A Different Man
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight
Chris Larabee couldnt remember the ride out to his cabin, stabling his horse; or drinking the bottle of whisky that was tipped on its side by the bed. These lapses in memory were frightening. His last, vague recollection was talking to Ezra, but how long ago had that been? His anger towards the gambler was intensifying and left unchecked Chris knew hed physically hurt Standish.
He picked up the empty bottle and stared at it, blaming the liquor for his predicament.
The constant pounding in his head didnt help the situation. Hed ask Nathans advice about easing it. There was also a rancid smell pervading the small cabin, making Larabees stomach churn. Had he killed something or.someone; and their carcass was rotting close by?
The blond lurched from his prone position on the bed and staggered to the door, flinging it open to allow the foul air out. He walked out onto the porch, filling his lungs with sweet smelling country air, only to discover the cloying stench still clung to him. He glanced down at his clothes, they were covered in dubious looking stains, with small pieces of rotting meat and vegetables attached to them.
"What the?" Chris sniffed at his jacket lapel and retched. "Somebody die on me or somethin?" He muttered, tearing of the jacket vest and shirt.
The smell remained; there was no other choice, Larabee returned to the cabin, gathered fresh clothes, soap and a towel then headed towards the stream that backed onto his property.
When Chris returned to the cabin an hour later he felt refreshed and the headache had eased a little. He smiled when he saw Buck and Nathans horses tethered to the hitching rail.
"Howdy boys!" he said brightly, sauntering through the door. His smile fading when he saw his friends scowling faces. "Whats wrong. Is there a problem?" His thoughts immediately went to Vin. "Has Vin been hurt?"
Without warning Buck lunged forward and knocked Chris to the ground. "Dont pretend ya dont know!" The ladies man snarled. "Vin told us, after you attacked Ezra!"
"Ezra? Vin told you what?" Chris rubbed his aching jaw as he got to his feet. "Nathan, whats goin on?"
"Its been you, all along hurtin Vin. Then two nights back you attacked Ezra. Vin felt guilty." The black man shook his head, " Hes been protectin you Chris, all along. I shouldve guessed. Those times your knuckles were raw; we thought youd been hurt tryin to protect him "
"Id never hurt Vin " Larabee couldnt believe what he was being accused of. It wasnt true; why would Vin lie?
"Is that why ya blinded him?" Buck grabbed hold of Chris and slammed him against the wall. "Blind, Chris ...aint sure if hell see again."
"Vin blind " Larabee forced Wilmington away. "I have to go "
"No you dont, you aint goin anywhere near him again." The ladies man struck the gunslinger again and a vicious fight ensued.
Nathans own anger erupted. His place was back in town, tending to his sick comrades, not refereeing a fight between two stupid, pig-headed idiots!
He considered trying to part the combatants physically, but decided it wasnt worth the risk. He took out his gun and fired it into the cabins roof.
"Thats enough! The both of you," he hauled Buck outside. "Stay here!"
"You tell him !" Buck prodded Nathans chest, " he aint wanted no more, and if I see him, Ill "
"Hes hurt too Buck!" Nathan sharply reprimanded Wilmington before returning to Larabee.
Chris had struggled over to the table and started drinking another bottle of whisky.
"That aint the answer Chris. You need help."
Larabee glanced at the healer. "This is all the help I need."
Nathan immediately noticed the change in Chris demeanour. If only Buck hadnt lost his temper, the healer would have had chance to talk with the real Chris Larabee, not the one before him, the one possessed by demons.
"Why did you come out here Nathan. Were you hopin Id show some remorse?"
"Theyre your friends Chris and deep down inside you know youre wrong to hurt them."
"Theyre lyin, so are you."
"Buck saw you holdin a knife to Ezras throat!"
Chris contemplated the half empty bottle, "Scarin him, thats all. Hes a coward Nathan, we dont need his kind."
"And Vin? Whats he done to deserve punishment?"
"Nothin." For a moment, Chris visage softened and Nathan could see the true Larabee, but before he could reach out to his friend, the mask returned. "Ive been teachin him a lesson."
"Hes blind Chris! What does he learn from that?" Nathan made one last effort, "Even if his sight does return hell be lost if you aint around. Hes takin the blame for everythin. Thats an awful burden to bear."
