DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 10 


Mendoza had been awake for some time and again cursed as his attempts to free his hands met with failure. He shifted until he found a more comfortable spot and watched as the DEA agent walked the perimeter of the small clearing. He knew Tanner was not doing well, and hoped it would slow them down enough for Ruiz and the rest of his men to catch up to them. Maynard and Tanner would pay for their treatment of him, but not before he had the pleasure of raping the woman and allowing his men to do as they wished to Tanner. He knew several of his soldiers preferred men and wondered exactly what they’d do if given the chance.
 
‘We’ll see how well you enjoy the company of my men, Tanner!’ he silently vowed and returned to watching the woman as dawn gave way to another bright morning.
 
Jackie watched as the sun began to lift over the mountains, and moved to check the sleeping tracker. She worried about the fever and the infection in the wound, and knew Tanner needed a hospital and antibiotics more than ever. Right now what they needed was food and she knew the tracker would be able to identify the edible fruits and vegetables that grew in the area. She was certain about bananas, but many of the others were unidentifiable to her. Taking a deep breath she knelt down beside the sleeping man and placed a gentle hand on his uninjured shoulder.
 
“Vin, it’s time to wake up,” she whispered, aware of the drug lord watching her every move. A soft moan was her answer as the Texan moved away slightly. “Come on, Tex, time to rise and shine.”
 
“Lemme be...”
 
“Can’t do that, Vin, we need to get moving,” Maynard stressed her words as the blue eyes fought to open. She watched as his face lit up with pain even as he tried to hide it.
 
“Jackie...what time is it?”
 
“A little after six am...”
 
“Why’dya let me sleep so long?” the sharpshooter asked as he struggled to sit up.
 
“It wasn’t that long, Vin. You slept about the same amount of time I did...wish it could’ve been longer. How’s the arm?”
 
“Better...just a little stiff...don’t hurt so much,” Tanner assured her.
 
“Good, maybe that bath did you some good after all. Now, how about giving me a hand to find breakfast?”
 
“Bacon, eggs, toast and coffee...and cheesecake,” the Texan said seriously.
 
“I wish, how about fruit, fruit and more fruit?”
 
“Sounds like everything a growing boy needs,” Tanner said as he stood up, swaying as a wave of dizziness washed over him. He felt Jackie take his arm and smiled as his vision focused and he looked towards their prisoner. “He give ya any trouble?”
 
“Not likely...probably needs to relieve himself by now.”
 
“Yeah, better let him go...hate the idea of pollutin’ the rainforest though,” the tracker said as he moved to get Mendoza on his feet.
 
“Well, perhaps we could wash the stench from him by throwing him in that pool you used last night.”
 
“Hell, Jackie, I just said we were already pollutin’ this place without wreckin’ the river too. Gotta think of the poor fish and mudsuckers swimmin’ along the bottom.”
 
“Damn, Vin, you’re right,” she laughed as Mendoza’s eyes gleamed with unrefined hatred. She held the gun on the drug lord as Tanner released his hands and led him towards the thicket. It wasn’t long before they were back on the trail and watching for the fruits that grew in abundance in the area. Several times they stopped and collected fruit that included figs, bananas, and starfruit. The sharpshooter used a knife provided by Maynard to cut through the starfruit and get at the juicy flesh inside. He tucked the knife into a scabbard in his belt as they continued to follow the river.
 
Jackie watched the Texan as they moved slowly along the river’s edge. Since starting out this morning the tracker seemed to be slowing down, wavering with each step he took and she wondered how much further they could go before he passed out. He’d managed to eat some of the fruit, but not enough stayed down and she worried about the rising fever as they rounded a bend in the river. She reacted instantly as a shot rang out and Tanner dropped to the ground, dragging Mendoza with him.
 
“Vin! Are you hit?”
 
“I’m okay, Jackie, stay down!” Tanner shouted as he struggled to keep the drug lord from escaping. The man’s struggles were fierce and Vin missed the knife as it slipped from his belt and landed on the ground beside them.
 
“Can you see anything?”
 
“No...wait...yes...across the river...looks like a couple of Mendoza’s soldiers. Do you see ‘em?”
 
“I have them...”
 
“Can you hit em?”
 
“Not from here...never could hit much from a distance,” she said joining him as he fought to keep Mendoza on the ground. Without a word she lifted the weapon and brought it crashing down on the captive’s head. “Bastard doesn’t know when to shut up.”
 
“Thanks...remind me not ta get ya angry. Hand me the rifle,” Tanner said taking the gun from her hand. He sighted down the weapon, waiting for one of the soldiers to show himself. He could feel Maynard beside him, but now he was in killer mode. Nothing moved around him, nothing infringed on his field of vision as he concentrated on the job he’d been trained to do. Leaves rustled across the river, a touch of red hair appeared for a second as an arm squeezed off several shots in his direction and still the sharpshooter waited.
 
Jackie sat watching the man beside her, amazed at how still and silent the Texan was. She knew he was concentrating on the area across the river and wondered how anyone could remain so still. The sharpshooter’s lean body was frozen, only his eyes moving as she watched his finger on the trigger. She didn’t speak as she admired the man’s prowess and jumped as she heard the sound of a gunshot next to her ear.
 
“Gotcha,” Tanner said and moved the weapon to the left where a second man was hidden. Again he waited, his finger poised on the trigger as he watched patiently for a little more of the target to show. When it did he fired the weapon and watched as the second man fell to the ground. They stayed where they were until they were certain the threat had been taken care of.
 
“Jesus, Tex, where’d you learn to shoot like that?”
 
“Vermont, Texas...did a lot of hunting and couldn’t afford the bullets so I had ta make sure every one of ‘em counted.”
 
“Thank God for that,” Maynard said as she checked Mendoza.
 
“How is he?” Tanner asked, again sweeping the area across the river.
 
“He’ll live...gonna have a hell of a headache though. Where are you going?” she asked as the tracker moved towards the river.
 
“I’m gonna check them two and see if there’s anything we can use...”
 
“No...you stay put while I check on them...”
 
“Jackie...”
 
“Vin, stop being so damned macho and let me do my part. I’m not hurt and I can make it across the river and back in a few minutes. Trust me to do this, Vin.”
 
“Alright, I’ll keep you covered, but I don’t think there’s anyone else there,” the Texan said, watching as she moved out. He looked down at the man lying beside him and looked up once more as he heard the woman enter the water.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie nodded, moved out of the thicket, and zigzagged across the small clearing towards the river. She looked left and right until she spotted a place where the crossing would be easier. The water was a little colder than expected, but she didn’t give it a second thought as she stepped into a deeper pool. At the halfway point she stumbled and heard a sharp expletive from her partner. Sputtering and shaking her head she regained her feet and signalled that she was okay before making it the rest of the way across. Reaching the opposite bank she took several deep breaths and moved to check on the downed men. The first one had died instantly, a bullet between the eyes and she quickly looked for the second one. The man was crawling away from the area and she could see by the trail that he was losing a lot of blood.  She followed the trail and finally came out on another road, one that was in worse shape than the main trail they’d been following. The second soldier was trying to climb into the driver’s side of a jeep and Maynard could not help smiling as she moved towards the man. She watched as he turned, blood seeping from the corner of his mouth as the fear shone in his eyes. Jackie knew he would be dead in a matter of seconds as more blood spilled from the wound on the left side of his chest. She felt no remorse as she raced forward and pulled the dying man away from the vehicle.
 
“Sorry, Pal, but I think we need these more than you do,” Maynard said, grabbing the keys as the life went out of the man’s eyes. She looked at the gas gauge and fought to keep her excitement at bay. They had a way out of the mountains now, but first she had to get Tanner and Mendoza across the river and into the jeep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Mendoza had been awake since Maynard left and he’d spotted the knife even as the other man turned his attention to whatever was happening beyond the thicket. Realizing the Texan was hurt and not at his best, the drug lord moved cautiously until he had the weapon underneath him. He worked his way around until the blade came up against his fingers and held his breath as the sharpshooter glanced in his direction once more. Relief flooded through him as his captor turned away once more and began shouting Maynard’s name. Taking advantage of the other man’s weakness and worries he palmed the knife and began slicing through the tape. Several times he felt the sharp instrument cut into his palm, but did not give up as he felt the tape giving way under his ministrations. Mendoza remained still as the blade cut through the final piece of his bonds, yet he remained still, watching the tracker for any sign of movement. Sitting up slowly he cut through the tape around his ankle, smiling as he finally held the blade in front of his body.
 
Vin watched for Maynard, worried when she didn’t reappear immediately. He stood up, glanced down at the prisoner and turned his attention back to the opposite bank of the river. His head and arm were throbbing as the fever and pain once more held a stranglehold on him. Closing his eyes he rubbed at his temples in an effort to allay the mounting pain. His reactions were slower than normal as he heard movement behind him. He turned just as Mendoza leapt at him and barely managed to jump away from the slashing blade. He knew he had no chance of beating the other man unless he found a weapon of his own and stumbled backwards as the drug lord lunged at him once more. He tripped and fell to the ground, crying out as the movement jarred his arm, but refused to give up.
 
Mendoza smiled as his nemesis landed hard and pressed his advantage once more. Holding the knife before him he swiftly covered the short distance to where Tanner was trying to get back on is feet.
 
“I’m gonna slit your gut open and feed you to the rats, Vincent...gonna watch as one vermin devours another...”
 
“No...not fuckin’ likely, Hector!” the Texan snarled as he made it to his feet, again avoiding the thrusting knife.
 
“Big talk from a lit...little man...” Mendoza said, slashing with the knife and smiling as it cut a trail across the other man’s left side.
 
“Not so little!” Tanner gasped, grabbing the man’s knife hand and pulling him forward. The two grappled for supremacy, each knowing to lose now meant death one way or another.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie hurried back to the river and began to cross it once more. She lifted her head as the sounds of a struggle met her ears.
 
“Vin!” she shouted as the sun glinted off something shiny in the hands of the man she’d grown to hate. She hurried across the river, praying she’d be in time to help the sharpshooter. The gun in her hand was useless because of how close the fighting bodies were. She could only watch as the two men fought for the upper hand, the blade now hidden between them as they fell to the ground. The two men rolled over and over, with barely enough room between them for her to see the blade. She kept trying to get a shot off, but each time the target moved and she couldn’t get a clear shot.
 
Jackie knew Tanner was weakening, the blood loss and fever sapping his strength, yet he continued to fight Mendoza. Both men were breathing hard as they shifted position once more with the Texan on top. She lost sight of the weapon, but heard a gasp of pain as the gruelling fight continued. She watched the shocked look on Tanner’s face as they stopped at the water’s edge, and raced towards them, tears in her eyes as she saw the blood mixing in the clear water.
 
“NO!” she screamed as the men lay still and the only sound came from the rippling water the two men lay in. “Don’t you fucking do this to me, Tex!”
 
Cursing her own weakness, she pulled the heavier man off the drug lord, surprised and relieved to see the knife buried deep in the man’s abdomen. It took several seconds for it to register and an almost hysterical laugh escaped her throat as she realized what it meant. Mendoza’s ragged breathing and the gasping wheeze told her all she needed to know as the man’s eyes stared straight ahead. There was nothing she could do to help him as he took a final breath and lay still.
 
The DEA agent took a deep breath and let her training take over. She searched for new injuries, wincing in sympathy as she saw the bruises, but the angry gash across his left side worried her. Blood continued to seep from the wound and she knew she needed to stem the flow before the tracker lost any more. Pulling her shirt off she pressed it against the wound and looked around.
 
“Alright, Tex, looks like we’ve got a little work to do here...”


“Ja....Jackie...”
 
“Right here, Vin, lie still until I get this stopped...”
 
“Men...Mendoza?”
 
“Dead...now stop moving around...


“No...can’t...have ta get out of h...here...bastard’s men...”
 
“I know...but we need to get you looked after first...”
 
“Jac...Jackie...we...can’t...”
 
