Till We Meet Again

by Laurie Ann

Chris Larabee scowled as he saw the man standing across the street...staring at him. The gunman dressed in black had faced many a dangerous enemy in his notorious past as a gun for hire, but no man's looks had unnerved him as this one. Why wasn't this man afraid of him like everyone else? Those eyes bore into him, showing no signs of fear. Why did he even bother with Vin Tanner? Hadn't he made it perfectly clear that he wanted contact with no one?

Stop it Vin, Larabee thought silently to the man as he glared a hole into him. Vin would get the message.

Vin Tanner leaned to his left on the outside beam to the hardware store and folded his arms, his gaze continuing. Nope. Ya can't ignore me now. This time he wasn't going to go away and allow his friend to wallow in his bitterness.

Grunting, the gunman stormed over to the younger man. If Vin wanted a confrontation, he was going to get one. Everyone else in town was staying away, but not Vin. Chris was sick and tired of the expert tracker and sharpshooter following him around and just staring. He wanted to be left alone, pure and simple, and this bullheaded tracker was going to finally get the point.

"What? Ya mean I'm alive?" Vin Tanner drawled in his soft, husky voice.

Chris only glowered, saying absolutely nothing, his eyes speaking for him. The two men were easily able to read the other, a unique aspect that created a strong bond between them. But lately, Chris Larabee avoided everyone, especially the young man before him.

Ella Gaines re-entering his life months ago twisted his soul into a knot. A former flame, she was the one responsible for having his wife and son murdered, and the new set of people he had foolishly allowed into his world wasn't going to share the same fate. Vin especially; the man who broke down the emotional walls he had successfully built to shield himself from feeling a devastating loss again.

"Ya can save yer brain," Vin smiled lazily, "ya'll are gonna have to tell me what's on yer mind. Then I'll know ya ain't gone mute."

Chris only stood there, his feet planted inches from Vin.

Vin looped his thumbs into his gun belt and shrugged his shoulders. "Personally, I'm puttin' my money on ya bein' dumb. I reckon, it's only stupid that a man don't talk ta his friend."

The tiniest of grins tugged at the gunman's mouth. He couldn't escape Tanner's dry wit.

"I'd rather be dumb than irritating like you," Chris pretended to snarl, knowing it'd be wasted on his best friend. Vin would see through any attitude he threw up.

"Bein' dumb...how can ya tell?" Vin shrugged nonchalantly.

"I'm smart enough to know."

"No, I'm the smart one, yer the dumb one."

Chris' grin grew wider. "No, you're the irritating one."

For a brief moment the two friends could feel the old rapport that had been missing for the past few months, bringing them together again. This was the most Vin had gotten out of Chris since the gunman imposed his new rule of ignoring everyone. It was a start.

The grin suddenly disappeared as Chris realized the mistake he almost made. He averted his eyes. He couldn't give in now and let Vin, or the other five men he and the tracker worked with back into his life. Helping keep the peace in town was one thing, but reveling in their friendship was another. People died who got too close to him.

The sharpshooter grabbed a hold of Chris' arm, stopping his friend from fleeing. His large, blue eyes locked onto Chris'. Missed havin' ya 'round, Cowboy.


Let me back in. Let me help ya.

Never again. Chris squirmed free and continued on to the saloon.

Vin watched his friend walk down the road with a heavy heart. He was so close to getting back the man he considered a soul mate and brother. When he had come to this dusty cow town of Four Corners, he was all alone, running from the five hundred dollar bounty on his head. Trusting no one until he met Chris Larabee's gaze across the street. He couldn't explain why it was, but he bonded with this stranger. Even when he had told Chris about the false murder charge, the gunman believed him, offering to help clear his name.

No, he'd haunt Chris all over town if he had to, to force his friend to live again.

"Ah did notice you procured a slight grin from our illustrious leader just moments ago."

Vin tipped his head in acknowledgment of gambler Ezra Standish.

"That's the most I've gotten outta him in over a month," Vin said ruefully.

