A Different Man
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight
The serenity of the church as shattered when Chris stormed up the steps and hurled the door open. "Vin!"
The injured man shot out of bed on hearing Larabees harsh voice. The laudanum Nathan had doped him up with slowed his reactions and thoughts. Where was he? Then he remembered; the church.
"Vin, Ive come to visit you!" Chris smiled evilly as he stalked up the centre aisle towards Josiahs living quarters.
Edging towards the side door of the building Vin hoped to escape any confrontation with Larabee, but it wasn't to be. As his hand grasped the door handle a voice behind him said,
"Where you goin pard?"
The tracker turned shakily and was enveloped by Larabees stony glare. "Why ya here, Chris?"
"Worried about you pard. Thought you might need protectin."
"Only from you."
Larabee moved closer. "Why pard, you hurt me. Im concerned about your welfare."
"The other Chris is not you."
"Soundin a mite crazy there."
"Least I aint actin it." Vin replied nervously, well aware he was treading on dangerous ground. His fingers turned the handle and the door opened behind him.
"Thinkin of leavin?"
"Caint fight ya Chris." Vin began to back out of the door.
Larabee picked up a candlestick and hurled it at him. "You come here, now!"
Vin ducked away from the flying missile yet his legs refused to move. "Dont Chris," he begged.
"Dont what? Beat the crap outta you!" Larabee lunged at the younger man, grabbing hold of the sling around Vins shoulder.
Desperate to escape, Vins legs finally kicked into action and he reacted instinctively. He kneed Chris in the groin, gasping with relief when the blond released him as he buckled to the floor.
Fleeing the church, Vin bolted into the street searching for a friendly face. But it was Saturday night; the rest of the towns peace-keepers were busy dealing with drunks and trouble makers.
Vin ran across Main Street and ducked into the livery stables. Finding an empty stall, he hid in its deepest shadows.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee limped out of the church and scanned the area; the tracker was nowhere in sight. Determined to punish the younger man, Chris began to search the alleys and shadows. His anger was about to boil over with frustration when he heard a couple of ranch hands as they rode out of town.
"Damn fool! Scared mhorse half tdeath. Slinkin away in the hay."
"Thought he was one of them gunmen hired tprotect the town?"
"Hah! Reputations aint nothin."
"Looks like he was hidin from someone."
The two men rode on, unaware of the black clad man striding towards the livery stable.
+ + + + + + +
"I know youre in here." Chris spoke softly as he walked by the horses. Vins horse whinnied to him in recognition.
"Hey boy, wheres your owner?" Chris checked the geldings stall; it was empty. "Tanner, Im gettin real angry with you. I only want to talk." He continued the search, finally coming to the last stall, which was empty apart from a huddled figure in the corner.
"Well, well, look what I found."
Vin glanced away from Larabees cold, hard stare as the older man knelt next to him.
"I really dont have time to play hide nseek with you pard." Chris cuffed the injured man across the ear. "Next time I tell you to stay put, do it." There was no need for an added threat, Vin understood perfectly.
"Aint gonna be your punch bag no more." Vin stuck out his chin defiantly. "Chris ya need help. Somethin wrong up here," he tapped his forehead. "Youll end up goin crazy like Hank Connelly."
Larabee grabbed hold of Vins shirt and pulled him forward. "Dont compare me with that senile old fool! I was crazy before. Lettin yall get near me. But no more..." He slammed Vin against the wall, causing the younger man to groan out loud as more pain swept through his already tortured body.
"We were the bigger fools. Thinkin we were followin an honourable man."
"What did honour ever get me? My family killed, my life turned upside down. Now Im protecting a no hope town " Larabee stood up and wandered over to the stalls gate. "Maybe it wouldve been better if the kid had killed me."
"Dont say that Chris."
Larabee turned and snorted at the figure lying in the dirt. "Why not? Least then you wouldnt be as yare now."
"No, Id be worse." Tears trickled down Vins dusty face. "Id be without my best friend."
For a moment Larabees countenance softened and Vin prayed his true friend was returning to him, but an instant later the look was gone.
"Where were you thinkin of runnin to Vin. Lookin fer Josiah?" Larabee smiled mirthlessly. "He your new daddy? Maybe he wont run off and desert you."
"Why. Gettin near the truth?" Chris curled a hand around Vins arm and dragged him out of the stall towards their mounts then shoved him back down into the dirt again. "Nice evenin pard " Wandering over to the horses he asked, "Fancy a midnight ride?"
"Well I do." Larabee swiftly saddled their horses, keeping an ever watchful eye on the tracker. "Surprised yaint tried to escape."
Vin shrugged, "Aint no point is there? Wouldnt get far."
