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, just not right away...
Refers to characters and events from The Bad, the Good and the Ugly, and The Bad, the Good and the Ugly: Part Deux.
Characters:Old West. Vin, Chris, Charlotte Richmond and OC's.
Dedicated to:- WendyW a truly gracious lady and of course to Nancy for not going Old Testament on me plus The Poet who is always there for me. Thanks to Sandi, she tells me all Aussies like to share but I think she's the best at it!
Vin Tanner was seated outside the jail house taking his turn on town guard duty. The jail house was empty but he couldn't help picturing a recaptured Alva Jane imprisoned in a cell. Truth be told, Vin didn't feel all that well. Every ancient scar throbbed, every old mended fracture ached and even his fully healed burns itched and stung. Not that he would admit it to another living soul. It was taking him longer than usual to recover from the trauma of temporarily losing his sight and he knew as well as Nathan Jackson did that there was a direct correlation between a man's mental state and his ability to recover physically.
His inner self was a tangle of guilt and shame. While even he recognized some of the guilt was misplaced it would not abate. The shock of discovering he had an entire family somewhere in Texas was weighing on his soul. He had not felt the overwhelming urge to meet them that he had expected to experience.
He was sure it was selfishly wrong to feel this way but he felt that he already had more than enough family in The Larabee Gang. It had taken him some time to get used to the sights and obnoxious smells of the place yet Four Corners had become the place he regarded as his real home and that was entirely due to those six men. The six men who had accepted him entirely in spite of or perhaps even because of his quirks and idiosyncrasies. Tanner neither wanted nor indeed needed anything more than he already had. Not the responsibility of family nor the added complication of that family possibly owning one of the biggest ranches in Texas.
He was wild and wooly to the bone.
True enough, he had fought Vincent Tanner for the deed to his Ma's land but not for the land itself but for the paper it was written on. He had little enough left that she had touched with her own hands. How many times had she folded and unfolded it? Smoothed out the creases with her palm, traced the lettering with her fingertip, perhaps even shed a tear or two on to it? That was worth fighting for. Worth more than any damn land. Hell, if Vincent Tanner had showed up with a brand new deed for Vin Tanner to sign, he probably would have scribed his name to it just to be rid of his step-father for good.
If when he had allowed himself the rare luxury of imagining himself a future and how could a Wanted man make plans for a future he more than likely didn't have? he had not changed a single detail of his life as it was now. Except perhaps the one thing new thing that had entered his day dreams, the one blessing he knew was impossible.
He sighed to himself and gazed down the Main Street. Savage loudly thumped his tail against the boardwalk as the Widow Stacey approached, a galleon in full sail. The sway of her hips making Vin Tanner queasily envision he was back aboard ship.
Her progress was slow, seemingly every man in Four Corners wished to raise his hat to her and offer her a greeting. Elvira Stacey's silk dress was made in Denver. The bodice with fitted three quarter sleeves was the color green. The front having a green and white striped insert to it. Matching a green and white striped skirt that was complemented by a huge green bustle and train adorned with striped bows. On her swept up hair was a hat of golden straw topped with glossy green feathers and a big green and white striped bow at the back. White kid boots, delicate lace gloves, a green reticule and a green, ruffle trimmed parasol with a long ivory, silver topped handle completed the ensemble.
Vin Tanner didn't understand the clothing the women in the town wore. Why was it women thought it proper to squeeze themselves into a constricting whalebone corset until they could hardly breathe? It didn't make sense. Tanner imagined her in a soft doeskin fringed dress, washing clothes in a fast flowing river, her blonde hair in two long braids. He swiftly realized this was a mistake as his mouth went dry and he struggled for breath.
Yet another complication, female family. She sprawled languidly beside Vin Tanner, resting her arm across the back of the seat only inches from his shoulders making him uncomfortable. He did not think it was ladylike to sit like that in full view of the town. Surely a decorous lady would sit upright, knees together, with a straight back? Her knee was touching his and embarrassed he inched along the seat. Unladylike or not, several more gentlemen admirers stopped, tipped their hats and wished her a good day.
She sure took up a lot a room fer a shapely woman, Vin thought, as he inched even further away. Tarnation. He was now pinned up against the armrest and she was still touching his knee with hers. He would be mortified if his grubby buckskins dirtied the vibrant green silk dress that, if he dared to look and see, he was sure exactly matched the green of her eyes. She hadn't left him with enough room to get up and make good his escape in a gentlemanly fashion. Surely she must know she was making him feel discombobulated? She reached out and distractedly toyed with his hair. Nervous sweat ran down his back. She smelt so good but why did she wear all that paint on her face? Damn, he had even seen her wearing it to round up stray cattle. Was it a mask to hide behind? He thought so.
"Cousin Vin, my sister, Stella, is in New York," she announced suddenly.
"Yeah?" he asked politely, as he fervently prayed she was not intending to act as matchmaker.
"She presently resides there at great expense I might add. Not that I mind except I do miss her terribly. You see, I raised her. Ma died a year after Stella was born and from then on I had to care for her night and day while Pa worked the farm."
"So she's a younger sister?" Well done, Tanner, now she thinks you are really stupid, he thought.
"Yes. When Pa died men from the bank took the farm and evicted us. I carried her to town and asked the priest for help. He wrote me a letter to hand to the Sisters of Charity and put us on a train to the orphanage miles away."
"Was it a good place?" he rasped uncomfortable for another reason now.
"Why, we never got there. On the train journey we ran out of food. The conductor noticed. He said if I was a good little girl and sat on his knee when the train went through a tunnel he would share his supper with Stella and myself."
"How old were ya?"
Old enough to have some idea what he expected and young enough for it to be disgusting of him. So we got off the train before the next tunnel."
His hand stole over hers for a brief moment wishing he had been there to protect her from predators worse than any wild animal. "Ya were stranded?"
"I walked into the town and found the saloon full of trappers. I sang hymns for them and they gave me a few coins until the working girls complained that singing hymns was bad for business. So I danced and sang a little song Pa sang out in the fields. You would have liked Pa, he was so like Buck Wilmington, still smiling when his back was breaking with the farm work. It must have been a rude song because the trappers all laughed and gave me more money to sing it again and again.
After that I sang anywhere there was a crowd and we made our way across country trying to reach the orphanage. In New Orleans I sang for a line waiting outside a theater. The manager came outside to see why no one was entering the theater. He heard me sing and dance to my little rude song, laughed and gave me a job running errands backstage until I was tall enough to join the chorus. I was very lucky one of the older dancers took me under her wing. She explained to me exactly how many of the dancers made their real money outside the theater," she paused to see if he had understood her before she continued. "It was clear to me that with my looks I could make a lot of money if I did what they did. I had to at least consider it," she looked him straight in the eye. "I decided that God would never forgive me if I started doing that so I struggled along on a dancer's pay."
"We shared miserable little attic rooms together with the other chorus girls and I paid for her schooling. Until I married Septimus and then he paid for her to go away to a fancy school in Denver. He didn't want her around."
"So she's in New York now?"
"I got this letter a few days ago and I'd like your opinion on it."
"Don't know nuthin' 'bout young girls!" he protested.
"No?" she laughed. "If I wanted advice on that I'd ask Buck! If I wanted someone shot I'd ask Chris but it's your opinion on human nature I want."
"Try Josiah or Ezra," he suggested.
"Cousin Vin, I need a man's opinion and you're the man of the family until Orlando and Jake return from escorting Judge Travis. Who but you should I turn to for advice on family matters? The letter is from Stella's new beau asking my permission to propose marriage to her."
"Sounds right 'n' proper," he mumbled, wishing the boardwalk would open up and swallow him.
"Indeed the letter is very formal and correct. It outlines his credentials, his expected future earnings, expectations and prospects. He assures me he can support Stella in the style she has become accustomed to."
"That's rightly fittin' ain't it?"
"There is not a single mention of his feelings. It reads like a business deal. A merger. As if he was negotiating the purchase of a thousand head of my beeves."
"Mebbe he's jus' shy is all."
"Cousin Vin, I don't care if he hasn't got a dollar to his name as long as he loves her."
"Ya'll have ta ask her 'bout that."
"You think I should ask her here before my wedding to find out?"
"What really worries me is the fact that last month I had papers drawn up to settle a large sum of money and stocks and shares on Stella in the form of a trust fund prior to my marriage to Orlando. The New York beau says he is soon to be made a junior partner in Grand Empire Insurance."
"Sounds mighty impressive," he drawled.
"It only means he's learned a hundred and one different ways to say 'Act of God'."
"Yeah?" he wondered what she meant by that.
"Some of the shares I included in the trust are Grand Empire shares. So he must know how much Stella will be worth when I sign the trust fund documents."
"Ya think he's a fortune hunter?"
"What do you think?"
"Don't hardly know, guess he could be," he rasped.
"It seems rather inauspicious that he starts to court Stella in the same month I make her rich. Tell me, do men really fall in love so quickly?"
"Ya should know more 'bout that than me," he blushed.
"Bah! I know what most men say and what they mean are often two very different things. Stella is very much an innocent for all her fancy schooling."
"Ya want her ta be happy so mebbe she needs ta make a few mistakes of her own?"
"Why, a bad marriage even in these modern times is more than a mistake for a young girl. It's a tragedy," she said sorrow in her voice as if speaking from experience. "You're right of course the sensible thing to do is ask her to come here and tell me her side. Thank you, Cousin Vin, your advice, as always, was invaluable. Please may I kiss you?"
"Iffen ya feel ya really must," he rasped grudgingly.
She kissed him on the cheek and sashayed along the boardwalk towards the telegraph office, stopping on her journey to engage Josiah Sanchez in conversation. An occurrence Josiah seemingly enjoyed profusely as she placed her hand on his broad chest and twirled her parasol flirtatiously.
Josiah eventually joined Vin outside the jail house to perform his share of peacekeeping duties.
Sitting down beside the tracker Josiah tapped the hardback book he was carrying, "Brother Vin, a woman like that makes a man believe that, as in Homer's Iliad, Troy could indeed have fallen for the sake of Helen of Troy."
"Yeah?" shrugged Vin, wondering what in the Hell Josiah was talking about and if Josiah was anyone other than a brother whether or not he would have been obliged to defend Cousin Elvira's honor and call Josiah out. He decided he need a stiff drink in the saloon while he pondered some more on what having family really meant.
"Er, Brother Vin."
