Till We Meet Again

by Laurie Ann

Ella gained control of her disappointment and forced a small smile. Of course they wouldn't let Chris see her alone. Her eyes scanned the jail cells, and being content that her little surprise would be able to fend off a possible stay behind those iron bars, she relaxed.

"Are you and I going to talk Chris?" Ella asked. "Or are they?"

"More like I'm going to talk, and you're going to listen," Chris said curtly.

Seeing a slight movement in the corner of her eye, Ella watched with interest Vin Tanner hanging on Chris' every motion or lack of it. It was if the tracker was trying to read what the gunman would say or do next. The brim of the slouch hat lifted and the cunning woman for the first time noticed Vin's eyes. The bright blue shade struck her even across the room, the intensity and depth mesmerizing her for a second. Those eyes appeared to sear right through anything in their way. Almost like Chris' green ones could make you tremble if ignited.

"Ella?" Chris' voice knifed through her mental fog. The blue eyes calling her like a beacon.

"We want to make it perfectly clear, that you have twenty-four hours to get out of town and out of my life forever," Chris continued when his former love looked back at him.

"Forever?" Ella almost whispered. She could feel the others staring at her, the temperature chilling in the room. She met each glance with a confident one of her own. She could see the contempt in their faces, the hard and unforgiving looks. They had no right to be feeling this way. She was the one stolen from. When she skipped to Vin, she was unprepared for what she saw in his face. The sharpshooter was glaring at her alright, but instead of contempt, his stare was going right into her inner core. He was trying to read her!

Quelling the tremors that threatened to overtake her, the murderess took a deep breath and focused all her attention on Chris. She had to buy some time. Twenty-four hours wasn't enough to bring everything together.

"And when you leave, you forget about me, the others, this town, everything." Chris folded his arms and monitored Ella's reaction. "I am staying here. I am staying with my friends, and whatever else I choose to do will be none of your concern anymore."

"The baby?"

"Will mean nothing to me." Chris' words were harsh, causing even Vin to stir uncomfortably.

"You can't mean it...," Ella faltered, her mind grouping for anything to stall. If she could put her plan into motion, she could get Chris to accept the baby. To love her again.

"We're going to watch everything you do, say, or think. If you try the least little thing to harm anyone, I'll make you sorry." The gunman turned his back to her then, his eyes briefly meeting Vin's. The younger man felt a iciness go through him at the depth of hate in his best friend's eyes. He had to wonder if Ella leaving would be enough to ease it.

"Isn't there anything I can do...say to change your mind?" Ella pleaded. "You can't throw all we had out. It's too strong....too powerful."

His teeth clenched as tight as his fists. Chris fought the urge to unleash all his pain and rage on the woman. Vin's steady gaze met his, and he tried to draw needed strength from the taciturn sharpshooter. He could feel all the old emotions he battled that drove him to a life as a gunfighter. Not caring if he lived or died. Looking into the face of the man before him, and then taking a quick scan at the other men with him, Chris Larabee knew he had a reason to keep going. Ella Gaines could go to Hell.

"You've got twenty-four hours," Chris repeated, his back still towards her. "Now get the hell out of my sight."

Ella continued to stand in place, her face pale as she grappled with her beloved's warning.

"Ya best do as he says," Vin interrupted, his voice devoid of any emotion, "if'n ya want ta keep that baby alive."

Ella looked into those vivid blue pools and found herself sinking deeper. She couldn't make out any of his other facial features but his eyes. Everything else was a blur.

"Get the hell out!

Ella literally jumped when Chris' snarled face butted into her view. He was like a rabid dog, his teeth bared and his eyes mad with fury. Every instinct told her to run, and she did.

+ + + + + + +

"Ya all right?" Vin asked Chris, wanting to touch his friend's arm, but knowing the action was unwanted. He ached to let the gunman know he was proud of him, felt for him, was there for him. For a brief second, Chris looked up.

The gunfighter nodded, his eyes saying all.I know.

"Couldn't we all agree that went well?" Ezra grinned, his gold tooth flashing in the filtering sunlight. "Ah think she construes that it would behoove her to abscond from this milieu anon. Or a grievous retribution will emanate."

Buck shook his head in confusion. "Ezra, that made about enough sense as a mouse in a cat fight. What the hell was all that?"

"If she's smart, she'll leave," Vin answered to the amazement of all in the room.

"Vin? You knew what he just said," Nathan asked, his eyes large.

"Dear God in Heaven he did," Josiah said with a small grin.

"What?" Vin wondered aloud. "Ya mean ya'll didn't git that?"

Ezra walked over to the tracker. "Mr. Tanner, as much as it may flatter me that you are able to comprehend my dialog, Ah must confess that Ah find your sudden cognizance of my utterances....unnerving."

