Ashes and Smoke

by SueN

Josiah frowned deeply and stared again at the slip the telegraph operator had handed him; the reply to the one he'd dragged the poor man out of bed to send. Just a few words, and not from anyone he'd expected to answer.


Josiah scratched his whiskered jaw, shook his grizzled head slowly, then shoved the flimsy paper into his pocket and drew out a coin. Flipping it to the operator, he bobbed his head in thanks and walked out of the office. He saw Buck and Chris standing in the street, talking with the sheriff as the bartender's body was loaded into the wagon, and started toward him.

And, as he drew near enough to feel the anger and frustration rolling off Larabee's tight body, understanding hit him, and a wry chuckle escaped him.

Of course Travis had been the one to answer. He wasn't saying the boys were leaving, he was saying they'd left. Vin Tanner, God love that boy's mysterious soul, had known he was needed long before the summons came, and likely was dragging Ezra and JD behind him right now as he flew across the miles.

He joined Chris and Buck, and almost flinched as the gunfighter's diamond-hard gaze snapped to him. Larabee was walking a razor's edge here, and one wrong step would plunge him once more into the black pit from which he'd only recently begun to climb. And he might not make it out a second time.

"You send word?" Chris demanded of the preacher, his need for Vin's steady, soothing presence a raw ache in his soul.

Josiah nodded, adopting as calm a manner as he could, almost able to see the younger man's nerves fraying right before him. "Had to drag the telegraph operator out of bed." He glanced at the wagon, then back to Chris. "That poor soul supposed ta be our invitation to leave?" He shook his head mournfully. "Not very hospitable."

"Really," Buck snorted, still enraged that the bastard had come close enough to Chris to leave a corpse in his room, yet go unseen by anyone. "Good reason ta stick around, teach him some manners." He was startled to see Chris abruptly turn and walk away. "Where you goin'?"

Josiah sighed. "Saloon," he said knowingly, suddenly wishing Four Corners were a whole helluva lot closer to Eagle Bend.

And pitying anyone who had to close the distance with Vin Tanner.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish no longer had to wonder what hell was; he knew. It was being dragged across the desert at a grueling, punishing pace by a hard-eyed, nearly silent Vin Tanner, allowed only brief stops for water and rest when the horses demanded it, and only slightly longer stops for what, to the tracker, might pass as food but that, to Ezra, was a personal affront.

Jerked beef, dried biscuits and bitter coffee. And, good Lord, the buckskin-clad barbarian actually seemed to enjoy it!

Even his hopes for a fairly decent night's sleep had been cruelly disappointed. When the light had faded, Vin had been forced to stop, much to Ezra's relief. A scant few hours later, however, he'd been roughly hauled from the sparse comfort of his blankets by the tracker, who'd growled that the moon was up and it was time to ride. A full moon, Standish had noted with surly displeasure, declared by Tanner to be almost as good as sunlight.

Well, wasn't that wonderful?

Reflecting bitterly on the opportunities to fatten his purse back in town that he was missing by being out here, Ezra hastily rolled his blankets, choked down yet another offensive "meal," and hauled himself onto the horse Tanner had already saddled. Someone was going to have to pay for this. Someone needed to die.

Better still, someone would have to lose a fortune at cards.

JD, for his part, was torn between nervousness and excitement. He knew there had to be trouble, else Vin wouldn't be acting the way he was, and the boy fervently hoped they would arrive before it overwhelmed his friends. At the same time, he couldn't help the tingle of exhilaration running through him. This was why he had come West, this charging into the unknown, facing danger, having nothing to rely on save his guns and his wits. He felt more alive now, even tired, hungry and dirty as he was, than he ever had back East.

And he was unabashedly in awe of Tanner. The tracker was a damn marvel in the wilds, ghosting silently over the hard-baked earth, slipping in and out of the shadows of the night as if one of them himself, so deeply and intimately attuned to the rhythms of the earth he seemed sprung from its very bosom. Not a breeze stirred that went untested by the Texan, who would lift his head and sniff wolf-like at it, eyes as dark as the midnight sky narrowed slightly as he processed every scrap of information received by his senses through that lightning-fast brain. JD watched the man saddle the horses, pick up camp and douse the fire, all without making one sound more than was absolutely necessary, and moving with the easy, fluid grace that seemed to have its only mirror in nature itself.

Although, it would be nice if Vin talked a bit more...

The tracker hadn't spoken much since they'd started and, as they rode through the night and into the dawn, he seemed to speak even less, communicating only when he had to and then in terse, one- or two-word sentences or mere grunts and gestures. In contrast there was Ezra, who could use more and longer words to say nothing than anyone JD had ever known. The boy wasn't certain which of the two was harder to understand, and he found himself missing Buck.

