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Slayers: A Spaghetti Western

Act 1

Prologue

Screams filled the air, and he couldn't quite tell if they were his or his family's, but somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that it must have been the animals, caught in the burning barn. His own groans were punctuated with coughs as he breathed in the dust and smoke from the fire raging out of control nearby. Also, making him want to gag was the stench of burnt flesh that seemed to hang about him. Through bleary eyes, he could barely make out a man's silhouette against the dancing red-orange flames. The haunting jingle of his spurs floated through the smoke.

That man was the one who had ordered two of the men to take his mother back behind the shed. That man was the one who had knocked him into the fire when he tried to stop the other men from beating his father. That man was the one who walked around with that black Colt revolver with the long ivory handle and shot the prone forms of his parents as they lay battered and bleeding on the cold dirt. That man was the one who had left the boy for dead.

The boy pushed himself to his knees, gritting his teeth against the pain in his burnt palms, trying to ignore the flaps of what could only be charred skin hovering around the corners of his vision. If he were to die, it would be standing on his own two feet, fighting this bastard who took away his life and his family. Slowly, painfully, he stood, wheezing and coughing as he fought for a breath. He looked at the ground where he had fallen, surprised that he was still alive. A glint of metal caught his eye, and he realized with a start, that it was his father's gun, half buried under the water barrel with the leak that had inadvertently saved the boy's life. He had been within inches of his parent's salvation and did not realize it.

The hot wind picked up, and the boy's vision wavered. He was going to pass out and die in the dirt without doing anything to avenge his family. As he fell, he glanced up and saw that the man responsible for everything was gone. He hit the ground, and Zelgadiss' last thoughts were of that haunting jingle of spurs and that ivory-handled black Colt.

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

Seven years later.

Amelia Seyruun cast a nervous look over the dark horizon where the moon was sinking behind the hills. In another hour or so, the sun would be making its presence known behind her to the east. She had awakened earlier than usual, and had not been able to go back to sleep, so she went outside for a breath of fresh air. It was always a little strange whenever her father was not in town, but since he became a federal Marshall, she was getting used to it; at the moment, he was tending to some "official" business in Fort Laramie a few days travel away. Miss Lina and Mister Gourry were out of town, too, tracking down a bounty who was spotted somewhere near Sage Creek, but they were due back any day now. She had received a post from her friends just yesterday to let her know that they were coming back home, but did not indicate whether or not they had caught their mark.

She shivered, pulling her shawl tighter around her form before going back inside. Turning to her morning routine, she poked the embers in the hearth before piling a couple of small logs on top, and in a few minutes, a cheering fire began to warm the common room. She then turned her attention to breakfast. There were only two boarders at the moment, and normally she wouldn't have to cook very much, but lately, it seemed that more and more young men came to eat their meals at her inn, so she decided to cook what she normally did. Biscuits, ham, eggs, and coffee was the regular morning fare; lunch was usually beef stew (or whatever soup she happened to make that day) and bread; fancy cooking was saved for dinner.

With barely enough time to get dressed and eat some breakfast of her own, she was ready to serve the first few customers who walked in the door: James and Bob, of course. They were two sons of a local rancher, and had, when Amelia was younger, pushed her into the pigpen after church and absolutely ruined her Sunday dress. The second she turned sixteen, though, they became sweet as sugar to her and were always coming in to eat. Amelia never forgot the incident, but continued to take their money and feed them, not once falling for the sweet talk they tried to pour on her.

"Morning, boys," she said brightly, handing each of them a cup of coffee as they sat down at what they considered to be "their table" in the dining room. She flipped her shoulder-length black hair back as she put on her apron.

"Mornin' Miss Amelia," they said, trying to sit up taller.

"So where are you off to today?" she asked. Her large azure eyes took in their gear and knew that they would be taking the cattle out again.

Without being asked, they un-holstered their pistols and handed them to the girl.

"We're going up past George's bend," James said. "I think we might be back sometime next week."

