THIS HARD LAND by TrueEnough

For Kris.

Thank you Kris, Rain, Fiercy and Beth. Your insight and the stories you shared with me were a wonderful inspiration. I can only hope that I've done them some justice. I owe each of you a huge debt. The quote at the beginning is from the film The Thin Red Line. The first time I heard it I thought of Chris and Vin.

Who lit this fire in us?
The fire that burns between them is banked behind a circle of rough stones and burns yellow, orange and blue. On such a warm night it's hardly necessary beyond the familiar comfort it offers and yet it is carefully stoked.

Vin smiles at Chris over the height of the flames. A different man presents himself when he sleeps. Gone is the careful, tightly held posture of someone ready to draw at any moment to be replaced by a rag dolls imitation of relaxed repose. His head is tossed back and to the side exposing his long neck and leaving his mouth slightly open. One hand rests on his belly while his other one reaches out towards the fire, palm up, only to have one finger catch on a warm stone. This tenuous hold seems to be of some comfort if the sound sleep he has entered into speaks of anything beyond exhaustion.

The arroyo that Vin brought them to is only a short distance from Four Corners and still too far to go once they had stopped. This early into the summer the land around them is flush from a long winter. The ground is more clay than dust, bushes hold berries both sweet and tart and the brook just beyond the fire runs out along the desert floor with some amount of force.

When they arrived Chris wasted no time seeing to his horse before he took off his boots and waded into the stream. The cool water seemed to bring him to a decision as he stepped out only to begin removing his clothes. Vin gathered kindling for a fire as Chris loosened a staggering amount of buttons to reveal pale skin under dark clothing. With a razor and a plug of soap he returned to the stream and settled himself carefully under the current.

Taking the outlaw Slope Johnson to Eagle Bend had been more tiresome than tiring and yet when Chris leaned back into the water it was as if he was washing away more than sweat and trail dust. When he sat back up, his wet hair the color of brown sugar, he squinted at Vin, one eyed and offered him his best invitation. "It's almost Friday night. I don't think a soak will bring you down."

Vin had to agree despite the teasing and so with only one rude gesture that Chris smiled at, he joined him. The cool water set his thin blood to running and he had the odd sensation of shivering under a midday sun. Chris finished shaving his own face with a few quick swipes and then moved closer. Lathering his hands he smoothed them over Vin's cheeks and jaw and under his nose before Vin could protest. The razor moved deftly across his cheek as Chris mumbled, "Neither hay nor grass..."

Vin held his tongue but rolled his eyes as Chris tilted his chin back and lathered his throat.

Vin imagines that Chris cleans his gun with the same gentle efficiency he had shown him. No wasted movement or hesitancy, just a steady hand governed by a no nonsense old soul. Still, Chris's sure touch unnerved him more than the straight razor as it has from the very beginning.

Vin tosses the dry branch he has been using into the fire and moments later it snaps and sends sparks into the air. Chris continues to sleep and this time when Vin looks at him he cannot take his eyes away. The flames illuminate his chest and arms as if he is lit from within. Only the ever changing shadows disabuse him of the notion. He feels his breath catch but instead of trying to take a deeper breath he empties his lungs and disciplines his body to shallow sips of air. Without thought or sound he leans forward onto his hands and knees and moves with the stealth of brother wolf around the fire, uncowed by its heat or light. Chris's bare foot sticks out from under a blanket that covers only his legs. Vin pulls the blanket over it giving Chris a chance to wake up and set the fire between them again. It would almost be welcome instead of this imperative need that has settled in his belly and not knowing what it would entail.

Chris sleeps, as Vin crawls between the space of his waist and his out flung arm. The buttons of his pants are undone at the waist revealing a spare line of hair from his belly that disappears under more buttons. Another scattering of hair is on Chris's chest, more heavily muscled than his slim form would have Vin believe. The small indent of his lower lip is pronounced and holds his attention. Vin slowly leans over him and feels Chris's breath skim his razored cheek. With just a slight turn of his head he takes Chris's breath into his mouth, warm and humid. Another small turn and he holds his own breath at the bridge of Chris's nose, between his eyes, the epicenter of thought, sight, touch and smell and places a dry, chaste, lingering kiss on the empty worry lines that are there even in sleep.

Vin's arms and legs begin to tremble. With his body suddenly unreliable he moves awkwardly backwards, his foot scuffing on a stone, his sweaty hands holding onto burrs.

Finally, he is on the other side of the fire, sitting on his haunches, dazed at his audacity, gasping for air and so thoroughly alive he fears he might scream through his gritted teeth.

Chris sleeps.

+ + + + + + +

When he first hears his name it sounds like a whisper, close, right in his ear but when he opens his eyes to bright morning light, the sound carries away from him on the wind. All his senses seem to have failed him as he has slept past dawn. The small fire he let burn stings his eyes with smoke.


Vin rolls on to his side and sits up to find that the fire he blames for the smoke has long been out. If the stones are warm it is from the sun.

"Vin." A small sound, almost pleading. Vin squints against the glare to find Chris standing with his back to him, his shirt on but unbuttoned, barefoot and so still that it instantly brings him wide awake and to his feet. It's only then that he sees the smoke, drifting lazily in the sky over them, tunneling down, dark and precise as a line on a map to a small ranch he knows of off in the distance.

Chris looks over his shoulder at Vin, pale and drawn as if he has not slept at all. "Fire."

Vin lets out a gust of breath and is the first to move. There is no time to do more than shove their feet into their boots and ride their horses with nothing but blankets for saddles.

+ + + + + + +

Thomas opens his eyes from a deep sleep and immediately knows that Daniel is gone. The warmth that has always radiated from him, that caused Thomas on some nights to move to the edge of the bed is achingly absent. And something less tangible and infinitely more precious. His spirit has left with nothing more than a goodnight kiss.

Thomas knows that his ancestors will welcome Daniel and will take him in again the way they did when he was a boy. They will recognize the blue eyes, like deep water and the long hair that has gone from blond to white. His spirit will call to them, warm and bright as the sun for all of his wild and stubborn ways. They will guide him the way Thomas has. There is no doubt of it. Still, he presses his forehead against Daniel's cool cheek and gives himself time to cry for his loss before he leaves their bed.

He sets about his task as if he has made a long list over the years and has finally come to the day where there is time enough to mark it off. He begins with the horses, two fine breeding mares, two geldings and a filly. They tuck into the extra oats he usually rations out so carefully with a kind of focused selfishness that even now moves him to smile.

The sky above him, dark and purple as a black eye, threatens dawn in a few short hours. He collects the stones that litter the property, something usually cursed at, and places them carefully around the small house and he and Daniel have built. He brings the horses out and ties them off at some distance to spare them. Hay, saddles and extra tack are left where they are, no longer needed. Only then does he go back into the house to sit on the edge of the bed. For a moment he contemplates keeping the light quilt they favor when the weather grows warm. Patchwork blue and green and soft. No, he reasons, it is no good to cling to such things. Instead he collects the deed to the ranch from a carved wooden box that Daniel had given him, full of sweets at one time, and allowing himself one sentimental possession, a tintype, from his bedside table.

