PA – STOP – HAVE ARRIVED IN 4 CORNERS – STOP – WILL CONTACT JAMES IN MORNING – STOP – HORSES SHOULD BE EASY TO GET – STOP – NO TROUBLE YET FROM GANG OF 7 – STOP – LOVE JOE – FULL STOP
Joe Cartwright handed the telegram to Tyler to be sent. Almost instantly, the telegraph operator frowned. "Sir, excuse me – gang of seven?"
Joe blinked in surprise. "Yeah – the gang of seven outlaws who think they run the town. Mister James says they've threatened him several times."
"Is that so?" a soft drawl sounded behind him. Joe turned to see a very pregnant young woman leaning against the doorframe. "Send it, Tyler. Mister, I wanna talk to you." She pushed off and weaved outside.
Curious, Joe followed. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Who told you about the Seven?" she asked him.
Before Joe could reply, a young boy of about seven ran up. "Mrs. Tanner! Mrs. Tanner!"
She smiled down at him and rubbed her hand over his blond hair. "Hi, Billy. What is it?"
"When are you gonna take me trackin' again?"
She chuckled and told him, "When I've recovered after droppin' the baby. You got m'word."
Billy nodded, looking up at Joe. "She don't give her word light, Mister. It's special!" He put his hands on either side of her stomach and brushed a kiss on the soft buckskin. "Hurry up, baby girl! I want to hold my baby!" He petted her stomach and ran off.
Joe blinked. "His baby?"
"He thinks I'm gonna have a little girl, and he's gonna marry her when they get grown." She chuckled. "It's cute."
"When are you due?"
"Any day." She nodded slowly, rubbing a hand over her stomach. "Any day." A sigh came and she seemed to bring herself back to the conversation at hand. "Anyhow – about the Seven."
"Mister James informed me," Joe said. "I'm sorry, where are my manners?" He held out his hand. "Joe Cartwright."
"Vivian Tanner," she said, shaking his hand. "Now--"
"Vivian!" a woman called from her storefront. "I'm telling Nathan!"
"You tell him all you like!" Vivian shot back. "I feel fine, there's no reason I'm to be locked in bed! The baby's fine!" She shook her head and smiled sheepishly at Joe. "I swear, I'm surrounded by worrywarts."
Joe laughed. "They care for you. That much shows." He looked around. "Odd – the town seems rather open and friendly for one that's under the thumb of seven ruffians."
"That's because we're not ruffians. We're this town's Regulators – protectors."
Stopping, Joe frowned deeply as he looked at Vivian. "Hold on... 'We'?"
Vivian nodded. "We. I'm one of the Seven."
Joe just stared at Vivian. He took in the slight figure – large with child – her long sandy hair held in check by a buckskin headband, and the slight, proud smile that graced her gamine features.
"That's... not possible." He shook his head, trying to wrap his mind around her words versus what he believed.
Vivian nodded. "It is possible. It's the truth." Her head suddenly snapped tot he side and she beamed as two horses rode up.
The riders that dismounted were a fierce-looking pair. The smaller one wore plain, tan clothing that wouldn't stand out on a trail. When he took off his hat, auburn curls were revealed. When he smiled at Vivian, a golden tooth gleamed. "You should be in bed," a honeyed Louisiana drawl purred as he hugged her.
"Oh, stuff it," Vivian chuckled. "This is my husband, Ezra Tanner."
Joe nodded absently. His eyes moved to the other rider. This man, he felt he knew. His eyes swept the other man, taking in the black clothing, the silver spurs, the silver studs and the pearl-handled Colts. "You look like Chris Larabee."
"I should," the blond chuckled. "I am."
Joe frowned. "But... the last I heard, Chris Larabee had found steady work as a law officer."
"He has," Vivian said, stepping forward. "Both these men are part of the Seven as well."
And Joe sat right down in the middle of the street, eyes large with shock. "But... the Seven... are outlaws."
Chris frowned at Vivian, his eyes flickering blue for a second. Vivian shook her head and said, "He's heard of us through Lucas James."
Chris and Ezra each took a deep breath and let it out in a unison sigh of "Shit."
