Ashes and Smoke
Chris slid off Pony with a stiff, tired grace, then ground-hitched the horse and made his way slowly to the wooden fence. For the first time since he'd buried them, he let himself inside the fence and walked forward, then sank to his knees between the graves of his wife and son. He slipped his hat from his head with trembling fingers, dropped it to the ground and buried his face in his hands, giving in to deep, wrenching sobs.
Some distance behind him, close enough to protect him but not so near as to intrude, Vin sat Peso with all the patience and stillness he had in him, and watched his lover grieve.
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Chris had no idea how long he cried, knew only that it was long enough to pour out three years of hurt, to empty his heart and soul of every bit of pain, anger and bitterness that had festered in them since Sarah and Adam had died. He told them about Fowler, and from there told them everything about his life, holding nothing back. He knew much of it wasn't pretty, but he also knew he owed them nothing less than the truth.
He wasn't certain exactly when during his emotional outburst he'd become aware of Vin's presence, but, by the time his last tear fell, and though he never looked around, he knew the tracker was with him as surely as he knew his own name. Could feel it in the beating of his heart. Tanner's presence was little more than a whisper of calm amid the storm, but it was there, and Chris was thankful for it.
"You'd like him, Sarah," he heard himself saying. "He's a lot like you. Strong, patient, honest to his core." A fragile smile curved about his mouth, and a faint light kindled in his eyes. "But he don't take nothin' off me, just like you never would. He's a hard-headed, smart-mouthed, infuriatin' sonuvabitch when he tries, or even when he doesn't. Speaks his mind, even when I wish he wouldn't, and won't back down, even when I wish he would. But there's a quiet in him, like there was in you, a peace... I was tryin' ta learn that from you. Now," he sighed, "maybe I can learn it from him."
He leaned over and idly plucked a few weeds from the graves. "I shoulda come out here before now, I know, and I'm sorry I didn't. But... I just couldn't. It was too hard. Hurt too much. Made it all too real. I'd like ta say I'll come out more often now, but I've never lied ta you, and I won't start now. We'll just have ta see."
He heard a horse snort in the distance, and had to chuckle. "That's Peso. Sounds like he's losin' patience." His eyes softened. "Vin's waitin'. Watchin' over me. Like you used ta do. Like ya still are. I know you had some hand in sendin' him to me. You never could resist match-makin'. Couldn't believe two people would ever manage to get together without your help. Well, maybe this time you were right. I gotta admit, I'm grateful for it. You knew what you were doin'."
He reached out, pulled another weed, then sighed and shook his head. "God, I miss you! Miss you both so much... Sometimes it doesn't seem like three years that you've been gone. Other times, it feels like forever. But I have to keep goin'. And now I've got somebody who gives me a reason to. I'll love you 'til I die, Sarah. But I love him, too. And, with him, I can love while I'm alive."
He placed his hat back on his head and rose slowly to his feet. He stood for long moments, gazing down at the graves of his wife and son, seeing their faces in his mind, hearing their voices on the wind. Then, feeling stronger than he had in days, he turned and left those who waited for him in death to the one who awaited him in life.
Vin watched him approach, noted the firmness of his step, the straightness of his posture, and loosed a small sigh of relief. Then he saw the peace in the green eyes, and knew Chris was back where he belonged.
Larabee stopped at Peso's side and gazed up at his lover. "There's a place not far from here," he said. "A hill that overlooks the valley. You can almost see forever from there. Wanta see it?"
"Ya really want me to?"
"Would I ask if I didn't?"
Vin smiled and slipped easily into their familiar banter. "There ya go again, sweet-talkin' the pants right off me."
Chris stepped closer and set a hand on Tanner's thigh, green eyes alight with love. "I'll take whatever I can get," he said softly, seriously. "So long's I also get the man who's in 'em."
"Aw, hell, cowboy," Vin breathed, laying his hand over Larabee's, "y' already got me, don't you know that? You've had me from the first."
"Well, then," Chris squeezed Vin's hand, "let's go see exactly what I got."
