Ezra Standish walked into the saloon and immediately headed toward the table where he always played poker. Waiting at the table were the men that he almost always played with. There were a couple new faces but largely the group was the same. That was all right by Ezra. If the cretans wanted to continually lose their earnings he had no complaints.
"Good day gentlemen," He said cordially as he took his seat. The men nodded grimly all waiting for him to get down to business.
Which, of course, he did in short order. He named the stakes then was about to deal the cards when a lightly accented voice, a decidedly feminine voice, spoke. "Good day gentlemen. Is this a private game or may anyone play?"
Ezra surveyed the beauty before him in shock. She wore a dark forest green travelling suit with a hat of the same colour placed at a jaunty angle on her gleaming red hair. She was gorgeous with fiery green eyes and a slender well-shaped figure.
He looked into her eyes for a moment then nodded. "Have a seat dear lady." He immediately rose to pull a chair for her.
She smiled and nodded graciously. "Thank you Mr . . . "
"Standish. Ezra Standish. And you my dear are?"
She removed her hat and smiled. "Laurel. Laurel McKennon."
Ezra inclined his head in welcome then quickly shuffled the cards and dealt them.
When the cards were dealt Ezra placed his bet then awaited the rest of the players. However, as he waited, the Gambler was watching the mysterious woman sitting across from him.
Laurel McKennon was a definite enigma. Most women, excluding of course Maude, would not set foot in a saloon let alone sit down for a game of poker. Yet here she was with her cards in her hand and a bet in front of her.
"So, Ms. McKennon, what area of Scotland do you hail from?" Ezra inquired conversationally, as he eyed the cards in his hand.
"Hmmm?" Laurel murmured looking up.
"Your accent hints at a Scottish upbringing. And if that were not enough then your name certainly gives it away." Ezra offered with a small smile.
Laurel laughed slightly. "It does doesn't it? I was raised in the Clan McKinnon in the Highlands."
"Ah . . . a Highlands lass?" Ezra drawled his Southern accent stretching out the words.
Laurel chuckled. "Aye." She said her accent thickening slightly. "A Highlands lass indeed. I haven't been called that in many a year."
Ezra smiled again. "You're quite far from home."
Laurel nodded. "Quite." Her voice was soft and a slight bit nostalgic. One of the other players raised the bet and the beautiful Highlander matched it without so much as flinching.
Ezra watched her with a quiet admiration. Already he could see she was a most capable poker player. He was having a great deal of difficulty reading her facial expressions. She seemed to have a masterful control over her emotions. He shook his head slightly and returned his attention to his hand. He needed to concentrate on his cards not the players.
JD Dunne walked out onto the boardwalk and immediately looked to see where Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and the rest of his friends were.
The ongoing poker game in the saloon was something JD thought that the rest of their group would find interesting.
"Hey Vin!" He called out spotting the tracker walked along the other side of the street.
Vin nodded a greeting. "JD," He said in his usual quiet tone.
"Where's Chris and everyone?"
Vin nodded over toward the sherif's office. Chris Larabee was leaning against the pole on the end of the porch. "Why, somethin' wrong?"
"Ezra's in a poker game."
"And?" Vin didn't see what the fuss was about. Ezra played poker almost every day.
"There's a woman in there playin' against'em."
Now that got Vin's attention. "A woman?" He frowned. "Maude ain't in town."
"Nope. This woman's a stranger. Ain't seen her around here before." JD grinned. "She's real good lookin'."
Vin half-smiled. "Sounds mighty interestin'. 'Reckon I might head over and take a look."
JD nodded and crossed the street to tell Chris about the poker game.
Within a short period of time the rest of the Seven drifted into the saloon to watch the game. It was coming pretty close now. The two main players were Ezra (naturally) and Laurel McKennon. The rest of the players had folded and were now watching the two players.
Neither Ezra nor Laurel had even broken a sweat. They were still chatting pleasantly and enjoying a drink together as they played.
At this point Ezra really didn't care whether or not he won. He was enjoying Laurel's company too much. She was somewhat of a kindred soul. A maverick who was constantly wandering, seeming to have very few ties to anyone.
"Mr. Standish," Laurel spoke casually, as she regarded her cards speculatively. "May I ask you something?"
"How did a man of your particular stature end up in a town such as Four Corners? And more importantly end up with the friends that you have."
Ezra was surprised but he hid it well. "Friends?"
"Mm hmmm." Laurel nodded. "At the table near the door. Shortly after we sat down to play a young man with dark hair wearing a bowler hat, left. Then when he returned he was accompanied by several men. A tall man in black and another tall, rather large, man with sharp blue eyes. They were followed by lean man with a tan coat with a mare's leg on his thigh, a tall black man wearing throwing knives and another tall man with a mustache who has spent a great deal of time staring at me. They all seated themselves at the table near the door and have watched us with a great deal of interest. It is quite obvious that they are your friends."
Ezra was quite impressed with Laurel. "You are a very observant woman my dear,"
Laurel chuckled. "Naturally. It is a necessary skill when you are a woman travelling alone."
"Yes, I quite agree." Ezra said with a nod. "Now I believe it is time to lay your cards on the table."
Laurel smiled at him then spread her cards out. "I believe you Americans say, read'em and weep?"
Ezra flinched slightly. "Quite an impressive hand." His own was rather paltry. He had hoped Laurel had been bluffing. Not that it mattered. He'd guessed, upon seeing her, that a cautious approach towards betting would be best. And he was right. "You're quite an impressive player."
Laurel chuckled and gathered up her winnings at the rest of the players drifted away from the table. "A lot of practise."
Ezra moved forward and smiled winningly. "Perhaps you will give me a chance to win back my losses."
Laurel smiled as her eyes met his. "Perhaps."
Ezra felt the charge of attraction and his smile reflected that. "Ms. McKennon..."
"Laurel." She corrected with a warm smile.
Ezra smiled again. "Laurel, May I persuade you to join me for dinner this evening?"
Laurel glanced down at her coin pouch then looked back at him, her eyes sparkling softly. "Consider me persuaded."
Ezra's smile widened. "Excellent. May I assume you are staying at the hotel?"
"Excellent. I shall call for you at seven then?"
Laurel smiled. "Til seven then." She picked up her things and, with a smile at Ezra, glided out of the saloon.
"Well Ezra," Buck drawled with a wide smile as he sauntered over. "That is one hell of a woman."
"Yes Mr. Wilmington . . . Ms. McKennon is quite a formidable lady."
"McKennon . . . that her name?" Chris Larabee asked striding over.
Ezra nodded. "Yes. Laurel McKennon to be precise." He informed Chris with a suspicious look in his eye. "Why do you ask?"
