Actions

Work Header

Third Wheel

Work Text:

They were rounding up the last of the Tucker gang in Las Vegas, New Mexico when Brisco managed to let himself get tied to the train tracks again. Bowler would have been willing to let the matter slide as being a common hazard which happened to the best of them (he could be forgiving in that respect due to not sharing Brisco's misfortune this time), but Dixie had been riding along with them since they crossed paths with her in Santa Fe two days earlier, and she apparently took offence at the incident. Buck, Huck, and Sue Tucker were smarter than the Swills who shared more than a few branches of their family tree, but they weren't all that much smarter, so catching them had never really been in doubt. However, with Dixie Cousins and her terrifying display of righteous fury leading the charge, all three Tucker men were apprehended and delivered to the capable hands of the local marshal's office within the hour. After that, Dixie and Brisco seemed to come to the mutual conclusion that they just couldn't wait any longer, and the next thing Bowler knew, wedding plans were being made.

Once the idea had been put into motion, Dixie and Brisco weren't even willing to wait to get back to San Francisco, so the planned to get married right there in Las Vegas. It took them three days to get from making the decision to saying, "I do." They contacted a select group of friends, who quickly converged upon the New Mexican city. They found a little chapel just off the main drag. They had some minor difficulty finding someone willing to perform the ceremony on such short notice until Aaron Viva mentioned that, in addition to being a sheriff, he was also a justice of the peace and would be happy to do the honors. And just like that, Brisco County, Jr. and Dixie Cousins became man and wife.

That had been yesterday. Today was a different story entirely.


Bowler awoke to the sound of something solid banging against hard wood, and for a moment he was not sure if the noise was real or merely a manifestation of the pounding inside his head. "Damn," he muttered miserably to himself as he squinted up at the molded plaster of his hotel room ceiling and tried to decide if getting up to yell at the person knocking on his door would be worth the pain it would inevitably cause him in his current hungover state.

He must be getting old, he thought, because he hadn't had that much to drink yesterday. He had only had a couple of shots of scotch (the good stuff off the top shelf) with Brisco to pass the last quarter hour before they were due at the chapel, and then a couple of glasses of champagne at the reception, and then a few more shots of whiskey (definitely not the good stuff) with Socrates and the rest of the gang after Brisco and Dixie had said their goodbyes and gone off to enjoy their wedding night together. That amount of alcohol was almost nothing to a man of Bowler's size. Admittedly, there had also been that bottle of red wine he had picked up right before heading back to his room, so maybe it wasn't so much a case of him getting old as it was a case of him getting stupid, because mixing whiskey and wine like that had a habit of coming back to haunt anybody the next day, even the great Lord Bowler.

And whoever was out there was still knocking. Wonderful, just wonderful.

Bowler groaned as quietly as he could and began the long process of hauling himself to his feet. At least he had fallen asleep while still mostly clothed, so there was no need to go looking for his pants. He didn't bother with the lamp next to his bed. The faint light filtering through the curtains indicated that dawn was only just getting started, which put the time somewhere around six thirty or so, way too early for housekeeping to be bothering him. The pattern of light and shadow coming under the door from the hallway showed at least two pairs of legs, and the floorboards creaked in ways that said the owners of those legs weighed decidedly more than Bowler. Definitely not housekeeping.

His head throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and every new impact against his door sent a fresh spike of pain through his skull. Bowler has no idea who these guys might be or what they wanted from him, but he was going to make sure that in the next few moments he would not be the only one around with a sore head. Shotgun in hand, he tiptoed silently across the room. When he reached the far side, he paused, squinted his eyes in preparation for the inevitably too bright lights of the hall, and then flung open the door. Instead of coming face to face with two or more huge men, he was greeted by a hallway filled with one regular sized chestnut colored horse with a white blaze down his nose. Bowler bit back a curse and lowered his weapon.

Comet neighed.

"Socrates's room is two doors further down the hall," Bowler said, leaning against the door frame and pointing with his free hand.

Comet remained firmly planted in front of Bowler's door. He neighed again.

"Sorry, Comet, I don't have any green apples on me," Bowler said. He glanced up and down the hall, but all the other doors within sight remained firmly shut. Either none of the other guests noticed that Bowler was getting an early morning wakeup call from a horse, or they were doing their best to pretend as much. Bowler didn't really blame them. "Maybe try asking down in the kitchen."

Comet huffed an apple-scented breath right in Bowler's face, which did not require Brisco's horse whispering skills to translate into something along the lines of, "Already did that, thanks," and Bowler's stomach took the opportunity to remind him that thinking about food was a bad idea at the moment.

