A New and Dangerous Game

by Angie

+ + + + + + +

Ella removed the tray from Chris’s lap and poured him another cup of coffee. She had dressed and was preening in the big mirror over the dresser as he finished the cup.

“I will be out for a while, lover. Your friends are fine. JD is feeling better. My men will be here watching over all of you so don’t get any ideas. I will be back before lunch and you can sit on the veranda with Vin, provided that you behave yourself.”

Swallowing hard, Chris forced himself to respond. “Thank you, Ella, I appreciate that.” He flinched slightly when she leaned over and kissed him before taking up her parasol and leaving the room. He heard the surrey as it left the yard.

+ + + + + + +

Kevin and Willy Hagen had started drinking shortly after breakfast. Even though they were being handsomely paid for their time, the men resented taking direction from the woman. At first, they had enjoyed the idea of being allowed to pummel the lawmen without fear of recrimination, but since the gunslinger had begun to cooperate, Miss Ella told them to leave the prisoners alone.

Fife Glick stared hard at the two men he was quartered with in the bunkhouse. He didn’t much care for the cocky brothers. Even less did he care for the woman who had hired him. He had wanted revenge for the death of his friend at the hands of the longhaired tracker. Miss Ella had told him that his revenge would have to wait; Tanner was a valuable pawn in controlling the gunslinger in the bedroom upstairs.

A sly smile lit Glick’s face and he nudged the others. “Hey boys, Miss Ella didn’t say we couldn’t mess with any of the others, only not the kid and the tracker. What’s say we go get that darkie and have a little fun with him while she’s gone?”

Both of the Hagen’s smiled maliciously as they stared at the other man.

+ + + + + + +

Ella rode into town and sought the seamstress. She had Chris’s pants and shirt and was planning to order more clothes for him. Parking the surrey and clipping a lead to the horse, she tethered the docile animal to the hitching post.

She felt the eyes of the men in town as she ascended the boardwalk. The deep burgundy color of her skirt was perfectly offset by the snowy white of the blouse. She dipped her head as the men touched their hats in greeting. A few of the women stared at her and she tossed cold, hard glares at them, causing them to turn away, embarrassed.

Miranda looked up at the woman as she came into the shop. Rising from the dress form where she was hemming a skirt, she smoothed her own dress before speaking to the striking woman.

“Good morning, can I help you with something?”

“I wanted to have some clothing made for my husband. I brought these along to get the size. You’ll have to forgive the pants, he was injured a couple of weeks ago and it was the only pair I could sneak away without his noticing.”

The charming smile was completely disarming as Miranda took the clothes and put them on the table.

“I understand. The clothes are to be a surprise?”

“Yes. I would like three shirts and two pairs of pants and also a jacket if you can manage it. The pants should be black and the shirts white, pale blue and perhaps a dusky rose? The jacket should be a black wool with satin piping if you have it.”

Miranda wrote down all the information on her note pad.

“Would you like to look at the wools that I have on hand? I have two different weights of material, one for winter and a lighter one for a spring or summer jacket. You can also pick the exact bolt of cloth for the shirts. It’s right this way.”

Miranda led the elegantly dressed woman to the next room where she had all of her material standing on shelves. She pulled out the wools and set them on the cutting table. She also pulled down the two bolts of rose-colored cloth. The woman ran her hand over the material and moaned softly.

“This is perfect! Make the jacket from this one. And this is the perfect shade of rose!” Ella ran her hand along the bolts of cloth until she encountered the baby blue cloth. “And this one will bring out the color of his eyes! Oh this is just so perfect! How long will it take to finish the clothes?”

Miranda calculated in her head. “A week should do it. I haven’t been terribly busy lately.”

“Oh? Is there some reason for the slow down? Has something happened?”

“You mean you haven’t heard? The men who protect the town have disappeared and no one knows where they went.”

Ella smiled before turning to face the seamstress. “I live quite a way out of town, I don’t get in often. How long have you been in town? I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Miranda Barton, I’ve only been in town for a couple of months. I moved here from Kansas City.”

Ella pulled several bills from her clutch and handed them to Miranda. “Will that be enough to cover it?”

“Oh, yes, more than enough. I’ll have them ready for you in a week Miss?”

“Gains, Ella Gains. I will stop back by here in a week to pick them up. It will be perfect! He will be so surprised! I can’t thank you enough. I have other purchases to make so I will take my leave now.”

Miranda was still smiling as the woman left her shop.

+ + + + + + +

The Hagan’s and Glick entered the cell area, their faces shining with evil glee. Unlocking Buck’s cell, they gestured Nathan out. Jackson went meekly, offering no resistance until the men grabbed him and began to steer him toward the stairs. Buck struggled to sit up as he protested the rough handling of his friend.

Josiah tightened his grip on Vin as he felt the young man shudder when he heard the malicious laughter. Only his clenched jaw showed the fear he felt as he watched Nathan disappear up the stairs.

In the opposite corner, Ezra trembled as he sought to remain calm. He clenched his fists and drew slow, deep breaths as he made eye contact with the healer. Nathan looked to JD and nodded once before he was shoved up the stairs and out of sight.

The gambler came to his feet and struck the bars sharply with his palm. JD jumped at the sudden noise and Ezra immediately regretted startling the boy. He moved quickly to reassure the kid and tucked the blankets around him again before lowering himself to the floor and burying his face in his arms.

Nathan was led out to the garden and tied to a large tree. He offered no resistance and avoided eye contact with the men as they laughed and goaded him. The fact that they had put his back against the tree frightened him a lot but he tried not to let it show.

Glick took out his throwing knife and nudged Willy.

“Watch this.” He turned and launched the knife toward the space between Nathan’s legs. The knife stuck in the wood scarcely four inches from the healer’s crotch. The Hagen brothers laughed at the flash of fear on the face of the bound man.

“Just remember, Miss Ella don’t want him hurt too bad.” Willy said as he aimed and threw his own knife, sticking into the tree just shy of Nathan’s knee.

Kevin took aim and tossed his knife. Because of his angle, the blade struck the tree horizontally and cut into the flesh of Nathan’s left thigh. The trickle of blood that flowed onto the blade caused Glick to laugh as he strode out to retrieve his knife.

“Having fun yet, boy?” He growled at the captive, enjoying the sweat beading up on the face of the man. “Don’t worry, we won’t mangle you too badly. Miss Ella wants you all alive for a while.”

Nathan was struck several times by the carefully thrown knives before the men tired of the sport. His blood ran cold as the whip appeared and Willy ripped the buttons from his shirt, tucking it behind him to leave his chest exposed. He bit back a scream as the first lash burned its way across his stomach.