Ezra could only commiserate in silence as he understood his friend's frustration. Vin was the only one of the seven peace keepers who could break through Chris' defenses, and if he couldn't do it, it was truly serious. How much longer before the gunman would leave them for good? The southern gentleman secretly felt Chris Larabee was choosing to stay in Four Corners, bound to honor his oath as a peacekeeper and to keep a watchful eye. Chris wouldn't run out on this town, or his friends. Especially if there was a threat hanging over either.

"Mr. Larabee will come out of his sour disposition," Ezra sought to comfort. "We will all band together our efforts and see to that. Ah for one cannot wait until our leader decides to ingratiate you with his presence again."

"Gittin' tired of hangin' 'round me, Ezra?"

At first taken aback at Vin's quiet remark, the gambler chose to give the younger man a small reason to smile. "Well, Ah do feel that my air of sophistication has begun to infiltrate your being, and far be it from me to encumber your already unique personality."

Vin smiled. "It must be true...I understood everything ya said...I think."

"Not to mention the insignificant detail of that form of musical torture you have been holding my ears captive to. My insistent pleas for mercy have been unheeded regarding this matter."

"Are ya sayin' I can't play?"

"Ah do not need to say anything...your playing speaks it for you eloquently."

The tracker laughed gently, tugging at the brim of his beige, slouch hat. "Much obliged, Ezra," he said warmly, "there's a heart under that vest full of aces after all."

The gambler patted his silk vest and frowned. How did the tracker know he had hidden cards inside? And that they were aces? Before he could ask, he saw Vin head for the saloon, to Chris. Sighing, Ezra decided to tag along. The sharpshooter may have gotten the sullen gunman to let down his guard once, but twice was highly unlikely, and he was a betting man.

Pushing the two batwing doors of the saloon open, Vin strode inside the building, his gaze immediately resting upon Chris, who was sitting in his usual table in the farthest corner of the room. The gunman's face was darker than ever, and for a second, the tracker almost turned back, but compassion for his friend propelled him on. A full whiskey bottle sat in the middle of the table...unopened. At least Chris Larabee wasn't going to be drunk and irritable, just irritable.

"Hey Cowboy," Vin greeted as he sat down opposite of Chris. Silence.

"We're back at this are we?" Vin grabbed the bottle of booze, hoping to draw a response that way...it did.

"Put that down Tanner!" Chris was furious, his jaw clenched tight.

"Please...put that down Tanner," Vin mocked. He wasn't going to watch Chris drown himself in whiskey another day. It was a ritual with the gunman after they returned from Red Fork, and Ella's ranch. Chris behaved himself under healer, Nathan Jackson's watchful eye, but as soon as his wound healed, he headed for the one thing that he always turned to....alcohol.

"Vin, I ain't in the mood for your games," Chris threatened.

"Ain't been in the mood for nothin' but feelin' sorry fer yerself."

Chris snapped to attention, his focus on the liquid swishing in the bottle. "I'm telling you...," he warned.

"Maybe I need a drink fer havin' ta put up with ya," Vin said. "It's gittin' mighty old watchin' ya git drunk, then have ta haul yer sorry hide ta bed."

An angry growl escaped the gunman as he grabbed Vin's coat and drug him across the table. "Get it through your damn head Tanner! I don't want you around no more!" And reaching for the bottle he said, "This is all I want! You got that? I don't want any of you anymore!" Having snatched his prize, he callously threw Vin's body back, sending the tracker sprawling to the ground.

Ezra had just entered inside when he encountered the disheartening sight. Rushing over to help Vin up, he gave Chris a churlish scowl.

"Now you see here Mr. Larabee...," Ezra began to protest.

"Shut up you sonovabitch!" The gunman's tone was icier than his glare.

Dusting himself off, Vin grasped back the bottle of whiskey and walked briskly to the back of the saloon, and out the side door. He would allow Chris to get away with this behavior with him, but not to anyone else. This was going to end one way or another.

Opening the door to the outhouse, he watched Chris' horror as he proceeded to throw the bottle down the hole. "Ya want it that bad...go'n git it."

"I paid damn good money for that!" Chris' green eyes flashed with fury, meeting the penetrating blue ones of Vin.

