Chris Larabee almost smiled when Buck found him at the saloon and told him the good news. It was as close as the man was going to come to showing how relieved and grateful he was.
Together, they headed for the little second-floor room where Nathan cared for the sick and injured who didn't have a proper place to lay their heads while they mended. Buck hadn't really given JD a chance to explain what had happened to Vin and as a result, he'd been frustratingly vague when he'd tried to tell Chris that Vin was hurt.
Neither man really knew what to expect, and for that reason did not just barge into Nathan's quarters. They knocked softly, and Nathan greeted them with a bittersweet smile.
When Nathan was really happy, he couldn't hide it. That grin of his would light up his whole face. He was glad to see them, but something was definitely wrong.
Chris got to the point. "How's Vin?"
Nathan looked cautiously back into the room and then pulled door closed behind him. "You heard he's alive, then?"
"I want to see him," Chris said.
"I don't know if that's a good idea, Chris," Nathan said. "Vin's... not himself."
"What happened to him?"
"That's just it. I don't know. He won't speak more than one or two words at a time, and it's hell even getting that much out of him. All he seems to want to do is lie there. It's like he's just pushed the rest of the world away."
Chris squinted at him, his jaw set. "I want to see him," he repeated.
Nathan acquiesced. "Okay, but just you... No offense Buck, it's just that I don't know that Vin would want you to see him just now."
Nathan was also certain that Vin couldn't handle Buck's loud, boisterous nature. His nerves were so on edge that the slightest disturbance - a loud voice or sudden sound - would cause him visible distress. Nathan couldn't leave him alone. The few times he'd tried, he'd returned to find Vin huddled somewhere, so tensed up he couldn't breathe or so stressed that he'd be sick to his stomach.. Vin wasn't oblivious to the circumstances or Nathan's efforts to deal with them. The second night, he had insisted on sleeping on the floor so Nathan could have the bed and not spend another night in the chair. The hard wooden planks were fine with him, so long as Nathan didn't leave him alone. He seemed fully aware of his bizarre behavior, yet powerless to control it.
Buck was curious, and confused, but he accepted Nathan's judgment.
"And Chris?" Nathan cautioned. "Don't push him. Something happened to him out there in the desert, something that hurt his mind more than his body. I don't think he's ready to deal with it yet. Give him time."
Chris nodded. He understood, far better than Nathan could have known..
He had so steeled himself to grieve for Vin Tanner that at first, he wasn't sure what emotion he felt when he saw him, alive and apparently not suffering from any major injuries.
He lay on his side, uncovered, on Nathan's bed. He was wearing socks, pants, an undershirt... but no splints or bloody dressings, just a bandage on one hand.
"Is he asleep?" Chris whispered.
Nathan shook his head. "Not yet, but I gave him a dose of paregoric to settle his stomach down. He ain't been able to keep much food in him. Might make him drift off on you. He ain't been sleepin' good, either."
Chris tossed his hat aside, approached the bed and sat down on the mattress. Vin's eyes opened beneath a fringe of matted hair. Chris felt a twinge of anger when he reached out and fingered the snarled mess. Why hadn't anyone taken care of it for him?
"Hey pard," he said softly.
Vin looked at him. His face was expressionless, but he lifted a pale, bandaged hand and placed it on Chris's arm. Chris could feel how weak he was and he looked at Nathan, alarmed.
Nathan only shook his head. He didn't know what was going on with Vin any more than Chris did.
Vin said nothing, but his eyes pleaded with Chris. For what, Chris didn't know. He didn't seem to be in physical pain, but he was clearly suffering.
Chris worked his fingers slowly through Vin's tangled hair, loosening some of the twisted strands and taking care not to pull too hard. At first, Vin tensed at his touch, but then relaxed and if not actually enjoying it, at least seemed not to mind. His eyes were heavy from the drug Nathan had given him, but he was fighting it.
Chris knew instinctively what Vin was thinking, feeling. He recognized the signs. Or rather, he remembered them. That blunt ache in your soul when you think your mind is never going to let go of something so terrible that it has left you numb to every other emotion. It was a pain as real and intense as any physical hurt, and there was nothing to be done for it but to endure it until it was eased by the passing of time.
Yeah, he knew. He'd been there himself. The difference was that he'd crawled into a bottle - Vin's body was still here, but his mind had crawled off to be alone like a wounded animal.
He hurt for him, that emotion mingled with the euphoria of knowing that something precious which he had thought lost had been returned to him. His eyes brimmed over, but he didn't give a good goddamn who saw it. No one else mattered, and neither did what anyone thought of his tears. Vin was alive, he was safe, and Chris vowed not to leave him alone in that hell he'd visited himself a time or two.
He smoothed Vin's hair back into place. It felt good to touch him, to feel his warmth and life, to see his slight shoulders rise and fall with each breath. "Go to sleep," he told his friend. "I won't leave."
Vin had the dream again. Different now.
She still lay on the bed, her dead eyes staring at him, but this time there was nowhere to hide. When he crawled into his grandpa's bed, the Thing was there, grinning at him with its torn off jaw as it spurted its rotten guts into his face - his eyes - his nose - his mouth.
He was in the cold cabin and inside the cabin was that hot, wretched hole...
Why didn't somebody come? Why was he all alone? Why couldn't all of this just please please go away...
What had he done that he had to stay there? That nobody wanted to come and take him away from... from her... from that Thing...?
He'd do whatever anyone wanted. Anything... just make it go away.
"Vin? Wake up Vin, you're havin' a bad dream."
The voice was gentle, familiar. He knew that voice.
