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    Wildcat    

By Ruby

 

Disclaimers: I do not own the characters from The Magnificent Seven, or Bret Maverick.

** Just picture the character, Bret Maverick ten to twelve years older than Mel appeared in the movie 'Maverick'. 

 

*Those who know the song 'The Gambler' by Kenny Rogers will notice at the end I borrowed a little from that song.

 

 

Vanessa walked into the smoky saloon of the out of the way dust bowl, that the inhabitants called a town.  She had hoped to make it to Four Corners come sundown, but she needed nourishment and a bed before she fell out of the saddle.  She sauntered up to the bar and removed her hat, allowing her flaxen locks to tumble out and over her shoulders.  The bartender's eyes widened at the look of the sudden beauty standing before him.

 

"What can I get you, sugar?"

 

Vanessa cringed at the sentiment he used, "You can start by not calling me sugar!"

 

"My mistake," he said putting his hands up in surrender and his eyebrow cocked in interest. 

 

"Rye whiskey," she said, turning so she could scan the surprisingly crowded establishment.  She noticed in the back left corner of the bar was a table encircled by a group of onlookers, obviously entertained by the card game being played out.

 

After she downed her second shot of whiskey, Vanessa looked over her shoulder to the bartender. "Regulars?" she asked.

 

"No ma'am, ain't never seen the likes of that woman in this here town before."

 

Vanessa's interest was peeked by this remark. "A female card player?"

 

"She right good too.  Whooped everyone that's sat down with her yet."

 

"Well she hasn't played me yet…sugar," Vanessa drawled, teasing the bartender with his own endearment.

 

Vanessa saw the bartender was at a loss for words and she chuckled as she pushed off of the bar she'd been leaning on and made her way through the crowd to the engrossing card game.  As she came to stand at the front of the crowd Vanessa was met with a face she never thought she'd see again, let alone want to see.  Maude looked up feeling the fierce glare on her.  Vanessa had to give it to her; Maude still had it.  After all these years the woman still knew how to hold a crowd and keep them coming back for more. 

 

Vanessa watched for a few minutes longer and after she'd had enough turned and made her way through the crow, and out the entrance of the saloon.  Her destination was the hotel, where she planed to secure a room and a hot bath. 

 

While soaking in the tub she let her mind wonder to the past she had shut out long ago and never allowed herself to think on, but seeing Maude had brought it all back. 

 

Standing in the orchard all those years ago with Ezra promising his undying love to her, making her a woman at the tender age of seventeen.  That afternoon she never regretted a moment of the day, but the next morning when she woke to find Maude and Ezra had left in the night, Vanessa was devastated.  No word was left as to why, and non-has ever come.  Thinking on the past made Vanessa's rage grow all over again.  She never liked Maude; mostly because she could see right through the woman and the way she treated Ezra.  From the time Vanessa was five or six she only looked forward to the visits Maude made if they included Ezra, which often they didn't.  Most times he had been left with a relative and Maude was just passing through onto her next con. 

 

But Ezra, Vanessa had loved him long before she gave herself to him under the peach tree in her grandparent's orchard, and six years later he still owned her heart.  Vanessa sat in the warm sudsy water with her head resting on the back of the tub as the tears that threatened to fall stung her eyes.

 

 "What is that woman doing in a town like this?" Vanessa said allowed to an empty room.

 

Granted it had been dark when she pulled into the little burg, but Vanessa highly doubted there was anything here worth one of Maude's illustrious cons.  Sighing, she pulled herself out of the tub and as much as she didn't want to go back down to the saloon, something in her gut told her different. 

 

She pulled out a dress from her satchel and quickly dressed.  Before she left the room, the feeling in her gut made her pull out her derringer and secure it in her thigh holster.  Vanessa crossed the street and made her way into the saloon that had cleared out a bit since she left an hour ago.  She choose to take a table near the entrance of the saloon where she could still have a view of the table Maude was seated, yet Maude couldn't see her.

 

Vanessa wasn't there very long before all hell broke loose. 

