A Thief's Challenge
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~~~A THIEF'S CHALLENGE~~~


If there was one thing Amanda detested, it was letting a perfectly good plan go to waste but, even so, there was something that annoyed her even more; having to make a quick getaway. She hadn't realised how bad things truly were, however, until she stepped off the coach.

"Good grief," she said, as she glared up at the driver. "What is this hell hole?"

"Hey, don't look me, Lady," the driver growled as he dumped her bags into the dirt beside her, lifting a cloud of dry dust. "You've got what you paid for, and this is the last stop on your ticket."

This was a dirt track masquerading as a main street, and a glaring sun that seemed to suck the life out of her, even as she stood there. With an irritated huff, Amanda popped open her parasol, her lips falling into a flat line as she noted the brown dust already settling the hem of her silk greys. The gallows at Landon were already looking more appealing.

"This is one of those frightful bandit towns, isn't it?" she asked. "I've read about them in the papers."

The driver gave her a wry look. "Looks like you'll fit right in, then," he said cheekily, before snapping his reins, and Amanda glared after him as he rode out of town.

"Ma'am?" Amanda turned to see a young man, barely out of his teens, bouncing on his feet. "Howdy, ma'am, welcome to Four Corners," he said eagerly, snatching his hat off his head. "I'm JD. Can I help you with your bags?"

Amanda smiled, despite herself. "A lady can always use some help with her bags," she drawled. "I am Miss Montrose, young man; I don't suppose you could guide me to a reputable hotel?"

With a grin, the boy jumped down onto the street, and scooped up her bags. "Well, I don't know about reputable, ma'am, but the Gem Hotel has the best rooms."

"Well, I suppose that'll have to do," Amanda said, as she wondered how far the last few dollars she'd left would stretch. Damn that Marshal and his too clever ways. Another day, and she'd have gotten clean away with that ruby necklace, as well as the contents of the safe. She wondered how he'd caught on. Oh well, it was no good crying over a done deed.

"Lead on, JD," she said, turning on the full power of her smile. The young man faltered in his steps, and Amanda bit back a sigh. She almost felt sorry for him, but pity wasn't a luxury she could afford at the moment. Not when she had less than ten dollars in her purse.

The tinkle of a stand up piano, woefully out of tune, caught her ear as she followed JD down the street. Her eyes followed the noise, and she stopped as she noticed the name over the tavern door. Surely, it must be a coincidence...

"You okay, Miss Montrose?" JD asked.

"Oh, I'm at the very peak of good health, JD," Amanda drawled, as the Tavern drew closer; and there it was, quivering on the edges of her senses. It was still faint, and a less experienced Immortal may not have even realised what they were sensing, but she knew what it meant.

A potential Immortal, one who hadn't met their first death yet. Relief warred with disgust inside her; the former giving up a prayer in thanks that she had once again avoided the fate of becoming the teacher to that no good scoundrel, and the latter wondering how he'd managed to stay mortal this long.

Ezra Standish, the unconscionable bastard.

But at least now she knew which table the money would be at.