"Well, you're too smart to think it's a good idea to go bothering Brisco and Dixie this early on the morning after their wedding night, so you can't be looking for them, can you?"

Comet gave Bowler a long look, remaining silent and completely unmoving, as if to say that he was not going to dignify that remark with a response. Then, after a suitably long pause, Comet snorted, flicked his ears, and swished his tail.

"Is this about me catching the bouquet last night? If you're mad about that, then maybe you should have found a way to get to it without shoving me right into its path. It's not like I even wanted the dang thing."

Comet whickered, shook his head, nudged Bowler in the shoulder with his nose, swished his tail some more, and stamped his feet.

Bowler just sighed and shut his eyes as Comet continued 'talking.' He had been around Comet long enough to occasionally figure out what the horse had to say. For example, during the planning stages of the wedding Bowler had understood enough to know that the reason why Comet had walked Brisco down the aisle and given him away to Dixie was not because the only people who would have been properly fitting to give Dixie away were all either dead, in jail, or Pete Hutter, as they officially claimed, but rather because of something to do with Comet having won Brisco in a poker game some time back in eighty-nine. Bowler really needed to get the full story about that one of these days. However, at the moment, Bowler was not feeling in any state to be playing translator, even if it did involve amusing stories about his best friend's younger years, and Comet seemed to have forgotten that he was not actually speaking English, or maybe he had simply forgotten that, unlike Brisco, Bowler's talents lay in understanding what the dirt had to say to him, not horses. He wondered if he would have better luck if he asked Comet to use Morse code to spell out whatever he was trying to communicate, because whatever it was, he appeared to be going into great depth about the subject.

Bowler was just about to ask the horse if someone had fallen down a well when a shout of, "Comet, what are you doing up here?" echoed down the hall, and soon after, the aforementioned Brisco County, Jr. joined his horse in standing in front of Bowler's doorway. "I told you I'd get Bowler myself," Brisco said, lowering the volume of his voice to a much more tolerable level. He took hold of Comet's trailing reins and looped them loosely around the saddle horn. "And what was that about him needing to tell someone how he really feels?"

Bowler felt a momentary spike of panic, because if Comet had been saying what he now suspected the horse had been saying, then there were two equally possible answers: Brisco or Dixie. He and Brisco had had some good times messing around when it was just the two of them out on the trail, but that was going to have to stop now that Brisco was married. And as for Dixie, well, of course he was sweet on her. Who wasn't at least a little bit sweet on Dixie Cousins? Sometimes he thought she might like him a little bit too, but she definitely liked Brisco better, and Bowler would never make a move on his best friend's lady. Either way, it was a subject he did not want to get into right now, or ever, because it was far too late to do anything about the situation. Bowler was genuinely happy for the two of them, and it would be easier for everyone all around if any might-have-beens involving his own self were never mentioned.

As if reading his mind, Comet merely snorted once and refused to elaborate, and Bowler made a mental note to give him a bushel of the very best green apples at the first opportunity.

"Okay, fine. If it's private, then it's private," Brisco said. "Now go wait for us outside." He gave Comet a push towards the exit. Bowler was tempted to follow after him, just because he had always wondered how Comet managed to navigate stairs, but his friend and fellow bounty hunter was still standing in front of him with a far too perky smile, which was a situation that raised some questions of its own. "Mornin', Bowler," Brisco said with a tip of his hat, then looked more closely at his friend, frowned, and added, "Wow, Bowler, you don't look so great."

"Thanks, I hadn't noticed. Ain't you supposed to still be in bed with your new wife, enjoying the morning after the night before?" Bowler asked, because, really, in addition to being far too perky, Brisco was also looking far too dressed for this early on the day after he got married.

"That was the plan, right up until the kid delivering our room service order mentioned that Jack Fairlane had been seen passing through town early this morning."

Bowler decided against pointing out that it was still early this morning and instead focused on the more important details, because even hungover he was still too much of a bounty hunter to do anything else. "Jack Fairlane as in Nitro Jack Fairlane, who robs stagecoaches by blowing them up while they're still moving and then picking through the pieces of people to get whatever gold he can find?" Bowler was already forcing his throbbing headache to the back of his consciousness as he started making plans. He had originally intended to sleep late and then catch the afternoon train back to San Francisco. After that, there hadn't been anything on the agenda beyond sitting around and brooding polishing his collection of cut crystal. Tracking down a murderous piece of filth like Fairlane would be a much more productive alternative, and the job would have the added bonus of requiring enough concentration to keep his mind off his own personal disappointments.

