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By SueN.



DISCLAIMER: (*snort*)

RATING: NC-17 for m/m sex

NOTES: This is a "sequel" to the New Law ep. It originally appeared in the zine Sinful Seductions #2 by LadyViper's DemonBunnyPress. It's now mine again, so I thought I'd share. ;-) I'm fairly sure RubyJ betaed the original (thanks, hon!), but I have no idea who else (if anyone) did. It's been a while <g>.

The two men rode at an unhurried pace over the dry, dusty earth, both now feeling the heat of the day, both knowing the horses felt it and wanting to spare the animals whatever discomfort they could. They’d been out since early morning, leaving the others behind to help with the work of rebuilding the town while they patrolled its perimeter to make sure there would be no further trouble.

True, Royal and James had been beaten, but both were still alive and both had to be seething over their defeat. And clearly neither was ready to concede that his days of running roughshod over anyone who dared stand in his way were ending.

Neither was able to see or understand the changes so rapidly overtaking them all.

Beneath the flat black brim of his hat, Chris Larabee’s green eyes narrowed in thought. Maybe the ranchers did understand that; maybe that’s why their assault on the town had been so ruthless and so complete. Maybe it was the last, all-or-nothing strike by men who did see their way of life, their absolute and uncontested dominance, slipping from them. They knew as well as anyone that settlers were flocking to the area. Hell, they had to know it better than anyone because their sprawling ranches were becoming steadily encircled by homesteads. They now had to share water and grazing that once had been theirs alone; had to ask permission to drive their herds across range that once had been open; had to watch others come in and stake claims to land they had tamed, sometimes at the cost of their own blood.

Or maybe the attack on the town hadn’t been their last strike at all. The more hemmed in they were, the more desperate they’d become. And desperation would surely make men like Guy Royal and Stuart James far more dangerous than they’d ever been before.

Vin Tanner glanced across at the man who rode to his left, easily able to guess at the nature of Chris’s thoughts. Not that such was ever hard for either of them. As closely attuned to each other as they were, they seldom needed words between them. Moods, thoughts, emotions, desires were easily and silently communicated through a glance, a touch, a smile, a gesture, had been right from the first. Two men as inscrutable as stone to the rest of the world were open books to each other.

Books whose words were known by heart.

And even if he hadn’t known Chris as well as he did, it still would’ve taken no great skill to understand the thoughts tumbling through the man’s mind. Hell, they’d all thought of little else since Marshal Walter Bryce had stepped off that stage and they’d suddenly found themselves out of work. Civilization was moving in, bringing the law, the real law, with it. Soon there’d be no more room, even in such a vast land, for men whose only law was the gun.

Men like himself.

He sighed softly and swept his gaze slowly over the countryside around him, the ends of his long hair dancing as he shook his head slowly. The land wasn’t as empty as it looked, he knew that. He’d once been able to count on his fingers the homesteads in the area, had once known all the homesteaders by name. No more. Seemed every time he rode out, he spotted a new house raised by a family he’d never seen before. And the towns … Lord, they were springin’ up like desert flowers after a rain. Stages and freight wagons were gouging roads into earth once trod only by Indians and drifters like himself, and railroad crews were laying track so fast it made his head spin. And his heart hurt.

How could a land so big be fillin’ up so fast?

He sighed again and turned his gaze back to his partner, and was startled to find Chris’s deep green eyes fixed squarely on him, concern written plainly on the man’s chiseled face. He’d read Chris, and Chris had read him.

Two open books whose words were known by heart.

Vin gave a slight, crooked smile and inclined his head toward a beckoning stand of trees. “There’s a spring over yonder,” he said, wanting to erase the shadow of worry from Chris’s face even as he found comfort in it. “Reckon the horses could use a rest.”

Chris nodded faintly, still studying Vin. The tracker had to be feeling more unsettled by all this than any of them. They’d all been part of society, of civilization, at one time or another; Vin had never been more than a shadow ghosting around its edges. Yet he’d finally found a place in this town, or thought he had, thought he’d finally found a place where he fit.

How hard must it be for him suddenly to realize that he wouldn’t fit there for much longer?

