Once they arrived at the shack, Vin concentrated his energy -- such as it was -- on providing for their basic needs. Because this was a frequent source of shelter for him, there was already ample firewood, and, stashed in hiding places beneath floorboards, stores of coffee, beans, meal and whiskey. When he had the stove fired up, a pot of coffee brewing and a pot of beans on, he went out to tend the horses.
Chris did nothing, merely slumped into one of the two roughly fashioned but sturdy chairs at the table and stared into the cup of whiskey Vin had poured for him. Fowler's suicide had plunged him back into the numb shock he'd fallen into in the days immediately following Sarah and Adam's deaths, and now, like then, he hadn't the strength to rise above it.
His only hope was that the man now taking care of him had strength enough for two.
At the moment, Vin doubted he did. He was tired to the bone himself, and racked by pain for Chris. He'd never seen the man like this before, beaten down to utter helplessness, and he simply wasn't certain he knew how to help. Nothing in his life had ever prepared him for this. He'd never suffered a loss like Chris's. True, he'd lost his ma and grandpa, but to illness and age, not murder. And while he'd often suffered himself from grievous violence, even outright abuse, he knew hurts to oneself were nowhere near as painful as the harm inflicted on a loved one.
He knew that, because just watching Chris suffering was hurting far worse than any wound he'd ever known.
"Lord God, what'm I gonna do?" he breathed, sinking to the ground beside Peso with a weary groan. He'd put the horses in a small, make-shift stable, found some feed he'd stashed on his last stay here, and watered them. And that had about taxed his strength to its limit. "How'm I gonna git him through this?"
The gelding lowered his head and whiffled gently at his hair, and Vin absently rested his cheek against the blazed nose, closing his eyes and letting his exhaustion seep through him. "Got so little ta offer him," he murmured sadly. "'N what little I do have, I ain't sure he'll want." He opened his eyes and sat up with an effort, smiling tiredly and stroking Peso's nose. "Told ya joinin' up with folks'd be complicated," he said. "It was a helluva lot easier when it was jist you 'n me."
Peso blew softly and pawed the ground with one hoof, and Vin chuckled softly. "Yeah, I reckon so. Easier, but not nearly as inter'stin'." He hauled himself tiredly to his feet and slid a hand lovingly down the gelding's powerful neck. "You gonna behave yerself out here?" he asked, well knowing the horse's temperament. "Ain't much ta this shed. You could kick it down without half tryin'. But," he grabbed a handful of mane and pulled the shapely head around until his eyes met and locked with Peso's, "you do, 'n I'll skin ya like a goddamn buff, 'n jerk yer meat fer my winter stores. You got that, mule?"
Peso made no sound, merely blinked his eyes and shook his head slightly. Vin laughed softly and released the animal's mane. "Yer more trouble than yer worth, ya damn mule," he said fondly, giving Peso's neck another affectionate caress. "'N one day, I'm gonna trade ya in fer a real horse."
He gave the gelding one last pat, then gathered rifles, bedrolls, canteens and saddlebags and left the small stable. With heavy steps, he went back to the shack, back to the only creature he'd ever known who was more complicated than Peso.
Shit, Tanner, you better be goddamn sure you ain't bit off more'n you kin chew here!
He entered the shack and was greeted by the smell of simmering beans and fresh-brewed coffee. All at once, he remembered how long it had been since last he'd eaten, and nearly fell to his knees from hunger and weariness. But he knew he didn't have that luxury. Going to the narrow cot against the far wall, he dropped Chris's belongings onto it, and laid his own on the floor near the fireplace.
"You git the bed," he said, not expecting an answer. "Reckon I'm more used ta floors, anyways." He went back to the cot, set Chris's rifle, saddlebags and canteen on the floor, then set about untying and spreading his bedroll.
Chris lifted his head and watched Tanner through dull eyes, then said hoarsely, "Ya don't have ta do that."
Vin never turned around, but simply kept working. "Done started," he drawled. "Might's well finish." He did just that, then straightened slowly and pressed a hand to the small of his back as the familiar ache there reminded him of all the riding he'd done over the past three days, and of last night spent in that chair. "Aw, shit," he breathed.
Chris frowned. "You all right?"
Vin dropped his hand and turned around, giving a slight, crooked smile. "Ain't but a twinge," he lied. "Happens now'n agin when I take ta livin' in the saddle. Jist reminds me a man's gotta set foot on the ground ever' so often."
"Why don'tcha sit down," Chris invited quietly. "Rest for a while." He studied the tracker, suddenly seeing the lines of weariness in the unshaven face and the dark smudges under his eyes. "You didn't sleep at all last night, did ya?"
Vin ambled to the table and sat down across from Chris, slouching in a way aimed at taking his weight off his right side, where the worst of the pain was. "Slept some," he answered. "Wanted ta make sure you slept. Figgered you needed it more'n me."
"Ain't sleep I need," Chris rasped, bowing his head as the pain again washed over him.
That pain touched Vin, as well. "Wish I could help ya," he breathed, his heart aching for the man before him. "I's hopin' he didn't die in that fire. I's hopin' he got out."
