Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series
The original episode "Obsession" was written by Richard Kletter
Note: As with the others, we have changed some of the events to make them more believable with children involved. However, there are some mean things happening to children in this story or, specifically, one child - Vin. There is also language, and hints of sexual content here.
A Special Thanks:
To the other writers of this series, I wish to say thank you for making this work, and work well. It never would have seen the light of day without your faith, encouragement, and your dedication to getting the stories out.
To the readers, THANK YOU! Speaking for the group, I'd like to thank you for following along, for accepting the changes we made in the stories we know so well, and for providing the writers feedback each and every week.
Vin Tanner stood at the window, staring out into the growing light of dawn. He had slept very little all night, concern for his Pa keeping him awake as fear, anger and a growing sense of abandonment took hold of him.
Chris had been acting strange for a few days, either staring off into space, going off by himself, or snapping at anyone who bothered him. Finally Buck had brought him and JD into town from their little homestead, saying nothing but that they needed to give Chris some time to himself.
Then, yesterday afternoon, a lady had come into town. She was dressed up as fancy as Miz Maude, with a smile that made him feel funny. When he was introduced to her, she made over him like he was made out of gold or something. But when he looked right at her, he saw that her eyes were cold and hard.
She had come into town looking for Chris, and seemed upset when he wasn't there. But then she started smiling again, and offered the peacekeepers a job. He had figured that they'd all tell her no but, to his surprise, they had all accepted. He couldn't make out all the fancy words she used, but he gathered that there were some bad guys trying to take her land, and she needed help getting rid of them.
Then a little later she offered Uncle Buck and Mister Francis even more money to go fetch Chris. Vin was once again shocked when they both agreed. A short time later, Buck informed him and JD that Mister Josiah was going to stay with them, and then he rode out with Mister Francis.
It wasn't that he didn't enjoy spending time with the others, because he did. But the thought that maybe Chris wouldn't come back with them or, worse, only come back because that lady wanted him to, kept him worried. He wanted his Pa to come back because of him, not some fancy lady with mean eyes.
A sound caught Vin's attention, and he peered out the window to see a commotion in the street. To his dismay, he realized that most of the noise was coming from one person, and that person was his Pa. Uncle Buck and Mister Francis were with him, trying to get him to calm down.
Chris kept pushing them away, yelling at them and calling them bad names. Buck and Francis tried again and again to grab hold of him, but he just shoved at them, calling them more bad names. Then, when they finally backed off, he started yelling and cussing up a storm. Vin was startled when the blond stomped over to one of the hitching posts and started yanking on it. When the tie off post came loose from the uprights, he tossed it out onto the street and staggered toward the next post.
Vin couldn't watch anymore. He wiped at the tears that rolled down his little face, and padded hurriedly toward the bed. Climbing up onto the mattress as quietly as he could, not wanting to disturb JD, he crawled under the covers. He could still hear his Pa, although far away and muffled, so he pulled the blankets all the way over his head, and clamped his hands over his ears.
"Vin? Come on, son, time to wake up."
Little Tanner tried to pull away from the hand shaking his shoulder, but the hand just moved with him. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape, he growled at the intruder. To his dismay, the only response was that the blankets were pulled away from him, the sun of late morning sending him scurrying across the bed.
"Whoa, there, son," Josiah's deep voice rumbled, "Take it easy. It's time to wake up, the sun's high in the sky."
"Don't feel so good," Vin murmured, hoping the little lie would work.
Sanchez shook his head. He had slept in Buck's room overnight, to keep watch over the boys. Something had called his attention during the night, and he stood peering through a crack in the doorway while Vin watched out the window. He knew that the boy had endured a rough night, but it was well past wake-up and JD was out playing with the other children in town. Still...
"I'll go get Nathan, then, and have him look you over."
Rolling over and squinting up at the silver-haired man, young Tanner said, "I ain't that bad off."
"Well, good then, do you feel like breakfast?"
Vin started to say no, but his rumbling tummy announced very loudly that he was hungry. "I reckon so."
"Good. Get dressed and let's see if we can tame this mane," the former preacher smiled as he ruffled the boy's hair. "Then we'll see if we can get some flapjacks. How's that sound?"
With a resigned sigh, the eight-year-old said, "Okay."
After a token attempt at eating breakfast, Vin asked to be excused. Mister Josiah looked at him sadly, but just nodded. Without a second glance, he was out the door and looking for his Pa. Checking the livery first, he was relieved to see that Pony was standing there, calmly munching oats.
Stepping back outside, he chanced to catch sight of Uncle Buck, going into the jail. He was escorting that lady... that Miz Ella... inside, both of them laughing and carrying on. Vin knew immediately that his Pa was in the jailhouse. Shaking his head and moving in that direction, the eight-year-old tried to figure out grown ups.
Reaching the jailhouse door, the child hesitated, not certain that he wanted to go in. Then, taking a deep breath, he pushed the door open and stepped inside. Buck was just escorting Mrs. Gaines back to where he could see Chris sprawled out on a cot in one of the cells. Moving silently, the boy moved closer, along the wall, not wanting the grown ups to see him. He listened as his Uncle Buck tried to wake his Pa up.
"Rise and shine!" Buck called out in a loud voice. "Smell the coffee! Good morning, sunshine. Bet you got a headache the size of a horse. Hey, come on." He started hitting Chris on the back of the head.
Vin's face darkened as he watched that. If Buck knew that Chris had a headache, why was he hitting him on the head?
"Stop." Chris groaned, swatting at the other man's hand. Buck just laughed. Managing to open one eye, he groaned. "Oooh, what did I do?"
Still grinning like a fool, Buck answered with, "Oh, you mean after you tore down all the hitchin' posts and got the good citizens teeth to a gnashin'?"
Glaring at his old friend, Larabee mumbled, "Yeah." Then as he tried to move, he cried out, "Aaaah!" and grabbed the side of his face.
With a knowing look the mustached man said, "Jaw hurts, huh? Well, I did you a favor. Now, come on, wake up. You got a woman who's come to visit you."
"What woman?" Chris couldn't think of a woman alive he'd want to see in the condition he was in.
Buck turned away, still grinning, and spoke in a respectful tone. "Ma'am."
Vin watched Miz Gaines strut into the cell, laughing as she said to his Pa, "You haven't changed one bit. Still courtin' trouble, I see."
The blond jerked, suddenly coming alert and standing as the brunette smiled at him. Laughing now he said, "Ella!"
Moving closer to him, she toyed with his undershirt and said, "And still the handsomest drunk I ever knew."
"And you're still the prettiest liar I ever met. It's been a lot of years, Ella."
"Last I heard, you got married and took up farming and I thought, "Why hitch a stallion to a plow?" But it looks like you've quit."
His smile fading, Chris nodded and dropped back to the cot. "My family was murdered."
"My God, Chris." With a shocked expression, Ella Gaines dropped to the cot beside him.
"Yeah, 3 years ago yesterday. Always makes me a little woolly."
Vin's eyes widened as he realized just what his Pa was saying. Suddenly he could understand why Chris was so grouchy lately. He'd come to understand just how much losing Miz Sarah and Adam had meant to the somber man.
The woman's voice brought him back from his thoughts. He listened as she said, "I am so... so sorry. My Joseph died not too long ago. I know how you feel."
'Course she didn't know how Pa felt! Vin had seen the coldness in her eyes, he hadn't seen any sadness anywhere. Not like he could see if he looked real close when Chris was pondering something.
"Oh, that's tough. So what are you doing here, Ella?"
"I need your help. There's a man by the name of Handsome Jack Averal. He's trying to steal my land for the Culpepper Mining Company. Your friends have already signed on... for a month's wages."
"Well, you can count me in."
The upset boy backed away, moving until he could bolt from the jailhouse. The last thing he wanted to do was to go anywhere with that woman. He made it to the boardwalk without any of the adults seeing him, but jumped when someone called his name.
"Vin! Where've you been?" JD greeted his friend, running up to him out of breath and red-faced. Several of the town's children were running and laughing, chasing one another around the boardwalk.
"Nowhere," Vin replied sadly. He kicked at a splinter on the walk, then shoved his hands into his pockets and scuffed away.
"Where ya goin', Vin!?" JD called after him. The only response he got was a shrug as the older boy wandered off. He started after him, but then the other children called his name. Torn for only a few seconds, he hurried back to the group, laughing as he got closer. By the time he met up with his friends, Vin was forgotten.
Later that day, the boys went with their fathers, uncles, and friends to the saloon. Vin wasn't in the mood to be around everyone, but he wasn't about to say anything. Still uncertain of his place, he was afraid that a refusal would give his Pa reason to reconsider having him around. He also wasn't real happy about being around JD right now. The two of them had gotten into an argument earlier, and, while he felt bad about it, he was still upset with the younger boy.
And he just knew that his Pa was disappointed in him.
"How comes you're just sittin' here, Vin?" JD looked around them, trying to find something interesting enough to keep his friend sitting here on a box outside the livery, staring off into space. Shaking his head, he said, "It's boring here."