"You might want to scrub Cousin Elvira's red lip rouge off your face before you enter the saloon and Brother Buck amuses himself at your expense," advised Josiah, "just a thought."
Hell, thought Vin, reaching into a capacious buckskin pocket for a spare bandanna, having family was one Hell of a burden!
+ + + + + + +
"Ya awright, Cowboy?" Vin Tanner asked, wide blue eyes blinking nervously down into squinting green ones.
"Hell, you aren't ever gonna be an Angel so at least I'm not dead," retorted Chris Larabee.
"Ol' Mother York thinks I's an Angel," he drawled in reply.
"Hell, she's gone senile. Poor woman is over a hundred."
"So she says. Ain't anyone around older than her ta argue the point is there?"
'So you agree, I'm not dead?"
'Matter of opinion, Cowboy. Some think yer dead from the neck up but ya know I think that's jus' that death's head grin ya give folks."
"So if I'm not dead why I am I at the bottom of this grave?"
"That's not a grave Chris when ya dig a grave ya have ta..."
"Tanner! If I wanted a lecture on grave digging I wouldn't ask you!"
"Now I's hurt! Ya never share my interests."
"Grave digging is a hobby to you?"
"Since meetin' up with ya I's taken an unhealthy interest in graves an' grave diggin' as ya seem mighty determined ta put one of us in one purty soon."
"So again, why am I down here in this hole?"
"Officially, I think it's a pit," mused the tracker, "Hole is a good enough description," he conceded seeing the glower on Larabee's face.
"So again, why am I down here in this hole and why haven't you got me out?"
"Ya see that ain't yers. It were meant fer me. Ya would push me outta the way an' go rushin' inta trouble. Head first this time as it happens. Two, now dead, bounty hunters dug that pit fer me ya see. Ya shot them lickety-split but fell down inta m' pit."
"So why am I still down here?" said Larabee with exaggerated calm.
"Ya'll laugh when I tell ya."
"I can promise you won't if you don't tell me now! Right this minute, Tanner!"
"Oooh testy!" said the tracker imitating a girl's high voice, "I got stabbed in the leg a bit."
"Good Lord, Vin! Stabbed?"
"Don't go on the worry 'bout it," he drawled.
"How am I going to get you to Nathan if I can't get out of this pit? Fool!"
"No need fer name callin' ya pig-headed jackass. I can get my ownself back ta town an' leave ya ta rot if ya don't talk a bit nicer ta me. Ain't in need a ya ta mollycoddle me."
"Sorry," he mumbled.
"Yer what?" the Texan cupped a hand to his ear.
"Don't push it!"
"Here I got m' rope from Peso's saddle an' I can pull ya up."
"You did what? How did you manage that? I bet you didn't get that no good mule to bring it over to you."
"Don't insult poor Peso jus' 'cause yer in a sulk. He's a good horse."
"I will remind you that you said that the next time you want to fire your mare's leg up his..."
"Chris! No need fer cussin'. I sorta hopped an' anyways I'm ready ta get ya out now," rasped the tracker. He didn't want to admit he'd crawled and hauled himself up by Peso's stirrup.
"You don't listen to a word I say do you? You can't get me out, fool!"
"Cowboy, if I listened ta ya I'd never do anythin'. Yer that, um, pessimistic. Catch the goddamn rope."
"You never listen! All that will happen is I will pull you in the grave with me!"
"We are not starting that again," ground out the gunslinger.
"Aw Hell, Larabee, jus' pull yerself up the side a yer pit an' stop yer puling."
"Puling!" blustered the blond gunfighter.
"Yeah, now git up here ya damn fool. Jus' put yer hand over hand an' don't take ferever 'bout it."
Larabee tugged on the rope and slowly realized the tracker had tied it securely to something, probably a tree, all he had to do was haul himself up. Trust the ornery no good tracker not to say that but to persist in arguing instead.
Looking back down into the pit Larabee was glad to be at ground level again. He was not so glad to see Tanner clutch at his ribs wincing in pain as he tried to get up on his feet and even less glad to see blood on his friend's buckskin pants.
"Is it me, Chris, or is I attractin' a better class a bounty hunter? These two were purty clever diggin' that pit an' all."
"Clever or not they're still deader than beaver hats. Still you might have hit on something there, Pard. The four before these two were well prepared too," agreed Larabee.
"Ya don't think they done raised the bounty?"
"We haven't heard anything from the judge about it. I wonder if some one offered these guys a bonus?"
"Chris, what ya doin' inside m' jacket exactly?" rasped the tracker.
"Trying to find out where else you're bleeding from."
"Ya could ask instead a jus' tamperin' with a feller."
"Tampering? Don't flatter yourself, Tanner."
"It's jus' a scratch."
"Is that a Tanner scratch or a normal scratch? Lord, Vin it's a gaping wound."
"Ya musta made it worse with yer tamperin', Larabee."
"We have get you out of that hide coat to try and wrap it tight until Nathan can stitch it. It's bad, Vin," he said sternly.
"Yeah? Hell, don't glower at me I ain't done it! Didn't tamper with it neither," he said accusingly. "Should a left ya in the pit."
"Shut up and unbutton your shirt. We have to get you back to Nathan. It'll be a long ride."
"The Stacey Ranch is nearer, Cowboy. Doctor Dempsey is near there too," he grinned.
"You really want Cousin Elvira fussing over you?"
"She don't fuss as much as Nathan an' ya do that's why I like her. I were thinkin' on gettin' ya one a them roast beef dinners her Chinese cook rustles up."
"Is the wedding still going to happen?" asked Chris helping Vin to his horse and knowing the idle chit chat was only going someway to distract the tracker from the pain he was in.
"It hasn't been postponed again? It's really going to happen?"
"It was going ta happen right from the start. Orlando had nowhere ta run. Women like her usually gits what they want."
"So why did Orlando put up such a fight?"
"Don't ask me. I reckon fer the same reasons ya fight Mary off, Cowboy. Cousin Elvira's too handy with that Winchester ta say no ta. Orlando is a lot braver than I is."
"Mary and me are not fighting each other off, Tanner."
"Naw, Mary surrendered ages a go, Cowboy. Yer jus' too dumb ta see it."
"Nathan packed me a bottle of laudanum, Tanner, like some now?" asked Chris with a wicked smile.
"Nope, pain ain't so bad."
"It will be if you don't shut up about Mary."
+ + + + + + +
The man on the veranda didn't shift from his position in the rocking chair, his feet propped up on the rail, instead he raised his voice, "Elvira! Wounded coming in!"
She hurried to the door and wasn't unduly surprised to see Vin Tanner slumped in the saddle and Chris Larabee leading Peso. Orlando Flynn rose languidly to his feet, his twin colts shining as he helped Larabee carry Tanner inside the solid, well-built ranch house with it's own infirmary.
"Hell, Vin ya can come a callin' without gettin' yerself shot first ya know. Me an' Elvira ain't made it a rule boy," drawled the gunslinging deputy sheriff of Libertyville.
"Don't seem polite ta call without at least bringin' a bullet in with me. Larabee insists it's only good manners," said the tracker gritting his teeth as the two men swung him onto the buttoned leather examination couch.
"I'll ride inta town fer Doc Dempsey. Anythin' ta get away from all this damn weddin' talk. Stop yer laughin', Larabee. Hell, that woman knows how ta rope an' hog tie a man inta doin' what goes clear ag'in his nature. Still not sure how she did it neither. Y'all have ta come an' back me up on the big day," muttered Orlando to Chris Larabee. A proud happy grin plastered across his handsome mustachioed face that only disappeared when he turned to face Vin Tanner.
"Did ya hear that? Two hearts breakin' in Four Corners! Ezra an' Buck will be gut shot," chuckled Tanner, "An' I wondered why all the saloon girls in Libertyville were wearin' black an' a sobbin'."
"Congratulations, Orlando," said Chris Larabee offering his hand as together they eased Vin out of his buckskin and blood soaked shirt.
"Orlando!" shouted a loud female voice, possibly from as far away as the kitchen.
"Ya bellowed darlin'?" answered Orlando loudly while shaking Larabee's hand.
"Doctor!" demanded the voice.
"At once my little cactus flower. There's a bottle of whiskey in Libertyville with my name on it!" Orlando winked buttoning the silver buttons of his black leather vest over a blindingly white boiled shirt.
"Stay out of the saloons and ride straight back!" continued the voice.
"Hell, woman we ain't wed yet. 'Scuse me boys I got ta put her right on a few points."
"Tol' ya," said Tanner as Orlando, still grinning, strode off in the general direction of the kitchen.
"Hell, it hasn't happened yet."
"It will. She ain't build a church an' find herself a preacher man like Father O'Leary jus' ta let Orlando get away now."
"Get away with what?" she asked entering with a pot of rich aromatic coffee for Chris and a plate piled high with freshly cut cured ham sandwiches.
"Not marryin' up with ya," answered Vin, sulking when he realized he wasn't going to be allowed coffee or even one of the thick sandwiches.
"Hell, it's either that or I hunt him down and skin him alive. I've had enough of his shenanigans," she said while preparing to clean the nasty looking gash in Tanner's side.
Chris was surprised to notice Tanner was apparently quite happy to let her tend to him without covering up his bare chest in his usual shy way. Perhaps he felt safer now she was getting married to their friend.
"What else have you done to yourself, Cousin Vin? I suppose it's too much to hope you have only this nasty gash to show me?"
"Got a knife wound in m' leg but Chris wouldn't gimme a lend of his bandanna so it's a bit ugly looking, best wait fer the Doc," warned Vin, still sulking about the coffee.
"Nobody likes a tattle-tale, Vin Tanner!" she admonished, "Is it deep, lover?"
"Reckon so an' don't call me that ag'in. Orlando kin still shoot me," he said his face glowing like a sun-ripened cherry and a trace of real anger in his voice.
"This is really bad, Cousin Vin, we'll need to cut your boot off, lover."
She moved over to the door and shouted loudly towards the kitchen, "Bear!"
Larabee and Tanner both grinned as the biggest man Larabee had ever seen ducked his head under the door frame and entered the room dwarfing the tall woman in front of him.
"This is Bear Maxwell, my ranch foreman. Bear, we need something to cut Mr. Tanner's boot off. Be a sweetheart and find something to do the job."
"Sure thing, boss," answered the giant as he ducked his head and left determined to be a sweetheart and please her.
"Ain't needin' no help, can get m' own boot off."