"And I don't give a damn if'n ya did!" Vin stood his ground despite the gunman's hurried steps towards him. "If ya go'n git another one, I'll do the same thing!"

Chris stopped and glared. Vin would do just that. Probably break it over his head too. "Leave me be," he chose to snap, deciding to go to the livery. He'd find a town without a Vin Tanner, and get another bottle of whiskey.

"Leave ya be? Why ya keep hangin' 'round then Larabee? Ain't nobody stoppin' ya! Hell, I've heard a few folks who wouldn't mind ya leavin'. Yer worse than a toothache in a hungry bear, and I'd be more willin' ta take my chances with the bear!" Vin cried out after the gunman. He quickened his pace to catch up to the angry man.

Ezra shadowed the pair, afraid of a repeat performance. He entered the barn hesitantly as he heard his two friends continue their argument. Discretion called for privacy, but he was fearful of Chris' wrath. A wrong look, a snide remark would send the gunman into a snit, causing all around him to find a corner to hide until the tirade ended.

"You think I'm meaner than a bear?" Chris challenged. "You think I'm scarier than a bear in pain?"

"Scarier and smellier!" Vin shot back in anger.

"What? Smellier?" Chris' mouth opened at the unexpected response.

"Well...ya know what I meant," Vin said sheepishly. So much for his smart come back.

A small chortle snuck out of the gunman. Bending over, Chris motioned for Vin to come closer, his laughter continuing. As the wary sharpshooter inched nearer, Chris suddenly bolted upright, his right fist plowing under Vin's jaw. It wasn't that funny.

Catching the tracker's limp body, Chris then threw his friend over his shoulder, giving a confused Ezra a glance. "Tell the others we'll be back when I see fit."

"And if we need your's or Mr. Tanner's assistance?"

"I'll be at the cabin," Chris barked, "but don't bother me unless it's important. Me and Tanner have to hash a few issues out."

Swallowing hard, Ezra only nodded as he watched Chris Larabee ride out of the livery, an unconscious tracker slung over another horse. Normally he would have wished to be a fly on the wall at that cabin, but in this case, being a fly would get him squashed.

Chris had seen Ezra's nervous reaction, but it had to be this way. If the gambler had seen him and Vin leaving together...willingly, it would send a message to the others. He did not want to give the impression that he was approachable again, and he was going to make sure Vin knew that better than anyone. Besides, no one who threw his perfectly good bottle of whiskey away was going to get away with it.

+ + + + + + +

A soft, down pillow greeted Vin as he groggily opened his eyes. Where the hell was he? What had happened? Lifting his head, the tracker noticed his throbbing jaw. He got sucker punched...that's what happened. Damn that Chris Larabee! Angrily he flew out of the bed, but didn't cover more than a few feet before dropping to the floor, his head spinning.

"Leave it to you to get out of bed too fast," Chris chastised, placing his arms under Vin's.

"And leave it ta you ta land a dirty blow ta an unsuspectin' man!" Vin spat out.

Putting the angry sharpshooter back into the bed, Chris held back his smile. "Oh forgive me Vin. I meant to tell you about the punch coming, but I just thought that'd ruin the surprise."

"Yeah well, I ain't the spontaneous type," Vin growled, trying to hide his amusement. He was too mad to laugh. His jaw pounded in rhythm with his head, a sensation he could've lived without. Damn hothead.

"Spontaneous? Where'd you get a word like that?" Chris had never heard such a big word like that come from the plain spoken tracker. "You been hanging around Ezra too much?"

"Yeah...thanks ta you." Vin turned his head. Actually he found the gambler to be quite a character once you got past the bluff and bull. "Even caught myself talkin' ta my horse! Course he makes more sense than ya ever did."

"If that's meant to hurt my feelings," Chris shook his head, "you better try harder."

"Why'd ya bring me here Chris? Thought ya didn't want me 'round no more." Vin's eyes softened as he searched the gunman's face.

The gunman dressed in black sighed and sat at the edge of the bed. He was weary of the silent treatment, and it wasn't deterring his young friend in the least. It made the young man more tenacious. "I know you and the others are worried about me, and I've been a bit of an ass lately...."

