The Decent Thing

by SueN

“Need some way ta throw Wickes off the trail,” Chris mused as they strode down the boardwalk. “Need ta convince him there’s no reason... Will you keep up?” he asked sharply, stopping and turning to wait for Tanner, who’d fallen behind yet again. “Some reason you keep fallin’ behind?”

Vin couldn’t help the devilish grin that appeared at those words. Behind. Oh, hell, yeah, there was definitely a reason.

Chris chuckled softly at the wickedness in that smile and those eyes and shook his head, leaning against a support post. “You are an evil bastard, Tanner,” he laughed, realizing now where Vin’s attention, and eyes, had been.

Vin stepped down into the street and grinned up at Chris. “Can I help it if the view’s better back there?” he asked slyly. “Mebbe y’ oughtta take ta wearin’ that duster again. Less distractin’ thataway.”

Chris tried to scowl, but couldn’t manage it. “You think you can keep your mind on business long enough ta help me come up with a plan?”

Vin squinted and cocked his head thoughtfully. “Well, I reckon the sooner we git shed’a them girls ’n git Wickes off our backs,” he grinned again, “the sooner I kin git you onta yers.”

Chris almost choked, then glanced around quickly to make sure no one had overheard. “Jesus!” he hissed, his eyes glinting with a humor he knew he shouldn’t be feeling. “Think you could say that a little louder?”

“Nah,” he answered easily. “Don’t wanta drum up no competition. I don’t like sharin’, neither.”

“Damn it, Vin, will you think?” Chris growled, certain he should look away from those brilliant blue eyes, but unable to make himself do it.

“Am thinkin’, cowboy,” Tanner rasped, his gaze sweeping over the tall, lean form looming above him. “Thinkin’ long ’n hard.”

“Goddamn it, Tanner--”

“Don’t bust yer vein there, pard,” Vin drawled. “I had a plan five minutes ago.” He winked. “Jist like seein’ ya riled. Yer awful purty when you’re pissed.”

“Then I’m about ta get goddamn beautiful!” Chris growled through clenched teeth, glaring murderously at the grinning tracker. “And you’re about ta get goddamn dead!”

“Aw, hell,” Vin sighed, his smile fading. “No sense’a humor, Larabee, that’s yer trouble.”

“No,” Chris seethed, “my trouble is a long-haired, sorry-assed, blood-boilin’, sonuvabitchin’ Texan who’s about ta make me five hundred dollars richer. Now,” he arched a blond brow, “you might wanta share this plan with me before I fill you full’a holes.”

Vin couldn’t resist. He tried, Lord help him, he tried, but he just couldn’t. “Ain’t got but one hole I want you fillin’, cowboy,” he said, blue eyes wide and innocent.

And Chris very nearly lost it. He choked and sputtered, had to lean against the post to keep from falling, and, for long moments, was torn between shooting Tanner or kissing him. At the last minute, he decided to do neither. Yet.

“We’ll talk about your manners later,” he coughed. “For now, tell me your plan.”

“All right.” Vin cocked one hip and stuck his thumbs into his gunbelt. “All’s we gotta do is kill them girls, ’n Wickes won’t have no more reason ta bother us.”

Chris stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. Which he wasn’t sure was far off the mark. “Kill ’em?” he repeatedly. “Damn, Tanner, whose side are you on?”

Vin heaved a sigh and stared at Chris in exasperation. “Jist hear me out. You said it yerself -- Wickes won’t stop ’til they’re dead. So we gotta make him think they’re dead, have ’em lay low a day or two, then git ’em ta Ridge City ’n that train.”

Chris listened intently, well familiar with the fierce intelligence behind the scruffy exterior and lazy drawl. Many people, he knew, underestimated Vin Tanner, mistook his slow tongue for a slow mind. Chris Larabee knew better.

“All right,” he granted, “sounds good. But how’re we gonna kill ’em? It’s gotta be convincin’, and Wickes’s gotta be able ta see the bodies.”

Vin nodded. “Been thinkin’ on that.” He cocked his head slightly to one side, his hunter’s gaze tightly focused. “He knows they’re here, even though his boys didn’t find ’em. Ain’t no place else fer ’em ta go. So he’s gonna be back. ’N likely he’ll come hisself, ’cause now he knows he cain’t trust his boys ta do the job fer him.” He smirked. “You know how persnickety these boss men c’n git.”

Chris arched a blond brow. “Keep it up, and you’ll see just how ‘persnickety’ this boss man can get,” he warned. “Come on, Tanner, spit it out. I ain’t got all day.”

