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A Winter's Tale

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If I hadn't yelled -- it would all be different.

Tumbling out of a fight in a bar somewhere in California, and I could see some blond kid about to get beaned in the head by a miner with a chair. Don't know why I did it, it just came out my mouth without anything intervening. I guess my instincts knew. Even if they didn't tell the rest of me, they knew.

"Duck!" I yelled over the uproar in the bar. The stranger dropped, twisted, kicked where it would do the most good and I winced as the man and chair went flying. "Wanna hand there, pard?"

He grinned breathlessly up at me as I held out a hand to pull him back to his feet. He was halfway to vertical when his pale eyes widened, his free hand snapped down, and up, and he fired so close that the bullet burnt a track along my shirt. For a second I thought he'd meant it for me, then a thud behind me told me that my favor to a stranger had been more than repaid, and my heart started up again. I pulled him the rest of the way up and nodded at him as I let go. A quick glance over my shoulder showed me a man with a knife fallen by his dead hand and the brawl still going strong, and I looked back at him.

"Chris Larabee." He stuck his hand out and I shook it, like a pair of gentlemen taking our time of day in the middle of that stinking little bar fight. He had this wild grin on his face, and those odd colored eyes kept turning back to the fight with a kind of hunger in them, and I knew right then that this was better than an ally.

"Buck Wilmington!" I shouted over the noise of breaking glass and wood, "Wanna play?" We eyed up the fight spilling out into the street, and with a whoop I dived back in, Larabee right next to me.

In any decent story we'd've broken through the fight, shot our way out, and ridden hell for leather out of town, maybe saving a fair maiden or two on the way. Hell, the way I tell the story these days, that's just exactly what did happen. Back then though, I wasn't so smart, and we finished the night out in jail, sitting side by side on a hard bench masquerading as a bed. Not even the addition of a grey blanket improved its disguise. It still felt like the grand opening of an adventure. Even if his nose was still dripping blood periodically, with him just ignoring the drops as we talked.

"Tip yer head back."

He blinked vaguely at me. The only light came in from the barred window high above our heads, and was dim and silvery. Black trickles ran slowly to his lip and he licked at the bead of blood, then swiped at it with the back of his hand. "Stop your nose."

He looked at the back of his blood smeared hand and laughed. "It'll stop soon enough." He licked it clean and swallowed, adding, "Waste not want not," with a grin.

I grinned back. He was older than me, it turned out, and with an attitude that raised the hackles of every man we met, and I liked that. I liked the idea of walking through the world like I owned it; like it owed me and it was fucking well going to pay up. Oh yeah, Chris Larabee always was crazy. Time and more grief than one man can bear -- than two men could bear -- changed the nature of it, but he always was crazy.

Funny how it lingers in my memory. That cell was filthy and cold. I can still smell it, rank with mold and crap and piss. Didn't care, didn't even really notice, for all it's so close in my memory. My head was pounding between the bad beer and the hard punches. There was a cut on my cheek, bruises up and down my arms and chest, and I knew he couldn't be much better. But what I remember, really remember, is him laughing, and the way we talked for hours, about the war, and our families, and girls we'd had, and girls we were gonna have, and he envied me growing up in a brothel, and I envied him his farm and his kid brothers and baby sister, and I guess both of us pretended that we didn't know that it couldn't have been all that great if we were both stuck in a jail nowhere near either.

We thought we were so old, so worldly wise, and all we was, was a pair of inexperienced kids, afire with the idea that they'd found a true chum; silly with romantic notions of brotherhood; and no notion what we was missing.

When the sun rose we was still talking. They threw us out, told us not to come back, and he sneered at them, told them he wouldn't stay if they asked him, and we lit out of there. Oh, we were the big men, scored one over the law all right. Saddled up, and we got to arguing, his horse was prettier, but mine was faster, but his stood taller, but mine stepped higher, so nothing would do but we raced them down the main thoroughfare, kicking dust in the teeth of the sheriff and laughing when we finished up neck and neck on the town limits.

