odi et amo

Of Love and Hate



By:  Heidi


Main Characters: Chris, Seven, OFC

Rating:  PG-13

Disclaimer:  This is a work of fan fiction based on the characters from the television show “The Magnificent Seven.”  No copyright infringement is intended to Mirisch, Trilogy, MGM, CBS, TNN, Hallmark, and anyone else holding the rights to the characters.  No profit will be made from this work.

Warnings:  Violence, a brief relationship moment, some bad words. 

Author's Notes:  There's an OFC in here, but she's integral to the story, and not in the way you think.  Many thanks to Cin for helping me out plot-wise. 




Part One 


Daylight faded, gradually replaced by the cloak of night.  Lamplight spilled out the windows onto the boardwalk or mutely shone from behind curtains, accompanied by the street fires to provide minimal illumination along the quiet street.  Crickets chirped, and mosquitoes roamed for their nightly feedings on the unwary.  Laughter from the saloon added to the night's music.  The atmosphere was relaxed for a change. 


It had been a long, grueling period on the western frontier town, especially with the transient trail hands finally - and mercifully - leaving town after a two-week stay.  All seven protectors had been on duty nearly the entire time in three or four person shifts.  It showed in their cranky dispositions, frayed tempers, and even less than cordial attitudes.  A pack of wild coyotes had better manners, or so Ezra intoned quite often.  With the last of the trail hands gone, relief flooded not only the protectors, but also the entire town.  Although business had been good, the continual fights and drunken behavior was not what the majority of townsfolk wanted to see everyday.  They watched enough violence when criminals, thugs, and gangs all too frequently challenged their protectors.  


Now, they - townsperson and protector alike - reveled in the fragile, however long-lived peace. 


Larabee gave the protectors the night off, including himself, and they partook of spirits without the strict moderation of the past fourteen torturous days.  Staying sober or mostly sober was not so enjoyable when closely observing grown men get drunk and stupid, then fight.  Some already had perfected stupid, but the addition of alcoholic beverages increased their idiocy.  Two weeks of morons flown with liquor while unable to get intoxicated themselves brought many a complaint from a parched protector's throat.  This night, the seven had pursued their respective interests, and most of them were still in the saloon.  


Chris grew tired of the stuffiness, and, he privately admitted, intensely weary of the saloon's interior.  He'd memorized the number of floor planks, cracks in the ceiling, and the slats on the batwing doors.  He wanted some air, preferably without the potent tinges of whiskey, sweaty bodies, and spilled beer.  Not that the horse-and-manure, smoke scented air outside the batwing doors cleared his lungs, but it was sweeter and less confining than the stifled saloon atmosphere.  He strode down the boardwalk, coming to a stop near the mouth of a side street. 


Leaning against one of the posts, his fingers, with practiced ease, lit a cheroot.  The first taste immediately calmed him.  That brief serenity only lasted a moment.  Chris sensed someone coming out of the alley toward him, the swish of fabric rubbing together alerting him to the approach.  He came out of his lean, shifted more into the shadows, and stared hard into the darkness.  One hand pushed his black duster to the side, and his right hand dropped to rest atop his gun.  Mentally, he prepared himself for the worst, unable to see much in the dim abyss.   


"That you, Chris Larabee?  If it is, it's been a long time, and you’re a welcome sight for travel-weary eyes," the voice said, walking into the light of a nearby ground fire.  "And you’re smoking.  Even better.  May I?"


For a man that very little truly surprised or ruffled, recognition of that voice jolted him.  It had been a long time, and it was a voice he never expected to hear in his lifetime again.  Most definitely not coming in such a pleasant tone, accompanied by the request.  Smirking to cover his shock, his hand slid away from the gun and passed the cheroot. 


Caroline Jamison was an old, special friend - a former flame.  He remembered reluctantly teaching her to smoke long ago, after growing tired of her constant arguments and pleadings to do so.  Figuring on her getting sick and quitting, he was surprised when she liked and readily took to it.  Chris finally replied to her earlier comment, "Too long.  How are you, Caro?"  He intentionally called her by her nickname, one he earned the privilege of using, and lightness entered his heart at the happy memories it brought.  Her reaction to it would tell him more about how she felt toward him.


Her slim fingers brought the cheroot to her lips, and her eyes closed with pleasure while she inhaled the smoke.  "Good, thank you.  And you?"  She passed it back. 


"Better now.  Your shoulder?"  His eyes roamed down from her face, over her neck, and paused on the left side above her breast.  Memories of the worst kind returned in a rush, his face displaying his anguish as he recalled how she got injured and his responsibility for it.  The guilt returned full force, chasing away the lightness of seconds ago.   


She must have read the reaction on his face in the dim lighting.  "Fine.  Healed up real well," she replied.  Giving him a hard look, Caroline added, "It wasn't your fault."


He reached out tentatively to touch her face, pausing before he made contact.  "It was."


Her hand pulled his to the side of her face and neck.  She rubbed her cheek against his palm.  "No.  Don't blame yourself for that."


His fingers splayed into her hair, sliding under the dark colored bonnet into the light brown curls.  Her skin was just as soft as he remembered.  Remembering brought back what happened, the reason he left her, and the guilt.


The last time they met, not too many months before Chris found himself here, he'd been staying in a bustling frontier town and seeing Caroline.  She was the first decent woman he found himself drawn to, since the death of his wife.  The more time he spent with the young widow, the more he felt his personality reverting to his former self instead of the angry man searching for revenge he became.


Like Four Corners was now, that small town suffered from growing pains, and saw its share of trouble makers.  The bad element lingered while the decent folk of the town would have been glad to see them move on.  The town's sheriff, while leery of him at first, accepted his presence because his fearsome reputation actually helped quell some of the rowdier members of the town.  That reputation, though, brought him a ton of troubles and the loss of the well being he was just beginning to feel.    He got involved in a stupid gunfight with an eighteen-year-old cocksure kid who wouldn't back down.  Larabee, forced into the duel by his already fearsome reputation and outnumbered by the thieves and cutthroats occupying the rougher town, shot to wound.  Honor satisfied, the clear winner of the duel, he turned his back on the kid and walked away. 


The kid wouldn't let it go, not realizing the gift of life and mercy he had been granted, that probably would not have been granted prior to Caroline's influence.  Later that night, he tailed Chris to Caroline's little house.  He broke in, skulked to her darkened bedroom, and emptied his gun into her bed.  Startled and unable to see much in the black room, Chris grabbed his gun and fired back blind.  He'd killed the kid, but Caroline paid the price. One of the kid's bullets struck her high on the left shoulder during the initial barrage, nearly killing her. 


Having roused the town with both gunfire and his yells for help, Larabee discovered there was no doctor.  Holding the injured woman in his grip, Chris rode hard for the nearest town that reportedly had a doctor.  Fortunately, the doctor was there, and Larabee spent the last hours of the night outside her room.  He claimed her as his wife, hoping to salvage her respectability.  Once she was on the road to recovery the next morning, the truth caught up with them in the form of the law.  The sheriff of the town they'd left belatedly started asking questions over the incident, egged on by Caroline's sister-in-law.  Since he wired his counterpart in their current location with all the details and request for more information, it wasn’t long before the gossips spread their rumors, with their counterparts taking care of the previous town too.


That night's events branded Caroline Jamison a loose woman, who was no longer a respectable lady.  She had been informed that she was no longer welcome at her previous residence, unless she wanted to be the whore they branded her during her absence.  The young widow was ostracized by her townsfolk and kin, all of whom turned righteous about her entertaining a man in her bedroom.  This frenzy, fueled by Caroline's bitter and mean sister-in-law, forced her to sell her house and leave the town she called home; neither she nor Chris wanted Caroline to work that way.  When she was sufficiently recovered from her wound, Larabee helped her pack and move.  His presence - along with his gun - kept the hostile townsfolk at bay.  Once he saw her settled in a town they thought would give her enough space from the rumors, they parted company.  Neither talked of picking up the relationship again.


Shaking off the memory, seeing her staring at him waiting, his fingers still in her hair, he asked, "What brings you here?"


"Well, I got lost."  She ruefully chuckled.  "Ended up here, of all places.  And who do I see on my way to the hotel for a room but my dear friend Chris Larabee?"


"You always had problems with directions," he teased.  Chris untangled his hand from her hair and offered an arm.  "Allow me to escort you to the hotel so you don't get lost." 


"I would be delighted," she replied, resting a hand on the crook of his elbow.  "If that's where you want me to go.  Seeing you relights the fires." 


In response, he lifted a questioning eyebrow.  Chris thought he saw a look he believed he'd never receive from her again, but he wasn't sure.  He'd caused enough pain in her life, and planned to play it cautious.   


"You heard me, Chris.  I really don't want to stay in a hotel, and now that I've seen you, I might have other…options.”


There was a moment of silence between them.  Chris read the silent question and could almost feel the waves of desire.  It had been like this before with them, hot and intense.  Perhaps if they would have stopped to think about consequences then, things might have been different.  Like then neither one thought of them now.


“You're going to think me forward, but do you have a woman here?"  Caroline smiled. 


Chris smirked.  "Nope."  He pulled her into a kiss.  She settled into his chest, kissing him back with equal passion. 


His mind blocked out the image of Mary, their friendship still shaky because of that business with Ella Gaines. 


Eventually, Caroline pulled back.  Her eyes deliberately flicked left to right.  "Can I interest you in going somewhere a bit more private?  People will talk, you know."    


He knew.  In fact, that was one of the reasons he was such a private man – the consequences, innuendos, and rumors about his involvement with Caroline reminded him about the destructive power of words. 


"I think I know somewhere."  Giving a look around, he saw empty streets, and no one was watching them.  It was too late at night for the proper folk to be up, and too early for the carousers to go to bed.  His first thought was to get her to his room in town, but then he remembered the rumormongering, and opted for his place.  Pissing off the locals by flaunting a woman and having everyone know his business didn't appeal to him, so he'd take Caroline to his shack.  Plus, he wouldn't ruin her reputation any farther if she planned to stay here for a spell.  Getting caught kissing in the street was more Buck's style, not his.  "You object to a ride?"


