Vin and Buck fell in behind Ezra as he crossed the street. The gambler approached a shop with a sign which read, "Percival J. Sweetser, Photographer." Ezra opened the door and gestured for his companions to precede him. A beaming, impeccably dressed man came forward to meet them. "Good afternoon! May I be of service?"
Ezra draped an arm around Vin's shoulders. "Our friend here wishes to have his photograph made."
"Ez, I ain't sure.... "
The photographer cut Vin off.
"Oh, very good!"
"Ez, I don't know if I can afford this," Vin whispered.
"What do you charge for your photographs, sir?" Ezra asked.
"I have a price list here." The photographer pulled a sheet of paper from a desk and handed it to Ezra. "It depends upon the size of the photograph and the choice of frame."
Vin read the price list, with Buck peering over his shoulder. "Looks like the only thing I afford on this list is a frame without a picture."
"I will loan you the money, Vin," Ezra offered.
Vin reacted with suspicion. "How much interest you plannin' on chargin'?"
The gambler's green eyes reflected a battle between greed and magnanimity.
"Ezra," Buck growled.
Ezra gave in with a small sigh of regret. "There will be no interest. You can pay me back when you have the funds." He gave the price list back to the photographer. "We will have the largest size photograph." He looked at Vin for confirmation and Vin nodded.
"With a wood frame," Vin added.
"Excellent." The photographer indicated a wall covered with photographs. "Perhaps you would care to examine these examples of my work."
Vin looked at the display of unsmiling subjects, all of whom appeared stiff and uncomfortable in their Sunday best. "Most of 'em look like they been laid out by an undertaker."
The photographer's smile was forced. "How droll, Mr., uh.... "
"Mr. Tanner, I will be delighted to photograph you once you are properly attired."
Vin frowned at him. "What d'ya mean?"
"You will, of course, wish to be photographed in your best clothes."
Vin looked down at his red plaid shirt and brown pants. "These are m'best clothes. Leastways, they're as good as I got."
The photographer rolled his eyes. "I see. I can solve the problem, however. I keep a small number of shirts, ties and coats on hand for, uh, gentlemen like yourself who lack the proper clothing."
A rebellious expression appeared on Vin's face. "I'm wearin' m'own clothes or else I ain't doin' this."
The photographer sighed deeply and assumed a patronizing air. "Young man, you aren't dressed properly for a formal photograph."
Buck stepped forward and got into the photographer's face. "Mister, you take this boy's picture however he wants it took. That's what you're bein' paid for."
"There's no need for unpleasantness," the photographer huffed. "I will do as you insist."
"That's better," Buck said. "Now let's get on with it."
"Very well. Do you wish this photograph to be full length, or from the waist up or from the shoulders up?"
"Don't matter none ta me," Vin muttered.
Buck and Ezra looked at each other. "From the shoulders up?" Ezra suggested. Buck shrugged. "From the shoulders up," Ezra instructed.
"As you wish." The photographer showed Vin to a chair placed in front of a white backdrop. "Please be seated, Mr. Tanner. I think that you should remove your hat and your jacket."
"I ain't takin' off my jacket."
"You could take off the hat," Ezra suggested. After a moment's hesitation, Vin handed Ezra his hat. With the hat removed, the photographer fluttered over Vin and attempted to smooth his hair into place.
Vin dodged away from him. "What d'ya think yer doin'?"
"Leave him be," Buck ordered. "He looks purty enough as it is. You ought to smile, though, Vin."
"Don't feel like smilin'."
"Come on, Vin. This is for your father," Ezra cajoled.
Vin thought it over. "Well, I reckon I could manage a smile fer him."
"If you're ready, young man," the photographer said, "then so am I."
"Ready," Vin replied. He smiled shyly at the camera, and the picture was made.
+ + + + + + +
That night, the four regulators investigated El Paso's saloons. As they sauntered along a side street, one of the town's prostitutes emerged from an alley and latched onto Ezra's arm. "Come with me, senor," she wheedled. "I am the best puta in El Paso." Ezra wasn't tempted. The woman looked hard and shopworn, and her musky perfume was overwhelming.
"I think not, senorita," Ezra said, brushing her aside.
"Cabron!" she hissed. "Seguro quetas cojones son como cachuetes!"
"What'd she say, Ez?" Vin asked, as they continued down the street.
"She called me a bastard and implied that my cojones are the size of peanuts." Ezra seemed amused, rather than offended.