"A bit?" Vin mumbled under his breath. "A whole herd a mules got less attitude than you." He stopped his critique when he saw the pensive frown on Chris' face. "Ya got somethin' ta git off yer chest?"

Chris nodded. He knew he'd have to square it with the sharpshooter sooner or later. Vin would demand nothing less. "I want you to know first off, that I'm going to continue to keep all of you at a distance." Seeing Vin rise up from the pillow, the gunman raised his hand. "Dammit Vin, when Ella tried to kill you all back at her ranch...and when she got away...."

The words trailed off, his mind going back to that horrible day when he discovered that hidden room, full of his dead wife's belongings, and standing face to face with her killer. Soon after Ella's crazed confession, shots rang out, and he found his men were under attack. She had lured them all there for a purpose...Chris to renew their romance...and the others to their deaths.

"She ain't 'round no more, Chris. We chased all over tryin' ta find her...she's gone."

"For how long Vin? Hell, she don't even have to be around, she can hire someone like she did Fowler." Chris' brow furrowed as he glanced at his best friend. "You can be out riding somewhere and a shot...," Chris ran a hand through his blond hair. "Or one of the others could be minding their own business and end up getting killed."

"If she wants ta come after us, she will," Vin said in a soothing tone, his heart feeling the gunman's anguish. "But if'n we stick together, we can lick her, or anyone else she throws our way. Just like at the ranch."

"It's not that easy, Vin," Chris tried to hold his voice in check. "I want to leave and hunt her down, to end this threat, but if I leave, that means I won't be here...like...."

"Yer family?" Vin caught the glimmer of despair his friend allowed to cross his face. His hand reached out and grasped Chris' forearm, making the gunman meet his eyes. "Ya had no idea Ella would do somethin' like this...no one did."

"You did," Chris remembered, "you didn't seem to buy into anything she said. And I wouldn't listen."

"But I didn't see what was comin' with Charolette, like ya did," Vin replied, his hand applying pressure to the forearm. "I wouldn't listen either. We're both prudy lousy with women huh?"

A sad smile formed. "Until she's dead Vin, I won't let anyone near me again. I won't let her destroy anyone else because of me. I'm asking you to honor that, and stay the hell as far from me as you can."

"That's it? I'm supposed ta walk away from a friend? A friend who's in trouble?" Vin's eyes grew with intensity. "Yer dead wrong Larabee. We're the best chance ya got. She knows we're a team, and like she found out before...it ain't one she can break. I know she ain't breakin' me."

"When I came to this damn town, I wasn't expecting to stay...have friends!" Chris leapt up from the bed.

"I sure wasn't askin' for ya either! Yer stuck with me Larabee!" Vin scrambled from the bed, but before he could clear it, his head began to swim from the sudden movement.

Immediately Chris grabbed a hold of the sharpshooter, gently pushing back down on the mattress. "What the hell am I going to do with you, Tanner? Why I even put up with you is a mystery."

Vin had to grin. "Reckon for the same reason I put up with this jackass of a gunslinger who's grumpier than a smelly old grizzley."

"You know, it's that last remark that got you punched," Chris threatened with his index finger.

"Yeah, about that," Vin frowned, "next time...don't hit so damn hard for such a stupid reason. I've said worse."

"Next time don't talk at all...or throw my whiskey in the loo."

A mischievous sparkle lit up Vin's sapphire blue eyes. "Thought ya liked watered down whiskey."

Chris allowed his tightened muscles to relax and the two men began to lapse back into the familiar comfort they found in the other.

The sudden approaching of a rider brought Chris a sense of alarm. He had given instructions not to be bothered...unless.... Reluctantly he left Vin's side and strode towards the commotion.

Josiah Sanchez burst through the door, his face grave as he fixed his eyes on the gunman. "Came to get you Chris," the ex-priest said in a low voice. "Ella's in town, and she's asking for you."


"Why the hell didn't you shoot her?" Chris yelled, his eyes briefly going to the man lying on his bed.

