Ashes and Smoke

by SueN

Chasing after the three men didn't give Chris and Vin much time to talk, or any time to be alone, yet both took comfort in simply being back together. Two halves reunited into a whole. Larabee felt more grounded almost immediately, less likely to be torn apart by the chaos raging in his soul. In Tanner, he had his stormbreak and shelter.

Vin was torn between anxiety and relief. He'd known this would have taken its toll upon the man, but not even he was prepared for the depth of the anguish he saw in the haunted green eyes. Larabee looked at once harder and more fragile than Vin had ever seen him, as if he were fighting against some darkness waiting to reclaim him.

But it would not. Not while Tanner had breath in his body. He was back at Chris' side, where he belonged, and he would fight heaven and hell to keep the man here, where he belonged. He no longer had to worry from a distance, no longer had to imagine what demons were clawing at his lover. He was here, he was with Chris, he could see the man, touch him. Protect him. He still feared this would only end in more pain for Larabee, but at least he would be here to hold him if it did.

And, if he had his way, to kill whoever was responsible for that pain.

The trail, augmented by the blood being lost by the one he'd shot, led right where instinct had told him it would. "Figgers their track's lead here," he said in his soft, gravelly voice as he stared out over the town before them. "Back under the rock they crawled out from. Welcome ta Purgatory, boys. A real hell-hole."

Chris's gut clenched as he stared down at the outlaw haven. Vin had told him he was sure they'd end up here, and he'd tried to talk the tracker into staying away. Tanner was too well known there, had too many enemies from his bounty hunting days, and five hundred reasons for one of them to seek revenge. As much as he needed Vin with him right now, he was tortured by the fear of losing him, too.

But Vin had been adamant, had refused even to listen to his arguments. Stubborn as only he could be, Tanner had said he'd either go with 'em, or behind 'em, but, one way or another, he was goin'. And he'd shot Larabee a glare that had dared the man to try and stop him.

So, knowing he'd lost that argument, and not at all happy about it, he simply spurred Pony down toward the town.

"Might wanta take one of 'em alive," Buck suggested as Chris rode past. "Find out who's payin' 'em."

"Three men," Vin reminded them, slipping a piece of straw into his mouth. He knew Larabee was pissed, but didn't care. He hadn't come all this way just to be separated from the man again. "One of 'em was on a paint."

"Howdy, boys!" called out a voice behind them.

Buck looked to their rear, and a wave of anger sliced through him. "Good God almighty!" he spat, spurring Beavis after Larabee.

Vin looked back, saw the odd figure on the mule and sighed in weary disgust. JD had told him about Steele, a writer of one of them God-awful books the boy was always readin'. Not wanting any part of the man, he shook his head and rode away with his friends.

But Steele was not so easily evaded. Having come to terms with his mule, he caught up with the Seven and joined their company as if he belonged, fixing his attention on the man in the hide coat. He'd watched his last shot in awe, and just knew someone with that kind of skill must have a story to tell. Yet each time he tried to approach him, the man pulled away, or Steele found a mount belonging to one of his friends blocking his way. At last, he settled in frustration in place alongside the boy he already knew.

"That man, Sheriff Dunne," he asked, nodding his head toward his elusive quarry, "the one with the long hair. Who's he?"

"Oh, that's Vin... Vin," the boy supplied, remembering only at the last minute that spreading Tanner's whole name around might not be a good idea.

"Vin," Steele repeated, storing the name inside his brain. "That was quite a shot he made back in town. I've never seen anything like it!"

"Oh, Vin's the best there is!" JD boasted, his eyes shining with pride for his friend. "There's nobody who can handle a rifle like him. Or find a trail. Buck says Vin could track an ant in a rainstorm!"

"A-ha!" Steele chortled triumphantly. "A marksman and tracker. I'll bet he's got a story worth telling!"

"Oh, uh," JD demurred, suddenly nervous, "Vin... he ain't much of a talker. And he ain't real comfortable around strangers..." He swallowed hard and turned worried hazel eyes upon the writer. "Maybe you just better stay away from him, Mr. Steele. I mean, Vin ain't exactly the friendly type."

