Mulling over his sombre thoughts as he rode, Chris didnt see the slight figure of the man until he broke cover and startled Chris horse. The man, wearing nothing more than Indian breech hared off into the desert, his long sun bleached hair billowing around his head.
Chris kicked his horse forward and chased after him. Maybe hed have news from Purgatory; perhaps hed seen Vin there. However, capturing his prey wasnt as easy as Chris expected. Despairing of ever catching the man, Chris took hold of his lariat and lassoed him, then bringing his horse to a halt; he dismounted, hauling the near wild creature towards him.
The lasso effectively pinned the savages arms to his side, but it didnt stop him from trying to escape and he fought violently against the rope.
Using his most soothing voice, Chris attempted to calm the man as he would a wild colt. "Aint gonna hurt ya, just want to talk .. ask a few questions ." He spoke in English then Spanish without getting any response.
Unable to get a clear view of the mans face, Chris could only discern that it was a young man; there was no doubt of that, though the body looked emaciated. However, he definitely wasnt an Indian, the hair colour and skin tone testified to that.
Pulling his prisoner closer, Chris was fascinated by the long curly hair; a tawny colour, bleached by the sun. It was so much like Vins. Then the desert wind caught hold of the curls to reveal the face .
The tracker ceased his struggling and stared at the black clad gunslinger; a deep frown furrowing his youthful countenance.
"Vin " Chris whispered, reaching out to free his friend from the rope.
Vin backed away, a wild scream escaping his parched lips. Larabee stopped his movement, "Vin, dont you know me?"
The younger man was breathing erratically, his naked chest, rising and falling rapidly. He fell to his knees, gazing up at Larabee without any sign of recognition; just fear.
Repeating the trackers name, "Vin Vin I aint goin to hurt ya." Chris eyes travelled worriedly over his friend. On closer inspection, he could see welts on Vins arms and torso and what looked like burn marks on the thighs, and then he saw the chain and neck collar. "Dear God who did this to you?!" Forgetting his first attempt at touching his companion, Chris reached out again. This time the tracker reacted differently. He lunged forward, knocking Chris to the ground. Larabees reaction was just as fast and in one sharp movement, he flipped Vin underneath him, pinning him to the ground,
"Calm down will you!"
There were no more screams, just a pitiful whining as tears fell from the young mans clear blue eyes.
"No dont cry . Vin ." Chris placed one hand on Vins shoulder, while trying to stroke the trackers wild hair in a soothing movement with the other, "I dont know what happened to you, but I want to take you home . Make you well again."
Whether or not Vin understood, Chris wasnt certain, but the struggling ceased and the younger man lay back quietly.
"Good boy." Still not completely trusting him, Chris began to loosen the rope, aware that the tracker was watching his every movement, "If I let you loose, you got to promise not to escape . I hate havin to tie you up."
Biting down on his bottom lip, Vin held his breath while Chris pulled the rope free.
"There, thats better, aint it? "Chris moved away from the younger mans body and sat on his haunches, waiting for the explosion to occur; but nothing happened. Vin didnt move except for his eyes, following every move the blond made.
Larabee hoped that Vin was assimilating what was happening and coming to the conclusion that he was no longer in danger.
The silence seemed to stretch out for a lifetime, yet in reality it lasted for a few minutes. Normally Chris enjoyed the silence, especially in Vins company, but this silence was strained. One man looking as if he were about to take flight at any moment, the other waiting, ready to stop him.
Larabee used the time to continue his examination of Vins body. The breech was fashioned out of deerskin; it was the only piece of clothing Vin wore. The younger mans feet were torn and bleeding and bruises seemed to adorn nearly every part of his body. Chris found himself wanting to pull the younger man into his arms and hug him; tell Vin that everything was all right now. That he was safe. Hold him, just like hed held Adam whenever his son had injured himself.
Seeing the young man shaking with either fear or cold, or both, Chris slipped off his black duster coat and held it out to Vin. The tracker, now sitting up, backed away a few inches before stretching a hand out and snatching the garment from him. Then bringing the coat up to his nose, Vin sniffed at the material, inhaling Chris scent before rubbing it against his chin, giving the slightest of smiles towards the gunslinger.
Chris smiled back, pleased with the results so far, "Put it on keep you warm." He wished hed brought along a spare pair of pants for the younger man to wear.
