Ashes and Smoke

by SueN

Vin quietly entered the saloon and stepped immediately into the shadows, shielding himself from all attention while he turned his own upon the room. Alert for any sign of danger, the instincts of both predator and prey rising to the fore, he studied the crowd with a sharply focused intensity, searching faces, gauging moods, taking in all the silent clues given off by men's postures and gestures. And only when he was certain nothing and no one threatened him here did he make his way to the bar and order a beer.

While waiting for his drink, he could not help overhearing the conversations about him. He'd long ago learned that if he kept silent and still, people would overlook or forget his presence and talk as freely as if he weren't there. It had helped him catch any number of careless bounties, and had helped him evade more than a few overconfident bounty hunters.

It also gave him just one more way to irritate the hell out of Larabee, when he turned up knowing something the gunfighter did not. Nobody hated not knowing everything like Chris did, and Vin delighted in using that against his lover.

Now, though, as he listened to the talk around him, he was not delighted, just confused. The hanging had been called off, and Chris had damn near drowned Blackfox in a water trough, then had left town with the man. No one seemed to know just why, seemed to know anything, except that Larabee had been in a rage. Uneasiness settled heavily on Vin, and his hackles rose. He took his beer from the bar, then turned and made his way to the table occupied by JD Dunne.

"Hey, kid," he greeted softly, slipping gracefully into the chair that put the protection of the wall at his back.

JD started at the tracker's appearance, wishing he would learn to make some kind of noise when he approached. "Jeez, Vin," he snapped, scowling at the Texan, "I really hate it when you do that!"

Tanner sank into his customary slouch and frowned at the boy. "Do what?" he asked, reaching for his beer and raising it to his lips.

"You know," JD said in exasperation, "just appear all of a sudden outta nowhere, without makin' a sound." He settled back in his own chair, unconsciously trying to mimic Tanner's relaxed but vigilant air. "Could get you shot one day!"

Vin took a long drink of beer, then set the glass down and wiped his mouth with the back of one hand. "I'll whistle 'r somethin' next time." He studied JD for several moments, noting the way he shifted frequently in his chair, toyed with his beer mug or fidgeted with his hat. Every so often, the boy ran a hand through his thick black hair, a sure sign that he was on edge.

JD knew Vin was watching him, and hated it. The tracker's eyes were fixed on him like a wolf's upon its prey, sizing him up, seeming almost to stare right through him, seeing his every thought and measuring his every move, even before he made it. Most folks thought Chris Larabee had a blood-chilling stare, and he did. But JD decided Vin Tanner's ranked right up there, too.

And, hell, with Chris, at least he usually knew what that stare meant. With Vin, he didn't, and he figured that made the man that much scarier.

Vin saw the boy's nervousness, and gave a slight smile. "Relax, kid," he rasped softly, knowing JD was still struggling to find his footing among six older, more experienced and far more dangerous men, "I ain't gonna hurt ya. Jist tryin' ta figger out what the hell is goin' on."

JD exhaled deeply and scowled deeply, again running a hand through his hair. "You and me both," he muttered. "I mean, first we're gonna hang Blackfox, then he says he has ta talk with the Judge. And suddenly we're not gonna hang him, and Chris is draggin' him outta jail and tryin' ta drown him in the street. And then, then, Chris and Nathan and Josiah are ridin' outta town with him, and I have ta tell everybody the hangin's off." He leaned forward in his chair ad glared at Vin. "Have you ever tried ta tell a crowd all set for a hangin' that their entertainment's been called off?"

Vin swallowed hard, and again his hand crept to his neck. Entertainment. Lord, was that what it was?

JD suddenly realized what he'd said, and felt a rush of horror. He sank back in his seat, hazel eyes wide, his face draining of color. "Oh, God, Vin, I'm sorry!" he gasped strickenly. "I didn't mean... I mean, I wasn't thinkin'... I keep forgettin'... Oh, jeez, I'm sorry!"

Vin swallowed again and forced his hand down to the table, then gave the boy a small, strained smile. "'S okay, kid," he breathed. "Hell," he reached for his beer, "wouldn't bother me none if the whole world fergot!"