"Then that makes him my type!" Steele exclaimed. "Tracker, sharpshooter, a man of the wilds by his look... rough, tough, dangerous... Oh, Sheriff Dunne, he's exactly my type! And my readers' type, too!" With that, he kneed the mule forward, renewing his attempts to get close to the mysterious "Vin."

JD watched him go and grimaced, hoping Vin didn't hurt him too badly. Or kill him too slowly.

+ + + + + + +

Once in Purgatory, they split up to begin their search for the three men. Chris took Blackfox with him, but no one else, which worried Buck. He saw Vin start to follow Larabee, but subtly managed to get Beavis in front of Peso, stopping the tracker. Instead, he turned to the healer.

"Hard ta tell what he's gonna do," he said quietly. "Keep a good eye on him."

"All right," Nathan agreed, sharing Buck's concerns. Chris was like a hound scenting blood now, and God alone knew what the man would do if anyone crossed him.

Buck saw Vin glaring at him, and sighed. He'd been dealing with a half-crazy Larabee for three days now; he just wasn't sure he was up a fully enraged Tanner. Still, he knew the younger man deserved some explanation for being kept from going after his... friend.

"JD," he called, sliding wearily from the saddle, "you're with me. Take care of my horse, would ya? I need ta talk ta Vin."

"Sure, Buck." The boy hurried forward to take Beavis's reins, then glanced up at Tanner, who still sat atop his horse, who still stared stonily at Buck. "Uh, Vin, I'll take Peso if ya want," he offered uncertainly, suddenly realizing just how old and just how deadly the tracker could look.

Tanner dismounted without a word, without showing a sign of the exhaustion that gnawed at him. For three days, all he'd wanted was to be with Chris, to watch over him and take care of him; and now that he'd found him, Buck had denied him that chance. Purposely. He thrust Peso's reins at JD and stalked after Wilmington, seething with anger at the big man.

Buck stepped up onto the porch in front of an abandoned store and turned to Tanner, who was right behind him. When the tracker looked as if he were preparing to throw a punch, Buck held up his own hands and said, "Hold on a minute. I know yer pissed, but I wantcha ta hear me out."

"Talk," Vin snarled, knotting a fist, but not raising it. Yet. He was fairly certain that Buck knew about him and Chris, and feared this was an attempt by the big man to keep them apart.

Buck sighed and bowed his head, crossing his arms against his chest. He knew he had to choose his words carefully, didn't want to cross any lines here that shouldn't be crossed. That he wasn't ready to cross. "First of all," he began softly, "Chris is in a real bad way right now. He ain't thinkin' straight... Hell, he ain't thinkin' at all. And he's a heartbeat from killin' somebody. Anybody." He winced at his next thought, but knew it had to be spoken. "The way he is right now, he needs somebody with him who can step in and stop him if he starts ta do somethin' foolish. And I don't mean just talk him out of it. I mean step in, grab him, wrestle him down and hold him until he's ready ta listen ta reason." He raised his head then and fixed sorrowful eyes on Tanner. "And I'm sorry, Vin, but you just ain't big enough ta do that. I know you're tough, but I also know, from personal and painful experience, what it takes ta subdue Chris when he's like this, and I just ain't sure you could do it."

"That all?" Vin demanded tersely.

Buck winced again; he was now facing that line head-on. "No," he sighed, "that ain't all. I also didn't wanta take the chance that, if he did snap, he might hurt you when he went. I know..." He licked his lips and turned his head, looking away from Vin. "I know... how close you two are..." From the corner of his eye he saw the tracker tense, and knew the man understood. "Right now, I don't think Chris could take knowin' he'd hurt you, and I sure as hell don't wanta put you in the position of havin' ta hurt him ta calm him down. I just... don't think either of ya needs that right now. Y'all got enough shit ta deal with as it is."

Vin stared at Buck in confused disbelief. He'd come expecting anger, condemnation, but had found a kind of protection instead. He shifted uneasily, not at all certain what to make of it. He really hated surprises.

