Chapter 12

"Don't move."

"Aw hell, Buck! I ain't helpless."

"An' I ain't stupid. The doc cut you loose on the condition you take it easy and don't overexert yourself."

"Overexert myself? I was just gettin' out of the damn truck!"

"Not without help, you ain't. Now stay put; I'm comin' around. J.D., grab his duffel from the back."

"Got it."

Buck scooted around the hood and tugged open the passenger door. Despite Vin's muttered curses, his face looked pinched, his jaw tight with discomfort. He caught his breath, swaying a bit when his feet touched the ground.

"Easy, Junior. I got ya."

Since looping Vin's arm over his shoulder would be torture on healing chest muscles, Buck grasped his friend around the waist, supporting him as best he could. They shuffled toward the house, Vin leaning more heavily into Buck with each step. J.D. zipped past them, the duffel clutched in one hand, Vin's prescriptions in the other.

"One day at a time," Buck murmured, seeing Vin's wistful expression. "You'll be givin' him a run for his money 'fore you know it."

"Sick of this." The wispy complaint belied the depth of frustration Buck could read in every line of Vin's body.

"You got a right to be. But you've come a long way, pard. When I think how you looked when we found you..." He broke off, sorry he'd resurrected the image in his own mind, as well as Vin's. Looking up, he saw Chris standing in the open doorway, smiling. "Heads up, Larabee! Got a special delivery for ya."

"It's about time. Expected you boys nearly an hour ago."

"Back up at the pharmacy." Buck squeezed them through the doorway, feeling the faint tremors as Vin fought to stay on his feet. "Where do you want him?"

"Got the guest bed all made up."

"He can speak for himself." Vin somehow managed to straighten up. "No bed. Couch."

Buck looked at Chris, who shrugged and followed them down the hall. Somehow by the time they reached the den they'd picked up Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra. Mild chaos ensued as the five men practically tripped over each other in an effort to be useful.

When Buck lowered Vin to the cushions his friend was panting, damp curls sticking to his sweaty forehead. He seemed to fade out for a bit, passively allowing Josiah to tug off his shoes, Ezra to arrange pillows, and Chris and Buck to ease him into a supine position while Nathan supervised the whole operation. He rallied when J.D. thrust a glass of water and two pain pills in his face, waving them all off with a snarl.

"Got fussed over enough in the hospital. Give me some space, damn it."

Buck took the glass and pills from J.D. as the others, with the exception of Chris, tactfully withdrew. "Now that's the ornery cuss we all know and love. Here--you look ready to chew through tin foil."

Vin shoved aside the outstretched hand, sloshing water onto Buck's wrist. "I'm fine; I don't need that shit."

Snorting, Buck rolled his eyes. "Yeah. White's a real good color on you."

"Shut up, Buck."


Buck watched, fascinated, as Chris locked eyes with their sharpshooter and a silent conversation crackled in the air. Chris gave a slight tilt of his head. Vin compressed his lips to a thin line. Chris quirked an eyebrow. Vin briefly closed his eyes, then ruefully shook his head and held out a hand.

"Gimme the damn pills."

Dropping them into his palm, Buck huffed, "You boys are downright scary sometimes--you know that?"

"You need to eat somethin' with those," Nathan warned from his perch on an armchair.

Vin screwed up his face. "Not hungry."

J.D. stopped playing with the television remote to stare. "Wow. I never thought I'd hear those words from you, Vin."

"It would seem to signal an impending apocalypse," Ezra agreed, pouring himself a glass of wine.

"I know the drugs mess with your stomach," Nate said, "but your body needs fuel. If you don't eat, you ain't gonna heal."

"I said I'm not hungry! Jeez, y'all sound like a buncha old women the way you..." Trailing off, he sniffed. "Is that Josiah's chili?"

Ezra raised his wineglass to Vin in a mock salute. "Your sense of smell is as acute as your eyesight, Mr. Tanner."

Josiah leaned in the kitchen doorway, a dish towel slung over one shoulder. "Change your mind about dinner, Brother Vin?"

"Now wait a minute! The man just got outta the hospital after a major trauma. You feed him that five-alarm chili an' he'll be sick as a dog."

"Damn it, Nate! First you tell me I gotta eat 'n now you won't let me." Vin might have been trying for a scowl, but it looked suspiciously like a pout.

"I'm just sayin' you need to take it easy, stick with foods that ain't so spicy right now."

