Skinning the Cat

Just a bit of C/V fluff that demanded to be written. A cougar, a creek, some sex...

Vin stepped off the boardwalk to cross the street to the general store, scuffing his boots in the dirt, idly watching the clouds of dust he raised with each step. A fine spring day like this still had a way of making him feel like a kid. If it had rained, he'd probably be hopping in the puddles. He chuckled at his foolishness. Skirting the rump of the fractious bay tied to the rail in front of the store, he stepped up onto the walk, only to be nearly bowled over by a tornado disguised as a small boy.

"Mr. Vin! Mr. Vin!" The boy was nearly out of breath, his eyes wide as he grabbed Vin's arm and held on. "The cougar. I saw it, honest I did."

"Easy, boy." Vin Tanner leaned down, one hand on his knee, the other on the boy's shoulder. "What are you on about?"

The boy took a deep breath and started again. "A cougar. I saw a cougar. Out with the chickens. Really early this morning." The boy looked at his feet, then back up at Vin. "I had to get up early. I ... I needed to ..." He blushed with embarrassment.

Vin took pity on the boy. "And you saw the cougar." The boy nodded. "Did you tell your pa?"

More vigorous nods. "Uh huh. I sure did. Told him if anyone could get it that you could. Told him Mr. Vin could track anything." Another beseeching look in his direction. "You can, can't you? You can get the cougar?"

He straightened up, looking at the boy's tousled hair and wide brown eyes. The hero worship made him uneasy, but the disappointment on the boy's face if he didn't say he'd go after the cat would be worse. "Yeah, most likely I can find the cat. If I do, you want the hide?" The grin on the boy's face was all the answer he needed.

"Mr. Tanner." Vin looked up to see Luke Samuels coming down the boardwalk toward him. "Hope my boy hasn't been making too much of a nuisance of himself."

Vin smiled. "No, sir. He's been tellin' me about a cougar been around your place."

"And, Pa," the young Samuels now had hold of his father's hand and was grinning back at Vin, "Mr. Vin says he'll bring me the hide!"

"Well, it's true enough Toby saw a cougar." Samuels rubbed a hand across his mouth. "I don't want to impose on you, though."

"No imposition. If there's a big cat comin' that close to town, he's either old or mean or both, and that makes him a danger to us all." He shifted his feet and looked across the street and around town. No one much stirring; Buck was leaning back in a chair in front of the saloon, his hat over his eyes, J.D. was chatting with Josiah on the church steps, Nathan was shaking out rugs on the porch in front of his clinic. No reason not to take some time and hunt for this cat. Returning his gaze to Samuels, he went on, "I'll get a few supplies and meet you at your place in an hour, alright?"

Samuels let out a breath that could only have been relief. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner. We'll be there."

Vin watched as father and son turned and went back to the feed store, then settled his mind to figuring what he'd need to track the cougar. Food for a day or two, cartridges, oil cloth to wrap the hide in and salt to start the tanning, and an extra blanket for his bedroll. Still a bit chilly at night, even though spring was well on its way to being summer. The only thing he'd need from the store was some jerky and coffee.

Nodding to himself, his plans made, he opened the door to the general store. Mrs. Potter made short work of his order, jerky and coffee, and at last thought, an extra box of shells. Next, he stopped at his wagon and put together his pack and bedroll, then off to the livery for his horse. Spending a few extra minutes to curry out the last of its loose winter coat, he saddled the black gelding, tied his supplies and bedroll to the saddle and led the horse to the street.

It was late morning now and he had to admit to himself that hunting the cougar was almost an excuse to take some time and ride out in the open countryside. The air smelled clear and fresh, the warmth of the sun drew him out and the blue of the sky was a tempting ceiling to the day. Swinging up into the saddle, he shook his head. It was too easy to be distracted when spring made itself known like this.

Reining his horse over, Vin rode slowly down the street, stopping in front of the saloon. "Hey, Buck! You awake there?"