Buck realized he'd caught the tracker off guard, and had to smile at that; he knew it didn't happen often. "Close your mouth, son," he advised gently. "You're lookin' like JD right now." The tracker's mouth snapped shut, without a single smart-assed reply coming from it, and Buck arched a brow at the man's unusual submissiveness. "That brings up another point," he said. "For you and Ezra and JD ta get ta Eagle Bend when ya did, it had ta mean y'all were ridin' like hell. And I'm bettin' that, even if you let the others sleep, you didn't do it yerself. Hell, I can tell that by lookin' at ya. You're tired, Vin, and that's gonna make it hard ta deal with Chris. The last thing we need is for the two of you, exhausted and edgy, ta tear inta each other. Couldn't any of us deal with that right now. Especially not you or Chris."

"I cain't stay away from him," Vin said softly. "Hell, I won't stay away!"

"And I'm not askin' ya to," Buck assured him. "Fact is, I figger you're the best one for him right now, the one he's gonna need most ta help him through this. He sure as hell ain't leanin' on the rest of us. He's wrapped so tight inside himself that I'm not even sure he sees the rest of us. But he'll see you, and he'll lean on you. Which means you gotta be strong enough ta bear his weight. You gotta take care of yerself, Vin, 'cause it's the only way you'll be able ta take care of him, too."

Vin nodded slowly. "Reckon that makes sense," he allowed, still trying to figure all this out. But, Buck was right; he was tired, and deeply worried about Chris. He needed time to sort out what Buck had said... and what he hadn't.

"He loved her, y'know," Buck said suddenly, softly. "She and that boy were his whole world. And when they died, he did, too. Or I thought he had, until lately..." His voice faltered, and he had to look away from Vin to hide the tears in his eyes. "I just... don't wanta see him go back ta that," he whispered harshly. "If this don't turn out like he hopes, I just... I don't know... how many more blows he can take..."

Against his nature, Vin reached out and gripped Buck's arm, deeply touched by the big man's distress. "I'll take care of him," he said in a low, firm voice, his blue eyes burning with determination. "I won't let him go back ta that, I promise. I will take care of him."

They were simple words, yet Buck recognized them for the solemn vow they were. He looked at Vin, saw all that the man could not say shining in his eyes, and gave a small smile.

"Yeah, I reckon you will at that, pard." His smile broadened, his big frame straightened, and he clapped Vin soundly on the shoulder. "All right then, let's go search the town for them three sonsabitches, see if we can't make 'em tell us what they know. Oughtta be pretty easy," he winked at Vin, "since you marked one so nicely for us. Just gotta look fer a fella who's sprung a leak."

Vin chuckled ruefully and shook his head. "Yeah, 'n I expect Larabee'll have words with me over that. Seein's how I shot him in the back."

"Oh, I don't know," Buck mused, slinging a long arm over Tanner's shoulders and leading him to where JD waited for them, "I think Chris is smart enough not ta rile a man who can shoot like that. 'Sides, we c'n always put a bullet in the bastard's front if that'll make Larabee feel better."

+ + + + + + +

As it turned out, that second bullet wasn't necessary; Vin's had done its work adequately. JD looked down into the coffin, reached out and turned the body over, then let it go and looked back at the tracker, awe in his eyes. "It's the one on the paint pony. You are one hell of a shot, Vin!" he marveled.

Tanner said nothing. Shooting came as naturally to him as breathing; he'd always had the long eye, the steady hand. He knew his ability with a rifle was often mystifying to others, but, to him, it was just what he did.

Any further thoughts were interrupted by a gunshot from the cantina, and immediately the three men hurried in that direction, Buck and Vin worried that Chris had finally lost his brittle control. Pushing through the strands of beads that formed the door, however, they were greeted not by the sight of murder, but by an atmosphere of raucous gaiety. The cantina near overflowed with bad men of every description, bristling with guns, knives and a vast assortment of scars, a collection of desperadoes who looked as hard as any men who'd ever walked the earth. Yet, rather than menacing some innocent populace, they were now swarming around Steele like bees around a flower, jostling for position, almost childishly eager to tell their bloody stories and have their ugly faces photographed.