"Hell cope." Chris carried the bottle over to the bed and stretched out, "Kinda tired Nathan."
"I caint stop you comin to town, but my warnin the same as Bucks. Stay away from them, includin JD."
"Dont worry Nathan, Im movin on. Another town ."
"Another bottle." The handsome black man shook his head sadly. He owed Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner his life. Was he about to lose both of them? "See you around Chris." Nathan exited the cabin, closing the door behind him.
Buck was already in the saddle; he hadnt expected the healer to work a miracle. Nathans dejected expression was its own answer. "You tried Nathan, which was more than I was willin to do."
"What do I tell Vin?"
+ + + + + + +
Vin heard the door to the clinic open and presumed it was Josiah returning. The preacher had been watching over him and Ezra while Nathan was absent. Vin had asked about the healers whereabouts, only to be answered by a vague comment that Nathan was visiting a patient. Buck had also gone missing and Vin concluded that both men had gone searching for Chris.
Vin had wanted to be alone for a while and had managed to convince Josiah to give him the time required. His friends hovering over him had overwhelmed the tracker; he understood their concern, but needed to come to terms with his blindness, alone.
Ezra had been given a dose of laudanum to ease the pain and would be asleep for a good few hours, which gave Vin the chance to ponder over his situation and what the future might hold.
Nathan had told him that his sight would probably return and that the blow to the back of the head had caused the problem. Vin hadnt heard anything the healer was saying past the word probably. He didnt want to consider his life if it didnt, and without Chris quiet strength to help him, he wasnt sure he wanted to live.
It didnt matter to Vin that he was blind because of Larabee. He was willing to forgive the gunslinger anything, if only hed stand by his side.
The door closed and Vin called out. "Didnt expect ya back yet, Josiah."
There was no verbal response, just a chink, chink, as someone walked towards him. Vin knew the sound well.
"Dont need your eyes Vin. Always knew you were a great tracker." Chris said spitefully.
Vins hopes floundered, there was no concern in Chris voice; no remorse. The gunslinger had come to crow. Or perhaps more. "Aint scared of ya Chris."
"Dont worry pard. I aint here to hurt you, this time."
Vin felt Chris fingers touching the bandages that covered his damaged eyes. "Then why are ya here. To gloat?"
Larabee chuckled and his hand travelled down to Vins exposed throat.
The tracker held his breath, what torment did Chris have planned now?
"Decided to leave. Tired of bein the law around here." Chris pulled his hand back. "Be seein you, pard." He chuckled again. "Shame you cant say the same."
The gunslinger walked away, not once looking at the man in the other bed, and a moment later the door opened and he was gone.
Tears stung Vins tender eyes. Without Larabee he doubted he had enough strength to recover from his disability.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan had never been one for praying, but as he carefully peeled away the bandages from around Vins eyes, he silently prayed that the trackers sight had returned.
Buck, Josiah and JD gathered around the bed in silence, while Ezra, slowly recovering from his own injuries, sat on the edge of the other bed.
The healer had given him permission to return to his own room at the hotel as long as he took things easy. As Ezra did not intend to do anything more energetic than playing poker in the saloon, he found it easy to accede to Nathans demands.
Everyone held their breath as the cloth fell away from Tanners face and for the first time in five days his startling blue could be seen.
"Can ya see us?!" Buck boomed, unable to wait for Nathans examination.
Vin squinted and tears formed when Nathan cleaned his eyes out with a saline solution.
"Well boy, can ya "
"Aint got no prettier have ya Bucklin." Vin teased, before being lost under a sea of hugs and congratulations.
"Thats it, move back!" Nathan ordered, once hed hugged the tracker. " Give Vin room to breath!"
"Mah congratulations, Mr. Tanner."
The room hushed as Ezra slowly struggled to his feet and with Josiahs help he limped over to Vin.
"Ezra, Im sorry ." The tears falling now were real, borne out of the trackers distress at seeing the gamblers bruised countenance.
"Dont be, mah friend " Standish eased himself onto the bed by Vins side and pulled him into a gentle embrace.
The others were surprised; their aloof gambler rarely showed any physical emotion. Yet like the rest of them, hed grown very attached to the quiet spoken, reclusive Vin Tanner.