He picks up Daniel's hand, all knuckles and calluses where they had once been square and smooth and kisses his palm before placing it out towards his side of the bed.

A large oil lamp rests on a small table on Daniel's side, an open book in front of it. Thomas has always hated the lamp for the way it burns so quickly through oil and smokes but Daniel swore by its light and would not replace it with any other. He breaks it against the table when he could have easily opened it and pours the oil out on to the floor and around the bed and then out to the great room where he sacrifices another lamp and continues on.

A bottle of whiskey is also used as he steps over the circle of stones. A healthy shot swirls at the bottom and even though he has no taste for it he finishes it off and then drops it where he stands. Lighting a Lucifer with his thumbnail he sets it on the trail of liquor and watches as it races to his last home.

Still, it does not burn as quickly as he thought it would, the fire lingering on the porch as if it were a Sunday afternoon. Once inside though the flames show themselves through the windows and then engulf everything he has ever made or loved. Sparks fly high up in the air, dance and then disappear, one social after another. He has never seen anything so beautiful.

As if challenged, the sun rises over an old cottonwood taking some of the luster from the fire but only a little. Thomas raises his hands to the sky the way Daniel's father taught him to and sings in his own tongue. Daniel would have been amused at the spectacle but Thomas had always enjoyed the sound of his laugh.

+ + + + + + +

Something about the calm and order of Daniel Moore's burning ranch throws Chris into a stumbling panic. He is off of his horse before the animal can skid to a stop and then turns once, twice, in a cloud of his own dust trying to orient himself. Vin rides past him and manages to be more decisive as he dismounts and moves Thomas Two Hats further back from the fire.

Chris yells over the white noise closing in on him, "Where's Mr. Moore?"

Thomas looks at Chris, almost smiles and gestures with his chin towards the burning cabin and then with his eyes to the plume of smoke. Chris lets all the air out of his body and then turns and runs towards the burning cabin only to be felled by a stone set to protect him from it. Scrambling to get up it takes him a moment to realize that Vin has him by the arms and is pushing him back with a show of strength that should surprise him but doesn't. If he was willing to hurt Vin he could break his hold but he has never been willing to do either one.

Vin presses him back further and then while Chris gasps for air against his shoulder Vin steps out of his element and speaks. "It's a funeral pyre - not meant to hurt. Mr. Moore is gone. Thomas is only letting him go. Fire does more than destroy - it warms and protects. Purifies. This fire is good."

The flames roar in his ears as Chris straightens his back easing some of his weight off of Vin even as he continues to hold on to his sleeves. Horses nicker off in the distance. Thomas watches quietly. Chris looks over Vin's shoulder as the fire returns everything back to the earth.

+ + + + + + +

The sun is nearly setting by the time the small ranch is brought down to smoking embers. Chris works out fits of temper and frustration by stomping out small flare ups. Vin returns with their bedrolls from the arroyo in time to see Chris throw an empty bottle of whiskey up in to the air and then shatter it with a single bullet only to return his gun to his holster and continue marching through the debris.

Vin leaves him to it even as he shepherds Thomas out of the line of fire.

Thomas helps Vin gather kindling. "He's like Daniel, that one. Always full of spit and vinegar."

"Chris is just making his peace with something he doesn't rightly understand," Vin explains as he watches Chris kick a piece of wood out of his way.

Thomas watches Chris for a moment and then nods. "Mmm-huh." He places the kindling in a pile and kneels on stiff joints to light it. Chris comes to a standstill and watches him with something close to fear in his eyes. It's a sight that worries Vin. He steps in front of Thomas to block the view of the fire being built behind him and waits as Chris's attention is slowly pulled from the ground and up to his face. Chris swallows and shifts, turning away. When he looks back he calls out, "Is rabbit all right with you?"

Vin nods and the small gesture sends Chris on his way. He kneels next to Thomas and watches as one branch sets another one on fire.

+ + + + + + +

Vin takes the first watch. More of a precaution for the valuable horses that are only tethered to nearby scrub pines. Taking Thomas back to Four Corners would be another precaution. Vin suspects that Thomas will have to spend some time in the jail house if only to protect him from the likes of town folk who would not take kindly to an Indian burning down a white mans ranch, no matter the circumstances.

Thomas sits beside him, calm as a Summer cloud while on the other side of camp Chris rolls on to his side and pretends to sleep. Vin tries not to watch him knowing full well how someone's attention can keep a man awake.

"You're not tired?" Vin asks Thomas and looks at him for Chris's sake.

Thomas shakes his head no and then focuses his attention on Chris's back. Chris shifts and then settles again.

"Let him be," Vin tells him, his voice edged with worry.

Thomas nods and pats Vin indulgently on the knee. He points to the horses off to the side. "Those are fine animals. The mares have bred only twice before. Ballou St. John has a stud that's good for breeding work horses and ol' William Parker over in Eagle Bend has one for riding stock." He pauses and then asks, "Your horse?" and points at Peso who stomps the ground when a young gelding gets too close.

Vin nods.

"Where'd you get such an animal?"

Vin takes a moment to answer. "Down Texas way. Got him for a penny 'cause he weren't but half broke."

"Why would you want to break him?" Thomas asks honestly and Vin can't help but smile and shake his head. Why, indeed. "We sometimes got cowboys come down here, want to earn their feed breaking our horses but we never had no need for them. Daniel... he, he worked with them every day. Took his time getting them use to the bridle and saddle. He had a temper he was right proud of - showed it off every chance he got - but he didn't seem to mind taking years to prime a horse. And then when it was time, he'd climb in the saddle and not have to put up with so much as a crow hop." Thomas smiles at the memory.

Vin nods. "Did he learn that from your people?"

"I suppose. His papa was a missionary. Came to our people to bring us to Jesus, yeah? Jesus sounds like a right good man but it turned out that Daniel's papa had a good understanding of our ways, too. After a while it was hard to tell who was doing the saving. I never knew Daniel's ma - she died before they came to us - but her man and son never left our village until it was brought down by the Army. Scattered us all over Kingdom Come."

"You and Mr. Moore started this ranch?" Vin asks even as he can still smell the smoke in the air.

"Yes, sir. I kept the deed and people in these parts know our stock."

"I reckon. Still, it might take some time to explain all this to folks."

"I figured as much."

"Might need to stay in the jail house until they figure it out."

"I might," Thomas agrees, his calm resignation speaking louder than words of his experience.

Across the camp Chris sighs and rolls on to his back and then giving up on any pretense of sleeping gets up and ambles over to Vin and Thomas. "You two church ladies done talking or do you want me to come back later for my watch?"

Chagrined, Vin tells him, "It's early yet, Chris. Take another hour."

"Nah," Chris reassures him and then scratches Vin's scalp as he steps over Thomas's feet and sits down beside him. "I'm up. Go on. I warmed up the bedroll."