Ezra came up to meet them, handling a wad of cash and grinning from ear to ear, a man clearly in his element. "Well, welcome to the festivities!" he greeted happily.

"We heard the gunshot," JD explained, looking around the cantina in rapt wonderment. This was his first visit to the legendary Purgatorio, and, so far, it was shaping up to be just as bad -- and just as thrilling -- as he'd imagined.

"Thought somebody'd killed the little feller," Vin said more laconically. He and Purgatorio were old acquaintances, and he knew many of the faces here from his bounty hunting days. And there were more than a few here who knew his, as well.

"Kill him?" Ezra laughed. "Hell, they're about ready to elect him president!"

At that moment, Steele noticed the new arrivals and beamed ecstatically at them. "Howdy, boys. Be with you in a minute."

Ezra was still amazed by the reception the little man had gotten. He'd been sure the outlaws would tear him to bits; instead, the moment he'd introduced himself and told them why he was here, they'd greeted him like a king. "He said he that he was a writer who was willing to pay for anyone's story as long as it was about murder and mayhem."

"Of course, that appealed to the congregation," Josiah quipped from the table where he sat. "After that, the only fight was to see who was going to be first in line."

Steele came bustling up to them, his round face wreathed in a huge, ecstatic smile. "This is fantastic!" he crowed. "Better than I ever dreamed. Do you know who that is I was just talking to? Dan Barnes." He swept glowing eyes over the men about him and nodded, exceedingly pleased with himself. "Uh-huh, the Dan Barnes."

"`Bloody-hand' Barnes," Vin clarified with a lift of his brows when Ezra looked to him with a puzzled frown.

"He told me how he got his name," Steele said excitedly. "Ooh! Story's gonna sell a million!"

"Congratulations," Standish said wryly, not at all certain he wanted to know how a man earned such an appellation.

Vin merely shook his head and ambled away from the annoying little man to join his friends at their table. He did not sit down, but stood in the corner, choosing a vantage point that would allow him to see everyone in the place while keeping his own back protected. He didn't plan on being a chapter in one of Jock Steele's books.

"Hey, Steele!" a voice from the crowd of outlaws called. "Come take another picture over here!"

"Oh," Steele chirped, feeling as if he'd hit the motherlode and eager to flaunt his accomplishments before these men who'd so constantly snubbed him. "Let me see, here. My photograph should be dry by now." He puffed up considerably and said cockily, "I took a shot with me and the boys."

Chris came in with Blackfox and Nathan behind him and went straight to the bar, his insides still tied in knots. He'd come within a heartbeat of killing an innocent man, would certainly have killed him had Nathan not been there to stop him. And he'd come damn close to killing Nathan. In pulling Chris's gun away from the terrified outlaw, the healer had pointed it into his own body. At that proximity, the shot would have been fatal.

If his finger had so much as twitched on the trigger...

Vin saw Larabee come in, saw the almost painful tension of the man's body, and longed to go to him. But he doubted he'd have restraint enough to keep his deep concern for the man, and all the love that lay beneath it, from showing. And a cantina full of blood-thirsty desperadoes eager to see themselves written up in some dime novel was probably not the best place to reveal his feelings for Larabee. But Steele's mention of the photograph gave him an idea for a practical -- and publicly acceptable -- way he could help Chris. If he could see that picture, he might recognize in it someone who would know such a man as the one Buck had described, and who might be persuaded to share that information.

And he knew lots of ways of persuadin' folks.

"Here it is," Steele announced proudly, coming to the table to show off his prized photograph. "That's me."

"Lovely," Ezra quipped dryly, finding the man as unattractive on film as he was in the flesh.

But while Steele passed around the photo and unnecessarily pointed out himself, Vin's keen eyes narrowed in on another figure, one who looked decidedly out of place among such a rough and dirty group. Without a word, he reached out and snatched it from Josiah, then strode to the bar and showed it to Chris, indicating the man who'd caught his attention.

"Right there in the corner," he said. "Notice the glove 'n the cheroot."