"I'm just thinkin', JD," Vin said crossly. "Leave me 'lone."
Undaunted, JD continued. "What'cha thinkin' 'bout?"
"Then how comes you're so growly?"
"JD, I'm gonna throw a rock at you or somethin', now go 'way and leave me ALONE!"
His lip poking out and big eyes watering, JD managed, "FINE!" before stomping off toward the street. The little brunet made it about five feet before the tears began to flow, leaving him running down the boardwalk, calling for Buck.
Vin looked up a few minutes later, seeing his Pa coming toward him. He started to smile, happy to see that Chris wasn't with that woman. But then he saw the stern set of the big man's jaw, and knew he was in trouble. He suddenly wished he was anywhere but where he was.
"Hey, Cowboy." Chris said as way of greeting. He didn't say anything else until he settled on another box, his elbows propped on his knees. Hazel eyes observing the little boy with a keen gaze, he said, "Something wrong?"
The eight-year-old shrugged, starring down at the dirt as if it held all the answers in the world.
"JD said you were 'growly' toward him while ago. Anything you'd like to talk about?"
Again the child simply shrugged, still staring at the ground.
"Vin? Would you look at me please?"
Heaving a sigh, young Tanner managed to slant a look toward his adopted father.
"Thank you, that's better. Now, can you tell me what's wrong?"
"Nothin'." The word was so soft, Chris barely heard it.
"Nothin'," Vin repeated a little louder. He ducked his head, unable to look at his Pa staring at him for what felt like, forever. Finally he heard Chris moving, and saw his boots walking away from him. One little hand swiped at his nose and then both hands brushed angrily at the tears that came, unwanted.
Vin shifted in the chair he was sitting in, not even interested in the glass of lemonade his Pa had bought him. He wouldn't look at JD and couldn't look at Chris. So he just sat there, miserable, while everyone talked to Miz Gaines like she was one of those Queen ladies Mister Josiah told stories about.
Ella Gaines held the attention of the men sitting around her. She was explaining the problem with her ranch. "Handsome Jack has already burned out half the ranches in the valley. Of course, he never had to tangle with the likes of you boys."
Buck raised his beer mug. "Well, here's to the demise of Not-so-handsome Jack."
"You know, Miss Ella, I was, uh, considering adopting Mister Averal's sobriquet for myself. Handsome Ezra has a sort of ring to it, don't you think?" Ezra's gold tooth flashed in the lantern light.
Rolling his eyes, Buck said, "Windbag is more like it."
Not wanting to feel left out of the conversation, JD piped up with, "I'm han-some, too!"
Chuckling, Buck ruffled his son's dark hair. "That you are, Little Bit."
Ezra, still smiling, said, "What about you, Mister Larabee? What moniker would you choose?"
Before he could respond, Ella grinned broadly and announced, "Bareback, Larabee. That's what I called him."
"Well, go on, Miss Ella."
With a glare, Chris said, "She will not."
Not even blushing as she continued her story with the two boys around, she said, "The rain was fierce. Chris wore only boots, a hat, and his birthday suit. I had only an umbrella as we rode off."
His hands firmly over JD's ears, Buck couldn't help but laugh along with the others. "Oh, the picture." Taking one hand off the scowling five-year-old boy's head and ignoring his indignant demand to know what was so funny, he raised his glass once more. "Well, here's to Bareback Larabee."
Ezra, likewise covering Vin's ears, although the older boy had probably seen more than any of them cared to consider, freed one hand and joined in the toast. "Long may he ride."
Giving Ella an annoyed look, Chris announced, "Come on, boys, it's time you two got ready for bed."
"Awwww," JD pouted. Then he giggled when Ella ruffled his hair and kissed him on the forehead.
"You go on, now," She looked at Chris, and then Buck. "Perhaps Buck could..."
Jumping out of his chair, Vin said hastily, "C'mon, Pa. I'm ready."
Larabee couldn't help the content smile that lit his face as he nodded goodnight to the others and walked from the saloon, one little hand in each of his. He didn't see the anger flair in Ella's dark eyes. She covered it quickly, turning her attention to the others who were gathered there.
Vin stood on the boardwalk, staring gloomily into the distance. Not even the fact that he would soon be riding his pony could bring a smile to his little face. All around him the men were preparing for their trip. He heard light footsteps behind him and turned to see Miz Travis walking toward them. He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat as she walked by, managing a smile when she smiled down at him.
Walking up to Chris, the blond newspaper woman asked, "Any idea how long you'll be gone?"
Hat in hand, the blond smiled at the woman. "Oh, it'll probably be just a day or two. You'll be all right."
Mary watched him walk away, preparing to leave. Then she scowled when she realized that Ella Gaines had come up beside her.
With a predatory grin, Ella said softly, "I'll have them back in no time. Except for Chris." Then, turning away, she called out "Chris, would you like to ride in the carriage? We could reminisce about old times."
Vin frowned, hearing the words. He looked from Ella to Mary to Chris and back again. He felt nervous, wondering just what the woman had in mind. Not knowing anything else to do, he called out, "Will you ride with me, Pa?"
To the little boy's dismay, Larabee offered his hand to Mrs. Gaines, escorting her to the buggy. With a smile toward his little boy, he said, "I will in a bit, Cowboy. I want to talk to my friend for a bit.
Friend? Vin fumed as he climbed into his saddle. How could he not see that Miz Gaines was bad news?
Chris never got around to leaving the buggy, talking with the woman as they traveled to her home.
Ella smiled when she saw the approval in Larabee's eye as he took a drink of the bottle she offered him. "That's Kentucky mash. You won't find that in your little burg."
With a broad grin, Chris answered, "You always did know your spirits."
"I ran a successful liquor business after you left." Pride was obvious in the woman's voice. The blond nodded his head approvingly, so she continued. "Drowned my sorrows in my work."
They were quiet for a moment, each caught in their own thoughts. Finally, Larabee said, "We had some good times, didn't we, Ella?" When she smiled and leaned against him, he teased, "I'll say this. You were one wild little girl."
Laughing, Ella said, "Well, the way I remember it, you were the crazy one. Rowdy and ready to fight. Bar scrapes every night. Calling out any man who would even look my way."
Sheepishly, Chris ducked his head, but said, "And you enjoyed every bit of it."
"Yes, I did." Then she sobered as she asked, "Is that why you didn't come looking for me? After your wife died, I mean."
Sobering himself, Larabee explained, "Well, after she died, it took everything I had just to get out of bed in the morning. Then I went after her killer. I didn't think about anything else."
"Ever find him?"
With a nod and a satisfied expression, Chris replied, "Name of Fowler. Still looking for the man who hired him. But I'll find him."
"If I can help any, you just ask." Then, deciding to lighten the mood, she giggled. "Bareback Larabee."
The group traveled a while longer. JD was asleep in Buck's arms, bobbing like a ragdoll atop his Papa's patient gray. Vin rode beside them, his eyes never leaving his Pa, sitting there, talking and laughing with that Miz Gaines. After a while, the buggy driver reined in the horse. The entire group saw the beautiful house and grounds below them in the valley.
Enjoying the admiring look on Larabee's face, Ella explained, "My husband left it to me. What do you think, Chris? Little bit of heaven?"
"That looks like a whole lot of heaven." Turning to the woman, he said, "Finally come up with a place that suits you."
Her smile growing wider, Mrs. Gaines spoke to the driver. "Luis, take us home."
The group arrived at the house, Ella instructing the driver to care for everyone's horses. She led them into her home, her arm through Chris'. As they entered the parlor, she said, "Come on in. Help yourself to the food, boys. There's plenty more where that came from."
"Thank you, Ma'am." Buck responded.
As he walked through the parlor, Ella on his arm, Chris spoke to the former preacher. "Eat fast, Josiah. You and Francis got first watch."
Tugging at his arm, the widow said, "Chris, why don't you come on upstairs? I'll show you your room."
Ezra grinned at Larabee as the bigger man began to ascend the stairs, arm still linked with Ella's. "If, uh, you prefer the bunkhouse, Chris, I'll take the feather bed. That's the sort of good-hearted person I am."
The gunman just laughed, grinning at the other man over his shoulder.
Vin stood by the front door, all but forgotten. He looked around him, seeing the fancy furniture, the lace cloths on the table and the spread of food. It was the fanciest place he'd ever been in. And the scariest. He wasn't certain what scared him more, the way that Miz Ella could talk his Pa into doing whatever she wanted, or the fact that all the others seemed to think she was such a good person.
Nearby, Buck was holding a sleepy JD on his hip, taking in the lay of the land. He spied two ladies at the piano across the room, smiling as he strolled over to them. He'd pushed his hat off, letting it dangle by the latigo, and ran his fingers through his hair. With a cursory nod to the lady sitting at the piano, he smiled at the lady standing beside it. "A beautiful lady like you could charm the sting off a bee."
