She was bedrabbled, footsore, and fucking mad, but that didn't mean Jane Cannary couldn't appreciate as well as the next female of her acquaintance the sight of two men in their altogethers, their johnsons flapping in the breeze while they splashed around like a pair of otters in heat. The taller, skinny one looked pretty as a poppet with gilt-wire hair; she smacked her dry lips and squinted, leaning farther over the edge of the cliff to try to pick out details. From her vantage point peering down into the sun-washed arroyo, the arm he'd slung across the broad, pale chest of his fellow fucking cavorter looked like a band of goldwork on a shift of finest lawn.
She snorted at her fancy with the first pleasure she'd experienced for the past day-and-a-bit because, goddammit, those two vaqueros were serendipitous manna in the fucking wilderness; a feast even for sore, dust-dry eyes. She watched with appreciation as the shorter one--he with the sleek, muscled chest worth an extra peer or three and hair shiny as horse chestnuts--reached up an imperious arm and pulled his pard's head down. The sun glinted crazily in red and gold highlights as the dark and fair hair mingled.
They kissed familiar as a long-hitched couple dancing in a hoedown, each seeming to know exactly what move the other would make and countering it to keep them twirling around the room together in perfect time, like they didn't even need to think about it anymore. Their bodies followed the rhythm between them like a roomful of Shaking Quakers in goddamned ecstasy--to extend the metaphor to the fucking ridiculous.
Grinning, she kept her eyes peeled on the show unfolding below like it was being staged for her private delectation. The pair, standing so close together in the creek their sweat must be in coitus, tilted their heads just fucking right, one to either side, to bring their mouths together without a hitch or fumble, each of them with the other's body perfectly mapped. Now, that was one damned pretty sight. They could make a fortune offering that entertainment in the right kind of establishment.
She chuckled, then sighed as the kiss continued to the accompaniment of fast-moving hands and thrusting hips while the air around her heated to incendiary levels and her nipples hardened against the ground. She finally twitched her eyes away, shifting at the slithery feel of dampness in her snatch. She needed wet in her mouth, not between her legs. Damned pity to disturb them in their secluded Gomorrah, but she was dry as fucking jerky and this arroyo was the first she'd come across all day with actual water in it.
She turned her head to search the rocky sides of the gulch and the heavy woods to her left for a path, any means she could take to get down to that water. It took effort to force her gritty eyes to work properly, but she spotted a trail in the dusky woods. Probably best to toss a rock down first, though, to alert them before she moved. She hadn't missed the flash of sunlight off the silver conchas on the gunbelt coiled like a kingsnake on a rock near the pair. She'd been around gunmen long enough to know a professional rig when she fucking saw one, even at squinting distance. She didn't intend to get herself perforated from sheer fucking carelessness by startling them at a particularly touchy moment--which in her experience men tended to feel it was when they were stark-assed naked and their pricks were busy saluting each other.
Scrabbling for a good-sized chunk of rock, she froze at the distinctive click of a Winchester cocking next to her right ear.
"Ease back from the edge and keep your hands in the open." The voice close behind her was rough as gravel, and just as hard.
"No harm intended, mister. I ain't fucking armed."
She pushed herself back slowly, getting up to her knees. She kept her hands where he could see them, using them to pull together the torn sides of her undershirt as best she could to cover her tits, which were hanging out through the gaping holes as shameless, if not as happy, as the johnsons down in the fucking river. She got to her feet, still moving slowly and carefully, while her captor moved back several feet so he was out of her reach. Fucking smart, whoever he was.
What he was, she saw when she looked up, was a lot younger than he'd sounded. She watched his eyes flick to her tits, then quickly back up to her face. Not so young he blushed, though, and the wicked looking mare's leg he was holding on her never wavered, pointing smack at the middle of her belly, right where a shot would hurt the fucking most as he damned well knew.
She splayed her fingers to cover her right nipple, which had found a hole to stick its head through, but his gun never wavered and his eyes didn't shift from her face. Young, but tough, controlled, and hard as his goddamned voice, she reckoned.
"Think you might wanna lower that cannon of yours sometime soon? I ain't exactly got any secret fucking hiding places you can't see."
His eyes searched her, doing a quick jump over her chest to check her beltless waist and down to her dusty, socked feet. She dropped one hand to pull up her right pant leg and turned her foot to show him the empty scabbard.
"Yeah, they even took my boot knife. Not to mention my boots, the cuntless thieving boatlickers."
His eyes, as clear a blue as the underside of heaven itself, narrowed and slid momentarily to the edge of the cliff. It was just a twitch, the tiniest of tells, but she suddenly thought maybe the two cocksuckers below weren't entirely coincidental to the situation, after all.
He lowered the gun, but didn't holster it, letting it dangle beside a damned nice thigh clad in light canvas pants. "What happened to your rig?"