“See?” Vin sighed, shaking his head. “Persnickety. All right, ’fore ya go reachin’ fer that gun, I’ll tell ya. Though if you was a mite quicker, you might’a figgered it out fer yerself by now.”

“Vin, I swear ta God--”

“Quit yer bitchin’, Larabee, ’n lemme finish. Wickes is gonna come after them girls hisself. So we gotta let him see ’em tryin’ ta git away in that wagon. He’ll recognize it ’n take out after ’em.” He turned and nodded to the road leading out of town. “Bad country out there fer a chase. Lotsa things kin happen. Accidents. Rough country like this could break up a rickety ol’ wagon. Horses kin git loose, wagon could go over a cliff. I seen it happen. Folks don’t usually survive. Bodies scattered ever’where fer all the world ta see.”

Chris stared at the tracker in silence, his mind filling the gaps in that fragmented explanation. “One of us at the reins, figures in the wagon made up ta look like the girls, like we used in the Seminole village. Unhitch the horses at the last minute, send the wagon over the cliff, let Wickes see the ‘bodies’.” He gave a thin smile, his eyes gleaming. “Damn, Tanner, but you’re a devious bastard.”

Vin grinned. “I’ll take that as a compliment, comin’ from you.”

Chris laughed softly, wondering exactly when Tanner had decided he wouldn’t be shot for his insolence. “All right, who gets to drive the ‘ladies’?”

He squinted up at Larabee. “Needs ta be somebody who knows how ta drive over this country goin’ that fast, ’n who kin unhitch them horses ’n stay with ’em. ’N do it all at jist the right time.”

Chris got a chill at that, knowing exactly who Vin was suggesting. “Now, hold on--”

“’S gotta be me, cowboy,” he said softly. “Wickes needs ta see you ’n Buck, or he’s gonna know somethin’s up. JD’s good with horses, but he ain’t got this kind’a experience. ’N I’m bettin’ the others don’t, either.”

“And you do?” Chris asked in a low voice, eyeing Tanner steadily.

Vin shrugged. “Got some. Bounty huntin’ ain’t exactly steady work, sometimes I had ta do other things. One of ’em was ridin’ shotgun on a freight line fer a while. Had ta take the reins a time ’r two when the driver was shot, ’n sometimes that meant actually goin’ down ’n gittin’ the reins when they got dropped.”

Chris looked away and stared down the street. He didn’t like it; didn’t like it one damn bit. What Vin was talking about was dangerous. He’d have to jump down from his seat onto a tongue less than a foot wide while the horses were running at full speed, pull the pin and then jump again to get between the horses. And do all this with the wagon rushing toward the edge of a cliff. Nope, he didn’t like it at all.

“Got no choice, Chris,” Vin said softly, seeing the man’s worry flashing in his eyes. “Ain’t no other way. Wickes’s gotta see them girls die, else he won’t never give up. And won’t nobody be safe ’til he does. Not them girls, not this town. It’s all right,” he added more softly still. “I’ll be all right. I kin do this. Hell, I’m prob’ly the only one who can.”

“Doesn’t mean I have ta like it,” Chris said quietly, fixing a dark green gaze on Vin. “And I don’t. It’s dangerous--”

“You rather risk one’a the other boys, knowin’ they ain’t up to it?” Vin asked pointedly.

Chris bowed his head and closed his eyes, wishing Vin hadn’t put it like that. “You know better than that,” he said softly.

“Then it’s gotta be me.”

Chris sighed and raised his head, pinning Vin with a compelling stare. “You be careful, you hear me?” he ordered in a low, fierce voice, his eyes boring into Tanner’s.

Vin chuckled. “Aw, hell, Chris, you know me--”

“Exactly,” Larabee countered coldly. “Promise me, Vin -- nothin’ stupid, no unnecessary risks. I ain’t ready ta lose anybody else yet.”

Vin’s smile softened, as did his eyes. “Ya won’t lose me, Chris,” he said softly. “Ya cain’t. Spirits put us together, ’n it’d take more’n that bastard Wickes ta pull us apart.”

“I thought that once before,” Chris breathed, the ache of all he’d lost rising hard within him, “and I was wrong. Only takes a minute, Vin, just one minute and it’s all gone. And I just ain’t got any more goodbyes left in me.”

Vin wanted nothing more than to reach out and take Chris in his arms, to hold him until the pain in his eyes disappeared. But he knew he couldn’t, and cursed bitterly all the rules of white folks’ “decency” that kept him from it.

How could it be more decent to let a man hurt than it was to take that hurt away?