Bob argued, "That's not what pa said. We'll be back by Saturday."

"Shows how much you listen…"

While they argued, she went behind her counter and placed the guns in a specially made gun rack that already held two shotguns and a revolver (her own shotgun and the guns of the two tenants.) She closed the cabinet and locked it with a key she kept on a chain around her neck.

"Do you want the usual?" she interrupted, tired of their bickering. Not waiting for an answer (because the only things to eat were what she had already prepared), she disappeared into the kitchen. She fixed a plate for each and returned to serve the two boys, trying to ignore the fact that their eyes were anywhere but on her face when they looked at her. As they paid her, she heard steps coming down the stairs, and she turned her attention on her other guests.

"Morning, sirs! I hope you had a restful night. Would you like some coffee with your breakfast?" she asked cheerfully.

The taller gentleman nodded with a smile and allowed the shorter man (although Amelia was certain "he" was actually a woman in disguise) to lead him to one of the tables. The tall man was not old, nor frail, but he was unmistakably blind. When they had first arrived a couple of days ago, Amelia had thought that he would need special attention or wouldn't be able to manage the steps, but Mister Rezo proved her wrong. With only minor help from Eris, his companion, he went about town as if he had lived here all his life. The strange thing was that he wore spurs, even though they arrived in town by coach.

"Here, you go," she said placing a plate of food before each one and pouring two cups of coffee. "It's the usual breakfast. Let me know if I can get you anything else."

"Thank you, Miss Amelia."

"I trust our weapons are still where they should be?" Eris asked as always.

"Of course, Mister Eris. Just let me know when you'll need them."

Nodding their approval, they set to eating.

It was strange that they should be so concerned about their guns. It was a rule of hers, posted on a sign right outside the door, that no weapons are allowed in her establishment. All weapons were to be surrendered to the innkeeper, and would be returned when the patron left. No one had ever had a problem with her rule before. There were some who put up a fuss, but in the end, complied with her wishes. These two people, though, were different.

The shotgun was like any other, but the revolver was unique. She had never before seen a black-barreled Colt with an ivory handle. Maybe it was because of this, that she could understand their wariness. If anyone else knew that it was in the case, they may be tempted to kill this poor blind man for it. Well, at least they were leaving today, continuing on west to start their own practice: opening a doctor's office in San Francisco.

Such a noble cause lifted the girl's heart and almost made her reduce the cost of their stay. Almost. The thought of Miss Lina coming back and finding out that she had done such a thing scared the charity right out of her.

The ringing bell on the door startled her out of her thoughts, and she looked up to happily greet the newcomers. Soon, her dining room was full of patrons, many wanting a nice hot meal before the long work of the day was upon them. There were cowhands and landowners, travelers and townspeople. She bustled back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, cooking more food and taking more orders. Over the course of the next couple of hours, the gun cabinet filled and emptied until the only gun left was the old shotgun that her father insisted she keep, and her cash-box was pleasantly full.

"I wish you luck on your journey and all your endeavors!" she waved to the stagecoach across the street where the depot was located. Mister Rezo turned his head in her direction, and smiled.

"Thank you for your hospitality, Miss Amelia. I will remember your generosity."

With a tip of his hat and the jingle of spurs, which he still wore despite the fact that he did not ride a horse, he stepped into the stagecoach. Eris waved back, and followed the doctor into the coach. Maxwell, the old grizzled driver, tipped his hat to Amelia as well, and then shook the reins to signal the horses. The stage lurched forward, and it was on its way to distant San Francisco.

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

He couldn't realize his horrible luck. He had been delayed a week all the way back in Carson City because of the incident with that Indian Agent, and now he had missed his prey. He should have just ridden straight through, but he knew that if he did, hundreds of people, both Indian and white alike, would have been killed needlessly. The only reason the agent listened to him at all was because he was the one who warned him of the fact that those settlers were on sacred ground, and that if they did not relocate, a war would begin.

