Tens Years - And Counting
Disclaimer: The men from Mag7 belong to others. I just like to mess with them.
Warnings: There is no excuse for this. My angsty, smarmy, h/c-addicted evil twin took complete control of this fic. Death of minor characters, emphasis on the word minor (including a horse or two, sorry). A little cursing, a little m/m sex (nothing graphic).
Note: This story was written foe the ten year anniversary challenge. All seven are here, but this is first and foremost a love story.
Theres nothing more I can do, Chris. Im sorry.
Nathans standing across from me, and I finally catch on that his mouth has quit moving so it must be my turn to speak. I havent been listening to him, though, so Im not sure how to respond. A nod generally works, so thats what I do.
Apparently that wasnt what he was looking for, though, because he latches onto my arm and gets close dangerously close to my face.
Chris, youve got to listen t me now. He aint gonna get better.
Yeah, he is. But I dont bother to say it. Nathans been arguing with me for going on a week now, so I reckon hes not about to start listening.
Go on home, Nathan. Ill take care of him.
He shakes his head. I aint leavin you alone, not now.
Dont recall askin, I say.
Im getting irritated. Bad enough that Ive had to watch Vin suffer like he has for the last six days, I dont need Nathan bucking against me right now.
He dips his head, and when he lifts his chin and meets my eyes, I see tears there. And I sure dont need his pity, so I take him by the arm and herd him towards the door. Its probably not the wisest thing to do Nathans pretty much a doctor now, and Vin can use all the help he can get. But we dont need his sad sack thoughts any more than we need Josiah and his worthless prayers. I threw him out, too, not more than an hour ago.
But Nathan aint goin away easy. Chris, listen to me. It wont be long now, and I should-
I finish his sentence. - be on your way.
I understand how you feel, but -
Thats always the wrong thing to say. Youd think everyone would know that by now.
You dont have a clue how I feel, so dont even say it.
Weve all lost people we care about, Chris.
Thats true. Nathan still grieves for Dr. Miller, the man who moved to town five years back and took Nathan on as an apprentice. He was a fine man who didnt care that Nathan was colored, and he taught him everything he knew. It was a good thing, too, because six months ago, the good doctor was killed in a freak accident hit by lightening while riding back to town after delivering a baby at one of the local ranches. Nathan took it real hard, was still prone to bouts of depression over it.
I guess thats why Nathan never did marry; he just couldnt get over the idea that he was bound to lose everyone he loved. And its sad to say, but maybe thats true for him.
Before the doc died, I used to joke with Vin that maybe he and Nathan had something going on between the sheets. Maybe we werent the only ones that were fucked up. Vin thought that was real funny. He said Nathan would no sooner give himself over to another man than he would give himself to his horse.
But no matter how much Nathan loved that man or anyone else, he still doesnt know. And it makes me angry, I guess, because I lash out at him. Did you sleep with the Doc, Nathan? Did you feel his skin against yours every night? Did you wake up to his breath in your ear? Did his heart beat in time with yours?
No, Chris, Nathan says very softly.
Then dont tell me how I feel. Dont tell me what you think you know because you dont know a damn thing.
He turns away then, but I see him wipe a tear from his eye. Its absurdly important all of the sudden to offer him something, some kind of comfort. Its not his fault that he doesnt understand.
Hes not gonna die, Nathan. Dont grieve for him. Or for me.
Theres no answer, so I guess hes given up on me. Five minutes later hes gone, and I can finally move back to Vins side. One of the hardest things about this last week is that I havent been able to hold Vins hand. His fingers are too torn up. Damn barbed wire did its job. Fact is, theres not much of him I can touch without hurting him.
Ill never forget it seeing him and that stubborn mule of his all twisted up together in that god-awful mess. He was late coming in, so I went out looking for him. Something told me he was in trouble. But trouble didnt begin to describe it.
He probably tore up his hands trying to work that horse free, with no mind to how badly he was caught as well. Near as I can figure, the horse stumbled for some reason - maybe it was a snake or a stone in his shoe hell, I dont know. I just know somehow he went down smack on top of that razor-sharp barbed wire fence those railroad guys had recently put up.
Nothing panics an animal worse than getting caught in a fence. That horse must have bucked and rolled, and Vin with him, until they were both caught good. Vin was bleeding pretty bad by the time I found him, but his hands were the worst. Nathan figures thats where it started, the infection that hes so sure will take Vins life.
I had to put the horse down, though I havent told Vin that yet. It can wait until hes better. Thank goodness hes not as attached to this one as he was to Peso. Vin cried for hours when Peso died a few years back. Oh, he acted like he didnt, but I knew what he was doing back behind the barn. Still, hell take it hard that I had to put this one down.
Buck accused me of doing it out anger; said JD told him the horse could have been saved. Its not true. I mean, yeah, I was pissed. It took me an hour to get Vin free and another hour to get him back to the house, and by then, I was scared half out of my mind. But thats not why I did it. The animal was cut up a hundred different ways and there was no way I could save him. Besides, Vin was a little more important at the time, and Ill never apologize for that.
Nathan says he has blood poisoning. I know what that means. I understand why Nathan thinks what he does. But its not gonna happen. I wont let the devil win this time.
But just in case he does, Im ready. I got my gun loaded and I got no problem pulling the trigger. They can lay us in the ground together. Thats the way we want it. Although, I probably shouldnt mention that to Vin, either. He might not have meant it quite that literally when he said we would ride into hell together.
His voice is so weak now that Im not sure if he actually spoke my name or if I just heard it in my head. I get down as close to his face as I can without leaning on his bandaged chest. Hes cut just about everywhere, and thats the worst of it, not being able to hold him.
Ive gotten good at pretending. Ive been with Vin so many times, that I know the feel of every bone, every muscle, every inch of his skin, so its not hard to imagine that Im holding him close right now. Its the same for him, I know. Because sometimes, when the fever is burning bright, hell smile at me and tell me how good it feels to be in my arms. It doesnt matter that its not true, that hes lying in bed torn apart and bandaged up. All that matters is that he thinks Ive got him.
