It was sunset when Buck arrived at the Larabee cabin. A curl of smoke rose from the chimney and the scent of roasting meat filled the air. Buck tapped on the door and got a grunt, so he entered. He ducked inside and brought the large burlap bag with him. Chris was squatted over a roasting pan, where a pork roast, some potatoes and carrots were cooking.
"Smells great..." He noted, setting the bag down.
"Got plenty...wanna stay?"
"Sure." He answered, eyeing the empty room.
"He's out back." Chris answered Buck's inquiring gaze.
"J.D. caved..." the mustached man said, unpacking a stack of black jeans, shirts, some longjohns and socks. "They were in the cemetary..."
"Cemetary?" Chris stood, hands on his hips.
"Uh-huh..." Buck chuckled, handing over a scrap of paper. "He even wrote up a wooden tombstone."
"Mena Sincloud?" Chris frowned, "I don't..." then his lips quivered and try as he might, he couldn't suppress a grin.
"I saw that." Buck teased of the brief smile. "Menacing Cloud...You gotta him points for ingenuity."
"...and balls." Chris sighed, "That all of 'em?"
"We put the rest in your room in town." Buck dropped his hat on the peg by the door. "He okay?"
Curiosity got the best of him and Buck wandered out the door and around the back of the house. His laughter told Chris he'd found the busy bandit. He lifted the roast and vegtables onto a platter and poured some water spiked with flour into the pan, he added some whiskey and stirred the grave. He followed Buck's path and joined the chuckling man by the back of the house.
"What's he tied up for?"
"Little fucker keeps gettin' away. Run off twice today...last time, he made it clear to the creek, had to take his crutches away. Had to dunk him too...teach him a lesson."
"Sun's down, Chris, he shouldn't be outside in them wet clothes..." Buck asked, eyeing the forlorn blue eyes begging him. He started forward, only to have his arm yanked.
"Don't...leave him there. He ain't learned his lesson yet."
"Aw, Chris...have a heart."
"Why?" He tossed back, seeing the pain in Buck's eyes, "You have enough for both of us. You're a sucker, you know that?"
"I can't look at him..." He noted of the bayful stare. "You must have no heart at all. He's got that bad foot and..."
"Bad foot my ass..." Chris snapped. "It didn't stop him from stealing all my clothes...You ready?" He squatted down in front of the dirty tracker, tied to a chair in the yard. The sad, houndog stare he had given Buck disappeared and the icy blue glare defied him. The head shook and a muffled response came. Chris yanked the gag off and raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
"Go t'hell..." Vin gasped, "Bu..."
"Fine..." Chris cut off his plea for help and replaced the gag.
"What's that smell?" Buck said, wrinkling his nose.
"That'd be Stinky, here." The blond head jerked. "After he cut some firewood...I let him use a chair, Don't look at me like that..." He repelled Buck's indredulous look. "He didn't use his foot...Anyway, he volunteered to clean the outhouse."
"Damn..." Buck winced. "That was right neighborly, Vin."
The irate victim wrestled against the ropes at his two leering friends. Buck couldn't resist and tugged the gag down.
"...no account pair of shifty, goddamn snakes...I ain't gonna ferget this...Yer on m'shitlist Bucklin..."
Buck replaced the gag and shook his head. "Well, I reckon you're wearin' the right clothes," He wrinked his nose. "Damn you stink, Slick."
"You know, Buck." Chris said, green eyes glinting, "You might be right. Maybe we outta clean him up before dinner." Chris said, gripping one side of the chair.
"My Mother always said to come to the table with clean hands." Buck nodded, "Reckon you're right..." He picked up the other half.
Vin squirmed and wiggled, cursing a blue streak under his gag. His eyes grew wide as they reached the creek. Chris slit the ropes and grabbed Vin's bad leg. Buck grabbed the other and they dunked the irate tracker headfirst into the water. Chris gingerly handled the injured foot careful not to harm it. Vin was 'rinsed' down to his ankles and then set on the bank.
"That weren't funny..." He sputtered. "It's colder that a witch's tit in there. I could catch somethin'" He tried to stand.
"Nuh-Uh" Chris shook his head. "You're not coming in my house with them shitty clothes. Strip."
"Yer outta yer mind!" Vin rebelled.
"You do it, or I will." Chris challenged, arms folded across his pink shirt.
Vin sighed and furrowed his brow. He thought for a moment and weighed his options. He put on his best mournful face and gazed longingly at Buck. "Bucklin, I ain't feelin' so good..."