Throwing a rock into a nearby stream, he stood slowly, and looked at his reflection in the water. Disgusted, he pulled his kerchief back over his nose, covering the lower half of his face, and tugged his hat lower until only his eyes were visible. With a morbid sense of humor, he took pleasure in the fact that he looked dark and mysterious, someone not to be trifled with. He wore a plain shirt, tan pants, and black boots, but his light brown leather duster appeared to have withstood a lot more than just travel. Twin revolvers were strapped to either leg, and it was clear by the lazy way his gloved hands adjusted them that their presence was not only familiar but that he was also comfortable with them.

"Come on. If we hurry, we can probably catch up to him in the next town," he said quietly, looking downstream a little ways.

A beautiful roan mare lifted her head to look at him, and then went back to drinking from the stream as if to say, "Maybe another time."

The young man sighed and walked over to her, taking hold of her reins and leading her away from the cold clear water. He vaulted into the saddle then strapped his full canteen to the saddlehorn in front of him. Patting her neck, he murmured, "Come on, girl. Not much longer now. We'll be in Rock Creek by nightfall."

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

The uneasy feeling did not leave the raven-haired girl as she walked down the street to the nearby jail. She always went over to feed the Sheriff and his deputies after she finished up with her duties at the inn, a habit that she continued since the new Sheriff was her uncle Christopher.

Her heeled boots clicked on the walk, and she quickly waved her "hello's" to the shop owners as she passed. Her basket was full of biscuits and ham, as well as a full pot of coffee. She stepped down into the street, heedless of the dust and dirt she was kicking up onto her ankle-length skirt. It was hard enough to just keep from falling.

As she neared the jailhouse, her eyes caught sight of something that made her grin widely. Two very familiar horses were tied up in front: a palomino mare and a large black stallion. She hurried over, glad for once that she didn't listen to herself when she thought to cook less food.

"Good morning!" she announced as she walked in.

Lina nearly bowled her over in what many would believe was a hug, but was actually a full body dive for the food.

"Amelia! I'm so happy to see you! What do you have? The usual? Oh, how much? Thank goodness! And coffee too? You're a lifesaver! We rode almost non-stop and I was going to shoot this guy for being such a pain, but Gourry talked me out of it."

"Miss Lina," Amelia interrupted, leading the starving girl to a nearby desk. "Eat first, then you can tell me all about it."

The second she laid out the food, the diminutive redhead and a tall blonde man pounced on the fare, and it was clear that the poor sheriff and the two deputies would not be eating soon.

Lina Inverse, a tough girl who was only a year older than Amelia, was dressed so dramatically different from most women that most people took her for a boy. Pants, boots, shirt, vest, and black duster, hid her womanly features, so if it weren't for her long, flowing red hair, her small frame, and her constant insistence that she was a girl, no one would be able to tell.

Gourry Gabriev was a very sweet man, an expert with firearms, but a gentle person who didn't seem to mind taking orders from a young woman. He was similarly dressed, but although his long blond hair was down past his waist, no one ever questioned if he was a girl since he was well over six feet tall and very well built. He and Lina ate more than anyone she knew, and it seemed strange at first that they got along so well. He had apparently saved Lina from a group of outlaws, but Amelia had a feeling that Lina hadn't needed saving. Her infamous temper caused her reputation to precede her. You did NOT want trouble with Lina Inverse or her guardian Gourry Gabriev.

While they were eating, Amelia rushed back to the inn and grabbed any left over food in the kitchen and darted back to the jailhouse to feed her uncle and his deputies. He thanked her for the meager fare.

"Your friend there needed to eat more than us, niece," he said with a hint of a smile gracing his features. His beard made him look distinguished and wise, reflecting his inner nature quite nicely. "They caught the infamous 'Vruumugun the Ghost.' Had a bit of trouble, but they got their man."

