A Different Man
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight
"Thought you were an intelligent man?"
Ezra looked up from his game of solitaire and faced the dark clad man speaking to him. "Ah consider mahself knowledgeable, Mr. Larabee. But why should my education concern you, sir?"
"Then why havent you heeded my warning?" Larabee glared icily at the southerner; his patience was at an end. "Dont you understand English?"
"And what warning would that be?" Ezra summoned a glare equally as forceful. He refused to be worn down by the gunslingers intimidation.
"Leave town and dont come back," Larabee hissed as he leaned over and rested his knuckles on the table.
"Ah think not sir. It would be bereft of me to abandon Mr. Tanner at such a dire time. He needs all of his friends to watch over him."
"Hes got me."
"Like Ah said..." Ezra shuffled the cards and placed three of them face down on the table. "He needs friends " He flipped the cards over; the ace of spades and the king of clubs flanked the knave of hearts. "He can trust.." His finely manicured finger tapped the black king, "A benign face, but this gentleman has caused me more misfortune "
"Then I suggest you follow what the cards tell you " Chris picked up the ace of spades, Ezras favourite card, and tore it in two before laying the black king over the knave. "Stay away from Vin " He stepped away from the table. "Aint warnin you again."
Ezra smiled thinly at the blond then returned to his lonely game of cards. The shadow that had been cast over the table lifted and when he glanced up again, Chris Larabee was gone.
The gambler pushed the ruined pack of cards to one side and took an unopened one from his inside pocket. He picked up his glass of beer and drank it own in one go; facing up to the devil was thirsty work.
+ + + + + + +
The pickings had been poor for the gambler, as Ezra opened the door to his retained room at the hotel his mind was contemplating his disappointing evening at the tables. His thoughts were soon brought into sharp focus when someone shoved him in the back and he fell unceremoniously to the carpeted floor, cracking his forehead against the bed frame as he went down.
Before he could face and turn his attacker a boot connected solidly with his ribs, robbing him of his breath. With a growl of frustration, Ezras tormentor hit out again, repeatedly kicking the southerner. Ezra automatically curled into himself as the onslaught continued, crying out in agony when the blows landed on stomach and thighs. Hed suffered beatings in the past from irate cowpokes whod lost their well earned money to him, but this attack was unexpected and not from a stranger.
Eventually the aggressor ceased his attack and kneeled close to the southerner. No words were spoken, yet Ezra knew the nightmare wasnt quite over. The cold metal of a gun barrel was placed against his temple, grinding into the tender flesh. Ezra squirmed at the discomfort then froze. For a moment he thought he was about to die, then there was more movement, and he knew he was alone in the room.
Afraid to move, he listened carefully, expecting his attacker to return. He held onto a pain filled breath until the distinctive sound of the spurs could be heard no more. Ezra expelled a shuddering groan. Larabee! Chris Larabee had assaulted him, Ezra knew the sound of the gunslingers walk well enough.
Moving very slowly, Ezra got to trembling hands and knees and crawled over to the bed, hauling himself onto it. His head hurt from its violent connection with the bed, but the most severe pain came from his midsection. If hed escaped without broken ribs he was lucky. Then there was the whole new problem of what to do about Larabee.
Ezra shivered then swore profanely as the pain assaulted him. He could use Nathans help right now; but how the hell was he going to get anyones attention, especially with his head about to explode! He tried to call out but the effort was too painful, so gathering what was left of his conscious thoughts, he somehow managed to click the hidden derringer into position and fired it towards where he thought the window was. An instant later he was unconscious.
+ + + + + + +
The sound of shattering glass brought Buck Wilmington to a halt. Hed been on his way over to spend the night with Cora, his latest conquest, hoping that shed help him take his mind off the problems his friends were going through, at least for a few hours.
"Dammit!" he cursed quietly. "Why now?" he grumbled as loped over to where the sound had come from.
Three men stood outside the hotel carefully brushing away shards of glass from their clothing. One of them was nursing a cut cheek.
"What the hell happened here. Did ya shoot out one of the windows?" Buck asked angrily, more than willing to throw the men into jail for the night just for being there!
"Hell no!" the injured man replied. "We were walkin by, heard a popping noise, then there was glass fallin on us!"
Buck stepped back and glanced upwards, trying to discern where the glass had come from. A piece of lace blew gently out of one window; it had to be that room. Wilmington frowned as he worked out which room it was.
"Ezra!" he boomed as he pushed past the three disgruntled men and barged into the hotel, then stormed up the stairs, gun in hand. Some of the guests had already gathered outside the gamblers room, but none dare enter.
"Stand back!" Wilmington ordered, pushing them aside. No one argued with him, Bucks gun gave him all the authority necessary.
The door to Ezras room was closed and no one answered when Buck called out the gamblers name. He took hold of the door handle, turned it and the door opened slightly. Buck pushed it further open with his boot. The room was in darkness, but the bed, placed right of the door was caught in the shadowy light from the hallway. Ezra Standish lay sprawled out across it.
"Oh no " Buck stepped cautiously inside, sighing with relief when he heard Josiahs rich voice behind him.
"Whats the problem Buck wheres Dear Lord..." Josiah saw the body and hurried over to check out the gambler while Buck lit the lamps to illuminate the room.
"How is he Josiah?" Buck gave another relieved sigh when the older man informed him that Ezra was unconscious, due probably to the large bump on his forehead. "Anythin else?"
"Caint be certain until Nathans checked him over. Ill stay here, while you go fetch him. Best wake JD up as well to get these folk back to their rooms."
"Good idea." Buck exited the room and closed the door behind him. Once again he had to fight to get past the curious onlookers who were now bombarding him with questions.
"Is somebody dead in there?"
"Oh my God, theres a killer roamin the hotel!"
"Nobodys dead! But there will be if you folk dont get back to your rooms!" Wilmington replied tersely. "Theres been an accident, nothin more. If youre concerned about your safety dont worry, Sheriff Dunnell be over soon to watch over you. Now excuse me, I gotta fetch the Doc."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan decided that it would be in Ezras best interest if he could be moved to the clinic. The healer had done a preliminary examination of the injured southerner and discovered horrifying bruising to Ezras back and left side.
"He could have broken ribs maybe internal injuries. Caint be sure til Ive checked him over real good."
"Couldnt we do more harm if we moved him?" Josiah argued.
"I got my hands full tendin to Vin. Itll be easier ifn I have both men under one roof."
"Ill watch over Vin," the preacher offered. "Ive done it once already. You fetch what you need to take care of Ezra "
Nathan pondered for a few moments before agreeing that it was a sound idea. Buck stayed with Ezra while Josiah and Nathan returned to the clinic. Vin was so doped up with laudanum hed missed the whole commotion.
"He shouldnt wake up til mornin." Nathan explained while he stuffed bandages and potions into a bag. "See if you can get him to eat somethin Josiah. Hes wastin away."