"I been eatin' that tasteless hospital crap for nearly two weeks! I deserve some real food."

"Which is why I made Vin his own batch, easy on the chili powder." Josiah's tone was decidedly smug.

Vin's wide grin lit up his pale face. "Thanks, 'siah."

He began to struggle upright, but Buck stopped him with a firm hand to the chest. "You just lay back and rest, Junior. We'll bring you a tray."

"Aw, Buck!"

"Don't 'Aw, Buck' me. Last thing you need is to be sittin' up on one of them torture devices Chris calls a kitchen chair."

"There's always a seat for you outside, Buck," Chris growled.

Buck gave Vin a conspiratorial look. "See? He knows it's true."

Not about to be so easily distracted, Vin persisted. "Chris, I can--"

"He's right, Cowboy. Stay put. I'll be back in a few."

Cursing under his breath, Vin slumped back against the pillows. Something in his face, in the edge to his voice, stopped Buck from following the others to the kitchen. He sat on the coffee table opposite the couch while Vin glared out the window, doing his best to ignore him.


"Better watch yourself. You know Chris don't like people sittin' on that table."

"What's goin' on with you?"

"Not much, thanks to y'all."

"You know what I mean."

Pulling his gaze from the deepening twilight, Vin heaved a sigh. "Go 'n get yourself somethin' to eat, Bucklin. I'm fine."

"Sure you are. Look here, Vin..." Buck studied his clasped hands, carefully choosing his words. "I know we can be a damned irritating bunch of mother hens, but...we thought we'd lost ya, pard."

Vin's jaw dropped and his eyes went wide and defenseless. "I guess I don't know what it was like standin' in your shoes."

"And I hope you never do."

"Sorry for bein' a pain in the ass. I just... I ain't used to havin' anyone who gives a shit. From the time I was a little feller, I learned to depend on myself. I don't know any other way."

Buck's throat tightened painfully. "Well you'd best get used to it. You ain't alone anymore; you got family."

Vin suddenly seemed fascinated by the frayed edge of his tee shirt. "Reckon I need to be reminded of that now 'n then."

Buck patted his knee. "No charge."

"Buck! Get your ass off my coffee table. Does it look like a bench to you?"

Buck could've kissed Larabee for the grin he'd put on Vin's face. "Busted," his friend muttered.

Within minutes Nathan had tucked an extra pillow behind Vin's back, Chris settled a tray across his lap, and J.D. was asking what he wanted to drink.

Braced for another show of temper, Buck was pleased when Vin gave the kid a sly smile and said, "I'll take one of those"--indicating the beer bottle in J.D.'s hand.

"Oh no you won't!" Nathan set down his own bowl with a thump and stabbed a finger at Vin. "You got a death wish or somethin'? First you're tryin' to give yourself an ulcer an' now you want to mix alcohol and pills? You just..." He narrowed his eyes when Vin lost his poker face and began laughing.

"Made you look."

"Smart ass." But Nathan's voice held amusement, not irritation.

"Here." Chris placed a bowl of chili into Buck's hands as the others settled onto couches and the floor, squabbling good-naturedly over the television channel.

"Thanks." Buck frowned. "Ain't this yours?"

"I'll get myself some more." Chris looked pointedly over Buck's shoulder to where Vin was eating chili and chuckling at one of J.D.'s lame jokes. "You earned it."


Chris came awake quickly, all senses on alert. After a moment he heard it again--the subtle creak of one of the boards in the hallway's hardwood floor. He looked at the red LED display on his alarm clock: 2:36.


Vin seemed at peace during dinner. Whatever magic words Buck had used, he'd shed his dark mood, polishing off half a bowl of chili, a chunk of corn bread, and a scoop of cookie dough ice cream. ESPN was on the big screen TV, Buck, J.D., and Ezra were in rare form, and though Vin hadn't said much, he'd soaked up the celebratory atmosphere with a bemused smile.

The Rockies were down by two at the seventh inning stretch, Buck was regaling them with his latest conquest, and Chris had glanced over to find Vin out cold, his ice cream bowl balanced precariously on his lap, the spoon clutched loosely in one hand.

For a split second he saw not the contentedly sleeping Vin on his couch, but the unconscious, bleeding Vin in the cellar. Then a warm hand had touched his shoulder and the apparition vanished. Chris had blinked, a shiver racing up his spine.