“Yes, Vin, we can. Look Mendoza’s soldiers had a jeep and all we need to do is cross the river and we can drive out of here. Just lie still for a few more minutes and we’ll be ready to go,” Maynard ordered, surprised when the man finally acquiesced. She tucked the makeshift bandage in place and knew there was nothing more she could do until they put some distance between them and Mendoza’s men.
 
“Think you can walk, Tex?”
 
“N...not much choice...sure bastard’s dead,” the sharpshooter asked, surprised at how weak he felt. He leaned heavily against his partner and looked down at the drug lord. There was no doubt that the man was dead and he felt no remorse for being the one who killed him.
 
“Come on, Vin. The faster we get back to civilization the faster we get you the help you need.” She took as much of his weight as she could, not surprised when he tried to pull away and ease her burden.
 
“Ya gonna be my private nur...nurse...pro...promise ta stay in bed and...”
 
“Let’s not get started on that yet, Tanner. I don’t think you’ll be up to much of anything for a while.”
 
“Be...be sur....prised at what I...I’ll be up...up for,” the tracker said, trying to ease the worry he heard in her voice.
 
“Yeah, well, we’ll see about that...maybe you’ll get one of them Bula Ballbreaker type nurses who...”
 
“Jackie...let’s not e...even think ‘bout that...o...okay?”
 
“Why....too much woman for you?”
 
“Hell yeah, at least right n...now,” Tanner said as he concentrated on staying on his feet while they crossed the river. He slipped several times, wincing as the movement pulled at his injured body. He felt Maynard lose her footing and grabbed for her, surprised when he was able to keep them both on their feet.
 
“Thanks, Tex,” the DEA agent said as they finally made it to the opposite bank of the river.
 
“Any...anytime...Jac...Jackie...c...can’t...not gonna ma...make it...”
 
“Sh, Vin, just hang on. The jeep is just past those trees...”
 
“I...I...” Tanner gasped as the pain increased and dizziness threatened to overwhelm him once more.
 
“Move it! I can’t do this on my own!”
 
“L...leave me...”
 
“No, damn it we’re almost out of here! Don’t you go giving up on us now! We got in this fucking mess together and we’ll damn well get out of it the same way. Do you hear me, Tex? Concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other!” Maynard ordered, taking more and more of the man’s weight.
 
“Try...try...” the Texan muttered as they moved along the trail.
 
“There it is, Vin...our way out,” Maynard almost laughed with relief as she spotted the jeep. She felt the man beside her tremble as they made slow progress to the vehicle and finally helped him sit in the passenger seat. She hurried around to the driver’s side and climbed in, shoving the keys into the ignition and glancing at the injured man beside her.
 
“Th...thanks...Jackie...”
 
“Don’t thank me yet, Tex, I’ve still gotta get us back to town and make damn sure Barker doesn’t intercept us.”
 
“C...call Chris...he’ll know what ta do...he’ll help...”
 
Jackie turned to look at the tracker and knew he’d slipped into unconsciousness once more. She reached across and touched his cheek aware of how badly he needed medical help.
 
“Just hang on, Vin, we’re almost home,” Maynard said as she put the jeep in gear and drove out onto the narrow road.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ezra watched over the sleeping man, wanting nothing more than the take away the lines of strain etched so deeply in the man’s face. He looked at his watch and noted the time as 7:15 AM. A time when he was normally tucked in his feather bed with the soft down comforter keeping him warm and king size pillows for his head. Things had changed in the short time he’d known Chris Larabee and the others and he wondered where he’d be right now if not for this man standing up to Maude. The woman was formidable in every sense of the word, but she’d backed down for the first time when a dirt encrusted blond stood up to her, and made Ezra see he could make it on his own.
 
The gambler would be forever grateful to this man, and the members of The Firm. They’d ignored his past, his reputation as a cheat and a loser and willingly accepted him for who he was. He now used his skills to help others instead of just himself and for that he could hold his head up high. Maude Standish left Billings, Montana in a huff, but she now understood that he was a man with a mind and a will of his own. She would have to accept that, because he was happy with things the way they were. He lifted his head as a soft breath of air was expelled from the injured man. He waited, wondering if Larabee would wake up, but the sound was not repeated as a nurse entered the room and smiled at him.
 
“Good Morning, Mr. Standish. My name is Louise and I’ll be Mr. Larabee’s nurse today. Janette said he had an easy night of it.”
 
“Actually I have only been present for an hour, but the night staff did inform me of Mr. Larabee’s easy slumber. Perhaps the items he’s clinging to have had an influence on his mind and eased his torment somewhat.”
 
“Perhaps,” the nurse said, not bothering to correct the man and explain that while the sedatives were no longer used the pain medication was keeping the patient resting comfortably.
 
Ezra watched as Louise added a new bag of antibiotics and ran it through the monitor. She then checked the leads, took his vitals and emptied the Foley catheter. Finally she noted everything on his chart and turned to leave.
 
“How is Mr. Larabee doing?”
 
“His temperature is down slightly and that’s a good sign. His BP and heart rate are within the normal range. Dr. Bledsoe will be in shortly to check the burns and treat them.”
 
“Thank you, Louise,” Standish said and stood beside the bed. His heart ached for how much this man had lost and how much he still had to face. He saw the body tremble and tucked the NASCAR blanket over the blond, smiling as he heard a soft wistful sigh.
 
“I wish there was something I could do to help, Chris,” he whispered as he sat back down.
 
Awareness was slow in returning, but for Chris the scent of his son, so close, brought a smile to his lips. There was pain, but it paled in comparison to the sheer joy of holding his son close.
 
“Adam,” he whispered as his eyelids flickered and a ghostly vision swam before his eyes. He frowned as other scents and sounds intruded on his sleep-drenched mind and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. His bandaged hands clung to what was left of his life, reminding him of the two treasured gifts he’d loved and lost. His mouth was dry, but there was a contrasting feeling of moisture in his eyes and he fought to keep the tears at bay. Chris knew he wasn’t alone and he did not want anyone seeing his weakness.
 
“Chris, are you awake?” Standish asked as the deep seeded emotions warred for domination on Larabee’s face.
 
“N...not sure...Ez,” Larabee answered, forcing his voice to sound strong in spite of how weak he felt. He blinked his eyes several times and smiled gratefully as the conman used a warm cloth to wash the remaining evidence of sleep from his face.
 
“Is there anything I can get you?”
 
“Yeah...my walking papers.”
 
“Chris, I can’t,” Standish’ voice trembled as he answered the softly spoken plea.
 
“I know, Ez, but I want to know how long they plan on keeping me here! I need...I have other things to do besides l...lie here,” the blond told him.
 
“Your nurse was here a few minutes ago and she said Dr. Bledsoe would be here shortly to debride the burns...”
 
“Hell...shit...”
 
“I know and I wish there was something I could do to help. I’ve heard burns are very painful, but I am lucky enough not to have firsthand knowledge.”
 
“I hope you never do, Ez.”
 
Standish realized Larabee was not talking about the pain from the burns, but from the loss he suffered. He knew there was nothing he could say to ease that type of pain, but he could at least be there to support the grieving man.
 
“Ez?”
 
“Yes, Chris?”
 
“Would you get me some water?”
 
“Certainly, my friend,” the gambler said and filled the glass from the pitcher on the table beside the bed. “Would you like me to raise your head a little?”
 
“Yes...thanks...”
 
“You’re welcome, Chris,” the gambler said and held the straw to Larabee’s mouth. He held it in place until the blond was finished, smiling as he took it away.
 
“Thanks, Ezra, any wo...word on V...Vin?” Larabee asked, trying to find a more comfortable spot on the bed. He winced as a familiar figure stopped outside the door to his room and knew what was coming.
 
“Chris, are you okay?”
 
Larabee let his head drop back against the pillows and closed his eyes. He heard Standish’ question, but before he could answer Bledsoe was in the room.
 
“Mr. Standish, if you would excuse us for a while,” the burn specialist said.
 
“How long?” the gambler asked, knowing what the blond faced was another lessen in pain.
 
“At least an hour...maybe you could get a coffee in the cafeteria.”
 
“Chris, I’ll be back in an hour,” Standish said.
 
“O...okay,” the blond agreed as he watched the younger man leave the room as the nurse entered the room pushing a cart in front of her.
 
“Good morning, Chris, my name is Louise and I’ll be one of the nurses looking after you today.”
 
“Louise is going to give you something to relax you and help you sleep, Chris...”
 
“Don’t want to sleep anymore, Doc. I need to get out of here...”
 
“Well, that’s not going to happen for a few days yet. We need to keep on top of those burns. I’m very pleased with the results so far, but if you neglect them you’ll end up with infections and that would lead to scarring and more time in the hospital,” Bledsoe explained as the nurse readied a syringe for injection.
 
“Doc.”
 
“Yes?”
 
“How long before I can leave?”
 
“Well, you’ve been here for four days, and I’d like to keep you at least that long again. Your hands are not as bad as originally thought and are healing very well. I believe we’ll be able to leave the gauze off today, but I want you to let Louise know if you have any problems. The worst ones are on your chest...second degree burns are very painful...”
 
“Tell me about it, b...but don’t p...put me out...ne...need to talk to Ez,” the blond winced as he tried to get comfortable.
 
“Louise is giving you a combination of pain medication and something for anxiety. It won’t put you right out, but believe me you’ll be grateful for it once we get started,” Bledsoe watched the nurse clean the juncture of the IV and insert the syringe.
 
Chris couldn’t tear his eyes away as she began to ease the plunger down, knowing he had to trust this man to respect his wishes.
 
“Don’t fight it, Chris, just relax and let yourself sleep if you can,” Bledsoe ordered.
 
“Hmm,” the blond mumbled as his mouth felt dry and his eyelids closed of their own volition.
 
“Alright, Louise, let’s get started,” Bledsoe ordered a few minutes later. The strong meds would keep him from feeling most of the procedure, but as always, burns were painful and traumatic and sometimes there was no way to ease the suffering unless they put the patient out completely. He gently eased the bandages away from the burns and was glad to see he’d been right about Larabee’s hands. The damage was very minimal and the gauze could be left off, giving Larabee freedom to use his fingers. He moved up the left arm, taking the bandages from the wound and nodding to the nurse as she moved to treat them.
 
Chris felt the hands as they touched him, removing bandages and placing something cool on the painful wounds. He knew he could ask them to put him right out, but he needed to keep his wits about him. He needed to think, to plan, to get ready to move. He could hear Bledsoe and the nurse talking as they treated his arms and moved to his chest. He felt them checking the tube leading into his lung and, then the raw pain as they removed the burn sheet material from his chest.
 
Bledsoe heard his patient moan and frowned sympathetically as he began to treat the worst of the burns. “I’m sorry, Chris, we’re nearly done.”
 
“H...hurts...”
 
“I know it does, and I’m sorry. Would you let us put you out...”
 
“N...no, I’m o...okay.”
 
“No, you’re not, Chris, but you’re stubborn and that’s something that’ll help you get through all this. That and your friends,” Bledsoe said as he nodded for Louise to continue the painful treatment.
 
Chris held his breath as the agony continued and cried out as the specialist hit a particularly tender area. He knew the man was doing what was needed, but wished he’d finish up and leave him in peace.
 
“Chris?”
 
“Y...yeah?”
 
“We’re done. How do you feel?”
 
“Si...sick,” the blond winced as he turned his head and his stomach emptied. He felt strong hands holding him and opened his eyes to see the man standing beside him, shocked to see the ex-preacher’s face.
 
“Easy, Son, I got you,” the older man said, his eyes filled with concern.
 
“Si...sick, Josiah...Adam’s blanket!” he cried as he realized he no longer clung to it.
 
“The nurse has it, Chris...”
 
“It’s right here,” Louise said, tucking the small blanket over the bandages on Larabee’s chest.
 
“Ho...horse,” the blond asked, licking at dry lips.
 
“It’s right here as well,” the nurse assured him as Sanchez eased the blond back down on the pillows.
 