"I still think Gourry should have let me shoot him," Lina muttered from across the room. Now finished with her food, she turned to Amelia and began to rant. "We caught up to him at some saloon and he was playing cards. I walked right up to him and told him that we were there to bring him in, and do you know what he said? He told me to wait until he was finished playing his hand!!! Me!" She had been gesticulating wildly, almost knocking over her empty plate and cup, and she ended up right in Amelia's face, a look of innocence suddenly playing across her features.

"A poor orphan," she began, clutching her hands to her chest, "trying to make her way in the world. It wasn't my fault that my big sister kicked me out of the house, into the cold, bitter night." Amelia had heard the story from Luna herself when she visited, and Lina was kicked out because she tried to make a buck at her sister's expense. And though it was nighttime, it wasn't really cold. It was the dead of summer in Sweetwater, and she had been told to go to the Seyruun's house straightaway via stagecoach. "I was forced to fend for myself, and found that bringing in criminals was such a noble cause!" And by the time she made it to town two months later (when it was a day and a half ride by stage), she had dragged in a group of outlaws with Gourry's help, and had been addicted to bounty hunting ever since. "He thought to deprive a young girl her income… by MAKING ME WAIT!!!" she yelled in the direction of the cells.

"Do you ever shut up?" a voice asked from the only occupied cell. The man sat up on his bunk, and Amelia was surprised. He was a slight man with a plain face who looked nothing like a criminal. "What ever happened to general courtesy?" he muttered.

"Courtesy? Why, you've gotta lot of nerve! I'll show YOU courtesy!!!"

It took Amelia, Christopher, and Gourry to hold the girl back from the cell. She was growling and clawing for the cell, but they pulled her all the way back to the front door.

"Ah, you're not worth it anyway!" she shot back over her shoulder as she was finally dumped outside.

"He's worth five hundred dollars, though, Miss Lina," Christopher smiled at her. He handed her an envelope, and hearts were in here eyes. "That was well earned. We'll wait until the Marshall gets back before we transport him to Fort Laramie. Don't spend it all in one place now," he laughed, knowing Lina's miserly habits. Gourry would be lucky to get even half of it.

The trio waved goodbye to the Sheriff and walked back to Amelia's place.

"So, how did business do while we were gone?" Lina asked, thumbing through the papers in the envelopes, clearly counting the reward money. Amelia was sure that she would ask to see the books from their weeklong absence.

"Oh, about the same, I suppose," she answered, suddenly longing for a nice long ride. "Only the gentleman who was here when you left and then another two while you were gone. They left just this morning. But people have been coming in on a regular basis to eat. I even had to ask Miss Martina to come and help me out a couple of days. She's dropping by to help out with the lunch and supper crowds today."

Lina appeared thoughtful while Amelia unlocked the door to the inn and allowed them all inside. While the two were unloading their weapons into the gun rack, Amelia pulled out both her books and the cashbox for her friend, then went into the back yard to set to pumping fresh water into a large metal half-barrel that rested above a bed of low coals. After sticking several pieces of wood into the embers, she returned to the inn.

"It will be a while before the water gets to boiling, Miss Lina," she told her friend who was already pouring over the books. "I'm going to take Champion out for a quick ride. He's been aching to get out."

"Go ahead, Amelia," Lina answered without looking up. "Gourry can get the bath ready."

The girl did not wait for her to say any more; she was in her room in a flash, changing into a riding skirt (which was really more like loose trousers) and boots. As she went to the back door, Gourry caught her attention.

"Make sure you wear your coat, Amelia. And don't go too far. Looks like a storm's coming in."

"Sure, Mister Gourry!"

And with that, she pulled on her thick leather duster and went out to the barn.

Champion, a beautiful grey stallion, stamped and threw back his head upon seeing his owner enter the barn. She could almost hear him thinking, "It's about time." With a smile, she picked up his saddle and reins and entered his stall. His coat was still nice and clean from when she fed and brushed him a couple of hours ago, and she spent little time getting him saddled up and ready to ride.

