Magnificent Seven Old West
Picking Up the Pieces by The Neon Gang

Part 1 of 3 in the Pieces Series.


Warning: This story includes adult themes, including the threat (only) of rape and non-consensual sexual acts with the same and the opposite sex.

Editors' Note: A post-"Obsession" story.  This is the gen version of a previously published slash story, "Out of the Ashes."  The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #18, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors.  When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than 6 months, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels was the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective!  Resistance was futile.  So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane.  Story lasted edited 1-2-2015.  Art by Shiloh.

Vin Tanner carefully studied the seated man as he made his way toward him.  The boardwalk in front of the saloon wasn't crowded, but he still approached cautiously, slowly, trying to decide what it was that had caught his attention.  It didn't take him too long to figure it out.

The heavy blanket draped over Larabee's back failed to hide the dejected slump of the man's shoulders, and his hat was missing, dark blond hair hanging limp, badly in need of a wash.  He needed a shave, too, given the dark shadow on his cheeks.  But at least his eyes were alert, gaze sweeping over the dusty road, the shops across the street, and the people walking or riding by, as he watched the various men and women who came and went on their daily errands as dusk slowly settled over the town of Four Corners.

Getting closer, Vin could also see the fine sheen of sweat on the gunslinger's face.  Fever, he guessed, but then that was to be expected.  The man had been shot.  Grazed, really, but the wound had been deep enough to hide the infection he was now slowly burning out of his body.  Maybe if he hadn't insisted on leaving Ella's ranch…  Vin shook his head, stopping the thought before it got any further.  He knew why Chris had refused to let Nathan treat him at Ella's place.  The house, hell, the whole damned ranch was tainted, poisoned by the madness Ella Gains had fallen into who knew how many years ago, and it clung to the place like a death shroud.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris sensed Vin's approach before he actually saw him, and not for the first time he marveled over the bond they shared.

When the tracker was close enough so Larabee could hear him, he said, "Chris… she leaked out 'a the landscape."

A cold chill snaked down Larabee's back, and he felt like he was being stalked by some rabid she-wolf.  He looked up to meet Vin's gaze, reassuring himself that the bounty hunter was really there, watching his back.

Vin stopped when he reached the gunslinger, leaning against one of the posts that supported the overhang which protected the boardwalk from the few occasions when it actually rained.  "We covered every town between here and Red Fork."  He stopped and shrugged.  "Sorry y' didn't shoot her when y' had the chance."

"Next time," Chris assured him without looking up at the bounty hunter.


Chris sighed heavily.  "Buck?"

Vin shook his head, saying, "Ain't heard, but I doubt he found anymore 'n I did."

Chris reached under the blanket and pulled a letter out of his pocket, holding it up for Vin to see.  "She couldn't have gotten far; she'll be back, sooner or later."

The bounty hunter nodded, wondering what was in the letter, and if Larabee would decide to share it with him.  "Gonna have t' watch yer back, pard."

Chris snorted softly and shook his head.  "I never thought…"  He trailed off and sighed heavily.  "I've wanted to understand what happened that night for so damned long, now I do and it still leaves me feeling empty inside."

Vin moved closer, sitting down on the rough boardwalk next to the gunslinger's chair.  He glanced up at the older man and said, "Maybe y' can stop blamin' yerself now."

Chris flashed the tracker a sharp glance, but it almost immediately lost its sting.  His feelings about the loss of his wife and son were one of the few subjects they had never talked about, and he didn't want to change that now.  Still, he knew the younger man meant well.

But Vin wouldn't be put off.  "You've been thinkin' they's after you – weren't true.  Nothin' y' could 'a done t' change the way things went."

Chris leaned back, wanting to argue with the man, but he couldn't.  He knew the truth now, and Vin was right.  But he'd carried the guilt and the anger around with him for so long he honestly wasn't sure how to give either of them up.  Not that he would ever completely forgive himself for the death of his wife and son; he couldn't.  But at least the self-loathing that had been slowly eating away at his soul was lessened now.  Even Chris Larabee couldn't blame himself for the actions of a crazy woman.