 

First the slurred, "You cheated me lady!" assaulted Vanessa.

 

Next came a very dainty, "Sir I take offense at that accusation." then the sound of a gun hammer being pulled back.  Vanessa sighed and quickly got to her feet and made her way to the table. 

 

"Gentleman, this woman is a cheat and I will see that the law gets her," grabbing Maude by the arm and gruffly pulling her to her feet, winning her a look of hate from Maude. 

 

"Now looky here missy, we ain't got no law in this town," the drunk spat out.

 

"Then what do you all do with thieves and cutthroats?" Vanessa asked using a sweet, syrupy voice while she batted her eyes.  Completely ignoring Maude who had leaned in and whispered" I take offense at that."

 

"We take care of it ourselves," a man from the crowd answered.

 

"Now see here gentleman, what if the lady gave you back your money," succeeding in getting a 'gasp' from Maude.

 

"I think we need more than our money, she owes me a personal apology," the drunk said staggering to get to the women, a carnal look in his eye.  Vanessa knew there wasn't anyway to get out of this without violence.  She backed up a bit still pulling Maude who was eyeing up the few winnings she had yet to collect off the table. 

 

"We gotta go now, Maude," Vanessa said, tugging harder on Maude's arm. 

 

"Where you fillies think your goin'?"

 

"To get pretty for you boys," Vanessa said now at the batwing doors to the saloon.

 

"Vanessa darling, I refuse to depart without my winnings," Maude said firmly planting her feet. 

 

Vanessa inwardly screamed.  Why the hell was she risking her neck for this woman, who obviously wasn't grateful for the rescue and then the name, resounded on her lips, "Ezra."

 

With that she yanked Maude out the door and ran down the boardwalk a ways and then down an alleyway between two buildings and made her way to the livery by way of the back, with Maude spouting unlady like obscenities towards her the whole way.  Vanessa didn't think she could take it anymore and wheeled around to face Maude, eyes blazing.

 

"Shut up, just shut up!  Do you want to get us killed?" Maude started to make a rebuttal when voices could be heard on the main street headed towards the stables.  Vanessa put her finger to her lips and pulled Maude down behind a few crates.  They waited until the drunks searched and left the livery, then the women made their move. 

 

Vanessa saddled her horse in record time and turned to help Maude up.  Maude backed up with her nose in the air. "I'm not getting on that putrid animal!"

 

Vanessa reached under her skirts and pulled out her derringer, "Get on the damn horse or I'll shoot you myself!"

 

Maude could see she was serious and with a 'huff' made her way to the horse.  With a push on the bottom by Vanessa she was able to get on the horse. Even with the seriousness of the situation Vanessa couldn't hold back the snicker that burst free at the unladylike manner in which Maude mounted the horse. 

 

Once Vanessa was mounted in front of Maude she gave another order, "Hold on tight Maude!"  With that, Vanessa pushed her horse into a trot, which turned into a gallop the moment they cleared the stable.  They were almost on the edge of town when an "I see um!" rang out, followed by gunshots.  Vanessa could feel Maude jerk behind her.

 

"Maude you hit?" she yelled.

 

Maude's grip around Vanessa's waist started to loosen and Vanessa took her right hand off the reigns and did her best to hold onto Maude.  "Stay with me Maude, we need to get farther away before I can stop and tend to you!"

 

A soft, "alright," was all Vanessa could make out.

 

The only thing the women had going for them was that the men pursuing them were drunk as skunks and it would take them longer than usual to saddle their horses and if they could even stay in the saddle, wouldn't be able to track then until sun up and they sobered up.  Vanessa wasn't sure how far the next town was, but if she was correct it was Four Corners, the town she was to meet her father.

 

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Bret brushed the dust off of emerald green jacket and made his entrance into the saloon.  He looked around at the establishment he recently became co owner of.  He'd seen worse, it would require significant improvements, but it had potential. 

 

He was pulled from his inspection of his new business when a very familiar name caught his ears.

