Ashes and Smoke

by SueN

Chris stormed into the jail and shot a hard look at the young man sitting behind the desk. "JD," he greeted coldly.

JD took one look at Larabee, saw the barely-controlled rage radiating from the lean, tight body, and rose to at once to his feet, knowing anywhere was a better place than this to be right now. "I was, uh, just about ready to take a break," he said, setting his hat on his head and getting the keys, tossing them to Chris.

Larabee waited for the young sheriff to leave the jail, then went to the only occupied cell and opened it. A wolfish grin teased his mouth as he beheld the man who would use the dead for his own ends. "I hear you're interested in makin' a deal," he said easily. "You an eyewitness to the Larabee killings?"

Blackfox rose to his feet, hope stirring within him. "Yeah. Who are you?"

Chris's grin widened as he stepped forward. "Chris." His fist rocketed out and up, connecting solidly under Blackfox's jaw and sending him sprawling to the floor. "Chris Larabee."

Before Blackfox could say a word, Chris bent down, grabbed him by his shirtfront and hauled him to his feet, then drew back another fist and hit him again, knocking him across his bunk. "Now, you piece of trash," he spat, towering over the dazed man and staring down at him with murder burning in his soul, "you're gonna tell me what you really know, or I'm gonna take you apart, one bone at a time."

Blackfox lay huddled on the bed, blood streaming from his nose and split lip. All at once he wasn't sure hanging was the worst way in the world to die.

"I c... I can't... I don't..."

"You'd damn well better!" Chris snarled, reaching down once more and jerking the man upright. "You said you wanted ta talk," he threw Blackfox into the wall, "so talk!"

Blackfox crumpled to the floor, barely able to think, his head throbbing. Before he could protest, those merciless hands grabbed him again and hauled him to his feet. "Please--"

"Shut up!" Chris hissed, dragging the man from his cell and through the office into the street. "Now," he stopped at the nearest water tough and thrust a hand into his captive's long, lank hair, "let's see if we can't clear your mind a bit!" With that, he thrust the man's head under the water and held it for long moments, heedless of the shocked stares of the townsfolk watching him in horror.

No one interfered, though. Not with Chris Larabee.

When he felt Blackfox's body jerk as the man instinctively took a breath and sucked in water, he pulled him up and shook him. "The woman's name was Sarah," he gritted, the words and the memory of what he'd lost clawing strips from his soul. "She was my wife. The boy's name was Adam. My son."

"I didn't kill 'em, mister," Blackfox gasped, wondering just what kind of hell he'd unleashed.

"Who did?" Chris demanded harshly.

"I don't know that neither..." Again, he was dunked, held under, and pulled up just as his lungs burned from need of air. "But I was... I was there!" he declared hoarsely, desperate to appease the man he knew would kill him.

"Tell me."

Blackfox struggled to remember all he could of that night three years ago. "I was hired," he said slowly, forcing the memories into focus. "Me and two other cowboys. One night in a saloon. We was all pretty much drunk. A man comes in, offers us fifty dollars apiece. Said it was to scare some folks off their land..."

"Go on!" Chris shouted, shaking the man roughly when his words faltered.

Blackfox trembled uncontrollably, more afraid than ever he'd been in his life. "We rode out," he went on, "the four of us. By the time we got to the spread, I was soberin' up and I didn't like it. So I told the others I'd stand guard and watch the horses. When I seen the flames, I... I got scared and I took off."

"You're lyin'!" Chris snarled.

"No, I'm not--"

But Larabee had had enough and again thrust him under water, little caring if he drowned. The man was a coward, had profaned Sarah and Adam's memories with his lies, and deserved whatever death he could get.

Again the horse thief's body jerked as he breathed in water, and again Chris pulled him up. "Everybody around here knew about that fire!" he raged, hating the man for dredging up this unbearable hurt. "You're tellin' me nothin' but jailhouse lies ta save your miserable skin. You're goin' back ta jail!" he spat, shoving the man forward.

Blackfox stumbled, then caught himself and turned to face Larabee, desperation shining in his eyes. "No, no, I'm tellin'... I'm tellin' the truth," he insisted, wishing bitterly he'd never accepted that fifty dollars. "I seen it happen." A sudden flash of memory came to him. "The house and the porch with the windmill beside it."

Chris stopped, his heart faltering. Houses had porches; that was nothing uncommon. And most had windmills... Most, but not all. And not all had the windmills beside them... "You see a corral?" he asked quietly.

