The Decent Thing

by SueN

Chris Larabee sat at the small table and frowned slightly into the glass of whiskey cradled in his long fingers, pondering the strange turns his fate seemed to take these days. One step after another, each with little or no thought behind it, no obvious direction, yet all combining to lead him down the strangest path he’d ever walked.

And possibly the best one.

First had been what had seemed a pointless overnight stop in a town whose name he hadn’t even known at the time. Just one more little wide spot in the road, a place choking in its own dust and drowning in its own blood. He’d stopped simply because he’d been too tired to move on, wanting no more than some hot food, decent whiskey, a soft bed. With maybe a soft body in it to ease the ache he’d gone far too long without easing. A man of few and simple wants, that was him.

The hell of it was, he’d gotten more -- much more -- than he’d ever thought he wanted. But that he somehow needed. Even when he hadn’t known that need was there.

The first thing he’d gotten, of course, was trouble. Hell, wasn’t that always the first thing he got? Except this time he’d walked into it himself, of his own free will. Hadn’t even been his trouble, until he’d made it so. And he hadn’t even completely decided to make it so, until he’d looked across a dusty, chaotic street...

And met a gaze that had pierced him to his soul, that had stripped away every cold, hard layer he’d so painstakingly built over his lifeless heart and saw him at once for who he was, who he’d been, and who he might be again. For either a moment or an eternity, that gaze had pinned him in place, bringing his whole world, his whole existence, to a complete stop, obliterating everything else about him. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Couldn’t do a damn thing except hold that gaze with his own and accept that, somehow, a decision had been made, a connection had been made. And without ever once debating the sense or wisdom of what he was doing he’d started walking, driven by something he couldn’t even name to take his place at the side of the young man who’d looked at him, looked into him, and known all there was to know about him in that bare space between one heartbeat and the next.

Like a branch swept helplessly along on the raging current of a river in flood he’d been pulled into the vortex of those bottomless eyes and drawn into the street, into trouble that, for once, wasn’t his. Until he’d chosen to make it so.

Or until that all-seeing gaze had chosen for him.

So, from seeking only food, a bottle and a bed, he’d gone on to find a town that would let its only healer be lynched, a woman sick of violence but who would resort to it to stop a murder, and a skinny store clerk who was more beautiful than any man out here had a right to be and who handled a rifle like those Old World painters had a brush.

And he’d also found that his heart wasn’t nearly as dead as he’d thought. Not with two blue eyes making it jump every time they glanced his way. Vin wasn’t anything he’d ever thought he wanted, but had turned out to be everything he needed. And he’d found him when he hadn’t even been looking.

But he’d found more. He’d found an old friend, his oldest friend, and new ones. And he’d found a cause, a purpose. First it had been the Seminoles, then the town. He’d found that some part of him still cared, still cared enough to get angry and fight, and was strong enough to overpower the part of him that was tired and didn’t want, couldn’t bear, the pain that came with caring. With the others, he’d agreed to stay on and protect the town that was fighting for its life. Him, the bad element, a peacekeeper. A protector.

All because he’d stopped for the night looking for food, a bottle and a bed. Strange, the places fate led a man, even when he thought he’d been watching where he was going.

And now fate had done it again. What he’d thought would be a simple ride out of town to assess a possible source of trouble had led him to another unlooked-for encounter.


He’d just come out to ease his own mind. He’d heard about Wickes Town, the tent city financed by local ranchers and stocked with women and drink enough to keep the randiest, thirstiest cowboy more than satisfied. Off hand, he had nothing against such a set-up. Men had needs, and there were damn few women out here to satisfy those needs. A place like Wickes Town might just keep some of the harder cases from seeking their satisfaction in town and causing trouble in the process.

But, with Wickes Town being so close to his town, he’d felt an obligation to come out and check the place over for himself. He was fairly certain Wickes would have ways of dealing with trouble, but he wanted to be sure none of those “ways,” and none of that trouble, posed a threat to Four Corners.

Wasn’t like a tent city full of whores attracted men known for their good behavior...