"How do you suppose she knew about that?" Buck joked.
"She cut you down to size, Ezra?" Chris added slyly.
Ezra was unperturbed. "I will attribute your insinuations to nothing more than envy."
The foursome stopped in front of Diamond Lil's saloon. A sign beside the door proclaimed, "Can-can girls from Paris."
Vin carefully read each word. "Y'all reckon they're really from Paris?"
"Doubt it," Chris answered.
Buck stroked his chin and smiled. "Who cares? They're dancing girls. I just wanta look at 'em."
The foursome had to push their way through the men crowded inside in order to get close to the stage. One member of the audience took exception to losing his place in the front row. The man glowered at Vin. "You got no right to get in front of me."
Ezra attempted to smooth things over. "Sir, we have not seen the show before. We are strangers in town."
"Who gives a damn!" the man growled.
"The city fathers would not be pleased with your inhospitable behavior," Ezra lectured.
"The hell you say!"
Vin elbowed the gambler in the ribs. "Ez, yer makin' him madder." Just then, the piano player positioned next to the stage struck up a lively tune. The can-can girls danced out onto the stage, amid foot stomping, cheers and whistles. The regulators watched the performance enthusiastically, relishing the display of shapely legs and female undergarments.
"Too bad JD ain't here," Buck said to Chris, raising his voice to be heard above the music and crowd noise. "Think we'll ever get anything like this in Four Corners?"
"I'll suggest it to Mrs. Travis," Chris replied dryly.
Vin's blue eyes were wide, reflecting fascination mingled with embarrassment. Ezra leaned in closer in order to be heard. "Quite an improvement over buffalo hunting, wouldn't you say, Mr. Tanner?"
"Gotta agree with ya, Ezra," Vin admitted, not taking his eyes off of the stage. Ezra was amused by the unsophisticated tracker's bashful enjoyment and smiled at him, his gold tooth gleaming.
+ + + + + + +
The return trip to Four Corners was uneventful for the regulators, and the dry weather allowed them to make good time. As they neared Purgatorio, Chris slowed his horse, and the others did likewise. Chris turned in his saddle to look at Vin. "It'll be dark soon. I want you and Ezra to make camp here for the night. Buck and me are going into Purgatorio. We should be back around midnight."
"Is this excursion for business or pleasure?" Ezra asked.
"I see no reason why Mr. Tanner and I cannot accompany you and Mr. Wilmington."
Chris was firm. "Purgatorio's not a safe place for Vin to be seen. You can stay here and keep him company."
Chris and Buck kept a wary eye on Purgatorio's inhabitants as they rode down the dusty town's main street. Night was coming on, and all of the adobe cantinas lining the street were springing to life. They halted in front of the town's busiest cantina, dismounted and hitched their horses to the railing. Before going inside, Buck removed his coat and Chris his poncho, ensuring that their guns would be in full view of anyone who wanted to take their measure. As they entered the cantina, their eyes swept the smoke filled room. The customers were a rough looking mixture of Anglos and Mexicans. Working girls circulated among the men, trying to drum up business. Two of the women noticed the lawmen and started towards them. Chris gave Buck a reminder. "Don't forget. Part of the reason we're in Purgatorio is to find out if any of the Harper gang has been hanging out here."
"I'll get around to that," Buck assured him.
One of the women indicated an interest in Chris, but he shook his head, and both women turned their attention to Buck. Chris walked over to the bar and signaled the bartender. "Cerveza," he ordered. He drank his beer and glanced towards the stairway at the end of the bar. Maria stood at the top of the stairs and their eyes met. He smiled at Maria and raised his glass to her. He turned back to nursing his drink, while Maria came on down. He caught the scent of her perfume, as she glided up behind him. Chris's butt, tightly squeezed into black pants, made an enticing target. A mischievous Maria couldn't resist giving him a teasing pinch.
"Cristobal! It has been too long." Her voice was husky and seductive.
"Yep, it has."
Maria leaned back against the bar. "What brings you to Purgatorio?"
"I'm looking for some men. Have you heard of any members of the Harper gang being in town recently? Four of them got caught, but the rest are still on the loose."
"I have not heard anything, but all wanted men come to Purgatorio sooner or later."
Chris finished his drink. "Get word to me if you hear anything. There's reward money out on all of them."
"I will let you know."
"You free for the evening?"
"Si." She laughed a throaty laugh. "I have been waiting for you, Cristobal. Come upstairs with me, and I will prove how much I have missed you."