Vin looked at the gambler defiantly. "Are ya sayin' I ain't smart enough ta understand?"

"No, no.... Ah would never dare to infer such a detestable insult to your person. You obviously are quite astute to be able to decipher my speech."

"Ain't nothin' much," Vin smiled when he noticed the gambler relax. "Bull is bull no matter how purdy ya make it sound."

Laughter erupted and echoed through the jailhouse, the serious matter forgotten for a blessed moment, six friends indulging in their unique friendship, with one watching with gratitude.

+ + + + + + +

Bishop Krenshaw viewed the dark haired beauty from the shadows. Yep, that was her. That was the dangerous lady his boss, Marshal Winthrop, told him about. Larabee and Tanner had come to the livery only hours ago to speak to Winthrop. It had to be serious if the two big lawmen came to talk. They were supposed to alert them of this woman's coming and goings. She was definitely going. Swallowing hard, Bishop watched Ella purchase a horse, and then a trap. He had to tell Mr. Larabee immediately that she was leaving. Making sure she didn't see him, the burly lad hurried over to the jailhouse.

Tapping nervously upon the jail's door, Bishop poked his head inside. "Mr. Larabee? I'm supposed ta let ya know if'n that woman leaves?"

"Is she leavin' Bishop?" Vin asked, giving the anxious young man a calming smile. He had instantly liked this strapping youngster the moment he came to Four Corners five months ago. Maybe it was the fact Bishop had no family, like him, but the young man was a hard worker without one bad thing to say about anybody.

"She sure is Mr. Vin. I was told ta git ya if'n that happened. I did right, didn't I?"

"Which way is she heading?" Chris inserted briskly.

"Uhm, east of town Mr. Larabee," Bishop mumbled, the gunman's tone unsettling him. Sometimes he didn't know how to react to this man who always wore black.

"How long ago?"

"No more than a few minutes, Sir."

Chris Larabee flew into action. "Josiah, Nathan...you saddle up and follow her. If you see her doing anything or meeting someone, find out what you can, then ride back and we'll handle it...together."

Vin placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Thanks Bishop," he said.

Bishop beamed as he looked at the sharpshooter. "Ya sure are welcome Mr. Vin. I only want ta do the right thing."

"Where the hell you think you're going Vin?" Chris snapped as he watched the tracker's retreating back.

"I'm goin' with Nate and Josiah," Vin replied, his motion to the door continuing. "Might need ta track her."

"You get your sorry hide back here before I shoot it!" Ella's scrutiny of the tracker didn't escape Chris' notice. It could bode ill for his friend.

Vin looked back and grinned. "If'n we ain't back in an hour, come searchin'."

"Then I'm coming," Chris demanded.

"Oh yeah," Vin frowned, "she'd love havin' ya go ridin' out after her."

With a sullen scowl, Chris threw his hands up in irrate surrender. "Fine! But you better damn well watch your back Tanner! And theirs!"

Before Josiah closed the door, he gave a nod in Vin's direction. "I'll still keep an eye on him, Chris."

"Keep an eye out period," Chris mumbled.

+ + + + + + +

"We didn't have any trouble finding her," Nathan commented, looking down the slope at the woman slumped under a tree. "Sure won't be able ta see us up here."

"Yep," Vin agreed, peering out his spyglass. "We git the high and hidden ground." He knew Chris would pitch a fit if they got too close to the murdering mad woman. If she wasn't responsible for killing Chris' family, he would have found the sight in front of him saddening. Ella Gaines was weeping bitterly, her face buried by her arms that wrapped around her knees. She looked the ultimate picture of loneliness and rejection. But it was a cruelty that belittled her crimes against innocent people. He wouldn't waste any pity on her. The one who deserved any sympathy was back in Four Corners.

"How long we going to stay up here and watch her cry?" Josiah said to no one in particular.

"Till she cries a river and hopefully drowns in it," Vin said sarcastically. "I've got rights ta dunkin' her under."

The three men were so engrossed with the view below that they didn't take immediate notice of the approach of others. Vin whirled around first but it was too late. Eight burly men descended upon the trio with force, quickly disarming them and determined to cause bodily harm.

Three men managed to force Nathan to the ground, giving him sound kicks to the stomach with their boots. Josiah went to his friend's aid, easily throwing off his two side attackers. Another man leaped upon the large priest's back, his arms circling around the thick neck, but Josiah hurried on to the healer's side.

Vin's arms were enveloped by a man from behind, pulling them uselessly in back of him. Another cretin stood before the tracker, cracking his knuckles in anticipation for the blow he was about to bestow on his victim. Vin's leg struck out fiercely, hitting the man in the knee caps, causing the bully to bend down unconsciously to touch them. This was the desired result as the sharpshooter again thrusted out his leg, snapping the man's head back as the boot connected with the jaw.

