DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 16


Buck looked at the pages of the book and realized he read the same paragraph several times and still didn’t know what was in it. Closing the book he stood up and rubbed his lower back. He glanced down at the sleeping man and knew there was an emotional roller coaster of a ride ahead for all of them. Chris Larabee had loved Sarah and Adam more than life itself, and now that they were gone he would need help dealing with that loss.
 
“Ah, hell, Chris, I wish I could turn back the clock,” he whispered and turned as he heard movement outside the door. He smiled at the sight of the two youngest members of Larabee’s elite team. Vin was confident in his abilities, while JD was still trying to prove himself in spite of the others telling him he didn’t have anything to prove.
 
“How is he, Buck?” Tanner asked softly.
 
“He’s been asleep since the doctor’s left, but I think he’s starting to wake up. JD, why don’t we go see if we can rustle up some good coffee? Will you be okay here until we get back, Vin?”
 
“I’ll be fine, Buck. You boys go get some lunch...hell, I guess it’s more like dinner now,” the Texan told him as JD pushed the wheelchair up to the bed.
 
“All right, we’ll be back in half an hour or so,” Wilmington assured the younger man before leaving with Dunne.
 
When the others had gone and Vin was alone with Larabee and the nurse he turned his attention to the blond. His steady gaze swept over the too pale body, taking in the bruises that only now showed signs of fading at the edges, the heavily bandaged chest, the head wound, the dark shadows under the closed lids, the evidence of immobilizing bandages around the right knee, and the tube running into the chest. He knew that one might be coming out in the morning, but it looked uncomfortable and he winced sympathetically. He studied the sleeping face and wondered at the lines of pain even when the man was supposed to be resting. A soft moan escaped the slack lips and Vin knew Larabee was on the verge of waking up. He smiled thinly as the green eyes finally opened, but the panic was obvious as they darted left and right as if searching for something. 
 
“Easy, Cowboy,” Tanner soothed in an effort to stop the rising fear he saw in the green orbs. He watched as the eyes finally focused and tried to instilll a sense of safety on the man.
 
It took several long minutes to get his eyes to focus, but his memories were like scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Chris shifted on the bed, moaning as pain stabbed through his skull, but he refused to give into the darkness that called to him. He recognized the voice and knew it belonged to the man who’d quickly become his right hand, but there was something urgent about the memories warring for attention inside his head.
 
“V...Vin, what h...happened?”
 
“Ya were hurt, Chris...”
 
“N...no shit! H...how?”
 
“An explosion, but yer going ta be all right,” the tracker assured him.
 
“Sure don’t feel t...that w...way. W...where’s Sarah...oh God!” he cried as the flashing memories solidified and cleared.
 
“Easy, Chris...”
 
“God, Vin, t...they’re gone! Sarah, Adam, and the b...baby! Gone! Gone because o...of m...me!”
 
“Not because of ya, Chris. Because of...”
 
“Y...yes it i...is, Vin! If I’d left her...gone w...with Ella...Adam and Sarah would s...still be a...alive...and the baby...”


“Chris, ya can’t really believe that? From what I’ve heard Ella Gaines was obsessed with ya and she wouldn’t have liked the idea of another woman having had her hands on ya!”
 
Chris eyes lit up with an undeniable fury as he twisted his fingers in the blanket and looked at his friend. “I...I k...killer her, Vin. I k...killed t...that b...bitch for w...what s...she did!”
 
“I know, Cowboy,” Tanner said, not wanting to tell the man about the lack of a body to confirm the woman was dead. He saw the tears forming in Larabee’s eyes, and knew it was from more than pain. The nurse was checking the blond’s IV and he watched her inject the prescribed meds before hanging a new bag of IV solution.
 
“I h...hope she and the b...bastards with h...her b...burn in h...hell!”
 
“I do too, Chris,” Tanner agreed and wished there was something he could do to ease the man’s torment, yet he understood only time would be able to do that. He remained silent as Larabee tried to get his emotions under control and the green eyes finally locked with his once more.
 
“Vin, did y...you get M...Mendoza?”
 
“Yeah, bastard’s dead.”
 
“Are you s...sure?”
 
“Killed him myself...”
 
“That how y...you w...were hurt?”
 
“Yeah, made a few mistakes. Got caught by Mendoza’s men.”
 
“H...how did you g...get away?”
 
“Jackie, she’s amazin’, Chris. She got me out of a hell-hole and helped me ta get Mendoza off the mountain. She went ta check on some soldiers and that’s when Mendoza got my knife and we fought. He got lucky a couple of times, but I got pissed and I killed the sonofabitch!”
 
“G...good, g...glad the b...bastard’s out of b...business. So where’s Jackie? A...another case?”
 
“No, she went home. Jackie quit the DEA and went back home. She wants some time to herself right now.”
 
“You plan on c...calling her?”
 
“No, not until she calls me. She needs time to deal with everything that happened, Chris. She suffered because of Mendoza and maybe when you’re up to it I’ll tell you about it.”
 
“O...okay,” the blond said as he felt the effects of the pain medication. The agony in his skull was slowly receding and a deep numbness was seeping through him.
 
“Chris, you should get some sleep,” Tanner suggested.
 
“S...sleep is something I d...don’t w...want, Vin. I k...keep seeing...seeing the explosion...keep hearing Sarah’s screams...I...I couldn’t g...get to t...them! Buck...h...he s...stopped me. H...he shouldn’t have, Vin...should’ve let me t...try. I m...might have b...been able t...to s...save t...them!”
 
“No, Chris, ya would’ve ended up dying too,” Tanner said.
 
“L…least I...I’d be w...with t...them!” Larabee spat as anger once more reared its ugly head.
 
“Chris, ya don’t mean that!” Tanner warned as he saw the look on the nurse’s face. He knew she would be watching for comments like this, as they would go a long ways towards determining Larabee’s state of mind and right now the words were damning.
 
“Don’t I, Vin? How the h...hell w...would you know? How t...the hell w...would any o...of you know?”
 
“Chris, I need you to calm down or I’ll have to ask Mr. Tanner to leave,” Gilda Perrone advised her patient as she watched the readouts on the monitors.
 
“Who the f...fuck d...do y...you think y...you are?” Larabee spat. Anger and tension evident in the set of his body, with his mouth set in a tight line, eyes deadly green and ringed with fire, as he shifted on the bed.
 
“Chris, she’s just doing her job...”
 
“I don’t g...give a d...damn what s...she t...thinks s...she’s doing! I want out o...of h...here n...now!”
 
“Just where would you go, Chris Larabee?”
 
The anger and tension drained from Chris’ face and body as the elderly woman entered the room and moved to stand beside the bed, with her hands on her hips and a
newfound strength in her eyes as she waited for him to get his emotions under control.
 
“I...I was. I was j...just,” Chris couldn’t get the words past his throat as he looked into the face that reminded him so much of his late wife. He hadn’t realized just how much Nettie Wells and Sarah Connelly looked alike, not until this moment when he saw the pain in the wondrous orbs set in the face he thought he knew so well. The sense of loss was overwhelming and again he felt the tears slip past the mask he tried to erect.
 
