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Just Here

X-Art_Just_Here

December

 

Forged between a dust storm outside of Austin and an abrupt blizzard in the middle of San Angela, his plan was simple: part ways with Josiah at the crossroads outside their own small town with a grateful, ‘Thanks for everything’ and head on alone to Chris’s ranch. After that…

It was the after that that was the problem and all the things Vin had been putting by the wayside for almost four months began to pile up in his mind, making it hard to talk. By the time he and Josiah got to Pine Springs, he was unable to answer Josiah’s stream of comments and posings with anything more than vague nods and soft, ‘You don’t say’s’. By the time they made it to the creek twenty miles or so from town, he’d stopped answering altogether.

They reined in at the water’s edge to rest and water the horses. Josiah had been yammering on about the railroad and what changes it would bring to their small town when he paused and looked over at Vin. He smiled gently and said, “This it?”

Vin glanced up at the blue sky and then at the brown hills. He nodded.

“You’ll be along shortly?”

“Right behind you.”

Josiah gathered his gelding’s reins and climbed into the saddle. “Then, I’ll take my leave of you, Mr. Tanner.”

The formal words cut through the lock he had on his mouth and he gave Josiah a thankful smile and a hand to shake. “I appreciate everything you done, Josiah.”

“It wasn’t much of anything. Besides…” Josiah squeezed his hand and grinned. “…you would have done the same for me.”

Vin watched as Josiah rode off, a stream of low-rising dust in his wake. “I guess it’s just us, now,” he said to the mare and the pack mule. They didn’t pay him any mind and kept drinking.

***

Contrary to what he’d said, he didn’t make a beeline for home. He dawdled, taking the long way and it was another three days before he reached the hills and creeks he’d become familiar with these last five years. He stopped in the middle of the crossroads and debated town or ranch, choosing the latter without much hesitation.

The road to the ranch was mostly easy going. Leftover snow dotted the barren ground and a few times he had to take care while navigating the deep, frost-hardened ruts left by a heavy wagon. Other than that, the journey was without incident; he met no one and saw no thing. Which was good; his mind wasn’t truly focused on the road or possible dangers. Like a stallion with its blood up, his mind kept turning to one thing and one thing only.

Perfected by distance and denied by three long months in the company of first Josiah and then Judge Travis, headstrong fantasy surged, reminding him of what he’d been missing. He tamped it all down once again, the images and remembrances; there’d be time enough for all that when he was under Chris’s roof.

However, as it somehow had to be, when he broke free of the copse of trees that guarded the ranch, he found the place still, no light in the windows, no smoke coming from the chimney and no horse in the new paddock that was attached to the almost-new barn.

Silently cursing his willful memory for letting slip the fact that it was Saturday, he told his rowdy heart to shut it, then murmured to the mare, “Let’s get on, then.”

***

It was an hour beyond sundown when he edged his way between Wheeler’s Hotel and the Clarion. The town had seen a growth spurt in the short time that he’d been gone. There was a new bathhouse that wasn’t quite finished and a new farrier that was. The cigar store had a proper bench out front and Mary had painted her shop what looked to be a bright white. The latter seemed a poor choice, what with the dust and all, but what did he know? He wasn’t a man of business.

He passed the jail, not bothering to stop—there were only two places Chris would be on a Saturday night and he hoped he was right about the first; he had no wish to make the long ride to Purgatory at this late hour.

He tied the animals near the water trough in front of the telegraph office, then stroked the mare’s neck with an apologetic hand. “I won’t be long. We’ll get you some supper soon.” She whickered and pushed against his hand. He stroked her neck once more and gave the mule a soft pat, then crossed over to the saloon.

He was just opening the double doors when an older couple passed by. The man smiled and touched his hat but the woman wrinkled her nose and pressed her gloved hand to her mouth. He hesitated. His last bath had been a short swim in a shallow creek and that was weeks ago. While he generally never minded such things, this night was special and there was no sense in approaching Chris stinking like a three-day dead rabbit. He returned to the mule, grabbed his saddlebags and headed towards the bathhouse.

A quick dunk and a hard scrub did the trick and then he was back outside with neatly combed hair and almost clean clothes. He shouldered his saddlebags and hurried on. When he pushed the doors of the saloon open, the heat and noise were twin shocks, hitting his cheeks like a rough caress, his ears like a friendly fist.

The six were where they should be—at the big round table off to the left, glasses, whiskey bottles and a scattered deck of cards littering the tabletop. J.D. saw him first. With a wide smile, he raised his glass and half stood. Buck followed J.D.’s glance and smiled as well and then it was Ezra, Nathan and Josiah. Josiah’s smile wasn’t quite as wide as the others; no doubt he’d been expecting Vin to show up just at this moment.

