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Vin stirred weakly, a soft, breathless moan escaping him, and Chris immediately bent over him, capturing a pale, limp hand in one of his and setting his other lightly on the man’s chest, needing to feel the beat of the tracker’s heart, however faint it was, against his fingers. He searched Tanner’s face intently, watching for some sign of awakening. Translucent eyelids flickered, the bloodless mouth tightened and another hitching moan fell from him. Chris tightened his grip on the cool hand and held his breath, suddenly at war with himself. As much as he wanted those eyes to open once more, for Vin to see him and know that he was here, he wanted even more to spare the man the suffering that Nathan said would come with waking. It was bad enough that one of his last living memories might well be the sight of an old friend’s gun turned upon him. Chris didn’t have it in himself to add to that by forcing Vin to endure the physical agony of that betrayal as well.

“Ssh,” he breathed, leaning closer still and sliding his hand up to Tanner’s throat, finding the weak pulse there and slowly stroking against it with the pad of his thumb. “It’s all right,” he murmured as Vin’s head moved against the pillow, “it’s all right. You go on and rest. Everything’s all right.”

His voice and his touch seemed to settle Vin, seemed to ease him back into deeper sleep. A soft sigh whispered from him and he relaxed, his only movement now the subtle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. Chris continued to hold his hand and stroke his throat, knowing Buck was watching him from the opposite chair but realizing that he no longer cared what others saw. He was past caring about anything except making this, whatever “this” might turn out to be, as easy for Vin as possible.

"Want me ta go find Nathan?” Buck asked after long moments of silence.

Chris lifted his head and regarded his old friend evenly. “Why? So we can ask him more questions that he won’t have the answers to, make him feel even worse than he does now?” He dropped his gaze back to Vin and nodded slightly at the peace on the tracker’s face. “He’s restin’ easy now, seems ta be holdin’ his own. Don’t seem like he’s gonna d … like it’s gonna be anytime soon.”

Shit, he still couldn’t say it …

“Gentlemen,” Ezra called softly from the window through which he’d been staring, “I think you should see this.”

With a feeling of dread suddenly knotting in his stomach, not liking at all the cold anger underlying the gambler’s smooth drawl, Chris glanced at Buck, then released Vin’s hand and rose slowly to his feet, stepping away from the bed and joining Standish at the window.

“It would appear,” Ezra said, his voice taking on an unusual edge, “that the vultures have regrouped.” With a contemptuous gesture toward the window, he stepped back to give Chris a better view.

Larabee took it and immediately growled a filthy curse. A small crowd had gathered across the street, the men talking amongst themselves and throwing pointed looks and gestures toward the clinic. Shifting his stance and turning his head, Chris stared down what he could see of the street, his anger growing as he spotted similar knots of people all along the boardwalks.

JD turned sharply away from the window through which he’d been looking and stalked decisively to the corner of the room where he’d deposited his hat and coat. Snatching them from the floor, he donned them both with curt movements, his young face a white, tight mask of fury.

“Where ya goin’, kid?” Buck asked.

The boy jerked a thumb back toward the window he’d just left. “They got no business standin’ around like that,” he seethed, “an’ I’m gonna tell ’em so!”

Buck sighed and shook his head. “JD, son, it’s a free country,” he said sadly. “They can stand wherever they want. Besides,” he shrugged, “maybe they’re just worried–”

“The hell they are!” JD spat, his dark gaze livid. “That’s Conklin down there talkin’ ta some of Stuart James’s boys. You think any of them give a damn about Vin?” He set his hands on his hips and stared belligerently at Wilmington. “They’re just waitin’ for him ta die, an’ you know it!”

“He’s right,” Chris said in a low, tight voice, turning away from the window before he started shooting through it. “They are waitin’. Waitin’ ta see how this plays out, how distracted we are by it and how they can turn it to their advantage. I’ll bet there’s a rider on his way out ta the James ranch right now, likely one headin’ for Royal’s place, too. Hell,” he ground out bitterly, “if nothin’ else it’ll give those bastards somethin’ ta gloat over.”

Buck glanced out the window, studied the men in question, then turned back to Larabee, a wolfish smile spreading over his face. “Then maybe we should let ’em know we ain’t as distracted as they’d like us ta be,” he suggested. He looked at JD, who was still bristling with outrage. “Whatta ya say, kid? You up to a little show of force?”

“Oh, hell, yeah,” JD agreed eagerly, slipping his hands to the butts of his Colts.

Chris studied the two carefully, knowing they were angry and on edge, able to see the rawness of their emotions in their eyes and certain it wouldn’t take much to set either of them off just now. “You be careful,” he warned sternly, “both of you. I don’t want Nathan havin’ ta take any more bullets out today, you understand?”

“They need ta see us out there, Chris,” Buck insisted, holding Larabee’s gaze easily. “They need ta know that shootin’ one of us ain’t the way ta get free run of the town.”

“I know that,” he sighed. “And I know there’s more you can do out there than you can in here. I just …” He stared at Buck, pleading silently for the man to understand. “Just be careful, all right? Don’t let ’em goad you into anything.”

At one time, Buck might have taken the words as an indication that he couldn’t be trusted to keep his head. Now, however, he seemed to understand the worry, the fear, behind them, and smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Chris, we’ll be careful,” he said firmly. “I ain’t lookin’ for any trouble, and I sure as hell ain’t gonna let JD stir up any.”

“Hey!” the boy protested sharply.

“It’s just …” Buck looked back to the bed and let his gaze linger there for a few moments, then returned it to Chris, full of sorrow. “You’re right, there ain’t anything we can do here, an’ that’s tearin’ me up inside. I wanta be doin’ somethin’, I need ta be doin’ somethin’, but here,” he shrugged, his helplessness only too obvious, “I can’t do anything but wait, an’ I just ain't ever been any good at that. At least down there,” the anger rekindled in his eyes, “I can make those sonsabitches behave. I can also make sure they ain’t sayin’ nothin’ about Vin that they shouldn’t.”

Ezra’s head snapped up at that, which puzzled Chris, but he said nothing to the gambler yet. Instead, he nodded at Buck and JD. “All right, go on out, let everybody know we’re still on the job.” He forced a weak smile. “Vin’d kick all our asses if he thought we were usin’ him as an excuse not ta keep James and Royal in line.”

The two started for the door, but Buck paused at Chris’s side and set a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll check in from time ta time,” he assured him quietly. “And if you need us …” He let his words trail off, but their unspoken meaning carried. When Chris nodded his head, Buck squeezed his shoulder firmly, then let his hand drop and followed JD out the door.

Chris watched them leave, then turned to Standish, who was purposefully rolling down his shirt sleeves, a look of intense concentration upon his face. “You got somethin’ you wanta say?” he asked quietly.

Ezra finished with his sleeves, then fastened them with jeweled cufflinks, clearly thinking all the while. Only when he’d pulled his burgundy jacket from the back of the rocker where he’d draped it and put it on did he shift his attention to Larabee.

“I believe there is a service I can render as well,” he finally answered. The gunman frowned in confusion and Standish arched a chestnut brow. “There were witnesses to the shooting,” he explained softly, “men who not only saw what this ‘Alvin’ person did, but also heard what he said.” Chris shook his head, still not understanding, and Ezra pursed his lips in thought, clearly trying for some delicacy. “When the man spoke to Vin,” he said at last, his words slow and careful, “while he did not, thankfully, express it directly in words, nonetheless the tone of his pleas seemed to indicate that his desire for Vin to return to him had less to do with a business partnership than with a rather more … intimate one.” He fell silent, but continued to stare pointedly at Larabee.

Chris only frowned more deeply, puzzling over the gambler’s words. All at once, though, he remembered the man’s final words, spoken just before he’d shot Vin, and felt the sick lurch of his stomach. Cain’t let nobody else have ya. “Oh, shit!” he gasped.

“Precisely,” Ezra said softly. “Now, it is entirely possible that the men who witnessed that rather pathetic display of unrequited yearning were so caught up in the drama of the confrontation that they failed to register its true significance. Vin made clear that he and ‘Alvin’ had been bounty hunters together. It may well be that those who know of the bounty on Vin will simply assume that the deceased was here to collect upon it. And those who do not know of it may well assume that ‘Alvin,’ who clearly had fallen on less than prosperous times, was merely here to persuade Vin to go back into business with him, thereby improving his fortunes. And while I am aware that Vin is an almost scrupulously honest man, nonetheless I feel that in this particular instance, having the truth known is not entirely in his best interest.”

Chris watched Standish carefully, wondering just what else he had figured out. For a man who seemed to talk almost constantly, the gambler gave precious little of himself and his true thoughts away. “So what can you do?”

Ezra lifted two chestnut brows and gave the man a look of angelic innocence. “Why, Mr. Larabee, what I do best. Obscure the truth with artful prevarication.”

“You mean lie.”

Ezra winced as if in pain. “I prefer to think of it as ‘misdirection.’”

“I prefer to think of it as lying.” He thought for a moment, but knew they had no choice, and nodded grimly. “I take it you’ll be in the saloon?”

“Of course! I have discovered that when there is gossip to impart, startin’ there ensures the fastest and most satisfyin’ spread. It is also the best place for learnin’ what rumors are already in circulation.” He idly brushed imaginary bits of dust from one jacket sleeve. “Believe me, if anyone has discerned ‘Alvin’s’ true motives, I shall know within half an hour.”

Chris nodded again, then turned and walked back to the bed, exhaling heavily as he stared down at the man lying upon it. “Nothin’ ever comes without a price for us,” he breathed, “does it?”

Ezra moved to his side and joined him in gazing down at Vin. “It is my fondest hope,” he murmured, “that this time the price does not come too high.” He slowly lifted and turned his gaze to Larabee. “For any of us.” He smiled slightly. “You know where to find me.” He touched two fingers to his hatbrim, then turned and walked out of the clinic.

Alone now with Vin, Chris sank wearily into the chair at the tracker’s right side and leaned forward, once more taking Tanner’s hand between his two. “I don’t suppose you have any idea how big a mess we all are right now,” he said softly, his gaze intent on Vin’s face. “What that bastard did ta you has us tied inta so many knots we may never be straight again.” He sighed and shook his head slowly. “’Least I know I won’t. Not until you come back ta me, let me know you’re gonna pull through this.” He found himself waiting for an answer, then exhaled deeply and bowed his head when there was none. “Jesus, Vin,” he groaned as his soul twisted in anguish, “I keep tellin’ myself I can do this, but I’ll be damned if I know how! I know I did it before, but just barely. I just survived. Wasn’t until you came along that I really started livin’. You did that for me, you gave that ta me.” He lifted his head with an effort and looked once more into that lifeless, colorless face, feeling the tears sliding down his own. “Who’s gonna do that when you’re gone?” he whispered strickenly.

For long moments he simply sat there, clinging tightly to Vin’s hand and trying to keep from falling into the black pit of his own pain. Time for that later. Gradually, though, he became ever more aware of the feel of the tracker’s chilled flesh against his and absently began rubbing the man’s cold hand between his own.

“Probably oughtta see if Nathan has any more blankets,” he murmured, glancing around the clinic and trying to remember where the healer kept such things. “As little blood as you got left in ya, you’re probably cold down to the bone.”

Of course, to find those blankets he’d actually have to let go of Vin …

“Damn, pard, didn’t I say you’ve got me in a knot?” he sighed, not at all used to this feeling of utter helplessness. “All I’m gonna do is look around, see if I can find a blanket or two for ya, but I can’t let go of ya. Hell, I won’t even be leavin’ the room!” He freed one hand from Vin’s and leaned further forward, reaching out and gently brushing his fingers through the tracker’s hair, only now realizing just how many times he’d wanted to do this. “So many things I wish I’d done before,” he breathed, a sea of regret rising through him. “So many things I wish I’d said …”

Yet, faced now with the opportunity to say what he wanted, he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how to do it. Instead, he pulled his fingers from Vin’s hair, set the man’s hand gently down on the bed and rose to his feet, determined to find those blankets. This much at least he could do.

He looked through cabinets and opened drawers, swearing softly as his search proved fruitless. Then, turning, he spied a small bureau with two deep drawers against the far wall and suddenly remembered having seen Jackson pulling bedding from there before. Irritated with himself, he heaved a sigh and crossed the clinic to it, opening the lower drawer and pulling two brightly colored Indian blankets from it.

Vin should appreciate them …

He returned to the bed and spread the blankets over Tanner, tucking them close about the man’s still form. As he did, he realized how little to him there was. Stripped of the illusion of size given him by his ever-present hide coat, layers of loose-fitting clothes and bulky mare’s leg, he appeared now as he truly was – long-limbed, fine-boned, coyote-lean. And fragile as a china doll.

Jesus, this couldn’t be real!

But it was, and no amount of wishing would make it otherwise. He sat down again in the chair and, despite his earlier determination to keep Vin as warm as possible, uncovered his right arm and took that hand between his own, unable to resist his own need to maintain a physical link between them. Part of him wanted to believe that he could literally hold Vin here; another part simply wanted to hold him while he was here.

And neither part was prepared to let go.

“God, Vin, please don’t do this ta me!” he pleaded as he gazed into the tracker’s face, the words coming from him of their own accord, welling like blood from the open wound that was his heart. “I can’t lose ya now, not like this. See,” he dropped his gaze to the hand gripped between his and lightly rubbed a thumb over Tanner’s knuckles, “I finally figured it out. Took me a while, I know. Guess I was just too stubborn – or too scared – ta face it before. I’m not proud of that, and I’m sure as hell not proud that it took this, took you gettin’ hurt like this, ta make me see the truth. But I’ve always been a heard-headed sonuvabitch.” He snorted softly. “Not that that comes as any surprise ta you!”

