Vin swayed in the saddle and grabbed the pommel to straighten himself. He was tired, exhaustion took over him and set deep into his bones. He had been on the trail for three months crossing the country from south to north. But no matter how far he moved away from Four Corners, the pain deep in his chest wouldn’t disappear. That pain had drained him more than exhaustion, numbing his mind and killing his soul. Now he had forgotten all the reasons why he had run away, he just kept running like a beheaded chicken.
Vin took the cantina and took a sip of water, then wet the bandana and wiped his face. The fresh breeze over his wet skin made him shiver, and his head cleared a bit. Apathy had given way to the memories.
Chris. That was what he was running from, that was why he was in the middle of the nowhere now. He had left Chris soon after the shooting at Ella Gaines’ ranch. Not immediately, he had stayed long enough to make sure Chris was out of the woods. When Nathan assured him that Chris would be fine, at least physically, then he rode away. Just gathered a few of his belongings, saddled Peso and disappeared into the night without a word. He had nothing to say to Chris after what had happened at the ranch. He couldn’t fool himself anymore and cherish vain hopes. Chris didn’t belong to him and never would. Chris did belong to the life with a sprawling ranch, a wife and kids. That few days at the bitch’s ranch had opened Vin’s eyes. Sooner or later Chris would overcome his grief and accept a life where Vin had no place. If not – well, Vin couldn’t fight with Sarah’s and Adam’s ghosts either. He should have left a long time ago, perhaps then he wouldn’t feel as if his heart had been ripped out of his chest.
He knew boys would be torn between respect for his decision and an urge to bring him back, so he headed east as if he was going to Tascosa, reached the Goodnight–Loving Trail before turning north. He decided if the boys had gone that far after him they would consider Tascosa or Mexico as his goal but not the north direction. He didn’t really care where he was going, just rode along the trail, mingling with the ranch hands and taking a rest in dusty towns from time to time. When the trail ended up in Wyoming he kept moving onward. He was somewhere in Montana now. He knew he had to stop and think about what he was going to do next. He couldn’t run for the rest of his life.
He looked around. The trail he was riding was deserted. In fact, he hadn’t seen any human being in days. His surroundings were green woods and meadows, clear streams and lakes, wild animals and birds. He saw a few farms from afar, but he wasn’t in the mood for human communication so he didn’t approach them. But now he really needed to rest. There should be a town nearby, he sensed a slight trace of its smell in the breeze. He would stay there.
The town was as shabby as he expected. Several log houses on either side of the only road, a few tents, scruffy townsfolk. Vin surveyed them with his habitual attentiveness, then his gaze stopped at the unusual sight in the main street – the English flag hanging next to the American and the boundary marker with numbers “49” on it. That was the Canadian border, he realized, and it divided the town into two parts.
“Aw hell,” he muttered.
He hadn’t noticed he had gone so far north. A shame for the skilful tracker, but he really hadn’t paid much attention to his whereabouts for the last few days. He looked closer at the buildings on the American side and noticed one which should be a saloon. He guided Peso there.
His stiff muscles protested when he slipped out of the saddle and headed inside leaving Peso tied to the rail outside. The saloon was almost empty, and nobody paid him much attention. It looked like strangers were a regular thing here.
Vin walked to the bar and ordered hoarsely, “Whiskey.”
The bartender, a tall blond in a white apron atop a black suit, served it quickly and neatly. Vin took a shot glass and downed it in one sip. The whiskey burned his insides and washed down the dust in his throat.
The bartender refilled a glass.
“What is this place?” Vin asked.
“Name’s Bordertown. Only a few months ago all land here was American and the town was called Pemmican but then the border was surveyed in this area, and turned out that the town straddled the border.”
“Is the town lively?”
“Many folks passing through to Canada and back but only a few families are living around. If you are looking for a room, Mister, you can stay here, I have rooms for rent upstairs.”
Vin considered an offer. “Fine. Is there a livery here?”
“On the Canadian side. You have to ask the Mountie for permission. His office is exactly on the border, he shares it with Marshal Craddock.”
“A Canadian law officer.”
Vin downed his whiskey, put a couple of coins on a bar and left the saloon.
The lawmen’s office was the building with the flags, and it was located on the same side of the street as the saloon. It took Vin only a minute to get there. He pushed the door and entered the office. Inside was a big room, a red line painted on floorboards divided it in two. The right, American side was occupied with a prison cell, a marshal’s desk and a huge amount of trash that covered every bit of space there. The only clean place was a stand with Winchesters. The Canadian side, on the contrary, was perfectly clean and neat, every item there was in order. Vin’s gaze stopped at a big cabinet filled with books, then shifted to a desk and a man sitting at it. He was a blond about Vin’s age dressed in a red coat with corporal’s stripes on the sleeve. He was probably writing something in a journal as his fingers continued to hold a pen but Vin’s arrival had interrupted him. He was looking at Vin attentively and appraisingly, his blue eyes and handsome face held no sign of cruelty or meanness.