She winked.  "That's what I had in mind.  A long, hard, rough ride, and maybe a gentle canter later."


Chris chuckled.  "A short horse ride to my place," he qualified.  "Bareback comes later."


"How exciting.  Will I abandon this modern paradise that pays homage to the patron saint of Dust?  Absolutely."


Leaning forward, his lips brushed hers quickly.  "Meet me at the stable."  Letting her go, he whacked her backside.  "Move."


"Don't take your time, Chris Larabee.  I might not be there if you dally.  I'm sure there are other young men in this here town.  You just happened to be the first one I saw." 


Her comment gave him pause, but he gave her an arrogant smile.  "You'll wait for me, woman, and we both know it."


"Maybe."  She sashayed down the boardwalk toward the stable, keeping to the shadows, without looking back.


As he watched her, he tried to remember if she’d always been so forward, or had the association with him made her so?  Darkly, his thoughts drifted to Ella, knowing how forward she had been and wondered that maybe it was just him drawn to that type of woman.  Pulling his eyes away from the swing of her hips, Chris strode back to the saloon.  He found Vin first, stopping beside him at the bar.  "In case anyone needs me, I'm going to my place for a few days."


"Mind some company?  Town's getting a bit confining."


Chris considered.  If he told Vin he was taking a woman out there, Tanner wouldn't say a word to anyone, and would come out himself if they needed him back.  But if he didn't give the impression he didn't want visitors, one or more of them would stop by during every patrol, several times a day, for a break and some coffee.  That he didn't want.  It would make things awkward for Caroline.  Giving the impression he wanted a couple days alone would be best all around, and wouldn't put Vin in the position where he would have to keep the truth from their friends.  "Maybe in a few days.  Got some things I want to work on, work out myself." 


Vin stared at him for a long moment, and then nodded.


The gunslinger was relieved.  He knew Vin suspected there was something more, but respected his friend's privacy enough not to ask.  Part of him was disgusted at himself for hiding Caroline because he knew Vin could be trusted, but Chris didn't know if she wanted anyone to know she was here.  "Come out in a few days."


"Reckon I might.  Watch your back."


"Always.  You do the same."


Tanner lifted his glass in response, sipping his beer.


Leaving the saloon, Chris made his way to the stable, finding Caroline beside her unsaddled horse.  He went in, brought his black out, and saddled him without waking the stable master. 


"You mind if we ride double, Chris?  Daisy's tired.  We rode most of today, and spent a considerable time lost."  


"Nope."  After tying Daisy's lead to his saddle horn, he mounted, pulling Caroline up behind him.  Her arms latched around his waist, and they were off.  His horse knew the path, and Chris kept an eye out for dangers.  He quickly realized they needed to pick up their pace, especially because Caroline's hands kept a steady rhythm sliding down from his waist to the tops of his thighs.  Her body pressed tight against his back and she nibbled on his neck, giving him chills that were not due to the weather. 


The rest of the ride worked them both into a heightened state, neither allowing the other a break in their adult games.  Bowlegged, Chris tended the horses by rote, and turned around to find Caroline on a blanket spread beneath the stars.


That was all the invitation he needed.



Somehow, later in the night, they had found the bed, and their sated bodies now rested.  Coherent thought slowly returned, and Chris wondered at his good fortune.  She was dozing, a light hint of purple shadowed beneath her eyes from lack of sleep, but her expression satisfied and happy.  He didn’t move, and didn’t want to wake her. 


Having women in his bed wasn't common, but it wasn’t unusual.  Like his friend Buck, he liked women, appreciated them, and was fortunate that he didn’t have to live like a monk.  Unlike his friend though, Chris preferred discretion, not boasting of his rendezvous with the ladies.  He’d had his share of women since he’d learned what to do and how things worked, but there were only three that he’d given any serious time.  The first was Ella, who made him feel wild and free, and then tried to own him.  Leaving her was hard, but meeting Sarah taught him what true love really was.  She wasn’t shy, having her own amount of sass, but she had sweetness and didn’t try to change him.  She was the one he offered marriage to and felt the luckiest man in the world when she said yes.  He couldn’t have been happier through all the years they had together.  Then his heart was ripped into shreds when he lost not only his wife but his son as well. 


Chris closed his eyes, pushing away the pain that always came whenever he thought about them.  After they were…gone…he’d given up the softer emotions.  He thought he’d never feel any emotion every again, only seeing women for physical release, or someone beside him so he wouldn’t wake up alone from the nightmares.  Vicious and unrelenting, he dreamed of what he did not see - the burning, dying, last gasps of his wife and child, and what he did find - their charred bodies in the remains of his home, finally burying them in the ground forever. 


Somehow, in the darkness he slowly emerged from, Chris found himself in a town, just like any other, and met a woman that reminded him of a cross between Ella and Sarah.  She had the wildness of Ella hidden under layers of propriety, but a touch of Sarah’s sweetness.  His mind recalled the short time he spent with Caroline, and how much of an impact she made in his life.  Along with how much he made on hers, most of it negative.  He wondered what brought her here, and why she was so forgiving.


Holding her, with all the endearments she whispered to him earlier, felt right.  After finding out how truly vile Ella was, and the bitterness of loss, he was ready to give up on women completely, except for their obvious uses.  Mary piqued his interest, but he wasn't sure how he felt.  She was headstrong, stubborn, and things got complicated around her.  Complications, something he wasn't sure he wanted in his life, compounded by his injuries from Ella.  Mary's silent condemnation, although somewhat healed over, still was close enough to the surface to cause tension – and complications.


But now that Caroline was with him, maybe he would have to rethink things.  She reminded him not all women were as calculating and cold as Ella.  His arm tightened around her, and he pressed a kiss to her temple while she slept.   


She gently stirred, trying to burrow deeper into him and the covers simultaneously.   


"Caro," he said softly, his fingers brushing her bare shoulder.  Maybe now he could get answers.


"Rest," she sleepily whined, snuggling into his naked chest.


"Talk," he suggested.


She sighed.  "What?"




"You were there?" she replied, more question than answer.


"Nope.  You haven't said why you came here."


"Personal business.  It's almost over, and I'll be on my way home to wrap up some loose ends.  Make a fresh start somewhere else.  Maybe here."

"Where's home?"  Interested, his fingers played with her hair while his green eyes studied her brown ones. 


"Someplace nice and quiet.  I've built a new life for myself, Chris.  I couldn't have done it without you."


"All I did was bring you pain."


"Pain and love.  That's a pretty potent combination."


He shrugged.  "Maybe."


"Let's not forget sparks."


Chris teased, "Sparks?  So many sparks that the birds might never recover their hearing."


Caroline softly struck his chest with her fist.  "I wasn't the only one yelling."


Chris laughed and hugged her.  "No."


"Seeing you is a good thing.  I'm glad you were there."


He stayed silent, knowing there was more. 


"I can tell you I'm doing really well.  It was a little rough for a while, and I got run out of a dozen towns after you left.  The story kept catching up with me."


"I'm sorry," Chris immediately said, with sorrow filling his tone.  "I didn't mean for my reputation to ruin yours."  He felt so responsible for that, which was another reason he stayed away from her.  Their names were permanently linked as long as someone knew and spread the story, and the fact he never took her to wife made it even more damning. 


"Shh, Chris.  Everything's mostly worked out for me."  She leaned up to kiss him.  When they broke for air, Caroline smiled.  "So what will we do today?" 


"I have some ideas."  His eyebrows bobbed with his grin, and his green eyes lit with mischief.


"After breakfast," she firmly told him.


"Can’t change your mind?"


"If you’re not going to let me rest, then we’ll eat and regain our strength."   She pulled away, heading for his supply of food.


Chris smirked, rolling out of the bed.  He grabbed his pants, pulled them on, and then his socks and boots.   Stepping outside, he covered his eyes to block out the bright sun.  Closing the door, he continued out to the corral, putting out food and water.  Returning, he set the table, and then helped her serve the simple meal.


Their breakfast passed quietly, and they went for a ride before the noon meal.  Chris showed off his property, and a few secluded spots.  Having worked up an appetite, they frolicked in the afternoon sun, followed by an evening of pleasure.



Chris woke, finding the bed empty.  "Caro?" he called.


"Morning, sleepy," Caroline replied.


He sat up, finding her fully dressed.  "How long have you been up?"


She smiled.  "Long enough to feed the horses and cook your breakfast.  Hungry?"  Caroline carried a plate and mug over to him. 


"Only a fool would turn down breakfast in bed."


"And you're no fool," Caroline finished for him.  "I made you my special brew.  Figured you might want to stay awake today."


Chris smirked.  "And do what?"  He accepted the plate and mug.


"I can think of a few things."  Her shoulder lifted in a shrug, falling gently, before she stood again.  "Go on, eat up."


"Coffee first."  Sipping, the blond man tasted whiskey.  His smile broadened.  "I've always liked your coffee."


"Gets to the point, doesn't it?"  Caroline cleaned up the breakfast dishes, all but the one in his other hand.


He remembered her cooking was good, and savored every bite.  Before he realized it, the plate was clean, the mug empty.  With a yawn, he realized he felt incredibly sleepy.  Figuring the full meal did him in, he teased, "Thought you wanted me awake, feeding me all this, I think you’re trying to put me to sleep."


When she faced him, he knew something was wrong.  Her eyes, normally full of warmth for him, had become unfocused, staring almost through him, and her form wavered.  Fatigue swept through him, and he could barely hold himself up.  "Caro?" Chris asked softly.  "What?"  The mug fell from his fingers, and the plate slid from his grasp.  His eyes followed the movement down, mesmerized by the sight.  Forcing himself, he looked up to see her by the door.  Her hand held something very familiar - his gun, and she was pointing at him.  "What's going on?"


"I found out the truth."  Caroline's voice was hard and cold.  "I know who committed murder."


His green eyes tried and failed to meet hers.  "You found out who killed your husband?"  He pressed a hand against the wall, trying to keep himself from falling backward.  His limbs, heavy and unwieldy, were not responding to him. 


