A Time to Dance

by Beth Green

Author's notes: This was written in response to Jen's August Challenge to write a story inspired by a song. So I did. Thanks to Marnie for the beta help. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.

Vin Tanner was more asleep than awake when he became aware of the gentle rocking motion beneath him. It was not soothing. On the contrary, the unsettling movement of what should have been solid ground beneath him interrupted Vin's efforts to return to the unconscious state from which he'd been aroused. To make matters worse, his stomach joined in with an irritated twinge of protest. Vin silently pleaded with his body to settle down, cursing when he was met instead with further betrayal. Although intellectually Vin knew that he was lying unmoving in a bed, he felt the room begin to swirl around him. He grabbed hold of the bedding in tightly fisted hands, trying to anchor himself to reality. The rocking motion did not cease. The stricken man had no choice. He had to wake up enough to visually reassure himself that the world was not tilting on its axis. He cautiously opened his eyes. Although the room's lighting was indirect and low in intensity, his head throbbed in reaction to the new stimulus. The ill man couldn't help the moan that escaped. "Oh, God." His stomach screamed in protest as his abdominal muscles contracted in preparation to emptying the contents of his stomach. Vin had barely enough time and presence of mind to turn so that his head was hanging over the edge of the bed before he was abruptly, violently ill. He could not spare a thought of gratitude that his body had at least allowed him not to soil himself. He was too miserable and angry at the crude, rude awakening.

Vin was peripherally aware that he was not alone. To his utter humiliation, someone was witness to his misery. In fact, that someone had hastily shoved some sort of container in his direction when he began to vomit. The ill man was too exhausted to try to identify his unknown companion. He had no desire to open his eyes or to fully return to consciousness. A glass was shoved in his face and the vaguely familiar voice instructed, "Don't drink; just swish it around in your mouth and spit." Vin was too weary to do anything other than comply with directions. He was glad of the opportunity to rid his mouth of the nauseating taste of his own vomit. Vin tried to sit up for a moment until he was fairly sure that he would not vomit again. However, his body suddenly decided that he'd had enough. Instead of falling back in a boneless tumble of arms and legs, Vin's last conscious moment of awareness was the comforting feel of the arms of a friend easing him back into soft, dreamless slumber.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee frowned at the insensate form of his best friend. Buck had once told him that it was a true measure of friendship if a man was there to hold your head while you puked up your guts. At the time, Buck had been referring to himself and Chris. Chris grimly reflected that, by all rights, it should be Buck sitting here with Vin. However, Buck had disappeared with his latest paramour long before the consequences of the events he'd set in motion became evident.

The evening had started simply enough. A large, extended family of twenty-some homesteaders had temporarily stopped in town. They were nearly to their destination of a large parcel of land big enough to support their various households. With their journey so near its end, the various family members were in a mood to celebrate. An impromptu party was set up in the center of town. Bonfires burned brightly as the family fiddler played tune after tune. The townfolk joined the homesteaders in a festive riote of song and dance. As usual, Buck was right in the middle things. A Virginia reel came to a foot-stomping conclusion, and Buck threw himself down next to Chris.

Buck's face was beaded with sweat and he blew out an exhausted breath. "Whooee, that fella sure can play." Buck turned to Chris, his eyes bright with delight. Chris could not help but return Buck's ear-to-ear grin. "Hey, Chris, why don't you join us for the next set? You know you kick up a fine two-step." Buck tried to head off the refusal he could see forming on Chris' face. "Besides, maybe if you get out there, Vin will get off his horse and come join us."

Chris chose to deliberately misunderstand Buck's words. "I think you need to have your eyes checked. Vin's sittin' on a chair, not a horse."

Buck declined to take offense, choosing to nudge Chris with a friendly elbow. "You know what I mean. Hell, it ain't right. It's been ages since that whole mess over Charlotte. Man's gotta get back on the horse that threw him. Vin ain't so much as looked at another woman since then. He sure as hell ain't danced, and that's a crime." Buck was interrupted when Josiah collapsed into a chair nearby.

The older man wiped a hand across his sweaty brow as he declared, "That's some mighty fine fiddlin'."

