Dawn visited the next morning and her soft light seemed to steal the tension away. Buck slept all day, allowing the herbs Nathan plied him with to work. It was almost sunset when he hobbled downstairs looking for supper, feeling lightheaded but stronger. Josiah was dozing in the large wing chair by the window. He didn't see anybody else. He turned just in time to see Vin flick his eyes the other way. But the tracker wasn't quick enough.
"Shit..." Buck whispered, seeing the guilt in the blue eyes. Vin didn't need any more weight to tote around. He limped over and got a bottle from the wheeled liquor cart. He grabbed two glasses and eased himself on the edge of Vin's makeshift bed. "Hey, Slick, you're lookin' better." he noted of the improved breathing. "To your health..." Buck handed Vin the glass and the tracker nodded and took a small sip. Buck took a sip and an exasperated sigh slipped out. "It wasn't your fault, Vin. I'm the one who leaped out in the dark...hell, I ain't as spry as younguns like you..."
"I know." Vin lifted his head and Buck saw a glimmer of mirth forming. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously as Vin continued, lifting an eyebrow. "I hit what I aimed fer...spoiled the other fella's fun."
"Un-huh..." Buck chided, pouring them both another shot. He rubbed the wound on his upper thigh and eyed the smirking Texan. "Some sharpshooter...a few inches higher..."
"Never happen." Vin crowed, tipping his glass. "Wouldn't deprive the world of all the Lil' Bucklins hankerin' to get born."
"Good Lord, that picture is enough to ruin my appetite." Ezra announced, helping himself to a brandy. "Countess Wilmingtons set loose on society..." He shuddered and winked at Vin. Buck was good for what ailed you...he had a gift for healing souls and a huge heart.
"Hey Ez..." Buck's head spun and his eyebrows wiggled, "If we timed it right and you had a little girl one day..."
"One of them Lil' Bucklins would get hitched to a Standish..." Vin finished, already laughing.
The image that produced sent the Gambler into a fit of coughing. Buck rose and hobbled over, slapping his friend's back. "Look at that, Vin. He's all choked up just thinking about it. Wilmington blood altering the Standish lines for all eternity. Damn..." Buck praised.
"I'd sooner commit her to a nunnery..." Ezra gasped, the last of the spurned liquor clinging to his shirt. He saw the baudy wink, and felt Buck clap his back. He couldn't help but laugh.
"Hey Ace, think of the party we'll have...be a helluva weddin'"
+ + + + + + +
Later, after dinner, cigar smoke hung in the Dining Room air, the blue haze circling around the card game. The five present tossed coins and cursed as appropriate. Finally they called it a night., Ezra and Nathan split the pot.
"It's way too quiet in there." Buck warned, glancing towards the parlor where J.D. and Vin were housed.
"I concur," Ezra nodded, eyeing the ceiling. "I'd advise against sudden opening of doors, potentially bearing buckets of water, loose rugs..."
"...chili pepper in the salt shaker...spit balls..." Chris added, of the pranks of the two youngest.
"We best corral them youngsters before the house burns down." Buck said, letting Josiah help him up. "Thanks Big Guy..." He limped behind the rest, and wondered at Nate and Ezra's laughter from the doorway.
"Where the hell did you get that?" Chris demanded, his long legs taking him to Vin's side. J.D. jumped up and dodged the menacing black cloud. He sought refuge behind Buck and Josiah.
"Coward..." Buck teased, ruffling the dark hair and laughing.
"Is that where you disappeared to?" The leader drilled the grinning sheriff, who nodded. "...my saddlebags?" He turned to his best friend and cuffed him lightly, "You teaching him to steal too now? Hell Vin, I ain't gonna have a stitch of clothing left." He grilled, trying desperately not to laugh. The recovering tracker was decked from head to toe in black. Chris heard the guffaws echoing around the room.
"Decided to change m'ways." Vin sat up, putting on a cocky face, "Gonna take to wearin' black all the time. Flittin' about town cussin' everyone out...glarin' folks down...bein' a real onry cuss..." He paused, flicking an eye on his chuckling friends and to face next to him, struggling hard for composure. He lifted his head arrogantly and tilted his nose in the air. "Hell...might even take up smokin'" he said haughtily, sending the room into convulsive laughter.
