When Lightning Strikes
by Michelle N.
Parts 5-6 added 17 February 2004
Parts 7-8 added 18 February 2004
Parts 9-10 added 19 February 2004
Part 11 added 20 February 2004
"Sure is dark over there."
Six heads turned to look in the direction that JD Dunne, the young Sheriff of Four Corners, stared off into.
Indeed, black clouds were gathering quickly. They rolled into each other, accompanied by the ominous sound of thunder and bright flashes of light. A storm was coming.
"Don't think we're gonna beat the rain." Vin Tanner looked to Chris Larabee, the black clad leader of their rag-tag band of lawmen. Chris scowled at the clouds; as though his famous glare alone would be enough to stave off the approaching storm.
"There does not appear to be any sort of shelter about." Ezra Standish's red clad shoulders hunched up as another clap of thunder rolled across the flat expanse of prairie land. Lord, but he hated to get wet when it was not his idea to do so.
"Guess we're just gonna have to make a run for it." Chris turned in his saddle to face once more toward Four Corners.
The seven men, hired by Judge Orrin Travis to protect the small frontier town which seemed to attract trouble like bees to honey, had come to see the town as home.
"Oh, lovely." Ezra sighed. His fine clothes were becoming difficult to get clean. He had to throw out three shirts just last week. He fingered the fine lace on his newest shirt. Well, he supposed it was either run for it and get wet, or stand out in the open and get wet. At least if he ran he stood a better chance of getting inside where it was dry and warm faster.
The lawmen's run for town quickly turned into a race among them, each trying to spur his own mount on faster, gaining ahead and then losing it as another horse and rider passed by. Not being one who was used to losing any contest, whether a bet was placed or not, Ezra dug his heels into Chaucer's side and the horse shot forward, bypassing Vin on Peso, who had just passed JD.
The rooftops of Four Corners were just coming into sight when the skies opened up. Pulling his hat down lower on his head, Ezra hunched down over Chaucer's neck and gave the horse the extra push it needed to win.
A laugh escaped him, despite his now drenched state, as Chaucer's hoofs where the first to land on the town's main, and only, street. He pulled the horse to a stop and turned to flash a triumphant smile at his companions, whom he could hear grumbling behind him.
"Dang, Ez, what ya been feeding that nag?" Buck Wilmington shouted out above the rumble of thunder.
The snappy retort that was on the tip of the gambler's tongue turned into a shout as a flash of lightning hit the ground right in front of Chaucer's legs. The horse reared back and shrieked. Ezra, unable to hold onto the now slippery reins, was tossed off. He hit the ground with a loud 'thump'.
"Ezra!" Nathan shouted, trying to reach the fallen gambler through the crowd of panicking horses.
"God in heaven, what is that?"
Nathan had just enough time between Josiah's shout and the approach of the large, bright light to quickly grab Ezra and pull him out of the way before a... thing... ran him over.
The thing, which looked to be something resembling a small carriage, emitted a long, loud whistle and stopped with the squealing reminiscent of a train pulling to a stop.
The rain continued to fall down at a rapid pace.
"What the hell!?"
Six heads turned at the sound of the female voice. The voice was followed by a slam as the door of the... thing... was shoved closed.
"What do you idiots think you're doing? You can't ride horses in the middle of the street like that."
"Ma'am?" Josiah tried to get the word in, but the strange woman continued her tirade.
"I swear, every god damn year. You old west freaks just descend on the town and take everything over. Don't you realize people have to live here?"
"Ma'am!" This time Vin tried to cut in.
"Riding horses in the street! What are you going to do next? Have a shoot out at the OK Corral?"
"If you don't shut up there's gonna be a shoot out right here!" Chris finally managed to make himself heard over her shouts. His threat got the desired result; she stopped yelling and was now staring at him with her mouth open in shock.
A groan from the dazed gambler on the ground brought all attention to him.
"God, my head," he mumbled as he tried to sit up.
"Easy, Ez, you took a bad fall," Nathan said, trying to check the gambler's head for injury.
"And I could have run him over." The woman swore again, causing Buck, Chris, and Vin to exchange glances. "Shit, that would have been the last thing I need." She reached into the pocket of her long coat and took out a black object.
As quick as the lightning that had stuck the ground in front of Ezra's horse, Chris drew his gun and aimed at the woman. "Drop it," he said through clenched teeth.
"Holy shit!" She threw her arms out in front of her. "Mister, are you totally sloshed? It's only a phone. I'm just going to call an ambulance for your friend here."
"Yeah, you know, a Tel-e-phone." She spoke to them as though they were dim-witted children. "Look, see, it dials." She started pushing buttons on the contraption. Putting the thing to her ear, she started speaking into it. "We need help out on Main, in front of the Tavern... yeah... a man fell off his horse... yes, that's right, I said his horse... uh-huh, I thought so too... right." She dropped the contraption back into her pocket. "You can put that thing away now," she said, pointing at the gun still in Chris's hand. He looked down at the weapon and frowned, then reluctantly put it back into his holster.
A bright, flashing red light and a sound he could only describe as being like that of a wounded animal burst in through the dark, wet night. The lawmen jumped a foot. Even Ezra, always so cool on the outside, shrank back at the approach of another carriage-like thing. The red light was attached to the top of it. The cry it emitted was deafening.
"God have mercy." Josiah crossed himself. He hadn't done that in a long time, but then he couldn't remember feeling so confused, so astounded, so utterly... scared, than he was at that moment.
"Amen to that, brother." Nathan still sat on the ground, cradling the gambler's head in his lap. Instinctively, he put an arm around Ezra's chest in a protective gesture.
Buck and JD wore twin expressions, eyes wide, mouths agape.
Chris moved to the front of his band of men, the lead wolf guarding his pack.
Only Vin was not looking at the strange spectacle. His eyes moved around, taking in the sights around them. It was Four Corners, their home, and yet it wasn't. It was different. What was that sign above what he knew to be the jail? His lips tried to sound out the words. 'Con-ven-ie-nce Store'. What? His head moved slowly to look across the street to where the Potters' general store should be. 'Vitalia's' What the hell was Vitalia's? "Chris? I think we got trouble."
But Larabee was too intent on the woman and approaching light to answer him.
"Great," the woman said, running a hand through long, dark hair. "Just great. Exactly what I need."
The red light flashing thing came to a stop and a door opened. A tall man got out. Chris could see one of the man's hands rested on a weapon attached to a holster near his hip. The gunslinger's defenses went on alert.
"What seems to be the trouble, folks?" a deep, western laced voice asked. His build was muscular, and he walked slightly bow-legged.
The woman turned toward him. "Hey, Tony. Having a good night?"
"Was. What happened this time, Andy? Rear end Arthur's pick-up again?"
"No, and I keep telling you he drives drunk. Speaking of drunk, I think you should take these fellas in for the night. They need to sleep it off."
The man looked to Chris. Cold green eyes met steel gray ones. "Who the hell are you?" the man asked.
Chris could now see the star shaped badge on his shirt. "I could ask the same of you."
"Well, you could son. I'm Sheriff Tony Hiller. Now, what exactly do you think you're doing with those horses in the middle of the street?"
"Exactly what I want to know."
Sheriff Hiller glanced over his shoulder. "If you don't mind, Andy, I'll handle this."
"Oh, by all means." She gave him a smile laced with venom.
The older man sighed. "Girl, sometimes I swear..." He left the sentence unfinished and turned back to Chris.
JD's mouth finally closed. He opened it again to voice his protest, but was stopped by Buck's hand clamping down on his shoulder.
"Don't," the ladies man said, his eyes never leaving Chris and the Sheriff.
"But Buck, he can't... I'm... aw, hell."
"You may be right about that, kid. You just may be."
