A Different Man
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight
Vin wrapped the sodden coat around him and huddled closer against the steps he sat on. He felt wretched and longed to see a friendly face appear from the darkness. No one came and Vin eventually accepted the truth; they werent looking for him.
He cradled his arm against his chest, moaning softly, more from the pain in his heart than his injuries. He felt light headed and the chill breeze drove the icy rain down the back of his neck, causing him to shiver. When had the day turned into this nightmare? The attack had happened so quickly and unexpectedly, just like the first one.
After three days under Nathans care, Vin had finally escaped the cloying sanctuary of the clinic. Vin loved the healer like a brother, but once Nathan got his healing hands on the younger man, he worried like a mother hen. The tracker had promised to be careful and was released into Chris care.
The gunslinger had been so considerate after the episode with the bath, Vin had begun to wonder if hed dreamed it. He couldnt pass the beating off as a dream though, the scars were there to prove it and his broken hand was still encased in a splint. However, Vin was willing to forgive his friend; he was certain thered be no more attacks.
Chris had continued to question Vin about the assault but the tracker insisted he hadnt seen his attacker in the dark.
The day had passed pleasantly enough. The townsfolk were pleased to see the quiet tracker back on his feet. He was popular with most of them, especially the women, both young and old; his shyness attracting them like a magnet.
Nathan and Josiah had ridden out to the reservation. Josiah hoped to continue his deep conversations with Kojay, while Nathan would learn more about native healing techniques.
JD, on Bucks insistence had taken Casey fishing. Buck thought it was in the boys best interest to keep his distance from Chris, especially if the youngster started pestering Vin with his questions. Ezra had ignored Larabees dark glare and had spoken to the tracker at length before making his way to the saloon.
With Buck and Chris watching over the town, Vin had been allowed to sit back outside the jail and idly watch the world go by.
By early evening, hed become bored and decided to take a stroll around town, grimacing with pain as his muscles complained about the work. His walk had finally led him to the covered wagon he called home. Buck waved to him from the far side of the street and Vin had given no thought to Larabee, presuming he was probably back at the jailhouse.
The moment Vin had stuck his head inside the wagon he knew something was wrong, but before he could react, a hand had clamped over his mouth and he was dragged inside. Hed tried to fight back and had managed to turn slightly to see who his attacker was. Although the shadows obscured his assailants face, Vin had no doubt it was Chris. The gunslinger chuckled as he wrapped his other hand around Vins throat and choked him out.
+ + + + + + +
The tracker had woken up confused and hurting. The storm that had threatened for most of the day had finally broken and rain lashed down on his prone body. Unsure of where he was, the injured man struggled to his feet and found himself close to the church. Hed half crawled to the steps before his meagre strength had given way. Vin couldnt remember be beaten, but his aching body spoke loud and clear about the abuse hed suffered.
+ + + + + + +
Contemplating the whisky hed soon be imbibing in the saloon, Josiah extinguished all the candles except one and exited the main door of the church. Hed enjoyed his time with Kojay; the elderly Chief understood him better than he did himself. His balance was unsettled once more due to the attack on Vin.
Josiah liked all of the other regulators, yet he found the unassuming tracker especially endearing.
As the cold rain caught him he shivered and pulled up the collar of his coat. More than one whisky would be needed to keep his body warm tonight he mused as he skipped down the steps, coming to a halt when he saw a figure huddled on the bottom one. He knew the figure well.
There was no response from the younger man, which added to Josiahs concern. Vin was a quiet man, but never ignorant, he should have responded to his name. Sitting down next to the tracker Josiah spoke once more, "Vin?"
The younger man, his face shadowed by his hat, turned to the preacher. "Dont feel good Josiah, think ya can find Nathan?"
Josiah could hear pain in his friends few words. "Lets get ya into church then Ill go fetch him." He helped Vin to his feet, wincing in concerted agony each time Vin hissed in pain. Before they reached the door to the church, Vin collapsed against the big man and Josiah lifted him into his arms and carried him into the building.