Chris dropped the mask and let the laughter spill past his lips. Damn tracker read him to well. Chris had been sullen all day...moody and snapping at everyone. He disappeared for several hours , trying to find some peace and put his soul back together. He knew Vin was worried, the blue eyes followed him everywhere. As the laughter grew louder, the twin forearms snapped together and he sent his thanks silently. Then he leaned in and issued his own threat.
"You ain't got the balls to wear 'em." He pronounced, raising a sandy eyebrow.
"It ain't the clothes what makes the man...it's the man what wears 'em." Vin crowed, raising his own eyebrow. He eyed the gunslingers hips and proclaimed boldy, "That's a bet you'd lose, Cowboy..." He grinned and heard Buck chortle loudly.
"Fuck you, Tanner." Chris grinned, playfully cuffing the tracker's head. He rose to get a drink and let the wonderful music in the room fill him. That laughter laced comaraderie gave him hope. These men...his friends...no, his brothers bound by blood, sweat and tears...were a reason to live.
Three days late, Four Corners, midday
"He still out?" Chris called from his horse back to the wagon bearing Buck and Vin.
"Sleeping like a baby," Buck answered, "Drooling like one too..." he chuckled, using the edge of Vin's blanket to dab the saliva running from the slumbering tracker's mouth. "Nathan doused him good." He noted of the healer, who was worried about the bumpy ride jarring the patients broken ribs.
"Maybe it's better..." J.D. eyed the crowded street as they rode into town. "It might upset him."
He recalled the tense face at breakfast, when Chris gently tried to talk about the return and Vin stonewalled him.
"He can't hide anymore." Chris replied, "He's got no reason to."
"That's easy for you to say." Nate addressed, "You've never been there, I have and it hurts like hell. We ain't gonna force him...I don't want him upset now, he's got too much healin' to do."
Chris made a face, not happy with the healer's decision but willed himself to stand by him. He slid off the horse and made his way to the wagon. Josiah got Buck steadied and turned him to the direction of the mustached man's extended arm.
"You buying?" The preacher asked, "I earned at least two beers...totin' services and moral support."
"Moral support my ass," Buck laughed, "You're hanging around Ezra too much."
"Buck, where you going?"
"Dammit Nate..." Buck winced as the hand clapped on his shoulder at the edge of the cart.
The noise and jarring motion caused the other patient to stir. He was in a sitting position, propped up by several pillows and covered in blankets. He tossed them aside and attempted to slide out, only to be met by a hand on his chest.
"I wouldn't..." Chris warned, eyeing the tired face. "How you feeling?"
"Tired..." Vin sighed, "Dammit, Nate, can ya give me somethin' to fix that? Ain't no call fer me to be so wore out...hell, all I do is sleep."
"You're wore out because you had a nasty infection and you lost some blood. You need food and rest. Here..." He thrust the crutches at Vin. "You're on these for another month. The foot is a long way from healed. The infection ate through most of your muscle."
"Yeah...yeah..." Vin waved his arm. "Somebody say Buckin's buyin'?"
"You ain't seein' the inside of no damn Saloon for another week. Get movin'" He pointed towards the clinic as Vin started out on his crutches. "Your bandages need changing."
The tracker froze as a flying bundle of boy propelled into him. He bit back the wave of pain from the impact on his ribs. He would have fallen altogether if Chris hadn't been next to him.
"Whoa, Pard." He steadied Vin and waited for the tracker's breathing to regulate. He squatted down to speak with the anxious boy. "You gotta be careful around Vin...he's still getting better. His ribs and foot are sore."
"Oh...I'm sorry, Vin...I was so happy to see you." Billy's head dropped.
"s'okay Pard." Vin chimed, ruffling the blond hair, "I missed ya...Ya been behavin'?"
"Yeah...I sure did miss you, Vin."
"So did I."
