A Different Man

by The Buffalo Gals

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight

Part One
The saloon was full to bursting. It was Saturday and the ranch hands, at least for a short while, had money in their pockets. It wouldn’t last long; the saloon girls and gambling would see the bulk of it diminish.

Six of the seven men who protected Four Corners were sitting around one of the tables, quietly observing the events going on around them. The seventh man, dressed in fancy southern garb, sat at another table playing poker; the impish smile on his face as he glanced across at his friends telling them he was winning, as usual.

Chris Larabee, the leader of the group, sipped his glass of whisky quietly, topping the glass up at regular intervals. His mood had been as black as his duster coat for the last few days, due mainly to the harassment he was getting from a certain young gun who thought he was the fastest draw in town.

Larabee had so far shrugged off the kid’s jibes and slurs about his masculinity and bravery, but the blond’s patience was slowly being eroded and friends could see an explosion on the horizon.

Buck and JD had wanted to teach the young upstart a lesson in manners, but Chris had opposed their idea, explaining that the kid wasn’t worth the effort and that he’d resolve the situation in his own good time. The other members of the group had agreed with Chris; if the kid was ignored, he might relent and go find someone else to annoy.

No-one had seen the young nuisance for the last few days and they fervently hoped that he’d left town for good. But as Chris poured Vin a drink, he swore under his breath. Vin, the young tracker, looked towards the swing doors of the saloon and also uttered a curse. The kid in question had just entered and was sauntering arrogantly over to the bar.

The bar tender looked nervously towards Larabee when the boy ordered a whisky. He’d been warned about allowing the boy to drink too much liquor. The youngster couldn’t handle his drink and once inebriated, caused even more trouble.

Noticing the nervous glance, the boy leaned over the bar and grabbed the man’s vest. "Don’t look at him. I’m the one ordering the drink."

"Y’can have one. No more… you cain’t handle it," the bar tender replied, his confidence growing when Larabee joined them at the bar.

"Y’ain’t my Pa and y’ain’t tellin’ me what I can and cain’t drink!" The boy pushed the bartender away and turned to the black clad gunman. "S’pose this is your doin’?"

"Suppose it is," Larabee replied calmly. "Have your drink, on the house… then leave."

"Don’t think so. And you cain’t make me." The boy’s hand hovered over his gun and he smirked haughtily at the blond; attempting to push Chris into an untenable situation.

Larabee’s smile was cold when he said, "You don’t really want to take me on, kid."

"But I do. I don’t think you’re the great hero, folk around here say y’are." Having gained the attention of everyone in the saloon, the boy continued loudly, "Seems to me, a man who cain’t take care of his family is a mite careless. Or a coward."

Furious at the verbal attack Chris was suffering Buck stood up, ready to face the young man down. "Listen here you…"

"It’s all right Buck…" Chris waved his friend back down in his seat. "I can handle this."

"Sure, like you handled the men who killed your family. Wonder if they took your wife ‘fore they killed her? I bet they had some fun."

This time Josiah attempted to intervene. Walking over to the boy he placed himself between the two antagonists. "Why do you say such cruel lies son?"

"Move away old man… and don’t call me son!"

Josiah felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Time to finish this..." Chris said sombrely, having heard enough of the hatred spewing from the boy’s mouth. "If the kid wants to die, who am I to stop him."

Triumph in his eyes the nameless youth asked, "When and where?"

Larabee answered coldly, "Outside… now."

The saloon erupted as everyone rushed to the doors wanting to get the best view of the oncoming shoot-out. Only Chris and his friends stood back, abhorring the bloodlust they saw in other faces.

Vin took it upon himself to stop the gunslinger before he did something he might regret. "Chris, he’s only a kid. He don’t rightly know what he’s sayin’ or doin’."

"But I do." Chris looked affectionately at the tracker, seeing concern in the clear blue eyes. "I’ll aim to wing him, does that satisfy you?"

"Only thing that’ll satisfy me is you not dyin’ out there today. He ain’t worth it Chris. You cain’t win, whatever ya do."

Larabee reached out and patted the younger man’s arm. "Thanks for the concern, pard. It means a lot to me. Now get out there and make sure no one’s in the way of a stray bullet." He drew out his gun and checked the chambers were full. Nodding his appreciation as the rest of the group walked by and wished him well.

JD, trying to hold onto his excitement, waited until last. "You gonna kill him Chris?"

Larabee was disappointed by the question and the wild look on JD’s animated face. "Haven’t you learned anything kid? Death ain’t an entertainment." He pushed by the youngster, stopping dead when he saw Ezra deep in conversation with a group of men.

"You takin’ bets?" He said coldly, glaring at the gambler as he passed them.

Ezra paled; how could Chris think such a thing? It had fleetingly crossed the southerner’s mind, but on reflection, he’d changed it, recognising what a shallow idea it was.

+ + + + + + +

Facing each other across the dusty street, the two gunmen caused quite a stir. Mary Travis, having noticed the commotion, stepped out of the Clarion office and hurried over to the crowd, wondering if there was a story for her newspaper in the offing.

The crowd of men unhappily allowed her through to get a better look at the entertainment. She stopped dead when she saw Chris Larabee facing the pale looking youth. Ignoring the audience shouting at her not to interfere, she walked briskly over to Larabee and asked him why he was having a showdown with the boy.

"Step aside Mary, I don’t want you in the line of fire." Chris replied steadily without answering her question.

"No… this is ridiculous. You don’t normally allow yourself to be goaded into a fight; why now?" She stood her ground, her blue eyes, icy cold. Sometimes men didn’t know what was good for them.