Chris stared hard at the man calling himself sheriff. He wasn't dressed all that differently than Chris was himself. Black denim pants and black shirt. But this man's gun holster was strange, not to mention the gun in it. A stick-like object hung from the other side of his waist, and he wore a funny sort of felt hat with a bill in front. Like a duck's bill, Chris thought. He never would have thought to put a duck's bill on a hat.
"Strong, silent type, eh? Well, guess I'll just have to let you tell your side of the story first, Andy." He addressed the woman, but kept his eyes on Chris.
"I was driving back to the Inn when I saw that man lying in the middle of the street." She pointed toward Ezra, even though the Sheriff wasn't looking at her. "I had to swerve to miss him and the animals."
"Then I stopped, got out, and called 911."
"Would that be before or after you chewed their asses up and spit them out?"
Chris couldn't help it. A slight twitch turned up the corner of his mouth.
"Ah, I see you boys' have been witness to our dear Miranda's famous temper. Don't let it get to you, she's Irish, she can't help it."
"Excuse me, while all this is terribly interesting, I would like to get back to my room and lie down. My skull is splitting," a southern voice spoke from the ground.
The sheriff peered around Chris to see him. "Only place you're going, son, is to the emergency room. Let the docs get a look at you. In the meanwhile I'd like your friends here to come with me to the station. I've got a few questions for them."
"We're not going anywhere with you, and you're not taking him anywhere without us," Chris all but growled at the Sheriff. To his annoyance, he found his glare and famous bad-ass attitude was having very little effect on this strange man.
"Well, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. I'd much prefer the easy way. I don't really want to place you all under arrest, too much paper work, but if that's what it takes..."
"I said we're not leaving him."
"No choice in the matter, son."
"God damn it, cowboy!"
"Vin, what in the hell do you want?"
"I think we should go with him." The tracker stepped up to stand next to Larabee.
Chris gave him a look that said he thought Vin had lost all good sense. "What do you mean?" Chris's words were ground out from between clenched teeth.
"Look around you, cowboy. This just ain't right. None of it is. Until we can figure out what's going on, I think we should go with the sheriff here."
"Now, here's a boy who talks sense." The Sheriff nodded at Vin.
"Have you completely lost your mind?"
"I wonder, cowboy, I do. Ifin I have, then I'd say we all have."
"I agree with him, Chris."
"Me too, brother."
"When did I stop being Sheriff again?"
"I ain't leavin' Ezra."
"For God's sake, Mr. Jackson, I do not require your presence hovering over me. It's a simple fall."
The Sheriff placed two fingers in his mouth and gave off a loud whistle. It was then that the horses, who surprisingly had remained calm through all this, started shrieking in panic when another moaning cry split the night air. A larger, brighter, red light than the one on the Sheriff's carriage came toward them.
Buck, JD, and Josiah tried to get the horses under control as the largest... thing yet came into view. It was white, with a red stripe across its middle. The words 'Four Corners General' was printed on its side. As soon as it came to a stop, another man jumped out. He rushed over to where Ezra lay, still leaning into Nathan.
Chris jumped in front of the gambler, blocking him from this new stranger's reach.
"Save it, Vin. No one but Nathan is gonna touch Ez."
"Mr. Larabee, I don't believe the gentleman means any harm."
"He's right, mister." The new man was young, blond haired and clean-shaven. He looked imploringly between Chris and his intended patient. "I just want to help him."
"Chris, let him." Vin grasped Chris's arm and pulled him out of the way.
Chris seethed, but let himself be pulled away. He kept his gaze on Ezra though. If the gambler showed any sign of being harmed, he would shoot first and ask questions later.
"What do you say, Mike?" the Sheriff asked.
"No sign of fracture, could have a concussion though. I'd like to take him to be sure."
"Okay boys, here's what's gonna happen. Your friend is going to the hospital, you're going to the station."
"The hell we..."
Vin's hand grabbed hold tightly to Chris's arm again. "Not now Chris."
"I'm gonna kick your ass, Tanner."
"Later. Right now just agree with the man."
"I'm not letting Ezra go alone." Larabee would not admit it, but he was scared. Scared that he didn't know what was going on, why everything looked so different, so strange. He was scared that if he let Ezra go, he might not be able to find the con man again, couldn't protect him. He was scared, and he didn't like being scared.
"I'll go with him." The woman spoke up again. "I'll stay with him if that will be alright with you."
"Andy, why you want to get involved?"
"Already am, Tony. I'm the one who called, I'll go with him."
The Sheriff raised an eyebrow at Chris. "That alright with you?"
Chris trained his glare on the woman. "No, it's not. But then again, I don't got much choice do I?"
"Now you're starting to understand," said the Sheriff.
Miranda Allister could not believe her luck. Or her bad luck as the case may be. The last thing she wanted to be stuck doing on a rainy Friday night was sitting on a hard plastic chair in the Emergency Room waiting to hear about the condition of a strange man she had almost flattened with her Buick.
What on Earth were seven men on horses doing in the downtown area in the middle of the night?
It was like they had come out of nowhere. She could have sworn they weren't there before the lightning flash. She almost didn't see him in time.
The horror of what could have happened is what had made her so angry, was why she was still angry. She couldn't afford to have anything like that happen. Her name mentioned on any police report at all... she shuddered.
She would have to talk to Tony, persuade him to leave her name out of any report he might make. If he made one. Tony so hated paper work.
She stopped another nurse who passed by; asked about the man she had come in with. He had given his name as Ezra Standish to the EMT in the ambulance. It had been a chore to get him into the vehicle. He had looked like he'd never seen an ambulance before. He had refused to be put on the stretcher, and had to lean on his friend, the black man, to walk to it.
She half expected the one guy, the one with the icy glare, to change his mind as he watched his friend disappear inside the ambulance, but the long haired one had held him back with the simple pressure of his hand.
Ezra Standish tried to calm himself during the ride by talking to her.
What was her name?
Miranda Allister, but everyone called her Andy.
Andy? Such a masculine name for such a lovely lady. However did she acquire it?
He actually talked like that. Used some words she thought she might need to look up later.
His clothes were strange. Nice, but strange. That fancy red coat and lacy shirt. She'd believe he was gay, if not for the way he looked at her. She knew that look, knew it all too well.
Her face was her blessing and her curse. She was beautiful. She had been told that so many times she had come to hate the word. Beautiful.
Royce had wanted her because she was beautiful.
Royce. Another shudder ran through her. He wouldn't find her, he couldn't. Henry had promised.
She shook her head, sending thoughts of Royce and Henry to the back of her mind. There was something so much more important going on right now.
She was certain those men had to be early arrivals for the Four Corners History Days. The festivities were not set until next week, but they always had a few early revelers. Mostly old west enthusiasts who liked to live like real cowboys for three days, then go back to their office jobs and Volvos once it was over.
But in three years she had never seen a group of men like she had tonight. They had seemed so real, so very into it. They had even looked, well... sort of frightened.
It was the fear she had seen in the blond man's eyes that made her volunteer to go with the injured man to the hospital. All she knew about him though was his name, and that didn't leave her with much information. A stack of papers was pushed in front of her when she came in with him. She couldn't fill them out! She didn't know where he lived or how old he was, what insurance he carried. He was a complete stranger to her, and she had learned over the years to be leery of strangers.
"Hey, Andy." A woman in white scrubs sat down next to her.
"Hi yourself, Melissa." Melissa George was the head ER nurse, and one of the few people in Four Corners Andy felt she could truly call a friend.
"That guy you came in with should be ready to go. There is a concussion, but without any information about him to go on, we can't admit him."
Melissa smiled when Andy rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I know, hospital politics. I don't like it much either. He needs someone watching him. Did you know he didn't have any ID on him?"
Andy shrugged. "I didn't think to ask to look at their drivers' licenses. Besides, they weren't driving, they were riding horses."
"Strange town we live in, huh?" Melissa said. Andy laughed. "Well, in any case, we're sending him on his way. Can't say I'm sorry. Guy has a mouth on him. Don't really understand half of what he said, but from the tone it didn't sound too complimentary."
