Warning: This is story for Sbsnumone aka Brenda on the Mag7 list. It is a birthday present. IF YOU DON'T LIKE MARY SUE STORIES, DON'T READ THIS. If you have fantasies about Vin though, you might want to give it a try, <EG>.
Disclaimer: Unfortunately, they don't belong to me.
Note: Thoughts are in italics. Yes - Brenda actually has experience as a Wisconsin Dairy Farmer, had cows that came when she called - YUP! (and can actually ride horses) and if there are any mistakes or inaccuracies in the story, they are my own fault. Please don't hurt me, I bruise easily.
Feedback: You bet!
Brenda walked through the woods, basket in hand, while Fuzzy, her barn cat followed, gliding through the underbrush and sniffing the air.
She was taking a rare respite from dairy farming and cheese making to look for raspberry plants. They went well in hot tea as both a flavoring and a tonic. She had stopped going to Four Corners for supplies for a long time (too many shootings made the trips unsafe) and either made due with what was on the land, or traded with the people who came to purchase cheese and milk.
The woods of the tiny canyon that comprised her farm were lush with vegetation and filled with singing birds. Quickly she found the raspberry plants, and carefully harvested the leaves. Then her hand touched something wet and she drew it back quickly. Fuzzy sniffed at the red substance curiously and then hissed. It was blood and she'd bet it was human blood.
Senses on alert, she drew her pistol out of the basket and carefully surveyed the area. The birds were still singing, which was a good sign that no angry injured predator was at large, but the blood was fresh.
She frowned down at the cat. "Go find em, boy," she said, and Fuzzy, who was named thusly because he was a fuzz ball, immediately shot into the wood, nose twitching, eyes gleaming. Fuzzy was better than most dogs. He'd warned her of animals bothering the cows and helped her hunt when she wanted some red meat for the table.
Now he rushed into a bush, which immediately started shaking. Before she could react, she heard a horse snorting furiously. Investigating, gun still held ready, she found Fuzzy facing up to a horse that was obviously protecting a man dressed all in brown. The man lay unconscious across the saddle, his only ornament, the red blood that dripped from his side. She could see he had tied himself to the horse before he passed out.
She began to speak gently but firmly to the horse, whose eyes were rolling as he stamped furiously at her and the cat. She reached forward for his reins and the horse snapped at her irritably.
"Peso, hush," a raspy voice murmured, and she looked up into the most beautiful blue eyes she'd ever seen. It was like being pierced in the heart by a piece of heaven. The man in brown looked at her for just a moment before he sank back down across his restless horse's back.
Before the horse could move to bite her again, she grabbed the reins and said threateningly to the beast, "Oh no you don't!"
The horse pawed and reared defiantly.
"Look, Peso, your daddy there is hurt bad and I can fix him up. So you quit your fussing and let me take over."
The horse snorted once and then grew still.
Fuzzy walked alongside her as she led the horse back to her cabin. She could tell the horse was skittish of her, but didn't blame the poor creature. After all, his rider was shot bad.
Once they were home, she had a difficult time getting the brown man off the horse, especially since Peso seemed to want to follow her into the house. She found herself using very unladylike terms as she wrestled with the completely unconscious man and tried to keep the horse from walking into her living room.
Finally she gave up and dragged the man into her bedroom and placed him on the bed. The horse followed, snorting and fussing worse than a broody hen.
She eyed the animal, "You poop on my floor, and hurt owner or not, you're horse jerky. Got it?"
She walked around the horse and got hot water boiling with bandages in it and then went back into the room and began to tend to her guest. It was difficult getting his buffalo coat off, and then the shirt, but she was just as stubborn as the horse and pretty soon she had him stripped down to his pants, boots off, and his wound doctored up and bandaged. All through this, the man lay still as death, only the movement of his chest and the warmth of his fevered skin indicated he was still alive.
