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"A Face To The Reason" Parts 5-6 (Slash C/V and B/E)
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"To Soar Above The Clouds" (Gen) Conclusion
"A Face To The Reason" Prologue (Slash - Chris/Vin, Buck/Ezra)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 1-2 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 3-4 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 5-6 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 7-8 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 9-11 (Slash C/V and B/E)
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"A Face To The Reason" Parts 14-16 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 17-19 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 20-22 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"A Face To The Reason" Epilogue (Slash C/V and B/E)

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Part 5

As they all stood around the fresh mound of dirt that covered Marcus' new resting place, no one said a word. Vin stood at the head of the grave, silently caressing the top of the tombstone, made out of simple stone and wood. It was going on into early evening, and he had not realized how fast the day had been spent. What was going on in his mind in that moment, were memories of Marcus, and how the actor had been killed. The danger hanging over their heads was a distant thought, given only a careless brush of thinking. A swipe here, a swab there...nothing that could be considered a significant portrait to focus on. The time now was for respect and honor.

Even the quiet seemed to echo Vin's thoughts on this somber, final paragraph to a scarred poet.

"No words," he finally spoke out. "No words. Marcus loved silence as well as speakin'. The area around us, with the wind singing through the flowers and the trees, and the song of the's enough fer him to listen to those."

Buck, who was fooling with his hat, cleared his throat. "Mount up, boys."

Four of the seven went to their horses and mounted as Chris and Vin stood silently next to each other.

Josiah went to his horse, but hesitated a moment. He watched Chris and Vin, curious. "They need time alone," he said to Buck. "But I can't leave them. Chris' orders."

"Ezra and I can do a perimeter sweep of the area, 'Siah. Make sure all is clear."

Josiah nodded. "Good. I'll ask Chris what he wants me to do."

As the large man drew closer to Chris the gunslinger gestured for them to walk away a bit to talk. "I need a favor, 'Siah," Chris said.

"Already making sure the area is secure, Chris. You need time alone with Vin, it's written on your face like an open page. But, I can't be too far away from you. Fire your gun if you need help. I'll wait for you both at the crossroad sign."

"Don't wait alone. Keep someone with you."

"Nathan and JD will keep me company. Ezra and Buck will take a sweep.”

Chris nodded and held out his hand. Josiah shook it. "Take the time you both need. Something is eating at our Tracker. I get the feelin' you know what it is."

Chris offered a small grin. He did indeed know, but it wasn't for anyone else to find out. "We'll be fine."

Josiah turned and headed back to his horse.

When the others left, Chris put on his hat and slowly walked up to Vin's side. The tracker was looking down at the finished grave with the flowers planted. He held his hat by the brim, clenched in one fist.

The breeze of the early evening was just enough to comb through the disheveled strands of light brown hair. Vin's face was calm, almost surreal in the oncoming twilight's hue. Chris said nothing, not with words, anyway. He eased an arm around Vin's shoulders, careful of the tracker's sore body. Vin had said he wanted more than talking tonight, and nothing would make Chris happier than to lay with the man next to him, but there was more at stake here than sex. If Chris and Vin were going to join like that, the gunslinger wanted nothing more than for Vin to be completely ready...emotionally as well as physically.

"Maybe this isn't the time to talk now, Vin," he whispered, gently tightening his hold. He took a moment to really feel Vin's shoulders. They seemed strong, but right now the weight they carried was causing them to tremble slightly.

"I'm all right, Chris," Vin whispered back. The breeze blew over them. "I reckon all I am is confused."

"About what? Marcus?"

"About everything. I know what we said in the hotel, Cowboy. It ain't like I don't understand that. I know what I said, too." He lowered his head and pulled away, not unkindly, from Chris' touch. "Chris, I ain't sure what's happenin' here."

Chris stayed where he was. If this was Vin's way of getting them to talk about what was suggested at the hotel, then it was fine with him. "Tell me what you're feeling. It might make things clearer for you."

Vin lifted his face to the sky and let out a chuckling breath. "What I's feelin'. I's feelin' like I've loved ya' fer a long time. I reckon I ain't thought on it too much. Like wisps of time, dust devils at my feet. There one second, gone the next. Thought it was just a deep friendship I never allowed myself before."

Chris took a tentative step closer. "And now?"

Vin shook his head and turned just enough to look over his shoulder. "I reckon Marcus opened up my mind a bit more."

Chris slowly walked up to Vin's side again. He gently brushed away a length of the tracker's hair that he'd wanted to touch for so long. He let it run between his fingers, feeling the soft texture. He kept brushing Vin's hair from his face, and Vin kept letting him. So intimate a touch was welcomed, and Chris was both grateful and humbled by his younger friend's permission. "The night Marcus was killed," Chris began, and his voice was low and reflective. "You wept in my arms."

Vin looked at Chris as the blond man continued to comb his fingers through the long, curly hair. "Felt safe enough with ya' to do that," he replied.

Chris stepped even closer. Vin's arms were down at his sides, signaling acceptance of another person into his intimate and private space. "And I felt safe enough with you to hold you."

Vin just kept his gaze on Chris' face. The blond man studied the tracker's eyes. "I've never been that close to a man before in my life, Vin. Not even with Buck."

Vin found a spot on Chris' shoulder. His eyes took on a vacant stare as though pondering. "I ain't never allowed myself to get close to anyone, Cowboy. You were there, and it felt right to have ya' there. Then Marcus showed up, and I felt like the sky opened up, and I could see everythin' so damn clear. I could see ya' again, like that day we first met, and I fell into step beside ya'."

Chris smiled as he eased his fingers to the back of Vin's neck and began to knead the aching muscles, tense and full of spasms. Vin had to be in pain, but he was keeping it well-hid for this moment of honesty between them. He worked gently at easing away what tension and pain he could. "Like we belonged together," he suggested.

Vin's stare remained in place. "Belonged. Good word."

Chris smiled.

Vin's eyes inched up to lock with Chris' questioning gaze. "The others won't understand this."

"They don't need to know. We'll hide."

Vin lowered his head and walked off a few steps. "Hide," he snorted. "Hell, Chris, do ya' know how sick and tired I am of hidin'?"

"If it will keep you safe, Tracker..."

Vin turned on him, his face clouded over with pain. "Why can't I just fade away, Chris? Why can't the air just suck me into its embrace and cover me? Why do I have to constantly look over my shoulder?"

Vin fell to the ground as though his legs gave out on him. The shock of what happened to him the day before was wearing off, and it was clear to Chris if he didn't do something soon, the tracker would break. Vin was strong, yes, but no man was that strong. Too many months and years of fearing a noose, too many months and years of running and hiding. Vin was tired. And with Marcus' death as the catalyst that started his heart plummeting, Chris knew any wrong move would send the tracker fleeing from town quicker than Chris could draw his gun.

Chris took his time, though, and eased in closer. He took a seat beside Vin, facing him. "I want you safe, Vin. I want you with me for as long as time will allow it."

Vin didn't look at him, but he reached out and took the hand closest to him. "I know. I'm just so damn tired, Chris."

Chris slowly reached out and enveloped the younger man into his arms. Vin settled against him, resting his head against the shoulder that invited him to do so. "Rest in me, Tracker. Let me do for you what you do for me every damn day of my life."

Vin smirked. "Just what the hell do I do fer ya'?"

Chris rubbed his cheek against Vin's hair. "You keep me sane, Tanner. When I'm lost, you track me down and lead me back. I want to do that for you right now."

"I ain't lost right now. Just plum wore out."

"In a way that is being lost, Vin. Marcus' death hit you hard. No one can deny that, most of all me. If you need time to sort this out, then you'll have it. There's no rush here. No hurry."

"Calder and this
feller?" Vin questioned.

"We'll deal with them. And before we put a bullet through their miserable skulls, I'll thank them both personally."

"Thank them?"

