Webmaster Note: This fic was formerly archived on another website and was moved to blackraptor in October 2008
The title comes from Charles Roupell:
To play billiards well is a sign of an ill-spent youth.
- 1 -
The seven men were up with the dawn, resuming their journey back to town. Escorting the supply train through the judge's jurisdiction had proved a routine task so they were fairly fresh and ready to get back to normal life. They saddled their horses in companionable silence and mounted one by one. As the second youngest of their number, a tracker by the name of Vin Tanner, put his weight into his stirrup, it gave way under his foot, making him stumble against the horse.
'What the hell?' he grumbled as he investigated the leather, which had clearly been unbuckled by someone.
He looked round his friends, none of whom was normally given to practical jokes. They all shrugged and even his keen eye could detect nothing but mild surprise in their expressions. He refastened the leather, checked his tack over carefully and then his sidearm and rifle for good measure. When he found everything in order, he swung into the saddle ready to hit the trail.
The remainder of the day was uneventful and Vin forgot the incident. It wasn't until the next morning he had cause to remember it. This time, when the seven men broke camp, they found only six horses. The leader of the group was a fair-haired man named Chris Larabee. He was not only Vin's informal boss but also his closest friend. He examined the tracker's face but was unable to interpret the expression he saw there: it wasn't what he'd expect from a man whose horse appeared to have been stolen.
Vin pushed his hat back, ran a hand over his forehead, then scanned the ground methodically. He soon picked out his horse's tracks and followed them a few hundred yards to a creek they had crossed the previous evening. His friends followed some paces behind, as puzzled as Chris by the man's demeanor. He stood on a small rise above the creek and looked in either direction, finally spotting what he sought perhaps half a mile downstream. There was his horse, contentedly tethered on a small island. He jogged over to get it, checked it over before mounting, and then rode back to his friends.
Chris echoed his friend's words of twenty-four hours earlier. 'What the hell?'
Vin gave a cryptic smile. 'I only know one person with a sense of humor this warped.'
As the day wore on, the tracker studied the terrain they covered carefully. He was some way ahead when Buck Wilmington rode over to Chris and raised his eyebrows. Chris returned a baffled shrug. All six men monitored their friend after that, wondering what he was looking for and why he seemed so unfazed by the prospect of someone matching their progress and interfering with their horses.
It was around noon when Vin reined back beside a boulder next to a rockface. The other men drew close to see what he was looking at. On the boulder stood a little carved buffalo. Vin reached down to pick it up, the same cryptic smile on his lips. As he did so, a small pebble bounced off his hat.
'Tut-tut, Tanner. I hope you don't let bounty hunters up this close and personal.' A man's head appeared over a ledge above them.
Vin gave a broad grin. 'Lou. Hell, it's been a time.'
The man jumped lightly to the ground. He was around the six-foot mark, with a lithe physique and classically perfect features. His dark hair and beard were neatly trimmed and his clothes stylish if somewhat dusty. His grin matched Vin's as they embraced, hugging each other so close that their cheeks touched.
The other six men hung back, astonished by the warmth of the greeting. In their experience, Vin was never less than reserved. Occasionally, a smile would lighten his features for a few seconds but years on the run had left their mark on a face better suited to a man of forty than thirty.
Lou stood back, looked his friend up and down, tugged at a long lock of brown hair and laughed.
'No keener on personal grooming then?'
Vin gave him a light punch in the waistcoat.
'Still wasting your money on fancy feathers?'
After a moment, the tracker remembered his companions.
'Fellas, this is Lou Davies. Best buffalo hunter this territory ever saw.' He turned to indicate his friends as he introduced them. 'Lou, Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson and JD Dunne.'
Lou stepped forward and shook hands all round. 'Good to meet you all. I been hearing about you boys ever since I crossed the border - got quite a name for yourselves.'
'What you doing here?' Vin wanted to know.
'Headed for your town, though I didn't know you were there till I got here. Meeting someone on the stage.' He held Vin's eye significantly.
He joined them on their way, matching the fast pace they had set themselves. He and Vin rode comfortably alongside each other as they had a thousand times before, half a lifetime ago. They spoke little, each happy to be in the other's company again and each knowing the other felt the same.
At dusk, the group camped by a tiny creek, so small it was hardly deserving of the name. Stretched out by the fire, coffees in hand and supper in their stomachs, the men finally turned to chat.