He knew, without a doubt, that even if he had been home that night, it wouldn't have made one bit of difference.  Ella would have just had her hired killers – men like Clitus Fowler – wait until the next time he left before they came for Sarah and Adam.  And he would have left them.  He couldn't be with them every hour of every day.  But knowing the truth didn't fill the hole that still resided inside his heart, nor did it stop the hurt that ached deep in his bones, like some old war wound.

He snorted softly to himself, but it was loud enough to catch Vin's attention and the tracker looked up again, waiting to see if Chris had anymore to say.

Funny, Chris thought, the pain he'd grown so used to over the past few years had gotten a little easier to bear since he'd come to Four Corners; since he'd joined ranks with the men he now called friends to protect the growing community, and since he'd met Vin Tanner.  The pain was still there, like a phantom movement he kept seeing out of the corner of his eye.  And no matter how fast he turned his head, he couldn't catch sight of what was out there, dogging his heels.  All he could do was hope that it continued to fade.

"Y' ate yet?" Vin asked him.

Chris shook his head.  "Ain't hungry."

"Keep me comp'ny?"

The gunslinger wasn't sure he was up to the short walk to the saloon, but for some reason he didn't fully understand he didn't want to spend anymore time alone.  And he couldn't think of any one else he'd rather keep company with, either, so he nodded.

Vin stood first, waiting close by while Chris carefully eased himself out of his chair, using the post for support.  He made no offer to help the gunslinger, but his stance and his attention made it clear to Larabee that he was ready to act if it became necessary.

Chris drew the blanket a little tighter around his shoulders and took his first step in several hours.  It was shaky, so the tracker reached out, pressing his hand to Chris' back to help steady him.  It was a kindhearted gesture and Chris sighed slightly, knowing he had someone in his life again who truly cared about him – several, if the truth be told.  It was frightening and comforting at the same time, and it warmed a part of his soul he'd thought long lost.

It was the fear, however, that quickly won out.

"I'm fine," he mumbled, but he couldn't force himself to pull away.  The reassurance was too important, and he desperately wanted the contact, even if he didn't want to appear weak in the tracker's eyes.  At least he knew Vin would never say anything about it.

"Sure y' are, Cowboy," the younger man replied easily, "but if it's all the same t' you, I'll just walk along with ya."

"Suit yourself."

Together they made their way to the saloon, finding an empty table in a dark corner.  A few minutes after they had sat down, Inez was there, setting plates of food in front of them.  She left, returning a few moments later with two cups of fresh coffee.

Chris opened his mouth to ask for a whiskey, but stopped.  The coffee was enough for now; he'd been drinking too much recently anyway.  And Nathan had warned him about mixing the elixir he'd given him for the pain with whiskey.

They ate in silence, Vin speedily finishing off his meal while Chris picked at his.

"Ain't gonna get well that way," the tracker said softly, nodding at the blond's untouched food.

Larabee looked up, anger flaring in his eyes again, only to fizzle a moment later.  How long had it been since someone had tried to take care of him?  And now he had six of them, not to mention several of the townsfolk, like Inez, and Mary.

Too damned long, he decided.  He just didn't quite know what to make of it.

"Don't have much of an appetite," he admitted as an apology.

"'Spect that's common, given everythin'."

Chris forced himself to eat a few bites while Vin sat and watched him.  For some reason the gunslinger couldn't fathom, he didn't want to disappoint the man, and refusing to eat would do just that.  He could figure that much out just by the worried look in the man's blue eyes.

And why am I so damned gratified he cares if I live or die, Chris wondered, then shook his head slightly and forced himself to concentrate on forcing a few more bites down before abandoning the food for his coffee.

While he sipped at the cooling drink, Chris wondered what it was about the tracker that had allowed Vin to sneak behind the walls Larabee had so carefully built around his soul after Sarah and Adam had died.  It was almost like their friendship had happened while he wasn't looking, and he still couldn't find an answer for why he'd let the man get that close to his heart.  But once he had, the others had slipped in as well.

Vin's not just my friend, he thought to himself.  He's something more than that, but damned if I know what it is.

Maybe it was the way Vin seemed to know what he was thinking, and had since that first moment when the gunslinger had noticed him, getting ready to go off and stop a lynching single-handed.

Or maybe it was the way Vin always seemed to be at his side, or watching his back; doing what had to be done before he'd even been asked.

