by Winnie


Chapter 14 

‘I’m comin’ Chris,’ the tracker thought as he fought to hold onto the silken thread, only to lose it as he came fully awake to the touch of the jet’s wheels against the ground.
“Welcome back,” Maynard said, smiling as she watched the blue eyes open and looked across the small space at her.
“Thanks...shit, didn’t mean ta fall asleep like that,” Tanner said.
“That’s okay, Vin, Jackie and I kept ourselves entertained. She’s a very good poker player and has a poker face that could rival my sainted Mothah.”
“How much did he take ya fer, Jackie?”
“Actually, Vin, he owes me thirty five dollars and seventy five cents,” Maynard answered with a grin.
“You lost, Ezra?” Tanner asked incredulously.
“Alas, my sainted mothah would be appalled, but yes, I did lose to the lovely Miss Maynard.”
“Amazing, wait until the others hear ‘bout this,” the sharpshooter said, shifting uneasily in the seat as his shoulder and side renewed their painful throbbing.
“Well, Vin, I was hoping I could convince you to keep this our little secret.”
“No way, Ezra, the boys and I thought ya were unbeatable and well, hell, now we know the truth! Buck ain’t the only one with a weakness for a pretty face,” Tanner said, smiling as Jackie blushed.
“Well, it looks like we’ve arrived safely,” Standish said as the jet came to a full stop.
“I’ll walk you out, Jackie,” Tanner said reaching down to unlock his seatbelt.
“No, Vin, I’d rather say our goodbyes here...”
“I’ll be up front with the captain,” Standish told them before hurrying towards the cockpit.
“Thanks, Ez,” Tanner said and turned back to the former DEA agent. “Jackie, I can...”
“I know you can, Vin, but right now it’s hard enough to say goodbye. I’m trying to make a complete break from my past and right now that includes everything that happened in Rio. It doesn’t mean I want to lose contact with you totally and I have your number, but right now I need to do what’s best for me, and that means making a clean start. Dad and Mom are meeting me and I want to take the time and be with them and catch up on everything I’ve missed out on. I need to tell them how sorry I am about Jamie and to let them know my running away was not their fault. I’ll call you once I’m settled in, Vin, I promise, but for now...”
“I understand, Jackie,” the Texan assured her as he finished removing the seatbelt and stood up. He pulled her close and ignored the aching pain throughout his body as he brushed his lips against hers. They held the kiss longer than usual and felt the stirrings of desire before finally pulling away from each other.
“Vin, I...”
“Sh, don’t say it, Jackie. Let’s just take it one day at a time and when you’re ready you can give me a call.”
She leaned her head against his chest and fought back the tears. So much had happened between them but it was all being put on hold until she found out what she was going to do with her life. She needed to spend some time with her family and find that missing part of herself that would make her whole in both mind and body.
“Thank you, Tex,” she said, lifting her head and kissing him once more.
“I owe ya my life, Jackie Maynard, and I hope everything works out for you,” Tanner said and walked her to the door where the flight attendant was making sure it was secure.
“Thank you, Vin, and I will call you as soon as I have everything going the way I want it.”
“Sounds good, Jackie,” the Texan said, regret evident in his voice as she descended the stairs. ‘I think I may even love you, Jackie Maynard,’ he thought as he walked back to his seat and sank wearily into it once more. He looked up as Standish returned and smiled weakly at him.
“Miss Maynard certainly seems to be a wonderful woman,” the gambler said.
“She is, Ezra, maybe someday the rest of ya will get ta know her better.”
“I take it you are enamored of the pretty blond?”
“If ya mean I like her...then yeah, I’m enamored of her,” Tanner answered honestly and closed his eyes once more.
Standish studied the pale face and wondered at the pain he’d heard in the words. Some of it was physical, but a lot of it had to do with the painful goodbye he’d just gone through.
‘Yes, Vin, I believe you are enamored of Miss Maynard and perhaps one day things will work out for both of you.’
“How long before we take off/” the sharpshooter asked softly.
“We should be leaving as soon as we’re refueled,” Standish assured him.
“Do you need anything before we take off? I have your pain meds here.”
“No, nothin’ right now, Ez. Think I’m jest gonna close my eyes fer a spell.”
“You do that, Vin. You’ve certainly earned the right,” Standish told him and settled back to look out the window.
Josiah had always been a praying man. Even after he’d left the priesthood he still held God’s work close to his heart. He’d worked as a missionary in Africa, staying with several tribes along the narrow rivers. He’d learned many things during his travels, but the hardest lesson dealt with the issue of family. How many times had he watched people fall apart when a loved one was hurt or sick? He couldn’t hazard a guess, yet there was little doubt in his mind that there were also those families that stood strong in the face of adversity. He thought on his own ragtag family as he leaned against the back of the pew in the small hospital chapel.
Nathan Jackson was a man who’d gained his respect and admiration over the eleven years they’d known each other. He met the younger man during one of his trips into the darker regions of Africa, where Jackson was trying to help bring medical supplies to several missionaries already settled in the area. Nathan was under attack from a group of guerrillas who wanted the supplies to sell on the black market. Without a word he’d simply jumped into the fray and between them they’d defeated the guerrillas and brought the medical supplies to their rightful owners. Since that day the two of them had worked together on several occasions before Chris Larabee offered them both a job with The Firm.
Buck Wilmington may have a reputation for being a ladies’ man and in some cases a skirt chaser, but there was no man with a bigger heart. Several times the big man had come to the aid of a prostitute or some other downtrodden soul and helped them off the streets. Buck often helped out at the soup kitchens, simply talking to the hopeless when they needed a shoulder to lean on. Buck’s own mother had been a prostitute and they’d often had to live on the streets in New York. His mother had been born and raised in the south and when she became pregnant by her high school sweetheart she’d hoped he would marry her, but he refused saying she was nothing but white trash. Ostracized by her own family and friends for bringing disgrace on them she’d packed her meager belongings and made her way north. She took odd jobs as a waitress and dishwasher, living in the squalor of a tenant trap with little heat in the winter. Many times she despaired of her child ever being born, yet there were several people who actually cared what happened to the seventeen-year old woman who seldom smiled and never spoke of her child’s father. The baby was born at the small one bedroom flat and she laughed and cried as she held him for the first time. Buck had told him about their life after that. The tenement was to be torn down and at the age of six they were pushed into the streets and the restaurant she’d worked in closed down. Broke and homeless with a little boy, Julia Wilmington began to sell the only thing she owned, her body. She didn’t make a lot of money, but it was enough to get them another small flat and Buck attended the local school. She worked the streets, but never brought one of her johns home. Unfortunately, the life she’d been forced into intruded on their home and a John found out where she lived. She’d been raped and murdered in her own bed and her thirteen-year old son had found her. The police never found the murderer, and Buck still searched for the man. Most men would have turned towards a life of crime after everything he’d been put through, but not Wilmington. He ended up in a foster home, one with a loving family and went on to finish his education and entered the Navy where he became an expert on explosives and weaponry. Since then many things had changed for him, but he still had a heart of gold seldom seen in this day and age.
Ezra Standish was a bit of an enigma. The young man was a gambler and a con artist and Josiah admired his ability to hide behind a dignified facade. He knew others saw Standish as a man who did what was best for him and damn the consequences, that he was a loner and did not need anyone to watch his back. Yet the team knew there was a lot more to him than that. In the year since joining Larabee’s elite team Standish proved again and again he was a team player and often went out on a limb to prove he could be trusted. The young man stood with them through hell or high water and was now a solid member of The Firm.
JD Dunne, well this was a young wet behind the ears kid who’d backed Chris Larabee up against the wall until he agreed to give the computer genius a shot. The Bostonian had recently suffered the loss of his mother to leukemia and had moved from Boston to Billings because of his love for the west. He’d been surfing the net, looking for a new start when he came across the site on Billings, Montana. The city was nicknamed ‘The Gateway to the West’ and that was all the young man needed to read. Without thinking about the consequences he’d packed his meager belongings, looked at his nearly depleted bank account and bought a train ticket to Billings. He’d been sitting in the Rimrock Mall when Larabee, Sanchez, Jackson, and Wilmington entered and sat at the table next to him. He tried not to listen to their conversation, but the words computer analyst and programmer met his ears and piqued his curiosity. He listened for further information, sipping at his Coke and munching his New York Fries as he tried to build up his courage to speak to the formidable foursome seated at the next table. When he finally found his voice it came out as a meek sound, but he didn’t let that stop him. He simply tried again, introduced himself and told them he was the best damn programmer in the US. Larabee and the others simply ignored him, but he persisted until the blond said he would give him a chance. Wilmington piped in and told him he would have to be a man if he was to work for The Firm and that meant getting rid of the stupid backwards newspaperman’s hat. Within the next two days, JD Dunne became a valuable member of the team.
Vin Tanner, a Texan through and through, a man who’d grown up in more foster homes than he cared to think about. Yet this was a man who had also turned his life to good and not evil which so often happens when forced to live a life where you were often thought of as a burden and looked upon with distaste. Vin ran away from several foster homes before he settled into a home where his life began to take shape and he knew he could be someone his mother would’ve been proud of. The Shepard family in Matador, Texas took him in and their son, Mark, rapidly became his best friend and strongest supporter. Over the next three years he went to school and made a name for himself as a tracker. It was something that came natural to him and he often led people into the desert and surrounding areas in search of wildlife. It was two years later that he helped the police track down a murderer and from then on he found it easy to become a bounty hunter and had earned a name for himself. It wasn’t until he met up with Chris Larabee that he realized how much he hated what he did and accepted the blond’s offer of a job.
Chris Larabee was another man he’d come to trust. There was something about the strength and courage surrounding the man that drew others of the same make-up to him. Larabee seemed to inspire the kind of traits he didn’t even know he had himself. The man didn’t talk much, except when around his family, yet when he spoke people listened. How many times in the three years he’d known Larabee had he sat back and simply watched the way the man moved, or talked, and knew exactly what was on his mind. Many times he’d seen the little nuances of Larabee’s personality that some people would consider dark, yet there was a light inside the blond that kept the dark side from showing. He briefly wondered if the loss of his family would be the pivotal difference that could send him hurtling towards the darkness. Shaking his head he stood up and made the sign of the cross as he made a whisper soft vow.
“No, Chris, you won’t be alone and that darkness will never see the light of day.” Chris Larabee had brought this group of men together and kept them that way, not many had that kind of strength and Josiah realized this really was his family and these men were his brothers. Turning away from the chapel he slowly walked out of the chapel and made his way towards Jackson’s room.
Nathan looked up as Sanchez entered the room and knew where the older man had been. The ex-preacher often found solace in the chapel when one or more of them were in the hospital, and usually his emotions were easily readable when he entered the room.
“Feel better?” Jackson asked, carefully swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and sitting up.
‘Shouldn’t I be asking you that question?” Sanchez said as he sat down beside him.
“I’m doing better, Josiah. At least they took the damn IV out and I can move around more easily.”
“That is indeed good news,” Sanchez said, watching his friend’s face closely.
“Are you picking Vin and Ezra up at the airport?”
“Yes, I’ll pick Buck and JD up at the office and then head to the airport. Knowing Vin he’ll probably want to stop by here to check on you.”
“Yeah, he will, and don’t argue with him,” Jackson warned.