JD watched Tanner drink from his beer, and felt a deep sympathy for him. He still remembered how shocked he'd been at finding Vin's wanted poster, doubted he'd ever forget the way his stomach had dropped when he'd seen those eyes staring out at him from that paper. He'd taken it at once to Chris, who'd ripped it out of his hands and torn it to pieces and snarled that JD was not ever to tell another living soul about it. Then he'd said that Vin was innocent, had told him about Eli Joe. And JD had never felt even the smallest twinge of doubt. Whether from hero-worship or shrewd judging of the man's character, the boy simply could not believe that Vin Tanner was guilty of murder.

But the law did, and, to some, that was all that mattered. He tried to understand how it must feel to be hunted, to have men he didn't know coming after him for money, to know that every face he saw in the street might be that of his killer. But he couldn't imagine it, couldn't imagine how he'd keep from going crazy, and couldn't imagine how Vin did it.

How could he always be so calm, so relaxed, when men carried his picture around and dreamed of making money by his death?

"I'm sorry," he said again, his voice soft and sad.

Vin had an inkling of what the boy was truly sorry for, and was touched by his compassion. "'S all right," he assured JD. "They ain't got me yet. And, hell," he chuckled, "ain't like a rope's the only way of dyin' out here. Mebbe I'll show 'em all 'n git m'self shot ta death!"

JD snorted and shook his head at the tracker's bizarre sense of humor. "You are not right, Vin!" he laughed.

"Seems I've heard that before. Now," he fixed his compelling gaze once more upon the boy, "you wanta tell me why'n the hell Chris took off with a feller we's s'posed ta hang?"

"Mind if I join you?"

Vin looked up and stiffened reflexively at Travis's approach. Despite what he'd told Chris, he had no doubt the old man knew about him, and couldn't understand why he wasn't cooling his heels in jail.

Travis sat down in the chair between Vin and JD, but his gaze went immediately to the tracker. He saw the wariness in the blue eyes, saw the tension in the lean frame, and had to wonder yet again about the man before him. What would make a hunted man stay in one place and work for the man he knew could send him to his death?

"There'll be no hanging today," he finally said, not talking about John Blackfox.

Vin understood that, and relaxed, giving the judge a slight nod and a small smile. Lord, he'd never understand this in a hundred years!

Travis dropped his gaze to the table and frowned thoughtfully. "By now you've heard that Chris has taken Blackfox out of town," he began, certain Tanner would know that much at least. "You've probably also heard about the dust-up in the street."

Vin nodded once, his gaze never leaving Travis. "Heard Larabee was in a towerin' rage, like ta drowned Blackfox in a horse trough."

Travis sighed, his frown twisting into a grimace. He laid his hands on the table and laced his fingers together, staring intently at them. "Blackfox claimed to have information about the deaths of Chris's wife and son."

Vin sat up sharply, those soft words hitting him like a blow to the gut. "What?" he gasped.

Travis lifted his head and met the tracker's gaze, then had to look away again. The eyes were wide and dark, filled with a shock and horror he would never have expected to see in this man. He knew Larabee and Tanner were close, had seen in them a bond that defied description, but only now, only when he saw in Tanner's eyes almost an exact replica of the pain he'd seen in Larabee's, did he begin to think that what one man felt, the other shared.

"What did he say?" Vin demanded harshly, suddenly fierce eyes boring ruthlessly into Travis. "What lies did that bastard tell--"

"Apparently," Travis broke in softly, sadly, "Chris is convinced they're not lies. And he's taking Blackfox to the Eagle Bend area, hoping the man can lead him to his family's killer."

"No," Vin rasped, tortured by the knowledge of the pain his lover would be feeling. "No, he cain't... He cain't put himself through that again! It's been three years!" he said hoarsely. "A trail that old, that cold... Hell, there ain't nobody who could pick it up again! Folks come 'n go, 'n them that stays, fergits... He's jist bringin' more pain on himself! He ain't gonna find nothin', 'n that's gonna kill him!"

