Magnificent Seven Slash, The Runaway by Raven Davies

Chapter XII

Walking their horses down the carriage-wheel rutted path, Vin scanned every inch of the ranch: the fresh grass, the quivering aspen, a few spruce and pine, and the neat row of fencing on one side that enclosed a small paddock for Peso, the Black, and their two new horses. They reached the top of a rise in the trail and stopped. The tracker looked down at the enlarged house, the small shed, and a good-sized barn for four to six horses. He smiled in amazement, whistling with an expulsion of surprised air. The ranch had grown since he left, and marveled at everything that Chris had accomplished before setting out on his search. Now the gunman offered him this safe haven, a paradise to be sheltered and loved.

Larabee turned to look at the upturned mouth beside him, and a large smile spread across his own face. "Happy, Vin?"

The tracker retained his shy grin while he nodded. He could not put words to the overwhelming feeling of loneliness dissipating, and the heavy burden on his shoulders lifting. His lover had built him a secure hideout, including a place of shelter for Peso and Chico, a place he could isolate himself when desired, and a place he could call home beside Chris.

"Looks bigger."

"Added several rooms, fenced in a portion of the pasture, and a barn for the horses on rainy days and cold nights. I see Josiah fulfilled his promise."

"What promise?"

"Think Nathan knew, a long time ago, that we'd finally reach this point. He took me aside one day, after you left, and suggested Josiah add a river rock fireplace and give the house more stability with stone and stucco. Appears the two men worked very hard, while I hunted for you. Look, you can see the chimney from here."

"Why would I have something to do with your house?"

"Josiah told me how many times you showed up at the church, soaking wet and freezing, looking for someplace a little warmer than the livery. Spent too many cold nights alone, Vin."

"He weren't supposed to say nothing."

"Well, I'm glad he did. Always wondered and worried about your nomadic living arrangements; and your wagon scared the life out of me. Gave me nightmares of a bounty hunter torching it while you slept; and you know how fearful I am about fires. Now you'll have a safe fireplace and a stove to keep you warm. Maybe you won't feel so bad about living this far north."

"You cared that much, and I messed it up."

"You're here now; that's all that matters. We'll only stay a short time, but it will be a place to return to on occasion, if JD and Casey agree to the contract I've been drafting."

"Got something else to keep me warm too." Vin chuckled lightly, turning his gaze toward his companion.

"And what might that be?" Chris looked at the man from under the brim of his black hat. Besotted with this courageous young man, Larabee knew Vin would adapt to the many changes they would face.

"A tall, blond, dangerous gunslinger, I happen to know real intimate like, always keeps me warm." Tanner turned and blinked those seductive blue eyes at the taller man.

"You do get my blood stirring, Tanner. Reminds me of something else Josiah promised. Better check it out."

The two weary men silently unsaddled their horses, brushed all four down, and leaned against the fence to watch the dance. Two black horses and two pale-colored ones loped through the long grass, kicking up their heels, and rolling in the sweet, wild flowers, and the heavenly scent of lush green foliage. A long trek, Peso and Chico would grow stronger with good feed, and Larabee's black gelding once again contented himself to be home, his nose plunged deep into the fragrant fresh meadow with the others.

"Time for us, Button. Tacks away, horses are happy, evening's falling, and I think we should try out the new fireplace." Chris took Vin's hand and together they strolled slowly toward the house, turning around to take one last look at the sun that had shone down on a very special day. Slipping behind the smaller man, the gunslinger wrapped his strong arms around the slight figure and laced their fingers together, embracing his returned runaway from the back, pulling him tightly against his chest. "The ranch is now a home instead of a shack, Vin. We may be sorry to leave it."

"Can't thank you enough for sharing it with me."

They watched and fell into the dream they saw before them. A sunset of magnificent colors allowed the tracker the open space and bright skies he coveted. Chris felt the man's tension ease as he nuzzled his face into the tracker's neck; and the returned runaway leaned back against him, enjoying the quiet calm of early evening, serenaded by the katydids, crickets, and frogs in the nearby pond, and the haunting whispers of the breeze fluttering the aspens silver. The vista was breathtaking; and it was home.

Gently picked up as if he weighed nothing, it took Vin by surprise, although happy enough to reach around and put his arms loosely around Chris' neck. "What's this, Cowboy? If you keep sweeping me off my feet, you're back's going to be worse than mine."