"I don’t know why. Maybe if I make an example out of him, no one else’ll bother me." He knew this wasn’t the real reason, but it sounded rational enough so that maybe she’d move. However, seeing that she wasn’t going anywhere, Chris nodded to Buck, who duly walked over, placed his arms around Mary’s tiny waist and carried her back to safety. Refusing to release her until the fight was over.

Chris turned to Vin. "I want you to call it."

The tousle haired tracker shook his head, "Cain’t. I’m with Mary on this. Ya don’t have to do it."

Without answering, Chris looked towards the others. Nathan’s look said ‘no’, as did Josiah’s. Buck had his hands full controlling the feisty blonde and Ezra was nowhere to be seen; which surprised the gunslinger. Finally, his eyes settled on JD. The youngster’s eyes were filled with awe and excitement.

"You wanted to be involved kid. You call it."

JD gulped nervously before looking at the young gunfighter to see if he agreed. The youth shrugged then nodded. He just wanted it to be over with Chris Larabee lying in the dirt; dead.

The crowd hushed, and Vin, holding his breath, was certain the world had stopped turning.

Suddenly a voice called out. "Now!"

BANG! BANG! Simultaneously.

The world started turning again and Vin Tanner breathed once more but his face paled when he saw two bodies lying on the ground; then Mary started to scream.

There was a murmur rushing through the crowd of spectators.

"They done for each other."

"Which one drew first?"

"Larabee weren’t that good!"

"They both dead?"

Nathan yelled at Josiah to check the boy while he hurried over to Chris.

Chris Larabee was still; half turned on his side, his gun arm stretched out, the weapon still clutched in his grasp. Blood poured from his right temple. Dreading the worst, Nathan carefully wiped the blood away and sighed with relief; it was only a deep graze. He could see the gunman’s chest rising and falling steadily. Chris was unconscious and would stay that way for a time. He’d wake up with a terrific headache, but he was going to be all right.

Looking around at the bloodthirsty crowd, Nathan stated evenly, "He’s alive."

There was relief in most faces, but some looked disappointed, they’d wanted to see the infamous gunslinger dead. Turning their attention to the preacher, they could hear him quietly saying a prayer for the youngster. The boy hadn’t been so lucky. Chris had shot for the heart and his aim had been true. The boy, for some unknown reason had gone for Chris’ head, a far more difficult shot to make.

Mary, finally extricating herself from Buck, ran over to the blond, hardly daring to believe Nathan’s statement. "Are you sure? He looks so… still…" She knelt next to them, her delicate fingers running over Chris’ brow.

"Gonna be fine, Mary. Buck! You gonna give me a hand getting’ him back to my place?"

"Sure." Wilmington replied, his stomach slowly settling down. "Vin?" He searched the dispersing crowd but couldn’t see the tracker. Where had he gone? Surely, Vin would be hovering over Chris by now. However, like Ezra, he’d disappeared. "JD, help me and Nathan. You be all right Josiah?"

"The boy ain’t goin’ nowhere in this life. Just send someone for the undertaker." Though there was nothing he could do for the youngster Josiah felt it was his duty to be there with the boy, helping him on his journey. While he waited for the undertaker to arrive, he checked through the youngster’s pockets to see if there was a name he could put to him, or a family that he could get in touch with. Perhaps there was a mother somewhere who’d want her child’s body returned home.

+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Tanner, are you unwell?" Ezra, having watched the outcome of the gunfight from his hotel bedroom, had seen Vin hurry away from the scene as soon as he’d seen Larabee’s body fall to the ground. More concerned with Vin than Chris, the gambler had gone in search of the tracker, finding the young man emptying his contents of his stomach in one of the alleys.

"Fine Ezra… Go, I’ll be out in a minute." Vin hated showing any sign of weakness to the gambler. He couldn’t contemplate the thought of Larabee being dead. The blond was like an older brother to him, a brother he’d always wanted. Vin wasn’t sure if he’d be able to stay in Four Corners if the gunslinger were dead. Blinking away a stray tear, he regained his composure slightly before returning onto Main Street.

The street was already back to normal. Those who’d viewed the ‘entertainment’ had returned to the saloon, their bloodlust satisfied for the day. The only people left were Josiah, still kneeling next to the dead boy and the undertaker, who’d trundled his cart over to pick up the body. Vin scanned the area for Chris’ body, but Nathan, Buck and the others were gone.

"Our illustrious leader is still alive," Ezra explained as he walked up to Vin. "So you can breathe once more."

The relief flooding through Vin almost caused him to pass out and only Ezra, reaching out to steady him, stopped Vin from falling. "Are… are you sure?"

"Vin, I would never lie to you," Ezra answered before moving off, back to his poker game. There was nothing he could do to help Chris and he doubted that Vin would join him in the saloon. The tracker’s heart and soul were somewhere else.

Vin didn’t have time to consider Ezra’s statement; he was too busy running across the street to Nathan’s; he wanted to make sure the gambler had heard correctly.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan thanked Mary for her assistance as she helped to wash away the blood that stained the gunfighter’s face and hair. Her hands shook violently, so the healer carefully took the cloth from them. "Miz Travis, I think you need to sit down yourself."

Mary laughed nervously, "I think you’re right, Nathan. I thought… seeing him lying there."

"I know Ma-am, I felt the same way too." Nathan left Larabee, went over to the dresser, and poured something into a glass, passing it to the blonde. "Take this"

She eyed him warily.

Nathan smiled. "Ain’t nothin’ but a tonic to soothe your nerves. No alcohol, I promise."

"Very well." Mary sipped the liquid, surprised by its fruity flavour. "This is nice."

"Normally it don’t taste that good. But little children and grown men, they cain’t take anythin’ that tastes awful."

