Cities Of Gold
Disclaimer: The characters of the Magnificent Seven are the property of MGM, Trilogy and CBS. I do not make any claims to any of the characters in this story because I receive no royalties.
~ 1 ~
It was mid-afternoon as the wind quietly blew dust through the small town. There were people walking the boardwalks and streets shopping and browsing; taking advantage of the quiet interlude that rarely took place there.
The peaceful serene was temporarily interrupted as the sound of horse hooves galloped through the main street pulling the afternoon stagecoach and came to a halt near the hotel.
"Looks like the stage made it on time," commented an older gentleman seated in a chair in front of the town saloon.
His other two partners seated with him watched casually as the stagecoach driver unloaded the supplies and luggage belonging to an interesting variety of passengers passing through town.
"Might as well go meet 'em," said the man with the long hair and brown hat.
The last passenger to leave the stagecoach was a bulky-sized middle-aged man wearing a navy-blue tweed suit and a matching bowlers hat. It was obvious to the three men that this gentleman came from the east. They also noticed that he carried something of value in a bag under his arm by the way he protected it.
The man retrieved his luggage and checked into the local hotel. After he unpacked everything, the last thing he took from his bag was a small item wrapped in cloth. He surveyed its weight in his hand before untying the knot from the string and unwrapping it.
The man smiled at his newfound treasure. It was a stone statue of an ancient Indian god. The facial expression of the statue was hard, and the eyes felt like they could stare into the soul of any man that gazed into them.
This little statue would bring a handsome price, he thought. Already he received a telegram in St. Louis about a buyer willing to pay top dollar for this statue and will meet him in this small town to acquire it.
The man sighed before returning his priced possession to his bag that also included his traveling cash. He had a few hours to kill before his buyer came. Perhaps he could tempt fate and try a few hands at poker. He noticed a gentleman in a green coat at the saloon playing a game with the local people. Maybe he might leave the town with more money than he anticipated.
Amanda Douglas arrived on a later stagecoach in the sleepy little town of Four Corners. She surveyed the town quickly before retrieving her luggage from the driver. It was quiet and secluded, just the place for a secret meeting.
She was dressed in menís clothing that successfully concealed her slender figure, yet her mannerisms, her long, dark auburn-colored hair, and her beauty proved that she was raised a lady despite her appearance.
Amanda was sure this was the place that John Wendt was heading for. At least, she hoped it was.
She had traveled from London to New York in search of the last man that had the stone god-like statue in his possession. When she heard from friendly sources at the University in New York that John Wendt was traveling west in search of a buyer, she immediately caught a train west hoping to catch up with him. After all, he really knew nothing of its true value.
"Maybe he will sell it cheap," she thought.
Buck Wilmington watched from the front porch of the saloon at the redheaded beauty exiting the stagecoach. She wore a tanned-colored buttoned shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, dark brown pants, boots, and brown suspenders that matched her pants. Her hair was tied back with leather letting it hang loose behind her back, and despite the oversized clothing, it was apparent she had a slender figure.
"Will ya look who got off the stage," he commented to his friend Chris Larabee seated a few feet away. "Thatís a mighty pretty woman to be dressed like that. She looks lost. Maybe 'ole Buck can help her find her way."
Chris smiled and slowly shook his head at his friend. He knew that buck could never resist helping 'a lady in distress,í even if she had only been in town two minutes.
"How do, Maíam," said the tall gentleman with the bushy mustache.
The sound of his voice slightly startled Amanda, and she turned around quickly to face whoever was behind her. The gentleman smiled, tipped his hat and offered his assistance with her luggage.
Amanda gave him a quick smile and asked for the hotel. She wanted to express immediately that this was strictly a business visit and would not be staying long.
"Well, Maíam, my name is Buck Wilmington, and yaíll never find a soul that knows this town better than me. I would be happy to show ya around," he said as he carried her baggage to the hotel steps.
Amanda had other things on her mind and did not notice that Buck was hurrying to keep up with her pace. When they reached the lobby Amanda took her bag and checked in.
"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington, for your generous offer, but I am afraid that I shanít be here very long," she informed him with her English accent dripping from each word.
Amanda turned to go to her room but hesitated for a moment. She turned around to face Buck and asked if a rather larger gentleman with a dark beard and wearing a blue suit arrived in town.
"Yes, Maíam," the desk clerk interrupted when he heard the question. "He checked in this morning."
"Thank you. Which direction is your pub located?" she asked.
The question might as well have been addressed in another language because a confused look clouded their faces. She uses fancier words than Ezra, he thought.
"I believe you Americans call it a 'salooní?" she corrected.
"Oh, itís next door here."
She thanked him and proceeded to take her things to her room. Buck offered to take her luggage for her, but she graciously refused his offer and took the baggage herself.
As she left, Buck could not stop thinking about how strange she was. Her manners and her accent suggested that the woman was raised as a lady, yet she dressed like a man and even wanted to know where the saloon was. What a story he would have for the others later.
Inside the saloon, John Wendt located the man with the green coat hosting a little card game at a table near the rear of the building. John strolled up to the table and joined in. The game drifted slowly into the afternoon losing and acquiring new players until another player entered the group.
"May I also join in, or is it just for boys?" asked the young English woman in the long powder blue dress expressing the warmest smile she could muster.
Ezra Standish looked up at the enchanting beauty that stood before him. She had dark hair with red highlights that fell to softly to her shoulders. Her hazel eyes looked as though they could stare deep into a manís soul. Her slightly tanned skin with some slight hints of tan lines also showed that she had spent much time in the sun.
Ezra rose from his chair with a smile, took her hand, and kissed the back of it in a gentlemanly manner.
"The game is always open to newcomers; however, I am afraid this isnít a game that might interest a lady such as yourself, Miss...."
"Douglas, Amanda Douglas," she finished.
Ezra introduced himself and motioned for an empty chair to his left. He extended it for her to be seated before sitting himself back down in his usual position. She smiled and accepted his offer, and for one brief moment he felt a tinge of guilt for taking money away from this exquisite creature.
I can make it up to her over dinner this evening, he thought and smiled as his mind raced over what he could do for her.
As the game continued into the early evening, Ezra carefully studied each of the players, especially Amanda. Her manners, speech, even her manicured fingernails were clues that she came from a wealthy family, one that taught her the fine points of being a lady. She may be a daughter of an English duke or lord. Perhaps she held the title of a lady in her own country.
Ezraís thoughts pondered over these conclusions, yet the one thing that confused him the most was why a lady of such a position would be seen playing poker in a saloon in the middle of a 'lawlessí untamed territory. A well-bred woman like her would be too image conscious to be seen alone with a group of men.
Amanda was a fairly decent player, yet she lacked the experience that Ezra had. She was good at masking emotion, yet her eyes failed to hide anything from him and betrayed every hand she was dealt.
While Ezra observed the female poker player another person was also watching her closely. John recognized the name from the moment she introduced herself, but he could not remember where he last heard it. He had never seen her before, but something about her bothered him. It began to effect his playing, and soon he was losing almost every hand.
By the late evening John had lost nearly everything except the one thing he felt was worth more than his pocket watch and gold cufflinks. The hand that Amanda was waiting for had finally come.
Ezra raised the pot which folded almost everyone at the table except John and Amanda. John took the statue from his bag and unwrapped it, displaying it on the table like a museum piece at an antique auction. He knew he had too good a hand to fold, and he hoped the other players would accept it.
"I have no more money, but I do have this," John said as he held it up for Ezra and Amanda to see. Sweat poured down his forehead as he held his breathe waiting for an answer.
Ezra stared at it for a moment, obviously not impressed by the stone god, but Amanda studied it more carefully secretly looking for clues to its authenticity. This is it, she thought. It was the object that she had traveled halfway around the globe searching for.
She accepted his offer, but Ezra was reluctant. It was made of stone. What kind of value did it have, yet the woman agreed to it. She seemed extremely intelligent and looked it over like she knew what she was looking for. Maybe there was something she knew about that statue that he did not.
Ezra accepted the wager, and John let out a breath he did not know he was holding. He laid the statue down in the center of the table, and the game continued.
When the cards were shown, Amanda had a full house with tens high, but Ezra beat her and John with a four-of-a-kind in jacks. The game was over, and the statue now belonged to the gambler.
John walked away from the table hanging his head low in disgust. He had lost the statue and the chance to make some quick and easy money in the bargain. The buyer he was to meet in town would arrive in the morning. Now, he had to find a way to leave town quickly.
Amanda was also very disappointed but not discouraged. She had waited too long and searched too hard to give up. She would make the gambler an offer on the statue, and perhaps his inability to resist a profit might work to her advantage.
"Mr. Standish, might I inquire what you plan to do with that statue?" she asked as she watched him gather his winnings at the table.
"Why should it concern you, my dear?"
"I thought perhaps I may purchase it from you. I collect interesting art sculptures, and I thought I might add this interesting art form to my collection," she lied.
Ezra stared into her eyes and she told him this story and knew that there was more to it than she implied. She was good at hiding her emotions from her face but not enough to lie convincingly to him. He smiled at her and wondered just how important this statue was to her.
