Buck wasnt a man to drown his sorrows in a bottle of whisky but his self-esteem had never been so low. Why was Vin Tanner afraid of him? Was Buck so frightening to look at? As he started on the second bottle of whisky, Inez, the lovely Mexican woman whod become a special friend to him, walked over to his table and sat down opposite him.
"Senor Buck, why the sad face? Surely you should be celebrating Senor Vins return?"
"I am Inez. God knows I am." Wilmington gazed earnestly into her beautiful eyes,
"Do I look fearsome to you?"
"Fearsome? No, why do you ask?"
"Vins afraid of me. I know hes scared of us all, including JD. But one look at me and he goes crazy." Buck downed another shot of whisky, "Hell! Chris says Ive got to stay away. Stay away! All I want to do is help."
"Im sure Senor Chris realises that." Inez flicked back her lush mane of hair, "But now is not the time to think of you. I dont think Senor Vin sees you Buck. I think you remind him, represent "
"Bein hurt. Pain. I dont want that." Buck slammed his fist on the table, "I want him to see me as a friend. Someone he can depend upon." He looked intently at the empty glass, considering his options. Should he leave town for a while until Vin settled down or should he confront the tracker? Prove to Vin he wasnt a threat?
Inez could see the battle being played out. The look in Bucks eyes was an open book. But if he should make the wrong decision now, his friendship with Vin and ultimately, Chris would be lost forever.
"I think Senor Vin needs a little more time. Hes so confused."
"Have you seen him?!" Buck asked the young woman sharply.
"No, I took some food over to the jail, but Senor Chris met me at the door. It seems that hes scared of women too."
"What! My God, what did they do to that boy?" Buck suddenly realised the reason for his anger was lack of information. Chris, whenever Buck saw him, never volunteered anything, Josiah was just as secretive. Nathan only commented on Vins physical health not his mental attitude. JD was only allowed to see Vin for the shortest time. Ezra hadnt been allowed near the jail since freeing Vin of his collar. This left Buck and the gambler floundering for any titbit of information they could find.
It had gone on for long enough. Buck slammed the glass down onto the table, "I aim to find out how Vins doin! Chris Larabee dont own him or me!"
"Senor Buck!" Inez tried to hold him back but he shrugged her off easily.
He stormed out of the saloon almost knocking Ezra over. The gambler tidied up his jacket and walked over to the bar, "Did Ah see the jaws of Satan snapping at Bucks posterior?"
"Go after him, before he does something stupid!" Inez ordered, knowing she could twist Ezra Standish around her little finger.
"Why stop him doing something that comes naturally?" Ezra asked calmly as he was manhandled towards the doors.
"Because he is going to confront Senor Chris about Vin! I tried to stop him."
Ezra groaned, he didnt like the idea of coming between the two friends. One would shoot him; the other beat him to a pulp! But what mattered most was Vin. Ezra would find a way to stop the two men, for the sake of the tracker.
Chasing after Wilmington, Ezra caught up with him just as Buck was about to enter the jail.
"Buck, wait! Please contemplate your actions before you become embroiled in a contretemps with Mr. Larabee?"
"Have thought about it Ezra. I just want to know how Vins doin. It aint right, being left in the dark. I care!"
"Ah understand that. Ah too feel the same way, but having words with Mr. Larabee will only exacerbate the tension which in turn will make Vin more distressed."
"Aint listenin, Ezra," Buck shouted as he began to open the jailhouse door, "Chris! I come to see how Vins " He never finished the sentence. Chris fist had connected with Bucks jaw.
Wilmington tumbled back onto the boardwalk in an unceremonious fashion. Ezra sighed as he offered him a hand up.
"Ah did warn you," the southerner said smoothly as Buck rubbed his aching jaw.
Chris exited the jail, closed the door behind him and glared at the unfortunate Wilmington.
"What the hell are you playin at Buck?" The gunslinger recognised drunken anger, having suffered from it on many occasions.
"It aint right, keepin Vin locked away in there. I just want to se how hes doin. Boys been back home nearly a week, and I aint had chance to talk ta him yet."
"You know whatll happen if he takes one look at you," Chris replied evenly, his own temper quieting. "Im sorry Buck. I know how you must feel."
"No you dont! People are lookin at me as if Im responsible fer Vins predicament. As if Im a ."
