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Author's Chapter Notes: Thanks to my dear friends WB and PeeK for getting me started on this and reading all the bits and pieces. Any mistakes are mine. No obvious slashiness in this chapter, but plenty implied. No pies were harmed in the writing of this fic!
The day of the celebration finally arrived; a soft breeze blew puffy white clouds across the blue sky. Not too cool, not too warm; perfect weather for the many planned outdoor activities. There were races of every kind, contests for the biggest and best of all the local produce and of course cooking contests. Chris smirked as he watched JD’s attempts at escorting Casey Wells to the various booths proudly displaying homemade jars of jellies, jams, relishes, and breads. The head-strong young woman rolled her eyes at these maidenly skills and stalked off towards the livestock contests.
A raised voice made Chris turn to an even more humorous sight, Josiah was making his infamous chili and had persuaded Nathan to be a taster. The healer was now attempting to swallow an entire bucket of water while sweating profusely and flapping his hands rapidly. Chris grinned more broadly, he could have told Nate and JD they were making mistakes, but some things a man had to learn for himself. Experience was the best teacher after all.
Now if Larabee could just live through his own experience this afternoon he’d be doing much better tonight. Chris had plans for tonight, and at that thought the grin turned positively wicked. Another round of half strangled curses drew him back to watching Nathan and Josiah. The tracker had joined the two and was holding a ladle full of Josiah’s chili. From the wary expression on Vin’s face Chris could tell he was considering tasting the contents. Chris frowned, if Vin scorched his mouth and tongue or became violently ill, Larabee might have to revise his plans.
“Hey Tanner!” Chris called out, “You ain’t been in the desert too long have you boy?” With a gesture at the still suffering healer, Chris shook his head in warning.
“Ah now Chris, ya know I like my food on the spicy side a lot more than Nate does.” Vin held the ladle up under his nose and inhaled deeply. “Smells mighty good to me Josiah.”
“Go on Vin give it a try, Nate probably just bit down on a Chiltepin* or maybe one of the Habanero**, I tried to take ‘em all out but I guess I missed one or two.” Josiah seemed to truly regret Nathan’s predicament, offering the healer a beer. Nathan shook his head and managed to gasp out a garbled request for milk.
Vin nodded in agreement with Josiah, Chris went into Mrs. Tipper’s café and requested a glass of milk for Nathan. On his return, Chris found Vin sucking great gulps of air into his mouth, but not unduly upset. Between gasps of air he nodded and smiled, even taking another bite of the fiery chili. Chris shrugged and handed Nathan the glass of cool milk.
Buck came wandering over Miss Millie’s arm tucked into his, a huge grin on his face. “What y’all boys up to here?” Buck’s eyes held more heat than the damned peppers, as they met Chris’s over the ever resistant Millie’s head. Vin chortled and nearly choked on his last bite. Millie giggled prettily.
“Not much Bucklin, Josiah’s working on his chili, Nathan is recovering from tasting it. Vin’s trying to get his breath back but seemed to like it well enough.” Chris let the intensity in his gaze travel over the lanky gunslinger’s body and was delighted with the way Buck shifted as if he could feel the heat. Busy hiding the smirk that swept over his face Chris was surprised when Buck challenged him.
“You gonna try it Stud?” Buck’s subtle movement made Chris’s breath catch. Damn the man! Right here in broad daylight in front of this silly little tease of a girl, Buck was sending him very obvious signals. Vin saw it, so did Josiah, though the grizzled gunfighter, former priest only huffed out a quiet and ambiguous chuckle. Nathan was still too busy recovering from his near combustion to notice much of any thing, fortunately. Vin, on the other hand focused hooded eyes hungrily on him and the little smile that caressed the tracker’s lips made Chris feel like a little lamb confronting a big bad wolf!
Time to regain control of this situation. “No I got to save myself for later.” Noncommittal enough to avoid any misunderstandings by innocent young girls. Yet hinting at better things to come with the night. Buck’s eyes sparkled and Vin ducked his head to hide his thoughts, always a good sign. Now perhaps a strategic retreat was in order? “Think I’ll take a look at the horses.” Chris sauntered away.
The day was whiled away with out further indiscretions by either Chris or his friends. Josiah’s chili was pronounced the hottest, a dubious honor but highly satisfying to the former priest. JD squired Casey to the bulldogging contest and got to hold her hand, bringing a glow of happiness to both their faces. Chris caught sight of Buck kissing Miss Millie’s hand and accepting a token from her as he mounted for his first race. But it was only to be expected, people would have talked if Buck didn’t kiss some girl here today. The races were exciting, Buck did well until Steele came up lame.
