Everything on this page is fiction. Any resemblance or reference to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Drunk and Disorderly: Anniversaries
By Starwinder

One week

One week is hardly an anniversary that most people celebrate but then Mister Tanner and I are not "most people", not by a long shot.

We are drifters, both of us, an itinerate gambler and an itinerate bounty hunter. Until we came to this place, our lives were defined by the fact that we are always and forever 'just passing through'.

As for our relationship, for me, a man to whom a few moments of brutal sex has been the sum total of his experience with "a relationship", a week of nightly joinings with the same person is most definitely something to celebrate.

Still, it was with surprise and delight that I greeted Vin's casual, "Hey, Ez. How about you 'n me ride over to Willow Creek fer the day?"

He glanced around to be sure that we were alone, then leaned a bit closer and added with that smile that has come to be just for me, "Do a little celebrating?"

So here we are in a private suite in the best hotel in Willow Creek, soaking in a huge tub of bubble bath.

Who would have guessed that Vin Tanner would love bubble bath like a little kid?

Certainly not me.

"This is nice," Vin murmurs as he kisses me again.

"Ummm," is all the reply that I can manage. This is much more than just 'nice'. This is absolute heaven.

We are stretched out in the tub. Vin is lying on top of me, covering me, his hard cock rubbing against mine in the slick soapy water.

His long hair is still dripping from where I washed it just moments ago. It's a good thing that we've already bathed for I fear that I am about to seriously foul the water. One more, good rub should do it.

And it does.

I come hard, bucking and writhing under him. Only his firm grip on my hips keeps me from overturning the tub. Only his mouth covering mine keeps my cry from bringing someone running to see who just killed whom in here.

I slump bonelessly beneath him, warmed by his soft chuckle that tells me that he is 'oh, so very pleased' with my reaction.

He rests atop me, planting soft, tender kisses on my face, waiting patiently for me to recover. Only when my breathing has returned to normal and I sigh happily, wrapping my arms around his neck and pulling him down for a deep kiss does he suggest that its time to get out of the tub.

"Reckon we oughta go get some supper. Need to keep our strength up. Got plans fer later." He grins at me and I can't begin to argue with his logic, as much as I'd like to lay limp in his arms for the next hour or so.

The hotel dining room is a pleasant surprise. The roast beef is melt in your mouth tender. The gravy is thick and rich with just the right touch of saltiness and an underlying zing that says the cook added a bit of some spice or wine that I have not identified as yet. The mashed potatoes are smooth as silk. The corn on the cob is sweet, tender and buttery as if the cook had steamed it then dropped it in a vat of pure butter to boil for a few minutes infusing it with that wonderful buttery taste.

I fear that I have made a pig of myself, but when I say as much, Vin just chuckles. After all, I only ate two platefuls, he is well into his third plate and has already informed the waitress, that yes, we *do* want dessert.

After we have finished up our dessert and coffee and the waitress has wrapped up a half a peach pie and half a pecan pie for us to take back to our room with us, Vin leans back in his seat and grins.

"How about we mosey on over to the saloon, get us a drink or two to settle supper 'fore we head back upstairs?" he asks.

I easily agree. A drink and a little bit of sitting, to let supper settle, sounds nice.

Naturally, as soon as we enter the saloon, my eyes are drawn to a back table on a raised platform much like the table I normally occupy at home. From the number of spectators, I can only assume that it is a high stakes game, or at least what passes for a high stakes game in these parts.

We make our way to the bar, where I spy a bottle of peach brandy on the shelf. I raise an eyebrow. "Vin have you ever had peach brandy," I ask.

"Not that I recall."

It's my turn to chuckle, "You would recall, if you had. Would you like to try it?"

"Sure," he says and tells the barkeep to hand it down. He pays for the bottle without even blinking at the price.

We get a couple of glasses and make our way to a table. I can't keep my eyes from wandering to the table with the poker game.

"Ya wanna go see what the stakes are?" Vin asks casually.

I sigh and shake my head. What's the use? I have virtually no money. Vin is paying for this entire trip.

He sees the resignation in my eyes and continues, "If they ain't too high I could stake ya. Reckon we're gonna need some extra money for the house. Wouldn't mind having us one of those nice bathing rooms. Big ole tub, suds to play in."

He looks so hopeful that I can't deny him, besides I really would like to play. I have the definite feeling that my luck has changed.

