Takes place sometime after "Obsession", hence the reference to time passage and Ella Gaines.
Notes: This story was originally archived at another site dedicated to Chris and Mary het. It also was published in a zine called "Along the Trail to Purgatory" about five years ago.
This is a Chris/Mary story, with some adult references, strong language, violence, and some silliness here and there. All the things that make life interesting. If you don't like Mary, don't bother reading it.
You all know about all the copyright disclaimers already.
Buck Wilmington began to get curious after a series of things had happened around and amongst his friends that set off that certain instinct he had for mischief. Life had been intolerably quiet for a long time around town -nigh on to two or maybe three whole weeks -- with no fights with the cattlemen, no errant Indians jumping the reservation, no trail herds bringing trouble, and in general everybody behaving so well that it could kill a man from boredom.
For someone like Buck, an experienced gunman and ex-lawman who considered himself a man of action, his idea of being a peacekeeper in this tough little town did not include filling out expense forms for the Territorial Judiciary, breaking up dogfights, or policing the citizens who were letting their outhouses get overly full. He had more important things to do with his time -- like solving mysteries.
First, it was overhearing Casey Wells, the teenaged tomboy who was sweet on JD Dunne, the youthful member of the Seven and the occasionally-when-it-suited-him badge around town.
It began with Buck had just entered the mercantile where he spotted the girl at the counter, looking over some yardgoods. Buck noticed she seemed to be fingering some calico in a blue that would look nice on her -- if she would just sew it into something pretty and feminine for a change. Then his attention was caught by her frustrated tone and he began paying attention.
"First, he kept taking Mrs. Travis riding --three times last week -- and now he just keeps disappearing."
"Well, you know, he might have things to do for the Judge, Casey. He does have a job, such as it is," Mrs. Potter said, unfolding a ready-made shirtwaist to show her.
Casey held it up, the shrugged and gave it back. "It's all right, I guess. Aunt Nettie will think it's fine."
Mrs. Potter clucked her tongue in exasperation at the girl who seemed to never have a care about her appearance, and put it on Mrs. Wells' account.
"A couple of folks have seen him riding out west of town, alone, this week. Mostly in the mornings." Casey sighed heavily and reached into the peppermint sticks. "You don't think he's found somebody else, do you?"
Mrs. Potter kept a stern face as she said, "Now, don't be looking for trouble, Casey. He's a good boy and besides -- you keep him busy enough. He doesn't need to ride miles to find a another girl to go fishing with."
Buck had seen him cantering out of town just this past Tuesday morning, and would have figured the kid was heading out to Chris Larabee's place to work on his weapons skills with the gunfighter. Except Chris's place was south, and JD was heading west, into the hills and toward the high open range. Almost no one lived up there, other than mustangs and whitetails, and it didn't seem like much of a place for a town kid like JD to be riding unless he was going out to practice his tracking skills with Vin Tanner.
Next, Buck had been back in the mercantile the next day to buy some of those fancy French ribbons for Inez's birthday -- this *had* to be what won over the Mexican firebrand's heart and luscious body -- when Mrs. Potter said something about Mary Travis to a local rancher who had come in, just wanting to complain to someone.
"When did Mrs. Travis start closing in the mornings?" the man demanded, as if Gloria should know. "I came in to place an ad and the office is closed."
Buck kept looking at the spools of ribbon, but his ears were tuned to what was happening at the other counter.
Mrs. Potter smiled politely and shrugged. "Well, you know how hard it is for a woman alone, working and keeping a house with a small son. Perhaps she needed to cut back the hours temporarily --"
To Buck's ear, something didn't ring true because Mrs. Potter was Mary's best friend in town, and what womenfolk didn't tell each other, you could put in a thimble. Anyway, it was not like either of these hard working women to make excuses like that -- not to mention that Mary's son Billy was away to visit his grandparents for a few weeks, so he wasn't even here to take up her time.
The man snorted in irritation. "Well, maybe she should stick to keeping her house and looking after her boy and leave the newspaperin' to a man who'll be there when a customer comes in!" With that, the man stomped out leaving Gloria Potter scowling angrily after him.
It was as if she had not remembered Buck was there, for as the door closed, she said, "Just you try making a living and raising a family, you ..you..." and then she saw Buck at the ribbons and her plump face colored with embarrassment.
Buck was always eager to hear about Mary and whatever she was doing. He felt it was almost a duty, because in his heart of hearts, he just *knew* that the beautiful newspaperwoman and his oldest trail partner, Chris Larabee, would discover that they belonged together.
The romantic in him wanted to see it happen to both of them because --though he knew he was considered a woman-chasing, saloon-crawling, hoo-rawing rounder to everyone who knew him --nothing made him happier than to see True Love Triumphant. The secret Buck Wilmington was a man that no one around him saw or appreciated and he made Cupid himself look like ...well... Chris Larabee by comparison.
True Love was taking it's own sweet time with those two. He had seen it coming from the first time they had gone head to head the day after Chris and Vin Tanner had saved Nathan Jackson from lynching at the hands of some drunken Texican drovers. She had written him up in the newspaper like he was Death Come Riding, and he had taken exception. All the way to the Seminole village they had been hired to protect, every time Mary Travis's name came up in their idle conversation, Buck had watched Chris's reaction with glee. She had pissed him off with that article like no woman since Sarah had managed to do -- Sarah, who had been the only woman Chris had ever wanted to settle down with. To Buck, seeing Chris react this strongly to something a woman had done was a sign that Chris was coming alive again inside. Maybe there was hope for him after all.
So every time anything happened that looked out of the ordinary in Mary's life, Buck was interested.
There had been a close call when she had almost decided to remarry to Gerard What-was-his-name, her dead husband's old friend. Mary had been along when the Seven had accompanied those Missouri settlers to their new homesteads late this past summer, protecting them along the way. On the trail, Gerard had proposed, but Mary had not loved Gerard. Secretly Buck figured that Chris being around and looking on was the reason she had turned down the mild-mannered farmer.
Hell, if Buck had been a woman, and he'd had to choose between Chris Larabee and some ordinary-looking fella who was so damn' 'nice' it made you want to doze off, and whose only ambition was a plot of land he could plow --well, there would be no question that the choice would be the tall, lean gunfighter with the steely eyes and a Go-To-Hell grin. When he grinned, that is.
No wonder Mary Travis had stayed here in Four Corners busting her corset stays on keeping that newspaper going instead of becoming a farmer's wife. Buck knew that for any woman with an ounce of vinegar, a simple argument with a man like Chris was a lot more exciting than a week of romping in the hay with someone like good ol' Gerard. Or from what Buck had learned from the town gossips, with Mary's late husband Steven.
Then there was Chris. The biggest mistake he had made in his life when he almost fell in to Ella Gaines' trap. It had been a couple of months since that disaster and they had nearly lost Chris. First, to Ella; then to a bullet wound; last to the guilt and dispair of knowing that Ella claimd to have caused Sarah and Adam's deaths. Mixed in there was Mary's reaction to Chris simply runnin' off with nary a word. He'd been crazy at the time, and all of them had been duped by Ella's wealth and promises. When it was over, Mary had stayed polite and remote for months. Only lately had she gotten a little friendly toward him again.
To Buck, that Mary had been hurt meant she had feelings about Chris. For Chris to feel guilty about her, it meant he cared that she had been hurt. So, Buck knew something had to be happening after all this time. Now all he had to do was figure out what.
The next odd thing was two days after that, when Buck had strolled into Potter's to buy some of that sweet-smelling French bath soap for Inez. After all, he knew no woman could resist perfumy luxuries like that, not to mention that when she used it in her bath, she would think of him...
It was then he had overheard Mrs. Potter tell Mary Travis that her order of Beadle's Dime Novels was in. Buck thought it a little peculiar. He knew what kind of reading Mary preferred since she had let him borrow from her bookshelf many a time. That Frenchman Dumas, with his Musketeers, and Mark Twain, or the Englishman, Dickens -- those were the books he had borrowed from Mary. Dime novels were more JD's style, or even her son Billy's. Except, Billy was still visiting his Grandparents since school had let out for the summer, and he was not even here to read them. So, why would she be ordering books only JD would be reading?
