A Different Man

by The Buffalo Gals

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

Part Five
"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 haven’t you heeded my warning?" Larabee glared icily at the southerner; his patience was at an end. "Don’t you understand English?"

"And what warning would that be?" Ezra summoned a glare equally as forceful. He refused to be worn down by the gunslinger’s intimidation.

"Leave town and don’t 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."

"He’s 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, Ezra’s 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. "Ain’t 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, Ezra’s 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. He’d suffered beatings in the past from irate cowpokes who’d 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 wasn’t 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 gunslinger’s 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 he’d 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 Nathan’s help right now; but how the hell was he going to get anyone’s 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. He’d been on his way over to spend the night with Cora, his latest conquest, hoping that she’d 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 gambler’s room, but none dare enter.

"Stand back!" Wilmington ordered, pushing them aside. No one argued with him, Buck’s gun gave him all the authority necessary.

The door to Ezra’s room was closed and no one answered when Buck called out the gambler’s 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 Josiah’s rich voice behind him.

"What’s the problem Buck… where’s… 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?"

"Cain’t be certain until Nathan’s checked him over. I’ll 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.

"What happened?"

"Is somebody dead in there?"

"Oh my God, there’s a killer roamin’ the hotel!"

"Nobody’s dead! But there will be if you folk don’t get back to your rooms!" Wilmington replied tersely. "There’s been an accident, nothin’ more. If you’re concerned about your safety don’t worry, Sheriff Dunne’ll be over soon to watch over you. Now excuse me, I gotta fetch the Doc."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan decided that it would be in Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s back and left side.

"He could have broken ribs… maybe internal injuries. Cain’t be sure til I’ve checked him over real good."

"Couldn’t we do more harm if we moved him?" Josiah argued.

"I got my hands full tendin’ to Vin. It’ll be easier if’n I have both men under one roof."

"I’ll watch over Vin," the preacher offered. "I’ve 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 he’d missed the whole commotion.

"He shouldn’t 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. He’s wastin’ away."

"I’ll 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 it’s the same man who’s been attackin’ Vin?"

"It’s 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 Buck’s help to tend to the gambler. The two men eased Ezra’s inert form into a sitting position, mindful of his injuries. Nathan could feel the swellings under the gambler’s thin shirt, they spoke volumes of the severity of his attack. He carefully loosened Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s 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. Buck’s face was pale with shock.

Nathan applied pressure to Ezra’s shoulders when the gambler arched off the bed he’d been lowered to, whispering reassurances to the writhing man. Ezra uttered a pained cry then went still.

Buck shifted uneasily. "Is he…"

"He’s fine, just unconscious," Nathan told him. He watched Buck gently cup the gambler’s jaw and run his thumb over Ezra’s split lower lip.

"We’ll get them Ezra, won’t 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 Ezra’s breastbone Nathan traced each rib around Ezra’s bruised left side, wincing when Ezra writhed under his fingertips.

"Grab his arms Buck!" Nathan instructed, adding urgently, "Don’t let him hurt himself!"

Buck complied reluctantly, he had no desire to add to Ezra’s discomfort. He leaned close to the southerner’s twisted face and apologised.

"Nothing’s broken," Nathan said with some relief, motioning for Buck to release him. "Let’s 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.

"That’s 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. "We’ll spread this on real thick, then wrap him up."

Buck wrinkled his nose at the smell. "Ain’t gonna ask what that is."

Nathan managed a faint smile, "Best not to." He rubbed the salve into Ezra’s bruises, taking extra care when touching Ezra’s 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 Buck’s arms as Nathan wrapped his ribs. Nathan had almost finished when Ezra began to struggle in Buck’s grasp.

"Nooo…" Ezra gasped.

"Easy Ezra, it’s Buck!" The gunslinger wrapped his arms around the struggling man.

"Nooo…" Ezra thrashed against Buck’s 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 I’m sorry Ezra!" Buck was at a loss at what to do. He pulled at his hair in frustration.

Nathan leant close to the gambler’s 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 Nathan’s shirt, clinging to him with the last of his strength.

Nathan reached up to smooth the damp curls from Ezra’s forehead. "Ezra settle down now," he soothed. "You hit yer head, can Y’understand me?"

Ezra swallowed dryly then opened his eyes, staring wildly at the healer.

Nathan could see the pupils were dilated. "Thought so, he’s 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 Nathan’s gentle touch.

