by Iron Butterfly
Author's Note: I would like to thank and give credit to Anoria and Erin for allowing me to run various drafts of this story by them, proofing it, and for their putting up with my constant assurances that it would be finished soon;) Thanks to my mom also, for proof reading. I suppose I should also thank my brother for his letting me write he and his friends into this fanfic, so thanks go to Michael as well.
Meredith sighed as she stepped out of the stage coach. Four Corners? What an unimpressive little town. How she had gotten herself into this she wasn't sure. All she knew was that she had a business deal to settle here, and well, she never could say no to money. Why in the world Mr. Barns would want to live in this dusty little town was beyond her. She wouldn't have come here in the first place but the fat little man had insisted that she did so if she wished to close the deal because he, "didn't like to travel in this heat". As if she did.
It had been a miserable trip. It was unbearably hot, and it seemed the dust never stopped swirling in this part of the country. She felt as though dirt had managed to embed itself into the very fibers of her skirts and she couldn't get rid of it; she was dreading the cleaning bill. All Meredith wanted to do was conclude her business in this dirt town and be on her way. Until then however, she would have to settle for relaxing in her hotel room although she highly doubted it was possible.
Several men came over and offered to carry her bags. She was following them to the hotel when she saw something that made her stop dead in her tracks. NO. It couldn't be. She closed her eyes hoping she had misread the sign, but when she opened them the words were still there. Just when she thought her day couldn't get worse. Of all the towns, in all of the country. It can't be him, she told herself trying to stay calm. Still, she found herself walking toward the saloon.
"Here. Just take them to the hotel," Meredith said paying the men for their work and dismissing them with a hand. She wouldn't normally have payed someone before the job was done, especially not people off the street, but at the moment she was too preoccupied to care. Besides, the hotel was only across the street. Unless they were incredibly stupid they wouldn't take off with her things while she was right there. Looking confused the men resumed their course.
CALM DOWN, she told herself. I'll just have a look, he won't be there, and I'll be on my way. Despite mental reassurances, an unsettling feeling was forming in the pit of her stomach. Taking a deep breath, she walked through the doors.
She had been in many saloons and this one wasn't much different than the rest of them. Obviously not high class, but a saloon none the less. There weren't too many people inside; it was, after all, still fairly early to be drinking. One man was leaning against the bar, his companion, dressed in complete black, stood next to him. They weren't really talking much as they appeared to be watching the saloon and its occupants. There were a few occupied tables, but one in particular caught her attention; three men were sitting there playing poker. One was obviously very young and wore a bowlers hat; one didn't see many of those in this part of the country. The man next to him was laughing, evidently at his young friend's expense judging by his reddening face. The third figure was wearing a red jacket, and although his back was turned to her, was unmistakable. Carefully controlling herself, Meredith walked over to the table.
"Hello, Ezra," she said crossing her arms across her chest. His two companions looked up. Ezra turned around, surprise evident on his face.
"Meredith?" he said rising from his chair, "My, it's been a long time."
Meredith smiled sweetly. "Not long enough." Her smile faded and she put all her force into slapping him across the face, the older of his two friends bursting into laughter as she did so. She spun on her heel and, in a swirl of skirts, marched for the door.
"Meredith, dear, may I inquire as to the reason behind that gesture?" He asked, causing her to stop just as she reached to door. Meredith turned her head to face him and had the satisfaction of seeing Ezra holding a hand to his reddened cheek, struggling to retain his dignity.
"You have to ask?!"
"Well..." Ezra started, giving a shrug. Furious, Meredith snapped her head around and pushed through the doors, leaving them swinging.
"Friend of your's Ezra?" Vin grinned.
"You could say that Mr. Tanner, although it may no longer be a completely applicable term."
"Well don't keep us waiting Ezra, who is she?" Buck leaned forward in his chair, obviously interested. Ezra stared out the doors Meredith had stormed through.
"She was my fiancee."
"You were engaged?" Ezra shot and annoyed look at JD.
"Was? What did you do?" Buck asked, a sly grin creeping onto his face.
"I'd rather not discuss it." Ezra sat down in his chair and started shuffling the cards.
"Touchy subject?" Chris turned to face Ezra, his tone one of amusement.
"What is?" Josiah asked as he and Nathan walked into the saloon.
"Nothing," Ezra said quickly, hoping to end the conversation.
"Did you see that dark haired beauty who just stormed on out'a here?" Buck asked, smiling.
"Yeah." Nathan nodded.
"She and Ezra used to be engaged," JD said finishing for Buck.
"You were engaged?" Nathan asked, turning to Ezra.
"Why is it that everyone finds that so hard to believe? Yes."
"Well..." Josiah started.
"You gotta admit Ezra, it is pretty funny," Buck said.
"Yes well, I'm glad I could be of some entertainment to the rest of you. Gentlemen, I do believe we were playing a game," he gestured to Buck and JD hoping they would all drop the matter.
"Oh, come on Ezra, you can tell us. You're secret's safe with ol' Buck." Ezra cocked his head to the side and looked at Buck.
"No offense Mr. Wilmington, but you are about the last person with whom I would intrust a secret of this nature."
Meredith lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling of her hotel room. So, the illustrious Mr. Barns didn't like to travel in this heat, hmm? Well, it didn't seem to have bothered him too much yesterday. According to his one of his employees, Mr. Barns had left to oversee an "urgent business transaction". He wanted to apologise for his untimely absence, and assure her he would be back as soon as possible to conclude their business. Right. He would be back in two days if all went to plan.
Meredith pushed off the bed and started pacing. Two more days. Wonderful, just wonderful. This trip just kept getting better and better. Mr. Barns obviously wasn't too concerned about their business. It would serve him right if she left right now, but then this whole trip would have been a waste of time. No, she could wait two days.
She hadn't unpacked yet because she had assumed she would be in and out of Four Corners in a relatively short period of time. She moved to the bags and started transferring their contents to the chest at the far wall. At least it was cooler in here than it was outside. Granted not much cooler, but cooler none the less. After unpacking, Meredith changed into a different dress, this one not yet infected with dust, and sat down to comb out her wavy, brown-black hair which had been pinned up under a hat since early that morning. After fastening the top half of mid-back long hair behind her head with a barrette so it wouldn't get in her face, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. Two more days. In this town. With Ezra.
"Well," Meredith sighed deeply, "I can't stay locked up in here."
Buck was at the bar getting another drink when he saw her walk in. After making eye contact he tipped his hat and was surprised when she walked towards him, picking her way through the crowd. He wrinkled his brow.
"Can I help you, ma'am?"
"I believe I saw you playing poker with a Mr. Standish earlier?" her dark brown eyes stared into his questioningly.
Buck nodded. "Yeah, that's right."
"I was wondering if you might know where he is now."
"I might," Buck leaned back against the bar, grinning. "You plan'n on hittin' him again?"
Meredith laughed. "No, not planning. Although you did seem to find that rather amusing." Buck bowed his head and chuckled. "If my plans change however, I assure you I'll let you know."
"Sounds like a deal," he smiled, "Ezra's over there." Buck pointed to a far corner of the saloon where Ezra was sitting watching a game of poker at a nearby table, cutting his ever present deck with one hand.
"Ah. Does he watch his customers often?"
"Customers?" Buck looked confused.
"Yes, this is the Standish Tavern."
"Ohh, right. Well, he did own it. For about a week." Buck was smiling again. "But he sort'a lost out to his Ma." Now Meredith looked confused. "See, she won the hotel across the street in a poker game a while back. Then she stole all his business, so she ended up buying the place after he lost all his money." Meredith raised her eyebrows obviously intrigued.
"I see. Is Maude here too then?"
"No, she just passes through every now and then."
"Huh. Well, thank you Mr.-?"
"Buck Wilmington. Pleasure to be of service Miss..."