“A rest sounds good,” he said at last. A faint smile touched his wide mouth. “I don’t guess the town will miss us for a while yet.”

Vin snorted softly as he turned Peso toward the trees. “I don’t know,” he drawled. “Since we saved ’em from the ranchers, seems like they all been fallin’ over themselves makin’ sure we know how much they ’preciate us. I got folks crossin’ the street ta greet me now instead of crossin’ it t’ avoid me.”

Chris’s eyes narrowed at that last and his lips tightened into an angry line. He’d seen any number of times how newcomers to the area reacted to Vin’s appearance, taking in his long hair, unshaven face and battered buckskin jacket and immediately judging him to be worthy only of fear or contempt. He’d heard the words muttered at the tracker’s back - “savage,” “renegade,” “half-breed” - and more than once had had to bite back his own furious reaction. He knew Vin heard them, too, but the younger man just let them go with a shrug and a softly-voiced, “Don’t matter none.”

That angered Chris, too, because it did matter. Vin mattered, and he mattered a whole helluva lot more than the small-minded idiots who looked down their noses at him. Until they needed him to save their asses.

“Gotta stop thinkin’ so hard, cowboy,” Vin urged with a teasing grin. “Makin’ my head hurt jist watchin’ ya.”

Chris shot the tracker a scowl. “Maybe it’s because you’re not used ta thinkin’.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Vin drawled, dragging an insolent gaze slowly over the long, lean figure of the man riding beside him, “I do all kinds’a thinkin’ when I’m with you.”

Chris’s eyes widened and he stiffened in his saddle as Vin’s low, husky rasp of a voice scraped against his soul like a lucifer, igniting an immediate blaze. So much had happened in recent days that he and Vin hadn’t had time to be alone, hadn’t had time to be with each other, and all at once he realized just how much he’d missed the feel of that supple, sinewy body against his own.

And that was another part - a very big part - of what bothered him about all this. As more people crowded into town, they brought with them more trouble for the seven to sort out, more responsibilities, obligations, expectations. There were fewer times now when he and Vin could simply slip away to be together, and more prying eyes for them to avoid when they had to take their chances in town.

It was starting to grate on him.

“Chris.” Vin reined Peso to a stop and reached out, clasping a hand gently about the man’s arm and gazing deeply into fierce green eyes. “It’s gonna be all right, cowboy,” he breathed. “We’ll figger it all out somehow, make it work.” He smiled softly, his blue eyes dark and deep. “Ever’thing around us is changin’. ’N I reckon about the only way we’ll get through it is ta hold on tight t’ each other.”

Chris let go of his anger at that, realized he’d be willing to let go of anything except the man beside him. He leaned into Vin’s touch and gazed deeply into those fathomless blue eyes, letting the man’s love wash over him like the soft waters of a sun-warmed lake. He could drown in Vin, he knew, and never once try to fight it.

He laid his free hand over Vin’s, squeezing the long fingers with his own and smiling. “Sounds like a plan,” he said quietly.

Vin winked and grinned. “Reckon I’m good fer one ever’ now an’ then.”

Chris snorted and arched a blond brow. “Just you remember, Tanner, I ain’t puttin’ on no dress.”

Vin’s grin turned wolfish and he slowly licked his lips, blue eyes going darker still. “Oh, trust me, cowboy,” he rasped, “puttin’ clothes on ya ain’t exactly what I got in mind.”

Heat pooled in Chris’s belly at those words and at the hungry glint in Vin’s eyes, and he suddenly had to shift in the saddle as his blood drained to his cock. “No?” he croaked, and swore silently at the break in his voice.

Vin, too, heard that break, saw the flush rising in Chris’s face and the fire kindling in the brilliant green eyes, and felt a sharp thrill shoot through him. He loved watching the tide of passion rising in this man, loved watching his need for control do battle with his need for release, but most of all loved knowing that when Chris’s surrender came, it would come only for him. Others might get Chris’s body, but he alone held Chris’s soul.

“Come with me, cowboy,” he invited in that low, soft rasp, his eyes shimmering with light and love. “Lemma lay ya down on a bed of grass, lemme make the world go away fer a while.”