Vin takes his time to acquiesce and then slowly goes over to the bedroll. He rolls on to his side, facing Chris and Thomas and drifts off as they ignore him.

+ + + + + + +

Vin hears their voices before he opens his eyes. When he does he sees Chris with his head tilted over a daguerreotype that Thomas is showing him from the palm of his hand. Chris nods as Thomas speaks in a hushed voice, the words indistinct from where Vin blinks and holds back sleep. Chris looks up to find Vin watching him and while he does not smile there is something in the exchange that allows Vin to close his eyes and sleep again.

+ + + + + + +

Vin wakes in the morning to the smell of strong coffee. Chris pours him a cup and waits for Vin to push himself into a sitting position before handing it to him.

Vin gives Chris a look meant to scold him and then states the obvious. "You didn't wake me."

"No," is all Chris says before pouring a cup for himself and sitting down.

Vin takes in the camp with Thomas still asleep and the horses growing restless from being tethered for so long. He takes a sip of coffee, just as strong as promised, and looks at Chris over the rim of his cup.

"You got something you want to say?" Chris asks, half amused at catching Vin.

"If I do, I will," Vin assures him with a show of his own temper and then takes another sip.

Chris eyes him with something close to pride and then gestures with his cup towards Thomas. "Got to talking - lost track of time." Vin nods, apology, as it is, accepted. "He and Daniel Moore started this ranch with nothing more than a mare. When I was still ranchin' it was a toss between their stock and mine."

"They were raised together. Mr. Moore's daddy came to save Thomas's tribe and got saved himself."

Chris grins. "It happens."

"You two talk about ranchin'?" Vin asks, hoping to spur Chris to tell him more.

"Some," Chris says, briefly, leaving Vin amused at his lack of success. Chris reaches into his war bag and pulls out the daguerreotype Thomas was showing him only the night before and a folded parchment secured with a thin blue ribbon. Chris looks over at Thomas to make sure he's still asleep and then in a hushed voice tells Vin, "He gave me these. The deed to the property and the horses. Said if I hadn't of shown up he would have found me since he and Daniel didn't want to leave everything they worked so hard for to just anyone." Vin reaches for the daguerreotype and opens it. "He wouldn't go to sleep until I took it." Chris puts the deed back in his war bag and pats it. "I'll keep it safe for him 'til all this dies down."

Vin nods, distracted by the daguerreotype, running the tip of his finger over the small image. It is typical in setting and lighting with both Daniel and Thomas sitting on a settee that barely holds them. Both are finely dressed and groomed with Daniel wearing a white shirt and a simple black vest, his dark hat perched on his knee. Thomas is dressed similarly with a tiered choker made of beads and small bones covering his chest. His hair is in two long braids that are as black and shiny as a crow's wing with only a hint of the white hair that runs through it now. They are turned towards each other, neither one looking at the camera. Daniel holds Thomas's hand as if he is about to help him down from a carriage while Thomas holds his other hand in the same fashion. Their foreheads touch, a tenuous and profound meeting of the minds. Vin traces Daniel's hat with his finger and then closes it and hands it back to Chris. "I'll go wake Thomas."

Vin steps quietly over to Thomas, not wanting to startle him unnecessarily but realizes even before he crouches down beside him that it's an unwarranted gesture. He places his hand on Thomas's shoulder and tells him a language they share that he hopes he finds his people on his journey. He then stands and faces Chris to tell him that Thomas has followed Daniel.

+ + + + + + +

Chris helps Vin dig the shallow grave that holds Thomas then carefully places dry branches over him. He steps back and then steels himself as Vin lights a Lucifer.

"Chris...," Vin begins.

Chris only nods, more of an encouragement than even the flame that burns close to his skin. Vin tosses it on the branches and as they go to flame he takes the time to once more wish Thomas a good journey. Chris looks up, uncertain, and then repeats Vin's words, understanding their context if not their exact meaning. Slowly the air around the cottonwood fills with smoke and a strange, familiar sweet smell. Chris's resolve becomes something he must swallow down lest it escape him. The effort stings his eyes.

"If you head out with the horses now," Vin proposes, "you can reach Four Corners before dark."

Chris studies him but Vin has always held his own under such scrutiny.

"I'll see to Thomas and catch up with you on the trail."

Chris looks over his shoulder at the restless horses and then looking down at the ground, nods.

With his usual economy Chris sets the horses up in a string and then climbs into the saddle of his own horse. Throwing a corner of his serape over his shoulder he reveals his gun, ready to protect himself and the horses in Vin's absence.

Vin ambles over, reaches out and grabs Chris's forearm with the same strength Chris shows him. With a good shake Vin lets go. "See you soon, pard."

Chris almost smiles and then slowly leads the parade of horses away. Vin watches him go, taking in that Chris does not look back and glad of it.

+ + + + + + +

By the time Vin catches up with Chris, Chris is accompanied by Buck and Josiah. Relieved and grateful he swats Buck soundly on the back and tips his hat at Josiah.

Always eager to get to the heart of things Buck says, "Looks like ol' Chris here inherited a ranch."

Vin blinks and Chris sighs, both of them nowhere near ready to divvy up the spoils of the last two days.

Josiah speaks for them. "Let's get these gentlemen to a saloon and then we'll figure out which way the wind is blowin'."

Buck winks at him. "Saloon sounds good."

Vin sidles up to Chris and while Chris reins his horse to keep pace with him he does not let Vin see his face, dark hat worn low over his brow. Vin stays by his side all the same.

+ + + + + + +

Tiny takes his hat off for a moment knowing full well that the horses Chris brings to him would not be in his care unless Moore and Two Hats were no longer able to. He says a quick prayer under his breath and then pulls his hat down over his head and sets about stabling the animals.

"They gone?" he asks Chris simply.

Chris nods, busy removing the tack from one of the mares.

"I'm glad they crossed paths with you. They was worried that their stock would fall into the wrong hands."

Chris fixes his attention on Tiny. "You know about that?"

Tiny tries not to fidget. "Yes, sir. They spoke of you when the filly came along come a year ago. They sometimes called on me once they started to get up in years. Said they knew your stock from - from years ago - and that you tried not to break a horse if you didn't have to. Said you had ways they held in high regard, yes, they did."

The fine assessment leaves Chris to stutter. "Well. Yes. That's fine. Fine." He hands Tiny a heavy silver coin. "See to them, will you?" and then leaves for the long walk to the saloon.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pushes the batwing doors open and then turns to leave, stopping only when he hears Vin's voice call out his name.

Mary Travis sits beside Vin who holds a shot of whiskey as if it is a rope that will pull him to safety.

Chris walks slowly towards them, sits down, nods at Ezra, Josiah and Nathan who nod and smile as let Mary pummels Vin with questions.

Mary takes a breath, smiles at Chris and then divides her attention between him and the paper she writes on. All the details are given great importance as she fires off one question after another.

When did you find them?


Did Thomas Two Hats kill Daniel Moore?


How do you know?

I know.

Vin slowly pushes his whiskey past Mary and in front of Chris. Apology and remedy in one gesture.