"They showed me just how damn much you mean to me."

Vin shook his head, and his body shook with amused laughter. "Bet they never thought that would happen."

Chris chuckled as he pulled Vin closer to him.

Vin sighed, leaning into the warmth of Chris' body. The sun was starting its descent into the far off sky. There was peace for a moment. "You feel good," he breathed.

Chris nuzzled Vin's hair. "You, too."

"Seem to recall sayin' I was hopin' we'd do more than talk."

Chris tensed a bit. "You feelin' up to it?"

Vin reached out and took Chris' hand from around his shoulder, guiding it down to his groin. "Well, part of me is."

Chris grinned as he felt the hardness forming in Vin's pants. "Damn,
Tanner, what have you got in there?"

"Why don't ya' open it and find out?"

Chris grinned. "Mighty lively aren't ya'?"

Vin lifted his head and smiled at Chris mischievously. "Heard some guy named Larabee, likes 'em lively."

Chris turned to Marcus' grave, and his mood turned somber. "Should we do it here, though?"

Vin turned Chris' face back towards him. "Trust me, Cowboy. He'd not only want a private showin'...he'd demand an encore. He believed in love, Chris. And I truly don’t think it mattered to him how love was expressed.”

Chris gazed deeply into Vin's soulful blue eyes, and in the next moment, without even thinking about it, he found himself taking that beautiful mouth into his own and finally tasting what he had been longing to taste for the last few days. The salt, the smell of desert and buckskin, the stubble of Vin's scruffy bearded face. It was heaven.

As he pulled Vin in deeper , feeling the heat of passion ignite within him, his only thoughts were of the man in his arms. The man pressing his body down to the ground. The man searching him with long and questing fingers. He had never been with a man before, but it didn't matter. The thoughts of Calder and Douglas faded in the waves of passion that flowed over both men.

To Chris Larabee, the world of his past came to a close, as Vin Tanner became his present and future.


“There seems to be no sign of anyone other than ourselves in this area,” Ezra reported as he surveyed the surrounding land with Vin’s spyglass. “No sign of anyone either walking or on horseback. I believe we are clear.”

Buck sat his horse, arms crossed over the saddle horn, and waited patiently for Ezra to finish his perusal. “That’ll make Chris happy for now,” he said, if only to make conversation.

“Indeed it will,” Ezra agreed and did a final sweep, shooting the spyglass over to Shepherd’s Rock. Upon doing so, however, he immediately froze. What in the world was he seeing?

Chris and Vin were standing very close together. Too close for it to be considered a casual thing. And when they kissed...

Ezra quickly pulled the glass away and gazed with his naked eye down into the ravine where Shepherd’s Rock rested. Chris and Vin were too far away for them to be viewed by a source outside a spyglass. He swallowed, the blood draining from his face.

Buck straightened in his saddle. “Ez? What is it, what’s wrong?”

Ezra heard Buck’s voice, but could not rationalize an answer for him at that moment. “Dear Lord,” he said and looked through the glass again. Chris was stripping Vin of his garments and Vin was making quick work of Chris’ as well. Ezra turned away, “It’s...just...” he started and breathed in deeply. “A marvelous eagle, sir. It’s gone now, but it was majestic sitting on Shepherd’s Rock with a wing span I have never seen. It merely took my breath away is all.”

“And that’s why you’re suddenly as pale as a sheet?” Buck asked, concerned. He reached over and took the spyglass from Ezra’s hand. “Let me see.”

“Mister Wilmington please, it’s nothing. I did not mean to alarm you.”

Buck unfolded the spyglass and put it to his eye, shooting it down to Shepherd’s Rock.

Ezra closed his eyes, knowing full well how Buck would react to what was going on below them. “I don’t see anything, Ez. Guess you’re right, the eagle must have took off.”

Ezra looked down, and instantly eased into his saddle again. Chris and Vin must have dropped out of sight. “Well, then, shall we return to our compatriots? I believe we need to inform them all is well here.”

Buck handed the glass back to Ezra who stuck it in his saddlebag. The two rode off to the crossroads to meet up with Josiah and the others, but for Ezra he could not shake off what he had seen happen between Chris and Vin. He was silent the entire way back, knowing full well that Buck was watching him carefully with each second that passed.


Two and a half months later...

Damn but it was hot.

Chris Larabee stood outside the sheriff's office; his black hat perched low on his head to keep out the glare of the sun as it pelted down. He looked up and down the street as he sipped his morning coffee. And it's going to get hotter, he thought.

Looking over to the livery he saw that Vin's horse, Peso, was gone. Must be off doing his regular patrol. Hope he remembered to take enough water.
Thoughts of his day were filled with a 'what-to-do' list. Nothing much had happened in town the last few weeks and that gave the lawman an uneasy feeling. On a day like today, Chris Larabee began to wonder what trouble would be coming. The old saying: 'Waiting for the other shoe to drop' described that uneasy feeling well. He decided to check out the Sheriff's office and relieve Josiah Sanchez of his evening shift.

He was starting down the road when he saw Peso walking into town from the opposite direction. Vin was riding the horse at a slow walk. The lanky form of his lover caught the gunslinger's attention. Vin was riding with his head down, his hat covering his face.

Slowly, Chris walked out to meet the horse. He took Peso's reins and pulled him to a stop. "Vin?"

"Hey, Cowboy," Vin replied, not lifting his head right away.

Something was wrong. Something didn't feel right. That uneasy feeling grew more intense. "You all right, Pard?"

"Snow's coming," Vin replied, and he lifted his head.

Chris stumbled back in horror. In place of Vin's face...was a skull.



The voice shook him out of his tortured sleep, and Chris jerked awake to a gentle but firm hand on his shoulder. He gazed up into the face he knew so well. Concern furrowed Vin's brow as the tracker sought to be sure his lover was all right. "It was a dream," the low and raspy voice whispered.

They were together in the hotel room with Josiah just on the other side of the wall. Alone, but not alone, any unusual sounds would bring the others down on top of them and reveal the secret they fought too hard to keep hidden.

Chris, his body shaking and covered with sweat, sat up in an instant and enfolded Vin's naked body into his arms. He tried to speak, but his voice was, for the moment, gone.

Vin whispered soothing words, trying to calm and give peace, but Chris knew the shaking would continue until he had made love to his lover. Until he reassured himself that Vin was with him and safe.

"I'm here," Vin spoke out quietly, rubbing his hands over Chris' tense back.
"Wanna talk about it?"

Like a key unlocking a door to a secret and private thought, Vin's invitation couldn't have come at a more precise moment. Chris buried his face into his tracker's neck, kissing it with such love and need that Vin suddenly froze. "It was about me, weren't it?"

"Yeah," Chris managed to reply; though his voice was hoarse with the effort. He pulled Vin tighter against him. "Don't let go, yet."

"Told ya' I would never let go, Cowboy. I meant it."

"Have Nathan check you over, Tracker. For me. Please."

"I'm fine, Chris."


Vin tensed under the urgent request. He pulled away just enough to catch Chris' gaze. "Stop fussin' and worryin'. If I tell ya' I'm fine, then I'm fine. No need to get tangled up in some fear that a stupid dream sparked inside ya'."

The glow of the fireplace caught Chris' eyes as he pulled from Vin's glare.
And Vin could see the shiny brightness of unshed tears. "Cowboy?"

"Scared me," Chris whispered. He pulled away and reached over to the bedside table. In the drawer was a bottle of whiskey. He pulled it out and uncorked it. "Join me?"

"Not in whiskey," Vin replied with a crooked smile as he snaked his hand under the sheet and eased his fingers slowly around Chris' cock.

Chris almost spewed out the whiskey he had gulped into his mouth at the warm touch of Vin's fingers. He quickly swallowed and put the bottle away, managing an amazed chuckle of delight. "'Siah's next door."

