A/N - In my haste to get the first half of this story posted last week, I was negligent in thanking some very special people. Firstly, Jordan McKenzie. If it wasn't for your support and encouragement, this one would still be safely tucked away in a file on my computer called "Ain't never gonna see the light of day." You rock, my friend! No wonder Ezra loves you, too!! And secondly, but absolutely no less important, I want to thank Ricochet for her constant friendship and support in everything from my writing to that demon called Real Life. I'd be lost without you, sister dear. -- Maggie

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The carriage slowed in front of the jail, and Ginny leaped off before the wheels had stopped turning. "Mr. Larabee! Mr. Larabee!" she shouted at the top of her lungs. "Help me!"

The door to the jail swung open and Chris and Vin came out at a trot.

Breathless, Ginny tried to explain to them what was going on. "It's Ezra, he's in trouble," she panted.

Chris grinned at this statement. This really wasn't a big surprise with the Southerner. He was always getting into some kind of scrape.

Vin saw the wild look in the redhead's eyes and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Ma'am, why don't you come inside and sit down, and tell us what's going on." The soft Texas twang was soothing but she shook her head.

"No! There's no time! He's going to kill Ezra if we don't hurry!" Ginny looked from the blond gunfighter to the tracker. "Well, aren't you going to go save him?"

"Lady, if you'll just--"

Larabee didn't have a chance to finish his sentence before Maude Standish joined the trio on the porch of the jail.

"Mr. Larabee, from what this young woman has told me, there is some miscreant holding Ezra hostage." Maude smiled at the two men. "Now I don't know the particulars of the situation, but she seems to believe that my son will suffer terribly if you gentlemen don't ride in and save the day." Having said her piece, Maude instructed the driver to take her bags to the hotel. With a nod to the men and Ginny, she climbed back in her carriage.

Hazel eyes sought green ones. "Please, Mr. Larabee. I know this man, and he will kill Mr. Standish if you don't do something."

Vin was the first to speak. "Aw, hell, Chris." The soft-spoken tracker tugged at his hat. "We can't leave Ezra twisting in the wind."

Chris nodded. "Get the others." Turning to Ginny, he placed a hand on her shoulder and spoke to her as if she were a small child. "Tell me exactly where they are."

Taking a deep breath, Ginny let it out in a burst of words. "They're in the old shack out by the pond. But please be careful. Elmer's crazy, and if you go in there guns blazing he'll kill Ezra for sure!"

Mary Travis crossed the street, having seen Maude's carriage and heard conversation between the two men and Ezra's friend. "Mr. Larabee, is there anything I can do to help?"

Handing the inconsolable woman over to the widow, he nodded. "Yeah, Mary. Take her and see if you can calm her down."

"Where are you going?"

Taking a look down the street at the six men riding toward him, the blond lawman whispered, "With any luck, to save Ezra's life."

When the rest of the peacemakers reached Chris' position, he quickly laid out his plan to rescue Ezra. JD and Josiah would stay in town, in case Elmer got away from the other four. Vin, Buck and Nathan would ride with Chris. He knew that if what the woman had told him was true, the healer would have his hands full when they got to Ezra.

Mounting Pony, he wheeled the horse toward the end of town and the pond. "Let's ride!"

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The leather strap lashed the tender skin on Ezra's side yet again. Biting his bottom lip, the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. Elmer had up righted the bed, and had Ezra tied to the posts and laying on his side.

"I'm gon' ask you one more time, boy," The lash landed another blow. "Where is she?"

When the gambler refused to answer, Elmer became enraged and began to land blow after blow, the stiff leather breaking the skin in multiple places. A whoosh of wind signaled the coming lash. Tiny rivulets of blood were forming a pool beneath the Southerner's body. Elmer had bound Ezra on his side, and the strain of the position made circulation in his hands nonexistent. Ezra tried to curl into himself but found that impossible too.

A cry escaped Ezra's parched lips. A sick smile curved the disfigured face of the man holding the strap. Standish tried once more to loosen his hands, but the way Elmer had him trussed up, it was futile.