“God, Vin!” Chris whispered hoarsely, his soul rising as sharply as his flesh in response to that invitation.

Vin smiled and released Chris’s arm, then lightly spurred Peso toward the stand of trees. Chris, still in thrall to the tracker’s magic, had no choice but to follow. Would have followed him into hell, certain that even there he’d find heaven in Vin Tanner’s arms.


Once at the spring they slowed their pace, determined not to rush this, determined not to waste a moment of this rare and precious time. Too often they’d had to make do with fleeting bursts of passion in hours stolen somewhere between dark and dawn, and while they’d take what they could get, both men craved more than just a fast and furious fuck. It had always been more between them, and neither could bear seeing what they shared reduced to so low a level.

They stripped and cared for their horses, the familiar deep and comfortable silence falling between them. But what no words could express, their bodies did. Far now from any threat of prying eyes, they indulged freely in their need to touch each other, to stroke, kiss, caress, their mouths and hands relearning what their hearts already knew.

When they’d seen to their horses, they spread their bedrolls side by side, eyes meeting and speaking plainly as their hands brushed together. Later they’d have a fire, make some coffee, cobble together a meal. For now, they needed only to nourish themselves on each other.

They discarded hats, jackets, gunbelts, shirts; toed off boots, peeled off pants, socks and underwear. When at last they were naked they came together with twin groans of anticipation, each seeking in the other much-needed assurance that what mattered most in their world remained untouched by the changes avalanching down upon them. Wet mouths met in deep, demanding kisses, strong arms wound tightly about hard bodies and callused hands stroked and kneaded warm flesh. They fed upon each other, feasted upon each other, two men dying of hunger suddenly gifted with a banquet.

As he’d said he would, Vin set about making the world go away. He dug his hands into Chris’s shoulders and sank to his knees, bringing the unresisting gunman down with him. Then he pushed Chris back against the blankets and slid astride him, leaning forward to set his hands on the blanket at either side of Chris’s shoulders, his knees on the ground, his thighs clamped against Chris’s hips. Taking his weight onto his legs and bracing himself with his hands, he rocked slowly forward, staring deeply into Chris’s glazing eyes and loosing an unsteady, hissing breath as he drove his crotch into Chris’s. Bending his elbows, he lowered himself steadily but slowly downward, his long hair hanging down to frame his face, his eyes never leaving his lover’s, his face a mask of predatory concentration. Chris watched that face coming slowly toward him, mesmerized by the fierce light in the glittering blue eyes, unable to look away. Ever the hunter, Vin had once more ensnared his prey.

“Gonna love ya, cowboy,” he promised in his throaty rasp. “Gonna show ya what really matters.”

But Chris already knew. As Vin’s beautiful face descended toward him, he let go all memory of troubles past, let go all thought of the town and its demands upon him, let go everything except his need for and love of the man atop him. Then Vin’s mouth was there, claiming his, and he let go all conscious thought entirely, awash in sheer sensation.

Vin laved his tongue over his lover’s full, firm lips, nibbled at their corners, then sucked at the enticing dip in the lower one. As Chris moaned and wound his arms about him, he scraped his teeth down the gunman’s chin, then slid his tongue along his chiseled jaw to its junction with an earlobe. He nipped and sucked at the tender lobe, rimmed the delicate shell with his tongue, then trailed his mouth back down to the long column of Chris’s throat. He found the throbbing pulse there and sucked at it, then began slowly thrusting his hips to grind his hard and hungry cock into his lover’s.

Chris gave a strangled cry and arched into Vin as lightning exploded down his spine. He clutched at Vin, digging his fingers into the tracker’s narrow back and gasping incoherent pleas. Fire shot along his every nerve and sped straight to his aching cock.

Vin exhaled unsteadily, only barely holding himself in check, and propelled himself slowly down Chris’s body, his own taut and trembling. He dragged his tongue down the valley between Chris’s pectorals and blew a soft stream of air through the golden hair gleaming against the ivory flesh, then slid his mouth across to one small male nipple and lightly tongued the hardened bud. He blew a quick puff of air against the nipple, and Chris gasped again and shuddered beneath him. Still, never one to be rushed when his mind was bent fully to a task, Vin turned his attention to the other nipple, drawing it into his mouth and sucking slowly at it.