“Now that’s a first, Nathan. I thought for sure you’d be telling me to make sure he went home and rested.”
“Normally I would, Josiah, but I have an ulterior motive. I figure if he’s here it’ll be a lot easier...”
“To have him seen by Dr. Midland.”
“Exactly,” the medic in training said with a grin.
“Always planning, aren’t you, Brother?”
“When it comes to you guys I have no choice,” Jackson said. “Anything new with the search for Chris?”
“Nothing. We’re doing everything we can, but we keep coming up against brick walls, but we’re not giving up. We’ll find Chris. It’s just a matter of time,” Sanchez assured him.
“I just hope it’s time Chris has.”
“Me too, Nathan. Well, I guess I’d better get it in gear if I want to be at the airport on time. You take it easy and try not to worry.”
“Easier said than done, Josiah,” Jackson said, standing and walking the older man to the door. He stood in the entrance and watched the ex-preacher stride to the stairs before he turned back to his room and sat in the chair by the window.
“We’ll find you, Chris,” he whispered as he watched the unaware people walking around below his window.
Powderman knew he would have to make his move sooner than originally planned. He needed to leave Billings and head back home before his job was lost to him. He didn’t care about his job, didn’t need the money it brought in, but he had to keep his family and friends from finding out his true profession. He finished packing his bag and looked at the cell phone he’d purchased that morning. This would be used only once and then disposed of so that it could not be traced back to him. He’d used a false name, but he knew how important it was to leave nothing to chance. Tonight he would make a call that would bring hell down on Ella Gaines and then he would see to it that she would never think of reneging on a deal again. Everything was in place now and soon the signal would be heard throughout the warehouse.
“Powderman will see her end, Doo da, doo da. Ella Gains will be damned, oh, de doo da day!” he said, smiling as he fingered the remote once more.
Chris opened his eyes and shifted on the bed. It took several minutes to realize he could move his legs and arms and he smiled at the woman sitting beside the bed. She was once again bathing him and had released his limbs from the restraints in order to make sure she had access to every inch of his unwilling flesh. His hands and feet tingled with needles and pins and he knew she’d only just released him. He would have to remain compliant until he was sure he could stand on his legs. He’d worked too hard to get her to trust him, yet he knew she was not as easily duped as she led him to believe.
“How are you feeling, Lover?” Ella asked, gliding the soft material over his thighs.
“Better...feels good,” he whispered as he fought against the need to shove his fist through her face.
“I thought you might enjoy another sponge bath. You have a fever, Chris, but I can’t do much about it. I ran out of Tylenol and I’m afraid it’s not possible to go out and buy more right now.”
“That’s okay...not your fault. How long have we been here?”
“Why?” she asked, suddenly suspicious.
“Just curious. I thought I heard you say something about being here for a week...”
“That’s right, Lover. I wanted to stay here for a week, but it looks like those plans have to be changed. There are certain people in Billings who are trying to stop us from having a life together and I cannot...will not allow the weak and faint of heart to stop us from having our destiny fulfilled. You and I will have so much time together once we leave here. Just the two of us...”
“What about the others?”
“They’ll be with us, Chris. I won’t give up the life I have with them, but they know that you are first and foremost in my life.”
Chris reached for her then and noticed the movement on the other side of the door. He smiled, knowing he’d been right in not trying anything right away. He forced himself to look into her eyes and smile warmly.
“Ella, maybe some day I can prove that you don’t need them...that all we need is each other.” He pulled her down towards him and in spite of his rebellious stomach he kissed her, a long, drawn-out kiss that deepened as the seconds ticked by. He continued to hold her as he heard the soft purr she made against his mouth and knew he was winning her over.
“Oh, Chris...I want to believe you so much, but you need to prove yourself,” she whispered before drawing away from him and looking towards the door. “Jack, Guy, and Robert have always been there for me. They’ve never needed anyone else but me and that’s something I want from you. I want you to love me for who I am. I want you to accept the love I have for you and to understand what I did for you. So we could be together.”
“I do understand, Ella, and I’m grateful...I can’t tell you I love you...” he saw the anger flare once more. “Not yet...because I haven’t earned that right yet, but I will, Ella, I will do everything I can to earn the right to love you.”
“Oh, Chris,” she said, feeling tears well up in her eyes. She wiped at them before meeting his gaze once more. “I can’t wait to hear those words from your lips.”
“I will say them, Ella, but not until you tell me I’ve earned the right to do so, okay?”
“Okay, Lover.” She continued down his body, the cool water doing very little to ease the fever rising in his body.
Chris suffered through her attentions, wishing only to strangle the woman with his bare hands, yet knowing he had to wait until he was sure of his strength.
The final leg of his journey home was over and he took a deep breath before exiting the jet. He looked at his companion and knew the man was concerned about his welfare. His body ached, his head pounded and his stomach screamed its outrage over what he’d eaten during the trip. They bypassed the luggage carousal and hurried out the sliding glass doors beyond the security area.
“Vin! Ezra! Over here!” Dunne called elated at seeing the Texan, yet surprised at how pale and gaunt he looked. They knew the tracker was injured, but were not prepared for the extent of the damage.
“Hello, JD,” Tanner said, his gaze sweeping over each man as they greeted him.
“You look like shit, Vin, but it’s damn good to see you,” Wilmington said, knowing how much hell this man had gone through. Not just the physical side, the emotional side of dealing with being so far from home when tragedy struck.
“Ya don’t look much better’n crap yerself, Bucklin! How’s the arm?”
“Hurts like a sonofabitch!” The rogue said as they walked towards the exit. “Yours?”
“Same...but it’s getting easier ta handle. How’s Nathan?”
“I saw him about an hour ago and he’s doing better than the doctors expected at this point,” Sanchez explained.
“Think he’s up ta a visit?” Tanner asked.
“Oh, I think he’ll be glad to see you,” the older man explained as he lead the group towards the Club Van. He opened the doors and watched as Standish and Dunne helped the two injured men into the back seat, before he moved to the front passenger seat.
“Has there been anything new on what happened to Chris?” Tanner finally asked the question he dreaded.
“Nothing...not in the last twenty-four hours anyway. Me and JD have been going through back files and internet activities, but there’s been nothing new on Royal or Spikes. We know there’s got to be somewhere in the city for them to hold up, but so far we haven’t found anything,” Wilmington explained.
“Damn, was hopin’ you boys had somethin’ new ta go on.”
“They’ve covered their tracks over the last few years, Vin, but we’ll find them,” Dunne assured him.
“I hope so, Kid. Josiah.”
“Wanna stop by Chris’ place...”
“Not today, Vin,” Sanchez said. “You’ve had a long trip and if you want to stop by and see Nathan then that’s what we’ll do. Otherwise we’ll head straight for Nettie’s place.”
“Nettie’s place? Why?”
“She insisted that you stay with her during your convalescence and the lady does not take no for an answer,” Standish finally informed the sharpshooter.
 “Damn, she’s got enough on her without me steppin’ on her toes,” Tanner told them.
“Yes, but you know Nettie Wells, Vin. She’s not about to take no for an answer,” Dunne observed as they drove towards the hospital.
His plans were about to be set in motion, but first a phone call had to be made. He’d been listening in on the conversations at the warehouse and knew Larabee was no longer bound to the bed. He didn’t want to kill the man and preferred he escaped without further harm, but such were the casualties of war, and that’s what he’d declared on Ella Gains.
Powderman looked at the pictures spread out before him on the table. One face stared up at him and he smiled as he realized this man was his best bet to get a message to. Reaching for the phonebook he searched the pages until he found the number for Saint Vincents Hospital patient inquiries. Writing the number down he exited the hotel room, nodding a greeting to the bellhop as he hurried towards the elevator. He knew where he would make the call from and looked forward to the destruction wrought by the explosives he planned to detonate. It wouldn’t be long now.
Nathan looked up and smiled as he saw the man standing framed in the doorway. It took a few minutes to get his emotions under control, but he finally managed to get to his feet and shook his head at the fading bruises and other injuries. He saw the other four men enter the room, but his gaze never wavered from the Texan.
“Hell, look what the cat dragged in,” he said softly.
“Feels like the cat did more than drag me in, Nate,” the tracker said as the medic in training guided him to the bed and they both sat down.
“I bet. You look like hell.”
“Thanks, I think. Not used ta seein’ ya on this side of the bed, Nate. You okay?”
“I’m getting there,” Jackson said as the phone beside him began to ring. He reached for the receiver as the others watched him. “Hello.”
“Hello, I’m looking for Nathan Jackson,” came a heavily accented voice.
“You found him. Who is this?” Nathan knew the others were watching him closely and held up his hands for them to be quiet.
“Who I am doesn’t matter. What...or should I say who I can give you does.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Chris Larabee.”
“Chris! How? Where is he? Who is this?”
“Slow down, Mr. Jackson. I will answer your questions, but you must listen. Chris Larabee is being held in an abandoned warehouse on Commercial Avenue. I’m afraid I can’t give you the name, but you will be able to tell when you’re there.”
Again Nathan held up his hands as the other men asked questions. “How?”
“Let’s just say Powderman has got a plan...doo da...doo da!”
“Powderman!” Jackson said incredulously as the phone went dead in his hands.
“Powderman!” the name was repeated at almost the same instant from each of the others.
“Jesus, Josiah, call Miller and tell him Chris is being held in a warehouse on Commercial Avenue. I don’t know what the address is, but tell him to watch for anything out of the ordinary!” Jackson said standing and hurrying towards the closet.
“Knowing Powderman it’ll be an explosion of some kind!” Tanner exclaimed as Wilmington reached for the phone and dialed the number.
“Going somewhere, Nathan?” Sanchez asked.
“I’m coming with you, Josiah.”
“Nathan, you can’t! You’re a patient here...”
“I don’t give a damn, Josiah! I can’t stay here knowing...sonofabitch,” he cried as pain washed over him and threatened to cut off his air supply. He felt two sets of hands on his arms and was soon sitting on the edge of his bed.
“Nathan, we don’t have time to argue...”
“G...go, Josiah...get C...Chris,” Jackson said, his breath coming in hitching gasps. He knew the others were worried about him, but they had to get going now...before it was too late.
“I’ll send the nurse right in,” Sanchez said as the five men hurried out of the room.
Nathan laid back against the pillows with pain invading his senses as he felt like a fiery knife were embedded in his back. He had no idea how long he lay there, but he soon felt someone taking his vitals and asking him where it hurt.
“B...back,” he answered and soon felt the nasal canulas placed over his head.
“I’m going to give you a shot to ease the pain, Nathan. Just try and relax for a few minutes.”
“O...okay,” he injured man stammered as he laid on his right side and tried to ignore the knifing pain in his back.
Ella sat on the edge of the bed and watched the sleeping blond. For years she’d dreamed of being with him, of holding him, of making love to him and now those dreams were so close. She fingered the ring around her neck and smiled at the thought of having him destroy it once he was well enough to understand it held no meaning anymore. Her fingertips touched on the letters and the date and she knew those would have to be erased from the ring and from his mind. She looked up as the sound of footsteps came from just outside the room.
“Ella, you need to come out here.”
“What’s wrong, Robert?” she asked softly, not wanting to wake the injured man.
“Just come out here. Now!” Spikes insisted as he stood in the doorway.