Ella looked up sharply as she heard the scream of pain. She had just stopped the surrey outside of the barn and stepped down. Gathering her skirts, she ran around the house. Striding across the garden, she glared at her men as she moved to stand in front of Nathan.

“Take him back to his cell! I guess I didn’t make myself clear earlier. Don’t do anything to the prisoners unless I tell you to. I need them alive to make my plan work. Now! Move!”

She stood with her hands on her hips glaring at the men until they had cut Nathan from the tree and dragged him into the house. Retrieving her packages from the surrey, she rushed upstairs to see Chris.

“Hello, lover, did you miss me? I brought you the newspaper from Four Corners. Are you hungry? I will have Rosalita bring up your tray.”

“To the veranda? You said I could have lunch with Vin on the veranda.”

A mildly puzzled look crossed her face. “Did I say that? Well, I must have, I just don’t remember. Very well, I will have your lunch sent to the veranda and bring Tanner up for you. I expect that you will demonstrate your gratitude afterwards.”

Chris came to his feet and moved to the end of his tether. Sliding his hands around her waist, he buried his face in her neck. Tightening his arms around her for a moment, he heard her moan of pleasure as she pressed back against him.

“Do you think I could shave before lunch? This bristle on my face can’t be comfortable to your fair skin. It would only take a couple of minutes, I would be done before lunch was ready.”

Ella turned in his arms and stroked his cheek. “Of course, lover. What ever you want. I will get your things after I see to your lunch.” She kissed him passionately before sliding her hands down to his hips and smiling a feral grin.

His stomach turned as she left the room. Rage convulsed his muscles and caused him to shake as he sat on the side of the bed. He’d made up his mind that he would play up to her until he could get his friends out of her clutches. He only prayed that Sarah couldn’t see what he was doing from where ever she was spending eternity.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan was dumped on his cot and a bucket of water dropped in the corner. A pile of bandages landed on his chest before the cell door slammed shut. He lay gasping for breath as each of the stripes on his chest and stomach burned. As he slowly levered himself up he met a brilliant green-eyed gaze.

“Mr. Jackson, are you all right? Is there anything I can do to alleviate your pain?”

“Not at the moment, Ezra. But thanks. Just let me catch my breath first. How is JD?”

“Ever the consummate healer, the boy is doing well. He has kept down his food and had been taking water. The trembling and stomach convulsions have stopped and he is sleeping deeply.”

“And Vin?”

The deep timbre of Josiah’s voice was soft. “He’s been asleep since breakfast. I figured it was better just to let him be. Maybe he’s outside in his dreams.” His arms automatically tightened on the young man clinging to his chest as he spoke.

+ + + + + + +

When he finished shaving, Ella promptly removed the straight razor from the room. She purred as she stroked his now smooth cheeks and pressed kisses on his neck. Taking up her brush, she firmly drew it thru his blond hair. A few moments later, Rosalita knocked on the door.

“Miss Ella? I am ready to set up lunch on the veranda.”

“Thank you, Rosalita, we will be along in a moment.”

Behind the cook, Glick waited with the key to the chain that bound Chris to the bed. At a nod from Ella, he moved to unlock the chain and gestured Larabee toward the door. Sliding his arm around her waist, he placed a light kiss on her forehead before limping to follow the man out of the bedroom.

+ + + + + + +

Along with the cook, the Hagan brothers carried in lunch trays. Ezra and JD remained passively on the cot as the Mexican woman set the tray on the floor. Nathan didn’t move or even open his eyes as his tray was delivered. Buck was still struggling to sit up when his food was set down.

Josiah eyed the men as they pointed their guns at him. They hadn’t set down a tray and the hairs on the big man’s neck were standing straight up. Willy gestured for Sanchez to return to his own cell. Easing carefully out from behind Vin, he gently settled the tracker on the cot and tucked the blanket tightly around the sleeping form. Keeping his hands carefully relaxed at his sides, he allowed the men to herd him back to the other cell.

As soon as the cell door locked, Kevin holstered his gun and moved toward the sleeping tracker.

“No, don’t take him! Please! Leave him alone! He can’t take anymore!” Josiah raged against the bars as the men roughly jerked Vin to his feet and dragged him away. The doe eyed Mexican woman carefully settled the tray of food in the cell before following the men up the stairs.

Ezra had taken hold of JD as the boy was struggling to get off the cot and voice his protest. Covering his mouth with one hand, the gambler held the struggling boy as Vin was taken away. When Tanner was out of sight, Dunne collapsed against the southerner, sobbing and lashing out with his fists toward the wall. No one saw the tears that burned brightly in the green eyes.

Josiah was in a blind rage. He struck the bars repeatedly until Nathan feared he would do permanent damage to his injured arm. The big man picked up the cot and slammed it against the bars, screaming and cursing.

“All night I prayed that you would protect that boy! Is this what I get for praying? How can you let her torment and torture that innocent young man! Why not me? Why won’t you let her take me?”

The impassioned plea brought tears to every eye. The enraged man continued to pound on the bars and sob until the quiet voice of the healer reached his ears.

“Josiah, please calm down. You’re giving her exactly what she wants. Please.”

+ + + + + + +

Miranda studied the articles of clothing that the woman had left for her. She knew from the stitching exactly whom the pants belonged to, she had made them only a couple of weeks after arriving in Four Corners. The woman in the fancy surrey had Chris Larabee!

The seamstress hit the boardwalk at an all out run. Eyebrows rose as she dodged the people in her way. She opened the door to the Clarion office and stood, gasping for breath, looking at Mary Travis.

“I know where they are! At least I know who has them!” She panted for her breath as the blond woman wiped her hands on her apron and rushed across the room.

“Who is it? Where are they?” Mary’s eyes burned into the other woman as she waited for her to catch her breath and go on.

“She came into the shop this morning and ordered some new clothes. She said they were for her husband. She gave me a pair of pants and a shirt and I recognized the pants. I made them for Chris. She said her name was Ella.”

Before Miranda could even finish her sentence, Mary’s face convulsed with fear. “Gains. Oh my God! If she has all of them …”

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat in the chair and watched dispassionately as Glick wrapped the chain around the porch post and locked it securely. The Larabee glare was only thinly veiled as the two men stared at each other. Each man as much a prisoner of the deranged woman as the other.

A few minutes later, Vin was dragged onto the veranda and dumped into a chair. Chris was at his side in a blink, steadying the bobbing head. The gunslinger’s throat tightened as he realized how bad off his young friend was. He gently tapped the scruffy cheek.