Again only silence met his words and he sighed heavily, realizing how much he missed the tracker’s soft, gravelly drawl and the bite of his dry, wry humor. “I need you ta wake up, Tanner,” he breathed. “I’ve been tryin’ not t’ ask that of you, tryin’ ta keep from makin’ you suffer, but I just … I’m not that strong, Vin,” he admitted, his voice breaking into a ragged rasp. “I can’t … I can’t face not lookin’ into your eyes again, not hearin’ your voice again. Most of all,” he swallowed hard and tightened his hold on Vin’s hand, “most of all I can’t face you dyin’ without knowin’ how I feel. Without knowin’ that I love you.”

He was stunned at how easily the words came from him, stunned at how right they sounded in his ears and felt in his heart. Jesus, why hadn’t he ever said this before? What had he been so afraid of? The words were out and the world still stood intact around him.

Emboldened by that ease, he half-rose from the chair and moved to the edge of the bed, settling himself carefully at Vin’s side, his hip brushing against the tracker’s. That contact, too, felt right, natural, and he cursed himself silently for not having the courage to do this earlier. “God, I’ve been a fool!” he breathed in a low, bitter voice. “Been so caught up in my damn stubborn pride that I’ve denied us so much! And now it might be too late …”

Cradling Vin’s hand to his heart with one hand, he reached down with the other and tenderly stroked the tracker’s hair. “Never told ya how much this mop suits ya, did I?” he asked hoarsely, tears sliding down his face. “Never told ya how much I like seein’ it flyin’ on the breeze when you’re ridin’ Peso … Hell,” he whispered, again bowing his head, “I never told you anything!”

Cool fingers stirred faintly against his and his head snapped up, his eyes riveting themselves to Tanner’s face. Dry lips parted slightly and the thin, pallid skin of his eyelids flickered. “Vin?” he called softly, fearfully, holding himself absolutely still as he selfishly willed the man to wake. “God, Vin, please!”

The flickering of his eyelids grew stronger and dark lashes fluttered like wings against the ashen flesh beneath them. His fingers tightened against Chris’s, his body tensed and a short, hitching gasp escaped him.

“It’s all right, Vin,” Chris soothed, still holding his hand, still stroking his hair. “It’s all right. I’m here, partner, I’m right here.”

Vin’s head moved against the pillow, then bore down into it as he arched his back, pain chasing the peace from his face. His breathing quickened into sharp, shallow pants, his jaws clenched and his fingers closed steadily about Chris’s. A hard tremor raced through him and a wrenching groan broke from him.

“God, Vin, I’m sorry!” Chris whispered strickenly as pain overtook the tracker. The soft cries escaping the normally stoic man tore at his heart and wrung tears from his eyes. Not knowing what else to do, he simply bent over Vin, slipped his free arm beneath him and held tightly to him, pressing his cheek to the wounded man’s forehead. “I’ve got ya, partner,” he whispered harshly. “It’s all right. I’ve got ya and I ain’t lettin’ go!”

“Ch … Chris?” he hissed weakly, a world of agony in that small sound.

Chris closed his eyes tightly and fought back the sobs beating against his throat for release. He’d wanted Vin to wake, he reminded himself bitterly. Well, he’d gotten what he wanted.

“Chris … Oh!” he groaned thickly, arching against Larabee and clutching at the hand gripping his. “God … Chris … hurts!”

“I know,” he rasped. “And I’m sorry. Jesus, Vin, I’m sorry!” Tanner gave another soft cry and Chris turned his face, pressing a gentle kiss between the tracker’s deeply furrowed brows. “Please go back!” he begged. “Please go back ta sleep!” He swept a series of kisses over the man’s forehead, his tears falling onto Tanner’s flesh. “I can’t stand ta see you hurtin’ like this.”

Vin stiffened and uttered a choked-off groan, but turned his face into Larabee’s mouth, into those kisses. “Chris?”

“Ssh.” He pressed another kiss to Vin’s forehead, then drew back slightly and smiled into open blue eyes clouded by pain and confusion. “I finally figured it out, Vin,” he said softly. “I finally figured out that I love you.”

Vin stared a moment more, then let his eyes close. Another shudder racked him and another groan fell from him, but the faintest of smiles ghosted about his pale mouth. “Damn … stubborn … cowboy,” he whispered as he drifted away once more. “Took ya … long … enough.”

Chris bowed his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose between a thumb and forefinger, his shoulder hitched against the wooden frame of the window overlooking the main street. He’d told himself he should be seen now and then, should still at least appear to be taking an interest in the goings-on in town, but, in truth, he couldn’t have cared less. Over the past few hours his whole world had shrunk to the confines of this room, to the space around the bed behind him, to the man in that bed. His existence now hinged not on what transpired in the streets below, but on the continued rise and fall of Vin Tanner’s chest, on the continued beating of his heart. Should those cease, so would everything else.

Amazing how such small, tenous things could come to define a life …

He could hear the quiet sounds of someone moving around the clinic but didn’t raise his head, didn’t need to. Nathan had returned some time ago, sorrowful and subdued but once more in control of his emotions. He’d apologized to Chris for losing that control, but for the life of him Larabee couldn’t understand why he’d felt that need. Christ, they were all treading the ragged edges right now, none of them doing more than just barely holding themselves together. How much worse must it be for Nathan?

He had absolutely no idea how the man could do this, how he could take the responsibility for their lives and so many others into his hands on what seemed a daily basis and never break beneath that burden. How many times had he set their bones, dug bullets out of their bodies, stitched their flesh and washed their blood from his hands? He’d lost sleep over them, cooled their fevers and eased their pain with his unfailingly gentle touch, healed them with the skill he constantly protested he didn’t have. Yet now he could do nothing more than sit helplessly by while a friend fought what might well be a losing battle for his life …

Hell, if he were Nathan he’d still be running.

“Chris.” Jackson’s quiet voice pulled him out of his thoughts and he turned to see the big healer sitting once more at Vin’s right side and looking up at him. “Gon’ need ya over here. I gotta check that wound an’ it’s gon’ hurt him.”

He swallowed and tried to find the strength to move. Jesus, hadn’t Vin been hurt enough? He exhaled unsteadily and ran a hand through his hair, then made his way with heavy steps to the chair at Tanner’s left and sank into it, his stomach a cold, leaden knot inside him. As Nathan pushed the covers back, exposing Tanner’s abdomen, Chris swallowed again and then leaned forward, gripping Vin’s left hand firmly between his two. From the corner of his eye, he saw that the bandages were clean and heaved a sigh of relief. He hadn’t had the courage to check them himself.

Christ, he really was a coward.

“At least he’s not bleedin’ anymore,” he said, certain that had to be a good sign.

But Nathan shook his head. “Might still be inside. With that wound stitched, won’t be any place fo’ the blood ta go ’cept inta his belly. That’s what I gotta check. An’ that’s why you’re gon’ hafta hold him.”

The words sent a wave of sick dread through Chris. “Nathan–”

Ignoring him, Jackson pressed his fingertips to Tanner’s abdomen and began palpating the area around the wound. That action roused Vin from his stupor. He uttered a thick cry and writhed weakly on the bed, trying to escape this latest torment. One white hand lashed out, but Nathan easily caught it by the wrist and held it down while continuing with his prodding. Vin’s movements grew more frantic, his cries more anguished, and Chris had to fight with himself not to knock Jackson’s hand away.

Instead he tightened one hand about Vin’s and extended the other to cup the tracker’s whiskered cheek. “Ssh, easy,” he soothed, feeling Vin’s fingers curling about his. “I know it hurts, but Nathan’s gotta see how you’re doin’. It’ll be over in a minute.” Vin arched again and tried to twist out of Nathan’s reach, but Chris slid his hand to his shoulder and held him firmly in place. Blue eyes flew open, glittering with pain and panic, and fixed themselves to his face, a shadow of recognition dawning in them. “Yeah, it’s me,” he assured him. “I gotcha, Vin. I’m right here and I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

“Chris … Oh!

The hoarse, harsh cry escaped Vin as something other than pain convulsed him, and, in a single flash of instinct, both Chris and Nathan realized what was coming. The healer made a lightning-fast grab under the bed for the pot he kept there and got it under Vin just as Chris got the tracker up and over it. Vin’s whole body shook from the force of his sickness and his pained cries mingled with the sound of his retching. Holding him, Chris came perilously near being sick himself.

At long last the hideous spasms ceased and Vin collapsed against Chris with a thick, shuddering groan, shaking uncontrollably, bathed in sweat and paler than ever, though Larabee would never have believed such was possible. Chris cradled him against his chest while Nathan cleaned him up, his arms wrapped tightly around Vin’s torso and Vin’s arms overlapping them, the tracker’s head resting against his shoulder.

“Don’t … leave,” Vin begged brokenly. “Please?”

Chris swallowed against the hard knot in his throat. “I won’t,” he rasped, wondering how he’d ever find the strength to stay.

“Hurts … so!” Vin groaned, his ashen face a mask of torment.

“Can’t you give him anything?” Chris asked, shooting a desperate gaze at Nathan.

“Laudanum’d jes’ make him sick again,” Jackson sighed, tenderly bathing Vin’s face with a damp cloth. He lifted his eyes to Chris. “Could give him a shot a’ morphine.”

Chris’s stomach turned over. He knew what the drug could to a man, knew the hold it could take on him, and wanted to refuse, but Vin’s suffering wouldn’t allow it. “Do it!” he ground out through clenched teeth.

Nathan nodded and left the bed, and Chris turned his whole attention to soothing the man in his arms. He spoke softly to him, stroked him, held him, did all he could to give Vin a refuge from the pain that racked him, to give him an anchor when it threatened to sweep him away.

“Gon’ need ta give it to him in his hip,” Nathan called as he filled the syringe.

Handling the man with a gentleness that surprised even himself, Chris eased out from behind Vin and lowered him back down onto the bed, on his left side. Despite the care of his movements, though, pain still battered fiercely at the tracker, tearing from him sounds that wrung at Larabee’s heart.

Jesus, he needed a drink!

Nathan returned to the bed with the syringe and, at the sight of the fearsome needle, Chris felt another tug of nausea at his gut. But, fighting it back, he knelt at Vin’s side and reached out, cupping his left hand around the back of the younger man’s neck and squeezing gently, then taking Tanner’s right hand in his and gripping it firmly.

“Nathan’s gonna help ya, pard,” he said softly. “You’re gonna feel better real soon.” Vin said nothing, merely nodded and closed his fingers around Chris’s with all the strength he could manage. “Yeah, just hang onta me,” Chris urged, tenderly rubbing Tanner’s neck with his fingertips. “I won’t letcha go, I promise.”

Nathan knelt behind the tracker and Chris studiously avoided looking at him, not at all certain he could bear watching. Yet even though he knew what was coming, nothing prepared him for the violent jerk of Vin’s body or the ragged outcry that tore from him as Nathan stuck the big needle into his lean hip and injected the drug into his system. Feeling something inside himself rip open at that sound, he tore his hand from Vin’s and launched himself onto the bed, gathering the man into his arms and holding him close against his chest, burying his face in his long, tangled hair. Tanner’s body shook convulsively against him and he tightened his hold on the tracker, rocking him and whispering to him. He ignored his own tears, ignored Nathan, ignored everything except the wounded man sobbing silently against his heart.

And wondered how in the hell any of them would survive this.

He paced aimlessly about the clinic, moving in and out of the flickering shadows thrown against the walls and floor by the oil lamps. It was near midnight now, the day he’d thought would never end finally over.

Though God alone knew how long the night would be …

He sighed heavily and let his head fall forward, closing his eyes and raising a hand to rub at the tired muscles of his neck. Vin had been shot only twelve hours ago, just before noon; he would’ve sworn it had been days. In that time he’d left the clinic only to go to the privy, and had railed silently against even those forced absences. If Nathan hadn’t been present and if he hadn’t thought Vin would need it, he might well have used the chamber pot under the bed.

But Vin had needed it, much to Chris’s fear and despair. The tracker had come around three more times, and each time had been cruelly tortured by pain and sickness. Nathan had tried giving him laudanum for the pain and ginger tea for the nausea, but he hadn’t been able to keep any of it down. Left with no recourse, unable just to let the man suffer, Nathan had administered another morphine injection. And once Vin had drifted into a drugged but painless twilight, Nathan had administered generous doses of whiskey to himself and Chris.

No, he wouldn’t be in the healer’s shoes for anything in this world.

A soft moan sounded behind him, followed by a low, soothing voice, and he lifted his head with an effort and turned slowly around, fixing his tired gaze upon the bed. Vin was moving weakly, restlessly, and Nathan was trying to settle him, speaking quietly to him and gently bathing his face, throat and chest with a wet cloth. The fever had started a few hours ago, and Chris knew what Jackson feared. Though if infection was setting in, at least Vin could have all the morphine he needed; he wouldn’t live long enough to become addicted.

“Why don’t you let me do that?” he asked softly. “Go get some rest. No sense both of us bein’ up all night.”

Nathan looked up and blinked heavily, as if only now realizing that Larabee was still here. “I cain’t leave him–”

“Is there anything you can do for him that you haven’t done already?” he asked gently, already knowing the answer to the question.

