A Different Man
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight
Vin and Ezra lounged in their chairs outside the jailhouse and watched the townsfolk going about their business. Sometimes an individual would nod or speak to them, brightening Vins day in particular. Moments like this were becoming rare as he spent most of his time studying Chris and his moods.
It had been five days since Chris had hauled him out to the derelict homestead and threatened to beat him. Vin fervently hoped the whole sorry episode was over, yet somehow he doubted it. Chris had become over protective, never allowing Vin any freedom; hed been attentive and caring and although Vin had been wary at being left alone with the gunslinger, the blond had shown no outward sign of violence towards him.
Occasionally though, Vin would sneak a glance at the older man only to find Larabee staring back at him with loathing. But at least the reprieve had given his body chance to heal and recover from the punishment dealt out to it.
Chris hadnt given Ezra and JD any respite and still took every opportunity to belittle them in front of their companions. JD worshipped Larabee and Vin saw the hurt in the youngsters eyes and felt sorry for the boy. Ezra on the other hand continued to ignore the jibes thrown his way, which infuriated Chris further.
Buck attempted to keep the peace as best he could, along with Josiah and Nathan. The healer still warned them to be wary of Larabees fickle change of mood and violent tendencies, yet no one suspected him of being Vins abuser.
After a while, JD joined Vin and Ezra. He leaned against the jailhouse wall grumbling, "Sure is borin around here."
It was a quiet time in Four Corners and needed little policing, giving Nathan more time to concentrate on his healing, Josiah to enjoy quiet contemplation and Buck to delight in his favourite sport; women! Which left the young sheriff at a loose end.
"Why not go ridin with Casey?" Vin inquired.
"Did that yesterday."
Ezra frowned, how could JD be so dumb where women were concerned when he had Buck Wilmington as a role model? "Surely she would not take umbrage at you escorting her today?"
"Mebbe." JD shrugged pathetically, "But what we gonna talk about? Used up all our conversation yesterday."
The southerner chuckled, saying to Vin, "Ah think our young companion needs tutoring in the subtle art of wooing."
"Dont look at me! I aint no good with women. Hell, they scare me!" The tracker admitted, causing his friends to chuckle.
JD then added, "They confuse me."
Standish smiled at his companions naiveté. He was neither scared nor confused by the fairer sex, apart from his darling mother who was enough to scare the devil himself! Ezra had learnt at a young age to treat females as equals, not possessions, and over the years hed had great success at wooing them, but unlike Buck never boasted about his liaisons.
"Mr. Tanner " Ezra stopped; Chris was standing a few feet away from them. Theyd been too busy in conversation to witness his arrival.
JD straightened himself up, "Howdy Chris."
"Aint you got nothin better to do than stand here jawin?" Larabee was in no mood for niceties, especially around JD and Ezra.
Chris tone hurt JD. The youngster still idolised Larabee, no matter how badly he was being treated. Like Vin, he accepted that the head wound Chris had suffered brought upon the gunslingers words and actions. And like Vin, JD held out hope that Chris would soon recover.
Ezra didnt hold out such hope and he could sense that tragedy was just around the corner.
"What would you have us do Mr. Larabee. Haul innocent people off the street to swell the vacuous cells?"
"Dont give me no fancy talk, Standish."
"Chris, that aint called for. We were just talkin."
"No need to protect em Vin. I know wastrels when I see em. Move on gambler, I want to talk with my friend, in private."
Ezra opened his mouth to argue, but was silenced by Vin, who promised to talk with him later.
"Very well, JD and I will perambulate over to the local hostelry and partake in a friendly libation. Good day, Mr. Larabee Vin..." He caught hold of JDs arm and steered him towards the saloon. With luck, a table near to the grubby window would be vacant so that hed be able to keep a watchful eye on the two men.
+ + + + + + +
Once they were alone, Chris sat down in the chair just vacated by Ezra. "Why do you associate with a cheat, pard? Dont do your reputation no good."
"I like Ezra," was the simple reply.
"Huh! And that damn kid always getting under my feet. Dont know why Buck puts up with him."
"He idolises ya Chris. Why dontcha cut him some slack?"
The gunslinger stared at the younger man. "No thank you. If it werent for Buck and you Id have run him outta town a long time ago."