Buck sat forward, the front legs of the chair dropping to the boardwalk with a thump, pushed his hat back on his head and looked at Vin. "Yeah, I am now. You going somewhere?"

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "I'm heading out to Luke Samuels to see about picking up the trail of a cougar been after his stock."

A sleepy grin split Buck's face. "Convenient thing, cougars. Gives you that excuse you been looking for to get out of town for a bit."

"It's a real enough cougar, scared young Toby half to death." Vin smiled as he leaned on his saddle horn. "But I'll agree that a few days out in the hills won't be a hardship."

Buck nodded, then leaned back against the saloon wall again. "You be careful till you get that cat. Don't want to have to come huntin' for you."

"I'll do that. Won't be more than a couple days." With a nod, he kneed his horse into a walk and headed out of town. At the edge of town, he picked up a jog, then an easy lope for the couple of miles out to the Samuels' spread.

The Samuels' ranch was set up in the hills, against the forest of scrub pine. The house was neatly whitewashed, as was the chicken-house off to the side and the corral and barn behind. Toby ran out to the porch as Vin rode up, eagerly taking his reins and tying them to the rail in front of the house.

"I can show you the tracks, Mr. Vin, the cougar, he had big feet!" Toby had latched onto the sleeve of his coat and was pulling him toward the chicken-house.

Vin followed along, eyes sweeping the ground as they went, looking for sign that might have eluded a small boy, but it appeared that the cougar had kept to the area around the chickens. Easy pickings, Vin thought. The tracks led in from the pine behind the house and back out the same way as the cat retreated.

"You only see him the one time, Toby?" Vin asked.

"Yes, sir, just the once." Toby nodded vigorously.

"Toby!" The shout came from Luke Samuels. "Let Mr. Tanner do his job and stop bothering him."

Toby looked disappointed, and Vin smiled at him. "You ain't a bother, but best you run along like your pa says." Toby's frown turned to a smile as he nodded and ran to the house.

Rather than being left alone to read the tracks, though, Vin was joined by the elder Samuels. "I didn't want to scare Toby, but last night weren't the only time that cat's been down here. One of my goats turned up dead last week. I followed the tracks myself, got one shot at him, but then I lost him in the trees. Hoped I'd scared him off."

"He come in a different way that time?"

Luke shook his head. "Not really. Came from the same part of the hills and went back the same way. I figure he must live up there."

Vin nodded once. Made sense. Cat living in the hills and trees, found an easy source of food, he'd keep bothering the ranch until he was stopped. "All right, then, I'll see if I can't get the drop on him."

He took a few more minutes to check along the tree line and near the barn and corral, and found one more old trail the cat had left, also leading up into the hills. When he made his way back to the house, Toby was holding a bucket of water for his horse, and Marge Samuels was on the porch with a bundle wrapped in a checked cloth.

"I packed you some sandwiches, just bread and ham, but they should keep for a day or two," Marge said, holding out the bundle. "And you come back here when you're done hunting and I'll make a right proper dinner."

"Thank you, ma'am." Vin took the bundle and secured it to the pommel of his saddle. "I'll look forward to that." Untying his reins from the porch, he swung aboard his horse. With a wave to the family and a smile for Toby, Vin headed to the tree line and the most recent tracks, slowly following the trail up through the trees.

The trail continued up a ways, then turned east, toward the river. The cat wasn't moving fast, and, if Vin was reading the sign correctly, it had something wrong with one of its legs, still another reason for it to be looking for easy pickings.

By mid-afternoon, the trail had led him several miles to a small valley fed by a creek that ran to the river. And there, resting on a rock, was the cougar. Hardly seemed fair to draw down on the animal while it slept, but where cougars who stalked ranches were concerned, Vin wasn't inclined to be fair. He pulled his long rifle out of its scabbard and jacked a shell into the chamber. The sound traveled in the valley, startling the cat. It stood up on the rock, peering in his direction as if seeking with all its senses, and when it turned, Vin saw what was wrong. The cat was limping on a back leg, and Vin was sure it had been broken by a steel trap and not healed properly. Cat was lucky to be alive. Or unlucky.