Vin still stared at the coat, unsure of what to do with it. But once Chris had mimicked how to put it on the tracker was soon following his actions. Slipping the garment over his thin shoulders and wrapping it around him; his fingers running over the material as he absorbed everything about the coat except the buttons. He swatted at them as if trying to remove them from the jacket. They reminded him of ..
"No Vin!" Chris was horrified to think his friend thought of him that way, "Im your friend, Chris." He pointed a finger at himself, "Cowboy," he said, hoping that the private joke might bring back a memory to his friend.
"Cow . Boy." Vin glanced up from the buttons and seemed to ponder on Larabees words before stretching out to touch Chris face. "Cow boy."
"Thats me," Chris chuckled, allowing Vin the time to study each contour of his face, "Remember me now?" The gunslinger was hoping for some more sign of recognition, but it wasnt to be. Vin smiled tremulously before whispering cowboy once more; the word igniting some distant memory that still lingered in the shadows of his thoughts.
"Never mind pard, itll all come back, once we get home." Larabee stood up, groaning as his muscles reacted to being set in one place for so long. Holding out a hand, he waited for Vin to accept it.
The tracker rose to his feet, shying away from the offered hand, but he didnt try to run away again. Chris took that as a good sign. He hated having to leave the collar and chain attached to his friend, but until Vin felt secure in his own safety again, hed never allow anyone to get close enough for it to be removed safely.
He strode over to his horse and pulled himself into the saddle, the holding out his hand again, he was delighted when Vin reached up and took it. Vin settled behind him, holding onto Chris shirt. The gunslinger turned slightly and smiled at the curly haired tracker, "Ready pard?"
Vins answer was to snuggle up to the gunslingers back.
"Guess that means yes." They were going home.
Aware that they needed to put some distance between themselves and Purgatory, Chris rode at a steady pace through the day. Stopping once for the horses benefit, not theirs. Now as they sat around the campfire, he pulled his jacket closer and huddled close to the flames, smiling softly at his companion who was busy inspecting the duster. Vin looked lost inside the coat, his body gaunt inside its folds, but it would help keep his bare legs warm. Looking up into the clear night sky, Chris wondered at his wisdom. Was he doing the right thing, returning to Four Corners with Vin? He shivered, both at the thought and the chill air. He watched Vin, struggling to close the coat, smiling at his antics.
"Come here," he said gently.
Vin looked up, startled, as if caught stealing. He wavered for a moment, unsure of the gunslingers intentions. Chris beckoned him over and Vin moved obediently to his side, sitting to the spot where Chris pointed.
Knowing that Vin would recoil at any sudden movement, Chris reached out slowly to take the front of the coat, talking softly to the tracker at all times.
"Im gonna show you how this is done, then you can do the rest." With Vins eyes glued to his hands, Chris carefully slipped the button through its hole and smoothed the front of the duster. Then he smiled at his companion, "Think you can do it now?"
Vin looked up at the gunslinger and blinked slowly, his brow furrowed in concentration. He shuffled closer to Chris, until they almost touched then cautiously reached down to fasten Chris coat.
The blond chuckled softly at his antics, unable to suppress his mirth as he watched the tracker work. Vin shied away at first, unable to understand the laughter and remembering the cruel sounds the Mexicans had made at his expense.
"Whoa there," Chris whispered, capturing Vins fingers in a gentle embrace as the younger man tried to move away. "Dont be afraid, I aint gonna hurt you." The smile in his eyes became tinged with regret as Vins hands trembled within his own. He let the tracker go and opened his hands in surrender, "I mean it Vin, aint ever gonna hurt you. Just dont want to lose you again."
Vin studied the gunslingers face, his eyes losing their fear. He eased closer to Chris side and fingered the collar around his neck, "Wont go," he said, reaching out to place the end of the chain in Chris palm.
As the gunslinger watched in mute fascination, Vin closed Chris fingers around the chain,
"You master now."
Tears welled in Chris eyes as he looked down at the chain in his hand, "No Vin, no one owns you." He reached out slowly to caress the trackers cheek, "I wish I could make you understand."
Vin leaned into the caress, his eyes closing as Chris hand worked around to rub where the collar bit into his neck. Then sighing lightly, Vin lay down and placed his cheek against the gunslingers thigh.