It might be the man's quiet humor, or the tender heart he kept so well concealed.  There was a lot more to Vin Tanner than met the eye, and Chris suspected that he was one of the very few people who had ever been allowed a glimpse at some of those hidden depths.

But then he'd let Tanner in on some of his secrets, too.  And never once had the tracker judged him, or made him feel foolish for doing so.

So he might not know why he'd let the man into his affections, but he did know the bounty hunter was his friend – for lack of a better word – and Chris felt more comfortable spending time with him than he did with anyone else, including Buck, who had also been his friend, and for too many years to count.

He felt a wave of emotion wash over him, and dipped his head to force down another bite while he regained his composure.  He was glad Vin was back, even if he hadn't been able to run Ella Gains to ground.

But he knew now that all he had to do now was wait; she'd come back for him, and when she did, he planned to put her in a shallow grave.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

They each finished a second cup of coffee, Chris having managed to eat half the food on his plate in the meantime.  He offered the rest to Vin with a gesture, and the tracker accepted it with a small, grateful smile.

While Vin worked on the cold food, Inez refilled their cups for a third time.

Chris watched the tracker eat, remembering once again that Vin was closer to JD's age than to his own, and he certainly ate like it.  But there was nothing immature about Tanner, very little of JD's youthfulness had survived Vin's hard childhood.  Life had dealt Tanner some tough hands, but he had accepted them and moved on, something Chris wished he could do with as much grace as the tracker.

But Sarah had been more than just his wife and the mother of his son.  She had been his best friend, too.  She was the one who brought joy to his life, who made it all seem new and hopeful.  She had filled him up inside, and he had been happiest when he was with her, no matter what they were doing.

He'd heard Buck say once that losing her had burned the soul right out of him, and maybe the ladies' man was right.  But if there was anything at all left of his soul, Vin Tanner was the one who had made him realize that it was still there, still alive.  That thought was unsettling and he hunched his shoulders slightly.

"Feelin' poorly?" Vin asked, scattering Chris' thoughts.

Larabee looked up, meeting the younger man's gaze as he shook his head.  "Just tired, I guess."

Vin nodded, pushing the now-empty plate away.  "Gonna head up?"

Chris nodded, pushing back his chair and standing stiffly.  He used the table for support until a wave of vertigo passed, then turned and headed slowly out of the saloon and down to the boarding house.  It was an effort to make it up the stairs to the small room the judge provided for him, but Vin stayed right at his elbow the entire way.

The gunslinger quashed a grin; he'd never thought of the tracker as a mother hen.  And, come to think of it, Vin hadn't been that attentive when one of the others had gotten hurt.  Not that he was callous or unfeeling, but he certainly didn't follow at their heels like a faithful old dog.

In his room, Chris sat down on the foot of the bed, the blanket slipping off his shoulders for the first time.  He looked up; Vin showed no signs of leaving.

"I'll be fine," he assured the younger man.

Tanner nodded.  "Just makin' sure y' get int' yer bed."

Chris shook his head, too tired to argue about it; besides, it made his chest warm to know the man was still worried about him.  He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off.  His boots, gun belt, and pants followed, one by one.  Then, dressed only in his long johns, he crawled under his blankets, his sidearm still within easy reach if he needed it.

"Get y' anything?" Vin asked him.

"Some peace and quiet," Chris growled to keep from grinning.

Tanner nodded once.  "Sleep well," he said softly, then turned and left, quietly pulling the door shut behind him.

The gunslinger closed his eyes, wondering if Tanner was going to spend the whole night sitting outside his door.  He considered calling him back in to bunk on the floor, but sleep too quickly carried him away.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ella Gains was back.  She was standing over him as Chris lay on the ground, clutching his bloody side.  She was laughing, the piercing sound tearing strips off his soul like a whip flaying flesh from bone.  He rolled from side to side, trying to make it to his feet, but he was too weak, and he angrily cursed his impotency.

She held out a picture of Sarah and Adam to him, small flames springing from the tips of her fingernails, catching the border of the photograph on fire.

He cried out as the edges curled inward, turning black and brittle.  When the flames reached Sarah's image he could hear her screams, could smell the stench of burning flesh, but there was nothing he could do to help her.  He couldn't stop the fire.  He couldn't even get up off the ground.

