by Farad
May 2008: Challenge one: Tell a story that includes a backstory of how one of the seven acquired an item that we associate with him (Vin's harmonica or Ezra's flash or ring or gold tooth, Chris' guns or spurs or duster, Nathan's knives or the scabbard, Josiah's Bible or serape - et cetera...);
and Challenge two: Write a story using the following words and phrase: 'map', 'wagon', and 'I'm not kidding..."
Crossover with Deadwood

"Stage coming!" JD said, as if the noise from the incoming vehicle didn't announce it. But Josiah nodded his agreement, taking a sip from his beer and watching as JD rose to his feet and bounced out the swinging doors of the saloon into the afternoon heat. Josiah had seen more than enough stages these past few months - both the ones with horses, and the ones with women singing music-box music.

"Thought you were all right," Nathan said quietly from Josiah's right.

He looked over to find his oldest friend in this town leaning back in his chair, chewing on the remainder of a biscuit and watching Josiah.

" 'A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right'," he answered, wondering why Thomas Paine had come to mind.

But he knew why, because of the opposite: a long habit of thinking a thing wrong gave it the appearance of being wrong, even if it wasn't.

He sighed, sipping his beer again.

"You're not going to tell me, are you?" Nathan asked, but he pushed himself to lean forward, his hands resting on the tabletop. "Emma? I know it's been a while, but you ain't quite been the same since then."

Despite himself, Josiah smiled. "In a manner of speaking, perhaps. But not in the way you think." He patted his breast pocket. "She's still in here, where she always has been."

Nathan nodded, but his eyes were sharp, too sharp. "So what's wrong? Something's been eating at you for a while. What's going on, Josiah?"

He smiled, shaking his head and looking out the saloon window. There was no way to explain this to Nathan, he could barely explain it to himself. He'd made a mistake, a bad one. At the time, it had seemed the best choice, the only choice.

At the time, he'd been worried about destroying his soul and that of someone he had come to care about far too much. Someone who deserved far better than he had to offer, in this life and certainly the next.

"Just getting old," he said with another sigh.

"You ain't old," Nathan answered, and even though he was smiling, Josiah knew the other man was worried.

Old enough to know better, he thought. But he let himself nod and say, "Just feel it sometimes. Suspect you do as well. It'll pass."

Nathan frowned, but before he could say anything, new people were coming through the door, several from the stage, most from the crowd that had gathered to see who was one the stage, get the mail, and the parcels that were due today.

"Nathan!" JD called, slipping through the crowd. "You got some stuff - something big!"

Nathan glanced at Josiah, but he was tenser now. "My new pots and tools - I been saving up, ordered them from a place back east - "

"Go, go," Josiah couldn't help but smile and it was sincere. Nathan's love for what he did was something to behold.

Something that could be said for all of the six men he knew here.

"You need help?" Josiah asked, as Nathan bounced to his feet.

But JD was there, tugging at Nathan's arm. "I can help him - come on, Nathan, the driver wants to get back on the road."

Nathan slapped him on the shoulder as he passed, and Josiah watched them leave, letting his eyes drift over the newcomers. Most were people he knew, locals from the town, hired hands from the ranches in to pick up deliveries, but there was a couple who had come in on the stage.

They were familiar with each other, his hand loose but comfortable on her elbow, her body leaning in close to his as they moved. Married, he thought, a proper man and wife, her in her worn but pretty dress, him in his suit that looked a lot like one of JD's, a bowler hat that had seen better days but was still serviceable.

They made their way to the bar, and Josiah was surprised to see the woman settle in first, leaning up comfortably against the polished surface and smiling at Ned, the bartender, while her companion glanced nervously around the saloon.

He was a small man, slender and short, with brown hair, eyes, mustache, and suit. He would have blended into the woodwork had it not been for the woman on his arm, who, though also petite, was blond and willowy, with a smile that seemed both sincere and jaded.

Her breasts, which were prominent due to the low neck of her dress, didn't hurt either, Josiah thought, with a certain appreciation.

Until it reminded him of another set of breasts and the pain they had caused him, a pain that was still there, even though changed some.

He picked up his beer and looked out the window, watching JD and Nathan carrying the boxes down the boardwalk, JD talking and Nathan smiling, two of the happier people in their group.

It wasn't long after that he saw the horses amble slowly by, knowing immediately who their riders were, even before he saw them. Chris, Vin, and Buck, back from tracking the wild cat that had gotten into some of the small farmers' stock.

Successful, he surmised, watching Chris laugh at something Buck was saying. Vin grinned, a fleeting expression, but Josiah saw the tiredness in his eyes and knew where it came from. Damn it. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

"Excuse me? Sir?"

The words were from his right, and he turned to see the couple from the stage standing there, each holding a beer, the man just slightly in front of his companion, as if protecting her.

"Sorry to bother you," the man said, "but the barkeep said that you might be able to help us. Can you spare a minute?"

It was such a relief from his own thoughts that he almost told them he could spare them a lifetime. But instead, he nodded, and rose. "Josiah Sanchez," he said, introducing himself and holding out a hand to the man.

"Sol Star," the man answered, his handshake firm despite his slightness. His fingers were calloused, a sign that he understood manual labor as well. "This is Trixie," he said, looking to the woman, and Josiah knew then where Mr. Star's heart resided.

Her eyes were clear and bright, as blue as the sky, reminding him of - someone else he didn't need to be thinking on. "Ma'am," he touched the brim of his hat. "You folks just off the stage?"

"We are," Star agreed, smiling. "All the way from Deadwood, in the Dakota Territory."

Josiah nodded. "Long way from home," he said, then gestured. "Have a seat, if you feel like it."

They did, Star being enough a gentleman to pull back the lady's chair, even though it was obviously not something she was used to. But she smiled up at him, and even though it wasn't as clear in her eyes as it had been in his, Josiah thought she had given her love as well.

"We're looking for a man," she started out, once she was settled. Her hands were wrapped around her mug and she was familiar with the holding of such, which told Josiah that she wasn't, or hadn't always been, a housewife.

"Well, there are a lot of them about," he said with a smile, noticing that Star was also grinning a little. "But I suspect you have a specific one in mind."

She grinned at him, and he saw a little of the flirt in her. "I do, sir, I sure the fuck do."

He was glad that his own mug was only part-way to his mouth because he was certain that had he had beer in his mouth, she would have been wearing it. No, nothing demure about her now.

Beside him, Star was reaching out a hand, gently touching her on the arm.

But she had already caught her mistake. "Sorry, don't mean to offend," she said.

"Oh, no offense," Josiah said, but he put his mug back down on the table. "Just a bit surprised. We don't get as much . . . plain-speaking from the lady-folk around here."

"Probably don't have as many whores either," she said, and this time, even Star was surprised, barely managing to hang on to the beer in his mouth. He did turn a glare on her, but it softened as Josiah laughed.

"No, we don't, and it's a damned pity." And - it was. Had there been more whores around, maybe he'd never have found himself in bed with someone half his age, someone who deserved far better than a grizzled old ex-preacher trying to find his own soul. Better than a man who'd spent more years in bed with women than that young man had been alive.

"What Trixie means to say," Star said, his voice pleasant, his tone suggesting he was accustomed to smoothing things out.

But the lady - and Josiah still thought of her as that, didn't let others speak for her. "What I mean to say," she cut in sharply, but one hand turned so that she was holding Star's, the grip gentle, "is that I had a friend once who asked me to do her a favor, to find this man and give him something from her. I put it off for a long time, trying to survive, but now, I'm kind of ahead on surviving, leastways for the moment. Several weeks ago, some cowboys came through Deadwood, and told us about some men here, protecting this town - you're one of 'em, ain'tcha?"

Josiah nodded, debated taking a sip of his beer, but thought better of it.

She nodded and went on. "You know Buck Wilmington?"

He wasn't surprised at the name she gave, figuring that anything involving a woman would lead straight back to him. But before he could answer, a voice behind him called out, "He does indeed, little lady!"

And Buck himself was there, ambling around the table with a grin that he reserved for women and his horse.

"Buck Wilmington, at your service," he said, giving a little bow and touching the brim of his hat.

Josiah grinned as Star stiffened and his arms tensed, as if he were getting ready to stand. But Trixie held tight, and to his credit, Buck's eyes left hers, and her breasts, and turned to Star. "Sir," he said, holding out his hand. "You are a lucky, lucky man."

"Bet he knows it," Chris' quiet voice cut through the saloon noise as he joined them as well, taking a seat to Josiah's left. He set a whiskey bottle on the table and nodded to Star, then touched the brim of his hat to Trixie, before looking to catch Josiah's gaze. "Unlike some."

It was as close as Chris would ever come to acknowledging what he knew, because, in truth, Josiah knew Vin hadn't told Chris about them. Vin wouldn't do that, not without Josiah's permission.

But it seemed probable that Chris had figured it out on his own, more probable that he had figured out that Vin was hurting from something and put the rest together. Wasn't like Vin was here now, which meant he'd come up with some excuse not to join Buck and Chris, knowing that Josiah was here.

