A Different Man
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight
Chris Larabee stepped off the boardwalk and surveyed the destruction before him. Main Street was strewn with bodies; thankfully none of the six regulators were amongst them. Theyd escaped injury, though Buck was helping Ezra to his feet.
Nathan had ordered him to stay behind the large barrels stacked up outside Mrs. Potters store. Yet somehow, during the short but violent outburst hed been forced from his cover and had ended up in a fist fight with one of the bandits.
The other peace keepers had been unable to offer him any assistance and Ezra had thought his time had come when the bandit produced a knife and lunged at him. There was a look of pure surprise on the outlaws face when a bullet entered his back and sent him straight to hell, his body falling onto the gambler.
"You all right?" Chris called to the southerner.
"Ah seem to be in one piece, instead of several." Ezra nodded a thank you to Wilmington who hovered around him protectively, "Ah am forever grateful to whichever of you gentlemen fired the shot."
Chris shook his head, "It werent me, I couldnt get a clear shot."
"I was busy further down the street." Buck explained.
Nathan, whod been checking over the bodies, examined the outlaws wound. "This is a rifle shot."
"Then it has to be you, Buck!"
"No, I told you, I didnt even see you til Josiah pulled the body away."
"Vin!" Nathan and Chris said together.
They ran towards the clinic, Chris taking the stairs three at a time. He barged into the room yelling the trackers name.
"Aint deaf Chris. How did it go?" Vin asked weakly. He was lying on the bed, the blanket pulled up to his neck.
Chris frowned; something wasnt right, "You been here all the time?"
"Sure cowboy Nathan, whats wrong?" Vin asked the heavily panting healer.
Without answering, Nathan strode over to the bed, his hand reaching out to touch Vins forehead. "I told you to stay here!"
"I did." Vin replied nervously.
"Hhmm then why are you sweatin?" The black man perched carefully on the side of the bed, causing Vin to wince. "Lets check you over." He attempted to pull the blanket down and a short battle ensued over whether it was being removed or not, until Chris stepped forward.
The tracker flinched and reluctantly released the cover.
Nathan growled as he edged the blanket down to Vins waist. Vin was fully dressed!
"I knew it!" He couldnt find any new injuries on the younger man, yet his instincts told him the tracker was hiding something. "Why did you do it Vin?"
The tracker glanced guiltily from one man to the other. "You were out- numbered, there was no one to watch yer back."
"You saved Ezras life." Nathan conceded reluctantly.
"I I saw the knife." Vin explained, hoping it would placate Larabee, who wasnt as forgiving as Jackson.
"You promised youd stay put Vin. I didnt want to have to worry about you pard."
"Whats this?" Nathan reached down and dipped his finger in the dark pool on the floor. "Blood!"
"What!" Chris barged past the healer and yanked the blanket away from the younger man.
"Aagh!" Vin yelped.
"Damn you, Tanner!" Chris stared down at Vins blood soaked pants.
"Sonly a scratch."
"Looks more than a scratch to me," Nathan grumbled. "Chris, help me get him Chris Chris?"
Larabee had gone.
"Where the hell ?"
"Guess hes mad." Vin said flippantly, regretting the remark immediately.
Nathan didnt waste anymore time on words; he was angry with Vin, not for breaking his promise; hed saved Ezras life, but for recklessly hiding his injury. "Get out of those damned pants, lets see what the damage is."
A few moments later Josiah entered the clinic, "Chris said you needed a hand with Vin."
"Any good at knockin sense into his fool head!"
Josiah grinned toothily, "Aint no miracle worker, brother." He helped Nathan wash the blood away to disclose the wound. A bullet had nicked the skin off Vins hip and the wound was bleeding profusely.
"Wheres Chris now?" Vin asked through gritted teeth.
"Helpin JD with the prisoners."
"Yeah, a few of em decided that life was worth livin."
"Anyone else hurt?"
