A Bet, Lies And Other Altercations
(Old West)

by Jennifer Prior

It was early in the day in the small backwater of Four Corners, but the heat was already unbearable and the dust heavy. The sun cast shadows on Chris Larabee's dark attire, and made him want to desert his clothes in some back alley but he did not for propriety's sake.

He leaned over the table he was sitting at to pour himself another drink. The table sat just out side the saloon doors and had its advantages. The whole town could be seen from this vantage point. He smiled sardonically as he watched one of his companions lay down a full house. He watched JD roll his eyes and Buck shake his head at Ezra.

When it came to poker there was no one more talented then Ezra. For men who were so prided on wit, they might have figured they would have never win against the gambler. He was far too clever and far too endowed with the tricks of the trade. His slight of hand was so good that it was impossible to distinguish any treachery. Though they never called him on it, they all had mused from time to time that he used his skill against them.

They would have been surprised to know the truth that Ezra had no need to use any tricks of the trade. They all seemed to lack a certain skill for the game that Ezra cashed in on. If they were willing to hand over their money to him week after week, he had no objections. This weekly poker game would not make him wealthy, but it gave him a chance to enjoy the company of the other gunslingers he worked with.

He turned to his left to see Nathan, Vin, and Josiah standing around nursing their respective drinks. They had all been dealt out the last hand, because Ezra had rendered them financially ruined, at least till Monday when they received their pay check. He could not help but smile every time Nathan sat down to a game with him. This was the only time that the healer did not lecture him on some misdeed he had committed. For someone so self-righteous the gambler would have figured Nathan would abstain from such sinful acts. Then of course the town's preacher, Josiah, was known to engage in activities that the church would deem inappropriate. Who was he to argue with a man of God? It seemed everyone had his or her own opinion on what was right and wrong. Life would be much simpler if there was some defined set of rules for these matters, and duller too he mused.

Ezra turned his gaze back to the table, but unfortunately it was too late. The table went flying and his drink fell on top of him soaking his trousers, whites shirt, and the lapels of his favorite red jacket. "What the hell?" he said in annoyance as he reached for a rag that lay on the ground in order to dry himself off. If there was one thing that Ezra hated it was to have his clothes ruined. He had always been concerned with appearances. His mother had drilled that into from an early age but it was more than that. He just hated to have anything out of place. To him, only uncouth reprobates paraded around in stained hachdashery.

Ezra straightened himself up and was able to ascertain the cause of the disruption. He had failed to notice that Mr. Larabee had gotten up to leave the table when a young woman in her mid twenties accosted him. It was not intentional; she had apparently tripped over a rake and had been flung forward. She had fallen against Chris sending him backwards knocking over the table and landing Ezra's drink in his lap. Ezra looked around; it seemed he was the only one who had been drenched in liquor. Of all the luck he thought to himself, a look of annoyance edged on his face.

He watched the girl pull herself up and straighten the dress she was wearing. He recognized her as a daughter of a local rancher. Elizabeth Frankfort, a notorious klutz, had a reputation of being immensely shy. He watched her smile sheepishly and try to apologize for what she had done. She stroked her hair nervously. Chris always seemed to make people nervous, but Ezra noted this girl looked beyond nervous. Every time he saw her she looked like she was one step away from a nervous breakdown. He watched Elizabeth tense up slightly as her father placed his hand on her shoulder. He had been trailing her when the incident occurred.

Carl Frankfort always seemed to be apologizing for his daughter. At least that was how it appeared to everyone. A lot of people felt sympathy towards him for having to endure her qualms. He was a well-respected rancher who seemed to get along with everyone he met. He and Josiah Sanchez were actually quite good friends. They would have spiritual debates from time to time when he dropped in the saloon, which was once every week. Carl was a God-fearing man who taught his children the ways of the bible. Besides Elizabeth, Carl had a son named Jeb who was fortunately not blessed with either of Elizabeth's shortcomings. He was a carefree young man who would in all eventualities take over his father's place in society.

Ezra watched them leave and head back to their wagon after profusely apologizing. The other men had said that it was no problem and Ezra had just glared at them. His comrades just did not know how hard it was to get his clothes cleaned out here. He knew his shirt had seen the last of it and he would not have another chance to get another one for a while, because the only place you could get a shirt of that quality was a three day ride from town.

Ezra looked over at Buck and caught him smiling which at that particular moment irritated him to no end. He glared at Buck, only to have him shake his head at him. "Pretty little thing," he commented, "too bad she's so clumsy. Wouldn't mind doing a little something with her."

Everyone just rolled their eyes at Buck. His mind always seemed to be on women. He was not very discriminate in that area. Buck loved women and it did not matter what they looked like; he could always finds something to marvel at.

Ezra just huffed, "I do not know about you gentlemen but I conclude that girl is a menus."

Buck chuckled at Ezra and could not help agreeing with him. "No point in worrying over it. There is nothing you can do. She's been that way forever. Can't change someone's nature, especially not overnight."

"Care to make a wager on that account?" Ezra asked as his eyes lit up at the thought of a bet.

It was with those fatal words that the bet was made. The terms were set out that very evening. Buck gave Ezra one week to turn Elizabeth into a graceful lady - capable of making it through a day without tripping on someone or something. The loser of the bet would have to spend one day in the public's eye decked out in a dress he would purchase at the general store, which would be picked out by the winner.

Ezra had almost choked on his whiskey when Buck had asked him if he still had the purple dress he wore that one time. Ezra had shot him a do not even go there look and under his breath and said he had burned it. This seemed to be funny to the other gunslingers that were sitting at the table listening to the details of the bet. They laughed for a good ten minutes because that was how long it took Buck to get to the point of his question. This was going to be one serious bet. Ezra abhorred gambling that was not fixed in his favor, and usually abstained from events that had not been fixed in his favor but he could not resist the temptation of the challenge. He had spent the rest of the night devising a plan to turn the ugly little duckling into a swan and picturing what Buck would look like in the gaudy red dress in the front window of the general store.

Ezra was up early the next morning, which was very uncharacteristic of the gambler. He figured he needed to take advantage of every moment that was afforded to him. She was going to need his total devotion and probably some divine intervention to be a debutante by the week's end. His eyes fell on the Frankfort's wagon parked in town. It was early for them to be in town. Ezra had planned on riding out to their ranch to convince Elizabeth that he needed her help but it looked like it would not be necessary.

From the bench outside of the sheriff's office Ezra watched Carl kiss his wife and his two children as he got into the stage. At first, his departure confused Ezra but then he remembered that Carl had mentioned to Josiah yesterday he would be gone a few days to visit an old friend. The timing could not have been better Ezra thought. Carl was way too protective of his daughter. Without him here Ezra would have a better chance of winning the girl over. He watched as the stagecoach pulled out, leaving the remaining members of the Frankfort family all alone and vulnerable.

Ezra made his way across the street to where Elizabeth, Jeb, and their mother Beth were climbing back into their wagon. Ezra came up to Beth's side of the wagon and remarked at how young she appeared. This flattered her to no end, and with a few more complements under his belt, he had her eating out of the palm of his hand. Then he went in for the kill. He asked Beth if she would not mind parting with her daughter for the afternoon because he would like the privilege of taking her on a ride. Ezra had thought he would have to convince her that this was a good idea but it turned out she did not need any convincing. Beth practically threw her daughter off the wagon and into his arms. He could not help feel sorry for the girl. He remembered what it was like when people wanted to get rid of him. His mother had dumped him off at relatives when he was younger and he never had gotten over it. If it was of any conciliation, her brother seemed to be worried and asked if she was going to be all right. Her mother had answered for her, and that had been the end of it.

Ezra watched as they headed out of town to their ranch. Then he turned his mesmerizing green eyes on Elizabeth who was extremely nervous and confused. He smiled at her, taking her hand and bringing to his lips. A pensive look formed on her face and she looked like she was a million miles away. He stuck out his arm, allowing her to take it as he escorted her to the stables.

Ezra watched the girl; her breathing seemed to become more rapid. He did not know how he was going to calm her down, but he realized he had to do it soon or she was liable to pass out from fear. They continued to walk into the stables. Ezra gathered their horses then helped her mount hers, and then mounted his own. She seemed to relax around the animals which made Ezra a bit happier.

They rode for a good hour before they came to the spot Ezra had intended to take her. He dismounted and helped her off her horse then tied them to a tree. Ezra spread the blanket that he pulled out of his saddlebag and gestured for her to join him. She did so reluctantly and after a few moments Ezra joined her with a picnic lunch. For all Ezra's efforts he could not seem to get her to open up. He would babble on for extended periods of time and ask her questions to engage her in the conversation, but she would merely nod yes of no to his questions. He did not know what else to try to get her to trust him. He needed her to trust him in order to help her become a better person through his tutelage.

Ezra was exhausted. Not knowing what else he could do, he started to hum absentmindedly some lullaby his mother used to sing to him when he was little. He was surprised when he heard her singing the words. She had a sweet voice which he could have listened to forever but he did have to worry about the bet. He was not going to wear another dress as long as he lived. Ezra slowly stopped humming then let her sing solo for a moment before joining in with her. When they came to the end of the lyrics Ezra turned to her and smiled, "That was amazing, my dear."

She looked down at the blanket like it was the most interesting thing in the world, and Ezra could not figure out her strange behavior. On their way back to town, Ezra asked her what she would like to do for the rest of the afternoon. She mumbled something that he could not quite hear. So he asked her to repeat herself and she did. This time loud enough for him to hear her. He was shocked at her suggestion to spend the rest of the day in the church but was not going to argue with her. If she wanted to commune with God they would. Who knew, maybe God could give him a little help with her.

Back in town they headed for the church. Upon entering, they found Josiah standing on a ladder nailing some boards together. He turned his head slightly to welcome his visitors and was surprised to see that it was Elizabeth and Ezra. Ezra looked uncomfortable. He was not a regular visitor to this establishment, at least not in religious context. Whatever they were here for Josiah assumed they wanted some privacy, so he decided to take this opportunity to go over to the saloon for a drink.

When they were all alone, Ezra watched in amazement as Elizabeth walked up to where the pulpit was and laid down on the floor beside it. She noticed him watching her, and she waved him over. He went over to her slowly, and dropped down beside her. He looked at her searching for answers but he did not find any. Instead he looked up to the ceiling and was shocked to see a drawn on it. He had never noticed that before. It reminded him of the Sistene chapel, it was so magnificent. How had he not noticed this till now?

