Disclaimer: Not mine I'm just playing. I'll put'em back when I'm done.

Rating: PG-13

Synopsis: Ezra gets in over his head and gets help from an unexpected corner.

Sequel to More Than A Friend.

Four Corners

A fresh breeze blowing in from the prairies brought a promise of rain with it while tumbleweeds rolled down the main street of Four Corners. Chris Larabee sat in front of the jail with his feet resting on the railing and a piece of straw clenched between his teeth, watching a particularly large specimen roll by with a slight frown creasing his brow. Tumbleweeds had always been a bit of a mystery to him ever since he as a child had gotten it into his head that they were signs of evil. There had been a high number of them the month his mother had died. And again when his father had died. And there had been an extraordinary amount of them the month Sarah and Adam had died.

With a shake of the head he pushed those thoughts out of his mind. There was much to be happy about these days. Since he had popped the question to Mary, it had become clear to him that this was his touchstone, his constant; the need for a family, someone to care for and someone who cared about him.

But it was funny how nothing had really changed. Sure, he had gotten married and he had moved from the hotel to Mary's little abode above the Clarion News. He woke up with a wife every morning now, and a son in the room down the hall, but on the outside nothing had changed. He was still part of the Seven, still their reluctant leader despite the fact that J.D. wore the badge. So apart from his private happiness, his day-to-day routine hadn't changed much.

He did feel a hell of a lot better about himself and his surroundings though, and there was very little that could shake his calm nowadays. Not even tumbleweeds rolling down the street or Buck blabbing about everything he did could raise his temperature like it had before. He didn't care if his oldest friend told everybody about everything he did and the tumbleweeds were nothing but tumbleweeds.

His contemplation of his wedded bliss was interrupted rather rudely by a man riding into town as fast as his mount would carry him. The rider urged his sweat glistening mare toward the jail, and brought her to a skittering halt right next to the steps leading up to the boardwalk.

Chris pulled his feet off the railing and rose, a frown furrowing his brow again. Things were supposed to be calm right now.

"You the sheriff?" the man asked, out of breath and dusty from what appeared to have been a long, hard ride. The mare was gasping for breath, froth around her mouth, her head down. She was at the end of her strength.

"Nope, but I am the law," Chris replied, still not liking the taste of those words. "What's the rush?" he wanted to know.

"The Starling Gang is on the move, Sir, and they're headed this way," the man said, handing Chris a folded-up piece of paper. "You heard of 'em?"

Chris gave a curt nod as he unfolded the piece of paper and stared at the wanted poster. "Emma Starling," he mumbled under his breath, took a step backwards and rapped a fist against the jail door. "J.D. Get the others," he called.

The door swung open and J.D. stepped outside, curious to learn what was going on. "What's up, Chris?" he asked, taking a peek at the poster in the gunslinger's hands.

"We got trouble," Chris said. "Get them together in the saloon," he added and J.D. took off without question to gather the rest of the group. Chris turned his attention back to the rider. "You gonna stay?" he asked.

"No, Sir. I ain't getting anywhere near 'em. I like living too much," he said, tipped his hat and returned to his exhausted horse.

Before Chris could say another word, the man had turned his mare around and was galloping out of town as fast as his tired animal would carry him. "Damn," Chris mumbled under his breath. "This ain't the time for this sort of thing."


Chris' mood wasn't the best after getting the news about the Starling Gang. He knew of them, knew their reputation, and he had come face to face with their notorious leader some years back. Glancing around at his friends sitting around their customary table in the saloon, he wondered if they knew how dangerous this particular gang could be.

Placing the wanted poster on the tabletop, he glanced around at the others again as they leaned in to get a look.

Vin whistled softly and leaned back again, having seen what he wanted to see.

Ezra gave the poster a cursory glance, then copied Vin's posture and regarded his nails for a moment with a bored expression. Either he recognized the woman on the poster and didn't care one way or another, or he didn't know of her and still didn't care.

Josiah frowned, obviously recognizing the name on the poster, but remained silent.

J.D. was clueless, but he would learn soon enough.

Nathan didn't look like he knew what this was about just yet, and settled back to wait for an explanation.

The only one Chris was actually worried about right now was Buck. He had raised an eyebrow in appreciation of the somewhat crude rendering of Emma Starling.

