Till We Meet Again

by Laurie Ann

His arms trapped by his sides, Vin tried desperately to squirm from the tight grip around his neck. He had the unfortunate luck to have the biggest of the Brigger brothers as his opponent. With one muscular arm wrapped around his midriff, and the other around his throat, the sharpshooter found himself in an undesirable situation.

He could only watch helplessly as his friends were being beaten by their attackers. Why wasn't he being hit? If he even tried to move he was rewarded with a suffocating pressure to his throat, and inch by inch the large brother drug him closer to the doorway, away from the others.

Chris managed to work an arm free and swung his forearm into his attacker's throat, sending him backwards. He turned and looked for Vin. The two locked eyes and both knew in that fraction of a second it was a trap. Vin and Chris knew they had to do something...and soon. Their friends wouldn't last much longer.

Though his arms were useless, his legs weren't. Ignoring the increased constraint to his neck, Vin lifted his right leg and thrusted his spur into the man's leg as hard as he could. His captor to cried out in pain and loosened his hold.

Immediately the slight tracker used the opportunity to swing around and grab a chair, crashing it across his adversary's chest. The splintering wood sent the brother flying out the saloon door, his body tumbling over the walkway and into the dirt street.

Vin frowned and watched the beaten man scurry across the street, then turned to help the others when he heard the faint scream of a woman. That bastard must be threatening a lady! His hands clenched tightly as he ran out to help her.

"Sonovabithch!" Chris cursed as he watched the sharpshooter rush outside. A surge of adrenaline surged through him as he gathered the extra strength to finish his opponent off with a vicious right upper cut. This was going to end now. Lunging towards the bar, he grabbed a hold of his gun, sending a shot into the air.

One by one the Brigger brothers lifted their heads.

"Get over in the corner, all of you!" Chris growled, his gun scanning over the six men. As his own men began to slowly regroup, he threw their weapons towards them.

He didn't want to leave, but Vin was out there alone, without backup. The others were hurt, but they had the brothers under control. With a quick nod to Buck, he pursued Vin to make sure the impulsive tracker didn't get himself killed.

+ + + + + + +

Vin slowed his pace as he came up beside the hardware store. The scream he heard had come from behind here. He inched closer to the back of the building. Cautiously he peered around the corner. Nothing.

Damn! Did he take the woman as a hostage? Where was she? He was positive the scream came from this area. He continued stealthily behind the store his eyes searching for any clue. There wasn't any signs of a struggle. He had almost cleared the hardware store when he heard the faint sobs of a woman.

"Ma'am?" Vin called out in a gentle voice.

The female figure cringed in the moonlight and turned her back to Vin, the sobs continuing. "Don't hurt me...," she pleaded, her hands over her face.

"Don't worry ma'am," Vin tried to assure the lady, "I won't hurt ya none. What happened?"

The crying stopped abruptly, the hands used to cover her face, now brushing her hair away. The moon's beams shone on the fine features as if a lamp had been lit, illuminating every detail.

Vin's eyes widened in shock as he recognized the damsel in distress. "You?" he hissed.

Before he could react, a cloth soaked with ether was thrusted into his face from behind, his mid-section grabbed and held with the other brawny arm. His opponent from the saloon had hid in the alley between the hardware store and the undertakers. A perfect place for an ambush, especially if the prey was preoccupied.

Struggling fiercely, Vin was unable to tear the cloth or his body away from his attacker. How could he have fallen for something so obvious? She had definitely come to town prepared. Right down to the desperate scream for help she knew he would answer.

Ella smiled coquettishly as she moved closer. "What a gentleman you are, Vin," she cooed. "I'm surprised actually, such a rugged man as yourself could have such a soft spot."

The sweet smell overpowered his senses, causing Vin's mind to swirl in confusion. He could see Ella's beaming face as his eyelids became heavy, her satisfied smile taunting him as he lost the battle for consciousness.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had just exited the saloon when an urgent feeling came over him. Vin? His quick strides turning into a full run, he raced down beside the hardware store where he saw his friend's boot prints in the dirt before him. What was Vin thinking? He knew it was a trap, but he still left the safety of the building.

His body slammed into someone as he rounded the corner. Both bodies took a tumble to the dirt, the perfume rising up to Chris' nostrils. He knew that perfume.....

Immediately he jerked himself free of the female arms wrapped around him. He had to find Vin....now!