Ella dropped the burning photograph and Chris watched it fall, rocking back and forth like a feather on a soft breeze, the flames dancing higher, brighter.  It landed on his chest, branding him, and he screamed, beating at the flames with his bare hands.

"You belong to me, Chris Larabee," Ella purred.  "You always have, and you always will."

"No!" he cried, but his gaze was locked on his chest, on the bloody "E" that had been burned into his flesh.

"One day you'll come to love me as much as I love you, Chris."

He looked up at the woman.  "Love you?" he shouted.  "I hate you, you bitch!"

Ella laughed again, the sound lashing at him, making him writhe under it.

"One day you'll understand," she promised him.  "I did it for us, Chris."

"You killed my wife!  My son!"

"They were nothing," Ella countered, bending down next to him.  She reached out and traced the raw ridge of the "E" with her fingertip, sending sparks of pain flaring through his chest.  "Our love is all that matters."

Chris moaned, her touch continuing to sear into his chest, scorching his heart and turning it to ash.  "No," he moaned.  "No, no, no…"

"Yes, Chris.  Yes," she hissed, her touch expanding, moving over his exposed flesh.  And everywhere it fell it set him on fire.  In moments he was engulfed in flames.  "Love me," she commanded him.

"No!" he shrieked, trying to smother the flames with his hands, but it was impossible.  He jerked and flailed as the fire danced higher.

"You will love me, Chris," she promised him, then reached out and stroked his cheek.

The fire attacked his face, and he screamed again.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Grab his feet!" Nathan ordered.

Not knowing what else to do, Vin dropped over Larabee's legs, his weight putting a stop to most of the man's fight.  Moments later, Josiah was tying the gunslinger's ankles to the posts at the foot of his bed.  Once he was secured, Vin climbed off and stood again.  He was shaking with fear, but no one noticed, too worried about what was happening to Chris, which was exactly what had him scared.

He'd only heard soft moans at first, but those had quickly grown into a keening wail that had sent chills racing down his backbone.  Tanner had burst into the blond's room, finding the man thrashing under sweat-soaked blankets; Chris was burning up with fever.

He'd dashed out of the room to find Nathan, bringing the healer back with him at a run.

At first they had been able to quiet the gunslinger, Vin gently applying the damp cloths Nathan handed him, but the gunslinger's fever had continued to build and he had fallen back into the nightmares again.

Nathan had left Vin alone with Chris so he could go to wake the others and grab some of his things.

The rest of the peacekeepers had stumbled in, one after the other, all of them clearly worried.  Soon after, they moved Larabee to Nathan's clinic, Chris beginning to fight back in his dreams, forcing them to tie him down to keep him from hurting himself further.

Ezra and Buck, just returned from his hunt for Ella Gains, had each grabbed one of Larabee's wrists and Nathan quickly tied them together.  He roped Chris' bound hands to a large metal ring set in the wall above the bed.  Nathan had put it there for folks to hang onto when he had to pull a bad tooth, but now it was proving useful for another reason.

But the gunslinger still struggled, twisting and jerking as he fought whatever demons haunted his dreams.

Nathan stood, barking out orders.  "Josiah, bring up some water; half a barrel.  Buck, go to the bathhouse and fetch some towels – a big stack.  Vin, go see if Mrs. Travis has any of that fever powder left that I gave her for Billy.  Hurry, y'all!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next twenty-four hours passed in a fog of worry and fear for the six men who watched over Chris Larabee.

JD and Ezra dipped towels into the cool water and then wrung them out halfway before replacing the ones already draped over the gunslinger's body, hopefully keeping his fever in check.

Every hour Nathan forced a glass of water down Chris' throat, with help from Buck and Vin, one of them holding Larabee's head still, the other holding his nose closed so he'd open his mouth.  And, every two hours the healer added some salicylic powder and Indian herbs to the liquid.  Vin could only imagine what the foul-smelling concoction tasted like, but he didn't care, not as long as it helped his friend.

The man's delirium lasted nearly half that time, but then his fever started to abate and he became more cooperative, even if he didn't seem cognizant of where he was, or who was caring for him.

Nathan untied Chris when the fight finally left him, the fever leaving him too weak to continue the struggle.

"How much longer?" Buck asked, scrubbing his hand over his face.  He was tired, just like the others, and scared.