The other thing that Buck found interesting, though not surprising, was that Mary Travis had turned coolly distant again to Chris Larabee. It had taken months for her to warm to him after that whole mess with Ella Gaines, and for a while Buck had nearly given up on them figuring out they ought to get to know each other better. Better as in a lot better. Gradually, she had forgiven Chris for being such a fool about Ella Gaines, and Chris' anger and grief had faded to occasional depressions where he rode off to be by himself rather than taking it out on everyone around him. Time passed and Mary and Chris had resumed their polite friendship, which had almost gotten back to where it was before Ella had nearly killed Chris. He even smiled at Mary once in a while. Then, about two weeks before, Mary had gone cold again.
Thinking back, she had a reason, in a woman's-thinking sort of way. Buck realized it had been ever since Chris had confronted her -- chewed her bustle off was more like it -- about her going about alone, visiting remote ranchers or driving herself to other towns by herself. Her independence worried all of them, since no matter how quiet the town was, the Territory was still a dangerous place; Chris Larabee was the only man with the cojones to talk to her about it, because that woman surely did have a temper when she got her feathers ruffled.
Buck remembered the conversation word for word that had taken place at the livery stable that day because it had been too damned good to forget. Mary had just driven back from visiting with a rancher's wife who was expecting another little one while her husband was away, taking the lady some womens' things for her laying-in and such. Buck was in the stall cleaning up Beavertail, his big gray, after the horse had managed to roll in every muddy, dung-covered spot in the corral when he heard the "clink" of Chris's spurs outside the stable door.
Meanwhile, a ways away, someone called a greeting to Mary Travis, and Buck heard the sound of the approaching buckboard.
"Mary, where you been?" Chris asked.
"Out to Riggins' place. Ruthie is alone out there while Fred is gone with the horses to Fort Yuma. I need to let Nathan know her time is close ..."
"You ought not to go alone," Chris said, his tone stern.
Buck winced, able to envision Mary's expression and Chris's reaction to what he knew would be anger from the independent widow. Buck also knew Chris was in trouble when he heard Mary's icy reply:
"Well, Mister Larabee, I was not aware that I had to ask permission to take an excursion."
"A woman alone is bait to some kinds of men," Chris replied.
He must have reached to help her down for Buck heard her snap, "Thank you, I am not helpless."
Buck had no way to escape, so he ducked deeper into the stall behind the big dapple gray, who shifted restlessly, and snuffled for the apple he knew Buck had hidden in his pocket. "Shut up, bonehead," Buck whispered and crouched in the straw, listening eagerly to what was proving to be a juicy encounter between two of his favorite people. He watched through a crack between the stall boards.
The doors creaked the rest of the way open and Mary led in the hack she always rented from Tiny. Chris Larabee strode at her side, his spurs ringing with the impact of his boots on the hard dirt floor.
The pretty widow wore a flat straw hat and a comely striped jacket over a snug shirtwaist that showed off her comely figure. Her cheekbones were bright with high color and her usually full lips were tightened indignantly.
Damn, she never looks prettier than when Chris gets her all het up, Buck thought.
"I ain't calling you helpless, but you can't just go drivin' around like it's Sunday-go-to-meeting."
"I carry a gun with me and I know how to use it," she said archly. "You taught me -- remember?"
"A Winchester ain't no use in a close encounter with the kind of man that will take what he wants without a second thought."
When Chris strung that many words together in one breath, it meant he was mad, and Buck fought to keep from laughing out loud. This was better than a tent show.
"I told you a long time ago that I won't live my life afraid of what might happen."
"Dammit, day to day around here is one thing when we're here to keep an eye on you. Running off into the malpais --"
"*Keep an eye on me?* Like I'm some sort of errant child?" She whirled to face him, her hands planted on her hips.
If her face had color before, now Buck saw that her cheeks were as crimson as the silk roses on her little hat. He ducked further behind Beavertail to hide from the upcoming storm.
Ol' Chris didn't stand a chance... he thought sadly. Damn' fool had forgot anything he learnt when he was married...
Buck did not have to watch what happened next. He had seen them go at it toe-to-toe more than once -- her, with her arms crossed over that handsome bosom of hers and him, with his eyes narrowed and his jaw hard as iron, his whipcord lean body tight as a steel wagon spring.
"If you want to run around actin' like a spoiled little girl, yeah," Chris snarled, meeting her belligerence with his own. "Mary, you best not go about alone and that's all there is to it."
"I am an adult, Chris Larabee, and you have no right telling me what I can and can't do."
"Judge Travis might think otherwise, considerin'--"
"I think the Judge would agree that I am an adult and my own woman. When I break a law then you can clap me in irons and throw me in behind bars! Until that time, I suggest you stick to terrorizing drunken cowhands and brawling with railroad workers."
Buck felt a surge in his pulse and a tightening below his belt at the image Mary's heated words brought to him. He could just see Chris grabbing her, forcing heavy iron shackles and chains around her delicate wrists, her blonde hair in wild disarray as he dragged her struggling body into one of the jail cells. Her breasts would be heaving above that little lace edge of her dress while he held her tightly... Oh, Lord, the temptation that woman offered! ...Buck licked the slight sheen of sweat from his upper lip under his mustache at the thought of Mary and Chris struggling body-to-body in a jail cell.
Damn, that man was made of iron if he couldn't feel any passion in her words.
Meanwhile, Chris's voice was low and husky as he said, "Fine, Missus Travis. Just don't expect me to give a damn if something happens and you get yourself ...." His words stopped abruptly and Buck heard his spurs rings with his bootheels hard on the packed dirt of the stable as he walked away.
A moment later, he heard an angry mutter from Mary and the jingle of harness as she unhitched the hack from the buckboard. Then Tiny came in, and she turned the horse over to the burly liveryman, and strode out in an indignant swirl of skirts.
As Buck emerged from the depths of the stall, Tiny said, "Howdy, Buck. I didn't want to come in while the yellin' was goin' on. What in hell was that all about?"
"Matches and dynamite," Buck had chuckled, and headed for the saloon to regale the rest of the boys with the latest.
Now, two weeks later, Mary had not been seen driving out alone once, and Buck was surprised that she had taken Chris's orders to heart. She had been seen riding with JD accompanying her couple of times, but seemed to be staying close to home for the most part. She had never put up with being told what to do by any man -- not even the Judge -- and for her to give in to Chris amazed Buck. Of course, it gladdened his heart on two levels because it meant she was accepting Chris's sensible advice to not put herself in possible danger; plus if she had decided to listen to Chris for a change, it meant that his opinion meant something to her. And that, in turn, meant that she cared what he thought about her.
True Love was inching forward, Buck figured with satisfaction, if she was obeying him. She had even taken it to heart so much that she would greet Chris with a smile and a nod, as if nothing whatsoever had happened in the stable that day.
Matter of fact, Buck had seen the change in her the very next day after their fight. He was surprised, since Mary usually stayed mad for days when Chris pissed her off. He and Chris had been walking toward the jail when she had come out of the hotel, a bundle of new editions of the Clarion in her arm. Her cheeks flared with a delightful pink as her eyes met Chris's, then she smiled so sweetly that Buck felt himself get harder than the hammer he'd been using to put up some wanted notices.
Chris had tipped his hat to her, his expression wary as she said, "Why, good morning gentlemen. Lovely day, isn't it?"
"Ma'am," Chris had said politely and touched the brim of his hat. Buck could see his eyes meet hers and narrow like he was waiting to be bushwhacked.
"Mister Larabee," she said, her voice dripping sweet with honey, then turned her smile full on to Buck, who reveled in the twinge of pure male heat that ran through him. "Buck. I hope the day stays as quiet as it is now. It's so nice that the town is settling down." She breezed past them, off to deliver her newspapers to the other businesses around town. Buck watched her walk away, her blue calico bustle swaying pertly as she walked.
Buck shifted uncomfortably to shake himself loose in his pants. "Damn, that woman is handsome, ain't she?" he said, knowing full well that Chris was a long way from blind and ball-less and always noticed her. Hell, as tight as Chris wore his pants, there had been times they all knew he had noticed, just nobody had the nerve to kid him about it.
"Reckon," was all Chris said and continued up the boardwalk, shoulders squared and back straight. It was all Buck could do to keep from laughing out loud as he followed after, whistling a merry little tune that he knew annoyed Chris.