"Don't leave me here, Chris," Ella begged, her arms outstretched to the fleeing gunman. She had to buy some time for her henchman to take Vin to the wagon hidden at the other end of town. "There's a madman running loose." Lifting her arms up as high as they could go, she wrapped herself around Chris' left leg.

"I don't care," Chris ground out, trying to tear her arms free.

"Please, I'm so scared!" Ella held on tight, resisting any efforts to untangle her. Desperately Chris tried over and over to release her grip, but her determination was stronger.

"ELLA!" he roared.

Ella ceased her struggles. She had achieved her purpose, to gain more time for the two Briggers to smuggle Vin out of town though one of the open alleyways to the outskirts of Four Corners.

Slowly she lowered her arms to her sides and stared at the ground. "I'm sorry, Chris. It was so dreadful...and I was so terrified. I'm afraid I went a little hysterical."

'A little?' Chris thought with heavy sarcasm. He pushed away from her, having all ready wasted too much time.

"Be careful, my love!" Ella called out to the gunman.

Chris searched the area frantically. No sign of Vin anywhere. He found footprints that seemed to suggest a battle, but Vin's seemed to have disappeared. Angrily he stalked back to the woman sitting on her knees in the dirt.

"Where is he?" Chris asked with a throaty growl. It was no damn coincidence that Ella was out here and Vin was missing. He grasped her forearms and bodily lifted her up.

"Who? The madman?" Ella said with perfect poise. "He's gone, but I'm afraid he took someone with him." She winced as Chris' fingers dug deeper into her arms.

"I ain't in the mood for any games...," Chris threatened, his eyes dancing dangerously in the moonlight. "You're going to tell me...."

"I came out because I was worried," Ella interrupted, "I heard the fight going on. I snuck out the back door and there's this large man roaming about. Naturally I scream, and soon another man comes. I saw him grabbed from behind and taken away." Ella forced a hand up to Chris' view and opened her palm. "This was all that was left."

The blood drained from his face as he stared down at the object glowing in the moonlight. Vin's harmonica! He released his grip of his former flame and slammed his fist into the hardware building in absolute frustration. He had failed to protect Vin, like he did his wife and son, but his best friend wasn't going to share their fate, not while he had life in his body.

"You lying Bitch!" Chris yelled, shoving Ella's body up against the back wall of the store. "Where is he?"

Ella only smiled as she stared in the fiery depths of Chris' eyes. "I love it when you're so passionate," she purred.

Chris' hands began to wrap around her throat. "You tell me now where he is or you're dead!"

"That madman took him remember?"

The pressure around Ella's throat increased. "Stop your lying! I know you're behind all this!"

"If you kill me you'll never know will you?" Ella replied calmly, resting a hand on Chris' heaving chest. "Not to mention you'll never know your son either."

Reluctantly Chris released Ella, still keeping her body pressed against the building. He didn't want to kill the child, no matter how much he hated Ella right now.

"Don't worry my love, your precious tracker is safe," Ella said, placing a hand upon Chris' left cheek. "I understand how much he means to you, and I don't want to destroy him."

The gunfighter bitterly threw the hand off his face. "You didn't seem to have any trouble trying to destroy him and the others back at your ranch!"

The murderess lowered her head. "I was wrong. I didn't realize how much a part of you they had become. I was afraid they would try and take you away and I couldn't allow it again."

"I said I was staying with you," Chris said angrily.

"Yes, until that tracker talked to you the night of the party...our party. He turned you against me, and was there at your side when you were shot. That was my place! I had to protect what was mine! You belong to me, Chris!"

"I also protect what's mine," Chris rumbled, his face cold stone. "And Vin is my friend. If you do one thing to him, I'll throw you in jail and after the baby is born, hang you myself!"

Ella threw her head back and laughed. "Oh yes, I can see my trial now. Half the damning evidence coming from Vin Tanner, a man wanted for murder in Texas. I'm sure a judge would listen to a criminal who was on the run."

"How did you find out about that?" Chris felt his blood turn cold. Ella knew about Vin's bounty? Was he being taken to Tascosa at this very minute? "You aren't going to....."

"Don't worry Chris," Ella said soothingly. "I told you before he was safe. I won't breathe a word about the bounty. I understand the bond you have with Tanner."

"Then why? Why did take him?" Chris looked into the calculating brown eyes, hoping for any sign of mercy. If she did anything to Vin....

"I had to separate you two so you could see sense, Chris. With Vin around, you were confused. With him gone, you can finally make the right decision."

"Which is?" Chris almost hated to say.

"To be with your wife and son," Ella replied. "Your family should always come before your friends."