We argued the toss on everything. If he said it was raining, I said it looked like sunshine. Dared each other to take the more dangerous path, the stupider risk. Kids. The best one? My favorite one? When we got to talking about gunslingers.

Even then, damn but he could shoot. Was only days after we met at the most. We were miles away from anywhere, and that old town was forgotten on the trail behind us. You know, I don't even remember what it was called. Just another dusty little place that we couldn't go back to. Wish I remembered. We collected a lot of those no-name burgs over the next few years, but it was outside that one he told me he'd back himself to outdraw any man.

Yeah, sure. 'Course I argued it. I was nineteen, fresh from fighting for God and the Union without a scratch on me, so I knew no man could beat me. Nothing for it but to have him prove it. You'd think I'd'a learned better after seeing him in action that first night, but no, only occurred to me afterwards. What Josiah likes to call getting wisdom the hard way. Kids.

There we are, horses ground tied, back to back, twenty paces, turn, and -- Jesus God, the bullet whistled past my cheek as my hand was still coming up and I couldn't stop, my finger closed, and he jerked and dropped to his knees, clapping one hand to his shoulder, the gun falling to the ground.

"Chris!" I ran for him, and he lifted his head, and he was laughing.

For a second there I thought he was shot, he'd caught it, I'd shot him even though we'd promised to aim clear, and he lifted his hand away, eyes dancing, a grin splitting his face, crowing with laughter. I kept running even though my heart had started again. I plowed straight into him, knocked him to the ground, and wrestled him to a standstill, pretending to throttle him as I pinned him and glowered into his hazel-grey eyes.

And we were both laughing.

That's what I remember. A pair of silly boys, who'd come out the other side of a war, and found something they thought they'd lost in each other. Laughing, roughhousing, sharing blankets and food and comfort as easily and with as little consciousness as a pair of innocent babes in arms. We had no fucking clue. But whatever it was, we backed each other against anyone, anything. Crooks, lawmen, irate fathers, angry husbands... it didn't matter.

Crazy as loons. Giddy, crazy, joyous. We lived from hand to mouth -- a job in one town would see us set for a month. Turned our hands to most things: riding shotgun; following the trail. Outriders; hired guns; hired hands. Hell, even persuaded one place I was a fit man to call as sheriff, and he my deputy, which I never ever let him forget, until the town fathers asked us to leave.

What was her name now? Lettie. That was it. Pretty as sunshine, light as a summer breeze, and easy as butter...

On reflection, I should have paid more attention to who her father was -- the mayor. Put us out of a comfortable winter berth, but we moved on, found somewhere else, survived.

It wasn't all sunshine and laughter, but it was a summer's road; easy on the soul and good to the heart. Even when the rain came, we knew the sun was just around the corner.

Time passed, and we got better, more experienced, got a name for ourselves, and started to earn more than we spent, enough to put some aside. We weren't going to be those old guys who were still riding in their forties and fifties. We were going to go somewhere, be someone. The government opened up the Territories, and Chris and I pooled our war papers, and our money, and we bought us a spread, and a couple of good brood mares, and prayed like hell that we'd be able to afford a cover fee come the spring.

Come the spring, things changed.

Sarah. Married her out of hand, took a loan from the bank, and bought me out.

It wasn't the money. It was his way of squaring things between us. Maybe he vaguely knew that it wasn't friendship I wanted, even before I knew it. He brought a wife into our home, and I figured it out. Too damn late.

I guess I never forgave Sarah Connelly Larabee for marrying him. If Chris's winter of the soul started when we came over the hill and saw the blackened, smoking rubble of his world, then mine began the day she promised to wed him.