"Yes, of course you can and Bear is still a growing boy, lover," she said sarcastically. "We don't want to do anymore damage to that leg do we, Chris?"
"No. We aren't standing for any nonsense, Vin. That boot is coming off the easy way."
"I ain't made a boots! They're good boots!" argued the tracker.
"I can buy you a pair of new boots, Cousin Vin. I'll have the boot-maker call and measure you right here. You'll have new boots to go back to Four Corners in," said Elvira calmly.
"Jus' got 'em broke in."
"Vin," warned Larabee seeing the stubborn set of the tracker's jaw, "They're only boots."
"They're m' boots!"
Larabee despaired. He could understand Vin's attachment to his harmonica even though he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. He could almost understand the pathological attachment to his buckskin jacket but a pair of old boots?
"Cousin Vin! I will not see you cripple yourself over a pair of old worn boots! You will let Bear cut your boot off if I have to have Chris hold his gun to your goddamn mule like head! You can narrow those big blue eyes and squint at me all you like my mind is quite made up. If I can get a gunfighter like Orlando Flynn to propose marriage I can certainly get an old boot off a jackass like you!"
"Ahem, boss," coughed the good natured giant of a foreman.
"My grandpappy was a cobbler and I reckon if we sort of cut through the stitching we could maybe get the boot off so it's repairable. It takes longer but I don't think he's planning on going anywhere soon, ma'am."
Tanner was grinning up at Bear as if they'd discovered a gold mine together. Causing Elvira to throw up her hands in disgust, "Do what you think is best Bear. I'll bow to your superior knowledge of boot making. Just don't come crying to me if you have to go through life with a limp that puts more pressure on your already damaged back, lover."
Chris watched while she stood beside the tracker and held on to him tightly while he held Tanner's leg and helped Bear slowly cut the boot off. Tanner buried his face in her shoulder as Bear painstakingly sawed at the stitching jolting the gash in Vin's side. Chris saw the tracker's strong fingers digging into her arm and wondered how it was she didn't cry out.
"Roses, ya always smell like a rose," mumbled Tanner into her silk blouse as she stroked his hair and softly murmured something Larabee didn't quite catch.
He did however, catch Bear Maxwell looking at the marks Tanner had left on her arm as if he would now be happy to stick the sharpened knife into the tracker's ribs as the boot finally came off.
"Both of you out now while I stitch his leg. Run along now."
Relief flooded the gunfighter's normally stern features as he turned and left the room with a last look at Vin Tanner.
"I'll be fine, Ma," grinned the tracker as Chris closed the door hesitantly.
"You're like Thunder and Blue Lightning you two. You don't spoil a pair." The Widow Stacey scrubbed her hands and unfolded a clean apron.
She reached for the waistband of his pants and shocked he grabbed her hand, "Naw!"
"Oh, Cousin Vin! You haven't anything I haven't seen before! Do you know how many ranch hands I've tended to in here? They never seem to mind. Now those pants are coming off so behave like a grown man for five minutes."
He blushed furiously and she realized that was what he was afraid of. That he might behave like a man if she touched him. With a sigh she reached behind her for a thick blanket to preserve his modesty.
"Wriggle out of those pants and long johns then get the rest of you covered up while I boil some water, that wound has to be cleaned," she said sternly as she gave him the privacy of her back.
He obeyed quietly, the bright red blush gradually fading to pink. She cleaned the wound briskly and thoroughly while he stared at the ceiling trying to imagine taking a succession of long, ice-filled baths.
"You were lucky an inch to the left and it would have hit the femoral artery. Then you would have bled to death before Larabee got you within a mile of my ranch."
Yeah? Ya know 'bout medical stuff? Like Nathan?"
"If I knew half of what Mr. Jackson knows I would be very impressed with myself! I only know about arteries and knife wounds in great depth."
"Ya do? Why?"
She looked at him with a half smile on her face, "Promise you won't be scandalized and shocked beyond belief?"
"Ain't promisin' but I kin try not ta be!"
"I was a magician's assistant in spangles and tights. I took part in a knife throwing act and it pays to know where not to be wounded! I was unlucky as the first magician I worked for was a toper, a drunkard. Luckily I was in demand and left him for a better prestidigitator. I am very flexible," she winked at him.
"Can ya do card tricks? I'd like ta see Ezra's face!"
"Wouldn't you prefer it if I made him disappear?" she laughed. "Now, you have a choice you can wait for Doc Dempsey, he'll sew you up like an old quilt, or you can let me stitch you up and be left with the minimum of scarring."
"Ya can do it?"
"I can, see," she rolled up her sleeve and showed him a faint silvery pink line on her arm.
"I reckon I can trust ya," he decided and as she lifted her skirt to show him the other scar on the soft skin just above her garter he did the only gentlemanly thing he could think of to do and passed out unconscious.
When he came back around a row of small neat stitches had already been inserted into his thigh and old Doc Dempsey was re-dressing his wound and muttering about having his time wasted on fool's errands.
"Will he be alright, Doc?" Larabee was asking, "He's prone to fever."
"Of course he will be alright. The gash in his side was no where near as bad as it looked and Elvira knows more about knife wounds than I do! Who do you think patches up her cowboys when they get back from fighting and carousing across the border?"
"How much do I owe you, Doc?" asked Larabee.
"I'm on a retainer to treat all Elvira's ranch hands, I suppose Elvira counts Mr. Tanner here as one of her 'cowboys' and as she did all the hard work herself, stitching him up better than I could, you've two good reasons not to pay," muttered the doctor snapping his black bag shut and shuffling out of the room.
Elvira bustled back in with a nightshirt and dressing gown for Vin. "I suppose the Doc expects to get his dinner and half a decanter of my best Scotch Whisky for coming all this way? Put these on, Cousin Vin. You and Chris are staying the night here."
"Beggin' yer pardon, ma'am, I reckon I'm jus' fine now. We can be on our way," said Vin eying the nightshirt warily.
"No. Chris has already mentioned fever and no man leaves my care to collapse in a heap a few hours later unless he's got on my bad side. Besides, can't you smell that delicious roast beef? Chris has already been seen drooling outside the kitchen door. Do you want to ride out of here with a very severely deprived gunfighter?"
"Peach Cobbler for dessert, Cousin Vin. Can't I tempt you?" she purred seductively. "Isn't Peach Cobbler worth a few hours wearing a nightshirt? If you are a good boy I'll have the servants make you up a bed on the floor by the open window next to the big brass bed instead of making you actually get in it."
"Much obliged ta ya," he was grateful she had remembered he didn't like to sleep in a soft bed or in a stuffy room.
"Chris? Would you like a hot bath up in your room before dinner?"
"A hot bath? Sounds great."
"I'll ask the servants to prepare one," she said leaving them alone.
"Hot bath, Cowboy? What ya plannin' later that ya need ta be clean fer?"
"It may surprise you to know, Tanner, that some people bathe more than once a year."
+ + + + + + +
Chris tried to keep his face composed at the sight of Vin in an expensive quilted green silk dressing gown several sizes too big for him. The late Mr. Stacey must have been a very, very tall man. Elvira greeted him at the dining room door, the deep cuffs on his sleeves were grazing his knuckles so she folded them over to stop them trailing in his soup.
Chris had always been impressed with the Stacey Ranch and was not disappointed with the dining room. Antique furniture, lead crystal and silver cutlery gleamed in the candlelight issuing from the silver candelabra. He noted the Widow Stacey had changed for dinner. The earrings and diamond waterfall necklace she wore looked impressively valuable. He was even more impressed with the food the pretty Chinese girls served him.
He was surprised to see Tanner getting stuck into the food put in front of him without appearing overawed by all the silver cutlery. For once he didn't use his hunting knife at the table. Elvira opened Vin's table napkin and tucked it under his chin smiling fondly at him while he piled his plate dangerously high with food.
"Wine or beer, Chris?" she asked as a manservant filled her crystal wineglass with red wine, "Cousin Vin? Beer or wine?"
"Wine," replied Vin wiping gravy off his chin, "Iffen it's that same stuff I had last time."
"I'll have a bottle of that brought up from the cellar if you don't mind it not being room temperature or you could try this one?"
"Yeah? Will I like it?"
"Probably. In fact you may prefer it as it's a little more robust. To complement the beef."
"Always glad ta try somethin' new."
Chris Larabee wondered if she had stitched a new personality into Vin while she had him in the sick room. He had never seen the tracker so totally relaxed in mixed company. Perhaps he should try the wine too. He'd have to be quick Doc Dempsey was gobbling up and guzzling down everything in sight. The wine was as good as the food was excellent.
Vin was grinning like the cat with the cream as he greedily spooned up the last of his Peach Cobbler. Unfazed by the total absence of any Tanner table manners, Elvira offered him more Cobbler as she said something to him sotto voce. Vin threw back his head and laughed uproariously startling Chris and making him spill his wine.
It was such a long time since he'd heard Vin laugh like that. Not since Ella Gaines had wrought her own particular brand of havoc in fact. Chris had almost forgotten how good it always made him feel. Good grief, the tracker was practically giggling now. She must have got hold of him by the crazy bone.
Chris realized he was witnessing something rarer than hen's teeth. A man and a woman who really were good friends. He was full of envy. He had always thought of Sarah as his wife, lover and best friend in that order and knew he would never have that again. He knew Mary acted like she was his friend but in reality they both knew that wasn't what she wanted from him at all and what she wanted he could no longer give. As for himself and Ella well, they had never been friends, only lovers.
Vin always reminded Chris of an armadillo, the little armored man. Hard shelled on the outside and prone to closing up to protect himself. Defying anyone to get him to open up again. Chris was still full of guilt for the way he had treated his best friend when for once the tracker hadn't said what he had wanted to hear. He never had appreciated until now how hard it must have been for Vin to be the bearer of such bad news about Ella Gaines.
When she was sure all her guests had been served all they could eat Elvira arose from the table and placed a humidor in front of Chris, "I'll leave you gentleman to smoke and there is Scotch whisky or French brandy in the decanters. There's even a bottle of Highland rye whiskey somewhere if you can find it, Chris. Please help yourselves. If you need anything else just ring the bell."
Vin scraped his chair back and stood up as she left the room and Chris followed his lead. The doctor was snoring in his chair so Chris cut two cigars for himself and Vin. They were good cigars like everything else in this house, expense was never spared here.
