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"A Face To The Reason" Parts 7-8 (Slash C/V and B/E)
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"To Soar Above The Coulds" (Gen) Part 2
"To Soar Above The Clouds" (Gen) Part 3
"To Soar Above The Clouds" (Gen) Part 4
"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)
"A Face To The Reason" Parts 12-13 (Slash C/V and B/E)
"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)

Thanks to Mattie, Cattraine and Dail for the information on the long range hunting rifle: the Sharps .50.  Couldn't have Vin just say, "Some huntin' gun".  These folks came through with what that kind of gun would be called.  (Myristica bows in appreciation)


Summary: Chris and Vin make love out under the stars, with Buck and Josiah standing guard. Back in town, Ezra finds danger at the hands of Powder and Buck discovers why. Will their newly found desire for each other survive?



"A Face To The Reason"
By: Myristica

Part 7

From where Vin stood outside the saloon, looking in over the batwing doors, he could detect the cowboys sitting off in the far corner of the establishment, each working on finishing off their own bottles of whiskey.

Chris was off to the other side, watching his lover do what he did best. "It's a Sharp's .50.
gun. Maybe nothing more to this than them doin' some huntin'."

"I don't cotton to 'maybes', Vin. We need to know for sure. Buck and I will handle this. You and JD head on over to the church and wait for word with Josiah."

Vin wasn't about to argue, knowing the danger that still hovered over them all like a burial shroud. "Watch your backs, boys," he said, and tipped his hat as he headed further down the street. JD tailed after him.

The kid looked at Vin and marveled. "You didn't argue?" he asked.

"Not when the stakes are this high, JD. A wise man knows when to back away from a fight. If they are bounty hunters, they don't need to know I'm in town. Chris and Buck'll take care of it. Besides, I heard Josiah talkin' about needin' some help with the church. Reckon we can put this time to good use."

"Ah, Vin, he always needs help with the church."

"That's ‘cause no one ever bothers to help him."

"Because no one wants to step into a nest of rattlers," JD argued. "The man's as picky about his carpentry as you are about your aim."

"Every man has gifts he don't want messed with, JD. Goes with the territory of being an individual. We'll do the work the way he wants, and he can go over our mistakes later. It'll make him happy, and it'll give us somethin' to do."

JD sagged and kicked at a stone as they walked. "Oh, all right, I suppose it wouldn't hurt us none."

Unseen by them as they passed the hotel was the small city slicker who had asked about the nearest hotel earlier. He stood there on the boardwalk watching the two young men head towards the church. Casually, he made some notes in a small leather-bound book; then clasped it shut and put it in his coat pocket. He discreetly strolled across the street to the saloon, wondering just what Chris Larabee and his friend, Buck Wilmington, had found so intriguing.

But, when he looked inside to see the two men heading over to the cowboys that had come in on the stage with him, Phelps decided not to go in just yet. He stood outside, his eyes just barely able to see over the top of the batwing doors. He pulled out his notebook and proceeded to add to his report.


Buck and Chris strolled over to where the two cowboys were busy at their whiskey. Both were young, possibly mid-twenties, with dark hair and dusty trail riding clothes. Their faces were covered with days old whiskers, and their chaps were dark and worn. They looked like they hadn't seen a bathtub in weeks and the closer Chris and Buck got to the table, the smell of unwashed bodies confirmed that suspicion.

The two peacekeepers made a face at each other, but shrugged off the odor. They had a job to do and sometimes it came with unpleasant requirements.

"Mighty fine lookin' gun you got there, Pard," Buck said as he approached the owner of the Sharps with his usual friendly smile. "Mind if we ask what you use it for?"

huntin'," came the curt reply.

"Is that so, mind if I take a gander at it?"

"Help yourself," the other man said, just as friendly. It was obvious he was the more cordial of the two. "You gentlemen the law around here?"

"You could say that," Chris replied as he sized up each man individually. The owner of the Sharps would not make eye contact, and that immediately raised the hair on the back of Chris’ neck. "You realize there's no
in these parts?"

"That's true enough," the friendly one replied. "But we's just here to pick up supplies and some horses. We plan on heading out first thing in the morning. Here tell some herds were out on the prairie fifty miles north of here. Wanted to check it out, maybe do some other kind of huntin' while we're at it. We've been hired to find some hides for a man back east."

Buck examined the gun with an admiring eye. "Here tell these beauties pack a punch, can kick you to hell and back."

The man who owned the gun nodded, "Got the bruises on my shoulder to prove it, but there's no better gun than that to do what we need to do."

He kept his focus on the shot glass of whiskey before him. Hell, maybe he just didn’t like talking to strangers. Chris knew what that was like. He didn't want to judge these boys unfairly.

"Damn straight," the friendly one concurred. "We gots us a guy back east wants to pay us good money for the pelts if’n we don't mess ‘em up too bad."

"And the meat?" Chris asked.

"What about it?" the man who had been doing most of the talking looked young and eager, but he also looked seasoned in the field of hunting.

"I know of an Indian tribe that may look kindly on you offering them a few morsels."

"Tell them to come after it, then. We ain't in the charity business,” the older one replied, pouring another shot of whiskey.

Chris tilted his head and cast Buck a nod.

Buck put the rifle back into its holster by the owner's feet. "Thanks for letting me take a look, Pard. Sure is a beauty."

The man only nodded and went back to drinking.

As Buck followed Chris outside, he spotted Ezra watching them curiously from where he sat in the middle of a poker game. Without saying a word, only tilting his head in the direction of the far back corner, he delivered his message. Ezra was to keep an eye on the cowboys.

To which the Southerner touched his hat with an inconspicuous nod in response.

Buck marveled. First this morning, and now...well, it seemed that the talent of silent communication, which existed between Chris and Vin, was now being put into practice by Buck and Ezra. The two men shared a knowing smile, leaving Buck curious to find out if talking without words would come in handy later.


Outside Chris leaned against the boardwalk post. He took out another cheroot and casually lit it, but his mind was working on what they had just heard and seen. He flung the used match to the ground and blew out a plume of smoke. "What's your gut tellin' you?" he asked Buck.

Buck sighed. "That they're not here for Vin. However, something stinks about them and not just their odor. They could be a decoy."

"My thoughts, too. I hate being suspicious all the time, but that
fella hasn't made a move in over two months. Calder hasn't showed his face again, either. But I just know they're watching...waiting for us to drop our guard."

Buck shrugged. "I know what you're sayin', Chris. If only Ezra and Mary had found something in her husband's files about you, but there wasn't a damn clue listed. No mention of
San Francisco, no mention of a Douglas
...nothing. I told Ezra to keep an eye on those two roughnecks just now, though. He'll let us know if they do anything suspicious."

“Just now?” Chris asked, curious. “I didn’t hear you talk to him.”

Buck grinned. “Just like you and Vin talk to each other, Pard. Got that silent thing going on. He understood my look without me having to say a word.”

Chris grinned a bit. “You getting cozy with Ezra. Not sure I can handle the knowledge.”

“I won’t let him corrupt me if that’s what your worried about,

Chris chuckled. “Naw, he’s a good man. Proved himself to me after that incident with the Ghosts. Guess a friendship with him can’t be all bad.”

Buck turned thoughtful. He looked back into the saloon window and watched Ezra shuffling the cards for another round of Poker. He wondered how the gambler did it day after day, night after night. All he did was play the cards, do his part for the town and go back to playing cards again. He was good, too. Damn good. His mother, though she was the type to stir up hornet nests, had done something right by raising Ezra to hold his own. It was one of the things Buck seemed to always know, but was only just now discovering. “Reckon so,” he muttered his agreement softly.

Chris looked up and down the street, examining the people, the roofs, the windows. What he was looking for, he wasn't sure, he only knew he would feel better if he could have eyes in the back of his head.

"I hate this, Buck. I almost wish they would try something now just so we can breathe again."

"Be careful, Pard, that's just the way those who control the game want you to feel. All that trouble to get your attention, and then they fall off the face of the earth? They must'a known you'd be getting tense by now. You gotta calm down."

"What I need, what Vin and I both need, is to get out of this town, out into the open."

"Then that's what you need to do. Being cooped up here is wearing you down, Pard, I can see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice. You're about to snap and Vin ain't far behind you."

Chris wondered what Buck would think if he knew the real reason both he and Vin were about to snap.

The night out under the stars was sounding better and better with every second that past. Sometimes that tracker of his had a damn compass on his soul, pointing to the right direction.

"Think the town can handle the two of us riding out for a spell?" he asked.

"By yourselves? You think that's wise?"

