The Ranch
V. Hearts and Plots

by Karin

Disclaimer: The main seven aren't mine, Mary Travis isn't mine, Gloria Potter isn't mine and neither are Ella Gaines, Handsome Jack Averill Sarah, Adam or Cletus Fowler. I have nothing, am not making anything...just maintianing what's left of my sanity. What I do lay claim to are the characters of Travis Roy and Esau Wells...I thought them up all by myself<pat, pat>. Please don't sue me...and unless you like dogs..I really don't have anything of value.

Notes/Comments: Oh what to say. Kris, Lynne...again thank you for your beta-ing job. If you need someone to blame for this taking so long(that is if you're actually excited about another part) then you can blame LYNNE!!! she demanded soooo much, just when I thought I had everything all set...I'd get a request(I wanna see this...I want them to discuss it...Please, please, please can they talk about it?) needless to's all her fault!<g> it is..enjoy!!


Ella smiled brightly as she stood beside Chris.

The teen stepped from behind Vin. JD'd forgotten about the car in the driveway; hearing his name, he lifted his head to meet the person his father was introducing.

"JD? Mrs. Gaines?" both asked as they stared at each other, their friendly smiles they had been put on were quickly replaced with astonishment.

"You know each other?" Chris asked.

"She's my teacher...he's my student," again they said in unison.

'..and a son' Ella remembered Chris saying...a son...he had two sons...he only lost one in the fire. ' mother died a while back' JD's words ran through Ella's mind. Had Chris been married before Sarah? She knew Chris hadn't been married to Sarah very long before she died, JD couldn't be her son, unless Sarah was married before that. Ella cataloged that thought, then began to wonder: had Chris cheated on her while they were together, before Sarah came along and took him? She tried to compose herself mentally as she heard voices.

"...ran into each other at the bank," Chris had finished telling JD, Vin, and the others as to how he and Ella had met after all these years.

"I thought we'd cook out tonight, but since ya' got company, I guess we best be goin' an' leave ya'll to catch up an' what not," Vin said.

", please. Don't change your plans on my account. I have some work to do, so I'll just be going," Ella said, shaking her head for emphasis, hoping that Chris would insist she stay.

"Don't be foolish Ella, you're staying," Chris stated with a warm smile.

+ + + + + + +

"Ow," JD said quietly after pinching himself on the arm...he was hoping that the pinch wouldn't hurt, and that Mrs. Gaines standing in the living room of his house, then sitting down at a picnic table to eat, had only been a nightmare; so far he was 0 for 3...they all hurt.

He was in his room, lying on his bed. His left hand bent at the elbow, his hand cradling the back of his head. His casted arm lying stiffly across his stomach.

JD closed his eyes, breathed in a slow deep breath, then released it just as slowly...hoping all the tension he was feeling would float away with the breath.

It didn't.

'This is my son.'

'Mrs. Gaines?'

The words kept running around in JD's head.

He remembered the smile on Mrs. Gaines' face, one that he'd yet to see in class, leave instantly after he stepped out from behind Vin. The expression that replaced the smile sent chills down his back...he felt uneasy just thinking about it.

Dinner wasn't any better. JD kept hoping the uneasiness would fade away, and tried to give the evening a chance. It had been hard to be charitable when he felt like he was sitting at the table by himself.

'Got an A on my English report,' JD remembered saying.

Dad just nodded, didn't even look at me. That's it, not even a 'Wow, that's great?'

'English was your major in college, wasn't it?' Dad asked Mrs. Gaines, like I hadn't even said anything.

'Yes, that was what I taught in Kansas,' Mrs. Gaines had smiled.

'JD's smart as a whip, but he fights with English all the time. Maybe Ella could show you a thing or two.'


'I'd be glad too.' She had that smug look on her face...

'Hello...I got an A, remember? I just said I got an A...not struggling here.'


What else was I supposed to say?...I hadn't meant for the thought to come just did...sort of. God, Dad looked pissed. Didn't know which looked bothered me the most...Dad giving me that 'I didn't just hear the tone I thought I did, did I?' or the look of 'satisfaction' on Mrs. Gaines' face as she hung off Dad's arm.

JD tried to name or describe the small glances and looks his substitute teacher had given him while they ate dinner. Surprise, curiosity, jealousy, caution, challenge?


He could understand the surprise...hell, nobody was more surprised than him to see his teacher standing in his house, making comfy with his dad.


That was okay, too. He was just as curious as to how his father and Mrs. Gaines knew each other. Thankfully he didn't have to ask. After she found out that his dad had been a detective, his father had filled in the rest. They'd gone to school together; JD knew they had known each other in college, but for how long he wasn't certain...but he could tell their time together had been intense...

