The Decent Thing

by SueN

They lay together in silence for long moments, needing no words between them. Vin nestled his head against Larabee’s shoulder and Chris rested a cheek against his sweat-sodden hair, both reveling in the intimate union that went far beyond their physical joining. They breathed as one, their hearts beat as one. Words would only have spoiled this precious time.

Only when he felt it was right to do so did Chris get up and cross to the basin to wet a cloth for clean-up. Vin sat up and hugged his knees to his chest, watching the man’s every move. He loved watching Chris walk, loved seeing the ripple and flow of supple muscles beneath the smooth, pale flesh, loved sensing the coiled, quiet power of that long, hard body. Chris was beauty itself to Vin, and he knew if he lived to be a hundred, he’d never tire of just watching this man.

Chris turned, and was startled by the expression in the blue eyes fixed upon him. Not desire, not passion, but sheer, pure love, and an adoration usually reserved for something sacred. Not at all certain he merited such feelings, he made his way back to the bed and sat down, reaching out to lay a hand on Vin’s knee.

“Starin’ awful hard, ain’tcha?” he asked softly, uneasily.

Vin merely smiled and laid a cheek upon Larabee’s hand. “Cain’t help it if yer easy ta stare at, cowboy. Don’t think I’ll ever git tired’a doin’ it, either. I learned a long time ago that beauty’s a gift, ’n there ain’t been so much of it in my life that I c’n afford ta waste a minute of it. So yer jist gonna have ta git used ta my starin’, ’cause yer about the most beautiful damn thing I ever seen.”

Chris smiled softly and lifted a hand to stroke the whiskered cheek of his lover. “You’re somethin’ else, Tanner,” he breathed. “And, God help me, I wanta spend the rest’a my days figurin’ out exactly what all there is ta you.”

Vin shrugged. “Ain’t that much. Prob’ly won’t take ya all that long.”

“Nope, you’re wrong, pard,” Chris said solemnly, studying the young man before him and seeing the age beyond years and knowledge he could never hope to have in those shimmering blue eyes. “There’s more ta you than you think. And I’m gonna enjoy figurin’ it all out.”

Vin gave him a sleepy smile. “Ya mean if ya don’t shoot me, first,” he teased.

Chris chuckled. “Well, there is always that possibility. Now, c’mon,” he lightly tapped Vin’s cheek with a forefinger, “before you go ta sleep, let’s get cleaned up. We got some possible trouble we need ta talk about.”

They wiped themselves down and got dressed, then Chris poured them each a shot of the whiskey he’d brought up. And while Vin finally tore into his supper, Chris lit a cheroot and explained what had happened.

“Wickes Town?” Vin interrupted softly, a forkful of mashed potatoes poised forgotten in mid-air. “You was in Wickes Town?”

Chris wasn’t prepared for the shadow of hurt that crept into those expressive eyes, and could have kicked himself for not telling Vin earlier that he was going. “Not for that, pard,” he said quietly. “I just wanted to ride out, make sure the goin’s on there wouldn’t cause any trouble here.” He gave a wry grin. “Places like that tend t’ attract the bad element.”

Vin nodded slightly, but couldn’t help still feeling uneasy. He knew it was wrong, knew it was foolish, but just couldn’t help it. He was so used to having every good thing he found taken from him that he couldn’t stop thinking it would somehow happen with Chris, too. And he just wasn’t sure he could compete with a whole tent city full of whores.

Chris saw the uncertainty in his eyes, and felt a sharp twinge of sorrow at the almost instantaneous change from capable man to lost little boy. Just how much loss had Tanner suffered in his life, anyway, to make him so certain he was losing again?

“Listen to me, Vin,” he said gently, leaning forward on the bed and resting his arms on his crossed legs, peering intently into Tanner’s eyes. “I didn’t go there for a woman. Don’t want one, don’t need one.” He smiled slightly. “Got me somethin’ better right here. But I ain’t gonna lie to ya. I found a woman there I know from another time, another place. Spent some time with her, just talkin’. She wanted more, but I didn’t.” He smiled at the tracker. “Like I said, I got all I want, all I need, right here. So don’t worry, all right? You ain’t gonna lose me.”

Vin stared for long moments at Chris, searched the deep green eyes and read the soul mirrored in them, and felt his fears melt away. No one had ever looked at him like Chris did, with such love and such intimate understanding, and he gave silent thanks yet again to whatever Spirit had joined their paths. He smiled, nodded once, and relaxed, ready now to concentrate on the matter at hand.

Chris saw that, and marveled anew at the incredible trust the wary young man placed in him. God, it was like having a wild animal come up to eat out of his hand! Oddly enough, he thought suddenly of Sarah’s love for animals, and wondered if it was her gentle touch he felt in all of this.