Chris took the photo, stared hard at the trim, neat figure in the corner. Steele came up to them and again unnecessarily identified himself, but Larabee wasn't listening. "Where was this taken?" he demanded.

Shaken by the hard voice, and even harder eyes, the little man swallowed nervously. "Uh... here. About an hour ago."

Chris shoved him away and turned. When Nathan pushed Blackfox to the bar, Chris showed him the picture. "Look at it," he ordered. "Is that him?"

Blackfox studied the figure carefully, knowing his very life depended on his answer. "Yeah," he said at last, his memory stirred by the man's eyes. Even in a photograph, he didn't want to look into them. "That's the man who killed your family."

Buck shoved Blackfox away and, with Vin, took his place at Chris's back to deal with anyone who protested or interfered. Chris walked slowly around the cantina and searched every face present, matching them all to the photograph in the hope of finding the man in the corner. He was not there. At the bar, though, was a man who'd stood next to the elusive bastard.

He stalked forward and thrust the picture under the man's nose. "You know him?" he snarled.

The outlaw merely stared defiantly at Larabee, so Buck stepped up and shoved his gun into his ribs. "Answer him," he snarled.

Knowing instinctively the gun was not there just for show, the outlaw took a look, and answered, "Yeah, I seen him."

"What's his name?" Chris asked. When the man didn't answer, he leaned closer and hissed dangerously, "What is his name?"

He hadn't lived this long without hanging by being stupid; the outlaw recognized the deadly menace in the blond and knew better than to try him further. "Fowler," he answered. "Cletus Fowler."

Buck shoved him away and stepped closer to Chris. "That name mean anything to you?"

But, rather than providing an answer, the man's name only deepened the mystery. "Never heard of him," Chris answered in complete confusion.

+ + + + + + +

As soon as he'd seen him in the picture, Vin had already known the man they sought was gone. From long and painfully learned habit, he'd memorized every face in that room, noted who left and who entered, catalogued who was a threat and who might be an ally. Tanner never missed much, and he certainly wouldn't have missed an overly-tidy, cold-eyed dandy wearing a specially made black glove.

So, staying only long enough to hear the man's name, he caught Buck's eye and passed him a glance that told the big man he was entrusting Chris to his capable hands, then slipped out of the cantina. Keeping cautiously to the shadows, knowing there was no shortage of men in this town who would remember him from his bounty hunting days and gladly slit his throat, he found a vantage point that provided a clear view of the cantina and settled in to wait, blue eyes filled with grim determination.

The hawk was on the hunt.

He stood in the shadows for a good fifteen minutes, a man of infinite patience, and watched the cantina, wanting to see who left, and in what direction they went. This man, Fowler, always seemed one step ahead of him, which meant he had eyes and ears everywhere. Tanner figured he would have left someone behind to watch them, to see how much they learned about him, and he intended to catch that someone and palaver with him.

Maybe deprive Fowler of a couple of those ears.

At last he saw someone, one of the men he remembered from Steele's photograph, slip out the back way and head for the livery. Not liking the furtive way the man looked about him, Vin struck out after him, a shadow flitting among shadows. The man kept a keen eye on his back, and Vin gave a cold grin.

Bastard was good; he was better.

After a long, circuitous route, the man reached the livery and slipped inside. For all his previous care, however, he left the door open a bit, just enough for his "shadow" to slither through. Vin made a quick visual search to make sure they were alone, then drew the Bowie knife from his belt and crept on silent feet toward his prey.

The first indication the man had that he was being followed was the strong hand that grabbed him from behind, spun him around and slammed him into a wall. The second indication was the sharp tip of a blade being pressed into his gut as a hide-covered forearm was jammed across his throat. A terrified, airless squeak escaped him as he stared into glittering blue eyes set in a grim, rock-hard face.

"Let's you 'n me play a game," Vin growled. "I ask a question, you answer. 'N fer ever' answer I don't like," he gave a thin, teeth-baring smile, "I git ta cut somethin' off. That sound fun ta you?"