She then turned to the horse, who had been watching the whole procedure anxiously. Fuzzy sat on the end of the bed and began to purr and tread on the man's leg. She looked at her silent guest. "You can't be too bad of a man if Fuzzy and Peso here like you so much," she said.
Then she grabbed the reins of the horse. "Okay, now, Peso," she said sternly, "I've had about enough of your lip. You go in the barn now."
With that she practically had to pull the horse the whole way into the barn. Once she got him in the stall, she was ready for a bath, but instead took off the saddle, and then brushed down the animal, who still tried to bite at her. She whapped him once on the nose with the curry brush, and he snorted and then fell silent, apparently deciding to bide his time. She observed he had no similar difficulties with her feeding and watering him and when she was done, she covered the man's saddle and bags with a blanket. Whoever had shot the blue-eyed man might come looking and she had no intention of making anything easy for them.
It was time to milk the cows. She locked the house and took her rifle with her. She closed up the horse shed that held Peso and her own horse, Billy. Having the horses out of the way would help.
She stood at the end of the cow pasture and called, "Girls. It's time to be milked."
Four cows appeared from the far end of the pasture and made their way to her outstretched hands, which held a mixture of salt and molasses. The four cows comprised her entire dairy herd, but the work of keeping them milked was actually quite hard. There were some that thought a lone woman wouldn't be able to keep up the place, but she had, and had done well. She sold milk, butter and cheese to the surrounding communities, and her cheese had such a reputation that she never had to travel to sell her wares. Which was darned good, because traveling too far away meant the cows couldn't be milked on time and that hurt milk production.
As she silently worked, she thought on her "guest". She knew nothing about the man. He could even be an outlaw. But somehow she couldn't believe evil of him.
The cows fell silent, and the cat at her feet bristled and a shadow fell across the young woman as she worked. The sense of evil that swept over her made her close her eyes for just a moment. She had heard nothing and there was no time to grab the gun. Calmly she turned and faced two rough looking men standing in the barn door.
"Howdy." She said coolly. They were armed heavily. She stood up from the milking stool and picked up the milk bucket. "I didn't even hear you come in." she murmured, her mind racing. "You here to buy milk or cheese?"
The men stared at her and she felt a trickle of sweat build up between her breasts. One man looked around the barn; the older one stared at her rifle.
"You always milk with a gun?" he asked sharply.
Brenda didn't even have to think, "Yup, especially when there's been bears about. Lost my only calf this year and I'm not gonna loose anything else iffin I can help it."
The men frowned. "We ain't seen any bear sign," the older man said.
Brenda sighed, "Well, that's good to hear. Its been about a month and I've been sleeping with the damn rifle." Let them think I sleep with an itchy trigger finger she thought resentfully.
Both the men appeared to relax a bit.
"We're bounty hunters," said the older man. "We're hunting a murderer from Texas. You seen anyone besides us."
Brenda schooled her face into a look of shock, "A murderer?" she asked, letting her voice go up an octave, "Great day in the morning! Don't I have enough to deal with damn bears, now I got a murderer too?"
The men grinned at her. "You keep sleepin' with your rifle lady." Advised the younger of the two, "You seen sign of anyone besides us?"
Brenda gripped the handle of the milk pail tightly. "Nope," she said, "Been busy watching the cows and such, no time for traipsing about for anything but stray herbs. What's this murderer look like?" she asked.
The older man hesitated, then pulled out a wanted poster and handed it to her, a bit reluctantly.
Forcing herself to stay calm, she unrolled the paper and looked into the face of the man who was sleeping in her bed. "Vin Tanner," she read, "Wanted for murder in Tascosa, Texas. Five Hundred Dollars."
"Well," she said brightly, "If I see him and shoot him, there's no way I can drag the body far, cause I got cows to take care of. Will you guys give me twenty dollars cash money for him, if I do?" She stared at them and tried really hard to look greedy and bloodthirsty.
Both of the men cracked the most evil appreciative smiles she had ever seen. "Lady, you got yourself a deal," the youngest one exclaimed.