The second she opened the barn door, Champ took off at a trot. Her grip on the pommel tightened, and with a hop aided by speed, she vaulted herself up into the saddle. Lina had taught her that trick ages ago, and after weeks of scrapes and cuts and bruises, the younger girl finally learned how to do a running mount.

Amelia's sense of unease was momentarily forgotten in the stream of the wind on her face and the dizzying streaks of color of the world rushing by. Together they ran, happy in the simple moment of freedom afforded these two. Growing bolder in her joy, she released the reins, gripping the horse with only her legs, and thrust her arms out to either side of her as if willing wings to sprout so they could fly away.

The route that she normally ran brought her north and then west of the town. She waved to James and Bob as they rode out with their father's cattle and then continued west along the streambed, finally slowing to a walk when they reached Pike's Pond, nearly four miles away from town. There, she dismounted and flopped down on the tall grass while Champion wandered down to the stream to drink.

When she caught her breath, she sat up and lazily walked over to a nearby willow, parting the curtain of leaves and entering "her castle." This was the place her father used to take her on their outings, where she played at being a princess and her father was the knight. Or, more often than not, where she would play the knight who fought to save the wounded king in the willow castle.

As she set a foot on a knot to climb up into the tree, Champion walked under the tree's canopy and whickered his displeasure.

"I'm not going to fall, you know," Amelia told the horse. "I've climbed this old tree hundreds of times." The horse rolled his eyes. "Okay, maybe not hundreds, but at least dozens of times."

She pulled herself up through the limbs of the tree until she came up to the highest branch that could still support her weight, and with a valiant effort, popped her head through the canopy. The view was absolutely breathtaking.

Green surrounded the pond and the stream as it wound its way across the landscape. Fall was fast approaching, and already, she could see golds and browns sneaking into the scenery. Off in the distance, she could see the dark line of the town.

Turning to the west, she started, and had to hold on tight to keep from falling out of the tree.

Not more than a mile away, a thick line of black smoke snaked its way skyward, issuing from right behind a rise: it was the Cooper's homestead.

Amelia's sense of duty kicked in, and she found herself in a controlled fall down the tree, hardly caring about the scrapes and cuts she was picking up along the way. In a moment, she was on her trusted steed, a knight of honor and valor, on her way to help and defend where she could.

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

Zelgadiss had made good time, and he was within a few of miles of Rock Creek when he first saw the smoke. From the black curls rising into the air, he could tell it was no hearth fire. If he could remember correctly from the last time he had been to this town, someone lived down that way. Cooter or Cooper or such.

He sat on his mare, contemplating his next course of action. This was just going to be another one of those things that held him up when he had someplace to be, and he did not have enough time. A storm was fast on his heels, and he wanted to cover as much ground as possible before he was forced to stop. Besides, he was the heartless wandering gunfighter, right?

He had just wheeled his horse around when the faint sound of gunfire drifted to his sensitive ears. A scream. And smoke…

Kicking his horse Lightning forward, he found himself charging towards the smoke, almost not heeding the screaming voice in the back of his mind about the stupidity of running headlong into a fight where he had no idea of what was going on. The voice slowly won out as he neared the top of the rise, and he pulled his mount to a stop. Leading her to a nearby tree, he loosely tied her up and pulled out a rifle. Treading carefully, he snuck up to the ridge and peered down into the small valley.

The house was burning and two bodies lay on the ground and, even from this distance, Zelgadiss could tell they were dead. One, he recognized as Old Cooper, the crotchety old gent who used to tell him that his son was a good-for-nothing lazy deadbeat who was going to be the death of him. The other must have been his wife. No one else was around, but there were tracks everywhere.

With a sudden anger, Zel marched down to the house, trying to keep those horrible memories at bay. Kneeling down beside the two bodies, he turned over Old Cooper and closed the poor man's unseeing eyes. When he gently turned over his wife, her eyes fluttered open. Her hands knotted into fists on his coat.