"That much I do know." She smiled back, Nathan’s calmness reflecting on her. If the healer wasn’t worried about Chris’ condition, why should she?

Returning to his patient, Nathan turned sharply when the door burst open. Vin Tanner, looking like death warmed over, strode over to the bed, ignoring Mary and Nathan; his eyes focused on the man lying on the bed.

Nathan noticed the tracker’s hand shook as badly as Mary’s, so leaving his patient once more, he prepared Vin a glass of the tonic, waiting for the young man to look at him before passing it to him.

"Chris…" Vin couldn’t find the words, so kneeling by the bed, he sat watching his friend in silence. Now that the relief of finding his friend alive was passing, anger was setting in. "Dammit Chris, ya said y’d aim to wing the kid. Why did ya lie?"

Mary coughed slightly, wanting Vin to know of her presence.

"Sorry Mary, ain’t ignorin’ ya. He goin’ to be all right Nathan?"

"Sure, just have a sore head when he wakes up. Here Vin, you need somethin’ to calm you down."

"Why? Why do somethin’ so dumb?!" Vin downed the drink in one go. "That’s sweet."

Nathan shrugged as he glanced at Mary. "He took a lot from that boy, Vin. You heard the vile things bein’ said in the saloon. Would you have stood there and took it?"

"He told me he weren’t goin’ to kill the kid. I believed him. Some fool I am."

"You ain’t mad at that, Vin. You’re mad cause you thought Chris were dead, and you cain’t handle it."

"Cain’t. Never had a friend like Chris. He treats me with respect. Ain’t never had that in my life. Nathan…" Vin realised he was revealing more than he wanted to. "I gotta get outta here… need to think." He stood up, tipped his hat at Mary then escaped the clinic before he could make a bigger fool of himself.

Mary’s blue eyes were full of astonishment. "I thought I felt bad. Poor Vin… should I go after him?"

"No Ma-am. Vin needs time alone. He’ll be back; he won’t leave Chris." Nathan returned to the injured man’s side, rubbing a healing salve into the wound.

Mary sat with him for a long time, until Nathan insisted Buck, who’d come to check on his friend’s progress, escort her home.

+ + + + + + +

"Sweet Jesus!" Chris cursed loudly when he opened his eyes. The pain in his head was clouding his thoughts and vision.

"No good blamin’ the Son of God, Chris. He ain’t responsible for your injury."

Larabee tentatively turned his head toward the quiet voiced Josiah Sanchez. "Ain’t you lyin’ here." He wheezed and pointed towards the jug of water on the nightstand. "Please."

Josiah poured the water into a tin cup, then before passing it to the injured man, he eased Chris into a sitting position.

The gunfighter sipped the water, wishing it were whisky. "Thanks…" Settling into silence for a short while, he pondered over his last memory before waking up in bed. Suddenly his eyes widened as it all came flooding back to him. "The kid… he dead?"

"Don’t come much deader." Josiah scratched his stubbly chin. "Cain’t find no name for him." The thought saddened him. The youngster was lying in a nameless grave. "Mary’s been in touch with the judge to see if he can find somethin’ out about the kid."

"I ain’t feelin’ guilty," Chris replied warily, aware of the preacher’s thoughts on the shooting. "How long have I been out?"

"It’s Sunday mornin’, early. Nathan’s gone for breakfast."

"I ain’t lyin’ here all day," Chris grumbled, hoisting himself from the bed before flopping back down, his head spinning dizzily.

"I’d reconsider that idea if I were you."

"You ain’t me, preacher." The headache was reaching a crescendo. "Dammit! Where’s Nathan? I need somethin’ for the pain."

"I’ll go find him. You stay in bed." Josiah was impervious to Chris’ raving. How could the blond whine about a headache when a boy lay dead in a grave?

+ + + + + + +

The saloon was steadily filling. Buck, JD and Vin were chewing on their lunchtime meal. Ezra wouldn’t be seen until later, he’d had a busy evening at the poker table. Josiah was in church, relating bible stories to several of the town’s children and Nathan was at the Masons homestead, where a new baby was due at any time. After leaving the clinic, Chris Larabee had not been seen.

Buck smiled as Inez brought him his plate of food. "Muy Bueno!"

"Gracias." She smiled back at him.

"Sure looks good." JD enthused, tucking into the food with relish.

Vin, lost in thought, picked at his meal, hardly managing a mouthful.

"Vin, you’re as skinny as a rat as it is, so you cain’t afford to stop eatin’." Buck gently chastised the tracker, well aware of the thoughts running through the young man’s head. Ezra had told Wilmington about Vin’s behaviour after the shooting; hoping that the older man would keep an eye on Tanner.

"Ain’t rightly hungry Buck." Vin was too embarrassed to explain he was still having trouble with his insides. His stomach was constantly churning.

"Ya cain’t let what happened to Chris tear ya up. He’s doin’ fine. A bit grumpy, but hell, what’s new!" Buck joked, hoping to get a smile out of his friend.

"Cain’t help it," Vin replied hopelessly, throwing the fork onto the plate. "I keep wonderin’ where he is."

"No need to worry no more," JD said, nodding towards the door. "He just walked in."

Vin turned sharply, almost falling out of the chair. In addition, a smile, the first Buck had seen that day, spread over his handsome face.

Larabee ordered a whisky, searched the saloon for a friendly face, saw Vin smiling at him and walked over to the table where he sat. "Room for one more?"

Vin pushed the empty chair out with his foot. "How you doin’, cowboy?" He wanted to make a smart remark about the bandage peeping out from under Chris’ hat, but decided against it. Nathan had warned them all that he’d noticed the mood swings, which Chris was suffering.

"Better for this." Chris indicated to the liquor. "Where you been hidin’ yourself, pard?"

