Till We Meet Again

by Laurie Ann

When Chris came to, the smell of burning wood hit his senses. He found himself lying sprawled out in the middle of a wagon...Vin's wagon. The smell was coming from the little fires the townspeople used to light the street. How long was he unconscious? And where the hell was the man who hit him?

"Payback's a bitch ain't it?" There was that throaty drawl the gunman wanted to hear. "At least we have matchin' bruises."

"Dammit Vin! I told you to leave me alone!" Chris cradled his head in his hands. The effects of the whiskey was hitting him full force.

"We need ya sober Larabee," Vin said matter-of-factly. "Gittin' drunk ain't gonna chase her away. We have ta re-group and git this figured out."

"This is my fight Tanner! I'll handle it. I want the rest of you to leave me be."

"And play right into her hands." Vin's plain spoken words hit Chris to the core.

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Chris said irritably, throwing the sharpshooter his worst glare.

Vin only smiled and pulled out his harmonica. "Ya oughta know by now ya don't scare me none, Cowboy."

"Alright smart mouth, what am I supposed to do? And how would keeping the six of you safely away from me be playing into her hands?" Seeing Vin bring the harmonica to his lips, Chris let out a string of curses. He wasn't getting answers....only a damn unwanted concert!

Playing a few short notes, Vin stopped and sighed. "Don't ya see, Chris? Back at the ranch...she had us apart from ya. You were up in the house, with her, and we were out in the bunkhouse."

The gunman's forehead creased as he thought back to that morning. Vin had chosen to stay outside, instead of living in the filthy bunkhouse. If he and Vin hadn't quarreled the night before, Vin wouldn't have rode out, and that might have caused him to be among the first killed.

"If you hadn't left early Vin...." Chris allowed himself to quit.

"I know Chris," Vin spoke gently, "thought that too. I'm just grateful I didn't ride off too far that I didn't hear the gunshots." The two friends lapsed into silence. It was a horrible day. Full of terrible discoveries that would take Chris' world and spin it into Hell again.

After half an hour, Chris looked over at Vin. The tracker as usual was waiting him out, ready to speak his mind when the time presented itself. Right then he hated Vin's ability to do that. His ability to make him laugh, make him listen..., make him care. A man he'd never seen before stole right into his soul and gave him hope again. He couldn't put Vin or the other five in jeopardy. They had become a make-shift family, a big family of brothers.

"Ya done cursin' the day we met?" Vin threw Chris a brief grin.

"Stop knowing what I think!" Chris ordered.

"Can't help it," Vin shrugged nonchalantly.

Chris found himself smiling. "I also know what's going through that irritating mind of yours. You're going to get me to relax, and then get me to do whatever it is you want."

"Then skip the small talk and git ta what I want."

"Which is?" Chris asked with a grand sweep of his arm.

"Let's git some sleep, and talk it over with everyone in the mornin'." Vin began to remove his shirt, motioning for Chris to grab some blankets near him.

"I ain't staying in this wagon," Chris snorted, beginning to rise. The tracker grasped his arm before he could leave the rig. "It's too dangerous to stay here, Vin," the gunman replied, his friend's eyes forbidding his departure.

"I reckon it's too dangerous for me if'n ya don't."

Chris felt a chill speed down his spine. "That don't make sense Vin."

"She knows yer here. Been watchin' us the whole time from the second story of the hotel. Like I said before, if we stick together...she ain't gonna try anythin'. She won't risk hurtin' ya."

"Good lord," Chris muttered, slumping down into a seated position. Vin was in danger just because he was with him. But what the tracker said began to infiltrate his subconscious. If he was around, Ella wouldn't take any chances. He looked over at the sharpshooter.

You win.

Don't I always? Clad only in his long johns, Vin snuggled under his blankets. "Night Cowboy."

"Yeah." Chris settled himself for bed, but not before sneaking a glance at the hotel across the way. In the pale glow of a lamp, he saw the figure of Ella Gaines still in the window. She was still waiting for him to come.

+ + + + + + +

Sleep came in spurts for Chris that night, his mind dwelling incessantly on the death of his wife and son, wondering if somehow he could've seen what was coming. No, it had been over ten years since he last saw that vixen. She couldn't have been that patient...but she was. A normal person would've moved on with their life, and Ella seemed to have, but deep inside she held onto the bizarre belief that they were meant to be together. But why wait until he had a family? A baby on the way?