Through the haze in his brain, Ezra recalled witnessing a whipping on a plantation when he was a little boy. It had given him nightmares for weeks after he and Maude left the place. Inhumane? No, there had to be a better word to describe it. Atrocious. Barbaric. Sadistic. Then his mind wandered back to the first time he'd met Nathan. And to think, he'd called Buck and Josiah rude. He had been downright cold to the former slave, contemptuous even, and yet Nathan had helped him in the Seminole village when he dislocated his shoulder. No animosity there at all.

Another stripe on his skin, and another. Soon Ezra could no longer feel the sting of the strap; it was purely an involuntary spasm that greeted the lashing. His skin was torn and bleeding but he felt nothing. He retreated to the safety of his mind. Elmer couldn't touch him there.

The sound of hoof beats brought the lash to a halt. Ezra was vaguely aware of Elmer moving away from the bed. "Damn." Elmer swore. "One, two, thre-- four riders comin' in." He turned back to the man on the bed. "Looks like the bitch got away. So much for hoping a wild animal got to her first."After a moment of indecision, Elmer gathered up Ezra's clothes, and began taking off his own. He quickly donned the gambler's outfit then picked up Ezra's hat and placed it down low over his eyes. Taking his discarded shirt, Elmer began to tear strips from it. Ezra watched with interest, knowing the man certainly had not suddenly decided to tend his wounds.

Walking over to the bed, Elmer grabbed Ezra by the hair, jerking his upper body up. He then started to wrap the strips of cloth around his head, though none too gently. Leaving only Ezra's eyes visible, he stood and surveyed his handiwork. Satisfied, he unceremoniously dropped Ezra back to the bed."What, may I ask," Ezra panted, "do you expect to accomplish with this charade?"Leaning close to Ezra's battered, bandaged face, Elmer sneered. "Any damn thing I want, Fancy-man. See, them men out there think they're coming in here to find me, but they're only going to find you instead." Straightening, he smiled. "While they're here, taking care of the 'prisoner', I'll be well on my way back to town. And the first thing I plan to do is find that little redhead and have me another taste of her." The smile faded. "Then I'm gonna kill her."

Those haunting words were the last conscious memory Ezra had, as Elmer's fist connected with his jaw.

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"I don't like the looks of this, Vin." Chris shook his head as he looked at the shack. "It's too quiet."

Vin pulled his scope from his pocket and tried to see in the window. "No movement in there," he said softly.

"What's our plan?" Buck asked, as Nathan moved to join them.

Larabee glared at the shack once more then spoke. "Hell, let's go in and get the sunuvabitch, boys."

Not waiting to see if the others followed, Buck ran up on the front porch shouting, "You in there with my woman?" A hard boot shattered the already battered front door and the ladies man stepped inside, gun drawn at the ready. A low moan from the figure lying on the bed drew his attention, and he motioned for the rest of the men to come on in.

Walking over to the bed, Buck nudged the frame with his knee. Another groan was emitted from the body on the bed. "Get up."

"Hel…Buc…can't…do…Ginn….." came the muffled reply.

"I don't like to point out the obvious, fellas," Nathan stated, "but if this is Ezra..."

Chris and Buck exchanged a look before bolting out the door and riding hellbent-for-leather back to town.

Back at the shack, Vin shuffled his feet, then tugged his hat a little lower. "I hate to be the one to point this out, but he ain't got no clothes on."

Nathan grinned at the tracker's discomfort at the man's unclothed state. He pulled a blanket over him and then set about taking the bandages from around the poor soul's head. The healer couldn't help but notice the deep, bloody welts curving around the torso and anger rose up in him like bile. No human should have to endure that kind of punishment.

Gently unwinding the cloth, he spoke in low, soothing tones. "Don't you worry none. We're gon' get you back to town and everything will be jus' fine." As he pulled the material free from it's binding, a panicked green gaze met a chocolate brown one. When he was finished removing the bandages, Nathan sent Vin to get some water. Ezra's face was beat to a pulp and there was a nasty gash on his left cheek.

Vin returned with his canteen and Nathan washed the dried blood from the Southerner's face and body. After giving him a couple drops of laudanum, he tucked the blanket around Ezra's upper body, careful not to cause him any more pain than necessary, then joined Vin by the open door.

"He goin' ta be a'right?" The tracker asked quietly.

"He's pretty beat up, but yeah, he'll be okay." Nathan stared out at the ripples the wind was creating on the pond. "That bastard whipped him, Vin. Like a dog. I found the leather strap under the bed."