"Met a couple of lard-assed squareheads who took a liking to my fucking horse, gear, boots, coat, hat, and even my goddamned shirt. Then they fucking reckoned they took a liking to me, too, but since I still had my knee and my fingernails, I persuaded them otherwise."
She gingerly touched the ache under her left eye that must be a pretty spectacular bruise on her cheek by now, then gave him a grin. "They're likely feeling a lot sorer in a few more sensitive places than I am right at the moment."
He laughed and finally holstered that impressive, sawed-off gun of his. He stood in a hipshot lean with his hands resting on his gunbelt, which happened to put the round fullness at his crotch on real nice display. "Vin Tanner."
"Jane Cannary. Nice to fucking meet you. And now we got the goddamned pleasantries outta the way, you wouldn't happen to have a canteen, would you? I'm drier'n a nun's cunt."
His bright eyes wrinkled in a quiet laugh as he turned and headed a few yards back to where a horse was tethered in the trees behind him, its dark hide blending into the shadows. He brought her a canteen and she pressed her left arm across her tits so she could grab the canteen with her right. She drank deeply of the brackish, warm water, which tasted better--at least at the moment--than the choicest bourbon.
When she lowered it with a gusty sigh of satisfaction, he was pulling off his hide coat. He held it out to her. She stared at it, then him, and he made a little head-tilt gesture to her tits without actually looking at them, managing to look young and shy again without losing any of his toughness.
She took the coat and turned her back to him to put it on. It fit her like it was made for her, except for being a little loose across the shoulders. Her tits gave her the same breadth around the chest as he had, though, and it buttoned up just right. She looked down at herself as she turned back around, admiring the sawtooth edges of the buckskin sleeves and the little cape of doeskin over the shoulders that didn't serve any more goddamned purpose than a ribbon on a donkey, but added a nice bit of flair, anyways. She smiled up at him and bobbed her head.
"Real fucking nice of you; much obliged."
She took another drink from the canteen, lowered it to slosh the last bit in it with a frown, then finished it off. "Damn, I needed that. I reckon you don't have another one, do you?"
"Sorry, ma'am, nope. Just short-trail rations; weren't planning on going far."
She turned to look speculatively past the edge of the cliff to the glint of water just visible at the far end of the arroyo.
"Not there." Vin's voice was clipped and cool, and didn't leave any room for argument.
Of course, as her Pa would attest if he weren't moldering six feet fucking under, she never did meet an argument she could resist taking a prod at.
"Scared the one with the fancy gun rig'll shoot our heads off?" She grinned. "Funny how the meanest sons of bitches don't look quite as mean when they're in their altogethers, ain't it."
He didn't crack a smile and he didn't so much as glance toward the cliff edge. He might be young--well, around her age, maybe--but he sure as fucking shooting knew his own mind and had the grit to back up his will.
He turned and walked to his horse. "I can take you into town. Ain't a big place, but we got a telegraph if you have somebody you wanna send a message to. Otherwise, I reckon someone in town'll lend you money for the stage."
She patted the glossy black neck as the blaze-faced gelding nosed her coat, probably confused to find a squishy chest inside the familiar smell. She patted the pocket with her free hand, but Vin Tanner apparently wasn't the kind who carried carrots or candies around with him, unless he'd already used them up.
"Real fucking neighborly of you."
She watched as he swung up into the saddle, all loose, smooth grace like the weave of a copperhead. He held his arm down to her. She looked up at him with a head-tilt and a smile chock-full of all the innocence she could muster.
"Shouldn't we let them fellas down below know before we go? Somebody else might happen along, and they're all fucking...exposed down there by theirselves."
His hand held out to her didn't waver, but his eyes got colder to match his clipped voice. "Not a lot of folks ever come this far out. And they can take care of themselves."
She let him pull her up behind him and they set off north-west at a walk as she settled as comfortably as she could behind the saddle. She had aches in parts of her body she'd forgotten she ever had, if she'd ever known at all, and exhaustion was a dangerous drag on her senses now her mind was figuring she was probably safe. She'd be lucky if she didn't fucking doze off and fall off before they reached this town of Vin's.
"I happened along by fucking accident," she said, partly to keep herself awake and partly because curiosity wasn't just for cats. "How 'bout you?"
He didn't answer. She let the silence drag on until her eyelids were drooping, then murmured, "Yeah, that's what I reckoned."
His back muscles twitched a barely perceptible message before he stiffened into a board, and she felt a pang. Here he was being fucking nice to her, a veritable Good Samaritan appearing out of thin fucking air on the roadside, and she repaid him by poking him on a sore spot.