"Doc said we weren’t to disturb ya..."

"Yeah Chris…" JD piped up, "We wanted to visit…"

Larabee glared at the youngster. "Weren’t talkin’ to you." He glanced down at Vin’s uneaten meal. "May I finish that?"

"Go ahead." Vin glanced at JD, feeling sorry for the boy. What had he done to deserve the gunslinger’s wrath?

Buck was also disturbed, but remained silent, remembering Nathan’s warning.

Chris pulled the plate towards him; unaware of the looks he was receiving, and began to eat ravenously. "Nathan knows how to tend, but he don’t feed you!" He joked.

JD, looking downcast, stood up, explaining, "Best get back on duty. You comin’ Buck?"

"Give me a couple’minutes kid," Buck answered as the youngster exited the saloon. "Weren’t no need to snap at him Chris," he said, once the three of them were alone.

"Damn kid. Ain’t got time for damn kids." Chris pushed the empty plate away before lighting up a cheroot. Scanning the saloon, he asked, "Where’s that other no-good wastrel?"


"Standish." Chris almost spat the name out. "Don’t look at me like that Buck. You know damn well we’ve been carryin’ them two. The kid’s spun you such a yarn you can’t see it."

Afraid of what he might say in reply, Buck stood up and nodded a goodbye to them, before going in search of JD.

"You mad at me?" Chris asked, once he and Vin were alone. "Cause you’ve been quiet."

"Am a bit." Vin played with the glass of beer in front of him. "I thought ya were dead… it scared me."

"Ha!" Chris snorted. "You goin’ soft on me, pard?"

"Ain’t funny. And why did ya kill the kid? Ya said ya were goin’ to wing him."

The smile faded. "When I saw the look in his eyes…" Chris leaned closer to his friend, "I tell you, he wouldn’t have given up, not until one of us were dead. Best put him out of his misery."

"Just don’t do it again. Hell, don’t I sound stupid."

"No, you sound like a real good friend. I like that…" Chris nodded to the empty plate. "Is that why you weren’t eatin’?"

"Guess so." Vin replied bashfully.

"Well I’m still hungry. Think you could manage some now?" Chris winked at the younger man before ordering two more meals.

+ + + + + + +

"Chris, are you gonna let me check on how you’re mendin’?" Nathan asked as he settled into the chair next to Larabee outside the jail. The healer was in a good mood. The Mason’s had a healthy new son, whose middle name was going to be Nathan.

Larabee smiled at the healer. "Sure Doc. Just waitin’ for Vin. We’re doin’ night-shift together."

"I’ll wait with you," Nathan offered with a smile. "Still gettin’ the headaches?" He’d noticed the gunslinger rubbing his brow.

"Some… ain’t surprisin’ though. Here he is…" Chris’ look darkened. "What’s he walkin’ with him for?"

"Ezra? What’s wrong with Ezra?"

"You of all people shouldn’t have to ask that. He makes money out of others misfortune. He’s a rogue… a scoundrel… ain’t got no time for him."

Nathan was amazed by Chris’ outburst. Not least because it was the most words he’d ever heard the gunfighter string together at one time. Hoping to avoid a confrontation, he left Larabee and headed Ezra off towards the saloon before he and Vin reached the jail.

+ + + + + + +

Vin whistled a tuneless ditty as he and Chris patrolled the quiet streets. The tracker was finally settled, now that the gunslinger was back on his feet. Few words were spoken during the evening, but that was nothing new for them. So Vin was surprised when Chris suddenly spoke quite sharply to him.

"Do you have to make such a noise?"


"You heard me. Jesus… why do act so dumb?" Chris continued to grumble.

Recalling Nathan’s warnings, Vin refused to comment. Their friendship was strong enough to allow for Chris’ moodiness.

"Sometimes wonder how you were raised!" The blond continued; his sneering look being caught in one of the street fires.

Breathing heavily, Vin replied hoarsely, "Ain’t no need t’say that Chris. Cain’t help my upbringin’."

"Ain’t a kid no more, Vin. You should try and be…" Larabee shrugged; "Why don’t you tidy yourself up instead of lookin’ like a savage?"

"Won’t change who I am."

"Maybe not, but at least it won’t be so embarrassin’, bein’ seen with you."

The words were finally beginning to hurt the younger man, but still he refused to rise to the bait.

"Sorry I ‘mbarrass you." He said quietly.

As they passed the alleyway next to the hotel, Vin turned into it. "I’ll go check round the back..." His shoulders were slumped in dejection as he walked into the shadows. Lost in thought, he didn’t hear anyone creeping up behind him and was surprised when an arm reached out and dragged him into the darkness…

+ + + + + + +

The beating was fast, furious and violent. Each time Vin thought he was getting clear of his attacker another barrage of fists rained down on him. He couldn’t fight back because he knew his attacker. He called out the man’s name, hoping to pierce through the anger that was there.

"Chris! … Stop, please …. Aaagh!"

Larabee was kicking the younger man; his face flushed with rage.

"Chris ..." The last thing Vin remembered was the gunslinger’s boot connecting with his head.

+ + + + + + +

Chris blinked, trying to clear his vision. His heart pounded in his chest and he was shaking, ‘ What the hell happened? ’ Lying on his back, he struggled to sit up. Across the alley Vin lay in a crumpled heap, his body twisted in an unnatural position.

"Vin?" Chris rasped low in his throat, he crawled over to the still form and gently smoothed the long hair from the tracker’s face with his fingertips.

"Vin, can you hear me?" He winced; whatever had hit them had hit them hard. Chris wracked his brains, he couldn’t remember anything past he and Vin leaving the saloon and heading for the jailhouse. He carefully turned Vin onto his back and gasped at the sight of his friend’s face.

