Chapter 6

They were all standing around watching the twins chattering happily to their cousin Jamie. The moonlight near the water was bright and made a fire unnecessary. Vin's appearance stopped all chattering as the twins ran up and waited for Vin to get down off his horse. They held out their arms to him and, "Ours, you're back."

They made it sound like Vin was some long lost relative they hadn't seen in years. Each one picked one of Vin's feet, stood on it, and wrapped her arms around his legs, making it impossible for him to walk anywhere without them. He looked at Chris for help, but Chris was a little ticked that Vin had disobeyed him, even if it had been a good idea. 'Let the know-it-all tracker remove them on his own,' Chris thought to himself and returned Vin's silent plea for help with a satisfying glare. Vin got the message and reminded himself that he never wanted to really piss Chris Larabee off. Ever.

Buck and Ezra came to Vin's rescue as they extricated the loveable little girls from Vin's legs. "Anyone hungry?" Ezra had produced some sandwiches from out of thin air, and the hungry children sat on the ground to eat. The men stood around eating their sandwiches as they gave their horses a well deserved breather, all the while alert to any noise coming from the trail behind them.

"You think we oughta leave the trail and try comin' in to Four Corners from another direction?" Buck wasn't put off by Chris's cold act. He knew that Chris just worried about everyone, and right now he wanted everyone in sight and accounted for. Chris wouldn't stay mad at Vin long, if he was mad. Vin had done the right thing, but Chris would just rather put himself in danger than one of his friends. They still had several hours to travel this night before they entered their territory, where the men coming after the children would have to fight on Chris Larabee's turf by his rules. That should improve the gunslinger's disposition real quick.

"They know we're heading that direction, why change now? It is certainly faster and easier on the children if we stay on our present course. Unless Vin knows a shorter way," was Ezra's assessment of the situation.

"Vin? Is there an easier or faster way? Vin?" Now what was wrong? Chris stomped over to where Vin had just pushed Alison and Jamie out of the way, picked Alicia up, and stomped on the ground. Chris arrived just in time to hear the children's protests.

"Why'd ya do that? I was just playin' with it." Alicia had adopted a very matter of fact tone. She frowned at Vin as he swung her up to eye level.

"Yeah, we're only playin' with it." was Alison's contribution.

"Ours, you killed it." Alicia sounded as disgruntled with the tracker as Chris had been earlier. He looked over on the ground and had to smile at the equally angry tracker.

"What have I told you about playing with bugs? That's a daa, a danged scorpion. You just don't play with scorpions!"

"Well you don't got to yell at us, Ours." All of a sudden, the five-year old twins had become very adult-like in their demeanor. Vin had placed Alicia on the ground next to her sister. He knelt to maintain eye level with his two terrors. They were trying a new approach in their bid to manipulate Vin Tanner. The other men and young Jamie waited to see who was going to win this battle.

"You do not play with scorpions or any other bug until you ask me first. Period. End of discussion. Do you understand me?" Chris had to turn away. If he lived through this encounter with the twins, Vin was surely going to make one hell of a father.

"Yes, sir. Do you still love us?"

"I ain't fallin' for that old con. If I didn't love you, I'da let the scorpion bite you and really teach you a lesson." Vin was not going to lose this battle. "Do you promise to never touch another bug unless I give you permission?"

"Yes, sir," sighed the now compliant twins. The twins looked at Chris, "Jamie told on us."

"Now don't you go fussin' at Jamie. You both heard me tell you yesterday not to play with bugs unless you knew what kind they were. Don't you go blamin' Jamie cause he's smart enough to take care of you two. Now, I don't want to hear any more about this. Understand?" The battle was won as the twins nodded. Ours hadn't left any loopholes the twins could work their active little brains around.

Ezra merely held his hand out to Buck to receive the five-dollar gold piece. All the men were grinning, and even Jamie was looking at Vin in awe. He had only seen his Uncle John and Aunt Alex ever win a battle like that with the twins. His daddy sure knew that this Vin was the right one to help them. Thinking of his father made Jamie sad, and he didn't think anyone had noticed until the man in black had put his hand on his shoulder. Looking down at Jamie, Chris Larabee smiled.

"You doin' ok, son?" Chris knelt down by the small boy. Tears pooled in Jamie's eyes. Just as tears began falling, Chris scooped him up and walked with the child away from the others. "You want to tell me about it?"

As Jamie sobbed into his shoulder, Chris just held the child close to him and murmured over and over, "It's ok, Jamie. Go ahead and get it out." Finally the sobbing ceased. The curious twins were tying their best to get to Jamie and Chris, but Ezra and Vin had picked them up while Buck distracted them by talking nonsense. The little girls were finally distracted as Chris got Jamie to tell him what had happened.