But he’d found pretty much what he’d expected, and one thing he hadn’t -- Lydia. He’d first met her about two years ago, in a saloon... Jesus, he couldn’t even remember where; just one more nameless town on the dark trail he’d been riding. She’d been there in his bed when he’d come to after yet another long drunken binge, and she’d helped him through the recovery, treating him more tenderly than he’d come to expect from any “working girl.” But he’d discovered Lydia wasn’t just any working girl. She had a good mind, and a good heart. She was as tough as her kind of life and line of work could make a woman, yet still she had a lingering tenderness about her, an instinct to protect those about her. Especially the girls who worked with her.

They’d struck up a sort of friendship. Two scarred survivors of the awful tricks fate can play who knew better than to judge anyone for the choices made in the name of survival. Two people who’d lost too much even to dream about gaining again. Two people who recognized the brief time they shared for what it was and knew far better than to look for anything deeper in it. Just two lost souls huddling together in a desperate but temporary effort to keep the endless night at bay.

He hadn’t given much thought to her since he’d ridden away, had simply assumed that her sharp mind would keep her clear of trouble and might actually allow her to end up better than most sporting women ever did. Like a cat, Lydia could be counted on to land on her feet.

Which was why it had been such a surprise -- hell, a shock -- to see her here, reduced to working in a tent city, when he knew she was better than this. Smarter than this. Worth more than she had to be making here. It just didn’t make sense.

Then, in that direct way she had, she’d explained how she’d fallen yet again. There’d been trouble in the last town where she’d worked. One of the girls had knifed a boy who’d tried to hurt her. But the boy had been the son of the local preacher, himself a familiar customer, and the good reverend and his wife had launched a crusade to rid their town of the evils of prostitution. Lydia and all the others had been run out of town by an angry mob of “decent Christian folk” armed with tar and feathers.

Then, with no money, no hope and no choice, she’d run into Wickes. He’d given her a small loan to get on her feet again, and offered her a job in his “town” as a way to work off her debt. By the time she realized what kind of animal he was, it was too late. She was so deeply in debt to him that she knew she’d never get free.

So now here they were, two survivors who knew each other, who knew at least some of each other’s scars. In so many ways, it was just like it had been two years ago. He had a bottle of whiskey before him, a willing woman beside him, a bed in almost any direction he chose to walk...

And he just wasn’t interested. Jesus, could fate be any stranger?

He gave a slight, wry smile and shook his head, slanting a glance at Lydia as she refilled his glass. She was still attractive, despite her hard life, with dark auburn hair, warm green eyes, fine features and a body that had lost none of its inviting fullness. Add to that a quick mind, a wicked wit and an almost unholy imagination, and she would make any man a pleasing bed partner.

Unless that man had already found the only bed partner who truly pleased him anymore.

Chris could not help the sigh of longing that escaped him then, could not suppress his sudden impatience to be gone from this place. He didn’t want auburn hair, green eyes or a full body. What he wanted was unruly golden-brown curls, eyes like two pieces of the sky, and a lean body hard with muscle. He wanted callused fingers that played over him with both a breathtaking gentleness and a soul-searing roughness, wanted a raspy Texas drawl whispering wild suggestions in his ear, wanted the mouth that could kiss, lick, bite or suck him into near insanity, wanted the thick, hot flesh that filled him in ways he’d never dreamed were possible.

Lydia was an attractive woman, all right, but she was no Vin Tanner.

She trailed her fingers lightly down his arm, but the touch failed to ignite him as it once had. He pulled away slightly, never realizing he did so, and reached for his glass, taking another drink and trying not to imagine another set of fingers, long and slender and wondrously skilled, playing against his flesh. As always, though, the effort failed, and he felt again his want, his need, for the man who’d become the other half of his soul rising hot and hard within him.

God, what he wouldn’t give to be with Vin right now...

The depth and power of his feelings for the quiet tracker still stunned him, almost frightened him. After Sarah had died, he knew he’d never love again, knew there was nothing left of him that could love. He’d been broken in so many ways and into so many pieces he’d given up hope of ever being made whole again. Until he’d met Vin Tanner. Somehow, without words, without effort, the young Texan had slipped inside him and, with little more than a touch here and a smile there, had gathered up all the broken pieces, had found even the ones he’d thought he’d lost, and put Chris Larabee’s shattered heart and soul back together. His love was the glue that held them all in place, and it had proved so strong that even when they were apart, like now, Chris still felt Vin’s presence as surely as he felt his own.

