By Winter


Mary watched the men in confusion. She knew the package was from Ella Gaines but she hadn't seen what was inside. The contents must be pretty awful if it reduced the regulators to the state they were in. Ezra had walked away and stared out the window. Josiah had his eyes closed and Mary could swear he was praying. Nathan stood there stunned while JD looked back and forth between Chris and Buck. Buck sat down next to Chris and placed the box on the table. The black clad gunslinger looked devastated. Mary watched as Chris reached for the box and pulled out a familiar harmonica. He placed the harmonica in his pocket then reached back inside the box. Mary's covered her mouth with her hand as she saw Chris pull out a lock of light brown hair tied with a blue ribbon. Chris twirled the lock in his hand and stared at it.

"What does it mean?" Mary asked. "What's going on?"

"Ella has Vin," Josiah stated in his deep baritone.

"But how?" Mary asked even more confused. "Why would she hold Vin."

"To get to me," Chris said as he fingered the lock of hair before he placed it in his pocket.

"What are we going to do, Chris?" JD asked desperately.

"We find him," Chris stated.

"And, how pray tell, do you suggested we do that?" Ezra asked. "Shall will peer into our crystal ball an ascertain the direction of our wayward tracker."

All hell broke loose as Chris lunged for Ezra. Josiah stopped Chris before he even touched the gambler. Nathan held Ezra in place as he told them both to calm down that they were all worried about Vin. He told them fighting with each other wasn't going to help find him. Mary couldn't believe these men were falling apart like this. They had always been so in control of everything until Ella Gaines had stepped into their lives. She never did find out exactly what happened at the woman's ranch because none of the seven were talking. Mary knew the woman had hired the man that killed Chris's wife and son but something else happened while they were gone.

"Forgive me, Mr. Larabee, the thought of Mr. Tanner in the hands of that….." Ezra couldn't go on.

"I know," Chris said as he looked at the others. "Does anybody have any idea where Vin might have gone?"

They all sadly shook their heads at Chris's question. Buck had been quiet during the whole exchange thinking. Suddenly he jumped up.

"The telegraph office!" he shouted and tried to run out.

"What are you talking about?" Chris demanded as he grabbed Buck's arm.

"I've noticed Vin coming in and out of the telegraph office," Buck said. "He's been doing it since the night the two of you had the fight."

"What telegrams could Vin be receiving?" Josiah asked.

"I don't know but I aim to find out," Chris said as he stalked out.

The others followed as Chris stormed into the telegraph office. The young clerk behind the desk cowered when he saw them enter.

"Easy, son, we won't hurt you," Josiah said. "We need to ask you some questions."

"Okay," he said in a shaky voice.

"Vin has been sending telegrams over the past couple of days," Buck said. "Do you know if he has gotten any replies."

"I ain't sure," the boy said honestly. "My Uncle Elijah doesn't keep any records since he can remember every telegraph sent from here."

"Where is your Uncle now?" Nathan asked.

"Said he was gonna go visit a lady friend," he answered. "He'd be back in the mornin."

"Do you know where this damsel lives?" Ezra asked.

"No sir," he shook his head no. "I don't ask my Uncle no questions."

"Damn!!!!" Chris cursed. "We can't wait til mornin! There's no telling what Ella will to Vin."

"We ain't got much of a choice Chris," Buck pointed out.

"Mr. Wilmington is right," Ezra agreed. "It's the only lead we have."

Chris stormed out of the telegraph office and started walking down the street. They all watched as Chris disappeared inside the livery. The five men headed for the saloon as Mary walked back to the Clarion. Their blood ran cold when they heard an inhuman howl coming from the livery. They were all about to run down to find out what was going on when Buck stopped them.

'Better let me go," Buck said. "I know how to deal with him when he's like this."

Buck walked down the boardwalk toward the livery. When he got to the doors he cautiously opened them. When he looked inside he found Chris taking his frustrations out on feed bags piled in the corner. Buck watched as Chris punched and kicked at the bags. Chris right side was still healing and Buck decided he better stop him before he hurt himself. He walked up behind Chris and grabbed him pinning Chris's arms to his side. Chris screamed and tried to bang his head into Buck's nose. Buck knew it was coming and was able to move out of the way. He out weighed Chris and just held on as he struggled.

"Are you gonna quit or do I have to knock some sense into ya?" Buck asked.

"Let go of me Buck!" Chris growled.

"What so you can reopen that wound to your shoulder?" Buck snarled in his ear. "You think Nathan will let you ride if you do? You can't help Vin iffen you have to stay behind."