"You killed my husband.  Murdered him!"  Her words were both an accusation and statement.  "But that wasn't enough for you, was it?  You had to destroy everything that he had touched.  Found me, the grieving widow, and seduced me.  Made me love you.  Made me care for you, and then got me shot and ruined."   


"Put that down.  What the hell are you talking about?"  There was nothing more dangerous in his mind than a woman with a gun, and since he taught her how to use it, that made her doubly dangerous.   He also realized she had drugged him, a fact that came too late as he fought unconsciousness.   


"My husband, Cyrus.  I swore I'd find his killer.  You murdered him, and you got away clean.  Then you found me, used me, and ruined me.  The only work I could find was on my back, all thanks to the self-proclaimed bad element Chris Larabee.  No more.  It's time for my revenge, a life for a life.  Your life for his."


"Put…gun…down...talk," Chris said.  His tongue weighed heavily in his mouth, thick and uncooperative.  The room spun. 


"I hate you, and damn us both, I still love you.  Now I'll kill you."  She fired.  


Rolling, or trying to move away, he felt the bullet hit him mid-twist.  Chris gritted his teeth.  "Stop it, Caro!" 


The gun went off again, pain bloomed in his shoulder, and then the door slammed.




Breathing heavily, Chris tried to raise his head up to look around.  His world was swirling, the light growing dim, but he knew she was gone.  His hand trailed to his midsection and felt the wetness there.  Holding it up in front of him, he focused on his hand now covered in red.


“Caro?” The name came out in a whisper, in a state of confusion, wondering what went wrong.  The fell back down as all strength failed him.  His eyes rolled back in his head and Chris slipped into darkness.


Part Two


She dropped the gun before she stumbled outside the door and ran toward the small barn.  Through the bitterness and hate that had build up over the years, she didn’t think she would feel so much after exacting her revenge.  As she hurriedly saddled her horse, she refused to think about the last few hours spent in the arms of the man she left bleeding to death on the cabin floor.  Refused to think about the feelings he invoked once more.  Refused to think about him, fearing her plans for revenge would be for naught and she’d run back in to help him, if he wasn’t dead already.  With a sob, she led her horse out of the barn, leaving the door open for the other animals to roam.


Mounting Daisy, she turned the horse in the direction of the next closest town, figuring on getting a stage there for the long journey back to her real home.  A home she made from the ashes of her life, leaving behind Caroline Jamison in the tenth town she'd been run out of because of Chris Larabee.  She'd allow herself to deal with her emotions later.


She thought about her home, thinking if she was careful enough she could stay there a few days, before packing up once more and leaving for parts unknown and preferably, where no one could find her.  Caroline knew she had to be careful, she didn’t think anyone had seen her with Chris the night before, or spotted her in town before that.  She checked her dress again for bloodstains.  Fortunately, she'd been far enough back that there weren't any splatters on her.  A shiver ran down her spine as she remembered the look of confused shock on Chris Larabee's face.  It was a sight that would probably stay with her the rest of her life.  Maybe it matched the confused shocked look on her husband's face when he was forced into a duel with a drunken Chris Larabee and lost.   She could only hope Cyrus was now at peace. 

The woman who once - and still - loved Chris Larabee to ultimately betray him continued her ride, not feeling the warmth of the sun, nor the gait of her horse. Nor did she feel the stream of wet tears that fell slowly down her face.





His foggy mind roused, and his green eyes opened.  Where was he?  It took a moment to recognize his place, his shack.  From the light and the heat, it had to be late in the day.  Why was he here on the floor, and why did he hurt?


Chris tried to sit up, but the pain wouldn’t let him.  He fell back moaning and breathing hard, trying to catch his breath as the room swam around him.  He swallowed back the nausea and tried to lick his dry mouth, but found no relief for his thirst.  Slowly, he brought his shaky hand up and stared at it.  His blurred eyes saw the blood and he remembered. 


Caro.  She'd drugged him and shot him.  He didn't know what hurt worse - his heart or his body.  He trusted her, brought her here, and she betrayed him. 




The heavy mists coating his brain started to lift, and Chris realized that he needed to do something about the gunshot wounds.  He couldn't lift his neck too far, making things almost impossible for him to check.  With great care he inched his way to the bed, having to stop several times as the pain almost overwhelmed him.  Finally, he raised his hand and pulled the comforter down, finding even that small task almost beyond his strength. 


He pressed the comforter down on his abdomen, groaning at the pain it caused.  The nausea returned and he rolled to his side, breathing heavily.  Now partially wrapped in the comforter, he felt himself fading.  He didn’t want to die here, lying on the floor, shot with his own gun, if he could help it.  Lying still, he hoped he might regain enough strength to endure the pain and let him try to reach the door. 


Why?  That was the question that kept going through his mind.  Why would Caroline do it?  He sure as hell didn't kill her husband. 


Did he? 


He never saw all the faces of the soldiers he fought in the war.  He couldn’t recall all of the faces of the men who died by his hand face to face.  For his peace of mind, he thought that was a good thing.  Cyrus Jamison, from what Caroline told him, had died in a dustbowl tent town during a cattle drive.  He didn't remember killing anyone in a place like that at all, or anyone with that name anywhere else.


Why would she think that he murdered her husband?   Had she lost her mind?


Bitterness filled him.  Every woman that he’d dared let into his wounded heart after Sarah’s death betrayed him.  Ella and her elaborate scheme nearly killed him and drove away his friends.  It resulted in hurting Mary and his making another pact to avoid women, one that didn’t last too long.  A lapse that now resulted in Caroline’s apparent seduction and deceit.  Once he got through this, he planned on swearing off decent women for a very long time, and unless he paid for their services, he was not going to be interested. 


The extremes of emotions were not helping him, he felt himself growing weaker.  His heart was heavy, his eyelids drooped.  Even as he fought to stay awake, with little effort at all he once again slipped into darkness.



The mid-afternoon sun beat down, warming the ground and town, and the lengthening shadows showed the yellow orb’s slow descent through the sky.  Quiet ruled the town now, with a sense of peace still enjoyed by the residents. 

Vin Tanner was at the stable, saddling his horse to go out on patrol.  Josiah had come back a short time before, and now it was the tracker's turn to check on the ranches, small farms, and homesteaders that they protected. 


"Vin?"  Mary’s soft voice came from behind the tracker.  


"Yes, ma’am?"  He turned to face her, tipping his hat in a gesture of respect. 


"Is Mr. Larabee still out at his place?"


Vin nodded.  "Problem?" he asked in his raspy drawl.


Mary hesitated. “I’m not sure.”  She sighed deeply before continuing," I received a request from a fellow newspaper asking for confirmation that Chris Larabee was still a resident here.  When I telegrammed back to find out why, the editor informed me that there was a Pinkerton detective that had stopped in a week before.”


“Is he headed here?”  Vin asked.


Mary shrugged her shoulders, her brow knitted in a frown.  “I don’t know.  The editor didn’t know either, he’s been very ill, and apologized for not sending word earlier. He’s not sure if the Agent is still in town, but I thought it would be best if Mr. Larabee was asked before I replied."


"I'll ride out there.  Ya know who hired the Pinkerton detective?" 


"The editor didn't know.  We've been exchanging telegrams and information for the better part of the day, which is why I didn't find someone sooner."


"I'll go get Chris, Mary."  Vin mounted his horse. 


"Thank you, Vin."  


He tipped his hat in response, heading out of town.



Chris dreamed.  More accurately, he relived a memory.


The town was like so many others, a spot on the map without anything special about it, and catering to the cattle ranchers in the area.  One side held the 'decent' folk, the other cowboys and outlaws.  He'd stopped to eat in the restaurant straddling the two sides.  His server was a brown-haired, brown-eyed harried woman, not overly beautiful but comely.  She worked all the tables in the place, yet somehow kept track of everyone’s orders, all while dodging the gropes of the uncouth. 


She put his water in front of him.  "There.  Now, what can I get you to eat?"


"What's good?"


"Don't touch the meat loaf, stay away from the chicken, but the sirloin's pretty good.  You like it rare, and you want potatoes with it."


"I do?" he asked, a smirk playing on his lips.  Her telling him what he liked and wanted amused him, especially since they hadn't met before, but he did like his steak rare.


"Unless you want to spend the rest of your stay, may it be short for you, in the outhouse, that's what you'll have."


Chris nodded and grinned at her comment.  Yes, that would be something he wanted to avoid.


She bustled off, and he covertly watched her slender form hustle about, refilling drinks, delivering food, and trying to keep control of the dining room.  When she brought him a basket of rolls, she said, "From me to you for not complaining.  Don't touch the apple butter, but the honey's fresh."


He turned on the charm.  "Much obliged.  Might I have your name to thank you properly?"


"Mrs. Jamison."


"Mrs. Jamison, much obliged for your kindness."  All thoughts of charming a married woman went out of his head.  "Your husband's a lucky man."


A shadow crossed her face.  "My husband died.  Just me, my brother's restaurant, my worthless, vindictive, lazy sister-in-law, and this room full of idiots.  Enjoy.  I'll be back in a few."  She hurried off.


A widow and judging from the clothes, out of the year of mourning for her husband, if she followed the custom.  He understood losing someone, and the thought brought a fresh pain to his heart.  Lost in his thoughts, his hand fumbled for the knife to butter a roll, and he knocked it to the floor. 


"Didn't realize the rolls were that bad," she said, appearing at the table quietly.  "I'll take them away."  Her hand reached for the basket.


"No."  He clapped a hand on hers.  "It's not that."


"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't knock you upside your empty head with my tray for touching me."  Her previously friendly eyes coolly assessed him, and one hand tightened on the tray she held. 


"I'm sorry."  He let go immediately.  He was glad no one else appeared to notice their exchange.  Secretly, he was also pleased that she was not so accepting of anyone’s touch.  "I shouldn't have.  It's not the food."


"Then it's your heart.  You look sad, Mister.  None of my business, but I'd recommend you have some coffee."


That made no sense to him.  "Oh, you think coffee will cure me?"


