Rowan '05: Nature of Belief

I sip my morning coffee cautiously. It is strong enough I suspect a fork might be needed to consume it. Sighing, I withdraw my flask and add a substantial amount of fortification to the dark brew, lightening its color and enhancing the flavor. I take another sip…better, much better. I can't remember the last time I drank my coffee without the aid of strong spirit enhancement. Hopefully, my memory will not find itself being refreshed any time soon.

I take out a deck of cards and begin another daily ritual. Practice is essential in my chosen profession. Maintaining dexterity and flexibility is something that requires constant attention. Various shuffles from the simple action of cutting the cards to the most elaborate should all be done with grace and skill so as to appear natural and effortless. Slight of hand, like a great many things, must be rehearsed and practiced many, many times to appear spontaneous.

I can deal from the bottom of the deck with ease. But it is rarely a skill I feel a need to utilize, although I continue to practice it, the same way I do so many others. It pays to have more than one alternative at one's disposal at all times. I like having options and being able to exercise them should the need arise.

I can stack the deal by feel alone. Having spent years handling cards it is no mean feat to have developed sufficient tactile acuity to be able to tell the difference between a face cared and a number by weight alone. More ink and greater detail on face cards affect their weight by an infinitesimal amount, but it is noticeable to me.

I prefer the feel of an older, worn deck, but this morning I'm working with a new one. The waxed pasteboard slide easily and it takes a bit more skill to control them without the added friction usually present in a deck that's been used for a while. The freshness allows me to use greater speed and I am delighted with the smooth, rapid movement I can do deftly manipulate.

I pause to take another sip of my cooling coffee. Sitting in front of the saloon, I can see most of the entire town. I forcibly restrain myself from laughing out loud at the antics of the populace, bestirred to a recent height of religious fervor by the arrival of an itinerant revival preacher only a few days ago. Having worked that particular con several times, I am sure the Reverend Lovejoy will no doubt move on as soon as this flock is well and truly fleeced.

I had felt compelled to attend the first night giving into my curiosity to see if this charlatan was any better at it than I was. I am not ashamed to admit he is. But then I never really cared for bible thumping and some of my distaste, my lack of true belief likely revealed itself during those endeavors. This is not to say I didn't garner a tidy sum for my efforts. I find myself much happier gambling honestly, or even working to maintain the peace of this backwater little burg such as I can, than I ever did playing upon the desperate, pointless moments of devotion and fear induced faith.

My fellow peacekeepers have also attended the nightly revivals. Although, I daresay they are no more likely seeking redemption there than I am. Mr. Larabee obviously wanted to ensure this ripple of excitement in our otherwise flat puddle of existence does not cause some trouble we will be called upon to quash. He takes his duties and responsibilities as peacekeeper more seriously the longer he holds the position. I have a personal bet to see how long it takes for him to evolve from simply being a gunslinger to a genuine 'lawman'.

Mr. Wilmington has gone several nights. He escorted a different lady each time, so I have no doubts as to the reason for his sudden surge of religious devotion. A more honest person I have yet to encounter than Buck Wilmington. He makes no apologies for his interest in the fairer sex, and it is oddly refreshing to interact with someone who sees nothing wrong with self-indulgence. Although the revival meetings have no doubt curbed his female companions' usual more than willing response to his overtures.

Mr. Dunne has gone I suspect because he is like a moth drawn to flames. He is young enough to still be wide-eyed with regard to many things, subject to the heady excitement and joy inevitably spawned by such gatherings. I do not remember ever being so naïve, but then I've always been aware of what is going on behind the scenes. I never saw the people in the audience as fellow devotees and friends as much as I regarded them as marks. Therein lies all the difference I believe.

Mr. Jackson has attended several nights. There are a number of colored musicians and singers with Reverend Lovejoy's troupe. I suspect Mr. Jackson is drawn to the spiritual music, no doubt remembering better moments of his childhood, and delighted with a chance to mingle among members of his own race. I have not pondered on it or asked him, but I suspect being one of the few Negroes in Four Corners no doubt gets tiresome from time to time.

I suspect Mr. Sanchez harbors the same sort of professional curiosity that I do, albeit his is far more profound and spiritual than mine. I'm sure his nightly attendance has more to do with wanting to save his flock from this 'Satan in disguise' than any need for closer commune with God. I also know he's aware of the futility of trying to steer the townspeople away. Why he torments himself so by watching things he cannot change is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is more penance that he seems so certain he needs to undertake.

