Ella's Trail

by MMW

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven belong to Mirsch, Trilogy, etc.

Spoilers: Obsession, Wagon Train

Author's Notes: 1) A big thank you to Niteowl for her awesome beta work. 2) Every M7 fic writer seems to need to write their take on "Obsession" Here's something that got stuck in my head.

Silence reigned in the house as the first gray light of dawn shaded the sky. With a stealth that belied his size, Josiah Sanchez slipped out of the building and slowly approached the figure completing preparations to leave. “Leaving so soon, Brother Tanner?” he asked, not surprised by the lack of reaction from his young friend.

“She’s got a day on me already,” Vin stated, not turning.

Josiah sighed. He didn’t know what had been said between them, but knew something had happened between Chris and Vin the night before last. He had seen Chris say something and Vin turn and leave the house. He had heard from the others that Vin had ridden out and felt an odd surprise at seeing the young man riding into the fray yesterday. “Have you spoken to Chris?” he asked, not knowing how else to approach the topic.

Vin paused in his activity a moment. He still felt the residual hurt – betrayal? – over Chris’ rejection and he did need to talk to his friend – his brother – and clear the air, but right now he needed to find Ella. “Don’t go now the rains ‘ll wash out her trail.”

Josiah pressed his lips together in frustration. It wasn’t good to let things like this fester, he should know. “Vin,” he advised quietly, “don’t let it stay between you too long. The longer it rests there, the stronger it becomes.” Having said what he needed to, he turned to head off toward the kitchen where he was to take his turn as chef.

Vin sighed in resignation, knowing the truth of Josiah’s words. He didn’t want to lose the first family he’d had in… well, in far too long. Deciding he could spare a few minutes, he made his way into the house and up the stairs to the now familiar room.

Stepping into the doorway, he saw the pale form of Chris Larabee in the bed, Buck Wilmington holding the gunslinger’s hand. He stayed in the shadows as he watched the mustached man tend to the blond. A slight pang sounded in Vin’s heart at the sight. He should be the one tending Chris, that’s what family did for each other, or at least that’s what he thought family did – stood by each other, tended to each other, watched each other’s back. He shoved aside such thoughts as the pain of Larabee’s denial coursed through him once more. He watched silently as Buck set the rag he’d been using back in the basin of cold water.

“You gonna stand there all day?” he asked, his voice tinged with accusation, an edge which was echoed in the blue eyes as they turned to meet the Texan’s. Seeing anger’s fire spark in Vin’s eyes, Buck sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He didn’t want a confrontation with Vin, his anger had nothing to do with the young man; well, not much to do with him. He had been stunned when Vin rode out a few nights ago, but his anger came from his own frustration and self-recrimination over Hilda’s death.

He was also aware that the young man hadn’t left Chris’ side from the time the blond was shot until a little while ago when Chris showed signs of regaining consciousness. Vin had been there holding Chris as Nathan finally got the bullet out and the bleeding stopped, though not before the blond lost a lot of blood. A fever had set in quickly and a cooling bath needed to be given. Vin had refused to let anyone else get close, taking the full load of Chris’ care upon his own shoulders. After seeing such devotion, Buck, like the others, had been puzzled by Tanner’s reluctance to confront Chris when the fever retreated and Larabee began to regain consciousness. Pooling their knowledge, they realized something had happened the night of the party.

Vin had been gone all day and when he returned, he went straight to Chris. The two had exchanged some words and then Vin had ridden out again, anger and something more evident on his face. There hadn’t really been time to figure out what had happened since then. With the gun battle, the dead bodies to take care of and Chris being wounded, they really hadn’t had the opportunity to reflect on what had happened or how close the Seven of them had come to ceasing to exist. Chris was willing to stay with Ella and all signs pointed to Vin leaving. Buck had wondered how long the others would stay around after two of their member left.

Stepping into the room, Vin looked at the still form, fully aware of the censure of the older man. He wasn’t ready to offer up an explanation to the man, especially when he wasn’t sure of his own motives. He couldn’t explain why he had spent most of the day and all night tending to Chris, only to flee when he showed signs of waking.

