Chris glared at the six men gathered around the saloon table. Tension drummed between his temples; the dull pounding a distant promise of the headache to come. He clenched his jaw, muscle jumping as it drew painfully tight. This, he decided darkly, was all Ezra's fault. The gambler had masterminded this crazy plan, but couldn't take the key role courtesy of a knife wound; the result of an incident at the gaming tables.
The conniving Southerner now sat smirking, while Chris tried to round up another suitable candidate. So far there were no takers. His gaze fell upon his oldest friend but Buck raised his hands and shook his head.
"Uh, uh. No way, Chris. Ol' Buck ain't partin' with this beauty." He stroked his moustache meaningfully. "'Sides," he reasoned, "I'm a might long in the leg, don't ya think?"
"Not to mention long in the tooth," J.D. quipped, earning a playful swipe from his friend.
Chris ground his teeth but silently acknowledged Buck was right. There was no way the ladies' man could carry off this deception; likewise neither could he, Nathan, or Josiah. Even J.D., for all his youth, was a little too square in the jaw. Which left only.....
His gaze settled on Vin, who backed away so fast the usually sure- footed tracker stumbled into the chair behind him.
"No. No way. I ain't doing it." Tanner shook his head violently, still backpedaling rapidly toward the door, almost falling over Nathan in his haste to get away.
Chris knew there was no point trying to intimidate the man; God knows, he'd had little success with that in the past. Instead he chose to strike at one of Vin's vulnerable points - his sense of justice. "Vin, you're the only one who can do this."
"-can hardly walk," Chris pointed out.
Ezra's smirk widened.
Chris bit back a growl; the gambler wasn't helping. He tried to reason with his friend. "Look, Cowboy, you know I wouldn't ask this of you if there was any other way, but I can't let Mary go alone, and anyone else will raise suspicion.
Besides, you know Mary. She'll take it upon herself to act if we don't do something."
Chris left unsaid - 'do you want that on your conscience?' - but it didn't lessen the sour taste in his mouth. He knew that he was boxing Vin into a corner by implying an innocent woman might suffer if the tracker didn't play along. However, when needs must, the devil drives, and Chris knew he'd won this round when Vin's shoulders slumped and the tracker's head dropped.
"Reckon you're right," the younger man muttered from beneath his hat.
At the sight of the dejected figure, Chris softened his tone. "It'll be okay, Vin. No one 'cept us and Mary will know, and none of us will mention it again." He let his gaze travel around the table. "Right?"
The other five quickly bobbed their heads in assent, each voicing their avowed intention to carry the knowledge to their graves.
Vin didn't lift his head.
Chris sighed. "Nathan, Buck, help Ezra over to Mary's. J.D., get the buggy ready and bring it 'round to the back of the stable."
He wanted to avoid taking the main street out of town, to spare Vin as much unwanted attention as possible.
"Vin, you get over to the bath house and get cleaned up. That means a shave. A good shave," he added. "Take a layer of skin off if need be."
This time Vin did look up, long enough to pin Chris with a flat, hard stare, before turning heel and stalking off toward the bath house.
Josiah chuckled as the tracker stormed past and he caught the start of a string of colourful curses. "That boy's plenty mad."
"He's gonna be even madder before this is over," said Nathan shaking his head. He turned a frown on Chris. "You know he don't like people lookin' at him, this'll put him right in the thick of it."
"I know," Chris snapped, more angry at himself than any of the others. "But we don't have a choice."
Nathan sighed and nodded. He and the others moved off.
Chris poured himself a shot of whiskey and rubbed his temples tiredly. When did this all get so damned complicated? He'd come to this town looking to get away from folks and their problems, but he had somehow wound up with just the opposite. The past few weeks had been particularly trying, chewing at his already-frayed temper.
It had started when Lydia and her girls, along with a few new faces, returned to Four Corners - or rather, to Wickes Town. An enterprising woman, Lydia had finally decided she could do better for herself if she ran things. So she'd set up the tents, renamed the place 'Pleasureville', and secured some clientele. By all accounts, business was booming.
