Summary: An epilogue for Love and Honor. Inez indulges in a little reflection.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Pam for her helpful suggestions, and for the title, which is much better than my suggestion!
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. I dont own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I dont make any money from this work.
Inez Recillos flicked a cloth over the wooden surface one more time then stood back with a contented sigh. From her position behind the bar, she glanced around the Standish Tavern and for the hundredth time that day thanked the God who had brought her such good fortune.
Only yesterday her future had looked decidedly bleak. She was on the run from the arrogant and cruel son of a powerful Mexican landowner. Her refusal to become his wife had wounded his pride and he had determined to have her by force if necessary. His unwanted attentions had reached a climax when he had dragged her into the town square and tried to rape her in front of a crowd of onlookers. She escaped on a stolen horse and fled the village.
Finding her way to Four Corners, Inez had decided that it was as good a place as any to stop while she considered her options. She had been fortunate enough to talk her way into employment at the saloon and within a few days, an unusual turn of events had resulted in her appointment as Manager of the establishment. She had begun to allow herself to think that her fortunes might have changed; that for the first time in many months, there was a chance that she could re-build her life.
A determined effort to push her fear aside had, for the most part, succeeded at least during daylight hours when her job at the saloon occupied most of her thoughts. It was the night-time she dreaded. In her sleep she was defenceless against the haunting images of Don Paulos face leering down on her while his friends stood around laughing. Often she woke screaming at a nightmarish vision of her future life should he ever find her again.
Two days ago her nightmares had become reality when Don Paulo had ridden into town and told her he had come to take her back.
He had not reckoned on the seven men who acted as the peacekeeping force for this town. The events of yesterday could easily have ended in tragedy for at least one of these men; instead, they had succeeded in ridding her of Don Paulo once and for all. She knew it was wrong to rejoice in the death of another, but she could not bring herself to feel regret; just relief that she was finally free.
Free! She had woken this morning to the familiar feeling of despair and it had been several moments before the events of the previous day had flooded into her mind. She was free! Free, and safe, and with the rest of her life before her hers to do with as she wanted. She could go anywhere, do anything.
It had occurred to her then that despite the cloud that had been hanging over her, she had been happy these past few weeks. She knew very well that some of the respectable women of Four Corners disapproved of a woman managing a saloon, but Inez had never been one to care a great deal about the opinion of others. She had at least made a friend in Mary Travis and that would count for a lot, for she had observed how much influence Mary held in this town. Yes, she had a good job and a few friends. Maybe, just maybe, this was the place where she could begin to rebuild her life.
She couldnt deny that part of her attraction to this town lay in the fact that it had as protectors seven men who were not afraid to stand up and be counted. Inez was a strong, self reliant woman who could take care of herself, but her experience with Don Paulo had knocked her self confidence and taught her two bitter truths - that she was no equal in strength for a man and that a woman alone in this country was vulnerable. Much as she could handle herself against the average drunken cowboy in the saloon, something she had already demonstrated satisfactorily on numerous occasions, it was still comforting to know that there was help near at hand if she found herself in a more serious situation.
She glanced across at the seven men in question, currently occupying a couple of tables near the bar. Her lips curled in an involuntary smile as she caught the eye of the man who had fought Don Paulo in a rapier duel for her honor. Hopelessly outclassed by his opponents swordsmanship and sustaining several wounds, Buck Wilmington had nevertheless fought gallantly and, against all odds, prevailed. Despite his injuries, Buck was in fine form this evening, and he certainly deserved to celebrate his victory. Her smile faded a little at the sight of the bandages adorning his leg, arm and torso. She felt a chill go through her as she remembered how close he had come to being killed. Had he died, she would never have been able to forgive herself
Buck was a big man with a bigger heart and a great love of life and women. Yet unlike many of the men she had met in her life, she believed that he had a genuine respect for the opposite sex. It had been a brave if rash move on his part to challenge Don Paulo to a duel, and indeed she knew that many of the townsfolk felt that it was only his pride that had caused his refusal to refuse to back down. Inez knew, however, that he had been aware of the fate that would have awaited her at the hands of the Don and it was mainly concern for her that had caused him to go through with the fight.
