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RATING: NC-17 for explicit (eventually <g>) m/m sex

UNIVERSE: OW (Anybody ever notice that that spells "ow"? Vaguely appropriate for me, yes?)

DISCLAIMERS: Pfffffffft! Nothing personal, but if they were mine, would I be here with y'all?

THANKS: As always, I'm indebted to RubyJ., KET and Kap for their friendship and wonderful beta work. They keep me on track (y'all oughtta try that sometime!), provide endless support and encouragement, and also do a fair job of begging. ;-) Also, I am grateful to KET and Lynda for generous medical advice. However, I do operate under the philosophy that forgiveness is easier to get than permission, so if I stretch the possibilities, don't blame them. I was mighty particular in the way I asked my questions. ;-)

NOTES: This was written as a birthday present for LaraMee and TrackerGirl. Lynn, Kathy, thanks for your friendship, and happy birthday to you both!

The two men saddled their horses in relative silence, the long spaces between their infrequent words filled by the soft creak of leather, the jangle of metal bits and the occasional snort or low whicker from the two black geldings in adjoining stalls. Beyond the livery, all was quiet as well. The first pale light of dawn was just now trailing its fingers across the sky, and the town still slumbered in that brief and precious lull between late-night revelry and early-morning activity. For the moment, Larabee and Tanner could pretend that they were all alone in the world, with no one to intrude upon them or to force their minds to turn to any thoughts save those of each other.

But such an illusion would inevitably be shattered as soon as the town shook itself into wakefulness and again laid its demands for their time and attention at their feet. It had happened before, far too often for their liking, and both knew it would happen again if they let it. So they’d simply decided not to let it and had made plans to slip away and take some time for themselves. But they’d shared those plans, though only the barest essentials of them, with the other regulators, both too deeply aware of their obligations to believe they could simply disappear without word to anyone.

And both too newly aware of the bonds that held them here even to consider trying.

At last the horses were saddled – as seemed their way, the two worked in near-perfect but wholly unconscious harmony – and the men led them from their stalls, then out of the livery and into the yard, closing the door behind them. Still with no words between them, with nothing more than an exchange of relaxed smiles, they took one last look around the sleeping town, then swung up into their saddles.

Only then did Chris’s ease give way to tension. Try as he might, he couldn’t quite suppress or disguise the ripple of unease that went through him as he watched Vin, as he studied the tracker’s every movement for some indication, however subtle, that he still wasn’t quite up to this. Over the past two months this had become deeply ingrained habit, and he’d long since committed to memory every sign of pain or weakness, every warning of a body pushed beyond its endurance. Reason told him he had no reason for worry, that Vin truly was on the mend, but he’d discovered, or just finally admitted, that reason held no sway over him where the tracker was concerned. He’d taken his eyes off Tanner once and very nearly lost him; he wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Reason be damned.

Vin settled in his saddle and eased into his familiar, comfortable slouch, his wide mouth curving into a lopsided and ridiculously happy grin. He knew Chris had been watching him, knew why he’d been watching, and was torn between wanting to take away the man’s worry and treasuring a small, secret joy that such worry should be for him. He hadn’t mattered this much to anyone in a very long time, and he’d never mattered to anyone for the reason that he mattered to Chris.

But, because Chris mattered so much to him for the same reason, he simply couldn’t abide the shadow of concern that darkened the green eyes still fixed upon him. Lifting his head enough that Larabee could see his eyes beneath the broad brim of his hat, he drawled softly, “I’m all right, cowboy. Ain’t even feelin’ so much as a twinge.”

Understanding at once what Tanner was doing, what he was offering, Chris gazed intently into the tracker’s face, his eyes, searching them carefully with his own. Vin could hide everything of himself from others, but could conceal nothing from him. Even now marveling at the level of trust that implied in a man who had so little trust to give, Chris studied the face he’d come to know better than his own with a loving thoroughness, seeing in it the truth of Vin’s words. Reassured, he relaxed in his saddle and smiled at Tanner, releasing the last vestiges of his worry.

“All right then,” he said in a low, warm voice, his smile growing wider still. “Let’s ride.”

They set out at an easy pace across the desert toward the rim of hills overlooking the town, that high ground their ultimate destination. Vin had talked of a place he knew up there, a favorite refuge when the town and its people pressed too close against him, and the longing that had filled his voice and eyes as he’d spoken of it had settled the matter for Chris. His own first choice would likely have been the small cabin he was gradually turning into a home, but he knew that the last thing Tanner needed now was to be confined within one more set of walls.

Vin had been cooped up enough throughout his convalescence and lately had begun to chafe badly against the bonds holding him in captivity. His normal easy-going manner had given way to an increasingly edgy restlessness, and more than once they’d all felt the bite of a temper that could be every bit as unpleasant as Larabee’s. Chris had a sneaking suspicion that Nathan had agreed to this trip as much to prevent any bloodshed as from any true conviction that Vin was ready for it. For whatever reason, though, Jackson had agreed and, like a hawk let off his leash, Tanner’s first instinct was to head straight for his beloved wilds.

And Chris’s first instinct was simply to go wherever Vin did.

He still had to marvel at how right all this seemed now that he’d finally accepted it for what it was. For so long, too long, he’d fought against his feelings for the younger man, had ruthlessly explained them away to himself as nothing more than friendship and stubbornly refused to see the truth. Never mind the fact that he’d never felt for any other friend – not even Buck Wilmington, his oldest friend and, arguably, the one who’d always known him best – what he’d felt for and with Vin from the start. And never mind the fact that he’d only known such feelings for one other person in his life. Sarah’s death had rendered him incapable of such feelings, or so he’d told himself, and not even the light shining from a pair of bottomless blue eyes had been enough to penetrate his self-imposed blindness to the truth.

Not until Alvin Harper’s bullet had so very nearly stolen the light from those eyes and Chris’s world had again teetered on the brink of total darkness.

He flinched violently at that memory, his whole body jerking, his hands inadvertently yanking back on Pony’s reins. Never noticing the gelding’s startled reaction, he turned his head sharply and closed his eyes tightly against the sight of Vin’s body hitting the floor, his bright blue shirt turning dark with the blood welling from the hole torn into him by Harper’s bullet. His vision tunneled, then telescoped, and all he could see was Vin’s face, the wide-eyed shock on it, then the fearful realization, and finally the pain that had seemed to leap across the space separating them and burn itself into him. Once more, he was lurching forward on leaden, lifeless legs and crashing to his knees at Vin’s side, staring into glazing blue eyes and screaming at Tanner to look at me! as he snatched the tracker into his arms and worked furiously to stem the tide of dark blood welling from him. Harder, harder into Vin’s body he pressed his hands, still screaming, cursing, pleading, promising anything, anything, just please, God, please don’t die!


Blood flowed from the tracker’s body and washed over his hands, soaking into his clothes, the heavy coppery tang of it filling his nose, setting his teeth on edge and launching his stomach into a slow, queasy roll. Vin fought to stay with him, staring up at him in pain and fear, clutching at him–


Vin’s back arched and his eyes widened, the cry he couldn’t suppress tearing from him–


Chris snapped back to the present at that harsh summons, at the feel of long fingers digging into his arms and shaking him. A hard shudder ran through him, an anguished gasp escaped him, and only as Vin’s strong arms closed around him did he realize that he was no longer on Pony, that they were kneeling together on the ground, Tanner holding him close and speaking softly to him. Somehow he’d lost his hat and his bare head rested on Vin’s shoulder, his face pressed into the warmth of the tracker’s throat.

Warmth. Strength. Vin. Not bleeding to death on the saloon floor, but here, with him, holding him–

“Ssh, ’s all right, cowboy,” Vin soothed in his low, husky drawl, one arm still tight about Larabee’s body, his other hand slowly stroking the man’s bright golden hair. “I’m all right. I’m here, Chris. I’m right here an’ I ain’t goin’ anywhere.” Sorrow and worry filled him as he held Chris, as he remembered the man’s stricken cry as he’d all but thrown himself from Pony’s back onto the ground, caught in the grip of a living nightmare. He knew what the nightmare was, had lived it, nearly died from it, would carry the scar for the rest of his life.

Just one more among so many …

Chris shuddered and nodded as reason, as reality, returned, then slid his hands to Vin’s arms and, gripping them tightly, pushed Tanner back and raised his head from the man’s shoulder, staring almost feverishly to reassure himself that Vin really was all right. Prying one hand free from Tanner’s arm, he lifted it and pushed the battered hat off the tracker’s head, then slipped unsteady fingers through his long hair and brushed them over his face. Vin said nothing, merely sat still and let Chris touch him as he pleased, his eyes never leaving Larabee’s.

“I k … I keep … seein’ it,” Chris rasped at last, his hand sliding down to Vin’s chest and coming to rest over the strong, steady beat of his heart. God, how many times had he sat at Vin’s bedside with his hand there, irrationally terrified that if he removed his hand that beating would cease? “Keep seein’ you fall … all that blood …” He lifted his hand again to Tanner’s face, cupping it to one whiskered cheek as hot tears stung his own eyes. “Sometimes … in my dreams … you die.”

Vin covered Chris’s hand with his own, pressing Larabee’s fingers into his cheek. “But they’re only dreams,” he breathed. He smiled gently. “I ain’t dead.” He turned his head slightly and placed a tender kiss against Larabee’s palm. “Found me a reason ta live.”

Chris exhaled unsteadily and once more pulled Vin to him, burying his face in the tracker’s hair. Closing his eyes, he simply breathed Vin’s warmth and strength, Vin’s life, into himself, finding his own strength, his own life, in them. “I coulda lost all this,” he whispered.

“But ya didn’t,” Vin assured him, resting contentedly in the gunman’s arms, delighting in the feel of that long, hard body against his own. For so long, he’d refused to let himself hope that he’d ever actually have this, have Chris. The high, hard wall the gunman had erected around his feelings had been impossible even for him to breach, and he’d tried to resign himself to living without what he most wanted. He’d told himself that he could make do with Larabee’s friendship because even that was better than anything he’d ever known. But the wants he’d tried to deny had found rebellious outlets in dreams that had been every bit as painful as they were beautiful, tormenting him with the knowledge of what lay just beyond his reach. Until, his resistance shattered by fear, Chris had finally reached for him. “I’m here now, an’ I’m all right.”

“Are you?” Chris pushed him away again, just far enough away to look into his face, and stared searchingly at him, green eyes nearly burning in their intensity. Vin’s long hair was darker than it should have been so late in the summer, lacking the warm honey-gold tints the sun should already have streaked into it, and his skin was too pale, missing its familiar tan. Chris could plainly see the freckles that seemed so incongruous on the deadly-tough tracker and the fine bone structure beneath flesh that still had too little padding beneath it. Too pale, too thin, but, God, alive and looking at him now with blue eyes as dark and as deep and as warm as a summer lake. He lifted a shaking hand to push a stray lock of too-dark hair back from those eyes, then, unable to help himself, leaned forward and pressed his lips to Vin’s in a slow, soft kiss not of passion, but of love.

Vin closed his eyes and loosed a small, contented sigh into Chris’s mouth as those firm, full lips moved against his own, as all that Larabee felt reached into and found its echo in him. For all that Harper’s bullet had so nearly cost him, it had also brought him this, and some perverse part of himself thought it more than worth the price. Chris pulled him closer, deepened the kiss, and Vin twined his arms around the man who for so long had been his only anchor to this life.

Might be he needed to wander by the cemetery when they got back and give ol’ Alvin his thanks.

Chris kept an eye on Vin as they rode, calling occasional stops to rest and water themselves and the horses, determined to make sure that Tanner didn’t kill himself in his exhilaration at finally being free. He’d only been allowed short rides so far, Nathan deeply aware of just how much blood and strength he’d lost and how much he still had to regain, but a few times Vin, being Vin, had pushed the limits – and himself – and had paid the price. Jackson had damn near had a fit when he’d heard where they intended to ride now, and for long, tense moments Chris had fully expected healer and tracker to come to blows. But, recognizing Tanner’s determination, and probably suspecting that the man would go anyway, Nathan had finally relented, though grudgingly and not without exacting a promise from Chris almost on pain of death that he’d watch the still-healing man closely.