Buck clapped a friendly hand against Josiah's back as he agreed, "That it is, Preacher, that it is. I was just telling Chris that him and Vin need to get off their backsides and come join us." Buck rubbed a hand thoughtfully along his mustache. "Hey, Josiah, doesn't the Bible have something in it about dancing?"

Josiah responded, "Well, Brother Buck, the Good Book mentions dance more than a few times. What particular context did you have in mind?"

Buck tilted his head and pointed toward Vin. Josiah and Chris followed the direction of his gaze. The tracker leaned back in a chair, one booted foot crossed over the other. The pensive look on the unshaven face was in sharp contrast to the signs of merriment that surrounded him. Vin looked alone and lost, despite the fact that he was surrounded by people.

Buck stated, "I was talkin' to Chris about the fact that Vin needs to quit sittin' there bein' miserable when he could be havin' himself a good time. That man ain't had a dancin' partner since Charlotte."

Chris snorted in derision. "And we all know how well that dance turned out. Leave the man alone, Buck."

Buck shook his head. "It ain't right. Man ought not to be alone."

During their discussion, an attractive young lady came up and began talking to Vin. She gestured toward the dancers. Vin responded with a smile and a shake of his head. The woman turned, hesitated, and then walked away, leaving Vin alone.

Buck slapped a hand against his thigh. He angrily stated, "Look at that there. Vin could've at least given the little gal a dance. I'm tellin' you, it ain't right. That man needs some help, and I aim to give it to him."

Buck's forward progress was blocked by virtue of Chris' booted foot suddenly appearing in his path. The upraised leg effectively captured Buck's attention. "Hold up there. Seems to me Vin's old enough to know his own mind."

Buck shoved testily at Chris's boot with his own. "I ain't fixin' to get him hitched. I've seen the man dance, and he really enjoys it. What's the harm in reminding him of that?"

Josiah offered his own opinion. "You mentioned the Bible a minute ago. I believe that I can offer an appropriate quote." Josiah's voice deepened as he began to quote from memory. "There is 'a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.' Personally, I think it's time to dance." Josiah smiled and began to hum along with the fiddler's current tune as he made his way back toward the dancing throng.

Chris tucked his booted foot back under his chair. Buck reached out a hand, part plea, part offer of help. His smile was kind and hopeful. "C'mon, pard, it's time to dance."

Chris hesitated a long minute before he gave a sigh of surrender. He clasped his hand around Buck's outstretched one. His smile belied the harsh tone of his voice. "I know I'm gonna regret this, but what the hell. The way that fella saws away at his fiddle, man would have to be deaf not to dance to his tune."

+ + + + + + +

Vin raised a brow in surprised amusement when he noticed that Buck had managed to cajole Chris into joining the dancers. He muttered, "Hell, that ol' boy could sweet-talk the feathers off a bird." He had to admit, Chris sure seemed to be enjoying himself. Vin smiled, noting how his friends' personalities were reflected in their style of dance. Chris' movements were controlled and precise, even if they didn't always match the steps of his partner. In contrast, Buck didn't attempt to match his obviously more skilled partner in the current set. What Buck lacked in style, he more than made up for in enthusiasm. He had no shortage of willing dance partners. Josiah appeared to be a step behind, more concerned with not stepping on or running into the other dancers than keeping up with his partner. From time to time Vin would catch sight of Nathan or JD or Ezra, but never long enough to critique their dancing skills. Ezra, especially, seemed to be spending more time talking than dancing. Vin supposed that was to be expected, as most of Ezra's words were directed toward one of the blonde, beautiful homesteaders.

Vin's reflections ended when the fiddler took a break. Vin's friends soon gathered around to invade his privacy.

Buck explained, "The fiddler's gonna take himself a little break, then he plans on fiddlin' the night away. We all thought we'd hang out with you 'til he comes back. We also think you oughtta join us when he starts back in."

Vin knew Buck well enough that he swallowed back the refusal that nearly sprang from his lips. Fresh from his victory over Chris, Vin figured that Buck wasn't about to take 'no' for an answer. The younger man instead replied, "I'll think about it."