"Meredith Gatewood." Buck set down his beer mug and shook the hand she offered. "Thank you Mr. Wilmington, you've been most helpful. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to talk to Mr. Standish." Buck nodded. Meredith returned his smile and started to walk towards Ezra's table. Apparently he had seen her coming because he spoke up before she could say anything.
"Come back to finish the job?" Although his face was serious, Ezra's tone was one of amusement.
"I had no intention of hitting you when I walked in earlier," she said defensively, then matter of factly, "It was an involuntary reaction to your presence."
"Well, that's an interesting way of apologising," Ezra looked at her over the rim of a shot glass before downing the contents.
"Oh, I'm doing no such thing. I came to talk about our situation."
"Situation?" he asked, grimacing from the whisky's bite.
"Yes. I have to stay in this town for at least two more days-"
"Why *are* you here?" Meredith looked thrown off by his comment. "You are most obviously not here to see me, and this is hardly the kind of town you would choose to take up residence in without good reason."
She sighed. "I'm here on business."
"And that business would be?"
"Wouldn't you like to know. You know I could ask you the same question Ezra, since you're no longer the proprietor of this 'fine facility,'" she said looking around.
"How do you know about that?" Ezra's face turned serious.
"Oh, Mr. Wilmington was kind enough to fill me in."
"Of course, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said in a tone which suggested Buck would be wise to avoid him for awhile, "How kind of him." He scanned the saloon.
"As I was saying," Meredith said, trying to regain Ezra's attention, "I have to stay in this town for two more days and I would appreciate if you would leave me alone for the duration of my stay." Ezra sighed and leaned back in his chair.
"May I ask why?"
"Because I can't stand to be around you and, to be quite honest, just seeing you is enough to put me in a worse mood than this heat already has. Besides, we don't exactly get along, and if I don't see you again I just might be able to convince myself that us meeting here was just a bad dream."
He raised his eyebrows. "You do realise that this is the only saloon in town."
"I've noticed," she nodded.
"I am most certainly not going to vacate the premises for two days so that you may entertain yourself."
"What do expect me to do in this town outside of the saloon Ezra?"
"We could share the saloon."
"No. No, we can't because if we have to share this saloon we will drive each other insane. It's only two days."
"Yes, and by the end of those two days you will have cleaned out anyone foolish enough to play you thereby robbing me of my only noteworthy source of income."
"I will not abandon this saloon to your cleptobiosis."
"Oh, for goodness sakes Ezra! Why do you insist on talking like that? You know not half the people in the country can understand a word you say."
"Because it annoys you," Ezra smiled.
"I'm leaving." Meredith's control over her temper was slowly slipping, and it would not do to let Ezra win by losing it in front of him. "One of us has to be the adult and it is obviously not going to be you." Ezra started to comment but she cut him off. "We'll share the saloon, but I don't want to see you so much as walk down the same side of the street as me all right?"
Ezra sighed. "Very well, if that's how you want it be. Although why, after two years, you still bear such animosity towards me is beyond comprehension. I doubt our separation came as that much of a shock-" Meredith's jaw dropped in disbelief.
"You left me in jail!"
"Meredith, dear, keep your voice down," Ezra quickly looked to see if anyone was listening before continuing. "That was two years ago."
"Well letting someone get thrown in jail and then leaving town is a rather inconsiderate, albeit unique way of breaking off an engagement!"
"You got out."
"That's because I wasn't the one stupid enough to get caught cheating! They only considered me your accomplice. Since you skipped town they had no evidence against me and the sheriff was forced to let me out on bail after they figured you weren't coming back. Fortunately you didn't leave me completely without resources." Ezra's brow furrowed and then cleared as he figured out what she meant. Meredith smiled.
"You didn't." Meredith lifted her eyebrows in a 'you want to bet' gesture. Ezra's face took on a look of horror and disbelief. "That ring was a family heirloom!"
"Opps," she said mockingly. Meredith then turned and walked out of the saloon, leaving Ezra stammering.
It was only her second day in Four Corners and Meredith was already bored out of her mind. She had managed to stay out of the saloon for most of her first day, instead walking around the town and visiting the stores. That took up a whole hour. Unfortunately, it didn't take her long to realize the sad truth that, as she had originally suspected, there wasn't much worth doing in the town outside of the saloon. Since she still had another day until Mr. Barns would arrive, Meredith decided to give in and go. In any case, Ezra was not what one would call an early riser. However, a good majority of the town didn't seem to think twice about visiting the saloon at an early hour so she was sure to find someone to play at poker before Ezra was awake enough to make an appearance. She was not about to let him win this one.
It had been a slow week, Buck thought as he inspected the hand Josiah had just dealt him, and hot. Too hot, and even though it was still early he could tell today wasn't going to be any better. If anything, it would be worse. Hearing the saloon doors swing open, Buck looked up from his hand expecting to see Vin or Chris come in the saloon but instead, saw Meredith. He smiled, "Mornin' Miss Gatewood."
"Mr. Wilmington," she nodded and walked over to the table. Well, he thought, maybe this week wouldn't be so bad after all. "Mind if I join in?"
"Not at all," he said, quickly recovering from his surprise. He hadn't met many "respectable" women who seemed as comfortable in a saloon as she did but then, she had been engaged to Ezra. Buck got up and helped Meredith to a chair. "Meredith Gatewood," Buck said taking his seat, "may I introduce JD Dunne and Josiah Sanchez."
"Gentlemen," she nodded in greeting, "Will you be playing Mr. Dunne?" Meredith asked after noticing he didn't have any cards in front of him, just a beer glass full of milk.
"He already lost more than he could afford to Ezra yesterday, so he's sittin' out," Buck said smiling.
"Buck!" JD cried, embarrassed. Miss Gatewood hadn't even been in town two days and Buck had already made him look bad in front of her.
Meredith smiled at JD's apparent embarrassment. "Don't feel bad Mr. Dunne, Ezra could write the book on how to win at poker."
The remark didn't make JD feel any better but he muttered his agreement. Why did Buck have to open his big mouth in the first place, he thought. Here was this beautiful woman and now she probably thought he was just some dumb kid.
"So, how did you meet Ezra?" JD asked, determined not to let Buck win. At least he could ask questions without having to worry about being distracted from his poker game.
"I take it he wasn't in the mood to discuss our relationship yesterday?" Meredith asked, inspecting her hand.
"He said that you'd been engaged but he wouldn't say what happened."
"What a surprise. Two please," she said, having called Buck's bet and discarded two cards from her hand. "Well, we met in a poker game in St. Louis. We were both playing quite successfully until finally everyone had quit and it was just the two of us left playing each other. Raise twenty cents," she said to Buck. "After a half hour of both of us taking turns winning the pot we decided to give up. Full house," she said laying out her hand.
Buck and Josiah exchanged impressed glances as Meredith claimed the pot.
"He invited me to dinner and we talked about poker strategies. We found out we were both running highly successful cons in town and we decided to try being partners for awhile. In a few months we were engaged. Then he got caught cheating in a game in Abilene and blew our cover. I was thrown in jail as his accomplice and he skipped town before they could catch him."
"He left you?" JD asked, amazed.
"Yesterday was the first time I've seen him in three years," Meredith confirmed.
"I'd say you've got a right to mad then," Buck said, chuckling.
"Hmm. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," Josiah reflected.
"What?" JD asked, puzzled.
"Well said Mr. Sanchez," Meredith nodded appreciatively.
"Although, I can't imagine anyone abandoning such a," Buck paused, smiling, "lovely lady."
"Thank you Mr. Wilmington," she smiled. "Shall we play another hand?"
An hour later JD was glad he hadn't played with Miss Gatewood. She had won almost all of the hands the group had played until Buck and Josiah finally had to quit so as not to lose all their money. Josiah had gone to work on the church and Buck and JD sat watching her play against some of Ezra's regular victims who had joined in thinking to win a few easy hands; Meredith however, was giving them a much more difficult time than they would have thought.