Nathan shrugged and shook his head.  "Not sure.  Not long now, I hope."

"Sure is a lot quieter," Vin remarked, his expression worried, but the depth of his fear was well buried now.

"Fever's goin' down.  Soon as it breaks, he's gonna sleep for a good long spell," Nathan explained.  "That'll be a good sign."

"Should we change the towels again?" JD asked, then yawned widely.

"No," Nathan said, "I wanna see if the fever's gonna climb."  He glanced around at the worn, haggard faces of his friends.  "Look, why don't y'all get some sleep.  The worst is past."

The six men exchanged glances, then Vin said, "Think I'll stay a mite longer."

"I will as well," Josiah added.

Buck hesitated, then nodded.  "We'll come spell you boys in a few hours.  Guess that'd be 'bout breakfast time now," he said, then headed for the door, JD and Ezra following.

When they were gone, Nathan gently shook Chris' shoulders.  The man's eyes opened, but they were glassy and unfocused.  Still, he was aware enough to let them help him out of bed so they could swap the mattress and bedding for something dry.  That done, Nathan turned his attention to talking Chris through exchanging his wet long johns for dry ones, but he was too weak to do it himself and Vin stepped up to help him.  Then they got him back into bed.

The healer dropped into his chair, positioned next to the bed, and quickly checked the gunslinger again.

"Fever's broke," he announced tiredly, a smile lifting the worst of the fatigue from his face.  "He's sleepin' now."

Vin stepped up next to Nathan and rested his hand on the man's shoulder, giving it a grateful squeeze.  "Y' oughta get some sleep, Nate.  I'll give a holler if anythin' changes."

The Black man considered the offer for a moment, then nodded.  "Been a long couple 'a days, what with that baby comin' early and then this.  You be sure to wake me if he starts frettin' again."

Vin nodded, taking the seat Nathan vacated when he stood and stretched before heading for the door.  He paused there, looking back at Chris for a long moment.  "Think he'll just sleep for a while now."

"Get some rest, Nathan," Josiah urged.  "We'll keep a close eye on him."

With a nod, the healer turned and left, shuffling off down the hall to his own room.

Vin reached out and pressed his hand to Chris' forehead.  "Does feel cooler."

Josiah nodded.  "He's a fighter.  He'll be fine."

The two men sat, talking quietly through the night to keep themselves awake, Vin enjoying the stories the older man shared from his time with a Cherokee holy man.  He even shared a few of his own with the preacher.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

It was just after dawn when Chris finally awoke.  He groaned after trying to sit up without thinking, and pressed his hand against the fresh bandage tied along his ribs.  Glancing around, he spotted Vin and Josiah, both of their chins resting on their chests as they slept.  He shook his head.

"Hey," he called, surprised by how weak he sounded.

Vin's head snapped up and he was instantly on his feet and moving to Chris' bedside.  "Y' feelin' okay there, Cowboy?"

Chris tried to sit up again and this time he made it, with the tracker's help.  "What're you and Josiah doin' here?"

Vin grinned.  "Been watching y' sleep, mostly."

Chris reached up to scratch his cheek, noting the beard growth.  "Just how long have I been sleeping?"

Vin thought for a moment, then said, "Damn near thirty-six hours."

"Two days?"

The younger man nodded.  "Had a helluva fever fer a day, then slept the better part of the next."

"Guess that's why I'm in the clinic."


"Damn."  With a grunt Chris pushed to his feet and staggered to the corner where Nathan kept a chamber pot, sighing as he relieved himself.  When he was done he shuffled slowly back to the bed and sat down.

"Well, the prodigal son finally returns," Josiah said.

Chris could hear the man's smile in his tone and glanced over his shoulder to meet Josiah's gaze.  "Appreciate the help."

Josiah shrugged a single shoulder.

"The others were all here, too," Vin said.  "Nathan—"

The door to the room opened and the Black man stepped inside as if he'd been summoned.  His eyes rounded when he saw Chris awake and sitting up, but he smiled and crossed to him, immediately beginning an examination.

Chris endured the scrutiny, knowing he must have been pretty damned sick to lose two days.

"Fever's still gone," Nathan informed them.  "And that wound's draining real good now, but you're gonna need t' rest for a couple'a more days."

Chris nodded, knowing he was too weak to do anything more – at the moment.