"Yup."  She winked at him.  "For a time.  It's strong stuff, better than the water you're drinking now."


He agreed to try it. 


When she returned, he took a tentative sip, feeling the kick of the whiskey tucked inside.  Maybe she was right; the kick of good whiskey blended with the hot beverage was evening out his mood.  "Very good."  He smiled.


The woman leaned close to him, practically whispering.  "My personal, special blend.  Make sure you eat the mint at the end to cover the fumes, or else my brother the ogre boss will have a fit.  He keeps this place liquor free because his wife's brother owns the saloon two doors down."


Chris smirked.  "Wouldn't want to cause you trouble for such a fine blend.  Much obliged." 


"Since I'm risking my job for you, can I ask your name?  You already have half of mine."


"Chris Larabee, and the rest of yours?"


"Bold, aren't you?"  She smiled at him.  "Caroline."


"Pleasure meeting you, Caroline."  He gave her his best smile.


"Keep smiling like that and I just might throw in dessert."


"What kind?"  Chris kept his tone light, leaving the implication that he was romantically interested underneath the polite words.  "There's all kinds of desserts, and I'm sure you'd serve up something pretty as a picture and just as tasty, but not as beautiful as you."  He practically winced, realizing those were some of the worst words he'd ever thrown out to attract a woman in a long time, and probably heavily influenced by Buck Wilmington.


"We'll just have to see what's on the menu.  Subject to change at any moment, you understand.  But right now, it's looking rather promising." 


"I await the lady's pleasure," he remarked.  "And leave myself to her tender mercies."


"Pleasure, mercy, all very interesting concepts.  Maybe we could discuss them at length at a later time."  She winked. 


"I'd like that."  Perhaps he wasn't as rusty as he thought.


She brought him dessert, and then met him after her shift for a perfectly respectable walk through town, at least in the parts of town that were considered 'better' than the sections Chris felt more at home in.  Returning her to the restaurant, he thanked her for her hospitality, leaving her for her brother to walk her home.  

Chris met her at her house later that night, coming in the back, and they talked and kissed for hours.  She wouldn't allow things to go past a kiss and an embrace, but that was fine with Chris.  It had been awhile since he'd had a woman engage both his mind and his body, and waiting didn't bother him.  He liked getting to know her.   

The black-clad gunslinger continued to see the widow for a week.  He didn't have any pressing business.  Nowhere to be and no one waiting for him, the distraction she provided his loneliness was welcoming.  In public, they handled themselves with decorum, dictated more so by her hated sister-in-law and stern brother than the barely interested townspeople.  By the end of the week, they realized they wanted to go past the clandestine talks, beyond stolen kisses, and more than the oh-so-proper chaperoned horseback rides.  They agreed on where and when, and it was something special neither expected.  Chris stayed another three weeks, longer than he normally did in any one town lately, and that's when the kid breezed into town looking to make a name.


Neither Chris or Caroline ever truly talked about that night, but when he helped her move away - her brother had disowned her and called her a whore - from the only town she'd ever known, he given her the use his name, pretending they were husband and wife while they traveled.  Once in a place he judged to be safe for her, he played the part of her brother in law, giving him a legitimate reason to come back after she was settled.  He didn't leave until she healed and found a job.  Larabee was not ready to be tied down again so soon after losing Sarah and Adam, and she had a life to rebuild.  They agreed the timing wasn't right between them, letting him go without too much guilt.


When he went back some time later, after being sidetracked with his own investigation into the murders of Sarah and Adam, he found out she'd left town not too long after she arrived, leaving no forwarding information.  The townspeople told him nothing, but their condemning looks answered his questions.  Chris knew if he found Caroline, he might bring more speculation and let their past catch up to her again, ruining any life she had.  So he stayed away, never searching for her, cursed his black reputation, and wandered until he found himself in a gunfight to prevent a black healer from hanging. 


The dream dissolved, leaving him awake and in pain.  Not to mention weak and he knew that was from blood loss.  Lying here alone wasn't helping, he needed help.  It was something he was going to have to try to get for himself.  He’d been hurt before and managed, he would do it again.  If - and this was a pretty big if in his mind - he could get to his horse, he could ride for town.  Or let the horse walk him there.  Nathan might be able to help him. 


When he tried to sit up, his entire body protested.  For a fleeting moment the thought crossed Chris’ mind that it might be too late.  He tried to move slowly, dragging his body toward the door. He couldn't - it was too painful.  His eyes watered from the agony, and frustration filled him.  Giving one last effort, he managed to roll over, the pain seared him and he lost the contents in his stomach.  As he slid into darkness again, his last thought was that he had failed.



Vin topped the small rise that sat above Larabee’s small shack.  He was wondering if his friend had managed to sort through the demons or whatever had made him desire his few days of solitude.  Gazing down upon the small, too quiet homestead, he stared in suspicion and began to search the area for hidden dangers.  Vin noticed the barn door open and no sign of his friend moving about the yard or corral.  The gunslinger’s black gelding and two of his new mares were grazing at the grove of trees at the back of the house.  The lone milk cow Larabee recently purchased was on the opposite side closer to the creek.  Fear filled his heart, and he spurred his own mount toward the house.

Vin kept out of the line of site of the cabin’s front windows and doors.  As he got closer, he slid from his horse and secured him to a tree out of sight.  Pulling his mare's leg from its holster, he stealthily approached the front door.  When he reached it, he took a deep breath and mentally prepared himself to face what he might find.  Steeling himself, he kicked the door open with the weapon primed to fire.  What he saw scared him even more. 

Blood - lots of it – sprayed across the opposite wall, the bed, and soaked the twitching form on the floor.  It filled the interior with its sickly sweet smell, and there was entirely too much of it.   


No one else was in the cabin.  Putting away the mare's leg, Vin rushed to his friend’s side.  "Chris?"


Larabee moaned.


Flipping him over, all Tanner saw was crimson coating the front of the body belonging to his friend, and two gunshot wounds.  "Aw, hell."   From the pale complexion, and the faintest recognition in Larabee's eyes, Vin knew that the gunslinger was losing the battle to live.  Knowing time counted and currently ran against him, he whipped the sheet from the bed and frantically began to rip it up.  He folded two large sections of it and pressed one over each of the wounds, holding pressure.


After what seemed like hours to Vin the bleeding finally slowed.  He knew Larabee needed more help than he could provide.  He bandaged the pads over the wounds and set about preparing the gunslinger to move to town.


"Stay with me, cowboy.  I'm takin' ya ta Nathan."  He bundled Chris up the best he could under the circumstances, and then ran to get his horse.  Sprinting back inside, he picked up Chris, carried him outside, and ignored the substances his friend expelled on his buckskins.  He struggled to get the gunslinger up on the horse, and then swung up behind him.  Holding the limp body in front of him, he took off toward town as quick as he could.  Praying along the way that he was not too late.


Reaching town, his yells could be heard long before he pulled in proper.  The rest of the Seven were quickly there at his side, helping him carry the injured gunslinger up the stairs to Nathan's clinic.  Then the wait began.

Part Three


"I'd like a room, please," Caroline said.


"Sure, ma'am.  Just you?"


A sad look intentionally crossed her face.  "My husband was murdered awhile back.  It's just me.  I'm going home to my brother's in California."


"I'm real sorry to hear that, ma'am.  There's a stage passing through at three tomorrow heading to points further West."


"I just might be on the stage.  I'm quite terrible with directions; I got lost coming here.  Where can I buy a ticket?"


"The telegraph office.  That way they can tell the stage to stop here and pick you up."

"Thank you.  Once I have a room, I'll take care of that, and then retire for the evening.  Please see that I'm not disturbed."

"Certainly, ma'am.  If you'll sign the register?"


She signed it 'Mrs. C. Jamison', and then accepted the key.  "Much obliged.  Where would I find the telegraph office?"


"Right next door, ma'am."


"Thank you again."


He bobbed his head. 


Caroline bought a ticket for the stage.  She'd wanted to leave earlier on Daisy, just in case something went wrong with her plans, but it would look more respectable if she traveled via stagecoach, instead of alone on horseback.  It would also fit with the lies she told the clerk, cementing her story.  Once in her locked room, she stripped out of her clothes, washed the dust off her body, and stretched out on the bed. 


Her thoughts drifted back to the husband she grew up with, married, and lost.  She hoped again he was resting with the angels now, because his killer was on the way to hell.  Brown eyes closed when the tears came, both for him and the man she had fallen for after her husband died.   She realized that in the short time they were together, Caroline Jamison fell completely in love with Chris Larabee.  Otherwise, she never would have done what she did when they first met, knowing full well that having an illicit relationship would have serious consequences.   

She paid that price a hundred times over since then, and paid it gladly for a while.  The time with him was special.  That love had sustained her through the hard times, giving her hope for a possible future.  But then finding out less than a month ago he was the one who made her a widow, murdered her husband, made her love him, and then ruined her was enough to poison the love she held for him.  Like she told him, she loved him, and she hated him.  Which was why she gut shot him and left him to die.  It would take longer that way, and he would understand why . . . and he would suffer.  And she wanted him to suffer, just like she had. 

He'd confessed to her one night he was after the people who killed his wife and son, and she told him of her vow to find her husband's killer.  It united them, that search for justice, and they talked about what they would do when they found the persons responsible for their tragedies.  Chris Larabee held the desire for vengeance deep in his heart, just as she did.  He would understand her justice.

And, a part of her finally admitted, his understanding was another reason she left him time to think about killing her Cyrus, remember him, because obviously he didn't.  He would have admitted it to her when they first got close if he killed Cyrus; that was the kind of man he was.  He didn't, so he didn't remember, and that just wasn’t right. 


Alternatively, he was a methodical sonofabitch and it was all part of his plan.  He killed Cyrus, and somehow Cyrus had mad him angry enough to continue his retribution to his family.  So he hunted down his widow, followed by ruining her.  Or he found it amusing to do so.  Her mind kept telling her the sequence of events was too smooth, too planned to be coincidental, and she was a fool for falling right into his plan…and bed. 