The familiar longing for Bill swamped her unexpectedly, flooding her with the frustration of how he never quite looked at her the way she wished he would despite all her efforts to show him the way her hopes were tending. She and Bill Hickok could be a sweet deal together; she damned well knew it right down to the dirty soles of her feet. No fucking fairytale business about them, just two people shaped from the same clay who fit together like a bullet in a firing chamber, destined to make one hell of a goddamned bang together--once Bill opened his eyes and saw it all clear as she did.
"Sorry." She squeezed Vin's shoulder gently, feeling the warmth of his skin through his blue cotton shirt and the thin layer of longjohns beneath; after a moment, the tension flowed out of him again and she took her hand away. "I got hopes about somebody myself. Of course, he just goddamned hitched himself to some lady in the east, but that don't necessarily mean I ain't still got a fucking look-in. He only stuck with her a short spell before heading west again--all on his lonesome. I'm on my way to meet him, as it happens, at some little shit mining town called Deadwood up in the Black Hills territory. I ain't much interested in miners or mining, and sure as hell not in Injun fucking wars, but there should be a good goddamned lot of gold flying around and Bill's the man to take the best advantage of that. It ain't a sight I wanna miss."
The picture that formed in her head of Bill in his element at the gambling tables made her smile. He looked right at home at every kind of poker table from fancy ones with their legs sunk into carpeted floors under blinding chandeliers to rough ones situated on sawdust and stinking of piss and vomit--and that was the beer, not counting the people.
She started back to the present when Vin spoke; the bastard was so quiet she'd almost forgotten she was having a conversation with someone other than herself.
"Yup, one of the goddamned best. Smart like the best of them are, you know what I mean?" She waited till he nodded his head, though it looked more like a jerk. "Real nice looking, too. Wears them fancy duds gamblers favor, like they're whores all the time prancing down the streets lifting their skirts to show off their red taffety petticoats to attract everyone's attention."
Vin laughed. "Yeah, some of them ain't too shy about showing themselves off."
She grinned companionably. "Hell, yeah, I ain't met a gambler worth his salt yet who ain't been full to the fucking top of his skull with hisself." Her voice softened despite her efforts. "Maybe that's the secret of their charm; they feel so fucking good about themselves, they make you feel good about them, too." She laughed again. "Either that or they make you wanna wring their damned necks."
Vin snorted his amusement. "And whichever way it turns out, they've got your attention just the way they wanted."
She bumped his shoulder with her fist in agreement. "Sneaky goddamned fuckers. Smart and slick and sightly as all get out, the most of them. I met this fella called Holliday once, over in Dallas. Even coughing up blood, he had that snake-oil charm going for him. It was just lucky I was in an impecunious fucking situation that week, so I escaped being what you might call seduced into letting the bastard give me the pleasure of being fleeced."
Of course, she wouldn't put up any goddamned fight at all if only Bill would show some such designs in regards to her and him, though it was another kind of fleecing altogether her hopes were aimed at.
Pursing her mouth to huff a sigh made her dry lips crack a little more and she winced. "Anyways, that's where I'm headed. I'm supposed to meet 'em this side of the godfucked Black Hills. Still got time to make it." She frowned, planning her next moves in her head because she'd be damned if she was going to miss this chance. "I'll send a telegram to Charlie fucking Utter and get him to send me some money."
"Sounds good." Vin spurred his big black into an easy lope. "Ain't far now."
The town wasn't anything to write home about, but it was bigger than she'd expected from Vin's description and had a placid, respectable air to it that made her twitch. She was glad of his coat buttoned snugly across her tits as she slid off the horse at the livery. A big fellow sporting a yellow beard and a dirty blacksmith's apron emerged from inside and reached for the reins, but she snagged them from Vin first.
"Payment," she said, looking him in the eye.
Vin touched a finger to his hat with a warm smile. "Tiny, this here's Jane Cannary. Show her where the saloon is after, would you?"
"Sure thing, Vin." Tiny ambled away after giving her a curious but friendly smile.
Vin led the way inside the livery and she followed. He paused to point her to a pump out the open back of the barn. Her parched mouth would've watered if it could.
"I'll be in the saloon when you're done. Stand you to some vittles and I can give you money for that telegram you need to send."
She couldn't say anything--her mouth was too fucking dry, that was all--just nodded and watched him walk away, then hitched the horse and headed for the pump. Life was a fucking carnival: One day, it serves up assholes who steal every fucking thing you have and leave you to die; the next, it sends a wooly savior pretty as a blue-shirted angel and twice as fucking useful.
The saloon was just called the fucking Saloon, and wasn't, Tiny informed her, pointing a thick, grubby finger up the street, the one called Digger Dave's. As she walked up the street, conscious of a few eyes straying first to Vin's coat, then up to her face and down to her bootless feet, she tried to remember if she'd ever been in a town that had only two saloons. Was that even natural? How could everybody in a place this size even fit? As she walked farther into the heart of the town, she got the eerie suspicion there might not be even a single whorehouse around, and that for sure wasn't fucking natural.