Chris raised his head at that, frowning deeply. "Why?" he asked harshly. "Why did you want that bastard ta live?"
Vin returned the burning gaze evenly. "So's I c'd track him down," he answered calmly. "'N I woulda. When I caught him, I'da got the name of whoever hired him. Then I'da kilt him."
"Just like that?" Chris asked softly.
Vin gave a grim smile. "Not exactly."
Vin's smile faded. "'Cause'a what he done ta you... yer family." In his exhaustion he stumbled, and prayed Chris hadn't noticed.
But even in his exhaustion, Chris had.
Don't see how I kin git ya past the pain of not knowin' why ya lost the ones ya love, when all's I want is fer you ta love me.
He remembered the voice that had comforted him through his nightmares, and the fingers that had brushed so lightly, so lovingly through his hair...
God, why wasn't he trying harder to forget them?
"Want some coffee?" Vin asked softly, made suddenly uneasy by Chris's intense scrutiny of him. It was a new sensation. He'd never before felt uncomfortable in the man's company, and he didn't like feeling that way now. It was like losing something infinitely precious.
When Chris nodded, Vin got up and went to the stove, and poured coffee into two cups he'd found and cleaned out earlier. The coffee was strong, but he'd intended it that way. He needed its bite to keep his mind clear.
He went back to the table, set the steaming cups on the table, then settled himself once more in his chair. Chris bowed his head and stared down into the dark liquid before him, and a long, deep silence fell between the two men.
Vin was grateful for the silence. It gave him time to get his thoughts in order, to consider the task he'd undertaken, to figure out what had to be done. A practical man by nature, he concentrated on the practical aspects, turning his thoughts to such mundane but crucial things as food and water.
There was a creek out back, about a hundred yards away; he'd have to make sure it hadn't run dry. If it was still runnin', then the huntin' in these parts should be fairly good...
"Why're you doin' this?"
Chris's soft voice startled him from his reverie, and he looked up sharply to see two dull green eyes fixed on him. Confused by the question, not having the faintest idea what he'd been doing, he frowned and shook his head slowly, his tired mind far more sluggish than he liked.
"I... I ain't sure... Doin' what?"
"Doin' this," Chris said again, lifting a hand and waving it tiredly, then letting it fall back to the table. "All this. This place. Me." He stared at the tracker, who still seemed not to have any idea what he was talking about. "Takin' care'a me," he finally managed to say. "Didn't Buck warn ya? It ain't a pleasant job. You won't get a medal for it."
Vin chose to ignore the bitterness that verged almost on contempt in the quiet voice. Instead, he returned Chris's gaze evenly, his lean body relaxed. "My ma used ta tell me there's jist some things ya do 'cause they're right. Don't make 'em easy, don't mean yer gonna git no reward, don't mean doin' 'em's gonna make yer life any better. Jist means ya gotta do 'em 'cause they gotta be done." He shrugged. "Reckon this here's jist the kinda thing she was talkin' about."
Chris stared at the tracker a moment more, then sneered. "You're a goddamn do-gooder, Tanner."
Vin chuckled softly and shook his head. "Aw, hell, Larabee, is that the best you kin do? I bin called nearly ever' name a body kin think of by nearly ever' bad-ass this side'a the Mississippi, 'n now I got the baddest bad-ass of all sittin' across from me 'n all he kin manage is 'goddamn do-gooder'?" He shook his head again, still grinning. "Shit, you are in bad shape."
Chris' stare bored into Tanner, and a spark of anger ignited in the green eyes. "Buck ever tell you why we finally split up? How I finally got enough of his mother-hennin' and beat the shit out of him?"
Vin's smile faded, and his blue eyes darkened. "Yeah, he told me once, when he was drunk. But, see," he leaned forward in his chair and rested his arms on the table, pinning Larabee with a compelling stare, "there's somethin' you need ta understand right off. I ain't Buck Wilmington. I didn't know yer wife 'n son, 'n I don't feel guilty 'bout what happened to 'em. I'm sorry as hell, sorrier'n I could ever say, but I don't feel guilty. So I ain't about ta let you beat the shit outta me. You ever try, 'n I guarantee you'll be sorry. You got that?"
Chris blinked and sat back, stunned by the soft words. Vin had never raised his voice, had never shown the slightest sign of anger. He wasn't threatening, merely warning. And Chris knew he'd meant every word.
"I guess I deserved that," he whispered, his own anger dying as quickly as it had flared. "I didn't mean... I mean, I didn't think... Shit," he breathed, bowing his head and burying his face in his hands, "I don't know what the hell I was thinkin'."
Vin started to rise from his chair, but forced himself to stay, and to relax. More than anything he wanted to go to Chris, to comfort him, to hold him, but he didn't dare. He was here to help Chris, not to have his own desires met. What he wanted wasn't important. All that mattered was what Chris needed.