The first thing Ezra saw when he came into the saloon was a large crowd gathered around one of the poker tables. Good Lord, it's started already he thought. Sure enough he fought his way through the crowd to see Meredith sitting at the table. She had just won another hand effectively cleaning out her last opponent who, quite annoyed with his bad luck, got up and left the table. As Meredith gathered her winnings the crowd began to break up. Ezra walked over to her.
"Could I interest you in a game?" He knew his chances of winning any substantial amount from anyone else anytime soon were not good to say the least. Meredith looked up, eyes hardening after identifying the speaker.
"As much as I would enjoy taking all your money Ezra, I do believe it's about time for a late lunch. So, if you'll excuse me?" Meredith said, getting up to leave.
"Afraid you'll lose?"
Meredith laughed. "To you?" Ezra remained silent and Meredith was left staring at the challenge issued in his green eyes. Her jaw tightened, damn him. "One game." He smiled broadly, showing his gold tooth, and sat down. The crowd once again began to gather around the table as he pulled out his deck and started shuffling.
Five hands later, Meredith finally called a stop to their little tournament. She was annoyed that Ezra had so easily pulled her into playing. Of course, playing someone of Ezra's skill was a welcome challenge, but still. She had said only one hand and here she was, still playing. Losing didn't agree with Ezra and he kept insisting they play another hand. Unfortunately for him, it had done no good as he had yet to win.
"Four queens," Meredith said laying out her hand. Ezra stared in disbelief at the hand, which beat his full house. "Well. It has been a pleasure relieving you of your money Ezra, but I really do have to go now," she said getting up from the table.
"One more hand," he insisted desperately.
"I'm afraid I can't, I've delayed my lunch long enough as it is. I'm sure you can find someone else to play with."
Ezra let out a resigned sigh. "I doubt it," he said to himself as he watched Meredith leave the saloon.
As luck would have it, three ranch hands rode into town the next morning and went straight to the saloon, eager for whisky and a card game. Ezra was, of course, happy to oblige them and the three soon found themselves out of money. Frustrated, they got up and left the saloon.
"Don't you ever feel bad 'bout takin' all 'a people's money?" Nathan asked, walking up to the table.
Ezra looked up from the pile in front of him, "What?"
"You just cheated those ranch hands out of at least month's wages."
Ezra sighed, "Nathan, it is a crime to let a fool go without first taking his money. Now, no one forced those gentlemen into waging their entire estate," he paused, "Look at it this way," Ezra continued, seeing that Nathan was not yet satisfied, "those gentlemen were obviously going to waste their money in one fashion or another. By relieving them of their funds, I prevented them from inebriating themselves and causing trouble for our fair town. Thereby saving yourself the trouble of aiding any persons injured in the effort to subdue the afore mentioned miscreants. So in actuality, you should be thanking me."
Nathan shook his head, "If you say so Ezra." Smiling, Ezra went back to counting his winnings. "Hey, ain't that Miss Gatewood walking out of Mr. Barns's place?"
"Where?" Ezra asked urgently, jumping from his chair to see down the street.
Nathan pointed out the window. Meredith stood outside the businessman's office in a light blue dress with flowers and leaves of a darker blue embroidered on the bodice, her hair pinned up so that her dark tresses still hung down to her shoulders under a matching blue hat.
"Looks like she's headed for the telegraph office," Nathan added.
"What do you mean, there's no stage coming in this afternoon?"
"Well ma'am, ya see the coach broke an axel, just outside of Eagle Bend this mornin'."
"So?" Meredith asked impatiently, "Fix it." She was trying to ignore Ezra, who had just walked in.
"Well that's just it ma'am. The company's gotta order a new axel, and it'll take a couple a' weeks to get here."
"A couple weeks?!" Meredith yelled, "What kind of business is this? I cannot stay here for a couple of weeks. I have to leave now."
"Meredith dear," Ezra said, trying to calm her down, for the sake of the clerk if nothing else as he was looking decidedly uneasy, "there's no reason you should have to leave so soon."
"Yes I do, because if I have to spend another week in this town, you *will* end up dead. I haven't decided how yet, but it *will* happen and then I will end up going to jail."
"You need a drink," he said leading her to the door.
"No," Meredith said, shaking off Ezra's hand, "I need to get out of this town. Now, I'm sure there is something you can do," she said turning to the clerk. "Money is not an issue."
"I-I'm sorry ma'am. I can telegraph the company and see if there's anything they can do, but more 'n likely you're gonna have to wait."
"Fine, anything. I don't care how you do it just get me out of this town."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll try," the clerk replied.
"You see? Everything is going to be fine. Now, let's go to the saloon and I will buy you a drink," Ezra said leading Meredith out the door, much to the clerk's relief.
"I'll ride out," Meredith said, stopping once they were out side of the telegraph office.
Ezra laughed, but his voice was serious, "You don't have a horse."
"I'll buy one," she replied, equally serious.
"You definitely need a drink."
"Does anyone have a horse they care to sell?" Meredith asked as soon as they were in the saloon, "Or loan? I assure you you'll get it back-"
"Meredith!" Ezra hissed, taking her by the arm and smiling dismissively to anyone who may have heard while dragging her to the bar, "What do you think you're doing? You can't just buy a horse."
"And why is that Ezra?" Meredith asked highly annoyed.
"What are you going to do when you've reached your destination, sell it? That's hardly a prudent investment."
"I'll borrow one."
"Meredith, no one is going to lend you their horse. Even the impercipient inhabitants of this town know that there is no guarantee that you will actually return their property. You are, of course, aware that horse theft is punishable by hanging in this part of the country."
"I'll find someone to take me then," she knew she was grasping at straws, but she was desperate to get out of town.
"No," Ezra said, genuinely concerned, "The people willing to transport you are hardly the kind of company you should care to entertain. Now, if you will just calm down, and stop thinking of ways to get yourself killed in the process of leaving this town-"
"It's not the town I have a problem with Ezra, it's you. All right? If I spend anymore time with you, I will go insane. So please, just leave me alone."
Within the hour, the clerk came running into the saloon to deliver a telegraph to Meredith. It read:
TERRIBLY SORRY FOR YOUR INCONVENIENCE STOP SENDING A WAGON TO TAKE YOU TO HARGROVE THIS AFTERNOON STOP CAN GET TRANSPORTATION TO ANYWHERE YOU WISH FROM THERE STOP
JAMES MONTGUMERY, STAGE LINE OWNER
"Well, you've certainly managed intimidate someone," Ezra commented.
"I have to pack," Meredith said, ignoring Ezra. She grabbed his shot glass off the bar and threw back its contents, taking the drink she had thus far refused. "Thanks Ezra."
He shook his head as she exited the saloon.
Finally, Meredith thought as the wagon driver loaded her bags. It was about time she left this miserable town. She would soon be out of this blistering heat and she could try and forget she had ever seen Ezra. Damn, she thought as Ezra approached the wagon. Speak of the Devil. He *would* come to say good bye. Meredith sighed and summed up the last of her patience.
"Well, you're leaving then?"
"Yes, and I will be more than happy to put this town, yourself, and this heat behind me. No offense."
"Oh, none taken," Ezra assured her, "I merely wanted to see you off."
"Flattered, I'm sure. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to be going. If I don't leave now, I won't make it to Hargrove by nightfall and heaven knows where I'll end up then."
"Of course. I wouldn't want to postpone your trip," Ezra said as Meredith climbed into the wagon. "Come back anytime," he said to her retreating form, successfully managing to annoy her again.
"Ha. I think not Ezra," she called as the wagon rolled out of town.
Ezra's smile quickly faded as a thought struck him. "Damn!"