At this moment, I feel like the luckiest man in the world. Vin is spoiling me rotten, Chaucer is back in fine fettle and I have just finished a great meal and started a bottle of fine brandy.

"I don't suppose that it could hurt to find out what the stakes are," I say.

At his smiling, "Go on then," I eagerly head for the platform only to return a moment later, disappointed.

"Well," he asks, "how much?"

I reach for my brandy and take a sip, "Too much."

"That ain't no answer." His voice hardens, taking on that 'I am the master here' tone. "I asked how much are the stakes?"

I lower my head, and answer quietly, submissively, "One hundred dollars."

Vin grunts then shifts in his seat. A moment later he taps my arm and when I turn to look at him, he holds out a fold of money to me.

I take it, but my confusion must show on my face.

He smiles at me again. "Got some money saved, Ez. Ain't like I spend a lot. Go on. Go win us some money to spend on our house."

'Our house', what a beautiful phrase. I can only nod and rise to go join the game.

Six hours later and over six hundred dollars richer we return to the hotel, falling giddily onto the bed, making passionate love until the first pale light of dawn. Then finally we curl up in each other's arms and drift off to sleep.

One Month

Vin has shown me every nook and cranny of our little valley. It's quite a piece of work, I must admit, and absolutely perfect for us. It is almost as if it were made *just for* us.

The spot we have chosen for our cabin is directly in front of the series of caves that lead to the other canyons and valleys that riddle this apparently solid mountain range. When the cabin is in place it will conceal the entrance to the caves entirely. The back porch will open directly into the caves.

Vin has mapped them in his head. He knows exactly which are passable and which are not, which are dead ends and which lead through to other valleys or canyons and other exits from the mountain.

Fortunately, I also have an excellent memory. I do not want to draw a map of the tunnels least it fall into the wrong hands.

Today, I am celebrating our one-month anniversary with fireworks.

I'm blowing up the ridge between our valley and the box canyon next to it, turning it into a pass.

That canyon has a large stand of Ponderosa pines. Not one of them stands less than sixty-feet tall and Vin assures me that he can get all the logs he needs by simply thinning them out. Neither of us wants to see the canyon's beautifully forested slopes become a raw wound like those left behind after a lumber mill has been through and moved on.

Thus far we haven't told anyone that we are actually building our home inside the mountain.

In the weeks since that poker game in Willow Creek I have had an extraordinary run of good luck at the poker table.

Using my winnings, I have purchased the land just outside the cave that leads into our valley. It is in my name, but we've made certain that everyone knows that Vin is a partner in my potential ranch.

Everyone thinks that I have lost my mind. The hundred-and-sixty acres, which I have purchased, are scrub lands at best, a semi-desert, waterless wasteland, at worst. I've heard it called all that and more in the days since I bought it.

As we load the dynamite on the wagon that we've rented from the livery, Mister Larabee steps up and eyes the box with a frown.

"Dynamite?" he queries.

Mister Larabee disapproves of our fondness for the explosive.

"What are you planning to do with that?"

I cock an eyebrow at Vin, asking if he wants to let Mister Larabee in on our secret valley, he shrugs and smiles leaving it up to me.

I give Chris my most innocent look. "Why don't you ride along with us and see?"

He scowls at me, then looks back at the dynamite and the other items that have already been loaded into the wagon and finally looks at Vin.

Vin just grins at him.

His scowl deepens and he says, "Just might do that."

"Well, mount up, Cowboy, cause we're leaving now," Vin tells him.

When we reach our land I park the wagon as close to the cave mouth as I can get it. We hung lanterns along the length of the passageways when we widened them and as Vin grabs a box off the wagon and tells Chris to make himself useful, I head into the cave to light them.

Vin leads Chris into and through the passages.

I am waiting when they emerge. I want to see Chris' face when he realizes what we've done.

It is priceless.

"Hell fire and damnation!" he swears, but he's grinning. "You're a pair of sly foxes, the both of you," he adds admiringly.

Sitting the box he carried through the passage down, he has a seat on it and lights up a cheroot. He sits looking around at the lush green of the valley, then looks back at the passage. "You planning to cover it up?"

"It was my intention to conceal that entrance," I reply with a smirk.

"You'll need to build something on that piece of land to make it look like you're living there."

"Plan to," Vin assured him. "Something sorta like your place. Small house, maybe a barn and a corral."