He didn't want to open his eyes. It was a trick. He knew she was there. Or the Thing was. They wouldn't go away. They just wouldn't go away, no matter how much he wished and begged and prayed for it. That's why he'd had to leave... had to go inside that wall that kept away the terror and the ugliness and the hurting, and he could never, ever come out or it would all still be there.
A hand on his shoulder, shaking him. Porter's dead hand reaching for him, grabbing him... Her dead arms, trapping him... NO!
He opened his eyes. Chris Larabee.
He almost laughed out loud.
You son of a bitch! Rage rose from the pit of his stomach until it exploded into his head.
I'm in this hole. You're supposed to find me.
Grandpa will be home in a week. When? When when when when when...
I'm all alone. When are you going to come and get me out of here?
You son of a bitch. Chris-grandpa-Chris you fucking son of a bitch...
How can you do this to me?!!
Chris was caught completely off guard when Vin lunged at him. He probably could have bested Vin in a fight on Vin's best day, so Vin's feeble grip on his throat and the impotent blows from his fists were not the real challenge.
He didn't know what was happening or what he should do about it, so he just let Vin go on choking him and punching him until Nathan pulled him off.
That didn't subdue Vin, though. As weak as he was, his frenzy gave him the strength to twist, writhe and kick his way out of Nathan's grasp. He didn't go for Chris a second time though. In an unfocused rage he grabbed a weighty volume from Nathan's bookshelf and flung it across the room. He followed it with another and another and then kicked the entire shelf so viciously that the wood splintered. There was no way he could have not hurt himself, but he didn't so much as flinch. He seemed intent on wreaking as much destruction to himself and his surroundings as he was physically able. Nathan tried to get a hold on him, but in his manic state, Vin was just too strong and too fast.
The healer finally managed to get in front of him and grab his wrists. The sudden pressure on his injured arm caused him to cry out with pain and distracted him long enough for Chris to charge him from behind and knock him onto the bed.
Vin resumed his struggle, but couldn't get enough leverage from the soft mattress to throw Chris off his back.
Chris literally lay down on top of him and used his own hands to pin Vin's arms to the bed. He leaned the side of his face hard against the back of Vin's head and forced his face down into the mattress. Vin's hair was damp with sweat - from exertion, from fear. He didn't have the strength to keep up the fight, but he tried to anyway. It made Chris's gut twist in a knot to have to use force on him, but if he didn't, Vin was going to hurt himself.
Abruptly, Vin stopped moving, even though his muscles remained taut, like springs wound too tight. Chris put his mouth against Vin's ear. "Easy now," he said softly. "You need to calm down, Vin."
Trapped. He was trapped again in her cold, dead arms.... Let me go let me go let me go
Oh please I don't like this let me go.
Vin was screaming. Pain, fear, rage, all mixed into it. He wouldn't stop. He couldn't stop, Chris knew that. Vin was always so calm, so quiet that the intensity of his hysteria was frightening, but Chris didn't dare let him go.
He looked at Nathan in desperation. Nathan was trying to get Vin's attention, but it wasn't working.
"You better leave, Chris..." Nathan said, prepared to take over for him.
"No! I can't leave him like this," Chris snapped. "I won't."
"He's afraid of you!" Nathan snapped. "Can't you see that?"
Chris felt like he'd been punched in the throat.
"This is only making it worse," Nathan said more gently. "Just let me see to him for now."
Chris knew Nathan was right. Vin had stopped struggling only because he no longer had any strength left. His screams had faded to harsh, anguished sobs, and he'd buried his face in the mattress to conceal his shame.
It tore Chris apart knowing that he couldn't do anything to ease whatever torment Vin was enduring. He couldn't even offer a gentle word - Vin was beyond hearing him, beyond being reasoned with.
He looked up and Josiah was there. He'd come when he'd heard Vin screaming. God, the whole town had to have heard Vin screaming....
He eased his hold on Vin, expecting him to resume his outburst. But, he didn't. He was completely spent. Only his shoulders moved to the sound of his muffled cries.
What the hell did this to you, Vin?
Josiah lifted Vin slightly and moved him so he was all the way on the bed again. His undershirt was dotted with fresh blood in a couple of places, and Chris's breath caught in his throat when he saw it. He hadn't meant to be that rough with him....hadn't know he was already hurt.
"Go, Chris," Josiah whispered to him.
Chris nodded, but he reached out to touch Vin one last time before he left.
Vin cringed and pulled away from him.
That hurt worst of all.
Josiah pulled Vin's undershirt over his head so Nathan could see where the blood was coming from. Some of the abrasions on his back had scabbed over, and the scabs had cracked open in the scuffle with Chris.
Nathan found a tin of salve amidst the wreckage left in the wake of Vin's tantrum. Josiah took it from him. "I'll do this," he offered. Nathan had a mess to clean up and Josiah could see he was discouraged not only by that, but also by the fact that he didn't know how to help someone who was so evidently disturbed.
Vin had quieted down. Both his physical and emotional reserves had been depleted by the outburst.
Josiah dampened a cloth in the wash basin beside the bed and wiped off Vin's face and neck, and then cleaned the blood smeared on his back. He generously applied the salve, carefully covering the injured spots and working it into the rest of his back and shoulders with his strong hands.
Vin's muscles were tense and tight at first, but slowly began to relax with the massage.
Josiah didn't look at him when he spoke, because Vin was avoiding any eye contact. He was fully aware of what he had done, and was embarrassed about it. Josiah could tell. No point in making him more uncomfortable by staring him down.
He kept his tone of voice level, conversational. "What were you thinking about Vin? When you attacked Chris?"
Vin only shrugged, but at least it was a response.