He turned on his side to face his companion. She had noticed it. This told Ezra that she had a keen eye for beauty and art. There was something they might have in common. That was their jumping off point. Suddenly Ezra realized that they were not alone. He looked up into the face of a matronly woman who was the organist for the church. Ezra smiled sheepishly as he made his way off the ground and helped Elizabeth up.

The woman had come to practice and Ezra told her they would not be in her way. After a bit of arm twisting, Ezra convinced the woman to play a waltz. The music started slowly as Ezra bowed his head and asked Elizabeth if she wanted to dance. She shook her head, but Ezra was not willing to take no for an answer. He pulled her up into his arms and began to glide her across the floor. She stepped on his toes once or twice. Each time she outwardly cringed while Ezra let out an occasional yelp. She was disheartened, but Ezra was not willing to give up. He tilted her face upwards slightly so she was looking up into his eyes instead of at their feet. He locked his eyes on hers, and they began to move across the floor like they had been partners for years. Their movements were so fluid and graceful and they looked like they were intertwined. At the end of the song, Ezra took her hand and kissed it like he had done before. This time she blushed slightly, and the tension she had previously felt was lifted.

Ezra escorted her back to town and found her mother and brother waiting for her. He bid her goodnight, and they made plans for the next day. It looked like Ezra had finally ingratiated himself to her. He watched her walk away to join her family and discovered he could not help but examine her profile. She was tall with dark hair and dark eyes. Her body was slender with shapely curves. He immediately chided himself for doing so. This was supposed to be a bet and nothing more. If he had his way that was exactly how it was going to stay.

He passed Buck on the way into the saloon and teased him that he better get ready to wear that dress because it looked like he was going to win. Buck had told him it was not over until the fat lady sang and that he still had a long way to go before that girl had the moves to accompany her beauty. Ezra chuckled. Buck did not know how wrong he was.

Ezra was sitting at his favorite table shuffling his customary deck of cards when he saw Elizabeth uneasily push through the saloon doors. Chris, who was sitting by the door, looked up at her questioningly as she scanned the saloon looking for some one. Chris was about to ask her what was the matter because a saloon was no place for a lady, especially such a fragile creature such as herself but she turned and made her way to the back table and Ezra.

Ezra smiled, displaying his gold tooth, and got up to pull the chair out for her. As she sat down, he pushed back a chair and took the seat next to her. He explained the rules of poker to her, and then dealt out the cards. She was a quick study. He had never seen some one pick up the game so fast and master the art of bluffing. He had actually lost a hand or two to her. It was amazing. She seemed to be getting more comfortable in his presence by the minute and more confident. She was beginning to walk with her head up rather than looking down.

Later that day, Ezra took her to this pond JD had told him about. Actually it was a fishing spot, but Ezra thought Elizabeth would enjoy the view. He had guessed right. Elizabeth had been in awe of her surroundings. Though, she was not content to just sit on the sidelines. She wanted to partake in this great beauty.

She looked at Ezra, a mischievous glint in her eye, and then jumped off the embankment into the water, dress and all. An amused look hung on Ezra's face as he watched her resurface. She saw him watching her, and she waved at him to join her. He just shook his head. There was no way that he was going to get all wet. Then suddenly a splash of water hit him, then another one. He turned to look at her. "You, my dear, are in serious trouble."

He stopped to remove his holster, his flask, his blue jacket and his gold pocket watch before diving into the water next to her. He then proceeded to splash her as she had done to him. They splashed around in the water for a while. Ezra really enjoyed himself. He had not gone swimming since he was a child. Then all too soon they had to head back to town.

Ezra helped Elizabeth out of the pond and onto her horse. Her clothes hung tight against her person, her eyes held bright in the company of the sun, and her hair lay flat against her head. Ezra took this all in as he mounted his own horse. It was a remarkable change from her regular appearance. Ezra thought she looked much better now, more wild and untamed. He would have liked to stare at her all day but he had to get her back to town because her mother was waiting to take her home.

They rode into town, and were greeted by a few questioning glances. They were still soaked to the bone. The ride back had not allowed their clothes enough time to dry and a few small leaves hung from their hair. They were oblivious to most comments, caught up in their own conversation. Ezra was finding Elizabeth one of the most engaging women he had ever met. When you got past that shy layer she was truly amazing. They pulled their horses up to the livery, and he helped her down. Then he escorted her back to the saloon where JD and Buck were strategically located.

From there they spotted her mother's wagon. Before she left to join her mother, she kissed Ezra on the cheek and told him to call her Liz. Elizabeth was much too formal for her liking. Buck, JD, and Ezra watched her walk away and jump into the back of her wagon to be met with her mother's disapproving gaze. Then her mother turned her attention back to the task at hand and spurred the buggy on homeward.

Buck was chuckling. "Ezra, you're going to look so pretty in that little black number I got picked out for you."

JD joined in, "Hey Ezra, I thought you were supposed to turn her into a lady."

Ezra replied, "That indeed, is the condition of the bet Mr. Dunne."

JD shook his head. "From the looks of things, I say she's turning you into a, help me out here Buck."

"A mountain man?" Buck suggested as he pulled a leave out of Ezra's chestnut colored hair.

Ezra pushed Buck away from him and stomped off to his room to change into a dry pair of clothes. As he headed to his room he passed Nathan on the stairs. "What happened to you?" the healer asked, obviously surprised at the gamblers recent appearance. Ezra turned to look at him then hustled his way up the stairs leaving Nathan standing there shaking his head and wondering what happened to him and what he had said to offend him.

The next few days came and went, and Ezra spent all of his time with Liz. They were becoming great friends, and he felt he could tell her anything. In that time he was able to make suggestions on how to improve herself under the vise of friendship. He did not, however, need to make that many suggestions because with their new found friendship came a certain confidence that seemed to transcend the rest of her life as well. Her tendency to be clumsy had all but vanished, and she was blossoming into a beautiful woman right before his eyes.

Finally it was judgement day. The day in which he had to prove that he had done what he promised he would. Her father would be arriving shortly so he concluded it was probably safer for him to present her to his friends before he arrived back in town. He told her that they were going to be joining his friends for lunch. She was a little apprehensive about it, but she accepted it. Elizabeth had no idea that she was being judged by them, and was the subject of some bet.

She greeted her dinner partners with a radiant smile, and waited for Ezra to pull out her chair before she seated herself. She engaged the gunslingers in conversation, but usually directed her attention to Ezra. Ezra noted that Buck was not smiling, then he watched a certain gleam enter his eyes. He watched Buck nod to JD who in turn got up from the table and placed a hand on Liz's shoulder. She turned her head to look up at him. "Would you mind helping me carry over some drinks." She smiled and got up to leave and help JD with the drinks.

To Buck's dissatisfaction she returned with a tray of drinks loaded up, and did not trip. In fact, she did not spill a drop. A huge grin was plastered on Ezra's face to rub it in. After she excused herself as she had some chores to do for her mother. The gentlemen all got up from their seats and tipped their hats to her in parting.

Ezra watched her leave. Then turned to Buck, "I'm sure Mrs. Travis has a suitable pair of earrings you can borrow from her to match that ravishing red dress you are going to sport for us tomorrow."

Buck turned to protest; "Now pard, I wouldn't have made you wear it if I won."

JD looked at Buck; "Sure you would've Buck. You already bought the dress."

Buck glared at JD. "You aren't helping kid."

Nathan commented, "Now Buck you made a bet. Ezra was able to turn that girl into a graceful creature, so you need to pay the piper. You aren't going back on your word, are you?"

During their discourse they had all failed to realize Liz had reentered the saloon until they heard a gasp escape from her mouth. They all turned to look at her but she was not looking at them. Her eyes were locked on Ezra's. She had felt like she had been stabbed through the heart. The only reply she could muster was, "I forgot my shawl."

She retrieved it from the chair where she had been sitting only a few moments before, turned on her heels, and hastened toward the batwing doors and the street. Before she made it to the doorway she felt a hand on her shoulder. She slowly spun around to face Ezra, and he was almost sorry he stopped her. He could see the pain radiating in her eyes, and it cut him to the core. He never wanted to hurt her for anything in the world. She had become his closest friend, and he did not want to lose her.

"Don't touch me," she yelled then in a softer voice whispered, " How could you? I thought you were different."

Before Ezra could respond she was gone. He walked to the window and watched her cross the road to where her family was situated at the stage because Carl had arrived back in town. He watched Carl kiss his wife and hug his son and daughter. He wanted to go to her, but he knew that now was not the time.

Standish went back to the table where is comrades were still perched. He sat down back in his chair in a huff. His usual poker face now nonexistent. His friends could see plainly how Ezra felt for Liz, and they knew he was mentally kicking himself now for ever suggesting such a bet. For a while they sat in silence until a man came up to the table and asked Ezra if he would be interested in playing a game a chance over at their table. Ezra was happy to have the distraction and headed over to the table with lightening speed.

It was late, and Ezra's mind was not on the poker game he was presently engaged in. Even so, he was still winning every hand. He kept seeing flashes of her. Liz's eyes haunted him. He knew there was no chance of him getting any sleep tonight or any night soon if he did not rectify this. Ezra decided there was not time like the present. Of course the gambler had a few drinks in him, but he was not drunk. He usually drank when he needed the courage to face some obstacle in his way. The gambler got up from the table and headed out of the saloon.

The man who was sitting beside him grabbed his elbow, "Mr. Standish we have to settle,"

Ezra turned around and muttered, "Of course." He laid down his hand on the table displaying his full house, which beat out the next highest hand, a pair of jacks. He gathered up his winnings, headed for the stables, mounted his horse and took off in search of the Frankfort ranch.

The ride always seemed shorter in the daytime Ezra thought to himself. He could barely make out the faint image of the ranch before him. He tied his horse up to a tree about two hundred yards from the main house. There was no sense in waking up the whole house in order to apologized to her. He slowly crept around to the back and found her window. Liz had shown him which was her bedroom on an earlier jaunt in the week.

When he came to the window he found it open and he could hear a few quiet sobs. Curious about what was going on Ezra stuck his head in the window and was able to make out the shadow of two people. There was a woman laying on the bed crying and a man positioned above her kissing a trail of kisses down her neck. The woman was obviously in distress. Ezra wondered why no one was waking up. Elizabeth was being assaulted and he was not going to stand idly by, even though, he would have difficulty explaining his own presence.