Chris had gone out to make sure Lydia understood where the town boundaries lay, and that she and her girls were to stick to plying their trade in Pleasureville. He had no desire to listen to another indignant tirade from Mary Travis. He'd been fair about it, seeing no need to get Lydia's dander up, and he'd heard nothing else until she sent a message asking for his help.
It seemed one of her girls, a recent recruit, had gone missing. Lydia insisted it was out of character for the girl to run off. Chris pointed out that since Lydia didn't know her that well, mightn't the girl have simply changed her mind about the life she was living and gone back to her folks?
Lydia had all but spat back that women in their line of work were rarely welcomed back into the fold. Besides which, the girl had no family; fever had taken them more than two summers ago. Or did he think the girl had taken to whoring for the delights and opportunities it offered a young woman?
Chris had bristled at her bitter sarcasm but realised she was right. Few girls who fell into prostitution ever made it back to 'polite society'. He'd agreed to ask around, but had failed to turn up anything and, after a week, Lydia had reluctantly accepted that the perhaps the girl had taken up work elsewhere. The matter might have ended there, except for the strange disappearance of another young woman - this time a respectable rancher's daughter.
Mary-Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of John and Martha-Ann McKindley. She was something of a dreamer, prone to wandering off and neglecting her chores, so nothing was thought of her absence until she failed to turn up for supper. A thorough search by her farther and brothers yielded no clue as to her whereabouts and, after a frantic night of looking, the elder McKindley boy came to Four Corners at first light to rustle up some more help.
Chris and the others had willingly lent a hand, without success. Vin in particular had been frustrated by his inability to pick up the girl's trail; Chris had all but bodily dragged the exhausted tracker back to town, once it was clear that there was nothing to be gained from another sweep of the area. The investigation had continued however, and it had brought to light one seemingly insignificant connection between Mary-Elizabeth and the missing working girl.
Talking to friends and family revealed that both parties had taken an interest in an ad in Mary's newspaper. It had been placed by a man who'd arrived in Four Corners barely a month before; the new tenant of a small holding a few miles out of town. The man had been into Four Corners only once, to set up a standing order at the store for supplies to be delivered weekly, and to place the ad asking for a wife.
It was not an unusual practice. The man, Henry Brown, had told Mary he intended to settle permanently in Four Corners and raise a family. However, he'd confessed he had little luck in wooing the ladies and besides, getting his new property in order took up most of his time. So he'd decided to tackle the problem like a business venture. The ad read:
'Respectable man of independent means seeks woman of good birth and character with a view to marriage.'
Mary-Elizabeth, it seemed, dreamt of a man who would take her away from the chore of taking care of four brothers and three sisters. Sally, the missing working girl, had confessed a desire to marry and quit her current occupation. It was a tenuous tie, but it was all that connected the two women. Chris's gut instinct was tugged further since Mary and Mrs. Potter had both expressed discomfort in the man's company, before Mary-Elizabeth's disappearance.
He had sent Josiah out to Brown's house to show some 'neighbourly' interest.
Josiah reported back that Mr. Brown clearly didn't welcome neighbours, and while he hadn't been openly hostile, Josiah could see why the two women had found Brown's company so unsettling.
"There's something about his eyes," the ex-preacher mused.
"What about 'em?" Chris asked.
"Looking into that man's eyes is the loneliest place I've ever been. It's like," Josiah paused and shook his head grimly. "It's like there's no one inside looking back."
Mary had offered to withdraw the ad, but Chris had advised against it. "Doing that's as good as tellin' the man we're wise to him."
"So what do we do?" she'd asked. "We can't wait until someone else disappears."
"Maybe no one else will," Nathan had suggested. "I mean, that missing McKindley girl's taken the town's notice. He mightn't not be so bold as to take another."
"Man like that can't change his ways," Vin had murmured softly. "It's like a sickness in him. If he don't try 'gain here, he'll jist move on and try somewheres else."
Chris shared Vin's belief that this man had been doing this for some time. He'd had J.D. check the records for anyone wanted in connection with missing women. There were several, but none matched Brown's description, though that could simply mean he'd avoided detection until now.