Josiah was thinking how sore Vin's back must have been when all the small lesions on it were fresh. But, Nathan hadn't found any injuries other than the obvious ones - scrapes, a few bruises, and dozens of ant bites. The cut on his arm was the most serious, but that was healing, as was the minor burn on his hand. Josiah knew that some of the ugly things one man could do to another didn't always leave visible scars, though. There were ways to break a man's spirit without leaving a mark on him. He wondered if Vin had been deliberately tortured by someone who knew how to inflict pain without injury. Or, maybe he'd been raped. It happened, probably more often than anyone thought. Porter was mean enough. And, he was big. No telling what he would do if he were to get the drop on Vin, who was roughly half his size.
Josiah pressed on, cautiously. "Vin, did someone hurt you?"
Vin's muscles tensed again, and a look of panic clouded his eyes, but then he shook his head. Josiah wasn't sure if the mixed signal meant no one had hurt him, or no one had hurt him intentionally. Obviously, he had been hurt somehow.
A coldness spread through Josiah. Vin wasn't soft. If he had been tortured, it would have had to have been prolonged and agonizing. Why would anyone want to do that to him? There was a bounty on his head, but it was dead or alive. Why torture him and then leave him rather than just kill him?
There was another possibility, one that made Josiah's next question more difficult, because even though Vin was capable of violence, he was not an evil man. "Did you hurt someone, Vin?"
For some reason, Vin thought that was funny.
He laughed, briefly, softly, the sound full of irony rather than humor, and so close to the witless tittering of the insane that Josiah decided not to ask him anything else.
He massaged Vin's upper arms and worked his way to the lower part of his back, because he seemed to appreciate it. It was hard to tell, though. When he fell asleep, Josiah wasn't sure if it was the drug Nathan had given him or if he was just too exhausted to stay awake.
Nathan had rearranged the last of his books on the now-broken shelf. He looked defeated, Josiah thought. He sat in his chair and looked at Vin. "I don't know what to do for him, Josiah. He's not gettin' his strength back like he should be. He can't eat. He's lucky if he sleeps an hour straight... He can't keep on like this."
Josiah nodded sadly. Vin's naturally lean frame already showed visible signs of weight loss. There was a gap in the waistband of his pants, and he was beginning to actually look smaller. He seemed very frail, and it just somehow wasn't right on him.
Nathan sighed and jiggled the loose shelf. "I'm gonna have to check his foot and make sure he didn't bust it up. Like as not in his condition, he wouldn't even notice it."
"Why do you think he went after Chris?"
Nathan shook his head. "Hard to say. Maybe no matter what he says, someone did hurt him, and somehow, Chris reminded him of it. Or..." he lowered his voice "maybe he just don't know what's real and what ain't no more."
Josiah heaved a deep sigh and looked at Vin. "Is there anything we can do that would help?"
Nathan shrugged slightly. "Yeah, but it wouldn't be easy, and he wouldn't like it."
"What is that?"
"Make him talk. Not let up on him until he tells us what happened, and if he really can't remember, then take him back to where JD found him and make him remember."
Josiah winced at the suggestion. Vin's hysterics hadn't been an easy thing to watch. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what horror Vin had been reliving in his mind.
"He'll have to get stronger, first, though," Nathan said. "Right now, he just wants to feel safe from whatever it was that did this to him, and all we can do is try ease his fear, even if it ain't rational. He's like a kid who has to be told there ain't no boogey man gonna come get him in the night. He don't believe it, but if he hears it often enough he will."
Josiah looked at Vin and smiled sadly. "I don't know Nathan... The truth is, sometimes, the boogey man wins."
Chris was drinking. That wasn't a good sign, but it wasn't unusual either.
"How's Vin?" Buck asked him.
Chris didn't answer him. Also not a good sign.
"What was all that hollerin' about?"
Chris stared into his whiskey glass. "You heard him."
Buck nodded. "I reckon everyone did. What was the problem?"
Chris shrugged not taking his eye off his drink. "Vin was just havin' a bad dream, that's all."
Buck knew there was more to it than that, so he let Chris take his time.
"I don't know what was goin' on, Buck," Chris sighed. "I just know that the man in that room ain't the Vin Tanner we know."
Buck frowned. "'Course he is, Chris."
"You didn't see him. He's like an animal that's been hunted into a trap. Nothin' in his eyes but fear and hate. You can't even talk to him."
Buck nodded. He understood. He more than understood - he knew. He remembered. "Time was, you weren't the Chris Larabee I know, either."
Chris tossed back what he had in his glass and poured another. "I was never that bad off, not even during the worst of it."
Buck found that assessment disturbing, especially coming from Chris. The Chris Larabee he had known had never really come all the way back, and if Vin was even worse...
Chris looked at him, his eyes steel and fire. "I need to find out who did that to him."
Buck knew that look. He knew Chris would never let this go, that he would carry it inside him along with all those other hurts that ate at his soul. "Some things it's just better we don't know, Chris," he said softly.
"Man's gotta face up to his fear. It's the only way he can live with it," Chris said without much convicition.
"We don't got the right to make that choice for Vin."
Chris glared at him, his jaw set and determined. "If we don't, who will?" He stared at Buck until Buck turned away, then he tossed his money on the bar and grabbed his bottle. Buck had no idea what he'd do, and he'd learned that no matter what it was, trying to stop him was useless. He'd just have to wait around and pick up the pieces later like he always did.
Chris had intended to just go somewhere quiet - away from Buck Wilmington, anyway - and try to drink away the memory of Vin's fists slamming into him. It hadn't hurt. Vin was as weak as a child. But it had brought some unpleasant recollections of his own into sharp focus for an instant.
Recollections of doing the very same thing to Buck, after Sarah and Adam had died. Buck had just stood there and taken it, too, the same way he had.
