Its Own Place
Warnings: The usual from me, of course - sex, sexuality, and slash. But above and beyond that, serious discussions of faith and belief, serious questions of morality.
Special thanks to Artisan who did some phenomenal beta-ing work for me, as well as to the others on WEC who were a great help - Kim, Stan Lee, Evil Jacqui, Pepper, and Dail, who inspired this story.
For the June Challenge: Write a story where the weather plays an important part in how the plot develops.
Most of the time, Chris never thought about the differences in their ages. Vin was so calm, so steady, that Chris usually forgot that he was so much younger.
And when he really thought about it, he knew it wasn't about their ages so much as it was about the boy Vin had never been, or not been long enough to know it. It took Chris a long time to figure out the strange playfulness that started about the same time as the heat started. It was confusing at first, this side of Vin, and he had wondered if it was all the clothes Vin wore, some sort of heat madness. It was hotter than Chris could ever remember it being, hot and dry. They were months into a dry spell, and the heat was worse every day, to the point that reports from the reservation were that Kojay's people were doing rain dances and the local creeks and rivers were drying up so fast that the ranchers were already moving cattle upland and the local farmers were growing angry and demanding about water allocations.
As the heat set in, Vin had started teasing around, first Buck and Josiah, then the more physical joking around, touching, slapping, and generally rough-housing he seemed to get into with JD and Ezra. It made Chris worry, until Josiah had passingly mentioned that it was nice that Vin was learning to trust, not just the other six men around him, but that Vin was learning to trust himself as well, learning that it was all right for him to have fun.
But Chris hadn't been prepared for Vin's playfulness to be turned on him, hadn't been prepared when right in the heat of the day, as they were working on the fence that needed to be finished as quick as possible so they could give the horses a way to get to the deeper area of the creek, the part that wasn't drying up, Vin had casually reached over and swiped Chris' hat off his head, grinning and holding it just out of Chris' reach. Vin had laughed and taunted, urging Chris to give chase.
Chris hadn't thought about what he was doing. Hot and already tired and too easily upset, he'd glared, and snapped that there was work to be done.
Chris had seen it then, Vin go still in that way he had, finding that place inside himself where he hid, where Chris couldn't reach him. It was a place he'd never left Chris follow, never talked about when Chris had tried. He'd given Chris back his hat, waving off Chris' apology with a slight grin, but even the heat of the day and the sun didn't account for the sudden rise in color in Vin's cheeks, the shame.
They'd worked late, well into dark, but they'd finished the fence, which Chris hadn't expected.
They'd rinsed down, eaten cold biscuits and bacon for dinner while sitting on the porch. The silence between them had been comfortable, but Chris had felt the stillness in Vin and known he put it there.
They'd been tired, almost too tired, and sore as well, but Chris had made love to Vin, slow and sweet, almost killing them both before it was done.
Vin's sleep had been restless, more so than the heat alone caused, and Chris figured the dreams were his fault. The next morning found Chris waking with Vin close, still in his arms, and he lay for a while, the sun rising, watching his lover sleep. It was a rare thing.
"Need to go into town," Chris said over fresh coffee and a new batch of biscuits.
Vin nodded, chewing slowly. He had to be aching this morning, because Chris was sore too. They'd done too much getting the fence finished, should have stopped a lot earlier last night.
"You want to ride with me?"
Vin shrugged. "Need to work the horses, keep an eye on the mares. You need me?"
Chris reached across the table, catching Vin by one wrist. "Yes, but not to go to town."
Vin looked up at him, going still again, but then he nodded. "I'll work the horses, keep an eye on things here," he said, but there was a flicker of a grin on his lips.
Chris thought some more on the way into town. It was about the only thing he could do; even this early in the day the sun was beating into him with a vengeance, so hot that he stripped off his duster and his shirt, riding to the edge of town in his undershirt, which he also thought about taking off. The sunburn, though, would be a bitch, so he suffered the sweat-soaked material clinging to him, then took it off when he put on his shirt. In this heat, it would be dry before he was ready to leave town again.
Everything in town was quiet - too damned hot for it not to be. He spent some time at the jail sitting with JD and Buck who talked about the heat and the dwindling water supply and Buck's latest adventures with the ladies. The latter stories were few, the heat affecting carnal relations as much as other work.
He made his rounds, checking in next with Nathan, then Mary, then having lunch with Ezra at Inez's. The stories and worries were pretty much the same: water. If this drought persisted there were going to be deaths, not just of the animals, but of people as well. The ranchers were already posting guards along their fences, worried that the locals were stealing water in the night.
The locals were discussing ways to force the ranchers to give them water or rights to the wells and creeks and springs, anywhere that water was still available.
Ezra was always good for picking out problems before they happened, and over a lunch of cold beans and pickles with some of Inez's flat bread, he related rumors of the cattle drive coming through town soon and the gossip that the railroad workers were 'disgruntled and contemplating some sort of revolt'.
Chris and Vin would need to be in town soon, before the Friday payday at the railroad. It was going to be a long several weeks, too many groups coming together under the worst circumstances.
Chris moved down the boardwalk, checking in with other businesses as he went along. Mrs. Potter was putting his order together when Josiah ambled in, and Chris nodded a hello.
"Vin along?" Josiah leaned on the counter, looking at the trinkets inside.
"Wanted to work the horses," Chris answered, thumbing through the jar of cigars.
"Even the Lord took a break on the seventh day," Josiah grinned. "Got a good one when Vin stopped in town."
Chris didn't mean to sigh, but Josiah's words caught him with his guard down.
Josiah looked up, the question on his face.