"Oh no ya don’t," Nathan admonished. "Lie still Ezra. Y’ain’t goin’ anywheres fer a while."

Buck leaned closer to his friend, taking hold of one of his trembling hands.

Ezra’s 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."

"What’s wrong Ezra?" Nathan tried to get through the southerner’s 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 Ezra’s words.

"What makes yer say that?" Nathan asked, his tone urgent. "Ezra!" He tried again when the southerner didn’t respond.

Ezra winced, gasping when pain flared in his head. "Protect JD…"

"Who from?" Buck asked, tightening his grip on Ezra’s hand. "Who’s 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. "I’ll try again the next time he wakes."

Buck placed Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s eyelashes. Whoever had done this had rattled the gambler badly.

"Ezra listen to me." Nathan continued. "You’re safe now. Try to breath slowly, that’s right, slowly…" He rubbed the gambler’s arm, feeling the shudders that wracked the smaller man’s body.

Eventually Ezra opened his eyes. The pupils were less dilated but still focusing somewhere over Nathan’s shoulder. The healer placed a hand against Ezra’s 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.

"S’alright Ezra, that’s normal." He slipped his hand under Ezra’s 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…"

"Vin’s safe. Don’t 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 Ezra’s cheek, trying to comfort the man. "Who?" He asked quietly.

Ezra shook his head, biting back a sob.

"Ezra please tell me." He cupped Ezra’s 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, can’t. Need to… talk to Vin." He swallowed thickly, his eyes pleaded with Nathan to release him.

"Why won’t you tell me?" Nathan asked, knowing he was stretching the gambler’s strength to the limit.

"Need Vin…" Ezra repeated, gasping at the pain of withholding his emotions. "Nathan I…" He sobbed softly.

"All right Ezra. I’m sorry." Nathan held the gambler tenderly, "I’m sorry." He rocked the sobbing man gently. "Rest now. No more questions, rest now." With a heavy heart, Nathan held his charge until Ezra’s 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; he’d caused a great deal of trouble to the healer the last few weeks and Nathan’s patience was being sorely tested by Vin’s refusal to point a finger at his attacker.

"I’ll 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 he’d 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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."

"Ain’t right hungry Josiah," Vin replied edgily. "But I sure do need to go..."

"Go? Oh, is that why you’re actin’ like you’ve got ants in yer pants?"

"There’ll be more than ants to worry about if I don’t go soon."

"Chamber pot’s under the bed." Josiah was desperate to smile, despite his worry over Ezra. Vin was extremely bashful when it came to bodily functions. "I won’t watch," he added with great aplomb.

"Ain’t doin’ it in that!" Vin squawked. He staggered from the bed and edged carefully towards the door, only to be stopped by Josiah’s large frame standing before him.

"Where d’you think you’re goin’?"

"The privy!" The younger man’s eyes pleaded with the preacher’s. "Please Josiah..."

"Make a bargain with you. I’ll 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 he’d 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 Vin’s 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 Josiah’s gentle eyes for a clue.


Colour drained from Vin’s already pallid face. "How bad? I gotta go and see him… who did it. Do you know?"

"Seems he’s as reluctant to speak about his attacker as you are." Josiah had called in on the gambler when he’d gone to collect Vin’s 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 it’s the same man? Ezra could’ve upset one of the other gamblers. Don’t mean to say it’s…" Vin stopped; he’d 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 didn’t Nathan bring him here?"

"He was too badly hurt to move. He was attacked in his own room," Josiah explained. "Let’s get your boots on." He knelt down in front of the younger man and helped him to pull on the boots. "Of course, if it’s the same man who’s been attackin’ you, he could go after someone else next. Like JD… or maybe Mary Travis... Billy..."

"No, he won’t... 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 man’s 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 doesn’t he have a right to be aware of who that person is so he can protect himself?"

"I gotta see Ezra. Then I’ll talk to you."

"Very well. I’ll take you over to see him, then I’ll 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. "Don’t ask me Josiah... Not yet."

The preacher nodded, agreeing silently to Vin Tanner’s request. He’d keep his peace; for now.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan had fallen asleep in the chair next to Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s face. "How … how is he Nathan?"

"Lucky! Ribs are badly bruised but ain’t nothin’ broken. Bump on his head’s from fallin’ onto the floor. He’s got concussion, that’s why one of us has to stay with him at all times."

"Has… has he said who did it?"