Vin had heard the croaked whisper that left the man’s lips. The first word he said, the first thought he had had been… “Vin”.

Eyes widening, Tanner shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, watching as heavy lids struggled to open, finally revealing unfocused green orbs. The lips moved slightly and the faint voice again called out, “Vin.”

Having no patience for games or hurt feelings, Buck stood, grabbed the Texan by the arm and dragged him over to the seat he had just vacated. Setting the younger man’s hand on Chris’ arm, he moved back to the door to stand in the shadows and watch.

Turning his head toward the figure sitting next to him, the lines of struggle on Larabee’s face eased as his eyes focused on the form he so desperately sought. “Vin,” he whispered again.

Vin shifted in his chair. “Don’t talk,” he ordered, scanning the room and grabbing a cup of water. “Drink this,” he commanded, pulling the cup back at the last minute to add the caution, “slowly.” Receiving a nod of understanding from the blond, Vin used one arm to lift Chris’ head slightly as his other hand brought the cup to the blond’s dry lips.

Though he knew he still wasn’t thinking clearly, Chris could not rest until he had spoken with Vin. He had been wrong, so very wrong, not to listen to his friend – his brother. He could feel the whirling emotions filling him again and cursed as tears came to his eyes. He had no control and he needed to be in control.

Seeing Chris had taken as much water as he could, Vin set the cup back on the nightstand and settled Chris back on the pillows. Seeing Larabee’s eyes close, he assumed the gunman was going to sleep again. With that thought in mind, he was startled when he felt a soft grip on his arm.

“Don’t go,” Chris said, his eyes open and looking at Vin, pleading for an opportunity to explain.

Waiting for Vin to resettle in his seat, he offered, “I was wrong.”

Vin sat and waited. The admission was more than he thought he would get, but still left him needing more. Looking into the green eyes, he replied, “Yes, you were.”

Chris felt the bite of the quiet words, though there had been no anger, no heat, no bitterness or judgment in them. He desperately wanted that to be enough, but knew it wouldn’t be. He would have to tell Vin everything, not hold anything back. He owed Vin that much and so much more. Trying to find the words, he grimaced as they slipped just out of his reach. Too tired to regather them to himself, Chris allowed his pleading gaze to bore into the unreadable blue eyes above him. “I’m sorry,” he admitted, true regret coloring each word.

Vin looked into the sincere green eyes and read the hope and fear there. Taking a deep breath he released it slowly. He wasn’t a stupid man and knew Chris’ need for happiness, his need to forget the unpleasantness of his past, understood the desire to have a wife, a family, a home… Hadn’t he wanted the same things with Charlotte? He winced at the thought. That incident had nearly cost him his friendship with Chris, but they had gotten through it. He thought on the issues they’d dealt with – Chris feeling Vin had gone back on his word and run off with Charlotte, even though it was Charlotte who had run off to be with Vin. Now it was Vin’s turn to feel that betrayal, what right did he have to judge Chris, to be less forgiving than the gunslinger?

His mind made up, Vin released the dark emotions that had been eating at him. Looking back into the green eyes, he allowed his friendship and understanding to shine. “Reckon that’s good enough for me,” he offered with a slight smile, a nod of his head and a quick squeeze of his friend’s arm. They would still need to sort out some things, but for now they were OK. Seeing Chris sink back against the pillows, the veil of sleep already falling, he added, “I’m setting off to track her.”

Chris’ eyes shot open at this statement. “Don’t!” he pleaded, fear prompting the words before he could think them through. “She’s dangerous Vin. Don’t go, not alone. We’ll do it together.”

Vin smiled down at his friend. “Can’t do that, Cowboy,” he explained. “She’s already got a day on me and there’s rain comin’. I gotta get on her trail soon.” Seeing a reluctant understanding in Chris’ eyes, he added. “I’ll do what I can to bring her back to you alive.”

Too weak to protest more, but not comfortable with the circumstance, Chris only nodded and allowed his heavy eyes to close.