Buck coughed nervously and nudged JD in the ribs, "Best get back to work kid. Town aint gonna protect itself," he smiled warmly at Vin. "Id best let Mary know the good news dont worry, we aint told anyone else."
"Thanks Buck all of ya. Aint ya heard any news about Chris?"
"Ferget him Vin were better off without him." The words were spoken without feeling and everyone knew Wilmington didnt truly mean them.
"Caint ferget him. Once Im back in the saddle Im goin lookin fer him."
"No Vin, not alone," Josiah intervened, "were all goin. Brother Chris needs our help." Now that he and Buck had calmed down, they could talk about Larabee without showing anger. "But he can wait. You and Ezra are our main priorities."
"Thanks all of ya " Vin answered wearily.
"Thats it, yall get outta here. Come on Vin, you look plum tuckered out."
"Guess I am doc." Vin settled back in the bed, while Ezra started to follow the others out of the room.
"Where you goin?!" Nathan called after him.
"Ah am leaving this establishment sir, mah physician, namely yourself, said Ah was well enough."
"Changed my mind."
"What! Why?" Ezra flustered.
"Ya couldnt get across the room without help. Get back to bed another day wont hurt."
"Mr. Jackson; Nathan, Ah assure you "
From his prone position in his own bed, Vin chuckled, "Best do as the doc orders."
"Ah am not afraid " Ezra clamped his mouth shut when Nathan loomed over him. "Very well sir. One more day, not a second longer. And you Mr. Tanner can take that ugly grin off your face!"
Nathan stood, arms folded as Ezra removed his boots and climbed back onto the mattress. He was sometimes surprised by how much influence he wielded over these men. They saw him as a friend and a healer: his colour never entered the equation.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee ended up riding into Purgatorio. The notorious town and the sultry Maria called out to him. He could lose himself in Purgatorio and the sensuous, olive skinned beauty knew how to soothe his drunken moods.
She loved the blond haired gringo. He paid well for her attentions, though on many occasions she was never more than a drinking companion, which she considered a waste, because he was a good lover.
When hed rode into town, shed seen the warning look in his green eyes and knew to stay quiet.
She watched helplessly as her beautiful, dangerous gunfighter lost himself in bottle after bottle of cheap whisky and tequila. It was a frightening sight; the once proud Americano wallowed in despair.
After their first night together, hed been unable to make love to her, his intoxicated body failing to respond to her sensual touches.
Though disappointed, the dark haired beauty was more concerned with Senor Chris lack of self esteem and preservation. Hed taunted other gunmen into fights and two of his opponents already lay in the cold earth. How long would it be before the undertaker claimed him as his next customer?
Maria had tried talking to Chris, but the only conversation he was interested in was with a bottle. On the fifth day, Larabee had finally lost the battle with the liquor and fell into a drunken stupour across the bed.
Like a guardian angel, Maria watched over him, her voice soothing away his worst nightmares and for two days he hardly move.
Chris could barely open his eyes and when he did, instantly regretted it. The pain engulfed his head.
You fool Larabee. He chastised himself, trying to remember when hed started his binge.
The more he concentrated the less he remembered and the worse his headache became.
Hed probably been in a drinking competition with Buck. "Stupid!" He snapped, gagging on the foul taste in his mouth.
"Huh?" Larabee forgot the pain and opened his eyes wide. "Maria! What the where am I?"
"Purgatorio, senor." Maria sat on the edge of the bed and smiled down at the unshaven, whisky smelling Larabee. "You do not remember?"
"Buck? Senor, you came here alone."
"A week ago. I made sure your horse has been tended to."
With Maria's assistance, Chris managed to sit up, groaning with every movement. It took him a moment to realise that under the thin sheet he was naked. He pinched his eyebrows together then glanced at the sultry courtesan.
"Your clothes were filthy. I took them off you after you passed out." She pointed to a neat pile of clean clothes on the chair. Understanding Chris confusion, Maria quickly explained about his arrival in Purgatorio and the subsequent drinking and gunfights.
"Didnt I say anythin when I got here?"
Maria shook her head, "You have barely spoken to me. A few times, in your dreams you called out a name Vin."