Joe took Chris's proffered hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. "I take it James has a less-than-glowing opinion of you."
That set Ezra and Vivian to laughing, and Chris cracked a smile. "Come on," he said. "Buy you a drink and we'll talk."
PA – STOP – NEED ADVICE – STOP – MET THREE OF THE SEVEN – STOP – ARE LAWMEN NOT CRIMINALS – STOP – WEVE BEEN LIED TO – STOP – JOE – FULL STOP
Joe was just tucking in his shirt, preparing to head to breakfast, when a knock came on his door. He drew his gun. "Yes?"
"Tyler, sir!" came the familiar voice. "Reply to your telegram!"
Smiling, Joe holstered the gun and opened the door. Tyler handed over the envelope and tipped his hat as he left.
Joe tore it open.
JOE – STOP - HOLD FORT – STOP – WILL BE THERE TWO DAYS – STOP- LEAVING AS SOON AS SEND THIS – STOP – LOVE YOU – STOP – PA – FULL STOP
Joe nodded. Now he was positive everything was going to be all right. He folded the telegram and took a step toward the door.
Suddenly a woman's scream pierced the quiet of morning. Joe bolted from his room and down the stairs into the street.
The scream sounded again and Joe saw Ezra riding hard into town with his wife riding in front of him.
It was Vivian who had screamed – and was screaming still, every minute or so.
"NATHAN!" Ezra roared, and a large dark-skinned man tore toward them. "The baby!"
"Oh, hell! I told you you should'a stayed in town--" Nathan pulled Vivian off the horse and raced toward the clinic with her in his arms. Ezra was right behind them.
Worried, Joe took a step that way, only to have his arm seized by a very strong hand. He turned to find himself looking into the grizzled face of a large, older man. "Leave it alone, son," his voice rumbled, soft but firm.
Joe looked at the man, seeing a cross around his neck. "But she's my friend..."
"And she's their family," the preacher said. "Birthin' time's for family alone." Seeing his frown as Chris tore up the clinic stairs, the preacher chuckled. "He's family, too. Come on, son. Buy you a drink."
Joe frowned, but allowed himself to be led away to the saloon. He prayed silently for Vivian and her unborn baby, that they both would be all right.
Joe was in the saloon, nursing a whiskey, when Nathan came in. Joe spun to face him. "Well?"
Nathan sighed and picked up Joe's glass, downing it in one gulp. "Mother and daughter are doing just fine."
"Daughter?" Joe's eyes widened in delight. "Vivian had a little girl?"
"See for yourself," Ezra said as he walked into the saloon. He held a small bundle in hi arms, wrapped in a patchwork quilt.
Joe moved to Ezra's side, smiling as Ezra pulled it aside to reveal a sleeping newborn. "Oh," Joe breathed. "She's beautiful! What's her name?"
"Sarah," Ezra smiled. "Sarah Julia Tanner. Named for Chris's wife and Vivian's mother."
Chris walked up,and Joe watched his eyes flash emerald green.
Ezra turned to him and his eyes were swimming with tears. "Wonderful," he whispered. "It feels wonderful."
Smiling, Chris clapped Ezra on the shoulder and walked away.
Joe frowned, puzzled at what he'd just seen. Ezra had replied to a question that Chris had not asked!
Well... not aloud, at any rate....
His head spinning, Joe watched Ezra carrying baby Sarah back to mer mother. Bizarre, he thought. I'll be glad when Pa gets here – maybe he can help me make sense out of all this!
Exactly fifty hours later, the stagecoach rolled into Four Corners and disgorged the patriarch of the Cartwright clan. He stood beside the stage, his eyes scanning the street.
At last, he smiled and walked to where his son was standing. He clapped his shoulder and pulled him into a hug. "So how are you liking Four Corners?"
Joe was grim-faced when he released him. "Pa – James lied to us. From the start."
Ben Cartwright nodded, his own smile flying away. "Tell me. Off the street."
Once they were safely in Joe's room, Joe told his father the entire very long story. Ben listened intently, occasionally asking questions to get a clearer picture. When Joe finally reached the end of the tale, Ben took a deep breath and ran a hand over his forehead.