"Ain't stopped us before," Vin reasoned as he pulled the sheet down and scooted himself toward the foot of the bed. "Lay back down and let me soothe ya' back to sleep. We got a few more hours 'till daylight."

Chris stopped Vin and, with a gentle hand, eased his lover's face back up to his. "In a minute. Right now I need your mouth working on mine."

Vin smiled and pulled Chris' lips to his, embracing them with both desire and a need to give in return. Chris always tasted of salt, whiskey and tobacco, but on him it was a good flavor. Vin savored it each time their mouths joined in locking competition. It was Chris Larabee's taste, and that taste belonged to no one but Vin Tanner. A possessive pride welled within the younger man at the thought. Chris was his, heart and soul and body, but...there was a problem.

Living like this, with their friends next door, unable to really explore each other's bodies, Vin was finding it difficult to keep his body under control. He wanted to take Chris, and for Chris to take him completely, not just touching, or rubbing, or tasting, but to actually join, without fear of their yells of passion being heard.

"Can't go on like this, Cowboy," he whispered as he mauled Chris' mouth. "Need ya' inside me. Don't know how much longer I can wait."

Chris moaned. "I know, Tracker. Been thinkin' about it."

"It's been over two damn months," Vin groaned as he flicked his tongue into Chris' mouth, savoring the strong taste of the recent whiskey. "Wanna make love to ya' under the stars. Just fer one night, Chris."

"Vin, one night is all it would take for them to come for you," Chris whispered back.

Vin pulled away, his need for passion suddenly gone. "I can't live like this, Chris." He gazed at his lover with something bordering sorrow. "We can't live this. Calder's put us in a prison cell and it's gallin' me somethin' fierce."

Chris sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I know," he replied, sincere. "But, Vin, the thought of losing you, knowing that they're waiting for us to lower our guard..."

"Who the fuck says we'll be lowerin' our guard, Larabee? Have ya' forgotten how long I lived on my own with this fuckin' bounty on my head? I survived fine, and alone. I know ways, Cowboy. Ways to avoid bein' caught."

"Like you did when Eli-Joe came for you that night?"

Vin quieted, but his eyes screamed. He got out of the bed and began to pace. His nakedness just made Larabee more hard and needing.

"Vin, try to see reason."

"That was a different thing all together and ya' know it," Vin argued. "It was a stupid mistake, but I ain't gonna make that same mistake with ya' out under the night sky." Vin climbed back into bed, his face beaming with expectation and desire. "Just this one time, Chris. I need ya' so bad, Cowboy, it hurts to think about it. I feel like we're bein' forced apart, and yet here we are, able to touch and kiss." Vin put a hand to Chris' face. "Can't you see reason?"

Chris stared into that needful gaze, wanting to laugh and take Vin then and there, to make him laugh as well, to make him happy. He put his brow to Vin's and clutched at the hand reaching out. He turned his lips to kiss the calloused palm, so hard, yet so tender in its longing touch. "Tracker, we've got to promise to be careful."

"We need to tell Josiah, too."

At this Chris pulled back. "No.  That I won't agree to."

"Chris, your orders were that we don't go nowhere's without him. If anyone would understand what you and I have it'd be him."

Chris eased his legs over the side of the bed and groaned with frustration.
"Sometimes, Vin, you ask for the moon."

"And ya'd give it to me if ya' could, too, Larabee. Don't deny it."

Chris sensed Vin's eyes on his back as the quiet between them grew. "He'd kill us for sure, him and that Bible of his."

"Don't go judgin' him, Cowboy. He'd make allowances fer us. I know it."

A soft knock was heard. "Gentlemen? May I come in for a moment?"

Chris' eyes widened. "Don't you dare tell me he heard us," he mumbled as he and Vin quickly put on their pants.

Vin went to the door and let Josiah enter.

"I, uh, couldn't help but overhear. The walls in this hotel are not that thick."

Chris fell back onto the bed, his hands to his face. "Just fuckin' wonderful," he groaned.

"In a way, Chris, it is," Josiah said. "Maybe I should have discussed it with both of you before hand, but since I am now brought into this scenario, I feel I must make my beliefs on this subject known before too much speculation arises on my behalf."

"We know what Christian's think of what Vin and I share, 'Siah."

"Maybe so. But you don't know what I think. Chris, Vin's right, to a point. I don't understand it, but not because I don't agree with it. I don't understand it because I've never felt that kind of attraction with another man before. If I've never felt it, then who am I to judge it? I've seen how the two of you are like glue to each other. I've seen Vin come out of his grief over Marcus and I knew it was because of you. If what you two have is honest love for each other, and I can't help but think it is, then what kind of God would look down on that? After all, isn't God more concerned with the spiritual, than He is with the physical? And love, of any nature, as long as it's true, is the most spiritual thing I know of."

"So you're saying that committing adultery is all right then, as long as the two people love each other?"

Josiah chuckled, shaking his head. "Now you're heading into the area of commitment and oath, Chris. That's another story all together. Even non-believers take issue with those that break their vows."

Chris smiled. He knew he'd lost the argument. "So, then. I take it you wouldn't mind us going off by ourselves if I gave you the word?"

Josiah bowed to them both. "Consider the word given, Chris. And may you both hold true to that which God has blessed."

As Josiah turned to leave, Chris stopped him. "Hold it."

The preacher turned back, an eyebrow raised in expectation. "Yes?"

"You didn't just marry us, did ya'?"

Josiah shrugged. "In some countries I just did, in this I just gave you both my blessing."

"And...not one word of this is going to be voiced to anyone?"

"As Ezra would say: 'That, Mister Larabee, is my solemn oath.'" He bowed again and walked out of the room, quietly closing the door behind him.

Vin just stood there, his arms folded over his chest, grinning at Chris like a fool. "Told ya'."

Chris stood and quickly pulled the younger man into his arms. "I reckon you did at that, you know-it-all tracker."

Both men eased into an extended kiss, both warm and full of longing. "Tonight?" Vin asked, as he reached down and grabbed Chris' ass in both hands, pulling the blond man closer, grinding their hips together.

Chris smiled as he returned the gesture to Vin in kind. "Tonight," he agreed, easing Vin backwards to the bed as they continued to kiss. "But right now..."

He pushed Vin onto the bed and crawled on top of the smiling tracker. "Now, I think you were going to soothe me back to sleep?"

"Changed my mind," Vin said as he pushed Chris' head down. "I think I want you to soothe me back to sleep. I weren't the one having a dream, and you woke me up."

"Damn you, Tanner. Get me all wanting your mouth on me, and just like you to switch things around."

Vin smiled wickedly. "I didn't say I wasn't gonna do ya', Cowboy. I just wanna be done first, is all."

Chris reached up and squeezed one of Vin's nipples, causing the younger man to let out a yelp. Chris clamped his hand over his lover's mouth, and both of them, thinking of what could happen with their other friends just across the hall, busted out laughing. "Shh!" Chris hissed through a stifled chuckle. "Shh! Quiet!"

Vin's body shook with controlled laughter, but it was an effort, and one that caused Chris to have to look away in order to keep from letting loose.

"Bu-q," Vin said through the hand. Chris lifted it enough for Vin to speak clearly. "What?"

"Buck...if he saw us now."

"He'd shoot us both, now quiet!"

Vin's eyes widened as he grinned. "JD?"

Chris groaned, lowering his head to Vin's chest. "Oh, Lord! He probably doesn't even know this kind of thing happens between men."

"He'd probably just stand there, with that, ya' know, puzzled look on his face he sometimes gets and..."

"Don't even think about it," Chris groaned as he clamped his hand once more on Vin's mouth. "Damn, Tanner. Once you get started laughing..." Chris stopped and raised his head, gazing down at Vin with wonder.

Vin's laughter died off as he caught Chris' gaze. "What?" he asked as his lover removed his hand.