"They took her. She was only trying to help… My son took her. Please, you must help…" Her hands fell away as she breathed her last, and Zelgadiss lowered her to the ground.

Who was she talking about?

His sharp eyes caught a piece of pink and white on the ground a few yards away. Picking it up, his heart dropped just a little upon seeing the little violet embroidered letters on the handkerchief: A.S.

Amelia Seyruun.

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

"Of all the atrocious, despicable, unconscionable, unmanly…"

Whack!

Wide-eyed, Amelia was stunned that he actually struck her. Wishing she could have glared back at him, she resigned herself to concentrating on balancing herself on Champ. She was already tied up and draped ungracefully across her poor horse's back as they wound their way away through the hills several miles from town. After a failed escape attempt, they had bound her hands and feet, and treated her like a sack of grain: her feet were on one side of the horse and her head on the other.

"Just too bad you came along when you did, Amelia," one of the men murmured to her as their leader rode on ahead. If she could remember correctly, it was Gordon, one of Connor's old buddies.

"He killed his parents, Mister Gordon," she tried to reason with him. The trail was bouncing strangely as she regarded him upside down. She fought off the urge to vomit.

"Not my business, Missy. That's 'tween him an' them, rest their souls."

"You could have stopped them…"

"Enough!" Connor yelled at them from up ahead. "We've got to be as far away from Rock Creek as we can."

Grunting in agreement, Gordon and a couple of other men spurred their horses forward, pulling Amelia and Champ along behind them. She fought to keep her breath as she was bounced around. Closing her eyes, she tried to shut the memory of the murders of those nice people out of her mind. Thoughts of a cavalry rushing to her aid to dispense justice and retribution filled her mind and left no room for what might happen to her if help did not arrive.

By late afternoon, they arrived just in time at an outcropping of rock in the hills where a shaky-looking house with one door and a window had been shoddily constructed. The storm had finally caught up to them, and it was absolutely pouring down rain. Amelia's thoughts of a cavalry coming to her rescue melted away in the rain. No one could possibly be able to track them now that the rain had washed away their trail.

Someone, it didn't matter who, pulled her down and severed the bonds at her feet, then pushed her until she followed Gordon to the questionable structure. Shoved into a corner, she was given a musty and dirty blanket and forgotten. The rain pattered ceaselessly against the thin pane of glass, threatening to break through, but the men did not seem to care.

There were four of them; the other two men, Amelia did not know. They all sat down at a round table in the middle of the small room, which was lit only by a lantern on the table and the low glow of coals in the cast iron stove on the other side.

Trying to concentrate on the conversations around her, she secretly worked at the rope around her wrists. Several places were rubbed raw, but her determination pushed her through the pain. If no one would be able to rescue her, then she'd have to do it herself! She stopped suddenly and refocused on the discussion when Gordon came forward with what looked like a thin stew and set it at her feet. Her mouth began to water.

"Gotta feed her if you're keepin' her, Connor," he continued, and Amelia tried to pick up the thread of conversation. Gordon returned to his place at the table and ladled himself another bowl. "Though I don't really know why you're keepin' her."

A flash of lightning was followed closely by the crack of thunder. Her heart jumped at the sound, and her contorted grip on her spoon tightened. The house was on the lee side of the outcropping, but she could still hear the howl of the winds that had picked up outside. She could see through the little window that it was almost fully dark outside…

"She saw what happened back there," Connor answered, his patience wearing thin. "I can't just let her run home to tell her daddy or her uncle what we did. I should have just shot her on the spot, but I thought she might just come in handy on a cold, lonely night like this one…"

The spoon froze on its way to Amelia's mouth, and she glanced up at him. He was eyeing her with an evil glint. Cold spread through her body as realization of why she was taken began to seep in.

Another flash of lightning, and suddenly he was standing next to the table. Thunder boomed, followed by another strike, and he had Amelia by the arm. Her cry was drowned out by the rumble overhead.