"My momma has this friend who comes over when my daddy's not home. They're always yelling at each other. Then one day, the man came to the house when Momma and Daddy were both gone. Mrs. Carrie told me I had to go with him to see my momma. We got on this train and kept goin' and goin'." Jamie continued on, but this time he had an audience. The twins were sitting on Vin's lap happily eating what was left of their sandwiches, oblivious to their cousin's story. The men listened as Jamie told how his father had shown up in one town and been allowed to see him. He promised to take him home as soon as he could. Then, his daddy had shown up at the camp. He had grabbed Jamie and told him that they had to go right then. No matter what happened, Mark Terrell had made his son promise him to be good, and that was Jamie was doing right now.

"Don't sound much like his ma just gave him to the kidnappers," Vin said. Ezra and Buck had picked up one of the twins each and were walking over to the horses where Chris and Vin stood with Jamie. "Who's Miz Carrie?" Vin never got an answer.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw a movement and a snap of a twig. "Chris! Watch out!" was the last thing he yelled as he pulled and fired his mare's leg, shoving Chris and Jamie out of the way as he did so. A man fell through the bushes clutching his hand over his chest.

Buck tossed Alicia to Ezra who already had Alison down, his body protecting her. Ezra pulled Alicia next to her sister and placed himself between them and any other danger. He grabbed Jamie as the boy was sent running the last few steps by Chris and placed the boy with his cousins. "Stay together and stay down!" The frightened children did as they were told. Only Jamie had seen Vin go down.

Buck had already drawn his gun as he ran over to help Chris with Vin. Chris had Vin but motioned Buck to check out the wounded sniper. The man was barely alive, but he was alive. Buck turned to check on Chris and Vin. Vin had been shot in the left side. Buck shook his head. That was getting to be a habit with Vin, always the left side.


"It grazed him on his left side. He'll live." Chris already had Vin's bandana and his own pressed against the wound. "Everyone else ok?" When Chris was satisfied that all of his people were fine he looked toward the man who'd shot Vin. "What about him?"

"He won't last much longer. See anyone else?"

Ezra answered that one, "No, I think he was the only one, but someone must have heard those shots." He kept the children behind him as he moved to take Vin from Chris. "We need to leave now." He had taken out his flask and opened it. "You go check on our would be killer. I'll take care of Vin and the children." Chris nodded his thanks as the little girls wrapped their arms around Vin's neck.

"Ours is hurt, Our Ezra." Alicia's breath tickled Vin's neck as she put a stranglehold around his neck.

"Whatcha ya gonna do?" Alison copied her sister.

"Yeah Our Ezra, what are you plannin' to do with that flask?" Vin knew, and he didn't think he could handle the twins strangling him while Ezra poured the brandy on his still bleeding wound. Only the remembrance of the pain the abscess had caused him once before made him grit his teeth in anticipation of the pain the brandy would cause as it was poured on the open wound. Jamie came to his rescue.

"Lison, Lisha, let 'im go. He can't breath with you hanging on him like that." Jamie unwound the little girls as Ezra exposed the area.

"Eeeuuww! Does it hurt, Ours?" The twins had managed to stick their little heads as close to Vin's wound as possible. The moonlight shed just enough light for them to examine the wound closely. It fascinated them. Alicia put her hand out to touch it when Ezra caught her hand and shook his head no at both girls. He paused long enough to set them out of his way and give Vin a moment to prepare himself. When Vin was ready Ezra poured the fiery liquid onto the bloody wound. Vin sucked in his breath and bit on his lip. The twins were watching Vin like hawks, and Jamie didn't need any more reminders of his father's death. So, Vin controlled his reactions to the wound as much as possible. It wasn't easy. It hurt like hell, and the alcohol just made it worse until the alcohol's numbing sensation finally kicked in. By the time Chris and Buck had checked out the now dead shooter and found his horse, Ezra had nearly completed bandaging the tracker.

Chris did not look happy, and this time he really was angry. He knew Vin had taken a bullet for him, and that didn't exactly make him happy that Vin would have done the same thing even if Chris hadn't been holding a little boy in his arms. But what really pissed Chris off was that the damned shooter had died before Buck could get any information from him. Only the fact that the man's horse had obviously been ridden long and hard convinced them that he had been sent ahead to locate them. They assumed they were still ahead of the kidnappers by at least an hour, two at the most.

As Ezra put the flask away and walked over to rinse his hands in the river, Buck and Chris helped Vin to stand. The children were crowded between the three men as they talked. The men kept a sharper eye out now that they had been discovered. Since this man had come ahead and no prints were found to indicate he'd had anyone else with him, they concluded their location was safe for the moment.

"We need to ride now!" Chris declared as he kept a hand on Vin's arm to steady him. "Let's go!"

"I'm stayin'," declared Vin. That earned him the full force of Chris Larabee's wrath, and a new danger permeated the air. Vin sighed and prepared to take on his angry friend. He didn't feel like a battle of wills right now, but it was one battle he had to win for the children. Chris had to see reason, and Vin was the only one who could make him understand.