As if knowing his mind, Chris continued, "Vin's gone to put the horses up, be here in a while."

Josiah nodded, and Chris did as well.

Buck pulled out the chair between Chris and Trixie, turning it around so that his long legs straddled it as he sat. "So what can I do for a lovely lady such as yourself?" he asked, even as he reached for Chris' bottle and pulled out the cork.

Josiah noticed then that Trixie was staring at Buck, her eyes wide and her expression soft. She still held Star's hand, but their fingers were twined together and Josiah thought it might be for comfort. Star was looking from Trixie to Buck and back, still worried and maybe a little jealous, Josiah thought.

"Fuck if you don't look just like her," Trixie said, but it was soft and with such wonder that Josiah hardly noticed the profanity.

Buck frowned. "Ain't but a few women that can be said about. Which I reckon . . ." His words faded away and he met her stare, his eyes widening.

In the silence that followed, Chris shifted, looking to Josiah, his expression unreadable. But Josiah knew what the other man was worried about; none of them talked about their pasts, rarely talked about their families. Chris and Buck knew more about each other than any of the rest of them knew about any of them, except maybe Josiah and Nathan, who had known each other the next longest. Chris would have some inkling of how this was going to play, and he was checking the lay of the land.

Which was probably why he didn't put up one smidgeon of an argument when Buck cleared his throat and said quietly, "Chris, Josiah, y'all mind giving us a minute or two here? I think I need to talk to -" He paused, and Trixie filled in the rest.

"Trixie," she said simply, "and this is Sol, Sol Star."

Buck nodded, then looked to Chris, who was already getting up from the table. "We'll be over here," he said, and Josiah was getting to his feet as well.

He touched the brim of his hat to the woman as he picked up his beer mug, then nodded to Chris, who was heading for a table a ways away. He moved to the bar, planning to replace his beer and the bottle that Chris had generously left on the table for his oldest friend.

Vin took his time brushing down the horses, all three of them. Then he wiped down the tack, even took a few minutes to apply some saddle oil - all three of them needed it, even the reins.

But the sun was still up when he left the livery, which meant that Josiah was still in the saloon with Chris and Buck, JD and Ezra as well, most like. Maybe even Nathan if nothing else was pressing and he'd had time to get through his boxes of new things, new devices.

Devices. A word he'd learned from Josiah. Like he'd learned so much from Josiah.

Too much. But that wasn't Josiah's fault. Josiah had never lied to him. Never made any promises, never said a word that wasn't true. Never said a word to suggest that anything was anything other than what it was - fucking, sometimes talk about things Vin had given a little thought to, things he thought he was strange for thinking. Things Josiah had read in his books, learned in some of his travels and in some of them schools he'd gone to.

But mostly fucking.

Not that there had been all that much; the first time, Josiah had been drunk and angry, and Vin had been trying to get him to bed. One thing led to another and before he knew what he was doing, he had Josiah's cock in his mouth, the man's hands twined so deeply in his hair that he lost several strands of it getting free after.

Vin had thought it over, then, that Josiah had passed out, and in the morning would remember none of it. But as he'd gotten himself loose, then tugged the man's pants back into place, those big hands had caught him, pulling him into the bed. One of them had cupped his erection, working it through the thick buckskins, those fingers strong enough and large enough to draw him to his own release so quick he didn't know it was there 'til he was in it.

He'd fallen asleep in the bed, his body pressed close to Josiah's, and awakened first, as the dawn light slipped into the room. Josiah snored on, and Vin had let himself out, passingly aware that they'd done what they'd done in the back room of the church. It had been good, first he'd had in a long while, but he figured Josiah wouldn't even remember what had happened.

He'd been wrong. Josiah had remembered, and while it meant something to Vin, it meant a hell of a lot - literally, to Josiah.

For two weeks, Josiah had avoided him, almost to the point of walking on the other side of the street when he saw Vin. Nathan had noticed, as had Chris, so Vin had waited one evening on the stairs of the church while Josiah was out to dinner, waited until it was just dark enough that Josiah didn't see him sitting there.

The big man had still tried to find an excuse not to talk, pleading a meeting he'd forgotten, but Vin had called his bluff.

'Can't go on like this,' he'd said quietly, 'others are noticing. If you're mad at me, that's between us, J'siah, and we need to settle it now.'

He'd expected that they'd go into the church, but Josiah had looked a little ill at the thought, and Vin had finally caught on: he wasn't welcome there now, not after what they'd done. It didn't bother him much, though, he'd never been big on churches, not after seeing what they did to the Indian tribes he knew.

So they'd gone round back, to the wood stack and well that Josiah shared with Nathan and the other businesses about, and Vin had let Josiah mumble words of shame and apology before finally sighing and holding up one hand. 'Can't say I'm sorry, 'cause I ain't. That was one of the finest nights I've had in a long damned time. But I won't push you on it, and I won't mention it ever again, and I won't step foot in your door if you don't want me to. We'd best put it behind us now, and do whatever we need to.'

Josiah had looked at him, frowning but the clear eyes, the color of a cloudy sky, had met his, direct and honest. 'I'm sorry, Vin,' he'd said, and he'd meant it, Vin could tell. 'It's not my way. I would like to put it behind us.'

They'd shaken hands on it, and Vin had honored his promise, not talking about it, not setting foot through the door of the church - any of the doors.

Which was why the second time it happened, they'd been in the livery. All seven of them were still giddy from the success of getting Chris back, and righting the things that were wrong in that prison camp. It had been a good day and things were looking good for the moment, all of them back together, Chris safe among them even if he was a little the worse for wear.

They'd all been in, at first, getting their horses stripped down and tacked. He'd been taking care of Chris' and Nathan's horses as well as his own, letting Nathan give Chris a good looking-over - and Josiah had come back. Worried about Vin, about how he'd let himself be the bait to get them all inside that prison camp.

One thing led to another and Vin was on his knees again, not minding one bit. This time, Josiah had actually stuck his big hand into Vin's pants, and the skin-to-skin contact had once more put Vin over the edge before he knew what was happening.

After that, things had been easier between them, and Josiah had even come back to Vin's room at the boarding house several times. It had been there that Vin had let it go further, let Josiah do something to him he'd rarely trusted anyone else do.

And they'd talked, sometimes spending whole nights talking about things that Vin had never had the pleasure of talking about before, things he'd never talked about with anyone else. Josiah had never laughed at him, in truth, the older man always had a tale or a reference that seemed to make Vin's idea more real. Made his ideas sound less like fancy.

They never talked about the sex, though, never talked about how good it felt resting in the bed together. Vin had feared that any mention of it would bring it to an end. He'd often thought it funny, in a way, that all the things he'd been afraid to talk about were more real to Josiah than the one real thing they had between them.

But as with all things, it had to come up, and in a way that Vin had never expected.

Chanu and several of the men from the reservation had come into town, bearing a gift for Vin, for saving Chanu's life. A woman, pretty as a picture, one of Chanu's younger sisters. Kojay had sent her, by way of Chanu, to try to tie the people of the town closer to the tribe, and to tie Vin closer to Chanu.

Vin had tried to take care of matters quietly, but Chris and Buck had seen Chanu and his people arrive and it forced Vin to have to explain. Amongst the three of them, it was easily settled - Chanu seemed to understand that Vin couldn't accept the gift, but that in refusing, he meant no disrespect to Kojay or his people. Chanu had learned some during his short time with Claire about the strange ways of the white world.

More so, though, he understood that Vin didn't want a woman - any woman.

Vin and Chanu had spoken of it in Chanu's tongue, nothing blunt or coarse, but the implication plain enough. Kojay would understand as well. The way of the Indians was not the way of the white man, something that Chanu laughed about.

Chris and Buck didn't think much of Vin's refusal, even Buck understanding that for Vin to have taken the girl would have been to commit to something akin to marriage, a prospect that horrified him about as much as it did Vin.

It had been the humor of Buck's reaction that led Vin to explain the whole thing to Josiah, thinking that Josiah would find it as funny as Vin did. That night, Josiah had laughed as much as Vin had, delighting in the irony of it all.

But the next morning, Vin had found his lover quiet, and over the course of the days that followed, Josiah had started keeping distance between them again. Vin had tried to talk to him, only to have Josiah wave away his concerns, but leave as soon as possible.

Vin sighed, staring out at the fading day. Josiah had been avoiding him, so now, he was avoiding Josiah. It hurt, in its way, but he'd get over it, in time. For now - for now, maybe dinner.

He ambled toward the restaurant, touching his hat to several shopkeepers as they closed up and to several women working their way down the street towards home. Mrs. Potter was coming out of the restaurant as he went in, so he held the door for her as she passed, which was why he didn't see that Josiah was already seated inside, with Chris and JD, and a man that Vin didn't recognize.