Chris' eyes swam over Vin's face. "Didn't think about it, 'till just now."


"The last time I heard you laugh. I mean, really laugh...was when we went up against
and JD was trying to get a part of the action and Buck..."

Vin lost himself in Chris' stare. "JD and that damn, stupid hat of his," he whispered with fondness at the memory.

Chris smiled at Vin with fond knowing. "You need to laugh more, Tanner."

"Ain't had much to laugh about lately."

"Gonna have to change that, I think."

Chris intertwined his fingers through Vin's, and lifted the younger man's arms up over his head as he lowered his lips to kiss him. "Just as long as you don't laugh now."

"Keep my mouth busy, then, Larabee, cause I ain't makin' no promises."

Chris brushed his lips down Vin's face, neck and body as he pulled the tracker's pants down. "I plan on keepin' every inch of you busy, Tanner. That is a promise."

Before Vin could respond, he felt the moist heat of Chris' mouth wrap around his all ready aroused cock. The callused, but gentle hands eased around his thighs, pulling his pants completely off. He groaned, remembering faintly, that there were others around who could easily hear any sounds of passion. Not all of them would be as understanding or as accepting as Josiah, if any of them would be. Chris may have joked about Buck, but Vin wasn't about to think that the joke wasn't based on fact. He kept his sounds hidden as much as he could as his lover worked his talented tongue.

When Larabee engulfed him deeper into his throat, Vin arched back, grabbing the bed sheets, clutching them in fists that turned white with the strain. He pulled his legs up, bracing his feet against the mattress, allowing Chris more room to work.

The blond man's hands roamed over Vin's stomach as his head bobbed up and down, taking Vin deeper and deeper into him.

The swelling need began to pulsate as Vin's testicles tightened. Chris' hand reached down and softly caressed the opening that longed for him to enter and connect. "Chris," Vin almost wept, as the image played in his mind...Chris gently easing into him, slowly with love and need joining together as one massive, but gentle force. Vin groaned as Chris' finger slid into him. He writhed as Chris' tongue sucked his shaft with passionate hunger. Vin reached down and ran his long fingers through Chris' silky reddish blond hair. "Don't stop," he beckoned with urgent need. "Want ya' so damn bad."

Chris slid his finger in and out, searching for that one spot that would send Vin into the depths of bliss and beyond. He knew he had found it, when Vin gasped at the contact. He slowly rubbed the nub as his mouth worked the swelled shaft. His tongue lapped around and around Vin's cock, and his other hand reached under to tickle and fondle Vin's balls.

Vin arched his body until the top of his head rested on the bed. He pushed Chris' head to more, more, more!

The gasping grew more intense with Chris’ increased rhythm. When the tracker began to buck up into his mouth, he knew Vin was close. Chris watched his lover writhe under the assault of his combined hands and mouth. In and out, up and down, squeeze!

"God!" Vin groaned out with a shuddering breath. Bucking in time to Chris' sucking and licking, Vin quickly pulled his pillow over his mouth, stuffing the corner of it inside as he bit down. His scream would be too loud, and he wasn't sure he would be able to control it. Chris' touch was too masterful, too methodic, too damn intoxicating to think about discretion now.

Another thrust of the finger, another lick of the tongue, another squeeze from Chris' fingers and Vin fell into the flaming arms of white bliss, blinding and warm and oh, so damn welcomed. Each spasm of his cock and jerk of his body sent more seed spilling into his Cowboy's mouth, and Vin felt his lover swallow every drop.

Chris removed his finger from inside Vin who then let out a gasp at the sudden disconnection. He slowly opened his eyes to see Chris gazing at him with a soft and pleased look, gently stroking the softening rod in his hand.

In that gaze was all the love and safety and warmth that Vin had so long searched for.

Chris crawled up and lowered his body next to his lover's, pulling Vin tightly into his arms. Their kiss this time was more powerful, somehow, more bonding. "Feelin' better?" Vin asked as he plastered kisses along Chris' jaw and neck.

"The image of the dream is still there, Vin, but I know you're here, alive. That's all I'm feelin' now."

"Hope to get you feelin' a bit more than that, Cowboy." Vin worked his way down and smiled. "It's your turn."

Chris grinned. "I think it's a sure bet neither of us are gonna get back to sleep tonight."

Vin stripped off Chris' pants, releasing his hardened rod, already twitching with anticipation of Vin’s touch. The tracker grinned. "Reckon not."


Part 6

Ezra lied in his bed, gazing up at the ceiling within the darkened hotel room he shared with Nathan.

He was wide awake, but not because he was an early riser, and dawn was only a few minutes away. Nor was it because of nightmares haunting his sleep. No, he lied awake because he had not slept well since accidentally witnessing the encounter between Larabee and Tanner two months before, on the day they had moved Marcus’ grave to Shepherd’s Rock. The image of the two men in each other’s arms kissing, removing clothing...touching.

Ezra closed his eyes. The standard response of any normal citizen in this modern day society would have been disgust. But, though at the very first he had been terribly surprised and somewhat aghast that such a relationship could be practiced by men he knew, after some time to ponder the situation, Ezra had looked deep into his own mind and found he was not disgusted. He could not be, not and be fully honest with himself. He had seen such encounters before in his life within darkened alleys of cities he had visited over the span of the last ten years. Or shadowed sidewalks, or even laughter of the masculine persuasion coming from hotel rooms, with no feminine laughter mixed in with it. He had read of tales such as the love between men within Greek tragedies and even within the epic of Gilgamesh of Samarian folklore. Such relationships were questioned as to the extent they had taken, but it was clear love was the reason for them.

And if anyone deserved to love each other it was Chris and Vin. Ezra had been surprised, overcome, but after sorting it through in his mind he had determined there could be no other choice for those two men. It was, for them, a relationship written in the stars, brought together by need and craving for shelter in the midst of sorrows as deep as the pit of hell. And if, in their hell, they could find some rays of heaven to shine within, then who was Ezra Standish to stand in condemnation of their actions?

Besides, had he not also had dalliances with members of the same gender during his own form of hell on earth? Indeed he had. Close friends, men of high intelligence with needs no different than those Ezra had craved within his own soul. Ezra had yearned to be near them, to fill a void left by his mother’s absence and the absence of a father he had never known. No brothers, no sisters no family outside his mother to call upon other than those friendships he had formed in his early years of travel. They were gone, but Ezra’s needs had remained. Perhaps that was why he had not left the Seven in all this time. He could have moved on to more lucrative conquests these past two and a half years, but he had never truly desired to leave these men.

One in particular sprung to mind as he pondered his place in the here and now. A man he had recently formed a unique friendship with over the last two years. A man who had warmed Ezra’s soul with his amazing joviality and loyalty.

The morning of the day they had moved Marcus’ body, Buck Wilmington had stood in defense of Ezra’s winning hand against a man who had determined to get his money back by way of a gun. Buck’s intense show of protection, though quite unnecessary as Ezra already knew what the man would do and was prepared to ‘cut him off at the pass’, so to speak, had shown a side to the scoundrel that Ezra had never seen to such an extent before. It had surprised and pleased him that Buck thought enough about him to dive into harm’s way in order to assure his safety.

Buck’s honor had not gone unseen by the gambler. Buck’s smile and sincere loyalty to his friends had seared its way into Ezra’s sometimes cold and bereft heart, thawing it, pulling him into a knowledge that Buck’s friendship would always be there for him.

And then, as they had worked to move Marcus’ casket to the new site, there had been looks exchanged between the two men that made Ezra wonder just what in the world Buck was thinking...and why? The admiring looks, sideways glances, smiles and incredible moments of had brought to Ezra questions he had never thought he would ever ask of himself again.

Ezra tried to find some meaning to the course of destiny in his heart, but found only a longing to be with Buck Wilmington that culminated inside to the point of pain.