“Thanks,” the injured man said, using stiff fingers to hold tightly to the reminders of his son.
 
“You’re welcome, Chris,” the nurse assured him, watching her patient’s face for any sign of a repeat.
 
“Chris, if this happens again I want you to tell the nurses so they can let me know,” Bledsoe said as he finished making notations on Larabee’s chart.
 
“I...I will,” the blond said, eyes closing once more. He heard Standish return and knew they were going to talk about something important, but he could not quite grasp what it was. As he sank into the relative pain free world of oblivion he felt something tug at his subconscious and a pair of limpid blue eyes appeared before him.
 
“V...Vin...hu...hurt,” he mumbled, the blanket clutched between stiff fingers.
 
“He’ll probably sleep for a while now,” Louise explained as she finished noting her patient’s vitals and pulled the blanket up to his waist. “If he needs anything at all just buzz the desk, otherwise let him rest.”
 
“We will...thank you, Louise,” Sanchez said and looked across at the gambler. The young man seldom showed emotions, preferring to hide behind a poker face that could fool most people. Right now it wasn’t working and the young man was wearing his emotions on his face. He didn’t say anything, but watched as the conman tucked the NASCAR blanket closer around the blond and made sure the horse was secure in his grip.
 
“He looks so lost,” Standish whispered, but he knew the other man heard him.
 
“Yes, and right now he probably is, Ezra. He’s lost more than most men and has to deal with it in his own way...”
 
“But not on his own,” the gambler said, swallowing against the lump forming in his throat.
 
“No...never on his own,” the older man vowed, thinking of his own loss and how much it mirrored what Chris Larabee had to deal with. Time would help heal the grief, but the memories and yearning would always be there. A constant reminder of how much was lost never to be found again, and this was something Josiah Sanchez knew from firsthand knowledge.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Travis looked at the files on his desk and knew it would be some time before his team was back to work. Larabee was out indefinitely, and Wilmington would be on limited duty when Midland released him from medical leave. Sanchez, Standish, Jackson, and Dunne were available, but some cases needed the full team involved.
 
“God what a mess,” he whispered as he looked at the Gazette from the day after the explosion at the Larabee home. The area around what was left of the house was littered with flowers now as the people of Billings poured out their grief at the senseless killing of a woman and child. He knew Evie had visited the home and placed a cross of white roses amongst the other offerings. He looked up as a knock sounded on the door and smiled as Buck Wilmington entered.
 
“How’s the arm, Buck?” the older man asked, pointing to the seat across from him.
 
“It’s getting better, Orrin.”
 
“That’s good news. When will they take the stitches out?”
 
“They were supposed to come out tomorrow, but because of wh...what happened they’ll leave them in for another two days.”
 
“Do as they tell you to, Buck. I want you back at work, but I want you healthy too.”
 
“Thanks, Orrin, I came by to see if there’d been anything new on Vin?”
 
“Nothing, I just got off the phone with Gerald. He’s been in contact with the office in Rio, but there’s been nothing since the raid on Mendoza’s compound.”
 
“Shit...sorry...”
 
“It’s okay, Buck, I understand how you feel,” Travis said.
 
“No, Orrin, I don’t think you do. Hold on. I don’t mean about Chris. I’m talking about how close Chris and Vin are since...well, hell, since the day they met when Vin was chasing down that bounty. Something clicked between them,” the rogue said, standing and crossing to the window.
 
“What are you talking about, Buck?”
 
“I can’t say exactly, Orrin, but I saw the two of them...the way they reacted to each other. It was like finding two halves of something and bringing them together to make something whole. See, Chris has never been an easy man to get to know. You probably think that’s funny coming from me...a man who calls himself Chris’ best friend...but I’ve been with him through a lot. Sarah changed him that day in the ER, but Vin also changed him. Chris loved Sarah and Adam more than anything in this world, and I think that’s why Vin came into our lives that day.”
 
“Why do you say that?”
 
“Josiah always talks about fate...hell we all believe in it a little and I think that’s what led them to each other that day. Vin was a loner until he met Chris...didn’t give a damn about anything except chasing down the bounty and collecting his money. He changed that day and I think it happened because fate was getting ready to deal Chris a hand he might not survive alone...”
 
“Buck, Chris wasn’t alone. He had the team and he had you. I’ve seen how close you are...”
 
“Orrin, I’m not saying Chris and I aren’t close, because we are, but not like Chris and Vin. See Chris and me were like family...and still are, but we drifted apart a little when he married Sarah. Chris didn’t need me anymore...not to watch his back anyway, but we were still closer than most people. Anyway, I think Vin came along because fate had sealed what was going to happen that day and Chris would need someone strong to be there for him.”
 
“Buck, Chris still thinks of you as his best friend...”
 
“I know that, Orrin, but this is not about me. This is about what Chris needs and I have a feeling he’s going to need Vin before this is all over.” The younger man sank onto the chair and placed his head in his hands, rubbing at his temples as a throbbing ache began to build there.
 
Orrin watched as the younger man rubbed at his eyes. He knew Wilmington was still suffering from the affects of a major concussion, and wanted to order the man home to bed, but knew it would do no good. All he could do was wait until he was ready to continue.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie kept glancing at the unconscious man beside her. Several times she’d been forced to pull off the side of the road and wait for other vehicles to pass by. They’d nearly been spotted a couple of times, but she could not take the chance that these were Mendoza’s men. The Texan had yet to regain consciousness and her worry continued to escalate as they got closer to the Pousada Vrajabhumi Hotel. She prayed they were far enough from the town of Teresopolis that they wouldn’t be spotted. As she neared the hotel she slowed down and tried to look like any tourist coming back from the mountains. One look at the quiet Texan told her that would be impossible if anyone spotted her.
 
“Alright, Tex, looks like we check out the gardener’s cabin at the back,” she said, remembering the small cottage at the back of the property. One man resided there, and she hoped he was busy with his daily duties. She parked the jeep off the main road and glanced at the man in the passenger seat. She knew she had to try and wake him...there was no other way for her to get what she needed. Placing a hand on his cheek, Jackie turned him towards her and gently called his name.
 
“Vin, come on, Tex, I need you to wake up for me.” Getting no reply she shook his left shoulder and again called his name a little more forcefully.
 
“Come on, Vin. Let me see those gorgeous eyes of yours.” Still no response and she was growing desperate as she touched her hand to his shoulder and put a little pressure on the wound. A sharp hiss escaped from the injured man’s throat and again she called to him.
 
“Hey, Tex, I need you...come on...open your eyes and look at me!” she ordered and was rewarded by a low moan and blinking eyelids.
 
“Ja...Jackie...”
 
“Right here, Vin...”
 
“T...tired...shoulder hu...hurts...”
 
“I know it does and you can go back to sleep in a minute...”
 
“N...now...”
 
“No!” Again she applied pressure as his eyelids closed once more. “Come on, Tex, I need you to tell me how to contact your friend. Can you do that? Come on...just need his number.”
 
“Friend...why?”
 
“Because we need him. He’s the one you trust to get us outta this mess, remember?”
 
“Mess...Chris...no Chris hurt...” he said, the fever making it hard for him to think.
 
“It’s not Chris that’s hurt, Vin, it’s you. Now how do I contact Chris?”
 
“Ca...call the office...The Firm...number...number is...”
 
“Shit, come on, Vin! Wake up, damn it!” Jackie slammed her hands against the wheel in frustration as she looked at the man beside her. She knew there’d be no waking him his time and wished she could do something to help him. Resigned to having no choice, but to leave him in the jeep she climbed out and dropped the key into her pocket.
 
“All right, Tanner, I’m going to call your friend. You damn well better be here when I get back.” Turning away from the injured man, the DEA agent made her way towards the small cottage. She’d parked close enough to make the trek a short one, but deep enough in the trees to make it impossible for anyone to see the jeep. Pushing aside the thick brush she checked for guest and was relieved to find the back lawn empty. She waited for several minutes, watching the door for any movement before racing across the ground and hiding on the backside of the house, away from prying eyes.
 
Jackie checked the windows until she found one that wasn’t locked and gently eased it up. Taking a deep breath she held it up with one hand and quickly slipped her right leg over the ledge. Sitting in the window she waited to make sure no one was home and finally slipped all the way inside.
 
‘Now where’s the damn phone?’ she thought as she looked around the sparsely decorated bedroom. She checked the dresser, but only two things decorated the top, a digital clock and a small lamp. Moving quickly, but quietly through the door she found herself in a small living room. She didn’t take time to check it out as the object she sought was on the end table.
 
‘Thank God,’ she whispered as she picked up the phone and breathed a sigh of relief at the dial tone.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Since leaving the hospital and finding the crumpled newspaper lying on the ground beside his vehicle, Josiah knew what he had to do. He drove along the main street until he spotted the entrance to the destroyed Larabee home. The old newspaper sat beside him on the passenger seat and he remembered the day he’d played construction with a small boy. A day that was filled with joy, happiness, laughter, child’s play, love and family brotherhood. There was nothing of that left now, except the memories and the little tractor on a mound of dirt. Turning the car into the drive he fought to keep his emotions in check. The entire front lawn was covered in flowers and memorials to the murder victims and Sanchez was amazed at the outpouring of support. He pulled the car to a stop and ran his fingers through his hair before exiting the vehicle.
 
“Lord, I know you have your reasons, and mine is not to question them, but sometimes you make it hard to have faith,” the ex-preacher said, smiling as a soft breeze seemed to caress his face. He took a deep breath, recognizing the ghostly touch of the wind as a sign that Carolyn and Amanda were by his side.
 
“Thanks, sweetheart, I feel you both,” he whispered, making his way to the back of the remnants of the once happy home. He knew the item he’d come for was probably gone, but he had to check anyway, for his own peace of mind. Taking a deep breath he looked towards the small hill, his eyes locking onto the half melted tractor. Swallowing the lump in his throat he made his way over and picked it up, remembering the way Adam had directed him in constructing the system of roads through the dirt. There was no sign of those roads now, yet the memory of them was vivid enough that Sanchez drove the tractor along the edge, before finally taking it into his hand and standing up. He would always remember the small boy, and how it felt to be a child himself again if only for a few hours. Tears welled up in his eyes and again he felt the breeze caress his cheek. With a heavy sigh Josiah Sanchez said goodbye to Sarah and Adam Larabee and hurried towards his car.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“God, Orrin, how can I face him?”
 
“What are you talking about, Buck?”
 
“I should’ve moved back to my own place and maybe...maybe Sarah and Adam wouldn’t have been killed.”
 
“Wait a minute...I thought we were all in agreement that what happened had nothing to do with you.”
 
“I know, but what if it does and Ella is still behind it? I’ve been thinking about it a lot Orrin and that bitch has no love for me either. What if she was trying to get rid of me and got Sarah and Adam instead?” He lifted his head, and stared at the older man, tears brimming his red rimmed eyes.
 
“Buck, from what you boys have told me about Ella and her relationship with Chris I don’t doubt she’d want to get rid of you as well. What happened to Sarah and Adam happened because she couldn’t take no for an answer. At least that’s what I think, and so do the others. Don’t go claiming guilt over this, because you did nothing wrong.”
 
“If I hadn’t been staying with them, Chris would’ve been there to save them...”
 
“Would he?” Travis asked. “Have saved them I mean? Or would he have died too? It’s natural for you to feel guilty, Buck. I’d be worried if you didn’t, but right now there’s enough pain going around without you taking on more.”
 
“But...”
 
“No, buts, Buck. You saved Chris that day...and you’ll have to find the strength to help save him again. He’s going to have a lot of his own guilt to bear, and it’s going to take everything we have to make sure he doesn’t take on the burden alone...” The ringing of the phone on his desk called a halt to the conversation as Travis reached over to answer it.
 
“Travis!”
 
“I’m looking for Chris Larabee.”
 
“Who is this? Could you speak up?”
 
“Never mind who it is. I’m looking for Chris Larabee...”
 