The big man might sometimes be a pain, but at least he spoke, and spoke English.

Vin knew he was pushing his two companions hard, but he couldn't help himself. The knowledge that Chris needed him, and needed him now, was a driving, relentless force inside him. He felt as if invisible hands were pushing him onward, heard a voice whispering in his mind that he had to hurry. He couldn't explain it, but didn't have to. He'd always been a man completely at home with the Spirits that moved unseen in this world, had no difficulty letting himself be guided by those Spirits.

So if they wanted him to haul ass to Eagle Bend, he'd do it. And if now and then, from the corner of his eye, he caught what looked to be a glimmer of dark red hair in the moonlight, well, that could just be his little secret.

+ + + + + + +

The delay was gnawing a hole in Chris's gut. He'd been up since dawn, had hastily choked down his untasted breakfast, and now sat watching his friends lingering over their meals, a bottle clutched firmly in his hand. Reason told him it was much too early to be drinking, but his jumping nerves needed something to calm them. The bastard was out there, watching him, mocking him, yet here he still sat, waiting on men who seemed to think they had nothing important to do and all the time in the world to do it.

They should have been out hours ago!

Buck could see Chris seething, could see the anger building in the burning green eyes, yet knew there was not one thing he could do to calm him. Larabee was being driven by his grief and rage, was being consumed by them, and was an explosion waiting to happen. Josiah had told them Vin, Ezra and JD were on their way, and, while it made sense to the rest of them to wait for the three men's arrival, Buck knew that sense was not exactly a big factor in Chris's thinking just now.

God, he hoped Vin hurried!

For some time now he'd suspected -- hell, known, if only he'd admit it -- about the turn the relationship between Chris and Vin had taken, and was still trying to decide exactly how he felt about it. Right now, though, his feelings didn't matter worth a damn. What mattered was that Chris was about to snap, and the only living person who had the power to hold him together was Vin Tanner. Buck might not necessarily like all the implications of that, but he was unselfish enough to admit that, if it meant having Chris happy and sane, there were things he was ready and willing to overlook.

And it helped enormously that the two men were not ones to flaunt their relationship. Buck doubted anyone else suspected, simply because Larabee and Tanner were experts at keeping whatever they felt under tight rein, at giving nothing of themselves away. Hell, he might not have noticed it himself, but for the few times he'd glanced unexpectedly at Chris and caught the man looking at Vin the way he used to look at Sarah, with a light and warmth in his eyes that could only be described as love. And only when he'd forced himself to watch for it had he seen Vin looking at Chris the same way.

But, hell, he supposed he'd come across worse things in this life than two men loving each other...

"The son of a bitch is close enough ta kill a man in my hotel room," Chris snarled, his patience at an end. "Why are we sittin' here eatin' breakfast?"

Without really thinking, Josiah quipped easily, "It's the most important meal of the day."

And Chris snapped. Slamming a hand against the table, he shouted, "You think this is a joke, preacherman?"

"Easy, partner, easy," Buck soothed, reaching out to grab Chris's arm, knowing he was about a breath away from murder.

"Calm down, now!" Nathan urged, grateful only that Larabee was clutching a bottle instead of his gun. "Calm down."

"Nobody thinks this is a joke, Chris," Josiah said gently, calm blue eyes fixed on Larabee, his big body relaxed. Chris was wrapped so tight he was shaking, was as brittle as a piece of old glass, and Sanchez knew one wrong word or move would shatter the man completely.

"Our search party's gonna get bigger real soon, and that's gonna help, Chris," Buck reminded him, praying Tanner would hurry. "We're gonna find him."

Jock Steele chose that moment to appear, and Larabee nearly choked on his anger. "Great!" he muttered, surging to his feet and stalking toward the bar.

"Mornin', boys," the little man greeted brightly, oblivious to the dark currents swirling about the table.

"You picked a bad time," Buck said in a low, angry voice, blue eyes glaring as the writer pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. "Mister, you're like a piece of somethin' a man can't scrape off the bottom of his shoe. Did you follow us?"

"I had no choice," Steele said pointedly. "You left me out there wanderin' around for a day without food." He eyed Nathan's plate. "You gonna eat that?"

Nathan passed the man what remained of his breakfast with a disgusted scowl, wishing he'd just stayed lost.

"I'm gonna go down to the dry goods store," Josiah announced, deciding he might as well do something useful while he waited. "Maybe this man orders his gloves custom-made."

Nathan nodded, formulating a plan of his own. "I'm gonna go down t' that horse liv'ry, see if I c'n find Big Gray."

Steele saw a perfect subject in the black man, and was not about to waste this opportunity. "Mr. Jackson," he called, "Mr. Jackson, I heard you're a doctor of sorts."