The woman barely noticed him, just giving him a little smile. The other lady, who was quite a bit larger than her companion, grinned. "I'm teaching her to play piano. I could teach you."
"Oh, well--" Wilmington stammered.
Standing now, the lady continued. "Well, it'd be my pleasure, truly. I'm Ella's husband's niece Hildegard. My friends call me Hilda."
"Uh, Buck, and this here's JD... my son."
The thin lady standing beside the piano got a funny look on her face at that, but Hilda just smiled even bigger. She reached out and tweaked the little brunet's nose as she said, "Why, hello, JD... Buck."
"Nice to meet you." Buck said.
"Nice to meet you." JD mimicked.
Vin wandered out behind Mister Josiah and Mister Francis. Mister Francis went off toward the horses, announcing that he would take a ride around the perimeter. The forlorn boy found himself tagging along behind Mister Josiah. The big man strode up to where another man was dressed in strange clothes. He had a little hat on his head with a red ball on top of it! Vin shook his head at how strange grown ups could be, leaning against a tree while he listened to the two men talking.
Watching the man hitting a little ball with a strange, curved stick, Josiah asked, "What do you call this, Doc?"
"Folks over in Scotland play this. It's called golf."
"Uh-huh." Sanchez commented, intrigued.
"Give it a try." The doc said, offering Josiah the stick.
"Love to." The men traded, Josiah grabbing the club and handing the other man his rifle. Standing like he'd seen the other man do, he took aim and hit the little ball with the club. Watching, open-mouthed, as the ball flew into the distance, all he could say was, "Wow!"
The doctor had a satisfied smile on his face as he commented; "Now you're hooked."
Huffing out a breath and shaking his head, Vin wandered off.
A while later, Buck found Vin and led him and JD toward where the others were heading, into the bunkhouse. Going inside, the men were aghast at the poor condition it was in. Cobwebs hung, thick with dust, from the ceiling. Dust was thick everywhere, covering every surface in the big room. Mattresses and covers hung off the bed frames.
Vin frowned. This sure wasn't a working ranch.
"Ooh! Bareback Larabee, he gets the goose down. We get this little slice of heaven." Buck exclaimed, knocking a web away from his face.
"I think I'll sleep under the stars." Vin declared, grabbing up his bedroll and heading toward the door.
"Oh, the indignity. Courage, Ezra, courage." Ezra proclaimed at the same time, his hand over his heart.
Vin hesitated at the threshold, looking back. He expected Buck to argue with him, but the big man was busy talking to JD and trying to find a bed that wasn't too dirty. Swallowing around the lump in his throat, the little boy wandered on outside, alone.
A short time later, young Tanner had found a hiding place amongst the bushes near the porch. He needed somewhere private where he could think. But the only thing that came to mind was... maybe it was time to move on. Then he started as he overheard his... Chris, talking to that Miz Ella.
"This is good land, Chris. A man could raise a fine herd of horses on land this good." Ella smiled up at the blond, leaning against him as they walked arm in arm.
"Did that once. Never figured on doing it again." Chris said softly.
"Don't you see though-- this is-- this is the place we've always dreamed about."
What? Vin's heart beat faster and faster. Was his Pa thinking about staying here?
"I feel like I'm a step or two behind you, Ella." Larabee admitted.
Leaning up to kiss him, the woman coaxed, "Catch up to me."
Vin was just about to run off when he heard the sound of a horse and buggy. He watched as the buggy that Miz Ella and Chris had ridden in, came toward the house. The driver was all slumped over. Vin knew there was trouble.
Chris and Ella heard the buggy as well. Turning, they saw what the little boy had seen. Ella cried out, "Luis! Doc!"
As the two of them ran toward the buggy, Chris called out, "What happened? Doc!"
The doctor and Nathan came running out of the house. The doctor took a look at Luis and confirmed, "He's been shot."
Luis struggled to speak, his words punctuated by gasps of pain. "Handsome Jack says hired guns don't matter. You still got 48 hours, then he's coming after you."
"Help me get him inside." The doctor instructed.
Nathan reached out, unwrapping the reins from the man's wrists. "Let's get him down. Come on. Easy, easy, easy."
As the two medical men helped the wounded man inside, Chris turned toward Ella. "Where do I find this Handsome Jack?"
"He keeps company over in a saloon in Red Fork. What are you going to do?"
"Just want to have a little talk with him."
Vin's heart was pounding. Where was his Pa going? As quiet as he could manage, he scurried away.
JD was wandering around, staying close to the bunkhouse like his Papa said. He was looking for Vin; had been for some time. His brother didn't seem to be anywhere around. Then, just as he turned the corner, he saw another boy. He looked even older than Vin, and he was wearing a hat, just like JD's. The friendly little boy grinned, calling out, "Hi!"
Instead of answering, the older boy came over and grabbed the smaller boy's bowler. He tossed the hat aside, ignoring JD's indignant cry. "You're wearing my hat."
Hands on hips, and anger flashing in his eyes, JD said, "I'll wear any hat I wanna wear!"
"Uh-huh!" JD ran over and scooped his hat up. He was about to go back and punch the bigger boy, but about that time, his Papa came over and picked him up.
"Hey, Little Bit, you got your hat all dusty." Before the five-year-old could respond, he continued. "Me, your Uncle Chris, and Francis are gonna be gone for a while. We might not be back 'til morning, so Josiah's gonna keep watch over you."
"No!" The child wailed. "Don't go, Papa, stay with me!"
The bigger boy snickered and made a sound like a crying baby. Then, before either of them could react, he ran off. JD turned back to face Buck. "He's mean, Papa."
Almost to himself, Wilmington muttered, "looks like his family tree weren't no bigger than a little shrub."
"Huh?" JD wondered. Then, remembering what he had been upset about, he protested. "Stay with me, Papa!"
"Hey, now, son. We took on this job to get rid of that mean Jack Averal. Don't you want us to get done so we can get on back home?"
Sighing, knowing he couldn't argue with that, JD said softly, "Okay, Papa."
Buck, Francis and Chris were saddling up, preparing to ride out to face Jack Averal and "have a talk" with him. Chris kept stopping, looking around with a frown.
"Chris, his pony's still here. He can't have gone far. Ezra and Josiah are gonna look for him, he'll be here safe and sound, when we get back." Buck said.
"I wish I could be that certain," Larabee replied softly.
"Hey, you know I feel the same as you do, about that little boy. I'd be the first one to tell you to stay here if I thought there was a problem."
"I know, it's just..." Chris trailed off. "He's been acting strange all day."
"Ahh," Buck gruffed. "He's just a little out of sorts. He ain't had to share your attention for a while."
With a frown, Larabee replied, "He doesn't have to share me." Climbing up into the saddle, he said, "Let's get this over with. The quicker we get back, the better I'll like it."
Above the men, in the hayloft, Vin lay on his stomach, watching everything. He knew he should let his Pa know where he was. But he lay still, just watching and listening. If he didn't have to share his Pa, then why had Chris been spending all his time with that Miz Ella Gaines?
Maybe Chris didn't think he needed to share, because he was happier being with that woman.
It was nearly dark before Josiah located the little blond. "Son, where have you been?"
Vin just shrugged, staring down at the toes of his boots. He couldn't bring himself to tell Mister Josiah what he was thinking,
"Vin? I asked you a question."
"I was just... lookin' 'round."
"Well, it's time to get ready for bed. Your Pa, Buck and Francis had to go away for a few hours. They should be back by the time you wake up."
"Okay," Vin replied. He started toward the bunkhouse, Josiah right beside him. The boy was working on a plan. After the grown ups went to sleep, he'd take off. Maybe it was time to go live with the Seminole.
The sound of horses riding in woke the men and boys in the bunkhouse. Looking out the window, JD smiled happily, "It's Papa! It's Papa and Uncle Chris and Mister Francis! Papa's back!"
"Sheesh, JD, we heard ya," Vin groused, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
"Let's don't start the day off in a bad mood," Josiah warned. "You boys get dressed and we'll go see what there is for breakfast."
"I wanna go see Papa first!" JD protested.
Smiling, the older man said, "We'll see him at breakfast, now come along. Vin? Come on, son, let's get dressed."
Vin sighed. He hadn't meant to go to sleep. Now he'd have to wait for another chance to leave.
Ella met the riders at the corral. As they dismounted she approached the gunslinger. "Chris, how'd it go with Averal?"
"Well, if it's a fight he's looking for, now he knows we'll give him one."
Well, I'm sure he'll come to his senses rather than mess with all of you."
Shaking his head, Larabee said, "I wouldn't count on it." Then he turned his attention to the horses inside the corral. "Beauties."
Smiling, Ella said, "Those aren't just saddle horses, you know. Look at their conformation."
"They've been bred. One look tells you that. Wow, they're something."
"How'd you like to break them for me? After all, that is why I bought them."
"All right." Chris smiled down at the woman. He didn't see the little boy standing a few feet away, watching them.