When did Thomas Two Hats die?

This morning.

And he gave you the deed?

Yes. I took it for safe keeping.

What did he die of?

There's a long silence. Chris takes the time to toss back the whiskey before he answers, "I suspect he made up his mind."

Another silence follows.

Mary collects herself and stands prompting the gentlemen at the table to do the same. She turns to Chris and addresses him more confidentially. "I'll wire Orin. He's in Yuma so it might take some time..."

"That'll be fine," Chris tips his hat at her, "You know where we are."

As Mary takes her leave Buck comes bounding in with JD. JD looks fit to burst with questions but is silenced with one look from Chris. Buck takes Mary's vacated seat between Chris and Vin and then hands Vin a well kept tintype of him and Chris during the War. Vin opens it, the image giving him a sad smile as he compares it to the men beside him. He takes in the dusty uniforms and a realization settles heavily in his chest that in those years they had been marching towards each other, from North and South and might have been called upon to end the others life, Chris a young man and Vin just big enough to hold a rifle and use it well but not quite old enough to understand the power he held. The subject will come up some day, he is sure of it, if they are lucky enough to live that long and between the two of them they will figure out what footstep led them to Four Corners instead.

Passing it to Ezra he watches as it rounds the table eliciting memories for each man, save JD.

Chris accepts it from Nathan and seeing it again after so many years remembers the tree stump they sat on, the way they had combed their hair with their dirty hands and then sat so very still. The ease of their friendship from those years is writ large on their bodies despite the exhaustion marring their eyes. Chris sits between Buck's long legs with Buck's arms around his waist, his fingers loosely laced together. Chris drapes one wrist over Buck's hands and the other over Buck's knee. Buck rests his chin and Chris's shoulder. Chris memorizes it again and then closes it and hands it to Buck.

Buck puts his hand over Chris's. "You keep it, pard."

Chris hesitates and then nods his thanks. "For safe keeping."

Buck squeezes his hand and then swats it before challenging Ezra to game of poker and calling out for a beer. Beside him, Vin watches Chris put the tintype into his war bag with the knowledge that even he has more mementos than Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sits on the steps of the boarding house, only a couple windows burning light overhead. He takes a long drag of his cheroot and then blows three perfect smoke rings. Vin walks slowly up to him giving Chris a chance to signal that he wants to be alone. None is made so Vin sits beside him, stares off into the same night sky that Chris is watching.

Vin clears his throat, speaks seriously. "So next time Buck and Ezra escort the jailbirds to Eagle Bend."

Chris snorts, flicks his ash. "I'd be interested to see what-all they bring back."

"Well, then, you're a braver man than me."

Chris laughs outright, quietly and yet the sound carries on the night air. "I never thought two old men could run me around so much."

Vin nods. "They was decisive, sure enough." He waits, takes a quick look at Chris and then continues talking to the moon. "It's going to cost a pretty penny to keep five horses at the livery. I was thinking maybe we could take them out to your ranch, get them settled before those mares foal."

Chris grounds out his cheroot with his heel. "Vin, we don't even know yet if those horses are mine. And my ranch ain't nothing but a shack and a hitching post."

"I know Mr. Franklin has some lumber already cut - enough for a barn, maybe even a bigger corral. We could use my wagon to bring it out."

"Vin..." Chris shakes his head.

"Just a thought," Vin says and folds his hands in front of him as if to herd the thought in. "You're right. Let's see what the day brings."

A silence falls between them. Chris sighs through his nose, an exasperated sound but it's impossible to tell who he's exasperated at. He reaches under the slouch hat that rests between Vin's shoulders and shakes Vin gently by the neck and then squeezes. "You sleepin' inside tonight like a proper man?"

Vin's shoulders fall under Chris's small attention. "Ah, Chris, you know I ain't proper." The teasing that Vin expects does not come. Instead, Chris continues to rub at a small knot at the base of Vin's skull using the strength of his left hand and then his fingertips. Vin grits his teeth and then pulls away. Chris's hand slips down his back in small circles. Vin clears his throat but he still has to push the words through. "I'll wake you up in the morning," he says by way of goodnight and then tries to soften his gruff tone with a tease. "Early. I know you like to get up early."

This time Chris does smile. His hand falls away and then using Vin's knee to push off, he stands. "I'll buy you breakfast."

Chris is all the way to the door before Vin reminds him, "Well, thanks but our board is free." He hears Chris's small "heh" of a laugh and then the quiet snick of the door closing. Vin remains on the steps for a long while, his muscles too heavy to move and yet his blood rushes through his body making holding still an effort.

+ + + + + + +

Vin collects two cups of coffee from Miz Kent who always talks to him as if he is a wild animal who will not eat out of her hand if she raises her voice. He appreciates the gesture with the self knowledge that she is not too far off the mark. Hands full, he tips his head to her, "Ma'am," and carefully navigates the stairs to Chris's room. Using the toe of his boot he knocks and with the other tenants in mind calls out quietly, "Don't shoot, Chris."

Chris answers the door, pants and shirt on but unbuttoned. His eyes are still bleary with sleep with one side of his short hair pressed flat to his head. Defenses down, he accepts both the coffee and Vin's teasing, nonverbal assessment of him. "Give me a minute," Chris tells him in an irritable voice that only tickles Vin more. Chris takes a sip of the hot coffee and then lets it sing through his body before he goes to the wash basin to wash his face and dampen his hair. When he faces Vin again he is visibly clearer and more alert, his hair standing on end to confirm it. Vin smiles into his coffee cup, knowing from the beginning that Chris, being a man of abrupt extremes, never endorses himself to anything halfheartedly whether it's his temper or a cup of coffee. He lets Chris enjoy it as he does his own and wanders over to the window while Chris buttons up for the rest of the world.

+ + + + + + +

Miz Kent serves Chris and Vin a hearty breakfast of eggs and bacon with a sweet apple tart and more coffee. They dig in, famished from living on the trail longer than they expected to. The questions about the deed and the horses sway between them but go unvoiced until Mary finds them.

Chris tries to distract her with coffee and pastry but she, as ever, remains focused on the matter at hand. "No, thank you, Chris. I just got a telegram from Orin and he says that, that Mr. Two Hats might not have had the right to deed the property and its holdings to you. If Mr. Moore deeded it to you that's another matter." They both notice, to her credit, that she is chagrined to acknowledge Thomas's lack of rights.

Chris puts down his fork, appetite suddenly gone. "Mr. Moore was already gone when we got there."

"If there was somebody else who could back up Mr. Moore's intentions," Mary says hopefully, "you could keep the property from reverting back to the territory."

Chris shrugs as if the matter is out of his hands.

Mary sighs with no small amount of exasperation.

"Talk to Tiny," Vin pipes up, earning a glare from Chris. "He knows a thing or two about what Mr. Moore intended."

"Oh, that's wonderful, Vin. I will." She stands, excited at the new development and gestures distractedly for Chris and Vin to remain seated, seemingly unaware of Chris's ill ease. "I'll get back to you, Chris," she says over her shoulder, already on her way out.