"I hope you're wrong, Vin," Travis said quietly. "I hope to God you're wrong."

"God ain't got no part in this," Tanner snarled, startling Travis and JD with the pure venom in his voice. "God don't set fires, don't burn women 'n kids ta death. It's only people that does that. They're the only ones got it in 'em ta tear out a man's heart 'n soul by killin' the ones he loves." He shot an accusing glare at Travis. "I cain't b'lieve you let him go!"

"And how was I supposed to stop him?" Travis asked calmly, meeting that furious stare unflinchingly. "Shoot him? Lock him up? Tell me, Vin," he leaned forward and fixed the tracker with a steely glare of his own, "if Chris Larabee stood before you and asked -- hell, begged -- for the chance to find out why his family died and who killed them, would you have refused? Could you have refused?"

Vin exhaled unsteadily and turned his head, staring at the wall and clenching his jaw as he fought to bring his raging emotions under control.

But Travis was not through. He leaned closer still and, with unmistakable knowing in his voice, asked quietly, "If there were something in your life, some great, terrible wrong that needed to be righted, and if there were any chance that you could right it, wouldn't you want to try? Wouldn't you have to try? And don't you think Chris would be the first man to help you do it?"

Vin closed his eyes tightly at those words, and whatever doubt had remained that Travis knew vanished entirely. Tascosa. Would he do it?

God, wouldn't he do it?

And Chris would be with him every step of the way.

Travis saw the rigid shoulders slump, and knew Vin had given him his answer. "Give him his chance, son," he urged gently, "as he'd give you yours. As a friend," he shrugged, "what else can you do?"

"I c'n go after him--"

"Wait," Travis advised. "Give him some time. Let him do this his way."

Pain flared in Vin, and he knew that pain was Chris's. "He needs--"

"He's got Josiah, Nathan and Buck with him now. Let them help him. If he needs the rest of you," again he shrugged, "he can wire. Eagle Bend's not the end of the earth." He fixed a compassionate gaze on the young tracker, easily able to see how this was tearing at him and marveling at the depth and strength of a friendship that would exert such power over the independent, solitary man. "With any luck," he said gently, "Chris will find the answers, and the peace, he needs."

"He won't," Vin said softly, knowing it with a terrible, aching certainty. "Ain't gonna be no answers, 'cause this trail's done gone too cold. 'N it's only gonna end in pain."

+ + + + + + +

Chris lay wrapped in his blankets, listening to the night sounds and the snores of the men about him, but unable to sleep himself. The pain was raging again, the hideous, searing sense of loss grown almost too sharp to bear, and he wished more desperately than ever that Vin were here to help him through it.

God, Vin! He closed his eyes and summoned a picture of the man who was never far from his thoughts, saw blue eyes deep and dark and still, a full mouth curving into a crooked, boyish smile -- sometimes shy, sometimes wicked -- and the shaggy head tilted slightly to one side as some thought worked its way through that sharp but maddeningly methodical brain. He conjured the sound of the Texan's voice, with its sandpaper-on-leather rasp and the slow, soft drawl that could turn even the vilest curse into sweet music, and imagined the feel of callused hands turned to velvet as they wandered over him in a tender caress. Even the smell of Vin came to him now -- leather, sagebrush and wind, and the warm, distinctive musk that was his alone -- and he took refuge in it, drowning his senses in memories of Vin to hold the pain at bay.

He knew some -- hell, most -- would find it strange, even consider it wrong, for him to seek escape from memories of his wife and child in thoughts of his male lover, but, to him, it only seemed right. He had loved Sarah -- God, with everything that was in him he had loved her! -- and had found the rising and the setting of the sun in Adam. They were as precious to him now as they ever had been, held sacred in his heart.

Yet so was Vin. All his brokenness had been taken up and made whole by the tracker, his wounds healed, and he'd found pieces of himself he hadn't even known were missing in the quiet man who'd become such a powerful presence in his life. So he'd seek his healing this time, too, in Vin.

And know that Sarah, at least, would understand.