The man behind him kneed Vin in the back, but the younger man had plans for his oppressor. Turning his head, he spit squarely into the man's eye, creating a brief moment of slight release. The hold loosened, Vin busted forward and slipped his arms free.

"What the?" the bewildered man muttered before Vin's raised elbow plowed into his face. The tracker sidestepped as the ruffian fell face first into the ground. Looking up, he smiled as he saw his two friends had fared well. Josiah was throwing another limp man onto the pile he had started, helping Nathan to his feet.

"Ya alright Nathan?" Vin asked as he walked up to the two men.

"I'm fine," Nathan sighed, "but my gut might be sore for a spell. You hurt?"

"Naw," Vin shook his head, "I reckon they felt more than I did."

"Brother Vin," Josiah said, "may I add them to my pile?" Receiving a laugh and nod from the sharpshooter, the large ex-priest gathered the men by their shirts and half-carried, half-drug them to the others.

With their guns safely back in their possession, the three lawmen raised them to the sound of an oncoming horse. They weren't going to be ambushed again.

"What the hell?" An older gentleman cursed as he rode nearer. Squinting, he stared hard at the men. "What did you do to my help? I come riding out to see where they went off to."

"Mr. Nesbitt?" Josiah said with a cocked head. "These men work for you?"

Recognizing the men before him, the older man relaxed and dismounted. "Yep, been at my ranch for about three and a half months. I admit, they're a bit on the rowdy side, but they're good workers. What'd they do?"

"Ambushed us," Vin replied. "Took our guns and tried ta beat the tar outta us."

"But why?" Nesbitt muttered with confusion. "Ain't like you're on my land. They do get a bit protective over strangers, but they ain't never just up and attacked before either."

"We'd like ta know the answer ta that too," Nathan said, placing a hand on his stomach. "Looks like one o' them might be comin' 'round."

A soft moan escaped from the figure lying on top of the pile, his eyelids fluttering to the sound of voices. When the voices became images, his face froze in consternation as he viewed the three men with his boss. Damn! The old man wasn't supposed to find out.

"Brigger? What's the meaning of this?" Nesbitt demanded angrily.

"They...they were spyin' on yer land Mr. Nesbitt!" Emmit Brigger stammered. Pointing in Vin's direction, he continued, "That longer haired one, he had one of those watchin' things, and he was checkin' out yer land or that lady on it."

"We were watchin' a suspect," Vin said in defense. "Ain't our fault she's on someone else's land. Maybe ya should try'n ask folks before tryin' ta rip 'em apart."

"How we know that?" Brigger snapped. "Maybe ya want ta have yer way with the lady!"

Josiah scoffed. "Mister, that ain't no lady down there. She committed a crime, and we're making sure she don't commit another."

"Why ain't she in jail?" Nesbitt asked.

"We're gittin' the information we need," Vin answered, unwilling to give away any more. "Still don't make it right ta go attackin'."

"That's right," Nesbitt agreed as he threw Brigger a disapproving glance. "You know these three are lawmen back in Four Corners, and I trust anything they have to say."

"But Mr. Nesbitt...."

"When your brothers come around, go immediately back to your bunkhouse. Is that clear?"

Emmit Brigger hung his head. "Yes sir." Bending down, he began the process of reviving his unconscious brothers one by one. In ten minutes, the last of the Brigger brothers stood shakily on his feet, their defeat easily read upon the other's faces. Without a sound, they headed back to Nesbitt's ranch.

"I apologize again for my men's behavior," Nesbitt said, holding out his hand for the three men to shake. "They get a little overzealous sometimes. I hate to lose good hands like that, but I also won't tolerate another outburst like that either."

"I hope you don't have to worry about it again," Josiah smiled with understanding. "All's forgiven."

They watched Nesbitt ride out after his men, each suddenly remembering the task they were sent out to do...watching Ella.

"Damn!" Vin mumbled, reaching over to pick up his spyglass. As his fingers curled upon the cherished object, he felt the pressure of another hand. Sucking in a breath, he stared face to face with Ella Gaines, who had pulled herself up over the hill. Her face darker than a stormy sky about to burst forth.


Vin clutched his spyglass and watched Ella Gaines lift herself over the mound of grass like a demon rising from the pits of Hell. He fought the sudden urge to use his boot and kick her back down.

"Is anyone going to help a lady up?" Ella demanded, her steely gaze fixed on the tracker.

With a disgusted grunt, the sharpshooter backed up a few inches. He sure didn't see no lady before him.