She plopped down in a chair next to Vin at a poker table on a raised dais. "Is there a fucking cathouse in this town or not? Because I have to tell you, I ain't seen so many respectable looking folks gathered in one place at one time, taking into fucking consideration the minute nature of this particular habitation. And not a one of the ones with cunts I seen so far looked like she had any experience exercising it more'n once a week at most."
Vin had paused with a glass of beer at his lips, and now lowered it, snorting and lifting his other hand to dab at the beer that spluttered out the corners of his mouth, bending his wrist to keep the cards he was holding from hitting him in the eye. She became aware of a darkie and a kid with eyes like saucers sitting at the table and staring at her like she'd turned them to stone. She reached across the table, holding her hand out to the darkie.
"How d'you do. I'm Jane."
He took her hand, tentative as shaking hands with a tarantula. "Nathan. Pleased to meet you?" He shook his head as it came out a question.
"Um," the kid said.
He buried his nose in a glass of--milk? She peered at it, wondering if her gritty eyes were playing tricks, but when she screwed them up, then unscrewed them, the fucking beer glass was still holding white liquid, which was rapidly disappearing in great gulps. She turned to make sure Nathan had a decent fucking drink--whiskey, thank God--then turned back to Vin, raising her eyebrows.
He grinned. "Nathan Jackson and JD Dunne." He nodded to the darkie and the kid in turn. "This here's Jane Cannary. She was bushwhacked."
Nathan perked up and gave her a quick all-over look. "Are you all right, ma'am? That's a nasty bruise you got on your eye."
"Nathan's our healer," Vin said. "Damned fine one, too."
"Fucking nice of you to ask." She smiled across at Nathan. "I ain't doing too bad now. Vin here loaned me his coat to keep my tits from flapping in the breeze, which was real generous of him." She slid a glance sideways to see the kid emerge from his glass with a milk mustache and cheeks turning pink as he stared at her with those dark eyes again, now the size of dinner plates.
Vin's mouth twitched and Nathan laughed as he lit up a cigar. After a moment, he offered her one. She took it with a bob of her head and slid it into the pocket of Vin's coat.
"Too parched to enjoy it at the moment, but I sure fucking will take pleasure in it later."
Vin turned to her. "You wanna eat first or send the telegram first?"
She got to her feet. "Reckon the sooner I get word to Charlie fucking Utter, the sooner he can send me the money and I'll be outta your hair."
Vin nodded and they left together. As they crossed the street, he said, "I got a room at the boardinghouse. You're welcome to use it; I can bunk with a friend."
Warmth tingled on her skin, burning away a little more of the shit clinging to her senses from her brush with the two hell-fired bastards. "That's mighty nice of you, Vin, but it ain't necessary. Tiny and me agreed I'd sleep at the livery in exchange for me pitching in with the chores."
Vin helped her whittle down the blasted telegram to its essentials as she composed it out loud, then he paid for it. On their way back to the saloon--the Saloon, that was--he swung her by a place called Potter's, where a dumpling of an older lady put a shirt, a pair of worn-in boots, and even a hat that was almost fucking new on Vin's slate. Jane strutted in front of a cheval glass in the store to admire herself when she was properly clothed again, meeting the reflection of Vin's amused eyes and giving him a grin and a tip of her new hat.
She was damned grateful, but she didn't offer to give his coat back yet; it was gonna be fucking cold sleeping in the livery.
They rejoined Nathan in the Saloon; the kid had disappeared somewhere, but an older fellow had joined Nathan. A preacher of some sort, she gathered, but he just grinned toothily at her sly comments and she relaxed. No Bible-thumper, this Josiah Sanchez; at least, not thumping the Book right up in a body's face where it couldn't fucking be ignored.
She was finishing up the last of a damned good plate of beans, biscuits and gravy when she sensed Vin tense beside her. She looked up just as her gilt-haired poppet from the arroyo slid loose-limbed into the chair on Vin's other side, spurs jangling as he shifted his feet under the table. She stared open-mouthed at a face older and more sun-worn than she'd expected, but still damned fucking easy on the eyes even with his lean body now buttoned up to the neck in black cotton with a black canvas jacket on top.
He moved with the heedful ease of a man aware every move he made proclaimed, plain as having a sign nailed to his forehead, "Danger! Fucking watch yourself!"
She had no fucking doubt he was the owner of that black, concha-studded gunbelt she'd glimpsed, even without being able to see his waist right at the moment to check. She'd also bet all the money she didn't at this precise moment own that gunbelt wasn't just for show, neither.