They were gathered in the dining room, eating the huge breakfast the women had prepared. Vin had come along with them, he and JD sitting between Josiah and Ezra. He told himself that he didn't care if his Pa ever came into the house, but he couldn't help but look toward the door every few minutes.
The door opened and Chris entered; Ella right at his side. They were smiling and laughing, talking about something that only the two of them knew anything about. They were almost to the table before Larabee looked up. His smile widened when he saw his son, then faded and a stern look came over his face.
"Vin! Where were you yesterday? I was worried sick about you!"
Hearing only anger, Vin snapped, "Ya sure don't look like it, prancin' 'round with her!"
"Vin!" Chris said in a warning tone. "Young man, you apologize."
"NO!" The little boy yelled, red-faced in anger and embarrassment. He jumped off his chair and ran from the room.
"Damn it," Larabee muttered as he started after the child. Stopping when Ella grasped his hand, he turned toward her. "Ella - "
"Let me, Chris, please? It's me he's upset about. After all, I've stolen you away from him." Ella smiled. Larabee thought about it, then finally nodded. Reaching up on tip-toe, she kissed him on the cheek, then hurried away.
Vin was in the barn, dragging his pony's tack toward the stall where the spirited young black stood. Every few steps he had to stop long enough to swipe at the tears that rolled down his face. He heard someone entering the barn, but didn't turn to see who it was. Whoever it was; was standing right behind him, but he ignored them.
"Where do you think you're going, you little brat?"
Vin whirled around, startled, to find Ella Gaines staring down at him. The look in her eyes scared him enough that he took a step backward. "Ain't... ain't none 'a yer business."
"Oh, yes it is. I won't have Chris distracted, worrying about you. You hear me?" Leaning down, she grabbed him by the arm, hard enough to make him grimace. That made her smile, a cold smile, as she said, "You're going to do just what I say, understand? If you don't... I'll hurt him... bad. Understand? And I'll make him believe that you did it. And he won't want you around him, ever again. Do we have an understanding, you little bastard?"
Anger flared and died, replaced by fear. He could see it in her face... she'd do just what she said she would. Swallowing hard, he nodded. She let go of his arm, and he rubbed the spot she'd held, still feeling as if she had hold of him.
Buck was tired. They'd been in the saddle all night, after being in the saddle most of the day. All he wanted to do was stretch out and get a little sleep, even if it was in the dusty bunkhouse. JD had insisted on coming with him, leaving him little chance to sleep. The boy busied himself though; sweeping the dirty floor with a broom that's handle was far over his head. What he accomplished was to send the dust flying into the air, leaving both of them coughing.
Just then, a woman's voice came to them through the window. "Buck!"
"Oh, God, Hilda."
JD frowned. "How comes you don't like her, Papa? She's real nice."
"I just... um... well, it's just..." Wilmington stammered. He began scuttling around the room, looking for a place to hide. "Uh, uh, stall her for me, ok? Tell her I'm out of town."
"But that's a fib, Papa! I don't wanna fib!"
Buck groaned, realizing what he had just asked his son. "I just... look, she's just not the lady I want to... well..."
"You like that skinny lady better, Papa?" JD asked, innocently, a puzzled look on his face. He didn't see anything wrong with Miz Hilda. She'd brought him some cookies and milk earlier, and promised to take him berry picking later.
"It's not that... it's, well..."
"Buck?" Came Hilda's voice once more.
Deciding that he needed to help, JD called out, "Hey, Papa."
The little boy moved over to one corner of the room, tugging at a little circle of iron that had been hidden in the dust. "Tripped over it yesterday. Mister 'Siah said it leads to the roots cellar."
Gratefully the big brunet yanked the door open, climbing down into the cellar, closing the door just as the woman entered the bunkhouse.
"Hello, Buck." Then she frowned. She was certain she'd seen the handsome man coming in here a few moments ago. Looking down at the little boy, she asked, "Where's Buck?"
JD said, "Well, he ain't in here, Miss," glad he could answer honestly.
Vin stood a short distance from the corral, watching his Pa. Chris was working with one of that woman's horses. He glanced over toward the big house, unable to stop the shiver that ran through him when he saw her watching his Pa from the porch.
Chris worked with the big animal, intent on breaking it to the saddle. The animal had been worked with a little, accepting the bit, but little else. He was vaguely aware that Vin and Ella were both watching him. He was also aware of the fact that his son stood off, in the shadows, as if afraid to come closer. He wasn't certain what was going on. Ella had come back into the house that morning, announcing that she'd had a talk with Vin; letting him know that she wasn't going to compete with him. Despite that, however, Vin had kept his distance. Even when Chris had sought him out, the little boy had barely said a word, other than to assure his Pa that things were fine now, between him and Ella.
With his audience of two, Chris continued to work with the animal. After some time, he carefully saddled it. Speaking softly to the black, he slowly moved in, climbing onto its back. With a whinny of anger and fear, the animal began to buck.
Vin stood, watching his Pa in awe. A smile warmed his elfin features, his eyes never leaving the sight of Chris Larabee riding the big, black horse. Then he happened to catch sight of the woman on the porch, and his smile left him.
Ella watched the handsome blond, a hungry look on her face. She'd have him yet... all to herself, forever.
After some time, Chris dismounted the black, realizing that the two of them needed a break. He stripped saddle and tack off the animal as it snorted and blew its indignity, then wiped it down. That finished, he left the corral, smiling as Ella met him.
Leaning toward the man, the brunette waved her hand in front of her face. "Whew, you smell worse than the horse does!"
With a laugh, Chris grabbed her, pulling her close. "Yeah? Well, I thought you liked your men to smell... like a man."
"Man yes... beast? No. Come on, you need a bath."
Still chuckling, Larabee allowed her to lead him into the house, without a look back. He didn't see the son of his heart watching them with growing sadness etched on his little face.
JD found Vin sitting in the dirt, beside the barn. "What'cha doin', Vin?"
Sitting down beside his friend and brother, the smaller boy said, "Don't you like me no more?" He tried to stop it, but his lip quivered.
"I like ya fine, JD."
"Then how comes you're mad at me?"
"Ain't mad at ya, JD."
Taking the older boy at his word, JD smiled. "Okay then."
The two boys watched as Mister Ezra came up riding hard. He leapt out of the saddle, calling to the other men. Vin and JD scrambled to their feet, running over to see what was going on.
Locking eyes with Josiah, Ezra said simply, "They're coming."
"All right, let's get to it," Buck said. "Where's Chris?"
"Right here." The other men turned to find Larabee coming from the house, still buttoning his shirt.
Buck grinned, having no doubt as to what the other man had been doing. The others simply acknowledged the man who'd become their leader. None of them felt very comfortable with the changes they'd witnessed in the man these last few days.
A short time later, Jack Averal and his men rode into the yard, reining in a few yards from the front door. Their leader said, "Let her know we're here, boys!"
Gunshots rang out, then there was only quiet for almost a minute. Jack was grinning, unfazed by the lack of response. He called out, "Ella Gaines, time's up. Come for your answer." Then he looked from side to side at the other men as he said, "Probably puttin' her make-up on, boys. Wants to look her best for me."
Suddenly Francis Corcoran moved from where he'd been hiding behind the wagon. "Not likely."
The sounds of guns cocking filled the air now, and the riders found themselves surrounded by the peacekeepers. Then the door opened and Chris Larabee strolled out, dressed head to toe in black. Casually he stopped at the edge of the porch, one arm leaning against the upright. "It's up to you, Jack."
Without warning, one of the riders drew his gun, aiming it toward Chris. Before he could fire, Ezra shot, hitting the man in his gun hand.
Averal ordered, "Hey! Hey! Put 'em down boys. Next moron goes for his weapon, I'll shoot you myself."
"Now, you ride out of here. Tell that mining company to forget about this land." Chris felt Ella come up beside him, slipping easily under his arm and leaning against him.
Averal grinned as he said, "Gonna miss ya, Ella."
"You're a big boy. You'll get over it." She watched as the riders turned, riding off once more.
Vin and JD rushed out of their hiding place, JD calling out, "We runned that ol' han-some Jack and his bunch right out of here, huh?"
Chuckling, Buck swung the little boy into his arms. "That we did, Little Bit... that we did."
As the group gathered in the yard, Ella said, "You scared them off just like I knew you would."
"I'm not convinced." Francis said, his soldier's sense telling him that something didn't add up. "He knew we were here, yet he rode straight into a trap."
"Well, all of Jack's courage is in his mouth. He won't be back. And I can't thank you enough for that." The diminutive brunette said.
Chris had an uneasy feeling about the way things had gone down, as well. "Maybe, but we better keep our lookouts."
"All the same to you, I'll ride over to Red Fork later. See if he's still around." Francis said.
"All right." Chris agreed. Then, deciding that there was no time like the present he announced to them all. "You should all know, after this job's finished-- I'll be staying on here."
The former rebel looked at the blond with disbelief. The others looked on in stunned silence. As he prepared to leave, Francis said, "Good luck to ya."