Still lookin’ out for me, are ya?

Shaking his head to clear it, he drew deeply on his cheroot and regarded Vin steadily, grateful to see the steady, capable man back with him. “Apparently, Wickes has a heavy hand,” he said, his anger stirring again to life. “Don’t mind beatin’ his girls if they object ta how he runs his business. And don’t care if his customers beat on ’em, either.”

Vin lifted his head at that, his eyes narrowing and hardening, his mouth drawing into a thin, tight line. He’d seen what such men could do, and had no tolerance for it. Whore or not, no woman deserved gettin’ beat on for tryin’ to protect herself.

“I reckon you minded, though,” he said in a low rasp, knowing it with a certainty.

Chris gave a feral grin. “Just a bit. Buck minded, too. Got the bruises ta prove it.”

Vin frowned. “Buck?”

Chris chuckled. “It’s a place full of women, Vin. Where else you think he’s gonna be? He ain’t exactly shy, y’know. Besides, he was there on a mission.” When Vin’s brows lifted questioningly, Chris winked and said slyly, “Took JD along for ‘instructional purposes.’”

Vin pondered the words for a moment, puzzling them out. Then, as Chris’s meaning hit him, his eyes widened and he asked sharply, “He took the kid ta git--”

Chris had to laugh at the tracker’s startled expression. “Damn, Vin, you gotta get out more!”

Tanner scowled at the snickering gunfighter. “I git out,” he said defensively.

“I mean out among people, not out in the hills,” Chris joked, amazed as always by the strange mixture of knowledge and naiveté in Tanner.

Color flooded Vin’s cheeks and he bowed his head, his scowl deepening at Larabee’s teasing. “Y’ain’t gotta make fun’a me,” he snapped. “Don’t like people, ’n they don’t like me. Don’t see no need ta stay amongst ’em.”

Chris sighed, his humor fading at the old hurt in that gravelly voice. “I’m sorry, pard,” he said softly, trying to catch Vin’s eyes and finally succeeding. “Didn’t mean ta make fun of you. I’d never wanta do that.” He smiled gently, encouragingly. “But, tell me, ain’t there some people you like?”

Once more, Vin found himself searching those green eyes, and finding in them all he needed. “Reckon,” he murmured slowly, smiling faintly. “Mebbe one ’r two.”

“Two?” Chris arched a blond brow and sat back, staring at Vin. “I ain’t sure I like the sound of that.”

Vin’s smile widened and a wicked light danced in his blue eyes. He swept an insolent gaze over the lean figure before him, running his tongue slowly over his lower lip. “Then I reckon ya’d best behave yerself,” he drawled, “’less’n you wanta find out who that other’n is the hard way.”

Now it was Chris’s turn to scowl, and he did so, deeply and menacingly. And utterly without result. “Cocky bastard, ain’tcha?” he growled. “And pure aggravation.”

Vin winked and grinned. “Yep. But,” again he licked his lips, “I been told I’m worth the trouble.”

“Can’t imagine by who,” Chris growled as the familiar heat began rising through him. He would have liked nothing better than to engage in another round of lovemaking with Vin, but knew it wasn’t possible. Tanner would have to leave before much longer, or they’d risk raising suspicions. “You just eat and behave. I told Miz Collins you’d eat every bite, and I don’t intend ta get that woman riled at me.”

“Ain’t afraid of her, are ya?” Vin teased, returning his attention to the plate balanced on his lap.

“Nope,” Chris said with a smile, enjoying the sight of Vin eating. “I just don’t intend ta piss off a woman who makes pecan pie like she does.”


The two went to the clinic the next morning to check on Nora. In silence, they watched Nathan tending the injured girl and listened as she explained her sorry plight. Studying the bruises -- both fresh and old -- that marred her body and listening to her words, Chris felt his hatred of Wickes growing stronger. The man was a goddamn animal!

“He paid my way out here,” Nora said, not certain exactly what to expect from these men. They seemed willing to help, but she’d learned that “help” usually didn’t come without a price. “I have to pay him back. With interest.”

Vin, too, was angry at Wickes, but, for the moment, was more conscious of his sorrow and compassion for the girl. He knew what it was like to be treated and used as if he were nothing, to be brutalized and expected to take it, and to have no other choice but to take it. Chris’s anger, he knew, sprang from outraged ideals; his own came from painful experience.

“I came because he promised me so much,” Nora went on, her voice catching. “But the more I work, the more I owe.”

“Sounds like a good deal,” Vin said, his soft voice edged with anger. “Fer him.”