"Pa?" Joe asked, taking a deep breath as well. "What do you have in mind?"
"Well, first I want to talk to this Chris Larabee. Then... Then, I'm going to get James' side of things."
Joe nodded, chewing on his lip. "Pa....there's something else. Tanner was replying to questions that Larabee never asked out loud."
And Ben smiled. "Joe, you and your brothers do the exact same thing. It's a natural result of living and working closely together."
Joe smiled, suddenly feeling all of five years old. "Of course, that's it."
"Come on. Point me to Larabee."
Ben walked into the clinic and smiled. "She's beautiful."
Vivian smiled up at him. "Thank you. You must be Joe's father. You have his eyes."
"And you must be Vivian." They shook hands, and Ben's eyes turned toward the man in black half-hidden by the shadows. "And you must be Chris Larabee."
"That's right," he said warily. "Somethin' I can do for you?"
"Walk with me, please. I need to speak with you on a matter of some urgency."
Chris walked into the room's light, frowning. "This have anything to do with Lucas James?"
"Y'all can talk here, then," Vivian said. "I've had dealin's with that slimeball, too."
"Very well." Ben pulled up a chair. "May I?"
Vivian studied his face, then smiled and placed Sarah into his arms.
Ben cuddled and cooed to the little girl for a moment, then handed her back to Vivian when she yawned. He then raised his eyes to meet Chris's. "I'm going to see James this afternoon. He's told us you seven are ruffians and outlaws. I can see that's not the case, but I want to hear your side of all this."
Chris and Vivian told the story – tripping over words and talking over each other, sometimes speaking in unison. It took nearly an hour, and Ben listened and asked questions when he did not understand.
Which they answered patiently and honestly.
When Ben arrived at James's ranch, he and James went about the motions of horse-selling. As they watched the animals put through their paces, Ben said, "I hear you're having trouble with seven ruffians from the town."
After hearing an unflattering portrait of the Seven, Ben leaned casually on the fence. "Now, see, that's interesting. That's almost the same story they told me about you."
When he'd said that to Chris and Vivian, they had talked. Explained. James had a very different reaction.
"Well, Ben," he said, his eyes narrowing to mere slits. "If you're not with me – you're against me."
Guns suddenly cocked all around them. James smiled coldly and finished in an oily voice:
"And you just turned against me."
Ben looked around at all the guns, then back at James. "There's no need for this, Lucas. I fail to see how a simple request for information can be turning against you."
James snorted. "By just asking, Ben -- you showed you've been listening to them. You're a threat now. And threats are eliminated."
"Lucas," Ben laughed, shaking his head. "This is ridiculous! I'm here to buy horses! I just wanted to clear the air about a misunderstanding!"
"You've questioned me, Ben." James shook his head, clucking his tongue in disappointment. "Nobody questions Lucas James. Take care of him, boys." He slid into the saddle and rode a few steps, then turned and called, "And anybody who comes to his rescue." With that, he rode off, leaving Ben wondering what he'd seen.
Ben looked around at all the guns again. "Now, boys," he cajoled, "You don't really want to do this, do you?"
"Ain't got a choice," one of the younger ones growled. "James owns us."
"Owns you?" Ben frowned. "I'm not sure I understand. Slavery was outlawed years ago!"
"He owns our deeds," the talkative man said. "Long as we obey, he'll leave us be."
"So he makes you do his dirty work," a new voice spoke. Half the guns whirled around to cover the newcomer getting off his horse -- an auburn-haired man in a tan jacket and utilitarian clothes.
"Ezra," Ben breathed in relief, having met Vivian's husband before he'd ridden on this errand.
Another of James' men snarled, "This ain't your business, Tanner!"
Ezra shrugged. "Maybe so, maybe no. All I know is I was to escort Mister Cartwright here back to town, and I find him being accosted at gunpoint. Something's very wrong with this picture."
"They's eight of us and only two of you!" the belligerent one growled. "What's t'stop us from just shootin' you, too?"