Vin froze as Mary's voice sauntered from behind him. Chris saw the blue eyes widen in fear as several of the town's residents began to approach. He felt the tension building and saw the hands on the crude crutches Josiah crafted, trembling. He rested a hand on Vin's shoulder and gave a gentle squeeze. "Easy, Cowboy..."
"Get me outta here, Chris...please." Vin whispered, turning to his best friend.
"You can't run forever, Vin." Chris answered, drilling the fear from the blue eyes. "It's not like you to run. You turnin' yellow?"
"Get the hell away from me..." Vin angered, shoving the lean gunslinger with his crutch. Where did Chris get off calling him yellow? He tried to move forward, but stumbled badly and fell forward. Someone broke his movement and he was able to right himself.
"Thanks..." He stopped, words frozen in his throat when he saw Mary's arm around him.
"I'm sorry, Vin." Mary offered sincerely, feeling every bit of Vin's inner turmoil. "I've never been so ashamed of something I've done in all my life. I hope one day you can forgive me."
She offered and extended her hand.
Vin stared at it and frowned, remembering the horrid words spewed at him. He bit his lip and saw Chris's glaring at him.
Get your Goddamn head up, Tanner the green eyes scorched.
I can't...do...this... he denied, trying to escape the silent Larabee wrath.
You are yellow.
"Chris," Vin hissed, as the leader turned away in disgust. Vin beckoned to the back of the black shirt. He didn't want Chris thinking he was a coward. He took a deep breath, steeled himself and squared his shoulders away.
Chris heard the audible intake of air and stopped. It had taken all his strength to walk away from Vin, but it was necessary. He turned and met the blue eyes, and gave a nod of encouragement, when he saw the determination there.
Vin nodded to Chris and turned, eyeing the crowd slowly, staring hard at every face and recalling every slur thrown his way that day. He rested on Mary, who had paled and was backing away.
"I never claimed t' be better than any of y'all..." He directed at all of them and bore his cerulean gaze into Mary. "But I sure as hell ain't any worse. I'm decent too. Don't ya never say that t'me again."
Mary took a breath and stepped forward, resting a tentative hand on the tense forearm gripping the crutch. She rested the other on his heart. She felt the anxious muscle beating frantically and realized just how difficult that statement was for Vin Tanner. She remembered the body flying without hesitation into Ella Gaines, a fearless action that saved the lives of nearly everyone in town. She patted the heart and lifted her hand to caress his cheek...such a handsome face.
"Like Galahad your quest was true
Courage and honor resting easily in eyes so blue
Melodic chords struck lyrically from this wounded hero's heart
Have humbled us and we bow, extending a laurel wreath."
After a deafening moment of silence, it started slowly. He felt the heat rise to his face, and his eyes fill. A few murmurings, then Buck's whistle and loud cheer. Chris's hand gripping the back of his neck and a beautiful smile on his face. Vin's face flushed even more as the applause began. He met Mary's gaze and nodded once, then watched her face light up and tears spill down her cheeks. She embraced him, speaking softly in his ear of how much he meant to her. He eyed the dopey six identical grins plastered on his friends faces and dropped his head, embarrassed. Finally the noise died down and he raised his face. He nodded to Ming, recalling what Nate told him. He found the faces of Mrs. Potter and the others who'd always been kind to him. He felt Mary kiss his cheek and he blushed again.
"Aw, hell..." He drawled, "reckon I got me some competition." he noted of her poem.
"Reckon you do..." Chris leaned in and winked at Mary.
"Think you can handle the rest." He nodded to the steps.
"Piece o' cake..." Vin bragged, waiting for Nathan to fall in step with him. "Where ya headed?"
"I got a prior engagement to attend to." Chris said snootily
"Don't go Ezra on me, Cowboy..." Vin chuckled, eyeing Chris and Mary's eyes meet. They began to walk towards the boarding house. "It's about damn time...ya ain't exactly young anymore." Vin hollered after Chris, eyeing them heading for lunch. Chris pressed his arm around to the middle of his back and gave Vin a solo-fingered salute. Vin's laughter chased up the boardwalk and sailed through the air. Suddenly, the sun seemed brighter and the air sweeter. Yes, it was good day to be alive.