When they discussed setting a trap, Mary had offered herself as bait. She was a widow, she argued, perfect for their would-be-wife hunter. Chris refused to entertain the idea of her going to see Brown alone. Mary continued to reason that she would arouse less suspicion than them, and it was clear that this man would only let a woman into his home.
Chris knew she was right, but wouldn't accept the notion of putting her in danger. Mary might try his patience, but he did care for her. Buck had vetoed the idea of any of Lydia's girls taking the risk; though no one was really comfortable with the idea of sending a woman, even a working woman, into the home of a suspected madman.
Tongue slightly in cheek, Ezra had offered the use of the purple gown, last seen upon his person whilst rescuing Mary. However, even as he spoke, Chris could see the wheels turning in the gambler's agile mind. What if one of them were to take on female guise and accompany Mrs. Travis? Or rather, Mrs. Travis could chaperon one of them - introduce 'her' as someone new to town, just passing through, without friends or family - and at the same time fielding questions so that the impersonator wouldn't have to say too much.
The plan seemed implausible, but short of Vin's suggestion to let him work on "gettin' the truth" out of the man, it was all they had. Hence the past hour spent in painful negotiation trying to push an unwilling victim into the role, though not the purple dress, which Ezra now dismissed as too garish. Mr. Brown had requested a woman of respectable appearance.
Chris winced as the pounding between his temples increased. He let the whiskey wash around his mouth and burn down his throat before setting down the glass and leaving the saloon for Mary's house.
He found Ezra seated in Mary's drawing room, fiddling with a large straw bonnet. The gambler greeted him with a frown.
"I must confess, sir, I have reservations as to the success of this little venture," Ezra drawled. "This is no tent of drunken, whoring cowboys. Mr. Tanner will have to put on a convincing display if we are to have the good Mr. Brown believe he is a likely candidate for connubial bliss."
"You don't think he can do it?" Chris asked flatly.
Ezra pursed his lips thoughtfully. "While I harbour no doubts as to our comrade's courage and resourcefulness, I do not believe he possesses the necessary tools for such a deception, no."
Chris was inclined to agree. Vin was honest to the bone; the man could lie, but seemed to find it damned hard to meet another man's eyes whilst doing so. Plus, female company, Chris had noticed, tended to leave the otherwise unflappable tracker, tongue-tied. Youngsters like Casey, or ladies like Miss. Nettie, brought out the gentleman behind the scruffy exterior, but put Tanner near a woman of marriageable age and he dried up quicker than a creek in summer.
Putting the shy young man in a dress seemed more and more like a recipe for disaster. However, Chris kept his thoughts to himself, responding to the gambler's doubts with a simple, "We'll see."
Ezra informed him that Mary was upstairs adjusting a dress belonging to her late mother. The gambler explained the bonnet and the fan laying beside him would help to obscure Vin's face as possible. "Perhaps some gloves might also be procured?" Ezra suggested. "To hide Mr. Tanner's less-than-dainty hands."
Chris suddenly found himself picturing the tracker's long, fine- boned fingers. Startled, he shook off the image. "Get whatever you need," he told the gambler. "When he's ready, bring him 'round to the stables."
Ezra shook his head. "Oh no, Mr. Larabee. My portion of risk in this escapade is merely to prepare our unruly savage. I will not further endanger my personage by enticing said savage to step outside, once he is bound in female apparel. I do believe that Herculean task is best left to your good self."
"Fine," Chris snapped. "I'll be back in an hour. Have him ready."
"One hour?" Ezra's usual lazy drawl held an edge of dismay.
"One," Chris repeated firmly. "The longer we wait, the greater the chance this bastard will get away, or someone else will go missing."
"And if this is not the gentleman we seek?" Ezra asked.
Chris felt the skin around his temples tighten. "Pray he is," he answered simply.
Ezra gave a subdued nod and went back to working on the bonnet.
Chris stepped back out into the dusty street. He badly wanted another drink but refused to succumb to the desire. Two people he cared about were about to step into danger and he wanted to stay sharp.
He refused to dwell upon the growing realisation that one of them held a greater sway over his fears. He tried to push aside all thoughts of a certain blue-eyed, tangle-haired Texan, increasingly troubled by the direction his feelings were taking.
How had it happened? Just when had that damned, sneaky tracker slipped in and laid such a stranglehold over his heart?