"Another romantic gesture, just like your ring and bracelet."

"What are you talking about?"

"Crossing the threshold."

"Never heard about this. Is this something white-folk due on a regular basis?"

"Put a ring on your finger today, and as per tradition, the bride is carried over the threshold of her new home for the first time. Seems the appropriate thing to do; if I can get you through the damn door."

"Okay with me. Was getting tired anyway, but I ain't no bride. Do you think JD can lift Casey over this step?" Vin laughed, thinking Chris was overdoing the romance; but he enjoyed the attention enough to let it slide.

"JD may be short, but he's heavier than you, and currently stronger. He'll have no problem lifting and swinging someone so very, very small. At sixteen, she's a fully-grown woman now, but their kids are going to be tiny. Hope Mr. Dunne's old enough to take on the responsibility." Larabee continued to muse over the diminutive couple that delighted him in their exuberance.

"JD's old enough. He's twenty-one."

Surprised at the age of a man that the gunslinger thought no more than eighteen, however, the statement of years gave Chris a thought of making a discovery of his partner's secret. "He told you that? Do you think he was pulling your leg?"

"Nope, he looked me square in the eye, and said it plain as day, without hesitating. Can read a man when he's lying to me."

"Thought he'd be a lot younger than you." Chris looked away, wondering if Vin would finally tell him.

"Yeah, he's younger and you're older. Wish you'd stop asking my age, since I don't know myself."

The gunslinger laughed and easily carried the lightweight up the three steps, and with a little struggle, managed to open the door. He walked through and gently stood Vin on the floor to survey his new abode. Staring in awe at the latest editions to the house, it suited Tanner as much as it did Chris, who he watched light the prepared firewood and a few lanterns. Josiah's faith brought them home safely; Nathan's intuition rallied the seven to help a friend build a real house; and the gunman closed his eyes and gave thanks to all five men who participated in the venture, with little understanding of what they were building.

"Sure is nice, Larabee. Like all these colorful blankets. Looks real comfy. Sure has changed from the old shack it once was."

"Hope so. Had you in mind when I purchased the decorations from Sha-nu's people. When I left, I had started and had almost finished the rock walls and wooden floor, but Josiah and company did a good job of finishing it and making it look good."

"He's done that all right. Feels like we've been here a long time. This is my first real home, Chris, that wasn't a tent or cave. Intend to enjoy it while we're here, but two months isn't long enough to make it our home. Casey has to do her share when we leave." Spoken with such quiet innocence, the gunman could not help feel saddened by the young man's past life. Of all the people he could have loved, he chose the one who would appreciate anything given to him. Larabee would not allow his partner's vulnerability to change, keeping his easy flowing nature to run free, and teaching him to trust again. It was imperative.

"Built it especially for you. For now it's yours as well, and whatever you don't like, change it."

"Wished I'd known before I got everything so mixed up in my head. Feel real stupid about all the things I blamed y'all for."

"Listen, Vin. After all the things the seven of us have been through, no one thought about how it affected each of us, until you left. We all felt that a member of the family went missing. Scared us, Peyote Button."

"Family, hunh? Reckon we are in a way."

"Feels right with you, Vin Tanner. If anything ever happens to me, you'll always have the other five. You remember that; remember that always. Now, before we see the last surprise, let's get this trail dust off and go for a swim. Those frogs might enjoy some company."

"Suits me just fine. Wouldn't mind a dip in some cold water. I hope Mr. and Mrs. Dunne do the same thing, and stop waiting a whole month to fully bathe."

"Perfect to wake us up after a very long day, and I know those two usually end up playing in the water. Come on, you're the one who goes skinny dipping every sunrise, even in winter."

"How did you know?"

"You're not the only scout in the territory."

"Had to be you, or that busy body JD."

"Me, and I certainly enjoyed watching my favorite wildlife playing in the water."

"There's a word for people who peek at others in their private moments. Could have you arrested. I'm use to hot summer days under Mexican skies, not remembering the nights. Makes the dark time here feel real cold. I'd forgotten. Do we have a bath tub?" Vin's eyes darted about, finding the location of each special treasure Larabee had found; and Josiah had set in the appropriate place. It did not stop him from stripping off his clothes along with Chris. They took some soap and blankets, and headed for the pond. It was chilly, but gloriously invigorating, as they swam, laughed, splashed, and giggled like a couple of kids, until the sun slipped behind the aspens, sprinkling two bronzed bodies with flickers of fading light. They quickly scrambled out, wrapped themselves in blankets, and headed for the house.