Vin waited a few more minutes until Chris’ breathing became deep and even, a sign he was sleeping. Standing, he nodded to Buck where he stood in the shadows, aware the man had heard every word said between the two.

Buck smiled at the young Tracker, pleased with the outcome, though worried about Vin heading off after the harridan by himself. “You watch your back, Junior,” he warned seriously.

Vin tipped his hat and headed out, hoping he would be successful in his search.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had found Ella’s trail easily enough and followed it. A gnawing sense of danger began as he noted her horse meeting up with four others. About a day further along, he noted the addition of carriage tracks and several more horses.

Another day brought him within an hour of his quarry. He would need to approach quietly and get the lay of the land.

Seeking what cover he could find, he moved silently along the trail, his senses on full alert. He wondered at the fact no one was trying to hide it, but put that out of his mind as the sound of voices reached his ears. He could make out the rumble of several male voices as well as the higher-pitched lilt of Ella’s. His stomach curdled at the sound. Now knowing who and what she was, what she had done, he struggled to contain his disgust.

Moving to a stand to a stand of trees, he silently made his way toward the figure he could just make out. He was within sight of the camp and took count of horses and people. He quickly came to the conclusion there were two people missing.

As that realization stuck, Vin felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Turning quickly, he was a moment too late to defend himself as something hard and heavy landed on the back of his head just seconds before darkness consumed him.

+ + + + + + +

He became aware of the agonizing pain first. Disoriented and uncertain, he took inventory of his limbs and soon discovered nothing was broken, though his head throbbed in time with his heartbeat.

As consciousness returned, he waited patiently for the pain to retreat enough to allow him to open his eyes. As he waited, he used his other senses to try and determine his whereabouts. Given the feel of rough sandy soil beneath his face, he figured he was still somewhere on the trail. The damp smell of water and vegetation assaulted his senses along with the smell of horses, unwashed men and something else. Something sweet. Something vaguely familiar.

It was the voice that brought everything back into focus in a moment – Ella’s voice.

Burying the anger and self-disgust that welled up, he gathered his wits about him and slowly opened his eyes, only to be presented with the sight of the woman who had nearly ruined everything.

Ella was turned away, so he scanned his surroundings quickly. It appeared several of the men had left the area. Listening, he was just able to overhear what Ella was saying.

“That’s not what I pay you for,” she commanded, her voice steel. “I told you I can remove him as a threat without relying on that.”

“But Mrs. Gaines…”

A loud slap sounded. “That’s not my name!” Ella shouted. “My name is Ella Larabee. Mrs. Larabee to you. And you will address me as such.”

The other man must have said something, but it was done so softly Vin couldn’t hear it, but he did hear Ella’s reply.

“Good. See that you don’t forget it either. Now, we need to deal with that thing over there.”

Vin closed his eyes as he saw her turn toward him and worked to suppress his revulsion.

“I would remove it entirely and leave it for the vultures, but Chris seems to have some sort of attachment to it, so I’ll let it live a while longer at least. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment in control.” Taking several steps toward the still form, Ella sniffed. “Throw some water on it and wake it up. I want to let it know who’s in control.”

Vin swallowed the bile that threatened and decided he didn’t want to get wet. Moving slightly and releasing a moan, he heard the feet stop and turn.

“Get him on his feet,” her soulless voice commanded.

Vin saw several of the other men back off as two sets of rough hands clamped onto his arms and hauled him upright. Pretending to be weak and far less alert than he felt, he slouched slightly and allowed the two men to support his weight.

Walking up to the man, Ella stared at him in disgust. “You planted the seeds of doubt, didn’t you?” Ella accused. She waited several seconds but received no response. A cruel smile curved her lips. “It doesn’t matter. You may have won this petty little skirmish, but I will win the war. Chris loves me and our love will overcome your petty jealousy. Besides, I’m going to enjoy watching you suffer as inch by inch Chris comes back to me, and one by one I remove your friends from our lives, starting with the whelp and continuing on until even that blond bitch and her spawn have succumbed to the inevitability of our love.”