"Ill do my best, brother." Josiah ushered the healer towards the door. "Go tend to our other wounded lamb."
Nathan turned to the preacher and asked the question they were both thinking. "Think its the same man whos been attackin Vin?"
"Its more than a possibility Nathan." Josiah answered heavily, wondering and hoping that once the young tracker heard about the assault on Ezra he might reveal whom the assailant was.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan enlisted Bucks help to tend to the gambler. The two men eased Ezras inert form into a sitting position, mindful of his injuries. Nathan could feel the swellings under the gamblers thin shirt, they spoke volumes of the severity of his attack. He carefully loosened Ezras cravat and unfastened the tiny shirt buttons.
Ezra struggled weakly in their grasp, moaning low in his throat when his body protested at the new position. Together Buck and Nathan eased the shirt from Ezras shoulders and down his arms.
Buck gasped at the sight before him, his eyes widening as he took in the dark bruises that marked his left side. "Sweet Jesus, look at him!"
"Ease him down now." Nathan said calmly, taking a quick glance at the gunslinger. Bucks face was pale with shock.
Nathan applied pressure to Ezras shoulders when the gambler arched off the bed hed been lowered to, whispering reassurances to the writhing man. Ezra uttered a pained cry then went still.
Buck shifted uneasily. "Is he "
"Hes fine, just unconscious," Nathan told him. He watched Buck gently cup the gamblers jaw and run his thumb over Ezras split lower lip.
"Well get them Ezra, wont rest til we do."
The healer turned troubled eyes on Ezra, aware of his shortened, laboured breaths and unnatural pallor. He needed to find out if the gambler had broken bones, and quickly. Placing a hand on Ezras breastbone Nathan traced each rib around Ezras bruised left side, wincing when Ezra writhed under his fingertips.
"Grab his arms Buck!" Nathan instructed, adding urgently, "Dont let him hurt himself!"
Buck complied reluctantly, he had no desire to add to Ezras discomfort. He leaned close to the southerners twisted face and apologised.
"Nothings broken," Nathan said with some relief, motioning for Buck to release him. "Lets take a look at his back."
They turned him onto his right side and then onto his back, gasping when they saw the damage there.
"Thats gotta hurt!" Buck exclaimed, horrified.
"Needs poulticing, and quickly!" Nathan eased off the bed and went to collect his medicine bag. He drew out a tub of salve. "Well spread this on real thick, then wrap him up."
Buck wrinkled his nose at the smell. "Aint gonna ask what that is."
Nathan managed a faint smile, "Best not to." He rubbed the salve into Ezras bruises, taking extra care when touching Ezras tender left side. This complete he covered the salve with lint and helped Buck to first turn Ezra onto his back then raise him to a sitting position once more.
Again Ezra moaned but he sat passive in Bucks arms as Nathan wrapped his ribs. Nathan had almost finished when Ezra began to struggle in Bucks grasp.
"Nooo " Ezra gasped.
"Easy Ezra, its Buck!" The gunslinger wrapped his arms around the struggling man.
"Nooo " Ezra thrashed against Bucks chest, coughing and crying out at the effort.
"Let him down!" Nathan called out to Buck, afraid Ezra would hurt his ribs further if he continued to struggle.
Together the two men laid Ezra down, unable to avoid the agony the movement caused. Ezra cried out again when his damaged back touched the mattress.
"Hell Im sorry Ezra!" Buck was at a loss at what to do. He pulled at his hair in frustration.
Nathan leant close to the gamblers face, "Ezra, can you hear me?"
Ezra was gasping for breath, the effort making sweat run down his battered face. He reached up and curled his fists into the soft fabric of Nathans shirt, clinging to him with the last of his strength.
Nathan reached up to smooth the damp curls from Ezras forehead. "Ezra settle down now," he soothed. "You hit yer head, can Yunderstand me?"
Ezra swallowed dryly then opened his eyes, staring wildly at the healer.
Nathan could see the pupils were dilated. "Thought so, hes got concussion too." Whispering to the gambler he explained gently, "I need you to rest Ezra, you got beat up pretty bad."
Ezra stared at him, his breath hissing through his teeth as he remembered. "Oh no " His eyes glazed over as the memories came flooding back. "Need to " He struggled against Nathans gentle touch.
"Oh no ya dont," Nathan admonished. "Lie still Ezra. Yaint goin anywheres fer a while."
Buck leaned closer to his friend, taking hold of one of his trembling hands.
Ezras eyes widened slightly when he saw his friend and he rasped, "What are you doing here!"
Buck was thrown by the question. "Came to help Nathan fix you up." He explained.
Ezra writhed in distress, "Nooo."
"Whats wrong Ezra?" Nathan tried to get through the southerners panic.
Ezra used the hold Buck had on his hand to tug the ladies man closer. "Go protect JD. Could be JD next!"
Buck froze, startled by Ezras words.
"What makes yer say that?" Nathan asked, his tone urgent. "Ezra!" He tried again when the southerner didnt respond.
Ezra winced, gasping when pain flared in his head. "Protect JD "
"Who from?" Buck asked, tightening his grip on Ezras hand. "Whos doing this Ezra?"
Ezra swallowed thickly, squeezing his eyes closed against the threatening tears. "Noo " He whispered before unconsciousness took him.
Nathan and Buck looked at each other. "Go," Nathan said eventually. "Ill try again the next time he wakes."
Buck placed Ezras limp hand across his chest and nodded. He got to his feet and backed away from the bed, his face filled with sympathy. Then he hurried to where he hoped his young friend would be.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had been dozing lightly when Ezra came to again. He lurched to his feet as the gambler cried out and was quickly by his side to restrain him.
"Easy now." Nathan soothed, alarmed to see tears on Ezras eyelashes. Whoever had done this had rattled the gambler badly.
"Ezra listen to me." Nathan continued. "Youre safe now. Try to breath slowly, thats right, slowly " He rubbed the gamblers arm, feeling the shudders that wracked the smaller mans body.
Eventually Ezra opened his eyes. The pupils were less dilated but still focusing somewhere over Nathans shoulder. The healer placed a hand against Ezras brow, alarmed by the heat there.
"Feel sick " Ezra mumbled only a moment before a spasm gripped him. Nathan helped him turn onto this right side and vomit into a towel.
"Salright Ezra, thats normal." He slipped his hand under Ezras sweat dampened head and raised him enough to take a drink.
Ezra gazed at him gratefully, his eyes still very much out of focus. "Thank you."
"Take it easy now." Nathan said, stroking the damp hair.
Ezra took a shuddering breath. "Need to find Vin "
"Vins safe. Dont worry about him, Josiah is there," Nathan said. "Is it the same man?" He added, looking Ezra in the eye.
Ezra turned his face away and squeezed his eyes shut. "Yes."
Nathan stroked Ezras cheek, trying to comfort the man. "Who?" He asked quietly.
Ezra shook his head, biting back a sob.