As his eyes again tracked to his partner, Larabee figured he’d have no problem at all keeping that promise. Vin had urged Peso into an easy, long-legged lope, his hands loose on the reins, his hair and the fringes of his jacket dancing on the breeze. Horse and rider moved as one, melding together into a fluid, graceful whole. Vin wore spurs – only a fool would get on the cussed gelding without them – but rarely used them; rarely needed them. He guided Peso with knees and hands, the subtle shift of his body in the saddle and sometimes, it seemed, by thought alone. Now and then he’d stand in the stirrups and lift his face to the sky, closing his eyes and breathing deeply, a wild creature reveling in his freedom.

He was the most beautiful damn thing Chris had ever seen.

As noon approached, though, worry began crowding out wonder. Vin had slowed Peso again and no longer stood in the stirrups, seemed more intent now on just staying in the saddle. What little color he had was fading, leached from him by weariness and the heat of the day, and, breaking his own deeply ingrained habit, he drank freely and frequently from his canteen. As he unstoppered and tilted it back yet again, Chris saw the tremor in his white-knuckled hand and knew they’d gone just about as far as they were going for a while.

He maneuvered Pony close to Peso and waited until Vin finished drinking, then reached out and gently pushed the tracker’s hat back off his head. Frowning worriedly at the younger man’s pallor and the strain in the dulling blue eyes, he shook his head slowly and brushed the backs of his fingers against Tanner’s cheek. “Tell me there’s someplace close by that’s got good shade and water,” he said in a low voice.

Vin gave a faint smile and nodded once, then nestled his cheek against that cool and gentle hand. “There is,” he rasped. “’S why I brung us this way, in case somethin’ happened an’ we had ta stop.”

“You mean in case your strength gave out,” Chris clarified with a quick lift of one brow. “So you were listenin’ to Nathan after all.”

Vin’s smile twisted into a wry grin. “Jist don’t tell him,” he joked. “He might come t’ expect it.”

Chris’s snort expressed what he thought of that possibility as he turned his gaze from Vin to glance up at the cloudless sky. They were on noticeably higher ground now, had been climbing for the past two hours, and Chris’s chief concerns were time and terrain. The worst of the day’s heat was still to come, and he wanted Vin out of these rocks and settled comfortably before the afternoon bake began. “How far?”

Vin straightened in the saddle and returned his hat to his head as he thought. “Mebbe another hour. Ain’t that far, jist takes some climbin’ an’ windin’ about ta get there.”

Chris settled his green gaze on his partner and studied him intently, not liking at all how worn he suddenly looked. “Can you hang on that long?”

Vin gave a thin, grim smile. “Hell, Larabee, I ain’t but tired. I’ve rode in lots worse shape than this before.” He saw that the gunman wasn’t satisfied by his answer and heaved a long sigh of exasperation. “Yeah, I can make it,” he said firmly, only barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes. “I still got enough water ta last ’til we get there, an’ I ain’t about ta fall outta my saddle jist yet.”

“Good,” Chris grunted, his concern not at all eased. “’Cause if ya do, I ain’t pickin’ you up. I’ll just pitch camp around your sorry ass.”

“Well then,” Vin drawled, that lopsided grin tugging at his mouth, “I reckon me an’ my sorry ass had best be careful about where we fall.”

As he’d declared, he didn’t fall, though by the time they stopped Chris figured he wasn’t far from it. Yet even exhausted and damned near drained of strength, he’d led them unerringly along a twisting, climbing path that, while nothing short of labyrinthine to Chris, seemed clear as day to him. Larabee had noted with deep relief the increasingly plentiful vegetation as they’d climbed, evidence of a good water supply, and when they finally crested yet another rise and were greeted by a thick stand of cottonwood trees, that relief swept through him in a wrenching wave. “Tell me we’re here,” he pleaded.

His head bowed, Vin nodded once and said hoarsely, “We’re here.” He tried to raise his head, but couldn’t quite manage it. “Stream’s over yonder,” he rasped, leaving Larabee to figure out just where “yonder” was. “It’s spring-fed. Runs all year long.”

Chris saw the stream, then glanced at Vin. “Can you make it?”

“Ain’t fallen yet,” he breathed. Finally lifting his head, he squinted toward the stream and sighed. “Still, I wouldn’t mind if it was closer.”

“Come on.” Chris nudged Pony forward, knowing that Peso would follow whether Vin directed him to or not. Damn horse couldn’t be counted on for much, but if there was water and forage to be had, he wouldn’t be left out. “You let me do all the work, you hear?”

“You’re the boss.”

Chris gave a short laugh. “Hell, now I know you’re exhausted.”

He found a good spot shaded by several large trees, with level ground carpeted by thick grass, and decided it would do nicely. Dismounting quickly and ground-hitching Pony, he hurried around to Peso and reached Tanner before the tracker could try to get himself out of the saddle. But Vin just dropped his reins and sat there, shoulders slumping, head bowed, eyes closed. And not a trace of color in his face.

Chris set a hand on his thigh and stared worriedly up at him. “You all right, partner?” he asked softly.

Vin winced and lifted an unsteady hand to one temple. “Head hurts,” he murmured.

Chris squeezed his leg gently and nodded. “Yeah, I’ll bet it does.” He glanced around, made his decision and looked back up at Vin. “Okay, you just stay up there a minute or two longer and I’ll get your bedroll down and spread, then you can rest while I take care of everything else. Can you do that?”

“Reckon,” he whispered, never looking up.

But Chris wanted, needed, to see his eyes. “Vin, look at me,” he ordered softly, again squeezing the tracker’s thigh. The blue eyes opened and slowly sought his face, and he smiled slightly into them. “I’m gonna take care of you, okay?”

Vin dropped his hand to cover Chris’s and gave the man a faint smile. “I know, cowboy,” he breathed. “’S what’s kep’ me hangin’ on this long.” He squeezed Chris’s hand weakly. “Jist like it did before.”

Chris swallowed hard at the faith in that soft, strained voice and made a silent vow to die before ever betraying it. “You just sit here,” he said, “and I’ll be right back for you.”

Vin nodded once and closed his eyes again, hoping it would ease the throbbing behind them. It didn’t.

Chris gazed up at him a moment longer, then moved away reluctantly to unfasten the straps holding his bedroll to the saddle, all the while praying that Peso would behave. It would be so easy for the big horse to hurt Vin just now, and Larabee couldn’t swear he wouldn’t shoot the animal if that happened.

Damn stubborn tracker.

And damn Alvin Harper.

He stalked to the spot he’d chosen and dropped to his knees, untying and spreading Vin’s bedroll with angry, violent motions and glancing repeatedly over his shoulder at the slumped figure on the strangely docile horse. Peso barely moved, and Larabee realized he should never have expected anything else. The gelding was as difficult as they came – tough, bad-tempered and possessing all the charm of a stepped-on rattler – but he seemed to know when Vin could tolerate his antics and when he couldn’t and modified his behavior accordingly.

Damn mule.

Within moments the bedroll was spread. Chris rose to his feet and hurried back to Vin’s side, again setting his hand on the tracker’s thigh. “You still with me?”

Despite his headache, Vin opened his eyes and managed to smile wanly into anxious green eyes. “Told ya before,” he rasped, “ain’t got no plans ta leave ya.”

Chris remembered the words all too well and felt the same clench at his heart now that he’d felt then. “Glad ta hear it,” he said, his voice tight despite his smile. “I’ve gotten kinda used ta havin’ you around.” He patted Vin’s thigh. “Your bed’s ready. How ’bout we get you down from here so you can rest?”

“Sounds good,” Vin sighed. He gripped the pommel tightly, then leaned over to glance at the ground and winced. “Don’t ’member it bein’ quite s’ far down.”

Chris laughed softly. “Don’t worry, I won’t letcha fall.” He winked. “Anything happens ta you and Nathan’ll have my head on a spit.”

“Nice ta know ya care,” Vin grumbled. “You tell him about this an’ I’ll have ta kill ya.”

Chris arched a golden brow and scowled. “You keep this up and I’ll stand here and watch you fall.”

Vin gave a weak smirk. “You do, then I’ll tell Nathan and he’ll kill ya.” He steeled himself for what was to come and pushed himself out of the saddle.

“Ungrateful bastard,” Chris groused, then reached up for Tanner and helped him down before he could fall.

“Oh, shit,” Vin groaned sickly, clutching at Larabee as the world dissolved beneath his feet.

“Ssh, I got ya,” Chris soothed, tightening his grip on the tracker and holding him close. “I ain’t gonna letcha fall. It’s all right, Vin. I gotcha.”

He leaned into the strong arms holding him, against the hard body supporting him, and closed his eyes, letting everything else fall away except the solid warmth of Chris Larabee. He remembered this from those endless days in the clinic, remembered when this same solid warmth had been all that had gotten him through the terrible pain and sickness, remembered when this man’s arms had been all that had held him to this life.

What he couldn’t remember was how he’d ever survived without it.

Once certain that Vin wouldn’t fall, Chris started them slowly toward the bedroll he’d prepared, keenly aware of Tanner’s slight weight. There was still so little of him, the tracker’s bones all too sharp against him. Yet while part of his mind worried over that, another part noted how perfectly their bodies fit together, how right they felt together. His flesh heated and stirred at that rightness, but he willed himself to ignore it, his concern for Vin taking precedence over his desire.

He lowered Vin carefully onto the bedding but didn’t let him lie back. “Not yet, pard,” he said softly, kneeling before the tracker. “Gonna get you comfortable first.”

“’S too late,” Vin slurred. “Feel like shit.”

“Yeah, I know.” He removed Tanner’s cavalry hat and laid it aside, then began stripping the tracker of his worn hide coat. “How you can wear this thing at this time of year is beyond me,” he murmured as he pulled it free and laid it by the hat.

Vin blinked owlishly and tried to focus his blurring gaze on the gunman’s face. “Still have trouble keepin’ warm,” he said hoarsely, his drawl thickened by exhaustion. “An’ Nathan said if I git sick again he ain’t treatin’ me no more.”

Chris smiled. They’d all heard that threat more than once, though Vin and JD seemed to get it on a regular basis. “Yeah, I can see him standin’ by and just watchin’ you die.”

Vin lifted his head at that and, for a few moments, his eyes seemed to focus. He reached out and set a white and shaking hand under Larabee’s chin, lifting the golden head until their eyes met. “Done told ya,” he rasped, gazing steadily into that strong, proud face, “I ain’t gonna die.” His thumb strayed to Chris’s mouth and slowly stroked the man’s full lips. “Got too much ta live fer now. Got more’n I ever thought I’d have. ’N I ain’t lookin’ ta leave it any time soon.”

Chris pressed a kiss to that thumb, then gently pushed Vin’s hand away and leaned forward, brushing his mouth against the tracker’s. “Good,” he whispered against Tanner’s lips. “’Cause I ain’t plannin’ on lettin’ you go any time soon.” He pulled back, but lifted a hand to stroke Vin’s cheek. “I figure we’ve both got more than we ever thought we’d have, and I, for one, plan to enjoy it for a long, long time.”

Vin smiled tiredly, light flaring briefly in his faded eyes. “Like it when ya talk like that, Lar’bee. Like knowin’ I mean that much to ya.”

Chris slid his fingers through Tanner’s long hair, his deep green eyes roaming slowly over the man’s pale face. “God, Vin,” he breathed fervently, “you have no idea how much you do mean to me! Hell, I didn’t have any idea until Harper shot you, until I nearly lost you–”

“Ssh.” Vin lifted his hand again and laid it over Chris’s mouth. “’S all done now an’ cain’t be changed. Don’t do no good ta keep thinkin’ on it.”

Anger shot through Chris and he gripped Vin’s hand in his, tearing it away from his mouth and holding tightly to it. “How can I not think about it?” he seethed. “Jesus, Vin, he nearly killed you! Stood in front of us all and talked about how much you meant to him, then he tried ta kill you! Shot you down like you were nothin’! I had your blood all over me, Tanner, had ta help hold you down while Nathan dug that bastard’s bullet outta your body, sat with you and held you because I couldn’t stand the thought of not bein’ there when you died. How the hell am I supposed to forget a thing like that?”