"Vin!" A cold dread poured over the gunslinger. Vin had to be the reason Chris had lost himself in the bottle. He was mourning the death of his friend, his soul-mate, Vin Tanner.
But why the hell couldnt he remember what had happened?
"I have to go back." He tugged the sheet away and started to get to his feet. Maria reached out a placed a hand on his bare shoulder.
"It is getting dark and "
The young woman pouted seductively. "You have paid so little attention to me."
Larabee felt guilty; the girl had obviously taken care of him, probably risking her own safety. Would one more night make any difference? Vin was dead, Chris couldnt change that.
"Im bein thoughtless Maria." He pulled her into his arms a passionately kissed her. "Ill make it up to you, I promise."
"Good." She sniffed the air. "After you have taken a bath."
Chris chuckled, he did smell ripe, and he was hungry. "Think you could rustle up some grub for me?"
"You rest a little longer Senor Chris, Ill go organise your bath and food."
Chris smile faded once the girl had left the room. The thought of returning to Four Corners chilled him to the bone.
+ + + + + + +
Vin looked on with envy at Ezra. The gambler had finally passed Nathans inspection and was gathering up his belongings in readiness for escaping the clinic.
"Ahm sure Mr. Jackson will release you soon." Ezra opined, having noted Vins misery.
"Aint in prison Ezra " Vin understood Nathans worries and had promised this time, to abide by the healers decision.
Nathan was certain the tracker still suffered mild concussion, plus Vin still complained of headaches and the Fever-Few administered had little effect.
"Do you wish me to stay with you until Nathan returns?"
The healer had been called out to the Pearson Ranch where the eldest son had sustained numerous fractures after being thrown from his horse.
"Ill be fine Ezra. sides, JD said he was callin in."
As Vin spoke the words, the clinic door opened and the youngest member of the seven bounced in with his usual enthusiasm.
"Hiya Vin. Ezra, I thought youd been freed?"
"Ah have. " Ezra limped towards the door, belongings tucked neatly under his arm. "Do you require anything before Ah leave Mr. Tanner?"
Vin shook his head and instantly regretted it when the room began to spin round him. "Stop frettin Ezra ." He managed to say evenly, not wanting to worry the departing gambler.
"Ill take care of him now." JD added confidently.
"Very well." Ezra didnt doubt the youths enthusiasm, he only hoped JDs natural buoyancy wouldnt overwhelm the quiet tracker.
Once they were alone JDs smile slipped and he regarded Vin seriously. The youngster still found it difficult to believe Chris Larabee could be so viciously cruel, especially to Vin Tanner.
"Whats wrong kid?"
"Nothin only " It would be wrong of him to concern Vin with his worries.
"Only?" Vin persevered, carefully sliding back down on the bed to rest his throbbing head against the pillow.
"I keep wonderin why he did it."
"Huh? Oh, ya mean Chris. I aint sure." Vin had no idea why the gunslinger had turned so malevolent, yet it was a question he asked himself a thousand times a day.
Hopefully, one day Chris would be able to explain; would break free of the monster consuming him. "Weve all got a dark side JD."
"Suppose youre right," the answer didnt satisfy the youngster, but he accepted Vins explanation graciously. " Do ya think well stay together, now that Chris gone?"
"Dont rightly know." Vin glanced listlessly towards the window; where the hell was the gunslinger? "What do ya want me to say JD? That everythinll turn out right? Life aint like that!"
JD flinched, stunned by the harshness in Vins voice. "I know that Im sorry Vin, I should never have said anythin."
"You dont want things to change," Vin answered in tired understanding. "Neither did I "
He rubbed his forehead, silently cursing the headache. Too much damn thinking! Chris.
"Want me to leave?"
Vin shook his head. "Stay but be quiet."
JD settled down on the other bed, frustrated by the necessary silence. He sighed with relief when Josiah called in, and quickly made his escape.
Sensing the tension between the two younger men Josiah asked Vin if he could help in any way.
"Wish there was, " Vin gazed into the preachers benign eyes. He respected Josiah, held him in high regard. "JD wanted answers dont think I said what he wanted to hear."