+ + + + + + +
Maria propped herself on one elbow and gazed admiringly at the handsome gunslinger who lay next to her. Sated, he had fallen asleep with his back turned to her. The light from a candle cast a glow over his body, illuminating the sparse hairs on his otherwise smooth chest and the thicker blond hair on his long legs. His well endowed, leanly muscled body reminded her of a nude statue that she had once seen. Maria was largely indifferent to the men who paid for her services, but she had acquired a degree of fondness for Chris Larabee. It had been an unexpected development. The first time that he had come to her, drunk and rambling about his murdered wife and son, she had merely tolerated his presence. In his subsequent visits, he had grown on her. She ruffled the blond hair on the back of his head, and he stirred slightly. With a feather light touch, she traced a finger down his spine and between his perfectly shaped cheeks. Her touch awoke him, and he turned over on his back. Maria circled his nipples and navel and stroked his flat abdomen. When she would have gone lower, Chris grabbed her hand. "Give me a little time, Maria. I'm not eighteen anymore."
"Perhaps you stay the night?"
"No, but we still have plenty of time left." He got up and fumbled through his clothes, which had been dropped on the floor. He found a cigar, lit it from the candle on the night table and walked over to the window facing the street. He stood with his back to her. "You speak pretty good English, Maria. Where'd you learn it?"
Maria pulled the sheet up over her breasts. "I learn after I come to Purgatorio."
Chris was blunt. "Why'd you start whorin'?"
"You want the story of my life, Cristobal?"
Chris turned back to face her. "Why not? You know mine, or part of it anyway."
She shrugged. "Then I will tell you part of mine. I come from a small village south of here. I have many brothers and sisters. We were very poor, and there was never enough to eat. I do not want to marry a poor man and have babies every year like mi madre, and I do not want to always be a servant, so I leave home when I am seventeen. I catch a ride with a man who brings me to Purgatorio. I go to work in a cantina serving drinks to Anglos. From them, I learn English. There is more money in being a puta, so I stop serving drinks and start pleasuring men. I know many ways to pleasure men, Cristobal. Come back to my bed and I will show you."
Chris tossed his cigar out of the open window and returned to Maria.
+ + + + + + +
When the lawmen arrived back in Four Corners, Chris, Buck and Ezra headed for the bathhouse to get cleaned up from their ride. Vin, who was unconcerned about the coating of trail dust on his clothes and the stubble on his face, went instead to his wagon. After making certain that nothing was missing, Vin started for the saloon.
Mary Travis emerged from her newspaper office and intercepted him. "Good afternoon, Vin!" she greeted him. "I'm happy to see that you're back."
"Mary!" Vin touched the brim of his hat.
"Your father's back, too, and he's anxious to see you. He's staying at the Gem again."
"Thanks fer tellin' me. Reckon I'll go over there right now. See ya later, Mary."
Vin started to turn away, but Mary touched his arm. "Vin, is everyone all right? I mean the others who went with you to El Paso."
Why don't Mary just come out an' say what's on her mind?
Vin gave her a knowing smile, and she blushed slightly. "Chris is fine, Mary, an' so is everybody else."
Mary regained her poise. "I'm glad that everyone got back safely."
"Yes, ma'am. Me, too." Vin again touched his hat brim and immediately went over to the Gem. He obtained his father's room number, went upstairs and knocked on the door.
Matt Tanner opened the door, and his handsome face lit up with welcome. "Vin! Come in, son." He pulled Vin into the room, and Vin allowed himself to be hugged. Such displays of affection still felt strange. "Boy, it seems like a month of Sundays since I've seen you. I've got some news for you."
"About clearin' my name?"
Matt shook his head regretfully. "No, Vin... not yet."
The disappointment was evident on Vin's face. Matt put his arm around Vin's shoulders and gave him a reassuring squeeze. "I have some old friends who're still in the Rangers. They're trying to track down anybody who can testify that Eli Joe framed you, but these things take time."
Vin was still downcast. "I know. Ought not ta git my hopes up."
Matt deliberately changed the subject. "JD told me that you and some of the boys had to take a bunch of outlaws to El Paso. Did you have any trouble?"
"Chris had ta kill one of 'em, but that was about it."
"I was a little worried about you."
"Ain't used ta havin' anybody worry about me."
"I know, but that's changed now. Speakin' of changes... I sold my ranch in Texas, and I've bought one here. Why don't we find something to eat and get caught up on things. You hungry?"