Chris said nothing, merely watched Nora and tried to figure a way out of this mess. He couldn’t see sending her back to that hell-hole, but couldn’t see a way around it, either. For all he knew, her indebtedness to Wickes might give the bastard an actual legal claim on her...

A knock sounded at the door, then Mary Travis entered. And with a twinge of irritation, Chris knew the mess had just gotten worse.

“Mr. Larabee?” she called, ignoring Vin and never bothering to glance at Nora. “May I have a word with you, please?”

Chris sighed, his long mouth tightening slightly. He should’ve known she’d find a way to involve herself in this. And he had a good idea he knew what she was going to say.

He lingered for several moments, knowing she was waiting but refusing to jump at her beck and call. Casting a quick glance at Nathan, he said quietly, “Take care of her.” Then he looked at Vin, acutely conscious of Mary’s slight toward the tracker but seeing no sign that he had noticed. He smiled slightly at the younger man and nodded once, then turned and went outside like a man approaching the gallows.

Vin had noticed the snub, but didn’t take offense. He was

used to being overlooked, rather preferred it that way. Didn’t see no sense in attractin’ attention to himself with that price on his head. Besides, he had seen Mary Travis’s expression when she looked at Chris, and figured the woman just wasn’t capable of seeing anyone else when Larabee was around.

And, Lord, did he understand that particular kind of blindness!

He looked down at the girl again and saw her relaxing under Nathan’s gentle care. She seemed almost confused by that, as if she weren’t used to anyone caring for her and couldn’t understand why they would. Well, he reckoned he understood that, too.

“Don’t you worry none, Miss,” he told her softly, startling even himself by speaking. Her eyes flew up to him, and he gave a slight smile. “The Doc here’s a good man. He’ll have ya feelin’ better in no time.”

She relaxed further, reassured by the calm these two men exuded. The black man -- the town doctor, she supposed -- was big, so big he had scared her at first, but there was nothing but care and compassion in his touch. And the laudanum he’d given her earlier was already starting to ease her hurts. And the other man...

She studied him through eyes that knew men, and liked what she saw. Beneath the battered hat, unruly hair, whiskers and dusty clothes, he was as good looking a man as she’d ever seen, with a shy smile that warmed her and a soft, raspy voice that fell easily against her ears and mind. She also saw something in his eyes, something very much like understanding, even sadness, and wondered how a man could ever understand her life. Or be sorry for it.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “Thank you all. I don’t know... what would’ve happened...” Well, that wasn’t true. She did know what would’ve happened if that big, mustached man hadn’t stopped Wickes, and if the man in black hadn’t taken her up on his horse. She knew, because she’d seen it happen before. “Anyway, I’m grateful.”

“You hush now, an’ rest,” Nathan urged gently, laying a big but gentle hand against the girl’s forehead and smiling into her eyes. “Like I said b’fo’, you’re safe here. Won’t nobody else lay a hand to ya while ya here.”

She nodded, then smiled up at him, closed her eyes, and let her body drift into the healing sleep it needed.

At the foot of the bed, Vin shoved his thumbs into his gunbelt, cocked his hip and settled his weight on one side to ease the ever-present strain upon his back, and settled into his characteristic slouch. Watching him without seeming to, knowing scrutiny made the tracker uncomfortable, Nathan couldn’t help but notice the protective attitude the young man had adopted toward Nora, and wondered yet again about him.

Just what was it in Vin Tanner, himself a hunted man, that gave him an instinctive need to watch over folks in need, to take care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves? The ex-slave thought he knew, and shook his head sadly.

Lord, who all hadn’t been there for that boy when he’d needed them?

+ + + + + + +

“I’m not telling you what to do,” Mary insisted rather peevishly, infuriated by the man before her. Why couldn’t he see what he’d done?

Chris leaned against the railing and stared at her from beneath his hat, his green eyes hard and cold. “You’re suggestin’ awful strong,” he pointed out, trying to hold his temper in check. He’d seen compassion in Mary Travis before; but he supposed it only extended to folk she considered “decent.” Clearly a whore, even a hurt one, didn’t measure up to her standards.

“Look, she’s your responsibility--”

“I brought her here ’cause she needs lookin’ after,” he reminded her, growing increasingly irritated at her. Maybe if you’d bothered to look at the girl, you’da seen that, he added silently.

Mary nodded, willing to concede that point. “When she gets better, you’ll take her elsewhere,” she ordered, determined to have that girl, and all the trouble that invariably followed her kind, out of this town.

Chris saw the judgment in the woman’s pale eyes, saw the contempt and utter lack of concern there, and felt his anger grow hotter. “Well, that’s, uh... That’s mighty Christian of you, Mrs. Travis,” he retorted, unable to keep the sneer from his voice. Just when had this woman set herself up as God, anyway?