"I don't know about you, brothers," Josiah said to the other two, "but I'm hungry."

Vin nodded.

"Sounds good," Chris said, moving to get up again.

"Oh no you don't," Nathan said, one hand enough to keep the gunslinger on the bed.  "You stay right here.  I'll bring you back something."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Sitting around one of the larger tables in the saloon, six of the peacekeepers enjoyed a hot breakfast.  Nathan had refused to let Chris join them, but the gunslinger had only agreed to stay in bed when a bad case of vertigo hit him after he'd stood for a second time, planning to follow the three men down for a meal.

Vin promised to bring him back a plate after they got him back into bed.

Chris grumbled something under his breath, but it was too late.  They were gone and he was flat on his back – again.

"You boys best get some sleep," Buck said, nodding at Vin and Josiah, who were eating in between wide yawns.

Nathan nodded his agreement.  "I'll take that food up for Chris.  Wanna get some tea into him, too."

The two men nodded.

"Somebody best stay with Larabee today," Vin said, "or he'll climb outta that bed quick as a scalded cat."

"I'll keep him where he belongs," Buck promised.  "Even if I have to tie him down again."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Working together, the six peacekeepers were able to keep Chris in bed and resting for a day, then he turned stubborn and Nathan relented, helping him downstairs to eat breakfast with the rest of them.

The meal finished, Chris headed outside to a chair someone had left sitting outside the saloon.  He eased himself down, content to just watch the comings and goings around him.  Over the course of the day each of the others spent some time sitting beside him in silence, or talking to him quietly, if he wasn't too tired.

Chris drifted off a couple of times that day, finding his blanket draped over his shoulders when he woke the first time.  He wasn't sure who had fetched it for him, but he suspected it was Vin.  The tracker always seemed to be somewhere close by, even if it was one of the others who were sitting with him.  Knowing Vin was nearby made it easier for him to relax, and Chris allowed himself to enjoy the forced inaction as much as he could.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The next two days followed the same pattern, but that was all Chris could take.  He wanted to do something, and the only thing that needed doing was finding Ella Gains, so, on the fourth morning after his fever had broken, after breakfast, he walked down to the livery and fetched his horse, leading it back to the saloon where he had a drink before heading out to leave.

"Chris, you just askin' to die, pard?" Buck stormed as he followed him outside.  Standing on the edge of the boardwalk, his hands balled into fists and resting on his hips, the man looked ready to fight.

Larabee ignored his longtime friend and checked his cinch.  When he was done, he climbed onto his gelding and readied the reins in his hands.  "I'm fine, Buck."

"Like hell you are!" Wilmington replied, his blue eyes flashing.

Nathan stepped off the boardwalk and took hold of the horse's bridle.  "You open up that wound again, you might—"

"I'll be careful," Chris assured the healer.  "Besides, its damn-near healed."

"Chris, if Ella Gains finds you out at that cabin—" Buck started, but the gunslinger cut him off before he could go over the same argument he'd already heard inside the saloon.

"Then I'll shoot the goddamn bitch like I should've, and be done with it."

"Man just wants t' spend some time alone," Vin said quietly before Ezra, JD, or Josiah could enter the argument.  He didn't look up at Larabee, concentrating on running the blade of his knife along the edge of the whetstone he was holding.

"Just take care, ya hear?" Nathan said, letting go of the gelding's bridle and stepping back into the shade of the covered boardwalk.

Buck cursed softly, then sapped his hat against his thigh, but he didn't say anything more.

"I'll see you boys in a few days," Chris told them, then reined the gelding into the street and headed out of town.

When he was well out of earshot, Vin looked up, tilting his hat back so he could watch Larabee.  "I'll give him an hour, then head out."

Buck nodded and grinned.  "Think he bought it?"

"It did appear so," Ezra said, then shook his head.  "Mr. Wilmington, you could have had a successful career in the theater.  Your performance was positively… inspiring."

Buck's eyes rounded and he snorted, saying, "Hell, I was expectin' him to do this two days ago; must be growing some common sense in his old age."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin caught up to Chris a lot faster than he'd expected.  Larabee was moving slowly, and he wasn't headed for his cabin.