“Are you the…” Vin stumbled on an unfamiliar term, “Mountie?”
“Yes. Corporal Clive Bennett, the North-West Mounted Police. Can I help you?”
The Mountie pronounced words with a strange accent which, however, wasn’t unpleasant.
“Gonna stay in town for a while, have to take my horse to the livery.”
“You can do it so long as you are not going to travel on the Canadian soil outside the town.”
“Good. If you’ll change your mind, you will have to fill papers and pay a duty, Mr…?”
Vin tipped the brim of his battered cavalry hat and turned around to leave the office but he stopped dead in his tracks. The wall near the door on the American side was decorated with a very familiar item – the flag of Texas. Sure as hell the Marshal was Texan. Vin swore under his breath. He never was lucky but that was too much even for him – to find a Texan lawman at the other end of the country.
“Something wrong, Mr. Tanner?” the Mountie asked.
Vin left the office feeling the Mountie’s gaze at his back.
The livery was a block away at the Canadian end of the town. Vin led Peso there and took care of Peso’s needs, then returned to the saloon and rented a room. It was small but clean, and the price suited Vin just fine. He still had enough money earned in Four Corners, also he had incidental jobs on the trail, but he had to decide what to do for a living. That was one issue among the huge amount of the issues he had to decide upon. He locked the door, hung up his gunbelt on the headboard, got undressed and laid down on the bed. He sighed contentedly, feeling the cleanness of the sheets and softness of the mattress, and tried to collect his thoughts. He pondered the Mountie’s words about heading into Canada. The idea of getting rid of the bounty on his head that way was tempting. The only problem was he hated the cold and the Canadian winters were not just cold but freezing. Aw hell, even summers there should be like the Texan winters. He could tolerate them if he had somebody to keep him warm during the long nights. Somebody to keep in his hands, heart, soul, as he used to do with Chris. Chris. His thoughts wandered back to the time spent together. Unconsciously he touched himself; the memory of their lovemaking and the vision of Chris’ naked body made him hot. He moaned, stroking his hardness, and that hoarse sound brought him back to reality. Abruptly he jerked his hand away and sat up in bed. He had to stop doing it. He had to leave the past behind and start over again, but no way he could do that if he was thinking about Chris every moment.
“Damn it to hell,” he swore and lay back on the pillows again.
He was done with thinking and let fatigue envelop his body. In a few moments he was asleep.
A few hours of sleep made Vin feel marginally better, and he decided to go downstairs to eat. The meal in the saloon was decent, even fancy for the town. Vin ate more than he was used to in weeks. He was enjoying a coffee after the meal when the activity outside drew his attention. The door of the building opposite the saloon with a sign that read, Vin believed, ‘Bank’ swung open and two cowboys ran out holding guns and a filled bag. In the street they were met by two riders holding spare horses. Sure as hell that was a robbery. Vin quickly got up and slipped out preparing his mare’s leg to fire.
Once outside he saw the Mountie standing in the middle of the street and holding a Winchester aimed at the robbers.
“Don’t move,” the Mountie ordered, his voice steel and hands steady.
One of the robbers laughed and spat tobacco. “Relax, woodpecker, it’s American business, go on your side of the line.”
“There is money belonging to Canadian citizens in that bank.”
“You can’t stop us, you’re alone.”
“He isn’t,” Vin drawled.
He flanked the robbers and now stood behind them. They jumped at the sound of his voice and looked back.
“Who the hell are you?” the leader asked.
“None of your business. Get down off your horses.”
“Go to hell.”
Vin saw the tightening of the robber’s finger on a trigger and fired, his shot merged with shots of the others. Two robbers fell, two others rode hard out of town but Vin’s bullet hit one of them and threw him out of the saddle.
“Are you all right?” Vin asked the Mountie.
“Yes. Thank you for help, Mr. Tanner.”
“You're not gonna go after the last one?”
“No. Can’t leave the town unprotected. The Marshal will return tomorrow morning, he is a tracker and will follow him. Now, let’s clean up this mess.”
The Mountie picked up the bag filled with the money and returned it to the banker, then he and Vin examined the bodies.
“Yours is alive. A clear shot, just to neutralize,” Vin said.
“He needs his health to stand trial.”
“So you believe in trials?” Vin cast a look at the Mountie. Sure he did, he was an educated young man from some civilized place.
“The rule of law is supreme justice, not a gun.”
Vin shook his head. He didn’t need to see the bodies of his marks to know they were cold dead. “That bunch of books in your cabinet had taught you that?”
“Yes. So what?”
“A real life isn’t a book.”
“Looks like you know a lot about it.”