"That was the tub, Vin. Now the second surprise, a thorough investigation of the rest of the house. Let's see if it's big enough."

"Thought that door led out back, but it leads to a hallway with a bunch of doors. Reckoned this one room plenty big for the two of us." Vin followed his half-naked lover into the new addition.

"Have a look at our new bed. Rather be under the covers, warm and curled up in a feather bed with you, than being outside getting eaten alive by skeeters."

Tanner peered at the four-poster structure and grinned his wickedest. "Yup, the bed is plenty big enough. Bet Josiah jumped on it to make sure it don't squeak. Sure is a big room, Larabee!"

Chris laughed, thrilled with the double-sized bed, and certainly glad of the addition of a door to hide their sleeping arrangements from prying eyes, particularly during the day. A second bedroom, with two smaller beds, hid behind the second door across the hallway. One of those beds would always look slept in, to avoid anyone wondering where the tracker slept. He smiled to himself, happy the plan of the house would work, and a guest room awaited them on their visits to Four Corners. A contract for Mr. And Mrs. Dunne required further compiling, and part of the conditions would include a free rent agreement for the newly-weds and always a waiting room for the soon to be drifters. Continuing the tour, he showed Vin two more empty rooms that could have provided accommodation for any of the other five, but now deemed appropriate for a nursery and children. With the house explained, as well as the deal to be offered to JD, Chris emphasized the fact that the home and its contents would continue to be in his name as owner; however, the land would be turned over to the Dunne family as their own property to farm. Saying too much, and too quickly, the gunman finally turned his attention to Vin for his approval. The mystified tracker stood shivering from the cold or shock, but Larabee also felt chilled from their swim. "To the fire, Mr. Tanner. I'll get a towel for your hair."

The young man wandered over to the fireplace. A soft clean buffalo rug stretched in front of it, covered with pillows and blankets. It felt like a place he once lived in long ago, somewhere in New Mexico or Texas, never sure which side of an invisible line his band wandered, as they followed the buffalo. The hide he now sat on brought back distant memories of his Kiowa fathers, and the fun he heard from their laughs and grunts under the heavy pelt.

Chris returned, sat down, and wrapped his long legs around Vin's body from behind, to dry the long, tangled mop of hair. As the fire blazed and cast eerie shadows about the cozy room, the gunslinger started another of his habits, taking his finger and twisting a long strand around it, letting it drop into a curl. Then another strand, then another, until Vin's hair shone dry and waved down his back. Now naked, warm, and dry in front of the fire, their chills disappeared, while the crackling sound relived a hundred campfires, only the moon and stars were missing. Chris pulled his partner in closer, breathing a scent that intoxicated him like nothing ever experienced. Just the smell of Vin inebriated him faster than chugging down a full bottle of whiskey. He pulled the tracker's hair to one side, exposing the long, thin neck, perfect for kissing and nibbling. The blond did both, and the attention to his love initiated a soft moan at each bite, caress, and suck. "Promise me, you'll never cut your hair, Button."

"Like yours longer too." The tracker's neck arched further back; and the blue eyes closed in the rapture of gentleness.

"Tonight, I'm going to spoil you, rubbing all the pain and aches away. Our first night home, I dreamed of only holding you close, keeping you safe and warm."

"Hoped for more than that." A slight groan ensued with the request and Vin continued to lean into the warmth of a notorious man.

"I'll make love to you, but love ain't just sex, Vin. Want you to feel you belong right here, in our home, in my arms."

"I'd like that. I'm real tired, and it's been a real bad day, except for this ring, and I guess the money."

"We mended some fences today."

"Reckon so."

"Stretch out and let me get that oil your old curandera gave you for aching muscles and bruises. Just want you to lie quietly; dreaming dreams of all the things you want to do."

"The money scares me, Chris. Don't think I want it." Vin lay on his stomach, cradled his chin in his crossed arms, and stared at the fire.