+ + + + + + +

Buck gazed uneasily about the yard of the burned-out homestead, haunted by the sight of the gaunt and blackened skeleton of the house. He hated seeing it this way, wanted only to remember it as it had been before, alive with love and laughter, rather than the grimly silent testament of pain and death it had become. So much of his own happiness had been contained within those walls, and so much of his own heart had gone to ashes with them.

If he closed his eyes and listened, he could almost hear Sarah's voice upon the breeze, the rich, sweet sound of it warming him even now. And he could see her as he had on that last day, her dark red hair gleaming in the sun, her honey-colored eyes lighting with love whenever they'd settled on Chris or Adam.

Lord, Adam...

He raised his face and stared up into the sky, his eyes filling, his throat closing, as he thought again of the little boy he'd adored. A bright, happy, mischievous child, never walking when he could run, never asking one question when ten would do, his daddy's spirit and his mama's sweetness wrapped in a laughing, ginger-headed package. And Buck had loved him as he'd never loved anyone before or since.

He'd had been there when Adam had been born, and remembered almost having to tie Chris to the chair to keep him from pacing a hole in the floor. He'd been there when Adam had said his first word; and, to his everlasting delight, Chris's guilty horror and Sarah's grim dismay, that word hadn't been "mama" or "papa," but "damn." Lord, he'd nearly laughed himself sick over that one! He could still see the look on Chris's face when that sweet treble had piped up in imitation of his daddy, and he'd been sure Sarah was going to beat one of them to death with the wooden spoon she'd gripped like a weapon.

But, to his credit, Larabee had never sworn again around his son.

Buck sighed and dropped his head, smiling softly, sadly, as he recalled how naturally Chris had taken to fatherhood. A tenderness he'd never imagined was there had been born in the man the day Adam came into the world. Hands so adept at brawling just as easily turned to cradling a sleeping infant, wiping away a child's tears or tending the hundred and one hurts that little boys suffered in the course of their days. He'd heard Larabee's stern voice pitched low and soft while reading bedtime stories, growling playfully while he chased a laughing little boy around the yard, or murmuring gently when soothing Adam through some nightmare or other. It was as if Chris had been waiting for a reason to let that part of himself out, and Adam had been that reason.

Just as he'd been the reason Chris had walled that part of himself in again.

Buck turned and looked for him, and his heart broke yet again when he saw him leaning on the fence around two graves, the lean frame bowed and radiating unbearable pain. Gone was the loving husband and father, gone even was the formidable gunfighter. Now all that remained was the broken, hurting man surrounded once more by the wreck and ruin of his dreams.

Then, as he watched, awash in a pain of his own, Larabee pulled himself upright and turned, burning eyes seeking out Blackfox. As the tightly-coiled dark figure stalked toward him, Buck barely suppressed a shudder as he looked into the hard, twisted mask of grief and deadly fury that was his old friend's face.

Chris stared at Blackfox through seething eyes, memories of his wife and son when they were alive colliding in his brain with images of their blackened bodies, and rage poured through him in raw waves. His hand found its way to his gun, and, for long moments, it was all he could do not to draw and shoot the man on the spot.

"You're going to tell me exactly what happened that night," he spat through clenched teeth. "You understand me? From the moment you set foot on my property till the moment you took the lives... of my wife and son."

Blackfox felt the cold hand of death settle upon him at that moment, and knew killing him would come easier to this man than breathing. "I told you," he insisted fearfully, "I didn't do..."

"Chris!" Nathan called from across the yard, interrupting Blackfox and quite possibly saving his life. "We found something!"

+ + + + + + +

It wasn't much, only the remains of one of Blackfox's partners from that night, yet it gave them more than they'd had so far. Their killer was probably left-handed, and enough of a professional to execute employees who might become liabilities.

Their mysterious "hard man" was getting harder all the time.

From the ranch they rode into Eagle Bend, and, despite the bartender's initial unwillingness to talk, an unwillingness that disappeared when Larabee hauled him across the bar and threw him onto the floor and loomed like the Angel of Death above him, learned a bit more. Tall and lean like Chris, smoked cheroots, and was unusually neat. He also wore a special glove to disguise a deformed or crippled hand.