Twin spots of red colored Vin's cheeks. Ezra might be selfish, and he could be a pain in the butt, but overall he was a good man. Even if that wasn't true, nobody deserved to be beat like that. "Think Chris and Buck've caught up to him yet?" Vin finally broke the uneasy silence.

"Ginny? Where's Ginny?" Nathan turned in time to see Ezra struggle to sit up in bed. What was it with these men? A normal human being would be out for at least a couple of hours with the dose of laudanum he'd been given. Damn, he was as bad as Chris on this stuff.

"Lay back, Ezra." Nathan admonished. "You're gon' open up them wounds again if you don't."

A piercing green glare was directed at Nathan. "Mr. Jackson, it would be in your best interest to inform me of Miss Virginia's whereabouts in a timely manner." Ezra faltered in his bravado a bit. "Or else I may have to shoot yo--" and then he fell back on the bed, dead to the world.

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Elmer watched the two women cross the street from his hiding place in the hayloft. A chilling smile played on his disfigured face as he sat back and waited. It would be dark soon and the bitch would be his once again. If the blonde got in the way, he might just have a little fun with her too. Either way, neither of the women would see sunrise the next morning.

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Mary wrapped her shawl around Ginny and hurried her to the small apartment she kept over the Clarion office. As she ushered the woman inside, she looked toward the jail, comforted by the sight of Josiah and JD standing on the porch.

"There's a pitcher on the table beside the bed if you'd like to freshen up." Mary pointed toward the back of the apartment. "I'll make some coffee."

When she reached the bedroom door, Ginny stopped and spoke for the first time since Chris and the others had left to go after Ezra. "They'll save him, won't they?" She asked in a quivering voice as tears fell down her dirt-stained face.

Mary laid down the spoon and moved over to where Ginny was standing. "Oh, honey." She grasped the other woman by her shoulders. "I know these men. They'll do whatever it takes to bring Ezra back to you."

Ginny looked up at the blonde, and gave a tremulous smile. "Thank you."

The newspaper woman returned the smile. "You really care for him, don't you?"

Ginny took the handkerchief Mary offered and wiped her tears. "That was a long time ago. A lifetime, even."

A warm smile came to Mary's lips. She tried to picture Steven, but here lately that image was mingled with blond hair and green eyes. Shaking the thought from her head, she patted Ginny's arm. "You go wash up; I'll get that coffee started."

As Mary walked back to the stove, a knock sounded at the door. Crossing over to it, she pulled the lace curtain back, relieved to see the familiar sight of the gambler. Working the lock, she opened the door to let Ezra in. "We were so worri-"

Mary didn't finish her greeting, as Elmer shoved her back and shut the door. He pulled Ezra's hat off, and threw it on the table.

Before she could warn Ginny, the other woman came into the kitchen, having heard Mary greet someone at the door.

"Is it them?" Ginny called. "Did they save him?" The redhead stopped short at the sight of Mary's shocked expression. "Mary?" Then she looked toward the door. "Oh, no." She placed a hand to her mouth.

"Whatsa matter, girl?" Elmer sneered. "You look like you just seen the devil."

Ginny began to tremble. If Elmer was here, then Ezra must be…

"Yore Fancy-man ain't dead." Elmer cackled. "At least he weren't when I left him. But who knows what them cowboys might do to him?"

Mary reached out and grabbed Ginny's hand, pulling the terrified woman close to her side. "What do you want, mister?"

Elmer advanced on the two women, and shook his finger at the blonde. "This don't concern you, missy. Just get out of my way."

Pushing Ginny behind her, Mary glared at the disfigured man in front of her. "She's not going anywhere. Now please leave."

"Lady, it would be in your best interest to get out of my way," Elmer ground out. "Or you might get hurt."

The women backed into the kitchen, Ginny never taking her eyes off Elmer. Reaching behind her, Mary winced when her fingers touched the pot of coffee she'd brewed earlier.

A knife appeared in the man's hand, and Ginny tensed. She remembered how he'd cut Ezra's face and chest with the blade. And now Mary was in danger.

"I said to get out of my way, lady." Elmer advanced on the pair. Mary grabbed the pot of boiling liquid and dashed it at his face. An unholy howl came from the scalded man and he grasped blindly for the women.