'You go way back then?' JD asked.
'Since we was younger than you,' Vin replied in an easier tone than usual.
'How'd you meet?'
Lou's white teeth flashed in the firelight as he gave another of his charismatic smiles. 'In a cell.'
'A cell?' JD echoed.
'Drunk and disorderly, as I recall.'
'I wasn't that drunk.'
'But damned disorderly.' The newcomer looked conspiratorially at JD as he added, 'He was trying to winch the preacher's mule into a hayloft.'
Vin's friends looked at him in astonishment. Josiah spoke for them all when he asked why.
Vin thought on that. 'Don't rightly recall.' He looked at Lou, then both grinned widely and said together, 'Seemed like a good idea at the time.' Vin stared into the fire. 'Like that buffalo - you remember that farmer telling us buffalo weren't nothing but big cows? We shut a youngster in his barn overnight. Hell, it was only a two-year-old but was it wild by the morning? Fella damned near pissed himself when he opened up and saw it.'
Lou laughed at the memory. 'My favorite was that sheriff's horse though. This fella had one of those fancy Spanish stallions, with the mane and tail a yard long.'
'Used to spend more time grooming that thing than most men'd give a woman,' Vin added.
'Vin hogged its mane. Hell, I thought he was going to kill you for sure.'
Vin laughed. 'He wouldn't've got that mad if I'd been seeing to his wife. I thought he was gonna hang me.' As he said the words, his face settled closer to its usual impassive mask.
Lou chewed his lip. 'Haven't you sorted that yet?'
'Eli Joe's dead.'
Relaxed atmosphere lost, they soon settled to sleep. Vin lay awake for a while, staring at his old friend's back. When Lou rolled over, their eyes met. Vin held his gaze, wondering what the intervening years had brought for the man he loved like a brother. From their first meeting, they'd always understood each other with just a look. What he saw was not so good. There had been a time when there was nothing but laughter in Lou's eyes but now there was a hardness under that. Vin couldn't see it but he suspected that sadness lay under the hard edge.
- 2 -
Vin drifted away to a memory of a saloon. It was back in Texas and two lovely ladies were draped across the friends. Lou's looks and charm always drew the women and Vin did better with Lou's cast-offs than he'd have done on his own. Vin's squeeze, a charming brunette called Annie, was whispering in his ear, the warmth of her breath and the touch of her hair driving him wild. He remembered looking across at Lou, in the arms of a stunning flaxen-haired girl by the name of Daisy, and seeing in his eyes not desire but something closer to boredom. They had later demolished most of a haystack between them, and the look on Daisy's face left no doubt that Lou had fulfilled his obligations, but Vin wasn't one to forget, or ignore, an intuition.
- 3 -
The next day's riding followed a similar pattern as the first but Lou moved around more among the group, getting to know his old friend's newer friends better. Vin watched surreptitiously, wondering whether there were tell-tale signs but all the time knowing that Lou was a past-master at managing his image.
When Lou joined Chris, the fair-haired man looked across curiously. 'Never had Vin down for a joker.'
'He wasn't the same after the Eli Joe business but it began before that. When the buffalo got scarce, I started running cattle but Vin didn't fancy it and went after the bounties. I told him it was a hard life, make him a hard man, but he thought it was right for him. Maybe it would've been if the other trouble hadn't come - I don't know. Looks like he's found some good friends here though.'
Meanwhile, Ezra was quizzing Vin. 'This gentleman seems rather refined to be a friend of yours, Mr Tanner.'
Vin gave him a sidelong glance, wondering how much the ex-conman's sharp eye and keen intelligence could discern about Lou. Over the time they'd ridden together, Ezra never ceased to confound his companions. Vin was careful never to underestimate him, from his tendency towards avarice to his potential for nobility.
'Appearances can be deceptive, Ezra. Lou can be whatever he likes.'
- 4 -
That evening, Vin's thoughts took him to a cave on a bitter winter's night. He and Lou had been trapped by a blizzard and three days had left them pretty hungry. When the winds dropped to a regular storm, the two men set off in different directions to try to find something edible. Lou hit lucky first, with the frozen body of a fallen bird, and returned to the cave as they'd agreed. Vin stayed out too long, ran into the next wave of the blizzard, and barely made it back. His feet had passed through numbness and he was getting nervous.
