business in the area but none that might indicate violence. Somehow, Julia's assailant would not be foolish to attempt slipping out of the place when he and Vin were at the door, and Ezra had not left Julia behind that long ago. A thought occurred to him, and Ezra's eyes moved upwards to the ceiling. A ladder at the end of the corridor led to the roof of the building.
Ezra ran forward, unbuttoning the flap on his gun holster as he reached the first rung and began climbing up its length rapidly, praying he was not too late. He saw Vin running up the stairs to report his progress when the tracker stopped short as he saw Ezra climbing the ladder. Ezra said nothing, merely pointing to the ceiling, giving a clear indication of where he believed Julia and her assailant to be. Vin's gaze met his, and they conveyed a silent plan of action to which the tracker nodded his approval before running down the stairs again.
Ezra reached the small door on the roof and pushed it open, the rusted hinges creaking loudly and giving away his arrival as he poked his head through the access way. No sooner he was halfway through, a bullet exploded, and Ezra barely managed to avoid being hit in the chest by letting go of the rungs and falling into the corridor once more. He landed badly, feeling the sickly pop of his ankle. Uttering a small groan, Ezra did not stop to examine the injury and resumed his journey up the ladder again.
This time, Ezra did not try passing through the opening as he had done before. Instead, he shoved the door forcefully, allowing it to arch neatly before hitting the floor of the roof and staying open. Sunlight peered into his eyes as a series of shots rang out, followed by a scream Ezra knew belonged to Julia. With a sigh, relief flooded into him as he heard her, thanking whatever he held faith with, she was still alive.
People had started to emerge from their rooms, investigating the noise as Ezra fired blankly into the air, hoping the gunshots would force the unseen shooter to fire once more. He did, and Ezra counted the shots as they boomed in his ear.
At the discharge of the sixth shot, Ezra knew the killer would have to reload and taking advantage of the pause that inevitably followed, the gambler pulled himself through the access way. Predictably, there were no shots following his appearance on the roof and Ezra scanned the area quickly, searching for Julia and her attacker. There was no place to hide on the roof and in broad daylight, no darkness to conceal a murder.
He was just as Julia described him. Young. Ezra estimated he was no older than JD. However, that was as far as the similarities between the two young men went. There was no youthful enthusiasm in this young man's face. What Ezra saw in the dark eyes glaring back at him looked more like Chris Larabee on a particularly bad day. The intent in his eyes was as clear as the gun he was holding to Julia's throat, now obviously reloaded. She stared back at him with terror, pleading silently with Ezra to save her.
"There's no way off this roof," Ezra spoke calmly as he aimed his gun at the boy's hardened face.
"I think there is." He answered with a confident grin.
"I think you are mistaken, Sir." Ezra stepped closer to them, entirely aware of how close they were to the edge of the building. "You have to come through me first and then through my friends who are now aware that you are here."
"I think as long as I have this bitch with me, I can go anywhere I please." He sneered at Ezra, shoving the gun deeper into Julia's creamy white throat.
"I would not take that gamble. You overestimate Miss Pemberton's importance. Actually, if truth be told, you would be doing me a service by putting a bullet into her. She has caused me nothing but grief."
Despite her situation, Julia managed to scowl at him darkly. Ezra hoped she would be alive to make him pay for the comment later.
"Nice try." The boy sneered, "but I heard you two arguing. I know this little tramp means a little more to you than that."
Ezra's eyes never wavered from his face, but the gambler was no longer looking at him. Instead, he focussed on Vin who was taking up a position with his rifle on the roof of the next building. Somehow, Ezra had to buy Vin more time so the sharpshooter could take the shot. At this stage, there was every danger while Vin might kill the man, he may not be able to do so without Julia being shot as well.
"I confess you have caught me out in a lie." Ezra sighed in mock resignation. "She does mean a great deal to me, although she is a handful. If I put down my gun, would you let her go?"
The shooter's grin widened in triumph. "I might.”