Chris let his fingers work through the trackers hair; his touch would settle Vin until it was time to move on.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan sat outside the jailhouse, wrapped in a thick woollen coat and watched the town settle down for the night. The music had long since stopped in the saloon and the last of the late night drinkers were spilling onto the street. He tipped his hat to the men he recognised and gave a steely glare to those who were strangers to him. Nathan didnt care for trouble on his watch.
As the street emptied, he settled down once more, gazing up at the stars.
A lone figure exited the saloon and move steadily towards him.
"A night-cap, Mr. Jackson?" Ezras soft drawl reached Nathans ears. The healer turned and accepted the offered mug of coffee from the southerner, indicating for the gambler to sit down in the vacant chair next to him.
"Mighty kind of ya Ezra." Nathan nodded, taking a sip of the steaming coffee.
"Its a cold night," The southerner yawned, splashing a dash of whisky into his own mug before offering the flask to the healer, "Something to warm your soul?"
"Not for me" Nathan replied regretfully, "Hate tfall asleep on duty."
Ezra nodded in understanding. "That would never do," He sighed, his breath freezing in the cold air. He leaned back in his chair, huddled into his jacket and sipped his tea.
Nathan glanced across at Ezra. He knew what brought the southerner to his side in the middle of the night. Ezra felt the loss of Chris and Vin as strongly as any of the others; hed just never admit it. Why else would he be sitting there, freezing his butt off at a time hed normally be wrapping himself around soft pillows on that fine feather bed he rented?
Ezra squinted tiredly at Nathan, aware of the scrutiny he was under.
"What may Ah ask are you contemplating?" he asked, the words almost a whisper.
Nathan smiled, refusing to answer Ezras question at that time. "Good night at the tables?" he asked annoyingly, "I see theres city folk stayin at the hotel tonight."
"You could say the Gods smiled favourably on me tonight." Ezras eyes twinkled mischievously, "And for your information, the city folk are the Buchannans from Kansas City." He licked his lips, "Theres a certain Mrs. Ashton with the group, Mrs. Buchannans sister; shes a widow." His face creased into a dimpled smile.
Nathan grinned back, "Brunette, sweetheart face, with big brown eyes?"
"Nathan!" Ezra scolded the man, adding in a secretive way, "You saw her?"
"Saw Buck walkin her back to her hotel," Nathan deadpanned.
Ezra slumped deeper into his chair, gasping in pain at Nathans revelation, "Damn insufferable man!" He shook his head, adding in a vexed tone, " Ah will sit with Mrs. Ashton in the morning, and exhibit to Mr. Wilmington how a gentleman should conduct himself." He frowned as the healer began to chuckle. "Why do you mock me, sir?"
"I dont think Bucks gonna thank ya for lessons."
"Well, thats not quite " He quietened as Nathans attention was caught by movement up the street.
"Chris," Nathan whispered, standing up as the lone horse approached.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had decided it was time to move into town. He wasnt sure if the men whod kept Vin prisoner were giving chase and he didnt want to have to fight and watch out for his companion. Once hed packed up camp he woke Vin, gently encouraging him to get into the saddle before getting on behind him.
The younger man became agitated as the first buildings of Four Corners came into sight. He cowered against Chris afraid of the towering structures. Larabee had never considered the street fires would cause fear in his friend, but now Vin moaned in terror and he slipped his leg over the saddle in an attempt to flee into the night. Chris grabbed hold of the trackers arms and hugged the slight body close to his chest.
"Vin, no, I wont let anyone hurt you." He looked down at the terrified eyes, "Dear God, Vin, Id kill em first, I swear."
Tears spilled onto the trackers face as he tried to understand Chris words and eventually he buried his face into the blonds shoulder and wrapped his arms around Chris body, squeezing tightly and trembling enough to unnerve the horse.
"Steady boy," Chris soothed both man and beast, clicking the horse on towards his goal, the jailhouse.
He saw Nathan and Ezra standing on the steps and held up a hand to them, motioning them to stay back. Both men obeyed, but Chris could sense their frustration; their need to see whom the bundle was in his arms.
"Dont come any closer," he whispered as he halted his horse by the steps. He looked down at the man wrapped tightly around his waist, "Vin?"
At the mention of the trackers name, Ezra came forward, eager to take the trembling creature into his arms
"No!" Chris warned too late.
Quick as lightening, Vin kicked out, his heel connecting with the southerners eye.