Lifting the rifle, Vin took aim. He hesitated a moment, deciding if he should attempt a head shot to keep the hide whole, but, in the end, he took the sure shot to the body, not wanting a wounded or angry cougar on his hands. One shot was all it took, and the cat went down in a heap, lying still.

Keeping his rifle at the ready, Vin rode up to the cat, watching carefully for any sign of life, but the animal didn't move. The closer they got, the more his horse tensed at being near the predator, but Vin pushed him on. A dozen feet from the cat, his horse stopped, snorting, refusing to go any closer.

"It's all right, boy, he's dead." Vin patted his horse on the neck, then dismounted. Leading the horse away from the cat, Vin tied him to a tree, then opened his saddlebag and pulled out his skinning knife. This would be a messy business, but he'd promised Toby the hide.

Too messy, he thought. The sun was high and the valley was warm, so the only sensible thing to do was take off his coat and shirt while he worked.

It was as messy as it always was, but since this wasn't the first cougar he'd skinned, it didn't take too long. He dragged the naked carcass some distance away and covered it with what rocks and brush were loose and easily at hand. It wasn't that he needed to hide the dead cougar, but if he was going to camp by the creek that night, he didn't want to be looking at the thing.

The hardest part was spreading the hide out and scraping it clean of the last of the meat and fat so that he could start the curing. The last thing he did to the skin was spread a layer of salt on the raw side. That would be enough to keep it until he could finish the job proper.

That taken care of, it was time to set up camp. He rinsed his knife in the creek, and washed his hands as well. His horse was dozing where he was tied, but woke when Vin laid a hand on his rump.

"Sorry to leave you standing here, but I wasn't sure we were staying." The horse looked at him as if in understanding, and Vin laughed. "Give me a few minutes and I'll let you go find some of that nice grass." The few minutes was all it took to set up a small camp on the bank and to unsaddle the horse. Vin led him down to the creek for a drink, then after he'd had his fill, led him up to the small meadow, not turning him loose until he'd put on the grazing hobbles.

Now to get himself cleaned up. His union suit was stained and sticky from his work, and he was sweaty enough to find the thought of a swim in the creek to be extremely tempting. Why not? He was out here alone, miles from town, miles from the closest ranch. No reason at all not to strip down, wash his things and then enjoy the warm spring day.

His damp union suit made an interesting banner hanging from the tree near his campsite, faded pink with age, but now at least it was clean and would be dry in a few hours. Next thing to wash was himself.

Snatching up his bar of lye soap, Vin gave a shout and ran into the creek, still cool enough to be refreshing, but not so cold as to drive him out from the chill. He scrubbed himself down, taking time to comb his fingers through his hair, untangling it as he rinsed out the soap. It felt good, relaxing in the creek, washing away the sweat and grime, touching himself with a freedom he never felt when he bathed in the public bath house.

He was half-hard when he finally left the creek, and it felt good. He loved being in the wild, feeling as if he was part of the forest. Not that town was bad, but it had moments of being too stifling, too confining. At his camp, he wiped himself mostly dry with his soft linen towel, then looked at the rocks that reached out over the creek. Yes, that would be the best place to dry off. Laid out in all his glory, letting the sun do the job. As a precaution, he picked up his mare's leg to take with him. A naked man might not have much defense, but a naked man with a gun was another thing entirely.

Grinning at himself, Vin climbed up the rocks, finding the perfect spot. In the sun now, but where the shade would come as the sun moved to the west. Spreading out his towel, he lay on his belly, letting the warmth of the sun settle into his skin. He'd thought to nap, but his body had other ideas, his half-hard cock having more than kept his attention.

Rolling to his back, Vin ran his hands over his chest, over his nipples, enjoying the brush of his callused fingers against them, feeling the tight nubs that formed as he did it. The distant nicker from his horse distracted him, and he turned enough to see what it was calling to, and wasn't surprised at what he saw.

Grinning, he lay back down, again simply touching himself, stroking his belly, the points of his hips, across his nipples, not touching his cock, but more than aware of its hardening as it lay against his belly.