Nathan thought a moment, almost desperately it seemed, then exhaled heavily and bowed his head. “No,” he murmured sadly. “If it is infection from a nicked bowel, won’t be nothin’ I can do ’cept make him as comfortable as can be. If it’s anything else,” he sighed again and shrugged, “likely won’t be nothin’ I can do then, either.”

Chris ached for the man and saw no reason why he should continue to sit here and be tortured by the evidence of his helplessness. And if it was truly as bad as Nathan feared, then likely he’d be needed at full strength tomorrow to help ease what he couldn’t prevent.

“Then go,” he urged quietly. “I promise I’ll wake you if anything changes.”

Nathan nodded and rose slowly to his feet, looking every bit as exhausted as Chris felt. “Don’ know that he’s gon’ wake up,” he said, “but if he does, an’ if he can take it, there’s some peppermint tea in that gray pot fo’ his nausea. It ain’t as strong as the ginger tea; he might tolerate it better. Also got some willa’ bark tea fo’ his fever; it’s in the brown pot. Cain’t give him no mo’ morphine, though. Not yet. But there’s laudanum. Jes’ mix a few drops in whiskey. An’ try ta get some water down him. He needs it, ’specially with this fever.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Chris assured him.

Nathan nodded again, then threw a distracted glance around the clinic, as if looking, maybe even hoping, for something he’d forgotten. But there was nothing, and his gaze returned to Chris. “Think I’ll go take a walk aroun’ town,” he said quietly. “Ain’t sure I could sleep jes’ now anyway. Mebbe I’ll go down t’ the church. If ya need me–”

“I’ll find you, I promise.” But, God, how he hoped he wouldn’t need him!

Jackson stretched his back and rolled his broad shoulders slowly, then turned and went with heavy steps to the door. Setting his hand to the knob, he called softly, “Good luck, Chris,” then opened the door and left.

Chris took the chair the healer had vacated and reached for the cloth in the bowl of water. Vin groaned again, his head moving against the pillow, his fingers plucking feebly at the blankets bunched down around his waist. Chris leaned over him and pressed the wet cloth to his forehead.

“Ssh, it’s all right,” he murmured, bathing Vin’s face and throat with one hand and stroking his sweat-damp hair with the other. “Just rest. I’m gonna take care of ya.”

He had to marvel at the deep tenderness this man inspired in him. Tanner was as tough as they came, one of the most truly dangerous men he’d ever known; a born predator. He’d ridden with him on the hunt – whether for game or men – often enough to know that precious little escaped his eyes or the sight of that incredibly accurate rifle. Once he’d marked something or someone for killing, he’d take it, him or them down without a qualm and any way he could. Tanner wasn’t a gunfighter, didn’t live by the strict code that Larabee had imposed upon himself. He was a hunter, utterly relentless on the trail and brutally efficient at the end of it.

And yet …

Chris stared into that pale, fevered face and remembered how wonderfully expressive it could be when Vin let the guarded mask drop. He saw again how the blue eyes would widen and darken with a rush of feeling when some unexpected kindness touched him, how they could sparkle and shine with wicked laughter, how they would shimmer with serenity when fixed upon the beauty of a desert sunrise. One corner of the mobile mouth could lift and crook in the smallest and shyest of smiles, both corners would twitch in that maddening smirk or the full lips would stretch unexpectedly into a grin so broad and so bright that Larabee felt as if he’d just seen the sun rise.

And sometimes wondered what those lips felt and tasted like beneath his own …

Oh, God, surely it couldn’t be too late, could it? Surely he hadn’t let all this slip through his fingers out of sheer pride and blind stupidity? Surely, surely he hadn’t come to realize just what he had only to have it taken from him?

Not even his life could be that cruel.

“Don’t want you ta leave me, Vin,” he murmured, threading his fingers through the limp strands of the tracker’s hair and pressing the wet cloth to one cheek. “I need you, need ta know exactly what I could have with you. Josiah said you’ve been waitin’ for me ta figure it out. I need you ta come back ta me, Tanner, let me know I didn’t keep you waitin’ too long.”

Vin stirred again, arching his neck and groaning deeply, and Chris bent low over him, pressing his lips to the man’s fevered brow and brushing tender kisses against his too-warm flesh. When he pulled back, glazed blue eyes peered dully from beneath heavy lids.

“Hey, cowboy,” Chris rasped, smiling slightly and still stroking Vin’s hair, “join me?” Vin stared up at him for several heartbeats, as if either not seeing or not recognizing him, and his heart sank. “Hey, Tanner,” he called, bending closer, “you with me here?” He cupped his hand to Vin’s cheek to gauge the heat of his fever, then slid his thumb to the tracker’s lips and rubbed it slowly over them. “C’mon, pard,” he urged, “I need you ta come back ta me. I need ta know you’re in there.”

Vin’s eyes slid closed and the softest of sighs escaped him. Then he swallowed weakly. “Chris,” he breathed faintly.

He closed his eyes tightly and bowed his head, clenching his teeth as a hard wave of relief swept through him. When he could speak again, he opened his eyes and lifted his head, managing a strained smile for the tracker. “Yeah, it’s me,” he said thickly.

Vin’s eyes fluttered slowly open, still glassy with fever but not quite so blank. He swallowed again and opened his mouth to speak, but only moaned softly instead.

“Ssh, it’s all right,” Chris soothed. He dropped the cloth back into the bowl and reached for Vin’s hand, holding it tightly in his own and cradling it to his chest. His other hand still stroked the tracker’s hair. “You just take it easy.” He studied Vin closely, seeing the lines of pain etched into his face. “Got some water for ya. You think you could tolerate it?” Tanner frowned slightly, as if trying to decide whether he could, or trying to figure out why he couldn’t, and Chris decided to help him out. “Last few times you woke up, you’ve been real sick,” he explained. “Throwin’ back up whatever we tried ta get down you. You need water, but I don’t think either of us could take you goin’ through that again.”

“Ain’t … ain’t … sure,” Vin whispered at last. “Feel … kinda … strange.”

“I’ll bet you do,” Chris sighed sadly, sliding the backs of his fingers down the younger man’s face. “You wanta try?” When Vin nodded, Chris released his hand and reached for the cup sitting on the table. Retrieving it, he slipped his other hand beneath Vin’s head and lifted slightly, then set the cup to the pale lips. “Just a real small sip,” he urged, tilting the cup to dribble the slightest amount of water into Tanner’s mouth. “Let’s see how this sits before we try any more.” He pulled the cup away and lowered Vin’s head back to the pillow, watching intently as he swallowed. “You feelin’ sick?”

“Ain’t … sure … how I f … feel,” Vin sighed. A small confused frown tugged at his lips as he thought. “Feel like … m’ head ain’t … quite … attached.”

Chris nodded. “That’s probably the morphine. Nathan gave you another shot not too long ago. I guess it’s still cloudin’ you up.”

“Morph … morphine?”

“Think you could stand a little more water?” Chris asked, ignoring the question. When Vin nodded hesitantly, he again lifted his head and set the cup to his lips, allowing him a bit more this time. “You let me know if that’s gonna come back up, okay?”

Vin swallowed, waited a moment, then asked, “Why … morphine?”

Chris sighed and set the cup back onto the table. “’Cause you couldn’t keep the laudanum down,” he hedged, hoping the non-answer would suffice.

It didn’t. “Why … I need … laud’num?”

Shit. Fevered, half-dead and drugged, Tanner was still the stubbornest sonuvabitch he knew. “Vin–”

“Clinic,” he breathed, suddenly recognizing where he was. “Why?”

Chris sighed again, but knew he couldn’t avoid the issue any longer. Damned persistent tracker wouldn’t rest until he had an answer. “Your old friend Alvin Harper stopped in town,” he said. Buck and JD had put a last name to the dead man when they’d gone through his saddlebags. “He wanted you … to go back with him. When you wouldn’t, he sh … he shot you.”

Vin lay still and stared up at Chris, blue eyes unblinking, as he struggled to take in that terse explanation. “Alvin … shot me?” he whispered at last. When Chris nodded, he swallowed and slowly licked his dry lips, obviously trying to make sense of it. “How b … how bad?”

And there it was, the one question Chris had feared above all others, the one he’d rather die himself than answer. How the hell was he supposed to tell Vin when he still couldn’t say the goddamned words?

But he didn’t need to. Vin must’ve seen the answer in his eyes, heard it in what he couldn’t say. All at once, the wide blue eyes went wider still and a look of stark horror and sick fear washed over his ashen face. A sharp gasp escaped him, a hard tremor ran through him and suddenly he rolled onto his side and curled into himself. “Aw, damn!” he moaned.

“God, Vin!” Without thinking, Chris moved onto the bed and gently turned the tracker onto his back. At the sight of the tears streaking the pallid face, he groaned softly and swept the younger man into his arms, gathering the tight, shaking body up against his chest and holding fiercely to it. “I know!” he whispered through his own tears. “Jesus, Vin, I don’t wanta lose you!” Vin clutched weakly at his arms and shook silently in his embrace. He said nothing, made no sound, and that terrible silence tore at Larabee’s heart as no words, sobs or shrieks of fury could have. “You gotta fight, Vin!” he pleaded brokenly, holding the tracker more tightly still. “You gotta promise me you’ll fight!”

“Chris … Oh, shit!” What the water hadn’t done the unspoken truth did, and Vin’s body was convulsed by another violent spasm of sickness. He tore out of Chris’s arms and fell to the bed, curling onto his side as his stomach heaved.

“Jesus!” Knowing he’d never get the pot on the floor in time, Chris reached behind him and snatched the bowl of water off the table, held it in one hand and hauled Vin upright wth the other, then thrust the bowl under his face and held him up as he vomited. His badly dehydrated body had little to bring up, only the bare mouthful of water he’d taken earlier and bile from his damaged liver, yet even so the violent heaves racked him with a pitiless force. Cries of pain mingled with the sounds of his retching as his wounded body was cruelly tortured.

Screams of rage beat against Chris’s throat for release as he held Vin through the brutal sickness, and he only barely bit them back. Rage at Harper for causing this, rage at God for allowing this, rage at himself for his utter helplessness. In a heartbeat, though, that rage turned to black, cold terror as Vin gave a soft, choked moan, shuddered once and then sagged heavily against him, the awful sounds of his retching given way to a much more awful silence.

“V … Vin?” he whispered harshly, his heart contracting viciously in his chest. “Oh, Jesus, no!” Little caring what he did, he flung the bowl aside, never hearing its crash as it hit the floor, then turned Tanner’s limp body in his arms, watching in horror as the man’s head slid off his shoulder and hung loosely over his arm. “Jesus, no!” He lowered Vin to the bed and thrust a shaking hand against his chest, then to his throat, uttering a harsh, choked cry when he felt the weak, thready pulse there. “Goddamn it, Tanner, don’t do this to me!” he pleaded brokenly, dropping his head onto Vin’s breast and sobbing helplessly.

Oh, God, God, he couldn’t do this again!

Except that he’d have to, because he couldn’t leave. As much as he told himself that he wanted to, needed to, he knew he’d never be able to do it. Never be able to walk out of this room and leave Vin to suffer … and die … without him. Not and still be able to say he loved the man.

And, God, he did love him.

He ceased sobbing and lifted his head, wiping a shaking hand over his wet face. With a strength he wouldn’t have dreamed he possessed, he pushed himself to his feet, buried his own suffering and set about seeing to Vin. He cleaned him up tenderly, found a clean pillow for him, put a fresh sheet and blankets over him. Unable to change the one beneath Tanner by himself, he scrubbed what he could of the mess out of it, folded a fresh one and, lifting Vin carefully, got it between him and the soiled one.

He had to do this.

And he set himself to doing it with the care and devotion born of his love. He picked up and threw away the pieces of the bowl he’d broken, found another and filled it with water, got a clean cloth and resumed bathing Vin in an effort to cool his fever. When the tracker stirred, he trickled water and alternating doses of willow bark and peppermint tea into him, immensely grateful when it stayed down, but keeping the pot within easy reach and getting it under him when it didn’t. And after each bout of painful sickness, he’d hold Vin close and speak softly to him of his love, assuring him of his presence, until the man’s stricken whimpers quieted, his ragged breathing evened out and his rigid body again relaxed. Each time it happened Chris feared that this would be it, that this would be the final agony, that this time when Vin slipped away it would be for good. When that didn’t happen, he let himself relax as well and simply allowed himself to drift in this new-found pleasure of holding Vin in his arms and marveling at the perfect fit of the tracker’s body against his.

And somewhere in the bleak, long night, he stopped cursing himself and God for the things he might have missed and just let himself cling to what he still had.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and carried it back to the chair that had become his home, hoping the brew was as strong as it smelled. While he would much rather have had whiskey, he couldn’t afford the pull it would exert on him to sleep. He’d already dozed once too often as it was.

The last time, he’d been yanked from sleep by the sound of gagging and had jerked awake just in time to keep Vin from choking as another bout of sickness had gripped him. He’d seriously considered going after one of the others then, but had talked himself out of it. They’d each stopped in for a while before finally going to bed and had all looked so exhausted and heartsick that he just couldn’t bring himself to summon them back until he absolutely needed to.