He walked down the aisle and into his private quarters, pondering on his friends condition. Had Vin suffered a relapse in his recovery from the attack? He placed the unconscious man on the bed then lit the candle on the bedside table. The flame illuminated Vins face; he hadnt suffered a relapse, hed taken another beating.
The preacher seethed with anger: who was taking pleasure in hurting the unaffected tracker? Struggling to keep his ire under control, Josiah knelt by the unconscious man whispering, "I wont be long." Then he hurried off in search of Nathan.
+ + + + + + +
Vin woke up to the soothing touch of Nathans hands upon him as the healer carefully washed away the dried blood from his face and neck so that he could ascertain the damage inflicted on him.
"Look at the marks on his neck," Nathan was explaining to someone else. "A mans hand did that."
Immobilised by his injured wrist Vin found it difficult to sit up. Another pair of hands gently forced him back down on the bed.
"You aint goin anywhere pard." Larabee said quietly.
Vin opened his eyes wider, the bright blue orbs shining with surprise, "Chris?"
"Whats wrong, didnt you think Id be here once I heard?" Larabees voice hardened when he asked, "Whos doin this to you pard?"
"No time fer questions Chris, not til Ive fixed Vin up." Nathan began to unfasten the buttons of Vins red shirt. The jacket had been removed while he was unconscious.
The trackers one good hand stopped him. "What you doin?"
"Need to check you fer new injuries."
"Took a couple tthe belly, thats all. Im fine."
"Dont argue with the Doc, Vin. Shuck off your clothes." The look Chris bestowed on the younger man brooked no argument and Nathan sighed with relief when Vin removed his hand and allowed the examination to continue.
Josiah hovered in the background, boiling up water in case it was necessary. None of the others were present. Ezra continued to player poker in the saloon, unaware of the attack while JD and Buck patrolled the streets searching for any clues.
When Chris saw the new batch of bruises adorning Vins body his calmness snapped. Reaching down he grabbed hold of Vins upper arms snarling, "Tell me who did this?!"
"I it was dark "
Hearing the nervousness in Vins voice Josiah gently warned Chris to free the younger man.
"Your anger aint helpin Chris. Why not take a walk, come back when the Docs finished."
"I want to find the bastard who did this before he has a chance to escape!"
Nathan, continually monitoring Larabees moods suggested he go and ask questions around town, maybe someone had heard the attack taking place.
Suitably placated by the idea, Chris left the church after promising Vin he wouldnt be long.
The sense of relief by the three remaining men was palpable and Josiah noticed the fear in Vins expressive eyes receding.
"Chris is angry cause he aint able to stop these attacks," the preacher explained.
"I know that Josiah, but it were my own fault. I let my guard down." Vin winced as Nathan continued to probe the bruised flesh.
"Proves one thing, the first attack was not capricious in its nature. You were the intended victim and Chris got in the way."
"Guess yer right." Vin answered carefully; well aware of Josiahs perceptive nature.
"No more broken ribs " Nathan said aloud, only half listening to the conversation between the Vin and Josiah, "Well get you cleaned up then if Josiah dont mind Id like you to rest up here fer a coupledays."
"Coupledays! I got things need tendin to Nathan. Ill be better come mornin."
Nathan sincerely doubted it and voiced his opinion, loudly. "Vin Tanner! You do as I tell you! Aint takin care of you fer my own health. Should never have let you out of the clinic in the first place!"
"Best if you stay here Vin. Your attacker might still be out there," Josiah reasoned gently.
Vin was torn between laughing and crying. How could he tell the two men that his attacker would soon be walking back into the church? That Chris Larabee was the man hurting him. They wouldnt believe him, and Chris would deny it. "Nathan, hows Chris doin?"
"Chris?" Nathan was confused by the turn in conversation, "Physically hes on the mend, but "
The healer hated discussing Larabees mental condition without Chris consent, but the situation wasnt getting any better. "The mood swings aint improvin. Im specially worried for JD and Ezras safety. Hes always snappin at em."
"What makes him act like that?" Josiah asked.
"Dont rightly know. I aint no head doctor. Im hopin hell come right, cause Chris is a dangerous man when hes outta control. Id hate him to hurt someone without him realising it."