Vin shook his head slowly, his eyes sad. “Cain’t fergit it, cowboy,” he rasped. “Cain’t ever fergit nothin’. But ya jist gotta quit dwellin’ on it an’ move ahead. I ain’t dead. Alvin didn’t kill me. He’s the one sleepin’ in the cemetery.” He smiled softly and reached out to slip an unsteady forefinger lightly down Larabee’s cheek. “I’m the one gits ta sleep with you. I win.”

Chris’s anger fled at those soft words and a smile stretched slowly across his mouth. “Goddamn, Tanner,” he whispered, “you do beat all I’ve ever seen!” He saw the gray tinge of exhaustion creeping into Vin’s face and sighed. “Let’s finish gettin’ you undressed so you can rest.”

Feeling strangely light-headed, Vin gave a laugh that sounded suspiciously like a giggle. “C’n think of better reasons t’ git undressed.”

Chris heaved a sigh and shot him a pointed look. “Behave,” he ordered sternly. “There are just some things I don’t wanta have to explain ta Nathan.” He studied Vin for a moment. “I’ll get your boots. You think you can get your gunbelt?”

“Been doin’ it fer years now.” But he just sat there, his hands never moving.

“Vin?” Chris called softly, moving down to Tanner’s feet.


“It’s at your waist there.”

Vin looked down, blinking heavily. “Yep.” He still didn’t move.

Chris sighed again and shook his head. “Never mind,” he said resignedly, tugging off one boot and tossing it up toward the tracker’s hat and coat. “I’ll take care of it.”

Vin lifted his head and fixed his wide, unfocused stare on Larabee. “Ya gonna take care a’ me?”

Chris looked up, met that stare and smiled tenderly. “Always.”

Vin smiled faintly, his eyelids drooping heavily. “I reckon I c’n live with that.”

He stopped abruptly on the boardwalk, his startled gaze going at once to the horse hitched in front of the saloon. Or, more accurately, to the saddle on the horse. It was a Mexican one, like Josiah’s, only much more elaborately tooled and decorated generously with silver conchas, as were the bridle and empty rifle boot. He took another step forward and stopped again, swallowing hard as a cold knot suddenly formed in his belly. There couldn’t possibly be another rig like that anywhere.

Alvin Harper was here.

He stood there and slowly licked his lips, wishing he knew what the hell that meant. Had Alvin tracked him here, or was it just coincidence? Not that he’d ever really believed in coincidence. And Alvin always had been a pretty fair tracker. When, of course, he wasn’t drinking …

He finally tore his gaze from the saddle and shifted it slowly to the doors of the saloon, knowing without a doubt that Alvin was in there. Saloon had always been the man’s first stop in any town, even when they’d had a bounty to turn over; Harper had just left it up to him to take care of that. If nothing else, it had taught him the business end of their … business.

Oh yeah, ol’ Alvin had taught him a lot.

He sighed heavily and bowed his head, closing his eyes as a sense of inevitability swept through him. Wasn’t anything else to do but go on in and meet whatever faced him. If Alvin had tracked him here, then he wouldn’t leave ’til he found him; the man stuck to a trail like a tick to a hound. And if he hadn’t tracked him, well, hell, likely it wouldn’t take him long to learn he was here anyway. Alvin just had a way of finding out such things. He’d talk to anybody about anything, open up to ’em like he was long-lost kin, and before long he’d know everything about everybody in town. It was the damnedest thing he’d ever seen. More than once it had led Alvin to an old friend. More than once it had led them both to a bounty.

This time it was likely to lead Alvin to him.

He sighed again and opened his eyes, lifting his head and fixing his gaze again on the saloon. If he were truly smart, he’d just turn around, saddle up Peso and ride like hell for the hills. Except that at some point during his time in this town he’d lost the habit of running. Not a particularly good thing for a man with a price on his head, but there it was. And after a long morning already spent riding, he really wanted a beer to wash down the dust. Maybe check in with the boys, too, let them know that he was back and that everything was quiet.

Let Chris know …


He exhaled sharply and shook his head, irritated with himself. Hell, that was the real reason he wanted to go to the saloon, wasn’t it? If it was just a beer he was after, he could turn right around and go over to Digger Dan’s; they certainly had it there. But what they didn’t have there was Larabee. And though he knew it surely made him the biggest fool ever to walk God’s earth, he couldn’t for the life of him resist his need to sit with Chris, breathe in his presence and content himself with the friendship that was all he was ever likely to get from the man.

Except to get it now he’d have to go into that saloon. Where Alvin almost certainly would be.

He drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders, then started toward the saloon doors, shaking his head slowly. Hell, his life just always did seem to work out that way.

He eased the batwing doors open and slipped silently through them, then immediately stepped to one side and melted into the shadows there, grateful as always for the sheltering darkness that gave his eyes time to adjust to the dimness and himself time to study the interior. He’d done it so often and for so long that he did it now without thinking and with such practiced ease that he attracted no notice. The others often marveled at his ability to disappear into his surroundings, but to him it came as naturally as breathing.

And more than once had insured that he kept on breathing.

Holding himself perfectly still inside and out, he swept his gaze slowly over the saloon, taking in every detail. The moment he’d entered, he’d noted that Chris was at his preferred table in the near corner, not sure whether he’d actually seen the man there or was just so attuned to him that he simply sensed his presence. But he was there. Turning his head just a fraction, Vin could see the bared golden head gleaming like burnished gilt in the sunlight streaming in through the window, then had to tear his eyes from the sight. He couldn’t afford distractions, and Chris Larabee was the surest one he knew. The man was about the most beautiful damn thing he’d ever seen.

He forced his thoughts away from Chris and continued his study. Ezra, too, was there, holding court at his accustomed table and, judging from the pile of money before him, having a wonderful run of luck. If luck ever truly figured into it when Standish touched a deck of cards. JD was seated at the next table and watching Ezra in obvious fascination, no doubt still trying to decipher the gambler’s tricks. He simply watched the boy for a few moments, stealing a glimpse of his own lost youth through JD’s wide, bright eyes.

Loud laughter rang out suddenly at the bar and his gaze snapped to its source. Instinctively he stiffened and only barely stifled a gasp. Buck was there, lanky frame leaning against the bar, one long arm laid upon its polished surface. But it was the man next to Buck that arrested his gaze, that set his heart drumming fast and hard against his ribs, that had his stomach clenching hard and raised the hair on the back of his neck.


He’d changed considerably and not for the better, as if he’d aged a decade in only four years. He, too, was leaning against the bar, facing Buck, his tall and once-powerful frame now thin and slightly stooped, his dark hair unkempt and shot through with gray, his clothes dirty and worn. His voice, though loud as ever, seemed thinner, too, and now and then held a slight quaver. And as he lifted his glass to drink, his hand appeared to shake with just the smallest of tremors.

Likely all that drinking was starting to catch up to him.

He stared long and hard, studying the man intently, trying desperately to read in him some sign of why he was here. If it was trouble, he obviously hadn’t let it slip, for Buck was relaxed and talking jovially with him, and Wilmington was one of the best at reading men he’d ever known. Was also one of the most fiercely protective of his friends. If he’d so much as scented a threat, he’d be mopping the floor with Harper.

But, Lord, sometimes Alvin actually could hide what he was thinking …

He must’ve moved, must’ve made some sound, for all of a sudden something imperceptible in the room changed and several pairs of eyes shifted to him. JD’s mouth opened to form the greeting he just as quickly silenced and Buck turned and pushed away from the bar, his face questioning. From the corner of his eye he saw a long, dark figure rising neatly from a chair and knew a slim-fingered hand would be hovering near the ivory butt of a Colt. But it was Alvin who caught and held his attention, Alvin who turned and looked directly at him, dark eyes going wide with … with what? Surprise? Happiness? Sorrow? Anger?

Or maybe all those things, and so much else besides. But none of them told him why Alvin was here. Which left only one way to find out.

He took a few soft-footed steps forward, never looking away from Harper and willing upon himself a calm he didn’t really feel. With that false calm came a genuine sorrow. Alvin looked bad. His long face was gaunt, his cheeks hollowed and sunken, his weathered skin creased by deep lines. His eyes were bloodshot and dull, the sharp gleam he remembered gone from them without a trace. Alvin had never been a handsome man, had ever been too angular and rough for that, but there’d been a vitality to him, a strength, that had more than made up for that. And it, too, was gone.

“Alvin,” he greeted softly, stopping about six feet from the man. “Saw the saddle on that horse, figgered it might be you.” He flicked his gaze quickly over Harper, as if just now seeing him, and nodded once. “Reckon I was right.”

Harper didn’t say anything, merely stared back at him with an odd look pulling at his face, as if he were seeing what he most wanted and most feared. All around them the saloon was utterly silent, the men around them standing absolutely still, waiting for the inevitable explosion of … something.

But he didn’t want an explosion, hoped like hell he could send Alvin off without one. He had an idea now why Harper was here, had an idea what the man wanted, but knew he wouldn’t, couldn’t, give it to him. He’d thought he’d made that clear before, but, damn, Alvin always had been stubborn.

He forced himself to relax into his usual hipshot stance and smiled slightly, tucking one thumb into his gunbelt. Still he watched every flicker of emotion that crossed Harper’s face, that flitted through his eyes. “Didn’t see a horse with yers, though,” he drawled easily. “Ya workin’ alone these days?”

Harper flinched as if the words had stung, bitterness briefly twisting at his face. “Have to,” he rasped harshly, a plaintive note creeping into his voice. “Ain’t … ain’t been able ta find nobody else suits me like you did, ain’t been able ta find nobody who knows …” His Adam’s apple worked furiously as he swallowed hard repeatedly, and he shook his head tightly. “Jist ain’t been the same since ya left, Vin. All went ta hell after ya run out on me.”

He sighed softly, sadly, compassion welling within him as he regarded the older man. He could feel Chris edging closer but prayed he wouldn’t interfere. When Alvin was in a mood, he wasn’t always stable, and God knew Chris had a natural way of setting folks off.

“I didn’t run out on ya, Alvin,” he said gently, taking another small step forward. “Y’ know that. I told ya I’s leavin’ an’ why, even made sure you was set up good with that last bounty ’fore I left. I couldn’t stay no more, not the way things was headin’, but I didn’t run out. I said goodbye, Alvin, an’ there jist ain’t been all that many I’ve taken the time ta say goodbye to.”

“But still,” Harper protested, the words escaping almost as a groan. “I told ya it’d be better if ya stayed, told ya I’d be better–”

“Told me that lotsa times,” he said sadly. “Never did happen. I know ya tried, but there’s jist some things a man cain’t change.” Lord, didn’t he know that.

Harper straightened then, seemed to pull himself out of his misery for a moment and regarded him steadily. “Want ya ta come back ta Texas with me,” he declared firmly, straightening to his full height. “Come here ta take ya back where ya b’long.”

He felt more than saw Larabee stop, tense and set his hand more firmly on his gun. At the bar Buck did the same, and he knew JD and Ezra would be just as ready to shoot. He knew what they thought Alvin meant, knew in their minds there was only one reason a bounty hunter would want to take him back.

A part of him wished it were that simple.

“’S all right,” he assured them, tearing his gaze momentarily from Harper and turning to lock it with Larabee’s. “It ain’t what y’all are thinkin’.”

“He a bounty hunter?” Chris asked in a low, hard voice shot through with menace.

“Yeah,” he breathed. “But he ain’t after the bounty. He wouldn’t do that ta me.” He could see Larabee’s cold stare slipping back to Alvin, knew the gunman wasn’t convinced. “Me an’ him used ta ride t’gether,” he explained. “We’s … partners.” The green eyes sliced back to him and narrowed at the odd hesitation in his words, but he prayed Larabee wouldn’t push it any further. So many things in his past he didn’t want to explain.

“We’ll see,” was all Chris said, never relaxing.

He turned back to Harper, saw the hurt in the man’s eyes at what had just transpired and knew Alvin was misreading things, too. Damn, somebody was gonna get hurt.

He sighed and absently rubbed a hand over his eyes, desperately wishing he’d had a chance to get that beer first. JD was staring at him in confusion, Ezra in pointed interest, and Buck and Chris were just waiting to start shooting. Hell, forget the beer; what he needed was whiskey.

“Look, Alvin,” he said on another sigh, dropping his hand and returning his gaze to Harper, “y’ know I cain’t go back. Know why I cain’t go back–”

“I’d protect ya,” Harper insisted, “take care of ya. Didn’t I always take care of ya? ’Member how I kilt Shad Owens ’cause he was gonna hurt ya?”

