Ashes and Smoke
Less than an hour later, they thundered out of Purgatory, headed back to Eagle Bend. And, as if he'd been formally invited to join their company, Jock Steele followed on his trusty mule. He'd gotten enough stories for ten books from the outlaws in the cantina and knew he could get even more if he stayed, but there was something about this odd mix of seven men that called to him, that compelled him to stick with them and find out exactly what held them together.
That, he knew, would be his greatest story.
By the time they reached Eagle Bend, the sun was setting and no one wanted to ride another mile; even JD was dragging. He and Josiah took the horses to the livery to tend them, Nathan escorted Blackfox back to jail, and Ezra went to the hotel to secure rooms for them all.
Chris, Vin and Buck went to the saloon.
"I just don't understand it," Chris said, the first words he'd spoken since leaving Purgatory. He poured himself a glass of whiskey and slid the bottle to Buck, who poured shots for himself and Vin. "Why would a man I don't know, a man I've never even heard of, kill my family?"
Vin slouched deeply in his chair, trying to find some position that would ease the ache gnawing into the tired, strained muscles of his back. He'd ridden too many miles with too little rest, but he doubted that would change anytime soon.
"Y' ever have any run-ins with anybody?" he asked, trying not to wince as he reached for his whiskey.
Chris shook his head slowly, forehead creased in thought, his green eyes narrowed. "No. Hell, I didn't have time! Took every minute of every day just ta build the house, run the ranch, buy and sell the stock..." He shook his head slowly, still deeply confused. "Hell, it wasn't big enough to attract anybody's attention."
"Attracted somebody's," Vin said softly, not liking at all the suspicion forming in his mind. He didn't know Fowler, but he'd known men like him. Professionals, men who sold their skills for hire. They had no connections to their victims, no ties, and knew only as much as they needed to ensure a job done well.
A job. That's what Chris's family had been.
Larabee bowed his head and scrubbed his face with both hands, then slid one around to his neck and rubbed at the tight, aching muscles there. God, he was tired! More tired than he'd been since...
"Whyn'ta ya find yer room, git some rest?" Vin suggested worriedly, his heart torn by his lover's obvious frustration. "We ain't gonna find out nothin' today. We're all too tired; ain't none of us thinkin' straight. Need ta eat, sleep, git a fresh start on it in the mornin'."
"By doin' what?" Chris asked flatly, too exhausted even to feel the familiar pain that had taken up residence in his soul. "How're we gonna track down a ghost?"
"He ain't a ghost," Buck put in quietly, firmly. "Ghosts don't get their photographs took. Ghosts don't carve up bartenders and leave 'em hangin' in closets, don't hire gunmen for an ambush. He's as real as we are, he's alive, and, if that man Vin found was tellin' the truth, he's here."
"He was tellin' the truth," Vin assured them coldly. "Didn't have no other choice."
Chris lifted his head and stared at his lover, studying that suddenly hard-set face. He realized there were many things about the younger man he still didn't know, and wondered at that moment if he really wanted to know all of them.
Vin refused to flinch before that scrutiny, though he recognized the sudden uncertainty behind it. He'd realized long ago that what he considered proper and what others considered civilized weren't always the same. He wasn't ashamed of what he'd done, knew he would've done far worse had it been needed, but wondered if a man with Larabee's background could understand that.
At the moment, though, Chris was too tired to wrangle with the question or morality and means to an end. "All right," he sighed, "he ain't a ghost. So what do we do?"
Vin shrugged. "We go lookin' fer him. He keeps comin' back here. Somebody's gotta know him. We jist keep askin' 'til we find that somebody."
"I tried that three years ago," Chris said harshly. "Didn't work."
Vin settled back in his chair and folded his hands lightly over his stomach. "Three years ago ya didn't have a name 'r a face," he pointed out. "Now ya do. 'N ya got six men helpin' ya. We split up, we c'n cover a lotta territory, ask a lotta questions." He shrugged again, his blue eyes steady. "Ain't sayin' we'll find anything," he cautioned. "But I reckon by the time we leave, we'll know what the underside of ever' rock around here looks like."
"All right," Chris sighed. "Tomorrow." He rose slowly to his feet, suddenly feeling every kink in every muscle he had. "Gonna find my room."
"Plan on eatin' anything?" Vin asked.
Chris scowled at him. "You takin' Nathan's role now?"
Unperturbed by either the growl or the glare, Vin arched a brow. "Nathan's right more'n he's wrong. 'N I ain't seen you eat anything since we joined ya. So I'll ask ya again -- you plan on eatin' anything?"
"No," Chris said flatly, not at all certain he could eat. "And anybody who brings me anything will likely end up wearin' it." He stared meaningfully at Tanner, then turned and stalked out of the saloon.