He sat up, turned to look at the hues of morning twilight on the fringes of the horizon. Another fantasy within his mind to linger and give his tangled web of emotions a place to sort themselves. Well, he could do worse than to fantasize about a mustached man who flirted with anything in a skirt and who smiled at almost every man he saw, either enemy or friend. Buck was a man who showed his freedom of soul in a way that made Ezra envious.

He sighed, clutching his chest over his heart.

“Ezra?” Nathan asked, propping himself up on his elbows. “You all right?”

Ezra noticed where his hand had clutched. “Yes, Mister Jackson, I’m perfectly fine. I merely suffered a bad dream.”

“But you were able to sleep finally? The powders I gave you worked?”

Ezra stared at the healer, uncertain how to answer. Then he decided he should do what he was good at. He bluffed. “Yes, sir. The powders worked fine. I finally slept.”

Nathan scurried back under his covers and turned to fall asleep again. “Good. Wake me when the sun rises. JD and I are due to take over patrol.”

Ezra looked out the window again. A few doors down the man of his thoughts was sleeping soundly. “Sleep on, Mister Jackson. I shall take your patrol this morning.” He stood and proceeded to get dressed.


The nightmare had awakened Buck just as the top of the sun was peeking over the horizon. He would dream most of the time, but nightmares were things he did not have to deal with much. There were some he suffered regarding Chris when his friend’s wife and child had been murdered, but after a while those quietly faded away until they stopped completely...until last night. This one had shaken his soul. A shiver ripped through his body, and he let out a harried breath. “Damn, Buck,” he muttered. “you gotta stop all those late night sessions with JD. That kid’ll fill your mind with ‘what ifs’ ‘till the sun rises.” Not that talking with JD bothered him, far from it. He enjoyed the one-on-one discussions. JD was so full of life and enthusiasm for learning new things, that it was a kick in the pants for Buck to see that spark for learning ignite. But it was the questions JD asked sometimes. Out of the blue stuff, worrisome stuff, stuff Buck never even dreamed of thinking about.

Along with JD coming into his life there were whole new worries to plague the former lawman's mind. He would find himself playing the 'what if' game, which led to worry, which led to nightmares. Lord, how Buck hated the nightmares.

However, the nightmare he just experienced had nothing to do with JD. He looked over to the other side of the room to see JD was sound asleep in his bed.

Why in the hell had Buck dreamed of Chris again last night?

He had seen Chris trapped inside a black room with no door or windows.

Buck had been on the other side hacking away at the walls with a pick ax, but no sooner did he tear one piece out, then it would somehow grow back. "Chris!" he had kept calling out.

Chris would hear him and start laughing. "No one comes in, Buck! Then no one can leave! It's real simple. It's worked for me before...why not now?"

"Is this what Vin would want?" Buck tried to reason.

"Vin's gone. The Seven are gone. Leave me be!"

Then Buck saw the room ignite in flames. He remembered how he expected Chris to scream in pain as the flames filled the room, but there was only hideous, tormented laughter.

And out of those flames a man had approached from the side...Ezra.

In this dream Ezra wore only a white shirt and black breeches, but something was terribly wrong with both him and his clothing. He was not really walking as much as scuffling. He was not seeing, but staring at Buck, and the blood...

Ezra’s chest had been covered in gunshot and knife wounds, blood issuing out of them in fine and steady streams, dripping from Ezra’s hands as he held them out to Buck in supplication.

“Larabee’s aim is sure, Mister Wilmington. Would you care to twist the blade?” And Buck had looked down to see a knife in his hand...covered in blood.

It had been all of those images which had jerked Buck from his sleep with a torrent of fear. The sweat trickled down his face and neck, even with the chill of January seeping in through the walls of his room.

Along with that chill, Buck felt a coldness fill his soul as he remembered the details of the dream. He quickly reached for the bottle of whiskey in his nightstand drawer. Uncorking it, he took a slug and forced himself to calm down. Then he saw it. The crow that flew by his window. He remembered Josiah talking about crows when the ex-preacher decided to join them in their fight against the Ghosts of the Confederacy. Crows meant death.

Buck stood and followed the crow's path with his eyes as it flew down into the street. It landed, squawking, on top of Vin's wagon...which was parked directly beneath Ezra’s hotel room window.

Buck felt the blood drain from his face as that cold in his soul escalated into a blizzard. He took another swallow of whiskey; then hurriedly set the bottle on the nightstand. He grabbed his clothes and pulled on his pants, his heart racing. He had to check on Ezra. Chris would be sure to be with Vin and Josiah on patrol now, and Vin would have called out if something were wrong, but Ezra...

He quickly left the room, making sure not to wake JD as he did so.

As he walked down the corridor to Ezra and Nathan’s room, he ran a shaking hand through his hair. He did not cotton to dreams. Dreams for him were nothing to analyze, but the fear that seized his heart was as vivid as the images he had seen. Upon reaching Ezra’s door, he lifted his fist to knock, when the door opened and Ezra stood there, dressed and ready to face the day. “Mister Wilmington?” Ezra asked, surprised to see Buck standing before him. “I declare, sir, are you all right? You seem to be somewhat shaken.” Ezra left the room and closed the door, keeping his voice low so as not to wake Nathan.

When Buck saw that Ezra was all right, he quickly took a step back and squared his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Ez. I just...” He swallowed, visibly and looked at the gambler, confused. The dream had been so dark, so intense, pushing him into seeking his own reassurance that it wasn’t true, and now...seeing that Ezra was perfectly fine, with the exception of the dark circles under his eyes, Buck was relieved. What confused him was why he was so relieved. A dream was a dream was a dream.

“I just had this horrible...nightmare,” he said to explain. “It, uh, woke me up, and I needed to make sure you were, um...” he locked eyes with Ezra. “That, um, you were, uh, all right.”

Ezra nodded to him, though clearly uncertain how to respond. “Must have been some nightmare to pull you from sleep only to come here and inquire of my safety.”

Buck lowered his head. “Yeah. Stupid, I know, but...”

“No, not stupid, Mister Wilmington. I’ve had a few of those dreams myself. It always eases the mind to know the person they are about is fine and well. I thank you for your concern, though.”

“Right, sure.”

Buck just stood there, sticking his hands in his pant’s pockets. “Well, I guess I’ll head back to my room now.”

“Mister Wilmington, since you and I are already up and the patrol schedule is about to change, perhaps we could take over for Mister Jackson and Mister Dunne this morning. Would you care to accompany me?”

Buck looked at him and grinned. “I think some fresh air would do me some good, Ez. Thanks. Let me finish getting dressed, move JD into your room, and I’ll meet you downstairs.”

Ezra tipped his hat. “As you say, sir.”


The changing of the guard took place with hardly any words spoken. Chris and Vin and Josiah tipped their hats to Ezra and Buck as they passed by each other on the street. A few ‘good mornings’ were spoken and a few reassurances that all was quiet, and then Buck and Ezra were walking the town streets alone, letting the cool morning air wash over them. The morning sun was not completely peeking out from the horizon, and so it was somewhat dark, but more gray than anything.

Ezra decided to take advantage of the quiet around them. “This dream you suffered, Mister Wilmington. Would you care to discuss it?”

Buck shook his head. “Not much to say. I guess Josiah would say it’s all symbolical and not take it too literally, but...there was blood, Ezra. A lot of blood. Chris was in the dream, too, and it had to do with him and Vin, but...”

Ezra stopped walking and turned to Buck at that. “He and Mister Tanner?”

“Yeah. Why?”

Ezra took in a breath, lowered his head and walked on. “Nothing of significance.”

“Ezra, you wanna tell me why you haven’t been sleepin’ right lately? I can see those dark circles, and Nathan has been wondering about this change in attitude of yours.”

Ezra was silent for a moment. He stopped walking again, lifted his eyes to the edge of town and took a moment. “Mister Wilmington, what do you do in a situation where someone you thought you knew extremely well turns out to be someone you don’t know at all?”