No, there wasn’t a damn thing in Wickes Town that could begin to compare with that.

Lydia noticed his distraction, his uncharacteristic aloofness, and frowned in disappointment. She’d been so glad to see him again, still remembered how good he’d been, and had hoped being with him again would bring her up, at least for a while, from the depths to which she’d sunk. Except that he didn’t seem the least bit interested in renewing that facet of their relationship.

Well, she’d see about that. Working in Wickes Town didn’t afford her many pleasures, and the men worth having were too few and far between for her to let this one get away. She leaned close to him, pressing her barely concealed breasts against him, and ran a hand slowly along his arm, stroking him through the fabric of his black duster. Her other hand she dropped to his thigh and trailed lightly, teasingly, over its hard length from his knee to his crotch, determined to make this man want her.

But Chris didn’t want her, and was just about to tell her so when he was distracted by the arrival of Buck and JD. He had to smile at the sight. It was no surprise to see Buck here; hell, it would’ve been a surprise not to! Wilmington would be drawn to a tent city full of women like a fly to honey. Larabee would bet most of the women here already knew the big man’s name.

But JD...

He watched them for a few moments, then chuckled softly and shook his head as understanding dawned. JD was looking around like a kid in a candy store, eyes wide, his tongue all but hanging out of his mouth. And Buck was leaning close, clearly offering advice. He’d brought the kid here to initiate him into that all-important manly rite of passage.

Buck Wilmington had brought his protege to get laid.

Lydia was still stroking Chris’s arm when she caught sight of the stout, repugnant figure of Wickes and the frequent customer she knew only as “Kolish.” He was clean-shaven, well-dressed, fairly attractive, but made her blood run cold nonetheless. She knew him, knew his preferences and habits, and could see by the slight, cruel smile on his face that he’d come to exercise both.

“Not him again,” she murmured, absently tightening her hand about Chris’s arm as Wickes summoned Nora, Kolish’s favorite victim. Worried about the younger girl, she tossed back a shot of whiskey and then rose to her feet, leaving Chris to spare Nora another round in hell.

“I’m not feelin’ too good,” the younger girl protested, fear written plainly in her face. She’d barely recovered from Kolish’s last visit, and had no desire to go through all that pain again.

Before Kolish could get his hands on Nora, Lydia sidled up to him and draped herself over him, giving her most suggestive smile. “How ’bout spendin’ the afternoon with me?” she purred.

“Lydia,” Wickes growled in a low, menacing voice, shoving the woman away before she could cost him any money. Kolish wanted Nora, and, by God, he’d have her!

Nora was terrified, knowing what awaited her if she went with Kolish, but also knowing what Wickes would do to her if she didn’t. Panic showed plainly in her eyes, and Lydia put a comforting arm about her.

“Let me talk to Wickes alone,” she said gently.

But he would have none of it. “You’re comin’ with me, Nora!” he spat, grabbing the girl and dragging her from the tent, determined to teach her once and for all who ran things here, and what happened to those who refused to accept that.

Lydia felt fear rise up within her, but knew from long and painful experience there was nothing she could do. She’d tried to interfere before, had tried to protect the other girls from Wickes’s wrath, and had suffered for it. The man had a cruel and heavy hand, and wasn’t afraid to use it against the women he considered his property. And he’d already proven a time or two that killing a whore meant less to him than shooting a rabid dog.

Composing herself as best she could, she feigned a calm she did not really feel and returned to Larabee’s table, needing the strength and solidness of his presence more than ever. Determined to make him forget about whatever little woman it was he had back home, and hoping he could make her forget in turn, she brushed herself slowly, enticingly, against him and ran her fingers through his thick blond hair, tousling it in the way she remembered he liked. She gave him a slow, promising kiss and settled herself once more at his side, leaning close against him and rubbing his hard thigh with hers.

“Miss me, sugar?” she asked, her voice sounding far more strained than she liked. Damn Wickes...