Ella shot Vin a look filled with an icy venom. Her eyes latched onto the intense blue ones, her mind mesmerized by the sheer depths of their clarity. You could see into the young man soul, and what she saw there now unnerved her slightly. It was pure enmity.

"Do I get any assistance?" Ella asked, her hand outstretched.

"Reckon ya got this far on yer own," Vin shrugged.

The murderess let out an irritated growl at the sharpshooter's indifference as she pulled herself to a standing position. Who did he think he was? She could have him groveling at her feet if she so chose. "Am I to be followed around like some criminal? Can't a woman have privacy?"

"Afraid you don't deserve that right," Josiah said stiffly. "Until you leave town, all you do will be watched."

"Meaning?" Ella huffed furiously.

"Meanin' ya won't be able ta go ta the outhouse without us knowin' it," Vin replied.

"I'll inform Chris of your actions towards me!" The femme fatale threatened.

"Go the hell ahead," Vin shrugged. "But don't say I didn't warn ya."

Her face flushed with anger, Ella remembered back to the jailhouse. Chris had said those terrible things, but he did it because of them. Rushing past the three men, she grabbed the reins to her buggy and climbed in. Throwing her purser's one last glare, she rode off towards Four Corners.

"Shall we?" Josiah offered with a small sweep of his arm. Nathan and Vin laughed as they too mounted their horses. Hopefully it would be less eventful back in town to watch her.

+ + + + + + +

"What the hell happened to you three?" Chris bellowed as he walked towards the livery. He had seen Ella fly into town and storm into the hotel. She had a confrontation with someone and the gun fighter feared it was with Vin.

Chris glared at their disheveled appearances . They had done something. "What did you do?" He charged, coming up to Vin. "Ella came back madder than the devil himself! She's all ready a powder keg, don't go lighting the fuse! You were only supposed to watch her!"

"We did," Vin said defensively. "She came up ta us."

"Well, it would help if you hid or something!" Chris said with bitting sarcasm. Vin wasn't sloppy like this. He was almost like a ghost, disappearing and appearing at will.

"It's kinda hard ta hide when eight bastards are tryin' ta bust in yer head," Vin snapped. He grimaced when he saw Chris' face darken. Dammit Tanner! Now ya did it.

"WHAT?" Chris thundered, causing the casual observer in the street to run. The Larabee temper was about to be unleashed.

"A misunderstanding," Josiah tried to sooth, pushing himself in front of Vin. "Easily taken care of."

"Josiah's right," Nathan readily agreed. "Thought we were spyin' on Nesbitt's land, and got a bit carried away."

Chris' eyes grew big as he realized the men in question. "The Brigger brothers? Damn it all to hell! How carried away did they get?" He glared in his best friend's direction.

"Don't even go there Larabee," Vin said in a low voice. "Or we'll be givin' that witch a real good show."

"No one was hurt," Nathan interjected.

"That why you were holding your gut when you rode in?" Chris said with a frown.

"I got a few punches ta the stomach, but that's all. Josiah and Vin are fine."

"Fine?" Chris' ire began to rise again. "I've seen those guys. Hell, they ain't even men, they're damn boulders! You're lucky your heads are still attached."

"I wouldn't be givin' 'em that much praise," Vin scoffed. "Those muscles must be filled with air."

"Shut up!" Chris was not going to grin. He was too fired up for that dry humor.

"Damn grouchy bear," Vin muttered under his breath. He tugged on the brim of his hat in parting and walked down the street to the saloon.

"I ain't finished!" Chris called out.

"I am!" Vin yelled back.

+ + + + + + +

Trembling from the embers of hate fanning inside her, Ella struggled to compose herself. Letting that nobody, Tanner get to her was to give him even more ground. Hadn't that insufferable man already won every battle so far? He got Chris to doubt her at the ranch. He was the one by Chris' side when Handsome Jack shot him. He even dared to take a shot at her! Now with the others beside him, Vin Tanner had convinced her beloved to dismiss her and the child.

She paused, a smile beckoning to form. No, she would have to be patient. When her plans have finally come to fruition, Chris Larabee would have to except their son, and she will have won.

Watching the sun set in the distance, Ella prepared for the next step of her plan. She chuckled at the faces the other lawmen would have if they knew her secrets. That merry picture in mind, she went to her armoire and picked the proper attire. All she needed was the cloak of darkness to help in her planning.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had settled in beside Vin, who was still biding his time in the saloon. The lanky gunslinger allowed a smile to grace his devilishly handsome face as he nudged the sullen tracker. "Just got done talkin' ta the guy at the hotel, and he says Ella's all tucked in for the night."

"What?" Vin mumbled. "Tuck her in himself?"