"Can I see him?" Andy wasn't sure why she should want to. If she were smart she'd just put him in a cab and send him off to Tony at the police station. But she couldn't ignore the voice inside of her; the one that couldn't stop asking questions and wouldn't give her a rest until it had the answers.
She hoped Mr. Ezra Standish could provide some.
"Sure. He's over in Cubicle 3. We gave him some painkillers, but he should be all right. Like I said, he just needs someone to watch him for a while."
Andy nodded. Why did she get the feeling she had already been elected to the position?
Ezra lay on his side on the uncomfortable, narrow bed, watching the strange men and women walk by the door of the small room he had been left in. A man calling himself 'Dr. Wilson' had given him a small, round, white pill to take, telling him it would help ease his headache.
It did, but it also left him feeling a bit lethargic. He knew he would not be able to defend himself if any danger should occur, especially since the man who seemed to think he was the Sheriff had confiscated all of their guns.
Ezra had been too stunned, both literally and figuratively to do much to stop him. It seemed as though the others had been in shock as well.
What had happened to them? Why did Four Corners... (and he knew he was in Four Corners, he had asked one of the women who was helping to poke and prod him where he was)... why did it look so different?
There was no hospital in the tiny little backwater he had come to call home, he knew that. Yet here he was inside of one, albeit the strangest one he had ever seen.
For instance, what was that strap the doctor put around his arm? Ezra had tried to fight back for fear they were going to restrain him somehow. Three other men had held him still while the doctor had squeezed a little ball attached by a tube to the strap around him upper arm. The strap had tightened with each squeeze. Ezra rubbed his arm where the strap had been.
Then the doctor had said a number to one of the women, and she wrote it down.
Then there was that thing they had stuck in his ear. It was cold. Another number was read off and pronounced as 'normal'.
Normal was hardly the word he would use to describe any of this.
Ezra P. Standish, who prided himself on being able to adapt to any situation he found himself in, was at a loss, and he didn't like it.
He had made no attempt to hide his ire from those attending to him. He would dare to say he got that pretty blonde woman, whose badge had read 'Melissa George, RN' quite annoyed.
Well, suited her right as far as he was concerned. After all, she had wanted to stick a sharp needle in his arm and draw blood.
There was a curious and incessantly annoying beeping that would sound every now and again, followed by a voice telling a Doctor this, or a Nurse that, to report to some such place. He didn't know where the voice was coming from, but he wished it would just shut up.
They told him to rest. Like he could do that with all the activity going on. He sighed. Something was most definitely wrong.
The curtain that surrounded his temporary bed was pulled aside. Ezra gazed up at the face of the woman he recalled talking to during his ride in that... that... screaming contraption.
"Miss Allister," he said, recalling her name.
She smiled. "Very good. I didn't know if you'd remember me, you seemed kind of out of it for a while there."
"An understatement." His tongue darted out to run over dry lips. It was a signal that usually had Nathan running for water to ease his thirst whenever he was holed up in the healer's clinic. But this was not Nathan's clinic, and this young woman was most certainly not Nathan. "I seem to be rather parched. Would there by chance be any refreshment nearby?"
She raised her eyebrows and quirked her mouth up in a funny little smile. "Do you always talk like a character in a Shakespeare play?" She turned and left his little space, returning only moments later holding a small cup. "Here," she said. "They said you could have these for now."
She handed him the cup filled with chipped ice. Good enough. He let the chips melt on his tongue.
"So, would you like to tell me what you and your friends were doing riding horses down the street in the middle of the night during pouring down rain?" She pulled a chair over to the side of the bed and sat down.
"I had believed we were going home. It would seem we ended up as far from there as we could get. I do recall we were engaged in a race and then there was a lightning strike. That must have been when Chaucer threw me."
"My horse." He suddenly sat up in alarm. "Good God, my horse! What has been done with my horse?"
"Hey, calm down! Do you want them to come in here and sedate you?" She pushed him back until he was once again lying on the bed. "I heard Tony say they were going to take the horses to Montfert Farms. That is where all the re-enactors are supposed to stable their horses during History Days."
"Yeah, that's what you're here for, isn't it? Although you and your friends are a little early. It's not until next weekend." She stood and picked up his coat from where one of the nurses had laid it across the foot of the bed. "They say they're going to release you. I suppose I should at least see you to your hotel. Where are you staying?"
"I have a room above the Standish Tavern." Home. Oh yes, home would be most welcome. Perhaps once he was safely nestled amongst his down pillows he could awaken and find this all to be some crazy dream.
"You do?" She was looking at him a little skeptically.
"Yes, of course. Why do you ask?"
"Because I own the Standish Tavern, and I don't recall checking anyone in. At least not you and your crazy group."
A chill ran through Ezra's blood. She owned the Standish Tavern? But what about Inez? Had mother sold the property again?
No, no, that wasn't right. Nothing was right.
A thought occurred to him. An insane thought, but the only one that made any sense at all in this wild dream he seemed to be caught up in.
"May I ask you a question, Miss Allister?"
"I need your promise that you answer straight away, and not reply with any questions of your own."
She screwed her pretty face up in confusion. Or was it annoyance? "Ooohkay. What is it?"
"What is the present year?"
A short laugh emerged from her mouth. "What..." she began, then at his look said, "It's 2003, of course. What year did you think it was?"
Ezra could literally feel his skin going white. "The last I checked, it was 1869."
Sheriff Tony Hiller sighed as he leaned back in his leather chair. Work roughened fingers rubbed over tired eyes before reaching out for his eighth cup of coffee that evening.
The bitter brew assaulted his taste buds, and he unceremoniously spit it back out into the cup, then dumped the whole thing into the potted plant beside his desk.
Shit! Henderson must have made this pot. Man didn't know how to heat water let alone make a decent pot of coffee.
Truth be known though, it wasn't coffee that he was really wanting right now.
Pulling out the bottom drawer of his desk, he stared down at the bottle of Jack Daniels that lay inside of it. He left it there as a reminder of what was, and what could have happened. He also had it to test himself, see if he could look his demon in the face and beat it at its own game.
He wasn't going to go down that road again. He promised Betsy, he promised himself. But nights like this one really tested the limits.
The six men now cooling their heels down in lock-up were making him consider retirement. That one all in black, Larabee was his name, Christ, he would swear the man could freeze blood with those eyes of his.
And that tall one with the beard, he had roared like a lion when that injured man had been taken away in the ambulance. It sounded like his soul was being ripped from him.
Tony snorted. He knew what that felt like.
The longhaired one mostly kept the blond one at bay. Tony was thankful for that if for nothing else. But he kept asking stupid questions, like what the year was.
Fuck it all, they had to be three sheets to the wind. What year was it?
He could recall a time when he didn't even know his own name, all thanks to the stuff in the bottle he was still looking longingly down on.
The buzzer on his inter-office phone sounded. He looked at it a little disdainfully. The intercom had been his secretary's idea.
"It's much more professional than yelling, 'Hey Tony, Mr. McFarland set fire to his wife's car again!', across the office," she had said.
He just saw it as a waste of perfectly good money that could have gone toward the station's pizza fund.
He pressed the 'voice' button. "What is it, Grace?"
His secretary's voice came out of the speaker. "Tony, Miranda Allister is here, demanding to see you. It's 10pm and Mark just called to say JT just barfed up his nighttime formula. Can I please go?"
Tony sighed again. He really had no right to keep Grace from her home like this, what with a 1-year-old son at home and a husband who worked 60 hours a week himself. But she was his lifeline in this crazy profession he had chosen.
"Yeah, go ahead. Take tomorrow off."
"Gee, thanks, Tony. On a Saturday and all."
"You're a smartass, Grace. What does Andy want?"
"Ask her yourself, she's on her way in."
"Shit." Tony shut off the intercom and stood, shoving his chair back just as Andy opened his office door and walked right up to his desk.