"You know about that?" Chris asks, never one to enjoy folks knowing his business, even Vin.

"Talked to Tiny for a bit this morning. Are you going to eat that or not?" Vin interrupts himself, using his fork to point at Chris's pastry.

Defeated but not ready to admit it, Chris stands, pushing his chair back loudly and walking away. Vin forks the pastry over to his plate and smiles at Chris's retreating back as Chris does his best to fire up his temper over his good fortune.

+ + + + + + +

There is something to be said about a decision being made for a man.

+ + + + + + +

Vin knows that a man in his situation should not be as comfortable as he is sitting in front of a jail house. And yet, he tips his chair back against the wall and takes turns listening to JD and Buck fuss at each other inside and Chris and Mary doing the same thing one door down at the telegraph office. In both instances the words are indistinct but the tone is unmistakable. With Buck and JD there is exasperation and teasing. A show of temper nearly giving way to laughter. With Chris and Mary there is exasperation and little else. Mary raises her voice and Vin risks watching them peripherally in time to see Mary slap a wad of telegrams into Chris's hand and then retreat down the boardwalk to the Clarion.

Chris fumes and then catching Vin looking at him heads in his direction. He stands over Vin trying to use his height to cast a shadow. "Looks like I've got a month to build a ranch before those mares foal. That wagon of yours still up to hauling some lumber?"

Vin lets the chair settle back on the boardwalk with a satisfying thump. "Yup," is all he says as Chris follows him to the lumber yard.

+ + + + + + +

It starts out with just the two of them. Chris and Vin use the first load of lumber to mark off where the barn will go. It's a generous amount of space and to Vin's eye, proof that Chris's initial reluctance had more to do with propriety than a lack of want.

From there they lay out the framing, the skeleton of what lies beneath. The weather is warm but not overly so but by the end of the third day they wipe a healthy sweat from their faces and grin at their progress. When Vin goes back into town for more lumber he comes back with Nathan, JD and Josiah.

They each take in what Chris and Vin have done so far and then Josiah claps his hands loudly and begins enthusiastically pulling some of the lumber off of Vin's wagon. Nathan smiles warmly at Chris who ducks his head but not before he returns the gesture. Soon all of them are working seamlessly with assembling the floor joists.

The sun is setting by the time they have two of the four bents assembled that will divide the barn into stables on either side with a wide midway. The men stay the night, seemingly happy to feast on the small amount of jerked venison Chris has saved from his last hunt. They sit around a fire and point out all the possibilities for Chris's ranch as he tries to talk them down to no avail.

"Biggest horse ranch in the territory."

"And South of the border."

"Most renowned West of the Mississippi."

"And East of it!"

Vin slouches down against his saddle and lets Chris fend for himself against their ambition for him. Heat radiates from the fire and makes him blink back sleep from a good day of hard work. He brings his hat down over his eyes and that's all it takes for sleep to finally chase him down. The last thing he hears is Chris saying, "Oh, no, no, no. No donkeys or burros. No." And then the sound of his laugh.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning Buck and Ezra join them. Ezra rolls up his sleeves and does his best to oversee but is caught up midday correcting JD on how to properly spike a bent. JD nods, "Uh-huh" and leaves him to it. Vin and Buck bring in the last of the lumber and before the day is over they have gone as far as they can without more help. Ezra assures Chris that the word has been put out for the barn raising on Saturday but Chris continues to calculate how the seven of them can finish it on their own if need be.

Vin holds back while the other men leave and waits for Chris to wave him off, too. Chris turns and sits on the step of his cabin and lights a cheroot, his legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankle. Vin sits down next to him and together they register the magnitude of what lies before them.

Chris laughs, the sound full of disbelief. "Looks like I'm building a barn."

Vin smiles and nods, not taking his eyes off of the framework. "Looks like." He turns his head to Chris, not really looking at him and asks, "Need anything?"



"I could eat."

"I'll see what I can scare up." He stands and holsters his gun. Chris squints up at him, tired but relaxed, his cheeks and nose turned red by the sun and not liquor or temper. "Tomorrow we'll hunt us an elk, have it ready for Saturday."

Chris nods, still dubious and watches Vin disappear into the tree line.

+ + + + + + +

Saturday comes up on them cool and dry. Chris lays out rope for pulleys while Vin sets out the pike poles to help in lifting the bents.

JD calls out hello and then some moments later leads the rest to the boys on to Chris's property. Chris starts to say that he hopes to get the framing up before the sun goes down with the rafters and siding for another day. He stops before he starts when he hears more than one wagon coming up behind Buck.

The first wagon contains the matriarchs of the town, most notably Nettie Wells, her niece Casey, Mary and Mrs. Potter. Behind them are two more buckboards filled with several of the men of town ranging in age from six year old Billy Travis to sixty-five year old Digger. Mr. Watson, Tiny and Yosemite round out the middle ground along with their sons, nephews and assorted able bodied neighbors. By the time they all arrive they number thirty or more and set to the task at hand as if they were raised by a colony of ants.

Chris is left to catch up as the first bent is moved into position. Two rows of men are formed with the stronger ones, Josiah, Nathan, Tiny and Yosemite doing the initial lift and the men behind them using pike poles to push the frame completely upright. Two other men hold ropes attached to the frame to keep it from falling completely over. The younger boys, all arms and legs and determination nail bracing boards to the floor and to the frame to hold it in place. The process is repeated three more times until the barn floor is sectioned off into four parts.

Mary hands out the foot-long wooden pegs as ink and pens are passed around for everyone to inscribe a peg with well wishes. Vin writes his name and the word Horse for the first time outside of a lesson. Mary records each inscription to give to Chris later and then sets the pegs in an apple bucket

The beams are lifted slowly and carefully and set across the bents with the inscribed pegs hammered into place with a melon sized mallet. Soon the second floor hay loft is being laid down. From there the more lightweight timber for rafters is handed up as the more fearless men climb the frame. Before midday half of the rafters are in place finally giving the barn its distinctive shape despite its lack of siding.

Some of the women folk try to call the men down but they are too close to completion to hear them. When the last rafter is set in place Casey hands Billy a green bough she has cut from a nearby live oak. He runs and hands it up to Tiny who hands it up to the next man until Chris, sitting precariously on the highest beam at the front of the barn takes it from Buck. He looks at the men around and all of the good folk down on the ground and knows without a doubt that he will never be able to pass them, even on a busy, windy day, without knowing that they have only to ask and he would do anything for them. With that promise in mind he nails the bough to the front of the barn, an old tradition of paying respect and honor to the forest that fashioned it. The gesture is loudly cheered.

Chris lets the wind dry the sweat on his face before he follows the rest of the men down to the table of food the women have set out for them. Venison, chicken and ham vie for their appetite as well as vegetables and fresh baked pies. A barrel of hard cider sits under a tree waiting for sundown.

Despite the good food they return to work and finish the siding and roofing while the sun is still high in the sky.