"No, but if she decides ta do any sleepwalkin', he'll let us know." Taking a quick swipe at his dark mustache, Buck leaned closer. "I hear ya got inta a tussle with the Brigger boys."

"Yep." The sharpshooter pulled the brim of his hat lower to hide the small grin that threatened to give him away.

"What happened?" Buck reiterated, trying to hide the impatience in his voice. He had seen the brothers come into town a couple of times and they appeared to be a formidable force to be reckoned with.

"We got inta a tussle with the Brigger boys," Vin whispered conspiratorially.

"Hey!" Buck said as he saw Vin rise from his chair. "That's it? Throw me some crumbs here! Vin?"

"Chris can ask me himself," Vin smirked. "I'm gonna git a bath since it's safe for a man ta be out now."

Minutes after the batwing doors announced Vin's departure, Chris Larabee walked up to them, his arms hanging over. He threw his oldest friend a questioning glance.

Buck could only shrug his shoulders in defeat. "Damn boy's a pain in the ass," Buck had to chuckle. "Is that why we like 'im?"

Chris smiled.

+ + + + + + +

Ella slunk behind the hotel, her pulse racing in anticipation. She could easily come up to any of the six men and take their life, ending one threat to her future, but that would only drive Chris further away. Her new plan would ensure Chris' total devotion to their son, making these men a passing whim.

As her face peered furtively around the corner, she caught her breath when Vin came into view. The day's earlier confrontation flew back into her memory, how the young man treated her so indifferently. She sneered at the tracker's back as he walked down the boardwalk.. He had no idea who he was trifling with.

The cold hearted woman monitored the tracker hidden in the shadows, careful not to make his instincts come alive. If Vin Tanner suspected someone was out there, he'd discover her secret for sure, her freedom to roam about town undetected destroyed. She would have to be cautious and patient.

She observed with interest as Vin entered inside the bath house. What would he look like out from under that slouch hat and fringed leather coat? The dramatic black that her Chris wore was more worthy of attention than the neutral toned tracker. Still, she found herself venturing near the establishment from the back, her sense of discretion leaving her momentarily.

As luck would have it, the burly, male attendant had vacated his post, the opportunity ripe for Ella to be alone with her unsuspecting quarry. With the stealth of a lioness, she removed her shoes and stalked her prey in silence. She had even made sure to wear clothing that wouldn't make any ruffling noises, allowing her total anonymity.

Unaware that Ella watched him, Vin closed the stall's curtain. He had felt his nerves tingle on the way here, as if he was being watched, but saw nothing. The run in with Ella earlier must've set him on edge, he reasoned. Very slowly, he began to undo his shirt buttons.

Peering through a crack in the crude wooden walls, she viewed him with captivation. Ella knew enough not to stand in front of the curtain for her shadow could appear.

He dropped the right suspender then the left. She inhaled deeply. Even with an under shirt, she could foretell a promising show. The young man paused, and ran his hands through his shorter hair on top. A husky, tired groan escaped through his firm lips. Her animosity began to melt as her excitement came to the forefront.

A sigh spilled out as she ached to run her own fingers between the wavy, golden-brown strands, while her lips searched out his. Ella sucked in a pleasured gasp as the sharpshooter lifted the remainder of clothing from his lean, upper body. Muscles rippled at every movement. Each inch chiseled in perfection.

She desperately wanted to touch that tanned flesh, her mind going back to the time she had given Chris a bath. Remembering the way the water had cascaded down his biceps, clinging at every curve before it descended back into the tub.

Shaking her head angrily, she realized to her horror that it was no longer Chris she was bathing in her mind...it was Vin! First the rugged tracker had taken Chris from her, now he was attempting to steal away her passion for the gunman. What was happening?

But yet, she couldn't tear her eyes from the younger man's form...or his handsome face, with those incredible eyes and kissable mouth.

His hands reached for his gun belt, unclasped it and slung it over a table. Shivers ran down her body as Vin undid his pants, pulling them off. One obstacle left...his long johns.

Mentally willing the sharpshooter to shed the last bit of cloth preventing her from pure bliss, Ella didn't notice the bath attendant storming up behind her.

"Hey lady!" the big man yelled. "You's can't be in here! This is the man's section!"

Vin stopped abruptly, surprised to see one male, and one female shadow on his curtain. Hearing whispered voices, he saw the female form disappear, the familiar figure of Stubby Wilkins left behind.

"Stubby?" Vin called out. "Was there a woman out there?"

"She's done gone Vin," Stubby hollered through the curtain. "Boy was she gawkin' at you through a crack!"

"What's with all the yelling?" Chris Larabee demanded, coming through the front door. Receiving only a grin from Stubby, the gun fighter burst through the curtained doorway, a laugh strangling in his throat. Vin was standing before him with large eyes, a towel covering his lower half.