"Where are they?"
Oh dear, she didn't look patient. But then, when did she ever? Tony had known her the entire three years she had lived in this town, and he'd yet to see her show any respect for his authority.
"Who are you talking about, Andy?" He damn well already knew.
"You damn well already know. The guys from this evening, with the horses? Where are they now?"
Tony sat back down in his chair, letting the soft leather enfold him in comfort. "They're down in lock-up."
"Are they under arrest?"
"Have a seat, Andy." He pointed to a wooden folding chair on the other side of the desk. Andy merely raised one brow at him; her mouth set in a grim lime.
"Are they under arrest?" she asked again.
"At the moment... no."
Andy let out a long breath. The way her entire body seemed to relax made him think she was relieved.
"But that doesn't mean they won't be. How's the other one?"
"His name is Ezra Standish, and he's fine. I took him over to the Tavern and put him to bed."
Tony could feel a pain begin to spread across his forehead. "Christ, why the hell did you do that for? I have questions for him."
"He's not up to it. Now, if the other men are not under arrest at the present time, why, may I ask, are you holding them?"
Tony leaned forward until his elbows rested on the top of his desk. He folded his hands and rested his chin on top of them. "Why are you so all fired concerned all of a sudden?"
She shrugged. "Turns out they're guests of mine. They were on their way to check in when the accident happened."
"On horses... in the pouring rain... dressed like refugees from a bad Hollywood western?"
"They're here for History Days." She dismissed his questions with a wave of her hand.
"Right. That's not till next weekend, Andy."
"So, they're early. We get early tourists all the time."
"Not ones who carry around heat like this." He opened his top drawer and pulled out an object encased in a clear plastic bag. It was a Colt Richards revolver with an ivory handle. "Let me tell you, I know guns, and this thing is the real McCoy. Circa 1868. The date's engraved right here." He tapped the handle. "It's worth a fortune, especially in the condition this one is in. And it shoots. It shoots good."
"You fired it?" Andy looked at him with wide eyes. A hint of amusement could be seen in the blue depths. He knew she probably got a kick out of him doing something like that.
She made a tsk-tsk sound, and shook her head. "Tampering with evidence. Tony, Tony, Tony."
"Not evidence unless it's used in a crime. I wouldn't bet on anyone using a weapon like this one for petty robbery. More likely someone would steal the gun to get cash."
"Ok, so all you know is they are old west enthusiasts who like to dress and act the part. And they carry big guns." She looked down at the weapon lying on the desk. "Really big guns."
"They shouldn't be carrying them, that's the problem. I asked them if they had permits. You should have seen their faces. Not one of them had any idea what I was talking about. And the way they act, talk, dress... hell, everything about them. I swear, if I didn't know better, I'd think..."
He paused, unwilling to let the words leave his mouth. He could just imagine how quickly it would get around the town. 'Hey, Sheriff Hiller thinks he's caught time travelers!' 'So Tony, when are Mulder and Scully going to come investigate?'
He could take good-natured ribbing, but not at the expense of his professional reputation.
"You would think what?" Andy looked down at him in expectation.
"Look, what do you want? I've got a job to do here." He quickly changed the subject, hoping Andy would let the whole thing drop.
"Nice try, Tony. I know you were about to say something, and you know I'm not one to give up..."
"More like you like to beat already dead horses with sticks," he mumbled.
He heard her sigh, a long suffering sound. "Ok, you win, for now at least. I want to take those men back to the Tavern with me."
His head shot up. "What the hell for?"
"I told you, they're guests of mine. Their friend is already there, and he really wants to see them."
"They want to see him too." He rubbed his tired eyes again. The tall black man kept asking about Ezra. How was Ezra? Did anyone find out about Ezra?
He supposed it would be better for all concerned if he simply let the men go. It would certainly do wonders for his wavering sanity.
"Thanks, Tony, knew you would see it my way." She turned away happily.
Her hand was on the doorknob when he said, "But I'm not through with them yet."
"Neither am I, Tony, neither am I."
Chris Larabee was pacing around the jail cell like a tiger in a cage. He growled like one too, every time Vin would tell him to sit his ass down. Hell, he knew Chris was only worried, and he had every right to be. They were stuck in a strange place with strange people, and they were missing their seventh man. No one would answer any questions they asked about Ezra. If they could only see him, know he was all right...
Chris was the worst, which really gave Vin some amusement. Behind that wall of cold indifference he always liked to show around the gambler, Chris considered him just as much a part of their unconventional little family as he did the rest. Vin knew he would never get his best friend to admit to it, but it was there in every dark glance, in every uttered curse word.
That funny looking contraption on the wall started buzzing again. What was it with everything around here? Everything rang, buzzed, beeped, moaned, groaned, squeaked, or screamed. He had never heard so much noise in his life.
There was now no more doubt left in the tracker's mind. He never would have believed it if he weren't there himself, seeing what he was.
This was not their time. He had seen the calendar on the wall as they were brought down here. It claimed the year to be 2003.
Never in his wildest dreams had he thought he'd ever see such a year. He didn't even believe he would have stuck around long enough to see 1900, but a hundred years beyond that? Incredible!
He hadn't said anything to the others yet. He just wasn't sure how to say it, let alone explain it, and he wasn't really sure how they would react.
Lord, he wished Ezra were here. Ez would have a word about any situation. He would make them all laugh with his five-dollar words delivered in the droll, lazy accent.
Chris was about to explode. Vin could tell from the way his fists kept clenching and unclenching. The gunslinger wanted to hit something, and badly. The tracker's blue eyes looked longingly at the cell door, wanting to get out of Chris's way before the storm cloud burst.
The door outside their cell opened again. An officer came through, followed by their salvation. Vin knew it, the moment he saw her again, she was here for them, to help them. Vin never mistrusted what his instincts told him, and they were screaming out to him right then to trust this woman.
"You again." Chris practically spit venom out at her as he spoke. "Where's Ezra?"
"Safe. I took him back to my Inn. He's sleeping. The doctor said he took a pretty good knock, but he'll be alright."
One could feel the rush of air as six men let out pent up, relieved breaths.
"We want to see him." Chris stepped up to the cell door and grabbed hold of the bars. He gave her a look designed to make even the toughest outlaw run crying for his mother, but she simply stood there with a look of defiance that Vin couldn't help but be proud of.
Dang, if that didn't beat all. Chris Larabee, unable to intimidate a woman.
"That's what I'm here for. You're free to go, as long as you go with me. I came up with as good a cover story as I could for you to get Tony off your backs. For the time being, anyway."
"And why should we go anywhere with you?"
Vin couldn't stand it. "Jesus, Chris, just listen to her. We have no idea what we're dealin' with here."
"I'm with Vin," Buck said. "Besides, a man would be a fool not to willingly follow such a lovely lady to the ends of the earth." Buck too came up to the bars, and reached through to grasp her hand. He brought her hand to his lips and placed a loud smack on her knuckles.
She gave the ladies man a half smile. "Does stuff like that really work for you?" she asked, extracting her hand from his and rubbing it off on her pants.
Buck smiled and shrugged. "Can't complain."
"Lay off her, Buck," Vin warned.
"Would love to." Buck winked at the woman.
"I'll thank you to keep your mouth shut. As it is, I owe you a good sound slap for that comment. I don't know how things were where you come from, but in this century there are things called 'political correctness' and 'women's lib'. I don't have to listen to any nasty talk from you."
Buck backed away from the bars. "I... I... I apologize, ma'am," he stammered.
Sitting on a cot against the wall, JD laughed. This seemed to break Buck out of his astonishment-induced stupor, for he strode over to the young man, knocked the bowler hat from his head, and proceeded to beat him about the shoulders with it. JD still could not stop laughing, and soon Nathan and Josiah joined in.
"What do you say about your animal maggot-isim now, Buck?" the healer laughed out.