He had blamed Buck for the deaths of his wife and child. He had always said he didn't, but deep down he knew that was a lie. He blamed him even though he knew it hadn't been Buck's fault, because he had to blame someone. Someone had to take some of the anger and pain because otherwise, it would have destroyed him. It had destroyed him, in a lot of ways, but if Buck hadn't been there to lean on, he would not have survived. Their friendship was never the same again, but that had been a sacrifice that Buck had made willingly, for him.
Now, Chris had Vin Tanner holding him accountable for whatever had happened to him, not because he was responsible, but because Vin had so much hurt in him that he just couldn't hold it all inside.
Vin wasn't like the others. Hell, he wasn't like anyone Chris Larabee had ever known. He seemed so... whole, so self-contained that he didn't need anyone else.
Something had changed that. He needed someone now, someone strong enough to stand beside him in whatever battle was raging within him....
Chris looked at the bottle of whisky in his hand, and then tossed it at the nearest wall. It was time to put his own pain aside.
Nathan didn't want to let him in, didn't want a repeat of Vin's earlier destructive rage. Chris pushed his way into the room, anyway.
Vin was awake, sitting on the bed with a tray of untouched food in front of him.
"Leave me alone with him," Chris told Nathan.
Nathan shook his head. "That's not a good idea Chris... you seen what he did before."
Chris looked at Vin, who stared back, those blue eyes so dark and full of misery. "You ain't gonna beat me up twice in one day, are you, pard?" he smiled.
Vin looked embarrassed, but Chris noticed that the corners of his mouth turned up just the slightest bit. It was a sad, resigned smile, but, it was a smile.
"Go," he told Nathan.
"Fine," Nathan huffed. "You repair the damage this time." He looked at Vin and tempered his tone of voice. "See if you can get him to eat something."
When Nathan was gone, Chris sat down on the bed, like he had done before. Vin didn't look at him, but Chris knew he had his attention. He picked the spoon up out of the bowl of oatmeal on the tray. It had cinnamon and brown sugar sprinkled over it, and didn't look too unappetizing. He helped himself to a spoonful.
"It ain't bad Vin, try some." He handed him the spoon.
Vin stared at him for a moment and then turned away.
"You ain't gonna make me feed you, are you, Vin? Because don't think I won't do it. I will."
Vin took the spoon and forced a couple of mouthfuls down.
"More," Chris told him.
Vin gave him an angry look. "I don't want it."
"There's six of us, Vin. And only one of you. If we have to force you to eat, we can."
Vin's response was to toss the entire tray onto the floor.
Chris didn't flinch. "Nice move, Vin," he sighed. He picked up the dishes, the tray and the spilled food without further comment. When he was done, he placed a hand on Vin's shoulder. "C'mon. Get up," he told him.
Vin gave him questioning look.
"You ain't sick. You don't need to be here. Get up and get the rest of your clothes on."
He would have welcomed a verbal argument, and Vin knew it, so he stubbornly refused to give him one. Chris tightened his grip on the smaller man to let him know he wasn't going to let him resist physically, either. He pulled him forward and got him on his feet.
Vin could barely stand on his own. He had to hold onto the bedpost for support. Chris pretended not to notice.
Some of Vin's clothes were folded into a neat pile beside the bed. Chris found a shirt and slipped the suspenders down over Vin's shoulders to get it on him. He got his arms through the sleeves, then buttoned it up for him. He readjusted the suspenders while Vin looked at him with eyes that were full of resentment.
"Stop lookin' at me like that, Vin. I know you want to lie here and have me feel sorry for you, but, that ain't gonna do you any damn good..." Their eyes met. "I know that for a fact, and I ain't gonna let you do it."
He guided Vin into Nathan's chair so he could slip his boots on. Vin hissed with pain when he tried the right one. Chris remembered him kicking the book shelf hard enough to break it. He slipped Vin's sock off. The foot was badly bruised, but not too swollen, and he assumed that Nathan would have seen to it that nothing was broken.
He replaced the sock and then slid the boot on with meticulous care. The last thing he wanted to do was cause Vin any more pain than he had to.
Vin's hair was a mess. It was pretty much always a mess, but this was worse than usual. It was clean, but tangled and unruly. Chris never understood why Vin liked it so long. It got in the way, and he rarely bothered to really care about how it looked. Funny thing was, though, he couldn't imagine Vin any other way.
He didn't have a comb, so he used his fingers to smooth out the fine, soft, dark strands the way he had before.
Vin looked up at him while he was doing it. He looked so exposed, like his soul had been torn out and put on display. The look in his eyes was one of total defeat before an enemy he couldn't even give a name.
Chris felt the tears coming to his own eyes. Vin's pain was so much like his own, and almost as hard for him to witness as his own had been to bear.
Chris had never been one to hold back his anger or grief. He often lashed out at those nearest him, but he was able to let it go in torrents of rage and violence. This was not always a good thing, but at least it kept those bitter feelings from consuming him entirely. That wasn't true for Vin Tanner. Vin's tranquil, reticent nature would act like a dam, holding in the tide of black emotions while they ate at him from the inside out.
Chris reached out and placed one hand firmly behind Vin's neck so he couldn't back away. With the other, he forced Vin to look at him.
"Vin, whoever did this to you, they won't win. I won't let them."
Vin closed his eyes, his shoulders sagging as if he bore a heavy weight on them.
Chris pulled him close and held him. Vin didn't resist. He let himself fall into Chris's strong arms, drawing strength from his friend's embrace. Chris took the moment to once again cherish the comforting familiarity of his warmth, the smell of his hair, his sweat.