Ezra knew a liar when he saw one and no doubt this man was lying. Ezra knew the moment he put down his gun, this boy was going to kill him and have no hesitation in doing it either. However, to shoot Ezra first, he would have to aim the gun in the direction of the gambler, not the helpless woman caught in his unwavering grip.
"You have me at a disadvantage then," Ezra said casually, putting on his best poker face as he slowly lowered the gun to the ground. He saw Julia shaking her head, trying to keep him from making a decision that would get them both killed. Ezra took a deep breath, knowing he had the killer's undivided attention because the young man was naturally suspicious and assumed he had some last-minute trick to save his life.
"Step away.' He told Ezra, motioning the gambler to take a step away from the weapon once Ezra set it down. Slowly, Ezra complied, seeing Vin aiming carefully from the opposite building, waiting for the most opportune time to fire.
Without warning, he shoved Julia roughly over the side of the building. Julia let out a short scream as she toppled over the railing. Ezra felt his heart constrict until he saw her delicate hands grabbing hold of the rail. The shooter swung the gun in Ezra's direction, ready to kill him on the spot. Ezra dropped to his knees and pulled out his derringer hidden neatly within his sleeve. However, before either of them had a chance to pull the trigger, Ezra heard the familiar eruption of sound from Vin's rifle.
The bullet slammed into the young man's shoulder, causing a froth of blood to burst out of the wound. Dazed by the surprise attack, he spun around, following the direction of the bullet. He lifted his arm to fire at Vin's direction, but the sharpshooter never gave him the chance to pull the trigger. The next round took him squarely in the chest, and Ezra saw him spasm in pain before he crumpled to the ground in a final gasp.
The moment Vin fired the second shot, Ezra was already running towards Julia on his injured foot. His ankle flared in pain as he skidded toward her, conscious of her hands desperately clinging to the rail for dear life.
"Help me!" She squealed in terror as she dangled precariously from three floors up. Below her, a crowd was gathering as the scene unfolded. Frightened faces were looking up in fear as the young lady hung on the edge of death. Ezra caught sight of Chris and the others running across the street from the saloon.
"Stop struggling!" Ezra ordered, for her attempts to climb up was making it harder for him to get a firm grip on her.
"Just get me up!" She cried, too hysterical to be polite about anything at this point.
Ezra locked both his hands around her wrist and grabbed firmly. He started to pull her up when suddenly, he paused a moment. His grip on her was sound, and although he could not leave her suspended indefinitely, he did have a bone to pick with the fair Miss Pemberton and now seemed a good a time as any.
“Now that I have you in this position," he said with a smug smile. "Do you promise never to do anything like this behind my back again?"
"Are you out of your damn mind!" She snarled, her emerald eyes widened in disbelief he would extort her obedience at a time like this. Julia looked down and felt dizzy at the distance between her and the ground.
"Swearing will only worsen your situation, my dear," he replied with a straight face. "Do you?"
"Ezra!" She cried, unable to believe he would stoop to such tactics when she was balanced between life and death on a razor's edge.
"I did not hear that promise," Ezra repeated himself, adamant he was going to get his answer.
"Yes! I promise!" She burst out enraged, sending daggers and everything else at him in that black glare of rage in her eyes. "Now will you pull me up?"
"Certainly my dear," Ezra grinned triumphantly. "I had every intention of doing so."
"Bastard!' She swore as he pulled her up over the railing with both hands until she was far enough along to be able to push herself for the rest of the way. They both collapsed on top of each other as Chris and Josiah climbed through the door.
"Are you all right, my dear?" Ezra asked in concern as they both lay on the ground, breathing hard from the effort. He did not think her attacker had harmed her seriously, but it never hurt to inquire.
Julia was trembling as she rolled off Ezra and did not answer him for a few seconds as she took note of the dead boy only metres away from her. She was shaken at how close she had come to dying yet again. After a few seconds, when she was suitably composed, she looked up at Ezra and struck him full across the jaw, dropping him flat on his back.
"You lousy son of a bitch!" She cursed with unrestrained outrage. "You could have killed me!" Julia kicked him in the ribs as she vented the full intensity of her outrage.