"Chris? Ya can't go bargin' in on a man's bath stall!" Vin reprimanded.

"I knew you were in here," Chris smirked. He wasn't going to let this slip by. "You're the only one, except the little lady who was enjoying the view."

Vin's face turned crimson, clutching the towel closer.

Not able to hold it in any more, Chris broke down and laughed. "Vin...you have your long underwear on yet. Go finish your bath."

The sharpshooter stayed put, his eyes urging his friend.

"What?" Chris asked innocently, knowing what Vin wanted. "Take your bath, I'll stand guard."

"Can't a man undress in private?"

"You ain't got nothing that I ain't got more of." Chris baited.

"Ya bein' dumb, how can ya tell?" Vin snapped sheepishly.

"I'm dumb and blessed," Chris laughed heartily, the tracker's long johns landing over his head.

"Take you and yer blessin's outta here," Vin chuckled, slipping into the bubbly water.

Ella stood outside the back of the bath house, her teeth clenched. It was too close that time! Thankfully she had managed to duck out the back door before Chris entered. She could hear the laughter the two friends shared, hate filling her veins as she thought back to how she found herself physically attracted to Vin. And to hear him basking in Chris' attention drove her mad.

How could the gunman indulge himself in such meaningless horseplay when he had a wife..., a child to claim? They came first. Over any stupid friend.


"Ya didn't have ta hang 'round watchin' me," Vin complained to Chris as they strolled down the walkway. "I'm a big boy, can take a bath by myself ya know."

"Had to protect you from prying eyes," Chris teased in an overly serious tone.

"'Cept yers," Vin muttered, causing Chris to chuckle.

"You know, you're still red.."

"I hope yer enjoyin' this Larabee, cause payback's hell."

"If I buy you a drink, will you forget whatever evil scheme you have working in your mind?" Chris bribed. He knew his best friend would plan some devious revenge.

"Let's see how drunk ya git me," Vin grinned.

The two friends continued towards the saloon, greeting their fellow peacekeepers situated in various parts of the drinking establishment. Ezra was engrossed in a high stakes poker game, while Buck was trying to ingratiate himself with the saloon girl he had been chasing for a month. JD and Nathan watched in amusement. Josiah was deep in discussion with the mortician, Joseph Epherson and his newly arrived assistant, Hiam Sabot. The ex-priest found the new assistant fascinating. From Egyptian heritage, the tall, somber looking man was hoping for a chance to start his own business in undertaking. Studying under Epherson was just a stepping stone to that goal.

Nathan left JD's side and headed for Vin as soon as he saw the sharpshooter enter. "Thought ya'd best know one of the Brigger boys in playin' poker with Ezra," Nathan said, "and losin' big."

Chris' eyes narrowed, remembering his friends' run in earlier with the group of eight brothers. "You never did tell me what happened with them."

"Thought we were spyin' on Nesbitt's land," Vin answered.. "Their boss set 'em straight."

"I sure hope so," Chris muttered. The remainder of the Brigger brothers strutted through the saloon doors, their faces filled with anger and defiance. The gunfighter didn't like those looks at all.

"Get ready for trouble," he whispered to Nathan and Vin. "We better spread out and inform the others. It could get ugly quick."

There was no need for warnings. The air grew thick with tension, every set of eyes glued to the seven burly men coming towards their brother. Ezra swallowed hard, the reputation of these men known to him. Struggling to hide his apprehension, the gambler put on his most charming smile.

"Ah see you are here to visit your sibling?" he asked smoothly. "We are almost done with this hand gentlemen."

The oldest of the Briggers only glared, grabbing a hold of his younger brother's shirt. "Ya ain't gamlblin' away the rest of our money are ya? Dammit Silas, that's all we have! We're lucky Nesbitt even gave us any pay at all! We're gonna need that money ta find new jobs."

"Great," Chris groaned. Were they fired over the run in they had with his men? He shot an accusatory look in Vin's direction.

"It weren't our fault," Vin said defensively, near the gunman's ear.

"This is all we need..." Chris growled.

The oldest Brigger yanked the brother out of his chair, his fists curled around the loot in the middle of the table. "Give 'im the rest ya city slicker," he warned.

"Now, now," Ezra tried to soothe, "but the rules are clear about the winnings. If there is a wager placed, and a person wins, that person deserves the money."

"It weren't his ta bet against!"

"But it is not my fault I was not informed of that fact. Besides, he is a grown man who know the consequences of his actions, which Ah am sure is beginning to dawn upon him now."

"Give it 'fore I shake it off ya!"