The gambler carefully crawled in the window, making not even the slightest noise doing so. He then took his derringer out and rammed it in the man's back. In a deadly southern drawl Ezra ordered the man to get up, as he grabbed him by the shirtsleeves. Ezra threw him against the wall knocking him unconscious. He went to the dresser and lit the lamp, which illuminated the room and allowed Ezra to see Liz's attacker. "Good lord," Ezra croaked as he saw the man for the first time. He was in shocked. It could not be, but it was. Her attacker was her father. He turned to look at Liz and found her shaking in fear, she could not even look at him. She was so ashamed. She was trembling, he went to her, took off his jacket and rapped it around her. "It's going to be all right, darlin'," he said stroking her hair.

Without warning the door flew open and her mother entered the room to find her husband lying unconscious on the floor. "What did you do to him?" she demanded but her question was not really directed at Ezra. It was directed at her daughter. "You think you would have been used to it by now but no you still have to cry and protest."

Ezra was horrified. He could not believe her mother knew and condoned such action. If she had not been a lady, he would have hit her. He scooped up Elizabeth in his arms and told Beth he was taking her with him away from this mad house. "Good riddance!" she exclaimed as she tended to her husband.

Outside, Ezra lifted Elizabeth onto his horse then mounted it behind her. He wrapped one arm around her and the other one held the reins as he spurred the horse on to Four Corners.

It was early the next day when Liz and Ezra arrived in town. Dawn was a few hours away, and the gambler was exhausted. He quickly put away his horse and escorted his companion up to his room. Ezra's jacket was wrapped around his shoulders. It had been a preemptive strike to fight the cold. When Ezra had absconded with her, they had not paused to gather appropriate apparel. She only had on her summer nightgown. Ezra noted that she did not have any other clothes to wear. He decided that would have to be rectified in the morning after catching a few hours rest.

Both too tired to talk, and though Ezra wanted answers he figured it could keep until she was ready to discuss the matter. He would not force her to. He let her have his feather bed and watched her reluctantly lay down to sleep, while he pulled out his bedroll and bed there for the night.

It was a few hours after dawn and the gambler was already dressed and down stairs. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. It was extremely early for him to be out of bed but he had some chores he had to take care of that he would prefer none of his colleagues witness.

He strode across the street to the general store. It was fortuitous for him that Mrs. Potter had opened up. He went to the window and pointed to the beautiful pale green dress that hung in the window. Mrs. Potter came to his aid and pulled it down from the window, and wrapped in a box for him. He was about to pay and take his package with him when a hair clasp on display caught his fancy. It looked like a priceless antique. It had that dark brown color on the outside and a sparkling emerald in the center. Ezra thought it would bring out Liz's eyes. He had to have it. He inquired as to the price and was able to bargain with the proprietor of the store, knocking a dollar off the price. It was expensive, but he wanted to get it for her. So he paid for his purchases and headed back to his room.

Standish made it to his room without being interrupted by anybody he knew. He crept over to where she was sleeping and watched her breath for a while. How could her father take advantage of her like that? It made him angry. He could not imagine what kind of a reprobate would force himself on any woman, let alone his own flesh. He decided to let her sleep. She deserved it. He placed the packages on the end of the bed, and left her a note explaining that he had purchased those items for her. He also informed her of where he would be.

When Ezra journeyed back to the saloon he found his comrades all around the back table. He joined them but did not brief them on the events that occurred the previous night. That was Elizabeth's story to tell, and she would tell it when and if she wanted to. However, this was about to make things difficult for the con man.

Outside the saloon a crowd was forming, and the noise was being carried into the saloon. All of the seven protectors of the town went outside to check out was going on. Chris the unofficial leader, of the group, inquired as to what was going on.

Carl Frankfort answered him. "Someone broke into my house in the middle of the night. I heard noises so I got out of bed and went to check it out. This man had my daughter. I tried to help her, but he had a gun and conked me over the head."

Josiah went directly to comfort his friend while Nathan went to assist Carl medically because of the laceration on his head. Carl rejected this help. He told them their time could be spent better trying to ascertain his daughter's whereabouts. All the men were sympathetic to his plight and eager to bring the scum to justice that had stolen Elizabeth. That was, all accept Ezra who knew the truth.

Ezra concluded that Mr. Frankfort must have not have been able to see his face because it was so dark or else he would not try to get their sympathy. Which also meant his wife had not informed him who had taken his daughter. He could not guess what motivated her to do this, but he thought it had little to do with protecting her daughter. As much as Ezra did not relish spending his day on a wild goose chase he preferred it to Carl finding Elizabeth. God only knew what he would do then.

In no time at all the seven had mounted their horses and were heading out of town in search of the not so missing girl. They rode hard for a couple of hours, finding nothing. Then Vin had halted the group because he thought he had found the trail. Well he had found a trail, just not the one of the supposed kidnapper.

The seven men crept up slowly on a near bye camp and determined there to be five men. They were too far away to get a close look but they saw a lady among the fleet so they assumed it was Elizabeth. Ezra was the only one who realized they were going to attack an innocent group of people. He wondered what this faux pas was going to cost them. He felt foolish sneaking up on people who were as harmless as a fly but he had to play it out.

Chris and Vin went around to the opposite side of the camp while JD and Nathan found some bushes for cover. Josiah headed around to the side of the camp to block the entrance and Buck and Ezra stayed put. Buck's interest was directed squarely at the camp, but he noticed that Ezra seemed to be bored. In fact, Buck realized that Ezra seemed hesitant to react, like this would all blow over. This behavior did not make sense to Buck Wilmington because he knew that one thing that affected the gambler was an injustice to women. They were alike in that way. Buck could not help think things were not adding up.

Chris signaled for the men that it was time to ambush the supposed kidnappers. They all went in with their guns pointed, ready for a fight. Ezra wished he was somewhere else at that moment. He hoped no one would die because of his actions.

Chris yelled to the men to hand over the girl. The men refused but they had little choice considering they were unarmed. The protectors kept their guns pointed at the suspects while Vin went over to retrieve the girl. They all turned when he let out an, "aww hell."

He turned the girl around to face his friends to show them that she was the wrong girl. The gunslingers felt foolish and placed their weapons back in their holsters. Chris made apologies to the people they had scared. He soon learned that the woman they had thought was Elizabeth was Helen one of the men's wives.

The men in the camp inquired to why they were looking for this girl, so Josiah told them she had been kidnapped from her home last night and her family desperately missed her. All the men were sympathetic and eager to do what they could to help. They had been there last night and had actually seen the supposed kidnapper. The problem was they recognized him as one of the seven men looking for the girl. There was no mistaking the man in the red jacket.

Mark, the unofficial spokesperson for the camp, figured he must be duping these men into believing he cared about what happened to the girl while all the time he had her hostage or had killed her. Mark was afraid of what this man might do, so he did not say anything to tip him off. He gestured for a friend to take a stroll around the camp. The other man walked slowly around behind Ezra's back, looked over at Mark, and saw him nod his head in approval. The other man picked up the kettle he was holding and brought it hard down on Ezra's head, knocking him unconscious. Chris, Vin, Nathan, Josiah, Buck and JD all drew their weapons at the man. He dropped the container and put his hands in the air. All the gunslingers lowered their weapons except Chris who kept his weapon securely pointed at the other man while Nathan went to check on Ezra. He and the other gunslingers were distracted for a moment from their initial purpose by Mark's low chuckle. "Some thanks we get for helping bring a kidnapper to justice."

They all turned to Mark and waited for the explanation to follow. He was concise and to the point. He explained how he and another one of his colleagues had been on watch late last night when they saw a man and girl riding by on a tall chestnut colored horse. The man had an unmistakable southern accent, and the girl was in her night gown sobbing. Mark explained it just did not look right but he let it go because he had his own family to worry about. He was adamant, however, that the man he saw that night was Ezra.

All the town's peacekeepers turned to look at their friend who lay unconscious. What these men were saying could not be true, could it? No one was willing to say that there was no chance the gambler did not do it. It all went to how well they really knew Ezra and what he was capable of. Despite some of the distrust that the men felt towards the gambler, they had never considered Ezra would be a possible suspect in such a case, but maybe they were too close to the situation to be judges. They had to admit Ezra was trained it the art of disguise, showing what suited his advantage. Could they have misjudged him so completely?

Slowly the events of the early morning had crept into their heads. Ezra had been acting differently all morning. The difference was subtle but there. He did not seem to be in a hurry to track down the girl, and he seemed to be trying to slow them down. It had been obvious that the search was unimportant to the gambler. This should have alerted them that something was up, but now they could only see this through hindsight.

Chris Larabee decided if this accusation was true, Ezra better have a reason. There had to be more to the story. If there was not, Chris was going to bring him in, friend or not. He wanted answers. He needed answers. The sound of the gambler groaning told him he would not have long to wait.

Ezra slowly opened his eyes and finding the sunlight blinding, he quickly shut them. "What the hell happened?" he asked the healer who was busy washing a trail of blood that had crept down Ezra's face. Nathan explained the situation to him but left out the why.

Ezra was about to ask him why but Chris Larabee got to him first. "These men over here seem to think you might know something about the missing girl."

Ezra raised an eyebrow in surprise. So these people had been witness to his rescue attempt. He searched Chris's eyes for something to signal how he should handle himself, but for the first time he found their leader unreadable. It probably had more to do with his aching head rather than Chris's poker face. Maybe he should just tell them now, but then he would be risking her anger and he could not do that. So he decided the best course of action was to play dumb. "Mr. Larabee, I assure you I only know what I've been told."

"You wouldn't be lying to me Ezra, now would you?" Chris demanded.

"What possible reason would I have for such treachery?" the gambler inquired.

Chris just looked at him. He could not fathom what was going on in the gambler's head but he could tell he was not telling the truth. He gestured for Nathan to help Ezra onto his horse. This conversation was over for now, but Chris was going to watch Ezra every minute. He was not entirely sure that Ezra was not the bad element that Mary Travis was so intent on driving out of her little town.

The ride back to Four Corners was uncomfortable. No one said a word, but from time to time Chris or Buck's eyes would drift to the gambler. Everyone was silently wondering what was going on. No one dared ask the questions that they wanted to know the answer to the most. They could not, because they were afraid of the answer.