“He’s unavailable right now...”
 
“Damn it!”
 
“Perhaps I can help you...Chris works for me.”
 
“Who are you?”
 
“Orrin Travis...I own the agency Chris works for,” Travis explained, watching as Wilmington sat forward and listened to his end of the conversation. He shook his head as the other man went to ask a question and concentrated on the voice at the other end.
 
“Shit...look he told me not to talk to anyone but Chris. I just don’t know if I can trust anyone else, but Vin...”
 
“Vin! Vin Tanner.”
 
“Sonofabitch...I gotta go...”
 
“No...listen...Chris is hurt. He’s in the hospital! Who am I talking to? Is this Jackie Maynard?”
 
“Shit! Can’t...don’t know who to trust!”
 
The woman sounded exhausted and near panic as Travis tried to keep her talking and stop Wilmington’s questions. “Look, Miss Maynard, I know you don’t know me, but where is Vin? Is he there with you?”
 
“Vin’s hurt and I don’t know who I can trust...”
 
“How bad?” Travis asked worriedly.
 
“He was stabbed...got a hell of a fever and...look I need to get him some help. There’s no one else I can call. Vin trusts Chris...”
 
“Yes, he does and I’m going to ask you to go out on a limb and trust me on this. Will you do that?”
 
“I...I don’t know...can’t trust Barker...”
 
“Barker is dead. There’s a new director...”
 
“Barker’s dead? How? Never mind, bastard deserved it. Look, I don’t know who else to call. Vin needs a hospital, but I’m afraid the police will ask questions we can’t answer.”
 
“Jackie, I’m going to call Gerald Coltrain...”
 
“Coltrain...I don’t know...”
 
“Jackie, I know I’m asking a lot of you, but I trust Coltrain and...”
 
“That’s easy for you...your life is not the one going on the line here.”
 
“Where’s Vin? He can vouch for me...”
 
“Told you he’s hurt...unconscious...needs to be in a hospital,” Maynard explained.
 
“I know and I’ll make sure he gets the best care possible, but I can’t do that if you won’t trust me. Vin Tanner is not just an employee, he’s a friend and I want what’s best for him.”
 
“God, what am I going to do? Mendoza’s men are still after us!”
 
Travis ran his fingers through his hair as he listened to the uncertainty in her voice. “You found Mendoza?”
 
“Y...yeah, Vin identified him...”
 
“Where is he?”
 
“Dead...he fought with Vin and was stabbed...an accident...bastard deserved worse...Shit!”
 
“Look, Jackie, I’m willing to help and I’ll do everything I can to make sure you and Vin are protected.”
 
“What did you say your name was?”
 
“Orrin Travis.”
 
“Look, Mr. Travis, I don’t seem to have any choice here...but I swear if you’re jerking me around I’ll make sure you find out what pain really is.”
 
“Duly noted! Where are you?”
 
“Right now I’m in the gardener’s cottage at the Pousada Vrajabhumi Hotel near Teresopolis in the Rio De Janeiro Mountains. We need somewhere to hole up until help arrives, but we can’t stay at the hotel under our own names. Anyone sees Vin they’ll know something’s wrong with him.”
 
“Do you have a number where I can reach you?”
 
“No...that’s why I had to break in here. Look, I’ll try to call you back in an hour, but it depends on if the gardener comes back.”
 
“Alright...I’ll call Coltrain and make sure things are set up. You stay close to the hotel, if you can’t get into the cottage I’ll tell Coltrain to have the DEA search for you there.”
 
“I’m trusting you, Travis...don’t let me down!”
 
“I won’t...Miss. Maynard, don’t tell Vin about Chris, it’ll just make things harder on him.”
 
“I won’t, but you damn well better make sure of your contacts, Travis.”
 
The line went dead and The Firm’s owner dropped the receiver in the cradle before looking at the ladies’ man. Taking a deep breath he held up his hand to stop the questions.
 
“Let me get things rolling, Buck, then I’ll explain everything,” Travis said and directed his secretary to call Gerald Coltrain.
 
Buck sat back and waited for the call to go through and sat forward as Orrin Travis began to speak into the phone.
 
“Gerald, it’s Orrin Travis.”
 
“Is everything okay? Did you hear from Vin?”
 
“Gerald, I’m going out on a limb here, but  need your word on the new director in Rio? How well do you know her?”
 
“I told you I’ve known her for years, Orrin, and I’d trust her with my life.”
 
“That may be, but I’m trusting you with someone whose life means a lot to me and his friends. You’d better make damn sure she’s not on the take.”
 
“She’s not. Selena Faraday is well known in our agency as a woman who doesn’t accept a bribe and would rather sell her soul to the devil than buy information from known drug dealers. She’s good, Orrin, damn good.”
 
“Alright, I just had a call from Jackie Maynard...”
 
“Where is she? Are they okay? Did they find Mendoza?”
 
“Hold on, Gerald, one question at a time. They are near Teresopolis in the Rio Mountains, and are close to the Pousada Vrajabhumi Hotel. She doesn’t have a phone, but will call me back if possible. Otherwise make damn sure your people know whom they are searching for and whose side Maynard and Tanner are on. I don’t want either of them hurt worse than they are.”
 
“How badly are they hurt?”
 
“I’m not sure about Maynard, but it sounds like Vin is in bad shape and needs to be in a hospital. Make sure you have medical people at hand and Gerald...Mendoza’s men are still after them so make damn sure whoever goes in after them has some form of identification. Maybe a password and a phone so she can contact me here.”
 
“I can arrange that and we’ll have a medical team go in with them. What about Mendoza?”
 
“Dead. Maynard said Vin and Mendoza fought and Mendoza was killed.”
 
“Alright, we’ll see if we can get visual confirmation on that as well. It looks like Mendoza’s compound was totally destroyed. According to Faraday’s reports there’s also evidence that a couple of the other major drug cartels moved in as soon as they received word and took care of the bastard’s soldiers. They’ve identified several of his top men including Espinoza and Ruiz. Their throats were slit and they were eviscerated. Someone really didn’t like these bastards. Anyway, I’ll contact Selena and make sure she gets her team moving. You call me if you hear from her again?”
 
“I will...just make damn sure there are no mistakes.”
 
“I will, Orrin...”
 
“Good and I expect you to contact me as soon as you hear from Faraday.”
 
“No problem. I’ll be in touch!”
 
The line went dead and again Travis met Wilmington’s worried gaze. “You heard?”
 
“Yeah...Jesus, Orrin, what a mess!”
 
“I know, but at least we know Vin’s alive and help is on the way.”
 
“I sure as hell hope so...Chris needs Vin...hell it sounds like Vin needs Chris just as much. Maybe one of us should go down there and make sure Vin’s okay.”
 
“By the time we got there everything would already be over,” Travis said.
 
“Damn it, Orrin, I know that, but at least we’d be there to make sure Vin was okay?”
 
“No, Buck, at least not until we hear back from Coltrain and then who do we send? You’re out of the question, JD is also not a possibility. That leaves Nathan, Josiah, and Ezra...”
 
“They’d go in a heartbeat.”
 
“I know that, but we need to think about Chris as well. He’s the main target of this Gaines woman, which leaves you boys as fallout if she doesn’t get what she wants. I need to be sure you boys are watching each other and that won’t happen if we split you up.”
 
“Shit, Orrin...”
 
“You know I’m right, Buck, we need to take care of things here and then we can concentrate on what’s going on in Rio. Besides, the DEA will be in charge down there and if I know you boys you’d end up in some out of the way jail for interfering with an officer of the law or some such charge.”
 
“You make us sound like a bunch of yahoos...”
 
“Not yahoos, Buck, just men who care about their friends. Look, as soon as we have more information on both the Rio case and what’s happening here with Chris we’ll talk about one of the others going down there. Until then we do what we can to make sure Chris is safe until Vin returns and you boys can help them both heal. I want my team back together and that’s not going to happen until all of you are back to normal...physically and mentally. What I want you to do now is contact Josiah and the others and let them know what’s going on.”
 
“What about Chris? What do we tell him about Vin?”
 
“Nothing yet, except that we heard from his partner and only if he asks.”
 
“He won’t like that,” Wilmington said.
 
“I know, but we need to do what’s best for him. You can use the phone on the table to call Josiah. Just press line two.”
 
Buck nodded and moved over to the table to place the call. His mind was reeling with the news that they’d found Vin Tanner, but the man was hurt and too far away to do Chris Larabee any good.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie hurried into the kitchen and opened the fridge, searching for anything she could use to help her partner. Spotting several bottles of water she grabbed two before leaving the house. She raced towards the area where she left Tanner and the jeep, breathing a sigh of relief when she found things exactly as she’d left them. Rubbing her eyes she sat beside the Texan and pulled him close. She needed to feel him against her, to know his heart was still beating within his chest even as the fever raged through his body.
 
“Hang on, Tex, help’s on the way,” she whispered and watched as the eyelids fluttered and began to open. She saw confusion mixed with pain and fear and waited for his vision to focus.
 
“Jackie...okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Vin, it’s you we need to worry about. How do you feel?”
 
“Hot...thirsty...”
 
“Well, the thirst I can help you with,” she said, reaching for the bottles she’d dropped between them. She helped him drink and smiled as he signaled he had enough.
 
“It’s cold...” the tracker said, snuggling against the woman beside him.
 
“Yeah...I know, but help’s on the way...”
 
“H...help?” Tanner sat up a little and looked into her eyes.
 
“I called your office, but no one was there...got forwarded to a man named Travis.”
 
“O...Orrin...good m...man...”
 
“Thank God. I told him what happened and that we need help and you need a hospital. He’s calling Coltrain and we should have agents looking for us shortly.”
 
“Barker’s on the...the take...”
 
“Barker’s dead...probably killed by one of Mendoza’s men. There’s a new director here in Rio.”
 
“Da...damn...!” The Texan winced as he shifted in the seat and his body protested the slight movement.
 
“Just try to be still, Vin.”
 
“How d...do we k...know wh...who ta tr...trust.?”
 
“We don’t, but we need to get you to the hospital at any cost...”
 
“Not at the cost of your life...need ta talk ta Chris. Wh...where’d you f...find the p...hone...”
 
“Vin, Travis said Chris was hurt...”
 
“What? How?” The tracker’s voice suddenly gained strength and she had to hold him in the seat.
 
“I don’t know the details, but he’s in the hospital so he’s getting the help he needs and you will be too.”
 
“Shit...knew somethin’ was wrong...felt him hurtin’,” Tanner told her.
 
“I remember you saying something about him being hurt. Listen, Vin, I’m going to have to go back to that house and call Travis again. He’s going to make sure help is on the way and...”
 
“I’m comin with ya...”
 
“Vin, you need to rest!”
 
“I will...but we need ta watch each other’s back. I’m okay ta do this, Jackie, long’s ya go slow and don’t expect me ta run a marathon.”
 
“Stubborn...”
 
“Yep...I am,” The Texan agreed as he moved away and climbed out of the jeep, leaning heavily on the door as he waited for the dizziness and nausea to pass. He felt Maynard’s hand on his arm and lifted his head to look at her.
 
“Vin...”
 
“Let’s go...”
 
“Tanner....”
 
“Jackie, can’t stay here...better if’n we stick tagether,” the tracker said and watched as she shook her head. He saw the pack on her back and the weapon in her hand and wished she would let him help her, but she was as stubborn as he was and it would be him on the losing end of that battle of wits. He smiled as she shifted and gave him added support before moving back towards the cottage.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris opened his eyes, painfully aware of the damage done to his body by the flames. He licked dry lips and forced his eyelids to open. Searching the bed he found the items he coveted still tucked around him. The blanket and horse were the only reminders he had of his son, everything else was gone, stolen away with everything he loved. He felt the tears threatening to flow and fought to keep his emotions in check.
 
‘God, Sarah, how can I do this without you and Adam...and our baby? I’ll never hold any of you again. Never see your bright smile, or hear your laughter...or...God, help me I want to be with you so much!’ he thought as he breathed deeply of the sweet scent of the blanket. Opening his eyes once more he sought out anything that would help him forget.
 