He'd fooled her.  Now, she fooled him.  Let him stew on her victory before he died.



"I've got to get those bullets out," Nathan said, half to himself and half to the occupants of the room.  "Buck, keep the water boiling.  JD, I'll need bandages, and lots of them.  Josiah -"


"I know, brother."  After drying his newly washed hands, Josiah prepared the surgical instruments, and then started sponging the blood away from the wounds while Nathan scrubbed up. 


Buck got the kettle going over the fire, bolting from the room to have both the saloon and the hotel prepare some water. 


JD wiped down the nightstand beside the bed, and then opened the box Nathan kept bandages in.   He pulled out strips, laying them down on the nightstand within easy reach.  When the box was half-empty, he set the rest in a pile, leaving to find more. 



Buck grabbed Vin on his way out of the clinic.  "He's alive for now.  Go find the sonofabitch."


Vin nodded.  "Ez?"  He didn't even turn to the gambler coming to a stop near him.


"Right behind you, Mr. Tanner."  


The two men went to the stables, where Vin got a fresh horse, and saddled up.


"Vin?"  Mary hurried over to the pair.


"He's hurt bad, Miz Travis.  Best you wire the Judge.  We're goin' huntin'."  He gave her a hard look, and the pair rode off toward Larabee's place.


The pace to the shack was grueling, but neither man complained.   When they arrived, Vin carefully led them down the back way to the cabin. 


"Happened today," the tracker said, breaking the silence.  "Wounds are too fresh."


They opened the door to the cabin.


"Dear Lord," Ezra exclaimed.  "The blood."


"Gut and shoulder shots," Vin explained.  "Bled a lot."


"Obviously."  Turning his head, the gambler saw something by the door.  "Mr. Tanner?"  He waited until the tracker faced him.   "The gun."  Ezra picked it up carefully, sniffed, and then checked the chambers.  "Recently fired and not cleaned.  And from the distance, not fired by Mr. Larabee's hand."


"Shot with his gun.  Bastard," Vin muttered.  "Ya don't shoot a man with his own gun."


"He knew and trusted his attacker for that cretin to have access to his weapon."


Vin squatted down beside the bed.  Grabbing the mug, he examined it.  Bringing it to his nose, he smelled the whiskey and coffee mix.  "He had breakfast and there was whiskey in his coffee."


"Again, he trusted his attacker.  Were you aware that he had guests?"


"Hell, no."  Tanner snorted, pushing himself to his feet.  "Told me he was coming out here for a few days.  Had some things to work on.  Reckoned he needed the break from the craziness.  Rest of us did."


"I'd agree.  I don't believe there's anything else to be learned here."


"Nope."  They walked outside, and Vin checked around the corral and the horses.  "Ez."




"The livestock was set loose,” Vin explained.  “Whoever shot ‘im wasn’t out ta steal the horses."


"How interesting," Standish replied.


"Not as interesting as this."  Vin pointed at the ground.


Ezra came up beside him, looking down.  One eyebrow rose.  "Boots."


"Small boots."


"They look feminine." 




Blue eyes met bright green. 


Ezra carefully voiced his thoughts.  "He'd trust a woman he knew.  The twisted Mrs. Gaines comes to mind.  Do you believe she came here to see him?"


Vin shook his head.  "He wouldn't have let her near his gun.  Hell, he would've shot her.  Or at least tied her up."


"Maybe he didn't have a choice," Ezra remarked.  "Or was surprised.  We must keep possibilities open."


"Yeah.  There are fresh tracks away from here.  Let's go."


Both men climbed aboard their horses, starting to follow the tracks away from the Larabee place.  They traveled for two hours before it got dark, and the trail was impossible to see.  Frustrated, both men made a meager camp, spoke little, and waited for daybreak.  For once, Ezra didn't complain about the prospect of getting up early.



"That's one," Nathan announced, removing the bullet from the midsection and dropping it into the pan beside the bed.  "It was in the muscle."  He closed the first wound with neat stitches, applied a salve to ward off infection, and used bandages to cover it. 


"Good," Josiah breathed.  "He might have a chance."

"If I can find the other one."  Taking a deep breath, Nathan went to work on the second wound.


"You're doing great, Doc," JD said, replacing fresh bandages in the empty spots on the nightstand. 


Buck returned with another pair of buckets of hot water.  "More hot water, Nate."  He picked up the used buckets, tinged with pink from blood, and left. 


A steady hand used clamps to hold the peeled back skin secure, and sterilized tweezers entered the hole, slowly moving forward to probe for the bullet.  Finally, the metal end of the tweezers hit the bullet, causing Nathan to lean forward.  Josiah moved the light closer, and the healer peered into the wound.  Opening the tweezers, he put the ends around the mangled bullet, pulling it up and out.


Immediately, he used his free hand to sponge away the fresh blood, his other giving Josiah the tweezers and bullet.  Nathan cleaned the wound, packed it, and loosely stitched it to be able to change the packing.  The salve went on next, followed by bandages.


"Now it's up to him and God.  Lost a lot of blood."  Jackson washed his hands.


"I'll ask for some help if he's listening to me."  Josiah set the lamp down.


Buck and JD quietly helped with the cleanup, and the latter informed the waiting townspeople of Larabee's condition.



"Mr. Tanner?"  Beneath the canopy of stars, green eyes contemplating the heavens, and surrounded by beauty, Ezra Standish could not sleep.  His thoughts were heavy, and some variables bothered him, like the tracker beside him.  What would Vin do when faced with the person or persons responsible for shooting Chris?  Would he kill that person on his own, or would he take the person into custody and allow the law to handle it?  Or would they take the person back, but in a damaged condition?  He needed to eliminate some variables so that he could plan his own actions. 


"Yeah?"  The tracker's voice sounded just as awake. 

"How bad were the injuries?  I only had a fleeting glimpse."


"Ya saw the cabin."


"But not the person."


Vin blew out a breath.  "Bad enough we didn’t stay in town ta find out if Nathan could help him."


"You believe the worst?"


"I ain't hopeful," Tanner whispered.  "Seen a man gut shot like that who took most of a day ta die, and he never woke back up.  Reckon if I - we -catch the sonofabitch, Chris'll understand."


"And if the sonofabitch is actually a female?"  Ezra did not get an immediate reply; he listened to the nighttime music of the desert while waiting. 


"Then she'll ride back with us."




"I'll truss her up if she gives us a problem, but I ain't about ta let her - or him - not come back with us."


"May I admit I wondered your thoughts?"


Vin rolled over to stare at Ezra and smiled.  "Can't say I didn't think hard on it."


"So have I," Standish agreed softly.


"Dead or alive don't make no difference to me.  But Chris, he's got that code of honor.  We don't have it that bad."


"Thank God for small favors."  Ezra shuddered.


"Reckon so.  Lets us do what's necessary.  Too many times he's let the law handle it instead of finishin' it himself.  Top Hat Bob, the Stokes sisters, and a few others.  I owe it ta him ta handle things his way."


"So we will be bringing back a live prisoner?"


"Unless it's them or us," Vin qualified.


"Mrs. Gaines employs ruffians to do her bidding.  If she's behind this, she'll be prepared."


"Didn't see any tracks but a woman's and Larabee's.  Plus it’s only the one horse we're following."


"The chance exists, my friend, we are riding into an ambush."


"Then ya best shoot straight with them three guns."

Ezra chuckled.  "While you exercise due caution."


"Hell, Ez, I didn't know ya cared."  A teasing quality entered the tracker's voice.


Standish cleared his throat.  "There are few I call friend, Vin, and trust to watch my back.  I already hurt for one of them, and I'd prefer not to add another."


"Thanks, Ezra.  We'll take it slow and smart," Vin replied.  "Which means quit yappin' and get some sleep."

"Who made you trail boss?" Ezra muttered.



Buck peeked into the clinic for the fifteenth time that night.  He hadn't slept, couldn't eat.  All he could do was worry.  This was his best and oldest friend, the man who understood him beyond all others, and now all the rogue could do was watch . . . and pray. 


Nathan nodded to him that Chris was still among the living, and Josiah's prayers reassured Buck. 

The sonofabitch who did this would have a lot to answer for, Buck decided, when Vin and Ezra brought him back.  If they brought him back alive.  Knowing Vin's bounty hunter past, dead was probable, but that was okay with Buck.  He just wanted the reason Chris was shot before the person died, and trusted Vin and Ezra to get it. 


"Mary said the Judge is on his way," he whispered to the other men. 


The healer bobbed his head. 


"Nathan?"  Buck swallowed.


"He's strong and stubborn."


Wilmington snorted.  "Stubborn, hell.  The man wrote the book on it."


"That'll help.  He makes it through the next couple days, and the fever doesn’t get too bad, he's got a chance.  But right now, I don't know."


"Have faith, Brothers.  Chris won't quit."  Josiah looked at both of them.  "Lie down, I'll watch him.  Get some rest, both of you."


"Can't sleep."  Buck shook his head, finding a stool to sit on. 


"What if something happens?"  Nathan countered.


"I'll wake you."

Both men declined, and Josiah, knowing further arguments were useless, resumed his prayers.

Part Four

Morning broke, and Caroline pulled herself from the bed.  She wandered the small town she now knew was called Eagle Bend, and shopped the mercantile.  Having a few conversations with the people, she found them friendly, but they looked at her a little strangely for humming so much.  It couldn't be helped; she was ecstatic about the fact Chris Larabee was probably dead by now.  That made her giddy, and her happiness seemed strange to others, so she retreated to her room, avoiding the stares of the people.  Caroline spent the rest of the time until the noon meal remembering her two loves Cyrus Jamison and Chris Larabee.

Quiet and subdued, she meant to eat alone.  However, the Sheriff came over and asked in his polite yet gruff way to join her, telling her he was not trying to be forward, but her table had the only empty chair in the restaurant.   Agreeing, she found him an interesting companion, as she spent the time drawing him out.  When he asked about her plans, she explained she would be leaving shortly on the afternoon stage.  Surprisingly, it was an enjoyable meal, far away from the shooting in the neighboring town. 