At that moment Chris weighed the options in his mind, and there was only one way out for his friend. Swallowing the utter contempt he felt at even being in Ella's presence, the gunman gave her the answer she had been wanting all along, praying she was so far gone that she'd believe it. "You're right, Ella, I haven't been thinking clearly. I want us to get married right away."

Her face radiant, she reached up and kissed Chris gingerly upon the mouth. "You go see to your friends and meet me in my room in two hours. Oh, and please be kind enough to let the Briggers go on their way, they were only trying to help."

"Could I see Vin then?" Chris dared ask. "I want to tell him everything myself."

"I'm afraid he's miles away by now," Ella sighed. She patted the side of Chris' face before departing. "I'm sure he'll be under the ether for a while, and won't be conscious. I gave explicit instructions for no one to harm him...unless...someone is foolish enough to try a rescue attempt."

Chris waited for Ella to leave before rubbing a hand across his mouth in disgust. It scorched him inside to think of being married to the one responsible for murdering his family, but the thought of Vin dying at her hands tore at his soul. He would make whatever sacrifices it took to get Vin back safe.

+ + + + + + +

"Where the hell is Chris'n Vin?" Buck asked absently through a swollen lip. The gunman had been gone too long in searching for the sharpshooter. A tiny grin lifted in the corner of his mouth that was untouched. Chris was probably giving Vin hell for leaving like he did., but more for scaring another year off his life.

"They should be back by now," Nathan agreed, locking the cell that held the remainder of the Brigger brothers. He held his tender rib cage. It was bad enough he was injured, but he had five other men to tend to as well as himself. His earlier scuffle with the brothers was nothing like this one.

The jail house door slammed open, announcing the arrival of Chris Larabee. His face was a mask of hate and anger as he studied the bruised and beaten men that were his friends. They were all played for fools, thinking they could handle Ella Gaines.

"Chris? Where's Vin at?" JD asked.

The man in black remained silent and grabbed the cell keys hanging on a peg, unlocking the doors to the surprise of his men. He gave each brother his most venomous glare as they skitted out of the jail.

"What the hell's the matter with ya?" Buck hollered, pushing himself in front of his old friend. He instantly backed off when he caught a glimpse of Chris' eyes. The only time he had seen eyes that cold was when Chris left him behind to find his family's killer.

"Where's Vin?" Buck asked in a half whisper.

"She has him, Buck," Chris answered through clenched teeth, his hand squeezing the cell bar so tightly that Buck imagined the gunman could bend it.

His fury rising, Buck jerked his gun out from his gun belt. "Then why are we standin' here? Let's go git 'im!"

Chris snatched the gun from Buck's grasp and pointed it towards him. "If you go after him, she'll kill him sure as anything!"

"Just take it easy old Pard," Buck said gently, as he eased his gun from Chris' hand. "We'll come up with something different."

"I already did," Chris muttered somberly. "I told Ella I'd marry her."

The room became deathly quiet as five shocked faces stared at their leader.


"Chris, ya ain't thinking right," Buck said passionately, grabbing Chris by the shoulders. "Dammit! She murdered Sarah...Adam...ya can't Chris! Ya can't!"

"They're dead, Buck!" Chris hollered, the pain evident in the rage. "And if I don't do what she wants, Vin will be too! I won't watch someone else that I care about being lowered into a grave!"

"You won't be able to live with her, Chris!" Buck persisted. "I won't allow ya ta kill yerself slowly like that!" The gunslinger turned on his boot heels and made his way stiffly to the door.

Chris un-holstered his gun and clicked back the hammer. "Buck, if you do anything that endangers him...."

Buck paused at the door, and hung his head sadly. He knew Chris was only speaking through fear and anguish, but to be married to that woman.... "Vin wouldn't want to live knowin' you were with her," he said, the grief thick in his voice.

"Shut up, Buck! Damn you, don't use Vin to get me to change my mind!"

"Ya know I'm right." Buck considered Vin as a brother, and it shredded his heart to think the young man was at Ella's mercy, but he knew the tracker well enough to know Vin would never accept the fact that Chris married her to save him.

"I can't live with the alternative," Chris half-whispered, lowering his gun. Vin had opened up a part of him that he thought had died, and if he lost Vin to Ella, he knew with a certainty he wouldn't be able to claw his way back up from the depths of hate and hopelessness he had been wallowing in for three years.