He winced and looked away sharply. Yeah, he remembered. All Shad had done was touch his hair and Alvin had grabbed him … then gutted him. He’d told himself it had just been the drink, but the strange light in Alvin’s eyes had told him it was something else. Something he just hadn’t felt in return.

He drew a calming breath and returned his gaze to Harper. “Cain’t kill ever’body in Texas, Alvin,” he said softly. “I don’t b’long there no more.” He glanced around the saloon, saw the men standing ready to back whatever play he made, felt Larabee damn near aching to kill this man, and nodded once. “Reckon I done found somewhere else ta b’long. Got others ta protect me now.”

Harper’s gaze shifted to Larabee and something dark and ugly dawned in his eyes. “Like him?” he sneered, dropping his hand to his gun.

Don’t!” he shouted, lunging to get himself between the two. “Alvin, he’ll kill ya! Y’ ain’t nowheres near good enough ta take him.” He stared frantically at Harper, pleading with his whole being for the man to back down. “Please, Alvin!” he whispered. “Don’t get yourself killed over me. I ain’t worth that.”

“Yeah, y’ are,” Alvin answered sadly, though he dropped his hand from his gun. “Don’t y’ see, Vin? Best times I ever had was when you was with me. Ever’thing was good then. We made a helluva pair. Then you left and,” he shrugged dejectedly, “it jist all went ta hell.”

He looked away again, not wanting to remind Alvin that it had all started to go to hell before he’d left. That that was why he’d left. He raised his hand again and rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache coming on.

“Vin.” Buck’s voice, soft and low, filled the taut silence, and he looked past Alvin and into worried blue eyes. “Why don’t you go t’ the bathhouse, pard? Looks like you could stand ta relax in a tub. We’ll sort this out here. Ain’t no sense you bein’ caught in the middle.”

He smiled at that, more grateful to the big man than he could say. He knew he couldn’t leave, had a horrible sense of what would happen if he did, but was touched to his soul that Buck wanted to spare him this. It was the kind of protection he’d come to expect from these men. The kind of protection Alvin had never understood.

“’Preciate that, Bucklin,” he said softly, sadly, “but y’ know I cain’t leave. That’d only make it worse.”

Buck nodded slowly, understanding and sorrow written plainly on his expressive face. He tried to smile at Wilmington, to reassure him, but the effort failed. He’d never been good at lying.

He turned to Chris then, saw the tension in the long, lean body, the anger in the glittering green eyes and the hard set to the sculpted jaw. He knew that look, had seen it many times and usually just before someone died. A chill rippled down his spine. He knew Chris could take Alvin without even thinking, knew the man wouldn’t even break a sweat. He knew Chris wouldn’t die.

But he didn’t really want Alvin to, either.

“Chris,” he called softly, trying to draw the gunman’s attention to him. But Larabee, damn him, had the maddening ability to look at him and Alvin both. “Mebbe you should leave,” he suggested, knowing the answer even before he spoke. “Ain’t no sense anybody gettin’ killed–”

“I’d say that’s up ta him,” Larabee answered in his low, silken voice. “He behaves, everything’ll be fine. But if he so much as lays a hand on you, it’ll be the last thing he ever does.”

He bowed his head and closed his eyes. Half an hour ago, those words would’ve made his heart soar and his soul sing. Now, they only made him cold and sick. God, he didn’t want this!

He opened his eyes and turned back to Alvin, moving slowly to his right, hoping to drag Harper’s attention away from Larabee. “Y’ see how it is,” he said quietly, calmly, again forcing himself to relax. “I’m safe here like I’d never be in Texas. I got folks lookin’ after me, watchin’ my back.” It was as much warning as reassurance. Again he tried to smile, and again he failed. “Tell me y’ understand that.”

“All’s I understand,” Alvin said harshly, dark eyes burning in his ashen, haggard face, “is that you b’long with me. I ain’t had nothin’ since you left, ain’t gonna have nothin’ ’til ya come back. You was th’ only one could make ever’thing work right fer me.” He narrowed his eyes suddenly and his lips thinned angrily. “You owe me, boy,” he said in a low, rough voice. “Are you forgettin’ that I taught ya ever’thing y’ know ’bout bounty-huntin’? When you lef’ Texas, you was reckoned ta be one a’ the best. But it was me,” he jerked a thumb to his chest, “that made ya that way! You owe me!”

He sighed tiredly and shook his head slowly, the sick feeling growing stronger. “I don’t owe ya, Alvin. Not anymore. I done repaid ya a hunnerd times over. Done told ya how grateful I was, how much I appreciated ever’thing ya done fer me. There comes a time when ever’ debt is paid, an’ I reckon mine’s been paid in full.” He shook his head again, resignation rising through him. “I ain’t goin’ back t’ Texas. I ain’t goin’ back t’ you. All that’s in the past now, an’ I reckon that’s where we need ta leave it.”


“No.” He stepped closer to Alvin and finally managed a smile, strained and thin though it was. “I’m glad ta see y’ again,” he said softly. “Glad ta know you’re still alive. Now,” he drew himself up to his full height, his head still barely topping Harper’s shoulder, and nodded firmly, “mebbe you’d best leave while that’s still the case.”

Alvin’s eyes grew cold. “You threatenin’ me, boy?”

He sighed again. And folks thought he was stubborn. “No, Alvin, I’m warnin’ ya. There ain’t anybody in this room ’cept mebbe me you could take. And you’d be shot full of holes ’fore y’ could even try. I don’t want yer death on my conscience. Got too much there as it is already. So, fer both our sakes, jist go on an’ ride away. An’ don’t ever come back.”

Harper stared at him for long moments, dark eyes boring into him. And all at once a shutter seemed to close behind them. “So you’re choosin’ them over me?” he asked quietly.

“No, Alvin. I’m choosin’ me over you. Same as I did last time. You jist … take too much outta me. Want too much from me. Want what I ain’t got t’ give. I cain’t do it no more. One of us’d jist get hurt, likely even killed, if I went back with ya, an’ I don’t think either of us wants that.”

Harper was silent for long moments, then gave a barely perceptible nod. “Well,” he breathed, voice and eyes oddly distant, “sounds like yer mind’s made up.”

“Yeah.” No apology, because in truth he wasn’t sorry.

Harper nodded again, that withdrawn look still on him. “Reckon there ain’t no more t’ be said, then.” For a moment then the shutters parted and his true heart shone in his eyes. “Didn’t ever wanta hurt ya, Vin,” he said softly. “Didn’t ever mean to. Y’ know that, don’tcha?”

“Yeah, I know,” he sighed, and it was the truth. But not wanting to had never stopped Alvin from doing it.

Dark eyes searched his face intently. “You happy here? With them?”

He nodded, this throat tight. He knew it wasn’t what Alvin wanted to hear, but he’d never lied to the man before and wouldn’t start now. “Yeah, I am.” Before he could stop it, his gaze flicked to Larabee and he had to drag it away again, hoping desperately that Alvin hadn’t noticed. “Reckon I finally found what I been wantin’.”

But Harper had noticed, and the shutters snapped back into place as his head lifted sharply. “Reckon that’s what I needed ta know.” He stared a moment longer, then turned on his heel and walked back to the bar, retrieving his rifle from where it lay. He paused to finish the whiskey he’d left there, then stepped away from the bar, strode past Vin and disappeared through the batwing doors.

Alvin’s exit seemed to tear all the breath from his body and he doubled over, pressing his hands to his knees and trying to keep from just sinking to the floor. Before he could register it, hands were on him, gripping his arms and patting his back, helping him upright and leading him to the bar.

“Here.” Chris was right beside him, pressing a full glass into his numb fingers. “Drink.”

He lifted his head and looked into the gunman’s face, seeing concern, sympathy and something else he couldn’t quite identify in the deep green eyes staring so steadily at him. Before he could put a name to it, though, before he could raise the glass to his lips and drink the liquid strength, the batwing doors were again shoved open and a harsh voice called his name. He turned sharply, dropped the glass, and stared in shock at the gun Alvin Harper held pointed at him.

Confused, he took a step forward and held out an imploring hand. “Alvin, what–”

“Cain’t let nobody else have ya.”

An explosion sounded and he was thrown back against the bar as something hard and hot slammed into his body. He hung there a moment, staring at Alvin without understanding, then began his slow descent to the floor. Voices shouted, more shots sounded, and suddenly Chris was grabbing him, clutching at him, yelling at him. Still not understanding what had happened, he reached for Chris and clung tightly to him, confused and more than a little frightened. But all at once, as fire ignited deep inside his body, he realized what Alvin had done …

Then his whole world erupted into hellish pain, and he screamed.

NO!” Vin cried out harshly and sat up abruptly, sweat bathing his ashen flesh, his heart hammering wildly in his chest. “Alvin, don’t–”

“Ssh.” Instantly Chris was there, winding strong arms about him and pulling him close, cradling the shaken, shaking man against him and rocking him slowly. “It’s all right, Vin,” he soothed, tightening his arms about the tracker’s body. “It’s all right; it was just a dream. He can’t hurt ya any more, I swear it. It was just a dream.”

“Oh, God!” he groaned, burying his face in Larabee’s chest and clutching desperately at the man. “God, Chris, make it go away!”

“I wish I could,” he said, laying a cheek against Tanner’s head and tightening his arms about him. He’d expected this to happen, had seen it happen before. The nightmares came when Vin was sick or exhausted, preyed upon him when he was most vulnerable. Chris had helped him through this too many times not to be waiting for it now. Familiarity, though, didn’t make it any easier to bear. “If I could take any of it away, I would.”

“I keep thinkin’ I’ve made my peace with it,” Vin whispered brokenly. “Keep thinkin’ it’s done …” He shuddered violently and huddled deeper into Chris’s embrace, seeking the warmth and strength that had fled his own body. “Why the hell won’t he leave me alone?”

Anger at Harper burned implacably in Larabee’s heart. It wasn’t enough that the bastard had turned on and tried to kill Vin; he had to keep torturing the man from his grave as well.

“Alvin never did know when ta quit,” Vin breathed, exhausted but unable to stop the flow of words. “Never could take ‘no’ fer an answer. He’d jist keep at ya ’til he finally wore ya down … And I tried, I did. I tried so hard t’ give him what he wanted from me, feel what he wanted me t’ feel, but I jist couldn’t. I never wanted him like that. I tried, though. God help me, I tried!”

Chris lifted a hand and combed his fingers slowly through Vin’s long hair, cradling the bowed head to him. He’d thought that cold-blooded treachery and a nearly fatal gunshot wound were the worst of the hurts Harper had inflicted on Vin; now he wasn’t so sure. “He forced you?” he asked hoarsely, not at all sure he wanted an answer.

Vin shook his head faintly. “No. Jist … jist didn’t stop when I wanted him to.”

Rage ignited in Chris but he tamped it down with an effort, knowing Tanner didn’t need that, couldn’t handle it, just now. “Then he forced you, Vin,” he said, astonished at the evenness of his voice. “If it was somethin’ you didn’t want, if he wouldn’t let you stop him, then he forced you. And it’s wrong.”

“He told me if I let him, then I’d feel fer him what I’s s’posed to. Only,” he swallowed hard as the old feelings of helplessness, fear and shame washed through him, “only I didn’t. Not unless I’s s’posed ta feel used.”

“You weren’t. You’re never supposed to feel that.” He frowned down at Tanner. “That when you left?”