"Well, I may consider your offer, my dear. Perhaps we could discuss the terms of the procure over dinner. It will give you a chance to explain more clearly how important this object is to you."
"Why would you believe this statue is any more important to me than the average collector? I explained my reasons which should be quite sufficient to you," she said flatly. "It is too late this evening for a dinner engagement, and I will be leaving town tomorrow afternoon. But I will meet you for breakfast in the morning; say around eight oíclock?"
Ezra hesitated for a brief moment. He was not a morning person and eight oíclock was early for him. He usually rose from his lodgings at 10. He flashed his impressive smile to Amanda exposing that gold tooth and nodded in agreement about the time. After all, it would only be for one day, and this would be his one chance to get to be with her.
"I will see you tomorrow then," she turned and left leaving Ezra with the statue.
Ezra watched her leave then studied the object more closely. It was perfectly carved from granite with the likeness of an ancient Indian god that stood a foot tall. Also carved on it were markings that looked like hieroglyphics. It was something he had never seen before.
He placed the statue in his coat pocket just before three men entered the now empty saloon. One of them spotted Ezra as he rose to gather his things and leave the establishment for the evening. The third man motioned for his friends to follow him to the table.
"Excuse me, sir," he said politely. "I would like to speak with you about a certain statue you may have in your possession."
Ezra looked up at the dark-haired gentleman and noticed his friends were moving into position behind the gambler. Somehow these boys may not take 'noí for an answer, he thought as he mentally and physically prepared for a possible confrontation.
"I am sorry, Sir, but I have already promised the article to a young lady."
The man smiled, but the look of pleasure was not in his eyes. He took a seat at the table opposite Ezra.
"Thatís too bad," he said calmly. "Itís not a healthy choice doing business with someone else and not me. I can offer more than she has; that is, if she hasnít acquired it yet.
Ezra was quite annoyed. He knew a threat when he heard it.
"I had not realized you were also interested."
The two gentlemen offered the chair to Ezra opposite from their leader, and the looks in their eyes told him to sit down.
"But it would appear I have no choice but to listen to the deal offered before me," he said as he took his seat.
Amanda left the saloon and began walking back to the hotel. She could not believe her luck. She finally found the key, and now she had another obstacle to deal with in order to get it.
As her mind flooded with ideas for tomorrowís breakfast date a hand grabbed her wrist while another hand covered her mouth from behind and pulled her into the alley behind the blacksmithís shop. The attacker turned her around and pushed her up against the wall and held his hand to her throat while his other hand jabbed a knife in her ribs. The situation happened so fast Amanda did not have time to react.
"Hello, Douglas," smiled an ugly set of green teeth.
"Charlie Mills. What a pleasant surprise," she responded trying to sound calm.
"Thought youíd lost us in St. Louis. Well, the boss is smarter than that. See, he knew who had that statue and was gonna meet 'em here. But then you showed up, and now it looks like weíre gonna haveíta do somethiní about you." He jabbed the knife deeper into her side to make his point.
"Didnít your mother ever tell you its not polite to point," she stated as she lifted her right leg for a quick kick to the groin.
Charlie yelped in pain while Amanda grabbed a long piece of a wooden floor panel stacked up against the side wall. She quickly thrust the panel into his stomach and smacked him across the face. Charlie fell to the ground knocked out by the blow.
Amanda reached under her skirts to retrieve the gun she had strapped to her leg. She had to get back to the saloon to find that gambler before it was too late.
~ 2 ~
"Gentlemen, it would appear that you are ignorant of the situation you are getting into," Ezra stated to the three men aggressively. "I do not respond kindly to idle threats."
"Mister, this ainít not threat," said the man with the yellow teeth standing behind him.
In an instant both men grabbed Ezra by the arms and pinned him to the chair. Because the men held his arms he could not use his derringer hidden up his right sleeve or draw any of the guns. He was helpless.
The leader rose from his seat and took a candle from a candlestick sitting on the edge of the bar and walked over to Ezra. The gambler knew too well what was going to happen next.
"We want that statue, Mister. If you were willing to say yes to begin with, than we could have avoided this. As we speak your potential buyer is being taken care of. And now, it is a shame we have to scar that handsome face of yours to prove a point. Now, where is the statue?"
The leader took a shot of whiskey sitting on the table and threw it in Ezraís face. Ezra knew that one spark from that candle igniting the drink could turn his head into a fireball. He began to squirm as the candle came closer and closer.
When it was inches away from his face Ezra heard the sound of a hammer on a pistol being pulled back to a firing position. The sound came from behind the leader and caused him to freeze in his tracks.
Finally... Chris, Buck, or someone is here to help, Ezra thought.
"Put that candle down and move away from him, right now," ordered a female voice.
The accent was English, but not soft and lady-like as it was earlier that evening. This voice was demanding like she had been in a similar situation before and was willing to fight her way out if she needed to.
"Amanda... Darling... How good of you to join us. I see you still havenít lost your touch, Sweetheart," smiled the leader as he slowly turned to face her.
"If you mean your plan to send Charlie Mills to kill me has failed once again; than, no, I suppose I havenít."
Ezra watched as the couple faced off. His mind quickly raced for a plan to attack the goons behind him while she kept the leader distracted and still get out alive.
Amanda stood as still as she could with the pistol in her right hand aimed at the leaderís head. The tone and steadiness in her voice displayed a woman in control.
"Whereís the statue, Amanda?" demanded the leader.
"You are not a position to demand anything, Eric. If you want to know where it is, than Iíve got it," she lied. "Your problem is with me, not him. Now, let him go."
"Well, I guess we have no further use of this man. Kill him, Boys," ordered Eric.
Amanda squeezed off one round over one of the goonsí head breaking an oil lamp on the wall behind him. Ezra knew instantly that she missed on purpose to prove a point and took the opportunity to elbow the same man in the stomach.
The other man was shocked briefly by what had happened and loosened his grip on Ezraís arm. Ezra used that advantage to free his right arm and punch the man in the face with the other. Within an instant after the contact, Ezra had his derringer out and ready.
He turned around to face Eric only to find him gone. Instead, Ezra caught a glimpse of a glint of a knife behind. Amanda who stood a few yards in front of him. Ezra quickly called out her name and shot at the man who was about to stab her in the back.
Amanda turned around to see Charlieís dead form lay before her. He had followed her to the saloon and was going to kill her until the gambler had saved her life.
Just then, Yellow Teeth grabbed Amanda from behind. She struggled and elbowed him in the stomach. She raised her arm and elbowed his nose causing him to release her and cover his face with his hands as he yelled in pain. Blood seeped through his fingers.
Amanda gave the man a punch in the face before swinging around and receiving the same treatment from Eric. The force caused Amanda to fall backwards onto the floor and dropped her pistol onto the floor a few feet in front of her.
The shots woke up the entire town. JD and Chris ran from the jail toward the saloon. Nathan and Josiah came from the church with Buck and Vin trailing behind them from the hotel.
Ezra had a little trouble of his own. One of his attackers pulled a gun and began shooting at everything in sight. A few shots missed Ezra as he dove for cover behind an overturned table.
Bottles on the counter and in the shelves behind the bar were shattered everywhere. The last shot struck another oil lamp sending sparks flying and igniting the spilled whiskey. Fire quickly spread across the floor, the bar, and tables engulfing everything in sight.
Despite the rapidly growing flames around him, Ezra paid more attention to the trigger-happy gunman ahead of him. When the shooting stopped, Ezra quickly aimed at the man through the smoke and fired just as the gunman headed for the doorway. The shot hit him in the left shoulder knocking him off balance and into another table.
Eric grabbed Amanda by the throat, pulled her off of the floor, and slammed her body against the counter. He was prepared to choke the life out of her. Pain from her back shot through her like electricity, but the adrenaline was too high in her to feel anything.
With her free hand, Amanda grabbed the nearest whiskey bottle by the neck and slammed it into the back of his head forcing him to let go. She braced herself against the counter and kicked with both feet into Ericís stomach.
Amanda managed to look up and dove forward just as a piece of a burning wooden beam came crashing down. If she had hesitated the beam would have killed her.
"Come on, Boss," said Yellow Teeth grabbing Eric by the arm. "We gotta get outta here. The whole place is goiní."
The wounded man got up off of the floor and stumbled out the door. Reluctantly, Eric followed, swearing Amandaís name all the way.
Ezra found Amanda through the smoke and rubble and dragged her out the nearest exit.
"Wait, I must get the statue," she screamed struggling against his iron grip.
"I have it right here, and you, my dear, have a lot of explaining to do."
~ 3 ~
The shooting managed to wake the townspeople in time to put out the fire before it created serious damage to the saloon. Luckily no one was hurt in the fire, and the blaze only burned the inside of the drinking area. Most of the building remained intact. The heavy rains the town received that week and the calm still night managed to control the fire before it spread to any other establishments.