"We'll find a bigger bank in a larger city and let it sit there. Have money of my own, Vin, and we'll need some to track down Ella." To irresistible to leave alone, Chris rolled him over, sat him up, and kissed him. Both mouths softened and opened to take in the taste of the other; the taste and the smell of each that excited them both; the touch and the sight that awakened their sensuality and sexuality; and the union of their souls merging into one. "I love you, Vin Tanner." The mouth breathed between the younger man's lips; and the tracker purred in acceptance, the vibration of his hum tickling Chris. The kiss became the night, and the night became eternity, with all its secrets and pleasures revealed. Each had come to know the other's body intimately, as they explored and fondled every inch, finding funny little places that would make one shiver, another tiny spot that would cause hysterical giggling, and all those pleasure points that they never knew existed. Both had made unique discoveries about each other, while they continually touched and played in their passion over the past months. Now, a lingering kiss, with one naked body lying on top of the other, fulfilled their fantasies.

Vin's pleasures and comfort lay in the small of his back, his point of frenzy just inside his cavern of delight. The simple sliding of Chris' hands spread around his torso, stroking down his sides, caused an immediate thrust and push of his hips. When softly stroked with feather-like kisses, the inside of his thighs would quiver, and shake so severely, he would come almost instantly. Playing with his pole, even just a hand on his crotch through his pants, as they sat quietly, had him hard in seconds. Touching any part of him gave Vin the extreme adoration he needed; increasing the heat and his arousal, but also making him feel part of someone else. The palate, the sensual roof of his mouth, made him purr and growl in anticipation of more, becoming savage as he clawed and scratched, turning a gentle kiss into a fever of passion, while attempting to devour his lover. All these sensations created a raging wildcat out of a passive man, igniting every inch of the sensitive tracker, until he could no longer hold back a groan of pure uninhibited rapture. Larabee had replaced the peyote, and would forever. The beautiful colors, scents, and haunting visions all came through the gunslinger's crystal-green eyes, and Vin would open his own to gaze into the hypnotic affect when the man made love to him. He had watched the stars dance between his legs, and the colors of the rainbow sparkle around his head at every new touch. Like his peyote vision, Vin saw Chris in everything, and it sent him adrift knowing the gunslinger wanted him, enhancing his excitement. No more ghosts and strange creatures to attack him, only the smell and feel of this dangerous, volatile man filled his daydreams and those special visions in the night.

Larabee hungered for Vin orally; his tongue, mouth, fingers, and hard snake his instruments of pleasure, always licking, nibbling, caressing a body from the wavy hair to the tip of the toes. The gunslinger would suck on anything, and his hands never stopped petting and massaging, stroking and teasing each vulnerable spot found in and on his tracker. Lavishing Vin's engorged pole with his tongue swirling around it, while he thrust his fingers into the man, stroking and soothing with long, delicate motions in search of Vin's fancy, and teasing it beyond the tracker's endurance, was the gunman's ultimate satisfaction. Each time he succeeded, in sending the young man into a frenzy that peyote could never intensify, Chris sweated in fevered pleasure, just at the feel of the small round protrusion, so moist, so delicate. If he could only taste and lick it, and it was not for lack of trying, would be an unobtainable and desired goal. He could almost swallow Vin's lance, and even managed to fill his mouth with the hard sensitive balls, but it did not match his lust to taste that inner point of his lover's orifice, which he could only reach with his fingers or shaft.

Chris wallowed in magical moments of watching a young, active cock grow hard, showing textured veins turning purple, as they filled with blood, stretching and forcing it to its full length and width. Easily done with a single touch to the pressure point, he would push the smooth area between the silken sac and the front of the treasured cavern, forcing Vin's manhood to move uncontrollably on the sunken stomach, and making the wild organ dance just for him, while oozing the tracker's life-giving essence over his convulsing body. Looking up, enticements presented themselves, with nipples hardening, protruding to bedazzle the gunman with their color of precious garnets. The mouth--the succulent mouth that always surprised him--Chris' own mouth never felt the burning sensation of need that Vin's lips required when the younger man filled with lustful passion. Even the first blush of Tanner's cheeks awakened the handsome blond to fulfill his own needs, until the gaunt face grew pale under the strain of spilling creamy liquid. The pure rapture of skin against skin, covered with sticky sweat and cum, had the gunman pressed tightly against the smaller man whose excitement intensified with every new sensation discovered. Any physical contact, which would turn the younger man into a mass of hysterical moaning and writhing, was powerful enough for Larabee to become aroused. Just in the feel, just in the taste, just in the smell, had the gunslinger reeling; and it took even less time for his lover. The tracker also had learned how to suck and fondle Chris in his favorite ways, repeating his actions until the older man's heart readied itself to jump out of its chest casing. Having his cock down so deep in Vin's throat, Chris started seeing visions; and the once innocent younger man never failed to drain him dry of his life's force.