“Oh, for fuck sake, can’t you take care of whatever it is?”
“I would, but I don’t know if there’s any way of taking care of this. I think it’s a warning and we’d better get the fuck out of here!”
Ella looked down at the injured blond once more before leaving the room. She stood just outside the door and frowned as a familiar tune met her ears.
“De camptown ladies sing this song...doo da...doo da...De Camptown racetrack's two miles long...Oh, de doo-da day...”
“What the hell is that shit?” Ella asked as the muffled sound grew clearer.
“G'wine to run all night...G'wine to run all day...I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag...Somebody bet on the gray...”
“That’s why I wanted you to come out here!” Spikes told her.
“Oh, de long tailed filly and de big black horse...Doo-da...Doo-da...Come to a mud hole and dey all cut across...Oh, de doo-da day...”
“Who is that? Where’s it coming from?”
“I went down South with my hat caved in...Doo-da, Doo-da...I came back North with a pocket full of tin...Oh, de doo-da day.”
“I don’t know. Jack and Guy are searching for the speakers, but they haven’t found anything. I know who this is, Ella and we’d better not stick around!”
Chris gathered what little strength he had and slid his legs over the edge of the bed. Casting his dignity aside he ignored his nudity and searched for something he could use as a weapon. He could hear Ella and Spikes talking just outside the doorway and knew it was only a matter of time before they came back into the room. He spotted a heavy brass candleholder on the table and quickly blew out the flame before removing the candle and moving towards the door.
“Who the hell is it?” As if in answer to her question the male voice sounded once more.
“Powderman will make you pay...doo da...doo da...Ella Gaines will rue the day doo da...doo da...”
“Shit! Find him!”
“I warned you, Ella. I tried to tell you not to fuck with this bastard!” Spikes warned as he spotted movement behind her. He tried to warn her of the impending attack, but Larabee brought something down hard on her head and neck.
Ella screamed as she dropped to her knees and turned to see Robert Spikes attacking Chris Larabee. She fought to stay awake and touché the knot on the back of her head, frowning as her fingers came away red with blood. It took a few minutes for her to realize Larabee had struck her and anger raged through her as she heard the sound of a distant explosion and running feet.
“Guy! Jack! Get him!” she screamed as a second explosion ripped through the eastern part of the warehouse.
Josiah sped down Highway 212 and turned south onto Shackelford Lane. The five men were on the edge of their seats as they watched for Commercial Avenue. The sounds of sirens greeted them as they turned onto the street and searched for the warehouse.
“There it is!” Dunne called as they watched a small part of the structure disappear in a cloud of smoke and debris.
“Vin, stay put!” Sanchez ordered, pulling in behind a police cruiser.
“Like hell. Come on!” the tracker ordered adrenalinee and worry for his friend keeping him on his feet. The five men raced towards the warehouse, but were stopped by Robert Miller.
“You can’t go in there!” the policeman warned.
“Chris is in there!” Dunne told him.
“How the hell do you know?” Miller asked above the sound of a third explosion.
“Powderman called Nathan at the hospital! He told him this was where we’d find Chris!” Wilmington explained.
“Shit, look we can’t go in there until the explosions stop. The bomb squad and fire department are on the way! I can’t let you boys go in there!”
Vin stayed back, listening to the others talking to the police officer. He didn’t know Miller that well, but he wasn’t about to stay here while the man told them they couldn’t go into the warehouse. He moved back through the gathering throng from other buildings and hurried towards the opposite side of the huge building.
“Ella we have to get out of here!” Averil said as Spikes hit Larabee in the face and drove the man up against the wall.
“No! Not without Chris. Make Robert stop and grab him!” Ella ordered as they helped her to her feet. She saw the gun in Royal’s hand and took it. Her vision blurred as she pointed it towards Spikes.
“Ella! No!” Royal said as she aimed the gun and eased back on the trigger.
Spikes continued to pummel the battered man before him as a fifth explosion sounded close by. He knew the internal structure would soon be worthless as debris rained down on them from above. He heard Ella screaming for him to stop, but blood lust and revenge dominated his mind and body. He exchanged blows with the blond and smiled as his fist connected with his right cheek once more.
“I’ll fucking kill you for taking Sarah away from me!” Spikes spat through split lips and was rocked by a blow to his midsection.
Chris would have smiled if he’d had the strength, but his body was running on empty and he didn’t know what was keeping him on his feet. He lifted his head at the sound of a gun being cocked, and watched as Spikes went down. His own reaction time was slowed by injuries and fever and he felt something slam into his abdomen. The air around him grew heavy with smoke and his lungs fought to take in even the miniscule amount of oxygen left in the air.
“Where the hell is Vin?” Wilmington asked when he turned to speak with the younger man.
“He’s right behind...Ah hell!” Dunne said as he looked at the empty space behind him.
 “Jesus, Bob, we have to get in there now!” Sanchez spat helplessly.
“Not until the bomb squad gets here, Josiah. Try it and I’ll have my men place you under arrest for interfering in a criminal investigation!”
“Damn it, Bob, we can’t just stand here!”
“You don’t have a choice!” Miller warned as he turned back to the warehouse as several fire trucks pulled into the parking lot.
Vin found an open window and limped towards it. The explosions seemed to have stopped, and the air was filled with the sound of approaching sirens. People screamed from somewhere, but he didn’t have time to acknowledge it as fire spread throughout the structure. He eased his aching body over the edge and ignored the fire in his side as he dropped onto the floor below. He heard the sound of voices somewhere to the south and then the unmistakable sound of a gunshot.
“CHRIS!” he cried and called upon the last of his energy to get to his feet and move.
“NO!” Ella screamed as she watched the blossoming red stain on the right side of Larabee’s abdomen.
“Ella we have to leave!” Royal said from behind her.
“You bastard! You killed him!” she cried as she leveled her gun on Robert Spikes. She didn’t hesitate as she fired the weapon over and over, each bullet slamming the man against the wall. She stood, breathing heavily as the gun clicked again and again on empty. She felt the weapon being taken from her hands before she hurried towards Larabee.
“Get over here and help me with Chris!” Ella ordered and looked up to see Royal racing towards the exit.
“Jack, shut up and help me!” Gaines said as she pulled the semi-conscious man to his feet.
Chris felt someone pulling him to his feet and moaned through clenched teeth as he realized who it was. He blinked rapidly until the area around him solidified and knew he was in trouble as flames were licking at the walls on either side of him.
“We have to go, Ella!” Averil said as he felt Larabee pull his arm out of his grasp. He tried to grab the man again, but cried out and fell as a piece of flying debris struck his forehead and he went down to his knees.
“You BITCH!” Chris rasped as he turned to face the woman he’d grown to hate above all else.
Vin moved as if in slow motion until he heard Larabee’s raised voice and knew the man was in danger. Calling on every ounce of strength he had left, Vin forced his legs to move faster and prayed they would both get out of this alive.
Buck, JD, Josiah and Ezra raced towards the van and climbed in. They drove towards the empty parking lot and began to circle the warehouse in hopes of finding a different entrance. Flames were eating away at the sides, as several windows along this end shattered with the force of several smaller explosions. A body shot through the window and rolled onto his knees.
“Jesus, who’s that? It’s not...”
“No, Kid, it’s not Chris or Vin!” Wilmington said as Sanchez pulled to a stop and climbed out. He rushed to the man who was now bent over trying to clear his lungs of smoke.
“Where is he?” Sanchez snapped, pulling the man to his feet.
“W...w...who?” Royal asked between severe bouts of coughing.
“Where the fuck is Chris? Don’t fuck with me Royal or I’ll throw you back in there!”
“A...along t...the b...back wall...h...hidden room...”
“JD, Get this bastard back to Miller!” Sanchez said as he raced to the window and dove through before the frame was engulfed in flames.
Chris saw the fire devouring the furnishings in the room where he’d been held prisoner and knew what he was about to do went against everything he’d ever fought for. With little thought for right or wrong he gripped the woman’s arms in a vice like grip as his eyes burned with a rabid green fire. He set his shoulders and took a deep breath of the foul air as a familiar voice called to him.
“Burn in hell you fucking BITCH!” he cursed and shoved her into the room.
“NO, Chris! I love you!”
“I fucking h...hate you!” the blond cried as Averil screamed in rage and dashed into the room after Ella Gaines. Chris breathed heavily and sank to the floor, unaware of the blood dripping down his nude body. The flames were hypnotic and he stared into the room, his fingers reaching out for the death he craved.
“Chris! No!” Sanchez and Tanner said as one, but the injured man continued to crawl forward once more.
“S...Sarah,” Larabee whispered, his voice raspy with emotional pain.
“Chris, listen ta me! Ya can’t go in there!” Tanner tried, his voice heavy with unbridled emotion as he watched his friend stand and make his way towards the flame.
“Stay back, Vin...”
“I will if you move back, Chris. We need ta get outta here...”
“No, go...I n...need to find t...them.”
“Who do you need to find, Chris?” Sanchez asked as they inched closer to the injured man.
“S...Sarah and there...” Larabee felt his heart aching as he drew up in front of the door. His hand reached through the door, but remarkably the flames didn’t touch him. They seemed to draw back as if displaced by air.
“Chris, listen ta me. Sarah and Adam are not there. Sarah and Adam are gone...”
“Gone in the ‘ with ‘em, Vin.”
“No, Chris, you won’t. Not like this. It’s the coward’s way out and Sarah would never be able to look at you if she thought you committed suicide!” Sanchez explained.
“Not...suicide, ‘em...gotta save ‘em.”
“Chris, think about it,” Tanner drawled as the crackling flames grew closer. “Would Sarah want you to give up your life for nothing.”
“Not for n...nothing...for ‘em if I can get ‘em.” Chris made to step through the final threshold, but a soft sound met his ears and he gasped as he looked down at the floor. Something shiny rolled out of the flames and through the flickering shadows cast by the ravenous flames. He followed it with his eyes as it rolled through the darkness, to light, to darkness and finally spun in a circle of light until it lay still. Without realizing what he was doing Chris walked away from the room, oblivious of the roof caving in behind him as he knelt down and picked up the object. He looked towards the room and saw a stream of white light as it illuminated two faces he thought lost to him forever. Tears flooded his eyes as he realized what he held and who had given it back to him.
“I...I love you all,” he whispered and gasped as pain washed over him and the two men grabbed his arms.
“Come on, Chris. We need ta get ya outta here!” Tanner said, searching for a means of escape.
“ r...ring, ring.”
“I know, Son,” Sanchez said as he spotted the stream of light that shone from the collapsed roof. “That way!” he said as he picked Larabee up and raced towards the opening made by a final explosion. ‘Thank you, Sarah!’ he thought, knowing there was an angel watching over them this day and that the opening was heaven sent. He glanced sideways to make sure Tanner was still with him and let the Texan go through first as the fire raged around them. He was relieved when they exited the warehouse and he saw Wilmington and Standish hurrying to offer the Texan some much-needed support. The four men raced away from the building towards the waiting ambulance and paramedics on the outside of the police line.
“We need help over here!” Standish called and saw Dunne and several paramedics hurry towards them pushing a stretcher between them.