Chris drove his head back into the blanket and thrashed it wildly side to side, his eyes tightly closed, the cords of his neck standing out, his breath coming in sharp, shallow gusts. Vin was torturing him as only he could, and it was at once the most excruciating and the most exquisite agony Chris had ever known.

“God!” he gasped harshly. “Jesus God!”

Vin flicked his tongue against the nipple, then let it go and continued his progress down Chris’s body. Sliding backward, he showered gentle kisses over the hard sweep of ribs, dragged his tongue down the taut belly and sucked at the shallow navel. He pressed his face into the thick thatch of dark gold hair at Chris’s groin and inhaled the pungent scent of the man’s sex into himself, then turned his head and pressed his lips to the hard, thick shaft jutting upward from the nest of curls. He found the prominent vein and licked his way along it to the darkly flushed head, lapping catlike at the salty-sweet fluid collecting there.

Chris bucked violently and cried out as that talented mouth wrought havoc with him. Sweat poured from his body and tears seeped from his eyes. His fingers found their way into Vin’s hair and clamped against his head to hold that mouth in place.

God, he wanted … he wanted …

But then Vin was pulling out of his grasp and sitting up, and a cry of abandonment escaped him. He arched his hips again and reached for his cock with his own hand, desperate for relief.

“Not like that, cowboy,” Vin breathed, unwinding Chris’s fingers from himself and pushing his hand away. “Y’ain’t goin’ nowhere without me.” He bent down over Chris and pressed a tender kiss to his lips. “Gonna get us both there, cowboy,” he whispered against Chris’s mouth. “But we’re gonna get there t’gether, like we’s meant ta be.” He kissed Chris again and then sat up, reaching across the gunman’s writhing body for the small tin he’d set nearby.

Chris wrenched his eyes open and stared up at Vin, entranced by the man’s natural grace and untamed beauty. Vin might have settled for a while in the midst of civilization, but he didn’t belong there, was out of place in that world. In town, he was guarded, reserved, always on edge and always on watch. Only out here, away from walls and people and their strange rules, was he comfortable, could he relax, could he breathe. Only out here was he truly free to be the wild creature he was born to be.

“Why do you do it?” he croaked, barely recognizing the voice as his own. “Why do you stay in town when you’d rather be out here?”

Vin scooped some of the fragrant aloe vera balm from the tin with his fingers, then looked down at Chris. Eyes wide and filled with light, he said simply, seriously, “’Cause that’s where you are.”

Chris was humbled by that, and deeply touched. “I never wanta tie you down-”

“I know that,” Vin breathed, setting the tin aside. “Y’ain’t tyin’ me, Chris. Y’ain’t gotta. I am where I wanta be, cowboy. Long as I’m beside you, I’m right where I’m s’posed ta be.”

“C’mere,” Chris beckoned softly, lifting his arms in invitation.

And Vin sank into them without hesitation, knowing he was exactly where he belonged. Chris’s arms closed about him as their lips met, and he knew his days of running wild and free were gone. He’d been caught but good by this man, and the arms holding him with such love were shackles he never wanted to break.

“Love me, Vin,” Chris whispered into Vin’s mouth. “Take us both where we’re s’posed ta be.”

Vin kissed him tenderly, then pulled away and sat back on his haunches, a fair measure of the balm still in his hand. He stared down at Chris through wide eyes gone almost black, his chest heaving as he panted, his darkly flushed skin glistening with sweat. It took him long moments to gather his thoughts into any workable order, but finally he managed it and nodded slowly, licking his lips hungrily.

“Reckon it’s time ta ride,” he whispered shakily, dropping his hand to his cock to coat it with the balm. He tensed and sucked in a sharp breath at his own touch, then scowled at Chris’s throaty chuckle. “Ya got a problem?” he rasped.

Chris watched Vin struggle to slick himself without coming, felt his own shaft grow harder still in reaction and had to fight to keep from reaching for it. “Think we both do!” he whispered through clenched teeth.