"Ezra please tell me." He cupped Ezras jaw and turned his face so he could look at him.
Ezra opened his eyes, tears spilling from the corners to spill onto the pillow. "No, cant. Need to talk to Vin." He swallowed thickly, his eyes pleaded with Nathan to release him.
"Why wont you tell me?" Nathan asked, knowing he was stretching the gamblers strength to the limit.
"Need Vin " Ezra repeated, gasping at the pain of withholding his emotions. "Nathan I " He sobbed softly.
"All right Ezra. Im sorry." Nathan held the gambler tenderly, "Im sorry." He rocked the sobbing man gently. "Rest now. No more questions, rest now." With a heavy heart, Nathan held his charge until Ezras breathing eased and he slept.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was still slightly under the influence of the laudanum when he awoke the next morning, yet his instincts were strong enough to tell him something was wrong. He eased himself into a sitting position on the bed, subconsciously rubbing his aching arm. He still tended to hold it close to his chest although the sling had been removed.
There was no one else in the room so he presumed Nathan had gone to get his breakfast. A feeling of guilt swept over the young man; hed caused a great deal of trouble to the healer the last few weeks and Nathans patience was being sorely tested by Vins refusal to point a finger at his attacker.
"Ill make it up to ya, Nathan, I promise."
Vin carefully eased himself out of bed and gathered up his clothes. He was determined to find out what was causing his uneasy feeling, once hed answered the call of nature.
"Dammit Nathan, why do ya always take my pants off!" he grumbled, struggling to pull the tan britches on. "Gonna bust if I dont get to the privy soon."
"Talkin to yourself Vin?"
Vin jumped back on the bed, expecting to be scolded at any moment by the healer. It wasnt Nathan standing in the doorway, holding a tray of food, but Josiah.
"Josiah! Ya scared me! Thought Nathan... Where is he?"
"He had another patient to deal with. I stayed the night with you." Josiah ambled over to the table and placed the tray on it. "His last instructions were that you got somethin to eat."
"Aint right hungry Josiah," Vin replied edgily. "But I sure do need to go..."
"Go? Oh, is that why youre actin like youve got ants in yer pants?"
"Therell be more than ants to worry about if I dont go soon."
"Chamber pots under the bed." Josiah was desperate to smile, despite his worry over Ezra. Vin was extremely bashful when it came to bodily functions. "I wont watch," he added with great aplomb.
"Aint doin it in that!" Vin squawked. He staggered from the bed and edged carefully towards the door, only to be stopped by Josiahs large frame standing before him.
"Where dyou think youre goin?"
"The privy!" The younger mans eyes pleaded with the preachers. "Please Josiah..."
"Make a bargain with you. Ill escort you to the toilet as long as you promise to eat your breakfast when we get back."
"Promise!" Vin stumbled past the older man; he was now past the point of desperation. He was willing to make a pact with the devil as long as he could find some relief; soon!
+ + + + + + +
When they returned to the clinic, Josiah ordered Vin to sit back on the bed, then he passed him the tray. "Eat," was the one word order.
Vin accepted that hed get nowhere with anymore pleading, so he picked up the fork and began to eat the now cold, scrambled eggs and muffin.
"How long is Nathan gonna be?" He asked around a mouthful of egg.
"Hard to say. His patient had taken a nasty beatin." Josiah answered quietly, watching Vins reaction to the news.
"Who... anyone I know?" The younger man put the fork back down.
"Who, preacher?" The tray was pushed to one side as Vin leaned forward, searching Josiahs gentle eyes for a clue.
Colour drained from Vins already pallid face. "How bad? I gotta go and see him who did it. Do you know?"
"Seems hes as reluctant to speak about his attacker as you are." Josiah had called in on the gambler when hed gone to collect Vins breakfast. Nathan had explained that Ezra had woken up twice during the night but had refused point blank to tell either Nathan or Buck who his assailant was. However, he had warned Buck to keep an eye on JD.
"Who says its the same man? Ezra couldve upset one of the other gamblers. Dont mean to say its " Vin stopped; hed nearly said Chris name.
"Do you want to go see him?" Maybe if Vin saw the injuries Ezra had sustained he might be more willing to open up.
"Yeah, sure I do... why didnt Nathan bring him here?"
"He was too badly hurt to move. He was attacked in his own room," Josiah explained. "Lets get your boots on." He knelt down in front of the younger man and helped him to pull on the boots. "Of course, if its the same man whos been attackin you, he could go after someone else next. Like JD or maybe Mary Travis... Billy..."
"No, he wont... Not Mary and Billy "
"What about JD? Ezra warned Buck to keep an eye on the kid. I wonder why?" Josiah glanced up and saw deep confusion in the younger mans deep blue eyes. The boy was caught between helping his friends and protecting his abuser. Whoever was hurting him, meant a great deal to Vin and it pained Josiah to be putting him through such emotional turmoil.
"Vin, is JD in danger?"
Vin shrugged. "Could be "
"Then doesnt he have a right to be aware of who that person is so he can protect himself?"
"I gotta see Ezra. Then Ill talk to you."
"Very well. Ill take you over to see him, then Ill go find Chris. We all need to hear what you have to say."
Vin was near to tears when he whispered, "He already knows " Before Josiah could question him further, the young man stood up. "Dont ask me Josiah... Not yet."
The preacher nodded, agreeing silently to Vin Tanners request. Hed keep his peace; for now.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had fallen asleep in the chair next to Ezras bed but he woke up as soon as the door opened.
Josiah was faced with the healer pointing a gun at him. "Only us, brother."
"Us?" Nathan placed the gun down on the table, then leaned over the bed to check on his patient.
Josiah stepped aside and allowed Vin to enter the room.
The younger man went straight to his injured friend, his hand shakily reaching out to touch Ezras face. "How how is he Nathan?"
"Lucky! Ribs are badly bruised but aint nothin broken. Bump on his heads from fallin onto the floor. Hes got concussion, thats why one of us has to stay with him at all times."
"Has has he said who did it?"
"Nope, but he will, Im gonna make damn sure about that." Nathan glanced at his other patient and immediately led him to the chair. "Sit down before you fall! Josiah why you brung him over here? He aint well enough."
"Brother Vin is feeling guilty, aint ya?" Josiah had closed the door behind them and stood in the centre of the room, arms folded looking sternly at the younger man.
"Why? He didnt do this."
"No, but he knows the perpetrator of this crime."
"Per... Josiah, youre beginnin tsound like Ezra. I caint never understand him, so dont you start."
"Perpetrator " The voice came from the man on the bed. "It means Mr. Jackson, the man who attacked me "
"Ezra!" Vin struggled out of the chair and tried to reach his injured companion, only to be stopped by the preacher.
"You wait until Nathan has checked our southern friend over."
"M sorry Ezra... I should have said somethin before..." Vins meagre strength gave way and he fell against the older man.
"Vin Tanner get back in that chair!" Nathan snapped angrily. "Josiah, pour Ezra a drink of water."