"Oh my god!" He cried, his fists balling in Vin’s collar. Vin’s face was pale under the bruising and the blood, his eyes swollen and his lip split. Chris gathered him to his chest and sat back, rocking the inert form as his eyes scanned the street,

"Get help!" He yelled, repeating the plea as startled faces looked into the alley. "Go!" He screamed as the folk remained motionless, shocked by what they saw.

Chris looked down at the man in his arms. Vin’s expression was peaceful; his golden hair curling where the blood dampened it and his broken lips set almost in a smile. The gunslinger laid his cheek against the younger man’s brow,

"Don’t die on me pard." He whispered, his voice shaking. He heard the shouts from the saloon and the men approaching at a run. His head spun, ‘ Don’t die on me Vin . The faintest of breaths fanned the gunslinger’s throat, raising his hopes as Nathan turned the corner into the alley.

"He’s alive!" Chris cried, relinquishing his hold of the younger man at the healer’s request.

"What happened here?" Nathan shouted, crouching by Vin’s side, his clever hands running over Vin’s head and neck and reaching down to unfasten his shirt.

Chris jumped visibly at the question, his pale eyes filled with confusion. "I don’t… know," he admitted, his eyes still fixed on Nathan when Ezra reached them.

"Good lord!" Ezra exclaimed, falling to his knees opposite Nathan and Chris. He slipped off his jacket and laid it under the tracker’s head. "Can you hear me Vin?" He called softly to his still friend.

Vin frowned, then coughed, trying to curl up as the pain exploded in his stomach. "Chris!" He cried out, the single word filled with fear.

"I’m here!" Chris soothed, his hands cupping the younger man’s face.

"No!" Vin screamed, pushing the gunslinger away with his bloody hands.

"Vin, Vin it’s me, Chris." He stroked the damp forehead.

"Hold still now." Nathan told the tracker.

Vin quietened, gasping softly.

"You’ve been badly beaten," Ezra explained.

Vin turned towards the southerner’s voice and opened his eyes. "Ezra?" He reached out and grasped hold of the gambler’s arm with his left hand, "Don’t leave me!"

"Ah won’t," Ezra said, leaning close to the trembling man. He carefully untangled Vin’s hand from his shirtsleeve and placed it in his own, unable to mask his concern.

Chris watched the exchange with pain in his heart. Was Vin reaching out to the gambler because he, his friend had failed him? ‘ Damn this head wound ’. Chris cursed as Vin clung to Ezra.

Nathan ran his fingers over Vin’s chest and stomach, careful not to make the man suffer any more than he was already. He finished as Buck, JD and Josiah ran into the alley and stopped by his side, their worry echoed by the men on the ground.

"Give him some air now." Nathan snapped, more harshly than he meant to.

Buck gave him a hurt look and directed his question and the silent man by Vin’s side. "What the hell happened here Chris?"

"He don’t remember," Nathan said firmly, looking at Josiah for help. Vin moaned softly and Nathan turned his attention back to him.

"How can he not. Chris?" Buck insisted, shrugging off Josiah as the preacher tried to turn him away.

Chris’s eyes were fixed on Vin’s face, willing the young man to look at him. Vin’s eyes were squeezed shut, his teeth clenched against the pain in his body. The gunslinger heard Buck’s raw question, heard the doubt in his tone. He raised his eyes to his old friend. "I must’ve blacked out," he said, sounding pathetic to himself.

Buck’s face filled with sympathy and Chris found himself looking away, he couldn’t handle that right now. JD gasped, shocked to the core by the gunslinger’s revelation.

"Just back off, all of you!" Nathan hissed, angry for both his patients. Josiah took hold of Buck’s arm,

"Come on, let’s get things ready in Nathan’s place. JD?" He called to the kid as Buck let himself be lead away.

JD was staring wide-eyed at his mentor, not wishing to believe the gunslinger’s words; he obeyed Josiah’s unspoken command and followed the two men from the alley.

Ezra didn’t move, he did not intend to leave Vin. Still holding onto his hand, he looked up at the healer for instruction.

"Can you help carry him to my room?" Nathan asked quietly, motioning Ezra to link hands under the tracker’s arms.

Chris got to his feet as the healer crouched by Vin’s boots.

"Now this is gonna hurt Vin," Nathan warned, watching for a sign that the tracker understood.

Vin gasped and whispered almost inaudibly, "Just get me outta here!"

Nathan nodded to the gambler and together they gently lifted Vin, wincing at the cry torn from his throat at the movement. With Chris following silently behind them the two men carried their injured friend up the stairs to Nathan’s room, careful to cause as little discomfort as possible as they ascended.

Vin moaned and writhed, almost unable to bear the agony. "Let me walk, I can walk…" he whispered, never opening his eyes.

"Take it easy," Nathan soothed. "We’re almost there."

Vin moaned again as Buck took some of his weight from Ezra, laying his hands under the tracker’s lower back. Together they struggled to the bed and carefully laid Vin down on the mattress.

Ezra sat on the far side of the bed, again gathering the tracker’s hand in his own. "Rest easy," he whispered. "You’re safe now."

Vin’s eyelids fluttered open and his eyes fixed the gambler, "Chris is…?" His strength failed him, his eyes pleaded with Ezra for help.

"Right here," Ezra told him gently. "He’s fine."

Vin gasped as someone sat on the edge of the bed opposite the gambler; he turned fearfully to look at the newcomer. It was Chris. Vin shivered. "Are you…" he swallowed heavily and clutched at Ezra’s hand.

"I’m fine." Chris repeated the gambler’s words, "I don’t remember the attack, can’t have been much help…" He looked away.