'So ya've known each other long?' JD remembered Vin asking at dinner. JD thanked God Vin'd asked, JD had decided that he needed to just listen, that way the smart-ass comments wouldn't be given a chance to slip out.

'It almost seems like we never parted, doesn't it Chris?' Mrs. Gaines answered Vin, but looked right at me.

Dad laughed and nodded his head as if to agree.

JD thought maybe Buck might have been able to shed some light as to how long the two had known each other, but remembered Buck saying ' was a pleasure to meet you Ma'am,' before he left the ranch that night.

Wow, a woman Buck hasn't met, JD interrupted the serious mood with the playful thought.


Mrs. Gaines' eyes did something funny whenever he spoke during dinner...JD wished the others had stayed, maybe they would have seen the looks; but then again Vin didn't mention them, so maybe no one else would have either. JD had thought it coincidence the first time he said something; he decided he needed to change 'tactics' and not pout about the silent reprimand from his father. JD tried to be pleasant. She hadn't laughed at the story he told about Chris. He made a few more attempts...and when his dad and Vin would laugh, that look would flash in her eyes again.

It was okay for every one to laugh at why she called Dad 'Bareback Larabee', but nothing I said was funny, JD thought.


'Why didn't you tell me Chris was your father?' she asked.

'You didn't ask,' JD answered simply, with a smile. He thought it was funny, both Vin and his father did Mrs. Gaines, but her look betrayed the soft giggle.

That look he recognized. It was the same look that she gave him when he'd commented on writing 'not to forget a back-up pen' 300 times; she hadn't heard the words, but she knew he'd spoken. The 'You didn't ask' statement had been rewarded with the same 'Don't be coy with me' look that would freeze hell in half an hour.


That one was mixed in with the jealousy look. She would touch his Dad's arm innocently or in a playful way; but the look she'd send JD made it seem like much more. Like she was trying to tell JD that they had been more than 'friends', and she had every intention of 'picking up where they left off'...wherever that may have been. The way Mrs. Gaines would smile tightly, taunting him; as if she was telling JD 'this is mine and you can't have it'. She was marking her territory.

JD sat up in his bed.

Was he thinking too much? Reading too much into Mrs. Gaines' body language? JD sighed again, the breath still heavy with a mixture of worry and guilt. He felt uncomfortable, strange, intimidated by this woman; and in his own house. In school, that was different...that was her 'turf'; this was his home, his safe haven...his turf.

"Geez, get a grip," JD chastised himself.

I'm reading way too much into this, JD thought. I'm just still pissed, that's all. Dad's real comfortable with her... and that's a good thing. Buck said Dad has never gone out with anyone since Sarah and Adam died. Okay, JD. This is a good thing, nothing bad can happen. Unless they get into a fight and she gives me a bad grade...stop it , stop it, stop it!

"This is a good with it already," JD said to himself.

Another sigh escaped JD's lips.

If this is such a good thing, then why can't I be happy? JD thought.

+ + + + + + +

God. He looked just the same. Okay, so his face showed the stress of losing Sarah and Adam, but his smile's just as bright...and those eyes. I know they, too, have 'settled'...but I can still see that spark, that mischievous twinkle dancing in there...just waiting to get out, Ella thought. A seductive smile crossed her soft features as she glided into her living room, melting into the love seat.

It couldn't be better if I'd planned it myself.

"Wait, I did plan it," a self indulgent smirk etched her tight, thin lips, then a giggle escaped.

She opened a hardcover book and admired the picture that was glued onto the page.

"Oh Chris. Finally, finally we will be together...the way we should have been all along," she spoke as she touched the sandy blond hair, as if she could feel it through the picture.

She turned the page, looking at the memories pasted there; turned another, then another...until she stopped on an old newspaper article. Beside the typed words there was a picture. The man was smiling, a rich, love filled smile; the woman and little boy that sat between the two were smiling, the woman's smile slightly obscured under the large red X that crossed her face.

Ella's eyes glanced to the top of the article.

'Mother and Son Killed in Revenge Fire'.

The article went on to say that Larabee, '...a highly decorated detective on the Denver Police Force..' was away at the time of the fatal fire; the fire was set by, the police suspected, a vengeful felon in retaliation. 'Sarah and Adam Larabee may or may not have been the primary target, but the innocent victims in a plot against Larabee himself,' the paper stated.

"Only Sarah was the target, I didn't know about Adam," Ella said sadly, as she turned the page.

'Larabee Opens Home', the news article said. The article held a picture of Chris and five men standing in front of the house. The five men she knew now to be Buck Wilmington, Nathan Jackson, Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez and Vin Tanner.

"It's all falling into place," she sighed to the picture, her eyes blocking out the men that stood around Chris as if they weren't there. Ella closed the book, putting it back onto the table she'd grabbed it from. She stood and approached the bar that separated the kitchen from the living room. She picked up a picture of a young Chris Larabee, his arms wrapped tightly around Ella Gaines' waist, his chin resting on her right shoulder, both smiling.

"Together. Forever, just like it's supposed to be," she said to the picture.

Ella looked at the picture, mentally inserting JD's face into what formed a family portrait.

"Chris told me about you," she spoke to the imaginary picture of the teen. "He told me how much you miss your mother," she continued, a red marker marking a spot on the photo of her and Chris.

"Five years ago I would have been willing to share Chris with Adam, but Adam was in the house. Adam would have adjusted. You're twice as old as Adam was at the time. I don't want to take another son from Chris, but I have waited too long for this day to come. I'm not willing to share Chris with anyone...not even you," Ella spoke softly to the red circle with an X through it, covering the spot where JD's smiling illusion had been.

You're a very bright boy, be smart and step aside and no one will have to get hurt. If you don't... Ella sighed quietly; not finishing the thought, but letting it linger in the air.

+ + + + + + +

JD sat on the edge of the fence, bored. It was nearly 4 and he was alone again. If he had doubts of Ella Gaines intentions earlier, he didn't have them anymore.

He sighed as a Palomino nudged him for a pat.

"What am I gonna do?" JD asked the horse, who didn't seem to care about JD's dilemma as long as he got the scratch he wanted.

The others had gone for the weekend, as usual, leaving JD and Chris alone...or that's how it was supposed to be. Yeah, JD had been alone...all alone.

Chris had invited Ella to go riding for the day on Saturday, JD still wasn't allowed to ride, so he was left behind. He had called Esau and Travis to do something...anything, but they were busy.

JD figured he'd have at least Sunday with his dad, but Ella ruined that, too.

JD remembered coming down the stairs, hearing people talk. He figured Mrs. Travis had brought someone to the ranch. What he saw were his father and his teacher, two grown adults, acting as if they were 15 and still in high school.

'Hi,' JD had said, with surprise in his voice. He caused both of the supposed adults to turn quickly, still giggling.

'JD..look who's here,' Chris smiled, like JD hadn't even seen her.

'Yeah...kind of hard not to notice,' JD tried to smile back.

"The whole weekend. They saw each other on Friday for the first time in years for crying out loud...and she hasn't left yet!" JD told the horses that looked at him.

He hated to think of what might happen. What would everyone think if they found out that his Dad was dating his teacher?

"Shit, wouldn't even call that dating," JD sighed at the thought.

He had to admit he had never seen his Dad act the way he had all weekend. He decided to ask Buck what he was like when he had been married to Sarah. Maybe this was the man he called Dad, not the unfaltering man he'd known for not even a year.

JD knew he had changed a lot since his first day on the ranch. Maybe his father had too.

JD climbed down from the fence and headed back for the house. He entered the quiet, deserted home; feeling more like the kid who'd come from Boston that first day of 'camp' than the son who'd lived here for nearly 9 months.

He went to the fridge and took a long drink from the carton of milk.

Dad hates it when I don't use a glass JD thought as he put he carton back in he fridge without closing the carton back up.

JD trudged into the living room, and sat on the floor in front of the couch, using the couch to lean his back on. He pointed the remote at the TV and waited for the screen to fade in. He flew through channel after channel until it landed on the western show he liked to watch.

Nearly a half hour had passed when the front door opened, JD never even turned to see if it was his father entering the house.

Chris strode into the living room, slightly concerned that JD hadn't acknowledged him.

"You okay?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, why?" JD responded.

"Just expected you'd call Travis and Esau," Chris said casually as he sat on the couch JD was propped up against.

"They were busy," JD shrugged, sounding indifferent. "Mrs. Gaines still here?" he asked.

"No, she had some papers to correct," Chris said as he looked up to see what had JD's attention.

'It's not how quick you draw, it's how deadly your aim...' Chris heard the tall mustached man tell the younger man in the bowler.

"JD?" Chris said his son's name with concern, the kid had yet to look at him since he'd walked in.

"Yeah?" JD said, turning his head and looked up at his father.

"Are you okay? With Ella?" Chris asked.

JD looked at his father, he could see the worry in the man's eyes.

Time to sink or swim, JD thought. No, I'm not okay with you and Mrs. Gaines...she gives me the willies, every time I see her the hackles on my neck stand up.

"She's pretty," JD decided to say, watching for his father's reaction.

"That she is," Chris smiled. "She hasn't changed a bit. Still wonder some times..." Chris let the thought fade.

"Wonder what?" JD asked calmly, fighting back the panic that his father had fallen head over heels for this woman already.

"Wonder what life would have been like for us...if things had been different," Chris shrugged.

"You got a second chance, now," JD pointed out. What the hell are you saying!! JD reprimanded himself.

"Do I?" Chris asked, their eyes locking.

"Well, yeah...she's back here isn't she?" JD asked with trepidation.

"True...but, if it bothers you," Chris began. "JD, if you're uncomfortable...just tell me. Ella's brought up a lot of old feelings, but you're my first come first. Just say the word," Chris said.

JD read his father too well. He knew the words were heart-felt and honest, and for a fleeting moment JD thought all his worry would be gone...His father's eyes betrayed the words...his dad had loved this woman, and he found those feelings again. His father was happy with her...and in one little word, his dad would give that all up for JD's happiness. JD sighed while he silently weighed his options. This was it...his chance...

"No Dad, I'm cool," JD smiled.

+ + + + + + +

"JD, could I have a word with you?"

Oh boy JD sighed as he let the other history students leave through the door Mrs. Gaines held open for them.

JD sat at a desk in the front row; he thought he might need to sit.

"I was wondering. Do you have a problem?" Ella asked, her tone laced with a hint of...anger?

"Huh?" JD asked. He was uncomfortable with the fact that the woman had only left the ranch to get some sleep...he figured it was only a matter of time before she brought her toothbrush with her. He was a bit confused if this was a speech regarding school or was on a more personal level.

"Do you have a problem?" she asked again harshly.

"With what?" JD asked, still a little shocked at her tone.

"With the fact that Chris and I are involved," she said, saying it like JD should have known what she was referring to.

"Should I?" JD found himself asking. Hell yeah he had a problem with it, but why he didn't know... it was just a feeling he had.

"JD, I need you to understand something," she said as she stood from the front of her desk, only to put her hands on the desk top where JD sat, looking down at him.

"I have waited for years to find Chris again. He's the first and only man I've ever loved," she began.

"Mrs. Gaines, as much as I want to hear this...I don't want to miss the bus," JD said, sliding out from the chair, then taking a step back, going behind the desk, and leaving the room.

"Well," she smiled. "I was going to tell you not to cross me, but I can already see that won't be a problem. You left here like a puppy with his tail between his legs. I'd say that young man got the message loud and clear," Ella smiled with satisfaction at JD's reaction.

JD never said a word about his meeting with Mrs. Gaines to Esau and Travis. They knew something was wrong, but felt they couldn't push this time without having some serious repercussions.

When JD was left off the bus, the weight of the world seemed to shrink his posture.

Travis got off the bus with Esau, neither one had spoken since getting on the bus. JD had seemed unreachable, no matter what Esau or Travis said, JD continued to stare out the window...lost in his own thoughts.

"This is bad Esau...real bad, man," Travis said.

"He's been quiet all day. I know Mrs. Gaines was there all weekend. You know how much JD likes spending time with Mr. Larabee," Esau nodded as he talked.

"Yeah, but he hasn't said two words since History," Travis offered the observation. Granted he didn't have History with his two friends, but he did have eyes and ears; and they had seen JD become withdrawn and defeated, and he hadn't heard JD's voice the last part of the day.

"She kept him after class, I think she might have said something...bad... to him," Esau said, his voice resigned and a bit weary.

"'Bad'?" Travis questioned. "What kinda bad are we talking about here?" Travis asked as he grabbed Esau's arm, causing him to stop and turn.

"Not 'that' kinda bad!" Esau yelled, realizing that Travis's mind had traveled south. "I mean ..bad like she said something mean to him," Esau said, he realized that it sounded...

"Mean? That's kinda third grade, don't ya' think?" Travis couldn't help but laugh.

"You know what I mean Trav...come on...this is serious!" Esau shot back, sending a half-hearted fist to Travis shoulder as if to bring back his common sense wherever it had wondered off to.

"I know...I what can we do? We tell Mr. Larabee? From the way JD talked this morning...he's a little 'distracted'. Doubt he'd even notice his clothes were on fire if Mrs. Gaines was standing in front of him," Travis voiced his opinion.

"We gotta do something," Esau sighed.

"He's in no mood to get pushed," Travis reminded.

"So we don't push," Esau shrugged, a smile crossed his face as an idea began to blossom.

"He's gonna kill us Esau!" Travis srceeched, understanding the look Esau was giving him.

"Rather have a pissed off JD than the JD we got," Esau sighed. "This is too big for us, Trav...Vin will know what to do."

+ + + + + + +

Vin listened to the two teens as they revealed what had happened with Mrs. Gaines on her first she had been fine the next week. JD had told them that his Dad knew Ella Gaines, and that she'd nearly spent the whole weekend there, that morning on the way to school.

Esau told Vin and Travis that JD had been held behind in class, and how quiet he was on the way home.

"I know he was pretty bummed out this morning," Esau told Vin.

"Least he was talking then..." Travis blurted out.

"Whatever she said to him after class..." Esau tried to explain calmly.

"...that's what got him all quiet...that's the key Vin; you find out what she said, then we can get JD back to his happy own self!" Travis explained with excitement that he'd figured out how to get to JD.

"So why didn't ya' just ask him what the problem was?" Vin asked after getting the details of JD's first few days with Ella Gaines. No wonder he had that look on his face when Chris introduced them, Vin thought.

"Well...we're usually pretty good at figuring out if JD's gonna talk...or if he's gonna get piss...mad at us for pushing," Travis said.

"Put it this way...I didn't want to ask JD anything, even if he was behind plexi-glass," Esau said. "That's why we called you, especially with the way she ignored him in class...every time he raised his hand to make a point about the discussion, she'd ignore him. And JD has some pretty good ideas to talk about. When she did call on him, she'd say something so it would make what JD said seem unimportant," Esau continued.

"Everyone like her as a teacher?" Vin asked.

"Some, but those are the goody-goody ones; most of us, We don't like her, not when she does this stuff to him," Travis offered.

Vin couldn't hide the small smile that formed at the thought, 'not when she does this stuff to him'. The whole student body wasn't happy with her because of the way JD was being treated, and that did his heart good. Too many times in a small school like Wickes High School, outsiders weren't usually liked, or liked as well as those who had grown up together.

"From what Chris says, Mrs. Gaines spent most of her time at the ranch. JD's probably bothered that he and his Dad didn't get to spend time together," Vin sighed, trying to explain the mood.

"Probably right. Besides, it's not like he had all kinds of proof that she's all bad...kept saying it was just a feeling he had," Esau shrugged, as Travis nodded in agreement.

"Probably," Vin nodded. He slapped both the teens on the shoulders, silently saying thanks for being worried and such good friends to JD; hiding the fact that he had been unconcerned with the teen's perception of things until he heard three words...'just a feeling'.

+ + + + + + +

Vin walked across the pasture, leaving the fence where he'd met Travis and Esau. He shuddered as he recalled another time JD had gotten a feeling, and the consequences when they had ignored it.

'Vin, I got a bad feeling...something's wrong back home,' JD had said.

'Not yer week fer the phone, kid,' Vin had replied.

'Mr. Larabee...' JD had asked, sending a look to Vin as if to say he'd skip the middle man and go for the head honcho.

'Something wrong, JD?' Chris had asked, looking to Vin for an answer, Vin just tilted his head and smiled.

'I need to call my Mom,' JD had stated sternly.

'You called her the other day, you have two weeks to wait,' Chris had said.

'I got this feeling...a bad feeling, something isn't right,' JD pleaded.

'You're just homesick JD, nothing to be ashamed of. You're further from home than the others, and even they get homesick,' Chris had replied.

Vin smiled sadly at he memory; Chris had sounded 'fatherly' even then. Before they'd found out that JD's 'bad feeling' had been warranted, that that was the day that JD's mother had died. 'Homesickness'. Chris and Vin had convinced JD of it; had they only known she wasn't well, if only JD had said something to them...but they hadn't known, and JD hadn't told them. If things would have been different, if JD would have been allowed to call, the kid would have found out then that his mother had died.


Vin made up his mind...he'd check out this 'Ella Gaines', look into her past. Vin would rather ride out Chris' wrath for poking his nose into people's pasts, than to have something happen and add more 'ifs' to his list.

+ + + + + + +

Esau and Travis walked away from the fence where they'd just left Vin. Esau's face began to tense, his brows creasing as if in thought. He stopped and turned to Travis. Travis rolled his eyes dramatically, he recognized the look...Esau was deciding to play 'what do we know'.

"So...they know each other," Esau said.

"It's kinda creepy," Travis said.

"Maybe we could find out why she left teaching," Esau voiced his thought.

"We know why she left, her old man died. I heard he got his head caved in," Travis said.

"Yeah, but by who?" Easu asked.

"She's just a teacher, Esau. Anyone ever tell you that you watch way too much TV?" Travis asked, the thought of Mrs. Gaines wielding some blunt object...well it just didn't seem likely.

"So wasn't Pamela Smart," Esau said, offering the New Hampshire teacher serving life in prison for conspiracy of murder, as an example.

The two teens walked in silence.

"You know...that teacher made a play for a student...then convinced him and some friends to kill her husband," Esau broke the silence.

"You think she's making a play on JD?" Travis said, his voice a few octaves higher than usual.

"No," Esau said, as if disappointed that Travis couldn't keep up with his thought. "What if that's how her husband was know, she arranged it and a few students did it."

"So, what's that got to do with JD?" Travis asked.

"I don't know. Maybe nothing, maybe everything," Esau shrugged.

"Glad you cleared that up for me, man," Travis sighed.

"Maybe she thinks JD's competition," Esau again shrugged.

"That's kinda sick," Travis said.

"Not like that you idiot! I mean... what if she knew Mr. Larabee was here, and that's why she came here. And not knowing about JD, well..."

"You don't think she'd do something to JD do you?" Travis asked, finally getting the gist of what Esau had been saying.

"I don't know, but we're gonna find out," Esau resolved.

"Why is it when I have an idea it's 'I'll' find out, but when you have an idea it's 'we'll' find out," Travis asked, knowing he wouldn't get an answer.

+ + + + + + +

Ella sighed lightly. She seemed to dance into the living room of her house, effortlessly slipping into the loveseat. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, remembering the time she'd spent with Chris.

The weekend had been wonderful. After the initial shock of finding out that Chris not only had a son, but that son was her she had chastised the first few days.

Her frown turned into a smile, a self indulgent, smug smile. She removed herself from the loveseat and strolled to her bedroom to change her clothes. She was going to the ranch for dinner...again. Three days in a row she'd spent time with Chris.

She knew it wouldn't be as intimate as it had been over the weekend, with the other men there, but she would all the men what she and Chris meant to each other.

And show JD that there really wasn't any place for him.

'Ella, JD can't ride until the cast comes off,' she remembered Chris saying when she asked to go for a horse ride.

'Oh come on Chris, he's old enough to stay by himself,' she said in a mocking tone, but the smile just covered her frustration at the fact that Chris had even mentioned the youth in the first place. 'Let me tell him we'll be gone for a while,' Chris gave into her.

He never could say no, Ella smiled as she remembered the dejected look on JD's face as the two left the ranch.

He'd put on a good face for Chris, but she had glanced back to the porch...she could see the hurt and sadness because he wasn't asked to join.

He almost seemed to sigh aloud when he saw her again that Sunday morning.

Your weekends alone with your 'Daddy' are long gone, my friend, Ella thought as she pulled on her boots.

She smiled widely in the mirror as she gave herself the once over. Pleased with her look, she left her small rented house for the ranch she soon intended to call home.

+ + + + + + +

"Got a minute pard?" Buck asked as he walked up the stairs of the porch.

"Sure Buck, what's up?" Chris asked from where he sat, closing the book he was reading as he waited for Ella.

"Well," Buck began, pausing as he leaned his backside on the railing to face Chris. "Things seem to be goin' pretty good with Ella," Buck smiled.

"She's quite a woman," Chris sighed with a smile, then hung his head as if to hide it.

"Ah-huh. This the same woman that you told me about; the one you was dating before you met Sarah?" Buck asked; his tone soft, but still full of concern.

"She's changed Buck, we've all grown up. She's settled down, so have I. She has her teaching and I have this place to run," Chris said. "Neither one of us are able to be as wild as we used to be," he smiled.

"Yeah...well. If I remember right, ya' said she was a wild one," Buck remarked, his head tilted to the side. "Somethin' like 'the woman was a double edged sword, you play with it long enough your bound to get cut'," Buck tried to quote what Chris had told him once.

"Her edge's aren't as sharp as they used to be Buck," Chris laughed lightly.

"They can still cut though...and dull edges are worse than sharp ones," Buck pointed out.

"What is it you're trying to say? Be careful? I might get hurt? I'm a big boy Buck...all grown up, I can make decisions for myself," Chris said sternly.

"I know that...but you got more at stake than just your heart here pard. What about that son of yours? This is going to affect him too," Buck said, his voice still soft.

"We've already talked about it, he's okay with me seeing Ella," Chris said with honesty.

"What 'bout her?" The two men turned to see Vin walking towards them from the corner of the house.

"What about her?" Chris asked.

"Is she as okay with JD as he says he is with her?" Vin asked.

"She knows what JD means to me. What's with this 'is he okay as he says he is' bull? JD said he's okay with it...why wouldn't he be?" Chris asked, somewhat put out that Vin was implying that JD had lied.

"Come on Chris, you know JD..." Buck tried to begin to explain.

"Yeah I know him, and he wouldn't lie..." Chris retorted as he stood from his chair.

"You sure about that pard?" Buck asked. Chris tilted his head as if to ask 'what am I missing'. "You and I both know he'd do anythin' for ya' pard, even lie to ya', if it was what he thought ya' wanted to hear," Buck said seriously, but in a gentle tone.

"Ya'll know something I don't?" Chris asked, his voice stern.

"Ain't ya' seen the way he's been actin' lately? He's too quiet, he don't say but two words when she's here...which seems to be a lot," Buck pointed out his observations.

"So what if she's here a lot," Chris defended.

"A lot...everyday, Chris. Next thing you'll be tellin' us she's movin' in," Vin sighed.

"And what if she I gonna need your permission?" Chris asked sarcastically.

"This ain't all about ya', pard. This involves JD, too," Buck pointed out again. "I'm just saying that things seem to be movin' kinda' fast, maybe ya' should slow things down."

"That's rich coming from you, Buck. You want to know why she's spending a lot of time here? I'll tell you why...nothing's changed between us. The minute I saw her, all those feelings came rushing back, like we'd never been apart," Chris said sharply.


"Don't go giving me some lecture as if I'm 10 years old Vin!"

"Look what she's doin' to ya', the way she's makin' ya' act...this ain't right Chris, ya' got a 16 year old kid who's been through more than any grown man should have to go through. He's just now startin' to settle in, feel comfortable. Last thin' he needs is someone comin' in here an' messin' it all up," Vin tried to get his point across.

"Is that how you two feel about Ella?" Chris shot out the question harshly.

"S'not important what we's what JD thinks," Vin said, returning to his calm tone.

"He doesn't run my life," Chris said quietly.

"He IS your life, he comes first...she's made ya' forget that already," Buck sighed.

"Ella knows all about what JD's been through...I'm not some love sick cow! If I see there's trouble I'll deal with it! I sure as hell don't need you two poking your noses into what I'm doing or who I choose to spend my time with," Chris said, his glare jumping back and forth between Vin and Buck.

The slamming screen door marked the end of the conversation.

"Well, least he didn't hit us," Vin sighed.

"Yup. So much for that woman bein' a good influence on the man," Buck sighed as well.

"Double edged sword huh?" Vin said, remembering Buck's words.

"Yup...and if ya' ask me he's gonna get himself cut but good. Sarah brought nothin' but the good out in Chris, I can already see what Ella brings out in him," Buck said.

"I need to find Ezra," Vin stated, then left the porch to go find Ezra.

+ + + + + + +

"Ya' got a minute?" Vin asked from the doorway of the small building that Ezra occupied, tutoring one of JD's classmates.

"Ah, Mr. Tanner. Young Erving and I are nearly done. Read the places I've high-lighted at home," Ezra smiled.

Erving, the man-boy, stood from the table, thanked Ezra and left the building.

"Now...what may I do for you?" Ezra asked.

"Need to get some information," Vin said.

"Any particular subject?"

"Ella Gaines," Vin said, his tone serious.

"Am I to assume this has something to do with our 'nephew' being absent from the ranch when she graces us with her presence?" Ezra asked.

"If yer askin' ifn' it's got to do with JD...yeah," Vin replied.

"Do you have an idea where you'd like to start?" Ezra asked. He'd noticed the tension in the boy whenever the woman's name was mentioned, and that both times Ella had visited the ranch, JD had conveniently needed to study or help one of his friends with homework.

"Yup...Wichita, Kansas. Find out why she left the school...not the reason she told us...I wanna know the real reason," Vin said sharply.

"Mr. Tanner...I do so love your suspicious nature, but I must inform you, we maybe imbibing in, what some might consider, 'illegal activity'," Ezra cautioned as he turned the computer on.

"Can they trace it all back to here?"

"Please, Mr. Tanner. I was only appealing to your moral standards," Ezra smiled, conveying that he would make it so they wouldn't be found out.

An hour later, the two men were reading over what the printer had spit out for them.

"Graduated with honors..." Vin said quietly.

"Wichita is where she began teaching..." Ezra added.

"Hold up..." Vin said.

"I presume you have found some contradiction in her story?" Ezra asked, stepping over to Vin, scanning over the papers that Vin held.

"Hmmmm..." Ezra began. "This is interesting, but hardly surprising, Mr. Tanner," Ezra added.

"She spent time in a pyscho hospital Ezra, that don't surprise ya'?" Vin asked, surprised himself at Ezra's lack of alarm.

"Hardly. The woman's husband was violently killed, the police report confirms that; the woman was distraught having found the man sprawled out in the living room, it's only reasonable to think Mrs. Gaines had a difficult time dealing with the traumatic event," Ezra pointed out.

"They 'rrest anybody?" Vin asked.

"Ahhhh..." Ezra stalled as he went back to his desk, picking up the printed off police report. "A man named 'Handsome' Jack Averill," Ezra said.

"They convict him?"

"No, released due to lack of evidence...or some other technical glitch," Ezra said as he again shuffled through the 'illegal' legal documents.

"Here's a news article on the whole mess...Fowler. Why's that name familiar?" Vin asked, not exactly to Ezra, just asking as if to jar his own memory.

"Fowler? Cletus Fowler?" Ezra asked, his face not hiding the sudden concern.

"Shiiit, ain't that the guy..." Vin seemed to suddenly realize why the name was familiar.

"...who killed Mr. Larabee's family," Ezra finished. "How does he fit into all of this?" Ezra asked with urgency.

"Uhhmm...says here 'We are all concerned. My cousin Ella is in a state of shock and disbelief...'," Vin read the article aloud.

"Fowler was Ella's cousin," Ezra stated, red flags were popping up everywhere.

"Ya' don't think..." Vin didn't want to finish his thought.

"We need to find out how this 'Handsome Jack' is connected to Ella Gaines...why he was arrested but never convicted of her husband's murder," Ezra thought out loud, sitting down at the computer again. He began typing...then waited.

"Bingo..." Vin said quietly over Ezra's shoulder.

Both men waited patiently for the printer to purge the contents that the computer screen was showing them.

After skimming over the article, the men found out that Jack worked for a mining and oil company. Ella and her husband's land sat on a rich vein, which 'Culpepper Mining Company' wished to purchase. They had made several 'more than generous offers' all which were declined.

The two men deduced their own conclusions that Ella's late husband had been killed for the land. In essence it had worked, Ella put the house up for sale, which the Culpepper Mining Company bought. What bothered Vin and Ezra the most was why Ella would sell the house after they had fought so hard to keep it. If Ella was so hell bent on keeping the house, why refuse the company's offer, just to sell it for market value?

Another paper was removed from the printer.

"Damn," Ezra said as he read over the list of investors of 'Culpepper Mining Company'.

"Double damn," Vin said as he gave Ezra the copy of Ella Gaines' deposit record.

Not only was Ella Gaines one of the major investors, so was Jack Averill. A month after her husband was killed a deposit of $20,000 was made to her account, and every month since...another deposit.

"We've solved that, why Chris?" Ezra asked, his suspicions at an all time high. He had no doubt this woman's intentions were less than honorable.

"Fowler's the key to that. We know Chris an' her had a thin' goin' for each other," Vin said, beginning to pace back and forth in the small room.

"And that some how that ended, he met Sarah and married her. I believe we are hinting at the possibility that the fire that killed Mr. Larabee's family had gone just as planned," Ezra sighed.

"Sarah an' Adam were the targets..." Vin sighed, shaking his head.

"The boy was an unfortunate casualty, Mr. Tanner. I can't believe that a woman in her profession would willingly kill an innocent child," Ezra disageed.

"She killed an innocent woman," Vin reminded.

"Not according to her," Ezra said, seeming unfazed at what they were discussing.

"Sarah stole Chris from her," Vin nodded, understanding where the man's mind was set.

"Exactly," Ezra said.

"What we need to be concerned with is if she considers JD to be a threat," Ezra said seriously.

"We gotta tell Chris," Vin said.

"Yes, much as I hate to admit it, that won't be easy. The man has fallen fast, even if you tell him JD may be in danger; I doubt he will be convinced it's Ella's doing," Ezra stated.

"I thought I had an overactive imagination... but I think yer right. I'm gonna tell Chris...alone. He don't need to be pissed off at all of us, 'sides, JD's gonna need lookin' after...make sure he's safe," Vin said, as if he had to ask Ezra to take on the task.

"I take it you plan on leaving?" Ezra asked.

"Doubt Chris will want to look at me for sticking my nose where it don't belong..." Vin shook his head.

"And what about JD... you don't think your leaving suddenly will effect him? Mr. Tanner, if you haven't already noticed, the lad doesn't care for this woman...your leaving will only re-enforce his dislike for her. That in itself may cause harm to fall upon him. Do you understand where I'm going with this?" Ezra asked.

"Yeah...yeah I do. So what...we wait till she's done somethin'?" Vin asked.

"No, we inform the others to what we've found, maybe we will be able to catch the woman off guard and she will make a confession of sorts; or at least bring suspicion to herself," Ezra smiled. He loved being devious at times.

"I'm going to call Mrs. Travis, tell her we are unable to take in any children at this time. We can't afford to be distracted," Ezra added.

"And tell her what?" Vin asked. "We got some woman chasing after Chris...we think she's a bit we don't want any kids here in case she goes over the edge?" Vin nearly laughed out.

"We just tell her we have a rat problem," Ezra smiled.

"Well, ya' wouldn't be lyin'," Vin smiled. He nodded as he left to go round up Nathan, Josiah and Buck.


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