No sense in them all having to endure this agony of waiting …

He took a drink from the coffee and grimaced at its bitter strength. Hell, if this stuff didn’t keep him awake, nothing would! He took another drink and set the cup of foul brew aside, then retrieved the cloth from the bowl of water and resumed bathing Vin, easily able to feel the heat emanating from his body. The fever had risen steadily throughout the night, and Tanner had alternated between periods of pained restlessness and a frightful listlessness, the once simple act of breathing now seeming almost beyond him. More than once, certain that he was in his final moments, Chris had slid to the bed and held the struggling man close against him so that, if nothing else, Vin at least would die in the loving shelter of his arms. Yet each time he had rallied, as if rather than giving him the peace to let go, that hold had given him the strength to go on.

Chris honestly couldn’t say whether that was a blessing or a curse. He knew Vin was suffering terribly, could see his pain and sickness carved starkly into his bloodless face, could hear it in the weak cries the man simply didn’t have the strength to hold back. The pain followed him now even into the depths of unconsciousness, refusing to give him any respite. Yet as much as the soft sounds of anguish tore at his heart, still they meant that Vin was alive, and he just didn’t have it in him to wish them silenced, knowing as he did what their silence would mean.

“I’m sorry, Vin,” he murmured, curving one hand around the tracker’s pale, hot neck and stroking the pulse there with his thumb. “I know I should tell ya ta go on, tell ya I’ll be all right if you leave, but I can’t. I’ve never lied ta you before, and I just can’t seem ta start now. I know it’s selfish, I know it’s cowardly, but I need you with me for as long as I can have ya. Hell,” he groaned, “anymore I’m not sure if there even is a me without you!”

“Don’t … wanta … leave ya.”

Chris stiffened at the breathless, near soundless words, then leaned closer and gently turned Tanner’s head toward him. “You with me here?”

“Tryin’ … t’ be,” he whispered, eyelids flickering but not opening. “Y’ make it … awful … hard … t’ leave.”

Tears filled Larabee’s eyes and rolled slowly down his cheeks. “Don’t want you ta leave,” he rasped, slipping from his chair to the edge of the bed. He bent over and pressed feather-light kisses to Tanner’s eyelids and lips, the fingers of one hand stroking gently up and down the tracker’s left side. “Want you ta stay here, with me. Where you belong.”

As he pulled back slightly, Vin’s eyes fluttered open, their once rich blue depths now glassy and flat with pain and fever. “Tell me,” he pleaded breathlessly, one white, shaking hand seeking Larabee’s, “tell me … all this … ain’t … jist ’cause … y’ think … I’m gonna die.” His fingers found Chris’s and latched on with a desperate strength. “Tell me … it’ll be like this … even … if .. I live!”

Chris raised that hand to his mouth and kissed the hot fingers, his tears falling onto Vin’s flesh. “It’s not just because I think you’re gonna die. I’d never do that ta you.” He brushed the fingers of his other hand through the tracker’s hair and down his face. “I’ve felt this way for a long time, Vin. I just … wouldn’t let myself see it. I was too blind, I guess. Too scared. But seein’ you like this scared me even more. And I just couldn’t face lettin’ you d … lettin’ you die,” his voice broke on the word, “without sayin’ it to you.” He pressed Vin’s hand to his heart and smiled through his tears into the tracker’s eyes. “But I need you ta live, Vin,” he rasped fervently. “I need you. I love you. And if I lose you I won’t have anything left.”

Vin stared up at him for long moments, sounds of pain escaping him on each harsh breath, then smiled faintly and tightened his fingers about Chris’s. “Been waitin’ … so long … fer that,” he gasped weakly. “I’ve loved y’ … so long now! Jist never … never thought I … had … a chance.”

Chris bent over him once more and pressed a gentle kiss against his lips. “You get better,” he breathed against the tracker’s mouth, “and I’ll show you just what kinda chance you got, you hear?”

“Sounds … good,” he breathed, his eyes closing, his fingers losing their grip. “Reckon … I got … somethin’ … t’ live … for …”

“God, I hope so!” Chris said in a choked whisper as Vin slipped into unconsciousness. He kissed him once more, then sat up slowly, his heart a knot of pain and fear. A hard, shuddering gasp escaped him and he dropped his head into one hand, still clinging to Vin with the other.

“Might think about lockin’ the door next time,” counseled a quiet voice behind him. “Never know who might wander in.”

He shot off the bed and whirled around, his heart slamming into his ribs as he stared in shock at the man standing just inside the doorway. “Buck!” he gasped, reeling almost drunkenly and taking a step forward to keep himself from falling. “You–”

“Couldn’t sleep,” the big man said in that same quiet and strangely calm tone. He closed the door behind him and moved slowly toward the bed. “Thought I’d come take a turn sittin’ with Vin. Maybe give you a little break.”

Chris turned back to the bed and hastily wiped a shaking hand over his wet face. He tried frantically to think back, to figure out how much Buck might have seen or heard, but knew it didn’t matter. Any part of it would have been more than enough.

For the moment, though, the big man seemed wholly intent on Vin. He lowered himself carefully onto the edge of the bed and stared down for long moments, then gave a slow, mournful sigh and reached out, tenderly brushing the long, tangled hair off the tracker’s white throat. “I keep hopin’ Nathan’s wrong,” he breathed sadly. “But it don’t look like he is.”

Chris swallowed hard, his gaze riveted to Vin’s unconscious face. “Fever’s still risin’,” he said, though he knew Buck would’ve felt that. “He’s gettin’ weaker, pain’s gettin’ worse, he can’t keep down more than a swallow of anything …” He bowed his head and rubbed a hand over his eyes, wondering when he’d wake from this nightmare. “A couple of times,” he rasped, “I thought I’d … lost him …” He turned and made his way on leaden legs to Nathan’s rocker near the window and sank into it, tired to his soul. “Hell, I don’t know how he’s lasted this long.”

Buck reached into the bowl on the table and pulled out the cloth, squeezed the excess water from it and began bathing Tanner’s hot flesh with slow, steady strokes. “Vin ain’t ever been a quitter,” he said quietly, never looking at Larabee. “’Specially when he figures he’s got somethin’ worth fightin’ for.”

Chris stiffened at that and a cold wave of unease swept through him. He curled his fingers tightly about the carved arms of the rocker and stared through wide, fearful eyes at Wilmington’s broad back. “Buck–”

“I still remember the first time I ever saw y’all together,” the big man went on as if Larabee had never spoken, his voice quiet and calm, his hand steadily bathing Vin. “It was on the porch of the hotel, under Blossom’s window. You were standin’ there talkin’ ta me, an’ Vin just came slippin’ up behind ya on them quiet feet of his, never makin’ a sound an’ just takin’ a place at yer back like he belonged there, like he’d always been there. And you never turned around ta look, never even blinked, but it was like you didn’t have to, like you just knew it was him without ever lookin’. It was the damnedest thing I’d ever seen,” he said softly, true amazement filling his voice.

Chris’s unease began to fade and he slowly relaxed as he listened to Buck, as he realized he wasn’t going to hear the outrage, the condemnation, he’d expected. Releasing his grip on the chair arms, he leaned forward and waited in silence for whatever it was he would hear.

“I figgered y’all’d been ridin’ together fer a good spell when I saw that,” Buck continued, leaning forward to soak the cloth in water again. “I mean, hell, Chris,” he turned on the bed and cast a thoughtful look at Larabee, “you never just let somebody come up on yer back like that. And Vin, well, shit,” he breathed, turning back to the tracker and resuming his efforts to cool the man’s fever, “ya don’t have ta be around him long ta see that he just don’t trust anybody. And I didn’t have ta be around him more’n a few minutes ta see that he trusted you. So imagine my surprise when you told me that you two’d just met. Told myself I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Even though,” he added softly, “we both know fer a fact that I had.”

Chris ran a hand through his hair and exhaled deeply. “Buck–” He sighed again and shook his head. Shit, he didn’t want to have this conversation.

But it seemed that Wilmington did. “I’ve tried not ta see it, Lord knows I have,” he breathed, bowing his head, his hand stilling on Vin’s chest. “Didn’t wanta see it, I guess. But I just ain’t that blind. I’ve caught you lookin’ at him a few times, and I swear ta God it’s like seein’ you look at Sarah all over again. And the thing is,” he dropped the cloth into the bowl and turned again to face Larabee, blue gaze intent on him, “you didn’t even know you were doin’ it. I ain’t the only one who’s been tyin’ myself inta knots tryin’ so hard not ta see it, am I?”

Chris tried to avoid that gaze, but couldn’t. There once had been a time when Buck had known him better than anyone alive, and, though two people had come along since who’d proved to know him even better, the big man still had a knack for reading him so clear and so true that sometimes it scared him. This was definitely one of those times.


“I know how ya felt about Sarah, pard,” Wilmington said softly, his gaze never wavering. “I know what she meant to ya, know how much she gave ya, know how much you loved her. And I know what you lost when she died.” He sighed, an expression of deepest tenderness and deepest sorrow crossing his face. “Vin Tanner sure as hell ain’t the one I would’ve chosen for ya,” he admitted gently, “but I ain’t the one that did the choosin’. Even so, I know what he means to ya, and I’ve seen how much he’s given ya. I can’t judge ya, Chris. Hell,” he snorted softly, “I’m the last man on earth ta judge anybody fer where an’ how they love! But, while I wouldn’ta chosen this, or him, for ya, I do know this much.”

He got up from the bed and walked slowly to the rocker. As Chris watched his every movement with an almost fearful wariness, Wilmington knelt before him and reached out, closing a big hand around his arm.

“I hope ta God ya don’t lose him, Chris,” he said softly, fervently, “’cause I sure as hell don’t wanta see you go through that again. If he’s what it takes ta make you happy, then that’s good enough fer me.” And without another word he pulled Larabee to him, drawing him close and wrapping strong arms about him in a tight embrace.

Chris resisted for a moment, startled, then let himself go and collapsed into him, clutching tightly, desperately at the big man and releasing the full force of his pain and fear against Buck Wilmington’s waiting heart.

He’d slept.

He frowned, trying to remember when it had happened and why it should bother him so that it had. But thick clouds fogged his sluggish mind, rendering thought elusive and vague. He shifted slightly and was confused to realize that he was lying down in a bed that obviously wasn’t his own, while swallowing revealed a mouth and throat as dry as the desert sand.

Shit, he was sleepin’ off another bender in the jail …

But he didn’t feel any of the tell-tale signs of that, and he knew those signs too well by now to mistake them. His head hurt, yeah, but it wasn’t the hellish onslaught of the usual morning after, and he didn’t feel as if his head and stomach were in a race to see which would explode first. Nor was the all-too familiar aftertaste of stale whiskey souring his mouth. Strangely relieved not to be drunk or hung-over – and just when the hell had that become a relief rather than a disappointment? – he relaxed and let himself sink slowly back into the heavy lethargy dragging at his body.

He was so tired …

But just as he started to slip back into the waiting darkness, sounds pushed their way into his brain, muted and distant but somehow familiar. And chilling. A low voice murmured, the words indistinct but the tone both worried and worrisome, and sleep receded a few paces. He turned his head toward that voice and listened, trying to catch the words. Instead, another sound caught at him, a soft, sobbing moan, and memory slammed upon him with the force and fury of the single gunshot that suddenly exploded in his mind.


He shot upright with a hoarse, wordless cry, eyes snapping open as his feet somehow found the floor and propelled him from the bed. Nathan’s cot, used when a patient occupied the bed …

Jesus, Vin!

Thought and memory seared through him, stripping the last vestiges of sleep from him, and he stared across the dimly-lit clinic as terror again caught his heart in its frozen, vise-like grip and squeezed mercilessly. A single lamp burned from its place on the bedside table and spilled a small pool of light onto the bed where Vin tossed restlessly. Wordless sounds of suffering came from the tracker in a constant, moaning stream while, at his side, Buck bathed him, spoke to him, tried to soothe him. Horror and sickening guilt knotted Larabee’s stomach.

Oh, Jesus, Jesus, how could he have slept?

“It’s all right, Chris,” Buck said quietly though the big man never looked at him, never looked away from Vin. “He’s still here, still hangin’ on. And you needed to rest.”

He shook his head slowly, his gaze riveted to Vin’s face, which looked waxen in the lamplight. “No, I … I shoulda stayed awake,” he croaked. “He needs me–”

“What he needs,” now Buck did turn to him, looking almost as drawn and ashen as Vin, normally bright blue eyes dulled by exhaustion and sadness, “is for you ta be strong an’ steady, not layin’ in a heap on the floor.”

Chris stiffened at that, then tried to think. He had a vague memory of just wanting to rest his eyes for a moment …

“You put me to bed,” he breathed, knowing the truth with a certainty that needed no memory behind it.

Buck gave him a weak smile. “Ain’t the first time I done it, ol’ pard,” he said softly. “Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at undressin’ you an’ slingin’ yer sorry ass inta bed.”

Chris frowned and looked down at himself, only then realizing that he’d been stripped of shirt, gunbelt, socks and boots. He looked up again at Buck, but Wilmington had gone back to bathing Vin. “Thanks,” he breathed. “I owe you one.”

Buck snorted loudly. “Shit, you owe me more than one, stud. Lucky fer you I ain’t a man ta keep score.”

He moved slowly to the bed and stood behind Buck, watching as he tended Vin with an unselfconscious tenderness. As big as he was and as boisterous as he could be, Wilmington could call forth a gentleness that never failed to astonish him, though he’d seen it countless times before.

Most often with Sarah and Adam …

“Think I’m lucky for more reasons than that,” he murmured, setting a hand on Buck’s broad shoulder and squeezing firmly. “Thank you.”

Buck turned slowly and lifted a puzzled gaze to him. “Mind if I ask what for?”