"Nope, but he will, I’m 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 ain’t well enough."

"Brother Vin is feeling guilty, ain’t 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 didn’t do this."

"No, but he knows the perpetrator of this crime."

"Per... Josiah, you’re beginnin’ t’sound like Ezra. I cain’t never understand him, so don’t 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..." Vin’s 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.

"Y’can have a drink once I’m happy your brain’s functionin’ right."

Josiah chuckled. "Armageddon might arrive before then, brother."

"Ain’t that the truth." Nathan chuckled in agreement. Even Ezra thought it amusing but refused to admit it, his head ached far too damned much!

"Ain’t funny." Vin admonished his companions. "Ezra could’ve 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. Should’ve said somethin’ sooner."

"You… were protecting… a friend." Ezra opened his eyes and gazed towards the tracker. "He… doesn’t deserve… your loyalty."

"Who?" Nathan and Josiah asked at the same time.

Vin looked sheepishly at the two men standing in front of him. "He’s sick… ya gotta remember that… don’t mean to hurt anyone…"

"Vin Tanner!"

"It’s Chris… been Chris all along."

Nathan stood open mouthed, unwilling to believe what he’d just heard. "Chris! It cain’t be!"

Josiah’s reaction was different; calmer, knowing. "I suspected… but it weren’t until Vin told me earlier about Chris knowing who the attacker was that my suspicions were confirmed."

"Ah see… you’ve… learnt some… of mah vocab…ulary." Ezra said weakly, his muddled brain was demanding rest, but unwilling to sleep until he’d put Vin’s 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 couldn’t 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 you’d be kind enough... to shake mah hand?"

The tracker stepped forward and clasped Ezra’s outstretched hand. "I’m 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. "That’s why you kept askin’ me about Chris’ condition?" he whispered, ushering the two men towards the far side of the room. "You should’ve said somethin’. He could’ve killed you."

"No he wouldn’t. Deep down the real Chris is there. He’s actin’ like two people…"

"What would bring the real Chris back to us permanent Nathan?" Josiah asked, praying there was a simple solution.

"Don’t rightly know. Maybe another bump to the head,or some kinda shock."

Before they could discuss Larabee’s condition any further, Buck Wilmington came bursting in. "Wondered where the hell ya where, Vin!"

"Ssshh!" Nathan scolded. "Ezra’s asleep. Vin was upset when he heard about Ezra and wanted to see him."

"Where’s JD?" Vin asked quietly but with concern.

"At the jail. You really think he’s in danger?" Wilmington noticed Vin flinch away from his gaze. "Vin, what’s wrong… Nathan, Josiah, why ya lookin’ so serious? Ezra’s gonna be okay ain’t he?"

"Sure. It ain’t about Ezra. Vin’s just told us who’s been hurtin’ him."

Buck’s body stiffened with anger. "About time. What the hell are we standin’ here for, let’s 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. Don’t want ya in the line of fire."

"Buck, we haven’t told you who it is yet." Josiah remarked evenly.

"Don’t care. I’m gonna take the bastard apart, piece by piece! No one picks on my friends!"

"It’s Chris…" Vin whispered, hardly daring to say the name.


"Buck..." Vin hurried over to the larger man and grabbed hold of his jacket. "Chris don’t know he’s 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 I’ll 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 ain’t back in an hour, wake him up, make sure he’s lucid."


"Knows what he’s talkin’ about!" Nathan pointed an accusing finger at the forlorn looking man. "If you’d have told me who it was after the first attack I could’ve 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 sheriff’s desk, leafing through the latest batch of wanted posters and didn’t 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. Weren’t it his gang that robbed the bank in Willow Falls and killed Sheriff Wilson?"

Larabee frowned, ignoring the question. "Why’s Buck followin’ you around?"

"Haven’t ya heard? Ezra was badly beaten last night. Warned Buck that I could be in danger."

"Someone finally put Standish in his place." Chris didn’t seem perturbed by the news.

"Buck reckons it could be the same fellah that’s been beatin’ up on Vin." JD continued nervously, perplexed by Larabee’s lack of concern.

The gunslinger wandered back to the desk and smiled coldly at the youth. "Buck’s right."

"He… he is? How do you know?" The youngster wilted under Larabee’s imperious stare.

"Oh … a gut feelin’." Chris placed the mug down on the desk and leaned over it, his face close to JD’s. "If I were you kid, I’d 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 JD’s safety. If anything happened to the youngster, he’d never forgive himself. "Mr. Tanner… please… stop… your peram…bulation… making me… vertiginous."