Grief struck Chris as he thought back to the last time he saw his precious Sarah. Rubbing her stomach and mouthing, I love you, while he rode away with Buck. She was five month's pregnant and as beautiful as the first day he saw her. A single tear found it's way down his cheek, the darkness hiding his emotions. He had banished that knowledge of the pregnancy, the grief of losing Sarah and Adam more than he could handle. To deal with another life snuffed out before it truly had a chance to begin would have been too much to bear.

His eyes rested upon the slumbering man next to him, another batch of emotions hitting again. This scraggily, yet temperate tracker infused his being with a new purpose for living, giving him contemplation for another chance at happiness. Chris still hadn't figured out what it was about Vin Tanner that made him connect, but he was sure of the effect. Was the same situation playing again? Would he lose Vin or the others like he did Sarah and Adam?

It wasn't going to happen again! Whatever he had to do, it wasn't going to happen again.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was already dressed when the sharpshooter arose. The start of the dawn was breaking in the horizon, giving Vin pause. He always loved the beginning of the day when the sun rose to brighten the world, and when it sunk below, the sky illuminated with it's different hues. Nudging the gunman with his arm, he pointed in the direction of the brilliant orange sphere. He hoped the sight would lesson his friend's anguish. It wasn't lost on him all the tossing and turning Chris did, and he could fathom a guess who was causing it.

The man dressed in black didn't raise his head. "Get ready Vin. I'll walk you to the jail, I think it's Josiah and Ezra that's taking watch now. I'm going to talk to Ella afterwards."

"No, we're goin' ta find the others and meet at the jail. Then we're goin' ta talk. Ya ain't goin' nowhere's near that she-devil."

Two cool, green eyes became like fire as he glared at the younger man. "I told you I'm going to settle this...my way. You are going to butt out of it!"

Vin threw his hands up. "Take it easy Chris. All I'm askin' is that ya give the rest of us a chance ta maybe figure this thing out. By goin' up ta Ella, she's won the first round."

Chris looked into the sharpshooter's impassioned eyes, and found himself touched by the commitment he saw. There was no way he was going to win this argument for the time being. He nodded his head begrudgingly. Maybe Vin was right, one of them could figure out some way to get rid of Ella Gaines once and for all.

You win...this time.

Smiling, Vin continued his dressing. Getting Chris to agree was a good start.

+ + + + + + +

Buck, J.D., and Nathan were already at the jail house with Josiah and Ezra when the two men came inside. They had hoped the tracker was able to convince Chris to have a meeting.

All eyes turned to their leader, whose sour expression told them that he was only here to humor Vin.

"Told Chris ta give us a shot before he saw that she-cat," Vin said to the others. "Also told him that if'n we stick together, we have a better chance."

"Amen," Josiah agreed.

"Ah must concur," Ezra chimed in.

"We'll keep our eyes and ears open to every new person who comes into town," J.D. inserted. "We know who the enemy is, and what she's capable of."

"And we can all stay at the church," Josiah added. "There's plenty of room in the sanctuary. If Chris stays as well, she wouldn't try an attack."

"And what if she decides to stay for month's on end?" Chris muttered.

"We git ta become a bit holy," Vin said dryly. The gunman's scowl stifled the chuckles that emerged.

"Why don't we just lock her up and wait for the baby ta come?" Buck threw in. "You can either keep the kid or give him ta some good family...."

The baby. Chris thought back to the baby Sarah was going to have. And now Ella was carrying his child. His head bowed, the gunman avoided making any eye contact.

"I don't want my child being born in some jail cell," he said almost inaudibly. "I slept with her, and I've got no one to blame but myself."

"Ya didn't know what she was," Vin reminded his best friend, "so ya don't owe her anythin'. Yer not even sure it's yer's."

Chris' head jerked up. Would Ella be so desperate to sleep with another to produce a child? No, the timing was right. It was four months ago she came back into his life, and here she was four months pregnant. It had to be his.

"No Vin, it's mine."

"She's lied ta ya 'bout everythin' else, she could be lyin' 'bout how far along she is. Right Nathan?" Vin shot a pleading glance at the healer.

"Vin does have a point," Nathan had to admit. "She looks to be more like two or three months, but every woman is different. But I ain't had much experience with that."

Frustration building at every word, Chris shoved his fist into the wall. "And what if it is my kid? I can't turn my back on it!"