Vin breathed a sigh of relief, ‘ He can’t remember !’ He closed his eyes; perhaps if he remained silent the attack would be forgotten.

Nathan gathered his bag and the hot water JD supplied and moved Chris from Vin’s side. Sitting down on the bed he and Ezra lifted Vin into a sitting position.

The injured man was almost unconscious when they moved him, but the sensations of pain that lanced his body drew him back to the damp room. He felt the shirt being drawn gently down his arms and heard the exclamations of horror as his friends beheld his injuries for the first time.

"Those ribs gonna need strappin’," Nathan was telling Ezra. "But how we do that when his stomach is so badly bruised?"

Fingers probed the bruising until Vin heard himself cry out. A damp cloth touched his brow and Ezra’s southern drawl whispered reassurances to him as Nathan unbuckled his pants. Vin tried to push the healer away, crying out with pain as he moved. Ezra wrapped his arms around Vin’s, anchoring him against his chest.

"Lie still," Nathan told him, slipping a towel over Vin’s hips as he drew his pants down over his legs.

Vin squeezed his eyes shut, alarmed and dismayed at being exposed in front of so many. He stifled a sob as he heard Buck’s soft words,

"Let me Nathan."

The healer moved aside and allowed Buck to gently remove Vin’s boots and pants. Moving back to sit by Ezra, Nathan tested the tracker’s ribs. Vin jumped, trying to push Nathan away with a right hand that hung broken at the wrist.

"Whoa there." Nathan took a light but firm grip on the lower arm, turning it to assess the damage. "Wrist’s broken," he said. "Buck, will you find me a splint."

"Sure. What ya lookin’ for?" Buck clamped his hand on JD’s shoulder, choosing him to accompany him on the errand.

"Gonna need two good, flat pieces. Wide enough to stop the wrist twisting," Nathan told him, carefully laying the damaged hand by Vin’s side.

"On my way," Buck said, following JD from the room.

The bed depressed by Vin’s feet and the tracker opened his eyes to see Chris sitting there, his eyes filled with concern. Vin tried so hard not to cry out as Nathan wrapped tight bandages around his middle, pushing the ribs together so that they might heal. He heard Ezra speaking to him, though he couldn’t make out the words. All he could see was Chris Larabee, sitting at the end of the bed, his eyes bleeding frustration and doubt.

Vin had suffered many times before, maybe from injuries worse than those he carried now. But none hurt more than those inflicted by a friend, a man he trusted with his own life. He bit down on the scream in his throat, determined not to add to Chris’ torment. He would heed Nathan’s words and keep his silence, but could he ever trust Chris again? ‘Don’t go there. He told himself sagely, clutching Ezra’s arm as he and Nathan lowered him to the bed once more.

"Don’t… leave me…with him…" Vin growled at Ezra, knowing from the pinched expression that he’d squeezed the gambler’s arm a little too hard.

"With whom?" Ezra enquired, glancing apologetically at Nathan, expecting him to be the cause of Vin’s reluctance.

He didn’t get an answer, not that he would understand. Nathan had lifted the broken limb and all Vin could do was turn his head against Ezra’s thigh and moan thickly into the fine fabric

Chris couldn’t watch any more, he lurched to his feet and staggered away from the bed. The door was open and he fled through it, leaning heavily against the rails outside as he fought the urge to vomit. The sun had set and the light was failing.

A shadow moved, Chris turned, gun drawn, his eyes fixed on the dark shape by the wall.

"A might jumpy Chris." Josiah spoke softly, stepping into the meagre light.

The gunslinger let out his breath in a hiss and holstered the weapon. "Guess I am." He looked down at the street, it’s walkways and alleys shrouded by shadows. Vin’s attackers would not be found this night. He hit the rails with the heel of his hand in frustration.

Josiah crossed to his side, a silent sentinel for a tormented friend. His patience unbounded, Josiah waited for the words he knew would come.

Footsteps below foretold the arrival of Buck and JD, they took the stairs in two’s, and ignoring the men on the balcony went inside. Chris watched them dispassionately then turned his attention back to the street. A chilled breeze lifted his fringe and sent shivers through his body.

"I don’t remember what happened." He admitted dully to the preacher.

"Then let Vin tell it," Josiah said reasonably.

Chris considered this for a moment then sighed. "Shouldn’t have to do that," he whispered.

Josiah straightened, looking down on the hunched man holding the railings in clenched hands.

"You can’t be held responsible for what happened to Vin. He doesn’t blame you and neither do we."

"I saw the look in Vin’s eyes. Saw how he didn’t want me to touch him. I’m to blame Josiah, I let him down."

Seeing that Chris wasn’t in the mood for listening to reason, the preacher held his tongue. Once Vin was well, there’d be time to free Larabee’s mind of the guilt.

Buck went directly to Nathan’s side, holding out the two pieces of a splint.

"Good work." The healer nodded, taking them from him.

"Do ya need anything else?" Buck whispered, his eyes fixed on Vin’s pale features.

"I could use some more hot water," Nathan said gratefully, waiting until Buck gathered the pitcher and JD before turning back to his patient. "You still there Vin?" he asked gently.

Vin winced as Nathan’s fingers touched the swollen flesh of his lower arm, without opening his eyes he answered in a shaky voice, "Ain’t nowhere else Doc."

Nathan looked across at Ezra. He held Vin’s good hand in his own and ran the fingers of his free hand up and down Vin’s upper arm in a comforting movement. Nathan smiled to himself, he actually enjoyed Ezra’s company when the gambler was in this mood. Gone were the endless words, in their place was a gentle strength. He wondered if perhaps Ezra felt comfortable enough in his company to allow this side of himself to show. He readied the splints then turned his attention to the man by his side.

