Sins Redeemed

by SueN.

Disclaimer: It's been too trying a day for me to depress myself by repeating unpleasant truths.

Notes: Sequel to Sins of the Past (hey, you don't really think it ended where they showed it, do ya?)

Feedback: Shoot, yeah!

I know you wanted him alive.

Ya did what ya had to. Cain't clear my name if I'm dead.

Chris Larabee sighed heavily and bowed his head, staring into his empty shot glass as his gut clenched tighter still at the remembered words. Or maybe not the words themselves so much the voice that had uttered them. That flat, stoic, unemotional voice.

The voice of a man watching his last, best chance at freedom being loaded onto the back of a wagon, dead. By his best friend's hand.

While that best friend had watched the hopelessness filling wide blue eyes and silently damned himself for putting it there.

Chris swore harshly and grabbed the bottle, splashing more whiskey into his glass.

You got a chance to finish this.

His own words came back to haunt him, and he snatched up the glass and knocked down its contents in one swallow. Finish it. Shit, yeah, you finished it, didn'tcha, Larabee? he berated himself. Killed the one sonuvabitch in all the world who could keep Vin from swingin' at the end of a rope, killed the one man who could clear Vin's name.

Oh, yeah, Larabee, you finished it. But good.

Guilt stabbed knife-like through him, and he dropped the empty glass to the table and buried his face in his hands with a tortured groan.

Oh, shit, Vin, what've I done?

Buck Wilmington stepped through the batwing doors into the saloon and stopped, looking about the dimly lit interior. A gesture from one of the three men seated at the center table caught his eye, and he followed the line of the subtle wave to the black-clad figure slumped in a chair at the corner table. Wilmington sighed, his deep blue eyes somber, his handsome face set along sorrowful, knowing lines. Shaking his head slowly, he made his way to the center table, but did not take a seat.

"He been here long?" he asked softly, his eyes never leaving that dejected figure.

"Ever since we bid our not so fond farewell to that vermin otherwise known as Eli Joe," Ezra Standish drawled quietly, his green eyes and honeyed voice unusually subdued. "He stormed in here lookin' like the wrath of God, snarled for a bottle, and has been immersing himself in it ever since." He raised his gaze to Wilmington, and a flicker of concern shone in his eyes. "And how fares Mr. Tanner?"

Buck sighed again and removed his hat, running long fingers through his thick hair and wincing. "Hell if I know," he breathed. "Soon as that damn wagon rolled outta sight, he went to the livery, saddled Peso and rode hell-bent-for-leather outta town."

"How'd he look?" Nathan Jackson asked worriedly, vividly recalling the stark despair they'd all seen in Vin as Eli Joe's body had slid lifelessly from that roof.

"Shit, how does Vin ever look?" Buck snapped harshly, racked by worry and grief for the two men at the center of this latest tragedy. "Man's got a face like stone sometimes. When he don't wantcha seein' inside him, he just closes up, goes still and silent and gets that 'I-ain't-in-here' look to him." He shook his head slowly and toyed idly with the brim of his hat. "Hell, I don't reckon we'll see him for days. And I can't say as I blame him."

"Brother Vin ain't one for sharin' his pain with others," Josiah Sanchez said in his deep, rich voice, his blue eyes also shadowed by sorrow. "He'll gladly take on anyone else's, help 'em through it as best he can, but he just can't seem ta let others do that for him. I reckon even a man as strong as Vin can't break all the habits formed by a life of solitude."

"Unfortunately, Vin is not the only one staggering under this particular burden," Ezra said quietly, his gaze going again to that figure in the corner. "Chris has taken all the guilt, all the responsibility for this unfortunate situation upon his shoulders, and I am not certain he has sufficient strength to bear the weight. And we all know his aversion to sharing pain is at least as deep as Vin's."

Buck stared at Chris for long moments, then swore softly and reached down for the just-filled shot glass in front of Josiah. "Sorry, preacher," he said, taking the glass and downing its contents, then exhaling sharply as the whiskey burned its path down his throat. "But I need me some fortification."

"Against what?" Sanchez asked.