"Sorry, Slick," Buck chuckled, shaking his dark head, "You had this comin'"
"Off..." Chris ordered, grinning evilly as the cursing Texan leaned on Buck's shoulder and took off his shirt and pants. "All of it..." Chris said to the shivering wet body.
"I ain't takin' m'drawers off..." Vin declared. "It's too cold out here."
"There's a towel and a change of clothes on that rock, by your crutches." Chris declared, hand out, "Give 'em over."
"Ya just wait..." Vin huffed, removing his undergarments. "I ain't gonna ferget this...gonna think a long time on it. Y'ell pay Larabee..." He warned, gripping Buck's offered arm and turning. He wrapped an arm around Buck's shoulder and let the larger man lead him to the indicated wardrobe area. "Got yer name down too," He nodded to Buck who was staring at the dripping curls plastered to Vin's head. He set the smaller man down on the rock and began to laugh.
Vin blushed and rubbed himself with a towel. "...s'cold water...they shriveled a bit..." He defended of his manhood.
"Just a bit..." Buck laughed and waved. "See ya back at the house."
"Where's m'clothes? Chris?" Vin called.
"For the right price..." Chris raised an eyebrow.
"Go t'hell!" Vin shot back, completing the removal of the excess water from his body. He was about to wrap the towel around his waist, when it was snatched away. "Hey...gimme that..." Vin raged, balancing on one foot and wrapping his arms around his shivering frame. "Ya can't leave me here nekkid." "This is the story of a shrinking man, left naked and shivering in the cold..." Buck mocked in a deep voice. "Sounds like damn Dicken's novel." "You got clothes...suggest you get to 'em. Dinner's on the table. Buck?" Chris tilted his head.
"Git back here...Yer gonna be sorry...Goddamn no account bastard...Chris!"
Vin's voice died away as the two old friends made their way back to Chris's shack. Chris sliced the meat and made a healthy platter up for both men. He filled Buck's mug with a chilled jug from the porch. It was ale and it complemented the tasty meal. Buck ladled a nice amount of gravy on his food and reached for a biscuit. He reached for the butter and saw Chris start to smile.
"It's been a half-hour Chris," Buck eyed the door, "I'll go get him...it's cold out and he ain't over that congestion that long..."
"He'll be here in a couple minutes." Chris predicted and leveled a hard stare. "I wouldn't hurt him, Buck. Can't believe he did it..."
"But that's part of the magic, isn't it?" Buck asked, spiking a tender piece of pork.
"That he's got balls?" Chris noted of the fearless tracker, and swallowed a crispy, browned potato. He paused and took a swig of ale and nodded to his smiling friend. "You said it...he's got a 'spit-in-the-wind attitude...had no childhood...no family...raised himself up..."
Buck smiled at the admiration in Chris's voice and the pride in his eyes. Vin had found a place inside Chris Larabee and without trying had brought the long-sought peace back to his friend. "...and he ain't a damn bit intimidated by you."
"No..." Chris grinned, of defiant blue eyes that never backed down, "...gotta love that."
"Speak of the devil..." Buck chuckled as a stream of colorful phrases, preceded the door flying open. He had the misfortune of having a mouthful of ale, which he immediately choked on when the body came into view. Chris was doubled over, and fell out of his chair. Buck had tears running down his face.
"I'm glad ya think this is so Goddamn funny." Vin raged, slamming the door. "It weren't bad enough I had to climb up the hill...with crutches..." he tossed the wooden tools aside and sat on the chair by the fire. I had to tuck 'em up so's I wouldn't trip." He paused, his face coloring red. Without looking, he snaked a hand up to the mantle over the fire, where he knew the bottle would be. He pulled the cork with his teeth and spit it at the cavorting Larabee, hitting him in the head. The blond continued to laugh, it was even funnier than he pictured.
"What happened Slick?" Buck gasped, his face wet with tears.
"...I's tryin' to get m'footin' squared away...on that path yonder what leads to the house..." He stopped and took another long drink.
Buck eyed the unusual sight of Vin Tanner drinking without abandon. Usually wary of letting his guard down, he sipped and nursed a glass of whiskey. "And..." He prodded, seeing the flame-colored face rise. The blue eyes were sending daggers at the pair at the table.
"...and somebody rode up and asked directions t'town..." Vin hissed, which sent both friends onto the floor. Rolling with laughter, they didn't see the furious man grab a crutch and swipe at them.