Ezra chuckled, not at all hurt by her blows. After a moment, he sat up with a smile on his lips. "I would say we are almost even."
Julia stopped short at that and glared at him, realising he had her. She swallowed down the rest of her anger and stood up shakily as Chris Larabee, and Josiah Sanchez approached.
"I truly hate you." She said through narrowed eyes and then tossed a strand of red hair over her shoulder, trying to maintain some dignity in this situation as she swept forward like a pompous dowager.
"No, you don't!" Ezra called out as she walked past Chris and Josiah.
"Read my lips." She stared at him imperiously but wore the barest hint of a smile. "I hate you."
"I'm sure," Ezra said, feeling somewhat vindicated after what she had done to Alex.
"You all right?" Chris asked, ignoring the interplay between the duo. Josiah noticed the body of the dead man and had gone to administer some sort of last rites, even though the chances of the man reaching paradise were extremely slim by the preacher's reckoning.
"I shall probably be limping around for a day or two, but I think I will survive," Ezra answered starting to feel the throb in his foot more acutely now he was no longer engaged in a life or death situation. His gaze was following Julia who was lowering herself back into the hotel with a haughty look on her face and a secret gleam in her eyes that indicated despite her words of hostility, things between them were just as she wanted it.
Chris followed his gaze and shook his head. "You know something, Ezra?"
"What is that Mr Larabee?" Ezra met the gunslinger's amused gaze.
"I don't know whether I ought to feel sorrier for, Alex or for you." He stared at the descending crown of red hair. "But now I think you're the one in worse shape."
"I like the challenge."
"Well," Chris had to admit. "You certainly got one."
Mary Travis was a woman with a mission.
Two days after the death of Lambert Henderson and life in the town of Four Corners returned to normal, or as close to normal as it could ever get. The events of the past week had yet to fade, leaving noticeable tension running through her circle of friends. Inez had been punishing Ezra for his treatment of Alex by barely speaking a civil word to him since his quarrel with the doctor. Similarly angered was Nathan Jackson, whose close friendship with Alex meant he was not happy to see her mistreated.
Mary made no such judgement on Ezra Standish because she knew the gambler regretted his treatment of Alex and the affection he held for Julia Pemberton was sincere, even if it did seem like folly. Meanwhile, Vin Tanner disappeared on one of his trips into the wilderness, and it was anyone's guess when he would return. In the year since the seven put down roots in Four Corners, Mary was aware Vin sometimes felt the need to be by himself for a while and often took off on his own. She supposed after what happened with Alex and Ezra, Vin probably had a great deal of thinking to do.
It was anyone's guess how Alex was faring because no one had seen her in two days.
Despite Inez's attempts to see her immediately after her explosive confrontation with Ezra, Alex did not answer the door when the bartender came calling. Mary tried later on with little success, and even Nathan made an attempt with similar results. Yet their efforts to draw the doctor out were met with silence, although they were sure she was still in the house, for no one had seen her leave town.
Mary knew this situation needed resolution because while the seven still functioned as a group and remained as close-knit as ever, Mary hated the conflict among the men she now considered family. First of all, however, Mary had a few things to impart upon Julia Pemberton if she was going to remain a part of Ezra's life. Julia was not going away; not if the way Ezra looked at her was any indication of how he felt about the woman. Still, she was an unknown element with very few scruples as her behaviour towards Alex proved.
Mary invited Julia to the house for some lunch as she wanted to conduct their discussion in private. They engaged in idle conversation for most of the dining experience, talking about the merits of setting up a business in Four Corners, the local gossip, and the difficulties for women in business. The topics remained trivial because Mary did not want Julia to suspect what turn the conversation would soon take.
Both women were taking tea in the parlour when Mary set down her saucer and cup on the table and looked at the younger woman. Julia was undeniably beautiful, whose power to seduce was utterly overwhelming to the inexperienced. Yet behind her green eyes, Mary could also see ruthless calculation hidden under a veil of charm.
"I do have an ulterior motive for inviting you this afternoon, Julia." Mary finally announced. "I mean, aside from wanting to see how you were after that terrible incident with Lambert Henderson."