Josiah eased Larabee onto the stretcher and reached for the thin blanket to cover him with. He knew the medics would remove it as soon as they were a safe distance from the now totally engulfed building. He looked down at the soot-covered face and saw sadness in the open eyes.
“Sarah...there...Adam too,” Larabee said as he tried to put the ring back on his finger.
“Sir, we’ll just have to take it off,” a paramedic told him as they finally reached the ambulance.
“No, w...won’t l...lose it a...again,” the blond whispered as he tried to stay conscious. His eyes lit upon the man walking beside the gurney and he smiled weakly at the Texan. “Look shit, T...T...Tanner.”
“Thanks, Cowboy,” the sharpshooter said with a grin.
“Not a c...cowboy,” Larabee said as something sharp entered his arm. He coughed harshly, clutching his chest as his lungs worked overtime to expel the smoke he inhaled.
“Easy, Chris, they are just starting an IV,” Sanchez explained as Larabee’s face blanched.
“What’s his name?” Samuel Grady asked when it became apparent his patient was unable to answer.
“Chris Larabee.”
“Any allergies?”
“No,” Sanchez answered as the second paramedic rolled the blanket back to reveal the damage done by fists and a bullet.
“Chris, my name is Sam and my partner’s name is Alex. He’s going to...shit!” the older man cursed as his patient’s face showed his panic and another round of coughing began. He watched as the injured blond fought for air and knew what needed to be done even as Larabee’s eyes rolled back in his head and he lost consciousness.
“Sam, he’s not breathing!” Alex snapped whipping off the oxygen mask and ignoring the startled questions from the worried men surrounding him.
“I’m going to intubate. Jason, call ahead and tell Saint Vincents we’re transporting this patient immediately!” Grady ordered and knew the second team of paramedics were carrying out his orders. His own partner assisted in the intubation and they raced Larabee into the back of the ambulance just as Tanner’s strength gave out and he collapsed. 
“Shit, Jason, you boys have another patient!” Alex Milheirs shouted as he shut the back doors and hurried towards the front of the ambulance.
“Vin!” Wilmington shouted, catching the younger man before he hit the ground. He felt the sharp tug at his shoulder even as Standish moved in to relieve him of his burden. Things happened fast as the second team of medics moved in and began examining the unconscious Texan.
A fireman came forward and helped ease Sanchez to the ground before placing an oxygen mask over his face. The ex-preacher accepted the assistance and watched as the second team worked together to stabilize the Texan. An IV was started in his left hand and a mask was placed over his mouth and nose before they loaded him on a gurney and placed him in the back of the second ambulance. Sanchez was assisted to his feet and helped into the back with Tanner. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall and continued to cough up the black smoke.
Wilmington, Dunne, and Standish watched as the second ambulance raced away with sirens blaring. The trio hurried to the van and Dunne climbed into the driver’s seat while Wilmington took the front passenger seat and Standish took the seat directly behind the driver. Without a word, the Bostonian backed out of the parking lot and drove north towards Saint Vincents.
Smiling as the final explosion ripped through the warehouse, Powderman turned the key in the ignition of his rental car. His work was done, Ella Gaines had paid for what she’d done and now he would return to his home and reap the rewards of a job well done. He backed out of the driveway and turned onto Commercial Avenue as an ambulance, sirens blaring, pulled out of the parking lot.
“Powderman’s job here is done, doo da, doo da.  Ella Gaines demise was fun, oh de doo da day.” Smiling once more he turned away from the hell behind him and drove north towards the airport.
Saint Vincent’s ER was ready for the influx of patients from the explosions at the warehouse on Commercial Avenue. So far most of the reported injuries were minor scrapes, cuts and bruises from flying debris. They had one woman brought in with a broken leg having been thrown by the initial blast and landing hard on the pavement.
Stacey Midland looked up as Vera MacLean hurried towards her. The two women worked well together and were waiting for the new arrivals. Midland knew all three patients and had the file from Rio on Vin Tanner’s injuries. She remembered reading the list and wondering how the hell he managed to stay on his feet, let alone go after the missing Larabee.
“Looks like there are three more coming in,” MacLean explained as she stopped next to her colleague.
“How bad?”
“One suffering from smoke inhalation. The second is that patient you’ve been expecting,” Vera looked at the report in her hand. “Tanner looks like he passed out at the scene. The third is Larabee. He stopped breathing and the paramedic team intubated on site.”
“Damn! Okay, what’s their ETA?” Stacey asked, but didn’t hear the answer as the first ambulance pulled up to the double doors. She hurried to meet the gurney as the back doors opened and a man she recognized from numerous meetings jumped out.
“What have we got?” MacLean asked as she watched the second paramedic jump down with the stretcher. She knew the injured man was in bad shape as Sam Grady continued to assist in his breathing as they raced into the ER.
“BP is 90/55. Temperature is 104. Patient was awake at the scene, but lost consciousness soon after and stopped breathing. Intubated on scene and transported immediately. He has a bullet in his abdomen and several broken ribs, but I couldn’t get any further since the immediate problem was his breathing!” Grady explained as the portable monitors, IV, and the patient were transferred from one stretcher to the next. Grady handed off the bag to one of the trauma team nurses and moved back as the medical team began working to save the injured man’s life. He’d seen this too often over his fifteen years as a paramedic and it never got any easier, but at least they’d given the man a chance, now it was up to the trauma team to make sure he made it. Backing out of the room he watched as the gurney carrying the second man was wheeled through the ER doors. Shaking his head he moved to the nursing station to file his report. He heard the doctor order Tanner be put in Trauma Three while Sanchez was taken to a cubical in the ER. He nodded to his partner as he finished filling out the forms.
“All right, People, we have work to do! Paula, put in a call to Dr. Bledsoe and tell him we’ll need him here ASAP!” Midland called.
“Yes, Dr. Midland,” Paula Cooper answered and hurried to the wall phone.
“Get another line in him!” MacLean ordered as another nurse began taking blood. She watched as Midland hooked their patient up to a ventilator, making sure it was breathing for the injured man before she moved to the horrid wounds covering the nude body.
“Is the bullet still in there?” MacLean asked as Peggy Martin began cleaning some of the smoky residue from the patient’s body.
“Yes, and I don’t like the location. Too many things to damage!” Midland answered.
“Dr. Bledsoe is on his way,” Paula Cooper said, hanging up the phone and returning to the organized chaos around the bed.
“Good! Stacey, these burns don’t look good at all,” MacLean said as she gently cleaned them with saline.
“I know. I took a quick look. Paula, did you call X-ray?”
“Yes, Dr. Midland,” she answered, having called the department once she’d finished speaking to the desk on the burn unit.
“We’ll need a CT scan as well and an abdominal ultra sound. We need to know the exact location of the bullet. Who’s the vascular surgeon on call?”
“New guy. I think his name is Silverman,” Peggy answered.
“Brandon Silverman?” MacLean asked as she continued to work on Larabee’s chest as a second IV was started in the man’s left hand.
“Yes, that’s him,” the nurse answered.
“The man came highly recommended,” MacLean said as they continued to work on the injured blond.
“I hope he’s as good as they say. Paula, have him paged!” Midland said, continuing her examination of Larabee’s injuries as the nurse hurried to the phone once more.
The door opened and Jacob Bledsoe hurried into the room. MacLean moved out of the way, affording the Burn Specialist a better view of the wounds.
“Damn, we’ll need to debride those and get him started on antibiotics,” the specialist called.
Midland nodded and knew it would be taken care of as soon as they got the patient to surgery. She winced inwardly as she realized there would be a lot of work once they brought him upstairs to the OR. She turned back to the wound in Larabee’s abdomen, shaking her head at the fist shaped bruises that dotted the injured man’s body.
Carl Caprice and his team went to work on the patient who’d been wheeled into Trauma Three. The man’s injuries were healing, but he’d inhaled a lot of smoke and the bandage covering the shoulder wound was soaked with blood. He knew Jane Willows was setting up a second IV to help replenish fluids as he examined the knife wounds to Tanner’s shoulder, side, and thigh. He knew the story behind the injuries and shook his head as he realized what this man had just done in spite of the fact that he should have been flat on his back in the hospital.
“How’s his blood pressure?” he asked as a second nurse hooked up the monitors.
“BP is 110/65. Temperature is at 101. Respirations are shallow,” the answer came almost immediately.
“Keep an eye on his breathing. I don’t like the sounds of it and he’s already weak from the injuries he sustained in Rio!” Caprice ordered.
“Yes, Doctor,” Willows said as she cut away the remainder of Tanner’s clothing.
“Doctor, I think he’s coming round,” Kathy Sawyer said as she adjusted the flow of oxygen. As if on cue the first in a series of harsh coughs tore from the patient’s chest.
“Easy, Mr. Tanner,” Sawyer soothed as the blue eyes opened and looked around as if searching for something he’d lost.
“C...Chris...w...where...” he couldn’t finish the questions as each breath he took wreaked havoc with his traumatized body.
“Who?” Caprice asked.
“Chris? I think he means the man who came in before him. Dr. Midland and Dr. MacLean are with him in Trauma One.” Willows explained.
“Mr. Tanner, I’ll try to find out how your friend is doing, but right now you’re my priority and I need to see about making you more comfortable. Kathy, I want chest X-rays and a CT scan. From the looks of those fading bruises he’s taken more than one blow to the head.”
“Yes, Doctor,” Sawyer said and hurried to make the necessary calls as the physician continued his examination.
Josiah sat on the edge of the bed as the physician finished checking him over. His breathing was nearly back to normal and he didn’t need the oxygen mask anymore. He waited as the doctor listened to his lungs and then smiled as the younger man told him it sounded clear.
“Thank you, Dr. Francis. Does that mean I can go?” Sanchez asked in a voice that told of the tortured throat that had coughed one too many times.
“I’m going to release you, but I want you to go home and get some rest,” Peter Francis told him.
“ I will, as soon as I find out about my friends,” Sanchez said, hopping down off the bed and leaning against it as the room began to spin.
“Easy, Mr. Sanchez, don’t try to move too quickly,” the physician warned as they walked out of the cubical together.
“Thank you, Doctor,” the ex-preacher said, smiling thinly as three men hurried towards him.
“Josiah, are you okay?” Dunne asked worriedly.
“I’m fine, Son, nothing worse than the cigarettes I used to smoke,” the older man assured him.
“You used to smoke?” Standish asked, shocked at the new information,
“Smoked for nearly ten years, but I gave it up for the better things in life. Any word on Chris or Vin?”
“We just checked with the desk. The doctors are still with them. Vin’s awake, but Chris had to be hooked up to a ventilator. Dr. Midland is in with him and they’ll be taking him up to surgery as soon as they finish the tests,” Wilmington explained.
“Buck, would you guys come into the waiting room and I’ll tell you what’s going on?” Midland explained as she led the four men towards the area. Most of the chairs were occupied so they moved to the window area as the physician looked them over.
“How is he, Doc?” Wilmington voiced the question on all their minds and watched as the woman took a deep breath before explaining.
“Where to start,” Midland stated as she took in the bedraggled group around her. “You know he stopped breathing at the warehouse and he’s inhaled a lot of smoke. We’ve got him hooked up to a respirator right now and we’re prepping him for surgery. A vascular surgeon will be present and so will someone from orthopaedics. We know he’s got several broken ribs and a collapsed lung on his right side and we’ve put in a chest tube for that. The burns on his chest will be debrided in the OR and the bullet will be removed from his abdomen. He has more bruises covering his body than I’ve seen on most accident victims. It looks like he was beaten several times.”