"I've been told that the Starling Gang is on the move and they're headed this way," Chris finally said. "What we gotta do is prevent 'em from coming into town in the first place. And if we can't do that, we gotta make real sure they don't cause any trouble."

"The Starling Gang?" Ezra asked, giving him a somewhat beleaguered look. "And what, if I may enquire, is so special about this particular group of outlaws?"

Chris eyed him for a moment. He had apparently heard the name before, but obviously had no idea what was different about this gang. "They're women. The whole lot of 'em," he replied, knowing full well that the gambler didn't consider that to be a problem.

"Sort o' like those bounty hunters?" J.D. asked, a little pale. It hadn't been that long since he'd been shot in the gut by a woman, an ordeal he wasn't likely to forget any time soon.

"Sort of," Chris agreed with a nod. "Except for one definite difference," he added, giving them all a dark look. "These women hate men. With a vengeance." Turning to Buck, he gave him a sharp look. "Which means none of you are gonna try and talk 'em out of nothing, do I make myself clear?"

Buck stared back at him, instantly taking offence. "Hey, don't gimme that look," he growled.

"All I'm saying is that we drum 'em out of town and that's it. No talking, no deals, no nothing. Alright?" Chris went on, ignoring Buck's annoyance.

The others nodded and rose to return to whatever they'd been doing before. "As if that could be so hard to do," Ezra muttered and returned to an interrupted game of poker.

Vin lingered, not moving from his seat until the rest had dispersed. "I've heard of 'em," he said, eying Chris thoughtfully. "They mainly make a livin' from huntin' down wanted men an' taken' 'em in."

Chris nodded, poured himself a glass of whiskey and downed it, grimacing at the taste. "That's why we gotta get rid of 'em before they get any funny ideas," he replied.

"You know her, don'cha?" Vin asked, nodding toward the poster still lying on the table.

Chris stared at him for a second, then sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I ran into her once. She ain't the nicest person I've ever met."

With a frown, Vin picked the poster up and stared at it for a moment. "Maybe I should just get out o' town, huh?" he asked, glancing at Chris. "It ain't gonna be the last time someone like 'em is gonna show up, lookin' for me."

"We don't know they're looking for you, Vin. I just know I don't want 'em around," Chris countered. "All we gotta do is make 'em see they're not welcome and that should be the end of it."

"Maybe," Vin agreed, not yet trusting the idea completely. "An' maybe it's just time for me to do somethin' about this here bounty on my head," he added.

"How are you gonna do that?" Chris wanted to know.

Vin shrugged halfheartedly. "Ain't got a clue. It ain't gonna be easy to prove, but I gotta try. I ain't willin' to risk Jessie's life on this and I am the more we're gettin' involved."

Somehow, Chris couldn't imagine Jessie getting in trouble over this. It was much easier to imagine that anybody trying to claim the bounty on Vin's head would get in trouble with her. She was quite a handful and damned good with that Winchester of hers. He dreaded the thought of her ever turning against them. Smiling to himself, he wondered if Vin was aware of how powerful that woman really was. "I'd worry for whoever tries to claim that bounty, Vin. Jessie ain't gonna stand by and let 'em take you. She don't care about no laws or reasons when it comes to that."

That made the young tracker grin. "Yeah, she's a handful, ain't she," he said and Chris nodded in agreement. "I reckon that's what I like about 'er."


For two days straight, the seven peacekeepers were on the barricades, watching and waiting for the notorious gang to ride into town, but they didn't turn up. Vin had been out scouting for them, but had returned with nothing to report. All was calm out there.

Eventually, Buck suggested they should all stand down and relax, it was obvious that the Starling Gang had better things to do than harass a small place like Four Corners. Chris, however, wasn't too sure and simply didn't trust the whole situation.

"I am not sure what we're getting so upset about, anyway. It ain't like they're all crazy, right?" Buck tried to reason with Chris.

The gunslinger grimaced and glanced out at the street from his vantage point on the boardwalk in front of the jail. "They don't all have to be crazy. It's enough that one of 'em is, and Emma Starling is nothing if she ain't crazy," Chris replied darkly. "Remember Mad Maddy?" he added when Buck looked unconvinced. "She damned near killed J.D. because nobody thought she was dangerous."