Vin flushed. “I know enough to keep me alive.”
They carried the bodies to the undertaker and locked the prisoner in the cell.
“The doctor will visit him later,” the Mountie said taking his place at the desk in the office. “Now I have to write a report for my supervisors. Mr. Tanner, I need to know your full name.”
Vin paused for a moment. “Vin. Vin Tanner.”
Vin had spent the next morning with Peso. The balky gelding had a problem cooperating with others horses and was placed at the corral behind the livery. Making sure he was all right, Vin headed back into town. He saw the Mountie standing in the middle of the main street talking with a woman, perhaps one of the town’s Canadian residents. Catching up with him, Vin tipped his hat and the Mountie nodded back. The next moment Vin’s keen ear caught an unmistakable sound of the cocking of a hammer. He looked in the direction of the sound and saw a man on the roof of the general store, his gun aimed at the Mountie. Vin didn’t have time to draw his mare’s leg and shoot. He threw himself at the Mountie and pushed him aside, the shot rang at the same time. Vin felt as the bullet hit his shoulder knocking him down, the sharp pain shot through his body. The back of his head hit the hard ground, and darkness enveloped him.
Clive Bennett lost his balance when the newcomer, Vin Tanner, suddenly pushed him with his body. The shot rang out, and Vin took the bullet intended for him. Clive drew his weapon but another shot rang, and a body fell down from a roof of the general store. Clive cast a quick glance at Jack Craddock, who stood in the doorway of their office, his Colt smoking, then turned his whole attention to Vin. He knelt beside a supine body and checked for a pulse. Vin was still alive; the bullet had hit his left shoulder, and his shirt was already soaked with blood. Clive pulled out the clean handkerchief, pressed it to the wound and secured it with the suspender from Vin’s pants.
“Marie!” he called as loudly as he could, “Marie!”
A woman pushed her way through the crowd gathered around.
“I’m here, Clive. Is he alive?”
“Bring him into my house.”
Clive took Vin into his hands and easily raised the slim body. A faint moan escaped Vin’s lips.
“Hold on,” Clive urged the wounded man.
He hurried to Marie’s house at the edge of the town near the livery. Once inside, he went to the dining room and put Vin on a big table. Marie had already prepared medical instruments for the operation.
“Take off his coat,” she ordered.
Clive removed Vin’s hat that hung on a string around his neck, then lifted Vin a bit and pulled off his buckskin coat. Marie approached them and tore apart the shirt around the wound.
“No exit wound, the bullet is still inside,” Clive said.
“Will he make it?”
“Right now I can say nothing, Clive. Go back to Jack, there might be other shooters.”
“You don’t need help?”
“No. Visit me later.”
He paused a moment, looking at Vin’s unconscious body, then left.
The dead body already had been taken off the street, and Clive found it at the undertaker’s. That was a last of the bank robbers’ gang. Either he had come back for revenge or for the money, but now that didn’t matter. Clive headed to the office.
Jack Craddock was sitting there in his usual pose, lounging in his chair and cleaning one of his guns. He noticed Clive in the doorway and drawled, “I can’t leave the town for a day without you making a mess here, Bennett.”
“Those were your American robbers and I did your job for you, Jack,” Clive answered sitting at his desk and opening the journal for reports.
“Who is that buckskin clad guy you took to Marie’s?”
“He's American. Helped me with the gang yesterday. The deadly shooter. Today he saved my life.”
“What's his name?”
Jack frowned slightly. “The name sounds familiar. Vin Tanner… Don’t remember where I’ve heard it…”
“Getting too old, Jack?”
“Very funny. Describe him.”
“In mid twenties, about my height, slim, long brown hair, blue eyes. Uses a sawed-off Winchester. There is something familiar about the way he talks, his accent is slightly similar to yours. Besides, yesterday he paused on his way out here, I think he was surprised at seeing your flag.”
“Vin Tanner from Texas? Pretty possible I’ve heard about him back home.”
“Don’t try to force a memory. I have read that the memory returns itself when you aren’t trying to recall purposely.”
“You read too much, Bennett.”
They engaged in their works. Clive had filled two pages of his journal with his neat handwriting when Jack’s shout broke the silence in the office, “A murder!”
Startled Clive put a blot on the page. “What?”
“That Tanner fella of yours. He is wanted for murder in Texas. 500 dollars reward, dead or alive.”
Clive stared at Jack. “That's impossible. He isn’t a murderer.”
“Hey, Corporal, he shot a man in a back yesterday, didn’t he?” the only survived member of the gang said from his cell.
“Shut up,” both Clive and Jack ordered.
“Jack, even if this Vin Tanner is the man you are talking about, there should be some mistake. This man protected me and the law.”
“I’ll find out. For now I have to arrest him.”
“You can’t do it.”