The knowledge that he was so well known, if only by a few, set Vin’s teeth on edge. In the past that very thing would have made him turn tail and run to the solace of aloneness, to the peace of the desert or mountain or butte.

But, he’d changed, had gotten used to the forced and necessary intimacy of friendship and when he strolled over, he was smiling. The boys called out, asking questions and offering congratulations. He ignored them, ending up at the far side of the table, eyeing the one man who hadn’t looked up.

Chris had been to the barber and his hair was trimmed neat and even, shiny with pomade. He’d been in a fight recently—greenish bruises colored the sides of his chin and temple. He was wearing a new shirt made of a pale blue striped fabric. The blueness suited him and Vin felt a jolt sour his appreciation of Chris’s beauty. Who was the shirt and slicked-back hair for?

“You finished it?” Chris finally said, glancing up, squinting through the cigar smoke.

He tucked a thumb in his belt. Chris’s voice was as shuttered as his eyes. “It’s done.”

Chris gave that odd half shrug of his. “Good.”

He tipped his chin, indicating the bruise. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing. Some uppity rancher wanted to test our mettle.”

Nathan leaned forward and cleared his throat, then said, “Guy Royal sent him.”

Vin looked around the table; the rest of the men seemed fine. “Anyone else get hurt?”

“Nah.” Chris shook his head. “It was just a dust up.”

“Yep,” Buck said, pounding Chris on the shoulder. “We took care of the situation. Guess that poor fellow didn’t know that old Chris has been in a mood lately. Good thing he’s been so busy up at his place, working out his crabbiness by hammering and sawing everything in sight.”

Chris shot Buck a mean glance but said nothing.

Vin shifted from foot to foot; he hadn’t come all this way to jaw about ranchers or that son of a bitch, Guy Royal. He nodded towards the double doors. “I got to take care of my horse and get something to eat.” It was as close as he dared to an invitation, out in the open as it were.

With a grunt as if being given a disagreeable task, Chris rose and stubbed out his cheroot. He put on his hat. “You’re not going to get anything worthwhile here. Might as well go to Miss Virginia’s.”

Ezra opened his mouth, probably to argue that his food was as good as any, but Josiah kicked him under the table. Ezra settled back, his eyes bright with silent indignation.

J.D. was watching the brief exchange with a frown. “You’re not leaving so soon, are you? I wanted to hear what the mayor said.”

“Tell you later, kid,” Vin said.

“Yeah, but—” J.D. half rose again only to be grabbed by Buck.

“J.D.,” Buck said, throwing Vin an obviously false smile. “The man just made a five hundred mile ride to save his skin; give him a moment to catch his breath.” He jerked, pulling J.D. back down. “Besides, it was the governor, not the mayor.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Boys,” Buck called out to Vin and Chris, riding over J.D.’s protests, “kiss Miss Virginia for me and ask her when is she gonna make that sweet potato pie again.”

Chris nodded. “Will do, Buck.”

Vin tipped his hat to the group in general and followed Chris out, knowing Buck was watching them with a smile that didn’t cover the concern.

Buck knew, unfortunately, as did Josiah and Nathan. He wasn’t sure about J.D. and Ezra but he thought they didn’t. The boy never saw what was right before his nose and Ezra was too involved with his own comings and goings to pay attention to anyone else. “We going to Miss Virginia’s?” he asked absently.

“I’ve got chicken and dumplings on the stove.”

“It’s not Sunday.”

“I know.”

He shrugged. “Sounds better than Miss Virginia’s tough beef stew.”

“That’s what I figured. My gelding is over by the bank.”

Chris’s voice hadn’t changed much, was still cool and distant, and the knot that had taken up space in Vin’s chest since last August, tightened and squeezed. He wanted to kick something.

Three months there and back weren’t nothing to the ten before. Rewarded from long patience of waiting for his prey to fall to his trap, he had lived the subsequent months as if in a golden dream, too scared to say boo lest he burst the bubble and Chris came to his senses. Only to stomp on it himself when he’d announced back in August that he and Chris wouldn’t have any kind of life until he cleared his name.

They had argued, of course. Chris had said it was pure suicide, Vin had countered that had to be done. Each argument grew more heated, more sharp, until their anger finally bled into their daily lives.