His.


~~~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~~~


Amanda smiled at her reflection in the mirror, as she fluffed up the ruffles on her dress. It was a stunning concoction, made by the best dressmaker in San Francisco. She almost felt guilty for running out on the bill.

She leaned forward and settled her shawl artfully around her shoulders. Not so much a concealment, as a frame for her assets. She didn't expect such an obvious gambit to distract Ezra from his game, the grifter blood ran too strong in him, but it wasn't Ezra she was after, it was his livelihood; namely, the other poor souls at the table.

"Amanda, darling, you're going to pick them clean," she told her reflection, before she collected her purse and headed downstairs.

JD was waiting for her outside the hotel, as eager as a puppy. She recognised the type; he was innocent enough, for all his big talk. Not that she doubted that he could use the gun holstered at his waist, but bullets didn't scare her, and she wasn't exactly unarmed herself.

"May I, ma'am?" he said, as he held out his arm, and Amanda smiled as she took it. They crossed the street, and Amanda bit back a wince as she heard the Tavern's piano get even more out of tune as some oaf bashed away at it's keys. It jangled unpleasantly, with the low, fumbling thread of Ezra's presence.

"That's my friend Buck," JD said proudly, as they climbed the steps. "And he's been playing only a few weeks."

"Really?" Amanda said, as she bit her cheek in an effort not to laugh. "My, that is impressive."

"I'm sure he'll be glad to hear you say it," JD said brightly. "He's aiming to learn all there is to know about the piano by the end of the month."

"How interesting," Amanda said. "And, pray tell, what brought on this...great endeavour."

"Well, Inez - that's the Tavern's bartender – promised she'd step out with him, if he could serenade her with music, and Buck said that wouldn't be a problem, seeing as he had a fine singing voice and was in a church choir when he was a boy, but then Inez said singing wasn't enough, as any old fool could sing, He had to play accompaniment for her, too."

"I see," Amanda said dryly, as she reminded herself not to get on the bad side of Inez the bartender, she seemed too clever by half. She waited as JD swung the tavern doors open, and stepped inside.

The tavern smelled strongly of beer and stale tobacco, but that was to be expected and she had smelled worse. A table of ranch hands near the door turned to look at her, and Amanda inclined her head. "Gentlemen," she said.

As one, they scrambled to their feet as she wafted past them and headed for the steps that lead to the gambling tables. She spotted him almost immediately; a peacock, in the midst of grey and dust; too pretty for his own good. She hid her smirk as he looked up and caught his eyes. For the briefest of moments, his mask slipped, and a look of sheer horror passed across his face. Amanda was taken off guard, she hadn't expected him to look quite so taken aback.

"Well, I do declare," she said aloud. "If it isn't my old acquaintance, Mr Standish."

Miss Montrose, what an unexpected pleasure," he said hoarsely, getting to his feet as she approached the table. That was one thing Amanda would give Ezra, he may be a double dealing scoundrel, but he always had impeccable manners.

"You two know each other?" JD asked, sounding nonplussed.

"Indeed we do, JD," Amanda purred. "When was it when last we met, Mr Standish?"

"I do believe it was San Francisco," he said warily, and Amanda smiled widely at him. He believed, her foot. The bastard had left her hanging out to dry with the local Sheriff, and had made off with a pretty penny as a reward. She wouldn't mind, but she'd actually considered him a friend. She lingered beside an empty seat at the table, and was on the verge of actually coughing when, at last, he took the hint and pulled it out for her.

Why thank you, Mr Standish," she said, as he eased the chair back into place.

"My pleasure, Miss Montrose" he said, through gritted teeth. A beautiful woman, carrying a fresh bottle of scotch, and two extra glasses, sauntered up to the table, a mischievous glint in her intelligent eyes. Amanda would bet her last dollar that this was the redoubtable Inez.

She placed the glasses on the table, one in front of her, and one in front of JD, and Amanda wondered if Ezra had a standing arrangement to serve all those who sat the table with hard liquor. Oh, who was kidding, of course he did; after all, that's what she'd do.

"I'm Mr Bucklin, Miss Montrose," one of the card players piped up. "I own the grocery story in these here parts."

"Indeed," Amanda said, with a warm smile. "That must be rewarding work and challenging too."

"I don't know I'd say that, ma'am," he said, suddenly flustered under her gaze.

"Oh, come now, Mr Bucklin, you're just being modest. Surely the grocery store is the lifeblood of the town?" Amanda said.

"Well, I suppose it is," he said thoughtfully, "Though I must confess I never looked at like that before, Miss Montrose."

Oh please, Mr Bucklin, call me Amanda," she said, watching him melt under her admiration before turning to gentleman on his left. From the cut of his jacket and his gold cufflinks, she surmised that he was Ezra's real target. She gave him the full gleam of her smile. "And you are?"

"Now, now, Miss Montrose, you mustn't monopolise the guests at my table with your admittedly fair conversation," Ezra drawled. "After all, this is a poker game, and high stakes demand a man's full attention."

"Oh my!" Amanda said, letting her hand fly to her cheek, "A real, honest to God, poker game? How thrilling! Can I play? It must be ever so much more fun that Bridge!"

"Bridge?" Ezra repeated, a wry look in his eyes.

"Have you ever played?" Amanda asked. "I swear, it must be the most boring game on God's green earth. I've always believed that if one should wager money on cards, it should be at least be entertaining." She let her hand fall to her chest, and took a deep breath for full impact. As one, the men's eyes travelled southward. "And now, at long last, I have my opportunity!" she thrilled. Inez made a sound, that could have been a cough or a laugh, as she swiftly departed, and Ezra slumped back into his chair, defeated.

"All those who think we should allow Miss Montrose to have her great...opportunity, say aye," he said.

"Aye!" the men chorused.

And Amanda grinned as Ezra reluctantly dealt her a hand.