"Huh? You’re 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."

"Cain’t… somethin’ ain’t 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 ain’t fit!"

"Go!" Ezra gripped his companion’s 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. They’d searched all of Larabee’s known haunts without success.

"Horse is in corral, so he’s in town somewhere." Buck was itching for a fight, his anger about to overflow.

"Ain’t been seen in the saloon, barber’s… asked Mary and she ain’t seen him." Nathan shrugged his broad shoulders. The anger he felt was towards himself. Why hadn’t 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. "What’s wrong JD?"

"It’s 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. "He’s the one hurtin’ Vin."

"He was here? When?" Wilmington grabbed hold of JD’s shoulders, "Did he hurt ya?"

"No… but you are."

"Sorry kid." Buck quickly released his hold.

"You knew it was Chris?" JD couldn’t believe he’d 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 hell’s he gone?"

"Buck, it won’t do no good facin’ Chris with anger." Nathan argued, looking to Josiah for assistance.

The preacher gave a slight nod of the head. He wouldn’t 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! We’ve gotta get him off the street, lock him up… before he kills Vin."

"Ain’t Vin that’ll die, it’s Ezra."

Buck and Josiah frowned at Nathan.

"Explain yourself, brother."

"Ain’t got time. JD, did ya mention Ezra bein’ hurt?"

"Yeah, why?"

Nathan’s 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 cain’t keep hurtin’ folk Chris."

Larabee’s 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. "Shouldn’t do that." The gunfighter had growled, his own gun pointed at Vin’s chest.

"You wouldn’t …kill … Mr. Tanner…"

"Oh, I don’t 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.

"I’ll go with ya Chris. Wherever...we’ll ride out, now."

The feral grin was still in place when Chris asked, "Tascosa?"

"If that’s 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, let’s ride."

The tracker stepped towards the blond.

"No!" Ezra yelled.

Vin turned towards the gambler, "Ezra …" The butt of Larabee’s gun crashed down at the base of Vin’s skull.

"Never turn your back on me."

Before Ezra could react, the gunslinger was upon him, his fist connecting with Standish’ jaw.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan’s worst fears were recognised when he entered Ezra’s 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! Where’s 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, let’s find Chris."

"Help?" JD blanched at the sight of blood oozing from Vin’s 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 wasn’t 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."

"I’d be quicker." JD gulped, clearly afraid of Vin’s condition worsening while they were alone.

"Maybe, but I need to pick up a few other things." Nathan understood the boy’s fears, "Won’t be long. Try to keep Vin talkin’." He smiled warmly at the youngster, "You’ll do fine." He patted JD’s 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?"

"Cain’t recall… Chris… Where’s Chris?"

"Gone… Ezra too."

"What!" Vin forgot the pain and stared up at the boy. "JD?"

"Yeah… what… do you want somethin’?" The youngster couldn’t understand why Vin was looking past him.

"JD?" Vin reached out. "Where the hell are ya?"

"Here Vin." JD grabbed hold of his companion’s trembling hand and realised the awful truth. "You cain’t see can me."

"Cain’t see a damned thing!" Vin pulled his hand away and rubbed his eyes violently, hoping his eyesight would soon clear.

"Don’t do that! You could make it worse!"

"I’m blind kid! It cain’t 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! ’ "I’ll 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 Vin’s 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 I’ll kill you now!"

Ezra opened his eyes and blinked away the dizziness he felt. Larabee’s 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 gambler’s throat. Ezra’s 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 town’s sanitation; or lack of it! The next time he’d be free was when Saint Peter welcomed him to the pearly gates! That’s 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 Buck’s familiar voice, booming instructions to Josiah!

"Check down the alley… outbuildings… they cain’t 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 Larabee’s latest attack? Maybe they’d 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. You’re 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, didn’t 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!" Buck’s voice filled the alleyway.

Ezra opened his eyes and found himself alone. Larabee’s 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 southerner’s 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 Josiah’s strong embrace was too much and Ezra collapsed against the preacher’s shoulder.

+ + + + + + +

"Thank God you’re back." JD sighed as he grimly held onto the injured Texan.

"What’s wrong, did Vin take a turn fer the worse?" Nathan asked, kneeling next to Tanner.

"No… he’s blind." JD whispered.