Starring at his Pa, Vin was unable to believe what he'd heard. Turning, he ran blindly away, tears once more flowing.
"Vin!" Chris shouted, starting after his son and only stopping when Ella once again grabbed his hand. Turning to the woman, he said, "I need to go after him."
"Please, Chris, give him time. Maybe you shouldn't have said anything yet. I'm sure he'll come to love it here, it's just going to be difficult for him for a time."
Squeezing the woman's hand, Larabee said again, "I need to go after him." Pulling himself from her grasp, he ran after his son.
"Papa? Is Uncle Chris and Vin gonna live here now?" JD asked softly.
"Maybe... it sounds like it," Buck admitted.
"I don't want 'em to!" The little boy protested.
Hugging his son, Buck said, "I don't either, Little Bit. I don't either."
Oblivious to what the others were saying, Ella watched Chris sprinting after the little ragamuffin he'd drug along with him. As she did, a plan began to form. Tonight, she'd throw a party. She'd tell them that it was her way of saying thank you to the men for their help. That would keep Chris occupied for a while. Long enough to get the little brat off by himself. She'd lock him away for the time being. Chris would be upset, of course, but she was certain that she could convince him that the boy had run off; probably back to whatever pack of wolves he'd come from.
After a while, he'd forget all about this Vin Tanner. Even if she had to bear him a brood of squalling brats, she'd keep him here.
It took some time for Chris to catch up to the little boy. Vin was running full out, not even looking where he was going. Before he could catch up, the blond saw his son get himself caught up in the blackberry bushes that lined this area of the property. The boy growled, yelling epithets in Kiowa, Comanche and Spanish. "Vin, stop! Stand still, I'll help you."
Vin turned, shocked to find his Pa so close behind him. The sight spurred him on, and he continued to fight the briars, not even feeling the pricks and pokes that drew blood on his hands and face.
Kneeling beside the fighting boy, Chris began to talk softly, as he had with the horse, earlier. "Vin, come on, Son, settle down. Talk to me, buddy, tell me what's wrong. It's gonna be all right, Vin, I promise. It's gonna be all right." He continued to talk softly until, finally, the eight-year-old calmed.
Carefully, moving slowly, Larabee began to untangle the child. The entire time he was loosening the briars, he continued talking, gratified when the big, blue eyes locked with his. Smiling, he said, "It's gonna be all right, Vin. If you truly don't want to live here, we'll go back to town. But can you do me a favor and give it a chance? Give Ella a chance? She's really a good person. She and I used to be... well, we were very close... back before I met Sarah."
As the last briar was removed from his coat, Vin moved away from the blackberry patch and stood directly in front of his Pa. Not thinking about what might happen, he blurted out, "No she ain't.. She aint' a good person. I - "
"Vin! You aren't to speak like that about her! Now you march right back there and let's have Nathan look you over. Then, young man, you're going to sit down and think about what you said."
Eyes blazing and disappointment in his voice, the eight-year-old said, "Fine! But I ain't changin' my mind, and I'll be leavin' with Uncle Buck and the others!"
Man and boy marched back to the house, neither of them observing the woman who stood nearby, hidden behind one of the out buildings. Ella watched the two of them returning to the house, a predatory smile on her face.
Vin sat on the corner of the bed, Chris having brought him to one of the empty bedrooms in the big house. He had begged to be allowed to go back to the bunkhouse, preferring the dirt and dust to the fancy house. But his Pa hadn't budged, informing him that he was going to stay where he could keep watch on him. His child's mind didn't grasp the fear in the blond's voice and face, all he understood was the punishment.
He wasn't going to stay here, that much he knew already. When Uncle Buck and the others left to go back home, he'd go with them. If Uncle Buck didn't want to keep him around, he'd keep on riding, heading out for the Seminole village. He figured he could prove himself there, and earn his place as one of them.
Mister Nathan had washed his hands out good, with soap and water, before wiping them down with something from one of his bottles. Then he'd wrapped boiled muslin around both hands. The places on his face weren't as deep or as bad, so they'd been washed out and left to heal in the air.
There was a knock at the door, and that Miz Ella entered, carrying a tray. She smiled a cold smile at him, carrying the tray over and setting it down beside him. Folding her arms over her chest, she frowned down at him. "I told Chris I'd come up here and try to make my peace with you. I told you, I'd make it bad if you didn't do as I said. Now you've got him all upset because you want to leave here. I'm not going to let you ruin my plans, you little brat. I'll be damned if I let him go, for the likes of you! Now, eat, I want that plate cleaned, quick."
"You think I care? I'm throwing a party tonight, and I don't want Chris worrying about you. So eat, or I'll feed it to you."
Vin looked on in horror, as she produced a length of rope from the pocket of her dress. Holding it up, she repeated, "This will hold you still, and then I'll feed you,"
Despite his resolve, Vin Tanner was only seven, and suddenly uncertain of what Chris would do when it came right down to it. He missed Miz Sarah and Adam something fierce. Vin remembered how angry he'd been when Uncle Buck and Mister Francis had brought him into town. And he'd been real happy since they'd come here, and he knew that was because of this woman. He hadn't been able to make his Pa happy for the last several days, but she did. Why wouldn't he want to stay here?
Shoulders slumped in defeat; the little boy began to eat.
Ella had gone to talk to Vin again, and had suggested he find something to keep him busy so he wouldn't fret. He wasn't certain he could stay that busy, but Chris decided to give it a try. He'd come out to the corral, getting to work with the half-tamed black. He'd been there for about half an hour, and decided it was time for a break "Come on! Come on! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" He coaxed the animal as he began to remove the tack.
Leaning against the fence post, Buck watched as his old friend finished, walking toward him, carrying the tack. "He's gentlin' down real good. Gonna be a nice horse."
With a grin, Larabee held up the bridle. "You're next."
"Yeah, right." Wilmington responded, laughing. "You know, a man could get cozy with all this."
One shoulder leaning against the corral fence, Chris agreed. "A man could."
"Mm hmm. And when we first met, you had just parted ways with Ella. Remember that? And you said that being with her was like walking on the edge of a sharp knife. Sooner or later, you're bound to bleed."
"Well, it seems like back then we were trying to kill ourselves."
"Guess you don't feel that way now."
"Hell no. I'm too old for that. Besides, I've got Vin to think about, and she's changed. She even wants kids now. You know Buck, there's more to life than drinking and fighting."
With a grin, the bigger man said, "Well, you know what? Sarah thought that."
"Yeah, she did. She taught me the pleasures of home and family." Larabee's expression softened; sadness and melancholy wrapping around his smile.
"You going to take that life up with Ella now?"
"I'm not certain of it. But I'll tell you, Buck, she's an exciting woman."
"Oh, so it's love that's got you leaving us, is it?" When Chris just smiled, he asked, "What about Vin? He don't seem real happy with the situation.
The blond's expression darkened. "He'll come around. Ella's up there now, talking to him. He's upset because things are gonna change. Once he gets used to being here, he'll be fine."
Buck wasn't certain whether his old friend was trying to convince him, or himself. He didn't have much time to ponder it, however, when a voice that was growing far too familiar to him, called his name.
"Hello, Buck." The smiling young woman swept in, leaning against the corral fence from the outside. Picking a fat, juicy berry from the bowl she carried, she held it out as she said, "Want a blackberry?"
Sighing, the big brunet said, "Hilda, how many times have I told you, you don't go sneaking up on a man? You're bound to get yourself shot."
"Oh, pshaw," she said, laughing. "One day, Mister Wilmington, you will come to appreciate my qualities."
Leaning in close, his smile returning, Chris said, "You can run, stud, but you can't hide."
"Yep." Was the response, delivered around the blackberry.
As Larabee walked away, he heard the young woman offer, "More?"
A short time later, Hilda had convinced Buck to join her on the porch. She brought him out a glass of milk and a plate of fresh gingersnaps. They sat near one another, Hilda holding the plate, while Buck dunked them, one at a time, in the milk.
Savoring one of the cookies, Buck said, "Thank you."
"Uh huh." Hilda replied nervously. Then, deciding to speak her peace, she said, "I know some men like their woman underfed and even scrawny, and... and, well, I'm big as an ox - "
"No, you're not." Buck broke in, unwilling to allow the young woman to degrade herself. His love of women - all women - wouldn't allow him to do that.
Encouraged, the young woman said, "Well, you-- you'll find I got a heart to match. Um... my... my mama, she's a big woman, too. She's used to pick Uncle Joseph clean up off his feet. 'Course, he's kinda small." She shrugged.
Intrigued, Wilmington asked, "Your uncle's a small man?"
"Well, next to you." Hilda responded, blushing. When the brunet seemed interested, she said, "I could show you a photograph."
"I'd like that." Buck smiled at the woman, taking another cookie.