Chris, Buck and him had been on their way south of town, accompanying Mary and a Texas and Pacific Railroad man when the situation came to a head. It was to be a short trip, a ‘simple reconnaissance to see what was what,’ as the T&P man put it. The short trip was made shorter by a trio of hooded men that were waiting for them in the wide draw of a long-dead creek. The leader shouted something to the fact that he’d die before he let the government steal any more land, then started shooting.

Chris took the left side gunman, Buck the center, and Vin the right. The fracas was over in a moment but Vin made the mistake of riding too close to his man before the fellow had truly passed on. Slumped over the saddle, the gunman growled something and raised his pistol. He managed one shot before Vin got him again, this time cleanly through the chest.

The gunman’s last bullet had gone wild and nowhere near any of their group but Chris had come riding up, his face red with anger, shouting that Vin should just get on with it if he was so willing to die. He’d even reached over and grabbed Vin’s arm and shook him like he was a rag doll. Somehow beyond anger, Vin jerked free and answered calmly that it was better than wishing the next bullet was for himself.

He remembered that moment so clearly: Out under the hot sun surrounded by the dry August hills, the only sounds being the soft jingle-jangle of the bridles and his heart pounding in his ears.

They’d stared at each other, him and Chris, the words frozen in the air. Then he had remembered where they were and who was watching and he’d cursed his foolish mouth. Chris might have once courted release by way of a gunfight or drink, but he was no longer that man and Vin had known it. He’d been working up to a sincere apology when Chris, deadly quiet and mean, told him he’d best leave. He did, silently fuming, secretly ashamed.

A wall grew between them that day, strong and tall for all it was so new, impassable though he hadn’t tried too hard to breach it.

After two weeks of them avoiding each other when they could, Buck found a moment and pulled them inside the sheriff’s office. He grimly told them he knew what was going on and that they had better fix what needed to be fixed else the whole town know what they shouldn’t.

Stunned, Vin had looked at Chris and Chris had looked at Vin. Then, as one, they nodded, decision made. Vin returned to his room above the post office and stayed up late forming his barebones plan. At first light he went to the Clarion and got up the nerve to ask Mary if she would wire Judge Travis. That done, he went to the church and asked Josiah for his help navigating the political maze that was Austin.

Chris hadn’t been around when they had set out for Austin and Vin hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask Josiah to hold off while he made a quick trip to the ranch. He’d said goodbye to the boys, taking Buck aside to ask if he’d watch out for Chris, if he’d make sure Chris didn’t get himself killed. Buck had said he would and made Vin promise to do what he needed because, ‘Chris can’t take much more of this.’

The low comment hadn’t helped Vin’s mood. It made a bad start to the journey and the farther they got from town, the more he felt as if he were being pulled apart. By the time they got to Sweetwater, he’d realized he should have done something, anything, to heal the hurt he’d—

“You ready?”

He jerked at the sound of Chris’s voice, ashamed to be caught woolgathering while the subject of his worry was so close at hand. He nodded towards the telegraph office. “My mare is down there.”

Chris turned and they walked side by side. “She new?”

He nodded again, this time with a small smile, relieved to be on the safe ground of horses. “Got her in Austin. Saw her and had to have her.”

You sold the gelding?”

“I was sorry to see him go, but she’s something else.” The grey mare, as if knowing they were talking about her, raised her head and watched them come on. “She’s real smart and trail-ready.” The mare reached out as he got close and lipped the fringe on his jacket.

“She’s pretty.”

He untied her and mounted. “She is. I figure I’ll breed her once I find a likely stallion.” He waited for Chris to ask him if he was staying on but all he said was, “I’ll get the mule.”

***

If the ride into town was quick, the ride out to the ranch was unaccountably long. Chris didn’t speak nor glance his way and Vin thought on all the things he didn’t want to think on. Things like caution and prudence and that maybe he should have made a clean break by simply not returning.

Along the trail to Austin and while waiting in that hotel for word from Governor Davis, Josiah had helped him with his reading. Most of the books were far too confusing but there was one that had caught on his mind, a book about Julius Caesar. As Josiah had explained it, the story was about how Caesar had led his troops into some ancient city to make his stand. ‘The die is cast,’ Caesar told his men and it took Vin some time to understand what that meant: Caesar had thrown the die and what was done, was done. No amount of fretting would stop that die from rolling.

Chris and him were like that, he decided as they reached the no-name stream that snaked below the ranch. He had made his move and Chris had responded; foolish or not, the time for clean breaks was long past. If Chris was still of a mind, of course, and he thought again about the new blue shirt and the freshly trimmed hair. “‘The die is cast,’” he whispered unthinkingly.

“Pardon?”

He glanced up to see Chris half turned in the saddle. “Nothing,” he muttered.

“You sure?”