+ + + + + + +

Across the street, in the Clarion office, Mary Travis stared through her window at the two men, watching as they talked, her gaze fixed on Chris Larabee. He looked so relaxed, leaning against that post and laughing now and then at something Tanner said, and she found herself envying the intimacy of that scene. Why could he never relax like that with her, smile like that with her? What was it about Tanner that put him so at ease, and what was it about her that put him so on edge?

She thought about Tanner, turned over what little she knew of him in her mind, but could find no reason why he and Chris should be so close. Vin was clearly unused to people, unused to living among them, always looked as if he were one heartbeat away from taking off into the hills. He rarely spoke, and, when he did, revealed a complete lack of education. He had a shy politeness that she had to admit was rather sweet, but he also had a roughness that at times could verge on rudeness.

What could a man like that possibly have in common with Chris Larabee?

Her musings were interrupted by the jingling of the bell above her door, and by the familiar voice that followed. “Don’t mean ta interrupt.”

She turned quickly away from the window, not wanting to be caught staring. She was startled to see Lydia entering the office, dressed in respectable clothes, her face no longer garishly painted, her long hair hanging down her back and properly styled. Mary was confused by the change.

“Uh, no, not at all,” she said hurriedly, stepping away from the window as if to deny she were ever there. “I was just, uh, working.”

Lydia kept her smile to herself. She’d seen the woman, and knew who she’d been watching. Hell, who wouldn’t stare at him? But as she watched Mary, she realized she’d been wrong about her. This woman didn’t have any claim on Chris; she wasn’t the one he’d been thinking about in Wickes Town. Oh, she could see the woman wanted him, but she didn’t have him.

Then who? Because it was clear to Lydia that someone did...

Clearing away those thoughts, she concentrated instead on the woman before her. And, gathering her courage and her pride, she launched into her request for a job.

+ + + + + + +

Chris called it an early evening and went up to his room alone, knowing he’d be spending the night that same way. He’d gathered the others and Vin had explained the plan, then gone out to scout for the most likely route. He’d left Buck, JD and Josiah in charge of gathering clothes from the women and the materials to fabricate passable “passengers” for the wagon, and had charged Ezra with ensuring the women remained out of sight. Now, with the plan taking shape, he had nothing left to do except wait, and count all the ways it could go wrong.

All the ways he could lose Vin.

That was ridiculous, he knew. Vin Tanner had been looking after himself for a long time, and was exceedingly good at it. He wasn’t stupid, wasn’t foolhardy, wasn’t a man to take unnecessary risks. If he said he could do something, there was a very good chance he could.

But still...

Chris stretched out on his bed, leaned back against his stacked pillows and puffed at his cheroot, staring into the tendrils of smoke curling around him and seeing Vin. God, how had the man gotten to him so deeply in so short a time? A matter of weeks...

Liar, Chris chided himself. He had you that first day. Just reached inside, grabbed your heart and made it his own.

Just, please, Vin, he pleaded silently, don’t break it!

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, Chris dispatched Josiah up into the church bell tower to watch for Wickes and took one more walk around town to make sure people were keeping themselves inside and out of any possible danger. Then he went to where Vin waited, unable to stay away.

The tracker was seated on the driver’s box, blowing through his harmonica, and Chris had to smile at the lazy, tuneless sounds. “You ever gonna learn ta play that thing?” he asked.

Vin lowered the harmonica and flashed that crooked grin. “Am playin’ it,” he countered. “Ya jist ain’t got the ears ta hear.”

“You keep stranglin’ that poor thing like that, won’t none of us have ears.” Chris stopped beside the wagon, leaned against it, and looked up at his lover. Vin appeared completely relaxed, as if he’d be going for a ride in the country rather than a mad rush toward a cliff. Then Chris noticed the light of excitement in the blue eyes, and had to shake his head. “You’re lookin’ forward ta this, aren’t you?”

Vin shrugged, but his grin widened. “Aw, hell, cowboy, a man needs some excitement,” he drawled. “This law-dawgin’ kin git almighty dull.”

Again, Chris saw Vin’s true age, his youth, shining in those eyes, and felt a sharp twinge of anxiety. “You just be careful,” he growled. “Don’t take no chances--”

“We been through this already,” Vin reminded him, the youth fading from him, replaced by his familiar ageless calm. “I ain’t stupid. And,” he winked slyly, “I ain’t in no hurry ta leave you. So you jist relax ’n think about what you gotta do. I kin take care’a m’self, y’know.”

“I know,” Chris said quietly, his deep green eyes meeting and holding Vin’s blue ones. “But I want you ta understand that you don’t have to anymore. Your life is my life, Vin, and whatever happens ta you happens ta me, too.”