~~~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~~~


Gleefully, Amanda counted her out her winnings. Thirty two dollars and forty eight cents; it wouldn't get her to the east coast, never mind beyond it, but it was a good start and the coach to Ridge City wasn't due for another three days. Plenty of time to drum up her train fare. If only she hadn't ended up on a coach that didn't run along a train line, but she hadn't exactly had time to pick and choose her ride.

She looked around the room for good place to hide her stash, immediately dismissing her shoes and stockings. It would be the first place Ezra would look. Her jewellery box didn't even get a cursory look, likewise with her hatbox.

"Oh dear, what is a lady to do," she said to herself, as she peeked through the curtains. Ezra stood outside the saloon, in deep conversation with JD. Now that had been a surprise; not that they knew each other, it was a small town, after all. No, the surprise came when she realised the two were actual friends, a more unlikely pair she'd never met. She wondered what angle Ezra was playing as she watched him tip his hat and made a beeline for the hotel. He always had an angle. That was a lesson she had learned the hard way.

Her grip tightened on the curtain, and she noticed a tear in the curtain lining, at least she'd found a place to keep her winnings. She stuffed her money clip into the lining, with only moments to spare, as a low tap sounded on the door.

"Amanda, I know you're still awake. I can see the light under the door," he said, his voice muffled by the thick wood.

"Go away, Ezra, or I'll cry for help," she said, glaring at the door's wooden panelling.

"I ain't causing you no harm, Amanda," he said flatly.

"Oh yes?" Amanda said archly. "Well, why don't we let the local law decide that?"

He laughed, and Amanda began to feel her blood boil. It was bad enough that he left her holding the proverbial bag, back in San Francisco, now he was adding insult to injury. "I'm not joking, Ezra, I was three long weeks in that jail cell. There was straw on the floor and in the mattress." That was the worst of it, to tell the truth. Amanda had sworn to herself, many years ago, that she'd never again sleep on a straw bed. Ezra Standish had made her break that promise.

"And after those three weeks, you swung from a rope for a murder you didn't commit," His voice had lowered to a barely audible hiss, and Amanda froze. She hadn't realised he'd checked up on her. "You know, for years, I blamed myself, thinking that your incarceration had somehow addled your brains," he continued and, if Amanda didn't know any better, she'd almost think he was upset. Well, she wouldn't be the fool a second time.

"My heart bleeds for you," she bit out.

"Now Amanda, don't be like that," he said. "Let's just sit down and have a conversation. I can explain everything, I promise, and you can tell me how you're still aliv—"

Amanda cut him off. "What's the matter, Ezra, are you afraid I sold a few of your secrets in exchange for my life?"

"I already know you didn't do that, Amanda," he said softly.

Amanda frowned. What the hell was that supposed to mean? She shook her head. "Just go away, Ezra," she said. "You lost the right to ask me questions a long time ago. Leave me alone."

There was a long silence at the other side of the door, and then she heard him walk away.

Well, that was that.

