Casting a Shadow
Six weeks after learning of Ella's obsession, Chris starts to get back on with his life, with a friend's help.
The snap of leather and creak of wood merged with the steady clop of hooves and the rattle of wheels as the wagon slowly rolled out of town. On the driver's bench, Chris could see Vin hunched over with his slouch hat pulled down low and reins loose enough in his hands to allow the two horses to set their own pace. In the back of the wagon, provisions and tools were crammed in between the planks already prepared and cut to size by the town's carpenter; Vin, Buck and Josiah had hauled the logs into town a week earlier. Chris knew he could have cut the planks himself and saved a few dollars but the wound from Handsome Jack's bullet had taken its toll, leaving him too tired at the end of each day to even consider heavy labor, until now.
His horse plodded on behind the wagon, and Chris felt the slight ache in his chest from the rocking motion and from the lingering fatigue in his body from yet another restless night's sleep.
Nathan had wanted him to put this off a little longer but with the rains only weeks away, maybe less, he'd realized he had no time to hang around waiting for his full strength to return, if it ever did. The shack wasn't going to fix itself and he wanted to make use of that shack over the winter months. Hell, he wanted to make use of it now to give himself a chance to hole up and lick his wounds away from the prying eyes of the town. He reckoned the Nichols brothers must have shot a hundred or more bullets into it but he'd not been back since then except to size up the amount of work needed to repair the damage. In truth, when Ella walked back into his life and offered him a dream horse ranch - the same one he'd planned on building up for Sarah - he'd decided on giving up his rights to that small parcel of land. He figured some family wanting to settle close to the town might jump at the chance of building a future there.
Now, his dreams lay in ruins once more, making him wonder if Josiah's crows were supposed to be following him rather than the ex-preacher.
Vin set the pace steady and slow, lifting his head to smile softly when Chris drew up alongside. They traveled in companionable silence, neither needing to fill the dawn air with idle chatter when a look or gesture was more than enough to convey meaning. It took them a little longer to reach the shack but Chris felt no desperate need to hurry, especially when he was already starting to ache and could see a long, grueling day ahead of him.
"Whoa!" Vin brought the wagon to a halt ten feet from the shack and whistled low, glancing across at Chris. "Figure we should have taken Josiah and Nathan up on their offer." His voice seemed rougher, huskier, probably from the dust kicked up by the horses on the trail. That voice seemed to reverberate through Chris and he shivered faintly, annoyed but not surprised that Vin noticed. "You okay, pard?"
Chris leveled a glare, wanting to dispel any concerns of lingering weakness; Nathan was not the only mother hen in town. He softened his gaze at the twitch of Vin's lips and nodded. "Just a little saddle sore."
Vin nodded as if he understood, and maybe he did because Vin carried more than a few scars from his hard life, and certainly one that held the star shape of a bullet wound. Chris eased out of the saddle carefully, his hurting pride adding to his irritation with his still healing body even though he knew Vin would make no mention of his current weakness. Vin dropped down beside the wagon and began to unhitch the horses, leading both towards the fenced enclosure. He removed their harnesses and set the horses loose inside the paddock. Chris followed on behind, leading his horse slowly and stopping by the fence. He bit back on a grunt of pain as he lifted the heavy saddle from his horse's back and carried it to the shelf inside the lean-to. Years of experience had his horse running free with the others in minutes and, by then, Vin had drawn the first bucket of water from hand pump to start filling the trough.
With the horses watered and fed, the rest of their day could start. It took far more effort than Chris had expected to remove the first of the damaged planks from the front wall, but soon the air filled with the sound of hammers and creaking, splintering wood.
Vin's words took him by surprise and he looked back to see Vin stepping out of the shack with two plates of corn bread and beans. Glancing up, he blinked at the position of the sun in the sky, figuring it was well past noon, and he wondered where the time had gone to so quickly. Looking back, he didn't seem to have a whole lot to show for a full morning's work, with barely one wall replaced with new wood.
"Ain't gonna finish it in a day, Cowboy."
"Ain't gonna finish it at all if we keep stopping for breaks," he sent back in annoyance, gaining only that slightly raised eyebrow and a twitch of those lips in return. Sighing deeply, Chris took the plate off Vin and sank down onto the narrow wooden steps, forced close enough to Vin that all he needed to do was shuffle a few inches and they'd be pressed together from shoulder to hip. With his sharp-eyes, Vin must have noticed the tremble in his hands as he held the plate and fork but he said nothing. Chris waited but Vin made no immediate suggestion that they take it slower for the rest of the day - or stop altogether and start afresh tomorrow. After a tense moment, he relaxed and they ate in silence, pushing the plates onto the porch behind them once finished, leaning back to enjoy full bellies and the sunlight on their faces.