‘ Blind ?’ Nathan mouthed the word in horror.

JD nodded.

"Why… y’all whisperin’… I’m blind, not deaf," Vin said shakily. His unseeing eyes staring towards where Nathan knelt; he hoped.

"The bang on yer head must’ve done somethin’ to ‘em," Nathan surmised aloud.

"No shit! Hell, I’m sorry doc, ain’t yer fault."

"Want you back at my place, be easier to tend to you."

"Y’aint carryin’ me… I got legs," the stubborn tracker replied tersely. "And I don’t want no-one knowin’…" His fingers moved towards his face once more.

"No-one’ll know. ‘fore we go anywhere I’m gonna tend to the cut, make sure there ain’t no infection. Then me’n JD’ll walk you outta here." Nathan glanced at the youngster and smiled encouragingly, " Don’t worry kid, I seen this kinda thing durin’ the war. Eyesight usually comes back within a few days."

The explanation did little to settle JD’s nerves. Everything was going wrong: Chris was crazy, Vin blind… and God alone knew what had happened to Ezra.

The words didn’t 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 won’t let you down." The younger man caught hold of his hand and squeezed it, "I’ll 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."

"I will."

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 Ezra’s fate and Vin chastised himself continually as they made their way to Nathan’s clinic without incident. Once there, JD wanted to go in search of Buck and the others, he was certain he’d heard his friend’s 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 didn’t know how long he’d have to deal with the tracker before he was needed elsewhere. It wasn’t long before he could hear heavy footsteps and Josiah’s voice calling out that they’d 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 Josiah’s side, sitting on the bed. He wrinkled his nose against the smell but didn’t hesitate in examining the bleeding wound in the gambler’s 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 man’s 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 Ezra’s shirt from his pants and tried to touch the gambler’s side, to satisfy himself no further harm had been done but Ezra brushed him off.

"Leave me alone." He groaned softly, flinching when Nathan’s 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, "Nathan’s only tryin’ t’help. How about we get ya sat up, get that stink off yer skin." He appealed to the gambler’s 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 Josiah’s 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 Nathan’s 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 preacher’s hold on him, it was a futile gesture.

"Keep still Ezra." Nathan said evenly, his fingers searching the smaller man’s stomach. "Yeah you’ll live." He nodded eventually, eyes filled with sympathy as he surveyed Ezra’s sweat soaked and flushed face. "There’s swelling where ya got kicked. I’ll give ya something for the pain, make you sleep too."

"Don’t…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 Josiah’s 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 preacher’s 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 gambler’s 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 Josiah’s groin and found himself again wrapped in the preacher’s bear hug.

"It’s over Ezra, listen to me." Josiah wheezed, squeezing the shivering man to get his attention before trying again, "Worst’s over, rest a moment now." He nodded to Nathan, listening all the time to Ezra’s pained gasps, "That’s right, you’re all right now." He felt the gambler tense and looked down to see Nathan had unfastened Ezra’s pants and was easing them over his hips.

"Ain’t 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 Ezra’s thighs, evidence of a worse beating than the gambler had let on.

Ezra half lay, half sat in Josiah’s 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 Ezra’s pained rasps, neither of his carers seemed to know what to say.

Nathan gently pulled Ezra’s hands away from his damaged stomach. He tucked Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s weight.

Free to work now he told Ezra the salve would be cold, then he spread it across the gambler’s darkening flesh.

Ezra gasped but didn’t 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. Nathan’s fingers teased Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s back and thighs. When he was satisfied the worst had been treated he helped Josiah to sit the gambler up. Ezra’s head lolled heavily on his shoulders and he sighed.

"He’ll 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 Ezra’s pliant body into the bed, covering him gently.

Ezra’s only answer was a low moan. He curled into the pillow and sighed.

"Oh no ya don’t." Nathan scolded, placing a foul smelling brew to Ezra’s lips.

Josiah held Ezra’s 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.

Josiah’s 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 Ezra’s damp hair and answered in a low, dangerous voice.

"Don’t know Nathan, but I swear, if he touches them again I’ll 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 didn’t surprise him to find Larabee’s 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 Josiah’s 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 wasn’t 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 don’t have the strength." Vin’s 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 don’t happen? Have ya got a prayer fer me preacher, ‘cause I could surely do with some spiritual words ‘bout now."