Chris knew he could leave it; Josiah wouldn't pry. But it all sort of came back to what he'd been thinking about since yesterday afternoon. And hadn't Josiah been the one to start this line of thinking anyway, what with his strange comment about Vin's trust?
"He took my hat yesterday," he said quietly, glancing to where Mrs. Potter stood , just inside the back room. "I told him we had work to do."
Josiah frowned, his wide forehead wrinkling, and Chris' temper flared. It wasn't Josiah's place to be frowning about work that needed to be done, about the way Chris and Vin worked together. But before he could say a word, Mrs. Potter turned, coming through the door hefting two canvas bags.
"I'm out of white flour, had to substitute brown. Your biscuits won't rise, but it'll cost you less. Same with the sugar. I'm hoping to get more later this week."
"Good enough," Chris said, taking the bags and knotting the rope ties together. "We'll make do, be back in a couple of days, anyway." He slung one of the bags over his left shoulder, shifting them until the weight was balanced and his gun hand free. With a nod to Mrs. Potter, he started out the door, taking a second to let his eyes adjust to the brightness. Josiah followed, as Chris had expected, but they were off the boardwalk and moving toward the livery before the big man spoke.
"Vin ever tell you about his grandma, the one who raised him?" His words were slow and measured, and he didn't wait for Chris to answer before going on. "She was a good Christian woman, believed in God's word above all else. It was hard for her, finding out her only daughter had run off and gotten herself in the family way, harder still when the boy she'd run off with wasn't willing to do the right thing."
Josiah paused, giving Chris a few seconds to digest his words. Chris knew some of this, and had figured out the rest. No real surprises, but it still annoyed him that someone else knew as many of the details of Vin's life as Chris did - details that he'd had to drag out of his lover in the dead of night, like secrets not fit for the light of day.
"Vin's grandpa only had one child, and he loved her dearly, and her bastard baby. But the sickness that took Vin's ma took his grandpa too, leaving Vin and his grandma alone to run the farm, take care of the land and fend for themselves. Takes a lot of work, but I reckon you know that."
They were nearing the livery, but Josiah didn't slow nor did he turn toward it. Instead, he walked on over to the church and into the shade it provided. He settled on the top step, his pale blue eyes looking right through Chris. "Two weeks before Grandma Tanner buried her daughter, she buried her second husband. Lot of loss in a short time, could make a good woman more likely to follow the Old Testament beliefs, an eye for an eye."
Chris' breath caught, the implication trickling into his mind. "She blamed him?" he asked. He knew it happened, had been on the wrong side of his father's hand a few times for things that hadn't been his fault but which got wound up in other details. That had been when he was older, doing things he knew he ought not to be doing.
Vin would have been the same age as Adam - five. Walking, talking, laughing, running through the fields, riding the horses, chasing bugs and dogs and Buck -
The memory jolted him, confused by the idea of anyone blaming his child his son. Blaming any child that young.
"Could be," Josiah answered with a shrug. "Maybe. There are a lot of ways to punish someone, to force someone to do penance."
The word hung in the air between them, stirring other memories.
Josiah's eyes met his then, a small smile curling up through the hair of his mustache. "Explain a few things? I wonder if Vin would have been so quick to make those trips out to Vista City if I'd put it some other way - used some other word. He knows that one, though, learned it well."
Chris looked away, still carrying the image of Adam in his head. The idea that anyone could blame a child for tragedy, could him them accountable for their own pain . . .
At the same time, though, Josiah's words stirred other memories, and he tamped down on his jealousy. He'd known something else was at play when the Pinkerton man had come to town, accusing Josiah of murdering those girls. It was in Vin's nature to look out for the people he cared about, but Chris had thought there was something more driving his friend. At the time, and even up to now, he'd wondered about it, wondered about Vin and his strange relationship with an ex-preacher.
Wondered and worried that there was more there than he was seeing.
"Seem funny to you," Josiah went on, his voice taking on that musing quality that usually made Chris want to hit him, "that Vin finds his sense of humor right about the time the rest of us are finding it to be hell on earth?"
The question unsettled Chris more, partly in the strangeness of the ideas, but also in the implication that Josiah knew more about Vin than Chris did. For an instant, Chris thought of calling him on it, forcing him to give up the details that he seemed to enjoy teasing about. But even as he finished speaking, Josiah rose from his seat, dusting off his pants, then touched the brim of his hat.
Chris hesitated, but then gave into his own curiosity. "That supposed to mean something? There something about Vin I need to know?"
The older man turned back to him, tilting his head to one side. "Reckon that's for Vin to say. Maybe you should ask him." He started away, then stopped. "Interesting thing about the Bible - hell has a lot of different meanings. The idea of eternal flames seems to be more from the New Testament than the Old. I've always found it interesting that the sacrifice of his only son made God both more forgiving yet also gave us a more thorough idea of what the soul would suffer."
He walked away then, into the church, and Chris shook his head, holding back his frustration. Hell, Josiah wanted to talk about hell.
The part that was most irritating, Chris thought as he made his way back to the livery, was that Vin hardly ever talked about his beliefs. Chris had assumed that like himself, Vin had found his own argument with God, for whatever reasons.
Maybe he'd been right, but not the way Chris expected.
Despite himself, Chris found his attention wandering back to what Josiah had said. As he saddled his horse and the sweat trickled down his back and over his forehead, he thought about hell and fire and Vin and an old woman who punished a boy for sins he didn't commit. Inevitably, the thoughts went back to Sarah and Adam and all he had lost and the fire that had taken them both.