The six gunslingers arrived in time to see Ezra and Amanda stumble out of the burning saloon. The gambler had a strong hold on her arm until they were clear of danger. Amanda screamed something to him and wrenched her arm free of his grasp. She headed for the hotel as fast as her legs would take her. Ezra gave chase with the others hot on his heels.
Vin was the only person to see three men riding away into the dark night. His sixth sense told him that perhaps those men had something to do with the fire, but he decided against giving chase until morning. Plus, like the others, he wanted some answers to questions that were rapidly forming in his mind.
All Amanda could think about at the time was John Wendt. He was the only person in the hotel who did not emerge when the fighting occurred. Amanda believed that Eric could not have known about Ezra and the statue without seeing John first. John really did not know about what the statueís true value was, and that lack of knowledge may have done him more harm than good.
"Where are you going?" Ezra called out to her.
"To the hotel. How did Eric know you won that statue from John unless he received that information from John," she answered.
By the time they arrived the hotel clerk told them where to find John and like a flash the group with Amanda in the lead quickly headed up the stairs and went inside.
Lying on the floor faced down in a pool of blood was the body of John Wendt. He was stabbed in the back trying to escape. Nathan walked over to the body to examine it while the others stood in the hallway blocking any chance of escape for Amanda if she intended to flee.
Chris pushed past his friends until he stood in front of her. His face showed anger and intimidation, yet Amanda also displayed no signs of worry on her face.
This surprised everyone, including Ezra. Chris had a way of intimidating anyone. Few people could stand eyeball to eyeball with him and not back down, especially a woman.
"Alright, I wanna know whatís goiní on, and youíre gonnaí tell me," he demanded in a stern voice.
But Amanda stood her ground and matched his gaze. After what she just went through, no one could scare her now.
"It is quite simple," she informed. "A man attacked tonight outside of the saloon. Three other men attacked Mr. Standish as well as myself. They are also responsible for this manís death. I suggest you find them and not waste time harassing me."
"I saw three men high tail it outta here before the saloon went up, Chris, but itís too dark to track 'em now. Weíll have to wait 'til morniní," said Vin.
Chris nodded his head and turned back to Amanda who did not deviate from her position in any way.
"Lady, thereís more to this than yer telliní, and if you wonít talk now, a night in jail may cool ya down," Chris said before grabbing her arm and forcing her to walk to the jail.
~ 4 ~
Amanda spent the rest of the night and part of the morning in a jail cell. When JD brought her breakfast, she refused it. She was too angry to eat. While she was trapped in this town, Eric would ride back into town, steal the statue, find the secret, and retrieve the precious artifact before she could get out.
She blamed the seven protectors for her delays. How could they blame her for the fire when she was merely defending herself. She even saved one of them, and her repayment was an uncomfortable night in jail.
By midday Ezra strolled into the jail to relieve JD of his guard. Amanda was sitting in the corner of the cell with her arms folded across her chest staring at the wall opposite her. She was still wearing the dress she wore the night before, and the wrinkles in her dress were quite visible telling Ezra how uncomfortable it was for her to sleep in.
"She wonít eat nothiní," said JD who obviously expressed some concern for her welfare.
"Stubbornness, Mr. Dunne, is a most unhealthy trait," he replied before JD left the office.
For a brief moment Ezra watched his prisoner like a scientist observing the behavior of an experiment. She still looks beautiful, even now, he thought as he watched her closely.
He was alone with the angel that nearly cost him his life the night before. He felt that he should be mad at this woman, but instead he felt drawn toward her like a curiosity that could not be satisfied.
"I am assuming that these accommodations do not suit you," he said breaking the silence between them.
Amanda looked up at him through the steel bars and glared at him. He could tell she was in no mood for word games.
"You are right, Mr. Standish. These accommodations do not suit me," she answered. "But if I were you, I would be more worried about my new problems rather than the comfort of this jail cell. Your life is still in jeopardy as long as you hold the statue in your possession. I am willing to take the statue and your problems away from this place if you are willing to let me go."
"Darling, as much as I would like to do just that, I am afraid that Mr. Larabee will not be happy with the agreement. Besides, I am curious about the true value of this stone object."
Amanda slowly rose from the cot she slept on and glided over to the bars. Ezra did the same until their faces were a foot away. Only the bars separated the two.
"Mr. Standish," she said lowering her voice to almost a whisper. "I was raised a spoiled rich girl which means I am used to getting what I want, and I donít like to share."
Ezra smiled at her statement. This woman had spirit. Something he could not picture in women who were as refined as she was the night before. He would enjoy the challenge of conning her out of the secret.
"It seems you have no choice, Miss Douglas. Mr. Larabee has already wired the Judge, and I am afraid you face charges of arson." His voice became forceful at the next statement. "I have little patience for word games when my life is in danger over this little trinket. I am willing to deal with you, but if you refuse, than I shall be forced to partner with your nemesis," he lied.
"Youíre bluffing, Mr. Standish. You know that statue is worth too much to do that. Besides, how do you know Eric Roberts wonít kill you for it. He tried to last night."
"We share a common source. Greed can make the worst enemies into the best of friends," he stated.
Amanda said nothing. She stood there and glared at him instead. She knew he was bluffing, yet she could not see any other way to leave this cell. She was running out of time and patience.
"Alright. It is a key to a lost city that holds a very important artifact, and that is all I will say until I am on the other side of these bars."
Ezra nodded once to his prisoner and turned to leave to find Chris. It was going to take a lot of convincing to get her out of there.
~ 5 ~
The late afternoon sun brought a dry heat to the town with a slightly cool breeze blowing across the plains. The seven gunslingers were assembled around the desk in the jail ready for what they hoped would be a good explanation from their prisoner.
Ezra had to put on the best performance of his conning career to get Chris to allow Amanda out of the cell. Chris did not trust Amanda and felt this was a waist of time, yet he had no other choice if he wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on.
Ezraís mind raced at the possible treasures that this little statue could be hiding. After all, the statue legally belonged to him, and whatever items of value that could be found at this lost city, he had a legal claim to them. This artifact, he thought, must really be worth a great deal if it was worth killing for last night.
The men gathered around closely while Amanda sat at the table thumbing through pages of her journal. She kept a thorough record of all of the research she received on this 'fabledí city.
"Iíve been researching this place for months, and I believe I have found the answer. It is the true ancient city of Cibola," she explained. "In 1540 a man named Fray Marcos de Niza discovered a city he described as a city made of gold. The stories intrigued the Spanish explorer, Francisco Vasques de Coronado, and he gathered his men to conquer that city.
"When Coronado arrived at the city of Cibola, he discovered that it was an ordinary Indian village, nothing like what Marcos had described. It was one of seven Zuni villages in the area, considered to be the fabled cities of gold. Marcos returned to Spain disgrace."
The seven men listened intensely as Amanda continued with her story.
"My brother, David, found some remains of Marcosí diary during his exhibition in Spain. It describes his visit to Cibola contrasting to the historical rendition of the actual village. It also describes a statue resembling the Zuni sun god which was housed in a great temple. A replica of the sun god was also created from stone, and carved in its base is a map describing exactly where the real ancient city can be found. It is the only object Marcos brought back with him after he left the city."
"Why didnít Marcos use that statue to find the city," asked Josiah.
"The statue was lost after he returned to inform Coronado of his findings. It may have been stolen, because it resurfaced 100 years later in Europe," she answered. "I believe Marcos could not find the city again once he left it.
"The existence of the statue proves that there must be something to this story. Also, the carvings are in ancient Indian hieroglyphics. I have been studying markings similar to these as part of my research of this story."
JD was confused, and he was not the only one. Chris, however, remained skeptical. This territory has been settled and farmed everywhere one could find room. If there was a lost city somewhere it would have been found years ago.
Amanda stared at the hollow faces and saw that she was not convincing anyone. This was becoming frustrating to her as she concluded with her story.
"My research has helped me track this statue as it exchanged hands over the centuries. Until recently, this was merely an archeological project that has turned rather dangerous."
"You mean those men," added Vin.
"Yes. Eric Roberts was my brotherís research partner until he killed him last month in an effort to steal the statue. My brother managed to hide the statue until it fell into the hands of John Wendt. Unknowing, he was contacted by Roberts who wanted him to bring the statue here for sale.
"Eric knows who I am and had me followed. He has tried to have me killed, but, of course, his plan had obviously failed. I escaped and followed them here, and the rest of the story you know."
There was a moment of silence while the seven men considered the outrageous story Amanda told. It seemed like a dime-store thriller from the novels that the general store ordered from the east. Could this really be happening?
But, the hollow burned building that was once the saloon stood in full view of the town, and the statue sat on the desk as real as the desk itself. Whether the story was true or false, it was the statue that those men wanted, and they would be back to get it.
Chris decided to wire for the circuit judge and begin a manhunt for those men. Amanda would stay in Four Corners for 'protectioní. He also did not trust her and wanted to keep a close eye on her. She was still under arrest for the fire in the saloon, and it was his sworn duty to bring anyone who broke the law in his town to justice. The judge would decide what to do with her when he arrived.