+ + + + + + +
Darkness was beginning to seep through the windows as the medicine man checked on his patient. After eating lunch and drinking his herbal tea, the recovering Texan had fallen into a deep sleep. Nathan spent the afternoon studying his new library of medical texts, courtesy of Dr. Gibson. He rested a hand on Vin's shoulder and shook it gently. He chuckled when the blue eyes glared at him and the hand rose up to smack him. It was good to see the old, feisty Tanner spunk return to where it belonged.
"Leave me the hell alone. Was havin' me a nice dream."
"Do I know her?"
"Ya can't afford her..." Vin retorted, letting Nathan ease him upright. "Where's the damn fire?"
"Time for supper."
Vin lifted his head and sniffed, noting the empty table. "Where is it?"
"We ain't eatin' here. Chris and them's waitin' on us at the hotel. It's Thursday night..."
"Fried Chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, apple pie..." Vin rambled, his hungry stomach reminding him of his favorite weekly meal. "Why'd ya let me sleep so late? Ya know J.D. gets there when the damn bird's still bein' plucked...hell the way that boy eats, I'll be lucky iffen there's a damn wing left."
"Slow down..." Nathan called, as the tracker headed for the stairs. "Gimme them and go down on your ass...and button your pants before you end up in jail."
"Anything else?" Vin complained, easing himself down the stairs.
"No, reckon that will do for now." the grinning dark face replied.
"Here he comes..." Billy yelled, from his spot on Buck's lap. "You remember what to say?"
"Hmmm..." Buck stroked his chin..." Happy Birthday?"
"Hmmm..." Buck snapped his fingers, "I know, Merry Christmas."
"NO, you're fired..." Billy decided, wiggling and giggling as Buck tickled him.
"OH!" Buck slapped his head. "I'll try to remember, okay? We still Pards?"
"I guess..." Billy nodded, "Uh-oh...hide me..."
"What?" Buck spun, eyeing the crowded room. "What for? Your Ma after ya? What'd you do?"
"No...it's Allison Parker..."
"That pretty little red-headed gal...hey, she's at least eight...an older woman chasing after ya?"
"She's a girl....it's not funny." He whispered, peeking around the laughing man's chest. "She sneaks up on me and kisses me. Yuck." He wrinkled his face.
"Trust me, Son...you'll come to appreciate that fair maiden one day. Old Uncle Buck will teach you the ropes. You stick with me, Kid."
"Yes, do that and you'll be incarcerated by the age of twelve." Ezra crowed.
"Don't try to weasel out of that bet, Ace," Buck said of their womanizing wager.
"Moi?" Ezra tapped his chest. "A Standish never refutes the gauntlet."
"Except if his name starts with Ezra P." J.D. offered, getting a slap of approval from Josiah.
"Shhhh!" Mary warned, silencing the room
"Dammit, Nate...back the hell up." Vin's crusty voice was heard. "Ya git any closer and we'll need a preacher."
"Give that mouth of yours a rest and get inside. I'm hungry..."
"Ain't nobody here...What the hell are all the lights out fer?" Vin asked, eyeing the dark lobby. Nate opened the door to the Dining Room and Vin concentrated so hard on the slippery rug and his crutches that he was well into the room and never looked up.
Vin jerked and his crutches slid. He skittered sideways and sent an elbow into Josiah whose bright red punch went all over Ezra's shirt.
"Sorry 'siah..." Vin gasped, wide-eyed at the festive room full of people.
"Why are you apologizing to him?" Ezra demanded, "My shirt is ruined..."
"Shut up, Ezra!" Chris, Buck and J.D. hollered.
"You okay?" Nate asked, settling Vin in a chair at the head table. He glanced at the flushed face and large eyes, which were darting futilely.
"Git a shovel and dig me a hole, so's I get drop in..." Vin declared, eyeing his friends on either side of the long table.
"Most folks say Thank You..." Chris hedged.
"Hell..." Vin chuffed, "ye'd like to have scared ten years offa me..." He raised his head and saw the large crowd. His brows furrowed and he tapped Chris's arm. "Who else is havin' a party?"