"And ya can't turn yer back on Sarah and Adam," Buck softly interjected. The gunman met his old friend's face, remembering how the lanky gunslinger loved his son as if it were his own. Buck was right, he couldn't condone what Ella had done, and accepting this child was the start down a slippery slope.

"Ok, we'll play it your way for now," Chris conceded. "No one goes off on their own, and we watch every stranger who wanders in. And all of you avoid any contact with Ella." The gunman particularly glanced in Vin's direction at his last command. The young tracker was extremely head strong when he was after something he felt was wrong.

"Do we lock her up?" J.D. asked. "I mean, she is guilty of a double murder, and not to mention six attempted ones. Maybe when it's close to the date, we can let her out."

Still uncomfortable with the thought, Chris shook his head slowly. "Let's just wait and see what she does." He knew all too well how charming Ella could be, and they wouldn't be able to hold her indefinitely here. A vision of the conniving vixen sweet talking some judge or jailer into freeing her drove his resistance on.

"Maybe we can kinda set up some sort of guard duty while she's at the hotel," Nathan suggested. "She won't go nowhere without us knowing it, and we can tail her to make sure she don't cause no trouble."

"Reckon so," Vin said. "I'll stand first guard."

"Like hell you will," Chris snapped. "She's probably not pleased I spent the evening with you instead of her."

"I'm sure ol' Vin was a much better time," Buck said with a wink.

"I want to try something out first." Turning to Vin, Chris gave his friend a silent message. Come with me.

The tracker met Chris' eyes and headed with their leader to the door.

"Watch yer backs!" Buck called out after the pair.

"Watch them for us," Chris answered with a turn of his head. "If you hear any kind of commotion, come running."

The others exchanged glances. Where was Chris going?

Ezra peered discreetly out the large front window of the jail house, his two friend's every move monitored. His green eyes became enlarged as he saw them walk into the hotel.

"Our brave comrades have entered the fortress of the enemy."

"They went ta the hotel?" Buck almost shouted. "Has Chris gone plum loco? And with Vin ta boot?"

"I don't think Chris would bring Vin into a situation where he could be harmed," Josiah said, his wish to calm Buck down.

"He better not! Why all that pole cat has ta do is see Vin and she'll be smellin' blood." Buck frowned as he tried to guess his old friend's motives. And despite his jealousy at first, even he had grown awful fond of the sharpshooter. What was Chris Larabee up to?


Irritated, Vin shoved Chris to the side of the hotel lobby. What were they doing here in the enemy's territory? He sure as hell wasn't going to allow Chris any contact with Ella.

"Whatcha thinkin' Chris?" Vin whispered angrily.

"We are going to talk to the manager," Chris said, pushing himself past his friend. "I've got an idea of how to monitor Ella's movements."

"That's it?" Vin wasn't convinced. Chris was up to something. "Would ya mind tellin' me, or do I go in with my mouth open?"

"I'm going to ask the manager to have him and his staff inform us if she leaves the building."

"And ya drug me along for somethin' ya coulda said yerself?"

"Would you have let me come here myself?"


"Then shut up about it."

Seeing the hotel manager and owner, Herman Pervis, behind the long and elaborate counter, Chris motioned for Vin to follow.

"Morning gentleman," Pervis greeted nervously. Normally he didn't receive visits from the acting sheriffs unless there was something wrong. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"We need some place where we can talk privately," Chris said. "Somewhere that locks so we won't be interrupted."

Jerking his head up and down rapidly, Pervis grabbed a key that was in his vest pocket. "My office would be best! Only I have the key to it."

"That's exactly what I was hoping for," Chris smiled. "We'd like your help and I don't want to be overheard."

"Of course Mr. Larabee," the portly manager agreed, hurrying his two guests outside the modest room. "We shouldn't be overheard at all in here. If I have a disagreement with one of my employees, this is where I take them."

"Perfect," Chris murmured, studying the thick wooden door. "This door's so heavy that you wouldn't be able to hear anything or be able to break it down."

"She might be a bit on the crazy side," Vin whispered in the gunman's ear, "but I don't reckon she's strong enough ta break down a door."

"I don't think anyone's strong enough to break down this door," Chris grinned. "Mr. Pervis, you said you had the only key?"

"Yes," Pervis replied, holding the key up to Chris.