 

 "Ezra how'd you do that?"

 

"Mr., Dunne, I will never divulge my stealthy attributes to you," Ezra drawled, winning him a confused look from Buck.

 

"He'll never share his skill with you," Bret answered, with a grin on his face.

 

Buck noticed the immaculate attire the mystery man was clothed in resembled their friend's.  In fact they could very well see Ezra in the very same clothes.

 

"Welcome to our little burg, Mr. Maverick," Ezra said, while studying the cards he was now sifting from one hand to the other.

 

Buck and JD studied the man before them even more intently now that it appeared Ezra knew him.

 

"Thank you, Ezra.  Can I buy you gentleman a drink?"

 

"That's mighty nice of ya' mister!" JD exclaimed looking to Ezra not understanding the mood he suddenly was in.

 

"Name's Bret," he said, looking to Inez and gesturing for a bottle of whiskey.

 

"So Bret, is it business or pleasure that brings you to our town?" Buck asked, also picking up on Ezra's attempt to ignore the man now sitting at the table.

 

"Both actually, " Bret answered with a smirk forming at the corner of his mouth.

 

This caused Ezra to look up and meet Bret's eyes, trying to read what the man had planned.  On the rare visits to see Bret and his family, Bret would always pull the young Ezra aside and spend hours with him, teaching him cards, how to hold a poker face, and how to read people. 

 

Bret could see Ezra was reading him and it caused his smile to grow.  He was so proud of Ezra, Bret was a pro in his line of work and he knew Ezra would grow up to be great; just one of the many reason he had asked Ezra to leave and never come back for Vanessa. At the time he thought his daughter deserved better than a gambler, better than her mother had had in him.

 

After Inez had dispensed the glasses and the bottle. "Thank you, Bret!" rang from both JD and Buck.  Ezra just continued on with his study of Bret. 

 

After a few shots of whiskey and some small talk with Buck and JD, Bret looked at his pocket watch realizing the noon stage was due any minute. "Gentleman it has been a pleasure, but I need to meet the stage," standing and tipping his hat.

 

After he was gone Buck turned to Ezra, "Who was that Ezra?"

 

Ezra looked to the door Bret had just exited and answered, "Bret Maverick."

 

"Hell I know that Ezra, but what is he to you?  Seemed to know you real good."

 

Ezra turned to Buck with an almost stone cold face, "He's no one Mr. Wilmington." And with that Ezra slid his chair back, stood and made his way to the batwing doors.

 

Ezra found Bret leaning up against one of the porch poles looking out over the town that was bustling with residents.  Bret could feel eyes boring into his back, knowing full well it was Ezra.  "I was wrong."

 

Ezra stood in stunned silence at this remark.  Remembering back to the night he had gone to Bret about Vanessa and had been asked to leave.  That Vanessa deserved a good life with a man that made his living honestly, not a gambler like them.  He had wanted Vanessa to live a good life, not like what Bret had shown her mother.  Ezra, truly in love with her, agreed Vanessa deserved better than the likes of him and left with his mother during the night. 

 

Bret turned to face Ezra after a long pause of silence. "It broke her heart…you leaving.  I thought she would recover, but she still is bitter."

 

"Is that what has brought you all the way from New Orleans, to make me aware of Vanessa's loathing for me?

 

Bret felt for the lad.  He never should have sent Ezra away, but what's done is done and he planned to tell Vanessa about his part in Ezra's leaving the moment she arrived.  Too much time had been wasted already.

 

"I'm dieing Ezra.  Looking death in the eye has a way of making you see things in a different light. Vanessa is going to need you when that time comes and I don't want her to be alone."

 

Ezra tried to find something in the man's face that said he was lying, but he couldn't find any signs of deceit. "Does Mother know?"

 

Bret looked down the dusty street to see the stagecoach was making its approach. "I haven't had the heart to tell either of them."

 

Ezra watched as the stage pulled up and immediately noticed the top was littered with his mother's luggage.  He took two steps, coming to stand beside Bret and looked out the corner of his eye, "Mother is visiting as well I see."