His barb struck home, and Mary stiffened slightly, her eyes widening. “Mr. Larabee, things are hard enough in this town without her kind here,” she said defensively. He’d been a family man himself once; why couldn’t he see what she was saying?

“The hurt kind?” he asked pointedly, seeing in this woman all he’d come to despise about “decent” folk. Like others of her kind, she just couldn’t see the other side, couldn’t understand those “beneath” them, and wouldn’t even try. Mary Travis didn’t see Nora, didn’t see a girl who’d been damn near beaten to death by a pig twice her size. All she saw was a whore, dirtying up her precious town.

“The working kind,” Mary sniped, her voice dripping with contempt.

Chris was beginning to understand why some men killed women. “It’s one girl, Mrs. Travis,” he said, fighting to keep his voice, and himself, calm.

Even as his words ended, they both heard the sounds of a wagon rumbling along the street below, and turned to look. To Chris’s surprise, and sinking dismay, he recognized Lydia at the reins, with what looked like every whore from Wickes Town crammed into the back. Mary eyed the wagon in horror, knowing at once who the garishly painted and dressed women were, then felt her horror give way to anger, and finally to grim vindication. She’d been right. Again.

Turning to the clearly startled Chris, she arched a brow and shot him a triumphant gaze. “Just one, Mr. Larabee?” she jeered.

He stared a moment more at Lydia, wondering just what the hell she was doing here. Then, as his mouth tightened once more into a thin line of anger, he turned on his heel, ignoring Mary, and stalked back into the clinic. Thrusting open the door, he stood in the frame and, as Vin turned to him, said in a low, clipped voice, “Let’s go. We got more trouble.”

Seeing the storm brewing in Chris’s eyes, and knowing who had caused it, he allowed himself a slight, mischievous grin and drawled, “Wouldn’t be us if we didn’t.” He was rewarded by a gleam of laughter lighting the green eyes, and tried not to see just how beautiful it made Chris. Sauntering forward with his lithe, cat-footed grace, he stepped through the doorway and murmured in a voice meant for Larabee’s ears alone, “Oughtta smile more often, cowboy. It’s like the sun comin’ up all over agin.”

Chris did smile at that, and gave thanks yet again for the strange and beautiful young man who’d wandered into his life. Then, as Vin moved past him, brushing lightly against him, thanks gave way to damnation.

’Cause Tanner had a sure, quick way of makin’ more than just the goddamn sun come up...

+ + + + + + +

Every man in town, it seemed, lined the streets and grinned broadly or shouted jubilantly at the sight of the bounty that had fallen into their midst. A wagonload of women, sportin’ women at that. Damned if Four Corners wasn’t lookin’ better all the time!

Buck, JD and Josiah came from the bath house, and, as the women stepped down from the wagon, each man had to smile. JD looked eagerly for Emily, and felt his chest -- well, maybe not exactly his chest -- nearly burst open when he saw her. She spotted him, too, gave a teasing smile and began whispering to one of her friends, and the boy felt a hot flush of color spread through his face.

Jeez, what was she sayin’?

Chris strode through the street with Mary at his side and Vin at his back, and wished to hell it was the other way around. Though, he had to admit, he was much more comfortable with Vin at his back than he would’ve been with her there...

Pushing aside all thoughts of the tracker, he focused his attention on the scene before him. Lydia was climbing down from the wagon, and, heedless of the scene her arrival had created, coming straight toward him.

“You have Nora?” she asked without preamble, consumed with worry for the girl. She had spoken to Chris, but a tall black man stepped forward to answer.

“She’s all right,” Nathan assured her, glad to see the girl had someone who cared.

Not knowing who he was, but accepting him as someone who seemed to know, Lydia searched his eyes intently. “She okay?” she persisted. She had been haunted by the fear that, this time, Wickes had gone too far, and finally killed Nora.

“Yeah,” Chris said quietly, finding it ironic that a whore could show more compassion and concern than the “decent” and “Christian” Mrs. Travis.

“She can’t be moved yet,” Nathan told her, “but she’ll be all right.”

Lydia heaved a deep sigh of relief, all her fears leaving her in a rush at the certainty behind those words. “I’m grateful for your help,” she said, taking in both men with her gaze.

Buck wandered up, eyeing the women with both confusion and anticipation. “You ladies out for a mornin’ ride?”

Lydia found herself searching the row of faces before her, the men and that clearly disapproving woman, in the hope that she had not made a mistake in placing her trust -- and the other women’s lives -- in their hands. “We snuck out at dawn,” she said. “Grabbed everything we could.” Her gaze finally settled on Chris. “We looked over our shoulders the whole way here.”