Vin stretched with innate grace like a big cat on a sunlit rock. "Man could get used to this."
"Well don't. Got a lot more wood to replace before sunset."
"Sure you weren't no Southern landowner in a former life, Chris?"
Chris snorted at the gentle ribbing, wondering if this was the attempt to make him take it slow for the rest of the day that he'd anticipated earlier. He resisted the urge to tell Vin that no one was keeping him here enslaved because he didn't want to start any fights today, not even ones with words. Vin must have heard the unspoken thoughts, gently repeating his own words from earlier.
"Ain't gonna finish it in a day so you might as well go easy on yourself."
Chris felt a quickening of anger, building in his aching chest and radiating outwards because the last time he went easy on himself, letting himself have something he'd only dreamed of before, he'd watched it all go up in the flames of betrayal and gunfire. A full six weeks after discovering Ella's part in the murder of Sarah and Adam, Chris was still hurting far harder and deeper than from the bullet wound to his chest. Yet, at the same time, he'd felt some of the long-held tightness ease just from knowing who had murdered them, and why. That tightness had increased after the confrontation with Fowler, knowing with certainty he was to blame for the death of his family but not knowing why. Only the sight of Ella's dead body, preferably hanging by her scrawny neck, would ease the rest of that tightness and let him breathe easier again. Problem was, she'd disappeared into the landscape, her trail gone cold by the time Vin had seen him safely back to town and no longer at death's door.
Chris wasn't so sure how to feel about that, wondering if Vin might have caught up with her if he hadn't waited in town for news on whether or not he would live or die. Despite Nathan's best efforts, infection had set in and, strangely, only Vin's presence had persuaded his fevered mind that he needed to live. Despite thinking on it for weeks, he'd still not grasped why. Maybe he saw Vin as his only hope of tracking down Ella and sending her straight to Hell, or maybe there was some other reason why Vin's gravelly voice, cajoling and reassuring, had pulled him back from the brink of death.
Vin stood up and stretched, his lean frame casting an even thinner shadow that reminded Chris that the day was passing too quickly for his liking. Yet his eyes lingered on the younger man, caught by the way the light glinted off his hair, and the way his back arched all catlike. A stirring below gave the latter reason greater credence, that it was Vin rather than the quest for vengeance on Ella that might have drawn him back. He mentally shook himself out of his musings when he noticed Vin eying him thoughtfully, almost convinced he'd seen those blue eyes drop to his lap, but that would be wishful thinking to have Vin entertaining the same impure thoughts about him.
Chris stood up. "You ready?"
The rest of the afternoon passed in a silence broken only by hammering and the occasional word as Vin handed him nails or wood, and yet he'd not felt alone for even a single moment. The warmth of Vin's friendship seemed to wrap around him, needing no words between them to explain its presence. It was a familiar warmth that spoke of two years riding and fighting side-by-side; of nights spent around campfires feeling safe in the knowledge that they were watching each other's backs; and long evenings spent sipping whiskey and playing cards in the saloon, neither of them a winner or loser by the end of the night's game. Sometimes the whiskey would open one of them up and they'd talk about the past. Other times they'd simply bask in quiet companionship at a corner table while the world carried on all around them, filled with loud music, raised voices and constant motion.
As the shadows lengthened, Chris put down the hammer and stretched the kinks out of his back and shoulders. They'd made better progress through the afternoon but the sun was already low in the sky and soon the light would fade. He glanced across towards the paddock. The horses would need tending to. They needed settling down for the night with hay and water before it was too dark to see.
"Prefer your stew to mine, Larabee, so why don't you finish cooking that rabbit while I go see to the horses."
With anyone else, Chris would have resented the coddling, perhaps even kicked up a fuss, but somewhere along the line he'd stopped being afraid to look weak in front of Vin. He trusted him, perhaps from that silent moment as the dust settled over the graveyard, knowing Vin, a stranger, had watched his back as they stopped the lynching. Or maybe that trust had grown later out on the bluff when Vin traded his secret, admitting he was worth more than the paltry sum of gold from the Seminole and trusting Chris with the knowledge.
It was full dark by the time Vin returned to the shack and Chris watched him sniff the air in appreciation, knowing the stew was filling the place with its delicious aroma. Then Vin sniffed at his own clothing, nose wrinkling.
