The Decent Thing
They lay together in silence for long moments, needing no words between them. Vin nestled his head against Larabees 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 mans 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, hed 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 Vins knee.
Starin awful hard, aintcha? he asked softly, uneasily.
Vin merely smiled and laid a cheek upon Larabees hand. Caint help it if yer easy ta stare at, cowboy. Dont think Ill ever git tireda doin it, either. I learned a long time ago that beautys a gift, n there aint been so much of it in my life that I cn 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. Youre somethin else, Tanner, he breathed. And, God help me, I wanta spend the resta my days figurin out exactly what all there is ta you.
Vin shrugged. Aint that much. Probly wont take ya all that long.
Nope, youre 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. Theres more ta you than you think. And Im gonna enjoy figurin it all out.
Vin gave him a sleepy smile. Ya mean if ya dont shoot me, first, he teased.
Chris chuckled. Well, there is always that possibility. Now, cmon, he lightly tapped Vins cheek with a forefinger, before you go ta sleep, lets 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 hed 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 wasnt 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 goins on there wouldnt cause any trouble here. He gave a wry grin. Places like that tend t attract the bad element.
Vin nodded slightly, but couldnt help still feeling uneasy. He knew it was wrong, knew it was foolish, but just couldnt help it. He was so used to having every good thing he found taken from him that he couldnt stop thinking it would somehow happen with Chris, too. And he just wasnt 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 Tanners eyes. I didnt go there for a woman. Dont want one, dont need one. He smiled slightly. Got me somethin better right here. But I aint 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 didnt. He smiled at the tracker. Like I said, I got all I want, all I need, right here. So dont worry, all right? You aint 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 Sarahs 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. Dont mind beatin his girls if they object ta how he runs his business. And dont 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. Hed 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. Its a place full of women, Vin. Where else you think hes gonna be? He aint exactly shy, yknow. Besides, he was there on a mission. When Vins 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 Chriss meaning hit him, his eyes widened and he asked sharply, He took the kid ta git--
Chris had to laugh at the trackers 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 Vins cheeks and he bowed his head, his scowl deepening at Larabees teasing. Yaint gotta make funa me, he snapped. Dont like people, n they dont like me. Dont see no need ta stay amongst em.
Chris sighed, his humor fading at the old hurt in that gravelly voice. Im sorry, pard, he said softly, trying to catch Vins eyes and finally succeeding. Didnt mean ta make fun of you. Id never wanta do that. He smiled gently, encouragingly. But, tell me, aint 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 aint sure I like the sound of that.
Vins 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 yad best behave yerself, he drawled, lessn you wanta find out who that othern is the hard way.
Now it was Chriss turn to scowl, and he did so, deeply and menacingly. And utterly without result. Cocky bastard, aintcha? he growled. And pure aggravation.
Vin winked and grinned. Yep. But, again he licked his lips, I been told Im worth the trouble.
Cant 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 wasnt possible. Tanner would have to leave before much longer, or theyd risk raising suspicions. You just eat and behave. I told Miz Collins youd eat every bite, and I dont intend ta get that woman riled at me.
Aint 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 dont 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 shed learned that help usually didnt 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. Chriss 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 couldnt see sending her back to that hell-hole, but couldnt 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 shouldve known shed 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 Marys 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 didnt take offense. He was
used to being overlooked, rather preferred it that way. Didnt see no sense in attractin attention to himself with that price on his head. Besides, he had seen Mary Traviss expression when she looked at Chris, and figured the woman just wasnt 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 Nathans gentle care. She seemed almost confused by that, as if she werent used to anyone caring for her and couldnt understand why they would. Well, he reckoned he understood that, too.
Dont 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 heres a good man. Hell 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 hed 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 shed 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 dont know... what wouldve happened... Well, that wasnt true. She did know what wouldve happened if that big, mustached man hadnt stopped Wickes, and if the man in black hadnt taken her up on his horse. She knew, because shed seen it happen before. Anyway, Im grateful.
You hush now, an rest, Nathan urged gently, laying a big but gentle hand against the girls forehead and smiling into her eyes. Like I said bfo, youre safe here. Wont 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 couldnt 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 couldnt take care of themselves? The ex-slave thought he knew, and shook his head sadly.
Lord, who all hadnt been there for that boy when hed needed them?
+ + + + + + +
Im not telling you what to do, Mary insisted rather peevishly, infuriated by the man before her. Why couldnt he see what hed done?
Chris leaned against the railing and stared at her from beneath his hat, his green eyes hard and cold. Youre suggestin awful strong, he pointed out, trying to hold his temper in check. Hed seen compassion in Mary Travis before; but he supposed it only extended to folk she considered decent. Clearly a whore, even a hurt one, didnt measure up to her standards.
Look, shes your responsibility--
I brought her here cause she needs lookin after, he reminded her, growing increasingly irritated at her. Maybe if youd bothered to look at the girl, youda seen that, he added silently.
Mary nodded, willing to concede that point. When she gets better, youll 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 womans pale eyes, saw the contempt and utter lack of concern there, and felt his anger grow hotter. Well, thats, uh... Thats 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. Hed been a family man himself once; why couldnt he see what she was saying?
The hurt kind? he asked pointedly, seeing in this woman all hed come to despise about decent folk. Like others of her kind, she just couldnt see the other side, couldnt understand those beneath them, and wouldnt even try. Mary Travis didnt see Nora, didnt see a girl whod 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. Its 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 Chriss 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. Shed 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, Lets go. We got more trouble.
Seeing the storm brewing in Chriss eyes, and knowing who had caused it, he allowed himself a slight, mischievous grin and drawled, Wouldnt be us if we didnt. 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 Larabees ears alone, Oughtta smile more often, cowboy. Its 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 whod 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 wasnt 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 wouldve 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.