Chris saw the brittle control in her eyes and felt a twinge of worry. “You all right?” he asked quietly, not liking at all what he’d seen of Wickes so far. He knew the man’s type, could well imagine how he kept order and discipline among “his” girls, and had to remind himself that he had no authority here.

“I’m fine,” Lydia breathed, then thought again of Nora. “She’s not.” She recognized his anger in the narrowing of his green eyes and the sudden tensing of his lean frame, and knew she had to keep him here to prevent any more harm from coming to Nora. If any trouble erupted, Wickes would take it out on the girl. “Looks like your young friend’s made his choice,” she said with a forced brightness, directing his attention back to the boy at the bar. “Emily,” she said of the eager young blonde laughing and dragging him from the tent. “Sweet as can be, but a real spitfire, too.” She laughed at Chris’s worried expression. “Oh, she’ll treat him real good,” she assured him, leaning close and laying a hand against his chest. “If she doesn’t kill him.”

Chris gazed down at her hand, resting just over his heart, then back up into her face. He could see the pleading, the near desperation, in her eyes, but couldn’t bring himself to give into it. He had no obligations to her, but more than he could count to Vin. And the relationship he was still building with the tracker was too important, too precious, for him to risk for a moment of meaningless relief. Slowly, and with all the gentleness he could muster, he took her hand, squeezed it slightly, then moved it from his chest and set it on the table.

“Sorry,” he said quietly, meeting her gaze evenly. “I should be gettin’ back to town.”

“Must be losin’ my touch,” she joked in a tight voice, trying not to sound desperate and knowing she was failing. “I could make it on the house. For old time’s sake.”

He shook his head slowly. “I’m tryin’ to let old times go.” He rose slowly to his feet, knowing he had to leave, but unable to banish the worry that gnawed at him. She didn’t belong with Wickes, no matter how low she’d fallen. “You sure you’re all right here?”

She shrugged one slim shoulder and gave him a tired half-smile, then poured herself another drink. “Hell, you know me,” she sighed, reaching for the glass and raising it. “I’m always all right.” She knocked back the whiskey and gave him a bitter smile. “I got more lives than a cat.”

He studied her for long moments, suddenly seeing the lines time and this life had etched into her face and wondering just how many more lives she had left. Women in her line of work didn’t often die of old age. Not even the women as smart as Lydia.

He slipped on his black hat and nodded tersely at her. “Take care of yourself.”

She gave a short laugh. “That’s what I’m best at.” She rose to her feet. “I think I’ll make sure Nora’s okay.”

Chris walked with her long enough to see Buck trailing after JD and shook his head in wry amusement at the sight, then went to get his horse. He couldn’t stay a minute longer in this hell-hole. As soon as he got to town, he was going to find Vin, and let the Texan take away the bitter taste and foul stench of Wickes Town.

Immersing himself in pleasant thoughts of the tracker, making a mental list of all the things he wanted Tanner to do to him, he swung into the saddle and kneed Pony forward, unaware of the smile spreading slowly across his face. He’d almost made it out of Wickes Town when he heard the screams.

“Shit!” he spat, turning back and instinctively drawing his rifle from its boot. He arrived to find Nora huddled on the ground, hurt and sheltered in Lydia’s protective arms, with Buck getting beaten by Wickes. Just as he heard the bastard refer to Nora as “property,” he fired a shot at Wickes’s feet.

“Buck, we’re leavin’,” he said in a cold, menacing voice, daring Wickes or any of his men to argue. “We’re takin’ her with us.”

Wilmington was still inclined to fight Wickes and all his men, his full fury showing in blazing blue eyes and an expression of pure rage, until JD came racing forward to settle him down. “Buck, let’s go,” he ordered firmly, knowing the whole situation could explode at any moment.

Chris was proud of the boy’s calm, but didn’t take his eyes off Wickes long enough to express it. “JD, get the guns and the horses.” His rifle never wavered from its sight on Wickes’s broad barrel of a chest, ensuring that, whatever happened, the man would be among the first to fall.

JD stripped every man about him of his guns, then quickly got his and Buck’s horses without a wasted moment. Chris finally moved his rifle, allowing Buck to hand Nora up into his keeping. And all the while, Wickes stared at him with pure fury and hatred.

“This isn’t over,” he warned as the three gunslingers raced away.