If Josiah noticed his reaction, he'd given no indication. "I think that's our cue to leave," he'd said, his fingers tightening briefly. "I'll give you a hand getting sleeping beauty into bed."

Vin was so far under that he'd never really awakened, despite their manhandling. Chris had hoped it was a sign he'd sleep through the night.

Evidently not.

Rubbing his eyes, Chris snagged sweatpants and a tee shirt from the end of the bed. Rather than turning on a lamp, he navigated by memory and the bright patches of moonlight that spilled in through the windows. He traveled the circuit from hallway, to kitchen, to den, and was feeling the first tendrils of unease, when a flicker of movement on the deck caught his eye.

Scooping up the quilt from the back of the couch, he slipped out the sliding door. Vin huddled on a chaise lounge, staring at the empty corral. His hair was still damp with sweat, his eyes haunted.

Chris dumped the blanket in Vin's lap. "You wind up with pneumonia on my watch and Nathan'll shoot me."

Drawing the quilt around his shoulders, Vin didn't reply. Chris sat on the edge of a chair, letting the silence grow thick between them before trying again.


After a long pause, Vin sighed. "Never understood why folks ask a question when they already know the answer."

"Think it's called an icebreaker." Chris leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. "I'm worried about you, Cowboy."

"No need. I'm fine."

"You and I got real different ideas about what that word means." Chris stood and walked into the house, feeling Vin's startled gaze on his back.

Heading straight to the bar, he grabbed two shot glasses and the unopened bottle of Glenfiddich he'd been saving for a special occasion. At the door he hesitated, hearing clearly in his head what Nathan would have to say about Vin mixing pain pills and single malt whiskey. Wincing, he yanked the door open and stepped outside.

Vin's head snapped around as he approached, surprise written in his wide eyes. "Thought you went back to bed."

"Thought wrong." Chris poured a shot into each glass, handing one to Vin before sinking back into his chair. Setting the bottle on the deck, he knocked back the contents of his glass, sighing at the welcome warmth that spread through his body. "Good stuff."

Vin's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. "You're ridin' my ass about not dressin' warm enough, but you're pouring me booze?"

"I'm fulfilling my part of our agreement."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"In the cellar I asked if you wanted to talk about what happened when you were a kid. You said you'd have to be three sheets to the wind first. I said I'd arrange it." Chris nodded at Vin's glass. "Drink up."

Vin hesitated only a moment before tossing back his drink. Licking his lips, he gestured at the bottle. "You must've had that hidden or Ezra would've gotten to it before now."

"Bottom cabinet, in the back," Chris said. "Ready to start talking?"

"Way I remember it, that was your agreement, not mine."

Chris poured two more shots. "When's the last time you slept more than a few hours at a time? You need to talk, Vin. If not to me, then to someone else."

Vin took a swallow, closing his eyes. "You don't know what you're asking."

"You sure about that? Case you haven't noticed, I don't make a practice of bearing my soul."

"Now that you mention it." Vin drained the glass and opened his eyes. "Must be in worse shape 'n I thought. Ain't gonna take much," he said, a slight slur to the words.

"You told Jonah you'd been in his shoes."

"Yeah." Vin rolled the empty glass between his palms. "Was younger 'n he is--'bout nine, I guess."

"Foster home?"


"I'm listening."

Blowing out a long breath, Vin set down the glass. "I was five when my ma died. She'd been sick for quite a while--cancer, I think. There was only ever me an' her, so once she was gone, I had no one."


"Never in the picture. Like I said, it was just Ma an' me."

"So you were placed in a foster home."

Vin snorted. "Best make that plural."

"How many?"

"Not exactly sure. Four, maybe five by the time I came to live with the Kesslers." He smiled, but bitterness lurked behind it. "Had some problems adjustin'."

"You'd lost everything," Chris said quietly. "How does anyone adjust to something like that?"

Looking intently at him, Vin nodded. "I kinda clammed up at first, wouldn't talk to no one. That, 'n the fact I couldn't read, got the other kids to pickin' on me. Which just gave me more reason to keep to myself." He huffed. "No matter what I did, it was wrong. If I steered clear of the other kids, I was sulkin'. If I stood up for myself, I was a troublemaker.

"Ben 'n Molly Kessler..." Vin trailed off, chewing his lip.

Scooping up his glass, he held it out to Chris, who hesitated, then poured a little more. Vin drained it in a single gulp, his hand shaky as he set it down--though Chris wasn't sure whether to attribute the unsteadiness to whiskey or emotion.