Buck had long teased the gambler that he did not like woman. Sure Buck had seen him in the company of woman but never in a romantic nature. He just assumed Ezra was protecting himself or rather courted his paramours in private. He never would have imagined that the gambler would be so sick and vile as to take a woman by force. Try as he might, he could never see Ezra in that light. He concluded that whatever Mark had seen could not have been what he thought he did. There had to be an explanation.

As they rode into town they came face to face with a forming mob. They were running about, screaming, but all this stopped as the seven men approached. Carl stood in the center of the mob, his gun pointing square at Ezra's head. He would have pulled the trigger right then and there but he could not be sure he would not hit Josiah.

"Mind telling me what's going on?" Chris demanded.

"Mr. Larabee, this doesn't concern you. It's between me and that animal." He paused for a second and then turned his attention on Ezra, "Where the hell is she?"

Ezra did not respond. He looked at Beth who was standing a shoulder length away from her husband. She had obviously filled him in. He could not fathom why she had waited so long. Ezra knew Carl had him. It was an old rule that he used to live by. Attack you accuser before he had the chance to attack you. Of course, Ezra could have cleared the mess up by revealing the whole sorted truth but Ezra had given his word to Elizabeth last night on the ride home that he would not say anything. It may have been the wrong decision but he had promised, and he always kept his word.

Things were getting out of control. Because the seven were concentrating their energy on Carl they failed to notice the two men sneak up on them. They grabbed Ezra and pulled him off his horse, dragging him a few hundred feet at gunpoint. Ezra showed no signs of fear. For the first time in his life he thanked God Maude was his mother. She had taught him to hide his emotions and remain calm under any circumstances. This was the only thing that was saving him now.

His friends turned and aimed their Winchesters and other various weapons at the men holding Ezra against his will. They would have fired but they could not be sure that they would not hit Ezra. It was because of this that they had to bide their time, but they waited too long. A group of local men joined the hostage takers and they dragged Ezra up a flight of stairs to wear a noose was waiting for him. The taller man that held Ezra slipped his head into the noose and smiled at him. "Long drop" he commented. Then the man continued to tighten the noose around Ezra's neck. Emotions ran high as Ezra's captors edged him toward the end of the plank. Ezra was now breathing hard. He looked down at the ground and saw people cheering for his execution while others sat trying not to look. Of all the ways Ezra thought he would die this was certainly not the way. Not even in his nightmares did he think this fate would befall him. Ezra looked down at the ground once more but he could not see his friends anymore. He looked around frantically but could only see Josiah who was standing next to his friend Carl.

Ezra shook his head. It was ironic that he was about to die for a crime he did not commit at the hands of the man who actually committed it. An image of Elizabeth smiling flashed before his face, then another one of her that night sobbing. He could not think of a better reason to die. At least she would be safe, but for how long? If Carl found her, nothing would change. She had not told anyone, and if he had not needed to apologize to her last night, he would not have even known. She would have continued to endure her life, thinking that she had brought it on herself and would be forced to live in shame. He had vowed never to let anyone ever hurt her again, but it looked like that was going to be out of his hands.

Down below where they were about to execute Ezra, Josiah sat talking with Carl. He was trying desperately to get him to try and stop this madness but to no avail. Josiah looked up at the gambler and saw his eyes flutter closed. He looked like he was turning a pail shade of green. Josiah prayed for his friend, then turned his attention back to Carl. If Carl was going to do this Josiah wanted answers and he wanted them now. Carl recounted to Josiah how his wife had seen the man who had raped his daughter, kidnapped her, and assaulted himself. He also explained how his wife had been too afraid to say anything before now. Josiah turned to where Beth was standing and grabbed her by the arms, "Are you sure it was Ezra you saw?"

She turned and looked at the big man standing before her. Her eyes locked on him and she replied, "As sure as I draw breath."

A feeling of horror crept over Josiah's whole body. How could he have been so wrong about Ezra? Even though Josiah now knew him to be guilty he could not reconcile himself to wanting the gambler dead. He felt frozen in place and helpless to do anything. The preacher cast one more look at the gambler before he turned and walked away and headed for the saloon. What he needed was a drink, something strong that would keep him from thinking for days.

Suddenly the sound of a row of gunshots caught the preacher's attention, and he turned his attention back to the situation. The Cavalry had arrived. Buck and JD held the mob at bay pointing their guns at the mob while Vin took a position on a near by roof so that he could stop anyone who got in their way.

Ezra was making his peace with God when he saw the man who had been leading him to his death fall down by his feet. He turned to find Nathan and Chris on either side of him. Nathan helped him out of the noose, and they slowly lead Ezra down the steps and past the angry mob to the jail. The door slammed behind them and Chris turned to Ezra, "So Ezra, want to try this again? What's going on? This time you better tell me the truth."

The only sound that followed was the sound of the gambler hitting the floor as he passed out. Chris turned to Nathan and motioned to him help him move the gambler into the nearby jail cell. They laid him down on the cot; Nathan looked him over for a second and decided it was just the stress of the situation that caused him to pass out. Then Nathan and Chris left the jail cell and closed the door behind them. Chris grabbed the keys and locked the door. His imprisonment was as much to soothe the mob as it was to protect the gambler. Chris turned to Nathan, "When he wakes up, come get me"

Larabee turned and walked out of the sheriff's office, and found JD and Buck guarding the office. The crowd had finally dissipated. Chris looked at Buck, "Where is he?" he asked. Buck knew whom he meant and just nodded toward the saloon. Chris tipped his hat to Buck then sauntered off to the saloon. He and Mr. Frankfort were going to have a chat.

Meanwhile JD was getting restless outside the sheriff's office. For the first time Buck could not seem to cheer him up. Ezra still had not woken up and JD was worried about him. He would never believe the things people were now accusing Ezra of doing. JD and the gambler were friends and he believed in him. His relationship with each of the seven were all very different, then again they were all very different people. Chris had always been his hero, Vin was always unassuming and patient, Buck was like the brother he never knew, Josiah was like a second father, and Nathan was a friend. But Ezra was different. He could not really define their relationship in some category except to say there was a bond there. He had felt it pretty much from the first time they met. JD sometimes wondered if it was because they both seemed to be raised by their mothers and with not much involvement from their fathers, but he had come to the conclusion that was too simple.

Ezra and JD complimented each other. Ezra was as young as JD underneath that exterior of wisdom and skepticism. Though Ezra commented on his enthusiasm as something of a curse, JD could tell he did not really feel that way. Ezra was the only person with whom JD did not feel like a kid or that he was out of place. Ezra never tried to teach him lessons, and JD hoped that in return he allowed the gambler moments of unadulterated pleasure. He knew, however, this incident would take a toll on his friend.

JD made sure that it was all right with Buck if he left for a few minutes. Buck agreed, thinking it would do the kid some good to focus his attention on something else for a while. JD had checked up on Ezra a few moments before and had noted that his shirt and jacket were torn. He decided that he could do something for Ezra. He knew the gambler hated to look withered so he decided he would get some clothes for the gambler from his room. Even though this was only a small gesture, JD felt good about being able to help his friend.

JD quickly climbed the stairs to Ezra's room. He stopped himself before he knocked on the door. It was pointless to knock because the room's occupant was unconscious in the sheriff's office. Dunne turned the handle, and the door swung open so JD walked in and made his way to Ezra's closet. The kid opened the door and reached up to procure Ezra's black jacket when he felt something hard being jammed into his back. He cringed, he had a pretty could idea of what it was. With raised hands and JD walked out of the closet, turned on his heel, and pulled out his own gun. He came face to face with his would be assassin and was surprised to discover it was Elizabeth. She dropped her gun and JD lowered his gun in return.

Elizabeth went and sat down on Ezra's bed. "I'm sorry JD, I didn't realize it was you. I though it was" but her voice trailed off.

"Ezra?" JD asked, almost afraid that she would say yes.

"Of course not!" she almost shouted. "How is he?" she asked. "I was so frightened. I did not know what to do," she sobbed.

JD wanted to comfort her, but he did not know how to do so. He wished Buck had been with him. He was great with women and knew how to make them feel better. JD, however, lacked this skill and seemed to have a better chance of sticking his foot in his mouth rather than lessening someone's pain.

He looked down at Elizabeth. It was obvious she was afraid of someone, but it was not Ezra. His first impulse was to bring her down stairs and clear this all up but then he wondered why Ezra had hidden her in his room. There had to be a reason why he did so. JD also concluded this reason must have been very powerful if Ezra was willing to go to his grave protecting her.

JD decided it was best for now if he kept her current place of residence a secret. He left her alone after collecting some clothes for Ezra and assuring her he was all right. He even managed not to pry but before he left she had placed something in her hand so Ezra would know she was all right. Then he left, almost sprinting back to the sheriff's office.

In his haste JD did not see Chris Larabee stalking away from the saloon. They collided, and JD sent Chris flying a few feet back in the air. Chris looked up at him and growled, "Where's the fire, JD?"

JD smiled meekly as he watched Chris pull himself up off the ground. "Thought Ezra might like some new clothes when he wakes up," JD told him as he pointed to the clothes he was carrying.

Chris smiled and slapped the kid on the back and they continued towards the sheriff's office. When they arrived, they were greeted with Ezra stirring in his cell. He was actually arguing with Nathan. Standish was trying to convince the healer that he was fine, but Nathan insisted he needed to check on him. Ezra refused until he saw Chris Larabee's face before him. He then decided that maybe it was not such a bad idea for Nathan to check up on him. At least it would give him a chance to prepare for Chris's questions.

The healer examined the gambler carefully. Though they had their differences, Nathan had long come to accept Ezra as a friend. It was because their friendship took so long to mature that Nathan had no doubt that Ezra's innocence.

He took in the gambler's appearance. It was a vast contrast to the image he had presented earlier in the day. His clothes lay in tatters, and were covered in dust and grime. A bright bruise was forming from the blow to the head he received earlier. He noted that he probably had bruised ribs, because of the pain he felt when he moved abruptly. Nathan finally finished his examination and gave Standish a sympathetic look. He would now have to turn him over to Chris Larabee who could be fierce when he needed to be. Although they were friends there were times the healer was afraid of his wrath.

Chris Larabee was about to rip into Ezra when Vin Tanner came rushing in. "Sorry pard, we got to ride. The ranchers are at it again and from the sounds of some folks are going to need some healin'"

The dark clad gunslinger turned his blue eyes on Ezra and was met by a smirk. "Mr. Larabee, what are you waiting for? I assure you I'll entertain myself while you're away."