My reverie is broken by the appearance of my lover, and I can't help but smile in welcome. Mr. Tanner is an uncultured, quiet man but he has a grace and eloquence I could never mimic or reproduce. For all is uneducated, heathen ways, he fits me better than anyone else I've ever met.

He smiles at me, just the smallest upward curl of the edges of his mouth, but his beautiful sky blue eyes radiate welcome and simple joy as seeing me. Me. Lord, but it is such a heady feeling to get that look. To be so well regarded by this man, to know he sought out my company---this devastatingly handsome, decidedly honest man who could be with anyone genuinely likes me and enjoys sharing his mind and body with me-it makes me feel ten feet tall just to think about it. That perhaps I am a better man than I give myself credit for.

"Mornin', Ez."

"Good morning, Vin."

We greet each other like we hadn't just done the same thing only a few hours ago in a decidedly more intimate fashion. Mornings I can look forward to if I know I'll be waking up next to him, getting a kiss for my trouble. I have never had what one could call a steady lover, but with Vin, I can honestly say I now fully appreciate what it is I've been missing.

"Would you care for a cup of coffee?"

Vin's smile widens. "That the pot I made?"

I tip my head in acknowledgement. I offer him my flask as well as a cup of nearly solid, semi-congealed liquid he considers to be coffee. I see no reason not to share my private stock knowing he'll appreciate both the fine liquor and the offer.

Vin pours a healthy slug into his coffee, sipping it in evident enjoyment. "Thanks, Ez."

"My pleasure." And it is. Such simple things make him happy. And I like seeing him happy. If that makes me some sort of love-sick fool, so be it.

We sit in companionable silence for a few moments drinking our coffee and watching the denizens of Four Corners go about their business. I feel his eyes on me and I know he has something he wishes to ask. It has taken me awhile to learn to simply wait for him to give voice to whatever it is, but I have learned to exercise patience and give him the time he needs.

"You go to see that preacher fella?"

"Just the first night." I admit easily. I am not ashamed to have gone given that so many of our comrades have also been there. "I did not feel any compelling reason to return again." Each nightly show would no doubt have been just more of the same. Even though I already know the answer, I ask because I think he expects me to, "Have you gone to the revival meetings?"

"Went a few nights." Vin says and it is almost as if he's making a confession, although I am at a loss as to why he'd think going to a revival meeting was some sort of transgression.

"He…ah…he seems pretty sure that everyone needs to repent or go to hell."

I shift in my seat to look at him more directly. I can just make out the faint flush on his cheekbones. "And you are worried if you might be destined to spend eternity in torment, breathing the scent of brimstone?" I hazard that as a guess, not believing someone like Vin need worry about such things. If anyone is going to hell, I'm rather confident it will not be him.

"Preacher seems pretty sure of himself."

Of course he seems sure of himself. It is all part of the con. No one would relinquish their hard earned money otherwise.

"Vin Tanner, trust me when I say, you will not go to hell."

Vin bit his lower lip, a most endearing tell. "What about you?"

I smiled softly at the earnest nature of that question. It makes me wonder how long he's been waiting to ask this. I suspect he's more worried about my eternal soul than his own.

"A great many have espoused the belief that I will one day reside in the pit of hell, but I do not share their belief. In truth, I don't believe in hell at all."

Vin blinked at me. "You don't believe in hell?"

"No." I shrug one shoulder. "Never have."


"Not everyone does." I interrupt him. "And the Bible says nothing of fire and brimstone or eternal torment."

"It doesn't?"

"No." I shuffle my cards, letting them flow smoothly from one hand to another. "I've read the book from cover to cover and hell is not mentioned, at least not in the sense the Reverend Lovejoy no doubt describes in such exacting detail. Hell is purely a human invention." I purse my lips thoughtfully. "But then the whole Bible is really just a human fabrication to explain what really doesn't require an explanation."

"Wait a minute." Vin held up a hand. "You think the Bible…is a lie?"

"Not a lie per se." I hedge slightly, not sure if I might have overstepped my bounds. Vin always seemed more spiritual than religious, but I may have misread him. And the last thing I wanted to do was offend my lover.

"Fabrication is the same as a lie." Vin states unequivocally, challenging my earlier contention.