"Ben 'n Molly Kessler had one son, David, 'bout five years older n' me. Not sure why they started takin' in foster kids--but I can guess. Ben was a foreman at a tool 'n die factory. Times was hard 'n money was tight. A monthly foster care allowance can be stretched pretty far if you get clothes from Goodwill and see that no one eats too much."

"Wait a minute. You think they took the money the state meant for your food and clothing and used it for themselves?"

Vin shook his head, clearly amused by Chris's ignorance. "They'd've been in good company if they did. Lots of folks do it, Chris."

Chris scowled but said nothing.

"There were two other state kids 'sides me--Katie and LeAnn. They were both quite a bit younger, an' Molly doted on 'em. Lookin' back, I think she must've always wanted a daughter. Not sure why they never had more kids of their own. Couldn't, I reckon.

"Things was okay at first. Ben was real strict, but as long as I kep' my head down and stayed outta the way, we got along. There was never any question as to who mattered, though. Both Ben n' Molly thought the sun rose 'n set on David. To hear them tell it he was the best lookin', the best athlete, the best student. They thought he could do no wrong." Vin's lip curled. "Probably why he was such a prick."

"He gave you a hard time?"

Vin shrugged. "Some. Ignored us, mostly. Liked to call us 'strays.' Not in front of his folks, though."

"His dad didn't beat on him?"

"Ben didn't beat on any of us--at first. He could be... I saw the way he was, with David, an' I thought maybe if I tried real hard..." Vin looked away, his throat working. "I was a stupid little kid. Took me a while to figure out Ben'd never see no one but David."

Chris wanted to argue, to tell Vin it was never stupid to crave love and approval, but he feared it might cause his friend to shut down just when they were getting somewhere. "What changed?" he asked quietly.

"Turned out David weren't so perfect after all. After I'd been there 'bout a year, he an' some other kids got liquored up and decided to drag race. Car hit a tree at 60 miles an hour. All of 'em died."

"Damn." Chris rubbed a hand along his jaw. "I'm surprised the state didn't pull you out of there."

"They wanted to. Ben 'n Molly begged 'em to let us stay. Said they'd lost part of their family 'n didn't want to lose the rest. Guess they were pretty convincing 'cause the caseworker let us be. If she'd've stuck to her guns..." Vin curled his hands into fists. "I went through hell 'cause the woman fell for a sob story."

"You said 'I.'" Chris felt his way carefully, as if walking on thin ice. "What about the girls?"

"Never laid a finger on 'em. It was me. Always me." He looked at Chris with the eyes of that bewildered child. "He'd always had a short temper when he'd been drinkin', an' he started drinkin' a lot. I tried not to get him riled but... but just the sight of me was enough."

"What did he do?" When Vin didn't answer, Chris leaned closer. "Talk to me, pard."

"Started out as just words. Callin' me a bastard. Sayin' I was stupid, couldn't even read as well as Katy an' LeAnn. That no one wanted me. That nobody'd gave a shit if I lived or died."

"Son of a bitch."

"I tried so hard to please him, 'an sometimes it was like he'd forget and treat me real nice. Come to one of my games or take me with him when he did errands. But the more he drank, the angrier he got. Wasn't long before he started usin' his fists." Vin chuckled, the sound like broken glass. "He was smarter 'n Sinclair, though. Always made sure the bruises didn't show."

"Where the hell was his wife? Didn't she try to stop him?"

Vin blinked, looking surprised by the force of Chris's anger. "A time or two, at first. He didn't much cotton to her interferin'. Gave her a taste of what I was gettin' an' she shut up real quick. An' he said if I told anyone else he'd take it out on the girls."

"After a while, I stopped bein' scared and started gettin' pissed. I tried to hide it from him, but he must've seen it in my eyes. That's when he got the idea..." A shiver worked its way through Vin, and he folded his arms around himself.


He shook his head. "I can't, Chris."

Hell. Chris moved to the lounge chair and snugged his shoulder against Vin's. "You can. It happened a long time ago, Cowboy. It's just a memory."

He heard the dry click as Vin swallowed. "The house had--" He swallowed again. "--it h-had an attic. Ben st-stored old clothes an' junk up there. There was a tr-trap door in the closet with a pull-down ladder. " He licked his lips. "One day he told me to bring down a box. The trap d-door slipped shut, an' I panicked. It was so fuckin' dark you c-couldn't see your hand in front of your f-f-face. By the time Ben got me out I was practically bawlin' like a b-baby."