He'd been in the doorway too long for them not to notice, Chris particularly. "Vin!" Larabee called, gesturing toward the empty chair between him and JD. "You're just in time."

'Course he was, he thought with a sigh, but he moved through the crowded dining room, nodding to a few folk who spoke to him, then edged behind JD to take the seat.

"Mabel just took our orders," Chris said. "We got the last of the meatloaf, but she says there's more than enough chicken left."

Vin nodded, his eyes on the man sitting across from him.

"Sol Star from Deadwood," the man said, and he reached across the table to shake Vin's hand. "I came with a friend who's talking to Buck Wilmington now."

Vin took the offered hand in a solid shake of welcome. "Vin Tanner," he returned.

Star nodded, his face solemn. He reminded Vin of JD in a way, small, funny-looking suit, someone who seemed like he should be moving all the time.

Vin didn't look at Josiah, other than a casual nod, and he didn't say much, letting JD's interrogation of Star be the focus. He thanked Mabel when she brought their dinners, his included, since she'd seen him come in the door.

"Sounds like Deadwood's an exciting place!" JD said, hardly touching his food. "Lots of gold and outlaws and trouble! You got a sheriff there?"

Vin hid his grin behind a big bite of fried chicken, knew Chris was doing the same behind a biscuit. That left Josiah to slow JD down.

"JD, Mr. Star might like to enjoy his meal without having to talk through it," he said easily.

Star's lips twitched, but he said mildly, "It has been a mighty long day, and this looks like food that deserves some attention. But I can tell you, JD, that my dearest friend is sheriff of Deadwood, at least until he gets some sense."

The meal progressed with a little talk, JD's questions holding off until Mabel brought bowls of blackberry pie and more coffee. Then it was Josiah who started it, and despite himself, Vin found himself listening.

"Not to be nosy, Mr. Star, but are you of one of the tribes of God's chosen people?"

Star blinked but smiled, a quick expression. "That's the nicest way I think anyone's ever put it, Mr. Sanchez," he said.

"Josiah, call me Josiah. I'm interested in religion, in all its forms, and I have to say, I've not had the pleasure of meeting many of your faith." Josiah had settled back in his chair, holding his coffee cup in one hand and looking at Star.

Vin looked away from the other man, trying not to remember the number of times they'd had conversations where Josiah looked the same - interested, comfortable, and respectful.

Dinner wasn't sitting so good now, and he shifted, wishing he were somewhere else.

Chris spoke up then. "I need to go check on things at the jail. Vin, you coming?"

Vin looked over as Chris rose, both surprised and pleased. With a nod to Star, he started to get up as well.

"Nothing going on, Chris," JD said, even as he got up, too.

Chris waved him off. "I know, JD, but I'd feel better making sure. You stay here, talk to Mr. Star. We'll meet up at the saloon in a while."

With that, he was walking away, and Vin almost had to rush to catch up.

They did walk over to the jail, even sat for a while, Chris reading his book, Vin thumbing through the new batch of wanted posters and staring out into the growing dusk.

Eventually, when it was too dark to read without the lamp, Chris closed his book and set it on his lap. His feet were propped back on the desk, and Vin knew the other man was watching him through the shadows.

"Ain't none of my business," Chris said after a while, "but seems that things between you and Josiah are a little cold."

Vin shrugged. "Nothing for you to worry on," he said. "It'll pass."

"Like it did last time?"

Vin took a deep breath. "Yeah, like it did last time."

They sat until it was full night, neither saying anything. After a time, Chris rose, slipping his book into the pocket of his duster. "Saloon? Or are you still avoiding him?"

Vin shook his head but got to his feet. "Ain't avoiding nobody."

Chris snorted, but didn't argue.

"Well, as my father always said, back in Austria, 'son, Yahweh is forgiving, but you've got to prove you deserve it.'"

Josiah chuckled, liking Star more the longer they talked. "Your father sounds like a wise man," he said, taking a sip of his beer.

"He was," Star agreed, smiling. "I learned a lot from him."

Josiah, Star, and JD had made it back to the saloon, taking a table in the back where Nathan had joined them, and so had Buck and Trixie, even though they were mostly talking only to each other. Ezra had already started a nightly game, and he nodded to them as they passed by, dealing all the while.

"You find it hard to keep your faith when surrounded by so many non-believers?" Josiah asked.

Star shrugged. "I don't know that it's so much a matter of faith as it is a way of thinking. And when it comes right down to it, the beliefs aren't so different, not where it counts. Your messiah has come, and his message is a good one. I don't have to believe he's the son of God to believe that what he says makes good sense."

Josiah thought about that for a few seconds before nodding. "I suppose that's true. Wise men are wise men."

Star nodded. "It's too easy for us to be distracted by what others want us to do, to think. That's one of the good things, I warrant, about being out here, in the territories. You have to think for yourself, make your own mind about what's right and wrong and the why of it."

Before Josiah could answer, JD announced, "Chris and Vin are here!"

Josiah glanced over his shoulder to see the two men coming in, Chris in the lead, a path clearing for him as it always did, no matter how crowded the room was.

Vin trailed behind, less conspicuous but that was because he wanted to be. Unlike Chris, Vin could make himself almost invisible, a talent that Josiah knew the younger man worked hard to master.

"'Bout time you boys got here," Buck greeted them, sliding a shot glass in their direction as they neared the table. There was a bottle on the table already, and Buck poured from it, filling the glass. "Trixie, here, knew my ma - she brought me this."

Buck held up a leather thong, holding the two ends of it from his hand. At the point where they met was a silver medallion, swinging from the long, doubled strap.

Josiah watched Chris touch it, holding it gently in his weathered hand. "What is it?" he asked quietly, his brow creased. Behind him, Vin took a seat next to Nathan, and Josiah noticed that Vin wasn't looking around.

It wasn't reassuring.

Buck chuckled. "It's a St. Christopher medal, from the Catholic saint Christopher, patron saint of travelers."

Chris looked at Josiah, who nodded his agreement, then back to Buck. "Your ma was Catholic?"

"Just like my ma!" JD interrupted, rocking his chair in his excitement.

Josiah caught the flash of Vin's grin, relieved a little that Vin could still be amused. And direct, he thought, as Vin reached over to take the shot Buck had poured for Chris.

"Yeah, just like yours," Buck agreed, with his usual good humor. But he was looking at Chris, and Josiah saw something in Buck then, a warmth and happiness that went deep.

"It was my ma's, Chris," Buck continued, his voice soft, "I remember it from when I was a little kid. She always wore it, and I thought she'd been buried with it. But she gave it to Trixie before she died, asking her to bring it to me - it was something Ma's daddy gave her."

Past Buck's shoulder, Trixie was smiling. She wiped at her face, and Star, sitting beside her, put an arm around her slender shoulders. 'Make your own mind about what's right and wrong and the why of it,' Star had said. Trixie's 'why of it' had brought them hundreds of miles to find Buck Wilmington, Star at her side the whole way. A Jew and a whore, an odd pair.

As odd as an ex-preacher and a wanted man? A little voice inside him asked.

"It's nice, Buck," Chris said, running the pad of this thumb over the medal's face. But he was looking at Buck as he said it. "Means a lot, I reckon, coming down the line like that."

"Damned straight," Buck agreed, but his eyes were soft. "Didn't reckon on having anything like it. I remember it from when I was a kid, sitting on Ma's lap. It'd be there, just resting on her bosom, and she told me that it was to protect people like us, people who had to move from place to place. Told me that when I was old enough, when I needed it, it'd be there for me. After she died, I never thought I'd see it again - but here it is, seven years later, in my very hand. Look," he pulled it from Chris' grasp, gentle with it, and turned it over. "Right there on the back - the big 'W' in that curly kinda style. Stands for Wilmington."

Chris nodded, his hand falling to Buck's shoulder. "Mighty nice of these people to come all this way to bring it to you."

"Damned straight it is," Buck agreed, and Josiah saw his eyes glint in the room's lamplight. "Hey, I'm gonna take them over to the boarding house, let them have my room for their stay. All right if I bunk in with you, if I need to?"

"You know it is," Chris said. He took his seat, refilled the glass and took a shot even as goodnights were said to the newcomers, who were looking a bit peeked after a long day.

Josiah rose, touching his hat to Trixie, but speaking to Star. "Pleasure talking to you," he said quietly. "If you find yourself with some time to kill, I'd like to talk some more."

Star nodded, holding his hat in one hand, the other twined with Trixie's. "I'd like that," he said, the sincerity real. "Maybe in the morning?"

Josiah nodded. "If you don't mind stopping by the church, come by whenever you want. I rise early and most days have a pot of coffee on the fire."

"Obliged," Star nodded. "See you then."

"Mighty nice of them folks, coming all this way," Nathan said as Josiah settled back in. "Nothing like having something from your kin to remind you who you are. We were separated from my ma when I was just a boy, but I still have one of the blankets she used to weave - it's almost worn out, but I keep it with me all the time."