For now.


~~~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~~~


He was waiting for her in the hotel dining room when she entered it the next morning. She'd forgotten what a tenacious pest he could be when he set his mind to it.

"Miss Montrose," he said, getting to his feet.

"Mr Standish," she said lightly. "What an unexpected surprise."

"Well, I couldn't have a fine lady like yourself dine alone now, could I?" he countered, as he pulled out her chair.

"Actually, Mr Standish, I think you'll find that a lady invariably dines alone for breakfast."

He smiled a wide, sharkish grin, but said nothing as she sat down, and gestured at the waiter. "We'll have coffee, and the lady will taste some of your finest sweetbread," he drawled laconically.

"And I'll have some bacon and eggs too," Amanda added hastily. If she didn't eat soon, her stomach would melt away from hunger. It had been over a day since she'd had a solid meal.

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "I thought that bacon and eggs were for, and I quote, the unwashed and the uncouth masses?" he said, once the waiter was out of earshot, "Although I suppose one can work up quite an appetite reviving from dead."

"Ezra," Amanda said lowly. "Let's get one thing straight. I'm only staying long enough to catch the next coach to Ridge City. So whatever plan you're hatching, I suggest you leave me out of it."

"It wasn't me, you know," he said, ignoring her words.

"It wasn't you who what?"

"It wasn't me who informed the Sheriff of your dealings," Ezra said.

"For one thing, it wasn't my dealings, it was our dealings," she said, venom in her voice. "And if it wasn't you, who was it? The tooth fairy?"

Ezra said something, a low indiscernible mumbling, and Amanda glared at him.

"If you're going to make up an excuse, you can at least do me the courtesy of making it audible," she said archly.

"I said," he muttered lowly. "It was my...mother."

Amanda blinked. "Your mother?" she repeated.

He nodded silently as the waiter served the coffee. There a distinctly uncomfortable look on his face, and Amanda came to a slow realisation. He was telling her the truth.

"You have a mother?" she asked again, disbelief showing on her face.

"No need to sound so shocked, Amanda; after all, everybody has a mother," Ezra said. "It just happens that my mother is a woman of peculiar proclivities."

"You mean she's a grifter, like you," Amanda said astutely.

"That is such a harsh word," he murmured, but didn't deny it.

Amanda gave him a hard look. "You may be telling me the truth, Ezra, but we both know that she could have only given me up to the law, if you'd told her what we were up to."

He rubbed at his eyes. "It all happened so fast," he said. "She turned up at the hotel with no warning, and then proceeded to interfered with my arrangements. I had to tell her what we were up to, in order to stop her."

"But instead of stopping, she took over instead," Amanda finished for him.

"I figured out what she had done once I heard about the arrest, and I'd just about convinced her to renege on her accusation, when I heard about your subsequent confession and hanging," he said.

"And where is this mother of yours now?" Amanda asked dryly.

He gave her a wary look. "She comes and goes."

Oh, I'll bet she does, Amanda thought grimly, as her bacon and eggs arrived. She wondered if Ezra knew his supposed mother hadn't actually given birth to him, and decided it didn't matter. Even if he didn't know, she couldn't exactly disabuse him of the lie, could she? She tucked into her meal, and ignored Ezra's low chuckle.

"Well, I do declare, you actually do have an appetite," he said.

"When in Rome," she said, twirling her fork in the air to indicate the town around them.

"Indeed," he said. "Well, now that you've got your full attention—"

Amanda looked up from her swiftly emptying plate and glared at him. He grinned at her unrepentantly, and leaned forward. "There's a certain rancher coming to town tonight. Usually, I refrain from divesting him of his coin, as he has rather a nasty temper, but with you there to distract him—"

"Ezra!" a voice boomed, and Amanda turned to see what seemed to be a ranch hand striding in the door. "JD told me I'd find you here. We've got trouble—" he halted mid-stride as he noticed Amanda. "Well, hello ma'am," he said, a slow smile spreading across his face. It was really quite an attractive smile, Amanda thought.

"Miss Montrose, let me introduce you to Mr Wilmington," Ezra said.

"People call me Buck, ma'am," he said, his smile becoming mischievous.