"May I hold onto it?" The request seemed odd, but the hotel manager readily handed it over. "Does it lock from the outside?"

"Of course, but I doubt if anyone would try and pick it." Pervis entered inside first

"I don't think so either." The key pressed into his palm, Chris nudged Vin into the room, and appeared to be following, when he slammed the door shut behind the startled tracker, locking him and the manager inside.

Dull thuds and muffled voices was all the gunman heard as he walked away. Yep, that was a sturdy door all right.

+ + + + + + +

He had seen Ella's silhouette on the second floor, in about the middle of the hotel, facing the street. He'd try there first. Undoubtedly she would be awaiting his arrival. Vin would be furious for what he did, but it had to be done. He was going to say his piece, and he knew the normally calm sharpshooter would get upset, making the situation worse. Yet, he couldn't leave his friend out of his reach. Ella had to be upset that he spent last night with Vin, unconscious or not. She already felt the others posed a threat, and seeing Vin with him would only fuel those insane notions.

Swallowing hard, Chris continued up the red carpeted steps, his legs feeling like lead pipes, each step becoming harder as he neared the second floor hallway. Sarah and Adam floated through his mind, their charred remains haunting every inch he took further towards the one responsible for their deaths.

What the hell was he doing here? The woman who killed his family was walking around free in Four Corners!

Vin's words echoed in his mind as he continued on. "Sorry ya didn't shoot her when ya had the chance."

That horrible day flashed into his mental view like a bolt of lightning. All seven of them were at Ella ranch, her terrible deed exposed. Vin tried to warn him of her deceit the night before, but he had ignored his friend, Ella's allure guiding his emotions. Still, Vin's accusations hounded him through the night, his knowledge of the tracker's motives never in doubt. Vin wouldn't lie to him. He knew him better than the woman lying in bed. That led to the discovery in the secret room.

Gunshots broke out, his friends under attack from the men Ella had hired. He came out, his gun picking off anyone who dared to harm his companions. He remembered hearing Vin's warning to stay down, but he continued firing...until Ella rode into his sights. The colt was raised, his aim sure and deadly. She continued to stare at him, and he found his nerve to shoot wavering. Yet he couldn't lower the gun. A searing pain struck his side, bringing him down. Vin's growl exploded behind him as the tracker killed the man who shot the bullet. Ella lingered a few seconds more, but rode off when Vin came rushing to his side, taking a quick shot at the departing woman. She was too far to hit.

"Chris? I knew you'd come!" Ella Gaines' voice lilted through the hall as the gunman found himself standing before her open doorway. Her dark hair was scooped up to show off her neck, her bodice undone to show as much of her charms as possible.

For an instant Chris remembered her beauty, how her body melted so easily into his own. She was a wild, unpredictable thrill a minute, barely giving the rider a chance for air. He thrived on her excitement, but like anything, there was a price to pay. His wife and son paid what was to be his debt, and it was time to stop payment before another innocent had to suffer.

"Come in," Ella offered with a sweep of her graceful arm. Reluctantly Chris walked inside the suite, squeezing the key in his palm to remind him of the one who could possibly bear the brunt of reprisal.

"Where's your little shadow," Ella asked, her eyes searching the hall for Vin. "I saw him arrive with you."

"He's no concern of your's," Chris snapped, the sound of her even speaking of the tracker incensing him. "We'll be alone."

Twirling one of the loose strands from her hastily put up hair, Ella feigned a pout as she ran a finger over Chris' collar. "I was expecting you to come last night," she cooed. "I had everything ready to celebrate our child, but they wouldn't let you come."

"No one stopped me from coming." He didn't like how this was going. Grabbing her upper arms, he forced her to face him. "I came up here for one purpose, and I will say my piece."

"I saw him and the other one, Buck, carry you to his wagon," Ella interrupted, her eyes almost frantic. "You can tell me, I won't get mad...they pretend to be your friends....."

"Stop it!" Chris said through gritted teeth, his grip still attached to the slender arms.

"They won't let us raise our son here," Ella persisted.

His hold tightening, Chris became afraid of the look in his former flame's eyes. Why couldn't he have seen this before? Her eyes were devoid of warmth, only coldness and possessiveness.

"Ella, there is no us," Chris said forcefully, "and there will never be! I want you to leave immediately and never bother me and especially my friends!"

Ella jerked herself free and flailed her arms in panic. "What about me? The baby?"