Moreover, what was he going to do about it?
Chris turned his face toward the sun, and let its blistering gaze burn the thoughts from his mind. Right now he had more pressing matters to deal with. There would be time enough later to dwell on his feelings. He'd make certain of it. No harm would befall his friends. The narrow gaze hardened; Brown would die before he lay a hand on either Vin or Mary.
After an hour spent fruitlessly wandering around town, Chris returned to Mary's house. Even before he opened the door, he could hear sounds of a commotion within.
"Dammit, Ezra. Keep your blasted hands to yourself. Beggin' your pardon, Mrs. Travis. Goddamitt, Ezra! I'm gonna slit your throat if you do that again. Pardon, ma'am."
"That's quite alright, Vin." Mary sounded more amused than offended by the tracker's irate behaviour.
Ezra, on the other hand, sounded near the limits of his patience. "Mr. Tanner, I would only ask that you be reasonable. You cannot possibly walk like a lady with that monstrosity strapped to your leg."
The monstrosity in question was the mare's leg, which Vin was attempting to buckle to his thigh as Chris entered the room. The tracker cursed and muttered as he struggled to hold his skirts up out of the way. Ezra flapped around him, while Mary stood in the corner, one hand over her mouth to hide her giggles.
Chris took control. "Vin, Ezra's right. Leave it. Ezra, give him your Derringer. Mary, have you got a clutch purse he can put it in?"
Both men spoke as one-
"I ain't carryin´ that pop gun."
"Shut up, the pair of you. I've had-" the rest of the words died in his throat as Vin turned to face him, and Chris was left standing with his mouth open.
Vin flushed. "What?" He looked down at himself as Chris remained silent. Ezra attempted to straighten his skirts and Vin nearly shoved the Southerner into the open hearth. "Dammit, Ezra, I told you to stop pawin' me. Beggin' your pardon again, Mrs. Travis. Aww, Chris. Hell, you don't need to stare at me like that. I know I look stupid." The flush deepened and Vin dropped his gaze to the floor.
The distress in his friend's voice reached Chris through his daze. "You look fine," he managed, somewhat hoarsely.
Vin peered at him doubtfully from underneath the brim of the bonnet.
The fact was, Chris thought his friend looked more than fine. He wasn't sure what he'd expected to see when he'd asked Vin to take on this role, but it certainly wasn't this.
Mary and Ezra appeared to have performed a miracle.
The dress was plain and simple, cut from heavy, dark, blue cloth. Mary had sewn on an extra hem to allow for Vin's height, and added lace to the cuffs and neck, which helped hide his hands and disguised his lack of chest. Vin's sandy bristles had been carefully shorn, leaving no discernible shadow, and Mary had used a little paint and powder to soften the young man's features and lighten his tanned skin. The overall effect was really quite startling.
Gone was the scruffy, dust-covered tracker; in his place stood a vision. Maybe the vision was too tall and rangy for a woman, the shoulders too broad, the jaw line too strong. However, devoid of bristles and the ever-present shadow of that battered hat, the revealed face was surprisingly youthful. Vivid blue eyes fairly glowed, bright with shame and anger. Chris tore his gaze from them to track sharp cheekbones down to the sweet curve of that incredible mouth.
It took him a few moments to notice that Vin's hair had been washed and the rich brown curls carefully brushed. They tumbled round his shoulders, and someone had skilfully teased out a few wispy tendrils to frame his face. Chris felt as if he'd been gut-punched. He found himself struggling to string a sentence together . "Right....well, let's get going."
Vin folded his arms defiantly. "Ain't goin' nowhere without my gun."
The re-emergence of his stubborn friend from beneath the facade finally snapped Chris fully out of his daze. "Enough. We don't have time for this. Ezra's right, you can't be takin' that with ya. It'll bunch up your dress."
Vin shot him a disgusted look. "Ain't my dress, an' I don't care. How'm I s'pposed ta take care of Mary--I mean--Mrs. Travis, if I don't have a gun?"
"You'll have a gun," said Chris, holding out his hand expectantly toward Ezra.
The gambler sighed and removed his Derringer, dropping it carefully into Chris's waiting grasp.