“Sh,” Nettie whispered as she lowered the rail and sat beside him. She took his hand in her own and accepted the cloth the nurse passed her. She washed the battered face, carefully avoiding the bandaged wound and paying close attention to the closed eyes.
 
“I...I’m s...sorry,” Larabee whispered, closing his eyes as more tears threatened to spill.
 
“Everything is going to be all right, Chris. You’ve got family and friends who care about you and we’re not about to let anything happen to you. All you have to do is think about the love you shared with Sarah and whether she would want you to have those maudlin thoughts.”
 
“I...I c...can’t help i...it, N...Nettie. I keep hearing h...her scream...k...keep seeing t...them b...before I l…left w...with Buck. I s...should h...have known s...something w...was wrong. God, I can’t g...get it o...out of my h...head. S...she’s g...gone...gone...” the distraught man cried and soon felt a hand on his chest. He forced his eyes open and looked at the man standing on the opposite side of the bed and forced a thin smile to his face.
 
“Chris, you know we’re here for you, Pard. Me, Vin, Nettie and the rest of your friends. You know how much I loved Sarah and that little man of yours and I’m not gonna let them down by letting you go through this alone. I love you, Chris...you and me got history and that’ll always be there and I...I...” Wilmington’s voice cracked with the effort to speak and the pain was evident in his limpid blue eyes.
 
“I k...know, Buck...and no m...matter what happens I...I’ve always c...counted on y...you,” Larabee said as he looked from one familiar face to another before letting the exhaustion and medications lull him towards sleep once more.
 
“Thanks, Buck,” Nettie said.
 
“Wasn’t me, Nettie...”
 
“Yeah, Buck, it was. Ya found the right words ta get him ta listen and he’s restin’ a lot easier,” Tanner assured the older man.
 
“Wasn’t just me, Vin. It was you, Nettie...all of us and we’re going to have to make sure he knows we’re watching out for him. Something tells me Chris Larabee is not gonna make our lives any easier either. He needs to talk about what he’s feeling!”
 
“Yes, he does, Mr. Wilmington, and hopefully Dr. James will get him to do just that,” Gilda explained as she cared for her patient.
 
“I’ve heard about Susan James. She’s very good with patients suffering from PTSD,” Wells observed.
 
“Yes, she is, but she deals with other issues as well. Dr. James is well respected by both her colleagues and her patients,” Perrone assured them.
 
“Good, I have a feeling we’re only seeing the beginning of Chris’ depression. He’s stubborn and he won’t ask for help, but he’s going to get it whether he wants it or not!” Nettie told them as she looked at the sagging figure in the wheel chair. “Talk about stubborn men. Vin you need to go back to your room.”
 
“I’m...”
 
“Going right now,” Wilmington interrupted as he took the handles of the chair.
 
“Buck, let me do it,” Dunne warned, pointing to the ladies’ man’s shoulder.
 
“I don’t need...”
 
“Vin, just be quiet and let me and JD take care of you.”
 
“Ah, hell,” the weary man softly cursed as his escorts wheeled him from the room.
 
Nettie looked down at the sleeping man and was once again overwhelmed with the loss they all suffered. Sarah had loved Chris Larabee with everything she was and Nettie still felt as if Sarah’s love surrounded them all, and especially enshrouded the injured man. Their love knew no bounds and somehow she would prove that to her nephew before it was too late. Sighing heavily she whispered a silent prayer for help and guidance with the life left behind.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nathan ran his fingers through his hair as Rain placed a bowl of savory beef stew in front of him. They were alone in Josiah’s house while the older man went to help Father Thomas at the church. Nathan had protested the need to have anyone stay with him, but Sanchez simply reminded him that he needed help for now.
 
“Can I get you anything else, Nathan?” Goines asked.
 
“No, this is fine, Rain, thanks,” Jackson said tiredly.
 
“Well, you go ahead and eat and I’ll turn down the blankets in the spare room,” she ordered. Before leaving, Sanchez showed her the room Jackson would be using and made sure she knew where everything, including his medications were kept.
 
Jackson nodded and took a small taste of the stew. It tasted great and after eating the food in the hospital his stomach seemed to jump for joy at the exceptional meal placed before him. He finished the bowl and felt the exhaustion creep over him as he sipped the black coffee. By the time Rain returned he was ready to lie down and he smiled as she handed him two white pills and a glass of water. He took them without protest and stood on shaky legs.
 
Rain led him into the bedroom and eased him onto the bed as he favored his injured back. He looked into her eyes and smiled at the depth of caring and warmth he saw there. Rain Goines was more than just an exotic beauty that made his heart beat faster. He wanted more than anything to have a life with her and he wanted to wake up each morning and feel her body next to his, feel her soft breath on his face, and to make love to her until the joy of their joining made them cry out in savage longing.
 
“Nathan, are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine, just thinking.”
 
“About?”
 
“How beautiful you are and what you’d feel like in my arms.”
 
“Ah, Nathan, I don’t think that’s something you should be thinking about right now.”
 
“Right now thinking about it is all I can do,” he said, smiling sheepishly as she gently pushed him back on the bed and covered him with a blanket.
 
“Go to sleep, Nathan,” Goines said, lightly running her finger across his cheek.
 
“Hmm…thanks, Rain,” he yawned and turned slightly away from the woman. “I love you.”
 
“Pardon me, Nathan? What did you just say?”
 
“Huh? What?” he asked, struggling to open his eyes.
 
“Nothing,” Goines said, smiling as the soft brown eyes finally lost the fight to stay open. “I love you too, Nathan Jackson.”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Father Thomas O’Neill watched as Josiah Sanchez lifted the heavy boxes of files and carried them downstairs into the basement. Many years were represented in the boxes, most of the information was now stored on discs, but O’Neill was of the old school and believed in being able to take a file and read the hard copy.
 
“Josiah, come on and take a break,” O’Neill ordered.
 
“I’m okay, Thomas, just a few left.”
 
“Even the good Lord took a break, Josiah. Come on. Mildred made a wonderful coffee cake and she said to tell you she won’t take no for an answer.”
 
“Guess I could take a few minutes...”
 
“Half an hour or I send you home now.”
 
“All right, Thomas,” Sanchez agreed as they moved towards the priest’s quarters adjacent to the church. They moved along the path and entered the small house smiling as Mildred Freeman, a wonderful housekeeper at fifty-two years of age, called them into the cozy kitchen. She pointed to the two chairs and the steaming mugs of coffee and cake.
 
“It’s about time you took a break, Josiah. If the good Lord wanted us working our fingers to the bone every minute of every day he’d made us all into robots and done away with sleep and beds. Now sit yourselves down and enjoy your snack. I’ve got dusting to finish and laundry to dry.”
 
“Thanks, Mildred,” Sanchez said, smiling as the short robust woman went about her duties with more energy than most people.
 
“How is Chris doing?” O’Neill asked, watching his long time friend for any reaction. Sanchez’ hands were wrapped tightly around the mug as he looked at the priest and finally answered.
 