~ 6 ~
The next morning had the townspeople busy with rebuilding the saloon. Luckily, no one was hurt, and the damage was minimal. Vin, Chris and Josiah rode early to try and pick up the trail the three men left. Nathan was busy in the next town picking up some supplies for himself and for Mary Travis, owner and editor of The Clarion newspaper in town.
Buck and JD spent most of the morning helping with the reconstruction and took turns guarding Amanda. The constant 'protectioní she was receiving was slowly wearing on what little patience she had.
The idea of remaining in town did not appeal to her, but it did give her some time to study the statue more closely and try to decipher the ancient writings. Amanda believed the protection she was getting was merely an excuse for Chris to keep a close watch on her. He did not completely trust her.
By mid-afternoon Amanda was very close to discovering the entire message, but she kept her enthusiasm to herself, not wanting the others to know. She wanted to complete the quest herself without any partners. For all she knew these men might be after the gold like Eric Roberts. Her life may be in danger if she trusted anyone else with the information.
Amanda glanced up from her research to see Ezra sitting across the jail from her shuffling his ever-ready deck of playing cards. She watched from her seat mesmerized by his methods, as he always seemed to bring his trademark Ace of Spades to the surface of the deck.
As if sensing her eyes upon him, Ezra raised his head just as she lowered her eyes back to her book. He smiled as her cheeks blushed red from the embarrassment she felt when he caught her staring at him.
"So, my dear, do you embark on these little adventures often?" he asked hoping to break the barrier of silence between them.
She glanced up to look at those emerald eyes and smiled.
"My father was a famous explorer. He liked traveling around the world and solving historyís most puzzling mysteries," she answered. "I began my world travels with him when I was nine years old and I havenít stopped yet."
"You must have many intriguing tales and treasures," he commented casually. "Iím sure collectors pay quite a sum for findings such as this golden statue you are searching for."
Amanda felt a slight tinge of anger swell within her. She instantly understood what he was hinting about, and the mere thought about finding the statue and selling it to a private collector was appalling. To even imagine an artifact like that collecting dust in a private collection would make her ill.
Amanda straightened up in her chair and was about to protest his outrageous statement when an idea sparked in her brain. He obviously had a greedy personality, and perhaps she could use that to her advantage. Either way, she was determined to leave town today, whether voluntarily or by escape.
She smiled and slowly rose from her chair to stroll toward the front door. She slowly turned to face Ezra and carefully leaned her back against the wall next to the door.
"I prefer to sell my findings to museums," she said with the most seductive smile she could muster. "Private collectors tend to hide these treasures from the public, and historians like myself are robbed of the chance to study such objects more closely for its history.
"Yet, traveling around the world also becomes very expensive, and I must live. I was planning to find the statue and bring it to the museum in New York, but because you legally own the stone statue, I am willing to share in the profits with you if you agree to let me leave for a few days."
Ezra could not help but smile as he watched her look shyly into his eyes and trace her fingers delicately over his left shoulder. She was an amateur at manipulating people, but with training from an expert con man she would have potential. If he had met her years ago he could have taken her under his wing and formed a lucrative partnership.
"My dear, your attempts at manipulating me into letting you venture out are very feeble. Yet, I do applaud your efforts, but it will not work."
Amandaís face fell into a frustrated expression. She stood to her full height facing Ezra with her hands on her hips.
"You could be wasting a perfect opportunity, Mr. Standish, to be immortalized in the history books as a man who discovered the lost city of Cibola. Not to mention the amount of money you could make from this."
"As tempting as that offer is, I believe it is too dangerous for you while Eric Roberts is still at large."
Frustration and anger bubbled up inside Amanda to the point where she could no longer control her emotions. She stomped her foot, folded her arms across her chest and slowly walked away from him. She tried to fight back the tears that were threatening to fall. The last thing she wanted was to show her vulnerable side to anyone.
Ezra watched her go exposing his usual poker face on the surface, yet underneath that stone expression he felt the same frustration that Amanda felt. He wanted to find that city and the golden statue more than she did, but Eric had the upper hand. He had the knowledge, the manpower and time. Now was not the right moment to play the hand.
"Men are all the same," she whispered loudly enough for Ezra to hear. "It must be your nature to believe that a womanís strengths only qualify for baring children and cleaning the house. I have seen and experienced many things in my 16 years of travel, Mr. Standish, and I assure you I am quite capable of taking care of myself."
"Believe me, Miss Douglas, I am well aware of your capabilities."
"I should think that after saving your life in the pub you would be willing to help me," she said facing his emerald gaze.
This time she changed her tactics. She hoped she could appeal to his sense of guilt, since appealing to his pocketbook proved to be more difficult than she anticipated.
Ezra stood from his chair, never losing eye contact with her. She was hitting a little too close to the belt with that last blow, and he was losing his patience.
"I am trying to help you, Miss Douglas," he said point blank.
"And I am also trying to help you," she returned, her expression softening to concern. "All I wanted was to get the statue and leave. I was hoping that with the statue in my possession, Eric would not be able to find the city. I knew he was after it and what he was capable of. He killed my brother because he found the secret, and he killed Mr. Wendt, who really knew nothing about the statue. Your pub was nearly destroyed, innocent people could have gotten hurt, and it is my fault."
Ezra watched as Amanda turned away from him in disgrace. His temper softened when he saw the sadness in her eyes as she poured her feelings to him. He had to mentally stop himself from reaching out to comfort her.
The only person you can trust in this world is yourself, his motherís words echoed through his mind. He could not allow her to see how she was affecting him. If she were playing another con with him, he would fall into her trap. He had many reasons why this woman could not be trusted. Perhaps she was a better actress than he gave her credit for.
"I never meant for anyone to get hurt, but the danger still exists. People may still get hurt, even killed, if I donít take that statue away from this place. Please, I beg of you, let me leave here with it," she pleaded turning back around to face him again.
But Ezra slowly shook his head.
"It is too dangerous at this moment, but I promise to help you any way I can."
Just then, JD strolled in to relieve Ezra of his watch. The gambler grabbed his coat and hat before glancing back at Amanda. He wanted to say more, but with JD standing there the words seemed inadequate.
Ezra and JD exchanged a few parting words before Ezra touched the brim of his hat and walked out into the street to join Buck. Amanda gave a quiet sigh of defeat wondering how to get out of this mess she was in.
She was quite sincere about feeling guilt for John Wendtís murder and the fire in the town. It was that same feeling of emptiness she felt after her brotherís death at the hands of Eric Roberts. Her determination to reach the city before him became almost obsessive. She had to get out of there.
While the ideas of escape coerced through her mind, one idea seemed the most plausible. She looked over at JD and almost felt guilt about trying it, but she quickly shook away the feeling and put her plan into action.
"Mr. Dunne, I shall not require your services of protecting me today. I am going to my room," she announced as she picked up the statue and her notes and proceeded through the door toward the hotel before he could protest.
"Maíam, Iím not suppose to let ya out of my sight. Iím gonna haveíta come with ya," he yelled at her back as they crossed the street.
"Well, come if you must, Mr. Dunne," she answered back.
She made no effort to wait for the young sheriff as they entered the hotel and proceeded up the stairs.
When they reached Amandaís room she opened the door and walked inside toward the closet door. JD stood at the doorway and hesitated about venturing in any further. His mannerism dripped with nervousness. He knew it was considered improper for a man to be alone in a hotel room with a lady. When Amanda motioned for him to come inside his legs could hardly move.
"Mr. Dunne, I am afraid I am in need of my travel bag on the top shelf in the wardrobe, and I cannot reach it. It contains a book about ancient languages that I must have. Will you be so kind as to fetch it for me?"
When JD stepped into the closet to retrieve the bag Amanda shoved with all of her power into his back and sent him stumbling into the closet. She slammed the door, locked it, and hurried through the door with the statue and the notebook. She said an apology to the boy that was quickly drowned by the sound of his yelling for help and proceeded down the steps, passed a confused hotel manager, and out the door.
She was free for only a moment for she knew if she stopped now, they would find her again. She had to leave town fast before the others discovered what had happened.
~ 7 ~
Ezra and Buck assisted the townspeople as they continued to clean up the burnt debris from the previous saloon fire. Luckily most of the second floor and the rear of the saloon was not badly damaged, but the main concentration of the blaze happened on the main floor.
Piles of debris littered the floor in carefully gathered groups. Smoke damage was apparent by the observation of the black ashes caked on the remaining walls and mirrors. Even the piano had to be removed for both repair and to keep the large instrument from falling through the weak and damaged floor boards.
Buck carefully picked through the debris pile that Inez swept up and left in the center of the establishment while Ezra surveyed the damage on his own.
"Iíll tell ya, Ezra," commented Buck. "Yer sure are one lucky son of a bitch. That Amanda has brought a lotta trouble to town."
"That is hard to deny, Mr. Wilmington," answered Ezra. "However, Mr. Roberts is responsible for this terrible misfortune, not Miss Douglas. The lady saved my life that night. It is my duty to assist her in her defense when Judge Travis arrives."
Buck was a little taken back by Ezraís last statement. Has Ezra gotten soft on this little lady? Sure, no one would deny her attraction, but Ezra was always the type to find any kind of deception no matter how lovely the package it came in.