Chris’s gut tightened at that, and he turned to Tanner. “Vin, take a look around.” They exchanged brief glances, then the tracker nodded and left.

Buck, still not quite understanding what was happening, smiled at Lydia and offered, “We’ll point you in whatever direction.”

Again, her eyes sought out Chris, though she could not help glancing at the tight-lipped blonde woman, as well. “Came lookin’ for you,” she explained, needing them, needing Chris, to understand. “When I saw there were men finally standing up to Wickes, I knew we could get out of that place....”

Chris knew then what he’d meant when he’d told Judge Travis he’d probably regret taking this job. Protecting the town was one thing; getting between Lydia and Mary Travis was another. Without a word, he pulled his hat lower on his head and walked away.

“I’m sorry,” he heard Mary say, not a trace of sympathy in her voice, “but it’s best if you just move on.”

Coffee. He definitely needed more coffee.

He made his way to the saloon and went inside, walking to the bar and leaning upon it. Shit, what had Lydia been thinkin’ in bringin’ those girls here? Wickes would follow, he knew it with instinctive certainty. The bastard considered the women his “property,” and would do whatever it took to get them back.

Would hurt whoever it took...

He never turned around or looked up as Buck stepped beside him. Probably just as well. He knew he couldn’t really blame this on the big man, but, damn, he had a powerful urge to hit somebody, and Wilmington was closest.

“So, whatta ya think, Chris?” Buck asked quietly, not at all certain how things had gotten so out of hand. When he left, Lydia and Mary had still been spittin’ at each other in the street, and he’d had the nasty feeling of a catfight coming on.

“It’s a problem,” Chris answered laconically, cradling his face in one hand.

“Yeah,” Buck sighed, waiting for Larabee to come up with a solution.

And Chris did. “But you can handle it.”

“Me?!” Buck yelped in surprise. That wasn’t the solution he’d been waiting for.

“You’re the one who picked the fight,” Chris reminded him.

“You’re the one that carried the girl away,” Buck countered.

Chris stared at his friend, remembering all the times he’d had to clean up some mess Buck had gotten them into by his impulsiveness. Well, that stopped now. “You started it, you finish it,” he said coldly, refusing to get drawn into this.

“Fine,” Buck said decisively, angered by Chris’s abandonment of his responsibility. “Then the ladies stay. Need more women around here, anyway.”

“I disagree,” said a primly disapproving voice from the doorway.

What a surprise, Chris thought irritably. He turned to face Mary, and wished to hell he’d ridden out with Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Vin let Peso have his head, and the big horse flew over the ground toward the road that led to Wickes Town. Tanner was deeply grateful Chris had sent him out; he’d had no urge to stay in town and watch two women goin’ at each other tooth and claw in the street. And, to be honest, when he’d seen Lydia, he’d felt an immediate surge of dislike. He knew from the way she looked at Chris that she was the one he’d spent the day in Wickes Town with, and couldn’t help resenting her for it.

Couldn’t help resenting anyone who could openly show interest in the man...

He felt a twinge of anger at that. Folks had rules, he knew that, and two men lovin’ each other was definitely against them rules. But he couldn’t understand why. Among the People, such attractions were accepted, even respected. Didn’t reflect poorly on a man at all. Hell, one of the most honored warriors he’d ever known had preferred men to women.

Had preferred him...

He shook his head to clear it of that thought. Black Wolf was dead. Rememberin’ wouldn’t bring nothin’ but pain. And he figured he’d had about enough of that already, without bringing more on himself.

Still, white folks wasn’t Indians, and he had to constantly remind himself of that. Of the difference in ways. Of the difference in rules. Around white folks, two men couldn’t love other. He didn’t know why, just knew they couldn’t. Or could be run outta town or even be killed for doin’ it.

And he’d rather die himself than see Chris hurt or killed just for loving him...

Riders in the distance brought his thoughts to a stop, and brought him back to the business at hand. Taking out his spyglass, he snapped it open and held it to his eye, not recognizing the men but knowing who they were just the same.

Well, hell, there was one constant, at least. Whether he was with white folks or Indians, if there was trouble brewin’, he was bound ta be right in the middle of it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was quickly losing patience with Mary and her sanctimonious bullshit. She wasn’t even trying to understand these women or their plight, and wasn’t wasting the smallest amount of compassion on them. It was hard to believe this was the same woman who’d stepped in and tried to stop Nathan from being lynched at the risk of her own life.

Of course, Nathan had something to offer that “her” town needed...

“This girl’s beating is typical of the kind of behavior prostitution incites,” she said waspishly.