"That went well," Buck breathed, pouring himself another drink. He heard Vin sigh, saw him bow and shake his head, and felt a pang of sympathy for him. Tanner looked as worn to the bone as any of the rest of them, but Buck doubted the tracker would rest until he was certain Chris was doing the same. "So, what're you gonna do?"
"First off," he held his empty glass out to Buck, "I'm gonna have me another drink. Then," his gaze went to the door through which Larabee had disappeared, "I reckon I'll find someplace that serves a decent meal, fill this empty hole in my gut, then take a plate to the hotel and find out jist how good I am at force-feedin' grizzlies."
Buck refilled Vin's glass, then raised his own in a toast to the younger man and smiled at him. "Well, pard, it's been nice knowin' ya. I'll put in a good word at yer funeral." And he tossed his whiskey back in a single swallow.
Vin emptied his glass more slowly, shifting in his chair as he drank. But, hell, at least if Larabee killed him, his back wouldn't hurt no more!
+ + + + + + +
Chris reclined against the pillows he'd stacked behind him and puffed slowly at a freshly-lit cheroot, staring into the distance at nothing. A shock of uncombed blond hair tumbled down his forehead and into his eyes, a day's growth of beard and a day's layer of dust darkened his sculpted jaws and chin, and his dirty black shirt was unbuttoned and hung open to reveal the pale length of his powerful chest. A bottle of whiskey he'd dug out of his saddlebags sat on the bedside table, and he'd already made good progress at depleting its contents.
This was the only supper he wanted.
He knew he'd been wrong to snap at Vin like he'd done, but, at the moment, he couldn't summon the energy to care. How the hell could Tanner expect him to care about food when Fowler was out there, somewhere, keeping one step ahead of him, mocking him?
Wasn't that what the bastard's presence in that photograph had been? A deliberate taunt? He knew Larabee was after him, yet he'd stopped running long enough to challenge him. To laugh at him. And then had vanished again, like smoke on the horizon.
And, goddamn it, Chris was tired of seeing everything he wanted in life turning to smoke.
He reached again for the bottle and drank from it, not bothering with a glass. Didn't matter. Nothing mattered. Wouldn't matter until he'd found and killed Fowler.
He wondered if the others knew that was his intention. He wasn't chasing the man to bring him back for trial, to justice. The bastard would meet his justice at the end of Larabee's gun, as soon as he'd explained who he was, and why in the hell he'd killed Sarah and Adam.
Then maybe he could rest. Could eat again, without tasting ashes and smoke...
The knocking on his door was quiet, but unmistakable, two measured raps of a knuckle that carried insistence in their softness. Larabee closed his eyes and swore, knowing only one man who could knock like that.
He thought of saying nothing, of simply ignoring the intrusion and hoping it would go away. But he knew it wouldn't. With all the patience of a wolf on the prowl and all the stubbornness of a Missouri mule, Tanner was fully capable of standing in the hall all night and knocking on the door until his knuckles bled. And would still be there in the morning when Larabee opened the door to resume the hunt.
Goddamn no-good, long-haired, hard-headed, sorry-assed, meddling son of a bitch...
Still cursing the tracker, Larabee rolled from the bed and rose unsteadily to his feet, crossing to the door and yanking it open. "What the hell do you want?" he snarled.
Standing hip-shot in the doorway, holding a napkin-covered plate in one hand and tucking the thumb of his other into his gunbelt, Vin stared coolly at the older man and arched a brow. "Nice ta see yer mood's improved," he drawled.
Chris glared at the tracker, his eyes burning, his jaw clenching. "So leave."
Vin sighed and shook his head slightly, then just slipped past Larabee and into the room, too tired to stand out in the hallway and exchange barbs with him. He'd come to make sure the man was all right, and he intended to do just that.
If that meant they were gonna tangle, then so be it.
Chris watched in angry disbelief as Vin glided into the room and stood just beyond his reach. "Y'know, Tanner," he gritted, infuriated by the Texan's arrogance, "it's usually considered polite ta wait for an invitation."
Again, that cool blue stare met the fiery green one. "Ain't ever said I's polite," Vin countered. He titled his head slightly to one side. "You gonna close that door, or you want ever'body on this floor ta see us fight?"
Chris closed the door without thinking, frowning at the other man. "You come here ta fight?" He was suddenly uncertain, suddenly off balance. He'd expected, had wanted, Vin to back off in the face of his anger, to leave in disgust and abandon him to his brooding.
Hell, he should've known better.
Vin shrugged one shoulder. "Knew it might be a possibility. You c'n be a mean sonuvabitch when ya try, and, Lord knows, yer givin' it yer best shot now. But that ain't why I came."
"Then why did you come?"