The smile that curved about Vin’s mouth and lit his eyes was not teasing, had no slyness or wickedness to it, but was one of pure joy. He’d never had anyone say such words to him before, had never imagined he ever would. Yet now, here stood the fearsome and beautiful Chris Larabee, a man who had no reason to give Vin Tanner even a first glance, much less a second one, saying words that filled his soul and gave him life, that gave him a reason to live.

“Ya mean that, don’tcha, cowboy?” he breathed, his gaze riveted to Larabee’s face.

Chris leaned closer to Vin. “I never say things I don’t mean, Tanner,” he said quietly, “especially not ta you.”

Vin opened his mouth to speak, but his words were cut off by the ringing of the alarm bell. He closed his mouth, swallowed hard and nodded once, then held out his arm. “Take care’a yerself, cowboy,” he rasped, his wide blue eyes still fixed to Larabee’s face.

Chris nodded and grasped that arm, his fingers closing hard about Vin’s forearm, and felt the answering grip of Vin’s hand closing tightly about his. For all its warmth and strength, however, the clasping of their arms was as nothing compared to the meeting of their eyes, with the wealth and force of emotion poured through those locked gazes.

Without a word, they broke the clasp at the same time, and Chris turned on his heel and walked away, going to join the others without a backward glance at Vin.

He didn’t need to see the tracker when he could feel him so strongly.

+ + + + + + +

It went off exactly as they’d hoped, with Wickes and his men riding into town in a threatening mass and demanding the return of the girls, then giving furious chase when they saw that wagon tearing away. A few shots were fired, but Wickes didn’t want to take the chance of damaging his “property,” so none came too close. And all the while, as he raced away from town, over the rugged terrain and ever closer to the cliffs, Vin felt hot torrents of exhilaration coursing through him, making his blood sing.

Hell, this was almost as much of a thrill as Chris’s touch!

As the cliffs neared, however, he banished all thoughts of Chris, and the distractions they brought, and concentrated on the work at hand. When he reached the point he’d marked in his mind, he jumped down from the box and landed on the tongue, thankful now for that year he’d spent haulin’ freight.

Jist never knew what’d come in handy in this life...

Keeping careful track of the wagon’s location in relation to the cliffs, he knelt down and, when another landmark was passed, pulled out the pin that joined the horses in their traces to the wagon itself. When he felt the separation begin, he leapt between the horses and hung on for dear life, watching in satisfaction as the wagon rolled helplessly forward and went sailing over the edge of the cliff.

Chris, too, watched, though with more terror than satisfaction. Again, every hideous possibility he’d come up with last night flew through his mind. What if Vin hadn’t gotten off the wagon? What if he had, but fell between the horses? What if Wickes saw him and guessed what was happening? What if... what if... what if...

So the anger he felt when his men and Wickes’s convened at the cliff and looked down wasn’t totally feigned. The bastard had brought all of them to this, had forced him to risk Vin’s life. Frantically, he searched the “bodies” at the foot of the cliff, knowing he’d kill Wickes if he saw Vin’s.

“Do you have any idea how much this cost me?” Wickes asked furiously, staring down at the remains of his “property.”

“Go to hell,” Buck spat, his anger not entirely play-acted, either.

Chris saw no trace of Vin below, and felt a fierce surge of relief. Still, furious at the man for his callousness, knowing Wickes saw nothing below but lost money, he turned and fixed a thin, feral grin on the man, his green eyes as cold as ice. “Mister,” he said in a low, deadly voice, “you better git before I do something you’ll regret.”

Wickes sneered at the gunman who’d cost him so much. “I’d be glad ta put a bullet through you, but I wouldn’t waste decent metal on a bunch of whores.” He tipped his hat mockingly, then turned and rode off, followed by his men.

“How’d we do?” Buck asked, pulling away from Josiah’s “restraining” grip. A broad, bright grin spread over his face as he watched Wickes ride away, and the others joined in relieved laughter. “We tricked ’em.”

They heard the jingle of tack, and Chris’s heart nearly leapt from his chest as he whirled to see Vin approaching them with the horses, a huge smile wreathing his face.

“Boys, this job gits better ev’ry day!” he called, his face still flushed with fierce pleasure, his blue eyes filled with light and laughter.

“Good ridin’, cowboy,” Nathan teased, getting another laugh from the men.

Vin walked over to the cliff and stared down, shaking his head at the sight of the “bodies” scattered below. “Poor li’l darlin’s,” he mused. “Don’t know what Buck’s gonna do fer entertainment now.”