Chris spotted Ezra Standish standing by the window, and knew the younger man hadn’t slept much, none of them had. There was something he needed to ask the other man about, but his mind refused to clear and his eyes closed once more. He drifted towards sleep, but again opened them as memory returned and he knew someone was missing.
 
“Ezra,” he called, frowning at how weak and low his voice was, and tried again. “Ezra.”
 
“Chris, how are you feeling?” Standish asked as he poured a glass of water and held it towards the injured man.
 
Chris took it in both hands, awkwardly lifting it to his mouth and wincing as the movement pulled at the burned skin of his arms. He took several long sips before placing the cup on the table.
 
“Better?”
 
“Yes...thanks.” the blond said softly and then met the gambler’s eyes. “Ezra, has there been any word on Vin?”
 
“Chris, there’s been nothing since the last time you asked,” Standish replied, knowing Dunne, Jackson, and Sanchez were on their way to a meeting with Orrin Travis to discuss what was happening in Rio. He had no idea what was happening since Jackson had called him and told him only that Buck called to tell them to meet him at Travis’ office. 
 
“Shit...” Larabee gritted his teeth and sat further up in the bed, ignoring the pain and discomfort the movement cost him.
 
“Can I get you something?” Standish asked.
 
“No...not unless you can turn back the time,” Larabee said, placing his right arm over his head.
 
“I wish I could, but alas there is no way for me to grant that request,” Standish said wistfully.
 
“Ezra, you look like you need this bed more than I do,” the blond said.
 
“I have been suffering from lack of downtime lately, but that will change shortly when Nathan comes in to stay with you.”
 
“I don’t need you boys here with me all night. Hell, as soon as they give me the meds I’ll be out anyway, but I need to know if you guys get any word on Vin, okay? Will you make sure I’m updated?”
 
“I’ll do what I can,” the gambler said as a nurse entered the room.
 
“Chris, I’m going to give you something for pain and I’ve got a new antibiotic cocktail Dr. Bledsoe wants you on,” Louise explained as she injected the pain medication into his IV and hooked up the antibiotics. “Dinner will be here shortly, but if you want anything before them just buzz the desk, okay?”
 
“Okay, thanks, Louise,” Larabee said as the drug quickly took effect and he yawned tiredly. “Well, I’m not m...much company.”
 
“Go on and sleep, Chris, I’ll wake you when dinner gets here.”
 
“N...no choice in the matter,” Larabee said, pulling the blanket and horse close once more.
 
Standish watched as the injured man slowly drifted off to sleep once more. He reached for the blanket and lifted it up over the bandages and heard Larabee’s soft sigh. This man had a lot to deal with, but for now, at least he seemed to be resting comfortably. Satisfied that he’d done what he could, Ezra moved to the window once more. Rain had just begun to fall and he remembered something a Nanny had once told him.
 
‘Rain is God’s tears, Ezra, and when we see it fall it’s because the Lord is trying to wash away our pain. Never feel sad when it rains, just think of it as cleansing the soul and easing torment.’ He heard her voice as clearly as if she was in the room with him and he looked at the sleeping man.
 
‘If it’s true, Nanny Kay, then I hope it rains until Chris finds peace in his heart once more,’ the gambler thought sadly.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
It had been over an hour since the call came from Jackie Maynard. Orrin continued to watch Wilmington as the younger man pace the floor worriedly. He knew sooner or later everything was going to catch up with this man and he’d collapse, he just hoped it did not make anything worse than it already was. A knock at the door had both men turning towards it as it opened and Sanchez, Dunne, and Jackson entered the office.
 
“Anything new, Orrin?” Sanchez asked, taking in the harried look on Wilmington’s face.
 
“Nothing, I’m waiting to hear from Coltrain...hopefully he’ll have some news for us,” Travis answered.
 
“Buck, are you feeling okay,” Jackson asked.
 
“I’m fine, Nate, just a little tired. How’s Chris doing?”
 
“He was sleeping when we left. Ezra’s staying with him and I told him we’d call him as soon as we know anything new. Orrin, do you have any idea how bad Vin is hurt?” the medic in training inquired.
 
“I know he’s been stabbed and Maynard said he was in bad shape, but other than that I don’t know. Coltrain will make sure the DEA sends in a medical team when they move,” Travis explained as the four men took the empty chairs placed around his desk.
 
“Who is the person in charge down there and can we trust him?” Dunne asked.
 
“JD, the new director is a woman named Selena Faraday. Gerald has vouched for her, but like the rest of you I’d rather not trust her, but we don’t have a choice right now. All we can do is pray Gerald is right,” The Firm’s owner told them as they settled in to wait for word on the missing agent.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Selena Faraday looked out of the helicopter and listened as the pilot and the man beside her talked about their destination. Right now they were flying in over the Rio De Janeiro Bay and would soon be within sight of the Pousada Vrajabhumi Hotel. She knew the two missing agents would be in the vicinity and prayed the duo would give them a chance to identify themselves before thinking the worst. A second chopper followed closely behind them carrying several more agents and two medical personnel handpicked by herself. She knew this would not matter and that the agents would be wary of her and the team with her.
 
“Selena, we’ll be landing in approximately fifteen minutes,” Joseph Murray explained as they banked to the left and continued on their journey.
 
“Alright. Joe, you know how I want to run this?”
 
“Yes, I do, but I still don’t like the idea of you going in alone.”
 
“I know, but from what I’ve read in Maynard’s and Tanner’s files they’ll be easier to handle if they think they are in control. I’m going to give them a chance to see me and hopefully trust me. If we can do that we’ll have a better chance of getting them both out of here. Is the safe house ready?”
 
“Yes, it’s been set up with everything Dr. Cavanaugh requested. The medical supplies are in place and he should have what he needs to treat Tanner.”
 
“I sure as hell hope so. There’s no way in hell we can take him to a regular hospital. If word of Mendoza’s death gets out Tanner and Maynard will be targets and I promised Gerald I’d keep them both alive.”
 
“Ten minutes until we hit the target site,” the pilot informed them.
 
“Alright, let’s get things ready,” the auburn haired woman told them as she reached for her weapon and made sure the safety was on before sliding it into her shoulder holster.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie stopped before entering the field behind the cottage and made her partner sit down. Even this short trip had worn him out and beads of sweat formed on his forehead and rolled down his cheeks. She watched as his chest heaved and a harsh cough erupted from his throat. Shaking her head she placed a hand on his shoulder and spoke softly.
 
“Vin, you stay put...I’ll be right back.”
 
“Jackie...”
 
“You heard me, Tanner, stay put!”
 
“W...was g...gonna tell ya t...ta watch yer ba...back...”
 
“Sure you were,” Maynard laughed in spite of her fears. “You just make damn sure you’re here when I get back. Got it?”
 
“Got it...ask how C...Chris is,” Tanner said leaning heavily against the base of a large tree.
 
Jackie nodded and hurried towards the back of the house once more. She checked the window and listened for noise from the interior. Relieved when no sound reached her ears she slipped in through the window and hurried to the phone. Dialing the number from memory she prayed Travis would answer immediately.
 
 ~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“JD, you okay, Son,” Travis asked, watching the youngest member of Larabee’s team closely.
 
“I’m fine...I just keep thinking about Chris and what’s going to happen when he gets out of the hospital. Where’s he gonna stay? How...how’s he gonna take not having his h...home...it’s not right,” the young man said as he watched the others closely.
 
“Easy, Kid, we’ll talk about who Chris stays with when the doctors are ready to discharge him,” Sanchez explained.
 
“He can stay with me and Buck...right Buck?” the Bostonian asked.
 
“Hell, Kid, you know it, but first we have to convince Chris it’s...” he stopped as the phone rang and Orrin reached to press the button to put it on speaker.
 
“Travis!”
 
“Orrin, it’s Gerald. I wanted you to know Faraday is already moving towards the hotel. She’s got a medical team with her and they’ll be taking Maynard and Tanner to a safe house...”
 
“Safe house, damn it, Gerald, Maynard said Vin needed a hospital!” Travis spat.
 
“I know that, and so does she. Selena assured me there would be a doctor present with everything he needs to treat Vin.”
 
“Why a safe house, Gerald? Why not a hospital?”
 
“She’s afraid of repercussions from Mendoza’s affiliates if they find out Tanner killed him. Mendoza may have had a lot of enemies, but he also had associates in the government and police offices. That makes it next to impossible to keep him in a hospital, but she will bring him there if the doctor says he can’t handle the injuries or complications. She doesn’t want anything to happen to him or Maynard and right now there’s no safe way of getting him out of the country until some of the heat dies off.”
 
“Shit!” Wilmington cursed.
 
“Easy, Buck, he’s right,” Sanchez said.
 
“Gentlemen, for what it’s worth I’ve given Orrin my word on Selena Faraday. I know that’s not much consolation, but hopefully the results will be the ones we want. Selena will be going in alone so let Maynard know that. Tell her Faraday will be wearing a dark blue suit, and she’ll have a phone for her to use to contact my office or you directly.
 
“Alright,” Travis answered.
 
“Orrin, I’ll keep you informed about the outcome of the meeting as soon as I hear anything.”
 
“Thanks, Gerald,” Travis said as the line went dead and he hit the button, surprised when the sound of ringing began again.
 
“Travis...”
 
“It’s Maynard...What’s going on?”
 
“Miss. Maynard, help is on the way,” Travis said as the others leaned forward to hear the conversation.
 
“Alright...who is it and can I trust them?”
 
“It’s a woman named Selena Faraday. She’s the new head of the DEA office in Rio. She has a team on the way, but they’ll stay back until she comes in alone and gives you a phone with my number and Gerald  Coltrain’s number programmed in. She’ll be wearing a dark blue suit.”
 
“Faraday, heard of her...mostly how stubborn she can be and that she’s trustworthy, but I don’t know if I can take the chance.”
 
“What choice do you have?” Travis asked.
 
“None...but if she fucks with me she’ll find out what hell really means.”
 
“Understood...how’s Vin?”
 
“Not good...he’s awake and waiting outside for me. I really need to get back to him...is she bringing a doctor?”
 
“Yes, she’ll have a medical team with her, but they won’t move in until she gives them the all clear.”
 
“Good...I need to get back to him...oh he wanted me to ask how Chris is?”
 
Travis heard the others laugh softly and knew it was because of the question. It was something they had expected, something Larabee and Tanner had been doing since the beginning. If one was hurt, the other knew it and if both were hurt the first question from each man was how the other one was doing.
 
“Tell Vin he’s doing better,” Travis told her, not wanting to go into details of everything Larabee was going through.
 
“I will...I’ll call you as soon as she gets here,” Maynard said and the line went dead once more.
 
“I wish the hell one of us was there!” Wilmington snapped tiredly.
 
“We all do, Buck, but at least now we know Vin’s alive and help’s on the way,” Jackson explained.
 
“Buck, we’ve been through this already. There’s no way you can go, and by the time you did get there, Vin will be ready to come back home,” Travis tried, knowing he was embellishing on the truth. Tanner and Maynard would both have to be debriefed and that wouldn’t take place until Vin was awake and lucid. He looked at the four men seated in his office and wondered if he looked half as weary as they did. Once he had confirmation that Tanner was safe he’d tell them all to go home and rest, and would make it an order if he had to.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris opened his eyes as memories assaulted him and tears filled his eyes. He knew Sarah, Adam, and the baby were gone now, but they’d always be in his heart. The problem he faced now was how could he go on when it felt like his whole world was gone. His heart yearned for the ones who could ease his torment, yet he would never see them again. Looking down at his hands he pulled the blanket up to his face and let the silent tears fall as he hardened his heart to the world that had taken his loved ones from him. He knew someone was in the room with him, but he didn’t feel like talking. Closing his eyes he thought about the events leading up to the explosion. So many people he loved were hurt or taken from him, Buck, JD, Sarah, Adam, and the baby, and he knew who was behind it. Knew without a doubt the identity of the woman in the graveyard. He’d make sure she paid in full for what she’d done. Swallowing the pain of memory he shifted slightly on the bed and heard someone ask him a question and then soft sobs reached his ears.
 