She sold them a small round of cheese from the storeroom off the barn and stood watching them leave with their coins in her hands. She had an awful temptation to throw their grubby money on the ground, but didn't. If they came back and saw the money, it would make them suspicious.
Instead she strained out the milk, bedded down the cows and did her outside chores with Fuzzy and the rest of the barn cats in tow. Then as the sun started to set, she walked back to her cabin, unlocked the door and went in.
Mr. Vin Tanner, who was worth five hundred dollars cash money for murder in Texas, lay silently on her bed, still unconscious. Troubled at the thought he might be a murderer, but aware that he needed care, she got out a small basin and proceeded to wash him, gently.
He moaned once and moved. Brenda lay a quieting hand on his head and he grew still again. Brenda had read stories of stupid women who cared for handsome criminals and then were murdered in their beds or worse. She had always had quiet contempt for such women, and now here she was taking care of a man wanted for murder. She wondered if most criminals had beautiful blue eyes. He was handsome, too, as beautiful as any angel. He looked more like a young boy, lying there, then a wanted man. As she washed his lean torso, she marveled at the muscles under that smooth skin. She washed his upper body and then his feet, and then covered the still silent man up with the quilt.
Then she got out a hairbrush and brushed out his long locks, amazed at her own audacity.
When she reluctantly completed her task, she put her hands on her hips and gazed down on him. "Well, Mr. Vin Tanner, I know you are wanted for murder in Texas." She frowned and felt sad. "But I also know that Fuzzy hates most strangers and he's taken to you and Fuzzy is a better judge of character than most people. And Peso in the barn there is the meanest horse I've ever seen and he loves you something fierce. I've never broken the law before, but I just can't turn you in, Mr. Tanner. So I hope you appreciate it and don't turn out to be as nasty as those two miserable bounty hunters."
Then she went into the kitchen, closing the door behind her.
She'd had soup cooking slowly all day, on her little wood fire, and she poured herself a bowl. The smell of chicken and noodles was soothing and when she finished, she poured a mug halfway full of broth for her guest.
When she opened the door, those blue eyes were open and fever dazed.
"Hello," she said solemnly.
Eyes that weren't quite focused looked puzzled.
"Nathan?" he asked.
"Nope, just me, Brenda," she said, a bit displeased at being mistaken for a man.
He blushed, "Beg pardon, Ma'am. I'm patched up so good, I figured my friend, Nate had done the work. He's our healer back in Four Corners."
Brenda remembered meeting the town's healer quite awhile ago.
"Mr. Jackson?" she asked, "He's a very kind man. We swapped poultice recipes."
The bleary eyes grew clearer. "Sounds like Nathan. Man makes the nastiest teas I've ever drunk."
She grinned now. "Yeah, I have a few of his recipes," she said warningly, "There's one good for fever, but I'll be sure to put some sweetening in it to cut the taste."
He smiled at her. He damn well better not be a murderer with a smile like that, she thought. Woman didn't have any defense at all against that smile and those eyes.
"I'm mighty obliged," he said," for your caring for me, Ma'am. You ain't seen my horse, have you?"
"Peso is in the barn, fed and watered," she said.
Her patient's face looked concerned now. "He's a mean one. Did he give you any trouble?"
Brenda laughed. She couldn't help it. Fevered eyes appraised her. She supposed he was looking for bite marks.
"Don't worry," she said, I told him I'd make him into jerky and he calmed right down. Now," she said and daringly sat on the bed next to her patient, "This here's broth," she said it sternly, "You need some liquid in you."
"How'd you know Peso's name?" he asked as she lifted the mug to his lips.
"You told him to hush when I found you," she said.
He was certainly the nicest criminal she'd ever met. Probably the only criminal too, that she knew of. He drank slowly, but finished every drop and then smiled sleepily at her.
"You got any way to get news to Four Corners?" he asked.