"Pariah?" Ezra answered helpfully.
"Yeah, pariah. Whatever that is!"
"It wont be forever, Buck. Hes gettin " Chris stopped. The look that Buck and Ezra gave him was full of disbelief. The blond shook his head, "Youre right. He aint no better. Just wishful thinkin."
"Ah think Buck would feel less aggrieved if he was kept informed of Mr. Tanners condition on a more regular basis. Ah know Ah would find it suitable."
"Very well. From now on, either me or Josiah will tell ya how Vins doin" Chris held out his hand, "Truce, Buck. For Vins sake."
Buck was astounded. Hed never known Chris concede so easily. He reached out and shook Larabees hand; "Very well. So hows he doin at the moment?"
"Still scared. Hidin away all the time. Josiah keeps him entertained with bible stories. Dont know if Vin understands them."
"But hes listenin."
"Yeah, Buck. Hes listenin. Id better get back," Chris said as he returned to his friend. Buck and Ezra made their way back to the saloon. Ezra to take his usual place at the poker table; Buck to apologise to Inez.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stepped from the jailhouse and slowly closed the door. Outside the townsfolk were carrying on their duties as if nothing were amiss. He watched them dispassionately, feeling the heat gathering under his collar as his anger took hold. Without Vin to talk to he had no way of reasoning this one through, his thoughts turned to Buck. Where the hell would the man be? He didnt hear Mrs Potters enquiry about Vin. Attuned only to his destination, he strode towards the saloon.
He pushed open the saloon doors, stopping dead in his tracks. The scent of beer and tobacco mixed with the sounds of laughter and music and made a very cheery scene that Chris felt alien to. He imagined Vins fear should he walk him through these very doors. The more he thought abut it the angrier he became. Over by the bar Buck, JD, Nathan and Ezra were sharing a joke, as if this were a normal day. A day before Vin was brutally tortured. His anger spilled over into action and as rationale deserted him. He overturned the tables in a path to the four men, scattering the clientele in his wake. Protests being ignored; he strode unmolested to the group who was now on their feet. The first casualty, somewhat not surprisingly was Ezra. Chris grabbed him by the vest front and shoved him hard against the bar.
"What the hell are you men doin?" he spat, pushing Nathan away as he tried to defend the southerner.
"Now hold on a dang minute there Chris," Buck began, fending off a blow with his arms, "What the hell are we supposed to be doin?" He pushed the gunslinger hard in the chest, sending him into Ezra, who had just straightened himself. Both men cannoned against the bar, Ezra gasping as the breath was driven from his body. Chris launched himself forward, only to have his arms grabbed by Nathan and Buck,
"Sit down!" Nathan shouted at him in a voice that made the four men jump. He noticed their reaction and quietened, shoving Chris roughly into Ezras chair, "We know yer angry, but this aint no way to help Vin." He looked over at Ezra who was brushing himself down, "Get yself a chair Ezra," he said, staring hard at the sullen Chris, "Well discuss this calmly."
Chris hung his head, his anger spent. It felt good to let the healer take charge of the proceedings. JD was sitting into the seat opposite, shaken by the gunslingers display. Buck squeezed his arm and pushed a drink towards him. Ezra shook his head at Nathans offer,
"Ah need some air," he said, his eyes glaring at Chris back before the southerner strode from the saloon.
Nathan watched him go and sighed. He turned his attention back to Chris,
"We gotta stick together Chris," he said quietly, "How else are we gonna help Vin."
Chris rubbed his chin then looked up, his eyes settling on each of the remaining mens faces. He could see their concern in their eyes, for both Vin and himself. He sighed, a ragged, unsatisfying sound.
"I know," he said, taking the drink Nathan offered him. "Aint easy getting Vin to talk."
"How about lettin someone else have a try?" JD asked, his eyes lowered to cover his nervousness.
"Not yet JD," Chris sighed, unconsciously rubbing at his tired eyes.
"When you last eat?" Nathan asked sharply.
Chris shook his head, hed made sure Vin had eaten but couldnt remember his last meal.
"Well first up thats what ygunna do," the healer insisted, going to the bar to order the gunslinger a hearty breakfast.