After a couple of glasses of Scotch Chris realized Vin was allowing himself to relax and get drunk. The Stacey Ranch was better guarded than a military fort, with regular night patrols and watchtowers. After her husband had been murdered the Widow Stacey had been kidnapped and held for ransom and had no intention of repeating the experience. Her men were loyal and took pride in keeping her safe.
This was probably the safest Vin Tanner had felt for the longest time. It enabled Chris to relax too. Cigar smoke wafted around the room and the doctor woke up enough to fill his top pocket with Elvira's cigars, top up his silver hip flask with her Scotch and stagger off to bed knocking over a small table on his way out and dislodging it's brass handled drawer.
Vin laughed as the door closed behind the doctor. "Ya think Nathan could learn stuff off him?"
"I reckon Nathan could teach him how to hold his drink," laughed back Chris getting up, righting the small table and picking up the drawer's contents, "Whoa!" he exclaimed looking at a sepia toned photograph in a silver frame.
"What ish it?" inquired Vin slightly slurring his words and pouring them both yet another more than generous slug of Scotch.
"You aren't old enough to see this," teased Chris.
"Yeah? Hell, I ain't JD ya know. Lemme see."
"Don't say you weren't warned."
Vin looked at the print drunkenly, finally bringing it into focus, "Aw, that's Cousin Elvira."
"I know it's Cousin Elvira. I just never thought to see so much of her. Let me have another look. That's definitely the best pair of legs I've ever seen."
"Yeah? Lemme look again. They sure go all the way up don't they?"
"I wonder why she's dressed like that all bare shouldered and with those three ostrich plumes in her hair?"
"She's been on the stage, with a prest..." Vin tried to correctly remember the word she'd used.
"On the stage? With a priest? Dressed like that?"
"Naw! A prestidigitator she called him."
"A what?" teased Chris.
"Lemme look ag'in."
"No. Now you are just ogling those long legs," said Chris taking the picture over to the dining table and holding it up to a candle for a closer ogle.
"Ish she's got a scar on 'em she's left the knife thrower."
"Knife thrower? I think you've had enough of the Scotch," warned Chris as Vin poured them yet another slug each into the sparkling crystal glasses.
"Anyway I seen 'em today. Fer real. They sure are real purty," bragged Vin.
Chris stared at him.
"Hell, they made me pass out," confessed Vin.
"And you aren't like JD?" scoffed Chris.
Vin burst into a fit of giggling, "Reckon JD would've died a shock jus' seein' that picture."
"What a beauty she is."
"Cousin Elvira," toasted Vin, clinking his glass against Chris' glass.
"What's that in the background behind her? It looks like a noose?"
Befuddled with the drink Chris spoke without thinking. Too late he saw tears well up in Vin's eyes.
The armadillo was out of the room before Chris could speak. He sprang up to follow him and knocked over one of the silver candelabra. By the time he had picked it up and replaced the still burning candles in their holders a door had slammed upstairs and the moment to try to put things right was gone.
Elvira came back into the dining room, dressed in a purple wrapper adorned with appliquéd moons and stars. Her leonine hair hanging loose down her back. "Is everything all right?" she asked not accustomed to having doors slammed in her house.
"No," said Chris, "I'm a damn fool." He sat back down and leaned forward with his head in his hands.
She picked up the photograph. "He saw the noose?" she asked, "That's why I always put it away in the drawer when he's in the house. It was a magic trick I used to take part in. I gave this to Orlando for Christmas."
God! Even she knew what it would mean to Vin. How he had the nerve to think of himself as Vin's best friend when he made so many stupid, stupid mistakes he thought.
"The table got knocked over and we were, er, admiring the picture," he tried to explain so she wouldn't think they had riffled through her possessions.
"I see. His clothes and gear are stowed in his room," she said.
Chris looked at her puzzled.
"One of us should make sure he hasn't climbed out of the window," she pointed out.
There, she understood his friend. How did women do that? She was three steps ahead of him. He really was useless to Vin. He looked at her beseechingly.
"I'll go see," she said.
She didn't immediately reappear so he presumed she'd found Vin still in the guest room. Chris finished his glass of Scotch and then for good measure finished Vin's. It didn't help. He climbed the staircase and stopped outside Vin's door. A light showed underneath and when he listened closely he could hear a woman's voice softly comforting a friend in need.
Leaving her to work the real magic that only women can do Chris went to his room and leaving the door ajar prayed his friend would forgive him. He lay awake and eventually heard the door across the landing open and close as her footsteps echoed away.
A few minutes later he heard the slap of bare feet on the polished wood floor, "Cowboy?"
"Ya awake?" he asked pushing the door further open.
"Nope," he reached over and turned up the lamp wick, "You coming in? Or are you looking for another window to climb out of?"
"She caught me, m' wound slowed me up a bit an' now she's taken both m' boots," sighed Vin sitting on the bed. "Cousin Elvira an' me we made each other some promises tonight," said the tracker pulling at a loose button on the too big nightshirt.
"She's a very persuasive woman. She made me promise not ta be so hard on ya."
"She says yer a man a strong hidden emotions an' ya crucify yerself with guilt."
"I might," he replied tightly.
"She said I should tell ya I fergive ya fer Ella Gaines. I told her I don't blame ya fer what Ella was. She said she knew that but that ya still blamed yerself an' I should give ya permission ta fergive yerself. That ya'd listen ta me even though I never blamed ya. I shoulda never poked around in Red Fork. It weren't my place ta go diggin' in ta her business."
"I should have listened to you. I thought you were jealous."
"I were scared fer ya, Cowboy," he rasped softly.
"I was wrong, please, forgive me for that. I don't expect you to be able to forgive me for everything else."
"Hell, I fergive ya fer it all. I cain't do anythin' else but fergive," he held out his hand and they clasped forearms.
They sat in silence for a while.
"It's nearly mornin'," yawned Vin, getting up and limping painfully to the door.
"Why don't you bring your blankets in here?"
"What did Cousin Elvira promise you?" asked Chris curiously.
"Ta give me m' boots back in the mornin'," yawned Vin curling up to sleep for another hour.
"Is that all?"
"A best friend wouldn't ask that."
"A best friend would tell his best friend without him having to ask."
The gunfighter lit a cheroot before turning down the lamp wick and leaning back against the plump feather pillows. He wouldn't sleep, only strong drink lulled him to sleep and he was stone cold sober now. He listened instead to the soft, steady snoring coming from the floor by the bed.
Minutes later a gentle hand took the still lit cheroot from his sleeping fingers, stubbing it out before pulling the quilt up and tucking it around him. On her way across the room she bent to cover the tracker's bare feet with the blanket he had kicked off.
"Jus' like family do," murmured the tracker as gliding to the door she closed it softly behind her.
+ + + + + + +
A stranger rode into Four Corners. He left a fierce looking horse in the livery. He took a long hot bath in the bath house then replacing his hat, pulling on his boots and buckling on his gun belt he came looking for Vin Tanner.
He ordered a foaming beer from Inez Recillos in the smoky saloon and she wondered why the good looking young man had an air of familiarity about him. It wasn't the thick long blond hair falling past his shoulders, it wasn't the nose, it wasn't the military bearing or the long blue duster. She wasn't absolutely sure if it was the intense cerulean blue of his eyes but she thought it was. There was something about the lightly bearded jaw-line and the thick dark eyebrows that pricked at Inez's memory. Then he smiled and she knew who it was she was gazing at and she marveled at the likeness.
He knew he was in the right place so he looked closely for the man he was searching for. "Vin Tanner? The name's Ethan Graves," he introduced himself and held out his large hand noticing the other men at the table reaching for the butts of their side-arms in readiness.
They stared at each other for a long time. Taking each other's measure before shaking the other's hand. Ethan moved with lightning speed and Tanner found himself hugged and released in such rapid succession that he wasn't sure it had happened at all.
Ethan looked at the other men's quizzical expressions and Tanner suddenly realized it was important to introduce Ethan to his friends. He shyly cleared his throat not used to being the center of attention. "This is my half-brother, Ethan Graves," as he spoke to his own ears he seemed to be speaking a foreign language, saying words he never had expected to say out loud.
"His wiser an' better lookin' brother," corrected Ethan. "He has two more sisters an' another brother."
"Jake? Jake McKenna is your father?" asked Ezra Standish astonished.
"We all have different mothers an' surnames. Scandalizin' ain't it?" Ethan fixed each man with a clear warning in his eyes that while he accepted the truth of what he was, any remarks he considered insulting to his mother would be met with a very insulting punch in the face.
"Ya here fer the weddin'?" asked Vin.
"Naw, I'm here ta see ya. Reckoned on takin' ya fishin' or some such ta get ta know ya a bit, brother. Might stay fer the weddin' but not if she's a hoity-toity piece her havin' money an' some land of her own an' all. Is she?"
"Naw, she ain't. Cousin Elvira is a friend of," he hesitated briefly, "us all."
"Uncle Orlando looks as happy as a dog with two tails when he talks 'bout her. Hard ta form an unbiased opinion when he gets like that. Still if ya reckon ta her I'll be plannin' on stayin' over fer the weddin' then. Ya goin' all of ya?"
"We have all received formal invitations to the forthcoming nuptials."
Ethan looked at Ezra Standish and then rolled his eyes at Vin. Vin was rendered speechless by the similarity to Jake's own act of eye rolling.
"Reckon this calls fer a drink, brother. Naw, I'll go ta the bar it's an enjoyable experience gettin' drinks here. Is the Venus behind the bar belongin' ta any of ya?"
"Inez belongs ta Inez but Buck Wilmington here has a special likin' fer her," said Vin quickly trying to preempt trouble.
"Beggin' yer pardon, Buck, no offense intended." Ethan touched his hat in a way familiar to the men at the table.
"None taken," smiled Buck.
Ethan returned with three bottles of the better whiskey Inez kept under the bar, "Told her I were yer brother, Vin an' she only charged me the same price as fer the regular whiskey. She's nice, Buck. What's stoppin' ya makin' a double weddin'?"
"Inez's shotgun that's what," giggled J.D. Dunne.
"She got an invite to Uncle Orlando's weddin', Vin?"
"Yeah," recalled Vin.
"Vin, mebbe we can ask Cousin Elvira ta throw the bouquet at her, women set a lot a store by that sorta thing, Buck."
"Are you perhaps espoused to a young lady of your own, Mr. Graves?" inquired Ezra.