"Ow...Vin...cut that out..." Buck gasped, ducking and trying to catch his breath. "Did you untuck before you gave directions?" He asked and the seething face gave him his answer. Buck and Chris were breathless, to the point of being dizzy from lack of oxygen.
"That feller gits t'town...shit...I ain't gonna be able to walk down the street."
"Oh I don't know..." Buck sighed and tried to collect himself. "I think in that dress you cut a fine figure."
"Yeah, Cowboy," Chris added, "I picked that shade of blue to match your eyes."
"Did a right fine job too, Chris," Buck complimented, eyeing Vin in the cornflower blue dress. "Tucked up huh...above your waist? Oh Man that's funny..."
"Be even funnier when that stranger winds up playin' cards in the Saloon," Chris gasped, fighting for breath.
"...and he tells Ezra about the lovely vision in blue that gave him directions." Buck choked, laughing hysterically.
"Aw,hell..." Vin hissed, "I ain't never gonna be able to hold m'head up."
"Now that's funny." Buck rasped, clutching his midsection.
"So's Ipacac in yer ale..." Vin countered, hopping to the table. "Leastwise my supper will stay put." He eyed the remnants of their plates hungrily, not having eaten since breakfast. "Where's m'supper?" He demanded, eyeing the table and hearth. He saw the blanched looks on his now silent friends faces and watched Buck's hand fly to his mouth. He'd let them suffer for a minute.
"Hey, Chris..." Buck wavered.
"He's bluffing." the blond said, climbing to his feet and wiping his damp face. "I ain't got any and I brought him here." He reached down and hauled Buck to his feet. Shuffling to the fireplace, he ladled out some food and returned to the table.
Buck scooched closer to Vin and laid an arm around the debutante's waist. "So Darlin' how's about you and me going for a walk in the moonlight."
"Git the hell away from me." Vin warned and lifted a fork, threatening to spear the hand on his waist. Buck retreated and reached for his own fork. His laughter exploded again when Chris put a plate of runny, white matter in front of the damp guest.
"What the hell is this? Where's my supper?" Vin demanded.
"You looking at it. Grits. Inez says you love 'em."
"Not fer supper..." Vin shoved the mess away. "I want meat..."
"Best you get started for town there, Slick," Buck teased, "If you pick up your step, you might make it to town before Inez closes the kitchen. Hell, you might get lucky. Moon's full...pretty little thing like you's bound to get a ride."
"Fine." Vin said, shoving away and rising. He picked up both crutches and eyed Chris's pile of clothes.
Buck saw the chagrined look and filled the disappointed, damp man in. "J.D. gave you up."
"Ya tickled him, didn't ya?"
"Like taking candy from a baby." Buck answered.
"I wouldn't." Chris warned as Vin's hand made a move to the black shirt.
Vin hovered for a moment, absorbing the smug Larabee face and huffed. Straightening up, he hobbled to the door and exited. Buck stared for a moment and then stood up.
"Chris, go get him..."
Before the other man could reply, there was a loud crack, a cry of pain and a thump.
"Nathan's gonna kill you," Buck warned "You took it too far..."
Both men raced outside and saw the body lying in a pale blue heap dangerously close to Annabelle's hooves. He never moved as the startled horse's hoof raised.
"Vin!" Chris dove and covered the fallen man, as Buck moved in and grabbed the horse's reins.
"He okay?" Buck asked, moving the horse over and tying her up. He dropped down as Chris rolled over.
"I don't know." Chris answered, tapping the slack face. "You okay, Vin?" He asked, concern riding high.
"No..." the weak reply came, from the body between them, eyes closed.
"Shit...I'm sorry Vin." Chris offered, feeling guilty. "Did you break anything?"
"Something's wrong, Chris..." Vin said painfully, in a weak gasping voice.
"Damn," Buck braced to rise, "I'll get Nathan."
"Right here, Vin..." Buck winced at the weak, breathless voice. He gripped the slack hand and squeezed it. "What is it?"
"...fa..fa..favor." He gasped, blinking and resting a sorrowful gaze on the stricken rogue
"Anything, Slick." Buck's voice wavered.
"Can ya git me some blue thread," Vin said, sitting up. "I ripped the ass out of m'dress...gonna have a helluva time stitchin' it up."
"Goddammit Vin" Chris hollered, eyeing Buck and Vin laughing. "That wasn't funny. You scared the shit outta me."
