By SueN

PAIRING: It's … wait for it … C/V! Surprised? No? Darn …

RATING: NC-17 for m/m sex. If that ain't your thing, go 'way, shoo, shoo!

DISCLAIMER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, not mine, all theirs, no money, the usual

NOTES: This is (finally <g>) the June b'day Vinjury! Yay! And I swear, I started this thing before God decided it was time for Noah II: The Sequel. But it's certainly made for some atmospheric writing! <g> So, happiest of birthdays to Kathy (trackergirl) and Lynn (LaraMee). I bring y'all an angsty, battered tracker and his tender lovin' cowboy. I hope y'all enjoy!

THANKS: To KET and RubyJ., my intrepid betas and intrepider <g> friends. Y'all truly are the best, and I thank you both for your help. Lord knows I need all I can get. LOL! And thanks also to Jean and Annie for their, eh, encouragement. ;-)

He sat up on his favorite perch, atop the roof of Watson’s Hardware in the shadows of the second-story overhang, his back against the wall, his knees drawn up against his chest. His hat lay over his rifle at his side and a hot, heavy breeze stirred his long hair and the fringes of his coat. In the eastern sky, the rising sun was shrouded behind thick dark clouds. Hiding.

Just like him.

He bowed his head with a sigh and scrubbed a hand wearily over his face, rubbing with long fingers at gritty eyes. He’d tried to sleep last night but had been driven from his bed by nightmares that wouldn’t stop. Images of Jess Kincaid’s body kept returning to haunt him, along with Eli Joe’s leering face, the sound of Judge Travis’s gavel ringing out like a shot, and above it all the black, looming shadow of the gallows.

It is the judgment of this court that for your crimes you be sentenced to death, to be hanged by the neck until dead.

On the street below, a lever was thrown, the trapdoor fell open with an audible “crack,” and the rope sang as it dropped its load. Vin Tanner’s stomach gave a painful lurch and he was very nearly sick. He swallowed hard against the sharp and sudden rise of nausea, then buried his face in trembling hands with a breathless groan.

Lord God, it got harder every time.

Rationally he knew that gallows down there wasn’t for him. Knew that rope wouldn’t be stretching his neck. Knew it wouldn’t be him the boys would be cutting down and putting in a box after he’d gasped his last and died like that.

Strung up like some mangy dog.

He shuddered hard and clenched his jaws fiercely as the nausea made another assault. Cold sweat broke out over his face despite the sticky heat of the day and fine tremors raced through his body. Jesus, he couldn’t do this! Couldn’t stay here and watch another man hang, all the while feeling the rope closing about his own throat. Couldn’t stay–

Except that he had to, because it was his job. He who had a noose waiting for him back in Texas had to stay and make sure the one here did its job.

Helluva way for a wanted man to make a living. Spirits must be laughin’ their asses off just now.

He exhaled unsteadily and lifted his head with an effort, then ran an unsteady hand through his tangled hair. He could leave; the boys would understand and make some excuse to the judge. Hell, Chris had already given him more chances to cut and run than he could count, starting as soon as Travis had arrived in town. There’d never been any doubt how the trial would turn out. Mort Adams had left a bloody string of dead prostitutes across the territory, had been caught trying to cut up one of the girls here. The only true surprise about the trial had been that he’d survived to have one.

Buck had been the first one to respond to Addie’s screams. Fortunately he’d been followed by Josiah and Nathan, and only their combined strength as they’d wrestled and held the enraged regulator to the ground had kept him from giving Adams a gruesome taste of his own medicine. Chris had wired Travis the next morning that they had Adams, then had quietly detailed men to start gathering what they’d need for a gallows.

The Honorable Orin W. Travis was a hard man but a fair one, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass whether the victim was a whore or a banker’s daughter. Murder was murder, and he’d gladly hang any sonuvabitch guilty of so foul a crime.

Vin absently raised a hand to his neck and fingered the phantom rope there. Would Travis take that same grim pleasure in hanging him?

The trapdoor banged open again below him and the bag of sand at the end of the rope plummeted through. Vin flinched violently, gasped and pushed himself deeper into the shadows, gripped by and sweating with a fear so cold and so real its thick, bitter tang filled his mouth.

He’d never been a coward. He’d known, faced down and sometimes been beaten by more evils than he could name, had been scared, hurt and damn near broken into pieces, but he’d never known anything he couldn’t stand up to. Had never been a coward.

Until he’d run up against Eli Joe and the bastard had thrown the shadow of the nose across his path. Now he woke up choking at night, and even during the day could sometimes feel the scratch of rough hemp against his skin and the weight of the noose around his neck. He dreamed of falling into nothing, dreamed of kicking his last at the end of a rope while a crowd watched and cheered.

And sometimes he dreamed that Chris watched.

Oh, God. Chris.

He bowed his head with a stricken moan and closed his eyes tightly against the hot bite of tears. Jesus, he never should have fallen in love with the man, should never have let Larabee fall in love with him. Chris had already lost too much, had lost more than any man should. He deserved more than the mocking promise of a life with a man who had no such promise, no such life, to give. Deserved more than having to see his lover jerk and twitch at the end of a rope, deserved more than having to watch his lover buried in a murderer’s grave.

He’d sworn to himself that if it ever came to that, he’d somehow make Chris promise not to watch, told himself that dying like that alone was better than allowing it to be his lover’s last memory of him. He told himself that every time he woke up choking.

Maybe one day he’d believe it.

The trapdoor banged, the rope sang and the workmen below congratulated each other on a job well done. Vin swallowed hard and licked dry lips with an even drier tongue. And was intensely grateful he hadn’t eaten since sometime yesterday, else it would all be spilling out over Virgil Watson’s roof right now.

He couldn’t do this.

He had to do this.

But God and the Spirits alone knew how he’d manage without coming apart at the seams.

Chris leaned against a post on the porch outside the jail and chewed at the end of an unlit cheroot, his narrowed gaze fixed on the roof of Watson’s Hardware across the street. He could just make out Vin’s figure in the deep shadows beneath the overhang, though he figured it was more his heart doing the seeing than his eyes. Tanner could make himself damn near invisible when he tried, was a master at hiding in plain sight. Only he’d never quite mastered the art of hiding from Chris, couldn’t hide his heart or his soul. Especially not when both were torn open and leaving a blood trail that a blind man could follow.

And Larabee was never blind it came to Vin Tanner.

He’d seen Vin jump like he’d been shot when Travis’s gavel had cracked against his makeshift bench in the Grain Exchange three days ago, had watched the color leach from the tracker’s face when the stern old man had pronounced sentence on Adams in that steely, pitiless voice. And when the gallows had started to go up in the middle of the street, he’d held Vin’s hair and rubbed his back as the usually proud and fearless man had puked up his guts in an alley.

But the worst had been last night, when he’d gone to Vin’s wagon after his shift at the jail and found it empty, the bedding inside all but torn apart. Realizing that the nightmares were on him again, he’d gone in search of Tanner, almost wishing he’d find him hurt so he could justify having Nathan pour laudanum down his throat and drug him into sleep until this whole thing had passed. Instead, after making a circuit of side and back streets, he’d come out on the main one and stopped short, his gut twisting painfully when he’d found Vin in the one place he’d never expected to. He had been standing in the middle of the street, in the shadow of the gallows, and staring fixedly up at that goddamned rope, his face as white as death in the moonlight. And in the shadow cast by the moon against the street, that noose had been right above Vin’s head.

Chris had damn near puked up his own guts then.

He tried never to think about Vin hanging, didn’t want to admit even to himself the mere possibility, but sometimes he just couldn’t help it. Ever since Eli Joe had turned up and tried to kill Vin it had haunted him – the very real sight of Tanner with that rope around his neck, and the very real possibility of his lover dying at the end of another rope back in Texas. He knew that if it ever came to that, Vin would try to make him promise not to watch, but that was a promise he’d never make. No way in hell would he let Tanner die like that alone, no matter what the sight did to him.

Besides, if it ever really did come to that, if anyone ever did get Vin onto the gallows, then it would likely mean he was already dead, having failed to free him, or would hang right next to him for killing whoever he had to in the attempt. That was a promise he’d have no problem making.

In the street, the trapdoor banged open and the bag of sand plummeted through, jerking to a stop as it hit the end of the rope, and Chris bit through his cigar as his stomach gave a hard lurch. Instinctively he looked again to the roof of Watson’s Hardware, almost able to feel the agony pouring from the man hidden in the shadows up there.

Each hanging got a little bit harder on Vin, took a little more out of him, almost as if he feared that each one he witnessed brought him one rope closer to his own. Chris didn’t know how he could take it, didn’t know why he tried. Hell, he wanted Vin to leave, had already done everything except cold cock him, throw his unconscious body across the saddle and lead him out of town himself. But, goddamn his stubborn Texas hide, Tanner was determined to stay. Said it was his job.

Chris pulled the shredded cigar from his mouth, spat out bits of tobacco and looked back up at the roof of the hardware store. He couldn’t see Vin at all now, not with his eyes or his heart, and hoped the tracker had left even though he knew he hadn’t.

Hell, no job was worth Vin’s soul.

Vin couldn’t help wondering if the Spirits were sympathizing with him or laughing at him. By the time the jail door opened and Chris led Mort Adams out, accompanied by Judge Travis and with Buck, Josiah and JD at the condemned man’s sides and back, dawn’s hot and heavy breath of a breeze had quickened into a gusting wind that carried the taste, scent and feel of a storm upon it. The sun was up there, somewhere, but was obscured by angry clouds swollen and dark with the rain they’d been needing for weeks.

Figured the Spirits would send it today.

A low rumble of thunder sounded and he glanced up at the sky, gauging the progress of the coming storm. Likely wouldn’t hit for a couple of hours yet, plenty of time for them to get Adams hanged and himself the hell out of town.

Not that any force on earth or of nature could keep him in town once this was done.

He looked back down to the street, saw the small procession start down the steps of the porch and took up his rifle, following their path with the barrel. Adams was a twisted bastard and would be dangerous until he drew his last breath.

Until that rope choked that breath right out of him.

He forced that thought aside, or tried to, sought to reach that cold, dispassionate place in himself where nothing mattered, where nothing existed, save the target in his sights. Slowed his breathing and his heartbeat, laid his finger lightly against the trigger and let the rest of the world fall away except for the place he’d put his bullet if it came to that.

Or tried to.

But as they reached the gallows and mounted the stairs, the wind kicked up again and the damn rope began to swing into the corner of his vision. Distracting him. Mocking him. Reminding him.

Yeah, goddamned Spirits were laughin’ at him but good.

He licked dry lips and tried to swallow, then felt his trigger finger tensing. Hell, felt the tension building through his whole body like the storm building in the sky. He figured they’d both break at about the same time. He swallowed again, relaxed his finger, and felt his stomach cramp as the hanging party reached the platform.

“Hanging party.” Yeah, that was exactly what it was, judging from the crowd gathered to watch. Whole families, young men with their sweethearts. A regular fiesta. Folks starting off their day by watching him hang–

No. Watching Mort Adams hang. This hoe-down was for Adams, not for him. He was safe.

Except that he hadn’t been safe since he’d taken in Jess Kincaid’s body and would likely never be safe again.

Not until a rope choked the last breath right out of him.

Oh, shit, he couldn’t do this.

His finger was too tight on the trigger again and he had to pull his hand away completely to keep from shooting. Thunder rumbled again and Josiah opened the Bible he’d carried in his right hand, opposite the gun in his left. He began to read but Vin couldn’t hear, the words snatched from his hearing by a sudden whip of wind. He was sweating again and shaking all over, and before he knew it, he was scuttling back across the roof, desperate to get down, to get away, desperate just not to throw up. Josiah was praying, the wind was gusting and that rope was dancing, and, Jesus, sweet Jesus, Mort Adams was looking up at him.

And smiling.

He barely made it down before he did throw up, careful to thrust his rifle out of the way and hoping to hell the boys wouldn’t need a sharpshooter today. Because they just didn’t have one.

When the bout of retching had passed, he pushed himself to his feet and stumbled on shaky legs down the back alley, his heartbeat throbbing between his temples. Knowing he’d have to cross the main street to get to the livery, he turned into another alley and gave an almost hysterical laugh when he found himself beside the undertaker’s.

Spirits were havin’ themselves a helluva time today!

He gathered what remained of his strength and ran into the street, little caring if anyone saw him, doubting that anyone would. Not with a good hangin’ to watch.

As he reached the livery and wrenched open the door, a sharp crack sounded from the gallows and a loud, ugly cheer rose from the crowd. His knees buckled and he dropped into the dirt, choking and clawing frantically at his throat as the noose pulled tight around it.

Chris stared down at the body swaying slowly beneath him. Jed Turner had done the job right this time, his knot snapping Adams’s neck. The man had died instantly, much too kind an end for him but the only one Larabee’s nerves could have tolerated just now. He glanced at the judge, the man’s stern face showing a grim satisfaction, then turned and nodded for Buck and Josiah to take Adams down. At his side, JD stood absolutely still, wide-eyed and a little green around the gills but outwardly composed. The kid was learning.

Before his first hanging, he’d been as excited as he was about his first everything else, peppering them all with questions until Buck had fondly threatened to gag him. After that hanging, though, JD hadn’t said a word, had been too busy spilling his guts behind the jail. His excitement had disappeared pretty quickly after that; the sickness had hung around a lot longer. Now, though, he could stay through to the end, even fill out the sheriff’s log book with only a marginally shaky hand. If he got sick, no one but himself and maybe Buck knew about it. Yeah, the kid was learning.

And wasn’t it a helluva lesson?

He stared down through the open doorway as Buck and Josiah removed the noose and laid Adams down, then watched Nathan kneel beside him. After long moments, the healer looked up and nodded, as much of a pronouncement of death as Jackson ever gave, and Chris waved the undertaker and his wagon forward. He knew he should probably watch as his men loaded Adams into the waiting coffin, but he couldn’t do it. He bowed his head and ran a hand over his eyes, only half listening as Ezra ordered the remaining gawkers away and suddenly feeling tired to the center of his bones.

Thunder rolled and the first shock of lightning flashed, and he lifted his head with an effort. The sky was turning ugly, clouds growing black and their edges starting to boil, turning the threat of a storm into an angry promise. The wind, too, was changing, taking on a sharp edge that scraped almost painfully against his skin. Bad day was only getting worse. Then a flash of movement down the street caught his attention and he shifted his gaze, taking a quick step forward and loosing a harsh, stricken breath. A big black horse burst out of the livery and tore out of town, his rider leaning low in the saddle and riding as if all the devils of hell were on his heels.

Chris lurched to the edge of the platform and clutched at the railing, his heart and stomach colliding as Vin raced wildly away from the shadow of the gallows and shot like an arrow straight into the teeth of the coming storm.

Vin lay over Peso’s neck and ran the big horse flat-out, oblivious to everything save his driving need to put as much distance between himself and the town as he could. He was riding now as he had when he’d left Texas, wildly, blindly, having absolutely no idea where he was going, knowing only that he had to get away. Running from that goddamned rope.

Maybe all this time he’d only been riding in one big circle.

The ground beneath and beside him sped past in a formless blur as Peso’s long legs chewed up the distance. Trusting now to the range-wise animal’s instincts far more than to his own, Vin simply gave the gelding his head and let him go where he would. And Peso, born in wild country and still more than half wild himself, responded to this unusual freedom with all the spirit and strength that was in him, hurling himself into the wind and over the land as if to prove his mastery over both.

But it was the feel of that wind that finally got Vin’s attention, that finally drew him to some semblance of reason and forced him to lift his head. Warm, too warm, dense with heat and rain and charged with a current that pricked his skin and raised the hair at the back of his neck, it whipped around and beat against him like an unseen fist, bringing tears to his eyes and then snatching the moisture away. The metallic scent and taste of it filled his nostrils and dried out his mouth, striking a note of warning deep within him. He straightened in the saddle and hauled back on the reins, pulling Peso to a sliding stop, and looked up at the sky.

Oh, Lord, he’d been wrong.

The storm he’d thought might yet be a couple of hours away was driving toward him, was almost upon him even now. Huge black thunderheads filled the sky and rushed toward him like a charging herd of buffalo, blind, massive, savage. And deadly. Thunder rolled in a near constant barrage, the low peals of earlier now replaced by hard, sharp cracks, and lightning danced from clouds to earth in dazzling blue-white streaks. He could see the edge of the rain now, could almost feel the force with which it would hit him.

And he’d ridden straight into it.

He cursed himself for his stupidity, for letting his fear of what might be blind him to what was, for ignoring every lesson and instinct that had kept him alive so long. Then stopped cursing, recognizing it as useless, and tried to figure out what the hell to do now. He couldn’t go back to town; he didn’t have time. Couldn’t stay out here; the land didn’t offer any shelter. He’d let himself get caught out in the open with no place to hide, had raced like a madman away from the surest refuge he could find–

Refuge.

He sucked in a sharp breath as his mind seized upon that word. Refuge. Since leaving Texas – hell, since he could remember – he’d only found one true source of refuge, and it called to him now like siren song.

Chris.

He stared up at the sky and narrowed his eyes as he considered his chances. Couldn’t ride into the storm, that would be idiocy. Couldn’t ride away from it, he’d never make it. But maybe, just maybe he could cut across it …

With a harsh Comanche curse, he jerked Peso’s head around and spurred the gelding hard, again laying flat out over his neck and throwing up a desperate plea to whatever Spirits cared enough to listen. He’d never make it back to Chris.

But he could sure as hell try to make Chris’s cabin.

“Goddamn it, Buck, he’s out there!” Chris shouted, flinging out an arm toward the jail door. “That storm’ll be on him long before it hits us–”

“Yeah, and if there’s anybody who knows how to find cover from somethin’ like that, it’s Vin!” Buck insisted, determined to keep Larabee from compounding Tanner’s recklessness with his own. “You know as well as I do there ain’t nobody better able t’ take care of himself than that boy!”

Chris exhaled sharply and whirled away from the big man, jaws and hands clenched tightly. Ordinarily he’d agree, but just now he knew “that boy” wasn’t thinking clearly – hell, wasn’t thinking at all – and was probably less capable of taking care of himself than Billy Travis.

“You didn’t see him when he left,” he finally ground out, his whole body tight.

Buck sighed and moved to stand behind Chris, setting a big hand on his shoulder. “Yeah, pard, I did,” he countered softly, sadly, remembering the sight of that wildly fleeing figure all too well. “Hell, I been seein’ him fer three days now, and I been hurtin’ right along with him. We all have. But,” his hand tightened on Larabee’s shoulder and his voice hardened, “I don’t think that lettin’ you go out inta that mess would be doin’ him any favors.” He forcibly turned Chris to face him and stared into glittering green eyes. “You gettin’ hurt or killed in that storm ain’t what he needs.”

“I’ll be all right,” Chris said harshly. “Hell, you said yourself that Vin–”

“But you ain’t Vin, are ya?” Buck pressed, relenting in neither his gaze nor grip. He was fully prepared to throw Chris into a cell and lock him up if that was what it took to keep him here. To keep him safe.

Larabee sometimes had a problem gettin’ his head and his heart to work together.

“He’s out there!” Chris snarled again, fear for Vin clawing through his belly. “And he’s not thinkin’ straight–”

“Neither are you, an’ two stupid acts don’t make a smart one,” Buck retorted. “And if I was ta let you go out there, then Vin’d have my hide when he is thinkin’ straight again! Now, I don’t know about you, ol’ son,” he released Chris and lifted two brows, “but bein’ on Vin’s bad side ain’t my idea of a real good time!”

Chris stared at Buck for long moments and searched his own mind for some argument that would work, then exhaled deeply and bowed his head in defeat when he came up with nothing. Buck was right, he knew that. Hated it, but had to accept it. Even if he’d known where Vin had gone, racing out after him into that storm would be stupid.

Christ, he hated this.

“I know it’s hard,” Buck said gently, returning his hand to Larabee’s shoulder and gripping it comfortingly. His dark blue eyes searched the man’s face intently, seeing clearly every line of pain and fear – and love – etched so deeply into it. “I know what he means to ya.” Chris’s head shot up at that, the green eyes widened in shock and his mouth fell open, but Buck only smiled warmly. “I’ve known ya a long time, stud,” he said. “You might be a cipher t’ ever’body else in these parts, but not ta me. Don’t forget, I used t’ watch the way you looked at Sarah.” He nodded slowly. “An’ I’ve seen ya look at Vin the very same way.”

Chris went very still at that, a ripple of alarm running through him. “I thought … I thought we hid it pretty good,” he whispered anxiously.

But Buck only laughed and slapped Chris’s other arm. “Oh, hell, pard, I’ve seen granite give away more’n you an’ Vin! A man could drive himself crazy tryin’ ta figure out what’s goin’ on in y’all’s minds!” He winked and grinned. “Ezra tortures himself like that on a regular basis. But,” his grin softened to a fond smile, “I ain’t Ezra, an’ I’ve known you too long not to’ve picked up a few tricks now an’ then.”

“Do the others know?” Chris asked softly, worriedly. He’d seen men run out of town – and worse – for this before, knew so-called “Christian” folks just wouldn’t tolerate two men loving each other. And while he figured he and Vin could protect themselves, he had no wish to see their friends suffer as a result of their “sin.”

Buck considered the question a moment, then shrugged and dropped his hand from Larabee’s shoulder, figuring he might as well be honest. He’d never lied to Chris before, couldn’t see starting now. “I can’t say fer sure, but I just can’t see this bunch missin’ somethin’ like that. Josiah knows Vin almost as well as you do, Ezra ain’t ever been a man t’ miss nothin’, an’ Nathan–” He chuckled softly and shook his head. “Hell, he’s seen each of y’all in the clinic when th’ other’s been hurt enough times ta put the clues t’gether.” He winked. “Gotta say, pard, ain’t nobody strokes Vin’s hair when he’s sick or hurtin’ quite like you.”

Chris stiffened, startled, then had to chuckle quietly, absently rubbing the fingers of his right hand together as he remembered the feel of Vin’s hair against them. Thick, soft but slightly coarse, like textured silk, and almost always carrying the warmth of the sun in its strands. He could spend the rest of his life with his hands in Vin’s hair and never tire of the feel of it against his skin.

“Y’ see, pard,” Buck breathed, noting the softening of Larabee’s features and the light that gleamed in his eyes, “you just ain’t always the cold, hard bastard you like t’ think y’ are. An’ Vin’s a big part of the reason. Maybe the biggest part. Just like you’re the biggest part of the reason he don’t hold himself apart from people no more, don’t hug the shadows like some damn ghost. He ain’t hidin’ no more, ain’t runnin’ no more, an’ I reckon he stopped doin’ both the minute he looked into yer eyes.”

Chris looked up at Buck, no longer trying, no longer even able, to hide what he felt for the tracker. Right now, every bit of his love and his fear and his pain for the man shone in his eyes with a raw and aching clarity. “He needs me,” he rasped.

Buck swallowed hard and nodded slowly, his heart torn by the anguish he saw in his oldest friend, by the torment he’d seen building in Vin. “I know he does, pard,” he murmured, his voice thick with emotion. “Needs ya like he’s probably never needed anybody in his life. Needs ya like you need him.” He winced deeply and shook his head. “I know what’s happenin’ to him. Ever’ time we hang somebody, it’s like he feels that rope back in Texas comin’ closer t’ him.”

“He dreams about it, you know,” Chris sighed, turning away from Buck and running a hand through his hair. “Wakes up fightin’ it. Chokin’ on it.” He paced slowly around the small office. “We need to do somethin’ about it, clear his name, but every time we try, somethin’ happens to stop us.” He stopped suddenly, his whole body drawing up in pain. “And I killed the one man who could prove his innocence–”

“Killed him t’ save Vin’s life,” Buck reminded him firmly. “That bastard had a knife and was gonna stick it in Vin. It was Eli Joe or Vin, and you made the only choice you could. The same choice any of the rest of us would’ve made. The same one,” he added pointedly, “that Vin would’ve made if he’d been in your shoes.”

“He doesn’t deserve this,” Chris said, resuming his pacing.

“No, he doesn’t,” Buck agreed easily. “But you know as well as I do that what a man deserves an’ what a man gets ain’t usually the same thing. But I’ll tell you this.” He crossed the office to Chris and again reached for his shoulder, again turned the man to face him, again stared intently into his eyes. “Whatever else has happened in that boy’s life an’ however bad it’s been, he’s got somethin’ now that he ain’t ever had before.” He set his other hand on Larabee’s shoulder and gripped both tightly, his gaze boring into the gunman’s. “He’s got you, pard, an’ I’m here ta tell ya, a man just can’t ask fer more than that.”

Chris stared up into Buck’s eyes, saw the conviction blazing in them, and again wondered just how in the hell he’d ever been lucky enough to win this man’s friendship. Long before Sarah and Vin, Buck had been such a constant and important part of his life and even now, despite everything else in that life that had changed, continued to hold a place in his heart that no one else could match. He’d learned what true, steadfast friendship was from Buck and knew no one could ever have a better teacher.

“Yeah, well,” he breathed, a faint smile curving about his mouth as he lifted a hand to grip Buck’s strong arm, “just so you know, the same goes for you.”

Buck stiffened at the unexpected words, startled by them, then smiled as warmth spread through him. But even as wetness glistened in his eyes, his familiar rakish smile spread over his face and one eye dropped in a roguish wink. “Well, hell, stud,” he drawled, “I coulda told ya that!”

And as thunder cracked, lightning flashed and the first hard drops of rain fell outside, Chris Larabee laughed aloud as he hadn’t in three days.

Vin hunkered down in the saddle and tried to shield himself somehow from the wind and rain, but it was no use. Both pelted and whipped him with a cutting, bruising force, the rain stinging his eyes and forcing him to close them more than he would’ve liked, the gusting wind threatening to knock him from the saddle. Water pooled in and poured from the brim of his hat and found its way between and through the layers of his clothes, soaking him to the bone. The reins had grown slick in his grasp and he’d donned the gloves he always carried with him to help improve his grip, but now they were sodden and practically useless.

Trying to cut across the storm had proved futile. The wind had backed and the front had shifted directions, and now he was caught in its heart, its force and fury raging all around him. The rain had long ago ceased falling in drops and now came in sheets, pummeling all in its path. Now and then he could hear the shrieking of the wind, but mostly what he heard was thunder, booming from every direction like cannonades from opposing armies with him caught between them. Worst of all though was the lightning, streaking across the sky and down to the earth in wild and wicked forks, so constant that he could smell its charge in the air. Even he, who’d grown up in the land of tornadoes, deadly thunderstorms and blue northers, was unnerved.

And Peso was terrified.

The gelding was now fighting the reins with a frantic strength, rearing and plunging, twisting first in one direction and then the other, seeking to tear free of his rider’s control and get the hell out of there. White eyes rolled as his big head tossed and wicked teeth snapped at everything and nothing. Powerful muscles bunched and propelled him into leaps, bucks and kicks, and high, panicked screams and bawls tore from him to vie with the sounds of the storm.

Vin fought desperately first to control his horse and then just to stay atop him, grabbing onto the saddle horn and jamming his feet into the stirrups, clinging to the stricken animal for all he was worth. He called upon long years of experience and every trick he’d learned from his Comanche teachers, yet still he could feel himself losing the battle. Already tired from a sleepless night and worn down by the emotional ordeal of the past three days when he’d started, he was now exhausted, his strength wrung from him by his twin battles against the forces of nature that were this storm and Peso. His hands and arms were shaking, almost rubbery, and his thighs burned and ached from the struggle to hold himself in the wet, slick saddle. His head throbbed from the pressure of the storm, his tongue hurt and bled from all the times he’d bitten it, and he felt as if knives were lodged in his shoulders and back. The storm alone, he could’ve managed; Peso alone, he might have been able to handle. But both together were impossible, and while he continued to fight with every last ounce of his waning strength and grim determination, he knew he would lose.

And lose he did, though much sooner than he’d expected.

With another shrill scream, Peso managed to gain his head, take the bit between his teeth and wrench out of Vin’s control, then wheeled and tried to race out of the storm. Except that the storm was everywhere, seemed to twist and writhe around them like a serpent’s coils, coming at them from every direction. Vin cursed his horse, shouted at him, even pleaded with him, but Peso ignored him as only Peso could, too scared now to heed even his own instincts.

Except the one that bade him to run.

And with a burst of panic of his own, Vin suddenly saw where his horse was running. Through the heavy gray curtain of rain the rise loomed like a shadow, a high upward buckle in the land, strewn with rocks and studded by a stand of twisted junipers. He knew that rise, had stopped there for shade many a time, but its sight now filled him with horror. The rocks, he knew, were iron ore, and if the trees didn’t attract the lightning, they would. Raw terror shot through him, first turning his muscles and limbs to water, then sending an infusion of desperate strength through them. With a harsh, wordless cry, he wound the reins about his gloved hands and hauled back hard upon them, throwing his whole weight into stopping his fear-maddened horse.

Yet even as he did, an awful crack of thunder rang out, seeming to shake the earth itself, and a spear of lightning hit one of the older, dying junipers, blowing its dry and rotting trunk apart with a fearful explosion. The flash and fury and the smell of fire proved too much for Peso’s shattered nerves, and just as Vin pulled against the reins with everything he had, the gelding screamed and reared. Suddenly and badly off balance and utterly terrified, Peso lost his footing in the rain and mud and toppled sideways toward the ground.

Vin’s heart hurtled into his throat the moment he felt the big gelding’s balance desert him. Knowing nothing could be done to stop Peso’s fall, he ripped his hands out of the reins and jerked his feet free of the stirrups, his only thought now to somehow keep himself from being crushed beneath his horse. Not even certain in which direction Peso was falling, he threw himself out of the saddle, only barely dodging a flailing hoof as he separated himself from his horse. His own balance gone, he hit the ground with a brutal force, unable to control his fall. His whole world exploded into pain, fire, thunder and screams–

Then went mercifully black.

Chris stood on the porch of the saloon, a glass of whiskey in his hand and the bottle on the chair nearby, and stared out into the street. The brutal onslaught of rain had finally slackened to a slow and gentle fall, and the wind had lessened as well. But the damage had already been done. A few out-buildings had been flattened, signs had been ripped loose from others, debris had been flung wildly about, and here and there a window shattered. And in a strangely fitting act of either mercy, justice or vengeance – or perhaps all three – the gallows had been toppled and torn apart. The street had been reduced to a river of mud and water stood everywhere, even inside buildings. But at least those buildings had offered protection, safety, to those gathered within their walls, while outside there was nothing.

Except Vin.

His heart clenched painfully and he raised the glass to his lips, downing his whiskey in one swallow as if to ease that pain. But it didn’t work, hadn’t worked in all the hours he’d been trying. Not that he’d been able to try all that hard. Buck and the others had kept a close watch on him, all but forcing food down him and doggedly moderating the speed of his drinking, refusing to let him drown his worry in whiskey. They’d also spiked their conversation heavily, and sometimes clumsily, with remembrances of various times Vin had saved one or another of them from just such a storm by finding shelter where none seemed to exist.

“Man’s got more hidey-holes than a colony of prairie dogs,” Buck had said with a laugh, and the others had all agreed.

Normally Chris would have agreed, too. Hell, he’d seen Vin out on the land, knew the tracker was as much at home out there as any wild creature. Whether it came from his time spent among the tribes or was simply something born in him, Tanner knew the land as an intimate part of himself, felt its life and its rhythms in his blood and his bone, could never truly be separate from it. Normally Chris could remind himself of this and take comfort from it.

But normally Vin wouldn’t be so torn up inside that he’d hurl himself straight into the teeth of such a storm.

The memory of Vin’s frantic ride out of town haunted him, refused to leave him, and, when the storm had finally begun to lose force, had driven him out here onto the porch. He swore he wasn’t waiting for Vin’s return, knew Tanner didn’t have it in him to come back until he was certain that damned gallows was gone. And he didn’t think he was waiting until the weather had cleared enough for him to go after Vin. He had no way of knowing where Vin had gone, and whatever trail the man might have left would surely be washed out by now. He had no idea what he was waiting for, just knew that he was waiting.

And hating every minute of it.

He heaved a sigh and turned heavily toward the chair where the bottle sat, but didn’t reach for it. Knew it wouldn’t serve any purpose. He could empty this bottle then go inside and get another, could drink all damned day and all damned night, and it wouldn’t solve one goddamned problem. Might in fact just cause more, especially if Vin should come back and need him and he was too stinking drunk to know.

But, Jesus–

“It’s awful temptin’, ain’t it?” Buck asked from the doorway of the saloon, unconsciously completing his thought. “That bottle promises all kinds ’a things, an’ all of ’em exactly what you think you need right now.”

Chris turned away from the bottle, away from Buck, and stared out at nothing. “Not all of ’em,” he breathed. “There’s one thing no bottle can give, and it’s what I need most.”

Buck sighed and walked out onto the porch to stand beside Larabee, then lifted his gaze to the sky. “Clouds are thinnin’ out,” he mused, setting his hands on his hips. “Rain should be stoppin’ soon.” He threw a side glance at Chris. “Could be somebody might need ta ride out, check on folks out there.”

Chris’s lips twitched in a sad but grateful smile. He knew exactly which “folks” out there Buck meant, which “somebody” might need to ride out. “Sounds like a good idea,” he breathed. “Except for one thing. I don’t have the slightest idea where to look.”

Buck winced and bowed his head. “There is that.” He let his gaze drift past the edge of town to the vast open country beyond. “He could’ve gone to ground anywhere.”

“That’s what I’m hopin’,” Chris murmured. He forced a wan smile. “Maybe he found one of those ‘hidey-holes’ you were talkin’ about.” Another worry suddenly seized upon him. “Just hope he doesn’t find somethin’ in it meaner than he is.”

Buck looked at Chris and gave an equally strained grin. “Only way that’s possible is if he drags that snappin’ turtle of a horse in there with him.”

Chris had to chuckle at the thought of the contrary tracker and his even more contrary horse sharing close quarters for the duration of the storm. “Hell, I’d almost pay ta see that fight,” he quipped. He chuckled again and shook his head, then turned and started back toward the saloon doors. “Maybe we should get Ezra ta start takin’ bets on which one comes out with more bite marks on him.”

Buck laughed and started to join Chris, but was distracted by a shadow at the edge of town. Curious, he turned and looked more fully, then stiffened and sucked in a breath, his laughter dying as the shadow took on a recognizable form. “Oh, shit, Chris!” he called sharply.

Buck’s tone grabbed Chris and spun him around in the doorway, sent his gaze immediately down the street. The sight that greeted him almost stopped his heart, then propelled him forward at a run, his stomach nearly choking him as it shot into his throat.

Peso was back.

And Vin was nowhere to be seen.

He woke gradually, roused by the gentle but constant tapping of water against his face and the dim notion that he hurt. Everywhere. He licked his lips and tried to piece together why. A heavy weight lay over the whole length of his body, and it took long moments for him to recognize that weight as his clothing, soaked all the way through. With that recognition came the memory of the storm, and of what had sent him racing so blindly into it.

The hanging.

The gallows rose again in his mind’s eye and he flinched violently from it, gasping sharply as that movement ripped away the comforting illusion of distance between himself and his pain. In a heartbeat it came to full life, throbbing fiercely through every part of him. He swallowed hard against a sudden rush of nausea and held himself very still, trying to ride out the sickening waves.

Jesus.

After what seemed an eternity, the pain throughout his body slowly began to recede to a more tolerable level, but that in his head retained its intensity. He vaguely recalled throwing himself from Peso’s back, just couldn’t remember whether he’d caught a glancing blow from one of the horse’s hooves as he’d fallen or had hit his head when he’d landed.

Didn’t really matter which, though. Either way it hurt like hell.

When he thought he could bear it, he cracked open his eyes and fought back another surge of nausea as the world turned and tilted sickeningly before settling into place on its side. No, that couldn’t be right. He tried to think past the hellish pounding in his head, then moved slightly, carefully, and groaned as understanding dawned. He was on his side. In the mud.

Shit.

He was tempted just to lie there, maybe even to let himself sink back into unconsciousness, but knew he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t afford to. Peso was gone, he remembered that, too, and even if the hammer-headed mule had done what he should and gone back to town, alerting the boys that something was wrong, he just couldn’t count on them showing up anytime soon. Couldn’t expect them to know where he was when he’d had no idea where he was going, couldn’t expect them to follow a trail that surely didn’t exist anymore.

He’d have to do this on his own.

Before he could do anything, though, he’d have to move, have to get up, and that thought alone wrung another groan from him. But there was no other way. Steeling himself for what was to come, he braced his hands against the thick, slick mud and slowly pushed himself upright, trying to ignore his body’s protests. But some things just couldn’t be ignored. White-hot spikes of pain drove through his skull, wrenching a thick cry from him and resurrecting the nausea. This time he couldn’t control the sickness and, though his stomach had nothing left in it to bring up, his body was painfully convulsed by the spasm of dry retching. When it was over, he took long moments to recover, then managed to push himself into a sitting position, resting his tortured head on upraised knees and cradling it in shaking hands.

He needed Chris.

That single thought came to him more clearly than had any other since he’d awakened, reminding him of just how much he’d come to depend on Larabee’s strength when his own deserted him. How much he’d come to depend on the man, period. Chris was the steadiest, surest thing he’d ever known in his life, his certainty in times of doubt, the one solid thing he could cling to when everything else in his world was slipping away.

Only this time, fool that he was, he’d run away from Chris instead of to him.

He made a sound of disgust and let his hands fall from his head to the ground. Hell, maybe he deserved this. He’d let his fear take hold of him, control him, had let it blind him to the one true refuge that had been right there with him all the time. He’d gotten lost in the shadow of that goddamned gallows but, instead of turning to the one man whose light could banish that shadow, he’d fled like a fool into the storm. And this was where it had gotten him.

Oh, hell yeah, he deserved this, all right. Had brought it all onto himself.

He drew a deep breath and released it slowly, then raised his head gingerly, wincing as the spikes drove through it anew. But there wasn’t anything else for it. He couldn’t count on anyone coming to his rescue. He was on his own. He’d gotten himself into this; he’d have to get himself out.

Shit.

He began moving various parts of his body carefully, taking stock. His head ached like a sonuvabitch and he hurt everywhere, but he didn’t seem to really be hurt. Nothing broken, not too much blood, just a bunch of pulled muscles. And likely he’d have a truly impressive collection of bruises.

It was a helluva lot better than he deserved.

He looked around to get his bearings, trying to figure out where he was and where he needed to be, then glanced up at the sky and sighed. The clouds had thinned but hadn’t disappeared and showed no sign of doing so; the rain wasn’t going away any time soon. That made his decision for him. As easy as it would be just to sit here and wait, he wasn’t spending the night out in the fucking rain.

And he needed Chris.

With that one thought guiding him, he managed to rise shakily to his feet, fighting back nausea and defying dizziness, and started back toward town with labored, lurching steps. Didn’t know how long it would take him to get there and didn’t care.

Just knew that Chris was there and he needed Chris.

It took the tossing of Buck's coat over his head, Josiah's unyielding grip on his bridle and all of JD's gentlest, most patient coaxing to subdue Peso enough for Tiny to examine him without risk of injury. Utterly exhausted and still unnerved by his ordeal, the gelding was in an evil temper, even for him.

He was also a truly wretched sight, drenched from the rain, lathered in sweat and covered in mud. The thick stuff matted his mane and tail, clung to his tack and was even caked under his saddle, which was noticeably askew, as if he’d rolled in it. Or fallen. The worst of the mud coated his entire right side, fouling the lariat still fastened there and the butt of the rifle in its boot and filling that stirrup in clumps, and his right shoulder, flank and fore and hind legs bore numerous abrasions. The horse had clearly been through hell.

And had come out of it alone.

The hard knot in Chris’s stomach began growing into his chest and throat as Peso’s condition brought his worst fears to lurid life. Vin was one of the best riders he’d ever known, the man’s natural talents and instincts augmented by his time spent among the Comanche. Chris had seen him ride under almost every condition imaginable, in almost every condition imaginable, and on a horse that made a Texas longhorn bull look positively docile. Once he got in the saddle it damn near took an act of God to get him out.

Or an act of nature.

He swallowed hard against the nausea coiling in his gut. It didn’t take a tracker of Tanner’s caliber to piece together what had happened. Peso was as sure-footed as a mountain goat, could damn near dance over ground that any truly sensible horse would shun. Yet his bedraggled appearance and the state of his tack showed plainly that he'd met his match in the shifting sea of mud created by that storm. He also wasn’t easily spooked; despite his ornery nature he was as steady when things got rough as his steely-nerved rider. But the horse Chris saw before him now was panicked, still completely undone by whatever he'd faced out there. And if Vin had suddenly found himself battling both the storm and the horse from hell–

“Looks like he twisted his off hind some,” Tiny reported as he finally straightened. He ran a hand slowly down the horse’s still quivering right flank and shook his head slowly. “Got him a passel of cuts an' bruises, an' likely some I cain't see fer all the mud. Gonna need ta clean him up good, rub that leg with liniment an' wrap it. Likely he ain't gonna be fit ta ride fer a week." He sighed and set his hands on his hips, still studying Peso. "Cain't imagine what Vin was thinkin', headin' out inta that."

"He wasn't thinkin'," Chris said in a low, hoarse voice. "He was just runnin'." He winced and turned his head, his gaze seeking out the toppled ruin of the gallows. "Runnin' from shadows that spooked him as bad as that storm spooked Peso." He bowed his head and ran a hand over his eyes, trying to gather his thoughts. "You think you can handle him alone?"

Tiny chewed his lower lip and swept his gaze over Peso appraisingly. Whether because he knew he was home or out of sheer exhaustion, the gelding was finally beginning to settle, even allowing JD to remove the jacket that had blindfolded him and stroke his blazed nose comfortingly. So far the boy hadn't lost any fingers, and, with this horse, that was always an encouraging sign.

"Yeah, I reckon so," he finally allowed. "Hell, in his state, I doubt he could put up much of a fight if he wanted to."

"This is Peso we're talkin' about," Buck reminded the hostler as he walked over to stand at Chris's side. “Only state he couldn't fight in would be dead, an' I ain't just real sure about that."

Tiny turned to the big man and smirked. "You jist gotta know how t' handle him." He reached into the pocket of his work shirt and pulled out two pieces of molasses candy, then winked. "He might be a sonuvabitch, but he's a sonuvabitch with a sure enough sweet tooth." He grinned and walked up to join JD at Peso's head, then held out his hand and let Peso nuzzle the candies from his palm.

Buck shuddered at the sight and shoved his own hands into his pockets. "Hell, I'd just as soon feed a rattler!"

But Chris seemed not to hear him, nor to notice as Tiny took Peso's reins from JD and led the now quiet horse toward the livery. He was staring down the street, past the edge of town, his anxious gaze fixed on the vast expanse of land beyond. "Where is he, Buck?" he asked softly. "How the hell are we gonna find him?"

Buck sighed and shook his head, joining Chris in staring out into the distance. "Hell if I know, pard," he breathed. "But we'd best figure it out soon." He glanced aside at his friend and winced at the pain and fear showing so plainly in the normally stoic face. "For your sake as well as Vin's."

"We need to go after him–"

"Wait," Buck said sharply, shooting out a hand to grab Chris's arm before the gunman could do something rash. Larabee rounded angrily upon him, eyes flashing and a snarl on his lips, but Buck returned his furious look easily, never releasing his hold upon him. "First we gotta think this through," he said firmly. "We won't do Vin any good if we just go ridin' out blindly. That's a helluva lotta ground out there," he added, pointing his other hand out toward the distance, "an' there ain't but six of us. We need us a plan."

Chris swore harshly and jerked his arm loose, seething. Every instinct screamed at him to go after Vin now, but a small, maddening voice of reason whispered that Buck was right. "What kind of plan?" he spat. "Hell, we don't know where he was goin'!"

“But neither did he,” JD put in quietly as he and the others came up to join Chris and Buck. “He wasn’t thinkin’, hasn’t been for a couple of days now. And I’m bettin’ he wasn’t thinkin’ about goin’ anywhere. All he wanted was to get away. So he just took off. Like a shot,” he added pointedly.

Chris frowned, then stiffened as the meaning of the boy’s words hit him. Like a shot. “Straight outta town,” he breathed. “Straight into that storm.”

“Still gives us a helluva lotta ground ta cover,” Buck murmured, removing his hat and running a hand through his hair.

“So we narrow it down,” JD suggested easily. “Look.” He turned back to stare out over the land that lay before them, stretching out an arm to point at a line of hills to the east. “We can be pretty sure he didn’t make it there. He would’ve found cover and there would’ve been no reason for Peso to have come back in the shape he did. Vin would’ve just hunkered down with him and waited it out. So there’s one boundary.” He swung opposite the hills, pointing westward. “There’s a whole line of farms and small ranches over there, and any one of those folks would’ve given Vin shelter. So we have to assume he didn’t make it to any of them. There’s another boundary.”  He glanced over his shoulder at Chris. “That’s our search corridor. If we spread out, each of us taking a different section,” he nodded firmly, “we can cover a lotta ground between the six of us.”

Buck smiled broadly at the boy, pride shining in his eyes. JD was growing up, was learning not just to keep his head in a crisis, but how to use it as well. If the rest of them could just keep him alive long enough, he'd turn into a hell of a man.

Chris stared intently into JD’s “corridor” as if searching it for any sign of Vin, or some sign from him. Then, all at once, he realized what he was seeing, and a sharp breath escaped him. “The cabin’s that way,” he rasped, his lean frame tensing, his green gaze sharpening. “The storm was movin' fast, maybe too fast. If he hit it and realized he couldn’t make it back to town in time, or anywhere else, he would’ve headed there.”

“Except he didn’t make it,” Buck breathed, “else Peso wouldn'ta come back in the shape he did. So he’s somewhere between here and your cabin, somewhere in JD’s little corridor.” He nodded slowly, chewing one end of his mustache. “Well, it’s a place ta start, anyway.”

Chris turned and gathered his men to him with a gaze, drawing himself to his full height and lifting his chin, his eyes flashing, his natural air of command returning. "All right," he said crisply, "let's get to it. I’ll head for my cabin, see if he made it there. Nathan, you and Josiah take the path straight outta town, just like he did. If you make it to the hills without finding any sign of him, angle back toward the cabin and cover the ground over there. Buck, you and JD see how far you can back-track Peso. I doubt there's much left out there, but see what you can find. Maybe Vin tried to follow him in. And angle toward the homesteads. Again, if you don't find anything, sweep back toward the cabin."

"And what of me?" Ezra asked quietly.

Chris exhaled slowly and looked at the gambler, desperation at war with reason. Another pair of eyes out searching for Vin would be welcome. But if Vin should make it back–

"Someone needs to stay here," he said quietly, hating the decision even as he recognized it as the right one. "If Peso made it back here, then Vin might, too. And God knows what shape he'll be in. If he comes back hurt and we're all out there–" He forced away that thought with an effort, then gave a thin, strained smile. "Besides, I know how you hate ridin' in the mud and the rain."

"I detest it," Ezra admitted frankly. "Nonetheless, I am willing to put aside my own personal abhorrence for the sake of our lost comrade."

Chris's smile grew stronger, warmer. They might all bicker among themselves like schoolboys, but let one fall into danger and the others all rallied to his aid; by now it was just instinct with them. "I know you would," he said quietly, gratitude in his voice and eyes. "And if we don't find him today, I'll likely take you up on your offer tomorrow. But for right now, I want somebody here." He chuckled wryly. "Vin does have a habit of turnin' up when and where he's least expected."

Ezra nodded, at once deeply relieved not to be riding out into the wet wilds and strangely disappointed that he should be doing nothing more useful than waiting. God, but these men were a deplorably unhealthy influence upon him!

"All right," Chris said, sweeping his gaze over his men, "I want us on the trail in ten minutes. If you find him, fire off three shots, keep firin' every fifteen minutes until the rest of us get there." He glanced up at the sky, studied the low cover of thick clouds and nodded. "Sound'll carry a long way in this weather. If you hear shots, take off toward ’em. If we all make it to the cabin without finding him, then we'll hole up there for the night, rest and regroup and go back out tomorrow. Any questions?" There were none, only an answering grim purpose that reflected his own. "Then let's ride," he ordered, green eyes glittering with determination. "We're burnin' daylight."

He lay where he’d fallen, unable to summon either the strength or the will to get up. He was too tired, too dizzy and in too much pain. And now he was beginning to shiver. The storm had dropped the temperature considerably and, between the drenching he’d received earlier and the rain still falling, he was chilled to the bone.

Hell.

He turned onto his side and opened his eyes, squinting into the distance and trying to figure out just where the hell he was. But, Jesus, his head hurt! The pain made thinking damn near impossible, and the dizziness that accompanied it had long since robbed him of any true sense of direction. He’d thought that heading back to town would be easier, quicker; now he wasn’t so sure. He vaguely remembered trying to cut across the storm front and seek shelter at Chris’s shack, but couldn’t remember how far he’d gotten before Peso had thrown him. Maybe he should’ve tried to make it there instead of back to town. Hell, maybe he’d gotten turned around somewhere and had headed there anyway. Between his headache and the damn rain, he could barely see, much less recognize, the landmarks that would’ve, should’ve, told him where he was.

Shit.

He groaned softly and closed his eyes, knowing he should get up and knowing he’d never manage it. Not the way he was feeling right now.

Maybe after he rested a while …