He was smiling at me. His eyes were dancing, almost green under the evening lanterns, and his face was full of joy, and you know, I had no clue. No clue that when he told me she'd said yes, when he spoke the words that I already knew were coming, that I wouldn't be able to smile back. He was blinded by his own joy, and I smiled at him, a split second later than was natural, congratulated him, promised to stand up for him. In my turn blinded by the obliteration of a hope I hadn't even known I had, that I didn't know what to call, or how to handle. He was my brother, I loved him, and I couldn't bear the idea of sharing him, and I was furious at my own wrong-headed jealousy and selfishness for being that way.

By Christmas, they had a son, and I knew two things. First, he'd bedded that girl before she got anywhere near a preacher. And second, that I couldn't stay. For Chris's sake, I loved Adam. For Chris's sake, I came back, and for hers, left again, as often as I could stand it.

And when she died, he never forgave me for that night, when we pretended we were both still on the summer road, and sang and laughed in a cantina while Adam and Sarah burned alive in a little hillside ranch. I don't think I'll ever forgive myself either.

Time goes on, winding to the dreadful hour when we're all dust in our graves and Larabee went looking harder than most. Nothing I could do, or say. Those silly, crazy boys were lost, as dead as his family, and I grieved near as much for them as he did for wife and son.

He put a fist in my gut, and he laughed. He murdered men, boys, for daring to let him live. He held a razor to my throat and forbade me to speak of them. And like some everlasting watch spring, I'd pull myself back together and keep on going.

He didn't seem to know, or care, whether I was there. He cut me off, every way he could and in the end, I guess I gave up. I don't remember for sure when he put off his black. I know when he put it on again, and hardened his heart again, because I was plain astonished that this time I was on the inside. He let me in again, and I found out that the past wasn't as dead as I'd feared. Nor even as dead as I'd hoped.

Fowler.

It was coming back even before then, back like it used to be. Saving another lady even if she was a thief, in another stupid dusty little town by the name of Purgatorio. We didn't even need to speak to know what we was gonna do, just played it out, and he shot me, and as I crumpled into the dust, still feeling the whistle of the bullet past my cheek, all I could think was it was all still there after all. My gun fell from my hand, and I lay in the road, feeling the bastards pulling off my boots, taking my belt, anything of value. And I was grinning like a loon.

Takes Chris Larabee to say 'I forgive you' by shooting at a fellow. Took me a while to think it right through, but I got it in the end. And now Fowler's dead, and maybe it can be over.

When I get home, I'm gonna go up to that little piece of land he bought. I know exactly what I'm gonna do. I'm older now. Older and harder, and smarter.

I'm gonna hold out my hand, and say, "Wanna hand there, pard?"

And this time, I ain't letting no silly notions of 'brotherhood' get in the way of what I'm wanting.

~*~*~*~*~*~

I swore this wasn't going to happen. He's smiling at me, and I know, like a knife in my heart, that it's too late. I promised myself I wouldn't feel again, wouldn't fall again, that the joy wasn't worth the pain.

Fowler's dead.

Surrounded, shot, burned... poetic justice. Maybe they can rest easy -- maybe I can rest easy now. That quiet little plot is restful enough. Maybe it always was, and it was just me that brought the angry ghosts with me every time I stood there. I thought it would be over when their murderer paid his debt, but vengeance is for the living, not the dead. There's no justice, there's no end. There's no forgiveness.

Buck's the only one who remembers.

I'm watching the place burn, I can't turn away, and in the flames, I'm seeing somewhere not so far from here, not so long ago, a dusty street. My voice yelling, you killed my brother! Without a flicker he tells me to shoot straight. That old wordless, flawless partnership just falling into place like I didn't spend the worst three years of my life trying to kill it. I shot at him, and I remembered, as he clutched at his chest and tumbled to his knees, a day on the trail, the first days we knew each other. I thought it was so funny to make him think he'd hit me after we'd promised to fire into the air. I cut my shot as close as I knew how, and nearly cried with laughter at the look on his face when he reached me and realized he hadn't shot me. Even Buck laughs about it. Laughed.