Chris nods, approvingly. "This is a good place for a man with a price on his head."

Vin grins at him. "My thoughts exactly and since it's all in Ez' name...."

"There's no way to link it to you on paper," Chris finished.

"'Xactly," Vin replies. "Come on. I'll show you around while Ez sets the charges."

They walk away together while I get out the fuses and detonator box from the case that Chris brought through and begin planning my assault on the ridge.

By the time I have the charges planted and the fuses run, they have returned to the wagon and finished unloading it. The tent that Vin will use as temporary housing while he works on the cabin is set up near the place we plan to build. They are working on clearing a flat, level piece of ground to stack the logs to dry, when I come to tell them that I am ready to blow the ridge.

"Gentlemen, I believe it would be best if you joined me for a few minutes. I am about to blow the ridge and would prefer to know that you are out of danger."

Vin straightens, stretching out his back and smiles at me. "Need a break anyhow."

Chris wipes sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve and nods in agreement.

I'm somewhat disconcerted when Vin steps up beside me and puts his arm around me, as I turn to head back to the detonator.

"Vin!" I hiss in warning as I cast a glance back at Chris.

"It's all right," Vin assures me, hugging me closer. 'I's telling Chris about that bathing room I wanna put in for ya and he asked me straight out, why I'm spoiling you like that. So, I told him, that a fella oughta spoil the one he loves."

I can't help the fear and panic that crosses my face at that announcement.

"Ez," Vin starts, but I cut him off by pulling away.

Turning to face Chris head on, I confront him, "Mister Larabee?"

"Ain't none of my business what you two get up to. Long as it doesn’t interfere with the job." His face softens, "Harsh country out here, Ezra. Everybody needs somebody to stand beside 'em. Seems to me that the two of you are taking right good care of each other. You're buying that land to cover this hideaway for Vin. Vin's planning that fancy bathing room to pamper you. Long as you two are happy with the way things are, ain't nobody else's business."

Relief floods through me. Chris Larabee is a closed-mouth son-of-a-bitch. If he thinks that this is nobody's business but ours, then it will be a cold day in hell before anyone hears a word about our relationship or our secret valley from him.

"Thank you, Mister Larabee," I say, starting to breathe again.

"You're more'n welcome, Ezra... and the name is Chris. Friends call each other by their names, Ezra," He stresses the repetition of my name.

I smile at him. "As you wish, Chris."

We continue on to the detonator.

When the fireworks are over the ridge has been pretty much leveled. It will need to be smoothed some and packed down to make it easier on the horses when they drag the logs over it, but it is now passable.

We walk across it to look at the stand of pines that Vin plans to use to build our cabin.

Chris notes, "It'll go a lot faster if you have some help."

"You volunteering?" Vin asks.

"Yep," Chris said, "Buck'll be glad to help, too. You don’t have to worry about him finding out about you two. He won't even blink and I'll make sure that he knows not to say anything about this valley."

Two Months

We're celebrating our two-month anniversary with a house raising.

I can scarcely believe all the people who have shown-up to help with putting up our house. Especially since half of them have at one time or another expressed the opinion that I have lost my mind to even think of building on this desolate piece of land. Even though I know that this house is only a false front for the real one inside our hidden valley, the knowledge that so many people care enough to volunteer to help build what they think will be our home is overwhelming.

There are four teams of men, organized under Vin, Chris, Buck and Josiah, one team for each wall of the house.

Nathan is in charge of seeing to it that I sit in the shade and rest 'my sorry southern butt' as he puts it. I suffered a minor bullet wound whilst helping repel a gang of bank robbers three days ago and my bad shoulder was dislocated again in the fall from the roof that I was on. He didn't even want to let me ride out here. In fact he insisted that either I rode in the wagon, which he was driving or he would tie me to the bed in the clinic.

I nearly fell over dead with shock when Vin informed him that the only person that was going to be tying me to a bed was him and that I had a perfect right to be at the house raising as it was to be my home, too.

Nathan looked at him in shock for a minute then laughed out loud, "So, it's that way, is it?"

Vin nodded tersely, his hand resting on the butt of his mare's leg.

Nathan shook his head. "Well, hell! It's about time somebody took this boy in hand. I's getting a mite tired of having to stitch him up when he'd drag hisself back here all beat up and bleeding! Especially when those stitches were going in a real intimate place."