“Shit, Doc, is there any good news?” the ladies’ man asked, running his fingers through his dishevelled hair.
“He’s alive, Buck, so I guess that’s the best news of all,” Midland told him.
“Yes, that’s true,” Standish agreed.
“Look, I have to get back to Chris and prep for surgery. This could take several hours so you gentlemen could wait with Nathan if you like. I’m sure he’s worried about Chris and Vin.”
“Thanks, Doc, we will,” Sanchez assured her.
“Could you check on Vin for us?” Dunne asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t right now, JD, but check with the desk and they’ll find out for you. Try not to worry too much, Gentlemen. Chris has the best team of surgeons looking after him!” Midland stated and turned to Sanchez with something in her hand.
“Is something wrong, Doc?” the older man asked.
“We had to take this off Chris’ finger, Josiah, and I think you need to hang on to it for him. He’s going to need it when he wakes up,” Midland explained as she handed him the gold wedding band. She watched the man swallow and knew there was a lump in his throat as he slipped the ring onto his own finger.
“I’ll make damn sure he gets it back!” Sanchez vowed as the physician left the room.
“Jesus, how much more shit can happen?” Wilmington spat angrily.
“Easy, Brother, Chris and Vin are alive and now we need to concentrate on making sure they stay that way,” Sanchez said as he led the others out of the waiting room. The central ER was awash with activity as the four men moved towards the desk, but stopped as a doctor came out of Trauma Three. They changed direction and surrounded the unsuspecting physician.
“Doc, how’s Vin?” Wilmington asked.
“Who are you?”
“We’re friend’s of Vin...”
“I need to speak to his family...”
“We’re about the only family he has, Doc,” Sanchez assured him and spotted Stacey Midland coming out of Trauma One. “Doc, can you tell him it’s okay to fill us in on Vin’s condition?”
“Carl, you can tell them. Vin has no next of kin, but he’s listed these guys as emergency contacts,” Midland said as the stretcher carrying Chris Larabee was pushed out of the room. The four men watched as it rolled past them and into the elevator before turning back to the doctors.
“Damn!” Dunne said, closing his eyes to rid himself of the image imprinted on his mind.
“Easy, Son, it probably looks worse than it is,” Sanchez tried to soothe the younger man’s rattled nerves, but knew it wasn’t working as the doctor began to speak.
“Damn is an understatement,” Standish said as they turned back to the physician.
“All right, look, I’m sure you gentlemen knew about the injuries Mr. Tanner suffered in Rio.”
“Yes we do,” Wilmington told him.
“Then you know Mr. Tanner should have already been in a hospital and not traipsing around after criminals...”
“He wasn’t traipsing after criminals, Doctor. Vin Tanner was trying to save a man’s life,” Standish explained.
“Nearly at the cost of his own I’m afraid. That’s over now and I need to get some things going for my patient. He’s stable right now, but his lungs are very weak and inhaling the smoke hasn’t helped them. I’ll be starting him on broncodilators right away. He’s been conscious, but is very weak and in a lot of pain. I’ve started a course of antibiotics and he’ll be moved up to a room as soon as the floor calls down for him.”
“Can we see him?” Dunne asked and watched the other man’s face closely as he finally nodded his head.
“He’s been asking about his friend and perhaps you could give him some news on that front. Just don’t stay too long and only two at a time,” Caprice warned before walking away.
“Buck, you and JD go on in. Ezra and I will wait until you’re finished and see Vin if he feels up to it,” Sanchez said and was pleased when Standish agreed to the plan.
Sanchez looked at Standish and frowned as he realized several people were missing. “Has anyone called Orrin or Nettie?”
“With everything that has transpired in the last several hours it seems to have slipped our minds,” Standish explained.
“Damn, okay, I’ll call Orrin...”
“And I’ll take Mrs. Wells,” Standish said. The two men walked side by side to the payphones outside the door.
Ezra dialed the number for the Wells farm and leaned against the wall as he watched the door to Trauma Three. The call was answered after only one ring and he forced a calm tone to his voice as he heard the woman’s voice.
“Mrs. Wells, it’s Ezra Standish.”
“Ezra, thank God. I’ve been watching the news and they said there was an explosion at a warehouse and that you boys were involved. Is everyone okay? Did you pick up Vin? Is he okay? Where are you?”
“Mrs. Wells, I will endeavor to answer all your questions, but I need you to listen to me. Yes, we picked Vin up at the airport and yes we were at the warehouse...”
“Ezra, tell her Orrin and Evie will pick her up,” Sanchez said, holding his hand over the phone as he looked at Standish and saw him nod.
“Mrs. Wells, Orrin Travis will be there to pick you up shortly...”
“Ezra, what’s wrong? Where are you?”
“I’m at Saint Vincents...”
“Oh my Lord. What’s happened?”
Standish could hear the exhaustion in the voice and could picture the woman sitting on the sofa and rubbing at her eyes. Taking a deep breath he began to explain what happened after leaving the airport and visiting Nathan Jackson.
“We found the warehouse on Commercial Avenue and Chris was indeed there. When we arrived there were already several explosions and the building was on fire. The police would not let us enter, but Vin, being Vin, found an open window and gained access to the interior. Everything that happened after that is unknown to us right now, except that they found Chris and managed to get him out of the warehouse.”
“How are they?”
“Vin is in stable condition and has been admitted because of his injuries from Rio. Chris was shot and is in surgery as we speak.”
“What about that woman?”
“We’re not sure. We think she and her paramours perished in the fire, but we won’t know until the police get back to us on that. Is Casey there with you?”
“No, she had a late class today, but I’ll call her and she’ll probably meet me at the hospital.”
“Try not to worry, Mrs. Wells. Hopefully we’ll have some new information about Chris when you get here.”
“Thank you, Ezra, I have to go get ready,” Wells told him. 
“Okay, Mrs. Wells. We’ll be in Nathan’s room,” Standish said and hung up the phone. He looked at Sanchez and saw his own fears and worries in the familiar blue eyes.
Vin heard the door open, but didn’t bother opening his eyes until he hear JD whispering to someone. Forcing his lids to obey his commands he blinked rapidly until his vision finally cleared. The two men looked worried and exhausted and he knew they’d been there for some time.
“Buck, JD, is Chris okay?”
“They just took him to the OR, Vin,” Dunne explained.
“How b...bad?” the Texan asked, his voice muffled by the oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose.
“He’s not doing very well, Vin. Bastards beat him pretty bad and he’s got a bullet in his abdomen. Dr. Midland says they’ve got the best team of surgeons to work on him,” Wilmington assured him.
“Shit! What about Ella G...Gaines and the o...others.”
“We don’t know yet, Robert’s going ta come down when he’s finished at the warehouse.”
“I saw Chris shove Ella through a door, Buck. S...some b...bastard went a...after her,” Tanner explained.
“Probably Averil,” the rogue said.
“I hope she burns in hell!”
“You and me both, Kid,” Wilmington said.
“Think we all f...feel like t...that,” Tanner wheezed and groaned as he coughed into the mask. “Shit!”
“I bet. Listen Josiah and Ezra are waiting to see you. Get some rest, okay?”
“Try, Buck. Ya come tell me when ya hear more news ‘bout C...Chris.”
“We will,” Dunne assured him and followed Wilmington out the door.
Vin watched as Sanchez and Standish came into the room and was taken aback by the depth of sadness he saw in their eyes. There was no need for words because they all knew there was nothing more to be said. The one man who needed them was fighting for his life three floors above them.
“How are you feeling, Son?” Sanchez asked.
“Anyone see the truck that hit me?” Tanner asked.
“I imagine that’s how you feel,” Standish said.
“Yeah...” the tracker said as his eyes slid closed.
“You get some rest, Vin. We’ll check on you when they move you to your room,” Sanchez told him.
“Hmm,” the Texan mumbled as he drifted towards sleep once more.
Nathan listened to the telecasts and knew something big had gone down. The flurry of activity around the burning building had continued for several hours, yet he knew very little of what went down. His body ached from the wound in his back and he’d been unable to move around very much. Even the shot of pain medication had only taken the sharp edge off the pain. He knew he’d dozed off at some point, but had no idea how long he slept. He guessed several hours since darkness now invaded the area outside his window. Forcing his body upwards he sat on the edge of the bed just as the door opened and four men stepped into the room. He knew whatever had gone down was bad, evidenced by the look on their faces.
“You boys look like hell,” Jackson commented as the weary men found places to sit. Ezra and Buck pulled over two chairs while Josiah and JD sat next to him on the bed.
“I’ll take that as a compliment, Brother,” Sanchez said by way of acknowledging that they actually felt worse than they looked.
“So what happened out there?”
“It looks like the call was legit, Nathan. We found Chris...”
“Alive?” Jackson interrupted Wilmington softly.
“Barely, but yes, he’s alive. They took him up to the OR about an hour ago,” Dunne told him.
“Tell me,” Jackson said.
“Chris was beaten pretty severely,” Standish began. “He also took a bullet to the abdomen and has several broken ribs and his right lung collapsed. They’ve got him on a respirator and are also worried about the burns on his chest. Dr. Midland said they’d debride the wounds in the OR.”
“Damn,” Jackson cursed as he looked at the four men. “Where’s Vin?”
“Vin collapsed at the warehouse and has been admitted,” Sanchez said, his voice hoarse and raspy from the smoke.
“What happened?” the injured man asked, frowning as he heard the other man speak.
“The police would not allow us entry to the warehouse,” Standish explained.
“So Vin decided to find his own way in and he found an opening on the opposite side form the police,” Dunne told him.
“We followed him in the van and Josiah went inside and found Vin and Chris,” Wilmington continued the story and they looked to Sanchez to take it from that point.
“I heard a gunshot, Must have been when Chris was shot, but then there were several more in quick succession. By the time I made it to the room where Chris was held Vin was already there and trying to talk Chris into moving away from the fire. He just seemed so hypnotized by the flames that for a while there I was pretty damn sure he was going to run into the flames...”
“Ah, hell!” Dunne said, hearing this part of the story for the first time.
“Hell is exactly what it was, JD. The flames were so damn hot we could’ve been in hell for all we knew. Anyway, Chris put his hands through the doorway and, well, I don’t know how or why it happened, but the flames seemed to move away from his hands. They didn’t touch him at all. I could hear Vin asking him to come away from the flames and I tried talking to him as well. It was like we were talking to a brick wall and Chris just kept staring into the room and I know if we’d tried to get close to him he would’ve just fallen into the flames.”
“So how did you get him away?” Wilmington asked and watched as Sanchez played with the ring on his finger.
“We didn’t...”
“Then how?” Dunne asked.
“You may not believe this, but I truly believe it was love, Sarah and Adam’s love for Chris that saved him. You boys know Chris’ ring disappeared the night Graham said Ella was in the room with Chris...or at least he identified her as the woman.”
“We all know the bitch took it,” Wilmington said.