Buck clammed up after that, still feeling guilty that he hadn't seen that one coming. But he still didn't think there was anything to get upset about. "It ain't like they'll ride into town and kill everyone, right?" he tried once more.

Chris gave him a glare, shutting him up, before returning his attention to the street. "I don't like it. There's something wrong. I've got that feeling again," he grumbled. Before he could make any further comments, a sharp whistle turned both his and Buck's attention to Vin, who had once again spent some time on a high perch, watching over the town. "What?" Chris called out, frowning up at Vin.

"Ten riders comin' in. They're in a hurry," Vin called back. "Looks like the Starlin' Gang," he added.

"Damn," Chris snapped. "Buck, round up the others. It's game time," he added. "Vin, stay where you are. You got a good view from up there," he called up to the tracker, who gave him a thumbs up and settled down to wait for what would happen next.

Buck took off at a run toward the saloon to find Ezra and Josiah, while Chris opened the door to the jail. "J.D. They're coming," he said, then stalked across the street to the clinic. "NATE," he called. The healer turned up on the small landing instantly. "We got company. Get ready for action," he added, pulled his gun and checked the bullets.

Glancing around, he saw Buck, Ezra and Josiah heading toward him, all of them with their weapons drawn. He made quick gestures to all of them for positions, then returned to the boardwalk in front of the jail himself.

"Chris, what's going on?"

Turning, he saw Mary further down the street. "Get inside, Mary," he called to her and she nodded, grabbed Billy's arm and hauled the boy with her to safety. Chris didn't return his attention to the approaching menace before he was certain they were safe.

A quick glance around established everybody's position. J.D. was inside the jail, rifle ready. Buck was somewhere above them on this side of the street while Vin had the other side covered. Nathan, Ezra and Josiah were spread out on the ground, forming a half circle against the approaching riders.

Chris focused on the ten riders and holstered his gun as he took a step forward. With Ezra, Josiah and Buck in the way, the riders brought their mounts to a stop instead of trying to ride through the rather loose defense, which in Chris' opinion didn't mean a whole lot; not if he had to take the gang's reputation into account and he felt the distinct need to do that.

Emma Starling was still as breathtakingly beautiful as no woman had the right to be when covered in dust and sweat. Grey eyes sparkled in the sunlight as her eyes settled on Chris. "I reckon the rumor's true, then, eh?" she called out. "You become a lawman, Larabee?"

"Do you see a badge on me, Starling?" he replied. "You and your gang are not welcome here. So, why don't you just turn around and ride on?" he added.

Starling stared at him for a moment, her face expressionless, then she glanced around at the men blocking her way and then sent a look up to the roofs, spotting both Buck and Vin. "My, my, ain'cha just a little bit too nervous about a bunch a womenfolk ridin' into town?" she mocked, returning her attention to Chris.

"I know your reputation, Starling. I ain't taking any chances," Chris replied. He had noticed that one of the women, a pretty little thing he knew was more dangerous than a rattler in high grass, was smiling at someone, her eyes on the roof over his head. He just prayed that Buck didn't fall for her, although that was damned near impossible to prevent.

Starling noticed it too, and grinned viciously. "So, if we wanna stay to get cleaned up a bit before ridin' on, what'cha gonna do? Shoot us all? Ain't no crime to wanna relax a little. We ain't lookin' for trouble."

Chris glanced around quickly, trying to determine how the rest of the seven were handling this situation. He knew for a fact that Buck had relaxed his aim. Josiah was cautious as always and he knew he could count on the preacher. Nathan didn't waver in his aim although he did look a little doubtful. Ezra had lowered his gun and looked a tad bored. That was dangerous, Chris thought. Glancing up at Vin, he knew without looking that the tracker was ready to fight these women, come what may.

"Well, you just gotta find another place for that," Chris said, returning his attention to Emma Starling. "You're not welcome here."

"That's mighty unneighborly of you," Starling said.

"Ride on, Starling," Chris repeated, his senses telling him that something was about to go wrong.

What came next happened so fast that Chris didn't have time to respond properly to it. So suddenly that it took everybody by surprise, Starling launched herself at the nearest of his men, which just happened to be Ezra. She knocked the gambler down with her body weight, rolled off him, leapt back to her feet and grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket. Pulling him up, she wrapped one arm around his throat and pressed the muzzle of her gun against his temple. "One wrong move and he dies," she snarled. "Any o' you boys pull a trigger, I'm gonna waste 'im. You got that?" she asked.