"Starvin'. Let's go." Vin started for the door.
"Wait a minute, boy. You can't go like this."
Vin's blue eyes reflected his puzzlement. "Why not?"
Matt slapped at the hem of Vin's jacket, and a cloud of dust arose. "Vin, there's enough dirt in your clothes to grow a crop, and that stubble on your face makes you look like a saddle tramp."
"There's plenty a' times I been out ta eat lookin' like this."
"That may be, but I want you to get cleaned up."
Vin's tone was plaintive. "But I'm hungry, and I don't see why I gotta.... "
"Don't sass your old man." Matt grinned and gave Vin a swat on the rump. "Go get a bath and a shave and put on some clean clothes. Then we'll go eat."
With a heavy sigh, Vin gave up the argument. "Yes, Pa."
The next morning, Vin and his father rode out to look over Matt's new spread. Matt had described the ranch as being of average size, with rich grazing land and ample water, but had kept Vin guessing as to the location. "We're goin' out towards Miz Nettie's," Vin said as they rode along. "I didn't know there was any land out this way fer sale. Guy Royal owns everythin' around here 'cept fer a few homesteaders like Nettie."
"I might as well tell you. I bought the Lambert place."
Vin's eyes widened in astonishment. "Accordin' ta Nettie, Royal and a feller named Stuart James both been after that property fer years, but the Lamberts never would sell."
"That's what I heard at the bank. When I came back to town, I told the bank manager that I was interested in buying some ranch land. He told me about the Lambert property and said that Mrs. Lambert was having a hard time running the ranch since her husband died. I came out and talked to Mrs. Lambert and looked the place over. I knew right away that I wanted it and made her an offer. She thought it over and accepted. She shipped her furniture back east, and she left on the stage right after. I should be able to run about five thousand head of cattle on it once the herd gets built up." Vin and Matt arrived at the house and dismounted.
Vin stared at the blackened ruin of what once had been the Lamberts' barn. "When did the barn burn?"
"A few days before Mrs. Lambert decided to sell. I think losing the barn was the last straw."
"Me 'n' the boys can rebuild the barn." Vin tied Peso to the hitching post and took a better look at the house. The two story house was plain, but solidly built. It had an exterior of weathered cedar and a porch that wrapped around the sides of the house.
Matt opened the front door. "The house ain't all that big, but it's big enough for me."
"It's about the size of Nettie's house," Vin commented. The front room ran the length of the house and had a built in cupboard for dishes at one end and a stone fireplace at the other end. A small parlor and a kitchen opened off of the front room. The whitewashed walls presented a contrast with the dark oak floors. Heavy, overhead beams hung from the ceiling.
"There are three bedrooms upstairs," Matt said, leading the way up a straight, unembellished staircase. "I'm going to get some horses when I have a barn to put them in. Then I'll get my herd started. Mrs. Lambert sold off all of her cattle, except for about a dozen cows and calves and one bull. Somebody killed the bull a couple of weeks ago. Shot him."
"Sounds like somethin' that Royal would've done."
"That's what Mrs. Lambert thought. She felt that he was responsible for the fire, too." The second floor contained one large bedroom and two smaller rooms.
Vin looked in the doorway of one of the rooms. It had a small fireplace and a view of distant hills. "I kinda like this one."
"It's yours if you want it. I know that you stay in town, Vin, but you can sleep here anytime you feel like it. I'm going to get furniture for all the rooms."
"I ain't been used ta sleepin' in a house since I was eleven. Not sure I'd like it now." They were interrupted by the sound of a rider coming into the yard. "We'd best go down and see who it is," Vin said. Downstairs, he took a quick look through the window. "It's Guy Royal." Vin jerked open the front door and stepped out onto the porch. "What d'ya want?" he demanded.
Royal remained seated on his horse. "Just being neighborly. I heard that your pa bought this place."
Matt pushed past his son. "I've heard about you, Royal, and I don't need your kind for a neighbor."
"You must be Matt Tanner."
Royal's smile was sardonic. "You can't believe everything you hear, Mr. Tanner. It's a real shame about the barn burning down. Must've been hit by lightning. Acts of nature can be so destructive."
Vin spoke up. "It weren't no act a' nature that put a bullet in Miz Lambert's bull."
"No," Royal agreed. "Somebody probably mistook the unfortunate creature for a wolf or a coyote, maybe." Royal glanced around. "You got yourself a nice spread, Mr. Tanner, even though some superstitious folks might say there's bad luck connected with this ranch. If you decide that you want me to take it off your hands, you just let me know."