Chris shrugged slightly. "There've been some reports of bandits in the area and there's supposed to be a woman with them. I'm jus' bein' cautious."
Ezra didn't look amused. "Well, Mr. Larabee I shall take your concerns with a healthy dose of skepticism." He placed his hat on his head and nodded at them. "Good afternoon gentlemen." With that he walked out.
"Careful there Ol'pard." Buck warned. "Ezra's more than a slight bit smitten with that woman. Tellin' him she could be a criminal ain't gonna get you very far with him." Buck's handsome face was worried. " Fact, it'll probably drive him closer to her."
"She might not even be the woman yer talkin' 'bout.." Vin Tanner cautioned from where he leaned against the bar. "She didn't look much like the kind of woman that falls in with trail bandits."
Chris nodded. Vin knew what he was talking about. He'd been a bounty hunter and that meant he was an excellent judge of character. And Chris valued his opnion. "Still, we'd better keep an eye out. 'Specially if Ezra gets to spendin' a lot of time with her."
They all nodded. When one of their friends was in a potentially dangerous situation the rest of the group was instantly on guard.
That evening Ezra took special care in preparing for dinner. He chose his dark green jacket and appropriate co-ordinating vest, shirt and pants. When he was ready he picked up his hat and walked out the door with a whistle.
Laurel's room was on the second floor so upon arriving at the hotel, Ezra immediately started up the stairs to her door.
But before he got halfway up the stairs Laurel appeared at the landing. Upon seeing him she smiled widely.
Ezra froze. She was breathtaking. Laurel's fiery red hair was artfully arranged and she wore a dark blue evening dress with a scooped neck and short sleeves. It was of simple design but it accentuated her natural elegance perfectly.
Laurel was just wrapping a shawl around her shoulder when she saw him. She smiled at him then lifted her skirt slightly and walked down to meet him. "Good evening Ezra." She said softly.
"Good evening my dear. And may I say you look stunning."
Laurel's smile was soft. "Thank you." Her smile turned mischievous as she spoke again. "And you, Mr. Standish, look very handsome."
Ezra smiled and offered her his arm. "Shall we?"
Laurel laughed slightly. "Yes we shall."
Chatting pleasantly they started down the stairs.
When they arrived at the restaurant, Chris Larabee was already there. He, Josiah and Vin were sitting at a table in the corner eating while they talked. And, by the looks on their faces, it was a serious discussion.
The minute Ezra walked in with Laurel on his arm, the three men were watching them. Ezra helped Laurel with her shawl then held out her chair for her.
Laurel smiled her thanks then waiting until Ezra was seated before she spoke. "Your friends don't seem to like me. Or at the least they seem to mistrust me." She commented leaning forward slightly.
Ezra frowned but he refrained from sending a look of irritation at his friends. He knew they were only attempting to protect him but he sincerely wished they wouldn't be quite so obvious with their suspicions. "I'm told there have been reports of trail bandits in the area and supposedly one of them is a woman."
Laurel laughed. "And your friends suspect me of being that woman?"
Ezra nodded tightly.
"And what about you?" Laurel asked softly. "Do you think I'm a thief?"
Ezra stared at her for a long moment then shook his head. "No my dear I do not."
Laurel smiled in genuine relief. "Good. Because I promise you I'm not. I don't claim to be a perfectly law abiding citizen but I do not steal from travellers. Especially the kind of travellers who are on the trails out in this area of the country. Many are carrying everything they own. A thief who would steal a family's entire life has no honour." The disgust in her voice told Ezra that while Laurel didn't subscribe to the same code of honour as say Mary Travis or one of his compatriots she did have a code of ethics that she held close to her heart.
Ezra nodded. "I quite agree. Now perhaps we should leave the topic of highwaymen to Mr. Larabee and my compatriots and move on to more pleasant areas of conversation. Like how you managed to best me in the poker game this afternoon?"
Laurel laughed softly. "Like I said. A great deal of practise."
Ezra chuckled. "That I do not doubt."
They ordered their meal and spent the evening laughing and talking.
It had been a long time since Ezra had enjoyed an evening so much. Laurel was a fascinating woman and Ezra was enchanted.
She'd travelled extensively and regaled him with stories of the Orient, Europe and Arabia (which was, in her opinion, entirely to hot). While Ezra hadn't travelled as far as Laurel had he also had many stories to tell and Laurel wanted to hear them all.
They finished their meal then went for a stroll. Still trading stories. Both of them seeing in the other something of themselves. Rogues who had inadvertently met up with people who had forced them, without even knowing, to stop looking out for themselves and to worry about others. People they would now die to help.
Ezra also discovered Laurel's ability to bring out a carefree side of him that he hadn't seen in a very long time.
They were walking along when Laurel began humming a waltz and Ezra immediately swept her into his arms and began waltzing her around the street.
Their laughter drifted back to Vin and Chris who were now standing in front of the saloon.
"Whaddya think?" Chris inquired of his friend.
Vin watched the dancing couple for a moment. "I don't think its her."
Chris nodded. "A'right. But we're gonna have to be careful. Watch everyone who comes into town. They're comin' our way and they're killers."
It was very early in the morning when Ezra finally escorted Laurel back to her hotel room.
"Thank you Ezra. It was a wonderful evening . . . night." Laurel amended with a laugh. She smiled again. "It was lovely."
"Yes," Ezra said with a smile of his own. "It was. Almost as lovely as you."
Laurel's lowered for a moment then she returned them to his. "I'm sorry to see this night end." She said quietly. "I have not enjoyed such company for a long time."
Ezra hesitated then spoke. "I too am sorry to see it end. You are a most enchanting woman." He hesitantly reached out and lightly brushed his fingertips down her cheek. "Most enchanting." His hand slipped behind her head and drew her closer. "And very beautiful." He whispered softly lowering his lips to hers.
They kissed very gently. A kiss full of tenderness. Ezra held Laurel like she was made of the finest crystal.
They held the kiss for a long moment then finally, regretfully, Ezra pulled away.
Laurel looked at him, her eyes wide and dark. She smiled at him. "Perhaps, the night is not yet over?" She spoke softly as her hand reached behind her to find the door knob.
Ezra's smile was tender and full of promise. "No, I do not believe the night is over. It still has much to offer."
Laurel offered him her hand which he accepted and allowed her to draw him inside the room. As he went he reached out and closed the door behind him.
The next morning Ezra wasn't in the saloon or the restaurant when the rest of the Seven began moving about the town. This, of course, amused Buck to no end.
"Looks like ol'Ezra had a little fun for himself."The handsome scoundrel said with a wide smile.
"You think that's where he is?" JD asked as he sat down.
Buck rolled his eyes. "Well think about it JD. That Laurel's a beautiful woman. Wouldn't you wanna spend the night with her?"