Sanchez did as he was bid and passed the glass to the healer. Ezra complained bitterly that a shot of whisky would do him far more good.
"Ycan have a drink once Im happy your brains functionin right."
Josiah chuckled. "Armageddon might arrive before then, brother."
"Aint that the truth." Nathan chuckled in agreement. Even Ezra thought it amusing but refused to admit it, his head ached far too damned much!
"Aint funny." Vin admonished his companions. "Ezra couldve died."
"Yes Vin, he could, and how would you have felt then?"
Vin scrubbed at his eyes. Damn tears were forming again. "My fault, all of it. Shouldve said somethin sooner."
"You were protecting a friend." Ezra opened his eyes and gazed towards the tracker. "He doesnt deserve your loyalty."
"Who?" Nathan and Josiah asked at the same time.
Vin looked sheepishly at the two men standing in front of him. "Hes sick ya gotta remember that dont mean to hurt anyone "
"Its Chris been Chris all along."
Nathan stood open mouthed, unwilling to believe what hed just heard. "Chris! It caint be!"
Josiahs reaction was different; calmer, knowing. "I suspected but it werent until Vin told me earlier about Chris knowing who the attacker was that my suspicions were confirmed."
"Ah see youve learnt some of mah vocab ulary." Ezra said weakly, his muddled brain was demanding rest, but unwilling to sleep until hed put Vins mind at rest. "Mr. Tanner, you are an honourable man. Please do not place any of the blame on... yourself." He held out his hand forcefully. "Ah wish to continue our friendship."
Vin couldnt believe the gambler; surely no one would want him around any longer? However, Ezra seemed determined to force the issue.
"Mr. Tanner Vin mah arm is aching So if youd be kind enough... to shake mah hand?"
The tracker stepped forward and clasped Ezras outstretched hand. "Im the one should be honoured. Havin you as a friend."
The gambler smiled, then settled back on the pillows. "Mr. Jackson Ah think it is time for my morning nap."
Nathan happily nodded in agreement; Ezra was growing paler by the minute. "Just fer an hour." He tucked the blankets around the sick man before turning his attention back to Vin. "Thats why you kept askin me about Chris condition?" he whispered, ushering the two men towards the far side of the room. "You shouldve said somethin. He couldve killed you."
"No he wouldnt. Deep down the real Chris is there. Hes actin like two people "
"What would bring the real Chris back to us permanent Nathan?" Josiah asked, praying there was a simple solution.
"Dont rightly know. Maybe another bump to the head,or some kinda shock."
Before they could discuss Larabees condition any further, Buck Wilmington came bursting in. "Wondered where the hell ya where, Vin!"
"Ssshh!" Nathan scolded. "Ezras asleep. Vin was upset when he heard about Ezra and wanted to see him."
"Wheres JD?" Vin asked quietly but with concern.
"At the jail. You really think hes in danger?" Wilmington noticed Vin flinch away from his gaze. "Vin, whats wrong Nathan, Josiah, why ya lookin so serious? Ezras gonna be okay aint he?"
"Sure. It aint about Ezra. Vins just told us whos been hurtin him."
Bucks body stiffened with anger. "About time. What the hell are we standin here for, lets go find the bastard!"
The large man turned to the door and was surprised when no one followed him.
"Well are ya comin?" He pointed to Vin. "You stay here with Ezra. Dont want ya in the line of fire."
"Buck, we havent told you who it is yet." Josiah remarked evenly.
"Dont care. Im gonna take the bastard apart, piece by piece! No one picks on my friends!"
"Its Chris " Vin whispered, hardly daring to say the name.
"Buck..." Vin hurried over to the larger man and grabbed hold of his jacket. "Chris dont know hes doin it. Ya gotta talk to him, make him understand."
Buck gently extricated himself from the tracker and said calmly, "Oh I aim to talk to him. With my fists!" He stormed out of the room, hurling out a curse with every step.
"Go after him Josiah." Nathan ordered, finding himself in charge of a situation that was about to turn explosive. "Try to calm him fore he finds Chris."
"One of Jesus miracles would be needed for that brother, but Ill do my best." Josiah followed the irate Wilmington, hoping that his best was good enough.
Nathan turned back to Vin. "You stay here, take care of Ezra. If we aint back in an hour, wake him up, make sure hes lucid."
"Knows what hes talkin about!" Nathan pointed an accusing finger at the forlorn looking man. "If youd have told me who it was after the first attack I couldve tried to help Chris then!"
"Sorry..." It was too late; Nathan had gone in search of his friends.
Vin walked over to the window and stared out. Buck and Josiah were striding towards the boarding house where Larabee rented a room. A few moments later, Nathan followed. None of them saw Larabee sidle into the jail house.
+ + + + + + +
JD sat at the sheriffs desk, leafing through the latest batch of wanted posters and didnt look up when the outer door opened.
"Buck, will ya stop followin me around. I can take . Oh, hi Chris." He dropped the posters onto the desk. "We get more and more of these each month."
"Anyone in there we know?" Larabee asked calmly, walking over to the stove and pouring out a mug of coffee.
"Jack McQueen. Werent it his gang that robbed the bank in Willow Falls and killed Sheriff Wilson?"
Larabee frowned, ignoring the question. "Whys Buck followin you around?"
"Havent ya heard? Ezra was badly beaten last night. Warned Buck that I could be in danger."
"Someone finally put Standish in his place." Chris didnt seem perturbed by the news.
"Buck reckons it could be the same fellah thats been beatin up on Vin." JD continued nervously, perplexed by Larabees lack of concern.
The gunslinger wandered back to the desk and smiled coldly at the youth. "Bucks right."
"He he is? How do you know?" The youngster wilted under Larabees imperious stare.
"Oh a gut feelin." Chris placed the mug down on the desk and leaned over it, his face close to JDs. "If I were you kid, Id watch my back," he warned before leaving the jailhouse.
JD sank back in the chair; never before had he been afraid of Chris Larabee. He shuddered violently, "Where the hell are you Buck?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin wearily paced the hotel room. One minute he was checking on the exhausted Standish, the next gazing through the window, wondering where Chris was. He feared for JDs safety. If anything happened to the youngster, hed never forgive himself. "Mr. Tanner please stop your peram bulation making me vertiginous."
"Huh? Youre supposed to be sleepin Ezra."
"How is that possible, when you are pacing. Ah wonder that a... new piece... of carpet will... be required soon." Ezra pointed vaguely towards the chair, "Please... sit... down."
"Caint somethin aint right." Vin glanced worryingly at his friend.
Ezra was clear headed enough to understand the look. "Go... Ah will be fine."
The tracker shook his head. "Promised Nathan "
Standish struggled to pull the covers off him before attempting to sit up. "Then Ah will accompany you."
"No!" Vin gently forced the other man back onto the bed. "Ya aint fit!"
"Go!" Ezra gripped his companions hand. "Do what is right."