He'd loved Sarah with all his heart, Adam, too, but he hadn't realized how much so until they was taken from him. He could well imagine the woman's anger at the loss of her husband and daughter - he'd had it himself, turned it inward. If Adam had lived - would he have blamed his son? Would he have held him responsible for Sarah's death?
In the depths of a sleepless night, sometimes colored with whiskey, other times not, he'd let his mind wander down trails of fancy, wondering what would have been if one of them had lived, just one. He'd never had the thought of picking one over the other, unable to make that choice.
Now, though, he tried to envision Adam living, and him holding the boy accountable for what had happened. Adam was five, he liked to play with things that he shouldn't have. He could have accidentally spread the fire, could have dropped a burning stick, could have done any number of things to cause the fire to spread, could even have done something to knock Sarah into it, setting her skirts on fire, and her unable to put them out . . .
The image was horrific, and he had to stop. The heat of the day coupled with the vision in his head, and he almost retched. It took several minutes in the shade of his horse before he had himself under control.
But even in those moments, when the feelings ran deep and long through him, he couldn't hold an anger at his boy. It would have been an accident, and Adam - Adam would have had to live with it for the rest of his life, too. His guilt would have been more than any one should bear.
They'd both have lost Sarah, both have mourned for her every day. They would have shared that - and the responsibility of it. He'd have been angry, he knew himself well enough to know that, knew that at some time, in the heat of some useless argument, he might have said something out of turn to his son. But to make Adam bear the brunt of it alone - that was unthinkable.
He was five - little more than a baby.
Getting back on his horse took an effort, his mind a whirl with the pain of losing her, losing them, all over again. But there was more now, the pain of someone else dear to him, someone he was as unable to help as he had been with his own wife and child.
By the time he neared the cabin, he was hot and tired and angry at the world, angry at himself for his thoughts, for his pain, angry at Vin for making him worry on it and feel again, just angry.
Vin was in the corral, his union suit top as wet as Chris' clothes, his long hair pulled back but sticking to his skin where the two met. He was hauling water from the pump to the horses' trough. The spring was getting low, then, Chris knew, and he had another flare of irritation at the thought of what trouble they were going to have soon.
The trouble that was going to take them away from this, put them back in town where they would be with others.
And he was going to have to find somewhere else to take the horses, some higher ground.
He unloaded the supplies, carrying them to the cabin for safekeeping, then went back to take care of his horse and tack. Most of the horses were in the pasture, the new fence expanding their range into the tree line and giving them shade as well as more water access.
Vin walked up as Chris turned his own horse out. His hat was dark with sweat where it touched his head. He'd pushed it back, even the brim limp from the heat, and he swiped at his brow and face with the back of his forearm.
"Town all right?" he asked, his voice raspier than usual. Tired, Chris thought, and he looked for, and found, the stiffness in Vin's stance that said he was hurting.
"Yep," Chris nodded. "Too damned hot for trouble."
"Reckon so," Vin agreed.
"We'll need to go in in a couple of days. Cattle drive coming through, railroad payday. People getting restless about the drought."
Vin nodded, blowing out a breath. "Good we got that fence done. Water's dwindling. I filled the trough, but it won't stay long, not once the sun hits it."
"Need to cover it," Chris agreed. "Couple of boards should do it."
It didn't take them long, but Chris couldn't stop himself from watching Vin, couldn't stop the thoughts of what he might have been like as a child. What he would have been like when he was Adam's age.
Innocent and helpless and at the hands of someone who hated him.
All he could see was Adam's face, happy and smiling and calling to him. He'd seen Vin smiling and happy, but it was the look of a man, one tempered by years of life. He could, if he tried, almost see the boy Vin might have been, the innocence of a child, the sweetness of unfettered joy.
"Gonna wash up," Vin said, pulling at the sleeves of his union shirt. "Figure I could stand it."
They both could, Chris knew, his clothes sticking to him. He stripped down, following Vin to the bucket where Vin was splashing water on his face, but making an effort to keep the run-off trickling back in the bucket.
They shared the water, conserving as much as they could, and Chris watched as Vin scrubbed at his face, the water cutting through the dirt and dust on his skin and leaving trails.
"Need rain," Chris grunted, slicking his wet hands through his hair.
"Not tonight," Vin sighed, cupping his hands and dropping them again into the dirty water. He let it wash through his fingers, then, like Chris, ran his fingers through his hair, or the top of it. The tangles wouldn't let him get too far and he didn't try hard.
Droplets of it clung to him, to his eyebrows and eyelashes, glittering on his tanned skin like tears, and for the barest second, Chris could see the child. It wasn't the joy he'd tried for before, but the look of a child hurting. Some part of him wondered why, when he was searching for this part of Vin, it was easier to see the hurt. But that was it, wasn't it? The story of his childhood wasn't one like Adam's, not even one like Chris' own. It was there in the man, if he looked for it. There to see, if one knew where to look.
Had that been Josiah's message?
When Vin opened his eyes, meeting Chris', he was too tired and too distant to be anything but the man Chris had always known.
"Maybe tomorrow," Vin said, "late if it does. Heat's wrong."
It was too hot to start a fire in the stove, cooking was for the morning, so they ate cheese and bread that Mrs. Potter had sent and split an apple that was just on the verge of being dried out. What little talk they managed was about Chris' trip, the general town news.
Chris watched Vin, though, still thinking on what Josiah had said.
They sat outside on the porch, watching night fall, a slight breeze ruffling the air but not much else. They didn't talk, but it wasn't as comfortable now. Chris wanted to ask, wanted to know, but didn't know how to bring it up. If Vin had wanted to tell him, he would have.
