A/N Just discovered TM7 and, naturally, became obsessed! This is my first fanfic tribute.
Disclaimer Not sure which media conglomerate currently owns the rights, but rest assured I'm obtaining no commercial advantage from this story.
"I'm sorry, Mary, I'm so sorry" Mr. Potter said again. "But he had a gun to my head, and I just…" The banker blinked his eyes nervously behind his round glasses. The clerk had unlocked the door that morning to find him tied and gagged in front of the vault.
"It's all right, Leroy," Mary said for the third time. "And you're sure he only took my deed?"
"Everything else is there—all the money—everything."
The deed to the Clarion office had passed to Mary after her husband's death, making her sole owner of the newspaper. But it wasn't an especially valuable piece of property, and she didn't know why anyone would rob a bank to lay hands on it. The deed's only other value was sentimental—she still remembered the day her husband had brought it home, how proud he had been. She'd had to persuade him that framing it to hang on the wall wasn't a safe idea, so instead, he'd had a special black leather case made to keep it pristine.
Mary forced a smile. "Don't worry, Leroy. Chris will sort this out when he gets back." If he comes back. Nearly two weeks ago, Chris Larabee had raced out of town to track the ghost of a rumor about the woman who had killed his family. He'd barely been back long enough to let his gunshot wound heal. Probably put himself back in a sickbed, Mary thought grumpily, and then told herself firmly, Not that his health is any of your concern. But she had long ago passed the point of being able to lie to herself about the way she felt toward Chris Laraby.
Leaving the bank, she crossed the street and walked back toward the Clarion, trying to focus on the day's work. She needed to track down the new school board president and ask how the search for a teacher was going, and then she had type to set, and after that she had promised to take Billy for a ride, and she only hoped he would stop pestering her about when Chris was coming back…
A strange man waited for her in front of the office door. He was well groomed, his business suit obviously tailored and made from quality materials. He lifted his hat as she approached. "Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mrs. Mary Travis?"
She met his gaze frankly. "You have me at a disadvantage, sir."
"My name is Daniel Searles. I'm a lawyer in Albuquerque." He handed her a business card printed on thick, creamy pasteboard.
She appreciatively rubbed her thumb across its glossy surface and asked, "What can I do for you, Mr. Searles?"
"Unfortunately, Mrs. Travis, it's what I'm doing for you. It is my unpleasant duty to inform you that you are being sued for operating a commercial enterprise on property not lawfully yours."
"That's ridiculous. Of course I own this property."
"If so, then all you have to do is present proof of ownership when I return in two weeks."
"I certainly…" Her deed had been stolen. Mary flushed with anger. "Who are you working for Mr. Searles? The ranchers, the governor?"
"I represent the rightful owner, who is owed considerable pecuniary damages, which I very much fear you will be unable to pay. Your equipment will be forfeit."
"Effectively shutting down the Clarion. Yes, I understand, Mr. Searles."
Searles put his hat back on his head. "I thought you would."
"And you can tell whoever sent you that they won't get away with this. I will prove this property belongs to me, and I will not back down from my position on statehood or any other issue."
Searles smiled pleasantly. "I'll be certain to relay your message."
Mary watched him go, her hands clenched into fists. She would fight this with every penny, every friend, every ounce of influence she had. And if it's not enough? a tiny voice in her head whispered. It has to be. She couldn't afford to doubt herself. And then she looked up and saw Vin and Nathan riding down the street. Behind them, she saw Josiah turning off at the church, Ezra and Buck and J.D. tying up in front of the saloon. Her eyes searched for the seventh rider, but didn't find him. And there was an air about the two coming toward her that she'd never seen before – something grim, weary, defeated.
Fear seized her heart, and she all but ran down the street to where Vin stood in front of his wagon, unloading his saddle bags.
"Vin, what happened? Where's Chris?"
He answered without looking at her, "Chris is up at his place, gettin' some things together."
"What happened?" she asked again.
Vin began repacking the bags, his movements efficient. "We didn't find Ella Gaines up north. Now we're trying east."
"You're riding out again already? Do you have a new lead?"
"Nope," Vin said.
"How long will you be gone this time?"
"Don't know. She could be anywhere. Reckon you'll have to make our apologies to the judge. It doesn't look like we'll be spendin' enough time here to earn our pay."
This was worse than anything she'd imagined. "So you're all leaving, just like that?"
Vin looked at her at last, his eyes serious. "I can't speak for the rest of them, but I ain't lettin' Chris ride this out alone."
Mary picked up her skirts and ran. Five minutes later, she was on her horse, headed out of town at a gallop.
Relief filled her when she pulled up at Chris's cabin and saw his horse standing out front. She wasn't too late. Carelessly wrapping her reins around the hitching post, she stepped through the open door.