Unreasonable anger flared within Vin. No one messed with his family. An all-consuming need to strangle the life out of the woman overtook his reason and caused him to break the hold of the two men supporting him. He lunged for Ella, only to be thrown off by a flying tackle from one of the other men. He fought against all who came, unable to reason, unable to think beyond hatred and survival until finally the press of bodies became too much and he found himself captured.

Boots kicked him while hands pinned him to the ground. Wordless cries of wrath ripped from his soul until he no longer had the energy to fight and he found himself once more lifted to a standing position.

Rage boiled through his system as his chest heaved from his exertion and strong emotions. He had done well, had taken out three of the men before these two giants got a hold of him. Now he stood, the scars and wounds of his battle standing out, a trail of blood running down his face from his nose over his swollen lips, and looked into dark eyes lit from within by a burning insanity. “Ella.”

Unbalanced laughter floated across the short distance between them, causing the Tracker to visibly flinch as tendrils of disgust, hatred and repulsion wrapped around his soul. In all the languages he knew, he could not think of a word to describe the truly vile creature standing before him.

“I knew you’d follow me, find me,” she said, evil coating each word. “So, I took some… precautions,” she informed him, a cruel smile twisting her lips as she waved her hand indicating the men around her. Walking up to her prisoner and trailing her fingers down his face, anger flashed within her as the young man visibly flinched away from her, hatred evident in his every move and look. She had no illusions about what would happen if he were free. She would be a dead woman.

That was fine though, great love had to overcome great obstacles and the love she and Chris shared was the greatest and strongest of all, more powerful than even that of Anthony for Cleopatra, and that love had nearly brought down an empire. What was a friendship in the face of that?

Vin watched as a small, satisfied smile crossed her lips. He knew she could kill him now and no one would question it. After all, a single woman traveling alone, beset by a man with a price on his head was bound to sway people in her favor. She just had to claim self-defense.

Looking at the young man, Ella’s smile faded and the anger she felt toward the man before her reared its head once more. “You ruined everything,” she hissed, her face only inches from the Texan’s. She saw the glint of triumph in his eyes and the faint smile on his lips. A flash of rage consumed her and she struck out, slapping him with her open palm.

Vin tried not to smile. He knew his position was precarious, that whether he lived or died was contingent upon Ella, but he couldn’t suppress the small flicker of joy he felt at having defeated this woman. Looking up, his smile faded. As his eyes met those of his captor’s, he could see the writhing evil that was her soul. He swallowed his worry to hide it, ignoring the taste of blood.

Once more stepping forward, Ella pressed her cheek to the Tracker’s and whispered, “Don’t worry, love. Your death won’t server my present purposes.”

Vin felt his breath catch and his heart miss a beat. As the warmth of her cheek left his, he felt his soul freeze within him. Ella might not be looking to kill him, but somehow he instinctively knew, whatever else she had planned would be a thousand times worse.

Ella allowed her cold smile to show on her face. It was so much fun to play with this man. He had surprised her at the house, digging into her business and uncovering her secrets… She wouldn’t underestimate him again. The work she’d begun at the house had provided her enough information on the man, she should be able to control him until she could free her Chris from the clutches of his so-called friends and help him to understand the true depth of their love for one another.

Slipping her hand into the pocket of her dress, she felt the objects stored there and her smile broadened. “For now, you will let me ride away, disappear, leak out of the landscape if you will…”

“Why the hell would I do that, bitch? You let me leave here alive and I’ll hunt you down again and I won’t show you mercy,” Vin growled.

Mirthless, soulless laughter cascaded over the clearing as Ella threw back her head back, giving voice to her feelings about the young man’s threats. Finally quelling her bubbling amusement, death flashed in her eyes as she focused once more on the Texan. Taking a step forward, she said quietly. “Oh, you’ll let me ride away and you’ll do just what I say,” she commanded. Seeing the protest beginning to form on the young man’s lips she continued, “Because if you don’t… Your substitute mama and little sister will suffer the same fates as that bitch and her cub.” She smiled in glee as she watched all the color drain from the young man’s face. Her informants had been right; she would have to reward them.