Ezra sprawled out in the dirt, a gruff cry of shock piercing the cold night air. Nathan helped him to his feet.
"Whats wrong with him?" Nathan asked Chris as the gunslinger held Vin close.
"Hes hurt," Chris replied curtly, still steadying the man in his arms.
Ezra groaned softly and clutched his eye. Nathan took hold of his upper arms and the gambler wobbled precariously.
"Best get you fixed up, Ez," Nathan said, throwing a glance at Chris as he assisted the stunned gambler towards the clinic, leaving Larabee to hold onto a squirming Vin Tanner.
Damn! Chris cursed silently, needing the healers assistance, angry that he should walk away from the wounded tracker. He dismounted and dragged the unresponsive man from the saddle, pushed him against the horses flanks and anchored him with a hand on trembling shoulder. Satisfied Vin wouldnt escape Chris pulled roughly at his saddlebags and canteen and once he had these free he turned Vin towards the jailhouse. The tracker froze, digging his heels into the dirt, his fingers clawing for purchase on Chriss saddle. Cursing under his breath, Chris slipped his arms under the trackers and pushed him bodily towards the jail. Vin gave ground at first but managed to brace his legs against the steps. Chris growled low in his throat,
"Come on Vin," he warned softly, "You need to get off the street, and I need to rest." He tried to reason with the squirming bundle in his arms but Vin was beginning to panic, his arms flailing as he fought to stay away from the building. A long wail broke from Vins lips and Chris glanced around in alarm, the street remained empty but for how long?
"For pitys sake!" the gunslinger rasped, swinging the tracker through 180 degrees so they now had their backs to the jail, then with Vin screaming and thrashing in his arms Chris climbed the steps and shouldered through the jailhouse door. Vin pushed off the doorframe with his feet, propelling both men into the room and unbalancing the gunslinger who fell heavily on his back, the tracker on top of him. Stars burst around Chriss head as he struggled to breathe, he grabbed at Vin who was untangling himself from the winded man, his only thought to flee. He nearly made it. In the light of a single lantern, Chris made a dive for Vins ankle as he tried to run away and toppled the man to the floor. He then rolled away from the kick levelled at his head; forcefully pulling the thin body towards him.
"Please master " Vin wailed, cowering now as Chris reeled him in hand over hand. Furious at the smaller mans stupidity, Chris sat him up and wrapping his hands around the thin wrists forcefully shook him until Vin was a trembling mass, his head drooping forward and hidden by the matted hair. Raw sobs tore through the thin frame but Chris wouldnt hear them. He stood up, still gripping Vins wrists then dragged him to his feet.
"Get some sleep," Chris said his voice hollow and spent. Vin squirmed under Chris hands but the gunslinger was relentless. He dragged the tracker to the back of the jailhouse and throwing open the door to the cell to his left pushed Vin inside. "Its for yer own good," he mumbled, unable to look his friend in the eye as he turned the key in the lock and stepped back.
Vin rushed as far away from the bars as he could and ignoring the bed, backed into the cold stone corner, sinking down on his haunches and hiding his face.
Chris let out his pent up breath, the homecoming wasnt going at all to plan. He turned away from the pitiful sight before him and hung up the keys. God he was tired. Stumbling to the jailhouse door he closed it on the still night before moving to the other cell. He shrugged off his jacket and gun-belt then sat heavily on the edge of the bunk, his head in his hands. In the next cell Vin was keening softly, the sound rising and falling as he played out his fears in his mind. Chris felt his sharp fingernails in his scalp as his hands clawed into fists.
"Shut up Vin, go to sleep!" he snapped, the sudden sound making the tracker gasp. For a moment there was silence then the lamentation began again. Chris let out a ragged sigh then slumped down on the bunk, looking through his feet at the form huddled in the far corner, rocking gently as he cried. Chriss eyes closed, his world darkened and flattened out as sleep beckoned. The noise reached a fretful crescendo, snapping the gunslinger back to consciousness. Anger rose hot in his veins and he kicked out with his feet, the hard heeled boots making the bars ring loudly,
"Damn you, shut up!" Chris yelled, seeing the small man jump and cower against the cold stone. Vins keening hushed into breathless sobs. Chris sighed heavily and cursed himself for his actions. Hed just have to hate himself in the morning. The gunslingers eyes closed once more and sleep beckoned.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan dressed Ezras bruised eye as quickly as he could. Though the gamblers cheek was badly swollen the force of the blow to his face had fortunately dissipated around the precious eye. The wound was nowhere as serious as the healer had first thought. Gathering his bag, he ushered Ezra towards the church, telling him to wake Josiah and tell him of Vins return. He warned the gambler not to go near the jail until morning, and not to tell Buck or JD just yet. Ezra was tired and readily agreed. He mumbled his thanks to Nathan before crossing the street. Nathan watched the gambler wobble towards the church, a fond smile on his lips then shaking his head turned towards the jailhouse.