The tracker guessed Red Rock might be the man's true destination.  He'd heard about the new whorehouse there, just like others had.  Larabee was probably planning on asking around about Ella Gains.  Or maybe he was planning a trip back to her ranch, to look for some clue as to where she might hole up.  It didn't really matter where Larabee was headed, though, Vin had promised the others he'd keep an eye on the man until he returned to Four Corners, and that was exactly what he planned to do.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris guided his gelding through the late afternoon heat, the wind and dust performing a steady dance on the well-worn trail.  His senses were tuned to the repetitive clop of his horse's hooves, but his eyes were focused on the distance.  Somewhere out there was Red Rock.

He hadn't slept in seventeen hours, and had originally planned not to stop until he reached Ella's ranch, but his side ached whenever he pushed his horse past a walk, so he'd set a slower pace.  Some time before dark the trail had begun to bend and blur, but he knew Red Rock was directly ahead on the trail, there was no way he could miss it.  He would stop there for the rest of the night, maybe the next day, too, then go on.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A couple hours later, Chris stopped at the Red Rock livery, turning his horse over to the sleepy young man who worked there.  He'd had to rouse the boy from his bed in the loft, and gave him an extra nickel for his effort.  With that done, Larabee headed straight for the new brothel standing at the edge of town.

Bright lights shone from the windows and music greeted him on the night air.  Inside, he let a pretty blonde take his arm.

"What're you lookin' for, Cowboy?" she purred.

"Ain't no cowboy," Chris growled, then added, "bath, and a hot meal.  But first some sleep – just sleep."

She smiled.  "Well, then, you just come with me, Mister.  My name's Violet, what's yours?"

"Call me Chris."

"All right, Chris, let's get you a room so you can get some sleep.  You do look tuckered.  Maybe tomorrow I can help you with that bath?"

He grunted noncommittally as she took his arm and led him upstairs and to a room.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The following morning, after a good night's sleep, Chris headed downstairs a couple of hours after dawn.  He asked the older man standing behind the bar where he could get a bath, and the old-timer pointed to a door with a sign hanging on it that read:  Baths 50¢

Larabee walked over, knocked, and when there was no response he opened the door and walked in.

The room was empty, but there were two tubs already filled.  Steam rose from both, and he was mildly surprised to find that the water was still clean.  Obviously no one else had made it up yet.

Chris took off his clothes, then folded and set them on a small stool next to the tub.  He hung his gun belt on a peg next to the tub, put there so anyone who wanted to could have his weapon within easy reach while he bathed.  Then he slipped into the inviting warmth.

The water made his side sting, but he ignored it, letting the heat do its work on his trail-weary muscles.  When he was done, he climbed out and wrapped a towel from the shelf above the tub around his midsection, then grabbed his gun and gun belt and headed for the privy at the rear of the building.

He relieved himself, then returned to dress, tossing the towel into an already half-full basket sitting near the rear door.  He stopped when he reached the tub again, his eyes widening when he saw who was sitting in the water.

"You followed me?" he growled, slipping his gun back into its holster.  He was actually surprised that he wasn't mad.  In fact, he was happy to see the man.

Vin nodded as he said, "Yep, an' it was damn easy, too."

Chris snorted.  "Wasn't trying to hide my trail."

"Good thing, too, a blind man could've found ya."

Larabee shook his head as he dressed.

"So, y' mad at me?" Vin asked.  "'Bout me followin' ya?"

Larabee thought for a moment, then shook his head.  "No, guess not," he admitted.

"Glad t' hear it."

Chris waited while Vin finished his own bath and dressed as well.  Then the two men headed into the brothel's dining room, eating a large breakfast before joining in on one of the poker games that had gotten started, playing the entire day.  Each man doubled the money in his pockets, having picked up more than a few tricks from Ezra.

As dusk approached, they returned to the dining room for a meal before taking rooms upstairs.  Several of the "ladies" offered to warm their beds, but they gently turned the offers away.  However, later in the night both men awoke to small, soft hands touching them, and they both indulged in the favors offered.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Guess you plan on coming with me," Larabee said as they sat, eating breakfast the following morning.

"Ella's ranch?"

Chris nodded.

"Reckon so.  If y' want the comp'ny."

The gunslinger thought for a moment, then nodded.  "Yeah, I do."

"Sure yer up t' this?"

Chris hesitated before answering.  "Something I've gotta do."

