The Bad, The Good and The Ugly

by Rowdy Tanner

Disclaimer: The boys are the property of MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy Entertainment. I do not own them or make money from them but if I did own them I promise I would share (eventually).

Characters: The Seven and OC's

Author's Notes:For Marilyn. The title refers to the OC's.

Feedback: Thank you very much. It is always warmly welcomed.

It had been a quiet two weeks and not all The Seven were in town that day. Chris Larabee was trying to stay out of the saloon after the jollifications of the night before. His head was pounding and even the slap of the gambler Ezra Standish's Stutz playing cards sounded like a thunderclap echoing around inside his skull.

Buck Wilmington was seated beside Chris outside the Standish Tavern in a similar state of fragility. Hoping Miss Aveline had forgotten about his amorous antics last night. Vin Tanner was inside nursing a beer, probably the same one he had nursed all the previous night, and still smiling in that annoying 'If ya can't stand the heat get outta the kitchen, old man' way of his that made Larabee want to whup him good.

Josiah Sanchez was still passed out under a table, even though it was a long way past noon. Inez Recillos had to nimbly step over the big man's feet but she was prepared to overlook it this once. It was not often the boys had relaxed this much of a night time and she felt they deserved it.

So when the rumble of horses hooves echoed down the street Larabee could do little more than wince. There must have been at least twenty horsemen and Chris cursed as he rose up out of his chair to meet them.

Even though Larabee wore no badge and was nowhere near the jail house, the leader of the horsemen correctly identified Larabee as a fellow leader of men. So he reined in the big bay he rode immediately in front of Larabee and addressed his remarks to the gunslinger in unrelenting black.

"We are searching for a wanted man by the name of Vin Tanner," the pockmark faced man passed Chris a newly printed Wanted poster, smooth and without a single crease.

Larabee studied the poster as if he had never seen it before, pursing his lips and shaking his head. He passed it to Buck who looked similarly unfamiliar with the skillfully drawn likeness on the poster.

"Sorry. I haven't seen this man. $500 doesn't go far among twenty men. I have more posters across at the jail house with bigger bounties on them. You're welcome to look them over."

"Twenty four men, I posted two men at each end of town and we have been offered much more than any $500 to bring this man in," answered the leader sourly, "You won't have no objection to us taking a look around town ourselves? No offense intended."

Before Chris could reply a distracting commotion took place inside the saloon. Inez emerged pushing a bleary eyed Josiah out on to the sun-drenched boardwalk. The big man stepped blinking in the light as Inez berated him in heated Spanish.

The horsemen snickered and smirked as the burly holy man stood cowed in front of the Mexican firebrand. Inez waved her slender arms in the air and apparently described some heinous act Josiah was guilty of. Inez didn't pause to draw breath for several minutes.

When she finally paused, Josiah opened his mouth to speak and was rewarded with another stream of Spanish before he could get a word out. Finally Inez fell silent, her belladonna eyes glittering with anger.

"I don't speak a word of Spanish, ma'am," lied Josiah as the watching horsemen erupted into riotous laughter.

The leader of the horsemen raised his hand for silence, "Search every storehouse, hen house, doghouse and outhouse. I want Vin Tanner in chains."

There was another commotion in the saloon doorway as the doors opened and Ezra Standish stepped outside with a lady, veiled in a black lace mantilla, on his arm.

"Excuse me, gentlemen, may I pass by? I am afraid my dear mother has imbibed one too many medicinal brandies. Mr. Sanchez? could you take Mother's other arm while I carry her portmanteau? I am sorry to say Mother is a little unsteady on her feet today, as a result of her chronic dipsomania."

"Anything to get away from Inez, Brother Ezra," answered Josiah thankfully as he took Maude's other arm covering her long fingered hand with his big paw.

The men all watched as the curvaceous Mrs. Standish was helped down from the boardwalk, into the street and escorted towards the livery stable.

The leader of the horsemen admired the buxom figure clad in purple as she sashayed seductively across the street, glimpsing long, softly curling hair spilling over to touch the shoulders of the dress. Watching with envy as Josiah patted her bustle, he licked his lips. The black lace mantilla bobbed up and down more and more vigorously.