Ella left the bedroom, a satisfied expression on her face. Looking inside once more, she saw the little boy, slumped over on the bed, unconscious. To anyone else, it would look as if he'd fallen asleep, but she knew the truth. It was good to have a doctor on the premises... at least it was good to have access to his supply of drugs. The boy would sleep for hours and then, after she took Chris into her bed, her plan would be set into action.
That little brat wouldn't keep her from her true destiny.
Chris had taken his turn at standing guard, standing on an overlook, his rifle resting across his arms. He continued to watch out across the land, while Buck strode up to him, holding out a picture for him to see.
"Ella's husband was a head shorter than you." The bigger man offered, pointing to the picture of Hilda with her uncle. Ella's dead husband barely came to the young woman's shoulder.
"Suits don't belong to Joseph. So what?" Chris spoke dismissively.
"So nothin'. Just why'd she say they did?"
"I don't know." He spit out, annoyed. Why didn't they understand? This was a chance to reclaim a little of his past... a time when he wasn't burdened by the weight of loss. "It's none of your damn business." He snapped.
"All right." Buck responded softly, walking away.
It was late afternoon, moving quickly toward evening and the party. Ella coaxed Chris back to the house, managing to hide her impatience when he insisted on checking on Vin.
Standing in the doorway, Chris frowned at the sight of the little boy, curled up on the foot of the bed. Vin didn't even twitch when he called out to him. Normally the boy slept light, waking to noises that the rest of them didn't even hear. "I don't like it. He doesn't usually sleep this deep."
"Oh, darling, he's just worn out. This has all been so hard for him. He's such a precious little tyke, Chris. I do hope he comes to like it here."
Smiling down at the woman beside him, Larabee said, "What's not to like?" He kissed her gently on the forehead.
With a soft giggle, Ella said, "Come on then, let's let him sleep. You need to get ready for tonight."
"All right," He said, indulgently.
A few moments later, they were in the bedroom Chris had been sharing since their arrival. Ella stepped away from the closet, informing the blond, "I have something special I'd like you to wear for me tonight."
Looking at the elegant suit she held out, Chris argued, "This is for bankers and carnival barkers."
"And gentlemen, too." She leaned in against him, gazing lovingly up into his face.
"Well, you should know better than anyone I ain't no gentleman." Larabee retorted, holding her snuggly.
"Just this once." She leaned up, kissing him. "Please?"
"All right. This belong to your husband, too?"
"No. I bought it for you."
"When'd you have time--mmm" His words were cut off as she kissed him hard on the lips. Her actions didn't keep him from thinking, however. When had she had time to shopping for him?
Moving back away, Ella said breathlessly, "You... better get dressed."
"All right." His mind still processing the question, he smiled at her once more.
She stood there, watching him, while he cleaned up. Her eyes never left him as she watched her former lover shaved his face clean of the stubble. What a shame, she loved the rough feel of him when he... she broke off, knowing that she couldn't allow herself to go too far in her thoughts. Then she watched him clean the blade off. Stepping up behind him, she said, "May I keep that razor, please? You can have one of Joseph's pearl handled ones. I just like to keep souvenirs of special times."
"Okay." Chris gave her a curious look. Why would she want his battered, old razor? He turned to ask her, only to find she'd disappeared. "Ella?"
Still wiping the shaving cream off his face, Larabee padded from the room, searching for the woman. He located her quickly, watching her moving toward the end of the hall, a candle lighting her way. As he watched, she moved aside a curtain that covered a door, retrieved a key from the pocked in her skirt, and unlocked the closed door. She entered it, quickly shutting it behind her.
Chris Larabee frowned. What was she hiding?
The sun was disappearing over the Western horizon. The lamps were lit inside the big house, the peacekeepers mingling with the men and women who lived on Ella's ranch with her. They had washed, dusted, combed and shaved, making themselves presentable for this evening. The only two missing were Vin and Chris.
Wilmington was meandering around the parlor, chatting amicably, flirting and just generally being his charming self. JD rode on his hip, pudgy little hand holding onto a cookie that he was munching on as he enjoyed being with his Papa. He wished that Vin could come to the party, though. He hoped that his brother stopped getting into trouble soon.
Buck grinned, almost dancing across the room toward the thin woman he'd had his eye on all along. Settling on the couch beside her, JD on his knee, he said, "I was all the way across the room, and I just... fell into your eyes."
Only JD noticed her look. He didn't think she much cared for papas who had little boys.
Meanwhile, in one of the little side rooms, Ezra had settled in to play a few games of poker, with the house's doctor, and some of the other men.
Shuffling, the doctor announced, "This game is strictly cash only. No wagering of horses, nor your Aunt Sadie's necklace."
With a mischievous grin, Ezra said, "Alas, poor Aunt Sadie. I lost her to a pair of Jacks in Kansas." His comment was rewarded as the other men chuckled.
Back in the main room, all eyes turned toward the staircase, as Chris Larabee escorted the lady of the house down the stairs. He looked very uncomfortable in the fancy clothes, but he certainly did strike a handsome picture. And that was just what was going to happen, he realized, when he saw a photographer near the foot of the stairs, preparing to take their picture.
"Well, hello, everyone." Ella cooed, having made her grand entrance to the party. Then she leaned even closer toward Chris as they posed for a picture. After the flash powder went off, they blinked away the spots, Ella turning toward the other women standing nearby.
"Ella, you look so nice." Hilda gushed, clasping hands with her Uncle's widow.
"Hilda, you look lovely." The brunette fawned over the bigger woman.
Chris left the women, moving quickly toward the bar. He was going to need some fortification to get through this evening. His mind was still reeling with all the things that had happened since they'd come here. When Francis entered the back door, he frowned. "Where've you been?"
Corcoran sighed, wishing he had time to enlist one of the others to deliver this message. Finally he said, "There's no way to make this sound good, so I'll just spill it. Ella owns Culpepper Mining."
With a snort, Larabee said, "Where'd you get that?"
"The county clerk over in Red Fork. Which means Handsome Jack works for her."
Angry now, although he wasn't certain if he was angry at Francis or the situation in whole, he growled, "Who told you to go digging into her business?"
Knowing that he had little chance of convincing the other man, Francis continued all the same. "She lied to you... up and down the line. The woman's no good, Chris."
"I'm gonna forget you said that." The blond spit out.
Nodding, a sad look on his face, the former rebel said, "Well, come sunrise, then...I'll be goin'."
Chris watched as Corcoran strode away without a backward glance. He leaned back against the table while he sipped his drink. His wandering gaze locked on the lady of the house. She noticed him looking, and smiled at him. But even he couldn't miss the hint of coldness in the expression and the hint of hardness in her eyes.
What was going on?
Back at the gaming table, the doctor had forgotten his earlier rules. He was losing, and losing badly. Smiling, he held out a broach as he offered, "Three carats... of genuine diamonds. Worth more than 10 times the entire pot. A bequest from a patient." He explained.
"I take it the patient did not survive your ministrations." Ezra reached out and took the piece of jewelry. Studying it in the lamp light, he finally nodded. "Agreed."
Smile widening, the man spread his hand of cards out on the table. "Three Jacks. "
Just as the doctor reached out to lay claim to the pot, Standish warned, "Uh-- uh. three... lovely ladies." He spread his own hand out. "Cherchez la femme. Ah." He claimed the pot. "Thank you."
Back in the parlor, music from the piano floated through the room. Standing beside the instrument, Hilda began to sing. "I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair borne like a vapor on the summer air I see her tripping where the bright streams play happy as the daisies who dance on her way many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour many were the blithe birds who warbled them o'er oh oh oh oh oh oh oh"
Still sitting nearby, continuing to flirt with the woman he'd set his eyes on, Buck straightened, turning toward the singer. On his lap, JD smiled. He remembered his Mama singing that song, and this lady sang it almost as pretty as his Mama did. "Listen, Papa!"
Nodding, mesmerized by the beauty he now saw standing before him, the ladies man said, "I'm listenin', Little Bit."
The party continued on, well into the night. Ezra, having won everything there was to win from the other players, partook of the food and drink, and then paid his respects to the lady of the house, complimenting her on the lovely evening. Josiah had obliged Buck sometime earlier, taking a sleeping JD to the bunkhouse, before spending time in the moonlight, practicing his golf swing. Nathan had been scarce, having made an appearance before going to check on Luis, the patient it seemed to him, the doctor had all but forgotten.
Buck, eyes finally opened, had spent the remainder of the evening in Hilda's company. They took a stroll in the moonlight then settled on the porch swing, chatting about nothing in particular and enjoying one another's company.
Chris had allowed Ella to coax him back upstairs while the party continued on. While she went ahead to dress for bed, he stopped by and checked on his son. Frowning when he realized that Vin was still sleeping, he pressed his hand to the child's forehead. He didn't seem to have a fever. Perhaps Ella was right, and he had simply worn himself out.
Tenderly, Larabee began to undress the child, then lifted the limp little body and slipped him under the blankets. Brushing the dark blond hair away from the elfin face, he placed a gentle kiss on his son's cheek. "Sweet dreams, little man," he whispered into one tiny ear.