"Nope," she said, thinking that for a criminal he sure seemed unconcerned about sending news to a town where the law might be after him. "Unless someone comes to buy cheese, I don't see much of anyone. I haven't gotten any customers from Four Corners in awhile. I used to sell a lot to Mr. Potter."
Vin Tanner looked really sad, "He's dead, Ma'am," he said regretfully. "But him what done it paid for it."
"Oh," she said and felt tears sting her eyes. "He was a very nice man."
"Yup, he was," said Vin, then he looked upset, "Ma'am," he cried now and the fear in his voice made her wipe her eyes quickly.
"I've brought trouble to your doorstep. Fevers addled my brain. I got two bounty hunters a trackin' me. They're lousy trackers, but they'll eventually figure out I'm here."
All her concerns about Tanner being a murderer drifted away on the wind. He might be in trouble with the law, but she'd bet the farm that he was a good and decent man.
Brenda grinned, "They already were here, Mr. Tanner," she said and saw him flinch at his name. "They showed me the wanted poster but I told 'em that I hadn't seen you. They've been gone for hours. I've got everything locked up and my rifle is right outside the door."
"Miz Brenda," he said and turned pale, "You're in danger then." His hand clasped hers and she felt the fever starting.
"I know," she said, keeping her voice gentle, "But I couldn't give you up to those two sidewinders. They'd shoot you out of hand. "
"Why?" he asked, "You seen the wanted poster." There was real sadness in his voice.
"Maybe I'm just dumb as a post, but I'd rather trust a man that my picky cat will purr over and a mean old horse will fuss over than two side-winding, dirty men like the ones hunting you. Everyone deserves a chance."
His blue eyes seemed to glow gently. "Ma'am, I'm more obliged. And I ain't no murderer. Thank you."
"I believe you," she said gently and the gratitude in those eyes was a gift she would always cherished, if they both didn't end up dead. Then his head drooped and she took the mug away and tucked him in.
"I'll go get your saddle bags out of the barn and put your gear near you. You feel like you can handle a gun?"
He nodded and his eyes closed. She placed a hand on his brow and knew he was asleep now.
She waited till it was dark to fetch his gear. Peso snorted at her indignantly when she entered the barn and fussed the whole time she was there. "Listen, Peso," she said, "Your daddy is cleaned up and resting. You should rest, too."
Hesitatingly, she took out a sugar cube. "If you bite me, you get no breakfast," she warned. The horse sniffed at her hand suspiciously but finally condescended to take her offering.
That night she slept in a bedroll near the foot of her bed and listened in the darkness to him breathing softly. The only other sound in the night was Fuzzy purring like a teakettle in full boil. The cat had taken residence at Vin's feet and obviously decided the human was his territory now.
The next morning, she helped him to the privy silently, aware of his deep fear and embarrassment. Fear that the bounty hunters would come up on them and embarrassment of being needy before a lady. The gentle modesty impressed her. As soon as she had him settled back in bed, and had given him some food, she made him a pot of tea.
She brought the cup to him and saw him wrinkle his nose. "That's gotta be either one of Nathan's recipes or a boiled skunk."
She laughed at the expression on his face, but noted that he drank it all. Then he smiled at her. "You put honey in the tea. That sure helps the taste," he said approvingly.
Her heart grew warm. She'd been alone on the farm too long, she knew, but the man just made her heart feel light. She waited till he fell asleep again and noted that the tea seemed to have reduced the fever. Then she picked up her rifle and went to do the morning chores.
She was late and the cows had a bit to say about that. That was probably why she didn't hear the next visitor come to her barn door.
"Ma'am?" said a voice politely and she nearly spilled the milk spinning and grabbing her gun. The man held up both hands in a placating gesture and smiled at her. 'Damn!' she thought, 'Where the hell are all these handsome men coming from?" This man was dressed to beat the band. Brenda would have bet that fancy red jacket was from New York City. And he had a gold tooth too, when he grinned.