"Nope." Chris put his hands to the guardrail and squeezed until his knuckles turned white. The more he thought about getting out of this town that had turned into a prison, the more he wanted to just hop on his horse, grab Vin and go...and to blazes with being safe.

He was aching for his tracker, aching for him bad. And the tension was filling his frame to an unhealthy level. He would soon be looking for a fight, just to rid himself of the blatant need and desire within him.

Buck leaned back against the guardrail and crossed his arms over his chest. "Chris," he whispered. "I ain't sure I quite know how to say this, but..."

Chris stilled all movement.

Buck rested a hand on Chris' shoulder. He looked around to see if anyone was within earshot, then lowered his voice on the off chance there was someone close by that could overhear. "If you and Vin don't get it together and I mean soon, the two of you are gonna go loco on us. And frankly, that's just somethin' I don't want to see."

Chris lifted guarded eyes. "Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Buck softened his gaze and shrugged. "I've known you longer than anyone, Pard. I saw how you were with Sarah. I can see how you are with Vin. The actual show of affection may be different being that Vin is a man,'s there, as sure as I'm standing here."

Chris straightened. "How long have you known?" he asked, his body rigid with the uncertainty of where Buck was going with this. Tremors rippled through his limbs as he focused on keeping the glare in his eyes from faltering. Some show of strength would be applicable, but Buck did not showing any signs that he was willing to exchange blows over this.

Buck shrugged again. "I started seeing how Vin was getting to you when Marcus came into town. That speech you gave Hathaway in the hall after that man came down on Vin...I knew then something was stirring up inside you. That young gun's got a hold of your soul so tight you'll likely choke, but as far as I'm concerned I can't think of a better way for you to die."

Chris pulled his gaze from Buck and studied the ground in front of him. Buck's acceptance of this, and the fact that he had mentioned it first, unnerved the gunslinger in ways he never thought possible. Especially since now there was no denying he had misjudged his oldest friend.

He gestured for Buck to follow him and headed off down the street towards the church. He was so engrossed in the topic at hand that he never sensed the presence of Phelps standing off to the side of the saloon, braced against the far wall.

The smaller man wrote more notes, and a hint of a smile graced his thin and pale lips. His employer would find this report quite fascinating indeed.


Chris kept his voice lowered as he and Buck walked down the street. He looked around them for any possible eavesdroppers. "And you're all right with this?"

"Hell, Chris, if you're happy, then ain't that what it's all about? You forget where I grew up. I saw men and women together. I saw women and women together. And I know," he gestured with his hands rolling over each other, indicating what he meant. "My ma was knowing in the ways of love, Chris. She may have been a lady of the night, but she knew what love was, and she taught me that lesson when I was young. I've never forgotten it. It ain't the gender of the person that matters, Chris. It's the soul. And you and Vin complete each other like I've never seen two people complete each other. If you need that time with Vin, I'll go and watch over you both. Well, not literally, but..."

Chris smiled. "Must have taken you some time to put that speech together, Buck."

"No time at all, Chris. I understand what’s happening.” It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Chris about Ezra, but the gambler had not given any word that he was ready for it to be known, so Buck said nothing. He merely shrugged as if what he and Chris were discussing was nothing to concern the world. “I was just waiting for the right time to let you know that...I know."

Chris didn't know what to say. He stopped and looked at Buck, searching his old friend's eyes with a knowing, but haunted look. Yes, he had misjudged his oldest friend completely.

He finally lowered his head. "Josiah knows, too."

At this Buck raised a brow. "Do tell. And when did he find out?"

"Last night."

"He didn't..."

"No, he didn't catch us, but he heard us talking through the walls of the hotel. Damn but that preacher's got a pair on him, too. Came forward with it right away. You're right, though, Buck, except that it's Vin about ready to bolt, and I’m the one that's not far behind him. He wants to head out tonight. But with those
hunters..." Chris gestured behind him.

"You just let Josiah and I worry about them. Where you two gonna head off?"

Chris started walking again, shaking his head with a sigh. "Knowing Vin, it'll be either the shack or Shepherd's Rock."

Buck gave Chris a fond smile, then sobered. "Chris...if what Hathaway said in his journal about Marcus was true..."

"Don't ride that trail, Buck. It wasn't that way between Marcus and Vin."

"Are you sure, Pard? Absolutely sure?"

"Marcus' heart was pure, Buck. He loved Vin as much as any man could love another outside of the physical. Vin opened up a world for Marcus that he thought had been destroyed long ago. And Marcus returned the favor by helping Vin and I to see what was beyond the surface. And even if they had done something along what you're thinkin'..." Chris stopped walking again, and put his hands on his hips. He shook his head as he pondered the possibility. "Then I would never be able to fault either of them for it."

Buck was silent for a long moment; searching Chris' eyes, and Chris allowed him to, hoping his friend would learn just how much Vin's connection to the murdered poet was important to the gunslinger.

"He continues to teach us even through his death," Buck whispered, awed by the revelation.

"He brought Vin and I to the point where we could see, Buck; to see beyond the frailty of life and to touch what others only dream about. It may be sentimental horse-shit to the common man, but Marcus was not a common man."

Buck chuckled with a fond knowing. "And neither are you and Vin, old Pard. Neither are you and Vin."

As they moved on down the street to the church, a flash of gray flittered by the corner of Chris' eye, and he turned quickly to see a short man dressed in a gray suit and bowler hat marking something in a leather-bound book.

The man disappeared into the saloon, and Chris didn't give him a second thought.


Phelps approached the bar at one end, and asked for a shot of whiskey.

The cowboy that owned the Sharps .50 clumsily walked up to the bar counter, obviously on his way to a good drunk, and stood a few feet away. Close enough to hear the smaller man, but not so close as to imply he knew him. "Well?" the cowboy asked, in a whisper that only Phelps could hear.

"I will slide my report under your door, later this evening. Deliver it first thing in the morning."

The barkeep approached and asked the cowboy what he wanted.

"'nother bottle," he said, acting drunk by slurring his speech." He clumsily reached into his pocket and pulled out a coin, plopping it on the counter.

The barkeep handed him a bottle and pocketed the coin.

Phelps took another shot of whiskey, paid, then turned and left.

He never noticed the man at the poker table, playing a round with a group of men, holding a cigar and studying the shorter man carefully.

Ezra Standish knew how cons were played. He had seen the shorter man's lips moving, even though he and the
hunter had tried to make it appear they weren't associated with each other. They may have very well not been, still...

He looked down at his hand and cringed. A full house. Too good a hand to pass up, but he had no choice. "I fold," he said, and laid his cards on the table. He stood and put on his coat. "Gentlemen, deal me out of the next hand, but I shall return shortly."

He pocketed what money he had earned and quickly followed after the man in the gray suit.

Something about the man was daunting, and Ezra had learned one good thing from his mother, other than how to orchestrate a con game. He had learned to trust his instincts.


When Ezra entered the hotel, he watched as the small man approached the clerk to see if any messages had arrived.

The clerk casually shook his head, "No messages as yet, Mister Phelps."

Phelps. Ezra pocketed the name into his memory as he continued to observe the city man.

Phelps pulled out a leather-bound book with a pencil and took to writing notes in the pages.

Ezra decided that now would be a good time for he and Phelps to be introduced.

Striding up to the smaller man in the lobby he kept his head down and 'accidentally' bumped into him.

"Oh, I'm terribly sorry, sir. Forgive me. I was not watching where I was going."

Phelps brushed down his coat and straightened his hat and glasses. "That's perfectly all right, sir. Accidents do happen."

"Indeed, sir, indeed. Say, you're new in town are you not? I've not seen your face in these parts before."

"Yes, sir, that's correct, I just arrived on this morning's stage."

Ezra feigned delight. "Is that so? Well, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ezra Standish, I co-own the saloon just down the street." He held out his hand and Phelps shook it.

"Beauregard Phelps, sir, and yes, I've seen your saloon. Very lucrative is it?"

"Well, sir," Ezra chuckled and patted his coat over his heart, indicating a pocket. "It does have its advantages. And our cook, Inez, is most outstanding in the culinary arts in these here parts. She makes absolutely wonderful dishes that can set the mouth to watering if not seeking for water to cut the intensity of the spices used."

"Indeed? Well, then I shall have to make time to dine there. But to be honest, I was preferring a more congenial place to eat in order to appease my disposition. Rowdy cowboys and farmers are not necessarily my idea of polite company."

Ezra forced the smile to stay in place. This man was coming across as a first rate snob. Well, two can play at that game.