Wasting no time, Mary grabbed Ginny's hand and ran for the door. Jerking it open, Mary ran into a solid wall of muscle. The scream escaped her lips before she could stop it, and she pounded her fists against the man. Strong arms grabbed her hands, and she opened her eyes to find green eyes staring down at her. "Chris!" She threw herself into his arms and sobbed. "He's in there."

Setting Mary to the side, he drew his Peacemaker and slowly entered the room. The knife caught him on his wrist causing him to drop the pistol. A second slash of the blade found his chest, but was only a glancing blow and Chris threw his good arm up and knocked the knife out of Elmer's hand.

Unnoticed by the fighting men, Ginny grabbed the Peacemaker and took careful aim. The bullet found a home between Elmer's eyes, and for a split second he seemed to reach for her. Arm outstretched, he fell to the floor, his unseeing eyes locked on her in a death stare.

Buck gently pried her numb fingers from the handle of the gun, and folded her in his arms. Looking over her head, he saw Mary helping Chris out the door. "You alright, Pard?" Concern was etched on the mustached man's face.

Larabee grinned. "It's just a scratch."

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The bed of the wagon Vin found in the barn was layered with hay and blankets. He and Nathan carefully loaded Ezra on top of them then made their way slowly back to town. The healer had slipped a couple more drops of laudanum to the gambler for the trip and he was resting, if fitfully.

As they neared the outskirts of Four Corners, a gunshot resonated from the upstairs of Mary's newspaper. Reaching for the mare's leg, Vin saw Buck on the landing outside Mary's door and pulled back on the reins to slow the wagon to a stop. "Nathan." Vin pointed to the two couples above them.

Ezra began to stir and tried to sit up, only to have firm hands ease his shoulders back down to the blanket. "Got to find Ginny." He protested weakly.

Nathan smiled at the gambler. "She's just fine. She's with Mary and Chris and Buck. They'll bring her to the clinic to see you in just a while." Ezra opened his mouth to say something, but the healer cut him off with "Be still."

Chris stopped by the jail to fill Josiah and JD in on the details and have them arrange to have Elmer's body removed from Mary's place. Then he walked with the others to check on Ezra.

"Mrs. Travis," Ginny said. "I need to speak with Mr. Larabee. In private, please." Chris' head shot up at the request. He'd hardly exchanged two words with the woman since she'd arrived in town a few days ago.

Mary looked at the redhead and nodded. "Of course," She replied. "Mr. Wilmington and I will go on ahead to Nathan's. We'll meet you there." Patting Ginny's hand, she gave her a warm smile before continuing on to the clinic with Buck.

The blond lawman's wrist was beginning to throb, and he grimaced as he pulled the cloth that Mary had wrapped around it tighter. "What can I do for you, ma'am?"

Ginny kept her gaze on the street, carefully considering her words before she spoke. Giving a shuddering sigh, she pulled an envelope from the pocket of her dress. "I'm leaving on the stage this afternoon. I won't be here when Ezra comes around, so would you please give this to him?"

Larabee stopped and turned to look at the woman. "Why are you leaving?"

Ginny looked up into the green eyes of the gunfighter. "It's for the best. And Ezra knows that, whether he'll admit it or not." She gave Chris a glimmer of a smile. "Please?"

He took the envelope and stuck it in the pocket of his duster. "Best of luck to you, ma'am." With a tip of his hat, he made his way to Nathan's clinic, formulating in his head what exactly he was going to tell Ezra.

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"Easy, boys," Nathan instructed Vin and Buck as they carried a semi-conscious Ezra up the stairs to his clinic.

Mary opened the door and stood aside as the two regulators made their way over to the bed. Gently lowering Ezra, they stood back and made way for Nathan to tend to him.

"How is he?" A voice came from just inside the door. Vin turned to find Chris leaning on the facing, a grim look on his face. The tracker joined his friend at the door. "Nathan's working on him, but he had a pretty rough time in that shack. The bastard whipped him."

"Whipped?" Chris asked incredulously. "Whipped him?"

Vin nodded. "Nathan's patching 'im up, but he's gonna have some real nasty scars."

Larabee fingered the envelope in his pocket. This was going to be even harder than he thought.