"The hell you will," Chris shouted, "JD watch him."

JD would have protested being left behind, but he needed to talk to Ezra so he accepted his assignment without argument. If Larabee was not in such a rush he may have noticed the uncharacteristic acceptance. Chris just ripped out of the tiny office right after his comrade.

Ezra sat in his cell and pulled out the customary deck of cards he stored in his jacket pocket. He started shuffling the deck expertly. Then turned his attention on his captor. He smiled exposing his gold tooth. " Care to engage in a game of chance, Mr. Dunne?"

"Not now Ezra," JD replied.

"Suit your self," the gambler answered.

JD went over to the desk and pulled out a set of keys in the upper right drawer while still balancing the clothes he had procured for his friend. JD immediately went over to the jail cell and opened the door. Ezra eyed him uncertainly. "Planning on effecting my emancipation?" Ezra asked curiously.

JD smiled at that then did his best impression of Chris Larabee, "Now I couldn't do that - you've been a bad boy."

Ezra rolled his eyes; one Larabee was enough. "I suggest you work on you repertoire, son. If Mr. Larabee hears you imitating him he's liable to threaten to shoot you."

JD laughed as he handed Standish the clothes he had procured for him earlier. Ezra's eyes widened with surprise. Ever since he had awakened he had felt uncomfortable in his torn clothes, and he desperately wanted something to change into. He had not asked for a change of wardrobe because it seemed at the time there were more importance matters to deal with. Now Ezra was grateful that the young man knew him so well. The gambler still found it hard to imagine that he had friends. He had spent most of his life looking out for himself and occasionally his mother, that he was not used to others watching out for him. Even after so long, each kindness that was shown to him left a mark on him. It made him want to return the favor.

"Ezra we need to talk," JD spat out while the gambler fingered the delicate white shirt that JD had brought for him. JD wanted to know what was going on, and patience was not his strong suit.

"Mr. Dunne, I assure you that I did not violate or hurt that girl in any way," Ezra said slowly. He had been waiting for one of them to get into it. He knew they would have their doubts. Even with close friendships there was room for suspicion. These men did not trust easily. Well, maybe all except JD. That was probably why the gambler felt hurt by the unspoken question the boy probably had swarming around his head.

"Dang, Ezra I did not believe that for a second," JD assured him.

"Then what did you want to discuss?" Ezra asked, "Need a little advice on your paramour?" He smiled alluding to Casey Wells, the girl JD was sweet on.

"No!" he almost shouted. JD had enough advice on that subject to last him a lifetime. It seemed all of his comrades, had some advice to give him. In the end, their courting rituals only added to making the courtship more stressful. He looked Ezra in the eye. It was time he got down to the meat of what he wanted to know. He pulled out something from his pocket and placed it in the gambler's hand. "This girl in your room gave me this to let you know she's all right." JD told him this without mentioning Elizabeth's name. You never knew when spies could be lurking about.

Ezra examined the object in his hand. He smiled sadly at the brass hair clip with the green emerald in the middle. He remembered how he just had to buy that for Elizabeth earlier that morning. Funny, he thought to himself, that seemed like ages ago rather than the extension of one day. He locked his eyes on JD, "You tell no one what you saw, you understand?" His tone was low and deadly.

"But Ezra," JD protested. He was about to say more but just at that moment Chris sashayed through the front door followed by Vin. Ezra pulled JD close to him and whispered, "No one, do you understand?" Then he released him and forced a smile while he inwardly cringed. That movement had caused him some pain. It was still stinging but the pain would be worth it if it got JD to keep his mouth shut.

JD quickly exited the cell and scurried past Chris and Vin. "Ezra," Chris greeted the gambler.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra returned the greeting.

"What the hell was that about?"

"It seems our Mr. Dunne was in need of some advice on a matter entailing the fairer sex." Ezra lied.

"Why'd he ask you?" Vin asked curiously.

"You want to court a common stale, you turn to you gentleman. You want to court a woman of refined taste and sophistication, you to turn to me," he smiled.

"You're are talking about Casey?" Vin asked. Ezra rolled his eyes, "Of course, Mr. Tanner."

"Enough," Chris growled, "You better start talking, and you better do if fast because my patience is wearing thin."

Ezra sighed and looked past the two men towards the door where JD had recently exited. What he would not give to be out there with JD now instead of in the tiny cell with Chris Larabee who was obviously in a foul mood.

When JD made it on to the boardwalk he heard Buck and Nathan talking about Chris's meeting with Carl Frankfort. It had not gone well. Carl had recounted the events as he saw them and Chris could do nothing to persuade him that it had been someone else, anyone else. In any other circumstance Chris would have beat the answers out of him, but he thought that Carl was a victim too. JD was going to sit with his friends until they approached the subject of Ezra. Buck commented, "This doesn't look good."

JD reacted before he could think. "You can't really be suggesting Ezra did this?" he said in disbelief.

"Calm down, Kid. I wasn't saying it like that. But he is hiding something, just can't figure out what it is."

At that point JD got up abruptly. He did not trust himself. He felt his ears burning and even though it was implausible he thought Buck's wonderment was addressed to him. He could not remain there any longer because he figured that they could tell he was hiding something.

JD walked down the boardwalk and found himself in front of the church. He had not visited in a while. He slowly ascended the stairs to the church and made his way through the doorway. He found Josiah slumped down in a pew. Upon his arrival Josiah greeted him.

"Are you all right, Josiah?" JD asked when he was confronted with the bigger man's appearance. Josiah looked horrible. His clothes were wrinkled and his eyes were blood shot. It was apparent he had been drinking.

The situation with Ezra was too much for him to handle. The truth, was he had not consumed much of the fire water. He had used a few bottles for throwing practice. Josiah had tried to work off his anger but had not be successful. He still was unable to reconcile himself to the fact that Ezra was guilty. He knew Ezra had to be. All the evidence told him so.

"John Dunne, I'm fine. Just can't believe that I did not see this coming."

"What coming?" JD questioned Sanchez.

"Ezra's descent in the bowls of hell," he replied.

"You think Ezra did it?" JD asked incredulously.

"There comes a time when you have to embrace the facts. There is a Zen story that says…"

"Josiah, no way Ezra did this," JD interrupted.

The bigger man placed his hand on the younger man's shoulder, "None of us want it to be true," he explained,

JD shook off his calming gesture. He was enraged to the point of losing all sense of control. He was at that place where passion overrode common sense and all other things. It was here that JD made a fatal mistake. He betrayed his friend now locked in a jail cell in order to defend him.

As soon as JD spat out all he knew, he instantly regretted it. This was not because he did not trust Josiah with the information; it was rather that he had been sworn to silence. He knew with certainty Ezra would never trust him again the way he had just a short time before. However, JD would be unprepared for the sequence of events that would accompany his betrayal.

Josiah stood stunned for a moment. So Elizabeth was holding up in Ezra's room, Sanchez thought to himself. Ezra had kept this a secret from them and convinced JD to keep it a secret. Why he did not know but he would find out. He stormed out of the church straight for the saloon. He knew that was where the other regulators he worked with would be and he wanted to share with them what he had just learned. He barely heard JD calling after him as he entered the saloon and headed for the back table where Larabee, Wilmington, and Jackson were sitting. The tracker was absent because he was guarding the prisoner.

"Josiah," Buck greeted him on arrival.

Josiah did not bother with any formalities. He just leapt into the meat of the situation. While the three regulators listened to the tale JD stood still, feeling their eyes burn into him and his guilt tying knots in his stomach.

Buck looked up at Chris, "Now what do we do?"

"We find Ms. Frankfort and find out what is going on. Then we ring Ezra's neck."

"Ain't it obvious what going on?" Nathan asked. Buck smiled as he knew exactly what Nathan was saying. "Could be Ezra's found himself a lady friend," Buck called.

"Buck, if you saw how afraid she was when she pulled that gun on me you'd know there was more to it," JD said speaking for the first time since his arrival.

Chris growled, "We would have if someone would have told us."

JD gave a defeated look at Chris's reprimand. He had always worshiped the gunslinger. and he felt about three feet tall when Larabee looked at him with red-hot anger like he was now doing.

Buck was more concerned with JD's safety when he heard that she had pulled a gun on him. "She pulled a gun on you?" he asked incredulously.

"Didn't know it was me at the time," JD explained.

Nathan Jackson asked, "who'd she think it was?"

JD shrugged signaling he had no idea. Then Chris turned and looked at all of the men. "Let's go find out."

The group of five men headed up to Ezra's room. When they came to the tall wooden door that lead to Ezra's room they did not stop to knock. Instead they proceeded to barge through the door way into the gambler's room. Their entrance took Elizabeth by surprise. She stood up upon their arrival looking at them uncertainly. "Something happen to Ezra?" she asked concerned for his safety.

"He's fine," Nathan assured her.

"Lot a people looking for you," Chris remarked.

Josiah told her, "Your father is awfully worried."

She cringed ever so slightly at the mention of her father, but no one even noticed. "Well tell him I'm fine," she said hoping that would be enough, but knowing it would not be.

"Missy your father's saying Ezra kidnapped you and took advantage of you." Nathan informed her.

"That is why they tried to lynched him," she whispered. JD had only told her Ezra was safe. He had not informed her of why they had attacked him. At that moment she hated her father more that she thought imaginable. She had abhorred him when he forced himself on her night after night. She hated him because every time she smelled whiskey, she would get knots in her stomach afraid of being attacked. She loathed him when he had gotten her pregnant, and then beat her so badly that she lost the baby. Despite that, she had always thought there was a chance that he could be redeemed. Now she knew the truth. He was a monster, and would always be a monster. Anyone who would place his crimes on another man's shoulders was capable of anything.

Though she was afraid of him, she could not let Ezra take on her fight no matter how appealing the thought was. Her conscience would not allow her to let him sit in that jail cell any longer nor would the shame she felt allow her to tell these men what her father had done. So she concocted a little story to explain all the details of the past days events to satisfy their curiosity.

At the end of their brief interview she had agreed to go back to her father. The yarn she had spun was so far from the truth but it did what it was supposed to. She had been lying so long that it barely registered when she again was forced to take on the part.