Vin's anxiety was nothing to the worry he saw on Lou's face when he stumbled into the cave. Lou stripped off his friend's gloves and boots and massaged the frozen extremities with snow before allowing Vin anywhere near the fire. When he was satisfied there was no serious frostbite, he carried Vin into the circle of light and settled down beside him, doubling up their blankets and sharing the warmth of his own body.
'Jesus, Vin. Don't you ever do that to me again. I was out of my mind.'
Vin smiled. They were close, closer than any two men he knew, but Lou sounded like a wife not a friend. Lou caught the smile and frowned.
'Slipped a bit there, didn't you, my friend?' Vin joked through chattering teeth.
It was several minutes before Lou ventured, 'You know?'
'Ain't blind,' Vin told him.
'You don't mind?'
Vin shook his head. 'Ain't nothing to me. I love you like a brother. I can live with you loving me like a wife. Wish I could give you what you want but I ain't made that way.'
Lou closed his eyes and rested his chin on his friend's head. 'I know. I'd better watch myself - I don't reckon to make it that obvious.'
Vin covered his friend's hand with his own. 'It ain't obvious. Hell, Lou, you didn't really think I wouldn't see, did you?'
'No,' his friend said slowly. 'There isn't much you don't see. It's one of the things I like about you.'
They'd spent that night in a fond but chaste embrace. Vin was an exceptional man, totally at ease with other people's choices in life and totally devoid of any need to justify his own. His need for warmth gave him the excuse he wanted to go as close as he ever would to satisfying his friend's needs.
When they awoke, the storm had passed and the world languished in an eerie silence. The two men readied their horses to move on, making no mention of the previous night either then or later.
It had been a long time since Vin had even thought about that night. It hadn't preyed on his mind at the time and he'd had no cause to think about it since. Seeing Lou now, and recognizing the change in him, brought it all back. Vin suspected the hard edge he saw now had something to do with Lou's predilections and thought the time for shared silence might be past. Lou wasn't like the men Vin rode with now. There was a softer side to him and Vin knew there were few, if any, people he could discuss his problems with.
- 5 -
The last day's ride took them into Four Corners just after dusk. Lou took a room at the hotel and Vin joined him there a half-hour later. He went in quietly through the back, conscious that he wouldn't usually visit a friend at the hotel rather than meeting him in the saloon. Lou stood back to let him in, locked the door and then sat on the pillows at the head of the bed. Vin looked across to check the drapes were closed then sat at the foot of the bed. The two men laughed at each other.
'Get paranoid about everything after a while, eh?' Lou said. 'How do I normally behave? Would I do this with someone else?'
'I don't wanna let you down,' Vin told him. 'Fact is, this ain't never come up. I don't know what the fellas'd make of it. They're pretty easy about how folks choose to live but '
'But this goes a bit beyond that?'
Vin nodded. 'What's up, Lou? You've changed. Ain't no one looking to hang you, is there?'
The dark man shook his head. 'They've already done their worst, Vin. Couple of years back, I met this lad, only around the age we were when we met. He was special, almost as special as you. He let something slip one day and the sons-of-bitches beat him to death. I came back a few days later. They didn't know I was the one. Worst thing is, I didn't say or do anything. I left town.'
His guilt hung in the air long after he'd spoken the words.
Finally Vin said, 'Wasn't no sense getting yourself killed as well. It was too late.'
'I don't see you letting something like that go.'
'Don't know about that. One man can't set the world to rights.'
Lou only sighed.
Vin tried to lift the mood. 'So who're you meeting on the stage?'
That brought back maybe half of Lou's normal broad smile. 'His name's Phillip. We're trying a different approach this time.'
Vin raised an eyebrow.
Lou felt a flash of embarrassment but then remembered he was talking to his old friend Vin.
'Well, you'll meet him as Phillippa.'
Vin took that in his stride. 'Can he pull that off?'
'We think so. He often does when we go out so we thought a permanent shift was worth a try. I wish people would just mind their own damned business and leave us alone but that isn't going to happen in my lifetime. We're going to San Francisco, thought it'd be easier to lose ourselves in a city.'
Vin thought on his friend's words and said only, 'Tell him to watch Buck and Ezra. If anyone'll know, it'll be them.'