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

Zelgadiss had no trouble following the men who had killed the Coopers and kidnapped Amelia. They had taken no real measures to cover their tracks, probably believing that the storm would wash the trail clean. They were right for the most part, but they hadn't counted on someone following them so soon. He was only half an hour behind them, and his tracking skills were better than most. This quarry was not going to elude him.

He had met Amelia under strange conditions a few years ago, and her treatment of him was something that he had always valued. He had brought in a bounty with Lina Inverse and Gourry Gabriev, one that he had tracked and he had found, but one that needed Lina's more creative way of handling her bounties (they all dressed as women in order to infiltrate a compound then took out all the bodyguards with ease) and Gourry's expertise with firearms (the man's sheer size alone allowed more hiding places for weapons than Zelgadiss' slight frame.) As much as he cringed at the memory of that bounty, he also appreciated meeting Amelia as well as her father.

They dragged the men into Rock Creek's jailhouse and were greeted by a slip of a girl who couldn't have been more than thirteen or fourteen and sported a badge marked "Deputy." It took several minutes of convincing before he came to understand that Amelia was actually the Sheriff's daughter who had just delivered food, and was standing in his place while he was in a meeting with a Federal Marshall in the next room.

After everything was sorted out, prisoners locked in their cells, and introductions made, Amelia invited him to stay at their Inn at the edge of town, free of charge. She had done an initial double take of his face, but she never stared or treated him differently from her friends. Lina almost strangled the girl for not being business-minded, but, surprisingly, she fended Lina off with a strange amount of delicacy.

After that, the few times Zelgadiss passed through Rock Creek, he would stay at Amelia's no-weapon Inn. The last time he had seen her was about a year ago when they had all had a big adventure and helped prevent a war between one of the Indian tribes and the settlers down in Oklahoma. He briefly wondered about their friend Filia as well as Xelloss and the baby Val somewhere in one of the southern towns, but his thoughts soon returned to the girl who needed his help.

He finally came to a hovel set next to a huge rock outcropping uncontested, and he tied Lightning to a tree. Even in the rain, he could see Amelia's grey stallion tied up miserably with the other horses. Pulling out his rifle and shielding it from the rain in his duster, he strode purposely up to the house. Quickly untying all the horses, save Amelia's grey, and setting them loose, he continued forward.

Lightning flashed, followed by thunder, and he pulled the lever on the rifle. He flattened himself against the outside of the house, and his sharp ears tried to pick up what they were saying inside.

"…just shot her on the spot, but I thought she might just come in handy on a cold, lonely night like this one…"

He peeked in, just as another flash of lightning struck, and he was surprised by two things: Amelia, despite the situation, still looked amazingly pretty… umm… calm, and also his revolver was in his hand and cocked as the roll of thunder sounded above him. Yet another lightning strike, and Zelgadiss could see the fear etched on her face, as well as the recognition of the fact that he was right outside. Time seemed to slow down, and Zelgadiss acted.

The man grabbed her arm.

A loud boom of thunder sounded directly overhead.

Amelia's cry of, "Mister Zelgadiss!" was drowned out by the rumble.

Zelgadiss' shot punched through the window and connected with the man's shoulder.

He fell forward and hit the wall.

The door flew open, and the wind screamed in, followed by a terrifying figure, his face disfigured by scars, his hands holding two deadly weapons. As the men at the table reached for their guns, he shot them all. They never had a chance.

"Stop right there!"

Zelgadiss wheeled around. The man was holding Amelia by the hair with a gun to her head. Her eyes were wide with fright, but she was twisted to the side, her arms at an awkward angle. Zel dropped his weapons in defeat. He couldn't risk hitting Amelia.

"I don't know who you are, you freak, but this is my house and you just shot my friends. I won't hesitate to kill you."

His eye twitched at the derogatory remark, but tried to keep his voice even.