A cold chill rippled through the man as he felt the blade moving slowly down his abdomen and stopping at his groin. "What--"

"Uh-uh," Vin grunted, finding the man's cock with his knife and pressing the tip against it. "I ask the questions, remember? Now, where can I find Cletus Fowler?"

The man tried to swallow against the arm pressing against his throat, then licked his lips, all too keenly aware of where that knife rested. "I d... I don't know... nobody..."

Vin sighed and shook his head, frowning. "Nope, don't like that answer." With a quick thrust of his wrist, he jabbed the tip of his blade through the man's pants and just into his cock, rewarded by a shrill cry. "Might still be able ta use it if ya tell me 'bout Fowler," he rasped coldly. "Lie ta me again, 'n I'll cut it off."

The man had no doubt he would. He'd seen eyes like that -- not that color, but with that same expression -- once before, when he'd had a run-in with some truly pissed-off Comanches. Still, Fowler wasn't a man he wanted to cross, either.

"He'll... he'll kill me... if I do," he gasped, shaking violently from head to toe.

Vin smiled again, a cold and terrible smile that would have sent a rabid wolf running. "Yeah, but he won't have the same fun with ya that I will if ya don't. Y'see," he withdrew his knife from the man's cock, then drove a knee viciously into the injured organ, letting the howling man fall to the ground, "I hear Fowler's got manners. 'N I been told I ain't got none at all."

The man writhed and sobbed in agony at the feet of his tormenter, clutching at himself as blood darkened the crotch of his pants. Then, to his horror, the blue-eyed savage straddled him and sat down upon him, then leaned over and knotted the fingers of his free hand into the dirty brown hair at the left side of his head and pulling it back. Then that knife came to rest at the junction of his skull and the top of his ear.

"Been a while since I took a trophy," Vin said casually, pressing the knife into flesh and cartilage. "But I reckon there's jist some things ya never fergit how ta do. So," the blade pressed deeper, starting a trickle of blood, "where's Fowler?"

"Please... AAAaaahhh!" The man's plea ended in a scream as that knife sliced off the top of his ear. Blood gushed forth as pain and shock ripped through him.

Vin leapt aside to avoid that first rush, then, as it settled into a steady flow, reached out and shoved the injured side of the man's head into the ground. Letting him bleed into the straw and dirt, he took his place once more atop his victim.

"I ain't got nowhere else ta be!" he snarled. "'N I c'n keep ya alive fer hours!"

"Ea... Eagle... Bend," the man sobbed in agony. "Went back... Eagle... Bend!" His attacker shifted his weight atop him and he screamed, expecting another strike of that knife. For long, horrible moments he cowered there, certain he would die.

Only when the vague realization that he was not dead sunk in did he open one eye and turn his head, badly startled to realize he was alone.

The blue-eyed Comanche was gone.

+ + + + + + +

Buck saw Vin slip back into the cantina and nodded him over to the bar, where he sat keeping watch over Chris. The gunman was seated alone at a table nearby, hat hanging down his back, a fresh bottle of whiskey and an untouched plate of food before him. As Tanner joined him at the bar, Buck couldn't help noticing how the younger man's gaze drifted to Chris and rested there, their depths flooding with a sorrow the likes of which he'd never seen.

No, that was wrong. He had seen it, once before. When Chris had beheld the bodies of his wife and son...

Feeling as if he were intruding upon something too intimate to be shared, Buck looked away, giving the tracker time to collect himself. Moments later, Vin turned toward the bar and laid his hands atop it, bowing his head and closing his eyes.

Buck gave him still more time, and found himself staring at Tanner's hands. In contrast to the rest of him, which was still covered in dirt from the trail, they were immaculately clean, even under and around his fingernails, as if they'd been vigorously scrubbed.

Now, why in the hell would Tanner take the time to scrub his hands?

"He say anything?" Vin asked at last, raising his head. He looked and sounded bone-weary.

"No," Buck sighed, hurting deeply for his old friend. "Just been sittin' there, starin' out that dam window, lookin' at God knows what."

"God knows," Vin echoed. "But so do you."

Buck winced and bowed his head, rubbing his eyes tiredly. "Yeah," he breathed, "I reckon I do, at that."