Chris slumped in Buck's arms and he released him. Chris sank to the floor of the livery with his knees drawn up. He placed his head on his knees as he tried to calm down. Buck sat next to him and waited for Chris.

"I swear, Buck," Chris said looking up at him. "If she hurts him I will kill her with my bare hands."

+ + + + + + +

The searing pain in Vin's left leg finally pulled him to consciousness. The pain was so intense he would have preferred to sink back into the blackness. When he realized he wasn't going to get his wish he opened his eyes to look around. Again he found himself in total darkness. Not a speck of light filter into the room Ella had him in. Vin's curiosity got the better of him and he decided to find out why. He tried to move his right arm and felt the shackle around his wrist. He pulled and discovered the chain was loose and he felt for the collar around his neck. Vin found the large padlock at the back of the collar that held it in place. Also attached to the collar was a chain. Vin tried to sit up and moved his left leg. He cried out in pain and slumped to the floor. When he finally got his breathing under control he decide to explore his prison. He was about to find out where the chains went when a shaft of light pierced the darkness.

"Well it's good to see you awake," Ella said as she lit the lanterns.

Vin watched as she walked around the room lighting various lanterns and lamps. The light revealed that Vin was in a cave. He should have known. This was a mining town and abandoned caves probably littered the face of the mountain. He looked over by the entrance and saw Mitch standing with that damned log. He knew Mitch was there to try to intimidate him but Vin wasn't stupid. He knew Ella was the more dangerous. Ella finished lighting the lamps and stood in front of Vin. He noticed she had an odd device in her hands. It had a short handle covered in black leather. At the and of the handle were several strips of leather with a metal end. The weapon made jingling noises as Ella swung it back and forth.

"I see you are taking an interest in my little toy," she said with a smile. "Do you have any idea what it is?"

Vin didn't say anything and glared at her.

"Well I think I'll tell you," she laughed. "My father was a naval officer and I was permitted to go on his ship once. He let me watch as one of the man was flogged with this, a cat of nine tails."

As she said that she lashed out with the whip and Vin screamed as the metal pieces ripped through his shirt cutting the flesh on his chest. Vin was trying to recover from her sudden attack when he felt his arms being pulled by the shackles. The chain on the collar around his neck was also being pulled and Vin was dragged along the floor until his back came to rest against the cave wall. Ella instructed Mitch to make them short so that he was standing. Vin cried out as he was forced to stand and put pressure on his broken leg. Ella tisked and said we couldn't have that and told Mitch to pull him up so that he was dangling from his arms spread eagle. Mitch also shortened the collar chain so that Vin could feel the pressure around his neck.

"That is just lovely Mitch," She crooned. "Now Vin I warned you I was going to punish you for turning Chris away from me, didn't I?"

Vin ignored her and she lashed out with the whip.

"Answer me!!!!!" she screamed.

"Yes," Vin gasped.

"See now wasn't that so hard?" she asked sweetly. "Now I can't properly punish you with your shirt on so I'm going to have Mitch remove it for me."

Mitch moved in and ripped Vin's shirt away. He cut Vin's suspenders with his knife and Vin's pants slid lower on his hips. Ella laughed and moved closer to Vin and ran her hand over his chest and down to the waist band of his pants.

"Such a pity you had to spoil everything," she purred. "You are awfully handsome."

"Go to hell, bitch!!" Vin cursed and spit in her face.

"You'll pay for that!" she cried and hit him with the cat of nine tails.

Vin cried out as the metal cut into his skin. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to make her made. Ella had gone crazy and Vin screamed as she continued to hit him with the whip. Vin lost count as he gave himself up to the blackness.

+ + + + + + +

Chris waited impatiently out side the telegraph office waiting for Elijah. Buck and the others had gotten together everything they need for the trip. Nathan had packed extra bandages not knowing what injuries Vin wold have when they found him. None of them were naïve to think Vin wouldn't have any. If Ella were willing to kill a woman and a little boy she would certainly harm Vin. Buck went to join Chris at the telegraph office. He could see Chris had gotten tired of sitting and he paced back and forth in front of the door. Buck took a seat and waited. They didn't have to wait long when Elijah rode up on his horse and dismounted in front of the office.

"Good morning, gentlemen, can I help you with anything?" he asked.

"Yeah," Chris said. "Vin has been send some telegrams can ya tell us what they were about?"

"Vin asked me not to tell anyone," Elijah said.

"I don't care what Vin told ya!" Chris shouted and Elijah stepped back.