“Yes, well, I don’t know how to explain it except to say it was an act of God. Chris is leaning towards the flames. Vin keeps on talking to him, but Chris doesn’t seem to hear him anymore and he’s talking about Sarah and Adam when something catches his eye. He’s looking down at the floor when something rolls out of the fire. I don’t know about Vin, but I saw it and I think I was more shocked than Chris. It was this ring. It rolled out of the flames and I could see it going from the flickering shadows into the light back into the shadows until it ended up in this perfect circle of light. I swear I heard the soft tinkle, like chimes in the wind, when it finally settled on the floor. Chris followed it away from the flames and the look on his face when he picked it up was like that of a child who just found out not only is there a Santa Claus, but he’s been given everything on his list and then some. That’s when Vin and I rushed to him, but there was no way out.”
“So what did you do?” Jackson asked.
“I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve prayed for Divine intervention and I don’t even remember praying for it at that moment, but that’s exactly what happened. The flames were eating away at everything around us and I thought there was no way out, but I saw them and I knew,” the man grew quiet as he closed his eyes and the image returned with perfect clarity.
“Saw who, Josiah?” Dunne asked.
“Sarah and Adam. Sarah was holding his hand and her other one was on her stomach and they were in a circle of light. It was like she was showing us the way out and I grabbed Chris and made sure Vin was okay before running towards that light. The fire stayed away from us and that’s when we escaped. I know I’ve had a crisis of faith more than once, but what I saw today makes me a believer in everything the church stands for. They saved us...saved Chris,” Sanchez said, taking a deep breath and rubbing at his temples.
“Are you okay, Josiah?” Jackson asked.
“I’m fine, Nathan, nothing a little good news wouldn’t cure,” the older man answered.
“Josiah, if you truly believe divine intervention had anything to do with rescuing Chris and your escape from the fires of hell today, then you must also have faith that Chris and Vin will both be whole once more,” Standish said and smiled, flashing his gold tooth as the other man stared at him. He knew he’d shocked them with his declaration, but they needed to believe and believe they would!
“Ezra’s right,” Dunne said and settled in for what promised to be a long night.
Nathan knew these men were beyond weary and had probably bypassed exhaustion long ago, but he also knew they would not be leaving the hospital until they had word on Chris Larabee.
“So, how long before Vin is brought up from the ER?” he asked.
“They were waiting for a room and then they’d bring him up. The nurse at the ER desk said she’d call us as soon as they know what room he’ll be in,” Wilmington explained.
“I’ll go stay with Vin once we get word on his room,” Sanchez said, watching Jackson closely and seeing the pain in the soft brown eyes. “Nate, you should try and get some rest.”
“I’m fine,” he glared as the four men laughed, but it didn’t last as he realized what he’d said. Shaking his head he waited for Sanchez and Dunne to stand up before laying back against the pillow. He closed his eyes, but didn’t sleep for never had the silence seemed so loud.
Robert Miller picked up the phone and dialed the number for Jackson’s room at the hospital. He knew the others would be there and wanted them to know what was going on with the investigation. The call was answered on the second ring and he recognized Wilmington’s voice immediately.
“Buck, it’s Robert. Any word on Chris and Vin?”
“Vin will be  taken to his room as soon as it’s ready for him. Chris is still in surgery and we’re waiting to hear from the doctors on how it went. What’s happening there?” He asked as Orrin, Evie, Casey and Nettie Wells entered the room. He held up his hand to signal for quiet as Miller answered.
“That’s why I was calling. The fire is finally under control, but we can’t go in until the fire department says it’s okay. There are still a lot of hotspots and we don’t even know if anything was stored on the premises or not. There were a couple of minor explosions at the north end, but nothing in the last two hours.”
“So you can’t verify if Ella and the others were killed or managed to escape?”
“I’m afraid not. No one’s going in there for at least twenty four hours and that’s only if the fire department okays it.”
“Where’s Royal?”
“He’s at the station and he’s calling for his lawyers. Something about mistreatment threats made by you boys, but we both know that’s not going to go far. Not once it gets out that he knew what was happening and was an accomplice in what was done to Chris. We’ve also got APBs out for Ella Gaines, Robert Spikes and Jack Averil, but so far nothing.  Look, I have to go, but I wanted to check on Chris and Vin. You boys take it easy and try not to make a nuisance of yourself with the nursing staff. I’ll let you know if anything changes.”
“Thanks, Bob, we’ll be waiting to hear from you,” Wilmington said and hung up. “They can’t get into the warehouse to search for bodies because of hot spots and the possibility of further explosions. So we won’t know for some time whether Ella and the others got out.”
“If they did manage to escape then we’re giving them time to get away!” Dunne spat angrily.
“I know, Kid, but there’s nothing we can do about that. Bob’s doing all he can,” Wilmington explained, standing and offering his chair to Nettie Wells.
“Thank you, Buck,” the woman said, smiling tiredly as she sat down. “Is Vin in his room yet?”
“Not yet, Nettie. It might take some time before they have a room for him,” Sanchez answered.
“Nathan, how are you feeling?” Evie Travis asked as she took the seat offered by JD Dunne.
“I’m feeling better, thank you, Mrs. Travis,” Jackson answered as the group settled in for what looked to be a long night.
“I wish I could believe you, Nathan, but right now you look paler than the sheets. Why don’t we all go to the waiting room and let Nathan get some rest?” Evie suggested.
“That’s okay, Ma’am, you guys can stay.”
“One of us will stay. The rest will go to the waiting room,” Orrin told them.
“I’ll stay here,” Wilmington said, rubbing his shoulder as the others nodded agreement.
“All right, Buck, but let us know when the doctors get here,” Nettie said, standing and walking towards the door.  She led the way down the hall to the end and entered the unoccupied waiting room. The others followed her in and the solemn group took seats and silently prayed for the injured men.
Josiah had checked with the desk and knew Tanner was in a room not far from Nathan Jackson’s. He’d let the others know where he was going with a promise that if they had any word or if Vin felt up to visitors he’d come get them. The nurses were being lenient because the group was being quiet, but that would change if their presence disturbed the other patients. Josiah also knew Nettie Wells would like to see Tanner, but the woman had told him to go check on the Texan.
Sanchez stood in the doorway of Room 401 and leaned wearily against the wall as he watched the sleeping man. There was still no word on Chris’s condition, but he knew if Tanner woke up he’d be worried and agitated. He moved into the semi-darkness and found the chair next to the window. His throat was raw and he still caught himself coughing, but it was getting easier. He closed his eyes and wondered how long it had been since he had a good nights sleep. Leaning his head back and breathing softly he felt himself drifting towards sleep when a tired drawl woke him.
“Josiah, what t...time is it?”
“It’s a little after three in the morning, Vin. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay...meds make me feel numb,” the Texan answered.
“That’s probably a good thing right now, Son. I saw the wounds you received in Rio and adding smoke inhalation to it was probably not a smart idea.”
“Guess not. Has there been any word?”
“No. Nothing yet, why don’t you try to go back to sleep?” Sanchez thought the younger man had taken his advice, but the tracker was not out yet.
“What happened, Josiah?”
“What do you mean, Vin?”
“How did everything get so fucked up? Sarah and Adam dead, Buck, JD, and Nathan hurt and Chris kidnapped by that bitch.”
“Oh hell, Vin, where to start. I guess it all started going bad the day we went to the State Fair,” Sanchez said, rubbing at his skull before continuing. “The day started out great. We each entered the contests. You know the ones. Tug of War, Kissing Booth, Pie Eating Contest...”
“Yeah, wish I’d’a been there. I seem ta remember the talk ‘bout the year before.”
“It was a great day,” Sanchez said, smiling as he pictured Ezra in his expensive clothing chasing down the greased pig. “JD entered us in a contest that ended with Ezra winning a pig...”
“What?” Tanner asked with a grin.
“He entered us in the greased pig contest and Ezra was the winner. JD also put the judges up to presenting the little piggy to Ezra. The look on his face was priceless.”
“I bet it was,” Tanner said. “Did you get pictures?”
“I’m afraid not,” the older man answered, glancing out the window at the brightly lit city. “We were all a mess after that and went to get cleaned up. Chris was last and told us he’d meet us back at the picnic area. Sarah went to meet him and caught him in the arms of another woman...”
“Hold on, Vin, it’s not what you think. Chris wasn’t holding her he was trying to push her away. From what they told us when they got back, Ella Gaines was trying to pick up where she thought her and Chris left off. She even tried to introduce herself to Sarah as Ella Gaines Larabee.”
“Oh, Hell, what did Sarah say ta that?”
“Chris told us Sarah got in Ella’s face and told her in no uncertain terms that she was the one and only Mrs. Larabee and that Ella needed to get her hands off her husband. You should have seen Sarah blush when Chris talked about her.”
“He really loved her,” Tanner said and the two men lapsed into silence.
Josiah listened as Vin dropped off to sleep once more and returned his attention to the city skyline. He knew people all over the city were sleeping, unaware of what was happening in the city’s hospital. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair once more. He didn’t hear he nurse come in and record the patient’s vitals and change the empty IV bag, but he mumbled thanks when a blanket was draped over his body.
Stacey Midland walked beside the stretcher bearing the heavily sedated body of Chris Larabee. She knew it was a little after four AM and that the surgical intervention necessary to save the man’s life had taken longer than they thought. So many things needed to be fixed, and they’d done what they could, but there would be further surgery required once he was stronger. The SICU was prepared for him and she nodded to several nurses busy around the bed pressed up against the wall. It took another hour to get her patient into the bed, hooked up to the proper monitors, and make sure the ventilator and IV lines were running properly.
Midland looked at the readings and nodded as the cooling blanket was draped over the battered body. His temperature was far too high for her liking and they needed to do everything they could to bring it down. The antibiotics being fed into his veins would help, but it would still take time to get rid of the ongoing infections lingering through most of his wounds.
“Colleen, I’m going to check in with his friends before I go home. If there’s any problems at all have me paged.”
“I will, Dr. Midland,” the red haired nurse assured her as she continued to check her patient. The chest tube was in place and she could see the bloodied fluids that spoke of a punctured lung and knew this patient would be in for a long recovery. She filled a basin with warm water and dropped a soft cloth into it before returning to the patient. Dried blood marred the bruised skin and she gently cleaned it from his body as the beeping monitors told her he was still with them.
Buck looked up as the door opened and held his breath for several agonizing seconds as he saw the woman standing there. He glanced at the bed and knew Jackson was sleeping and tried not to disturb him, but the eyes snapped open and instantly spotted the physician.
“Doc how’s Chris?” Jackson asked.
“Where are the others?” Midland asked, moving into the room and sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Josiah’s with Vin. The others are in the waiting room down the hall.”
“Could you go get them, Buck? I’m tired and I only want to go through this once.”
“Sure, Doc,” the rogue said as he hurried from the room.
“Nathan, did you manage to get any sleep last night?”
“A little. Just couldn’t sleep knowing Chris was in surgery. It took a long time,” he stated softly.
“Yes, it did. There were a lot of problems, Nathan. More than we knew at first, but I’d rather wait until the others get here before I go over the list, okay?”
“Okay, I think I hear them coming,” Jackson said as footsteps sounded in the hallway. It took less than a minute for the newcomers to get comfortable and all eyes were turned on the physician.
“Well, Doc, how’s Chris?” the ladies’ man asked, his voice betraying the tension of the moment. He saw the deep-rooted exhaustion in Midland’s eyes and knew whatever had happened had not been good.