As the little party reached the livery Yosemite hurried to hitch two horses to the small carriage he kept for hire. As Mrs. Standish was assisted into the carriage by her two gallant escorts Josiah patted her bustle again before taking a seat beside her and draping a beefy, well-muscled arm across her shoulders.

The black lace mantilla bobbled up and down again as Ezra took up the reins and the party left town.

"Search all you like," invited a smiling Chris Larabee, "Then have a drink with us before you leave."

On the trail out of town Mrs. Standish began tugging at the front of her dress and muttering angrily, "Damn Ezra, Inez were right, ya put too much damn paddin' down my front I's ain't able ta see my own feet!"

An annoyed Vin Tanner threw a wadded up bar towel down on the carriage floor, "Josiah, ya ever pat my butt in public ag'in an' I'll get me m' knife an' carve me a thick slice a Sanchez! Get yer arm the Hell away from me right now!"

"Now, my little chickadee, don't take on so. My, you're beautiful when you're angry. How about a little kiss and a squeeze?" beamed Josiah snuggling closer.

The black lace mantilla was thrown back and an irate pair of blazing blue eyes glared at the big holy man, "I ain't yer Emma Dubonnet! Jus' get the Hell away afore I fergit I'm a lady an' black both yer eyes. Ezra, give Josiah here the ribbons of this blame thing an' give me a hand gettin' outta this torturous outfit. I's plumb sick a y'all takin' advantage!"

"Can't you wait until after we reach Nettie's place?" asked Ezra.

"Ya think I'm a goin' ta let JD an' Nathan see me all trussed up like this? Tarnation! Where's that blame bag a clothes?"

"Josiah and I just saved you. I do think you could allow us a little harmless amusement," complained Ezra.

"I's sick a yer funnin'. Hell, where's my sawed-off? I swear I'll shoot ya both if ya tell Nettie 'bout this," snarled the tracker tucking his calico shirt into the waistband and buttoning his trousers before pulling up his leather suspenders.

"Well, I think she may well harbor her own suspicions if you leave that mantilla on," laughed Ezra, "Now, do be careful don't tear it off. Inez will want it back. Let me take out the combs she put in first. She couldn't risk it moving and revealing three day's worth of thick stubble. If you paid more attention to your personal grooming Mr. Tanner, a little lip rouge and face powder would have probably sufficed."

"Ain't never goin' ta let ya put that stuff on ta my face! I'd rather be strung up like some mangy dawg! It may suit ya but I ain't fer standin' fer bein' beautified up like a blasted girl."

"As miraculous as lip rouge and face powder undoubtedly are I think it would have taken a little more than that, Mr. Tanner, to achieve beauty. I think 'almost pretty' was the best we could have hoped for," sighed Ezra.

"Almost pretty? Almost pretty! Where's m' gun? I ain't goin' ta be insulted!"

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee himself rode out to Nettie Wells' cabin after the horsemen had left town. He passed the news on to Vin Tanner and then posed the question.

"Who would be prepared to pay twenty four men more than $500 to take you in chained like an animal?"

"Don't know. Ain't anyone known ta me with that much money 'ceptin' the Widow Stacey an' Ezra."

"Mr. Tanner, I would not expend that amount of money to see you in chains. I might spare $5 to have you sashay through town in that purple dress again though," snickered Ezra.

"Hell, ya ain't got enough money ta make me do that ag'in," warned Tanner.

"Well, it's worth it to someone," pondered Larabee.

"As Mr. Tanner has just informed us all his enemies are dirt poor. The man does not even attract wealthy enemies," said Ezra.

"I look like I care how much money people got? They wanted ta take me back ta Tascosa ya say?" asked Tanner.

"No, bring you in is what they said. The wanted poster was newly printed too. I can't help thinking that was odd," replied Larabee.

"Mighty strange," agreed Tanner thoughtfully.

"It must be someone who wants their revenge awful bad. There can't be so many people you have ticked off that much, surely," remarked Nathan Jackson.

"With his engaging personality he's probably pissed off all of Texas," muttered Chris Larabee.

"They have gone now haven't they?" asked J. D. Dunne, "Vin's safe we can take him back to town."

+ + + + + + +

Back in Four Corners Chris Larabee continued to ponder on who might be willing to pay such good money to take Vin Tanner in. It was a thought he couldn't shake.