"Chris, this aint you talkin," Vin said warily, daring to mention Chris moods and headaches. He held his breath as he waited for the blond's reply, and hoped it wouldnt be a fist connecting with his face.
Chris just shook his head. "I dont know what youre thinkin pard, but I aint so sure. Maybe Ive always felt like this. The injury to my head helped bring it out."
Then what about me? Vin wanted to blurt out. Were Chris true feelings being shown every time he assaulted the tracker?
Tanner refused to believe it; about himself or his companions. Chris was a good man. They were friends; in fact, he considered it an honour to be Chris friend.
Chris saw Vins pained expression and misunderstood it, "You hurtin pard?"
"Huh? No well, maybe " It was easier to lie than explain the truth. A cowards way out, and Vin wasnt proud of himself. He doubted the wisdom of not being honest after the first attack, because now he was no longer the only one at risk from the unpredictable gunslinger.
"Maybe you should get back to the clinic, let Nathan check you over again," Chris suggested worriedly.
"Aw Chris, hell only start pokin and proddin again. I end up with more aches and pains than when I started."
Larabee leaned across and whispered, "I aint askin you pard, Im tellin you."
Vin shuddered at the cold look Chris threw his way. All hopes that the gunslinger might be returning to normal were dashed with that one glance. New torments were on the horizon and Vin realised the only way to escape them was to leave Four Corners, run away before the next assault began.
He stood up slowly and stretched his aching muscles. "Guess youre right," he agreed, carefully avoiding his friends displeased countenance. "Ill see ya later."
He walked away from the gunman, certain he could feel the heat from Chris scathing glance.
+ + + + + + +
The battered old wagon held the few possessions Vin owned. It was his home; had been for the past few years. He hated having to leave it and his few tactile memories behind.
Hed spent the day considering his options and could only come up with the one hed thought about earlier during the day. Hed have to take the cowards way out and leave town; taking with him what few belongings he could stash in his saddle bags and bed-roll.
He gathered what he considered necessary then strode towards the livery stable. However, by the time he reached his horses stall, guilt over abandoning his companions weighed heavily on his conscience.
He reached out an stroked the animals ears. "What am I goin to do boy? Aint never run before."
The horse snickered, enjoying the attention, yet sensing the mans sadness.
Vin groaned in frustration and slammed his hand against the stall. "Sorry boy," he soothed when the horse startled. "Caint do it caint leave em," he whispered.
He froze when he heard the ominous sound of Chris spurs. Larabee was outside the main doors of the stable. Lookin fer me , he thought bleakly.
He gathered up his belongings and slipped out of the buildings rear door, returning to his wagon. His nerves were on edge, knowing that the gunslinger was searching for him. Having made the decision to stay in town, his only hope of avoiding Larabee was to hide until morning.
+ + + + + + +
When he heard loud voices approaching Vin stepped into the shadows and waited for the last of the drunken cowhands to pass by. His ragged breath glistened in the cold air, distracting the tracker as he watched the shadows for hidden danger. The steady rhythm of his heightened heartbeat echoed in his ears; perhaps that was why he missed the approach of the man he was trying to avoid. Cruel fingers pinched his throat, closing his windpipe completely.
"Lookin for someone?" Chris taunted, smiling as Vin shuddered and leant heavily against him. He eased the pressure a little, enjoying the other mans distress. Breathing a little was causing more pain than no breath at all and Vins world was beginning to spin crazily.
"Let me go!" Vin rasped, his hand circling his vulnerable throat below Chriss grip. He tried to pull clear of the gunslingers grasp but found himself too weak. Gasping he felt Chris dragging him back into the dark alley and into one of the stores there. Once inside Chris threw him down, watching Vin crawl pathetically towards the shadows.
"Where you goin pard?" He asked, his tone menacing.
Vin moaned softly, dragging himself across the floor, his breath harsh sobs in his throat as he fought to drag air past the bruised and swollen flesh there. He heard the soft chink, chink of Chriss spurs and panicked, realising he was being followed towards his goal.
"Leave me alone!" Vin cried, his voice no more than a whisper.
Angered, Chris dove for him, smiling with satisfaction when Vin cowered in the dirt, his arms raised over his face. Chris placed a hand flat on Vins exposed stomach, gripping the young man hard enough to feel the tremors that wracked his body. He drew out a short knife, waving it hypnotically before Vins eyes.