She wanted to boast of her victory, but she did not; instead, she smiled and joked with the Sheriff.  The danger appealed to her; here she was, sitting across from a man representing the law, after what she had done and was getting away with.  Something so many wanted to succeed at – murder.  But it was revenge . . . no, justice . . . she rationalized to herself, saying Chris deserved it for all the pain he caused her and her husband's death.

Chris remained alive, but unconscious through the long night.  Fever set in, and cold wipe downs became a requirement to keep it under control.  Nathan continued to work to save his patient.  He wasn’t alone, everyone took turns, fetching the water, wetting the cloths, or wiping the slowly warming body.  And, he was not alone in his hopes and prayers, but they each wondered if it was enough.


With daybreak, Vin and Ezra continued to follow the trail, all the way to a farm nowhere near anything.  Talking to the farmer, they found out a woman came through, got a description of her, and discovered she claimed she was lost.  The farmer pointed her in the direction of Eagle Bend.  The tracks they followed also led right to town, as they arrived dusty and tired just half past one.  Exchanging looks, they went to the corral first, keeping out of sight of the local residents.  Both knew their faces were not among the most popular in this town.  Especially not welcome after the regulators removed Nathan's father from the town’s lynch mob to assure a fair trial.  And, the residents since of injustice done to them at that trial and the ensuing fight afterwards.  Yet, a few well-placed bribes earned them the knowledge that the horse belonged to a light brown haired woman.  They even discovered that woman was leaving on the three o'clock stage, and the description of her matched the one given by the farmer.   


Slinking into the shadows between the buildings, they waited and they watched.  Both were ready to grab the woman and take her back to their town to ask questions there, because they knew there would be no cooperation from the law in this town. 


"Come on out, you sonsabitches," a voice called to them.  "I’ve got enough men to beat you senseless just for the fun of it, and hot lead ready." 


Vin and Ezra exchanged glances, and then slipped from their hiding places.  Their positioning protected each other’s backs, and they were prepared for a fight.


"Problem, Sheriff?"  Tanner took the initiative. 


"You don’t have any authority in my town, so don’t be thinking you’ll be talking to anyone that comes through here," Stains told them.


"Got enough authority to question a witness," Vin replied.  "Can’t stop us from that."


"Witness to what?”  


“Attempted murder,” Ezra drawled.  “And Sheriff Stains, no matter what you think of us, you must realize that as an officer of the law and duly sworn representative of the court, you are obligated to render assistance in our search for the culprit.  You wouldn’t want anyone to report back that you were interfering with our investigation?"


"That a threat, con man?"  


Some of the townspeople muttered amongst themselves and prepared to back their sheriff in a fight, punching fist to palm, or dropping their hands to their weapons. 


"Well, sir, since there are so many of you standing around hearing what I am saying, and Judge Travis is already en route to our fair berg, perhaps he would be interested in your level of cooperation."  Steady green eyes belonging to a man that faced hostile masses more often than not bored into the crowd, stopping to rest on the Sheriff.


"Who got shot?" asked Stains.


"A citizen," Ezra immediately replied.  "Which the lady who owns the horse we followed into town might have witnessed."


Stains considered.  "You’ll wait in my jailhouse for me.  I’ll speak to the lady, see if she’s willing to cooperate, and the only way I’ll allow questioning will be to have James Lightfoot present and representing her and our interests."


Vin nodded tightly.  The look he exchanged with Ezra said that they would take what they could get now, and then later, they would do things their way.  To hell with Stains, Lightfoot, and the rest of this town. 


Stepping into the jailhouse, they waited patiently but not alone - two deputies sat with them, not allowing them to talk.



Sheriff Stains had someone bring her downstairs from her hotel room and waited until she appeared in the lobby.  "Mrs. Jamison." 


"Yes, Sheriff?"  She smiled at him.  "Are you being kind and offering me an escort to the stage?" 


He cleared his throat.  "Mrs. Jamison, some men from a neighboring town want to speak to you about something.  They represent the law there."


"Oh, my."  Her hand flew up to cover her heart.  "Did something happen to my brother?"


"No, no, no, nothing like that," he hurried to reassure her.  "They just want to question you."


"About what?"  Caroline tilted her head. 


"Would you be willing to speak with them?"  Stains hated doing this, especially for that group of gunslingers, but sometimes his job required him to do things he didn’t like.  And this he didn’t like this at all, but he was too much of a lawman.


Concern filled her features.  "Am I in any trouble?"


"Not that I’ve been told, Mrs. Jamison, but I want to make sure you're protected.  Would you object if I had an attorney sit with you, representing both your and the town’s interests during the questioning?"


"What aren’t you saying, Sheriff?"  Brown eyes assessed him. 


He felt small under her gaze.  "These men, they’re a little rough around the edges.  Ruthless.  And I don’t want you to get trapped into something that doesn’t concern you.  So I want to protect you by having Mr. Lightfoot and myself there.  Just in case."


She laid a hand on his sleeve and looked into his eyes.  "My thanks, Sheriff.  Can I trust this Mr. Lightfoot?"


"He’s a good attorney," the Sheriff replied.  He liked the feel of her hand on his arm, the way she looked at him.  It gave him a few carnal thoughts.  Clearing his throat and trying not to flush under her scrutiny, he said, "Mr. Lightfoot."


A tall, dapperly dressed gentleman came over.  "Mrs. Jamison, I presume?"


"Yes.  Mr. Lightfoot?"


He gave her a courtly bow.  "At your service."


"No one’s yet said what your services will cost me, Mr. Lightfoot."


The Sheriff and the attorney both answered, "No charge."  Stains had already told Lightfoot it was a continuation of his services to his town. 


"It’s quite surprising to meet such generous men.  Now, if we can finish this business quickly, perhaps you would allow me to purchase you gentlemen a refreshment before my stage departs?"  She looked from one to the other, and they nodded.


"Shall we?"



Ezra studied her the minute she walked in and continued to do so under the oh-so-polite introduction.  All of his skills were honed, and he was prepared for the con.  She gave nothing away, which told him she was a professional.  Either she was a professional working girl or liar.  He would see soon enough how good she was, and how fast he could break her down.  He was going to do the talking, and Vin would watch her and look menacing.  They decided on that strategy without words, using eye contact to decide their plans while the two deputies sat there watching them. 

Sharp green eyes assessed her, taking in the curly light brown hair beneath the oh-so-proper bonnet.  The wide brown eyes gave away just a hint of curiosity mixed with fear, the average figure, and somber traveling gown.  It was of a decent fabric, neither screaming of high fashion, nor a near future candidate for the rag pile.  He also noticed she was performing her own evaluation of both men, focusing more on him than on Vin.  That told him she knew where the threat truly was - him - and that she’d already dismissed Vin as no threat, even with his menacing look.  

"We appreciate you taking the time to see us," Ezra greeted politely, breaking the silence caused by their studies of each other. 

"It’s no trouble at all.  I’m happy to help out the law," she replied with a sincere smile.

Standish wasn’t buying it.  His instincts screamed she had something to do with shooting Chris, if she wasn’t the one that pulled the trigger.  However, none of his disbelief showed on his face, especially because they needed her to admit it, or make a mistake so they could take her into custody.  "We are obliged for your cooperation.  Hopefully, we can make this brief.  Allow me to ask you a few questions.  Can you tell me your whereabouts yesterday?" 

"My whereabouts?  What a strange question."


James Lightfoot, attorney at law, held a hand up to interrupt.  "Pray tell if my client is considered a suspect in a crime.  That will determine whether or not she answers your questions."


Ezra barely kept himself from rolling his eyes.  Attorneys served their purpose, but in the simple questioning of a woman, they were not necessary.  She had not officially been charged with anything, so he did not have leverage, but he was going to finesse what he had.  "We’re inquiring because there is the very real possibility that your client may have been a witness to a shooting, whether she was aware of it or not."


"A shooting?"  Horror covered her features.  "Was anyone killed?"


Well done, he thought.  Extremely well acted, and if he hadn’t been looking for tells, he wouldn’t have seen them.  Perhaps Vin might have caught something in the carefully feigned reactions.  Flicking his eyes quickly to the tracker, he could read Tanner was not sure about her. 


"Not that we are aware of at this time," he replied.  "We left prior to finding out the severity of the injuries to the victim."


"I hope the person will be okay," Caroline declared.  "May I ask what happened?"


"Before I explain, ma'am, I would like to find out if you may or may not have seen anyone of interest during your travels."


"If I can help, I will," she assured him. 


"Then we come back to your whereabouts, Mrs. Jamison.  Mr. Lightfoot, since we have established the circumstances and that your client's considered a potential witness, will you allow her to answer?"  Standish gave a hard look to the attorney, non-verbally challenging him to find a reason not to answer, especially with the gravity of the situation.


"Go ahead, Mrs. Jamison.  Tell them where you were so we can clear this matter up."


"Yes, sir.  I was on my way home to my brother, and I’m sorry to say that I got hopelessly lost, and had to stop for directions before finding this town."


"Where did you stop for directions?"  Ezra asked, keeping his face impassive.


"At a farm, and I spoke with a very nice Mister Hastings.  Before that I stopped at a homestead, but didn’t stay there long."


"We've spoken to Mr. Hastings, ma'am, and he verified your stop there.  Can you tell me where the homestead was?"


"I'm not really sure, sir.  I'm terrible with directions."


"What did it look like?" he asked, trying a different tack. 


"New wood on a small house, in the middle of a field, just off the road.  It had a corral with horses."  Caroline hesitated.


"You seem unsure about something," Ezra prodded.


"Well, when I was riding up, there was a dust cloud on the road in front of me.  About three or four horses.  I guessed it was riders a hurry."  She blew out a breath.  "I don't know if that's important or not."


"You saw riders?"  Vin asked, breaking his silence.


"More like the dust cloud moving away.  I didn't hear anything.  But it scared me, so I hid in the trees, and waited a spell."

"Why?"  Standish found Mrs. Caroline Jamison impressive in her delivery.  She actually looked like she believed what she was telling them, and her manner supported her lies.  This was probably one of the most professional liars he had ever met in his life, and that was saying something.