“Chris, are you okay?” Wells asked and couldn’t stop the tears from falling. “God, that’s a stupid question.”
 
“Nettie, it’s okay...”
 
“No, Chris, it’s not. I hate people asking me that especially when they already know the answer. How can you be okay? Look at you...you’re in a hospital bed...suffering from burns. You’ve lost the most important people in your life and your home and everything is gone. I’m so sorry, Chris...”
 
“Nettie,” Larabee raised the head of his bed, ignoring the discomfort in his hands as he reached for the elderly woman. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for, Nettie. You’ve always been there for Sarah and me. You’ve given us so much...you gave Sarah her heart. Did you know if you hadn’t talked to her she would’ve said no to me that night...” his voice trailed off as he realized how much he’d taken for granted and how little he had to show for it.
 
“Chris, Sarah made up her own mind. She knew what she wanted and all I did was give her my blessing on behalf of her mother. She loved you so much and all she needed was to see that herself. You know she got drunk that night, not because of you, but because of that miserable excuse for a father. No matter what we thought of him, she still loved him, but she told me he would not rule her life anymore. She found happiness and love with you, Chris, and for that I’m forever grateful,” The woman said, standing and placing a kiss on his forehead before reaching for the tissue box once more.
 
“Sarah was special, Nettie.”
 
“Yes, she was, and so are you, and don’t you ever forget that. We’ll get through this together...it won’t be easy, but I can promise to be there for you.”
 
“Thanks, Nettie,” Larabee said, fighting the emotions wracking his mind.
 
“Chris, you need to rest.”
 
“I’m okay...just need to get comfortable,” the blond said as he shifted uncomfortably in the bed.
 
“Can I get you anything?”
 
“No...Thanks, but I think you’re right...I am still tired,” he lied, closing his eyes to hide how deeply he was hurting.
 
“Go ahead and sleep, Chris. Ezra will be back soon and Casey will soon be here to pick me up. I’ll come back tomorrow. Is there anything you’d like me to bring for you?”
 
“Have you made any of your apple pies?” Larabee asked and heard the soft chuckle.
 
“I’ll make one especially for you...lots of cinnamon, right?”
 
“Right,” Chris answered, smiling weakly at Sarah’s aunt.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie knelt beside the Texan and smiled as blue eyes fought to open. She knew he was in a lot of pain and the fever was running rampant through his body, but until help arrived there was nothing she could do. She reached for the bottle of water and helped him drink a small amount, only to have it make a return trip almost instantly.
 
“Sh...shit...”
 
“Yeah, that about sums it up, Tex,” Maynard told him.
 
“Did you ma...make the ca...call?”
 
“I spoke with Travis again...”
 
“How’s Ch...Chris?”
 
“Travis said he’s doing better...but he didn’t go into details.”
 
“Damn!”
 
“What?”
 
“If Orrin didn’t say w...what was wr...wrong wi...with him, Chris m...must re...really be hu...hurt.”
 
“He’s not the only one, Tex.”
 
“Chopper’s coming,” Tanner told her and slumped against the tree.
 
“I don’t....shit Tanner, how do you do that?”
 
“Go...good ears,” the tracker answered softly as the noise came closer. They watched as it circled high overhead and then flew southward towards the hotel itself.
 
“Shouldn’t be long now, Tex. You’ll soon be tucked in bed...resting...”
 
“Ye...yeah ri...right...poked and prodded...fu...fuckin’ needles...hate that shit...”
 
“Well, it’s a damn sight better than staying here isn’t it?”
 
“A...ask me la...later...” he said closing his eyes as the nausea and pain overwhelmed him.
 
“I got you, Vin, just a little longer and we’ll both be safe,” she whispered as she held her weapon tightly in her hands. ‘At least I hope so.’
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Selena, I wish you’d reconsider.”
 
“Look, Joe, we both know what’ll happen if we rush in there. At least if I go in alone and show them I’m unarmed it’ll make things easier on us all. From what I’ve read of Maynard’s file she’s not one to trust easily, but hopefully she’ll at least listen to what I have to say. You just wait for my signal before making a move. Understood?”
 
“How long do I wait?”
 
“Give me at least an hour,” Faraday told him.
 
“An hour...alright, but if you don’t signal within that hour I’ll damn well come in with guns blazing.”
 
“Joe, this is not the old west where cowboys came to the rescue of damsels in distress. I’m a fully trained agent with twenty years behind me...”
 
“You’re also my wife, and that makes you my damsel in distress and I’m going to do what I have to in order to protect you. Now get going before I change my mind!”
 
Selena kissed her husband, the move belying the woman’s reputation of being an unfeeling self-centered agent. She worked hard to make that stick, but at times like this she needed her husband to know she trusted him to watch her back. It was an unorthodox relationship, and no one knew they were married since she’d kept her maiden name. The move to Rio had been the perfect thing for them, giving the two agents a chance to not only work together, but to spend some time together without having to worry that they might be stepping over the line.
 
The DEA director hurried away from the chopper, ducking under the blades as they slowed down. She could feel her husband watching her as she hurried towards the main building and moved past it.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“How much longer is this gonna take?” Dunne asked, standing and moving towards the water cooler.
 
“Easy, Kid, it’s only been forty minutes,” Wilmington explained tiredly.
 
“Shouldn’t we have heard something by now?” the younger man asked.
 
“JD, it could be another hour or more before we hear anything. Faraday has to find Vin and his partner, and who’s to say they’ll trust her enough to show themselves right away?” Sanchez explained.
 
“If Maynard decides she doesn’t trust this woman she might not show herself, especially if Vin’s unconscious,” Jackson told him as the young man began to pace.
 
“JD, you wear a hole in my floor and I’m taking it out of your wages,” Travis said, trying to lighten the mood.
 
“Shi...Shoot...sorry.”
 
“Sit down, Kid, you’re making me dizzy,” the rogue ordered.
 
“Are you okay, Buck?” Jackson asked, noting the pale face and the blood shot eyes.
 
“Just tired, Nate,” Wilmington answered.
 
“Buck, the sofa in the conference room is comfortable. Why don’t you take advantage of it?” Travis offered.
 
“I need to be here...”
 
“Buck, we’ll call you as soon as we hear anything,” Sanchez promised. “Come on, I’ll help you in there.”
 
“But...”
 
“Go, Buck, before you pass out...and we have to take you back to the hospital,” Jackson chided.
 
“Damn, Nathan...alright, but make sure you let me know.”
 
“We will, come on, Son,” the ex-preacher said, offering support to the injured man.
 
“Shit, Josiah, I’m tired of these damn headaches.”
 
“I bet” the older man told him as they exited the room. 
 
“Nathan, did you get through to Ezra?” Travis asked.
 
“Yes. Chris has been sleeping most of the day. Nettie’s there with him now.”
 
“Good, Nettie knows what he needs.”
 
“That she does. He needs her now more than ever. She’s a part of Sarah and Chris has always gotten along with her. She knows he’s been good for Sarah and she cares what happens to him. I expect they’ll need to lean on each other for a long time.”
 
“It’s a good thing they have each other, because that other bastard won’t be any good to anyone.”
 
“He never was,” Jackson agreed.
 
“He should be in jail!” Dunne exclaimed.
 
“He will be, JD, I just wish we could make sure it was for a long, long time,” Travis told them.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Ella, you can’t be serious?”
 
“I most certainly am. I want Chris to stay with me once he’s out of the hospital. I want to take care of him myself.”
 
“Jesus, Ella, think about what you’re saying. Do you really think Larabee is going to want to be with you so soon after his wife and son’s death?” Royal asked as he poured four glasses of wine and handed them to his guests.
 
“Of course he will, Guy,” Gaines said matter-of-factly. “Chris loves me and we are going to be together now. I should be the one taking care of him, changing his bandages, holding him when it hurts.”
 
“Ella, I really think you should reconsider. The man just lost his family...”
 
“That doesn’t matter, Jack! It’s in the past. All that matters now is that we can be together and love each other the way it was always supposed to be. He didn’t love that bitch and her whelp and that means he doesn’t need time to grieve! He needs me and I want him!”
 
“We know how much you want him, Ella, but you have to give us time to arrange everything,” Spikes explained, sipping at the chilled wine.
 
“How much time do you need? I know Chris won’t come willingly...not at first,” she whispered. “But once he sees it’s me and how much I’ve done so we can be together he’ll be fine. He’ll probably want to marry me right away, but I think I’ll play hard to get for a while. Make him squirm like he’s done to me all these years.”
 
“It’ll take some time to find a place for us to hold him...”
 
“What are you talking about, Guy? Hold who?”
 
“Larabee...Ella you just said he won’t come to you willingly. That means we need a place where we can keep him until he remembers he loves you.”
 
“I was thinking about the finest hotel...”
 
“That won’t do, Ella,” Spikes spoke up. “We may have to resort to force and...”
 
“I don’t want him hurt!”
 
“We know that,” Averil said. “But we need a place where we can restrain him without having anyone know about it. A hotel is out of the question because of maid service...they don’t look kindly on kidnap victims.”
 
“We’re not kidnapping him!”
 
“Yes, Ella, we are. We’ll be taking him by force if necessary and that could cause a scene. I think the best thing we can do is wait until he’s out of the hospital and some of the heat dies down on all this.” Royal explained.
 
“You know, I’ve been thinking...”
 
“About what, Robert?” Gaines asked.
 
“I think I may have just the place to keep Larabee until he’s more cooperative.”
 
“Where?” the woman asked.
 
“I own a small warehouse on the south side. It hasn’t been used for anything but storage in years, but it has a couple of rooms that should be perfect for what we need. There are two windowless rooms with locking steel doors that I use to hide some of my not so legal contraband, and I believe it would be a perfect holding cell for Larabee,” Spikes explained.
 
“Oh, Robert, that’s perfect. How soon can you have it ready?”
 
“It will take at least a week to set up. As I said I only use it for storage. There are no working lights and no electricity.”
 
“I can get you a small generator. At least then you’ll have some light,” Royal supplied.
 
“Candles would have been fine,” Gaines said, remembering another time and another place where there was no electricity. She remembered how Chris’ hands moved over her body, singing her flesh with the heat of their lovemaking. She craved the feelings only he instillled in her, and knew the trio in the room would no longer satisfy her lust. ‘Oh, Chris, you were hotter than the flames themselves,’ she thought, smiling wistfully.
 
“What are you thinking about, Ella?” Averil asked, noting the look on her face.
 
“I was just thinking how good this is going to be. Having Chris at my side where he belongs and knowing the three of you will make sure he stays there. Thank you so much,” she said, hugging each man in turn before walking towards the patio doors.
 
“Where are you going, Ella?” Spikes asked.
 
“I need a shower...and I’m sure you gentlemen have things to discuss and plans to put in motion.” Gaines let her robe drop to the floor before entering her bedroom and closing the door behind her.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie knew the Texan was unconscious again and she listened for any sounds out of the ordinary. A couple had walked close to their hiding place, but they’d turned back to the hotel before discovering her and Vin. She looked down at the man lying on his side and wondered if there was anything else she could have done to protect him from Mendoza. Her head snapped up as she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. She turned towards the area where the jeep was parked and watched as a dark haired woman entered the small clearing and moved towards the parked vehicle. The dark blue suit was form fitting and did little to hide the fact that the woman exercised and kept in shape. She sank back below the hedge as the woman searched the area.
 
“Jackie!”
 
Maynard heard her name called and felt her heart skip a beat at the thought that help may have finally arrived. She stayed where she was and watched the woman closely.
 