Chris swung to meet her, a bottle of whiskey in one hand and his Colt in the other. His face didn't soften, even after he recognized her and eased down the hammer of his gun.
"Don't do this, Chris," Mary said, stepping forward. She wondered how drunk he actually was.
"You don't know what you're talking about," he said coldly.
"And you don't even know where she is. You could chase after her for years and never catch up."
"Doesn't matter," said Chris. "That crazy bitch killed my family, and I'll run her to ground if it takes the rest of my life."
"And what about your friends' lives? You going to risk them on this wild goose chase, too?"
Chris slammed his bottle down on the table. "I ain't askin' them to come."
"No. But they'll ride with you because they're your friends." Mary took a deep breath. "Because they love you."
She wondered at her own daring, but Chris stayed quiet, staring into the cold fireplace, so she took heart and plunged on. "And I'm your friend too, so let me help you. The judge and I have contacts in every town in this territory. Let me find her, and you'll have your justice. Don't destroy yourself in the process."
He was still quiet, still listening, so she ventured, "And besides, I … I need you. Your help," she hastily amended.
He looked at her, eyes bloodshot in his unshaven face. "What's wrong?"
"My deed was stolen." Briefly, she told him about Searles' visit and her suspicion that the governor was behind it.
When she finished, he stared at the half empty whiskey bottle for a long moment before he said, "All right, Mary. You've been a friend to me, and I'll get that deed back for you and your boy. But after that I reckon I'll be ridin' on."
"Thank you, Chris." It wasn't what she'd hoped for, but it was something.
Ezra looked at his cards and tried to reason through the agony. He could win—he was almost sure of it—and he could take the not inconsiderable pile of money in the middle of the table. But men who won large sums were much more likely to be recalled by their fellow players, and for once, Ezra did not want to be remembered.
Playing for time, Ezra looked at the youngest an drunkest of the card players. "You're actually tellin' me the safest place to put my money in this town is in a casino? Because that definitely has not been my past experience."
The little joke earned a few chuckles, and spurred the tipsy fellow to insist, "It's true. All the banks in town have been robbed. But not Casa Carboni. Mr. Carboni has armed guards everywhere and the best safe this side of the Mississippi. And there's a special guard on duty all the time outside the door to Mr. Carboni's office. He's seven feet tall and his name is Goliath."
"Goliath?" Ezra repeated, laughing.
"Boy, you're an idiot," one of the older players said to the one with the loose lips.
Ezra blew a slight breath of relief. "You mean there's not really a giant guarding the office?"
"Nope, that's true. But it ain't the reason Carboni's never been robbed."
"Sounds like a pretty good reason to me," Ezra countered.
The old man shook his head. "The real reason is that it's better to be dead than to make Carboni angry. If you steal from him, he will hunt you to the ends of the earth, and when he finds you, you won't die quick."
"But he's just one man," Ezra said hopefully.
"No he ain't. The Carboni family has businesses in San Francisco, St. Louis, Chicago, even New York City. You make an enemy of one of them, you're fightin' the whole durn clan."
Ezra laid his cards face down. "Gentlemen, I fold." He got up from the table before he had to watch some bastard, who didn't know just how lucky he was, rake in the pot.
Buck reached over and took the whiskey bottle out of Chris's hand. "You're irritatin' Ezra."
"He's talking," said Chris. "He's always talking." He reached for the bottle, but Buck passed it off to Josiah, who tucked it under one massive arm.
Ezra slammed both hands on the table. "I am tryin' to tell you that after we rob that casino—if we even can—"
"Of course we can," J.D. interrupted, disgusted.
Ezra quelled him with a glare. "What I am saying is that even if we do, Carboni and his entire family will hunt us. It's a matter of pride with them. They will not give up until they have tracked and killed each one of us. I ask you, gentlemen, does any one of you want that living hell at your back?"
Chris frowned. "So we're just supposed to give up and go home? I told Mary I'd get her deed back, and that's what I intend to do, no matter what the rest of you decide." Chris shoved back from the table and went to look out the window at the dusty street.
"Mary's our friend, too," Vin said quietly. "Ain't nobody walkin' out."
"Yeah," said J.D. "No way it's as impossible as Ezra says."
Ezra shook his head. "I didn't say it was impossible. But if we go in with guns blazin', as is our specialty, we will all be killed, one way or another. Chances are good Searles will have warned Carboni seven unfriendly men are headed his way. If we're going to play this, we have to play it smart."
Silence filled the room, and six pairs of eyes bored into Chris Larabee's back. He turned from the window at last, and nodded. "All right, Ezra. We'll try it your way. What are you thinkin'?"
Ezra smiled. "I'm thinkin' that if Mr. Carboni's expectin' seven men, then that's what we'll give him. We never disappoint."
To Be Continued
A/N Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! I love reviews!