He sat in the saloon, his green eyes fixed on the tracker's slouched form as if all would suddenly be revealed in the blink of an eye. It never occurred to him the tracker might take offense at being stared at.

"Ya want one a them Wanted posters with my face on, Cowboy? Ya could nail it up in yer shack."

"Only if I wanted to scare visitors to death, you ugly cuss."

"Naw, yer confusin' me with that ugly face ya see in the mirror when ya shave, Cowboy. Anyways who visits that tumbledown shack?"

"Cabin," corrected the gunfighter.

"Yer day dreaming, Cowboy. Cabin!" scoffed Tanner, "I's used better appointed privies than yer shack."

"I wonder if I could claim all that money if I put you in chains? More than $500 is a mighty temptation."

"Ya could buy yerself a real cabin," smirked the tracker.

They stopped speaking as a stranger stepped inside the saloon. He was Nathan's height, he was well dressed in a tailored maroon jacket aping Ezra's, he had the dangerous air of a gunslinger like Larabee, he was as well muscled as Josiah, he had an eye for the ladies similar to Buck, he wore two guns not unlike JD.

As Inez uncharacteristically fluttered around the tall, dark and extremely handsome stranger, Chris Larabee looked across at the tracker's chair and found it empty. He glanced around the saloon but Tanner had vanished. Chris was in two minds whether to follow Tanner or investigate the newcomer further. He decided Tanner could only have left the saloon for a good reason. Perhaps he'd recognized the stranger.

Chris Larabee rose up out of his chair, striding out of the saloon. He paused and looking upwards he recalled the sight of Eli Joe falling from the rooftop to hit the boardwalk outside the Telegraph Office deader than a beaver hat. Why had that image entered his mind at his precise moment? Shaking his blond head he dismissed the image and resumed walking across to the Jail house to find Buck.

"Buck, get yourself over to the saloon, get Ezra up out of his pit and keep an eye on the tall stranger. The one with his eyes roaming all over Inez," ordered Larabee.

Buck almost knocked Larabee on his butt in his haste to reach the saloon. Next to find the elusive tracker. Larabee for some perverse reason known only to himself decided to try the one place Tanner would never, ever, in a month of Sundays, go willingly.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner was in Nathan's clinic. It was hard to decide who was the most surprised by this unexpected turn of events. Chris Larabee, Nathan Jackson or Vin Tanner himself. Tanner couldn't possibly be hiding could he? Hiding from the stranger?

"You know who that stranger is?" demanded Larabee closing the clinic door behind him.

"Yeah, I knows," muttered the tracker sitting on the edge of the bed, hands upturned in his lap, his head bowed.

"You feeling disposed to enlighten us?" persisted Chris Larabee.

"Does I gotta? Maybe I'd jus' as soon stay here with Nathan an' make up fer all them times I done sneaked off afore Nathan said I were well enough ta go."

"You turned yeller?" needled the gunfighter.

"Reckon so," answered Tanner.

That was not the answer Larabee had expected. After all he was talking to a man who was harder than a coffin nail.

"Does he have a name?"

"Vincente Santini."

"Sounds like a circus act."

"Yeah, even man eatin' lions are rightly scared ta get in a cage with him."

"He doesn't look that dangerous to me."

"Ya don't know him," Tanner's voice was gradually becoming little more than a whisper and his blue eyes appeared to be fading right before his friends increasingly astonished faces.

"Where do you know him from?"


"Vin, if you don't explain it all to me now I will be the one scaring the bejesus out of you. He's not the boogeyman. Speak up and tell me everything you know about him."

"Ex-buffalo hunter." The tracker paused and looked like he might run, Larabee took a menacing step towards him. The other man licked dry lips and continued, "Taught me how ta buffalo hunt."


"He'll do anythin' fer money..."

"So he's come to take you in to Tascosa?" prompted Larabee deciding that could be the only thing that would terrify Tanner to such a degree.

"Naw, he's come ta take me home."


"Yeah, he's my pa."

+ + + + + + +

"Your pa? I thought you were a Tanner?" queried Larabee.

"I is."

"I see."