"The very same," Brisco confirmed.

"Is the bounty on him still set at thirty thousand?"

"Nope," Brisco said, pulling a copy of the morning newspaper out of his jacket and handing it Bowler. "After his recent escapades, they've just upped it to fifty." The main headline and a quick scan of the accompanying article left little to the imagination regarding Fairlane's activities during the previous week. None of it was very pretty, except for the mention of the new bounty, which was downright beautiful.

"Thanks, Brisco, you're a pal," Bowler said with a smile. Things were starting to look up, even if his stomach was still a little queasy and his head still ached something fierce. Then Bowler's brain caught up with his eyes and ears. The picture formed by the puzzle pieces falling into place was not a reassuring one. Brisco was wearing too much clothing for a man who was planning to go back to bed any time soon, and Comet was waiting for them outside. "No, you can't be serious. You are not coming with me on this one, County," he said, pushing away from the doorframe and drawing himself up to his full height so as to be able to glower his friend into submission more effectively. Brisco, however, appeared to be unmoved by the display. "Look," Bowler continued, "if this is about you finally trying to practice some financial responsibility now that you're a married man, don't worry about it. You can stay here and have your half anyway. Hell, you can have the whole damn bounty, because Lord knows I've taken the whole thing more times than I had any right to."

"If I didn't know any better, Bowler, I'd think you didn't want me around."

"It ain't that, and you know it." Well, actually it was, in an 'out of sight, out of mind' kind of way, but it wasn't like he could actually say that. "It's just that I don't think Dixie would ever forgive me if I took you away from her today, regardless of whose idea it was," Bowler said in a voice which, to his own ears at least, was starting to take on a far too pleading edge.

If Brisco noticed Bowler's particular tone of voice, then he gave no sign of it, instead clapping Bowler on the arm and saying with a smile, "Then you can stop worrying, because she's coming with us."

"Sorry, Brisco, but I must be even more hungover than I thought, because I could have sworn I just heard you say Dixie would be chasing down Jack Fairlane with us."

"That's exactly what I said. Apparently a couple of Dixie's showbiz friends were in a stagecoach that had a run-in with ol' Nitro Jack a few years ago, and it ended just like all the others. She wants to be there when we throw him behind bars, said we could consider it our wedding present to her."

"Is that a fact?" Bowler said. "I guess we should go round up the others then." Maybe it wouldn't be too bad, he thought. There was a different dynamic when it was the whole group of them. With Whip and Aaron riding along, Dixie and Brisco would probably be at least slightly less inclined to make like the newlyweds they were, and therefore Bowler wouldn't have to feel so much like the odd man out. He could handle this. Or maybe not.

"Don't bother," Brisco said. "Aaron already caught the early train out of town so he could get back to his duties in Hard Rock, and Whip looked more than half dead when I stopped by his room on the way here. I don't think he's going to be good for much of anything until sometime this afternoon, and we can't wait that long. Just how much did he have to drink last night?"

"No idea," Bowler said, thinking back to the night before, "but, when I went to bed, he looked like he was trying to keep up with Aaron, drink for drink. Kid shoulda known trying to match Viva like that would end badly for him."

"He sure knows it now." Brisco shook his head ruefully. "When I left him, Whip was wrapped around a bucket and chanting, 'Oh God, never again! Never again!' in between heaves, so I think the lesson is going to stick."

"His little learning experience don't help us none right this moment, though," Bowler grumbled. More specifically, Whip's learning experience didn't help Bowler. They probably didn't need any extra help catching Nitro Jack as long as they could draw a bead on him before he got any fuses lit. But until they got to that point, how was Bowler supposed to avoid thinking about the things he didn't want to think about if he was stuck spending who knows how long alone with the two main subjects of those thoughts, especially when both Brisco and Dixie knew him well enough to read him like a book these days? He was half tempted to suggest they see if Socrates wanted to come along, but knew it would not be worth the trouble. The redheaded lawyer was no longer as much of a tenderfoot as he had been when they first met, but even at his most enthusiastic the man would never be suited to rapid pursuit, and whatever enthusiasm Socrates might initially feel for this chase would certainly vanish as soon as he heard how much dynamite their quarry tended to carry with him.

A loud whinny echoed down the hall from the direction of the stairwell, interrupting Bowler's train of thought.