More cheering and clapping fill the air as Chris shakes the hand of every man and tips his hat to every woman and child he comes across. He is greeted with wide smiles and hearty pats on the back as if their hard work was a privilege. The rest of the seven refuse his hand and instead, on some unspoken agreement, manhandle him with their affection, crowd him, shake him, lift him off his feet. Chris, drunk from their attention, grabs Vin around the neck with both arms and does not let go until long after Vin has put his arms around him.

The full moon that follows the last hammer fall allows for a long celebration. Yosemite and his son bring out their fiddles and play one rousing song after another while more food is served and couples dance.

+ + + + + + +

Chris wakes up the next morning, only a little hung over, to the sound of snoring. He quietly puts on his pants and boots and steps over Josiah who had suggested that Chris raze his cabin and build a proper house. Chris tries to remember if he agreed. JD sleepily pulls his feet out of the way so that Chris only has to step over Nathan to go outside. Chris tousles his hair and finally makes it to the door. After all the effort it takes to get outdoors he skids to a stop at the foot of his porch and blinks. At some point, when he wasn't paying attention, a barn was built on the shady side of his property.

Vin materializes out of nowhere and snorts a laugh at Chris's reaction and then ambles over to the expanded corral and drinks his coffee. Chris sits down heavily on the porch step and does his best to take in how much his life has changed, once more.

+ + + + + + +

The seven of them make light work of putting in the stalls with two large ones for foaling and eight smaller ones for stock. Vin and JD bring in a wagon of hay and feed and they all end up with bits of it stuck to their skin and clothing. Ezra brushes off his sleeves and shirtfront but continues to help with only a minimum of fuss.

Outside, Chris and Nathan fill a water trough from a hand pump put in only months before.

JD is the first one on his horse, ready to head back into town for the horses that wait for them. At first Chris follows behind him and then takes the lead with the thought that if a mans life is set to change he should meet it head on. When they ride into town they are at a gallop.

While Tiny has taken good care of the animals they are eager to stretch their legs. Chris, Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan each take a horse with Buck and Ezra bringing in more supplies. They give the horses a long lead, even the mares, their bellies heavy, breaking into a trot now and then,

When they reach the ranch they remove the reins and set them loose in the corral to map it out. JD laughs out loud, unable to take his eyes off of them.

Josiah places a heavy arm around Chris's shoulders and squeezes him good. "You won't want for any help when you need it."

Chris hears the promise, grateful and humbled.

+ + + + + + +

Chris wakes up the next morning before the sun rises. The single lantern it takes to make coffee shines through the window and Vin, asleep in his wagon by the barn, wakes as if Chris has rung a bell.

Vin lets his feet fall heavily although he suspects that Chris already knows that he is on his way and is proven correct when Chris opens his door before Vin can knock on it. He accepts the coffee Chris hands him and they mumble good morning, mornin' as Chris fries up bacon and eggs.

There is something almost shy about the way Chris won't meet Vin's eyes. Something of a boy who has decided he is too old to be excited about Christmas morning or a Easter egg hunt but is nonetheless up early for the event. They eat perfunctorily and then head out to the barn in long strides.

As soon as the barn doors are opened they are greeted with nickers and stomping making both the men laugh. They lead the horses out into the corral and feed them there, the animals enjoying their food more leisurely than Chris or Vin did their own

It's only after they have finished that Chris finally takes his measure of them. He jumps off the railing he has been sitting on into the corral and approaches each horse. There are two mares, both ready to foal, in the early days of July. Chris runs his hands down the muzzle of the taller one, a chestnut and nearly sixteen hands, her name, Thomas told him is Bell. She responds to his gentleness and takes in the scent of his hands, the sound of his voice, low and steady. Vin brings the other mare, a black with a white blaze down her muzzle over to him and Chris greets her by name, Sophie, in effect teaching it to Vin. Vin nods and uses her name as Chris continues his introduction.

The filly named Frances is a paint, black and white and no more than a year old. All legs, spirited and coquettish, given to darting at them and then away. The two male horses, Rio, a black and Clay, a chestnut are just over two years old and recently gelded. Both Chris and Vin take in that they show some stallion behavior by forming a bachelor gang of two.

They are all beautiful examples of saddlebreds that soldiers on both sides of the war had depended heavily upon. Intelligent and confident they could also work in front of a plow as well as ride long distances at speed without fatigue. As Thomas had told Chris, finding buyers had never been a problem.

They spend the day beginning the long process of getting the horses use to their commands, the feel of their tug on a rein and how much they will give of that rein. They are so involved in what they're doing that they forget to eat midday, only stopping later on when Rio, on a long lead, pulls Vin over to the water trough.

"All right, all right," Vin laughs releasing the lead and letting the big lug have his fill.

Chris comes over to him and pats his back sending a small cloud of dust up into the air. "I guess it's time to put them up for the night."

"Don't have much say in the matter."

Chris pats him again and together they collect the tack while the horses mill around them.

Night falls by the time Chris and Vin see to their supper. Vin digs in as Chris mulls over his plate.

"Chris..." Vin asks, through his teeth, his mouth still full of chicken.

"I was just thinking that you don't have to stay out here - if you don't want to."

Vin swallows and sits back. "I have to say, I'm right where I want to be." He looks up at Chris. "I'll trust you to tell me when it's time to leave."

Chris nods, finally satisfied enough to eat. "Then stay," he says and finishes his supper before Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Vin bale a deep layer of hay into one of the large stalls, banking it steeply on the sides. As Chris fusses with the hay Vin leads Bell into the stall. Chris comes to a standstill as Vin lightly scratches her jaw and neck, speaking softly to her in Kiowa. She steps forward and hooks her head over his shoulder as he continues to soothe her with his voice and hands.

Chris rests his own hand on her rounded belly. "She's a good ol' gal."

"Aye," Vin almost sing-songs.

"Not short-fused at all."


Chris grins as Vin returns to his recitation and wonders to himself if it's a poem. He walks quietly up to the head of Bell, not wanting to disturb either one and then standing behind Vin runs a gentle hand down her muzzle. "You gonna wait for the wee hours?" he asks her, knowing the answer.

Vin interrupts himself. "She sure looks ready."

"Yeah. Udders are bagging up - belly's changing shape."

Vin nods. Chris sees a piece of straw in Vin's hair and carefully tugs it free. Vin looks over his shoulder at the pull in his hair only to find Chris's back to him. Vin gives Bell a reassuring pat and then turns to face Chris. "Do you wanna bunk out here tonight?"

"Not much to do but stay out of the way."

"Uh-huh, but do you want to bunk out here tonight?"

Chris snorts and turns around, a piece of straw between his teeth. "Yeah, I do."

+ + + + + + +

True to form, Bell delivers as Chris's pocket watch registers three in the morning. As if sensing the new arrival JD and Nathan show up just as the sun is rising to take in the chestnut filly that Vin has name Arroyo. JD acquaints himself as Nathan helps Chris muck the stall and Vin brings in fresh hay.

Nathan claps Chris soundly on the shoulder. "She sure is a beauty."