"Naw, ya don't. I ain't what yer thinkin' I am. My Ma was a lady. She were a Fitzgerald an' she got married up in a church to a man called Tanner. Who turned out ta be that man in the saloon. A lyin', two faced, wife beatin' dawg. He was the one who was a, well, what ya thought I were. His mother's name was Tanner. He tracked down his real father, shot him in the back stone dead an' took his name when I were mebbe four years old or so. Told us we were Santini's now but Ma she kept tellin' me I weren't. Remember yer a Tanner, she said. Guess she wanted me ta know I came from some good folk. Jus' up an' left us one day afore Ma took sick."

"But you found him?" asked Larabee trying to assimilate all what Vin had told him with the brown eyed, swarthy man in the saloon. There was something familiar about him that Larabee decided just didn't sit right.

"Naw, he found me once I were of an age ta work fer real money. Took me buffalo huntin'. Had me do the dirty work fer him, reloading, cooling down the rifle barrels an' cleaning 'em. I's awready learned ta look after myself, weren't needin' him around so I run off an' joined an outfit on my own as soon as I could handle a big fifty. Then I figured I'd stick around an' maybe get my revenge fer Mama but he was too tough. Sleeps with one eye open. Realized I'd be forced ta shoot him in the back an' I ain't wantin' ta be as bad as he."

"Did he ever beat you?" Chris Larabee's hand was now resting on the butt of his gun.

"Mama, she made sure he didn't. She put me in a cupboard that locked with a key. Reckon she'd have died at his hands afore she would a given up that key ta him. Shut me in the times he didn't come home fer supper, tried ta make it a game but it didn't work. She knew he'd come home eventually, as mean as a gut-shot grizzly an' beat her but he'd jus' fergit I were in the house if I were quiet. Learned ta keep real quiet even though I could be in there fer hours while he beat on her afore stormin' off ag'in."

"Why didn't she leave?" Larabee's grip on his gun was growing tighter, the knuckles of his gun-hand turning white.

Larabee had always wondered at Tanner's uncanny ability to fade into the background. To be there but remaining so still and silent as to be unseen. Now he knew how and why he'd acquired that skill.

"Go where? Do what? Drag a little kid all over God's Creation? I were a real little fella never growed as fast as the other kids. Reckon he mighta threatened ta hurt me if she tried ta leave him. He'd come back a few weeks later, so sorry. Bringin' her a new dress or a right fancy bonnet an' I's git a toy he'd whittled me. Had a whole box a them toys an' never played with any of 'em. Ya don't know how hard it is ta play with a toy horsey when yer ma has a black eye an' a busted lip. Guess that's why I don't care fer havin' stuff even now, or small dark places."

"Good Lord, Vin," breathed Nathan thinking getting beaten by a plantation overseer was one thing but hearing your own father beat your mother was entirely different. Nathan wondered too, what was to stop Vin being beaten when his mother was no longer alive? No little wonder he had run away.

Chris Larabee looked at Tanner and he realized he'd been entirely wrong, Santini was the boogeyman. At least to the young Vin Tanner shut inside a small dark cupboard, keeping still and quiet while hearing his mother suffer.

"Why does he want to take you back to Texas?" asked Nathan.

"Hear he got married ag'in ta some well-to-do spinster woman. He's probably lied his butt off 'bout me an' I reckon she might want ta meet her step-son. He likes ta play happy families, pretends it's all fine an' dandy. Jesus, probably whittle me a new toy as well," said Tanner bitterly, then he shrugged his shoulders and looked towards the door.

An instant later the door flew open and JD found himself staring down the barrels of three guns.

"Whoa! Don't shoot the messenger!" exclaimed JD.

"What's the message?" growled Larabee reluctantly putting his gun back in it's holster, he was really itching to shoot somebody or something and growing less picky as to who his next victim might be, by the minute.

"Buck says to tell you the stranger is called Vince and he's finally let go of Inez's hand long enough to go get a room at the hotel. Buck also says if you want him shot he's volunteering."

Vin sprang to his feet, "Which hotel?" he hissed, sounding more like the Vin Tanner they knew.

"The Ritz of course, Inez recommended it."

Tanner checked his mare's leg was loaded which of course it was. Then made for the door. Larabee put out a hand to stop him.