Still, there was something odd going on around town -- Buck could feel it in his bones. The next time he got to thinking about all this was after he had run into JD.
JD was sitting outside the saloon, basking in the early morning sunlight, reading while finishing a beer mug of milk. The remains of his breakfast of steak and eggs were forgotten on his plate as he was engrossed in ... a dime novel. Beadles'. The Gunfighter and the Lady by Jock Steele.
"Hey, kid," Buck said, flicking JD's brown derby forward over his eyes as he dropped into the chair beside him.
JD scowled at him, and adjusted his hat back. "Hey, Buck."
"Been meanin' to ask, kid. Where you been off to in the mornings lately?" Buck lowered his voice suggestively. "You found yourself some sweet little homesteader's daughter you ain't tellin' Casey about?"
JD's brown eyes flared and for a moment his cheeks reddened. "No, just been gettin' out of town for some peace and quiet."
"Aw, come on, kid," Buck said, snagging the dime novel out of his hands. It was brand new, and from the date inside its cover, one of the latest ones. Like the ones Mary Travis had ordered. "You can tell ol' Buck --"
"Nothin' to tell, Buck. And it's none of your business, anyway." With that, JD slugged down his milk, snatched back his book and stomped off toward the boarding house.
Vin Tanner was in the jail, his mare's leg laying in pieces on a square of canvas on the desk when Buck wandered in. He was tinkering with the lever action mechanism with a small screw driver, and nodded a silent greeting as Buck entered.
"You know where JD's been riding off to lately?" Buck asked.
Vin shook his head. "Nope. Crossed his horse's tracks a time or two out west of town, but it didn't look like he was goin' anyplace special out there."
"Just ridin', huh?" Buck sat down, propping up his feet. "Don't seem like him, does it? He ain't much for bein' alone and just wanderin' around. That's more you than him."
Vin shrugged. "Maybe he just wants some peace and quiet."
Buck snorted. "Yeah. Like we ain't had plenty of that lately."
"Don't be complaining about it," Vin warned. "I kinda like not havin' folks shootin' at me all the time."
They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, as Vin's deft fingers worked at reassembling his beloved weapon. Buck watched in fascination as he did it seemingly without even looking at the pieces. They heard the unmistakable sound of Chris's spurs, and the tall, lean figure appeared in the doorway, a dark silhouette against the brightness of the mid- morning sunlight outside.
"Where's JD off to?" Chris asked, as his eyes were fixed down the street.
Buck and Vin exchanged puzzled frowns, and moved to join Chris on the porch, watching as JD reined up in front of the Clarion News and swung down. A moment later, he disappeared inside.
"Must be borrowin' one of Mary's dime novels," Buck said. "He does love them stupid books."
The three men stood silently watching as not two minutes later, JD walked back out, tossed a saddlebag on and swung into the saddle. He glanced their way, then turned his rangy chestnut, Fast Red, the other direction and trotted away without a backward look nor a nod or wave.
"There he goes again," Buck muttered. "Where the hell does he go?"
Chris was staring after JD, his eyes narrowed and his expression curious, as if there was some thought just out of his reach.
"What?" Vin asked, his eyes scanning Chris then flicking back to the end of the street where JD turned the corner and disappeared at an easy trot.
"Nothin'," Chris said, and his expression was a little embarrassed, as if whatever it was he thought was something that he should never have touched on in the first place.
Vin and Buck exchanged curious looks, this time about Chris and his momentarily odd expression as he watched JD.
"I need a drink," Chris said, and neither Vin nor Buck missed his one last, quick glance at the end of the now-empty street where JD had disappeared.
"Uh, Chris --" Buck said. "Ain't even nine yet"
Chris scowled and glanced up at the morning sun. "Okay, make it coffee," he growled and stepped off the boardwalk to cross the street toward the saloon.
It was then, down the street in front of the Clarion News, all three men noticed Mrs. Potter approach the door, pause, then walk away. The shades were down, and it appeared that the "closed" sign was out. Vin and Buck shrugged, and Chris merely frowned and continued into the saloon.
It was about an hour later when Nathan walked into the saloon, glancing back out the door toward the street as he stepped in, watching something. Instantly, the other five men scattered through the large room sat up straighter, watching the tall, black man who was a healer when he wasn't helping the other six keep the peace.
"Nathan?" Vin Tanner was the first on his feet, his coffee and plate of steak and eggs forgotten at the first sign of possible trouble.
"Two men sittin' on their horses outside the assay office," he said. "Two more just went inside -- Mister Talmage is alone in there today with his boy off to the Gayleyville office."
Vin joined him at the door, his hand lingering on his sawed off Winchester at his hip. Buck headed for the window at the other end of the room. He checked his Peacemaker and spotted the suspicious horsemen.
Ezra Standish laid aside his solitaire game, finished his cafe-au-lait with one last swallow and adjusted his shoulder holster as he rose. Across from him, Josiah Sanchez fingered the arcane copper-wrought symbol hanging on a leather thong -- this weeks' religious icon -- and sighed. His deep-set blue eyes locked with the sharp green ones of the gambler, and they shared a philosophical shrug as it appeared their peace was about to be shattered by trouble this bright and quiet midweek morning.
Chris Larabee was the last to rise from his table where he had been lingering over a cup of the mud that the Inez made specially for him, coffee that was too strong for anyone else and that he drank as black as his hat.
Chris nodded toward the back of the saloon and Josiah and Ezra headed out through the swinging door, past Inez who asked, "Quien sabe?"
Josiah answered, "Cuidado, querida. Ladrones."
Her large golden eyes widened with concern and she moved behind the bar, pulling down several of the more expensive bottles and placing them down behind the bar. Ezra nodded his approval and added, "Stay down, my dear. Just in case."
Inez nodded, but laid a shotgun out in the bar just in case.
Meanwhile, Nathan and Vin checked their weapons, while Chris walked out between them through the swinging doors and into the sunlight in the street. His pace was slow, ambling down the middle of the street in a long-legged stride that belied the tension they all felt at the growing danger.
Chris's eyes fixed on the pair outside the assay office sitting on their horses and holding the reins to two others. Behind him, Nathan and Vin emerged from the saloon and split up, Nathan walking casually across the street, while Vin ambled down the boardwalk, close beside the buildings. At the alley beside the saloon, he stepped out of sight.
A moment later, Buck continued past the alley, with a glance to the steps up the side of the barbershop that led to a ladder and access to the roof. Vin was already halfway up to the eaves where he could take a position overlooking the street. Buck did not have to watch to know that a moment later, the sharpshooter would be in position, covering the street in a deadly advantage.
As the familiar tableau fell into place, the few townspeople along the street began to walk away, taking shelter in the stores, and leading or riding their horses and wagons out of possible harm. The sight of Chris Larabee walking slowly down the middle of the street was one that always boded ill for whoever he intended to meet, and after two years, the people who had witnessed it before had learned to get out of the way.
Slowly, realization seemed to set in on the two men sitting on their horses and they turned to look at the man in black with his hat pulled low over his eyes who approached at a careful, lazy walk. One of them muttered something to the other, and backed his horse away from the railing where they waited for their friends who were inside.
The other looked toward the door in panic, then back at Chris. At that moment, the front door of the assay office opened and two men in canvas dusters and broad-brimmed hats appeared, one of them carrying a heavy canvas bag. As he turned to aim his pistol at the interior of the office, a shot exploded in the silence of the street, echoing between the buildings. The robber catapulted against the wall as Vin Tanner's shot took him out before he could shoot old Mister Talmage inside.
The other moved to draw on Chris; Chris's gun was already in his hand and cocked. He fired before the other man's gun had cleared leather and the man dropped, downed before he knew he had been hit.
Nathan and Buck opened fire on the two mounted men, who were aiming at Chris, while Josiah and Ezra appeared at the far side of the mercantile, covering the other end of the street and cutting off their escape. They wheeled their horses, trapped in a deadly crossfire. First one and then the other tossed their guns down and raised their hands. Their youthful faces were tense and pale in the face of the guns trained on them.
Chris waited while the others converged carefully, weapons ready. Vin stood above the roof line, across the street, his mare's leg still cocked as he covered them from above, his eyes scanning the street for more trouble just in case.