Vin did not answer. Instead, he looked around the room, saw the whiskey bottle and flicked a wry gaze back to Larabee, then walked over and set the plate on the dresser. Still without a word, he turned his back to Chris and removed the napkin from the plate, folding it carefully and setting it aside.
Larabee watched him for long moments, frustrated by the tracker's unfailing calm, irritated by his deliberate, unhurried movements. He scowled deeply, bitterly, and clenched his hands at his sides, wanting to rush forward and grab the man, spin him around and... and...
Vin watched him in the mirror without seeming to, noted the heat in the green eyes, the tension of the hard, lean frame, the tight clench of his jaw and fists. Still not rushing, he reached into his pocket and drew out another napkin, unrolled it carefully and pulled out a complete set of tableware. Knife. Fork. Spoon. He set each piece on the napkin he'd laid by the plate.
Chris watched those long, nimble fingers at work and swallowed hard, feeling a sudden quickening in his belly. He licked his lips and went over it again in his mind. Rush forward, grab the man, spin him around...
Vin's eyes met his in the mirror then, eyes bluer than blue, deeper than any mountain lake, wider than the sky, young and old and completely ageless, with all the sorrow and all the wisdom of the world showing in them. Eyes so unguarded, so naked, they were almost painful to behold, eyes that even reflected in a glass could strip away every cold, hard layer Larabee had built around his heart and shake him to the foundations of his soul. Eyes that knew him...
And that loved him without reservation.
"Oh, Jesus, what am I doin'?" he whispered strickenly, staring helplessly into those eyes.
Vin turned around slowly and shook his head sadly. "I don't know," he rasped softly. "But I ain't gonna let ya git away with it, so ya might as well stop it now."
Chris took an unsteady step forward, then staggered to the bed and collapsed upon it as his knees gave out beneath him. With a harsh, wrenching sob, he leaned forward and buried his face in badly shaking hands. His anger deserted him in a rush, leaving only confusion and pain in its wake.
Vin exhaled deeply, relieved that Chris had finally dropped his hard shell, but not liking this aching desolation any better. Praying he could help his lover through it, he went to the bed and settled himself close at Larabee's side, then reached out and drew the older man into his arms, cradling him to him with a loving tenderness.
"Ssh," he whispered, pulling Chris's head down to his shoulder and gently stroking his blond hair, "it's all right. I'm here now, 'n we'll figger out a way through this t'gether."
Chris shuddered and gasped, clutching at his lover and clinging tightly, desperately to him, his whole body shaking uncontrollably. Violent storms raged within him and battered at his tired and fragile soul, yet here, in Vin's arms, he knew he was safe.
For the first time since this whole ordeal had begun, he allowed himself to weep.
Vin tightened his arms about him, rocked him gently, but said nothing, knowing there was nothing he could say. He and Chris had never needed words between them before, they certainly didn't need them now. What words could possibly express his love, his sorrow, or Chris's pain?
Larabee had no idea how long he cried, knew only that, once the dam holding in his anguish burst, there was no restraining the flood. He couldn't have stopped himself if he'd wanted to, never even tried. He simply let all the pain, all the grief, all the sorrow rise, let it sweep through him in waves and crash upon the rock that was Vin Tanner.
And, like a rock, Vin withstood that onslaught, never once wavered beneath it, never once tried to turn from it. He faced the full, crushing weight of Chris's torment and let it roll over him, found the strength to do so in the knowledge that, just now, his was the only strength Chris had.
And he'd be damned if he'd fail the man he loved more than his own life.
At last, at long last, spent, shaken and exhausted, Chris pulled himself out of Vin's arms and lay down upon the bed, turning onto his side and closing his eyes. But his hand reached for Tanner, and was immediately taken in a warm, strong grip. He sighed as long fingers laced themselves through his.
"Shoulda known you'd come," he murmured roughly.
A few more moments passed, then he felt Vin's hand slip from his and frowned. But the frown disappeared as he opened his eyes to see Vin removing his hat, jacket, gunbelt and boots. A slight, strained smile crept across his face.
"Makin' yerself right at home, ain'tcha?"
Vin set the garments he'd removed aside, hung his gunbelt over the bedpost, then padded to the door and locked it. He returned to the bed, crawled onto it and stretched out at Larabee's side, turning his head and gazing into tear-washed green eyes.
"Yer the only home I got," he said simply. "Thought ya knew that by now."
Tears again stung Chris's eyes and he rolled over, laying his head on Tanner's chest and pressing his face into the strong and steady throb of his lover's heart. "God, Vin, help me!" he pleaded brokenly.
Tanner wound his arms about Larabee and held tightly to him, his own eyes filling. "I'm tryin', cowboy," he whispered, tears sliding unheeded down his cheeks. "Ain't ever gonna stop tryin'. Jist hold onta me fer all yer worth, 'n I'll get us through this somehow."