"Yeah, yeah, we're coming! Keep your saddle blanket on," Brisco called over his shoulder in response. He turned back to Bowler with an apologetic shrug, which was soon followed by an uncertain smile. "I mean, you are coming, aren't you?"

For one brief moment, Bowler considered saying, "No." Dixie and Brisco could probably take down Nitro Jack Fairlane on their own without any trouble at all. They could have their time together out on the trail, and Bowler stay here and pretend that he wasn't jealous of both of them. However, Fairlane was a psycho with a habit of blowing stuff up first and not bothering to ask any questions after. If the unthinkable happened and he managed to hurt either Dixie or Brisco when Bowler could have been there to prevent it, then Bowler would never forgive himself. In that light, refusal was not an option at all.

"Yeah, I'm coming," Bowler said, all traces of reluctance gone. He glanced down at the severely rumpled suit that he was still wearing from the day before and added, "Just give me five minutes to get into some proper traveling clothes and gather up the rest of my stuff."

Three minutes later, he was dressed in his usual attire and striding out of the hotel with his shotgun strapped to his back and his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. It was a clear, bright morning, and Bowler wished he had a pair of those day-glasses Viva had invented, but he would live. Dixie and Brisco were already mounted on their respective horses, and Bowler's horse stood by them, saddled and waiting. All around them, the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico went through the usual morning rituals that accompanied yet another day of commerce in the territories. Bowler tied his saddlebags in place and did a quick check of the cinch strap.

"Everything satisfactory?" Dixie asked as she leaned over and handed him his horse's reins. Her burgundy kid leather glove brushed against his hand in passing, and a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. She looked perfect, as always.

"Yes, ma'am." Bowler swung himself up into his saddle and tipped his hat to Dixie, saying, "I hear tell you want Nitro Jack Fairlane locked up as a wedding present to you, and I'm here to make damn sure you get exactly that." Now there was nothing small about Dixie's smile, and for a moment at least it was just for him. Bowler glanced over at Brisco to see if the other man had any objections to this development, but Brisco was grinning at him too. Maybe he could get through this without too much awkwardness after all.

"Then let's get to it," Brisco said. "After you, Bowler." He gave as elaborate a bow as could be accomplished while sitting on a horse (Bowler blamed that minor in theater) and gestured towards the northwest, the direction Fairlane had supposedly gone. Bowler took the lead with the others following close behind, and away they went.


By mid-afternoon, Bowler's hangover had faded to a bad memory. He silently hoped that Whip Morgan, now twenty or so miles behind them, might also be as lucky. He doubted that was the case but did not dwell on the matter, because he still had a job to do.

They had picked up Nitro Jack's tracks just outside of town, and to Bowler it couldn't have been any more obvious if it had been splashed across the ground with buckets of paint. Jack's horse was apparently smart enough to know it was carrying more explosives than was good for anybody, and that knowledge was written large in every broken twig and spot of scuffed earth it left behind. It had been ridiculously easy to follow when they were still on main roads, and was even more so now that Fairlane had peeled off onto less well-traveled paths. Most of the time, Bowler didn't even need to dismount in order to follow the trail. Fairlane had had a head start of several hours, but they were making excellent time, and all signs indicated that they were catching up. Their speed was dropping as the surroundings became more mountainous, but even so, if they didn't get him tonight, they were almost certain to get him tomorrow before he reached his apparent destination of Taos.

Brisco and Dixie rode several horse lengths behind while Bowler did what he did best, not that they really needed him for a trail this easy. Socrates probably could have done it after five minutes of being told what to look for. At times Bowler could hear Brisco answering Dixie's questions about tracking, and a few minutes ago he thought he had heard a rehashing of a half-remembered geology lecture from Brisco's Harvard days, but for the most part their quiet conversation faded into an unintelligible background murmur. They were not yet close enough to their quarry to require complete silence while tracking, but they were all experienced enough in these matters to follow the principle of better safe than sorry, which meant whispering as much of your conversations as you could and absolutely no shooting unless somebody shot at you first or a mountain lion was about to eat your face off.

Bowler rolled his shoulders and arched his back to pop his spine into proper alignment. He was in the process of turning around to impart his latest findings to his companions when a deep, rumbling Boom! came rolling down the valley they were currently traversing.

"That's never a good sound," Brisco said, eyeing the area ahead of them.

"It is if Nitro Jack and his horse fell down a gully and all that dynamite exploded when they hit bottom," Bowler countered. "Would save us a lot of trouble."