But he had told Josiah, and that one detail grated at Chris, chewed at him.
Eventually, as the first stars were showing, Vin said, "Didn't mean to cause trouble yesterday. Sorry if I made you mad. Won't happen again."
In the darkness, all he could see of Vin was the pale outline of his features in the shadows.
"Wasn't mad," he said quietly. "Surprised me." He thought for a few seconds, then said, "Seems odd, though, wanting to play around in this heat."
"Won't happen again," Vin repeated, pushing himself up. "Gonna turn in, if you don't mind." He took several steps toward the door, but as he drew near, Chris reached up and caught his wrist.
"Don't mind it happening," Chris said. "Kind of like it."
"You ain't gotta lie, Chris," Vin answered. "Know we ain't got time for me to be - "
"You ever had time before?" Chris asked.
Vin's arm stiffened, the muscle hard under Chris' fingers. "I'm sorry, said it won't - "
"You can talk to Josiah but not me?" He hadn't meant to say it, hadn't meant for the anger to be so clear.
Vin jerked at his arm, pulling it free. "You checking up on me?" His voice had gone low and flat, his own anger sparking.
Chris sighed, letting his hand fall back to his thigh. "I wasn't checking up on you. Josiah asked how you were doing and we ended up talking 'bout yesterday. He didn't say nothing except that I should ask you."
Vin didn't move, went still again. After a while, he shifted, his hips canting. "You asking?"
"Reckon I am," Chris said.
Vin sighed. "Ain't nothing, known people had it worse." He shrugged, but his hands fell to rest on his gun belt, relaxed. "My grandma didn't have much time for me, not after my ma and my grandpa passed. Don't reckon she much cottoned on to having another young'un to raise - had three from her first husband, then my ma from her second. She was left with a farm and a lot of work to do, more work than one woman and boy could do. Didn't leave no time for much else."
It was an answer, and in its way, honest. He could take it as it was, accept Vin's story and leave it be.
But Josiah knew more, had suggested a lot more, and Chris shook his head. "Your pa not around?"
Vin straightened again, his arms falling to his sides. "That important to you?"
"Not in the way you think," Chris answered. He held out his hand, wanting Vin to touch him, but Vin stood stiff. "Just wanted to know if - "
"My pa weren't the marrying type," Vin said sharply, the words level. "Sorry if that - "
"Ain't nothing for you to be sorry for," Chris cut him off. He dropped his hand back to his lap. "I ain't judging you, or your ma or your pa."
"Then what does it matter?" Vin asked, but his shoulders dropped a little even though his hips didn't shift.
Chris sat, thinking, more about what he wanted to say and how to say it. He was used to speaking his mind, saying things straight. He was used to things with him and Vin being simple.
But somewhere, for some reason, this part of Vin's life was like walking through a sand bog. Vin had shared it with Josiah, but for some reason, he didn't trust Chris to know.
"My grandma didn't much care for my pa," Vin sighed. "I never knew him, but Mrs. Miriam - my grandma, she did. He lived in town, my uncle Jonah, one of Mrs. Miriam's boys from her first husband, worked for his pa, for him. Mrs. Miriam, she . . . " He sighed and shifted, not his hips, but his head. "Raising me was hard on her. Mrs. Miriam was a good Christian woman and my ma, well, she made Mrs, Miriam have to choose between her and her faith. Ain't never a good thing to do."
Chris was careful as he said, "You get caught in the middle? After your ma died?"
Vin was still again, and Chris knew he was weighing the answer. He waited, letting Vin take his time.
"Weren't no real middle," he said eventually. "My ma and my grandpa died from the same thing, Putrid Fever. A week apart, as I remember. Mrs. Miriam . . . she thought it was because of me. Hell, maybe it was. I ain't got no idea about Jesus and God and all them religious things. That's why I been talking to Josiah, trying to make some sense out of it all. She said it was because of me, all my fault." He shrugged, but it was small, just a slight move of his shoulders. "She could be right, Chris, gods can be right mean when people don't do what they want."
"You believe that?" Chris asked. The urge to stand, to touch, was almost too hard to stop, but he knew this thing between them was delicate. Vin was having trouble talking about it, mostly, Chris figured, because it was hard for him to understand.
It was hard for Chris to understand, but then, he hadn't been on the receiving end of it.
Vin huffed out a breath. "Don't know what to believe," he answered. "Guess that's why I been talking to Josiah. Sorry that it gets to you, but . . . " He shifted again, but this time, his hip cocked. "Mrs. Miriam went to church every Sunday. That was the only way I ever knowed the days. On Saturday night, after dinner, she'd take her bath. On Sunday morning, I'd hitch up the mule for her, and she'd go into town, taking fried chicken and biscuits with her for the after-church social." He swallowed, his head tilting a little as he looked out into the moonlight. "I never went with her, never heard the teachings or nothing 'cept what she told me. She made me learn the Bible, but only what she believed in. Until I met 'Siah, I thought that was all there was, that I was some sin made by my ma and my pa, that I was punishment on my family."
"You weren't no punishment," Chris said, once more reaching out. "No kid ever could be, Vin, that ain't the way any good and just god works."
Vin made a small noise, and Chris thought it might have been a laugh. But he didn't move away as Chris' fingers touched his hand. "Gods ain't gotta be good and just. Gods are gods." His hand turned so that he held Chris'. "It ain't nothing, no need for you to be upset with J'Siah or with me. I don't reckon I'm gonna find any answers, but I never had no one around who knowed as much as 'Siah about these things."