The love in that embrace and the determination in that voice gradually restored Chris's calm, infused him with a strength and peace he'd begun to fear he would never know again. Once again, with no more than a touch, Vin was gathering all the broken fragments of heart, his soul, and putting them back together.
"I'm sorry for earlier," he breathed, "for tryin' ta push you away. Don't know what made me think I wanted ta be alone." He grimaced. "Guess I was just bein' an ass."
Chris raised his head and scowled down at the tracker. "You don't have ta agree with everything I say, Tanner."
Vin blinked and shrugged, blue eyes wide and innocent. "Don't agree with ever'thing. Jist when yer right."
He wanted to be irritated, but chuckled instead. "Y'know," he growled, cupping a hand to Tanner's whiskered cheek and gently stroking with a thumb, "one'a these days, I really am gonna shoot ya." His eyes shimmered with warmth as he gazed down at the younger man. "But not today." He bowed his head and pressed his lips to Vin's a slow, tender kiss not of passion, but of love. "Thank you."
"Yer welcome," Vin whispered breathlessly, stirred to his soul, as always, by the wealth and depth of emotions this man awakened in him. Once or twice before in his life, he'd thought he'd been in love. But not until Chris Larabee had he truly known what that word meant.
"You gonna stay the night?" Chris asked, still stroking that incredibly beautiful jawline.
"Want me to?"
"Would I ask if I didn't?"
Vin laughed softly. "Now who's the sweet-talker? Yer like ta charm the pants right off me."
Chris arched a brow and leered wolfishly. "Now, there's a thought!" He slid his hand to Tanner's shirt and began unbuttoning it, then sighed and shook his head as he caught a glimpse of the shirt beneath it. "There some reason you like ta wear all yer clothes at once?"
He winked and grinned. "Jist like ta see how serious ya are 'bout undressin' me."
"Yer an awful lotta trouble, Tanner."
"Yeah," he breathed, twining his arms about Larabee's neck and pulling him down for a deep, hungry kiss, "but I been told I'm worth it."
+ + + + + + +
They were awake the next morning before their friends and went down to the hotel dining room for a real breakfast, the first either had eaten in days. Chris looked steadier than he had since this had started, and Vin's eyes were no longer darkened by shadows of worry. Both were relaxed and smiled at each other over steaming mugs of coffee. They'd not done much more than kiss and caress and simply hold each other last night, but it had been enough. It had been more than enough.
Both were whole again.
The other five drifted down over the next half hour and found the two already mapping out the next phase of the hunt. They'd split up into groups of two or three and canvass the territory, asking every rancher, every farmer, every drifter they encountered, about the mysterious Cletus Fowler. Vin wanted desperately to ride with Chris, but Larabee had insisted it would be more efficient if they split up.
Chris could be counted on to miss nothing, and he wanted to make certain Tanner's hawk-sharp eyes, keen instincts and hunter's mind were at work where he himself couldn't be. Ezra, with his gambler's knack for catching even the smallest, most insignificant detail, would lead yet a third group.
So, after a good, sustaining breakfast they departed, seven men determined to track down and bring in their nemesis, determined to put Chris's ghosts to rest.
And one man determined to chronicle the hunt.
Chris asked Buck to ride with him, gripped by the need to set things right between them. He knew his old friend still struggled under his burden of guilt, knew he himself was responsible for part of that burden, and decided it was high time Wilmington was set free. Sarah wouldn't want this for either of them.
"When I said before that you didn't keep me away," he began without preamble as they rode out of town, "I meant it. I was where I wanted to be. Wouldn't've been there otherwise." He swept green eyes over the countryside, reaching inside himself for the words he wanted and the strength he needed, then turned to his old friend and fixed those clear, steady eyes on him. "None of this is your fault, Buck, and I don't hold you responsible. Maybe I did once, but..." He winced as a twinge of shame bit through him, and knew he had to say this. "I was wrong. And I'm sorry."
For once in his life, Buck Wilmington was without words, was without even the ability to speak. His mind reeled and his heart lifted, and his big body shuddered as a crushing, unbearable weight dropped away from his soul. Tears filled his eyes and he let them fall, making no attempt to conceal or wipe them away.
Chris had to go on. The pain of it was like a hot knife scoring him, but he had to do it. Too many things had been left unsaid for too long. "I know... you lost 'em, too," he said in a rough, unsteady voice, his throat painfully tight. "And I know you'd give anything... if we could change what happened. But we can't. What's done is done, and can't be undone. All we can do... is make our peace with it... and go on."
"Sounds good ta me, pard," Buck whispered, unable to manage more. He knew true healing for both of them would be a long time coming, but at last, at long last, it had begun.
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