"Oh, I understand, I understand, say no more." He leaned forward, "Personally, I despise the lot of them, but...they do make for interesting games of chance at the poker table." He rubbed the tips of his fingers together to indicate exactly what he meant.

Phelps gave him a small grin.

Ezra took in a deep breath and pulled out another cigar, lighting it with a flick of a matchstick. "There is a very quaint restaurant further down the street, that way," he pointed. "It is geared for the more sophisticated palate. I, myself, have dined there on many occasions when the smell of dust, leather and beer gets to be too much. They have wine, perfect choice cuts of meat..."

"Yes, yes, that would be perfect."

Ezra studied the smaller man. "Sir, would you mind terribly if I asked what a civilized man such as yourself is doing in a low-life country such as this?"

"Well, to be honest, sir, I'm investigating a rumor of a former actor who was murdered here about two months ago. His name was Theodore Marcus. Would you happen to know anything about that?"

For a moment, Ezra had forgotten to breathe. He inwardly kicked himself for not realizing that Marcus' death would have leaked out to those within the journalistic arena, and that it would call forth reporters from the masses to find out the facts.

"Why, yes, I do happen to have knowledge of that horrible incident, Mister Phelps. So, was that what you were discussing with that
hunter in the saloon a few moments ago?"

Phelps did not hesitate to reply. "Indeed, Mister Standish. I'm afraid I do not know who resides in this area, and who is just passing through. The man very amicably informed me he had no knowledge and was just passing through. But to be honest, I wasn't very certain I wanted to talk to him. He smelled more of whiskey and grime than could possibly be tolerated. I would much prefer to talk to someone of your stature, sir."

Ezra feigned surprise. "You wish to interview me? Well, certainly, sir. Allow me to escort you to the afore-mentioned restaurant where we can concentrate more on the purpose of your visit here."

"That would be very magnanimous of you, Mister Standish. Very magnanimous of you, indeed."

Ezra forced a smile. "Think nothing of it."

Phelps gestured to the door. "After you, sir."

Ezra inclined his head and led the way out of the hotel. Phelps’ story, though cleverly plausible, did not succeed in convincing Ezra. Phelps was not aware that Ezra knew both he and the hunters had come in on the stage that morning—together. Phelps would have known the hunters were just passing through, therefore they would not have known about Marcus, nor did they seem the type to care even if they had known.

The sharp tang of warning still resided in the back of Ezra’s mouth, and until he could determine why Phelps had really come to town, it would remain there.


"And this tracker you say became fond of Theodore Marcus, what would be his name?"

Phelps was writing notes down in his journal as Ezra spoke of the two days that changed the lives of all seven friends within the town. But to Vin's name he had prudently kept silent, so as to not bring suspicious bounty hunters into the town, who would no doubt seek after the five hundred dollars on Vin's head.

"Sir, the story is his to tell, and for me to divulge his name would not be ethical on my part."

Phelps smiled, and there was a look behind the squinty blue eyes that bore into Ezra like a miner's drill. Instead of revealing the tremor that tore through his body under such an examination, however, Ezra merely sat back in his chair, one arm draped over the back, while holding a cigar in the other. "He values his privacy," he explained.

"Indeed, but for a man with an inability to read and then to master the art of Shakespeare in two is a worthy story to be lauded and spread abroad."

Ezra chuckled. "Not for him, sir. Mister Phelps, I shall endeavor to inquire of my associate the fact that you wish to question him further about Mister Marcus, but I must give you warning—you will be treading on a wound that is still raw within him. He may not as yet wish to speak of his story to anyone other than those trustworthy enough to be in his presence. Thus you being a stranger to him, you may not have the opportunity to discuss his involvement with this incident directly. Perhaps it would behoove you to simply seek out those of us who witnessed it."

Phelps shook his head. "No, the readers of our periodical in
would not wish for only the perception of witnesses. They will want to know the man involved on such an intimate level with Mister Marcus. They will want to know how he felt about Hathaway, how he felt immediately after the shooting. How the actor's death affected his mind, his desire to continue learning how to read, his desire to expound on what Marcus had done for him. It's a story that must be shared, Mister Standish. Why, the inspirational fortitude alone will sell thousands of copies, even possibly so far as to inspire a novel to be written of the encounter."

Ezra simmered. This reporter, or whoever he was, was pushing the fences around the sanctity of Vin's encounter with Marcus and the subsequent grief that had occurred as a result of the actor's tragic death.

Ezra stood and grabbed his hat. "Sir, I believe that is all you will receive from me. Good day." He nodded and walked off, flicking the ashes of his cigar behind him in a gesture that said he had washed his hands of the man at the table.

"Mister Standish, I meant no offense," Phelps called after him with supplication.

Ezra turned to him, anger in his eyes and words, "Meant or not meant, Mister Phelps, offense was given and received in that you would seek to profit over a man’s personal pain. My friends are my friends for a reason. Good day to you, sir."

Ezra's first move upon exiting the restaurant would be to find Chris and Vin and inform them of the reporter's desire to sensationalize Marcus' death and exploit Vin's pain.

Even for him, a con man who valued Vin's friendship as being more precious than gold, there were limits to adhere and respect. And Phelps had just pushed beyond Ezra's.


Vin leaned casually against the wall, arms crossed over his chest, his face unreadable. Chris stood by Ezra, while Josiah, JD and Buck sat on varying pews within the church. Nathan had been intercepted on his way to the clinic by Ezra, who pulled him in as they had passed each other on the street. The healer was now sitting on the dais to the altar.

They all listened intently to Ezra's story.

"Are you sure it was a short man with a bowler hat like JD has?" Buck asked.

"Quite certain, Mister Wilmington. Told me he's some reporter for a periodical called 'The
Denver News'. Says he has been following the Marcus story ever since the fire in Kansas
that took Hathaway's son."

"Well, it is true that he came in on this morning's stage, and that stage did come from Denver," JD said, who made it a point of knowing where the stages were coming in from in order to keep Vin informed of possible visitors from Tuscosa Texas, where he had been accused of murder.

Chris furrowed a brow at Ezra. "And you say his name is Phelps?"

"Indeed, sir. Beauregard Phelps."

Chris shook his head and turned to Vin who didn’t bother to move or say anything.
They locked eyes. "I never once saw that name listed on any articles Mary collected on the fire that Marcus was involved with,” Chris said.

"I can telegraph
, Chris, see if they know of the periodical this man says he represents," Josiah suggested.

Chris nodded in agreement. "Go with him, Ezra. Watch your backs. It may be nothing. This fella may be what he says he is, but we don't know for sure."

The two quickly nodded and headed for the church doors.

"Ez?" Vin called out.

The gambler turned to him. "Mister Tanner?"


"None necessary, my friend." Ezra tipped his hat and quickly followed Josiah out of the church.

Nathan stood. "What should we do in the meantime, leave town?"

"No," Vin replied. "Let's not jump the gun, boys. We wait to see what Josiah finds out."

"And if this guy Phelps ain't from any periodical?" JD asked.

Vin shrugged. "Then I reckon we can find out exactly where he is from."

"And if he is?" Nathan asked. "How do you want to handle him, Vin?"

Vin took on an icy stare. "More n' likely someone will spout off my name to him sooner or later, if he keeps asking questions of the townsfolk. They won't know enough to keep that quiet."

Chris nodded. "And when that happens, he'll want to find you, ask you your opinion of what happened with Hathaway and Marcus."

Vin gave an indifferent shrug. "Reckon I can handle exchanging a few words with him."

"Aw, Vin, you heard Ezra," Buck said. "This guy will only exploit you and Marcus' memory."

"No he won't. I didn't exactly go into detail of what those few words would be, Bucklin."

Chris smiled at the mustached man. "He's got you there, Pard."

Buck grinned. "All right, then. As long as that's settled, but I want to be there when those words are exchanged, Junior," he said, almost like a boy wanting to see a prize fight for the first time.

Vin nodded once in affirmation.

Chris looked around. "May as well make ourselves useful. Josiah was in the process of nailing down these boards to the altar dais. Reckon we could give him a hand."

"But what about the sharp shooting lessons?" JD asked.

"Later, son, when we find out exactly who Phelps is," Buck replied picking up a piece of wood and a hammer. "Let's get to work."

JD sagged in disappointment.

"Kid, the very first lesson in sharp shooting," Vin offered.

JD brightened. "Yeah?"

Vin handed him a hammer and some nails. "Patience," he answered with a hint of a smile.

JD sagged again, taking the nails and resigning himself to his fate.

Vin lifted his eyes and caught Chris gazing at him with an unvoiced question. JD wasn't the only one who needed to deal with patience that day.