"There's a couple of problems with that," Josiah said gently. He knew what emotions had to be swirling inside the gunman. "One, we figured you'd like that honor, and two...." The large built man stopped. This second comment should come from the woman who said it. "Just come to town Chris."

"What is it Josiah?" Vin ambled into the kitchen area unsteadily, his eyes darting back and forth between the two men.

Chris shot the tracker a scolding glare.

"Can't hear good enough back there," Vin said dryly. "'Sides, the cobwebs are gone. Yer right hook ain't that great."

"It took you down!" The gun fighter's snarled answer quieted the sharpshooter. Feelings were warring inside Chris that Vin couldn't make out. What did Josiah say?

With quick strides, Chris grabbed his outer garments and gun belt. Turning back, he nodded his head in Vin's direction. "Josiah, you stay here with Vin...and make sure he stays here."

"What the hell is goin' on?" Vin walked over to Chris.

"She requested the presence of all of us," Josiah said calmly, grabbing a hold of the confused tracker. "But I'll watch his back in town."

Chris' eyes flashed with fury. "I don't give a damn what she thinks! You and Vin stay here till I come back!"

"Who?" Vin's words were lost in the chaos.

"It's safer in town with all of us," Josiah pointed out. Ella was very persistent in her request, making the former man of the cloth feel like Satan himself was asking. "I think until we know for sure what she wants, we better comply."

Ready to unleash a barrage of utterances that would chill the hardest man, Chris paused, his mind overriding his emotions. Ella could take that as a reason to go after.... His green eyes burning, he glanced at Vin. "You sure you can ride?"

Vin answered with a nod. His friend's countenance told him that a volcano was ready to erupt, and he wasn't going to be the one who rolled off the boulder.

"Fine! We'll find out what she wants...then I'll shoot her damn head off!"

"Ella?" Vin whispered under his breath. He looked up at Josiah, who confirmed it with a worried glance.

"Vin, I want you to ride as near to Josiah as you can," Chris continued, checking over his pearl handled colt .45. "And when we get to town, I want the both of you to find a place you can shelter yourselves if the need warrants it."

The two peacekeepers kept their comments to themselves as they watched the gunman prepare himself physically and mentally for the upcoming meeting. It wasn't going to be pretty either way. Ella Gaines destroyed what happiness Chris had found, not once, but almost twice.

As the three men walked outside, Chris searched around his land warily, the slightest movement taken as a possible attack. A glimmer of metal flickered in the corner of the gunman's eye...a gun?

"Vin!" Chris hollered, running towards his friend. With a flying leap, he dove into the startled sharpshooter, sending them both skidding back inside the cabin. Immediately he clamped his hand over Vin's mouth, placing his body over the tracker as a shield.

"Don't move or say anything," Chris hissed into Vin's ear, when the younger man tried to struggle. For several agonizing minutes the gunman awaited the hail of bullets he expected to be peppering his cabin at any moment.

When nothing came, he slowly eased himself off Vin, his senses on alert. Looking around his home, Chris realized someone was missing. Josiah.... His heart sinking, the gunman peered outside his front door, his eyes scanning for any sign of the ex-priest. In his panic for Vin's safety, he never gave a thought to the possible danger Josiah could be in.

"Josiah?" Chris called out, his insides churning with regret. If there were snipers out there, they surely wouldn't take him out. With that confidence, the gunman ventured forth, but not before shooting the man on the floor a glared warning... stay down.

"Josiah?" Chris called again, with more force. He didn't see any sign of the man, not even a body. Josiah wasn't taken hostage was he? A new wave of apprehension stole over him as he thought about that possibility. Why would Ella do that? To force him to obey?

"Over here, Brother!" Chris nearly jumped when he heard Josiah's voice.

"Dammit Preacher!" the gunman inhaled as he allowed a small smile to grace his handsome face. "I thought you were shot or taken hostage."

"Me?" Josiah walked up grinning. "No, I was making sure we weren't under attack."


Lifting up a silver colored water ladle, the former priest laughed. "I think the sun reflected off this. I've never known spoons to shoot before."

Chris sighed in relief, but soon his face became serious. "Look Josiah...I didn't mean to leave you out here...."