"Easy, Chris," Buck said holding his arm. "Look, Elijah, Vin's in trouble and we need your help. We need to know what those telegrams were about."

"O-o-o-f course." He stammered. "He sent wires to every town within twenty miles giving a description of a women."

"Did he get any replies?" Buck asked.

"Most of them were negative, except for one," he said. "It was from the sheriff in Lassiter saying a woman fit his description and that he would keep and eye on her until Vin arrived."

"What was the sheriff's name?" Chris asked.

"Sheriff Roberts," Elijah answered.

"Thanks, Elijah," Chris said as he walked away. "Buck get the others. We ride!"


Vin floated in and out of consciousness. The pain in his leg and the whip marks on his torso battled it out for being the most painful but the thing that tortured Vin the most was his thirst. He had no way of keeping track of how many days he was here but all his feverish mind knew was that he was thirsty. Once he swam up through the blackness because he felt something crawling over his chest. There was no way of knowing what it was so he just closed his eyes and slipped back into the darkness where nothing hurt.

Ella walked in carrying a lantern. She tisked as the light scared some rats and they scurried away from the body of the unconscious tracker. Leon followed her into the cave carrying a covered tray and a folding table. He placed the table close to Vin and opened it. Once it was open he placed the tray on the table. Ella walked over to Vin and leaned down next to him. She pulled a vial out of the bag she was carrying and uncorked it. She waved it under his nose and Vin coughed. Ella reached out and smacked his cheek as his eyes began to flutter.

"Time to wake up," she called sweetly.

Vin slowly opened his eyes and tried to focus on his tormentor. The pain from his wounds was too much and he started to pass out until Ella smacked him hard and he opened his eyes.

"I don't like it when you don't pay attention to me," she crooned. "Do I have to punish you again?"

Vin forced his eyes to stay open as he concentrated on what she was saying. He knew he wouldn't last if she got it in her head to punish him again.

"That's better," she smiled. "Leon, pull him up."

"No," Vin croaked.

He felt his arms being pulled as Leon shortened the chains. He had no choice in the matter as he was pulled up to hang from his arms. Leon also shortened the chain on the neck collar and Vin felt it dig into the skin under his chin. He didn't even have the strength to cry out as he hung limply from the chains. Ella passed the foul smelling vial under his nose again and he pulled away.

He watched as Ella walked over to the table and sat down. Leon had gone out and returned with a bucket. Ella reached over to the table and pulled the cover of the tray. Vin could see a plate of food a wine bottle and a glass. Ella opened the bottle and poured herself a glass of wine. When she was finished she picked up her fork and began to eat. Vin stared at the wine desperate for a drink.

"So Mr. Tanner, how do you like my little dungeon?" she asked. "I see the rats have been keeping you company while I have been gone."

Vin shuddered as he remembered something crawling on his chest. He should have known it was rats. The blood was drawing them. Vin felt his stomach rebel but he knew there was nothing to throw up. Ella laughed when she saw the reaction.

"You don't seem to like them, that’s too bad, they seemed to like you very much."

She laughed again and continued to eat. Every once in awhile she would hold out some food to Vin then snatch it away. Vin tried closing his eyes once but regretted it when she stabbed him with her fork. Vin could feel his arms starting to shake and knew he wouldn't be able to remain conscious for much longer. Ella seemed to realize it also and decided to tell Vin why she was here.

"I just came to tell you that Chris is on his way," she smiled. "It will be wonderful when he arrives. I have so much I need to tell him but the most important thing is that I'm pregnant. I'm going to have his child. Isn't it wonderful?"

"You're crazy," Vin croaked but Ella didn't seem to hear him.

"Chris will be a wonderful father. He'll never hit our daughter or make her cry. He won't force her to go to bed with out diner or lock her in the cellar for a week. He will sing to her and buy her a pony. He'll put a swing out in the tree and the two of them will sit together and swing back and forth."

Vin finally understood. Ella was truly crazy and her own father had made her that way. Vin watched as Ella began to dance around the cave.

"Chris will dance with her and read her stories and…." Suddenly Ella stopped and looked at Vin. The look in her eyes was frightening. She stalked over to the tracker stood in front of him and garbed his chin.

"The only problem is he can't be a good father with you still around," she growled. "He will always want to go out drinking and gambling with his friends. When he does he will come home drunk and hit me and little Maggie."

Vin gritted his teeth as Ella's long fingernails began to bite into his cheeks.

"I think I will have to kill you," she announced as she released him.