"Ya weren't thinkin'," he said at last, his voice hoarse and unsteady. "It's all right, I understand. Yer hurtin', 'n ya need ta hurt somebody else." He shrugged. "Bin there a time 'r two m'self. Reckon I know what it's like ta wanta punish somebody fer all the pain that's bin dumped on you. 'N seein's I'm the only one here, I guess I bin elected."
"Ya didn't answer my question," Chris said softly.
Vin sighed heavily and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Hell, Chris, I don't even remember what yer fuckin' question was!" he breathed tiredly. "Ya wanta gimme a hint?"
Chris raised his head and dropped his hands to the table. "Why're you doin' this?" he asked again. "Don't tell me what yer ma said, Vin. I ain't askin' why she'd do this. I'm askin' why you are."
Tanner regarded the older man through bleary blue eyes, and could have wept at the sight. This wasn't the fearsome, capable, deadly man he'd come to know better than himself, wasn't the strong, fierce man he'd come to love. This was a Chris Larabee he'd never seen -- broken, hopeless, empty. And utterly, achingly lost.
"'Cause ya need it," he answered softly. "'Cause ya need me." He shrugged. "'R need somebody."
"And you think you can help me?"
Vin sighed again and shook his head slowly, grimacing deeply. "Hell, I don't know," he admitted. "I mean, I ain't got any answers fer ya." His blue eyes, wide and dark and infinitely sad, searched Chris's face intently. "I cain't tell ya why Sarah 'n Adam died 'n why you lived. I cain't tell ya why Blackfox surfaced after three years 'n got yer hopes up, 'r why Cletus Fowler come along 'n dashed 'em. I cain't tell ya why yer still here when all's ya wanta do is lay down 'n die. I don't know, Chris," he said softly, sadly, "mebbe a smarter man could tell ya them things. But ya ain't got a smarter man with ya. All's ya got is me. I don't know what I kin do. I don't know that I kin do anything at all. But I do know... that I wanta try." He stared at Chris, his whole heart in his eyes, in his words. "I meant what I said before. Y'ain't gotta keep holdin' on. Let go if ya want, Chris. I swear ta God, I'll catch ya. I wouldn't letcha fall fer the world."
The words, coming from a man who so seldom used words, who had so little use or liking for them, pierced deep into Chris's broken heart, stripped him of his anger and laid bare his terrible grief. Tears rose to his eyes and slid down his cheeks, and slowly, softly at first, but with gathering force, the sobs broke free, wrenched from the depths of his shattered soul and tearing from him in an unstoppable flood of torment. His whole frame crumpled and he collapsed onto the table, burying his head in his arms and crying brokenly.
And immediately Vin was there, at his back, saying nothing yet laying a strong and oddly protective hand on his shoulder, sharing his grief, but never intruding upon it. Chris cried as he hadn't in three years, cried for the wife and son he'd lost, the life he'd lost, the joy and wonder and peace he'd lost. He grieved for the man he'd been, and mourned for the man he'd become. He held nothing back, but let everything rise through him, emptied his whole self in that torrent of bitter, cleansing tears.
Vin felt his own tears falling, and let them. He ignored his own weariness, ignored the ache in his back, his hunger. He never once lifted his hand from Chris' shoulder, never moved from his position at Larabee's back. He would stand there all damn day and into the night if need be. He'd promised Chris, and nothing short of death would shake him from that promise.
Chris had no idea how long he cried, and didn't care. And, strangely, he was neither ashamed of nor embarrassed at breaking down so completely in front of Vin. With any other man, even Buck, he might have been. But not Vin. For some reason, it seemed so right, so natural, so safe, to give in like this in Tanner's presence, to abandon control and simply surrender to the pain, all the while feeling that steady hand on his shoulder, that steady presence at his back.
And suddenly he understood what the tracker had meant. Vin would let him ride the storm, but he'd never abandon him to it. It was all right for Chris to let go, because Vin never would.
Slowly, slowly, Chris eased an arm from beneath his head and reached up to his shoulder with it. Feeling the hand there, he gripped it, felt strong fingers closing about his, and clung to them for all he was worth.
"It's all right, cowboy, I gotcha," Vin whispered hoarsely, holding tightly to Chris with one hand and running the fingers of his other hand gently through Larabee's hair. "I gotcha, 'n I ain't ever lettin' go."
Chris held to Vin like a lifeline, his sobs finally losing force. Yet still the gentle fingers worked through his hair and, in their caress, Chris felt the first touch of healing brush against his battered soul.
Vin woke slowly, reluctantly, dragged to consciousness by the aroma of coffee filling the shack. He shifted on his bedding and groaned involuntarily as his back protested the move with a sharp twinge of pain.
Sitting at the table, reading the book he'd dug out of his saddlebag, Chris looked up and frowned at the muttered curse. "You all right?"
Vin rubbed his eyes -- eyes which still felt gritty -- and scrubbed a hand over his face, trying to figure out an answer to the question. "I'll letcha know when I'm awake," he rasped.
"When'll that be?"
Vin sighed and closed his eyes. "Mebbe nex' week sometime," he sighed.
Chris chuckled quietly. "Real pleasant in the mornin', ain'tcha?"