And I do, in a way. Ive got his back, like always. I wont let him go.
I tell him that all that with my eyes, and he understands. Funny how me and Vin can speak without talking, when no amount of words can get the message through to our stubborn friends.
Remember? he says, and his mouth tips up in a smile, The first time? His eyes are so bright, I swear they could light up the night sky.
Its a good moment; hes with me now. It wont last long, but Ill take what I can get.
I smile in return. Yeah. I remember.
He closes his eyes, but hes still smiling, and I can tell that hes remembering how it was almost a decade ago . . .
Vin was pretty certain that Chris Larabee had lost his damn fool mind, but hed gone back for him anyway. That dirty, scheming, no-account woman was not going to get her hooks into his friend hed drag Larabee away by the hair if he had to. Of course, it didnt come to that. Nope. Instead, he had to pick Larabee up off the ground after hed gotten a bullet in his chest.
Vin couldnt remember ever being so scared in his life. Hed missed Ella by a hairs breath, only because his hands were shaking too bad to shoot straight. Hed gone after her, too, but he never did find her.
Two months had passed since that terrible gunfight; two months of endless patrols in case that witch doubled back, two months of long, sleepless nights . . . two months of avoiding Chris.
He was glad that Chris was healing up alright, that was the most important thing. But he couldnt talk to him like he used to; he couldnt even look him in the eye. The harsh words between them at the party sat heavy in his heart. He never expected that Chris would doubt him like that.
It was Buck who spurred him to set things right. He said Chris was grieving his family all over again, and he didnt need any more hurt in his heart. Buck had looked straight at him when he said that, and Vin had felt his face flush with shame.
It wasnt about him. It was never about him.
So he rode out to Chriss place that afternoon, determined to clear the air between them.
Chris was out in front of his cabin, nailing down the floor boards on his porch. He had his shirt off, and Vin could easily see the scar from the bullet, but he could also see that Chris was healing up just fine. He looked good, in fact - damn good - and Vin had to remind himself that Larabee wasnt the kind of man to take kindly to another man looking.
Chris smiled when he approached, though. Vin? Everything alright in town?
Yeah. I just, uh . . . I just thought you could use some help out here.
With a shrug, Chris replied. I wont turn y down if youre offering.
He was offering. He took his place on the porch and was soon surprised at how good it felt just being in Larabees presence again.
After an hour had passed, Chris sat back and wiped his hand across his forehead. Shit, Vin, its hotter than hell out here. Why dont you take your shirt off?
With a grimace, Vin answered him. Prefer not to.
It came out before he could stop himself. Maybe I aint as pretty as you.
Chris dropped his hammer, stunned. But then he looked at Vin and grinned, Hell, youre about as pretty as any cowboy Ive ever seen, Tanner.
Vin rolled his eyes. You know what I mean.
The smile vanished as Chris gently replied, Actually, I dont know, Vin. What are you afraid of? None of the others have any problem being seen. Hell, Buck and Ezra practically walked through town naked. But you you layer up like youre gettin set for a blizzard even in the dead of summer. What are you hiding, Pard?
That was his undoing Chriss compassion. He hadnt expected it and he didnt quite know what to make of it. But it was hot and getting hotter by the moment.
He took his shirt off.
They were sitting across from each other on the floor of the porch, Vin had one leg curled up beneath him and the other stretched out to the side. It took him a moment to realize that Chris was staring at him. He blushed.
You got nothing to be ashamed of, Chris said softly. And before Vin could even grasp what was happening, Chris was right there next to him, those long fingers ghosting over the scars on his chest. He whispered, Dont like it when were at odds, Vin. I need you.
It was so unexpected that Vin gasped. You need me?
Yeah. Spent the last two months thinking about how I nearly screwed things up between us.
You had some help with that, Vin returned dryly.
Thats no excuse, Chris replied but his voice trailed off as his fingers finally made contact with skin.
Vin thought he should probably say something, but he was as mesmerized by the look on Chriss face as Chris apparently was by the shiny, white marks on his chest.
Who hurt you, Vin? Why?
Dont matter now.
Chris smiled and dropped his hand, but he didnt move away. Youre right. I dont wanna live in the past anymore, either.
So what do you want, Larabee? Vin asked. It had to be the heat, fooling with his head and his mouth. But Chris was so close, and that look in his eyes . . . maybe, maybe they both wanted the same things after all.
Instead of answering, Chris turned up one corner of his mouth in a lopsided smile and asked, You ever been with a man, Vin?
Leave it to Larabee to trump his question with an even harder question, Vin thought. How the hell was he supposed to answer that? If he said yes, Chris would think he was less of a man. But if he said no, would Chris back away? And could he lie to him anyway?
As usual, Chris must have sensed his discomfort, because he quickly added, It doesnt matter to me. A man has to satisfy his needs somehow.
Some men apparently have more needs than others, Vin huffed. To his chagrin, his tone expressed more hurt than reproach, and he wished he could snatch the words back the moment he said them.
Aint denying that, Chris said evenly. From what Ive observed, I need it more often than you do and I sure aint as choosey where I get it from. But we werent talking about me, we were talking about you.
Aw hell, Vin rasped, when did we ever need t talk at all?
And then it was him doing the touching. His hand slid up Larabees arm, skimmed along his shoulder, and floated across the tight muscles of his chest. Before he could change his mind, he forcefully pushed Chris down to his back and leaned in against him, although he wasnt sure yet whether he was going to wrestle Larabee or kiss him senseless.
But as usual, Chris took control before he got a chance to make up his mind. Shouldve known youd like it fast and rough. Chris laughed as he turned the tables on him by flipping him over onto his back. He leaned in close and added, But its my house, so if you want it out here, than youre the one getting splinters in your ass. Or your knees. Your choice.
And then Chris put his mouth on him, and Vin decided the man could have him anywhere he wanted him, anyway he wanted him . . . for as long as he lived.