Nathan rose to his feet. "No, sir, I ain't no doctor," he insisted firmly, the distinction between what he was and what he wished to be almost sacred to him. "I'm jest inter'sted in healin' folks."

Fascination gripped Steele. "Interested," he mused, gripping his pencil tightly. "May I ask you a few questions? Please, step outside with me for one second," he invited as he tagged along after the man who was leaving without him. "From Slave to Surgeon," he said grandiosely, already seeing it in print. "You know, there's a story in your life, Mr. Jackson. If you'd just allow me to..."

The bark of gunshots interrupted his speech, and a new exhilaration shot through him. A gunfight! Happening right here in front of him! He'd imagined them written about them, but now was seeing one with his very eyes, hearing the crack and slap of bullets, smelling the sharp, acrid tang of powder, watching the smoke billowing on the breeze...

"Chris, one in the wagon!" Buck yelled, taking aim at the man targeting his friend. Then, his attention was caught by the idiot standing in the street like a goddamn statue, and anger at such incredible stupidity flared within him. "Steele, are you crazy?!" he shouted. "Get down, ya fool!"

The writer was in heaven, already framing new words with which to describe such a scene. Oh, it was even better than he'd imagined! "Hey, it's all right!" he called confidently, secure in his untouchable status os objective observer. "They're not shooting at me..." A bullet ripped through his pad, bringing the reality of what was happening brutally to life. "Ah!"

"Chris!" Buck called to his friend as Josiah hauled the writer behind cover. "Get down here! We'll cover ya!"

Still shooting, Chris looked around for the best way to join his friends, then, seeing no better option, simply charged down through the hail of bullets. But his new position did nothing to increase his confidence. Their attackers were everywhere, high and low, seemed to have every angle covered, and superior numbers, too.

Okay, now he understood the logic behind waiting...

"They're all over us!" Buck shouted unnecessarily, unconsciously echoing Larabee's thoughts.

The bray of a mule got his attention, and everyone else's. The gunfire ceased as everyone stared in surprise and confusion at the riderless wagon being pulled slowly down the street. Even Larabee was gaping, his astonishment plain.

Then, as was his way, Josiah put all their thoughts into words. "What in heaven's name is that?"

+ + + + + + +

They stopped one last time, as Vin reluctantly gave in to the demands of exhausted flesh. Everything in him cried out to keep going, but reason prevailed over desperation. He'd pushed them at a brutal, punishing pace, and, if they went on like this, they'd be in no shape to face whatever trouble might be awaiting them. So, at dawn, he bowed to his friends' obvious exhaustion -- hell, to his own -- and granted them all three hours of sleep.

Even Ezra accepted the very small favor without complaint, warned by the tracker's hard-as-granite face that to say anything would land him in a shallow grave.

So they slept. Or, rather, Ezra and JD slept; Vin simply sat and let his mind wander. And not surprisingly at all, it ran straight to Chris, taking his heart with it. He hurt so for the man he could not reach, ached for the pain he was not there to ease. He could feel Chris's torment as if it were his own, then realized it was. Chris was his; how could the man's suffering not be his, as well?

Exactly three hours later, he roused his friends and got them once more on the road to Eagle Bend. His pace this time was no more merciful than it had been before, but neither of his friends complained. In fact, they seemed now to share his sense of urgency, as if understanding that he would not be riding like this without cause. So, infected by the same grim purpose that gripped him, they kept pace with him, all watching the horizon eagerly for any sign of Eagle Bend.

And when, at last, the vague outline of the town glimmered before them, they spurred their horses with a single accord, little knowing what awaited them there, but certain it would not be good. By the time they reached its outer limits, Eagle Bend was already stirring to life, with folks starting to go about their daily lives.

But, as they drew near the livery, Vin suddenly reined in Peso and stiffened in the saddle, his every sense on high alert. Blue eyes swept the street before him, then lifted to the rooftops, and a chill shot down his spine. In a moment, the fleeting shadow was gone, but he'd seen it, and his hackles rose.

"Up on the roofs," he growled to his companions. "Guns."

"Ambush," Ezra said quietly, his instinct for trouble also aroused. "But for whom?"

Vin's mouth twisted into a feral smile. "If'n there's trouble," he rasped, "who's most likely ta be in its middle?"

"Chris," JD and Ezra answered in unison without hesitation.

Vin narrowed his eyes and thought a moment. "Cain't jist go in. Don't know how many of 'em there are, 'n there ain't no sense tippin' our hand." He looked around, saw an old wagon behind the stable and two mules in the fence, and grinned. "You boys need a li'l rest?"