The gunslinger knew instantly when the young man wanted to be taken. It would start with the simple playing of hand games that signaled Vin wanted to play, since asking directly was not his way. Chris learned very quickly the subtlety and shyness of his lover when it came to initiating sex. Certainly not a man to brace against a wall and start ramming; love-making had to start gently or in spontaneous fun, and increase at its own pace to an intensity and euphoria that had Vin begging for harder and faster. With the older man's experience, he always came up with something new and even more erotic for Tanner who could turn simple love into a ravishment of cataclysmic proportions.

They both knew the other instinctively and intuitively, and the intense kiss continued until they had to stop for air. They had both come several times, just with the thought of each other during one intense caress. Both men lay spent in front of the fire; panting and sweating, but still so tight together, nothing could break the bond. Chris' crotch rubbed against the ebbing cock of his lover, spilling the last of his creamy fluid onto the man. He looked down into a sea of blue, sparkling with satisfaction with only a kiss and a caress.

"Lord love us, since nobody else will. If this is love and sworn vows, Cowboy, I can barely stand it." Vin gasped for air that his ailing lungs could barely handle.

"Didn't think that was possible, but I thought something as gentle as a peck on the mouth would satisfy us. Knew you were tired, but what you do to me is indescribable."

"Wanted you tonight, Cowboy. Reckon I got you."

"You did that all right. Just the thought of you, and I'm dizzy with fever."

"Think I'll dream of you all night, and send the last of the Devil's demons back to their burning fire."

Chris laughed and helped him off the floor. Hand-in-hand, they entered the bedroom. The new bed beckoned, looking luxurious and welcoming to the two weary trail men, and Vin moaned as he crawled between the sheets and gloried in the softness, experiencing another new sensation.

Walking over to the wall cabinet, Chris pulled out a couple of nightshirts, retrieved the forgotten oil to ease Vin's aches and pains, and to help him drift off, which would probably not take long this night. With his lover happy and feeling better, he covered his hands, rubbing them together, and then gently slid them over every part of the thin body that excited him beyond anything he had previously experienced. The lightness of butterfly wings started at Vin's forehead, down his neck to his chest, across his non-existent stomach, caressing his crotch and the pink cock, now soft and harmless. A hint of peach fuzz showed for the first time, and he ran the back of his hand up one cheek to find another light dusting. Larabee's curiosity grew, but became distracted by the red kick marks on the man's knees and shins. They received special care with a gentler caress. Far too tired emotionally and physically to become aroused, Chris smiled wistfully down at the exhausted tracker he would satisfy on many other occasions. Tonight had been a once-in-a-lifetime kiss, and he would remember the thrill of it until he died. It had been their moment in time.

Vin rolled over lazily for the promised massage of his curved back. Closing his eyes, Chris recalled every bone, tendon, and muscle. The pleasure started to rekindle inside him, but he succeeded in subduing the wanton monster into a limp pouch between his legs. He felt the younger man sigh, quietly slipping away. After long sweeping strokes up the aching back, the gunslinger once again turned the sleepy man over, to place a warm nightshirt of blue flannel over the mass of tangled hair, pulling the strands out from under the collar, and then sweeping the soft material down the body that felt too cold. Larabee had already donned one of pinstriped cotton.

"Ain't we getting a might civilized." The lazy, sleepy whisper rattled the ailing lungs.

"Besides keeping you warm and making you look so damn cute, you never know who might come busting in here without knocking." Chris smiled serenely, wondering if he should try again. He wanted to, but hearing the breathing problems of his partner vanquished the thought.

"Now, I am scared. Where's my gun?" The tracker sat up, searching the room for his sawed-off Winchester.

"Beside you, just under the bed for emergencies. The doors and windows are bolted. You're safe Button, and there's always a gun under my pillow."

"Good, wouldn't want to be caught doing something we ain't supposed to do; but remember who's sleeping beside you, if you're toting a revolver, Cowboy."