Matt stepped closer to the wealthy rancher, his eyes like blue flint. "Royal, I've faced down tougher men than you. You don't intimidate me. If my cows get sick, or my well goes bad or anything mysteriously catches fire, I'm going to hold you responsible. You're not driving me off my ranch. I'm here to stay."
Royal was unperturbed. "You may change your mind." He gave a curt tip of his hat, wheeled his horse about and trotted away.
"He'll cause trouble if he can," Vin said.
"I wouldn't be surprised, but I got other things to think about. I wanta show you more of the land, and then I'm going back to town to order lumber for the barn and some furniture for the house."
Ezra was well pleased with the world, as he stood at the bar in his saloon and poured himself a drink. He had won a tidy sum off of a traveling salesman, and he was grateful to be back in the relatively civilized confines of Four Corners. Adding to his contentment was the fact that his mother was still involved in renovating her hotel and was staying out of his hair. Ezra turned around in time to see a familiar figure enter the saloon. He put down his glass and hurried over, smiling broadly. "Father!" he exclaimed.
"Ezra! How good to see you again, my boy." Wade Standish seized Ezra's hand and then pulled him into an enthusiastic hug.
Ezra's handsome face was alight with welcome. "You are looking well, Father." No matter what his father's shortcomings, Ezra had always relished his company.
"I'm like a fine wine, Ezra. I age splendidly." This wasn't too much of an exaggeration. Wade Standish was a pleasant looking man with luxuriant gray hair, bright blue eyes and a neat goatee. He was shorter than his son and somewhat stout. Dressed in a gray suit and well shined shoes, he resembled a prosperous businessman.
"Would you like a drink, Father?" Ezra offered.
"That I would, my boy. The trip out here was dry and dusty. As soon as I checked in across the street, I had to come over and see you and get a look at your saloon."
Ezra got another glass and poured his father a drink. "Mother showed me your letter. Are you really thinking about settling down? You have never stayed in one place for long."
"I'm considering it, although I can't guarantee that the wanderlust might not overtake me once again. At any rate, I would like to see if I can become an upstanding citizen and spend some time with you. Perhaps, I'll even succeed in getting back with your mother. She's still here, isn't she?"
"Indeed she is. There is a hotel down the street called the Dusty Trails Inn. Mother won it in a card game and has been restoring it."
"Ah, your mother is like a thoroughbred--beautiful, intelligent and spirited. She is a challenge, but quite delightful."
"Mother was not at all pleased when you wrote to say that you were coming to Four Corners."
Wade chuckled. "Give me time, my boy, and I'll thaw that glacial heart of hers."
Ezra nodded in the direction of the saloon doors. "Opportunity knocks."
Maude sailed into the saloon and made straight for her son and husband. She ignored Wade's outstretched arms. "You couldn't stay away, could you?" she hissed.
"I could never stay away from you for long, Maude. You know that." Wade puckered his lips. "Why don't you give me a kiss?"
Wade attempted to put his arm around Maude, but she jerked away. "Stop it, or I will have you arrested for molestin' me."
The other patrons in the saloon were watching the proceedings with interest. Ezra noticed and spoke through gritted teeth. "Please do not make a scene."
"There would be no scene if your father would promise to get on the next stage leavin' town."
"That's out of the question, my dear."
"Everyone in town has been under the impression that I am a widow. Your presence here will ruin my reputation."
"Maude, a woman who plays poker in saloons has little reputation to ruin," Wade remarked.
"As the proprietor of a hotel, I'm on my way to respectability," Maude insisted.
"Mother," Ezra interjected, "your unconventional behavior is unlikely to be forgotten by ladies like Mrs. Potter or Mrs. Wells. If you wish to reconstruct yourself, I suggest that you choose a town in which you have never set foot."
Maude was firm. "I have no intention of leavin' Four Corners until my hotel is thrivin'. You underestimate me, Ezra."
Wade spoke up. "May I make a suggestion, my dear? You would be more acceptable to the good citizens of Four Corners as a devoted wife. To that end, I propose that you let it be known that we are looking forward to blissfully occupying the honeymoon suite of your hotel."
Wade was undeterred by her refusal. "Don't speak too hastily, Maude. You've never been a woman to let emotion stand in the way of practicality."
"I admit that's true," Maude said grudgingly.