Stunned by the uncharacteristic stutter, Chris watched Vin from the corner of his eye, resisting the urge to turn his head. His friend was rocking back and forth, still wrapped in his own arms.

"Guess that's when he g-got the idea to l-l-lock me in there. He couldn't break me with his fists, but I'd beg him not to leave me in there."

Chris's eyes burned. "God, Vin. I'd like to shoot the son of a bitch. How'd you make him stop?"

"He usually only left me for an hour or so. But one day he just...he just lost it. Started yellin' that God m-made a m-mistake. That he should've taken me an' not David. He...he..." Vin shivered so hard the chair rattled. "He locked me up and then he l-l-left. Molly'd taken the girls shoppin' and I was...I was alone, an' it was so d-dark, an'... It was the middle of summer, Chris. Must've b-been well over a hundred degrees in there. I had no w-water, no... I c-c-couldn't breathe." Vin was panting now, lost in the memory.

Chris slipped his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Easy, Vin. Take deep breaths. Slow it down."

As if Chris's voice were an anchor, Vin's respiration slowed. He stopped rocking, though the occasional tremor still stuttered through him. "I'm okay."

But he didn't look okay. He looked like hell. Chris thought about what Nathan would do to him if he could see Vin now--clammy, shivering, just a step from shock. With a cocktail of leftover pain pills and single malt whiskey in his system. Murder would be too quick--Nathan would want him to suffer.

"Molly finally came home an' found me. I was pretty far gone--I'd p-passed out in my own puke an' she couldn't really get me to wake up. She got scared and took me to the emergency room."

"Heat exhaustion," Chris murmured. "You could've died."

"Ben tried to pass it off as an accident. Said I must've been playin' up there an' got locked in. But the doc had already seen the bruises. My caseworker packed up my clothes an' stuff while I was still in the hospital. I never saw Ben, Molly, or the girls again." No longer trembling, Vin leaned more heavily into Chris's grip.

"It's no wonder you got spooked in that cellar."

"Thought maybe it would fade over time." Vin yawned, his words coming slower and with greater effort. "But closed in places--it's like I'm back in the attic all over again."

"You were a brave kid, making it through all that."

"Yeah, well... I was pretty screwed up fer a while. Ran away from the next foster home and ended up on the streets. Did stuff I ain't proud of."

"Most of us have."

Vin yawned again. "All I ever wanted was a place I could feel safe. Took a long time fer me to be able to trust anyone." Vin chuckled softly. "Still workin' on that."

"That's why you insist on living in Purgatorio," Chris said, seeing Vin's ratty apartment in a whole new light. "To give those kids a refuge they can count on, no matter what."

"An' here I thought you was just a pretty face." Vin sighed. "Tired."

"Think you can sleep now?"

"Don't think you could stop me."

Chris stood and held out his hand, but Vin shook his head. "Gonna bunk out here fer now. Fresh air'll do me good."

Understanding, Chris didn't argue. "You gonna be warm enough?" he asked, watching Vin cocoon himself in the quilt and stretch out on the cushions.

"Snug as a bug."

"Need me to hang around?"

"Nah. Reckon I could use a little space."

"You know where to find me."

Chris collected the bottle and glasses and headed for the house.

"Chris." Vin was bathed in shadow, his expression unreadable.



"You're welcome." He pulled open the door, but paused, remembering a beloved ritual from what seemed a lifetime ago. "Vin?"


"Sweet dreams."


"Take it easy. We're in no hurry."

Vin rolled his eyes at Chris, but eased back on Peso's reins. "You worry too much."

"You push too hard."

With grins that acknowledged the truth in both accusations, they rode in companionable silence, allowing the horses to pick their way up the steep incline. Chris studied Vin with his peripheral vision, reassured by the easy curve of his friend's body and the healthy color in his cheeks. Six weeks since the shooting and Vin was due back at work on Monday--desk duty, for now, but at the rate he was healing he'd be back to full strength in no time.

"You're doin' it again."

"What?" A little embarrassed to be caught woolgathering, Chris turned toward his friend.

"You keep watchin' me like you expect I'll break to pieces. I'm fine, Chris."

"I know." And he did, in his head. But after all that had happened, his heart was taking a little longer to catch up.