“Better than I thought he’d be, Thomas, but Chris is like that. He’ll keep it bottled up inside until he explodes. I witnessed a small outburst earlier and I know it’s only the beginning.”
 
“Grief can do that to a man, Josiah. Right now Chris is probably trying hard not to let anyone know how he’s feeling. It’s natural after losing someone you love to grieve, but some men find it hard to let that grief out. Some women too for that matter, but woman are smarter and they seem to know that crying is not a sign of weakness.”
 
“I’ve cried my share and then some, Thomas,” Sanchez said, picking at the piece of cake.
 
“I know, and I’m sure you’ll find more tears for this man you call friend.”
 
“I have news for you, Thomas, I’ve cried my share for him as well. I’m beginning to wonder if God hasn’t forsaken us all!”
 
“Josiah, a long time ago we had this conversation and I asked you was God really to blame for what happened? Do you remember your answer to me?”
 
“I told you God may not be to blame for what happened, but he was to blame for not doing anything to stop it,” Sanchez answered in the same bitter tone he’d used when Carolyn and Amanda died.
 
“Do you still feel that way?”
 
“You know I don’t, Thomas. I know we, the human race, are responsible for most of the horrors we see on a daily basis, but there are times when we need God’s help and it just feels like he’s turned his back on us.”
 
“We are his children, Josiah and as with most children we need to be taught and we need to learn. God has not, nor will he ever forsake us and he will never give us more than we can handle!”
 
“Well, he’s certainly given Chris more than his share of hell right now. We can’t even be sure Ella Gaines is dead!”
 
“I wish there was something more I could do to ease your torment, Josiah, but until Chris is on his own two feet and has faced his demons I don’t think there is anything I could say to put your mind at ease.”
 
“No, Thomas, there isn’t. Not right now anyway.”
 
“Try and keep your faith, Josiah, look inside yourself and you will find the answers that you seek. You will know how to help Chris Larabee when the time is right,” Father O’Neill explained as the other man lapsed into silence.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris laid in bed staring at the ceiling and letting his memories wash over him in a frigid current of ice. He was cold, a bone numbing cold that bit at his skin and tore at his mind. So many things were lost to him now, the simple touch of his son’s hand in his own, the soft laughter from his wife when they danced and he twirled her around and dipped her. He knew Susan James would soon be there and he didn’t want to show her the tears and pain he felt, but there was no way he could stop them. His sleep was broken, leaving him weak and unable to hold back the raging emotions as he thought about Ella Gaines. She was dead, burning in hell for all he cared. She’d done more damage to his soul than she’d done to his body. He looked at the sympathetic nurse and knew she was doing her job as she recorded his vital signs and gave him his medications. He closed his eyes and began to drift towards sleep, only to snap his eyes open as nightmare images flashed behind closed lids.
 
“Chris, Dr. James is here,” Sherri Malone explained as the psychiatrist entered the room.
 
Chris nodded and shifted in the bed as he tried to sit up further, but his body responded with shooting pain. He clenched his fists, mouth set in a tight line as he waited for the pain to drop to a more bearable level. He lost track of time, but finally opened his eyes and forced a thin smile to his face.
 
“Good morning, Chris, how are you feeling?” James asked, she knew this man’s background and had studied his file again before coming to his room this morning. Now came the hardest part of her job, getting her patient to open up for the first time.
 
“I’m okay...tired.”
 
“I see. Do you feel like talking?”
 
“No, not really,” the blond answered honestly.
 
“It might help. Talking through things can sometimes make it easier to deal with everything that’s happened.”
 
“Nothing helps right now, Doc,” Larabee whispered as he met the woman’s steady gaze.
 
“Why don’t we just give it a try, tell me what you’re feeling right now.” James said, sitting in the chair beside his bed.
 
“Numb,” the injured man finally answered. “I feel numb as if none of this is real and I need to wake up from this nightmare. I kind of feel like that guy in Groundhog Day...the nightmare just keeps replaying over and over and I can’t fucking stop it! I can’t wake up!”
 
“Chris, I know right now you’re in a lot of pain...”
 
“Pain, Doc, you don’t know the half of it!” Larabee spat, turning away from the woman.
 
“Why don’t you tell me about the pain, Chris?”
 
The injured man turned back to the psychiatrist, anger now evident in the sea green eyes. His breath came in hitching gasps and he held his arms tight against his ribs as a buffer from the sharp knife twisting in his chest. Finally able to speak he lashed out with everything he felt, the words heated and angry in the small room.
 
“Have you ever had your heart ripped from your chest? Ever felt like your life isn’t worth a fuck anymore? She fucking did that w...when she killed m...my wife and son and our b...baby! That b...bitch d...died too easy, but at least s...she’s b...burning in h...hell where s...she belongs and c...can’t hurt a...anyone else!”
 
Susan James listened as her newest patient cursed Ella Gaines as the vilest creature to ever be born and she knew from all reports he was probably right. Today she was going to let him talk and hopefully get rid of some of the pent up anger, yet something told her it would not be as easy as she hoped. Chris Larabee was a man filled with grief, remorse, anger, and self loathing and right now there seemed to be no way to get past all of it.
 
“She k...killed my l…little boy, Doc, she killed my wife and our unborn child,” he cried, his voice soft, but filled with an underlying pain as his emotions warred for dominance once more. “She s...should have k...killed me...s...she s...should have k...killed me.”
 
“Chris, I know you miss them...”
 
“Miss them? Hell yes, I miss them and I...I...God I want them back! I want to hold them! I...I didn’t get t...to say g...goodbye!” Tears shone in the green eyes and slowly slid down his cheeks as he looked at the psychiatrist. His anger collided with his grief and again he lashed out. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore!”
 
“Chris...”
 
“No! I said I don’t want to talk about it! Just get the hell out of here and leave me alone!”
 
“All right, but I will be back...”
 
“Suit yourself!”
 
“I’m also ordering a new medication for you...”
 
“I don’t want it.”
 
“Chris, you need it. Right now you’re dealing with PTSD and depression...”
 
“Depression? Hell, Doc, I’m not depressed! I’m too fucking angry to be depressed!”
 
“Depression and anger very often go hand in hand. What you’re feeling right now is normal, Chris, but you have to be able to...”
 
“How the hell do you know w...what I h...have to be able to do? No, Doc, I don’t n...need any more pills or IVs or talk or tubes or...or...God!” Larabee cried, turning away from the woman as raw pain shone in his eyes and the tears continued unabated.
 
“Chris, let me help you. The medication is called Zoloft and it’s an anti-depressant. It takes a while for it to kick in and that’s why it’s so important we start you on it right now. Hopefully by the time you are released from the hospital it will have taken affect and you’ll feel better about things.”
 
“Feel better about losing my family? I don’t think so, Doc, nothing will make me feel better about that.”
 
“I know, but the medication will help you. It won’t cure everything, but it may make things a little better. All I ask is you give it a try. Okay?”
 