"At least, allow me to have a look at your hotel and give you the benefit of my advice. Few people have spent as much time in hotels as I have."
"He has a point, Mother. Good advice is beneficial no matter who bestows it. Father's counsel could mean greater profitability."
Maude's eyes gleamed at the mention of profitability, and she considered Ezra's suggestion. "I will heed what you say, Ezra. I'll allow your father to take a look and tell me what he thinks."
"A wise decision," Wade said. He gallantly offered Maude his arm, but she swept past him, head in the air. Before starting after her, Wade looked at Ezra and winked. "She's weakening. I can tell."
Following his parents' departure, Ezra went back to his drink. He had barely had time to take a swallow before Vin came in. The sharpshooter approached the bar and leaned up against it. "Hey, Ez, I need a favor."
Ezra was wary. "If it involves trekking through the wilderness, the answer is no. Man was meant to sleep in featherbeds--not on the cold, hard ground."
"It ain't nothin' like that. I need ya ta help build a barn."
Ezra gave a short laugh. "Surely you jest, Mr. Tanner. Have I ever intimated that barn building is one of my skills? I do not excel at manual labor."
Vin refused to be put off. "It ain't like ya don't know which end of a hammer ta pick up. Ya told me once that ya helped ta build a schoolhouse."
"Only because the judge was most insistent that I either contribute my labor or spend a considerable amount of time in a flea ridden jail. Why are you intent upon building a barn, may I ask?"
"Pa bought some ranch land out close ta Miz Nettie--the Lambert place. Happens the barn burned down just before Miz Lambert decided ta sell out. It was probably some a' Royal's men that started the fire. Anyhow, the barn's gotta be rebuilt. Pa's orderin' the lumber now."
"I see. And have you approached the rest of our compatriots about this project?"
Vin reached for Ezra's drink and casually helped himself to the remainder of it. "I told 'em about it. They all said they'd be glad ta pitch in. This sure is good whiskey, Ez."
The gambler's tone was dry. "I am pleased that it meets your high standards."
Vin merely smiled in response. "With all of us workin' on it, it ought not ta take long ta git the barn built. Me an' Pa will git the site cleared, and then we can begin buildin'. If we start at first light, I figger we can git a lot done in one day."
"Another endeavor that begins at the crack of dawn," Ezra groaned. "How could I refuse the delights of hard labor and working up a sweat?"
"Thanks, Ez. Yer gonna be glad ya said yes 'cause I saved the best fer last."
"You will understand if I contend that there is no best when menial labor is involved."
"That's where yer wrong. I ran inta Miz Nettie and told her about buildin' the barn. She said that Casey and her would bring over some vittles fer us."
Ezra brightened. "I must say that the wizened crone is an excellent cook. At least, that will be something to look forward to."
The saloon doors swung open, as Chris and Buck entered. They came up to the bar, and Ezra slid the bottle down to them and provided them with glasses. Buck looked uncharacteristically grim. "We just got word that the Harper brothers and Luis Garza escaped."
"Killed two men," Chris added.
"How'd they escape?" Vin demanded.
"We don't know the details yet," Buck answered, "but they had help from other members of their gang."
"Think there's any chance the Harpers might come after you 'n' Chris? Seemed like they was still nursin' a grudge."
Buck shrugged. "That's hard to say. They've been hatin' our guts for a long time."
"What about Garza?" Ezra asked.
"Expect he'll go back to Mexico and lay low for a while," Chris answered. "Then he'll probably join back up with Zeke and Emmett."
Vin was concerned. "I hate ta think about Garza gittin' close ta any a' the women around here, 'specially women by theirselves like Nettie and Casey. Bad enough they gotta put up with bein' bothered by Guy Royal."
"If there's anything that gets my dander up, it's men that mistreat women," Buck growled. "I got a mind to ride out to Royal's spread and see if he'd like to take on a man for a change."
"Hold it, Buck," Chris said. "When it's time to deal with Royal again, we'll all go. He has too many men to go up against him alone."
"Royal came by Pa's house while we was there," Vin said. "I think he's plannin' on makin' more trouble. I'm kinda concerned about Pa bein' out there by hisself."
"Don't underestimate your pa," Chris said. "He may not be a young man, but he's tough as nails. He could probably kick my ass any day of the week."
Vin smiled. "I 'spect yer right, cowboy."
"Ezra, what about your old man?" Buck asked. "JD said he came in on today's stage looking like some fancy dressed banker. When're we gonna meet him?"