"Yes," Julia shuddered, thinking about the man involuntarily. How had the nice Hendersons produced such a vile offspring? "It was quite alarming," Julia admitted. "But what is this ulterior motive, Mary? You have me singularly intrigued."
"Nothing quite as dramatic as it sounds. I just wanted to let you know that I am aware that your real name is Julia Avery."
Julia's eyes flew open and immediately fixed onto Mary's face. For a brief instant, Mary saw a gamut of emotions surface in the redhead's eyes. Shock was the most apparent, followed by fear and then finally, calculation.
Julia set down her cup. "I don't know what you are talking about."
"Yes, you do." Mary kept her gaze fixed on her, showing Julia for the first time that she was not fooled by the act the newcomer put on for everyone. There was no need for the facade in the presence of Mary Travis. "Your name is Julia Avery. Pemberton is the name you picked up on your hasty departure from Philadelphia, not Pennsylvania."
It had been quite a simple matter of tracking her down really.
Julia Pemberton's bank records began less than two weeks ago. She did not exist before that. Thanks to her friendship with Mr Donnely, the manager of the Eagle Bend Bank, Mary learned the location of the enormous bank deposit into Julia's account was made far north, in Philadelphia, not Pennsylvania. Mary's newspaper contacts around the country, allowed her to trace Julia all the way to Baltimore. Mary suspected Miss Pemberton's reasons for coming out West might have more to do with just the need for a fresh start.
Meanwhile, the most salacious news in Philadelphia was still the embarrassment of mogul Roderick Packard, whose bride Julia Avery left him at the altar. The coincidence was too much for Mary to dismiss.
"Assuming you are right," Julia shrugged, wondering how the woman discovered this information and then realised a journalist of Mary Travis's calibre had resources across the country to manage such a feat. "There's nothing wrong about my changing a name."
"I didn't say there was," Mary said silkily, pouring herself another cup of tea. "I merely wished to let you know the way things function in Four Corners."
"Really?" Julia glared at her, knowing something was coming at her and it was not going to be pleasant. "And how do things function in Four Corners, Mary?"
"We're a caring community," Mary stated. "Since the arrival of the seven, it has been as close to ideal as it has ever been. I don't want that to change. Do you understand me?"
"What could I do to alter that?" Julia feigned ignorance.
"I don't know," the newspaperwoman said honestly. "However, I think you need to understand the ground rules."
"The ground rules?" Julia shifted uncomfortably in her chair, her mind reeling at discovery, but she wanted to hear what Mary's demands were before she spat them back in the blond woman's face.
"Yes," Mary nodded and leaned forward. "What you did to Ezra and Alex was inexcusable. Before you came along, they were happy and now that has all changed. I cannot do anything about Ezra because he does love you, God only knows why. He has thrown away the love of one of the best people I know for you and I do not want him hurt. You will do your best to make him happy because he's saved my life more than a dozen times and despite his awful taste in women, Ezra is a good man, and he deserves the happiness."
"I do love Ezra," Julia said through gritted teeth, trying to remain calm in the face of Mary's verbal attack.
"I'm sure you do," Mary dismissed the statement as little more than obligatory because Julia had shown nothing to indicate she loved anything but herself. "And you will make his happiness your mission in life, do I make myself clear?"
"Or what?" Julia retaliated, calling Mary's bluff. How exactly did this woman think she was going to make Julia do anything that Julia did not want to do?
"Or I might let your fiancée know where you are." Mary felt a measure of satisfaction seeing the colour drain from Julia's face as the realisation of what that could mean, sank in. "You remember Roderick Packard don't you?"
Julia was too stunned to speak.
"Of course you do," Mary stirred the sugar in her cup. "You left him at the altar remember, humiliated him publicly? He gives me the impression of being a man who does not take too kindly to being made a laughing stock. I don't believe he would be kind if he were to find you, Julia."
"You wouldn't." Julia stammered. "You don't have it in you."