He was a big improvement on the bounty hunters, but she wasn't going to trust anyone until Vin felt well enough to leave.
"I certainly didn't mean to frighten you, dear lady," said the man in rich southern tones. Brenda decided he must be one of those riverboat gamblers out to make quick buck on a bounty.
She held her rifle at the ready. "What can I do for you, Sir?" she asked and was surprised at how cool her voice sounded.
He had one heck of a nice smile, but she wasn't taking any chances.
"I'm looking for a friend of mine," he said in soothing tones, "He may have come by this way. He's dressed like a mountain man, and I think he might be wounded."
Brenda's heart clutched with fear. "Ain't seen anyone but two bounty hunters tracking down some murderer from Tascosa," she said, figuring that half a truth could flavor a lie like honey flavored bitter tea.
He frowned, "Did they say which way they were going?" he asked.
She shook her head regretfully, "Nope. I think they headed off north toward the mouth of the canyon, but I can't say for sure."
The gambler's eyes glittered with intelligence and she squinted at him, hoping her face wasn't giving Vin away. Funny how he'd gone from that possible murderer to Vin so quickly.
"Would you mind if I searched about for sign?" asked the man; his sharp eyes on her, making her feel afraid.
That was the last straw. "Yes, I do, Sir," she said, and pulled the rifle up and pointed it at his chest. "I'm sick and tired of all you bounty hunters traipsing through my land. Now, unless you want to buy some milk, butter or cheese, you git."
"Please," the gambler begged, but Brenda practically pushed him out of the barn with the rifle right at his chest.
"Git!" she commanded. And to her surprise, he got. She watched him ride out of site and then went back to work.
Right after lunch, Peso started to really make a fuss. Sighing to herself, she went to the barn and confronted a defiant and worried horse.
"I'm not taking you in the house again," she said warningly, and the horse nickered at her, in cajoling tones.
"Gol darned stubborn mule," she muttered. Then she had an idea. She led the horse out of the barn. He tried to bite her (she figured it was a matter of principle by now) and she slapped him across his nose. He snorted in surprise and calmed right down. She went to the shutters of her bedroom window and threw them open, revealing her patient quietly sleeping beneath the window.
"Mr. Tanner," she said, and noticed that his eyes shot open right away. "You got a visitor."
He looked up and laughed. Peso began to frisk like a colt and stuck his head all the way in the window, where he proceeded to give Vin slobbery horse kisses.
"Yuck" she laughed, she couldn't help it. That mean old horse was in love with his rider. And the dangerous outlaw she'd taken into her home was petting and whispering to his horse endearingly. He looked up and grinned at her. "Durn mule," he said happily.
"Yeah, he's a regular man killer," she said, and grinned right back. Then in the distance she heard the sound of a horse.
Quickly, she yanked Peso reins and had him out of the window. She slammed the window shut on Vin Tanner's astonished face and locked it and then pulled the horse into the barn, her heart beating wildly. To her vast surprise, the horse cooperated completely. "Stay quiet," she hissed as she shut him in a stall.
Barn locked behind her, she ran for the rifle she'd leaned against the cabin door and turned to face her next visitors.
The damn gambler was back. And with him were four other men. They were every one of them handsome, but the one leading them was dressed all in black and the look in his eyes told her lying wasn't going to do any good.
She raised the rifle and braced her back to the door. "Don't come any closer," she warned.
The man in black looked like he was meaner than Peso and deadlier than a rattlesnake.
"Git!" she said. Then she heard a click by her head and realized they had gotten the drop on her.
"You can shoot me, but I'll take one of you with me," she said desperately, determined to go down fighting rather than let them hurt Vin.
The youngest one of them's horse nickered and she could hear Peso in the barn suddenly fussing again.
"Hey, that's Peso!" said the young man.
"J.D." said a faint voice behind her, and the door opened.