"I wasn't sure if they were coming back, and I'm a woman traveling by myself.  I have to be careful."


"Which was the right and proper thing for you to do, Mrs. Jamison," Lightfoot told her.  "Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Standish?"


Ezra forced an insincere smile.  "Self-preservation cannot be underrated.  Getting back to this homestead, what did you do next?"


"I rode down to the corral, tied my horse up, and then called out.  No one answered me, and I didn't see anyone in the nearby fields.  So I went to the door, knocked, but no one answered.  That's when I left."


"Did you look inside the house?"


"No, sir."  Caroline affected a horrified expression.  "That's trespassing."


"Being on the property, Mrs. Jamison, would be considered trespassing."


"Mrs. Jamison already stated she was looking for directions.  It's not a crime to ask for neighborly assistance."  Lightfoot stared hard at Ezra.


"Quite right."  Again, Standish forced a fake smile, and allowed the point to go unchallenged for now.


"Do you have any further questions for my client?  She does have a stage to catch."


"Just one."  Ezra took a deep breath.  "Do you know a Chris Larabee, Mrs. Jamison?"


Stains gasped.  "Someone shot that sonofabitch?"


Ezra ignored him, studying the woman.   


Caroline showed surprise.  "I used to know a Chris Larabee.  Was he the one that was hurt?"


Standish nodded once.  She wasn't surprised, he told himself.  She was expecting that question.  This woman should be an actress - she was that good.  He could tell both Stains and Lightfoot bought her innocence and surprise. 


"That's terrible.  Mr. Larabee was always a sweet man, and a good tipper."


The men exchanged glances. 

Ezra said, "You knew him professionally?" 


Catching the look between them, Caroline affected an angry expression.  "How dare you, sirs, to think that about me.  I worked for an honest wage in my brother's restaurant serving food, and Mr. Larabee was nothing but courteous to me."


"My apologies, ma'am," Stains blushed.


"Excuse me," Lightfoot added. 


Vin and Ezra said nothing, but Standish had the connection now.  She knew Chris, and that went a long way in his mind.  Unfortunately, he knew that there was not enough to take her back with them now, especially in front of these witnesses.  


Caroline nodded her acceptance at their apologies, then turned frosty eyes, faking concern, back to Ezra. "Tell Mr. Larabee I hope he gets well soon."


"I surely will," Standish replied.  He barely contained the sarcasm, but knew it would not serve him well right now. 


"If you're done, gentlemen, I'll escort Mrs. Jamison to the stage.  Have a nice day," Lightfoot tipped his hat, offering his arm to the woman.  She took it, and the pair left.


"She's free to go," Stains gave them a cold stare.


"She's involved, Sheriff," Vin replied.  "You, me, Lightfoot, and Ezra know it."


"Not enough to hold her, even if I suspected her guilt.  Which I don't."  He gave them a disgusted look. 


"You didn't track her horse from his place to here," Vin replied.


"Did you even bother to look at the group of horses that were leaving?  Maybe Larabee pissed off one of them."


"We're checking into everything," Tanner answered evenly.


"Since you've already checked her out, you're done here.  Get out of my town, because you've got no more official business keeping you here."


Ezra stood, straightening his jacket and trousers.  "It will be a pleasure to see the back of this town." 


The Sheriff glared at them, and Vin glared back. 

Walking outside, Ezra softly said, "There were no sign of horses going through the area, other than hers and ours, correct?"


"No horses, no tracks," Tanner replied.


"We're stopping the stage?"




The two men mounted their horses, riding out of town ostensibly in the direction of their town.  Once sure they were not being followed, the pair rode hard to get ahead of the lumbering stagecoach, picking the best spot to detain it and remove Caroline Jamison.  Forcefully.


Part Five


Rumbling along, the stage continued its run, slowly gathering speed on the road away from Eagle Bend.  Approximately an hour out, the road narrowed with trees on either side.  It was a part of the journey the driver and guard hated because it was a good place for an ambush.  So far, they'd been lucky.


Today was not a lucky day.


In front of them, a lone horse blocked the path, gun resting across the thighs, but not pointed at the stage.  One hand held out in a gesture to stop, the man atop the horse dressed in buckskin pants yelled, "This ain’t a hold up.  We’re peacekeepers lookin’ for a fugitive."


The driver nodded, pulling the animals to a stop.


The guard remained alert, displaying his shotgun.


Looking past the stage, Vin saw Ezra ride up behind them, his weapon pulled.


Speaking in a gravelly voice, the tracker commanded, "Ain’t gonna hurt no one.  Just want ta check yer passengers."


"On who’s authority?" the guard challenged. 


"The Honorable Orin W. Travis.  I’m a sworn officer of his court," Tanner replied.  "Ya wanna argue, or let us check and git on yer way?"


All fight left the guard; recognition of the name was obvious on his features. 



Inside the stage, Caroline recognized the voice.  She turned to the elderly couple across from her.  "Please help me," she begged.


"Are you in trouble, dear?"  The older woman asked, concern obvious on her face. 


"Yes, ma'am.  I'm being falsely accused of shooting someone.  Because I don't want to see anyone hurt, I'm going to go with them peacefully, but I beg you to either go back to Eagle Bend to tell Sheriff Stains what these men are doing, or wire Sheriff Stains when you get to the next stop.  I don't believe they'll hurt me."  She passed a few dollars from her reticule to the woman.  "Here’s money for the wire." 


"We'll do what we can," the woman answered.


"Martha," her husband warned.


"Can we take the chance that she's telling the truth, and we're doing nothing to help her?"


"Thank you, ma'am."



Standish looked in the window and smiled a nasty smile.  "Mrs. Jamison, step out of the coach," Ezra instructed, his gun, held and pointed at her.  "We will not harm you."


"I don't want to go with you," she replied.   


"I don’t believe you have a choice," he calmly replied.  The gun-less hand opened the door and he motioned her out.


"Excuse me, sir, but do you have a warrant for her arrest?" the older man asked.


"The Honorable Judge Orin W. Travis will be issuing it as we speak.  Unless, sir, you would prefer we take you in for obstructing justice, and aiding in a fugitive’s escape.  Now, we would have waited for the warrant, yet, the fugitive was fleeing the territory." 


The couple looked at her with uncertainty.


"I'm not fleeing, Mr. Standish, and I have been completely forthright about my travel plans.  Nor am I fugitive, but an innocent woman accused of a horrible crime!"  Indignation showed in her tone.  "However, in the interest of the well-being of the persons on this stage, I will accompany you to meet with the Honorable Judge Orin W. Travis and prove I had no involvement."  Caroline climbed out of the stage, refusing Ezra's hand of assistance.


“This is quite unseemly, young man.” The elder woman confronted Standish before he could close the door.


Ezra tipped his hat. “I assure you my good woman, the crime the young lady perpetrated was quite unseemly.  But do not fear, she will be treated with due respect until she can stand trial and receive proper justice.”


The woman ‘huffed’ as she resumed her seat, seeing there were no further arguments that would work on the woman’s behalf


Once again, Standish tipped his hat to the couple, “I do apologize for the inconvenience.”


He closed the door.  Standish latched onto Caroline’s arm with an iron grip, pulling her to the back of the stage.  He untied her horse, yanking both a short distance back from the rear of the coach.  "I have her and her horse," he yelled.


"Good," Tanner replied.



From in front of the stage, Vin Tanner looked at the driver and the guard.  "That woman shot a man with his gun in his bed.  She’s a fugitive, and we’re takin’ her back fer trial.  Any thoughts of rescuin’ her are foolish.  Ya hear me?"


The driver swallowed, nodding his head in understanding.  Beside him, the guard did the same. 


"Git goin’." 


Slowly, the stage lumbered to life, leaving the woman in the custody of the two men, passing the one on horseback that looked extremely wild and dangerous. 


"I didn’t do anything," Caroline declared again.  "And I object to this treatment." 


"You’ll object further when we put you in a cell."  Reaching into his coat pockets, Ezra removed a pair of handcuffs and clicked them closed with her hands in front of her.  "Do you wish to lead, Mr. Tanner, or shall I?"


"You lead.  I'll scout."  Vin rode over with a rope in his hands. 


Silently, Ezra boosted her up into the saddle, and then stepped out of kicking range.



Efficiently, Vin attached a lead from her horse to Ezra's, and then tied her cuffed hands to the saddle horn.  He wasn’t particularly gentle, but she gave no protest.  "Comfortable?" Tanner asked her, a little bit of sarcasm in his voice.


"Very.  What a lovely day for a ride," she replied using just as much sarcasm. 


"Then hang on.  We ain’t gonna take it slow and easy fer ya."


"I wouldn’t expect that from bullies and lawbreakers."


"At least I ain't the one goin' ta jail fer shootin' a man in his bed and leavin' him ta die."


"I don't know what you're talking about," Caroline retorted.  She looked away from him, turning her nose up.  "I'll be fortunate if I arrive wherever you're taking me alive."


Now he was mad.  Vin got right beside her on horseback, leveling a finger in warning at her.  "Keep yer wasp’s tongue in yer treacherous head, woman, before I forget I ain’t a gentleman and beat ya like ya deserve."  Seeing this side of her, Vin no longer had doubts that she was guilty. 


"I’d expect a beating from your lowlife kind."  She spat into his face.  "You wouldn't know how to be a gentleman or the concept of honor if either hit you in the face."


"Try that again and yer walkin’ behind the horse," Vin told her.  "I ain’t putting up with yer sass.  Chris Larabee's a good friend of mine, and only because of him are ya goin' back fer trial."


"I'd rather walk.  My horse's behind's much better looking and has a sweeter disposition, instead of looking at your lack of couth." 


Ezra started to ride away, pulling her horse with him. 