“Why the hell not?”
“He needs medical attention.”
“Fine, I’ll arrest him when Marie has finished with him.”
Clive got up and stood before the red line on floorboards. Jack mirrored his movements, they were standing face to face separated by a few inches of air and the border.
“Look, Mountie, this is American business, don’t stick your nose in it.”
“He is on the Canadian soil now.”
“Then I’ll arrange ex… exra… extradition.”
“Extradition will be denied until the doctor gives permission.”
“What’s wrong with you, Clive? Why are you defending him? You are the one who always talks about the rule of law.”
“That is the point. Did you even hear about the presumption of innocence, Jack? Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat.”
“The burden of proof is on he who declares, not on he who denies, in other words – one is considered innocent until proven guilty. You said he is wanted dead or alive. Anyone on your side of the border can kill him before his guilt can be proven. Kill him just because his face is on a piece of paper.”
Clive never knew what Jack was going to reply because the door of the office swung opened and a boy ran inside.
“Jack, hurry up, you should see it!”
“What happen, Willie?”
“A rider just entered the town. Mrs. Sally said he looks like death himself. All in black, even his horse is black, and his eyes are as chilled as ice.”
“I think I should take a look at that Mr. Death.”
Jack checked the Colt in the holster on his left hip and left the office.
The black gelding was tied at the saloon so Jack knew where he would find the newcomer. He pushed aside the batwing doors of the saloon and entered. The newcomer was standing at the bar with a bottle of whiskey before him. Jack caught his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, their eyes met. Jack recognized him immediately. Five years hadn’t changed him much, or the sepulchral cold still lingering in his eyes. Jack cast a look at the bartender. He was pale and shaking like a leaf. A few customers looked mighty uncomfortable, too. Jack walked to the bar and stood next to the newcomer.
“Coffee, Zack,” he said to the bartender. “Everything quiet here?”
“Yes, Jack,” Zack answered pouring coffee from a big pot.
Jack took a sip of bitter liquid and turned to the newcomer.
“Surprised you’re still alive, Larabee.”
“Can say the same about you, Stand Fast Craddock.”
Jack smirked at his old nickname. “Kinda have a new start here.”
“I see,” Larabee nodded at the badge on the Marshal’s chest. “The law now, huh?”
“Yeah. Let’s have a seat?”
They took their drinks and sat at the table in a far corner. Larabee poured a shot glass of whiskey and slid it across the table to Jack. “For a meeting.”
“I quit drinking that stuff,” Jack pushed a glass back.
Larabee shrugged and swallowed the whiskey as easy as if it was water. Jack eyed him closely. Larabee looked pale and worn out, and his mental state sure as hell was as bad as physical. He looked like a man at the edge, and a man in such a state meant nothing but trouble.
“What bring you so far north?” Jack said sipping his coffee.
“What kind of business?”
“It’s a small town and I don’t like to think about any shooting here.”
“I’m looking for a man. Name’s Tanner. If he’s here, give him to me, and there won't be any shooting.”
“I was out of town for a couple of days, gotta ask people if they know something.”
Jack got up and went to the bar.
“Zack, did he ask you about something?” he asked the bartender in a low whisper.
“Yes, about the strangers in town,” the bartender whispered back. “I said nothing about yesterday’s newcomer. He's a good boy; he saved the corporal’s life and people’s money.”
“You did good, Zack. Take care of Larabee’s horse, I don’t want him on that side of the line.”
Jack left the saloon and returned to his office. Clive was there still writing something. Jack strode to the Mountie’s desk and put his hands on the desktop. Clive looked at him questioningly.
“If you want that Tanner fella alive keep him on the Canadian side,” Jack growled.
“What made you change your mind?”
“There is a gunslinger in town. Name’s Larabee. A really mean cold-blooded fella. Shot an 18 year old boy straight through the heart without batting an eye in Dodge City. Has killed many others. He’s looking for Tanner now. Whether it’s personal or for the bounty, Tanner has no chance of surviving a meeting with him. I’ll try to keep Larabee on my side of town, you keep Tanner on yours.”
“Good. I’ll check him out right now.”
“If things come down to shooting, don’t try Larabee. He’ll kill you, and I hate to think about the new woodpecker here. Kinda got used to you.”
Clive winked at him. “Always knew you are a sweet on me, Jack.”
Clive knocked on the door of Marie’s house and entered after he heard Marie’s invitation. He headed straight to the dining room and saw Marie leaning over her patient who was still lying on the table covered with a blanket.
“How is he?” Clive asked.
“I removed the bullet. He is lucky, his lung wasn’t punctured. I hope he will recover, but there's always something can go wrong. He has a fever now and if it builds up.”
“Did he regain consciousness?”
“No. Maybe because he hit his head falling, he has a large bump on the back of his head. For now I have done everything I can. Can you bring him upstairs?”