Then he frowned and turned to me. "He ain't hurtin' ya none, is he, Ez?"

I blushed and smiled. "No more than I desire him to... and he never draws blood."

Nathan looked back at Vin, frowning.

Vin shook his head, "I'm trying to convince him that gentle and tender's a sight better'n rough and ready but he ain't never had that and it's takin' him a while ta get a taste fer it."

Nathan nodded, "He'll come around."

He turned back to me. "All right then, you can ride out to the house, but you're ridin' in the wagon. The *back* of the wagon, an' I'm making you up a bed so's you can lay down. We get out there, you sit in the shade an' watch. I catch you lifting anything heavier than a cup of water an' I'll have Vin turn you over his knee an' tan yer hide, right there. You understand me?"

I looked at Vin and knew that he'll do it, too, right in front of everybody. Crap! "Yes, Nathan," I said.

So, here I sit, watching my lover and half the town of Four Corners building us a house and while I know that this isn't really the house we'll be living in, I find myself blinking back tears at the thoughtfulness and generosity of the act.

The rattle of harness and thud of horses' hooves announces the arrival of the ladies with the lunch that they have prepared for the workers.

I start to rise to go and help them set up the tables and put out the food but Nathan nails me with a look that says that I'd better sit right back down and walks by me to help the ladies unload.

A short time later I find myself sitting at one of the tables with a plate that Vin has filled for me, under Nathan's watchful eye. Vin and I are among the few men that are actually sitting at the table. Most of our helpers including the rest of the seven are sitting on the ground or the backs of the wagons or wherever they can find a place. Several are sitting on the steps of the house.

It is completely framed in. Even the roof framing is up. I can hardly believe it, but it will be done by sunset.

It's not as large as our cabin will be. It's only about twenty feet square whereas the cabin will be approximately thirty or forty feet square, but it is set up almost exactly the same. It won't have a bathing room, however.

There will be only three rooms, the large front room extending across the entire house, containing the living, dining and cooking areas and two smaller bedrooms behind it with a narrow hallway between them.

About mid-afternoon, Chris, Buck, Vin and Josiah leave their crews to finish up the interior walls of the house and head back to town with a couple of wagons. I'm a bit surprised when Nathan remains behind and doesn't insist that I go back to town as well. The reason for that becomes clear when Vin and the others return.

The wagons are piled high with furniture, my furniture from my rooms over the saloon. I had replaced the furniture that came with the rooms when I briefly owned The Standish Tavern and had kept it after Mother destroyed that dream for me. I still feel a bitter rush at that memory but it fades in the knowledge that I finally have something that she can not take from me: Vin's love.

Finally I am allowed to do something, even if it is only to stand and point to where I want my bed set up and my dresser put and my shaving mirror and washstand.

They've brought my bed covers as well and a cot and bed covers for Vin's room. His chest from his wagon is carried in and set up at the foot of his bed.

Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Travis make up my bed as Miz Nettie and Miss Casey make up Vin's.

They have also brought other furniture. I recognize one of the tables from the saloon and the chairs that go with it.

Inez waves a hand at my raised eyebrow. "I listed them as broken in a bar fight, Senor. The owner is not likely to notice as he has never set foot in town."

She carries in a set of beer mugs and whiskey glasses. Placing them on the table until Vin can build us some shelves to put them on.

Mrs. Travis brings in what she refers to as 'an old set of dishes that were just gathering dust' and adds them to the table along with a matching set of water glasses.

Various other women add bowls, pots and pans that they claim that they 'never use anymore'.

Yosemite and Tiny carry in a cast iron cook stove. It's far from the largest model available but more than adequate for a couple of bachelors not to mention that it will heat the front room quite well. A pair of small pot bellied stoves are carried into the bedrooms, one for each.

The blacksmith and his livery owner twin brother tell me that they will be back in the morning to cut the holes for the flues and set up the stoves.

Then everyone is loading up and heading back to town, leaving Vin and me alone. Apparently, Mister Jackson informed the group before they began that his patient would need his rest and was not to be disturbed by the traditional barn dance following the house raising.

Therefore they are holding the dance at the grange hall in town. They still get their dance and Vin and I get our privacy.

For once I am truly grateful for Mister Jackson's bossy nature when it comes to his patients.