Chris' face hardened as his voice was barely above a whisper, dripping with hatred. "I'm allowing you to live. Consider that part of my responsibility to the baby. This child is the only reason you're still breathing!"

"You're his father...," Ella whimpered, her outstretched hands being rejected. "I can't let this happen...."

Fury flashing in his eyes, Chris shoved his finger in the brunette's face. The anguish of the last three years all he could feel. "If you try anything, to anyone, you're dead! I'll show you the same mercy you showed to my family! I won't let you hurt anybody because of me again! Am I getting through to you Ella? Am I?"

"I did it for us Chris," Ella began to sob, her head falling upon her chest. "How can you be so cruel to me?"

Leaning near her head, Chris' lips formed into a tight line. "How can you be so cruel as to let a woman and boy burn alive? How can you try to kill six men who were willing to help you out? You almost had me fooled, but now I know what lengths you're willing to go to, and it won't work this time."

His harsh words spoken, Chris Larabee left the sobbing woman on her knees, slamming the door behind him. Now he would have to wait to see if his warnings sunk in. Deep in his heart he didn't want to follow through with his threat, but did she deserve any pity? Isn't that what he showed her at the ranch? But the baby was innocent, it didn't deserve to die. No, he could never kill the baby.

When he opened the door to the manager's office, he deliberately avoided looking directly at Vin. He could feel the daggers knifing through him.

"I-I don't understand why you felt the need to lock us in here Mr. Larabee," Pervis huffed. "I was more than willing to help out with what Mr. Tanner told me."

"I do apologize Mr. Pervis," Chris said sincerely. "But I wasn't sure how things would go, and I didn't want any confrontations. Mr. Tanner knows what I'm talking about."

"Much obliged for your help Mr. Pervis," Vin said with a tug at his hat's brim. He exited the room without another word, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

Chris nodded his head to the manager in parting and sighed as he walked towards the door. He wasn't sure how to justify his actions to Vin.

"She won't be able to go out without one of you gentlemen being notified," Pervis assured Chris as he followed behind his friend.

"Vin...," Chris struggled to explain, the tracker's face visibly angry.

"I know what ya did," Vin muttered under his breath. "Ya just had ta do it...had ta go see her!"

The gunman grabbed the younger man's arm, forcing the furious pace to stop. "I did it for you, the others," Chris said.

Vin pulled his arm free. "I don't need those kind of favors, Larabee."

"I can't pretend she's not there! I had to tell her where I stood!"

His anger subsiding, Vin flashed Chris a sad look. "Chris, every attempt at talkin' ta her only makes her think ya love her. She ain't right in the head."

"I promise not to talk to her anymore," Chris vowed. "I told her to leave town and to never bother me, you or the others again."

With a bitter laugh, Vin continued to walk faster to the jail. "Ya honestly think she'll do that?"

"If she doesn't she's dead."

Again the sharpshooter stopped, his eyes widening. "Even with the baby?" He couldn't believe he was hearing Chris say that. Was it grief and anger talking?

Chris avoided meeting his best friend's astonished gaze, the conviction lacking in his voice. "If she tries anything...she's dead." This time he walked briskly to the jail, with Vin having to catch up.

As soon as the gun fighter opened the jail house door, Buck was all over his old friend, his wrath evident.

"What the hell ya think yer doin', Chris?" Buck spat in Larabee's face. "Takin' Vin with ya like that! Might as well paint a pretty red target on 'im and tell Ella where ta shoot!"

"Are you done yet, Buck?" Chris replied evenly.

"Hell no," Buck spoke in a threatening tone.

"Buck, don't," Vin implored, inserting himself between the two men. He had to get the big gunslinger to calm down or all the work to get Chris to listen to them would be jeopardized. "I talked ta the manager, while Chris...."

"Ya went and saw her?" Buck exploded, pushing himself past the slight tracker, sending Vin tumbling into JD.

Ezra's voice broke through the commotion. "Gentlemen, please...let's conduct ourselves in a much more appealing manner. Why don't we all find a place to rest ourselves, and allow one man at a time to speak. Mr. Larabee, since your motives are in question, why don't you begin the discussion."

Chris glowered at his men, his mouth turning into a tight line. "I saw her." He looked around the jail for any challenges. "I had Vin talk to the manager, and I talked to Ella."

"That's it?" JD spoke out.