Amanda choked back a laugh. "Yes, I'll bet they do," she drawled, as she extended her hand. "I'm Amanda."

He darted forward, and kissed her hand, and she heard Ezra gave a strangled laugh beside her. "You said there was trouble, Buck?" he asked, and Amanda didn't miss the double meaning of his words.

"Got a new sharp shooter heading this way, wanting to make a name for themselves," Buck said, not taking his eyes off Amanda.

"Is he alone?" Ezra asked.

"Of course he ain't, Ezra," Buck said. "I wouldn't have come looking for you if he was, now, would I? Chris wants us ride out and head them off before they hit the town."

Us? What the hell was going on here? "Ezra, is there something you've forgotten to tell me?" she asked lightly.

She watched Buck and Ezra exchange a look. "Well, you see ma'am," Buck said. "It's a bit complicated."

"I fail to see how it could be," Amanda said. "Surely, heading off a gang of cut throats would be a job for the law?"

"Well, you see, Amanda, there is a peculiarity to our situation in this town" Ezra prevaricated. "The local circuit judge, Judge Travis, found it uncommonly difficult to persuade a lawman to make this fine town his domicile of choice, so he sort of... improvised."

"Improvised?" Amanda echoed, looking to Buck

"Why yes, ma'am," Buck said, puffing out his chest. "See, around these parts, we are the law."

"I see," Amanda said, and she couldn't help herself. She began to laugh. "Oh, Ezra," she giggled. "To think I'd live to see this day!"

"It isn't that amusing, Amanda," Ezra protested.

"Oh but it is," Amanda said breathless. "It really is!"

The sound of horses reverberated against the paned windows of the dining room and Buck rushed to look. "Damn!" he said. "Guess they were running a little early."

"They must be spoiling for a show," Ezra said flatly.

The sharp quiver of an Immortal presence washed over Amanda, and she immediately sobered up. Oh, this was not good.

"Amanda, are you all right?" Ezra asked, giving her a sharp look. "You look very peaked, all of a sudden."

"Actually, I think you may be right, Ezra," she said, as she hastily got her feet. She had left her sword in her room, thinking she wouldn't need it. "Maybe it was the rich breakfast. Why don't I retire while you gentleman go about you...law business"

"Ma'am," Buck said, inclining his head, and Ezra gave her a measuring look.

"I'll call on you later," he said pointedly, and then a shot rang out. Amanda watched as Buck and Ezra ran for the doors, shaking her head in bemusement before heading upstairs. Ezra, a lawman; now that was something she'd thought she'd never live to see. Well, if there was one thing Amanda had learned in her long life, is that people would never cease to surprise her.

The bullets were now flying, filling the air with their din, and Amanda crashed into her room and ran to the window, her eyes searching for the most likely person. It wasn't hard to spot him. Like her, he was searching for the presence, his eyes darting around. He also seemed to be the one in charge, which made him the so called sharp shooter. His eyes shot up, and Amanda jumped back from the window and quickly retrieved her sword, before risking another peek.

The Immortal's attention had wandered to another target, Ezra.

"Damn it, damn it," Amanda muttered, finding herself in a quandary. Technically, she supposed she should let things play out. After all, his first death had to happen sooner or later, but Ezra actually seemed happy living in this dead end town, and she didn't like the look of that Immortal. She wouldn't put it past him to come after Ezra's head before the night was out.

Coming to a decision, she took her derringer from her purse, and pushed open the window, using the curtains for cover. She trained the gun on the Immortal, who was using the wagon parked in front of the saloon for cover, as he kept taking pot shots at Ezra. She could see the others were puzzled by the turn of events. She doubted that Ezra had ever been the first choice of target before. She bit her lip as she aimed carefully and pulled the trigger. He dropped like a stone.

For a moment, the street fell silent, and then the gunfight started again in earnest, as the Immortal's gang tried to beat a hasty retreat, taking the body with him. Amanda sighed. She had a funny feeling she'd be getting a visit that night. A movement on the walkway below her caught her attention, and she looked down to see Ezra looking directly up at her, a puzzled expression on his face. Quickly, she pulled her head back, but she knew the damage was already done. He'd want answers, answers she couldn't give him.