Chris squeezed again and regarded the man steadily. “For bein’ here,” he said quietly. “For stayin’ here. I know …” He swallowed hard, the words sticking in his throat, but he forced them out. “I know it couldn’t be easy for you,” he rasped, “seein’ and hearin’ what you did, especially feelin’ the way you did about Sarah. Hell, it wouldn’ta surprised me if you’da knocked me on my ass and then stormed out. But you didn’t.” His voice quivered and his eyes misted, but he forced himself to continue. “You stayed, looked after him when I couldn’t … Hell,” he whispered, his voice breaking, “you’re still lookin’ after me. I just thought it was finally time I said thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Buck said softly, seriously, his gaze boring into Chris’s. “I’ll admit, maybe fer a minute I did feel like that. I saw you kissin’ him, heard what ya told him, an’ all I could think of was Sarah an’ what this would do to her. But,” he sighed and shook his head, “she’s dead. Been dead more’n three years now. An’ for those three years, all I’ve wanted is for you ta heal, find somebody who can make ya happy again. It just finally dawned on me that you have. An’ I reckon I’ve seen a whole helluva lot worse in this life than two men lovin’ each other.” He sighed again and turned his gaze back to Vin. “You’re a better man with him than ya are without him, Chris,” he said. “And while I know that probably ain’t right, I just ain’t got it in me ta say it’s wrong. Not if holdin’ to what’s right means seein’ you go back ta what you were before he came along.”

“Might be goin’ back to that anyway,” Chris said heavily, his heart twisting in his chest as he stared down at Vin, watching the unconscious man’s fevered thrashings and hearing his soft, pained moans. “What am I gonna do if–”

“Don’t,” Buck cut in firmly, almost fiercely. “Don’t do that ta yourself, an’ don’t do that ta him. Don’t you give up on him before he’s done, you hear me? He’s still fightin’, but he needs you fightin’ right alongside him.”


“Here.” Wilmington stood up abruptly and stepped away from the bed, his expression and bearing permitting no argument. “That’s your place, you take it. He needs you more’n he needs me. I’ll make some coffee.”

Despite his fear, Chris couldn’t help sinking into the spot Buck had vacated, seating himself on the bed at Vin’s side and taking the tracker’s hand in his. As too-warm fingers curled about his, he exhaled unsteadily and leaned forward, laying his other hand against Tanner’s fevered cheek. “I’m here,” he said softly. “I won’t leave you again.” He slid his hand to Vin’s throat and stroked gently, smiling slightly as the tracker’s movements stilled. “Yeah, that’s it,” he soothed. “You rest now. I’ll be right here, I promise.”

“Chr…is?” The word escaped him as little more than a breath, so faint that Larabee had to lean forward to hear it. But pale eyelids fluttered, then lifted enough to reveal two glassy slivers of blue, and contentment seemed to soften the lines of pain etched into his face. “You … back?”

Chris managed a smile for him. “Yeah, I’m back. I didn’t mean ta leave ya–”

“Buck … said … you … was sleepin’,” he breathed. “I t … told him … not … t’ wake ya.”

“It’s all right, Vin,” Chris said, sweeping the damp hair away from Tanner’s face. “If you need me, you wake me. I can always rest … later.” He just tried desperately not to think about when “later” might be.

Vin’s eyes opened wider and his hand tightened around Chris’s. “I ain’t … gonna … die,” he rasped, his voice dry and brittle but filled with conviction. “I ain’t … gonna … leave ya.”


“No!” he groaned, clasping his other hand about Larabee’s and clinging to the man with a desperate strength. “Listen … ta me!” Blue eyes burned in his ashen face, and with more than fever. He had to strain to speak, was fighting for every breath and shaking from exertion, but his glittering gaze was almost hypnotically compelling, and Chris couldn’t look away. “I been … waitin’ … too long … fer you! Been lovin’ you … when I thought … I d … I didn’t … have … a chance. Well, I got my chance,” he gasped through clenched teeth, “an’ I ain’t … about … ta lose it … now. You h … hear me, Larabee? I ain’t … gonna … die!

Something in him he’d long since thought he’d forsaken – faith, maybe, or hope – ripped free from the deepest corner of his soul where he’d imprisoned it and shot to the surface, shattering the hold despair had taken on him. With a low, hoarse growl he bent low over Vin, slipped a hand beneath the tracker’s shaggy head and lifted, then poured every ounce of will he possessed through the fierce glare locked on those fever-bright but beautiful blue eyes.

“You better not!” he declared with a raw ferocity. “Because if you do, I swear ta God, Tanner, I will track you down and drag your scrawny ass back here so fast it’ll make your long-haired Texas head spin!”

And to his everlasting delight, the corners of Vin’s mouth twitched in a shadow of that maddeningly cocky grin, mischief glinted behind the fever in those sky-blue eyes, and in a breathless drawl he rasped, “Hell … cowboy … y’ been … makin’ … m’ head spin … ever … since … I’ve known ya.”

“C’mon, Vin,” Buck urged with a gentle insistence as he pressed the spoon against the tracker’s tightly-compressed lips, “need ya ta take a little more.”

But Tanner closed his eyes and rolled his head to one side, his face contorting and his fingers digging into Larabee’s forearm. “No,” he groaned thickly. “Sick.”

Chris exchanged a worried glance with Buck, then dropped his gaze to Vin. The combined assaults of pain, fever and nausea continued to plague the tracker without mercy, denying him any rest. Unable to bear watching his suffering without doing something, and either no longer worried about what Buck would think or simply not caring, he’d eased Vin up from the bed and slid behind him, cradling the injured man against him. For the past two hours he’d sat like that, holding Vin, stroking him, speaking softly to him, offering a refuge that no drug could provide.

And if such open displays of intimacy bothered Buck, the big man concealed it with an admirable skill and devoted himself to helping however he could. With Chris occupied in holding Vin, he’d taken over the task of bathing him to cool his fever and tried to divert his attention from his pain with a never-ending supply of bawdy jokes and wild tales. And for the past half hour, he’d been working to get a cup of water down the man one small spoonful at a time.

Until he’d finally run up against the granite wall of Tanner’s resistance.

“Y’ need water, son,” he said softly. “Yer about ta dry up an’ blow away here.”

“Cain’t,” Vin whispered weakly, resting his face against Larabee’s chest. “Don’ wanta … be sick again. Hurts.”

Buck winced and nodded, sorrowful blue gaze resting on the pale, spent tracker. “Yeah, I reckon it does,” he sighed. He dropped the spoon back into the cup and set the cup on the bedside table, then laid a big hand gently against Tanner’s head. “Wish I could do more ta help ya.”

Vin opened his eyes and turned his face slowly back to Buck, even so slight a movement clearly taxing his depleted strength. With that same effort, he pulled a hand from Chris’s arm and dragged it to Buck’s, pale fingers closing weakly about the big man’s wrist. “Doin’ … all … y’ can,” he breathed. “’S enough … knowin’ … yer tryin’.”

Buck slid his hand from the side of Tanner’s head to his cheek, cupping it in one broad palm, and peered intently into pain-dulled blue eyes. “I just wanta be sure you’re tryin’, too,” he said firmly. “I know it’d be awful easy ta slip away. Must be awful temptin’, too. Reckon I just wanta be sure you ain’t plannin’ on lettin’ go anytime soon.”

Vin’s eyes drifted closed and his hand slipped from Wilmington’s wrist, but a faint smile ghosted about his mouth. “Ain’t got … no plans … ta leave,” he whispered breathlessly. “Got … too much … holdin’ … me here.”

“Yeah,” Buck murmured, “I can see that.”

Easily able to feel Vin’s frail strength fading, Chris tightened his arms about him and hoped that he’d sleep. But that hope was defeated when Tanner forced his eyes open and fixed an exhausted stare on Wilmington.

“Y’ know … don’tcha?” he rasped, and Chris groaned inwardly at both the question and the stubborn determination behind it.

Goddamn mule-headed tracker …

Buck let his hand fall from Vin’s face. “Yeah, I know,” he answered evenly, his voice betraying no emotion.

Chris felt Vin tense against him and tried to reassure him with his touch. But, defying his weakness, Tanner seemed intent on Buck, and, with a sharp jolt, Chris finally put a name to the unfamiliar expression chasing across the tracker’s ashen face.

Vin was afraid.

He drew a breath to speak, but Buck silenced him with a look. Swallowing hard, forcing himself to trust the big man, he closed his mouth and nodded once, but tightened his arms protectively about Vin. And hoped like hell that Wilmington knew what he was doing.

Buck, too, must’ve recognized Vin’s fear, for he softened his own expression and reached for the hand that had fallen from his, shaking his head and tightening his grip when Vin flinched and tried to pull away.

“It’s all right, son,” he said, his voice low and gentle and infinitely soothing. Vin shuddered and reached for Chris with his other hand, and Buck sighed sadly. “Y’ act like ya expect me ta hit ya.”

“Been known … t’ happen,” Vin breathed. “That … ’n worse.”

Buck sighed again and hung his head, still holding on to Vin’s hand. “Yeah,” he said mournfully. “Reckon I’ve seen the ‘worse’ a time or two.” He lifted his head then and gazed steadily into the tracker’s eyes. “But that’s not gonna happen here,” he vowed in a firm voice, “you hear me? Not if I have anything ta say about it.”

Vin frowned in confusion, obviously trying to make sense of what he was hearing. But he was so weak, and his pain and fever were so strong, that the effort simply proved too much. “I d … I don’t … understand …”

Buck slowly lifted his other hand and gently cupped it to Vin’s face, and again the younger man tried to pull away. But Buck kept his hand where it rested and finally Vin submitted to that touch, his eyes closed, his head cradled against Chris’s chest, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps, though whether from pain or from fear Larabee had no idea.

“It’s all right, son,” Buck soothed in the gentle tone Chris had so often heard him use with Adam. “I ain’t gonna hurt ya, I swear. It ain’t my place t’ approve or disapprove of what you an’ Chris got between ya. I ain’t God an’ I sure as hell don’t want the job. But I do know this. You brought back somethin’ in him I thought he’d lost when Sarah died, somethin’ I thought I’d never see again. Brought back the man I thought I’d never see again. An’ mebbe it makes me a selfish bastard, but I’m glad ya did, ’cause I kinda missed that ol’ sonuvabitch. He’s a helluva lot easier ta be around than the cold, mean bastard who took his place.” A faint smile touched Vin’s pale lips and Buck chuckled quietly. “Thought you’d agree.” He moved his hand from Vin’s face to stroke his hair. “An’ it don’t take a genius ta see that he’s given you somethin’ you been needin’, too. So I reckon it don’t matter what anybody else thinks. It’s right fer you two. Y’all are right fer each other. An’ I reckon that’s what really matters.”

Vin said nothing, merely relaxed against Chris beneath the big hand slowly stroking his hair, his breathing slowing and evening out, his face softening, the lines of pain etched there easing. His hand, though, never left Chris’s, and even in sleep a faint smile seemed to grace his lips.

Chris bowed his head over Vin’s a moment, then lifted it and looked at Buck, feeling more for the man than he could ever put into words. “Thanks,” he whispered, wishing he knew of something more profound.

But Buck only smiled and shook his head, blue eyes shimmering with tears. He released Vin’s limp hand and raised his own to Chris’s shoulder, gripping it tightly for long moments, then let go and rose from the bed. He turned to the window, took a step forward, and stopped abruptly.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he breathed in amazement.

“What?” Chris asked sharply, expecting yet another crisis.

But Buck turned back to him, smiling broadly and gesturing to the window. “Look,” he said, “it’s mornin’.” He dropped his gaze to Vin and his smile widened further even as a single tear slid down his cheek. “Stubborn sonuvabitch made it through the night!”

Chris lifted his own eyes to the window then and stared in wonder at the first feeble light of dawn filtering through it. As he watched it, his hand slid over Vin’s chest to rest over his heart. And weak as they were, that pale light and that faint throb were more than enough to shatter the dark chill that had wrapped itself around his soul.

Vin was still alive.

Vin is still alive.

Chris clung to that thought like a lifeline, quickly lost count of how many times he repeated it to himself, retreated to it and took shelter in the frail hope it offered each time the black terror came beating against the doors of his heart. Vin’s fever climbed steadily, pain still filled his every moment, waking or sleeping, and the bouts of wrenching sickness continued to torture him without mercy. Yet through it all, as hour followed upon long, agonizing hour, Chris sat by him, sat with him, held a hot hand in one of his and rested his other over the tracker’s heart, allowing that stubborn beat to dictate the rhythm of the words running almost non-stop through his brain.

Vin is still alive.

He knew the others were clinging just as fiercely to that truth, that hope. It had become the standard greeting whenever one of them entered the clinic – “He’s still alive,” said with equal parts relief and amazement – and he could well imagine those same words making their way through town. Strange to think how much a deeply solitary man like Vin Tanner had come to mean to so many. And his surprise and shy pleasure when someone did him even the smallest kindness showed plainly that no one thought it stranger than he.

Strange how little so deeply intuitive a man could understand about his own worth to those around him …

He gazed down at Vin and frowned, wondering what all had happened in his life to blind him to his worth. Certainly the bounty had to be part of it. Slap a price on a man’s head, calculate his value down to the penny, then tell the world that value stands whether he’s alive or dead. What in God’s name could the sovereign State of Texas possibly know about the true worth of Vin Tanner?