Ezra struggled to find his composure as he watched the two old friends. He found a sense of belonging here among these six men, and the fact one of them was in such a dire situation devastated him. Each man held a special place in their hearts for Vin, the quiet spoken tracker acting as a seal that kept the group as one. But the gambler knew no one could feel the loss as deeply as Chris. Another part of the gunman's soul would be ripped away, leaving only a husk of a man behind. And it would leave a gapping hole in the lives of the rest of them, one that could never be healed.

"Chris," Ezra ventured to speak. "Tell us what happened."

"She screamed, and that's what caused Vin to leave the saloon. He was ambushed and she mentioned something about ether."

Nathan's head jerked up. "I'm gonna check my clinic ta see if any ether's missin'."

Chris nodded, his mind growing numb. His worst fear was being realized at this moment, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do.

"I'll go with you," JD said to the healer. He threw a sad glance in the gunman's direction before departing. If they didn't get Vin back.... The youth forced the thought out of his mind. They were going to get Vin back.

Josiah placed a hand on Chris' shoulder, his deep, soothing voice breaking through the mental anguish. "Did she say why she took Vin? Was this part of a plan?"

"She said she didn't want to destroy him," Chris mumbled, remembering the strange look on her face. "Said she understood what he means to me."

"Then why pray tell, take him?" Ezra wondered.

"To make me see sense," Chris snorted with contempt. "I saw it all right! I should've shot her that day at her ranch!"

"We've got to concentrate on the present," Josiah said, squeezing the gunfighter's shoulder. "Are you to meet her anymore tonight?"

"In less than two hours, at the hotel."

"Might Ah suggest that you wine and dine this detestable creature and find out more about our friend's plight," Ezra extended. "Maybe then we can devise a suitable rescue."

"If we try to go after Vin," Chris began.

"You are most certainly correct if it is we who are attempting. Of course she would suspect us, but not her betrothed. If she thinks she has you in the palm of her hand, wouldn't she have her guard down?"

"Ezra, I take back most of the things I've said 'bout ya," Buck said with a hopeful grin. Maybe there was a chance to get Vin back safely and stop this marriage.

Chris looked at the gambler, wishing he could find encouragement in his words. He was almost afraid to even think of the possibility of a rescue. And if it failed....

"I don't know, Ezra," Chris shook his blonde head. "I don't want to risk Vin's life."

"Nor do we," Ezra concurred, understanding perfectly the gunman's hesitation. "Just go and find out what you can. If you truly feel it's too risky a proposition, we will come up with another plan. But the ultimate goal is to bring Vin home."

+ + + + + + +

"Damn," Nathan cursed under his breath as he stared at the empty spot where the bottle of ether stood on the shelf. Someone must've have stolen it while they were in the saloon. The healer thought back to the fight. Of course! Only seven of the Briggers were there. The eighth brother, the one who had been gambling with Ezra, was free to grab what was needed, maybe even ambushing Vin. All of the eight brothers were built like brick walls, each with the ability to snap anyone in half.

"How could she had pulled it off in less than twenty-four hours?" JD said in sad amazement, watching Nathan's face.

"She's been plannin' this since the day Chris left her property," Nathan said bitterly.

"But why didn't she just take us all out? Why only Vin?"

"Maybe it's her way of gittin' back at Vin. Usin' him ta make Chris marry her."

JD fell silent, contemplating Nathan's words. Did she take Vin to force Chris to marry her? Was that the plan all along? As he groped for any kind of meaning to Ella's actions, the young man gazed absently out the large glass window of the clinic and across the street. His eyes widened in horror while he reached for Nathan's arm.

"What is it?" Nathan asked, following JD's gaze out to the empty street.

"Vin's wagon...it's gone...."

"Why would.....?" Nathan stopped and pulled JD along with him towards the livery. Would Vin's horse be missing as well? Rushing inside, the healer knelt down by the unconscious body on the floor. It was Bishop Krenshaw. A soft moan escaped the large, young man's lips as he felt Nathan's touch.

"Peso's gone," JD announced, settling in beside the two men. "How's Bishop?"

"Got a little knot on the back of his head, but he should be fine." Nathan gave the startled livery hand a tiny smile. "Yer safe now. Do you know what happened?"

"Don't know Mr. Jackson," Bishop mumbled groggily. "I was tendin' ta the horses, when I felt somethin' hit me in the back of my head." In terror he glanced around the livery, his eyes resting upon the empty stall where Vin's prized horse once occupied. "Oh no! Where's Mr. Vin's horse?"