Ezra felt a deep sense of unease at Tanner's grin, knowing personally what devious and degrading ideas it could herald. "And what vile humiliation, pray tell, will I be forced to endure this time?"

"Don't worry, Ezra," Vin answered mischievously, "I ain't askin' ya ta put on a dress again. Likely once was enough fer us all." He tipped his head toward the wagon. "Jist thought you boys might like a ride, is all, seein's yer likely ta be saddle sore."

Ezra saw the wagon, saw the mules, and sneered in disgust. "Good Lord, you are not suggesting--"

"Ain't suggestin' nothin'," Vin informed him, the hard edge returning to his voice. "I'm sayin' flat out. We're gonna hitch them mules ta that wagon, we're gonna git inside, 'n we're gonna ride real easy-like inta town ta git the lay'a the land."

"Mules," Ezra groaned. "Yet another blow to my dignity. Really, Mr. Tanner, what have I ever done to make you loathe me so?"

Vin eyed the gambler steadily. "Don't know 'bout loathin' ya," he rasped, "but if ya don't quit yer belly-achin', yer dignity won't be the only thing takin' a blow. Now, we're gonna ride around the liv'ry like ain't nothin' wrong, take our horses in the back way, then see if we cain't git them mules hitched t' that wagon without anybody seein'. Then--"

"We?" Ezra interrupted sharply. "What is this we? I have never hitched a mule to anything in my life, and certainly do not intend to take up the practice now. Horses are the only steeds fit for a gentleman--"

"I've never worked with mules, but I'm game ta try," JD piped up, eager to take on a new challenge. "Can't be too different from horses, right?"

Vin eyed his two friends and sighed tiredly. One who wouldn't and one who couldn't. Lord, why him? "I'll do it m'self," he said tersely. "This ain't the time t' be teachin' y'all somethin' new." He glared at Ezra. "You think keepin' watch fer bad guys with guns would set all right with yer dignity?"

The gambler considered a moment, then smiled. "Why, yes, I believe keeping the rear guard would be quite agreeable--"

"You c'n guard yer rear from the wagon jist like us," Vin growled. "Now, let's git 'fore them bad guys ain't the onliest ones with guns yer gonna have ta worry about."

JD struggled to conceal his smirk at Standish's outraged expression, and quickly spurred his bay after Tanner's black. He could still hear the Southerner muttering behind them, and suspected Vin enjoyed getting under the man's skin.

Their task was accomplished quickly, Vin getting the mules in harness with an ease born of much practice. JD, watching closely to see how mules were handled, asked about his obvious skill and was surprised to hear the tracker say he'd once been a mule-skinner, working for a freight office back in Texas. The boy couldn't help wondering if there was anything his six older friends hadn't done.

The easy mood, though, was abruptly shattered by the sound of gunfire. Knowing instinctively that their friends were involved, the three hopped into the wagon and Vin took the long reins, driving the mules from inside. Quickly formulating a plan and filling the other two in on it, he turned the wagon onto the main street and headed toward the saloon, his heart in his throat.

Lord, Chris, don't die! he pleaded silently. Jist, please, don't die!

+ + + + + + +

"What in heaven's name is that?"

Chris stared intently into the street, barely noting Josiah's question, his whole attention focused on the wagon before him. The silence hung thick and taut as everyone waited to see what lay behind this bizarre intrusion into the battle. Then, all at once, the canvas covering was pulled down and three men came up firing, picking off targets with a cool precision. Chris's heart leapt when he saw the blessedly familiar figure in that damn hide coat stand to get a better shot, and it was all he could do not to laugh aloud in violent relief.


The three turned the tide, and the battle lasted only a few minutes more as the ambushers realized they were badly out-classed. Three men reached their horses, and made their desperate escape.

Chris rolled out from under a wagon in time to hear Ezra's gleeful whoop, and he smiled up at the newcomers. "Now, that was good timin'," he complimented, his gaze immediately going to Vin.

But the tracker was still focused on the job at hand, and hit upon a way to make that job just a bit easier. Seeing the three men fleeing into the distance, he casually raised his rifle and flipped up the sight. "JD, Ezra," he called laconically, taking aim at a man in a dark coat and red bandanna riding a big paint horse, "ya'd best git down."

The two did so immediately, and Vin squinted down the barrel, then squeezed off a shot. As all watched in amazement, the man on the paint jerked violently, Vin's bullet finding its mark. Ezra turned to regard the tracker with unconcealed amazement, yet it was the relief and welcome in Chris's warm green eyes that teased a small smile from him.

He felt those eyes upon him and wanted to drown in them, wanted to grab Larabee and take him somewhere away from all this and show him how much he'd missed him. Instead, he only nodded at the man and said, "Let's git after 'em."


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