"Habit, Vin, like your knife I put under your pillow." Chris chuckled, while slipping into bed and pulling fresh sheets and warm blankets over them. His lover immediately snuggled into his waiting arms and placed his head on the older man's chest. The gunslinger, as had become his custom, stroked and petted the splendid head of hair. The color of the childish eyes dazzled him in the lamplight, as they began to close with Larabee's soft mutterings. "Have to ask you something, Vin. I haven't seen you shave in weeks, perhaps ever, and tonight I finally felt a little peach fuzz, nesting your privates. For a time, you had the faintest dark stubble on your face, but that's gone and you're smooth as satin."

"Getting mighty personal there, Larabee. Kiowa secret; and I reckon it's time to do it again."

"Are you going to tell me?"

"Nope. Don't you like me hairless, or do you prefer scratchy stubble?"

"Honestly? I like you smooth all over."

"Good, then don't ask again."

"You do keep one guessing. Sleep, Vin; we have an exciting journey ahead of us."

"So, you'll stay with me, and we'll go hunting for Ella."

"We'll plan another expedition, Vin, but this last one damn near killed me; and I could do with a two-month rest as planned. I have the money to venture wherever she's hiding, but I care about your health before leaving to find her. You know you're strong enough to beat this, and your curandera certainly taught you well. It'll just take a little time. As for your money, you'll figure it out in time, and make a sound decision."

"After all the talking we did, you never told me anything about your past. How did you end up with money and where is it? Sure don't spend much." Vin continued to warm with the heat of his lover.

"You'll get the short version, or you'll fall asleep on me. I was born into money, spent many years in private schools, but left home when I was sixteen because my father couldn't control a rebellious son. Since I was an only child, I inherited everything when he died. His lawyers took a long time trying to find me, considering I had headed into the far reaches of the West, learning ways to survive. A trained marksman, like you, although not as good, I made enough to wander wherever I pleased. I liked the freedom, but everything changed the day I met Sarah. The timing seemed perfect, as news of my father's death and my inheritance became official. Sold his business and house in Lexington, Kentucky, before rumors of war started, and bought my own spread for Sarah and me. I still hold title to the tobacco plantation, which is still doing well, having survived the war. Let my only surviving uncle run the house, the plantation, and the new racing stables; and he still does. Much younger than my father, and very gifted with thoroughbreds, considering he brought a stallion and two mares over from England, where horseracing is a very popular betting sport, Uncle Frank managed to hide these rare animals from both armies, and is now breeding them with mares as far away as Maryland. He's done well, with the restoration of the plantation after the war, and with new venues for racing created in the East, we hope to have qualifiers amongst our herd. That's all there is, nothing more, except we have another place to live in the bluegrass hills of Kentucky."

"I'll be damned. It took me days to tell you everything, and you ramble off your life story in less than a hare's minute. Did the war ruin the plantation, or did it survive."

"We were lucky, Vin. Lexington and surrounding areas took a beating, but apparently the tobacco saved much of the destruction of the estate, considering the generals and officials, on both sides, needed their cigars more than they wanted to burn the place down. Sold the business and the house just at the right time, before all hell broke loose, and the banks closed. Safely tucked away, my money wasn't used to finance either side. We never had slaves, so I guess the Union Army left us be, for the most part, only setting up the occasional camp to fight off Confederate raiders, stealing valuables to finance whatever army had won that day, and ransacking our larder and horse feed." Chris had finished his story and his life now promised many possible places to settle with Vin.

"Did you fight for the Union side?" Tanner continued his questions, as his friends had taken sides and were wary of each other in the beginning of their adventures. Standish joined the Confederacy; Jackson had escaped his slavery and helped the injured Union soldiers; and JD, although young, also aided the North as a messenger in the large city where he and his mother lived.

"Buck and I were busy with the ranch, and the armies needed cattle. So far west of the battles, it just didn't seem like my business. We helped both sides by sending fresh meat for the forces, and that's all we did. They paid very little for what they received, but we understood the men fighting and the folks in the large cities needed food. That's all they wanted, and if either of us left to take up arms, their supply line would have broken; at least from our part of the country. Sarah managed the ranch while Buck and I worked as drovers when the time came each year for such action. Felt badly for the slaves and would have fought for them, but our contribution seemed just as important." Larabee left his feelings at that, not wishing to undergo an interrogation by any of his friends for making money off the war.