“Vin! Open you eyes. Look at me, please?”

From the depths of his retreat, Vin heard a voice compelling him to wake. He ignored it. After all the long hours in the darkness, he had found a place of safety in his mind. Pushing away the bothersome intrusion, he turned back to the images in his head.

It was while he was working as a buffalo hunter, he had chased a small herd into a secluded little valley. The peace and beauty that permeated the little corner of the Earth had stricken the man still. He had drawn Peso to a halt and stared, open mouthed, at the beauty that lay before him. A waterfall tumbled down from somewhere above into a deep basin in the rock. The overflow created a meandering river that was teeming with fish.

As the buffalo hunter forgot all about the reason for entering the valley, he rode along the side of the river. Mule deer and elk looked up at his approach but, never having seen men, returned to their grazing. An eagle soared high above in the shifting air currents, searching for its next meal. The young man simply sat astride his horse and stared.

The voice intruded on his safe place again. Insistent and bothersome, he couldn’t ignore it any longer. He let the images slide away and struggled to open his eyes.

“That’s it, come on Vin. Let me see those baby blues. You can do it!” He was finally rewarded with a brief glimpse of the trackers eyes before the head twisted out of his grasp.

The sky! He could see the sky! And trees! The smell of flowers and blooming trees blew across his face and he turned his nose into the air. Either his dream had taken on a life of its own or he was outside. Forcing his eyes open, he peered around. His breathing quickened as he tried to sit up and was overcome by dizziness.

“Easy now, Vin. I got you.” Chris held Tanner steady in the chair until his head cleared.

“Chris! We’re outside?”

“Just for a little while, Vin. She’ll only let us together out here for a little while. God, it’s good to see you. After yesterday, I was afraid I’d lost you.”

The two men clasped their forearms and sat for several minutes just drinking in the sight of each other. Finally, Chris turned their attention to the food on the trays. He could tell that Vin hadn’t been eating, he looked emaciated and had dark circles under his eyes.

“We’d better eat this while we can.” Seeing Vin glance over the food and blanch, he spoke again. “You gotta eat, cowboy. Don’t go starving yourself on my account. It’s good! Please try to eat something.”

For the man sitting next to him, Vin Tanner would walk thru Hell on Sunday. In spite of the clenching in his gut, he picked up the fork and put a small bite into his mouth. Seeing the worried look was not abated, he continued to put tiny morsels of food into his mouth without tasting any of it.

+ + + + + + +

Mary told Miranda that her father in law, Judge Travis was on his way to Four Corners and would arrive on the afternoon stage. He was bringing along a couple of men to look over the town until his hired men returned. Orin had also alerted the army and had several soldiers following behind the stage.

Holding the dusky gray shirt in her hands, Mary Travis wanted to cry. She had been worried sick when the disappearances started but when she’d heard that Chris had ridden out with some woman; it was almost too much to bear.

+ + + + + + +

When Vin could stomach no more of the food on the tray, he pushed it away. Rosalita had brought a pitcher of sweet tea and Tanner was sucking it up like there was no tomorrow. He asked nothing of Chris, he trusted that whatever his friend had in mind, they would get away from that woman.

Chris watched as Vin appeared to soak up the sunlight and fresh air as if he could save it for later. Both men stretched out their legs and rested them on the rail before them. If it were not for the haunted look in Tanner’s eyes, Larabee could almost have let himself relax. But the truth was that soon they would be wrenched apart again and Vin would be thrust back into the dark, enclosed space that he was so afraid of.

Ella stood behind the French doors watching them. She could tell that Tanner was the most effective means of controlling Chris. It would only be until she was certain that she was pregnant with his child, and then she would kill them. She had no illusions that Chris would fall in love with her, she had seen the hatred in his eyes when he learned that she had paid for Sarah and Adam to be killed.

Willy cleared his throat as he entered the room and Miss Ella turned. Her eyes raked over the grandfather clock and she nodded, it was time to separate them. She watched as the three men moved out onto the veranda.

+ + + + + + +

The stage arrived, with six mounted army soldiers following behind. Mary, Inez and Miranda stood waiting for the older man to climb down. The Mexican barmaid had also been going out of her mind with worry over the seven men. She had grown to care for them a lot in the past few months.

“From the look on your faces, can I assume you have something important to tell me?” Orin asked as he stepped onto the boardwalk and embraced his daughter in law.

“We know who has them. Her name is Ella Gains. She’s the one who paid for Chris’s wife and son to be killed. She shot Chris and tried to have the others killed the last time they tangled with her.”

“Do you know where she lives?”

Miranda spoke. “I don’t know where she lives but she will be back in a week to pick up some clothes she ordered for Mr. Larabee.”

“Then we have that long to come up with a plan.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin offered no resistance as the Hagan brothers escorted him back to the cells. He had stood and embraced Chris before allowing his eyes to go blank again as he was led away. Glick unlocked the chain and returned Larabee to the bedroom.

Four of the five men in the cells lined the bars as Tanner was returned. He didn’t look any the worse for wear this time and that was a relief. Josiah reached a paw thru the bars and took a swipe at one of the brothers who got a little too close to the bars. Vin moved docilely into his cell and collapsed onto the cot.

+ + + + + + +

Ella brought supper to Chris and sat at the foot of the bed as he ate. She studied his face as she talked to him about their future together.

“Remember the horses you saw before? I still have them. You can breed them and sell them. It will be such a legacy to leave to your son. The Larabee breed, it even sounds powerful! Can’t you just picture the corral full of those magnificent animals? Can’t you see your sons working at your side as you make the Larabee name one of the best known in the territory?”

His face remained neutral as he choked down the food on the tray. He knew he was going to have to make love to her again that night and it was sickening him. His mind tuned out her words.

Before she turned in for the night, she met with her henchmen.

“The preacher tore up his cell pretty good when we took Tanner today. I just want you to know that he’s dangerous. If he gets a hold of one of us, we’ll have to kill him.” Glick told her without blinking.

A small smile lifted the corners of her lips and she nodded. “If tonight goes as I expect, you will be able to ‘play’ with the preacher tomorrow. Will that be satisfactory?”

The three men smiled at her and each other before returning to the bunkhouse.

Chris sighed in frustration. They had been at it for what seemed like an eternity and he couldn’t carry thru. He could tell that Ella was becoming angry with him. His back was covered in deep scratches as she expressed her dissatisfaction.

“Do you have any more of that tea? Just this one more time, I’m just worn out and I can’t.”

Huffing and growling, she crossed the room and brought back the small ceramic teapot. She poured him a cup of the tea and watched as he drank it down. Her lips were tightly pursed as she returned the pot to the other table and slipped back into bed.