"Naw, marriage is an institution an' I'm much ta young ta be in an institution as the sayin' goes. I have a few more wild oats ta sow yet. Not that I'm aimin' ta catch up ta Pa, he's sowed entire fields. I'm hopin' ta meet that special one an' spend all my life with her already knowin' the grass ain't any greener anywheres else. Any more ladies in town I ain't ta consider askin' ta Uncle Orlando's weddin', boys?"
"I'm taking Casey Wells," said JD quickly.
"I'm escorting Maude Standish," added Josiah Sanchez.
"Chris is taking Mary Travis," said Vin.
"I am?" commented Chris Larabee raising a blond eyebrow questioningly.
"Yeah, ya is."
"I'm taking Rain," smiled Nathan Jackson.
"I'm taking the very lively, Miz Barbara," said Buck with a huge wolfish grin. "She's feisty and I just love feisty."
"I am in fact escorting Inez to the wedding feast," Ezra informed Ethan, "She trusts me to know how to behave like a gentleman."
"Yeah? What 'bout ya, Vin?"
"As a favor ta Cousin Elvira I'm ta be her sister, Miz Stella's escort," said Vin shyly.
"Stella Emerson? I hear she is a society beauty. I'm goin' ta have ta work fast ta find a young lady ta accompany me," smiled Ethan, "An' still find time ta fish with ya, brother! I suppose it's too much ta expect of God that Inez cooks as fine as she looks?"
"She's a real good cook but ya missed meal time."
"I'm so glad ta be hungry."
Ethan disappeared to the bar and came back smiling, "Inez is findin' me a few leftovers, brother. Then we can have a look around town together. I need a bed fer the night."
"Ya can use my free room at the boardin' house."
"Don't want ta put yer out we can share."
"I never uses it, I sleeps in my wagon."
"Should ya be doin' that Pa says ya have a bad back?"
"He told ya?"
"Told me a lot. He's proud of ya. Told me yer a real crack shot sharpshooter an' the best tracker he's ever seen an' Pa seen plenty a good Indian trackers in his Army days. Told me yer wanted fer a murder ya didn't do."
"I never done it. I don't expect ya ta believe me," shrugged Vin.
"I do. Pa says ya didn't do it. I believe ya. If Inez says yer innocent too, how can I call such a lovely lady a liar?" Ethan smiled up at Inez as she placed a plate piled high with fresh cooked food in front of him. He had obviously inherited Jake's roguish charm.
"That don't look like leftovers ta me."
"Yer name carries a lot of weight with Inez I told ya."
Tanner blushed as Buck looked at him suspiciously.
"Damn, this is good. Ya better marry that girl, Buck, 'cause if she is still unwed next time I visit with big brother, I'm goin' ta consider proposing myself! No offense intended jus' fair warnin'."
+ + + + + + +
"Hellfire, who is that?" Ethan asked later as he strolled down the boardwalk with Vin and espied Mary Travis collecting Billy Travis from Gloria Potter's store.
"That," said Vin firmly, "is Mary Travis. Be warned."
"Damn. Yer friends got all the best lookin' women corralled." He let out a low whistle as Mary crossed the main street. "Big brother, I'm real glad ta know ya." There was another of those sudden swift hugs and this time there was a quick hug in return.
Ethan Graves spent several days in Four corners getting to know Vin Tanner. By the end of the first week he knew Vin was shy and reticent when it came to talking about himself. Ethan learned more than Vin intended to give away by getting the tracker to talk about his friends.
Ethan crossed the main street, tipping his hat to the ladies and waving a wire. "Vin, Pa wants us ta collect Orlando an' Elvira's weddin' present. It's a fair few day's ride away in Lennox. He wants Chris ta come along an' look over the goods. Ya ready?"
"Chris? Ya can write on yer thumbnail what Chris knows 'bout weddin' presents."
"Pa says he knows 'bout horses. Pa can't go himself it's gotta be a surprise fer Orlando an' Elvira."
"Another horse? He already gave Cousin Elvira, Sage. Don't he trust us two ta pick out a horse fer 'em?"
"Vin, one word fer ya. Peso."
"Don't bad mouth m' horse, little brother."
"Why not ya called Zachary a no good son of a..."
"He bucks me off when ya whistle. Don't give me no warnin' neither."
"Jus' doin' as he was taught. A good horse obeys his master without question. Ya ask Pa." lang=EN-US style='mso-ansi-language:
"See, we need Chris ta come along right desperate."
"Reckon we do ta stop us killin' each other."
"We're jus' actin' like brothers do."
"Surely do. Good ain't it?"
"Ya won't say that when I shoot ya in the butt."
"Ya too slow with that mare's leg ta get the drop on me. Now, I could give Larabee a run fer his money. I'm fast."
"Yer mouth is I reckon. Ya take after Pa." lang=EN-US style='mso-ansi-language:
+ + + + + + +
Chris was surprised to be invited along. He had never considered Jake to have been impressed by his knowledge of horses. It was a lively town and when they arrived Ethan looked around with an unmistakable gleam in his eye. With a jolt Chris realized why Jake had wanted him along and it had nothing to do with horses.
Jake had once described Ethan as a bit 'wild' and obviously Jake was trusting Chris to ensure Vin didn't become embroiled in anything too 'wild' on his brother's account. Chris wondered if Ethan had a bad reputation back in Texas. He had noticed the young man tried to avoid coming face to face with Judge Travis. Even though he had been keen to meet everyone else Vin knew.
They headed to the railroad and the stockyards. Ethan disappeared into a shack masquerading as an office and emerged with a sheaf of documents. He looked at a scrap of paper.
"There were some kind of problem on the trip an' we need ta be lookin' fer car 688," he announced.
They walked slowly along looking for 688. They found 680 and continued to walk. Then there came a sound all three men recognized. The pounding and banging was born of pure unadulterated rage and it was coming from some way down the tracks.
Tanner reached over and turned the scrap of paper the other way up, "Wager we are lookin' fer 889?"
"Hell, I hope not," sighed Ethan, "reckon Pa has done it again, big brother?"
They found 889. The noise had not abated, "What's in there a grizzly?" asked Chris Larabee.
Vin peered through the slats in the side. "Ethan, this problem, it involve a dead man?"
"Ya what? He's not still in there, no one got him out?" groaned Ethan.
"Hell, would ya?"
"Hell, we're goin' ta have ta now."
"We?" asked Larabee folding his arms across his chest.
"He git stomped?" asked Vin Tanner.
"Not sure if that's what killed him right off but I reckon it's a sure thing he got stomped at some point." Ethan peered through the slats. "Let's get him out. It's only respectful. We gotta get the horse out anyways. Steady there, Moonshine. Steady down we're all friends here."
"Speak for yourself," said Chris. "We should shoot him now he's killed a man. We don't want Cousin Elvira being given a man-killer for her wedding present."
"We don't know he did it."
"Hell, Vin, what would it take ta convince ya he did it, a smokin' gun?" muttered Ethan pulling back the bolt on the door. "Here goes. Steady boy. Steady, Moonshine. Easy now. Grab him! He's loose!"
A gray blur cannoned out of the opening, snapping teeth and flashing iron shod feet sped past Vin Tanner and he grabbed at a length of trailing rope.
"Let him go, Vin, he'll kill ya!" shouted Ethan.
Chris grabbed on to the rope too and pulled down hard. Ethan jumped down and threw himself into the fray. The horse was weakened by lack of food and water but determined to get free. The three men were equally determined to get him under control. His nostrils were poppy red and he foamed at the mouth. Finally exhausted he submitted to the combined will of the three men.
"I still say we can't let Jake give that to Elvira. Wire Jake and see if we can trade him for something resembling a horse and not a fire breathing dragon," ordered Chris.
"He's beautiful. Look at the fine lines, that's a pure bred. Look at the cannon bone, Chris. He ain't been cut neither, he's worth a small fortune," Vin ventured close enough to the tall horse to run a gentle hand down the horses trembling forelegs. "He ain't jus' any ol' horse."
"Vin, he's a man-killer not suitable for Elvira. Surely you can't be wanting her to break her neck," warned Chris.
"Pa won't risk that until he's got him sorted. I don't think that is why he bought him. I reckon he's goin' ta race him fer Orlando an' Elvira. I think this is goin' ta be a real money maker."
"Yeah? Sounds like Pa. Reckon he paid next ta nothin' fer him. On account of his charming temperament. Ya see good in him, Vin?" asked Ethan.
"How much good would be in ya if ya spent days with nuthin' but a dead man fer company?" replied Vin.
"Reckon Pa sees somethin' good as well. Think on how Lucifer loves him."
"Was there ever any real doubt you three were related? You're all as mad as hatters when it comes to horses. I need a drink," said Chris stalking off towards town.
"There appears ta be somethin' goin' on with Moonshine."
"Ya what? Pa won't be happy ta be gettin' a sick horse! What's wrong?"
"Ya better take a look fer yerself."
"Takin' forty winks if yer please!"
"No wonder Pa got him cheap. Do ya reckon he does that in a race?"
"Depends how long the race is!"
"Pa said the livery would take him if we pay extra," sighed Ethan.
"Do I think Pa gave ya extra?"
"No, I reckon I'll be payin'. Did ya see a bank I can rob?"
"Naw," replied Vin not wholly sure Ethan was joking.
+ + + + + + +
The brothers found Chris Larabee in the town's largest saloon. Ethan looked around appreciatively at the busy scene. The place was certainly full and there was a brisk trade going on upstairs. Girls with gaily colored feathers in their hair and frilly rainbow colored dresses strutted around their table smiling beguilingly at the three handsome men. Ethan eyed them up and down with a wry smile.
"Guess I can't ask one of these ladies ta the weddin' but choose one an' I'll treat ya, big brother!"
"Naw! Ya kin buy me a whiskey an' that's all!" snapped Vin not even favoring the women with a glance.
Ethan shrugged at the girls and they wandered disappointedly away from the three handsomest men in the saloon in search of a more profitable table. "Ya always guard yer chastity so fiercely, big brother? Ya taken some kinda vow?"
Ethan sighed. He genuinely liked his new brother but he was turning out to be a big disappointment in the jollification department. Surely there was one woman somewhere who piqued his interest? Ethan thought a man with a bounty on his head would want to live life to the full. Ethan pinned his hopes on Chris Larabee. The way the gunfighter was getting stuck into his whiskey cheered Ethan up a little. Then it all went to Hell in a hand-basket.