"That's all you need to know," Chris said brusquely.

Giving his golden-brown mane a shake, Vin cursed softly. "Ya can't keep everyone in the dark, Chris. We're doin' this together, so we do it together. Tell 'em what ya told her."

"I told her to leave us alone, and if she doesn't she'll be sorry."

"And she's just gonna listen ta ya ol' pard," Buck said sarcastically. "Maybe after she kills one of us."

His eyes narrowing into slits, Chris lashed out at his old friend, grabbing Buck's shirt and flinging him into a cell door. "What the hell am I supposed to do, Buck! What!?"

Vin rushed up behind Chris, his hands gripping onto the gunman's arms. "Stop it Chris! This ain't gonna solve nothin' either! We're playin' inta her hands." The two men quieted and looked at the young tracker. "That's right. She's gonna git us fightin' and separated. Then she can do her worse."

"If she wasn't with child...," Chris mumbled wearily.

"She is, so we have ta figure out some other way," Vin assured his friend. "We've got a start on havin' her watched. Maybe we can git the telegraph office ta let us know any wires she might try'n send, even the livery boys can let us know if she goes ridin' off somewhere."

"I don't want the whole town in on this!" Chris said adamantly. "I'll agree to the telegraph office, and...."

"The livery stable," Vin finished with a grin. "We only need one person tellin' us."

"The damn bitch just needs to know she has to get out of town before I kill her myself," Chris groused.

"Then let's all of us tell her," Vin urged.

Chris' brow furrowed. All of us?

All of us.


Ella Gaines threw herself onto the lush mattress, her tears staining the light satin fabric. What would happen now? How could the man she loved so deeply turn so hateful? Lifting her trembling hands to her face to brush off the tears, she consoled herself in the knowledge that Chris wouldn't turn his back on their son.

Still, she had an unexpected deadline. If she didn't leave town immediately, Chris threatened.... She sat up and laughed. No, Chris wouldn't kill her. Mulling the idea in her mind, Ella paused, rubbing her belly. Her goal hadn't been reached yet, but it would.

Scanning her wardrobe, she fretted over her myriad of clothes, searching for the perfect outfit. A bright pink bodice with a black chiffon, layered skirt caught her fancy. Chris would have to notice her in this. But was it too much? Maybe something more sedate.

A gingaham dress with chocolate brown frills was more modest. She now had to come up with the right excuse to buy her some extra time. If she couldn't find it, she feared the loss of her beloved. The hold these six men held over him was strong, and it won't easy to take them down, not compared to a woman and a boy.

Her dressing complete, Ella elegantly strolled down the staircase, pleased with the looks of admiration from the small smattering of people in the lobby. Seeing the hotel manager eyeing her with wariness, the murderess ambled up to the front desk, her manner oozing with charm.

"Excuse me....Mr. Pervis isn't it? Where might I find something to read?"

Pervis looked back at the vision in front of him and cleared his throat. Mr. Tanner was very insistent that this woman was responsible for killing Mr. Larabee's wife and son. He gave his word to keep them abreast of her activities, and he would.

"There's a little reading room off to the left of the lobby. There are books, and newspapers from around the area. It's not as extensive as some bigger towns, but feel free to browse, or take them to your room."

"Thank you," Ella said sweetly.

She was only biding her time, hoping Chris would come to his senses and come see her. Searching the various books in the two bookcases that lined the back wall of the small, but cozy reading room, her brown eyes opened wide when she saw the battered, almost insignificant paperback lying on a coffee table.

'The Magnificent Seven' by Jock Steele. Picking the book up, she clutched the small paperback with excitement. On the cover were men who resembled Chris and the others he rode with. Flipping through the first couple of pages, she saw the gunfighter's name. This was a story about them...and maybe a story about how she could find the key to unlock her true love's feelings. Ignoring the many greetings from the other guests, Ella hurried upstairs to begin her perusing.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra passed his gaze between the two leaders of the group, his confusion as evident as Chris'. What was the tracker talking about? All of them talking to Ella Gaines? "Forgive my ignorance, Mr. Tanner," the gambler shook his head, "but why would seeing the cause of so much distress...together, be prudent?"

Chris folded his arms. I'm waiting, Vin.

Leaning to his right, Vin shrugged. "Dunno rightly, but the way I see it, we won't have ta wait on Chris tellin' us." The sharpshooter smirked when Chris' mouth fell. What'cha think of that?