Mary looked up at her with eyes of steel. "You have no idea what I am capable of, Julia. I've been in this town for years, and I've learnt to be tough, tough enough to spot the likes of you and what you really are. You breezed into town and decided you wanted Ezra and you got him. You didn't tell Alex about the two of you because you wanted to spare him anything. You told Alex in that disgusting way because you wanted her to know you had taken him away from her. Perhaps some of it had to do with fearing Ezra might just change his mind about you two once she was back but it was mostly because you needed to win. So I am giving you fair warning now. If I see any more dishonest, vicious behaviour in my town again, I swear I will nail your fancy hide to the wall by the time I'm finished with you."
Julia rose to her feet abruptly, clearly shaken and knowing now her assessment of Mary Travis had been entirely erroneous. She thought Mary was only formidable, she had no idea until now the widow was also utterly ruthless and had no conscience in using such methods to protect her own. "I think you've said enough."
"I think we understand each other now, don't we?" Mary looked at her with a raised brow as Julia started to collect her things to make a hasty departure.
"Yes," the young woman replied through her teeth, hating it when anyone could get the better of her but knew she was helpless in this situation. She did not require Roderick Packard's presence in her life, and she could become accustomed to dealing with Mary Travis's request. "We do."
As she hurried out of the room, Mary allowed herself a little smile and asked as Julia crossed the floor. "You sure you won't stay for another cup of tea?"*****
Ezra Standish thought he would try again. For two days, he stood on her back porch, hoping she would answer the door so he could try to give her an explanation about the unfortunate turn of events in their relationship. Ezra did not want Alex to think this was anything to do with her. He still cared a great deal for Alex, and he knew his actions caused her a great deal of pain. Ezra possessed a gentleman's code when dealing with women, and he knew he failed badly in his handling of this entire situation.
"Alexandra, please," Ezra knocked on her door again. "We need to talk."
Once again, the silence greeting him during his last two visits continued through the door and told him to go away. He wished he knew how Alex was because it was driving Mary, Inez and Nathan insane not knowing. Mary's distress, in turn, annoyed Chris, while the same thing went for Inez and Buck. Nathan had not actually rebuked him for what he did, but the healer viewed Ezra' s relationship with Julia with distaste.
"People are worried about you. I am worried about you." He implored, hoping his words reached heir in some shape or form. While he was realistic things could never be the same between them again, he did want everything else to return to normal. He paused a moment as the silence continued, trying to think of some way to reach her. "There is no way for me to apologise for what happened and no words that will make what Julia did right. I suppose you could take some consolation, in fact, I deserve what I am getting, but you need someone better than me, perhaps you always did."
To his surprise, the door swung open.
She stood before him, clad in a robe and nightgown, looking quite ill indeed. Her pallor was grey, and there were circles under her eyes. Meanwhile, her nose was rubbed raw from the handkerchief she was clutching in her hand. "Normally, I wouldn't let you see me in this state," she replied, her voice betrayed the cold she was suffering, "but what do I care now?"
"How long have you been at the door?"
"Long enough to know that your grovelling leaves a great deal to be desired." She remained at the doorway, with no intention of letting him in.
"It's been a long time, I am out of practice in the art. You, however, do not look at all well."
"I went through six years of medical school. I don't need you to tell me that."
"Obviously," he recanted and then took on a more serious note. "I never meant to hurt you."
Her eyes glazed over as if she was trying not to cry and to the most part, she succeeded, but the sorrow in her eyes spoke more vividly than tears could express. "You did, anyway. Do you love her?"
Ezra was not sure how to answer this, but he knew she deserved an honest response.
"Yes," he nodded. "I do."
There was a flicker of pain in her eyes as the words registered, but she crushed it mercilessly. Alex wanted to be furious at him. She should have been angry at him because he behaved shamefully, but Alex also knew there were sins she too was guilty of, and perhaps this was indeed the best thing for both of them. Somewhere out there, an uncertain situation awaited her in the wilderness, and for the first time, Alex had the freedom to pursue it.
"I hope it works out for you Ezra, I really do, but she's a poisonous snake. You should have chosen better."
"You are correct on both counts, but it was not something I could help. I just wished you were not caught in the crossfire."