Clive wrapped Vin’s limp body in a blanket and carefully raised him from the table. Carrying Vin in his arms, he followed Marie upstairs into the spare bedroom. After Vin was settled in the bed there Marie went downstairs and returned with Vin's gunbelt and a bowl of water. She placed the items on the nightstand and turned to Clive.
“I need to check out the prisoner in jail and then visit the store. Can you sit with him for a while?”
“Yes, take your time.”
Clive sat in the chair near the bed, looking at Vin and thinking about what was happening. He couldn’t believe Vin was a cold-blooded killer. A mean fighter – yes, but not a murderer. He stretched out his hand and smoothed back a brown lock from Vin’s forehead. Vin’s face was pale under the tan, the fine sheet of perspiration covered his skin. Clive wet a cloth in cold water and wiped Vin’s face. Vin became restless, his head trashed back and forth on a pillow. His lips quivered, and hoarse whisper escaped them. Clive leaned closer to make out words.
“Chris… Chris… Chris, I love you. Don’t let me go, Chris…”
Clive straightened up in the chair, his cheeks flushing brightly. Being a well educated and open minded man, he was far from condemning such kind of things, but unintentional interference in someone else's personal life got him embarrassed. Looked like this guy had more problems than a bounty on his head and a gunfighter on his heels. Clive felt an irresistible urge to help Vin. Not only because Vin had saved his life and Clive owed him now, but whoever that Chris was, he had hurt Vin and made him run. Clive looked at Vin’s face. A stubble and fatigue couldn’t hide the fine lines of a boyish face. Vin deserved to live and enjoy his life. Clive was going to make it happen, but he had to enlist the help of Jack for it.
As if answering his thoughts, the downstairs door opened and Jack’s voice sounded in the hall, “Clive?”
Clive got up and went to the top of the stairs, “Here. Don’t yell, he is sleeping.”
Jack nodded and joined him. They entered the bedroom and Jack went to the bed and cast a curious look at Vin.
“Looks innocent enough. Wonder what he did to piss off a man like Larabee.”
Vin shivered, his lips moved again trying to say something, but words turned into moan.
“Did he talk about something?” Jack asked.
Clive looked at Vin, than at Jack, and said, “He talked about a man named Chris. Said he fell in love with him.”
Jack paled and collapsed into a chair. “Damn!”
“Things like that happen, you should know it.”
“That ain't the problem. The problem is this boy is really stupid.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Larabee’s name is Chris.”
Clive paled himself. “Damn.”
“Maybe they had… they were…” Clive struggled to find words and failed.
“Do you remember I told you about my family murdered in Mexico? Larabee’s story is pretty much the same. When I met him a few years ago, he was the walking dead. Well, we both were back then.”
“But you moved on and started all over again here.”
“When I saw him today at the saloon, he looked like the same Larabee. All dead inside.”
“What shall we do?”
“As I said, keep them on opposite sides of the line, at least until this boy gets some of his strength back.”
Vin slowly regained consciousness. The first thing he felt was dull pain in his shoulder. When he got used to it, he began to make out other things around him. He was lying on something soft and clean, and the faint smell of perfume filled the air. He was in someone’s house. The sound of the town’s routine activity came from afar but inside the house it was quiet. However, Vin felt someone’s presence here, someone watching him. At the same time he felt no threat. He opened his eyes slowly. The world around him swayed, then his eyes focused and he looked around. He was lying on a bed in a fancy furnished room lit by faint morning light.
“Good morning, Vin,” a vaguely familiar voice said.
Vin turned his head and recognized a man sitting in a chair next to the bed. “Clive.”
Clive smiled warmly. “Nice to see you back in this world.”
“How bad?” Vin’s throat didn’t want to cooperate well, and the words sounded like a croak.
“Here. Drink it.”
Clive took a mug from the nightstand and brought it to Vin’s lips. Vin took a sip, then another one. Cool water felt good.
“Enough,” Clive took a mug back. “You’ll make yourself sick drinking too much now. You had a bad fever last night.”
“Will heal just fine if you’ll lie still for at least a few days.”
“Can’t do it.”
“You can,” Clive raised his hand silencing the further protests. “You are on the Canadian side now. You are safe here.”
“Safe? Why do you think I need safety?”
“Jack Craddock, the Marshal, said you are a wanted man.”
Vin flinched. “Aw hell. I knew that would happen.”
“Are you guilty of that crime?”
“No. Was framed. Can’t proof my innocence.”
Clive nodded. Vin watched him. Seemed the story of his bounty didn’t bother the Mountie too much. At the same time, something else had kept Clive’s thoughts occupied, and whatever it was, it wasn’t a pleasant thing. And in the first place, why was Clive at his bedside in the early morning?
“Why are you here?”