"Don't." Josiah lifted his hand in protest. "You did exactly the right thing." Inclining his head towards the cabin, he said, "I'd gone after him too."

The mustached man smiled warmly as he thought back to how Vin had saved him from a false murder charge. Never wavering in his certainty that Josiah was innocent, even when the ex-priest wasn't sure himself.

"Is the coast clear?" Vin cried out from the cabin.

"And didn't I tell you to shut up?" Chris barked. "Get up, we're moving out."

"Ya sure this time? Cause if'n ya ain't, I might as well stay here." The sharpshooter cringed slightly when he heard Chris bellow his name. Chalk it up to his unique way of showin' he cares.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington, J.D. Dunne, Nathan Jackson, and Ezra Standish, sat huddled at a table in the saloon, the anxiety in the air thick. The new arrival fresh off the stagecoach had thrown them for a loop. Ella Gaines strolled off like a conquering heroine, instead of the heartless murderess she truly was.

Buck glanced over at the hotel. "She murders two people, tries ta kill us, and she gits ta stay in a hotel." The lanky ladies' man shook his head bitterly. "Damn that tears me up!"

"We can all agree gentlemen that this is an egregious situation," Ezra drawled quietly. "One our Mr. Larabee will rectify Ah'm sure."

"If I were Chris, I'd shoot her before she could open her lying mouth!" the youngest of the seven, J.D., said angrily.

"It ain't our place ta consider," former slave, Nathan Jackson sighed. "It's Chris' decision ta make and his alone."

The four men fell silent as they pondered Nathan's words. How would they handle the situation? How would Chris?

Seeing no one in the street, Chris and the others made their way to the saloon. The man in black probed every roof top and every alley way for any sign of trouble. He couldn't believe Ella would just come into town unprotected.

He bursted through the doorway, his gaze resting on the remainder of his gang. No Ella.

"Where the hell is she?" Chris said curtly to the seated men.

"I'm right here Chris, my love." Ella Gaines entered inside, her brown eyes twinkling with passion. "I knew you'd come as soon as you found out I was back." Dressed totally in white, she threw back a long strand of her dark, chestnut brown hair. "I've missed you so much."

Chris could only stare as rage seeped through every inch of his body, the faces of his wife and son filling his mind. The sounds of bullets that tried to kill his friends echoing in his ears.

Ella eye's swept over the bar, her large mouth turning into a huge smile. "I'm glad to see everyone is here...especially you Vin. I didn't want you to miss my announcement either."

"What? Ya dyin'?" Vin replied coldly.

The smile faded for only a second, but returned with more intensity. "There's no need for jealousy Vin, but you can't stop what is fate either. It's about time we all stop pretending and face the truth."

"You're the only one who has a problem with the truth," Chris said through gritted teeth. His fingers inched towards the handle of his gun, his mind set to shoot this time. "Say your piece...now!"

Walking up to her beloved, Ella placed a gloved hand on Chris'. "Just relax first. I know the others are making you tense, but block them out and focus on me."

"Get your murdering hands off of me," Chris growled menacingly.

Surprised by the reaction, Ella back away. "I was hoping you would have worked past all that by now."

"I ain't never going to get past it!" Chris exploded. "You destroyed my life!" The gun flew out of the holster with the speed the renown gunman was know for. In an unwavering hand, he held it at Ella's head. "No more innocent people are going to die because of you!"

"You won't shoot me," Ella said calmly, "not when I'm carrying your child."

"C-child?" the gunman lowered the weapon in shock. "You're pregnant?"

"What the hell?" Buck leaped from his chair in disbelief. "Don't ya believe that lyin' bitch Chris!"

Ella beamed as he grabbed Chris' free hand to touch her stomach. "Yes. Four months to be exact. The night I gave you that bath. Remember? We talked of starting a life together...having children. Now that chance is here Chris."

"Don't listen to her!" JD bellowed.

"It may not even be yers," Buck inserted. "She'll do or say anythin' ta git her way."

"No! You're lying!" The barrel of Chris' gun pressed against Ella's temple.