Chapter 7

"No, you're not!" Chris practically yelled in Vin's face. "We all leave here together, now. And if it takes puttin' another bullet in you, I'll do it myself."

"Someone has to stay behind and slow 'em down." Vin tried the reasonable approach first. He really didn't feel like arguing, but he knew he would slow them down. There was no way Vin was letting anyone so much as part the hair on any of the Terrell children. "Sides, I'll just slow y'all down. You ain't got the time to waste nursemaidin' me."

Chris tried to find an argument to counter what Vin had just said, but he couldn't. "Then I'll stay and you go with the others. You lose any more blood and you won't be able to draw a bead on cactus much less a bunch of murderers."

Vin sighed, "I'll lose more blood and end up droppin' one of the kids if I have to ride hell bent for leather, too. You know I'll just slow y'all down, an' we ain't got time to argue, Chris. Just take 'em and go." Piercing blue eyes held Chris Larabee in check, "Each one of you got to carry one of them children and ride hard. I won't be able to do that. Look, I'm still bleedin'. I ain't gonna hang around and let them kill me, I'm just gonna slow 'em down."

"How?" Chris could be as stubborn as Vin.

Vin looked over at Ezra and grinned. "You bring that stuff?" Ezra was already pulling a half dozen sticks of dynamite out of his saddlebags, along with wire and a small box that looked suspiciously like a detonator.

"I believe this is just what the doctor ordered. I'll stay and help him set up the surprise. You and Buck take the children and go."

Chris looked at the two and wondered to himself. When had Ezra and Vin decided they needed this stuff, and where in the hell had they gotten hold of it? Chris would ask the two later when they had taken up playing with dynamite. He'd have to keep a closer eye on his two burgeoning powder men. Now, he wanted to know just what they had planned that would slow the kidnappers down and still give them time to get out of there with their hides in tact. Chris didn't like it, but he knew they couldn't risk the time arguing. They had to get the children to safety. He could trust Ezra not to let Vin do anything stupid like sacrifice himself. Alone, Chris wouldn't put it past either man to make the sacrifice, but neither would risk the other in some madcap scheme. So Chris looked at Buck who had remained strangely silent throughout the whole exchange. Buck didn't like splitting up any more that Chris did, but he knew they had to think of the three children first. He gave Chris a crooked grin that didn't quite meet his eyes.

"They," he nodded towards the twins, "ain't gonna like leaving Vin and Ezra at all. You think we can manage those two hellions by ourselves?"

The tense coil that had been threatening to strangle his heart eased up just a bit. Maybe knowing that Buck felt the same as he did helped, "As long as Ours and Our Ezra show up by noon, I think we'll be safe." He turned a glare that would have frozen a pan of boiling water at Ezra and Vin. Vin was leaning more than usual, but Ezra had him propped up. "You two do anything stupid like play heroes, an' I'll kill you myself! Set your trap and then ride." Chris stopped to set Jamie on top of his horse, and Ezra paused before he handed Alison up to Buck who already had Alicia on one arm. "You actually know what you're doing?"

"I assure you that both Vin and I are well versed in art of setting a trap for that nefarious gang of killers!" Ezra actually made it sound as if the very question was an affront to his dignity. Chris looked at him, and Ezra lowered his voice just a bit. "I'll bring us both back safe. We aren't going to miss bringing the people responsible for trying to harm our twins to justice."

Chris nodded his thanks and swung up on his horse. He shook hands with Ezra and rode towards Vin, who was sitting against a tree trunk working on the dynamite and wiring. Leaning over, Chris grabbed Vin's extended arm near the elbow in what had become their way of acknowledging their close friendship.

"Take care and try not to blow yourselves up?"

"Get 'em home safe, cowboy" was Vin's reply. "Me an' Ezra won't be long." Before Chris urged his horse forward, Vin reached in his pocket and pulled out an envelope. "I almost forgot this. It's Mark Terrell's letter for his brother. Must a written' it before he went to get his boy cause he handed it to me and told me to give it to his brother."

Chris looked at the letter. "Then you give it to him when you get to Four Corners."

"Take it Chris, just in case."


"Me and Ezra ain't plannin' to get ourselves killed; we'll be there. But this, this will help John Terrell get whoever did this to his family."

Chris nodded finally and reluctantly took the letter. "I'll see he gets it and the children in one piece."

"I know it. Now ride."

Buck rode up carrying the twins in either arm. They had been strangely quiet since the gunshot earlier. It was as if they knew something very serious was unfolding; and although they didn't understand what, they knew they had to behave. They leaned back and blew kisses to Ezra and Vin as they rode off. Each man pretended to catch them and then looked at each other sheepishly.

Vin was the first to break the silence, "I won't tell if you don't."

Ezra laughed and knelt down to help Vin with the dynamite. They worked quickly, deliberately keeping their talk on anything but the lethal trap they were setting. Neither man enjoyed killing, even regretted it, but there were three children's lives hanging in the balance. All was fair when you had to protect the innocent.