“Jackie, my name is Selena Faraday and I’m here to help you. I’m unarmed and alone and I know I’m asking a lot of you, but I need you to trust me. I’ve got a phone here programmed for Richard Coltrain or Orrin Travis. You can call either of them and ask them to confirm my identity. Jackie, I know you’re concerned about Tanner and I want you to know I have a medical team with me. All you need to do is show me where you are.”
 
Taking a deep breath, Maynard stood up and pointed her weapon at the newcomer. “Over here!”
 
Faraday turned at the sound of the woman’s voice and held up her hands. Instincts kicked in and she took note of the disheveled appearance and the evidence of exhaustion on the agent’s face.
 
“I’m unarmed,” she assured the other woman.
 
“Take off the jacket and turn around,” Maynard ordered and watched as Faraday complied. “Lie down on your stomach with your hands clasped behind your head.
 
The DEA director hurried to comply and laid flat on the ground. She turned her head as she heard movement from the agent. She soon felt Maynard’s hands searching her body and waited for the all clear. She felt the phone being removed from her holster and moved away.
 
“Satisfied?”
 
“For now. Stand up, but don’t try anything!”
 
“I won’t, Jackie. I told you I’m on your side. Press one for Coltrain, two for Travis,” Faraday said as she climbed to her feet and watched the exhausted agent. The gun remained steadfast in Maynard’s hand even as she hit the number and placed the phone to her ear.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The shrill ringing of the phone snapped everyone out of a daze as The Firm’s owner reached out and hit the button. By unspoken agreement the other’s left it to the older man to do the talking. Sanchez stood and moved to the door to let Wilmington know the call they were waiting for was coming in.
 
“Travis!”
 
“It’s Maynard.”
 
“Thank God. Are you and Vin okay?”
 
“I’m fine...Vin’s in bad shape. Faraday is here and she’s alone. I want to trust her...but...”
 
“You don’t have a choice...you can’t do it alone and Vin needs help.”
 
“I know...God...I’m just so tir...tired.”
 
“Jackie, you’ve been through hell down there. It’s time to let someone else take the flack with all of this. Let me talk to Faraday and we’ll get you and Vin the help you need!”
 
“He w...wants to talk t...to you.”
 
Travis and the others listened as the phone was passed from one hand to another and a new voice came on the line.
 
“This is Selena Faraday, who am I talking to?”
 
“Orrin Travis. I own an agency called The Firm in Billings, Montana.”
 
“I’ve heard of it. You people do good work and I believe you’ve even lent us a hand on several occasions. Right now, I need to get Maynard and Tanner out of here!”
 
“Do you have a safe house set up?”
 
“Yes...and we’ve got a medical team here as well. Shit, Maynard just passed out. I’ve got to go, Travis, but I’ll contact you as soon as I can!” The line went dead as Josiah and Buck returned.
 
“What happened?” Wilmington asked as he sat across from Travis.
 
“Faraday and her team are with them now. They’ll be taken to a safe house and given medical treatment. Maynard was on the phone for a few minutes before she passed out. She said Vin’s in bad shape, but that’s all we know for now,” Travis answered.
 
“Damn, is she going to call back with the number for the safe house?” the rogue asked.
 
“She’ll contact me as soon as she can. Look, there’s nothing more we can do right now. I suggest you all go home and get some rest.”
 
“Won’t be able to rest with Vin down there!” Dunne exclaimed.
 
“JD, Chris still needs us here and when Vin comes home he’ll need us too. What good will you be to them if you’re exhausted?” Jackson asked. “Come on, JD, I’ll drive you home before I go over to the hospital.”
 
“Buck, let’s go!” Sanchez ordered. The ladies’ man would be staying with him for several more days, longer if the headaches continued.
 
Orrin watched the men leave and reached for the bottle of Scotch on the table behind him. Pouring a stiff shot he downed it, wincing as the fiery liquid burned a trail down the back of his throat.
 
“You’d better be on the up and up, Faraday!” he thought as he sat back in his chair and reached for the files on his desk.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The DEA agent moved to check on the younger woman, relieved when she found a strong, steady pulse. Reaching into her pocket she pulled out a two-way radio and contacted the chopper.
 
“Joe, get that medical team over here. I’m in the northwest section of the hotel property, just past the caretaker’s cottage!”
 
“Are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine...just get things rolling on your end!”
 
“On it...be careful. I think we spotted a couple of Mendoza’s associates nearby.”
 
“Did you send someone to check it out?”
 
“I sent Craig and his partner. They haven’t returned yet, but have kept in contact with me. I’m on my way, Selena,” Murray assured her.
 
“Okay,” Faraday said as she moved to the area where she first spotted Maynard. Cautiously the woman pulled back the brush and spotted the injured man lying on his side. Making sure the area was clear she moved some of the brush aside and hurried over to the injured man. Touching her fingertips against his throat she felt the small flutter of a pulse, and pressed the button on the radio again.
 
“Joe, hurry, Tanner’s in bad shape!” she said as she took in the bruises, bandages, blood, and evidence of fever covering the body.
 
“We’re just passing the cottage now, Selena. Where are you?”
 
“Over here!” Faraday called, standing up and looking towards the cottage. She spotted her husband and several other agents hurrying towards her, the medical team in the center of the group. She turned her attention back to the battered body and again touched his neck.
 
“Damn,” Gary Reardon exclaimed as he knelt beside the injured man, placing the medical kit beside him.
 
“Where’s Maynard?” Murray asked.
 
“In the clearing by the jeep! I don’t think she’s hurt, but you might want to check her out before moving her!” Faraday answered and hurried to follow Melanie White into the clearing.
 
Reardon quickly began giving orders as he opened his kit and began setting up the monitoring equipment. He expertly examined the wounds as the mobile monitors began beeping and giving readouts.
 
“Shit, his blood pressure and oxygen levels are really low and his heart rates too high. Joe, hook up the oxygen while I start an IV,” Reardon ordered.
 
“Sure Doc,” the other man said and called on his military medical training to assist the physician. “We need to hurry.”
 
“I know, but we have to get him stabilized before we can move him...damn, it’s hard to find a vein!”
 
“Looks like he’s still bleeding,” Murray said, pointing to the makeshift bandage on the injured man’s side.
 
“Yeah! Grab a couple of bandages and put pressure on it. He’s hotter than hell,” the physician spat as he finally inserted the IV line. “I’m in.”
 
“Doc?”
 
Murray lifted his head and watched as White returned with Faraday and two men supporting someone between them.
 
“How is she?”
 
“Doesn’t seem to be anything broken, and Selena says she was walking around and lucid when she first arrived.  Think she’s just exhausted and slightly dehydrated.”
 
“Alright, Melanie, start an IV and get her ready for transport. Joe, you’d better send someone for another stretcher.”
 
“I already did,” Selena advised him and watched as the medical personnel worked on the unconscious patients.
 
Reardon secured the IV line and nodded his thanks as one of the agents offered to hold he bag of fluid. His hands slowly moved over the injured man, even as his eyes perused the wound to Tanner’s right arm. There was no doubt that the laceration was infected, but there wasn’t much he could do here except clean the area and transport to the safe house. His fingers detected several broken ribs and he heard a heavy wheeze when he listened to the patient’s lungs. Shaking his head he sat back as Maynard was loaded on a gurney and two men carried her towards the waiting choppers. He completed his examination just as the second stretcher arrived.
 
“Alright, bring the gurney over here. Did you bring the backboard and C-collar?”
 
“Right here, Doc,” Barry Simmons said as he knelt beside the physician.
 
“Good, Joe, Selena, I’m going to need your help to get him on the backboard,” Reardon said as he secured the C-collar.
 
“Sure, Doc, logroll maneuver?” Faraday asked.
 
“Yes, Joe, you have his legs, Selena, you take his hips and shoulders. I’ve got his head. Ready?”
 
“Ready,” the couple answered at the same time. With years of experience and the ease of a team that worked together before they expertly shifted the young man and soon had him secured on the stretcher.
 
“Alright, let’s get him out of here!” Reardon said as two men lifted the handles and the group hurried towards the choppers.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
It was well after midnight when Stacey Midland entered Room 4A and looked at the sleeping man and shook her head. To say Chris Larabee was stubborn was an understatement. The man’s refusal to be put out during the treatment of the burns was testament to that, but at least the morphine was helping him sleep for now. She wished there was something she could do for the other pain, the one that could not be eased with drugs.
 
“Are you okay, Doc?” Jackson asked as a soft sigh reached his ears.
 
“I’m fine, Nathan. I was just thinking about how stubborn he can be.”
 
“Chris? Stubborn? Surely you jest?” the medic in training smiled as the woman shook her head.
 
“Well, between you and me I think the seven of you should be added to the dictionary under the word stubborn,” Midland said as she checked the readouts on the monitors.
 
“Hell, Doc, what did I do?”
 
“Remember the time you were hit by a stray bullet...”
 
“Damn, you’ve got a good memory.”
 
“Yes, I do,” the woman smiled as she picked up Larabee’s chart and checked the numbers.
 
“Everything okay?” Jackson asked as she placed the chart on the table.
 
“His fever’s still up and he’s been sick a couple of times. Jacob and I are concerned that there might be an underlying cause we haven’t seen yet. We’ll wait until tomorrow and see if the new antibiotics kick in. If not we’ll have to try something else.”
 
“What do you think is causing him to be sick to his stomach?”
 
“Again it could be due to the infection. Jacob ordered Zofran and hopefully that’ll help,” she said, turning back to the bed as a soft moan escaped the injured man’s throat. She gently placed a hand on his left shoulder and spoke softly. “Chris, can you hear me?”
 
“S...Sarah...don’t g...go...pl...please...Ho...ney...come b...back...” Chris tossed his head back and forth as the vision of his wife blurred and faded. He tried to reach for her, calling her name, and pleading for her not to go. He heard other voices, but continued to reach for the image he wanted to hang on to.
 
Jackson watched his friend as he continued to struggle with whatever dream he was having. The blond moaned and reached for someone only he could see and Nathan felt his own heart aching for the loss this man suffered.
 
“Chris, come on now, it’s just a dream....”
 
“A...alone...so a...alone...Pl...Please, Sa...Sarah...need y...you. Ca...can’t find A...Adam...baby. God, he...help me...”
 
“Sh, Chris, you’re not alone,” Jackson soothed as Midland frowned at the readings.
 
“Nathan, I’ll be right back.”
 
“Okay, Doc.” Jackson continued to watch over the injured man and spoke softly to him, the mournful cries tearing at his heart as a lump formed in his throat. Larabee’s frenzied search for his missing wife and child grew worse as he struggled to find what was lost to him forever.
 
“Sa...Sarah...please...come back...ca...can’t do it a...alone!”
 
“Chris, open your eyes now. You’re not alone. I’m here...look at me,” the medic in training ordered softly. He watched as Larabee’s thrashing grew worse even as Midland and the night nurse entered the room. He saw the syringe in Midland’s hand and watched as she inserted it into the IV and injected the medication. It didn’t take long for the blond to calm down and his breathing grew shallow as he slipped into a deeper sleep.
 
“What did you give him?”
 
“Valium. I didn’t want him undoing the good that’s already done. I’m going to put in a call to the psych department and have someone come down to speak with him.”
 
“Chris might not want to talk.”
 
“I know, but at least it’ll give him an option. Sooner or later he’s going to have to speak to someone about what he’s going through or it’ll eat him up inside. The same goes for Buck and the rest of you. I’d say it would be a good idea for you all to speak with someone about the loss you’ve all been dealt.”
 
“Yeah, Doc, you’re probably right...I’ll talk to the guys about it.”
 
“Good, I’ll be back to check on him later, Nathan, but if there are any problems just buzz the nursing station.”
 
“I will, thanks,” Jackson said, settling in with the medical journal he was reading.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Selena Faraday prided herself as being tops in her field. There was no way she was keeping the two injured agents in Rio de Janeiro. Mendoza’s friends would soon get wind of his death if they didn’t already know, and they’d be searching for the people responsible. She had checked the database and decided on a moderately sized safe house just outside Campo Grande on Highway BR-262, owned by a former agent named Rory Murdoch and his wife, who had decided to retire to Brazil.  Murdoch’s credentials as a doctor would also come in handy. Faraday knew they’d need the extra help with both agents down. The choppers would land at a small airstrip not far from Murdoch’s home. The patients would be transferred by van to the house and safely ensconced there until they were well enough to travel.
 