Buck left, seemingly satisfied. The mustached man came back a few minutes later, cuddling a bottle and two glasses. He handed one of the glasses to Vin and proceeded to fill it with a golden liquid from the bottle he held. Buck similarly filled his own glass, leaned his head back and quickly downed the contents. He thumped the bottle against his chest and stated, "All that dancin' gave me a powerful thirst. This sure hits the spot." Buck looked at Vin's glass, still untouched. Bottle in hand, he gestured toward the untouched beverage. "Drink up. That there's the good stuff."

Vin took a cautious sniff, then smiled as he downed his own generous portion. He gave out an "Ah" of satisfaction. "Thanks, Buck."

"Don't mention it. There's plenty more where that came from." Buck proceeded to refill both of their glasses - repeatedly.

Vin did not hesitate to imbibe. Tequila was his beverage of choice back in Texas. Buck had managed to find a particularly fine example of the potent potable, and Vin was not shy about taking advantage of the free drinks.

It was not long before Vin found his feet tapping along with the music. Buck kept both the conversation and the liquor flowing. Truthfully, Vin was glad for the distraction. The younger man did not care to keep company with his own thoughts. The arrival of the homesteaders had brought to mind the time not so long ago when Vin and his fellow peacekeepers had been assigned to protect another group of homesteaders from the men who had been threatening them with loss of both land and life.

Among those homesteaders had been the beautiful, caring, and ultimately heart-breaking love of his life: Charlotte. Vin and Charlotte had experienced an instant and mutual attraction. Vin would not be dissuaded from pursuing his lady love, despite the fact that the lady was already married. The husband was merely an obstacle to be overcome. Charlotte's husband ultimately proved to be an obstacle that would stand permanently in the way of Vin's happiness.

The presence of the present day homesteaders reopened a raw wound in Vin's soul that had barely begun to heal. The dancers were a painful reminder of the last dance he'd shared with a woman: Charlotte. His body began to physically respond to just the thought of their intimate dance. Buck's suggestive comment regarding the subject of dancing did not help.

Somewhere through half the bottle of tequila, Buck had offered his opinion on the meaning of dancing. "I love to dance. You know what dancing's really about, don't you?" Buck did not let Vin's lack of response deter him. He continued, "Dancing is a way for men and women to get together in public to do a little mating ceremony that, with any luck at all, they'll get to continue in private."

Buck's words sent Vin's thoughts back into the past. That dance he'd shared with Charlotte could certainly have been described as their own private mating ritual. He remembered the smell of her, the feel of her, the soul-deep connection he'd felt when he looked into her eyes. It'd been obvious enough to Charlotte's husband, and the man lost no time in warning Vin to stay away from his wife after their little dance. Vin did not heed the warning. He and Charlotte had abandoned friends and family to consummate their love.

In the end, it took all that Vin had to leave Charlotte. Vin was not quite certain how he'd managed to find the strength to do so. There was still a hole in his heart where she'd been forcibly removed. The distraught man did not want to remember the pain. Vin took another healthy swig of the tequila, concentrating on the burn as the liquor made its way down his throat. He wanted to forget. He wanted to be able to be as casual about women as Buck seemed to be. He wanted to be able to dance again. Hell, maybe if he drank enough tequila . . . Vin considered the circumstances. He had six good friends, any one of who would watch his back should the need arise. And, this was some damn good tequila. He decided that he needed to have another drink; or two; or three.

An unknown amount of tequila later, Vin found himself being led out to the street by a laughing, dimpled stranger. She smelled of lavender and dust and sweat and he thought that she was without a doubt the prettiest little gal in town; that is, until the next dance, when he stumbled across an even more attractive blonde who took him up on his offer to dance. Vin lost count of the number of women he partnered after that. In fact, he lost track of most of the rest of the evening.