"An evening of the odds," Ezra said calmly. One by one, the sound of six hammers being pulled back echoed. "You didn't think I'd be fool enough to come alone?"
The men looked wildly into the shadows. guns flashing from Ben to Ezra to the shadows, suddenly unsure of what to do.
Ezra sighed and pulled his gun from his holster. Pointing it at the sky, he cocked the hammer.
Realising what Ezra was doing, Ben followed his lead. He copied Ezra's slightly bored expression and pointed his gun at the sky. Cocking the hammer, he said calmly, "So -- what are you going to do now?"
The wait while the gunmen made up their minds seemed like an eternity. Finally, Ezra suggested, "Shall we even the odds some more?"
At their hesitation, Ezra shook his head and gave a shrill whistle.
A single gunshot sounded and one of James' men gasped as he was suddenly disarmed.
Ben's eyes widened and he glanced over at Ezra. "Uh....Ezra?" vEzra's smile turned cold. "Well, men?" he demanded. "what is your answer? Obey James and get full of lead – or put them down and go free?" At their incredulous expressions, he shook his head again. "Lucas James is our enemy. Not you men."
Ben smiled proudly at Ezra and asked, "What about him?" He nodded at the injured man's hand.
"Nathan will treat it. Well, men?"
All around them, guns fell and and hands rose into the air. Soon, only one man still had a gun trained on Ezra and Ben.
Very slowly, he dropped the gun – which went off, the wild shot missing everyone.
"DON'T SHOOT!" Ezra whirled to the shadows. "Accidental discharge!"
Not one single shot sounded in return. Buck, Josiah and JD walked out of the shadows to take custody of the men.
Each carried two guns. Their bluff had been successful.
Dusk was sending gentle shades across the prairie as Lucas James went out onto his front porch to have an evening cocktail. He was delighted to finally have at least one of those seven irritants dead.
He'd seen the gambler riding up as he rode away.
There was no doubt in his mind that Ezra Tanner and Ben Cartwright were dead. His men were too good.
He held too much over them for them not to be.
"Yes, indeed" James laughed, raising his glass in salute. "It's been a wonderful day, indeed."
With the sharp report from a Peacemaker, the glass shattered in Lucas' hand.
"Who dares?" James bellowed, rocketing to his feet and drawing his gun in one smooth motion. "WHO! DARES!"
A second roar and the gun was blown from his hand. James roared and held his bleeding hand.
"I dare," Chris snarled as he stepped out of the shadows, his smoking gun still aimed at James.
"Well, well," James chuckled. "Larabee. Come to avenge your man Tanner?"
"And my father." Joe walked into the light. His gun also was drawn and pointed at James.
"Go ahead," James laughed. "Whatever you do to me, it will be entirely worth it now that I know I've hurt you!"
"Hurt me?" Chris snarled.
"Tanner's dead at the hands of my men! You're maimed, Larabee! No longer whole!"
Chris nodded and turned his head slightly. "That what you need?"
"That's what I needed." James cried out, gasping in horror as Orrin Travis walked out of the woods on the arm of his old friend Ben Cartwright. "Lucas James, you're under arrest."
"You... you tricked me!" James snarled as he was led away. "You tricked me!"
"Seems t'me like you tricked yourself," Travis grinned coldly. "Let's go."
Joe held little Sarah and cooed to her as Vivian and Ezra looked on, smiling. "Aaah, I'm gonna miss you," Joe cooed as he handed the baby back.
Vivian settled the sleepy girl and rocked her before she raised tired eyes to Joe. "You headin' out?"
"Yeah – soon as Pa gets done at the bank." He leaned over and kissed her forehead. "I'm gonna miss you, too, Vivian. Ezra." He held out his hand and Ezra shook it.
"Safe journey, Joe," Ezra wished him as he released his hand.
Joe walked out and mounted his horse. "We ready?"
"We're ready." Ben groaned softly as he settled himself into the saddle of his new horses – Travis had divided James' herd and given him the horses he was originally slated to buy. "Well, this was unexpected."
"Yeah," Joe grinned at him. "We come to Four Corners to get horses – and we leave with seven new friends!"
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