"It's magnetism!" Buck yelled back at him. He dropped JD's hat to the floor and kicked it across the cell.
"Hey!" JD yelled out in indignation. He got up to pick up his hat and brush it off while throwing Buck a dirty look.
The woman watched all this in silence, a completely blank look on her face. Vin was sure Ezra would have stood up and applauded.
The former bounty hunter came to stand next to Chris.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"You can call me Andy. Are they always like that?" She jutted her chin out toward Buck, who was now sullenly sitting on the cot JD had vacated.
"You get used to it." Vin shrugged. Andy raised her brows in question, as though she wasn't so sure.
"So, you know who we are?"
She obviously knew something about their situation. Her comment about 'in this century' had caught his attention.
"Let's just say Ezra and I had a pretty interesting conversation before I came here."
"You believe him?"
"I'm not really sure what I'm ready to believe right now. But, with the way you guys just showed up like you did, out of nowhere it seems..." She spread her arms out and shrugged. "It seems to be the only explanation that makes sense."
Chris listened to them talk, his hard green eyes moving from Vin to Andy, and back again. "What the hell are you two talking about?"
Andy's mouth turned up in a grin. Or was it a sneer? She looked to Chris as she spoke. "To make a long story short, Mr. Larabee, the seven of you have somehow managed to travel through 133 years worth of time. Welcome to the twenty-first century."
The night would surely go down as the wildest one of her life, and Andy had been through some pretty crazy nights.
After finally convincing Tony to let the men go, she commandeered a new officer to drive the three men called Buck, JD, and Josiah to her Tavern, while she went with Chris, Vin, and Nathan.
Just her luck to get stuck taking care of seven men from the 1800s, if they were from the 1800s. She couldn't believe she was actually buying into it. Really... time travel? It was something out of a sci-fi movie; it was not something a modern woman of above-average intelligence should believe.
Yet... when she looked down into the confused and nervous eyes of Ezra Standish... when she talked to the very honest-seeming Vin Tanner... it didn't seem like such an impossible thing.
After all, Albert Einstein, possibly the greatest mind of the last hundred years, believed time travel was possible. And hadn't she read magazine stories where people had stated with their hands on a bible that they had crossed over into other time periods, other dimensions?
Of course, she had never really taken those stories seriously, until now.
Vin certainly believed it. What was more, he didn't seem all that upset by it. He had this look in his eyes, a look that said he just 'knew'.
Knew what? A lot more than she did obviously.
Now the other one, Mr. Chris Larabee, badass extraordinaire, gave new meaning to the word 'upset'. If he wasn't careful, he was going to have an aneurysm, and then not only would she have a time traveling gunslinger on her hands, she'd have a DEAD time traveling gunslinger on her hands. Not a complication she needed.
They all seemed relieved upon arrival at the Standish Tavern. She had kept the name of the place only because of the stipulation of such in her uncle's will when he bequeathed the place to her. And it was the town's wish that the former old west saloon be kept in as much of an original condition as possible. In the three years after she had acquired ownership, Andy had added the big-screen television and the CD jukebox, but the long, scarred wooden bar remained, as did the green felt-covered gaming tables. The piano in the far left corner had come from a nearby estate sale. The large, gold framed mirror behind the bar once graced the parlor of a 'house of ill-repute'; a fact that Andy thought rather interesting.
"It looks... different," Vin said when he walked in. "But... still the same."
"I couldn't stay completely true to the old west," Andy said as she led them up the stairs. "The bar area is one of the main hangouts for the town. I get some big crowds, especially during football season. And the World Series always brings them in too."
"The World Series?" The question came from the tall, bearded man. Josiah was his name, she recalled.
"Yes, the World Series." Then, at his blank look, she added, "Of Baseball?"
"I used to play Baseball," the youngest man, JD, spoke. "The kids used to play a lot back in Boston."
"They still do, and everywhere else for that matter." She stopped in front of a door numbered 10, and took a key from her pocket. "This is my only suite," she said, unlocking the door. "It has two bedrooms with two full size beds each. And the living room has a pull out in the sofa. I hope you'll all be comfortable in here together."
"Where's Ezra." Larabee spoke up for the first time since leaving the police station.
Andy pointed a finger to the door to the right. Immediately, they all rushed to the door. Larabee pulled it open. A shaft of moonlight fell onto a form huddled under the covers on the bed closest to the window.
Andy watched in fascination as they all went over to the bed, each of them having to touch their friend.
Josiah picked up his hand and enfolded it between his own large ones. Nathan laid a hand over the gambler's brow. Vin squeezed his shoulder. Buck and JD both reached down to touch a blanket covered leg.
Chris's touch was the one that surprised her the most. It was very slight, no more than a brush of fingers across the younger man's cheek, hardly a touch at all. Yet it was the one that made the sleepy green eyes of Ezra Standish open.
The two emerald colored orbs moved from one face to another. A small smile came to his lips. "Good evening, gentlemen. I trust you've had an adventurous time here in the bright, new century."
"Putting it mildly, brother." Josiah laughed.
"How you feeling, Ez?" Nathan asked, leaning down to check the head wound, now covered with a white bandage.
"Such an aberrant question to ask a man who is so obviously injured, Mr. Jackson."
"Sounds like he'll be fine," Buck said, patting Ezra's knee.
"Not to sound unappreciative of your presence here, gentlemen, but could I perhaps have some air?"
Andy stepped foreword. "He's right. The doctor said he needs rest and he won't get it with all of you hovering over him."
"Thank you, Miranda, my dear." Ezra's voice began to slur as he was once again pulled back toward sleep.
"The rest of you should get some sleep too. I'll pull out the sofa-bed and get you some extra blankets."
As she turned to go, she heard Vin call out to her. "Andy?"
"Yeah?" she asked, looking at him over her shoulder.
"Thank you really doesn't seem like a good enough word."
"No, it doesn't. But I'll take it all the same."
Ezra's bed was empty when Chris finally opened his eyes the next morning. He had fallen asleep in the big chair next to the gambler's bed after arguing with Nathan over who should take the other bed in that room. Nathan had wanted to watch over Ezra, but Chris insisted the healer sleep, and let Ezra sleep as well.
Vin took that sofa/cot thing in the middle room, and Buck and JD commandeered the other bedroom. Josiah made himself a bed on the floor in the room with Ezra, Chris, and Nathan.
Turning his head to the left, Chris looked at the little black box on the table by the bed. He managed last night to figure out that it was a clock of some kind. The red numbers said 8:30, and a little dot was lit up by the AM sign.
Kind of early for Ezra. The gambler usually was never up before noon, due to his late night gaming.
Chris stood, stretching out his tall, lean frame to work out the kinks in his muscles. He could hear muted voices in the other room. None of them had mentioned their current situation last night. It just didn't seem right at the time, what with Ezra hurt. He knew they'd have to talk about it sooner or later, try to figure out what happened and why. He wanted to talk to that woman, Andy. He didn't know if she knew anything more than he did, but she seemed just a little too accepting of them. That made his instincts jump to attention. Besides, she was just about the craziest woman he'd met. Loud, outspoken, and tough. Didn't seem to give a damn about what other people were thinking about her. She reminded him of... of the men in his group. If he were honest with himself, he would admit that she reminded him of himself, too.
He ran one hand through his hair as he stepped out of the room. Vin and Nathan both sat on the cot, twin expressions of awe on their faces as they stared at a box against one wall, as series of pictures of dancing, barely dressed people flashed across the front of it. Loud, fast... he supposed he should call it music... accompanied the dancers.
Chris stopped to look, tipping his head to one side as a singing woman started to move in a very exotic, suggestive way.
"Damn! What is it?" he asked the two flabbergasted lawmen.
"The folks on before said it was Jaylow," Vin answered, not taking his eyes off the screen.
"Jaylow? What the hell kind of name is Jaylow?"
"Don't know, don't care," Nathan said.