And he still frequented the area.

That last gave a new surge of hope to Chris. If the man was still around, then he'd inevitably hear that Larabee was asking about him. And he might get bold, or nervous, enough to venture out of hiding to confront this latest threat.

It was at that thought that Chris realized just how unprepared for such a confrontation he was. He couldn't concentrate right now, his thoughts careening about inside his brain like twigs tossed upon a storm, his body exhausted yet his every nerve stretched almost to snapping. He needed to eat, needed to rest, and doubted he could do either. He wanted to curse, to cry, to scream, to fall to the ground and die in the dirt or kill someone with his own hands. He didn't know where to start, or to stop, where to go or what to do, didn't know anything...

Except that he needed Vin.

He needed the tracker's cool head with his own in such a frenzy, needed the tracker's calm to counter his confusion, needed the man's strength to lean on and hold him up until he could stand on his own again. Mostly, though, he just needed Vin, needed to sink into the arms that he knew would catch him and rest in the heart that he knew would shelter him, just needed Vin to hold him and assure him that somehow, God, somehow, it would be all right again.

You take care of me, 'n I take care of you. You watch my back 'n I watch yers. From here on out, we're ridin' this trail together.

Vin's words from yesterday morning came back to him, stopping him in his tracks and nearly dropping him to his knees. Jesus, how he needed that now! Needed his blue-eyed guardian angel to watch over him, to take care of him, until he could take care of himself. Until he could separate his past from his future and do what he needed to put the one to rest in order to turn his attention to the other.

God, Vin, come to me now! he pleaded silently, desperately. I need you ta ride this trail with me, or I'll never make it to the end!

+ + + + + + +

Tanner pushed through the batwing doors into the saloon, forgoing his customary silent, shadow-hugging entrance and ignoring the attention stirred by his grimly determined appearance. With not a single wasted movement, he strode to the table where JD, Ezra and two town men sat indulging in a low-stakes game of poker, his spurs ringing as he walked, emphasizing the unusual force of his steps.

Stopping just behind one of the town men, he stared across the table at his two fellow regulators and growled, "Y'all git yer gear, meet me in the liv'ry. We're ridin' ta Eagle Bend."

JD gaped up at him in surprise, startled not only by Vin's abrupt entrance, but also by the edge in his voice and the hard set of his face. Ezra, however, sat back and gazed calmly up at the tracker, arching one chestnut eyebrow in an expression of cool disinterest.

"And why, pray, would I wish to undertake such a long, uncomfortable and undoubtedly filthy journey at this hour of the day?" he asked. "Taking flight across the barren waste with the mid-day heat beating down upon my person is a most unappealing notion--"

"I don't give a damn," Vin interrupted in a low, harsh voice, fixing a fierce stare upon the gambler. "We're goin' after Chris 'n the boys. Trouble's comin', 'n I aim ta find 'em 'fore it does."

JD swallowed, his eyes widening in alarm. "What makes you think trouble's comin'?"

Vin turned hard eyes to the boy. "'Cause Chris is raisin' ghosts, 'n they don't never rise without trouble. And a man who'll burn a woman 'n child ta death won't hesitate ta kill a man." His stare cut back to Ezra. "So y'all git yer stuff. 'N if you ain't at the liv'ry in ten minutes, I'll come 'n git it for ya."

Without another word, he turned and stalked out of the saloon, leaving a collection of confused and startled stares in his wake.

"But..." JD sputtered, wondering just what the hell was going on and wishing that, just once, Tanner wouldn't leave him wondering that.

Ezra was neither confused nor startled. He'd heard the warning in the tracker's voice, seen it in his eyes, and knew Vin had meant every word. And having the irate Texan manhandling his cherished possessions, or his cherished person, was not a prospect he relished. With as much ease and dignity as he could manage, he laid his cards face down upon the table, reached out and took JD's from his hand and did the same with them, then rose to his feet.