After the gunman left the room, a figure stole from the shadows. It was the woman Buck had flirted with, at least until he had recognized the true beauty in Hilda.
There was no such beauty in this one. Her name was Esther; and she was Ella's younger sister. She had long ago given over any rights to her own life, instead doing her sister's bidding. She bore far too many scars to oppose her sister ever again.
Creeping across the room, she quickly and efficiently bound the unconscious boy, hand and foot, before gagging him. That done, she unfolded the gunny sack she carried under her arm and wriggled it up over the child. Struggling to lift the limp body, she pulled him into her arms and carried him from the room, carrying him down the darkened hall, toward the back staircase.
Silence fell over the ranch deep intthe night. Upstairs, in the master bedroom, Ella lay sleeping, sated and content. Beside her, Chris sat on the edge of the bed, a glass of whiskey in his hand. As he twirled the amber liquid he stared down at the raven-haired woman. His mind was spinning, unable to light long on any one thing. He couldn't make himself believe that Ella was working some nefarious plan. But neither could he ignore the things the others had been pointing out.
Things just didn't add up.
Deciding that he had to get to the bottom of things, a sense of urgency telling him it had to be soon, Chris prepared to act. Searching through the folds of Ella's robe, he located the key he'd seen her put there earlier. Retrieving it quietly, he stood and padded from the room, candle in one hand and key in the other. Not bothering to pull the door closed behind him, he moved down the hallway, toward the door that was once more hidden behind the curtain.
Lifting the curtain and unlocking the door, he stepped inside, letting the curtain fall behind him. In the candle light he looked around him, frowning. At first glance it seemed as if the room was cluttered with mementoes; hardly anything worthy of lock and key. Then, upon closer inspection, he recognized it all.
A picture of he and Sarah, with part of his wife's image torn away.
A newspaper, bold headline heralding the death of his wife and son.
Other things caught his attention, even while his mind whirled out of control.
He picked up the ruined jewelry, studying it. One side had been broken, but the side that held his picture was intact. Just then he heard someone pushing back the curtain. He turned to find Ella Gaines standing there. She had a smug look on her face... and a crazed look in her eye.
"I've always loved you, Chris. And now you know just how much."
"What are you doing with my wife's locket?" His voice was choked with emotion. She didn't answer, simply stood there, staring at him. "Where'd you get my wife's locket?" He asked again.
"Fowler brought it to me after the fire." She replied as matter-of-factly as if he'd asked her about the weather.
"Fowler?" It had to be a joke. On a wave of nervous laughter, Larabee said, "I-- I don't understand."
"Well, I couldn't let her take you away from me."
"You hired him?" Fowler had said "he" all those months ago. Like a fool, he'd been looking in all the wrong places, for all the wrong people.
"I did what I had to do so that we could be together."
He cried out, inarticulate sounds escaping him. No, it couldn't be. He couldn't have just bedded the woman who'd had his family murdered.
"Jack... was just an excuse to get you here."
The woman who'd destroyed his life. He held his head as he heard her words echoed there. "...excuse to get you here... to get you here. Was just an excuse... just an excuse to get you here."
"Because I'm the woman that you love." Her voice was calm, serene.
So were the echoes. "..that you love... that you love... that you love."
He could hear other voices... other sounds. He could hear his son crying out for him. His wife shrieking as she burned to death in their home. Tearing his hands away; he glared out her in a murderous rage. Reaching out, he grasped her around the neck, slamming her head against the wall. "You sick... Bitch!"
Chris turned, hands still tightening around the woman's neck, as he heard a gunshot outside. Then he heard Averal's voice as the man yelled orders to his men.
"They're in the bunkhouse, boys!"
Ella struggled, trying to loosen his grip. She made small, grunting sounds as he continued to strangle her. She managed to lock onto his gaze, still convinced that he would come to see reason.
"What'd you do?!" Larabee screamed. He let go of her, shoving her away before running down the hallway, careening from side to side, as he ran toward the gunfire.
Behind him, the demented woman screamed out, "I'll kill anyone who comes between us!" Then she called after him, "Chris? Chris!!"
In the dusty building the others had made their temporary quarters, they all scrambled from their bunks, falling over one another as they dodged the bullets. Buck kept JD tucked close to him, the little boy staring around them, eyes wide, still half asleep.
"Everybody, down in the root cellar!" Wilmington called out, leading the others to the underground room. One by one the men jumped down into the room, gathering in a little knot.
Settling JD on an upturned crate, Buck said, "Little Bit, I need you to stay right here, alright?"
"Listen to me, son. That's gunfire up there, and I don't want you to get hurt, understand? I need you to stay here, until me or one of the others come for you. Please, JD, I don't want you in the line of fire."
Sniffling, the child said in a disappointed tone, "Okay, Papa." He watched, silently, as his Papa and the others climbed up another ladder, disappearing outside.
"When you come up, spread out and stay low." Buck ordered as they emerged from the cellar.
Outside, Jack Averal and his men were waging a war. The man looked up to see a rider flying in on horseback. "EJ, get that rider comin' in!"
"I got him, Jack!" The one known as EJ replied as he took aim at Francis Corcoran. Then he cried out as the other man's shot caught him in the chest. "Ooh!"
Back in the house, Chris stopped long enough to first retrieve his weapons, and then to gather up his son. Shocked when he found no sight or sound of the little boy, other than the neatly folded clothes he'd taken off him the night before. Then he was called back to the fighting at hand. For the first time in years, he offered up a prayer; praying that his son was safe, and that he found him soon.
JD sat still, too frightened to move. He could hear the gunfire above him and, without Vin here with him, there was no one to tell him that it would be all right.
He jumped when he heard a sound that didn't come from outside. Looking around, he tried to figure out where the sound had come from. It took him a moment to locate the source. With a frown, he watched as a big sack started wiggling around. Then he heard another sound. As always, curious, the five-year-old moved closer to investigate. When he heard another sound, he called out, "Vin?"
Sounds came from the sack once more, muffled, but definitely coming from his friend. Quickly, JD pulled at the cord that tied the top of the sack closed. Getting it opened, he pulled it back, revealing his brother. "Vin!"
Outside, the men were waging war. They had spread out, firing at Handsome Jack Averal and his men.
Ezra, Nathan and Josiah had ended up taking cover behind a wagon. Standish called out a warning to the former healer. "Nathan, on your right!" Then with a grunt, he fell, mouth opened and eyes wide with shock.
"Ezra, you hit?" Josiah called out, making his way toward the younger man.
"'I've... " the gambler stammered.
Calling to Jackson as he moved closer, Sanchez called out again, "Nathan! Cover us!"
"I've been cheated. Cut down in my prime." Ezra moaned sadly.
Josiah surveyed the other man's clothing. "No blood."
Not hearing the other man, caught up in his own thoughts, the Southerner continued. "The best years of my life... "
"Hit the diamond." Sanchez put his hands in the man's vest pocket, pulling out the ruined broach.
"My diamond! My diamond!" Standish yelled, pushing away from the bigger man and crawling out into the line of fire.
"What the hell you doin'?! You lost your senses?!" Josiah protested, firing off a few rounds before reaching out and grabbing the other man by the ankles.
Still trying to move forward, despite the man's grip on his legs, Ezra cried out, "Worse, I lost my diamond!"
"Ain't gonna do you no good in the hereafter!" Josiah declared pulling backward, bringing the exposed man back with him.
"Wait! Wait!" Ezra protested as he was hauled backward.
Back in the root cellar, JD had freed Vin. The older boy seemed more asleep than awake, but was sitting up on his own, rubbing at his wrists. Both boys were distracted, until they heard a voice behind them.
"Warned you not to wear that hat."
Turning, JD saw the boy he'd had problems with earlier, standing at the bottom of the stairs, holding out his bowler.
"Give that back!" The five-year-old proclaimed indignantly.
"Make me," the bigger boy taunted. Then he fell back, a wildcat in the form of JD Dunne sitting on his chest. Eyes wide, he found himself unable to dodge a pair of pudgy fists that began to pummel him. Finally, he released the hat and then, when he could pull himself free, he retreated back into a corner, disappearing up the stairway that led to the bunkhouse.
"Wow, JD," was all that Vin could think to say. He rubbed his eyes, still feeling funny. He wasn't certain what had happened to him. The last thing he remembered was forcing himself to eat the food that Miz Ella brought him. A few minutes later he'd started feeling really sleepy. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the darkness, tied up and unable to call out.
Turning back to his friend, JD placed his bowler on his head. Puffing out his chest, he said, "You don't mess with a man's hat."
Outside the men were still doing battle. Buck had taken cover behind some crates, firing at the men who'd tried to ambush them. Then he looked up, shocked to see Hilda in the doorway, rifle in hand.
"Buck?!" The young woman called out. "I'm comin' for you, Buck!"