“You saved my life. I owe you.”
Vin tensed. “You said the Marshal can’t arrest me here.”
“He can’t. It’s not about him.”
Clive walked to the window and looked outside obviously buying time. Finally he came to the decision and turned to Vin.
“Chris Larabee is in town. He is looking for you.”
The soft spoken words hit Vin with crushing force. His breath caught in his throat, icy fingers squeezed his guts, and he felt himself falling into the darkness.
He felt slaps on his cheeks, and his mind cleared a bit.
“Are you all right? Here, drink it. I shouldn’t have blurted it out like that.”
Vin took a sip of water and pushed away Clive’s hand ready to slap him again. “I’m fine.”
Clive obviously wasn’t convinced but pulled back and sat on the edge of the bed. Vin closed his eyes and lay still for a few moments gathering his thoughts.
“How do you know about Chris?” he asked finally.
“Jack met him in town yesterday. And you… you said something in fever.”
Vin’s pale face turned crimson.
“What does he want?”
“Judging by his appearance and behavior – to shoot you.”
“Aw hell,” Vin sighed.
It would be for the best if Chris just shot him straight and he was done with his parody of existence. But he was never lucky enough to get what he wanted. Why did Chris follow him, anyway? He brutally suppressed a glimmer of hope that Chris wanted him back. No. When he ran away with Charlotte almost a year ago, Chris made it clear that the choice was his. And then at Gaines’ ranch he told Chris about leaving, and Chris didn’t lift a finger to stop him. He knew his leaving had hurt Chris, but Chris never tried to change his mind. No matter how much Vin had wanted him to do it.
The first morning light pulled Chris out of a restless sleep filled with nightmares. He took a deep breath and ran his hand over his face, wiping away the cold sweat. Those nightmares had haunted him every night for three months. They were worse than the ones he'd had before discovering the truth about the murder of his family. And now not only his family had been taken away from him. In his nightmares he ran after Vin and could never reach him in time, Vin died and he was powerless to save him. He woke and realized that this wasn’t just a nightmare; Vin really had left him for good. The aftermath of sleep was vanished by blinding rage when he told himself that Vin had no right to run away from him, not now, not ever. Then rage melted away leaving emptiness in his soul. Emptiness which nothing could fill. He tried to get used to it, told himself he had to live on without Vin at his side, but he couldn’t. That was why he was on the trail, and why he was here in Bordertown.
He remembered the day when the chase had started. He was lying in his room in the boarding house in Four Corners when boys came to him and told him that Vin and Peso had disappeared without a trace. They talked about bounty hunters or the need for solitude but Chris knew the truth – Vin was going just as he said that last night at the damned ranch. Vin was loyal to him enough to wait until he was out of woods and had helped with the search for the bitch, but he hadn’t changed his mind. Perhaps that was Chris’ fault. He had to talk to Vin and explain his behavior and why he had forced himself into Ella’s hands. He had to ask Vin to help him to overcome his grief and that terrible truth. But he never said anything, taking for granted that Vin understood him without words. All these thoughts had come to him later on a trail. That day he just got out of bed and went to livery for Pony, ignoring the boys’ protests and arguments about his health. He made it clear he was going after Vin and he was going alone. They tried to follow him but were forced to step back. They were his friends, but this was between him and Vin.
He was scared when he found out that Vin was heading to Tascosa. Then he reached the Goodnight–Loving Trail, and despite logic and knowledge of Vin’s habits Chris turned north. His gut feeling or the invisible bond with Vin, whatever it was, helped him follow Vin’s trail. From day to day he was on a trail but he couldn’t catch up with Vin. That reminded him of the times spent searching for Sarah’s and Adam’s murderer, and his sanity failed him. All his old habits returned, as if there hadn't been two blessed years in Four Corners. Sometimes he even thought that Vin wasn’t a real person, just another ghost in his life.
The shouts outside returned Chris to reality. Vin’s trail had led him here, to the north border, and that was an end point. Vin was too heat-loving to head into Canada. Either he was somewhere here or Chris was on the wrong track. He asked about Vin yesterday but the locals would say nothing. Too many strangers passed through the town, and Vin was very skilful in melting into the crowd. Perhaps, Craddock could tell him more. He had to get up and find him.
Chris slowly raised himself off the bed, he was too weak for his liking. A trail wasn’t the best place for recovering after getting a gunshot wound. Soon he wouldn’t be able to raise his Colt if he didn’t stop and rest somewhere. But he couldn’t stop and rest until he found Vin. When he finally got to that son of a bitch, he would kick his ass all way back to Four Corners. That ass… damn, he had many other things in his mind what he could do with Vin’s ass.