Chris looks over at Arroyo nursing greedily and smiles back at Nathan. "All legs." And then laughs outright.

Nathan responds in kind, truly delighted to see Chris lit up with nary a bottle or gunfight in sight. He takes in Vin's sleepy smile and adds, "Why don't you two grab some shut-eye? I think me and JD can be persuaded to look after things for a spell."

Tired, and happy to admit it, Chris nods before he goes over to Bell and kisses her loudly on the soft end of her nose and then passes Nathan, squeezing his arm in thanks. Vin follows, his happiness only slightly more subdued but not by much, making Nathan shake his head in wonder at the transformation of the two hardened men. Both of them deserving better fates, he is sure of it, and hoping that the tiny horse with the spindly legs is a sign of better things to come.

Too warm to sleep inside, Nathan watches Vin lead Chris past a copse of gnarly cottonwoods to a live oak he favors and under its shade they spread out their bedrolls and talk and fall into silence and doze and then finally sleep, deep and restful.

+ + + + + + +

Weeks later when Sophie shows the same signs of foaling they fall into what is already a routine of padding another large stall with hay and engaging their patience for a long wait.

Sophie turns to more predictable behavior, splitting herself off from the other horses and skittish when approached by anyone. Chris and Vin set out their bedrolls nearby but show themselves to her as little as possible. Alert as they are they recline back on their elbows and exchange no more than looks as Sophie moves around. A loud thump brings them upright and then to their feet as they check on the mare. They find her lying on her side, distressed and kicking uselessly. Vin goes to her head and soothes her as Chris checks under her tail.

"Shit," he curses through his teeth. "Give me your knife, Vin. The sac hasn't broken." Vin hands it over and watches as Chris makes a careful incision. A viscous fluid escapes as Bell bears down against a contraction. Chris slowly eases one hand past the vulva, finding one small hoof and then the other. "When she pushes I'm gonna pull, OK? Just try to keep her as calm."

Vin nods already offering a steady stream of Kiowa. Sophie contracts, going wall-eyed as Chris pulls slow and steady bringing the hooves out. Another contraction hits, causing Sophie to thrash, Vin holding her head down with gentle strength.

Chris begins his own litany. "That's it, that's it. C'mon girl. There we go. Long legs. Gonna be seventeen hands tall, looks like. Yeah. And black. All black just like its momma."

Vin gives up his own recitation and smiles at the sound of Chris's.

Finally the foals hips pass through leaving Chris holding a limp colt. He lays it gently down and then using fistfuls of hay begins rubbing its flanks and belly. "C'mon you lil stallion, lets get you breathing." The foal remains still.

Vin lets Sophie come to her feet and then walks her out of the stall, hoping to aid in the passing of the placenta as Chris holds his vigil. He leads Sophie outside of the barn where she delivers the afterbirth. He buries it and then brings her back into the barn listening for Chris's voice and hearing nothing.

Vin rounds the edge of the stall, ready to help Chris with whatever needs to be done only to find him kneeling beside the colt as it sits in the hay, holding its heavy head up. Sophie goes to her foal, seeming not to care that her washing and nuzzling is hindering it from standing. Chris finds his own feet and goes to Vin.

"I thought..." Vin begins.

"So did I." Chris nods and smiles. "So did I."

"You should name this one."

"I was thinking we should name him after our benefactors since they're all prone to giving me rough surprises." He shares a smile with Vin. "Thomas Two Hats and Daniel Moore," he muses. And then, "TomMoore. One name, TomMoore."

He gets another smile from Vin. "Sounds good. I like it."

Chris nods. "TomMoore it is, then."

TomMoore places his front legs far apart and then getting his hind legs under him, stands, holding his head low as if the sudden height he has achieved is too great. Slowly he raises his head and takes in both Chris and Vin before wobbling over to nurse.

"Lil fucker," Chris smiles, proud as can be.

+ + + + + + +

The third time TomMoore kicks Chris Vin moves Sophie to a corner of the paddock, TomMoore her shadow, as always. Chris holds his arms out as if he is herding sheep only to gather TomMoore around the chest and hindquarters, lifting the colt off the ground. Both colt and mother fuss, Vin holding Sophie's halter securely. Chris begins a lazy pace, back and forth, never far from her. TomMoore kicks and throws his head but Chris holds him firm, giving up only a grunt when hooves connect to his shins. Vin winces and watches without a word and in doing so becomes privy to a side of Chris few have seen. There is a sing-song quality to his voice that amuses Vin and quiets TomMoore despite the use of profanity.

"You're just a little shit, ain't ya?"

Vin tips his head and focuses on an image of Adam unable to sleep until he was in the cradle of his father's arms. His father gentle, exasperated, patient. Loving.

TomMoore stills in Chris's arms prompting Chris to sweeter talk. "That's my boy..." Chris says and then hefts him a little, testing the colts trust and finding it sound. TomMoore rests his head over Chris's shoulder, not broken but well aware of Chris's authority. Chris takes a moment to hold him a little longer. "Yeah, that's my boy."

Finally he sets TomMoore back on the ground letting the animal find his footing before letting go entirely as if they have both been out to sea. TomMoore does a little crow hop, getting some of his own back and then retreats to nursing. Chris and Vin laugh at his brief show of insolence.

Chris puts his hands on his hips and addresses the entire paddock. "Anyone else?" He turns to Vin, barely able to hold back a smile. Vin holds his hands up in surrender. "Alrighty, then," he says and then walks out of the paddock with his big crooked gait. Vin ducks his chin and smiles, keeping his back to Chris.

+ + + + + + +

In his dream the desert shimmers brightly all around him. Off in the distance a horse, a different shade of white than the sand he stands in, takes shape as it runs towards him in a wide arc. It's lack of fear pleases him as he is eager to run the back of his fingers over its soft muzzle and brush away the soot colored mane to see its eyes. He holds himself still and quiet while it stops a few feet away from him and then ambles closer. The horse exudes power and heat. Holds its head high. Slowly he raises his hands to rub and scratch. The animal stomps the ground with a soft thud and leans into his touch. He hears himself laugh. The horse shakes its head turning its mane once again into a veil.

"All right," he acquiesces, although he is gladdened by its spirit.

The horse uses its large muzzle to nudge him and he steps quickly out of the way as it advances towards him. Nudging him again he finally understands and turns to run alongside of the beautiful animal. Sweat cools his skin as his muscles reach to keep pace. His heart beats heavily behind the cage of his bones. The effort it takes to stay with him is a sweet challenge.

Too soon, he wakes, out of breath and nearly laughing. The warm smell of his sweat and seed are an earthy reminder of his waking life. Despite the distinction he makes Chris does not imbue the dream with any special meaning beyond the bare facts: it was beautiful, together they ran for miles, he is well rested.