I sigh. On one hand I'm delighted that he's sharp enough to not be easily led astray, and on the other hand, I'm disappointed that I can not exercise the usual verbal slight of hand I've become so good at. I shuffle my cards again, unconsciously ordering my thoughts at the same time. In for a penny, in for a pound.

"Christianity is what some have described as a revealed religion." I pick my words with care here. Things related to faith and God are always difficult, rarely does anyone take a neutral stance with regard to either one. "Being a revealed religion means the basic tenants were supposedly delivered to mankind via some divine, mystic being…like an angel or the voice of the almighty himself through a bush that burns but is not consumed."

Evidently my deliberate care does not go unnoticed. Vin reaches out to still my hands, blue eyes meeting my, gaze intense, reassuring. "It's just me, Ez. Not finding fault here…I'm just curious. Just stay what you want to say, okay?"

I relax. It'll be okay. He's not going to judge me or my beliefs, and I smile. "The best description might well be a quote from a man more eloquent than myself. Someone who so aptly explained a point of view that I've come to regard as the best summation of an intangible I've never quite believed in and yet never quite dismissed."

"Okay." Vin nodded, squeezing my hands in an encouraging gesture as he sat back and prepared to let me have my say.

"Thomas Paine described the ideology of Deism as a belief in God, in a divine entity that created the universe and everything in it. The Deist needs none of those tricks and shows called miracles to confirm his faith, for what can be a greater miracle than the creation itself, and his own existence?"

"You mean like the Great Spirit that the Comanche talk about?" Vin asked, eyes lighting up. "How it's everywhere and everything?"

"Exactly." I nod, pleased he's caught on so quickly. "Religions like Christianity rely heavily on tradition and written doctrine that insult one's intellect and reason. They make faith and the ability to commune with God suspect to conditions no rational person would find themselves able to agree with."

Vin frowns at me. He shakes his head. "Lost me there, Ez."

"Do you honestly believe a virgin could give birth to a child?" I ask quietly.

Vin cocks his head. "Ya mean Jesus' mother, Mary?"


Vin's gaze narrowed. "Never saw a woman give birth, or an animal either for that matter, that hadn't done something physical to get pregnant first."

"The miracle is certainly within the realm of an all powerful being, but the need for it is asinine." I shake my head slightly. "His power is just as easily manifest in a thunderstorm or a flower. The essence of the divine surrounds us, resides within us. It doesn't need to be explained, justified or quantified."

I sigh slightly. "A child born for no other purpose than to die seems a bit," I wave a hand seeking the right word, "cruel, callous." Having seen the horrors of war and since undertaking this job as peacekeeper I find myself unable to see the taking of another human life lightly. "I've never had a child, but I can honestly say that if the creator made us in his image, then if I would never so blithely undertake the sacrifice of one child for another, neither could He."

"Preacher says that was an act of love." Vin looks as skeptical as I've always felt. "That it was necessary ta save us from sin."

I snort, unable to stop myself. "Saving us from sin implies that the all powerful deity we are supposed to worship has been outmatched by Satan. That he is incapable of finding some way of saving all his children I find hard to swallow."

I smile grimly. "And if Christ died for our sins, suffered such torment to save us all, why is the Reverend Lovejoy here extolling our need to repent?"

Vin smirks slightly, looking a bit relieved. "Kind o' wondered about that myself."

"So I do believe in God…at least as much as I can, but I do not believe in the Bible or Hell or the need for castigating oneself." I sip my coffee, finishing the cup. "Merely writing down such a fantastic story does not make the end all be all with regard to truth or the sole source for establishing a meaningful relationship with the divine. Particularly when men such as Reverend Lovejoy… even men such as myself, can so easily misuse it for no greater purpose than personal gain."

"I remember the missionaries comin' to the tribe." Vin offers after a moment.

"Ah." I nod. "Jesuits, no doubt."

"Yeah." The muscles in his jaw flexed. "They didn't have much room in their church for anythin' but them. Some o' the elders o' the tribe damn near starved ta death because the priests wouldn't share food with anyone who wasn't baptized. Elders didn't want to sell their souls ta the black robes."

"I can't say that I blame them." I reach out to run my fingers across his whitened knuckles in a minute caress. Were we not in so public setting I'd offer more substantial form of physical comfort.