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They sat atop the hill in silence, listening to the wind stirring the leaves of the trees about them, feeling it ruffling through their hair, and staring out over the wide, green valley that stretched out below them. A sun-dappled stream meandered through the valley, while, in the distance, slate-gray mountains lifted their jagged heads toward the sky. It was as beautiful and as restful a sight as either could ever remember seeing.
"Gotta say, cowboy, ya got a real good eye fer land," Vin murmured, almost able to see the horses Chris would have raised dotting the landscape below. He was sitting between Larabee's legs, his back to the gunman's chest. "It's a breeder's paradise."
"Yeah," Chris breathed wistfully, even now feeling the pull of this place upon him. He'd fallen in love with this valley the first time he'd seen it. In the years since he'd ridden away, he'd forgotten how beautiful it was. "All these hills shelter it from hard weather. The grass down there stays green a good long time. Horses can stay there right up until the first snow-fall before bein' moved to winter pastures. And that stream's spring-fed, so it's always good, even when everything else's dried up." He fell silent a moment, then said, "I thought seriously about sellin' it after they died."
Vin turned around and stared at him, frowning. "Why?"
Chris shrugged and dropped his gaze to the ground. "Couldn't see no point in keepin' it. All my dreams for it had included them. And when they died..." He shrugged again. "My dreams died with 'em."
"So what kept ya from sellin'?"
Chris chuckled and returned his gaze to Vin, arching a blond brow. "Couldn't stand the thought of anybody else havin' it." Green eyes gleamed with warmth and wry humor. "Like I said before, I ain't ever been good at sharin'."
Vin scooted closer, then reached out and laced his fingers into Larabee's. "I like that in ya," he rasped, his blue eyes deep and dark. "I'm glad ya brought me here. Seein' what it means to ya... She liked ta come here, too, didn't she?"
Chris thought he should probably feel some unease at hearing his male lover speak about his dead wife, but he didn't. He thought he should probably feel embarrassed or ashamed for bringing Vin to a place that had been his and Sarah's, but he didn't. Couldn't.
Not when it felt so right.
"Yeah, she did," he answered at last, almost able to hear her voice whispering through the trees. "I offered ta build the house here, but she said no. Said she didn't wanta see it spoiled." He chuckled and shook his head. "She wouldn't even let me cut down any of these trees for the house. Had ta go way 'round ta the other side of the property, cut 'em down and haul 'em in from there. I musta cussed for a week straight..."
"But ya did it, 'cause she asked," Vin put in softly. "'Cause this meant somethin' to her." He tilted his head slightly to one side, then raised a hand and lightly stroked Larabee's cheek. "'At's why ya couldn't sell none'a this," he breathed knowingly. "Not 'cause ya couldn't stand nobody else havin' somethin' that was yers, but 'cause ya couldn't stand nobody else havin' somethin' that was hers. Couldn't stand the thought that mebbe somebody'd spoil what she loved. Mebbe cut down one'a them trees that whisper to ya in her voice."
Chris stiffened in shock at those words and stared at Tanner in stunned disbelief. "Now, how in the hell did you know that?" he whispered.
Vin smiled slightly. "Ain't so hard. I c'n see ya listenin', c'n see the look on yer face when ya hear it. She's still here. She's all around. This is her place."
Chris frowned slightly, studying the tracker carefully. "That bother ya?"
"No." He raised his face and closed his eyes, letting the sun shine on his face and the breeze tug at his hair. A small, contented smile curved about his mouth and he lowered his face once more, opening his eyes and gazing at his lover. "Don't bother her, either. She's jist glad yer here."
"Jesus, Vin," Chris breathed, slipping his arms about the younger man and pulling him close, burying his face in the sun-warmed wealth of his hair. "You say the damnedest things!" He nuzzled his face into Vin's hair, pressing kisses into it and giving silent thanks yet again for the incredible man in his arms.
"Got a way about ya yerself," Vin whispered, shivering as Chris's mouth found its way through his hair to the tender flesh behind one ear. "Lord, cowboy, don't stop!"