Vin was alive. No matter what nameless demons needed to be conquered, no matter how long it took or how formidable the odds stacked against them, Chris Larabee had that one reality he could cling to.
"It's gonna be okay, Vin," he whispered to him softly. "Wherever you are, I ain't leavin' you there alone."
Chris knew it was probably a mistake to take Vin from Nathan's, but the alternatives were no better.
When Adam and Sarah had died, he would have holed up in a saloon and drunk himself to death if Buck hadn't been there to stop him. His memories of those days were still clouded by grief, but he had recognized immediately the similarities between the way he had been then and the way Vin was now. He knew how Vin wanted to just hide somewhere, his emotions so numbed that he wasn't able to feel anything except that unrelenting emptiness.
Buck had the advantage of knowing what had caused Chris's condition, though. Chris didn't know what had happened to Vin, or how he was going to talk him out of that dark, cold, solitary place he'd crawled into. He had to try, though, and his first steps would be to follow Buck's lead and not let Vin shut the rest of the world out, no matter how much he might think he wanted to do that.
But he hadn't considered Vin's physical limitations. By all accounts, the tracker was starving himself to death, and he didn't have the strength to make it from Nathan's second-floor quarters down to the street without faltering.
He was shaking. Chris didn't know if it was from physical exertion or just plain fear.
"You doin' okay?" he asked him.
Vin nodded. He didn't have his hat, and the wind tugged at his long hair. He took a deep breath, either reveling in the fact that he was outside, or steeling himself to face whatever demons lurked in wait beyond the safety of Nathan's little room. Maybe it was a little of both.
Chris continued to support him by holding onto his arm as they walked down the street. He was weak enough to fall if he stumbled, and he was limping because his foot hurt. A few of the townsfolk stopped what they were doing to stare, but Chris turned an icy, threatening gaze at each of them in turn, and they didn't stare long.
He had no idea where he was taking Vin, but he'd have to figure it out soon. Vin was not only tiring quickly, he was also becoming agitated. Chris could feel the muscles in his arm tighten under his grip, and his breathing was too shallow and too fast. His eyes looked warily about him, as though he was suspicious of every person and every thing in his path, and a fine sheen of sweat had broken on his forehead.
They were just a few short steps from Potter's store. It was as good a place as any to get out of the street.
"Take it easy, Vin," Chris whispered to him. "Everything's fine."
But Vin stopped in his tracks on the sidewalk. His hand moved up to cover his face, rubbing his forehead as though he had a headache. "I can't..." he said softly.
"Can't what? What's the matter?" But Chris knew the answer. He could see the answer... Vin's breathing was labored, and his skin was damp and pale. Chris shifted his grip from Vin's upper arm to his forearm, and clasped his hand, both for moral support and because he was afraid Vin was going to pass out. His hand was clammy and cold, and shook even in the confines of his grip.
Vin's knees buckled and he started to go down, but instead of fainting, he just sat down on the wooden slat sidewalk and leaned his back against the wall. He tilted his head back, closed his eyes closed, and took short, panting breaths, like he had been running.
Chris knelt down beside him. "What is it Vin? Tell me."
Vin shook his head. "I don't know," he said softly. "I can't breathe... I feel sick."
Great, Chris thought. How far would it boost Vin's spirits to puke on the sidewalk with half the town watching? What the hell had he been thinking?
"You're fine," he soothed. "You just rest easy. You'll feel better in a minute."
People were staring again. Chris hated them all. No one offered help; they just wanted to gawk. "What're you lookin' at!?" he shouted at no one in particular. Most of the onlookers took the hint and went about their business.
But, two men continued to stare, challenging Chris to do something, anything to them. Chris recognized them as Jim Ramage and Ted Cole. They worked for Stuart James.
Cole shot a stream of tobacco juice that narrowly missed Vin's boots. "Heard yer shooter'd gone loco," he said to Chris. "I see it's true."
Chris seethed. He knew he couldn't start a fight and just leave Vin sitting there. Cole and Ramage knew it, too.
Cole took a few steps closer and bent down so he was eye-level with Vin. He didn't say anything; he just stared.
"Get out of here," Chris warned him.
Cole stood up and spread his arms out, deliberately not making any kind of move that would convey a threat and give Chris an excuse to retaliate. "Hey, I got a right to be on the sidewalk..." He looked back at Ramage. "...even if it is littered with garbage."
Both men laughed and Chris felt his rage rising. He didn't control his temper well under the best of circumstances and these guys were quickly pushing him to the brink.
Ramage stepped even closer than his friend, and looked down at Vin, shaking his head. "'tween this one and that gimpy sheriff, it looks like yer down a couple of men, Larabee." He nudged Vin's leg with his boot.
Vin pulled his leg up and turned his head away. Chris got the feeling that if James' men wanted to beat the hell out of him, Vin would just sit there and take it. He was beginning to understand that he should have asked Nathan more about Vin's condition before he'd jumped to his own conclusions and then acted on them. Nathan had been dealing with Vin for a couple of days now. He'd only seen him once in the past few hours, and that encounter had been an unnerving one. He had thought that whatever was bothering Vin was something that was best dealt with head on, but now, he wasn't so sure.
Vin was helpless. Not only was he physically weak, he seemed unable to connect with his surroundings well enough to realize that Cole and Ramage were publicly ridiculing him.
He didn't open his eyes. He just sat there, trembling, his face ashen and his breath coming in hard gasps. "Please get me outa here, Chris," he pleaded, his voice barely a whisper.
Chris nodded. It went against every conviction he had to turn tail and just walk away from James' men, but he couldn't see that he had any other choice.
He pulled Vin to his feet and draped his arm over his shoulder.