"Makes sense. The Kiowa didn't want me fighting over something none of us knew anything about, and sent me as far from the chaos as they could. Slavery came and went over so many years where we lived and roamed; the Republic of Texas, and then the state of Texas, didn't have that many men to offer, but they did side with the Confederacy. Think the rangers fought, but they were a very small group. Didn't think it right to take sides, and neither did my fathers, because we were busy fighting the white-men who entered our territory. Thankfully, the war is near an end with a treaty, except for the group headed by Geronimo." Tanner also felt badly for the slaves he had met, running for their lives into even more dangerous territory. With the Indian War occurring at the same time, the entire idea of such a major conflict confused him. He fought beside his Kiowa brothers when they started killing white-folk, but his loyalty to the band made him fight in those battles, until released by his fathers to wander.

"Hush now, Vin. What we had to do we did. Can't feel guilty about our choices."

"Reckon not." Tanner needed an escape from admitting he had killed many white-men over the first couple of years of the Indian War, when too young to be involved. A change of subject seemed necessary. "You mentioned racing horses. You'll have to tell me what a thoroughbred is, and what organized horse racing's all about. But, while we're traveling, there's one thing I really hope you'll tell me, and that's everything you remember about Sarah and Adam. Think it best you talk about them, so we can remember them as people, and not just bodies soon to be buried in the Four Corners cemetery." Tanner chose his words carefully, avoiding the negative term used for the dead. Boot Hill did not fit on this occasion.

"I'd like that, Vin. They were two very special people." Chris inhaled deeply. The second funeral would take place Sunday, six days away, and in his heart, he knew the decision was correct. Sarah and Adam would be with the spirits of people who loved them. Shifting under the weight and pinch of a bony elbow, Larabee changed subjects, satisfied everything was out in the open. "So, Mr. Tanner, you're going to start speaking proper English; and I'm going to try and remember mine. Ezra's going to turn you into a gentleman, which should hide us in the large cities that Ella Gaines would find enticing."

"But remember what I said: she'll be still stalking you, while we're tracking her. She's crazy, Chris."

"Ain't that the truth. Think she's laid low for a while, after you and Buck tried to find her; but she probably heard about you leaving, and then me following. Kept looking over my shoulder, just in case, but the Kiowa, we met that wild day, said they had no sightings of anyone else on the trail. Leads me to believe she may have posted someone in Four Corners to wait for my return. If so, the boys might know of a new citizen that moved in around the time one of us left, and that person may have sent a coded telegram to Ella under an alias. They could have sent one today." Chris did not mean to upset his partner, but Vin remained calm, calculating every possibility in his head. Part of his enjoyment came from finding and investigating all clues that may lead to his prey.

"Telegraph was closed today for the wedding. Tomorrow we can ask if someone tried to send one, but I think it best to stake out the telegraph office with Buck. Might get a clue before we head for Red Fork." The tracker's mind whirled with ideas to find the woman who broke the soul of the man he loved.

"You're staying here, resting, and reading. I'll ride out at dawn and speak with Mr. Wilmington. If he accepts the responsibility of the law of Four Corners, he'll help. He loved Sarah and Adam, and continues to care about them, as well as attempting to look after my bouts of sorrow. Buck will take pride in keeping their graves and tombstones beautiful, but he is concerned about us, Vin." The stroking of the gunslinger's hand continued; but the wheels kept turning in the keen mind of the tracker.

"Saw that today, Chris, but I'd also like to be there when you speak to him about new people in town. Need some new clothes anyway, since the duds I own are falling off me. Think I have enough money for something that fits."

"According to Nathan and Josiah, you could buy the entire haberdashery. Okay then, go to sleep, and tomorrow we'll return to town at daybreak."

"Something else I want to do, and that's buy some good boots for you--just like you gave me this bracelet--a present. After we talk to Buck and the man at the telegraph office, we can buy boots for you and some clothes for me. Kind of like the idea of owning my own clothes, instead of stealing them off clotheslines. Even these boots came from a trashcan. Never had brand new clothes or boots before, and I'd like some; especially a pair of soft leather pants that fit so tight, they feel like a second skin, in a desert color."

"Good God, Vin. Seeing you in tight leather pants and high leather boots, I won't be able to walk in public."

Vin laughed. "But that's what I want."