Elizabeth confessed that her father had interrupted her and Ezra when they were in the middle of a romantic encounter. She explained that Ezra had come over and they had made up. Her father was not happy about it, and went off on them and grabbed his shotgun and would have shot Ezra if he had not knocked him out first. Then she had feared retribution so she convinced Ezra to take her with him. She inwardly sighed when she told them that story. If only it was true, she thought to herself.

Chris decided it was about time someone took control of this situation. He dispatched Nathan to replace Vin and guard Ezra. With this new evidence Ezra should have been set free but Chris wanted to keep him locked up until Elizabeth was out of town and back at her father's house. He decided that was the best place for her. Her father and her needed sometime alone to work things out Chris figured everything else would work itself out. After all, Carl was a reasonable man.

Chris and Josiah found Carl at the stables. They explained that they had found his daughter and she was safe. Carl wanted to see her right away but the two regulators detained him. They wanted to make sure that he had a complete picture of what was going on. Of course the picture that they were presenting to him was a little distorted because it was built on lies. Carl knew that but if he were to acknowledge this he would have would have to explain how he knew that it was a distortion. So he accepted Larabee's terms and thanked Josiah. They took him to his daughter who was already mounted on a horse next to Buck and JD. Chris had thought under the circumstances it was better if Carl and Elizabeth had an escort home.

He watched as Carl mounted his horse beside his daughter and whispered something in her ear that Larabee could not make out. Then Chris, Josiah, and Vin mounted their steers, and they all set off to the Frankfort ranch. It was a nice day for a ride Chris thought as he spurred his horse on, taking the lead.

Meanwhile back in jail, Ezra was getting curious as to why so many horses had taken off at once. He implored Nathan to tell him if there was any trouble that they may need his assistance with. Nathan assured him that it was something they could take care of by themselves. It was then that Ezra caught a certain look in the healer's eyes and knew he was hiding something.

"Mr. Jackson, what are you neglecting to tell me?" he asked, his breath nearly catching in is throat.

Nathan looked at the gambler and said, "You really did it this time Ezra. You could have saved yourself the trouble by telling us you were involved with the girl."

"JD," he cursed under his breath. "Where is she now?" he asked hurriedly.

"On her way back to the ranch," Nathan informed him, "Chris wants you kept locked up till he get back. He wants to talk to you."

When Nathan told him where she was he felt sick to the stomach. He had vowed to protect her. He needed to get out of this cell and he needed to get to her fast.

"Nathan," Ezra hissed in a dangerous tone, "I do not have time to explain but I need to get out of here. It is a matter of life and death."

This was not an exaggeration on Ezra's part. He fully believed that Liz would not survive the night in her father's care. He just prayed that she would be safe until he got to her. Normally Nathan would have refused Ezra's attempt to be emancipated from some precarious situation he had gotten himself into, but the seriousness of Ezra's tone and the fact the gambler used his first name let him know how serious this was. Nathan looked at the gambler's eyes, and he saw trouble and a rage of emotions that he had never seen before. He made his resolution and grabbed the keys off the desk. It took a second before the door was open and Ezra was freed and able to make it to the stables.

When he mounted his horse, he was surprised to see Nathan on top of his own horse. He smiled at the gambler, "Thought you might need an extra gun."

Ezra turned to his friend, "Mr. Jackson, I pray that is not the case." Then he spurred his horse into a gallop with Nathan quickly on his heels.

Standish and Jackson made good time. They were forced to slow down and take cover behind some trees when they saw a group of riders heading towards them. The two riders were able to determine that it was their friends heading back from their mission. Jackson had reluctantly agreed not to inform them of what was going on for three reasons. First, it would take too long to explain to them what was going on. If it was a matter of life and death as Ezra had threatened, they did not have that time to spare. Second, it was easier to sneak onto the ranch without being noticed with fewer people involved. Sometimes a little tact was in order. That was a lesson he had learned from the gambler. Thirdly, Nathan was not in any hurry to explain to Larabee that he had disobeyed his orders even if it was for a good reason. If there was one thing that got Chris's dander up it was people running out on him.

Ezra had run out on the group once before, and in doing so he had been on the receiving end of Larabee's quick temper and distrust. No matter how hard Chris tried though, he was unable to stop the gambler from penetrating his wall of defense and becoming one of the few men he actually trusted.

After their friends passed, the two regulators continued to head towards the ranch. They were about four hundred meters from the house when Ezra heard some one hissing his name. He and Nathan both scouted the terrain looking for the person who was trying to get his attention. Finally, the voice called again. "I'm up here," it told them.

Nathan and Ezra turned their eyes up to the sky where they found Elizabeth sitting up in a tree. "Darlin' you have a certain ability for finding peculiar spots to consort." Ezra said flashing his gold tooth.

Nathan who still did not know what was going on asked, "What are you doing up there?"

By this time she had started to climb down the tree. When she reached a lower branch she jumped down nearly falling over as she did. "Hiding" she admitted sheepishly as Ezra helped her up onto his horse.

"Why'd you be doing that?" Nathan asked ignoring the glare Ezra shot him.

"Another time, Mr. Jackson," Ezra told him, "Right now I recommend we make a run for it as it seems we have been discovered.

Nathan turned to look back at the ranch. He saw fifteen or so men mounting their horses and heading straight for them. Nathan did not have to be warned twice. He rode his horse hard and fast, but it was no use. There were more of them and they were just as fast. Not to say that Ezra and Nathan did not give the men a run for their money. They were both able to get a few shots off, injuring a few of their hunters. But finally the men cornered them and forced them back to the ranch where Carl waited for them.

Nathan knew he probably should have been upset with Ezra for getting him into this mess and not even having the decency to tell him what this was all about. He gathered, however, it had little to do with Mr. Frankfort finding out about his daughter's affair. At this very moment the healer was in awe of his friend. Ezra had rode hard despite his bruised ribs. Nathan could tell they hurt him because he saw the pain in his eyes, but still he pushed on putting Elizabeth's well being in front of his own. Ezra surely was different. He had a heart of gold.

Nathan watched as a man said something to Ezra. Ezra in kind responded with his own wise ass response, which got him a punch to the jaw and a punch in the ribs that sent him flying backwards. One of Ezra's most infuriating characteristics was that he never recognized when he was beat. This was also one of his most courageous characteristics. It was a characteristic that seemed to lead to a lot of pain for him. Nathan and Elizabeth went over to where Ezra had fallen. Nathan helped his friend up, being careful not to hurt his friend more than he had already been hurt. Nathan realized Ezra had to be in a considerable amount of pain. The last blow had resulted in him cracking his ribs. Even the smallest movement would be painful but the gambler showed no signs of the torture he must be going through. Nathan guessed he did not want Elizabeth to worry but he knew she would no matter what he said. Nathan was just thankful that they were almost there. At least Ezra would not have to endure any more movement, but God only knew what lay a head for them.

One of the fifteen men that rounded them up ushered them through the front door of the Frankfort home. Elizabeth took the lead, followed by Ezra than Nathan. The man jammed his riffle into the healers back so hard that it almost cause it to start bleeding. Jackson knew that shortly a bruise of considerable size and pain would develop. This pain would, however, not even come to close to the time when he was a slave and had received twenty lashes from the man who had owned him at the time. Jackson had lived through that and he would make it through this.

The three prisoners were escorted to the living room area that stretched out from the porch. The whole cabin had a woody smell to it, probably due to the fact that it was constructed much like a log cabin. When they entered the room they saw two figures talking. It was too dark to see their faces, but the three prisoners did not need a lamp to illuminate their appearance. It could be no one other than Carl and Beth Frankfort.

The man with the loaded rifle escorted them over to the center of the room then went to Carl's side. "Told you, we'd find her Carl," he smiled.

"Thanks, old friend," Carl said, "You and the boys can go. This is a private matter which we best keep that way," he said as he patted him on the back.

The man nodded his head and before leaving called in a taller man. He deposited Ezra and Nathan's weapons on the counter and then they both left. Carl tossed his rifle to his wife and had her train its sight on the prisoners while he went to the window to wave to his friends. He stayed on the porch watching them go until the last one had passed out of his sight line.

He then waved his hand and signaled to the hired guns that were taking sanctuary in his barn. There were about ten in all. They were costly but they did know their stuff. If it was one thing money bought from these men it was their loyalty, at least for a time. That was the difference between these men and the men who left. The men who left were basically decent people. When his daughter had ran away, they had offered to find her. They believed what he told them but if they were to find out what he had done there was no guarantee they would not turn on him. That is why he needed men he could depend on who did not care what he had done.

It had been a long day, Carl thought. First, he had to endure his escorts back to the ranch. Then when he arrived he had found a fairly large number of his neighbors waiting for him to help him celebrate his daughter's return. Carl had stupidly allowed Elizabeth to go to her room while he dealt with their visitors. He had not suspected that she would escape the first chance she got. The girl he had known all his life would not have the guts to disobey him, but she had. Carl concluded that was Standish's influence on her.

When Michael had come back so soon Carl was mildly surprised. When he had discovered Michael had not only come back not with his daughter but Nathan and Ezra he was slightly annoyed. He would have to deal with both of them now. Elizabeth could be controlled once Standish was eliminated because that was where she drew her courage. From the moment Beth had told him that Standish was the man who had interrupted him and his daughter, he knew he would have to kill him. He was just sorry that Nathan had gotten caught up in this mess. Carl had always liked the healer and it would be a shame for him to die because of the actions of his friend. Carl sighed. He was going to have to inform Jackson of the value of picking his friends he thought to himself as he and his hired guns headed back inside.

The long ride back to Four Corners had tired out the five regulators. Chris would have preferred just to head off to the saloon for a drink but he knew he could not detain Ezra any longer than necessary. He sauntered over to the sheriff's office with JD in tow. Though Dunne was afraid to look Standish in the eye after he betrayed him, he needed to get it over with.

When he arrived in the sheriff's office only moments after Larabee he was greeted with, "What the hell?"

JD slowly slunk passed the darkly dressed gunslinger to where Chris's attention was directed. He stood there stunned looking at the deserted jail cell. There was no sign of Ezra or Nathan. What was going on, the young man wondered. He turned to look at his mentor hoping he would have these answers, but he saw only a blank stair on his face. Then he heard him growl," Come on JD."

JD could barely keep up to the pace that Chris had set. Larabee finally stopped at the livery where Buck, Vin and Josiah were tying up their horses. Upon Chris's arrival Vin looked up. He could plainly see the anger that was flashing in his friend blue eyes. "What's going on pard?"