She walked over to the table and picked up the knife she had used to cut her meat. She came back over to Vin and placed the tip of the blade over his heart and began to push. Vin could feel the knife enter his skin and he wished he could pass out. All he could do to block her out was close his eyes. Suddenly the knife was pulled away and Vin sagged in relief. Ella grabbed his hair and forced him to look at her.

"I have a better idea," she laughed. "I will keep you around to make Chris stay in line. If he ever decides to leave me or if he hurts me or my daughter I will hurt you. Yes! It's perfect."

She released Vin and danced away laughing. Vin knew she was completely unpredictable now. He continued to watch as she walked over to the bucket Leon had carried in. She picked it up and walked over to Vin.

"Now I can't have Chris see you all covered in blood," she tisked.

She threw the bucket at Vin and he screamed as the salt water splashed on his wounds. The last thing he heard as he lost consciousness was Ella laughing hysterically.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and the others rode into town just before sunset. They rode close together as the trotted down the busy street. Many people moved out of their way when they saw them coming. Buck was the first to notice the sheriff's office and pointed it out. They pulled up in front of the building and dismounted. They tied their horses to the rail and walked up to the door and pushed it open. Chris was the first to enter and the young deputy sitting at the desk jumped back.

"Where's the sheriff?" Chris demanded.

"He went to dinner," the deputy answered. "He should be back any minute."

"Hey, Tom, have you seen my pipe?" they heard sheriff ask.

He walked in the back door and stopped. He hadn't expected to return from dinner and find his office filled with gunslingers. The sheriff got a bad feeling from the one all dressed in black but he wasn't going to be intimidated.

"Can I help you boys," he said with more confidence then he felt.

"You sent a telegraph to one of my men in Four Corners," Chris began. "Saying you were keeping an eye on a woman for him. He would have stopped in three days ago."

"What did he look like?" the Sheriff asked swallowing hard.

"The gentleman in question is about my height, maybe a little taller," answered the one who looked like a gambler. "His hair is rather long and he has the terrible habit of wearing a hide coat wherever he goes."

"That description could fit a bunch of people around town," the sheriff said.

"Mister," Chris growled. "He would have come in here asking about the woman."

"Well then I haven't seen him," Roberts said. "Yeah I sent the telegram but the lady left. I haven't seen this long haired feller."

"Chris," Josiah said grabbing his arm as he advanced on the sheriff.

"Thanks for nothin," Buck said as they walked out.

Once they were outside the sheriff sank heavily into his chair. These guys could be trouble and he was scared. He had to do what that woman said or she would kill his family. He ran a shaky hand through his hair. He decided to defy her and not let her know they were in town. He figured she would find out soon enough and if these men found her first that was even better.

"He was lying!!!" Chris growled at Josiah.

"Obviously, Mr. Larabee, but he was also scared," Ezra said.

"How could you tell?" JD asked.

"He doesn't have a very good poker face," Ezra smiled.

"So he was afraid of us," Buck said. "So what."

"Not us, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said.

"Ella," Chris said.

"Precisely," Ezra agreed. "She needed the sheriff's help to lure one of us here. She must be threatening him with something."

"So how are we going to find her?" JD asked.

"We start asking questions around town," Chris said. "JD take the horses and head over to the livery. Find out if Vin's had his horse there. Josiah you take one of the hotels, Nathan and me will take the other two. Buck and Ezra you take….."

"We know what to take," Buck said with a smile. "Meet ya's at the Horseshoe in an hour."

Ezra gave them a small salute and headed for the Golden Horseshoe. Buck patted Chris on the shoulder and walked towards the first bordello. JD took the reins of the horses and headed for the livery while Chris, Nathan and Josiah started for the hotels.

Ezra walked through the bat wing doors and smiled. This was just his type of place. He loved to pit his skills against the crooked house but they were here for a reason. Ezra walked over to the bar and leaned against it. In a short time the bartender walked over to him.

"What can I get ya?'

"Brandy," Ezra said "And some information."

"Brandy I got," said the bartender. "Don't know about the information."

"Then lets start with the brandy," Ezra smiled.

The bartender walked a short distance down the bar and came back with a bottle. He placed a glass in front of Ezra and poured. Ezra place a gold eagle on the bar and the bartender looked at him.

"I'm looking for a young man who may have come in here in the past two days," Ezra began.

"That could be anybody Mister."

"He is a little taller than myself, with long light brown hair and blue eyes," Ezra continued. "Wearing a hide coat and a sawed off Winchester."

"Yeah I remember him," he said as he reached for the money.

"Are you sure?" Ezra said stopping him.

"Yup," he said. "He was surprised by the stage behind me. We talked for a bit and he took a seat along the wall. He stayed for a few hours then left."