"You'd think he was our older brother and we the younger brothers prone to disasters. He actually asked if we knew what we were doing."

"He told me not to blow ourselves up. You'd think we were JD the way he carried on."

"I suppose we will have to keep each other alive just to prove him wrong."

"That sounds like a real good plan to me, Ezra. I don't much relish pissin' Chris off any more than I already have tonight."

"That was rather unsubtle of you to take that bullet for him, you ungrateful wretch!" Ezra softened the insult by helping Vin to his feet.

"Me? I can be subtle."

"Really, when? When you are asleep and not having bad dreams?"

"Snake," was Vin's laughing reply as he leaned on Ezra as they moved to plant the dynamite.

"Why thank you for the subtle yet sterling character assessment, Mr. Tanner," was Ezra's amused reply. He appreciated Vin's wry sense of humor that tended to surface more when things seemed their bleakest.

Ezra and Vin were as different as their chosen way of dressing and talking, but both men basically shared the same ideals. Most people didn't think Ezra held any ideals or morals, but Vin and the other six men had come to know better. Ezra could be counted on and trusted by the others just as he could rely on them. Vin also knew that Ezra's con artist demeanor also hid a heart that was just as vulnerable to a person in need as any of the other six. Course, it would be a cold day in hell before you could get him to admit it out loud. He knew that Ezra cared just as much as he did for the family they had found in Four Corners. They might snipe at one another occasionally, but Vin knew Ezra was his friend, and a loyal friend at that. Staying behind with Vin was Ezra's way of acknowledging the closeness that had bound the group together. Neither man was ready to give up on their newly found family yet. They had both missed having that when they were young, and it meant too much to them now not to fight for it. Besides, Vin still owed Ezra 10% interest on that loan he'd badgered him into giving Nettie Wells when her ranch was in danger of being taken from her.

Ezra kept a close eye on Vin. He was still bleeding, but not very much now. He tried to take on as much of the manual labor as possible to spare Vin. That graze wasn't life threatening, but it was debilitating. About three inches long and at least an inch deep, the gouge the bullet had dug out on its path along Vin's left side could easily become infected. If it kept bleeding, Ezra might have a hard time getting Vin back to Four Corners as safe as he'd promised Chris he would. He didn't fear Chris's wrath so much as his disappointment. Ezra had earned all six men's respect and loyalty, and he didn't want to lose any of it by letting the tracker foolishly harm himself more. So Ezra did the abhorred manual labor and planned to remind Vin of it at some time in the future when it worked to his advantage. Ezra wasn't stupid. Why have friends if you couldn't remind them of it occasionally?

"There, I believe we have created quite an effective deterrent for our miscreants." Ezra stood and wiped his hands to rid them of the dirt on them. It had taken them almost forty minutes to rig the trip wires and the six sticks of dynamite.

"Yeah, all they have to do is keep to the trail, ride fast, not pay attention, and we'll blow at least half a dozen of 'em to kingdom come."

Ezra frowned at Vin's skepticism. "Well, think of it this way. We've just handled six sticks of dynamite and the trip wires with only the moonlight as our guide and survived. We haven't even lost a finger. Chris will be so proud of us."

Vin laughed and clutched his side. "We'd better ride. Else they get us and Chris won't be happy with that."

"I concur. It is not wise to anger big brother." He helped Vin onto his horse and mounted his. Before they rode, he looked back at their handy work. "If we are lucky and Johnson's posse doesn't come this way instead of the kidnappers, we should take out a few of the kidnappers."

Chapter 8

Chris and Buck made it to Four Corners by early morning. The horses were spent, the two men exhausted, and the three children were rested and full of energy. The twins had fallen asleep as soon as they were back on the trail, but Jamie had stayed awake for a while talking quietly to Chris. Other than that, they had made the trek with no interference. As they rode into town, they were greeted by several of the townspeople. They also noticed a group of soldiers standing at various places keeping watch. Josiah and Nathan met them in front of the hotel and took the children from them. JD appeared at the door of the hotel with Judge Travis and a tall man with blonde hair and blue eyes. His clothing was impeccable, his bearing commanding, his identity obvious.



"Uncle John!"

John Terrell grabbed all three children in one big hug. It was obvious that he loved his children and nephew dearly. Mary Travis and a beautiful woman appeared right behind him. Mary looked at Chris and smiled as the woman grabbed the children one by one. She looked oddly familiar to Chris with her soft, wavy brown hair and blue eyes that matched the twins. He looked back at Mary whose smile at the reunion faded as she saw only Buck with Chris. Chris motioned her to the side with the judge and the other men.

"Mommie, Mommie, we missed you." The twins were ecstatic to be reunited with their parents. Alexandra Terrell, very obviously pregnant, was equally happy to have the children returned to her safely. She held her arms out to her nephew.