"Hey Ezra, could you hold the splints steady while I bandage ‘em?"

Ezra laid Vin’s good hand on his chest then very carefully took hold of the splints as Nathan showed him. Nathan nodded his approval to the southerner then began tightly bandaging the limb around the splints. Both men called softly to the tracker as Vin tried to shrink away from the pain, their quiet words calming him enough to allow the healer to finish.

Nathan turned back to Vin as Ezra laid the damaged wrist by his side. "Worst’s over Vin," he told the tracker.

"Hardly. What use am I when I cain’t shoot." Vin turned away from Nathan’s concerned look.

"No need to worry about that, pard."

Vin jumped at Larabee’s voice. He hadn’t heard the gunslinger return.

"I’ll watch your back."

"We all will, Mr. Tanner," Ezra agreed, unaware of the dark look he received from Larabee.

Once Nathan had gathered everything he needed to finish his examination of Tanner, he shooed everyone except Larabee out of the clinic. "Y’all go now. Need some room to work. Vin’s goin’ to be fine once he’s been patched up."

"But what about who did this?" JD asked animatedly. "Can’t you tell us anything Vin?"

Chris grabbed hold of the youngster’s jacket and forced him backwards out of the room. "You heard Nathan. Leave Vin alone. We’ll question him when he’s good and ready to talk."

"Sorry Chris, I just thought you’d be wantin’ us to find…"

"If I want your help, I’ll ask for it." Chris nodded to Buck, "Keep him away from here. I don’t want Vin bein’ badgered… same goes for you." He aimed at Ezra, slamming the door on the men before they could respond.

Nathan watched Chris’ outburst in silence. Although he’d warned everyone about the gunslinger’s moodiness, he hadn’t realised the moods were so violent. Everyone would have to be careful around the blond for the time being.

"Chris, why don’t you take the other bed for a while why I finish tending to Vin’s injuries?"

Don’t worry about me, Nathan. Headache’s bad, that’s all." Chris laid a hand on Vin’s shoulder, "You concentrate on getting’ better. I’ll get Buck ‘n Josiah to ask around. Maybe someone saw someone actin’ suspicious." He saw the fear in Vin’s eyes and misunderstood it, "Pard, do you know who did this to you?"

"No," the tracker whispered. "It were dark. All I remember is bein’ knocked to the ground."

"Sorry I let you down, Vin. Won’t no more." Larabee nodded to the healer, "I’d best let you get on with your work. See you in the mornin’ pard."

Vin sighed with relief as Larabee closed the door behind him. Hopefully this attack was an isolated incident. Once the headaches ceased, Chris would return to normal.

+ + + + + + +

Larabee rubbed at his aching head as he climbed the stairs to the clinic. While he was at Nathan’s he’d ask for some more of the medicine the healer had been giving him. He wasn’t sure if the headache was due to the wound he’d received, or from worrying over the attack on Tanner. Hopefully the tracker had remembered something during the night.

After much forceful cajoling from Nathan, Vin had submitted to the ignominy of having a bath. He couldn’t understand the reason why it was necessary. He wasn’t dirty, he’d taken a bath the week before! He’d complained all the time Buck and Josiah had struggled to bring the tub up to the clinic, carrying the buckets of hot water from the bathhouse.

"Nathan! This water smells funny," Vin grumbled as he slid into the warm water.

Nathan chuckled at the churlish remark. "It’s a herbal concoction, to help soothe those bruises and aches." He found it difficult not to look at Vin’s battered body without feeling a surge of anger.

The tracker looked frail and very young as he sat in the wooden tub. The layer of bruises highlighted by an oil lamp placed on the table next to him. His injured arm strapped high against his left shoulder.

"Vin, I want ya to lie back and see if y’can relax. The herbs’ll clean out the cuts. It won’t matter about y’arm getting’ wet. I can soon get new splints fer it."

The fingers of Vin’s left hand curled around the lip of the tub, tightening until the pressure turned his knuckles white. "Happy sittin’ here, like this." How could he explain to the healer that he was ashamed of his body; aware of how ugly he looked.

Nathan, using his best bedside manners, knelt next to the tub explaining, "This bath is fer medicinal purposes Vin. How can I help if you won’t let me?" He stood up and gathered a fresh bar of soap and washcloth. "Here..." he passed them to the injured man. "I’m goin’ outside; give you some privacy. Maybe then…" he turned as the outer door opened and Larabee walked in. "Howdy Chris."

Vin looked up sharply, his expressive blue eyes connecting with the gunslinger’s. "Whatcha doin’ here Chris?"

"Came to see how you doin’ pard. Wonderin’ if you can recall anymore from last night."

"No… how ’bout you?"

Larabee shook his head, "Sorry pard, wish I did."

Sensing a slight tension between the two friends, Nathan decided to intervene. "I was just gonna give Vin some privacy."

Chris never took his eyes off his injured friend as he said, "You go Nathan. I’ll watch over your patient for a while."

"Could do with a break. He needs to be lyin’ down in the water for it to do him some good."

Chris nodded and smiled at the healer, "Leave him to me, Doc."

They both looked at Vin in surprise when the younger man smashed his fist into the water.

"I ain’t no kid! Stop talkin’ above me."

Before Chris could reprimand his friend, Nathan did. "Vin Tanner, you keep actin’ like a kid you’ll get treated like one. I’m goin’ fer some lunch. I’ll bring you some back." He pointed a finger at Vin, "Y’ain’t gettin’ it if y’aint done as Chris tells ya."

Larabee chuckled as Nathan exited the room. "Don’t go pissin’ him off or he’ll make you drink some of that piss awful medicine he concocts!"

"Why you here?"