Ezra stopped long enough to beg a plate of beans from the hotel then made straight for the jail. He wanted to see the tracker, to satisfy himself that Vin was indeed all right. He opened the door carefully and peered inside. Josiah was snoring softly on the bunk in Vins cell but the tracker was nowhere to be seen. Hed slipped from the bunk as the door opened and was cowering in the gloom. As his eyes adjusted to the light in the jail Ezra saw Vin at the foot of the bunk and called out softly to him.
"Vin?" He got down on his haunches and approached the bars of Vins cell. He saw the tracker press himself further into the wall at his back, trying to vanish into the shadows.
Ezra settled down cross-legged on the floor and balanced the plate on his legs.
"Come now Mr Tanner, Ah have your favourite culinary delight." He licked his lips in an attempt to tempt the tracker, "Beans."
Vin looked up and watched Ezra as he filled a spoon with the beans. His nose twitched and his stomach growled in response to the aroma.
"They are your favourite Vin." Ezra held the spoon between the bars and waved them in Vins line of vision. The tracker cautiously raised his head over the end of the bunk and stared at Ezra.
Vin felt light-headed and confused. The stance of the man by the bars was passive; Vin did not feel threatened. He glanced up at the preacher, Josiah had not been disturbed by the mans arrival, nor did the man seem bothered by Josiahs presence. The beans smelled too good. His mouth watered.
"Good, thats good," Ezra encouraged Vin as the latter slipped from his hiding place and approached Ezras position on his hands and knees. Staying as far back as he could Vin took the spoon between his lips and quickly drew off the food. Ezra watched enthralled as Vin closed his eyes and savoured the juicy morsels.
"Taste good huh?" Ezra whispered.
Vin jumped back as he spoke but quickly returned to the bars when Ezra refilled the spoon. "Ah just wanted to see you," Ezra explained as he fed the tracker, "Mr Larabee does not approve so Ahm afraid Ah had to sneak in here." He watched Vin kneel by the bars and smile softly at his words. Ezra refilled the spoon, watching the juice spill down Vins chin. "Doesnt seem right he keeps you incarcerated here." He took out a handkerchief and dabbed at his own chin before offering it through the bars to Vin. "You have juice on your chin," he said.
Vin gathered the white square in his fingers and rubbed it against his chin. He looked down at the handkerchief, now stained with the juice. Slowly he tucked the material into the waistband of his pants. Ezra watched him, his eyes gentle as he studied his friend.
Vin understood the look and relaxed slightly. He reached through the bars to touch Ezras patterned silk vest, something stirred at the back of his mind.
"Who Are you?" he asked, his voice husky from lack of use.
Ezras eyes saddened, he placed the plate and spoon on the floor and slipped a deck of cards from his waistcoat pocket. The movement had Vin draw back his hand and make ready for flight.
"Fear not Mr Tanner," Ezra said gently, "Ah merely wish to offer you a form of stimulant. Do you know what these are?" He offered the cards through the bars but realising Vin would not take them he spread them on the cell floor, withdrawing his hand from them. Vin gazed at the cards in fascination, brushing their surface with his fingertips before selecting one which he held up to the bars.
"Ace of spades," he said with wonder, then looking at the gambler he smiled, "You are Ezra."
Ezra smiled with relief, "Thats right. Ezra Standish at your service sir," he said with a flourish.
Vins smile widened. He was acquainted with this man, hed remembered that much. He reached through the bars and touched Ezras hand
"What are you doing!" a voice from the doorway demanded. Caught in their reunion both Vin and Ezra jumped, Vin shying away to hide behind the bunk once more. On the bed Josiah snorted and sat up, staring bleary eyed at the two men before him.
Chris strode forward and dragged Ezra to his feet,
"Outside, now!" Chris growled, cutting off any retort the gambler would make by shoving him towards the door.
Once outside Ezra twisted his arm away from Chriss grip and squared up to the man. Chris snarled down at him,
"I told you to stay away from him. I dont want you near him, dya hear!"
Ezras eyes flashed with anger, "Ah hear you," he drawled, "But Ahm not listening. Vin remembers me and Ah intend to visit with him again, soon." He stood his ground as Chris stepped right up to him.
"Dont make me hurt you Ezra," he threatened. Ezra held the stare and was about to retort when Nathan stepped between the two men, pushing them apart.
"Stop this now, the pair of ya." He turned to Chris, "He did nothin wrong, dont go punishing him for caring." His eyes held Chris but the gunslinger was in no mood to back down. He turned on his heel and disappeared back inside the jail.