"Nope. Bucks fussin over Ezra. Last I saw they were headin towards the saloon."
"Wish I was goin with them."
"You aint leavin here til I say so Vin Tanner." Nathan admonished.
Vin gazed at Josiah for a compassionate word. The preacher would take pity on him.
"That wide eyed look aint gonna work Vin." Josiah quickly dashed the trackers hopes.
"Ya needed me."
"You made a promise to Chris and Nathan."
"Ezrad be dead."
"Chris knows that son," Josiah replied sternly. "But it dont stop him bein mad at you."
"Grab his shoulders Josiah, while I clean the wound out with carbolic."
A few minutes later, the worst of Nathans ministrations were over and Josiah was helping the healer change the bed linen without causing Vin too much discomfort.
"Im sorry." Vin felt guilty at having caused so much trouble. He kept glancing towards the door, hoping for Larabee to return.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish placed the cards down onto the bed and grinned impishly at its occupant. "Full house!"
"Aw Ez, Im a sick man, caint ya take pity on me?"
"No Mr. Tanner, Ah cannot, it is against a gamblers tenet."
"Ten net? Is that another card game?" Vin asked mischievously.
"If it were, Ahm sure Ah would still thrash you." Ezra shuffled the cards then dealt a fresh hand.
Vin groaned at the cards before him. "I save yer life and this is how ya treat me." He threw two cards down and asked for two more; they were just as bad.
"Ahll stick with this hand." Ezra drawled, "And although Ah thank you for saving mah life, it is against a gamblers tenet "
"I know. Glad I aint no gambler, too many ten nets!" Vin considered his bet, then threw in his last remaining matches. "Might as well have em all."
Ezra only hoped his mother wouldnt discover what they were playing for, shed think hed lost his mind! "How about a game of checkers next?"
"Nothin left to gamble cept my horse."
The southerner shuddered, "Ah wouldnt accept that creature as a gift! No, we will play for fun."
"Fun! If I were you Id take him up on that Vin, while hes in a benevolent mood."
Both men turned towards the new voice.
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra nodded nervously to the newcomer.
"Chris!" Vins voice exuded emotion. It was the first time Larabee had visited him since the shooting, the day before.
"Howdy pard." The blond held out a plate of cookies to the younger men. "Mary sent these, for the both of you."
"What a charming gift from an equally charming lady." Ezra took the plate from Chris and placed it on the bedside table, his eyes full of anticipation.
Vin winked at Larabee, "Tell you what Ez, whoever wins the next hand takes the whole batch. On one no, two conditions."
"Chris deals and he gets three of the cookies as payment."
"Hhmm." Ezra glanced from the grinning Tanner to the po-faced Larabee. He trusted neither and was unwilling to surrender his half of the tasty treat. "Ah think not." He counted the biscuits and gathered up half of them. "Ah have baby-sat for long enough, it is your turn now Mr. Larabee."
"Aint no baby!" Vin squeaked.
"That is a matter of opinion." The southerner bade farewell, leaving his two companions time alone.
"Still mad at me?"
Chris settled into the chair recently vacated by Ezra. "Not mad, more like scared. Dont play a stunt like that again."
"I caint promise Chris. Was wrong to do so before. What if ya need me?"
"Well manage. Of course, if you offered me one of those cookies."
"Help yerself." Vin grimaced. He didnt want to admit it to Larabee, but he didnt feel well. His hip ached and the room was turning decidedly warmer.
"You aint eatin?"
"Not yet." The thought of food, even Marys delicious biscuits, turned his stomach. "Dont mean ya can eat them all though!" He tried to sound cheerful.
Chris bit into the cookie and for a while both men were quiet. Vin sensed that his companion wanted to tell him something important and that added to the tracker worries.
The gunslinger noticed his friend rubbing his injured hip under the blanket. "Hurtin?"
"Yeah Laudanums startin to wear off."
"Want some more?"
Vin shook his head, "No makes me feel like pukin." The silence returned for a while longer.