The healer slipped quietly through the door and padded silently to the desk, putting down his bag before turning towards the cell. Vins gentle sobs didnt distress him, he fully expected the traumatised young man to be finding some form of release. What upset Nathan was the trackers situation. Huddled in the black duster Vin cowered against the far corner of a locked cell, his frail body shaking through both cold and fear. It broke Nathans heart to see him. He fixed his eyes on the gunslinger lying in the adjacent cell; Chris was in a deep sleep. Slipping the keys from their hook on the wall Nathan crossed to Vins cell; the sharp sound of the key in the lock alerting Vin to his presence. Vin scurried across the floor of the cell, pinning himself to the bars by Chriss feet, crying out in fear as Nathan moved towards him.
In the other cell Chris jumped as the sound of Vins distress reached his ears. Disorientated he reached for his gun. It wasnt at its place on his hip. Opening his eyes he blinked at the sight before him. Vins tearful eyes pleaded silently with him.
Nathan was reaching out to try and touch the tracker, his voice soft and almost lost under Vins urgent whimpering.
"Aint gonna hurt ya. Come here Vin, lets get ya outta here." He touched Vins shoulder with his fingertips. The tracker shied away from the contact, clinging to the bars as he banged his forehead against the cold steel, the sound in his throat reaching a new level.
Chris cursed and glared hard at the healer,
"Let him be!" he snapped, "Back off!"
Nathan straightened and glared down at the gunslinger,
"Whatcha do this for?" His eyes accused Chris of the worst cruelty.
"Had to!" Chris fought back, "Had no choice." He struggled off the bunk as Nathan stepped up to the tracker, squaring up to the healer through the bars.
"I said leave him!" Chris growled over the strangled half sob-half scream Vin was now emitting. Nathans solemn eyes studied him, then he shook his head.
"Caint do that! Whats got into ya Chris? Vins hurtin." He leaned over the trembling form, gently hushing him and asking him to stand. Vin pushed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets and wailed, the sound sending Chris into a crazed strike. He thumped and kicked the bars, getting both mens attention,
"I mean it Nathan!" Chris shouted, "Leave him be!" As the angry words carried across the cells Vin flung his whole body to the floor, sobbing loudly as Nathan and Chris glared at each other.
"You uncaring bastard!" Nathan said in a quiet, dangerous voice. He saw the gunslinger flinch as his words hit home and unafraid of the consequences the healer continued,
"Why bring him back if yaint bothered about him?"
Something broke in Chris then and Nathan would later swear hed hurt the impenetrable man at that moment. Chris stormed from his cell and into Vins, pinning the healer against the bars with a thud. He pushed his arm across Nathans throat and snarled into his face,
"Damn you Nathan," he growled, "Hes in here for his own good." He stepped back, releasing the healer as his anger evaporated. Lowering his eyes to the sobbing tracker he sighed then got to his haunches, his hands gently tugging Vins fists from his face.
"Look at him Nathan," he said humbly, "Really look at him."
Vin sat up as bid by the gunslinger and Nathan got his first good look at his friend. He cursed softly under his breath as Chris gently parted the black duster so the healer could see the state Vin was in. Vins fear filled eyes searched Chriss face but he didnt cower, just trembled as Chris wiped away the tears with the back of his hand.
The black man hadnt considered Vins appearance before now, only his confinement. But as his eyes travelled over the frail creature he understood something of Chriss pain. He hunkered down by the gunslingers side, horrified to see Vins metal collar and chain and the pathetic excuse for clothing. Swallowing down bile as unwanted memories surfaced Nathan asked angrily,
"What the hell happened to him?"
Chris shook his head, "Dont know. Found him outside Purgatory, runnin wild." The gunslinger stroked Vins hair, making a soft, comforting sound in his throat that helped settle the tracker as Nathan edged closer, "Hes outta his mind."