 

Bret let out a husky chuckle, "Vanessa should be arriving soon as well."

 

Bret turned to see the young man return his gaze to the stage as his face became insipid. 

 

He slapped Ezra on the back; "Relax, she's not due until later.  Now we best greet your mother, or she will have our hides."

 

Ezra stepped down off the boardwalk and followed behind Bret, they both stood a few feet away and waited as the driver helped out the only two passengers.  Bret and Ezra looked to one another in worry.

 

"Driver what happened to the other passenger?" Ezra asked.

 

"Don't rightly know.  I had to stop in Landon over night on account of a lame horse.  She never showed this morning, " he said climbing up top to unload the luggage.

 

"She would never leave her belongings," Bret said, the worry seizing him.

 

"Driver may I inquire as to why you didn't check with the hotel?" Ezra asked, trying to keep his composure.  He knew Bret was right.  Maude would give up her only son for her luggage and belongings if need be.

 

The driver didn't stop his unloading of the stage when he answered, infuriating the two men even more, "I waited fifteen extra minutes for her and she never showed.  I had to get on the trail, I was behind schedule already."

 

"I have a bad feeling about this," Bret said, looking to Ezra who was expressing the same worry.

 

"May I suggest we wire Landon?" Ezra asked meeting Bret's concerned eyes.

 

"Lead the way."

 

Ezra and Bret received a response back half an hour later that there had been trouble in the saloon the previous night and two women, who had caused the ruckus, rode away on horseback and had yet to return. 

 

Ezra and Bret immediately knew one of those woman was Maude, who the other was they had no clue.  Both found it hard to believe Maude would ever get on a horse unless it meant she had no other option and her life was at stake.

 

"How far away is this Landon?" Bret asked.

 

"Half a days ride," Ezra answered as they made their way along the boardwalk to the saloon.

 

"She should have arrived hours ago then." Bret's worry increasing with every moment.

 

"Yes, well direction has never been Mother's forte.  I believe she is probably lost." 

 

"Than let's find her!" Bret exclaimed.

 

"I believe to find the missing, we will require some help," Ezra said while making his way to Vin and Chris who were playing cards outside the saloon.

 

Both men looked up from their cards as Ezra and Bret made their way to the table. "Ezra," Chris said while looking to Bret.

 

"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, we are in need of your assistance.  It appears my mother is missing and we believe she is somewhere between this juncture and Landon, "Ezra said not missing the indifference in Chris's face at the mention of Maude.

 

"Mind telling us the reason she's missin'?" Chris asked.

 

Ezra sighed, knowing unless he explained he wouldn't get anywhere with them. "It appears Mother ran into a bit of trouble in Landon, she and an anonymous woman escaped on horseback.  They should have arrived this morning."

 

Chris looked to Vin both wearing grins, where Maude was concerned a bit of trouble, meant more like a heap of trouble.  "Ya' think she's lost Ezra?" Vin asked.

 

"Yes, Mr. Tanner.  Not knowing the circumstances that lead to her hasty departure, I am left to fear the worst."

 

"Best have Nathan join us on our search, may be needing his services," Chris said, slowly standing.

 

"Thank you gentleman," Ezra said with relief, half expecting them to give him more of a fight.

 

"He comin' with us?" Chris asked motioning towards Bret.

 

"Please excuse my manners, this is an old acquaintance, Bret Maverick, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner.  Associates of mine." Ezra quickly emitted.

 

 

"Gentleman," Bret tipped the end of his hat, getting the feeling he shouldn't say too much more.

 

"Vin, round up Buck Josiah and JD, make them aware of the situation and that they are to stay behind in case Maude and this other woman showed up.  I'll get Nathan." Vin stood and headed in the saloon where he they'd be found." Ezra you and Maverick meet us at the stables." With that Chris headed to Nathan's clinic above the livery.