She shook her head in mock despair as Buck winked at her lasciviously and patted his lap invitingly. Buck had been flirting with her since the moment she had arrived in town and although she liked the amiable, handsome man well enough, she was also disinclined to encourage his amorous advances. Buck was a good man who wore his heart on his sleeve and with him, what you saw was what you got. She had no doubt that he was an experienced and skilled lover and one would have a lot of fun with him, but she was equally sure that she didnt want to become one of his many conquests. Perhaps she was a fool to turn him down; yet there was no denying that for the past couple of days she had found her thoughts continually drifting in a very different direction.
Inez! Its as dry as a waterhole in a drought over here!
Buck was waving an empty whisky bottle to illustrate his point. Inez held his eye for a moment, then reached behind the counter for a new bottle and sauntered over to the table, taking her time about it.
You could have come to fetch it yourself! she commented dryly.
Now, youve gotta remember Im an injured man, Buck whined plaintively.
Inez snorted, hands on hips. And just how long do you expect to continue playing that card?
Until he thinks of a better one! JD Dunne chipped in, raising laughs from his companions and a protest of innocence from Buck.
Inez deftly avoided Bucks outstretched hand, ignoring his plea that he was misunderstood, and returned to the bar. Yes, Buck was a good man, but then so were his friends, each one of them in his own way. She observed them now as they laughed together, relaxed for the first time in several days, remembering Marys words: These men aren't like Don Paulo. You can trust them.
She hadnt needed Mary to tell her that. Inez prided herself on being a shrewd judge of character and although she had only been in town for a few weeks, she had quickly come to realize that there was something very special about this group of men. The peacekeepers spent most of their leisure time in the saloon and she had had plenty of time to observe them. Coupling her own observations with the gossip of the townspeople, she felt that she already formed a pretty accurate picture of each of them.
She allowed her gaze to pass over each one in turn.
Josiah Sanchez the ex-preacher with a troubled history; usually placid but with an explosive and somewhat frightening temper when roused. A man with a lot of secrets in his past, she was sure.
Her eyes moved on to Nathan Jackson, the handsome, self-taught healer, a man with a sweet nature and a genuine love for his fellow man. It didnt take much imagination to figure out that he must have had a hard life and she wondered that this hadnt tarnished his innate goodness and desire to help.
She couldnt help smiling as her eyes moved across the table to JD Dunne. Youngest of the group, the one the others referred to as the Kid, JD was indeed young and undoubtedly naïve, but also courageous and loyal and impossible to dislike.
Next she took in the impeccably dressed form of Ezra Standish, the well-educated gambler who had been her original employer at the saloon. In her opinion, Ezra was a complex man. Outwardly the epitome of a sharp-witted conman, he was always on the lookout for ways to make a quick dollar and not too fussy how he accomplished it. Yet she was sure that there was a softer, nobler man hidden inside who had far more of a sense of honor than even he realized.
Her eyes moved on to the next table and dwelt for a long moment on Chris Larabee, the leader of the Seven. The black-clad man frightened her a little; not because she was afraid of his reputation and sometimes short temper, but because she had sensed darkness in his soul even before she had been told the tragic story of the loss of his family. He had the air of a man who had suffered greatly and been hardened by it. She had heard that not so long ago he had been a bitter and morose man. She didnt see that in the man before her now, but sensed that despair still hovered not too far from the surface.
She watched as Larabee turned to speak to the man beside him and her eyes moved with his and lingered on the final member of the peacekeeping force.
Vin Tanner, the groups tracker and sharpshooter, was seated in his customary position with his back to the wall, lean frame stretched out with his chair tipped back precariously on two legs. She watched as he turned his head to whisper something back to Larabee, a crooked half-smile touching his lips and a wicked gleam in his eye. Chriss lips curled in response and Vins smile broadened into a grin. He caught her eye and winked and she thought how good it was to see this usually watchful, wary man so happy and relaxed.
Buck had not been the only one looking out for her over the past few days. While the ladies man had been preparing for his duel with Don Paulo, Vin Tanner had taken it upon himself to watch over her. He had been characteristically unobtrusive, but she had known that he was never far away and that he was watching Don Paulos man Guillermo as closely as Guillermo had been watching her. Vins presence had been more comforting than a whole detachment of soldiers. The Texan exuded an assured confidence and she had known that if Guillermo had taken even a step towards her in a threatening manner, Tanner would have stepped in to intervene.