"No, Bowler, look!" Brisco pointed, and for the first time in hours, Bowler raised his gaze to the horizon and then higher. Coal-black thunderheads were billowing up from behind the next mountain. There was a flash of lightning followed mere seconds later by another loud Boom!, the sound shorter and sharper than the previous one. Right after that, the storm's gust front hit, driving fat, cold raindrops into their faces, and maybe it was just Bowler's imagination, but he thought he saw clumps of snowflakes intermingled with the rain.

Dixie reached out and caught a few flakes in passing, so maybe it wasn't Bowler's imagination. "Huh, thunder-snow," she said, rubbing the melting flakes between her fingers. "I haven't seen that in a while." The surrounding pines and aspen trees whipped back and forth, adding a swirling mass of shed leaves and pine needles to the already crowded air.

"Damn." The barometric pressure was dropping so fast it made Bowler's inner ears ache. The temperature was dropping too. Bowler could already see his breath. That was fickle mountain weather for you.

"C'mon," Brisco said as he wheeled Comet around and started heading back the way they had just come, "I saw a cave about a half mile back. It looked like it might be big enough to fit us and all the horses."

"No way, Brisco, nothing good ever happens in caves," Bowler shouted to make himself heard over the wind. "If I'm not getting stripped half naked and whipped by crazy land pirates, then I'm nearly getting blown up by faulty super-powered orbs from the future or just plain old attacked by bears."

"So you'd rather stay out here and get struck by lightning while you freeze?" Dixie asked incredulously. As if to emphasize her point, another peel of thunder echoed down the valley, and both the rain and snow started falling harder.

"Not really."

"Then hurry up." She took off after Brisco.

"Alright, but if I get chewed on by something, then I'm blaming both of you," Bowler called after her. He clapped a hand to his hat to keep it from being lifted off his head by the howling winds, urged his horse forward with prod of his spurs, and followed after his friends.

By the time they reached the cave, they were soaked and half frozen, not to mention a little sore from a brief bout of strange penny-sized discs of hail the storm had seen fit to throw at them. Fortunately, the cave was indeed large enough to fit the horses once they dismounted, or at least the front part of it was. Only a lifetime of dealing with places which had not been designed to deal with men of greater than average height kept Bowler from cracking his skull against the ceiling when he stepped a few paces deeper into the darkness. Outside, the lightning struck with ever greater frequency, but the horses blocked the entrance enough to prevent most of the resulting flashes of light from entering the cave. Bowler fished around in his pockets until he found one of the small metal objects Professor Wickwire had given him the day before. He flipped open its lid, found the little ridged wheel by feel alone, and gave it a spin against the mounted piece of flint with his thumb. A quick shower of sparks set the wick ablaze, and Bowler held his newly created light source aloft to better inspect his surroundings.

The cave was too small to hide any bears or crazy land pirates, and the tracks in the dry dirt indicated that they were the first things bigger than a marmot to have set foot inside in the past year. The floor sloped gently upwards for the first twenty feet or so before turning more sharply towards the ceiling. They would not have to worry about getting flooded out if the winds changed direction before the storm let up. Aside from themselves, the cave was empty aside from an old packrat nest in the back corner. It should burn well enough but probably wouldn't smell too good. Bowler decided it was good enough. Brisco, on the other hand, seemed far more interested in Bowler's light than their impromptu shelter.

"What is that?" he asked, coming closer for a better look.

"It's a miniature lantern the Professor gave me, said it might come in handy on the trail" Bowler said. He passed it to Brisco, who turned it around, examining it from as many angles as he could without burning himself. Dixie, equally curious, joined them. "It has a built in striker like off an old wheel-lock pistol, Bowler explained. "It burns some new kind of coal-oil, and when you're done with it, you just close the lid to snuff the flame."

"And the perforated metal chimney around the wick allows more light to escape while still protecting the flame from wind," Brisco concluded. "Very fancy."

"Yeah, I don't know how long it'll last with such a tiny reservoir, but it should come in handy for starting fires in a hurry."

"This could be the coming thing," Brisco said thoughtfully. He tried to return it, but Bowler stopped him.

"Keep it," Bowler said and pulled an identical copy from his pocket. "Wickwire made one for both of us." He paused then added, "Sorry, Dixie, I don't think he expected you to be joining us on the road quite so soon."

"That's alright, Bowler, I always preferred less literal methods of playing with fire anyway," she said with a wink and a grab of her husband's rear.

Comet neighed, shook his mane, turned around, and left the cave.

"What, Comet, in this weather?!?" Brisco called after his departing horse. At Dixie and Bowler's questioning looks, he added, "He says he's going to find more firewood, as if he's going to find anything dry within miles of here."