"Where are you going now?" he asked.

"Hotel. I ain't havin' him stayin' there with decent women."

"Are you going there to shoot him or leave with him? I think they're your two choices. My two choices are to let you shoot him or to shoot him myself because he's not taking you to Texas. Texas will kill you."

"That's why I were hidin' then ya wouldn't have ta try an' shoot him. Reckoned I could wait him out. Guess now I cain't."

I knew you weren't yeller.

I ain't afeared of him no more, only thing I's afraid of is that one a ya might get in his way.

You were hiding for my sake. You didn't think I'd look for you here did you?

Jus' can't let ya go up ag'in him, Cowboy.

"Try? Try and shoot him? You saying he's that fast? Faster than me?"

"Ain't wantin' ya ta be the one ta find out, Chris. I's goin' ta take care of it."

"No," said Larabee in a voice that brooked no argument.

"No," said Nathan.

"No," said JD not entirely sure what was going on but pretty damn sure he wasn't going to let Vin face a gunslinger alone.

"Please, lemme handle it," Tanner tried again.


"Let me get him outta the hotel. Jus' that I promise," begged Tanner.

Larabee studied the man in front of him. Looked deep into his soul to see if he was lying. Satisfied he agreed.

+ + + + + + +

The buckskin tracker swaggered into The Ritz and looked at the brown eyed man at the bar with the poker straight, jet black hair. Tanner stood, right leg jiggling impatiently and waited.

"I heard ya were in town, boy. Almost didn't recognize ya dressed like a damn saddle tramp. Ya no pride in yerself, boy? Yer mama woulda bin ashamed ta know ya."

"Reckon she would at that," answered Tanner.

How those words had stung. This man still knew how to wound him even without raising his hand.

"Drink? Don't go on the worry I'll stand 'em. Ya look flat broke. At least ya had custom made boots and a new duster when yer were on the trail with me, son. Whiskey?"

"Not here."

"What's wrong with here? I like it, it's classier than that piss-ant saloon. It has more refined attractions fer a man a my tastes. There's one rich filly stayin' here caught my eye. Full a spirit, reckon I could break her though. Be fun, ornery women are always more exciting, especially when ya make 'em cry. Reckon I'm a mite sorry I won't be gettin' ta know her a bit better now we're leavin' town right away, son."

"She won't drink with me," lied Tanner, his chest tightening knowing he'd been right all along, "Women hereabouts thinks I's beneath 'em."

"Like I say if ya cleaned yerself up. Alright, yer saloon it is. We got time enough ta get ya some decent clothes fer meetin' yer new ma in on the way back ta Texas."

They walked out of the hotel and into the street. The much taller man's long stride making no allowances for Vin Tanner's strolling gait until Tanner was staring at his back.

"Before ya pull that mare's leg a yers ya should know I had more savvy than ta come alone. Look up yonder," Santini said warningly.

Vin looked up, saw the extended barrel of a custom made rifle on the rooftop and smiled.

"Got me the best sharpshooter in the Territory up there. Shades even you, boy. Hell knows, I seen yer good but there's always somebody better ta be had when money's no object. Heard about them six friends a yers too, got me an extra pair a guns from Libertyville waitin' over yonder. Chris Larabee ain't gettin' the drop on me."

Vin looked across the street at a tall, curly headed gunslinger wearing two pearl handled guns on his gun belt and a moody look on his handsome mustached face. Vin smiled again, he should have known two unknown gunmen couldn't have arrived in Four Corners without The Larabee Gang knowing all about it.

"Tried sheer weight a numbers last time an' it didn't work so I went fer the crème de la crème this time, as yer new ma would say. Yer goin' ta love her, boy, she's got real class. Don't need takin' in hand like yer own ma. I already got this one broke ta the saddle afore I wed her. Yer ma never would learn. She got all she deserved, all she had ta do was keep her mouth shut an' stop them dirty looks. Worst day's work I ever did were ta marry her fer the money yer grandpa Victor Fitzgerald offered. Never saw a damn cent a that neither, the damn bitch hid it."

Vin Tanner felt his gorge rise, "Pa," he called softly, "Reckon I ain't goin' no wheres with ya. Ya'd better jus' be movin' on back ta Texas. Afore I shoot ya."