Nathan and JD exchanged glances, unsure if they should burden the distraught young man with the details. "Someone must've knocked ya out and took the horse," Nathan explained.

"I gotta tell Mr. Vin it weren't my fault....," Bishop stammered.

"We'll tell him," JD offered. "He'll understand."

"Why don't ya head on back ta the boardin' house and git some rest," Nathan suggested, gently urging Bishop to the livery opening. "I'll tell Winthrop that ya might need ta take a couple days off ta git yer bearin's back." Bishop nodded his gratitude and made his way to his room at a nearby boarding house.

"Vin's horse too?" JD said aloud. "Why would she need to take his wagon and horse?"

Nathan shook his head. "Don't know. But I sure don't like it...she's up ta more'n a simple kidnaping. We better git back and tell Chris."

+ + + + + + +

Ella breezed through the lobby of the hotel, pleased with how her plan was progressing. Chris had offered marriage freely, without needing any prompting about Vin's fate if the gunman refused his responsibility. It was as she hoped. Taking Vin out of town would open Chris' mind to his obligations and their love. There was only a few steps left, and Chris would totally be hers forever.

She smiled at the figure sinking further in his chair. He would play the most important part of her scheme. It was more than fortunate she had ran across Hiam Sabot weeks earlier in a nearby town. The Egyptian was a well known con artist and mystic. His family tree was also knowledgeable in the ancient ways of embalming. That was how Ella had run into the family friend years ago when she was vacationing in Egypt. She had secretly seen him in a fit of drunken rage, kill and then embalm a former love who had spurned him for another. She guessed it was her utter fascination in his talent that kept her from his wrath. But then again, she discovered Hiam was not as fearful a figure as first anticipated.

"Did you get everything you need taken care of?" Ella asked the mystic.

"Yes," the man muttered miserably. It was a dark day when Ella Gaines had re-entered his life, and he was hoping for a fresh start here in America, but now his past sin was going to force him to commit another.

"Don't look so unhappy, Hiam," Ella purred. "I assure you that I have the most exquisite specimen for your 'talent'. And I want your best work too. I have to admit...this one is worth it."

Hiam snorted in disgust. How she could be the daughter of the man his father valued as a friend amazed him. She was pure evil. Not like others who had committed crimes such as hers. He at least had anger, pain and drink to cause his downfall, but no, she was cruel and calculating. Every inch of her life planned in cold indifference to the consequences to others.

"When shall I leave?" he forced himself to ask.

"Not until tomorrow. Did you all ready tell your boss about your leave of absence?"

"Yes, and he suspects nothing." Hiam looked up at the murderous female. "What did this one do to you to deserve this?"

Ella feigned hurt. "It's not at all what you're thinking! It's to insure my baby's future, and Chris' happiness. He would want this for Chris, and for the child. He would do anything for his best friend, and this is in Chris' best interest."

"But why alive?"

Ella smiled and patted the reluctant accomplice. "That is my business, Hiam." A smug grin formed as she turned to walk away. "Besides, all those interesting stories you used to tell when we were younger inspired me."

Hiam watched the leaving figure in horror. What had he gotten himself mixed up in? But how could he get out now without destroying himself? As much as he pitied the specimen, he prized his own survival more.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin's wagon?" Chris mulled over Nathan's words in confusion. "The wagon and the horse? Even if she was planning to do something to him, it doesn't make sense to take those then."

"Yeah, you'd think she'd want Vin gone," Buck mused aloud. "Not take his things."

A surge of fear gripped Chris. "Maybe that's what she's planning," he said. "She'll get rid of any trace of him."

"You had better find a wealth of information then tonight, Chris," Ezra said with a worried frown.

"No matter what I find," Chris vowed, "I'm going after him."

"Ya gotta plan, ol' Pard?" Buck asked hopefully.

"No, but after I talk with Ella tonight, I'll come up with one." Chris dug out the harmonica he had placed in his pocket and fingered it gently, Vin's words echoing in his head. "It's at the worst times I need it. Better than beatin' myself up fer things I can't change."

Hang on Vin, no matter what, I'll find some way.

The remainder of the two hours was spent in relative silence, the wounds tended and plans contemplated. No one dared approached the gunfighter, allowing him to dwell on a way to bring their friend back safely. Six of the Brigger brothers were still in town, no doubt to keep an eye on any possible rescue attempts. If this was to succeed, Chris would have to put on the performance of a lifetime to convince Ella he was no threat. Failure meant he would have to marry Ella and take the chance she would let Vin go. But with the sharpshooter disappearing along with his belongings, the hope seemed slim.

