Nothing’s changed since last time. Damn it.
for explicit m/m sex
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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 …
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 …
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.
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.
killed the only proof there was.
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
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
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
know me, Chris. I ain’t afraid of dyin’. I jist don’t wanta go out
like that, strung up like some mangy dog.
you’re under arrest for murder in the sovereign State of Texas.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.”
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
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
“Maybe you oughtta
stay close to town,” he suggested quietly, “until you get that figured
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
too hard for a man who’d already learned how to live with so much
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
Vin might think
otherwise, but Chris Larabee was gonna show him just how badly mistaken
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
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
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.