"Had I been faced with such a choice, I'd have let them baptize me, said the words, but not meant them." I wince slightly. Pretending to agree in order to ease my own existence is not something I'm particularly proud of. Reeds bow to the fury of the storm, and so they survive. Solid oak trees resist and snap when pushed too far. I am no oak, nor will I ever be, and it is sadly the oak most people admire. "I do not have the strength of conviction so many others seem to hold so easily."

Vin captures my fingers briefly in a lightning fast move I'm no longer surprised by. He entwines our fingers before pulling away, smiling. "Think you got plenty of strength in yer convictions, Ez….just that yer convictions are yer own. Some people don't get that."

But he gets it. Vin understands me, knows the value of learning when and how to bend. And I can't contain the broad smile, delighted with his elegantly profound, quiet assertion. He is all the proof I will ever need of the greatness of God; anything else pales in comparison.

"My own personal miracle you are, Vin Tanner."

He blushes in such an endearing fashion. Sky blue eyes meet mine and I'm unable to look away. "If I'm one, you are too."

"I think there are those who would disagree."

"And none o' them matter." He counters smoothly. "Not one damn bit."

I have to look away, a tell tale flush warming my face. I find myself shuffling my cards again as I struggle to regain my composure. He is right, of course. What other people think doesn't matter. The only opinion I genuinely value any more is that of the man before me.

"If, ah, you don't mind my asking," I clear my throat, "what promoted your interest in attending the revival meetings?"

"Was curious to see what all the fuss was about." Vin sighed and shook his head. "But the longer I listened ta him talk….him seemin' so damn sure o' himself, I got to thinkin' maybe he was right."

Blue eyes turned bleak as they met mine. "Thing is, Ez, I ain't sorry for a lot o' things I done that he says are sins. Ain't going to lie an' say I am."

"No reason you should." I assure him. "Lying would only compound the trespass, if indeed you are guilty of having done anything wrong at all." I smile at him. "Something I sincerely doubt."

"Killin' is wrong." Vin points out quietly. "Killed a more'n a few men, Ez."

I frown slightly, thumb running across my lower lip as I consider his statement. I mentally curse the good Reverend Lovejoy soundly. He is clearly a better orator than I had realized.

"Thou shalt not commit murder is what is stipulated in the Ten Commandments, although, more than one translation has gotten it wrong substituting kill for murder. The two are not the same, and I do not believe the Almighty considers defense of others or of oneself to be murder." I smile at him. "I seriously doubt you've ever killed another, even pointed a gun at someone, without provocation."

Vin nods slowly. He hesitates a moment, looking uncertain. "What 'bout durin' the war?"

"War is another matter entirely. Yet another reason the Bible confuses what should be straightforward issues." I shake my head. "God frees the Israelites from bondage, sending them into a promised land where they are instructed to kill every man, woman and child. The book of Joshua tells the tale quite clearly, and no one is spared. Are they not held accountable for such actions? Or does is war to be an excuse?"

Vin raises both eyebrows. "They were under orders from God ta kill women and children?"

"So it says." I snort. Everyone who ever had the audacity to declare war on another has firmly believed God is on his side guiding his actions. I can't remember how many times I heard 'God is on our side'. I suppress a shudder at the images even thinking those words brings to mind.

I remove my flask and pour a healthy shot in to my empty coffee cup. "There is some contradiction in later books of the Bible, notably Judges and Deuteronomy which make repeated reference to other groups, like the Jebusites that must be vanquished and expelled later on. So clearly Joshua did not manage to kill everyone as is claimed in his account, although nothing contradicts his assertion that killing everyone was indeed ordered and approved by God."

"Damn." Vin curses softly. "Preacher man never mentioned that."

"Why would he?" I arch an eyebrow. "The goal here is not to convert, or even foster a deeper faith in those who already believe. The objective is to make people question themselves and extort money from them for a promise of salvation that the likes of Reverend Lovejoy cannot provide."

Vin shakes his head. "Beginnin' ta think the Comanche had it right."

"Did you ever really doubt they did?" I cock my head to one side.

Vin smiles ruefully. "No. Not really. But I'm real glad I talked to you just the same."

I add coffee to my liquor deciding a straight shot is not really required. I'm more fortified by his words than anything to be found in a bottle. "You are welcome."

"You think Josiah believes all that stuff?"