"He does have a point that we should plan on settling in for the night," Dixie said. "This storm doesn't look like it's going to stop anytime soon, and even if either can track in conditions like this, I sure don't want to."

The men saw no reason to disagree with Dixie and set about making camp in the cave. Bowler had been right about the packrat nest burning well but not smelling very good. In seemingly no time at all they were dried out, fed, and bedding down for the night, Dixie and Brisco on one side of the fire and Bowler on the other. Comet had not yet returned, but by then the snow had stopped and the rain had slacked off to a slow drizzle with only the occasional distant rumble of thunder, so Brisco said not to worry. Bowler took that advice to heart, wrapped his blanket around himself, rolled over to face the wall, and planned to completely ignore any noises he happened to hear coming from his friends between now and daybreak.

It was a good plan. The newlyweds were whispering quietly to each other and Bowler managed to fall asleep before their activities progressed any further than that. He awoke some unknown number of hours later to the sound of Brisco calling, "And where are you going?"

"Sorry, Brisco, but nature calls," came Dixie's reply in the near darkness. The fire had burned itself down to coals.

Bowler had almost fallen asleep again when a small body settled down beside him and snuggled herself against his chest.

"Uh, Dixie," Bowler said as carefully as he could in the current circumstances, which involved both a spike of adrenaline and a rush of blood away from his brain, "your husband is over there."

"Well, so he is," she said, not quietly at all, then raised her voice even louder to call, "Hey, Brisco, get over here."

There was a rustle of blankets and a shuffle of feet, and a moment later a second body settled against Bowler's back.

"What are you two playing at?" Bowler asked, only half sure this was not a dream.

"We got to talking while you were asleep," Brisco said. His breath tickled against the back of Bowler's neck. "Dixie pointed out that you obviously feel like a third wheel in this relationship."

"So this is, what, pity sex?" Bowler growled. This time Brisco wasn't the one getting his ass grabbed, and Bowler was pretty sure Dixie was not the one doing it. "I'd rather you two didn't tease me like that." He swatted Brisco's hand away. "You can't just do this once and then pretend it never happened."

"Who said anything about once?" Dixie leaned forward and kissed him. When their mouths parted, she continued, "Sometimes a girl has needs which can't be fulfilled by just one person."

"And you're willing to go along with this, Brisco?"

"What can I say, Bowler, sometimes a man has needs like that too." In the dark, somebody began undoing Bowler's belt, and he honestly couldn't tell who it was. Maybe they were working together. Third wheels don't have to get in the way. They can provide stability."

"I don't know," Bowler began.

"We'll stop if you want us to. Just say the word and we can all forget we ever suggested anything, but we've been talking about the future and we both want you in ours, in every possible way."

Bowler couldn't quite bring himself to say no that, because who in their right mind said no to a dream come true? Instead, he gave a mock put-upon sigh and said, "I guess we could give this a try, but don't be expecting me to just drop everything whenever you two are feeling frisky."

"Of course not," Dixie said.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Brisco agreed.

And then they were all over him, and it was all Bowler could do to return the favor. Brisco was doing some wonderful things with his hands from behind, and Dixie was leaving a trail of nibbles and kisses down his chest as she got his shirt open. When she undid the last button, Dixie asked, "Hey, Bowler, remember what you said about getting chewed on?" And that was the last coherent thought Bowler managed to have for a very long time.


They were still happily dozing in a tangled pile of limbs the next morning when a sudden loud whinny was the only warning they got before a tied-up and thoroughly unconscious Nitro Jack Fairlane was dropped on top of them by one proud looking chestnut horse with a white blaze down his face. After they pushed their unexpected prisoner off of them, Brisco started pulling his clothes back on while scolding Comet for the overly complicated knots which would likely need to be cut to get them undone. Dixie wrapped one of the loose blankets around her shoulders and used her free hand to grab a stick and begin prodding the last of the coals back to life. Bowler just lay there for a moment longer, blinking in the morning light and letting the idea sink in that the previous night had not been a fantasy. He was part of this family, and there was nowhere else he would rather be right now.

Of course, he really could have done without the sort of a wakeup call that involved getting a grown man dropped on him, but, on the whole, he didn't think he could continue to claim that nothing good ever happened to him in caves. The future was looking a whole lot brighter than it had a day ago, and now all he had to worry about was finding a way to ask Brisco if Comet had somehow planned this whole thing. There were worse ways to spend a morning.

The End