JD opened his mouth to respond but before he could Chris strode in. The tall man took stock of the group. "Where's Ezra?"
"He ain't out yet." Vin answered from where he was lounging in his seat. "Somethin' goin' on?"
"That gang just hit a wagon train heading out of Bitter Creek. The train was supposed to pass through here. They're moving our way. Chris said seriously. "We'd better head out. Someone find Ezra." He instructed, grabbing a drink.
JD and Buck nodded and left the saloon.
Laurel awoke to the pleasant sensation of fingertips tracing a pattern on her bare shoulder. She smiled as lips pressed a kiss on her neck. "Mmm..." She stretched slightly then rolled over to face Ezra. "Good morning." She said softly her voice a little sleep fuzzed.
Ezra laughed slightly. "Hmm . . . I think, my dear, that it is closer to afternoon."
Laurel laughed. "Sounds about right, considering the late night we had . . . er . . . perhaps I should say early morning."
Ezra chuckled. "Yes, a very early morning." He teased before lowering his head to kiss her.
Laurel's hands glided up into his hair as he kissed her. When he pulled away slightly she smiled. "So when are your friends expecting you?"
Ezra considered the question for a moment then smiled slyly. "Whenever I chose."
"Good." Laurel informed him, pulling his head down.
"Hey EZRA!" Buck Wilmington's voice accompanied by the sound of knocking brought Ezra's head up. "Ezra you in there!"
Both Ezra and Laurel groaned. "I should answer that." He informed her.
Laurel nodded regretfully. "I guess you should."
Reluctantly Ezra pulled on his clothes and walked to the door.
"Mr. Wilmington . . . " He said curtly, opening the door slightly. "I trust you have an extremely compelling reason for being here."
"Sorry Ezra." Buck did indeed look apologetic. "But remember those bandits Chris was talkin' about?"
Ezra nodded. "Yes? And your point is?"
"They're headed this way. Chris wants to leave right now." Buck said with a small smile. "Lousy timing eh?" His smile clearly implying Laurel.
Ezra straightened up. He was not amused. He was, after all, a gentleman. "That, Mr. Wilmington, is between the lady and myself."
Buck just grinned. "See you down in front of the saloon." He said, walking away.
Ezra closed the door and turned to face Laurel who stood at that base of the bed wearing his coat.
"I'm sorry my dear but Mr. Larabee requires my presence at the saloon."
Laurel nodded. "Uh huh. I heard." She walked over. "And you really have to go?"
Ezra nodded. "I'm afraid so."
Laurel sighed. "Come back in one piece." She cautioned.
Ezra smiled. "I would prefer to return in such a condition."
Laurel laughed. "I should hope so." She glanced down at the coat. "I assume you'll be needing this?"
Ezra nodded again. "I am afraid so. Although I must admit it does look much better on you than I."
Laurel smiled in mischief. "Why thank you." She pulled the coat off and handed it to Ezra then slipped into a dressing gown. She waited till Ezra had his vest on then walked over to help him with his cravat. "Be careful." She warned.
"As always." He grinned. "At any rate you still have to give me an opportunity to regain the winnings from our game yesterday."
Laurel laughed. "I'll give you the chance but you're still going to lose."
Ezra smiled. "You seem confident."
"Like I've said before . . . "
"You have had a lot of practise." Ezra responded with a smile. "Of that I have no doubt." He pulled Laurel close for another kiss. "I shall see you this evening for dinner?
Laurel nodded. "Of course."
Ezra touched her cheek once before turning and leaving.
Laurel stood there for a moment listening to his footsteps along the hall then she turned and walked to a window.
Minutes later Ezra and the rest of the seven rode by.
As they rode past the hotel Ezra looked up at the window. Laurel waved hesitantly. Ezra touched the brim of his hat and smiled.
"Don't you die on me." She whispered to herself.
They rode at full gallop for nearly an hour. Until they came to the approximate area that the highwaymen were supposed to be. There they slowed down to allow Vin to begin tracking. It didn't take the ex-bounty hunter long to pick up on their trail.
Ezra rode along with his friends but his mind kept drifting back to the last person to wear his coat and how she had looked in it. He could still see her standing in her room, her red hair falling down past her hips, her green eyes sparkling.
"That Ms. McKennon sure is somethin'." JD commented from his horse.
Ezra nodded. "That, Mr. Dunne, I will agree to."
They fell silent for a few moments while JD contemplated the brevity of Ezra's answer. "She's real pretty." He commented almost to himself.
"I will assume, Mr. Dunne, that you are not accustomed to encountering women of La . . . Ms. McKennon's exotic nature?" Ezra inquired with a bemused smile.
JD blushed slightly. "She's . . . "
"A woman." Chris interrupted with a slightly irritated frown. He and Ezra shared a look.
The Gambler would never admit it but he would put money on the fact that the glint he spotted in the gunslinger's eye was one of amusement.
They spent several hours following the trail until they heard gunshots in the distance.
Chris quickly pointed out which direction the men would take.
They split up and circled around the area where the gun shots were coming from.
When they rode in Ezra took a quick count. Five men but none appeared to be the leader. Also the woman that was supposed to be with them was no where in sight.
It was relatively easy to round up the men. In fact it took only a matter of moments for the men to subdue their opponents.
Chris stalked up to one with a deathlike glare in his eyes. "Where's your boss?"
The man glared back malevolently. "Gone."
"What about the woman?" Vin asked suddenly. He knew that in the back of his mind Chris was probably still slightly suspicious of Ezra's lady friend and he wanted to get that cleared up as quickly as possible.
"Woman?" One asked as his compatriots shared a secretive grin.
The Seven shared a suspicious look. There was something about that smile that just seemed off. But what?
Laurel walked out onto the boardwalk and looked around the streets. The majority of the townsfolk were going about their business. They'd obviously already eaten. Of course Laurel hadn't. She smiled. But then she'd had a very good excuse for missing breakfast.
She spotted the restaurant Ezra had taken her to the night before and chose to go there for a nice lunch.
She was halfway across the street when she spotted a face she'd never expected to see again. Hoped she'd never see again. She'd put continents between them but still . . . she'd managed t o show up.
She advanced on the woman with a frown. "What in heaven's name are you doing here?"
The other woman smiled harshly. "Hello to you to Laurel. Is that anyway to greet an old friend?"
"You're no friend o'mine." Laurel said angrily.
"Oh come now Laurel. What makes you say that?"
Laurel's eyes were flint hard. "Ye killed my husband. Isn't that reason enough?" She hissed. Then realization dawned. "The woman with the highwaymen...She's YOU!"