I sip my drink as I ponder that question. It is a bit cooler than I'd prefer still tolerable. "I would hazard a guess that Mr. Sanchez's faith is more akin to yours or mine than that which Reverend Lovejoy is here to peddle. He certainly believes in the value of penance, which I confess I also have come to appreciate albeit not exactly the same way as Josiah seems to."

Vin frowns as he finishes his first cup of coffee, pouring himself a second cup as well. "How so?"

"Being sorry for one's transgressions means nothing if you are not prepared to alter your ways or find some way to make up for what you've done. To balance the scale if you will." I hold up both hands in a leveling motion. "Attempting to better the future, to make up for a misdeed certainly seems more positive than dwelling on the past since we all know fixing it is not an option. You will not find me attempting to rebuild a dilapidated structure, but I have, in my own way, endeavored to make up for prior acts of questionable morality."

"That why you stayed past the thirty days the Judge required?"

"No." I smile warmly at him. I know I convey the real reason well enough with my eyes when I see him blush. "But I do see my stint as a peacekeeper in this backwater little dustbowl as helping to offset some of the offensives I have committed over the years."

I am no saint. I never claimed to be one. I recognize my own shortcomings. Probably far better than those who have made it their duty to point them out to me. I have accepted my flaws and tried to deal with them accordingly.

"Yer a better man than you give yourself credit for, Ezra Standish."

I drop my eyes wondering when he got so good at reading me. "I certainly am for having known you, Vin Tanner." I raise my cup to lightly tap his in a salute.

"Same goes for me, Ez." Vin grins. "Whole lot in my life is better cuz of you."

I really should be used to how he can say such profound things so easily and mean them.

The man has a gift. Truly, he is a gift. I am not sure what I did to deserve such largesse but I am profoundly grateful.

The town is coming more alive as the hour progresses, and I do believe it can continue to do so without our observation. "Mr. Tanner?"


"Might I interest you in more private environs in which to continue this discussion?"

Vin smiles slightly, a glint of mischief in his eyes. "Talkin' all we gonna be doing?"

I laugh lightly as I pocket my cards and smooth the cuffs of my jacket. "No." I give him a heated look. If I am going to hell, then I certainly intend to earn my place there. "Unless of course conversation is all you care to engage in."

Vin grins wickedly. "Always preferred action ta talk." His drawl mimics mine beautifully as he continues. "Such activities as I am considering should definitely take place without interruption and away from prying eyes."

"Indeed." I smile deeply, dimples no doubt putting in an appearance. He follows me inside the cool, dark interior of the saloon and up the stairs. The saloon is empty this time of day. As we reach the top of the stairs I feel a proprietary pat on my derriere and I have to bite my lip to stifle a satisfied sigh.

Vin leans into me as I work the lock to my door, hands resting lightly on my hips before sliding around to encircle my waist. I love the feeling of his weight and heat against me and it takes no small amount of will power to concentrate on the lock and not give into the urge to let him ravage me here in the hallway. Propriety can be such a pain in the ass at times.

Fortunately the lock is little more than child's play for me. Child's play for anyone with even a modicum of skill and that is but one of the reasons I make very certain what I consider valuable is either on my person or hidden in more secure confines. Contrary to what many of my colleagues believe, I have always traveled light and own very little.

Once we are securely within my room, Vin spins me around and pins me to the wall. Blue eyes search mine, gauging my reaction, and I smile to let him know I'm comfortable with his acting as the aggressor. I am not worried he'll hurt me. He's usually a very gentle lover, but once and awhile rough and ready is a delightful experience.

Vin leans in to kiss me, savage, raw and wonderful. It's like being caught in a thunderstorm, heady and exhilarating. I pull him closer, clinging to him, grateful the wall is there to hold us both up.

Both our hands are busy divesting us of unnecessary, unwanted clothing. Hats are tossed off, jackets shrugged free of to fall to the floor. Normally I would chastise Vin to take more care with my vest and shirt, but at the moment it is the least of my concerns. He doesn't even bother with the mother of pearl buttons, he just rucks up the garments to get at my skin. I moan into his mouth, delighted with the feel of his warm, calloused hands against my chest.

I've followed his example, burrowing under his shirt to lightly rake my nails down his back. I am careful not to break the skin. I know he loves for me to do this, but I have no desire to ever mar that beautiful body. Ever.