"That blanket on your bed?" JD asked. "That's beautiful work, Nathan, I saw some not half that fine back east where I grew up. Your ma had a lot of skill."

"That, she did, JD," Nathan agreed, pride in his words. "Never realized until she wasn't there no more. I often wonder if . . ." His words trailed off, his eyes dropping to the table.

Strangely, it was Chris who finished the thought. "Easy to fix an idea in your head and forget to think on the whole thing." He shifted, digging into the pocket of his pants and pulling out a pocket knife which he placed carefully on the table.

Josiah knew the knife, recognizing the worn wood grain of the handle, the patina of the metal. It was the knife Chris used for whittling.

"Sarah gave me this after Adam was born," he said, his voice gruff. "Said it was to keep me from ruining her kitchen knives." He gave a sort of smile then, looking only at the knife. "She'd cut her hand, bad, several weeks before. I'd forgotten to clean and sharpen one of the knives I'd been using. I'd been whittling a rocking horse for our baby."

He swallowed, and Josiah started to grab the bottle of whiskey even as Vin did. Their fingers brushed, and for the first time in days, Vin's eyes met his. Wide and clear and blue, stirring memories that Josiah knew he never wanted to lose.

Vin looked away, pouring another shot for Chris and handing him the glass. But Josiah noticed that Vin held his hand close to his chest, his fingers in a loose fist.

"My ma gave me this," JD said, tussling with his shirt collar until he pulled out a silver chain. On the end of it was a wooden crucifix, the body of Christ in silver. "She bought it for me for me the Christmas before she died. We didn't know how sick she was then, of course, and she had saved all year to afford it - it's real silver, and the wood is olive, from the Holy Land."

Josiah leaned in close and JD turned to him, so that Josiah smelled the faint musk of the wood just past the sweat of the younger man. "Should mean a lot to you," Josiah commented. "It's a powerful symbol of love, Christ's love for mankind, mother's love for her child."

"Does," JD agreed, hushed. He turned to Nathan who touched it gently. Vin and Chris nodded, more, Josiah knew, for JD's benefit than for the actual symbolism of the piece. But it was respect, in its way.

JD returned it reverently to its place inside his shirt, but as he did, he looked to Josiah. "What do you have that's special, Josiah?"

Later, when he thought about the conversation, he knew that this was where he should have found some way to control it. But it seemed natural enough, Chris had started it and so far they'd all had something to share. And he did have something special, something that he carried with him every day.

His hand slipped into the pocket of his coat and pulled out his small and worn Bible. "My father," he said, "probably the best thing he ever gave me."

He touched it, running his hand over the worn cover, then looking up. Vin's gaze was warm and soft on him before he looked away.

"Your pa was a missionary, wasn't he?" JD asked.

"He was," Josiah agreed, looking back down to the Bible. "He was. A man who lived and breathed the Word, believed it in his heart and soul. Believed it to be the way of salvation and eternal afterlife."

A man who would have taken one look at Vin Tanner and thought him sin incarnate.

"Don't leave much room for living this life," Chris said, picking up the whiskey bottle again.

Josiah caught himself, looking at the other man. "Truths are truths, brother. But yes, my father didn't have a lot of tolerance for this world."

"And you?" Chris asked. "How's your tolerance?"

It was rude, in its way, and unlike Chris. But beside him, Vin tensed, and Josiah understood. Ever the protector, ever Vin's friend.

Even if he didn't know the details, Chris knew enough.

Josiah sighed. "I'm not my father. I'm too trapped in this world, I fear." Too trapped to sacrifice what he had, he thought, but he couldn't say. It would be a lie, as he had already sacrificed someone he was coming to care about more than he needed to.

JD rushed in, perhaps feeling the tension, perhaps just being JD. "What about you, Vin? You got something special?"

Josiah looked up, found his eyes on Vin, just like Nathan and JD and Chris. Vin, though was looking at none of them, his eyes focused on the table. He shrugged, gave a little smile and answered, "Nah, not really. Nothing that means any more to me than what I remember." He reached out and took the glass of whiskey from in front of Chris, who didn't move.

JD, though, JD was persistent, almost desperately so. "Now that can't be true! What about your eyeglass? And your harmonica?"

"Just picked 'em up along the way," Vin said, "nothing special. My gun's probably the most special thing I got and that's 'cause I cut it down myself." He looked up then, turning to JD. "It's all right, JD, I got what I need in here." He touched his brow, then picked up the glass and tossed back the shot. "Sometimes, more than I need." He rose then, and JD looked a little shocked. "I'm gonna turn in - "

"What about that coat?" Chris asked, and though he hadn't spoken loudly, his voice cut through. "Seems that'd be pretty special."

Vin looked down at Chris who chose that moment to look up at him. Whatever passed between them was quick but decisive. Vin shook his head once, but sat back down, going for the whiskey bottle again as he talked.

"Spent some time with the Kiowa- they taught me how to hunt buffalo. They're the best at it, have to be to live. I stayed with a small group of 'em for a couple of years, long enough to learn their ways. Good people. They care about the earth, about taking care of things. They use every part of the buffalo, not just the meat. It's an honor to wear hide, and they gave me the hide coat after we got shed of an Army troop that had come through, looking to round 'em up."

"You got the Army to leave them alone?" JD asked.

Vin grinned at that and shook his head. "Nah, just hid them better than the Army trackers could find 'em. Then a few of us acted like we was just out foraging, hunting on our own. Me being white was convincing enough, I reckon."

"They gave you a hide coat for hiding them?" JD asked, and he leaned in closer, looking closely at the garment.

Vin shrugged, but before he could answer, Chris did. "They have him the coat for helping them against his own kind, JD, for doing what was right. Sometimes, it's easy to forget that rules and laws are made by men, even the laws of God come through men's mouths. And men make mistakes, too often in the name of God. Ain't that right, Josiah?"

Josiah shook his head, both amused and irritated by Chris Larabee, dangerous gunslinger, showing his protective instincts and his philosophical side, all in one shot. "Indeed men do," he agreed, lifting his beer in a sort of toast. "And as Mr. Star pointed out, it's easier out here in the territories to follow your own heart."

"And to know it," Chris added. He lifted the glass Vin had refilled with whiskey and did his own sort of toast.

Beside him, Vin shifted, uneasy. "Y'all getting awful deep here, maybe too deep for us dumb old cowboys." It was an attempt to be funny, but the tension in his voice made it cutting.

JD laughed though, and Nathan joined in even as he glared at Josiah, his dark eyes showing a question as well as a sort of confusion.

"Nah," Chris answered, and he pushed himself to his feet. "I'm calling it a night." He looked down at Vin and asked, "You coming?"

And there it was, that flutter that he knew and hated, in the pit of his stomach and the back of his head. Growing stronger as Chris' hand came to rest on Vin's shoulder, then slid up under his arm, drawing him up.

Vin did as Josiah expected, doing Chris' bidding.

The hand under his arm remained, though, and the flutter solidified into a heavy, dark thing that Josiah didn't like.

Something he couldn't ignore. He didn't give much thought to what he said, just knew he had to say something. But as he opened his mouth to call out Vin's name, he caught the movement of Nathan's head, the other man looking at him. And frowning.

He took a deep breath instead, looking back at his beer mug. Not looking as Vin walked past, Chris guiding him.

JD chattered on some more, but Josiah didn't really pay much attention. He answered when he had to, mostly because he could still feel Nathan hovering in mood if not in body, and he didn't need that conversation right now.

He had another beer, then Ezra joined the table, giving JD and Nathan a new focus, at least for a while. When Buck ambled back in, still smiling softly, his eyes bright, Josiah rose and took his leave. Nathan started to rise, but a question from JD gave him pause and allowed Josiah to slip away.

He was through the batwing doors and out into the dirt street before he caught himself. He was headed toward Vin's wagon, assuming that that was here the younger man would go. But what if he hadn't? What if he had gone somewhere with Chris - Chris' shack? It was late but not too late for the two of them to -

He glanced to the boarding house, knowing which room was Chris'. The lamp was on, so Chris was there. And Buck would be staying there later, maybe - and Josiah was being stupid.

He took a deep breath, watching the shadows cast on the ground by the watch fires. Jealousy was a curse, and a sin.

And he had no reason to be jealous. There as nothing between them, no promise, barely any acknowledgment of what they had done. For him, anyway. Vin . . .

He shook his head but started walking. And he wasn't surprised to find his feet going for Vin's wagon, even as his head muddled through the arguments for why this was a bad idea.

He paused as he drew near, the alley dark and Vin's caution a known thing. The boy could shoot before he was fully awake, something Josiah didn't feel the need to test right now.

"Vin?" he called softly toward the dark shape. "You there?"

The answer came from behind him, and he turned at the sound of the younger man's voice.

"Here, 'Siah," he said. He was barely visible in the shadows, standing in his familiar lean. He had a bath sheet draped over one shoulder, and a wad of clothes under one arm, and in the spare breeze off the main street, Josiah could smell the soap on him. It brought back memories, good ones, and ones that shamed him. Ones that stirred his lust the same way the smell did.