Vin's eyes narrowed as he watched Ella. Was she lying? His gaze rested upon the man who was on the brink of an emotional precipice. Chris Larabee was prepared to shoot this time.

"This creature is adept at the art of deception," Ezra pointed out. "A pregnancy is easily faked. Ah know, Ah helped a female once accomplish such a feat years ago."

Nathan took up where Ezra was leading. "Would ya mind comin' ta my office and lettin' me check ya out?"

"You're the only man I've ever loved Chris," Ella purred, ignoring the others. "I could never have another man's child but yours."

"Ah beg to differ with your assumptions," Ezra said coldly.

The gun remained in place, the hammer cocking back.

A firm grip wrapped around Chris' hand, the other grasping the barrel of the colt.

"Ya willin' ta take the child's life?" Vin's faintly spoken words penetrated Chris' mind. It wasn't a suggestion, just a question, asked to keep the seven's leader from doing something he'd come to regret later. Chris slowly re-holstered the gun, and grabbed the sharpshooter's shoulder as if reaching for a lifeline.

Ella steadied her trembling body as she threw Vin a hateful glare. How dare he interrupt their moment. Chris wouldn't shoot her, but he had to show her up. "He would have come to his senses, before shooting," she said dispassionately.

"Get out of my sight!" The gunman turned away.

"I'll be at the hotel across the street," Ella said to the departing man. "I'll wait for you."

"Ya can wait till Hell freezes over," Vin snapped in a low voice. "Now git before Chris changes his mind. I won't stop him next time."

Flashing the tracker a defiant look, the murderess scowled and hurried out of the building. This wasn't over. Chris would choose her and the baby, and leave these men forever.

The bar grew quiet as the six men watched their friend down one shot glass after another. How could they offer anything to him? Words seemed too little, and contact was definitely unwanted.

Vin stared at Chris, his heart warring over his actions. Should he have stopped Chris? Yet he knew if Chris had shot Ella in anger and found out she truly was pregnant... he wouldn't be able to live with himself. He hated to see his best friend suffering like this, but what could he do? Was there anything he could do to ease the pain?

Five sets of eyes settled on the tracker as he watched with worry his best friend drowning his pain in whiskey.

Buck smiled sadly as he nudged Vin's leg under the table. The ladies' man had known Chris Larabee for almost twelve years, but he also recognized the special connection Vin and Chris shared. Only the tracker had a chance of getting their leader to listen.

Taking in a deep breath, Vin started to rise from his seat. "Catch me if he drops me," he whispered to the others. "Ezra already took his turn."

"Go away, Vin," Chris said edgily.

"C'mon Cowboy, let's git ya back ta yer place." Vin took the shot glass away and gave it to the nervous bartender. "Of course there's my wagon, but that ain't been properly cleaned in a while."

"I don't need your damn jokes!" Chris said bitingly, grabbing the glass back. "I don't need any of you! I'm doing this alone!"

"We back on this?"

"Go away, Tanner!" Chris snarled and downed another shot of whiskey.

"Just for that, yer in the wagon tonight!" As Chris pivoted to face his tormentor, Vin's fist connected to the gunman's jaw, sending the black clad figure back a few inches. A throaty yell emerged from Chris as he stumbled forward to plow into Vin, but the sharpshooter side stepped him and the gunfighter fell into a nearby table.

Chris groggily stood up, prepared to take another shot, but Vin connected with a right jab, the force of the blow propelling the older man across the top of the bar. The scuffle was over.

"It does work purdy good," the sharpshooter said as he began to lug Chris' limp body through the saloon.

"Lemme help ya pard," Buck drifted up, taking an arm. "Y'know he'll be madder than a virgin on her weddin' night."

"Let's just say he's got it comin'," Vin found himself smiling. The humor of the moment diminished as he saw Ella's figure pressed against the window on the second floor of the hotel. A small sense of triumph filled the sharpshooter in the fact that she wasn't going to get Chris to come to her this evening. If he had his way, Chris was never going to come.

We know what yer all about Witch... and ya ain't gittin' Chris. Vin glowered up at window while he and Buck carried Chris to his wagon. He and the others would find some way to defeat her.


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