"Just like you didn't hesitate to kill those people back there?"

The man's eyes narrowed. Amelia was still moving around, and Zelgadiss wished she would stop. If he was who he thought he was, a man crazy enough to kill his own parents wouldn't think twice of killing some girl. His worry for his friend soon turned to concern for himself as he found the gun being leveled at his face.

"You should learn to keep your ugly nose out of other people's business."

The simultaneous lightning strike and thunder signaled the men, and Zelgadiss jumped out of the way as the man pulled the trigger and shoved Amelia back into the corner. Zel tried to ignore the burning in his left arm as the bullet tore through his flesh. As fast as he could, he drew his remaining gun and fired…

Misfired. Damn.

The man laughed and held his hand steady as he pointed at Zelgadiss with his pistol.

"It must be my lucky day. You've provided me with a wonderful alibi. I just have to tell people that you drifted through, murdered my parents and kidnapped her before trying to use my house as a refuge, killing my men. How heroic do you think I'll be for killing you after you murdered Amelia as well?"

"You bastard!"

No, he couldn't die like this. His eyes flicked to his other guns, lying on the floor about ten feet away. His arm was beginning to throb, but if he was going to die, then dammit, he'd die in a blaze of glory!

As his legs sprang into action, a gunshot cracked. In one leap, he picked up his gun and swung it around to aim, but another shot sounded first.

The surprised look on the man's face was forever etched on his face as his body slumped to the ground. Amelia's shaky hands dropped the tiny two-barreled pistol, and she sank to her knees, tears streaming from her face.

"I… I just… I couldn't… let him… oh… I kill… I killed him…"

Gritting his teeth against the ache in his arm, Zelgadiss took off his duster and crossed the space between them in two strides. As gently as he knew how, he placed it around her shoulders and allowed her to melt into his side, sobbing her heart out. He picked up her tiny pistol and pocketed it before cutting the bonds at her wrists and then carefully steering her out into the rain. Only concerned with getting her back to town, he untied her horse from the rail and, despite his hand slipping from the all blood running in rivulets down his arm, managed to tie it to his own horse's saddle.

He couldn't ignore the sharp pain that lanced through his arm when he helped Amelia up onto Lightning, and before mounting up behind her, he bound his wound as tightly as he could. His arm was the least of his concerns. The poor girl was in shock. Her mouth was still moving wordlessly, and he placed his injured arm loosely around her waist to keep her in place. The ride back to town was slow going in the unrelenting rain. Zelgadiss tried to think of what he could do to wait out the night, but he was not about to go back to that hovel. He couldn't think to make camp and have her sleep out in the rain. He just had to bring her back home.

After several minutes trying to keep Lightning from slipping on the trail as well as trying to keep a general idea of where town was, he leaned forward.

"Thank you for saving my life, Amelia," he murmured in her ear. She let out a little sob, and his grip on her tightened slightly. "Don't regret what you did. He murdered his parents and would have done worse to you if he had the chance. You were very brave."

He felt her head nod next to his face, and she leaned back against him. Before long, her head lolled over to rest in the crook of his neck and she went limp in his arms. Overcome with exhaustion, she had finally succumbed to her weariness and fallen asleep. He was not that far behind her in fatigue, and by the time they got back to town, Zelgadiss' only thought was to keep his charge safe and stay in the saddle.

The low lights of the town was a beacon for him, and he vaguely thought to steer Lightning in that general direction, but the horses were way ahead of him, having remembered the way home. Soon, blurry visions swam in front of his face as he was pulled gently from his horse. He tried to keep a hold of Amelia who was being taken away from him, but then there was a familiar redhead assuring him that they were safe. Amelia's too pale face was the last thing he remembered.

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A/N: Three huge hugs go out to: Pogo for having the contest and putting up the challenge in the first place, Kaeru Shisho for doing a brilliant job of beta reading and furthering the challenge, and my husband for coming up with the idea for a western. Thank you for everything!

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