Vin nodded.  "Best send a telegraph t' the others; tell 'em where yer goin'."

Chris nodded.  He didn't like having to share his business, but they were his friends, and they would worry.  Besides, he didn't want them to come looking for them.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The two peacekeepers headed out after another long bath and a big meal.  The whores eyed them until they left, but Larabee didn't care.  He'd sated his body, but his heart was still too raw to warm to a woman's attention.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A few hours later, Chris glanced over at Vin, who rode alongside him.  The tracker was looking off, automatically scanning the countryside for any dangers.

"See anything?"

Tanner shook his head.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Riding up to Ella Gains' ranch house sent a chill racing down Chris' back and his fingers tightened automatically on the reins.  It took all the gunslinger's will to climb down off his gelding, and he was shaking with fury by the time he reached the front door.  Vin was right beside him, though, and they entered the house together.

It was dark inside, dust floating thick in the air where a single shaft of sunlight streamed past the mostly-closed curtains.

The tracker crossed the room and opened the drapes, letting the light inside.  Vin shivered, the skin at the back of his neck prickling, but he shook the feeling off, his attention returning to Larabee, who was staring at a painting of Ella that hung on the wall.

"You bitch!" Chris snarled.  "Goddamned cunt!  Why?" he yelled.  "Why, damn you?"

"Ain't no answer, Chris," Vin said softly, reaching out to rest his hand on the man's shoulder.  "She was a woman all possessed."

Chris looked at the tracker, some of the anger draining out of him.  He nodded.  That was true enough.  Without another word they began a thorough search of each room of the big house, ending in Ella's upstairs bedroom.

Before he joined Larabee, Vin examined the small room at the end of the upstairs hall for the first time.  It was filled with bits and pieces of Larabee's life, and a few other men's as well.  Looking at the photos and mementos made him feel like spiders were crawling over his bare skin, or some ghost was watching him, and he quickly backed out of the suddenly too-small space, joining Chris in Ella's bedroom.

"Nothing," Chris hissed softly, glancing around the room again, finally stopping at the bed.  He stared at it.  He had actually made love to the bitch in that bed, but remembering their lovemaking almost made him sick to his stomach.

"Y' didn't find nothin'?"

Chris shook his head.  "You?"

The tracker grinned.  "Some money an' fancy doodads – silver things a woman would want."

"Take it all," Chris half-growled.  "Then burn the place to the ground.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Inside the small dressing room, just off the bedroom, two eyes watched the two men.  They narrowed dangerously.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Let's get the hell outta here," Chris said.

The tracker nodded.  Vin filled an empty flour sack with the valuables, then poured lamp oil throughout the house and set it alight.

The two men mounted and rode out.  Chris paused, looking back over his shoulder for one final look at the ranch house as the fire engulfed it.  He sighed.

"Y' all right?" Vin asked him quietly.

Chris turned, meeting the tracker's worried gaze.  A moment later, he said, "Yeah.  Yeah, I'm all right."

Vin studied Larabee's eyes, looking for any sign that the man was lying to him and finding none.  "Y' don't gotta go lookin' fer her," he added.

Chris nodded.  "I know.  She's not gonna let this lie."

"Bit off more 'n she can chew this time."

Larabee grinned.  "I'm countin' on that."

Vin added, "There's a couple 'a towns 'tween here 'n' Four Corners.  Best we stop there, take it easy; save yer strength on the way back."

"Save my strength, huh?

The corners of Vin's mouth twitched.  "Well, a soft bed's a huckleberry above a persimmon when it comes t' sleepin' on the ground – 'specially if yer side's hurtin' some."

Chris smiled and shook his head.  "Come on, we should make it to Darcy's Branch before dark."  He turned and sent his gelding into a slow canter, carrying him away from the burning house, Vin at his side.  At least now he felt like he was doing something.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Ella Gains stood beside a tree, watching the two men ride off.  The air reeked of burning wood as her home was consumed in flames.

Her face twisted into a mask of raging hatred.  "You're mine, Chris Larabee.  Mine.  I killed your bitch and her pup, and I'll kill your damned half-breed, too."

Turning, she walked away, heading to the horse that was waiting, her mind already racing with how she might kill Tanner and Chris' other friends…

Continues in Missing Pieces

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