The saloon doors slammed open, a cold blast of wind swirled in and along with it strode Chris Larabee, long black duster pushed tight against his back and legs, the strong force of nature propelling him towards the front bar.
The gunslinger spoke briefly to the pretty Mexican barmaid Inez Recillos, slapped his coins down as she handed him three bottles of Red Eye Whiskey and gave her a curt nod of thanks. Turning on his heels, he headed back out the front doors, pulled them shut behind him and left just as quickly as he'd come, the smell of cold fresh air the only thing reminiscent of anyone's having entering the establishment.
"Wow! What's up with Chris?" JD asked the men at the table after watching Larabee come and go without so much as a glance in their direction.
Discarding a few cards, Ezra drawled, "It appears Mr. Larabee has notions of an imbibing marathon. Dealer takes two," he informed his playing partners.
With his eyes trained on his playing cards, Buck heaved a big sigh, and frowned. "Bad time of the year for him.
"But if he's headed out to his place maybe someone should warn him about the weather. Vin said there was a storm movin' in," JD protested.
Trust me JD, its best just to leave him be. Coupla days . . . hell be back.
Call, Ezra said to his card mates.
Thats providing he doesn't get snowed in out there, Josiah put in, laying down what he figured was a winning hand.
And as long as he dont hurt himself bein' out there alone either, noted Nathan as he tossed his losing cards in the middle of the table along with JDs and Buck's.
Well, well, Mr. Sanchez, it appears that lady luck has smiled upon you on this, he turned to look out the window a moment, this inclement ante meridiem, he finished as he gathered up all the cards and began to reshuffle them.
JD shot a side glance over at Buck who in turn wiggled his moustache, sniffed and gave a non-committal shrug acting as though he understood every word Ezra had just said.
Realizing the young sheriff was still concerned about Larabee, Buck told him, "Give him till after this weekend, JD, if he don't show up on Monday, Ill go out and check on him." The men were all pretty new to each other, only having been together a few short months. They just didn't understand about Chris like he did.
"Providing we don't get snowed in, that is," Josiah reiterated once again, picking up his newly dealt poker hand. "If Vin's fairly certain it . . ."
"Well, hell, Vin can't forecast the weather," Buck interrupted, huffing into his moustache. "'Sides, any fool can see it's gonna blow up somethin' soon. Chris'll be . . .
"Better be glad Vin didn't hear you call him that, JD said, tilting his bowler hat back and spreading his cards out in his hand. He'd . . ."
"I didn't call him anything."
"You called him a fool."
"I did not!"
"Yes, you did, and we all heard it didn't we fellas?" JD nodded his head as he looked around the table at his fellow peacekeepers.
"I did NOT call Vin . . ."
"Oh, I regret to inform you that you did, Mr. Wilmington. Intended or not, that's just how it sounded," Ezra pointed out.
"I didn't say that . . ."
The saloon doors burst open once again and Vin Tanner was pushed through the doors along with some swirls of snow on the gusty wind. Five sets of eyes glanced at the tracker and then four sets slid back to the ladies' man.
Buck swallowed hard, narrowed his eyes, and said in a low whisper through clenched teeth, "I did NOT call Vin a fool and if anybody brings it up, I will personally see to it that none of you has a peaceful nights sleep for a week!"
Closing the doors tightly, the ex-bounty hunter headed to the bar, retrieved a cup of coffee and came over to the peacekeepers' table.
"Boys," he greeted, pulling up a chair. Looks like we might be in fer abit of a storm. Might be a bad one. Aint no weather teller though.
Buck coughed into his cards.
"Lots of snow you reckon, Vin?" Josiah asked, looking his cards over and tossing down a couple that he couldn't use.
"Don't know bout the snow. Winds gonna get tougher though. Damn near blew me inta town from the McPherson's. Anybody seen Chris?
Mr. Larabee has seen it fit to . . .