~~~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~~~


The knock on the door came sooner than she'd thought, and Amanda pulled her dressing gown around her as she opened it. He stood there, a troubled expression on his face. "I was wondering if you'd care to accompany me to dinner," he said.

"I think I'll skip this evening's repast, Ezra," she said.

"I see, well, may I come in?" he asked. Amanda hesitated, and then grudgingly let the door fall open. He noticed her packed bags and her sword case by the door.

"Leaving so soon?" he asked.

"I think it's for the best, don't you?" she asked lightly.

"There isn't another coach due for two days," he pointed out.

"Which is why I bought a horse and cart from the local stables, this afternoon," Amanda countered. "It isn't much, but it'll get me to Ridge City."

He stood there for a moment, as if unsure what he might say next. "You saved my life, Amanda," he said eventually.

"Did I?" Amanda said.

"Yes, you did," he said, his tone insistent.

"How peculiar, because I have no recollection of such an event," she said archly. "Pray tell, did anybody actually witness this feat?"

"Stop playing with me, Amanda, I saw the angle of the shot. It was you."

Amanda shrugged. "So what if it was?" she asked, as she sat down on the edge of the bed. "What does it really change?"

"You took that man's life to save mine," Ezra said hoarsely. "I want to know why you did it."

"Truthfully?" Amanda said. "I'm not really sure why I did it. I guess I just find life a little more interesting with you in it."

He gave her a long look and sighed. "It's at times like this, Amanda, that I wonder if I ever really knew you."

"Oh, you know me, Ezra," Amanda said gently, as she stood up and leaned into him, resting her hand on his arm in a tacit invitation, "Better than most."

"Do I?" His hand went to her hair, and pulled at the pins, loosening her hair. "Why don't I believe you? There's something you're not telling—"

"Ezra," Amanda interrupted softly, as she pushed his jacket off, and began to unbutton his waistcoat. "For once in your life, stop looking for the angle."

"Because this time there isn't one?" he asked cynically, as he helped her unbutton his shirt

Amanda just smiled at him in answer, and then leaned up and kissed him, before pushing him back onto the bed.


~~~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~~~


Amanda managed to slip out of the room, with all her bags and half of Ezra's shoe stash, without disrupting his sleep. She had too many years of practice at sneaking in and out of bedchambers. She grinned evilly as she looked down at her riding clothes and the sword strapped at her side. She doubted Ezra would even recognise in her present get up, but she didn't want to be hindered by skirts when the time came.

She'd barely made it to the stables when she felt his presence.

"Leaving so soon?" the Immortal asked, and his eyes widened when she turned to look at him. "Well, well, looky here, a woman. I don't often see Immortals of the female persuasion around these parts."

"Yes, I wonder why?" Amanda said dryly, as she drew her sword. "I am Amanda Darieux, and you are?"

"James Walker, at your service," he drawled, as he drew a regulation issue cavalry sword. Damn it, she always hated killing the young ones.

"You can always leave, you know," she said. "Just turn around and never come back."

"And why would I do that?" he asked. "Are you scared, little girl?"

Amanda resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Very well, lets get this over with."

"What's the rush?" Maybe we can have a little fun, first. You might even convince me to spare your life."

"Oh, you are so new at this," Amanda said, amused. Her sword whipped out, and drew a thin red line across his chest.

"Hey, you cut me!" he said, the shock evident in his voice.

"You do realise this is a challenge, don't you?" Amanda enquired.

"Youre going to get yours, bitch," he snarled, as he swept down with his blade. Amanda neatly parried it to the side.

"Lesson number, never judge an Immortal by their looks," Amanda drawled, as her sword darted through the sleeve of his sword arm, and cut deep. "I may look real pretty, but I'm not an easy mark."

"Doesn't matter, lady, I'm bigger, and stronger than you, and I can take you any time I want to."

"Well then, go right ahead," Amanda said, with a grin

He ran at her, his sword held in front of him as if he were in a cavalry charge. She held her ground, and braced herself for what was about to come. The sword ripped through her stomach and he grinned down at her. "See what I mean?" he said, as Amanda felt things white around the edges.

"Actually, the head is a little further up. Here, let me show you, " she gasped out, and she saw his eyes widen, as her blade swung up, and neatly parted his head from his shoulders. That was the problem with the young ones, they still fought like mortals.

The head fell to the stable floor, bloodying the straw, and his body fell backwards, taking his blade with it. Amanda clutched at her wound, already feeling the healing sparks between her fingers as she fell to her knees.

The quickening hovered for a moment over the body, an ethereal glow, and then struck at her, forcing her head back and making her scream. The straw caught fire, and Amanda almost wept. She was too weak to leave the stable, and she really hated dying by fire. The horse screamed and another burst of quickening flared upward, making the weak clapboard structure shudder as flames licked the walls. She was losing consciousness from the lack of blood, and the heat was becoming unbearable.

"Amanda! Amanda!"

Ezra. She mouthed the word, but no sound escaped her lips. She slumped to the ground, and felt a hand squeeze her shoulder. Above her, Ezra's face swam into focus.

"Amanda, it's okay, I've got you," he said, and all went dark.