He could feel the eyes on them as they walked the few steps to Potter's store. He was aware that Cole and Ramage were following them, but there wasn't a thing he could do about it.
The store wasn't empty, but there were fewer people in it than there had been out on the street. Mrs. Potter saw that something was wrong and hurried to them.
She fetched a chair and when Chris lowered Vin into it, the three other costumers in the store looked on, concerned. Vin really seemed to be having trouble breathing even though there was absolutely no reason he should be. Mrs. Potter placed her hand softly against the tracker's back. "I heard he was sick," she looked at Chris. "What's he doin' out?"
Chris raked a hand through his short, blond hair. "I don't know. I thought he'd be okay... Vin?" He knelt down beside the other man. "Vin, try to calm down, okay?"
Vin nodded, but he was as aware as Chris that people were staring at him. For a man as private as Vin , that had to add to his discomfort. Mrs. Potter seemed to sense this, too. "Let me take care of these folks and I'll put the closed sign up."
She wasn't fast enough, though. Cole and Ramage pushed their way through the door just as she picked up the sign.
"I'm closed," she said defiantly, but her voice quavered. She had a very real reason to fear James' men, since it was her husband that James' nephew would hang for killing.
Cole just snorted and walked past her. The other customers in the store suddenly looked like they wanted to leave, but Ramage planted himself between them and the exit.
Chris stood to face them. "Get out," he said, his hand hovering above his gun. The threat was a vacant one. If any shooting started in the confined space, innocent bystanders - Vin included - would be in the way of flying lead.
James' men knew that Chris was in a bad situation, and it looked like they planned to take full advantage of the fact.
Even so, Mrs. Potter stood up to them. "What is it you need?" she said coldly.
"You know," Cole said, "Mr. James is still set on buyin' this property."
"It ain't for sale."
"That's what your husband said... before he... passed on."
Cole and Ramage both started laughing.
Vin looked up at them, and Chris saw just a hint of the old Vin there. They were pissing him off, but Vin didn't seem able to gather his wits about him enough to respond..
"What're you lookin' at?" Cole said to Vin. "I seen that little whelp of a sheriff carry you into town. You ain't got the mettle to take on an old lady. Don't pretend to try and scare us."
Chris was furious. His jaw was clenched so tight that the veins stood out on his neck and forehead. And still, there was not a damn thing he could do. Vin wasn't even armed and he couldn't count on him, anyway. He could probably take both of James' men himself - he was fast enough. But if one of them should get off a shot, they'd likely hit Vin, or Mrs. Potter, and rightfully claim they fired in self-defense.
His voice was deceptively calm when he spoke. "Look, why don't you boys just take it somewhere else? We can settle this later."
"Ain't nothin' to settle," Cole drawled. "We're just mindin' our own business, checkin' out the merchandise and chattin' with Mrs. Potter. This don't even involve you, Larabee."
He leaned against a stack of cans, knowing that his weight would upset the pile. The topmost can teetered and then crashed to the floor.
Vin's entire body reacted. He tensed up and pulled away from the sound. For a brief instant, he instinctively covered his ears and squeezed his eyes shut.
Jesus Vin, this isn't the time to lose it, Chris thought.
Vin quickly collected himself as much as he could, but it was too late. Cole and Ramage had seen his reaction.
"Oh, that was right clumsy of me," Cole said, and then deliberately knocked a few more cans over one at a time. Vin reacted to each impact as if it was a physical blow.
Finally, he clenched his fists and yelled "STOP!" but it was more of a plea than a command, and was exactly the kind of response James' men were looking for.
"Mite jumpy, ain't he?" Ramage laughed. He picked up a glass lantern and begin to toss it carelessly into the air.
Nobody said or did anything. Nobody knew what to do, although Chris had been pushed about as far as it was possible to push him. If James' men didn't stop, he was going to draw on them, no matter what the cost. Vin was as raw as a caged cougar - and just as unpredictable. He was shaking with fear and rage at the same time, and probably couldn't just sit there and take this much longer, either.
Cole walked up to Vin and bent down so that his hands were on his knees, his head turned sideways. And he just stared, like Vin was an attraction in a freak show. Vin closed his eyes so he wasn't staring back at him.
Chris tried to keep his voice even. "Leave him alone."
Cole just laughed, and flicked a strand of Vin's hair, just to bait him.
It was enough.
Vin's reaction was quick and violent and caught Cole off-guard and off balance. Vin lunged at him with enough force to knock him to the floor, but he was no match for Cole in his condition, and if Cole got a chance to retaliate, he'd pound the shit out of him. Chris had to make a quick decision - either join the fracas or stop Vin from being hurt. There really was no choice. He pulled Vin off of Cole, encircling his arms and torso.
He expected Vin to struggle, but he didn't expected him to start screaming like a madman, which was what he did. He kicked and fought to break free, and there just wasn't enough room in the store for him to be doing that. Chris had no choice but to take him down and hold him there, pinning him to the floor.
When he saw he wasn't going to get free, Vin became perfectly still, the way he had at Nathan's. He was panting from the exertion, his muscles as tight as cordwood, but he didn't move. "Let me go," he pleaded.
Chris could feel Vin's heart pounding. Being held down clearly terrified him, but Chris feared that if he let him go, he'd do something stupid.
Mrs. Potter and her customers were staring. Chris couldn't blame them, but he resented it. Cole and Ramage were as surprised by Vin's reaction as Chris had been, but they were exchanging smug glances, and Ramage continued to carelessly toss the heavy lamp into the air.
It was a bad situation and looked like it could only get worse when the door suddenly crashed open. Vin was startled and began to struggle again. Chris was torn between sighing with relief and wanting to smack JD Dunne when he saw the young man standing in the doorway with both guns drawn and trained on Cole and Ramage.