Tanner nodded. "Try to stay awake til one of us gets back to ya."
Ezra released his hold and rested back against the pillows. Feeling his own futile strength weakening, Vin strode to the door, his progress halted when the door burst open and Chris Larabee walked in.
"Howdy boys. Heard you had an accident, gambler. Gettin as careless as Vin "
+ + + + + + +
Buck, Josiah and Nathan met outside the jail. Theyd searched all of Larabees known haunts without success.
"Horse is in corral, so hes in town somewhere." Buck was itching for a fight, his anger about to overflow.
"Aint been seen in the saloon, barbers asked Mary and she aint seen him." Nathan shrugged his broad shoulders. The anger he felt was towards himself. Why hadnt he realised what was happening? Vin had asked enough questions about Chris health.
Josiah heard the jailhouse door open and turned towards the dark haired youngster framed in the doorway. "Whats wrong JD?"
"Its Chris..." JD replied hoarsely.
"Huh? Where?" The others scanned the street; having presumed Dunne had seen the gunslinger.
"No Chris came here " The normally exuberant boy stood still, his eyes fastened on Buck. "Hes the one hurtin Vin."
"He was here? When?" Wilmington grabbed hold of JDs shoulders, "Did he hurt ya?"
"No but you are."
"Sorry kid." Buck quickly released his hold.
"You knew it was Chris?" JD couldnt believe hed been excluded from such important knowledge.
"Not until an hour ago. Vin told us..." Buck grunted with frustration. Chris was one step ahead of them, "Where the hells he gone?"
"Buck, it wont do no good facin Chris with anger." Nathan argued, looking to Josiah for assistance.
The preacher gave a slight nod of the head. He wouldnt interfere unless it became necessary and was praying Buck would come to his senses before they finally caught up with Larabee.
"Nathan!" Buck continued to fume, "Chris is dangerous! Weve gotta get him off the street, lock him up before he kills Vin."
"Aint Vin thatll die, its Ezra."
Buck and Josiah frowned at Nathan.
"Explain yourself, brother."
"Aint got time. JD, did ya mention Ezra bein hurt?"
Nathans answer was to dash towards the hotel, leaving three confused peace-keepers trailing behind.
+ + + + + + +
Vin stood defiantly between Chris and Ezra determined to stop more harm befalling the gambler. "Ya caint keep hurtin folk Chris."
Larabees feral grin caused both injured men to shiver. "I can do what I like. No one is gonna stop me, specially no wild lookin half breed and a cheatin gambler."
"Ah take umbrage at that," Ezra replied weakly.
When Chris had stormed into the room, the southerner had made a feeble attempt to lunge for his guns. "Shouldnt do that." The gunfighter had growled, his own gun pointed at Vins chest.
"You wouldnt kill Mr. Tanner "
"Oh, I dont know. Eventually the cat tires of playing with the mouse."
"What an apt analogy." Ezra had slumped back on the bed.
Now, as the minutes slowly ticked by the three men were motionless. The physical strain was beginning to tell on the young sharpshooter. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead, and the floor beneath him began to sway. He had to get Chris away from Ezra while he still had the strength to move.
"Ill go with ya Chris. Wherever...well ride out, now."
The feral grin was still in place when Chris asked, "Tascosa?"
"If thats what you want."
"Five hundred dollars."
Vin lowered his eyes. "It always was yours."
"Blood money!" Ezra called out from his prone position on the bed.
Chris ignored the remark. "Very well Vin, lets ride."
The tracker stepped towards the blond.
"No!" Ezra yelled.
Vin turned towards the gambler, "Ezra " The butt of Larabees gun crashed down at the base of Vins skull.
"Never turn your back on me."
Before Ezra could react, the gunslinger was upon him, his fist connecting with Standish jaw.
+ + + + + + +
Nathans worst fears were recognised when he entered Ezras room. Vin was sprawled out across the floor, a deep crimson patch forming on the back of his neck. The gambler was gone.
"Is this never goin to end?!" The healer cursed as he knelt next to the younger man.
Buck hurtled through the door. "Dear God! Wheres Ezra?"
"How the hell should I know!" Nathan snapped, his patience being sorely tested.
Buck turned and barrelled into Josiah. "Chris has got Ezra! JD, you stay here and help Nathan. Josiah, lets find Chris."
"Help?" JD blanched at the sight of blood oozing from Vins latest injury. "Wh what do you want me to do Nathan?"
"Gonna turn him on his side, then into a sitting position." Nathan sighed with relief when he heard Vin groan as he was moved; maybe the injury wasnt as bad as he first thought.
"Steady there, Vin. You took a bad knock."
"Head hurts " Vin tried to touch the wound, only to have his shaking fingers gently pulled away by Nathan.
"No " The healer glanced up at JD, "I need you to stay here while I go get my bag."
"Id be quicker." JD gulped, clearly afraid of Vins condition worsening while they were alone.
"Maybe, but I need to pick up a few other things." Nathan understood the boys fears, "Wont be long. Try to keep Vin talkin." He smiled warmly at the youngster, "Youll do fine." He patted JDs arm before hurrying off to his clinic.
"Sure do fine... What the hell do I know? Hurry up Nathan "
"JD?" Vin still kept his head lowered; it helped ease the pain. "Thought... I was... supposed to do the... talkin?"
"Tell me what happened?"
"Caint recall Chris Wheres Chris?"
"Gone Ezra too."
"What!" Vin forgot the pain and stared up at the boy. "JD?"
"Yeah what do you want somethin?" The youngster couldnt understand why Vin was looking past him.
"JD?" Vin reached out. "Where the hell are ya?"
"Here Vin." JD grabbed hold of his companions trembling hand and realised the awful truth. "You caint see can me."
"Caint see a damned thing!" Vin pulled his hand away and rubbed his eyes violently, hoping his eyesight would soon clear.
"Dont do that! You could make it worse!"
"Im blind kid! It caint get any worse!" Vin stumbled from the bed and headed towards where the door was. "Help me to find Chris fore he kills Ezra!"
"Buck and Josiah are already searchin." JD grabbed hold of his friend before he collapsed to the floor. "Ya gotta stay here and wait for Nathan." Please Nathan, hurry up! "Ill go help with the search once he gets back," the youth promised, hoping to placate his friend.
"My fault. I turned my back all my fault." Vin allowed JD to lead him back to the bed. He sat down on the mattress and slumped forward, head in hands. A blind tracker; what use was he now?
JD sat next to him, placing a comforting hand on Vins shoulder. Where the hell was Nathan? Moreover, where the hell were Chris and Ezra?
+ + + + + + +
The stench of rotting vegetables and sour meat brought Ezra back to consciousness with a vengeance. "Where the hell...?"
A hand clamped over his mouth. "Shut up or Ill kill you now!"