The rider drew closer to his camp, calling out as he approached. "Chris coming in."

He didn't answer, just lay there and listened as Chris rode in and dismounted.

"See you got the cat."

Rolling onto his side, Vin grinned at Chris. "Nothing gets past you."

Chris was standing over the hide staked out in the sun. "Hard to, with this in the middle of your camp." He turned to look at Vin, and a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Looks like somebody skinned you while they were at it."

"Nah, just had to wash up a bit after I finished with the hide." He shifted, putting himself more on display for Chris. "You need an excuse to skin down?"

"No, don't think I do." Chris stood for a moment, rubbing a hand over his crotch. "I'll be along directly."

Vin didn't think he'd seen a horse untacked and put out to graze so fast in a long time. And now, Chris was standing in his camp, holding his gaze as he undressed. Just watching Chris as each piece of clothing was removed had Vin aching to touch him. When Chris was fully naked, he started toward the rocks, climbing up to sit next to Vin.

"Pretty spot."

"Yeah." Vin reached out and touched Chris's chest. "Like this spot, too." He stroked his fingers over Chris's belly, the muscles shuddering at his light touch, and down until his hand curled around Chris's cock. "Like this spot best." He leaned in toward Chris, stopping with his mouth only inches away, forcing Chris to close the distance.

And close it Chris did, lunging forward, making contact with a vengeance, sealing their mouths together in a kiss as they fell back, ending up with Chris on top of him. "See what happens when you tease?" Chris's eyes crinkled at the corners with his smile.

"Hell, if that's what I get, I'll have to do it more often." Vin's laugh was cut short by another kiss, and the rest of his attention was drawn to Chris's hand stroking his cock. The grip was strong and commanding, and he pushed up into Chris's hand, urging him on.

He'd lost his hold on Chris's cock when he fell backward, and now twisted enough to regain it, stroking hard, chuckling deep in his chest when Chris's hand faltered, then moaned as the grip on him tightened again.

Shifting closer, Vin pressed his forehead into Chris's shoulder, concentrating on the touches on his body, on his own hands working Chris's body, on the grunts and sighs from both of them.

It felt so good, this freedom to touch, to be touched, and he wanted it to go on and on, but he could feel his body surging toward its finish. Chris's hands, the whispers in his ear, the press of his body all pushed him higher until he was exploding, jerking against Chris as he came, feeling the splatter on his belly.

Vin shuddered as his body relaxed, leaning into Chris, letting his mind go for a moment, startled when Chris's hand moved over his own, guiding his touch on Chris's cock.

Stroking fast, gripping hard, it was only a few minutes before Chris was there, body hot and tight, spilling over his hand and on his chest.

Laughing softly with how good he felt, Vin pulled Chris close, holding him, keeping them skin to skin for as long as he could. Eventually, though, shade crept over the rocks and he started to feel the chill.

He sat up and looked at Chris. "Hey." Chris opened his eyes. "Think I'm going to get dressed and make a fire. You staying out here tonight?"

Chris rubbed a hand across his face. "Yeah, told Buck not to look for me until tomorrow."

Vin nodded, smiling. He'd expected as much. "Good." He stood and stretched before climbing down off the rock. His union suit was dry and warm from the sun, and in a few minutes he was dressed and putting a match to the tinder he'd gathered for the fire.

As he watched the kindling catch, Chris came and sat next to him, close enough for their shoulders to touch. "I see you started tanning the hide."

"Yeah, I promised it to Toby." He reached forward and added some wood to the fire. "Figure if it's okay with his pa, I'll show him how to work on it."

Chris looked around. "Think I might have to come back here some time. Even if there are no cougars to hunt. Or cougar hunters to hunt."

"It's a mighty pretty spot," Vin agreed. "And off the beaten track." He looked Chris in the eyes. "I might have to come up after you, see that you don't get lost in the wilds on your own."

Laughing aloud, Chris shook his head. "Now that's a mighty comforting thought."