JD's small size and youthful face didn't help to make him at all imposing, but there were other reasons for James' men to find him intimidating. The boy's hands were dead steady, and his guns were already drawn. It was also a fairly well-known fact that JD didn't always think things out first - like what would happen if he started a gunfight in a general store - and they knew he might start shooting before considering the consequences.
"Get out." JD's youthful voice didn't quite convey the force he wanted it to, but Cole and Ramage were both staring down the business end of his Colt Lightnings, and that was all the assertiveness JD needed.
Even so Ramage continued to keep a precarious grip on the lantern.
"You drop that mister," JD said, "and I'll drop you where you stand."
Even Chris thought JD meant it. Ramage placed the lamp carefully on the counter and both men left.
Once outside, one of them muttered something and both of them erupted into loud, raucous laughter.
They were laughing at Vin.
Chris knew it, JD knew it, and worst of all, Vin knew it. He buried his face in his arms and Chris didn't know what to say to him.
It was JD who diffused the situation. The kid walked up to them and in a surprisingly commanding voice said "Let him up, Chris."
Chris's first reaction was to bristle at the kid's presumption of authority, but then he realized what JD was doing. He was giving Vin a way out that didn't involve him surrendering what little dignity he had left.
Chris released his hold and backed off as JD reached down and helped Vin up. "Come with me, Vin, okay?" he said softly, again making it appear that Vin had a choice.
Chris stayed a discrete distance behind the two younger men as they walked towards the saloon. JD had gotten hurt getting Vin back to town, and his slow, hobbling gait made it hard for Chris to tell who was actually leaning on whom. But it was JD who was providing the emotional support, that much was clear. Vin carried himself like a man who'd been so badly beaten that he was never going to get up again.
A disconcerting thought came to Chris. What if Vin was crazy? What if this was the real Vin and the one he thought he knew had just been holding on to his sanity by a thread that had finally snapped?
What were they going to do about Vin?
No one had asked the question, but all of them were thinking it. The sick bounty hunter hadn't lasted long at the saloon. Nathan had admonished Chris for pouring whisky for him and with good reason. Vin had so little food in him that after a mere handful of drinks, he'd passed out at the table.
The other six dealt their cards around him, trying to pretend this was a normal thing - which to a certain extent, it was. It wasn't that unusual for one of them to get that drunk. Except it was never Vin. No one had ever seen Vin drink to excess. He hadn't really done it this time, except that now his body was in no condition to handle even a small amount of liquor.
The sad thing was, it was probably the first real rest he'd had in days.
Nathan reached over periodically and made sure Vin still had a pulse. No reason to think he wouldn't have one, but Nathan was a worrier. It was his nature, and perhaps one of the reasons he had become a healer.
"It's gettin' late," he said to Chris. "He should be in bed."
Vin didn't have an actual place to call his own. He was welcome to bunk with any of them, and often did when the weather was exceptionally bad, but there really wasn't any specific place to take him. Another thing Chris had failed to consider. They couldn't just leave him asleep at a poker table.
"He can have my bed," JD offered. "I can sleep at the jail."
"I think it would be best if he just came on back to my place where I could look after him," Nathan suggested.
"Why don't you just get him a room upstairs?" Buck nodded towards one of the saloon's very few working girls.
Chris shook his head. "I'll give him my room for now." He put his cards down and with Nathan's help hoisted Vin onto his shoulder. It was almost a relief to feel how completely relaxed he was, even if it did make him dead weight.
Nobody stared this time when he carried Vin to his room. A drunk being hauled out of the saloon wasn't noteworthy.
He had to feel his way to the bed in the dark and set Vin down before he could light the room's sole lamp. Vin curled into a comfortable position, but didn't wake up. Chris pulled off his boots and loosened the buttons on his clothing, then covered him with the old Army blanket he kept for cold nights. It wasn't cold, but somehow, the blanket made Vin appear less susceptible.
He pulled up a rickety straight-backed chair so he could sit beside the bed and then blew out the lamp. Moonlight streaming through the window gave him enough light to still see Vin. He lit a cheroot and smoked it while he watched him sleep, wondering what terrible secrets he had locked inside him.
He realized he hardly knew the man, not really. Somehow, from the moment they met, they had shared an unspoken bond that went deeper than mere friendship. Chris couldn't explain it, but he knew it was as intense as the bond he had felt with Sarah, and Adam, although it was not the same. He didn't love Vin, not in the way he had loved his wife and son, anyway, but like his family, Vin had become a part of him.
Still, he didn't really know anything about him. Not where he grew up, not what his life had been like before they'd met. He knew Vin had hunted buffalo and men, and both could have put him in a category of people Chris didn't want to know, so he'd deliberately never asked him about either. He didn't know whether or not Vin had a family somewhere, either the one he came from or one he had made himself. He wouldn't be the first man to run from the obligations that came with kin, but if he had done that, Chris didn't want to know that, either.
All he really knew was that now, Vin was a weak link in their chain. The incident with James' men had demonstrated that. They'd been hired to protect the town, and if that included Vin, so be it. But Vin was one of them, and being incapacitated made him their Achilles' heel. James' men would never have been so brazen if they hadn't known that Chris would protect Vin rather than take them on. If JD hadn't shown up when he had, Chris hated to think how far they would have pushed things.
And what if Vin didn't come back to his senses? What then? He didn't think that any of them could just abandon him, but he doubted that the supposedly decent, moral townsfolk would tolerate a madman roaming the streets, either. They'd insist Vin be confined, and that would be the same as killing him.
The only alternative was still the one he had decided on earlier that day, after he'd first seen Vin. He had to find out what was bothering him, and help him deal with it some other way than... whatever he was doing to himself...