Not two weeks ago I saw him tumble face down into the dirt and I turned around and walked away, and all I could see was the look on his face when he'd thought he'd shot me, before I gave the joke away. I can put a name to that face now: horror. I wanted to run too. Wanted to run back, and lift him up, and make sure that I hadn't -- he wasn't really dead. I wanted to run away. I didn't wait to see the blood pooling beneath him. I didn't need to see it. I knew it was there, red and bitter as ash. I knew it wasn't there, my hand as sure as the day we tried to out draw each other.

I'd broken my own rule without even realizing it was breaking. I promised myself, I'd leave before I fell in love again. So long, so long to find strength again. Not hardness, that was easy; easy enough to pull ice over the wound, that raw place where two souls had been bound to mine and were no more. But the strength to let them go, even a little. I'd promised myself that if I couldn't bear it in five years, I'd kill myself. And here I was, alive, and knowing I would stay that way, as long as I had him to hang onto. Don't look back.

And there I was, leaving. Too late. I knew he was alive. I knew I hadn't hit him. I knew he was dead, and I would never be alive again. I wanted to look back.

Tonight, when he came into that stinking bar with all the rest of them, trapping Fowler for me, I -- I was half afraid he was a ghost. Half afraid that even dead at my hands, Buck Wilmington would still fight my corner, back to back, hand to hand, whatever I needed. Another ghost raging for blood. My blood.

Fowler's dead, and I still don't know why they died. I still don't know why I am alive. There is no justice.

We'll ride home, all seven of us. Bruised, bloody. Silent.

Home? No. I think it's time to let go, leave. I don't know where, but I can't do this. There's been something in his eyes these last days, and it's not the laughing friendship that I knew by heart, or even the battered resignation that I drove into him. What lay beneath is exposed, rough bark sheared away to show the true grain.

I've gotta go. I want to -- I want to stay, but I can't. If I don't stay, I can't be hurt again. If I'm not here, if he's not with me, I can't lose him.

If I go far, far away then maybe I can always remember him the way we were; laughing crazy kids, always off to the next horizon, hunting adventures, and finding more than we deserved to survive. He'll always be alive then. I won't hear any news, I'll block my ears, walk away, and he'll always be just behind that bend in the road, just out of sight. Safe.

I have too many ghosts already to gain another one.

~*~*~*~*~*~

I'm going back to the start. I said I would, and I'm a man of my word. But I can't help grinning at the thought of the words I'm wanting to hear.

"Wanna hand, pard?" I call.

He looks up. His bags are packed, bulging on his pack pony, and the string's been pushed back through the latch. He's saddling up, and I feel giddy with relief that he's not gone yet.

"I've got it, thanks," he says coolly, and I sit back in the saddle and narrow my eyes to get a good look at him. Chris Larabee ain't much of a hand at being a coward, and he glares right back, even though he knows that the sensible thing would be to keep his head down, buckling cinches and settling the leathers.

"You heading out?"

He shrugs. This time he doesn't look at me, and I grin. "Chicken."

He holds still. He doesn't cotton to being called a coward either. I've seen him draw on a man and shoot him for looking at him the wrong way. I know Chris Larabee, and he wants to make me take it back, wants to turn around and doesn't dare to. I'm guessing that fair chokes his craw.

"Chris."

Don't need to shout. Don't need nothing except to just say his name, like a reproach. His eyes lift, and it's all there. He's figured it out.

"Buck." It's all there, in those two words. Chris. Buck. Us. The place where love and lust intersect, and change into something so wild and pure that my hand is touching his face before I even know I'm off my horse.

He doesn't react. Fastest man I ever saw on the draw, and as my fingers run over his mouth his thin lips curve upwards, and his hands are still.

I'm not convinced, despite the surety in my heart, so when I lean in it's real slow. Our mouths slant together, him tilting his head to meet me. His nose rubs my cheek, his breath steady on my face. I want a taste, and I try for one, and his tongue touches mine, reaching for me with unexpected courage. We both pull back, looking carefully into each other's eyes, gauging the nature of this.