Yes, Chris could see where the not caring part came in. "Buck seen this yet?"
"He was here to see some gal called Shania Twain. Had to pull JD out of the room. Kid's eyes were popping out of his head."
"Hmm. You know where Ezra is?" Chris brought the subject of the conman up, trying to distract his mind from the scene his eyes were taking in.
"Oh! Ezra." Nathan jumped up. "He went downstairs. I was gonna go see if he was all right, then I..." He waved a hand at the box. "Well, I..."
"No need to explain." Chris smiled.
The other bedroom door opened and Buck came out, his hair wet and a white towel wrapped around his waist. "Hoo-wee, pard, you just gotta try out that shower thing. Never felt so clean in my life."
"That's cause you haven't been," Vin quipped, and was rewarded by a slap across the back of his head.
"So, what'd I miss?" The ladies man licked his lips and looked to the box, which was now showing some guys singing and dancing. "Dang! Don't want to see that. What happened to that Janet person?"
"Haven't seen her again, but you missed a Britney and a Faith."
Buck grinned. "I tell ya, Chris, this place has its good side."
"And its bad." Vin got up and pushed the same button he had to make the box come on, this time effectually cutting off the singing youngsters.
"Thank you. Wasn't sure how much more of that I could take."
Chris looked around the small room with its simple furnishings. Besides the picture box, there was a device that reminded him of that contraption their benefactress had talked into last night. He picked it up and held it to his ear and was rewarded with a low, buzzing sound.
"This can't be the year 2003," he said, setting the phone back down. "It just can't."
"What other explanation do you have for it, cowboy?" Vin asked. "Buck, would you please put yer clothes on?"
Buck stuck his tongue out at the tracker and poured himself a mug of coffee from the pot sitting on a table. "Hey, Chris, look at this. Coffee that makes itself. No more suffering through that sludge Vin makes."
Chris kept his attention on Vin. "You seem to be having a real easy time with this. In fact you were sure right from the start, weren't you? Tell me, Tanner, how is it possible to jump 133 years forward in time?"
"Indians have their legends. There are stories about how strange looking white men would appear, years before the first folks came over. And some tribes believed it was possible to go back to correct a past mistake. There's no real reason for what happened to us, pard, it just did."
Chris began to pace again. It was all too much to take in. "So that's it? Everything and everyone we've ever known is gone? Can we get back?"
"Hard to say. But I think we should try to accept that we will probably never see 1869 again."
The room grew silent. The men avoided eye contact, no one willing to admit to never seeing their own time again. It was a hard life, in a hard time, but it was the only one they knew.
Nathan was the first to speak after several seconds of silence. "I think I'll go down to see how Ezra's doing."
"I'll go with ya, pard." Vin said, grabbing his buckskin coat.
"We all will," Chris said. "Until we know what we're dealing with, we all stick together."
"Just like always, cowboy."
Andy threw her head back and laughed at the antics of Ezra and the former preacher called Josiah. The older man treated Ezra like a son, to the great discomfort of the gambler.
At least Ezra voiced his displeasure, but she could see in his eyes that he truly appreciated Josiah's attention.
The two emerald orbs were laughing as they looked at her over the rim of his coffee cup, though the features of his face were carefully controlled to betray no emotion.
She'd known many men like him, men who had been trained not to show their feelings, but she had learned that just because you couldn't see it didn't mean it wasn't there. She could already see the kind of depth of feeling Ezra Standish had. He cared for his friends very much, and they for him, each in their own way.
She looked up at the approach of the five other men. Once again, a shiver ran through her at the sight of Chris Larabee. He unnerved her. It was not his physical presence that made her feel so threatened around him; she had dealt with men much taller and a lot more muscular than him. No, it was something in his eyes, something dark, dangerous. Like Royce.
No. No, definitely NOT like Royce.
Chris Larabee would protect those he cared about. She had witnessed that first hand. Oh, he could be dangerous, but only if those under his protection were being threatened.
Royce... Royce was just plain deadly.
"Gentlemen," Ezra said, turning his head to look behind himself at them. "Please, have a seat. The coffee here is most excellent."
"Should you be out of bed just yet?" Nathan took a chair beside Ezra and grasped his chin, trying to see in the gambler's eyes.
Ezra removed he healer's hand from his face with a firm, but gentle, push. "I assure you, Mr. Jackson, I am much improved. My headache has all but dissipated."
"You should eat." Nathan frowned down at the dark liquid in Ezra's cup.
The gambler reached into the breadbasket in the middle of the table and selected a biscuit, then proceeded to spread a generous helping of strawberry preserves over it.
"I happen to be on my second helping of Miss Miranda's delicious biscuits." He bit into the bread and gave Nathan a closed mouth smile as he chewed. The healer watched him until he swallowed. Only after that did he seem satisfied.
"Would the rest of you like some breakfast?" Andy asked as she got up from her chair. "The house specialty is scrambled eggs, bacon, and the best home-made biscuits this side of Louisiana." She winked at Ezra. "Or so I've heard tell."
"Sounds good." Vin took a chair beside Josiah, Chris on his other side.
"Bring one for him, too." The black clad gunslinger jabbed a thumb toward the conman.
"I am quite content with the offerings right here." Ezra held out a hand toward his half-eaten biscuit.
"You need more than that, Ezra. Don't argue." Nathan nodded to Andy. "Bring it."
Ezra popped the rest of the biscuit into his mouth and crossed his arms over his chest. He appeared to be pouting. "I am not a child," came the mumbled voice out of a biscuit filled mouth.
"Then stop acting like one. And don't chew with your mouth open."
Andy couldn't help it. She made a quick exit before her laughter spilled over again. She was still grinning as she cracked eggs into a bowl and beat them with a wire whisk.
She hadn't smiled or laughed like this in a long time. There was just something about them, those men. They were so comfortable with each other. It was the kind of friendship the likes of which she'd never witnessed before.
The eggs and bacon finished cooking, and she spooned out portions onto seven plates, loaded them onto a tray and carried it back out to the dining area.
The ice green eyes of Chris Larabee bored into her as she approached the table. She could feel his wariness and distrust of her simply pouring out of him in waves.
Lord, what did she have to do to convince him she meant no harm to him or his men?
"I have an idea," she said as she handed the plates around. "Bob and Ellen Arry are the town's historians. We could go over to the Historical Society and Museum today, talk to them and try to find out what happened to you guys. They have almost every issue of the old newspaper. Maybe something will be mentioned in them."
Josiah nodded in agreement. "Sounds like the best course of action to me."
"You think Mary would have written about us disappearing from town?" JD asked around a mouth full of eggs.
"JD, kid, shut yer mouth. That looks disgusting." Buck gave JD's shoulder a shove.
Andy laughed. "Are you guys always this exuberant?"
"No, sometimes they get downright rowdy," Vin said.
"Mary would print anything if folks would read it." Chris sipped at his coffee as he answered JD's previous question, oblivious to the antics of his two fellow lawmen.
"Mary?" Andy asked. She started to clear the plates. Boy! They sure inhaled the food. All except Ezra, who just pushed his food around and made it look like some of it was gone.
"Mrs. Mary Travis, the proprietress of the Four Corners Chronicle, and a certain special aquaintence of our Mr. Larabee." Ezra smiled in all innocence when Chris leveled his gaze on him.
"Ain't so special," Larabee all-but grunted.
"A woman business owner in the old west. How interesting. What was she like?"
"Beautiful, independent, and outspoken. In fact I would say she was much like you."
Andy didn't miss the wince that crossed Chris's face at hearing Mary referred to in the past tense.
"Well," she stood up and lifted the once again full try from the table. "I'll go clean up and we can see what we can find out about you guys."
"1869, you said?" Ellen Arry stood on a small step ladder and thumbed through the laminated copies of The Four Corners Chronicle, looking for the correct dates. She was an elderly, though still attractive lady, with stylishly cut silver hair and dark brown eyes.