“Guess s...so,” Larabee said, turning away once more. He knew the medication could be forced on him if they thought it was necessary, so for now, he would do what they asked of him. Once he was out of the hospital he’d make his own decisions and damn anyone who tried to stop him. He heard James talking with his nurse, but the words were muffled as exhaustion washed over him once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Hank stared at the woman across the desk from him and smiled as she pulled out a small hand held tape recorder. The woman was one of the top reporters for the Billings Gazette and he hoped she’d jump at the chance to gain inside information before he released it to the larger papers and news stations in the city. He was dressed in a faded suit, one he’d seldom worn since his wife died. It was a little tight around the waist, but he’d managed to squeeze himself into the pants.
 
“All right, Mr. Connelly, what’s so important you couldn’t wait until tomorrow to see me?” Mary Travis asked, her senses reeling with the smell of stale tobacco and beer. She didn’t trust this man, but Steven had always told her the best way to get to a real story was to listen to anyone who thought he had the front page for the next issue. This man’s phone call promised her just that.
 
“I have information on the death of Sarah Connelly?”
 
“Sarah Connelly, was she related to you?” Travis asked, combing her mind for the reason the name was familiar.
 
“She was my daughter and that bastard...”
 
“Mr. Connelly, I won’t tolerate that kind of language!”
 
“Oh, sorry, it’s just so hard, you know?” he said, fighting to keep his voice filled with sorrow. 
 
“Yes, well, I understand, but could we dispense with the strong language.”
 
“Yes, Ma’am. See, my darling little girl was murdered...”
 
“I’m so sorry.”
 
“Thank you.”
 
“Do the police know who did it?”
 
“They say she was murdered by a woman named Ella Gaines, but I know different...”
 
“Ella Gaines,” Travis interrupted as the names finally kicked. “Are you talking about the murder of Sarah and Adam Larabee?”
 
“Sarah Connelly was my daughter and I know Chris Larabee arranged for her death. You have to believe me. Chris Larabee had her killed for the insurance money.”
 
“Do you have any proof of this?” Mary asked, hoping she could get as much information as possible to take to her father in law. With Steven overseas she needed to tell someone about this man and his accusations.
 
“Plenty. See I know that Chris Larabee was involved with Ella Gaines. They knew each other for years and were probably having an affair behind my daughter’s back. I’d say Buck Wilmington was probably involved in it as well.”
 
“Mr. Connelly, isn’t Chris Larabee responsible for Ella Gaines’ death?”
 
“Yeah, I suppose he is, but he probably had selfish reasons for that too. I bet the bas...I bet he killed her so he wouldn’t have to share the insurance money. He’s a real mean SOB and he hurt my Sarah. I saw the bruises and asked her to come back home, but she was afraid of him. She said he called himself the bad element and I think she’s right, Mrs. Travis. You gotta help me!”
 
“Mr. Connelly, I believe you’re embellishing the facts...”
 
“I’m what?” Connelly asked, not liking the small smile that formed on the reporter’s face.
 
“Embellishing the facts. It means you’re twisting them so they suit your purpose. I don’t know Chris Larabee personally, but I do know he loved his wife and son.”
 
“How would you know that? I’m telling you right now that Chris Larabee had my daughter killed and I’m going to do everything I can to prove it! That bastard belongs in jail.”
 
“Mr. Connelly, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave!”
 
“You’re not gonna print my story?” Connelly asked angrily.
 
“No, Mr. Connelly, I’m not,” she assured him. “Mainly because that’s exactly what this is, a story. Something made up of ill conceived notions from a man who obviously did not like his son in law.”
 
“Sarah was my daughter, Mrs. Travis and I have every right to have my story printed. Chris Larabee is a murderer and he killed my daughter as surely as if he’d caused the explosion himself!”
 
“I would advise you to watch what you’re saying about a man who is not here to defend himself because your comments are bordering on slander!”
 
“Who gives a fuck…”
 
“Get out of my office or do I need to call security?”
 
“I’m going and I’ll find someone to print my story and it won’t be some piece of shit paper like this rag!” Hank stormed from the office, slamming the door so the single pane of glass shook in the frame. She clicked off the tape recorder and reached for her briefcase. She needed to see her father in law and let him know what Hank Connelly was saying about Chris Larabee.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris winced as Brandon Silverman checked the tube that entered his chest. He wanted it out and knew the only way that would happen was if this man okayed it. His eyes were closed as he waited for the specialist to finish whatever he was doing.
 
“Chris, I’m very pleased with your progress and I believe we can dispense with the chest tube and the CVP line before moving you out of SICU.”
 
“I’m getting out of here?” Larabee asked, a small smile forming on his face as the physician nodded affirmation.
 
“Yes, as soon as they have a room for you. Now let’s see about getting rid of this,” Silverman said, making several notations on his patient’s chart as Stacey Midland entered the room.
 
“Good afternoon, Chris,” she said and saw the man’s features relax slightly.
 
“Hi, Doc,” the blond greeted as the nurse began to remove the tape holding the tube in place.
 
“Chris, we’re just about ready here. I need you to take a deep breath for me now,” Silverman warned.
 
Larabee wasn’t sure what to expect as he sucked air into his lungs just as a fire ignited in his chest. The tube was removed, sending a myriad of painful tremors running up and down his side. He tried to catch his breath, silently cursing the new agony as darkness threatened to drag him under again. Hands touched him, voices spoke in soothing tones, but nothing penetrated the numbing pain in his chest until he finally dropped into the waiting abyss.
 
Midland watched as the nurse closed the small wound and Silverman began removing the CVP line. She knew the patient was no longer conscious and was glad the man did not feel the pain as they continued to care for him. She moved to help with Larabee’s care and knew the nurses on the fourth floor were preparing a room for him already.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin looked around his new room and knew they would soon be bringing in his new roommate. He smiled as Buck and Ezra kept checking the corridor to see if Larabee was there yet.
 
“Shit, what could be taking them so damn long?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Patience, Buck, patience. They have to make sure the paperwork is in order and they probably needed to put Chris through several more tests and examinations before they are confident enough to bring him down here,” Standish explained, walking to the door and looking towards the nurse’s station.
 
“Patience, Ezra, patience,” Wilmington said with a grin.
 
“I was merely trying to ascertain the whereabouts of...”
 
“You’re as anxious as we are ta see Chris out of SICU, Ezra,” Tanner said, fiddling with the blankets covering him. His body ached and his head was pounding, but until Chris was in the room he would not give in to the need for rest.
 
“That, Vin, is an understatement,” the ladies’ man continued to tease the gambler as he move to the window and looked out over the parking lot. Vin had insisted that Chris have the bed by the window and the nurses had readily agreed before settling him into the room. He was startled out of his thoughts as the door opened and Sharon Carter made sure it stayed in place.
 
“Buck, Ezra, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait outside until we get Mr. Larabee settled. They are bringing him down as we speak,” she said as she unlocked Tanner’s bed and moved it out of the way. “I’ll let you know when you can both come back in.”
 
“Go on, Buck, you and Ezra need to grab some lunch anyway,” Tanner told them.
 
“All right, Vin, we’ll be back in half an hour or so,” Standish said, leading a reluctant Wilmington from the room.
 