"I'm still hurt Ezra," she whispered. "I am hurt, humiliated, and I feel worse than I've ever felt in all my life, but I will survive. We'll stay out of each other's way for a while, and eventually, I'll get used to seeing you with her but until then, allow me the courtesy of keeping her away from me, would you?"
Ezra nodded slowly, willing to grant any request after the pain he caused her. "I will see it is done."
"Good," She started withdrawing into the house once more, pulling the door behind her as she left. "Goodbye, Ezra."
As the door closed shut quietly after her, Ezra could only sigh and reply softly even though he doubted she would have heard him.
Chris perused the article in the Clarion News regarding the final disposition of the robbery murders and the man who had brought about the entire affair in the first place, Lambert Henderson. After his death, the seven learned Lambert had been in and out of town over the last few days, alternating his search for Julia Pemberton and cleaning up any loose ends that might be traced back to him. Unfortunately, this included dealing with Elisa the working girl and the horse trader who had provided the outlaws with their mounts.
Shortly after Chris left Elisa that night, Lambert had made an appearance in Purgatory and strangled the young woman inside her tent. If it were not for someone seeing Lambert leaving after the murder, Chris was painfully aware of how he might have been implicated in the death. Unfortunately, Lambert arrived too late to keep Elisa from giving Chris the information he required, unlike the horse trader who was murdered at the same time he and the others were ambushing Lambert's partners at the stage.
His gang were little more than small-time outlaws who were quick with the gun but seldom stole anything worth the price of the lives they ended. Lambert was wise in selecting them because he knew they would have no hesitation in drawing their guns on unarmed civilians for the promise of easy money. It was uncertain where he might have met them because no one in Purgatory recognised the men nor would they admit to it if they did. Places like Purgatory chose to keep its patrons anonymous unless it was in exchange for a stipend.
Lambert Henderson had come out west about a month before his parents embarked on their journey through the West. His father recently sold the family's textile factories in Chicago for a tidy sum of almost a million dollars, all of which would have been left solely to him upon the death of both parents. The Hendersons, like most immigrants coming in search of streets paved with gold, arrived in the New World and found out the truth regarding that particular myth. Through years of hard work and determination, they built themselves a small empire in cloth and calico. Lambert was their only child and in their desperate need to see he wanted for nothing, indulged his every whim.
By the time he grew to adulthood, the young man was accustomed to having everything and did not take kindly to being refused it. He enrolled in college and quickly took up the habit of gambling except he was as proficient at it as he was at his studies, which was to say not very good at all. Very quickly, he incurred massive debts to characters with no patience to wait for their money. Assuming as always his father would extricate him from this situation, Lambert was astonished to hear the old man's refusal.
Enraged, he conceived the plan resulting in the deaths of so many and ensuring his escape when the dust settled.
Evidence of the stormy week more or less dried up with the coming of the sunshine. Chris found himself seated in front of the door as he read Mary's summation of the entire week in her article. The position allowed him to bask in the warmth of the sun while still remaining indoors. Chris set down the paper, wondering how Vin was faring on his own. The tracker had wanted some time to himself, which was not unusual for Vin, because Chris knew people tended to overwhelm him. This time, however, Chris suspected the situation with Alex left Vin needing some time to himself to think.
Behind him, Josiah and Buck were engaged in a game of checkers, and Chris smiled slightly hearing Buck swear after losing the third game in a row. For a man accustomed to playing chess most of the time, Josiah found checkers rudimentary in comparison. The preacher took Buck's grumbling with a faint smile although JD was more vocal in his response. The kid was enjoying Buck's defeat quite profoundly, and Chris estimated another two or three minutes before Buck throttled him.
Nathan was engaged in the same activity as he was, reading a book and enjoying the relative quiet of the early morning. They drove themselves hard the past three weeks in their search for the outlaws, and Chris relished the temporary peace while it lasted. No doubt, some other catastrophe would follow soon enough, but at this moment, Chris was content to await its arrival.