"Concerned about you, Pard." Larabee stripped off his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves.

"What ya doin’?" Vin asked nervously when Chris knelt next to the tub.

"You ain’t messin’ me around like you did Nathan. I aim to bath you."

"Like hell you are!" Vin tried to scramble out of the water only to be forced back down. Before he could make another attempt, Chris grabbed hold of his hair and yanked his head back.

"Nathan said you gotta lie down."

The gunslinger placed his other hand on Vin’s shoulder and pushed him down. Just before the water enveloped Vin he caught the look in Larabee’s eyes and saw the madness there!

+ + + + + + +

Vin’s first sensation on returning to consciousness was shivering as cold water lapped around him. Opening his eyes he took a few moments to clear his head and realise he was at Nathan’s, in a bathtub. His head was resting on the rim of it, but why was the water cool?

"Nat …han?" He shuddered violently as he tried to struggle into a sitting position, but his injured arm encumbered him. Frowning at the broken limb he suddenly realised why he was there and remembered his futile fight against Larabee.

A figure loomed above him. Vin glanced up, "Nat… Chris!"

Larabee smiled warmly at his friend. "You finished your bath?"

"Y… yeah… g… gettin’ cold… would’ya mind helpin’ me out?"

"That’s why I’m here, to take care of you." Chris crouched down and placed both arms around Vin’s injured body and pulled him into a standing position, then he reached over to the table a gathered up a large towel, offering it to the younger man. "Wrap this around you, then we’ll get you out of there. Vin! You’re shiverin’ ! Why didn’t you call me sooner?" The gunslinger grumbled as he helped his companion to step out of the tub. "Nathan’ll have my hide if you catch a chill."

"Must’ve fell asleep." Vin replied sheepishly when he recognised that Chris had once more forgotten the incident.

"Think we both did. Hell, you’re turnin’ blue with cold! Come here."

Vin walked obediently into Chris’ embrace and allowed the man to dry his back and arms. The whole ridiculous situation was beginning to scare him as his friend was slowly being drawn into a madness he might never escape.

Once Chris had dried Vin’s back, shoulders and hair he passed the younger man the towel. "I think you can finish the rest off yourself."

Vin managed to smile, "Think I can, pard."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan returned a short while later. "Boy, does Inez cook…" He was silenced by the sight before him. Chris was sitting high up on the bed with a now fully clothed Vin Tanner curled up against him.

Nathan glanced at the gunslinger. "He asleep?"

Chris, his fingers running through Vin’s curly hair, shook his head. "No, just restin’. Ain’t you cowboy?"

The tracker, his head tucked close against Chris’ chest, nodded.

Nathan walked over and placed a hand on Vin’s forehead. "Feelin’ a touch warm."

Chris glanced guiltily at the healer, "My fault …must’ve been daydreamin’ or somethin’. Left Vin in the water too long. Sorry Nathan."

The black man shrugged, he couldn’t castigate the blond. Chris was still recovering from his own injury. "My fault, not yours. I shouldn’t have put such responsibility on you. Vin, let’s put you to bed." He began to extricate the young man from his companion’s embrace.

"No!" Vin clung tighter to Chris. "Leave me be."

"Vin… Chris needs to rest."

"Don’t worry ’bout me Nathan. Just pull the blanket over both of us." Larabee settled into a more comfortable position, smiling as Vin automatically followed him. "Whoever hurt him Nathan, rattled his confidence."

"He say anythin’ to you?"

"No. I wish he would, so I could go out and kill the bastard that did this to him!"

Nathan shivered inwardly when he heard the coldness in Chris’ words. God help Vin’s abuser if Larabee got to him first.

The healer pulled the thick blanket over the two men, quietly checking the gunslinger’s head wound as he did. It was healing well; but was the man? The mood swings worried the healer more than he cared to admit.

Nathan didn’t expect Vin to come to any harm from Larabee. Though Chris had shown anger towards him it had always been verbal not physical, and the tracker knew it wasn’t the real Larabee talking. However, Ezra and JD did have to be watched. Chris had already threatened them; how long would it be before he put his threats into actions?

The healer had already warned the two young men to be on their guard around the gunslinger. However, their main priority now was finding Vin’s attacker before it happened again and before Chris exacted his own retribution on him.

"Chris, once we find out who did this we’ll have to follow the law. Ain’t no good takin’ it into our own hands."

An icy stare chilled the black man when Larabee retorted, "You’d best hope you find him first."

"And you’d best start thinking clearly!" Nathan answered sharply, unafraid of Larabee’s glare. "How d’ya think Vin’s gonna feel if you end up goin’ to jail or worse, ‘cause of somethin’ that happened to him?"

Nathan’s warning penetrated Chris’ vengeful thinking and he turned to gaze fondly at his injured companion, knowing that although the younger man was silent, he was still listening. "Sorry pard, don’t mean to worry you. I was just blowin’ off steam. I won’t do anythin’ stupid."

Vin looked up, his tired blue eyes glancing from Chris to Nathan. "Don’t want no one puttin’ their lives at risk fer me."

"Wouldn’t be, if you just told us what happened."

"Cain’t …" Vin’s look was pleading. "Don’t ask me why Chris. I cain’t go there."

Indulging his friend for the time being, Larabee relented. "Won’t ask again, not until you’re well enough to have some sense drilled into you. Go to sleep pard, I’ll be here to watch over you."

Vin sighed, at any other time those words would sound comforting but with Chris acting so unpredictably was it wise to relax in his company? "You stayin’ too Nathan?"

"This is my home Vin. We’ll both be here when you wake up."

Satisfied, Vin nestled down and allowed slumber to claim him.


Author e-mail addy: sue@diver27.co.uk
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