"Jamie, dearest." The little boy fell into her arms and, heedless of her audience, Alex held the little boy close. "Come along, children. Let's go inside and eat. You must be starving." John Terrell watched his wife as she herded the children into the hotel and towards its dining room. He moved over to Chris and Buck and held out his hand.

"Thank you. I can't begin to express my gratitude. But I understood that there were four of you." John Terrell had just voiced the same question on everyone else's mind.

Chris spoke while Terrell shook Buck's hand. "Let's go somewhere where we can talk. I need a fresh horse to go back and get Vin and Ezra."

"But you're both exhausted!" Mary Travis was torn. Chris and Buck were in no shape to go out again, but she was also worried about Vin and Ezra. They should have been here with them.

"Vin and Ezra stayed behind to try and slow the gang down. One caught up with us, and Vin took a bullet." Before Nathan and anyone else interrupted him, Chris continued, "He's ok, bullet grazed his left side."

"Aw, not his left side again," Nathan and Buck both felt the same way. "What about Ezra?"

"They were both ok, Nathan," Buck patted Nathan on the back. "They stayed to slow the gang down while we brought the children ahead. Vin knew he'd slow us down, so him and Ezra decided to slow the gang down even more."

"Was the wound bleedin' bad?" Nathan looked to Chris for confirmation.

"Ezra cleaned it with brandy and bandaged it. It was still bleedin' a little when we left." Chris was getting antsy. He wanted to go and get Vin and Ezra now that Terrell was here with the army. The children were safe for now, but trouble was coming, and Vin and Ezra were still in its path.

Josiah looked at Chris and Buck. "JD, Nathan, and I will go. We will make sure Vin and Ezra get back here in one piece. You two go get some rest. I got a feeling you're going to need it"

Nathan shook his head in agreement, and he and JD took the spent horses with them to the livery.

"We got word from Sheriff Johnson. Said the gang had about twenty men besides the two he already had in jail. They rode into town, but the sheriff and his men were waiting. They killed four, wounded three. They're trailing about thirteen men. Said he'd help us squeeze them between us." Judge Travis led the group into the hotel where they could talk privately. "He also said that Mark Terrell had been killed but managed to give Vin a letter with information in it." There was a different woman standing by the stairs that the judge hadn't noticed, but John Terrell did.

"Melanie, why don't you join us?" The woman was already pale and weepy looking, but John Terrell's voice brooked no argument. The children were eating and chattering happily with a large but jolly looking woman who had her left arm in a sling. Chris guessed she was the wounded nanny. As John Terrell ushered the group into a room adjoining the private dining salon, he blocked the remaining exit behind him as Alexandra Terrell appeared at her husband's side.

"Yes, Melanie. I believe you have something you would like to tell us."

Melanie Terrell, a pretty but pinched looking blonde, tried to get out of the confrontation. "I want to see my son. I need to make certain he's all right."

"As you can see, he is with Mrs. Davis and the twins. Surely you want to know what happened to your husband, don't you?" Alexandra's patience was running thin. Men had tried to take and harm her babies, she was pregnant and uncomfortable, her brother-in-law was dead, and her sister-in-law might be involved somehow. She was angry and working on pure emotion. Let her husband and the others remain logical. She wanted answers, and she didn't care how she got them. If Melanie knew anything, Alexandra was in favor of dragging it out of her word by word. She'd never liked the woman Mark had married, never trusted her.

Chris felt an immediate bond with Alexandra Terrell. Her outrage reminded him of Sarah. Even pregnant, the woman was formidable. Melanie Terrell was no match for her. He stood next to John Terrell and waited for Melanie to cave. Surrounded by so many hostile faces, it didn't take long. As Chris handed the letter to John Terrell, Melanie identified the handwriting. She caved.

"Oh God, he said he'd get a letter to you if anything happened to him. He's dead, really dead? Isn't he?" Her voice became more hysterical as Alexandra moved swiftly up to her. She moved amazingly fast for a woman that pregnant. The men stepped back, none wanting to get in the angry woman's way.

She grabbed Melanie by the arms and shook her. "Stop it!" she practically hissed the command. "Your son doesn't need to be any more upset than he already is. He saw his father get killed. Now stop this and tell us what's going on."

John Terrell, knowing his wife's moods and her respecting her capabilities, allowed her to handle the situation as he read the letter. He couldn't believe his brother was dead. Mark had always been wild, care free, and brilliant. Most of all, he'd always been extremely loyal to John. He had also been a gambler. Mark Terrell would gamble on horses, cards, anything. Their relationship had been strained because of the gambling for Mark had gone through money like it was water. His only saving grace was his ability to make more money than he lost, that and his fierce loyalty to his brother. Now he was dead.