Ezra opened his eyes and blinked away the dizziness he felt. Larabees face was close to his, the madness in Chris cold, angry eyes, plain to see. The gunslinger held a knife in his other hand and its blade was pressed against the gamblers throat. Ezras hands were tied tightly behind his back. They were huddled behind the hotel next to a pile of garbage.
Disgraceful! Ah will complain to the management about this, once Ah am free ! He snorted at the incongruous thought. What a time to worry about the towns sanitation; or lack of it! The next time hed be free was when Saint Peter welcomed him to the pearly gates! Thats if he was going that way, which was doubtful!
Larabee appeared to be listening out for someone, so Ezra settled his wandering thoughts and concentrated on the noises around him. Suddenly he could hear Bucks familiar voice, booming instructions to Josiah!
"Check down the alley outbuildings they caint have gone far!"
Ezra stole another look at his captor. Vin was wrong; the Larabee they knew, was gone, forced out by this new, evil monster. How many would he kill? Were they all in danger? If Chris could viciously assault Vin what chance did anyone else have? Was Vin already dead? Had he survived Larabees latest attack? Maybe theyd reach Saint Peter together; Ezra had no doubts that Vin Tanner would go to heaven.
His morbid thoughts were brought into focus when Chris hauled him back into the shadows, allowing the garbage to cover them up. The smell overwhelmed him and he desperately wanted to vomit.
Finally Chris hand moved away and Ezra gulped back the offending taste in his mouth and tried to ignore the disgusting aroma surrounding them.
Larabee smiled cruelly as he watched the southerner gag with each breath. "Good place fer you to die, gambler. Youre trash, like this cheap trash hell, this smells better than you!" He chuckled quietly, carefully glancing towards the main street. "Always wanted to be top of the pile, didnt you? Well you finally made it Ezra king of the rats."
Ezra felt the point of the knife pierce his skin and he closed his eyes, ready to meet his fate.
Sorry Ah disappointed you mother .
"Chris!" Bucks voice filled the alleyway.
Ezra opened his eyes and found himself alone. Larabees dark clad figure could be seen disappearing around the corner of the next building. The gambler collapsed back into the rubbish and waited for help to arrive, the sweet smell of life, overpowering the aroma encircling him.
"Ezra, are you all right?" Josiah knelt down and pulled the younger man into his arms, alarmed by the steady stream of blood trickling down the southerners neck and the lack of colour to his face.
Unable to hold onto his composure, the younger man shook his head as the tears flowed, "Thought thought Ah was about to die, preacher Ah thought " The relief of being held in Josiahs strong embrace was too much and Ezra collapsed against the preachers shoulder.
+ + + + + + +
"Thank God youre back." JD sighed as he grimly held onto the injured Texan.
"Whats wrong, did Vin take a turn fer the worse?" Nathan asked, kneeling next to Tanner.
"No hes blind." JD whispered.
Blind ? Nathan mouthed the word in horror.
"Why yall whisperin Im blind, not deaf," Vin said shakily. His unseeing eyes staring towards where Nathan knelt; he hoped.
"The bang on yer head mustve done somethin to em," Nathan surmised aloud.
"No shit! Hell, Im sorry doc, aint yer fault."
"Want you back at my place, be easier to tend to you."
"Yaint carryin me I got legs," the stubborn tracker replied tersely. "And I dont want no-one knowin " His fingers moved towards his face once more.
"No-onell know. fore we go anywhere Im gonna tend to the cut, make sure there aint no infection. Then men JDll walk you outta here." Nathan glanced at the youngster and smiled encouragingly, " Dont worry kid, I seen this kinda thing durin the war. Eyesight usually comes back within a few days."
The explanation did little to settle JDs nerves. Everything was going wrong: Chris was crazy, Vin blind and God alone knew what had happened to Ezra.
The words didnt soothe Vin either, but he refused to show his fear in front of the boy. "JD, gonna need yer help " He reached out hopefully.
"I wont let you down." The younger man caught hold of his hand and squeezed it, "Ill be your eyes."
Nathan was proud of the blind man. Vin had pushed his own fears into the shadows so as to help JD overcome his.
A few minutes later they managed to get the groggy Vin Tanner to his feet.
"Just follow my instructions, Vin."
The healer placed his own hat on Vin, tipping the brim forward. "So no-one can see yer eyes," he explained before Vin could ask.
All three were concerned with Ezras fate and Vin chastised himself continually as they made their way to Nathans clinic without incident. Once there, JD wanted to go in search of Buck and the others, he was certain hed heard his friends voice bellowing out.
"Very well JD, but be careful." Nathan was tempted to order the boy to stay, but in truth JD would be of more use out on the streets hunting for Larabee and his captive.
Once they were alone, the healer settled Vin down onto one of the two small beds that filled the cramped room. He didnt know how long hed have to deal with the tracker before he was needed elsewhere. It wasnt long before he could hear heavy footsteps and Josiahs voice calling out that theyd found Ezra.
Josiah hurried into the room and laid the unconscious gambler on the bed, calling softly to Nathan for his assistance. The healer tucked blankets around Vin, thankful his herbs had quickly knocked out the exhausted man.
Satisfied Vin would not stir if he moved away, Nathan hurried to Josiahs side, sitting on the bed. He wrinkled his nose against the smell but didnt hesitate in examining the bleeding wound in the gamblers neck.
Ezra moaned as gentle fingers touched his tortured flesh, turning away to curl on his side.
"Easy Ezra," Nathan soothed, "Let me see." Noticing the tracks of tears he glanced at Josiah, noting the older mans concern. Under his hands Ezra continued to writhe, wrapping his arms around his stomach and rocking himself slowly.
"Hurts huh?" Nathan said knowingly, ignoring the bloody wound for the moment. He pulled Ezras shirt from his pants and tried to touch the gamblers side, to satisfy himself no further harm had been done but Ezra brushed him off.
"Leave me alone." He groaned softly, flinching when Nathans fingers rest against the heavy bruising along his spine.
"Ezra, son," Josiah sat against the bed head and reached down to caress sweat dampened hair, "Nathans only tryin thelp. How about we get ya sat up, get that stink off yer skin." He appealed to the gamblers sensitivities though he doubted Ezra would see past the searing pain he was obviously in.
Ezra curled further into the mattress, gasping as a spasm twisted his gut. Before he could protest at their actions he found himself upright, lying against Josiahs chest.
"Easy now." Josiah called softly to him, wrapping his arms around the injured man, "Breathe real slow, dulls the pain."
He cried out when Nathans fingers pushed against his stomach, trembling in the aftermath of the pain and cursing the healer. Drawing his knees up to his chest Ezra tried to shake off the preachers hold on him, it was a futile gesture.
"Keep still Ezra." Nathan said evenly, his fingers searching the smaller mans stomach. "Yeah youll live." He nodded eventually, eyes filled with sympathy as he surveyed Ezras sweat soaked and flushed face. "Theres swelling where ya got kicked. Ill give ya something for the pain, make you sleep too."