He sits up, places his feet on the floor and smiles at the sound of Vin using both English and Kiowa to halter TomMoore. Chris sighs and lets his eyes drift close. A memory comes to him. They are sitting on a bluff. He rubs his eyes with the butt of his hands and stands on wobbly legs. He fills the basin with cool water and splashes his face and neck, waking up through a shiver. Vin is looking through his spyglass and then at Chris. Far away and then close. Chris stands and lets a rivet of water run down his neck and chest before he catches it with his hand at his waist. Vin was talking about death, his own, and smiling. Wringing out a soft cloth from the basin he rubs it over chest and belly, down into drawers where it almost hurts no matter how lightly he touches himself. Chris cannot hide his own smile. In short order he puts on socks, pants, boots, a shirt. All of it worn and work ready. Not the clothes of a gunslinger or even a widower. A horse rancher. Again. Vin's voice finds him as he pours a cup of coffee kept warm over the embers in the fireplace. Vin tells him to take his body back to Tascosa for a $500 reward. Chris steps out onto the porch and watches Vin walk backwards as he leads Arroyo and TomMoore with short reins. If a friend collects... Chris leans against the railing, nearly losing his breath. Vin claims him as a friend and offers a reward Chris will never be able to count: My life is yours.

"Mornin' cowboy," Vin calls out.

Chris raises his head and swallows and makes the same promise to Vin. "Did you just call me a cowboy?"

Vin laughs and then returns his attention back to the foals.

Chris watches him a moment longer.

My life is yours.

+ + + + + + +

Clouds pass over a full moon. A liars moon although the name itself belies the beauty of it.

Vin is happy in a thoughtless way that does not belong to any particular event. It is more than enough that he is alive and well fed, tired from honest work and in the company of a friend who warrants all of his high emotions. To question any of it or pine for more would imply that there was something lacking in the wealth of his experience and that is not a doubt he is willing to entertain.

The night air is still warm with small gusts blowing across his face and tugging at his hair. He's tempted to close his eyes in hope that it will come at him and try to lift him off his feet, send him flying and set him down a long, thoughtful walk from where he is. It is his attention that keeps it so docile and loving.

He watches Chris through the yellow glow of the doorway dry his hands and then catching Vin staring, he grin's. Vin looks away, back at the moon and hears rather than sees Chris slowly amble up to him. From the corner of his eye he sees Chris raise his hand and never sensing any danger from his proximity lets Chris place his hand on his face, his thumb moving gently just under his eye. Thinking he must have missed a smudge when he washed up Vin brings his own hand up to where Chris's has fallen away and rubs. With a slight questioning frown on his face he looks back at Chris as if the man is a looking glass that can only tell him the truth.

Chris blinks and tries again. "If I'm wrong," he says, stepping in front of Vin and cupping his wide jaw in his damp palm, "I'll trust you to let me know." Then he closes the distance between them and lights a kiss on Vin's mouth.

Vin stares back at Chris. "You ain't wrong."

A shy grin plays at the corners of Chris's mouth and only habit keeps him from smiling outright. "No?"

Vin shakes his head no with a small movement and then sinks his cheek more warmly into Chris's hand. Chris sighs and laughs at the same time and presses his forehead against Vin's. Vin tips his chin up as Chris tilts his head to the side and they kiss again. A long drink after a long drought. More grateful than frantic. Unhurried and deep. Still, it leaves them breathless and leaning against each other, both buoyant and anchored.

Chris pulls himself reluctantly away. As sober as he is he walks through the doorway with the careful steps of a drunk, not waiting for Vin to follow except for dropping his chin to his shoulder, not quite looking over it. Vin waits for Chris to pass through the lamp light on the table and over to the softer shadows where a wide pallet holds thick padding and rumpled covers. Vin steps into the doorway as Chris takes the covers and lets them fall into a loose pile at the foot of the pallet, nothing that they need for what they mean to do. Vin steps through the doorway and sets his hat on the table with the burning lamp. They stand where they are and remove their boots, heel to toe, shirts with too many buttons, pants and union drawers until Vin is illuminated by a single flame and Chris's pale skin glows from the shadows. Without a word Chris crawls from the foot of the bed to the center while Vin crawls from the side and meets him there. The small amount of space between them allows each tentative touch to move from shoulder to back down along a leg until gravity wins over and pulls them onto their sides. Laughing, they tangle themselves further, suddenly secure in being held in the palm of another.

+ + + + + + +

The lamp flickers, burning low, when Chris gets out of bed, limbs heavy, to finally extinguish it. In the dark Chris can hear Vin inhale sharply through his nose and come awake. He climbs back into bed, Vin's hands reaching out for him and pulls the one blanket they rescued from the floor up to their chests. They settle against each other, the darkest hours of the night demanding more sleep.

Chris lets his eyes drift close but remains awake, his hands moving over Vin's back, one settling under his hair at the nape of his neck. Vin sighs, his warm breath gusting over Chris's chest. Chris pulls him closer, nestling Vin's leg between his own. A small grunt and Vin is asleep again. Chris smiles at the sound and kisses him lightly on the forehead almost entirely because he can.

He has always taken liberties with Vin but none that have demanded reciprocity in such a profound way. In all fairness, he feels as though Vin has been calling on him although he cannot name the exact instance. Tired as he is, and agreeable to fanciful thoughts, it occurs to him that they have been calling on each other, long before they met.

Another thought occurs to him: that when he had met Vin he had been dying, slow as a tree left to the sun and nothing else. It was right to save Nathan and is something he has been grateful for daily and yet at the time it was also another way to die. It's ironic, he supposes, that everyone who has called upon him to risk his life for them has in effect saved his until he found himself no longer willing to taste the metal of his own gun or hate himself when he could not find the grit to pull the trigger.

He squeezes Vin eliciting a small hmmph and then soothes his back in apology though none is needed.

Here he is, stretched out and laid bare, under the weight of both unlikely circumstances and an unlikely man, but damn, if they haven't conspired to make a life for him that makes it possible to sleep, and dream, of nothing more troubling than a white horse with a soot colored mane and a black one that follows him.


The photographers studio is nothing more than a tent with a settee and a dusty rug. It barely contains the seven men forming a rough and tumble daisy chain around the small piece of furniture despite all of them wearing their Sunday best. The photographer, a man by the name of Woodward, calls on his patience since the men in front of his lens seem intent on several poses. They started out displaying their weapons across their chests or knees and then slowly put away their arsenal and took each others hands instead. As the session wore on they broke off into small groups and then each took their turn and stared down the dragon's eye of the camera on their own.

Woodward's head bobs under the dark cloth draped over his camera and then sighing he slips out from under it, the few strands of hair across his head set awry. "Mr. Tanner, I fear you will be a blur if you cannot hold still."

Vin settles back into the settee and clears his throat as if that is the problem. Woodward ducks back under the canopy and sighs again when Vin moves his hands from his knees to his lap. Chris comes to stand behind Vin and places his hands on his shoulders, not enough to restrain although the effect begs to differ. Vin reaches across his chest and pulls Chris's hand down and holds it there. He takes a breath and holds that, too and lets Chris's palm register his racing heart.

The flash pan is lit and they are illuminated. They remain as there are long after they are captured.

End of This Hard Land

April 19, 2006

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