It wasnt their usual contented silence, and eventually Vin couldnt take the quiet any longer.
"Whats wrong cowboy? Still feelin guilty bout what happened between us?"
"Ill always carry that guilt Vin, until my dying day." Chris stood up and walked awkwardly over to the stove where a pot of coffee sat warming. He poured himself a cup, then returned to his seat and resumed his silent vigil.
"Coffee smells good." Vin finally broke the hush.
"Ill go pour you one."
"No, Ill take a drink from yours." Vin grumbled as he pushed the blanket down, uncovering his naked chest. "I need a hand to sit up."
"Let me fetch "
"No! I want you to help me," Vin demanded harshly. "I trust ya."
"Got more faith than me pard."
"You put me here, Larabee! You tend to me!" Vin echoed Bucks words of a few days previously.
Chris flinched at the emotional outburst. Vin spoke the truth, yet it still hurt him to hear it.
"I know and Ill do anythin to help you, cept ."
" cept what?" Vin was floundering mentally with his thoughts and physically in his attempt to sit up.
"Im scared; what if I should hurt you again?"
"Im willin to take that risk, why aint you?"
Chris stood up. "Best if I should leave..." He started towards the door.
"Ill be leavin Four Corners once you are back on your feet." Larabee couldnt face his friend.
The gunslinger stopped at the door; he was taking the easy way out and his cowardice disgusted him, yet how could he face the younger man, the best part of him?
"Chris Im sorry, I didnt mean to accuse ya."
Larabee groaned and closed his eyes. Vin was apologising to him!
"Chris " The voice sounded closer.
Chris turned, "Jesus !"
Vin stood before him, hobbling precariously on one leg, holding the blanket in front of him to cover his nakedness.
"What the hell are you doin?"
"Im beggin ya to stay." Vin collapsed to his knees, too weak to stand any longer. "I forgive ya cowboy, please forgive yerself." The younger mans bright blue eyes were shimmering with unshed tears.
"Oh Vin " Larabee knelt in front of his injured companion and pulled him into his arms. "All I do is hurt you. Why the hell do you want me around?"
"Because " Vin blushed; how could he explain without sounding sentimental? " You are the best thing thats happened in my life since since I was five." He couldnt say the word momma; it still hurt too much.
Larabee understood, only too well. Hed lost the will to live when hed lost his own family. The chance meeting with Vin; the one glance across a noisy, violent street, had changed all that.
"I know how you feel, pard." Chris said quietly, as Vin crumpled in his arms.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan wolfed his dinner down, not taking the time to enjoy it. Hed promised Josiah hed return to the clinic within the hour. The preacher had told him to take as long as he liked, he was more than willing to take his turn at tending to Vin.
The healer had been right to worry over the trackers condition after Vins hip had been grazed by the outlaws bullet. The wound, and subsequent blood loss had set the younger mans rehabilitation back with a vengeance and he was now suffering a fever induced sickness.
Jackson sat in the saloon with Chris, JD and Buck, but his attention to their conversation was averted when Ezra Standish limped into the saloon.
Conscious of his scrutiny, Ezra straightened and walked slowly to the bar. The healer was not satisfied by what he saw.
"Ezra." He barked as the gambler slunk past.
Ezra visibly blanched at the tone but fixed an easy smile on his face, "Mr Jackson, you called?" He stopped short of the table, his eyes on the back of the black clad gunslinger sitting by Nathans side.
"Hows them ribs feelin?" Nathan asked, a frown marring his handsome features. He challenged Ezra to lie.
Despite his resolve to keep his weakness secret, Ezra wound his hand around his middle. "Ah believe Ah am healing satisfactorily." He drawled, his eyes fixed to the back of Larabees head.
"Well I aint so sure." Nathan wiped his hands and rose from the table. "Think its best you come over the clinic and let me take a look."
"Nathan, Ah " Ezra began to protest.