Chris returned the pressure of the hand around his. "My folks knew the Bible and they went to church every week. So did me and my brothers. I believed in the God they talked about for a long time, right up to the time Sarah and Adam died." He pulled himself up, then, turning so that he and Vin faced each other. "No god who cares about us would do that or allow it to happen."
The faint light caught in Vin's eyes, enough for Chris to meet his gaze. "Maybe not," he said quietly. "But nobody said God had to care."
He started to pull away, but Chris tightened his hold on Vin's hand. "No," he agreed, leaning in close. "But if God doesn't care about us, why should we care about him?"
Vin took a slow breath, then shook his head once. "Lots of other people care. Even if you don't care about God for yourself, sometimes you got to because others do." He turned just a little, enough to let his nose rub against Chris' cheek. "I'm tired," he murmured. "Too tired to have to think this much."
They stood that way for a short while, Vin's nose moving slowly against Chris' face, their fingers twined.
They started out in the same bed, but Chris wasn't even settled good before Vin was on his bedroll on the floor, hot and achy, his back cramping. They slept this way sometimes, but tonight Chris resented it. They'd be in town soon, where they couldn't be together.
Because other people cared about God.
He did sleep, but not well, and when Vin turned, restless, Chris woke. He watched, listening to the soft sounds Vin made in his sleep. Fear, he thought, fear and pain and memory. Not the noises he was used to from the man, but noises from his dreams, from his past.
When the nightmare grew too real, Vin jerked upright, gasped, then came awake. He was breathing fast, sweating more than the clinging damp of the night warranted.
"Vin?" Chris said softly, leaning off the bed. "You awake?"
It took a few seconds, but eventually Vin's breathing evened out and he whispered, "Yeah, sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."
"You didn't," Chris answered, shifting on the bed. "Did that myself. You all right?"
"Hurt a little," Vin answered, but it was a slow answer, and Chris knew he'd had to ponder it out.
Had to find something to say that didn't give too much away.
"Come up here," Chris offered, sliding over. "I'll rub your back."
It was a ploy, one they both knew. But Vin came just the same, settling in against Chris, one arm stretching over Chris' chest. "You ain't gotta," he mumbled, and his voice was airy and weak, tired.
It would have been easier if Vin were stretched out on his stomach, but it was too hot to get Vin to lay on him and too hot for Chris to want to work hard, so he used one hand to rub at Vin's lower back. The pattern was more for soothing, though, and he thought it might have lulled Vin back to sleep, until the sweat building between them started to slide and tickle.
Vin tried to ease away but they were stuck together and the tug of their skin pulling apart was just hurtful enough to bring him to awareness.
"Hotter than hell," he said, letting his fingers slide up Vin's spine to rest between his shoulder blades.
"Reckon so," Vin answered, the words blowing cool over one of Chris' nipples. "If Hell's hot. Is it?"
The question was so innocent and so unexpected that Chris was caught unaware. "What do you mean?" he asked, but as the words left his mouth, he recalled Josiah's strange comment from the afternoon.
Vin shifted, pulling away a little more and his eyes came open a little, glinting in the soft light coming through the windows. "People always say Hell's hot," Vin said slowly. "But 'Siah says that there are other ideas in the Bible too, 'bout it being a place where they throw dead bodies and trash. Where it's cold." He sighed. "You believe it's hot?"
Chris almost chuckled. It struck him then that the talking had done him good; instead of the low thrum of anger he'd felt so many times recently when Josiah's name had been mentioned, now he understood what the man was doing in Vin's life. What he was helping him try to understand. "You and Josiah have been getting into the deep stuff. Can't rightly say. My folks dragged us off to church every Sunday, but I'd be lying if I said I paid a lot of attention to what Pastor Harding said. Reckon I got the basics, and yeah, the way he put it, Hell is hot and full of fire and people suffering for eternity because they had sinned in this life." He stretched a little. "I think I was more interested in the sinning than I was in the afterlife, more interested in what us boys were going to be doing after the service was over." He waited a space, then asked softly, "What do you think?"
Vin took a breath, slow and even, and his words were deliberate. "Mrs. Miriam always said Hell was fire hot, hotter than the fire she kept for canning in the dead of summer. But I never minded the heat as much as I minded the winters, when she sent me to the root cellar while she went to church. It was wet cold, the cold that gets into your bones and makes you hurt. Made my back hurt something fierce at times."
Chris felt a coldness of his own, one that was started in his gut. Adam had been terrified of the dark and the cold of the root cellar, even in the heart of summer, when it was the coolest place around. The thought of sending him down there alone. . .
Vin gave a soft sigh, then said, "I always figured hell was cold, at least for me. Can stand the heat, usually like it best. Can be outside in it, in the light. But when it's cold, always seems to be dark and close, and I can't think of nothing but what I done wrong in my life."
"Can't be a lot to think on," Chris said quietly, but he turned to let his lips brush over Vin's forehead.
Vin made a soft noise, a little laugh, his breath tickling on Chris' shoulder. "Sometimes not, but most times, well, guess I'm still puzzling out what's mine and what belongs to others."
"Maybe you're thinking on it too hard," Chris said, trying to keep it easy between them.
Vin yawned, but through it, he said, "Maybe so."
Chris wasn't aware of when he actually slipped back into sleep, but when he awoke, dawn was breaking, the sky already hazy with the heat.
Vin was up and out, the door to the cabin open enough to let in any breeze that might be stirring.
The horses were out, some of them already up in the far tree line, some of them standing in the early morning light, not yet hot. Vin was not in sight as Chris made his way to the outhouse, so on his way back, he detoured toward the barn.