“Vin, are you okay?” Carter asked, worried about the pale-faced man.
 
“I’m okay, Sharon, how long before Chris gets here?”
 
“He should be here in a couple of minutes. I’m going to take your vitals as soon as we get Mr. Larabee settled.”
 
“Okay,” Tanner agreed, wincing as he moved on the bed. He felt warm and uncomfortable as he closed his eyes and waited for his friend to be brought into the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris opened his eyes as the bed was pushed out of the elevator. He knew he’d be sharing a room with Vin Tanner and couldn’t believe how good that made him feel. The freedom of not being under constant surveillance, coupled with being with his friend made the transition that much easier. He’d been given the new medication ordered by Susan James and understood he would not feel the effects for at least a week, possibly longer.
 
“Chris, your nurses will be with you in a minute and they’ll get you settled in your new room,” the orderly explained as he placed the chart on the desk and watched one of the medical personnel open it.
 
“Okay, thanks,” Larabee said as he waited for the nurse to come for him. He heard people moving around him, but didn’t open his eyes until someone called his name.
 
“Chris, I’m Sharon Carter and I’ll be one of the nurses looking after you today. Jimmy, would you give me a hand here?”
 
“Sure, Sharon, what room?”
 
“We’ll be going to room 323,” Carter answered as they wheeled the bed towards the left hand corridor. She looked into the sea green eyes and smiled at the blond. “We’ll have you settled in a few minutes.”
 
“O...okay,” Chris answered, the pain beginning to overwhelm him once more as they moved towards the last room on the right. He was tired, in pain and irritable, but it also felt good just to be out of SICU. He felt the bed come to a halt and watched as another nurse entered the room and made sure nothing was in the way of the new patient.
 
“He’ll be going by the window,” Sharon explained as they maneuvered around the other bed. She smiled at the Texan and knew he was watching their every move. “Jimmy, make sure the oxygen is set at the proper rate. Susie, give me a hand with the IV monitor.”
 
Chris relaxed back against the pillows as the nasal canulas were once more placed over his head. He felt the blankets being straightened out and heard Sharon thank the other two for their help. He looked at her as she lifted his arm and wrapped the BP cuff around it.
 
“Chris, do you want something for pain right now?” Carter asked, as she made sure the Velcro held the cuff in place.
 
“No, thanks, Sharon, I’m okay.”
 
“I can see you’re going to be just as stubborn as your roommate,” Sharon observed as she finished the BP reading. She noted her findings on a sheet of paper and looked into the sorrow filled green eyes. She knew the background on her patient and the tragedy that had befallen him. She reached for the call button and pinned it to the sheet beside his right hand before smiling at him. “If there’s anything you need just press the button, okay?”
 
“Okay, thanks,” Larabee said turning his head towards the window as she moved to the second bed. He listened as she asked Vin many of the same questions she’d asked him before she left the room. He knew the other man was watching him and turned to face the sky blue eyes he knew so well. Neither man spoke, but so much was exchanged between them with just a look. Chris closed his eyes as he felt the quicksilver resonance of the familiar touch against his subconscious.
 
‘I’m so sorry, Chris, I should’ve been here!’
 
‘Nothing you could’ve done, Vin!’ was Larabee’s silent answer as the door opened and two men entered the room. He opened his eyes and nodded to the newcomers as he tried to get comfortable in the bed.
 
“Hey, Chris, good to see you out from under the constant surveillance,” Wilmington said as he moved to the chair beside the window.
 
“Thanks, Buck,” Larabee said.
 
“How are you feeling?” Standish asked.
 
“Tired,” the blond answered honestly.
 
“I bet. You go on and sleep, Pard, we’ll be here when you wake up,” the ladies’ man assured him. He watched as the eyelids finally closed, but knew his friend wasn’t sleeping. ‘God, Chris, I wish I could do something to help you,’ he thought as he gazed out the window.
 
“How are you feeling, Vin?” the gambler asked as he watched the Texan closely.
 
“I’m better...”
 
“Who are you trying to kid?” Standish asked with a hint of a smile on his face.
 
“Fess up, Vin, you’re in pretty much the same boat as Chris right now. Neither one of you is getting out of here anytime soon,” Wilmington observed softly.
 
“No shit, Buck,” Tanner agreed, feeling slightly flushed as a chill ran through his body. “You guys might as well go home and get some rest because it looks like me and Chris ain’t gonna be much company.”
 
“We’re okay...”
 
“I know ya are, Ezra, but sittin’ here watching us sleep’s gotta be as borin’ as watchin’ the grass grow!”
 
“That exciting?” Standish asked, smiling at the Texan’s attempt at humor.
 
“Vin’s right. Go home,” Larabee’s voice was barely audible, but it made the others smile.
 
“Thought ya were sleepin’, Cowboy,” Tanner said, turning his head to see his friend’s eyes open to half-mast.
 
“A...almost, just a little too much talking going on,” the blond said, turning towards Wilmington. “I’m okay, Buck, just tired.”
 
Buck studied the pale face for several long moments and knew Larabee was not pushing him away, but asking him to give him some time to sort through his own thoughts before he was ready to talk. He nodded and reached for the blonds’ hand, sending strength through the touch before walking out of the room.
 
Chris watched as Ezra joined Buck before turning his attention to the tracker once more. The other man seemed to understand his need for solitude and he let his eyes close once more. Again he felt the resonance of gossamer like strands and Tanner’s voice followed him into his dreams.
 
‘Rest easy, Cowboy, I got yer back!’
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Orrin Travis looked up as his daughter in law joined him in the den. She’d called earlier and told him she had something important she needed to talk to him about and told him she’d drop by that night. He stood up and moved towards her, hugging her close as she returned the gesture.
 
“So, what’s this all about, Mary?” Travis asked once they were seated across from each other.
 
“I had a visitor at the paper today, Orrin. A relative of Chris Larabee.”
 
“I take it he or she didn’t make a good impression on you?”
 
“That’s putting it mildly. It was Hank Connelly...”
 
“What did he want?” Travis asked, anger evident in his voice.
 
“It seems he has a theory on Sarah Larabee’s murder.”
 
“I’m sure he does!” Travis spat, reaching for the bottle of brandy on the desk. He offered Mary one, but she shook her head as she reached for the tape recorder in her purse.
 
“I taped my conversation with him, Orrin, and I really don’t like the things he says here.” She turned it on and Hank Connelly’s voice came through loud and clear. By the time the tape finished Orrin Travis was fit to tied and out for blood. He took the cassette from his daughter in law’s hand and glared at it as if it was the object of his anger.
 
“That miserable excuse of a man. How the hell does he come up with this crap! Please tell me you’re not planning on printing any of this?”
 
“Orrin, you know me better than that. Steven and I have never stooped so low as to print stuff like this. It’s more like something the tabloids would print for sensationalism.”
 
“I’m sorry, Mary, I‘m just so angered by this. Hank seems to be trying anything and everything to hurt Chris. It’s bad enough he never gave Chris a chance, but to do this after everything Chris has been through is unforgivable. I’d like to get him charged with slander!”
 