Chris handed it to Vin, who eyed it like it was a poisonous snake.
"Shit, Chris, I'd need ta be sittin' in the bastard's lap to hit him with that thing."
Chris arched an eyebrow in the direction of Mary, and hid a smirk as Vin turned crimson and stammered out an apology.
Mary was fighting to contain her mounting mirth.
Chris took the clutch bag from her shaking hand and thrust the gun into it before grabbing Vin's elbow and steering him toward the front door. The younger man yelped and twisted in his grip.
"Shi- I mean, no, Chris. I ain't goin' out there like this. Lemme out the back door, please."
The desperate, pleading tone cut through Chris's spiralling temper. He relaxed his grip, and turned away from the front door. "All right, we'll go out the back, but we're going now, understood?"
Vin nodded miserably.
"Mary, you ready?"
"Yes, just let me get my shawl." Mary wrapped it around her shoulders and followed them out of the house.
Chris kept his grip on Vin's arm, while Mary assisted a hobbling Ezra. The four slipped through the back streets to where Buck and J.D. were waiting with the buggy.
J.D.'s jaw dropped and Buck let out a loud guffaw as they approached.
"Dammit, Vin, but you make a fine-lookin' woman. A might skinny for my tastes but pretty fine all the same." He made a show of touching one springy curl and very nearly lost a finger. "Yow, this cat's got teeth!" Buck exclaimed, still laughing.
Chris glared at his long time friend as he struggled to keep a hold of a snapping, snarling Tanner. "Shut up, Buck," he hissed. "You ain't helpin'."
"Vin, settle down." He shook the young man to get his point across and shoved him back against the stable wall.
Vin was breathing hard, blue eyes showering sparks. He'd stopped fighting, but Chris could feel the coiled tension in the slender frame. Vin was spitting mad and ready to tear into anyone.
Anyone, except Chris.
Even in this near-blind rage, Vin would let himself be man- handled by the gunslinger, without raising a fist against the other man.
Chris spoke gently. "You okay now? Vin, I said are you okay?"
After a brief moment Vin nodded, the white hot anger fading from his eyes.
Buck shuffled forward, his expression suitably chastened. "Aw, I'm sorry, Vin. I didn't mean nothing by it."
Vin nodded tersely and Buck smiled, knowing his apology had been accepted.
Chris released the tracker and levelled one final glare at his old friend. "Enough, all of you. This ain't the time to be playin' games. Vin, get in that buggy. Buck, I want you with me."
Suitably chastened, Buck was now all business. "Sure, Chris. Where we headin'?"
"Brown's place. I want to be close enough in case he tries something."
Vin and Mary both launched into their objections but Chris silenced them with cutting stroke of his hand. "I don't care if you think we'll spook him. I'll be damned if I'll let either of you go out there alone."
"What should I do, Chris?" J.D. asked eagerly. He was trying hard to ignore the sight of his friend in a dress. Somehow it was even more disturbing on the tracker than it had been on Ezra.
Chris turned to the boy. "Stay here. I want you, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah to keep an eye on things while we're gone," he instructed.
J.D.'s youthful face fell, but he nodded. "Sure, Chris."
Ezra tipped his fingers to his hat. "Gentlemen, I wish you good hunting."
Chris and Buck saddled up. Ezra assisted Mary into the buggy and then turned to help Vin.
The young man glowered at him. "I don't need no help."
Ezra shrugged and stepped back.
Vin tried to climb into the buggy, but he had failed to anticipate the restrictive nature of his new garments. Ezra caught him before he could fall back into the mud.
"Might I suggest you lift your skirts before you try to lift your feet," the gambler puffed, still struggling to prevent the younger man from pitching over. However, his injured leg couldn't take the extra weight and it looked like they would both end up in the mud.
"J.D., help him," Chris ordered.
Looking decidedly uncomfortable, and unsure where to put his hands, J.D. assisted Ezra in levering Vin into the buggy. He landed in a less than graceful bundle of skirts and petticoats beside a giggling Mary. In the light of his obvious distress, she quickly calmed herself and helped to straighten out his clothing.