The tea worked and Ella finally lay sated and exhausted beside the snoring Larabee. Her anger smoldered. She had let him have his afternoon with Tanner and he still had not been grateful enough to be able to make love to her without the tea. Tomorrow one of his friends would pay. She smiled as she dozed off.

+ + + + + + +

Buck’s fever broke during the night and he lay snoring loudly as the breakfast trays were carried in that morning. JD had improved to the point that he was eating regular food. Nathan had cleaned his own wounds and, aside from being very sore, was all right. Josiah was out of sorts, feeling a deep throbbing in his injured arm from his attack on the bars the day before. Vin had withdrawn into his little valley again, leaving the others worried about him.

+ + + + + + +

It was clear to Chris that Ella was upset with him that morning. She barely spoke to him when they awoke and she didn’t say anything when she brought his tray. He watched her warily as he ate; concerned that she had put something in his food. He was right. As soon as he finished his coffee, his vision began to blur and he dropped off to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah shook his head. He had just finished his breakfast when he started feeling dizzy. Vin, being closest, was the first to notice.

“Josiah? What’s wrong? Josiah?”

Nathan came to his feet and stared across the room. He could see that the big man was becoming disoriented. The tray slid from his lap and hit the floor with a resounding crash as Sanchez struggled to come to his feet. His movements were uncoordinated and he immediately stumbled, hitting the bars solidly before slumping to the floor unconscious. It all happened in the span of a minute, before any of them could react.

Buck leapt from his bunk and reached thru the bars to try to turn the preacher to his back. Nathan gripped the bars in frustration, unable to reach his friend. JD and Ezra stood at the bars, stunned by the speed with which Josiah had succumbed.

“Is he, is he, he’s not dead is he?” JD finally managed to whisper before Ezra pulled him to his shoulder, turning his eyes from the crumpled form.

“He’s still breathing, Nathan. But he hit his head damned hard on the bars, he’s bleeding. Do you have any of those bandages left that you can throw me?” Vin said as he kept his fingers pressed to the pulse point in Josiah’s neck.

“That will not be necessary, Mr. Tanner. We will tend to his injury when we are done with him.”

Ella’s voice was syrupy sweet as she sashayed into the room.

“I hope you are all comfortable in your new environment. Although, it is dreadfully dark and stuffy down here. Perhaps I could be persuaded to leave a lantern or two down here for you.” She stood quite close to the bars of Vin’s cell as she watched him for a moment.

“What did you do to Josiah? What was in his cup?” Nathan asked in a rough tone.

The icy stare that burned into the healer caused him to step back a little. Ella stood before the bars of his cell and propped her hands on her hips.

“I would have thought you would have more respect. After all, I did save your miserable hide yesterday, didn’t I?”

Retreating into his slavery days, Nathan lowered his eyes and let his shoulders slump before replying. “Yes Ma’am, you did that and I appreciate that. I’m sorry that I spoke out of turn, Ma’am.”

Ezra’s blood was boiling. That woman was cowing Nathan in a most shameful way and it galled the gambler to the core. Looking back at JD for a moment, he approached the bars.

“What did you put in his cup, Miss Gains? We would all like to know.”

Her razor sharp gaze fell on him and Ezra didn’t retreat. Squaring his shoulders, he continued to stare into the lifeless brown eyes. She blinked. A slowly drawn breath told the gambler that she wouldn’t call him at the moment. She had already put a pawn into play and wouldn’t be diverted from it.

“Willy, Kevin, get down here, now!” She never took her eyes off of the southerner as her men descended the stairs. “Put Mr. Standish back in his own cell and take Mr. Sanchez outside. Mr. Glick will be waiting for him to arrive.”

Her words cut into all of them. She let her eyes rest on JD for a moment and Ezra shifted to block her view of the kid as he continued to challenge her. Finally, she turned and left the room.

The cell door was opened and Ezra stepped out. Nathan saw what he intended only a split second before it happened. The southerner turned on Willy and landed a hard right on his chin. Just as quickly, he struck out with a left uppercut that took the breath from the man. The fight ended abruptly when Kevin thumbed back the hammer on his gun and leveled it at Standish’s head.

Suddenly docile, the gambler turned and walked into his cell. Willy slammed into the cell behind him and proceeded to pummel the now compliant prisoner. Except to protect his face, Ezra made no move to defend himself from the onslaught. Kevin finally called to his brother that Miss Ella was waiting for them and he left the cell after leveling a kick to Standish’s side.

It took both men and then some to manhandle Josiah out of the cell and up the steps. As soon as they were sure that the Hagan’s were gone, Nathan, Buck and JD turned their attention to Ezra.

“What in the hell did you think you were doing? Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Nathan’s voice was strident with concern.

“Why did you just stand there and let him do that?” JD’s voice was disappointed.

“You figuring on being the next pawn in her game, Ezra?” Buck’s voice was soft with understanding.

The gambler slumped to the cot and panted for air as his various injuries announced themselves. Trembling, he removed his coat and ran his hands over his ribcage. Hissing as his fingers touched the deep, painful bruises, he drew a deep, shuddering breath.

“You’ll be pleased to know that nothing is broken, Mr. Jackson. And in answer to your question, Mr. Wilmington, yes I intend to be the next pawn in her game. If I had not challenged her as I did, she would have returned Mr. Jackson to the custody of those ruffians for more of their abuse. She also set her cap for our young Mr. Dunne and I do not intend to allow her to cause him any further harm.”

JD sat down hard on his bunk as the impact of what the other man had done hit him. Ezra was going to sacrifice himself. He shuddered, as he looked across to Vin who now sat, unseeing and unresponsive, on the other cot. Pulling one of the blankets from his cot, the boy realized that he had been using both blankets and that Ezra had been making due without so he would have the extra warmth.

“Nathan, could you pass this back to Ezra?” The voice was tight with emotion as the young man fought to hold back the tears that were now burning fiercely in his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah blinked in the sunlight. As his vision cleared, he saw that he was in a small corral. He pushed himself onto his feet and looked around carefully. Suddenly, a sharp fist struck the small of his back and he collapsed again. He immediately surged to his feet. Before he could turn and see who had hit him, another blow fell.

+ + + + + + +

Something acrid was passed beneath his nose and he jerked away from it, suddenly wide-awake. Bright sunlight seared into his eyes as he struggled to focus. It sounded like a fistfight was happening close to him. Forcing his eyes to focus, Chris struggled against the restraints that he now felt holding him to the wheelchair. In the corral in front of him, one of Ella’s henchmen was in the process of beating the sense out of Josiah.