The other nodded. "A lovely set up if I do say so myself. However I have heard rumours of seven men in the area. Hired guns. Supposedly the law hereabouts." She said with a sly smile in Laurel's direction.
"You leave them be. Do you understand. This is between you and me. You leave them out of it."
"Why Laurel...you sound very protective of them. Do you know them?"
"We're acquainted." Laurel said evenly.
"Something tells me you're more acquainted with one." The other said with a speculative smile. "Now let me see . . . which one . . . the leader? No . . . not your type. Hmm . . . maybe the tracker? He's probably your type . . . no. I don't think you're his . . . Not the scoundrel. He'd definitely not your type. The tall one with the blue eyes? No. Not the doctor . . . And not the young one . . . which leaves the gambler. yes I think he is just the right kind for you. " She eyed her enemy's dark eyes for a moment. "It's him isn't it. The gambler." She smiled. "A handsome man. Perhaps I should introduce myself . . . "
"You stay clear of Ezra!" Laurel snapped. "Or I swear I'll . . . "
"Kill me? Kind of hard to do . . . we don't do well in crowds you know."
"This is the west. There's plenty of wide-open spaces or nice secluded groves. Whichever . . . " Laurel said serenely. "Stay away from them. Or you will regret it."
"Ms. McKennon!" Mary Travis' voice called out.
Laurel turned to look for Mary when she glanced back the other woman was gone. Laurel frowned. "This is nae over." She whispered. Then turned back to Mary. "Yes Mrs. Travis . . . "
When the Seven rode back into town with their prisoners it was nearing the evening and they were all dead tired. Tired and angry. They had the gang but they didn't have the leader and that wasn't good. All the leader needed to do was go hire more muscle and get back on the trail again. Or break out his men. And considering the difficulty of hiring good men the latter was probably more likely to happen than the former.
After the men were locked up in the cells Vin, Chris and Josiah stayed to try and get some more information out of them while the rest went to get something to eat.
Ezra immediately wandered past the hotel to see if the lamp was lit in Laurel's room. It wasn't. He frowned wondering where the beautiful woman was.
"You look like a man who needs a good hot meal." A husky voice said from the shadows.
Ezra spun, startled, then smiled when Laurel walked out into the light. "That is not the only thing I require. "
Laurel stepped forward and ran a finger down his dusty cheek. She made a small face and grinned. "Nope a bath would also be a good idea."
Ezra pretended to be shocked. "A BATH! Why Ms. McKennon what makes you believe that I would require ablution?"
Laurel arched an eyebrow. "You're wearing more dirt than the street." She informed him sweetly.
Ezra tried to counter her statement but she looked so adorable he could do nothing more than laugh. "You are trouble Ms. McKennon."
"Of the best kind." Laurel returned. "Now come. A bath is what you need and a bath is what you'll get." She took his hand and led him off to his room.
Later that evening Laurel and Ezra lay in his bed just enjoying each other's presence when Ezra spoke.
"Now that my darling, is a very interesting method of bathing." He commented as he pressed a kiss to her fingertips.
Laurel smiled. "I thought you'd like it." She said, snuggling closer. "Private baths are much more . . . interesting."
"Interesting? I would say much more stimulating." Ezra teased. "I'll never look upon a bathtub with the same thoughts again."
Laurel laughed. "I take it I made a lasting impression then?" She asked as sat up slightly her red hair forming a cape around her shoulders and back.
"Oh most definitely." Ezra said with a smile reaching up to pull her down again. "Now you must give me a chance to make mine."
Laurel giggled as Ezra nuzzled in against her neck. She arched back, savouring his attentions when her eye caught sight of something at the window.
Her eyes went wide with horror as she realized what it was. Not daring to let Ezra realize her fear Laurel leaned into Ezra and shifted her weight slightly so that she was the one facing away from the window.
The next few seconds were like a dream for Ezra...or rather a nightmare. There was the crack of a rifle shot and Laurel stiffened then collapsed against him with a small whimper.
"Laurel?" He whispered.
"I'm sorry." Laurel managed.
Ezra's eyes filled with tears of agony when he felt something on his hand and lifted it away from her back. It was covered in blood.
"Noooo." He hissed. He guided Laurel back onto her side and grabbed one of the sheets and bunched it against the massive wound in her back. "Don't leave Laurel." He urged. "Stay here. Stay with me!" He managed to keep the sheet pressed against the wound while he grabbed his pants that had been tossed across the end of the bed. With one hand he pulled them on then returned his attention to the wounded woman lying in his bed. She was dying.
The sound of pounding feet and yelling in the hall told him the rest of the seven had heard the shot and were coming to check on him. Good that meant Nathan.
The door flew open and Chris Larabee stormed in.
"GET NATHAN!" Ezra snapped.
Chris stared in shock at the bleeding body of Laurel McKennon for a moment then stepped back. "NATHAN!" He yelled past Vin and Buck. "GET IN HERE!"
The tall black man ran in, seconds later, and shoved Ezra aside like he was a rag doll.
The southerner watched anxiously as his friend fought to save Laurel's life. He didn't even notice when Vin and Buck walked in.
Taking pity on his friend Buck picked up Ezra's shirt and walked over to give it to him. The gambler slipped it on without acknowledging Buck. Not even bothering to button it up. Standing in the corner like an automaton. His eyes never wavering from the scene being played out before him. The same thought running through his mind over and over.
'Don't let her die, don't let her die, please God don't let her die.'
"Nathan?" Chris asked anxiously, stepping forward.
Nathan looked up, his face somber. He shook his head. She was gone.
Ezra's legs went out from under him. If Buck had not been standing next to him the southerner would have surely collapsed.
Chris watched him with a compassionate gaze. The grief on Ezra's face was apparent. It was also very familiar to him. "We'll get'em." He vowed. "You can be sure of that. We'll get'em."
Ezra nodded solemnly. He looked up then. "Please leave." He asked, his voice calm.
Buck looked at the gambler questioningly. "Ezra, are you sure?"
Ezra nodded. "Yes. Please leave."
Buck and Nathan turned to look at Chris and Vin. The question obvious.
Both Chris and Vin nodded.
"A'right. Josiah and JD went after the shooter. We'll go see what they turned up." Chris said as Vin turned toward the door.
They headed out followed by Nathan and Buck a minute later.
Ezra walked forward and stared down at Laurel's body. "You saved my life my darling." He said hoarsely, reaching out to brush a curl from her face. "But compared to yours it wasn't worth saving." He took one limp hand in his. "If I could have nothing more in this world I would have you alive and in my arms. That is my only wish." He bent forward and brushed a kiss across her forehead. "Good bye my love." He whispered and rose.
When he turned away to button his shirt and summon Chris a sound reached his ears. A sound he'd never thought he'd hear again.