Vin was mucking out one of the stalls, his pants and boots on, but his shirt hanging to one side and his union suit already sweaty. Making up for the other day, Chris thought, but just as quickly knew that this was how Vin had been trained by that old woman - get up before the dawn and work as hard as a body could until dark.
Then get preached at about sin, he thought. The thought of was enough to unsettle him, shaking the peace he'd been trying to find in the quiet of the morning, the contentment of having Vin in his home, in his life. The anger - the anger would only drive Vin away, make him less willing to talk to Chris about his past, his life.
The thing of it was, this was Vin's life he was angry about, not his own. Not Adam's. Being angry for Vin, even in his defense, served little purpose now. Vin was a man, the child . . . the child a part of him, but not someone Chris' anger could defend or protect.
"You gonna stand there all morning?" Vin asked as he stopped to wipe at his forehead.
"Could," Chris said with a little grin. "Kinda like the view."
Vin snorted, but went back to what he was doing. "Gonna rain today," he said, "thought it'd be a good idea to get this place cleaned up a bit."
"Good rain?" Chris asked, glancing over his shoulder and to the sky. It was clear of clouds but the haze was still there, clinging almost.
"Hard," Vin answered. "Storm at first, lots of lightening. Reckon we need to get the horses in when it starts whipping up. Ground's too hard to take a lot of the water, so we'll have to watch for flooding, but most will pass into the river, I suspect."
"Gotta be sure we leave the trough uncovered," Chris said, turning back to watch Vin. "No use wasting free water."
Vin grunted an agreement, the muscles of his arms flexing with his work.
With the fence finished, Chris hadn't really turned his mind toward the next project. But as the day moved forward, there was a sense of urgency in Vin that pushed at Chris as well. They repaired several holes in the barn wall and roof, Vin suggesting that they reinforce some of the cross beams and support posts as well, both in the barn and the cabin. By noon, a wind had started, pleasant at first but growing a little stronger through the early afternoon.
When the clouds started to gather later, they pulled the horses in, settling them in with food and water, then closing the doors as the first lightening bolts streaked through the darkening sky, and thunder rumbled in the distance.
Vin uncovered the trough while Chris rolled out several extra barrels to catch the rainwater. They were finishing up, the air still now, and heavy, pregnant with the waiting. Chris moved across the short space to the porch, looking up as lightening flickered in patterns through the clouds. In town, he imagined that people were standing in the street, waiting for the rain as though it were a party, the saloons filled with revelers.
As he stepped on to the porch, the pressure of the storm weighed on him, making it an effort to move. His clothes were stuck to him now, as wet as if he'd fallen into a creek, and when he looked back at Vin, he saw that he was the same way.
They stood side by side on the porch for several minutes, watching the play of lights across the sky, the gathering darkness. It was as if dusk had come, but in a different place.
The air changed suddenly, the contrast so unexpected and fast that Chris found his hand on his gun, searching for what was wrong. Thunder sounded loud and close, and the wind was back, stronger now, gusts that were fast and cold, slicing through their wet clothing.
The rain came just as quickly, in a curtain that dropped from the sky, thick and hard. The roar of it was deafening, and Chris found himself yelling at Vin to get inside, and hardly able to hear himself.
Getting inside the cabin was easy enough, as the wind nearly ripped the door off its hinges when they pushed it open. Getting it closed behind them took both of them, and it was still a strain.
Inside was almost as loud as outside, the rain pounding onto the roof and combining with the thunder to make it impossible for them to speak without yelling.
Fortunately, they knew each other well enough that they didn't need a lot of talk.
Vin moved to one of the windows, staring out. Shutters, Chris thought, neither of them had thought to close the shutters, and the even though the glass panes were thick, they could still crack and break if something hit them, like a branch from a tree or a board torn loose from the fence or the barn.
As the wind whipped through the downpour, the cabin shook and rattled. Chris moved to stand by Vin, barely able to recognize the landscape through the curtain of rain. The ground was already a mire of water and mud, the mixture running in waves and eddies, the ground too dry, as Vin had predicted, to absorb it.
An explosion of sound hit the roof and instinctively, Chris ducked, looking up. Over the din, he heard Vin yell, "Hail!" and he noted that the temperature in the cabin had dropped even more. It was almost cold now, and he shivered in his wet clothes.
Vin stood still beside him, his concentration focused outside. Flickers of lightening lit his face, which looked tight and thin in the uneven light.
Then the leaks started, as Chris had known they would. His roof was solid, for the most part, but under the right stress, any roof would leak. He moved about, placing pots and bowls under the worst places, pulling furniture out of the way and making sure his few books and his extra ammunition were dry.
Vin never left the window, never lost his concentration on the forces outside. By the time Chris had tracked most of the drips and streams of water, the storm had settled into a constant ferocity, the noise evening out as the hail gave way to a steady downpour of rain.
"Think the worst is past?" Chris asked as a rumble of thunder roiled in the distance, not as loud as it had been. He didn't have to yell to be heard now, even though he was still talking louder than he normally would as rain rang on the metal roof.
Vin frowned, his eyes on the barn. "For now," he answered. "Could get worse again in a while - still awful black back there, where it came from."
"You gonna warn it off by staring at it?" Chris asked, keeping his tone light.
Vin turned then, his frown deeper until he realized Chris was kidding. His lips twitched in a little grin. "Sorry. Old habit, watching a storm."
Something stirred in Chris' memory then, from his own far away childhood. "My grandmother always did that," he said slowly. "She always made us sit very still and quiet, saying that we didn't need to make God more angry."
Vin stilled, looking at Chris hard. After a few seconds, he said evenly, "Don't play me. You ain't gotta lie to make me feel better."