"I imagine that he will stop by tonight for a card game. He is even more skilled than I at games of chance."
Chris toyed thoughtfully with his glass. "So, he's a professional gambler like you."
"For the most part, although he has dabbled in other business enterprises."
"What kind of business enterprises?" Chris demanded.
"Schemes of various kinds that involved the greedy and the unscrupulous. My father has always insisted that dishonest men make the best targets for confidence games."
Chris pursed his lips. "Long as he's not breaking the law, he'll be welcome here."
Two days later, the regulators were all out at the Tanner ranch, ready to get started on the barn. The debris from the burned out barn had been cleared away, and the building supplies, ordered from Virgil Watson's Hardware Store, had been delivered. Josiah and Chris, the most experienced builders, were in charge of getting the project organized. Meanwhile, Ezra established himself in a straight chair on the Tanner porch. Blearily, he yawned and squinted at the sun, which had just come up over the horizon. The weather was clear, but decidedly chilly. A frigid breeze came up and the gambler couldn't resist a shiver. He thought longingly of how good his warm bed had felt at the moment that Buck had come pounding on his door to rouse him. Chris interrupted his thoughts. "Ready to get started, Ezra?"
"I can scarcely wait to acquire my share of callouses and blisters."
Buck came over to join them, rubbing his hands together and blowing on them to warm them. "You'll get warmed up once you start to work, Ezra. I can't wait to get started, myself. It's colder than a witch's tit this mornin'."
Chris grinned at the mustached Lothario. "If anybody knows all about tits, Buck, I reckon it's you."
"Well said, Mr. Larabee." Ezra reluctantly got up and joined the others.
To everyone's astonishment, Ezra worked as diligently as the rest of the group. Vin watched him for a few minutes. "Ez, yer purty good at this."
Ezra reached for a nail and hammered it in before responding. "I am a man of varied talents, Mr. Tanner, but carpentry is not a skill that I care to expand upon."
Buck finished sawing a board and handed it off to JD. "What other kinds of skills you got, Ezra? Maybe you can help out once Vin's pa gets his herd. You ever castrated a bull?"
Ezra wiped the sweat from his forehead on his sleeve. "I have not had that dubious pleasure, Mr. Wilmington. With any luck, that will always be the case."
Buck couldn't resist teasing the gambler. "Aw, you could learn how to do it in no time."
"I prefer to keep my distance from large, unruly animals."
JD grinned. "Large, unruly animals? Sounds like he's talkin' about you, Buck."
"Watch it, JD," Buck warned, "or I might decide to whack your ass with one of these boards."
Despite their frequent banter, the men kept at their tasks and had made good progress by the time Nettie and Casey rolled into the yard in their buckboard laden with food. By noon, the food was set out on Matt's dining table. The table wasn't large enough to seat everyone at once, so JD and Casey took their plates out to the porch. They sat down in the porch swing that had been left behind by Mrs. Lambert. JD hungrily started in on his roast beef and mashed potatoes. "Casey, your aunt sure is a good cook," he commented.
"Is that what men want, JD? Women who can cook and clean?"
"I dunno. I guess. Why'd you ask me that?"
Casey nibbled on a slice of freshly baked bread. "I was helping Gloria Potter in her store, and some men came in. They were talking about the women in Wickestown." Casey's brown eyes were round with curiosity. "You ever been to Wickestown, JD?"
"Sure, Casey. Lotsa times."
"Well, maybe not lots, but I've been there before."
"What do they do?
"The women in Wickestown."
JD flushed and took a hasty swallow from his mug of apple cider. "They... uh, entertain, I guess you could say."
"You mean like singin' and dancin'?"
"One or two of 'em might do that."
Casey was persistent. "What about the rest?"
"They... uh, dress up in fancy dresses, and they... uh, drink with the customers."
JD fumbled for the right words. "They're real... uhm... friendly with the customers."
Casey wrinkled her brow in thought. "They get paid more'n they'd get clerking in a store?"
JD shrugged. "I dunno. Probably."
"I could do that."
Casey frowned at him. "Why not? Aunt Nettie wouldn't let me drink liquor, but I reckon I could drink somethin' else." She bit her lower lip, considering the matter. "I don't have any fancy dresses, but I could get some, and I can be real friendly."
JD was slightly alarmed. "Casey, you'd better not let your aunt hear you talk like this. She'd have a fit if she knew I'd told you about Wickestown. Besides, you couldn't be like the women there." He looked at Casey's boyish clothes and her childish braids. "You don't have what it takes to... I mean you don't look right."