Chris offered condolences but Buck seemed more concerned over his mount’s welfare than the outcome of the races. Typically; as soon as he and Tiny ascertained that Steele was not seriously injured, merely a stone bruise that would heal with proper care, Buck was all grins and congratulations for the winners.
Finally, the time came for the pie judging. Chris had managed to stay well away from that area of the fair, he wanted no accusations of improprieties. Now he found himself staring at a table laden with perfect examples of apple pies. If the smells emanating from them were any clue all six were delicious. Chris straightened his shoulders, maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. A knife, fork and pie plate were placed before each offering, he had no clues as to who had baked what, indeed he realized he wasn’t even sure who all had entered in the end. There were at least three mystery entries!
Releasing a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding Chris cut into the first pie. Nicely golden crust, pleasing aroma, now just a small bite… whoa a little heavy on the cloves. He managed to chew and swallow, keeping his face as smooth a mask as Ezra at his best. Next pie, crust a little too done, tough… hey this could be pretty easy. Truthfully, Chris’s greatest fear had been he would not be able to tell the difference; apparently that would not be a problem! With increasing confidence Chris moved to the next pie.
The third pie was delicious, crust flaky, apples just the correct degree of tenderness without being too soft, nice cinnamon flavor, but not overpowering. So number three was good. Chris dared to raise his eyes and met the crafty clear green orbs of the gambler. Good Lord! Did Ezra have bets on this contest too. Quickly Chris moved on to the next entry, it looked good but as soon as he bit down he knew - apples overcooked, mushy. No problem eliminating this one. Only two more to go, Chris gave a quick glance up the table to see if there were any obvious defects he could pick out visually. No, both looked temptingly golden brown.
Still Chris reckoned he was doing great, so far. Now for number five, yes good crust, apples quite good too, okay so maybe it would boil down to these two number three and five. Larabee wondered if it would be possible to have a tie? Keep moving, don’t linger. The last pie seemed good. Crust? Perfect. Apples? Damn! Flawless seasoning too! As far as Chris could tell numbers three, five, and six were perfectly delicious examples of apple pies. Shit! How to decide?
A murmur was growing in the crowd, Chris looked up to see Tanner and Wilmington standing directly across from him grinning like the fools they were! A bona fide Larabee death glare shot across the room at them, typically ineffectual on those two. In his irritation Chris made the mistake of glancing around the room, Nettie Wells, Mary Travis, and Gloria Potter were watching him intently.
Quickly Chris dropped his eyes, no that was a mistake. Show no fear! He knew that rule from his earliest days as a gunfighter. Nodding his head as if considering his choices Chris moved with slow deliberation back up the table. He stopped at the third pie and lifted the entire pan up to sniff it. Searching for any subtle differences from the other two he’d liked he stalked down the row to the fifth pie and repeated the process. Finally, he sniffed the sixth pie. A grin settled on Larabee’s face. Decision made.
Walking back to the head of the table Chris lifted the ribbons, still grinning he lay down his the white, red and blue ribbons and looked up. Silence reigned. Chris frowned, something was definitely wrong. Then all at once everyone was talking!
Casey was happily hugging JD and waving her white ribbon in her aunt’s face. Nettie patted her niece’s back and shot a glare at Chris, then turned on her heel and left. Following close behind her was Gloria Potter, muttering and clucking about a man not knowing the first thing about baking. Chris looked around to see who had claimed second and first place.
“Well, well, well. Just as I conjectured.” Ezra’s sultry drawl sounded right beside him, the gambler was waving a handful of cash. Chris felt a snarl trying to erupt.
“What’s going on Ezra?” Chris growled.
Gesturing behind him Standish sniffed, “As you’ll no doubt recall I wondered if they might enter.” Chris opened his mouth to snap out something… and left his mouth hanging open at the sight of Buck waving a red ribbon in his hand and Vin proudly pinning the blue to his own shirt! “I felt sure that those two would best know what pleased you Mr. Larabee,” and a smug Ezra strolled away, passing a highly irritated Mary Travis as he exited the tent.
Chris took one look at Mary, who was now moving purposely towards him, and decided that discretion was the better part. He hurried in the opposite direction and made for the livery. As he saddled Pony, he made dire promises under his breath. With almost unseemly haste, Chris mounted and rode out of the stable at a trot, he didn’t slow down until he crested the hill outside of town. Looking back with a sigh Chris headed for his cabin, hopefully Buck and the others would figure out where and why he’d left.