“I wish we could do that as well, Orrin, but I shouldn’t even be playing this for you. I wanted you to know what was going on so you could let Chris’ friend’s know they should be watching for Connelly.”
 
“I will, Mary, thank you for letting me hear this. I’ll have the boys keep an eye out for this bas...man.”
 
“You’re welcome, Orrin, and I hope things start to work out for Chris Larabee and the others.”
 
“Are you staying for dinner?”
 
“I’d like to, but Steven and I are taking Billy to McDonalds. We’ve been missing him so much and with both of us being free tonight we thought we’d indulge him. I’m meeting them at Rimrock Mall in an hour.”
 
“McDonalds? What happened to the healthy eating pact?”
 
“Well, Orrin, it seems your son has decided that Billy deserves a little pampering.”
 
“That he does, Mary. Hmm, how would it be if Evie and I joined you?”
 
“That would be great. Billy is always excited when grandpa and grandma come to dinner. I’ll wait for you if you need a ride.”
 
“Give us fifteen minutes,” the older man said as he led the way into the living room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
To say that Hank Connelly was pissed off would be an understatement. The unsavory bar at the end of the dock was filled with smoke and the air was stale with the sickly odor of beer, sweat, and cheap cologne. He reached for the bottle and swallowed a goodly amount of the beer before spotting the man he’d been waiting for. He gestured for him to come over and ordered two more beers from the bedraggled waitress.
 
“Well, Carl, what does your brother have to say?”
 
Carl Murray smiled showing yellowed teeth and a silver stud protruding from his tongue. Murray was unkempt and dirty, yet Hank knew his brother was the total opposite in spite of having a sleaze ball lawyer reputation.
 
“He’ll be here in a few minutes and you’ll be able to ask him yourself.”
 
“Did he sound interested?” Connelly asked, paying for the two beers the waitress placed in front of him.
 
“Frank says he’ll gladly take you on...Hey, Asp, over here!” Murray shouted and watched his brother make his way through the overcrowded room.
 
“Hello, Carl, is this the man you were telling me about?”
 
“Sure is. Hank Connelly, this is my brother Francis Aspen Murray. Only I like to call him Asp because he can really be a snake when he needs to be.”
 
“Pleased to meet you, Hank,” Murray said, shaking hands with the man across the table.
 
“Same here. I sure as hell hope you can help me out with my little problem.”
 
“Well, I’m more than willing to help a grieving father see justice done. You are grieving aren’t you, Hank?”
 
“Oh, yes, my poor little girl dead and my grandson too. My son in law in the hospital and so distraught with grief that he’s unable to look after himself and should be placed in an institution. I’m not sure I can watch his slow deterioration and I know the insurance money will help pay for the finest home in the country.”
 
“Ah, Hank, I always said you were the best damn actor around,” Carl laughed as he watched his friend wipe imaginary tears from his eyes.
 
“You do know this is going to be hard if not damn near impossible to do?” Frank asked.
 
“Now, Frank, I thought you thrived on the impossible.”
 
“Damn right I do, little brother.”
 
“So, do you think you can do this?” Connelly asked.
 
“I know I can. I’ll call in a few favors and before you know it you’ll have medical and monetary power of attorney over your son in law.”
 
“That bastard won’t know what hit him. How long before we can get him committed?”
 
“Well, I’ll put in a call to my old friend, Judge Schroeder and remind him of a few debts he owes me. It might take a day or two, but you’ll have the writ in your hand by day after tomorrow. Do you know what room he’s in?”
 
“Yeah. They moved him in with his buddy Tanner today. Least that’ll make it easier for me to get him out of there.”
 
“Do you have someplace in mind for him?” Frank asked, smiling as the waitress took his order and left.
 
“Not yet, but I’m sure with the right amount of money I’ll be able to find a place.”
 
“I know of a small institution a hundred miles north of here. It’s run by a man named Michale Filbert and he’s an old friend who owes me a favor...”
 
“Just how do you manage to get all these people owing you favors, Frank?” Carl asked.
 
“Just lucky I guess...”
 
“Luck?” Connelly asked.
 
“Well, luck and being willing to turn a blind eye to certain things. Would you like me to give Michale a call?”
 
“Think he’d do this?” Hank asked.
 
“Oh, I’m sure once he knows how much insurance money is involved he’ll do anything to help.”
 
“Call him. Tell him I don’t know the exact amount of the insurance policy, but I’m sure it’s more than enough to keep my son in law under wraps for several years to come.”
 
“What about Larabee’s friends?” Carl asked.
 
“What can they do once we’ve got him sequestered away? I’m Larabee’s next of kin and there’s no way they can do anything once we’ve got that writ, right Frank?”
 
“Well, they would probably go for a court injunction, but that could take some time. We’ll worry about that once we have Larabee settled into his new home,” the lawyer assured them.
 
“I can’t wait to see the look on their faces when they realize what’s happened. Do you think Dr. Filbert would be willing to take him late at night?”
 
“Ah, you want him removed from the hospital before any of the others know what’s happening!” Frank observed.
 
“Exactly. That way he only has to deal with Tanner and it’ll be hard for him to put up more than a token fight. The man was hurt in Rio and has only recently returned.”
 
“You must really hate your son in law, Hank!” Frank exclaimed.
 
“Hate him, no I think it’s more like despise and loathe him. If he hadn’t married my Sarah she would’ve married Robert Spikes and be living in the lap of luxury instead of buried six feet underground with that bastard son of his! I’ll stop at nothing to see that he pays for what he’s done!”
 
“Very well,” the lawyer said, smiling as he finished his whiskey. “I’ll be in touch sometime tomorrow, Hank. Just make sure you don’t do anything to jeopardize our plans.”
 
“I won’t Frank. I owe you both big time!”
 
“My pleasure, and just make sure you add a little bonus to my fee.”
 
“I will” Connelly said, as the two brothers left him alone. He tilted the bottle up and made a toast to the open air. “You’ll be sorry you ever fucked with my family, Chris Larabee!”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin opened his eyes, frowning as he tried to remember where he was and what had awakened him. It took several seconds for his mind to grasp the fact that he was in the hospital and he turned his head towards the bed by the window. The city lights cast a shadow across the bed, barely illuminating the figure turned slightly on his left side. To say that Chris looked even paler in the dull lighting would be an understatement and Vin felt himself slipping towards sleep once again as the earlier sound was not repeated.
 
**********
 
Chris walked the darkened streets of Ho Chi Minh City. His eyes glanced around the deserted street, looking for a place to hole up until he got his breath back. He ran through the street knowing if the Colonel caught him he'd never see his home again. He leaned up against a dirt-covered wall, holding his side and gasping for air. A bullet nicked the wall next to him and he bolted from his resting place.
 
He turned down another unfamiliar street, his eyes darting left and right in search of a place to go to ground. He continued to run and soon found himself near the Chieu home. He couldn't put the family in danger so he ran past the home and turned down a dirt-encrusted alley.
 
A young boy appeared before him. A boy he knew.
 