The jabs were quick and hard. Each time Sanchez got to his feet, they started again. Whoever was hitting him had fists like iron! The next jab connected solidly with his stomach, driving the air from him explosively. It was followed by a kidney punch that caused his legs to fold.

Chris struggled against the bonds as he looked for Ella. He knew she was somewhere close by. A lace trimmed parasol bobbed into his field of vision and Larabee began to scream his rage at her.

“Ella, for God’s sake, stop this! He’ll kill him! Ella please! Please stop this!”

Josiah lay still on the ground for a minute, gathering his strength. So far, the man hadn’t kicked or hit him while he was down. He could hear Chris screaming from somewhere close and he tried to focus on where that voice was coming from. Finally, he exploded off the ground and pinned his attacker with a hard left. The pain raced thru his injured wrist and nearly brought tears to his eyes.

“I let you have your afternoon with Tanner and you still couldn’t bear to make love to me without help. So, now I will have to punish your friends. I won’t let Glick do any permanent damage. He’s just working off some nervous energy. Did you know that your preacher friend smashed up his cell yesterday? I can’t allow him to exhibit such bad behavior while a guest in our home.”

The fight lasted only a few more minutes before Josiah sank to the ground and refused to rise again. Glick danced around and taunted him to no effect before Ella called a halt to the game. She ordered the Hagan brothers to return the big man to his cell and to let Nathan tend to his injuries.

+ + + + + + +

Miranda’s mind was distracted as she stitched the garments the woman had ordered. Mrs. Travis had filled her in on what had happened when they last encountered her. It sickened her to think of what might be happening to the men she had grown attached to. As the tears rolled down her cheeks, she replayed the last conversation she’d had with Ezra. Glancing up at the finished jacket, she hoped he would be alive to see it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris lay on the bed shaking with rage. She was going to allow that animal to hurt his friends. He kept imagining JD or Vin falling under the savage blows he had witnessed. Rage seeped from his pores as he clenched and unclenched his fists.

+ + + + + + +

Instead of his own cell, the brothers dumped Josiah in Nathan’s cell as they laughed about the assortment of nasty bruises that covered the older man’s torso. Willy made a point of glaring hard at Ezra before Kevin pulled him out of the room.

Buck limped over to the bars and watched as Nathan tended to Josiah’s injuries. JD sank to his knees and reached thru the bars to stroke the top of the preacher’s head. Ezra only called softly from his cot to ask after Sanchez before drifting off to sleep.

Thankfully, Josiah wasn’t seriously harmed, although the deep bruises on his stomach and back would slow the older man considerably. He regained consciousness just before the lunch trays arrived. Moving gingerly, Sanchez managed to sit on the cot and lean back against the wall.

The food on the trays would almost have seemed festive if it weren’t for the fact that it was delivered to them in cells. Fried chicken and potato salad with green bean salad filled the plates. They ate cautiously, each one afraid that there would be drugs in the food. When that wasn’t the case, they actually allowed themselves to enjoy the food as much as possible under the circumstances.

Buck leaned against the bars in his cell and called to Vin. The tracker hadn’t made a move toward the food on the tray at either breakfast or lunch.

“Vin? Come on, son, ya gotta eat something. Please, Vin? Come on over here and let me get hold of you, okay? Vin? Come on, now.” The ladies man used his best coaxing voice.

It finally took Josiah to get Tanner to move. The deep timbre of his voice penetrated the illusion the tracker had built up around himself and he blinked a couple of times. Seeing the outstretched hand of the ladies man, he picked up the plate and moved to sit against the bars. Buck reached thru and wrapped his arms around Vin and encouraged him to eat.

Supper that evening was sandwiches and fruit. Ella’s henchmen didn’t bother them as they delivered the food and water. As darkness descended in the room, strains of piano music could be heard from above. Oddly, the songs were familiar and the captives were surprised to hear Nathan lift his voice in song. The words were softly sung, but filled with emotion. Soon, five of the six voices were joined in softly singing along with the music.

+ + + + + + +

As much as it shamed him, Chris used every image he could summon in his mind to become aroused so he could satisfy Ella that night. It helped that she had given him brandy with dinner so he could relax. She had fallen asleep with a broad smile on her face. He lay for a long time, burning with shame at what he had done.

+ + + + + + +

Miranda finished the shirts and started on the pants. Mary had not understood at first, but it did make sense that she could not tip Ella Gains off by not having the clothing ready when she returned. It also filled her time and kept her mind occupied. She was kept appraised of the plan that the judge was working on with the army. The soldiers rode out everyday in plain clothes looking at all the homesteads to try to find out where Ella Gains was holding the seven lawmen.

+ + + + + + +

Ella was in a good mood the next morning. She kissed Chris gently as she gave him his breakfast tray. She brought him a basin of water and the straight razor so he could shave.

“You were wonderful last night, lover. I knew you could do it, you just needed the right motivation. Don’t worry beloved, as soon as I am sure that I am pregnant, it will not be necessary for me to punish your friends.”

+ + + + + + +

Breakfast was delivered without comment to the captives. Willy glared at Ezra the whole time he was in the room. Nathan was afraid that the gambler had bitten off more than he could manage this time.

It was strangely quiet in the cells after breakfast. Each man was lost in his own thoughts.

+ + + + + + +

“Would you like to see the young one at lunch today, lover? It has been a while since you’ve seen him. I would be willing to bring him to you,” Ella cooed.

“So you can punish another one of them?” Chris spat back at her.

“I don’t want to have to punish anyone. I only want you to love me and stay with me.”

She caressed his cheek as she spoke. Suddenly, he grabbed her arm and stared hard into her eyes.

“Promise me that you won’t hurt them anymore? Promise that you’ll bring Vin outside for a few hours each day. I’ll stay with you for as long as it takes for you to have the child you want. But I can’t love you if you continue to hurt them.”

She pulled back on her arm and he dragged her down to him for a savage kiss. At first, she struggled against him, but after a moment, she began to grind her lips harder against his. For several moments it was a give and take between them until Chris twisted away and pushed her off of him.

Panting and rubbing lightly at her bruised lips, Ella smiled and nodded.

+ + + + + + +

The men brightened as the lunch trays were carried into the room. The mood lasted exactly as long as it took for Willy to open the door to JD’s cell and grab him by the arm. The young sheriff fought with all he had not to be dragged from his cell. Ezra was on his feet in an instant.

“Leave him alone you coward! You want to pick on someone smaller than you, take me! You can’t because you’re yellow! You’re no better that those rebel turncoats who betrayed their families!”