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Ezra fought against the fog in his brain. Something wasn't right. It was too quiet and the pain was ebbing. His body tensed as he waited for the next blow but it never came. He opened one eye and tried to figure out just where the hell he was. There were shapes across the room from him but he couldn't make out who or what they were. And it was bright here.

Then one of the taller shapes grabbed a smaller one by the shoulders. Ginny. He attempted to raise himself up, and gritted out through clenched teeth, "Leave her alone, you bastard. I'm over here!"

Whatever the shapes were seemed to be spurred into action by his outburst. They came toward him. Lifting an arm, he tried to fight them off, but the most persistent one kept touching him and making some kind of noise.

"Gla…..wake…..slee….day…." The sounds made no sense to him, and he finally succumbed to the fingers of darkness that were pulling at him.

Chris pulled Nathan to one side. "What's going on with him?"

Jackson ran a weary hand down his face. "All I can figure is that it's a combination of the beating he took and the laudanum. It affects some people in strange ways." Nathan continued. "He's in some kind of limbo. Not awake, but not entirely asleep. All we can do is wait and hope."

"And pray." Josiah came over and took the chair next to Ezra's bed. In low, dulcet tones the preacher spoke to the sleeping man. "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong..."

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It was evening when Ezra came to again, and still quiet. But this time his mind was clearer and he recognized his surroundings as Nathan's clinic. But how did he get here? Reaching out, he shook Josiah's knee. "Water," he croaked. His mouth was dry from the laudanum and he gulped the glass of water that the preacher handed him. Giving the glass back to Josiah, he settled back on his pillows, closing his eyes.

"Where is she?" Green eyes sought the vivid blue ones of the larger man and he saw the answer he didn't want to hear in them. Ezra gave a short bark of a laugh and chewed his bottom lip for a bit. "She's gone. Why am I not surprised?" he finished bitterly.

A movement in the dark corner caught his eye, and he watched as the blond gunfighter walked toward his bed. When he reached it, Chris pulled an envelope from his pocket. "She asked me to give this to you." Larabee turned to leave. "I'm sorry, Ezra."

The gambler stared at the envelope as if it were poisonous for a time, then he slid the letter from its home. He read silently for a minute but a sudden intake of breath brought Nathan from the other room.

"Everything alright in here?" The healer looked at the men currently occupying the room. He observed Ezra silently for a bit, then noticing the flush on the Southerner's face, suggested that the other men go get a bite to eat. "G'wan now. He's gon' be jus' fine." Nathan opened the door and stood by as the lawmen filed quietly from the room. After the last one passed through, he closed the door and spoke to Ezra. "I'll be back here if you need anything, okay?"

Ezra gave no indication that he'd heard anything Nathan said. He re-read the letter once more, as if the words would magically change somehow….

My darling Ezra,

By now you know that I'm no longer in town. Please forgive me for running out on you once again. I had to go.

My presence here brought nothing but pain and suffering for you and your friends, and I simply cannot bear to put you in harm's way anymore. Because of me, you were beaten, Mr. Larabee was wounded and Mrs. Travis was put in danger.

Elmer is dead. I shot him myself. I've done a lot of questionable things in my life, but I've never physically harmed another human being. If once could consider him human. I know that in time I will make peace with what I've done, but for now it's best if I travel on.

Who knows? Maybe one day you and I will meet again. Maybe we can make sense of our relationship. I do have very deep feelings for you, my dear man, and I always will.

Take care of yourself, and tell your friends that I thank them for their kindness. I'll miss you.

All my love,

G.

Folding the letter neatly, he laid it on the bed beside him. She was gone. Once more she'd slipped right through his fingers. So much for tactile sensitivity, he thought with a smirk.

Amour perdu, mais pas oublié

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The next day dawned, clear and cold. There was a hint of snow in the air and Nathan decided that some fresh air would do Ezra a world of good. He'd been almost sullen since the night Chris had given him Ginny's letter.

Pulling some extra blankets from the closet, he gave Ezra's shoulder a shake. Sleepy green eyes opened slowly, and when they focused on the blankets, Ezra shook his head adamantly.

"Mr. Jackson, I do believe you have taken leave of your senses if you think I am going out in this weather." That being said, Ezra closed his eyes and presented Nathan with his back, tugging the covers closer around his neck.