Chris had no intention of stopping. Not when this man who smelled of sunshine, wind and earth filled his senses and set his every nerve tingling. He swept his tongue along the edge of Vin's ear, then dipped it inside the delicate shell, tracing every curve and hollow and blowing gently.
"Lord!" Vin whispered sharply, shuddering as waves of pleasure shot through him. He clutched at Chris's shirt and tilted his head, giving the man greater access to him.
And Larabee took it greedily. Unable to resist its alluring length, he trailed his mouth over Tanner's neck, starting at the hollow beneath the tracker's ear and working his way slowly, slowly down to the throbbing pulse, licking, kissing, nibbling, using tongue, lips and teeth as instruments of worship. He felt Vin reeling and grabbed his shoulders, holding him tightly, refusing to let him fall.
As Vin had done so often for him.
Tanner knotted his fingers more tightly into Larabee's shirt, then began fumbling with the buttons, his hands clumsy in their haste. Fire burned at every point where Chris's mouth touched him, and his whole body throbbed with the ache of urgent need. He doubted he'd ever get used to the feelings Chris awakened in him, but knew he'd die if he ever lost them.
Chris raised his head, saw the sheer ecstasy written on Vin's unguarded face, and near wept with love for the man. "Let's do this right, pard," he breathed. "Get our blankets spread, our clothes off. I want this ta be more than just a quick roll in the dirt."
Vin groaned helplessly as Chris pulled away from him. "I don't know," he rasped, blue eyes almost black with desire. "That quick part sounds purty good right now. Y' got me hurtin' somethin' fierce."
Chris chuckled softly, then leaned forward and kissed him. "Don't worry, pard," he whispered against the tracker's wet, warm lips, "we're gonna take care of that. Now, c'mon, get up and outta them clothes. Been too long since I seen yer skinny ass."
"Ya got a real way with words, Larabee," Vin growled, rising to his feet.
Chris grinned and arched a brow. "Didn't think it was talkin' you wanted, Tanner." He dropped his gaze pointedly to the tracker's bulging crotch. "Not with that little problem ya got there."
Vin scowled deeply. "Who you callin' little'?" He dropped a hand to his crotch and slowly stroked himself, watching Larabee's eyes go wide and dark. "Ain't ever heard ya complain b'fore. 'Course," he shrugged and started to turn away, "if I ain't up ta yer standards--"
With a wordless snarl of desire, Chris reached out and grabbed the tracker, spinning him around and crushing him to him, bowing his head and burying his mouth in Tanner's. He clutched Vin to him, imprisoned him against him, and kissed him with an unbridled savagery, love and lust colliding within him and exploding into a fireball of hunger.
Vin moaned and shuddered and went weak in the knees, collapsing against Larabee and clutching at him as dizzying torrents of pleasure pounded through him. His mouth ached beneath Chris's onslaught, but he would not have stopped it for the world.
Lord God, he loved this man!
Chris seized Vin's lower lip sharply between his teeth, then sucked hungrily at it, drawing a hoarse, throaty groan from his lover. He scraped his teeth down Tanner's chin, nipping at moist, whiskered skin and tonguing every bite. The man's taste and scent were more intoxicating than any liquor, and Chris was growing drunk upon him.
This would be one helluva binge!
They tore themselves apart just long enough to spread their bedrolls and undress, yet, even then, could not keep their hands and mouths from seeking each other. Time and again they came together, indulging a long, deep, hungry kiss while trying to shrug out of a shirt or toe off a boot, or trying to pull down trousers with one hand while fondling a lover with the other. It made for slow and awkward but incredibly stimulating work, and, by the time both men were naked, they were fully aroused, bodies slick with sweat and chests heaving in the ragged rhythm of their hurried breathing.
Chris lowered himself to the blankets they'd spread together, pulling Vin down with him. Tanner went eagerly, covering Larabee's body with his own and feeling the gunman's long, hard legs clamping about his. Chris thrust his hands into Vin's hair and pulled his head down, reclaiming the wet, swollen lips with his in a hard and hungry kiss.