Vin winked at Chris with reassurance. He walked up to Chris’ side and started sifting through the contents of one of Josiah’s tool boxes. "Nothin's gonna stop tonight, Cowboy,” he whispered. “’Specially no damn reporter."

Chris gave him a small grin. "Damn straight," he said.


About an hour later Ezra and Josiah returned to the church, but both of them had uncertain expressions.

Chris and Vin approached them. "Well?" Chris asked.

"There is a Beauregard Phelps that works with a periodical called The
News, Chris,” Josiah replied.

"Then why do you look like you've just eaten a can o' worms?" Vin asked.

"Because a can o' worms is an apt analogy as to what we may have just opened," Josiah replied.

"It appears Mister Phelps only began working with The
Denver News three weeks ago. And before that," Ezra and Josiah exchanged glances. Josiah gestured for him to continue. Ezra took in a deep breath. "Before that, he worked for the San Francisco

Chris paled. "
San Francisco

Vin glanced from Chris to Ezra and back to Chris. "What's wrong? What does
San Francisco
have to do with anythin'?"

Chris sat down. "I need to talk to Vin alone," he ordered. He looked up at Buck and Josiah. "Find Phelps and put him in jail. After Vin and I come to blows here, I'm gonna wanna ask that scum a few questions."

All of them headed out of the church, neither of them certain what would happen between Chris and Vin in the next few minutes. But it was obvious by Chris' words he was more than certain. He was bracing for Vin’s fist to slam into his face, gut, or both.


Vin sat in the pew across from Chris. His body was rigid, unmoving, his eyes locked on the gunslinger as though getting ready to aim and fire. A sharpshooter's patience. It could be a gift, or a curse, depending on who was on the receiving end of it and for whatever reasons.

Chris did his best to ignore the hateful glare being driven into him at that moment, without giving away that it bothered him more than he cared to admit. He wondered if he and Vin had a stare down, who would emerge the victor?

"So the telegram came from
San Francisco
, Vin. It may even have come from Phelps' own hand, if our suspicions are true."

"And you didn't see how that would concern me?" Vin asked, his voice low and controlled, but Chris could see the anger in the way Vin clenched his jaw and gripped the back of the pew.

"Shit, Vin, what could you have done? Your body had just been bruised and beaten to the point of being bed-ridden, not to mention your thoughts were still clouded by Marcus' death only a few days before. I didn't want to add to your concerns, not if I could help it. Especially since we didn't know anything for certain. We have no idea who the message was from, and until I question Phelps, we still don't."

Vin stood and walked away a few feet, his hands placed on his hips in a fashion unfamiliar to Chris. Vin was angry, very angry, but he was doing his best not to ram his fist into Chris' face. "Any other secrets about this you've got hidden inside ya'?" the tracker challenged.

Chris sagged. He got to his feet and faced Vin's defiant stance. Had it not been for the deformity that had caused his spine to curve, Chris believed the term 'ramrod straight' would have applied appropriately enough. "Only that Ezra and Mary found no clues in the newspaper clippings about my past. This
Douglas person is still a mystery. I can't place him and neither can Buck. All we know is that Calder is working for him, and that the threat is somehow connected to someone in San Francisco
, a place I've never been to."

Vin did not turn around. He said nothing, did not move. The only motion coming from his body was the evidence of his breathing deeply in and out.

Chris slowly approached him. "Vin, listen..."

Vin turned on him. "It's not the fact that the information is useless to me, Chris,” he seethed. “It's the fact that this was a threat against my life and ya' didn't bother to tell me!" Vin's eyes pierced Chris along with the anger that laced his voice.

Chris had seen those eyes storm over before, and maybe those other times were worse than now, but Chris couldn't really be certain. He'd never been in an ocean storm before. Oh, he'd read about them, even saw paintings of them. Vin's eyes were just that color now—dark and churning waves whirled about by a tempest that knew no boundaries and held no conscience. How badly had he misjudged the limits of Vin's need for independence?

"Ya' can't protect me from everythin', Cowboy. And I ain't about to ask ya' to. I can handle things as long as I'm faced with 'em. Give me some respect by lettin' me deal with things the way I sees fit!"

Chris stood there, arms at his sides, and simply dove into those raging eyes. He had thought the telegram a severe threat, yes, but he had given no thought as to what Vin would feel in not telling him about it. Well, now he knew. After a moment or two, he lowered his head. "You're right. I suppose I just...after all you'd been through already, I didn't want..."

He didn't want to finish the sentence. What had he wanted? To control Vin? To coddle him like some infant, or worse some weak and helpless woman?

He turned away. It didn't seem to him that much of a transgression, but to Vin it obviously bordered on betrayal. "I suppose this is our first lesson in the art of honesty between us," he muttered.

"Is it a lesson that needs repeatin'?" Vin asked. His anger had lessened in its intensity, but it was still edged.

Maybe Chris would walk out of here with his face intact, yet.

"I can handle things, Chris, and if I can't, then I'd like to believe the two of us can handle 'em together. But never separate. What haunts you, haunts me. What hurts you, hurts me. Keep that in mind, Cowboy, or we've got nothin' 'tween us. Not one damn thing."

Chris looked at him. Gone was the anger, in its place was a young man reaching out enough to show that between them they made up a strength that no threat outside of them could breach.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I know you're right. But, Vin, I honestly didn't think it would anger you this deeply. If I had known, I would have said something then. I don't know what else to say except that."

Vin nodded once. "That'll do fer starters. Just remember this the next time ya' get information that concerns me. Agreed?"

Chris sighed, more out of relief than anything. "Agreed."

"Good. Now let's go talk to this Phelps. I wanna see how the Larabee glare can whittle him down to a sniveling mass." He walked past Chris who quickly grabbed the younger man's arm and pulled him close. Their eyes were only inches apart, their lips even closer. "Don't sell the Vin glare short, Tracker. You almost had me on my knees a minute ago, ready to beg."

Vin leaned in and kissed those lips that had for so long tempted him in fantasy. They tasted even better than before, full of desire and need and the spice of their first disagreement as lovers.

"That's tonight, Cowboy." Vin shot him a wink and pulled away, leaving Chris wanting more.

Chris shivered with anticipation. "Well as long as we got our priorities straight. And, Vin, speaking of secrets..."

Vin stopped at the church doors and turned. "Yeah?"

"Buck knows."

Vin suddenly became like a statue. A moment ticked by, then another, until finally Chris saw the working of the jaw that he found so damn beautiful. "He...knows?" The words came out in a hushed whisper.

Chris nodded. "Came to me with it this morning. He's known something was happening, he even suspected what it was."

"And?" Vin anxiously waited for the next shot to slam into him.

"He's not going to say anything to anyone else, and...he's not angry."

And with those words Vin’s body relaxed into the lackadaisical form that Chris had first laid eyes on that day almost three years before. Vin shook his head in disbelief. "I woulda' thought fer sure Bucklin would have laid into both of us. He ain't angry?"

Chris shook his head.

"So, Buck and Josiah," Vin turned thoughtful. "You think the others..."

"If so, they're not saying anything. Right now let's just leave it at that, all right?"

Vin sighed. "It's getting awful crowded in this town, Cowboy. Tonight is lookin' better 'n better." He opened the doors and headed out.

Chris took a moment to ponder those words. He wondered how long they would have left in this town if it continued to expand at the rate it was going. There may soon come a time when he and Vin would have to leave for parts unknown just to escape the danger of their relationship being found out. It was a little thing called 'the law of averages', and Chris was certain if they stayed in town long enough, that law would soon catch up to them.


Chris and Vin met Buck outside the jailhouse. Vin merely tipped his hat to the mustached man, and then went on inside.

Chris mounted the steps. "You get him?"

"Oh, we got him, all right," Buck said, rubbing his chin. "For a little guy he sure has a mean right." He then took Chris' arm and turned him around. "Speaking of being hit, your face is still pretty, Pard. Vin didn't tear into ya'?"

"Oh, yeah, he hit me."

Buck raked his eyes over Chris' frame. "Where? There ain't a mark on ya'."

"Let's just say Vin's capable of putting my glare to shame."

Buck's jaw dropped. "You're shittin' me!"

"Some advice, Pard, don't ever get Vin angry. He's liable to shoot bullets out of those deceptively poetic eyes."

Buck grinned. "Now there's an image unique to my way of thinkin'."

Chris followed after Vin, adjusting his hat as he did so. "Let's get this done."