“Not exactly polite behavior to throw ’em back to the wolves, is it?” Buck asked in a low voice, his temper set on edge by her attitude. He’d seen it before, had grown up seeing it, and was as infuriated by it now as he’d ever been. Some of the most truly “decent” women he’d ever known had been working girls...

“I’m just saying--”

“If they want to stay, it’s a free country,” Chris said, deciding to step in before Buck’s mounting temper got the better of him. “It’s their right.”

Mary stared at him, unable to understand how he could take the side of a wagonload of prostitutes over that of the town he was paid to protect. “And we have the right to a safe and decent community to raise our children.”

There was that word again, Chris thought, his jaw clenching. “Decent.” The woman wielded it like a badge, or a weapon, sorting out who was and who wasn’t deserving of help or consideration based on her definition of “decent.”

Before he could say anything more, Vin pushed through the batwing doors and immediately caught Chris’s gaze. “Got comp’ny,” he announced simply, his meaning clear.

As the three men left, Mary sighed. Why couldn’t they understand?


Chris wished he had time for a better plan, but knew he’d have to be satisfied with this one. “Wickes is comin’,” he told his men. “Take the women, hide ’em. Vin, get that damn wagon outta sight.”

The men nodded and scattered, knowing they had to work quickly. Chris watched them, and had to smile. As strange a bunch as he’d ever known, each man a knotted mess of weaknesses and demons, but damn if he didn’t feel good havin’ ’em at his back!

He shook his head, still smiling, and walked off to find Lydia, needing to explain the plan to her.

+ + + + + + +

Vin stashed the wagon in an abandoned building and hurriedly did what he could to wipe out the tracks. he doubted Wickes had anyone with him who read sign, but he didn’t believe in taking chances. When he had finished, he went back to the saloon and ordered a cup of coffee, settling himself in to wait. And to think.

Lord, what was he still doin’ here? He’d never stayed in one place so long before, exceptin’ his times with the various tribes, had never let himself become so much a part of a place that he actually knew folks’ names. And he certainly hadn’t intended that when he’d stopped here. He’d just been too tired, too hungry, too broke and too desperate to go on, had needed a place just to stop and rest, find a way to get some money before settin’ out on the run again...

He had to grin. Well, hell, he’d sure found a way ta make some money, hadn’t he? Signed on as a regulator. Him, Vin Tanner, wanted in Texas for murder, a lawman. Well, folks’d always said he had a strange sense of humor...

Still, it puzzled him. Why here, why this town, when he’d been through so many others and never given ’em a passin’ glance? And why these folks, when he’d never cared much for folks before? Oh, sure, there was still some that looked at him like they was scared he was gonna bite ’em, or worse, like that Conklin feller, but there was others... Virgil Watson had been right nice to him, fair and honest in his dealin’s, had given him a job when most others wouldn’ta looked twice at him. And Miz Potter down at the mercantile... Yeah, she was grateful for his part in bringin’ in the man who’d killed her husband, but there was more to it. Wasn’t just gratitude in her eyes when she looked at him, but true kindness. And for a fiddle-footed stray who’d never known much kindness in his life, it was a precious and powerful thing to have it now. And, hell, even Miz Travis, when she wasn’t on one’a her tears, could smile at him like he was almost human. Least she could when he wasn’t with Chris...

Chris. Something in him warmed and settled at the mere thought of the man. Yep, that was it right there. That was why he was still here, ’cause Chris was still here, and he didn’t have the slightest notion of movin’ more than five steps from that man’s side. Larabee might not know it, but he’d gotten himself a second shadow, a second skin, and its name was Vin Tanner. He wanted to live and to die in that man’s arms, to breathe only the air that Larabee breathed, to begin and end his days in the green fire of those eyes.

And if he had to stay in a town full of folks to do that, then so be it. Hell, the Spirits had led him along stranger paths...

His musings were interrupted by the thunderous arrival of Wickes’s men. They stormed into the saloon, obviously used to intimidating others, and swept through it like wrath itself, scattering the patrons with fierce glances and bared teeth. Vin, however didn’t scatter, didn’t even flinch when the big one stalked up to the bar and slammed a hand onto it.

“We’re lookin’ for some girls,” the big man snarled.

Vin never looked at him, was utterly unimpressed by any threat the man thought to pose. Hell, he rode with Larabee, didn’t he? He’d seen menace, and this bastard wasn’t it. “Ain’t we all?” he asked laconically, raising his cup to sip from his coffee.

Irritated by the man’s lack of fear, Quint leaned in closer and warned, “You’re gonna wanta stay outta the way while we look around.”