A shadow stole across him, blocking out the sun when Ezra walked through the batwing doors in the saloon. Chris was well aware of where the gambler had been and wondered if he had any more success getting Alex to talk to him. Chris, who appreciated the need to be alone after a particularly painful experience was unsurprised when Alex disappeared into her house these past two days, shunning the company of all. The action drove Mary, Inez and Nathan insane with worry despite Chris's belief Alex would emerge when she was ready. However, Ezra worried worst of all since he was the cause of her withdrawal.
"Any luck?" Chris asked as Ezra walked by.
"She opened the door for me." Ezra sighed, uncertain if it was progress or not.
"That's something." Chris shrugged.
"Is she okay?" Nathan asked, coming over when he heard that snippet of news.
"She appears to have a severe cold," Ezra confessed. "But she did not seem to appear on death's door if that is what concerns you."
"Maybe I ought to go see her." Nathan mused and then realised Miss Alex probably wanted to be alone right now and she was, after all a medical doctor. She would know better than him how to look after herself.
"She was not in the best state to receive visitors. I get the impression she might have spent the past two days in bed."
"Well, she was out in the rain for almost three days," Nathan reminded. "Not that you would have noticed." The healer said sarcastically eyeing Ezra as he made that point.
Ezra frowned, knowing that he would have to endure such jibes from Nathan for quite some time and realising the healer was entirely justified for making him suffer. "Thank you for reminding me, Mr Jackson. I take it you are going to be responsible for my penance in the immediate future over this issue?"
"What are friends for?" Nathan grinned.
"Wonderful," Ezra groaned. "Who needs enemies?"
"Considering what you got for a lady friend," Chris drawled with a wicked sneer. "I say you're filled up on both."*****
Alex heard the door knock and groaned.
She was not in the mood for people, and the brief exchange with Ezra sent her into another pathetic fit of tears. Alex did not realise facing Ezra would be so hard even though she did nothing wrong, and he was the guilty one. It was a hollow victory because in the end he was still with that snake and she was here wallowing in self-pity, trying to deal with the cold caused by her ordeal in the wilderness with Vin Tanner.
Alex was in no mind to think about him, and what the future held for them with Ezra was no longer in her life. Even thinking those words made Alex recoil in confusion because she never imagined the possibility ever coming to pass. After the turmoil with Vin in Agnes's cabin, Alex believed she would never have to face what took place between them. Now thanks to Ezra's actions, she would have to give serious thought about what to do about the tracker. What he could be to her, scared Alex to no end. Being with Ezra was safe, she was in complete control of herself with him.
She knew it would not be that way with Vin.
"We're not going away until you open the door!" Alex heard the second knock, followed by Inez's familiar, determined voice.
She meant it too; knowing what the hot-blooded woman could be like when she was adamant about anything. Alex sighed and decided that perhaps it would not be so terrible having company. She had been a hermit these past few days and was no doubt a source of concern to her friends. Just because Ezra behaved like a complete ass, did not give her the right to treat them poorly. Climbing out of bed, she padded down the hall and went to answer the door.
"It's about time," Mary stated when Alex let her in. Both Inez and Mary brushed past her, entering the house without waiting to be invited. "You had us worried sick!" The blond woman declared as the duo headed toward her kitchen with every expectation Alex would follow.
"Leave me alone." She whined as she followed them into the kitchen, somewhat curious as to what Mary and Inez brought with them.
The two women were going through her kitchen, grabbing plates and glasses from her cupboards as Alex sat down at the kitchen table. She could smell the enticing aroma of baked pastry from the basket Inez brought with her. "What's in there?".
"Apple and cinnamon pie," Mary said with a wicked gleam in her eyes as she set down the plates. "Is it starve a cold or feed a fever? I can never tell. You're the doctor."
"Today, I don't care." Alex looked into the paper bag that set next to the pie. Inside was a tall bottle of scotch. "Inez, did you swipe this from the saloon?"
Inez gave her a look of innocence. "I am a partner in the business." She remarked with complete dignity. "I do not need to swipe. I just took it when no one was looking."