The man carrying the Sharps .50 over his shoulder stood by his partner and watched as Larabee and Tanner entered the jailhouse. "It appears Phelps stirred up a hornet's nest," he observed casually as he lit a cigar. "Reckon we oughta keep him from bein' stung?"

His taller partner spat a wad of tobacco onto the ground. "Nope. We have our orders. He was hired for his brains. Let him get hisself out of this. Come on, nothing we can do until he gives us that damn report of his. Let's go get some shut eye." He continued on to the hotel, his partner following his lead, shaking his head. "Damn fool city-slicker. Must have said somethin' to get Larabee riled."

The taller man reached behind him and cuffed him upside the head. "You're the damned fool if'n ya' don't stop talkin' like we know either of them. People round here can hear, idiot. Now just keep quiet, and we may just get through this without any mistakes. You hearin' me?"

"Yeah, Earl. I hear ya'. I hear ya'. No need to cuff me. I hear ya'."

Earl put his hand behind his brother's neck and affectionately squeezed. "No worries,
. No worries. Come on."

They went into the hotel and forgot about what was happening at the Jailhouse down the street.


Chris gripped the little man by the collar and pushed him against the cell wall. "I'm asking you, Phelps, who do you know by the name of
Douglas in San Francisco

The words seethed out as Chris quickly lost patience with the short, balding man who kept insisting he didn't know anything about anyone named

Vin was in the jail cell with them. The others stood outside the cells, watching carefully to make sure Chris didn't give in to his fiery temper and lay the little guy out before any pertinent information could be obtained.

Phelps shook uncontrollably under the physical mauling Chris gave him. "I swear, Mister Larabee, I don't know anyone named
Douglas. That is to say I've met a few men named Douglas before, but no one who would, I'm sure, be connected to you. I'm just here to do a story on Theodore Marcus' murder, that's all. I was assigned it. You can wire my editor in Denver
, a mister Thomas Bannister. He'll verify I’m telling the truth."

Josiah headed for the door. "I'll take care of it, Chris," he assured.

Nathan headed out after him, as per the two-by-two instructions Chris had ordered since Vin had been attacked.

Chris released his hold, but kept the glare locked on the shaking weasel of a man.

"If you're lying, scum, then no paper in this country will see fit to write your obituary."

Phelps gulped. He pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at the perspiration beading across his brow. "Sir, you will find I am not lying and once that is completely understood by you, I will demand just recompense for the way I've been treated in these last few minutes."

Chris sneered. "Take it up with my associate." He jutted his thumb over his shoulder at Vin standing calmly behind him.

Vin just lazily glared at the little man, saying nothing, but his body told his own story. One wrong move and there would be hell to pay.

Phelps pushed himself into the farthest corner, as far away from both Chris and Vin as he could get.

"I only wanted to discuss this incredible story with your associate. In speaking to people on the streets that know of the incident in question, this is the man who Marcus took to his side his last few days on earth."

Chris and Vin exchanged glances. "Well, so much for keeping secrets," the gunslinger muttered and Vin just shrugged, undaunted. "Was bound to happen, Larabee. I told ya' that a while ago."

"Yeah, but still..." he rammed the side of his left fist against one of the bars on the cell, causing Phelps to jump.

Chris turned his head away and grimaced, but did not make a sound. Let Phelps think what he wanted. Chris only hoped he hadn't damaged his hand too badly. He made a fist and found he hadn't broken it, just maybe bruised it a bit. Damn if interrogating people wasn’t as grating on the body as it was on the nerves.

"You'll get your story, Phelps," Vin said casually. "If you're truly here for that story. But my name will have to stay out of it."

"I can't just give my readers a story without a prime character, Mister Tanner."

"Then make up another name fer me. If ya' release my name to the public, you'll regret ever takin' a pen to paper." Vin slowly approached and pushed the man into his suddenly compact corner. "My privacy..." he jabbed his finger into the little man's shoulder, "Is very..." another jab, "important. I find out my name's been plastered all over your story, and I'll hunt ya' down." Vin placed one hand on the wall, directly over Phelps' head. "And I'm damn good at trackin'."

Phelps swallowed, the perspiration popping over his face once again. "Certainly, Mister Tanner. I completely understand, Mister Tanner. Another name will suffice, Mister Tanner."

Vin smiled at Chris who was trying hard to hide his own amusement. "He likes to throw the 'Misters' around, don't he?"

Buck snickered. "Well, you can't fault his manners, Vin."

Phelps worked at straightening his coat and collar. "Mister Tanner, I am trying very hard to maintain a mode of decorum in this situation. I truly meant no disrespect to you or Mister Marcus. I am just doing a job that I've been assigned to do. I see no reason to treat me like some low-life criminal."

Vin shook his head. "I just want to be sure ya' understand where I stand when it comes to what happened to Marcus, 'Mister' Phelps. Ya' taint that man's memory in any way, if ya' exploit his death and sorrow in anyway, then it won't be just me huntin' ya' down."

Buck stepped forward, "It'll be all of us."

Phelps straightened his collar and tie, but it was clear by the surprised look on his face that the threat had not been expected. "The man meant that much to you folks?"

"More," Ezra replied, his voice low and somber. "If you speak his name around us, you best speak it with respect, sir."

Phelps wiped the sweat off his brow once again. "I see. Well, then, 'Mister' Tanner. I will look forward to your story, once you've verified that I am who I say I am."

Vin cast him a dubious glare. "We'll see, Phelps. We'll see."


The seven had taken to playing a round of poker while waiting for word from
regarding Phelps.

Ezra, of course, was winning. He was in the middle of a large hand, ready to bluff Buck into a false sense of security, when Charlie from the telegraph office came into the saloon with the eagerly awaited response.

Chris took the message and read it silently. After studying the contents for a few long and drawn out moments, he finally handed it to JD with a sigh. "Let him go, JD."

Vin just sat there, staring at Chris over the tops of his cards.

The rest of the seven sagged in their chairs.

"I must say," Ezra confessed, "I'm not certain whether to be relieved or disappointed. I thought certainly we had found a clue as to the person behind Mister Tanner's attack."

Vin shrugged as he tossed two cards to Buck who had dealt the last hand. "Life is full of twists and turns, Ez. Hand me two cards, Bucklin."

"And is that all you can say on the matter, Vin?" Nathan asked. "Just play cards and get on with our lives?"

"We were waiting fer a move. We thought this was it. It ain't. So...let's move on. Bucklin, ya' got wax in your ears? Two cards, if'n ya' would, please."

Buck dealt out two cards to Vin, keeping his eyes on the way Chris just sat in his chair, smoking his cheroot, unwilling to meet anyone's gaze, even with the man who had claimed the gunslinger's heart. Chris was ready to snap. Buck glanced over at Vin and gestured to Chris with slight tilt of the head. Vin nodded once in affirmation. He would take care of the temper threatening to flare, but not here and not now.

JD placed his cards down onto the felt covered table. "I was gonna fold anyway."

Josiah folded his hand, "As was I. I'll go with you, Son. It appears the two-by-two precaution is still in effect?" He glanced at Chris who only nodded his assent while taking a tug on his cheroot and casually blowing out the smoke.

When Chris Larabee got this quiet, the rest of the seven knew the fuse was lit on the powder keg.

Josiah put his hat on and got out of the chair with a sorrowful shake of his head.  "Damn bastards. The ante's piling up and they're the ones holding all the cards." 




Part 8

Buck noticed throughout the game how quiet Ezra had been. The exuberance of that morning’s encounter and discovery between them had dimmed on the part of the gambler to an almost non-existent flare, which caused Buck to wonder if what had happened had been given second thoughts. For him there had been no second thoughts. The man had felt good, the kiss even more-so. He had learned to kiss boys from an early age thanks to his mother’s influence, and for him to desire women was not a result of those brushes with passion when he had reached the age of puberty. He simply adored women, above and beyond mere physical. But when it came to Ezra, the man held a passion all his own that Buck never realized until that morning. It was powerful and addicting and Buck wanted to take this as far as the fates would allow.

But Ezra did not seem to share his excitement. The smiles were more polite now. The looks exchanged were those of passing avoidance, on the edge of desire, but then pulling back.

Buck had no idea what was happening with Ezra, but he was determined to find out. Except that he had promised to go with Josiah that night and watch over Chris and Vin’s hidden meeting place, guarding it while the two lovers could finally be together in the way they wanted without fear of being discovered by others in the town.

As the final hand had been played and the rest of the seven peacekeepers left the saloon, Buck scooted his chair closer to Ezra who stacked his bills and counted his coins. “Something wrong, Ez? You got awful quiet this afternoon. You havin’ second thoughts on what happened this morning?”