Vin sighed and lifted his head slowly, eyes wide and dark against his ashen face. “Yeah. He apologized after – Alvin always apologized after – but I jist … I couldn’t stay no more. He wanted from me what I couldn’t give an’ got pissed at me when I couldn’t give it. He was usually drunk, but still …” His gaze drifted past Chris and he shook his head slowly. “Got real mad once when I said no, beat me up purty good. Took care of me after, though.” He sighed again. “Like I said, he was always sorry after. Blamed it on the whiskey, swore it’d never happen again.” He shrugged. “An’ it didn’t. Leastways not ’til after I … I let him take me …”

He pulled out of Chris’s arms and turned away, afraid of the disgust he knew he’d see in those beautiful green eyes. Pulling his knees up against his chest, he wrapped his arms around them and bowed his head, already feeling the ache of loss. “I let him talk me into it,” he said in a low, flat voice, feeling the shame of it as keenly now as he had then. “He kep’ sayin’ I owed it to him after all he’d done fer me, kep’ sayin’ it’d make ever’thing better between us. I didn’t really believe him, but … Hell,” he sighed wearily, “we’s partners, right? Friends. Figgered that’d make it all right.” He gave a small, bitter laugh. “Shows what the hell I know.” He lifted his head and stared out into the distance, his pale face a mask of remembered pain. “Before he’d much more’n got started, I changed my mind. Knew it wasn’t gonna be all right after all, tried ta stop him. But he was a bigger man than me, he’d been drinkin’, an’ he was gonna have what he wanted even if he had ta take it. So he took it. After, when I told him there wasn’t a chance in hell that I’d love him now an’ that I wouldn’t be lettin’ him do that no more, he got madder’n I’d ever seen him. Grabbed me up, started beatin’ on me …” He groaned and closed his eyes, wanting to fall once more into Chris’s arms but doubting he’d be welcome there after this. “Weren’t ’til I had my knife at his throat that he stopped. Reckon he knew I’da slit him wide open.”

“Jesus,” Chris whispered, feeling almost sick. And the bastard had had the balls to ask Vin to come back to that?

“Tended my own hurts that time,” Vin went on, his voice hoarse from exhaustion. “Weren’t about ta let him touch me again. Stayed with him ’til we caught the bounty we’s after, let him have most of the money. Didn’t wanta leave owin’ him nothin’. But I told him why I’s leavin’ an’ I told him goodbye. Ain’t nobody else who’s ever tried what he did got that much from me. Shit,” he breathed, “ain’t nobody who’s ever tried it got anything but a quick an’ ugly trip ta hell.”

“Wish you’d given him that trip, too,” Chris growled, his hatred of Harper a raging force within him. “I’m glad we could do it for ya, but I sure as hell wish that he’d died slower.” Vin turned a bewildered gaze to him and he forced his anger down again. Allowing his love and sorrow for the younger man to guide him, he reached out and cradled a gentle hand to the tracker’s face, gazing deeply into confused blue eyes. “Bastard deserved ta suffer for everything he put you through,” he said softly, thumb gently stroking Tanner’s cheek. “He deserved to know the kind of pain he inflicted on you. I’m just sorry I couldn’t stop him from hurting you again.”

Vin stared at Chris in shock, stunned that the man could still look at him, still touch him, with such tenderness. Such love. Maybe if Alvin had ever bothered to look at him like that, touch him like that … “Don’t … don’t it matter ta you,” he asked weakly, mind and heart spinning, “that I let him–”

“No,” Chris answered firmly, “it doesn’t. Hell, Vin, neither of us are virgins! I’d be a fool ta think I’m your first. What does matter ta me is that he forced you. Matters a helluva lot. But not the way you think.” He gazed steadily at Tanner and brushed his fingers lightly over the tracker’s face, wiping away the tracks of his tears, smoothing the hair back from his brow, caressing his beautiful mouth. “He hurt you, Vin,” he said in a low voice filled with anger and sorrow. “He hurt you in ways no one should ever be hurt. He betrayed your trust repeatedly, he beat you when you refused him, he forced himself on you and beat you again when you didn’t love him for it, and then he tried ta kill you when you wouldn’t go back for more of that. Yeah, it matters ta me. Matters so much that I wanta go back, dig up his corpse and shoot him all over again!”

“Why?” Vin whispered, startled by the uncharacteristic outburst.

Chris smiled gently, green eyes dark and deep and soft. “Because it pisses me off when somebody hurts the people I love. And believe me, Vin,” he breathed, “I do love you. More than you’ll ever know.”

“Well,” Vin whispered breathlessly, all but drowning in the gunman’s clear green gaze, “think mebbe you could gimme a hint?”

Chris chuckled softly and leaned forward, slipping his hand around to the back of Tanner’s head and pulling the tracker to him. “Think maybe I could,” he murmured against Vin’s mouth.

He exhaled unsteadily as Chris’s lips claimed his, as the man’s kiss swept through his soul and erased from it every trace of the fear, pain and shame that had been Alvin Harper’s legacy. Strong arms wound tightly about him, pulled him onto Larabee’s lap, and he shuddered at the press of that warm, hard body against him. For long, wondrous moments the bone-deep weariness that had driven him to the brink of collapse was lifted from him and he felt only the sweet pleasure of Chris’s life-giving touch.

He knew he still had much to learn about love, but he figured he’d finally found the man who could teach him properly about it.

Stretched out on the blankets he’d spread next to Vin’s and reclining against his saddle, Chris smiled tenderly down at the man draped over him. Vin’s head was pillowed upon his chest, an arm thrown across his belly, the tracker’s long, slim legs bracketing one of his. He was keenly aware of the deep, even rhythm of Tanner’s breathing, of the steadiness of the heart beating against him, of the relaxed heaviness suffusing the still too-slight body. On Vin’s face, or what of it was visible through the curtain of unruly hair, he saw a rare look of perfect peace and knew the trip here had been worth the ride for that alone. Resting one hand lightly on Tanner’s narrow back, he combed the other gently through the loose waves of Vin’s long, sun-warmed hair, wishing this moment could last forever.

Strange to think how deeply profound a joy it could be just to cradle this man to him …

Vin stirred slightly against him and Chris stilled him with a touch, his smile softening as the tracker settled once more without ever waking. He’d done this so often since the shooting, soothed Vin with his hands or his voice when pain, fever or the nightmares had gripped him, helping him find much-needed rest, and always it amazed him that he, and many times he alone, had the power to bring the man such comfort. He’d lost the habit of tenderness after Sarah and Adam had died, had thought he’d lost the knack for it as well. Yet something in the man now sleeping in his arms brought it all back to him, brought it all back out of him, had somehow gentled a killer’s hands into those of a lover.

And all he’d had to do to accomplish that was to so nearly die …

Chris shivered despite the afternoon’s warmth and tightened his arms about Vin, holding the tracker more closely against him. Christ, no matter how many times he relived that day in his mind, no matter how familiar or how long ago it seemed, he still felt the same hard, sick clench of his gut, the same painful seizing of his heart, the same fear and horror erupting through him that he’d felt when Harper’s bullet had torn into Vin’s body and damn near torn the man out of his life. He didn’t remember anything else, didn’t remember drawing his own gun and drilling Harper in the head and the heart, didn’t remember Buck, Ezra and JD adding their shots to his, didn’t remember Ezra in a wholly uncharacteristic display of terror racing out of the saloon and yelling frantically for Nathan. He’d been told about all that later, but none of it had registered then.

All he remembered, and what still haunted his dreams, was the terrible calm in Alvin Harper’s flat black eyes as he’d stared at Vin, the steadiness of the gun he’d aimed at the tracker, the explosion louder than any he’d ever heard, and the look of utter surprise on Vin’s face as he’d fallen, a crimson stain blossoming across his bright blue shirt. The shirt that Chris so clearly recalled thinking matched exactly the vivid blue of the tracker’s impossibly wide eyes …

Even before the last echo of gunfire died away, Chris thrust his Colt into its holster with a shaking hand and whirled to stare in stunned horror at Vin, who was hanging against the bar, his wide blue eyes filled with shock, face draining of color. The tracker turned those unblinking eyes upon him and opened his mouth, but no sound escaped him. Chris took a small, lurching step toward him but, before he could reach him, Tanner stiffened and gasped sharply, his mind finally registering the hurt that had been done to his body. Then his legs buckled and he slid bonelessly to the floor like a marionette whose strings had been cut.

“Jesus, Vin!” Chris gasped, stumbling forward and falling to his knees at the wounded man’s side. “Vin!” Heedless of the pandemonium breaking out around him, he reached out with another harsh cry and snatched the tracker into his arms, transfixed by the sight of the dark stain spreading so rapidly across the man’s abdomen. Terrified by the heavy flow of blood, he sat back on his ass to get Vin across his lap, thrust up one knee to brace Tanner’s back and shoved a trembling hand hard against the wound to stem that awful tide. The blood welled between his fingers and he pressed harder still, tearing a stricken cry from the tracker. “I’m sorry, Vin!” he rasped. “But I gotta do this. Jesus, you’re bleedin’ bad!” Tanner shuddered heavily and gave an anguished gasp, his glazed eyes fixing on a point just over Larabee’s shoulder. Chris could almost see the man slipping away, and cold terror exploded through him. “Look at me!” he shouted harshly, pressing harder still against the wound. “You stay with me, you hear? You hear me, Vin? Goddamn it, don’t you leave me now!”

“Chris.” Buck was across from him now, kneeling at Vin’s other side, and the big man reached out to close a strong hand hard about his arm. “You gotta lay him down, Chris,” he ordered urgently, blue eyes glittering with the same fear that burned in Larabee’s soul. “We gotta get more pressure on that wound and ya can’t do it holdin’ him like that. Ya gotta let go and lay him down–”

No!” he spat, clutching all the more tightly at Vin. “I can’t! If I let go he’ll die–”

“And he’ll bleed ta death if ya don’t!” Buck snapped. “You can hold his hand if ya need to an’ I’ll help with the pressure, but, goddamn it, Chris, we’re gonna lose him if ya don’t lay him down!”

Chris shook his head tightly but didn’t speak, couldn’t speak, was too consumed in fear. Vin wouldn’t leave him as long as he held him, wouldn’t die while he held him to this life–

“We’re gonna lose him while you’re sittin’ there!” Buck shouted hoarsely. “Is that really what you want?”

He tore his gaze from Buck’s face then and dropped it to the hand he had pressed into Vin’s body, staring in horrified fascination at the dark red blood washing his fingers and seeping into the cuff of his shirt. Vin’s blood, God, so much blood–


With a wrenching groan he loosened his hold and let Buck take the tracker from him. At once, though, Vin arched his back and cried out harshly, his ashen face a mask of agony. As Buck shoved his big hands against the wound, tearing another cry from him, Chris reached out and grabbed his hand, holding tightly to it and leaning over him, staring into his tortured eyes and brushing the fingers of his other hand through Tanner’s hair.

“It’s all right, Vin,” he soothed, barely recognizing the thick, hoarse, shaking voice as his own. “I’ve got ya. Just hold onta me. Nathan’ll be here any minute and he’ll take care of ya. But we gotta get the bleedin’ stopped, you hear me? You hear me? I know it hurts like hell, but we gotta do it. So you just hang onta me, stay with me–”

“Hurts,” Vin hissed through tightly clenched teeth, his whole body rigid with pain. “Cain’t–”

“Goddamn it, yes you can!” Chris snarled, closing his hand fiercely around fingers growing too pale and cool. “I know it hurts, I know that, but you gotta stay with me, you hear? We still got too much ta do for you ta run out on me now.” Vin groaned thickly and closed his eyes, shuddering hard, and terror clamped a frozen fist around Larabee’s heart. “Look at me, goddamn it!” he shouted. “Open your fuckin’ eyes and look at me!” Vin forced his eyes open and they pleaded with Chris to let him go, but Larabee refused to yield. “What about Tascosa?” he spat. “You wanta die a wanted man? You wanta meet your ma and pa and your grandpa and explain ta them why you let yourself die without clearin’ your name?”

“Jesus, Chris!” Buck protested sharply. “You can’t–”

“Shut up, Buck!” he snapped, never looking away from Tanner’s eyes. “We’re goin’ ta Tascosa, remember? Goin’ together ta lift that stain from your name. You can’t die before that happens, you hear me, Vin? I swear ta God we’ll do it, you an’ me. Hell, all of us! We’ll ride ta Texas, make ’em see reason, make ’em admit you ain’t a murderer. I swear we’ll do it, Vin, I swear it on Sarah and Adam’s graves. We’ll do whatever we have to, we’ll do anything it takes, I promise, Vin, I promise you! Anything, anything it takes, anything at all … Just please, God, please don’t die!

Vin opened his mouth to answer, but arched against Buck’s hands and screamed in agony. The sound tore through Chris like a heated knife, searing him to his soul and plunging deep into his gut. Once more he tried to take Vin into his arms, but strong hands gripped his shoulders and tried to pull him back. He swore harshly and launched a desperate fight against them.