Suddenly from the alley behind the assay office a rider exploded, low over the neck of his horse, pistol drawn. He snapped off a shot at Chris, who spun and dodged, firing at the fleeing man. The galloping horse burst through between the other two riders. Their horses erupted, blocking Chris, Buck and Nathan from firing. The escaping bandito turned away from Josiah and Nathan, but just as he galloped toward what looked like freedom, the front door of the Clarion News opened.
JD Dunne stepped out, both of his ivory-handled Lightnings in hands. He was hatless and in shirtsleeves. In a wild leap, he cleared the hitching rail and landed in the street in front of the rider, who hauled in on his reins. His horse reared, settled and danced, and the last of the would-be robbers raised his hands in surrender. He was no older than JD, who grinned and shook his head. "Get down, kid. You're under arrest."
The young outlaw's horse shied away and trotted aimlessly down the street, while JD marched his prisoner back toward Chris and the others. Nathan, along with Josiah, was checking the two men who had been shot, while Ezra picked up the canvas bag that held the gold and silver stolen from the assay office.
Buck moved out to greet JD with a broad grin. "Looks like you got back in the nick of time, boy --"
A flash of dismay crossed JD's features, and his brown eyes widened in horror as he stared at Chris Larabee. Buck paused, then realized what was amiss just as Chris strode up to JD. His face was set in anger that had nothing to do with the outlaws and the attempted robbery, nor the men who had just been shot for trying something fatally stupid in this particular town.
"Where is she?" he demanded, his voice deceptively quiet.
JD swallowed hard. "I -- I --"
"What the hell?" Buck shoved the bewildered outlaw toward the jail without seeming to pay any attention to him until the man started backing away. Buck snapped his pistol up and cocked it, and still without looking said, "Don't even think about it!" and turned his attention back to JD and Chris.
Chris Larabee turned on his heel and strode toward where the other four horses stood. He looked them over quickly -- the best of the lot was a tall, long legged black and white paint standing with ears pricked at Chris. He checked the cinch, gathered the reins and stepped into the high-canteled Mexican saddle. He turned the responsive animal toward where JD still stood, pale and eyes wide with dread in the face of Chris's anger.
Chris glared at him. "Where?"
"I promised I wouldn't say."
Chris's shoulders tensed and for a moment it looked like he was going to climb back out of the saddle. JD took a step back and his defiant expression crumbled. "Wild Horse Creek. Up by the little falls."
"This was fuckin' stupid, JD. Both you and her!"
JD only compressed his lips and glared back at Chris. "She's a grown woman and you got no say what she does," JD said in a burst that surprised the hell out of everyone, including Chris. "Not after what happened with Ella..."
Buck winced at the full fury of Chris's angry expression leveled at JD.
Without another word, Chris set his spurs to the stranger's paint and galloped down the street.
Vin Tanner walked up, watching Chris ride out. "Is what's going on what I think it is?"
"Depends on what you think is happening," Buck said.
"Kinda looks to me that someone else rode out on top of Fast Red wearin' JD's hat and coat." A slight smile tugged at his lips. "What's Mary up to?"
JD shook his head. "None of anybody's business."
Vin and Buck each shook their heads, then returned to the matters at hand, with JD following on their heels. To Vin and JD, it was more important to get the prisoners jailed and the wounded man treated than it was to worry about what was about to transpire between Chris Larabee and Mary Travis, when he caught up, with her riding JD's horse, dressed in JD's clothes.
However, amidst all the excitement, Buck could not help allowing himself a smile, and the fervent wish that he could be a horsefly riding on the ear of that paint when Chris caught Mary. Somebody's fur was gonna fly.
And he'd wager that not even Ezra would offer a bet on whose it would be.
The paint gelding was a sweet goer, and Chris Larabee ran him until he was breathing hard and foam flecked his black and white coat. Chris slowed up, not wanting to take his anger and frustration out on an innocent and perfectly good horse.
Even at a light canter, the paint's long stride ate up the dusty road. About five miles out of town, Chris slowed him to a trot and then a fast walk to cool him out, because the cut off trail leading up into the high range country was a gradual rise that could wear out man and beast if not taken easily.
The land rose gradually, then grew steeper and rockier the higher up the trail went. Rocks gave way to boulders and rock slabs, and the sagebrush and prickly pear to pinion and lodge pole pine. This was beautiful country, and Chris admitted he wished he was here under other circumstances than angrily hunting for Mary Travis.
Of course, now that he was here, now that his temper had abated, he was wondering what he would do with her. What would he say to her, since there was no reason for him to have followed her like this. JD was right-- she was a grown woman and whatever damnfool thing she wanted to do, she could do on her own. He had no right to say anything because he had no responsibility where she was concerned.
She had made that quite clear to him.
So if he went any further, he would bet he was about to make a complete fool out of himself again -- not an unusual occurrence of late with Mary Travis. He reined in the paint.
He would just go back and never mention it. Since JD was not supposed to tell, it was obvious she had not wanted any of them to know where she was going, dressed in JD's clothes.
Dressed in pants, like a man.
Mary was a decent woman, a lady, all proper and refined. Something about that idea sent a bolt of reaction through him that shocked him. He had seen her ride astride -- hell, he'd been on the trail with her --but she had always been in skirts. Now she was in pantslegs, riding astride, her womanly hips not hidden by folds of cloth. Slender ankles and neatly turned limbs not swathed in miles of petticoats.
It was indecent. A rush of indignant anger rose in him. What kind of behavior was this...?
What if she was meeting someone? What other reason would she have for this kind of trick? How many times had she been riding out to meet someone that she did not want anyone else to know about? All that visitin' about...what if...?
Maybe it was someone who could bring her disgrace, possibly lose her Billy if the Judge found out? He knew from experience that she had a defiant fascination for bad men, or she would not have stayed friendly with him and the others. There was even a time when he thought she held him in a regard that was more than just friendship -- until Ella Gaines had shown up and he had been stupid enough to walk into her web. Since the day Mary had delivered that letter to him from Ella, things had not been the same.
Chris knew he had changed, but so had Mary. She had become more independent and headstrong, and God only knew what she was up to now.
A part of him deep inside rebelled at the thought that Mary Travis was having an illicit rendezvous with someone who could ruin her reputation if it got out. Someone no good. Someone else no good.
The thought overtook him unexpectedly along with a surge of emotion like he had not known since before he had married Sarah. He knew this emotion -- he had felt it one time when they were courting and Sarah had agreed to go to a barn dance with Buck, of all people. That realization alone made him want to turn back.
He was not jealous. Jealousy was a dangerous emotion that could get a man killed. There was a time when he was young and dumb, when he had let that particular emotion manipulate him, but that time was long past. Besides, to be jealous meant he had to have deeper emotions than friendship and concern for Mary. It meant he had a stake in her life, which he did not.
He was not jealous of Mary. In watching Gerard make all over her when they were traveling with the settlers to Green Valley last summer, he had proven it.
She had wanted to marry Gerard, so he had walked away and let her have her head about it. Of course, when she had sought him out, he had talked to her, but that's all he had done and he had never let her know that he felt anything about it personally. It was none of his business. He had been worried about Billy, was all.
There was no way his asking her if she loved Gerard had anything to do with her decision not the marry again and leave Four Corners. He had made it obvious to her and to everyone at the time that he had not cared what she did and that it was none of his business. His concern was for the Judge and how it would effect the old man and his grandson.
Mary herself had told him he had no right to tell her what she could do and where she could go.
Chris was within less than a mile of Wild Horse Creek when he stopped to think hard about chasing Mary Travis down. She had come this way; he could see the track of the special horseshoe Tiny had fitted to Fast Red's right rear hoof. No other fresh tracks from other horses showed. Whoever she was meeting could be coming in from another direction, he thought, and he cast around looking for other sign. The other hoof prints were days old, if not weeks. It was obvious that Mary had ridden this way on JD's horse, but she was alone. From the number of tracks, she had come her quite a few times before.
He had just crested the rise before the riverbank, when a shot startled him. In a flash his gun was in his hand and he had rolled out of the paint's saddle. The paint nickered nervously, then whinnied.
His own horse never made a sound around other, strange horses and it had saved Chris's life more than once. It was not critical now, though. With the paint's noise, all he had lost was the element of surprise; he would just need to be more careful.