"Gentlemen," he addressed the two perplexed town men, "I must regretfully put an end to our game. Duty has once again reared its ugly head, necessitating our immediate departure." He smiled, his gold-capped incisor gleaming. "But I do hope to see you back at my table soon. It has been a most delightful and profitable day." He bowed slightly and stepped away from the table, then turned back and hauled JD to his feet, pulling him away, as well.

"Ezra, I don't understand," the boy protested. "What--"

"All you have to understand," Standish told him, "is that, undoubtedly having received some mystical vision through communing with the natural world, Mr. Tanner has pressed us into service in the defense of our comrades."


The gambler heaved a long, martyred sigh and shook his head. Then, scowling at the boy, he clarified, "The man can shoot the wings off a fly at one hundred yards. When he says we're leaving, it is in our best interest to leave!"

+ + + + + + +

In exactly ten minutes, the three were off, racing out of town and along the road to Eagle Bend, with Vin leading Ezra and JD at a hard pace.

On the boardwalk outside the jail, Orin Travis stood and watched them go, knowing he'd been right last night. Tanner had waited, had weighed, had deliberated, turning over everything in his mind. And had made his decision. He was going, but not at all half-cocked.

He was flying out as straight and as true as a bullet from a carefully aimed gun.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had thought this day would never end. He'd forced down a brief meal at Nathan's insistence while questioning Blackfox further, then had deposited the man with the sheriff. And had nearly choked on his apology for Sarah and Adam's deaths.

God, he was so sick of that! He didn't want apologies or sympathy, damn it, he wanted explanations! Reasons. Answers. Something that he could point to and say, "There, that's why they're dead!" Something that would make it all make sense. All the apologizing and the sympathizing in the world wouldn't do that, wouldn't bring them back, wouldn't change a thing. Knowing why wouldn't either, but at least it might let them rest easier.

As he hoped it would him.

He went to the livery and tended Pony, not ready yet to go back to the room he'd taken. It was strange, cold, not at all what he was used to or wanted. And empty. If Vin were here, he knew he'd have company in the night, someone to make the room warmer, the bed more inviting. But Vin wasn't here, and he was left to bear this crushing weight alone. So he took his time brushing down his horse and cleaning and oiling his tack, finding some small comfort in turning his mind to such a familiar, uncomplicated task.

Yet even here, memories of his family and thoughts of Vin found him. How many peaceful Sunday afternoons had he spent on a chair outside his barn cleaning or repairing his tack, Adam at his knee and Sarah bringing cookies and lemonade? And how many afternoons had he spent in the livery in town with Vin doing this, delighting in the deep and intimate silence between them while admiring the supple play of tracker's long and nimble fingers over leather?

Strange, how much of the peace he'd known in his life with Sarah he'd found again with Vin. Strange, how much alike the two of them were when he thought about it. Both blessed with a strength that had nothing to do with their physical builds, but had everything to do with their souls. Both able to stand in one moment and find all the joy, all the peace, there was in it before moving on to the next. Both coming to him when he was certain he'd never find their like, both giving themselves to him completely, without reservation, both teaching him what it meant to love with his whole being, and to be loved like that in return.

Then again, maybe it wasn't so strange after all. Sarah had always done her best to look after him, to take care of him. Maybe, just maybe, she'd done it in death as she'd done in life. It would be like her to send someone across his path to free him from his pain and isolation. It would be like her to send someone to take care of him in ways she no longer could.

It would be just like her to send Vin.

His tack finished, he put it away and retrieved his saddlebags, then left the stable and went to the boardinghouse, finally ready to face sleep. He trudged wearily up the stairs and found his room, unlocking the door. Once inside, he hung his hat on the wall rack and tossed his saddlebags onto the bed. As he turned toward the wash basin, he looked down and saw the thick red pool standing beneath the closet door, then smelled the distinctive coppery odor.


Gripped by a deep uneasiness, he went to the closet, faces from his past and present colliding in his mind. Sarah... Adam... Vin... God, who...

He opened the door, and saw the blood-soaked corpse impaled on the rack.

"The bartender," he murmured flatly, recognizing both the dead man, and the message he'd been meant to deliver.

The hard man was back.


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