The porch is Vins favorite place to make love. I cant say that I understand that, but hell, as long as hes on the bottom and doesnt mind getting splinters in his backside, who am I to argue? Thereve been a few times when we damn near got caught out there. I think Vin likes that element of danger - he never was one to shy away from a challenge.
Thats how I know he wont die. Besides, we have an agreement that I get to die first. Its unspoken, but he knows that it has to be that way because hes stronger than I am. I dont mind admitting it. Now Im not saying he wouldnt do the same thing Im gonna do if he doesnt make it through this. I imagine he would. And thats just fine. He can blow his brains out the second I leave this earth, just as long as Im not there to see it, to know it, to feel it.
I dont know how we got to be this way so tied up in each other that theres no telling where one of us ends and the other begins. And I dont why. I just know it all started eight years ago when Vin rode out to help me work on my cabin. We took each other that day, and pretty much every day since. Of course theres more to it than that more to us than that. But most folks wouldnt see that, if they knew about us. Theyd be so disgusted by what we do with our bodies that they wouldnt care about the rest of it.
Our friends know. One by one, they figured it out, and one by one, they made a choice to stick by us. Took some longer than others, but they all came around eventually.
We built Vin a cabin on the other side of my property, just to keep it quiet. Told folks that we were starting a ranch together, which is what we did. But Vin has never slept there, in his place, not once. Even when were mad as hornets at each other, we share the same bed. I dont know how to sleep alone anymore, and I got no intention of remembering how.
Vin stirs, so I make him drink more water. I figure thats the best thing for him. Im not a doctor, but I know that water is the best way to wash out sickness. He moans softly and tries to raise his hand to touch my face.
I gently place his bandaged fingers back on the bed and soothe him by brushing the hair off his face. The fever is rising again, but thats alright. It always gets worse as the day wears on. Hell be better in the morning.
A few minutes later, some of the water comes back up. I roll him onto his side and he whimpers a little, but its better than it was. When he first got sick, his stomach turned inside out with so much force that tears rolled down his face every time. About killed me to see him that way. But now, he hardly seems to notice. Ill wait a bit, and well try again.
I hear a sound outside, and I groan. They cant seem to leave us alone, no matter how many times I ask them to. I go to the door, determined not to let anyone in, but Buck has already barged in, as usual.
Before I can say anything, Buck holds up his hand and says, I know you dont want company, but Vins been my friend for ten years and-
Seven, I say. Ill not credit Buck with the three years he ran out on us.
Months after me and Vin took up with each other, Buck found out and he didnt like it. He ended up leaving town that same week. Three years later, he came back with a wife. Somehow, hed found Louisa Perkins and he really had married her. They have two little girls now.
Dont matter how long. Hes my friend, Chris. I got a right to see him when hes, he pauses and swallows, whens hes sick.
I ponder it a minute. Alright. Just for a few minutes.
I follow him in to the bedroom, and I hear him quietly gasp, Damn, Vin.
I dont know why hes acting so shocked. He just saw Vin a few days ago. And yeah, Vins face is probably a little thinner, maybe a little paler, but hes not in so much pain now. Hes getting better.
I feel like I should say something. Hell gain the weight back, once hes on his feet again. You know Vin.
Buck sits down in the chair by the bed, and he looks up at me. Yeah, I know Vin.
I hate the look in his eyes; damn pity is contagious, it seems.
The fevers pretty high now, and I dont think Vin really knows whats going on, but I guess he senses someone new is there. He turns his head real slow and looks at Buck.
Bucklin? he whispers.
Buck smiles. Yeah, Im right here, Pard.
Dont leave, Vin pleads.
Im not going anywhere, old son, he replies. Buck looks up at me smugly, but Im looking at Vin.
I know where he is, or rather, when he is. Vins not in this room, not now - hes back a little more than seven years ago, when Buck rode out while Vin begged him to stay . . .
The sun was just coming up when Vin wrapped his arms tighter around Chris. He wished Larabee would wake up already and do something about the growing hardness between his legs. But even the hot air he blew in Chriss ear failed to rouse him.
The sound of a rider approaching the cabin outside forced Vin to be more deliberate, however. Chris! he whispered. Wake up!
Chris rolled over and pulled him close for a tender kiss. Damn, Tanner, he mumbled. Youre gonna make me old before my time.
Your times already here, Vin teased. But right now, we got company.
Minutes later, as he hurriedly dressed, Vin heard Chris tell Buck that hed be on his way shortly. Obviously, something was going on in town. He moved closer to the bedroom door so he could hear the conversation better.
Ill ride over to Vins place and get him up, Buck offered.
No, Chris quickly objected. Ill get him. You go on back.
Ten minutes later, they were horsed and riding for town.
It was another group of rowdy trail hands, and it took most of the day to set them straight. Vin and Chris had a few drinks and a light supper at the saloon before heading home. When they arrived, Buck was sitting in a chair on their porch, his long legs stretched out to rest on the railing.
They dismounted, and Buck rose to his feet. Need t speak with you, Chris. Alone, he added.
Vin nodded and started off for the barn to take care of the horses, but Chris grabbed onto his arm. Nothing you got to say that Vin cant hear, he said.
Alright, Buck replied, though he kept his eyes only on Chris. Did some arithmetic this morning. Two men, one cabin, and one bed can only add up to one thing.
You spyin on us? Chris growled. The lines tightened around his eyes and his hand instinctively curled towards his gun.
Vin put his hand on Chriss shoulder. Hold on, Cowboy. We dont gotta fight about this.
Theres a fine woman just waitin for you in town, and a little boy who needs a father. But you choose to bed down with him? Buck asked.
None of your business who I bed down with, Buck.
Listen, boys, Vin cut in, or tried to.
Shut up, Vin, Buck barked. Ive known Chris a hell of a lot longer than you, and I wanna know why hes throwin his life away like this. Is it because of Sarah? And Ella? One woman as sweet an angel as ever walked the earth, and the other pure evil hell, its no wonder youre confused, Pard.
Im not confused, Buck. Ive never been more sure of anything in my life.