"Yes, around this same time of week," Andy answered. They were all sitting around the long table usually used for Historical Society meetings. She had never been in this room before. Having only lived in the town for 3 years, she didn't qualify to become a member, but she found the history of the region interesting enough to have visited the museum several times.
The museum was housed in the old hotel building. The 'Ritz' sign, broken off at one side, still hung on the outside, but the site had not been used as a hotel in many, many years. It had been a hospital, a school, a boarding house, and finally was bought by the town for the Historical Society.
"Here we are," Ellen said as she stepped down off the ladder. She brought with her a small stack of the laminated papers. "These are the 1st thru the 25th. The Chronicle stopped running sometime after that. I believe the editor sold her interest in the paper, and the new owner was not a newspaper man, as it turned out."
"Why'd she sell?" Chris narrowed his eyes as he began to read over the stories on the page that was handed to him. He couldn't imagine why Mary would sell her precious newspaper.
"Oh, I'm not certain. There has been speculation that she married again. She was a widow before that."
Andy stole a glance at Chris. His mouth had hardened into a tight line. Obviously the news about Mary Travis's possible re-marriage bothered him. She must have meant more to him than he was willing to let on.
"So, what exactly are we looking for?" Ellen pulled out another chair and joined them at the table.
"Any story that may have been written about the lawkeepers of the town," Andy answered. She pulled her page closer to her, wishing she had remembered to bring her reading glasses with her.
"The Magnificent Seven," Ellen smiled.
"God damn, I hate that name," Chris growled.
"Stupid little runt and his danged penny novel." Vin wasn't reading his paper, a fact that caught Andy's attention.
"You've seen that book? Do you know where I could get a copy? I've been trying to track one down for years." Ellen practically salivated at the thought of getting her hands on the old penny-dreadful novel.
"What do you know about them," Andy asked, "this Magnificent Seven?" She was seated across from Chris and could feel his eyes throwing daggers at her. It gave her a little bit of a thrill to know she was annoying him. She should feel guilty, she knew, but his temper was so easily riled that it was kind of fun to see how far she could push.
Sitting next to her on the right, Ezra nudged her leg with his knee. She glanced over at him, and he winked. She bit back a grin. He knew what she was doing, and was trying to convey that he was enjoying the show as well.
"They were only in the town for two years or so. There's no real idea for why they left. They just sort of... disappeared from history."
"Disappeared?" Andy mentally crossed her fingers. If they could find out what happened, maybe?
Maybe what? It wasn't like she was a time travel expert or anything. For all she knew it only worked as a one way trip.
"Yes, there are many mentions of them in the papers from 1867 to 1869, then it was like they were just gone."
"Any theories as to why they took their leave from the town?" Ezra drawled.
"There are always theories, young man." Ellen was in her glory now, the center of all attention at the table. "The bounty hunter, Mr. Tanner I believe it was, he was a wanted man himself. It has been said he was finally caught, and the others went their separate ways."
"What was he wanted for?" Andy looked to Vin. She couldn't imagine him as any sort of criminal. He just didn't seem the type. She knew criminals, their mannerisms and actions. She knew them by the looks in their eyes. She could see only honesty and loyalty in Vin's eyes.
"Murder," Ellen answered.
"It was a set-up," Vin said defensively.
Andy nodded at him, taking him at his word.
"We'd never abandon Vin." Chris pushed back his chair and got up. "Come on, boys, let's get out of here."
"Mr. Larabee, no one said anything about abandoning anyone. It is merely a theory."
"Shut up, Ezra. Let's go."
"I seem to be a bit confused," Ellen said, looking from man to man, seeming to notice for the first time their strange state of dress.
"They're here for History Days," Andy quickly covered. "They're going to be playing the roles of the peace keepers this year. Aren't you boys?" She stared straight at Chris, daring him to refute her story.
"Oh, how wonderful. I must say, that's a great idea. I wonder, though, why wasn't it run by the Society first?" Ellen asked Andy accusingly. "I'm not sure the budget will cover paying seven extra actors."
"Oh, they don't need to be paid," Andy said, and felt another kick against her leg from Ezra. "They ran into a little trouble last night with Tony, so now their performance will be considered a form of community service."
Oh, but she was really enjoying the firestorm in Chris's eyes. She knew how dangerous playing with fire was, but she could help herself.
And the community service idea wasn't a bad one at that. Perhaps Tony would accept it and leave them be. She didn't want to tell him the truth about their guests, but she knew she'd have to if he pushed. He'd end up locking her away if she told him, 'Hey Tony, guess what? You know the horseback riders? Turns out they're from 1869! Isn't that just wild?'
"I see," Ellen said, and Andy sighed a little in relief when she seemed to accept the story. "Well, you boys certainly are dedicated. Those clothes look authentic. And that watch you're carrying, young man?" she said to Ezra. "May I? I just love antiques."
Ezra, with more than a bit of hesitation, handed the gold pocket watch to her.
"This must have set you back quite a bit," she said, turning it over in her hands.
Buck snorted. "Didn't cost him a thing. Won it off a traveling salesman passing through on his way to Denver."
"Cheated it off him is more like it," Nathan said.
"I do not cheat, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan just rolled his eyes and went back to perusing the papers.
"It's very valuable, especially in this kind of condition. If I were you, I'd go over to William Lloyd's coin shop and have him appraise it for you." She handed the watch back to Ezra, who looked at it with a new gleam in his eyes.
Andy could practically see the dollar signs flashing in his green eyes.
"Thank you, Ellen, you've been a great help." Andy stood up, nudging Ezra with her arm.
"Yes, Mrs. Arry, it's been a great pleasure." He pocketed the watch and gave the older woman a tip of his hat. "A very great pleasure."
"It was a waste of time."
Andy picked up another bottle of imported beer and placed it on the display shelf behind the bar. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Chris sitting at the nearest table, his chair tipped back and feet on the table. He had a mug full of one of her on-tap beers in front of him, condensation dripping down the glass.
"It was not," she said. "I learned more about you guys today than you bothered to tell me."
"I'm telling you, there is no way I'd let Vin be dragged back to Tascosa and hung." He picked up the beer and took a sip. He grimaced as he swallowed. Hell, how did people in this century drink this shit? It was so watered down he could hardly taste any beer at all.
"Didn't think you would, Cowboy." Vin leaned against the bar, his boot heel hooked over the runner.
"Still don't like folks thinkin' I would."
"Since when you care what people think, Chris?" Buck frowned at the hand of cards Ezra had dealt for him. He laid them face down and fixed the gambler with a glare, not as dark as Chris's but a good facsimile. "Dang it all, Ez, why don't I just give you everything I own."
"Do you have anything of value?"
Andy ducked her head to hide the smile, but she couldn't stop the giggle that rose up from her throat.
"Glad you can find something to laugh about." Chris said.
"Is it just me, or are you this pleasant with everyone?" Andy picked up a damp cloth and began wiping down the bar. Doors opened for regular crowds in an hour.
"Mr. Larabee is not known for his social graces, my dear." Ezra placed his Royal Flush on the table, causing groans from the other three men sitting at the table with him. He pulled the meager pile of coins toward him and dropped them into his vest pocket.
"Don't need social graces, Ezra." Chris took another drink of his beer, then shoved the mug away from him. "You got anything better than this swill?" he asked Andy.
"Sorry," she smiled with false sweetness. "The good stuff is for paying guests. Speaking of which, I think you boys should earn your keep around here. I don't usually let folks stay for free and it's not a habit I want to get into."
"Well shit, Ezra here has plenty of money, don't ya Ez? Sure you could spare a few coins to pay for our stay." Buck grinned at the gambler, now the possessor of the few coins he had carried with him.
"Oh really? He has enough to cover a 70 dollar a night fee?"
Ezra spit out the whiskey he had just drank from the shot glass in his hand.
"I'll take that as a no," she laughed.