"Chris," the boy called, his hands filled with what appeared to be junk but was stuff his father would use to make things for the family to sell.
 
"Le! No! DIDI MAU!" he screamed hoping the boy would understand his command to go quickly.
 
Le Tran Chieu stood transfixed, his terrified eyes never leaving his new friend. "Chris?"
 
"Damnit, Le! DIDI MAU! DIDI MAU!" he screamed.
 
Chris heard his followers enter the alley and he pushed the boy away from him. An explosion to his right caused the boy's body to be thrown into the air. Flames licked up around them as the grenade set fire to the small wooden structure. Chris fell to the ground as the concussion swept him off his feet. He choked back a scream as a piece of burning wood landed on his leg, igniting his pants and searing the skin underneath. He brushed the object away and used his bare hands to put out the small fire.
 
He heard running feet and caught sight of his enemies rushing towards him. There were only two of them and he knew he had to kill them or end up in the colonel's hands. He stood on unsteady legs, adrenaline the only thing keeping him on his feet. He grabbed a piece of discarded metal and swung it at the head of the first man, snapping his neck, killing him instantly. The second man lifted his gun to fire but the metal bit down on his arm causing him to release the weapon. He dove at Larabee but was stopped as once again Chris struck out with his own weapon.
 
Chris had no illusions that he could take the man barehanded. His body was totally exhausted and he was choking on the smoke from the fires raging around him. With one last forceful blow he drove the smaller man across the alley, dropping him lifelessly to the ground.
 
He dropped the metal to the ground and placed his hands on his knees. Sudden realization made his head snap up and he looked to the area he'd pushed Le Tran Chieu. He could see the small legs sticking out from under a mound of debris. "NO!" he screamed as he dropped down beside the fallen boy. With the strength born of anger and grief he pulled everything off the body and stared into sightless eyes. "No! No! No!" he cried over and over as he lifted the almost weightless body into his arms.
 
“NO! GOD NO!” He raged as tears ran from his eyes and he held tightly to the little boy whose family he’d befriended.
 
“NO!”
 
***********
 
“God NO! I d...didn’t m...mean it...didn’t m...mean for h...him t...to die...NO!” Chris screamed as his eyes snapped open. He couldn’t make out anything in the darkness, but his chest was on fire and he knew he was back in the hell of Vietnam. He climbed off the bed and stood with his arms outstretched, holding tightly to the imaginary body of the lifeless child.
 
“No! No! No!” he cried softly as he walked through the smoke only he could see. He coughed and cursed as something held him back but he knew he had to face Tran Dinh Chieu. He had to face his own guilt and grief over the boy’s death as he pulled the IV from his arm. He didn’t feel the blood running from the tiny puncture wound as he struggled under his unseen burden. The child seemed to grow heavier with each step and his lungs felt ready to burst as he walked through the smoke. Exhausted and in pain, Chris Larabee held his precious burden as close to his chest as he could.
 
“I’m so sorry...so sorry. I d...didn’t mean f...for him t...to die...Oh, God NO!”
 
Vin came to with a start, his gaze instantly on the figure beside his bed. He sat upright and shook his head as he tried to figure out what was happening, but his own foggy mind wasn’t clearing fast enough. He could hear Larabee’s ragged voice and the mumbled words, but what chilled him to the bone was the way his friend’s arms were held out in front of him and his head was tilted down as if he was looking at something he held. Shifting his legs over the edge Vin pressed the call button and moved in front of Larabee as the desk answered.
 
“Can I help you?”
 
“I need help in here!” Tanner winced as he put a little too much weight on his injured leg.
 
“I’ll send your nurse right in!”
 
“Chris...”
 
“No! God, why not t...take me!”
 
“Come on, Chris, look at me!”
 
“He’s only a boy you b...bastard, Nguyen!”
 
“Chris, Nguyen’s not here, but I am...”
 
“Oh, Le, why?”
 
“Sh, Chris...”
 
“What’s going on?” Rachel Long asked as she opened the door, flashed her light across the room and spotted the two men standing between the beds. She turned on the overhead light and hurried to the two men.
 
“He’s caught in the past. Some kind of nightmare!” Tanner explained, afraid of touching the blond. “Come on, Chris, ya need ta wake up!”
 
“NO!” Chris screamed as he looked up at the ceiling and tears ran in rivulets from his eyes.
 
“Mr. Larabee, we need to get you back to bed,” Long explained, ignoring the angered glare the second patient turned her way.
 
“He ain’t hearin’ ya! Chris, come on, Cowboy, I’m here, ain’t nothin’ gonna hurtcha here!” Tanner explained as Larabee continued to be lost in a nightmare only he could see. He now understood why Larabee’s arms were stretched out in front of him. It seemed as if the injured man was cradling something in his arms and from the way he protected it, Vin knew it must be a small child.
 
“I k...killed him, Tran, I killed him!”
 
“Sh, Chris, ya didn’t kill anyone,” Tanner soothed as the nurse held back and let him talk to the blond.
 
“I’m sorry...so s...sorry. Didn’t mean t...to. M...my fault h...he’s d...dead!”
 
“No, Chris, it isn’t. Here, let me take him fer ya,” Tanner tried, standing in front of the distraught man as if he was taking a real child.
 
“B...be c...careful...o...okay...he...he’s so s...small.”
 
“I will, Chris,” Tanner said, as Larabee seemed to hand over his burden. “I got him, Chris. Now why don’t you let Rachel help ya back ta bed?”
 
“T...tell Tran. T...tell him I...I’m s...sorry.”
 
“Ya got nothin’ ta be sorry, for, Chris,” the tracker said, as Larabee’s eyes seemed to widen and focus on him. “Hey, Cowboy, feel better?”
 
“V...Vin, w...what happened?” Larabee asked as he sank down on the floor between the beds and leaned his head back. He felt someone pressing something against his arm and opened his eyes to look at the nurse.
 
“Ya were havin’ a dream, Chris.” Tanner shifted around so that he sat next to his friend and shook his head as the nurse made to get the injured man off the floor.
 
“D...dream...no, Vin...no dream. Killed t...that little boy just as I k...killed Adam...”
 
“No, Chris, ya didn’t,” Tanner said as Larabee’s head dropped onto his left shoulder. Ignoring the ache in his own body, Vin wrapped his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Yer as much a victim in this as anyone...maybe even more so.”
 
“Mr. Tanner, we need to get you both back into bed.”
 
“In a minute,” Tanner answered as Larabee settled against him. He heard her talking to the nurse covering the desk and knew help would be there soon and they’d have to restart Larabee’s IV and put him back on the oxygen.
 
“S...should’ve b...been there. S...should have been a...able to stop h...her. T...tired, Vin, s...so tired.”
 
“I know ya are, Chris. Ya wanna get back ta bed?”
 
“Y...yeah, m...made a m...mess,” Larabee said, as he looked at the blood on his hospital issued gown.
 
“We’ll get you cleaned up and back into bed, Mr. Larabee,” Long assured him.
 