"Smell like horse rode too hard."
Chris realized he could smell the sweat and dust clinging to his own clothing and skin, having not noticed until Vin mentioned it. "You and me both."
Silently, he put another large pot of water onto the stove, knowing it was too dark and probably too cold to take a dip in the creek now. They ate the stew, mopping up the juices with cornbread while the water heated. A couple of fingers of whiskey poured into two battered tin cups rounded off the meal, leaving Chris feeling pleasantly full but even more tired. In the lamplight, Vin looked softer, younger, and maybe he did too despite the fatigue dragging at his limbs and the constant, low ache in his chest. He felt more alive out here away from the town, especially after spending six weeks camped out like an old man in a rocker either on Nathan's balcony or outside the saloon.
Clearing up after supper was accomplished with the usual amount of small talk - none. Instead they moved around each other with ease, cleaning plates and putting them back on the shelf. He watched Vin pour them another whiskey, accepting his with a nod of thanks before drawing water from the pot to pour into a washbowl, letting Vin take first turn.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Vin stripped off his sweat-stained shirt and union top; it was nothing Chris hadn't seen plenty of times before. Lye soap and warm water made for a good enough clean-up and Chris almost got caught watching when he fell under the spell of a washcloth wiping over smooth biceps and a surprisingly broad back. When Vin turned slightly, Chris looked away but not before seeing tiny nipples standing taut on a sparsely-haired chest.
With a sour thought, he pushed his unfinished whiskey aside, deciding alcohol and six weeks of celibacy was a bad mixture. The devil in him pricked at his conscience with its pitchfork, reminding him it wasn't the first time he'd entertained less than pure thoughts regarding Vin. Yet he couldn't resist another look when Vin stripped off the rest of his clothes and washed more intimate places, feeling his mouth dry as droplets raced down the curve of Vin's ass, chased by that damn washcloth. Embarrassed by his own reaction, he adjusted his pants to ease the tightness from a hardening cock and lowered his gaze to the table top, tracing the grains of wood with his eyes and one fingernail.
"All yours, Cowboy."
Chris nodded as Vin moved to the other side of the shack, having disposed of the used water and covered himself in a blanket. He kept his back to Vin as he washed off the sweat of a day's hard labor, not wanting Vin to see his half-hard cock and take offense. Once finished, he wrapped up in the spare blanket, disposed of the dirty water and put out the oil lamp before turning to his bed, and froze.
What the hell is he doing in my bed?
Vin was on the far side of the bed; the light from the bedside candle glinting off his eyes as he watched Chris. It wouldn't be the first time they'd shared a bed, usually to save a few cents on the price of a hotel room, and the bed was plenty big enough for two. He breathed in slow and deep, knowing it was his own body's betrayal towards Vin that was spooking him, glad for the blanket bunch around him that, hopefully, hid his arousal in its heavy folds. It was difficult to tell with just the candle light but Vin's expression seemed to hold more amusement and interest rather than consternation or confusion. Once more, Chris wondered if that was only wishful thinking on his part in hoping Vin might have the same urges and desires for him.
He drew in and softly let out another deep breath, pushing any further concerns aside simply because he was too dog-tired to care. He could hardly tell Vin to bunk down on the hard floor after seeing him spend all day working hard on the shack out of friendship. Quietly, he slipped into the bed, still partially wrapped in the blanket he'd used to dry himself.
"Gonna make the bed all damp, Larabee."
He couldn't argue with that and dragged the damp blanket out of the way, dropping it to the floor before snuffing out the candle, plunging them into a darkness broken only by the light of a half-moon shining through the drawn, netted curtains. Sleep proved elusive at first, his body hyper-aware of the heat radiating from Vin's equally naked body just inches from his own. Eventually, fatigue overcame him and he began to drift. When strong arms wrapped around him and drew him back against Vin's chest, he tensed for a moment and then relaxed, everything falling neatly into place and finally assured that his wishful thinking was maybe not so wishful after all.
When a hand reached around and stroked him to full hardness, he held his breath for several long strokes before letting it escape in a shudder of eased tension. When he came with a long, drawn out moan, splashing his belly with his seed, he floated back down to the feel of soft kisses against the nape of his neck and gentle words in his ear.
"I got you, Cowboy."
Exhausted and sated, he couldn't stay awake any longer, but for the first time in years, the shadow cast over his heart since Ella's actions against his family seemed to recede. That night he slept safe and sound, knowing those strong arms would still be holding him in the morning.
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