"We feelin sorry for ourselves?" Satisfied that the cinches were tight, Chris returned to the younger man and brutally hauled him to his feet. "We can do this the easy or hard way. Up to you."
Vin cried out in pain, his broken ribs and wrist in agony. "Where we goin?"
"Aint sure yet. Dont worry pard. Aint gonna hurt you much." Chris witnessed exhaustion in Vins pain filled eyes and knew there was little fight left.
"Please Chris "
Larabee smiled cruelly as he cupped Vins chin in his hand. "Are you haulin your ass in the saddle or am I throwin your body over it?"
Having little choice, Vin turned to his horse and struggled on board. He fleetingly considered kicking the animal out of the stable before Chris had a chance to mount his own horse but before he could put his plan into operation Larabee was by his side, snatching the reins from Vins hands.
They turned right as they exited the stable passing close to the church. The building was in darkness; Josiah was still at the saloon with Ezra and Nathan.
Vin gripped the saddle horn with one good hand when Chris upped the paces of the horses once they were clear of Four Corners.
+ + + + + + +
The two men didnt travel far; ending up at a derelict homestead a few miles out of town. Larabee secured Vin to one of the support posts in the abandoned barn, making sure the younger mans injured arm took most of the stress.
Rivulets of sweat trickled down Vins face and spilled onto his torn shirt. He wanted to cry out and beg for mercy, but his stubborn Texan pride wouldnt allow him to wallow in pity. He glanced across at Chris, silently willing the gunslinger to return to normality, yet accepting it was unlikely to happen.
The blond gunfighter lounged casually on the back of a broken wagon, smoking a cheroot, savouring the taste and the moment!
"Lookin pale, pard. If you ask nicely Id be willin to loosen the ropes."
Vin refused to be baited by the older man and turned his head away.
Chris slid from the wagon and walked nonchalantly towards his prisoner. "Aint polite to ignore your host." He moved close behind Vin, whispering in the young mans ear. His tobacco scented breath feathering across Vins skin. "You need to be taught a lesson in good manners."
Vin tensed when Larabees hand trailed across his shoulders and was unable to stifle a cry when his shirt was torn away, exposing his naked back.
Larabee noticed the faint lines across the prisoners skin and traced a finger across them. "Been whipped before," he stated.
"Never by a friend." Vin whispered, hoping to get through to the real Larabee.
"I only punish because I care bout you." Chris replied before moving away to find a suitable piece of leather. A broken piece of harness hanging on the wall furnished him with his instrument of pain. "When I was a kid my Daddy used to take his belt to me." The gunslinger ran the leather through his fingers, "Never did me no harm."
Vin braced himself for the assault to begin; nothing happened. Turning his head slightly he could see Chris, ready to lash out with the strap, yet unmoving. His eyes were unfocused, staring off into the distance. The gunslinger was lost in another place. Vin had been looking for the change.
"Chris Chris, can ya hear me?"
Larabee glanced towards the voice and frowned at the tracker. He walked over to the young man and unfastened the ropes, never once acknowledging his injured friend. Once hed freed Vin, he exited the barn, mounted his horse and rode off, leading the trackers animal.
Vin slid to the ground, his back and arms aching. He heard Larabee ride away and prayed that he wouldnt return. Pain surged through his tormented muscles as the circulation returned. He rested his head against the broken boards of a stall, silently cursing Chris Larabee for this latest torment.
Aint his fault , Vin chastised himself. Its mine fer not speakin out. I deserve everythin I get , he continued to lay blame at his own doorstep. Whatve I done to make ya so mad at me, Chris ?
+ + + + + + +
As Josiah climbed the steps to the church, he sensed someone behind him. Turning sharply, hand resting on gun, he sighed with relief when he saw who it was.
"Chris! Added a few grey hairs to my scalp then. Why you creepin around in the dark?"
Larabee rubbed his fingers across his aching forehead. "Didnt realise I was. Just on my way to see Vin."
"He was sleepin like a baby earlier. Nathan dosed him up with laudanum."
"Aint wantin to wake him," Larabee explained as they silently entered the building.
Sanchez smiled at the gunslinger; Chris was very protective of the younger man. Walking down the aisle towards Josiahs private quarters the men were silent, not wanting to disturb their injured companion.
"Strange..." Josiah frowned at the empty bed. "Probably needed to go to the privy."
"Has he said anythin to you Josiah?"
"No, the stubborn cuss. Whoevers hurtin him must have a powerful hold over Vin."
Chris sat on the edge of the bed and waited for his friend to return. "I keep thinkin it must be someone from his past."
"I think hes stayin quiet because of misguided loyalty."
"Whatever it is, he aint listenin to either of us."