If he wasn't so serious, it wouldn't have been as funny. But one look at the solemn blue eyes sent the table into riotous laughter. Chris shook his head and leaned forward in his chair. He moved closer to the confused sharpshooter.
"Ain't nobody else havin' a party, you fool..." He grinned, "There all here for you."
"Me?" Vin's voice rose a full octave. He shook his head in disbelief. "Why?"
"Lost lamb found his way home..." Josiah spoke, lifting his glass to the blue-eyed wonderment, "And that's reason enough."
"They's fer me too?" He eyed the table laden with gifts.
"All yours, Slick." Buck tossed a roll and hit Vin in the head.
Vin attempted to toss it back at the grinning man, and his arm was snagged.
"Don't throw food...What barn were you raised in?" Chris questioned.
"Don't answer that, Vin." J.D. offered, ducking as Buck heaved another roll at the youthful sheriff when Chris wasn't looking."
It was an evening none would forget for quite some time. They dined and laughed and joked and teased the embarrassed tracker mercilessly. Billy came over and handed Vin a newspaper.
"What's this?" He asked the boy.
"You need to open it..."
Vin turned the paper over and his heart nearly stopped. It was a copy of that day's Clarion. The huge headline boasted proudly "A HERO'S HEART: WELCOME HOME VIN TANNER!"
There was a picture of him from Christmas on the front. Under it, was the poem Mary wrote, titled "Paladin". A long article on his heroic actions that saved the day. Welcome home greetings from townspeople, well wishes from the school children. It took up all three pages of the press. Vin was stunned and didn't utter a sound. He felt like a hundred butterflies were in his stomach. He finally found the strength to raise his head and meet Mary's moist eyes.
"I don't know what t'say...Thanks don't seem to cover it...I..." He clamed up, suddenly aware of every eye in the room trained on him.
"You said it just fine," Mary eased, kissing his cheek, "Now how about some music?"
Then the tables were cleared back and some amateur musicians from town brought forth fiddles, a jug and a flute. The dancing and clapping gave the guests a great lift. Vin's hand reached for his harmonica only to have a deafening response.
"NO!" His six friends cried.
"Y'all is a nasty bunch...I ain't that bad."
"Not compared to a dying bovine I suppose." Ezra noted and lit a cigar.
As the night wore down, and folks trickled home, just the seven and Mary were left. Billy was sound asleep on Buck's lap. The rogue was playing cards with Ezra and J.D. Josiah and Nate were talking nearby and Vin...the light in Chris's eyes matched the smile he wore.
"Told you he'd love it." He said, in the far corner of the darkened room, Mary was in front of him and he slid his arms around her waist. He picked up her hand and kissed it, sending a tremor through her. "Thank you, Lady...it means a lot to me."
"Me too...I better get Billy home. Gimme a hand?" She asked, "I have some apple walnut pie..."
"You twisted my arm." He smiled, and felt a tingle inside as she squeezed his hand. He moved to take Billy from Buck and picked up his half empty glass of beer. He raised it to the two chairs where Vin was sound asleep, both hands protecting the newspaper which was on his chest. A soft smile was on his face...one that was missing far too long.
"Welcome Home, Cowboy..." Chris whispered.
Three weeks later, late morning at the Saloon
"Come on Nate," Buck pleaded, "You in or out? It ain't like that shit your holdin' is gonna change into a full house."
"How do you know what I'm holdin'?" Nate scowled, glaring at Ezra.
"I've done nothing..." Ezra widened his jade eyes and played innocent.
"No, not hardy..." The healer scoffed, "You never do. I'm out." He tossed the cards.
"Well, Ace," Buck bragged, making sure to let his hands cover the backs of the cards, just in case they were marked, "Guess it's just you and me."
"A horrid thought..." Ezra decided and tossed a silver dollar, "To you Sir..." Before Buck could respond the slap of the batwing doors was heard. An erratic thumping was accompanied the staggered gait of the swift moving individual. Buck's grin was as wide as the Mississippi and Ezra held a bemused smile.
"Ya ain't seen me..." the harried voice rasped as he tried to fly past the card players. A leg swung out and braced the bar, preventing the young man from passing. "Not now Buck....I'm in a hurry...come on...move..."