Apparently Buck did know Chris well enough to realize that he wasnt going to get anywhere with him, so he turned to Vin. I told you he was mourning all over again and this is how you help him? Turn him into some kind of freak? Youll both hang for this when it gets around. That what you want, Vin? You couldnt get yourself off, so you want Chris hanging along side you?
Get the hell out of here, Buck! Chris spat. He was furious, and Vin couldnt deny that he was angry, as well.
But he understood that Buck was only acting out of his concern for his old friend. And the last thing hed ever want to do was come between the two men.
Listen, Buck. Were careful- Vin tried to say.
But Buck exploded. Careful! You didnt even look when you both came waltzing out of that cabin this morning. Careful, my eye. Youre both gonna be dead if you dont put a stop to this now. You hear me, Chris? You got to end it now.
I dont have to do anything you say, Buck, Chris countered.
And I dont have to stick around and watch you destroy your life again.
I reckon you dont.
No, no! Vin argued. It doesnt have to be like this. You dont have to leave, Buck.
Im afraid I do, Vin. Im not picking up the pieces this time, and I aint stickin around long enough to watch you two kill yourselves.
Dont leave, Buck. Please. We can work this out, Vin pleaded.
But Buck was already mounted up and riding off.
He forgave me a long time ago, Chris. Why cant you? Buck asks me as he dips the cloth into the cool pan of water at the bedside. I cant take my eyes off the drops of moisture that cling to the soft cotton as Buck lays it against Vins hot forehead.
Vin moans and his breath quickens, but he quiets when Buck leans forward and whispers something in his ear.
Im hoping Buck forgot the question, but he looks over at me expectantly, so I guess not.
Nothing to forgive. You did what you needed to do at the time. Got yourself a nice wife and a family. Nothing to forgive, I repeat.
Its a lie, and Buck knows it. I dont begrudge him going his own way, but the things he said to Vin stuck with me for a long time. Like this was all Vins idea and I was too fucked up in the head to catch on.
Shaking his head, Buck mutters, I dont know how Vin puts up with you.
Ive often wondered that myself. I should let it go, but now that hes started the conversation, I feel the need to finish it. Might not get another chance. You still think Im with Vin because losing Sarah and all that shit with Ella made me crazy?
No, I dont. Bucks voice is real soft now. I know that you love Vin. You love him so much that you cant see . . .
He looks at me, but I turn away. I should have known better than to ask.
Hes dying, Chris. Hes leaving you. Not by choice; Vin would do anything to stay with you. But he cant. Not this time.
Im sick and tired of this conversation. And angry so damn angry that tears fill my eyes. I bat them away and order Buck to get out. Its time for you to leave.
No. Not unless you give me your gun and Vins, too.
Furious now, I scream at him, Like hell Ill give you my gun!
Vin visibly flinches, though he doesnt open his eyes. I lower my voice, Do you think I cant find another way? Do you think I wont find another way?
Chris, please, he says, and now tears are in his eyes, as well.
I know how lucky I am., I say. A man rarely finds what I have once in this life let alone twice. Its enough for any man, and far more than I ever deserved. Theres nothing more without Vin.
To my surprise, Buck only nods. I guess now that he has Louisa, he understands. Or maybe after all these years, hes finally accepted that theres no point in arguing with me. Im gonna sleep in Vins cabin tonight, he says.
Its unspoken that hes there if I need him.
Im relieved to be alone with Vin. All I want is to lie down on the bed beside him and think about all the glorious moments weve shared there. It never got old. It didnt matter if I was inside him or he was inside me; slow and easy, or fast and rough, it was always so good, so right.
I shake myself as I realize that Im thinking in the past tense like it will never be again.
Hell be better in the morning. I know he will.
Another rider approaches and I glance at the clock. Its late, almost midnight, and it can only be Ezra. I think about bolting the door, but of all of them, Ezra most deserves to be here.
I open the door, and his red eyes immediately tell me all I need to know. I spoke with Nathan, he says, a little breathless.
He winces, but he doesnt argue with me. May I come in? I wont stay long.
Its a short walk to our bedroom, but it seems like it takes Ezra forever to get there. Im reminded that Standish doesnt deal well with illness or death. He lost Maude two years ago, and it was tough, real tough. Shed come to town for a visit and ended up coming down with pneumonia. Nathan and Doc Miller did all they could, but she didnt make it.
I practically had to hog-tie Ezra to sit with her at the end; not because he didnt care, but because he cared too much. Ezra has an excellent poker face, and he never lets on how much he hurts, but he couldnt hide it then.
Josiah took it badly, too. I think he still harbored hopes that something good would happen between him and Maude. She was always kind to him when she was in town, but I dont think she cared for him that way. Fortunately, Mrs. Potter does. After Maude died, I guess Josiahs eyes were opened to the widow. Shes not real pretty, but she has a good heart, and she clearly worships the ground Josiah walks on. I suspect there will be a wedding soon.
Ezra hasnt married, either, though hes had plenty of opportunity in the last ten years. But he keeps busy with the hotel and saloon; Maude left him enough money to turn it into a real nice establishment as Ezra likes to call it.
To his credit, Ezra doesnt gasp when he sees Vin, he just takes that same seat at the bedside. He lifts his hands for a moment, like hes trying to decide if or where to touch Vin, then lays them awkwardly back in his lap.
After a deep breath, he finally turns his eyes to mine. Is he - is he suffering?
I think back to how it was at first. It took me hours to clean Vin up and stitch him together. I couldnt leave him to get Nathan, of course, so it had to be me. Vin had bit his lip so hard it bled, but he never cried out. It wasnt until a day or so later, when the infection set in, that he . . .
No use in thinking about that. I meet Ezras eyes. Not so much now. Hes doing better.
Ezra looks at me blankly. Putting on his poker face.
Neither of us say anything for long minutes, and in fact, its Vin who breaks the silence. He wont tell. His voice is low and faint, but the insistence comes through loud and clear. Stay calm, Chris.
My eyes meet Ezras, and we both know what part of his past Vin is reliving now . . .
Even with his shirt on, a particularly sharp piece of straw was poking him in the back, but with Chris rubbing against him in the front, it was easy to ignore.