The two men continued their vigil in silence until Chris could no longer wait. "Id best go check on him."
Josiah lit a lamp and passed it to him. "Hope to God he aint passed out. Hell die of embarrassment!"
Chris returned to the church a few minutes later, his face white with anger. "He aint out there! You shouldnt have left him!"
Josiah ignored the accusation in Larabees voice, though he secretly agreed with the sentiment. If anything had happened to Vin, he would be responsible. "No need to panic yet Chris. Maybe hes gone fer a breath of fresh air."
"Thought he was doped up!" Larabee stormed out of the church yelling, "Round the others up! Ill check to see if his horse is still here."
+ + + + + + +
The six men gathered outside the jailhouse. Buck had taken some finding; the boys were never sure whose pillow hed be laying his head on at night. JD had finally recalled the womaniser mentioning a liaison with the auburn haired Cora, the new maid at the hotel, and it had fallen to the youngster to extricate his friend from the young womans embrace.
"Vins horse is still here," Chris told them, once theyd all assembled. "And I cant see him havin the strength to leave town alone."
"He could be collapsed in one of the alleys... " Nathan added, "Weve got to check every shadow."
"Well lets stop jawin then!" Wilmington bellowed, none too pleased at having his romantic interlude interrupted, though not in the least angry at the missing man. "JD, you..."
"Keep the kid with you Buck."
"Thats a waste of manpower Chris. Surely its best if "
Buck was halted again. " He wont do a thorough job on his own."
"Aint arguin Buck! Josiah, start at the church. Nathan the livery stables. Buck, you and the kid start searchin the far side of town."
"And where, may Ah ask would you "
Ezra wasnt surprised by Chris rude interruption. "Outhouses!"
The southerner shrugged. "Why am Ah not surprised." He strode off, determined to avoid another confrontation with the irate gunslinger.
Larabee glared after the gambler, a hint of disappointment in his troubled eyes.
+ + + + + + +
Vin didnt expect Larabee to return, nor did he expect any of his friends to be searching for him. He was tired, hurt and his meagre strength was almost exhausted. Yet somehow he found the grit and determination to begin the journey back towards Four Corners.
The chill night air clung to his thin frame, the torn shirt offering no protection against it. He shuffled along, crying out when he stumbled to the ground, sending more pain through his injured arm.
His thoughts kept returning to the barn and how close hed come to having his hide whipped raw. He wondered about Chris sudden change of mood; what had triggered it? The tracker couldnt think of anything but was grateful for small mercies.
Dawn was about to break when the little town came into view. Vins stomach churned with tension; what new torment awaited him there?
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabees temper spilled over once more when he entered the jailhouse. "Why aint you out there lookin?"
"Where, exactly?" Era asked sharply completely unfazed by the gunslingers glacial stare.
"Dont smart mouth me Standish!" Chris growled as he took a menacing step towards the gambler.
"Chris, were worn out. Just takin a break, thats all." Buck explained as he stepped in between the two antagonists. The long night had affected the most even of tempers. "A cup of coffee to revive us and well be back out there."
"Wont be necessary." Josiah said quietly as he stepped out onto the boardwalk.
The others followed and saw what had caught his attention. Vin Tanner was limping down Main Street and even though the sun was hardly peaking its head above the horizon, fresh cuts and bruises could be seen on the young mans face and his injured arm was hanging loosely. The torn and bloodied sling still tied around his neck.
"Good God Almighty!" Buck yelled, running towards his injured comrade.
"What the hell " Nathan was close behind Buck, with the others hot on their heels.
"Vin!" Wilmington called out the trackers name as Tanner collapsed in his arms.
"Buck ." Vin whispered before his eyes drifted shut.
Nathan ushered the others away. "Give me some room!" He ordered before examining the young man.
Larabee pushed past Ezra and JD, ignoring Nathans demand. He knelt beside Buck, who was still pillowing Vins head against his chest. "Another beatin," he said grimly.
"Dammit Chris, we gotta find out whos doin this."
"I know that!" Larabee seethed.
Vins piercing scream as Nathan investigated the injured arm halted any further comment.
"Looks like its been twisted behind his back. Wonder it aint broken again." Pointing to JD, Nathan ordered the youngster to run over to his clinic for more bandages. "Caint move him til weve secured the arm safely."
Vin became vaguely aware of the people gathering around him. He found it uncomfortable and embarrassing. "Dont mind the pain just get me off the street."
"Youll stay still until Nathan says different." Larabee ordered sternly.
"Why the hell do you care!" Vin spat back, the pain coursing through him making it difficult for Vin to think clearly.
Chris backed off, stunned by his friends outburst. "Im sorry pard, I werent watchin yer back."