“Is that what’s been bothering you these last few months, Ez?” Buck gently prodded. He gazed at Ezra with concern.

“Has it shown that badly?” Ezra asked, lowering his head.

Buck shrugged slightly. “Avoiding us except only when necessary? That’s been on everyone’s mind. I was thinking you would have come to one of us by now, looks as though I’m going to have to just corner you and ask you flat out.”

Ezra rubbed his bottom lip, carefully weighing his response. Buck decided to continue and help him along. “Ever since we moved Marcus you’ve been shut up tighter than the bank’s vault. Hell, not even your Poker games have carried the signature Standish flare. You play fine, but it seems more like you’ve lost your enjoyment of the game. Whenever anyone asks you what’s wrong, you insist nothing, but you can’t con us, Ez. Especially me. Something happened that day, didn’t it? You didn’t see any eagle with a wing span to take your breath away. Something else caught your eyes and knocked the wind out of you, didn’t it?”

Ezra lifted his face to the sky and let out a heavy breath, both uncertain and relieved. “Mister Wilmington, what I saw that day makes no difference to the question I’ve put to you. What do you do when you find out someone you thought you knew turns out to be a total stranger?”

“Which one of us are you talking about, Ez?” Buck looked at him, not certain he wanted to know the answer.

Ezra gazed at Buck, his shoulders sagging under the weight he was carrying. “Myself, sir. I am speaking of myself.”

Buck blanched. “You, Ezra?”

Ezra shook his head. “You’re right. I did not see an eagle that day. And what I saw I shall keep to myself as the sheer thought of gossip mongering appalls me.”

“All right, I understand that,” Buck soothed. “Then tell me what you can.”

Ezra gestured with his head to the jail house and began walking again. Buck fell into step beside him. “I’ve always thought of myself, in spite of what Mister Jackson believes, as a very open-minded person. He and I may have gotten off on the wrong foot as they say, but I have always learned to adjust to other points of view.”

The two men mounted the boardwalk and Ezra sat on a chair just outside the jailhouse door. Buck took a seat on the boardwalk railing, facing him. Ezra pulled out two cigars and handed one to Buck who nodded his thanks, then Ezra lit them and leaned back in his chair. Buck urged him to continue. “Go on, Ez. I’m listening.”

“Well, sir, there are times when something will cross your path and force you to re-think everything you’ve believed up to that point. It’s like a veil is removed from your eyes and what you swore were lies...becomes truth.”

Buck took a puff of his cigar and studied Ezra carefully. “And this happened to you?”

“Indeed, sir, it did.”

Buck watched Ezra’s eyes. He noticed the unfamiliar uncertainty emanating from the gambler’s body movements and expressions. Buck folded his hands over his knee and a small smile curved his lips up. “You’re talking about Chris and Vin, ain’t ya’?”

Ezra’s eyes widened. “I never said anything to that effect, Mister Wilmington.”

Buck sighed. “You don’t need to.” And the look they exchanged sent a shiver through Ezra’s soul. “How long have you known?” he asked.

“Oh, less time than you have, that’s true enough, Ez. But I’ve known Chris for a very long time. I’ve seen the way he was with Sarah, and I see the way he is with Vin. He damn near died when he saw Vin being dragged that day. The fear in his eyes when he tried to find a pulse, but couldn’t. The relief he showed when I did find Vin’s heart beat. How he touched Vin, brought him back to the knowledge that he was safe. And now the looks they share, the smiles in their eyes, the way they whisper to each other. Yeah, Ez, I saw him exchange the same looks and whispers with Sarah.”

Ezra listened intently to Buck’s confession, the warmth in his voice, the unusual fondness for a situation such as he was describing. “And have you approached him with your suspicions?”

Buck shook his head, a grin spreading over his lips. “Naw. The man has lived with a gaping wound in his heart for a long time. If Vin can heal that wound, I am not about to butt my nose into their business, and will forever be grateful those two have found each other. If the time arrives for me to let him know that I know, I’ll be certain to tell him, but not until then.”

Ezra’s eyes found a spot beyond where Buck sat. He turned thoughtful. “Such a love to exist between two men. I’ve heard of it, read stories that spoke of it, but I can honestly say that it is something I never gave thought to seeing manifest in my own life.”

Buck took another puff of his cigar. “You said, Ezra, that you are a stranger to yourself. Why is that?”

Ezra stood and went to the railing bracing his hands against it, looking out into the street. “Because, sir, in my mind, what I was taught all my life was that such encounters between men was considered deviance; that such love was considered sin. But...when I see Mister Tanner and Mister Larabee, their love...I know it’s true. And, sir, if I am to confess this, then let it be between us in this moment, to be forgotten once spoken.” He looked at Buck intently.

“Speak your mind, Ez,” Buck agreed.

“Sir, I look at them...and I find myself envious of what they share.” The look in his eyes reflected the turmoil of his soul.

Buck saw that turmoil, the pain unveiled, the honesty ripped open, letting Buck see it, letting him inside. “Ezra,” Buck whispered. “Are you afraid of what that makes you feel?”

Ezra let out a nervous chuckle. “Terrified, sir.”

Buck knocked the ashes off his cigar and stuck the stogie into his coat pocket. “Come with me,” he said and stepped off the boardwalk, to go down the next alley. He gestured for Ezra to follow.

The sun had not fully risen and so some predawn shadows still were able to keep them hidden.

Buck led Ezra to a spot in the alley behind some boxes and crates. Facing the gambler, he gazed deeply into Ezra’s eyes. “You don’t have to be terrified, Ezra, or envious.”

Ezra studied him carefully. “Sir, I’m not exactly certain what you are implying. I...”

Buck grabbed Ezra by the lapels of his coat and pulled him into a kiss.

Ezra stilled all movement, like a statue he did not make any moves to return the kiss, but neither did he make any moves to run away. Buck’s lips, the taste of the cigar, the unusual sensation of the mustache, it all surmounted in a feeling of uncertainty to the gambler, and also of mystery.

But when Buck pulled away, when Ezra gazed into Buck’s brown eyes, he saw that his was not the only need for reassurance in this encounter. “Mister Wilmington, I...”

“Call me ‘Buck’, Ez.”

“Buck, I’m not certain I know...” then he grabbed Buck’s coat. “To hell with it,” he said and planted a kiss on the scoundrel that sent both of them reeling. They tasted each other as they had never tasted another before. Buck’s breath splayed over Ezra’s face as they explored. Their tongues dueled for dominance, one pushed, the other pushed back. Their hats fell to the ground, but neither of them cared. Ezra breathed in deeply, “Sir, I...”

“Don’t talk,” Buck commanded and pulled Ezra closer.

And when Ezra felt Buck’s arms clutch him with such fierce need and want, breathing into his kisses with the wanton passion he was famous for, Ezra knew what Vin and Chris shared and felt. And what’s more...he understood it.


Powder had been up before the sunrise, standing outside the livery smoking a cigar, when he saw
and that Standish bastard head into the alley. A few minutes later he saw Standish walk out, putting on his hat, adjusting his coat and tie and...and rubbing his fingers over his lips? What the hell?

As Standish took off walking, a few seconds later
came out of the alley, smiling like a fool, adjusting his clothes as well.

Powder wasn’t smart on an academic scale, but he was smart in other areas. And it did not take a man with too much smarts to realize what had just happened. He crumpled the cigar in his fist and knew beyond doubt that Standish would not get away with that type of behavior. Powder now had good reason to seek his retaliation against a man who had cheated him out of his hard-earned pay more than once.


The morning brought with it the weekly stage with only three passengers on board.