He turned and stared in shock at a Laurel McKennon who was very much alive.
Laurel sucked in another breath and held a hand to her forehead. "I hate dying."She muttered before glancing up and spotting Ezra. "Ezra . . . you're all right?"
Ezra backed away. "You . . . you were . . . dead . . . you were supposed to be dead."
Laurel smiled wryly. "Death is somewhat relative for my kind."
"What?" Ezra managed.
"I'm an Immortal Ezra. I cannot die . . . at least not by being shot or stabbed or poisoned." Laurel rose and pulled on her blouse. "Only by beheading."
Ezra stared at her. "Immortal?" Laurel nodded and moved toward him. He held out his hands. "Impossible. I'm dreaming. The shock has driven me into a delusion."
Laurel shook her head sending her red hair swirling. "No you're not." Before he could stop her she grabbed his hand and pressed it to her chest, right over her heart. "Feel that? That's my heart beating." She blew into his palm. "And I'm breathing. I'm alive Ezra. Just as much as a few moments ago I was dead. I'm alive."
Ezra stared at her wide-eyed as slowly it began setting in. "You're alive . . . " He murmured, almost to himself. "You're alive!" He smiled widely and pulled her into an embrace. "Thank God!" He pulled back slightly and stared into her face. " I can barely fathom it!" He said before he kissed her.
When they parted Laurel rested her head against his shoulder. "The majority of the time neither can I." She responded. "I've seen so much. Experienced so much. Sometimes the weight of it nearly kills me."
Her words brought an interesting question to Ezra's mind. "How old are you?" He asked bluntly.
Laurel chuckled. "You don't waste time do you?" She smiled. "I was born on the Winter solstice in the year 400."
"Am?" Ezra asked hopefully.
Laurel shook her head. "A.D."
Ezra flinched. "That would make you . . . "
"Over fourteen centuries old yes." Laurel nodded.
Ezra remembered her comment about her poker skills. "When you said you'd had a lot of practise . . . you were not jesting."
Laurel shook her head. "Nope."
"Ezra!" Chris called out through the door. "Ya'll right?"
Laurel moaned. "Oh no. They saw me dead?"
Ezra nodded. "Why?"
"They can't know I'm alive Ezra." Laurel said worriedly.
"Why not?" Ezra was confused.
"That's the way it is. It has always been. Immortals hide. We don't do well in crowds. And having seven men running around . . . seven mortal men . . . running around the West knowing that Immortals exist?" Laurel shook her head viciously. "Its to dangerous. For both of us."
"Some Immortals believe mortals should have no knowledge of our existence and they will kill to keep that secret. Other Immortals or mortals it doesn't matter. Anything to keep The Game secret."
"The Game?" Ezra questioned.
Laurel nodded. "Yes the game. Now go!" She pushed him toward the door.
"What will I tell them?"
"About my body? Say you'll have someone take care of it." Laurel kissed him. "I'm sorry to make you lie Ezra but its as much for their protection as mine."
Ezra nodded and walked out.
Laurel sat down on the end of the bed and looked at the blood-covered sheets. "Just when I was starting to plan on staying in this town. My luck." She muttered.
Ezra knew the others were watching him so he kept his relief hidden. Laurel was alive. That was all that he needed to know. All that he cared about. He knew she still had much to explain but she was alive and would be able to explain it. It was all he could do not to yell with excitement. If he did, he knew, the others would assume he'd gone mad with grief. Ezra nearly laughed aloud at that one. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Nothing.
"Ezra, would you like us to . . . take care of the arrangements." To Chris' credit he barely hesitated on the words yet he sounded very caring and silently Ezra thanked him for that.
"No thank you Mr. Larabee." He didn't have any problems saying that part. After all it was true. Laurel didn't need arrangements. She needed him to get back to his room so that she could tell him whatever it was she needed to explain. "I shall take care of that myself. It is the way things should be done." In a way that was true. He would take care of things himself. He would go back to his room and talk to Laurel, hold Laurel, reassure himself she was still alive. That was the only thing that mattered. "I merely came to tell you that I am fine. I shall take care of the arrangements then return to my room for the evening."
"Are you sure?" Chris asked somewhat worried. Ezra was way too calm. And that was not a good thing. The southerner wasn't showing much grief and considering his lover had just been shot in his arms that was a dangerous sign. Ezra was bottling it in and it would soon explode.
If Ezra had heard Chris' thoughts at that moment the Southerner would have surely laughed. He wasn't bottling anything up. Except maybe happiness. Joy. But not grief. Nope, Ezra was as far from grief as day was from night.
Realizing that the others were regarding him with compassionate looks, worry in their eyes Ezra schooled his features into that of grief slowly finding its way to the surface. "Now if you'll excuse me gentlemen . . . I must attend to the . . . "His voice caught with the appropriate hesitance. "To the arrangements . . . Good evening." With that he headed off toward the undertaker's home. Never intending to actually go up to the door and knock, instead he planned to go around back and double around to the hotel. He didn't like lying to the men that had become his friends but it was necessary. He knew that. They would not accept the possibility that Laurel had returned from death. How could they? He was barely able to comprehend and he had always prided himself on making sure he was highly educated in subjects. As highly educated as he could manage at least. So if he a man of some education could barely understand what Laurel was then how could he expect men who hadn't the same amount of learning to understand it? To understand the impossible?
"Not impossible," he corrected himself in a murmur. "Merely highly improbable." He chuckled at his own words. "Highly improbable."
Laurel had cleaned up the bedroom while Ezra was gone. She knew from experience that the blood soaked sheets would not be a good thing to leave lying around. They would cause too much stress. To both herself and Ezra.
She sighed. He didn't know yet. It hadn't hit him. She was going to have to move on. As it always was with her kind. "I should have just pushed him off the bed and dove down myself." She muttered. "But no Laurel, you have to do things the hard way. Always the hard way. Darius was right on that one. I'm to bullheaded for my own good." She fixed the new covers on the bed with a frown. "I hope that Larabee doesn't come to check on him tonight. It would be very hard to explain how a dead woman managed to end up in his arms, very much alive." She chuckled. "Either that or Chris Larabee would never touch a drop of alcohol again." She had noticed that Larabee had a tendency toward hard alcohol and had wondered what had occurred in his past to bring about such pain. She sighed. "Mortals . . . Its been so long since I was one that I barely understand them anymore." She laughed. "Listen to me. I sound like I'm from another world. Keep it up Laurel. Soon you'll be as crazy as a loon." She paused suddenly and sat down. "Whoever she was, Larabee must have loved her a lot. I haven't seen grief that strong in . . . oh . . . a century. But its not just grief . . . " She mused pulling her knees up to her chest. "No . . . there's some self-recrimination in there to. He blames himself." A key in the door stopped her musings as she froze and waited to see who it was.