Otherwise, Vin would remember how it was that he came to be sleeping in someone's bed, rather than his own wagon. He wondered if he'd ended up taking one of the women to bed. If so, it was a damn shame, 'cuz he couldn't remember doing so. That was definitely something a man ought to be able to remember. He supposed he should open his eyes and find out where he was and who he was with, if anyone. That was easier said than done: his eyes seemed to be glued shut. Vin rubbed the grit from his lashes, wincing at the tenderness beneath the lids. Hell, it wasn't only his eyes that were tender: it was his whole damn head. It took a few tries, but he eventually managed to lever himself to a sitting position. Vin's stomach protested the action, reminding him of his earlier vomiting episode. He waited an anxious minute to see if his body was going to subject him to another round of throwing up. He sighed with relief when his stomach settled down enough that he could concentrate on the rest of his body. Aside from his stomachache, Vin had the sort of headache that made a man long for a bullet to the brain. His head felt too heavy for his neck to hold up all by itself. He raised his hands to lend support. "God, I feel like shit."

Vin jumped, startled, when Buck's voice cheerfully replied, "Good. I'd hate to think that you felt worse than you looked. Right now, I'd have to say that you look worse than a lard bucket full of armpits."

Vin attempted a version of Chris' glare as he turned his bloodshot eyes toward Buck. The man had been hidden from view in a corner of the room. Vin snarled, "Thanks for savin' me the bother of findin' a mirror." The younger man was mightily confused. After a slow look around, he finally figured out that he was in Chris' room. That being the case, why was Buck here?

Vin realized that he must've said that last thought out loud when Buck stated, "Chris said you had a bit of a rough night, so he asked if I'd keep you company until you were back on your feet."

Vin took Buck's words as incentive to try to stand. His movements were slow and hesitant, lest the room decide to start twirling on him again. Vin was pleased when it did not. Now that he was upright, his bladder was making a more urgent bodily need known.

Buck had to comment on Vin's hesitant movement. "Bedspins, too, huh? Boy, you got to learn to handle your liquor better 'n that."

Vin made his shuffling way toward the door. "Get outta my way 'fore I piss on your leg."

Vin couldn't muster the energy it took to crack a smile when Buck quickly moved to the side.

Once he'd attended to matters in the outhouse, Vin only had enough energy to make it to the boardwalk and the nearest chair. Vin's so-called friends took advantage of his public location to add to his misery.

First came Josiah. "Vin, I can see that a word to the Lord on behalf of your health today would not be out of place. I don't have to ask how you are, as you look, as JD described, 'Like you been drug behind a horse'."

JD, standing next to Josiah, defended himself. "That's not what I said." His smile did not contain enough appreciation of Vin's suffering as JD clarified, "I said he looked like he'd been dragged behind a horse."

Josiah nodded. "I stand corrected."

Vin glared at the two of them. "I'd appreciate it if you all would find some place else to stand." Vin closed his eyes as he heard their footsteps fade into the distance. He was not alone for long before another set of footsteps approached. Vin left his aching eyes closed, hoping whomever it was would take the hint and leave him to die in peace. It was not to be.

Ezra's voice sounded louder and closer than Vin found comfortable, seeming to echo within his aching head. "Mr. Tanner. I have been quite concerned regarding your well-being. Any time that I arise before you . . . Actually, I have no way to complete that thought, as the event has never occurred prior to today. In view of your current appearance, I believe that no further explanation is required."

Vin didn't bother to open his eyes as he replied, "Go to Hell, Ezra."

Ezra responded, "I can see why you might say that, as you are obviously already in that particular location. As such, I expect that you are looking for someone to share the company of your misery. I respectfully decline the offer."

Vin groaned as he listened to still more footsteps approach. He pried open his eyes, the better to glare at his unwelcome visitors. Nathan, the latest arrival, offered no comfort. "Chris told me you were feelin' poorly. The amount of tequila you drank last night, can't say I'm surprised."

Vin made a rude gesture in his general direction, incensed when Nathan laughed it off.

Buck and Chris were standing to his other side. Buck's heartily booming voice made Vin itch to put a bullet in the man. "Hell, Vin looks a lot better than when I saw him this morning. At least he don't look like he's about to fall over."

Vin especially hated Buck today. From what Vin could remember, the man had matched him drink for drink, yet he seemed no worse for wear. It wasn't fair. Once again, Vin's mouth seemed to have outrun his brain as he uttered that last bit out loud.

Buck questioned, "What's not fair?"