Shes 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 cant be moved yet, Nathan told her, but shell be all right.
Lydia heaved a deep sigh of relief, all her fears leaving her in a rush at the certainty behind those words. Im 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 womens 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.
Chriss 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, Well 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 hed meant when hed told Judge Travis hed 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.
Im sorry, he heard Mary say, not a trace of sympathy in her voice, but its 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 couldnt 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 hed had the nasty feeling of a catfight coming on.
Its 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 wasnt the solution hed been waiting for.
Youre the one who picked the fight, Chris reminded him.
Youre the one that carried the girl away, Buck countered.
Chris stared at his friend, remembering all the times hed 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 Chriss 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 hed 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; hed 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 hed seen Lydia, hed felt an immediate surge of dislike. He knew from the way she looked at Chris that she was the one hed spent the day in Wickes Town with, and couldnt help resenting her for it.
Couldnt 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 couldnt understand why. Among the People, such attractions were accepted, even respected. Didnt reflect poorly on a man at all. Hell, one of the most honored warriors hed 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 wouldnt bring nothin but pain. And he figured hed had about enough of that already, without bringing more on himself.
Still, white folks wasnt 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 couldnt love other. He didnt know why, just knew they couldnt. Or could be run outta town or even be killed for doin it.
And hed 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 wasnt even trying to understand these women or their plight, and wasnt wasting the smallest amount of compassion on them. It was hard to believe this was the same woman whod 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 girls 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. Hed seen it before, had grown up seeing it, and was as infuriated by it now as hed ever been. Some of the most truly decent women hed ever known had been working girls...
Im just saying--
If they want to stay, its a free country, Chris said, deciding to step in before Bucks mounting temper got the better of him. Its 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 wasnt 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 Chriss gaze. Got compny, he announced simply, his meaning clear.
As the three men left, Mary sighed. Why couldnt they understand?
Chris wished he had time for a better plan, but knew hed 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 hed ever known, each man a knotted mess of weaknesses and demons, but damn if he didnt 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 didnt 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? Hed 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 hadnt intended that when hed stopped here. Hed 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, hed sure found a way ta make some money, hadnt he? Signed on as a regulator. Him, Vin Tanner, wanted in Texas for murder, a lawman. Well, folksd always said he had a strange sense of humor...
Still, it puzzled him. Why here, why this town, when hed been through so many others and never given em a passin glance? And why these folks, when hed 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 dealins, had given him a job when most others wouldnta looked twice at him. And Miz Potter down at the mercantile... Yeah, she was grateful for his part in bringin in the man whod killed her husband, but there was more to it. Wasnt just gratitude in her eyes when she looked at him, but true kindness. And for a fiddle-footed stray whod 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 wasnt on onea her tears, could smile at him like he was almost human. Least she could when he wasnt 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 didnt have the slightest notion of movin more than five steps from that mans side. Larabee might not know it, but hed gotten himself a second shadow, a second skin, and its name was Vin Tanner. He wanted to live and to die in that mans 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 Wickess 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 didnt scatter, didnt even flinch when the big one stalked up to the bar and slammed a hand onto it.
Were 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, didnt he? Hed seen menace, and this bastard wasnt it. Aint we all? he asked laconically, raising his cup to sip from his coffee.
Irritated by the mans lack of fear, Quint leaned in closer and warned, Youre gonna wanta stay outta the way while we look around.
Vin knew he shouldnt laugh at the mans 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 Ill tell ya right now, the pickins 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. Lets 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 wasnt their trouble, and they shouldnt 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 shes 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 elses skin for a change...
When the men had gone, Chris stepped out into the street, caught Vins 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 thinka other ways ta have more fun, he drawled, winking.
Larabee wished to hell the man wouldnt do that. That wink, and the little smile that went with it, always went straight to his groin. You sure youre 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, aint 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. Theres some things we need ta settle. You comin or not?
Vin shook his head. Reckon not. Again, he gave that little smile. Aint but one person I care ta see stripped down n soakin in a tub, and it aint 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. Ill 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 hed 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. Theyre gone, he called. You can come out now.
Ill 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 youre decent, he ordered. Lord, now Mary had him sayin it!
Lydia laughed lightly, stretching a slender leg invitingly before his eyes. You know I aint 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 its 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 shed do if she knew who truly had a say over him. Its got nothin ta do with her. Next time, itll be Wickes who shows up, and I dont 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 wasnt the only one she was fighting for here, and she needed this man to stand up for all the girls. He wont rest until were back with him, or dead.
He knew that, but wasnt prepared to put an entire town into the line of fire. Well take you ta Ridge City, he offered, figuring he owed her that much at least. Yall 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. Well protect you. If nothin else, hed just unleash Buck on the bastard.
Again, that alluring smile curved about Lydias mouth, and her gaze swept slowly over him in frank appreciation. From what Ive seen, a man like you could protect me just about anywhere, she purred.
Lydia, youre leaving, he said firmly, somewhat amazed by his reaction, or lack thereof, to her. From Vin, those words and that look wouldve 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. Shed been forced to run too many times in her life and was tired of it. I think well 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, youre on your own.
She could have laughed at those words; had he truly believed shed 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 shed 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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 Tanners 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 hed expected. He couldnt 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 wasnt alone anymore.
Vin wasnt entirely sure what had inspired Larabees uncharacteristic gesture, but, whatever it was, he was deeply grateful for it. He didnt think hed ever get enough of Chriss touch, couldnt imagine a time when it wouldnt make his whole body ache for more, just as it did now. Hed learned through hard, painful lessons to shy away from anothers 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 whod 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 didnt 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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