Vin decided there was no use in fighting it; Larabee seemed determined to keep him from sleeping. "'N yer a real sonuvabitch, ain'tcha?" he growled, flipping back his blanket and slowly sitting up. But even with his care, his back caught, and another stab of pain went through him. "Jesus!" he hissed.
That brought Chris to his feet and over to Vin in long, quick strides. Kneeling beside the tracker, he placed a hand on one sinewy shoulder and the other to the small of his friend's back. "Where?" he asked simply.
Vin tried to bat the hand away. "'S'nothin'."
"Anything that gets you yelpin' ain't nothin'," Chris countered quietly. "Now, where?"
"What was it you told me?" Larabee asked softly. "`Let go; I won't letcha fall.' Wasn't that it? Works two ways, ya know."
Vin turned his head, and blue eyes connected with green. The familiar jolt went through him, accompanied by the warm tingle at his shoulder and back where Chris's hands rested. "Chris," he whispered, almost pleading.
Chris saw the pain in those eyes, pain that had nothing to do with his back, and wondered just how long it had been there, and why he'd never seen it before. Without thinking, he moved his hand from Vin's shoulder and lifted it to brush the curtain of long hair away from those expressive eyes. "I won't hurtcha, Vin," he breathed in a low, husky voice, his eyes searching the tracker's face. "I'd never hurt ya. You know that, don'tcha?"
"I know ya'd never mean to," Vin rasped, wanting to look away but unable to, a moth caught in a green flame. "But I don't think you know," his voice trembled uncontrollably, "how easy it'd be fer you ta do it."
Chris found himself lightly stroking Vin's temple with a thumb. "Got an idea," he murmured. "Why didn'tcha ever tell me?"
Color flooded Vin's face and he pulled away from that sweet, agonizing touch, his thoughts and feelings tangled in confusion. "Didn't seem somethin'... I c'd jist blurt out," he whispered. "Ain't somethin' ya go around sayin' ta other men."
"Don't say anything, Chris, please!" Vin raised his head and gazed entreatingly into Larabee's eyes, wanting so badly to reach out and touch that strong, beautiful face, but not daring to. "Like I said, I know ya wouldn't hurt me on purpose, but... I don't want ya ta say 'r do somethin' ya don't mean jist ta keep from hurtin' me, either. I'd never want you ta do that."
Chris dropped his hand back to Vin's shoulder, his thumb slowly stroking the warm flesh at the junction of neck and shoulder, just above the neckline of his undershirt. "What makes ya think I wouldn't mean it?" he asked softly, his breath fanning warmly against Tanner's skin.
Vin shivered at that and pulled away with a groan, closing his eyes tightly to block out the vision of the man he wanted above all others. "Chris, please!" he begged, his own will beginning to crack. "You bin through so much... Now ain't the time fer you ta be makin' these decisions!"
Chris dropped his hand and moved back, sitting cross-legged on the floor, confused. And not a little hurt. "Then why'd ya bring me here?" he asked hoarsely, eyes burning in his ashen face. "If you didn't want... didn't mean... Why?"
Vin drew a slow, deep breath, fighting against his want, his need, his love, and exhaled just as slowly. Finally he raised his head and opened his eyes, and turned them slowly back to Larabee. "Because you needed it," he rasped. "Because you were so near breakin', 'n I didn't want ya ta have ta go through it in town, with others lookin' on. Because you need time ta hurt, 'n I know ya wouldn't have that in town."
He ran his tongue slowly over his lower lip, his eyes fixed on Larabee's face. "You bin runnin' from this pain fer three years," he said softly, clenching his hand into a fist to keep from reaching out to the man before him. "You bin hidin' in every bottle, in every whorehouse, in every gunfight you c'd find, tryin' ta drown it 'r fergit it 'r kill it. 'R let it kill you. You done ever'thing but face it. But when Blackfox 'n Fowler come along, ya couldn't hide no more, 'n it hit ya full on. 'N now you got ta deal with it, Chris. You got ta face it, 'n feel it. It's the only way you'll ever git past it. That's why I brung ya here," he said, his voice shaking, but strong. "'N I'll help ya. I'll help ya any way I can. But I won't be jist one more way fer you ta run from it."
Chris's breath left him in a rush, and the color drained from his face. "You don't pull any punches, do ya?"
"Cain't afford to," Vin said quietly. "What I feel fer you is too important ta me. Yer too important ta me. 'N I won't see either one all bent 'n twisted 'cause'a Cletus Fowler. I won't give that bastard that kinda power."
Chris stared long and hard at the man before him, and wondered where he'd come by that kind of strength, and that kind of wisdom. And if Vin could show him how to find them.
"Why don't you get washed up," he said at last, rising to his feet and looking down at Vin. "I'll get us some coffee, scrape up what's left'a them beans for breakfast." He watched Vin struggle painfully to rise, then held out a hand. "C'mon, pard," he invited, quietly. "If you're gonna help me with my pain, least I can do is help you with yours."