Lou grinned. 'What do you think I was doing yesterday? My guess is Chris, Nathan and Josiah can mind their own business anyway. JD's young and sometimes that's a problem. Buck and Ezra'll be the hardest to fool but I didn't get any feel for how they'd react if they knew.'
Vin shook his head. 'Like I said, I don't know. Reckon they'd rather be told - if they find out, they ain't gonna thank me for not saying - but that ain't an option if I can't guarantee what they'll do.'
- 6 -
The next morning, Vin played cards with Lou outside the saloon while they waited for the stage to arrive. Vin was curious to see the new interest in Lou's life, not least to see how a grown man could pass for a woman. He had balked at the thought of a five o'clock shadow over a dress but quickly realized that Lou was far too sophisticated to make a mistake like that. If he thought Phillip could pass as a woman, Vin had no doubt that the effect would be convincing.
When the stage arrived, Vin stayed put while Lou stepped forward to meet it. The person he helped down exceeded even Vin's expectations. She was unusually tall for a woman but her elegance and grace more than compensated. Her naturally slender figure was constricted by a corset as convention required, filling a dark blue dress to perfection. If her hands and feet were perhaps a little large, her china blue eyes and waves of chestnut hair made up for it. Lou kissed her fondly and then escorted her towards Vin, who stood to be introduced.
'Pip, this is Vin Tanner. I had no idea he was in these parts but we ran into each other on the trail. Vin, this is Phillippa Forrest.'
Vin looked the woman directly in the eye, then kissed her hand. 'Pleased to meet you, ma'am.'
Phillippa looked first at Vin and then at Lou, who gave the slightest nod.
'I'm very pleased to meet you, Mr Tanner. Do you think we'll get by?'
Her voice was soft and husky, its depth turned to an asset rather than a liability. Vin let his eyes roam over the flawless skin with no detectable beard growth and the high-necked bodice that concealed both the necessary padding and any clues her throat might have revealed. He smiled to her.
'You'd do for me.'
'Thank you. Lou told me you're a special man.'
Vin shrugged that off.
Lou maintained a casual stance, as if they were still passing the time of day, when he filled in the background.
'Vin's got six friends here, keeping the peace. We've got two days till the westbound stage and I think courtesy will demand a little socializing but we're not sure of the score. I reckon Chris, Nathan and Josiah will be okay, even if we slip up. There's a young lad, JD, who may be a bit naïve. Two possible problems: a womanizer called Buck and a gambler called Ezra. You ready for them?'
Vin could see the care with which the woman filed away the information. He was sad his friend had needed to perfect such an act merely to live in peace. Somehow it seemed to make his own problems seem that much smaller. Phillippa smiled reassuringly at Lou.
Vin left Lou to see his fiancée to the hotel and went into the saloon, where Chris joined him a few minutes later.
'Handsome couple,' Chris remarked.
Vin's measured gaze before he agreed confirmed his friend's suspicion that all was not as it seemed.
'We got a problem here?'
Vin shook his head. 'Lou's the best.' He looked hard at Chris and finally extended a little trust. 'It's personal, Chris, real personal. Ain't for me to say no more but, if you're the friend I think you are, you'll help me smooth over any trouble that might come.'
Chris returned the appraising look and finally nodded. 'Anything I can do.'
Vin nodded his thanks then waved the deck of cards he'd been shuffling absent-mindedly. Chris nodded again and they settled to a game.
Lou and Phillippa stayed out of sight for the rest of the day, feeling that a lady was entitled to her rest after a long stagecoach journey and that a man would want some time with his fiancée. They didn't emerge until the evening, after balancing the appeal of playing it safe in hiding against the duty they felt to act sociably toward Lou's oldest friend and his companions in the town.
On weekends and paydays, the saloon wasn't much of a place for a woman but quiet weekdays saw a few come in, usually with escorts. Lou and Phillippa joined their number, she gliding gracefully on his arm and taking her lead carefully from him. He took her over to the table at which Vin was sitting with Chris, Buck and Ezra. Lou introduced Phillippa to the three men she hadn't met, then drew up a chair for her before heading towards the bar. Chris had taken the opportunity given by Lou's introductions to evaluate the woman carefully, although unobtrusively, but he saw nothing amiss. He opened the conversation.
'Did you have a smooth journey, ma'am?'