From his vantage point above the street, Vin couldn't get a clear shot at her because she was halfway up on the boardwalk on his side and thereby under the overhanging roof. He cursed silently and tried for a different location, but knew he would have to get across the street before he could get a clean shot at her. Glancing across the street at Buck, he knew the big cowboy wouldn't take the chance. He was a good shot, but the chance of hitting Ezra would just be too big. Eying the big cowboy on the roof across from him, Vin could tell that Buck wasn't going to take the shot although he had his riffle aimed at Starling and Ezra.

Chris figured he should have seen this one coming, but that didn't quell his rising anger. "Let him go, Starling," he snarled, taking a step forward.

"One step closer and he dies, Larabee," Starling replied with a sugary smile.

Chris only had to look at Ezra once to know that the man was scared. And he had a right to be. Emma Starling would kill him where he stood just for the heck of it. So, instead of pushing the issue, he stepped back and raised his hands to show Starling that he was unarmed. "Let him go," he repeated.

That made her laugh. She obviously found the whole situation hilarious. "And why would I wanna do that, huh, Larabee? Nah, I think I'll keep 'im. As collateral," she replied, then let out a whistle, which attracted her horse. It trotted over to her.

The rest of Starling's gang had their guns trained on the remaining six peacekeepers and two had their guns trained on Ezra, assuring themselves that nobody would try to take a shot at their leader as she released the gambler and climbed up on her horse.

Aiming her gun at Ezra, she gave him a smile which made his heart whither. "Come on," she told him, reaching a hand down to him. "Don't make me shoot you."

Ezra glanced at Chris, but the gunslinger shook his head. If Ezra used his hidden Derringer, it would only get him killed right now and Chris hoped Ezra could see that. Ezra could, and it unnerved him quite a bit that these wenches had the upper hand.

Before he had a chance to come up with another plan, Emma Starling fired a shot into the ground in front of his feet, causing him to jump back a step. "Move it, con man," she snarled. "I ain't sayin' it again," she added and aimed the gun at his head.

Deciding that he would stand a better chance at getting out of this if he was still alive, he grabbed her outstretched hand and mounted the horse behind her.

"Starling," Chris snarled, but before he could say another word, she jabbed her horse's flanks and the animal took off, racing back the way they'd come. She was crafty, that one. By riding back that way, she was making sure that Ezra was constantly between her and whatever bullet was meant for her and she counted on that they wouldn't shoot their friend to get to her. The rest of her gang followed her after firing a few shots into the air.

Buck and Vin turned up only seconds later, both looking downcast about the fact that they hadn't been able to prevent these women from taking off with one of their own. "Damn," Buck growled. "I should 'ave tried to stop her."

"You did the right thing, Buck," Chris replied, still staring down the street where the gang had vanished. "She knows what she's doing. She would've twisted it around so you would've ended up hitting Ezra."

"So, what do we do now?" Vin wanted to know, gazing off into the distance for a moment.

"We mount up and follow 'em," Chris replied. "Let's ride."


They rode like mad, racing over the prairie like restless demons, and all Ezra could do was hold on. He had considered letting himself drop off the horse, but feared that would be more than just a little insane since the majority of Starling's gang was right behind her. He would be trampled to death in seconds.

Starling turned her head, focusing on the woman riding next to her. "Kill the tracks," she yelled and nudged her horse to go faster.

The redhead nodded, pulled the reins and fell behind instantly. The rest of the gang started zig-zagging, then split up into three groups, heading in three different directions. Starling knew that Vin was a tracker and she was hellbent on showing him what she was made off. He wouldn't be able to track her even if he sold his soul to the devil.

Grinning, the woman couldn't help thinking about how easy it had been to ride into town, grab one of them and take off again. Men and their damned loyalties, she thought and snorted. Although her gang was handpicked and most of these women were just as reckless as she was, she didn't give a damn about any of them. And that gave her an edge that Chris Larabee didn't have.