“Easy, Chris, easy!” Josiah’s deep voice filled his ears as iron-hard arms wrapped around him. “It’s just me. But you gotta let Nathan have him now.”

He ceased struggling then and looked up, startled to see the healer trying to get past him to Vin. “Nathan?”

“I need ta be where you are, Chris,” Jackson said, his dark face creased with worry. “I gotta know what I’m dealin’ with, an’ I need Buck ta stay where he is, keep pressure on the wound.”

Dazed, almost frozen with fear, Chris let Josiah ease him to his feet and lead him away from Vin. His knees buckled as Vin gave another anguished cry, and only Josiah’s grip on him kept him from falling. JD, looking every bit as shaken as he felt, started toward him, then glanced toward the doorway and swore under his breath, anger kindling in his wide dark eyes.

“Damn vultures!” the boy spat, hurrying away.

Frowning, Chris turned and for the first time saw the spectators gathered around Harper’s body and alternating their attention between the dead man and the wounded regulator. His temper began to boil as he recognized the scavengers drawn by the lure of spilled blood. Pulling out of Josiah’s grasp with a low, foul curse, he dropped a hand to his gun and stalked toward the crowd, lean frame taut with a fury he didn’t bother to disguise. If they wanted blood, he’d be glad to oblige them.

“Get out!” he snarled, mouth twisting, eyes narrowing, his soul seething. It was bad enough that the whole ugly story, likely with some uglier embellishments, would be all over town before suppertime. He’d be damned if he’d let them turn Vin’s suffering into their entertainment as well. “In two seconds I’ll shoot whoever’s left.”

The threat, or promise, was all it took to send the gawkers scrambling over themselves, each other and Harper’s body to get out of the saloon, and Larabee’s contempt for them rose a notch higher. Turning his back on them even before they’d left, he searched JD’s pale face and haunted eyes intently, reading plainly the terrible helplessness mirrored there and the need to do something, to be of some use when he was so completely out of his element. Understanding that need, feeling it in himself, he reached out and set a hand on the boy’s shoulder, not at all certain whether the trembling he felt was JD’s or his own.

“They’re gonna be buzzin’ around like flies on shit,” he said in a low voice. “Vin wouldn’t want anybody starin’ at him. You think you can keep ’em away?”

Gratitude at being assigned a function he could perform flooded JD’s face and he exhaled sharply, raising glistening eyes to Chris and nodding once. “Yeah, I think I can,” he answered unsteadily. “Won’t any of ’em get near him, I promise.”

Chris squeezed the boy’s shoulder hard and for a moment actually leaned upon it, desperately in need of some of that youthful strength. “I know,” he rasped breathlessly, amazed by the effort it took just to speak. “I know you’ll do right by Vin.”

JD straightened at the praise, his face coloring slightly. But as his gaze drifted past Larabee to Harper’s corpse, he deflated visibly and paled once more. “Guess I should move … him … outta the way,” he murmured, clearly dreading the task. “Wouldn’t want them trippin’ over him on their way out, droppin’ V–” He choked on the tracker’s name, then swallowed hard. “I’ll see to it,” he whispered hoarsely.

Chris exhaled unsteadily and nodded as a heavy wave of relief swept through him. He’d also realized that Harper lay in the way of the doors, but had dreaded the prospect of having to touch the man long enough to move him. Had feared what violence he might wreak on the corpse. “Thanks, kid,” he breathed, wondering exactly when JD had grown up and how he’d missed seeing it happen.

He withdrew his hand and started to leave, but, before he could, JD reached out and grabbed his arm, staring pleadingly up at him. “He’s … he’s gonna be all right, ain’t he?” he asked softly, his voice quivering. “I mean … God, Chris, all that blood!”

Without thinking, Chris drew the boy into a tight embrace, bowing his head over JD’s dark one. “I don’t know,” he whispered harshly, the words clawing through his soul. He lifted his head and stared over JD as Buck and Josiah lifted Vin’s limp body from the floor and started slowly toward them, the two big men carrying the smaller one of as if he were the most precious and most fragile treasure on earth. “But I hope ta God he is!”

The stench of blood was overwhelming in the close confines of the clinic, making Chris’s head reel and his stomach churn. More than once he had to fight against his urge to gag. Dazedly he realized that he was covered in it, as were Buck and Nathan, and wondered idly if they could somehow just squeeze it out of their clothes and back into Vin.

God knew there couldn’t be much in him right now …

Nathan’s sharp summons pulled him out of his bizarre reverie and he hurried to the bed. “Need that gunbelt off him now,” Nathan ordered grimly, and Chris set to the task at once, fingers working of their own accord while his mind riveted itself to the man lying so frightfully still and silent on the bed. They’d finally slowed and then stopped the appalling flow of blood, but Vin’s clothes were sodden and dark with the stuff, and again Chris had to choke back nausea at the heavy metallic smell. Hell, even the gunbelt was slick with it …

Finally he stripped off the belt and was startled when it was taken from him. Looking up, he found himself staring into Ezra’s face, and realized that the gambler looked as shocked and frightened as any of them. “Thanks,” he breathed hoarsely.

Ezra swallowed and nodded faintly. “I fear I am rather at loose ends, so any small task is welcome. And no doubt Nathan shall soon have need of your hands.” He looked down at the gunbelt, seemed not to care that the blood-stained leather was sullying his fingers. “I shall see about having this cleaned,” he breathed distractedly, his voice lacking entirely its customary smoothness. “No doubt he … he will want it returned … in its usual pristine state.”

That was true, Chris thought, his mind again spinning off on a tangent. However dusty and scruffy his appearance might be, Vin always kept his gunbelt, weapons and tack immaculate. God, how many hours had he spent with the man on quiet mornings or lazy afternoons, watching in rapt fascination as those long, slender fingers had worked with such effortless skill at cleaning and oiling guns and leather?

“Thanks, Ezra,” he finally rasped. “I know he … he’ll appreciate that.”

“All right,” Nathan said, “Buck, Chris, y’all git his clothes off. Josiah, get the laudanum, mix it with whiskey an’ try ta get it down him. JD, I’m gon’ need water, hot and cold. Go see Pete at the bathhouse, see if he’s got any on the stove. Ezra, you gon’ be my extra pair a’ hands …”

He ordered them about like a field general directing his troops, no doubt realizing that the stunned and shaken peacekeepers needed occupation for their hands and minds. For once, Chris was glad to have someone else do his thinking for him. He pulled a chair to the bedside and held up Vin’s head while Josiah tried to dribble the mix of laudanum and whiskey into his mouth, feeling a sharp twinge of relief each time the tracker swallowed. He was still with them. When they’d gotten down him as much as he’d take, Chris bent himself to removing Vin’s clothes, his fingers leaden and clumsy in their shaking, his heart beating a frantic rhythm in his chest. He managed to unknot the bandanna at Tanner’s throat and toss it aside, but the buttons of the man’s shirt defeated him. A low growl of frustration tore from him.

“Ain’t got time fo’ that,” Nathan said, returning to the bed with the tray bearing his instruments. “Jes’ cut it off. Undershirt too. Cain’t have nothin’ in my way.”

Chris stared at Nathan, then down at Vin’s shirt. The shirt that was as blue as his eyes …

“Chris,” Buck called softly.

Dragging his eyes from Vin’s shirt, he forced them around to Buck, then dropped them to the knife the man held out to him. Vin’s knife. Oh, God, this couldn’t be happening.

“Take it, pard,” Buck said gently, extending the big knife further. “We know it’s clean and sharp.”

Of course it was; it was Vin’s. He reached out a badly shaking hand and closed it around the grip, almost fancying that it was still warm from Vin’s touch. He thought again of the skill with which Tanner wielded it, of the care the man bestowed on it, and silently apologized for putting it to such use.

“Chris,” Nathan called softly, “it’s gotta be done now. He cain’t wait.”

Chris nodded and swallowed, tightened his hold on the knife and drew a breath for steadiness and strength. Then, carefully pulling the tail of the sky-blue shirt out of the waistband of the trousers Buck and Nathan were just as carefully removing, he slid the sharp edge of the knife under the hem, pulled the fabric taut and began to cut. The Bowie made short work of the shirt and all too soon it lay ruined and open, exposing the worn undershirt beneath.

At least that wouldn’t be such a loss …

Within moments he, Buck and Nathan had the unconscious man stripped and Josiah was spreading a sheet over his lower body to preserve his modesty. Then Nathan, seated at Vin’s other side, went to work, cleaning the blood from the skin around the wound, fingers working with skill and gentleness, his lips pursed tightly. When that was done, he drew a breath, reached for his probe and lifted his head to sweep Josiah, Buck and Chris with his solemn gaze.

“Gon’ need y’all ta hold him still,” he said quietly, dark eyes somber. “I gotta get that bullet out, an’ I cain’t have him thrashin’ around on me. I don’t wanta do no mo' damage than what’s already been done, an’ God knows he cain’t afford ta lose no mo’ blood. So, Buck, you hold his legs. Chris, Josiah, y’all get his shoulders.”

Chris swallowed hard against another heave of his stomach. “But … the laudanum ain’t had time …”

“I know that,” Nathan said gently. “But we cain’t wait. He cain’t wait. It’s gon’ take fifteen, twenty minutes fo’ the laudanum ta take hold, an’ he jes’ ain’t got that time ta waste.” His eyes implored Larabee to understand. “We gotta do this now, Chris. I don’ like it anymore’n you, but I like it more’n I like lettin’ him die while we wait.”

Chris felt as if the same bullet lodged in Vin’s body was lodged in his heart. God, hadn’t the man suffered enough? He raised a shaking hand and pressed it to his forehead, closing his eyes and trying desperately to gather his strength. I like it more’n I like lettin’ him die while we wait …

“All right,” he whispered. “Let’s do it.”

Time seemed to stop as Nathan took up the probe and bent over Vin, his face a grim mask of concentration. Chris leaned over and laid his left forearm over Tanner’s chest and shoulder, then set his right arm across his left, ready to throw all his weight into holding the tracker in place. Across from him, at Vin’s right side, Josiah did the same, while Buck placed his big hands on Tanner’s thighs. For once the man who hated restraint of any kind seemed not even to know he was being held, which worried Chris no end.

God, he wanted Vin to fight!

Nathan licked his lips and slid the probe into the wound, following the path of the bullet. Vin still lay unresisting and a soft, stricken groan escaped Chris. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, knowing he should pray but unable to. That part of him, too, had been lost with Sarah and Adam. All he could do was lean over Vin, grip his bare, cool shoulder and hope against all forlorn hope that he wouldn’t lose this man, too.

“Wait,” Nathan said into the screaming silence of the room. “I think I got it– Y’all hold him!” he shouted as Vin suddenly came alive at the contact of probe with bullet, arching off the bed and uttering a harsh, guttural cry of sheer agony. Lulled by his stillness, Chris and Josiah had let their holds slacken and he almost tore out of them, his eyes open, wild and unseeing, his white face a twisted mask of hellish pain. “Hold him, dammit!” Nathan bellowed in mingled fear and anger as the tracker’s violent movements loosed yet another heavy flow of blood that the man could ill afford to lose. “Ezra, help me here b’fo’ he bleeds t’ death!” he ordered hoarsely. Immediately, the gambler’s hands joined his own in trying to stanch the bleeding, and he looked up to level a dark and desperate gaze upon Chris and Josiah. “Y’all git him down an’ git him still now!”

“Easy, Vin, easy,” Chris soothed as he joined his weight to Josiah’s and bore the struggling tracker back to the bed. Vin was fighting, God, he was fighting, and Chris near laughed aloud with hysterical relief. “It’s all right, pard, it’s all right. You gotta lay still, hear me? You got a bullet in ya and Nathan’s gotta get it out. You hear me, Vin? You gotta lay still. But it’s all right, pard, you’re safe. We got ya. You’re safe, you hear me? You’re safe.”

Vin clenched his jaws and continued to strain against the men holding him, the cords of his neck standing out, his hands balling into fists. Sounds of pain escaped him on every breath and sweat poured from his colorless flesh. But Chris and Josiah had more reason to hold him than he had to fight, and their strength prevailed.

Finally, with Ezra’s help, Nathan got the fresh bleeding stopped. “All right,” he breathed, taking his forceps, “y’all hold him jes’ like that. Buck, you keep his legs still. I don’ want him so much as twitchin’.” And he leaned over to go after the bullet.