Chris pulled out his pocket watch and watched the second hand tick it's way up to his meeting with Ella. Could he pull it off? Would he be able to hide his hatred long enough to fool her? What if she asked to sleep with him? An icy chill raced through his body. Now that he knew, could he make love to the woman who killed his family?

He looked at the harmonica clutched in his left hand. Another innocent person was in danger because of him. He would do whatever it took....whatever to stop another murder. He rose stiffly and walked towards the jailhouse door. It was time.

"We'll be praying for you, Brother," Josiah called out behind the gunman.

Chris paused at the doorway and studied the five faces looking at him intently. They wanted Vin back as desperately as he did. They were a family of sorts. They were the Magnificent Seven, and the heart of the group would be brought back, no matter what it took for him to do.

With a curt nod to the others, Chris made his way to the hotel.


The vision in a blue velvety dress did nothing to sway Chris' emotions. Four months ago he would have found himself under her spell, unable to tear his eyes from her curvaceous form. How could such a beautiful woman be so heartless? The solemn gunfighter forced a smile to his lips to appear he was enjoying the view.

Ella beamed as she stood at the end of the hotel's staircase, awaiting the arrival of the only man she ever dared love. She had known many exciting men like Chris Larabee, but this man before her consumed her every waking moment from the day she first laid eyes on him in a little run down saloon where she worked. She knew then that no one would have him but her, and she made sure she kept that vow. If any female tried to steal Chris' affections, they paid a terrible price.

Even when Chris left her, she always felt one day they'd find each other again. She clutched that belief to her heart until the day she found out he had married another. At first she threw herself into other relationships, hoping to meet one man who could quench the pain and desire Chris had left in her. One man offered her marriage without strings, and she took it. For five years she toiled with this small, unattractive, but rich man, each day dreaming of reuniting with Chris.

She had almost reached that goal only months before, but in her haste to get rid of any competition, she managed to give the six men, Tanner in particular, ammunition to turn Chris against her. Now she would play her hand more discreetly, making the tracker part of the plan. There would be no failure this time.

"Chris, I'm so glad you're here," Ella said softly, caressing a gloved hand across Chris' face. "I have proper apparel up in my suite you can change into. Tonight is a night to celebrate."

"You do look incredible in that dress," Chris made himself say. He would have to appear totally smitten if his rescue attempt would work. "It's been too long."

"Yes it has," Ella purred, taking Chris' hand and leading him up the stairs to her room.

Inside the spacious suite, candles were lit all around, giving the room a soft, romantic glow. In the middle stood a small table, with an elegant tablecloth draped across it, and a candelabra setting in the center. A bottle of wine chilled in a bucket nearby as a cart full of covered dishes awaited it's unveiling. Dipping a hand into his coat pocket, Chris felt Vin's harmonica, reminding him of the dangerous intentions this female possessed.

Ella led the gunman to her wardrobe, pulling out a black suit with tails. "Remember this?" she asked, placing the garment under Chris' chin. "You wore this on that night." Her wistful smile disappeared as she thought back to how Tanner had spoiled the magical moment...the moment Chris Larabee would announce to everyone that she was his forever.

The muscles in Chris' neck tightened as he watched Ella's face. She was thinking about Vin's discussion with him that night, he was sure of it. Taking the outfit, he placed it down on a chair near his legs, then lifted Ella's chin, so her eyes gazed into his.

"Why didn't you just come and say you wanted to see me again? Why all the lies?" he asked quietly, secretly swallowing the absolute hate he felt for her. "If you had told the truth, I would still be at the ranch with you."

Ella's eyes filled with tears. "I know what I did was wrong, Chris. I wasn't sure you still had any feelings for me, and I thought that if I played...."

"Damsel in distress," Chris finished. "Well, it worked."

"Until that tracker...," Ella began bitterly.

"Found out the truth, yes," Chris nodded. "But see it from his point of view. He's my friend..., wouldn't you want to know if the woman your friend was staying with was worthy of them? If you had come out with the truth, Vin wouldn't have found nothing to use against you."

A small smile graced the tips of Ella's mouth. "I did it to myself in other words?"

"Vin doesn't trust too many people, and when he gives his friendship to someone, well, he's like a dog with a bone. If he feels his friend is being threatened, he'll attack."

"I can understand now," Ella said with a sigh. "That poor thing, a bounty on his head for something he didn't do. You must worry about that bounty as much as he does."