"Dont want to sleep." Ezra bit out between gasps, he struggled against Josiah again then groaned thickly when his stomach muscles cramped again. He slumped against Josiahs arm,
"Lord that hurts." He whispered, wincing as Nathan got to his feet, the change in position hurt too.
He tried to stop Josiah from removing his shirt but was too damned weak. He fidgeted and fretted in the preachers embrace, his arms never leaving his middle.
"May Ah just lie down." He rasped thickly.
"Real soon Ezra, I promise." Josiah answered.
Ezra moaned, shifting restlessly when Nathan sat down again. He eyed the basin and muslin the healer held, noting the smell was almost as bad as the garbage heap. He shivered at the memory, He was going to kill me.
"Stay with me." Nathan caught hold of the gamblers chin, frowning at the dazed expression in normally unfathomable eyes.
Ezra blinked in confusion, watching mutely as the healer reached down to remove his boots. Pain exploded in his stomach again and Ezra cried out once more, arching his body away from the preacher. He heard the soft humph when his elbow dug into Josiahs groin and found himself again wrapped in the preachers bear hug.
"Its over Ezra, listen to me." Josiah wheezed, squeezing the shivering man to get his attention before trying again, "Worsts over, rest a moment now." He nodded to Nathan, listening all the time to Ezras pained gasps, "Thats right, youre all right now." He felt the gambler tense and looked down to see Nathan had unfastened Ezras pants and was easing them over his hips.
"Aint gonna hurt you no more Ezra," Nathan resolved, "Just gonna get you fixed up now." He cursed softly when he saw the swollen bruises on Ezras thighs, evidence of a worse beating than the gambler had let on.
Ezra half lay, half sat in Josiahs arms and curled onto his right side the moment Nathan freed him of his clothing. He felt Josiah gently supporting his body, one hand spread across his heaving chest, the other cupping his shoulder. The room was silent except for Ezras pained rasps, neither of his carers seemed to know what to say.
Nathan gently pulled Ezras hands away from his damaged stomach. He tucked Ezras right arm under his ribs so the gambler lay on the limb, his left arm he bent towards his shoulder so Josiah was able to hold it as well as support Ezras weight.
Free to work now he told Ezra the salve would be cold, then he spread it across the gamblers darkening flesh.
Ezra gasped but didnt struggle. His right arm was already devoid of feeling and he had no inclination to free his left, it would hurt his injured ribs too much. Nathans fingers teased Ezras cramping muscles into submission, and after mere minutes of work the gambler visibly relaxed.
Smiling softly to himself Nathan covered the salve with muslin then repeated the process on Ezras back and thighs. When he was satisfied the worst had been treated he helped Josiah to sit the gambler up. Ezras head lolled heavily on his shoulders and he sighed.
"Hell feel better once we have him wrapped up." Nathan promised, careful not to bind him too tightly. He wrapped each leg as carefully then together he and Josiah eased Ezras pliant body into the bed, covering him gently.
Ezras only answer was a low moan. He curled into the pillow and sighed.
"Oh no ya dont." Nathan scolded, placing a foul smelling brew to Ezras lips.
Josiah held Ezras head steady while Nathan trickled the fluid between reluctant lips. Ezra immediately felt dizzy, gagging slightly and groaning heavily at the pain his sudden movement caused.
Josiahs gentle murmurs reached him from close by and he stilled under calming fingers. The cool towel against his lips was a welcome gesture, he let the preacher drip water into his mouth, washing away the earlier bitter taste.
He was hardly aware of Nathan cleaning and stitching the knife wound, and was unconscious by the time the healer dressed the wound.
Nathan straightened and sighed, shaking his head sadly. "What are we gonna do?" He asked the preacher.
Josiah ran his fingers through Ezras damp hair and answered in a low, dangerous voice.
"Dont know Nathan, but I swear, if he touches them again Ill kill him, so help me God."
+ + + + + + +
Buck, keeping a nervous JD close to him, searched the town again, this time more diligently than earlier in the day when Chris had somehow managed to avoid everyone and assault Vin and Ezra once more.
It didnt surprise him to find Larabees horse missing from the livery stable. The gunslinger had hightailed it out of town before Buck could exact retribution on him.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah sat next to the bed where Vin lay. It was late in the evening and a weary Nathan had taken up Josiahs suggestion to get a few hours sleep, while he watched over their young friends.
Josiah sat close to the lamp and leafed through the bible while he kept his solitary vigil. He hoped the Good Book would settle his mind, help him understand what was happening to Chris Larabee.
The gunslinger had disappeared from sight, and although Wilmington had been desperate to go in search of him, Nathan and Josiah had argued him out of it, stating that it wasnt safe for one man to go after Larabee. It was more important they see to their injured friends, especially as they were going to need all of their strength.
Josiah read through a passage, and said some of the words out loud, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you." That one short phrase spoke volumes; it was a prayer for Larabee.
"You have to fight the demons inside you brother Chris, no one else can do it."
"Maybe he dont have the strength." Vins gentle voice was barely a whisper.
"Glad to have you back with us, brother." Josiah placed the book on the table then reached out to stop Vin from pulling away the bandages from his eyes. "No son, not yet. Give them time to heal."
"What if that dont happen? Have ya got a prayer fer me preacher, cause I could surely do with some spiritual words bout now."
Josiahs heart bled for his young companion. If Vins blindness was permanent it was a thought not worth contemplating. Not wanting the tracker to dive into a morass of self pity, the preacher picked up the book. Finding what he was looking for, he quoted, "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove." He wasnt sure if Vin understood and was about to explain when the younger man spoke softly,
"So its up to me I gotta tell my eyes there aint no mountain cloudin em."
"Somethin like that."
Vins fingers clasped the edge of the blanket covering him and he twisted the material viciously. "Maybe I dont want to see anymore maybe no reason to."
"Because of Chris?"
"I done everythin wrong Josiah. I thought I could help him .all I did was hurt others."
"You are a good friend to Chris, and if anyone can return him to his rightful path, it is you Vin Tanner. So dont go belly up on us now!"
Josiah smiled when Vins fist, though misdirected, lashed out at him.
"Aint bellyin up! But but I am scared."
The preacher caught Vins hands in his own giant paws. "Scared is good Vin cause it means you are still alive."
"Will ya help me Josiah? Aint used to prayin. Never asked anythin fer myself before."
The preacher, still holding onto Vins hands, slid to the floor and knelt next to the bed. "Dear Lord, please help our young brother to move the mountain ."
Comforted by Josiahs prayer, Vin allowed a faint thread of hope into the shadows that engulfed him.
A cool wind whipped around the four men who stood on the balcony outside Nathans clinic, but none of them noticed. Their attention was on the events of the last twenty four hours, and how they were going to deal with brutal bully that Chris Larabee had become.
"I caint believe we didnt see this comin. Why we didnt realise it was Chris doin all the hurtin." Buck Wilmington mused, his anger towards Chris, churning him up.