Buck watched expectantly as each passenger disembarked; two men dressed in skin coats, long hair tied in ponytails, each carrying a saddlebags and rifles. Another one was a short city man dressed in a dark gray three-piece suite with a matching bowler hat perched on his small head. When no one of the female persuasion emerged, Buck showed no signs of disappointment, much to the surprise of JD and Vin who sat outside the jailhouse with him. “No cursing, Buck?” JD asked, his eyes wide. “You’ve been hoping for new faces to come into town for the last month.”

Buck turned to him, arching a brow. “What was that, JD? You say something?”

“Uh-oh,” JD said and leaned against the boardwalk railing that Buck had perched himself on earlier that morning when talking to Ezra. “Something’s got your attention. Some woman must have turned your head.”

Buck smiled at him. “No, JD, nothing like that. Just relishing in this good morning air. Must be Spring Fever.”

JD sputtered. “It’s the middle of January!”

Buck shrugged. “All depends on how you look at it. Got to make Spring time whenever you can, wherever you can.”

JD rolled his eyes. He turned to Vin who was smiling at the exchange. “Some lady has turned his head if you ask me.”

Buck glared at his younger friend. "Never you mind, Kid.” Buck settled himself on the railing next to JD and gestured to Vin. “You asked him yet?"

JD swallowed. "Uh, no," he almost stammered.

“Why the hell not?” Buck asked, amazed. “We been talking about this time and time again.”

JD merely shrugged. “Never could find the right time,” he excused.

Buck just shook his head. He could not understand the procrastination of youth these days.

"Ask me what?" Vin questioned, tilting his head inquisitively to JD.

JD shrugged, "Well, I was gonna ask you when this whole thing with Marcus sort of faded away, and then, it just sorta got lost in days. Didn't seem all that important anymore. With you being hurt and all, it just sorta slipped my mind."

"Slipped your mind?" Buck snorted and turned to Vin. "The Kid's only been talking to me about it for the last two months."

This time it was JD's turn to glare at Buck. "I was getting around to it. No need to go exaggerating this thing to hell and back."

Vin arched a brow, curious. "What thing?"

"Well, I was wonderin' if you'd be willing to teach me how to be a sharpshooter. I figure if anyone can it'd be you, and I would really like to learn. Might come in handy someday when I join the

Vin went lost in thought, the request tumbling over in his mind. After a few
moments, he exchanged knowing glances with Buck, then stared out into the street at the new arrivals from the stage.

The two men who were dressed in rugged horse riding gear and pelts, carrying saddlebags and rifles. They wouldn't stay here long, probably long enough to buy horses and more supplies, and then they would head out to God knew where.

The other was a short business type man, with a receding hairline under a gray bowler hat, similar in style to what JD wore. It matched the gray suit and the gray satchel he was carrying. The short man wore spectacles and was cleaning them now with a white handkerchief. City slicker. Probably here to discuss business with Mary and the newspaper, or the bank.

Vin noticed that one of the cowboys striding down the street was carrying a double-barreled shotgun. The other cowboy carried a long-range rifle.

The shotgun didn't bother, Vin. That was more than likely going to be used for hunting. What Vin found curious was that the two seemed to be traveling together and the other guy was handling a rifle bent on taking out a target from more than 50 yards away.

The question rose up in his mind as JD's request became all too real. "JD, you ever seen a man shot in the head before?"

The question caught the youth off guard.

Buck didn’t say anything. It seemed he knew where Vin was going with the question. He simply fooled with the headband on his hat. If JD wanted to learn how to be a sharpshooter, then he would have to know exactly what that ability would entail.

"No," JD replied, softly, almost embarrassed by the response.

"No need to be embarrassed, Kid," Buck assured in that gentle tone of his that always seemed to make JD more at ease with himself as well as his surroundings.
"If you never do see that, I'd be all too happy and go to my grave with a smile on my face."

Vin kept his eyes on the cowboys as they walked down the street toward the saloon. He did not echo or contradict Buck's sentiment.

"Well, if I can avoid that type of action I will, Vin," JD promised. "Is that all you're worried about?"

"Is that all?" Buck scoffed. "Kid, didn't you just hear what I said? You don't never want to see a man's head blown off. I have, and let me tell you, it ain't pretty. The skull shatters and bones, blood and brains splatter everywhere."

JD stood up defiantly. "You can't protect me from everything, Buck. I know what it might look like, but if it means learning a skill that may save my life or someone else's life someday, then I damn well intend on learning how to do that."

"Even at the risk of your own soul, Kid?" Vin asked, his eyes still on the cowboys as they disappeared into the saloon down the street.

"Vin, is your soul damaged?"

Vin glanced at JD this time. "As compared to what it used to be, I reckon so."

"But you're one of the most honorable men I've ever met. Decent. A good friend. And you would never take a life without reason."

Vin shook his head as a small grin splayed his face. "Kid, the soul doesn't have to be seen. It's easy to hide it under a lot of paintings and walls."

JD was about to respond when a voice interrupted them.

"Excuse me, Gentlemen," the short balding man dressed in the gray suit said upon approach. "I was wondering if you could tell me which is the best hotel in this town?"

Buck smiled as though the man had given the punch line to a joke. "Well, sir, there's only one hotel and that'd be the building right down there to your left." He pointed.

The newcomer looked down the street, saw his destination, and then tipped his hat to them. "Thank you, sirs. Good day."

Vin nodded once to him, as did JD.

The man casually took his leave and headed on down the street. Vin paid him no more mind. The conversation at hand held most of his attention, as well as those two new arrivals in the saloon.

JD looked at Vin, eager to return to the conversation as well. "I'm not afraid, Vin."

Vin stood.

Chris was heading down the street, and they had a rendezvous to see to. "Kid, because you ain't afraid, that's exactly why I can't teach you."

Without another word, the tracker followed after his best friend and secret lover.

Buck watched Vin head off to meet with Chris. The two men stood extremely close, whispering to each other. A smile lit up Chris’ face and Buck warmed at the sight. Yup, he knew where Chris’ heart was, all right. He pursed his lips and shrugged as JD furrowed a brow at him. "Vin’s kidding right?"

"No, JD, he's not. When are you gonna learn that not being afraid doesn't necessarily make you a man?"

Buck walked off in the direction of the General store, where he'd seen Chris and Vin disappear into. It looked like something was up and Josiah wasn't around. Were they getting careless with the instructions? Two months to the day since the dragging and no sign of any other trouble had sprouted. Still, what Chris said about keeping their guards up was sound advice. Now was not the time to become lax.

He listened as JD trailed after him. "Well, I am afraid, Buck. I just never thought Vin would take me seriously if I owned up to it."

"You should know Vin better than that," Buck scoffed, and he hooked his thumbs into his gun-belt. "He's keen on honesty more than anything. An honest heart will help him take you seriously enough."

JD looked down, chagrined. "I know you're right. It's just...well, I guess I have a lot to learn still."

Buck smiled at the downcast expression and voice that went along with it. "It's okay, Kid, I saw him and Chris go into the General Store. Why don't we pop in there and you can tell Vin what you just told me."

"Naw, he won't take me seriously now. He'll think I'm just spoutin' off because it's what he wants to hear."

"Not if I have anything to say about it. You really want to learn how to be a sharpshooter, don't you?"

"Hell, Buck, you know I do. How long have I been talking about it?"

Buck chuckled, good-natured. "Indeed you have. About six months total now, if recollection serves. So, obviously the desire isn't a fleeting one. Vin will respect that. And I'll have your back. Go in there, and tell him you're afraid." Buck clenched his fist and brought it up. "Be a man."

JD squared his shoulders. "You're right. I'll just march right in there, tell him I'm scared shitless of seeing a man's head blown off, and that I was just saying otherwise because I didn't want him to think I couldn't handle it."

"Exactly so. Now, get it done." Buck pushed JD gently towards the store.

The kid took point, and Buck couldn't hold back the laugh that escaped him, wondering just how well this would go down.

It was the squawking, though, that diverted his attention from his younger friend's purported mission.