Blackfox tried to remember. "I think so."

"Where was it?" Chris pressed him.

The horse thief's desperation deepened. "I don't remember! It was three years ago--" Larabee grabbed him ruthlessly and shoved him back toward the jail, but he resisted. "No, no... it was..." He forced the faded picture back into his mind, forced himself to concentrate upon it. "It was past the windmill... maybe fifty yards?" He thought again, then remembered what had struck him as odd about the corral. "It was empty. I could tell you more if I was standin' there," he added hopefully.

Chris stared hard at him, fighting past the hideous pain that came with the dawning realization that this man was telling the truth. That he'd been there, had seen the fire, and done nothing to help. That he'd just ridden away and left Sarah and Adam to die. "Yeah," he said coldly. "I bet you could."

He grabbed Blackfox and dragged him back toward the jail, a new determination burning in him. He'd spent three long, empty years scouring the countryside for answers, for the reasons behind and the bastards responsible for the deaths of his wife and son.

This time, he wasn't coming away empty-handed.

+ + + + + + +

Travis agreed readily to let Chris take Blackfox back to Eagle Bend, knowing what this might mean to the man and deciding he owed him. Hadn't Larabee and his men protected Billy and brought Steven's murderers to justice? Could he deny him his chance at the same?

Within an hour, they were ready to ride out, Nathan and Josiah having gotten the horses ready and Blackfox mounted, the healer and preacher going along as much to keep an eye on Chris as to help guard the prisoner. Travis had made it very clear he would look closely at any "accident" that befell Blackfox while he was under Larabee's care.

When Chris strode out onto the boardwalk, fully armed once more and draped in his black duster, he was relieved to see that all was in readiness. Impatience to get this done gnawed at him, a driving need to put his ghosts to rest and finally close this chapter of his life so that he could get on with the next. To give Sarah and Adam the peace they deserved, so that he could begin finding his own with Vin.

God, Vin...

The tracker's absence hit him hard just then, and, for a moment, he was tempted to delay until Tanner returned. His whole world had been turned upside down and inside out, and he was desperately in need of the Texan's quiet strength, the steadiness that anchored him. All this would have been so much easier to bear with Vin's calm, soothing, gentle presence at his side.

But, almost as it hit him, he let the temptation pass. He had no real idea when Vin would be back, and didn't want to wait one minute longer than he had to. Sarah and Adam were calling to him, begging him to put this right, and he could not have denied them for the world. Vin would understand that. If anyone on this earth could understand, Vin would.

Fortified by that thought, he started toward his horse and suddenly noticed the little man with the odd voice talking to Nathan and Josiah. Clearly an Easterner by his dress, which was even more ridiculous than JD's, and he was scribbling something onto one of those notebooks Mary Travis always seemed to have handy. Anger stirred within him at that thought.

Wonderful. One more reporter makin' up lies about him.

He pushed past the man without looking at him, without acknowledging him, hoping he'd simply go away. He hoped in vain.

"Chris Larabee, right?" asked the little man eagerly, hurrying after the gunman and holding out his hand, as if he honestly expected Larabee to shake it. "Jock Steele, Steele Publishing from New York. Mr. Larabee, I'm going to make you a very famous man by comin' along. I'm gonna chronicle your search for justice. Larabee's Bloody Revenge," he announced with a flourish.

Chris turned and swept a scathing gaze over Steele, scowling deeply and regarding him with outright contempt. Worse than a reporter, the man was a writer of those goddamn dime novels that JD was always reading, cover-to-cover lies that didn't have a word of truth in them. His scowl deepened, his eyes hardened, and he swung himself up onto Pony's back, determined to ignore the annoying little man.

But Steele wasn't about to let that happened. "See?" He pointed toward a heavily laden mule. "I'm all packed. Even brought the camera and the developer."

"You're not comin' with us," Chris said in a low voice, his eyes hard as flint.

"But I have to!" Steele protested. "I'll miss the story... Whoo!" he yelped, ducking as Larabee swung his horse's head around, right where his own had been.

"Won't stop you from writing it," Chris pointed out bitterly, remembering the lies Mary had fabricated the day he and Vin had saved Nathan's life. He spurred Pony down the street, impatient to get started, and in no mood to entertain the likes of Jock Steele.

But the little writer had other ideas. As the four men rode out, he hurried to his mule, sputtering all the while. These Westerners, they just didn't understand! Didn't know how eager folks back East were to read about their exploits. But he'd change that. He'd go along, get it all in writing and pictures, make Larabee famous, and make himself rich.