The gambler hurled his body at the bars screaming in rage as JD was dragged up the stairs. He continued to throw his shoulder against the bars until Nathan got up and went to stop him.

“Stop! Ezra stop! You won’t do the boy any good if you’re all beat up when he gets back. He’s gonna need comforting when he gets back here. He needs you to be strong for him when he gets back!”

The gambler slammed into the bars once more before he sank to the floor, sobbing. Nathan and Josiah coaxed and guided him to the cot at the near side of the cell. They checked him for injury before trying to comfort him.

+ + + + + + +

JD struggled as he was led thru the house and up another set of stairs. He was dragged into a large room with French doors that faced the front of the house. Standing in the room was Ella Gains. Immediately, he shuddered and went quiet as he was led out thru the French doors to the veranda.

“Chris!” The young sheriff launched himself at Larabee and wrapped his arms around the gunslinger’s waist as he sank to his knees beside the chair.

The sound of JD sobbing cut thru Chris like a knife. He ran his hands over the back of the boy’s head as tears rolled down his own face. ‘How much more of this can one man bear?’ His heart cried in agony as he tried to pry the kid out of his lap.

“JD? Come on boy, get up here and let’s have lunch together. Come on, son, sit up here.”

As the large, brown eyes came up, Chris was stricken by just how much it hurt to see the kid look at him like that. He pulled JD up from his knees and steered him into the chair. With his thumbs, he brushed the tears from the young man’s face.

“Why is she doing this to us?” The young sheriff pleaded.

“She wants a baby. She wants to have my baby. I don’t want to talk about that right now. Tell me how the others are right now.”

“Buck’s doing better. His fever broke and he’s been standing on his own. Josiah’s wrist is better but he’s pretty sore from the beating he took yesterday. Nathan’s wounds are healing up okay. Ezra’s still sore from Willy lighting into him. And Vin’s the same. He just sits and stares. He don’t eat unless Buck makes him and he just rocks on his cot. Nathan’s worried about him, said he’s catatonic or something.”

“What happened to Nathan?”

“Her henchmen tied him to a tree and beat him with a whip. They threw knives at him!” JD began to shake as he recalled the sight of Nathan’s bloodied stomach.

“What about Ezra?”

“He tried to stop her from taking Josiah yesterday. He offered himself in exchange. She was tongue-lashing Nathan and he tried to stop her. Then she gave me this look, it really scared me, Chris, and he stood in her way. He kept her from hurting me. Willy was moving him back to his cell and Ezra hit him. Willy beat Ezra inside his cell and he didn’t even defend himself. He let him do it to protect me!”

JD broke down again, fighting back tears. Chris leaned out and pulled the kid’s head onto his shoulder as he stroked his back. The boy’s slender frame shuddered as he pulled himself closer to his leader.

When the young sheriff had finally calmed, Chris persuaded him to eat.

Nearly two hours later, Willy and Glick arrived to separate the friends. JD clung to Chris for a couple of minutes before he was pulled away. Larabee stared after the boy for as far as he could see him before allowing Glick to return him to the bedroom.

+ + + + + + +

When they reached the cells, JD raced to the far cell and reached thru toward Ezra. Willy wrapped his arm around the kid’s neck and pulled him away from the bars. The gambler came to his feet and rushed to the bars. He froze at the sight of the gun pressed to the youngster’s head.

“Put him in the cell, Willy. Now!” Ella’s voice was deadly calm as she stood in the doorway.

With an angry sigh, he holstered the weapon and unlocked the door. He gave JD’s neck one last hard squeeze before shoving him into the gambler and slamming the cell shut. The young sheriff collapsed into Ezra’s arms as his momentum carried both of them to the cot in a jumble.

“Bring Tanner,” Ella said softly as she started up the steps.


“You can’t!”

“Don’t hurt him!”

Willy chuckled as he pulled the tracker to his feet and dragged him up the stairs.

“What did she do to you, son? Did she hurt you?” Ezra’s hands swept over the boy, checking for injury. Finding none, he gripped him by the back of the neck and drew him close.

“She let me see Chris. We had lunch together.” His words galvanized the group and they all sprang up to ask how their leader was doing. “He’s worried about us. She wants him to give her a baby. He looks okay but really sad in his eyes.”

+ + + + + + +

At Ella’s command, Willy and Glick put Tanner on Buck’s horse and led him around in the corral for a while before putting the animal on a long guide rope and driving him in large circles in the big paddock. After half an hour, he was led to see Chris for a few minutes before being returned to the cells. They put him in with Buck so that the ladies man could get him to eat.

+ + + + + + +

Miranda finished the pants and started on the jacket. Mary and Inez kept her up to date on the reports from the soldiers. They had marked a couple of likely looking homesteads but they never saw Ella or any of the lawmen. It began to look like they would have to wait until she came into town to pick up the clothing and follow her back.

“How are you coming along with the clothes?” Mary stood in the doorway watching the seamstress, as her hands seemed to move of their own accord. She moved to the dressmaker’s form and ran her hands over the new wool jacket. “It’s for Mr. Standish, isn’t it?”

“He ordered it before JD disappeared. He stopped in here after Vin was taken and he was so … lost. He said that, he bet that Chris wished it was him and not Vin. He cried on my shoulder. I just hope he gets to see it.” Her voice tightened as the tears rolled down her cheeks.

+ + + + + + +

Doubled up in their cells, the men slept better due to the close proximity of a friend. JD worried over Ezra for a long time that evening. Buck managed to get Vin to eat supper and the tracker seemed more alert after he returned with Willy.

+ + + + + + +

They had supper that night in the dining room, without the chain. Chris had been ordered to bathe and was brought fresh clothing. Ella was dressed in her finest. They drank brandy afterwards and she clung to his arm as she walked him thru the house.

Their walk ended up on the upper veranda and she leaned against the railing as she studied his face.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Lunch with JD, Vin taken outside this afternoon, dinner with you without the chains or guard, I’m just trying to figure out what’s coming next.”

“I’m just trying to make you happy.”

“Let them go. That will make me happy.”

With an exasperated sigh, she turned her back to him. It was getting dangerous to keep them. Keeping them all healthy made them even more dangerous. As long as she could keep one or more of them sick or hurt, the others were easier to control, but by allowing Nathan to tend their wounds she was losing that small measure of control.

“You know I can’t do that. It’s just until I’m sure. If I could be sure that you loved me, maybe, but I’m afraid you’ll leave me again if I let them go.”