"If yaint there when Im done with Vin Ill send Josiah to look fer you." Nathan threatened, enjoying the defeated expression on Ezras face. He walked away, a half smile on his face.
Ezra eyed the men at the table. Chris kept his back to him, his shoulders relaxed as if Ezras plight didnt trouble him.
Of course it doesnt, Ezra berated himself, expendable, thats how he sees you.
JD and Bucks expressions were identically sympathetic. Ezra turned back to the bar, he would not accept their pity.
"Ya got to say somethin to Ezra." Buck told the gunslinger once JD had joined Ezra at the bar.
"I know I got to make my peace with him too, butIve been so busy with Vin " Chris shrugged, accepting it was no excuse.
"Make time Chris, fore its too late." Buck stood up and patted his old friend on the shoulder. "Weve all forgiven ya pard, but until Ezra knows where he stands with you, hell always have that doubt." Wilmington walked over to JD. "Best get back on duty kid, fore anyone else thinks they can take us on."
The two friends wandered out, leaving a stiff backed gambler standing alone at the bar.
Chris contemplated the southerner a while, then determined to speak with Standish he finished off his beer and stood up.
Hed taken too long in making his decision and before hed taken two steps, Ezra had finished his own drink and was walking out of the door.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra took a deep breath before attempting the climb to Nathans clinic. The expansion of his chest caused stabbing pins and needles around his damaged ribs and again he found himself almost doubled in pain. Checking the street to ensure no-one had witnessed his vulnerability he started up the stairs.
The climb was slow and he was panting painfully by the time he reached the top. He steadied himself on the rail, seeing stars beyond the blurred outline of Nathans abode. Get a grip! he cursed, forcing himself forward.
He stepped into the clinic and blinked at the sight before him. Vin was heaving painfully, vomiting little more than water into a bucket Nathan held in his lap.
Nathans arm lay around Vins shoulders, holding the younger man upright. Vin was sweating, his face and hair, wet with it.
The healer looked up, his dark eyes filled with concern. He continued to speak to the trembling man, "Try to take a deep breath," he soothed. He placed the bucket on the floor and took up a damp cloth to wipe Vins mouth. This done, Nathan held a cup to the trackers lips and gently tipped the water into his mouth.
Vin moaned and pushed Nathans hand away, spilling the water onto the blankets. The healer sighed heavily but laid his charge down on the pillows.
"Ya gotta drink Vin, yer losing fluids." Nathan warned, his hand caressing Vins fevered cheek.
Vin turned his face away, swallowing thickly against the bile in his throat.
"All right." Nathan whispered resigned, "Rest a moment, while I take a look at Ezra here."
"Ezra " Vin moaned softly, he raised a hand, his fingers searching for his touch.
"Here Vin." Ezra said, sitting on the edge of the trackers bed and taking his cold hand in his own.
Vin turned his face towards the sound and opened dark rimmed eyes, "Good tsee ya pard." He smiled faintly, squeezing his eyes closed when the shivers caught him again.
Ezra leaned as close as his bruised middle would allow and smoothed the trackers brow, "Its good to see you too." He whispered, his eyes filled with concern for his friend.
Silence fell between them, Vin seemed content to let Ezra soothe him and the gambler was reluctant to break the spell. Across the room Nathan prepared his potions for Ezra, happy to let the two men sit a while.
The moment was quickly gone. Vin moaned under Ezras fingers then reared up, jarring the gamblers tender back.
"Feel sick!" Vin gasped, clawing at the blankets.
Nathan squeezed past the gambler and placed the bucket in Vins lap, his hand steadying the younger man as he heaved dryly. The healer looked up into Ezras pained face,
"Why dont ya go sit on the other bed, get yer shirt off." His fingers massaged the back of Vins neck as he shivered. "Go on Ezra," he told him.
Ezra nodded and very slowly got to his feet to stumble to the empty bed. He kept his back to the two men and very carefully removed his coat and vest. He had just eased out of his shirt when Nathan lay the exhausted tracker down.