Buck came over to stand beside him and pulled a long, mournful frown. “Well,” he sighed, his blue eyes filled with mischief, “guess I’m gonna have ta go back, lock myself in my room and find me some, uh, ‘consolation.’” He glanced up and Chris and wagged his dark brows suggestively. “Could be a long, long grievin’ period.”

Vin snickered, and Chris glared at the two of them, though his heart felt light. In those two maddening idiots, he saw so much of his life -- all the joys and pains of his past, and all the peace and promise of his future -- and wondered if they had any idea at all just how much they meant to him. How much they’d given him. He’d thought a lot lately about the various “coincidences” that had brought Vin into his life, but hadn’t given much to the ones that had restored Buck to him. He suspected, though, that the same hand that given him Vin had given him back Buck, as well.

Thank you, Sarah, his heart whispered.


When they returned to town, Nathan went to his clinic to check on Nora, while Josiah went back to his never-ending work on the dilapidated church that had become his obsession. And Buck quickly found his plans to “lay low” with one or two of the girls overturned when Ezra decided the women required still more schooling in decorum, and drafted Wilmington to help. Nathan threw the gambler a disgusted look before leaving.

Unlike the others, however, Chris did not relax, could not stop thinking about Wickes. In silence he tended to Pony, then left the livery and headed for the saloon. Vin watched him leave, then untacked and brushed down Peso, rapping his knuckles sharply across the blazed nose when he narrowly avoided being bitten, then silently followed Larabee.

“Somethin’ on yer mind?” he asked softly, leaning on the bar next to Chris.

Larabee stared into his whiskey and frowned slightly. “Wickes gave up awful easy,” he murmured.

Vin shrugged. “Hard t’ argue with a mess’a bodies at the foot of a cliff. Don’t leave much room fer doubt.” He watched Chris in the mirror, studying the purse of the full lips, the thoughtful narrowing of the green eyes, and sighed. “You want somebody ta go take a look around his place? Make sure he bought it?”

“I don’t know,” Chris sighed, raising a hand to rub his eyes tiredly. “He prob’ly posts guards ta keep any of the girls from slippin’ away--”

“Hunh!” Vin snorted derisively, already warming to the challenge. “Guards ain’t no problem. I’ll wait’ll it’s dark. Place like that’s bound ta have a lotta noise, folks slippin’ all around.” He shrugged lightly. “One more won’t make no never mind.”

“No,” Chris said in a low voice, unable to keep down his protective urge toward this young man. “It’s too risky. If he sees you--”

“Won’t see me, won’t hear me, won’t ever know I’s there,” Vin said with a quiet confidence.


“Listen ta me, cowboy,” Tanner urged softly, turning to face Chris and slouching indolently against the bar. “I kin do this. Hell, I have done this. And I’s trained in it by the best.” He grinned slightly. “You ever heard of a buncha folks called ‘Comanches’?”

Chris shot him a startled glance, wondering exactly what all there was to learn about this seemingly simple man. “Seems I’ve heard a thing or two,” he said cautiously, studying Tanner intently. Vin suddenly wondered what Chris would think of him if he knew his past, if it would change anything. He’d learned the hard way that most white folks didn’t take kindly to those who’d lived with Indians, who’d lived as an Indian. He prayed Chris was as different from most folks in this respect as he was in so many others.

Making his decision, he nodded once and said simply, “I lived with ’em a while. Learned a few things from ’em.” His blue eyes held steady on Chris’s face, watching for even the smallest sign of disgust or contempt. “I kin count coup ’n steal horses with the best of ’em. Done it more’n once.”

Far from being disgusted, Chris was deeply intrigued, and stared at the young Texan through new eyes. He thought again of the way Vin moved, with that silence and economy of emotion, and the way he tracked, knowing instinctively when the smallest thing was out of place, as well as his respect -- no, his reverence -- for the land and all upon it... It all fit.

A slow, mischievous grin tugged at his wide mouth and warmth kindled in his eyes. “That mean there’s a chance I’ll get ta see you in buckskins, beads and feathers?” he asked in a low, husky voice.

Vin licked his lips helplessly, his gaze falling to that beautiful mouth and watching as the lower lip pursed in that enticing way that never failed to make him want to seize upon it with his own lips. “M... mebbe so,” he whispered unsteadily, swallowing hard as he fought to keep his sudden hunger under tight rein. “If’n ya ask... real nice...”

Chris’s smile deepened and his eyes darkened. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll find a way,” he breathed, clenching his hand tightly to keep it from straying to Vin’s hair. “I’ll have ta give it some thought.”