"Didn't realize it was bath night," he said, trying to get his mind away from its distractions.

Vin shrugged, stepping forward and out of the shadows. "Didn't realize you gave a damn 'bout my baths." His hair was wet, still dripping enough to have the back of his shirt wet in places, the darkness of it visible in the alley's light. He walked past Josiah and to the open end of his wagon, reaching inside it to place the things he was carrying.

"Give a damn about most of you," Josiah said quietly. "More of a damn than I should." Enough to be damned.

Vin was still moving things in the back of his wagon, but he turned slightly as he asked, "We gonna play this game again? The one where we work things out for a while, until you get all twisted up inside again about your faith and going to your hell, and I'm stuck having to walk on the other side of the street and stay out of places where you are?"

Josiah took a deep breath; it was a fair question and one he hadn't expected.

Vin turned then, his arms at his side. He wasn't wearing his coat or his hat, both most likely in the back of the wagon. "I ain't sorry for what we did, Josiah," he said, stressing the other man's name in a way that evoked Ezra, "but I ain't gonna do it again only to be slapped down again. If you're here because your dick's itching, best find somebody else to do the scratching."

But his eyes were sad as he said it.

Josiah studied him for a few seconds, then nodded. "Fair enough. But what if it's not just lust?"

Vin tilted his head slightly, the moonlight washing out the color of his eyes. "Way you been talking, I didn't think it could be much else."

Josiah sighed, but didn't look away. "I probably thought that too. But I think it's more and I'm too much a coward to admit it until it's pushed in my face."

Vin half-grinned, but shook his head. "Chris. Figured he was playing at something. I didn't tell him nothing, wouldn't do that to you."

"I know. But he wouldn't be our leader if he couldn't figure out what was going on around him." He took a step forward, but just the one. "You mind talking?"

Vin looked away, his gaze wandering up the alley then back before he shrugged. "Reckon it can't hurt." He looked around, then grinned a little. "Guess we're gonna be talking here, huh. Ain't nowhere but here or the saloon this time of night, and I don't reckon we'd get a lot of privacy at the saloon." He leaned back against the back of his wagon and gestured toward a barrel sitting off to one side. "It ain't soft but it's better than standing."

Josiah smiled a little, appreciating Vin's effort not to even mention the church. He wasn't certain how he would have responded to that suggestion, knowing it would have made him uncomfortable to go there, but also knowing that it would have proven to Vin that he was serious. For the moment, it was a relief not to have to make that particular decision.

Instead, he needed to make the decision about what to say next. Oddly, Vin made that for him, picking up the conversation as if he were the one who had started it.

"Was it because of Kojay's daughter?" he asked quietly. "You really think I should have married her?"

Josiah looked away, as much for his own pain as for the flash of it in the eyes he knew so well. "No, I know that would have gone bad for you, and for her." He sighed. "It's . . . it was the right thing, what you did, and it was good that you were honest about it. But I'm not easy with that truth, Vin, with you being so sure of yourself."

"You want me to pretend to be something else?" Vin shook his head. "I've had women, not many, but enough to know that I ain't happy with them, and I don't reckon they'd be happy with me, not in the long run. Don't seem fair for me to lie about that, even to myself. I am what I am, and I'm sorry if it don't work for you."

There was no censure in the words, just a statement of fact.

And that was the problem with it, Josiah realized, that to Vin, it was unchangeable. He was who he was, and being with a man was just a part of that whole.

"I don't mean for you to pretend," he answered. "But I couldn't very well accept something that I didn't understand myself. It's not the way I was raised, or the way I think is right - "

"You don't have to tell me, 'Siah," Vin interrupted. "Hell, I might be the same way if my past had been different - "

"You don't have a past." He hadn't really meant to say it like that, hadn't really thought about what he meant until it was out there, hanging in the air between them.

Vin was still at first, letting the words sink in. As they did, he stiffened, and Josiah saw the line of his lips thin as his jaw clenched.

"I didn't mean that," he murmured, shifting.

"Reckon you did," Vin countered. "That's part of it, that you're older than me?"

Josiah smiled. "Old enough to be your father, Vin. Maybe old enough to be your - "

"What does that matter?" Vin straightened, crossing his arms over his chest. "Hell, among the tribes, it's an honor to be with one of the older people, to learn their wisdom and their ways. Is that it? I'm too dumb for you?"

Josiah was on his feet before he thought, one hand clutching at Vin's shoulder. "Don't ever think that. You're not dumb, Vin, and it gets to me that you think that."

Vin was standing rigid now, but he didn't pull away from Josiah's hold. "If I ain't dumb, why does it matter that I ain't your age? You don't think I've got enough life behind me to know what I am? What I want?"

He'd put it as a question, but the answer was obvious to them both.

"Do you?" Josiah asked softly. "Or, maybe I should ask it this way: can one ever know enough? Months ago, Emma waltzed into my life out of nowhere, reminding me of things I once wanted, counted on. When it didn't work out, I had to stop and think about what I was doing, where my life had gone. Then Kojay sends you a woman, and even though you were right to turn her away, your reasons aren't right. You're a young man, with your whole life ahead of you. I don't want to hurt you. But I do know that if I don't stop this thing between us, I will probably hurt you again. I . . ."

Vin's arms relaxed and fell away, and he stepped closer. "You're too old, I'm too young, I'm still a boy and I am a boy, not a girl, it's a sin." He sighed. "Seems like your list of reasons goes on and on. I can't argue with you on some of them, can't change what I am and don't rightly want to. But I like being with you, J'siah. I ain't asking for no promises or nothing - hell, I can't give no promises, not with this bounty on my head. Maybe I am too different from you, but I don't see a damned thing wrong with two people enjoying each other." He leaned in a little closer, the smell of the lye soap sharp. "I like you," he said again, slowly and very clearly, "but I don't like this game we're playing. I don't want to keep away from you or the others 'cause you're pissed at me or about all this - it ain't right, for neither of us. So you tell me what I gotta do to be your friend again. If it means never touching you again, I won't like it but I'll do it. I'd rather not touch you than not be able to sit with you, talk to you."

His tone was low, his words vibrating through Josiah's body, going straight to his groin. It was funny in a way, that his body could respond so quickly to Vin, to his desire, his youth, his very maleness - all the things that his mind fought.

Funny that this boy, so quick with his affection and his body, was willing to back away from what they had been doing, from what Vin wanted most himself.

The real hell of it, Josiah knew, was that Vin would honor that commitment if Josiah forced it from him.

Just as he had honored Josiah's wish that he never set foot in the church again. Just as now, his hands were at his sides, fingers in tight fists so that he wouldn't do what Josiah was doing: touching.

And he was touching, not just the bony shoulder under his hand, but his treacherous other hand was resting on Vin's chest, his fingers rubbing at the soft worn flannel of his shirt. He knew what was under it, the flat expanse of brown skin, interrupted by small nipples that hardened at any contact. Probably hard now, he thought, aroused by the tug of the cloth as it drew over them.

Not the only things aroused either. Josiah's own pants were growing tight as his mind wandered through memories and hopes, weaving them together.

"J'siah?" The word was a whisper, a breath more than a sound. But Vin's eyes were wide and clear. "Tell me what you want."

Josiah knew what he wanted.

But as he leaned in, the hand on Vin's shoulder sliding up through the tangles of damp hair to cup the back of Vin's head, Vin tensed and arched back. His hands, still in fists, finally came up between them, pressing into Josiah's chest.

"Tell me," Vin said more clearly this time. "Tell me we'll still be friends tomorrow, when you're blood ain't up and I'm sitting on the other side of the table. Tell me you'll look me in the eye and talk to me like you usually do, not like I'm something that makes you sick or scared."

The last gave him pause, more than anything else. "Do I look at you that way?" he asked, but even as he did, he knew it was true, knew that that was what Nathan and Chris had been seeing.

He pulled back, taking a deep breath. Clearing his head wasn't easy, not with Vin so close, and he had to step back, pull his hands away.

Make himself think.

"I don't want to hurt you again," he said finally. "But I can't . . . I need to think on it, Vin. Need to be certain."

Behind him, Vin shifted, his boots scrapping in the dirt. "I'd like that," he said. "Thanks, 'Siah."

Josiah glanced over his shoulder, saw the sad smile. Vin nodded.

As he walked away, it occurred to him that he'd never had a lover to do this, make him choose to be a friend instead of having the sex. Whatever else he might have been - young, male, all sorts of sin - Vin was one of a kind in this.

Vin didn't sleep well that night, his body too wound up, his mind too anxious. Taking the edge off was necessary; it had been hell being that close to Josiah and then pulling back - but he was glad he'd done it, knew it had to be done.

If he was going to stay here, he had to know he could trust these men. He trusted Chris, had from the moment their eyes had met. Trusted him enough to tell him straight up where things stood, about the bounty, about his trouble. Trusted him enough to stay when Chris asked him to.