'Yes, very, thank you. It was a remarkable coincidence for Lou to find Mr Tanner here. I believe it has been some years since they ran into one another.'
'Least four,' Vin confirmed.
'I understand you are bound for San Francisco?' Ezra enquired.
Vin watched the gambler out of the corner of his eye, trying to gauge the man's reaction to the visitor. He saw no sign that Ezra thought Phillippa was anything other than what she claimed to be.
'Yes. Lou has a business opportunity there.'
'What kind of business?'
'To do with land management. You'd have to ask him the exact details.'
Vin smiled into his beer. The double-act was certainly well rehearsed: avoid telling different stories and anyway how much could a woman be expected to know about her future husband's business plans? He switched his covert surveillance to Buck. It might be difficult to judge his reaction since Vin thought even his lascivious friend might hold off with the fiancée of a friend's best friend. As it turned out, Buck was watching the woman with an expression all too familiar to Vin.
Phillippa had passed the first test with flying colors. She stayed for one drink and then suggested Lou might like a few hands of poker, accepting Vin's offer to walk her back to the hotel. He gave her his arm and steered her outside, checking carefully that the street was deserted before speaking in a low voice.
'Lou said a permanent shift. You gotta keep this up all the time?'
'We feel that may be best,' she said delicately. 'As I believe you know, mistakes can be costly. The more familiar the role, the less likelihood of mistakes.' She paused then added, 'Anyway, as you may have realized, this runs a little deeper for me than for Lou.'
He nodded. 'I had wondered how you'd cope with the beard but .' He shrugged.
She smiled. 'Not a very manly man, I'm afraid.'
Vin rested a hand on hers. 'I hope this works out. Lou's the best friend I ever had.'
'Thank you. He told me about about the blizzard. I have never been fortunate enough to have a friend like you. People can be very cruel.'
'Ain't that the truth. So, you looking forward to San Francisco in general?'
She appreciated his attempt at normal conversation and told him about some of the things she was hoping to see and do, chatting merrily until they parted at her door.
- 7 -
The next day passed as uneventfully as the first and the following morning saw Lou and Phillippa ready to join the westbound stage. Vin bade them both a fond farewell. It hadn't taken him long to understand what Lou saw in his companion and he kissed her cheek affectionately before helping her into the stagecoach. For Lou, there was something closer to a bear hug.
'It's been real good to see you, Lou. I needed to remember the old days, afore everything went sour.'
'Me too, Vin. Me too. You ever in San Francisco, look us up.'
Vin nodded, shook hands and then reluctantly released his friend. He leaned against a post outside the saloon and watched the stage as it was slowly enveloped by a cloud of dust. Chris came over and sat on the corner of the table beside him.
'Good to see you with some happy memories, Vin.'
Vin nodded, waiting for the choked feeling to pass before trusting himself to speak.
'He ever more than a friend to you?'
Vin looked across in surprise and saw Chris knew the lay of the land. 'No, I never was that way. Can't see why it's such a big deal to folks though.'
Chris smiled. 'You know your trouble? You're too good at minding your own business.'
'You reckon it would've been a problem if we'd said. I didn't know how the fellas'd go.'
'Hard one to call. You probably did the right thing. Ain't no one else's affair anyhow.'
They wandered into the saloon to join JD and Nathan in a hand of cards. Both men now looked at Vin afresh, based on Lou's stories rather than any understanding of the strange situation they'd witnessed. The readier smile on his face and the spring in his step testified to how the renewed friendship had revitalized him.
Over the year and some that the seven men had ridden together, they'd slowly learned more about each other but all too often revelations centered on problems and tragedies. The past two days had been almost as joyous for Vin's friends as they had for himself, as they discovered what a joker he'd been as a young man and shared Lou's infectious laughter at the pranks he recalled, some of which were so outrageous that it almost seemed a miracle Vin had survived long enough to get into his later troubles.
It was little more than an hour after the stagecoach left Four Corners that Lou came racing back into town on a horse in cut harness. He fell to the ground outside the saloon, picked himself up and staggered inside. Vin looked up at the noise and was by his friend's side in seconds, with Nathan on the other.
Lou had taken two bullets, one in his left arm and one in his right shoulder. His clothes were soaked in blood and more ran down from a gash across his forehead. He struggling to stay conscious as he told them about the hold-up on the stage, the men leaving him for dead but abducting Phillippa. He looked anxiously at Vin as he finished.