Vin nodded weakly, his heart hammering in his chest. “You do that, cowboy,” he rasped, his voice hoarser than usual. “Reckon I... better git me somethin’ ta eat ’fore I go, mebbe take a walk.” He gave a strained smile. “Need some air, all of a sudden.”

“You watch yourself tonight,” Chris said firmly, pulling himself from images of Vin in Indian garb. “No countin’ coup, y’hear me?”

Vin’s grin turned cocky, and he tilted his head to one side. “Need any horses?”


Vin sighed heavily and shook his head, frowning sorrowfully. “I swear, Larabee, you growl more’n any grizzly I ever knowed. All right,” he raised his right hand and intoned solemnly, “I swear on my honor as a Tanner, I won’t count no coup, lift no scalps nor steal no horses. Won’t do nothin’ ’cept slip in ’n slip back out, meek as a mouse ’n silent as a shadow.” He dropped his hand and stuck his thumb in his gunbelt, staring patiently at Chris. “Will that do?”

“You know I’m gonna have ta shoot ya one day, don’t ya?” Chris seethed. “You’re just too goddamn cocky for yer own good.”

Vin’s smile turned wicked. “You do that,” he teased, “’n you won’t never see how purty I am in my buckskins, beads ’n feathers.”

Chris nearly choked. “Go!” he ordered hoarsely, his green eyes burning in his suddenly flushed face. “Git, now, before I really do shoot yer sorry ass!”

Vin chuckled and nodded, then turned and sauntered away, feeling mighty pleased with himself. Chris watched his departing figure in the mirror, then hurriedly poured himself another drink and slammed it down.

Nope, he’d been wrong. Wasn’t nothin’ sorry about Tanner’s ass at all.

+ + + + + + +

Buck walked back to the saloon with heavy steps, his blue eyes empty of their usual twinkle. He went inside, saw Chris at his usual table, and dropped into a chair across from him, waving for a glass.

Chris frowned at his friend, worried at seeing him so subdued. “Somethin’ wrong?”

Buck sighed and raised a hand to stroke his mustache in a habitual gesture of unease. “Just came from the church. Ezra and Nathan had another run-in.” He nodded his thanks as the bartender set a glass and a fresh bottle on the table. “I swear, puttin’ them two together is like puttin’ a match ta tender.”

Chris raised his glass and sipped from his whiskey. He trusted Buck’s instincts where people were concerned, knew the man had a knack for reading others that had saved the both of them many times. So he was content to listen to the big man now.

“Well, Ezra can wear on a man,” he suggested quietly, watching Wilmington intently.

Buck snorted and shook his head. “Aw, hell, Chris, you know as well as I do there’s no real harm in him. Well,” he grinned and winked, “not unless you’re carryin’ a fat wad of cash. I know,” he sighed, the grin fading, “the man’s slicker’n oil and more crooked than a sidewinder, but there’s more to him than that. It just needs a little bringin’ out, is all.”

Chris nodded; he’d come to the same conclusion himself, but it was good to have Buck confirm it. “And Nathan?”

Buck sighed again, his eyes growing sad. “That man’s got more scars on his soul than he does on his back,” he murmured. “I can’t imagine what all he’s suffered in his life, and I don’t even wanta try. He’s got ever’ right and reason in the world ta be a hard, cold, bitter man, but he ain’t.” He winced. “’Cept where Ezra’s concerned. Seems ta hold Standish responsible for all the sins of the South, and Ezra don’t do much to discourage that attitude. But,” he leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table, “it bothers him. He won’t never admit it, but sometimes, if you look close, you can see it. He ain’t the man Nathan’s determined ta make him out ta be.”

Chris frowned and toyed absently with his glass. “They’re gonna have ta work it out for themselves,” he said in a low voice. “Hell, we’ve all got some adjustments ta make. We all got rough edges that’re gonna rub each other raw sometimes.” He gave a thin smile. “Ain’t one of us fit for polite society. ’Cept maybe JD, but I’m sure you’ll take care of that.”

Buck laughed and winked. “I’m surely tryin’, pard!”

“Yeah, I saw that at Wickes Town,” Chris said dryly. “Nice ta see ya takin’ an interest in the boy’s education.”

“Well, shit, somebody had to!” Buck defended himself. “Ain’t no excuse for a boy reachin’ that age without ever havin’ had a woman.” He shuddered dramatically. “It just ain’t natural!”

“Well, stud, not everbody’s born with your, uh, natural talents. Cut the boy some slack.” He winked. “He seems like a fast learner.”