"Good timin'" Vin deadpanned, letting Buck lift him up. "Yer outhouse is clean."
Chris grabbed the fallen crutches and followed the pair into the house. He allowed himself a broad grin and was glad two such good friends. He eyed Buck at the table and searched the room.
"He's in the back...getting changed." Buck answered, "He got you again..."
"You looked pretty scared to me..." Chris warranted, not wanting to take the fall alone. "Damn no account Texan. How's he do that?"
"Where is it?"
Chris turned as Vin hopped into the room, wearing his usual light pants and a blue shirt. "Where'd you get them?" Chris demanded, rising and crossing the room. "Those are you clothes..."
"Whose did ya expect me t'wear?" Vin retorted, "Them rags of yers is too scary. Now where is it?"
"What?" Chris blinked, still trying to figure out how Vin's clothes got into his bedroom.
"The rest of that roast. I'm hungry. Even prisoners git lunch. Ya starved me but good out there."
"Where'd you hide them?" Chris demanded.
"Fer the right price..." Vin blinked, not giving an inch. He nodded to the empty plate and Chris blew a frustrated air from his lungs. He grabbed the plate and uncovered the roasting pan. After heaping a pile of meat, potatoes and carrots, he crossed the room. He put the plate in front of the smug, damp curly head. "Looks good..." Vin crowed, taking a huge forkful.
"Well?" Chris poked him in the ribs.
"Well what?" Vin deadpanned, pouring gravy on his food.
"For Christ's sake Vin..." Chris exasperated, "The clothes."
"Oh, had 'em hid." Vin nodded, "These bitty taters are really good."
"On m'plate." Vin said staightfaced, poking at them with a fork. "See...there's one...two...three.." He began to count. "Hey cut that out..." He choked as the forearm found his neck. "Ya ain't got no sense of humor. Ya's an onry, old cuss..."
"Give." Chris demanded, strengthening his grip.
"The ceiling?" Chris frowned and dropped his arm.
"Gimme." Vin wiggled his fingers for the ale. Snatching Chris's mug, he poured himself a liberal cup.
"Uh-oh" Vin said, grabbing a mouthful of food and attempting to flee.
"Your one crazy, Goddamn Texan." Buck shook his head. "What did you do?"
"It were a good hidin' spot." Vin defended weakly as the glaring, green-eyed monster appeared.
"Good?" Chris bellowed, crossing the room and trying to catch the hopping prankster. "You cut a Goddamn hole in my roof."
"It ain't that big...should take ya too long to fix."
"Me! You made the hole and you're fixing it, at gunpoint if necessary." Chris ordered, eyeing Vin across the table. They'd been dodging each other with Buck ducking in the middle, trying to eat.
"How did you know?" Buck wondered aloud.
"I knew he'd git me out here someways..." the one-footed bandit admitted, "So I planned ahead."
He eyed his best friend crossly, "Ya know, it's all yer fault."
"Hell yeah...Ya threw out m'shirt."
"It was my fuckin' shirt...you stole it off the front porch. It fell the hell apart."
"Huh!" Vin chuffed, "Iffen y'ed been more careful with it..."
"You mean between bullet holes, blood, rips and missing buttons?" Chris hollered as Vin hopped to the front door. "What the hell was left?"
"Sleeves was fine..." Vin cantered, from the porch.
"Don't twist this around..." Chris sprung and caught the smaller man. "It was my Goddamn shirt."
"Watch m'bad foot..." Vin gasped, trying not laugh.
Chris had wrestled the fumbling felon onto the porch and gripped him solidly.
"It's not your foot I had in mind." He replied, grinning.
Buck shook his head as the two continued their banter on the porch. He sipped his ale as the sorrowful drawl was heard. "Ow, that hurt...Let me up, Chris. I'll be good, I promise."
"For the right price..." Chris replied and Buck laughed.
Five weeks later, Pagosa Springs
A more glorious spring day had yet to be born. The sky was a brilliant blue and the snowcapped mountains looked like sugared gumdrops. Vin lifted his nose as the breeze blew his hair back. The tantalizing aroma of new fauna filled him. He sighed in deep contentment and pulled the horse to stop. Stepping down, he was once again filled with wonder. He turned around and approached his companion.
"Close yer eyes."