"Is that possible?" Vin asked as he attempted to pull himself into a sitting position.
"Yeah, anythin is possible. Like you stayin here, tomorrow!" Nathan replied with a smile. "No more talkin Vin."
The young tracker, deep in thought, allowed Nathan and Josiah to continue their work without anymore interruptions, yet occasionally hed glance towards the door, nervously awaiting the gunslingers return.
+ + + + + + +
It was past midnight before Chris called back at the church. Nathan had returned to his clinic, his work finished. Josiah, having given up on the idea of a whisky night cap at the saloon had made himself reasonably comfortable on one of the pews while Vin slept in the only bed.
Hearing the church door open, Josiah sat up, gun in hand. "Oh, its you " The gun was lowered and the preacher swung his long legs onto the floor.
Chris walked over and sat next to him. "Ill take a watch if you want to get some sleep."
"Thanks fer the offer Chris, but you aint fully recovered yet. Ill be fine Vins asleep now."
"Good." Chris leaned forward, resting his arms upon his legs. "Ive been askin around. Nobody saw anythin."
"It has to be someone known to Vin, else he wouldnt have got near Brother Tanner."
"Have to agree with you there. But who? He aint mentioned anyone from his past bein in town."
"He wouldnt tell us " The preacher explained seriously, " cause he knows what the consequences would be."
"Damn right too." Chris ran a hand along his thigh, his fingers twitching at the thought of finding Vins abuser.
"Well have to be patient and wary."
"Dont worry Josiah, from now on Vinll never be left alone. Whether or not he likes it." Chris stood up, idly scratching at the scar on his head. Wandering over to the door that led to Josiahs quarters he peeped inside, staring at the sleeping man for a few minutes before turning to smile at the preacher. "Watch over him Josiah."
"With my life, Chris."
Nodding to the older man, Larabee walked out of the church and Josiah attempted to find a more comfortable position on the pew.
+ + + + + + +
Half way down the poorly lit street, Chris gasped in agony and raised his hands to his head, violently rubbing his temple. He tumbled into an alleyway, throwing up the contents of his stomach. A few moments later he walked back onto the street a cold glint in his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish walked sharply towards the hotel. Hed had a good evening at the poker table and had come away with considerable winnings. Whistling softly to himself, he was surprised when Chris stepped out in front of him.
"Mr. Larabee!" Since Chris accident, Ezra had noticed a sublime change in the gunslinger. Chris had never been overtly friendly towards the gambler, now he was just unpleasant.
"You sound nervous Ezra. Got a guilty feelin?" Chris challenged the southerner.
"Why should Ah?" Ezra was aware that the injury Chris had sustained in the gunfight was causing him to act disagreeable, but it didnt mean he had to suffer the brunt of the gunslingers sullen attitude.
"Sure you aint been cheatin?"
"Ah do not have to cheat sir to defeat the local talent," Ezra replied harshly, bristling at Larabees taunts.
"Better not be or Ill run you out of town."
The warning took Ezra by surprise; hed not expected Chris fury to extend that far.
"And stay away from Vin!" Larabee added unreasonably.
"Mr Tanner? What have Ah done to you sir that would take away one of the true friendships Ah have?"
"Hes been hurt and youre one of the suspects."
"Vin! Hurt again! Where is he?" Ezra Standish decided to ignore the remark about him being a suspect; it was too ridiculous to consider.
"Dont pretend you dont know. Hes been beaten up. Josiahs watchin over him at the church."
"Beaten again." Ezra pushed by the gunslinger and began to hurry towards the church, momentarily forgetting Chris warning. A bullet kicking into the dirt by his feet brought him to a standstill.
"You aint goin nowhere near him!" Larabee yelled. "In fact if I were you Id seriously consider leavin town."
Ezra turned to face the blond. "Why should Ah be forced to leave Four Corners? You do not own this town sir, nor do you speak for the majority of its residents."
"This gun gives me all the authority I need," Chris warned.
Standish glared at Chris defiantly. If he gave into the gunslinger now, how would he face Vin or the others? Would it prove him a coward? It was time to stand up to Larabee.