Buck laughed again, not so much at Chris’s words, but just in simple delight at seeing his old friend’s wicked humor again. He’d almost forgotten this Chris, had almost forgotten that sly smile and th

mischievous glint in the green eyes. Most of all, he’d almost forgotten, and only now realized how sorely he’d missed, just sitting with the man and basking in the warmth of their friendship.

“So,” Chris said, feeling that same warmth, “tell me how you see the rest of ’em, the rest of us, shapin’ up. How you think this thing’s workin’ so far.”

Buck slouched easily in his chair and sipped at his whiskey, thinking. “They’re all good men, Chris,” he said at last, “ever’ one ’em. And ever’ one of ’em’s as fucked up as you and me. JD wants ta be a gunfighter so bad he can taste it, but he ain’t got the slightest idea what that really means. He ain’t a killer, and we all know it. But he’s a tough little bastard, and sharp as a tack. We keep him alive long enough ’n we’ll have us a real good man on our hands.”

He frowned, thought a moment more, and went on. “Josiah... Hell, I don’t even wanta think about what all he’s carryin’ on his soul! But, I gotta tell ya, havin’ him around surely eases mine. Man’s smarter’n the rest of us put together, and he’s a helluva good man ta have in a fight. I told ya already ’bout Ezra and Nathan. I like ’em both, but I ain’t ever gonna get between ’em when they tangle, ’cause I seen what Nathan can do with them knives and what Ezra can do with that little hide-out gun.”

Chris waited a few moments, then said softly, “You left out one.”

Buck knew he had, and had done it on purpose. “’Cause I ain’t quite got that one figgered out yet,” he admitted, finishing his whiskey to disguise his unease. He had tried, was trying still, to get a handle on the man, but Tanner didn’t exactly make that easy. He was about as easy to pin down as smoke.

He was acutely conscious of Chris’s intense green stare on him, which only added to his uncertainty. Buck was no fool. He’d seen something between Larabee and Tanner, and while he still wasn’t exactly sure what it was, he did know it was more than friendship. Considerably more. As far as Wilmington knew, Chris had never gone for men, but he was the first to admit there were still things he was discovering about his old friend that surprised the hell out of him. And, Lord knew, the man seemed to take a powerful comfort in Vin’s presence.

As for Tanner... The man didn’t give much away, Buck would grant him that, but every now and then those blue eyes would light on Chris, and, just for a moment, the longing in them would be enough to take anyone’s breath away. Buck Wilmington was no innocent, wasn’t sure he’d ever been innocent, but the strange bond between Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner was not something he cared to look at too closely. Not until he figured out how he’d feel about knowing the truth.

“All right,” he sighed at last, knowing Chris was determined to have an answer, “Vin. The man’s a damn shadow, slippin’ around on them silent feet, hardly ever speakin’, but takin’ in ever’thing with them eyes.” He leaned forward on the table, frowning in thought. “He ain’t old, but he is. Seen too much, I reckon. Hell, likely done too much. Under that calm, quiet surface, I’m bettin’ there’s somethin’ wild, savage, that don’t none of us ever wanta see let loose. More’n likely that boy could cut out yer heart or slit yer throat and never flinch. He’s prob’ly the worst damn enemy a man could make. And,” he lifted his gaze to Chris and nodded slightly, “prob’ly the best damn friend. But you know that already.”

Chris stiffened slightly and narrowed his eyes. “What’s that supposed ta mean?”

Buck shrugged and poured himself another glass of whiskey. “I’ve seen the two’a you together, Chris. You trust him like I’ve never known you ta trust anybody else. It’s like you two’ve known each other all your lives, instead of a few weeks... Sometimes,” he added carefully, knowing he was walking a very fine line, “when you two’re together, it’s like the rest of us ain’t even here. And the way y’all talk without ever sayin’ a damn thing can get downright spooky.” He raised his glass to his lips, chanced a glance at Chris, and downed the whiskey in a swallow. “I’ve only ever seen you that comfortable with one other person, pard,” he said gently. “I just hope it don’t come ta no good.”

Chris swallowed, realizing yet again how very little escaped Buck Wilmington. “Look, Buck...”

“Don’t,” the big man said, holding up a hand. “It ain’t none’a my business. Yet. And I’m hopin’ it stays that way. Just... be careful,” he cautioned. “Don’t take much ta get folks riled. You’ve seen that with Mary. ‘Decent’ don’t always mean ‘understandin’.’ I saw that all the time I was growin’ up. They’ll accept you killin’ a man, but they won’t accept you havin’ feelin’s for one.” He rose to his feet and nodded at Chris. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I b’lieve I’ll go rescue some’a them fair damsels from Ezra’s ‘tutorin’.’” He winked. “Give ’em some of ol’ Buck’s lessons instead.”