Vin considered a moment, staring at the hand. Then, with a slight, crooked smile he reached up, closing his hand about Chris's and letting the man help him to his feet. "Reckon we both got a thing 'r two ta face," he rasped, squeezing Chris's hand once before letting it go.
Facing it, though, was much easier said than done. When images of his wife and son, of their lives, their deaths, surfaced, Chris wanted nothing more than to force them away, to bury them, to drown them in whiskey. But Vin proved as ruthless in this as he had in so many other ways. When he saw the hurt flare in those eyes, when he saw Chris's face twist in pain, he was there, strong, supportive, but insistent, prodding Chris to talk, giving him whiskey but rationing it, pouring only enough to ease the pain, and never enough to drown it.
And that pain was almost crippling. Chris felt as if his heart, his soul, his mind, were being torn to pieces, felt as if one more moment of such agony would be too much. He cursed, screamed, raged and cried, dropped to his knees and huddled miserably, or threw the chairs against walls, finally shattering them both. The grief swept through him in black and brutal torrents and he had no choice but to let it come, had been robbed of any other option by the man who endured every moment of it with him.
More than once, infuriated by that arrogance, he lashed out at Vin, sometimes only verbally, sometimes physically, seeking to punish the man who seemed intent on punishing him. But Vin had been right. He was no Buck Wilmington to accept such punishment stoically, out of either friendship or guilt, but gave every bit as good as he got, making Larabee pay for every punch he landed, until Chris gained a whole new respect for the lean, wiry tracker.
For two days, the storm raged in that small shack with unabated fury as Chris waged a desperate battle against his demons for his soul. For his sanity. At times, he feared he didn't have the strength to go on, to survive, yet each time he faltered Vin was there, and more than once he found himself on the floor, cradled in the tracker's arms, held close and sheltered against a heart whose beating he came to know even better than his own. Vin's callused fingers wiped away his tears with a breathtaking gentleness, while that soft, raspy drawl comforted him with promises of better days to come.
He clung to that voice, let it lead him from pain to peace, and relaxed beneath the soothing touch of those strong but infinitely tender hands. He felt safe with Vin, but soon realized that safety wasn't all he felt. He just wasn't sure if the feeling was new, or if it had always been there, and merely been wrongly labeled as friendship.
And frequently he fell asleep in Tanner's arms, dreaming not of his wife and son's dark hair and eyes, but of shaggy brown curls and eyes as blue as the summer sky.
Near noon of the third day, Vin drew up rein in the yard before the small shack. The worst of Chris's emotional storm seemed to have passed, and he finally felt he could leave the man long enough to check the snares he'd set yesterday morning. He liked beans as well as the next man, but he'd been heartily glad to see they'd have rabbit enough for tonight and tomorrow to break the monotony of their previous diet.
Mebbe tomorrow he could catch some'a them trout he'd seen in that creek...
He shifted in the saddle and slid from Peso's back with a deep groan of pain. Normally, his back would have been better by now, and he'd be back to moving and riding with his usual ease.
But, hell, normally he wouldn't have spent two days wrestlin' with a ragin' grizzly named Chris Larabee...
He reached up for the string of rabbits he'd hung across his saddle, but stopped and gave a hiss of pain as yet another sharp twinge shot down his back, through his hip and down into his right leg. Too tired and in too much pain to move, he simply stood there for long moments, leaning against Peso and praying the big horse didn't take it into his head to get nasty.
Goddamn it, he hated this!
"When ya gonna let me do somethin' about that?"
The low voice behind him, accompanied by the crunch of boots against sand and the jingle of spurs, startled him. Uttering a harsh curse, he whipped around, jabbing a hand toward his mare's leg, then cried out sharply and dropped to his knees as sharp pain knifed through his back.
"Jesus, Vin!" Chris rushed forward and went to his knees at the tracker's side, circling strong arms about him and holding him close, alarmed by the way Vin clung to him. He could feel Tanner shaking, could hear his heavy breathing, and was frightened for him. "Damn it, why'd ya go out if ya hurt like this?" he asked harshly, holding Tanner more closely still. "Why the hell didn't ya say you were in pain?"
"Had ta check m' snares," Vin murmured, trying not to think too much about the feel of Chris's strong arms about him, of that hard body against him. And failing. "Didn't want... varmints... ta git our dinner." Against his will, he slipped an arm about Chris's waist and held tightly to him. "Oh, God!"
Not sure if the groan was one of pleasure or pain, Chris shifted slightly, and was stunned to feel his own body reacting to Vin's nearness. He tried to hold still, tried not to think about what was happening, but closed his eyes and found himself inhaling Vin's scent. Leather, fresh air, the tang of sweat... and soap. Vin must've bathed in the creek while he was out...
A flush of warmth seeped through him at that thought, and a soft groan escaped him. "Jesus, Vin!"
"Mebbe you could jist help me up," Vin suggested in a tight, shaking voice, feeling the hard swelling at Larabee's crotch as clearly as he felt his own. "Let's see what we kin do fer m' back, then we'll talk about the rest later."
"Can you walk?"