Her eyes filled with tears. "It's all right, Miz Brenda. These are my friends," Vin Tanner said. He was using her broom to hold himself up. The gun at her ear went down and so did Brenda. Black hands supported her and she looked up into the dark kind eyes of Nathan Jackson.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am," he said earnestly. "I didn't want you to hurt anyone."
"I thought you were all bounty hunters," she said, and began to cry. Vin knelt shakily next to her and put his arms around her. "Miz Brenda, " he said gently, "You're tougher than a mule. You done yourself proud."
"The way the day's been going, I expect a full patrol of troopers to show up with cannons," she said. Fuzzy came out of the cabin to see what was happening. He sat on her lap and started to purr.
Soon she found herself sitting in her rocking chair in the kitchen with seven of the most interesting men she'd ever met. Nathan Jackson was fussing over Vin Tanner and she regarded his ministrations half with jealousy and half with professional interest.
The man in black turned out to be Chris Larabee, Vin's best friend and the leader of Four Corner's Peacekeeping force. Now that he didn't think she was holding Vin for the bounty, his blue eyes were warm with gratitude. The gambler who had aroused her suspicions was making her a cup of tea, a man with a big mustache named Buck was flirting so outrageously with her that she laughed and the big solemn man who turned out to be an ex-preacher was taking her hand and thanking her for being a ministering angel.
Vin was pronounced to be on the mend, and sent back complaining to his bed. They all just followed right along, the gambler picking up her rocking chair and making sure she was seated before picking up a stool for himself.
Nathan Jackson smiled at her. "You saved Vin's life, Ma'am and we're mighty grateful. If you don't mind, I 'd like him to stay here with you for a few more days, until the fever has passed."
Chris Larabee smiled at her. "Buck and me are going to go look for those two bounty hunters. I aim to have a little conversation with them. In the meanwhile, would you mind if the rest of us stayed, so you don't get anymore unwelcome guests?"
J.D., the youngest of them, grinned at her. "We'd be happy to help you with any chores you got need doing," he said.
The Gambler grinned and his gold tooth shone in the sun. "And I am a business agent for Mrs. Gloria Potter. Vin tells me you used to sell Mr. Potter your very laudable diary products. Would you be interested in selling cheese and butter to Mrs. Potter?"
That would sure help. "Yes, that would be wonderful," she said shyly, "especially if some of you come to pick it up. It's nice to have friends visit."
"Ma'am, I can't think of anything I'd rather do," said Buck in a merry voice, and J.D. smiled
She looked around her. Seven of the handsomest men she'd ever laid eyes on were going to be her guests for a few days, and were now her friends. Going with her first impression of those true blue eyes was the best thing she had ever done.
There was a whinny from the window. "Peso," she called, "I told you to be quiet or I'll turn you into jerky!" The room fell silent and they all could hear the horse returning to the barn.
She looked at the men who were all gazing at her with deep respect.
J.D. gulped a bit and then said, "Ma'am, you're meaner than Peso," he said, obviously impressed.
Buck slapped the boy upside the head.
Vin's voice came from the bed. "She managed to bully him and he didn't even bite her ONCE," said the tracker in a very satisfied tone of voice.
"Wow!" said J.D.
Mr. Standish stood up and bowed ceremoniously to her, "Madam, you have our deepest respect. Not only have you saved our dear associate and colleague, but you managed to tame the meanest horse in the west."
"She slapped him," said Vin in droll tones.
"Damn!" Buck exclaimed, "You must be fast. Ever considered becoming a law woman?" he asked
J.D. jumped up and smacked Buck upside the head. "Don't swear in front of a lady, Buck!" he commanded with moral superiority and an evil smirk.
"Ow, sorry Ma'am" said the big man.
"He just ain't got no manners," said Vin in a sleepy voice.
Brenda rose to her feet and beat Nathan Jackson to the bed, tucking in her patient and smiling as he grinned up at her.
As she bade her guests to hush up and shooed them from the room, she smiled. Life was getting interesting.