They were supposed to be working in the barn it had started out that way, anyway. Vin didnt know what exactly set Larabee off. All he did was a take a long, slow swallow from his canteen, and the next thing he knew, he was on his back with his pants around his ankles.
That worked just fine for him it was always fun playing in the dirt with Chris. Going on two years together, and it was still exciting, still amazing, still the best thing that had ever happened to him.
Chris bit his neck lightly, then moved up to breathe in his ear, God, Vin . . . I wish . . . I wish we could . . .
Thered be none of that. Theyd learned the hard way that the consequences of going in dry would be felt for days. Besides, Vin was pretty certain neither one of them would last much longer. He pulled Chris to him and plundered his mouth with his tongue.
Chris responded by groaning and grinding harder against him.
For a brief moment, Vin opened his eyes and caught a flash of red.
Ezra. Was there. Watching.
It was too late to put a stop to it. What comes natural, naturally came, and as Chris collapsed on top of him, Vin softly whispered in his ear, Ezras here.
Shit! Chris roared, and Vin almost laughed; wouldve laughed, if he didnt know it would make Chris even madder.
They both quickly rose to their feet, pulling their pants up with them. Chris narrowed his eyes and scanned the barn, but he didnt see the other man.
It was then that they heard Ezra calling from outside the barn, Chris? Vin? Are either of you gentlemen nearby?
Damn it, Chris huffed.
Its alright. He wont tell. Stay calm, Chris.
Youre damn right he wont tell because Ill kill him first.
They had just moved outside the barn when Ezra made a show of coming towards them. Vin noticed their friends face was flushed, and it made him wonder how much Ezra had seen if Ezra might have stayed and watched a little longer than he needed to. If he might have enjoyed the watching . . .
Im sorry for disturbing- Ezra started.
But Chris was in a mood. What the hell are you doing sneaking up on us?
Ezra looked like he was tempted to lie, but instead he straightened his shoulders and replied, You are fortunate it was I who witnessed your . . . encounter. Others might not be so understanding.
Answer the question. Chris wasnt letting it go.
I came to warn you, although I truly thought it was unnecessary. Obviously I was wrong, however.
Warn us about what? Vin quickly asked.
Wrong about what? Chris added.
Theres talk in town about the two of you having an . . . unnatural relationship. I suspect others will attempt to validate the rumors, and violence may ensue. Until this afternoon, I thought they were mistaken.
And you just continue to think that, Chris warned.
Now hold on, Chris. Whats done is done. Ezra knows. Aint no use in pretendin otherwise, Vin said.
I have no intention of revealing your secret, I assure you. In truth, I admire your courage.
Courage? Vin hadnt looked at it like that. He just knew if couldnt lie down with Chris come nightfall, there was no reason in living at all.
It turned out that Ezra did more than keep quiet he took care of the problem. Twice a week, he paid a couple of his girls to take a trip out of town. He let it be known that they were satisfying a few customers who were too busy with their ranch to make a trip into town on a regular basis. That people naturally assumed the girls were servicing Chris and Vin was of no matter. He hadnt outright lied, in any case.
In reality, the girls got a free night at a nice hotel with a hot bath in Eagle Bend. And all they had to do was keep quiet.
After a few months had passed, Ezra cut their travels down to once a week, then a few times a month. By then, the town had grown and there were new folks to gossip about.
Over the years, Ezra remained their eyes and ears in town. Whenever things appeared to heat up again, he found a way to dampen the flames. As a result, the bond between the three of them strengthened.
They were beholden to Ezra for that alone. But then Standish hired some hotshot attorney to clear Vins name, and they were forever in his debt.
Vin always felt like he should do more for Ezra maybe let him watch another time.
But maybe that would just make it harder for their friend. After all, Vin was convinced that everything Ezra did, he did for Chris. Hed seen the way Ezra looked at Larabee, and he couldnt blame him. Hell, he looked at Chris every day, and he still couldnt get enough.
No, as grateful as he was to Ezra, Vin wasnt giving Chris up and he sure as hell wasnt sharing him, either.
How come you never married, Ezra? I dont know why the question popped in my head guess Im just feeling sentimental. Guess Id like all our friends to be as happy as Vin and I are.
He smiles, though it is half-hearted at best. I never fell in love with the right . . . type of person.
Im not sure what he means by that. I know he liked that Chinese girl once, but I never really noticed him pining for anyone else.
I thought I caught him staring at Vin a few times, but I figured it was my imagination. Hes staring at Vin now, though. At least hell leave this earth a free man, he says softly.
A sudden pulsing in my forehead signals an oncoming headache. Even after all these years, Standish has a way of saying exactly the wrong thing.
Vin says Im jealous. He doesnt mince words about it, either. He says it dont matter who got his named cleared, just that it happened and to quit belly achin about it. Of course, hes exaggerating - I dont belly ache about anything thats just not the way I do things.
But I wanted it to be me. I wanted to be the one to find a way to give Vin what he wanted most. Dont get me wrong, Im grateful. All that really matters it that Vin is a free man, and the Tanner name once again stands for all the good and righteous things Vin has fought so hard for.
Still, its the finest gift Vins ever received, and it didnt come from me.
Hes not leaving this earth just yet, I mutter crossly.
Ezra doesnt reply, he just keeps staring at Vin. Finally he asks me if he can have a few moments alone with him.
Vins starting to get restless again, shifting against the bed and moaning real soft. I dont want to leave him, but I reckon Ezra deserves a few minutes. I pace outside the door, wondering what the hell hes saying to Vin. Maybe it wasnt my imagination after all, maybe all those things Ezra did for us were really for Vin.
He avoids my eyes when he steps out of the room. And he doesnt say a single word as he steps out the door and pulls it shut behind him. But when I glance out the window after him, I see that he is hunched down in the saddle and his shoulders are shaking.
Grieving for Vin - and hes not even dead.