Taken aback by the femme fatale's sudden change of heart, Chris decided to play along. "Yes I do. I don't want anything to happen to him."

"I can tell you, Chris...that nothing will hunt or harm him again. I understand now how special his friendship is to you, and I want him to be an important part of our lives, and especially the baby's." Ella's brown eyes flashed passionately as she put the gunfighter's hands to her stomach. "If you're truly serious about our lives together, he can stay."

A cold knot of fear gripped Chris' gut at her words.

"Ella, I want to start our lives together right this time," Chris said, leading Ella to a chair to sit, "and I want to start by having the truth, all of it."

"But...." Ella faultered.

"Nothing will change my feelings except lying. That's what destroyed our happiness before, and I don't want it again."

"It'll ruin the evening...."

Chris grabbed one of her hands and kissed it gently. "No, it'll make our love stronger. There will be no more lies between us."

The glow of the candlelight gave Ella's face a warm grace as she peered up longingly into the countenance of her beloved. How she had waited to hear such words from his lips.... She would make him understand her point of view, and when she gave Chris his surprise...it would be the perfect moment. He would finally understand how much she loved him, was willing to do to ensure his happiness.

+ + + + + + +

An unsettling quiet had befallen the five comrades in arms as they sat impatiently in the church. They had agreed to still stay here as a unit as long as Ella remained in town. But at this moment, each of them was wondering the same thing. What was happening to Vin? How was Chris faring with the woman who murdered his family, and was now threatening his best friend? Would they all come out of this alive? Would Chris?

Ezra pulled out a deck of cards and tried to ease his fears by playing solitaire. Josiah held his Bible and prayed. Nathan stared absently at the stained glass windows while JD sat in a pew, twirling his bowler hat between his fingers.

Buck groaned inwardly and covered his face in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. If Vin Tanner didn't make it back alive, the tracker wouldn't be the only one they'd be laying to rest. If Vin had died from a gun battle or even a bounty hunter, Chris would take it hard, but there would still be the hope of survival. His friends would be there to help him, sharing his grief. But to loose Vin to Ella..., Buck knew Chris wouldn't be able to survive that. It would be like reliving Sarah and Adam all over again, and the ladies' man thought he'd never see his old friend recover from it.

That was before Vin had revived a spark that had gone dead inside the gunman. That spark had turned into a flame, allowing Chris to feel again, bringing back the old drinking buddy that Buck so dearly missed. But Chris wasn't the only one Vin had an impact on. He was a quiet and steady force to depend upon, to be there when you needed someone to watch your back, or just to sit and drink with. You never had to ask with Vin, he was always there.

Struggling with the grief that was beckoning to take control, Buck shook his head as he ran his hands over his face in frustration. Vin wasn't dead yet, and if he had anything to do about it, Vin would be hanging around for a long time. He sent up a silent prayer that Chris was finding out all he needed to get Vin out of Ella's grasp.

+ + + + + + +

Chris made short work of his dressing, willing himself to stay calm so not to strangle the woman. He pulled out the harmonica and stuffed it into the breast pocket of his black jacket. This had to work, or he would never see Vin alive again. Straightening his bow tie, Chris put on his most charming smile and walked out into the lion's den.

"Oh Chris, you look so incredibly handsome," Ella sighed in ecstasy when she saw the door to the room open. She rose from her seat at the table. It was like a fairy tale come true. The candles gave the room a heavenly sheen as she watched the man she loved come towards her. She held out her gloved hands and Chris took them both, brushing his lips against them.

Pulling out Ella's chair, Chris gestured for her to sit back down. She willingly obeyed and held in her girlish delight when she felt him scoot her seat back to the table. She watched with raptured attention as the gunman lifted out the bottle of wine before taking his own chair across from her. This was how she always pictured it...her, Chris, candlelight and wine. And now there was a child to cement their love. It was perfect.

Chris noted the dreamy look in Ella's eyes, unsure how to proceed next. If he brought up Vin too quickly, it could cause the murderess to withdraw, bringing up her hatred of the tracker's place in his life.

The wine, he'd gather some relaxation with that first. Taking Ella's glass, he poured a small portion of water. "Alcohol isn't good for the baby," he offered as Ella watched him in disappointment. She smiled broadly at the concern. Chris poured himself the wine, ignoring the need to guzzle the bottle.

"Shall we begin the first course?" Ella asked hopefully.

Nodding, Chris pulled the dining cart near, taking off the lids to reveal a wide array of delicacies. Serving Ella first, the gunman re-took his seat, the sight of the food almost making him nauseous. He managed to take a few small bites, as his stomach threatened to rebel.