"That why ylocked him up?" Nathan asked, carefully following Chriss lead and touching Vins arm, stroking his trembling flesh until the tracker stopped panicking and accepted the contact, though he never stopped being afraid.
"Yeah," Chris whispered, "Hell run first chance he gets," he sighed, rubbing his eyes with his free hand.
"Id like to get some water into him fore he rests," Nathan said quietly, "Why dont ya get some sleep while I talk to him?"
Chris glanced up at the healer then turned his attention to his friend,
"Vin." He turned the trackers chin until Vin had to look at him. "Nathan is a friend. Do you understand?"
Vin stared at his new master, his eyes wide as he digested the gunslingers words. Chris sighed, tried again. "Vin, Nathan is my friend." He turned and patted the healers shoulder, shook his hand; "Id like you to let Nathan help." He took hold of Vins wrists as the tracker tried to squirm away,
"Vin please!" The plea was heartfelt. Vin turned to gaze into Chriss face, then he looked up at Nathan, fresh tears spilling over his lashes.
Nathan heard Chris moan low in his throat and knew the gunslingers delicate hold on his temper was beginning to fray. He pulled Chris to his feet and guided him to the cell door,
"Go lie down. Ill do what I can for him then lock him in the cell."
Chris stopped in the cell doorway as Nathan slipped past him to gather his canteen. He was tired and stressed out and just needed to crash out. Behind him, Vin began a soft lament, rocking on the balls of his feet as he huddled into the black duster. Seeing the healer approaching Chris turned back to the empty cell and stumbled to the bunk, throwing himself onto the hard mattress. He closed his eyes, sinking into the darkness. Far away he could hear Vins plaintive cries as Nathan tried to soothe him but Chris didnt stir, he was too damned tired.
Nathan sat back on his haunches and gave the tracker a moment to compose himself. Hed tried unsuccessfully to get him to take water. Each time the healer moved close Vin would begin to injure himself, by either banging his head against the bars or as now, running his nails through his hair and drawing blood. The sight greatly disturbed the healer, with each gesture Vin revealed more and more of his ordeal to the ex-slave. Eventually Nathan started to understand. He left the cell and returned with a dish and pouring a measure of water into the shallow bowl, he held it out to the shivering man. Vin eyed him warily but the temptation was too great. He pushed himself forward onto his knees and taking a last look at the gentle face before him, leaned forward to drink from the bowl in Nathans hands. Nathan filled the dish three times before Vin had satiated himself. Licking the refreshing liquid from his lips, Vin gazed at the man who in his mind had replaced Mano. Nathan smiled sadly and standing up offered his hand to the tracker,
"Come Vin, I know what ya want." The voice was gentle, inviting. Vin reached up and placed chilled fingers in Nathans warm hand. He was frightened but knew in his mind that this man would not hurt him. Hesitantly he let Nathan lead him to the adjacent cell, stopping by Chriss bunk.
"Lie down," Nathan told him, helping the tracker onto the bunk behind the stirring gunslinger.
Chris moaned softly in his throat as he came too, blinking as he saw Vin settling down by his side. He turned to Nathan, a question on his face.
Nathan shrugged, "He needs to be with ya." He saw the doubt in Chriss eyes and pressed on, "Yall got him this far Chris, dont give up on him now. I want the pair of yto rest, then tomorrow well decide how we gonna get Vin right."
Chris shifted his arm so Vin could rest his head against his shoulder. Looking down at the young man curled up by his side he sighed,
"He thinks Im his master." Hurt eyes fixed the healer, "How am I supposed to deal with that?"
Nathan shook his head,
"I dont rightly know just now. But Ill sleep on it." He spread a blanket over the two men, tucking it around Vin whos arm had crept over the gunmans chest.
Looking down he could see Chriss eyes closing. Picking up Chriss gun-belt Nathan straightened and whispered,
"Gonna lock ya in now then go take care of yer horse. Ill see no-one disturbs ytil mornin." He stepped away, uncertain hed been heard.
"Thanks," Chris mumbled, then added, "Nathan?"
The healer turned, the two mens eyes met,
"I was wrong to fly at you the way I did. I know youre worried for Vin."
Nathan nodded grimly,
"Yeah, I guess we all are," he whispered, raising a hand in a parting salute before he locked the cell door and left.