Gray was turning to pale pink at the horizon when they rounded the hill's crest. Chris gazed at the panorama of wooded foothills and snowcapped peaks, drinking in the beauty. Beside him Vin sucked in a deep breath and blew it out, and Chris could almost feel something inside his friend uncoil.

"God, I've missed this."

Chris swung gracefully out of the saddle, tethering Pony to a nearby tree. "Best get moving. It's almost showtime."

Vin slipped from Peso with a slight hitch and a surreptitious rub of his shoulder that Chris chose to ignore. He tied Peso beside Pony, giving a sharp slap to the big black's rump when he nipped at Chris's longsuffering horse.

"Stop that, mule, or Pony'll kick yer ass."

"Think he's suffering from an excess of energy after being cooped up the past few weeks," Chris said, watching Peso nose Vin's pockets until his friend produced pieces of apple for both horses.

"I know the feelin'."

They unpacked a large thermos and a paper sack from the saddlebags, carrying them over to a flat expanse of rock that butted up against the cliff wall. Chris sat, propping his back against the stone and poured the coffee. Vin settled beside him a bit more slowly, and Chris didn't miss the fleeting grimace that flickered across his friend's face.

"Still sore?"

Vin narrowed his eyes but backed off when he saw no judgement in Chris's face. "A little stiff first thing in the morning. It'll loosen up."

He pulled out a doughnut and passed the sack to Chris. They munched on pastries, trading the coffee cup back and forth as the sky turned from pink to gold and the first pale threads of light cast a halo over the distant peaks. Finally the sun crept into view, a bright orange sphere that chased away the shadows and bathed the mountains in fiery brilliance.

"I wasn't sure I'd see that again."

Chris tore his gaze from the spectacle to look at Vin's peaceful face. "Almost didn't."

"Sure as hell wasn't the first time I thought I might die. But it was the first time I really gave a damn whether I did." Vin looked at him, one corner of his mouth turned up in a lopsided smile. "Not sure what that means."

"Means you've got something worth fighting for. People you care about, and who care about you. Means you've come home."

Vin stared at him for a long moment before nodding. "Reckon so." He paused and his voice turned oddly gentle. "How 'bout you?"

Chris blinked, thrown off balance. "Me?"

"I'm guessin' things was 'bout as bad as they could get after you lost your family. To hear the boys tell it, you were a dead man walkin'."

Chris tensed, fighting the instinctive urge to shut Vin down. "Suppose that's true."

"Can't imagine what it must've been like for you, Cowboy."

The honest pain and empathy in Vin's voice reached deep inside Chris, unlocking a door he'd guarded jealously. "I think you can." When Vin frowned in confusion, he tried to explain. "Josiah said something to me when we still weren't sure if you were going to make it. He said that sometimes the pain in our lives is the strongest tie binding us together. At first it just pissed me off, but...maybe he wasn't wrong."

"What're you sayin'? Misery loves company an' we're both pretty damn miserable?"

Chris chuffed, cuffing his friend in the head. "I'm saying that from the very beginning something in me recognized that you'd get it. I could let down my guard, because you wouldn't be shocked at what you'd see."

"Reckon that means maybe you've come home too."

Chris smiled and looked back at the steadily rising sun. "Reckon so." They were quiet for a while before he asked, "Heard from Jonah?"

"'Bout once a week. The jury's still out on California, but he seems to like his new family well enough."

"Orrin said his dad's healing well. They finally transferred him to the county jail. He's cooperating with the police, hoping for a reduced sentence."

"Don't much matter. By the time he gets out Jonah should be able to fend for himself." He drained the last of the coffee and handed the cup to Chris.

"Looks like you're sleeping better," Chris said, closing the thermos.

"Talkin' helped." He gave Chris a wry grin. "Guess it was worth Nathan chewin' your ass for gettin' me wasted."

"Anytime, Cowboy."

"Same goes for you, you know. My whiskey ain't as high priced, but the door's always open."

"Might just take you up on that."

When the sun was well over the distant peaks, Vin stood and extended his hand.

Chris groaned as he was pulled him to his feet. "It's hell getting old."

Eyes twinkling, Vin shrugged. "I dunno. These days it don't look so bad."

Damn straight Chris thought gratefully.

Still clasping forearms, they grinned at each other. Chris tipped his head toward the horses. "What do you say we give that troublemaker of yours a chance to blow off some steam?"

He was rewarded when Vin's face lit up with delight. "I'm with you, partner. All the way."

Chris clapped him on the back. "Let's ride."