Ezra gave off an impassioned shrug and forced out a chuckle, both dry and extremely nervous. Buck took note of it and knew then that there was indeed something troubling the gambler. Ezra was too good a bluffer to let his poker face crack like that. “We can discuss if it you want, Ez. I have to go out with ‘Siah for a bit, do a perimeter sweep. With what happened with Phelps, it’s spooked Chris enough to keep a sharper lookout, but after that if you want to meet, I can send JD to Nathan’s room and we can talk.”

Ezra stopped stacking his money and turned to Buck, his green eyes cast in a steely shadow. “Forgive me, Mister Wilmington. What happened this was a mistake. We never should have allowed ourselves to follow through with those deviant thoughts. It was done out of curiosity, nothing else.”

Buck swallowed. He knew what was happening. Ezra was terrified of where this would lead. He had no idea what the next hour would bring, let alone the next day, week, or month down the road. “You didn’t seem to mind it,” Buck whispered, gently. Buck knew how to handle those who spooked easily.

Ezra chuckled again, and took a swig of whiskey from the tumbler before him. “Sir, might I suggest we dispense with this conversation, as I fear it will do more harm than good.” He quickly pocketed his money and finished off the whiskey, setting the empty glass on the table. “Good evening, sir, and have a safe ride.”

Buck watched him carefully as Ezra left the saloon. There was lethargy to the Southerner’s step that was uncharacteristic of Ezra, and not the type that came from drinking too much. Something had landed square on his back and it was more than just what had happened that morning.

Josiah came back through and gestured with his head. “Chris and Vin are mounting up, Buck. You ready?”

Buck stood and put on his hat. He would talk to Ezra later. Right now he would give the gambler what he wanted—room enough to breathe and think things through on his own. Then, Buck would let him have it.


JD stayed with Nathan and Ezra as Buck and Josiah met with Chris and Vin out in the stables. The time was going on
four o'clock
in the afternoon, and it was time to set out for that night's promised encounter.

Buck and Josiah allowed Chris and Vin to head out alone, but promised to bring up the rear and scout around the perimeter of Shepherd's Rock.

On the way to their assigned destination, Josiah brought Buck out of his worried thoughts. “Something happen to Ezra today, Buck? He wasn’t exactly himself at the game this afternoon. Oh, he spoke all right, even tried to pass himself off as being fine, but I’ve seen that man scared before and something has shaken him. He was that way when we went to investigate Phelps’ background. He say anything to you?”

Buck quickly shook his head. "It’s nothing I can put a finger on, ‘Siah," he concluded.

“But you do have your suspicions?” Josiah prodded.

Buck nodded. “Suspicions I need to discuss with Ez first. I’d be stepping over my bounds in confiding them to you at this point.”

Josiah nodded. “Understood, Brother Buck. Understood completely. Just to let you know, though, both you and can come to me with anything.”

Buck grinned. “After what we discovered about Chris and Vin and how you’re handling it, I can say that would be an honest offer, ‘Siah. Thank ya’.”

Josiah grinned. “I’m just surprised it took those two this long to figure it out.”

Buck eyed the preacher skeptically. "Don't tell me you've suspected this would happen all along."

Josiah shrugged as he guided his horse along the trail that led to Marcus' final resting place. "Don't tell me you didn't."

Buck jerked a bit at this. "Well, I reckon I saw it come to life when Marcus took Vin under his wing at Chris' insistence. The two always have had a connection none of the rest of us can understand."

"It's a spiritual thing, Buck. Leave it at that, and let them have this path. No judgments, no condemnation, nothing but us between them and the indignant wrath of closed-minded people. Homer must have seen into the future when writing the Iliad and saw our friends together, possibly even obtaining inspiration for his portrayal of one of the most understated loves in the history of literature. Achilles and Patroclus. May the Gods show favor on their undivided souls."

Buck grinned. "Preach it, 'Siah. Preach it loud."

Josiah looked at him surprised. "I thought I was."

Buck chuckled merrily and Josiah flashed him a grin. "Let's give our friends what they need. Time."

"Right behind you, 'Siah."

The two broke right and kept an eye out for wayward travelers that might take it upon themselves to invade the privacy Chris and Vin sought for that night. And for Buck, it would give him the time he needed to think of how to approach Ezra later that night.


The stream trickled off in the distance as the two lovers made their way to the nearby willow.

Chris pulled Vin close to him, saying nothing, holding him tightly under the weeping branches of the only standing witness to their act of lovemaking. He buried his face deep into Vin's neck and breathed in his musky scent mixed with that of leather and salt. It was no different than the other nights he had held Vin in his arms over the last two months, but this time the heady effects of desire were allowed to breach the summit of their recently forced upon limits.

Vin clutched at Chris, unwilling to release his hold. He plunged his tongue into Chris' mouth, yearning to swallow his lover deep inside of him and never let go.

Eyes filled with lust and hunger, they gazed at each other, and Chris could swear he had never seen a more beautiful sight. The ocean rage of earlier that afternoon had calmed into a pool of sapphire blue, warm and inviting...and as calm as the soul those orbs reflected.

Vin's fingers went to Chris' face, tracing outlines over the cheeks, chin, brow and nose. "You're so dang beautiful, Cowboy," he whispered. "I ache fer ya' so bad I can't find the words to compare it to."

Chris was surprised. "That's gotta be a pretty bad ache if a poet can't make a comparison."

Vin reached up and helped Chris tear off his black jacket. He helped Chris pull off his shirt, and then the gunslinger helped him pull off his.

Their hands roamed over each other's skin, familiar, but still unfamiliar in the wake of this new direction they would be taking that night.

"Nervous?" Chris whispered as he splayed kisses over Vin's neck and shoulders, sucking and biting the flesh his mouth longed to taste.

"Some. You?"

"A bit. Never done this before."

Vin gripped his shoulders and forced him back enough for them to lock eyes. "I have. Does that bother ya'?"

Chris studied Vin's expression. It was hopeful and dreading all at the same time.

Chris smiled warmly and pulled Vin into a kiss that showed he was not the least bothered.

Vin reached down and cupped Chris' hardening organ trapped beneath the cloth of his black jeans.

Chris gasped.

"You're ready," Vin observed.

"Are you?" Chris asked.

"Ya' bring the oil like I asked?"

"By the blanket," Chris answered.

"I'm ready," Vin assured.

He started to make a move for the blanket located a few feet from where they were standing, when Chris grabbed him by the shoulders. "Wait a minute."

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. This." He leaned in and pulled Vin's mouth against his own, forcing his tongue in between his lover's teeth. He grasped on to Vin's back with such force the tracker thought he might suffer bruises.

"I'm not wanting to rush this, Vin. Give me the joy of having this last as long as possible."

Vin put his hands to Chris' face. "You're scared."

"I am."

"Of what? Pain, or hurtin' me?"


"Don't be. You'll enter me first, and I'll tell ya' what to do. Slow and steady is what it's all about, Cowboy. But then, when you're inside me?"


Vin kissed Chris' face as he spoke. "You'll forget all about slow."

Chris held Vin close, burying his face into the willingly offered neck. Vin leaned his head back, allowing his lover complete access.

His hair was long enough to brush over Chris' hands, and the blond allowed the swaying strands to flow over his fingertips, reveling in the feel.

His hands, like so many other times before, brushed over the scars from the lashing Vin had received at Calder's hand; crisscrossed streaks of fading white. He eased Vin around to where the tracker faced the tree, and Chris brushed his lips down Vin's back, kissing every scar, every mark that demon had forced his lover to endure.

"I'm all right, Chris," Vin whispered, his body shivering under the onslaught of Chris' heated breath against his skin.

"I know," Chris whispered back. "But this night...we're forgetting everything in our past, Vin. For every mark on this back, I will make love to you a hundred times. For every ounce of pain he caused, I'll ease the memories with every ounce of love I have for you. This back is mine now, yours to give and mine to enjoy. And I will enjoy it, Vin. Every inch of you."

His lips brushed Vin's hip, and the tracker jumped with a gasp.

Chris smiled. "A bit sensitive there, are ya'?"

"And just where the hell are you sensitive, Larabee? Wait till I find out."

Chris stood and pulled Vin around, his embrace a powerful one, full of fire.

"Let's get to it, then," he said.

Vin grabbed his hands and pulled him along. "Thought ya'd never ask."

Vin crawled onto the blanket and pulled off his boots. He was starting to undo his belt buckle when Chris spread his tracker's legs and got on his knees between them. "Let me," he said.