"Don't worry, Vin. I think you're doing fine," she whispered.
Vin shot her a grateful look that didn't lessen the evident misery in his predicament.
Finally, they were settled. Mary took the reins and led the buggy out of town. Chris and Buck road past to lie in wait ahead. J.D. and Ezra watched them leave.
"You think Vin can really make that man believe he's a woman?" J.D. asked.
Ezra patted his young colleague on the shoulder. "Well, if I were a betting man I wouldn't advise placing any money on it, Mr. Dunne." His gaze turned more thoughtful as he followed the path the buggy had taken. "But then again, Mr. Tanner did make a surprisingly comely young lady." J.D. shot him a confused look, and Ezra grinned, his gold tooth glinting in the sunlight.
Vin felt certain this had to be one of the most miserable experiences of his life, and Spirits knew, there were enough to draw from. He was hot, sticky, and could barely breathe in the dress Mary had all but sewn him into.
He'd flushed with mortification when she'd entered the room with the gown - him being only in his drawers. Eventually, she'd taken pity on his acute discomfort and left, leaving Ezra to help get him dressed and returning later to do the necessary alterations.
He fought the urge to rip away the tight, prickly collar. The lace scratched his throat, still tender from shaving, and he found himself longing for his buttersoft buckskin coat with near fervent desperation. How did women manage to survive in this get up? It was simply one of the many feminine mysteries that had always eluded him.
He'd never understood women. He'd never had that much to do with them. His mother was the only white woman he'd ever been close to, and she was little more than a faded dream; his memories distorted by both his childish view point and the remorseless passage of time. She was an ideal, a remote figure, a hazy recollection of comfort and love.
Women like Mrs. Travis left him feeling awkward and tongue-tied. He didn't understand them; to him they were as far removed from man as the coyote was from the jack rabbit. Usually, he avoided them at all costs.
Except for Miss. Nettie, who brought him in mind of his mother had she lived. Though even she could leave him hot and flustered, with her kind smiles and gentle touches.
He didn't know how much it saddened her to see her overtures met with bewildered confusion. She'd seen what Chris, and some others, had surmised, that human kindness was alien to Vin Tanner; a young man who'd only ever known hard words, and an even harder hand.
However, all the beatings he'd endured seemed insignificant compared to the misery he felt right now. Vin stole a sideways glance at Mary, and was relieved that at least she appeared to have stopped laughing at him. Not that he blamed her, he knew he looked damned silly in this get up, and his face burned as he recalled Chris's reaction to his transformation. The older man had looked like he'd been struck. Vin had wanted to curl up and die.
His feelings for Chris were complex and convoluted. He didn't spend time studying them, but the one thing he was sure of was how much he admired the older man, and how much it meant to have that same trust and respect reflected back.
At Mary's house he hadn't dared meet Chris's eyes, but he had seen the stunned look on the gunslinger's face, and had instantly felt as if he'd been robbed of a little of that respect.
It hurt. So few men had ever regarded him with more than hate, scorn, or at best, puzzlement. As a boy it had bothered him, but now that he was a man, he didn't care so much; he preferred his own company anyway. Until, that is, he'd come to Four Corners, and found himself in the company of six men - individually so different, yet fitting together like the parts of a whole.
He'd been drawn instinctively to Chris, from the first shared glance across that dusty street. He had, it seemed, finally found someone who didn't mind his rough edges, someone who was at ease with his long silences, someone who understood his need to escape the confines of town life on occasion. In short, someone he could trust to watch his back in a world that had tried to stab him in it one too many times to count.
Which was why, appalled as he'd been, he'd also been utterly unable to refuse what the older man had asked. Disgusted, Vin shook his head lightly and bit back a snort. Only Chris could make him agree to an idea this stupid. His expression turned feral as he suddenly recalled where the idea had originally sprung from. Yep, Ezra was gonna pay for this. Tanners had long memories.
He was pulled from his vengeful thoughts as the buggy jerked to a halt. Mary tied off the reins and stepped down, extending a hand to him. "I'll help," she offered easily.
He was grateful for her matter-of-factness. It made it easier for him to accept her hand as she assisted him down. The hem of his skirt caught on the foot board, and he bit back a curse as he tried to yank it free.