In this case, Chris did not think he was in mortal danger from Mary Travis. Unless she took exception to his following her, of course. She did, after all, know how to use a long gun, because he had taught her himself with his own Winchester Yellowboy. He had no doubt that if she got mad enough, she could blow a hole clean through him.
In the last year, after she had come out of the two years of mourning Steven, Mary had developed a contrary streak that he had to grudgingly admire. She had proved on more than one occasion that she had more grit and stamina than most the men in town, outside of the other six who rode with him.
Chris had to remind himself that what she was doing now was nothing to admire. Whatever headstrong notion she'd fixed on that made her borrow JD's clothes and horse to ride out of town in secret could not be anything good.
He quickly knotted the reins around a fallen log and headed in the direction of the gunshot, keeping just under the crest of the ridge to stay hidden. In a copse of young cottonwoods, Chris knelt and waited for some indication of movement to give him direction.
The area into which Chris had followed Mary was the river bottom through which Wild Horse Creek flowed from high in the mountains to the west. Coming down from the high country, it carved its way through sandstone and redrock until a little way further up the slopes it cascaded out of a crevice into a falls that opened out into a deep pool. On one side was an open area of flat rock overlooking the water.
On the flat, backed by the bluff that overlooked it all, sat a log with a plank nailed to it to level it out. On it set bottles and cans, and scattered around was broken glass and beyond lay blasted tin cans. Beside that was a construct like a scarecrow with an old shirt on it topped by a stuffed flour sack with a face painted on. A bright red heart was sewn in the middle of the shirt, which he noticed was faded but still black.
The heart had holes in it. So did the dummy's forehead.
Chris frowned. Surely not...
The bushes rustled a hundred feet or so away, and Chris could have sworn that JD stepped out. Only it was not JD, because JD did not move like that. JD's hips did not sway when he walked and even under loose brown wool pants, there was no mistaking the feminine curve of her bottom. The jacket was off, her too-long shirtsleeves held up by garters that could only be her own because of the little blue ribbons like the ones that trimmed the petticoats she hung on her clothesline to dry. Her figure was concealed under a houndstooth vest. She had to be wearing the tightest corset ever made because he could see none of the lush roundness every man in town admired under her shirt.
Mary's blonde hair was tucked up inside JD's brown derby hat, and dirt smudged her cheeks and chin. Had he not known, he would have thought her an unshaven young man, obviously what she wanted anyone seeing her to think.
Chris's eyes lit on her waist. Wrapped around her slender hips was a gunbelt with not one, but two holsters, similar to JD's. Instead of Colt .44's however, the weapons were smaller, more like the Smith and Wesson .32 that Ezra sometimes carried in his shoulder holster.
Unbidden came the thought that she was smart to choose a smaller, lighter weapon, as delicate as her wrists and hands were. But this whole thing was still stupid and reckless.
Mary walked toward the target area, took a straight stance facing the dummy, drew and fired. She was not fast, but the bullet struck the dummy in the heart. She replaced the gun into the holster, then repeated the motion with her left hand. Crouching, drawing, firing. This time, the shot went wide, nipping the sleeve of the bullet-riddled shirt before it "pinged" off a rock on the hillside.
Instinctively, Chris ducked, even though he was well behind and out of the possible line of fire and ricochet. He heard a mumbled curse as she holstered the gun and shook out her hand as if the kick from the concussion had hurt.
It was time to finish this farce, Chris decided and rose from where he crouched.
At the sound of the gunshots echoing in the river bottom, Chris heard the distant whinney of the paint, immediatly answered by JD's horse.
Mary froze, whirling to scan the trees and bushes as she realized she was not alone. She scanned the trees, watching for any movement as she ran toward the underbrush, one pistol in her hand. She listened again as the horses called to each other, and started in the direction where the paint was tied up and was restlessly stamping and casting around at the end of his reins.
Chris knelt in the shadows as Mary, intent on the sounds from the paint horse, passed within a few yards of him. He waited, knowing she would have to return to the clearing for her gear and her horse, and he figured to confront her then. He could see her as she peered toward where the paint was tethered, and realized that she did not recognize the horse. To her, it meant a stranger had found her and he could see the fear in her face as she looked around for the intruder.
Quickly, Mary hurried back toward where JD's coat hung over a treebranch near where she had tied Fast Red. She scooped up her saddlebags and canteen, obviously intending to run for it.
At least she was doing the smart thing, Chris thought. She was not so foolish as to think she could handle a stranger alone.
It was lesson time, Chris decided.
Chris moved quickly through the underbrush, knowing that with his spurs and the dry brush around him, he was no longer silent. He was on her in a few more strides.
Mary had pulled the tether loose and had gathered Fast Red's reins in her hand to mount when Chris burst from the brush behind her. His arms slid around her, gripping her body and pulling her up against him. She erupted in a fighting ball of fury in his arms. Fast Red shied off, dancing away with rolling eyes and flaring nostrils.
Mary's wiry strength surprised him as she twisted and writhed. The brim of JD's hat hit his chin, knocking the bowler from her head to reveal her pinned up hair. She did not scream, only choked out, "Let me go!"
She kicked back with one leg. The heel hit him painfully in the shin and he grunted in pain. He managed to grab one arm, pulling it against her body and pinning it. Her other fumbled at her waist for a gun and Chris seized her wrist, locking it tight against her body.
As he pulled her against him, he could feel that she wore no corset, and without a bustle her bottom was tight against his groin. He hardened from the excitement, from her twisting and rubbing against him, and the sheer idea that this was Mary Travis in his arms.
Suddenly, the strength and power over her, the pure, masculine need to dominate this woman who had defied and frustrated him --for longer than he had ever put up with it in his life from anyone -- made him forget everything she was and everything he was. The ache radiating outward from deep in his gut made everything else fade to a hot, hard glow of raw need.
"Let me go," she yelled again and tried to bite at the arm closest to her face.
"I warned you what could happen," Chris murmured into her hair, his mouth close to her ear. "Goin' off alone..."
Mary stiffened and froze in his arms at the sound of his voice. In that moment, he whirled her around to face him, gripping her upper arms tightly.
Mary's pale blue eyes widened and her mouth formed a shocked "O" as Chris loomed over her and she recognized the man who now held her. He could feel her shaking. "Damn you," she said softly, exhaling as if she had been holding her breath.
"Too late," Chris said. And in that moment, a moment of utter insanity, he kissed her.
He felt her stiffen in his grip, her mouth rigid and hard under his as she resisted. Relentlessly, he pulled her against his chest and enfolded her in his arms while his tongue caressed the tight line of her lips until he felt them soften. A soft sound escaped her and her lips opened slightly, softening under his onslaught. Finally, she melted against him, and when he opened his eyes he saw hers were closed, the long lashes laying tight arcs against her pale skin.
Chris parted from her, and took a long, shuddering breath as the powerful urge that had overcome him ebbed. He was achingly hard from feeling her lithe body against his. He swallowed hard once, then swallowed again to find his voice.
Mary swayed a little on her feet, as if she was slightly dizzy, and slowly raised her eyes to meet his. Then without warning, her eyes widened and one hand rose in a startling flash to slap him.
The blow rocked him and he turned his face with it, closing his eyes tightly at the sting. Even though he released her arms, she still stood so close he could almost taste her.
"How dare you!" she hissed angrily.
The flash of anger must have shown on his face, for then she took a frightened step backwards and one hand went to the holster at her side while the other flew to her mouth in a completely feminine reflex of horror.
The absurdity of it struck and he could not help but smile. But he kept it cold and cynical, calculated to frighten her. She needed scaring out of this whole idea. Besides, it would feel good to do it, dammit.
"So, you're learnin' to handle a gun?" He backed off, his hands dropping to his side.
Mary's eyes widened in fear, then, as if she were facing a stranger, a man who really would and could kill her. She was shaking now, and her expression was one of a trapped animal.
It sent an odd twinge of pain through him as he realized she really was frightened of him. Of him. Chris Larabee. A woman, Mary Travis was scared of him. Mary, whom he had met head to head over trouble in town and who occasionally made him crazy; whom he had held in his arms when she was weeping in grief, and whom he had once rescued from a whoremonger's clutches and carried to safety. Mary, who faced down drunken drovers to save Nathan's life, who had ridden to Purgatorio to find him and bring him back to fight for the town... She was frightened of him.