+ + + + + + +

They made it back to town without being followed, though Chris doubted Wickes would let it go for long. Reining in before Nathan’s clinic, he waited for Buck to dismount, then let the big man lift the injured girl, now barely conscious, down from his horse. He dropped to the ground himself, still seething over what he’d witnessed.

“Let’s get her to Nathan,” he ordered tersely, striding with long, furious strides up the stairs.

JD watched the two older men go, swallowing uneasily at the anger rolling in hot waves from both. He was growing used to Larabee’s temper, but was still unaccustomed to seeing Buck in the grip of what could only be called a blind rage. The man had seemed intent on killing Wickes, and anybody else who crossed his path, and JD wasn’t at all sure he understood it.

It was as if Buck took what had happened personally...

Nathan looked up sharply as his door was thrust open and Chris and Buck hurried in, Buck carrying a girl in his arms. Seeing the hideous bruises marring the girl’s flesh, the healer was on his feet at once and moving toward the bed.

“Lay her down,” he ordered, never bothering to ask, not caring, who she was. “Lemme git a look at her.” Buck laid her down with a gentleness his size belied, and Nathan felt a wave of anger break through him. “She’s been beat up,” he said in a low, hard voice, knowing the signs only too well.

“Pig name’a Wickes did it,” Buck spat, his blue eyes still boiling with murder. “Sonuvabitch tried ta kill her just ’cause she objected to a customer!”

“Wickes?” Nathan asked, glancing up at Chris as the name caught his attention. Then he looked down at the girl again, seeing her occupation in her scanty dress. “She one’a the girls from his town?”

Buck stepped forward and scowled, his anger rising still higher at the healer’s words. “You got a problem with that?” he seethed in a low, dangerous voice. Painful memories were crashing in on him from every side, turning his nerves raw.

Nathan merely stared at him, his dark eyes gentle. “You know me, Buck,” he said quietly, calmly. “Only thing I got a problem with is that somebody done beat the hell outta this li’l girl. I jes’ like ta know somethin’ ’bout the folks I’m helpin’.”

Buck tried to swallow his anger, knowing he was letting his past interfere with the present. “I’m sorry, Nate,” he breathed in a ragged voice, his eyes still haunted. “It’s just...” He let it go, not wanting to explain just now. “Her name’s Nora. She didn’t wanta go with a man, and Wickes beat her for it.”

“Buck,” Chris said quietly, fixing knowing eyes on his old friend, “why don’t you go cool off. You won’t do her no good stormin’ around here.”

Wilmington scowled deeply and set a hand on his gun. “Hell, I oughtta just go back there and teach that pig--”

“Leave it alone,” Chris warned, his voice and eyes taking on a cold edge. “We got no say there, and we don’t wanta bring any trouble down on the town. You stay away from Wickes, you hear?”

Buck’s eyes hardened, and his big frame tensed. “You can’t stop me--”

“I can throw you in jail,” Larabee interrupted, his gaze never wavering. “And you know I’ll do it. Buck,” his voice softened, as did his gaze, “it’s over. She’s safe now.” He knew as few others did why this had affected Buck the way it had. “You can’t protect them all, pard,” he said gently. “Not even you can save every woman in the world.”

Buck saw the understanding, the sorrow, in Chris’s eyes, and that steadied him as could little else. Exhaling slowly and bowing his head, he dropped his hand from his gun and nodded. “Reckon you’re right,” he murmured. He drew a deep breath and raised his head, meeting Chris’s gaze and nodding slightly to reassure him. “Think I could use some supper.” He forced a smile, though it was nothing like his usual bright one. “Didn’t exactly go ta Wickes Town for a meal.”

Chris nodded and gave a small smile. And, as Buck walked past, he reached out to squeeze the big man’s shoulder. When Buck had gone, he returned his attention to Nathan, who had ignored them and gone to work at once on the girl. “You need me?”

The healer shook his head. “Naw, g’on. Give the po’ girl some privacy.”

Chris had to smile and shake his head at that, at Jackson’s insistence on privacy for a whore. “All right,” he said, grateful he was not needed here, “reckon I’ll go find Vin. Let him know what’s goin’ on.”


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