The letter was long and detailed. It was difficult for John to read how everything had gone wrong for Mark, and how he had died trying to rectify everything he had felt responsible for. The sound of an abrupt struggle cut short brought him back to the people standing around him. Melanie was trying to get past Alexandra, but the man in black, Chris Larabee wasn't about to let her go anywhere, much less shove a pregnant woman around. John Terrell recognized what Judge Travis had seen in this group of men. The reports that Terrell had gathered on the seven men the judge had hired didn't do them justice. Chris Larabee was a man after John Terrell's heart. They were cut from the same cloth, and Chris and his men had earned John Terrell's gratitude and his loyalty. Now Larabee was earning his respect.

"I am quite certain the letter is to me. I should be reading it, not him." Melanie Terrell was so frightened of what the letter would reveal that she was getting braver. "I want my husband's letter, and I want my son. We are leaving this hellish place as soon as possible!"

"The only place you are going is to jail if you don't tell us what you know now!" Chris was mad now. Vin and Ezra should have been here by now. They needed to know everything they could. They needed to know who was behind all this. Melanie Terrell knew something and wasn't telling, or was too frightened to tell. That was fine with Chris. He was willing to see just whom Melanie was more afraid of, Chris or this mystery puppet master pulling her strings.

Chapter 9

Melanie looked around the room looking for some sympathy from any of these people. She hadn't realized her attempt to force her husband to turn over his share of his brother's company to her could go so wrong, had gone wrong. She had lost her husband several years after their son's birth when he discovered she had taken a lover while he spent more time with his first love, gambling. For years she had traded on her in law's sympathy for her plight, knowing her husband was too proud to let his brother know his wife was unfaithful, but she was tired of that life. She wanted more, and Laurence had promised her all of that and more.

Melanie had been quite the actress lapping up everyone's sympathy while she pursued a double life. Now in a desperate attempt to keep her lover interested by providing him with a stake in the Terrell fortune, Melanie had lost everything. She'd lost her husband, her son, any loyalty John Terrell might have felt he owed his sister-in-law, and quite probably her lover as well. It just wasn't fair, and now this horrible man was threatening her. If she told them who her lover was, Laurence would probably place all the blame for this on Melanie.

She'd had no idea that Laurence had had bigger plans than just taking Mark Terrell's life. Her only hope was to try and place the blame on him. Make it look like it was all his doing. If she played the frightened woman a little longer, maybe she could think of a way to make her lover look the villain and Melanie the poor, lonely woman caught in the middle. If she could play her part just a little longer, then maybe she could pay her lover's treachery back by placing all the blame on him first.

Mark surely hadn't discovered any more than Laurence Haswell was her lover, and that he was the one who had taken Jamie from their home while they attended the luncheon. Melanie hadn't realized that Laurence would take Jamie early and use him to extract information about the twins. It was a change of plans Melanie hadn't known about. Melanie could only surmise that Mark had confronted her lover, and Laurence had reacted swifly to salvage what little of their plan they had left. Mark couldn't possibly have found out that it was Melanie who had sent Mrs. Carrie as the housekeeper Mark had personally hired to watch out for his son while his wife spent time with her lover. He couldn't possibly have found out in this little amount of time that Mrs. Carrie was Laurence's cousin expressly set up to turn Jamie over to one of Laurence's men when they decided it was time to stage the kidnapping.

The scheme had been to force Mark to sign everything over to Melanie in what looked like an attempt on Mark's part to get his wife back. Jamie would be returned to her safe, and Mark would be killed. His death would be made to look like an unfortunate accident. Melanie would then have her son, her tie to John Terrell and his fortune, Mark's share of his brother's business to be sold later to the highest bidder, and her lover. How had it all gone so wrong? When had Laurence decided to take the twins as well? Melanie might have convinced John that she had turned to Laurence because of Mark's neglect, but taking the Terrell twins had been the worse possible mistake Laurence could have made. Now she had to work quickly to save herself, but she had to protect Laurence's identity long enough to set up her story first. Playing the frightened woman caught in the middle was her best bet.

"Please, I don't know what you are talking about." Melanie allowed the tears to flow from her eyes. "My husband's dead, my child was taken from me, how could I possibly have had anything to do with this?"

"Then tell us what you know, now Melanie." Terrell had finished the letter. Whatever was in it he was keeping to himself. What Melanie had feared had come to pass. Mark Terrell had moved swiftly to secure the evidence against his wife and her lover. Their first mistake was in underestimating him. Their second mistake was taking his son. Their third mistake was trying to take the twins.

Mark would have kept quiet about Melanie and her lover. He probably would have found a way to get rid of both of them by paying them to disappear. He had planned to tell everything to his brother and ask for his help, but then they had kidnapped his son. When Mark realized the lengths his wife would go to keep her lover and his brother's money, Mark had run every lead to ground, starting with Mrs. Carrie. She was easy. When given a choice between prison and a small fortune with which to disappear, she spilled all she knew to Mark. He then played along long enough to make certain his son was safe, and then he proceeded to gather all the evidence he could. Before he left to make his appearance in Brecken to make the kidnappers think he was helping them take the twins from the men his brother and Judge Travis had hired, he secured the evidence and written its location in two letters.