As Ezra sifted through the burnt ashes that was once his favorite gaming table he noticed out of the corner of his eye a woman dressed in dark pants and a tanned buttoned shirt ran from the hotel toward the livery stable. She was carrying a bag over her shoulder with the arm of the gamblerís stone statue hanging out of the flap.
I must give her credit, he thought. She is one persistent woman.
The two men headed as fast as they could toward the livery hoping to catch her before she escaped. They arrived in time to see the dust swirling behind the horse as both it and the rider galloped away.
"Damn, where is that boy?" screamed Buck in frustration as he searched frantically for any sign of JD. "You saddle up Chaucer. Iíll find JD, and weíll catch up to ya."
Ezra was already ahead of the gunslinger and had the saddle on his horse before Buck left the livery. He hoisted himself into the saddle and rode away to catch up with Amanda.
By the time Buck reached the hotel, the sounds of banging clued him in as to JDís whereabouts. He hurried up the stairs and into the room just as JD managed to break the closet door loose from its hinges and crashed down on the floor.
"What the hell happened to you?" Buck asked as he bent down to help the young man to his feet.
"That little witch hocked me in there. Boy, when I get ahold of her, sheís gonna think twice before ever doiní that again."
Under different circumstances Buck would find this amusing, but now was not the time. He hoped that he and JD could catch up with Ezra before they lost his trail.
Unknown to anyone, a pair of narrow eyes stared down at the once peaceful little town. Through a spy glass he observed unnoticed as the two men rode away from the town after the woman and the man in the red coat. He smiled to himself and stood from his perch to find his horse. He had to inform his boss of the change in events.
Eric predicted that Amanda would find some way to escape from those men in search of the city. Since she possessed both the statue and the knowledge on unlocking its ancient code, it was only a matter of time before she searched for it. He dispatched one of his men to watch the town and alert him if she made any move. Eric would follow her, allowing her to do the work while he snatched the prize away at the right moment.
It looked as though the right moment was near, and the man with the yellow teeth rode away to find Eric. The men had to move if they were to pick up Amandaís trail.
It was close to sundown when Chris, Vin and Josiah arrived in town. Nathan met them on the way in and rode the rest of the way with his friends. By the time they arrived, Mary was waiting for them in the jail.
"Mary, what are you doiní here?" Chris asked in surprise.
Mary did not usually visit the jail often, and her visit at this late hour made him suspicious. Her face expressed worry as she told him and the rest of the group of the events that happened a few hours ago.
"Which way did they go?" Vin asked.
"They headed west, over that ridge. Chris, Iím worried. They didnít come back, and itís getting pretty dark."
Chrisí only worry was that Eric Roberts was still at large. He and Vin tried all morning to pick up the trail, but their tracks were crossed over so many times the trail grew cold. Eric was a smart man and unpredictable. That concept alone made him dangerous.
"We canít track 'em at night, Chris. Whatíll we do?" asked Vin his concern evident in his voice.
"We may have to pick up the trail at sunrise," added Josiah.
"Well, letís just sit tight until then. Buck knows what heís doiní. In the morniní letís saddle up aní be ready."
He had confidence that Buck, JD, and Ezra would be fine, but in his heart he worried about his friends. That girl was more trouble than she was worth. If something were to happen to them, he would hold her responsible.
~ 8 ~
Amanda pushed the horse as far as she felt she could hoping it was enough to lose her pursuers. She did not want to hurt the poor animal if she could help it.
Back in town she promised the livery man, Tiny, a twenty-dollar gold piece earlier that day to saddle up his best horse and have it ready when she arrived. She also hoped that his best horse was also his fastest horse.
By sunset she reached another cluster of trees and decided to make camp there. There was no point in pressing on after dark, and the trees would help provide cover while she rested and prepared for another long journey at first light.
Amanda dismounted and untied her bed roll from the saddle. She also had Tiny pack some other supplies that she felt she would need. She avoided lighting a fire for fear of being discovered by Eric or any of the lawmen from that town.
Amanda unrolled the bed roll on the ground and quickly pulled the blanket over her chin to try to fight the chill that came with the night sky. She avoided eating dinner because of the lack of fire and the anxieties she felt in her stomach prevented it.
About an hour later she was awaken by the sounds of twigs snapping in the distance. Suddenly, the hairs on the back of her neck were shouting a warning to her, and she quickly rose from her bed. She quietly tip-toed to the large oak tree a few yards away from her encampment with a large stick in her hand, preparing to use it at any moment.
This was one of those times in her life when she wished she had her gun. Ezra had taken it from her in town, and in her haste to leave she had failed to retrieve it. She stood poised for any sign to attack, her hearing strained to catch the slightest sound of movement.
Suddenly, two strong arms grabbed her from behind causing her to drop her weapon on the ground in front of her. In an effort to not allow her attacker to have the upper hand, she stomped as hard as she could on her attackerís foot and elbowed him in the ribs until he let go of her and stumbled backwards in pain. She took the opportunity to throw a hard punch in the manís right eye.
Another attack leapt from behind the brush only to catch a sidekick to his ribs before he reached her. Amanda pivoted around to face the man with the black eye and swiftly kicked him in the groin causing him to bend over forward in pain. She was about to knock the guy over the head when someone hit her from behind. There was a moment of dizziness before she felt her body go limp, and then the blackness overtook her.
She awoke to the smell of a campfire. The warm glow danced before her eyes as three recognizable figures slowly moved around the light. Her wrists were tied tightly together as she laid helpless on her bed roll. Apparently, after she was hit from behind someone had carried her back to the campsite. But who could that be? Did Eric Roberts have her followed and then kidnapped her when her guard was down?
She tried to sit up to get a better look at her captors when she felt the incessant pounding in her head and the nausea that came with it. She let out a painful groan and hoped that she did not develop a concussion. The last thing she needed was to be physically indisposed when she was so close to completing her quest.
"Well that little hellcat is finally awake," said a voice from the other side of the campfire. "Girl, you couldíve poked my eye out. I outta whip ya fer that."
"What are complaininí about, Buck. I can hardly breathe because of her. And Ezra, why didnít ya help us out," said the younger voice.
"A wise man, JD, would observe his enemy before the attack in order to ascertain his opponentís weaknesses. Besides, gentlemen, I felt that your abilities in a fight could have controlled the situation without my assistance," Ezra added stifling a laugh.
"Whereíd ya learn to fight like that?" asked Buck as he dabbed his bruised eye with a whiskey-soaked handkerchief.
"I learned some fighting techniques during my visits to China," Amanda answered wearily. "Which one of you hit me?"
"I did, my dear," spoke Ezra. "I trust I did not hurt you too badly."
Iím sure you really care, thought Amanda as she tried to rub the sore spot on her head. She could tell by watching Ezra expressions that he was enjoying this too much, and that fact irritated her more.
"Letís just say I have felt better this morning than I do now," she said sarcastically.
Amanda gave Ezra the most insulting glare her headache would allow her to create. She was lucky that the gambler did not cause a concussion, or she would have a very difficult ride back to town.
Ezra did care about her and worried if he had hurt her too badly. But, he was careful not to admit it or allow any emotion to seep through his facial expressions. He did not want her to know how much he cared in case she was faking.
"Come morniní weíll head back to town. If you behave yourself, we might bet ya ride without haviní to tie ya up first," said Buck.
"If you wish my opinion, going back to town would be a terrible waste. Now that we are here, we have an opportunity to find the lost city before Eric Roberts does."
Her response was rewarded with more irritated looks from her captors. They were obviously not happy with the idea, and after her betrayal in town, it would take a great deal to convince them otherwise.
Ezra sat in silence during this conversation. He even found himself considering the offer after she proposed it. If she was willing to risk her life and freedom to ride out into the middle of nowhere, than maybe there was something worth finding in that untamed space. Perhaps she really believed that there was an ancient city out there. If the stories were true, than spending some extra time looking for it might pay off.
Buck found it entertaining that after all the trouble she caused, she still had the guts to try another con to convince them to trust her. He shook his head at the thought and dismissed the offer completely. No way was she going anywhere in the morning except straight back to town.
JD was the only one that felt insulted by her offer. After all, she locked him in the closet and betrayed his trust. She even burned down the saloon. How could she even think about trying to get them involved in her treasure-hunting scheme again.
"Damn, lady, you just donít know when to quit, do ya?" commented Buck with an amused smile on his face. "You locked JD in the closet and ran outta town like a jack rabbit with its tail on fire. Iíd say that was escapiní the law, seeiní as how youíre still under arrest for the fire an all."
"All I ask is a few more miles further west than where we are. I have been studying the diary, the legend, and that damned statue for months, and I know where that city is. If I only had more time, I know I can find it."
"Donít trust her, Buck," JD interrupted. "She ainít worth it. Chrisíll be lookiní for us in the morniní."
"Please, all I ask is a few more hours. You are welcome to accompany me since you took the trouble to try to find me in the middle of the night," she added trying to flash the most sincere smile she had. "If we do not find anything by the afternoon, I promise to return to Four Corners and face the consequences for my actions. I wonít be any more trouble to you."