Irrationally, it pleased her enormously to think that he had been so concerned for her safety and she took a moment to run over in her mind the occasions when he had made his presence felt.
Twice Tanner had warned Don Paulo that there was no way he was leaving town with her and she remembered again the renewed strength she had drawn from those words. When he had looked Don Paulo in the eye and drawled, in that soft, raspy voice, You'll be dead long before she goes anywhere with you, she had believed him.
It had been Tanner who had persuaded her to stay in Four Corners and make a stand when she had been thinking of running. It had been as much his solid presence beside her that had convinced her, as the sure knowledge that he was right and that Don Paulo would never let her go unless she faced him once and for all. Then, when she had lost her temper and tried to kill the Don in the hotel, Vin had been there again, gently taking the gun out of her hand, telling her that wasnt the way. If she closed her eyes she could still feel the warmth of his hand on her arm as he had led her out of the room.
Vin Tanner was a tough ex-bounty hunter, the best sharpshooter in the territory and, she was sure, almost as dangerous a man as Chris Larabee. But she had quickly discovered another side to this man; his gentle nature, his polite respect of women, his willingness to help out any time he saw a need. She knew there was a bounty on his head - on the day shed arrived in town he had been arrested by a Federal Marshall and taken away to face justice. Mary had later informed her that the arrest had been a sham and that Vin was, in any case, innocent of the charge against him. She hadnt been sure what to believe then; now, she had no doubts of his innocence. She couldnt imagine this man committing cold-blooded murder; he had too strong a sense of justice and honor.
Vin was quieter than most of his friends; he didnt laugh and joke like Buck and JD, but he had a ready wit and could reduce his companions to mirth with a single sardonic comment. Inez felt sure that his reserve sprang not out of self-consciousness or shyness, but out of a kind of inner peace, as if he was comfortable with himself and the world around him and was willing to interact with it only on his terms.
Yes, there was no denying that she was intrigued by this man with the rough exterior and a sensitive and passionate soul.
A harsh voice broke into her thoughts and reality returned with a bump as her eyes moved to the group of cowboys at a nearby table. They had been sitting there all night, drinking and playing poker. They were harmless enough, in her estimation; just a group of high spirited young men out to have a good time, though she knew from experience that once liquored up, they could cause a world of trouble.
Fixing a smile on her face, she approached their table.
What can I get you, Señors?
One of them, the man who appeared to be their self-appointed leader, leered at her, licking his lips.
Well, I was thinking of another round of beer, but since youre asking, a kiss would do just nicely!
The cowboy was a tall man, well built with wide shoulders and hands like hams. She could see he was drunk, but not so drunk that he didnt know what he was doing. The gleam in his eye told her that she shouldnt underestimate him. He looked around at his friends, grinning, and she could see that they were all ready to encourage his advances. Inez deftly avoided his grasping hands.
Ill get you your beer, she said firmly.
He allowed her to move away, but she felt his eyes following her to the bar and was sure he would not give up that easily. She returned with the beer and eyed him warily as she leaned over to put the tray on the table.
As she turned to move away he moved slightly to block her and before she could avoid it, he had put out a foot, catching her ankle. Unbalanced, she was unable to prevent him from pulling her down into his lap.
Now, this is more like it!
Inez fought back a welling panic as strong hands closed around her waist, preventing her from pulling away. She was preparing to poke him hard in the eye if he tried to kiss her, when she heard the sound of a gun being cocked and saw its barrel come to rest behind the cowboys left ear.
Let the lady go, a quiet voice drawled.
The cowboy stiffened and loosened his grip on her waist. Inez pulled away, jumping to her feet as quickly as dignity would allow and turned to see Vin Tanner digging the barrel a little harder into the mans neck.
Touch her again, and Ill kill ya.
All music and conversation in the tavern had ceased and the words, although spoken in a mild tone, came through loud and clear. It was obvious from the big mans reaction that he took the threat seriously. No one in this in this territory who valued his life would take on one of the Seven without good reason.
The cowboy cleared his throat nervously, all signs of his former bluster gone.
I didnt mean nothin by it. Just havin some fun. He looked round at his friends. Thats right, aint it boys?
The others nodded, all eyes fixed nervously on the gun.
Tanner re-holstered the mares leg. If ya want my advice, Id take my fun somewhere else.
He strolled back to his table, where Inez noticed the remainder of the Seven were still seated, but paying close attention, ready to back their fellow peacekeeper if needed. She watched anxiously as the humiliated cowboy exchanged what seemed to be heated words with his companions, then the four of them got up from the table and walked out of the saloon without another word.
Inez allowed herself a sigh of relief and flashed a glance of thanks at Tanner, who tipped his hat to her. Within minutes the incident was forgotten as the music started up again and conversation resumed.
Inez retreated back behind the bar, hoping that this would be the last incident of the evening. She could really do with a few quiet days to recover from recent events. She found her eyes drifting once more to the sharpshooter, who had taken his cards up again as if nothing had happened.
She wondered how many men had underestimated the handsome tracker. Handsome? Where had that come from? She studied him again. For once he was without his trademark buckskin jacket and his wide brimmed hat was pushed back, revealing long, wavy brown hair curling around the collar of his shirt. Her eyes moved from the strong, square jaw to the generous mouth, up past the straight nose to those expressive dark blue eyes. There was no denying that he was an incredibly attractive man, particularly when that slightly shy smile spread over his face and lit up the beautiful eyes. She found herself caught up in a vision of those eyes darkening and burning in the throes of a different kind of passion.
Inez shook herself. This wasnt the first time shed found herself daydreaming like this, yet Vin hadnt shown any interest in her, no more than the polite courtesy he showed all women. He hadnt flirted with her like Buck or even appeared tongue tied around her in the way JD often did. His concern for her well being over the past few days had been nothing more than the concern he would have had for any woman who was being threatened. Certainly, she told herself sternly, she would do herself no favors if she allowed her thoughts to stray in that direction. She was starting a new life in a new town with new friends. For now, that was enough.
+ + + + + + +
The last few patrons were leaving the saloon and Inez had already begun to clear up, wiping tables and stacking empty chairs ready to take a broom to the floor.
Almost guiltily, she allowed her thoughts to drift yet again to the towns sharpshooter. She pictured him leaning against the hitching rail outside the saloon, one hip cocked, slouch hat pulled down low over his face and worn buckskin jacket carried casually on his lean frame. His long hair was pushed back and curling over his neck and those eyes were blue diamonds piercing straight into her soul.
Give ya a hand with those, maam?
Inez looked up into a pair of dark blue eyes and started violently.
Sorry, maam, Vin Tanner said contritely. Didnt aim ta startle ya.
Im sorry, I was just thinking about something, she stammered. Thank you, I would welcome some help. Perhaps you could finish stacking these chairs?
She turned away, hoping he hadnt seen the flush that stained her cheeks. It was ridiculous to be embarrassed; he couldnt possibly have known what she was thinking.
They worked in companionable silence for a while, until Inez felt that she was in control enough to speak.
Señor Tanner, I have not yet thanked you for your help over the past few days.
Vin glanced at her and blushed. I didnt do nothin, maam. Buck was the one who fought a duel for ya.
No, she shook her head firmly, it was not nothing. Of course I am grateful to Buck - he took a very great risk with his life and what he did for me is not something I will easily forget. But you too took a risk in getting involved. You stopped me from making a big mistake in shooting Don Paulo. I know you took it upon yourself to keep watch on Guillermo. I felt safe knowing you were there.
He blushed even more. Well, youre welcome, Maam.
You can drop the Maam, Señor Tanner, she said, thinking idly how adorable he looked when he blushed. Call me Inez.
He smiled and she tried not to notice once again just how handsome he was.
Sure thing, Maam, if you drop the Señor Tanner. The names Vin.
Vin. She smiled back at him and for a moment their eyes locked. Then he cleared his throat and picked his hat up from the bar, ramming it down on his head.
Well, if you can finish up here, Id best be goin Maam... Inez.
He walked to the batwing doors and paused with one hand on the door.
His eyes held hers. I wouldnt have let them take ya.
I know, she breathed softly.
He held her gaze for a long moment and in the depths of those blue pools there was a hint of emotion that made her glad she had decided to stay on in this town. Then he tipped his hat to her and was gone.