He went out to his place, needs some peace and quiet right now. Best we just leave it at that. Buck said, glancing at the Southerner and then looking at Vin before turning his attention back to his cards, discarding one. Give me one, Ezra, and make it a good one will ya for once? Hell be back after this weekend is over, Im sure, he added, knowing that Vin would need something more to alleviate his worries. Tanner and Larabee had instantly hit it off, one of those friendships a man only finds once or twice in a lifetime, but just like the other men, Vin had no clue how destructive Chris was to himself, and any others in his wake, when he took notion to drown his demons. Buck knew, and hed do his damnest to keep his new friends away from Larabee and vice versa . . . for protection, all around.
Vin drained his coffee cup, nodded more or less to himself and got up to leave, explaining to the men that he needed to get Peso stabled before the weather got any worse.
Sure hope it snows. I just love the snow.
Nathan chuckled low at Josiahs continuing comments about snow--he really hoped his friend would get his wish.
+ + + + + + +
Just as Buck had predicted, Monday morning brought Larabee back to town. Chris might have some issues, but he knew his job and was loyal to it.
The gunslinger entered the saloon, ordered up some breakfast and headed over to sit at the table where Ezra, JD and Buck were eating their morning meal. He nodded to Nathan and Josiah who were seated elsewhere, enjoying their food.
Boys, Chris stated as he pulled out his chair and sat down, the others acknowledging his presence.
"Glad to see you weathered the storm, ol' pard," Buck told Chris, knowing his friend would get the double meaning. Ezra and JD refrained from making any comment busying themselves with eating.
"The storm" consisted of some snow, but mostly wind. As a matter of fact, the wind and snow blew so hard one day it was hard to see across the street, but when it was all said and done, there wasn't much to show for it, the storm leaving little drifts of snow here and there. Enough to make Josiah a happy man though. He loved it.
Inez brought Chris his meal, he thanked her and began eating, thinking on the events of the last couple of days. Something had happened that irritated the hell out of him and he intended to get to the bottom of it, already having a good idea of who hed have a few words with.
"Anything happen?" Chris asked as he paused in his eating to pick up his coffee cup, keeping a close eye on Bucks reaction.
"Been deader than a beaver hat, Chris, you ain't missed nothin'," Buck informed him, honesty in the voice and eyes that answered him.
"A virtual morgue, I might add," put in Ezra. "Hard for a man to fatten his pockets when nothing or no one is moving about."
"I think your pockets are fat enough, Ezra," JD said. "I think I owe you half of my whole years wages already."
"IOU's are a wonderful thing aren't they?"
"IOU's that you ripped up right?" Buck asked, leveling a look at the conman. "You did say you'd tear 'em up."
"Oh yes, well of course I did. It was just all done in the sake of fun . . . and boredom. Pity though. . . I could take all that money and make this establishment something of which the likes you've never seen before." Standish leaned forward, eyes sparkling with desire and food forgotten as he attempted to reel in a couple of would-be investors for a plan that had just popped into his head. "Imagine if . . ."
"Where's Vin?" Larabee cut in, his mood growing dark, needing to find answers to the questions inside his head.
With a raised eyebrow, Wilmington looked at Chris, wondering at the abrupt question.
"Went on patrol. Boy's been goin' crazy, cooped up in town what with the storm, so he headed out early this mornin'. Why?" Bucks curiosity getting the best of him.
So everybodys been here all weekend?
Thats right. Well . . . all except for that one time. Buck knitted his brows together in concentration.
Larabees head came up, his eyes questioning.
Yeah, Vin had to go out and find Mrs. Dirks cows. Strayed. Or got lost. Or some damn thing. Never wouldve got me to do it, Buck said with a shudder. To damn cold! I prefer a nice warm bed during a snow storm, he added, rubbing his hands together and waggling his eyebrows.
Oh lord, save us all, Ezra drawled, looking at Larabee. Trust me, you do NOT want to hear this. The man definitely has something wrong with him.
Well, Mr. Dirks came in lookin for Vin, JD interrupted, not caring to hear Bucks tale again but wanting to tell Chris what had happened. This was right before the weather starting getting really bad. Mrs. Dirks prize milk cows mean a lot to her and Vin found em the young man added, pride in his voice, realizing his friend could track even in a snow storm.
Prized milk cows?" Ezra snorted in disgust. Strays more like it. Just a couple of stray, skinny old bovines. Wandered in from God knows where and the woman has men out in a snowstorm looking for them. Probably dont get a bucket of milk between the two antiquates. We dont get paid . . ."
Chris sat back in his chair, sipped his coffee, and drowned out the banter of his friends as he thought about the word strays. He peered at his men from under the flat black brim of his hat, eyes flicking to Nathan and Josiah as well. He figured they could all be considered strays, men who had just drifted from here and there never finding a place to set down roots, until now.
Chris thoughts were interrupted as the saloon doors opened and Tanner entered. He headed to the bar to order breakfast, then sauntered over to the table where Larabee sat, nodding a greeting to Sanchez and Jackson along the way.
Studying the tracker as he came in, Chris narrowed his eyes, watching the tracker's every lithe move. Maybe Vin was the culprit. He couldn't imagine Tanner coming out to his place, looking after him because he couldn't do it himself on account of the whiskey binge, but . . . Tanner was sly and quiet. If he didn't want you to know he was around, he could virtually disappear. But somebody had been in his place . . . twice! Hell, he'd even barred the door after the first night, but again, in the morning, there was a fire going in the stove and a hot meal waiting for him. That one he couldnt figure out yet . . . how they got in, with the door barred. No matter. He figured it was Buck. Buck was always there for him, saved his ass more times than he could count. But Vin? True, he and Vin had a great friendship, one that was becoming deeper every day, but Tanner didn't meddle in people's affairs, unless, of course, he figured they needed help. An eyebrow quirked as Vin seated himself next to him, Josiah and Nathan pulling chairs over to join them at the table.
"Mornin' boys," Vin greeted as he pulled himself up to the table, coffee cup in hand, waiting for his breakfast to arrive.
"How is everything out there this morning?" Josiah wanted to know. "See any big patches of snow anywhere?" A large toothy grin lit up his face.
Vin chuckled into his coffee cup and proceeded to tell Josiah where he could find the biggest drifts of snow yet.
"Won't be there long though, J'siah, sun'll be comin' out later in the day."
"Thanks Vin. Guess I'll head out to check those drifts here in a bit. Need to get out and stretch my legs a little anyway.
Reckon I can ride with you, Nathan said. I know I need ta look at somethin besides this place for a while.
Hear you been out collectin strays, Larabee said softly, turning his head to look at Vin, who had just received his meal.
Crazy cows, and that woman is crazier if you ask me, Buck said, shaking his head as he spoke. Wantin people to risk their lives in a snow storm, he snorted.
Bovine madness I call it, Ezra agreed. Probably from drinking too much curdled milk. He shuddered.
Aint strays ifn somebody cares for em," Vin said, in between mouthfuls of food.
Silence reigned at the table for a moment until Josiah spoke up. Truer words were never spoken, Vin. You are so right. A stray ceases to be a stray when offered up a place of comfort and kindness, whether it be man or beast.
Wiping his mouth with his hand and drinking the last of his coffee, Vin got up. Headin out ta Netties. Make sure ever'thins okay out there. Ill leave the patrollin up ta you, Buck, he added, with a nod of his head to the ladies' man and a Later boys to the rest of the men, he headed out the front doors.
Buck turned to Nathan and Josiah, Listen you two, maybe since youre headin out . . .
Chris chair scraped along the floor as he got up slowly and followed the Texan out of the saloon. Damn, but he hated to confront Tanner with this, the feeling in his gut telling him it had been the tracker out at his place, but Vin needed to understand he didnt appreciate anyone checking on him when he was on a drunk. Buck knew that and Chris figured his old friend had told everyone to leave him be. Either Tanner wasnt around then, or else just didnt listen to the advice. Vin was his own man, and Larabee knew Vin wasnt intimidated by him at all.
Catching up to the sharpshooter just as he was entering the livery, he called out to his friend.
Hearing his name called and knowing Chris was behind him, Vin turned and faced the man. He knew what was coming. Hed figured on it. He met Chris eyes, waiting for the question.
You out to my place over the weekend? Chris got right to the point. The question was softly asked, no hint of accusation in it.
Vin gave a barely perceptible nod of his head, affirming what Larabee had asked.
Chris shifted his eyes away from Vins, looked past him to the road, and squinted. My business is my own, Vin.
Chris voice was still quiet and soft, Vin detecting some disappointment in it, but yet, no anger.
This time it was Vin who dropped his eyes as the gunslingers gaze came back to his.
And I aint no stray that needs lookin after either. Chris had a hard time keeping his lips from quirking into a grin as Vins head came up fast at that comment, the blue eyes wide, realizing his mind had just been picked.
But Vin was just as quick with an answer, Maybe so, Larabee, but ya got some habits we need ta talk about. Vin couldnt help himself, the words came out harsher than he expected. He didnt like the fact that Chris could read him so well, or the fact that his friend left himself so open to be hurt or . . . worse.
Chris pulled himself up to his full height, leveled a hard look at his friend, and nearly growled, Maybe you didnt hear me the first time. I said, my business is my own.
The blue eyes narrowed and the voice became raspier, deadlier. I made a livin outta studyin mens habits and takin em down cause of em. Dont want you ta be makin the same mistakes.
Neither man would admit it, but their hearts pounded in their chests and the palms of their hands turned sweaty. It was a tense moment between the two of them, each man thinking fast of what to say to get them beyond this point.
Vin watched Larabees reaction. Could be hed just crossed over a line and severed that link between them. Chris was unpredictable at times, a different breed of man than most, at least where he, Vin, was concerned. But Vin cared about Chris and didnt want anything to happen to him. If he could help watch his back, then thats what he was going to do, no matter if the gunslinger wanted it or not. He could tolerate Larabees anger, but disappointment was something entirely different.
And so he spoke first.
Aint yer demons Im talkin about, Chris, his voice almost a whisper, laced with concern. Hell, I know a man needs his time and space, its just the other things . . . little things that killers look for. I..., he stopped and sighed, Aw hell, Chris, youre right. I . . .
The word said so softly he almost missed it had he not been looking directly at Chris. The hazel eyes that had been staring at him softened and so did the face and posture. Vin took a deep breath and relaxed himself. Hed never admit it to anyone, but he had been afraid Larabee would just walk away and that would be it between them. He was immensely relieved. The harnessed anger theyd both felt had been dealt with and turned away before either said or did anything theyd live to regret.
That how you got in, on account of one of my bad habits? When he saw Vins nod, he understood. When a man drank, hed have to go outside at one point to relieve himself in one way or another. A very vulnerable position to be in. Chances are he could have left the damn door wide open for all he knew. But wait . . . the door was still barred in the morning, he remembered that much so how . . .
Left though the window, Vin answered the unspoken question, seeing the eyes narrow in concentration, knowing what Chris was wondering about. Vin had to work at keeping his lips from turning up into a smirk, when he saw his friends eyes widen knowing his mind had been read. He didnt think Larabee would appreciate how much pleasure he got from understanding the mans thoughts.
Chris nodded his head approvingly and smiled a bit.
How bout I ride out to Netties with you, and you tell me more about these habits of mine that I need to change?
Alrighty then. It pleased him more than he could say that a man like Chris Larabee would take him seriously. It also verified what he thought was true of the man: the gunslinger didnt have a death wish, he just lived life on the edge. Truth be told, they all did, JD included, each in his own way.
Chris returned the grin that Tanner flashed at him and followed the man into the livery. Somehow, for the first time in a long time, he felt a sense of relief. He knew he could handle himself, had for years, but once in awhile, it was nice to have someone covering your back when you couldnt or wouldnt do it on your own. Having Vin at his back . . . well, alright, maybe he was wrong. Maybe being taken in as a stray wasnt such a bad thing.