Vin felt the blood rush from his face as his soul froze. Ella was threatening Nettie and Casey, and he knew she wouldn’t hesitate to burn them as she had Chris’ family and right now he was in no position to stop her. Then his quick mind began working out plans. No one threatened what was his and got away with it. He would agree to her terms, let her go, track her down and ensure the safety of Nettie and Casey.

Ella saw the change come over the young man, the determination and cunning light in his eyes. “Men are always so predictable,” she sighed. Looking directly into the blue eyes before her, she told him, “You can forget about hunting me down and killing me. I’ve already got things in place. If my people don’t hear from me on a monthly basis… Well, let’s just say your little family won’t be cold for long.” Finishing her threat, she withdrew her hands showing him two tokens he knew could only have come from the Wells homestead.

Anger, frustration, rage… These were all Vin Tanner knew at that moment and there was nothing, absolutely nothing he could do to alleviate it. He couldn’t risk Nettie and Casey’s lives. “What do you want?” he demanded.

Ella smiled, knowing she’d won this point. “For now? You will let me go. Let me just slip away. Then you will wait until the unfortunate bruise on your face has faded and ride back to that sorry excuse for a town and your pathetic excuse for a life. You will ensure that my Chris is safe and well and you will tell no one of our meeting. I will find out if you do. Then, when I’m ready to reclaim what is rightfully mine… we’ll see.”

Vin said nothing. There was nothing he could say. He had no choice but to agree to the terms – for now. He vowed, however, that when this insane woman came for his brother, she wouldn’t get within ten feet before he ended her life.

Watching the hatred rise in the blue eyes, Ella smiled and backed away, knowing she’d won this round. She made a mental note that she would have to eliminate this obstacle before reclaiming her man, but that would hardly be a problem. A word here or there as to where to find the fugitive… A cold, satisfied smile curved her lips at the thought. Not taking her eyes off the Tracker, she instructed her men to release Vin.

Vin felt the two men release him but stood exactly where he was, knowing there was nothing he could do. Ella had won this round. For now he would have to watch her ride away. For now he would have to lie to his friends, to the men who hadn’t ever lied to him. For now…

He watched from the same spot as the dust from Ella’s coach died away. He watched the horizon as the sun set, not once moving a muscle. He watched as the night shadows created by the moon lit the land around him.

He watched…

It was a nudge from his horse that finally snapped him out of his trancelike state. Taking a deep breath and releasing it, he reached up and scratched the animal behind his ears. It would be a few days before his face would heal enough from the damage of fists to no longer be noticeable. But for now he was thankful for those few days. He would need them to gather himself, focus himself and prepare himself to deal with the new threat, the new circumstances of his life.

+ + + + + + +

Riding into town, he saw the form of Chris Larabee sitting on the boardwalk, blanket around him, white bandage just showing through.

Taking a deep breath and holding it, he calmed himself and slowly exhaled. He had to do this. He had no choice. Given the slope-shouldered posture of his friend, Vin knew Chris wouldn’t handle the truth. The gunfighter would blame himself and even if it was his fault, Vin couldn’t blame Chris for this. It was Ella upon whom all blame must lay.

At least that’s what he’d been telling himself for over and over during the past few days. He kept coming back to the ‘what if’ questions and it was not helping. What if he had hit Ella? What if Chris had shot her? What if Chris had believed him? What if he’d approached the whole thing differently?

Still, he needed to check in with Chris, let him know he hadn’t brought Ella back.

After seeing to his horse, he headed out of the livery and approached his friend.

A moment or two of silence passed. Vin opened his mouth and felt his gut clench with self-loathing as the words Ella had uttered passed from his lips. Leaked out of the landscape… He paused for a moment as he watched Chris closely, trying to judge his friend’s response. He saw little there, but then Chris probably didn’t want to see it.

Still, the question came unbidden to his lips. “Sorry you didn’t shoot her when you had the chance?” He felt a slight flush of shame at having asked. Chris didn’t deserve that, after all, hadn’t he missed?

Vin could only nod coldly as he heard Chris’ response. He had too much on the line now, too much to lose. If Chris didn’t take care of it, he would.


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