“Yeah, well, I’m about ta take care of us both.” And with that, Vin carefully spread Chris’s legs and slipped between and beneath them, shuddering as he saw the man opened for him. Feelings for which he had no names, no words, engulfed him, feelings he’d never known existed before he met Chris, feelings he knew wouldn’t exist without him. “Oh, God!” he breathed as his heart clenched and his soul rose.

“Vin, please!” Chris hissed, knotting his hands in the blanket as his need rolled through him in hot waves. Then a finger pressed inside him and he loosed a strangled gasp, his hips arching upward.

“Ssh, easy, easy,” Vin soothed, setting one hand to Chris’s hip and holding him in place as he worked his finger against the tight ring of muscle at his anus. Moments later he inserted a second finger, then a third, massaging, stretching, scissoring, determined to prepare his lover properly. It had been a while since he’d been inside Chris, and he wouldn’t run the risk of hurting him. Finally he felt the ring soften and relax and he withdrew his fingers, then positioned his hard cock at that beckoning hole. “’S all right, cowboy,” he whispered hoarsely. “Gonna make it better fer us both.” And he pushed himself inside.

Chris cried out sharply and bucked violently at the pain of penetration. But again Vin held him still, and that soft, raspy voice murmured soothingly to him until the cramping subsided and he was left with the wondrous feeling of Vin’s heat and hardness filling him. The pleasure of it was all but unbearable, yet still he needed more.

“God, Vin, move!” he gasped through clenched teeth.

And Vin did, slowly at first but with a steadily increasing speed and force until he was thrusting frantically into Chris, wanting only to lose himself in his lover’s body, needing to drive himself into the man’s soul. Then he wound his long fingers about Chris’s hard cock and pumped it in that same fierce rhythm, loosing the full force of his passion upon Chris.

Chris cried out harshly as Vin drove him into a mounting frenzy, as the tracker launched a ruthless assault upon his senses and sent him into paroxysms of unspeakable pleasure. Worked inside and out, filled and claimed and damn near ripped apart at his soul, he thrust frantically down upon that punishing flesh, into that masterful hand, his overwrought body desperately seeking relief.

They loved with an unbridled wildness, withholding nothing of themselves from the furious joining of their bodies. Cries ripped from them as heat seared through them, as the fire pounding through their blood all but searing the flesh from their bones. Higher, higher upon burning winds they rose, scorched inside and out. And in one shattering, convulsive rush they came, bursting together into explosive climax, Vin erupting into Chris’s body, Chris’s seed jetting in a hot stream over Vin’s hand. They strained frantically together, even now instinctively seeking closer contact, greater closeness, the two needing to be one. And as each man emptied himself, he was immediately filled by the other, hearts and souls rushing in to complete what their bodies had begun.

Vin groaned and slumped forward, dropping his hands to the ground to brace his body. His gaze met Chris’s, blue eyes locked with green, and again in those eyes two hearts read what no words could ever say. Breathless, spent and shaking, Vin carefully withdrew his softening flesh and collapsed onto the gunman. Chris lifted rubbery arms with an effort and wrapped them around his lover, cradling Vin’s body to his own. They lay together in silence for long moments, each still able to feel so much of the other inside himself.

Gradually hearts slowed, breathing evened out and some measure of strength and steadiness returned to their limbs. Vin closed his eyes and nestled his face against Chris’s chest, listening to throb of the heart whose rhythm matched his own, and a tired but contented smile curved about his mouth. Chris kept one arm wound about his partner’s back but lifted the other to Vin’s head and gently combed his fingers through the damp, tangled wealth of his long hair. This feeling of peace, of completion, that flowed through him in the time following their lovemaking never ceased to amaze him, never failed to move him. He’d known its like with only one other person in his life, and he couldn’t help but wonder what he’d ever done to deserve finding it a second time.

“You thinkin’ again?” Vin rasped softly, never raising his head but never needing to; he could feel his partner’s pensiveness. “Thought I’d done took care’a that.”

Chris chuckled quietly and pulled lightly, teasingly at Vin’s hair. “Gotta think, Tanner. Thanks to you, I can’t do anything else.”