"Ah sir am going to walk over to the church and look in on my good friend Mr. Tanner. If you find it necessary to shoot me in the back, so be it." His green eyes never wavered from Chris cold stare; he was determined not to show his inner fear. Larabee was quite capable of shooting him in the back, but it wouldnt look good for Chris reputation if he did so.
Turning sharply, Ezra resumed the short journey towards the church, expecting at any moment to feel a deep searing pain in his spine, but it never came and as he entered the building, he breathed out a sigh of relief.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah groaned. He accepted that the house of God was open to everyone at any time but did they have to visit at such un-Godly hours!
"Ezra, Vins sleepin. Im tryin to rest. Couldnt you have waited 'til mornin?"
"Ah only just heard about his injuries. Josiah, Ah will not wake him. Please, just a few moments."
The preacher relented. Ezras concern was touching. "Go, but be quiet. If Vin wakes up " The threat, given with a smile, was left unsaid.
"Ahll be as quiet as the proverbial mouse." Ezra promised, slipping into the back room. He knelt down next to the bed, unable to stop from reaching out and stroking Vins hair away from his face. "No one is going to stop me from guarding you " he whispered to the sleeping man.
Josiah, disturbed by the silence, followed the southerner into the room a few minutes later; smiling when he saw the gambler curled up on a rickety old chair by the window.
"Gonna turn your house into a hotel, God." Josiah whispered to himself when he returned to his equally uncomfortable pew. "Vin Tanner, you do bring out the best in everyone." Wondering who was going to be the next midnight caller, the preacher fell into a restless sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Vin listened to the sound of his own breathing, acutely aware of the stillness in the room. He knew Chris was sitting by his bedside but the gunslinger had not moved for more than ten minutes.
Calm before the storm . The tracker thought morosely. He opened his eyes and found he was being watched. Stalked, like the hunter with his prey. Vin held his breath, afraid of the mood the man beside him was in.
Chriss eyes crinkled in the corners as he smiled. Vin knew this smile, could tell it apart from the cold sneers the gunslinger had taken to giving. When Chriss eyes crinkled like that Vin was safe. He expelled the held breath. "What ya doin?" he asked, unable to hide the tremor in his voice.
"Watching you," Chris told him in a warm, caressing tone.
"Why?" Vins eyes widened as the gunslinger reached down to touch his cheek.
"Got me worried pard."
"Im alright," Vin said unconvincingly, unable to meet his friends eyes.
Chris sighed, he knew the tracker was hiding something from him but realised he had to be patient. Vin had been badly shaken by the turn of events. He stood up and crossed to the tin bath Josiah had filled for him. The water had cooled enough for Vin to take the bath Nathan insisted he needed.
Vin watched Chris testing the water and knew what was coming. He pulled the blankets closer, balling his good fist in the fabric. "Dont need no bath," he told Chris, his voice shaking. "Last one didnt do me no good."
Chris sat on the edge of the bed and studied Vins face, unnerving the tracker even more. Vin hit out. "Why dont yall just leave me alone," he spat, shying away from the hand that reached out to him.
"Vin, Vin," Chris soothed. "Aint askin you to do anything cept sit in the tub."
Vin crept up the bed, away from Chriss touch. "Like before?" He asked, "Damned near froze to death!"
Chris drew back, his eyes filled with shame. "Youre right," the gunslinger whispered, "Ill get Josiah "
"No wait!" Vin stopped him; he couldnt bear to watch his friend suffer because of his words, despite the consequences. "Im sorry," he told Chris, "Ill take that bath." He eased the blankets aside, wincing as he tried to ease off the bed.
"Stay still," Chris told him, slipping one arm around the trackers shoulders, the other under his legs; "Ill take you."
"Too heavy " Vin gasped through the pain as his battered legs lay against Chriss arm. He clung to the front of Chriss shirt with his good hand, squeezing his eyes shut. Dont hurt me Chris , Vin silently pleaded.
"I wont hurt you," Chris told him fondly, lifting him clear of the bed.