There was a brief moment of silence between the group as the three men considered her plea. Amanda could not remember a time when she felt more anxiety than that moment. The butterflies in her stomach were almost becoming nauseating.
Why wonít they answer? The least they could do is spare me this torturous waiting, she thought to herself as she fought to keep silent.
"Ezra, you ainít said nothing yet. What do ya think?" asked Buck turning his attention to the gambler who sat quietly in deep thought.
There is no proof that she can be trusted, he thought remembering back to the time when he almost fell for her sincerity moments before she rode out of town. A year ago I would not have been so taken. I must be slipping.
But Amanda did save Ezraís life in the saloon, and for that, his conscience made him feel that he owed her something. To dismiss that unfamiliar and uneasy feeling in his soul, he decided that clearing up the matter about the saloon fire with Judge Travis would be payment enough. He washed his hands of any other involvement in the matter.
He underestimated how manipulative she could be, and even though he admired her in his own way, he knew she could not be trusted. This was another trick of hers to escape from their grasp again.
Yet, no matter how hard he tried to convince himself, the money and treasure still returned to his thoughts. There had to be something in this adventurous quest that he could be well compensated for his troubles. Ezraís greed slowly began to make his decision for him.
"I believe that Mr. Dunne is correct. She has presented evidence displaying her sincerity since she first arrived into town, and I find it difficult to trust her," he answered.
Amanda felt as though her world came crashing down on her. She let out a breath that she did not know she was holding and forced herself not to cry. The last thing she wanted was to show these men how weak she was becoming from the strain.
"However, perhaps there is a possibility that we might find this city. And if the statue does exist, we could use it as temptation to draw Mr. Roberts and his companions out of hiding."
Amanda was astonished that the gambler was now siding with her. She fought to keep from shouting her happiness as she gazed upon the faces of the other men. Both JD and Buck knew that the gambler wanted to press on only for his greed. If that golden statue did exist, it would be worth in value of money more than they could dream.
Buck looked into Amandaís eyes and saw the quiet pleas that danced around those brown globes. It was almost as if she was on the verge of tears and would fall apart if he disapproved. It was an obsession that he did not understand, yet he sympathized with her.
"Aw hell!" he exclaimed. "Weíll keep goiní come morniní, but if we donít find nothiní weíre turniní back."
The next thought that went through his mind was how he was going to tell Chris. He did not want to have to face the gunslinger if Amanda did bolt, and they did not find her the second time.
Ezraís face remained neutral while JD scowled at his friend. There goes Buck, always thinkiní with his pants, he thought.
A glimmer of hope returned to Amanda as she settled back into her bedroll and wished for morning to come quickly. She said a silent prayer for her brother and hoped that she was correct in her calculations. She felt as if an enormous weight had lifted from her shoulders. Whether they find the city or not, her quest would finally come to an end in the morning.
~ 9 ~
The morning brought the last cool breeze through the plains before the midday sun brought the desert heat. The group had already mounted up and was gone before the first ray of light announced the new day.
Buck and Ezra had untied Amanda and allowed her to ride her horse, but Ezra held the reins of the spirited animal in case Amanda had other ideas. He did not trust her after her last betrayal and wanted to keep an eye on her.
Buck and JD kept a close eye on the couple from behind. Although Ezra was counted as one of his closest friends, he knew that greed drove that man more than loyalty. But over the past few months Ezra had proved to his friends that somewhere buried deep inside of him he had a conscience, and his loyalty to them was growing stronger the longer he stayed with them. Still, Buck was not one for taking chances.
As the early morning drifted into the midday, silence between the travelers was slowly beginning to work on their nerves. Finally, not able to stand the tension, Ezra broke the silence.
"So, do you have any idea what this city will resemble once we arrive there?" he asked.
"If the descriptions in the diary are correct, there should be a large temple in the center of Cibola. Other structures which I believe were dwellings, or homes, will be surrounding the structure."
"You really like this sorta thing?" asked JD with a look of confusion clouding his young face.
He could not understand what was so mesmerizing about old buildings or shells of former structures that were not used anymore. The question was very familiar to Amanda. It had been asked by many members of her motherís family. They were content to mingle with New Yorkís high society and attend only the best parties hosted by the most important families. They could not understand what Amandaís mother saw in the globetrotting Englishman who would find excitement in excavating an ancient ruin from another country.
"I find discovering new solutions to mankindís most bizarre mysteries a fascinating ordeal," she responded watching his face turn from confusion into bewilderment.
"An example of this would be the ancient Egyptians. They believed their pharaohs, or kings, were very superior to them, almost god-like. When the pharaoh died, the Egyptians built large pyramid tombs to house their bodies. The questions that many archeologists ask themselves are how did these people build such large monuments and why."
After a moment had passed between the travelers, Amanda began to see a slight glimmer of understanding cross their faces. Yet, Buck and JD remained unimpressed. Only Ezra showed any interest in what Amanda was talking about.
"When I was younger, my father took the family to Egypt for a lecture. One of my fatherís colleagues invited us to an excavation of one of the pyramids," she continued. "When the workers opened the tomb for the first time in 3,000 years, I could see footprints in the sand before me. It was then that I realized that these prints were made over 3,000 years ago by the ancient Egyptians and remained untouched by the passage of time. That discovery told us so much about them that we did not know before."
Ezra listened while she told about how her father also climbed one of those enigmatic structures and watched the sun set over the entire country. He tried to imagine from her descriptions how beautiful that must have been, like standing on the top of the world and seeing everything with one glance.
Ezra tried to remember the last time he ever met someone with so much enthusiasm. He also found amusement as she tried explaining what she was feeling and finding that her little speech was falling on deaf ears.
In a way, he sensed that perhaps Amanda already knew that, yet she seemed to turn her conversation away from the others and focused on Ezra, like they were alone on this prairie plain discovering for themselves what this territory held.
Her passion for history and travel captivated Ezra more than he would care to admit. He felt as though he could hear her speak all day, and he would never grow tired of her voice or become bored with her stories.
The conversation continued until the afternoon when Buck and JD decided that they had gone far enough and found nothing. Amanda still protested. Those stabbing pains of anxiety returned when Buck announced that they were turning back.
"We must be close. Just a little further. We are almost there," she pleaded.
But Buck shook his head and pointed back toward town. He let her have her way, and now it was time to see if she would live up to her end of the bargain and return with them.
Amanda felt that time had run out for her when she suddenly spotted something from a few yards ahead of her. It was a large object protruding from the overgrown grass. The afternoon sun reflected off of its base casting a golden glow over the object. It looked completely out of place in the area.
Immediately, Amanda grabbed the reins from Ezra and kicked the horseís side causing it to break into a gallop toward the object. She ignored the protests from the other men as she hurried further ahead, determined not to be stopped until she could examine the object more closely.
Amanda jumped off of her horse before the animal completely stopped and fell to her knees beside the structure. It was a large stone base that resembled part of a man-made creation that once stood there. It was hidden beneath years of decay and overgrowth that made it difficult to see at first.
"Miss Douglas, we had an agreement," informed Ezra.
"Yeah, you said ya werenít gonna do that again," screamed JD.
Amanda looked up at them with a rush of excitement through her veins. She wanted to shout to the world, but she also did not want to jump to conclusions yet.
"I believe I may have found it," she said as she scanned the landscape for any more remains on the structureís former foundation.
There were smaller mounds around them that she judged to be exactly the right distance apart from each other to indicate that some kind of ancient dwelling may have stood there.
"All ya found was a buncha rocks," exclaimed JD.
"No, look... do you see how the distance of these mounds form a foundation? Perhaps these mounds were a base for a structure that once stood here."
Talking to these men were just like addressing stone walls at a university conference. They remained skeptical which only worried Amanda more. If they did find the edge of the city, and the men refused to believe it, they would turn back without ever finding out for sure. The city would be lost again, and Amanda would never be able to find it.
"I believe Miss Douglas may have a point, Buck," informed Ezra. "Letís continue on a little further and see if there is more evidence. If we have found the city, then the temple may not be much further."
Amanda smiled at the gambler when he tried to help her again. Maybe he was sincere and not just after the statue. She began to wonder other things about the handsome, green-eyed stranger before she reminded herself that there was more work to do. She must not get distracted from her main goal, to find the golden statue.
Keep your mind on the task at hand, she thought. You must find the statue first. This other thing can wait.
They continued on for several minutes despite Buckís and JDís constant protests. Every few yards revealed more stone structures and man-made pits that may have been for nightly fires to keep the dwellings warm.
Each of these holes were covered with moss and weeds, like the stone pillars, making it more dangerous for the horses. The group dismounted and walked the rest of the way to prevent the horses from stepping into one of the pits.
"If this was here for so long, how come them Spanish guys never found it?" asked the Kid.
"The Spanish were looking for a city made from actual gold. From a distance, the sunset rays gave the city the appearance of gold, but the only gold in these pillars is iron pyrite."