To her relief Ezra stepped through the door. He smiled at her. "Well . . . I have taken care of your 'arrangements'." He said with a short laugh.
"Oh . . . right." Laurel smiled. "Funeral right?"
Ezra nodded. "I take it this has happened before."
"Oh yes . . . at least this time I didn't actually make it to the coffin."
Ezra looked surprised. "You stayed dead that long?"
Laurel nodded. "It depends on the severity of the wound. And the damage done. Needless to say that time I'd died very badly." She sighed. "There are a few things you need to know."
"Such as?" Ezra asked sitting down next to her.
"The leader of the gang you're hunting?" Laurel hesitated. "She's one of my kind."
"You're sure?" Ezra inquired.
Laurel nodded. "Quite. Whenever two Immortals are around each other there's a funny sensation in our heads. Kind of like an early warning. Helps us get ready for the fight I suppose."
Laurel nodded. "We're trapped in a battle. We call it The Game. A rather trivial name for something that defines who we are . . . " She half-smiled. "Immortal warriors. Its ironic really. We possess the ultimate gift. And we squander it killing each other."
"Beheading." Ezra said flatly.
Laurel nodded. "Every Immortal carries a sword. Its hidden under our clothing of course but is there."
"In my cloak."
Ezra looked at the dark cloak hanging on the hook on the back of the door. It looked innocent enough but when he eyed it closely he could see one part hung a little more heavily than the rest. "Why? Why fight?"
"I have no choice. When one is challenged you either fight or run." Laurel's eyes were flint hard when she spoke again. "I don't run."
It was then Ezra realized what her statement had been. "She?"
Laurel laughed. "Yep. Your big bad guy is a woman. A very old woman. But a woman none the less. I ran into her in town while you were out rounding up her gang. She's gonna be one pissed Immortal when she finds out you've arrested her men." She chuckled ruefully. "Actually I think she already knows. Either that or she's trying to bait me into a fight."
Ezra frowned. "Bait you?"
"Some Immortals don't like to just issue a straight, up front, challenge. No, they like to play games. Manipulate their opponents until that Immortal barely knows what's going on. Then the Immortal who's behind the manipulations goes after their victim and finishes them." Laurel's face was grim as she spoke.
"So by killing me she hoped . . . " Ezra trailed off watching Laurel's eyes.
"I would go mad with grief and rage. And, therefore, I'd be easy to kill."
Ezra frowned again as he thought something over. "But how did she know?"
"About us?" Laurel smiled wryly. "We ran into each other, Therese is not a stupid woman. She rather astutely guessed which one of the Seven I was closest to. The one I cared about the most...you." She took Ezra's hand. "I should've known she'd try something like this. I've been in the Game long enough to know how its played."
"No." Ezra shook his head and laid a finger on her lips. "I will not allow you to blame yourself. I face death everyday." He smiled crookedly. "It's something we mortals learn to accept. Death is as much a part of our lives as life itself is."
Laurel smiled. "I know that. But Ezra, you nearly died because of me. I can't allow that. I can't handle it." Laurel sighed heavily. "I've lost people before. People I cared about very deeply. People I loved. It is not something you want to experience. But what's worse is when they die because of you. That guilt is almost impossible to live with." A tear trickled down her cheek and Ezra pulled her into his arms. "Once Therese is dead I will have to move on." She added softly.
"To where." Ezra asked, trailing a finger down her neck.
"I don't know. An old friend of mine is in Texas I think. Scouting for the Rangers. Maybe I'll go find him. Or maybe I'll go to Paris and see Darius. He lives in a church there." Laurel shrugged. "I don't know. There are a hundred places I can go."
"You will visit?" Ezra asked hopefully as she sat back to look at him.
"Not Four Corners." Laurel shook her head. Ezra looked disappointed but Laurel smiled. :But that doesn't mean I can't visit a town near here. And just happen to arrange for you to find out about it in advance."
Ezra chuckled. "You, my darling, are a very devious woman."
Laurel smiled cheekily. "I know." She responded before kissing him.
That night there was a breakout at the jail. All the prisoners escaped. Chris, of course, was livid. He raged and curse. Vin was unmoved, he remained calm and said he'd head out to track them at dawn.
His statement, as expected, calmed Chris down and the gunslinger informed the rest of the seven that they would all be going. He was not about to let Laurel's killers get away.
Ezra, of course, heartily agreed. He was angry that he and Laurel had been cheated out of a future he'd wanted. And he wanted a chance to avenge that loss. He knew Laurel would handle the Immortal while he and his compatriots would handle her mortal cohorts.
He and Laurel spent one last night together, then, an hour before dawn, Laurel rode out of town. Once the seven got moving she would be just a few steps ahead. Giving her a chance to get to Therese before they did but at the same time she would be able to keep an eye on them.
Vin had a very easy time tracking the group. They had obviously not worried about being found. That partially worried him. They knew that the Seven would come after them but they made no attempt to cover their tracks. That meant they didn't care about being caught. That was not good.
They spent the day riding. The escapees had made good time. But Vin reckoned that the Seven could catch up to them without much trouble. The farther they got from Four Corners the safer they would feel. Which meant they would get sloppy, make a mistake. Then the seven would be waiting.
When night fell they made camp in a small grove. One that would be easily defended.
While Vin worked on getting supper, the rest of the group made camp. Well, excluding Ezra of course. After all a gentlemen does not debase himself by preforming menial tasks.
At least that was the reason he gave when asked. In reality he was wondering about Laurel. He knew she was nearby. She'd promised to shadow them. Just in case, she'd said with one of her smiles before she'd left.
Ezra knew she had to leave Four Corners permanently. He understood that. But despite that understanding he dreaded the actual event.
Ezra stared out into the night and frowned. "Where are you Laurel?" He whispered to no one.
Laurel was a lot closer than Ezra thought. She'd made camp a half-mile away. She sat next to the small fire she'd made and sipped at her coffee. The quiet of the night was something she greatly enjoyed.
Something moved in the woods and Laurel's head snapped up. Out of instinct she reached for her sword. Then she rose and slipped into the trees. It wasn't an Immortal, she knew that but that didn't exclude whoever it was from being a threat.
Moments later she reappeared with Vin Tanner at sword point.
"That, Mr. Tanner, was a very good way to get yourself killed." Laurel said with a tight smile as she lowered her sword.
Vin managed to control his shock at the fact he was talking to a dead woman. Who apparently, wasn't so dead. "How?"
"Am I still alive.." Laurel finished with a sigh, dropping down onto the blanket she'd been previously sitting on. "Long story."