"Well, Ace, I'm feelin' lucky," Buck never looked to his left at the exaperated, sweating fugitive. He and Ezra continued their game, ignoring the younger man. "So I'm seeing you and raising you..." he tossed a coin and winked at the grinning Gambler. "Nice day, don't you think?"
"Spendid...I wonder where our fair leader is..." He said somberly, studying his cards. He could feel Buck grinning and Vin Tanner melting.
"Y'all think this is funny...Let me by..." Vin said, raising a crutch and trying to bat Buck's leg. Instantaneouly, two hand shot out, palms up. "Aw, hell..." Vin complained, leaning heavily on his one crutch and fishing two dollars out of his pocket. After slapping a coin in each greedy palm, the fleshy gate lowered. "Y'all is a low bunch...robbin' a cripple..."
"Shit..." the younger man moved quickly, ducking behind the bar.
All three card players turned towards the street, where the bellow eminated from. Josiah was reading by the door and stood, just as J.D. flew inside.
"Did I miss it?" He asked, gasping for breath.
"Not yet..." Buck answered, chuckling, "But from the way Slick was moving..." "...and sweating like a woman in labor..." Nate added.
"It's bound to be a caper of the highest magnitude." Ezra finished.
"Good...I saw Vin flying down the boardwalk," J.D. paused, "You know he's damn quick on them things...anyway, I ran all the way from the livery." He grabbed a beer from Inez and leaned over the bar, spotting the sweat-slick face of the felon. Vin put his fingers to his lips and J.D. nodded. He took his beer and took a chair next to Josiah.
"WHERE IS HE?" The thunder rumbled through the dusty bar.
"To whom are you..." Ezra paused as the cacophony of hysterical laugher erupted. "...referring..." He choked, joining his friends. Buck was doubled over, J.D. was choking on the first swallow of beer, Nathan had tears in his eyes. But it was Josiah's solemn face and dry voice that caught his eye.
"Mornin' Chris," The ex-preacher said with a straight face, running a bold gaze from the leader's boots up to his chin, and winking, "Free for lunch?"
"Hey, Pard," Buck's strangled voice inquired, "You look right fetchin' in that getup. I got an inkling to ask you to lunch myself..."
"I got an inkling to skin a fuckin' Texan..." The leader snarled, "Where the hell is he?"
"Hmmm..." Josiah pondered. "...a Texan...can't say as I've seen any..."
"You know Mr. Larabee," Ezra wiped away a tear of mirth with his silk handkerchief and got his voice under control, "With your fair hair and eyes, that color is very becoming on you. Perhaps we can discuss the possibility of attaining a new, pastel oriented wardrobe over dinner?"
"It ain't a goddamn bit funny." The blond replied, his face crimson, his hot eyes peeled the room. "I got a long memory," He warned the laughing group. "...somebody better tell me where he is."
"It's fuckin' hilarious." Buck laughed, still not able to control himself.
"Good Morning, Senor Larabee." Inez greeting, barely containing herself. "You look...lovely."
Chris's glare was to be followed by another threat, when someone followed Inez from the kitchen.
"Oh Great..." He hissed, hands on his hips.
"Hello, Chris." The demure female voice asked, "I was borrowing some peppers from Inez. I was going to ask you to join me for dinner, but it seems you have a full dance card already." She raised a blond eyebrow and bit back a laugh.
"It's not funny, Mary."
"I'm not laughing." She gritted, trying desparately to hold on. She moved closer and ran a hand on the cloth of the heaving, irate gunslinger's chest. "You know...if you have any more of these, I could refit them for curtains in my bedroom. They're my favorite color."
"Oh, I was hoping Senor Larabee would donate them to me." Inez claimed, sauntering over and flanking Chris's other side, running her hand on the lean back and arm. "I could use it to make a pretty tablecloth."
"Now see there, Pard." Buck turned, watching his struggling oldest friend's face change colors. He didn't think anyone could outblush Vin Tanner, until now. "You should have taken to wearin' them colors awhile ago. Draws women like magnets..."