Oh, I know very well that I am not going to be able to persuade Vin to make love to me tonight, but we will lie together in my big feather bed in our own home and he will kiss and cuddle me, holding me close until I drift to sleep in his arms.

I am more than content.

Three months

Vin, Chris and Buck have spent the last month cutting trees and stripping the bark from the logs that they will use to build mine and Vin's cabin, while I recuperated from the injuries that I received in the bank robbery last month.

Josiah now knows about our valley, but not the true nature of our relationship. I worry that he will disapprove when he discovers it. He was, after all, a priest at one time.

He helped Tiny and Yosemite set up the stoves and bring out the rest of my furniture. I have my rocking chair and my writing desk, now. Both have been placed in the living area, along with an old sofa and a couple of mismatched tables to set lamps on that Josiah found somewhere. My wardrobe, dressing table and stool, along with my dressing screen are once more in my room.

He has been doing the work that needs doing to finish up the house while the others work in the valley. He has put up shelves in the kitchen area for the dishes and pots and pans that the ladies so generously donated and built me a work surface along one wall.

He has also built shelves in the living room for my books.

Miz Nettie, Miss Casey, Mrs. Travis, Mrs. Potter, her daughter and Miss Recillios have formed a sewing circle apparently dedicated to furnishing mine and Vin's home. They have sewn curtains for every window and made several braided rugs. They are working on a pair of quilts, one for my bed and one for Vin's.

Today we are working in the yard. I am finally able to start work on concealing the entrance to the cave that leads to our valley.

We have lashed together a framework of small saplings, making it several feet wider and longer than the opening is wide and tall. I have added a network of smaller saplings, deliberately making the weave uneven. Some of the holes are a foot or so square, others are rectangular or even triangular.

Onto this I am weaving a net of green vines. They will dry out in time, but are easy to work with in their green state.

The vines form a net of various sizes and depths. Into these pockets I will place soil and rocks, planting flowers and vines that I have harvested from the mountainside to make it look like just another piece of the mountain.

I will need a way to anchor it to the mountainside and a way to lift and lower it. I have already decided that up and down is a better option for it's opening than side to side. Vines can be planted above it to trail down over it to conceal it even more once it is in place.

Josiah has been watching me nodding his head as he sees what I am doing. "Very clever," he says as I add a couple of more small rocks and plant a handful of bright red flowers beside them, "but it's going to be heavy."

"I expected that," I tell him, "but I believe that the four of us can handle it. The problem is going to be how do we anchor it to the mountain and still make it moveable?"

"Two separate pieces," he mutters. "We'll need to make a second piece that anchors to the mountain face then attach this piece to that one. Metal hinges will last longest, I think." He wanders away still muttering to himself.

A while later he returns with a notebook and pencil, sitting down nearby and sketching in the book while I continue working on the gate.

After a bit he calls me over and shows me what he's drawn. "Do you think that will work?"

It's my turn to say, "Very clever, Mister Sanchez. I do indeed believe it will work and quite well."

"Yosemite can make this for us."

"For me, Mister Sanchez. I will pay for the materials and the work although I would appreciate it if you would approach him as it is your design."

He grins his toothy grin at me and I fear his buttons will pop with pride when he says, "I'd be happy to do that for you, son."

I go back to my work, not even realizing that I'm smiling to myself and have been most of the day.

After a long silence Josiah says, "You're happy."

I look up at him and my smile widens.

He goes on, "You're wearing canvas pants, a cotton shirt and playing in the dirt and you're happy."

I'm not sure what to say, so I blush a bit and duck my head.

"Mother never let me play in the dirt. I was never to get dirty when with her, but my great aunt Oleander loved to garden. She taught me all about raising vegetables, herbs and flowers. She never minded when I got dirty. It was our secret. She always made sure that I was cleaned up and presentable when Mother came for me. Until the day Mother arrived quite suddenly and unannounced and discovered me in the garden, filthy as a pig as she described it. She snatched me up, had a bath drawn for me, scrubbed me red, dressed me in stiff new clothes and hauled me away. She never let me stay with great aunt Oleander again."

I can hear the sadness in my voice as I say the last and push away the bitter memory of learning that great aunt Oleander had died and I hadn't even gotten to say goodbye.

I know that I sound more cheerful as I add, "I am going to plant a kitchen garden in our valley. The soil is rich and I should be able to grow all the food we will need. I'll plant corn, peas, beans, potatoes, greens and onions, of course, along with herbs and spices. Vin is campaigning for chilies and hot peppers but I've never grown them. Perhaps Inez can teach me how. She has a window box full of them at the saloon."