Vin realised his words had been spoken out loud. He bit his lip, forcing any further thoughts deep down inside.
Chris placed his charge carefully in the tub then straightened, testing his back as the muscles in his arms protested at the lift. "Guess youre heavier than you look." He smiled down at the man in the water.
Vin glanced up, looking small and frail as he sat in the tub, his body tense. Dark bruises stained his pale flesh, each one testament to the gunslingers failure as protector.
Chris touched the trackers tangled hair, thumbing it back from his forehead. He felt the tremors that wracked Vins body and was sad. "Let me get you cleaned up," he said, dipping a bowl in the bath water before pouring it over the trackers head.
Vin remained silent, head bowed as Chris lathered his hair and began to wash it. On another day, Vin mightve felt some pleasure at the act but right now, his nerves were on edge, his body ready for the assault his mind told him was coming.
Chris massaged the trackers scalp with his fingertips, carefully untangling the curls before rinsing and squeezing the excess water from his locks.
Chris reached for a fresh bucket and poured warm water over Vins bruised shoulders. The tracker shivered uncontrollably as he remembered the last time. He jumped as Chriss hand stroked his spine and stared wildly into concerned green eyes as Chris knelt by the side of the tub.
"Youre shakin." Chris stroked the back of Vins head, the touch light and comforting but Vin was afraid. He froze under Chriss fingers, gasping as the gunslinger wrapped his arms around him and drew him to his chest. "Hell Vin I dont know how to help you." He pushed damp curls away from the trackers face and cupped his jaw; "You gotta talk to me pard."
Vin buried his face in Chriss shirt, he felt totally wretched. "Dont spoil this with questions," he whispered, shivering as he awaited the gunslingers response.
Chris sighed and straightened, releasing the younger man from his embrace.
Vin stared at the water, afraid that the madness would return to his friends eyes. After a moment, Chris gathered up the wash cloth and after dipping it into the warm bath water began to wash the trackers back, chest and arms. Vin closed his eyes, his emotions raw as he revelled in the gentle care bestowed on him, as if he were precious.
Aint precious to nothing and no-one . Vin realised with bone jarring clarity. Shadows dont go settlin in towns , he decided, Shouldve moved on long time ago .
Cool fingers touched his brow making him jump, breath cold against his damp cheek brought him back to reality. "Youre lookin pale Vin." Chris told him, "Are you feelin sick again?"
"No," Vin said blinking rapidly as he tried to pull his thoughts together. He turned his face away from the gentle, enquiring glance.
"Aint never known you like this before," Chris told him, placing a warm towel around the shivering mans shoulders.
Vin huddled into the warmth, unable to find his tongue.
Chris shrugged then straightened. "Those questions again," he smiled, offering his hands to the injured man.
Vin accepted the outstretched hands and with great effort managed to stand up in the tub. The room swayed uneasily but before he could fall Chris gathered him up in his arms and carried him back to the bed.
Vin moaned softly as he was carefully dabbed dry to avoid tearing the worst of his wounds, he tried to turn away but Chris stopped him.
"Ill help you onto your pillows, sides hurt bad Vin, best you stay on your back."
Vin pulled away from his touch, shrinking into the pillows as Chris helped him into a sitting position. The gunslinger blurred and receded before Vins eyes, he clung to Chriss vest,
"Why ya doin this?" he gasped, shivering as Chris stroked his jaw.
"I want to help. Hate seein you hurtin like this."
The gentle words caressed Vins aching heart, too much for the tracker to bear. He made a strangled sound, a cry of pain, and found himself cradled in Chriss arms and rocked like a baby.
Chris, Chris is that really you ? He pleaded silently into Chriss shoulder, Tell me the demon sleeps, Im so afraid .
"Hush," Chris told him, his voice breaking, "Try to rest, I got you."
Vin shivered again, had he spoken out loud? He burrowed down into the haven hed found and sighed deeply. "So tired," he said simply, closing his eyes.
"Hush," Chris said again, pulling the thick woollen blanket around Vins slight form.
"Feel safe now," Vin mumbled into Chriss shirt, accompanying the statement with another sigh.
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