Before Vin could react Chris tugged the soft shirt free of his pants and slipped the blade under the hem, tugging roughly upwards slit the garment from stomach to neck. The imagery wasnt lost on Vin, hed gutted animals in a similar manner. He stared wide-eyed at Chris who smiled coldly.
Paralysed with fear Vin could only watch Chris open the torn shirt then lay the cold blade against his heaving flesh, just below his naval. The gunslinger glared hard into Vins eyes and applied just enough pressure to pierce his skin.
Vin cried out, his body arching upwards and twisting away from the cruel hand. The blade sliced into his body as he moved, until he curled onto his side, holding his heaving chest and moaning into the dirt.
He felt the blood trickling over his exposed flanks and looked back at the gunslinger. Chris was watching him, his face impassive. Vin groaned when Chriss fingers pressed the new wound. Chris turned him onto his back, watching the tracker writhe in agony, lost in thought.
"Best lie still," he said eventually, "Youll only make it worse." He tore a strip from his own shirt and pressed it against Vins wound. "Here, keep some pressure on this. Ill go find Nathan." With that he got to his feet and walked from the store.
Lying in the cold dirt, his body torn Vin cried out at the hopelessness of his situation. Laying an arm across his eyes, he gave vent to his frustration, weeping brokenly for the loss of a friend.
Vin didnt hear Chris return with Nathan, his remaining strength had deserted him. The two men gently lifted him into their arms and carried him back to the relative safety of Nathans clinic.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin Vin come on, open those baby blues for me "
"Goway " Vin mumbled, ignoring Nathans gently cajoling voice.
"Come on pard "
"Go thell Larabee." Vin swatted away the calloused hand touching his forehead. "Why dont yall leave me be."
"Vin Tanner stop actin childish!" The healer snapped angrily.
"Childish!" Tanner reared up from the bed, fighting the nausea assailing him. "Aint no such thing! Just sickn tired of bein " About to say whipping boy Vin clamped his mouth shut, afraid that if his anger took over hed spill the whole sorry story.
"Vin, you gotta lie still," Nathan fussed, his own ire dissipating as rapidly as the colour from Vins frustrated countenance. "I put a couple of stitches in the wound."
"Vin, I caint keep patchin you up. Ygotta tell us whos doin this."
"No! Ill deal with it," Vin replied wearily as he slid back down onto the mattress. He glanced over to Chris who stood arms folded, close to the window. "Its my problem."
Before Larabee could reply, the door burst open and Buck stormed in. "I just heard. How you doin pard?" He strode over to the bed, deeply concerned by Vins deathly pallor.
"Fine! Im sick tdeath of you sayin that Vin! You aint fine aint been fine fer a couple of weeks!" The broad shouldered man paced beside the bed glaring at Nathan then Chris.
"Didnt you see anythin Chris?"
"No I saw the door open and went to investigate. Found him lyin there."
"Im goin tsearch this town til I find the bastard doin this then Im gonna beat the crap outta him!"
"Wont find him." Vin said abruptly.
"Why not? Dont you want him found?" Buck leaned down and punched the pillow next to Vins face. "Do you enjoy pain? Is that why youre allowin it thappen?"
"You bastard!" Vin pushed Buck away, grimacing in pain as the stitches pulled.
"Oh, Im a bastard all right. I aint ashamed by that. But I aint no coward!" Wilmington continued to bait the younger man. "Is that the problem? Are you bein beaten by a boy or maybe some girls bestin you!"
"Buck " Chris reached out and pulled Buck away from the bed.
The larger man shrugged Chris away. "What? Stop pussy footin around him? Thats what weve been doin " He pointed to the bed, "And look where it got us!" There was a deadly edge to Bucks voice. "Next time you could find him dead."
"Then what do you suggest we do?" Nathan asked. Hed been watching Buck carefully, ready to step in if the situation got out of hand.
"I dont know..." Wilmington answered flatly. "I came here ready to beat a name out of Vin, but hes so Goddam stubborn hed die sooner than tell me." He returned to the bed and knelt next to it, his face close to the trackers, "I dont want to see you die pard "
"Caint give ya a name Bucklin."
"What kinda hold this devil got over you?"
Vin turned away from the pitiful look Buck gave him. How could he tell him that the answer was friendship ?