Vin figured he must have either heard her or sensed the tracker was about to completely lose his formidable temper.  To calm down, he took a handkerchief and wiped the spittle from his face.  It was then he realized his hand was shaking with rage.  There was very little that drove him to violence against women, but he wouldn’t have a problem knocking her off her horse and making her walk.  Just thinking about how cold-blooded she was to shoot his friend with his own gun, and then leaving him to die, sent flashes of white-hot rage through his system.  Add to that her mouth, and he was starting to wonder what Chris had seen in her.  He had to be more than a casual friendly with her to let her so close. 


He kept reminding himself he would do it Chris’s way, taking her in alive and unharmed, but so help her if she tried to escape.  He'd gladly hunt her down.  She would not be another Ella Gaines to hurt his friend and then escape without a trace.  Yanking on his reins, he set off down the road at a gallop.


It took them the rest of the day to reach their town, riding hard for the remainder of daylight hours, and some more after that.  Tanner was not going to be caught out on the trail with the woman prisoner, especially if someone on the stage decided to check out their story.  Not only that, but it became a struggle to keep her on the horse. 


She kept listing from side-to-side trying to fall off and slow them down.  He'd had enough after an hour and tied her more securely to the horse so she couldn't move. 


Her struggles against him resulted in him threatening to shoot her, especially if she tried to escape.  He was reasonable when he said it, but the threat was there, along with the inference he wouldn't really mind putting a bullet in her, which shut her up momentarily.  At least until they got underway again, and she used the only weapon available to her – words.  He ended up gagging her because her mouth was infuriating the hell out of him with her constant complaints, insults to Ezra and him, and then followed by bouts of giggling fits and nonsense singing. 


Vin was never so glad to see the outskirts of town.  There, he would have more people to back them up if the Eagle Bend townsfolk heard about their little arrest and came after her. 


Once there, he showed no mercy when he untied her and hauled her off the horse, pushing her on wobbling legs into the jail.  There he uncuffed her, and thrust her into a cell, and none too gentlemanly at that.  Ezra was left behind to deal with the horses.  When he tossed her inside, part of him watched her fall into the bunk almost gratefully, but she issued no words of complaint.


"Vin!"  JD charged into the jail.  "He’s still alive."


"Ya hear that?  Ya didn’t kill him," Vin told her, as he felt the relief flow through him. 


The woman rolled over and faced the wall, not answering him.


Tanner turned to face Dunne, and saw the young man’s eyebrows nearly hitting the brim of his bowler hat.  "Yeah, JD, we’re pretty sure she shot Chris.  Watch her while I check on him."




He paused.  "Don't let her get ya mad and do somethin' stupid."


"I won't."


Tanner turned back once more before he got completely out the door.  “And don’t let her sweet talk ya.”


“I ain’t Buck,” JD stuck his thumbs in his vest pockets and gave Vin his ‘I ain’t a kid’ look at the same time.


For the first time in several days, Vin smiled.  “I know, kid.”


Vin walked out of the jail, purposely not hearing JD’s mumbled reply, striding purposefully to Nathan’s clinic.  When he reached the upstairs, he knocked, opened the door, and was not surprised to find a very ragged Buck sleeping on the floor beside the bed.

Nathan was reading, his eyes rising to the tracker’s.  "Alive, fever, weak, but he’s holding on."


Relief flooded Vin’s body, and he nearly sagged. 


"Sit down, Vin, before you fall over.  You’ve been riding hard from the look of you."  Nathan used his boot to toe a chair closer to the tracker, positioned at the end of the bed. 


"We did."


"Any luck?"  A thick voice, raw with sleep and worry, asked from the floor.




"Alive?"  Buck sat up, rubbing his eyes.


Vin could see that the rogue hadn’t been sleeping well nor shaved since they left town.  "Chris would want a trial."


A strangle laugh escaped Buck’s throat.  "Yeah.  Beat him up a bit?"



"What?"  Wilmington shot to his feet, disbelief on his features.  "A woman?"


Tanner nodded once.  "Ain’t said she did it, but we aim ta prove it.  Once Chris wakes up, all he’s got ta do is say the word."


"I’m hoping that will be tomorrow," Nathan sighed. 


"Good work, Vin."  Buck clapped the tracker on the shoulder.  "I’m going to get some air and some sleep.  Have a feeling that we should be prepared for trouble."


"Reckon the folks from Eagle Bend will be down.  Had ta take her off a stage outside of town, and the passengers were a mite concerned."


"Then I’ll tell Josiah, too.  You and Ez get some rest."  Buck walked out. 


"Mind if I stay a spell, Nathan?"


"There’s a bedroll already down." 


Vin settled in and tried to sleep, hoping that the faint sound of his friend’s steady breathing. . . the proof that he still lived, would allow him to rest.  Troubled thoughts about what almost happened and the days to come, kept him restless, though.  Eventually, after his fair share of tossing and turning, he dozed off. 



Pain.  He hurt everywhere.  Chris Larabee had been hurt before, but right now, he couldn’t remember the last time it was this bad.  His mind took stock of his injuries, telling him his entire chest ached. 


Memory returned, and bitterness filled him.  He decided this was the last time he would wake up in pain because of a woman; he would keep his relations with them even less friendly, and take his pleasures in a straight business transaction.  His heart would not be involved again.


Opening his eyes, he looked right up into a dark and relieved face, one hand descending immediately onto his forehead.  "Nathan," he croaked. 


"Let me check you over," the healer replied.  The hand made contact with his forehead.  "Good.  Your fever broke." 


Chris tried to swallow, but his throat hurt.  "Water?"


Nodding, the healer poured him a glass.   "Here.  Small sips."


It felt heavenly, easing the rawness.  "How long?"


"Long enough.  Don't try to get up."


"Wasn't thinking about it."  He knew when he was whipped, and right now, he probably couldn't sit up without falling over. 


"Good."  Nathan bobbed his head.  "First thing you've said that makes sense."


A knock at the door, followed by a person entering, brought his eyes to bear on the blonde. 


"Chris."  Mary Travis smiled in pleasure.  "How are you feeling?"


"Fine," he replied, staring at her with suspicion.  He didn't want to deal with any women right now.  Why was she here?  What did she want?  Probably wanting to make him another story for her paper.  Her kind was alike – smile, act concerned, and when a man dropped his guard, they went for a kill. 


"I wouldn't say you're fine with your injuries."  A trace of disapproval showed on her face.  "You were shot."


Mary's words brought back exactly what happened in clearer detail, and Chris Larabee hated himself and his weak heart for falling right into Caroline's trap.  Part of him hated women for their conniving ways; an ugly voice in his mind whispered to just look at what women had cost him so far.  The blonde near him had him throwing himself in harm's way for this town, and half of those precious townsfolk didn't appreciate it.  His friends suffered right along with him, many of them getting their bodies filled with holes or broken, over and over again.  Ma Nichols led her family to hurt his; Inez nearly got Buck killed with her troubles; Lydia dragged him into her problems; Caroline shot him with his own gun, and then there was the most treacherous bitch of all, Ella.


Cold hatred settled in his heart against all females.  When he was on his feet, he'd hunt down Caroline Jamison and make her pay.  Then, Ella Gaines; he'd put that off long enough.  But before that, he had to cut ties with Mary Travis.  She'd only hurt him . . . eventually. 


"Chris?" she asked.  "Are you all right?"  Mary took a few steps closer. 


"I'll be better when you leave," he snarled.


"I beg your pardon?"


"Get out."


"Chris? "


"I don't want your company," he growled, his voice low and hard.  His head turned away from her.  He didn't see her face fall, nor the apologetic look Nathan gave her. 


"I'll come back later," Mary stammered. 


"Don't." He called after her as she left the room.


The door closed behind her.


"What's wrong with you?" Nathan asked. 


Chris said nothing, closing his eyes.


The door flew open.  "Mary said he's awake," Buck announced.  "And meaner than a rattler." 


"That's him."  Nathan wiped his hands on a towel.  "I'm getting some air."  He walked out, pulling the wooden portal shut behind him.


Buck sat on the stool beside the bed.  "Hell, pard, I'm glad to see you're with us again."


The eyes opened, meeting the concerned blue of Buck's.  "Keep Mary away."


"Okay.  Because of the one we have in the jail?"


"Tell me," Chris demanded, his voice growing hoarse. 


"Vin and Ezra tracked a woman from your place.  Says she's not involved."


He swallowed hard.  "What's her name?"


"Mrs. Caroline Jamison," Buck replied, a sneer in his tone.


"She's lying."  Chris watched one of the faces he trusted the most to watch his back darken.  "You know?"


Buck nodded briskly.  "Just needed your say so.  We already got Judge Travis on the way."


"Good."  He caught the wondering look.  "I'm only telling it once."


"I'll get the others."  Buck went out the door, and shortly thereafter all but JD came in.  The youngest kept watch on their prisoner. 


Chris stared at them, seeing the worry and concern in their faces, and the hard block of ice, he currently called his emotions, softened a little.  Both Vin and Ezra looked like hell.  "Boys," he said softly.  "Thanks for going after her."


"She's the one, then?" Ezra asked.  "If we are to deal with the outraged Sheriff of Eagle Bend, I'd prefer to know we captured the correct suspect."


"Caroline Jamison," he whispered.


"She's in jail, Chris," Vin assured him.  "Ain't nobody bein' overly nice to her."


"I'm the fool." 


"How'd she get the drop on ya?  Snuck up while ya were sleepin'?"  Tanner studied his friend.


"Mrs. Jamison and I have a history, boys, but I don't understand why she did this."  Chris truly did not understand; she wasn't making sense.  They'd agreed that things weren't right at the time for either of them, and ended on an up note.  He'd promised to come back and see her eventually, which he did.  Seeing her show up in town made him think they might have a chance, especially after how well they got along.  His mind was having a hard time wrapping around her standing there telling him he killed her husband, her drugging and shooting him, only hours after they made love. 


"Not right in the head?"  Buck made a circular motion with his finger around his temple. 


"I don't know anymore," he said quietly.


A hurried knock on the door interrupted the conversation, followed by the whirlwind known as Casey Wells poking her head in.  "Sheriff Stains and James Lightfoot are here.  Along with a bunch of men."  She left the door open, heading back downstairs.


"Aw, hell," Vin muttered.



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