Casey's expression went from hurt to indignation. "You mean I'm not pretty enough!"
JD was getting increasingly frustrated. "No, that's not what I meant."
Casey scarcely noticed Buck, who had come out onto the porch. "Just you wait, JD," she fumed. "I'll find somebody who does think I'm pretty."
Casey brushed past Buck and went inside. Buck shook his head at JD and grinned knowingly. "Kid, it looks like you done messed up again. I'm never gonna have time to teach Vin about women 'cause it's gonna take years to get you straightened out."
When the meal was over, Nettie and Casey cleaned up the kitchen and made their departure, receiving heartfelt thanks from all of the men. Work resumed on the barn and went on until sunset, when Buck, Ezra, JD and Nathan returned to town. Vin, Chris and Josiah remained behind with Matt, planning on getting an early start the next morning and finishing the horse stalls. After it became too dark to continue working, they went into the house, Matt lit the lamps. The lamps cast a soft light over the heavy oak furniture, which now furnished the house. "Vin," Matt directed, "bring in some firewood, and let's get a fire started."
"I'm goin'," Vin said and brought in wood from the porch, where it was stacked. He got the fire started and made return trips to fill the woodboxes beside the fireplace and the wood stove in the kitchen. That done, he went over to the table where the others were helping themselves to Nettie's leftover food. There was little left, other than slices of ham and roast beef and half a loaf of bread. Vin looked at the table and frowned. "Where's the rest a' the pumpkin pie?"
"We ate it," Josiah answered, making himself a sandwich. "Chris got the last piece."
Vin looked at Chris in dismay. "You ate the last piece! What kinda man grabs the last piece a' pie fer hisself!"
Chris glared at him. "Like you would've done any different."
"Nettie meant that pie fer me."
"The hell she did. I didn't see your name on it." He shoved a jar at Vin. "Have a pickle, instead."
"Don't want no damned pickle."
"Boys! Boys!" Josiah admonished.
Matt suppressed a smile and tried to look stern. "Fix yourself a sandwich, Vin, and stop complaining. The way I hear it, Miz Nettie is always baking something for you."
"Vin's not big on sharing, either," Chris said pointedly.
Vin tried his own version of the Larabee glare, but said nothing more and busied himself making a sandwich. After eating, all of them gathered around the fireplace, enjoying the crackling warmth of the flames. Josiah settled into a Boston rocker flanking the fireplace, while Matt chose the sofa and Chris chose a wingback chair. Vin sat crosslegged on the rug. He listened quietly, as Josiah spoke of his worldly travels, and Matt told stories of his years with the Rangers. Chris related some of his adventures with Buck, omitting the raunchier escapades out of respect to Vin's father. Finally, Chris and Josiah started yawning and decided that was time to turn in. Matt showed them to their rooms upstairs and came back down with blankets and a pillow. He dropped them beside Vin, who was still still sitting on the rug, gazing into the fire. "Wish I had an extra bed for you," Matt said.
"I'll be fine. I'm not used ta soft livin'. He tossed the toothpick that he had been chewing on into the fire. "Reckon you'll be ready ta buy yer horses now that the barn is almost finished."
Matt stood with one hand resting on the mantel. "That's right. I'll wait to have them delivered until I get back from Texas. That's where I'm going to buy my cattle."
"Can't ya find cattle closer than Texas?"
"Not like what I have in mind. There's a breeder in Texas who has top quality stock--a cross between Longhorns and Herefords. That's what I want to start my herd with. I'll sell the Lambert cattle when I get back. I won't be gone any longer than necessary, but I'm concerned about what Royal might take it into his head to do while I'm away."
"I'll patrol out this way and keep an eye out fer trouble."
Matt was doubtful. "Do you think you'll have much of a chance to do that? Seems like you got enough to do already, what with looking out for the town, besides helping Chris out at his ranch and doing things for Miz Nettie."
"I'll manage. It'll beat spendin' so much time in the saloon losin' my money ta Ezra."
Matt indulged in silent reflection for a moment. "Vin, I know you've had to do what you could to survive, but you're a good boy, in spite of that." He turned away from the fireplace and gave Vin a brief pat on the head. "We've got plenty of work to do tomorrow, so you'd better turn in. Goodnight, son."
Vin looked up at him and smiled. "Goodnight, Pa."
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