Thinking about that, Chris put on his clothes, checked the Colt and headed downstairs. Despite the early hour a few tables in the saloon were occupied by rough looking cowboys having breakfast. Chris stood near the bar and asked for coffee. The smell of food made him nauseous and he preferred coffee to whiskey. His ears caught a fragment of conversation of two cowboys at the nearby table.
“Don’t want to put my money into the bank,” one of the cowboys said. “Every yahoo in this territory is trying to rob it. Heard the last attempt was only the day before yesterday.”
“Saw it with my own eyes. That guy who backed the Mountie was good. Never seen a guy shoot like that. A real sharpshooter. Hit a robber in the back when he was at the end of the street.”
Chris tensed. Was it possible that two sharpshooters were in the small town in Montana at the same time? He rushed to the table and grabbed the cowboy by the shirt.
“What does the sharpshooter look like?” he growled.
The cowboy paled under his gaze. Chris shook him forcing him to talk.
“Buckskin clad, long hair,” the cowboy cracked. “Looked like a tracker.”
“Where is he?”
“I… I don’t know. He was shot yesterday morning. The Mountie took him to the doctor’s.”
“Where is it?”
“A big white house next to the livery on the Canadian side.”
Chris threw the cowboy away, and he landed on a table that collapsed under his weight. Chris stormed out of the saloon. He saw the described house at the end of the street and hurried there. He didn’t notice the people who shied away from him, didn’t hear the shouts as his whole mind was occupied by one thing – Vin was here and Vin was shot. He might never find Vin alive, and his nightmares could come true.
He reached the house and knocked hard on the door. A moment later it opened, a man in a red coat with the corporal’s stripes was standing in the doorway. He looked Chris up and down, then said, “Mr. Larabee, you will oblige me by keeping yourself and your reputation on the American side of the border.”
Chris was tempted to throw the Corporal out of his way or simply shoot him. Apparently, his intentions were clear because the Corporal put his hand on his holster.
“Is he here? Get out my way,” Chris demanded.
The answer was firm as the expression of the Corporal’s face.
“I’ll kill you.”
That wasn’t a threat but statement, and the Corporal knew it but didn’t move. The next moment Chris noticed movement inside the house, and then he heard a too familiar but so weak voice, “Chris.”
Chris looked up and saw Vin standing on the stairs. Vin was wrapped into a blanket, his face was ashen and he had to learn against a wall to support himself upright.
“Let him in, Clive,” Vin said.
The Corporal turned back and looked at him. “Are you sure?”
Chris could have pushed the Corporal out of his way at that moment, but he was too stunned on seeing Vin. He felt his legs weaken and he needed the support of a wall himself.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
The Corporal obviously was in disagreement, but stepped aside. Vin turned away and disappeared into the room upstairs. Chris followed him. When he entered the room, Vin was sitting on a bed, a blanket still wrapped around his body, but its ends parted above revealing the thick white bandage visible on his left shoulder. Now Chris could see Vin’s face clearly, it was skinny and haggard, the feverishly glittering eyes seemed too big for it.
“Vin…” the voice failed Chris.
“What do you want, Chris?”
“We need to talk.”
“I’m done with talking. You didn’t have to make all the way to Montana for it.”
“I didn’t have to make it all the way to Montana if you didn’t run away in the middle of the night like a thief.”
“That was a clue I didn’t want anybody, especially you, following me. I had told you several times – I’m leaving.”
“Why, Vin? I know those things I said and did at her ranch were unforgivable. Back then I had no idea about…” Chris’ voice broke when the memory about Ella Gaines swept over him.
Vin’s huge eyes filled with compassion. “Chris, don’t dare blame yourself for her crimes. That wasn’t your fault.”
“So why did you leave? I thought that after that shooting, after you had held me, you would stay.”
Vin didn’t answer. He lay back on the bed and turned away. Chris walked to the bed and sat on the other side of it. Vin was so close and at the same time he was miles away withdrawn into himself.
“It’s complicated,” Vin said finally, his voice barely audible.
“Tell me,” Chris whispered.
“I’m living with a hangman’s noose around my neck, and when I die, I’ll leave no legacy. No family, no home. Nothing.”
“I don’t have that either.”
“But you could. You should have it. Your type, you make something of your life, you leave something behind. I just disappear with nobody knowing or remember… caring...”
“That’s not true, Vin. You have friends who care about you. I care about you. Do you know how life would be for me without you? There wouldn’t be me anymore. You helped me make my way out of that hell where I was for three years.”
“You could do it on your own with time.”
“No, I couldn’t. Anyway, you made it easy.”
Vin turned his head and glanced at Chris. “Easy?”
Chris smiled. “Let’s say interesting. I count on you, Vin. You’re the best friend I ever have.”
He reached out and put his hand on Vin’s forearm squeezing it. Vin was lying still looking away, then his fingers moved and he returned a gesture.
“It’s mutual,” he whispered.