Vin did raise his head then, setting his chin on Chris’s sternum and regarding his lover’s relaxed face through heavy-lidded, sated eyes. “So whatcha thinkin’ about?” he asked, his drawl made thicker by his sleepiness.

Chris’s smile softened and he tenderly brushed the disorderly hair out of Vin’s eyes, then brushed the backs of two fingers down the man’s unshaven face. “Thinkin’ about how much I need this,” he breathed, “how much I need you. That no matter what else changes, I never want this or us to.”

Vin reached out and dragged a gentle forefinger over Chris’s face, tracing the shape of his brows, his nose, his mouth, his jaw. “Sounds good ta me,” he agreed soberly. “Reckon I get kinda tired of havin’ the ground yanked out from under me on a reg’lar basis. Be nice knowin’ there’s somethin’ I can hang on ta.”

“Yeah,” Chris sighed, his smile fading, his gaze drifting toward something only he could see.

Vin frowned at that change of expression. “Jist cain’t stop thinkin’, can ya?”

Chris gave a wry laugh and gently urged Vin off him, then sat up. “I guess the past few days have just given me a lot ta think about.”

Vin sighed resignedly and sat up, well familiar with Chris’s tendency to turn everything over in his mind until he’d sorted it through and made sense of it. “Reckon so.” He rose to his feet in a single lithe motion and held down a hand to the gunman. “Let’s get cleaned up, an’ you c’n tell me what all’s got yer brain churnin’.”

Chris took that hand and let Vin pull him to his feet. As he rose, he tightened his hold on Vin for a moment and gazed deeply into the younger man’s eyes, drawing the peace he saw mirrored there into himself. He envied Vin’s ability simply to take the world as he found it, to accept life as it came to him and fit himself into it as best he could. He wished he could cultivate that in himself and let go his need to rail and rage at circumstances he could never hope to control or change.

“Damn, cowboy,” Vin sighed, arching a brow and shaking his head, “ya really are gonna gimme a headache!”

Chris laughed and let go his thoughts for a while. Throwing an arm around Vin’s shoulders, he walked with the tracker to the spring, where they washed the sweat and semen from their bodies with water refreshingly cool after the heat of the day. Chris even persuaded Vin to let him wash his hair, his long, strong fingers kneading and massaging the tracker’s scalp until the man damn near purred.

After allowing the day’s heat to dry the water from their bodies, they dressed with some reluctance, neither quite ready to return to town but knowing it couldn’t be put off much longer. Too much work remained to be done. They’d ridden out only to assure themselves that the ranchers really had learned their lesson and weren’t planning any reprisals. But a kind of peace, however sullen and however temporary, seemed to have fallen, and the two grudgingly realized that they were needed back there more than out here.

Part of the price of having their peacekeeping duties returned to them …

Still, Vin was determined to have some coffee before they left, so he made a small fire and put on a pot. Chris stretched out on his blankets, propping his back against his saddle and allowing his mind to wander. He thought of nothing in particular and everything in general - a town in ashes, people struggling to carve a decent life and a promising future from an unforgiving land, ranchers willing to destroy what they couldn’t control, and the land that was the ultimate prize patiently waiting to see whether the rule of law or the law of the gun would prevail.

And seven men caught in the middle, men of violence entrusted with keeping the peace, empowered to use their guns to protect the law …

He looked up as a shadow fell across him and saw Vin holding a cup of coffee down to him, one eyebrow raised. He sat up and took the cup, his mouth twisting into a wry smile. “I was thinkin’,” he explained sheepishly.

Vin sank gracefully onto his haunches, a cup of his own in one hand. “Ya don’t say.”

Chris narrowed his eyes and glared at the younger man. “Irritatin’ sonuvabitch, ain’tcha?” he growled.

Vin returned the glare with an insolent grin. “’S a gift.”

Chris snorted in disgust. “And my curse,” he muttered. But his vexation quickly faded and he frowned thoughtfully, his gaze again taking in the untamed countryside around them. “You ever wonder how long this is gonna last?”