"Thank you," Ezra said removing his hand.

Ezra picked up his glass and took a drink as he surveyed the crowd. He decided to get in one of the poker games to see if he could get any more information. He watched each of the tables for a short while then saw the one he decided to play at. Ezra straightened his vest and walked towards the table.

"Gentleman," he greeted. "Is it possible for one more man to join your company?"

The dealer gestured to a chair and Ezra sat down. The dealer dealt the cards and smiled as he saw him deal from the bottom of the deck. Ezra picked up his cards and smiled.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah walked into the hotel and over to the desk. A woman was cleaning the shelves behind the counter and had her back to Josiah. He cleared his throat and she turned around.

"Good evening Ma'am," Josiah said removing his hat.

"Would you like a room?" she asked.

"No thank you," Josiah smiled. "But I would like to ask you a few questions if I may?"

"I don’'t see why not," She answered.

"I'm looking for a friend," Josiah began. "Might have come in two days ago. He's about five inches short then me with long brown hair and blue eyes. He would be wearing a hide coat and probably looked a little scruffy."

"And as skinny as a fence post," she laughed.

"That'd be him," Josiah agreed.

"Yup he was here," she said. "He rented a room and ate dinner. Gave him extra seeing as how scrawny he was. Ate it all too. When he finished he went up to his room. He came down a few hours later than never came back."

"What do mean?" Josiah asked.

"He never came back that night," she said. "Next morning a man saying he was his friend came in to get his things. He paid me extra for the trouble of going into his room to get his saddlebags. Didn't think it was right but this man frightened me. Didn't think he was a friend of that nice boy but there wasn't anything I could do."

"That's perfectly understandable," Josiah said patting her hand. "Can you tell me what he looked like?"

" He was big, like you, maybe even a might taller," she began. "He had dark hair and dark eyes. He also had a scar under his right eye. His eyes is what scared me, they were so cold."

"Thank you Ma'am," Josiah said. "You've been a big help."

"I hope you find him," she said. "He was such a nice boy."

Josiah left the hotel and decided to look around. He still had a half-hour before he was to meet the others over at the saloon.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was ready to shoot somebody. Everywhere he asked no one had seen Vin. Granted the town was big and that Vin probably didn't go in to half the place he checked but he was still angry. He stalked over to the Golden Horseshoe and walked through the doors. He saw Ezra playing cards at one of the tables and was about to charge over there and pull him away when he felt a hand grab him.

"Easy, brother," Josiah said. "Ezra is probably trying to get information from them."

"Yeah real convenient that he has to sit at a poker table to do it," Buck said as he walked in.

"Come on lets get a table," Josiah said.

They walked over to one by the wall and had a seat. A short time later Nathan and JD walked in and Josiah waved them over. When Nathan saw Ezra at a poker game he shook his head and sat down.

"Anything?" Chris asked.

"I got nothing," Nathan answered.

"Me either, Pard," Buck said.

"I couldn't find Vin's horse in either of the livery's," JD added. "The owners couldn't remember if they had seen Vin's horse or not."

They all turned to Josiah. He was about to answer when Ezra took the last seat at the table.

"Learn anything Ezra?" Nathan asked sarcastically.

"As a matter of fact I did," Ezra smiled. "Our wayward tracker was present a few days ago."

"What else?" Chris demanded.

"That's all I could ascertain I'm afraid," Ezra apologized. "Mr. Tanner came in and sat at the back table watching for a few hours then left."

"I have more," Josiah said. "Vin checked into the hotel across the street. The owner said he never came back that night. The next day and man with dark hair and eyes came in to get Vin's saddlebags. She said she was frightened of him and didn't really think he was Vin's friend."

"Anything else?" Chris asked.

"Just that he had a scar under his right eye," Josiah added.

"How are we going to find him?" JD asked.

"Easy kid," Buck smiled. "There ain't much to do in this town so we ask the ladies."

"Alright," Chris agreed. "Meet back here in an hour."

They paired off and headed for the three bordellos. An hour later Ezra and Chris were sitting at the same table in the Golden Horseshoe when Josiah and Nathan walked in.

"Nothin," Nathan said.

"Damn," Chris cursed. "I hope Buck is having better luck."

Chris leaned back in the chair and winced. Nathan noticed and was about to say something when Buck and JD walked in.

"We got him," Buck smiled. "One of the girls over at the Evening Star knows him. All of the girls are afraid of him and are willing to help us. He likes one particular girl best and she said he was due in tonight."

"Here's what we do," Chris said.


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