“First off let me tell you he’s in the SICU and we’ll be keeping him heavily sedated for several days. He’s on a Respirator and he’s extremely weak. He’s been given several pints of blood and he’ll probably need more before his volume is where it should be. Dr. Bledsoe was there and debrided the burn wounds to Chris’ chest, and he found signs of infection in them. Dr. Silverman found a heavy bleeder caused by the bullet moving around in Chris’ abdomen. We managed to find the bullet, but it had done some damage to his stomach that has caused peritonitis to set in. Again we’re treating that with strong intravenous antibiotics. He has several broken ribs and one of them punctured his lung and we’ve inserted a chest tube to help with that. There is a very real possibility of more surgery, but right now he’s just too weak for that. He’s running a high fever and we’ve put him under a cooling blanket to try and bring it down.” She watched the group closely and saw the horror written on each face as she told them of the problems facing their friend.
“He’s going to make it though, right doc?” Dunne asked.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure he does, JD. I’ve ordered more tests and an MRI. His right eye is badly swollen and a deep laceration above it took six stitches. There’s also the distinct possibility of brain damage and I think you should all be prepared just in case,” Midland explained.
“Chris won’t die, Doc, we’ll see to that!” Wilmington said forcefully and heard the others agree.
“That’s good to know, Buck. Now why don’t you all go home and let my patients rest?” the woman asked.
“Can I see him, Doc?” the ladies’ man asked.
“Yes, but only for a few minutes, Buck. Mrs. Wells, if you’d like to go with him you can,” Midland suggested, knowing how close this woman was to her patient.
“I’d like that,” the woman said tiredly and accepted Buck’s help in standing up.
“Buck he’s on the fifth floor SICU. Just check with the nurses and they’ll let you know which one and if you can go in.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Wilmington said as he supported Nettie out of the room.
“Nathan, I want you to try and rest. How long since you’ve had anything for pain?” Midland asked as Jackson tried to find a comfortable spot in the bed.
“Don’t remember. Sometime after ten I think,” Jackson answered.
“All right, I’ll have your nurse check and see if you’re due for a shot. The rest of you out and one of you might as well get Josiah to leave as well.” The doctor walked out of the room, leaving the visitors to decide what their next move would be.
“I’ll get Josiah. Ezra, you take everyone down to the cars and we’ll be down shortly. JD, you go on up and wait for Buck and Nettie to finish up,” Travis said before turning back to the injured man. “Nathan, listen to the doctors and do as they tell you and that’s an order.”
Jackson smiled tiredly as a nurse came into the room. He waved goodbye to the others as he spotted the syringe in her hand.
“I’ve got your shot here, Nathan,” the woman said as she drew the curtains around the bed. As soon as she gave him the shot he felt the draw of sleep and turned slightly on his left side. In spite of the exhaustion and pain medication, sleep was a long time coming to Nathan Jackson as his thoughts kept returning to the man in SICU and the hell he’d been put through.
Travis walked into the room and couldn’t help smiling at the two sleeping men. Vin lay slightly on his right side, while Josiah sat in the chair with his feet up on the edge of the bed and his head leaning against the back of the chair. A blanket had been draped over him and he moved as Orrin entered the room.
“Josiah,” Travis called softly and watched as the other man blinked away the vestiges of sleep.
“Orrin? What time is it?”
“Nearly six. Stacey Midland came to see us a few minutes ago. Buck and Nettie are on their way up to see him now...”
“How he?” came the voice from the bed.
“Hello, Vin,” Travis smiled at the younger man as Sanchez stood up. “It’s good to have you home where you belong.”
“Thanks Orrin.” Tanner said and waited for the other man to answer his question.
“He’s not in good shape, Vin, but at least he’s alive. Midland said the surgery took longer than expected due to complications from the wounds. They managed to get the bullet out, but he’s fighting a case of peritonitis and other infections. Between broken ribs and the bullet wound he’s going to have a long recovery and they’ll be keeping him sedated for several days.”
“Damn it,” Tanner cursed as he tried to sit up.
“Going somewhere, Vin?” Sanchez asked.
“Want to see Chris myself,” Tanner answered and glared as two sets of hands held him down.
“I’m afraid that’s out of the question right now, Vin. The doctor’s got you on bed rest for now and you won’t be getting up until they let you.”
“I need...”
“To lie there and let yourself heal. Don’t make me get the nurse in here!” Travis warned.
“Orrin is right, Vin. You’re not in any shape to go moving around right now and if I were to hazard a guess I’d say you’ll fall over before you make it to the door.”
“And that’s a conservative estimate...”
“I’ll stay p...put...”
“If I were to be honest I’d say you might make it to your feet but then...”
“Josiah, I said I’d stay put!”
“You’d fall down and we’d have to pick you up!”
“I think he understands, Josiah,” Travis said as the ex-preacher finally stopped speaking.
“Mr. Tanner, I need to take a sample of blood from you,” a lab tech said as he hurried into the room and checked the band on his wrist.
“Vin, we’ll be back this afternoon. You make sure you do what you’re supposed to,” Sanchez warned as he followed Travis out the door.
Vin closed his eyes and thought about getting out of the bed once the tech left, but he knew Sanchez was right. There was no way in hell he had enough strength to make it across the room let alone upstairs. Sighing heavily he felt as if the weight of the world had landed squarely on his shoulders. How could so many things have happened while he was away? Guilt reared it’s ugly head as he thought about what Chris Larabee was going through.
‘I’m sorry, Cowboy, I should’ve been there for you,’ Tanner thought as he drifted towards sleep once more.
Buck held tightly to the woman standing next to him as they caught their first glimpse of Chris Larabee. The man was literally lost amongst the machinery keeping him alive, there didn’t seem to be an area where some tube or wire wasn’t attached. Several bags hung from the IV pole, one running into his left arm while another ran into his neck. The ventilator tubing ran into the right side of his mouth and tape held it in place. They moved into the room and noted the blanket covering the patient as they each reach for a hand.
“He’s so cold,” Nettie said.
“That’s the blanket,” the nurse explained. “He’s running a very high temperature right now and we’re using the cooling blanket in an effort to bring it down.”
“Sure feels like it’s working,” Wilmington observed as he watched the ventilator breath for his friend. “How is he doing?”
“I’m not going to lie to you, he’s in critical condition right now and we’re monitoring everything. The doctors have ordered that he be kept sedated for now to give his body a chance to heal a little. I know it’s hard seeing him like this, but we’re going to do everything we can to make sure he comes through this and returns to his former life,” Polly Jennings explained.
“I know you will, Polly,” Wilmington said, reading the name on her tag.
Nettie listened to the two people talking, but she couldn’t voice her own questions because of the growing lump in her throat. She held tightly to her nephew in law’s hand and prayed silently that things would get better. She reached through the leads and touched the blond’s forehead, carefully avoiding the laceration and the bruises.
“Oh, Chris, I know how tempting it is to give up so you can be with Sarah, Adam, and the baby, but we need you here. Need to see you awake and smiling...I know that won’t happen for a long time, but I want to be there when it does. I know we’ve always talked about climbing mountains and how hard that can be, but that’s exactly what you’ve got to do, but you won’t be alone. Never alone, Chris, never! We can all climb it together, you and I, Buck, Vin, JD and all the others. All we need is for you to open your eyes and take that first step.”
Buck felt the tears in his eyes as he listened to the woman talk and he watched as she gently kissed his cheek before turning to leave.
“I’ll be right outside the door, Buck,” she said as she hurried away.
“Chris, Pard, there’s no way in hell you can refuse that lady. She’s been here all night with the rest of us and none of us are willing to let you go. So I think it’s time you showed these nice folks what it means to be a Larabee. I gotta go bring her home now, Pard, but I’ll be back later this afternoon,” Wilmington said, squeezing Larabee’s hand gently. He nodded to the nurse and reluctantly left the room.
Hank Connelly stared at the TV screen as the minutes ticked off on the clock beside him. He knew he was going to be late, but he didn’t give a damn as he watched the camera pan over the burnt out warehouse. The lady reporter stood in front of the yellow police line and was talking about the people who’d been hurt in the violence. There were several pictures flashed across the screen but it was the one sitting in the top right hand corner of the TV that made him smile.
“Looks like someone’s making you pay you bastard!” the hung over man spat, rubbing his hands together as he heard about the injuries to the man who’d taken his daughter away.
“If you live through this I’ve got another little surprise ready for you. I’ll never fucking let you get away with interfering in my family business. That old woman is gonna pay right along with you! Teach you both some manners!” He watched until the report was finished before finally getting ready to go to work. If Chris Larabee thought his life was hell now, he was about to find out there were worse things.
Nathan moved slowly along the corridor towards Tanner’s room. He knew the younger man should be resting, but knowing Vin he was probably more worried about Chris than what he should or should not be doing. He stood in the doorway for several seconds, wondering if he’d ever seen the Texan so pale. Tanner was turned slightly towards the window and his eyes were closed, but Jackson knew he wasn’t sleeping.
“Feel up to some company?” the medic in training asked and moved into the room.
“Shouldn’t ya be restin’, Nate?” the Texan inquired.
“Probably, but I wanted to see how you were doing,” Jackson answered.
“So, does yer nurse know yer here or are ya AWOL?”
“Well, guess I’m AWOL. How are you feeling, Vin, and I don’t want to hear I’m fine?”
“I’m sore, Nate. The drugs they’re givin’ me is helpin’ a lot, but they make me sleepy,” Tanner answered.
“Yes, well, you should be grateful for those or you’d be a mite uncomfortable right now.”
“Yeah, believe me I am. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Jackson answered automatically and the two men couldn’t help laughing. “Guess I should practice what I preach.”
“Guess so,” the Texan agreed, wiping at the tears in his eyes. The two men remained silent for a few minutes when Jackson finally spoke.
“Vin, I’m glad you’re back. I know the things that happened in Rio were hard on you, but at least you got Mendoza and took down a major drug cartel in the process. I know it won’t stop the drugs from getting on the street, but it’s a victory and it tells people like Mendoza that we’re not going to stop coming after them.”
“The bastard hurt a lot of people...”
“Yes, he did, but he won’t be hurting anyone else. You should be proud of what you and Jackie Maynard accomplished.”
“Jackie was one of his victims, Nathan,” the tracker explained, remembering the story she shared with him. “He made her life a living hell at times...”
“Well it may be of little consequence, but at least she doesn’t have to worry about him anymore.”
“No, she doesn’t and she’s not with the DEA anymore either.”
“Why?” Jackson asked as he listened to Tanner talk about the female agent. There was something about his eyes that spoke of some regret and Jackson wondered just how close they really were.
“She did what she set out ta do and took Mendoza down. The bastard killed her brother and tried to use her in some kind of porno flicks. Her brother helped her escape and that’s why Mendoza had him killed. Jackie’s seen a lot of violence and she decided ta break all ties with the DEA. That’s why we dropped her in Chicago and she’s goin’ to stay with her parents. She’s a strong woman and knows what she needs right now.”
“Sounds like you have feelings for her, Vin,” Jackson observed as the younger man turned towards the window.
“Yeah, yeah, I do, Nathan, but for now she needs time. Told me she wanted ta do something with her life.”
“Are you going to see each other again?”