She glanced around the table, noting Josiah exchange a casual nod with the newcomer before dealing him into the game, all the while listening to Nathan chat about some medical thing she turned deaf ears to after catching the word "pus." Vin had relaxed back into his easy sprawl, all deceptive fucking relaxation like sitting with an untamed wolf at his shoulder was nothing special; like he hadn't twitched when the gunman first appeared.
Her enforced stay in this town was looking more interesting by the moment, given she'd apparently fallen in by chance with one mighty peculiar group.
Vin was presently studying his cards like they held the secret of the Holy fucking Grail and didn't seem inclined to introduce her. She looked up to find the gunman's eyes, narrowed against a spiral of smoke from a cigarillo he was lighting, studying her. Reminded, she fished Nathan's cigar out of her--well, Vin's--pocket. She bit off the end, turned her head to propel it in the direction of the spittoon in the corner, and popped the full length into her mouth to dampen it, pulling it out slowly with her lips pursed. She held the end between her teeth and leaned toward him.
"Can I trouble you for a light there, mister?"
His sandy brows rose and he looked amused. He straightened in the chair and produced a match, striking it on the underside of the table and reaching it across to her. She caught his hand and held it as she puffed the cigar into life. When she pulled back, she blew a cloud of fragrant smoke toward him and smiled. "Much obliged."
She stuck out her hand, making sure she jostled Vin as she reached past him. "Name's Jane Cannary. Vin here rescued me from expiration in the fucking desert after an encounter with a pair of squarehead pigfuckers." She smiled sunnily.
The gunman smiled slowly back, which made him even more goddamned fetching when the smile reached its full potency and filled his devil-may-care eyes with green lights. He reached forward to take her hand in a strong, if brief, grip. "Chris Larabee." The cigarillo he'd moved to the corner of his mouth gave his voice an extra growly quality.
Then the name penetrated and she blinked. Amazing the fucking folks you meet all unexpectedly in one-horse towns in the middle of nowhere. The company he was keeping seemed abruptly all the weirder, or maybe it was just strange a darkie healer and a has-been preacher seemed comfortably at home with the likes of Chris Larabee.
And who'd've ever fucking thought Chris Larabee....
"Where'd you run into trouble?" Larabee's eyes regarded her with a steady look.
"A mile or so west of the crossroads up near Draper's fucking Gulch, if you know that area. When I took exception to them helping themselves to more'n my clothes, they skedaddled with all of my kit and my gun and horse, the sons o' bitches."
"They likely to be heading in this direction?"
She turned to Nathan, surprised at the question. What did a healer care? "Nah, last I saw, they was heading back east. I come west; didn't feel up to meeting them again right at that time. Reckon I got turned around some, was figuring on hitting a settlement of some kind before I died of fucking thirst. It's mighty dry out there."
A vision in bottle green caught her eyes and she looked up to see another newcomer arrive with the dark-haired kid, JD, close behind him. Well, well, things really were looking more fucking interesting by the minute. This one was decked out in a silver brocade vest and a pure white shirt with ruffled cuffs--actual goddamned ruffles!--and green cuff links that sparkled in the wagon wheel of lights over the table; a matching green stud decorated the matching silver cravat at his neck. He shoved a chair between Josiah and JD and plopped himself into it without a by-your-leave, making everybody shuffle aside to make space for him. Only Larabee stayed put.
She took the opportunity to shift her chair close enough to feel Vin's warmth and smiled slyly at his glance at her, which he followed up with a duck of his head and eyes straight back to his cards. Bad of her to tease him, maybe, since he'd been so fucking Samaritan and all, but he looked too pretty to resist when he was flustered.
The newcomer--a gambler, or she'd eat her new fucking hat--set a bottle on the table. She craned to see the label; goddamn, the good stuff, Highland Rye. Something appealing for her gut as well as her eyes; she shot him her warmest smile and stuck out her hand.
"I'm Jane. Cannary. New to these parts, just passing through and accidentally so, in a manner of fucking speaking. Godamned nice to meet you."
"Uh, Ezra Standish. Charmed." He spoke with a honey-sweet accent that made her light up with another grin.
Ezra reached across the table and gave her hand a quick clasp, then drew back and pulled a new deck of cards from his vest pocket. "You wouldn't happen to enjoy the fine art of poker, would you, Miss Cannary?"
"I'm just Jane, thank you fucking kindly. I'm real fond of a game, only by a stroke of vile fucking misfortune, I lack a stake at the moment. Vin here scraped me up off the trail in my almost altogether."
The gambler tilted his head and the light struck ruddy tints in his hair, the warm brown of horse chestnuts.... She blinked and did a quick survey of the likely, so to speak, contours and dimensions of the chest hidden beneath the fancy vest and ruffled shirt, along with the obvious breadth of the shoulders inside the show-off coat, then grinned delightedly. She glanced at Vin, but he was staring hard at his cards even though there wasn't an actual game in play right at the moment.