Vin leaned back on the palms of his hands and smiled. "If ya' insist. Mighty domineering, ain't ya'?"

Chris grinned. "You’re complainin’?"

Vin pulled Chris forward, clamping their mouths together. "Naw, just want you to hurry and get to work, Cowboy. I don't know how much longer I can hold out."

Chris pulled away and started undoing Vin's pants. "Well, if a certain scrawny tracker would stop interrupting me with that damn tempting mouth of his, I might be able to get somewhere."

Vin rolled his eyes. "Never complained about my mouth before."

"Was I complainin'?"

Chris slowly removed the buckle and unbuttoned Vin's pants. He snaked his hand inside and gripped the heated rod that seemingly leapt into his hand, signaling to be set free.

Vin's head lolled back as he groaned with need. "Oh, yeah. Well, Cowboy, pull the gun and cock it, I'm about ready to shoot."

Chris pulled out Vin's cock and smiled. "Like this?" He started pumping the rigid flesh in controlled and methodical strokes.

Vin lied back and spread his hands out, pushing himself into Chris' touch.
"That's it, like that."

His hand came to rest on the vial of oil Chris had brought with him. He lifted it and held it out to Chris. "Slick me on the inside, Cowboy."

Chris took the vial and opened it, never tearing his gaze from Vin's. "We're ready?" he asked, needing reassurance.

"More than ready," Vin replied.

Chris poured some of the oil into his hands and set the vial to the side. He rubbed his palms together causing enough friction to warm up the oily substance.

Vin scooted closer to Chris' bent knees, wrapping his legs around the spot where Chris knelt.

"Stick your fingers in one at a time, Cowboy, like ya' did last night. Coat me real good while ya' stretch me."

"You sure I ain't gonna hurt ya'?" Chris asked.

"Oh, it'll hurt fer the first few minutes, Chris. Always does. But..." he reached out and wrapped his long, slender fingers around Chris' wrist. "With you, it'll be a sweet pain. Trust me."

Chris held that gaze as Vin released him, and he lowered his oiled fingers down to Vin's opening, easing the first finger in and out, letting the oil do its job.

Vin closed his eyes, moaning with contentment. "We’ve made love like this in my dreams, Cowboy."

"You dreamed of this, Vin?"

"Every damn day fer a while now, it seems."

Chris smiled. He never knew Vin had fantasized about this moment. "Ready for the next one?" he asked.

"Mm-hmmm," Vin nodded.

Chris eased the second finger in and felt Vin stretch under his invasion. "Good, Chris," Vin moaned. "Damn good. Now, coat yourself good before you stick the third finger in."

Chris obeyed, following Vin's instructions slowly, savoring the anticipation of what it would feel like to be sheathed into Vin's body, the two of them becoming one.

When his own cock had been readied, he slid the first two fingers in again and then the third.

Vin hitched a breath.


"Don't stop, Chris. Whatever happens, don't stop! You're not doing anything I don't want ya' to do."

"Are you ready for me, Tracker?"

"Ready," Vin ground out.

Chris took his cock and placed the tip to the stretched opening.

"That's it. I can feel it, now. Ease it in slow, Cowboy. Real slow. Wait fer my muscles to relax enough to slide in further. Let me guide ya' with my body, and you guide me with yours."

Chris did as instructed, watching Vin's face, listening to the gasps and moans, hoping he wasn't rushing this.

Finally, when he was two thirds in, Vin surprised him by pushing himself onto Chris the rest of the way.

The grunt the tracker released was loud enough to scare Chris, and he grabbed Vin's arms. "Vin!"

"I'm all right," Vin released with a heavy breath. "Couldn't wait any longer. You'll understand when it's my turn to enter ya'."

Chris breathed out with relief. "Damn. Thought I'd hurt you bad."

"No, Cowboy. If ya' had been hurtin' me, I would've pulled away."

Chris took a moment to feel what was happening. Vin's muscles were clenched tight around his cock. He was finally inside, connected to his lover in the most intimate of ways. "Now?"

Vin nodded. "Now."

Chris slowly pulled out, and then gave a much more forceful push in.

Vin closed his eyes and gripped the blanket with both hands. "Oh, God!" he groaned. "That's it. That's where I need ya'. Each time it'll get easier, Chris.
Now...fuck me. I can feel ya'. Ya' need to fuck me. Just move with the need, now. Let our bodies take it from here."

Chris fell into the depths of the heat that sprung up between the two of them. In moments he was in a synchronous rhythm with Vin as though he had been born to move with his lover's body. It was different than with a woman, there was no doubt about that. But with Vin it didn't matter what the differences were.

There was equality in the act. Equality in the desire. Equality in the knowledge of where to touch, how to bring release.

He and Vin were every sense of the word.

And Vin wanted him inside, wanted him to invade his body, to take possession of him. Vin willingly gave his trust and body in such a way as to pierce the gunman's heart afresh. The tracker's long and lean legs wrapped around Chris' waist, pushing him to further invasion.

Vin's cries for more were not cries of pain but of pleasure, of want and need and craving. And Chris was the source to allay that craving, to appease that hunger.

"Oh, God!" Vin shouted as Chris increased his rhythm. Both men listened to each other's bodies, using their instincts to mold each other into one complete soul.

Chris never felt anything like this. It was heaven, and he felt like he could fly. His tracker was as pliable as clay in his hands. He held out his hands and Vin's fingers hooked through his.

"That's it," Vin encouraged. "Now, stroke me!"

Chris pulled one hand away only to wrap around his lover's sex, stroking it in time with his thrusts.

Vin shut his eyes, arching his neck moaning with unbridled depth. "Chris!" he breathed out.

Chris felt his cock fill to almost bursting as Vin's clenching muscles stimulated him.

Vin was hot and tight and soon both men lost their minds into the white heat of passion's urgent cry, the world and all its dangers were obliterated in a wave of glorious release.

Chris held his breath, felt his release flow into Vin's body as Vin's cum spurt over his hand.

Vin's body clenched with spasm, and his skin was covered in a masterful sheen of sweat. His color was flushed with his body's instinctual need to land safely onto solid ground.

And Chris gazed upon him with wonder and desire. His heart was full of this young man, and he pulled Vin into his arms, both of them falling into a longing kiss that sealed what they had done into the annals of universal time.

Vin fell against his lover, spent and exhausted but unwilling to move from Chris' arms, and unwilling to disconnect from his lover's body.

"Cowboy," he whispered.

Chris held him tightly, "That was..."

"Worthy of your damn reputation," Vin finished.

Chris chuckled, kissing Vin on the temple. "Did I shoot too fast?"

"Nope. Your aim was deliberate and on the mark, Larabee."

Chris nestled his lips against Vin's sweating neck, tasting the salt and desiring to suck more from his tracker's skin. "Guess I'll have to target practice with you more often," he whispered as he ran his tongue over Vin's neck up to the tracker's ear lobe where he gently tugged at it with his teeth.

Vin grinned, running his hands through Chris' hair. Kissing his lover's shoulder, neck and face.

"God, if this night could last forever," he whispered.

"It will in our memories, Vin."

Vin's eyes caught sight of Marcus' grave, and he closed his eyes. "Always," he replied.

And for the next few hours, they simply reveled in each other's bodies, communicating with touch rather than words.

And with that silence, came the peace of being watched over and protected by the ghost of a man who had become their sainted angel over this sacred spot.

Thank ya', Marcus, Vin thought. Thank ya' fer understandin'.


Ezra was on his way to a good drunk, standing at the bar in the hotel dining room, asking for a bottle of whiskey and paying for it in full. “I believe, I shall take this to my room,” he informed the barkeep who just shook his head. “You never get drunk, Mister Standish. Are you sure, you’re all right?”

Another man stepped up to stand next to Ezra. “Of course he is, ain’t ya’, Standish?” Eddie “Powder” Pitch said. “Just having a rough day at the Poker table, ain’t that right?” He grinned at the barkeep. “I’ll take care of him. Help him up to his room, I will.”

Ezra peered up at him with bleary eyes. “You, sir, are not someone I wish to keep company with.”

“Oh, is that right? Think you’re too good for the likes of me is that it?”

Ezra reached into his coat pocket and brought out a folded piece of paper. “You wrote this note, didn’t you? I recognize the scrawl from the I.O.U.’s you wrote me. No signature, but this has your name written all over it.”

Powder glared at him. “That’s right, Standish. You have the money?”

“Five-thousand dollars? No, sir. I do not have that kind of money.”

“You’re a yellow-bellied liar, Standish. Someone who cheats people out of their money has to have at least that much stashed somewhere.”