"Foolís Gold, Mr. Dunne," answered Ezra as a smile crossed his lips.
"Then, where is this gold statue ya was talkiní about? Is it Foolís Gold too?"
"I believe we may find out soon enough, Mr. Wilmington."
Amanda pointed to a large stone pyramid straight ahead of them. It stood several stories high and was terribly overgrown with moss and vines. At first glance, it looked like a large hill, so out of place in the middle of the flat prairie.
It took some time to find the entrance. It was also covered, yet the cracks around the stone pillar gave some indication that it was a door. Amanda began examining the stone door more closely, noticing that the markings on it were similar to the stone statue in her saddlebag.
Even though each of them were staring at it, Ezra, Buck and JD could not believe it. Had they really found this ancient city that Amanda spoke about? It was like a miracle that could not be explained logically, even though it was witnessed by them personally.
"See... now do you believe it really exists?" she asked, barely able to control the excitement in her voice.
"Okay, but how do ya get inside this thing?"
Amanda was already searching for the answer to Buckís question when her left hand grazed across a small hole in the stone pillar near the door. It was covered with dead vine leaves and grass.
Amanda smoothed the overgrowth away from the hole to see that it was an inch deep and perfectly round, like it was purposely created for an object about four inches in diameter.
"I have an idea," she said. "Could someone please fetch me the statue from my saddlebag?"
"Iíll get it."
JD rushed over to Amandaís horse to get the statue and almost tripped over his own feet. He was more excited than Buck had ever seen him. Yet, Buck could understand his enthusiasm. He was barely controlling his own butterflies in his stomach.
Ezra was also aroused by the discovery and could bare contain it from his face. The man who once made it an art form in controlling his emotions was standing at the entrance to enormous wealth and found it difficult to calm his greedy nerves.
JD returned with the statue, and Amanda placed it in the hole. It was a perfect fit.
The group quietly waited for something to happen. The tension was so thick that none of them could breathe.
Suddenly, the large door slowly began to move upward. The dust surrounding the door rose into a small cloud as the stone disturbed it. A sudden burst of cold, stale air escaped toward the outside and was caught in JDís face. The Kid began coughing out the stale dust until clean air replaced his system.
The inside of the temple was pitch black. Amanda cursed under her breath when she realized that she had forgotten the oil lantern that she intended to bring with her. Under normal circumstances she would have remembered, but because of her abrupt departure from the town, the lantern escaped her mind. Fortunately, she remembered to pack some candles also in her saddlebag.
As Amanda left to retrieve the candles, the men timidly moved closer to the entrance, unconsciously expecting something to jump out at them at any moment.
"Well, Ezra, what do ya think?"
"That, Mr. Wilmington, is a mystery that we will soon solve."
"I have candles for everyone," said Amanda as she handed each person a candle and a match. "Now, when we go inside, I donít want anyone to touch anything in there. Some tombs in Egypt are rumored to have ancient traps to discourage grave robbers. I donít believe we have anything to worry about in this case, but I donít like to take chances."
Amanda lit her candle and carefully entered the temple with Buck, JD and Ezra following behind. Buck and Ezra were reluctant to allow Amanda to lead the way in case there was trouble, but they brushed those feelings aside, believing that she had a better idea what to expect than they did.
Amanda led the group through a narrow passageway that was decorated from top to bottom with more hieroglyphic markings. The passageway was wide enough for only one body at a time and twisted in so many directions that it left the travelers with no sense of direction.
So far, the threat of finding any traps during their journey seemed harmless, yet Amanda still remained alert. She learned through past adventures that the moment she let her guard down something always happened.
As Amanda led the men further into the temple, she glanced down and noticed faint disturbances in the dirt floor ahead of her. She smiled to herself and pointed down to let the others see what she found.
"Do you now understand what I was saying about finding the footprints in the tombs?"
Buckís eyes grew wide while Ezra smiled in amusement at the irony. JD, who was bringing up the rear, could barely see what was so compelling and simply shrugged his shoulders in content. Maybe theyíll tell me whatís so funny later, he thought as they continued on.
Before long, they entered a small room with only one exit straight ahead of them. The room was covered with more hieroglyphics. Amanda stopped to examine the markings closely while the men slowly drifted around the room.
"Well, so far we ainít seen anything about a golden statue. What do we do now?" asked JD as he leaned his back against the wall.
"We still have more of the temple to explore. We havenít come to its center yet. We will find it soon enough."
Suddenly, JD felt the wall behind him move. Except it was not the wall, only a stone moved inward just as two large stone doors slammed shut, locking the group inside. Amanda glanced around, her heart racing to find out what had triggered those doors to close when her eyes fell upon JD and the missing part of the wall.
Of all the places for that boy to lean against, he had to lean against a trigger mechanism, she thought.
"Well... back to the question... What do we do now?"
"Hey, how was I supposed to know?"
"Of all places to lean, JD, ya had to lean there."
"Stop panicking!" ordered Amanda feeling a sense of claustrophobia set in. "There is always a way out of this. That mechanism closed the doors, maybe there is another one that opens them."
As Amanda began examining the markings on the stone near the trigger there was a faint sound of metal grinding together. The sound froze everyone in their tracks.
"What was that?" asked Buck. "It sounded kind of like that press machine that runs at the Clarion."
"Thatís ridiculous! It is just our imagination."
The sound became louder, then Amanda noticed that the room was becoming smaller. The walls were moving. JD must have activated a trap.
"THE WALLS ARE MOVING!" screamed JD.
"Well, Fearless Leader, how do we get out of this one?" asked Ezra trying to sound calm.
"There has to be a way to stop it."
Amanda frantically studied the stone wall, searching for the mechanism while Buck, JD and Ezra tried everything to stop it. Suddenly, Amanda cried out that she found it.
"I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is a mechanism to stop the walls and open the doors... The bad news is the mechanism is located outside the door that we just entered from. There is no way to trigger it from in here."
~ 10 ~
"Well, it would seem as though we have stumbled into a very serious predicament. Does anyone have any ideas as how to escape this mess?" demanded Ezra as calmly as his voice would allow. Like the others, he was ready to claw his way out, but he forced himself not to panic.
"JD... she told ya before we walked in here not to touch nothiní," screamed Buck.
"It ainít my fault. How was I sípose to know that would happen when I leaned against that wall."
"Stop bickering, all of you. Try to help me find another way out of this."
The walls continued to move closer with every breath. The air felt stale as panic gripped them.
None of them ever thought that their lives would end like this. Ezra found it ironic that he would meet his death in this situation. He always thought that his final days would be spent at a poker game in a saloon with an irate loser that could outdraw him. Buck always thought his end would be escaping the bedroom of a jealous manís wife.
JD never really thought about death. His plans included visiting San Francisco and marrying the local farm girl, Casey Wells before he died. This was too soon.
Amanda continued searching the walls for another trigger. This situation was not unfamiliar to the adventurer. She always found herself in similar life or death situations and always managed to escape unharmed. This situation was no different to her. She refused to believe that her luck may run out, and she would continue to search until the last second.
The walls continued to move an inch for every second will Buck, JD and Ezra pushed desperately on the opposite wall trying to slow its momentum. Out of frustration Amanda gave up searching for another trigger mechanism and tried prying the key block loose with her knife she kept hidden in her right boot.
The walls moved closer until the room was 10 feet wide and continued to shorten. The air was growing stale with each compression as the prisoners were gripped tighter by their fear. Their hearts were racing, and their breathing became shallow.
It looked as though it was the end for them until JD heard the faint sound of their names like someone was shouting for them from a distance. At first he paid no attention to the sound believing it was wishful thinking brought on by panic, but the sound continued to grow louder every second. There had to be someone there.
"Listen... Did ya hear that? Sounds like thereís somebody out there," he hollered.
"The only people here, JD, are the fools thatís about to be flattened," hissed Ezra as he tried squeezing closer to the wall behind him.
"No... Listen... HELP! WEíRE IN HERE!"
"JD... Buck... Where are you?" screamed a familiar voice.
The voice became louder as it approached the stone door. It was understandable, but because of he thickness of the door and the noise the trap was making, it was still difficult to hear.
"Chris?" howled Buck. "Is that you?"
"Yeah, itís us. Whatís that noise? Whatta ya doiní in there?"
"Thereís no time to talk right now, Mr. Larabee," interrupted Amanda. "We need you to help us, or we are going to die."
The walls were close enough to reach out and touch the other side. Ezra, JD and Buck tried once more to push against both walls using their backs and legs as support, but the effort continued to be useless.
"Chris... Hurry... We ainít got much time left."
"Mr. Larabee... To the right of this stone entrance is a brick with a picture of a bird carved on it... Do you see it?"
The room was shoulder length apart. The prisoners pressed against the walls as though they were trying to become one with it. A few more seconds and they need not try.
"PUSH IT AS HARD AS YOU CAN... NOW!"
The wall moved within inches from their faces. The group closed their eyes and waited for the end. Each of them wondered if they would experience much pain as the walls crushed them to death.