"Give them the money, Ezra," Chris came up and whispered urgently into the gambler's ear. "They're liable to tear the whole town apart. We got enough trouble with Ella."

Ezra lifted his chin, ready to protest, until the Larabee glare silenced him. He had made quite a killing with the other's money so if he allowed this one concession, it wouldn't be too bad. "Here is the full amount," he said, placing the wad of bills into the huge man's hand.

Grunting, Brigger turned from the table, his mean eyes resting on Vin and Nathan. "I know ya two," he boomed, the other brothers looking on. "Yer the reason we got fired."

Vin leaned back against the bar, a slight smile playing at his lips. He knew Chris was mentally willing him to keep quiet. I'll behave.

Nathan stood confidently as he stared at his accuser. "We didn't do nothin'. Ain't no one told ya ta attack us like that."

Brigger threw a finger in Vin's direction. "He had one of those spy glasses, spying on a lady, on our boss' land. What we supposed ta think?"

"You should've informed your boss," Chris said curtly. "By attacking my men, you sealed your own fate." The gunman stood his ground as the larger man glowered at his statement.

"Yer men huh? Does yer men go 'round watchin' women?"

"This particular one, yes. On my orders. Now, get your money and get out." Chris turned his back to the man, motioning for a bottle of whiskey.

The eight men exited the bar, much to the relief of everyone inside. The patrons thought for sure there was going to be a brawl. The Brigger's didn't let anyone get the better of them.

"I kinda glad I did keep my mouth shut," Vin said as he gave Chris a light tap on the arm. "Hell, ya got 'em madder than I ever could.."

Taking a swig out of his shot glass, Chris shoved another glass in his friend's direction. "Since I did such a good job, they might be back." By now the gunslinger was joined by the remainder of his men.

They won't wanna tangle with all of us," Buck said with a smirk. "It won't be easy takin' on seven instead of three."

Chris poured another glass. He didn't like this. "Did they just jump you?" he asked Vin.

Vin nodded. "Came from nowhere, caught us by surprise. Took our guns and tried ta turn us ta dust."

"Thinkin' it wasn't an accident?" Nathan asked.

"I don't know," Chris said honestly.

"But the Briggers' been here for months," Vin pointed out. "They're a buncha bags of wind. Were probably lookin' fer a fight."

"Probably so," Chris had to agree, "but I want everyone to keep their eyes open. From now on, we stick together. No one leave this building without the others. For any reason."

The other six gave their approval and settled down at a couple of nearby tables for a relaxing evening of cards and comradery. They needed this time to forget about Ella Gaines and the possible threat of the Brigger brothers. At least for a few hours.

+ + + + + + +

Ella paced furiously about her hotel room, her emotions swaying from anger to confusion. Why had she suddenly become taken with that tracker? She has seen many handsome men, even slept with some, but none could rouse the passion in her like Chris Larabee. Then why was she practically fawning over Tanner? True, it wasn't anywhere near as intense as her feelings for Chris, but she could imagine herself enjoying Vin very much.

"Damn you!" Ella cursed, tossing the pillows on her bed to the floor in frustration. The paperback she had been reading fell near her slippered feet. She reached down and grabbed it, flipping through the pages to find the spot she last read.

It was quite amusing to be reading about Fowler and Chris' quest to find him. Putting the book down for a minute, the murderess sighed. It was apparent Chris didn't understand what she did for him, for them. Fowler did him a favor, getting him out of a loveless marriage with a child he was forced to accept. When their child arrived, Chris would understand completely; she read on.

Chris Larabee screamed at the raging flames, the man who had consumed his waking moments dying without divulging the murderer's name. His vocal cords becoming a hoarse whisper, the black clad gunfighter slumped dejectedly to the ground on his knees. His one chance at finding the man responsible for his family's deaths...gone.

One by one the other six men circled around their leader, each wanting to give their condolences, but not knowing how or even if they were welcome. Buck Wilmington reached down and offered to help Chris to his feet, but Larabee only stared blankly into the burning building. He was no longer there with his men, caught inside those flames as much as Fowler.

A firm grip clasped upon Larabee's shoulder, the action drawing the gunfighter's head upwards. Vin Tanner looked steadily into Chris' face, the compassion showing in those expressive eyes of his. Neither man said a word, as if they were carrying on a silent conversation of their own. For several minutes this strange discourse went on, Chris Larabee seeming to calm with every passing second under his friend's gaze.

His grip remaining on the gunman's shoulder, Vin placed his other hand under Chris' forearm, urging the man up. Slowly Larabee rose, both men's eyes focusing on the fire. Tanner nodded and gently led the leader of the seven men away. Still no words had passed, but a total understanding nonetheless. For whatever reasons, these two men were linked together in mind and soul.