"Ezra?" Buck asked from his seat on the boardwalk. "Something wrong?"
Ezra turned a frantic face to Buck, "She got the last word."
"The last word?" Buck asked, puzzled.
"The last word. She was the last one to say anything," Ezra said as if that should explain everything.
"So?" Buck asked, still not seeing the relevance.
"That gives her the upper hand!" Ezra exclaimed.
"I don't expect you to understand."
Buck laughed, "Well, she's gone now, Ezra. What're ya gonna do, ride out after 'er?"
Ezra snapped his fingers. "Yes! Yes, that's exactly what I'll do."
"But-Ezra, wait!" Buck called. Ezra, however, was already running for the livery.
Vin, narrowly missing a collision with Ezra in his sprint to the livery, walked up to Buck and leaned on a nearby post, "Where the hell's he going?"
"To get the last word."
One of the ranch hands slapped his friend on the arm to get his attention and pointed to Ezra. "Hey, ain't that the fancy talking gambler that cheated us out'a our money?"
Since their recent loss, the three had been sitting in an alley; having a day off and suddenly nothing with which to enjoy it. "Sure is Cody," the other nodded, following his friends gaze.
"Looks like he's leavin' town," Cody commented.
"What do you boys say we pay the gentleman a visit, make sure he don't get lost or nothin' out there," the third said, casting conspiratorial glances to his friends.
Meredith cocked her head to one side. She had thought for a moment that she had heard someone calling her name. No, that was ridiculous. The wagoneer hadn't said anything and they were in the middle of nowhere. It must have been her imagination. She shook her head. Relax, Meredith, she told herself.
This time she was sure she had heard it; moreover, she recognised the voice. Meredith whirled around in her seat looking behind the wagon. Sure enough, there was Ezra, riding in fast. The driver looked at her quizzically. "Keep moving," she told him, turning back around in her seat and ignoring Ezra.
"Go away, Ezra!" she yelled, turning around.
"Have a nice trip!"
"Wha-" she scrunched her brows, "Stop the wagon!" Meredith commanded. The confused driver quickly complied and Meredith swung herself out the left side of the wagon.
"What the *hell* are you doing?!" she asked, marching the short distance to where Ezra's horse had come to a stop.
"I am merely came to wish you well on your trip," Ezra said, an innocent expression on his face.
"You could have done that in town. What are you-" realization dawned on Meredith's face, "You came to get the last word didn't you?" she cut him off before he could reply, "Of all the immature things-"
"Now, I am insulted," Ezra said, looking hurt, "You actually believe that I would stoop so low as to chase after you for the childish purpose of obtaining the last word?"
Meredith crossed her arms and looked up to where Ezra was sitting on his horse, "You did, didn't you?"
"I most certainly did not!"
"Ma'am," the wagoneer called.
"You are the worst liar I have ever met!" she continued, ignoring the driver. "I knew you were childish, but this is ridiculous, even for you."
"Seriously Ezra, is annoying me to the point where I'm ready to kill you really that much fun?"
"Well I must admit, you are substantially more entertaining when you are upset," he smiled out of one side of his mouth.
"Thank you very much- Hey!" Meredith cried as the wagon took off like the proverbial bat out of hell. "Where are you going?!"
She was about to yell at him again when she caught sight of what he was running from. Three riders were coming down the hill behind them, and they didn't look friendly. Ezra followed her gaze and muttered a curse.
"Friends of your's Ezra?" she asked sarcastically.
"Come on," Ezra reached out his hand while watching the approaching riders, his expression serious.
"No," she said, flatly refusing to go anywhere with him.
"I realize your odium towards me is substantial, but it's me or them."
Meredith looked from Ezra to the fast approaching riders, trying to decide which option was worse. On one side she had criminals who would probably rob and kill her and on the other was Ezra. This could be a hard choice.
"Meredith!" Ezra exclaimed.
"All right!" she yelled through clenched teeth. I can't *believe* this, she thought to herself as she grabbed Ezra's forearm and pulled herself up behind him. Urging the horse to a gallop, Ezra took off in a direction opposite from both the fleeing wagon and the unknown riders. Meredith mentally cursed as she was forced put her arms around Ezra's waist to keep from falling off the back of his horse.
"Dare I ask where we are going?" she asked, raising her voice to be heard, after noticing their path had deviated from the road.
"I am attempting to elude our unwanted companions. With any luck, they will at least split up so as to be able to pursue both ourselves and the wagon."
"Oh," she said, casting a glance behind them. "Ah, Ezra? It's not working."
Ezra looked over his shoulder and saw the three men riding after them. There was no way they could make it back to Four Corners. He had ridden his horse hard to catch up to the wagon and in this heat with two riders, the horse wouldn't last long. Their only option was to keep riding in hopes that they could lose their pursuers.
"They're gaining Ezra."
"I can see that," he replied testily, "Just exactly what would you like me to do about it?"
"Well, it *is* your fault we're out here."
"How did you come by that egregious conclusion? They could just as easily be after you."
"I just got here! Besides, all my things are in the wagon, which they don't seem too terribly interested in at the moment."
"That does not prove anything," he protested.
"Standish, you thieving pig!" one of the riders called, firing a shot in their direction.
Both Ezra and Meredith ducked reflexively. "You were saying?!" Meredith yelled.
Ezra let out an exasperated sigh. "I do not deserve this," he said drawing his pistol and returning fire. The shot went wide.
They managed to go another few hundred yards before the riders surrounded them and they were forced to stop. Ezra's horse, it's flanks and mussel flecked with lather, worked to regain his wind while Ezra tried to decide what he was going to do. The three men who had chased them had dismounted and were approaching slowly, their guns drawn. His horse snorted and started chomping it's bit. "Dear Lord," Ezra said, recognising the ranch hands from the day before.
"What, 'dear Lord'? Those are not exactly reassuring words Ezra," Meredith exclaimed in a hurried whispered.
"I'm afraid that I may have recently dispossessed these gentlemen of several months wages," Ezra replied, his expression sour.
Meredith sighed, rolling her eyes, "Great."
"Keep you're hands away from the gun!" one of the ranch hands yelled, his disorderly red hair sticking out under the brim of his hat.
Ezra raised his hands away from his holster, getting shot was generally fairly high on his list of things not to do.
"Off the horse, both of ya," another motioned with his gun.
"Get their guns Cody," the third commanded.
"Gentlemen, I'm sure this is all a misconstruction," Ezra said as the second ranch hand confiscated his pistol.
"What the hell did he just say?" the red-haired man asked, bewildered.
"Shut up Brandon," Cody warned. He had short blonde hair and blue eyes. "You cheated us out'a our money and now you're gonna pay."
"Ah, excuse me," Meredith said cautiously, "I'm not with him."
"That ain't what it looked like," the third hand commented, obviously the one in charge.
"Oh, no. You see, I was leaving town to get away from him. In fact, I would have no objections at all if you felt like killing him right here-"
"Meredith!" Ezra exclaimed.
"I've considered doing it myself but this way we're all happy," she continued, "If you could just let me have his horse, once you're done?"
"You can't be serious," Cody objected.
"Do I look like I'm kidding?" Meredith asked.
"Wha' da we do Mike?" Brandon asked the third hand.
"I don't know. Lemme think for a minute."
"Killin' 'er don't hardly seem right, she ain't done nothin' to us," Cody commented.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Ezra flicked his wrist, his Derringer appearing in his hand. "Drop your guns on the ground," he drawled.
"Hey!" Meredith yelled as Mike grabbed her around the waist.
"I don't think so Standish," he said, holding his gun to her head. He raised his eyebrows, "You drop yours."
For a moment, Ezra considered his options, none of which looked very promising. Sighing, he complied and Cody picked the gun up.
"I thought you got his guns Cody," Mike said in an annoyed tone, pushing Meredith back to Ezra.