'You know what'll happen when they '
Vin nodded grimly and looked at Chris. Even if Phillippa had been a woman, she'd be lucky to be spared her life when her assailants had finished with her. As it was, there was no chance.
Six men thundered out of town within minutes, leaving Nathan to tend to Lou. They barely paused at the stagecoach when they saw the driver was clearly dead, continuing straight on along the tracks of the three robbers. The tracks joined a creekbed, which the fugitives expected to throw off any pursuers. They had reckoned without Vin's skills and he made quick work of uncovering their progress through the water and across the rocks where they had left it downstream. About half a mile from the creek, the men had given up covering their tracks and their pursuers urged their horses on, knowing that literally every second might count.
When they topped the next ridge, they sized up a cluster of trees below: it seemed an ideal spot for what their quarry had in mind. Not expecting their crime to be discovered so quickly or their pursuers to make such good time, the robbers would want to enjoy their prize then jettison it and move on fast.
- 8 -
Back in town, Nathan had removed the bullets from Lou's body and dressed his wounds. The patient was running a slight fever but Nathan was now confident he would recover well. He sat by the bedside, wiping Lou's forehead with a damp cloth from time to time.
'Pip, Pip,' the man muttered. 'Vin, you've got to help Pip.'
Nathan made reassuring noises and tried to get his patient to settle.
'Please, Vin. If they see him, if they see my Pip.'
Nathan's brow furrowed, as he tried to understand the words. Even in delirium, patients usually made some kind of sense. They usually knew what sex their fiancées were.
The Negro wasn't naïve and most things that could happen had happened on the plantations of his youth. His experience of men's encounters with men had involved the exploitation of his fellows and he had to struggle to get past the anger that welled up inside him. He hastily brought his feelings back under control. This situation was quite different: two men who freely chose each other's company, not to mention the fact that one of them obviously meant the world to a man whom Nathan held in higher regard than almost any other.
Nathan looked closely at his patient and reflected on the previous few days. Lou had befriended them all, his humor and easy manner a rare thing in their harsh lives. The mutual love and respect between him and Vin had been apparent from the first second he had joined them on the trail. Even Phillippa, in her brief interactions with the group, had been nothing but kind and charming. Nathan had seen how quickly Vin had grown fond of his old friend's fiancée and he knew no better judge of people than the tracker.
'They can't take my Pip. Not again, not again.'
The pain in the injured man's voice was so raw, it brought tears to Nathan's eyes. It was the same pain he and his friends saw in their leader from time to time, the pain of a man whose family had been murdered. Nathan asked himself whether it made any difference that this man's family was another man. He was a little surprised to find the answer was no. For Nathan, the issues were all around freedom and consent. In this case, he had no problem with the situation as it stood. He held the man's hand, hoping that might provide some comfort and reassurance through his torments.
- 9 -
In a clearing at the heart of the copse, Phillippa was being dragged roughly from the horse on which she'd been forced to double-up. Her hands were tied in front of her, though she'd established during the ride that the bonds weren't as secure as they could be, and she'd been gagged with a foul-tasting neckerchief. Her captors were now goading her.
On her left, a tall, ugly man leaned close, giving her the benefit of his fetid breath, and ran one hand through her hair while he rearranged his crotch with the other. On her right, a fat, balding man clasped her buttock with one hand and breast with the other. A thin, sallow man sat on a log a few yards away, surveying the scene through narrowed eyes that held a promise of something worse than rape.
Phillippa tried desperately to think. She had a Beretta in her garter but getting to it would be tricky and she couldn't take on three armed men anyway. She could probably take the two closest in a fistfight but that would blow her cover and likely end in a bullet from the sallow man's gun. Something told her that he would be just as happy to take his pleasure from her body after her spirit had left it, had she been what he thought she was.
When the foul-breathed man removed the gag and tried to kiss her, she bit his lip hard. He leapt back in pain, then boxed her hard around the side of her head. Pretending to be cowed, she concentrated on freeing her hands while the two men pushed her to and fro, mauling her body as they did so.