Alone in the jailhouse now Chris pulled his friend closer and gazed into the sleepy blue eyes.
"I owe you an apology too." He smiled softly, watching the younger man respond in kind. Chris wiped the last of Vins tears away with his free hand then stroking Vins upper arm watched as his injured friend gave in to sleep. Relieved to see the tracker at peace at last Chris eased his aching body and closed his eyes. Soon he was snoring softly.
+ + + + + + +
Buck Wilmington bustled into the jailhouse, angry at only just being informed of Chris return with an ailing Vin Tanner. Hed ignored Josiahs pertinent remark that no one had wanted to intrude on his romantic interlude with the delightful Mrs. Ashton.
Storming out of the saloon, where Josiah, Nathan and a black-eyed Ezra were eating an early breakfast and disregarding Nathans warning about Chris wanting to spend some time alone with the tracker, Wilmington had strode across to the jailhouse in great haste.
"Dammit Chris! I only just " Buck stopped mid sentence, astonished to find Chris locked inside one of the cells with what looked like some half breed Indian curled up on the cot beside him. "Chris! What you my God! Vin!"
Before Chris could call out a warning, Buck picked up the keys from the desk and was opening the cell door,
"Vin! Boy, is it good to see you!" he bellowed in his usual loud way.
Waking up to the noise, Vin opened his eyes and saw a large, moustachioed man, striding towards him.
The moustache and loud voice were enough to send him scurrying into the corner of the cell, hands held out in self-protection.
"Vin?!" Buck was horrified at the collar and chain: and even more so by the Indian breech. What had happened to their tracker? Crouching down before the terrified man, he was astonished when two hands fastened onto his shoulders and dragged him clear of the cell.
"Stay away from him!" Chris yelled angrily as Buck pulled himself free from the painful grasp and turned to confront Larabee.
"Why? What the hell is wrong with him? Whys he wearin that thing round his neck?" Buck yelled back, angry at Chris treatment of him and saddened by Vins obvious fear. "He gone crazy or somethin?"
"Not crazy . terrified . Of everyone, cept me. Thats why Im keepin him locked up."
At that moment the jailhouse door flew open as Vin, afraid of both men now, sped away from the yelling.
"Now look what you done!" Chris pushed Buck away and ran out onto the street, catching sight of Vin disappearing into the nearest alley.
Buck made to follow, but the gunslinger held him back, "Go get the others! Lets try and corral him fore he escapes town."
"Go Buck, before we lose him "
Without another word, Wilmington ran towards the saloon, his long loping legs covering the ground in seconds.
Larabee shoving by some of the bemused townsfolk followed Vin into the alley, determined not to lose contact with him.
"We tried to warn you, Buck," Nathan grumbled as the men exited the saloon, quickly joined by JD Dunne, the youngest member of the Seven.
"How sir, do you think Ah acquired this?" Ezra asked, pointing to his bruised eye. "Mr. Tanner is a wild creature at this moment and has to be treated with caution."
"That aint true Ezra!" Nathan berated the gambler; "Hes scared of us."
"But why?" Buck asked to no one in particular, as the only person able to answer the question was Vin himself.
Splitting up, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah took one side of Main street, Buck and JD the other, hoping to catch up with Chris.
Lost, alone and afraid, Vin wandered behind the hotel and houses that fronted Main Street, warily looking out for his pursuers. Catching sight of Chris coming around the corner of the alleyway, Vin stumbled behind a large barrel and hid deep in the shadows. Holding his breath as the black clad man passed close by his hiding place.
When he thought it was safe, Vin left the shelter of the shadows and peered towards the direction Chris had gone. Alone once more, he began to close in on himself, having no idea where he was or how to defend himself.
The buildings surrounding him reminded Vin of the town hed escaped from and of his master. Tears started to fall at the memory of the cruel man. He had a new master; the quiet man named Chris. However, his new master had been shouting and yelling, just like the other.
Falling to his knees, Vin wrapped his bare arms around himself and began to sob in earnest, his body shaking with fear. When a small voice whispered his name, he jerked his head up, glancing nervously at the child in front of him.
"Vin! It is you," the boy said with a beaming smile, "Where have you been? Has Chris come back? . Does he know youre here? .Let me get my Momma!" All this was said without the child taking a breath.
Vin watched the boy scamper away, unsettled by all the words thrown at him. He knew the childs face, but from where? To whom did the child belong?
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