"Aw, Come on, Vin...I'm not a kid." Chris answered, but saw the determined jaw and stare and gave up. "I can't believe I'm doing this." He said, watching the smile light his best friend's face. He closed his eyes and felt Vin's hand on his arm.
"Step down." Vin said and saw the leg start to spin and then stop. "What's wrong..." He asked and looked at the frown. "Aw, hell, there ain't a pile of shit down there. Time's wastin'..." He led the blind man down a path and waited. "Take about ten steps..." He directed and saw the hesitation. "Go on, it ain't no cliff..."
Chris walked ahead and counted his paces. At ten, he opened his eyes and every bit of air left his lungs. As far as the eye could see was a beautiful blanket of wildflowers. The whitecaps of the mountainst kissed the deep blue sky. He wasn't aware he was holding his breath until he gasped, seeking air.
"My God, Vin..." He uttered in amazement. "I've never seen anything like it."
"Heaven on Earth." Vin boasted.
"That about covers it." Chris awed, "How did you find this place?"
"It's a long story. Best ya git settled in." Vin led the way through a clump of trees and down a path. He paused as the flat spread of rocks over the rising steam. "Healin' waters..." He answered Chris's silent question. "Shuck 'em off..." he noted of the blond's clothes. "Ya git settled in down here." Vin pulled a bottle of whiskey from his jacket. "The cabin a half-mile yonder," He nodded his head. "I'll get the horses and supplies taken care of...give ya some time."
Chris took the bottle and set it on the ground. His arm flicked out on instinct and latched onto the younger man's. He wanted to say so much. He wanted to thank Vin for sharing this special place. He doubted if the quiet man had opened himself up to anyone else. The last few weeks, he had been sullen and contemplative. He spent Sunday afternoons with Billy and then had dinner with the Travis's, followed by quiet time with Mary on the porch swing out back of her house. He loved those lazy afternoons and the sweet kissed in the moonlight. But something was gnawing at him. He didn't know what. He spent most of his time at the cabin, with Vin making appearances now and again to check on him. He sour disposition had caused bad words with Buck and the others. So when Vin arrived four days ago and said simple 'Git packed', he didn't argue. He never asked where they were going, he didn't have to. Only Vin Tanner had that power.
He slid into the hot waters and let out a loud sigh of contentment. He let his long lean limbs take him back and forth, until his energy was spent. He took a long swig of whiskey and rested his wet head against the warm rocks. His mind drifted to his childhood and the farm in Indiana. Then his wild youth, Caroline Cummings his first love, the sweet stolen innocence in the hay. His years with Army, working with the engineers. Coming west...seeing the Rockies for the first time. He smiled openly and took another swig a younger, swaggering picture of Buck Wilmington came into his mind's eye.
It was a couple years before the war, he was Kentucky, working with advance scout. They were staking out the area, when shots rang out. His partner went down and Chris couldn't reach him without being cut down. A voice rang out behind him, asking for cover. Chris pulled both guns and gritted his teeth. He watched the tall stranger run out into a hail of bullets to pull the wounded man to safety. His gut clinched in admiration, that a stranger would risk his life that way. The last would-be robber fell dead and Chris made his way over to the stranger. He was about the same age, dark with a cocky grin full of white teeth. A war whoop greeted him and he found himself in a bearhug.
"You're a helluva shot, Son," he boomed, "Buck Wilmington at your service"
+ + + + + + +
They took the wounded man to town and once he was assured of a recovery, Chris left. He wandered into the nearest tavern and found a hot card game. He wasn't surprised that the cocky cowboy was winning and had a busty blonde on his lap. He smiled broadly and bought a bottle, joining them. The Saloon closed and the outspoken, brash young man he'd been playing with suggested strip poker in his room. Whether it was the booze, the two scantilly clad saloon girls or the life-loving smile of the dark-haired man, Chris agreed. The night was blur, Chris woke up in the morning sharing a bed with Buck and a lusty blonde. He didn't remember how they got there and never asked.