Vin sighed and settled himself more comfortably, sitting cross-legged on the blankets and cradling his cup between two long-fingered hands. “I try not to,” he rasped, a note of sorrow creeping into his soft voice. “I seen so many other things go away … I ’member the first time I ever seen a Comanche village or a buffalo herd. Both of ’em seemed ta stretch inta forever, both of ’em so beautiful an’ so powerful ya jist knew they’d always be there. Couldn’t imagine the world without ’em.” He sighed heavily and bowed his head. “Only ain’t either of ’em like that anymore. Comanches are goin’ on the reservations, an’ I ain’t seen a true herd of buffs in I don’t know when. ’Course,” he grimaced in pain and shame, “I reckon I’m partly ta blame fer that.”

“Don’t, Vin,” Chris urged gently. “You didn’t know that would happen. You were just doin’ what you had to do to survive.”

“Yeah, I know,” Vin sighed. He raised his head then and looked steadily at Chris. “But that’s kinda the point, ain’t it?” he asked. “Sometimes fer one thing ta survive, another’s gotta die. Or at least be changed. ’At’s what’s happenin’ out here, Chris. In the past, there ain’t been nobody out here ’cept Indians, a few ranchers, miners an’ ornery half-outlaw cusses like us who didn’t have nowheres else ta go. It’s a hard land an’ only hard men survived it. But all that’s changin’. Folks are comin’ and bringin’ families. They’re buildin’ homes an’ towns an’ tryin’ ta create somethin’ that’ll be here long after they’re gone. They got a new way of lookin’ at things, a new way of doin’ things, and fer their way ta survive, the ways of the Indians and the hard men, our ways, are gonna have ta die. Or change.” He shrugged. “’At’s jist the way it is.”

Chris stared down into his coffee, then looked back up at Vin. “So where does that leave us?” he asked softly, voicing the question that had plagued him since Bryce had stepped off that stage and announced himself as the new law. “What happens to us ‘hard men’ when we ain’t needed anymore?”

Vin smiled slightly and regarded his partner with a loving patience. “Y’ain’t as hard as ya think y’ are, Larabee,” he chided gently. “An’ there’s more ta you than yer gun.” His eyes softened. “You was one a’ the ones who come out here ta build somethin’, remember? You’re more like these folks than ya know. You’ll find yer place. You’re too smart not ta.”

“And you?” Chris breathed, studying Vin intently. The tracker was young, resilient and smart despite his lack of education. But he was also as wild as the land itself and could no more be shackled to a plow than could a wolf. And then there was that goddamned bounty …

Vin let his gaze slip away from Chris’s and stared out into the distance, shaking his head slightly. “I don’t know,” he breathed. “Ain’t quite got that part figgered out yet. Cain’t scout fer the Army with my poster all over ever’where, sure as hell cain’t go back ta bounty huntin’. Ain’t no more work fer a buff hunter …”  His voice trailed off on a slow, soft sigh and his shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “I don’t know. I’ve tried, but …” He turned resigned blue eyes back to Chris. “Ain’t sure there is a place fer me. If there is, I sure as hell cain’t see it.”

Chris smiled softly. “Then maybe you’re not lookin’ in the right place,” he said quietly. He put down his coffee, reached for Vin’s and set it aside, then leaned forward and grasped the tracker’s hands in his own. “Could be your place is with me,” he said in a low, intense voice, his green eyes deep and warm. “Could be that you and me will find our places together. Could be that’s the only place either of us really has - with each other.” He stroked his thumbs slowly over Vin’s knuckles. “I don’t know. I just know that I’d a helluva lot rather meet whatever’s comin’ with you than without you.”

Vin stared at Chris for long moments, startled by the gunman’s words yet feeling their truth echoing in himself. He dropped his gaze then to their joined hands, saw how right they looked and fit together and knew that rightness extended to every aspect of their lives. He lifted his gaze back to Chris’s face and gave a small, soft smile.

“Sounds like a plan ta me,” he breathed unsteadily, his blue eyes shimmering with light.

Chris returned that smile and felt the light in Vin’s eyes sinking into his own soul. He leaned forward and tenderly brushed Vin’s lips with his. “Ride with me, pard,” he whispered against the tracker’s mouth. “And it won’t matter what changes come.”