Buck stood up and walked out of the room without saying another word. Larabee followed him out.
"What got into you back there?"
"I thought " Wilmington shook his head in despair. "I thought if I riled him enough, Vind blurt out a name. But that boy is so darn loyal to whoevers hurtin him. He caint take much more Chris, youve gotta talk to him."
"Youre the only one."
"Ive tried Buck. Ive threatened, though not as loudly as you."
"Aint no laughin matter Chris."
"I aint laughin Buck Im tired of the whole sorry situation!" Chris exclaimed before turning back to the clinic.
+ + + + + + +
Vin glanced along the street, his eyes searching for the black clad leader. He leant heavily against the corner of the store, shaking off a moment of dizziness. Nathan would have kittens when he realised Vin was on the loose, but the tracker couldnt lie on his back for a moment longer.
As soon as the healers back was turned, Vin had ignored the pain, struggled into pants, boots and jacket, and made his escape. He knew Nathan wouldnt be long finding him but he desperately needed to find a friendly face, and hopefully a stiff drink before that happened.
Satisfied that Chris was nowhere in sight Vin limped along the boarding towards the saloon. He kept his eyes down, nodding to the occasional greeting but always moving away from the bearer. Pushing open the saloon doors he gazed into the dark interior and let out the breath he hadnt realised hed been holding.
He scanned the room quickly then made his way to the familiar figure playing solitaire and sat heavily in the chair Ezra pushed towards him with his feet. He shouldve known nothing and no-one got past the gambler.
Vin smiled weakly to cover the grimace of pain and accepted the bottle of Rye Ezra offered, pouring a shot into a glass Inez had polished and placed in front of him. Vin closed his eyes and tipped the drink back in one swallow, feeling the liquid burn its way along his throat to lie in his uneasy stomach. When he opened his eyes, it was to see Ezra grinning at him.
"Well Mr Tanner, it appears you are feeling much returned to your old self." He couldnt keep the hint of relief from his words. "May Ah offer you the use of a fine, laundered shirt?"
Vin looked down at himself, suddenly aware of his bare chest. He pulled the jacket edges together with his good hand and shook his head, smiling despite the tug from his split lip. He gulped down another shot of Rye.
Ezra eyed the tracker warily. "Cat got your tongue Vin?" He asked in all seriousness.
Easing his body down into the hard chair, Vin looked across at the southerner. "Guess I aint got much tsay," he drawled, the words no more than a whisper.
Ezra nodded and began to deal out a fresh game of solitaire. "You gave us quite a scare " Ezra fell silent, his eyes watching the newcomers to the saloon.
The hairs stood up on the back of Vins neck; he turned to follow Ezras gaze. Buck and JD had collected drinks and now made their way to the table. Vin forced himself to breathe slowly and relax, for a moment he had thought
"Hey Vin!" JD called, bounding across the saloon and throwing himself down into the chair next to Vin. Both Ezra and Vin winced as JD accidentally kicked the table, sending beer, Rye and cards everywhere.
"Sorry!" The youngster exclaimed.
Buck chuckled and sat down opposite the tracker, sliding the damp cards back towards Ezra. "Hey kid, take it easy!" He cuffed the youngster playfully.
"How long ya been out?" JD asked Vin while fending off Bucks blows.
"Just now," Vin answered mechanically, he didnt like the way Wilmington was staring at him.
"Does Nathan know?" Buck asked, fixing Vin with a knowing look. The two men glared hard at each other.
Ezra cleared his throat. "Ah think not, looking at the expression on his face." He nodded to the rapidly approaching healer.
"Vin Tanner " Nathans threat hung on the air.
He couldnt stand any more of the cloying atmosphere. Vin drew his chair back sharply and with a hiss of pain stood up.
"Leave me alone, yhear!" He said to the table as a whole, but particularly to Nathan.
"You should be restin," Nathan scolded, squaring up to his charge.
Vin stared coldly at the healer and tried to move around him. He didnt bargain for Bucks grasp on his injured arm. The pressure was enough to send a shudder through the tracker. Vin pulled away and backed up. He almost collided with Ezra who was now on his feet.
"Just let me be!" Vin hissed at the three men in front of him.