~~~~~*~~~*~~~*~~~~~


She woke up in a strange bed, and she sat up, bolt upright.

"Relax, it's only me," Ezra said, from his perch on a chair beside the bed. She studied the expression on his face. Oh, oh, this didn't look good.

"Who else saw me?" she said.

"I had Nathan take a look at you, but by then your wound had already completely healed," he said quietly. "He thinks you're suffering from the smoke."

"I see," Amanda said quietly, as she looked around. Her bags were in a pile in the corner, looking slightly worse for wear and smoke damaged, but otherwise intact.

"Already planning your getaway?" he asked wryly, catching her eye.

"It's complicated, Ezra," she said gently. "I don't think I would be able to explain."

"Why don't you try," he said flatly. "We can start at the beginning. Tell me how you can recover from a mortal wound within minutes, and survive a hangman's noose."

"There's nothing to tell, really," Amanda said. "I was just born this way."

"And the sharpshooter?"

"He was looking for revenge" Amanda lied, as she got out of the bed. "Is my horse still alive?"

"Just about," Ezra said.

"Right, fine," Amanda said, as she made a beeline for her luggage, and pulled out a fresh set of under things, and clothes. Well, calling them fresh might be pushing it a little, seeing as they all stank of wood smoke.

"That's it?" Ezra asked, the edges of anger showing in his voice. "You rise from the dead and that's all you've got to say?"

"What did you expect me to say, Ezra," she snapped. "You want me to make up some nice safe fairytale for you? It's just the way I was made. I have no control over it, anymore than I have contril over the colour of my eyes. It's what I am."

"And what is that, Amanda, what are you?" Ezra asked lowly.

"For a second, she considered not telling him, but he would find out what she was, sooner or later. Maybe it would be better coming from her own lips. She caught his eye. "I'm an Immortal," she said. "I don't age, I don't die, I just keep on living. There is only one way to kill me, and that is by taking my head."

Realisation showed in his eyes. "The sharp shooter." He said coolly. "We found his body in the stable. We thought it was some sort of sick joke perpetrated by one of his gang. But that isn't what happened, is it?"

Amanda shook his head. "He was like me," she said simply. "He came looking for payback for earlier.

Ezra tilted her head. "But you won," he said.

"Yes, I won," Amanda said, with a humourless smile, as she began to dress.

"What about the rest of his posse? Were they Immortal too?" he asked.

Amanda shook his head, "No, just the sharp shooter." She gave him a long look. "You seem to be taking this remarkably well," she said.

"Appear would be the operative word," he drawled. "Trust me." He got to his feet and caught her hand, stilling it. "That horse of yours can barely stay on its feet, and I've already retrieved my savings from your luggage," he said. "The coach doesn't arrive for another two days...stay."

Amanda looked into his eyes, and saw the offer was genuine. "People will ask questions, Ezra," she said softly.

"Let them," he said, "We'll just tell them the truth... without actually telling them the whole truth." He grinned. "I hear I have a gift for it."

"Indeed, and what poor fool told you that?"

"Why you did, my dear, don't you remember?" he asked lightly.

Amanda's eyes narrowed, as she caught something in his voice. "What's the catch?"

He smiled a slow smile. "Amanda, Amanda, you wound me. Truly, you do." He paused. "But, now that you mention it, there is this ranch owner I 've had the good fortune to meet. A man of fine distinction and good taste and, just between you and me, I think we could pick him clean."


~~~FINIS~~~



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