“Selena, we’re about to land,” Murray explained as the chopper banked and began to descend.
 
“Are the vans there?”
 
“Yes, both drivers have instructions on where to take Tanner and Maynard,” her husband explained. 
 
“Good,” the director said as the chopper landed and Murray opened the door. She climbed out and hurried towards the second chopper. The two stretchers were being off loaded and she hurried along beside them as the agents carried them to the vans. Tanner was quickly loaded into the first one and she watched her husband and Gary Reardon climb in with him. Maynard was secured in the second one and she hurried inside with Melanie White before the doors were closed and locked.
 
“How are they doing, Melanie?” Faraday asked, knowing the woman would be able to tell her of Tanner’s condition.
 
“Maynard is doing okay. Her blood pressure is a little low...could be from shock. She’s also dehydrated. That’s why we’re pushing the fluids. I think she’s going to be fine once she’s had a lot of rest and a few good meals,” White explained.
 
“And Tanner?”
 
“That’s a whole new ballgame. From what Gary and I were able to see he’s going to need to have surgical intervention to repair the damage to his shoulder and side. He’s got several broken ribs and is damn close to pneumonia. The man has more bruises on his face and chest than Kelloggs has corn flakes and like Maynard he’s dehydrated. I’ll be glad when we get them to the safe house and tucked away in real beds.”
 
“Rory and Jane are expecting us and I’m sure they’ll have things ready for you and Gary.”
 
“I’ve worked with them before. Rory’s one hell of a doctor and we’re going to need him. What’s our ETA?” she asked the driver.
 
“Fifteen minutes,” the man answered as he followed the second vehicle.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Rory heard his wife moving around in the back rooms of the house. Several years ago they’d converted the back of the house into a small well-equipped clinic. More often than not the poorer townspeople came to them for help in medical emergencies instead of paying the fees at the hospital in Campo Grande. He was licensed to practice in Brazil, and had the equipment he needed, most of it bought with his own money. He moved to the door and opened it, stepping out onto the front porch as the sound of approaching vehicles met his ears.
 
“Jane, they’re here!” he called moving down the three steps as the two vans entered the driveway and pulled to a stop in front of the house.
 
“We’re ready for them back here!” Jane Murdoch called as she moved to hold the door for the newcomers.
 
Rory recognized Melanie White as she jumped down from the back of the van. He moved in beside her and looked at the unconscious patient. “How is she doing?”
 
“She doesn’t seem to be injured, probably suffering form shock and dehydration,” White explained.
 
“Alright, have them take her to the back. Jane will show you where to put her,” Murdoch explained, moving quickly to assist with the second patient.
 
“You must be Rory Murdoch,” Reardon said as he adjusted the oxygen mask on the patient’s face.
 
“The one and only,” Murdoch answered light-heartedly. “I’ve got a room set up at the back.”
 
“Good. My name is Gary Reardon,” the physician introduced himself as they rushed the patient into the house.
 
“Heard of you...all of it good,” Murdoch said as they entered the spotless examination room. “Get him on the bed!”
 
The two agents who carried Tanner into the room helped shift him onto the more comfortable bed and then quickly exited the room.
 
“How are his vitals?” Murdoch asked.
 
“BP is 90/65, temperature is hovering around the 104 mark, respirations fast. He’s got fluid on the lungs and is probably bordering on pneumonia.”
 
“Damn, alright, let’s see what else we have,” the older physician said as he slowly began to examine the injured man. “Shit who did this guy tangle with?”
 
“From what I hear he had a run in with Mendoza,” Reardon answered.
 
“Hector Mendoza...the drug lord?” Murdoch asked as he checked the patient’s pupils.
 
“Yes...he won’t be causing any more problems or selling drugs. Tanner took care of that,” the younger man said as he hooked up a second IV.
 
“Dead?”
 
“Yes...but we don’t have visual confirmation yet.”
 
“If he is it’s no great loss and Tanner deserves a medal for doing what the DEA has been unable to do for years. The arm looks bad!”
 
“It is...looks like it’s several days old. There’s also evidence of stitches, but I’m going to take them out.”
 
“What do you want me to do, Rory?” Jane asked, entering the room where her husband and a second man worked on the newcomer.
 
“Pull over the suture cart and make sure there are plenty of fresh bandages close by!” her husband answered. “See if you can clean some of the dirt off of him!”
 
Jane pushed the cart closer and moved to get a basin and fresh water. She knew she’d have to work around the two doctors, but at least she’d be able to get rid of some of the dirt. She turned back to the bed and started with the young man’s face, easing the warm cloth around and under the mask. She winced sympathetically as her husband examined the laceration on Tanner’s left side.
 
‘At least you’re safe now,’ she thought.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck knew he should have been sleeping, but his tumultuous thoughts kept him from resting properly. Every time his eyes closed he saw images from the day of the explosion. The phone call...the drive to the house...the scream he’d heard from the phone...Chris running towards the house...the force of the explosion throwing him back...his own struggles to keep his long time friend from racing into the burning house...the pain of hearing his friend cursing him...the final blow when he realized Sarah and Adam were no longer with them. His arm throbbed with each shuddering breath he took and he knew this was a loss that would be with him for the rest of his life. He knew in his heart Chris did not blame him, but he blamed himself. His guilt a testament to how much he loved the family.
 
“I’m so sorry, Chris,” he whispered into the darkness as sleep finally reached up and drew him into welcome oblivion.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
JD sat on the patio overlooking the darkened lawn. Unable to sleep he quietly left the spare bedroom and made his way through the darkened house and out into the cool night air. He lost track of how long he sat there, remembering the little boy he and Casey had taken on the rides at the State Fair. How Adam insisted he was a big boy and didn’t want to go on the ‘kiddie’ rides. The happiness on the boy’s face as they agreed to take him on some of the adult rides. The spinning teacup had been his favorite and they rode it several times before moving on to the Ferris Wheel. Cotton Candy, taffy apples, French fries, everything a child loved, yet Adam wouldn’t accept it without asking his father or mother first. He felt a lump forming in his throat as he sat watching the stars. They flickered in the darkness, a wondrous sight that now held little warmth for him. Closing his eyes he pictured the smiling boy once more.
 
“Why?” he asked simply, but received no answer.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Rain didn’t know if Nathan wasn’t sleeping, but she didn’t want to move in case he was. They’d settled down to watch a movie and he lay down, placing his head in her lap. The TV remained silent, neither one really in the mood for television. They talked quietly about the events of the last few months and the very real possibility that Ella Gaines was behind the Larabee murders. She knew Jackson wasn’t sleeping well, but there was little she could do about that unless he opened up about his feelings. She was on night shift at the hospital and they’d driven to her place together when Josiah Sanchez relieved him. She knew Nathan was worried about Larabee’s lingering fever and prayed the new round of antibiotics would work. She continued to stare at the handsome man and smiled as his eyelids flickered and finally lifted.
 
“What time is it?” Jackson asked, yawning as he sat up.
 
“Nearly seven.”
 
“Damn, why didn’t you wake me?”
 
“You needed the sleep, Nathan, besides it was less than two hours.”
 
“You need sleep as well, Rain. You just came off shift and I know the ER was busy tonight!”
 
“Yes, it was, but I don’t have to go in today, so I can sleep all day if I want...”
 
“Hmm, is sleep the only thing on your mind?” Jackson asked and smiled as he sat up and kissed her soundly.
 
“Oh, I think I could be enticed into a little more than sleeping,” Goines said, laughing as Jackson stood up and swept her into his arms.
 
Jackson carried her into the bedroom and nuzzled her neck as she sighed contentedly. He knew his feelings for this woman were growing and he sensed she was beginning to feel the same way. He breathed deeply of the scent of her and covered her mouth with his as he lowered her to the floor. His hands fumbled with the mint green blouse as hers reached up to wrap around his neck.
 
“God, Rain, you truly are beautiful,” the medic in training whispered as he slipped the blouse off her shoulders and let it drop to the floor. The white lace bra was a wonderful contrast to the breathtaking color of her skin and again he covered her mouth with his.
 
“You’re not so bad yourself, Nathan,” she whispered against his lips as his hands reached for the clasp of her bra. It soon followed the blouse to the floor and she smiled as his hands ran over her buttocks, massaging gently before he tugged at the zipper of her skirt. It wasn’t long before she stood naked before him and smiled as she felt him looking at her.
 
“Aphrodite could not hold a candle to your beauty, Rain Goines,” Jackson told her as their eyes locked together.
 
“Well, Nathan, this woman is at a disadvantage,” she cooed.
 
“Pardon?”
 
“I think you need to remove some of the restrictive clothing...it could interfere with your breathing,” she said coyly, reaching for the cream-colored T-shirt he wore. She lifted it over his shoulders and smiled as she gazed upon the well-muscled torso of a man who kept himself in shape. She knew he worked out, and the results were plain to see as she reached for his jeans and slipped the buttons from the holes. She slid the tight fitting denim down over his buttocks and finally pulled them from his body. The soft blue boxers soon followed and she pushed him down on the bed.
 
“You are a handsome man, Nathan Jackson, and I want you to make love to me,” she ordered, her eyes filled with desire as the musky scene of the man enticed her even more.
 
Jackson pulled her closer to him and reined kisses on her body, slowly worshipping the perfection of the woman as his hands massage her breasts. He heard her gasp as his mouth slowly engulfed one taut nipple and his hand slid down between her legs. He felt her arch towards him as his fingers came in contact with her womanhood and his penis reacted instantly. He continued to lavish attention on her breasts, nipping at them with his teeth as she moaned softly in a wanton display of sexual pleasure. He lost track of time as their bodies melded together, heating his loins and deepening his needs.
 
“I want you inside me, Nathan,” Rain whispered seductively.
 
“Are you sure?”
 
“God, Yes,” she said and reached for the condoms in the nightstand. She quickly opened the package and slid it down over his engorged shaft before lying down on the bed once more.
 
The feel of her fingers on his cock had nearly been his undoing, but Nathan managed to get his body under control. He lay on his back and reached across the bed to pull her towards him.
 
Rain smiled as he pulled her on top of him and gasped as his penis entered her, filling her insides, and sending rippling shockwaves of pleasure coursing through her body. She met his upward thrusts with her own and soon had a rhythm that thrilled them both. The sound of their lovemaking filled the room as the couple reached for the climax they both craved.
 
Nathan’s thrusts increased as he moved closer to climax and he looked at the woman above him. Her eyes were closed, her breathing heavy, her body perfect in the pale glow of the light seeping through the curtains.
 
Rain felt him watching her and opened her eyes as her body reached the point of no return and she climaxed at the same instant his own body released his seed. She lay on top of him, her head turned to the side as she waited for the trembling to subside.
 
“Rain, that was incredible,” Jackson said he drank in the scent of their lovemaking.
 
“Yes...it was,” Goines agreed, glad they’d been able to forget real life for a short time. She knew reality would be waiting for them, but for now she was content to share her bed with this incredible man.
 
An hour later the duo had showered and were tucked under the blankets. Rain had turned onto her left side and Nathan was spooned up against her. The freshly washed scent of her hair made him smile as he felt the warmth of her body. He knew Rain was asleep, evidenced by her soft breathing and he wished he could do the same. After their incredible lovemaking his mind had one more turned to the devastation heaped on all of them by Ella Gaines. How one woman could be so deadly was beyond him, and he prayed they would be able to find her and make sure she paid for what she’d done. He knew whatever happened it would never be enough. Justice was something a man craved, yet often justice was as fickle as the often talked about Lady Luck.
 
‘We’ll help you get her, Chris,’ he thought as sleep finally claimed him.




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