 

"Ezra, I need to leave a message with your associates.  I don't want Vanessa riding in here thinking I stood her up."

 

The reminder that Vanessa was on her way only added to Ezra's frazzled nerves. He nodded to Bret and made his way to ready his horse.  Twenty minutes later the five men were headed in the direction of Landon.

 

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Vanessa could tell Maude was loosing consciousness because the tight grip she had once had around Vanessa's waist was starting to slack.  This had caused her to bring the horse to a trot, not only because it was exhausted from carrying two riders, but if Maude fell off, Vanessa knew she'd never get her back on. 

 

Finally, when she herself didn't think she could go any further, Vanessa found a rift between some rocks that lead up a steep rise.  She hoped this would be enough of a hiding place while she cleaned up Maude's wound.  Once there she found an overhang of trees that would provide shade for when the effects of the sun hit them.

 

Vanessa, much to her surprise, was able to dismount with out taking Maude down with her.  She grabbed a blanket from her pack, and then attempted to get the older woman off the horse.  With a struggle and many obscenities spat, she was able to get Maude on the blanket, under the cover of the trees.

 

Vanessa found that Maude had sustained a wound to her upper shoulder, the wound was a through and through, but because Vanessa was unable to stop immediately upon being shot, Maude had lost a lot of blood.

 

Vanessa cursed when she remembered her medical kit was in her satchel that had been left in her hotel room back in Landon.  She went through her pack and found a flask of brandy, a knife and her half filled canteen. She made her way back to Maude and quickly ripped the woman's silk satin bodice giving her access to the wounds.  She realized a fire would need to be started so she could cauterize the wounds before wrapping them. 

 

With lightening speed, Vanessa gathered wood and prepared a fire.  She set the blade of the knife in the fire and went back to prepare the rest of the needed necessities.  Not having any bandages she lifted the skirt she now regretting replacing her britches with and removed one of her petticoats and tore it into strips.  Once the knife was ready she sterilized the wounds with the brandy in her flask and poured some over her hands to help from infecting the wounds.  Vanessa was thankful Maude was not awake, because she didn't think Maude would have allowed her to do what was required to save her life. 

 

Maude did stir as Vanessa administered her aid, but never woke, worrying the young woman even more.  "Damn you Maude, you can't die!"

 

Once she had Maude bandaged up she put out the fire not wanting to attract any attention.  She sat down next to Maude under the tree to shade her from the brutal noon sun.  Exhausted, Vanessa fell asleep.

 

Vanessa awoke with a startle.  Voices, she could hear voices coming up the gorge in the rocks.  She knew she didn't have enough time to pull Maude deeper into the brush, so she pulled her derringer that was still in her thigh holster and prepared herself for whatever lie ahead.  She leaned down to check Maude for a pulse; relieved the woman was just sleeping, Vanessa went to the opening of the gorge and waited for the intruders.

 

The man she spotted first was dressed in buckskins and he didn't look like any of the drunkards from the saloon. She raised her gun anyway prepared to defend herself. 

 

Chris who was coming up behind Vin was the first to spot the woman. "Vin, we have company."

 

Vin caught the scarlet movement out of the corner of his eye and aimed his gun.  Seeing it was a woman, her eyes wide as saucers and holding a peashooter, Vin called over his shoulder for Ezra who was bringing up the rear with Bret not far behind.

 

Hearing Ezra's name caused Vanessa to lower the derringer a bit and once she saw her old love emerge from the rocks she dropped it all together. "Ezra," escaped her lips in a whisper. 

 

Ezra looked to where Vin was motioning and he thought he was seeing things. Vanessa! He was pulled out of his delirium when Bret came up behind, "Wildcat!" He swept past Ezra and scooped up his daughter that looked a little worse for wear.

 

"Daddy," she said pulling back from him," Maude, she needs a doctor." Pointing to the woman tucked away under the trees.

 

Nathan saw where Vanessa was pointing and hurried himself to Maude's side with Ezra on his heals.

 

Ezra gasped at the sight of his mother's pale face, "Is she…?"