"Women ain't the only thing he's attracting..." J.D. warned as the Hoffenmeyer Soap Company's salesmen stared at Chris openly over the top of the batwing doors. Chris glanced at the slight-built spectacled man, who then winked at him suggestively, sending the group inside, women included, into hysterical laughter.
"I wouldn't..." Chris warned the stranger, drawing his gun and sending the startled man flying the other way. Keeping his gun drawn, he eyed his friends, tears of mirth flowing freely. He zeroed in on his oldest friend, who was breathless, doubled over in laughter. Shoving the four snake-like arms of the females away, he moved to Buck's side. He grabbed the back of the body, which was doubled over. "Get me a goddamn shirt..."
"Well, now as much as I'd like to help you out, Chris," Buck wiped his eyes and tried to control his voice, "Mine would be too big."
Chris flitted a gaze to Nathan, who raised both hands in apology. "I'm wearin' the last clean one I got. Send my laundry over to Ming's yesterday..."
"Much as I'd like to oblige, like Mr. Jackson, I offer my shirts on Friday to be hand washed. The Ming's do excelent work." He countered the green eyes beaming on him.
"Uh...uh...I...uh..." J.D. stammered. "I don't think mine would fit, Chris..." the youthful sheriff offerd and then swore he saw steam coming from Chris's ears as the green eyes burned through him. "But, uh...I'm sure I could find something..."
"All of 'em?" Buck laughed, smacking Chris's leg.
"No...." Chris said sarcastically, taking Buck's beer and draining it. "Only half are pink..." He said of his shirt, and the surprise that greeted him when he opened his closet in the boarding house. "...the other half are some goddamn light purple color."
"Lavender?" Mary asked, moving closer.
"Orchid?" Inez inquired, following suit.
"Perhaps it's that lovely shade of violet so alluring displayed in a floral bouquet on your posterior." Ezra suggested.
"What?" Chris swiveled.
"You got flowers all over your ass, Pard." Buck guffawed, "You didn't notice? Hard to miss...them being the side of your hands."
"I didn't have time..." Chris chargrined, eyeing the room again for the wayward bandit.
"No, Mr. Standish, I think that is Orchid..." Inez said, bending and staring at the large colorful flowers on the pale cream pants.
"Lavender, I'd say..." Mary decided, following Inez'a lead.
"I consider myself an expert in this area, and that is most definitely, violet." Ezra said, craning to look.
Chris wrinkled his red face up in embarrassment, when he realized every set of eyes was trained on his backside. He turned quickly, backing up to the bar. Mary and Inez were shaking with laughter and they made their way back to the kitchen.
"Pants too?" Nate asked, finally getting his breath.
"Only pair he left me..." Chris replied.
"You could have ran down to Mrs. Potter's in your longjohns." Buck suggested and saw Chris's mouth form a grim line. "He got them too? Stole 'em?" Buck laughed and slapped his knee as Chris's evil stare answered him. "That boy is genius..."
"A soon-to-be dead genius..." Chris warned.
"So why didn't you go to Mrs. Potter's anyway?" Josiah asked.
"She's gone until Tuesday...Vin..." J.D. clammed up as Chris's eyes bore into him again.
"What about your shack?" Buck asked. "Don't you got some clothes out there?" "Yeah..." Chris grunted, "That'd be a fine sight..." Chris noted of the trip to his cabin in the hills.
"Wouldn't matter." J.D. said and clapped a hand over his mouth.
"Did you know about this?"
"No...I heard...Mrs. Potter mention her trip...I don't have a death wish...I'll go look for that shirt now..." He gulped his brew and ran for cover in the safety of daylight.
It took all of Vin's strength to control his laughter. He enjoyed the ribald comments and wished he could see Chris's face. He could imagine it, though and that was enough. He put his finger under his nose to stifle another sneeze. It was the third time...the dust behind the bar was wreaking havoc with his plan. Just when he eased his finger away and wiped his watery eyes, the long awaited sneeze erupted. It came with such a force, he cracked his head on the backside of the bar.