- 10 -
Six men were meanwhile working their way quietly through the trees. Hidden behind the trunks, they observed the unfolding scene, relieved to find the woman as yet unharmed and the crime still in progress. Intervening without she or they being injured would require caution but was well within their capabilities. Chris looked at Vin and sized up their party thoughtfully. Deciding it was safest to have someone in the know on each side of the clearing, he waved Buck and Josiah forward with himself, leaving Vin to manage Ezra and JD.
They had barely reached their positions when the action started. Having freed his hands, Phillip threw off his pretences and landed a powerful right hook on the ugly man's jaw, knocking him cold. Maintaining his balance expertly, he swung back with a left to the fat man's gut, bending him double and setting him retching. As he had expected, he immediately faced the barrel of the sallow man's gun. Completely unexpected was the sound of six guns being cocked and Chris' command to the man to drop his weapon. After a long pause, the robber obeyed.
Chris and Vin quickly bound the three fugitives, seeking to secure the situation before the confusion and explanations set in. Before turning away, they delivered knockout punches to the two men who were still conscious. When they had finished, they faced some unusual expressions from their comrades. Phillip smoothed his hair, settled his clothes back in place and looked uneasily at Vin.
'He's okay. Couple of bullets but Nathan'll sort him out. You?'
He nodded. 'Makes a change being attacked for something I'm not, not for what I am.'
Vin turned his attention back to his friends. 'I'm sorry I didn't tell you fellas how things are. Don't always help for folk to know. Lou's already had one friend beaten to death.'
Buck looked at Chris. 'You knew about this?'
'I guessed,' Chris told him. 'Not from them, just something about how was Vin acting.'
Ezra gave a smile, which broadened into a laugh, walked over to Phillip and slapped his shoulder. 'As a former professional, I have to admire your skill. That's quite a con you have going there. I'll admit I had no idea and you must have been good to fool the expert.' He nodded at Buck.
Phillip smiled at him. 'I'm glad you're not put out. Our plans didn't take account of running into Vin. I'd rather be honest but it's difficult. Men like us do a lot of lying.'
Ezra was unperturbed. 'Whoever said "honesty is the best policy" was a fool.'
JD was looking totally baffled by the whole affair. Vin decided to leave those sort of explanations to Buck, as both the expert and JD's surrogate older brother. He set about getting the bound men onto their horses, then gave Phillip a hand up behind himself. Lou's friend had used the time to tidy himself up and slipped easily back into his female persona.
- 11 -
When they got back into town, Phillippa rushed straight to Lou's side and found him unconscious but stable. She sat with him, holding his hand, throughout the twelve hours it took for him to come round.
The seven men settled themselves with beers at a table outside the saloon. Vin looked at his friends thoughtfully. He knew that some were more at ease with the discovery than others but all were doing their best.
'Appreciate you all taking this so well. I thought it might go against your ideas, Josiah.'
The big man shrugged. 'The Good Lord made them as they are. Isn't for me to judge.'
Unsurprisingly, Buck was one of the least comfortable with it. 'Were you and him ?'
Vin shook his head. 'I ain't that way. But, if I was, Lou'd be the one. I ain't never been happier than back then.'
Buck said, 'I'd've thought a man like him could have any woman he wanted.'
'He can. He has. They bore him.' Vin smiled at the memories the question resurrected. 'You got no idea how many times I've watched 'em fight over him, knowing they were wasting their time.'
Buck looked incredulous. If the day ever came when women bored him, he thought he'd rather not go on living.
JD was still trying to come to the terms with the fact that men did such things. 'Don't it bother you at all, Vin?'
'No. Matter of fact, there've been times I wished I could give him what he wanted.' He thought a little more, then added, 'It's right out in the open in some tribes. They think it's a blessing, some sort of bridge between worlds. That was one of the reasons we lived with 'em for a while, gave Lou a break from all the lies. Reckon he might've stayed if the government hadn't rounded 'em up.'
Chris had been staring at the table but looked up at JD. 'Figure it don't hurt any less to lose people you care about, whatever the set-up.'
'No,' Vin agreed. 'No, it don't.'
- 12 -
It was three weeks before Lou was strong enough to travel. He and Phillippa repeated their farewells and once more joined the westbound stage. This time, it was seven true friends who stood round to see them off. Lou's convalescence had given the other men time to adjust and all had found their own peace with the situation. When the coach was gone, Vin sighed deeply, wondering if he would ever see his dearest friend again. Looking at his companions, he figured he'd found a fair substitute.
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