It makes me mad. And for a moment, I almost give in to my natural inclination to swallow an entire bottle of whiskey with one tip of the bottle. Its always Vin who gets me through these moments; Vin who says, Hell, Cowboy, it aint that bad. Aint no call t drown your troubles in a bottle. Theyll just be waitin for y the next mornin.
I can hear him say it so clearly, that I turn around and look behind me, sure that hell be standing there, sure that this is all one terrible dream.
But the bedroom door is open, and from inside, I can hear him panting for breath as the fever gains on him once again. Alright then. No time to feel sorry for myself. Ive got work to do.
Im tired, though, and I just want to be close to Vin for a few moments. So I carefully climb on the bed next to him and gently ease my arm across his stomach. He turns his head and opens his eyes, and he smiles a little when I kiss his cheek. It could be a trick of my mind, but I think hes breathing easier now, so when he closes his eyes again, I close mine, as well.
And I pretend its just a normal night, that Im sleeping next to Vin like always. Hes not sick. God knows hes not dying. Hes just sleeping next to me. Like always.
I must have fallen asleep, because the next sound I hear is the front door opening. It startles me, and only the sensation of Vins hot body next to mine keeps me from jumping off the bed. I look at my partner. His cheeks are still flushed with fever, his breathing is still too fast, too shallow, but hes alive and thats all that matters.
Its Josiah again. I cant believe he came back especially at this hour. Its 4am, Josiah, I tell him, since he apparently cant read a clock.
The night is darkest before the dawn, he replies.
Im too tired to argue. Suit yourself.
He puts a hand on my back as we head towards the bedroom, and I stop to look at him. What?
JD wanted to be here, but the baby is coming anytime . . .
He needs to be with Casey. Nothing he can do for Vin anyway. But maybe they can bring the baby by in a few weeks. That would do Vin a world of good.
Josiahs looking at me like Im missing something, but I ignore him and head for Vin. I dont really want to talk about JD and Casey, anyway. That just brings back feelings I cant think about right now.
Nathans sticking close to them, of course. After the last time, hes not taking any chances, Josiah goes on.
Im wringing the cloth out again and placing it on Vins forehead, hoping Josiah will take the hint that I dont want to talk about this.
He wanted to be here, too, Josiah adds as he pulls up the chair on the opposite side of the bed.
I suspect youre right, he says with a deep sigh that grates on my last nerve. Josiah thinks we dont need Nathan because Vin will die anyway. But hes wrong.
I put a little water in a cup and pull Vins head up enough for him to drink it.
He manages a few swallows.
He throws it up.
I pour another glass and reach for him again, but Josiah stills my hand. Let him be, Chris, he whispers. Let him be.
Josiah has these clear blue eyes that can see right through a man. He turns those eyes on me now, and I see something there I dont wanna see that I dont wanna know.
Hes in pain, Chris. But hes holding on for you.
I block out his words and I turn away from his eyes. Hes trying to tell me Im selfish to hold onto Vin; he wants me to give him up. But Josiahs got it all wrong. Its not like a few days ago when Vins back arched off the bed and he cried in misery. Its not like that now. The hitch in his breath, the tightness around his eyes, the way his fingers claw at the sheet beneath him thats not pain. Its not.
Hes getting better.
Vin hears my thoughts, like always. Im sure of it when he turns his head towards me. But instead of reassuring me, he cries, Im sorry. I didnt mean it to happen.
This is Josiahs fault. I glare at him and make dead sure he knows it. Vin needs his strength, but now hes gone back to a time that none of us need to relive. If only Josiah hadnt mentioned JD and Casey . . .
Vin didnt want Nettie to know. He wasnt ashamed of his feelings for Chris, but he didnt figure the older woman would understand. He didnt figure any of them could really understand, but Netties opinion mattered more than most.
Besides, she was getting on in years, and what possible benefit could there be in telling her the truth? Him and Chris had been living together for almost five years, and there had never been a reason for it to come up, even though Vin spent a good deal of time helping out the widow - especially since JD and Casey had gotten married. Vin didnt like the idea that Nettie was out at her place all alone, but she was too stubborn to consider any other options.
He was there one spring day, fixing her chicken coop for what had to be the hundredth time, when JD and Casey pulled up in their wagon. Vin dropped his tools to the ground and straightened up to greet them with a broad smile.
Hey there, he said. What brings you two love birds out this way?
But JD ignored him and grabbed Caseys arm as she climbed down from the wagon. Casey, dont. Youre not thinkin right.
Turning a furious glare at her young husband, Casey yelled, Im telling her. She needs to know what . . . what he is!
Casey! JD yelled again.
But Casey marched over to Vin. Get out of here, Vin. Youre not welcome here anymore.
Vin shook his head as if to clear it. What? What are you talkin about, Casey?
Something going on out here I should know about? Netties firm voice took command from the front porch of the cabin.
Im sorry, Aunt Nettie, but I just found out something about Vin that I think you should know.
Vin felt the color drain from his face, and he couldnt meet JDs eyes when the kid came over next to him.
Im sorry, Vin, JD said. I didnt mean to tell her it just sort of came out. I mean, she is my wife.
Vin nodded numbly. He hadnt thought about that. No man should have to keep a secret from his wife. But he hadnt counted on Caseys reaction.
I know all I need t know about Vin Tanner, Nettie replied. Now you just settle yourself, Casey girl. Get in here and have some lemonade and prop those feet up.
But Casey was unyielding. You have to know this, Aunt Nettie Vins a sinner.
Well, aint we all? Nettie laughed.
Frustrated, Casey waddled up to the porch and put her hands on her hips. Hes been doing things. With Chris Larabee. Unnatural things. Unholy things. They been living together for five years now. And all this time hes been out here, helping you. Acting like hes just . . . just normal.
Vin felt Nettie turn her gaze towards him, but he wasnt able to lift his head to meet it. He wasnt ashamed, he told himself, he wasnt. He just didnt want her to find out like this. It should have come from him. Then she could have made the choice if she still wanted him in her life.
Once again, JD looked apologetically at Vin. Its the baby. She gets like this. She dont mean nothin, Vin.