Without warning, the noise seized, and the walls stopped their torturous closing. There was a moment of silence before the noise returned and the walls began to retract to their original positions before the trap was set.
The stone doors lifted, and each of the prisoners let out a huge sigh of relief. JD nearly fell to the floor as a wave of peace washed over him. He came within seconds of a cruel death, and it did not come.
Chris, Vin, Josiah and Nathan rushed into the room just as the doors opened to check on their friends. It was apparent that Chris was not happy with their current situation.
"What the hell happened in here?" demanded Chris with his usual stone expression as he watched each of his friends collapse to their knees.
"JD hit some kind aí switch that trapped us in here and made the walls move. We would aí been as flat as breakfast pancakes if you boys hadnít showed up," answered Buck breathless from the experience.
"We followed yer trail out here when Mrs. Travis told us ya left," explained Nathan.
"Well, weíre just glad yaíll showed up."
"Now that we have dispensed with the pleasantries, may we continue with the search? I believe if we push onward we will reach the center and therefore find the statue," said Amanda as she felt her patience wearing thin from the time that they had lost.
"Whoa, ainít you learned anything yet? After what weíve been through ya still wanna walk through this buildiní?" asked Buck, still confused about what was going through this womanís mind.
Chris also became angry at her suggestion. This temple that they were inside was something that they knew nothing about, and the lack of knowledge nearly cost four lives. Yet, this woman still wants to push her luck and go further into the lionís den because of her obsession.
"Weíre goiní back, and so are you if I haveta drag ya there myself."
"I am not leaving without finding that statue. You will have to kill me first."
The tension was high between the two. Chris was becoming so angry that his friends wondered if he would actually take Amanda up on that offer.
"Now there is an idea that I might consider," said a voice from behind the group.
The gunslingers grabbed their guns and turned on their heels to find pistols pointed in their direction. Eric Roberts had hired more guns to join his group to even the odds with Amanda and the gunslingers. The Seven quietly moved their hands away from their guns.
"Eric," shouted Amanda. "You followed us."
"Yes, my dear. I knew that you would find some way to escape your situation and eventually find the city, and you didnít disappoint me, sweetheart. You are just like your brother. Your impatience is the only thing that makes you predictable, and it has proven to be your undoing.
"Now, if we could drop the weapons and continue through these corridors, we might find what the Spanish were searching for 400 years ago."
The men continued through more narrow corridors, twisting and turning until they came to a large extravagant room with stone pillars that rose from the floor. More hieroglyphic markings were carved into the walls from top to bottom.
What caught their attention was an object sitting on the stone pillar at the opposite side of the room. It was carved from pure gold and was the exact size of the original stone statue that had begun this quest. The face of the statue looked as though it were smiling at them, like it knew something that they did not.
"The golden statue of Cibola. I found it," exclaimed Eric with excitement dripping through his voice. "Itís finally mine, and you men have now outlived your usefulness."
Eric swung around on his heels and aimed his pistol at Ezra. Amanda screamed, pushing Ezra out of the way just as Eric pulled the trigger. A shot rang out.
Amanda slumped to the ground on top of Ezra, blood oozing out of her shoulder. The shooting distracted the other men long enough for the gunslingers to lash out at them with their fists.
Chris gave his opponent a right-cross and another jab to the stomach and watched him slump to the dirt floor. Another man managed to go for his gun and point it at Buck ready to shoot before JD grabbed the gun from the man he was fighting and shot the murderer in the chest.
Yellow Teeth grabbed his gun and aimed it at JD, but Ezra recovered from his fall quickly, snapped his derringer from his sleeve and shot the man dead before he could shoot JD. After that, Ezra was more preoccupied by the wounded body that still lay on top of him. Amanda was slow at recovering before him and clutched her shoulder in pain.
The remaining men knew that they were losing the fight and hurried out of the temple. Josiah, Vin and Nathan followed them hoping to catch them before he escaped.
Ezra rolled Amanda over onto the floor and tried to examine the wound. The bullet went completely through her shoulder. Ezra held his hand over the wound to try and stop the bleeding while he stared into her eyes.
"Amanda... Donít move, Honey. Nathan will take care of you," comforted Ezra as he held her close to him.
Amanda smiled when she saw the worry in his eyes and knew that he cared deeply for her well-being.
"Donít worry, Darling. Iíll be fine. I was only shot in the shoulder," she returned.
"That is supposed to be my line."
At that moment, Amanda glanced over his left shoulder and saw Eric Roberts reaching for the statue on the altar. The reassuring look she had turned to fear when Eric lifted the statue from itís resting place.
"Eric... NO... Itís another trap."
But Amandaís warning was too late. Eric was so mesmerized by the statueís beauty that he failed to notice the altar drifting into the floor and the tremble of the Earth beneath his feet. The temple was collapsing.
Another stone door was slowly dropping behind the group as the walls began to crumble around their ears.
"We gotta get outta here. Chris... The door is closing," shouted Buck as he grabbed JD by the collar and hustled him through the entrance.
Amanda wrapped her good arm around Ezraís neck, and with Chrisís help, the three of them ran through the entrance before the stone closed their only escape. Eric realized that he was in danger and followed behind the others only to miss his chance at getting through the door. Behind her, Amanda could hear the whimpering cries for help as the door finally closed shut, and then there was silence.
The ground continued to shake beneath their feet as Chris, Ezra and Amanda continued down the corridors as fast as they could. The quaking threatened to knock them off their feet, but they knew that time was against them. If they fell, then they would be buried alive for eternity.
The three managed to make it to the closed stone door from the previous trap. They could hear the faint sounds of screaming and knew that the trap was sprung, and the men inside were about to be crushed.
Fortunately, another stone door had opened just as the door for the trap had closed. Amanda assumed it was a wall, but it opened another corridor, hopefully leading to the outside world.
The corridors twisted and turned until they could see sunlight through an opening in a wall ahead of them. Dust floated from the stone ceiling indicating that the temple was collapsing, and they were quickly running out of time before they would be buried under tons of solid rock.
Chris went through the opening first and reached in to help Amanda. Then Ezra crawled through the hole just as tons of stone fell from the ceiling and sealed the opening shut.
From a distance, Vin, Josiah, Nathan, Buck and JD ran to their friends to help them. The ground underneath shook violently as the temple sank into a giant hole. With every step, the ground under their feet sank further into the Earth until the men finally distanced themselves from the destruction.
When the Seven finally looked back, they saw piles of giant rock that once was a great temple. A giant mound of dirt and rock covered the sinkhole. The scene looked as though the temple never existed.
Amanda let out a large sigh and collapsed. Ezra laid her carefully on the ground as Nathan tended to her arm. He hoped that she was correct, and she would be fine.
Nathan kept Amanda in his clinic for nearly a week before finally allowing her to leave. She insisted that she was well, and he almost had to tie her to the bed to keep her still. She was not a good patient in his opinion.
While Vin, Nathan and Josiah were chasing those men through the temple, the walls and floor began to shake. The men reached the trap room in the temple when the doors collapsed, locking the gunslingers inside. Vin, Nathan and Josiah were only seconds short of being trapped as well when another door opened to their left that led them to freedom.
"The force from the wind slamming one door opens another," quoted Josiah after the Seven returned to town and shared their story of how they managed to escape the temple.
When she finally left the clinic, Amanda had to once again tell her story to Judge Orrin Travis. To her relief, the Judge ruled that the saloon fire and the murder of John Wendt was Eric Roberts doing and declared that she was not liable for most of the damage. However, she still had to reimburse a percentage of the saloon damage.
Amanda packed her things preparing to leave on the next stagecoach in the morning when she heard a knock at the door. She dropped her notebook in her bag and walked over to the door to open it. Standing in the hallway of the hotel was Ezra holding a parcel in his hand.
"I wanted to say goodbye to you before you left for New York in the morning," he said.
Amanda smiled and stepped aside to allow him into her room. She closed the door slightly and turned her attention to her visitor.
"I promise to wire my payment to you for the saloon damage. I know that I promised you more when we recovered the statue, but I am sorry about losing it after all that I put everyone through."
"Well, I am sure that your friends at the university museum will be more inclined to reimburse you for your troubles if you presented them with this."
Ezra unwrapped the parcel to reveal the stone statue that Amanda thought was destroyed when the temple collapsed. Her eyes grew wide with disbelieve as she gazed up at Ezra as he felt tears form in her eyes.
"JD recovered the statue from the pillar while the temple was in the process of diminishing. He thought you might value it more since we misplaced the golden statue during our escape."
Amanda smiled and touched his hands that held the statue. She looked up at him and their eyes locked.
"Thank you. The scholars at the university will be happy to have an actual artifact from the mythical city of Cibola to study."
Ezra reached out and touched her cheek softly. He bent down and carefully brushed his lips with hers to bestow a kiss. She ran her fingers through his hair as he deepened the kiss. After a moment, they parted and allowed their eyes to say more than words could.
"I still owe you for that dinner to make up for the poker game a few nights ago," he commented breathlessly.
"I think we find something better to do together before I leave in the morning," she said.
He smiled as he watched her reach behind her to close the door completely.
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