“I am.”

“Hmm,” Chris said, then guided his gelding across the stream and up the slope.

Vin frowned and followed, leaning over to watch the mare delicately pick her way through the black water though he couldn’t see much. “So,” he said when they’d reached the other bank. “Guy Royal, huh?”

“The man is like a dog with a bone.”

“He is, that.” He gave the mare her head and waited until they’d crested the hill before asking, “There anything else I should know about?”

“Such as?”

“What do you think?” A nudge of his boot heel urged the mare to pick up speed and he was by Chris’s side. “What did Buck mean about you being in a mood?” Chris’s profile was a murky grey against the murky black.

Chris hesitated, then said, “I’ve been restless, is all.”

Chris’s ‘restless’ was most men’s ‘dangerous,’ a disposition that usually led to bad situations. Vin wanted details but decided not to press—if things went well between them, Chris would tell him in his own time. “Anything else going on in town?”

“The usual Saturday night carousing and Sunday morning shame,” Chris answered. “They got a new girl at the bathhouse and the undertaker had a small fire; they lost two coffins. O’Toole was fit to be tied.”

“Were the coffins empty?”

“They were.”

“He should have been relieved.”

“He was not.”

“Better that than to have to explain to the loved ones that their loved one was burnt to a crisp.”

Chris snorted softly. “That was my thinking.”

The mood had softened and he asked idly, “How’s Miss Nettie?” They were riding through the stand of cottonwoods; it wouldn’t be long now.

“She took a fall last month.”

His cares forgotten, he set up in the saddle, jerking the reins without thought. The mare tossed her head but didn’t buck. “She all right?

Chris had turned his head and was watching him. “Now, don’t you think I’d tell you straight off if something had happened to her?” he said, his tone sharp and accusatory.

Vin settled back down, chastened. “I guess so.”

Chris waited a moment, then went on, “She just took a tumble down those porch stairs of hers. Got Casey in a lather; she fetched Nathan and Buck. They all got the old gal situated. She’s fine.”

He felt a fool for his alarm and he answered quietly, “That’s good. I’ll ride out tomorrow.”

“Mary gave me some bread the other day; take that with you.”

“Thanks, I will.”

Chris pulled up and his gelding slowed to a stop. “Here we are.”

Here they were, indeed, and Vin’s heart, unsteady in its traces this past hour, gave a great thump. He looked around at the half-finished paddock. “Where do you want them?”

“Where else?” Chris said as he dismounted.

“You got room in there?”

Chris looked over his shoulder and to Vin’s surprise, winked at him. “Come see.”

Curious, he followed as Chris led his gelding into the barn. There was a moment of blank darkness and then Chris lit the lantern.

So, restless, and here was proof.

The barn once contained two stalls—only one truly finished—and the leftover lumber from Chris’s homemaking projects. Now, there were four large stalls, two on either side, and a tack room in the back. The loft was finished as well, stocked with bales of hay and a couple old trunks.

“What do you think?” Chris asked.

He touched the nearest rail. The wood smelled good and was soft as if it had just been cut. “It’s real nice, Chris.”

“I figured I might as well have proper accommodations when company comes calling.”

Vin dug his thumbnail into the wood and felt it give. “You’re thinking on having a lot of visitors?”

“I’m thinking to be left alone.”

He shrugged at the not-unexpected answer. “Where should I put her?”

“Next to the gelding. They can get acquainted. The mule can go over there.” Chris gestured to the stalls on the far side.

He led his mare to the stall next to Chris’s black and, like they’d been doing this forever, they silently got the animals ready for the cold night.

Still not speaking, they closed up the barn and walked across to the house guided by the meager light from the lantern. There was a difficult moment when they took the porch step at the same time and his shoulder met Chris’s with a sweet, heavy pressure. They paused as one, then continued on as if nothing had happened.

Inside, the place smelled of stew and smoke and was much the same, though he did spy a few improvements. He took off his coat and hung it by the door, saying, “Those new windows?”

Chris set the lantern on the table. “Yeah, I got ‘em cheap off Harrison’s widow.”

He looked over his shoulder at Chris, kneeling in front of the stove. “Lem Harrison is dead?”

“Yep,” Chris said. “Almost two weeks ago. Nathan said it was his heart, give out from all that yelling he used to do.”

Vin hung his hat over his coat. “Bet Miz Harrison won’t be missing that.” He’d only been out to the Harrison place the once and remembered Eustacia Harrison as a quiet woman with pretty brown eyes.

Chris gathered tinder from the box and placed it in the belly of the stove. “I’m sure she won’t. She packed up her things and sold the ranch. She’s leaving in a week on the Butterfield coach.”