The others fell in step behind the two men, the personalities blending into one. The solitary gunfighter would not have to face this alone.

That was it! Chris and Vin shared a bond of some sort. That would explain her instantaneous attraction to Tanner. Chris was connected to him, so naturally she would be too. But being a woman, her feelings would play out in a more sensual nature. A wave of relief washed over her as her mind excepted the excuse. She wasn't betraying her Chris...she was becoming one with him. Soon, these other six men would not be blending in ever again. She would be the sole contact in Chris Larabee's life.

Smiling, she began to rub her belly. "Don't you worry little one," she cooed softly, "Mama has it all worked out. Daddy will have to accept you now after the next couple of days."

+ + + + + + +

"Gentlemen," Ezra said, shaking his head in dismay, "Ah have never seen such a sad display of card playing in my life. Ah'm beginning to feel encumbered by my superiority of this game."

"Must not be feelin' too bad," Vin mumbled as he watched another dollar being pulled in the gambler's direction, "ya sure are quick ta take the money."

Ezra only smiled.. "One must make a living Mr. Tanner."

"But not off yer friends," Buck inserted.. "Hell, I better quit now, or I ain't gonna be able ta pay the rent on my room."

"Judge Travis pays for our rooms," JD reminded the lanky gunslinger.

"Can't a man just say somethin' ta leave a game gracefully?"

"Why don't you say something like....hey Ezra, it's getting late, and I'm losing money. Let's call it a night."

"I ain't gonna say somethin' sissy like that," Buck scoffed..

"Ah think it sounded very appealing," Ezra said with a wink in JD's direction. "It denotes a touch of class."

"Well no wonder Bucklin doesn't like it," Vin grinned..

"I heard that!" Buck snapped, hiding the smile under his mustache.

Chris caught himself chuckling inwardly at the light banter flying back and forth between his friends. Even though Ella Gaines was not far from his thoughts, it felt good to have this moment. To have something to laugh about. To have friends who'd do anything for you. It had been a long time since he allowed himself that luxury, and he wasn't going to let that bitch destroy it.

The gunman's face fell as he peered up at the sound of the saloon doors being slammed against the wood frame. Seven of the Brigger brothers had re-entered the bar.

"If something breaks out," Chris warned in a low tone, "keep it inside. Don't go out those doors without some backup." Lowering his black hat, two green eyes stared ominously upon the unwelcome intruders.

The others nodded, their eyes studying each brother. The intruders did the same. Sizing up their competition in the prospect of trouble. There was no doubt now something was going to happen.

The oldest and largest of the Briggers strutted up to the table. "We demand some satisfaction," he announced. "First, we git fired because of those three, and then we almost git fleeced by that gambler."

"All things you could've prevented," Chris spoke evenly, his hand resting upon his revolver.

The large brother laughed. "Yeah, it's easy fer ya ta sit here and say that with all yer guns. We ain't armed and we see it different than ya."

"Afraid ta face us like real men?" Another Brigger spoke up.

"Are ya callin' us out?" Vin asked with a gleam in his eye.

"Take off yer guns and we'll 'talk'." The oldest brother smiled ferally as he watched the seven disarm themselves and place their guns on the bar. He knew they wouldn't back down from a challenge.

"After we're done beatin' ya, ya'll leave town?" Buck said confindently.

"We'll leave even after we beat ya."

Buck stood up and laughed. "Better wake up boy, cause reality is 'bout ta hit." As soon as those words cleared his mouth, the larger Brigger threw a punch, knocking the tall man into Ezra.

"Have we succumbed to sucker punches?" Ezra bemoaned, shoving the ladies' man off of him. He soon faced his own opponent, the eager brother pushing him away from the others.

Each man found himself paired with a Brigger, the thrill of the fight overtaking their concern for the patrons. But the others in the bar found quick cover.

"Remember, keep it inside!" Chris yelled to his men, his fist connecting into the meaty abdomen of his attacker. It bounced off the stomach as if he had hit rubber. Looking up in amazement, Chris felt himself being pushed up against the bar.

Why didn't the guy hit him back?

Again he tried another punch with the same results, but the man didn't retaliate. What the hell was going on? A fast glance in Vin's direction found the tracker being held in place, but not under a flying fury of punches. The others were being unmercifully pummeled by their opponents. A surge of alarm hit the gunman as he realized what was going on.

"It's a...." Before he could finish the word trap, Chris was smothered by the brother, his mouth being covered by a hand to prevent any warnings.

That earlier scuffle the day before was an act! He knew it was too good to be true. Three men couldn't take down eight brothers as huge as them. Ella had to be behind this!


Comments to: lasteinj@roadrunner.com