Vin chuckled. "Yeah. Ain't gonna like it, but I kin do it." He pulled back slightly and cast a wicked grin up at Larabee. "'Less'n you wanta carry me across the threshold."
"Could always just leave ya here in the dirt," Chris said with a scowl.
Vin's grin widened. "Ya could," he agreed. "'Course, then ya'd have ta skin them rabbits yerself."
Chris' scowl deepened, but the green eyes gleamed when they should have glared. "You're a pain in the ass, Tanner."
Vin raised a wide and innocent blue gaze to him. "Thought we was gonna talk about that later?"
They moved slowly across the shack, and Chris gently lowered Vin onto the edge of the cot. "You get the bed tonight," he said sternly. "Now, get your boots off, strip down to the waist. I'm gonna heat some water."
Vin frowned in alarm, remembering vividly all the things Nathan did that involved heating water. "Now, look here, Larabee, I ain't got nothin' that needs cuttin' out--"
"Relax, tough guy," Chris said with a grin. "I'm just gonna heat some water and soak some cloths for compresses. It'll help them muscles relax, ease some'a that pain." He walked away chuckling and shaking his head. "That's our fearless tracker!"
"Goddamn uppity gunfighter," Vin muttered, tossing his hat aside and untying his bandana. "After all I done ta help him, this is the thanks I git. Yer jist mad 'cause I wouldn't give ya all the whiskey ya wanted!" he called across the shack.
"Quit yer bitchin', Tanner, and get them clothes off," Chris ordered, pouring water from a bucket into a pot and setting it on the stove. "Shoot him, and he don't say a word. Stab him, and he don't say a word. Heat a little water, and he whines worse'n a kid. What'sa matter, pard, afraid I'll bathe ya while I'm at it?"
Vin toed off one of his boots and contemplated throwing it at Larabee. As always, though, the man seemed able to read his mind and warned, "It'd hurt you worse'n it would me, and you know it. Now behave, or I'll shave ya, too."
Chris gave a long, deep sigh and turned slowly around to face the smirking tracker. "You're gonna do it, ain'tcha?" he asked quietly. "You're gonna make me haul off and shoot ya." He sighed again and shook his head. "Some folks just got no sense. And you're still wearin' yer shirt. How'm I supposed ta tend your back through your shirt?"
Vin snickered. "Hell, I reckon you could jist glare a hole right through it."
"OFF!" Chris barked.
Vin threw up a hasty salute. "Yes, sir, Colonel, sir! Whatever ya say, Colonel, sir!" He peeled off his suspenders, then began unlacing his shirt.
Chris exhaled sharply and turned around, then tested the water to make sure it wasn't too hot. And only then did he realize that he was actually joking again, that he'd come far enough through the pain to enjoy bantering with the feisty tracker again.
Maybe now it was time to think about enjoying other things with him, as well...
Vin saw the warm smile spreading across Larabee's face, and felt a sharp pang of uncertainty. He'd loved him for so long, wanted him so much, had seen clear evidence of Chris's desire, as well. But he didn't want to be just one more way for Chris to forget, didn't want it to happen because the man felt obliged to a friend. He wasn't sure how he'd find the strength to refuse, but he knew he couldn't let anything happen unless Chris truly wanted it to, and for all the right reasons.
Chris had suffered enough as it was.
Unaware of Vin's thoughts, Chris lifted the pot from the stove and carried it to the bed, kneeling and setting it down on the floor. He then rummaged through his saddlebag for the bandages Nathan always made sure they carried and dropped them into the water. He looked up just as Vin pulled off his shirt and began unbuttoning his undershirt.
"So tell me about your back," he said quietly, sitting back on his heels.
Vin shrugged and kept his head bowed, trying to concentrate on the buttons rather than the man before him. "Jist hurts sometimes," he said softly. "When I bin in the saddle too long, when I do too much. Reckon I ignored it too long this time."
Chris frowned. "You hurt it somehow?"
Vin shook his head. "Naw. Somethin' I's born with. 'S'jist... messed up, is all." He finally finished with the buttons. "Got some liniment in one'a my bags... Oh, shit, Peso's still saddled!" He started to rise, but two hands clamped firmly against his shoulders and held him down. "Chris--"
"Sit still," Chris ordered. "Get that undershirt down and I'll put the compresses on your back, then go see to Peso. Come on, Vin," he urged gently. "You ain't in no shape for it, and you know it."
Vin subsided with a nod, knowing Larabee was right. Bowing his head again, he slowly peeled down his undershirt. Beneath Chris's gaze, his fingers grew clumsy and a warm flush crept beneath his flesh.
Chris could not look away, was mesmerized by the sight of the body being slowly exposed to him. God, Vin was beautiful! Smooth, fair skin over the curve of muscle and jut of bone, not an ounce of fat on the spare, supple frame... Chris saw the dark nipples, the small thatch of golden brown hair between them, and absently licked his lips.
Vin raised his head then, saw the flame ignite in the green eyes, and recognized Chris's hunger for what it was. Not a means of escape, not an expression of gratitude, but deep, raw and real, and more loving than anything he'd ever known.