Vin swallowed thickly as emotions rose. He wished he had the strength to get on his horse and ride out, forget Four Corners and Chris Larabee. But how could he abandon his best friend? Chris needed help and the younger man was determined to be there for him; he only hoped his body could continue to take the punishment.
Ignoring the worried looks and multitude of questions thrown at him, Vin turned his aching head against Wilmingtons chest and closed his eyes.
Chris Larabee hurt by the snub, stood up and walked away; hed failed once more to protect someone he cared about deeply.
+ + + + + + +
The batwing doors of the saloon swung open and JD hurried over to the bar where Buck and Josiah were having a quiet drink. It had been a long night, but now that they had Vin back with them, the men could relax a little.
"You look agitated son. Is there a problem?" Josiah enquired calmly.
"Didnt Chris say he never left town last night?" JD answered with a question.
Buck frowned as he wiped the beer from his mouth, "Yeah, whats wrong kid."
"Ive been tendin to Vins horse like Ive been doin every mornin since he was hurt, and I noticed that both Vins and Chris horses had fresh saddle marks on them."
"Vins?" Buck glanced across at the preacher. "Someone been ridin Vins horse?"
"Only a foold get on that ornery creature." Josiah remarked.
"How old were these marks JD?"
"Recent. Sweat had hardly dried I asked Yosemite and he said both horses were in their stalls this morning."
The three men moved over to an empty table and continued their discussion in privacy.
"I think we can presume Vin rode out of town last night, and the man whos hurtin him took Chris horse."
"But where did they go? Why let Vin go? Damn, I wish that boyd speak out."
"Maybe its Chris whos hurtin him." JD dared to voice his opinion out loud.
Buck snorted into his beer, while Josiah smiled at the youngster benignly. "John Dunne, what gives you that idea?"
"Hell JD, youve seen how it hurts Chris every time Vin is attacked. Thats the dumbest idea I ever heard."
"Its just a thought. Chris has been actin strange just lately. He was with Vin at the first attack. Maybe he dont know..."
"Ad maybe you dont know what youre talkin about!" Buck spoke with more anger than he intended. JD was a great kid he just didnt always think straight.
"Someone should tell Chris about his horse," Josiah said.
"Dont look at me preacher man! I always get my head snapped off!" JD replied angrily.
Buck cuffed the youngster on the ear good humouredly, his own anger dissipating. "Ill tell him kid " He offered, not looking forward to the encounter either.
+ + + + + + +
Chris frowned in disbelief when Buck told him JDs news about the horses. "Kids wrong." He dismissed the idea completely.
"I aint so sure Chris. JD knows about horses, thats why Vins let him exercise his."
"There yare then! Kids blamin someone else for not taking care of the animal." Larabees stare dared Buck to argue the explanation.
Buck did. "That aint true, and anyway, what about your horse? Someones been ridin it."
"Ill shoot anyone that does," the gunslinger warned coldly. "The kids just stirrin up trouble. Have words with him Buck before I do"
Buck glared after his long time friend when Chris stepped past him to continue his walk over to Nathans.
+ + + + + + +
Vin hadnt promised Nathan hed stay in the clinic, so he didnt feel guilty sneaking out while Nathan went to visit another, more needy patient. He carefully negotiated the stairs, concentrating on making his descent without falling, his one good arm taking all the strain of holding him up. He was so distracted in keeping his balance, he never noticed Larabee waiting at the bottom step.
"Where do you think youre goin?"
Vin startled at the quiet voice and his foot slipped off the next to bottom step. Chris reached out and easily caught hold of him.
"Does Nathan know youre out?" The gunslinger held onto the younger man firmly until hed recovered his balance.
"Im fine. Dont need no fussin. Nathans busy with old Mr. Grainger. Its about his time to pass on."
"Thats not what I asked."
"Didnt promise Nathan Id stay. Caint make me..."
"Where you goin?"
"My wagon, change my clothes." Vin was bare-chested, his tattered shirt thrown out by Nathan.
"Ill help you over there."
"Dont need your help Larabee. Youve done enough already."
Chris grabbed hold of Vins uninjured wrist and squeezed it tightly. "Im sorry I let you down, again. But unless you tell me whos doin this... "
"Caint Chris let me go "
"Youre a stubborn cuss!" Chris released the younger man. "Probably deserve everything you get."
"Probably do." Vin saw the darkness gathering in his friends troubled eyes and expected Chris to attack any moment. It surprised him when the gunslinger backed away.
"You dont have to face this alone," Chris said tenderly.
Vin smiled in resignation. "Youre wrong cowboy, this time you caint watch my back." He left Chris to ponder his words and walked slowly, painfully towards his wagon.
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