Buck refilled the glass, and threw back another shot. "Against the wrath of God," he said hoarsely. "Vin's got a hole in his soul the size of Texas, he's hurtin' and likely scared as hell, and he's gone ta ground like some goddamn wounded animal when he needs ta be here where we can keep an eye on him. But there's only one man who can get him here, only one man who can reach him when he's closed up like he has. Now that man's tryin' his level best ta drink himself into a stupor, and I aim ta stop him." Resolve and not a little anger shone in his eyes as he stared at the gunslinger across the room. "Just this once, Chris Larabee's gonna have ta put his own pain and guilt aside and take on someone else's. Vin's lost too much already today. He needs Chris, and I, for one, aim ta see that, just this once, Vin gets what he needs."

Ezra filled his own glass and raised in a salute. "Then may God help you and have mercy on you," he drawled. "We shall endeavor to arrange a suitable funeral for you."

Buck scowled at the gambler but said nothing, merely set the empty glass down in front of Josiah and started toward Larabee's table with a firm stride. As Wilmington left, Josiah filled his glass and began to intone, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..."

Buck climbed the steps to the raised floor on which Larabee's table sat, then pulled out a chair across from the gunslinger and sat down. For long moments he studied his old friend in silence, wishing he had the words to bring comfort to the obviously hurting man. Chris still sat hunched over in his chair, head in his hands, elbows on the table, shoulders slumped. Every line of his body revealed the anguish in his soul, and Buck's heart broke for him.

"I couldn't let Eli Joe kill him," Chris rasped at last, never looking up, but never needing to. He had known the moment Buck entered the saloon, and had known the man would end up here. "I saw that knife come out, saw the bastard goin' for Vin... God help me, Buck, I had ta kill him! But I might as well have killed Vin, too."

Buck winced and shook his head. "Don't say that, pard," he said softly, hurt by the despair in that ragged voice. "He'll survive. Hell, he's survived a lot worse."

Chris lifted his head from his hands and stared at Wilmington. "But doesn't there come a point in his life when he's entitled to more than just 'surviving'?" he asked bitterly. "Goddamn it, Buck, hasn't he earned more?"

To his surprise, Buck realized Chris was not drunk, was not anywhere near drunk, and suspected that was due in large part to Vin's influence. Some part of Chris knew Tanner wouldn't want him to get drunk on his account, and, even in the tracker's absence, Larabee complied with his wishes. Even though Buck knew Chris wanted nothing more right now than to drown his pain in whiskey.

Confronted yet again by such evidence of the peculiar but powerful bond between gunslinger and tracker, Wilmington sat back in his chair and carefully studied the man he once would have sworn he knew better than anyone else ever could. He couldn't truly say he understood Chris and Vin's relationship, couldn't even truly put a name to it. "Friendship" just didn't seem strong enough to cover it, and "brotherhood"... Hell, he'd known lots of brothers in his time, and even they never seemed to have anything like the closeness shared by the two men.

Fact was, sometimes Buck thought Chris hadn't even shared with Sarah the same connection he'd found with Vin.

"Y'know he's gone, don'tcha, pard?" Buck asked quietly, seeing by the sudden widening of the green eyes that Larabee hadn't known. "Rode out as fast as he could after they took Eli Joe's body away, like the hounds'a hell were at his heels."

Chris stared at his old friend, his face drained of color, his stomach tying itself into knots. Vin... gone? "He comin' back?" he asked in a harsh whisper.

Buck crossed his arms against his broad chest. "Don't know. He wasn't in much of a talkin' mood. But I don't figger he needs ta be out there alone just now, upset as he's likely ta be. Prob'ly ain't thinkin' too clear, and a fella who don't think gets careless. He needs somebody lookin' out for him until he gets all this straight in his mind."

Chris exhaled deeply and bowed his head, running a hand through his dishevelled hair. "I can't, Buck," he breathed. "Not after... Not yet."

Buck dropped his arms to the table and leaned forward, staring at Chris as anger rose hotly within him. "Vin as much as said he forgave you out in the street," he said in a low, throbbing voice. "But because you can't forgive yourself, you're gonna leave him out there all alone? Just like ever'body else in his life has left him all alone because they couldn't be bothered to take care of him, either!"