 

"No Ezra, she has a strong pulse.  Her body is resting is all."

 

The rest of the group came to stand behind Ezra and watched as Nathan looked over the bandaged wounds. After a thorough inspection, seeing they needed to be changed again, but very impressed with the care that had been given them he looked to Vanessa. "You did a right good job miss.  You probably saved her life."

 

Ezra blinked and turned to look at Vanessa who feeling his eyes on her excused herself. The past twenty four hours had been arduous and to top things off she was face to face with Ezra after all this time, just when she thought she was beginning to heal, he's here to rip the scab open again.  She sat down at the base of a tree and closed her eyes. 

 

"Thank you Vanessa," Ezra barely said above a whisper as he looked down on her.

 

She kept her eyes closed as she answered him, "Right place at the right time is all."

 

"You saved Mother's life.  Why? You have never hidden your extreme dislike towards her." He asked raising his voice a bit.

 

Vanessa opened one eye to look at him, "You really have to ask?"

 

Ezra had assumptions, but he wanted to hear it from her lips. He stayed silent knowing she would answer given time. 

 

She took in a deep breath, "Because she's your mother. I did it for you and my father, who for some reason seems to think the sun rises and falls with Maude."

 

Ezra bent at the knees so he was almost eye level with her and searched the almost clear blue orbs for some answer as to how she still felt about him.  Knowing what he was doing she looked down at her hands, "Stop that.  I always hated how you could deduce me, just by a single glance."

 

Ezra smiled at that memory. He tilted her chin up by the tips of his fingers, " I'm sorry I left you, at the time I thought it was the right thing to do."

 

"And now?" she asked.

 

He looked down towards the ground, the pain in her eyes too much for him to bear. "I would take back all the pain I caused if I could."

 

Vanessa's lips pursed with this answer. "Tell me this Ezra!  Did you ever love me?"

 

His head whipped up with this question and the thought that all this time she doubted his love for her caused tears to form in his eyes, "I still love you."

 

She knew he was telling the truth, after all this time thinking he had just been satisfying an itch when he pursued her six years ago, only to find he still loved her, as she did him. 

 

"Ezra!" Came Chris's voice, pulling them out of their moment.  Ezra stood and put out his hand to help her up and she gladly placed her hand in his.

 

They joined the men at the spot where Maude laid.  "We need to get your ma back to my clinic."

 

"How do we do that safely, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra asked.

 

"A stretcher needs to be made," Vanessa said from behind the men, who turned with smiles on their faces. 

 

"The young lady is right," Nathan added.

 

"Then let's get building, shall we," Bret said, putting his hand on his daughters shoulder out of pride.

 

The men and Vanessa worked quickly to get the stretcher safe and secure enough to hold Maude.  Vanessa shared with Nathan that she had acquired her skills at tending to the sick while living with a tribe of Indians that her father knew.  They talked and became quick friends, both intrigued by what the other knew. Before long the group was ready to head back to town. Along the way, they inquired to how Maude and she had ended up where they had been found.

 

Vanessa left out the part of Maude getting caught at cheating and her coming to the rescue.  Instead she said they had run into some drunken men that had wanted their way with them, which was half true.  When she told them the story of how she got Maude on the horse the men about laughed themselves out of their saddles.

 

It was night fall by the time the group safely made their way into town and after Maude was secured in the bed of Nathan's clinic, he shooed them all out saying she was fine, just needed some rest which she wouldn't get with a room full of worriers.

 

Bret and Ezra thanked the men for all their help and then turned to his daughter, "I would like a word with you and Ezra."

 

"Daddy I'm tired, can't this wait till' morning?" she said, rubbing the back of her neck. 

 

"Wildcat, this has waited for far too long.  You sit your behind down and listen to what I have to say!  You to Ezra." Motioning for Ezra to take the seat on the bench with Vanessa.