"I thought I had 'em all," Cody said in his defence.
"It don't look like you got 'em all," Brandon said.
"How was I supposed to know he had one hidden?"
"That's enough!" Mike yelled, "Brandon, search him. Cody, you search her. Take any money or valuables you find." Meredith started to protest but Mike cut her off, "Ain't nothing personal Ma'am."
Meredith rolled her eyes for what seemed the upteenth time that day as Cody searched her.
"She ain't got any money on 'er, jus' these," Cody reported, showing Mike her earrings.
"All I got was this here flask, a pocket watch, and this ring. Think it's gold," Brandon said.
"No money?" Mike asked.
Meredith was about to comment on the location of Ezra's money when he grabbed her arm and whispered, "If you tell I will, of course, return the favor."
She stared at him for a moment, judging whether or not he was bluffing. Thinking the better of it, she closed her mouth and remained silent.
"Where's our money?" Mike yelled, pointing his gun at Ezra.
"In the bank," Ezra lied, "You do not honestly believe I would carry that kind of money on my person so that it may be stolen?"
"You smart ass son of a bitch," Mike growled, punching Ezra and sending him to the ground. Meredith moved to intercede but Mike backed away and the other two trained their guns on her.
"What'a we do now Mike?" Brandon asked.
"Mount up," Mike ordered, pulling himself into the saddle and swinging his right leg over the other side. "Brandon get his horse."
Ezra picked up his hat and got back on his feet, wiping the blood from his lip with the back of his hand.
"I ain't about to waste lead on you," Mike glared down at him. The three turned and galloped away, taking Ezra's horse with them.
"Thank you, Ezra!" Meredith yelled sarcastically after the ranch hands were out of sight.
"What?" Ezra asked incredulously.
"What do you mean what?!" she exclaimed, "Thanks to you, we're lost in the middle of this God forsaken wasteland, under the burning sun with no way back! You might as well have sentenced us both to hang!"
"It's not exactly as though I planned this Meredith."
"Well what do think is going to happen when you cheat a bunch of drunken cowboys out of their money? That was a real genius plan by the way, let's see how far we can get from the road and any definable landmarks before they catch us!"
"I'm sorry Meredith, but yelling at me is hardly going to help our situation."
"No, but it just might make me feel a *hell* of a lot better! We are *completely* and *utterly* lost and as if the fact that we are most likely going to die out here wasn't bad enough, I have to spend my last few hours with you!"
"We are not completely lost," Ezra insisted.
"*You* know where we are," Meredith said, highly sceptical.
"I have a fairly good idea yes. While I am hardly the tracker that Mr. Tanner is, the road is more or less that way," he pointed.
"More or less?! Ezra, we are stuck out here in what may as well be the firery bowels of hell with no water and no horses, miles from the road and even further from any kind of civilization, if you can even call it that, and you expect me to be relieved that you know where the road is 'more or less'!"
"It may not be a heartening phrase, it is better than nothing and it is also all that we have to work with. I therefore intend to start walking in that general direction in hopes that I may reach the road. You are more than welcome to join me unless of course, the idea of slowly dying of dehydration appeals to you," he said, his eyes mocking.
Meredith let out a frustrated growl and started walking.
"Anybody seen Ezra lately?" Chris asked, walking up to the table where Buck, Vin, and Josiah were playing poker.
"Last I saw, he nearly run me over tryin' to catch Miss Gatewood," Vin said folding, throwing his hand in the center of the table then looking up at Chris. Chris knit his brow questioningly.
"He went out to get the last word or some damn thing," Buck explained.
"An' he ain't back yet?"
"Hell, you seen the way those two go at each other Chris. He'll prob'ly follow 'er all the way Hargrove."
"Fatigued already?" Ezra said mockingly as Meredith stopped to sit on a small boulder as they reached the top of yet another hill, although he was secretly grateful for the chance to rest. The distance hadn't seemed nearly as expansive when they had covered it on horseback as is was on foot, and the heat was starting to take its toll. Ezra found himself cursing the fact that the boulder wasn't big enough to provide any amount of real shade.
"Don't even start with me Ezra," Meredith warned as she held her dark hair up off her neck with one hand and fanned herself with her hat with the other. "I would like to see you try and climb these damn hills in these shoes," she paused fanning herself long enough to pull her skirts up and gesture toward her heeled boots.
Ezra chuckled, "As tempting of an offer as that is, I fear I will have to decline, as I doubt they would fit."
"I'm glad that I could amuse you Ezra," she said in an sarcastic, but tired voice. "We're wandering aimlessly though a desert from which we will probably never emerge alive, no thanks to you by the way, and you're making jokes."
"Well, I have to do something to entertain myself now don't I? Despite what you may think, Meredith, I did not exactly plan this little adventure."
"Perhaps not, but if you hadn't pulled out your Derringer, at least I might not be out here."
"You seriously would have left?"
"You did it to me," she reminded him. "I think it would have been a rather ironic end for you."
"You seriously would have let them kill me wouldn't you?" Ezra asked in a quietly stunned tone.
Meredith met his gaze, her eyes cold. "I don't know," she answered honestly. "Maybe."
A small laugh of disbelief escaped Ezra's lips. "What is it that I've done to earn your hatred?"
"You seriously don't know?" Meredith asked.
"No. I know that our break up did not come as a surprise so what is it? What did I do?"
She took her eyes away from his. "No, the break up didn't surprise me. After the first few months we were just getting on each other's nerves, in each other's way. Both of us were too used to working and living alone for it to work and we both knew it. By the time we hit Abilene I was just waiting for another of our arguments so I could break it off," she laughed humourlessly, "You beat me to it, though."
"So what was it?"
She sighed, both at having to explain and at having to relive a time she had hoped to forget. "I sat in that jail cell in Abilene for two days while the sheriff waited for you to come back, did you ever know that? For two day's I sat there, the whole time knowing that you weren't coming back because you'd decided to cut your losses and ride away. For some reason, though, I found part of myself hoping that for once, just once, maybe you would find it in yourself to care about somebody else and would come break me out. You never did though.
"It wasn't the break up that bothered me, Ezra, it-" she sighed, getting up and smoothing the front of her blue dress, and walked a few feet away.
"What?" Ezra asked.
"Nothing," she stared off into the desert. "I don't want to talk about it anymore."
"Meredith," Ezra walked over to where she was standing and grabbed her arm, holding her eyes in his green ones. "What is it?"
Meredith stared into his questioning eyes. "You left me in jail, Ezra," she repeated, her voice sad, "You let me take the fall and left town. I would have thought that all that time we spent together would have counted for something. We were in love at one point, Ezra. That's why you proposed, remember? At least I was," her gaze left his to wander the surrounding hills for a moment, when it returned, her eyes were watery. "Yes, we got on each other's nerves, but we were still damn good business partners. But you couldn't have cared less. After all that time you let them take me in and rode away without a second thought didn't you? I'll bet you didn't so much as look back."
The acusing look her eyes held hurt Ezra almost as much as the truth of her statement. After justifying the action in his own mind, he had moved on. Come to think of it, before the day Meredith showed up in Four Corner's only saloon he hadn't even thought of her in at least a year. Ezra had always just assumed that she had understood and, in any case, moved on. He wanted to respond but he didn't know what to say.
"We should get going," she said, shaking his hand off her arm and walking in the direction they'd been travelling. "We're not getting any closer to town sitting here and its not getting any cooler."
Still partially numbed by what she had said, Ezra started walking. "Watch your step, this side of the hill seems fairly steep," he said, referring to the hill side on their right which was dotted with several rocks.
"I can see that. I've been walking on my own for quite some time now I think I can do it without your help, Ezra."
"I'm just warning you."
"Well you can stop."
Why do I even try? Ezra wondered as he looked out into the vast expanse of grassy wasteland.