The working girl came running down the stairs shrieking like a banshee. A giant brute of a man lumbered after her shouting dire threats and vile obscenities at the top of his lungs. Vin Tanner was on his feet in seconds. More slowly Chris Larabee raised his head from his whiskey with the intention of pulling Vin Tanner back down into his chair but he froze in place his raised hand left hovering in the air. It was Charlotte Richmond running down the stairs.
Ethan sensing something was seriously wrong with the picture before him, turned in his chair and looked towards the stairs. He saw a half-dressed whore and a customer claiming not to have got what he'd paid for. Ethan saw no good reason for his brother to be staring at the whore with an astonished look on his face. Still if Vin was interested in the whore so was Ethan, he stuck his cavalry boot out and the lumbering brute fell flat on his face at the foot of the stairs.
The patrons of the saloon erupted into hysterical laughter and obscene catcalls. Vin snatched at Charlotte's arm as she fled past and pulled her to him. He looked at her henna dyed hair the rouged lips and cheeks, smelt the sour whiskey on her breath. He took in the scarlet and black lace under garments beneath the cheap, gaping robe.
"Well, cowboy, ready to come upstairs and do a little business now?" She slurred her words and put her hands on him in a way that made him blush. He realized she must have been one of the girls who had approached their table earlier and that she didn't recognize him at all.
The brute continued to lumber and staggered to his feet. Ethan was in front of him in a flash a restraining hand on his chest. "Find another whore, mister, this one is with my brother."
"I want what I paid for! She let me fall asleep for ten minutes then told me we'd done it and I know we ain't. I won't be cheated she owes me!"
"Here, now git." Ethan pushed money into the man's hand.
"No! I want her!" he pushed Ethan aside and reached across the table, gripping Charlotte's wrist. "Come on you."
Ethan's gun was in his hand so quickly that Vin didn't have time to tell him to back off that he'd handle it.
"Now, boys," drawled a mellifluous voice in a soothing tone, "I won't have gun play here in my saloon and you all know it. It's my only rule. Anything else is no holds barred."
She slithered between the lumbering brute and Ethan like a cobra poised to strike. She pushed Ethan's gun away and hypnotized by her tiger eyes he let her push him back down into his chair. Her dress was such a bright, glowing, flame red that the men thought perhaps they could feel the heat from it. "Lottie, I warned you before about your cheating ways take Bjorn back upstairs and give him what he paid you for or quit my saloon," she said sharply.
"I've got another customer now, Perdy," whined Charlotte pressing herself up against Vin as he wondered which bit of her to push away first, her hands seemed to be everywhere they shouldn't be.
"He can wait for you or I'll find him another girl now move or quit."
"'Bye, Cowboy," slurred Charlotte. Scowling at Bjorn she strutted towards the stairs, "Well, let's get on with it then," she snapped at Bjorn.
"He pulled a gun on me I demand to go out back!" shouted Bjorn jabbing his forefinger towards Ethan.
The saloon quietened expectantly.
Perdy smiled, "Bjorn. Dear heart, finish what you started with Lottie then choose any other girl in the saloon for free on the house. He isn't worth it."
"No! I want to go out back and settle this now!" insisted Bjorn.
"It is settled Bjorn. He wouldn't even last a minute in there with you. Do you want me to throw him out instead?" she asked trying to placate him.
Bjorn was adamant. "Out back now!"
Ethan got to his feet and smartly saluted, "Lead the way, Bjorn."
The excitement in the saloon was at fever pitch now. Perdy glared at Charlotte. "You, pack your traps and quit my saloon. Well, boys, walk this way," she drawled as she sashayed towards the back of the saloon.
"Lord," moaned Ethan, "If I walked that way they'd put me in jail!" He followed her like an eager puppy dog his eyes glued to her swaying hips.
"Charlotte, what ya doin' here?" Vin asked as she started up the stairs. "It's me. Vin Tanner. Where's yer husband?"
"Vin, how wonderful, is it really you?" she asked unconvincingly. "My husband never really recovered his health and we had a bad winter, the fever finished him. I'm reduced to this. I had no other choice."
"Ya don't have ta do this, Charlotte. Come back ta Four Corners with me an' I'll look after ya 'til ya kin git decent work."
"How kind of you, Vic. Do you have land? A place for us to live? Can you wait while I pack?"
"Reckon I can wait fer ya," he answered, wanting to believe she had only slurred his name and not misremembered it.
He realized he was practically alone in the saloon as she hurried up the stairs. He swaggered to the door at the back of the saloon and stepped across the threshold. Aw Hell! he thought, as he saw the boxing ring. Bjorn was already stripped to the waist. Ethan was handing his gun belt and hat to Chris Larabee for safekeeping.
"May I present Bjorn The Swede versus The Gravedigger. Gentlemen, the rules are simple, no guns allowed. Anything else is fair play. No holds are barred. Eye gouging and head butting is expected." Perdy addressed the ecstatic crowd, "The winner is the last man standing, or the last one alive if neither one can get back up on their feet."
She swiftly sidestepped out of his way as Bjorn hurled himself at Ethan who was otherwise engaged in the act of pulling his shirt off over his head. Ethan went down under a flurry of savage punches as Perdy was lifted down from the ringside by a bevy of her admirers.
Convinced he had won already Bjorn spread his arms wide, paraded around the ring and basked in the adulation of the mob.
"Get up, pretty boy, it's not a tickling contest," hissed Perdy smacking the canvas near Ethan's face raising a cloud of dust. When Ethan didn't even flinch she barked, "On your feet trooper!"
Ethan stirred and opened an eye to stare into her tiger eyes of which there seemed to be several pairs.
"He's all blubber. You can win this," she said.
"That's easy fer ya ta say," Ethan groaned.
"Stay down, Ethan," rasped Vin worriedly.
"Hold this big brother." Ethan finished pulling his shirt over his head and handed it to Vin before springing to his feet. He shook himself and rolled his shoulders. "Hey, fat man! Give in?" he called with the impudence of youth.
Bjorn turned and lumbered back towards Ethan who danced out his way. Perdy was right a lot of Bjorn was blubber but he was still a force to be reckoned with, able to soak up the punishment. Ethan didn't have an ounce of fat on his body. What he did have was rippling muscle, a washboard stomach, speed and Jake McKenna's hard, ham-sized fists.
Bjorn swung a fist at Ethan's face and the younger man pulled his head back out of the way turning so that Bjorn's momentum carried him past Ethan and up against the ropes. Ethan danced back to the opposite corner and leaning dangerously far over the ropes planted a kiss on luscious red lips causing tiger eyes to blink rapidly in surprise.
The roar of the crowd warned Ethan that Bjorn was coming up behind him still swinging. Ethan ducked out the way and still had not thrown a single punch. He dodged, he ducked, he danced, bobbed and weaved while Bjorn roared like an enraged bull elephant swinging wildly. The crowd was loving the younger man's insolence.
"Damn you, tell him to stand and fight!" Bjorn yelled at Perdy.
"There are no rules!" yelled back Perdy.
"Stinking whore!" bellowed Bjorn spitting phlegm at Perdy.
"Aw, that's jus' rude!" said Ethan. "Ya awright, ma'am?" he asked leaning over the top rope and flexing his biceps. "Ya like my regimental tattoo? Got it in the stockade. Goin' ta get 'Perdy's Champion' put on the other arm next time I'm put in prison."
The crowd roared with laughter.
Bjorn seized a thick hank of Ethan's long blond hair and yanked Ethan over backwards. As Ethan lay on the canvas Bjorn's body slammed down on top of the young man forcing the air out of his lungs. Bjorn kept him pinned to the canvas with an arm across his throat as Ethan struggled to breathe. Bjorn head butted Ethan breaking his nose. Ethan fought harder to breathe air in through his mouth as his nose filled with blood. Finally he gave up the struggle.
Bjorn paraded around the ring as Perdy reached into the ring holding Ethan's wrist to check for a pulse.
"Almost had him there," gasped Ethan. "Ya got real soft hands. Will ya take a walk in the moonlight with me when I've beat The Swede?"
"Stay down. Please," she said.
"What happened ta on yer feet trooper?"
"You can't kiss me again with a busted lip."
"If I say I'm beat I can kiss ya properly?" he asked.
"You could have kissed me properly or improperly at anytime. You didn't have to get beaten in a fight."
"Hell! Why didn't ya say so?" He got to his feet, "Hey, Bjorn."
Bjorn turned around and grinned contemptuously at Ethan who hit him once in the face. The Swede went down like a felled oak. It was clear to the crowd he was not getting back up. Vin breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"Why is she still here?" asked Perdy espying Charlotte standing in the doorway, her face freshly painted and her bag packed.
"She's coming back home ta Four Corners with me," answered Vin.
"Hell's bells, Vin," said Larabee shaking his blond head exasperatedly.
"Ya sure that's what ya want, big brother?" asked Ethan gently.
"Yeah," said Vin defiantly.
"It will break her husband's heart," said Perdy sadly.
"Husband?" rasped Vin shocked.
"Will Richmond rides in every month and begs her to go back to their farm. She takes the money he leaves her for her 'upkeep' and I know it's enough to keep her housed and well fed. Yet she spends it on drink, other men and tawdry fripperies. Poor man, he walks out of here looking like a whipped dog. I can understand a woman leaving a man and I have no call to look down my nose at the way she chooses to earn her living but to leave her baby boy? She never bothers to ask Will how their baby Niles is."
Perdy watched the change come over Vin Tanner's face. Oh, dear God, he didn't know she was still a wife and a mother too realized Perdy. The lying low-down slut. She watched as the tracker dropped his head. Perdy was tempted to drag Lottie into the boxing ring and dish out some bare knuckle punishment of her own. Instead she sashayed to the door.
The three men watched as hands on curvaceous hips Perdy gave Charlotte her marching orders. Charlotte put up some kind of argument. Perdy stood her ground, the tall feathers in her tawny hair waving and her jewelry rattling as she wagged her finger at Charlotte.
Charlotte tried to look over Perdy's bare shoulder and catch Vin's eye. He stood with lowered gaze as fierce blue eyes flanked him on one side and basilisk green eyes flanked him on the other. Trying not to wilt under the withering gazes of the two men Charlotte attempted to step past Perdy. There was a loud crack and Charlotte left, her face decorated with the red imprint of Perdy's hand.
"Aw Hell!" said Ethan. "I think I jus' fell in love. Darlin', ya think Perdy Graves has a ring ta it?"
"As long as it's a ruby and diamond one. Perdita Graves," she mused. "I could stand to be called that."