 

"Vanessa your mother was an angel.  The day she walked into my life I was blessed." Winning him a smile from his daughter. "But Wildcat, I never deserved her.  If I had loved her I would have walked away and never bothered her again.  I got her caught up in my schemes and drug her all over while I made a living off of my cards."

 

"Daddy she loved you!  How can you say that!  She would never have traded a minute of that time with you." Truly appalled by what he was saying.

 

"Wildcat, when she got sick and we went to live with your grandparents at the orchard, that was the only time we lived a normal life. I thought a lot then about the life we had lived, wishing I had done things differently." He looked to Ezra and saw understanding in the young mans eyes.

 

"That's why when Ezra came to me and asked for your hand I turned him down. I asked him to leave and never come back."

 

Vanessa gasped bringing her hand to her mouth and turned to Ezra who returned her stare and he gave her a small smile answering her that what her father said was true. "Why, why did you send him away? You knew I loved him!"

 

"Vanessa, "Ezra said taking her hand and trying to calm her down.

 

She pulled her hand away and stood, "I can't believe you did this!  All those nights I cried myself to sleep and you never said a word!"

 

"Wildcat, I'm sorry.  I know now I was wrong an…"

 

She put her hands up and shook her head, "That seems to be going around.  I don't care why you did what you did, " turning to Ezra and giving him the same look. "Come sun up I am leaving.  No one is planning my life for me EVER again!" And with that she flew down the steps from Nathan's clinic and into the livery.  She went to the stall where she had her horse boarded and curled into a ball in the corner and let the floodgates open.

 

"That went well," Bret said looking in the direction his daughter just ran. "Ezra, go after her.  Don't let her go this time, no matter how hard she pushes."

 

Ezra looked to Bret and put his hand on Bret's shoulder, "Thank you." And with that he made his way down the steps, remembering where Vanessa went as a child. Ezra headed right for the stables and found her in the stall with her horse.

 

"Go away Ezra.  I don't want to hear anymore!" she said sitting up.

 

"Well my dear you are and I'm not letting you leave this stall until you hear me out," he said, taking a stance that made her realize he was serious.

 

"Get it over with then," she said standing with hands on hips.

 

"Your father wanted better for you than what he thought he had given your mother, that's why he asked me to leave, knowing I was headed into the same profession. I thought he was right."

 

"Ezra he was dead wrong!  My mother told me on her deathbed that she was lucky to have lived the life she had.  It wasn't the one she had dreamed as a child, but it was wonderful just the same.  She was happy, because she had my father.  If you had just come to me I would have made you both see it then, not six years too late!"

 

With that out Ezra took the steps required to be right in front of her and as he spoke she could feel his warm breath on her face," Too late?  It's not, Nessa.  I love you, I never stopped and I want you to stay here with me."

 

She looked down and than back up to his gaze, "Not unless my father stays as well." She put her hand up to stop his protest. "I know he's sick, Consumption.  He was coughing while we made the stretcher today.  I saw the blood he coughed up."

 

Ezra pulled her into him and held her tight.  Knowing the next couple months until Bret lost his fight with the disease would be the hardest on her.  He had watched Nathan go through it with his father and it was hard for the gambler to watch, but for her he would endure it. 

 

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Bret Maverick passed on eight weeks later, but not before he made amends with his daughter and was able to walk his 'Wildcat' down the isle.  He said his good-byes to Maude after she recovered from her wounds.  Not able to watch him waste away, Maude faked being angry with him for keeping his illness from her and left on a stage headed in the opposite direction of Landon.  Bret understood and tried to help Vanessa understand Maude, but he knew that was a loosing battle.  She had never liked the woman that was now her mother-in-law, and probably never would.

 

In the short time Bret had been in town he had won over many of the peacekeepers, along with some of the small community.  The attendance on the day of the memorial service was more than Vanessa could have hoped for.  With a smile she stood beside Josiah and spoke of her father.

 

"My father told me often that life was like a card game, every hands a winner and every hands a loser. The secret to survival is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep. His message; never fold and never give up. Always make the best of the hand you're dealt."

 

~The End~