Chris was already shaking his head. "Ain't playing you," he said. "Reckon old-timers have a lot in common, no matter who they are."
After a few seconds, Vin nodded and looked back out the window.
With the storm bringing cooler air, Chris lit the fire in the stove and put the coffee pot on. The heat was nice after a point, knocking the chill out of the air. He took off his wet boots and put on dry socks and a dry shirt, then stood near the stove for his pants to dry.
Vin stared out the window, shifting in his lean every so often, until Chris finally walked over and pushed a chair toward him.
Vin glanced at him and nodded his thanks, then said as soft as the rain would allow, "Didn't get many storms, not like this, but when we did, Mrs. Miriam would lock everything up as tight as she could then we'd go down to the root cellar, me and her with a lamp and her Bible. That was about the only time she'd read to me. She'd make me sit real still while she read. If the storm wasn't this bad, we'd sit in the house and watch it. She'd tell me about Noah and the ark, or some of the other stories, Joseph and the coat and sometimes even stories 'bout Jesus. Those times, her stories were never as bad as when she was upset about something. When she was angry was when she'd tell me about Lot's wife and the evils that men do, and God's punishments."
Chris moved back to the stove, picking up a thick cloth to lift the coffee pot so he could pour from it. When he came back to Vin, offering him one of the tin mugs, he said, "You feel better if I tell you a Bible tale or two?"
Vin smiled, shaking his head as he took the mug, then waited until Chris settled into a chair beside him. "Yeah, how 'bout you tell me the one where it's all right for two men to lay together," he said, but his tone was light.
Chris stared out the window, watching the welcome rain splatter on the ground. "Can't remember that part," he said with a little sigh. "Always did sort of wonder why God was so concerned about things that are private, which I reckon is one of the reasons that I don't understand a lot of why God does what he does. Seems like he should be concerned with bigger issues than what two people get up to of their own choosing." He sipped on his coffee, trying not to think on the things that God hadn't found time to pay attention to, like the murder of a good woman and her boy, the harsh treatment of another small boy.
"I lived with several Indian tribes while I was hunting buffalo," Vin said slowly, cradling his mug in both hands. "They had different gods for different things, but they seemed to figure that for the most part that a man's home was his to keep and run. Tribal elders only got into it if there was something bad wrong." He sipped at the coffee, then sighed. "I don't know what I believe. But I know that I don't want to cause you no trouble, not because of who I am or because of what we get up to."
Chris froze, the words sending a shock of pain through him so strong that for a few seconds, he couldn't breathe.
When he found his voice, he asked, "Somebody say you were causing me trouble?" he asked, thinking of Josiah and wondering if he'd missed more than he'd heard in the man's words yesterday.
Wondering if he was gonna shoot the older man before the week was over.
But Vin shook his head, the ends of his hair sticking to the back of his shirt. "Not yet. But they will, in time."
Chris leaned forward in his chair, as much to get Vin's attention as to get closer to him. "That make a difference to you?" he asked, trying to catch Vin's eyes. "What other people think about us?"
Vin turned and looked at him, his gaze open. "To me? Not really. But it might to you. And it might to them, enough to cause us real trouble."
"Which is more important to you, what they think or what I think?"
Vin blinked, surprised, Chris thought, but he didn't hesitate. "Don't care what most people think. Just you and my friends, our friends. Reckon some of them might not understand, but if I have to choose, you're the one I'd rather stay with."
"Good," Chris nodded. "Figure that settles it then, doesn't it?"
Vin frowned. "What do you mean?"
Chris shrugged. "If someone is stupid enough to make us choose, I'd just as soon ride on with you as to stay here alone. And don't go thinking on me and Mary or me and anybody else. I married once and tried it the way God wants it and he let me down. And even if I weren't still angry about it, I don't want to do that again. I got you now, and I like what I got enough that I ain't worried about anybody else's thoughts on the matter - whether it's the people in town or God above. That work for you?"
Vin studied him, long and deep. Chris held the look, refusing to back down from what wasn't a challenge, but a search for the truth in his words.
Vin nodded, once, then looked back out the window. The rain was steady and hard, the thunder and lightening far off in the distance. The wind was gone, but the air was getting even cooler.
They sat for a while, just watching the rain, listening to the steady droning against the cabin, mixed with the soft splats of drops landing in the various pots and jars Chris had set around. The day darkened quickly, true dusk settling in beneath the clouds and dulling out color.
When the coffee was gone, Chris reached for the whiskey bottle. A few sips into it, Vin turned to him, then put his mug down as he pushed himself up from the chair.
Chris watched, worried for a few seconds, until Vin moved slowly to stand close to him. Very close.
He didn't resist as Vin leaned down, his hands coming to rest on Chris' shoulders just before his lips touched Chris'.
They made love on the bed, both of them completely naked. Vin offered himself, spreading his legs and bending over, as silent in the offering as he'd been in all else.
He made a little noise, though, as Chris twisted him around to rest on his back. "Wanna see you," Chris said as he stretched over Vin, his cock brushing against Vin's. "Want to kiss you when you let go."
They hadn't done it this way often, rarely having the time it took to do it right. But today, rain coming strong enough to keep any visitors and chores at bay, they had time enough and peace.
Time enough for Chris to take it slow and easy, using the tricks he'd heard Buck talk about over the years he'd known the man, fingers coated with a little saddle oil, a pillow pushed tight between the bed and Vin's back, his tongue and teeth worrying at one small nipple. Might have worked better on a woman, but it seemed to work well enough on Vin, enough so that he only grunted when Chris pushed his cock against the small hole, Vin's body tightening a little with the pain of it, but giving way soon enough.