The others, well, he trusted them at different levels, in different ways. They were what they were, each one of them, men with their own faults, just like him.

He finally gave up trying to sleep just before the sun rose, pulling himself out of the wagon and heading toward the outhouse. Afterwards, he wandered along the main street, watching the sky lighten as the coals of the watch fires burned red and smoke drifted lazily on the shifting early-morning air.

A figure sat in the chair in front of the saloon, and without a thought, Vin's hand fell to his mare's leg. But even as he touched it, he recognized the flash of red in the flicker of a watch fire: Ezra.

"Is it that early, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked as Vin approached. "I hardly see the sun rising - are you out of sorts or am I?"

Vin shook his head, amused and annoyed by Ezra's awareness of his situation, but he settled into the chair next to the other man, appreciating the smell of the cigar Ezra was smoking. "I went to bed too early, I reckon," he said easily. "Know better, but did it anyway."

"Ah," Ezra said, exhaling smoke toward the ceiling of the boardwalk. "Bored by Mr. Dunne's ill-conceived but well-intentioned attempts to elicit stories of loving parents and their demonstrations of affection and eternal attachment?"

Vin smiled, putting his feet up on the rail and leaning back in the chair. "He's happy for Buck. Can't say that's a bad thing."

"Certainly not," Ezra agreed, but his snort suggested otherwise. "But his na´ve belief that everyone has been gifted with the sort of affection his mother bestowed upon him - and that Mr. Wilmington was also so blessed with - leaves one caught between the indelicacy of enlightening him to the realities of less congenial family affections and the frustration of maintaining his innocent delusions."

Vin actually smiled, finding himself relieved by the other man's understanding of the situation. "There are times I'd like to be him, to have that kind of - well, I don't know. Don't know how I'd be if my ma hadn't died when I was a little kid."

"Of course you don't," Ezra agreed. "We cannot estimate such things, as our perceptions would be entirely different. But it doesn't make it any less annoying to want to be able to." He sighed. "He questioned almost everyone he could corner this evening on the possessions given to them by parents or other loved ones. In its way, it was both charming and embarrassing, to hear grown men and women wax poetic as they related stories from their pasts that could hardly have been as wondrous as they remembered."

Vin turned, looking through the darkness at the other man. The tip of the cigar glowed orange, casting Ezra's face is a sort of odd shadow. "You ain't got nothing special from your ma?" he asked softly.

Ezra snorted again, but this one was harder than the first one. "I was under the impression that the issue was a remembrance of someone that one loves or who loves one. A reminder of happier times, as it were."

Vin didn't say anything, couldn't think of anything to say. It was hard for him to understand having a living parent and not being close, but then, he'd met more people like Ezra than those who followed Vin's own way of believing, and he couldn't say that they were wrong. He had no idea how things would have turned out for him and his ma if she'd lived.

Didn't know his pa at all, other than rumor and reputation, and what he knew, he didn't like, so maybe Ezra's way was more likely.

Whatever the case, he didn't have to dwell on it, as Ezra continued on, liking the sound of his own voice as well as he did.

"I do have a lovely vest, though," Ezra said, and even though his tone was the same as before, the pitch was lower. "Green brocade, trimmed in gold and scarlet. I wear it every now and then, even though I don't believe that I have unwrapped it since arriving in this dusty village. My grandmother, whom I dearly miss, gave it to me before she passed on. It was my grandfather's, one of the few things I have as a memory of the better part of my childhood."

"Your ma's kin?" Vin asked, even though he wasn't sure he should.

"Hardly," Ezra answered, but there was a sort of humor in his voice. "My father's parents. I spent several - well, all together, I suspect I spent several years with them, until the war came and - until the war came." He shrugged, the tip of the cigar moving with him. "They actually seemed to have some concern for my well-being that was not associated with what benefit I could provide to them. I was quite disheartened to learn of the hardships that befell them during the war and their subsequent passings."

The last was almost a whisper, and Vin knew that it was true. Ezra didn't sound out his true feelings and Vin was a little honored to have heard them.

Which might have been why he heard himself ask, "You ever been in love, Ezra?"

The silence from the other man was heavy and it lasted so long that Vin wondered if he was being ignored. But as he shifted, trying to find something to say to smooth things out, Ezra said, "Honestly, I have no idea. I have had occasions where I thought that it might be the case, but the emotions were so fleeting or the situation ended with such disenchantment that I've wondered if perhaps I was more in love with the idea of love than with my inamorata. I fear that I have little true understanding of that emotion either." He put the cigar to his lips, the tip flaring brightly as he drew on it. "Is there a reason for your question?" he asked, his voice airy as the smoke blew through his words.

"Just wondering," Vin answered. "Guess I'm just trying to figure it all out."

"Well, I certainly wish you the best of luck," Ezra said dryly and the pitch of his voice returned to normal. "Love is a slippery thing, with many different shades and textures. I suspect the only true thing about it is that even at its best, it is a painful, willful thing, destined to lead one into danger and stupidity, with little but unrequited hope as its reward."

Vin snorted. That certainly described it as he knew it. If he knew it. Like Ezra, he wasn't sure he did.

The tread of boots on the boardwalk let them know someone was coming, and Vin's hand went again to his mare's leg even as Ezra moved his cigar to his left hand. They were both looking toward the newcomer as he came near, his hat pushed back on his head as he sauntered along casually.

"Mr. Wilmington," Ezra called as Buck neared and Vin's hand slid back to the arm of his chair.

"You boys still up?" Buck asked as he drew close.

"You been up all night?" Vin countered.

"Trixie was telling me tales about my ma," he answered. "Girl must've come along right after I took off, 'cause she knows a lot of the same people I used to know. She moved with my ma when my ma left St. Louis, stayed with her. Wish I'd have known her back then, Trixie, I mean. She's the kind of woman my ma would have wanted me to set down roots with."

Buck settled in the chair next to Vin, his long legs rising easily to rest on the same beam with Vin's. "Don't reckon it's late enough for there to be any coffee on anywhere."

"I fear not," Ezra answered from Vin's left. "I suspect it's another hour or so before the early-risers appear, other than our own Mr. Tanner here."

Vin didn't want to discuss his own reasons for being up and about, so he turned back to what Buck had said. "Seems you might have a fight for Trixie now," he said, thinking on Sol Star. He was slight and he was a gentle, but Vin had the impression the man wouldn't let Trixie go without a struggle.

"Ah, I wouldn't dream of it," Buck chuckled. "Takes a certain kind of man to love a woman like Trixie, or like my ma, takes a certain kind of man not to try to change 'em into something they ain't. Star's one of those kind of men. Kind of reminds me of you, in some ways, taking people as they are, not as you want 'em to be."

Vin turned, watching Buck's face as the other man smiled again. He was leaning back, his head rolling against the back of the chair, his feet stretched out in front of him. Buck went on, like he usually did.

"It's special, to have something back like that, something you thought you'd lost. Like having a little piece of her back. A little piece of me, too. And to hear someone else talk about her the way I remember her."

Vin sat silent, happy that Buck was happy. Something stirred in him, a sort of envy; he'd never met anyone who'd known his own ma - well, anyone who'd said anything kind about her. His ma's ma had never said a kind word 'bout much of anything, surely not his ma or him. When his grandma taken ill, his uncle and his wife had moved into the house, shutting him out. Like his grandma, his uncle wanted no part of him, a bastard born of sin, and he'd been told to move on. Not that he'd wanted to stay, but it'd been the only life he'd known.

He'd left with the clothes on his back, an old saddle blanket, a canteen of water, and some stale bread he'd scrounged. His aunt had come out of the house long enough to press a dollar into his hand - she'd been a good woman, Vin remembered, even though he couldn't recall her face. But she'd never said more than two words to him in the years he'd known her, more afraid of her husband and his ma and their anger.

"It is a precious gift, then," Ezra said. "I envy you, Mr. Wilmington. My own mother has gifted me with nothing of value to this date, and certainly no one with whom to share fond memories."

"Well, you can work on that, Ezra," Buck said smoothly. "She's a fine lady, your ma, and I reckon that if you two give it a little more time, you'll figure that out."

"One can hope," Ezra muttered, but Vin heard a sort of undertone to it, one that reminded him of his own hopes about Josiah.

"How 'bout you, Vin?" Buck asked, seeming to read his mind. "You got anything of your ma's?"

Vin shrugged, looking out into the growing light. "Just her good looks, I reckon," he answered, trying for humor.

Buck's gaze was heavy on him, and he found himself talking, trying to ease past it. "Awful nice of them people to come all this way, though, hunting you down. Shows that your ma made good friends. Means she was a good woman herself."

Buck didn't answer for a while, but his gaze turned away. "Is that it, then?" he asked, and his voice still held that softness in it. "You can tell a person's good by the friends they keep?"

Vin thought on it; it was more or less what he'd said, and it was what he'd meant, even though he hadn't really thought on it a lot. "Stands to reason," he said. "You don't keep good people as friends for very long if you're not a good person yourself."