Larabee looked at his friend. "They're gone. I'm figuring they headed after Elizabeth."

Buck sort of chuckled, "That boy his one love sick calf."

Josiah looked up at their leader. "Now why would Nathan let him out?"

Chris smiled one of his hard smiles as he mounted a fresh horse, "We will be sure to ask him when we find him."

Chris waited for his colleagues to get fresh horses because their own were tired from the long ride to and from the Frankfort ranch. When they were ready, they all galloped off in search of their friends each praying that they had left by their own free will and that they were all right now.

Nathan, Ezra, and Elizabeth were all sitting on the floor in a dark corner. Elizabeth sat close to Ezra. She could hear that his breathing was labored, and she knew he needed medical attention. Nathan had tried to do what he could for him but the gunslingers had tied his hands behind his back. This prevented Nathan from doing much more that lending advice. Elizabeth had a firm grasp on the gambler's hand. It was clammy, but she had no intention of letting it go. She looked at him, lying flat on his back, his face dripping with perspiration. Nathan had told her he was under the control of a fever. This too was because of her.

When her father and his trusted men had returned they had taken turns taunting the prisoners. They were all handling it fine until Carl had pulled Elizabeth up by the hair, pulled her next to him, and ran his hand down her stomach. Ezra sat there his eyes fixed on Carl, rage brewing in his heart. The final straw had been when Carl had looked directly at Standish and told him, "Would you please excuse us? We have a lot of catching up to do. My bed had grown cold with out her."

At that moment Standish would have given up all the money in the world just to have a free hand to take a swing at him or better yet to have his guns back and be able to place a bullet right between Carl's eyes. He slightly averted his eyes from her and turned to Nathan. The look of surprise on his face was slowly being replaced by similar thoughts that had been rolling around in Standish's head.

Despite Ezra's injuries, he forced himself up and lunged at Carl. Carl let go of his daughter, she fell to the ground as Ezra rammed square into her father. Unexpectedly the gun sounded. Nathan and Elizabeth watched with bated breath. They soon discovered that Carl had shot Ezra in the stomach. The crimson color soaked his clothes and for a moment Elizabeth was in shock. She immediately snapped out of it and went to her friend's side. The hired guns helped her move him over to the corner. She ripped off the bottom of her dress and bunched up the cloth and pushed it against the wound. She had to concentrate on what she was doing but it was hard because she kept hearing her father's incessant laughing, which sounded more and more like cackling the longer it went on.

So now she sat in the corner, one hand keeping pressure on the wound and another tentatively holding the gambler's hand. She cursed her father, and then she cursed herself. If he had not gotten involved with her in the first place he would be safe now, sitting comfortably in the back of the saloon taking some scoundrel's money. It was all her fault, she thought to herself. She had not realized that she had said that out loud until she heard Ezra's raspy voice. "Darlin', we're going to be all right. These reprobates will not be allowed to claim victory over us. After all, they seem to lack a certain capacity for understanding the elements of poker."

She moved her hand from his to wipe a tear that had formed in her eye. "Ezra, I don't think they're bluffing."

Ezra coughed, "Nor do I, my dear, but we have yet to lay down all our cards."

Before she could ask him what he meant he sank into a deep sleep. The rise and fall of his chest was the only thing that was kept her sane. If it stopped she did not know what she was going to do. She was so involved with Ezra she failed to notice that her brother had entered the room. After a brief interview with their father, Jeb came over to his sister's side.

"He's gone crazy," he hissed. He looked at Ezra and he shut his eyes in prayer. Jeb knew that if Ezra did not get help soon he was not going to make it. He moved over to Nathan. He looked to be in fairly good shape. If there was a battle he would be able to fight, Jeb noted. He had no idea what he was planning, but thoughts and ideas were running ramped in his head. One thing he knew for sure was that his father had gone too far. He had to be stopped by any means possible.

When Jeb was a freckled faced six year old he had worshipped his father. Even when he entered manhood his father was his hero but that had all changed one night. He had discovered the vial secret that his family had. It made him sick to his stomach. At first, he had been so shocked he did not know what to do. Soon, though, that surprise was replaced with anger and one night when he heard voices in his sister's room he came to her aid. In the end, his chivalry had cost them both greatly. Their father had beaten them both so badly that it was a miracle they survived. At that time their mother had not held out much hope.

His mother was another story all together. Jeb decided she might have even been sicker than her husband. She did not see anything wrong with what he was doing. She took his side over theirs time and time again. Jeb did know when or where she had lost all sense of reality but it must have been sometime early on in their marriage.

Jeb turned to look at Elizabeth. Her brown eyes bright with tears. When she looked at him it was plain to see that she was in love with him. That look was all it took to make up his mind. Jeb caught her eye and she knew that he had a plan. He glanced over his shoulder, his pulse racing, he spotted his father in the corner talking with his goons. Jeb inched his way back over to Nathan and whispered something in his ear. He then got up and went to the door and exited, heading straight for the barn where his shotgun was kept. It was time to make his stand, time for him to be taken seriously, time for justice.

Jeb made it out to the yard and he let out a deep breath. It was not until that moment that he realized he had been holding his breath. He quickly scurried to the barn. He was two paces in the barn when a hand clamped around his mouth, and a hard voice spoke to him. "Son, I wouldn't try anything."

He turned to face Chris Larabee. "Thank God," he whispered. He found a nearby haystack and sat down. His legs felt like mush and he no longer felt he could stand on his own accord.

It took Jeb the duration of five minutes to recount what was going on. He watched each of the men and he could not figure how they stayed so calm when their friends were in jeopardy. He knew that his feeling showed clearly. He just wanted this to be over with.

Buck Wilmington turned to the boy. "You're father must be real upset about his little girl falling for Ezra to go loco on us."

Jeb snorted at that suggestion. He shook his head. It was time for the truth to be brought forth, and it looked like he was going to be its bearer. He looked up at the men who were in the middle of working out a plan to bring everyone out safely. He turned to Buck and said, "You would think so, wouldn't you?"

Josiah turned to the son of his friend and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Fathers' do a lot to protect their little girls. Sometimes they're best intentions drive a division between them," spoke the preacher drawing on experience from his own life.

Jeb answered with a fastidious smile on his face. "And sometimes a man will do anything to hide his dirty little secret."

It was with that acknowledgement that the five gunslingers all turned their attention from the task at hand onto Jeb. It was now or never, Jeb thought to himself. He then bowed his head and for a moment was deathly quiet. Then from somewhere inside him this haunting voice emerged and he disclosed the secret that each of the Frankfort's had been keeping.

When he looked up again he could see the shock and the anger in the five gunmen's faces. He turned to Josiah, his father's friend, to see how he would react to his news. Josiah's first reaction was that it was not possible, but the story was far too difficult for the boy to recount to be a lie. If he refused to believe what Jeb had told him he would be guilty of being in denial. It was ironic that it had been him who had accused JD earlier of being in denial where Ezra was concerned. He was the one who was blind; he was the one who had believed the lie. He was the one who believed one friend who was lying and would have fed the other to the wolves based on his claims. Guilt clutched Josiah. How could he have been so wrong? How could Ezra ever forgive him for thinking that he was capable of doing such a thing? Josiah forced himself to push all those thoughts out of his head and concentrate on the task at hand which was to get Nathan, Ezra, and Elizabeth all back safely. He could try to atone for his sins later. Josiah just prayed there was a later.

Wilmington and Dunne made their way out of the barn. They would hide behind bushes as to not be seen. Darkness masked them from any onlookers but they had to be careful. The severity of the situation demanded that no mistakes be made. They slowly made it to where their horses were tied up. JD untied the ropes and Buck tapped them on the back to get them moving. The horse immediately started to neigh and dance around in front of the house. Buck smiled to himself when he saw two men with guns come out from the house to see what was going on. The diversion worked perfectly, he thought as he and JD slunk up behind the two men and knocked them unconscious. They dragged the two men behind the house and waved in their comrades.

Vin and Chris took their weapon as they entered the house of the enemy. It was from what Jeb had told them that they knew what to expect. Their arrival was detected quickly, and several men were dispatched to take care of them. They, however, were no match for these seasoned regulators. Chris had the two men that came after him down on the ground before they had the chance to draw. Vin, too, had gotten his man quite easily. He turned to make sure Chris was all right and missed the fourth man who came up behind him.

"Vin," Larabee yelled but just as Vin turned he saw his attacker go down. He turned to look and saw Josiah over his shoulder. He had decided to come inside and join the party rather that sit outside and wait for the reviews. "Thanks pard," Vin said as he slapped Josiah on the back as they headed towards the living room where Carl was keeping his hostages.

All Carl's hired gunmen had been disabled. He was all alone except for his wife. He knew there was no way out of there but if he was going down he was going to take one of them down with him. Before any one could do anything he aimed his gun at where Ezra lay. Nathan saw this and screamed as to warn everyone but no one could get there in time. Nathan closed his eyes. He could not watch what was going to happen.

He heard the shot, and a lump formed in his throat. Ezra was dead. Nathan would never again hear his southern voice. Nathan would miss him. He did not know how they would continue with out him. A lone tear drifted down his face. Then slowly he forced himself to open his eyes and when he did he was greeted with the shock of his life.

Carl Frankfort lay on the ground, blood oozing out from him and Ezra lay beside him on the ground in very poor health but alive. Josiah came over to Nathan and cut the ropes that bound his hands while the shooter stood a few feet away still holding the gun responsible for ending Carl's life. Nathan thanked him then quickly went over to Ezra's side. Chris and Vin took care of the bodies and Beth while Nathan had Josiah, Buck and JD boiling water, ripping cloth into strips to clean and wrap Ezra's wounds properly. The last thing that Ezra needed was to have his wounds infected.

Nathan had not wanted to move the gambler because of his injuries, but he decided he would have to because the floor was not the most sterile environment to treat wounds. He got Buck and Josiah to carry Ezra to Elizabeth's bedroom. He was just glad that Ezra was still unconscious because if he was awake he would be feeling a tremendous amount of pain and Nathan had nothing to give the gambler to alleviate the discomfort.

After Nathan was finished dressing Ezra's wounds and he was resting comfortably, he went over and talked to Josiah. They each filled in the gaps that they were missing from the story. Nathan spied Elizabeth in the corner sitting by herself huddled up in a ball. He knew she must still be in shock of not only seeing her father dead like that but because she had pulled the trigger ending his life.