Meredith stifled a cry as her left foot landed partway in a hole, her ankle twisting painfully as her foot slid the rest of the way in. Thrown off balance, she fell down hard on her right knee and fell, starting to roll down the side of the hill.
"Meredith!" Ezra tried desperately to catch her but arrived too late. Halfway down the hill where the slope leveled off slightly, Meredith came to a stop and lay unmoving. Moving as fast as he dared, Ezra made his way down to where she was. "Lord, let her be alright," he said under his breath.
"Meredith?" he said, kneeling beside her and gently turning her over. She groaned groggily, struggling to bring things into focus. He brushed her hair back from her face revealing an ugly cut on the left side of her forehead. He said her name again, disturbed by the concerned tone his voice had taken on.
"Ezra?" she asked, confused. She started to raise herself on her elbows but was overcome with a wave of dizziness and fell back, Ezra easing her to the ground.
"Shhh. You're alright, don't move," Ezra said.
"My head," she said weakly.
He nodded, "You appear to have cut it on a rock during you rather abrupt decent. Are you injured anywhere else?"
"I just rolled down your damn, 'fairly steep' hill what do you think?"
"I think I twisted my left ankle."
Ezra moved to her feet. "You'll forgive my indiscretion," he said, pulling her skirts back from her boots. He carefully took her booted foot in his hands, causing Meredith to wince. "Sorry," he grimaced. He could feel the joint was starting to swell already. "I'm afraid, it may be broken. I'll have to try to immobilize it to prevent further injury but first we must stop that cut of yours from bleeding." He took his handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it to her head. "Hold that there."
"Don't," Meredith protested as Ezra tore a strip from the bottom of her petticoat. "You're buying me a new one," she said as he tied the makeshift bandage on. "The dress too, it's completely ruined and it wasn't cheep either."
"I will be more than happy to once we are back in town," he said, tearing several more strips from the petticoat. "Until then, however, we have to find some place to rest. We won't be able to make it to town with your ankle like it is and we have to get out of this heat," Ezra said, carefully extracting Meredith's foot from the boot and surveying the surrounding area, his eyes finding a large tree. "All right," he turned back to face her, "there's a tree a few hundred yards from here. If I help you do you think you can walk?"
"I'm most certainly not going to stay out here," she winced as Ezra wrapped and secured her ankle.
Ezra nodded and started to help her to her feet. "Keep your left foot off the ground and put your weight on me," he said, looping her left arm over his shoulders, his left hand holding her's and his right arm around her waist. Meredith refrained from commenting on the obviousness of his instructions.
"Grab the boot," Meredith said before Ezra could take a step.
"I am not carrying your shoe."
"I can't go around with half a pair Ezra!"
"Add it to my bill."
They made slow progress, as the slightest amount of pressure on her injured ankle caused Meredith to collapse and in order to not put weight on it she practically had to hop along with her weight on Ezra. Even then she would slip occasionally as she balanced precariously on one heeled boot, and every time she did, Ezra had to catch her so she didn't fall. By the time they were halfway to the tree, they were both sweating heavily, losing water they had no way of replenishing.
"I never knew it got this hot in hell," Meredith panted.
Ezra chuckled, "I concur that the temperature leaves much to be desired. It is one of the drawbacks of this region."
Meredith teetered on her good leg, Ezra only just managing to catch her before the imminent fall.
"You shouldn't be exerting yourself with that head injury. You need to rest," he said, moving to pick her up.
"I can walk!"
"I can make it," she insisted, her dark brown eyes taking on a determined gleam.
Ezra let out a frustrated sigh. They only managed to go another fifty yards before Meredith collapsed, her right leg refusing to support her.
"I'm carrying you."
"Meredith, you can barely stand. Let me-"
"I would rather crawl," she said through clenched teeth.
Ezra let out a tired laugh. Under different circumstances, he would have found the idea of Meredith crawling anywhere highly amusing. "No doubt you would."
"Ezra," she whined a protest. Exhausted, Meredith gave up and let him carry her, settling against him. It was so nice not to have to walk and she was so tired.
"Meredith?" Ezra said giving her a little shake, after noticing she had gone oddly quiet, her head resting on his shoulder. He remembered hearing somewhere that you weren't supposed to let someone who'd suffered a head injury fall asleep as they may not recover consciousness. "Meredith."
Her reply came as a weak moan, that of someone not quite awake.
"Meredith, stay awake. You can't sleep now."
"I know, but you have to stay with me. We're almost there. Keep talking."
"Anything. How much you hate me, that generally seems to be a topic on which you can expand for hours on end."
"Too tired. You talk, I'll listen."
"Meredith!" Ezra exclaimed, feeling disturbingly out of control.
"Let me sleep...just a little while..."
"No!" He sighed, "I'll talk but you must promise to stay awake. If you fail to keep your promise, I will refuse to replace your garments."
"That's not fair," Meredith complained, still struggling to retain consciousness, "It's your fault they're ruined."
"I promise," she said as they reached the tree. Ezra carefully sat Meredith down so her back was to the base of the tree as her bustle would not allow for her to lay down comfortably and propped her ankle up on his neatly folded coat. "Start talking," she demanded, once they were settled, seeming every bit a child determined not to be cheated out of what had been promised her.
"What shall I talk about?" Ezra asked, enjoying his rest, but keeping a weary eye on Meredith.
"I don't know. How about what you're doing protecting a two-bit town in the middle of nowhere."
"I can't say that I know the answer to that myself. It's a rather long story."
Meredith laughed a humorless laugh, "We seem to have plenty of time."
Vin sat in the saloon. He was seated deep in his chair, long legs stretched out in front of him, listening absently to Buck and JD's conversation while enjoying a glass of beer. He wasn't really worried about Ezra, the gambler could take care of himself, but it did seem odd that he hadn't come back yet. It'd been over two and a half hours since he'd left. Buck was probably right. The way Miss Gatewood and Ezra went at each other, he wouldn't be surprised if Ezra did follow her all the way to Hargrove. Vin wouldn't blame Ezra for it. What with the heat, things around Four Corners had been pretty quiet and it was getting down right boring.
He sighed and let his eyes wander outside. The streets where occupied by only a few people going about their business, most wanting to stay inside and in the shade. Three men riding into town, however, caught his attention.
"Hey," he said, turning to Buck and giving his arm a tap with the back of his hand to get Buck's attention, then nodding towards the street outside, "that horse look familiar ta you?"
Buck and JD followed Vin's gaze, seeing the three men ride up to the general store leading a chestnut horse who was saddled and bridled but riderless.
"Looks like Ezra's horse," Buck replied, his voice serious.
"Yeah, but where's Ezra?" JD wondered aloud.
"Don't know kid," Vin said, turning back and facing them. "'Reckon we should go ask 'em." Buck met the tracker's gaze and nodded.
"You fellas wanna tell us where you got that horse you were leadin'?"
Mike turned his head to see three gunmen entering the store. Shit. He turned from the counter, carefully blocking the items on the table from the gunmen's line of sight. "I bought 'im. Though I don't see how that's any a' your business," Mike bluffed, hoping that Cody and Brandon would be smart enough to keep their mouths shut.
"Seeing's how the horse belongs to our friend, I'd imagine it's our business," the tall one said threateningly, taking a few steps closer to the ranch hands.
"You accusin' me a' stealing 'im?" Mike asked indignantly. "I reckon your friend sold me that horse."
"What'd ya pay him with?"
Mike recognised the voice as being the one who had spoken first; it belonged to the long haired man with a sawed off Winchester strapped to his leg. The gunman's blue eyes stared at Mike, waiting for an answer.
"What the hell kinda question is that?"
"The three of ya lost all your money in the saloon this mornin'. Our friend ain't exactly the type to sell fer credit."
Mike floundered, he hadn't expected to be recognised by anyone.