I'm still waiting.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen," Ezra raised his hands, "please do not digress into your unusual communication patterns, and allow us the privilege of knowing what is happening."

"I think it's a great idea," JD said enthusiastically. "If we all show up together, it'll show her we're committed to stand against her. Let her know she won't be getting away with anything."

"Glad someone knows what you're talking about," Chris whispered in Vin's direction.

Vin gave a wry grin. "Ya bein' dumb...how can ya tell?"

"You're beginning to hit a nerve, Tanner."

"Well, I am the irritatin' one."

"Let's stop all this ninny talk and git somethin' done!" Buck's voice boomed throughout the jailhouse.

+ + + + + + +

Ella placed the paperback in her lap, her mind reeling from the small amount of information gathered. No wonder her ambush at the ranch failed. That scruffy tracker had said something to Chris the night before, placing a pall upon the evening's festivities. The other five lawmen had no clue to her to her goals, but this Vin Tanner had become suspicious somehow, checking into her story. Her beloved seemed to be distant the rest of the night, and even in bed. This younger man did hold a grip over Chris.

But what could Chris Larabee see in a nobody like him? They appeared to be total opposites. Chris was dramatic and fiery, where this tracker was quiet and contemplative. She would have to find out all she could about these men before she analyzed her next move. Clutching the worn book in her hand, she knew she would glean much from there. But how to discover more? Returning to her page, Ella eagerly read on, her mind totally focused on her mission.

+ + + + + + +

Vin studied Chris as the gunman sat staring out the window towards the hotel. He was oblivious to the many voices around him discussing the problem at hand. Tanner could see how his best friend weighed every option in his mind, trying to find the one to end the ordeal. He was battling his own mental war as well, wishing and praying for something that would lesson Chris' burden.

"Chris?" Vin whispered to his friend. Two green eyes looked at him blankly. The tracker jerked his head to the door. Let's git outta here.

The gunman nodded, his gaze shifting back to the group of men. His mind numb, he welcomed the chance to be out in the air. The voices stopped as they watched their leader and second in command rise from their chairs.

"Where you two going?" JD asked.

"Out front," Vin answered, pointing to the two wooden chairs that he and Chris usually occupied on the jailhouse walkway.

JD began to protest, but Buck placed a restraining hand on his arm. "Vin's right," he said with a sad smile. "Chris looks pretty worn. He needs this...not our yammerin'."

Stretching, Vin slumped his slight frame into his chair, his eyes beckoning Chris to do the same. "What is it ya want?" The sharpshooter pulled out his harmonica and began to play softly.

Stunned, Chris sat in silence for a moment. "For starters...you can stop torturing me with that thing!" He frowned when his friend continued playing. "Why do you play that thing at the worst times?"

Vin took the musical instrument from his lips and glanced over at Chris. "It's at the worst times that I need it. Better than beatin' myself up for things I can't change."

Growling, Chris ran a hand over his face in aggravation. "This was a bad idea."

"I'll be quiet," Vin promised, pushing down on Chris' rising shoulder. Seeing his friend slowly recline into his seat, the tracker kicked his feet up upon the tethering post. He had planted the thought, now he'd have to bide his time for the answer. He didn't have to wait long.

"I can't kill her...the baby," Chris muttered under his breath, "but dammit...we can't even sit out here without me worrying about her reaction to it."

"But can ya live with the other?" Vin asked gently. "Can ya look at her every day, and be able ta survive? I don't want ya shootin' her either since there's a baby now, but I don't want ya torturin' yerself."

"Ain't that what I'm going through now?" Chris said glumly. "Torture?"

The sharpshooter reached over and smacked Chris' arm. "Ya got the rest of us, Cowboy. And Ella Gaines be damned. Give it a chance."

"I'm willing to try things your way for now," Larabee sighed, ignoring the gnawing feeling in his gut. "We'll have this little meeting with her, tell her to get out of town, and keep an eye out for anything suspicious."

"Now see, ya got it all figured out," Vin smiled mischievously. "One of the smartest plans ya ever thought of." His grin broadened when he heard Chris grunt, then pull his black hat over his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Ella poured through the paperback all afternoon, every detail noted and absorbed into her mind. There had to be a better way to get Chris to accept her again. She was so close before. Maybe she had played her hand too soon. Should have waited until the others had left her ranch, then months down the road finished them off. But she had waited three years already, and up until then, Chris had never grown fond of anyone. Not until this damnable town. A certain passage in the book caught her attention.