"I did warn you I said Chris story didnt add up." JD reminded the older man.
"Yes you did John Dunne, and I wish to God wed have heeded your warning." Josiah squeezed the youngsters arm gently, " I guess we didnt want to know the truth, couldnt handle it."
"If we hadve done, maybe "
"Dont go feelin guilty Buck!" Nathan snapped, " aint got time fer that now. Were all to blame, includin Vin and Ezra."
"Why Ezra?" Wilmington asked in surprise.
"He knew or at least had an idea. Now hes banged up pretty badly and Vin "
"Its bad enough if that boy loses his eyesight what if he loses Chris too?"
The consequences didnt bear thinking about. The tracker had been unconscious most of the day and when awake had been more concerned about Ezras welfare than his own or Larabees, but once hed had time to think things through
"Im still convinced his sight will return, once the swellin gone down." Nathans optimism about Vins recovery didnt reflect in his rich brown eyes, but he had to give his friends a reason to hope.
Not wanting to dwell on their friends unfortunate predicament, Wilmington changed the subject. "Weve got to go after Chris. Make him face up to his crimes." He glanced over at Nathan, "Im ridin over to his cabin tomorrow Ive got a gut feelin thats where hes gone."
"Ill come with you." Nathan answered the unspoken question. "Youll cope with those two til I get back?" He asked Josiah, knowing what the reply would be.
"Im getting mighty good at this healin business, brother. How about men you swappin our professions?"
"Aint no good at healin souls, Josiah. Too much responsibility."
The mood had lightened slightly and once Buck and JD had retired for the evening, Nathan and Josiah talked late into the night.
+ + + + + + +
Vin sensed more than felt the comfort of sleep leaving him, to be replaced by the dull ache of his many injuries. He was lying face down on Nathans bed, his nostrils filled with the aroma of lavender from the herb filled pillow. Shifting slightly he tried to look up, freezing as he became aware of the pressure against his eyes.
He curled into the mattress, clawing at the bandage wrapped around his useless eyes and cursing the futility of his condition. At first he thought the low moan that reached his ears had come from his own lips. Stilling, he listened to his ragged breathing, willing himself to hear beyond the heightened beat of his heart. The sound came again, weak and pain-filled. Vin held his breath, afraid the intruder would be the altered Chris Larabee.
The fear soon passed, Chris was not in the room. Vin knew this intuitively, for he was sure that even in his handicapped state he would recognise the gunslinger. The trackers panic eased a little and he became more aware of the other being in the room.
The steady breathing suggested sleep and the soft moans and occasional wheeze made Vin certain he was sharing Nathans clinic with the injured gambler. Relief flooded the tracker, Ezra had survived Chriss cruel attack. He eased his legs off the bed and very slowly got to his feet, he needed to check his friends condition for himself.
His progress was painfully slow, each step had to be carefully tested for obstructions. The air was cold, quickly chilling the half naked man. His shivers added to his disorientation and for a while he thought he would never reach the other mans side. Distracted for a moment he nudged the night stand with his hip and was unable to stifle a grunt of pain.
"Vin!" The gamblers groggy voice reached him from close by.
"Yeah." Vin admitted guiltily. He skirted the night stand gingerly and reached down to touch where he thought the bed would be. His fingers fanned the cold air. He straightened again, "Are you close?"
There was a pause as Ezra digested the question, "Cant you see?" He asked cautiously.
"No," was the perfunctory reply. Vin unconsciously rubbed his bandaged eyes, "Took a knock on the head " He didnt finish, he knew he wouldnt have to.
Ezra turned onto his back to better guide the tracker to the bed, he groaned at the agony the movement afforded. "Straight ahead, five steps."
Vin counted the paces, banging heavily into the side of Ezras bed. "Ouch!"
"Mah apologies." Ezra gasped, himself riding out the pain of Vins collision with the bed, "But it is dark." He reached out to take Vins arm and help him to sit on the edge of the mattress.
"Youre freezing Vin." He said with great tenderness.
"S nothing." The tracker answered, easing off the edge of the blankets when Ezra pulled at them.
Ezra kept the sheet wrapped around his own body, being naked, but offered to share his blankets with Vin. "Rest here a while." He sensed Vins hesitation, "Least until you are warmer."
Vin nodded and with Ezras help slid onto the bed.
"Watch your head." Ezra warned as the tracker lay down. He gasped when Vin shifted his weight, again causing spasms of pain to dissect his damaged stomach.
Lying on his side Vin reached out to touch Ezras heated brow with his fingertips, "You all right pard?" He asked, knowing the other man was in considerable pain by the tightness around his eyes and the furrowed brow.
"Just a little sore." Ezra lied, wrapping his arms around his middle. He badly needed to get over onto his right side but didnt like to turn his back on his blinded friend.
Vin let his fingers fall away from the gamblers face, very much aware that Ezra was watching him. "Feel so " he began, the words failing him.
"Vulnerable?" Ezra asked softly.
Vin raised his face towards the sound and felt Ezras breath fan his cheek, "Useless." He corrected.
Ezra tucked the blanket around Vins shoulders then slumped heavily against his pillows. "No Vin. Were vulnerable. But Ah feel safer for having you close by."
Vin smiled softly at the gamblers words, knowing how difficult the admission wouldve been for the normally self-assured man. He settled down behind Ezra, giving him plenty of room to turn onto the much coveted right side.
Almost asleep Vin nearly missed the tremors that wracked the gamblers body. For a moment he thought the other man was shivering but Ezras involuntary gasps soon persuaded him otherwise. He reached out to touch Ezras shoulder, making the other man jump.
"Shall I get Nathan?" He asked, his fingers kneading the tense muscles under Ezras upper arm.
"No. It will pass." Ezra panted, curling tightly around the centre of his pain.
Vin let his hand drop away, sighing resignedly. "This is all my fault." The words were filled with self-loathing.
Ezra rode out the pain before answering. Without looking at the tracker he said in as normal a tone he could muster, "Ah suppose you inflicted these injuries on me yourself."
Vin winced at the barb, feeling at the same time relieved and dismayed. "Dont go blamin Chris, he dont know what hes doin."
Ezra sighed, "Ah assure you Mr. Tanner, Ah do not hold Mr Larabee responsible for his actions. We were just unfortunate to get in his way."
Vin blanched at the words, suddenly overcome with guilt. "Its all my fault, I shouldve "
"No Vin." Ezra soothed, turning to lie on his back once more. He reached over to squeeze the trackers shoulder. "You stood by your friend. Ah wish Ah could display the same attributes."
"Ezra " Vin wanted to stop the gambler from berating himself.
"Hush." Ezra whispered, finding peace on his back now the spasms had ceased. He closed his eyes, his breathing evening out almost immediately.
Vin listened to the sound of Ezra sleeping and found himself drifting away. He hunkered down under the warm blanket and let sleep take him. There would be plenty of time to apportion blame tomorrow.
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