Slow, and good, so good he thought he might not survive it. Better, though, when Vin's legs wrapped around him, pulling him in deeper and faster, Vin's arms knotted as his hands twisted into the blankets beneath them.
Best when Vin reached up and pulled Chris to him, his mouth as open as his body, taking all Chris had to offer as he came with a soft whimper of surrender.
Afterwards, he rested against Vin, his head on Vin's shoulder, listening to the slowing beat of his heart, the rhythmic pattern of his steady breathing. He thought that Vin might be asleep, at least drowsing, and he was on the verge himself, sated and content.
"J'siah says that hell is whatever we need for it to be," Vin said softly, his words stirring Chris' hair. "He says it's a state of mind more than a place, a threat to make us think before we act."
Chris thought on it for a few seconds. "Sounds like something he'd say," he mumbled as he shifted so that he could look at Vin's face. "But I reckon it makes some kind of sense. As much as anything about God can."
Vin turned to look at him. "Reckon that makes Heaven kind of the same, huh. Whatever we need for it to be."
It wasn't something Chris had ever given thought to - not that much of any of this was, truth be told. But Hell had, in its way, been more real to him than Heaven. Certainly Hell had been described in far greater detail throughout his life, and talked about with more zeal.
"You think about Heaven a lot?" Chris asked, his hand rubbing over Vin's belly.
Vin smiled a little. "Think of my ma sometimes - not as much now as I used to, I reckon, when I was a kid. Don't you think about it? For your kin?"
Sarah and Adam, Chris thought, and with the thinking, he realized that Vin had never called them by name.
More, though, he realized that he'd never considered the question, not in a concrete way. He'd kept the anger so close, at himself, at God, and the bastards who had killed them, that he'd never thought about them as being anything other than dead. Anything other than not being with him.
It was a startling thought, that he might have been so angry with God about taking them that he hadn't given thought to where they might be, if they were still of a nature to be anywhere. If there was indeed a soul that lived on after the body died.
Not as startling, but still a surprise, was the realization that the anger was changing in him. It was still there, coming out as it had with Vin. But it hadn't controlled him, hadn't consumed him the way that it had with Sarah and Adam. It wasn't consuming him as much now.
Peace, he thought, contentment. He had felt it in the barn, watching Vin. Even with the disquiet of knowing Vin's past, he had put aside his anger, not wanting it to control that moment. Vin had given him this, he thought, a way to come to terms with the loss, a way to live. A will to live that replaced the anger and loss.
The next morning was bright and clear, but blessedly cooler. He woke alone, the door of the cabin standing open to let in the breeze. The fire in the stove was stoked low enough to keep the coffee warm but not waste wood, and he poured a mug before making his way out the door to the outhouse.
He set it on the porch rail, then noticed that Vin was leaning of the fence, watching the horses. Several of them, the colts, pranced and played in the cool air, chasing each other across the field.
It was a thought that stayed with him when he came out of the outhouse and caught up his mug, walking across the wet grass to stand beside Vin.
"Playing," he said, his voice rusty from sleep.
Vin turned, tilting his head in question. The morning sun caught the copper in his hair and the freckles on his skin.
Chris grinned. "The colts," he elaborated. "Cooler weather."
Vin looked back across the pasture, watching the animals chase each other. "Reckon so," he said. "Does feel good."
Chris took a sip of his coffee, watching Vin watch the horses.
When the cup was empty, they set to doing chores, starting with the barn. The day warmed as the sun rose, but it didn't reach the heat of the past several weeks, for which Chris was grateful.
As the heat built, the colts slowed and stilled, drifting in and out of the shade, napping and generally lazing as animals did when left untended.
"Need to work the horses," Vin said, coming up beside him. He'd stripped out of his shirt, his gun belt riding low on his hips. His hat was pulled low, shading his face. "Colts need to be halter-broke."
"Yeah, reckon so," he agreed, but he was looking at Vin. Anger wouldn't help the child Vin had been. But there were other things a child needed, other things a man needed. "Pond's up."
Vin looked at him, frowning. "For now," he agreed. "If the heat sets in again - "
"How about we worry about 'for now'," Chris cut him off. He took a step forward, then reached out quick, grabbing Vin's hat.
Vin stared at him.
Chris grinned. "Reckon it's just about hot enough for a bath - or ain't that fun enough for you?"
Vin slowly grinned back. "Could stand it," he said.
"Good." Chris held up the hat, glancing at Vin, then casually flinging it toward the pond. It fell shy by several feet, landing in a patch of thick grass.
Chris caught the end of his gun belt, unbuckling it even as he started walking. Beside him, Vin did the same.
"You got a problem with my hat?" Vin asked, even though he was grinning.
Chris shrugged, pulling off his own hat and holding it in the same hand with his gun belt, his gun easy to grab if need be. "Nope," he answered. "Just wanted to get your attention back on me."
Vin snorted, but cut a glance at Chris. "Instead of God?"
Chris shrugged as they neared the pond. "Instead of things that ain't your fault." He stopped as he neared the edge of the water, stepping around a pile of horse droppings and setting his own hat and gun down within easy reach. He stripped out of his shirt and boots, leaving them stretched out in the grass, then looked around. Only the horses and the trees, as far as he could tell, and Vin.
He looked over his shoulder at Vin who was stripping down as well.
'Whatever we need for it to be', he thought. He grinned, leaning down to pick up Vin's hat. This time, it hit the water with a slight splash, and he thought it just might be hot enough for both of them.
"The mind is its own place and in itself,
can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven."
-- John Milton, Paradise Lost
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