Smiling gently, Mary freed him. "You're doing fine," she assured.
Vin wondered if his unease was that visible, and unease became paralysing fear as she turned him toward Brown's house. It lay at the end of a little dirt track. He couldn't do this. What the hell had he been thinking? There was no way he could carry this off. How could he hope to fool a man who took such a close, albeit sick, interest in women? His feet wouldn't move, and he hung back from Mary's grasp.
"Come on," she whispered gently. "He's already seen us."
Vin blinked sharply, and then saw what she'd already spotted, the twitch of a faded curtain. He cursed inwardly. He was losing it; something like that should never have slipped by him.
"You can do this," she encouraged him. "Just keep your fan in front of your face, and leave the talking to me." Her eyes sparkled. "I'll explain that you're shy."
Vin drew in a deep breath, cursing the tight bodice as he exhaled. He nodded. "All right then. Let's do this."
They walked down the track toward the house. Mary reminded him to keep his paces short, and to hold his skirts out of the mud. As they came close, the door swung open and Henry Brown appeared.
"Mrs. Travis." Brown inclined his head in greeting. He didn't move from the doorway and his expression was unreadable.
"Mr. Brown. I hope you'll pardon us calling unannounced, but Miss. Vine expressed an interest in your advertisement and I took it upon myself to bring her to meet you." Mary smiled and tugged Vin forward slightly.
Vin ducked his head and held up his fan.
"A friend of yours, Mrs. Travis?"
Mary shook her head. "Not really, I...ah...met her off the stage. She's looking for employment. Aren't you, Miss. Vine? She was a ladies' maid in Texas."
"She came to buy a paper and happened upon your ad. Since I had the afternoon free, and it being such a pleasant day, I offered to drive her."
"Most neighbourly of you, Mrs. Travis. I'm sure."
Vin shivered. He could certainly see what Josiah had meant. Though the man spoke to Mrs. Travis, he'd never once taken his eyes off Vin. They brought him in mind of fish eyes - cold and dead.
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Miss. Vine. May I ask what brought you to such a quaint corner of our beautiful country?"
"Sadly, her employer passed away. Miss. Vine still finds it difficult to talk about. They were very close. She just had to get away, afterwards. You know." Mary's tone was just the right mixture of compassion and gossip.
"Of course, of course. It's never easy to lose the ones we love," said Brown, though there was no warmth to his words.
Vin suppressed a shiver.
"But where are my manners?" Brown smiled. "Here I am, keeping you ladies standing in the hot sun. Won't you step inside for a moment, and take some refreshments? Perhaps you can tell me a little about yourself, Miss. Vine. I've never been to Texas. I'm sure it's a fascinating place." He moved aside to let them pass.
Vin had no desire to enter the dank smelling house, but had little choice when Mary went in. He was sure Brown stepped closer as he passed, causing his skirts to brush against the other man. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and he was suddenly relieved that Chris had insisted on staying close. //Hope you're watching, Cowboy.//
Inside, heavy lace curtains trapped most of the sunlight, leaving only a few dusty beams to pick out the features of the room. It was fairly clean, but oddly bare; bereft of the personal items that makes a place a home. No pictures, no ornaments. Just a table, two chairs and an empty dresser.
"As you can see," said Brown, with apparent sadness, "it lacks a woman's touch."
He waved them toward the chairs, and then busied himself with the refreshments.
Vin sat, and after a few moments squirming, managed to get his skirts in some sort of order. A short, sharp cough from Mary made him look across. She was frowning at him. He followed her gaze and realised he was sitting like a man. Vin flushed and brought his knees together.
"I hope you both like lemonade," said Brown, walking toward them with two tall glasses.
"Lovely, thank you," said Mary graciously.
Vin mumbled his thanks, and wondered how the hell he was supposed to drink it without lowering his fan.
For the next half hour or so, Mary skilfully held the conversation. Vin needed only add the occasional whispered 'yes' or 'no'. His soft, husky drawl didn't lead to any suspicious glances from Brown, who seemed quite happy to let Mary act as intermediary.