“Just keep ’em outta sight,” Chris warned. “Don’t want any of Wickes’s men seein’ ’em.”

“Oh, don’t worry, ol’ pard,” Buck snickered, rising to his feet, “we’ll be layin’ real low.”

Chris watched him leave, and fought a sudden surge of envy. Buck was free to pursue his pleasures without any fear of the town’s reaction. Why couldn’t he and Vin be that free as well?

+ + + + + + +

Vin stepped into the saloon, made a quick search for Chris and, when he didn’t see him, went to the bar. “Keep, one gutwarmer,” he drawled, tired and thirsty after his evening’s work. He’d waited for dark to fall, then made his way silently through Wickes Town, disgusted by what he’d seen. Wickes had been “breaking in” some new girls, and Tanner’s blood had boiled at the man’s blatant cruelty.

But he’d promised Chris he wouldn’t take any scalps...

The bartender set the glass down and Vin nodded his thanks, then lifted the whiskey to drink. Before it reached his lips, however, a flicker of movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he searched the mirror for its source, seeing Lydia.

She saw him at the same moment and said, “Don’t worry, I’m not workin’.”

He turned to face her, leaning on the bar. “It don’t matter ta me,” he said in a neutral tone, still not sure how he felt about her. Rationally, he knew she was no threat to him with Chris; Larabee had made that clear. But she was interested in the man, and was a professional at showing that interest. Whatever his head told him, his heart saw her as competition, and very experienced competition, at that.

Still, he couldn’t help sympathizing with her plight. She couldn’t go back to Wickes, that much was plain. Competition or not, he wouldn’t wish a life under that pig on anybody. And he knew -- Lord God, how he knew -- what it was like to be on the run, to be on guard every waking moment, to live with one eye fixed over your shoulder. It wore on a body, on a soul, and it was one more thing he couldn’t wish on even the competition.

She got up and went to him, suddenly tired of being alone. Larabee had lost interest in her, and the constant company of the other women was beginning to grate on her. But this man was young, he was handsome, he was different than anyone else she’d seen in this town. And while he wasn’t exactly falling over himself to be sociable, at least he wasn’t judging her, either.

And that was always welcome.

She smiled slightly, not trying to seduce, just wanting to talk. “I really appreciate your help this morning. And we agreed amongst ourselves we will obey your rules while we’re here.”

He narrowed his eyes slightly. “Shouldn’t you be layin’ low?” he asked, knowing the others were doing exactly that and worried that she wasn’t showing the same sense. “Somebody could reco’nize you and tell Wickes.”

Irritation flared within her at his words. God, couldn’t anybody understand how tired of “layin’ low” she was? How tired of not being able to live her own life she was? “Your friend Larabee send you here to say that?” she sniped, remembering the closeness she’d sensed in the two men.

He regarded her coolly, his blue eyes hardening slightly, not sure exactly how she’d meant the words, but knowing an insult when he heard one. “I look like a messenger boy?”

She had to admit that he didn’t. Hell, he didn’t look like the kind to jump at anybody’s summons, to do anybody’s bidding but his own. And she envied that. “Sorry,” she murmured, her contrition real. “Mr. Larabee ain’t as friendly as he usually is.”

Her words gave a sharp lift to his heart, though he knew that was probably wrong. But, still, he wasn’t any better at sharing than Chris. “Maybe he don’t wanta git caught ’tween you ’n the town,” he said, knowing no reason would be a good one to someone who wanted Chris and couldn’t have him.

“You mean ’tween me and Mrs. Travis,” she said bitterly.

Vin turned back to the bar at that, still not certain how he felt about that potential threat, either. There was much to admire in the woman -- her brains, her spirit, her courage -- but there was much not to admire, as well, such as her tendency to judge people she couldn’t begin to understand.

And her hunger for a certain long, tall, black-wearin’ gunfighter who belonged to Vin Tanner.

“Anyway,” Lydia sighed, missing his reaction to the other woman’s name, “I’m tired of makin’ decisions dependin’ on what other people want. I’m gonna go check on Nora.” She smiled at him and walked away, her head held high.

He looked over his shoulder to watch her, and smiled slightly. Hell, he could understand how she felt. He was tired of not being able to go to Chris any time he wanted, not being able to touch him, to kiss him, to say all the things to him he wanted when he wanted, all because of other people’s rules.

He raised his glass and downed his whiskey in one swallow, then signalled for another.

He’d had about all the decency he could take.


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