The gunmen that her father had hired had failed to check her purse for weapons. They had figured that she would not be carrying one. It had made a fatal mistake. She had placed Ezra's gun there after she had pulled it on JD. The scare of pulling it on a friend had not prevented her from wanting to keep it as protection against any loathsome curmudgeon who might want to attack her.

Josiah had been the one to take the gun from her. His heart went out to the girl because of all she went through at the hands of her father. Josiah knew that now the healing would begin. He took one look at his friend lying on the ground in a pool of blood and could not help wondering how he had come to stray from his path and if he could of helped him. He decided he strayed long before they met and there was no use worrying about things he could not change. He was going to focus his attention on things that were in his power to change and that was his relationship with the gambler.

Nathan helped Elizabeth off the ground and smiled at her, which seemed to comfort her. She looked up at him with a concerned look on her face. "How's Ezra?" she asked.

"He's resting. He's going to be fine. Your both going to be fine," he assured her.

She smiled, then headed to her room to sit with Ezra. She knew he was sleeping but it helped just being with him. She knew when he woke up they were going to have to talk. He was her hero, and she wanted him to know that. He had put his life on the line for her and now he was paying the price. She felt guilty watching him lying there wrapped up in bandages. She looked over to the corner of her room right beside the entranceway and saw his clothes had been discarded. They were soaked all the way through with blood, his blood. It made her feel queasy so she focused her attention back on to the man lying in the bed.

For the first, time she noticed that he was shirtless. The only thing covering him was a few bandages. She had been so preoccupied with his health she had failed to notice. She was slightly surprised that he was so toned and well built. She had known he was handsome but had never ventured to what he looked like underneath that puffy white shirt he liked to sport. She smiled at him, gave him a peck on the cheek, and then pulled the sheet that was at the bottom of the mattress over him. She did not think Ezra would like to have that much of himself exposed to the outside world. Ezra was a private person and very conservative. If he had been conscious he would have pulled the sheet up over him himself. She decided that her place was with him. Liz pulled up the chair in the corner next to Ezra and held his hand. She could not wait until he opened his eyes again.

It was three days since Carl Frankfort had been killed. Ezra was getting better, but he was still not strong enough to travel the long distance back to town so a lot of the regulators time was spent up at the Frankfort house. Carl's hired gunslingers had been arrested and was awaiting trial. Judge Travis would be in town at the end of the week to hear their respective cases but since they were caught red handed their guilt was certain.

Beth Frankfort had been escorted out of town. She took the stage to New Orleans where her sister and her family lived. Jeb had remained around awhile to make sure his sister was going to be fine. It seemed that after the initial shock had passed she was fine. He headed up to his cousin's in River Bend to clear his head and come to grips with the day's turn of events. He tried to persuade his sister to go with him, but she had refused as nicely as possible. She wanted to stay with Ezra to make sure he was going to recover fully. Jeb shook his head and gave her a hug goodbye. Before he exited the embrace he whispered in her ear, "Mr. Standish is a lucky man."

She pulled back from him and looked him square in the eye and in mock southern voice asked, "Now, whatever do you mean?"

Jeb chuckled as he went to give his sister a peck on the cheek, and then walked off into the sunset.

It was the next day when Ezra opened his eyes and was fully conscience. Over the course of the few days he had been conscious for only moments at a time, only long enough to ascertain if Elizabeth was all right. Nathan declared this new development to be a positive sign. It was Nathan who greeted the gambler from his slumber.

"Aw, hell," Ezra muttered.

The healer who had been busy cutting up more bandages for Standish's wounds was shocked to hear that old southern drawl. He turned to look at the gambler, a huge smile danced across his face.

Ezra squinted his eyes at him, "Mr. Jackson, are you getting pleasure out of seeing me in pain?"

"Of course not, Ezra, just happy to see you're awake," he said as he walked over to his friend to conduct an examination. "You up for visitors?" he asked as he redressed the bandages around his ribs.

Ezra raised an eye brow and looked at the healer, "Well, that would depend on who wants to see me and why?"

Nathan looked at the gambler and smiled. "We thought we'd save the people who want to tar and feather you for cheating in that poker game last week until you were well enough to at least stand up on you own."

Ezra smiled at him fastidiously. "How very kind Mr. Jackson. In that case I guess I could stand a few visitors."

Nathan nodded his head and went out exited the room. When Josiah came through the door only moments after, Ezra was slightly disappointed. He had been hoping to see Liz. Nathan had told him that she had been with him night and day, and he could only get her to leave his bedside to eat. He had not gotten a chance to see her. They had told him she was in fine health but he was still uneasy. He knew his comrades would not lie to him but to him seeing was believing, and he would be happier when he finally got the chance to see her with his own two eyes.

"Morning, Brother Ezra," Josiah greeted him.

"I think it is more like afternoon, Josiah," the gambler told him as he squinted from the light coming in from the window.

The big man walked over to Ezra and sat down by the chair next to him. He looked at him for a moment and for the first time it occurred to him that he looked young. Not as young as JD but still very much a man still finding out who he was. Ezra had changed so much from the man who had left them in the Seminole village the first week they met. He had proven himself time and again. Chris Larabee must have seen the changes, because when the gambler was accused of his crimes, he did not waver. He knew him to be true and steadfast. Josiah, however, had failed to see these changes in his comrade until this very minute. He could not believe how he missed it.

"Seems I owe you an apology," Josiah told him.

"For what, Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra asked.

"Seems when we were drawing up sides, I chose the wrong one," he confessed.

"Josiah," he said, "Even I have been known to do that from time to time." he smiled. This conversation was making the gambler uneasy. He was not used to this kind of male bonding. He decided to change the subject. "Care to engage in a game of chance?" he asked his eyes glistening with anticipation.

Josiah looked down at his friend. "I think it would be quicker if I just handed over my money now."

Ezra let out a hardy chuckle which he instantly regretted because of the pain that shot up from his ribs and his bullet wound. He looked at the preacher and inquired to what he missed in the past few days. Josiah imparted the information and then they discussed a wide range of topics before Josiah left.

Ezra closed his eyes for a minute to block out the sun's intensity. When he reopened them, he found JD at the end of his bed gathering up the gamblers clothes.

"Ah, Mr. Dunne seems you are developing quite the taste for my apparel." Standish said, his voice breaking the silence in the room, causing JD to jump in surprise.

"Ezra, I didn't know you were awake," he said hesitantly, turning his eyes away from the gambler.

"I look that bad Mr. Dunne?" Ezra inquired good naturally.

"No - Ezra you look fine" the kid stammered.

"Then might I inquire into your strange behavior?" Standish asked as he simultaneously tried to figure out what was going on with his friend.

JD looked at Ezra. Fine, he thought, he was going to make him say it. Well, then JD would oblige him. "If I hadn't of told then you would not be lying here now," he confessed.

So that was what he was worried about, Standish thought. "You have been holding out on me, Mr. Dunne. I was unaware you dabbled in the supernatural. Have you ever thought to put your talents into a more profitable use," Standish teased the dark haired young man.

The dark haired man looked at his friend slightly confused; "I ain't no soothsayer. I betrayed you. I'm sorry," he said in a low voice.

"Don't be so melodramatic, Mr. Dunne. From what Mr. Sanchez told me, you were merely defending my honor. Such a display of friendship I have never bared witness to," the gambler assured him.

JD was slightly surprised by the gambler's response but he could not help but beam with pride because of the words Ezra had spoken to him. He was just happy that his actions had not caused a rift between them. JD would hate to lose Ezra as a friend for any reason. He was just glad that it would not be because of a lapse of judgement on his part.

JD decided to let Ezra get some rest so he headed out of the small room where Ezra was being kept. Before he exited. he remembered something; "Chris wants to talk to you."

Ezra sighed, "Mr. Dunne would you be as so kind as to inform Mr. Larabee I am not yet up to visitors."

JD nodded. Chris was not going to like this, but Dunne figured he owed the man with the emerald eyes.

JD was out the door when he heard Ezra's southern voice calling to him. "Be sure to tell Mr. Wilmington that I expect to see him in that red dress as soon as I make my return to town."

Ezra heard JD chuckle from the next room and he could not help but smile as the image of Buck in a wig, make up and gaudy red dress played in his mind. Soon the image was replaced with that of Larabee and the awaiting confrontation.

Ezra knew what Chris was going to say. It was going to be a lecture on keeping secrets. Right now, he was not up for it. He and Chris were friends. They respected each other. They even would begrudgingly admit they liked each other's company. He knew Chris would only be telling him this stuff because he was worried about him, and Ezra could handle that. It took a long time for him to become Larabee's friend, and he was not about to destroy that by unleashing his temper on him. Sometimes his concern was just too much to take. He decided if he had to deal with it was better to do it when he was not in so much pain. Besides this lecture could keep a while, Ezra thought as he drifted back to sleep.

When he awoke, darkness had settled in the small room where he was being held captive until he could be moved back to Four Corners. He made out a faint image of someone stretched out on the chair next to his bed. As his eyes grew accustomed to the dark he was able to see that it was Elizabeth's still form.

He watched her breath in and out like she had watched him only days before. He could not help but let a sigh of relief escape his lips. She was alive, and he was thankful for that. He did not know the exact moment when he had fallen for her but sitting in the dark he knew he had. She had become his whole world. His everything. He would do anything for her. He would even die for her and he had come close. She had penetrated the wall that had surrounded his heart, an amazing feat. It was one that had only been accomplished by six other people in his life time.

Ezra carefully moved his hand up to her hair and began stoking it ever so gently. Liz's eyes fluttered open at his touch, and a small smile formed on her face as she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. She pulled her self away from the chair and made her way over to his bedside. "Can I get you anything?" she asked.

He smiled as a few lascivious thoughts danced around in his head. "Yes," he said slowly and asked her to come closer. She moved closer until she was but inches away from him. "This better?" she asked.

"Yes, much better," he said as he closed the centimeters that existed between their lips. His lips met hers in a sweet kiss. The kiss was so intoxicating that Ezra craved more, but he restrained himself. There would be time for many more kisses in the future. There would be years and years of kisses in their future. As Ezra finally drifted back to sleep he could not help muse that after all his time of searching in one horse towns, he had finally found the future Mrs. Standish in the first town he had ever really called home.


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