Josiah’s heart bled for his young companion. If Vin’s 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 wasn’t sure if Vin understood and was about to explain when the younger man spoke softly,

"So …it’s up to me …I gotta tell my eyes there ain’t no mountain cloudin’ em."

"Somethin’ like that."

Vin’s fingers clasped the edge of the blanket covering him and he twisted the material viciously. "Maybe I don’t 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 don’t go belly up on us now!"

Josiah smiled when Vin’s fist, though misdirected, lashed out at him.

"Ain’t bellyin’ up! But …but I am scared."

The preacher caught Vin’s hands in his own giant paws. "Scared is good Vin ‘cause it means you are still alive."

"Will ya help me Josiah? Ain’t used to prayin’. Never asked anythin’ fer myself before."

The preacher, still holding onto Vin’s hands, slid to the floor and knelt next to the bed. "Dear Lord, please help our young brother to move the mountain…."

Comforted by Josiah’s 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 Nathan’s 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 cain’t believe we didn’t see this comin’. Why we didn’t 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 didn’t add up." JD reminded the older man.

"Yes you did John Dunne, and I wish to God we’d have heeded your warning." Josiah squeezed the youngster’s arm gently, " I guess we didn’t want to know the truth, couldn’t handle it."

"If we had’ve done, maybe …"

"Don’t go feelin’ guilty Buck!" Nathan snapped, " …ain’t got time fer that now. We’re all to blame, includin’ Vin and Ezra."

"Why Ezra?" Wilmington asked in surprise.

"He knew …or at least had an idea. Now he’s banged up pretty badly and Vin …"

"It’s bad enough if that boy loses his eyesight …what if he loses Chris too?"

The consequences didn’t bear thinking about. The tracker had been unconscious most of the day and when awake had been more concerned about Ezra’s welfare than his own or Larabee’s, but once he’d had time to think things through …

"I’m still convinced his sight will return, once the swellin’ gone down." Nathan’s optimism about Vin’s recovery didn’t reflect in his rich brown eyes, but he had to give his friends a reason to hope.

Not wanting to dwell on their friend’s unfortunate predicament, Wilmington changed the subject. "We’ve got to go after Chris. Make him face up to his crimes." He glanced over at Nathan, "I’m ridin’ over to his cabin tomorrow …I’ve got a gut feelin’ that’s where he’s gone."

"I’ll come with you." Nathan answered the unspoken question. "You’ll cope with those two ‘til I get back?" He asked Josiah, knowing what the reply would be.

"I’m getting mighty good at this healin’ business, brother. How about me’n you swappin’ our professions?"

"Ain’t 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 Nathan’s 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 tracker’s 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 Nathan’s clinic with the injured gambler. Relief flooded the tracker, Ezra had survived Chris’s cruel attack. He eased his legs off the bed and very slowly got to his feet, he needed to check his friend’s 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 man’s side. Distracted for a moment he nudged the night stand with his hip and was unable to stifle a grunt of pain.

"Vin!" The gambler’s 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, "Can’t you see?" He asked cautiously.

"No," was the perfunctory reply. Vin unconsciously rubbed his bandaged eyes, "Took a knock on the head…" He didn’t finish, he knew he wouldn’t 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 Ezra’s bed. "Ouch!"

"Mah apologies." Ezra gasped, himself riding out the pain of Vin’s collision with the bed, "But it is dark." He reached out to take Vin’s arm and help him to sit on the edge of the mattress.

"You’re 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 Vin’s hesitation, "Least until you are warmer."

Vin nodded and with Ezra’s 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 Ezra’s 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 didn’t like to turn his back on his blinded friend.

Vin let his fingers fall away from the gambler’s 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 Ezra’s breath fan his cheek, "Useless." He corrected.

Ezra tucked the blanket around Vin’s shoulders then slumped heavily against his pillows. "No Vin. We’re vulnerable. But Ah feel safer for having you close by."

Vin smiled softly at the gambler’s words, knowing how difficult the admission would’ve 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 gambler’s body. For a moment he thought the other man was shivering but Ezra’s involuntary gasps soon persuaded him otherwise. He reached out to touch Ezra’s shoulder, making the other man jump.

"Shall I get Nathan?" He asked, his fingers kneading the tense muscles under Ezra’s 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. "Don’t go blamin’ Chris, he don’t know what he’s 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. "It’s all my fault, I should’ve…"

"No Vin." Ezra soothed, turning to lie on his back once more. He reached over to squeeze the tracker’s 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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