He went back to his outfit and several days later, when his job was over, the Major told him about a long range expedition out west, to Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. He needed a couple men to scout the terrain and send reports back to the Army. Chris rode back into town and followed the deep voice, bragging about another conquest. Chris paused outside the Saloon and peeked inside. The grin appeared again, which usually happened around Buck. The dark-haired man's hands were flying around as his animated tale continued. Three barmaids were transfixed. Buck's tale of his narrow escape from a tribe of Indians had them wide-eyed. 'A whole tribe, huh?' he commented and the big grin met his 'Give or take...' The was how it started. They went west together, earning money, living and playing hard. He knew from the moment he met Buck Wilmington, they'd be friends till death. He was one of a kind, somebody who would take a bullet for you, without question and never bring it up again. He was good with a gun, brave, fearless and smart as hell. But what Chris admired most about the special man was his heart. Buck loved life, people and gave of himself without fault
Buck...Buck was there through the war years. They'd fought side by side and saved each other's necks and souls. Buck was there when he met Sarah...stood for him at the wedding and was Adam's godfather. Sarah and Adam...the pain would always be there, but it was different somehow. The bitter taste in his mouth was gone. Vin was a part of that, the best part. Mary and Billy too. Plus his brothers in arms back in Four Corners. He felt a pull to stay, settle down. He had dreams about holding another woman in his arms at night and watching another toddler take his first drunken steps. He closed his eyes and rested, letting the healing waters do their job. He didn't know how long he dozed when a splash woke him up.
"Hey, yourself." Chris answered, watching the lean body work out through the water. He settled back and waited, and offered the bottle when Vin collapsed beside him.
"Thanks..." Vin nodded, taking a sip.
"I think you got that backwards." Chris said quietly, eyeing Vin Tanner carefully. "I'll never forget this, Vin. I know what it took for you to share this place."
"Wasn't just anybody I'd share it with." Vin replied, drilling the translucent green eyes.
"Yeah..." Chris nodded, Vin's words and the strong emotional tug behind them hit him hard. He cared so deeply for his man, it scared him sometimes. That life was so fragile and Vin could be taken from him. He shivered.
"Yer cold?" Vin chuckled, sweating in the hot water.
"No..." Chris smiled, "How'd you find this Eden?"
"It was after the war...runnin' from Harding Point."
"The prison?" Chris's voice rose and his eyes jerked back open. "You were a P.O.W.?"
He saw the head dip once and such a pain in Vin's eyes it made him wince. "Jesus, Vin...I'm sorry."
"Ain't no call fer that," Vin denied, "Wasn't yer doin'"
Chris bit his lip, he knew about that horrid place and what went on there. Beatings, tortures, starvations and rape. Vin was how old? "How the hell did you survive? You were just a kid."
Vin heard the combination of pain and awe in his best friend's voice. He took a deep breath and left it out slowly. His mind filled with those horrid days and brutal nights. His breath came in short pants and he felt the whip, the bitter cold of snow from the open roof, the brutal hands of the guards.
"Hey, you okay?" Chris tapped the wet shoulder when he saw the frightened eyes and heard the labored breathing. Vin jerked as if a hot coal touched him, scooting several feet away. "I'm sorry, Vin."
"Damn..." Vin swore softly, eyeing the green-eyed concern. "I didn't mean...I can't, Chris...I can't go back there...I can't..."
"Then don't." Chris said, "It'll never leave here." He vowed and saw the head dip. He sank back and closed his eyes, letting Vin battle with his ghosts. Finally, the soft voice drew him back.
Vin left the prison and his eyes followed the path he took that day. He remember the beautiful face that met his fevered state when he woke up. He glanced across the steam and saw her standing, water clinging to her and offering herself with a beguiling smile. He raised a hand as if to touch her.
"Huh?" Chris looked to where Vin was pointing.
"That was her name..." Vin started. He told Chris of his healing time here. Of a kind-hearted Frenchman who taught him all he needed to know about life and of the beautiful girl who gave him his soul back.
"So what did you do?" Chris asked, when Vin got to the part about the death of the trapper, Vin's promise to delivery Little Star to her tribe and his dilemma.
Vin sighed and smiled. It was a smile so beautiful, it filled Chris with warmth. "It was a special time...a magic winter. We only had each other. Hell, I didn't speak Kiowa and her English was terrible, but somehow, we understood." He turned to Chris and smiled shyly. "I didn't have much experience...with woman ya know..." He offered and saw Chris chuckle. "It weren't supposed to happen that way...I promised Black Jack and all. But I got a fever, from the bears wound. I got t' shiverin' and shakin' and she was there. She was so lost, mournin' fer her Pa, so when she crawled under the furs with me..." He smiled wistfully, remembering. "It was magic...just pure magic. We explored each other...tasted, touched, smelled...God it was...I can't even find the words."
"You don't have to." Chris smiled, reading the joyful expression. "Your eyes are talking just fine."