They writhed together and clawed at each other, bodies melding, limbs twining, mouths meeting and mating, until neither man knew any longer where he ended and the other began. Flesh rubbed against flesh and ignited sparks along nerves, nails scraped, fingers pinched, teeth marked, and howls of pain were interspersed with groans and growls of pleasure.
Vin buried his face in Chris's shoulder and thrust his hips in a furious, fevered rhythm, grinding his hard, hot cock into Larabee's and torturing them both. Chris writhed beneath him, against him, in a mounting frenzy, racked by pain and driven nearly insane with pleasure. Then Tanner's weight was gone, and a wrenching sob tore from the depths of his soul.
"Easy, cowboy," Vin whispered hoarsely, harshly, his trembling, sweat-bathed body darkly flushed with desire. "Jist gotta... git somethin' ta help us along." He pulled himself to his knees and retrieved the saddle oil he'd set nearby. "Didn't have time ta pack nothin' fancy," he breathed. "But I reckon this'll do."
"Goddamn it... I don't care... if it's fuckin' coal oil!" Larabee gritted, fighting the urge to take his aching, throbbing cock into his own hand and end his torment. "Just get your ass over here!"
"Patience, ol' man," Vin urged, pulling the top off the tin.
"I am patient," Chris spat. "I haven't shot you yet, have I?"
"Now, now," Vin breathed, settling himself once again over Larabee's body and nibbling at the gunman's mouth as he rubbed his cock against Chris's, "is that any way t' talk to the man who c'n end yer pain?"
"Oh, God!" Chris moaned helplessly as bolts of white heat shot through him.
"Ssh." He kissed Chris again, then rose to his knees and lifted Larabee's legs, getting himself beneath them. He scooped a generous amount of oil into his palm and tossed the tin aside, then coated his hand and his cock, sucking in a sharp, hissing breath as his fingers slid over his thick, throbbing flesh. "Gonna take care of us both," he whispered, sliding a finger over the crease between Larabee's heavy balls, then rimming the dark hole behind them with it. "Won't be long at all."
"Jesus!" Chris gasped, arching violently as that finger pushed into him and began to play. It pulled out slightly, massaged the tight muscle, then slid inside again and brushed against his gland. "Vin!"
"'S all right," Tanner rasped, holding one hand against his lover's hip to steady him and sliding in a second finger. Licking his lips and closing his eyes, near the edge himself, he stroked and scissored and stretched, then pressed a third finger inside.
Chris groaned harshly and thrust down against those fingers, desperately needing relief. His head thrashed from side to side and his breath escaped in heavy, tearing gusts through tightly clenched teeth.
Feeling at last the give in the muscle ring, Vin pulled his fingers free and guided his cock to that sweet, beckoning hole. Controlling himself with an effort, he pushed the tip inside, then stopped when he felt Chris tense from the intrusion.
"Breathe, pard," he urged, barely restraining the urge to thrust. "Jist breathe, and relax."
Chris did so, felt the pain subside, and felt his need for Vin take over. Reaching for his lover's hands, he laced his fingers into Tanner's and grunted a desperate, "Move!"
Vin did, and nearly wept as Chris's wet heat closed about him. A hoarse, shuddering cry escaped him and he pushed in further, needing this more than he needed air to breathe. He pulled out slowly, then slid in again, losing himself in his lover's body.
Chris was in agony, in ecstasy, consumed in the fires of Vin's making. He thrust desperately against Tanner's every long, sure stroke, seeking to drive the man deeper, needing more, always more, his hunger for the tracker insatiable.
Then they were moving together with a frantic urgency, thick grunts and harsh groans tearing from them as flesh slapped against flesh, their slick bodies joined in a perfect, primal rhythm. With a feral growl, Vin closed a hand about Chris's thick shaft and pumped with that same urgency, tearing a scream from the gunman. Harder, faster, deeper he drove into Chris, knowing his only salvation lay within this man.