Then there was Alvin Harper. The bastard had shown up out of the blue, insisting that Vin return with him because it was what he wanted, pressing a claim that had only existed in his mind. Didn’t matter what Vin wanted, didn’t matter what he thought or felt. Harper had proved that when he’d shot him down simply for saying “no.”

Just how many Alvin Harpers had it taken to convince Tanner that he didn’t matter to anyone at all? And how long would it take Chris Larabee to convince him that he did?

Didn’t matter, really; he’d do it no matter how long it took, would spend his whole life doing it and consider it a life well spent. Provided he was given that time. Provided it wasn’t slipping away from him even now …

No. Vin is still alive.

He bowed his head, closed his eyes and swallowed hard, again using those words to force down the fear threatening once more to spill through him. A light touch at his shoulder brought his head back up, and he opened his eyes to see Nathan sitting in the chair beside him.

“Gon’ need ya ta move t’ his other side,” the healer said gently. “I wanta have another look at him, see how he’s doin’.”

Chris nodded mutely and reluctantly released Vin’s hand, then rose to his feet. As he did, the room swam around him and for one moment he was certain he’d fall. Strong hands caught him, though, and again he found himself staring rather dazedly at Nathan. He opened his mouth to speak, but Jackson cut him off.

“You tell me you’re fine an’ I’ll hurt ya,” he warned grimly, dark eyes staring all too knowingly at Larabee. “Inez sent breakfast up. You go sit over there, eat, get somethin’ inside ya other’n coffee.”

Chris blinked and tried to get his less than steady gaze to focus. He wanted to argue, to protest that he really was fine and that Vin needed him more than he needed food. But the tone of Nathan’s voice and the force of the man’s grip on him made it clear that the healer was in no mood for such. The time he’d take arguing with Larabee meant time taken away from his patient, and Chris knew from experience that keeping Nathan away from a patient was never a good idea.

“Guess I could use a little somethin’,” he finally, grudgingly, agreed.

Nathan’s snort spoke eloquently of his thoughts on the matter. Ignoring the implied slight to his good sense, Chris pulled out of Jackson’s grasp and weaved an unsteady path to the table where food and fresh coffee sat waiting. Nathan turned and watched him until he sat down, Buck watched him from where he sat in the rocker, and Josiah watched him from his place against the far wall. Not until he picked up a fork and began serving himself did Nathan turn away; Buck and Josiah, however, continued to stare.

“You boys gonna cut it up and feed me, too?” he asked irritably.

“If it comes ta that,” Buck answered easily. “I’d surely hate fer Inez ta think her fine cookin’ ain’t appreciated.”

“And breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” Josiah added with a toothy, and dangerous, grin.

He swore under his breath but dug in nonetheless. He had absolutely no doubt that Buck would hold him down and force-feed him; he’d done it before. And Josiah … hell, he’d probably enjoy the exercise.

Why the hell couldn’t he have friends who were afraid of him?

“Josiah,” Nathan called quietly, “gon’ need ya. He ain’t restin’ real good an’ this ain’t gon’ help. An’ you move from that chair, Chris,” he warned without ever turning around, “an’ I’ll pour the laudanum down ya m’self. Won’t hurt Vin havin’ somebody else with him fo’ a while.”

Josiah pushed away from the wall and started toward the bed. As he passed by Chris, though, he stopped and set a hand to his shoulder, squeezing gently. “Let us help,” he urged softly, blue eyes filled with compassion. “We need ta do it. He’s ours, too.”

Chris dropped his gaze to his plate as a twinge of guilt bit through him. Josiah was right; he wasn’t the only one suffering here. “Go on,” he said quietly, lifting his gaze back to Sanchez’s. “Talk to him. He needs that when Nathan’s pokin’ around.”

Josiah nodded, squeezed his shoulder again and walked away. Chris stabbed blindly at the food before him and ferried forkful after forkful to his mouth, chewing and swallowing mechanically, never tasting what he ate. Vin cried out weakly and Josiah’s low, rich voice poured out words of comfort. Chris’s stomach clenched and he dropped his fork into his plate, then buried his face in shaking hands and fought desperately not to bring up everything he’d just eaten.

Vin is still alive. Vin is still alive.

It took every scrap of will he had not to jump to his feet and rush to the bed, shove both Josiah and Nathan away and take Vin into his arms to shelter him from any further hurt. He couldn’t do that, he knew it, but that didn’t make the urge any less real, any less powerful. And this was, he realized, the part of love that he liked least, this maddening, sickening helplessness in the face of his beloved’s suffering. It had clawed at him whenever Sarah had been sick or in pain, and it had damn near destroyed him when she’d died. He’d harbored the sneaking, cowardly hope that loving a man might somehow lessen that feeling or at least make it easier to bear.

He’d been so wrong.

He pushed away from the table and thrust himself to his feet, folding his arms tightly against his chest and pacing around the clinic in restless agitation. He could feel Buck’s sympathetic gaze upon him, but knew there was nothing Wilmington could do to help. Nothing anyone could do, except Vin. Chris’s whole heart, his whole life, rested solely in the hands of a man fighting just to keep himself alive.

No, he didn’t like this part at all.


Josiah’s quiet voice pulled him out of his tortured thoughts and jerked him around to face the bed, his heart poised on a knife’s edge. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything except stare helplessly at Nathan, his soul waiting to shatter. The healer sat slumped forward in his chair, his head hanging down, and Chris felt the first cracks run through him.

No …

After a moment, Nathan drew a long, audible breath and straightened, then sat back in his chair. The silence in the clinic stretched unbearably taut, every nerve in that room stretching with it. Chris thought he’d scream if the healer didn’t say something now.

Instead, it was Buck who spoke. “Nate?” Hope and fear battled for dominance in the big man’s ragged voice.

Nathan paused for another long breath, then rose slowly to his feet and turned to face Chris and Buck, his dark face wreathed in perplexity. His brows pulled down low and knit tightly together, carving deep furrows in his forehead. He pursed his lips, shoved his big hands into his pockets and shook his head slowly.

“Ain’t quite sure I know what t’ say,” he finally admitted.

Chris felt his scream rising closer to the surface. Clamping down hard against it, he clenched his jaws and took a tight step nearer to the bed. “Try,” he spat.

Seemingly oblivious to the gunman seething before him, Nathan nodded slowly and licked his lips. His dark eyes wandered everywhere except to Larabee. “If he was bleedin’ inside,” he began slowly, as if thinking aloud, “I’da known it by now. His belly’d be swelled up, hard. But it ain’t. Ain’t no sign a’ nothin’ like that that I can feel.”

Chris’s scream receded a notch.

“He’s keepin’ down water, too,” Nathan went on, the knowledge clearly surprising him. “Mebbe only if it’s given to him slowly an’ in swallows, but still he’s keepin’ it down.”

“And that means?” Chris hissed through teeth that seemed locked together.

Nathan did look at him then, his face clearing somewhat. “If that bullet had torn up his insides like I thought, he wouldn’t be able ta keep nothin’ down, no matter how we gave it to him. An’ likely he’d be throwin’ up blood, too, which he ain’t done that I can see.” He frowned and peered more intently at Chris. “B’fo’ I came back, did you have ta change the sheets at all? An’ I don’ mean from him throwin’ up or jes’ wettin’ ’em.”

He stiffened at that and took a step back, startled by the intrusive question. Vin was a fiercely private man, and Nathan’s inquiry seemed an almost unforgivable affront to the injured man’s dignity.

“I need ta know,” the healer persisted. “B’lieve me, Chris, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. I know how Vin is, too.”

He swallowed and calmed himself with an effort. Nathan did know, had dealt with Tanner too often not to. And the man didn’t have it in him to violate a friend in that way unless he had no choice. He drew a deep breath, released it slowly and nodded.

“Yeah,” he murmured, his gaze sliding to the floor. “Not long before you got here, he …” He swallowed again, nodded again. “We had ta change the sheets,” he finished hoarsely.

“Damn!” Nathan breathed, turning back to stare at the bed.

“That bad?” Chris asked desperately.

But Nathan turned back to him, the slightest of smiles on his face, his dark eyes glistening. “Hell no,” he breathed unsteadily. “Means it ain’t all spillin’ out inside him, means mebbe that bullet missed his bowel …”

Chris’s knees betrayed him, buckled under him, and it was only by the barest margin that Buck shot out of his chair and caught him before he fell. But again he couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but hang limply in Wilmington’s arms while the big man dragged him to the rocker and lowered him into it.

Missed his bowel …

Nathan was still speaking, his words coming more and more rapidly as he began to pace. But Chris only caught a few snatches here and there, his dazed mind rendered almost useless by shock.

“ … ain’t bleedin’ inside … if his bowel wasn’t hit … should know fo’ sure t’morra …”

Vin is still alive.

“ … get that fever down, mo’ water in him … If we can keep him from tearin’ anything loose … Mebbe, jes’ mebbe …”

Vin is still alive.

He never felt himself slump forward in his chair, never felt the silent sobs that shook his exhausted body, never felt anything except the fierce and fervent hope that lent new strength to his embattled soul.

Vin is still alive.

And maybe, God maybe he’d stay that way.

“Ain’t gotta squeeze s’ tight,” said a low drawl muffled by his chest. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Chris gasped in startlement and instinctively tightened his arms further, wringing a squeak of protest from Tanner. Embarrassment flooded him and he immediately let his arms fall open. “Sorry,” he muttered sheepishly. “Didn’t know I was squeezin’.”

Vin lifted his shaggy head and set his chin on Larabee’s chest, studying him for long moments. “You was thinkin’ about it again, weren’t ya?” he asked at last, easily reading the shadows still darkening the gunman’s green eyes.

Chris winced, ashamed at having been caught out, then nodded. “Yeah,” he admitted. “Seems I ain’t made my peace with it, either.”

Vin smiled gently, then pushed himself up the long, lean body and pressed his lips to Larabee’s in a tender kiss. “Mebbe we c’n find our peace t’gether,” he whispered against the gunman’s mouth.

Chris shivered and again wrapped his arms around the tracker, holding the slim body close and delighting in the feel of it against his own. He never would’ve imagined he could take such pleasure in holding another man, in feeling sharp angles and hard planes where he was used to soft curves, but in this as in so much else Vin had been a revelation to him. The first time he’d ever taken the tracker into his arms, he’d been astonished at the utter rightness of it, at the perfect way Vin fit against him. And at the desire that had stirred within him.

Desire he’d never felt for anyone else but Sarah.

“God, Vin,” he groaned as frissons of heat and hunger shot along his every nerve, “tell me it’s always gonna be like this!”

Tanner lifted his head at that and stared into Chris’s flushed face, his own eyes gone dark and smoky. He lifted one hand and laid it against Larabee’s face, then stroked slowly downward with the backs of his fingers. “I’s kinda hopin’ you could tell me,” he said in his low, raspy drawl. “Ain’t ever loved nobody like this before. Ain’t ever been loved like this before. ’S all new ta me, but you had it before. Reckon that makes you th’ expert here.”

Chris gave a shaky laugh. “Don’t know about that, partner. This here is brand new ta me, too. I think you might know a lot more about some of it than I do.”

Vin blinked, then pulled back slightly and cocked his head to one side, frowning thoughtfully. “’Bout two men bein’ t’gether, y’ mean,” he said softly. When Chris shrugged and nodded, his frown deepened and he pulled away altogether, sitting up and regarding Chris uncertainly. “That bother ya?” he asked quietly, a strange uneasiness settling upon him. “That … that I always preferred bein’ with men?”

Chris laughed again and turned onto his side, reaching out to slap Vin’s knee lightly. “I’d be in a helluva fix if it did, now wouldn’t I?” he joked. When Vin didn’t respond, he exhaled deeply and sat up, then leaned forward to take the tracker’s hands in his. “We’ve talked about this, remember?” he asked quietly, gazing intently into the younger man’s eyes.

Vin wanted to look away, but those clear green eyes wouldn’t let him; wanted to pull away, but those strong hands only held him tighter. “Talkin’ about it’s one thing,” he said in a low voice. “But we didn’t come all this way out here jist t’ talk.” He shrugged slightly. “Reckon I jist want us both t’ be sure ’fore we git in so far we cain’t git back out–”

“Well, I am sure,” Chris cut in firmly, tightening his grip on Tanner. “I don’t want out. Believe me, Vin, I’ve thought long and hard about this. Made myself think about it. Hell, even before you told me about you and Harper, it didn’t take much ta figure out that you two’d done more together than just hunt bounties.” Vin did look away then, but Chris freed a hand and lifted it to the tracker’s chin, turning his face back until their eyes met again. “I made myself think about you and him, made myself think about you and whoever else there might’ve been, made myself think about whether it mattered. And it didn’t. It doesn’t.” He lightly stroked Tanner’s chin with his thumb. “I don’t care who you’ve been with before,” he insisted softly. “All that matters is that, from now on, you’re with me.”

Vin listened intently to Chris’s words, heard the certainty in them and saw that same conviction in the man’s unguarded eyes, and felt the last of his worry melting away. While he had absolutely no doubt about what he felt for and wanted with Larabee – hadn’t had any since that first day – he’d harbored a small, secret fear that Chris hadn’t really given this all the thought it needed, that he hadn’t truly considered exactly what it meant to love and want another man. Especially a man who wasn’t coming to him with either his virtue or his innocence intact. But now, studying Chris, he realized that he should have known better. The man wasn’t stupid, was no fool and certainly no innocent himself, and he never did anything without thinking it through first. Recognizing his own foolishness for ever doubting such a man, Vin gave a soft, rueful chuckle and shook his head, then reached up and took Chris’s hand in his, carrying it to his heart.