Chris continued to talk to Vin, keeping up a low and steady stream of words, doubting Vin could understand him but hoping desperately the man could at least hear him. And somehow, somehow it seemed to work. Though he never relaxed, couldn’t relax with Nathan digging inside him for the piece of lead that had so brutally invaded him, he turned his face to Chris and stared fixedly up at the man, breathing in short, harsh gasps and seeming to cling to the sound of Larabee’s voice like a lifeline.

“Got it!” Nathan announced with breathless relief after minutes that had stretched into hours. He pulled out the bullet and dropped it onto the tray at his side. “Ezra, get some pressure on the wound,” he ordered as still more blood welled forth. “JD, I need some clean water t’ wash my hands. Let’s see if we cain’t git this done.”

Ignoring Nathan’s actions, Chris concentrated solely on the man he held, listening to the hoarse rasp of his breathing, speaking softly to him the whole while. All that mattered was keeping Vin here, with him, and he poured his whole self into that effort. Finally weakness, pain and the laudanum caught up with the tracker, overcame him, and he slipped into unconsciousness, his eyes closing, a soft groan escaping him and his struggles subsiding once more into stillness.

That peace terrified Chris. “Vin!” he cried strickenly. “Vin!

“It’s all right, Chris,” Josiah intoned softly. “He needs the rest. Let him go.”

Chris looked up at the preacher, raw agony pouring from every part of him. “And if he doesn’t come back?” he whispered brokenly.

Josiah lifted one hand from Vin and set it on Chris’s tight, shaking shoulder. “Then, brother, we’ll have to find a way to live with that.”

Chris had no words for that, knew in his heart he’d never be able to do it.

Nathan cleaned the wound with carbolic and sutured it, then packed yarrow leaves over it. With hands only now beginning to tremble, he bathed the blood from Vin’s body and carefully wound pristine bandages around the tracker’s waist. Silence again reigned while he worked, the other men in that room hardly daring to breathe for fear of snapping whatever delicate thread still held Vin with them. Chris knew he should sit up, knew he no longer had any real reason to hold the unconscious man, but he couldn’t bring himself to break that grip. Again and again the unreasonable fear raced through him that if he let go, if he left, Vin would die.

And, God, he was tired of losing people he loved …

That thought alone snapped him straight up in his chair, washed the color from his face and tore a sharp gasp from him. Jesus, where had that come from? He couldn’t possibly … not Vin …

Could he?

He dropped his startled gaze to Vin, half afraid the man would be awake and staring at him with those knowing eyes that seemed so easily to pull all the secrets from his soul. Jesus, could that be one of those secrets? He sank back in his chair and swallowed weakly, trembling inside, stunned and frightened by the truth suddenly breaking through the wall he’d erected against it.

Oh, God …

From the very first he’d known that what he and Vin shared was special, something much more and much deeper than mere friendship, an immediate and intimate understanding, a communion of minds and souls that had come more naturally to them even than breathing. They couldn’t read each other’s minds, as the others so often joked that they did, but they didn’t have to, either. There was such a perfect harmony to their thoughts and feelings that one had only to know himself to know the other. And because of that harmony, that knowing, Chris had no need to hide or pretend with the tracker, couldn’t have even if he had wanted to. Tanner’s first look had laid him open and stripped him bare, piercing him to the furthest depths of himself and seeing every strength, every flaw, every scar, finding every dark place and shining warm light into it. Vin’s quiet, steady presence had become the surest, most restful place he knew, and Chris took every chance he could to retreat to it, knowing he’d find his better self waiting there for him.

Just as he’d always found it waiting for him in Sarah …

And there it was. He’d always known but had never accepted, had told himself that what was exactly the same had to be different because he couldn’t possibly feel for Vin all that he’d felt for Sarah. Couldn’t possibly feel for another man what he’d felt for his wife. Except that he did, felt it with exactly the same depth and fullness, clung to it now as he’d clung to it then when all else had deserted him, found his strength in it when there was nothing left in himself. And would be just as crippled by its loss now as he’d been when Sarah had been taken from him.

Oh, God, God, he loved Vin!

He suddenly felt eyes upon him and pulled himself out of his stunned reverie just enough to look up and see Josiah staring at him, a soft, grave look in the man’s pale blue eyes. Frightened by that look, he snatched his own eyes away, but knew it had been too late.

Sanchez knew, and likely always had.

A hard, shuddering breath escaped him as a wholly unfamiliar feeling of helplessness washed through him. He should put these feelings away again, he knew, should build that damned wall so high and so strong that nothing would ever get through it again. Such feelings weren’t right, weren’t natural …

Except that they were the most natural thing he’d ever known, and the heart he’d thought had died with Sarah suddenly wanted nothing more than to live again with Vin …

Oh, God, Vin.

Reality hit him in a crashing, crushing wave and he jerked his gaze to Nathan, going cold inside as he watched the healer. Jackson had half risen from his chair and was leaning over Vin, pulling the sheet up over the tracker’s pale, still form, his dark eyes filled with a terrible sorrow. He tucked the covers closely around Vin’s shoulders, then swept a gentle hand up to brush the lank hair away from Tanner’s slack face. And Chris’s heart broke when he saw Nathan cup that big, dark hand with infinite tenderness to Vin’s ashen cheek, unbearable pain written in every line of his face.

Jesus, no …

“N … Nathan?” he croaked, certain he didn’t want to hear what the healer would say.

Nathan took a moment longer with Vin, then settled himself once more in his chair and bowed his head, closing his eyes and clasping his hands together, looking for all the world as if he were praying. Maybe giving his patient into hands far more capable than his own …

Josiah stepped to Jackson’s side and dropped a strong hand to one slumped shoulder. “Tell us, brother,” he urged softly.

Nathan shook his bowed head slowly, never opening his eyes. “Cain’t say what y’all wanta hear,” he sighed. He drew a slow, deep breath, then raised his head and opened his eyes, turning them first to Chris and then dragging them away, as if unable to face what he saw in the gaze fixed upon him. “Bullet … hit him in a bad place,” he said quietly, haltingly, each word seeming to cause him physical pain. “Looks like it … hit his liver. That’s why he’s bleedin’ so much, why it’s so hard ta get it stopped.” He swallowed hard and closed his eyes again, his head dropping once more. “I cain’t fix a liver,” he said in a hoarse, hollow voice. “Nobody can. Either it fixes itself or …” His words trailed off into an aching silence.

But Chris wouldn’t leave it there, couldn’t leave it there. Knotting his hands into fists and clenching his jaws, he spat, “Or what?”

Nathan’s head snapped up and dark, anguished eyes flew to Larabee’s face. “Or it won’t an’ he’ll die!” he answered harshly. “That what ya wanta hear? If the bullet jes’ nicked it, it might be able ta fix itself. Liver can do that. But if it went through it, or if it hit anything else, like his bowel, then there ain’t a thing in the world I can do fo’ him. Hell, even if it did jes’ nick it, chances are there still ain’t nothin’ I can do. Y’all saw how much blood he lost. Man damn near bled out in front of us! An’ if he don’t stay still, he could start bleedin’ again. I cain’t fix lost blood, either. Hell, I cain’t fix any a’ this! If the bullet hit his bowel o’ his stomach, then poisons’ll flood his body an’ he’ll die. If I missed somethin’ and he’s bleedin’ from somewhere else inside, he’ll die. I done all I could, I done all I know how ta do, and likely it ain’t gon’ be enough!” he cried roughly, his voice shaking uncontrollably, tears spilling from his eyes and rolling down his face. “I’m sorry!” he whispered to Chris in torment. “I’m truly sorry, but I jes’ don’t think any of it’s enough. God help me, God fo’give me, but I don’t think he’s gon’ make it.”

It was too much. With a hoarse, inarticulate cry, Chris shot to his feet, knocking his chair over behind him, and staggered blindly around the bed and out of the clinic, his heart in jagged pieces, his soul splintering. Again his stomach was heaving and this time he didn’t have the strength to contain it. He stumbled down the stairs and then ducked under them, hitting his knees in the dirt and doubling over as violent sickness hit him.

Oh, God, God, no!

Hard sobs shook him as he retched, as, again, his world exploded into a screaming darkness around him. Why? Why? What was it in him that doomed him to live while those he loved died? What was it that doomed him to watch while his life, his world, was lowered into a grave? Goddamn it, goddamn it, how many times could one man be flung into hell?

He never heard anyone approach, didn’t know he was no longer alone until he felt the strong hand slowly stroking his back. He should’ve been humiliated for anyone to see him like this, but he no longer had any pride left, no longer had anything left except the hideous pain tearing him to pieces.

“I’m sorry,” Josiah said softly, sadly, still stroking Larabee’s heaving back. “I wish I had some words of comfort, some words of wisdom, even some words of explanation. But I don’t and I won’t dishonor your pain by pretendin’ that I do.”

Finally empty and spent, having nothing more to throw up or cry out, Chris sat back on his haunches and reached up to take the bandanna Josiah extended over his shoulder. He wiped his face and hands, then threw the bandanna aside. “You’re a preacher,” he said in a hard, flat voice. “Aren’t you s’posed ta tell me that God has a plan?”

“Oh,” Sanchez sighed, “I’m sure God does have a plan. I just think it stinks ta high heaven. And I’ve told him so.”

“Yeah?” Chris moved away from the mess he’d made and sat down in the dirt to face the older man. “What did He say ta that?”

Josiah shrugged. “Don’t guess it bothered Him much. I never got an explanation.”

A familiar cold rage gripped Chris’s soul; or what was left of it. “You tell Him for me that He’s a sonuvabitch.”

“I’ll do that.” He studied Larabee through sorrowful eyes. “Nathan isn’t givin’ up, you know,” he said softly. “He may not think Vin’s gonna live, but he’ll do everything he can to prove himself wrong. And we all know that Vin’s a fighter.”

“Vin ain’t got nothin’ left ta fight with,” Chris snarled. “He left it all in a pool on the saloon floor, remember?”

Josiah shook his graying head slowly. “Vin ain’t ever needed blood or muscle or bone ta fight. His strength don’t come from his body, you know that. If it did, he’da been dead a long time ago. That boy fights from the heart, the spirit, and when it comes ta those things, there’s not a stronger man on God’s earth than Vin Tanner.” He narrowed his eyes slightly and tipped his head to one side. “I’da thought you knew that better than anybody,” he added softly.

Chris gasped in pain at the words. Jesus, didn’t he know that! Hell, he’d come to depend on it! And that was exactly what made this so hard. “May be true for him,” he breathed, bowing his head and shaking it slowly, “but not for me. I just don’t think I can do this again.”

“Do what again?”

Chris lifted his head and fixed his raw gaze upon Sanchez, unable to conceal his pain. “This,” he whispered. “Let go, say goodbye, bury somebody else I l–” He broke off abruptly and clenched his jaws, fighting back the words that would betray him. “Bury somebody else,” he finished weakly.

Josiah nodded slowly, that strange knowing again filling his eyes. “It is hard,” he agreed softly, his voice heavy with sorrow. “But if it were easy to let someone go, then it wouldn’t say much about what they mean to us, would it? Wouldn’t say much about our capacity ta love.”

“Sometimes that capacity’s just bled out of us,” Chris said bitterly.

“Sometimes. But that hasn’t happened ta you.” He looked around. “Else we wouldn’t be down here now havin’ this conversation, and you wouldn’t have made that mess in the dirt.”

Chris glanced again at the “mess” and snorted sharply. “That’s a fine tribute to a man like Vin.”

Josiah shrugged lightly. “I’ve seen worse.”

Chris sighed heavily and shook his head tightly as his eyes again filled with tears. “God, Josiah, what am I gonna do if he dies?” he asked in a ragged whisper, his heart contracting painfully in his chest. “There’s so much I need ta tell him, so much he needs ta know …”

Josiah moved closer and reached out, gripping Chris’s arm in a big but gentle hand. “I think he already does,” he said softly. “I think he always has. I think he’s just been waiting for you ta figure it out. He’s a tracker, remember? He reads signs and trails the rest of us don’t even know exist. And while you may be the most distant, unreadable, closed-off sonuvabitch the rest of us have ever known, that boy up there has read you clear and true from the very first day. So, yeah, he already knows. But now he needs ta know that you know. And you need ta tell him before it’s too late. Because there are just some regrets a man should never have, and you know that better than anybody.”