The need to breathe forces me to turn my head. Vin nibbles along my jaw, working his way down my throat. I hiss when he applies his teeth at the hollow of my neck, sucking hard enough to leave a mark I will carry for days. I love wearing his mark.

Vin growls, a rough vibration against my chest that sends shivers down my spine. He is moving his hands to release the buckle of my gun belt so he can unfasten my trousers. Ever conscious of the danger of a loaded firearm, our hands tangle as we both let the belt slide through our fingers to rest gently on the floor. His gun belt is next, the tie down at his thigh only slowing us down for a second.

The soft leather of his buckskins feels almost as good as his bare skin, so soft and supple under my fingers. It gives easily, allowing me ready access to the treasure hidden underneath. I'm delighted that it's warm enough he's forgone wearing undergarments. It takes little effort to shove his pants down to mid-thigh to gain free access to what I sought.

His breathing hitches as I wrap my hand around his hard shaft. Vin's head tips back, eyes closed and I am stunned anew by the beauty of him, by the trust he places in me, by the pleasure he so freely shares. I can't resist marking him as mine, even if I am careful to do it where no one will see it.

I gasp when he shoves me more firmly against the wall, both his hands cradling my face pulling me up so he can once more capture my mouth. He tastes like coffee and scotch and something fresh and sweet like hard candy. I could spend a lifetime trying to catalog the flavors I've found in his mouth.

I shudder when one of his hands is suddenly roaming over my chest, pinching my nipples while the other is buried in my hair. My breathing is ragged, and I can feel my own heartbeat pounding in a steadily accelerating rhythm. I can hear Vin's own panting breaths, the warmth of his breath against my skin making me shiver.

I am arching against him, pulling away from the wall, desperate for more contact. The contrast of smooth skin and worn cloth or leather against my skin is so sharp, so delicious I can't help but squirm against him. He rubs himself against me like a wanton, aggressive cat and I whimper, begging for more.

There is no clear thought, just action. Just a desire to feel, so hear, to taste, to be consumed by the physical and immediate. Nothing else matters.

I can hear little mewling sounds of pleasure and am not really surprised to discover I'm the one making them. Vin is saying something, but I'm not sure what. I'm too captivated by the husky, needy tone, the raspy quality of his voice to bother trying to decipher words. The message is clear though, and I alter my grip so that I can stroke his shaft and mine at the same time.

Somehow we always find a rhythm, moving together so easily, so natural, like breathing. Our mouths are fused again, and I am trading his breath for mine, sucking his tongue into my mouth. I feel his fingers clench in my hair, holding me firmly as though he's afraid I might try to escape. Hah. Never.

There are flashes behind my eyes, and I unconsciously tighten my grip on both of us. Friction so much less than it had been initially, hardened flesh sliding easily now aided by sweat and other fluids. Our thrusts are less smooth, taking on a more desperate, urgent quality. So close. So very close.

I can feel Vin trembling, and I know I am doing the same. He shoves me against the wall again, holding me there forcefully, hips rocking almost violently. I wrap one arm around him, holding him close, needing him to center myself to balance as I meet him thrust for thrust.

He's moaning, sighing, little sounds of pleasure rippling over me, through me, from me. I tip my head to the side, resting against it against his shoulder. I know I'm nearly chanting as I encourage us both to keep going, to not stop, so close.

I feel as though I'm riding a runaway horse and can do nothing but hold on. I can't breathe as everything goes white, and I'm biting his shoulder to keep from screaming out Vin's name. I am only vaguely aware of him doing the same thing, clutching me so tightly I can hear my ribs creak in protest.

We stay like that for a timeless moment, clinging together, faint shudders dissipating as we recover lost breath. The wall holds us up and I'm still grateful for its steady support. I place a kiss on the cloth covered shoulder that will no doubt bear the mark of my teeth for some time. I whisper an apology.

Vin nuzzles my neck, sighing softly. "Nothin' ta be sorry for, Ez."

His easy absolution is yet another thing I love about him. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

He raises his head, blue eyes as warm as the summer sky. "I know that. And you didn't." He grins. "Gotten worse bites from that mean old mule o' mine." His grin softens as he raises a hand to cup my cheek. "Can't say he's ever given me even half as much pleasure as you do."

"I should hope not." I chuckle before turning my head to place a kiss in his palm. I take a deep breath and regretfully decide we can not stay here like this. Vin evidently comes to the same conclusion pulling away, one hand ghosting over my chest, smoothing my rumpled clothing as he pulls away.