Vin reached for the jar of lucifer matches on the ledge above the window; he got one for himself and one for Chris. “Here you go.” He handed the match over, his fingers meeting Chris’s. The want rose and curled; he ignored it and busied himself with lighting the oil lamp. He nursed the small flame, waiting until it grew strong. When it was steady, he blew out the lantern. “Who’d she sell to?”

“A man by the name of Anderson.”

“Don’t know him.”

“He’s from Eagle Bend.”

“Eagle Bend,” Vin mused. The base of the lamp was stoved in on one corner. It was new, purchased in the summer. Had Chris done that in a moment of ill temper? “You think he might be trouble?”

“Any man might be trouble, Vin, depending on his mood.”

He nodded. Chris had got himself two new chairs for the table and he touched the one nearest, running his finger along the glossy back. “I suppose that’s true.” Behind him, he heard a muffled hiss and then another; the hot smell of burning kindling filled the cabin.

“Are you really hungry?”

“Not as such.” There was a soft sound and he knew Chris had pushed to his feet and was standing maybe four feet away. He stared at the lamp, caught by the warm, gold glow of the light.

“Because I can heat up the stew.”

“It’s all right.” He couldn’t make himself look away from the lamp’s flame, couldn’t make himself turn to Chris.

“Judge Travis stopped by almost two week ago.”

“He did?” The floorboards squeaked as if Chris had shifted his weight.

“He did. Said you’d be following soon after. Josiah said the same.”

“That so?” He held his hand over the lamp’s chimney. It was a wonder that such a tiny fire could produce such heat. It was a wonder that the desire scorching his gut didn’t burn him inside out.

“Why’d you take so long?”

“Had things to do.”

“Vin.”

He turned. Chris was standing by the stove, hipshot, hands poised as if ready to go for his guns. But his eyes were soft like they hardly ever were, soft and open and it came to Vin that only a few got to see this side of Chris, the side so well hidden. “The die is cast,” he whispered.

Chris’s expression transformed to one of confusion and then one of bittersweet understanding. Maybe he knew what Vin was thinking and was of a like mind—that no matter how much each wanted to run, no matter that it sometimes was exhausting tying oneself to one person, it was months too late and Vin made his legs move, made himself stride over so he could pull Chris in.

It was brief, the kiss, a weak press of flesh to flesh. He slid his hand around Chris’s neck and kissed harder. This time Chris kissed back and even opened his lips and Vin felt it again as if for the first time, the shock and secret joy of kissing Chris Larabee on the mouth.

He wanted to tell Chris that he’d yearned for him and the yearning had been like a stone in his soul. That he’d wanted nothing more than it to be Chris by his side when Governor Davis had signed the document promising one Vin Tanner freedom from further persecution from the Sovereign State of Texas. Or, when Travis had shaken his hand and said, ‘The world is once again yours, my boy. You can go wherever you please, whenever you please,’ he had wished it had been Chris that had clasped his hand, that had said those words.

But he was Vin and Chris was Chris and they didn’t talk like that so he gently shoved, guiding Chris to the small bedroom. The dark encouraged his desire and he shivered, unable to stifle a low moan.

Chris drew back and then smiled softly. “Guess you missed me.”

“As much as you missed me.”

Chris’s smile died. “Guess I did.”

They made short work of their clothing, practiced by now in the shedding of weapons and gear until they were down to their drawers and under the coverlet and blankets and the thin, scratchy sheet.

He pressed up against Chris, his mind a slough of remembered pleasures, afraid to hold on too tight, afraid of seeming too needy. It was quick, the lovemaking, a fumble of hands, no kissing, over far too soon.

Chris rolled to his back. Vin did the same and then touched the center of his breast and closed his eyes.

Here he was, where he’d been wanting to be since that first squabble, in this bed next to Chris, just the two of them, safe from prying eyes. All that wanting and he was barely even breathing hard.

So much for that.

“What is it?” Chris asked quietly.

“Nothing.” After a moment, he turned to face the wall.

Years ago after that mess with Eli Joe, he and Buck had ridden out to Chris’s together. Buck had been going on about Miss Lucy and the marriage noose he’d dodged. He’d said he was a lucky man and that he’d eventually settle down with one woman but only after sowing every wild oat he had stored away. Then he’d chuckled and said, ‘By then I’ll be seventy and wanting a little boredom in my life.’

Vin couldn’t remember what answer he’d given Buck, if any, but he remembered thinking that he’d never find boredom from living side by side with the one he loved.