Buck chuckled then, long and low. "Then we must be saints among men, to have the friends we have."

It was funny to think on, and Vin found himself laughing a little as well, especially as Ezra snorted from beside him.

But they did have good men as friends, men who might be a little tainted, like they were themselves, but good nonetheless.

The sun was starting to creep along the ground when they heard the distinctive jingle of the bell on the restaurant's door, signaling the opening of the business. None of the men spoke, but they rose together, Vin and Buck heading toward coffee and breakfast, while Ezra touched the brim of his hat and disappeared toward his room.

Buck and Vin were barely seated when Sol Star made his way in, looking tired and rumpled but happy in that way that said he'd been laid maybe twice in the past few hours.

"Sol!" Buck called out with a big grin. "Surprised to see you up so early!"

Star blinked a few times, as if he couldn't quite focus, then grinned as he made his way over to their table. "Same to ya," he said, but he held out his hand to Buck and they shook even as he settled into a chair across from Vin, who nodded his welcome.

"Trixie sleeping?" Buck asked, but there was a little twinkle in his eyes and Vin looked away, hiding his smile in his coffee cup.

"Lord, I hope," Star said with a hint of desperation. "If I'd known what this sort of thing was going to do to her, well, let's just say, we'd have done this a lot sooner."

For a second, Vin didn't know if Star meant what it sounded like he meant, but then Buck laughed, and Star laughed, and Vin swallowed the rest of the coffee, trying not to choke on it.

Star shook his head, still smiling, but he rubbed at his eyes. "I shouldn't ought to have said that," but he was laughing. "Trixie rubs off on me, her blunt ways. Probably not as polite as I should be right now."

"That's all right," Buck soothed, "I figure we're almost family, you and me and Trixie, and Vin here's family on the other side, so no call for worry."

Vin jerked, the idea catching him unawares, and he found himself looking at Buck who was talking to Star. 'Family'. It was a different way of thinking about all of this.

But then again . . .

The thoughts chased him through the rest of the meal, making it hard for him to keep up with the conversations drifting around him, first Buck and Star's, then later more as they were joined by Nathan and then Chris.

Chris was watching him, he knew, would catch the green eyes on him, asking him if he was all right. He nodded, more than once, remembering how Chris had set things in motion last night. Taking care of him, protecting him.

He'd seen other families, heard how things were supposed to work, how brothers looked out for each other, and for their sisters and other womenfolk, how they cared. Like Chris cared for him and how he cared for Chris.

Was that what Buck had meant?

More thoughts skittering around in his head, and he tried to keep up with them and with the talk - Chris was frowning, looking at Vin's plate and he hadn't been eating like he usually did. He concentrated on it, which, really, shouldn't have been hard as he was hungry and the food was good.

They were finishing up, the plates cleared, when the door opened and Josiah came in, nodding to Mabel and settling in between Nathan and Sol.

Family, Vin thought. That was why he'd been able to do what he had last night, push Josiah away. Because it was more important to him that Josiah be his friend, his brother, in the light of this strange revelation, than that they be - whatever it was that men were when they enjoyed each other. Lovers, he had wanted to think, but he didn't think Josiah would think that, no matter what he decided about things between them.

Josiah nodded to him, as he did to all the others, then he was talking to Star, something about religion again.

"Think I'm gonna turn in for a spell," Buck said quietly. "Mind if I borrow your bed, Chris?"

Chris nodded, putting down his coffee cup. "Long as it's just you. Just got the mattress the way I like it, don't need you and your lady friends breaking nothing."

Buck grinned, and Nathan snorted. Josiah and Star chatted on, ignoring them.

"Just a few hours," Buck said, pushing to his feet. The night had finally caught up with him, or the food.

As he left, tipping his hat to Mabel, Nathan shook his head. "You'd think he'd been given a gold mine or something."

"For Buck, he has," Chris said quietly. "His ma was the world to him, for a long time, Nathan. He never intended to be gone so long, and some of that was my fault. I owe Trixie a lot for giving Buck something I took away from him, that time with his ma."

A few things came together in Vin's head, some of the shared history of the two men, some of the shared guilts.

Nathan must have understood too. His eyes drifted back to Buck, watching as he walked out the door and down the boardwalk. "Yeah, guess I understand." He turned back to the table, but his eyes came back to Vin. "Don't have much of my ma's, mostly the memories of her, and not many of them. Makes them all the more valuable."

Vin nodded, warmed by the thought that someone else understood.

A chair scrapped and Vin glanced to the other side of the table, where Star was turned more toward Josiah now, gesturing about whatever they were talking about, something about vengeance and anger and wrath and Jesus.

"I'm heading out to the cabin," Chris said, drawing Vin's attention. "Need to start working on that fence, get it up before winter gets here. You coming?"

Vin started to rise with him, started to ask about supplies, whether he should get a team from Yosemite. Then something wrapped around his wrist, holding tight, and he tensed, ready to jerk back, until Josiah's voice sounded clear and warm and close.

"I was hoping Vin would do me the honor of helping with some work in the church."

Vin turned, looking at the other man, but it was Chris who asked the question.

"You gonna let Vin in the church?" He asked it with a chuckle, unaware, as far as Vin knew, of how close the comment was to the truth.

Josiah glanced to Chris, but then his gaze came back to Vin's. "If he'll come. If he'll . . . if he'll come."

Vin had known Chris from the first minute their eyes had met. Known him in a way he'd never known any one else.

He'd never known Josiah the same way, they were too different, their lives winding too far part.

But right now, in this moment, he knew what Josiah was trying to say, what he was asking, and what he was offering.

"You sure?" he asked, his voice low. "You - "

His answer wasn't in words, but, like Chris - like Vin himself, the answer was in action. Slowly, and with a care that Vin knew well, the hand holding Vin's wrist released and rose to curve over his shoulder.

Vin smiled, then looked at Chris, "I'll be out tomorrow, if that's all right with you."

Chris arched an eyebrow, but the corners of his lips twitched. "Early. Lots to do."

But as he turned away, Vin saw the way his eyes caught Josiah's, the tilt of his head and Vin felt the squeeze of Josiah's fingers on his shoulder.

In that second, Josiah and Chris were in the same place as well. And that place was for him.

"Mr. Larabee?" Star was on his feet, his hand out to Chris. "Trixie and I are leaving on the stage this afternoon, so I guess I should say thanks for both of us, and it was an honor to meet you."

Chris nodded, but then took the hand. "Reckon the honor was mine, Mr. Star. Takes a lot to do what you two did, traveling this far with no sure idea of where you were going or who you were looking for. Means a lot to Buck, means a lot to me. He's family to me, as close as blood. If there's anything I can do, we can do - you just let us know."

Star smiled. "Be careful, Mr. Larabee. Deadwood's a lot wilder than what you got here. We can use seven good men, and if the time arises, I will take you up on that offer. I got family of my own there, a few people who are close as blood to me. Might not be seven of 'em, like you got here, but I'll do whatever I can, whenever I have to."

Chris nodded, taking his hand back. "Safe journey." But as he turned away, his eyes flashed back to catch Vin's. As with Josiah in that moment, and as it had always been between them, Vin knew that Star hadn't been wrong: Chris' feelings for Buck included at least him and probably the other four as well.

Chris walked away, the bell over the door ringing as he left. Josiah settled back in his chair, but the hand on Vin's shoulder remained for a while, warm and welcome.

It felt right, having Sol and Vin here together, a sort of blessing, Josiah thought. The three of them worked and talked, sweating and laughing and Sol had talked about his father and his religion and his faith. Josiah had listened and asked questions, and sometimes but more rarely, Vin had, too.

A blessing, he thought, on his decision. He hadn't slept much last night, only for a while after he'd finally given into his body's need for release, and the image that had come with it, of Vin looking up at him, his eyes wide with wonder and softness. The decision had been made before that, but that had given the decision substance.

Not Emma, not one of the other women from his past or even his dreams, but Vin.

Sol had said his goodbyes around noon, when he had glanced out the window they were working on to see Trixie standing with Buck in front of the restaurant. Josiah thought there might have been a little worry in the man's eyes, and he didn't envy him; Buck Wilmington was a formidable opponent in the wars of love, and the fact that he and Trixie already shared a sort of past and a sort of family was enough to make any sane man wary.

As Star left, Josiah turned to Vin, not really surprised to see the hesitancy on his friend's face. Without Sol here, there was no way to avoid what needed to be said.

"You mind helping me?" he said, watching Vin's face.

Vin shook his head. "Wouldn't be here if I did," he said quietly.

"No," Josiah agreed, "you'd be with Chris."

Vin frowned, but before he could say the obvious, Josiah reached out, letting his thumb rub over the soft lips.

"You're not here because I'm a jealous bastard - even though I am. You're not here because I want to strip off your clothes and have my way with you - even though I do."

The last brought a twitch to the thin flesh under his thumb.