Vin sat across from her and held up some fowl he'd killed. "We've got time."
Laurel laughed. "All right."
So while she cooked the birds, Laurel explained her race and The Game. To her surprise Vin just nodded and took the tin plate she offered.
He asked no questions. Made no judgements, just accepted it.
Laurel was amazed. She'd never had someone respond to the news of her Immortality as Vin had. Some were angry, others disbelieving, at the very least curious. Vin had done none of that. He'd just nodded. It was quite refreshing. Laurel was rarely accepted at face value by others. Often she had to justify Immortality and the reason it existed. But not with Vin. She sighed regretfully. Had she more time to spend in Four Corners she suspected he would be quite a friend.
"Of course, now I have to ask. How did you know I was here?"
Vin half-smiled. "Tracks. There was a set of tracks going parallel to us. Only they was about an hour or so ahead."
Laurel grinned. "Oh that's embarrassing. I'm centuries old and a young man, who could me great grandson several times over, caught me because of tracks I left." Laurel shook her head. "I'm getting sloppy." She smiled ruefully. "Promise you won't tell Mac?"
"Mac?" Vin questioned.
Laurel grinned. "An old friend. We've known each other for a couple of centuries."
Vin half-smiled. "A mite casual with that word ain't ya?"
"Word?" Laurel looked confused.
"Centuries." Vin responded with a wry smile.
Laurel glanced down at her cup, slightly embarrassed. "Yeah . . . guess I am. Immortals tend to get a little cavalier about time once they've gotten a few hundred years on their age."
Vin nodded, accepting her response.
"Any progress on tracking the gang?" Laurel asked sipping her coffee.
Vin shook his head. "Nope. You?"
Laurel's frown answered that question. "No. I was hoping you had." She glanced at the night sky. "You should be getting back. They'll be missing you."
Vin nodded and stood. "You'll be around?"
Laurel nodded quickly. "Yes. Vin, the woman you're looking for, the one who's travelling with them . . . "
Vin stopped, listening.
Laurel sucked in a steadying breath. "She's the leader. And there's more . . . she's an immortal like me."
Vin frowned. "Which means?"
"Hanging won't kill her. There's only one way to be sure you've killed an Immortal." Laurel held up a sword which gleamed in the firelight. "Beheading. I'll handle that. You just make sure her men are occupied when we fight."
Vin said nothing, he merely nodded.
"And Vin . . . take care of him." Laurel added with a sad look in her eyes. "Keep him alive."
Vin held her gaze for a moment then disappeared into the trees.
Laurel leaned back against her saddle and sighed wearily. "I'm getting to old for this."
Vin melted out of the dark carrying several dead birds. He handed them to Nathan, nodded at the others then sat down near the fire . . . and Ezra.
Nathan poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Vin before he turned his attentions to the birds.
The tracker nodded his thanks then rested back against a log and took a sip.
"So, Mr. Tanner . . . What, pray tell, did you see on your travels . . . besides our feathered friends there." Ezra asked with a nod at what was fast becoming dinner.
Vin turned to look at him. "Not much. A couple of animals . . . " He lowered his voice. "Laurel."
Ezra's eyes went wide. "She's . . . you . . . "
"Found her. She explained . . . all of it. She's about a half-mile from here. Camped in the mouth of a cave."
"She's well?" Ezra asked anxiously.
Vin nodded. "And worried about you."
Ezra smiled and nodded. "She does." He glanced down into his coffee. "I'm mortal so she says she can't help but worry when we are pursuing an adversary. Worry that I will be killed."
"Smart woman." Vin said quietly. "Sometimes I reckon we gotta be crazy to go out like this."
"I agree Mr. Tanner." Ezra said with a wry smile. "I agree."
Laurel was settling down for the night when her body suddenly went rigid as the sensation of another Immortal presence filled her mind.
She sat upright, her hand automatically flying to her sword. She stood then. Her eyes straining in the dark to find her opponent. She stepped out into the area in front of the cave and turned, slowly, in a circle. Keeping an eye on all sides.
She was facing toward the woods when she heard a twig snap. She spun just in time to bring up her sword to block the sword flying at her neck.
Therese cursed and looked regretful. "Dang. Missed." Was all she said.
"Oh that was an original tactic." Laurel said a trifle wearily.
"It never hurts to try." Therese cracked. "I'm no idiot after all."
"Well that's debatable." Laurel returned smoothly. "You did challenge me."
"Arrogance Laurel?" Therese mocked.
"No," Laurel said right before she lunged. "Confidence."
Five of the seven were asleep while Josiah and JD were on sentry duty.
Josiah was sitting by the fire with a cup of coffee and JD was on the opposite side of the fire cleaning one of his guns.
The night was peaceful and filled with the sounds of the night. Animals rustling in the bushes, owls calling out . . . even the odd wolf howling at the moon.
But gradually the sounds faded away and the night was completely still.
And that got Josiah's attention.
He put down his coffee cup and picked up his gun.
"Josiah?" JD questioned softly. "Somethin' wrong?"
"Too quiet," Josiah murmured.
"Huh?" JD questioned.
"Listen JD . . . " Josiah instructed, his voice so low it rumbled.
"For what?" JD asked in confusion. "I don't hear anything."
"Exactly. The animals have stopped moving about. The owl that was calling out a few minutes ago . . . he's quiet now."
"Something's wrong." Josiah explained as he strained to see what had caused the sudden silence. "Wake everyone up."
JD nodded and moved about the camp, waking the Seven.
"Something wrong?" Chris asked when JD touched his shoulder.
"Josiah reckons there is." JD responded.
Chris frowned and reached for his guns.
Six of the Seven stood moments later around the fire, waiting for Vin to return.
Upon JD waking him, Vin grabbed his gun and headed into the woods to find out the reason for the sudden silence.
When he did reappear it was with a worried frown.
"Vin?" Chris prompted.
"They're coming." He said, flatly. " 'Bout five minutes away and they're on foot."
Chris nodded. " A'right." He frowned. "Everyone in the woods. We'll surprise'em."
They nodded and dispersed.
Five minutes later, right on schedule, the bandits descended on the camp.
But the Seven were not there. Confused, they stood in the center of the camp. Completely vulnerable.
"You boys should've kept on runnin!" Chris Larabee's voice called out from the darkness of the trees.
They spun, automatically trying to find him. But Chris was nowhere in sight.
"Where are you! Come out coward!" One yelled.
"I do not believe that Mr. Larabee is the coward." Ezra's voice cut in dryly. "After all, he is not the one who attempted to assail his adversaries at night . . . while they slumbered."
"What?" The bandits chorused as a whole.
"You tried to sneak up on us while we were asleep." Nathan's voice explained.