"For me not to walk, or the pants?"

"The pants, because I had a pair once and liked them. They stopped dead branches from hurting my legs, and if we're going to be traveling in harsh country, they save you from some nasty cuts, without the heavy chaps. Besides, I can run faster when chasing someone on foot."

"Then that's what you'll have. You do surprise me, Button, and I don't need a present. You're my gift, the only one I want, or need." Chris could not squeeze the man hard enough or close enough.

"Sorry, but you're getting some fancy, new, black-leather boots tomorrow." Vin Tanner had arisen from a disastrous day, allowing his mind to think clearly, and recognizing what money could buy.

"If it makes you happy, I accept with thanks. And what's this about chasing people down? Think I captured the man I wanted without having to run?"

"You have, but I bet I can beat you in a race running barefoot."

"That's not a bet, that's an Ezra swindle. I can see we'll be having some fun on the trail to nowhere." Chris enjoyed the banter after endless days of vacant stares and misunderstood words, as Vin snickered at the response, leaving a quiet pause while the older man nuzzled the top of his head.

"Hope so, since tracking is serious business." Vin hesitated for a second and became quietly cognizant over something. "Your money bought me this bracelet, and this is your house." Vin rubbed the stones on the silver band encircling his wrist. As Chris suggested, it became his thinking tool whenever he felt perplexed. The two men could see the silver shine in the lantern's glow, and the nimble fingers seductively gliding over the semi-precious gems.

"This house, the estate, and my wealth has nothing to do with our relationship, Mr. Tanner. Our combined assets are unimportant, since money doesn't interest either of us, although it will help in a number of instances. Just remember your bracelet and the words engraved."

"Makes me feel good whenever I touch the stones. Kind of like children's tales about genies in a lamp. Everything's going to turn out all right."

"It has for me. Those genies granted my wish, because I've wanted you since I looked up to see this long-haired bounty hunter sweeping the boardwalk and wearing an apron. Sorry it took me so long to realize you felt the same."

"I wanted you that very moment, Cowboy, aching in my gut every time you were close to me. Never thought all this would happen, but there's something missing you haven't told me. Who else have you told about your inheritance?" Vin waited, hoping he may be wrong.

"Sarah, of course, and you. Buck doesn't know. The bank doesn't know where or from whom I receive the money transfers from, whenever I receive mail."

"Think, Larabee, think hard. This may be important." Tanner clung tighter to the older body, praying an explosion of fury would not have him flying off the bed. He waited as Chris hummed and hawed.

"Can't think of anyone else I would tell... unless... Ella! My God, Vin, she knows because we were together when we were both seventeen. Knows I'd inherit money one day, and on the way to her place, while driving in her carriage, the wretched woman asked about my father and I told her! How stupid of me! She could be at the estate! Uncle Frank has to know I'm still alive, or she'll take over everything my family has built! Have to get word to Frank, or someone!" Larabee went into shock, and with the viper curled around him so tightly, he couldn't move if he tried.

"Saw her last letter, Chris. She signed it Mrs. Larabee."

"Get dressed; we're heading for the Post Office. If I haven't received my usual monthly letter from Uncle Frank, Ella's told him I'm dead. She has the estate, Vin. Damn, we've got to get there and now." Chris was frantically trying to untangle himself from Tanner who held fast.

"Chris, stop. Stop and think. The Post Office is closed. We have to wait one more night to find out. If she's there, then she's easy pickings for me and that rifle. I'll take care of the bitch, and you handle your own affairs. No one will know. If she's got her hands on your money and has taken over the estate, all legal like, you showing up will have her running again. Take it easy, Cowboy, breathe deeply. Stay with me. I won't let you go on a rampage tonight, considering there's nothing we can do until morning. Just lie here with me, Chris; I won't let go of you until you promise not to leave." Larabee's Peyote Button had turned the tables, becoming the caretaker of a man ready to implode. The clench he had on the gunslinger had been practiced training while bounty hunting, holding a few squirming desperados for hours until they succumbed to his intensity. He would do the same with the wealthy gunslinger.

"You're right, Vin, but tomorrow can't come soon enough."

The embrace grew tighter, and the two bodies warmed each other, as arms and legs entwined as ropes around a fighting bull. One sleepy tracker remained awake, but offered a soft murmur, "Night, Chris."


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Chapter XIII

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