Josiah looks at me with his head tilted, I can almost see the wheels turning in his mind. "Ah," he says.

I frown at him. "I have a home here, Mister Sanchez," I inform him.

"I spent my entire childhood being dragged from one place to another. My life as an adult has been much the same. I have drifted from one place to another, never having a place to call my own, until now."

He nods like a wise old owl then says gravely, "I thought perhaps it might be a matter of home being where the heart is."

I turn and gawk at him. "Mister Sanchez!" I start indignantly, but don't know how to go on. I'm afraid for Vin, and what may happen if Josiah turns on us. I want to deny it, but how can I? That is exactly what this is.

"Vin seems much happier these last few months as well. More settled. He looks away at that horizon less and less. He looks at you, more and more. I thought perhaps you were each other's happiness." He sounds sad to think that we might not be.

I stand there looking at him for a long time before I finally ask. "Would you mind? If we were?"

He smiles at me, "Of course I don’t mind, Ezra. All I want for you is for you to be happy, son. If Vin makes you happy then I am glad that you have found each other."

The tears brim in my eyes and spill over before I can stop them. "He makes me very happy," I choke out through them.

Then Josiah is holding me, patting my back and murmuring soothingly, "It's all right, son. It's all right."

For once I don't mind him calling me son. For once I don’t mind that he's hugging me close. I cling to him and weep against his chest.

Mother is going to kill me when she finds out about Vin and me, but Josiah is happy for me and right now that is enough.

I feel Josiah stiffen just seconds before I hear Vin's angry voice demand, "What the hell is going on here?"

I pull away from Josiah and turn to face my lover and our friends, reaching up to swipe at the tears on my face.

Vin takes a step towards me, looking even angrier if that is possible.

Josiah steps away from me, raising his hands in a placating gesture. "It's not what it looks like, Vin."

That he knows that it's Vin that he needs to say that to gives them all pause.

Vin looks at me, "You tell him?"

"No, he guessed."

"He hurt you?"


"Then why are ya...." He trails off gesturing to my tearstained face.

"I don’t know! I just... He said he was happy for me, for us. I just... I was so sure that if he found out that he'd despise me, but then he said that he was happy for me, glad that we found each other and I just..." I reach up and swipe at the tears again. "I just started... started... *leaking*! And I can't seem to stop."

Then Vin is wrapping me in his arms and I'm crying against his chest.

I can hear Josiah saying to Chris and Buck, "I suppose you two already know."

Buck laughs, but it's Chris that simply says, "Yep."

That's all I hear because Vin is guiding me towards the house, up the steps, onto the porch, into the living room, down the hall and into my bedroom. He's laying me down on my big bed and kissing and petting me. His raspy drawl washes over me, murmuring words of reassurance and love.

My tears dry up in the fire of his love and the heat of my growing passion and I know that soon the only crying I will be doing is his name as he claims me.

Six months

I am, as Buck would say, 'nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs'.

Judge Travis arrived this morning with another man whom he introduced as a friend of his, another Federal Judge. He asked to see Vin in private. Chris insisted that he be allowed to sit in as Vin was one of his men, but there was no way that I could claim the right to join them without outing myself and Mister Tanner to the judge, which I would never do.

Buck has been sitting with me since Vin, Chris and the two judges went into the grange hall and closed the door. At least Buck has been sitting. I have been pacing.

Josiah has gone with JD to deliver a prisoner to Yuma Prison. I can't help but wonder if being down two men has something to do with the judges' appearance. Perhaps they want us under strength so that if their plan is to take Vin back to Texas we will not be able to interfere.

The hell I won’t interfere! I'll shoot both those bastards and anyone else that gets in my way! I'll take Vin and run for the border! I'll.... I'll.... Oh! God! I can't lose Vin! I can't!

I'm half way to the grange door, determined to storm in and demand to know what is going on when Buck intercepts me.

"Whoa, Hoss! Just back up a minute. You can't go stomping in there with murder in your eyes!" He leans in close, his voice dropping to a volume that only I can hear. "You'll give you and Vin away."

He pulls me back towards the chair he'd been sitting in. "Can't be what you're thinking."

I give him a glare that asks how the hell does he know what I'm thinking and he chuckles.