Biting his lip, Chris moved up behind her and rested his hands on her hips. He worked them around to her stomach and pulled her away from the railing. Crushing her against his chest, he kissed the nape of her neck and made his way down her shoulder. Feeling her tremble, he turned her to face him and pressed his lips to hers. His hands moved over her dress, moving and lifting the material until his hands touched bare flesh. Her moan of pleasure carried to the men on the porch below and Glick nudged Willy.

“Let’s go have us some fun.”

“She won’t like it, she said to leave them alone.”

“I’m getting a little tired of that, aren’t you? Let’s go mess with a couple of them.”

Willy smiled and followed Glick to the basement.

+ + + + + + +

It was nearly pitch black in the cell area when the two henchmen entered with the lanterns. Six pairs of eyes warily followed the men as they walked nonchalantly in the open area between the cells. Buck moved to stand protectively in front of Vin and glared hard at Glick. Josiah and Nathan both stood in the center of the cell they shared. Ezra was holding JD to the floor as he lay in the cot.

“Gentlemen, we have decided to play a little game to break up the boredom. I’m going to offer you a chance to volunteer.”

“What kind of game?” Josiah asked softly.

“I’ll tell you that after I have my volunteers.”

Glick’s evil smile caused the big man to shiver a little. Josiah knew that Glick was the one who had beaten him so thoroughly the day before. The men looked at each other hesitantly. By mutual understanding, they intended to protect Vin and JD if at all possible.

Ezra slowly raised himself from the cot even as JD tried to keep him back. The hard resolve in the bright green eyes caused the young sheriff to swallow hard and nod in acceptance as he helped the gambler to his feet. Buck moved to the door of his cell and glared hard at Glick. Josiah started forward, only to be pulled back by Nathan.

Willy chuckled with glee at the thought of hurting the cocky gambler and Glick relished the chance to take the big man with the mustache down a couple of pegs. Without looking at the other two men in the third cell, the choices were made.

“Very well, you two will do. Move down to the empty cell in the corner. Now!”

Gesturing with his gun, Willy opened the cell Josiah had occupied before and Glick watched as first Ezra, then Buck moved into the cell. After the door was closed, Glick handed his gun to Willy and moved into the cell where Vin sat, staring blankly into space.

“Leave him alone! We volunteered for your sick little game! You leave him alone you bastard!” Buck was screaming in rage and helpless to do anything to protect the tracker.

Glick guided Vin out of the cell and shoved him against the bars as he tied the tracker’s hands above his head to the bars after dragging him out of his hide coat. He stooped down and secured Vin’s legs to the bars as well. Then he turned toward JD.

Ezra went ballistic, hurling himself at the bars and screaming in rage as the kid was jerked out of the cell and, like Vin, stripped of his jacket and tied to the bars of the cell.

“You’re a coward, mister, the worst kind of coward! Pick on someone closer to your own size! Leave him alone, you filthy animal! I’ll kill you!”

JD was terrified. From the way he was restrained, he couldn’t see Buck and Ezra. His knees felt like mush and he was shaking in pure terror. He tried to crane his head around far enough to see his other friends but couldn’t. Josiah and Nathan stood, looking at him with matching expressions of guilt and horror.

Willy handed the gun back and approached JD. He looked the young man up and down before he turned to challenge the burning green eyes of the gambler.

“He’s really a little guy, isn’t he? Almost too pretty to be a boy. I wonder what he’d be like if I …” The words trailed off as Willy ran his hand from JD’s shoulder to his hip before moving to press his body against the restrained young man.

“I’ll bet he’d be real sweet.”

“Don’t!” JD whispered as he felt the man’s hands rove across his body. He tugged at the ropes as tears of fear and shame burned in his eyes.

Ezra felt his stomach tighten and his rage nearly overwhelmed him as he watched the man groping JD. He gripped the bars and closed his eyes as he realized that they had fallen for exactly what Ella’s henchmen wanted, to separate the protectors from the weaker members of the team.

Seeing the reaction of the captives, Glick approached Vin. Buck slammed into the bars and hissed thru his clenched teeth.

“You leave him alone, you sick bastard! Don’t you touch him!”

Glick stroked the back of Tanner’s head. He stroked the restrained man as if he was a horse he was considering for purchase. As he ran his hands from Vin’s hips to the floor, he saw the mustached man was close to exploding in rage.

“I agree Willy. If we don’t get satisfaction from those two, maybe we will take these two out to the barn and have a little fun with them. Hell, I’m getting turned on just thinking about it!”

A chaotic cry of fury burst from Buck’s mouth as he circled in the small cell. His face was crimson with the shame and anger he felt boiling in his blood.

“So, here’s the deal. You two are going to fight. If I think that the gambler isn’t giving his all, I will lash the boy. If I feel the other guy isn’t, then the pretty one over here gets it. And, like I said, if we aren’t satisfied with your performance, we’ll seek our pleasure in other ways. Get started.”

“You can’t make them fight like that! They’re friends!” Josiah shouted.

Buck and Ezra stared at each other for a long moment before Standish peeled off his wool jacket and pushed it thru the bars into the next cell. He then turned and swung on Wilmington, what looked like a glancing blow nearly took the bigger man off of his feet.

Willy and Glick laughed as they watched the spectacle. At one point, they struck each of the bound men with the riding crop they had brought along. Neither man realized that Ezra and Buck were pulling their punches.

The sound of JD’s cry of pain caused Standish to forget for a moment and he struck Wilmington much harder that he intended. In return, Buck struck Ezra a blow that sent him into the bars, hard enough that he saw stars for a moment. He felt something run down his neck and realized that the bars had broken a gash on his scalp. Focusing on the bigger man in the cell with him, he saw Buck wiping blood from a cut above his eye.

Nathan saw the trail of blood that coursed down Ezra’s back and rushed the bars.

“Make them stop, he’s bleeding!”

Angry that the men had stopped fighting, Willy slashed JD with the riding crop again, drawing a scream of pain from the young man.

The voice penetrated the wall of illusion Vin had erected around his mind. ‘A cry of pain? Who was hurting the kid? If I look to see who it is, I’ll still be in that cage. But if someone’s hurting JD, I have to try to help him.’

Willy swung the riding crop and connected soundly with Vin’s thighs. Suddenly, Tanner’s hand pulled free of the rope and he grabbed Willy and jerked him to the bars. His fingers tightened on Willy’s throat, blocking his supply of air. The choking man’s hands pried at the vise-like grip, seeking to restore the air his lungs were crying for.

Glick was shocked for a moment when the tracker grabbed Willy. He watched as the man’s face went red and then slightly blue before he moved to the rescue. Using his sharp fists, he delivered a pair of kidney punches that forced Vin to release his grip on Hagan.