She switched her gaze to Larabee and found him observing her with unsettling intensity. Her smile slipped. Her hand twitched to reach for the whiskey bottle, and she slipped it into the pocket of Vin's coat to keep it out of trouble. A draw on the cigar kept her occupied for almost an entire quarter-minute, which was the extent of her patience.
She smiled her best winning smile across the table at Ezra and nodded at the bottle. "Real good fucking taste you have there."
"Ah, a connoisseur among the heathens." He uncorked the bottle and filled her glass to the top, then his own.
When he put the bottle down, Josiah helped himself and Nathan to a glass each, then pushed the bottle across to Larabee, who filled his glass. She watched the comfortable ease between these mismatched men, the unspoken assumptions that knit them together. She was used to loners; even Bill and his shadow, Charlie fucking Utter, didn't have this relaxed familiarity in their inter-fucking-actions. These men were as smooth together as Ezra's accent, like they knew each other down to their tics and warts and were fine with the whole caboodle.
Though she wondered just how fucking far that knowledge extended, particularly between certain of them in regards to certain...tics. Sneaking a sidewise glance at Larabee, she reckoned maybe it would be best not to delve too closely into that specific matter.
"So, Jane--" Ezra smiled at her as he put a little emphasis on her name; and, my, just look at that gold tooth flashing like a fucking wink and a leer "--you say our gallant Mr. Tanner saved you from desperadoes?"
"He surely did. Even lent me his coat to cover up my womanly fucking attributes."
Ezra seemed to find that amusing, flashing another big grin before sobering. "Ah, yes. I am, of course, not in the least surprised. I've always maintained that Mr. Tanner is a perfect pattern of the upstanding gentleman here in our wild little burg."
The wicked glint in his wide-eyed gaze across the table at Vin made her snort whiskey up the wrong fucking passage. JD reached out, apparently intending to give her a helpful thump, but pulled his hand back without touching her like snatching it back from a hot iron, which made her snort again. She got herself under control and cleared her throat, looking up to see smiles tugging at several mouths, though only Standish was openly grinning while Vin was hunched down in his chair and scowling at him from under the brim of his hat.
"Howdy, boys!" A big voice preceded the tempestuous arrival of a lanky fellow sporting a well-worn gunbelt around his waist and a bright grin on a showily handsome face. He dragged a chair across the floor with a squeal of the legs against the boards and pushed his way to a space between the kid and the healer. With alacrity, Jane again shuffled herself a little closer to Vin, smiling innocently as her knee rubbed up against his thigh.
"So, what're we playing? And who's dealing? Ain't got all night here, boys; Miss Virginia's getting off work at ten and, boy howdy, I intend for that little filly and me to be snuggled up together by half-past--"
"Buck!" JD's voice was an appalled, high-pitched whisper.
"What?" Buck boomed. "What the hell're you whispering for, kid?"
Dark eyes slid past JD to her and she gave him a bright smile of her own. He blinked, then his face crinkled up with all the right kinds of creases around his eyes and his real nice fucking mouth under a lush mustache. Did the goddamn desert air exert a magnetic attraction that drew particularly comely specimens of the male variety to these parts? If it weren't for Bill heading north to the Black fucking Hills, she might give a thought to settling here temporarily.
"Well, I do apologize, ma'am! Why didn't none of you boys tell me we had a lady at the table?" He might be talking to his friends, but his warm eyes never left her face.
She stuck her hand out and went through the rigmarole of introductions again. His hand was big and callused, and he gave her a nice long, gentle squeeze while speaking in a deep, throaty voice. "Buck Wilmington, at your service."
He topped up her glass with more of Ezra's good whiskey, which made her feel even more fucking mellow toward him. She took a good burning swallow while JD filled in Buck about her being attacked.
Buck lost his winsome smile and turned serious. "Attacked? Where did that happen?"
"Just what we were about to ascertain before you so rudely interrupted us." Ezra tilted his head and blew a perfect smoke ring into the air over the table, puckering his pretty lips in one hell of a distracting way.
When she managed to unstick her eyes from Ezra, she found most of the fucking table watching her.
"Just north of the crossroads near Lightning Fork." Her voice came out too loud and she glanced down at her glass, which appeared to be empty again, dammit. She cleared her throat. "They come from the north, fucked off to the east, so I turned west after persuading the cocklickers they'd appropriated from my fucking person everything they had any hope of acquiring, if you take my fucking meaning."
She expected another warm smile from Buck, but he looked serious and intent. "I do take your meaning, ma'am."
"You headed west from Lightning Fork?" Nathan frowned and looked thoughtful. "So you followed the Tres Rocas trail."