"Hilda! No! Get back inside!" The ladies man cried out, heart in his throat to see the beautiful young woman standing there in the open. Before he could do anymore, the nightingale took aim at one of Averal's men. But, in doing so, she left herself exposed. Just as she fired, she was slammed back against the house.
"No!!" Wilmington screamed in a mixture of anger and shock.
The doctor hurried to the young woman's side, calling out as he did. "Nathan, Hilda's been shot!"
Buck yelled out, "Nathan, can you get to her?!" Then, to the others, he called out "Cover him! Cover him!"
Feeling helpless, trapped so far away from her, all Buck could do was call out, "Hold on, Hilda!"
Nathan and the doctor got on either side of the wounded woman and got her to her feet. She sagged between them, crying out in pain as they moved her around the corner of the house, where they had more cover.
The doctor gave her a cursory look, his face white with fear. "I'll - I'll give her laudanum for the pain." He stammered.
"You've gotta get that bullet out!" Nathan argued, shocked at the man's failure to act.
"What're you talkin' about? You gotta get that bullet out."
"I'm tellin' you I don't know how." The doctor admitted.
"You're a doctor, ain't you?"
"No, I'm not. Not a real one, anyway." The man said in defeat, shoulders sagging.
As the injured woman cried out with pain, Nathan exclaimed, "My God." Pushing the man away, he ordered, "Excuse me!"
On the front porch, Chris Larabee was firing at Averal's men. He stood in the open, standing there in nothing but his black jeans, calmly taking aim. Man after man fell to his bullet. He was aware of everything around him, but stayed focused on the task he'd set himself. His anger had turned cold, his mind locked on a single thought. Revenge.
Francis came up behind the gunman, shocked to see him standing there in the open. "Get down, Larabee!"
Suddenly a horse and rider appeared at the side of the porch. Ella Gaines sat in the saddle, a cape pulled over her gown. "Chris!"
Larabee turned, hesitating when he saw who it was. He held his Colt, aimed straight at her heart. But, for the life of him, he couldn't pull the trigger.
Jack Averal had no problem pulling the trigger, however. Seeing the blond just standing there, he grinned. He'd promised Ella he'd do anything he could to help her get Chris Larabee. But, she had lied. He thought she wanted to kill the man. Then he discovered that she wanted to bed him. He wasn't about to stand by, used like a fool, while she took some two-bit gunfighter into her bed.
Francis watched the blond spin, falling as the bullet ripped into his body. Turning toward the still grinning man he fired, screaming "No!" as he did.
Before Francis could get to the downed man, Vin was streaking across the yard, keeping low as he ran and unheeding of the fact that he was dressed in only his underwear. The little boy dropped to his knees beside his adopted father, unable to find the words to call to him. Instead, he picked up Larabee's Colt from where he'd dropped it. With a determined expression on his little face, the boy raised the gun using both hands, firing off a shot.
Chris, thinking the gun had been fired by Francis, asked through gritted teeth, "Did you get her?"
"Nope. Missed her." Vin replied, regret in his tone.
The boy's voice made its way into his overwhelmed mind. Turning, Chris said, "Vin!"
Letting the gun drop to the ground, young Tanner reached out and placed one small hand on the side of his father's face. "Please, Pa... don't die."
At the back of the house, their attackers on the run, Buck ran to where Nathan sat beside Hilda. The former slave had spread his coat over her, and was now just sitting there, with a sad look on his face.
Softly, Buck asked, "Is she gonna be all right?" When Nathan shook his head no, the brunet steeled himself to lose this gem so soon after he'd found her. Reaching out to caress her cheek, he said softly, "It's me-- Buck. Can you hear me?"
A smile on her face now, Hilda nodded.
Emotion making his voice soft, the big-hearted man said, "There's somethin' that I have to tell you. There is beauty inside of you the likes of which I have never seen. It sneaks up on a man at first, and then it just hits him in his heart. There's just no two ways about it now. I'm stuck on you. And I always will be. So wherever it is that you're goin'... just know that a part of me is goin' there with you."
Watching as the woman's body went limp, smile still on her face, Nathan said, unnecessarily, "She's gone."
Nodding, Wilmington said, "I know."
At the front of the house, Francis was sitting on one side of the injured gunfighter, Vin on the other. Corcoran had his kerchief out and pressed against the wound. Looking around, he called out. "Nathan!"
Vin echoed the cry. "Nathan! Nathan!"
Epilog: Two Weeks Later
Chris Larabee sat on the boardwalk, for the first time in a long time, able to focus on something other than pain. He just seemed to be watching the comings and goings of the little town, but he was watching for one person in particular.
He was watching for Vin. Since they'd brought him back here, half out of his mind and burning with fever over a week ago, he'd seen very little of his adopted son. He'd been told several times that Buck and Francis had taken the boy with them, while they searched for signs of Ella Gaines. They'd explained that they'd taken him only after he'd ridden out, alone, twice, to search for her. It was an explanation he had heard, once more, this morning as Nathan and Josiah readied him to go sit outside.
The few times he remembered seeing the boy, Vin had stood away from the bed, head down. He'd answer questions, tell Chris he was glad to see him awake, but that was about it.
Chris needed to see Vin, to know for certain whether he had lost the boy's love or not.
Larabee turned, drawn from his thoughts by the sound of someone approaching. He watched Mary Travis coming closer, something in her hand. As she reached him, she held out the paper. "There's a letter for you."
He reached out and took the folded paper with a grunt as the stitches in his side pulled. Leaning back in the chair, the blanket around his shoulders falling back to reveal the white bandage around his upper chest, he looked at the front of he envelop in a neat hand were the words:
Chris Larabee - c/o the Clairon news paper
Turning it over, he opened the envelope and pulled out the paper inside. Something fell out the folded stationary. Reaching for it from where it rested in the folds of his blanket, he discovered it was a picture.
The picture that had been taken of him and Ella, the night of the party. He stared at it for a long moment, shocked at the image of the two of them. He saw it then; the cold, calculating look in the woman's eyes. Realizing that Mary was still standing there, he turned, only to watch her spin on her heel, walking hurriedly back toward the newspaper office. In a voice hoarse with disuse, he called after her. "Mary."
She stopped, looking back at him for the space of a heartbeat. Then she turned away once more and hurried into the office.
He had lost whatever it was the two of them could have had; he was certain of it now. Forcing his attention back to the letter, he began to read:
I forgive you for not appreciating what I did for you... for us. But I cannot allow the jealous and the weak-of-heart to destroy the great love we share. If we have the courage of our true hearts, we will do whatever is needed to find our way back to each other, and the rest of the world be damned.
Until that day, I remain faithfully, lovingly yours.
Ella Gaines -Larabee
He felt a cold chill run down his spine at the meaning of her letter. Did she truly believe that they were married? God, it wasn't over... it would never be over until one of them laid dead in a grave. The sound of someone approaching caught his attention. He turned to see Buck coming his way, Vin a few steps behind. His old friend came to stand before him, looking him over.
"You look a little better than the last time I saw you," Buck noted. Then, he added, "She leaked out of the landscape. We covered every town between here and Red Fork." He paused and then added, "Sorry you didn't shoot her when you had the chance."
Before Chris could answer, Wilmington turned and walked away, hurrying his steps when he saw JD running out of the old church.
Larabee turned to his other visitor. Vin stood a few feet away, head down. Running his tongue over suddenly dry lips, he called softly, "Vin? Cowboy?"
As the boy raised his head, Chris could see the tears in his eyes. Before he could say anything, the eight-year-old said hurriedly, "Do ya still want me around, Chris? 'Cause if you do, I'll stay, but if yer tired of me, tell me now, and I'll go live with th' Seminole."
"Vin... Vin, listen!" Larabee broke in. "Son, none of this is your fault... it's all mine. I was a fool not to see what a conniving... witch... she was. I am so sorry for anything and everything she did to you, Cowboy. I wouldn't blame you if you didn't trust me anymore, son, and if you want to leave, well..." His voice broke as emotion nearly overwhelmed him. "Well, I won't stand in your way. But I hope... God, Vin, I really, and truly hope, that you can forgive me and give me another chance."
Young Tanner listened in growing amazement. Chris hardly ever said that many words at one time. Even when he'd been crazy with fever after he'd been shot, he didn't say that much even out of his head. Taking a few steps closer, he asked, "Do... do ya mean it?"
Unabashedly letting the tears flow, the gunman said softly, "Every word, Vin... I swear it on... on Sarah and Adam's graves."
Taking a few more steps, Vin leaned against his Pa's legs. If Chris was willing to make such a swear, then he had to be telling the truth. He was still worried. Worried that one day his Pa would cease to want him around. But, for now, he could once again take comfort in being the son of Chris Larabee. And it was that son that said in an old voice, "I gotta say this one time, Pa, and I ain't never gonna be sorry for sayin' it. I'm sorry you didn't shoot her."
Giving his son a solemn nod, Chris looked him directly in those deep, blue eyes. In a voice soft with passion, he said, "Next time."