As Willy sank to the floor wheezing, a voice rang out from the stairs.

“I thought I told you to leave them alone for the time being? Now, Put them back into their cells and get over to the bunkhouse! Move!”

Ella Gains held a rifle in her hands and neither man doubted that she would not hesitate to use it.

Dragging Willy out of the way, Glick freed Vin and shoved him into his cell. He then opened the other cell and motioned Buck out. As Hagan came to his feet, Ezra grabbed his jacket and moved toward JD. Gently untying the ropes from his feet, Standish waited for Glick to cut the ropes on his wrists. The kid collapsed into the gambler’s arms and was carried to the cot.

When all the captives were back in their cells, the men reached for the lanterns to take them away when they left.

“Leave the lanterns. Just get the hell out of here before I put you in a cell too.”

“Miss Ella? Would you let me tend to them? Ezra needs stitches and Buck does too.”

“In the morning. I’ll send supplies with Rosalita and Kevin in the morning.”

The woman and her two henchmen left and the regulators sank to the cots, exhausted. Nathan managed to clean the small gash on the back of Ezra’s head and covered it with the leftover bandages they had before the entire group sank into sleep.

+ + + + + + +

A small, self-satisfied smile had lit Ella’s face as she lay beside Chris on the big rug in the drawing room. He had carried her that far before he set upon her with animal lust burning in his eyes. She let her hands stroke her stomach as she imagined his child growing there. After a brief rest, she had roused him and returned him to the bedroom.

Kevin had knocked on the door and told Ella that his brother and Glick were torturing the prisoners. He was afraid that they would end up killing one of them. She had waited a while before breaking it up. If they were hurt, they would be easier to control and her problem would be solved.

+ + + + + + +

Morning came and the captives groaned from their various injuries as they awoke. Ezra had been made to sleep on the cot, his head in JD’s lap, the boy was terribly worried about the gambler. Vin had retreated into silence almost as soon as he was returned to the cell. Buck was sporting a hell of a shiner. Nathan itched to be able to properly clean and dress the wounds. Josiah had spent a good part of the night arguing with God about the situation and now had dark circles under his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Miranda put the finishing touches on the jacket that morning as she anxiously watched for Miss Gains to show up. Just after breakfast, the judge stationed one of the soldiers in the back room of her shop to watch for the woman. It was awkward for Miranda knowing that she was being watched as she worked but she tried to put it out of her mind. She had to do this without tipping off the woman that they were on to her.

+ + + + + + +

Ella awoke and slipped out of bed without waking Chris. She wanted to get Rosalita and Kevin to take food and supplies to the prisoners before she got ready for the two-hour ride into Four Corners to pick up the new clothes for her lover.

Food and bandages were delivered to the captives as Ella stood in the doorway looking on. A bucket of hot water as well as a bar of soap was set in the cell for Nathan’s use. One by one, the injured men were transferred to the cell with Nathan and Josiah to have their wounds tended. Both Buck and Ezra did a good deal of hissing and soft cursing as the stitches were put in place. JD shyly allowed the healer to remove his shirt to check the wound left by the riding crop. Although red and raised, the skin was not broken and the area was gently cleaned with soap and water.

The only problem was Vin. He wouldn’t allow them to remove his clothes to check him for injury. It took both Josiah and Nathan to hold him down so they could clean the welts left by the riding crop. It hurt Buck to watch the tracker struggle against his friends without making a sound.

It was mid morning by the time Ella was ready to leave for town. The captives had been tended to and fed and she had made plans for their lunch. Glick and Willy were going with her to town so that they would not be tempted to violate the prisoners again.

+ + + + + + +

The soldier on the roof of the Grain Exchange signaled to the Sergeant that there was a surrey coming into town with a woman driving. Their tracker headed out immediately to try to backtrack her to her home. The other men were in strategic positions around the town to protect the citizens and to check out the men who rode in with the woman.

Miranda was on her knees hemming a skirt when Ella entered the shop. She flashed a quick smile and came to her feet.

“Miss Gains, I wasn’t sure if you were coming in today or not.”

Moving to the shelf along the wall, Miranda took down the carefully folded pants and put them on the table in the center of the room. Moving to a rack along the wall, she brought over the shirts and the jacket.

“I only finished the jacket yesterday. I pressed it this morning. I hope you like it. The shirts came out better than I expected.”

Ella ran her hands over the wool jacket and smiled broadly. “They’re perfect! I always wished I could sew. My mother made the most beautiful clothes when I was growing up.”

“It’s not hard. It just takes a long time at first and most people get frustrated and give up. Can I make anything else for you?”

A slow smile crossed Ella’s face as her hand dropped to caress her stomach. “Perhaps in a couple of months I will need you to begin to make a layette of baby clothes.”

Miranda feigned a surge of joy and surprise. “A baby? How wonderful! I would certainly be glad to make a layette for you. You’ll let me know?”

“Of course I will. Thank you again, these are perfect. I have some other purchases to make and then I must be getting back. I will stop in the next time I’m in town and let you know about the baby clothes.”

As Ella left the shop, Miranda felt her knees begin to shake. She turned as if to return to the skirt she was hemming in case the woman came back, but she felt like she was going to be ill at any moment. The soldier in the back room called to her softly.

“Mrs. Barton? Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m fine. I will be fine, anyway. It’s just nerves, nothing to worry about. You get going and don’t lose her. I want my friends back soon.”

Ella made several purchases at the Potter’s store and stacked them in the back of the surrey before checking the saloon for her men. Glick was sitting at the bar, drinking a double shot of whiskey and making eyes at the pretty Mexican barmaid. Willy was at one of the tables, a saloon girl draped across his lap and laughing uproariously at something he said.

“Gentlemen? I would like to return home now.”

Glick looked up from his drink. The pretty barmaid had been making eyes at him and he wasn’t in any hurry to return to the homestead where there was little of entertainment value.

“You go on ahead, we’ll be back in a few hours.”

An angry glare burned into the man as Ella stood in the doorway with her lips pursed tightly. If she did not have so much invested in the two of them, she would have gotten rid of them by now.

“Very well. But please make it before dark. You know I don’t like riders coming in after dark”

Tipping his head to her in acknowledgement, he returned his gaze to the barmaid.

After the surrey turned the corner out of town, the four cowboys in the saloon suddenly drew their guns and trained them on the two henchmen. Both surrendered without giving any trouble because they didn’t know that the men arresting them knew that they had been holding the lawmen hostage.

As soon as she saw the surrey leave town, Miranda hurried down to the Clarion to wait with Mary.