"Ezra, Im gonna get rid of this." He held up the bucket, "Can ya watch him a while?"
The gambler nodded. As soon as Nathan had gone he got to his feet and went to sit by Vins side. Vin was trembling weakly, and gesturing for the bucket!
Ezra passed him the dampened towel, holding it under his chin as Vin threw up again. He placed his free hand against Vins brow and soothed his forehead with his thumb as he retched. He didnt hear the door open.
Vin was far too preoccupied to recognise the newcomer but Ezra knew immediately. The sound of Chris Larabees spurs was a dead give-away. Ezra tensed, he was desperately aware of how vulnerable his exposed back was against the man.
Vin moaned softly in his arms and clutched at his wrist, caught in the agony of his fever. Ezra found himself unable to let the tracker go.
Gentle fingers stroked the hair at the nape of Ezras neck before falling away to touch the ugly scar. Ezra swallowed dryly when Chriss fingers traced the scar to his throat, and he shivered, expecting the taunting words. They didnt come. The fingers moved away to squeeze his shoulder reassuringly but Ezra didnt welcome the touch. He clung to the man in his arms and willed Chris to go away.
"Cowboy?" Vin gasped, sensing the others presence.
"Im here pard." Chris said gently, moving around the bed to sit by Vins side.
Vin untangled himself from Ezra and turned to wrap his arms around Chriss neck and bury his face against the gunslingers throat, "Hurts " he whispered.
"I know." Chris said sadly. He wrapped the blanket around the trembling mans shoulders and held him, rocking gently, "I know."
Vin settled immediately, pushing Chris back against the pillows until he could lay against his chest. Chris cradled him against his shoulder, his arms wrapped around the younger man.
Ezra felt like an intruder. His eyes smarted with tears as he considered Vins complete trust in the man whod hurt him. He couldnt forgive so freely. He got stiffly to his feet and limped to the bed, dragging on his green coat and gathering up his shirt and vest.
For a moment he considered making an excuse for his sudden departure but he couldnt find the words. Silently he let himself out of the clinic and away from the man who had so badly betrayed his trust.
Chris watched Ezra leave. He didnt miss the gamblers stooped shoulders or the pain in his eyes. Words were never the gunslingers strong point and he knew the ability to listen without prejudice wasnt one of Ezras attributes.
He quietened Vin again, hushing him gently as he thought about the gambler. He stroked Vins sweat soaked hair, "Need ya back with me pard." He whispered, knowing the tracker would have an answer for him.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra slipped his saddlebags over his arm and bid the hotel manager farewell. With a heavy heart he made his way to the stables. To anyone on the street he could be anyone going about his business, but to those who knew him, Ezra was leaving.
He had waited until the others had gathered in the saloon then put his carefully laid plan into action. He had packed his belongings as soon as he was able to move freely, the hardest thing to do was wait until his body had healed enough to enable a long ride.
Though his wounds still pained him he knew the journey would not kill him. His one regret was leaving Four Corners before Vin was back on his feet, but he knew that if he waited until then, the quiet spoken tracker would dissuade him with his gentle, discerning arguments.
Ezra would miss all six men, including Chris Larabee, but losing Vins friendship would hurt the most.
His horse was already saddled, Yosemite had seen to that. Ezra tipped the man and smiled his thanks. The livery owner knew better than to question the law man, he nodded and turned back to his tasks.
Ezra ran a hand over his mounts shoulders, whispering calming words as he loaded up the saddlebags and bed roll. He was so intent on his work that he missed the barn door opening slightly to admit the one person hed hoped to avoid.
"Where you goin Ezra?" Chris asked, his tone gruff.
Ezra startled but covered well, his heart racing as he tried to understand how hed missed the gunslingers approach.
"Mah destination is not important " He answered dully.
A curt nod was Chriss only answer.
Ezra continued with the task of loading his horse.