"Enough talk." The smart mouthed one hissed. "Shoot into the woods! We're bound to hit some of them!"
They all nodded then opened fire but the Seven had planned for that eventuality. They crouched low behind the trees and waited for Vin.
The sharpshooter did not disappoint.
He fired off shot after shot. Taking down several of the bandits best shooters. Giving his friends the chance to handle the rest on a fair level.
A chance that the rest of the seven took. They leapt from cover and started firing.
The gunfire was fierce but the Seven managed to remain in once piece while the other gang members fell, one after the other.
They had surrounded the remaining bandits when they were brought to dead stop by a massive explosion of lightening.
"What the . . . " Chris trailed off dumbfounded, staring at the sky.
Similar comments of shock and fear echoed from both the Seven and the gang.
Behind Chris and the group, Ezra and Vin shared a look.
They didn't know why the lightening was occurring but they had a pretty good guess that Laurel was behind it.
Vin leaned over to the Southerner. "GO!" He whispered giving Ezra a little shove toward the trees.
Without hesitation Ezra turned and ran into the woods.
It was very easy to track the lightening storm so he reached the grove where it was originating very quickly.
But when Ezra saw the source of he could barely believe his eyes.
At the center of the maelstrom was Laurel. Her body arching under the strain of the lightening bolts. She was screaming but it wasn't entirely a scream of pain. It was a scream of both ecstasy and pain intermingled.
Her limbs moved with the lightening like she was some sort of puppet under the control of an insane puppeteer. Her legs were firmly planted but her upper body moved to the whims of the lightening.
When it finally stopped she dropped to her knees obviously exhausted.
The second the lightening stopped Ezra raced to her side.
"Laurel? Are you all right?" He queried softly, wrapping his arms around her.
"Yes." Laurel said weakly.
"I have a question." Ezra said helping her to her feet.
"What the devil was that!" Ezra said, his tone bewildered.
Laurel chuckled. "That, my love, was a Quickening."
"Un huh." Laurel said her voice stronger as she recovered and bent over to pick up her sword.
"Does it always happen?" He inquired.
"When an Immortal is beheaded . . . yes." Laurel nodded. "Did you find the gang?"
"They found us actually." Ezra said wryly.
There was a commotion in the woods and Laurel stepped back.
"I'll be around." She whispered before darting into the woods.
When Chris and the rest of the seven and the remaining bandits raced into the clearing they found Ezra standing over Therese's headless body.
The gang stared in shock at the dead body of their leader.
"Therese . . . " One whispered, stepping forward.
"Who is she?" Buck asked. "Er . . . who was she?"
"Therese." Another spoke. "She was the leader."
"The woman was the leader?" Chris said in surprise.
The remnant of the gang nodded. The fight gone out of them at the sight of their leader dead.
After giving her a decent burial the seven put the remaining few bandits on their horses and headed back to Four Corners where they locked them up to await trial.
When that was done Chris, Buck, Josiah and Vin stayed at the jail to work out a guard schedule to ensure the prisoners wouldn't escape again.
Nathan headed back to his rooms to get some supplies to treat the wounded prisoners while JD went to send a telegram to Judge Travis with the news of the gang's capture.
No one noticed when Ezra slipped away and even if they did they chalked it up to fatigue and grief.
He found Laurel waiting for him outside of town.
She was dressed for travel with a slip skirt and a duster.
"Have you decided on a destination?" Ezra inquired reaching out to take one of her hands.
Laurel nodded. "Yes. I think I'm gonna go see Mac My friend in Texas. It's closer."
Ezra nodded."I shall most definitely miss you."
"And I you." Laurel said softly leaning against him.
Ezra wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly.
"I don't want to go." Laurel whispered against his shoulder.
"Then don't." Ezra urged.
"I can't stay." The lovely Immortal said in a pain-filled voice. "I can't." She shook her head and stepped back.
Ezra looked into her dark eyes and nodded.
"You will come back?" He asked anxiously.
Ezra reached into his pocket and smiled shakily. "We never did have a chance to play that rematch you promised."
Laurel laughed slightly. "No, we didn't."
Ezra's smile was tender. "Even if we had. You still would have won. You always had the winning card." He pulled a playing card from his pocket and handed it to her.
Laurel took the card and looked at it for a moment then returned her gaze to Ezra's, tears streaming silently down her cheeks. "The Queen of Hearts."
"It is your card . . . Our card." Ezra informed her, his voice hoarse with pain. "You are queen of my heart."
Laurel reached out, her hand shaking, to touch Ezra's face. "Oh Ezra . . . " She whispered, agonized. "I love you." She stepped forward and kissed him.
Ezra responded immediately, pulling her against him and kissing her passionately. Knowing it could very well be the last time he ever touched her. There were no guarantees in The Game after all.
He held her for as long as he dared then let her step back.
"I should get going." Laurel said reluctantly.
Ezra nodded. "I suppose you should."
"I'll try to come back. I swear." She whispered before swinging up into the saddle. She smiled at him then slipped the card into her saddlebag. She bent and kissed him one last time before turning and riding away at a high gallop. Trying with everything in her to keep from turning back.
Ezra stood and waited until she was far out of sight before returning to town.
Four Corners Area
Laurel stood in the graveyard of what had been Four Corners. The town now wore a different name and was larger and more developed then it had been the last time she'd seen it. But there were things about it that hadn't changed. And the graveyard was one of them. It was larger but many of the original graves were still there. One section in particular hadn't changed. In fact the town had gone to great lengths to see it had been well preserved. The historical section.
And Laurel now stood before one of those graves. Even a century later the sight of the name on the headstone brought tears of pain to her eyes.
She knew it was going to happen. She had known Ezra would eventually age and die. It was common sense. Mortals aged. Mortals died. But still . . .
The tears in Laurel's eyes spilled over and a sob caught in her throat. "I came back Ezra. I kept my promise."
And she had. She'd returned several times of the course of Ezra's life. A few times she had even talked to him. Touched him. But most . . . she'd just watched.
The first few times were the times he'd seen her. But one visit when she saw him . . . She actually returned to the town. He'd been with a beautiful woman. His wife.
Over the decades that followed, Laurel watched as Ezra became a father then a grandfather . . . she hadn't been there when he died. And she regretted missing the opportunity to say good bye.
"I'm sorry Ezra." Laurel whispered, reaching out to touch the headstone. "I'm sorry I wasn't here." She reached into her shoulder bag and gently lifted out an old, faded, playing card. "I still have our card. And nothing has changed. See . . . " Laurel again reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out another card. This one she laid at the foot of the headstone. "And it never will." At that she returned the queen of hearts to her bag then walked away . . . leaving the king of hearts resting against the headstone. Right underneath the name, Ezra Standish.
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