Nathan wasnt to be dismissed so easily. "Vin you aint gonna be able to defend yself ifn he comes back." He reached out to steady the tracker only to have his hand shoved away.
"Who?" Buck asked, thinking Nathan knew who Vins attacker was. Maybe the healers gentle persuasion had managed to pry the name from Vin Tanner. Buck felt guilty at the way hed taunted the younger man before, but it was the only way to deal with the stubborn cuss!
Nathan shrugged, "He still aint sayin."
Vin squirmed as they all looked at him, and shied away from Ezras light touch on his upper arm. "Its my business," he rasped, "Nobody elses."
Buck rounded the table and joined Nathan, the two men staring hard at the tracker. Buck spoke first. "Tell us Vin, well stop him for ya, with a bullet if need be "
"No!" Vin yelled, pushing between the two men with his good arm.
Again, Buck grabbed the arm, turning Vin back with a force that almost had the smaller man on his knees. "Dont ya see were concerned for ya Vin?" He asked, releasing the injured limb at the others protest. He winced at the expression of pain on the trackers face, truly sorry to have hurt him.
"Perhaps this is not the time Buck," Ezra said, dismissed with a wave of an arm.
"How can it not be!" Buck yelled at Ezra. "Could be youre next, or you," he pointed at Nathan. "Or JD!" He looked the startled kid in the eye before turning his gaze back to Vin. "Tell us pard, give us the chance to protect ourselves."
Vin was beginning to tremble uncontrollably. He was furious at Buck, not so much for the abuse but for voicing his own fears. What if one of the others were hurt, or even killed by Larabee? Taking a ragged breath Vin rasped, "I cant tell ya Buck Ill deal with it." Why wouldnt the ladies man leave him alone!
"For pitys sake Vin!" Buck yelled in the trackers face. "All Im askin ya to do is give us a name, why is that so difficult?" He watched the emotions play across Vins beaten face and tried again. "Hell Chris is going half crazy about that last attack. Blames himself. Why dont ya give him chance to make that up to ya." He saw Vins chest heaving, felt the pressure breaking him down. "Give us the name Vin," he said persuasively.
Vin almost folded over. He heard the veiled threats and the desperation in Bucks tone. He felt the curiosity and urgency in the other three that were suddenly crowding him, their protests at Bucks actions silenced by their need to know. His stomach rolled and sweat poured from his weakened body. "Dont Buck " he whispered, taking a step backwards.
"Just tell me the god-damn name!" Buck exploded.
Vin visibly jumped and wouldve collapsed if black clad arms hadnt caught him from behind, dragging his prone body against him.
"Leave him be!" Chris snapped, his tone silencing the room. The old friends squared up to each other, oblivious to the pitiful moans from Vin.
"Why wont he tell us!" Buck yelled back, stepping closer to the two men. "Tell me that!"
Chris snarled, squeezing Vins frail body a little too tightly. Vin struggled in his grasp. "To hell with why. He aint sayin and thats the end of it!" He loosened his grip when Ezra stepped up to try and ease Vins pain. Chris hit out and shoved the gambler in the chest, sending him cannoning into Buck.
"You stay away from him!" Chris yelled at the southerner.
Buck steadied the gamblers flight and glared back at Larabee. "No its not the end of it." He growled before storming past Chris, knocking his shoulder hard enough to make Vin hiss in suppressed pain.
Chris allowed Nathan to help Vin to stand. Then he turned to glare hard at Ezra who was keeping his distance. Ignoring the gambler, Chris turned towards the door with Vin, locking eyes with JD.
"What the hell are you starin at!" Chris snapped at the kid.
JD backed out of the way, unable to mask his hurt at Chriss cruel words. Bristling with indignation, he watched the three men leave, then sought solace in the same bottle Ezra was intent on emptying.
Vin hobbled back towards Nathans clinic, his good arm wrapped around Chriss shoulder. Neither man spoke to him during the journey, nor to each other. Each seemed wrapped in their own thoughts, or maybe misgivings.
Unable to disguise his fatigue, Vin allowed them to put him to bed and strip him of his clothes. He didnt even protest when Nathan insisted on dressing his wounds before tucking him in the blankets. He lay passive under Chriss fingers as the gunslinger gently stroked his brow, his touch settling Vin into an uneasy sleep. Despite the company, Vin had an overbearing impression of being alone.
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