"You...you were the one who said I couldn't protect myself," she said. "I knew you were right ... so I had to do something..."
To her credit, he thought, she was not crying. He had seen grown man start to cry and run when they thought he meant business.
"I'll have JD's ass for going along with this."
Now she really started to regain her spirit as her cheeks colored once more with his language and her temper. "You leave him alone. I talked him into this. I bribed him with apple pie and all the dime novels he could read." She took a step toward him, her hands on her hips. "But went along with it because he believed in what I was doing, because he knew it was the only way I could get away with this. He helped me because he knew I would do it anyway." She paused for a breath.
Chris held up one hand to stop her tirade.
Her chin came up defiantly. "I'm still going to learn how to draw and shoot, and there's nothing you can do to stop me."
Chris scowled as he realized that the way things had been in the past months between them, since he had gone off with Ella Gaines, and since he had recovered from his bullet wound but not from his bitterness. He had left room for this woman to be even a friend if she had wanted to, let alone to ask him for anything.
Of course, he had not left room for her to be anything else, either, and he didn't blame her.
"And you thought riding out like JD was the only way you could practice and get away with it?"
"Yes." Her eyebrows arched as once more she regained the disdainful expression he was so used to seeing. "As if anyone would have left me alone to practice and learn if they knew."
Chris knew that the "anyone" and the "they" meant him and the other five men besides JD.
"You could have asked," he said and for some reason suddenly felt like things had turned around on him. When had be become the one who had made a damned fool of himself and had said something wrong?
A harsh laugh escaped her. "And what would you have said?"
Chris let out a long and weary breath. He surrendered.
His eyes traveled over her, up the long legs to her rounded hips under the double holster rig that was heavy enough to be tugging down on the waist of the brown woolen pants that were just a little too big. Further up, the man's shirt with its open collar under the snugly buttoned woolen vest showed none of the bosom he knew lurked beneath its straining buttons. Her hair was pulled tightly against her head and pinned down, except for a couple of errant, golden strands that curled artlessly around her ears. Something about her all done up like this made his mouth hungry with wanting to kiss her again and brought a swelling ache deep behind his beltbuckle.
"You make a mighty handsome boy," He brushed past her and walked back toward where she had set up her targets.
When he glanced back, and saw her standing there staring after him, Chris said as gruffly, "Well? You want to learn or not?"
A smile played around her lips as she said, "What do you want me to do?"
Chris's eyes narrowed and he smiled slightly. He licked his lips to keep himself from answering. She might be dressed like a boy and acting shamelessly, but this was still Mary Travis and she was still a lady. Whatever images sprang to mind at her question he banished. However, he could not banish the hard bulge in the front of his pants, so he merely kept his back to her and pointed at the targets.
When he glanced back at her over his shoulder, she was smiling. "Are you tempting me, Mister Larabee?"
"Not as much as you're tempting me," he said quietly.
Mary fixed him with a surprised look as their eyes met.
She moved up beside him, this time relaxed and smiling. In one easy move she drew from her right holster and fired twice, each time shattering a bottle sitting on the plank. She broke the cylinder and shook the cartridges into her hand, tossing them over to join the spent cartidges to the small pile on the ground by an fallen log nearby.
Chris nodded his approval and moved around behind her. "What else did JD teach you?"
"To never fan my gun. To always aim before firing, and that accuracy is better than speed." Then she added, "And to keep moving if you miss the first shot."
Chris suppressed a smile. Buck would never know how much good his constant nagging at JD had done. "JD's smart. He just needs to remember to practice what he preaches."
"Did you teach him?" Mary asked as she snapped the cylinder closed once more on the five new cartridges.
"Some. He's good on his own. Buck's taught him a lot." Chris positioned himself beside her, his gaze lingering her hips where the weight of the gunbelt tugged down at her pants. "Draw," he ordered.
Mary slipped the gun back in the holster, stood for a moment, then dropped slightly into a crouch, and in one smooth movement drew and fired at the makeshift dummy.
"You're telling your friend out there when you're gonna move," he said. "Do it again, slow."
Mary nodded and slowly went through her motions again. Chris stepped close and placed his hands on her shoulders. She froze under his touch and looked up at him.
"You're dropping your shoulder before you draw. It's a tell."
Mary nodded, but his hands were still on her shoulders. "A tell."
"A giveaway. Like when you play poker...if you played poker." He shrugged slightly but his hands still did not move. His fingers flexed as if they had a thought of their own he could not control. He tried to concentrate harder. "And spread your...uh...limbs. Wider stance. Easier to ...move."
She complied, and in the process he felt her backside brush the front of his pants. Chris closed his eyes and released her shoulders. He was standing close behind her and looked down to see her bottom sticking out a little, almost meeting the painfully peaked front of his black pants. He took a deep breath as she spread her legs wider and flexed her knees a little, and drew once more and fired.
She was graceful and smooth, and when her first shot hit the dummy's tattered heart dead center; a second shattered the last bottle on the plank, she turned to him with a triumphant smile, her chin up, one brow arched smugly.
"Well, you ain't ready to clean out Tombstone," Chris said, fighting the smile that kept trying to break loose.
Several more practices later, Chris drew his Peacemaker and thumbed the hammer back to half-cock, tilted the gun and turned the cylinder until all five live shells dropped from the chambers into his palm. He pocketed them, reholstered the gun and said, "Unload both your pieces."
Puzzled, Mary broke and emptied first one and then the other, and Chris looked at each of them before replacing them in her holsters. She was squinting up at him, so Chris ordered, "Put the hat back on." Mary crossed to pick up JD's bowler from where it had fallen when he had surprised her by the horse.
Chris walked further out from her in that long-legged, lazy stride of his. "Pull it lower over your eyes. Keeps the sun out and keeps the other fella from seeing where you're looking."
Mary nodded, adjusting the hat. Then she seemed to realize that Chris had taken the position to face her down. She stood for a moment, legs together, hands clasped in front of her as if over a skirt. Chris stifled a smile. "Mary - you ain't gonna kill me standin' like a schoolmarm."
Her chin came up, and she shifted into the position he had taught her, hands relaxed at her sides.
"Go ahead, draw," Chris said quietly.
Mary licked her lips and hesitated for a moment. "Chris -- I --"
"Draw," he growled.
She drew, and before her gun cleared leather, his was out and pointed at her. She froze. In another blink of her eye, he spun the Colt and dropped it back into his holster. Slowly, he walked up to her until he loomed over her. In barely a whisper, he said, "Don't ever think you know enough to do this. You've only learned enough to get you killed."
Her reply surprised him. Instead of the spirited reaction he expected, she seemed bemused. "I know, Chris. No matter what you think, I'm not a fool and I'm not crazy. I only wanted to know enough to stay alive," she replied, laying her hand on his arm.
As if it had a mind of its own, his right hand rose to her smudged cheek and caressed the line of her jaw with his thumb. At his touch, she turned her face into his palm. As her lips caressed his rough, callused hand, Chris felt his resolve slipping. A soft sound of pleasure at his touch escaped her and he was lost.
"Mary," Chris whispered, and lowered his mouth to hers. This time his kiss was tender and gentle, and she melted against him, her mouth soft and pliant. For a moment Chris sank into the hot moistness of her mouth as his tongue probed more deeply, and hers met his boldly.
His arms slid around her, and Mary moaned softly as she molded herself against his body. The ache low in his gut flared to a fiery need as he let his hips press against the front of her pants. As he ran his hands over her back, he could feel a tight bandage around her torso, answering his question about her bosom. He wanted to tear it away, to feel her breasts, to devour that pale flesh he had admired for so long...
They stood in the morning sunlight, their hands roving each others' bodies, their mouths exploring. Finally, Mary pulled back, her breath coming in short gasps, with her cheeks bright pink. "Oh, my," she breathed.
Chris smiled hesitantly, with no more idea of what to say or do than before. "Best get moving," he said. "Time you got back."
"I suppose you're right," she sighed. Then for a moment they stood, each waiting for the other to move.
It was Chris who broke the spell. He stepped back, and with a curt nod, walked away toward the trees to bring back his horse.
Mary let out a long, shakey breath as she watched him walk away. For wont of something to do with herself, Mary reloaded her pistols and reholstered them before shrugged into JD's jacket and threw her saddle bags onto his horse.
The paint was where Chris had left him and led him down the slope and through the trees, the horse nuzzling and pushing at him playfully. Suddenly, however, the paint balked and whinnied loudly again.
The horse that answered was on the ridge above the trees instead ahead in the trees where Fast Red was tied. Chris stopped, scanning the area. He kept close to the trees, keeping under cover as he approached where Mary sat on JD's horse waiting.
"We've got visitors," Chris said.
Mary was already watching the ridge as three riders urged their horses down the slope toward the flat
"Get down," Chris said. "Let me do the talking."
Mary nodded, and swung down. "But Chris --"
"Keep your head low."
They both watched the approach of the riders, who rode road-weary horses and wore tan dusters with their hats pulled low. They were well-armed, and looked like they had been on the trail for a while.
"Chris," Mary hissed again.
"You didn't reload."
Chris growled a curse under his breath, but the three riders had reached the bottom of the slope. He had been so distracted by Mary that he had not reloaded immediately and it shook him.
"Stay behind me and keep quiet," Chris said. "Don't do anything unless I tell you." He glanced at her and shot her a reassuring smirk. "You're standing like a girl, JD."
Mary frowned back at him and pulled the brim of JD's hat lower. She took a straighter stance, her legs set a little wider.
Chris gritted his teeth, hoping and praying that whatever was about to happen would end peaceably. With an empty gun he could not protect Mary Travis, and if these men discovered that underneath JD's clothes was a beautiful woman... His stomach tightened up painfully at the thought.
The men walked their horses up to about ten yards away and stopped. The leader was a burly man with a heavy mustache, and runnels of tobacco juice crusted at the corners of his mouth.
"Howdy, boys," he said.
Chris merely nodded. The other two men were staring at Mary, who stood back and a little behind Chris, her arms crossed over her chest.
"We heard you practicing --" One of the others, short and heavy with a slight Irish brogue. "Saw you practicing somethin' else, too."
"Pretty boy you got there," said the third, a skinny youth with a pockmarked face.
Chris shot him a cold look. "So?"
He let his hand drop closer to his side.
Slowly, the leader of the three brought his hands into plain sight and rested them on his saddle horn. "Trails get a little lonely is all," he said and licked his lips. "He for sale?"
"He can speak for himself," Mary said, her voice pitched low and flat, sounding a little hoarse but enough like a man. "And JD Dunne isn't for sale."
The three men looked at each other. The Irishman said, "JD Dunne. You ride with the Larabee Gang out of that town about five or six miles from here?"
The pocky one said, "Heard you're good with a gun."
"You don't want to find out how good," Chris said.
Mary nodded, keeping her head low. She stood ramrod straight, dropping her hands low to her sides like she had seen them all do at one time or another.
The big one looked even more uncomfortable and asked, "You wouldn't be Larabee, would you?"
"Does it matter?"
The three men looked at each other. "Heard a lot 'o things about you, but this --" He nodded toward "JD". "This wasn't one of 'em," the Irishman said.
Chris merely shrugged.
The big one looked at the others and grinned. "How about we make our noon camp here, boys? Looks like Mister Larabee and his friend can use some company."
"Nope," Chris said. "Ride on. JD and me ain't lookin' for company."
"I'll bet y' don't," the Irishman laughed. "Can't say as I blame y' either. He looks real sweet."
"What?" Mary started, but Chris stopped her with a hand on her arm and a curt, "Let it go...'JD'."
"Ride on. We don't want no trouble," Chris said. "And the kid here can give it to you."
"Looks like trouble ain't all he can give," said the big one and laughed loudly. "What about you?"
"Trouble's my middle name," Chris said, his hand lingering close to his holster.
"Come on, boys, let's leave these love-birds alone," the big drifter said.
Out of the corner of his eye, Chris could see Mary's color rising as the man's words sank in.
Laughing, the three riders turned their horses. However, the youthful one with the pocked cheeks paused and leaned down to say, "Someday maybe we'll meet again and you'll find out how fast I am."
"Just come looking for JD Dunne. You'll see fast"," Mary said, keeping her voice low and the brim of the bowler obscuring her eyes.
"JD," Chris growled.
"Leave 'em, Jimmy." The big man gigged his horse into a trot away, and the other two followed, the pocky kid glancing over his shoulder more than once. One of them said something and they all laughed.
Chris heaved a sigh of relief as the three men topped the ridge and rode away. "I thought I told you to stay quiet," he said without looking at Mary. He pulled out his Peacemaker and reloaded it.
"Well, he ---they--oh, Chris, they think you -- that we -- " her cheeks were bright red. "Oh, my. They think you and JD...."
"Who cares? Ain't the truth. That's all that counts." He watched the play of emotions and confusion so visible on her face. He fought against a smile and lost.
"But -- " She pointed a shaking finger after them. "They... they wanted to buy me! I mean, who they thought I was...."
"You make a real pretty boy, Mary." His smile faded, and he said after a moment, "What do you think would have happened if they thought you were a woman?"
Mary frowned. "It didn't sound like they would have wanted me if I was...I mean, I am a woman but...as a woman."
"Don't fool yourself. Some men don't care either way."
"Chris, I'm sorry. Your reputation -- those men think you're a...well...you know..."
Chris shook his head. "You don't understand. Don't matter about me. Better that than bad things getting back to Billy and the Judge about you..."
It was clear that Mary was completely shocked by the men and what they thought, as well as his lack of concern about it. "But...it doesn't bother you...?"
"Seen it before. Ain't my style, if that's what you're asking." He looked her up and down, and his lips quirked into a smile.
Mary's eyes were wide, her color high. "You've seen it?"
Chris shrugged. "The army, prison, there's a brothel in Mexico --" then he stopped. "This ain't the kind of thing I should be talking about to you."
Her eyebrow shot up. "I'm a reporter, remember?" She added saucily, "Besides, I'm just one of the boys, aren't I?"
"No," he said. "Dammit, you're not, Mary." He stepped closer until he stood right up against her. "Even in those clothes, playin' gunfighter, you're not." As if to emphasize it, he took off JD's hat and tossed it aside. "A hat and guns don't make you one." He grabbed at the front of her gunbelt and the second he touched her, he knew it was a mistake because it set off something in both of them again.
"I certainly don't feel like one of the boys, either, Chris," she said, and raised up on tiptoes to kiss him again. Her lips brushed his lightly. To keep her balance, she pressed her hips against his, the firm rise of her mound against the hard ridge at the front of his pants. His hand gripping her gunbelt was trapped between their bodies and he pulled her even closer then let his hand slip around to hold her hip below the gunbelt. He covered her mouth with his, kissing and nipping at her lips, his tongue licking and probing until she responded in a deep and consuming kiss.
When they parted, all Chris could do was hold her, resting his forehead against hers, until he regained control.
She reached up to kiss him again, taking his face between her hands. "Do you think those men are really gone?" she whispered. "Because if we're really alone..."
"You can't say things like that. You don't know what it means --"
"Yes, I do. It means that if those men had never shown up, if we knew we were completely alone, for this afternoon I would not care what happened. Wearing these clothes, wearing a gun, without having to care about Mrs. Respectible Mary Travis..." She smiled a wicked smile. "You might not be safe alone here with me, Mister Larabee."
A fresh surge of desire made him pull her close again and her arms slid around him. He rested his chin on the top of her head and took a deep breath. "We best ride out, Mary. Right now. For both our sakes."
He knew in that moment if she hesitated one more minute, if she kissed him once more, if he thought about it for even a second ...
Mary sighed and nodded. He released her. She picked up JD's hat and set it on her pinned-up hair and tugged it low. She adjusted her gunbelt on her hips and pulled herself up into Fast Red's saddle without asking for his help mounting.
Chris swung onto the paint's back and led the way up the slope and out of the riverbed, leaving the target range behind. At the top, Mary urged Fast Red into a trot to catch up to the paint, then slowed him to match the paint's brisk walk.
"I'm coming back to practice again tomorrow," she said.
Chris remained silent as they turned their horses east toward the road that would lead back to town.
"Will you come with me?" she asked.
Disappointment was keen in her eyes. Her shoulders squared little and her mouth took on that look of determination he was so used to seeing from her.
"My place," he said.
Mary stared at him in surprise. She wasn't paying attention and the horses came close enough that their stirrups touched and her leg brushed Chris's.
"Safer. Closer." Then he glanced down at her leg rubbing his. "Among other things."
"I won't have to dress like JD," she said. Her tone seemed to have a little touch of disappointment and she left the words hanging as if waiting for him to say something.
"You might as well, Mary," he said solemnly. "My reputation's already ruined --"
With that, he tossed her a grin and kicked the paint into a canter, without looking back to see if she galloped after him.
Buck Wilmington was sitting on the porch of the saloon, waiting for Chris Larabee to bring Mary Travis back to town. He was looking forward to seeing what kind of sparks had been flying, since Chris had been hotter than a two-dollar pistol when he had ridden out.
He could imagine what kind of fight they'd had when he caught up to her. Blood racing, tempers hot...and her wearing pants like a boy, showing off those fine limbs of hers.
Well, if Chris didn't find himself in over his head from all this, there was no hope at all.
Vin Tanner pushed his way out of the swinging doors of the saloon and sat down, a cold mug of beer in his hand.
"Where the hell you been? Josiah was lookin' for you over at the jail, to help watch the prisoners," Buck said.
"Been around," Vin said with a shrug and took another swig of beer. "No sign of Chris or 'JD'?"
"JD's over at the newspaper office --" Buck said before he realized that Vin was making a joke.
"No, I ain't," came JD's voice from the saloon behind Buck. He stepped out wearing his own coat and hat.
Buck eyed the young man with a scowl. "Mary and Chris back?"
Vin was grinning at Buck for not knowing everything up to the moment that was going on. "You didn't ask if JD was around, Buck. Or I'd have told you."
"Mary's been back for a while. Chris not back yet?" JD asked.
JD glanced up the street to where the front door of the Clarion News opened and Mary stepped out, a canvas work apron over a neat calico dress. The afternoon sunlight caught her blonde hair, as it fell around her shoulders. She held a broom and began to sweep the afternoon's dust and dirt from the boardwalk in front of her office. She glanced their way and waved as if it was an ordinary day.
At the far end of the street, they saw Chris on the borrowed paint horse come around the corner by the church. His hat was pulled low, his dark shirt and vest were dusty from his long ride. The paint walked as if he had been ridden hard.
"Mary didn't say she'd run into Chris," JD said. "Reckon she's lucky, mad as he was."
"Bet you ain't gonna be so lucky," Buck said. "If he didn't find her, he's been riding a long time for nothin' on a borrowed horse and a strangers' saddle."
Vin propped up his feet and shot a grin at JD. "Glad I ain't in your boots, JD. Ol' Chris don't look none too happy."
JD shrugged. After they had broken up the assay office robbery, he 'd had enough of their predictions about how bad Chris was going to chew his ass out for helping Mary Travis learn to use a handgun. Really use one, not just point and shoot. He had figured that if she was going to keep going out and around alone and she needed to learn to protect herself, then she ought to do it right.
He would have helped her even if she hadn't bought him a new shirt and pants, and a whole stack of the latest novels from Beadle's. That apple pie all for himself was a pretty good reason all by itself, though, he figured with a smile. The novels just gave him something to do while he waited for her to come back from practicing. Once he had taught her the basics, all she needed to do was practice and she had wanted to do that alone, so he had agreed.
Chris let the paint walk up to the hitching rail, then he stepped wearily down. He loosened the cinch on the Mexican rig, let the horse drink at the trough, and looped the reins over the hitching rail.
Buck was grinning at him. "Didn't find her, huh?" He nodded toward the Clarion News where Mary was sweeping.
Chris scowled at Buck, then at JD.
Vin was watching him intently, his blue eyes narrowed over his mug of beer with an enigmatic smile, like he knew something no one else did.
JD held up his hands and said, desperation lacing his tone, "Now, Chris. Hear me out, okay --"
Chris repeated patiently, "JD. Inside. Now." He pushed through the doors, and a moment later, JD followed.
Buck scooted his chair a little closer to the door to listen, as from inside, they heard Chris say, "I give up, JD. You want to help her, help her. Deal me out, all right? If she wants to parade around in pants and shoot a gun, that's her business. Ain't none of mine. I don't give a damn --"
"Look, Chris --" JD protested, then their voices dropped so Buck and Vin could not longer hear.
Buck's mouth frowned in frustration. "Well, hell --" He kicked out of his chair and pushed through the doors.
Chris reappeared, with a bottle of whiskey and a glass. "Them prisoners taken care of?" he glanced over his shoulder to where he could see Buck asking JD questions and JD shaking his head.
"Yup," Vin said. "How was that paint?"
"Makes too much noise around other horses." Chris dropped wearily into Buck's chair and poured himself a shot. "Otherwise, fine."
A moment later, JD came striding out. Over his shoulder, he said, "Doggone it, Buck, leave it alone, okay?" As he passed Chris, JD broke into a grin and nodded. He stepped off into the street and headed for the jail, his thumbs hooked in his gunbelt and whistling a chipper tune.
Vin watched JD walking away like he hadn't a care in the world and it only lent to his amusement. "Didn't find Mary, huh?"
Chris slugged back another shot. "Why?"
Vin shrugged. "I rode out after you. Thought I could help..." He seemed to be trying not to smile as he added "...to keep you out of trouble."
Chris only grunted. His eyes drifted down the street to where Mary had paused in her sweeping to talk to Mrs. Potter passing by.
Then Vin said, "Ran into some fellas on the road. Three of 'em. Tan dusters. Kinda low-life, seemed to me."
Chris's expression stayed carefully neutral as he watched Vin with narrowed eyes like he was waiting for something more.
Vin drained his beer and stood up, stretching lazily, then the long-haired tracker looked down at Chris and winked. "Ain't too sure about bein' on the trail alone with you from here on out, pard. Might sully my reputation --"
Chris chewed in the inside of his cheek as his face reddened under his scowl. His eyes were on Mary down the street, and Vin followed his gaze.
When their eyes met again, Vin was grinning. Chris just shook his head.
In front of her newspaper office, Mary paused at the door and nodded politely in their direction. Chris touched the brim of his hat. She went inside.
Chris said, "Vin. Tomorrow. I'm ridin' out to my place for some peace and quiet. Don't expect to be disturbed."
"Don't reckon anybody will," Vin said. "But I'll see to it."
Still grinning, Vin walked into the saloon again where Buck was leaning morosely on the bar. As the barkeep put up another mug of beer for Vin, Buck said, "I can't believe them two people."
"Who, Buck?" Vin asked, as if he didn't know.
"Aw, Mary and Chris. Ain't natural, two people who make each other that crazy got to have something between them." Buck shook his head. "Damn, I thought sure if he found her out there alone, maybe..."
Vin leaned on the bar and sipped his beer. "You know, Buck, some things have to happen in their own time." He added quietly, "Maybe you should mind your own business. Then somethin' might happen."
Buck reared back, his eyes wide and a hurt expression on his face. "Me? I do, Vin, I do! I mind my own business. How can you say that? I just like to keep tabs on things so I know what's going on, is all."
Vin nodded, his expression serious. "Sorry, Buck. I reckon I misunderstood."
Buck took another deep draught of his beer. "Trouble is. Nothin's goin' on." He drained his beer. "Not a damned thing, after all."
"I reckon." Vin smiled slyly. "You know, I'm a little worried about Casey. Thought I saw her talkin' with the son of the fella that bought the saddle shop. Since JD's been kinda busy lately ..." He shrugged. "Well, I sure hope nothin's goin' on.."
"Really?" Buck asked, and called for another beer. "You know, when I was in Mrs Potters the other day, Casey was lookin' at a new blouse...Don't that seem unusual for her since she don't like them frilly things? Not that she couldn't use a new blouse, but ...."
Now that Buck was off and sniffing on another trail, Vin glanced to the doorway as a movement caught his eye. Chris Larabee had risen and walked slowly past the windows in the direction of the Clarion News. Vin raised his glass in a silent toast for luck, then turned back to listen to Buck. Just in case there was something he ought to know about goings-on, because Lord knows, Buck was the one who would know if anybody would.