"Goddamn it, Buck!" Chris snarled, shooting to his feet and glaring down at Buck, his face a white mask of rage. "I went after him when Yates and his men had him--"

"Yeah, you're prepared ta help him when you can use your gun ta do it," Buck snapped back, returning the glare without flinching. "You'd face down a whole goddamn posse if you had to, but ya can't bring yourself ta face Vin. Hell, yeah, maybe he will be mad at ya, Chris, but he's got every right ta be! That boy watched his last hope of clearin' his name die!" He exhaled sharply and sat back, shaking his head and scowling. "But, hell, this is Vin we're talkin' about, and we both know he'll find a way to accept this and go on, just like he's accepted every other damn thing that's happened to him in his life. But he's gonna need help ta do that, pard, and we both know whose help he needs most!"

Chris dropped back into his chair, his anger dying amid a vast and violent confusion of other emotions. "I was all set ta take on Yates," he breathed, staring through pained eyes at his friend. "Even when I thought he really was a U.S. Marshall, I was gonna get Vin away from him."

Buck nodded. "I know," he agreed quietly, watching Larabee intently.

"God, that night, when they grabbed him," Chris went on, his voice ragged, his eyes haunted, "I felt... I don't know! Helpless, furious... lost. Like they were takin' part of me... And then, when I saw him in the jail... He was pacin' like a caged animal, Buck. And already feelin' that goddamn noose around his neck... But he didn't want me to do anything. Said of I tried, they'd string me up right alongside him." He grinned weakly. "Don't that beat all? He thinks he's about ta be taken back to Texas and hanged, and the damn fool is worried about me!"

Buck chuckled quietly. "Sounds like Vin. I thought he was gonna have a fit when JD tried to stop Yates. Didn't wanta see any of us gettin' in trouble for helpin' him."

"He don't deserve this," Chris muttered, shaking his head slowly. "He's innocent, Buck. He didn't kill that farmer back in Texas--"

"Y'ain't gotta convince me, pard," Buck said gently, leaning across the table and laying a strong hand on his friend's arm. "Vin's a lotta things, and some of 'em ain't real good, but he's no murderer. He just ain't got that in him."

"But now there's no way to prove it... I just couldn't let that bastard kill him!" he whispered, bowing his head and closing his eyes, remembering the sick terror that had gripped him when he'd seen that knife slashing down toward Vin.

Buck released Chris's arm and sat back, eyeing his friend through anxious but understanding eyes. "You know I ain't the one you should be explainin' this to," he said softly. "I ain't the one who needs ta hear he hasn't lost everything after all."

Larabee's head shot up at that, his eyes wide and fearful. "Buck--"

"Listen to me, Chris," the big man broke in, holding that gaze with his own. "I don't pretend to understand whatever it is that's between you and Vin, but I don't reckon I need to. Like I said, it's between you and Vin. But I do know you need each other. There's somethin' in each of you that's right for the other. I can't say if it's right or it's wrong. Hell, I got enough wrongs of my own ta worry about without tryin' ta sort through anybody else's. But, right now, Vin's out there. He's alone, and he's hurtin', and he's scared. And I reckon he's already spent too much of his life like that. Just like you have. Go find him. Bring him back, or stay out there with him, but go . He needs you. And you can't deny him this when he's lost so much else already."

Chris sat back and slowly relaxed, startled -- hell, stunned -- by his old friend's words. He'd never let himself think on what might happen should any of the others suspect exactly what he and Vin had, hadn't let himself think much beyond anything except the having of it. But Buck, he realized now, knew him too well, had known him too long, not to suspect something.

And now was as good as giving Chris his blessing, was telling him he had no business sitting at this table, nursing this bottle and his guilt, when something so much more important needed his attention...

He smiled slightly at Buck. "When the hell did you get so smart, anyway?"

Buck laughed. "Hell, pard, I've always been smart!" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "It's just that sometimes my brain gets overshadowed by my astonishin' good looks and charm!"

Chris chuckled and rose to his feet, shaking his head. "JD's right, Buck. You are full of crap. Now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta go track down a tracker."

+ + + + + + +

In the end, it didn't require much tracking at all, and Chris sighed and shook his head in worry and frustration. Vin hadn't even made a token effort to hide his tracks, had just ridden straight for his favorite spot as if daring anyone to follow.

Or as if inviting one man in particular to follow...

Nonetheless, he approached the place carefully, not wanting to startle Vin, not wanting to risk getting a Winchester slug between his eyes for his trouble. It just didn't pay to take chances with a man like Vin Tanner, especially when Tanner was as deeply shaken as he had to be. At his best, Vin wasn't much for unexpected company. At his worst...

Chris shook his head tightly. Vin's worst just didn't bear thinking about.

"Chris comin' in," he called out as he crested the rise, certain Tanner already knew that, but seeing no harm in being doubly certain. No invitation met his words, but he hadn't really expected one.

Still, no bullet had met them, either, and that was always to the good.

He rode down the hill, amazed, as always, by the beauty of the place. Amidst the arid expanse of the harsh land, it was like an oasis in the desert, a magically green place sheltered by tall cottonwoods and kept watered by the clear, cool, spring-fed pool at its center. Chris had been surprised when first Vin had brought him here. Normally, the tracker, like the hawk with which he shared so much of his soul, preferred high, wild, lonely places where he could see forever and isolate himself from the world that insisted on trying to tie him down or cage him. Larabee would never have expected the man to feel safe here, where the ground rose on almost every side and the tall trees did all they could to hide the sky from view.

He'd learned, though, that to Vin, this ground was more than safe; it was sacred. Tanner called it his "medicine place," and it was here he came when he needed to find his balance.

When he needed to find healing.

He reached the bottom and looked around, seeing ample signs of Tanner, but no Tanner. Peso had been stripped, rubbed down and tied, and now stood munching contentedly -- or as content as that contrary animal ever got -- on sweet grass, within easy reach of the water. Vin's gear, minus his rifle, lay nearby, and a small, comfortable camp had already been laid. A cookfire burned, and coffee was brewing over it. Two good-sized rabbits had already been skinned and spitted, were waiting just to be roasted.

Chris had to chuckle, wondering if anybody had ever succeeded in surprising the tracker.

"All right, Vin," he called, dismounting and sweeping his gaze over the ground rising about him, "you can come out now. You can see I'm alone, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna climb trees or turn over rocks lookin' for ya."

And though he'd braced himself for it, still the suddenness of it startled him. One moment, he saw nothing but rock-strewn hill in shadow; the next, Tanner was rising silently to his feet, like some damn piece of the earth come to life. It never ceased to amaze him that the man could so completely conceal himself in plain sight, yet he knew it was one of the ways Vin had managed to stay alive so long.

"Damn, I wish you'd stop doin' that!" he said sharply, watching as the younger man descended the hill with his fluid, flowing ease, making no more sound than would a cat crossing a rug.

Buck's right; he does walk on air!

At the base of the hill, Vin shouldered his rifle and started slowly toward Larabee, his slouch hat pulled low over his face, casting it into shadows and concealing his eyes from the older man. He said not a word, and his strong shoulders were bowed, giving visible evidence of the weight he carried on his soul.

Chris watched him, aching for him. It was his bullet that had put that weight there. Vin had every reason, every right, to be furious with him, to come charging across the ground and beat him to a bloody pulp for what he'd done. Such anger, such violence, would have been far easier to take than the deep, desolate silence that surrounded the tracker.

Chris knew he had to be the first to break that silence, or it would never get broken. Any man who depended on Vin to start a conversation was doomed to disappointment.

"You were expectin' me," he said, no question in the words.

Vin shrugged slightly, never raising his head, never meeting Larabee's eyes. "I's beginnin' ta wonder," he drawled at last in his low, raspy voice. "Took ya long enough. Figgered mebbe ya wasn't comin' after all."

Chris winced and bowed his head, fidgeting with his reins. "Wasn't sure you'd wanta see me," he admitted softly.

That brought Vin's head up, and his gaze to Larabee's face. He frowned and tilted his head slightly to one side, level brows drawing down over his eyes, his expression one of utter bewilderment. "Why wouldn't I wanta see ya?"

Chris dropped the reins and lifted his head with a sharp sigh, his gaze meeting Vin's. "After what I did--"

"Saved my life."

"I killed Eli Joe," Chris reminded him pointedly. "Killed the one man who could clear your name."

Vin nodded slightly. "Yeah." His gaze drifted past Chris, his blue eyes settling on something only he could see and darkening. A soft sigh escaped him, and he shrugged. "Don't matter none," he breathed resignedly. "I reckon it wasn't meant ta be."

Fury ripped through Chris at those quiet, unemotional words, and he lunged toward Vin, grabbing the younger man's shoulders and shaking him violently. "Goddamn it, Vin, how can you say that?" he snarled, his green eyes burning. "Don't you know what this means? Don't you understand? The man who framed you is dead , Tanner! The only man who can clear your name of that goddamn murder charge is bein' fitted for a coffin right now!"

"Let go'a me!" Vin spat, tearing himself out of Larabee's iron grasp. All at once, the fear and frustration that had churning within him for days came boiling to the surface and he snapped. With a harsh, wordless cry of fury, he lashed out instinctively and slammed a hard fist into Larabee's jaw, snapping the gunslinger's head back and sending him staggering. Before Chris could fall, though, Vin grabbed his poncho and jerked the bigger man to him, staring at him through blazing eyes. "Goddamn you!" he snarled through clenched teeth, shaking Chris violently. "Jist how fuckin' stupid d'ya think I am? Shit, yeah, I understand what it means!" he shouted hoarsely, shoving Chris away from him. "It means that bastard won!" His voice broke and he dropped to his knees, burying his face in shaking hands.

Chris stumbled backwards and fell, stunned by Vin's violent outburst. Then, shaking his head to clear it and absently rubbing his aching jaw, he pulled himself upright. "Goddamn it, Tanner--" The angry words died on his lips and another shock jolted through him at the sight of the younger man.

Vin's hands still covered his face and his whole body slumped, was shaking as if from hard sobs. Not a sound escaped him, though, and, to Chris, that terrible, agony-laden silence was worse than any sound could be.

"Jesus!" Forgetting his aching jaw, he went at once to Tanner's side and circled strong arms about him, pulling the younger man close against him. "Easy, Vin, easy," he soothed, pushing Tanner's hat back and drawing his head to his shoulder. "It's all right, cowboy," he murmured, resting a cheek against Vin's hair and closing his eyes, rocking back and forth. "It's all right, now. I gotcha, Vin. I'm right here, and I gotcha. You're safe, now. Y'hear me, cowboy? You're safe."

"I dream about it, Chris!" Vin whispered hoarsely, clutching tightly at the strong arms holding him so gently. His lean frame trembled violently, uncontrollably, as the familiar cold, black terror knifed through his soul. "In my dreams, I kin feel it... that rope... tight'nin' around my neck... Lord God, it's so real I wake up not able ta breathe!"

Chris closed his eyes tightly and clutched Vin fiercely to him. "Ain't nobody ever gonna hang you, Vin! I swear it! I won't ever let that happen!"

"Might not... be able ta stop it," Vin breathed miserably, wanting with everything that was in him to believe the gunfighter's words, but too much of a realist to do it. "One day... a real marshall's gonna come fer me... 'N what'll you do then? You cain't go aginst the law. I won't letcha git yerself killed fer me."

Chris pushed Vin away and stared at him, suddenly seeing the tracks of tears in the dusty cheeks. Raising his hands and cradling the pale face tenderly between them, he shook his head slowly, his throat tight, and rasped, "And just what th' hell do you think lettin' you hang would do ta me? How am I supposed ta live with myself if that happens? If I let that happen?" He searched Vin's anguished eyes with his own, his thumbs lightly stroking the tracker's tear-streaked cheeks. "Goddamn it, Vin, don't you have any idea yet what you mean ta me? What losin' you would do ta me?"


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