The seven men rode out of the village, as if they had become one person. Each taking on a form of the human body, one unable to function without the other.

Chris Larabee was the mind. His cool leadership and determination heading the group.

Ezra Standish represented the cunning we possess when survival is necessary.

Buck Wilmington embodied the amorous desires and sense of humor.

Josiah Sanchez spoke to the more spiritual side of their nature.

J.D. Dunne had the youthful joy and innocence of life.

Nathan Jackson was the healing factor of their body.

Vin Tanner was the heart. His blood coursing through the body, warming them all.

"If the heart stops...everything stops," Ella murmured. "Even the mind." She threw the book to the side of her and buried her head in her hands. If she took out any of them, especially Tanner, she'd kill Chris too. That was the reason for his chilly reception. She had almost destroyed his friends before, and was fearful of it happening again.

Suddenly an idea formed, sending the vixen leaping out of her bed. The thoughts flowed out of her head and onto the monogrammed hotel paper. She would need to write down every detail, for this plan was going to be tricky, but if she could pull it off, her goals would be complete. Finally the three months of her extra arrangements were coming to fruition. Now all she had to do was tie them together somehow. Carefully hiding her well thought out plan, she busied herself with her book. Maybe she'd receive more inspiration.

+ + + + + + +

Mr. Pervis nervously knocked on his guest's door, an urgent message gripped tightly in his sweaty palm. Mr. Larabee was very insistent that Miss Gaines received this. He quickly nodded his head in greeting when Ella opened the door, her face showing the obvious disappointment that it wasn't her beloved standing in front of her.

"Uh...uh...sorry ma'am," Pervis fumbled, holding the envelope out, "I hate to disturb you, but I was told to bring you this message immediately."

Her frown gone, Ella turned the corners of her mouth up into a sweet smile. "I thank you for your effort," she almost cooed, her ego soaring as she noticed him taking in her feminine form. "Good day Mr. Pervis."

"Good day ma'am." The hotel manager sighed in relief. He was also relieved his wife wasn't around. She'd had killed him if she knew what he had thought about his new guest.

Ripping open the envelope, Ella's breath caught as she read the message.


Meet me at the jail house in an hour. We need to talk and get everything settled.

Chris Larabee

Ella clutched the note to her chest and beamed. She knew he couldn't stay away for long. Her euphoria was short lived as a sudden thought passed her mind. He wanted to meet at the jail house. That was an odd place to meet. He couldn't possibly be thinking of arresting her? She shook her head, but the thought nagged at her. He couldn't prove absolutely she was behind the attack of his friends. Tapping the note on the side of her smiling face, she remembered she had an ace in the hole concerning that threat...thanks to her new found information. No, if Chris was talked into doing something like arresting her, she'd get the upper hand. She could guess the proof that would be offered, and she knew exactly how to counter it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris paced around the jail house like a prowling lion, his emotions battling inside. Was this a good idea? Should he trust in their abilities to keep Ella under control? What other choices did he have? He sure as hell wasn't going to be with her, and with a baby, the option of killing or hanging her wasn't palatable. But she was a deadly woman, who could use her charms to convince the noblest of men to do her bidding. He had certainly been under her spell, and the others believed her too...except Vin.

The gunman threw a glance in the sharpshooter's direction. If only he had listened to Vin that night at the ranch. It was amazing sometimes how much insight the young man had, especially concerning him. No, this was worth the risk. With his back against the wall, he had one last option, and he'd take it if it meant saving the others.

Sensing Chris' gaze was upon him, Vin gave his friend a lazy smile, letting the leader of the seven know he was behind him. He'd ride to the bowels of Hell for Chris Larabee, and even if the gunman changed the plan, he'd back him up. Unless he did the one thing Vin could never allow him to do. With the six of them here, Chris wouldn't do it. He wouldn't kill Ella. The tracker was sure of that.

Pulling out the gold pocket watch Sarah had given him on their first wedding anniversary, Chris closed his eyes tightly. Two more minutes. As if on cue, his object of hate sauntered through the jailhouse door.

Ella's face fell as she saw the six peacekeepers one by one rise from their positions and fall behind their leader. Like seven pieces that led to a whole.

"We've got to talk," Chris said.


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