Vin looked at the big man then, saw the heavy slump of the broad shoulders, the bow in the strong back, the worry and weariness and age that had nothing to do with years in his face, and felt a sharp twinge of sympathy. Buck had been so wrapped up in not letting Chris get lost in his pain that he'd ignored his own. And some things, he knew, couldn't -- shouldn't -- be ignored.

"Gotta be a terrible thing," he said softly, "losin' a boy like Adam. Losin' a friend like Sarah."

Vin's words didn't register at first. "Yeah," Buck murmured. "Chris loved..." Then he realized what he'd heard, and frowned in confusion. A friend... "What?" he gasped, turning startled eyes upon the tracker.

Vin held that gaze, his own dark and deep. "She was yer friend, too," he rasped. "Chris ain't the only one who lost 'em. Mebbe yer loss ain't the same as his, but that don't mean it don't hurt. He's half-crazy with grief, but at least he's grievin'. You been so busy takin' care of him, though, that I don't reckon you've had much chance ta do that yet. Havin' all this come back this way... Well, I reckon it's gotta hurt you, too." He shrugged and abruptly looked down at his hands, suddenly realizing how much he'd said, and not at all certain he'd said any of it right. "Guess I jist wanta be sure you're all right," he finished softly.

Buck stared at him for long moments, surprised not just by the length of the speech, but by the words themselves. Tanner wasn't a talker, they all knew that; the man seemed to regard words as a trap waiting to snare him. But when he did speak, it often revealed some unexpected insight, and this time was no different. He would've thought that Vin would be focused only on Chris, so intent on him that he wouldn't notice, much less worry about, anyone else. He realized he'd badly underestimated the young man. Again.

"I don't know," he answered at last, his voice soft and sad. "You're right, I loved 'em like they were mine. Hell, I guess in a way they were. And ta come back and find 'em like we did..." He flinched, the pain again flooding his soul, and he looked away and closed his eyes tightly, recalling a sight he'd prayed for three years to forget. "There's no describin' it," he whispered shakily. "I was there when that boy was born. I sure as hell never thought I'd be there ta see him buried!"

Vin simply sat in silence. Even if he had been good with words, he knew he wouldn't have any for this.

And Buck appreciated that. He was a talker, he knew that; had been one all his life. But Tanner was a listener, a true listener, and there were damn few of them in this world.

"I did grieve, though," he went on. "Grieved long and hard." He turned back to Vin and gave a strained smile. "Maybe you ain't noticed, but I ain't one fer keepin' what I feel inside."

"Cain't say I've noticed," Vin quipped. "Always took ya fer the silent type, m'self."

Buck chuckled and shook his head. "Damn, son, no wonder Chris always looks like he's about ready ta shoot ya! But... thanks. Been a while since I laughed." He sighed heavily, and his smile faded. "All this... it's just brought it back. It's like I'm seein' 'em all over again... I want this bastard, Vin," he said, voice and eyes suddenly turning hard and cold. "I don't care if we have ta turn over every rock in Purgatory--"

"Ain't here," Vin interrupted quietly. "He's gone back ta Eagle Bend."

Buck stared intently at him, studying his placid face and unrevealing eyes. "And how do you know that?"

Vin shrugged lightly. "Met up with a feller who told me, 'bout half an hour ago."

Buck narrowed his eyes slightly, frowning thoughtfully. "Half an hour ago?" he asked softly. "You waited half an hour ta tell us?"

Vin shrugged again, then dropped his gaze to the bar, still not certain just how much of himself he dared reveal to these men. It had been so long since he'd belonged anywhere, and he was coming gradually to the realization that his love for Chris wasn't all that kept him with these men. He didn't want to lose what he was only now beginning to admit he'd found.

"Had ta clean up a bit first," he said at last, his voice even softer than usual.

Buck caught a flicker of something dark, something predatory, in the tracker's eyes just before they lowered, and felt a chill ripple through him. He glanced down at the tracker's hands, saw again how scrupulously clean they were...

And decided he didn't want to know any more.


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