Feeling as though he were dealing with a petulant child, Nathan leaned close to Ezra's ear. "Ezra, if you don't get your ass up and in this chair right now, I'm gon' go get Buck and Josiah and let them help you do it."

Turning his head to the sound of Jackson's voice, Ezra replied in a somber tone. "You wouldn't dare."

"Try me."

Ezra reluctantly threw back his warm covers, and while filling Nathan in on just exactly how he felt about healers and people in general, he moved into the wheelchair. Nathan made no attempt to hide the wide grin on his face as he tucked the blankets around Ezra's legs and feet. He wrapped the last one snugly around the gambler's shoulders, then opened the door.

Vin and Josiah were waiting to help Nathan maneuver the wounded man's chair out to the sidewalk.

When they reached the Clarion office, Mary came out, tugging her shawl around her slender form. "Good morning, Mr. Standish," she said cheerfully. "How are you feeling today?"

Ezra pasted a smile on his face and replied. "Good morning to you, Mrs. Travis." But the smile didn't reach his eyes. "I feel like an infirmed old woman with an abundance of nursemaids." He tossed a glare in the direction of the three men behind him. "If you gentlemen do not mind, a little peace and quiet would be kindly appreciated."

"I think what Brother Ezra is trying to say is that he wishes us to take our leave, " Josiah announced to the others.

Vin patted Ezra on the shoulder. "Take it easy, Ez." Ezra acknowledged the words with a slight nod of his head, and then the tracker followed Nathan and Josiah across the street.

Chris came out of the jail and made his way over to the newspaper office. "How're you feeling, Ezra?" Larabee sat down and poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Mary had brought out earlier.

Standish was silent for a moment then looked at Chris. "What did she say?"

Larabee took a sip of the hot coffee then studied the bottom of the cup. "Said she had to leave. Said you'd know why."

Stretching his legs out in front of him, Chris studied the Southerner's profile. Despite Ezra's best efforts, cracks were beginning to show in his armor. He talked a good game but at the end of the day he was just as human as the rest of them. Hell, maybe more.

A squeal of laughter drew the attention of both men and they watched as a little redheaded girl chased a dark-haired boy down the street. When they reached the two men sitting outside the Clarion, Chris leaned forward in his chair and put a stern face on. "What seems to be the problem here? Huh?"

The young man turned a green-eyed gaze to the gunfighter but stubbornly refused to answer him.

"Darling," Ezra spoke softly to the girl. "Why are you chasing this young scoundrel? Don't you know that young ladies should not partake in such scandalous behavior?"

The girl frowned at the gambler. "But he stole my dice!"

"Did not!" came the cry from the boy.

"You're just mad because I'm better at them than you are, Ben!"

"You take that back, Torie!"

Before Chris had a chance to stand, the two children flung themselves at each other, and soon the girl had poor Ben on the ground pounding him for all she was worth.

"Hey!" Chris shouted. "Hey, cut that out!"

The sight of the black-clad gunfighter trying to separate the two brawling children was too much for Ezra and laughter bubbled up in his throat and escaped before he could squelch it.

Picking Ben up by the scruff of the neck, Chris didn't see the scowl on the girl-child's face. A sharp yowl of pain broke the morning air, and little Ben was forgotten as Larabee hopped around on one foot, holding the other leg where sweet Torie had landed a vicious kick.

The crowd that had gathered was parted by the arrival Buck and Vin. Upon seeing their leader in such a state, neither one was able to keep silent.

"Gotta love them ladies, Stud!" Buck hollered.

"Ya awright there, Cowboy?" Vin got out between fits of laughter.

"Get.Those.Children.To.Their.Mother," Chris hissed between clenched teeth.

Vin looked around for the miscreants but apparently their mother had heard the ruckus and was bearing down on the children with a grimace on her face.

"Benjamin! Victoria!" she bellowed. "In the wagon. Your father is going to be very displeased with the two of ye."

As the dust from the departing wagon settled, Chris righted his chair and rejoined Ezra on the porch.

"Better the devil you know, eh, Mister Larabee?" Ezra chortled.

Picking up his coffee once more, Chris blew across the top of the steaming liquid and grinned at his friend. "Better the devil you know, Mister Standish."

The End

© Maggie LeMay 2008