Eventually however, the conversation began to wane, as Mary struggled to keep Brown's attention. Vin was growing restless, suffocated by both the dress and the close confines of the room. He almost sighed aloud in relief when Mary finally stood and bid Mr. Brown a polite farewell.
Brown expressed his regret at their parting so soon, and emphasized his desire to meet Miss. Vine again.
During the course of the conversation, Brown had, more than once, directed their attention to the land surrounding his property. Now he did so again, carefully pointing out one particular stretch that was, he insisted, just perfect for strolling, or riding. He expressed his wish that they feel free to use the trail, adding that he traversed it himself almost daily, and encountering them would be 'a delight' .
Mary thanked him and said she would certainly try to take advantage of his generous offer. Vin managed a nod and a wan smile.
"Splendid, splendid," Brown enthused.
Mary was already stepping out into the sunshine when Brown suddenly reached for Vin's hand, raising it to his lips.
Vin froze, barely holding back a shudder, fervently grateful for the gloves as Brown brushed wet lips across the back of his hand.
"Miss. Vine, it's been a genuine pleasure."
Vin bobbed his head, fluttered his fan, and almost fell over his skirts in his haste to get out the door.
He didn't release the breath he was holding until Mary had assisted him back into the buggy. Then he sat, gulping great gasps of air, while the bodice of the dress seemed to tighten around him.
They were close to town when Buck and Chris rode up.
"What happened?" Chris asked.
"Nothing really," said Mary. "Mr. Brown invited us in. We talked for a while. Mainly about his plans for the place." She squeezed the tracker's arm gently. "Vin performed his part perfectly."
Vin remained silent. He felt out of his depth with this charade. Give him a straightforward fight over all this deceit and trickery any day. In a fight he could hold his own. Here he just felt trapped and lost.
Mary quickly ran through the conversation, relating how Brown had seemed eager for them walk or ride around his property; a spot down by the creek, in particular.
Vin suddenly cut in, his voice uncharacteristically whiny. "Can I get out of this now?" He was tugging on the collar of the dress.
Buck grinned. "Oh, I don't know, pard. I reckon you should keep it on. It kinda suits ya. Brings out the blue of his eyes, don't ya think, Chris?"
Mary choked back a laugh.
Chris glared at his long time friend.
Vin looked like he was about to launch himself at Buck's throat.
Buck decided to play it safe and trotted ahead.
Chris softened his glare as he turned to the tracker. "Sure, as soon as we get back. Best keep that dress handy though, Cowboy."
"Huh? Why?" Vin demanded.
"'Cause one of you is goin' to take Brown up on his offer, and it ain't gonna be Mary."
Under any other circumstances, that look of wide-eyed panic would have been amusing. As it was, Chris felt a twinge of sympathy for his friend.
"No way," the tracker sputtered. "I ain't ridin' anywhere in this get up."
"We've set the trap," Chris insisted. "Now we need to bait it."
"But do you really think he'll try anything?" Mary asked. "Surely it would be too big a risk for him. After all, he knows I'd be aware of his connection to 'Miss. Vine'."
"I don't think a man like Brown can help himself," said Chris. " 'Sides, he's got away with this twice now already. That's got to make a man bold."
"I ain't doin' it," Vin reiterated stubbornly.
"You'd rather Mary took her chances?" Chris snapped. He'd had enough. Watching Mary and Vin disappear inside that house had been one of the longest half hours of his life. His innards were still wound tight with worry.
However, he immediately regretted his harsh tone, as the younger man's face suffused with shame.
"'Course not," Vin muttered. "You know I'd never let no harm come ta' her."
"That's very sweet of you, Vin," said Mary, "but I can take care of myself. The invitation was extended to us both. Perhaps it would be better if I accepted."
"No!" Both men exclaimed at once.
Mary's lips tightened in annoyance. "Well all right. Though I'm sure I don't know why. It's not as if I would be alone, after all. I'm sure you intend to stay close to Mr. Tanner through this escapade."
//Like a second shadow.// Chris thought, but he said nothing.
They rode back into town in silence. Mary still clearly feeling slighted and Vin as miserable as Chris had ever seen him. The gunslinger felt the twinge between his temples build into a violent, pounding ache.
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