"It means 'lost one'. Trooper and Mrs. Graves."
"Hell, I ain't no trooper."
"What about your regimental tattoo?" she asked looking at his tight regimental pants tucked inside highly polished boots.
"Sorry ta disappoint ya. I'm Captain Graves. Not a be confused with my cousin, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Graves or my mother's husband, Brigadier General Rupert Graves or my Great-Uncle, General Sylvester Graves."
"A captain in the stockade?" Chris queried idly while watching Vin closely.
"Never said I were good at takin' orders. Top of my class at West Point so it's a bit embarrassing fer the Graves family ta see me cashiered. I'll git in trouble ag'in when I git back fer abscondin' ag'in. My leave runs out afore Uncle Orlando's weddin' but I ain't missin' that now I gotta lady ta take. An' not that I'm braggin' it's a fact that my men are the best an' they'd follow me ta Hell an' back. I were in the stockade last fer disobeyin' an order that would have had my men freezin' ta death halfway up a mountain. Instead we arrived half a day early an' all alive with none of our personal bits froze off. Ya see I can read a map properly an' know exactly how much ground my troopers can cover in a day."
Although Chris and Ethan seemed deep in conversation neither of them took their eyes away from Vin who was still standing rigid, his head bowed. Ethan looked at Chris acknowledging the gunfighter was the one Vin was closest to.
"I want to get an early start in the morning, Vin, shall we get back to the boarding house now?" suggested Chris resting a comforting hand on the tracker's shoulder.
Vin didn't reply but he followed Chris towards the doors. As they passed Perdy hooked a hand over the bar and reached for a bottle of almost decent whiskey. She handed it to Chris, "For the drowning of sorrows old and new," she said in her dulcet voice.
"Thanks," he said.
"Yer goin' ta love Texas." Chris heard Ethan saying to Perdy as he exited the saloon.
"Texas? You expect me to live in Texas?" she said aghast as they started their first lover's tiff.
"I'm damn stupid. A stupid, stupid, stupid fool," said Vin as they reached the doors of their rooms at the boarding house.
"Do you expect me to argue that point?" asked Chris. "If so I'll need whiskey and lots of it."
Vin looked askance at the gunfighter, "Ya could be a bit more sympathetic."
"Whiskey?" offered Chris.
"That yer answer fer everythin'? Ya can't suggest anythin' else?"
"More whiskey?" grinned Chris as the tracker managed a weak smile.
"Highland Rye," noted Vin, shaking his head,"not a drop is sold 'til it's three days old. Ya goin' ta open that bottle a tanglefoot or not?"
"Let's toast Ethan and Perdy's engagement."
"Yeah, let's make it quick afore she finds out what he's really like an' breaks it off."
"What's with all the door slamming, tongue lashings and face slapping? Can no one in your family meet a nice, quiet, ordinary girl and just settle down without all the fireworks?"
"Sounds borin' as Hell ta me, Chris. Hell, I can stand most anythin' 'cept boredom."
"Ornery women, ornery horses, ornery canines!"
"Funny ya should say that, Chris. Jack Kent's dawg jus' had pups an' I thought Cousin Elvira an' Orlando would like one fer a weddin' present."
"I came looking for the man who shot my paw said the three legged dog!" giggled Chris, no sleep and too much whiskey taking it's toll.
"Goin' ta settle down an' marry Ol' Mother York," tittered Vin, several whiskeys later.
"Even she's too much woman for you!"
"Least she ain't borin' even at a hundred years old!"
Sprawled across the bed Chris snored loudly.
"I's awready met the one an' only woman I'll ever truly love," sighed Vin spreading his bed roll on the floor and falling asleep with his hat over his face.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin, wake up," hissed Chris less than an hour later.
"What? Lemme sleep," grumbled the tracker.
"Naw! Go ta Hell."
"Vin, listen there's a couple of men outside the door I can hear them talking. I looked outside and there's two more at least outside in the street. I think they're bounty hunters."
"Hell an' tarnation," said Vin trying to clear his head of the effects of too much late night whiskey. "Stupid, stupid. I should a never dropped my guard an' gotten drunk."
"We'll have to shoot our way out."
"Naw! Let them take me. I'll give 'em the slip in Texas." He did not want Chris getting shot at in such a confined space. "Ya think they followed us here from Four Corners?"
Before Chris could point out he probably wouldn't make it as far as Texas both men froze as there was the sound of a brief scuffle outside.
"Vin? Chris? Open the goddamn door it's me." Ethan stepped over the two cold-cocked bounty hunters as Chris opened the door. "Non-professionals," he said disgustedly, crossing the room to open the window and start peering out.
"Well, hello boys. Looking for business?"
Perdy's voice drifted up from the street below as she sashayed seductively up to the other waiting bounty hunters.
"Quick out the back an' inta the alley."
Chris and Vin followed Ethan as he led the way to the alley where one man had his hands on Perdy. Ethan dispatched him as quickly as he had the previous two. "Sic him, darlin'," he said to her nodding back towards the street.
Smiling, Perdy swayed out into the street, "Sugar Bear," she cooed. "Your friend seems to have passed out cold."
"Four down an' time ta go," grinned Ethan after letting Vin have the pleasure of cold-cocking the fourth man.
"I'm awful sorry, Vin but you should know Lottie told those cowboys about the bounty. They had money to pay for the stock they were in town to collect so she settled for a hundred dollars off them upfront, pointed you out and skedaddled." Perdy patted Vin's arm consolingly as she spoke.
+ + + + + + +
It was a grand wedding, no expense was spared but it was not a autocratically formal wedding. Gilt edged invitations were sent out in plenty of time but guests were free to wear what they considered suitable attire. Expensive wedding gifts were not required or expected. Champagne flowed as freely as the beer and whiskey.
Orlando Flynn liked nothing better than an excuse for a celebration and was in his element. Welcoming all the guests with good humor and genuine bonhomie. He proudly presented his children, who had traveled from Texas, to all the wedding guests. Jake was more interested in greeting Inez Recillos.
"Señor Jake looks very attractive in his skirt," remarked Inez admiring how with his broad shoulders and well muscled legs he made a tartan kilt, a Cairngorm and a shirt with a lace jabot at the neck the most masculine looking outfit she had ever seen.
"I'm sweatin' like a pig darlin' but ya could put Shakespeare's dark lady in the shade. I've a weakness for ladies in mantillas. Have ya met my daughters Carmila an' Gabriela? Melvin is hereabouts too," said Jake presenting two extremely pretty olive skinned young girls with huge sparkling eyes who were already breaking hearts down Mexico way.
"Melvin?" inquired Ezra.
"Mother's a schoolteacher very interested in women's rights an' suffrage. Makes Mary Travis seem docile. Melvin! Over here, meet the most beautiful señorita in the territory. Señorita Recillos, meet my son Melvin. Tall ain't he? Off ta West Point. Not 'cause of me but on account a the fact he idolizes Ethan."
He slapped the ginger haired young man with the big blue eyes on the back heartily. "Speak of The Devil. Ethan ya look like a real officer fer once. Why can't ya look like that on parade, boy? Hell, ya make me want ta enlist ag'in an' follow yer orders! This must be Perdita. Hellfire! Is there somethin' in the water round here that makes all the women so beautiful?"
Ethan was wearing his full dress uniform. All spit and polish thanks to one of his troopers who had made a special trip to Four Corners with it and Ethan's dress sword. Perdy had dispensed with her customary red satin and feathers for a simple pale peach dress that instead of subduing her gorgeousness merely made her look even more ravishing.
Vin had ridden in with them and was hanging back in the new shirt Nettie had helped him choose, feeling very much in Ethan's shadow but incalculably proud of his new found family.
The marriage ceremony had gone ahead without incident, the bride outshining every woman there as was only right. The lady guests had gathered eagerly waiting for Elvira to throw her bouquet.
"There ya are an' how is my favorite son?" asked Jake moving away from the excited crowd.
"Favorite? Ya say that ta each of us?" Vin smiled.
"Hell no, Vin. I'm rightly proud of all my children but I reckon yer the one I get on the best with. I liked ya as a friend afore we knew fer sure we were kin. Ethan is too much like me he plumb wears me ta a frazzle with his wild antics. Melvin is so stuffed full a fancy book learnin' I don't know what ta say ta him half the time. Wouldn't trust either of them with Lucifer. Reckon I'll even teach ya ta play that damn harmonica one a these days."
"Since I were a little 'un. Yer Ma used ta sing an' I'd play an accompaniment."
"She gave me this jus' afore she died. Only store bought thing I ever had from her."
"I reckon she meant ta tell ya 'bout me when she got sick an' jus' ran outta time."
"Reckon she did."
"I ain't one fer displays of manly affection but what the hell, ya reckon a father 'n' son hug is too much ta ask fer?"
Vin was gathered up in a affectionate bear hug and a watching Ethan happily nudged Melvin, "Mel, ya should get ta know Vin he's the best of us all."
A cheer went up and Perdy caught the bouquet.
"What is that?" Chris Larabee spoke to the bride gliding past with her arms full of a brown hairy bundle with huge paws.
"This is Nimrod, Vin's present to us isn't he adorable?" she smiled as the puppy slobbered drool all down the silk bodice of her Parisian wedding gown imported at mind boggling expense from the House of Worth.
"Well, he's something," agreed Josiah.
"He's going to be the same size as a horse," warned Chris, looking at the size of the dog's paws and sad, droopy, wrinkled face.
"Orlando says he's going to be a really good hunting dog. Orlando really likes him which is a good thing because Nimrod just ate Orlando's hat and you know how fond of that hat he is. Still I saved the silver hat-band," explained the new Mrs. Flynn walking away to find Orlando, cuddling the dog as Nimrod licked her face with a long pink tongue.
"I wish she'd let me do that," sighed Buck.
"Oh, JD! Jake just told me a really funny joke about a three legged dog looking for the man who shot his paw!" giggled Casey Wells, arriving back with her second glass of champagne.
"I already told you that joke, Casey."
"No, I don't think so JD, this one was funny," giggled Casey.
"Has anyone seen Vin? I would so like to dance." Stella Emerson arrived with Nathan and Rain.
"He disappeared with Jake, Ethan and Melvin to get the happy couple, Orlando and Elvira, their wedding present," explained Ezra. "I do believe it's another vicious equine."
"Vicious? Elvira doesn't know what Jake has got for them. Are you saying it's a vicious horse?" asked Stella worriedly.