Vin knew he shouldn’t laugh at the man’s posturing, but the urge was almost overwhelming. He had a few friends the sonuvabitch could take lessons in “threatening” from. “Suit yerself,” he drawled, concentrating on his coffee to keep from snickering. “But I’ll tell ya right now, the pickin’s are mighty slim.”

Quint wanted to grab the scruffy man and slam his head into the bar to teach him a lesson in fear, but knew he had other work to do. “Let’s go,” he snarled, turning and stalking out of the saloon.

Vin watched through the mirror as they left, and only when he was sure they were gone did he allow himself to smile and shake his head. Lord, where did all the idjits ’n assholes in this world come from, anyhow?

+ + + + + + +

Chris kept to the shadows and watched the progress of the men tearing through the town, not sure at whom he was angriest -- Wickes for sendin’ ’em here, or Lydia for bringin’ ’em here. He knew the women had a right to safety -- hell, even whores deserved that much -- but the town had a right to safety, too. Much as he hated to admit it, Mary was right. The people here had enough problems to deal with. This wasn’t their trouble, and they shouldn’t be caught in the middle of it. They deserved better.

At last, he saw the various groups of men returning to the saloon, where their horses were tied, clearly frustrated after their fruitless search. But any satisfaction he might have felt at their going died the moment he saw Vin saunter out onto the boardwalk and lean against a post, challenging the men by his obvious lack of fear of them, and gracing them with one of his mocking little smiles. Chris had seen that smile often enough already to know what it could do to an angry man.

Knew from personal experience...

“No luck?” Vin called as the men mounted up. “Well, if ya see one wanderin’ around out there, tell her she’s welcome here.”

Chris heard the words and exhaled slowly, hanging his head. Goddamn mouthy Texan was gonna get himself shot one day! Still, he had to smile as he looked up again to see the big man in charge glare at Vin and snarl out the order to leave.

It was nice seein’ Tanner gettin’ under somebody else’s skin for a change...

When the men had gone, Chris stepped out into the street, caught Vin’s eye and nodded. The tracker nodded back, then pulled himself away from the post and sauntered toward Larabee, that maddening little smirk still on his lips.

“You havin’ fun?” Chris growled as Vin fell into step beside him.

Tanner fixed dancing blue eyes upon him. “Could think’a other ways ta have more fun,” he drawled, winking.

Larabee wished to hell the man wouldn’t do that. That wink, and the little smile that went with it, always went straight to his groin. “You sure you’re wanted for murder and not just aggravatin’ the hell outta everybody in Texas?”

Vin laughed aloud. “Well, I gotta say, the sheriff in Tascosa mighta took offense at one ’r two things I said to him.”

“Imagine that,” Chris grunted. They reached the bath house, where Lydia had hidden herself, and stopped. “You comin’ in?”

Vin stared at him. “Kinda early in the day fer a bath, ain’t it?”

Chris sighed slowly, wondering how he could want to throw the man down and ravish him one minute, and strangle him the next. “Gonna talk ta Lydia,” he said with a strained patience. “There’s some things we need ta settle. You comin’ or not?”

Vin shook his head. “Reckon not.” Again, he gave that little smile. “Ain’t but one person I care ta see stripped down ’n soakin’ in a tub, and it ain’t Lydia.”

Chris had to smile at that, his green eyes gleaming. “Maybe after all this is over,” he said in a low voice. “I could always use some help scrubbin’ my back.”

Vin had to stop himself from leaning forward and kissing the man. “Well, you know me,” he breathed in a rough voice, “always willin’ ta lend a hand.”

Chris nodded. “I’ll hold ya to that, pard.” He gazed at Vin a few moments longer, wishing they could just go off and be by themselves for a while, and suddenly resented the hell out of Lydia, Wickes, Mary Travis and this town for making that impossible. “Be back soon,” he sighed, turning away and going into the bath house.

Vin watched him go, warmed to his soul by the longing he’d seen in those eyes. Lord help him, what had he ever done ta deserve a man like Chris Larabee?

+ + + + + + +

Chris walked into the bath house and looked around. “They’re gone,” he called. “You can come out now.”

“I’ll be out in a while,” came a low, sultry voice from behind a curtain.

Suddenly realizing where she was and what she was doing, Chris sighed and walked over to her, his irritation growing by the moment. “Well, we need to have a little talk.”

“Come on in.”

He pushed open the curtain and hung his head, swallowing against the anger that filled him at the sight of her luxuriating in the tub when her very presence put this town, his town, in danger. “Come find me in the saloon when you’re decent,” he ordered. Lord, now Mary had him sayin’ it!