“Well,” he finally drawled, mouth curving into a crooked, boyish grin, blue eyes shining, “I reckon I c’n live with that.”

Chris felt that grin and the light in those eyes go straight to his soul. “Good,” he said softly, solemnly, “’cause I sure as hell don’t think I could live without it. I spent too much time facin’ that possibility when you were laid up in the clinic, and it damn near tore me apart–”

“Ssh.” Vin leaned forward and laid a hand over Chris’s mouth to silence him. “Ain’t gotta think about it no more, cowboy,” he rasped. “I’m here, I’m alive, an’ I’m with you. I reckon that’s all we need ta think on right now.”

Chris gently pushed Vin’s hand away from his mouth, a smile of his own forming. “I don’t know,” he murmured in a low, warm voice, “I think maybe we’ve done enough thinkin’ for a while.” His smile grew more than a little wolfish. “Think it’s time we tried somethin’ else.”

Vin’s eyes widened, then darkened, and he licked his lips slowly and trailed a finger lightly along the strong curve of Larabee’s jawline. “Got anything partic’lar in mind, cowboy?” he asked, his gravelly voice turning the question into a blatantly seductive proposition.

Chris shivered and exhaled unsteadily as that sultry voice and slow-moving finger brought his every nerve to life and sent his blood shooting straight to his groin. “Got … one or two ideas,” he whispered unsteadily, falling helplessly into midnight eyes.

Vin chuckled softly, wickedly delighted to see the notoriously unflappable man so flustered, and leaned into him, brushing his lips against Chris’s. “’S what I like about you, Lar’bee,” he whispered against the gunman’s mouth. “Yer always thinkin’.”

But Chris wasn’t, couldn’t. Not with this man filling his every sense and stripping him of his reason. Tanner’s mouth was moving slowly, searchingly against his, tasting, teasing, and he couldn’t have put together a coherent thought if his life had depended on it. Vin’s tongue demanded entry and he gave it willingly, his own rising to meet and twine with its mate. Not wanting that mouth to leave him, not wanting ever to draw another breath that didn’t carry Vin’s taste and scent upon it, he rose to his knees and pulled the younger man to him, burying his mouth in Vin’s and imprisoning that warm, sinewy body against his own. Tanner’s crotch thrust against his and a spear of heat shot through him.

Jesus …

Vin clutched at Chris and deepened his kiss, his hunger for the man almost more than he could bear. During his convalescence, they’d done little more than share passionate kisses and intimate caresses, giving him time to heal and Chris time to get comfortable with giving physical expression to their love. And though even that had been more than he’d ever thought he’d have, it certainly wasn’t everything he wanted.

That was about to change.

He dug his fingers into Chris’s wide shoulders and raked them down his chest and sides, thrilling to the tightly leashed power of hard muscles rippling beneath his touch. But it just wasn’t enough. He knotted his fingers into the fabric of Larabee’s shirt and pulled it from the waistband of his pants, then slipped his hands beneath it and growled in frustration as he encountered the obstruction of the man’s undershirt. He started to claw at it until strong fingers clamped firmly about his wrists and pried his hands away.

“Easy, pard,” Chris soothed in a low, rough voice, pulling back slightly and regarding the tracker through smoldering, half-focused eyes. “We’re gonna get there, I promise, but we’re not gonna rush.” A choked sound of protest broke from the tracker and he freed one hand to lift it to Tanner’s face, gently brushing back the unruly tangle of hair and tenderly stroking a flushed cheek. “I wanta be sure you’re up ta this.”

“God, Chris!” Vin groaned hoarsely, panting and trembling from the force of his need. “Been waitin’ fer this fer so long–”

“Then a little longer won’t kill ya,” Chris said with a slight smile, sliding his hand to Vin’s throat and stroking slowly to settle him. “Somethin’ this important needs ta be done right.”

Vin stared at him in confusion, not quite sure what he meant. “Right?” he breathed. “I want you, you want me, we’re both ready … Don’t that make it right enough?”

“Nope.” Chris slid his thumb along the hard ridge of Tanner’s collarbone, calming the man with voice and touch as he would an over-excited horse. “Not if we go so fast that your strength gives out. Not if we go so fast that what we’re doin’ here gets lost in the rush of doin’ it. This ain’t about fuckin’, Vin,” he said, voice and eyes soft. “This is about you an’ me bein’ together, and, believe me, pard,” he smiled wryly, “that won’t be nearly as much fun as it should be if you pass out on me halfway through.”

Vin blinked and licked his lips, then pulled out of Chris’s hands and sat back on his haunches, startled and more confused than ever by Larabee’s words. He wasn’t used to this, had never known its like before. No one had ever given such thought to him, but only to what they could get from him. It had always been about fucking, one way or another.

“I ain’t … I ain’t sure I know … what …” His words trailed off and he stared up at Larabee, shaking his head in helplessness.

The look in Vin’s eyes confirmed many of Chris’s dark suspicions about his past. He’d long since guessed that Tanner wasn’t inexperienced sexually, but it hurt him now to think at what cost that experience had come.

“Then it looks like,” he said gently, grasping Vin’s arms and pulling the tracker to him, “we got some things to teach each other.” He slipped his arms around the younger man and held him close, then claimed his mouth in a slow, deep kiss that conveyed as much love as it did want.

Vin moaned softly and shivered as that kiss, achingly tender, swept through him like a healing desert rain, washing every trace of hurt and shame from his soul and filling every dark, empty place inside him with light and warmth. It no longer mattered what he’d known or hadn’t known before Chris, what he’d been or hadn’t been. All that mattered, all that existed, was what he felt and what he was now, cradled in this man’s arms and washed clean by his love.

Chris swept his mouth from Vin’s lips to his chin, then trailed it slowly along that beautifully square jaw to the tender flesh just beneath his earlobe, tonguing the hollow there. Vin shuddered and gasped and Chris gave a low laugh, his breath fanning warmly against Tanner’s flesh. “Like that, do ya?”

“Oh, Lord!” Vin groaned, closing his eyes and rolling his head to one side to give the man greater access to his neck. “Like ain’t hardly th’ word!”

Chris chuckled again, then dragged his mouth down the side of that long neck, nipping sharply at the warm flesh, then cooling the bites with his tongue. Vin was moaning, low, soft sounds deep in his throat, and Larabee decided he’d happily spend the rest of his life drawing them from the normally near-silent tracker.

He couldn’t help wondering, though, what other sounds the man might make …

Inspired to find out, he lifted his mouth from Vin and was immediately rewarded by a breathless whimper. Laughing again, he cradled the tracker’s head firmly between his hands and kissed him soundly, then released him and tried to pull away.

But Vin clutched desperately at him and held him in place, breathing heavily and staring at him through wide, unfocused eyes. “Y’ ain’t done–”

“Oh, hell no,” Chris assured him huskily, his own breath coming hard as blood throbbed hotly through his veins. “I ain’t even started yet. But,” his wide mouth pulled into a feral grin, “I figured we might wanta get more,” he wagged his brows in a fair imitation of Buck, “comfortable.”

“If ya mean nekkid, then, shit,” Vin growled, sweeping a blatantly hungry look over the gunman’s lean frame, “I been wantin’ that since I first laid eyes on ya!”

Chris rose to his feet with a snort. “And folks think you’re shy!”

“I am shy,” Vin retorted, getting somewhat unsteadily to his feet. He should eat soon, he knew, but at the moment his hunger was entirely for the tall blond standing before him. “I jist ain’t blind nor stupid.”

Larabee cocked an eyebrow at the wobbly tracker. “You will say somethin’ before ya fall, right?”

Vin cocked his head to one side and gave him a sly smile. “Will ya catch me if I do?”

Chris mustered a scowl and a glare. “I don’t know,” he answered grimly. “Depends on how much you aggravate me before.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Vin breathed, crossing the few feet between them with his silent tread and sliding his arms once more about the gunman, pressing himself close against him. “I’ll be real good.”

Chris shuddered hard, then slipped his arms about the tracker’s narrow waist. “Y’know,” he murmured, bowing his head for another kiss, “somehow I don’t doubt that at all.”

The kiss was light and playful at first, but quickly deepened and grew more demanding, lips bruising in their hunger, tongues darting and dueling in erotic play. Their bodies surged together, closer, ever closer, as if seeking to fuse themselves into one, and hands roamed with a frantic abandon, exploring, caressing, kneading, raking. Finally, unable any longer to tolerate any barriers between them, they began clawing at each other’s clothing, desperate for the press of skin against skin.

At last, the simple practicality of undressing forced them to separate, though each only grudgingly surrendered his hold upon the other. Chris had already stripped Vin of his gunbelt, shirt, boots and socks, leaving only pants and underwear for him to remove. Yet, given the clumsiness of Vin’s hands in their haste, that was more than enough.

Chris was faring little better. He’d shed his gunbelt and boots earlier but nothing else, and suddenly every button on his shirt and pants seemed to exist only to frustrate him. And the hard swelling at his crotch surely didn’t make the buttons there any easier to master.

Finally, though, and with no small relief, each removed the last item of clothing and cast it aside, grateful for the light breath of breeze that rippled across over-heated skin. They gazed openly upon each other, no shyness or awkwardness between them, only the joy of having all that they’d craved for so long at last within reach. Twin smiles spread slowly over their faces as each drank in the sight of the other.

They already knew each other’s bodies, had spent long, lazy hours in rapt exploration. Yet now they were to be together in ways they never had before, and that knowledge lent an all new wonder to the sight of each standing naked, open and vulnerable before the other. Accordingly, they didn’t rush the moment, but let it stretch on and savored it, seeking to impress this time and all it meant upon their very souls.

Chris drew a slow, deep breath and stared at Vin as if mesmerized, his eyes greedily drinking in the tracker’s beauty. Save for his thinness and pallor, all trace of injury and illness was gone from him; even the exhaustion of a few hours ago had fled. He looked healthy, whole, and more at home in his wild surroundings than he ever could in the confines of town. The light breeze tossed his long hair playfully about his face and shoulders, the dying light of the setting sun was reflected in midnight eyes and seemed to heighten the soft flush of hunger suffusing his smooth skin. Larabee’s gaze drifted down the slim chest and over the flat belly, finally coming to rest on the stiff flesh rising thick and hard from its nest of dark brown curls. He licked his lips hungrily at the sight of Tanner’s swollen cock and absently closed a hand around his own.

God …

But Vin crossed to him in two long strides and reached out, gently unwinding his fingers from himself. “Won’t be no more a’ that fer either of us, cowboy,” he breathed in his low, husky drawl, blue eyes intent upon the gunman’s face. “Ain’t either of us ridin’ alone no more. From now on we take care of each other.”

Chris curled his fingers around Vin’s and smiled. “Sounds good ta me, partner,” he said softly.

“Then c’mere,” Vin urged, tightening his hold on Larabee’s hand and leading him back to the bed of their spread blankets. “Lemme show ya how much I ’preciate all ya done t’ take care of me already.”

“You don’t owe me anything–”

“I know that.” Vin stopped and turned back to Chris, regarding him seriously. “I know why ya done whatcha done,” he said softly. “Mebbe it took me a while, but I finally got it. Ya done it outta love, an’ I know there ain’t no owin’ fer that. But now it’s my turn ta take care of you. Not ’cause I owe ya, but ’cause I love ya.”

“Jesus, Vin!” Chris whispered unsteadily as those words went straight to his heart. Tears stung his eyes but a smile touched his lips. “Damn, but you beat all I’ve ever seen!”

“Y’ ain’t s’ bad yerself, cowboy,” Tanner rasped. He swept a boldly appraising gaze over the gunman’s naked frame, taking in broad shoulders, sculpted chest, narrow hips and long, strong legs that seemed to go on forever. Then his gaze returned to the man’s thick erection and he slid his tongue over his lower lip, then lifted his gaze to Larabee’s and winked. “Hell, yer a damn sight purtier’n any of ol’ Bucklin’s women!”

Chris laughed aloud. “Don’t tell him that,” he chuckled. “He’s likely ta start lookin’.”

“Now that’d be a right shame.” Vin arched a brow. “I’d sure as hell hate ta have ta kill a friend.” He tugged again at Larabee’s hand. “C’mon, ol’ man. Ain’t either of us gettin’ any younger here.”

Chris scowled, but went obediently to the blankets. “One of us is workin’ on not gettin’ any older, either,” he growled as he dropped down and lay back.

Vin slid astride Chris’s hips, setting his knees on the blankets and his hands at the man’s wide shoulders. Holding himself suspended over Chris, he grinned mischievously down into the gunman’s face, his long hair hanging down on either side of his face. “Yer awful purty when yer pissed,” he teased.

“Stop callin’ me purty … pretty!”

Vin lifted his right hand from Chris’s shoulder and shifted it to his face, slowly tracing the man’s strong, proud features with a loving forefinger. “Cain’t say yer ugly,” he breathed, dragging that finger over Larabee’s long, straight nose and down to his beautiful mouth, rimming the full, firm lips. “That’d be a lie, an’ my mama tol’ me it’s a sin ta lie.”

Chris tried to speak but couldn’t, his voice trapped somewhere in his dry, tight throat. Vin’s touch was light as a feather yet seared him like lightning. His flesh burned where the tracker touched him, and it was the sweetest pain he knew.