"We found the horse," Brandon blurted out, trying to cover.
"Is that so?" the man turned his questioning gaze on Brandon.
"Mr. Tanner," the clerk spoke up, "they were selling these," he held out two guns.
Vin took the guns, recognising Ezra's Derringer right away. "They're Ezra's," he nodded, passing them to JD.
"I guess ya found these too, huh?" JD asked.
"And these," the clerk handed Vin the remaining items. Vin looked them over, Ezra's flask, watch, ring, and a pair of earrings. He looked up and met Buck's gaze, Buck had seen them too, and he didn't look any happier than Vin felt about it.
"I think you'd better start tellin' us the truth," Buck hissed.
"Everybody got full canteens?" Chris asked. He received quick nods from everyone. After finding out what had happened, the six men had thrown two of the three ranch hands in the jail, Josiah offering to stay in town and keep and eye on them. The five remaining peace keepers were mounted and eager to start the search, the third ranch hand having offered to take them to the spot where he and his friends had left Ezra and Miss. Gatewood.
"They been out all day, they're gonna be mighty thirsty. Don't let 'em have more than a few sips of water at once, and make sure they take it slow," Nathan cautioned.
"Everybody got it? Alright, let's go."
Josaih watched his fellow peacekeepers ride by on their way out of town. "God-speed," he called.
"I can honestly say, I never thought *you'd* be working for the law," Meredith said, letting out a strained laugh.
"No one has been more surprised than I, I can assure you."
Meredith let out a tired moan. "It's so hot...'thirsty."
"I know." Ezra's mouth had long ago become dry from talking. "Unfortunately, at this juncture, there is nothing that we can do but sit and wait." For what, he wasn't sure. At this point, Ezra was just talking to keep himself awake. Casting a glance at Meredith, he noticed her eye lids drooping and immediately came alert.
"Don't even think it. Meredith," he warned, "You remember your promise."
"Just a little nap-"
"No! Meredith," he sighed, "I have already explained, if you fall asleep you may not regain consciousness. You have to stay awake."
"Why would you care?" she asked, sounding annoyed.
"Who else am I going to find to annoy around here that won't carry out their threats of violence on my person?" he joked, trying to lighten the mood.
"I'm serious Ezra. Why do you care now?"
"I never meant to hurt you, Meredith," he said quietly. "I did what I thought was best-"
"For you," she finished his sentence for him, "You did what was easiest, by running away. I've hated you for three years because I found out that the entire time we'd been together I had been completely expendable. After everything we'd made it through, you just left me behind."
Ezra felt another pang of guilt, he knew what it was to be left behind. His mother had dumped him at every place she could think of except for those times she had needed his assistance. Indeed, Maude's "darling baby boy" had been able to draw quite a bit of profitable sympathy from gullible crowds.
"I'm sorry, Meredith." Ezra knew the words were inadequate but he spoke them genuinely, unable to think of anything else to say. He had done the very thing to this woman that his mother had done to him. The very thing that he had cursed Maude for on multiple occasions and worse, he had done it to a person that at one point he had indeed felt very deeply for.
"Admittance of guilt," she said with a tired smile, "That's a new one for you."
"Well, just this once I believe it's appropriate."
Meredith struggled to keep her eyelids open, they felt as though they weighed a ton. It would be so easy to just close them and drift away...
"Meredith." Ezra knelt beside her and gave her face a gentle pat.
"Hm?" Her eyes came open as if with great effort on her part. Ezra caught her eyes and locked them in his gaze, taking her hand in one of his and giving it a squeeze.
"Stay with me, Meredith." Concerned lines where etched on his face. "Mr. Larabee and the others will be coming for us soon. It will only be a little while longer." He fervently hoped he wasn't lying. He didn't want to lose her now.
"I'm so tired."
"I know it's hard but you have to stay awake, keep talking," he paused, "Don't leave me." His last sentence was almost a whisper.
Chris adjusted his position in the saddle restlessly, generating the familiar creak of leather as his friend squatted, searching the ground for tracks. Damn but it's hot out here, he thought. And Ezra and Miss Gatewood are out there somewhere. He scanned the surrounding desert apprehensively.
Brandon, the ranch hand who'd been eager to aid the peacekeepers in their search hoping for lenience in his punishment, had indeed led them to the place where he and the other two had left Ezra and Miss Gatewood. Vin had found a few tracks heading in the general direction of the road and the search had begun. The tracks disappeared often, in part due to the dragging of Miss Gatewood's skirts across the trail, so Buck and JD had decided to scout ahead and around the others in case they should stumble upon the two.
Chris was becoming nervous that they hadn't found them yet. From what Vin had gathered from the tracks, they had been keeping to the tops of hills whenever possible which should have made them easier to spot, the fact that they hadn't yet done so didn't bode well. There was a lot of country to be lost in, even considering the fact that they had a general direction to work off.
"They're still headed in the same direction but they're slowin' down," Vin said, pushing off his knees and standing. He stepped into the stirrup and swung up into the saddle.
Chris, leading the two spare horses, and the other two searchers followed Vin's lead up the hill as he watched the ground for any signs. When they came to the top of the hill Vin dismounted and stood searching the ground near a rock, holding his horse's reins in one hand.
"Why're we wastin' our time out here in this heat? They're probably dead already," Brandon said.
"You'd better hope you're wrong 'cause if not, you can take a wild guess at who else ain't coming back into town alive," Chris warned, giving the ranch hand one of his icy glares.
Brandon promptly ceased talking and Chris turned back to Vin. The tracker had walked some distance away and was once again squatting, staring intently at the ground.
"Chris," the tracker motioned for him to come over.
The gunslinger dismounted and walked over to his friend, Nathan, towing the prisoner, not far behind. "'Find somethin'?"
"Looks like one of 'em fell an' rolled down the hill," he pointed to the jumbled tracks and a shallow hole in the ground. All present looked down the slope apprehensively; it didn't look like a pleasant fall. "They can't be much ferther."
Their worry renewed, Vin and Chris mounted quickly. The group rode cautiously down the slope, searching for any sign of the missing persons. Chris spotted something black on the ground and rode up to it. It was a lady's boot.
"Ezra!" Chris called. "Miss Gatewood!" The only response was silence.
"Ezra!" Nathan yelled. The group waited, listening.
"Over here!" The reply was strangled, the speaker's voice breaking, but it was recognisably Ezra.
"Where'd it come from?" Chris asked, circling on his horse. "Ezra!"
"Over there, under that tree," Nathan pointed. The other's followed his gaze to where Ezra stood waving his arms.
Chris fired two shots in the air, letting JD and Buck know that they'd found them. "Alright, let's get down there," he ordered unnecessarily.
Needing no further encouragement, the group raced towards their friend.
Seeing that the search party had found them, Ezra moved back to Meredith.
"You alright?" Nathan quickly dismounted and walked over to them.
"I'm fine but Meredith needs your attention," Ezra said hurriedly.
Nathan kneeled down beside them. "What happened?" he asked, lifting the handkerchief and gently inspecting the cut on her head.
Meredith winced, the pain bringing her slightly more alert. "I twisted my ankle and then I fell down the hill."
"She pass out?" Nathan asked as he continued to examine Meredith, looking at her eyes.
"I don't believe so. Maybe for a little while after she fell but she came awake when I got down to her. She's been complaining of being tired but I haven't let her sleep," Ezra said, careful not to leave out anything that might be important.
"Will she be alright?" he asked anxiously.
"Yeah. Looks like she has a bad concussion and a broken ankle. She'll be alright once I get her back to town and all patched up," Nathan said, opening his canteen and offering Meredith a drink. Ezra sighed gratefully. "Why don't you go get some water from Vin?" Ezra brightened at the prospect of water but looked reluctant to leave. "She'll be alright. You done a good job but there ain't nothin' more you can do for 'er right now. I'll take care of 'er. Go on, now."