"Chris..." he whispered, reaching out to brush feather-light fingers over Larabee's face. "Tell me yer sure," he pleaded, stroking high cheekbone and long, firm jaw. "Tell me this is really what ya want."
Chris nestled his face into that hand, then lifted his eyes to Vin's, feeling them unlock his soul. "Sure as I've ever been about anything," he breathed. "It's what I want, Vin. You're what I want. What I need. Just don't know why I didn't know it before."
Vin smiled warmly, all his fears put to rest. "Then it'll keep, cowboy," he rasped. "Gotta see ta my back, gotta see ta Peso." He winked and ran a finger over Larabee's full lips. "Then we kin see ta you 'n me."
Chris rose and leaned forward, slipping a hand behind Vin's head and pulling him close, then pressing his mouth to the tracker's. "Count on it, cowboy," he breathed, taking Vin's lips slowly, tenderly, but with an undeniable passion. "If ya can't count on nothin' else, you can count on that." He kissed Vin again, then slowly pulled back and rose shakily to his feet. "Now, lay down and let's get these compresses on so I can go wrestle with yer goddamn horse."
Vin woke to the feel of warm, wet compresses at the small of his back, and warm, wet lips at the base of his neck. "Hey, cowboy," he greeted drowsily, opening one eye to a blue slit and smiling sleepily at the man above him. "Musta dozed off."
"I figure you've earned it," Chris breathed, trailing his mouth to Vin's shoulder. "You've spent a lotta time takin' care of me. Now it's time for me ta take care of you."
Vin's smile widened, and his eye closed. "Ain't had too mucha that in my life. Ain't used to it."
"Then get used to it," Chris whispered, showering soft kisses down Vin's spine. "'Cause that's how it's gonna be from now on." Vin started to turn over, but Chris stopped him. "Relax, pard," he murmured, running long fingers through Vin's hair. "I got yer back."
Vin did relax, with a soft sigh, and Chris sat up, his hands resting lightly on the tracker's bare shoulders. He marveled at the feel of the warm, smooth skin beneath his fingers, at how right it felt to be touching this man. Slowly he began to massage Vin, sliding his hands from the shoulders and up the long, slender neck, pressing his thumbs to the base of Vin's skull and rubbing deeply, eliciting a low, contented moan from Vin as he skillfully, carefully, worked the tension from muscles drawn too tight for too long in pain.
"Like that?" he breathed.
"Mm hmm," Vin moaned as those strong, sure fingers traveled slowly down the column of his neck, over his shoulders and down his back, pressing deeply, finding each knot of pain and digging in until it released him and disappeared. "Goddamn, cowboy," he whispered, "yer good at this!"
"Sarah taught me," Chris said without thinking. Then, he tensed and waited for the onslaught of pain that always accompanied any thought of her, and was startled to feel only a small, sharp, but wholly bearable twinge. "I'll be damned," he breathed in amazement, his hands stilling, his eyes widening.
Vin felt the change in him and turned over, gazing up at him and reaching out to lay a hand against Chris's heart. "Better?"
Chris nodded, his wonder-filled eyes resting on the young man lying beside him. "How--"
"That wound in ya festered for three years," he said softly, sadly. "Had a lotta poison in it. Had ta lance it, drain it. Now it kin heal proper-like." He reached for Chris's hand and held tightly to it, cradling it to his own heart. "Ain't sayin' it's ever gonna stop hurtin' completely," he said, his eyes holding Chris's. "But leastways now it ain't poisonin' ya no more. 'N y'ain't carryin' it alone no more. I'm here fer ya, cowboy, I'll always be here fer ya. Remember what I told ya. When ya feel like ya cain't hold on, jist let go. I'll always be right here ta catch ya."
Chris gazed steadily down into Vin's eyes, seeing the warmth and light in them, the life, the love, and felt his soul stirring in response. The soul he'd once thought was as cold and dead as...
"Ashes," he murmured. "I thought it had all turned to ashes. That's where my life always seemed to end. The ashes of my ranch, the ashes of that livery... Everything I'd ever wanted, ever had, had all gone ta ashes. 'Ashes ta ashes, dust ta dust'..." He shook his head slowly, twining his fingers with Vin's and holding tightly to them. "Didn't think I had it in me ta rise from them ashes. But you... Jesus, Vin, what'd you do?"
Vin sat up slowly, ignoring the pain in his back. Still clinging to Chris with one hand, he reached out and laid the other against the gunman's strong face, loving the man with his touch and his eyes. "I couldn't letcha go," he said softly. "Ain't ever gonna letcha go." He ran his fingers slowly over Larabee's features, tracing the high forehead, the long nose, the full mouth with the dip in the lower lip, the slightly cleft chin. "I'll fight heaven 'n hell fer you, Chris, I'll fight death 'n all the Spirits of this world. 'N I'll fight you if I have ta." He smiled slightly, his eyes glowing with a strong inner light. "Yer an eagle, Chris, you know that? I seen it, in dreams. Yer an eagle, 'n ya gotta fly free. But you was snared by all that pain, all that poison. All's I did was cut the snare. Now you kin fly free again, like you was born ta do."
Chris frowned slightly and shook his head. "Don't wanta fly," he said. "Not if it means flyin' away from you--"
"Ssh." Vin laid a forefinger over Larabee's mouth to silence him, and smiled. "Y'ain't ever gonna be without me, Chris, don't you know that? I seen that, too. Even b'fore I met ya." His smile faded, and his eyes took on a faraway look. "It was a powerful dream, Chris," he whispered, "a Spirit dream. I's flyin' alone, like I done near all my life. 'N I's tired, so tired, near droppin' from the sky." He frowned slightly and tilted his head to one side. "Then this shadow come over me. Dark, strong wings was beatin', 'n I could jist glide on the air they stirred up. I's safe in their shadow, 'n I could rest in their strength. Other Spirits come huntin' me, but the eagle screamed 'n bared his claws 'n scared 'em all away."
Chris sat still and listened, transfixed by the sound of that soft, rough voice, those words and the mystical images they created. He could feel the power of those dark wings coursing through him. He was the eagle, and, in his mind's eye, he could see the smaller bird he was sheltering and protecting, a bird fierce and strong in its own right. A hawk... His hawk. Vin.
"Didn't know what it meant," Vin went on in that same soft, hypnotic voice. "Jist knew it meant somethin'. Then one day, I's standin' on a boardwalk, sweepin' 'n watchin' a feller bein' takin' fer lynchin'." He shook his head slowly, his blue eyes wide with remembering. "Didn't rightly know what ta do, jist knew I had ta do somethin'. So I got a rifle, 'n was fixin' on helpin' him. Figgered I'd be alone. Then," he frowned deeply, brows knitting in concentration, "don't rightly know if it was real 'r not, but I heard an eagle scream. I looked up, 'n saw you."
His voice fell to a whispered hush. "All dressed in black, with the power in ya so strong I could see it. Then you looked at me, 'n I knew. I recognized ya. 'N I knew then what my dream meant. Don'tcha see, Chris?" he asked, lifting that deep blue gaze once more to Larabee's clear green one. "Y'ain't ever gonna fly without me. Spirits sent me ta you, 'n you ta me. We're s'posed ta fly together. That's why I had ta set ya free from that snare. If you cain't fly, I cain't. 'N if you die, I die. 'N it ain't our time ta die yet. Right now's our time ta live."
Chris slipped an arm about Tanner and pulled him close, covering the younger man's lips with his own in a slow, deep, searching kiss that revealed as much as it sought. "Then show me, Vin," he whispered into Tanner's mouth. "Show me how ta live."
In the end, they showed each other. With slow, unhurried movements, neither wishing to rush this, neither wanting to waste or miss a moment, they undressed each other and explored each other with a worshipful, hungry thoroughness, mouths and hands exploring, learning, savoring, committing to memory the taste and feel of all they encountered. Bodies pressed together with the urgency of love and longing too long ignored, too long denied, and moans of pain and pleasure broke from throats, from souls, as passion rose in a searing, all-consuming tide.
They feasted on each other like beggars too long gone hungry, gorging themselves on the repast before them. Pleasure spots were found and treated to intense, maddening attention, wet mouths kissed, licked, bit and sucked while hands roamed, stroked, fondled and squeezed, until the two men were writhing together in the mindless agony of full arousal.
And when at last Vin entered Chris, Larabee thought he might die from the pleasure of it. Vin's flesh in him, filling him, and Vin's hand on his hard, hot staff, stroking, pumping, drove Chris to the edge of madness and sent him plunging over the precipice toward the oblivion waiting below.
But, true to his word, though Chris let go, Vin did not. Wrapped securely in the warmth and strength of his lover, of his love, Chris did not fall, but was lifted high and soared aloft, until, with the scream of something wild and free, he burst into an ecstasy, a peace, unlike any he had ever known.
They loved until they could love no more, claiming and being claimed by the other, riding the tide each time it rose and finding an ever more perfect fulfillment, an ever more perfect union, until bodies were exhausted and appetites were sated, until they had no more to give except the knowledge that they were one. And as he held Vin ever closer, and was held close in return, bodies entwined and souls joined, Chris was intensely aware of the fierce beating of his own heart, but felt in it something more, something deep and profound.
And then he understood. As Vin stirred in his arms and murmured his name, Chris felt all that had ever bound him fall away, felt his own strength, his own power, surging through him, and felt in the beating of his heart the beating of wings, lifting him high above the earth, high above the ashes, and he knew.
He was not only an eagle, but also the phoenix. And he had risen again.
And so it ended as the cruel, ironic hand of death encircled the killer in flames as it had done to Chris Larabee's wife and child so many years before. Yet, was it the end? Or would Chris Larabee ride again with the hard, complex men he'd come to know? Gunmen like Buck Wilmington, and Vin Tanner, the bounty hunter with the price on his own head; the gambler Ezra, or the greenhorn JD; Nathan, both healer and destroyer, and Josiah, placing his faith only in God, and his gun.
"The Magnificent Seven"
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