"Don't worry, Miz Stella. Vin and Ethan have been working him out at Chris' ranch. It's a racehorse or so they claim," added Buck. "Is he fit for mixed company now?" he asked Chris.
"Who? Jake or the horse?" smiled Chris.
"Ya all right Perdy?" asked Vin on his way to the barn.
She waved her handkerchief at him, sniveled into it and then proceeded to dry her eyes with it.
"Someone say a hard word ta ya?" he asked prepared to insist Ethan took umbrage with whoever had upset her or he would.
"It's Orlando and Elvira they have both gone out of their way to be nice to me. Elvira has every right to look down on me but she was so sweet. She deliberately threw me the bouquet you know. Then she came over and congratulated me."
"Orlando an' Elvira don't look down on anyone, unless that person is truly wicked, they ain't that sort."
"Elvira noticed my earrings were missing. I told her I bought this dress special. I paid a lot for it because I once saw a real lady wearing a dress like this with a handsome cavalry officer, sword and all, looking like he was head over heals in love with her and her twirling an ivory handled parasol. My jewelry is all showy and didn't suit. Do you know what she did?"
"She dragged me upstairs to her own boudoir, left her own wedding party! She opened up this impressive jewelry box and found me these earrings." She pushed aside her tawny hair to show him the neat drop earrings. "She said they were citrines and went with my coloring she gave me the matching gold necklace too. I offered to pay. I showed her I had all this money from selling the saloon and told her that I was real scared I was going to be a failure to Ethan. I told her that I'm sure when Ethan sends for me to join him in Texas I'll show myself up with my dreadful table manners and dress all wrong. The other officer's wives would find out what sordid things I did and Ethan would send me home in disgrace for shaming him."
"Ethan wouldn't care if ya wore buckskins an' smoked a clay pipe he loves ya," Vin said reassuringly.
"She said that there was time enough before I went to Texas for me to stay with her and Orlando. She said she'd teach me how to entertain fit for a General's wife. Silver cutlery, French wines, what to say and what not to say. How to enter a room and when to leave a room. Then she said she loved shopping for gowns and she'd take me to Denver and help me choose a wardrobe fit for every occasion. I reminded her of herself when she married old money straight out of the theater she said and it would be a pleasure to help me and if all else failed I was to drop her name and say I was her cousin. Her cousin! She'd even claim me as kin!" she began weeping again.
"There, there," he said ineffectually patting her shoulder while desperately looking for Ethan. Having a family was so damn exhausting he thought, still he was getting to like it.
Ethan appeared so she immediately stopped weeping and flung herself into his arms. Glad to make a his escape Vin hurried off towards the barn.
They had all gathered at the barn and waited on Vin. When Vin did not appear they had sent Ethan to find him and now Ethan was absent. Jake rolled his eyes impatiently, a man of action he did not like delays.
"I'll go and find him," offered Melvin.
"Ya stay put. Ya ain't all takin' a turn at vanishin', where's Ethan?" asked Jake as Vin arrived.
"Comfortin' Perdy," Vin told him.
"Someone upset Perdy?" growled Jake, doubly mad to think he might have to shed blood on his cousin's wedding day.
"She's a bit overwhelmed by us all," explained Vin.
"Where's Chris Larabee? He should be here he helped with keepin' Moonshine a secret." Jake looked at Vin with a big smile.
"Don't ya jus' want family?"
"Ain't he yers? There's room in this family fer more than jus' blood kin ya know. Go get him an' Ethan lickety split."
"Orlando an' Elvira, this is Moonshine. He's goin' ta be a gold mine," announced Jake.
The sleepy looking gray horse lazily looked out at the assembled multitude and decided this was more like it! He picked up his feet, twitched his ears and came alive. Muscle rippled under his gleaming pewter coat, he looked a million dollars. The black crescent moon on his rump that inspired his name bore Orlando's brand. He stood alert and majestic accepting the admiration of his minions as was his due.
"He's very pretty but has he the speed to back it up?" asked Elvira. "Good looks aren't everything!" the beauty said causing a ripple of amused laughter to spread through the crowd as she hung on the arm of her handsome new husband.
"Hell, he needs a good jockey ta get the best out of him, darlin'." Jake told her.
"JD would you oblige me?" asked Elvira winking at the young man.
"Me? Now? Are you sure?" JD turned a brilliant shade of crimson unaccustomed to being asked favors by beautiful women.
"Darlin', he at least needs some competition ta make it worth his while, let me git Lucifer saddled up."
Ezra's eyes lit up and he opened a book immediately.
"Reckon Peso an' Pony might like a run out?" grinned Orlando heading off to collect his horse Blackie.
"Reckon Zachary could take y'all," claimed Ethan. "He's the best horse in the U.S. Cavalry."
"Lord preserve us if that's the case. That dobbin cain't raise a laugh never mind a trot," laughed Vin.
"He's faster than that cayuse ya ride!" snapped back Ethan.
"Melvin, would you care to borrow Sage?" offered the new Mrs. Flynn.
"Naw. I ain't havin' the boy embarrassed by ridin' on a ladies horse with no chance!" stated Orlando mounting Blackie.
"That would be very kind of you. I accept," smiled Melvin.
"Ya goin' ta ride him side saddle too?" laughed Ethan. "Ya can't learn everythin' from books ya know."
Jake gave the startled ladies a quick idea of what the Scots wore under their kilts as he leaped astride Lucifer.
+ + + + + + +
A course was decided on and Perdy was perched on a chair to act as starter. The laying of bets was brisk and the stakes were high. JD streaked away on Moonshine the second the flag went down. Sage seemed a little taken aback unsure what was being asked of him and was last, causing guffaws from the guests as he shot forward Melvin's long legs flapping.
Lucifer edged slightly ahead of Peso, Blackie, Pony and Zachary who were neck and neck but JD was still well ahead. Moonshine showed no sign of tiring but the quarter horses faded a little and dropped back.
Half convinced he was taking part in a cavalry charge Zachary streaked past Lucifer like a white arrow. Jake let loose a flood of Scottish curses needing only a claymore to complete the illusion of a fierce highland reiver. Sensing his man was enjoying himself Lucifer decided this was the exact moment to play up and almost had Jake off.
Steady and sure Sage kept up the same pace he'd started at, the silver gray's clean legs pumping away. His shining coat showing no sign of breaking sweat. Even though Melvin was tall he had neither fat nor the solid muscle of his brothers. He was pure skin and bone and weighed no more than Elvira. The silver gray was used to being ridden hard for long stretches of time, day in and day out.
As the finish came into view JD was clearly in the lead and the excitement grew amongst the crowd. Casey was beside herself with pride. Ethan was so sure he had merely to coax a little more speed out of Zachary he had long since discounted the idea of another horse coming up behind him to finish ahead of him. So when a silver gray head appeared beside him topped by a carrot he was stunned. Digging his spurs in he urged Zachary on, the pride of the Cavalry was at stake.
Melvin kept up with Ethan and there was only a short distance to the finish left, JD having already crossed the line. Fiercely competitive Ethan attempted to ride Melvin off line. Sage kept coming straight and true unconcerned by this new tactic after spending his days moving cattle. Melvin no less competitive let loose a piercing whistle as they almost reached the finish and Zachary put in a tremendous buck. Ethan only just stayed on his back as Sage inched past him.
The crowd having already lauded Moonshine now treated Sage as if he had won. Ethan had to be happy with third place. Riding in a close formation so no one could tell which out of the other riders was next to finish Jake was laughingly pointing out he had given Sage to Elvira and claiming that made him a very good judge of horseflesh. Vin was arguing the fact that he had found and sold Sage to Jake in the first place.
Orlando found himself having his face kissed off by his bride as if he had won. Casey pushed her way through the guests to congratulate JD with shining eyes and the young man needed no other prize. Ethan had Melvin in a playful headlock for using his own trick against him and more drinks were being passed around.
Vin glanced around at all the happy faces and wondered why he had ever doubted his place in this family. The Larabee Gang had taught him everything there was to know about being part of a family and taught him well.
+ + + + + + +
Returning from the stables the riders saw the colored lanterns had been lit and the search for dance partners had become seriously competitive. Miss Stella was already heavily besieged by admirers much to Vin's relief. Seeing Mary Travis on the edge of the dance floor looking almost as radiant as the bride Chris decided to stir himself into having at least one dance with her. Ethan and Perdy were welded together as other couples swirled past unnoticed by either of them.
Buck and Ezra were taking it in turns to cut in on each other every time Inez stepped out onto the dance floor until Melvin whisked her away while they were squabbling like schoolboys. Orlando and Elvira were on the dance floor but for once Orlando had no interest in any other woman than his bride. Casey and JD too had eyes for no other partners in spite of the young men trying to catch Casey's eye. Josiah took dancing with Maude very seriously. Nathan was teaching Rain dance steps totally unfamiliar to her as they went along.
When Carmila and Gabriela claimed dances from Orlando and Jake, Vin found himself cornered by Elvira. He had been smugly leaning against the side of the ranch house sure he couldn't be seen in the jewel like light of the colored lanterns. She caught hold of his hand and he hung back.
"Naw. Cousin Elvira, I cain't."
"You can't refuse me. I'm the bride," she insisted wafting her veil at him.
I cain't dance at yer weddin' with ya."
She led him away from the dance floor and behind the ranch house. They could still hear the dance music. At the end of the dance she gave him his own key to the ranch house.
"I want you to use this once I have left for Texas with Orlando. It's so you can always have somewhere safe to be and I would like to think you would carry on using the library. Treat it as your own home," she said.
He watched her walk away and clasped the iron key tightly in his hand. It was the first key that he ever recalled being able to call his own. Other than the keys in the jail house, the first key anyone had ever trusted him with. The key to a ranch house with a library full of knowledge, fine art hanging on the walls and bronze sculptures in the hallway. She was entrusting all this to him as if he was family...
+ + + + + + +
Orlando Flynn was standing by the open window as the sun came up. He looked back at his new sleeping bride and swore that regardless of whatever had happened in the past, he would shoot dead any man that tried to come between them. He turned back towards the window.
She awoke and watched him from the bed for a while. Their wedding night had passed pleasantly enough in mutual pleasure. "Planning your escape already?" she asked.
"I planned that a long time ago an' it's to you my love that I've escaped to."
"Are you ready now to take me back to Texas? Because that's where you really want to be," she stated.
"How do ya know?"
"Orlando, I'm a wife and a wife knows everything."