"You're here because I want us to be friends, first, and because I want more than that, even though it won't be easy for either one of us. And I wanted to say that to you here, in this place where words like that are a promise. If God frowns on it, then he can say it here, in his house, to me."

Vin's eyes widened, with surprise and a sort of shock, making him look even younger than he was. But he didn't try to argue, nor did he do anything other than watch.

Josiah let his hand drift up to smooth Vin's hair back as he stood silent and waiting, looking around the church.

Nothing happened, and after a while, Josiah nodded. But he did want to be certain, so he stepped up close, sliding one hand around the back of Vin's head, the other over one shoulder.

Vin looked up at him, wary again, and he even straightened as Josiah leaned down. But he didn't resist as Josiah kissed him - not a deep, passionate kiss, Josiah wasn't planning on testing the limits of God's patience, but a chaste touch to Vin's lips, not fast, but not lingering either.

He drew back, staring into Vin's eyes. After several seconds, a soft breeze blew through the window, not strong enough to do more than move the air. It ghosted through the room, lightly stirring Vin's hair as if it, too, needed to touch, then died away.

Vin swallowed, but he said nothing, letting his gaze wander around the room as well before coming back to settle on Josiah.

Josiah nodded. "Let's get this work done. Might rain tonight and I'd like to have the church in good shape."

They spent the afternoon working, and by dusk, the new boards were in place, sanded, and painted, the church smelling clean and repaired. Josiah stood back and looked at their handiwork, pleased.

Vin was quiet, standing in the door to the church and rolling down the sleeves of his shirt. He didn't say anything, waiting, and Josiah smiled before turning to him. "I have a pot of stew on in the back, can I feed you for your efforts today?"

Vin tilted his head, questioning, Josiah knew. He smiled, nodded that he was sincere, and Vin's head straightened.

No words, Josiah noted, and it reminded him more of Vin and Chris than Vin and himself, but then, maybe things between them were coming to a new place as well.

They ate in a similar silence, but a peaceful one, the food hearty, the daylight fading to darkness, the light from the small stove and the lamps lighting the small room.

Afterward, Vin helped him clean up, he'd always been good that way, bringing in water from the well and heating it to wash up, bringing in wood -

"Stop." Josiah caught the other man's arms as he rose from a crouch, the wood now stacked in the small corner near the wood stove. "You don't have to prove anything to me."

Vin's chin came up. "I ain't staying here tonight. Want to be with you, but not here."

Josiah nodded. "Want that too, but . . . not here." He hadn't wanted to be the one to say it, but he had come up with his own solution. "I'm building a place out back for me. The church needs more rooms -"

"You ain't leaving for me," Vin straightened, squaring his shoulders. "That's not the way - "

"I'm not leaving," Josiah said quietly. "I can't ever leave, not this church, my church." He pulled Vin closer, but not too close, more for Vin than himself. "I'm just . . . finding a place of my own as well. 'There are many mansions in my father's house' - but I find that I might need my own humble cottage."

As he so often did, Vin ignored the quote, not knowing it, Josiah knew. "Where you got to go? You give all your money to the church, where are you going to - "

"Hush." He grinned as he touched Vin's lips once more with his fingers. Odd this, Vin talking so much, a sign of his anxiety. But he didn't mind touching him.

He put his hands on Vin's shoulders, turning him toward the door, then gently pressing him toward it. Vin went but there was a reluctance in him, a hunch in his shoulders that spoke of rejection, and Josiah leaned in long enough to whisper, "Look."

He reached around Vin to open the church's back door, which faced out into the small back area he shared with the other buildings, on the well, which he also shared. "See?"

Vin looked, his head moving, slowly, then a little faster as he shook his head. "No," he answered honestly. "I don't see a thing."

Josiah chuckled. "Perhaps not yet, not literally. But use your imagination. I see a small building back there, the start of a true parsonage. It'll take some time, but I talked to Mr. Breadloaf at the saw mill and he's going to sell me left-overs and bad cuts for a good price as I can afford them. I've already started planning out a design, and Nathan said he'd help - thought it was a good idea for me to have a place of my own. Thought maybe I'd ask some other boys I know to help me work on it."

Vin was standing still, too still. "You want this for yourself? Not just for . . ."

Josiah was standing behind Vin, and he slowly pulled the smaller man back against him. "I want to be with you. And I won't lie to you, I wouldn't be doing this if it weren't for the reason you're giving me. But no, Vin, it's not just for you. Nothing in this life is sure enough for me to make a change like this for anyone other than myself. So don't worry that you're responsible for something you can't carry the weight of. But know that you are the carrot here, not the stick."

Vin relaxed then, canting his head so that his forehead was rubbing against Josiah's chin. "I can see it now, but it ain't no mansion."

"No," Josiah slid his arms around Vin, hugging him. "The mansion is my father's house. My house is probably 'bout like Chris' shack, at least to start. The Lord will be welcome there, but his house will be here. You'll be welcome in both, Vin, always."

They stood in silence for while, appreciating it and the coolness of the night and each other.

They made love in Vin's room at the boarding house, slow and gentle, as if it were the first time, and maybe it was. In the soft moonlight stealing through the window, Vin was pale and silver, his face obscured in shadow and hair as he curved over Josiah, taking him deep inside.

They hadn't done it this way enough for it to be familiar, and Josiah was breathless with the joy of it, with the realization of Vin's trust in him.

With the knowledge that this was everything Vin had to give and he was giving it to Josiah with a faith that was not dissimilar to Josiah's own faith.

He stayed after, Vin curled against him and they both slept some, but not, Josiah thought, at the same time. He studied Vin in the darkness, knew his breaths, his sleep-shudders, his waking, and guessed that Vin probably knew his as well.

They didn't speak, not even in parting, not with words. But as Josiah sat on the side of the bed, pulling on his boots, Vin's fingers moved softly down his back, easy as the breeze that had blown into the church the day before.

And as he rose, adjusting the fall of his britches, he leaned down over the bed, touching Vin's forehead with his lips, once more smoothing the stray strands of hair back from his face.

As he made his way back to the church, he thought of Trixie and Sol, of their gift to Buck, and to himself. Trixie had given Buck his past, a part of his mother he had lost.

Sol, though, had given Josiah his future. Yahweh was a vengeful god, wrathful, demanding, and often angry. But he had given his son to save mankind, and in the doing, as with most parents, he had become more forgiving, more understanding of the needs of love.

'Yahweh is forgiving, but you've got to prove you deserve it,' the words of Star's father, the belief of the followers of the Old Testament. Josiah had pondered these words and he wanted to, needed to believe them.

"Where the fuck did you go, Mexico?" Swearengen glared at them as they got off the stage, and Sol wondered if it had been a mistake coming back.

"Just about," Trixie answered. "Why, you miss me?"

Sol closed his eyes, not wanting to see the answer, not wanting to see Trixie's face when Swearengen gave it.

It never came though, 'cause Trixie went right on, as if she hadn't asked. "Looks the same here - anything we need to know?"

She stepped close to Sol then, he could feel her at his side, smell the musk of her body.

"Not one fucking thing," Swearengen snarled. "But I can't speak for Bullock or the great banker-lady, so you'll have to ask them." Then he turned and stomped away, and some of Sol's tension bled away.

"You got my case?" Trixie asked, and her hand squeezed his arm and he relaxed.

"Where you want me to take it?" he asked, realizing for the first time that tonight, they'd be living in different places again. He'd almost forgotten that here, in Deadwood, they weren't man and wife.

She pulled at his arm until he turned to face her. "Was thinking that maybe we should think about making things more permanent," she said softly. "If you're willing."

He smiled. "I am."

She nodded, smiling herself. "Could tell everyone we got hitched while we were out of town."

"Lie?" That thought unsettled him a little. "Why don't we just make it real here?"

She frowned as well. "Then we'd have to go back to the old ways, leastways until we were fucking married. We can tell everyone that we saw the preacher in Four Corners - you spent the fucking morning with him. Ain't no lie, just a sort of half-truth. Then when we go back next year, we can make it true. I like that place - not enough to move, but enough to visit. Buck's 'bout as close as I'm ever gonna have to real kin, and Josiah seems like he'd be able to manage some sort of vows between us."

Sol swallowed, looking away from her and then back. "A year?" Which would give her plenty of time to back out.

Of course, she had also suggested them getting married, so even pretending that they were was more of a commitment than he'd had when they left.

"I want to see Buck again. We're gonna write but you know how good I am with that. So, yeah, a year." She tilted her head to one side, reminding him of Tanner. "I ain't kidding, Sol. Or ain't that good enough for you?"

He grinned, pulling her in close. They were in the middle of the street, their bags around them, the stage already pulling away. He knew that Swearengen was watching them from in the door of his place, could see Seth walking down the road toward them, grinning, and he welcomed it.

As much as he loved the way she came against him as he pulled, the way her mouth opened for him as he kissed her right there in front of everybody.

"Reckon it fucking is," he said.


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