“I never cheat, sir,” Ezra slurred, swaying on his feet as he poured another slug of whiskey down his throat. “I bluff, I con...but...I never cheat, especially at cards. I don’t need to.”

“I see, so you ain’t going to pay the money I asked for?”

Ezra shrugged, waving his arms out, whiskey from the bottle sloshing out onto the floor. “Even if I did have that much money, sir, I would not grace your greasy lazy hands with it.”

“I see. Then you don’t give a damn about your reputation...or

“There is nothing to protect, sir. We did nothing wrong. You...are the liar.”

Off to the side, Nathan and JD watched this exchange from their dinner table, both uncertain what was happening or why, although JD had his suspicions. “Powder must be trying to get Ezra into another hand of Poker, knowing that if Ezra is drunk he might stand a better chance at winning back some of his money.”

But Nathan was not convinced. “I’m not certain that’s it, JD. Powder looks to be a bit too intense.” Nathan felt a coldness shoot through his body. He’d seen the look on Powder’s face many times before, from many different men. Powder was about to shed blood and it looked like the blood would be Ezra’s.

Nathan quickly got up from his chair, but he was not fast enough. “JD!” He called, and knocked his chair down, trying to get to Ezra. “EZZZZZZRRRRRAAAAAAAA!”

Powder pulled his gun. Nathan dove at him.

Powder aimed.

Nathan crashed into him, but the bullet fired and Ezra clutched his side, the whiskey bottle dropping to the floor and shattering.

JD scurried out of his chair. “NNNNNOOOOOOOO!”

Nathan wrestled Powder to the ground, other men helped him. Soon Powder’s gun was taken away from him, and he was held fast by two men as Nathan hurried to Ezra’s side.

Ezra looked up at him, his face pale, blood forming an increasing red stain on his white shirt. “Tell...Mister Wilmington...I’m sorry.” And then he closed his eyes.

Nathan quickly checked for a heartbeat. “He’s still alive, just unconscious. JD! Help me get him to the clinic! We have to move fast! He’s loosing too much blood.”


Buck and Josiah watched as Chris and Vin rode past them on their way back to town, as the light of the full moon stretched across the sky.

Buck had to smile. "I know the way Chris gaits his horse, ‘Siah." he commented as he stood from where he’d been sitting at the base of a tree and mounted his horse.

"And?" the larger man asked as he tightened his cinch and mounted alongside.

Buck smiled. "Nothing, really.’s been forever since I saw Chris look so damn happy."

Josiah tilted his head in that thoughtful way of his. He grinned and started his horse after Chris and Vin. “Best not let them get too far ahead. We need to catch up to them.”

"Josiah?" Buck asked as he moved his horse next to the larger man.


"You ever seen two know...kiss?"

"As a matter of fact, I have,” Josiah replied as they started riding after their two friends. “Why?”

"What did you feel?"

"Surprised at first, but then I thought of Galations
and reality sort of set me in place."

"What does Galations

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female...for we are all one Christ Jesus."

"What does that mean?"

"It means, Brother Buck, that the physical doesn't mean shit when it comes to the spiritual."

Buck turned thoughtful as he pondered this revelation.

"But society don't share your views, 'Siah."

"Maybe not. But as long as I have my own views on the matter, I don't give a fuck what society says. Chris and Vin are happy. And if that is a sin to the eyes of society's God, then that God...I can do without."

Buck rode up to him turned thoughtful, wondering if he should tell Josiah about what had happened between him and Ezra that morning, but with Ezra uncertain where it would lead, that left Buck uncertain as well. He decided to not say anything until he was certain. "Amen, Brother," Buck replied, quietly and the two urged their horses into a canter, Chris and Vin just a few lengths ahead of them.


JD sat at his desk, listening to Powder piss and moan about how Ezra had stolen from him and he was just trying to get his money back. How Ezra had cheated him. How Ezra had taken from him all his money, his job, and there was nothing left.

JD didn’t respond. He sat there and checked, re-checked, then re-checked again the bullets in his revolver. He stared at Powder and wondered how was it a man could constantly blame those around him rather than take responsibility for his own actions.

He sighed and looked at the clock. “Travis will be here by the morning stage, Powder. You can take it up with him. You were stupid, you know, pulling your gun in front of all those witnesses.”

“Well...he made me mad!” Powder argued. “I didn’t think about it at the time.”

“Seems to me you hardly ever think about anything, but you just act without using your brain. Your nickname stands true even now, Powder.”

The clock struck
nine o’clock
and Chris, Vin, Josiah and Buck had still not returned. Nathan had been with Ezra since the shooting three hours ago. He’d gotten the bullet out, but was not very optimistic about the gambler’s chances. He’d lost quite a lot of blood and there was still the danger of infection to worry about.

JD holstered his gun and stood. He went to the door of the jailhouse and looked up and down the street, searching for some sign of the others. And when he saw Buck’s bay canter down, with the others at his side, JD hurried out to inform them all of what had happened.

Buck quickly dismounted and grabbed JD’s shoulders. “Where is he?”

“The clinic. Nathan and Mary finished working on him about a half hour ago.”

Buck handed him the reins to his horse and quickly ran down the street to the clinic.

The others dismounted and went to tie their horses at a nearby hitching post. “JD, where’s Powder now?” Chris asked.

“Got him locked up and I wired Travis. He said he would be in town tomorrow afternoon.”

“Good man.” With that they all followed after Buck, Chris and Vin exchanging glances. “Can’t be connected to Calder,” Vin assured. “Man was acting on his own, I’m sure of it.”

“We’ll see. First Phelps shows up and now this? I’m betting it’s not a coincidence.”

They hurried up the steps to the clinic only to see Buck storm through the door first.


Buck’s first sight was Nathan on a chair by the bed. And on the bed was Ezra, unconscious and very...very...pale. “Nathan?” Buck asked, his throat as dry as sand. “How is...”

Buck slowly walked over to the bed and gazed down on the sleeping face of the man he had so recently grown to care for.

Nathan shook his head and rubbed a hand over his weary face. “I got the bullet out, but he lost a lot of blood. I’m not sure he’ll be strong enough to ward off infection should it come.”

Buck swallowed. “I’ll watch him for you. You need to go tell the others, stretch your legs.”

Nathan stood. “I’ll be close-by, Buck. Just call out. There’s water and rags on the stand. Keep him warm, and his face cool.”

Buck took his station on the other side of the bed and kept his eyes on Ezra’s pale features. “I’ve never seen him this quiet before, Nathan,” Buck whispered. “What was the damage?”

“Had to stitch up a few arteries, why he lost so much blood, but...” Nathan shook his head. “Not sure, Buck. I just ain’t that good a doctor.”

Buck looked up at him. “You’re the best we got, Nathan, and you done pulled a lot of bullets out of all of us. If anyone can do right by Ezra, it’s you. Go get some air and stretch a bit.”

Nathan nodded his agreement and headed for the door where he looked out the window to see the others waiting on the catwalk. “Buck?”

Buck looked at him. “Yeah?”

Nathan reached for Ezra’s coat. He pulled out a folded piece of paper, stained with Ezra’s blood. “I didn’t read this, but it was addressed to him by the hand of the man who shot him.” He walked over and handed Buck the note. “I think this is why Powder went after him.”

Buck hesitantly took the note. “Thanks, Nathan.”

Nathan nodded again and walked out of the clinic, quietly closing the door after him.

Buck unfolded the note and read the words:

No bout you and Wilmingtin. To keep quit, it’ll cost you 5,000.00. If you don pay, I tell the tire town.”

Buck’s hands trembled. “Oh, God,” he muttered. He turned to a kerosene lamp and quickly stuck the note into the flame, where it flashed for a moment before turning to ash.

He went to Ezra’s side and took the man’s hand, giving it a tender squeeze. “Ez, listen to me. It’s Buck. I want you to listen to me, now. Nothing is going to happen. Powder can’t touch us. I swear it. I won’t let this go any further than it’s gone.” He reached out and brushed Ezra’s sweaty hair from his pallid brow. “You gotta know I would never want it to endanger either of us. Don’t worry none about anything. I’ve got it all under control.”

Anger, guilt and fear swarmed through Buck’s soul and he pulled Ezra’s hand to his brow and shut his eyes. “For the love of God, Ez, I’m so fuckin’ sorry. You gotta believe me. Please, believe me.”

And it surprised Buck when he felt the sting of tears fill his eyes. How could he have grown to care for this man so strongly in such a short time?


(TBC in Parts 9-10)

Click here for Parts 9-11 (ignore the TBC note above.)

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