Chris had dozed off in the chair. The stiff muscles in his neck and back would have told him that even if he hadn't awakened to find the room in total darkness save for the occasional flash of lightning coming through the window. Thunderstorms rolled across the desert without warning and usually passed quickly, but it was something else that gave him an uneasy feeling.
He fumbled for the lamp in the darkness and set a match to it.
The dim light was enough for him to see that the door was wide open. And the bed was empty.
He scanned the room with the lantern, but he already knew that Vin was gone. He'd left in such a hurry that his boots were still on the floor beside the bed.
The rain was falling by the bucketful and making so much noise that Chris could barely hear himself as he called out Vin's name. The small fires that substituted for street lamps had been extinguished by the downpour, and the storm had obscured the moon, so the only light he had to guide him was the occasional glow from an uncurtained window or the sporadic burst of lightning.
Vin was physically debilitated, and he didn't have his boots. How far could he have gone?
He was about to head for the saloon to enlist the help of the others when he chanced to look up at the storm clouds overhead and spotted Vin on the roof of the boarding house. It was three stories up - the tallest building in town. It was also the highest spot on the very flat stretch of surrounding mesa, and the best place to be in a storm if you wanted to be struck by lightning. Vin had to know that... What the hell was he doing up there?
Chris had to run almost completely around the building before he found the wooden ladder leading to the roof. It was a tough enough climb for him that he didn't know how Vin had managed it.
Vin was sitting precariously close to the edge, directly over the street, with his back to Chris. Chris moved up on him carefully, not wanting to spook him. He could easily fall or slide off, and 25-30 feet was a long drop.
Luckily, the storm was abating. Maybe he could get Vin down before they were both incinerated.
Vin didn't seem surprised to see him. His face didn't register any emotion at all. He stared forward, his hair soaking wet and clinging to his forehead, partially covering his eyes.
"You can't stay up here, Vin," he said.
Vin shook his head slightly. "Can't go back there."
"Back... down. The water fills it up... and there's... pieces in it..."
"I don't understand...." Chris hoped that the alcohol had something to do with that, but he got the idea that Vin knew perfectly well what he was talking about. He'd just had too much to drink, and couldn't find the words to explain it. "You ain't makin' sense, Vin.".
Vin pushed his wet hair back out of his face. "I know."
Chris reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. Vin tensed. He had put his arm on him once before and had gotten that same reaction. Vin didn't like being touched. Why he was like that was another one of those things he didn't know about him. Even so, he kept his hand where it was. If Vin decided to take a dive off the roof, he'd have some kind of grip on him.
"You can't stay up here. You'll get sick."
Vin squinted at him, then looked away again. Specifically, he looked down at the street so far below. The height afforded a chance Vin might only break both his legs, maybe his back, and still not die in the fall. He couldn't really be thinking of jumping...
Chris couldn't take that chance. He grabbed Vin from behind and pulled him back.
Vin's reaction was the same as before - quick and violent. Chris found himself struggling with him again, and the tighter he held him the more frantic Vin became to get away from him, kicking and screaming like a child having a tantrum. When he had managed to get the two of them a safe distance from certain disaster, he let Vin go and turned him around.
He grabbed Vin's shoulders and shook him. "STOP IT!" he yelled at him. "You're acting like a fuckin' lunatic, Vin! What the hell is the matter with you?"
Vin brought the heel of his hand up into Chris's chin. He didn't have a lot of power behind it, but Chris was momentarily stunned, and Vin managed to land two more solid blows to his head.
Oddly, Chris didn't have the slightest desire to hit him back. He fended off the subsequent blows until Vin finally ran out of steam.
Somewhere along the way, the rain had stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Vin might have been crying, but Chris couldn't tell because his face was wet, anyway. He reached out and clasped Vin's shoulders. "You all done?" he asked him.
Vin dropped down so that he was sitting on the roof. He looked spent and miserable. Chris sat down beside him. "What's this all about, Vin?"
Vin shook his head and looked at him, his eyes appearing larger and deeper in the darkness than they usually were. "I don't know, Chris. I feel like I'm comin' apart."
Chris nodded towards the mesa. "Does it have anything to do with what happened.... out there?"
Vin shrugged. "I don't know what happened. I can't remember it. I know JD found me, but..." he frowned. "The rest is all hazy." He wiped at his eyes with his forearm. "I'm losin' my mind, Chris."
Chris clapped him on the shoulder. "No you ain't. At least, no more than the rest of us. Sometimes, I think we're all of us plumb crazy one way or another."
Vin smiled, briefly, but then got that faraway look in his eyes again, crawling back into that private space of his.
"You ready to come down now?" Chris asked him.
He didn't answer. Chris reached for his hand and pulled him up.
Getting him back down the ladder was tricky. He was shaking, from fatigue, and because he was wet and chilled. Maybe from fear, too. Chris stayed one rung below him all the way down to steady him, and when they reached the bottom, he put his arms around him to keep him from slipping in the mud. Vin immediately tensed again, and Chris sensed another one of his raging fits coming on. He quickly let him go, but not before he noted with interest that it was not so much the touch itself that so alarmed Vin, but the way it was done. Maybe that meant something.
The street had turned into a sea of muck and Vin was wearing only socks. Chris had to resist an oddly paternal urge to pick him up and carry him. "We best get inside," he said. "I don't know about you, but I'm freezin."
Vin said nothing. He was gone again, but those few moments on the roof had let Chris know he could be reached in that dark hiding place he'd created for himself. If he had to do it with Vin kicking and screaming all the way, so be it! But by damn, he would not give up until he pulled him out and brought him back!