"Don't you like it?" Ella wondered, noticing Chris' lack of appetite.

"Ella, to be truthful, I'm so worked up over everything that food is the last thing I want," Chris answered honestly.

"Now it's my turn to be truthful," Ella said, lowering her head. She hadn't forgotten Chris' request. "Where would you like me to start?"

"How about after we left the ranch," Chris suggested. Seeing her hesitation, he grabbed one of her hands and stroked it with his fingers. "Don't be worried about my reaction. I know you've changed, but I want to understand how you got to this point. I want to feel what was going through your mind and heart. And don't spare my feelings either."

Confident in Chris' support, she drew in a long breath. "I never gave Handsome Jack permission to fire at you," Ella said adamantly.

"Why did you run off? I knew it wasn't because of the gun." The gunman cringed slightly as he saw Ella remembering the sight of him holding a gun at her.

"I never doubted you would shoot me, Chris," Ella replied with a slight smile, "but the one I feared was Vin. When Handsome Jack shot you, he had a murderous look in his eyes, and I knew he would blame me for you getting shot, so I left. And I was right, I heard him take a shot at me while I was riding away."

"With all the commotion, Vin jumped to the wrong conclusion," Chris pretended to agree. "It didn't help, him seeing me with a gun aimed at your head." He shifted nervously in his chair. "I was so overwhelmed when you told me about Sarah I wasn't thinking straight."

Ella squeezed Chris' hand. "I never should have told you in that way, but when I found you in my secret room, I just assumed you were ready to hear it."

Literally squelching the bile building in his throat, Chris continued his questioning. "So where did you go? No one, even Vin, couldn't find you."

Ella gave a small laugh. "He almost did, twice. If it wasn't for a few people I met along the way willing to help me out, your tracker would have had me."

"Who ended up helping you?"

"You've already met eight of them."

Chris fought to hide the frown tugging at his mouth. The Briggers.

Taking a bite of food, Ella grinned. "Very nice boys. They practically fell over themselves, willing to do anything I asked."

"So you sent them to Four Corners?"

"Yes, I wanted them to blend in so no one would be suspicious. They would be ready if I needed their assistance."

"What were your plans originally when you came here?" Chris said tentatively.

The woman paused. Sending her beloved a pleading glance, she cupped her hands under her chin, not knowing how to put her next words delicately. "You have to understand that I was furious with Vin for turning you against me, and for taking my place by your side when you were hurt...."

"I said I wanted to know everything you were feeling," Chris reiterated, quelling the pang of fear Ella's anger at Vin caused him.

"At first I was going to have him abducted and tortured, his body cut into pieces and scattered to the four winds." Ella stopped and tried to read the gunman's face. It was expressionless. "I was told when I was little that if a person is dismembered and his parts strewn about, they would never find peace in the afterlife."

Chris felt his body become frozen at Ella's confession. "Did you hate him that much?"

Biting her lower lip, Ella nodded slightly. "But when I discovered a couple of months later I was pregnant, I was hoping the baby would bring you back to me."

"So your original plan to come here was to tell me about the baby?" Chris placed his hands under the table, squeezing his fists tightly to keep himself from reaching over the table and shaking her. She had planned to torture and butcher his friend...would a new plan spare him any less?

"If you wouldn't see sense, I was going to kidnap him to force you to...."

"Marry you?"

"Yes, but I was hoping not to have to go that far."

"And if you had to?" Chris pursued.

"I was going to have him disappear after the wedding." Ella shot Chris a worried look, seeing his bottom lip quiver slightly. He was angry, the green flames churning in his eyes.

"He's not going to disappear now, is he?" Chris demanded. "I came willingly."

"No, no...he's perfectly safe, Chris. I don't want to destroy him anymore...."

Running a shaky hand through his blonde hair, Chris steadied himself. Dammit Larabee, you almost blew it! You've got to stay calm for Vin's sake....

Ella smiled and took Chris' hand, rubbing it up against her cheek. "Soon he'll understand what we see in each other, and he'll play a major role in our lives."

The gunfighter suppressed a shudder at Ella's statement. Why couldn't he dispel the notion of Vin being in a dire situation? To hear her speak, she wanted to make peace, but Chris knew from bitter experience that what she said and what she did didn't co-exist very well in reality. What was Vin going to be put through to ensure his acceptance? Would he be able to stop her plans in time?


Comments to: lasteinj@roadrunner.com