"This place here." He gazed across the wide expanse of water and swallowed hard. "...was our special place." He sighed deeply. "God I loved her, Chris." It took several minutes for him to regain his composure and find his voice.
Chris watched the open play of emotions on his young friend's face and turned away. Vin had ghosts chasing him too. It didn't seem fair that one so young had suffered so many loses in such a short time. He looked back and saw the hand swipe the tears away. "You don't have to do this Vin."
"Wouldn't..." Vin choked, eyeing Chris hard. "Only you."
"I'm honored." Chris said simply, with heartfelt conviction.
"Spring was comin' and I knew I had to keep m'word." Vin turned and saw the question lurking in Chris's green eyes. He smiled "No, there weren't no little one comin'," he said of the chance of pregnancy. "She drank some concoction every mornin'...Wild Cherry Bark and some other stuff. Somethin' her Grandmother told her. Anyhow, I needed a plan. She was too attached t'me. I was in town gettin' supplies when I heard about a bear killin' a trapper. Made a bloody mess of 'im. That's when I knew what I had t'do. I found him...weren't too hard...followed the buzzards. I put m'clothes on 'im."
"My God Vin..." Chris choked, sitting up and staring intently.
"There was a Padre in town...a good man. I helped him out t'earn some money over that winter. So I went and told him...what needed t'be done." Vin fell silent, recalling the anguished cries he witnessed from the trees he hid in. He'd followed the priest back to the cabin with the horse bearing his body. Little Star's scream stabbed a hole in his heart. He flinched and sucked all his air in. He didn't mean for the moan to escape, along with the tears. He felt Chris's hand on his shoulder, but didn't pull away this time.
"I never heard anything so noble." Chris choked, eyeing Vin with full eyes. "How could you give her up?" He amazed aloud. He could never have given Sarah up. He knew how deeply Vin loved her, it was written all over his anguished face. It took several minutes for Vin to reply.
"We was two lost souls who found each other and fer a little while, we shared Heaven." He paused and sighed, "But it couldn't last, Chris. She was as lost in m'world as I was in hers. T' bring a child into that...have him laughed at and mocked. I loved her t' much fer that." He choked, making circles under the water with his trembling fingers. He still felt her velvet skin, wet and supple.
"And..." Chris hedged, knowing that wasn't all.
"...and I give m'word to Black Jack." Vin said simply. "It was the right choice...her husband's a good man, better than most" He recalled of Black Jack's offering. "I checked him out. The Padre knew him well."
Chris nodded, Vin was the most honorable man he knew. His word was as good as done. He studied the serious face next to him and shook his head in awe. He'd never met anyone stronger. Suddenly, he was filled with a force of pride that nearly choked him. He felt his eyes filling, seeing a young Vin alone and grieving, eyeing the love his life wailing over his grave. He kept his eyes ahead, studying the canyon walls of the pool. But he flung his hand and gripped the back of Vin's neck, with such intensity,. the younger man cried out.
Vin yelped and glanced sideways and frowned at the full eyes in profile. He paused and smiled, grateful beyond words for the gift this man bestowed.
"Ya know," He chirped, "they got a good tradin' post in town..." He raised his eyebrows and voice and waited. Slowly the head turned to face him.
"...and..." Chris's narrowed his eyes, smelling a rat.
"Well, I reckon while I buyin' us some grub, ya can git around to replacin' m'shirt." He stated confidently, settling back, closing his eyes.
"YOUR SHIRT!" Chris hollered, as the Texan tried to swim away. "Get back here you Goddammit long-haired rat." He laughed as he caught his prey and dunked him. He waited a moment and then pulled free, swimming back to claim the bottle and his spot in the sun. The sputtering Texan joined him, wearing a rakish grin.
"Vin..." He warned, suddenly wary of the long hours that passed and Vin being alone at the cabin. Visions of traps, snares and other pranks filled his head.
"Ya worry t'much, Larabee. " Vin crowed, winking, raising an eyebrow and taking the bottle.
"Besides...it ain't nothin' some of Nathan's creams won't cure..." He waited and watched Chris's face screw up and head cock in puzzlement. Vin laughed hard and passed the bottle back. Chris took the bottle in one hand and gripped the foreman solidly in the other. He locked eyes and sent every bit of emotion.
"Go to Hell." He rasped.
"Thought we was goin' together." Vin replied huskily.
"Until that time, Cowboy." Chris finished, sinking back into the healing waters.
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