"It's not the bottle Ezra uses for drinks on the house, is it?" Mary asked, remembering what Ezra had said about the free drinks in the saloon.
"There is no such bottle," Inez said gruffly. "I just told him that so he wouldn't complain every time I had to give anyone a free drink."
"Can we please not talk about Ezra?" Alex grumbled.
"Well, in your honour, I have been torturing him with a terrible mood for the past two days." Inez grinned as she poured them all around of drinks while Mary began to serve pie. "He'll either shoot me or go crazy, whichever comes first." Inez smile was almost sadistic.
"Keep it up for a week at least." Alex had to laugh at the wicked gleam in Inez's eyes. The doctor was starting to feel a little better although not much. "Make him suffer."
"Aside from the cold, how do you feel? Mary asked seriously since Alex had been hidden away for two days.
"I feel like hell," Alex admitted, trying not to let the emotions get the better of her. She felt awful, and that was the truth. Alex had no idea what she should feel. She was angry at Ezra for cheating, but she was also guilty because of her growing feelings for Vin. Right now, all she wanted to do was bury her head under her pillows and never come out.
"That's men for you." Inez sighed, taking a sip of her drink and savouring the liquid in her mouth. "They can never make up their minds. One minute they say they are the one for you and the next minute you know, he is chasing everything in a skirt around town. Sometimes, I wonder why we bother."
"Speak for yourself," Mary remarked. "Chris is perfectly wonderful except I can't get him to wear anything else but black for some reason. Is there something wrong with blue?"
Inez and Alex simply stared at her.
"Chris may be the exception." Alex pointed out, moving off the topic of Chris Larabee's fashion sense. "I am perfectly content to believe that all men are too much trouble right now." With that, she dug into the pie and took a large bite and introduced comfort food to her stomach for the first time since she was a teenager, pining after her first crush.
"Even Vin Tanner?" Mary asked coyly, wondering if Alex had any feelings on the subject of the tracker. Mary was certain more took place between Vin and Alex out there at the Doherty place even if none of them was saying what that might be. Sometimes the best way to forget about an unhappy relationship was by toying with the idea of a new one.
"Don't go there." Alex groaned, not wishing to discuss the tracker in any shape or form at this point. Her feelings towards Vin was half the reason she was in her current state, and she had no wish to discuss him until the fog in her brain cleared a little more.
"Vin would never hurt a woman," Inez said confidently about the tracker. "Although I don't think he has known that many."
"He knew Charlotte." Mary pointed out.
It was the first time that Alex heard about any woman's name connected to Vin Tanner. "Who's Charlotte?"
Mary went on to relate the story about how Vin had become infatuated with Charlotte Richmond, the wife of one of the men leading the wagon trail further west. The whole affair had ended badly with Vin having to give her up at the end of the journey. The incident was one of the few occasions where Vin and Chris disagreed on anything, even though Chris professed to not judging him and tried to advise the affair was ill-timed.
"I never pictured him as such a romantic," Alex replied, even though she knew perfectly well just how passionate Vin Tanner could be when he was inspired. Did she inspire him? Alex believed so, and she also remembered those precious few moments inside the cabin when suddenly, Ezra Standish was the farthest thing from her mind.
"He has to be drawn out that one," Inez commented. "I think once you make him admit it, he'll surprise you."
"I suppose he would." Alex mused, suddenly letting her mind drift away on the memories of their kisses. For that one brief moment, it was the most perfect experience of her life before the fears and obligations to Ezra crowded in on them, and she had run from Vin like a frightened teenager. In hindsight, Alex wondered if it would have been better if she allowed Vin to make love to her. At least, Ezra's betrayal would not feel so acute then.
Mary smiled faintly; recognising the glimmer in Alex's eyes as the thought crossed her mind and knew Alex was on the mend, even if the doctor felt like her world was ending at this moment. It would take time, but the possibility of what Vin Tanner could mean to her was now starting to dawn on Alexandra Styles.
They say patience was a virtue, and happily, Mary Travis had a great deal of it.
Alex and Vin would be together. It would just take a little longer.
And a bit more pushing.
Next Story: Freedom
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