"I cant take back what I done Ezra," Chris said honestly. "But I can tell ya Im sorry." The silence between the two men stretched as the gambler considered a reply.
"Ah appreciate that." Ezra nodded eventually, unable to look at the gunslinger. "However, there are some things we cannot mend." He whispered, his tone regretful.
Chris shuffled his feet, staring hard at the ground. "I cant excuse my actions." He admitted.
"Ah dont blame you for that." Ezra sighed, "Its just " He stopped. An explanation may bring reconciliation and though he craved it, Ezra knew it would be a lie. Chris had made it quite clear how he felt.
"Tell me Ezra." Chris asked, the warmth in his voice making the gambler shiver. He stepped closer to the smaller man.
Ezra shied away, standing in profile to Chris so he could watch him without looking at him.
"Ahm expendable." Ezra repeated Chriss words in a haunted tone, his earlier reticence forgotten. He raised pained eyes to the gunslinger.
Chris held his gaze, "It aint true. And Id like the chance to prove that to you."
"Ah dont know if I can take that chance." Ezra whispered sadly, no sign of his usual manner. Shoulders hunched he waited for Chriss condemnation, ridicule, perhaps anger.
He flinched away as Chris raised his hand, but the fingers curled reassuringly around his shoulder and Chris stepped close to speak almost secretively into his ear.
"Give me time to change your mind." He felt the muscles tense under his fingertips, "Just a month Ezra. If you feel the same way then Ill help you load up."
There was a long silence in which Chris hardly dare breath. He couldnt tell Ezra how terrible he felt about hurting him and Vin, or how much he needed the man to stay. All he could do was hope that Ezras desire to stay far outweighed his need to flee.
Ezra stood motionless for the longest time, until Chris had almost persuaded himself the gambler must be ill. At last he began pulling at the straps holding his saddlebags, the effort pulling his tender ribs
. Chris leaned across him, lending his strength to the task and soon the horse was unsaddled. They worked in silence, drawing comfort from the shared duty.
Chris took the heavy saddlebags from Ezras hands and snaked his arm around the smaller mans shoulders,
"Come on Ezra, Ill buy you a beer." His words held relief.
"Several would be very welcome right now." Ezra admitted, smiling softly to himself as he let the gunslinger guide him towards the saloon and his brothers.
+ + + + + + +
Chris reached out and brushed away the stray tendril of hair that fell over Vins lax features. It dismayed him to see that even in sleep, Vin flinched at his touch.
The door to the clinic opened and Buck stepped inside. "Were about ready to leave. Are ya sure youll be able to watch over Vin and the town? Nathans willin to stay."
"No, youll be ridin short handed as it is. The posse from Eagle Bendll join up with you at Willows Pass."
Wilmington nodded, "Never thought Id be ridin with Sheriff Staines, especially after the way he went after Nathans father."
"Things got outta hand then. Work together and bring those bastards in."
Eight men had robbed the bank at Eagle Bend, killing a bank teller and two customers. It was a heinous crime and the law men of Four Corners, plus some of the townsfolk, were more than willing to join forces with Eagle Bends posse.
"Sure will stud." Buck tipped his hat and exited the clinic quietly, not wanting to disturb the patient.
Larabee strode out onto the balcony and watched dispassionately as the five men rode out of town. "Adios, boys." He muttered as he walked back into the clinic. "Just you and me now cowboy." He settled into the chair next to the sick mans bad and picked up the book hed been reading.
Time passed slowly and relatively quietly. A few boisterous cowhands hollered loudly as they rode past the livery stable but as dusk approached, Four Corners was peaceful.
Chris knew hed have to patrol the town once the street fires had been lit, but he didnt want Vin waking up alone. The younger man would try to escape the confines of his bed and inflict more damage to his already broken body.
The gunslinger had been tempted to ride with the posse, wanting as much as anyone to catch the murdering thieves. However, he needed to spend time alone and without interruption, to explain to Vin the reason hed acted as badly as he had.
Since returning to Four Corners, Chris had contemplated his vile actions against his friends and finally remembered what had happened after the gunfight with the youth, and what had triggered his torment of Vin and the others.
Larabees problem was acerbated when a gun was fired close to the clinic, causing Tanner to spring from his laudanum induced sleep.
"Wh what where am I?" Vin asked in confusion, his startled blue eyes searching the candlelit room.
"Steady pard, youre safe." Larabee soothed, gently holding Vin down by the shoulders.
"Dont fret pard." More shooting was heard close by "Vin, I gotta go, see what all the troubles about."
"Why? Wheres Buck Ezra?"
"The boys have gone chasin a gang of murderin bank robbers. Joined forces with a posse from Eagle Bend."
Vin opened his mouth to ask more questions but was quickly shushed by the gunslinger. "Aint got time pard."
"Lemme back you up." The younger man started to get out of bed.
"Dont you dare! Natell have my hide if anythin else happens to you." Larabee stood over Vin and waited for him to get back under the blankets. "Aint gonna be long." He hurried from the clinic, angry at the disturbance. He hoped whoever was doing the shooting would back down immediately because he was in no mood for arguing.
Vin waited a few moments then struggled to his feet. There was no time to pull on a shirt and he didnt have the strength to tug on his boots. He limped over to the table where his gun and holster lay. Gingerly picking up the weapon he checked it was loaded.
"Always actin the hero aint ya, Larabee."
The cool evening air took his breath away when he stepped outside and he visibly shuddered.
Vin edged carefully towards the stairs, every movement agony. He stopped when he reached the top step and took a deep calming breath before beginning his descent. Halfway down he paused to gather himself. The pain was steadily increasing and sweat was dripping into his eyes, stinging the blue orbs.
No time fer self pity He thought. Chris needs ya. About to continue his torturous journey, Vin was brought to a sudden halt by a volley of gunshots emanating from Main Street.
Dammit Chris. Hastening his pace, Vin misjudged the next step and hurtled down to the ground.
Chris Larabee had taken no pride in dispatching the two miscreants whod been causing trouble at the saloon. Both men had drawn on him simultaneously, giving him no decision in the matter. Hed not waited for the undertaker to arrive; he needed to return to his injured friend.
Hurrying back to the clinic he was alarmed to find the tracker crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.
+ + + + + + +
Vin woke up to find himself back in the familiar confines of Nathans clinic. Tentatively moving around on the bed, he was dismayed to discover more aches and pains. Hissing loudly, he jumped when a quiet voice remarked,
"Thats what you get for fallin down stairs."
Vin turned delicately and found himself captured in Chris concerned gaze. "Your fault, dashin off to be a hero."
"Reputation to keep pard." There was sadness in Larabees tone, confirming Vins initial fears.
"Didnt go to good then."
"No. Damn fools drew on me. Had no choice "
"Sorry. If Ida been there to back ya up."
"Aint your fault Vin. None of this."
"Gonna tell me bout it?" Vin was perceptive enough to realise that Chris had something important to tell him. Since Larabees return, the younger man had hoped Chris would eventually recall the event that changed his personality so dramatically.
"Once Ive finished checkin you over. How the hell do I explain this to Nathan?" Larabee grumbled as he examined another abrasion adorning Vins face.
"How didya get me back here?"
"Yosemite helped. Now lie still, I got some tendin to do." Once hed washed the dried blood and grime from the young mans face Chris soothed a healing salve into the cut. "There, that werent too bad."
"Almost as good as Nathan " Vin quipped.
"Only almost!" Chris ruffled his friends unruly hair. "Tanner, youre a tease!" He noticed Vin trying to cover a yawn. "Maybe you should get some sleep pard. Ill explain things tomorrow."
"No! Caint sleep til I know Chris."
Larabee lit a few more candles to give the small room a comforting glow. Outside, the town slept, the street fires casting eerie shadows. The gunslinger settled in the chair and faced his companion.
"It started a couple weeks before the boy called me out. You and the boys only saw him goadin me a few times but there were other occasions " Larabee began to explain, becoming lost in the recent past.Chris led the black gelding into its stall and began to give the animal a thorough grooming. "Been ignorin you, boy." He apologised to the docile creature, "But I aim to make it up."
He startled when derisive laughter was heard behind him.
"Talkin to your horse. Sign of madness, old man."
Chris turned to face his tormentor, the youngster who presumed he was a faster draw than Larabee. "Why dont'cha find some children your own age to play with? Leave the adults alone."
"Very funny, gunfighter." The boy smirked, irritating Chris further.
"I aint gonna draw on you kid. You aint worth the price of a bullet."
"That right? Well I aim to put a stop to you, Mr. High and Mighty Larabee. One way or another." The boy answered deviously. "Its either you or .."
Larabee reached out and grabbed the boy by the throat. "Dont threaten . Me!"
The youngster wasnt afraid and quietly waited for the blond to release him. "Aint threatenin. Im givin you a warnin. You care a lot for them other fellas, specially that scruffy lookin tracker. Be a pity if he took a bullet for you."
"Why you " Larabee drew out his gun and pointed it at the youngsters head. "Ought to shoot you now."
"But you wont gunslingers code of honour nall." The boy began to backtrack towards the door. "I aim to have my moment of glory Larabee. Its up to you whether Tanner lives to see it or not." He stepped out of the stable leaving a very angry, worried Chris Larabee behind.
Chris saw the look of horror on Vins face. "He kept comin at me baitin me."
"You should have told me Chris. I couldve dealt with him. Why keep it to yerself?" Vin questioned in a whisper.
"Pard, you wouldnt have stood a chance against the kid. He was fast, I knew that. And I werent gonna let him hurt you."
"Chris " Vin was overwhelmed by Larabees statement. The older man had put his life on the line for him, but it still didnt answer one question. "He didnt hurt me, but you did. Why?"
Larabee rubbed a hand across his black clad knee, pondering the question. "Aint rightly sure. Nathan reckons its cause I blamed you."
"Havin to kill that boy. I werent proud of myself and you kept askin me not to shoot him. But faced with a choice "He shrugged. "He wouldve continued to taunt and eventually gone through with the threat."
"Im sorry Chris, fer puttin you in that position." Vin reached out and caught hold of the gunslingers hand. "I aint used to folk watchin out fer me." He closed his eyes, soaking in the information, hating the unknown youth for putting Larabee through the mental torture. Yet still something nagged him. "What about JD and Ezra. Why didya get mad at them?"
"Thats easy. I remember the day of the shootin. JD was excited by it all; he couldnt help it, but I was angry. And Ezra? . I thought he was gamblin on the outcome."
"And both events stuck in yer mind."
"Yeah and when I came too I was furious at their insensitivity."
"I knew there had to be a reason. Have ya told them yet?"
Chris nodded. "Had a lot of explainin to do. When Buck found out it was me hurtin you well, he sure packs a powerful punch."
"Thats why I didnt tell any of em. Didnt want ya getting hurt when it really werent your fault."
"Couldve saved yourself a lot of pain, pard."
Vin sighed heavily as he recalled the abuse hed suffered. "I know guess we were both tryin to protect each other and ended up makin things worse."
"Couple of fools. Now Vin Tanner, get yourself some sleep, you look tuckered out."
"Think the boysll be okay?"
"Sure. Josiah aint seen no crows lately and Ezra said Lady Luck was ridin high." Chris replied brightly, yet secretly worried about their companions.
"Ya never did say who they were chasin."
"And I aint goin to. Sleep, Tanner!"
Chris glared at the younger man then broke into a smile. "Sure am." He settled back in the chair, stretching his long legs out. It was going to be an uncomfortable night, but Vin Tanner was well worth it.
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