Vin finally took a deep breath and turned his face towards Nettie. He might have imagined it, might have only wished it was so, but he thought her expression was one of compassion and understanding.
The old woman opened her mouth as if to speak, but suddenly raised her hand to her chest instead. A soft oh came from her lips, and she collapsed.
Vin rode as fast as he could for Nathan and Doc Miller, but Nettie was already gone by the time they got there. Nathan said it was her heart and nothing could have been done anyway.
Casey sobbed that it was because of the news about Vin - that Netties heart couldnt take it.
JD did his best to comfort his distraught wife, and never once looked at Vin.
Vin rode home that day and went directly to Chris. He pressed himself in his lovers comforting arms and mumbled that he was sorry, that he hadnt meant for it to happen, and he should have told her sooner.
Apparently, Chris surmised what had happened. Its alright, he soothed, shell get used to the idea.
Vin shook his head. Theres no gettin used t anything. Shes dead.
He cried then, but he knew it was more for himself than for Nettie. Shed lived a good, long life. But hed disappointed her in the end, and there would be no making up for that.
The baby came the next week. He was two months early and too small to live past the hour. So for the second time in seven days, Casey and JD made that sad march to the cemetery. Doc Miller said it might have been the stress of the funeral the week before, or it might have happened anyway. But Casey wouldnt even look at Vin or Chris, and JD never spoke a word to them.
It started something in Vin a feeling that what him and Chris were doing was truly wrong. Two lives lost because of it, so how could it be right? No amount of arguing, begging, or rationalizing changed his mind.
Hed ride out. Alone.
He stayed away for two months. But he soon realized that hed rather be dead than live without Chris. He might be a sinner, but that wasnt anything new.
Chris welcomed him back with open arms, and they made love that night on the porch, under the stars.
And Vin vowed hed never leave again only death could separate him from Chris.
The two months when Vin was gone were the darkest of my life, comparable only to when Id lost Sarah and Adam. A dozen times I started out after him, and a dozen times I came back. Vin had to figure it out for himself. But when he finally rode in that night, I knew Id do whatever it took to keep him here, at my side, forever.
It was six months before JD spoke to us. I understood. He was torn between his wife and us. Casey was grieving for her child and her aunt, and it was easier to blame me and Vin than herself or even God.
She kept our secret, though, which is all I could really ask of her.
JD finally rode out to our place with Buck one afternoon. He looked uncomfortable, and I wasnt sure if it was because of his wifes feelings, or his own. But little by little, it got easier. Even Casey gradually offered us a nod when she saw us in town.
Josiah said it had to do with religion. After Casey got pregnant that first time, she apparently found God, and I guess she figured out that God doesnt take kindly to two men doing what Vin and I do together.
Vin says God is in the sun and the moon and the stars - but I only believe it when those things are reflected in his eyes.
Josiah clears his throat, and Im reminded that Im not alone with Vin. Id like to pray for him, Chris.
Well, that depends, Josiah. This gonna be a prayer for the dying? Or the living?
How about if I just pray for peace for Vin?
Suit yourself, I say again.
Josiahs just getting started when I rudely interrupt him. How did you find out about us, Josiah? All of the sudden, for reasons I cant begin to explain, it seems absurdly important that I know this.
He smiles. I think I knew all along. Maybe even before you and Vin knew.
I mull that over for a moment and decide thats possible. I cant remember a time when Josiahs easy acceptance wasnt a constant in our lives. What did you think? When you first realized?
I thought it was as natural a blessing as Id ever encountered.
I have to smile. Only in Josiahs rather unique mind could two men living with each other, loving each other, be considered natural. And a blessing? Caseys not the only one whos read the Bible, and Im pretty sure blessing isnt quite the word used to describe how Vin and I show our feelings for each other.
Still, I like how it sounds the blessing part of it - and I put that thought away for a later time when I can talk it over with Vin.
What about Nathan? I ask.
Nathans never come out and talked with Vin or me about our relationship, yet I know that he accepts it without hesitation. Probably has something to do with that problem he has about losing people. I reckon he figures anyone brave enough to make a commitment to someone else should be left alone. Or maybe he just understands intolerance better than most.
He figured it out that winter when you came down with pneumonia. He said he saw Vin sitting at your bedside, kissing your hands.
Kissing my hands? Vin never told me he did that. Its so sweetly innocent, something most would never imagine the wooly sharpshooter ever thinking of doing. But I know better.
I wish I could kiss Vins hands. Nathan washed them down good with carbolic and re-wrapped them just yesterday, but I can see that the wounds are draining again, the bandages turning a pink-tinged yellow.
Do you think theyll be alright? I ask Josiah absently. Vins hands? Do you think hell be able to shoot again?
Josiah cocks his head and looks at me oddly. You really believe hell get better, dont you?
I frown. Havent I been saying that for six days now? It occurs to me that maybe Vin and I have gotten so good at speaking without words, that weve forgotten how to talk to other people.
When I dont immediately reply, Josiah adds, with something like wonder in his voice, You have faith.
I have faith in Vin, I clarify.
But Josiah shakes his head. Its more than that. You really believe.
I do believe. But is it really faith? Or desperation? Its a fine line, I realize, and for the first time in six days, my voice wavers, I have to believe. I have to.
Those clear blue eyes are warm and moist when Josiah replies, Well, I reckon if love can move a mountain, it can heal our brother.
I recognize the change immediately hope where there was none, and Im grateful.
Josiah stays until almost dawn, then I send him on his way. I need to be alone with Vin when the sun comes up.
Our bed faces the window, of course. The first thing Vin did when he moved in was to rearrange the furniture that way. I said I didnt want to be awakened at the break of dawn every day, but he grinned and said hed make it worth my while. And he did. There hasnt been a single morning I havent relished waking up with Vins mouth against my face or my ear or other parts of me, when he was in a mood.
I pull the curtains wide open and climb on the bed next to him once again. Carefully, I slip my arm under his shoulders and pull him close. Then I lightly kiss his eyelids and whisper against his cheek, Vin, wake up.
He moans a little, but his eyes are clear when he finally manages to peel his lids apart.