Nathan looked down at the gamblers angry face and reached over to squeeze his shoulder,
"Come on Ezra, let me buy you a drink." For a moment, he thought the gambler would refuse but he allowed Nathan to turn him away from the jail and direct him towards the saloon.
Chris opened the cell door and strode in. Vin was still behind the bunk, Josiah sitting on the edge of the bed talking softly to him.
"What happened here?" Chris asked, his voice tight with anger.
Vin backed away from Josiah, into the shadows. He clutched something to his chest, something he did not wish to share.
"Whats he got there?" the gunslinger asked.
"Cards," Josiah told him, sensing Chriss anger. Chris nodded then paced the cell, running his fingers through his hair. Josiah got to his feet and crossed the floor to the gunslingers side. He took hold of Chriss arm and looked him in the eye,
"I know ya want some time with him," he said with insight, "But lose that anger first, aint right to burden him with it." He saw his words sink in and accepted the tense nod Chris offered. Josiah turned to Vin, who still cowered in the corner,
"Catch ya later Vin," he said, leaving the cell and locking the door behind him.
As the door closed behind the preacher, the anger drained from Chris. He felt suddenly tired. He turned to where Vin crouched in the corner,
"Will you come out now Vin?" he asked wearily.
Vin stayed put, his eyes flashing despite the darkness.
"Did I startle you?" Chris asked, running his hand over his face.
Vin looked down at his hands, turning the bright cards in his fingers,"Yalways get angry with Ezra," he said.
"Thats right," Chris sighed, slumping down on the edge of the bed.
"Why?" Vin asked, placing his arms along the bottom of the bunk.
"Dont know," Chris admitted, scooting across the bed to lean against the wall, "Aint nothing in it Vin, just sounding off thats all." His words were barely a whisper now.
Vin had to move closer to hear him. The tracker moved around the bunk to sit at Chriss feet. "Are ya angry with me?" he asked.
Chris looked down at his friend, his eyes searching his face, "No Vin."
Vin rested his chin on the gunslingers knee, "Then why am I hurtin?"
Chris gave him a pained look, his voice a faint rasp, "Dont know Vin," he said.
The trackers eyes searched Chriss face. After an age he climbed onto the bunk and curled onto the bed by the gunslingers side, sitting facing the slumped man.
"I know," Vin said, watching Chris glance at him from under his hair. He continued with newly found resolve, "Im hurtin cause you hurtin," he whispered, wrapping his arms around the gunslingers shoulders he drew him to his chest and held him.
Chris closed his eyes, he couldnt find an answer for Vin, and all he could do was lie against Vins chest and let the tracker comfort him.
+ + + + + + +
"There, you look nice and smart for your guests," Josiah said as he gave Vin the once over. The tracker was a wearing a brand-new white shirt and grey pants, with a dark blue neckerchief around his throat, to hide away the telltale signs of the collar and burn marks.
"Guests?" Vin timidly asked the preacher. He was not very happy about the idea, yet afraid to voice his opinion. The only person he wanted to see walking through the door was Chris. He ached each time Larabee left him, even for a short while.
Josiah grinned at the younger man as he brushed Vins hair back and pulled it into a neat ponytail. "Sure, its time you saw some new faces cept this ugly mush and Chris dour stare."
Vin giggled; Josiah could always make him laugh. "Like . You." He touched the preachers face.
"And I like you, son. But you been hidin away in here. Folks are worried about you. Specially this lady."
The colour drained from Vins face. It was a girl coming to see him. That couldnt be. He wasnt allowed to look at girls. "No, cant .."
It was too late to try and explain; the jail door was already opening. Vin shied behind Josiah, burying his face into the big mans broad back.
Chris sighed at Vins shyness as he stood to one side and allowed the two women to enter, followed by JD. "Vin, you got company. Dont go hidin yerself away."
A voice Vin vaguely recognised said gently, "Vin Tanner Ive aged twenty years worryin about you. And I aint got twenty years left!"
Peeping from behind Josiahs back, Vin sighed when he saw the elderly lady. He recognised her face, but couldnt quite put a name to her. But he did know she was a loving woman whod given something back to him. He was about to relax; he then caught sight of the girl standing next to JD. A pretty young girl with a beautiful smile. He shook his head violently; he shouldnt be looking at her, it meant punishment. "No . Go ." His breathing became erratic and he shrank back against the far wall of the cell.