Vin pulls the neckerchief he'd only tied on that morning loose and uses it to clean us both. His touch is sure and gentle. I assist him in righting his clothing, unable to resist running my fingers over his bare behind, caressing those firm hemispheres.

Vin smirks. He winks at me before capturing my wandering hands. "Can do more o' that later."


"My word on it."

I smile. I know better than to think we could spend the entire day ensconced within the confines of my room. But that doesn't stop me from hoping some day we might give into the temptation to do so.

Vin sighs and leans in to rest his forehead against mine. "Damn shame we can't stay here."

"Quite." I am not surprised to find his thoughts match mine.

"Duty calls."

"You are at the jail, yes?"

"Yep." Vin pulls away after kissing me softly. The kiss is so gentle in contrast to our earlier passion, but no less heartfelt.

He assists me with the final touches of restoring my appearance. It is a task I could no doubt accomplish in half the time without his help, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.

Our respective firearms are once more securely fashioned. I am sure there must have been a time when I went about unarmed, but I can't remember when. Perhaps when I was a child, although even then, I'm fairly confident I was learning to use my wits as a weapon. With my mother, there was no other way to survive.

Vin is staring at me, and I can't quite read his expression. "What?"

He nods his head decisively. "Don't care what anyone says---this is not a sin."

I blink at that non sequitur, cocking my head to one side. I purse my lips remembering our earlier conversation on the porch. Now I better understand the underlying tension and concern.

"I never thought it was." I smile warmly, reaching out to capture his hand and entwine our fingers.

"Good." Vin nods again. He leans in for another kiss, a bit deeper than the last, a promise for later. He sighs as he pulls away. "Be damn glad when that preacher leaves."

"As will I." I'm fairly certain the good Reverend Lovejoy will be on his way after tonight's performance. I wouldn't have even stayed this long, but then I'm fully aware of the limited resources the residents have and how unwillingly they are to part with what they do have, religious fervor or no.

"Might say something ta Chris about hurryin' him on his way."

I grin. "Oh I don't think that will be necessary."

Vin frowns. "Why?"

"I already had a word with our illustrious leader." I shake my head, keeping my face the picture of innocence. "My revenue has already dropped off rather dramatically since the Reverends unsolicited arrival."

Vin rolls his eyes. "Not that you making a good living ain't a prime concern, but I'm thinkin' Chris would want a better reason."

"Oh." I smile slyly. "You mean like Mrs. Travis once more harping about the undesirables in town."

I give him a coy look. "Or perhaps Buck's constant lamentations about the sudden drop off in female affection being sent his way would be a more compelling reason?"

Vin snickered. "Ole Buck sure does feel neglected."

I dip my head in acknowledgement. "And Josiah has been a bit more prone to drink to excess of late."

Vin frowns. "Damn Lovejoy."

"Indeed." I agree. "I'm sure Mr. Larabee will no doubt see reason and encourage the Reverend as only he can to leave post haste."

"By encourage, I'm thinking you really mean intimidate."

I shrug one shoulder. Semantics has never been a huge concern. I'm content with whatever works in this case.

"You think Chris would like some help?"

"I do not think he'd object unduly." I smile. "And I do believe my afternoon is free. Yours?"

"I can make some time."

"Excellent." I wave a hand toward the door. "Shall we locate Mr. Larabee and express our willingness to assist him in his endeavor to improve the lives of our fellow peacekeepers?"

"Yeah." Vin nods, grinning like a little boy who's just been promised his favorite candy.

I can't resist that grin, nor do I want to. I lean and taste it. Oh yes, just as sweet as it looked.

I force myself to pull back before that moment of indulgence becomes so much more. I shake myself, trying to focus. "Work first, yes." I meet his sparkling eyes with a leer. "Reward later."

"Long as I get a reward." Vin laughingly agrees. "Make sure ya don't forget."

"Not possible." I could no more forget this man than I could forget to breathe.

I gesture toward the door. "After you, Mr. Tanner."

He gives me a heated look when I lightly pat his derrière on our way out. I will be looking forward to the retribution such a look promises me. As I said before, if I'm going to hell, I fully intend to have earned my place there. And I am confident that if I am to be sentenced, this man will be there with me, willing, eager, ready to brave whatever the afterlife has in store for us.