Chris wheeled around and leapt in one fluid motion, like a stalking gazelle, onto the top of the bar. There on the floor below and at the far end, was the wayward thief. He was on all fours, crawling towards the small path that led to the kitchen.
"You're dead Tanner!" He hollered, running down the top of the bar.
"Shit..." Vin stood up and turned inward, seeking refuge in the bosom of his friends.
"You put that foot down and I'm dousing you with enough laudenum to knock you out for a week!" Nathan warned, spotting the bandaged appendage about to make landfall.
That slight distraction was enough. Vin was able to hop as far as the empty gap on the floor five feet from the nearest table. With nothing to hold onto he wavered, and felt a forearm grip him around the throat.
Chris pulled hard enough to keep Vin upright, wary of the injured foot.
"Now Chris," Vin choked, over the muscle pressing his throat, "Where's yer sense of humor?"
"Same place your balls are gonna be," He gritted, "...long gone..."
"Ya know, I ain't supposed to be upset...might cause a relapse..." He tried and heard a growl in his ear. "I...I...uh...hit m'head...might have me a concusion. Ya best set me down easy like."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about a concussion," The leader warned, as Vin's wriggling, wiry body moved and sent them both to the floor. Vin tried to escape, but Chris grabbed his waistband and flattened him to the floor. He straddled him and grabbed a fistful of cotton, raising the tracker's head from the floor. "...I reckon your broken jaw will give you more than enough to worry about."
"What broken jaw?" Vin rasped, eyeing the beefy fist hovering way bay, ready to strike.
"This one..." Chris said, "Where are they?" He demaded of his missing clothes.
"Sold 'em...got me a good price too." Vin crowed, grinning at the red, irate face above him. "Can't believe there's some other fool likes struttin' about in black."
"Buck, you ever get that funeral suit?" Chris asked, without moving the airborne fist or eyes from the cocky sharpshooters face.
"Best get a hold of one, you'll need it..."
"That boy's got brass balls..." Buck marveled, at the bold grin the tracker wore.
"Or a deathwish." Nate added, eyeing the chuckling, wiggling body under Chris Larabee.
"I'd say Mr. Tanner's defiant stance in the face of certain death is a symptom of his most recent head injury." Ezra declared of the encounter with the bar.
"Nope...that cocky Texan just loves to spit into the wind." Buck praised, "Hell, I think I might back him for Mayor."
"Last chance." Chris drilled, trying to control the wiggling tracker, "Where are they?"
"Fer the right price," Vin stared back at his advesary boldly, "Ya can have 'em back. I got 'em hid real good." Vin boasted and saw the green eyes narrowing. Feeling like the tide had turned he relaxed. "So we got a deal?"
"I'll think on it..." Chris said coldy and let his fist fly full force into the hapless man's jaw. Vin slumped back and Chris pulled him into a sitting position and knelt forward, bringing the unconscious man over his shoulder. In one move, he stood and carted his bounty towards the door. "Chris, let me have a look him..." Nate jumped up, eyeing the tracker's head flopping against the leader's pastel-hued back. "You didn't have to hit him so hard...You ain't the one's gotta live with his sorry face. Did you bust his jaw? Chris? Chris?"
The others ran outside and saw the leader, walking slowly towards the livery.
"Yo, Pard..."Buck hollered, causing the figure to stop, "Where you headed?"
There was a brief pause, and the body turned, "Tuscosa..." the reply came and the body moved forward.
"Well?" Josiah asked.
"No way," Buck shook his head. "I ain't that crazy." He said of the silent question to follow the leader. He saw Nate's face wrinked in concern. "It's okay, Nate. He didn't hit him that hard. Chris wouldn't hurt him."
"I wonder where he hid them?"
"I know somebody that can tell us." Buck nodded to the sheriff's office. J.D. and Vin were like peas in a pod when it came to practical jokes and pranks. No one in town was saw from the devilish pair. No one doubted that Vin's partner in crime knew the whereabouts of the missing Larabee wardrobe.
"...and I know just the instrument of torture." Ezra said wiggling his fingers. "Shall we, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Right behind you, Ace," Buck answered, knowing how ticklish J.D. was.
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