But, maybe he’d been wrong and Buck had been right. Bedding Chris had always been an adventure, each time different and new. Like the time they’d outraced a thunderstorm only to have it strike just as they reached the ranch. Wild with the night, Chris had fucked him inside the half-finished barn, smelling of rain and wet wool. Or the time he’d woken to find Chris in the middle of an awful dream; he’d kissed Chris awake and Chris had responded in kind, then rolled to his back, pulling Vin on top. They’d fucked gently and thoroughly, Vin feeling an odd pain in his chest the whole while.

So, maybe things had changed and those times of excitement were past. He’d cautioned himself that the damage he’d done might be permanent, that Chris was a standoffish, mistrustful man with most people and now maybe he considered Vin most people.

He sighed. He supposed it didn’t matter. If all Chris had on offer was a water-downed version of himself, well then, that was better than nothing. He’d survived on a lot less these past five years.

He pressed his cheek into the pillow, intending to force sleep when a scent, subtle and familiar, tugged at his attention.

Chris and him were similar in some ways, different in others. He didn’t mind sleeping in the same clothes and the same sheets for days on end, but Chris was more particular. Chris bathed every three or four days, cleaned his clothes weekly, and, regular like a clock, at the first of the month he either brought his bedding to the launderers or washed it himself. He even had a certain white soap he liked to use, though he never told Vin that. It smelled faintly of lye and strongly of what Vin always thought of as ‘clean.’

So, Chris always washed his bedclothes sometime around the first of the month and here it was the middle.

He frowned and glanced up and around, this time truly sharpening his gaze in the borrowed light. The chinks in the north wall had been filled as had the hole in the far corner where a mouse had made its tiny home. The curtains were no longer flimsy, see-through chintz but a heavier material and there, on the far wall next to the washstand, hung a shelf with a few books already on it.

He turned on his back and stared up at the ceiling.

‘Hammering and sawing,’ had been Buck’s words. Vin had thought them a reference to the paddock but a new understanding came over him, the knowledge forming and reforming like prairie grass under a wayward breeze. The new stalls, the chairs and windows, the clean bedding. Hell, even the haircut and the pretty shirt—it all meant something and he should have known—

Chris had done all those things for him, preparing for his return, making a place for him. He pictured it, Chris in the barn, in the house, filling his days with work. Making a home for the two of them though they’d most likely never share it properly. And the chicken and dumplings? He knew without asking that Chris had performed that Sunday ritual on non-Sunday nights, just in case that was the day he came back.

He touched his chest, his fingers flat against the familiar pain that had grown at the thought of Chris waiting through the long days, then eating alone and going to bed alone.

That was the answer to the question whether Chris’s mind had changed about him and he turned on his side, this time to face Chris. “I got to apologize,” he whispered.

Chris turned his head. “For what?”

“For saying all those things. I know you ain’t looking to die.”

In the past, Chris would have ignored Vin’s words or made some wry joke. Now, he just shrugged. “Maybe I was. Now, I’m not.”

He nodded at the truth of it.

Chris hesitated, then took a breath and murmured, “You thought we were finished, didn’t you?”

The words finally out in the open, Vin froze, having nothing to say.

Chris, however, nodded as if he had. “I thought so, too. I told myself that you ran away once; you could do it again. It made me angry.”

Vin tightened his lips, pushing away all memory of Charlotte, his own craziness and Chris’s cold reaction. “What made you think differently?”

“When I remembered that you came back.” Chris raised his hand as if to touch Vin, then rested it against the pillow, palm up. “I’ve known you for five years, Vin. I know you’re not gonna run again.”

A strand of Chris’s hair had fallen into his eyes. Vin reached out and gently stroked it back.

Chris smiled. “That all you gonna do?”

He smiled, just barely, and leaned over.

This kiss was different, light though it was, somehow more honest and truthful.

Chris accepted the kiss and then pushed him away, not more than an inch. “I guess I owe you an apology, too. I know why you had to go back to Texas. I know you had to clear your name.” Chris frowned and glanced to the side. “I suppose the long and short of it was that I was scared they wouldn’t believe you and I’d never see you again.”

He wanted to mock gently that the fearless Chris Larabee could ever be scared of anything but he knew how much that admission cost so he just nuzzled Chris’s mouth, then muttered, “Stay there.” He shrugged off the bedding, then drew Chris’s drawers off and tossed them to the side of the bed. He stilled, sitting on his heels, looking his fill at the fine way Chris was made until Chris moved restlessly and grumbled, “You just gonna stare all night?”

He grinned and slipped off his drawers, then slid on top of Chris, like to like, and pulled the covers up.