By the time he got his foot into the stirrup and himself on the mule's back, Larabee and his men... no, his gang... were out of sight. Well, that didn't matter. He took the reins in hand, sawed them back and forth for a few moments in an effort to get the mule turned, and finally succeeded, though it seemed the stupid animal would only turn right by going left and circling all the way around, costing him even more time.

Ah, well. How hard could it be to follow four men in open country like this?

+ + + + + + +

Chris struggled against his own chaotic emotions as he tried to get more information out of Blackfox about that night. The horse thief gave him precious little to go on -- one man wearing a single silver spur, the man who'd hired them riding a big gray horse -- and he felt his fury, frustration and pain deepening. Who was the "hard man" Blackfox couldn't, or wouldn't, describe? And why had he paid three men to burn Larabee's ranch, to kill a woman and child? Why? God, why?

For three years, those questions had haunted him, mocked him, tortured him. Who? Why? He could understand someone putting money, time and effort into killing him now. Hell, he had no shortage of enemies, had made more in three years than most men did in a lifetime. But, then? Then, he'd just been a horse rancher, working a small spread, raising a few animals, always more interested in quality than quantity. What had he done to draw that kind of hatred toward him?

Yeah, he'd been a rounder in his youth, a real hellion. But no worse than any other boy his age who'd left the family farm in search of something more exciting. And when the war had come along, he'd found all the excitement, along with all the carnage, he could stand. He'd come out a sadder, wiser and much more careful man. He'd always been good with a gun, had been born with the sharp eye, fast hand and steady nerves, but making a name by killing other men didn't hold nearly the allure after the war that it had held before.

And when he met Sarah, the last vestiges of wildness had left him completely. The man who'd spent almost his whole adult life drifting suddenly discovered what "home" meant and was gripped by the powerful urge to put down roots so deep he'd never be budged again. The man who'd gone from woman to woman without a second thought found his every thought filled by one woman alone, and never once missed the ones he'd left behind. She'd become his whole world, and, when Adam was born, his world was made perfect. He'd wanted nothing more than to live and work on his ranch, with Sarah and Adam and whatever children followed, to spend his days and end his days in the peace he'd never expected to find.

But that peace had been shattered when he'd come back from Mexico to find his home turned to ashes, and his wife and son burned beyond recognition. He still couldn't remember much of the days immediately following, had gone into a shock that had lasted for weeks. He'd gone through that time like a sleepwalker, eating only when he had to, sleeping only when he collapsed, drinking to keep the hideous images at bay. He'd buried them, he knew that, had dug their graves and made and marked their crosses with his own hands, but he just didn't remember doing it. Couldn't allow himself to remember, for the sake of his own sanity.

It had been more than a month before he could bring himself back to life enough to begin the hunt for his family's killers in earnest. By that time, though, the trail was cold, and, though he'd never given up, he had lost hope. He'd asked the same old questions in every new town he entered, and always gotten the same old answers. Yet even when he knew what the answers would be, still he kept asking. Those questions, that search, had become all that held him to this life, all that gave him a reason to go on, all that got him through the days, through the nights, and gave him a reason to get up again and start the whole agonizing routine again. Hell, he'd still been asking when he hit Four Corners all those weeks ago. Nobody had known a thing there, either, and he'd resigned himself to leaving for the next dirty town...

Until he'd been jolted from his empty existence by a pair of blue eyes that had stared at him from across the street and seen straight into his soul. God, how could he explain that feeling? It had hit him like a bolt of lightning, searing through him in a flash and leaving his whole body charged and tingling. After three years of walking death, he'd suddenly been brought back to life, had taken his first real breath since the day he'd laid his wife and son in the ground.

And hadn't stopped breathing since.

He clenched his jaw, and his hands tightened reflexively on the reins. God, how he wished Vin were here now! How he wanted to look into those young-old eyes and see the love in them, hear that soft, raspy drawl assuring him that it would be all right. That he'd be all right. Because, just now, he wasn't at all certain that he would. The pain was back as it hadn't been in some time, as real and as raw and as unbearable as ever, tearing his heart to pieces and leaving his soul in shreds, driving warmth and air and everything he remembered about living from his body. He'd buried them, he knew he had, but Blackfox and his damned jailhouse confession had ripped them right out of their graves and laid their burned bodies once more before him.

Again, when he breathed, he could smell and taste only ashes and smoke.