She shrugged. "Dunno what moniker it goes by, but there was a bit of a trail between the scrub I followed. I hoped it'd lead me to water, but all the arroyos I passed were dry as a stony cunt."
Josiah nodded. "It's been an unusually arid year."
His resonant voice made her shift in her chair--in the good way; though she was careful about it, as inconspicuous as possible while appreciating again the advantage of wearing pants that fit snugly against her snatch.
"Arid as a donkey's hoof." She smiled across the table at him as she repeated his word.
"The Tres Rocas trail." Larabee's quiet voice was like a wash of icy water.
She glanced at him, fighting the tension stiffening her shoulders, wishing she had her goddamned gun to hand, for all the good it would do her in a practical fucking sense. The weight and pull of it at her waist would just make her feel better, like a kid clutching her grubby, one-eyed doll, pathetic as that might fucking be.
Larabee was sitting with his elbows resting on the arms of his chair and his fingers laced together. His narrowed eyes, which looked unfathomable as a forest lake, considered her for a long, still moment, then slid off her like water to Vin. Her own eyes followed, helpless as a leaf caught in a current. And Vin, who'd been imitating a fucking hunchback for the last while, lifted his head at last and looked straight at Larabee.
"West on the Tres Rocas." Ezra's voice was still all smooth nectar and ambrosia, but its fucking mellifluousness didn't quite hide a sliver of hardness that had crept in. His smile held the same brittle edge. "Really? What time might that have been?"
His eyes never touched on her, or on anybody else, for that fucking matter, set on the cards he was busy dealing. Hers landed with neat plops in front of her in rapid succession.
She looked back at Larabee, but he was ignoring Ezra like he was a wood tick beneath Larabee's notice. Vin, on the other hand, was very much in Larabee's fucking notice, and appeared from his stare meshed with Larabee's to know it.
Vin's voice, low and gravelly as Larabee's, gave every appearance of being casually offhand. "Not when I done found her. She was only a few miles outside of town when I come across her. Reckon she wandered off the trail a good ways back."
He sounded casual, but she was sitting close enough to him now to feel the iron tension in his thigh and the waves of subtle danger coming off him same as they were rolling off Ezra and Larabee, each in his own way. She glanced between the three of them again: Larabee still ignoring Ezra, Ezra ignoring both of them and her, and Vin ignoring everybody except Larabee. Meanwhile, a quick covert check from under her lashes around the table confirmed that the rest of them were unaware of the three-way dance in full swing in front of their eyes. Or if they were aware, they were doing a prodigious fucking job of pretending they weren't.
The highest stakes at this table had nothing to do with the cards in Ezra's expert hands.
She always contended--as loudly as fucking possible--that booze, especially the cunt-licking good sort, helped her powers of observation, and here she had another affirmation as the pattern of the private dance unfolded to her. Vin was protecting Larabee; Larabee was goddamned sure protecting Ezra while paying him no fucking mind; and Ezra was...protecting himself?
She squinted mentally and grabbed another quick glance at Ezra's face, trying to see beneath the smile that curved his lips and the flatness of his eyes. He was a hell of a lot harder to read than Vin or Larabee, but she reckoned maybe, just maybe, those smooth, elegant hands of his would be as quick to pull his damned fine Remington Army revolver in defense of Larabee as his own fancy self.
Quick as Vin himself would.
She smiled over a twist of pain, knowing what it felt like from both sides, her situation a bit of Vin's and a bit of Ezra's. She'd do the same for Bill, even though he had gone off and married an easterner too dainty for the frontier. On the better hand, Bill had left his new wife behind and invited Jane to partake in their quest for gold if she had a mind to. Which of course she fucking did, though the gold she had her eye on wasn't in the damned ground or in miners' pockets. It was walking around in gear almost as showy as Ezra's.
Still smiling, though keeping it inside like a secret brazier, she raised her voice too loud, the way she did whenever she was determined to be heard above all the fucking men that surrounded her.
"Yeah, I left that trail after I reached the--" she sketched a quick map in her mind of her journey "--third fucking dry gulch. Reckoned it was a fool's quest continuing that way and I might have better luck heading due west. Didn't realize I was that close to a town till Vin come upon me when he was heading the fuck out."
She liked the last point. Pleased with herself, she added, slyly, "I was so far gone with the thirst by then, I wasn't fucking seeing straight. I practically walked under his horse without realizing. Probably couldn't've told my own Ma from a Saguaro."
"Yeah." That was Vin's sole contribution; he wasn't much of a one with words, but it seemed enough to make Larabee leave the dance.