We never took this path before, but there's no surprise in us. A little fear in him, but under it I can see a madness rising like a bubble through water, ready to burst. I know that madness, and there's a little fear in me too, a dam trembling as it holds back everything that I've wanted in case he changes his mind. My own kind of insanity.

"You leaving?" I ask again.

He tilts a half smile at me. "Guess not." He leans in first this time and all the fear is gone.

~*~*~*~*~*~

He dropped to his knees, and I reach for him, confused when he pushes my hands away. I don't understand until his hands pull my belt buckle undone and let its weight carry my pants and drawers down to my ankles, bunching over the tops of my boots. He sits back on his heels and smiles up at me. I can't seem to breathe through the heat of indigo blue eyes smiling up at me, and then his gaze drops about three feet and he takes a good look at me.

"Ain't like you haven't seen it before," I say to him, blurting it out before I can stop myself.

"Yeah," he says easily, "but this time, I'm looking." He's liking what he's looking at too. I can see it in the way his pants bulge, and he shifts, spreading his knees, pushing his hips forwards to give himself a little room.

So it shouldn't have been a surprise when he leaned forward and licked me.

His tongue moved so fast the touch was over before I knew it, and the breeze was doing nothing to chill the rapid rise of flesh. I jerk forward, I want that touch again, and he throws me a sly glance before he licks again, this time taking longer, and when he gets to the tip he laps at it. I can't move, just say his name. I can't believe he's doing this.

He smiles to himself, and I know that look, I just about have time to think, oh shit, and he engulfs me, sucking me into his mouth. I know I cried out, but words are far beyond me. My hands are on his shoulders, the heavy fabric of his jacket rough. My fingers clench, pacing my breathing, pacing the rhythmic pulling of his mouth, his hands. I can't see into his face, I'm curved over him staring down, watching my cock disappear under the sweep of his dark hair. There's no sun, no ground, no horses, no end to this. The only reality is the way my back arches, my hips roll, his mouth wet and grasping, and so deep that I can slide in, and in, and think I may never come out.

I can't breathe. My chest jerks out of time with the drumming in my ears, and for a brief moment there is the scrape of sharp teeth on me, and my hands are in his hair, my body driving forwards, over and over, out of my mind, out of time, out of everything because it's all in him, and we slide to the grass, his arms around me, his lips insistent on mine, and ...

We kiss. Slow. From the madness of his mouth, to the slow rhythms of sleep, easy, open-mouthed, comfortable, locked together in a gentle embrace.

"You okay?" he asks. He leans back a little, trying to see into my eyes. I nod, but I can't take my eyes off his mouth. His lips look reddened, a little puffy. Did I hurt him? My index finger is tracing the outline and his hand comes up, grips mine. Presses a kiss into the palm and looks at me. And we rise up in silence, go inside, and shut the door behind us.

~*~*~*~*~*~

I'm not much for questioning what can't be changed, but I'm wondering what would have happened if I hadn't helped a stranger in a brawl in that old no-name town? Tracing out the paths we took to get here, all that time and trouble. Would destiny still have put us in each other's way? I can't imagine that it wouldn't. I can't bear to imagine that we would never have come to this place in the end.

He's asleep on my chest, in my arms. His lips look swollen and sore now, too, but he doesn't care, I know he doesn't because I don't, even when smiling tugs painfully at my own mouth. He's quiet. Those no-colored eyes are shut, and mine keep closing too, it's a matter of time before we're both asleep, even though I could watch him like this for the rest of my life. Maybe I'll get that chance. His chest is lifting and settling in a slow, easy cadence. He's never leaving this place. It's always going to be here, in his heart, in mine, for when the madness comes back. A little peace. A lot of love. And passion that warms through like the promise of hearth and home on a winter trail.

Maybe we had to take all the steps on the road to get here.

Took so long, but maybe that's okay. We get to start over, today, every day.

And you know, I still don't know what color his eyes are for sure, but they sure look like the color of love to me.