Chris rubbed his hands together as if trying to clean something from them and finally raised his head from Tanner’s shoulder. His eyes were bloodshot and filled with remorse as they met the blue ones that seemed to read him so well. “B...blood on my hands, Vin, so much b...blood.”
 
“No, Chris, there’s no blood on yer hands. No more’n anyone else and what there is doesn’t belong ta an innocent person. Ya help make this world safe, Chris...”
 
“Not safe e...enough, Vin. I couldn’t save my f...family...couldn’t save S...Sarah or Adam or the baby...”
 
“No one could, Chris, ya done everythin’ ya could.”
 
“D...did I? Did I r...really?” he asked, sitting up further and wincing as a sharp stabbing pain took the breath from his body.
 
“Easy Chris,” Tanner soothed as another nurse entered the room.
 
“H...hurts, Vin...”
 
“What hurts, Mr. Larabee?” Long asked.
 
“E...everything...s...side, chest...heart,” the blond whispered as lancing pain radiated throughout his body. “H...heart h...hurts s...so bad!”
 
Vin held him as the tears came, tears that were only a stepping-stone to the healing this man needed. He shook his head as the nurse made a move to help Larabee back to bed. This was something the blond needed and he would be the shoulder Larabee needed to lean on for as long as it took. He didn’t know how long he held the trembling body, but he thought the man was asleep and wished they could stay that way. His own body was now a mass of pain and he winced as he shifted slightly.
 
“N...need t...to g...get in y...your bed, Vin,” Larabee surprised them all by sitting up and holding his arms to his chest.
 
“I think we need to get you both back to bed, Mr. Larabee,” Long said and turned to the second nurse. “Barry, would you help Mr. Tanner?”
 
“Sure, Rachel,” Barry Connors answered and moved to help the Texan to his feet. He smiled sympathetically as Tanner groaned before making it to his feet.
 
“S...sorry, Vin,” the blond said, guilt gnawing at him over his friend’s pain.
 
“Don’t be, Chris, I’m fine,” the tracker said and knew the nurse could see it for the lie it was.
 
“Barry, give me a hand here,” Long said when the tracker was settled in his bed. She waited for the man to latch onto Larabee’s other side and the duo eased him to his feet. She could see the pain painted across his face, ominous shades of gray and white that told the true story as they helped him onto the bed.
 
“Do you want me to get another IV set up, Rachel?”
 
“Yes, please, Barry,” Long answered as she began taking the blond’s vital signs. She watched the man’s face closely and knew he was in a lot of pain as she removed the BP cuff and looked towards the door as Connors returned with the new set up. “Chris, I’m going to restart your IV and get you something for pain, okay?”
 
“O...okay,” Larabee said, as she took his hand and began searching for a vein to insert the needle. He felt someone watching him and turned his head until he caught sight of his roommate. He knew the other man understood what he was going through and would be there whenever he needed to talk, but right now all he wanted to do was sleep.
 
“You’re going to feel a sharp prick right now, Mr. Larabee,” Long explained as she inserted the needle.
 
Chris remained silent as she restarted the IV and checked his wounds. He hated the churning in his tumultuous stomach and knew he was going to be sick. The nurse saw the distress and instinctively grabbed for the kidney shaped basin and placed a hand on his shoulder as she eased him onto his side. Over and over he vomited until there was nothing but dry heaves and his throat was raw and sore. He knew Tanner was worried, but right at this moment he could do nothing to reassure his friend. He rode out the tidal wave of nausea and heard the nurse mention something about giving him Zofran and the prescribed pain meds. He turned on his side and felt the exhaustion and trauma of the last few hours catch up to him as he slipped into a deep, drug induced sleep.
 
“Rachel, is he okay?” Tanner asked as the nasal canulas were put in place.
 
“He’s sleeping, Mr. Tanner, and you should be doing the same thing. I’m going to get your meds and hopefully you’ll be able to get some rest. Barry, thanks for your help.”
 
“You’re welcome, Rachel,” Connors said as he left the room.
 
“I’ll be right back, Vin,” Long told him.
 
“Okay,” the Texan answered and looked across the narrow space between the beds. Larabee was again turned slightly on his side, but this time there were none of the lines of pain and strain he was used to seeing. The blond seemed to be sleeping peacefully for the first time in a long time and Vin hoped it would continue that way. The man’s coloring was still too pale, but at least whatever he’d been given was allowing him to sleep. He looked at the nurse as she returned and nodded when she asked if he was okay and she injected the medication into his IV.
 
Rachel turned out the light and partially closed the door on the two men. When she returned ten minutes later she found both men facing each other, eyes closed and face relaxed and hoped her patients got the rest they deserved.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Orrin looked at the solemn group of men seated around the conference table. To say they looked like they hadn’t slept in a week would be an understatement, and he knew until Larabee and Tanner were back on their feet these four would divide their time between work and the hospital. The third injured man, Nathan Jackson was still at Josiah’s house and being cared for by Rain Goines. Taking a deep breath he readied himself for the tirade this newest development was bound to cause.
 
“Boys, we may have another problem where Chris is concerned,” Travis told them.
 
“Why am I not surprised?” Wilmington said, shaking his head angrily. “I mean it’s not like the man doesn’t have enough problems as it stands!”
 
“Easy, Buck, we need to stay level headed here. What’s this new problem, Orrin?” Standish asked.
 
“Hank Connelly.”
 
“That bastard has been a problem since Chris and Sarah got together. What’s he up to now?” the ladies’ man spat.
 
“You all know my daughter in law works for the Billings Gazette.”
 
“Yes, I read her by line all the time,” Sanchez told him.
 
“Connelly called her and asked if she would be interested in a story he had. Mary didn’t know who he was until he showed up and started making accusations.”
 
“Accusations?” Dunne asked.
 
“It seems Hank Connelly is trying to make it look like Chris had Sarah and Adam murd...”
 
“What?” Wilmington shouted, slamming his fist on the table as he stood up. “How the hell does that sonofabitch come up with this shit?”
 
“I don’t know, Buck, but Mary didn’t believe anything he said. She taped the conversation she had with him and I have it here. I’ll keep it in case Connelly tries anything else,” Travis assured them. 
 
“We’ve got to stop him before he comes up with something even more devious,” Standish told them as he thought of the two men in the hospital.
 
“There’s not much more we can do, Ezra. Right now all we have is a bitter man who’s trying to ruin Chris’ reputation, but nobody is buying that,” Sanchez assured him.
 
“I’m sure some people would, Josiah. What if he starts talking like this to that little rag of a tabloid? Do you really think they’ll have the same scruples as Mary Travis?” Dunne asked, reaching for the papers on the desk as he tried to keep his hands busy.
 
“Most of them are a lot more careful nowadays, JD. They know how easy it is to open themselves up for a lawsuit and that’s what will happen if they print this rubbish,” Travis told them.
 
“I’m worried about the ones that don’t give a damn about lawsuits. They don’t care who they hurt with the slanderous remarks they print,” Sanchez said and knew the others felt the same way.
 
“We’ll just have to make sure Hank is stopped before this goes any further,” Wilmington said.
 
“How do you propose to do that, