Till Death Do Us Part
(Old West)

by KellyA

Author's Note: This is my sequel to the Obsession episode. This story begins two months after Ella disappears. Thanks to my Beta NotTasha and idea Guru Carla and a special thanks to Mary McAuley, an able wordsmith, who loves to tinker. Mary is the author of part 29.
Completed: December 2000

Part 1

"Hey, Buck how's them ribs feeling?" Nathan asked, eyeing the sociable cowboy, over his plate of eggs and potatoes.

Buck rubbed a hand over his middle, feeling the bandages. "Sore, but didn't slow me down none last night, at least, that's what Miss Melissa told me." Buck laughed, wincing at the sharp pain that took his breath and elicited several chuckles.

Nathan smiled and shook his head in exasperation. The damn fool didn't know when to take it easy, but why should he be any different then the rest of the yahoos he administered to? The ex-medic furtively scrutinized the other members of their motley group. They had rounded up the last of the horse thieving Marselles' gang and they were all tired. JD sported a black eye. Josiah's right arm was bound in white, concealing a neat cut from elbow to wrist and Vin's bandaged head was the last payment before finally cornering the outlaws. Of course, they hadn't come quietly and the graveyard's population rose by five. Only one of the thieves had been apprehended, and he was cooling his heels in the jail. JD had asked the blacksmith to keep an eye on him until he finished breakfast.

Chris Larabee abruptly strode through the bat-wing doors, his dark form cutting through the murky, liquor scented saloon. His men were inexplicably drawn to the place, like moths to a flame. The scowl on the stalwart gunslinger's face was partnered with a dark, pervading influence; his black clothing amplified the menacing atmosphere. Chris stopped between the tables where five of his men were enjoying the first decent meal they'd had in days.

"It appears brother Chris is in a particularly grave mood this morning," Josiah murmured to Nathan. Both men saw the scowl on their leader's visage.

The wooden legs of the chair scraped dryly on the worn floor as Chris sat at the table with Vin and Buck. Both men decided to forego their usual banter for a safer state of quiet: Chris Larabee didn't look like he was in the mood for any amusement. The man had a presence that tended to make the occupants of a room extremely nervous, but the five gunslingers weren't intimidated…much.

"I need someone to wake Ezra." Chris's voice was tight. His icy gaze froze on Buck, who desperately tried to ignore it.

Buck shook his head, and continued to shovel eggs into his mouth. The only sound was the scraping of his fork on the tin plate. 'Why me? Why is it always me?' The ladies' man raised brown eyes to see everyone staring at him. Buck swallowed the last of his breakfast and threw his fork down.

"Oh, no, not me--not again," he protested, throwing up his hands. "My luck is bound to run out, and anyway, it's JD's turn." Buck snapped a fiendish smile over to his young friend at the next table.

"What?" JD blurted out, spraying bits of biscuit over the table as well as Nathan, who happened to fall within the field of fire. Noticing that the dark-clad gunslinger was not in the mood for any verbal feuding JD decided to try a different approach. "Let's flip for it."

Buck considered his chances for a moment then nodded.

JD pulled a coin out of his pocket. "Heads, you go and wake him, tails, I'm his target."

The young sheriff tossed the coin in the air and caught it, slamming it down upon the table. He slowly raised his hand. Buck slumped back in his chair and groaned as a silver etched face looked up at him. Buck flashed JD a glare of reprisal as he slowly pushed away from the table, wiping his hands down the front of his shirt.

"Hey, Buck, don't get shot. Ain't got any clean bandages," Nathan remarked, with a toothy grin.

"Go low, he shoots high," Vin added helpfully. He glanced over at Chris who appeared lost in a world of his own making, his gaze locked on a yellow piece of paper he held in his hand.

"What should we put on your tombstone?" Josiah threw in, his huge grin splitting his face in half and lighting up his blue-gray eyes. "Ha, ha! Y'all won't be laughing if'n he shoots me, and I bet y'all would just miss ol' Buck," he said as he reluctantly walked up the stairs toward Ezra's room. Buck's eyes were glued to the gambler's door, wishing he'd just come out on his own and save him the possibility of getting shot. Ezra's day started at ten, and anyone who thought otherwise risked a bullet. Although Buck couldn't recall anyone actually getting shot, there was a first time for everything.

Tanner's amused gaze followed Buck's reluctant progress up the stairs. He was fairly certain that Ezra was a good enough shot that he'd never kill anyone-unless, of course, he specifically meant to do so. Something real serious was brewing for Chris to actually wake the nocturnal gambler this early in the morning. Ezra was not a pleasant person in the morning, and it didn't appear that Chris was in an agreeable state. Vin had to wonder if it was wise to bring two such volatile men together in the same room. Ezra had been instrumental in nabbing the Marselles' gang. The slick con man had spent days going from one flea-infested town to another, collecting information. He had placed himself in very dangerous situations and like always, Ezra was alone. Oh, the others were near, but not close enough to help if things turned deadly. Had anyone even thanked the resourceful lawman? The thought buzzed within the tracker's head. Tanner made a mental note to talk to the gambler and tell him how much they appreciated his help.

Vin hissed as he tentatively touched the bandage around his head. A bullet had creased his skull and he still suffered from a terrible headache. He leaned back and nudged JD. "Ain't that the coin Ez gave ya?"

"Yeah," JD replied with an amused gleam in his eyes. "Buck still hasn't asked to see it." Smiling, JD flipped the two-headed coin in his hand and quickly pocketed it.

Chris sat silently, oblivious to the customary banter of his fellow lawmen and friends. His thoughts held by the yellow telegram in his hand. He had received the wire yesterday and spent all night contemplating what he should do, what he must do. His past was once again rearing its ugly head. Did he have the right to drag one of his men into it?

Vin could tell the words on that innocuous piece of paper had a stranglehold on his friend. The tracker knew that Chris had received the message yesterday and had watched as he rode out of town without a word to anyone. Vin had kept watch all night, planning to head out at dawn if Chris failed to return. He was thankful when his friend rode in shortly before sunrise.

"What is it, Chris?" Vin finally decided to ask.

Larabee raised his head, meeting Vin's even gaze. For once the perceptive tracker could not interpret the man's look.

"Wait till Ezra gits down here. I don't want to have to repeat this," he answered and lowered his head. Chris's expression more than his tone warned the buckskin-clad lawman not to push the issue.

Vin glanced over at Josiah whose own blue-gray stare was fixed on the gunslinger. Both men shared a silent fear--trouble was coming.

Part 2

Wilmington slowly approached Ezra's imposing door--anything that concealed possible death was imposing in Buck's book. He decided to knock first. Maybe, with any luck, Ezra was already up and about. He rapped on the door and waited, hoping to hear something. After a few moments he realized he would have to enter the room. Buck took a deep breath and crouched down alongside the doorframe. Ever so slowly, he opened the door only to be greeted with a bullet, splintering the wood next to his face. Buck jumped and fell on his backside, wincing at the pain it caused his ribs.

"DAMNIT EZRA!" He yelled from his position on the floor.

Buck slowly stood up and glared at the Southerner. Ezra was propped up on one arm in bed, wearing a devilish smirk. His warm gun held loosely in his hand. Sleeping late was one of the few pleasures Ezra was able to obtain from this dreary backwater town and it amused him to remind everyone of that, especially Buck.

"I gather Mr. Larabee is requesting my presence?" Ezra asked as he placed his gun down on his nightstand.

"No, I just do this for my health," Buck growled and stormed away. He was fairly certain that Ezra wouldn't shoot him, but it was still unnerving. Buck stomped down the stairs, returning to the bar amidst the muffled snickers of his comrades. He glared at JD, whose face was buried in his hands. "JD, if I find out you been connin' me…"

JD threw on one of his most innocent smiles and shrugged his shoulders at Buck's accusation. God, that boy hung around Ezra too much, Buck thought.

Part 3

Half an hour later Ezra was impeccably dressed and casually descending the wide stairway. He paused momentarily halfway down and cocked his head. He could tell something was amiss and it usually meant long hours in the saddle, eating Buck's cooking or transporting some malicious prisoner: either scenario meaning less sleep and less time at the poker tables.

Ezra took the last step and gracefully sat in a chair across from Chris's brooding visage.

Nathan did a cursory exam of the enigmatic con man. Standish was immaculately dressed as always but there was a weariness that stole some of the spring from his step and brightness from his eyes. Nathan chalked it up to the recent encounter with the outlaws. Standish had put himself in harm's way for someone else and that still astounded the wary healer. Nathan felt guilty for doubting him.

Silence settled on the lawmen as they turned their attention toward their leader. They all felt the anguish that seemed to have a death grip on Larabee's heart.

Larabee raised icy blue eyes. Instead of their usual deadly confidence, his gaze held only a measure of sorrow.

Chris and Ezra didn't always see eye to eye but over the past few months they had begun to develop some sort of bond. Exactly what sort of bond, Chris, or any of the others, had yet to determine. Chris still wondered why Ezra stayed on as a lawman after his month of prescribed duty had come to an end. There were better towns for a gambler to ply his trade. Maybe, like the rest of them Ezra was coming to think of this town as home.

"I need you to ride to Red Fork with me, Ezra," Chris stated flatly.

Without revealing his surprise Ezra leaned back in his chair and considered the somber gunslinger's unusual request. The Southerner's eyes narrowed, and he took a deep breath to give himself time to think. "And why am I being recruited for an excursion to this den of debauchery?" He was vaguely familiar with the town that sat to the east, just under a day's ride.

"Because I need your smart mouth to ask some smart questions." Chris wasn't in the mood for the Southerner's repartee. He had thought long and hard about this and it seemed the most viable recourse.

Buck's easy-going grin slowly slipped from his face, and he stared at his long-time friend and boss. "What's this about, Chris?"

Larabee shifted his gaze over to the ladies' man and took a deep breath, exhaling before he answered. "It seems Ella Gaines has purchased property somewhere near Red Fork." Chris dropped the telegram on the table, hearing JD's soft whistle of disbelief.

"Man, I thought we'd seen the last of her," JD remarked. The woman had almost torn them apart and had definitely instilled more demons into Chris Larabee's soul.

Chris knew better. He had never stopped thinking of the woman, who was responsible for the death of his wife and son. Chris's dreams of Sarah and Adam now included Ella's demonic face, laughing as she watched them burn.

Sanchez reached over from the other table and picked up the telegram reading it silently. "Who is JGB?" Josiah asked, noticing the initials at the bottom of the wire.

"Just someone I know who works in the office of public record in Red Fork. I've had people in several towns keeping an eye out," Chris explained.

How could Ella Gaines even show her face in the same territory? Vin bowed his head, a twinge of remorse flickering across his face. If only he had shot her when they last met. He had scoured the entire countryside for her without finding a clue. Ella's father had been an expert tracker and had taught her some tricks.

Chris returned his attention to Ezra. "Figured you're good at gettin' people to open up, or at least mad enough to say the wrong things."

Standish didn't know if this was meant as a compliment or affront to his dubious character. Next to Tanner, Mr. Larabee was a puzzle that Ezra was still trying to piece together. He held a deep respect for the scrupulous lawman, something he'd never held for anyone else in his life. He actually wanted to help Chris, although he knew this would probably come as a surprise to Larabee, as well as to the others, who believed he'd rather weasel his way out of any work.

"And if I refuse your cordial offer?" Ezra bluntly asked.

"Then plan on spending the next six months on morning patrol." A lopsided grin warmed Chris's rugged countenance. He could play the gambler's game. He had a feeling Ezra was more than willing to help, but for some reason preferred to maintain his aloof appearance.

"Chris, why don't you take more of us with you?" Buck asked without looking at Ezra. Buck knew Ezra could hide his feelings, but he had learned to read the cardsharp in other ways and didn't want to see the hurt his doubt would cause. Buck considered Ezra a good friend, but sometimes the suave Southerner just seemed to be looking out for number one. He knew Ezra was dependable in a gunfight, but if Larabee and Standish were at each other's throats who would be paying attention to what was happening around them?

"JD and I can go with you," Buck added.

"You and JD are escorting the prisoner to Cedar Ridge tomorrow," Chris answered. "Vin has to scout for that army regiment, and Josiah and Nathan are expected at the Indian village. Anyway, this is goin' to be purely for information. If we discover anything I'll wire you; otherwise, we'll probably beat you all home."

Tanner didn't have to voice his displeasure; Chris could read it in the tracker's face. Vin hadn't trusted Ella Gaines from the moment he had laid eyes on her. He knew her to be dangerous: someone who would do whatever it took to get what she wanted--and what she wanted was Chris Larabee. Chris was a man who could normally take care of himself, but when it came to this demented woman from his past, Chris lost all reason.

"That prisoner ain't goin' nowhere. It won't hurt him none to stay here a little longer." Larabee's face darkened and his words came out tight. "If she is there, Buck, I don't want to tip my hand. It'll be easier with just the two of us." He would rather have taken Vin or Buck, or even Josiah with him. The thought of traveling with the cocky Southerner for several days didn't thrill him. However, as Ezra had stated on numerous occasions, 'the others definitely lacked the essential skills of tact and diplomacy,' and that was exactly what Chris needed now.

"I don't like it," Buck said.

"Neither do I," Nathan added. He thought that Chris was making a big mistake taking the self-serving conman, but then Ezra did have the gift of gab. He made the rest of them seem about as subtle as General Sherman on a Georgia Plantation.

Larabee looked over at Josiah, but the ex-preacher only stared silently over his clasped hands. He knew the arrows of doubt the others were unintentionally flinging at the impassive cardsharp hit their mark.

"I didn't ask if you liked it," Chris growled back as he surged up from his chair and strode out the bat-wing doors, ending any further discussion.

Buck suddenly rose from his chair and headed out, too. JD shifted rueful eyes from Buck's retreating back to Ezra's expressionless face.

Ezra knew the others still harbored doubts about him even though they told him they trusted him. He wondered if he would be forever trying to prove himself.

Ezra slowly rose. "Well, gentlemen, I guess I should prepare for tomorrow's venture." He tipped his hat and headed up the stairs.

Part 4

Wilmington scanned the walk as he stepped outside the saloon. He strode over to the railing where Chris was rolling out a cigarillo. Buck sidled up next to his friend, grasping the railing with both hands and staring across the street.

"Think this is wise, cowboy?"

Chris didn't answer as he stuck the cheroot in his mouth. Buck turned around and leaned his backside up against the railing, folding his arms across his chest.

"Can't you wait for us to come with you?"

"It might be too late then," Chris pointed out.

Buck audibly exhaled. "That bitch took my family too. You know how I felt about that little boy of yours, and Sarah was the best thing that ever happened to you." Buck paused and turned his head to look at his long-time friend. "She also took you. You've never been the same since. I guess I just want my revenge, too."

Chris knew Buck felt responsible. Buck had convinced him to stay in Mexico another day: a single day that might have made all the difference. Chris stopped blaming the cowboy years ago but he had blamed him. Hell, he had blamed the whole damn world. Now the person who was truly to blame was within his reach.

"I have to do this, Buck. I need to end this for me," Chris drew in a sharp breath and closed his eyes. "And for my wife and son."

"I know, but you don't have to do it alone, pard."

Chris smiled. "I won't. Ezra will be with me."

"You know what I mean," Buck replied. He knew he wasn't getting anywhere with the determined gunslinger.

"We're just going to scout around, see what's what," Chris said, trying to put his friend's mind at ease. "I really don't think she'll still be around."

"And if she is?" Buck interjected.

"I'll wire and wait for you all to show up."

Buck's dark eyes narrowed. "Chris, you're a damn liar."

A flash of amusement crossed Chris's rugged features, softening some of the hard lines around his mouth. Chris bowed and shook his head. "Maybe so, but we're still doing it my way." When Chris raised his head the humor was gone. "She's out there and I'm going to find her." Chris's voice was pensive but Buck could hear the deep, pounding rage that hid behind those words.

Part 5

Ezra was packing for the next day's trip when a soft knock interrupted his swirling thoughts and preparations. The shirts he held were placed on the bed and he glanced over to make sure his revolver was within easy reach before making his presence known.

"Come in." Ezra watched as Vin stepped smoothly inside and closed the door. He then returned to his packing, pulling out another crisp white shirt from the dresser. "Yes, Mr. Tanner, what can I do for you?"

"Keep an eye on Chris for me, will you?" Vin simply asked. He didn't like this. He trusted Ezra--it wasn't that. But Chris wasn't thinking straight at the moment, and Ella Gaines was not a person to be taken lightly.

Ezra could sense the anxiety in the young tracker's stance. "Mr. Tanner, I will take the utmost care of our illustrious leader."

Vin cracked a smile and tipped his hat. He stopped halfway through his turn. "And take care of yourself too, we need ya." He exited as smoothly as he had entered.

A small smile crept up the corners of Ezra's mouth. Concern from another was not something he was accustomed to but he had to admit the feeling it elicited was rather pleasant.

He was suspicious of Larabee's motives to have him along. Admittedly, he would be able to acquire any information that Chris requested. His last meeting with Ella Gaines was not one he liked to dwell on. He had gained and lost a fortune all in the space of a couple days. And he nearly lost the only home he had ever known.

Part 6

The early spring morning was lacking in warmth and the sun was barely visible on the horizon. Larabee looked up from his horse's stall as Standish entered the stable in a dark mood and muttering a litany of complaints. Chris shook his head and continued saddling his horse, already starting to dread the long trek with the temperamental cardsharp. Well, at least Standish saw fit to be on time for once. He knew Ezra was the best man for this. The con man could filch information as easily as he could take a person's money playing cards.

Ezra set down his half-empty mug of coffee and finished buttoning up the buckskin jacket he had decided to don after getting the first frosty feel of the morning air. He ceased his grumbling when he noticed that Chris was also in the stable.

"Mr. Larabee, I see our fellow compatriots have already departed," Ezra commented, noticing the empty stalls. Why was he suddenly so nervous? He felt like a young boy trying to impress his father.

"Yep, Josiah and Nathan left last night," Chris replied as he opened the stall door and led his horse out.

Standish went to his horse and started to saddle him up. The chestnut nickered his aversion to being saddled at such an ungodly hour. "My sentiments exactly, old friend," Ezra murmured to his horse as he patted him on the neck. "But let's put on a good show of enthusiasm for this occasion."

Standish paused a moment and looked over his horse's back and saw Chris checking his saddlebags just outside. Maybe this little trip could be put to good use; maybe the two men could work out their differences. Ezra thought highly of the esteemed leader, though he would never tell him. He wasn't sure how the stoic lawman felt about him. And why did he care? Ezra had caught himself more than once concerned about how the others perceived him. His mother would be truly disappointed and probably demand that he leave Four Corners before he became useless as a con man. He would never admit it to her, but he liked feeling useful and a part of something important. Why couldn't he express his feelings about things that actually made him happy? When he was very young he remembered telling his father that he loved him-he never saw him again.

Ezra picked up his coffee cup and let out an exasperated sigh when he noticed that it was now empty. He glared back at his horse, but the amusement in his green eyes belied his show of displeasure. "I guess you needed a stimulant, too. I hope the beverage was to your liking." The horse snorted and Ezra rolled his eyes at his steed's antics.

Ezra joined the eager gunslinger outside the stable, loosening his coat as the sun endeavored to warm up the frigid air. Ezra's boots crunched on the frost-covered ground and a plume of his breath wafted out in front of him.

Chris effortlessly flung his sinewy frame over his horse's back, imperceptibly tightening his knees and getting immediate co-operation from the animal beneath him. He allowed himself the faintest of smiles as Ezra followed his mount. "You ready?"

Ezra opened his mouth, prepared to retort with his normal sardonic attitude, but changed his mind. "Yes, Mr. Larabee, I do believe I am." Chris's brow raised in puzzlement.

Ezra lightly spurred his horse forward and past Chris's stunned expression.

Part 7

Buck and JD had been on the trail for several hours, and Buck was glad when he could finally shuck off his coat and soak up the warmth of the late morning sun. His ribs felt better this morning, but the jarring movements of his horse still reminded him how sore he was. Buck looked over his shoulder at JD who was leading another horse and trying to ignore the constant whining of their prisoner. Mitch Radcliff, the lone survivor of the Marselles' gang, sat resentfully in the saddle; his hands tied to the saddle horn.

"Can't we rest?" Radcliff complained. He was not happy. Radcliff had hoped to stay in Four Corners and find a way to escape, but now he was heading for Cedar Ridge and a rendezvous with the gallows. To top it off the lawmen were forcing him to maintain an intolerable pace. They hadn't even had breakfast and it didn't look like they were going to stop for lunch either.

"No," Buck curtly replied. He was getting tired of the man's constant grumbling.

JD squinted back at the prisoner then ahead at his friend, his black eye only now starting to open up. "Hey, Buck, maybe we should let the horses rest. We're pushing them awfully hard." He was worried about his friend and mentor. The farther they got from town the more agitated Buck seemed to get. Usually the young Easterner enjoyed these trips with Buck, he was like a big brother to him. But today was different: Buck was acting like someone with a burr in his britches.

"We ain't stoppin' till we get this sack of shit to Cedar Ridge," Buck announced. "Then we're getting fresh horses and headin' back home."

Buck stared off at the overlapping foothills, his heart pounding hard in his chest. He had tried to dismiss the gut-wrenching feeling that something terrible was about to happen. But the further they got from Four Corners, no, not the town--Chris, the worse it got.

"I thought we were goin' to stay in town a bit," JD questioned.

"There's been a change in plans," Buck replied, the anger in his voice dwindling into frustration.

JD's brow creased under his dark hair.

"Buck, what's wrong?"

"I don't know." Buck's voice was barely above a whisper and it sent a shiver down JD's spine.

"You don't think Chris will shoot Ezra?" JD asked, only half in jest. This was always a possibility when the two men were in close proximity to each other, and now they were alone together. "I mean...you know how crazy Ella Gaines makes Chris. What if'n Ezra gets in the way or somethin' and Chris forgets that Ezra is a friend."

Buck chuckled and wished it was that simple, but the dull ache in his gut refused to be pacified.

JD looked back at his bewildered prisoner, who stared at his two captors.

"What's the hold up? Are we restin' or what?" Radcliff hollered.

"Shut up!" Both gunslingers yelled back.

Buck spurred his horse forward, and JD quickly followed. Radcliff settled back in his saddle as his horse was pulled along.

"Okay, there's got to be some law about abusin' the..." Radcliff's complaint was ended as JD turned around and shot off his hat. They were the last words heard from the outlaw for the remainder of the day. The man now believed the two lawmen were loco and he began to fear for his life.

Part 8

Chris and Ezra rode in silence most of the day. One lost within the horrors of past thoughts and memories-and within the words of a telegram. The other was lost among his own swirling reflections, which had, rather surprisingly, turned toward the gunslinger. When they first left Four Corners Chris appeared unwavering in his desire to face the woman who had destroyed his life. Now, as they closed in on their objective, the stoic leader seemed to be growing apprehensive. To face one's demons again and again can take a toll on anyone. Ezra refrained from his usual cavalier attitude while they were on the trail, partly because no one could save him from Larabee's wrath should he spark it.

They were nearing Red Fork but it was still early and Chris wanted to wait until evening before they entered the town, hoping there would then be plenty of activity to hide their entry. Standish pulled out some rations and tried to turn them into a palatable meal. He wasn't much of an outdoorsman but could manage in a pinch. There had been many times when staying in a town would have been detrimental to his health.

Standish glanced over the low burning fire at the silent gunslinger. His saddle sat on the ground, and he leaned against it, his plate untouched beside him. Chris seemed to have forgotten the gambler was even there. The gunslinger's normal impassive mask had slipped away, revealing an expression of sorrow. Ezra quickly diverted his eyes back to the orange and red flames, feeling as if he had intruded on some private matter. To see Chris Larabee in pain was a very sobering sight.

Two months had passed since they had met Ella Gaines and the two men had formed a cordial truce. Ezra didn't think that Chris thought of him as a greedy, self-absorbed con man, at least, not all the time. And Ezra didn't think of Chris as an insane and inexplicably driven killer. When the seven last faced Mrs. Ella Gaines, Standish had to admit that for a time, his only concern had been the possession of a rather sizeable diamond, which he had hoped would ensure his future. However, the valuable gem was unexpectedly torn from his grasp. Ezra would do all he could to help Chris, not just out of a sense of loyalty or duty, but because he considered the man a friend. He had never admitted this to anyone.

Ezra decided to try to break Chris from his self-imposed hell, not wanting the man distracted when they entered the town. He secretly hoped Ella Gaines would not still be around or that this was all just a case of mistaken identity. The woman had to know that Larabee would kill her on sight and preferably with his bare hands.

"Mr. Larabee?"

Chris raised his head to stare back at the gambler, not really seeing him. Ezra could see in Chris's blue eyes that his mind was still drifting.

"Chris," Ezra said again, raising his voice. "I realize my culinary skills are not up to par with Mr. Sanchez's, but certainly the meal is edible."

Chris stared at the Southerner, not fathoming for a moment what the man was talking about. He shook himself out of his dreary deliberations. "Sorry, the meal's fine. Just not very hungry."

"Why did you request my company on this excursion?" Ezra knew very well he could have switched assignments with Buck or even Josiah.

"I told you. You're the best man for the job," Chris simply replied.

Ezra smiled faintly and accepted his answer. It did make sense if they were only gathering information. Ezra's smile faded-- nothing was ever that simple with Chris Larabee. Perhaps Chris had chosen him because of all Larabee's men he would be the easiest to lose. Ezra believed that if he met with an unfortunate demise Chris would only mourn the loss of a man, not a friend.

"What do you intend to do once we apprehend this felonious female?" Ezra asked, shaking off the sullen feelings.

"Haven't thought that far." Chris released a tired breath and rubbed at weary, dust-blurry eyes. "If I had never met Ella life would be so different," Chris unexpectedly continued, an abiding sadness filling his eyes and his voice. "Sarah and Adam would still be alive."

The fire popped, filling the small space of silence between the two men.

Ezra winced at the guilt in the dark-clad gunslinger's voice. He had no experience dealing with someone else's emotional turmoil, hell; he wasn't even able to deal with his own. For a con man to show emotion, especially regret or trepidation was to show weakness and allow one's prey to get the upper hand. Ezra pushed aside his usual veneer. "Fate is a strange animal, Mr. Larabee."

"You would know, wouldn't you? With a mother like Maude you were destined to be what you are," Chris replied with more vehemence than he had intended. He inwardly berated himself for taking his frustrations out on the gambler.

Ezra chuckled. "So true, Mr. Larabee, so true," he agreed.

Larabee cracked an apologetic smile. He took a deep, calming breath, trying to release the tension building in his body. "Anyway, Ez, I might need a Southern gentleman to stop me from strangling Ella Gaines with my bare hands."

"I may have been remiss in offering my heartfelt condolences at your loss."

Chris shrugged staring intently into the flickering flames. "It was a long time ago."

"Time is not always the healer people believe it is," Ezra casually remarked. Chris raised his head abruptly and focused his attention on the con man for a moment, stunned by the insightful comment. Ezra was right; time didn't heal all wounds and especially ones where the scab was forever being peeled back and the wound exposed.

"I can only imagine what it must have been like to lose someone so near and dear to your heart," Ezra continued. He noticed that his words struck a chord deep within the gunslinger.

Larabee detected the hint of sadness, or was it envy in the conman's words? The others, like himself, had all lost someone close and knew the pang of loss. Had Ezra ever experienced the death of a loved one? Or was it that there was no one close enough to him to garner such an emotion. The latter thought brought a pang of guilt and sorrow to Chris's heart. He had to wonder whatever happened to the gambler's father.

Part 9

Josiah stood behind Nathan and watched him apply a splint to a little boy's arm. The Indian child squirmed under Nathan's gentle ministrations as he tightened the cloth strips. Sanchez set a bucket of water down and stared out toward the east. He flexed the fingers of his wounded arm, grateful to be getting some feeling back. His huge frame shuddered when a flock of birds rose up from some nearby trees. He couldn't tell what they were, but their small dark bodies swooped and dove along the rise then disappeared over the ridge.

"There now, no more racing your sister up any trees for a while, okay?" Nathan smiled and rubbed the boy's head as he raced off. The healer stood up and stretched, unaware that Josiah was standing behind him until he bumped into the huge man.

"Ay, Josiah what's up?"

"Josiah? Hello?" Nathan waved his hand in front of the ex-preacher's face, startling him. Nathan peered in the direction that had so captivated his friend and saw nothing but the low lying scrub.

"What's wrong, Josiah, see those crows again?" Nathan chuckled.

"Nah, something worse, a feeling." Josiah's brow furrowed and he wiped the back of his hand over his lips. He had a premonition--it was the only way he could explain the feeling--the not so pleasant tickling that ran down his spine. He felt like he was coming to a waterfall and preparing for the sudden drop.

Nathan cocked his head to the right, allowing his bewilderment to show through. "Don't suppose you could be more particular 'bout this feeling?" He had finished checking the Indian children, but he still wanted to see some of the older members of the tribe. Looking at Josiah he started to get the feeling the others might have to wait.

"Something's not right. I believe some of our brothers might be headin' for trouble."

Nathan ran a hand down his now troubled visage. The others all had a penchant for finding trouble. Sometimes Nathan believed that only Josiah and he had any real common sense.

"We need to get back to town." Josiah turned and walked toward the horses. The suddenness startled the healer for a moment…he stared after his friend then huffed and chased after him.

Part 10

Chris and Ezra waited for dusk before entering the small town of Red Fork. Both men kept their eyes peeled for any sign of Ella Gaines. The town was alive with all manner of men and women, most riding high on the influence of various drink and the festivities taking place throughout the town. Chris didn't see any sign of the law. He planned to talk to his contact at the Records Office in the morning. He still couldn't understand why Ella would purchase property so close to Four Corners.

"I'm goin' to get a room at the hotel," Chris explained to Ezra who was already scrutinizing the saloon across the street.

Ezra absently removed a deck of cards from his coat pocket. "And I shall see what information I can ascertain on our infamous Mrs. Ella Gaines."

Larabee smiled and shook his head. "I'll be waitin'. Just be careful."

"Always." Ezra tipped his hat and headed toward the saloon.

Part 11

Ezra stepped inside the saloon, allowing the swinging doors to flap in-sync, and close. He observed an opulence that was out of place in a town so far off the beaten path. A tear-drop chandelier hung in the center of the room and bar glasses lined the shelves behind the long polished bar. Even the barmaids were finely dressed in colorful gowns that enhanced their many firm attributes. Someone had recently put an appreciable sum into this place. He stepped aside for a couple of cowboys staggering past, holding each other up. Then he found what he was looking for: three men, sitting at a center table, one wearing a sneer that probably never left his face. The other two just looked bored.

Ezra confidently stepped up to the table and flashed a wide smile, revealing his gold tooth. "Gentlemen, I'm new to your little community and would like to partake in a friendly game." Ezra pulled out a large wad of cash, knowing the sight would quicken agreement between the three men. Ezra smiled as a chair was pushed out for him. He wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible, for Chris's sake.

"Have a seat," one of the bored patrons replied.

Standish gracefully slid his lean frame into the offered chair. The bored looking men were exactly who he needed, the other was a little disconcerting. The third man's scowling face didn't hide his distrust, and Ezra knew he'd have to watch himself. Ezra began shuffling the deck and waved to a waitress for drinks.

"So, how did such a provincial town come to acquire such a magnificent saloon?" Standish asked as he dealt out another hand. He allowed the three men to win their share to keep things friendly. They were decent enough card players, but still not good enough to challenge his skill. Ezra had discovered that the grim faced gentleman went by the name Clifton. The other two were brothers, Frank and Wiley.

"See that tall, bald fellow talkin' at the bar," Wiley replied, picking up his cards, his lips twitched slightly as he looked at his hand.

"His name is Leo Kimball. He's the sheriff here and owns this place," Wiley finished, discarding three cards.

"Yeah, word is he hooked up with some rich dame," Frank added, not hiding his envy. "Man, I wish I could be so lucky."

"He's not a man you want to cross," Clifton quietly added.

"Really?" Ezra raised a quizzical eyebrow and ignored Clifton's warning, though inwardly he took it very seriously. Ezra glanced over at Kimball. The tall, bald man with a drooping mustache didn't look like Ella's type, but then anyone who could further her agenda would be her kind. Now he had to discover what the agenda was. He abhorred roughing up a woman, even one like Ella, but the sheriff wouldn't be a problem…not at all.

"Does anyone know the name of this woman who has seen fit to grace him with financial security?" Ezra asked, flipping down two cards and dealing himself a full house.

Clifton raised wary dark eyes and glared at the inquisitive cardsharp, causing the hairs on the back of Ezra's neck to prickle. Ezra felt like he just walked into the lion's den and woke the lion. Oh well, you can't outrun a lion, might as well continue with the game and hope the lion wasn't hungry.

"Nope, seen her though," Frank answered. "Dark hair, real purty thing, a bit high an' mighty actin'. She owns the ranch three miles North of town."

Ezra continued to ply the three cowboys with drinks throughout the evening. He watched as Sheriff Kimball finally left the saloon. If he and Chris could get the Sheriff alone they might get the answers they needed.

"Gentlemen, if you'll excuse me I have other obligations to attend to." Ezra swept his winnings off the table and stood. Placing his hat on his head, he noticed the shifty look in Clifton's eyes. He quickly bowed and left. He knew that Larabee would be climbing the walls like a caged cat by now, and he thought it prudent to inform him of what he had uncovered.

Clifton watched as the gambler left and then rose from his chair and walked out the back of the saloon.

Part 12

Ezra crossed Red Fork's wide main street and entered the Hotel. The woman at the front desk was alert, even at this late hour and watched him come in. No luggage she noted. By the worn look of his fine clothes she guessed he was a gambler-probably attracted to the saloon's new trappings.

"Good evening, Madam," he said warmly, flashing his gold tooth as they nodded to each other. "I believe my associate has already acquired our accommodations at your fine establishment." She stiffened, her sharp mind running quickly through the evening's clientele. She failed to recall any young woman who would be waiting for this handsome, auburn haired gentleman.

"I'm afraid my business associate is not the delightful companion a gentleman hopes for," he said, revealing her musings, "but a friend indeed." She smiled, enjoying his easy candor and opened her ledger.

"He has reserved adjacent rooms," she said surprising him, "that is--if your associate is a man of less colorful attire than yourself."

Ezra laughed and brushed off the sleeves of his fine red jacket. "That, my dear woman, would be him."

Larabee paced the small hotel room and glazed out the window that overlooked the saloon at every pass. It had been over three hours. He wasn't happy about sending the urbane Southerner out alone, but he couldn't risk being seen by Ella if she happened to be in town. At least he hadn't heard gunfire. He hated putting one of his men in danger. But if there was any information to be had, Ezra was the one to get it.

Chris was genuinely worried for the cardsharp. Ezra had five minutes to walk through that door or he was going after him. The thought had barely left his mind when Ezra silently slipped into the room, prepared for the revolver Chris pointed at him. Chris quickly holstered the weapon. "What 'cha find out?"

"Well, Mr. Larabee, it appears Mrs. Gaines has bought herself a sizable ranch not far from here." Ezra crossed the room, removing his hat and stepping up to the bed. "She's also been seen in the company of a disreputable fellow, who is the town's sheriff and goes by the name Leo Kimball." Ezra sat down on the bed, bouncing lightly on the uncomfortable mattress, before continuing. "Apparently, Mrs. Gaines is financing Sheriff Kimball's expensive life style for whatever reason I couldn't devise."

"So, she's settled here?" Chris asked. This didn't make sense, unless she wanted Chris to eventually find her.

"It would appear so. Apparently she is unconcerned with being detected."

Chris rubbed his chin, starting to get a bad feeling.

As if reading Chris's thoughts, Ezra added, "I suggest we proceed somewhat cautiously as I feel Mrs. Gaines has a strong hold on this town and I may have tipped our hand."

Before Ezra could elaborate the door was abruptly kicked open, and three men filled the doorway with guns drawn. Ezra reached for his gun but felt Chris's hand on his arm, stopping him. Chris turned to face the intruders and Ezra hadn't failed to notice that the dark-clad gunslinger had unconsciously stepped in front of him--was Larabee protecting him?

The two lawmen reluctantly raised their hands, taking notice of the badges the three men wore. Ezra swore under his breath as Clifton appeared, the grinning visage of Sheriff Kimball at his side.

Clifton scurried over and grabbed Chris's guns, and then went over to Ezra and removed his guns and the wad of cash he still had in his pocket.

"Oh, don't forget that fancy rigged derringer that Mr. Standish has up his sleeve," Kimball exclaimed.

"Mrs. Gaines doesn't forget much," Ezra quietly stated. Clifton roughly pulled off the Southerner's jacket and stared at the fancy rigging on his arm.

"Take it off," Clifton growled.

Ezra slowly unstrapped the bindings and allowed the device to fall into Clifton's waiting hand.

"Who the hell are you?" Chris snarled at the bald man who stood in the doorway, overseeing the actions of his two men.

"Sheriff Leo Kimball, at your service," he greeted. When Clifton told him some fancy dressed cardsharp was asking about him and Ella he couldn't believe it. Ella had warned him that someone would come and do exactly that, although she had told him that it would probably be someone dressed in buckskins, or a mustached cowboy. The Southerner was unexpected, but it didn't matter. What did matter was that they had Larabee. He looked over at the darkly dressed lawman and slowly smiled as he rubbed his hand over his bare pate.

"So, you're Chris Larabee," Kimball snorted, "Ay, Graham, what'cha think? He ain't so tough."

"Sure ain't, boss."

"I gather this intrusion is due to the fact that I asked the wrong questions?" Ezra intoned.

"Nah, you asked the right questions, just asked the wrong people," Kimball laughed, laying a heavy hand on Clifton's shoulder. "Clifton, here is on my payroll. Ella knew you'd be coming and set up this whole reception."

Chris stood coolly; his azure eyes blazed, disclosing the anger that existed and grew inside him. It had been a trap, and deep down he had known it would be. Damn, why had he brought the gambler? He should have come alone but if he had tried to do that he would have had six lawmen following him.

"What do you want?" Chris finally voiced.

"Oh me? I don't want anything, but Mrs. Ella has plans for you."

"Then let my partner go and I'll come peacefully," Chris stated, glancing over at Ezra and daring the smart-mouth gambler to say anything. Ezra chose to remain silent, figuring that if he were allowed to leave he could get the others.

"Doesn't work that way. She has plans for him too," Kimball replied.

This caused Chris's jaw to clench, and it didn't tickle Ezra's fancy either. What could Ella Gaines want with him?

"Now come along and no one has to get hurt...yet. You're both under arrest."

"What's the charge?" Chris quipped.

"Oh, I'll think of something," Kimball laughed.

Part 13

Vin shifted in his saddle and looked over his shoulder for the hundredth time that morning. He was not normally the nervous type, but something was driving him to distraction, and he was fidgeting like a greenhorn gunfighter. He felt a terrible need to return to town.

Vin pulled up his horse, stopping in front of a large gap between two high cliffs. He could feel the growing heat radiating off the stone walls, and his eyes expertly scanned up and down the smooth sides of the cliffs. A young Sergeant pulled up alongside him.

"What's the problem?" The Sergeant had noticed how his scout didn't seem to have his mind on his job, and he was about to voice his concern.

Vin turned and looked at the Army man. "This arroyo will take you all the way through."

The Sarge's eyes narrowed, and he looked at the ravine, and then returned his attention to his scout. "You're not coming with us?" That had been the arrangement. They were to be led all the way through the canyon to the other side.

"Nope," Vin slowly replied.

The Army was trying to map out the surrounding area. They said it was to chart out land for both the Indians and the swelling ranks of white men who were filling the West. Vin had his doubts that this was their true intent. He didn't trust the Army, but the money was good, and if it was true, maybe it was a step in the right direction.

"You're contracted for the whole way."

Vin rubbed a rough thumb over his lower lip and glared back at the army man. "Sorry, something just came up. I won't take any money and you and your men will get through just fine without me." Before any further protest, Vin reined his horse around and rode off.

The Sarge glared after the buckskin-clad man and shook his head. "Damn civilian," he muttered. Raising his arm he and the rest of his men entered the narrow canyon way.

Part 14

Chris swung around as he was shoved from behind into a cell, attacking the bars as the door slammed closed. Ezra was shoved inside an adjacent cell, barely keeping his feet.

"Hope you fellas enjoy your accommodations," Kimball laughed.

"I have to admit they're a step up from that rat trap you call a hotel," Ezra quipped.

"Boy, do you ever shut up?" Kimball growled. He had listened to the Southerner's constant barrage of questions and innuendoes all the way from the hotel. Half the time he didn't know what the educated man was saying and this only infuriated him. He didn't like looking stupid in front of his men.

Larabee glared at the talkative Southerner, silently sending him a warning to keep his mouth shut. He hated that he had gotten Ezra involved with this, but the con man wasn't helping matters. Chris had hoped to have Ezra ride out and get the others, while he took care of Ella personally.

Ezra removed his hat and dropped it on the rickety cot, not sure the flimsy piece of furniture could handle much more than that. Chris was pacing the other cell. The man must go through a lot of boots.

"Mr. Larabee, this needless expulsion of energy is counter-productive," Ezra good-naturedly commented.

Chris violently grabbed the bars. "And what would you suggest we do?" he said angrily. "The others won't be back to town for days." Chris slapped the bars and turned his back on the maddeningly composed gambler.

"I suggest we remain calm and think of a way out of here." He stared intently at the locks on the cell doors. They were new, but nothing he couldn't take care of if he had the proper tool. The armed guards outside the door were another problem. He and Chris were defenseless, but Ezra figured Chris could take care of that end.

The town was slowly quieting. Ezra sat silently in the dark cell, deprived of even the moon's luminous glow. He heard Chris slide down the wall and was probably now sitting on the floor of his cell. Ezra leaned forward on the cot feeling the unsteadiness of the furniture.

"Ever wonder why none of us have moved on?" Ezra's soft accent broke the heavy silence. He wished he could see the expression on Chris's face.

"What the hell are you talkin' 'bout?"

Ezra smiled at Chris's sharp tone that was generally reserved for him.

"You ever think of movin' on?" Ezra asked simply.

Chris was quiet for a moment. In the beginning he had thought that he and Vin would have left for Tacosa by now.

"Used to, not so much anymore," Chris answered truthfully.

"Exactly my point. In reality we all should have gone our separate ways long ago, instead, we cling to something none of us understand. We all seemed to have been afflicted with the same inability to leave our quaint municipality, or each other."

"Why you reckon that is?" Chris asked. He knew the con man was trying to divert his attention from their present predicament. He decided to play the game.

"That, I have yet to discern." Ezra's voice carried a strong note of curiosity and wonder. He too had found it hard to even contemplate leaving Four Corners and the camaraderie of the six other gunslingers. He had even tried to ride out a couple times only to turn around.

Chris chuckled. "Well, when you do let me know."

"I will indeed, Mr. Larabee."

Part 15

The next morning found both gunslingers awake and sitting on their cots. They had taken turns sleeping, not trusting their captors, who had stood guard just outside the door. The rumbling of Ezra's stomach reminded them that they had not eaten. Chris rubbed his own empty stomach.

"Maybe the plan is to starve us to death," Ezra quipped.

The outer door to the cell area opened and Ella Gaines' lithe form entered. Kimball and two of his deputies followed close behind the elegant woman. Ella stopped several feet from Chris's cell and looked lovingly at the man. Chris wanted to rip her cold heart out.

There she stood: the woman who had destroyed his life. Chris shook with a rage that threatened to boil over. Ella Gaines was a beautiful woman but Chris saw only the woman responsible for the death of his wife and child. He couldn't believe he was this close again, yet unable to exact any revenge.

"I knew we'd find a way back to each other..." Ella murmured like a contented cat. "And acknowledge the great love we share."

"Come a little closer and I'll acknowledge it," Chris growled.

Ella maintained her adoring smile. "Ah, I sense a little hostility."

Ezra rolled his eyes as he leaned against the bars with arms folded across his chest. He couldn't believe it. This woman actually thought she still had a chance with Larabee. The woman was completely delusional.

"What's this all about?" Chris growled. He couldn't figure out what Ella hoped to gain by keeping him prisoner.

"As I have always maintained, my love, we are predestined to be together. I figured if I just gave you a little time you'd come to realize that."

"You killed my wife and son!" Chris yelled out at her. His face showed all the disgust he felt for this woman, but he didn't think that Ella saw this. Ella wiped at an imaginary tear in mock remorse.

"I forgive you for not appreciating what I've done for you, for us," Ella said as she raised her eyes to meet Chris's angry glare. "And I am truly sorry it had to come to that. But you had to be made to see that no one can stand in the way of our happiness."

Chris listened with a deepening frown to the same words that had been written on a letter that she had sent him. "You're crazy."

Ella's smile changed into something very unsettling for both lawmen, and Ezra got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He could tell that Chris wanted nothing more than to get his hands around her throat and right now Ezra wished she would oblige him.

"All I've ever wanted is you, Chris," Ella openly admitted, her arms crossed against her bosom, and her liquid brown eyes looking lovingly, if not a little hungrily at Chris.

"Madam, I would suggest that you consider modifying your desire," Ezra calmly drawled, the faint lines of a smile never leaving his face.

A flash of pure hatred and madness raced across Ella's face, twisting her porcelain features and promising retribution.

Ezra didn't even flinch, although his insides felt like they liquefied a bit.

The gambler had been an unpredicted surprise. Ella had anticipated Buck or the long-haired tracker. If all seven had come she would have just vanished like before. She now wondered if her plan would work. Buck was Chris's oldest friend. She knew that her love was close to Tanner. But Standish? She had no idea how he fit in this puzzle.

Ella straightened her skirt as the stern lines on her face smoothed out.

"We will never be together." Chris's blue gaze burned with contempt as he stepped away from the bars. He was growing tired of Ella's game; he didn't even know the rules.

"Oh, but we will," Ella gleefully announced. "We're to be married tomorrow. It's all arranged."

Ezra's arms dropped to his side and he almost laughed out loud, but disbelief seemed to have taken his voice for the moment. He looked over at Chris whose stunned expression matched his own.

"I'll never marry you!" Chris sneered as the shock slowly wore off. She couldn't be serious.

"Oh, but you will. It's really quite simple," Ella explained, smiling toward Ezra. "After our marriage, Mr. Standish will remain in the capable and somewhat ruthless hands of Sheriff Kimball. You will come and stay with me at my ranch. One slip up, and Mr. Standish will meet with an untimely and painful end."

Larabee glanced at Ezra, whose face uncharacteristically revealed his shock. Chris then looked over at Kimball, who was thoroughly enjoying the situation. Chris lay his forehead against the bars. How can this be happening?

"How long you plan on holding him?" Chris asked, thinking that Ella couldn't possibly believe that she could keep Ezra locked up forever. For one thing, the others would eventually come looking for them, and for the other Chris hadn't met a jail cell yet that Ezra couldn't break out of.

Ella ignored Chris's question as her eyes lit up with excitement. "Oh, Chris, you'll absolutely love the ranch! It's everything we've ever wanted. Not quite as big as the last one, but together we can make it a home."

"HOW LONG?" Chris repeated.

Ella looked at Chris as if he was some impertinent child, pulling on her skirt. "Just until I'm pregnant. I figure you'll take care of me when I'm carrying your child. Then no one will be able to destroy the great love we share. And you'll come to realize that we are meant to be together as a family." Ella clasped her hands together in imaginary bliss. The twinkle of madness sparkling in her eyes.

"You can't do this, Ella," Chris softly said, his voice shocked by the revelation of having a child with this woman. She couldn't make him do it. Chris looked over at Ezra, who had settled down on his cot; his head leaned back against the wall. Yes, she could. He wouldn't allow anything to happen to the Southerner, and Ella knew this, she knew he would do anything to protect his men.

"I'll be by later to discuss our wedding plans."

Chris shivered as Ella's green gaze drifted over to Ezra then returned to meet his. "Till we're together again, my love." She blew Chris a kiss and tossed her long black hair over her shoulder as she abruptly left. Kimball's glare lingered awhile on his two prisoners pausing longer on the Southerner, and then he followed Ella out. His two deputies quickly falling in behind him. The clang of the solid outer door was the closing curtain on an appalling scene.

Ezra felt like he was looking at the scene of a terrible accident. He couldn't tear his thoughts away from the carnage. The gambler saw the look in Chris's eyes and knew the man wouldn't forfeit his life. Larabee would do what was asked of him. This was totally irrational in Ezra's book, but the wily cardsharp found that it had warmed his heart to the very core. Now, he just had to find a way to help Chris get out of this.

Part 16

Larabee fell heavily onto his cot, not believing what had just occurred. His gut clenched at the image of Ella carrying his child, and he thought he would become violently ill. No, he had to find a way out of this, for both himself and Ezra.

Ezra rose from the cot and came over to the bars that separated the cells. He hung his arms over the dividing cell bar and watched Chris stare blankly down at the stone floor.

"Chris, we'll get out of here..." Ezra's promise was cut short as the outer door again opened to allow four rather large and malevolent looking men access into the cell area.

"Ah, hell," Ezra murmured.

Without a word one of the men stepped forward and unlocked Ezra's cell. For a moment Ezra was preternaturally calm, a sense of the unreality of events had surely overtaken him. He stepped back as the four men crowded inside the small cell.

"Gentlemen," Ezra breathed out, his eyes darting wildly about the cell.

Chris jumped up and grabbed the bars that separated the two cells. What the hell was going on? Had Ella changed her mind about keeping Ezra? Both Chris and Ezra's expressions changed from bewilderment to horror.

"Alright boys, we can't touch that one," said Hawkes, a red-haired, mountain of a man. "But this one is fair game," he growled lecherously, the freckles on his face scrunching together.

"LEAVE HIM ALONE!" Chris yelled, his fear growing for the gambler.

The four men ignored the blond gunslinger's threats.

Two of the gruff looking men grabbed Ezra's arms, wrenching them behind his back. Ezra clenched his teeth tight, not wanting to voice the pain that ripped up his shoulder blades. The red-haired man stepped in front of the now restrained gambler and took hold of his chin between thick fingers. He forced Ezra to look right at him.

"Well, looky, looky aren't you the purdy one. Maybe you and I can have a little fun together." The red-haired man chuckled and rubbed at his crotch. He smiled salaciously as he saw the look of fear come to Ezra's face.

Part 16a

Hawkes ran a callous hand down Ezra's cheek. "Take off his jacket."

The two men kept a tight hold as the third pulled off Ezra's fancy red jacket and vest, throwing them to the floor. Chris's breaths were coming out hard and fast. What could he do? He'd didn't think he could just stand there and watch what was about to happen, but neither could he turn his back on Ezra.

The red-haired man grabbed the front of Ezra's fancy shirt and ripped it open, buttons flying and ricocheting off the walls. Hawkes licked his lips at the smooth muscular chest that was revealed to him. "Shit, you sure are in good shape, lawman." He dragged a hand lazily over Ezra's chest, yanking the shirt down to his waist.

Ezra closed his eyes when he saw the bulge in the man's pants. A shudder went through him as the large hand touched and caressed him. He kept trying to convince himself that this wasn't happening: then the bile rose up in his throat. Suddenly the two men holding him slammed him against the wall, someone held his head, flattening his cheek on the cold stone.

Hawkes came up behind and grabbed the conman's hips, pressing against him. The men whooped with laughter as Hawkes licked the gambler's neck and sunk his teeth deeply into his shoulder. Ezra bucked desperately but his captor grabbed a handful of hair and whispered into his ear. "You a virgin? Guess we're goin' to find out." Hawkes' hand snaked between Ezra's body and the wall laying flat on the gambler's chest. Hawkes slid his rough palm down the tightly muscled abdomen and started fumbling with the front of Ezra's pants.

Part 17

The nausea that filled him at the thought of this brute laying hands on his person was enough to drive the Southerner into the untamed frenzy of a wild bronc. Using his captor's hold on his arms, Ezra released the weight from his legs and kicked backwards, the heel of his boot striking the red-haired guard in the crotch, sending Hawkes and his desires to the floor.

The men holding him were shocked by the sudden fall of their companion and loosed their grips. Ezra dropped from their grasps and spun around. He came up fighting, sending another of the guards to the floor with a kick to his solar plexus. The two remaining guards jumped on top of Ezra pulling him to the floor. They grabbed the crazed man's arms and wrenched them up forcing him to stand. One of the men then drove a fist into Ezra's mid-section, bringing forth a yelp of pain and subduing him in the process.

"Hey, Hawkes, you okay?" One of the guards holding Ezra laughed, looking down at Hawkes who was stilled curled up on the floor, trying to catch his breath. He had been surprised at Ezra's strength; apparently, there was more to this man than just his fancy clothes.

Hawkes gasped and wheezed as he slowly got to his feet, clutching his bruised balls. He glared at Ezra who was now bent over, his arms forced overhead. "Kill the son-of-a-bitch!" he hissed.

Standish braced for what he knew was coming. He tightened his stomach muscles and tried to shift slightly so the blows would strike his side and hopefully miss vital organs. Ezra's breath expelled from his lungs as Hawkes' huge hammer-like fists drove themselves brutally into his midsection, lifting him off the ground. The blows came quick and hard, making it difficult to inhale. Ezra felt himself growing light-headed. A straight punch connected with his jaw, snapping his head back where it struck the back wall. Another blow to the side of his head brought white splashes of light dancing within his vision. Two more upward blows connected with his stomach doubling him over again.

Chris shook the bars in helpless rage, fear and anger strangling his heart. He winced at every blow the con man endured.

The blows stopped as Ezra slumped within his tormentors' grasp. He took a couple of quick painful gasps to get air down to his oxygen-deprived lungs. Ezra was then lifted, his back slammed against the wall, his shoulders pinned firmly. He couldn't clear his vision. Vague images passed in front of him and an incessant ringing muffled the voices around him. He felt dazed and disconnected--even the pain was starting to drift away. Ezra turned his head to the other side when he felt his left arm being raised and stretched out, and then thought he heard Chris yell.


Standish couldn't recall ever having heard such raw terror in the stalwart leader's voice before. He didn't have time to consider the reason for Larabee's emotionally charged outburst as he caught the blur of a club out of the corner of his eye and felt the agonizing pain when it connected with his arm.

Standish screamed as his arm broke mid way between the wrist and elbow the jagged bone end tearing into muscle and flesh. He was allowed to crumble to the floor, cradling his now useless limb. His head spun and his vision blurred with tears. He swallowed back the bile that rose up in his throat. Ezra closed his eyes tight, forcing out the tears that traveled down his face, trying to concentrate only on the cold rock-slab floor beneath his broken body. Wave after wave of pain flooded his battered form, and he trembled weakly at the guard's feet.

The next kick broke two ribs; he felt and heard them snap as the delicate protective bones gave way under the vicious attack. Ezra's mind went numb as laughter cascaded all around him. In the midst of it he thought he could hear Chris's fury cutting through the perverse delight of his attackers. Ezra tasted the end of his life in the blood that filled his mouth. This was his last coherent thought as the room dissolved into a frenzy of fists, feet and laughter, drowning out Chris's promises of death.

Larabee lunged at the cell bars, reaching out as far as he could, trying to grab hold of one of the guards. He knew he was witnessing the death of one of his men; it was driving him to madness. Chris's fingers latched onto a collar, and he yanked the man back, almost tearing the ugly brute's ears off as he tried to force his head through the bars. Chris threw his arm around the man's throat and squeezed. He listened to the gurgles and sputtering of the man gasping for breath and trying to yell for help. Chris's anger didn't allow him to see the club that swung down, catching him above the eye and driving him to the floor. Chris struggled to raise his head. He met and held Ezra's pain filled green eyes, hoping to convey the regret he felt. As consciousness left him Chris knew the agony etched on the gambler's face would be an image that would haunt him till his dying day.

Part 18

Chris had no idea how long he was unconscious as awareness slowly seeped into his body. He found himself on a cot, a bandage wrapped around a head that felt heavy and unfocused. His first thought was that he had gotten drunk and for some reason Buck had been forced to hit him. It wouldn't be the first time. He glanced up and saw the barred window above the bed. By the position of the sun it was already late afternoon. Sudden recollection caused Chris to spring up on the cot, grabbing his head as a surge of pain flooded the area between his eyes. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes until the pain subsided enough so he could at least see. Chris pushed himself up to his feet, swaying slightly, and shuffled over to the bars that connected the two cells. He looked into the other cell. A dark wool blanket laid over a body on the floor. The body was completely covered, except for a hand that protruded from beneath the coarse fabric. Chris's breath quickened, and it felt like his heart had lodged into his throat. His hands gripped the bars so hard his knuckles turned white. A feral howl escaped his lips, coming up from the depths of his soul and ripping out his heart.

The men in the next room smiled and chortled at the heart-wrenching scream.

Part 19

Buck and JD had dropped their prisoner off in Cedar Ridge, much to his relief. JD managed to convince Buck that they needed to rest and eat or they would just end up falling out of their saddles. Buck grudgingly relented, knowing that the kid was right and he wouldn't be doing anyone any good if he got them in trouble, too. The two friends grabbed a few hours sleep and some food and headed back to Four Corners.

JD was quiet on the ride back to town, not voicing any protest or asking any questions. Buck's uneasiness had filled his own young heart, and he wanted to get back to Four Corners as quickly as possible. Nothing good ever happened when the seven split up. JD's young imagination started churning up terrible scenarios that could befall Chris and Ezra and he had to inwardly slap himself and concentrate only on the swiftly passing scenery.

When they finally rode into town Buck continued straight for the livery. The anxious cowboy pulled up his winded mount and jumped from the saddle. He barely missed being run over by JD's paint as the young gunslinger also smoothly leapt from his animal.

The two men rushed into the livery for fresh horses to go after Chris and Ezra. JD slammed into Buck's back, the taller gunslinger having come to a stop in front of him.

"Ay, Buck, JD, 'bout time y'all got back," a soft Texas drawl brought a grin to JD's boyish face.

"Yeah, we thought we were goin' to 'ave to leave without ya," Nathan said as he tightened the cinch on his saddle.

All five gunslingers paused and regarded each other with a mixture of wonder and concern, knowing what had brought them together, but unable to put words to their feelings.

Josiah inwardly smiled. He understood better than the others did; maybe it was his age, or his philosophical outlook on life, or who knows, maybe the man upstairs still had a use for him. Either way the ex-preacher knew all seven of them were bound together in some extraordinary way. There was a lifeline to each man, and when threatened, the others instinctively reached out to protect and restore that connection. Josiah watched as the mantle of command seemed to inevitably and without rancor, fall on the tracker's shoulders.

"We ready to ride?" Vin called out from atop his mount. He looked over his shoulder at four steadfast gunslingers ready to follow him to hell and back. It was a good feeling.

"Yeah, pard, let's do this," Buck eagerly replied as Vin spurred his horse forward and the five men galloped out of town.

Part 20

Chris sat on the floor, leaning against the bars that separated the two cells. His legs were brought up to his chest and his chin rested on his knees. He stared at the still body. His eyes focused on the motionless, ivory-white hand: the hand of his friend. His brow furrowed as his mind tried to dismiss what his eyes were showing him. Why had he put Ezra in such danger? He was now responsible for three deaths. Three people that he cared about killed by the same woman. The fire of hatred that burned in his heart became a raging inferno threatening to engulf him. Chris rested his forehead on his knees. He didn't know how long he sat on the hard floor of his cell. He had noticed the cell growing dark, but he didn't know if it was because the sun moved behind a cloud or if it had descended. He knew the others would never be able to forgive him for not protecting the inscrutable gambler. He'd never be able to forgive himself. It felt as if he had just lost a brother. Why did everyone he care about die?

Ezra found himself slowly rising up out of the blackness that had held him somewhere between life and death. He hated leaving it as his body would now register the abuse it had endured and turn it into pain. He felt lost and forlorn, and his fear was amplified by the silence. Was he dead? Was Chris? Maybe it would be better if he was dead then Ella wouldn't be able to use him to force the gunslinger's hand. Within his pain riddled world Ezra chuckled. He would be more useful to Chris dead…the thought had probably occurred to Larabee before.

A low moan reached Chris's ears, and his head snapped up. He stared at Ezra's shrouded body, searching for any sign of movement; any promise that what he had heard was not just his imagination. He saw the hand twitch and become still again.

"Ezra," Chris said quietly, getting on his knees and keeping his eyes on the blanketed form.


Chris's urgent and fear-filled voice penetrated through Ezra's pain, dissolving some of the misery and weariness that held him.

Chris gripped the bars of the cell then reached out to try and take hold of the gambler's outstretched hand. He couldn't quite reach the limp fingers. Chris thought a moment then pulled off his belt. Making a loop, he tossed it over the gambler's extended hand until he got a good hold. Chris slowly pulled his injured friend toward him, the sweat and blood that had accumulated beneath him reducing the friction. Chris hoped he wasn't hurting him any more. The blanket that covered Ezra remained over his face. As soon as the unconscious man was close, Chris pulled the blanket off and stared down into the younger man's slack features.


Larabee's heart raced in hope when he saw the gambler's eyes flutter and a soft moan force his lips apart. Chris frowned when he noticed the broken arm and the bruises that marred the dirty and blood-covered face. Blood had caked on the left side of Ezra's head turning his hair a rust color. Chris had to see those green eyes open. He gently patted Ezra's face, eliciting another groan. Ezra's shirt was ripped and bloodied and there was barely anything left of it. Chris ran his hands gently down Ezra's torso feeling the broken ribs and bringing forth another groan of pain.

"Easy Ez."

Standish stirred weakly. He kept hearing a voice and he thought it sounded familiar. Then he felt a coarse hand on his bare skin and the horror reawakened.

"No…no…," Ezra screamed and tried to push away. Blood pounded through his skull, driving him almost wild with its attendant pain.

Chris immediately released his hold on the gambler, realizing what he was doing to him. He kept his voice low and soothing.

"Ezra, it's me, Chris. It's over now. It's over."

The conman ceased his struggles and slowly forced his eyes open halfway. He looked up at Chris and tried to cover the tears he knew were showing on his face.

"Ezra, don't worry 'bout it, I won't tell a soul," Chris tried to reassure him. He noticed Ezra's efforts to compose himself.

Ezra closed his eyes for a moment and allowed the faintest of grins to grace his lips. "Thank-you," he whispered.

A shiver coursed through the gambler's body. Chris reached through the bars and managed to grab hold of Ezra's jacket that had been thrown into the corner. He laid the covering over Ezra's chest.

"Ya need some water." Chris turned his head to search his cell. A basin had been placed beside his bed containing a small amount of water. He had no way to get the basin through the bars.

"God, Ezra, I thought you were dead," Larabee admitted as he soaked his bandana and squeezed a couple drops of water into Ezra's mouth.

"The way I…feel…I wish I were," Ezra whispered, opening his eyes and staring blearily through the bars at the dark shape.

Chris gently swabbed the gambler's bloody face.

The outer door again opened, and Chris jumped up, prepared to protect his injured friend in any way he could, although at the moment he didn't know what he could do. Leo Kimball entered first with two of his men. The threesome stepped aside as Ella entered.

She glared over at Kimball. "Well, I guess your men were a little premature about Mr. Standish's death." She wasn't happy. She had allowed the men their fun, but they had gone too far. She needed the Southerner to keep Chris in line, at least for a little while.

Kimball smiled and shrugged. "Yeah, well, the way he looks I think that little mistake will soon be resolved."

Ella turned and slapped Kimball across his soft mustached face. "He's no used to me dead, you moron!"

Kimball rubbed a hand over his quickly reddening cheek. He put up with this woman's eccentricities because she had set him up in this town, even buying him the saloon. She continued to pay him a hefty salary as long as he did what she wanted. As soon as all this business was done Kimball planned to head east with his newfound wealth and live the good life.

Ella looked down at the tortured Southerner, so helpless and so handsome. She shook away her licentious thoughts and turned her attention to Chris.

"Who hit him?" Ella asked as she noticed the bandage wrapped around Chris' head.

"He grabbed one of my men; they had to subdue him," Kimball tentatively explained, prepared for any more retribution.

"No one touches him, but me. Is that understood?"

Kimball nodded in compliance. He knew he was already walking a thin line. He didn't want to lose everything that had been given to him.

Larabee stepped up to the bars, wishing he could just reach out and break Ella's neck. "Why?" Chris asked his voice hoarse with emotion.

Ella raised a dark eyebrow. "I figured with a little prodding Mr. Standish would be willing to convince you to marry me, if for no other reason than to save his own hide," Ella calmly pointed out. "Of course, the ruse of his death was Hawkes' idea, for which he was severely reprimanded."

Ezra guffawed, but it turned into a cough that sent tentacles of pain throughout his body. Chris knelt back down and laid a hand on his friend's chest. "Easy, Ez."

As Ezra regained his voice, he glared defiantly at the deranged woman from the floor. "You…make…me…sick," he gasped.

Ella laughed. "You do have some stupid friends, Chris."

"Get him a doctor," Chris demanded.

Ella smirked maliciously and reached into the pocket of her skirt, pulling out a small brown bottle. "I'm afraid this will have to be the extent of his medical treatment at the moment. If you behave after we're married I'll have the doctor see to him."

One of the deputies took the bottle of laudanum and slid it on the floor past the bars of Chris's cell.

"I'll be bringing a preacher by first thing in the morning. Mr. Standish can be our witness if he's up to it," Ella smirked. "Until tomorrow my love, adieu." Ella blew Chris a kiss.

Chris watched as Ella left the cell area. Before leaving one of the deputies set down a lantern, turning up the flame. Chris reached down and picked up the bottle of medicine.

Part 21

Standish felt his head lifted, it was awkward for Larabee through the bars, but he managed. Ezra then felt the bottle of laudanum at his lips and gratefully drank the pain-relieving medicine. Chris allowed Ezra a few sips then laid his head back down. "Sorry, Ez, until we know what we're going to do, we have to go easy on this."

Ezra nodded in agreement.

Chris then reluctantly stated, "Ez, I need to set your arm."

Standish groaned and turned his head away in acceptance, not wanting to watch the procedure. Chris took hold of Ezra's hand and grabbed above his elbow then smoothly pulled the bones back in place.

Ezra didn't bother trying to hold back the scream of pain--it would have taken more effort than he could afford. He squeezed his eyes shut, so tight that tears trickled down his cheeks. He wished he would just pass out, but it was not to be. His whole body re-ignited in pain at the abuse it was receiving. Chris used his belt to form a sling and eased it over Ezra's head, he then paused a moment, allowing Ezra to catch his breath.

"I'm sorry, Ez," Chris murmured.

"Had…had to…be done," Ezra breathed.

A sheen of sweat matted the gambler's auburn hair to his skull. His face was pale, except for the flush of fever that rose in his cheeks. Ezra's right eye was swollen shut and a livid bruise covered half his face. Strange horseshoe-shaped wounds marked his shoulder where that bastard Hawkes had bitten him. Bruises and welts ran up and down Ezra's sides and legs.

Pain and exhaustion siphoned off Ezra's remaining strength, and soon the gambler was once again unconscious. Chris bowed his head and laid a hand on Ezra's shoulder. He quickly went to work on cleaning the gambler's injuries.

Larabee stood up, trying to work the kinks out of his knees. He'd been doing what he could for Ezra for several hours but the man still looked like he was at death's door. The orange glow of the lantern cast cavernous shadows throughout the jail and gave Ezra an even more deathly appearance. Chris saw the shudder race through the cardsharp's body and grabbed the thread-bare blanket from his cot and threw it over Ezra's chilled form. He had done all he could and only hoped it was enough until that doctor or better yet, Nathan appeared.

Part 22

Morning was fast approaching, and Chris worried what would happen to his injured friend when he was taken away. He had seen the way the deputy had looked at Ezra, and Chris didn't think Ezra could survive that.

Larabee walked over to the window; the rising sun graying the undersides of the dark, ominous clouds that had earlier obscured the star-lit night. A clap of distant thunder rumbled through the building, giving notice of a coming storm. Chris hadn't slept all night-Ezra had needed him. The laudanum allowed the gambler some measure of sleep. Chris's thoughts drifted to his wife and son and the life they could have had together. Sarah might have had another child by now-a girl. Chris's hand struck at the stone wall. Why was he doing this to himself? His gut wrenched and his eyes blurred with impending tears--God, how he missed them.

Ezra woke slowly from his laudanum-induced sleep and turned his head to the side. He was able to open his eyes and time passed as he attempted to focus them. His brow furrowed as he caught the glint of something sticking out from between two sections of the floor. His good hand groped slowly about, and he picked up a long, flat piece of metal. Ezra brought the metal up to his face and examined it a moment.

"Mr. Larabee?"

Chris's thoughts were mercifully interrupted by Ezra's low Southern drawl. He stepped away from the window and knelt down next to him.

"How good are you at picking locks?" Ezra asked, grasping the flexible metal in a trembling hand.

Chris arched a sandy eyebrow. "Well, I'm no where near as talented as you," he chuckled. "But I can do it if I have the tools."

Ezra held out the piece of metal and Chris smiled as he took it. The Southerner never ceased to amaze him.

Ezra watched the outer door as Chris worked fervently on the lock, swearing under his breath as it refused to give, time and time again.

It took over thirty minutes for the lock to finally surrender to Chris's trial and error attempts. Larabee looked over at where Ezra lay. Lord, he looked even worse than before. Chris's gaze then drifted to the small window in his cell. The morning sun was lighting up the gray day.

"Ezra, it'll take too long to open your cell. We're running out of time."

"I'm well aware of that, Mr. Larabee." Ezra shifted his leg bringing forth a grimace of pain. He knew that Chris would not be able to open both cells in time. "I'm in no condition to travel…would only slow you down."

Chris's eyes darkened at what the con man was suggesting. "I'm not leaving you."

"Mr. Larabee…Chris, don't be a fool. The others need you, and I abhor the idea of that…demented woman…bearing you a child." Ezra knew if Ella Gaines became pregnant with Chris's child, she would be able to keep him for the rest of his life.

The dark-clad gunslinger stared at the cardsharp, realizing he'd never understand him, but glad he was a part of his life. He knew he would one day have to tell Ezra that. Chris remained in his cell and closed the door, leaving it slightly ajar, then called out. "Guard!"

One of the deputies entered, stopping in the doorway. "Yeah, what 'cha want?" He had been told to cater to Larabee in any reasonable way.

"How about some water and a razor so I can get cleaned up for my wedding?" Chris asked, rubbing at the stubble on his chin.

The guard cocked an eyebrow. "I ain't givin' you no razor."

"Okay, just the water then."

The guard picked up an ewer and approached the cell door. He paused a moment, and then leaned forward to examine the lock. He noticed several scratches and nicks on the metal. The guard raised his eyes to see the gunslinger smiling back at him. Chris slammed the door into the guard's puzzled face and watched as the dubious lawman crumbled to the floor. Chris grinned darkly, glad to have doled out some small punishment to one of the men who had attacked Ezra.

Larabee grabbed the deputy's gun. He sidled up alongside the heavy outer door and peeked out through a small opening to be certain that nobody had heard anything. The outer jail area was empty-thank God. He stuck the weapon into his waistband and took the keys from the guard's belt. He then dragged the unconscious man into his cell and left him on the floor. Chris quickly went to Ezra's cell and unlocked the door.

Larabee smiled at Ezra's tenacity as the con man struggled to sit up.

"I do believe…some of my resourcefulness…is rubbing off…on you," Ezra managed to gasp out.

"Ay, don't go insulting me now," Chris good-naturedly replied as he eased himself under Ezra's right shoulder and helped him to his feet, mindful of the broken ribs. All things considered, Chris would rather have left Ezra still, aware of the further damage that could be done by moving him now. The problem was that there were no other options. It was either get Ezra to his feet and out of here, or leave him here and expect further torture at the hands of Ella's guards.

Ezra clutched his side as a spike of pain cut through him almost doubling him over. He couldn't even tell where the pain was coming from, and it really didn't matter. His whole body hurt.

Chris halted briefly, as more of the color left the Southerner's face. "You okay?" He wrapped an arm around the smaller man's waist and fumbled in his pocket for the bottle of laudanum.

Ezra opened one eye to stare at the stoic gunslinger. "You're kidding, right?"

"Here, take the rest of this." Chris forced the bottle of laudanum into Ezra's good hand.

The gambler downed the rest of the pain medicine and threw the empty bottle aside. He wasn't sure he could make it. Ezra looked at Chris and knew he would have to, if only to save Chris from a fate worse than death.

Part 23

The rain was coming down in sheets and the two men were quickly soaked to the skin as they made their way out the back of the jail and down an alleyway. The heavy downpour was a blessing and a curse. It aided in hiding their escape, but Chris knew getting wet wasn't good for Ezra. He had to find shelter. They made it to the surrounding woods and headed west, toward home. There was no trail to speak of and the rain made the ground slick in some spots and like quicksand in others.

Chris squinted out through the driving rain, wishing he'd see one of his men riding toward them. Nothing--only barren rock and scrub awaited them beyond the boundary of trees. He had to get far enough away from town so they wouldn't be spotted. He held no delusion that Ella would just give up. He renewed his grip on the fading gambler. The man was starting to grow heavy. Chris reached over and patted Ezra on the cheek.

"C'mon Ez stay with me."

Ezra winced as he jerked up and started supporting some of his own weight, but Chris could see the pain etched on his face and feel it slowly stealing away the conman's strength.

"Sorry," Ezra muttered, his eyes remaining locked on the ground ahead of him. Chris frowned at the gambler's lack of vocabulary: this was not a good sign.

The rain had pasted Ezra's jacket to his body and the cold was soaking into his very bones. 'God, I hate the rain,' Ezra thought as he concentrated on keeping his feet. The laudanum had taken his pain past the point of sharpness, into a numb, pounding ache. What was he doing out in the rain? Nothing made sense, and he couldn't hold onto any clear, concise thought from the many that fluttered in his head. Ezra turned to look at the man who was holding him and forcing him to walk in the rain. Ezra was about to voice his displeasure but the thought was stolen from him when he stumbled. He gasped at the sharp pain that went up his side as Chris tightened his grip to keep him from falling.

Chris halted a moment to allow Ezra to regain his balance. The gambler's teeth were clenched in a grimace and he remained slightly bent over. Ezra looked up into Chris's worried visage and slowly straightened. Without a word they continued.

Part 24

"You fool!" Ella shrieked at Kimball. The Sheriff stood silently with his chin tilted up, trying to retain a measure of dignity under the barrage of insults. Ella glared at the unconscious guard still sprawled out in Chris's cell.

"Sorry, Ella dear, they couldn't 'ave gone far, not in the shape that Southerner was in," Kimball finally answered, trying to placate the incensed woman.

"You better hope not. I want everyone with me searching." Ella turned and pushed past the sheriff.

Kimball stood a moment and removed his hat rubbing his hand nervously over his bald pate. How had things gone so wrong? When he discovered Ella's plans to capture Chris Larabee he had almost backed out. But then she reminded him that she could take back the saloon and expose him for the corrupt man he was. No, he was in this too deep now.

Part 25

Ezra steps were faltering, and he was visibly shaking within Chris's grasp. The medication was beginning to wear off. Chris could see the muscles in Ezra's jaw quiver, his green eyes focused only on the next couple feet ahead of him. Chris caught the mumbled words, 'hate the rain,' and smiled. The gambler was seriously injured, miles away from any help, on the run from a sadistic woman and all he could think of was how much he hated the rain.

The rain tapered to a slow drenching drizzle as the two men continued their trek. Chris wiped his face and looked off to the right where a large outcropping of boulders lay strewn about like a child's marbles. Ezra was barely conscious. For such a lean man he sure weighed a ton. Larabee struggled now with the weakening gambler. He wanted to get far enough back in the rocks to make it difficult for anyone to see them. He laid Ezra down under a ledge and tried to make him comfortable.

"How you holdin' up?" Chris asked.

Ezra raised a hand and forced a weak smile to his lips then the hand fell limply across his chest as he fell unconscious. Chris could hear the labored breathing and knew he couldn't risk carrying the injured man for fear of causing more damage. He wished Nathan was here. Chris slumped down against the rocks. He didn't expect the others to come searching until at least tomorrow…by then…it would be too late. He could leave and try and find help, but he didn't know whom he could trust in Red Fork. He suspected Ella had control of most of the town. He couldn't leave Ezra; Chris didn't want him to die alone.

"I'm so sorry, Ezra," Chris murmured to the unaware cardsharp. He looked up at the parting gray clouds, moving off to release their life-giving burden on some other parched land.


Larabee was surprised when he heard Ezra's weak voice. "I'm right here, Ez."

"You should go."

Chris wiped at his haggard face. "I thought we settled this already. I ain't leaving you."

Ezra opened his eyes. "There's nothing more you can do. You can't let Ella win."

Chris chewed on his bottom lip. Choices. If he left Ezra, he could probably get away, but the gambler would certainly die. If he stayed, Ella might find them, and he would be forced to marry her, but at least Ezra would get some help. Chris laid his arms atop his knees and bowed his head.

Larabee's head rose when he heard the sound of galloping hooves. He slowly stood and climbed atop a large rock to see Ella and several of her men riding past. He looked over his shoulder at Ezra. The Southerner was fighting to stay conscious, wracked with pain. His body quivered and shook with convulsions. Chris knew he had no choice. He wouldn't sacrifice Ezra's life, not like this. Chris slowly pulled the gun from his waistband and raised it into the air.

Ezra's eyes widened at what the stalwart gunslinger was about to do. "Chris, no."

Chris fired the gun into the air and then calmly sat down. He smiled at the disbelief on the conman's face.

"Why?" Ezra mouthed, stunned by what Chris had done.

Chris's brow furrowed, intensifying his blue eyes. How could the man even ask him that? The sharp lines on Chris' face slowly softened. He felt like a wolf that had befriended a mountain cat, neither one fully trusting the other, but respecting each other's prowess.

"You think I'd let you die for me?" Chris vehemently replied.

Ezra continued to stare at the gunslinger, not really having the strength to reply. The sound of horses drew near. Chris stood and took a deep breath. He knew what he had to do.

Part 26

Ella led Kimball and his men warily into the small collection of boulders. She guided her horse around a large rock and suddenly pulled up, taken aback by the sight in front of her. Chris stood over Ezra with the gun in his hand pointed directly at her. The manipulative woman raised her chin defiantly at her ex-lover's threat, hearing the men behind her cock their weapons.

"We seem to have a standoff," Ella remarked coolly.

The rain had finally stopped and the air felt crisp and clean, which Chris would have relished under different circumstances. Chris' leg bumped against Ezra's thigh, and he felt the con man shiver. He didn't dare break his gaze from the deranged woman before him, whose hair now hung in long wet tendrils down her shoulders. He ignored the seven men behind her; they were only pawns in this game.

"I'll marry you, if you get Ezra to a doctor," Chris firmly said.

Ella chortled slightly and a small smile of victory caressed her face.

"And what's to stop us from just rushing you? There's seven of us," Kimball interjected. He wished he could just kill the two men and be done with it.

Larabee glared at the dutiful Sheriff, and then slowly brought the gun to his own head. "Yeah, but you'll be taking back a corpse," Chris snarled. Ella's smile of victory vanished only to reappear on Chris's visage.

"You wouldn't! What about your friend?" Kimball retorted.

"He's as good as dead anyway unless he gets to a doctor."

Ella was shocked by Chris's plan to sacrifice his life for his friend, and she could tell by the look in his eyes that he would do exactly what he said.

"Leo, take Mr. Standish back to town and have the doc look at him," Ella conceded. She was too close; soon she would be Mrs. Chris Larabee and nothing was going to stop her. Kimball opened his mouth to protest obtaining a sharp look from his employer. It promptly caused him to reconsider.

Chris continued to glare directly at Ella and struggled with the next words. "Swear, on your love for me that you'll take care of Ezra." Chris pulled the hammer back on the gun that was still pointed at his head and watched as Ella's eyes widened.

"You have my word; he'll be taken care of," Ella quickly added.

Chris' shoulders dropped, and he allowed the gun to fall to his side. He didn't know if he could trust her, but it was Ezra's only chance.

"Clifton, Graham, get his gun," Kimball ordered. The two men dismounted and cautiously approached the defeated gunslinger. He allowed them to take the gun.

"Bring Mr. Larabee to my ranch. It will be a more romantic venue for a wedding, don't you think, darling?" Ella laughed at the beleaguered look on Chris' face. She turned her horse and rode off.

Graham handed Larabee the reins to his horse, actually feeling a little sorry for the dark-clad gunslinger. He was only in this for the money and was planning to take off as soon as possible. Chris hoisted himself up into the saddle and was immediately surrounded by four of the deputies.

"Take Larabee to the Gaines ranch. The rest of us will get Standish back to town," Kimball said.

Chris looked over his shoulder, at the wounded cardsharp. The man was barely aware of what was happening. He hoped it wouldn't be the last time he saw him alive.

Ezra gritted his teeth as he was roughly thrown on a horse in front of Kimball. The Sheriff made no attempt to hold on to him and Ezra knew he would have to hang on or die. He wrapped a weak grip on the saddle horn and leaned forward, almost resting his head on the horse's neck. Kimball kicked his horse into a bone jarring trot.

Part 27

Larabee was shoved into the living room of an immense ranch house. He glared at the rough-looking guard who had pushed him. He then smiled wickedly as the guard unconsciously stepped back and pointed his gun directly at him.

Chris walked under an archway and stopped in the middle of the room on a large oriental rug that covered most of the wood floor. He glanced around, seeing the velvet curtains that failed to hide the bars on the windows. Armed men blocked the two entrances to the room. One of the men moved aside to allow Ella to enter. She had taken the time to change into a long, body hugging, blue gown. Her hair was still damp from the rain, but she had managed to pull it up and secure it with a blue ribbon.

Ella glided over to a small bar that sat discretely in the corner of the room. She gracefully poured two drinks and brought the glass over to Chris, who refused her offer. Ella shrugged, unconcerned with his present attitude, and sipped from her own glass. She turned to one of the four guards and whispered something to him. The man nodded and left the room. Ella returned her attention to Chris after the guard departed. "I just told Chavez to go and tell the preacher that there's been a change in plans. The wedding will be held here."

Chris clenched his fists and continued to glare silently, trying to think of all his options. He wasn't coming up with much-Ella Gaines was certifiably insane.

Ella stepped up close and ran a finger down his stubble-covered cheek. "Now, Chris, you have free rein over this ranch, but step outside the lines and one of my boys will fire a shot, which will alert the men I have camped a mile from here. They in turn will go back to town and cut your friend's heart out." Ella said this as if she was talking about her day at a church social.

"Of course, if you step out of line with me the same thing will happen," she continued. "I know in time you'll come to accept this as our destiny and it really won't be so bad."

Chris continued to stand silently in the center of the room, resigned to his fate. Hopefully Ezra was okay.

"Now please, come." Ella took Chris' arm and felt him tense up. She led him toward an overstuffed chair that sat on the other side of the room. Chris felt the eyes of the guards follow his every move. Ella must have paid them well to extort such devotion. He sat down, trying to escape from Ella's touch.

"How do I know Ezra is still alive?" Chris asked.

"I guess you'll just have to take my word on it," Ella replied as she sunk into his lap. He turned his head away and tensed as she started nibbling on his ear and running her hands through his hair. He didn't think someone's touch could feel so vile. This was the woman whose hands were covered in the blood of his wife and son, and she was fawning over him like some kind of pet.

Chris grabbed her hands in his and pulled them away. His eyes caught the subtle movement of a raised gun, and he gently released her. "I thought you wanted to wait for the preacher?" Chris asked.

"Well, I've never been one to wait and it's not like we've never done it before."

She continued to nibble at his ear and down his neck, stopping when she realized she wasn't getting any kind of response.

"Well, I was hoping to do this in a more romantic way, but I'm flexible."

"It's a little hard to get romantic with your guard dogs watching," Chris rebuffed.

"Sorry, but after your past behavior, I believe they're necessary, at least for a little while." Ella rose from Chris' lap and motioned for two of her men to approach. "Willis, Miguel, please take Mr. Larabee to the bed chambers and make him comfortable."

Chris didn't like the sound of that or the gleam in the two men's eyes, but had little choice. He surmised that the guards had been instructed not to kill him, but a bullet in any extremity could hinder his chances of escape and hurt a lot.

Part 28

The five gunslingers had just exited the saloon, frustrated. They were unable to extract any information from the townsfolk. No one was talking.

"So now what? This damn subtly shit is overrated," Buck voiced his frustration to the others. He was ready to just start shooting and ask questions later. They weren't getting anywhere.

"Ohmygosh, look!" JD's eager voice diverted all their attention toward the end of the street.

Two horses rode single file into town, each one carrying an extra rider. What really got their attention was the slumped figure riding double on the second horse.

The five lawmen stepped off the boardwalk to intercept the riders. They restrained their pace, laying their hands on their guns. Jaws clenched and eyes narrowed as they neared the riders.

The two riders on the first horse dismounted as they reached the railing in front of the jail. When the second horse pulled up Ezra was allowed to fall hard onto the muddy street. The gambler screamed out in pain, causing his friends to draw their guns.

Kimball laughed as he dismounted, and then stood over the withering figure on the ground. He would send one of his men to find the doctor, but if the doc didn't arrive in time, it wouldn't be his fault. Kimball reached down and grabbed the Southerner's broken arm, separating the bones, resulting in another agonizing scream of pain. The sheriff flinched and pulled back a little.

Ezra's head swam, and he was having a hard time catching his breath as wave after wave of pain threatened to rip away his sanity.

Kimball reached down again to pull him to his feet. He froze when he noticed that his two men were standing off to the side terrified and motionless. He straightened and the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. Kimball turned to see five gunslingers in a semi-circle in front of him.

"Touch 'em again, and you're dead!" Vin growled, the barrel of his gun pointed directly at the Sheriff's heart. He never wanted to pull a trigger so badly in his life.

Buck had to smile. The taciturn tracker could sound as dangerous as Chris and probably was. Each of the gunslingers, in turn, cast a worried glance at the prone form on the ground.

Kimball raised his hands. He and his two men stared at the five gunslingers.

"Now, this here ain't none of your business, so you best just move on," Kimball stuttered. He looked up and down the street that had inexplicably become deserted.

Guns cocked and Kimball and his men flinched. "Now, wait just a minute what the hell do you want?" Kimball noticed the buckskins that Vin was wearing and his heart skipped a beat. Ella had told him that a buckskin-clad tracker might accompany Larabee.

"Ah, shit you're Larabee's gang. Now listen, I can explain…" Kimball's words began tumbling over each other. He now wished he hadn't sent all his men to Gaines' ranch.

"Shut up and back away from him!" Buck growled, taking a step forward and cocking his gun. Kimball and his men couldn't move away fast enough from the hate radiating from the lawmen. As soon as Nathan saw that the others had them covered, he holstered his gun and raced to Ezra's side. The healer placed a hand on the gambler's shoulder, and slowly turned him over. "Oh, Sweet Jesus." Nathan's heart broke at the bruised and bloody sight of his friend.

"Lord, what did they do to him?" JD wondered out loud.

"I was going to get him a doctor, honest," Kimball said quickly.

"Before or after he was dead?" Josiah remarked.

"Ezra…" Nathan whispered. "Ezra, can you hear me?" Nathan placed four fingers on the gambler's neck, his thumb stroking a bruised cheek. He felt the thunder of the man's pulse but heard no response. He gathered the front of Ezra's jacket over the remains of what was once his shirt and closed the material around him. Jackson winced as he felt the hardness of one sleeve stretched tight around its swollen contents.

"Josiah, give me a hand," the healer said as he positioned himself to lift Ezra. "Let's get him to the hotel."

The two men eased beneath the battered body and lifted him slowly, Ezra's face rested against the healer's chest. "If there is a doctor in this town send him!" Nathan said as they moved across the deserted street.

Buck, Vin, and JD crowded around Kimball and his men and removed their guns. Vin and Buck then grabbed the Sheriff by the arms and pulled him away from the false security of his men.

"Where is Chris Larabee?" Buck asked, putting a knife against Kimball's face.

Kimball closed his eyes and seemed to mouth a silent prayer.

Buck smiled then flicked the edge of the blade, slicing off one half of Kimball's long mustache.

Vin's gun dug into the man's stomach. "Well, we're waitin', and we're not patient men, and I've had a headache for over three days," he growled.

Leo Kimball remained silent, biting his lower lip. He looked over at his two deputies, who were standing submissively off to the side under the deadly gaze of a very angry young man.

Vin stepped back from Kimball and calmly began emptying the chambers of his gun, allowing the bullets to fall into his hand. His fingers made the movement of slipping one bullet back into the cylinder. He then slammed the cylinder closed and placed the gun against the sheriff's temple.

"You know, I've heard of this game called Russian Roulette. Always wanted to play." Vin's voice tightened with mock amusement.

Buck grinned as Kimball's eyes grew wide, and his face drained of color.

"Now, one more time, where is Chris Larabee?" Vin repeated stressing each word.

Kimball swallowed the lump that had lodged in his throat and felt beads of sweat trickle down his back. These were supposed to be lawmen; they wouldn't kill him--would they?

"Time's up," Vin humorously intoned.

Before Kimball could say a word Tanner pulled the trigger. CLICK! The Sheriff jumped and snapped his eyes shut, his breath hiccupping at the empty click.

Buck looked down to see a dark spot forming on the front of the Sheriff's beige pants. "Geeze, he's pissed on himself," Buck hooted.

Vin spun the cylinder and put the barrel of the gun into the Sheriff's ear. "Let's try this again." He could tell the man was about to break.

"Are you sure you're doing it right, Vin? Maybe you're not suppose to spin it," Buck helpfully suggested.

"You might be right, Buck. Too bad Ez can't tell us what the odds are on this game," Vin said. "Although I wouldn't wager on you surviving." Vin shoved the gun farther into Kimball's ear.

"Hell, I'll wager we'll eventually blow his head off," Buck confidently declared and slapped Kimball on the back.

"A sure thing. Ezra would like them odds," Vin muttered sadly as he slowly squeezed the trigger.

"ALRIGHT, STOP, STOP!" Leo blurted out, his whole body shaking. "Ella took him to her ranch just north of town."

"What happened to Ezra?" Vin asked.

"Ella used him to keep Larabee in line," Kimball replied. "She promised Larabee that he'd see a doctor if he behaved himself."

"What the hell does she want Chris for?" Buck asked.

"They're to be married," Kimball admitted. All three lawmen stared in disbelief at Kimball.

"What?" Buck yelled, grabbing Kimball by the shirt and pulling him close. "Chris wouldn't marry that bitch!"

"That's all I know, I swear," Kimball nervously replied.

"Buck, she did this to Ezra to force Chris's hand," Vin pointed out. He knew that Chris would do whatever it took to protect one of his own men.

"Looks like we're crashin' a weddin', boys!" Buck gleefully intoned, "and I even got the shotgun."

Vin glared at Kimball. "You're going to tell us how many men and where they're positioned."

Kimball bowed his head, completely defeated and wanting nothing more than to get out of this alive. Lord, even the kid was intimidating, he thought. He took a deep breath and started telling the three lawmen everything he knew, minimizing his part in everything. He claimed he had no part in Standish's beating. He left out the part about Larabee being hit, deciding not to add more fuel to the burning rage he saw in each of the gunslinger's eyes.

When Vin, Buck and JD were satisfied that they had been told everything they ushered the three mockeries of justice into the jailhouse and locked them up. But not before administering a little punishment of their own.

Part 29

Nathan and Josiah entered the hotel with the gambler secure between them. The owner was there at the desk and swept in front of the men to hold the wide doors, her gaze locked on the battered man between them. "Bring Mr. Standish this way," she said, moving quickly around and leading them to a ground floor room close to the kitchen. She pulled the coverlet off the bed before they laid Ezra carefully on it.

"Find Doc Chalmers, Jimmy," she said to the youth who appeared in the doorway. She turned back to Ezra once more and spoke without taking her eyes from him. "There is water already boiling on the stove. I'll get more blankets."

The two lawmen threw off their coats and hats and moved to their comrade. Nathan rolled up his sleeves. "Ezra!" he said gently placing one hand across the gambler's forehead. "Ez, are you with us?" He placed his other hand on Ezra's arm and felt the unnatural shape of it. The sleeve of the ragged jacket was pulled tight and Nathan produced a sharp knife and sliced it from wrist to shoulder. He heard Josiah's quick intake of breath at the sight. Nathan worked efficiently, cutting off the rest of the gambler's clothing without disturbing him. Ezra's skin was heated and sweat soaked. He struggled to swallow.

"See about that water, Josiah," the healer said as he moved to set the broken bones.

Josiah met the hotel owner in the hallway and she handed him two buckets of water and a stack of sheets and towels. "Tear that up for bandages," she said retreating for more supplies. "We'll find the doctor!"

As Josiah bumped back into the room he heard Ezra grunt painfully. The bones in his arm were now repositioned. The preacher handed Nathan a small towel soaked in the hot water and Nathan began to clean Ezra's face and chest.

"Look at this, Josiah."

The preacher moved around the bed. A red crescent of teeth marks topped a dark bruise on the gambler's shoulder. Nathan held the warm cloth to the wound and Ezra moaned and turned his head. "Ezra!" Josiah said, "Are you with us, brother?" He half hoped the man would stay unconscious. "Dear God, why would he have a mark like that?"

Nathan observed the angle of the teeth-he'd been bitten from behind. "Only Ezra or Chris can tell us Josiah, and knowin' the two of them we may never find out."

Ezra's eyes fluttered open and he tried to lift his head. "Chris…Chris?" It was clear he was delirious and Nathan laid a calloused palm on his chest to settle him back to the bed. Ezra seemed to panic at the touch. "No!…get away from me…please…no…"

The two friends moved together to hold him still, Nathan holding the gambler's jaw in a firm grip to meet his eyes. "Ezra! It's OK. It's Nathan!"

"Nathan?" Ezra said weakly, trying to focus. "Nate?" He looked long into the healer's face and slowly ended his struggle against them. Josiah continued to hold one arm across Ezra's chest as he watched the man give up consciousness again. He turned when a brisk knock sounded and a young man, no older than JD, entered the room.

"I'm Dr. Chalmers," he said moving forward and opening a leather bag on the end of the bed. "What happened?" He pulled a stethoscope out, clipped it to his neck, then quickly and gently examined Ezra's swollen arm. "The bones have been set here. Let's splint this."

Nathan and Josiah were momentarily motionless. Nathan's gaze fixed on the leather bag. What else did it contain? His wonder was interrupted by the young doctor's confident voice. Chalmers held both palms firmly to the curve of Ezra's chest. "The ribs on the left side are cracked."

Josiah felt a warm rush of hope. For once Nathan was not alone in his efforts to heal. Ezra coughed and the young doctor positioned the stethoscope to listen. His hands felt his patient's feverish forehead and face and he spoke with an angry energy. "Who did this to him?"

The competent hotel owner reappeared at that moment, swinging open the door for JD, Vin and Buck. She carried a fresh basin of water and exchanged it for one dark with blood. Her gaze swept over Ezra's bruised face. She could hardly believe it was the same man. "Let me know if you need anything, Doctor," she said, retreating behind the trio of lawmen.

"How is he?" Vin asked sadly, looking at Ezra's injured form on the bed. Vin could barely tell the cardsharp was breathing and had to concentrate hard on Ezra's chest to see even the slightest amount of movement.

"Not good," Nathan stated, staring intently down at the Southerner, wondering if Ezra would ever wake again. He decided to keep this fact to himself, at least until they found Chris.

"We know where Chris is, and we're going after him," Buck said urgently, "Can you take care of Ezra by yourself?"

Nathan tuned to the young doctor. "I ain't alone this time, Buck."

"Dr. Chalmers here is going to help Nathan and I'm coming with you," Josiah added. Chalmers looked at Nathan and nodded once, holding out his hand.

"Nathan Jackson," the healer said. "Thanks for your help."

"Doctor?" JD said sizing up his peer.

"We've got a lot to do here, gentlemen, if you wouldn't mind," Chalmers said, returning to his leather bag. JD stared directly at the man, wanting to know more, but Buck grabbed a handful of his jacket and yanked the young sheriff from the room.

Part 30

Larabee was led down a hallway by the two guards. He paused in front of a darken room and stiffened when he felt the gun press into his back urging his progress. Two more men stood just inside the room. Chris recognized the red-haired man and hatred propelled him forward. His attack was anticipated and short-lived.

Laughter echoed down the hallway as the three other men grabbed the enraged gunslinger and held him back. Hawkes drove a meaty fist into Chris' mid-section driving the air and fight from him. Chris hung limply in his captors grasp trying to breathe.

"You just don't know when to quit, do ya Larabee?" Hawkes snarled, grabbing a handful of blond hair and jerking Chris' head up. The red-haired man inwardly flinched at the look in the gunslinger's eyes. The devil himself couldn't have looked more dangerous.

"Tie him up!" Hawkes commanded and stepped aside to allow the hallway light to reveal a bed in the center of the room. Chris' heart started to race and his mouth went dry at the sight of the handcuffs attached to the head of the bed. Rope lay wound at the foot.

The men holding him began to drag him toward the bed. "Wait, we have to make him presentable." Hawkes grabbed hold of Chris's shirt and ripped it off his body. He took a moment to admire the fine physique of the gunslinger. Chris fought as the three men dragged him to the bed and threw him down, latching his wrists into the cuffs and tying down his feet.

As soon as Chris was secured to the bed the four men surrounded him. Chris pulled at the cuffs, rattling the metal bar that stretched across the head of the bed. Ella had thought of everything. He had never felt so vulnerable in his life. The men who had handcuffed him glared licentiously at him, trying to debase him into submission.

"Lord, never had to tie someone down so they could have sex with a beautiful woman," Hawkes laughed. He bent down close to Chris. "Maybe, unlike your friend, you prefer men," Hawkes sneered and placed a hand on Larabee's crotch causing a shudder to course through him. Chris spit into the depraved man's face.

Rage sprang to Hawkes' face and he raised his fist.

"Hawkes, don't! Miz Gaines will have your hide!" Willis yelled.

Hawkes lowered his hand and eyed the helpless gunslinger. "I guess I'll go back to town and see if your fancy friend is up for a little fun."

The four men turned and left, their laughter ringing in Chris's ears.

The room was plain, with the four poster bed dominating the center. Dark drapes covered the bare walls and had been drawn over the windows, throwing the entire room into darkness. Chris could see the dark silhouette of a night stand that sat next to the bed, and a rocking chair in the corner. These were the only articles of furniture in the whole room. A current of air flowed over his naked torso as the door opened, allowing light to brighten the room momentarily.

Ella crossed the threshold of the bedroom, wearing a wispy see-through gown and carrying a candle. She stopped beside the bed, allowing her gown to fall from her slim shoulders, gathering at her feet. Her black hair was loose and tumbled around to frame her oval face. The candlelight flickered, throwing shadows over her thrusting breasts and slim waist. Her eyes shined bright as she trailed a hand down Chris' bare chest, admiring his sinewy body. He could smell the lavender and had to bite his tongue to keep the tears from falling--it had been his wife's favorite fragrance.

Part 30a

Chris glared at her. "Keep the hell away from me, you bitch!" he snarled slowly and coldly.

Ella paused and a glimmer of rage raced across her face, but was soon replaced with that familiar mocking smile. "Still the hostility. You know there is a fine line between hate and love." Ella slowly tilted the candle allowing the melted wax to drip off, landing on Chris's bare chest.

Chris hissed through clenched teeth as the burning wax seared his chest.

"Pain and pleasure are such wonderful combinations." Ella ran a thin trail of wax across, down his chest, and over his stomach. Chris' face turned red, choking back the scream. She finally placed the torturous taper on the nightstand and knelt down next to his ear. "Remember how good we were together?" she whispered and bit lightly at his ear lobe. "Bareback Larabee." She sighed. Her tongue darted in and out tracing a path down his neck and chest, tasting and relishing him. She rolled his nipples between her fingers. Chris closed his eyes and tried to think of anything: hunting with Vin, fishing with Billy, losing at cards with Ezra, which he hoped he had the privilege of doing again.

Ella lifted her head and stared into Chris' face, an unearthly glow lit her dark eyes in the candlelight. She ran a finger over his lips. He closed his eyes then stiffened when he felt her mouth on his nipples, teasing and biting. She started working her way down his stomach taking nips of flesh whenever it pleased her.

Ella slowly unbuttoned the lawman's pants and slid the clothing to his knees. Chris audibly inhaled when he felt her fingers run lightly over his crotch, not out of any sense of pleasure, but disgust. He had, at one time, taken gratification in their sexual trysts. He had never loved her, maybe he thought one day he could. She was someone who filled a void in his life after his wife had died. When he discovered she was the cause of that void he didn't think he'd ever be clean again, and now to have her hands on him once more sickened him. His thoughts were expunged when she grasped his manhood between her slim fingers.

Her hands started expertly stroking and manipulating his cock. "Being difficult aren't we. Well, I know a few tricks," Ella purred.

Chris felt her kisses trail further down his stomach and ground his teeth to keep from gasping out loud. He did not want to give in to the intense sensation, but his control was sliding away. His body was betraying him, giving in to its carnal hunger.

Ella's mouth suddenly took all of him in, and he shut his eyes so tight that tears streamed from the corners. He couldn't stop himself from being aroused. He was hard and pulsing--the woman knew what she was doing.

"Now that's the Larabee I know," she whispered. She could feel Chris' heart beating furiously in his chest and feel the hot, engorged organ in her hand.

Ella climbed on Chris and swung one leg over his waist, straddling him. Her slim hand stroked and guided his hard throbbing member into her welcoming softness. Ella gasped as he entered her, awakening every nerve in her body. It was always so good. She tightened her muscles and wrapped herself around her desire. She started moving, slowly, up and down, working him in deep, feeling every inch of him. Her own breaths started coming out in fevered pants.

Larabee bit his tongue, trying to hold back, but it was hopeless. She rode him hard and fast now, her muscles milking him with practiced ease. Chris felt his insides ignite with liquid fire and explode, hearing Ella moan in ecstasy as she threw her head back, then fall across his chest, breathing him in.

"Now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" She rolled off and stood up beside the bed rubbing her stomach. "I can already feel the life growing inside me. I'll have Hernandez attend to you, and I'll be waiting in the sitting room."

Ella gathered up her gown and walked out of the room. Chris lay stunned and panting, wrenching at the handcuffs in frustration. "You bitch!" he hissed at her retreating form.

Part 31

Chris yanked at the cuffs; tears of anger and frustration streaming down his face. This woman had finally taken everything of his and twisted or killed it. He halted at his futile struggles and allowed the tears to flow, hoping to cleanse some part of himself that he could hold on to. His mind went to the six men he rode with, each one of them holding a special place in his heart, a place even Ella couldn't soil. They were his strength now, his family. He hoped and prayed that Ezra was still alive and that the others at least found him in time. Chris didn't hold out much hope that Ella would ever let him leave. Two guards entered the room and Chris shook off his melancholy mood and determination burned in his sapphire eyes. He would not let Ella win, even if they had to go to hell together.

Larabee was released from his bonds and allowed to dress. He stared repugnantly at the dark tux laid out on the nearby chair. His own clothes had disappeared. Having no choice, he donned the pants and shirt, ignoring the jacket and vest.

Larabee was led back out to the living area where Ella sat contently on the overstuffed chair. The fragrance of fresh cut flowers filled the tidy room and brought a nauseous feeling to the pit of Chris' stomach. He sat down in a hardback chair and glared at the woman he despised most in the world. He caught sight of the guards and clenched his teeth in helpless rage. Even if he did escape, he'd never get to town before one of Ella's men. Ezra would be killed if he wasn't dead already.

Ella huffed in disgust at Chris' stern appearance. "You might as well relax and enjoy." She had hoped that the little sexual reminder would have made him more receptive.

"I'm a prisoner."

"Well, you certainly have a plush prison," Ella intoned; the smiled fell from her face at Chris' scowling features. "You'll get used to it and when our child is born; everything will be perfect." Ella's smile returned. "What do you think of the name Anna if it's a girl, and Brett if it's a boy?"

Chris's frown deepened. Ella was oblivious to anything outside her own realm of desire. What if she was now pregnant? Chris' shoulders slumped, and he wiped his hand down his face. He couldn't leave a child in the hands of this mad woman.

Part 32

Vin, Buck, Josiah and JD waited for the cover of darkness and quietly took out all the perimeter guards that surrounded the ranch house. Kimball had revealed their positions correctly or Vin would have gone back and cut the man's heart out.

"So what's the plan?" Buck asked as the tracker came up alongside him. They had all gathered on the west side of the house.

"Plan, I don't have any plan," Vin glibly replied, the darkness hiding his cocky smile.

"Ah, great so what do we do?" JD broke in.

"We need a diversion; somethin' that'll bring the guards from inside--outside," Vin stated, looking over at Josiah with a knowing smile.

The ex-preacher took a deep breath. "One drunken tryst, and you're marked for life. Please make sure I'm not shot."

Moments later the former preacher came riding into the compound singing some off-key love song. The huge gunslinger looked like he was about to fall off his horse as he reeled in the saddle, yelling devotions of love for his horse. When the door to the house opened, the others started forward, keeping to the shadows. Guards started pouring out the doors and coming around from the other side of the house to investigate. As soon as Josiah believed he had a large enough audience, he drew his gun and began to fire. Ella's men were stunned for a moment. Then their amusement turned deadly. They added to the flurry of bullets and scattered into the night. Buck and the others rushed out looking for any target that presented itself and giving Josiah ample cover.

Chris's head snapped up and a slow feral grin appeared on his rugged face at the sound of gunfire from outside.

Ella ran to the window to see what was going on. "Get out there!" She yelled at two of her body guards, who quickly obeyed.

The remaining sentry turned his attention away from Chris for a moment. It was all the time the gunslinger needed. Chris lunged at the guard, taking them both to the floor. He struck the guard with his fist twice, knocking him unconscious. Chris then grabbed the guard's gun and stood up.

Ella ran toward Chris and grabbed him by the front of the shirt. "You can't leave me, you can't leave us!" Chris glared at the woman who stood clasping his shirt.

"There will never be an us." Chris pulled Ella off him and threw her to the floor.

"Standish is dead! Do you hear me? He's dead!" Ella screamed out.

Chris's fear for Ezra eased the revenge he wanted to bring down on her. He reached down and grabbed the ranting woman by her slim wrist, hauling her to her feet. He started dragging her toward the front door. If Ezra was dead, he'd make sure Ella hung and he'd pull the lever. Ella Gaines struggled like a wildcat within Larabee's grasp. Just as Chris put his hand on the front door knob, Ella bent down and bit into the back of his hand, drawing blood.

Larabee released his hold, and brought the bleeding wound to his mouth as Ella ran back the way they had come. The gunfire out front stopped him from pursuing. He had to help his friends. Chris crouched low and slipped out the door. He froze when he spotted Hawkes taking cover beside the well. Chris stood up and stepped off the porch, oblivious to the bullets that whizzed by him. His focus only on the man who might have killed his friend.

The red-haired man felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle and turned to meet Larabee's deadly gaze. 'I'm a dead man,' was the last thought that ran through Hawkes' mind as he raised his gun. Chris aimed and fired; smiling as the huge red-haired man crumbled to the ground, blood oozing from the hole in his chest.

A bullet slammed into Chris's shoulder and threw him to the ground.

Vin's gunfire intensified when he saw Chris appear on the porch and then take a bullet. The tracker darted and dodged to reach his friend. Grabbing Larabee by the arm Vin pulled him to the side of the house and out of harm's way.

Chris grabbed hold of the tracker's arm to get his attention. "Vin, you have to get back to town! They're going to kill Ezra."

Vin smiled and forced Chris back down. "Don't worry, pard, we got Ezra. Nathan is with him." Vin removed his bandana and pressed down on the gunslinger's bleeding wound.

Relief flooded Chris's blue eyes. "You need to find Ella," he said.

"I have to stop this bleedin' first, pard." Both gunslingers listened as the gunfire slowly diminished. Vin helped Chris to his feet, and the two men slowly walked out to meet the others.

Part 33

Buck pivoted and pointed his gun at a lone rider, who suddenly materialized out of the night. He lowered the weapon as he recognized the clothing of a padre. The aged priest stared opened-mouth at the carnage that the moon's glow revealed. He swallowed and looked into the smiling visage of the mustached cowboy. The grin on Buck's face only made the padre more nervous, thinking he was face-to-face with a madman.

"Ay, good thing you came along, padre. You can give some of these sinners last rites," Buck quipped with a boyish grin as he walked toward the stunned preacher, holstering his gun.

"He won't be saving any souls today," Josiah remarked as he came up behind Buck. "These sinners are already pleading their case with the devil."

"Ah, I…I thought I was here to perform a wedding," the preacher's baritone voice stammered.

Josiah stepped up to the priest. "Sometimes the good Lord has a change of plans."

The priest nervously smiled and Josiah tipped his hat and walked on.

"Ay, pard, you okay?" Buck asked as he jogged up to Vin and Chris. Wilmington stopped short, and his shoulders slumped as he looked into Chris' eyes; eyes that radiated hate and something else-another part of his friend's soul had been ripped apart. Damn, what has that bitch done?

"Any sign of Ella?" Chris' voice was quiet and meditative. Vin and Buck could see the struggle to remain calm going on behind his icy blue gaze. It was like a rumbling volcano, trying to decide whether to erupt and devastate everything in its path or hold off for another day.

"Sorry, Chris, I just went through the house and she's gone," JD exclaimed as he joined them.

Larabee's jaw tightened and the image of Ella flashed before his face, her smiling visage promising that this isn't the end. It was too much. Chris's legs gave out as his eyes rolled up into his head. Vin and Buck were ready and carefully eased their unconscious friend to the ground. Buck lay a hand on the blond head, feeling completely useless and wondering how one woman could bring so much desolation to this man's life.

Part 34

Larabee sat in a chair looking out the window of the hotel room where he and Ezra continued to mend. JD and Josiah had headed back to Four Corners, and the others were busy cleaning up the rest of Ella's hired guns. Chris shifted his gaze over to the Southerner, who lay asleep on the bed across the room neatly bandaged and splinted. The bruises on the gambler's face were a stark contrast to his pale features. Ezra's fever had finally broken this morning, and he appeared to be resting comfortably. It had been two days before the battered gambler had regained consciousness, and even now he slept like the dead. Nathan had told him this was not unusual considering the extent of his injuries. Chris's gut quivered as he recalled the anguish he felt when he thought his maverick lawman was dead. He didn't know when it had happened, but Ezra had come to mean a great deal to him.

Dr. Chalmers had warned them not to move his patients but Buck was already seeing to a wagon, knowing that Chris would want to get as far away from here as possible. Vin had again gone off to search the surrounding area for any sign of Ella Gaines.

The sound of a scraping chair broke Chris from his trance. He turned his head to see the tall healer checking Ezra for the hundredth time, making sure his fever hadn't returned. Ezra mumbled incoherently at the contact then fell silent. Nathan hadn't said anything, but they all suspected that the Southerner had been very near death. It was never a good sign when Nathan forfeited sleep and nourishment to tend to a patient. Jackson fingered the stethoscope that hung about his neck. Dr. Chalmers had loaned him the valuable instrument to check Ezra for pneumonia. The doctor had been a wealth of information and had shared his knowledge in an open exchange for the healer's experience.

"Nathan," Chris began, causing the healer to straighten and turn. Nathan was worried about their leader. The gunshot wound wasn't serious, but Chris had barely said two words since leaving Ella's ranch. "How long before a woman knows if she's pregnant?"

Jackson folded his arms across his chest, his face showing his bewilderment. They all knew something had happened to Chris, but the obstinate gunslinger refused to talk to anyone about it. The question he posed gave Nathan a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach and an inkling to what was tormenting his friend.

"Ah...a couple months usually," Nathan answered.

Chris's gaze left Nathan's worried face and swept back over the distant mountains.


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