If the kiss was different, than so was the loving. Saying sincere hellos and I’m sorries with his mouth, saying how much he’d missed Chris, all without words. He bit off a laugh when Chris surprised him and rolled them so he was on his back and Chris was a heavy weight on his chest and belly. And then again when he did the same, using his strength to put them back where they’d been only this time Chris spread his legs and made room.

It got hurried up after that, Chris making low, urgent noises, Vin answering the same. He found the little tin of salve that Chris used on everything from burns to sores, and slicked himself up. Not wanting to hurt in any small way, he went slow, watching the expressions flit across Chris’s face, waiting for the one that told him it was time to get serious. When Chris closed his eyes and tipped his head back, Vin’s cheeks heated. He slipped his arm under Chris’s knee for purchase and got to work.

This and this. The way Chris frowned and smiled and kind of gasped when he pushed in deep. The way it felt to be in Chris, moving the same, breath coming fast and together, almost like they were one creature, not two.

The pleasure crested as it always did, darkening the world around even as his vision washed white and he remembered it again: ‘You can go wherever you please,’ thinking only here, and now.

***

He slept some. Just a brief doze, curled under the covers, mostly on Chris. The chill finally roused him to wakefulness and he carefully untangled himself and got up. Chris made some noise of protest; Vin quieted him by pulling the bedclothes up, adding the old quilt for good measure.

He padded to the stove. The fire was almost out so he stoked it and added two more logs—that should keep them warm until morning.

He got a spoon from the drawer and scooped up some of the stew waiting on the stove. No one made chicken and dumplings like Chris and even half-warm, it tasted good. He only ate a bit—they’d save the rest for a proper Sunday dinner.

Still licking the spoon, he went to the window and pulled the curtains aside. The moon was low, almost full and belly up, angling more south than west. The temperature had dropped—there were rings of pale blue around the moon and the low grass surrounding the cabin gleamed white with frost. Pretty soon the days would grow longer and warm and the world would green up for a few weeks. Maybe he and Chris could take a jaunt to Austin to have a look at that stallion that had been up for sale along with the mare.

He’d never quite forgot that bad time, years ago now, when they’d almost all lost their lives to Ella Gaines and her treachery. He’d made his peace with the aftermath but had always remembered secretly watching Chris with that stallion. Chris had been in his element, so happy, almost boyish and carefree.

That day had made Vin see that Chris was a horseman, first and last. No doubt they would both cease sheriffing at one point. If they got a good line of stock going, they could sell the colts to the locals, maybe ship them off to Texas or even Denver and California.

Pondering the details of it, he let the curtain drop and set the spoon in the basin by the sink. He blew out the lamp, then returned to the bedroom and got in next to Chris.

“You’re cold,” Chris muttered, still mostly asleep. “Where’ve you been?”

“Nowhere,” Vin answered, settling in, wrapping himself around Chris. “Just here,” he added, eyes already closed.

***

He woke in the wee hours with Chris kissing him sleepily, deeply. Without a word, he fumbled for the salve and handed it over. He turned on his stomach and buried his face in the pillow, anticipation clearing his mind of everything but Chris.

***

The smell of coffee and the dip of the mattress tugged him from a dream-filled sleep. He opened his eyes. Bright morning sun was creeping through the curtains and Chris was sitting on the bed, dressed, a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Were you dreaming?” Chris asked, his head cocked.

“I was.”

“What about?”

Vin reached for the coffee. He took a sip, then handed it back. “Miss Lydia.” A lie—he’d been dreaming about fucking Chris in the clear water of the Little Antonio while a flurry of snow fell all around them.

Chris cocked his head as if he heard the lie but only shrugged. “Buck is here. He’s waiting on the porch. Said the morning is too fine to be indoors.” He smirked, no doubt at Buck’s exaggerated discretion.

Vin scowled though he was slightly pleased; Buck was far too used to having his way when it came to Chris; it was about time he learned to pay attention to boundaries and matters of ownership. “We got a situation?”

“Looks like it. Some stranger making trouble. I’ll go in with Buck if you want to get some more sleep.”

He pressed his leg against Chris’s hip. “It’s all right. I’ll be out in a minute.”

Chris touched his blanket-covered thigh then pushed to his feet. “Suit yourself.”

Still feeling the imprint of Chris’s hand and the memory of the dream, Vin got up and began to dress.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

February

 

He heard them before he saw them, rounding the corner of the Potter’s store as he was. They were in front of the sheriff’s office, taking their ease. Josiah and Nathan were sitting on the railing watching Buck and J.D. play a hand of poker. Ezra and Chris were off to the side, sitting in front of the window. Ezra was leaning towards Chris, speaking intently. Chris had his head bent over the bookend he was carving. It was the half-finished mate to the one back home; Vin had noticed him take it when he left the house that morning.