Vin grumbled, "Hell, Buck, you drank just about as much of that tequila as I did last night. Least you could do is be a little hung over."

Buck replied, "In the first place, who says I don't have a little bit of a hangover? In the second place, when you go drinkin' with the likes 'a Chris, you'd best learn to hold your liquor. I did."

Vin placed his hand on the butt of his gun. "Buck, if you say that nonsense 'bout me holdin' my liquor one more time, I'll shoot you; see if I don't."

Buck backed off a step, his hands raised in surrender. "Alright there, Vin." He pointed vaguely behind himself, his gaze fixed on Vin's hand resting lightly on the gun. "I gotta go see someone about something." His smile held more than a hint of wary nervousness as he pulled on the brim on his hat. "I'll see you all later."

Even Chris, normally Vin's staunchest supporter, saw fit to rub a little salt in the wound. "I gotta say, Vin, you're quite the dancer. Some of the steps you were doing last night were so new no one here had ever seen 'em before."

Finally, Nathan decided to speak up in his defense. "At least the man finally got up and danced. And, really, before he threw up all over Miz Lucy's shoes, he was havin' as good a time as the rest of us."

Vin groaned as he lowered his head. "I threw up? On her shoes?"

Chris patted his back sympathetically. "Yep, I'm afraid so. 'Bout then, we figured it was time to tuck you in for the night. My room was the closest, so that's how you ended up sleeping in my bed."

Vin's bloodshot eyes peeked out from between the shelter of his hands. "Yeah, I kinda wondered. I'm thinkin' I prob'ly don't want to hear the rest of it."

Chris nodded. "I expect you're right about that."

+ + + + + + +

Vin spent the rest of the day alternating his time between napping in his wagon and trying to avoid his friends. By evening, his headache had subsided to a dull ache. The tracker wandered along the street as he pondered the past twenty-four hours. Despite the teasing and humiliation, he had to admit that he'd enjoyed both the music and the dancing. It was good to know that he still could. For a time, he had allowed too many of the good things in life to be lost along with Charlotte.

Vin stopped short as he came to realize that he was unexpectedly tired of the silence. Well, that was something he could easily take care of. He pulled out his harmonica and gave it a practice toot. The would-be musician took a deep breath, then let loose with a fair approximation of one of the tunes he'd danced to last night. Although the melody had a tendency to wander, Vin was able to maintain the rhythm. His friends, who'd been lurking nearby, reckoned by the sound that it was safe to approach. Buck and JD linked arms as they twirled around in an improvised jig. Nathan and Josiah watched for a minute and then linked arms, joining Buck and JD in their madly enthusiastic dance. Ezra began clapping his hands. Chris shrugged and smiled. Saying "What the hell," he, too, began to clap.

Like the Pied Piper, Vin's friends had been lured by the music. All in all, Vin mused, life was pretty damn good.

The End

(Well, almost)

Okay, you may be wondering about the song that inspired this. It's not the one you think, 'Turn, Turn, Turn (To Everything There is a Season)' by the Byrds. Nope. Not that one. It's by a Byrd: Tracy Byrd, to be exact. The song follows.

Ten Rounds with Jose Cuervo
I walked in, the band just started,
The singer couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.
Was on a mission to drown her memory but,
I thought 'No way' with all this ruckus.
But after one round with Jose Cuervo,
I caught my boots tapping along with the beat.
And after two rounds with Jose Cuervo,
The band was sounding pretty darn good to me.
Then some stranger asked me to dance,
And I revealed to her, my two left feet.
Said: "Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you asked,
But tonight's about me an' an old memory."
Then after three rounds with Jose Cuervo,
I let her lead me out on the floor.
And after four rounds with Jose Cuervo,
I was showing off moves never seen before.
Well, round five or round six,
I forgot what I came to forget.
After round seven, or was it eight?
I bought a round for the whole dang place.
And after nine rounds with Jose Cuervo,
They were counting me out and I was about to give in,
Then after ten rounds with Jose Cuervo,
I lost count and started counting again.
One round with Jose Cuervo.
I went two rounds with Jose Cuervo.
Three rounds with Jose Cuervo . . .