One he mailed to his brother's new office in San Francisco, and the other he carried with him. Everything was spelled out in the letter. It's only problem was that it was all circumstantial unless John Terrell could get Melanie Terrell or her lover to try and double cross one another. It looked like that was exactly what she intended to do. So, John Terrell decided to wait. He would explain to Alexandra, Orrin, and Larabee as soon as he could, but for now he would wait to see what the next step was. The children were safe, and all they needed was to make certain the two missing men returned safely. One had actually seen the kidnappers, and he could identify Haswell as a member of the gang. His eyewitness account along with Jamie's would be enough to send Laurence Haswell to the gallows. The rest would be enough to make certain Melanie Terrell, even if she could legally wriggle out of this, would never bother his family again. It would ruin her reputation and her position in society. For enough money to disappear, John could easily rid his family of her presence. He could afford to have the Pinkerton Agency keep track of her so that she was not a threat to anyone else in his family, especially her own son. Now all he needed was Vin Tanner and Ezra Standish to return safely. From the information his people had gathered on the men, he had no doubt that they would appear soon. Then they would take care of the immediate problem, the kidnappers.

This gang had killed his brother and two trusted members of his staff. John Terrell and his brother had started out poor, but had worked hard at accumulating the fortune that had made him a railroad baron. He wasn't a soft man, and he could fight. It would be a pleasure to fight alongside the seven men who had come out of nowhere to protect his children. Once they crushed the gang, John Terrell would crush Melanie Terrell and her lover Laurence Haswell. His plans were interrupted by a flurry of activity outside the hotel.

"I understand you're upset Melanie. Why don't you go to your room and compose yourself? You'll understand that the soldier guarding your room is there for your safety. Please don't wander off by yourself." John Terrell coated his threat in velvet tones. Melanie was going nowhere. He then turned to follow the others out.

Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington led the group outside to find Nathan Jackson, JD Dunn, and Josiah Sanchez helping a wounded man from his horse. Vin Tanner. Terrell recognized him from the wanted poster his investigators had shown him. The other man must be Ezra Standish, the con man/gambler. Now John Terrell walked forward to meet the only two men he had not yet met of 'The Magnificent Seven'. Jock Steele's novel had actually captured the men quite accurately.

A money legend walked forward to meet the rest of the members of another legend. 'Odd how life works sometimes,' Terrell thought as he walked forward. From the looks of the children, these men had done more than bring them to him safely; they had become a part of his family. Whatever he did from this point forward, he had a feeling that these men would remain valuable allies in his future. At least they would if John Terrell had anything to say about it.

Judge Travis had a gift for finding men of honor and courage, and his instincts hadn't been wrong about these men. Before he could introduce himself, the twins brushed past him and launched themselves at the two men. Tanner winced as he caught Alicia, managing to keep her jam covered hands away from him, but not her mouth as she planted a big smacking kiss on his cheek. Even forewarned by Vin's actions, Ezra still got a smudge of strawberry jam on his red coat. He made a mental note to remove it as soon as possible in order to prevent any more stains from wandering mouths and hands.

"Ours, Our Ezra, you're back!" The twins could have woken the dead with their shouting. Where on earth had they gotten the names 'Ours' and 'Our Ezra'? John Terrell encountered a pair of strangely familiar looking, smiling blue eyes and a wry grin when he went forward to shake Vin's hand and then a pair of green eyes and an equally matching grin.

"They are a force of nature, Mr. Terrell," was Vin Tanner's greeting.

"They are truly lovely, exuberant young ladies, sir. I am sorry we have had to meet under such circumstances." Ezra swung Alison to his left hip and shook Terrell's extended hand.

Larabee's focus had changed considerably. It was obvious that the men shared a close bond. Now that they were all together, his attention was now focused totally on the enemy. They could proceed with the business at hand. Terrell had to admire the way Chris Larabee handled the army captain who had just arrived and all the men standing around, including himself.

"We need a few lookouts placed outside of town to tell us when they get here. Can you send some of your men, Captain?" When Captain Thompson had nodded and ordered his lieutenant to issue the orders, Chris motioned him and everyone else back inside. No need telling everyone on the streets their plans.

Chapter 10

"Missing any fingers or toes?" Chris was really very happy to see them back in one piece. The other six men laughed as they walked their friends and the twins back into the hotel.

"I want to look at that wound, Vin," said Nathan. "Now don't look at me like that. I want to check it out, and then I want you lyin' down and restin' for a while."

"Ain't got time, Nathan. They're gonna be here soon, an' we gotta get ready." Terrell extricated the tracker from Alicia's clutches. He avoided the jam-covered hands as well but not the mouth. Kisses from the twins were not to be refused.