“I don’t know. I hope so, but she needs a little time to get her head on straight. She’s goin’ ta call me when she’s had time ta settle in.”
“So this is where you got to, Nathan,” Rain exclaimed as she entered the room.
“Uh oh, Nathan, I think you’ve been busted,” Tanner said, smiling at the pretty woman framed in the doorway.
“He certainly has. Your nurse is looking for you and I told her I’d find you.” Rain said, smiling at the man in the bed. “You must be Vin Tanner. My name is Rain Goines and it’s nice to finally meet the last member of the team.”
“Howdy, Ma’am, nice ta meet ya too,” Tanner said, yawning tiredly.
“Rain’s a pediatrician here at Saint Vincents,” Jackson explained.
“I ‘member hearin’ her name. A...Adam’s doctor...”
“Yes, I was,” Rain said, sadness in her eyes at the thought of the laughing little boy she’d treated for too short a time.
The trio remained silent, memories of the lost little boy tearing at their hearts. The healing would take time, and they would not be alone. It was Rain who finally broke the silence.
“Nathan, you need to return to your room.”
“Better go, Nathan, before they send out an armed guard,” the Texan said quietly.
“All right, Vin, You try to get some rest, okay?”
“You too, Nathan,” Tanner said and watched the couple leave. He closed his eyes, but couldn’t sleep as images of a little boy laughing while they fished invaded his thoughts.
Nathan knew Chris Larabee was on the fifth floor Surgical ICU and he made his way towards the elevator across from the nurse’s desk. No one was there at the moment and he pressed the button, entering as soon as the doors opened and pressing the button for the next floor. He exited as soon as the door began to open and made his way to the desk.
“What room is Chris Larabee in?” he asked when the pretty oriental nurse looked up from the chart she was working on.
“He’s in SICU four, but there’s someone in there with him now. Why don’t you go to the waiting room and I’ll have someone get you when the other man leaves.”
“Chris has a visitor?” Jackson asked, wondering whom it could be. He knew the others would not be back until later in the day and the police would not be in until Larabee was able to answer questions.
“Yes, an older man. He looked worried and asked specifically if he could see Mr. Larabee. Since he was family...”
“Family?” Jackson asked, eyes widening as he realized who it was.
“Why yes! Where are you going?”
“Call security and have them get to Chris’ room right away!” Jackson ordered as he hurried towards SICU four.
“Just do it now!”
Joanne Newport looked up from the monitor as the sound of footsteps sounded outside the unit. She smiled at the man standing there and motioned for him to enter.
“How is he,” the newcomer asked as he strode to the bed and looked down at the injured man.
“He’s holding his own at the moment. Are you a relative?” the nurse asked, knowing the man had to check in with the desk before being allowed to enter the room.
“You could say that, but we’ve never really seen eye to eye on anything. Looks like he took quite the beating.”
“Yes, he did, no one deserves this,” Newport said as she checked the flow of the IV leading into Larabee’s jugular.
‘Looks like someone decided to teach you a lesson, Larabee. Too damn bad they didn’t let me in on it. I hope you rot in hell!’
“Sir, are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I was just thinking about what he’s been through and wishing I could’ve helped.”
“Well, you can help now. He’s going to need all the help and support he can get,” Newport explained.
“Oh, I’ll help him, all right. Help him right to hell...”
“Pardon me?” Newport frowned at the whispered words.
“I said he looks like hell,” Connelly covered up and placed his hand on Larabee’s shoulder. He pressed his fingertips into the muscle and smiled inwardly at the power he held.
“What the hell a...are you d...doing Hank?” Jackson’s irate voice called as he entered the room.
“What does it look like, Jackson. I’ve come to see my son in law!”
“Is there a problem?” Newport asked, sensing the anger flaring between the two men.
“This man is not supposed to be here! Security is on the way, Hank! Get away from him!”
“You don’t have the right to stop me from visiting with my family, Jackson. As a matter of fact I could probably have you banned from visiting him. Maybe I should make arrangements to have you all kicked out. After all I’m concerned about my son in law’s health.”
“Hank, go ahead and try it and you’ll find out you don’t have a leg to stand on. G...get o...out or help me I’ll m...make you l...leave my...self,” Jackson said as pain radiated outwards from the knife wound to his back.
“I think you’d both better leave,” Newport warned, afraid for her patient if the two came to blows. Her second fear was for the patient who managed to push himself between the bed and the bigger man.
“Excuse me, Sir, but you’ll have to leave!”
“Who the hell are you?” Connelly cursed as he turned to face the two newcomers.
“Hospital security, and I’m afraid you’re disturbing the patients. Will you leave on your own or do we need to escort you off the premises.”
“Why should I have to leave? This man is family and I was just visiting him,” Hank protested.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to take that up with the hospital, but for now you need to leave,” the bigger of the two security guards advised.
“Gets pretty bad when a man can’t even visit his family. Jackson, you may have won this round, but you can’t keep me away from him. You won’t always be around to protect him! The bastard deserves everything they did to him!” Connelly laughed as he turned back to the sedated patient. “You hear me, Chris Larabee, and mark my words. You’ll pay for taking what didn’t belong to you!”
“Get him out of here!” Jackson spat as the security guards moved to intercept the older man. They hustled him out the door, ignoring his irate curses as they moved him towards the elevator.
Nathan breathed hard as he tried to calm his nerves and ignore the ache stabbing through his back. He kept his gaze on the man lying amidst the machinery and tubes as his vision blurred and the room seemed to waver. He felt someone take his arm and lead him closer to the bed where he was lowered onto a chair.
“Stay put!” Newport ordered and put in a call for an orderly and wheelchair.
“No, can’t leave h...him. H...Hank might c...come back!”
“What’s your name and what floor are you supposed to be on?”
“Nathan Jackson. Fourth floor.”
“Well, Nathan, now that we know who he is he won’t be allowed anywhere near my patient.”
“How can you be s...sure?” Jackson asked worriedly.
“Because we’ll make sure his name is on the list as not being allowed to visit Chris. Now the orderly is here and he’s going to take you back to your floor.”
“O...okay. How Chris?”
“He’s doing as well as can be expected considering what he’s been through, Nathan. The doctor’s have been in to check on him and are pleased with the way things are going so far. Try not to worry too much,” she warned as she helped him into the chair.
“Easier said than done when the patient is like family, Joanne.”
“I understand, Nathan, but right now you need to get back to your room and get some rest. You can come back later if you okay it with your nurse,” Newport said and watched as the handsome man was wheeled out of the room. She turned back to her patient, glad that the man was sedated after the scene she’d just witnessed. The visitor had seemed so concerned about Chris Larabee. That is until Nathan Jackson discovered his presence. Taking a look at the retreating form she set about her next duty. Again she was glad he was unconscious as she began suctioning the ventilator tubing.
Hank Connelly whistled as he walked to the elevator and pressed the button. Seeing the brutalized body of Chris Larabee had sent a thrill through him and he felt as if he was finally getting what he wanted. He stepped into the elevator and exited on the first floor. Walking towards the main doors he saw the small hospital chapel and smiled coldly.
“Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord,” he quoted and continued to whistle as plans formulated in his mind.
Nathan closed his eyes as the orderly took control of the wheelchair. His anger hadn’t dissipated since leaving the room, yet his own body’s weakness was beginning to take its toll on him. The wound to his back ached with a dull intensity and he winced as the orderly stopped next to his bed. He looked up to see his nurse standing next to him and nodded as she asked if he needed something for pain. By the time he was stretched out on the bed he was trembling from pain and exhaustion. He felt the sting of the needle and watched the nurse hook up the IV antibiotics to the heplock. He mumbled thanks as she pulled the blanket up over him and he began to drift off to sleep.
‘Have to tell the others about Hank,’ was his last thought as the nurse turned off the light and pulled the dark drapes across.
Buck, Josiah, JD, and Ezra walked into the hospital and made their way to the elevator. None of the men had gotten much sleep, but they knew that would be the way until the trio of men were well on their way to recovery. Sanchez picked them all up in the Club Van and they stopped at a deli for a late lunch before continuing on to the hospital. Josiah would be going to Nathan’s room, Ezra and JD would exit on the same floor and check on Vin while, Buck went to the third floor to check on Chris. The doors opened and the trio exited, leaving Wilmington alone with his troubled thoughts.
Josiah turned to the left and walked to Jackson’s door. It was nearly closed and he eased it open looking into the semi darkness before entering and letting the door close gently behind him. He could see Jackson lying slightly on his right side, head turned towards the window, right arm laid flat on the bed, while the left was tucked into his side. He rarely saw Nathan Jackson injured or sick, and right now he hoped never to see it again. Walking to the chair by the window, Sanchez sat down and said a silent prayer that the injured men would soon be back on their feet.
Buck walked slowly towards the room where Chris Larabee lay, sedated and hurt because of a madwoman’s deadly obsession. He knew from his earlier visit what to expect when he arrived, yet it didn’t make it any easier to see the bruises and bandages covering Larabee’s upper body. He stood in the doorway and watched as the nurse made several long notations on the chart. Taking a deep breath he entered the room and walked the short distance to the bed. He read the tag on the nurse’s uniformed and found the tiniest smile as he sat in the chair next to the bed. He reached for Larabee’s right hand and winced at how cold his fingers felt.
“Hell of a mess, ol’ son,” he whispered, fighting to keep the tears from escaping his eyes.
“Did you say something?”
“Sorry, Pamela, just thinking out loud.”
“Hmm, I’ve been known to do that on several occasions,” the nurse said, taking a damp cloth and gently washing her patient’s face.
“His hand is so cold.”
“That’s the cooling blanket. His temperature is quite high and we’re trying to get it down.”
“He’s been through so much,” Wilmington observed, running his fingers through his dark hair.
“Yes, he has. I read about what happened to his family. Nobody deserves that.”
“No, they don’t. He...we lost so much more than most people can comprehend. Chris loved Sarah so much and that bitch...ah hell, I’m, sorry!”
“Don’t apologize, Mr. Wilmington. I assure you I’ve heard much worse in here. Seeing a friend or family member like this is hard and can overwhelm the senses. A little bad language does not offend me.”
“Thanks, Pamela, and please call me Buck.”
“Okay, Buck, now I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave for a little while. There are some things I have to do for Chris, and some can be unpleasant for you to watch. You can come back in half an hour.”
“Hate leaving him.”
“I know you do, but he’ll be fine. He’s sedated right now and won’t feel anything,” Pamela said, smiling as the handsome, yet pale man stood up, but continued to hold tightly to his friend’s hand. She could see the underlying pain in the blue eyes and knew this man felt an overwhelming grief from Larabee’s loss and the condition he was seeing him in.
“You listen, Chris and listen well. I know you’ve lost more than most men lose in a lifetime, but you’re not now, nor will you ever be alone. You got us, Chris, the six of us and Nettie, Casey, Orrin and Evie and we’re not about to let up on you. I love you, Chris, you and me have always been like brothers and although we’ve had our differences, I’m not about to let you go without a fight. Pamela’s going to do some things for you and then I’ll be back, you just make damn sure you’re here,” Wilmington said before exiting the rooms as the tears finally made their escape.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 8 | PART 9 | PART 10 | PART 11 | PART 12 | PART 13 | PART 15 | PART 16 | PART 17 | PART 18


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