Chris got up and walked around the bed. When he faced Vin, he knelt before him and leaned over. He paused when his lips were only inch away from Vin’s. Vin didn’t pull back, and Chris overcame the distance between them covering Vin’s mouth with his own. Vin’s lips parted, and Chris deepened the kiss, his hand digging into Vin’s hair and pulling him closer. When they ended the kiss searching for air, Chris distanced himself enough to see Vin’s eyes and said, “Don’t leave me again, ever. Promise me.”
Vin nodded, looking just into Chris’ eyes. “I promise.”
Chris kissed him again, as if sealing the promise with the kiss.
“Oh Vin,” he whispered when they parted. “Thought I lost you forever.”
“When you were gone I realized I could do nothing to get back Sarah and Adam, but I could at least try to find you.”
“So you hit the road ignoring the hole in your chest? Damn, Larabee, you’re looking like a scarecrow now.”
“Look at yourself. What happened to you?”
“Helped the Mountie with some robbers.”
“Risking yourself even without payment of a dollar a day, huh?”
“Have nothing better to do.”
“By the way, the Mountie is that Corporal downstairs? Clive, right? He looks very friendly to you.”
Vin’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Hey, Larabee, don’t tell me you’re jealous.”
“I don’t need to be jealous, I can always shoot him.”
Vin shook his head, then lay back on pillows and closed his eyes.
“Are you all right?” Chris worried.
“Tired. Need to rest a bit.”
“Do you need anything? Any help?”
“No. Just stay with me.”
Clive was pacing Marie’s living room, pondering about the new turn of events. The front door swung opened and Jack burst into the house, his Colt drawn.
“Why the hell do you let him in?” he yelled seeing Clive. “Where is he?”
Jack started to take stairs but Clive stopped him with firm grip of his hand on Jack’s arm. “No.”
Jack turned a furious face to him. “What’s wrong with you, Corporal? I thought you wanted to save that boy.”
“We were wrong. They need some time alone.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Larabee's in love with him.”
“Vin asked me to let Larabee in, they went upstairs and then there was quiet for awhile, so I went and took a look. They didn’t even notice me, but I saw the look on Larabee’s face. It was shining with love. He held Vin in his arms and it looked like he held his life itself.”
“Damn,” Jack shook his head trying to imagine it. “C’mon, I need to see it by myself.”
Vin was slumbering, feeling content and secure in Chris’ presence. Chris was sitting on the bed leaning his back against the headboard, and Vin was using his lap as a pillow, Chris’ hand stroking his hair. Suddenly Chris’ body tensed, alerting Vin. He heard approaching footsteps and forced himself to open his eyes. Clive and a man who had to be Marshal Jack Craddock entered the room. The Marshal was tallish man about forty, dressed in dusty worn clothing, his weathered face was unshaven, but his brown eyes sparkled with sharp mind making dissonance with his rough outfit. He stared at the couple on the bed, and Vin flushed under his gaze, tearing himself off Chris and sitting upright.
“You should have told me about him, Craddock,” Chris growled, definitely mad at the Marshal.
“Wasn’t sure it was a good idea,” Jack retorted, then looked at Vin and added, “Nice to see you up, boy.”
Vin didn’t let the cheeriness fool him. He remembered the Marshal knew about his bounty. “What are you looking for here?” he snapped.
Jack sat in a chair and stretched his legs, Clive still stood in the doorway looking a bit stiffly as if he felt uncomfortable interrupting Vin’s and Chris’ privacy.
“I have to arrest you,” Jack said.
“No way,” Chris said in a steel voice, his hand gripped the butt of his Colt.
“Don’t do it, Chris,” Jack warned. “You’re as fast as me, you know it. The shooting will do no good.”
“You’re damn wrong if you think I let you take him.”
“Chris, stop it,” Vin interrupted, his fingers squeezed Chris’ arm. “Don’t mess with the Marshal.”
“Jack, you can’t…” Clive started to say, but Jack raised his hand silencing the room.
“Let me finish. I said I have to arrest Tanner, but I ain’t gonna do it. You’re free to go, boy.”
He got up and left the room before a stunned Chris and Vin could say something.
“Jack!” Clive called, and Jack paused at stairs waiting when the Mountie caught up with him.
“Why did you do it, Jack?” Clive asked.
“It was the right thing to do when I saw them together. This boy makes Larabee alive. Even if he is guilty of murder, he atoned for it. But you know, Clive, for once I’m gonna agree with you – he isn’t a murderer. And I know pretty well how it feels having a bounty on your head. Have one myself in Mexico.”
“I always knew you had a big heart.”
“Damn, even the hardest bastard would blubber seeing them like this, wouldn’t he? Never had thought to see true love between a mean gunslinger and a scruffy tracker.”
“Never read about it in any book either,” Clive agreed.