"Sheriff Johnson said about thirteen men were followin' you," JD paused as he grabbed Vin by the arm to keep him steady. Alicia reached out from her daddy's arms and stole JD's hat off his head. "Hey!" was his response until she dropped it on her own head. She peered out from under the brim as the hat's descent was finally stopped by her nose and ears. She grinned at JD. Another notch on their collective belt was being made as Alison reached out from Ezra's arms and patted JD on the head.

"Hi, I'm Lison. She's Lisha. Who're you?" Success as JD Dunne fell under the spell of the Terrell Twins.

"Um, I'm JD." Vin was left standing by himself as JD totally forgot what he was doing. He had just been Twinned, and Vin gave Chris a knowing grin as the gunslinger moved up to lend the tracker a hand.

Chris returned the grin, "What took so long? Did you stay around to see if they liked your surprise?" He steered Vin into the adjoining room they had just left and pulled one of the short tables close. "This good enough, Nathan?"

Vin realized he was about to be examined in front of everyone and decided that was just a few people too many. "I'm all right. I don't need no doctorin'. We got stuff needs doin."

Ezra looked amused, "Now you were still bleeding about an hour ago. Better let Nathan examine you just in case. I can't have my partner felled by infection or loss of blood. Our exemplary partnership has proven too successful to end it now."

Nathan had gathered his gear when he'd heard Vin had been shot. When the two had arrived before they could leave, Nathan had just brought it along with him to the hotel. He proceeded to extract bandages, scissors, and a bottle of carbolic acid. Vin eyed the healer warily as Vin held his shirt up and out of Nathan's way for him to remove the bloody bandage. The wound had all but stopped bleeding now, but it had soaked the left side of Vin's shirt and pants.

"What'd he say?" JD looked up at Buck for an explanation. He was sitting in a chair with both twins sitting on his lap. Fresh blood.

"He means him and Vin musta blown up a few bad guys," Buck wanted to hear what they had accomplished.

"That we did, Mr. Wilmington, that we did."

"Ow, Nathan! That stuff burns!" Nathan had used the moment to pour carbolic acid on the graze on Vin's side.

"He hurt Ours, Our Chris!" Alicia was standing on JD's lap reaching out to Chris. She didn't like someone hurting her Vin.

"He didn't look mean, 'Lisha," Alison thought Nathan was nice until he had hurt Vin.

"Now see what ya've gone an' done. Ya made these little girls think I'm mean." Nathan gave Vin a disgusted look. "That didn't hurt that much. You're actin' like a little kid."

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Am. . ."

"That's enough. Alicia, Alison, Uncle Nathan didn't hurt Ours, he just surprised him, that's all. That right, Ours?" Chris was glaring at both Nathan and Vin.

Vin glared right back at Chris. 'Let me pour carbolic acid all over Chris Larabee and watch him be silent,' Vin thought, but Chris did have a point. The twins were upset and trying to crawl over JD to get to him. He didn't feel like being mauled again by those jam-covered faces and hands, although they seemed to have wiped most of it off on JD. "I'm ok, twins," he grudgingly lied to the little girls. They sat down and smiled at him. "Uncle Nathan just caught me when I wasn't expectin' it."

The exchange amused Alexandra Terrell as she and Mary both entered the room with Jamie and Billy Travis. Mary was carrying a tray of food, and Alexandra had no problem carrying another tray with a pot of steaming coffee and cups. These men had saved her babies; the least she could do was help feed them.

Billy and Jamie both ran over to Vin, who had moved from the table to a comfortable chair. Chris was leaning against the chair, while Ezra and Buck took over the divan. All four were tired and resting as much as they could before they had to face the rest of the kidnappers. Buck slid a chair closer to Chris with his foot, and Billy Travis handed Chris a plate of food and a fork from the tray while Jamie did the same for Vin. Ezra and Buck took theirs from the tray and all four began eating while Mary and Alexandra poured each a cup of coffee.

"Our Ezra likes milk in his, Mommy, but Our Buck doesn't. He likes lots a sugar so he can be sweet like me and Lisha." Alison was taking very good care of the two closest to her.

"An' Ours doesn't like sugar, an' Our Chris doesn't too, Mommy." Alicia hated to be left out of anything.

Ezra grinned wolfishly at JD who had become the twins' step-ladder now.

"I believe I might try some of that strawberry jam Mr. Dunne is wearing all over his jacket."

JD looked down in horror at the jam the twins had managed to smear all over him. "Oh dear, JD, is it? My girls appear to have made quite a mess of your jacket. Please, if you will give it to me, I will see if we can have it cleaned for you." Alexandra had already picked up Ezra's coat having seen the smudge of jam. She extended her hand and JD obediently gave his to her. Between the twins smiling and hugging him and their mother's beauty, JD was struck silent. Buck nudged Ezra, and Nathan and Josiah looked anywhere but at JD.

John Terrell turned his strangled laugh into, "Ahem. You were saying you surprised the outlaws?"

Vin was too tired to eat, much less speak so he was grateful when Ezra answered for him.