Mary was surprised to see Vin Tanner among the revellers tonight. He had never attended any other community function in Four Corners, other than to hang about the fringes and watch for trouble, but tonight he actually seemed to be trying to enjoy himself. It was funny, though. He didn't seem to be having a very good time.
The town had decided to throw kind of a founder's day celebration. It really didn't matter what the reason was, it had seemed that since the seven men had come together in Four Corners, people had been thinking about a future here. So they had come together to have a dance and box social.
Buck and JD were having a wonderful time dancing--JD with Casey and Buck with any female with two legs. He just plain loved women, and they, in turn, loved him back. For awhile, anyway. When his charm wore off, well . . . luckily, the regulators occasionally were called to ride.
Ezra had turned away from the card table tonight and was entertaining the children with his card tricks. Mary thought he was endearing when he carried on an adult conversation with the children, who looked to him with pure adoration.
Rain had come and was dancing occasionally with Nathan, though she seemed every bit as uncomfortable as Vin. Mary surmised it was because there were still plenty of people in town who didn't think Negroes belonged at dances with the white folks, and she admired the courage it took for Rain to attend anyway. Nathan had earned the respect of most of the town with his skills at taking care of people, and they saw him as their doctor first, and a Negro second. She hoped someday they would see him as their friend.
The preacher was weaving a tale with several of the older widows in the corner. They were all interested in Josiah for one reason or another, mostly since they seemed to think he had brought God to Four Corners. All fine, upstanding Christians wanted a good church to go to, and it didn't hurt that the preacher was a fine-looking single gentleman.
Chris had come, too. She had noticed him immediately upon his arrival. But he always came to any town gathering. It was his duty, wasn't it? He was painfully polite and was watching the goings-on carefully. And he watched her. She knew he did. Because she watched him. Their friendship had grown, and they chatted easily, sometimes even sharing a silence comfortably. But there was never anything more. No dance, no shared meal, nothing. Just friends. Mary sighed.
"Stubborn, ain't he?"
Vin's voice had startled her so thoroughly that she lurched forward, bumping into him and dumping half her cup of punch down the front of his coat. He looked down at the spreading wetness and blushed.
"Sorry, didn't mean---"
"I'm so sorry Vin, I just wasn't paying attention, I was thinking of something else . . .," She looked down at his jacket. "I don't think it will hurt it . . .," she began, then blushed with embarrassment herself.
"Nope, don't guess it will. It's seen worse, ain't it?" He grinned and gazed back at her.
She smiled and nodded. He was painfully honest, both with himself and others.
"You could just go ask him."
"You could ask him to dance. You could get old and die 'fore he gets around to askin' you. It ain't he don't want to, Mary. He's just stubborn as hell."
Mary blushed again, a deep red that started in her cheeks, spread across her face, and crashed to her toes. Had she been staring at Chris? She shook her head. She couldn't even speak.
Vin had come this far, though. He wasn't gonna quit now. Hell, he'd wasted enough of the evening hanging uncomfortably around, trying to figger out what to do about Chris. Patience was not something he was gonna waste on Chris Larabee. He thought a lot of Mary Travis and knew Chris did, too. If he didn't, he sure wouldn't be here right now. He wasn't gonna be around forever, and Chris needed lookin' after. Mary had what it took to do that. He knew it. He wasn't much for plans, but he figgered he knew one thing he could do that'd get Chris over here. He took a deep breath.
"Mary," he leaned his head over to her, closer, so he wouldn't have to look her in the eye. This was difficult enough without that. "Did you tell him you been teachin' me to read?"
She shook her head. She liked Vin, very much, but he was making her uneasy now. He was very close, and he was one who valued his space. Chris had seen Vin in the newspaper office more than once, and she even had the feeling he was jealous that Vin might be making a move on her. But she knew how difficult it was for Vin to ask for her help, and she wasn't going to tell Chris, no matter how it looked. That was up to Vin.
"Good. Didn't think you would." She heard him take a deep breath.
"Dance with me?" His eyes darted quickly to hers, a tiny nod given to her that she couldn't refuse him, and took her hand and pulled her firmly after him. "I ain;t too good at this, but hopefully, I don;t gotta last long."
She was too stunned to pull away. And so was most of the rest of Four Corners. Vin spun her up to him and pulled her into the waltz. He glanced over at Chris, just once, and plunged on with the dance. Buck sailed by both of them, giving a knowing grin that Vin returned. Mary had the distinct feeling she was being played worse than Vin's harmonica. And then she understood. And blushed yet again.
It didn't take long for Chris to rise, make his way across the dancing area, and nudge Vin firmly in the side. Vin looked triumphantly into Mary's eyes and smiled, a warm, generous and victorious smile. Then he stopped moving and leaned in very close,"Take care of him, 'case we can't?"
She nodded, again unable to speak, as she released Vin's hand and took up Chris Larabee's.
The tracker turned and swept away from the other dancers, slipped into the darkness that laid just outside the gathering, and disappeared. Chris thought, just briefly, he heard a whoop of joy come from the general direction Vin had gone, but he couldn't be sure, because he was dancing with Mary.
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