"Vin," Josiah turned to him, "They aint goin to hurt ya. Its Miss Nettie and Casey. Dont ya remember them?"
Vins eyes were focused on the younger woman. She shouldnt be here, his master would be angry. Searching out Chris, whod made his way into the cell, he said shakily, "Dont .. hurt me."
"Why would I do that Vin?" Chris was just about to ask Nettie to leave when the old woman came bustling in behind him.
"Let me get to my boy," she huffed as she passed Chris and Josiah and unflinchingly took Vin in her arms.
Vin froze completely as he felt the womans arms go around him, then the familiar scent of fresh bread, honey and lemonade pervaded his senses and he recognised her as a friend. "Net .. tie ."
"Thats my name, son. Now why are you so afraid of me?" she asked as she led Vin over to the bunk and sat him down, "And why would Chris punish you?"
Glancing nervously through the bars, Vin could still see the younger woman. She seemed upset and was being consoled by JD. He pointed towards the girl. "I aint caint look . Master make her go "
Not really understanding, but seeing that Casey was upsetting the tracker; Nettie asked her niece to leave.
Caseys eyes watered up, "What have I done?" She loved Vin as a brother and hated to see him hurting.
JD put his arms around the girls shoulder, "Its nothin youve done Casey. Let Nettie and Chris have some time with Vin alone, then maybe well be able to come back in."
Grateful for JDs sensible words and awareness, Nettie waited for her niece to leave. "Is that better Vin?"
"Y .. yes "
Nettie patted his back gently, "Is it all right for me to stay with you? Let Chris and Josiah go for a drink?"
Chris was just about to argue with her when Josiah took hold of his arm and steered him out of the cell, closing and locking it behind him.
"Sorry about that, Miss Nettie, but we still have to take precautions."
"Shame . Now shoo!" Without another thought about the two men, she returned her attention to the young man sitting next to her. "Oh, how Ive missed you." There were tears in here eyes as she stroked Vins gaunt face. Hed lost so much weight she wondered how hed got the strength to walk. She had a soft spot for all of the seven men who protected the town and outlying farms, but Vin was her favourite. Theyd connected immediately and shed become a surrogate mother to him without anything being said.
Vins eyes kept straying to the outer door of the jail. This was the first time hed been left alone with anyone other than Chris or Josiah. Moreover, it was a female!
"Why are you afraid of me, son?" Nettie asked gently.
"Not allowed to . Look at girls "
Nettie snorted at that observation. " Aint been called a girl for many a long year, son."
Vins hands were tightly clenched, his knuckles white. Noticing this, Nettie took hold of them, straightening the fingers out she began to massage them; "Youre all tensed up. So, you werent allowed to look at a female."
"Were there pretty girls there?" Nettie asked, continuing her ministrations.
"One I he was hurting she called out " Vin was finding it difficult to explain. "I didnt touch her!" he said with great agitation, "I didnt "
"No one said you did, son. Is that why Casey scared you? Did you think you were in trouble fer lookin at her?"
"Wouldnt hurt her "
"I know that, and so does Casey. Shes like a sister to you."
"Sure. Shes missed you as much as I have." Anger flaring up at the thought of Vins suffering, Nettie said sharply, "If I ever get my hands on the bastard who did this to you, Ill give him both barrels!"
"Spencer carbine!" Vin smiled nervously at the elderly woman, "You have a Spencer carbine!"
"Damn right I do son!" Forgetting herself, Nettie slapped Vin harshly on the knee. It was enough to send him hurtling into the corner of the cell. "Oh Vin, Im sorry. I didnt mean to hurt you. I was just so pleased you could remember somethin about me." Having the sense not to stand over him, Nettie patted the seat, "Come on back over here. Let Nettie give you a hug." She started to sniffle, "Oh, I am such a fool!"
Vin watched from his corner wondering why she was crying. He didnt like to hear her sobs. It was wrong. Where was Chris? He should be here to stop the tears. What did Chris and Josiah do when he cried? Inching very slowly to the bench, Vin returned to his seat and placed an arm around Netties shoulder.
This time she remembered to take things slowly. Returning the hug, they embraced both crying for each others misery.
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