He turned to see that stupid crow perched on top of Vin's wagon. Landed there about four hours ago, and it was still making itself at home. And the blasted thing was looking him square in the eye, squawking as if to challenge him to try and interfere.

Buck felt another shiver go down his spine. "Not likely and not Vin," he muttered, but whether it was to himself or to fend off the symbolic gesture of death, he wasn't sure. He quickly turned and hurried after JD.


Chris hung out in the back of the store as JD and Vin took up their conversation. Vin stood casual and unimposing, his thumbs hooked in his gun-belt, leaning a bit on one leg like he always did when standing stationary for any length of time.

Chris had explained to Buck that it was because of some back ailment that had plagued the younger man when he was a child and never straightened itself out.

Buck couldn't imagine having a crooked spine, but then, this was Vin. Vin seemed to take sharp turns and crooked paths with ease and confidence that belied the dangers. Perhaps the condition of his spine was just another significant application to the young gun's inner depth.

Buck shook himself. Shit. Now Vin was having him waxing poetic. What was it about this tracker that seemed to pull everyone into his world and feel at home? No wonder he and Chris had formed such a strong bond over the past months.

Chris needed what Vin could offer. And now, so did JD.

"Are you absolutely sure about this, JD?" Vin asked.

JD took in a deep breath and squared his shoulders again. "More than sure."

"Knowledge like this ain't something to mess with," Vin warned. "You gots to be sure in your soul as well as your mind."

"I've thought about it for more than a few months, Vin. I want to learn."

Vin studied the youth a bit more; then finally looked over at Buck. "What do you say?" he asked.

Buck shrugged. "Kid's gotta make his own decisions in life, Vin. He made a heavy one joining up with us. I figure he'll do all right."

Vin took another long moment, gazing at JD, almost trying to stare him down. When JD refused to blink or look away, Vin let out a resigning breath. "All right, then. Get yourself a rifle and some amo. I ain't about to buy those things fer ya'."

JD about busted a gut as his face broke out into a beaming smile. "Thanks, Vin!
Thanks a lot!"

Buck grinned at his younger friend’s exuberance. He tipped his hat to Vin, and the tracker just shrugged. "I hope he knows what he's gettin' hisself into, is all I'm sayin'."

He went off to look around at the supplies stocked on the shelves.

Buck went up to the cash register, and Mrs. Potter smiled sweetly. "Morning, Mister Wilmington. What can I do for you?"

"Oh, actually I’m just waitin’ for the kid there to decide which rifle he wants. Been saving up his money for a while now."

JD was busily gawking over the collection of rifles along the wall. He pulled down one that had mean looking sight on it and looked down the barrel. "What do you think about this one, Vin?"

Vin walked up and took the rifle from JD, examining it carefully, mock aiming it. He flipped the sight up and shut one eye. "It appears good and sound, Kid. But we won’t know about the sight until we try it. You sure you never picked out a rifle before?"

Buck, who stood in the background, grinned. The 'Kid' had obviously impressed Vin. Then he had to go and be honest. "Heck, no, Vin. I just picked it out 'cause it looks nice."

Buck chuckled. Maybe he should reiterate to JD how honesty could be too much of a good thing. "JD, you should learn when not to be so blasted up front about everything."

Vin smiled as he handed the rifle back to JD. "Well at least he knows what he wants, Bucklin."

Buck's grin faded. "What's that supposed to mean, Junior?"

Chris, who was busy looking over a box of cheroots at the counter turned to see Vin wink at JD. He couldn't help a small smile at the joking which would now commence at Buck's expense.

"Tell me again, JD, about the juggling act Buck had to pull a few months ago. Who was it now?" Vin turned thoughtful. "Becky and Eliza, weren't it?"

Buck growled at JD. "You told him about Becky and Eliza?"

JD tried to stifle a laugh. "Now, Buck, it's not like word wouldn't have gotten out sooner or later. But, Vin, you should have seen Buck's horse. Ten minutes at one house, ten minutes at another. The poor thing didn't know if he was coming or going!"

Vin laughed. "Maybe ya' should get one of those animals from one of those stories Chris read to us a while back. Chris, what was that animal again, the one with two heads?"

Chris smiled as he lit up one of his new cheroots and plopped a dollar on the counter to pay for them. "Llamas," he replied. He didn't bother to explain that there really were no such things as two headed llamas. He knew Vin and JD didn't believe they were real. For the sake of the joke, though, he remained quiet.

"That's right," Vin grinned. "Those camel-like animals that have heads on each ends of their bodies. Then all ya' have to do, Buck, is jump on in the direction ya' want to go."

By this time JD was laughing so hard he was holding his side. "Then you can call him 'Buck o' Llama'!"

Buck's face turned red with subdued anger, but he smiled, not giving the teasers any satisfaction. "I suppose that crow darkening your doorstep, Junior, should warn you when not to make light of another man's trials."

Vin and JD sobered. "What crow?" Vin asked.

"The one resting on top of your wagon." Buck turned to look out the door. He pointed down the street. "Yup, he's still there. Saw him land there this morning. If he's moved it hasn't been by much."

Chris, Vin and JD stepped outside, and all four men gazed at the crow that was perched on top of Vin's wagon.

"Josiah's sign," Chris whispered.

"It's just a crow," JD said. He had not been informed of the meaning behind Josiah's warning...death signaled by a crow.

Vin glanced at JD and saw the innocent acknowledgment. He turned to Chris. "Kid's right. It's just a crow."

The look Chris gave him tugged at the tracker's soul. Vin shrugged in response,
"Never did believe in all that hocus-pocus shit anyway." He turned and went back into the store. "Come on, JD, let's get that rifle and some bullets and go find a place to target practice."

When JD went with Vin back into the store, Buck walked up to Chris' side and followed his gaze to the crow. A second later the bird took off flying, obviously to seek a new destination.

"Damnedest thing I've ever seen," Buck said. "That crow's been there all mornin', squawking, preenin', and then you give him one look, and he takes off. Care to explain that one to me, Old Pard?"

Chris shrugged. "You know what they say. You stare death in the face long enough it'll either grab you or back down."

Buck furrowed a brow. "No one's ever said that."

Chris smiled. "I know. But it sounded good, didn't it?" He gave Buck a wink as he walked back into the store. Buck just shook his head as he followed his old friend in. He went up to the cowboy hats and started wondering if he should get a new one. Then he thought better of it and decided to just get his old hat washed.

Chris walked up behind Vin and gently touched his arm to get his attention. He leaned forward and whispered in his lover's ear. "Hocus-pocus or not. Watch your back out there. And take Buck out there with you whenever you go teach JD. Just a precaution."

Vin inclined his head, tipping his hat to keep JD from getting suspicious as the young man paid for his first sharp shooting rifle.

Chris knew Vin would use extra caution if JD was around anyway, but it made him feel better asking him to keep an eye open.

Just because the perimeter around town appeared clear of any drifters or possible raiding parties, that didn't mean they could drop their guard.

"Speakin' of precautions," Vin said, "some cowboys came off the stage earlier. One was carrying a long-range rifle. Not sure what they're here fer. Maybe just passin' through. Maybe not."

Chris sighed. "Suppose we should check it out."

Vin shrugged. "Might be wise. Then again, if they're bounty hunters..."

Chris nodded, understanding Vin's apprehension and not liking the reason behind it. Was this what they had feared would happen? Then again, a long-range rifle in these parts could mean almost anything. He shook his head. "Set things up with the kid and I'll meet you out front. We'll discuss what to do."

Vin nodded and turned his attention back to JD.

As Chris stepped out onto the boardwalk, he stowed his new box of cheroots under his arm. He squinted up at the sun, and wiped the back of his hand over his sweat-covered forehead. It was sure getting hotter than hell out today, unusual for January.


(TBC in Parts 7-8)

Click here for Parts 7-8

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