He closed his eyes and thought of Sarah and Adam, of the last time he’d seen them alive. Had he told them he loved them before riding away? He liked to think he had, but he couldn’t be sure. And that uncertainty had haunted him since the day he’d returned to find their charred bodies.

“We always hear so much about the words we can’t take back,” Josiah said gently, sadly. “What we don’t hear so much about, though, is the words we can no longer give. Like any man, you’ve already got enough ‘should haves’ in your life, Chris. Don’t let this be one more. Talkin’ to the dead might soothe our consciences, but it doesn’t do them a damn bit of good.”

Chris winced and shook his head. “You’re wrong, preacher,” he breathed. “Talkin’ to the dead doesn’t do a thing in the world ta soothe my conscience.”

“Well then,” Sanchez said with a slight smile, “you might try talkin’ to the livin’. Might do ya both a world of good.”

“And if he dies anyway?” Chris rasped, haunted by that fear.

“Then at least he’ll die knowin’ how you feel,” Josiah said with a soft urgency. “That’s bound ta bring him some kinda peace. And I think he deserves that much at least, don’t you?”

“He deserves more,” Chris whispered miserably. “He deserves everything–”

“Maybe,” Josiah breathed sadly. “But right now just try givin’ him what he wants. I think you’ll see that, for him, that’s more than enough.”

“So we’ll have what?” Chris demanded in a shaking voice. “A few hours? Maybe a day or two? Then what? We bury him and I’m left alone? Again? What the hell good does that do?”

’Cause you lost ’em, are you sorry you ever had ’em?” Josiah returned Chris’s startled stare evenly. “Nathan told me about that day, about what you said. Those words meant somethin’ to him because they came from you, came from what you knew.” He regarded Larabee steadily. “We can choose to mark our lives by what we’ve lost or by what we’ve gained, Chris. Losing Vin will hurt us all. But think on the time that we’ve had him with us, think on all he’s given us, on all he’s given you, and you tell me – what the hell good has it done?”

Chris stiffened and inhaled sharply as Sanchez’s words hit him square in the heart. He blinked rapidly, trying to find some answer, then realized he had none to give. Not to Josiah, anyway. Without a word, he rose slowly to his feet, dusted the dirt from his clothes, then turned and made his way on surprisingly steady legs back to the stairs that would lead him up to Vin.

The only man he could give his answer to.

He stepped into the clinic and immediately felt its darkness and silence engulf him despite the sunlight and street noises pouring through the open windows. He stood rooted in the doorway for long moments, unable to move, paralyzed by the irrational but unshakable fear that Vin was already gone. Reason told him that someone would’ve come for him, that he never would’ve been allowed just to stumble onto the tracker’s death this way, but reason meant precious little to a man whose heart was being torn into pieces.

Vin was dying. How could reason possibly stand against the sheer horror of that?

He opened his mouth to speak, to ask, but no words came from him; not even a sound. He licked his lips and tried again, but still nothing. God, he couldn’t even say it! He stared at the figure on the bed, hoping for some sign, but Vin lay unnaturally still, unnaturally silent, unnaturally pale, looking for all the world like an empty shell from which all life had fled.

Jesus, Nathan would’ve sent someone for him … wouldn’t he?

He shifted his gaze to healer for some measure of reassurance but found none from that quarter. Nathan was still in the chair at Vin’s bedside, his big body bent over at the waist, elbows on his knees and his head in his hands, his grief a palpable force. At that sight, a low, stricken sound broke from Chris and his knees buckled beneath him.

“Whoa, stud, easy there!” Buck soothed, grabbing him just before he collapsed and holding tightly to him, keeping him upright. “C’mon, let’s get you in that other chair–”

“N … no, I … I can’t,” he gasped harshly, shaking his head frantically as he clutched at Wilmington. He’d been a fool to think he could do this, could just sit here and wait for Vin to … “I g … I gotta go back outside … get some air …”

“I don’t think so, Chris,” Buck countered softly, sadly, never loosening his hold on Larabee. “You need ta be here. If … when Vin wakes up, you’re the one he’s gonna need ta see. And, frankly, right now I think that what he needs is just a little more important than what you want.”

Chris sucked in a sharp, startled breath and stiffened in Buck’s grasp, staring up at the man as mingled fear and hope chased through him. “When … then … he’s not …” Try as he might, he couldn’t make himself say the word.

But Buck seemed to hear it anyway and smiled gently, though the terrible sadness never left his eyes. “No, Chris, he ain’t dead,” he assured Larabee. “Don’t you think one of us woulda come for ya if he’d died?”

Chris closed his eyes and bowed his head, trying to hide the tears he couldn’t hold back. “I don’t know!” he whispered brokenly. “I mean, I do know, but … but I … I just …”

“Yeah, I know,” Buck sighed, gathering the shaking man against his broad chest and holding tightly to him. “What yer head knows ain’t worth spit right now. But he is alive, Chris, and I figure that means that yer place is right there at his side. Even if he don’t wake up,” his soft voice splintered into hoarse shards of grief, “hell,” he whispered roughly, “some part of him’s bound ta know you’re there, and that’s gotta bring him some kinda peace.”

Chris raised his head at that and stared into Buck’s face, coupling the big man’s words with the ones Josiah had spoken earlier and frowning in confusion. “How is it that you’re all so sure I can give him what he wants? What he needs?”

Buck returned that stare evenly. “Because ya been doin’ it ever’ since you two hooked up,” he said with a quiet certainty. “Can’t see any reason that’d change now. Not when he needs ya more than ever.”

Chris turned away suddenly, feeling the sharp sting of guilt. He hadn’t given Vin what he wanted, what he needed. He’d been too damned busy hiding from the truth, too afraid of what that truth said about him. Too afraid of what loving another man would make him …

When all it had made him was a coward.

“Oh, Jesus,” he groaned softly, flinching and bowing his head as pain and shame lashed him. “Jesus, I should’ve–”

“Y’ ain’t got time fer that, Chris,” Buck chided, an edge of hardness creeping into his voice. “You can whip yerself later with all the shoulda’s an’ woulda’s an’ coulda’s, can dive right inta yer grief an’ roll around in it fer a good long time. But right now you got other business. And that business is sittin’ at that boy’s side an’ makin’ sure he knows that he ain’t gonna die alone. We both know he deserves that much at least. Especially from you.”

Chris jerked as if he’d been shot and turned sharply back to Buck as panic raced through him. Oh, God, did they all know? But for once Wilmington’s face, usually so expressive, revealed nothing to him, except a deep sadness for Vin.

Christ, he’d never make it through this …

Still, even without Buck’s prodding, he knew he had to try, knew he had to hold himself together at least until Vin … was gone. Buck was right; he didn’t matter right now. Only Vin did. And somehow, God, somehow he had to find a way to let the man know just how much he did matter. Would always matter.

Drawing a deep breath, he pulled himself to his full height and turned away from Buck, lifting his head and walking slowly across the small clinic to the bed that seemed both much too close and a world away. But at last, after either a heartbeat or an hour, he reached the empty chair at Vin’s left side and folded his long frame stiffly into it, then leaned forward and gently took Tanner’s limp hand, cradling the cool, colorless fingers tenderly between his own.

And suddenly realized he was exactly where he belonged.

“Hey, pard,” he called softly, leaning closer still and gazing intently into the tracker’s slack face. He could plainly see the fine networking of blue veins beneath the bloodless flesh, the freckles that stood out so starkly. But he didn’t see any trace of pain, and was grateful for that small mercy at least. Maybe death would be kinder to Vin than life ever had. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I got a few things ta say anyway. I just wanted ta let you know that I’m here. We’re all here.” He freed one hand from Vin’s and reached out, gently stroking the younger man’s long hair. “Whatever happens,” he said in a low and surprisingly steady voice, “it’ll be all right. I don’t want you worryin’ about us, you hear? We got each other, and we’ll ride this out somehow, same as we’ve always done. You just … take care of you.” His voice faltered and he swallowed hard, his fingers drifting slowly, gently down Vin’s cheek. “Whatever that means you have ta do,” he finally whispered, slipping his hand to Tanner’s chest, just over the faint beating of his heart, and letting it rest there.

He fell silent, settling himself to wait for whatever happened. He’d grieve later, would likely shatter the earth and himself with the force of that grief, but for now he’d show only strength to the man who so often had done the same for him.

“You think he can hear us?” JD asked softly, as if reluctant to break that silence, fearful of what else might break with it.

Nathan lifted his head slowly, his dark face streaked with tears, and turned his haunted gaze to Vin. “I don’t know,” he rasped. Clearly unable to resist doing something, he leaned forward and closed the thick fingers of one hand around Tanner’s wrist, feeling for his pulse. Then he lifted Vin’s arm and, with his other hand, pulled the bedcovers aside and exposed the bandages swathing the tracker’s middle. “’Least he ain’t bleedin’ no mo’,” he sighed as he replaced the covers and Vin’s arm, sounding weary to his bones. “Reckon that’s some relief.”

Chris continued to gaze into Vin’s face, suddenly realizing how much he wanted, needed, to see those brilliant blue eyes again. “Will he wake up?”

Nathan exhaled heavily. “Might be better if he don’t,” he said quietly. “If he does, he’s gon’ be in a helluva lotta pain. Be real sick, too. Liver wounds do that. He don’ need that.”

“He don’t need any of this!” Chris seethed in a low, hard voice. “So what he needs ain’t really the question. The question is,” he shot a demanding stare at Jackson, “will he wake up?”

An answering anger kindled in Nathan’s eyes and he returned that glare with one of his own. “I don’ know!” he answered harshly. “How many times do you need ta hear me say that? I jes’ don’t know! Don’t ya think if I did, I’d tell y’all? Ya think I like sayin’ that? Ya think I like jes’ sittin’ here an’ waitin’ fo’ a friend t’ die ’cause I cain’t do nothin’ ta save him? Damn it, Chris,” he shouted hoarsely, shooting violently to his feet, “there ain’t nothin’ about any of this I like, but there ain’t a goddamn thing I can do about none of it!” He whirled away and fled across the clinic and then out of it, the sound of his heavy sobs following after him.

Appalled at what he’d caused, Chris immediately released Vin’s hand and rose to go after the healer. Josiah stopped him with a raised hand.

“I’ll go,” he said, pushing away from the wall where he’d been leaning. He gave Chris a sad but kind smile. “It wasn’t anything you did,” he assured gently. “It’s what he can’t do.”

“Tell him we know it’s not his fault,” Chris said. “Tell him none of us blame him.”

Josiah’s blunt-featured face grew grave. “I’ll tell him,” he sighed, “but it won’t make a difference. He’s blamin’ himself enough for all of us.”

Chris watched Sanchez leave, then dropped again into his chair, feeling all the strength seeping from his body. He let his head fall back and closed his eyes, then called quietly, “Buck?”


“Anybody done anything yet with that bastard who shot Vin?”

Buck was silent a moment, as if trying to remember, then said slowly, “Not that I know of. I reckon we’ve all been too busy here.”

“Shit,” Chris breathed. “It’s a wonder Inez ain’t been up here raisin’ hell with us about the mess.”

“It’s been taken care of,” Ezra said quietly. Chris raised his head sharply and shot him a surprised look, and the gambler shrugged. He was sprawled in Nathan’s rocker, stripped down to his brocade vest with his shirt sleeves rolled up almost to his elbows, his tie hanging loose around his neck. He’d washed Vin’s blood from his hands, but ugly patches of it stained his garments. For once, though, he seemed utterly oblivious to his appearance. “While the rest of you rushed Vin up here, I took a few moments to arrange for the disposition of … Alvin.” Bitterness laced his speaking of the name. “He should be in the capable if ungentle hands of our esteemed undertaker by now.”

“He gonna bury him?” Chris asked with an upward flick of one blond brow.

Ezra gave a grim smile, green eyes unusually hard. “I would assume so. When I left, the little ghoul was rifling gleefully through the deceased’s pockets for his remuneration.”

“Good,” Chris grunted, again letting his head fall back and his eyes close. “I hope he picks the sonuvabitch clean.”


To The Next Part