Chris clutched at his blankets, at Vin, and writhed in a mindless agony, thrusting against the tracker's hard, hot flesh, into that furiously working hand, not knowing where the greater pleasure lay. Then Tanner's flesh hit against his gland, hit it again, and he screamed, arching off the blankets and shooting his juices in a pungent spray as he burst into orgasm.
Larabee's climax triggered his, and Vin came with a shattering force, throwing back his head and howling as he erupted into his lover. He shuddered heavily and thrust furiously into Chris, pouring into him all that he was and all that he possessed. Tears streamed down his face, mingling with his sweat, as he felt his lover's warmth pulsing about him, as, for long, precious moments, they were one.
Then, empty and shaking, he withdrew his softened flesh from Chris and sank into his lover's waiting arms, was wrapped immediately in a close, loving embrace and cradled to the long, beautiful body that was his torment and his delight. He closed his eyes, pressed his face into the strong throb of Chris's heart, and merely let himself breathe in this man.
As always, Chris treasured this time after their loving, this intimate, measureless span of moments when he and Vin lay together, as naked in soul as they were in body. During this time, as at no other, they were both completely vulnerable, stripped of all defenses, all barriers, left utterly and achingly open.
It was their gift to each other.
He tenderly kissed the top of Vin's head, smiling at the feel of silken strands of hair against his lips. "Thank you," he whispered.
Vin raised his head and smiled lazily into the warm and sated green eyes. "Hell, cowboy, weren't jist me," he drawled, his own eyes as heavy-lidded as a sleepy cat's. "Ya done purty good yer own self."
"No, I don't mean that," Chris said, reaching up to stroke his lover's hair. "I mean for... hell, for everything. For givin' me back my life. For makin' that life worth livin'." He gazed into blue eyes that went on forever, that drew his soul into a place where there was no pain, no fear, only sweet, blessed peace. "I loved Sarah, you know that. Loved her like I never thought I could love anybody. And Adam..." His voice broke, and tears pooled in his eyes. "When they died, I wanted ta die, too. Couldn't see any reason for livin' when everything I'd lived for was gone ta ashes."
He stopped, drew a deep breath to control his quavering voice, and looked again into those eyes that led him to his peace. "But I was wrong," he breathed, once more running his fingers through Vin's hair. "God, so wrong! I've still got a whole lifetime ahead of me, and I wanta live every moment of it with you."
Vin leaned over and tenderly kissed him. "Want that, too," he whispered. "Ain't ever wanted anything more." He sat up and crossed his legs, staring thoughtfully out over the valley below him. "Funny thing about ashes," he murmured thoughtfully. "Most folks look at 'em, 'n see only death. What used ta be but ain't no more. 'N I reckon that's one way of lookin' at it. Ashes means somethin's been burned away. Destroyed."
"But?" Chris prompted, sitting up and watching Vin, knowing how his lover thought.
Vin turned his gaze upon Larabee. "Y'know what happens in a forest after a fire? Rains come, pour down on all them ashes, and set somethin' in 'em loose. Somethin' that feeds the earth, heals it. Ya go back the next spring, brush away them ashes, and damned if ya don't see new life. Heaven's tears healin' nature's wounds. Through ashes." He saw the drops clinging to Larabee's lashes and leaned forward, tenderly kissing the gunman's eyes. "Let 'em fall, cowboy," he urged softly, taking Chris into his arms and holding him close. "New life cain't grow without the rain."
Cradled safely in his lover's arms, Chris once more gave in to his tears, let the knowledge of all he'd lost wash through him even as he clung to what he'd found. He wasn't through grieving, he knew that now, would not be through for a long time yet. A love as powerful as his for Sarah and Adam demanded an equally powerful grief.
But he wouldn't grieve alone, he knew that, too. Could feel it in the way Vin held him now, and in the way the tracker's tears fell upon him and mingled with his own.
Heaven's tears healin' nature's wounds.
And cleansing Chris Larabee's soul of the last traces of ashes and smoke.
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