"Ya were always the same boy, damn predictable. Ya know ya can't out draw me an' ya wouldn't even shoot a man in the back when we were out on the trail together."

"Got over that. Found out it's the best place ta shoot a man if ya want ta leave him a cripple. Now ya can ride out or ya can spend the rest a yer miserable life bein' tended like a baby. Reckon that new wife could afford the best doctorin' fer ya. Figure I'd leave ya ta her tender mercies. Reckon she has no ax ta grind, surely she wouldn't feel the need ta mistreat ya when ya could no longer fight back?" Vin Tanner saw the other man flinch and knew he had touched on the thing that man feared most.

"Ya wouldn't dare! Ya'll be dead in a heartbeat."

"Reckon not. Hey Jake, how ya doin' up there?" called Tanner.

"Jus' fine, Vin," drawled Jake McKenna the only sharpshooter to shade Tanner by a hair's breadth, stood up and tipped his hat, blue eyes twinkling in his ugly face, "Ya owe me an' that moody two gun totin' Orlando Flynn down there, a drink fer this."

"Ya see Pa, I got more than six friends. Sure them six are the ones who taught me 'bout real friendship. Taught me what it means ta be a real man an' be brave enough ta take help when it's offered. Got friends who think it's an honor ta ride with a man who don't fergit he's a Tanner. Ta watch his back fer him. If them hired guns a yers had bin any kind a threat ta me they'd awready be an hour past dead. Same as yer twenty four men couldn't find an' bring me back ta Texas fer ya 'cos a my friends."

"I only wanted ta give ya a good life, boy."

"I know what ya wanted an' I want no part of it. I thought once, fer a while, that I still needed ya an' that blood kin was the only ones that were capable a carin' fer me no matter how bad they were at it. Ain't true, there's others that care now an' know how ta do it right. Yer as dead ta me."

"I'm startin' a new family an' ya could still be a part a that. Ya could have younger brothers and sisters. Real family."

"I's got real family. We ain't all got the same blood but we're kin jus' the same. We squabble amongst ourselves, we refuse ta listen ta each other when we should know better, jus' like family do but we don't deliberately hurt each other. I got six brothers now an' I'd die fer anyone of 'em. Same as they'll do fer me."

"This is yer last chance I ain't comin' back this way ag'in, boy."

"Good. Now git."

Even as The Seven stood together as brothers and watched Vincente Santini ride out of Four Corners and towards Texas, Vin Tanner knew in his bones he had not heard the last of his pa...

+ + + + + + +

Orlando Flynn, Deputy Sheriff, strolled into Libertyville's Lucky Dollar saloon and ordered a drink from the barkeep.

"Be obliged iffen ya'll let me pay fer yer whiskey, Orlando," offered Vin Tanner materializing at the Deputy Sheriff's side.

"Is that what this is?" Orlando grinned at his fellow Texan. The Lucky Dollar saloon was not noted for quality liquor.

Both men strolled to the empty table. Where Orlando removed his silver banded, black hat and raked his fingers through black gypsy curls.

"Iffen yer lookin' fer my cousin, Deputy Jake McKenna, he's out on patrol."


Orlando appraised the tracker, stroking his thick black mustache thoughtfully before saying, "We don't like it when men of Vince Tanner's ilk arrive at the railroad station, walk straight in here an' offer cash money fer hired guns. So Jake sneakily pocketed his deputies badge an' signed us both up. Jake does sneaky real good, Vince had no inkling we were the law."

"Ya both knowed Vince Tanner?"

"Of old. Jake even rode with him once. Reckon once was enough iffen ya get my drift. Vince was fool enough ta think we were still working as hired guns." Orlando Flynn looked across the table at Vin Tanner's eyes and noticed something for the first time. "Vince said he were yer pa," he remarked carefully.

"Told me that too," sneered Tanner.

"No offense ta yer ma but ya don't favor him much."

"Thankful fer that. At least I don't see a monster lookin' back when I looks in a mirror."

"Any reason ta think he ain't yer pa? Ya seen 'em together?"

"Hell yes. They were married," rasped Tanner.

"No offense meant. I guess I feel sympathy fer yer ma then. Married ta him."