"His hero has turned out to be flawed, its a hard lesson for any youngster to learn," Josiah took a moment then said. "I will have nothing to do with a man who can blow hot and cold in the same breath." Seeing Vins confusion, he explained. "An ancient Greek called Aesop said that. Very apt dont you think?"
"Yeah, guess it is."
"Hell get over it." Josiah, having noticed Vins preoccupation with rubbing his brow, soaked a towel in cool water, then placed it over the younger mans forehead. "You rest now, Brother Tanner."
"Thanks." Vin closed his eyes and within minutes was fast asleep.
+ + + + + + +
The ride into Four Corners confirmed Larabees worst fears. People took one look at him then turned their heads away. They didnt know how to face the man and his grief.
Reining his horse up outside the Sheriffs office, he dismounted and stepped towards the door.
JD was just walking out of the building; he stopped dead, his eyes widening when he literally bumped into the gunslinger.
"Chris I we we thought youd gone for good." Expecting to be at least verbally lashed by the older man, JD stepped back in readiness.
Larabee noticed the youths fear but paid little attention to it. "Wheres Buck or Nathan?"
"Theyre all in the saloon."
"Whyre you starin at me so, JD?"
"Nothin. Id best make my patrol." JD slid past the gunslinger and was surprised when Chris warned softly
"Be careful kid."
The youngster frowned, he could sense no anger in Larabee, just a deep sadness.
The silence was deafening when Chris pushed through the saloons batwing doors. Adjusting to the shadowy afternoon light in the room his eyes lit upon Buck, Josiah and Ezra sitting around their usual table.
The rest of the saloons clientele backed away as Larabee moved towards his friends.
Josiah and Buck stood up and stepped protectively in front of the gambler.
"Yaint welcome here Chris, you know that." Buck responded defiantly.
Chris frowned, this wasnt the welcome hed been expecting. "Buck, what happened?"
"Huh? Dont play games with me Chris. Get yerself a drink and somethin to eat if yer a mind, then ride on."
Larabee gave a confused glance towards Josiah then noticed Ezras bruised face, "What the hell happened to you!"
"Aint funny Chris "
"Dammit Buck, I know that!" Chris hissed through clenched teeth, aware of the audience surrounding them. "Cant we talk elsewhere?"
"I think that would be best," Josiah agreed. "Lets go over to the church."
"Very well. You comin Ezra?"
"Ah have nothing of value to say to you Mr. Larabee." Was the gamblers curt reply.
Larabee could feel the hostility surrounding him, hostility from his friends why? Unless hed been the reason for Vins death or worse. "I need to ask Nathan some questions." He stopped outside the livery stables. "Maybe we "
"You aint goin nowhere near the clinic. Ill get him, you and Josiah carry on over to the church." Buck ordered, before bouncing up the steps to Nathans abode.
"Josiah, what did I do?" Chris had slumped on the front pew, head in hands.
Carefully lighting the candles on the altar, the preacher turned to face the despondent man.
"I wish I could believe that you couldnt remember the damage youd caused, but last time we spoke you showed no remorse."
"Last time? about Vins death?"
"Death? Brother Vin " Josiah stopped; there was denying the sincerity of Chris question.
"Wait until Nathan arrives, then we will discuss what has happened."
"Tell me one thing Josiah, did I kill him?" Chris haunted eyes held no hope.
"No brother, you did not."
The gunslinger sighed deeply, at least one heavy chain had been freed from around his heart. About to question Josiah further, Chris stopped when Buck and Nathan entered the building.
"Howdy Chris, hear you wanted to talk with me?" Nathan, unlike Buck or Ezra held any distaste he felt for Chris at bay.
"I need your help Nathan."
"Youve got some nerve, Chris." Buck growled.
"Buck, lets hear what Chris has to say."
"Hell sweet talk ya Josiah into forgivin him, then itll all begin again."
"What will?" Chris asked irately. "Buck, I came back here because of Vin. I cant recall ..." He turned his attention to Nathan. "I cant remember anythin after shootin that boy."
"Ymean the shoot-out in the street? Chris, that was a month back!"
"What?!" Larabee stood up and wandered the church aimlessly, explaining, "I woke up in Purgatory, two days back. Who killed Vin?"
"Vin aint dead, though the way hes actin Youre a bastard Chris, pretendin ycaint remember."