Vin lowered himself slowly down over Larabee, his eyes never leaving the gunman’s. At the last moment he removed his finger and replaced it with his mouth, brushing a series of slow, soft kisses against Chris’s lips. “Gonna love ya now, cowboy,” he whispered between kisses, “like we was meant ta do.”

Chris could only nod, still unable to speak. While Tanner’s mouth teased him, the tracker’s crotch tormented him, driving into his own. Trapped between their bodies, their hard cocks thrust and sawed against each other, creating an almost unbearable friction. Chris wanted to wrap his arms around Vin, but couldn’t unknot his hands from where they were fisted in the blankets. Each time the tracker shifted atop him, their cocks raked together again, driving another spear of white heat through him.

Jesus, he’d never survive this …

Then Tanner was slithering down him, his own personal serpent sent to tempt and torment him with visions of heaven and hell. As he slid slowly backward, his mouth traced a wet path down Chris’s chest and stomach, his tongue sweeping down the path between Larabee’s pectorals and over the hard curve of his ribs, while his fingers pinched and rolled the man’s small brown nipples into pebble-hardness. One streak of fire after another shot along Chris’s nerves as the tracker played with him, his breath came in great, heaving gasps and his body writhed in a frenzied rhythm. He wanted, he needed, but he didn’t have thought enough left even to make a coherent plea.

Then Vin’s breath was whispering through the thick hair at his crotch and that nimble, talented tongue was sliding down the crease between his groin and thigh. His aching cock twitched and leaked from neglect, and he was possessed by the desperate urge to to take it in his own hand.

If only he could let go of the blankets …

But Vin was in no hurry, wanted to linger over every moment spent with this man. Larabee’s rich, musky scent washed over him in waves, filling his head, his mind, and damn near making him drunk, yet he only breathed it more deeply into himself. He delighted in the salty sweetness of the man’s taste, reveled in the conflicting textures of soft flesh and coarse hair, wanted nothing more than to imprint this man upon his every sense. But his own cock was growing increasingly, and painfully, desperate for relief, and he knew the time had come to end both their suffering.

He pressed his face into Chris’s groin and drew a last, deep breath, then pushed himself up onto his hands and knees and stared down at Chris. “Y’ trust me, cowboy?” he asked, his voice a ragged rasp.

Chris opened his eyes, the green irises all but overtaken by the black of his pupils. “Ya know I do,” he croaked. “Why?”

Vin slid back up his body and reached out, twirling a finger through Larabee’s sweat-damp hair. “Wanta love ya,” he breathed. “Only,” he swallowed hard, “only not like I done before, with my mouth or hand. I wanta … I wanta be … inside ya.”

Chris stiffened and sucked in a breath, holding it for long moments. They’d talked about this but never done it, had contented themselves so far with jerking and sucking each other off. He’d told himself it was because he wanted to be sure that Vin was fully healed; he suspected it was also because he was more than a little afraid. But he had no excuse now. Vin was well, if not yet back to full strength, and it was why they’d ridden out here today, so that they might finally take this final step in the expression of their love.

And whatever doubts he might have about this, he had none whatsoever about Vin.

“All right,” he breathed at last, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. He managed a smile for Vin’s sake and nodded. “Let’s ride.” And the slow, sweet smile that broke across Tanner’s face banished the last of his doubts.

He was through with letting fear blind him to the pleasures he could have with this man.

Vin gave an exultant whoop and swooped down to kiss Chris hard, joy rising through him in a fierce, hot wave. Then he slid off Larabee and crawled to his saddlebags at the edge of the blankets, opening one and rummaging happily through it. He knew he was grinning like an idiot, but he couldn’t have stopped if he’d tried. And right now he didn’t have the slightest urge to try.

At last he found what he sought, a small jar of salve made from aloe vera pulp. He kept it for its healing properties, but figured that just now it could serve another purpose just as well. And it would smell a helluva lot better than saddle or gun oil, or that God-awful liniment Nathan gave him for his back.

He carried his treasure back to Chris and was immediately confronted by another need. He frowned and bit his lower lip in thought, staring down at their blankets, which had been spread side-by-side. He thought a moment more, then nodded and lightly slapped Larabee’s flank.

“Need ya ta get over on yer blankets,” he said. “Gonna need mine fer somethin’ else.”

Chris arched a brow but said nothing, merely shifted entirely onto his blankets. Then he watched with interest as Vin leaned over and folded his top blanket in half, from side to side. That done, the tracker began rolling it and Larabee’s other eyebrow rose.

“Leavin’ so soon?”

Vin shot him a withering glance over his shoulder, then went back to rolling his blanket. “Gonna need ta get this under ya, lift y’ up some. Y’ know,” his smirk was audible, “make it easier on them ol’ bones a’ yers.”


“Not yet,” Vin turned back and winked at him, “but we’ll get there.”

Chris exhaled sharply in disgust. “Tell me again why I put up with you?”

Vin finished rolling the blanket and turned around, then bent low over Larabee and kissed him deeply, thrusting his tongue into the gunman’s mouth and thoroughly plumbing its depths.

“Oh … yeah,” Chris gasped when Tanner finally pulled away. He slowly licked his lips, savoring the taste of the tracker that still lingered there.

Vin winked again. “I got my uses. Now,” he poked Larabee in the hip with a finger, “need ya t’ lift up fer a minute.” Chris did as ordered, and he slipped the rolled blanket under him, elevating his hips slightly. “That oughtta do.” Satisfied with his handiwork, he again leaned over Chris and kissed him, tenderly this time. “Don’t worry, cowboy,” he breathed, gazing deeply into green eyes, “I’m gonna take good care of ya.”

Chris smiled softly and reached up, lightly stroking the tracker’s cheek. “I don’t doubt that at all,” he said with absolute sincerity.

Touched to his soul by the trust shining in those eyes, Vin smiled and pressed a soft kiss to Chris’s fingers, then slipped once more between his legs. Seeing that the man’s erection had begun to flag, he bent over and pressed his tongue to the base of the wilting cock, then licked slowly up its length, bringing it back to immediate fullness and wringing a harsh gasp from Chris. He lapped thirstily at the salty-sweet fluid coating the spongy head, then growled softly and took the hardened flesh into his mouth.

Chris cried out sharply and arched off the blankets as the tracker’s mouth engulfed and sucked hungrily at him. Gasping and groaning in inarticulate pain and pleasure, he drove his head back into the blankets and thrust desperately into that talented, tormenting mouth, frantic for relief. Then it released him and a shuddering protest tore from him.

“Ssh, hush, cowboy,” Vin soothed, rubbing a hand over Larabee’s belly to calm him. “Don’t worry, I’m gonna show ya somethin’ even better.” He reached for the jar and opened it, dipped long fingers inside and scooped out a generous amount, then set the jar aside. Clenching his jaws hard against his impatience to be inside this man, he coated his cock with the salve, loosing a hissing breath as his own touch damn near undid him. But he held his need in check, if only barely, and, when he’d slicked himself, carefully stretched and bent Chris’s legs to open the man to him, exhaling unsteadily as Larabee’s warm, musky scent washed over him.

Lord, it was really happening …

Chris closed his eyes and willed himself to relax, trusting Vin as he did no other, surrendering to Tanner as he would to no other. From the first, placing himself in this man’s hands had come easier to him than breathing, and it was no different now. He’d always known he trusted Vin with his life; now he knew he trusted him with so much else besides.

Vin licked his lips and tried to steady himself, fighting now for the patience that usually came so naturally to him. He extended a shaking hand to Larabee’s balls, rolling the heavy sacs between his long, agile fingers, squeezing lightly and feeling them swell. As Chris’s breathing grew faster, more strained, he released his balls and trailed a finger to the entrance behind them, slowly rimming the dark, puckered hole.

Chris moaned and shuddered as that finger stroked him, sending frissons of heat radiating through his body. Then, while Tanner’s finger played against his hole, the man’s warm breath fanned against his flesh, the tip of a tongue lapped at the sensitive underside of his cock at its base, and a ragged, whimpering moan tore from him. He arched helplessly, awash in a need for which he had no name, his body begging wordlessly, shamelessly, for more of this, for relief from this.

“Please!” he managed to beg.

“I will, I promise,” Vin rasped, his own cock aching fiercely, his own hunger clawing through him for release. “But like y’ said, we cain’t rush this. Not an’ do it right.”

Chris opened his mouth to answer, but only gasped sharply and arched again as Tanner’s finger breached him. The long digit pushed slowly into him and he clenched hard about it, seeking to draw it deeper still. Another finger joined the first, the two playing inside him and wringing a breathless groan from him. Then they shifted slightly, brushed against something inside him, and he loosed a harsh cry and jerked violently as a wave of intense pleasure erupted through him, all but ripping his soul loose from its moorings.

“Jesus, Vin, please!” he sobbed.

But Vin wouldn’t be rushed, was determined to take time and care in preparing Chris. Not for anything in the world, not for any amount of his own gratification, would he risk hurting him. A third finger followed the first two and he pushed into the man with slow, sure strokes, scissoring and stretching as he pressed ever deeper. Hard, hot waves of want and need roiled through him but he ruthlessly held them at bay as he worked to soften the tight ring of muscle. A wrenching gasp escaped him when he finally felt it relax and he withdrew his fingers, then pressed his cock against that opening and pushed slowly inside.

Chris gave a thick, ragged cry as he was penetrated, as a wave of burning, cramping pain assailed him. He bucked against it, but immediately Vin’s strong hands were at his hips, holding him in place, and that soft, gravelly voice was speaking to him.

“Ssh, easy, cowboy,” Vin soothed, holding himself perfectly still to give Chris’s body time to adjust to his presence. “It hurts now, I know, but jist breathe, try ta relax, an’ tell me when it’s better.”

Chris couldn’t imagine that it would get better, couldn’t imagine that he wouldn’t just be torn apart. He thrust his head back against the blankets and twisted his fingers into them, the cords of his neck standing out as his body fought against this intrusion. Soon, though, the pain did pass, leaving only the incredibly pleasurable feel of Vin’s hard, hot flesh inside him. And all at once he was gripped by the urgent need for more.

“Move … please!” he begged harshly.

Vin did, pushing carefully into Chris and exhaling unsteadily as he sheathed himself in the man’s wet heat. As that tight channel closed about him, accepting him, welcoming him, he was gripped by the sudden urge just to slam into Chris and bury himself in the man, to lose himself in this wondrous sensation of finally being joined to him. But with an iron will he forced restraint upon himself, though the ache of need throbbed heavily along his every nerve. He forced himself to go slowly, pushing further into Chris and then holding, simply savoring the feel of being inside him. With that same concentrated will he pulled out until only the head of his cock remained inside, his neck bent, his jaw clenched, and sweat pouring from his naked flesh.

God, Jesus God, the pleasure of it was almost more than he could bear!

Chris was beyond such thought, was beyond anything except sheer, mindless sensation. Vin seemed to rake across his every nerve as he pushed in and pulled out, the tracker’s long, slow strokes shredding his soul and shattering his sanity.

As Chris’s body grew more accustomed to his, Vin leaned over him and grasped his hands, unknotting them from the blanket and lacing his fingers through Larabee’s. Joined to the man in that way as well, he gradually increased the pace of his thrusting, driving himself ever deeper and throwing back his head as Chris rose up to meet him. Soon they were moving as one, bodies finding the same harmony that had ever bound their souls, blood rushing and hearts pounding in perfect unison.

Set free by the feel of his lover moving against him, Vin let go the last of his restraint and rocked into Chris with a gathering force and fury, plunging frantically into the man who was his only and complete salvation. Uttering a deep, guttural growl, he wrenched one of his hands from Chris’s and wrapped it about the man’s cock, pumping the hard, hot shaft in time to his deep and forceful strokes.

Vin’s savagery unleashed an answering wildness in Chris, stripped him of all control and drove him into a primal frenzy. Worked inside and out, filled and claimed and damn near ripped apart at his soul, he thrust frantically down upon that punishing cock, into that masterful hand, flames licking along his every nerve, his flesh all but seared from his bones.

Every last barrier between them was swept away as they were finally forged into one. And in one shattering rush they came, bursting together into orgasm, Vin erupting into Chris’s body, Chris’s seed jetting in a hot stream over Vin’s hand, the two bound now in so many places and in so many ways that they would never be separate again.

Vin shuddered convulsively and collapsed onto Chris, his strength utterly spent. Hard tremors racked his body and his breath tore from him in short, ragged gasps. As the light breeze swept over his sweat-drenched body, a ruthless chill sank deep into his bones. Even so, he could so clearly feel Chris beneath him, could feel that hard body against him, and managed a small, contented smile. Then strong arms wrapped around him, a loving warmth enfolded him, and he knew nothing cold or dark could ever truly touch him again.

Once he could move again, Chris pulled the rolled blanket out from beneath him and shook it open, then draped it over their entwined bodies as best he could. Slipping his arms beneath it, he wound them about Vin, holding the slender, shaking body close against his own. He had no words for what had just happened between them, had no way of describing it even to himself, but knew it didn’t matter. Not since Sarah had he been so completely overtaken by another, had he given everything of himself and gotten so much more in return. His body still pulsed from the feel of Vin inside it, even ached, yet it was the wholly pleasurable ache of completion, of fulfillment. He tightened his hold on Vin, pressed a kissed to the top of his head, and allowed himself just to sink into simple joy of cradling this man against him.

They drifted into sleep, sated, at peace and finally, wholly complete.


To The Next Part