"He left us when I were four."

"That was good of him."

"Me an' Ma thought so," drawled Tanner.

"Jake lit the Libertyville jail house stove with yer Wanted poster ya know."


"We ain't always real good at our jobs me an' Jake. We mostly uphold the law but sometimes we think Justice needs a whack on the behind ta make her see sense an' we sorta take matters in to our own hands," smiled Orlando.


Jake McKenna

joined Orlando

and Tanner

at the table. Jake offered his hand and Tanner grinned as his own hand all but disappeared inside the huge ham sized grip. Smirking at his cousin's annoyance Jake slung his shabby old buckskin jacket over the chair back raising a choking cloud of dust and settled down to enjoy a good scratch under his new red checkered shirt.

Orlando Flynn stared at the new bright red checkered shirt in disbelief.

"Do ya always have ta dress up like a cheap whore on Christmas?" he inquired.

"Hell, I think it looks real good. All the ladies will love it," retorted Jake winking a blue eye at Tanner.

"Yer new shirt matches yer eyes."

"Careful Flynn, ya might accidently say somethin' funny."

"It couldn't be as funny as that shirt. He's buying the whiskey," Flynn said inclining his head towards Vin Tanner.

Jake's unprepossessing face broke into a huge grin as he raised his battered blue cavalry hat to the gaudily dressed working girls leaning over the banister rail halfway up the stairs, "Good afternoon, ladies. May I introduce Vin, a very good friend of mine? Please treat him kindly."

The girls waved and called down, inviting Jake to join them upstairs. Jake laughed and shook his head.

"Now, ladies, how could I possibly choose jus' one a ya beauties?" he teased back.

A chorus of ribald comments showered down making it perfectly clear Jake needn't choose just one. Jake laughed again.

"Mercy, ladies, I'm jus' one man!" he raised his hat to them all again and turned back to face Flynn and Tanner across the table.

"I told ya Orlando, the ladies like the way I dress."

"If yer going ta sit there grinnin' like a cat that got the cream I'll be obliged ta shoot ya," warned Orlando.

"Yer jus' jealous of the effect I have on women."

"A few dollars waved in the air an' I'd have the same effect on 'em."

"Is that why I got those two extra eggs with breakfast at our boarding house the other mornin'? Why the landlady knocked on my door with an extra blanket way after midnight the other night?"

"Jus' take that damn fool grin off yer ugly phizog, it's turnin' the water in my whiskey sour," warned Orlando as he unfolded his long body and stretched. "Goin' ta check in at the Sheriff's office then ride patrol. Ya ain't fergittin' yer takin' my watch tonight so I can see my Elvira?" he said straightening his silver buttoned, black leather vest and readjusting his black tie.

"Naw jus' goin' ta arrange some company a m' own fer tonight," grinned Jake waving the working girls over as Orlando shook Vin's hand warmly and left. "Ya hear that?"

"What?" asked Tanner.

"My Elvira. He said 'my' Elvira."


"Hell, I do all this matchmaking fer months an' no one notices," complained Jake treating himself to another scratch.

"Matchmaking?" Tanner asked wrinkling his brow, confused.

"Orlando goes through women like they were goin' outta style since he lost his wife in childbirth. Never goes back where he's bin afore if ya get my drift. Scared a gettin' close I reckon. Them two danced round each other like spittin' bobcats ever since they set eyes on each other. I knew a bit a competition would git him ta show his hand."

"All this time ya were chasin' her ta make him jealous?" puzzled Vin while thinking what a shame it was that the same trick wouldn't work with Chris and Mary.

"Hell, she's set her cap at him. Treated me like a gooseberry from the start. Go figure. Mind ya she's husband-huntin' an' I ain't the marrying kind. Still, she don't know what she's missin'. Eh, girls?"

The giggling girls had joined them at their table as Jake signaled that whatever the girls were drinking would be required

. The barkeep placed the drinks on the table and smiled ingratiatingly at Jake, who stared coldly at him until he removed himself to his place back behind the bar.

"Orlando an' his wife, Miz Amelia, were childhood sweethearts he took it real hard when she passed over so young. Gave up the Army life, which he loved, ta bring up them children alone. When they went away ta school back East he lost interest in the family ranch, drifted an' got himself a bit of a reputation as a gunfighter," continued Jake hardly drawing breath.