Lydia laughed lightly, stretching a slender leg invitingly before his eyes. “You know I ain’t shy,” she purred, hoping to entice him into sharing the tub, and more, with her.

He exhaled slowly and knotted his fingers in the curtain, struggling to keep a hold on his temper. “I think it’s best that you ladies went on your way.”

Her ardor cooled somewhat in the face of his disinterest and she straightened in the tub, gazing evenly at him. “Little Miss Muffet does have a say over you then,” she said peevishly, wondering what he could ever see in the priggish, bossy blonde.

He almost laughed aloud at that, and wondered what she’d do if she knew who truly had a say over him. “It’s got nothin’ ta do with her. Next time, it’ll be Wickes who shows up, and I don’t wanta see anyone get hurt. Especially you,” he added with true warmth.

She heard it, and was grateful for it; it had been far too long since anyone had cared what happened to her. Still, she wasn’t the only one she was fighting for here, and she needed this man to stand up for all the girls. “He won’t rest until we’re back with him, or dead.”

He knew that, but wasn’t prepared to put an entire town into the line of fire. “We’ll take you ta Ridge City,” he offered, figuring he owed her that much at least. “Y’all can catch a train there.” He heard himself and nearly laughed. Hell, now he was soundin’ like Tanner!

“And what if he follows us?” Lydia demanded, certain that was exactly what Wickes would do.

Chris smiled slightly. “We’ll protect you.” If nothin’ else, he’d just unleash Buck on the bastard.

Again, that alluring smile curved about Lydia’s mouth, and her gaze swept slowly over him in frank appreciation. “From what I’ve seen, a man like you could protect me just about anywhere,” she purred.

“Lydia, you’re leaving,” he said firmly, somewhat amazed by his reaction, or lack thereof, to her. From Vin, those words and that look would’ve had him practically leaping into the tub, while, from her, they only left him... irritated.

She saw then that she had failed, both to seduce him and to secure his protection. Anger coursed through her and she lifted her head, her eyes flashing. She’d been forced to run too many times in her life and was tired of it. “I think we’ll stay,” she said coldly, “make a stand right here.”

Hell, how had he known that was comin’? This woman was every bit as stubborn and as infuriating as Mary Travis! “If you stay,” he warned her, needing her to understand his position, “you’re on your own.”

She could have laughed at those words; had he truly believed she’d ever thought anything else? “Always have been, always will be.”

The mixture of resignation and defiance in her voice and eyes touched something in him, and he sighed tiredly. All at once, she reminded him of Vin, both determined to stand alone against whatever came simply because neither had ever known another way. His anger turned to sorrow, for he knew she’d meant it. She was through running, and would stay here, even if she had to fight Wickes alone and with her bare hands.

And he knew he just didn’t have it in him to let that happen.

+ + + + + + +

He stepped out of the bath house, and heard the tuneless blowing of a harmonica. Lord, the man and his damn mouth organ...

Vin was leaning against a post, apparently heedless of his approach, though Chris was certain that wasn’t so. Tanner had hearing any wolf would envy, and would have to be dead before anyone ever snuck up on him. Still, there was more than one way to startle a Texas tracker...

Shedding his usual reserve, Chris stepped close to him and slipped an arm about him, his hand resting easily on Tanner’s shoulder. He felt the younger man stiffen momentarily in surprise, but then Vin relaxed into that touch, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

“We need a new plan,” Chris said simply, enjoying the moment of close contact even more than he’d expected. He couldn’t give many public displays of his feelings for Tanner, and sometimes the urge just to touch the young man was almost more than he could bear. And for some reason, after his conversation with Lydia, he needed Vin to know he wasn’t alone anymore.

Vin wasn’t entirely sure what had inspired Larabee’s uncharacteristic gesture, but, whatever it was, he was deeply grateful for it. He didn’t think he’d ever get enough of Chris’s touch, couldn’t imagine a time when it wouldn’t make his whole body ache for more, just as it did now. He’d learned through hard, painful lessons to shy away from another’s touch on him, had grown up equating strong hands with pain. With Chris, though, all those lessons flew right out of his head, and he knew with everything that was in him that there was one pair of strong hands, at least, that would never do him harm. He sometimes wondered if Chris understood just how precious a thing his touch was to a man who’d never known its like before.

Chris did know, or at least suspected, and was humbled by it. Wanting Vin to know it meant just as much to him, he gave a brief, gentle squeeze, then released him and started walking, knowing if he didn’t let go now, he likely never would.

Vin felt the love -- and the longing -- in that squeeze, and allowed himself a small smile, though, inside, his heart was singing. Then, unable to help himself, he stood a few moments and simply stared at the retreating gunfighter before joining him.

Lord, how he loved to watch that man walk!


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