Ezra nodded. "I leave you in Mr. Jackson's capable hands, my dear," he said to Meredith as he got up, giving her hand a final squeeze.
Vin and Chris stood a little ways away, giving Nathan room to see to his patients while remaining in the shade afforded by the tree. Another figure was still on his horse. A quick look was all that was needed for Ezra to identify the man in question as one of the ruffians who had placed he and Meredith in their current condition.
"What is he doing here?" Ezra demanded.
"It's alright Ezra," Chris said, trying to calm the gambler, "Vin, Buck, an' JD caught him and his friends tryin' to sell your stuff in town. Got his two friends in jail, Josaih's watchin' 'em. This one volunteered to take us to where they left you."
"Saved us quite a bit 'a time findin' the place," Vin added.
Some of Ezra's open hostility had disappeared, but he still looked wary of Brandon.
Vin handed a canteen to Ezra, taking his mind off their prisoner. "Go easy on this stuff. You're liable to choke if you drink too fast." Ezra nodded before eagerly taking a drink. In the midst of the relief he felt at their being found he had forgotten how thirsty he was. He didn't even realize he was gulping it down until Vin pulled the canteen from his lips. "Take it easy," Vin warned again, this time locking his blue eyes onto Ezra's green ones, making sure that the gambler understood. Ezra nodded again. Satisfied, the tracker released his restraining hold on the canteen. Ezra took another sip, this time controlling the urge to empty the canteen.
"You found 'em," JD said, a relieved tone in his voice, as he and Buck rode to a stop in the shade.
"Miss Gatewood all right?" Buck asked, casting a glance to where she sat with Nathan.
"A concussion and a broken ankle," Ezra explained, "Mr. Jackson assures me that she will be fine."
Buck nodded, "That's good. You alright?"
"A bit parched and perhaps more exposure to the sun than I would like, but I am otherwise fine."
"Now that we're all here," Chris said, "She ready to travel Nathan?"
"Yeah, she's ready to go. I'm gonna have 'er double up with me so I can keep an eye on 'er though."
Chris nodded. "I help ya with 'er then. Ezra, looks like you got your pick 'a these two," he said, leaving Ezra to choose and moving to help Nathan get Meredith onto his horse behind him.
Once everyone was mounted, the group turned around and headed for home.
So much for a three day stay, Meredith thought to herself.
After they had returned to town, Mr. Jackson had seen to all her injuries, splinting her ankle and stitching the cut on her head, assuring her that the scar would be hardly noticeable once the wound had healed. Because of her concussion, he had insisted that she stay in his infirmary for the night and that she must be awakened every few hours. Ezra volunteered for the duty of watching over her, and Nathan had seen no problem with it. After she had been released from Mr. Jackson's direct care, Meredith had been annoyed to discover just how difficult it was to talk to Ezra with one's facial expressions impaired. Eventually, Nathan had to warn her that if she didn't stop raising and scrunching her eyebrows she could pull the stitches and make the ending scar worse. Meredith was only too happy to comply, it wasn't exactly a comfortable experience, although it did give her another excuse to yell at Ezra. She didn't think she had ever had such a hard time keeping a poker face.
Her various scrapes and bruises from the fall had since faded and the town's healer had finally seemed satisfied that her ankle was mended well enough that her traveling would not adversely affect the healing process. Two weeks later than she had initially anticipated, she was finally getting out of Four Corners.
Meredith supposed that she could have left sooner, despite Mr. Jackson's arguments, but Ezra had always been there, insisting that she listen to the good doctor's advice and not risk further injury. Arguing with the both of them had turned out to be a hopeless venture however, and she had resigned herself to staying. And then there had been the trial. Despite the fact that horse theft was a crime punishable by death in that part of the country, Meredith and Ezra had stopped short of asking for a hanging and the ranch hands had instead gotten sizeable jail terms.
Meredith looked around her room to make sure she hadn't missed anything. After they had gotten back, they had wired the stage coach company to see just where exactly her driver had gone with her things. They had been tracked down and her bags returned along with an apology note. Spotting a hat on the floor near the dresser, she picked it up and added it to one of her bags. Apology note indeed. She had written, having nothing better to do anyway, a strongly worded letter to Mr. James Montgumery of the stage line company who replied with his "sincere apologies" and had promised her a private coach once she was ready to travel. It did pay to intimidate people, she thought smiling to herself.
Satisfied that she had everything, Meredith readjusted the crutches that Mr. Tanner had been kind enough to make for her and made her way to the door where Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne were waiting.
"I believe I've gotten it all."
"I'll help you down the stairs Miss Gatewood," Buck said, "JD, grab her things won't ya?" JD rolled his eyes but went to the task without comment.
"How very kind of you to offer, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra had advised Meredith to get a room on the ground level but she had flatly refused, an illustration of stubbornness that she was beginning to regret, but she had dared not give in after making her statement. Doing so would have been an admittance of wrong thinking and she was not about to start letting Ezra think he could have his way now. She mentally cursed Ezra as she made her way to the bottom of the stairs.
"Thank you Mr. Wilmington," she said once she had reached level ground.
"My pleasure ma'am," Buck said with one of his smiles.
Meredith returned the smile in kind.
"You're all set ma'am," JD said, coming over to where they stood. "Stage coach should be here in a couple 'a minutes."
"Thank you Mr. Dunne. You're a true gentlemen," Meredith leaned forward and gave JD a kiss on the cheek, much to the dismay of Buck. The kid could use a hand dealing with his older friend sometimes and she was more than happy to lend it. "Keep working on your poker face Mr. Dunne," she smiled. "I'll miss you both." With that said, Meredith made her way outside.
JD turned a beaming face on Buck. "Ya see."
"Don't even start with me boy," Buck shook his head.
Outside, the stagecoach had just pulled up. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner were handing her things up to the driver for him to load. She came to a stop at the edge of the boardwalk, standing as best she could, considering.
"Ma'am," Chris tipped his hat. "Hope you have a good trip."
"As do I Mr. Larabee. Thank you both, for everything."
"Good luck to ya," Vin said, touching the brim of his hat. The two then turned to walk down the boardwalk towards the saloon. Nathan and Josiah walked up.
"You take it easy on that foot now, it ain't healed all the way yet."
"You are an insufferable worrier, Mr. Jackson," Meredith teased. "Don't worry, I will be careful."
"Forgive my belatedness," Ezra said, running up to the coach. "I would hate to miss seeing you off."
"I'm sure that's what you were thinking. More likely you don't want to miss your last chance to try my nerves," she joked.
"Well, I couldn't very well let you go off thinking you'd won now could I?" he asked with a grin before turning serious. "I will miss you."
"Likewise," Meredith replied, with a teasing smile. "You have my address in South Carolina, you can write me anytime."
"I fully intend to." There was a moment's pause when neither of them said anything. "Well," he said reluctantly, "I suppose you'd best be on your way."
"I guess so. Goodbye Ezra," Meredith said, placing a kiss on his cheek. She turned and he helped her board the coach. Placing the crutches on the far side, she arranged her skirts and sat resting her injured ankle on the seat opposite her.
"Write me when you get there," Ezra said. He closed the door and signalled the driver to leave.
Meredith popped her head out the window. "You keep him in line," she called to Buck and JD, standing on the boardwalk, as the stage coach pulled out.
"Have a safe trip," Ezra said.
"I should, if you don't come running after me again."
"Very funny," he called after the retreating coach.
"I thought so," she smiled. "Goodbye Ezra!" she yelled just as stage coach rolled out of his line of sight.
Ezra stood, watching after the coach.
"Wait a minute," Buck said, "Ezra, didn't she just get the last word?"
"The what?" JD asked.
"That she did, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra smiled, "That she did."
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