"Y'all grew up together?"

"Closer than brothers. Went ta West Point together. Fought side by side fer a long time. Ranched together fer a wee while but I ain't one fer settlin'. The Flynn family owns a sizable piece a Texas 'tween 'em."

"So he goes ta visit with his children of'en?"

"Loves them bairns ta bits sure he does but he misses Miz Amelia sorely still. We all miss her. She was always delicate, a real tiny gentle wee thing. Very prim an' proper ladylike manners. Sweet tempered too."

"So the Widow Stacey has a lot in common with her?" laughed Vin.

"Hell no!" laughed Jake slapping his thigh. "Reckon that's the attraction."

"What happened ta Mister Stacey?" inquired Vin accepting that Jake loved to talk and contriving to at least keep the gossip informative.

"Septimus Stacey? That was jus' afore me an' Orlando arrived in Libertyville. I only know it was a murder."

"He was robbed," offered one of the working girls. "As I recall he set out in a bad thunderstorm with a great deal of money."

"He wasn't found for a few days. Everyone presumed he'd got on the stagecoach," added another working girl pretty but with an unfortunate squint.

"That's right he'd been blasted by both barrels of a shotgun and the money he was carrying was gone. His gold watch too," remembered the first girl. "No! I recall they found that watch smashed to bits!"

"Sheriff Graham, as he was then, organized a manhunt and they found the body. His wife was in mourning for a long time wasn't she?" asked the girl with the squint.

"She had a bad time of it. The other ranchers tried every way they knew to force her to sell up. The bank even sided with them too. Sheriff Graham showed her how to use a shotgun to scare some of the rougher ranchers off her land right before he retired to make way for a younger man as sheriff, do you remember?" asked another of the gaudily dressed girls.

"I remember Stuart James sending his nephew, Lucas James, to make her an offer of marriage and him coming away with a butt full a rock salt! She cottoned on how to use that old shotgun pretty quick!" laughed the girl with the squint.

"Best thing she did was make Bear Maxwell ramrod. He's never forgotten how much faith she put in him. He taught her most of what she knows about ranching. Taught her to ride too. They say it's the biggest ranch in three states now and Bear the best paid ramrod."

"I like Bear, he's so sweet," sighed the squinting girl.

"Oh yes, he is really sweet. Not at all as frightening as he looks. We all know he has a hankering for the Widow Stacey. That's why he only spends his money with Poppy Martin. Poppy tries to act and dress like the Widow Stacey. It sure makes her popular, she's always busy. Uppity now too."

"Hey girls, put them claws away now," laughed Jake rubbing his big scarred nose. "Vin here will get the wrong impression of ya. He thinks y'all real proper ladies."

The girls laughed and fluttered their eyelashes at Vin.

Jake was at ease in the company of women and the table was soon a source of much laughter and raucous chatter.

"Now, what's all this I heard 'bout a purple dress?" drawled Jake.

"Aw hell."

+ + + + + + +

Orlando Flynn rode out to the Stacey Ranch and as his horse clattered across the wooden bridge he espied his lady love waiting on the veranda for him. Later, over dinner in the ranch house's elegant dining room, Elvira Stacey took exception to her prospective husband's long silence.

"Why, Orlando darlin', I have no idea why you would ride all this way only to eat. When a new beau courts me, I at least expect him to stare at me quite besotted while he fills his belly."

"Sorry, my love. Do you recall a Vin Tanner?"

"Devastatingly attractive, blue eyed, buckskin wearing tracker, carries a sawed-off Winchester? Mmm, I may have noticed him in Four Corners but I cannot be sure," she purred.

"Should I be jealous?" laughed Orlando, moving aside the solid silver candelabra and reaching across the table to take both her hands in his own while gazing into her deep green eyes.

"Of course," she replied, batting her thick black eyelashes at him seductively. "I expect a gunslinger like you to call out any man who dares to look at me into Main Street at noon but no, you should not be jealous of Vin Tanner, he'd run a country mile if a woman like me said boo!"

"If you knew the miserable dawg he thought was his father wasn't, would ya tell him?" Orlando asked her......