"Pard, it don't take a genius to figure that out, just somebody that knows you and how you feel about your partner. You're worried that they're here to take Vin back to Texas. I don't figure that's it. We ain't heard no shooting yet and Vin and Chris ain't come running out of there ready to head fer Mexico."

"You believe that Mister Larabee would accompany us should we have to run?"

"Hell, yes! So would I. So would the others."

I shake my head. "Young Mister Dunne is sheriff here. He has a future here with young Miss Wells and should remain. Mister Jackson and Mister Sanchez have places here as well. None of them need to be on the run with us. For that matter, Mister Larabee may well have found a place here with Mrs. Travis...."

"That ain't gonna happen!" Buck snaps, making me look up at him sharply.

What I see surprises me and at the same time answers my questions of why he and Chris accepted Vin's relationship with me so easily.

"You sound very sure of that," I venture.

"I am," he replies, firmly, and I see in his eyes his confidence in that answer, the confidence of a man who loves and knows that his love is returned. I can't believe that I never saw the possibility of Buck and Chris being together before. Of course, Buck does play the ladies man to the hilt and Chris shows no sign of jealousy, but then I suppose that they have had years to perfect their cover.

"Good." It's all that I can think to say. It conveys my knowledge and acceptance of their relationship and my good wishes for its future.

Still, I can't help but turn back to the grange door, my own worries unabated. What *is* going on in there?

Finally the door opens and the judge emerges, with his friend beside him.

He turns back to Chris and Vin and holds out his hand. "It's settled then. We'll get back to you as soon as we have any news."

His friend offers his hand as well and both Chris and Vin take it, Vin more reluctantly than Chris, but he does shake the man's hand.

As they walk away I turn to Vin, my desperate need to know what is going on clear in my eyes.

"Think maybe we should take a ride out to the 'stead," Vin says.

We move to the livery as a group, saddling up without talking. I know that whatever was discussed must be important and private, but I'm going mad with anxiety.

As soon as we are far enough from town not to have to worry about being overheard or interrupted, Vin says, "Travis wants his friend to see the Governor of Texas 'bout getting' me a pardon for killing Kincaid."

"But... but you didn't kill Kincaid!" I blurt without thinking.

"I know that... 'n that's what I told the judge to start. That I's innocent and accepting a pardon would be like sayin' I did it."

"So, you told him, "no", correct?"

"At first. Ez," he reined Peso to a halt and turned to look at me. "I know I didn't kill Kincaid, you'n the guys believe that, but I ain't got no way of proving it. A pardon won't clear my name but it will get the bounty off'a me and that's why I took it. I won't have ta worry so much every time a bounty hunter or a marshal shows up. Worry that they'll hurt the people I care about while trying to take me in."

He reaches over and caresses my face, "Or that the people I care 'bout'll get themselves hurt or a price on their own heads fer trying to help me escape."

"I couldn't stand it, Ez, if you got hurt or killed or ended up spending the rest of your life on the run 'cause you busted me loose from the law or tried to. Love you too much."

He leans forwards and pulls me to him so that he can rest his head against mine, pushing his hat back to hang by its stampede string and bumping mine back on my head as he does so.

We remain that way for a moment as I absorb the fact that he loves me more than he wants to clear his name.

It's a heady feeling.

When he finally draws away, I straighten in the saddle and say resolutely. "Pardon or no pardon, we can still continue to look for a way to prove your innocence. You are *not guilty* and we *will* prove it!"

The grin he favors me with, tells me that I have said exactly the right thing.

I look around as Chris and Buck join us and see the approval in their eyes as well.

Buck grins. "Attaboy, Ez! You tell him. We ain't giving up on proving him innocent."

"None of us are giving up on that," Chris assures as well.

He turns to Buck and his face softens, as he smiles at him and says, with a warmth that tells me that Buck's confidence in his love is well founded, "How about we head on over to our place and let the lovebirds celebrate their six month anniversary in private?"

Buck's grin splits his face and he gives a whoop as he turns Gray away from us, calling back over his shoulder, "See ya, boys!"

Chris tips his hat, "Boys," he says, turning Pony to follow Gray.

Then they are gone in a cloud of dust.

Vin and I exchange grins then we too are flying across the desert, racing for home and a long night of sweet loving.

Part 2

Everything on this page is fiction. Any resemblance or reference to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.