"70 dollars a night?" JD turned around in his chair. "That's crazy. No one carries that kind of money around with them."
"I know," Andy said, tapping the cash register behind the bar. "Fortunately, I take plastic."
"You exchange a room for a piece of plastic?"
"JD, don't be such an idiot."
"Shut up, Buck, you don't have any idea what she's talking about either."
"Gentlemen, I believe our lovely hostess is referring to credit. As Mrs. Potter allowed us to procure our purchases at her store on a basis of credit, so too Miranda allows her guests. Is that a correct assumption, my dear?"
"Essentially, yes. What I have in mind for you boys, though, is some simple work for your room and board." She folded her arms and leaned on the bar.
"A gentleman does not debase himself by..." Ezra began. The others joined in on the last words. "...Engaging in menial labor."
Andy's eyes widened. "You guys are quite good at finishing each other's sentences."
"Ezra is a bit repetitious," Nathan explained.
"Hmm, I see."
"Don't mind a little hard work, ma'am, ifin there's anything that needs doing round here," Vin offered.
"I could use someone to help cleaning the guest rooms and do the sweeping up at night after the bar closes."
"Heck, JD could do that!" Buck thumped JD on the back. "I think you'd make a right nice chambermaid there, JD."
"You're a real barrel of laughs, Buck."
"And how about you, Mr. Larabee? I need some help behind the bar. I'm sure you know how to sling around some beer."
Vin winced, and pulled his hat lower over his eyes. The woman seemed determined to poke a sleeping rattler with a stick. Up to now he had enjoyed watching her stir the fire under Chris's butt, but she should know there were limits to Chris's control over his temper.
Chris's feet hit the floor with a thud. Slowly, he rose from the chair. His movements were like that of a wild cat. Graceful and full of deadly purpose. He was about to bare his teeth and hers was the blood he sought.
"Lady, I've had about enough of you. I've never hit a woman before, but you make me consider starting."
"I'm hard to intimidate, Mr. Larabee. I've faced down men a lot tougher than you and came out the victor."
He leaned forward, his hands gripping the bar, until he was face to face with her. "I never asked you for your help. Still not sure if that's what yer even doing."
"Do you honestly think you could survive in this century on your own? I could tell you stories that will make your hair turn white. The dangers you faced in your time are nothing compared with the shit that goes on out there now."
"Why do you even care?"
"Call me a sucker for lost strays."
Ezra put down his cards to watch the showdown of wills. Larabee was normally a force to be reckoned with. He didn't know very many people who could face the man down and live. Lord knew he had been on the receiving end of Chris's temper more times than he could count. Yet here was this woman, looking calm, cool and collected under the Larabee glare. The gambler couldn't help but be impressed.
"We are men, not puppies."
"Oh, believe me, I have a very clear idea of what you are."
Chris raised one hand and made like he was about to reach for her neck. Closing the hand into a fist, he slammed it onto the bar and swore.
"Damn! I can't stand this. I don't want to be here."
"Well, too bad, you are. I can't pretend to understand why, the whole 'cosmic' thing is beyond me. But unless Michael J. Fox just happens to show up in a Delorean, I think you should start to learn to live with it."
She threw the rag onto the counter top and turned on her heel, slamming the door leading to the kitchen area behind her.
Chris let out a feral growl and went toward the stairs. He stomped up the steps, and the other guys could hear the door to their room slam shut.
"I like her," Vin grinned, causing the others to laugh.
"Who's Michael J. Fox?" asked JD
When Andy came back out of the kitchen a half-hour later, everyone but Ezra had gone upstairs. She breathed a sigh of relief at not seeing the bad tempered gunslinger in the room. The man had come too close for her comfort to making her lose her cool. She was trying to be as nice as possible with these men. She could only guess what it would feel like to be thrown out of her own time. If it was anything like having to leave your home, the job you loved, all your friends and what little family you had left, and hide out in a town with an Old West complex all because of some sadistic, obsessed bastard... then yeah, she could sympathize.
Ezra looked up from his game of solitaire as she approached. He smiled, and she could see the gold tooth in the side of his mouth wink in the faint light from the candle on the table.
"We do have electricity now." She nodded toward the light switch on the wall behind him.
"That is much too bright," the gambler replied. "My eyes are much more accustomed to the soft glow of candlelight."
"Why do you talk the way you do?" She pulled out a chair and sat down across from him.
He began to shuffle the cards. "Is there some other way I should be speaking?"
She rested her elbow on the table and leaned her head against her hand. Her eyes followed the rhythmic speed with which he shuffled the playing cards. "Iím not trying to insult you, donít get me wrong. Iíve just never heard someone use so many words to get a simple point across before."
He smiled again, and she couldnít help but notice how extremely handsome this man was. Funny, though, how she felt no pull of attraction for him. Oh, she liked him, but in a friendly sort of way. She wondered if her experience with Royce had put her off the male species for the rest of her life.
God, she hoped not. She certainly wouldnít want to give the SOB the satisfaction.
"I have the vocabulary of a gentleman," he responded, finishing the shuffling and laying the cards on the table, beginning another game of solitaire. "My dear mother advised me when I was but a small child that language impresses, and one must always put forth the best impression."
"Seems to me that big words also confuse people. Perhaps distracts them to the point where they donít see that youíre conning them out of their life savings."
Ezra stopped flipping the cards. He kept his eyes down, looking at a seven of clubs and a king of spades instead of at her. "I make no excuses for what I am," he said.
"Iím not asking you to."
"Iím very good at what I do."
"Ezra, Iím not asking you to defend yourself."
He looked up at her then.
"We all have things in our pasts that weíd rather not have to explain, donít we?" she said.
"I was asked to join this band of lawmen because I was a cheat," he said. "Because of my ability to lie and con." He gave his shoulders a shrug. "I have had cause to wonder why I have remained among them so long."
"Maybe they want you to."
He laughed, a cynical sound. "Mr. Larabee has threatened to throw me out on my ass more times than I am able to recall. I am sure they are all just waiting for me to reveal my true colors and desert them once again."
"Again? Youíve left before?"
"I tried once, at our first acquaintance, but my conscience turned me back."
"At least you know you have once."
"A conscience is not something one in my profession should worry about."
"Everyone should worry about that, how else do you know what kind of person you are?"
"I know what kind of person I am."
"So do I." She reached out and touched his hand. "I know we met under very unusual circumstances, but I trust myself to have very good judgement. Youíre a kind, caring person, Ezra Standish. Your main thought was for your friends and their well-being."
"They are good men," he said.
"Yes, they are. Well, Mr. Larabee requires some patience, but I think heís only trying to protect the rest of you." She smiled and he grinned in response.
"I believe he does think of himself as something of an older brother. Perhaps it's because he lost one family that he tries so hard... forgive me, I shouldnít be talking of this."
"Thatís OK, I understand. Weíve all lost something or someone, and I guess everyone tries to replace what theyíve lost, usually without success."
"You have the most uncanny ability to read what I am thinking in my mind. I believe you and Mr. Tanner will get on splendidly, he shares that particular ability."
"Itís not your mind Iím reading, Ezra, itís your eyes."
He opened his mouth as though he were about to say something when the door opened and a man walked in. The man waved to Andy as he stepped up to the bar.
"Hey, Andy," he greeted. "Whatís on tonight?"
She gave Ezra one last squeeze of his hand and got up, making her way back behind the bar. She picked up the remote and turned on the large television. "Your choice, Vern. NBA finals or golf tournament?"
Ezra sat back and watched Andy work as a few more patrons came in. She smiled, called them by name and was courteous to all.
But he could see the way she kept herself detached from them, the way she tried to keep herself from getting too close to anyone.
He wondered why that was. Was she afraid, like he was?
"Hey, you starting a game?"
Ezra looked up to see a man about his own age standing by the table. "I believe I could be enticed, good sir. Please, have a seat."
TO BE CONTINUED...
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