Picking up his cards, shifting them about while studying them, then dropping them facedown, Larabee ground out the butt of his cigarillo in the ash pan and held his hand out across the table. Buck reached out a long arm, snagged the bottle from where it had somehow taken root close to Jane's elbow, and passed it to Larabee without looking at him, a practiced transaction that spoke of years of fucking familiarity.
Buck smiled at her under that mustache of his, so thick and glossy she wanted to lick it. "Sounds like a real close call you had there. Glad it turned out okay."
The kid's milk mustache was thicker than ever, and didn't make her want to lick it at all. "Yeah, knew you'd be good for something one day, Vin."
Vin shot him an amused look, and she could feel the tension flowing out of his muscles. He pressed his knee once against hers in what she fancied was a fucking friendly fashion, before moving his leg away entirely, damn him.
"Indeed. A lucky day all around, it would appear. Let's hope capricious Lady Luck keeps us in her good graces." Ezra's eyes had a shrewd directness as he looked at her, but his chuckle was warm and dirty as a cathouse kitchen, the edge of danger vanished like a miner after a poke.
She squirmed in the chair again. God-fucking-dammit. She might have to try to purloin the fucking empty bottle before retiring tonight, for her own private enjoyment. She doubted the horses would mind her pursuing a bit of nighttime satisfaction on her lonesome. She'd always found equine company to be forgiving in that way.
"Hell, Ezra, you could at least pretend to be playing fair. This hand has as much chance of winning as a quail racing a stallion." Buck flung his cards down and leaned back in his chair, eyes roaming across the busy, smoky room.
She picked up her own cards, sorted them, and gave Buck an affable smile. "You could always play my hand. I ain't got the fucking stake." She held them out.
His eyes and attention returned to her, along with his own killer smile. "Why don't you play and I'll give you the stake. We'll split the profits."
She took the money, successfully corralled herself another drink, and entertained them with stories. Never say Jane Cannary didn't pay her fucking debts. Though in retrospect, relating the matter of the Finnish fellow who'd exhibited a vital flaw in perception and confided he wanted to suck her cock might not have been the best goddamned choice, given the present company and circumstances. At least Buck, Josiah, Nathan, and the kid--who'd managed to relax through the apparent magical soothing power of milk--found it amusing enough to miss the waves of chill rolling off the other three.
She internally blamed her lapse on the good fucking whiskey and made up for it with a rousing story about a whorehouse in Denver she'd once passed out in....
A week later, with Charlie fucking Utter's money in hand, her debts paid, and the reassuring weight of a new gun at her hip, she prepared the horse she'd bought from Tiny at a good price in exchange for the work she'd done helping him out. She led the gelding up the street to the jailhouse where Vin was sitting in a chair tilted back against the wall. He'd changed his blue shirt for an equally fetching bright red one. Seemed a fucking outrage to womankind to cover up that lean body, but she nevertheless pulled his neatly folded coat off the saddle and took it up to him.
"You've got a fucking nice place here." She glanced around the dusty street, seeing the charm now under the dreary respectability of its seemingness.
He thumped the chair down and stood up, settling into that hipshot stance, hands tucked into his gunbelt, that made him and Larabee look like goddamned twins. (Yeah, nighttime fancies in the livery with the empty bottle--and a few full ones--had led down some fucking amazing paths she'd be remembering long after the details of this place faded away.)
He smiled, all bright eyes and charm, like she'd first seen him, only a hell of a lot warmer now. "It's gonna be mighty quiet 'round here without you."
She chuckled. "If it weren't for a certain assignation I ain't fucking inclined to miss, I'd be tempted to stay longer."
He nodded, sobering, and her skin pebbled as his bleakness touched her hopes. She concentrated on keeping a good feeling about the particular gold she was hoping to mine, not letting Vin's situation cast a fucking pall on hers. She broke the awkward moment by holding out the coat.
"I'm real fucking obliged for everything you done." She bumped his arm gently with her free hand in mute apology for the inadvertent reminder that she, at least, still had a fucking chance of getting what she wanted.
He kept his hands tucked in his belt and smiled again, the momentary shadow banished like it made no never mind. "Keep it. I been planning to get a new one, and it suits you better'n me, anyway."
She smiled and pulled it on, settling it comfortably on her shoulders with an accustomed wiggle. She tipped her hat and mounted. As she rode north up the street, her last glimpse was of Vin touching his own hat before his attention shifted from her like the closing of a door. She peered back over her shoulder to see Larabee striding along the boardwalk toward him, all long black legs and a prowl like a panther, and Vin waiting with a grin that was a bonfire to the candle of his smile to her, and every other fucking body.
She turned back around, eyes set resolutely on her route to the Black Hills. Vin's gravelly laughter at something Larabee said faded behind her as she geed the horse up into a trot toward her beckoning hope.
The buckskin coat Vin wears in the first season, but not afterwards, and Jane wears in Deadwood: