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By SueN.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing’s changed since last time. Damn it.


RATING: NC-17 for explicit m/m sex

NOTES: Okay, lemme ’splain. Yes, there is a gen version of this, and I much prefer that one. But this one was written for a zine, and out of desperation. I’d managed to forget a deadline, and, when reminded, had to send something quick. I looked around for what I had and found nada. So I went to my gen folder and found this, which I was working on at the time. I’d never had any intention of slashing that one, but needs must when a deadline drives. So, here it is. I’m pretty sure RubyJ beta’ed this for me (hey, it’s been over a year <g>), so thanks, hon! Oh yeah, this is “sequel” to the ep “Sins of the Past” and takes place immediately following.

The dream was always the same.

He stood bare-headed in a vast, sprawling field, swept by wind and caressed by sun, surrounded on every side and for as far as the eye could see by a gently rippling, softly whispering sea of blue. It was not water that rose to his knees and lapped against his legs, though, but flowers, an eternity of flowers, so intensely blue it almost hurt his eyes to see them. Wave upon wave of them, an endless tide of brilliant purple-blue blossoms crowned by white tips that near sparkled in the sun.

He knew this place, was part of this place, just as it was part of him. His body had been fashioned from the earth upon which he stood, just as the rivers and creeks that watered it coursed through his veins and spilled out through his tears. The wind that swept like an unseen hand through the field, bending stalks of grasses and flowers in a gentle rhythm, was his breath, and the same pulse of life he felt in all about him thrummed and throbbed in the beating of his heart. He was this place, and it was him.

Once again, his dream had brought him home.

Home. The word whispered to him, sang to him, danced through his mind and slipped into his soul and severed every bond that would have held him. Suddenly set free, he threw back his head and cried out aloud, feeling every wild part of him rising up fiercely in response. He cried out again and began running through the field, arms out at his sides, eyes as wide and as blue as the field fixed upon the sky …

And all at once he was flying. Exultation surged through him, hard and hot, and as he climbed ever higher upon currents of air, he loosed the shrill, piercing scream of the hawk. Powerful wings pumped, carrying him aloft, and he was as he had always been, born of the earth but not bound to the earth, free only when he could fly.

But the dream was always the same.

From the sky he looked down, his sharp, all-seeing hunter’s gaze catching every flicker of light and life below him, and, to his horror, his beloved field began to change. Amid the white-capped blue flowers flecks of red began to show, crimson blooms pushing through like blood upon the land. With each beat of his heart more red stained the field, and he looked down to see the drops falling from his breast.

His heart was weeping tears of blood.

With the loss of blood came loss of strength, and soon he was growing too tired to fly. Each pump of his wings required more effort, more than he had to give. He needed to find shelter, needed to rest, to heal, to wait for his heart to stop weeping. And he knew such a place, remembered it, felt its peace calling to him even now. Tired, so tired, he turned and willed his wings to keep beating, dragging himself through the air to the patch of land that had given him birth.

When he saw it, he wept with his eyes as well as his heart. A small cabin, never much, but always enough, and more than he’d ever wanted. Yet where once light would have shone from it, now it was dark, no longer warm, but cold and lifeless. He looked around and saw the graves that marked where the light and life had gone. Gone, all gone.

But still here. They had returned to the earth, were part of the earth, and now made that earth sacred. He could still feel them, if only in that earth. Needing them, needing what they gave him, what they’d always given him, he flew desperately to them, needing once more to take their strength into himself.

Boy, you’re a Tanner. Don’t ever forget that.

He hadn’t forgotten, he’d never forgotten, oh, God, it was all he had left, but he still remembered! With a weak, plaintive cry, he dropped from the earth toward the graves …

And was attacked by a seething, shouting mob that sprang suddenly from the earth. With vicious hands they grabbed at him, clawed at him, beat him, brought out their ropes and tried to snare him. Time and again they lashed him, always shouting, then one of their ropes landed around his neck and began to draw tight about his throat.

Lord God, he couldn’t breathe!

Panicked, he fought them, tried to flap his wings to escape but could not break free. They dragged him out of the sky, down to the ground, and over to a body. Terror rose up cold and sharp within him as they tied him to the body and began pulling tight the rope around his neck.

Oh, God, no, no! He hadn’t done this thing! He’d killed, yes, but not this time, not this man, and he wouldn’t die for something he hadn’t done!

With a last burst of strength he screamed and broke the ropes, screamed again and launched himself into the air. Bleeding now from more than just his heart, he pumped his wings frantically and raced away from the furious crowd, propelled by his fear.

He flew over ground he’d once known, but didn’t now, watching as his field of blue ran red with blood. His blood, the blood of the man he hadn’t killed, the blood of those he had … So much blood, he was drowning in the smell.

Ma … Mama, help me! I’m tryin’, but, Lord God, I’m tired!

Then he saw him, and knew she’d sent him so her boy could rest. Fury filled him, and he dove toward the man running through the purple-blue flowers and painting them with blood. He now hoped the crowd was following him, wanted them to see the blood flowing from this man’s hands and know it was all his doing. The man looked up, saw him, and started running faster, but not fast enough. Fury turned to rage and he screamed again, extending his talons and swooping down to strike. The man was so close he could feel his heat, could hear his heart beating and the blood pumping through his veins, and the hunter in him rejoiced.

He had him, his prey, had only to reach down a little more …

An explosion sounded, and the man was torn from his grasp. And to his horror, he saw that the man who had painted the field with the blood of others was now drenching it with his own. He hovered above him, and watched helplessly as his hope, and his field of blue, drowned in a sea of blood.


He awoke with a cry and jerked upright, hugging himself and shaking uncontrollably as terror rioted through him. For long, horrible moments he couldn’t breathe, was gasping and gagging for air denied him by the rope around his neck. Sweat poured from him as he twitched and struggled for life amid the suffocating closeness of death.

“No!” he pleaded again, and with that plea came breath. He sucked it in greedily and raised shaking hands to claw at his throat, his fingers encountering nothing but flesh. “Oh, shit! Shit, no!” he whispered, burying his face in his hands, then running his fingers through his hair. “’S jist a dream!” he told himself, his breathing still harsh and ragged, his body refusing to stop shaking. He ran his hands once more through his hair, then lifted his head and looked around, trying to make out his surroundings.

A room. What the hell was he doin’ in a room? How the hell did he get here?

He sat up straighter, crossed his legs and folded his arms tightly against his chest, trying to remember. On a bed, no less. Why wasn’t he in his wagon?

He licked dry lips and glanced cautiously around, peering through darkness and shadows. Then he saw the window and willed his eyes to adjust to the faint light filtering through it while straining his ears to sort out the sounds that floated up to him.

Up. He was up. Upstairs. He glanced around, and picked out familiar shapes through the gloom. Boardinghouse. His room. The room he rarely used. But he wasn’t sick, wasn’t hurt …

Memory dawned then, and he relaxed slightly with a shuddering sigh. Larabee. Chris had insisted he sleep up here tonight, within the security of walls instead of the flimsy canvas of his wagon. Larabee had been just as shaken up as he’d been …

He heard it again then, and couldn’t help flinching at the sound. The explosion, the gunshot that had blown it all to hell. And once more, he watched in helpless horror as the body fell to the ground.

Eli Joe, dead. Vin Tanner’s last hope, dead. Both killed by the man he loved.

I know you wanted him alive.

Did what ya had to. Cain’t clear my name if I’m dead.

An anguished groan escaped him and once more he dropped his head into his hands, his body bowed by and shaking with despair. Cain’t clear my name if I’m dead.

But now he was past believing he’d ever clear it, anyway.

Out in the hallway Chris Larabee stood in silence, clad only in his undershirt and black pants, one hand pressed to Tanner’s door. Unable to sleep, he’d heard the muffled cries through the thin wall separating his room from Vin’s, and had been struck through the heart by them. He couldn’t forget the desolation he’d seen in Vin’s eyes after Eli Joe’s death, and knew he never would.

How could he, when that look had been his doing?

He groaned softly and leaned forward, resting his forehead against the door near his hand, his shoulders slumping. The silence in that room was more haunting even than the cries had been. Instinctively he knew Vin was awake, could almost picture the man huddled on the bed he so rarely used, wrapped in and racked by grief. He wanted so much to go in, to take Vin in his arms and offer some measure of comfort, but hadn’t the vaguest notion of how.

What could he possibly say? “I’m sorry?” Jesus, how useless was that? And what right did he have to clear his conscience when he’d destroyed Vin’s last chance of clearing his name? His name, for God’s sake, the only real thing of value Tanner had ever had!

But he was sorry; God, so sorry he ached from it. It was like a stone in his heart and a cold weight at the center of his bones, a weight that made his whole being hurt from the burden of carrying it. Vin was innocent, and Chris had promised he’d help him prove it.

Instead, he’d killed the only proof there was.

Straightening with an effort, his tired body protesting, he ran his hand lovingly over that door, then dropped it to his side. And, feeling much older than his years, he turned away and went slowly back to his own room, ignoring the bottle he’d brought up to help him through this night.

What right had he to the comfort of forgetfulness when there could be no such comfort for Vin?

He was up and out of his room before dawn, floating like a ghost through the darkness that still lay over the town. He hadn’t gone back to sleep after the dream, hadn’t been able to. He’d stayed in the room until the walls had begun closing in on him, until he’d had to come outside to breathe.

Damn noose was drawin’ tight again.

He absently raised a hand to his throat and slipped his fingers under the collar of his shirt, needing reassurance that the rope was no longer there. He shuddered at the memory of its weight dropping over him, nearly choked as he felt the noose closing about him. Throat constricted, breath came in short, ragged, futile gasps, and he clawed frantically at the top buttons of his shirt, desperately needing air and not getting nearly enough.

A button popped, a second slid through its hole, the shirt parted and he sagged against the jail wall, closing his eyes and pulling in great draughts of blessed air, his whole body racked by violent tremors. The early morning air was cool, yet sweat beaded on his upper lip, soaked into the fringe of hair across his forehead and at his temples, and his heart hammered against his ribs like the hooves of a runaway horse.

Hell, you know me, Chris. I ain’t afraid of dyin’. I jist don’t wanta go out like that, strung up like some mangy dog.

Strung up …

Vin Tanner, you’re under arrest for murder in the sovereign State of Texas.

Strung up …

Murder …

Mangy dog …


He shoved himself away from the wall with a soft, hoarse cry and resumed his silent and solitary prowl through town. The first vague hint of dawn was beginning to show in the east, a pale, illusory lightening of the deep indigo sky that mocked him with its promise. Dawn had always meant hope; another night survived, a new day coming and bringing with it one more chance. One more chance to put to right the mistakes of the past, to redeem the sins of the past and reclaim his future. A new day, a clean start, a fresh chance to clear his name.

You got a chance ta finish this now.

But not today.

I know you wanted him alive.

And not ever.

Did what ya had to. Cain’t clear my name if I’m dead.

Dead. All dead; Eli Joe, his hope. Both killed by the single blast of his lover’s gun.

He stopped, looked up, and found himself standing before the telegraph office. Looked up further, saw a body falling from the roof. A corpse.

Again he heard the heavy thud of his last hope hitting the ground and the final echoes of the gunshot that had killed it.

I know you wanted him alive.

But when had Vin Tanner ever gotten what he wanted?

He turned away and resumed his walking, ghosting through shadows, a shadow himself. Didn’t know where he was going, didn’t care. Wasn’t like it really mattered. Couldn’t go back; all he had waiting for him was a noose. Couldn’t go forward; that’d just be running, and, Lord God, he was tired of running. Nothing to go back to, nothing to go forward to; he was well and truly stuck. Mired so deep in blood he had and hadn’t shed that he’d never be free again.

Never be able to fly again.

Caught fast in the rope he could feel clear through to his soul, unable to summon the strength or the will to spread his wings, he lifted his head, raised desolate eyes to the vast expanse of the indigo sky …

And near wept for the loss of his fields of blue.

Keeping to the shadows, dressed once again in the unrelieved black he’d begun to put off over the past few months, Larabee followed and kept watch over the solitary figure roaming restlessly around town, knowing that, just now, Vin did not have it in him to watch over himself. And figuring he owed him this much, at least.

He’d not allowed himself to sleep, all too conscious of the terrible vulnerability of the man who should have been but was not sleeping in the next room. Instead, burdened by his guilt and weighed down by heavy responsibility, he’d ignored the lure of the whiskey bottle he’d brought up and passed the night in careful vigilance, leaving his door slightly ajar so he could hear should he be needed.

He’d heard when Tanner had crept from his room, with darkness still full upon the town. And, giving the man time to get downstairs and out the boardinghouse door, he’d followed, leaving off his spurs. Tanner had the hearing of an owl.

So now here he was, watching from the shadows as Vin Tanner, a man who was never lost, wandered helplessly about and tried to figure out where he was and where the hell he was going. Chris could see it in his face each time he caught a glimpse of that pale, haunted mask, yet even more he could feel it. More than Eli Joe had died yesterday; some part of Vin had as well.

And he had killed it.

He’d lost count of the number of times he’d gone through those horrible moments in his mind, seeing again and again the flash of a blade descending toward Vin in a killing arc, hearing again and again the thunder of the gun that had leapt into his own hand. And watching again and again as Eli Joe toppled off that roof, taking Vin’s chance at clearing his name with him into death.

Had there been another way? Some way of saving Vin without killing the one man who could clear him?


He knew it with everything that was in him, with every instinct he’d honed over the years to save his own life. It had been Vin or Eli Joe; one or the other had to die. And there was no way in hell Chris could have stood by and let the man he loved more than his own life die.

Except now his lover was in hell, and he’d put him there.

But it had to be better than putting Vin in a grave.

Didn’t it?

He sighed and leaned back against the wall of the general store. It had to be. A man could find his way out of hell; he’d done it himself. Wasn’t any way out of the grave.

He turned his head, searched for Vin again, and found him. As he watched, the tracker lifted his head and raised his face to the sky, seeming to search it for … what? Some sign of hope? A means of escape? The light breeze stirred Tanner’s long hair and the fringes of his coat, and, for a single, breathless moment, Larabee was struck by the image of a hawk about to take wing. The power of it hit him with a startling force, pulling him upright and tearing a long, hard gasp from him. He stared, waiting for Vin to launch himself into the sky …

And fell back against the wall with a soft groan as the moment shattered. An expression of unspeakable pain crossed Tanner’s face and he tore his gaze from the sky, as if unable to bear the sight of it. His head dropped, his whole body slumped, and he seemed to shrink into himself.

The hawk was gone and only the lost man remained, shackled to the earth by pain.

Chris watched him make his way down the street and felt his heart clench at the sight. Gone was the tracker’s lithe, fluid grace, his light and easy step, his flowing motion. He walked with a slow and leaden gait, as if having to force himself along, as if he were helplessly mired. Taking longer than Larabee could ever remember him doing, he made his way to the livery, settling upon the only means of escape that remained to him.

Not knowing what he would do, what he would say, Larabee went after him, his chest tight with fear and sorrow. He didn’t want Vin to go, but wouldn’t make him stay; needed to look into his eyes, but dreaded what he would see there. Hoped Vin would ask him to come along, but knew he wouldn’t.

Knew Tanner had reached that state where he simply couldn’t abide another’s nearness.

When he reached the livery, Vin was tacking Peso, and, for once in his life, the big gelding was standing quietly and letting the tracker work without ever once showing his temper. Sensitive to his rider’s every mood, the ornery horse knew that Tanner didn’t have a single defense left to him, and seemed oddly content to do nothing to add to the man’s troubles.

He also seemed to have appointed himself Vin’s protector, and abruptly raised his head and flicked his ears, snorting and shifting on his hind legs when he sensed another’s entry into the stable. At that, Tanner dropped the saddle he was holding and whirled, drawing his mare’s leg in a smooth, instinctive motion. Coming around, he raised the sawed-off and aimed it unerringly at …

“Chris?” he rasped in breathless surprise, wide eyes going wider still as they took in the dark shadow that was his lover. “Lord God, Larabee, ya lookin’ ta get yerself killed?”

Chris heard the slight tremor in that hoarse voice, saw the wholly uncharacteristic unsteadiness of the hands holding the gun, and was shocked to realize that he’d not only startled the tracker, but had actually frightened him. And nothing frightened Vin Tanner.

“Sorry, pard,” he said quietly, willing himself to relax and wishing Vin would do the same. Tanner still held his gun on him, and it was about the most unnerving sight Larabee had ever beheld. “Didn’t mean to sneak up on ya. Hell,” he forced a slight grin, “I didn’t even know that was possible.”

“Didn’t hear ya,” Vin admitted. “Reckon I’m still a mite off.” He saw Larabee arch a brow and exhaled sharply when he realized he was still aiming his gun squarely at the man’s chest. “Sorry,” he breathed, lowering the mare’s leg. Expressions of chagrin and shame chased across his face and a dark flush crept into his cheeks. “Don’t know what I’m doin’.”

Chris went slowly forward, studying the younger man worriedly and seeing plainly the toll all this had taken on him. Two nights without sleep – one spent in the hated confines of a cell – had left him pale and drawn, with circles as dark as bruises beneath his eyes. Those eyes flicked nervously about, unable to settle for long on any one thing, and, rather than adopting his usual loose-limbed slouch, he held himself with a painful stiffness. All at once, Chris remembered the beating he’d endured at Yates’s hands after his attempted escape, and knew yesterday’s fight on the rooftops with Eli Joe had to have worsened those injuries.

“Maybe you oughtta stay close to town,” he suggested quietly, “until you get that figured out.”

Vin shook his head a bit too wildly, his unsettled gaze still flitting to the shadows filling the stable. His throat and chest were painfully tight and his whole skin seemed to itch and burn, as if he now wore every nerve on the outside. “Cain’t,” he said hoarsely. “Need … I don’t know. Some air, some room …” He swallowed hard and licked his lips, then dragged his raw and haunted gaze back to Larabee. “I don’t know. Jist know I cain’t breathe.”

Chris nodded slowly. He could hear Vin’s breathlessness in his strained voice, could see it in the too-fast working of his chest, and knew nothing could hold the man in town when he was in such a state. Knew someone would get hurt, maybe killed, if he even tried.

“Goin’ far?”

The question brought Tanner up short. He’d given no thought to where he was going, hadn’t been able to think past the going itself. Wasn’t like it mattered, though. Couldn’t go back, couldn’t go forward. Whatever future he might have had was being eaten alive by his past.

“Vin?” Chris prompted softly, worriedly, not at all used to seeing the tracker so scattered. So lost. Tanner always knew where he was going, had a damn compass in his head that kept him fixed on a steady path through even the rockiest terrain. He might stray from that path occasionally, or stumble and lose sight of it temporarily, but he always righted himself and returned to it, never once losing sight of where he wanted to go.

Until now.

He tried to see through Tanner’s eyes, tried to think as Vin might, and flinched from the hopelessness that assailed him. In all the time that he’d known him, Vin had only really wanted one thing, had only really held to one purpose. Lifting the taint from his name. Going back to Tascosa and righting the wrong that had been done him. And every path he’d walked had led straight back to that.

But now Eli Joe’s dead body lay across that path, an obstacle that not even Vin Tanner could find his way around.

“Jesus, Vin, I’m sorry,” he whispered, the cold weight of what he’d done descending upon him once again.

“Did what ya had to,” Tanner rasped tiredly, the words as heavy as his heart. “Cain’t fault ya fer savin’ my life.”

Chris raised his head sharply and narrowed his eyes. “Can’t you?” he asked harshly, wanting, needing, Tanner to get angry at him. “Even if I cost you your only chance of clearin’ your name?”

Vin fixed desolate eyes on Larabee, too exhausted to give the man what he needed. “Don’t reckon me dyin’ woulda cleared it, neither.”

Fury ripped through Chris at those quiet, unemotional words, and he lunged at Tanner, grabbing his 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 in his grave, and I put him there!”

“Let go’a me!” Vin spat, tearing himself out of Larabee’s iron grasp. All at once, the fear and frustration that had been 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 gunfighter’s head back and sending him staggering. Before he could fall, though, Vin grabbed his shirt and jerked Chris to him, staring at him through blazing eyes. “Goddamn you!” he snarled through clenched teeth, blue eyes glittering with more pain than one man should have borne. “Jist how fuckin’ stupid do ya think I am? Shit, yeah, I understand what it means!” he shouted hoarsely, shoving Larabee violently 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 and dropped to his knees beside him, then reached out and slipped a protective arm about the shaking shoulders. “I’m sorry–”

“Don’t!” he whispered tightly, his voice a ragged rasp.


Don’t!” He thrust himself to his feet and turned away, fighting desperately to bring his raging emotions under some semblance of control. But he had no strength for that, and, feeling hideously exposed and vulnerable, stepped away from Larabee and went back to saddling Peso, needing some occupation in which to lose himself.

Chris pulled himself to his feet and turned to watch him, easily able to feel the pain that poured from the bowed and beaten figure and knowing he had caused it. With everything that was in him, he wanted to go to Vin, to take him in his arms and hold him, to shelter him until the terrible storm tearing at him passed. Instead, he stood rooted to the ground where he stood, frightened that a single touch would shatter Vin and unwilling to bring the man any more pain than he already had. “I’m sorry,” he said again, unable to stop the words. “If I could–”

“I said don’t, ’n I meant it,” Vin warned in a low, savage voice, pulling hard at straps and cinches to make sure his saddle was secure. “Ya cain’t fix this. Nobody can fix this. Best ya jist leave it be.” He grabbed Peso’s reins and, without ever looking back, led the big horse toward the livery door.

“Your rifle,” Chris called after him, not certain whether Tanner remembered he didn’t have it with him.

He hadn’t, and closed his eyes at the reminder of his own dangerously unfocused mind. “I’ll stop at my wagon and get it.” He started forward again, then stopped briefly at the door. “I’ll be out near Eagle Butte,” he said, a decision made. “Don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

He led Peso out and Chris watched him go, then sank slowly to the straw-covered floor and buried his face in his hands.

He left town and set out across the desert at a slow trot, his hat pulled low over his eyes to shield them from the rising sun. Another day was unfolding, the earth turning unstoppably beneath him, time refusing to pay heed to his pain. Light glowed on the horizon and bled over the tops of mountains, would soon be spilling over the land. Yet where once he would have welcomed it, would have stopped and watched its coming with the breathless awe the sight always inspired in him, now he simply reached up and pulled his hat further down still, having no desire to see it.

What use to look upon light when all in him had gone dark?

He headed Peso toward Eagle Butte, not knowing why he had given that as his destination but now grateful he had. As always when hurt or hunted, his instincts drove him to seek the high ground, to find some inaccessible lair where he could hole up and lick his wounds, or where he could simply hide from whatever – whoever – threatened him. And he needed – Lord God, how he needed! – to be up in those rocks now, to be close to the sky.

Maybe up there he’d remember how to fly …

He paid no heed to the countryside as he rode, couldn’t bear to look at it anymore than he could the light. In his time here he’d come to love this land deeply, had found something in the harsh deserts and rugged mountains that spoke to the wildness in his own soul. Now, though, it struck him as unbearably alien, even hostile. Where was the acre upon acre of bluebonnets, the vast sea of blue that stretched into eternity? Where were the bright crimson patches of paintbrush, the yellow tickseed blooms? Like everything else, they were gone from him, and he felt their absence as a deep, aching emptiness in his heart.

Gone. Lord, it was all gone, and he didn’t have a hope of ever getting it back.

I know you wanted him alive.

A harsh gasp tore from him and he spurred Peso sharply to a gallop, his eyes stinging and streaming. Up. He had to go up, had to get away from this flat, barren ground that wasn’t and never would be home, had to climb away from this burned earth and toward the sky …

Needed to find a place so high that he could see Texas from it.

Chris remained in the livery long after Vin had gone, unable to leave, unable to face either the prospect of a new day or a town that in no time would be abuzz with questions and gossip about yesterday. Unable to face the knowledge that time and life were both going on when, by all rights, both should have stopped and paid heed to the fact that one man was dead, another was dying inside, and the man who’d hated one but loved the other was responsible for both.

Didn’t any of that deserve notice?

At some point, not sure exactly when, he slid down onto the floor and sat back against the door of Peso’s empty stall, his gaze riveted to the doors through which Vin had gone. He didn’t know why he watched them; Vin wasn’t coming back. Not anytime soon, anyway. Maybe not ever–


He slammed his mind shut against that thought the moment it arose. Vin was gone, yes, but he wasn’t gone. That would require planning, preparation, thought, and God knew all those things were beyond Vin’s capabilities at the moment.

Hell, he hadn’t even known he didn’t have his rifle.

Cold fear gripped Larabee at that memory. He’d known the events of the past few days had deeply shaken Vin, but he’d never realized they’d left the tracker too lost to look after himself. Tanner had always had the strongest, sharpest survival instincts of anyone he’d ever known. But now, like so much else, they simply lay in shattered ruins in the dust.

One more casualty of Larabee’s gun.

But, goddamn it, he hadn’t had a choice! A harsh, wrenching groan tore from him as his soul twisted in agony. God, he could still see that knife slashing toward Vin, deadly in its intent. And he could still feel the hideous, sick terror that had gripped him as he’d faced the very real possibility of seeing the man who was the other half of his soul snatched from him by death. And he couldn’t have borne that, couldn’t have borne having to bury Vin as he’d buried Sarah and Adam.

But could he bear being the killer of Vin’s hopes and dreams?

He stared at the doors through which Vin had gone. Through which Vin had walked. Alive. Eli Joe was dead, but Vin was alive.

Oh, hell, yeah. He could bear anything, anything, so long as Vin was alive.

By noon he was safely on Eagle Butte, perched high amid the rocky crags that towered over and about him like some ancient stone fortress. Below him, the ground reached and rolled into brown infinity, distant and no longer threatening. Above him, the sky stretched like a vast blue canopy, empty, open and inviting.

Yet still he huddled in the protection of the rocks, desperately in need of their strength and solidness when he had none of his own. And, to his own shame, afraid. Afraid to leave these shadows, afraid to step into the light, afraid that, as in his dream, the brightness and beauty of the day and the lure of the sky would be too much and he would give in to his powerful need to soar.

And afraid that, in trying to fly, he’d only fall.

Lord God, when had this fear become such a part of him? When had he learned to shun the light and seek the shadows and cling to the earth when such had always been so alien to his nature? When had he allowed the sure knowledge of who and what he was slip so far from him that he feared he’d never get it back? When had he, so skilled a tracker, so completely lost sight of the trail he’d once followed with such certainty?

Maybe when he’d crossed that fine line that separated the hunter from the hunted? Or maybe when he’d allowed those who hunted him to strip him of all that had ever guided and grounded him in his life.

He stretched out a leg and reached into the pocket of his pants, pulling out the small beaded buckskin pouch he kept there. The bag Chanu had given him he still wore around his neck, tucked under his shirt, a treasured gift but not true medicine. The true medicine he kept tucked away, secreted from all eyes but his own; not even Chris knew about it. He closed long fingers tightly about the small pouch and clutched it to his heart, bowing his head in reverence.

Or maybe in regret.

Long moments passed, and he breathed deeply, slowly, trying to still himself, trying to clear his muddied mind. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning, just before Yates had hauled him away for his hanging, and hadn’t slept since before the false marshal had cornered him at his wagon. He was hungry and exhausted, and he hurt from the beating at the jail and his fight across the rooftops. Yet he knew with instinctive certainty that neither food nor sleep nor a ceasing of the pain would restore all that he’d lost.

He just wasn’t sure that his medicine, his true medicine, would either.

Nonetheless, he opened the pouch and gently shook its contents into one hand, gazing down at them with a longing that hurt far deeper than the hurts done to his body. Time was, their power, their puha, would have gone straight through him, filling all the empty spaces, lighting all the dark places, bringing peace and purpose to his questioning mind. Now, though, they were as empty as he, their power drained by his shameful disregard of it.

Too long. Too long he’d gone without drawing from this power, too long he’d gone without remembering who and what he truly was. And too far he’d wandered from the path that had once seemed so clear.

Far away. Oh, Lord, how had he gotten so far away from himself?

He stared down at the objects in his hand, trying desperately to feel the tug of their puha at his soul. A feather from a hawk’s wing, a token of his ability – and his need – to fly free, to soar high above the tangled pathways of the earth and seek his own true, straight way. A hawk’s beak and talon, signs that he was, and was always to be, the hunter, swift, instinctive and sure, yet ever mindful that the hunt was a means of survival, never to be undertaken for lesser reasons. Dark, dry grains of dirt, taken from the graves of his parents and grandfather so that he would always remember the land from which he’d sprung and the lives of those whose bodies had gone back to the earth, a powerful reminder that when he stood upon that ground he did not stand alone, but stood with all those who’d gone before. Their flesh and their blood were part of him, and part of the ground in which they rested, and so joined him to that earth, as well. It was a circle; a sacred circle.

And he’d broken it.

Tears filled his eyes and fell into his hand, wetting the dry dirt there. He’d always gone back to that place, those graves, had always knelt by them with one hand on his heart and the other sunk into the earth, feeling the power of that joining within him. Long after the farm had been lost to him, taken back by bankers who’d never lifted one finger to work it yet claimed it as theirs, he’d gone back and gone back to those graves. No matter how far away he wandered, no matter how long away he spent, the power and the pull of that land had throbbed steady and strong within him, eventually calling him back that he might always remember how deeply entwined they were.

This time, though, he’d been too long away, gone too far away. He’d let himself forget the faces and voices of his loved ones, the feel and smell of the earth where they rested. He’d lost all that, and lost himself along with it.

He’d stopped hunting for survival, taken it up for money, and had in turn become the hunted. Then he’d had to run, and in his constant running had forgotten how to fly. And in running, he’d gone too far from the land that had formed him to go back, couldn’t go back lest he be caught …

And hanged …

Oh, God, Lord God, how had he ever gotten so far away from where he needed to be?

Chris spurred Pony toward Eagle Butte, startled – and appalled – by the ease with which he picked up and followed Vin’s trail. The tracker seemed to have made absolutely no effort to cover his tracks, as if it never occurred to him that someone might come after him.

Or as if he just didn’t care …

Chris shook off that thought with an effort, refusing to believe that Vin would purposely court death. No matter how badly he was hurting, no matter how deeply he despaired, it just wasn’t in Tanner’s nature to give up. He’d spent too much of his life fighting, and by now the instinct to go on fighting was so deeply ingrained in him that he wouldn’t know how to stop if he wanted to.

And Chris desperately hoped he didn’t want to now.

He shoved that thought away, too, and turned his mind instead to trying to figure out what he would say to Vin when he joined him. He knew Tanner wasn’t expecting him to come, likely didn’t want him to come. Vin wasn’t thinking just now, was simply reacting, and, wild and solitary creature that he was, his first reaction when hurt or confused was always to go off on his own and hide from the world that seemed so intent on doing him harm while he tried to find the strength once more to fight. But Chris figured he’d already spent enough, too much, of his life hurting alone, fighting alone. And it wasn’t in his nature to allow that to go on any longer. Vin was part of him. And he’d already lost enough of himself in this life to let one more part – the most important part – go without a struggle.

Tanner probably didn’t want him there right now, but that was too damn bad. He was gonna get him, and he’d just have to learn to live with it.

Shouldn’t be too hard for a man who’d already learned how to live with so much else.

He sighed and once more spurred Pony to a faster pace, seeing Eagle Butte looming above the desert floor. Wild, rugged, remote. Lonely. Like the man hiding up there now. Broken in so many places, weathered and worn by time and the elements, battered and scarred by cataclysmic upheavals in nature and the earth, yet still standing, still towering, stubbornly enduring all the destructive forces unleashed against it and maintaining a fierce, stark beauty …

God, was it any wonder Vin loved it so?

Yet there was one vast, deep difference between Vin and the butte. It stood alone, rising in majestic, defiant solitude from the land, absolute in its isolation. Maybe Vin had once been that way, maybe he thought of himself that way still, but he was wrong. He wasn’t alone anymore, hadn’t been alone since that day he’d looked across a dusty street and snared another’s gaze with his own. Something in the two men had been joined at that moment and could never be made separate again.

Vin might think otherwise, but Chris Larabee was gonna show him just how badly mistaken he was.

He settled himself cross-legged by the small fire he’d built and dropped a handful of sage onto the burning wood. As the pungent smoke rose and was blown toward him by the wind, he closed his eyes and leaned into it, using his hands to wave it more fully over himself.

Sage. The scent of cleansing, of healing. He breathed ever more deeply, taking it into himself and letting it fill his mind. He let all thought go, freed his mind to rise with and upon the smoke, cast it upon the wind to seek what had been lost.

Lord, it had to be here somewhere!

He sat motionless, stilled inside and out, his long fingers curved loosely about the beaded medicine pouch cradled in his palm. He’d removed and put away the one Chanu had given him so there would be no conflict, no confusion, so that whatever Spirit – if any – came to him would not be put off by the lingering presence of another. He’d had only one small sip of water and no food, had already seen to his bodily functions. He was empty now, empty and still, a vessel waiting to be filled.

Sage smoke rolled over him in waves, entering his nose, his mouth, the pores of his skin, breathed in, breathed out, until it was his breath, carried to and through every part of him by his pulsing blood. He felt that pulse now, in his head, his chest, his fingertips and toes, felt its steadiness and quiet power and timed his breathing to it. Then the smoke was heavier than he was, and he began to rise upon it, lifted his arms …

And began to fly.

He pushed himself aloft with a wild, harsh cry, pumping his wings furiously, straining to rise ever higher. Straining. Lord, since when had he had to strain to fly? But he had to now, and only gradually did he come to understand why.

Tired. God, he was so tired, his body heavy with it, aching from weariness and wounds. He needed strength, needed to heal, needed to go back to the place where he’d always found strength and healing before. With an effort, he wheeled in the sky and started toward the only place he’d ever known as home, picturing the fields of blue in his mind and remembering the scent and feel of the rich, dark earth.

Maybe that place was no longer his, but it would always be him.

As he flew, he heard voices whispering to him, calling to him, and felt his heart lurch in recognition. His mother’s soft, sweet voice, before her final illness had stolen it from her, and his grandpa’s deeper one, as dark and rich as the land he’d worked. Those voices stirred something in him, awakened remembrances he’d long since thought dead, and he joined his to them, loosing another cry.

He could see it then, the place he’d sought, the small, rough double cabin with the dog-run between the two halves, its sagging porch and steeply-pitched roof and the chimney of hand-made brick. No smoke came from the chimney, but he hadn’t expected it to. Those who whispered to him were no longer in the house, but in the earth just beyond it. Seeing the graves beneath the sprawling live oak, he cried out again and flew toward them.

All at once, though, he was caught, snared, and his body jerked violently, then began plummeting toward the earth. As he fell, rope coiled about his neck and pulled, choking the breath and life from him. Panic erupted within him and he fought wildly against the noose, but only managed to pull it tighter.

He was falling, strangling, hanging …

He looked down in terror and saw a corpse tangled in the other end of the rope, hands clutching at it even in death. He struggled again and again to break free, but couldn’t, and realized to his horror that he was being hanged by a dead man.

Shit, yeah, I understand what it means! he heard his own voice shouting. It means that bastard won!

He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t fly, was caught helplessly in the rope and falling ever faster to the earth. He heard his mother and grandfather calling to him, but he couldn’t answer. Then the corpse began to laugh, and he knew that he was lost.

Despair rolled through him in black, crushing waves, and a wrenching sob broke from him. He didn’t want to die, Lord God, he wanted to live, but he couldn’t fight anymore. He was tired, too tired, and couldn’t breathe, couldn’t fight, couldn’t fly. Couldn’t do anything but fall. And hang. And die …

Hell, you know me, Chris. I ain’t afraid of dyin’. I jist don’t wanta go out like that, strung up like some mangy dog.

I ain’t gonna let that happen.

The dark, powerful shadow came streaking out of nowhere, uttering a savage scream and diving at him. Fresh terror assailed him and he fought to flee this newest threat, but there was no need. The larger bird was hurling itself not at him, but at the rope that bound him. Strong talons gripped it, a sharp beak snapped shut upon it, and suddenly he was free, the noose loosening enough for him to breath.

Now frantic to escape, he pumped his wings and launched himself aloft, but was too weak and too tired to maintain the effort. Yet even as he started to falter, the larger bird turned and swept toward him, its powerful wings beating with ease and creating currents upon which he could glide. Then the dark form was above him, offering him refuge, and he hid himself in its shadow, suddenly feeling a safety and security he’d not known in far too long. Sheltered beneath those broad wings, floating on the drafts they created for him, he allowed himself to rest, and studied his protector.

An eagle. A sleek golden eagle, its dark body crowned by a head marked by lighter feathers that glinted brightly in the sun. And on his body he bore markings like hailstones, the sign of thunder. Of powerful medicine.

He recognized him then, the man he’d know in any guise, the soul he knew better than his own. A deep peace stole over him and he gave himself over completely to it. Unable any longer to muster the strength to hold them up, he simply let his wings fall, and let himself fall with them, realizing now that he’d been mistaken.

He hadn’t wandered too far from the source of his strength at all. It had been with him all the time, was right here with him now.