So far, her plan had worked out just like she had expected it to. Knowing from experience that trackers of Vin Tanner's stature were hard to find on the ground when there was trouble brewing, she had decided to grab one of his friends to use in a trade for the real prize at a later point. It was doubtful that the man sitting behind her was worth anything, but she knew that there was a prize on Tanner's head and she aimed to claim it. Although five hundred dollars wasn't really enough to risk anybody's life for, she wanted that money.

They would ride hard and long and when they came to their campsite almost a day's ride from Four Corners, she would consider her next steps very carefully. She knew Chris Larabee's reputation well enough to know that he would blow her away without second thoughts if he could get close enough. So all she had to do was prevent him from doing that. And that shouldn't be too hard with a human shield between them.


With a firm hold on Peso's reins, Vin crouched down to stare thoughtfully at the disarray of tracks on the ground. Following one trail with his eyes, he looked off to the South. Then he turned his attention toward the northward tracks for a moment before once again looking straight ahead. "They split up," he said and rose again, his eyes on the westbound tracks, which came to a sudden end a few feet ahead. "And they removed their tracks," he added.

Chris, still sitting on Pony, looked down at him with a dark expression on his face. "Can you follow 'em anyway?" he asked, hoping for a positive answer, but fearing he wouldn't get one. He had learned to read Vin better than anyone, and he knew that Vin was worried.

Vin glanced up at him briefly, then sighed. "I ain't so sure. They know what they're doin'," he replied and started forward, leading Peso by the reins. He moved on for a bit, then came to a stop again and crouched down once more, running his fingers over the dirt.

While he studied the ground, searching for clues, his expression tightened. Whoever had removed those tracks had known exactly how to do it, and it irked him to no extent that he was unable to read anything from the ground ahead of him. He glanced around the area, trying to spot any continuing tracks, but there were none. The ground looked untouched. That in itself was unnatural, of course, but it was impossible to see where the tampering with the tracks ended and the tracks might pick up again. It could be anywhere within a 180 degree radius. Making a face, he slowly rose again. "There ain't no tracks to follow," he finally said, turning back to face Chris.

Leaning forward a bit, the gunslinger rested one arm on the saddle horn and gazed out over the landscape for a moment. "Any idea which way they headed?" he asked and returned his attention to Vin.

Vin glanced back over his shoulder at the plane landscape and then shook his head. "Nope. Could be anywhere from North to South," he said, making a sweeping gesture to encompass the area. "I reckon we could keep goin' straight, but I ain't sure that's the path they took."

That made Chris sigh and he rubbed his chin with the back of one hand for a moment. "A horse carrying two is likely to be heavier than a horse carrying one. Ought to make deeper tracks too, right?" he asked and Vin nodded. "Can you remove tracks that deep?"

That, in turn, made Vin sigh. "I reckon so, seein' as there ain't no tracks to look at from this point on," he said. "I'll ride on alone, see if I can't find the tracks again," he added and mounted Peso again.

"Alright," Chris agreed. "Watch your back and don't do anything stupid like going after 'em alone," he added, tipped his hat at the tracker and turned Pony around. "We'll see you back in town. Don't stay out here too long."

Vin nodded once and urged Peso forward while the remaining five peacekeepers headed back toward town.

Buck pulled up beside Chris, his expression giving away that he had something on his mind. "Ain't we givin' up a might easy here?" he asked, glancing at Chris.

"We're not giving up, Buck. But if we ride with Vin, we might damage some tracks that would otherwise lead us to the gang," Chris replied. "I don't know about you, but I'm no tracker and I don't wanna try and find 'em on my own after they managed to confuse Vin. Let the man work. He'll find something."

Buck arched an eyebrow, but remained silent. There was, after all, fairly little he could say to that.

Nathan glanced back over his shoulder for a moment and then shook his head sadly. Even though Ezra wasn't his cup of tea most of the time, he still liked the man for trying so damned hard to accept him. Ezra did what very few Southerners would. He tried to accept Nathan as an equal. No matter how much Nathan might dislike his mannerisms, he couldn't fail to appreciate the effort.

"Don't worry, brother. If there is one thing Ezra Standish is outstanding at, it's talking his way out of hopeless situations," Josiah tried to soothe the healer.

Nathan gave him a quick, unconvinced smile, but refrained from commenting, since he didn't share the ex-preacher's faith in the gambler's abilities.