"I cant Buck. I have to see Vin, maybe hell "
"Like hell you will" You go anywhere near him, Ezra or JD and Ill kill ya!"
"Why, what have I done?"
"Chris, this is becomin tiresome."
"I swear it Buck " Larabee strode towards the altar and picked up the well read bible. "I swear to God." Still seeing doubt in Bucks eyes, he gasped. "Ill swear it over Sarah and Adams grave if thats what you want!"
"You low down " Buck lurched forward, only to be stopped by Josiah.
"Chris aint lyin Buck."
"You aint fallin for that crock of shit, are ya preacher!"
"I believe him too," Nathan endorsed Josiah. "Lets all sit down and hear what Chris has to say."
"You aint goin nowhere near him til were satisfied."
He might not want to see you anyway." Nathan whispered.
Josiah remained silent, he didnt agree with the healers supposition.
"What did I do to him? Tell me everythin thats happened since I shot that boy."
"Aint a pretty story Chris, and yaint gonna like yourself afterwards!" Josiah nodded to Nathan.
"Youd best start, explain how Chris changed."
Buck growled, he still considered it a waste of time. Chris was tricking them, and even if he wasnt how could they trust him again.
+ + + + + + +
An hour later, Chris Larabee knew the truth. Now he understood and agreed with Buck Wilmington; it wasnt safe having him around. He was a menace; theyd be better of without him.
"Think Ill take you up on that offer Buck." Noticing Wilmingtons confusion, Chris explained, "A drink, some food then Ill ride on."
"Never expected Chris Larabee to turn out a coward." Josiah said angrily.
"Thoughts that what you wanted?"
"Chris, if youve recovered, you should make your peace with Vin and Ezra."
"Wont help. I hurt them. Nothin changes that."
"No, but itll help. Vin specially been missin you. He aint recoverin as well as he should be." Nathan argued.
Buck wasnt so diplomatic. "You broke him you mend him."
Chris expected some relevant saying from Josiah, but before the preacher could think of anything profound, the church door opened and irate JD Dunne bound in, telegram in hand.
"Been lookin for you everywhere!"
"What is it kid?" Buck nodded at the message.
"Its from Red Fork. Theres an outlaw gang headin this way. They heard that Four Corners no longer had seven men protectin it. Sheriff Caine reckons theyll be here sometime tomorrow!"
"Gives us time to get ready for em." Josiah glanced at Chris. "Will you be stayin on to help?"
Larabees cutting glare was the only answer necessary.
"I dont think we should be usin Ezra, he aint well enough yet."
"Ah can assure you Mr. Jackson Ah am fully capable of performing my duties as law enforcer for this town." Standish said haughtily as he limped down the aisle. Hed cajoled JD into revealing the contents of the telegram when the youth had called in at the saloon searching for Buck.
"Does Sheriff Caine say how many men are in the gang?" Chris asked, automatically taking charge of the situation.
"Then Ezra is needed." Larabee walked up to the gambler, "I cant make right what I did to you, but I hope we can stand together tomorrow."
"Ahll be there, Mr. Larabee, you can depend on that." Ezra replied coldly. Hed heard and seen enough to know that the gunslinger was back in command. The gambler still had doubts, but theyd have to be ignored until the danger to Four Corners had been eradicated; hed work with Larabee until then.
"I dont want Vin getting involved." Nathan ordered, "He aint well enough. The damn fool is likely to get himself killed!"
The others nodded in mutual agreement; the tracker would curse them all, but at least hed be alive.
"When can I see him Nathan?" It was tearing Chris apart having to wait for Jacksons approval.
"Come over to the clinic in a couple of hours. Ill explain to Vin that youre back and wantin to see him. Caint guarantee anythin Chris."
"I understand." Larabee turned his attention to Buck. "Any ideas on how to surprise this gang?"
"Maybe " Like Ezra, Buck still had misgivings, but hed put them aside for the time being.
Everything depended on Vins reaction. Would he accept the gunslingers return unconditionally?
+ + + + + + +
Nathan opened the door to the clinic and slipped inside, halting Larabees progress with a gruff, "No, not until he knows."
Grudgingly Chris agreed, his view of his friend blocked by Nathans stubborn presence. Nathan forbade him to enter the room, to watch over his pard so he slumped into the seat outside the clinic and laid his head back against the cold wood, and waited.
He jumped as the door opened once more and Nathan stepped out, Josiah on his heels. The preacher quickly closed the door behind him. The healer nodded to Chris, then sighed, stretching the cramped muscles in his back. Chris returned the gesture, his sullen face turned to the street.
"I think you should go in now." Nathan said softly, watching as Chriss head snapped round to capture the healers eyes in his own. "Hes finishin his bath and I think you should see the damage you done." The gently spoken words cut the gunslinger like a knife. Chris stepped back as his chest twisted with pain.
"Nathan " Josiah voiced a warning. He glared at the healer whos own face was indignant to say the least.
"Aint it the truth?" Nathan asked, his eyes fixing both men in turn. He laid his hand on Chriss shoulder and drew him towards the door, "Go on, he wont bite ya. Time ya made yer peace anyways."
Chris stared hard at the healer for a moment, trying to gauge his intentions. The eyes that gazed back at him promised consolidation, Nathan at least had forgiven him. Would Vin? Could he forgive himself? With a sigh Chris slowly turned the door handle and slipped inside.
"Ya think thats wise?" Josiah asked, leaning close to the door as it closed. Nathans lips thinned as he witnessed the preacher trying to eavesdrop, pulling on the older mans arm he chastised him.
"Leave em be." He nodded at Josiahs question, "I think its time."
Chris almost tiptoed into the darkened room, afraid that the sound of his spurs would alarm the young man with his back to the door, drying himself by the stove. Vins naked body glistened in the candlelight, each movement as he dried his stomach and legs causing his muscles of his back to shift and expose the marks of Chriss brutal attacks.
Vin froze as the gunslinger neared and Chris knew that the ever alert tracker had recognised his footfall. Filled with remorse he stopped scant inches from the stooped and shivering body and tried to find his voice. "Vin I "
Vin turned his head slightly and stared at the blond, confused by the gambit of emotions running through his head. Overwhelming relief at seeing his friend once more, turning to shame as Chris continued to stare at his abused body.
"Admirin your handiwork?" He asked accusingly, then flinching as he waited for Chris to lash out.
Chris shook his head sadly. He understood the younger mans anger and fear only too well. "Im sorry."
"Dont! " Vin turned away.
Both men spoke at once and together fell silent. Chris found himself stroking the soft hair at Vins crown, trying to calm the man as he would a frightened colt. The towel Vin had clutched so tightly to his stomach fell to the floor as tremors wracked his body. Chris slipped his arms around the younger man, drawing him back to lie against his chest while he buried his face in the trackers shoulder.
Vin wrapped his arms around himself, his fingers brushing the tense muscles of Chriss upper arm as he was held. The air chilled his body but he couldnt move from the embrace. Behind him the gunslingers frame tensed and shook as he fought with his grief. Vin waited, feeling the dampness of tears on his own cheeks.
After what seemed like an age Chris straightened and slipped an arm free to wipe at his eyes.
Needing to look at him Vin turned, gazing up into wounded eyes. The depth of Chriss misery made him catch his breath, his head spinning. He wanted, needed to forgive his friend, yet each time he opened his mouth another damning rebuke came out. He pushed the gunslinger away, snarling, "I dont want your help."
Surprised by Vins outcry, Chris stepped back, nodding his head, "I understand pard." He turned and walked towards the door.
"Where the hell you goin?"
"You just said "
"Damn you Larabee! You come back in my life, then leave when ya caint face what youve done!"
Chris stopped and spun round to face the younger man, formulating his words carefully. "I got things that need sayin, but not now youre confused."
"Confused! Im hurtin Chris. Been hurtin a long time and I dont know why. Sall Im askin."
"Aint no clear answer pard."
"Any answer will do Chris, just dont walk away from me."
"Aint doin that." Chris knew he had a lot of explaining to do, but not until the forthcoming threat had been nullified.
"Yjust did! Aint ya man enough to talk to me?" Vin stood proud before the other man, "Look at what ya did to me Chris!" He pointed at the bruises adorning his torso, "Aint pretty are they?"
Ignoring the glimpse of fear in his friends startled blue eyes, Chris strode forward and gathered up the abandoned blanket, quickly throwing around Vins frail frame.
Vin grasped hold of his wrist and squeezed it painfully, "Caint stand to see what youve done?" His voice rose as the fragile hold on his anger slipped.
"I wish I hadnt have done it." Larabee whispered, easily pulling out of the weakened mans grasp. "I wish I could take the hurt away."
Vins fist caught him unexpectedly, yet it was so weak, it just glanced of his chin.
"I want to hate you Larabee! I want " Tears streaked down the trackers face. "I thought we were friends."
"We are." Chris stepped forward, sensing Vins last vestige of conflict seep away and placed and comforting hand on his shoulder.
The younger man staggered slightly and Chris caught him neatly as his fell, gathering him into his arms and carrying him to the bed.
Moaning softly, Vin allowed himself to be put to bed, but as Chris made to get off the mattress he clung to his jacket.
"Dont go," he whimpered, slipping his arms around Chriss waist.
The simple words bled warmth into Chriss hope-starved soul. "Im here pard." He whispered, his fingers stroking the back of Vins neck. He pulled the blankets up to Vins shoulder then helped him to rest against his chest.
The town had to be prepared for the attack, but at this moment, Vin needed him more.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner sat quietly, listening to his six companions as they discussed the imminent arrival of the outlaw gang. The meal that Inez had carefully prepared for him sat untouched and ignored on the bedside table. His anger far outweighed his hunger.
Chris and Nathan had told him about the forthcoming battle, then quickly shot down his offer of assistance. Hed argued with them until exhausted, which only confirmed Nathans own contention that Vin wasnt recovered enough to participate.
When the others had arrived, the tracker had tried to elicit their help, but though they felt sorry for the sharpshooter, they knew agreed with Nathans conclusion. Irritated by their lack of confidence in him, Vin had sunken into a sullen mood.
Nathan had words of warning for Ezra too, "I dont want you near the line of fire. Stay where youre put. You should be able to do some damage from there."
"Ah am not an invalid Mr. Jackson." Ezra argued.
"Yaint movin very fast either. If ycaint do as yer told youd best stay here with Vin."
"Dont need no nursemaid."
"Dont worry Mr. Tanner, Ah have no intention of becoming one." Ezra was surprised when Chris stood up for him again.
"Hell do fine Nathan. Well take turns in the church tower, cept Ezra. We need to get to our places quickly." Larabee explained before the gambler could complain. " Three rings of the bell is the warning that theyre on their way."
Everyone seemed satisfied with the arrangements and Buck and Chris heeded a delicate truce.
Wilmington had started to mellow the moment he entered the clinic and found the gunslinger comforting Vin. The younger man, looking wan and exhausted, seemed perfectly content leaning against Larabees chest.
Nathan shooed everyone out of his abode except Chris. The two men wanted to make certain Vin would stay put.
"Inez went to a lot of trouble to prepare that." Nathan nodded towards the forgotten meal.
"Werent hungry still aint." Vin replied sullenly.
"You want to get outta here, youd best start eatin."
Chris listened to the argument, admiring Nathans tenacity in dealing with such an obstinate patient.
"I can leave here whenever I like."
"Then go Vin Tanner," Nathan pointed towards the door, "But dont expect me to tend to you when you fall down and break yer neck!"
Vin turned towards the blond gunslinger. "Ya need my help."
"True but were goin to have to get by without it." Chris regarded the younger man earnestly. "I need you to promise, Vin."
"Yes. Promise me and Nathan you wont leave the room when the fightin starts."
"Chris, that aint fair."
Larabee and the healer smiled at Vins childish remark.
"Were waitin Vin."
The tracker glared at them; he couldnt believe they were treating him so unkindly.
"I promise!" He snapped. "But yer wrong to leave me out." He added defiantly, determined to have the last word.
Satisfied that his patient would honour his promise, Nathan left his friends to have a little while longer in privacy.
They werent sure when the gang would be arriving, but the townsfolk were warned to stay off the street once the warning bell was heard. The inhabitants of Four Corners werent too worried about the outcome, theyd seen their magnificent protectors in action before.
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