Its time, I say quietly, my lips hovering over his.
Today? he rasps.
Yeah. Ten years, Pard. Today.
Wed planned this celebration for weeks, but it wasnt supposed to be like this. Vin had wanted to go up to that mountain top where he first told me about the bounty on his head. We were going to spend the entire day and night there, reliving and rejoicing in our time together. That cant happen, but at least we can see the sun come up together.
His eyes meet mine, and I suddenly see it then, what the others have seen all along, and Im plagued with doubt. He is sick, he is suffering. Am I wrong to hold onto him?
Theres only one way to know, only he can tell me. The sweetest ten years of my life, I say. My eyes sting as I hold my breath and wait for his response. Will he tell me its only the beginning? Or the end?
Next ten . . . will be even sweeter. His eyes are shining as he lifts his chin and his mouth greets mine.
I thought nothing could match the intensity of our first kiss but Im wrong. For while that kiss was filled with heat and passion and longing, this one is about something more: devotion, commitment, and promise.
Hes getting better.
Buck pushes his way through the door a few hours later with Josiah and Ezra in tow. I think they all spent the night together at Vins cabin. Probably had to brush the cobwebs out of the way first.
We do go there now and then to make it look like someone lives there. We put some dishes in the sink, throw some towels on the line, muss up the bed . . .
The deception is probably unnecessary by now, but no use taking chances.
They all three look at me expectantly when I leave the bedroom. That bad element part of me wants to make them wait a little longer or I could really surprise them by throwing out a Bible verse: Oh ye of little faith!
But instead, I just tell them what I know. Hes getting better.
I dont know why they choose to believe me now when they havent all week, but its clear by the look of relief on their faces that they do. Buck mutters something about taking first watch, while Ezra leads me to the couch and Josiah disappears in the kitchen.
I guess its alright if I rest for a spell, but I choose the chair by the fireplace, instead. I sit here every night, while Vin sits on the floor by the fire. He says hes always cold, but I suspect hes just more comfortable on the ground. Some nights he blows on that mouthpiece, and I gotta say he aint improved much in ten years. Most nights, I read while Vin sits at my feet. Invariably, my hand strays to his hair when he rests his head on my knee.
It takes us forever to finish a book. Thats because Vin has an inquisitive mind, and in spite of our reputations as men who rarely open our mouths, we do actually talk - out loud. Ill read something that will trigger a thought in his head, and well go off on some tangent for hours.
After that, we climb into bed together and sometimes we talk some more. Or sometimes we dont talk at all. Sometime words really are more of a convenience than a necessity, after all.
Its a good life, and I drift off to sleep with that in mind.
I dont know how many hours have passed when someone comes to the door. Ive hardly gotten to my feet when JD rushes in, followed by Nathan.
Hey, everybody! he shouts. Ive got a son!
Congratulatory comments are drowned out by Bucks loud whoops of joy. Its a bittersweet moment, only because Vin would so love to be part of it.
After things calm down a bit, JD comes to me and he says, Do you know what day it is, Chris?
I smile at him. Yeah, JD, I know.
Its perfect, aint it? he gushes. My son bein born ten years to the day from when we all first met?
It is, I agree. But shouldnt you be with Casey right now?
Nathan finally speaks up. Marys with her. She did real good, and the boy is strong and healthy. JD wanted to tell you all himself. Hes grinning, but he sobers up quick when he casts a glance towards the bedroom. Vin?
Hes getting better, I say, hoping hell take me at my word like the others.
He is? JD asks excitedly.
But Nathans not buying it. He goes into the bedroom himself to check on Vin. And when he comes back ten minutes later, hes shaking his head. Well, his fever is down. And most of his wounds seem t be healin. Never seen the like, he mumbles.
Josiah places his hand on Nathans shoulder. Its a day of miracles, wouldnt you agree?
I see the hesitation in Nathans eyes as he looks at me. I know its not over yet. Vin still has plenty of healing to do. But were gonna have another ten years, and thats all that matters.
Finally, Nathan smiles broadly. I reckon we were due. After all, we had us a day of miracle ten years ago, right Chris?
Yeah. We sure did.
Its true. Nathan should have hung that day, and me and Vin probably should have been killed trying to save him. Theres no accounting for JDs stagecoach traveling through town at just the right moment, or for Buck ending up in the same town at the same time I did. Might not be miracles, exactly, but something sure set us up just right.
The boys take turns spending a few minutes with Vin, but I know hes not up to visiting just yet, so within the hour, I send them on their way.
To my surprise, hes awake when I head back into the bedroom, and he looks up at me and says, JD and Casey theyll be alright now.
Yeah. Theyll be fine.
He smiles, and my heart is a hundred times lighter.
I know he should sleep, but Im not ready to let him go just yet. Why dont I read to you? I offer.
He nods, so I go to my dresser and pull out Sarahs Bible. I guess all this talk of miracles and faith has me thinking.
Vin raises his brow. You really gonna read that?
Just the parts I like, I reply.
He must be feeling better because he argues with me. No. From the beginning. I want t hear it all.
Vin, I dont want to read anything that says what you and I do is wrong.
What we do is love each other, Chris. Aint no harm in that.
I know that, Vin, but not everyone agrees. This book doesnt agree it says what we do is a sin, an abomination, to be exact. Ranks right up there with murder, according to some folks.
Vins voice is growing weaker, but hes not finished yet. Were all sinners. Dont see no point in worryin about which sin is worse or weighs heavier. If theres any payin up t be done at the end, I reckon someone a whole lot smarter than us will figure it out. All y can do is what y think is right while youre here.
And you think lovin me is right?
Yeah, Im pretty sure. But maybe I should study on it another ten years or so.
Or maybe a lifetime, I suggest.
Yeah, he says softly. That sounds bout right.
It occurs to me as I lean back in the chair and open to the book of Genesis that were already knee-deep in conversation about sin, and I havent even started reading yet. At this rate, well be lucky if we manage a chapter a day. It could take us ten years to finish the Good Book.
Good thing weve got the time.