“Hey, fellas,” he said, hitching the mare next to Chris’s gelding.

Nathan and Josiah both nodded. J.D. smiled and Buck waved a distracted hand. Ezra, however, looked around and called out, “Mr. Tanner. Would you avail yourself of your powers of persuasion and make the man see sense?”

Chris peered from under the brim of his hat and asked, “How’s Miss Nettie?”

He took the few steps and strolled over to rest a shoulder against the porch pole. “Fine. Itching to be back on her feet. She says she’s coming into town tomorrow whether anyone wants her here or not.”

Chris nodded and returned to his carving.

“Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said, this time insistent and peevish.

Vin sighed. “What’s he done now?”

“Ruined my life, is what he’s done,” Ezra answered with so much affront that Vin had to smile.

“Because?”

Josiah answered before Ezra could open his mouth, “They’re having a boxing match over in Pine Springs. Ezra, as usual, has cash burning a hole in his pocket.”

“It’s Patty Ryan,” Ezra said slowly as if he was speaking to a child. “Patty Ryan is up against Ben Murphy and Chris won’t let us go.”

“Isn’t boxing illegal in this county?”

“Boxing is illegal in most counties and most states,” Chris intoned.

“Be that as it may—” Ezra began.

Chris raised his head and looked Ezra dead in the eye. “Boxing is illegal, Ezra, and we have to show an example. I can’t stop you from going but if you do, don’t come back.” He set the bookend down and got to his feet. “Understand?”

Ezra flushed a bright red and stared up at Chris with even brighter eyes. It was a tense few seconds and Vin didn’t have to look to know the others were watching.

After a moment, Ezra rose and made a pretense of straightening his coat. “As usual, Mr. Larabee, your word is my command.” He tugged on his lapels once more, then stomped off.

Chris watched him go, then shook his head. “If only,” he muttered. He folded his knife and tucked it away.

“You want me to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid?” Vin asked.

“Nah,” Chris said. “He knows I’m serious. Besides…” He dug a folded piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and gave it to Vin. “I was wondering if you felt like a ride.”

“I was feeling hungry, mostly,” he murmured as he unfolded the paper. It was an advertisement, the kind announcing a circus or musical evening. “Where are we going?”

Chris gestured to the paper. “There.”

In the past, Vin would have made a show of reading, too ashamed to be caught out, but he’d been practicing and recognized most of the words. “‘James Henry presents the world famous Patrick Ryan. Two nights only. Pine Springs, Texas,’” he read slowly. He didn’t finish the rest—there was a long word in the next sentence that he couldn’t quite parse. “Who’s James Henry?”

The others had come over and were reading over his shoulder. Buck chuckled and said, “An old gunman Chris and I came across many’s the time. As bad a shot as he is mean and that’s saying something.”

“He was the one accused of shooting up that assayer’s office in Tin Cup Gulch a few years back,” Chris added. “He killed a kid but they couldn’t prove it. Guess he’s moved on to promoting.”

Vin wasn’t quite sure what ‘promoting’ was but that didn’t matter. “You’re worried he’s coming here next?”

Chris nodded. “I am.”

“You’re gonna tell him to steer clear of the town?”

Chris nodded again, only this time he cracked a smile. “I am. It could get nasty.”

He shrugged “Let’s go.”

“You want us to tag along?” Buck asked.

Chris shook his head. “I doubt it will come to anything and I want you here in case he sent a scout.”

“If he has, we’ll make sure he gets the message.”

Chris nodded. “Thanks, Buck.” He nodded to Vin. “Let’s go.”

Instead of mounting, Chris untied his gelding and Vin followed, leading the mare down the center of the street. “You gotta get something for the ride?” Vin asked.

Chris glanced around, then murmured, “Fisticuffs. It’s an old-fashioned word for boxing or fighting.”

Only a month or so ago he’d been fretting about being known so well but it did have its advantages. “‘Fisticuffs,’ he repeated. “Odd word.”

Chris nodded. “It is and, no, I don’t need to get anything for the ride. I figured we’d stop by the saloon and get you some breakfast.” He squinted up at the sky. “Wouldn’t want you fainting on the road.”

He’d never fainted in his life but Chris’s bare smile had turned soft and open, a heady reminder of life as it was. So, he let his elbow meet Chris’s arm for a brief, glorious moment and said nothing.

 

fin.