Nathan's voice broke into his thoughts, offering a welcome distraction.

"Rider coming up fast," the healer announced, looking over his shoulder and seeing the big gray horse running at them through the trees. "It's Buck."

Wilmington joined them quickly and reined Beavis to a slower pace at Pony's side, falling in beside Larabee as he'd done so many times before in his life.

Chris glanced past Blackfox to his old friend, not at all certain how he felt about his presence here. "You out for a ride?"

Buck smiled slightly. "Heard you were goin' back."

"No need for you to come along," he said coldly. He knew Buck didn't deserve it, but he also knew that, right now, coldness was his only defense against the pain threatening to cripple him. And Buck was so much a part of that pain, a living, breathing link to Sarah and Adam, that having him near was too much like having them near.

"Yes, sir, there is," Wilmington contradicted softly, his blue eyes filling with sorrow, his heart heavy with guilt. "I'm the man that talked you into stayin' down in Mexico that night. And I keep thinkin', if we'da just rode back..."

Chris's jaw tightened, and he shook his head. "I coulda come back alone. You didn't keep me there." And it was true; Buck hadn't had to work all that hard at talking him into staying. To be honest, he'd enjoyed that little bit of freedom, had enjoyed the chance to cut loose and relive some of the wilder times he and his old friend had known together. If he'd truly wanted to go home, no one would have been able to talk him into staying. Not even Buck. "Let it go."

Buck heard the ice, the distance, in Chris's voice and was pained by it. He understood it, understood Larabee better than the man thought he did, but that didn't make it hurt any less. Chris was fighting all the demons he'd thought he'd laid to rest, and no man should have to go through that twice.

Still, Larabee needed to know that he wasn't the only one in pain here. "Sarah was my friend, too, Chris," he reminded him, remembering vividly the beautiful, fiery woman who'd stolen Larabee's heart and claimed a large portion of his, as well. "And I think you know how I felt about that boy of yours. So, if it's all the same, I think I'll ride this one out with you."

Chris had to look away. He did know how Buck had felt about Adam, had seen it every time the two were together. Given his wandering ways, Adam might have been the closest thing to a son Buck would ever have. And Chris couldn't have wished for a better "uncle" for his little boy. He knew this was something Buck had to do, knew this was something the big man felt he owed his murdered surrogate family. Felt he owed Chris.

"Suit yourself," he said quietly, drawing back once more behind that protective barrier of detachment.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rode back into town near sundown, certain he'd given himself more than enough time to miss the hanging and the uproar that would have followed it. He'd never figured out why folks carried on so at them, couldn't see what it was in killing a man by breaking his neck or, in the botched cases, strangling him that made people want to celebrate. Even before Tascosa, he'd found that kind of bloody-mindedness more than a little disturbing.

But, then, civilized people had always been a never-ending puzzle to him...

An instinctive shudder rippled down his spine as he rode past the gallows, and he studiously averted his gaze from its stark outline. Absently, a hand crept up to his neck and tugged at the collar of his shirt, as if seeking reassurance that no rope lay beneath the fabric.

Stupid! he chided himself silently, self-consciously dropping his hand to his thigh. Ain't nobody gonna hang ya whilst Larabee's around.

Still, he couldn't help spurring Peso to carry him more quickly past the shadow of the gallows.

Orin Travis saw the familiar slouched figure ride past on the big blaze-faced gelding, and stopped on his progress with Mary toward the restaurant. He turned and watched Tanner rein in at the saloon, then returned his attention to his daughter-in-law. "Why don't you go on without me, get a table and order. I'll be along shortly."


"It's all right, Mary," he said, smiling reassuringly into her worried eyes and patting her shoulder gently. "I just need to speak with Mr. Tanner. I'm sure he'll want to know what's going on, and I don't want him going off half-cocked because of whatever rumors are circulating about town just now."

She arched two slender blond brows at her father-in-law. "And you don't think the truth will send him off half-cocked'?"

He frowned thoughtfully, considering what he knew of the tracker. Tanner was a thinker, a man whose lazy posture and slow drawl concealed the lightning-fast working of a very shrewd brain, whose keen blue eyes saw everything without giving away anything. The man was as deliberate as they came in his actions, and didn't believe in hasty decisions.

But, Lord, when he did decide to strike...

"No," he murmured at last, dark eyes narrowing slightly, "I don't think he'll go off half-cocked at all. I think when he does go, it'll be fully cocked, and then may God have mercy on whoever's in his sights!"


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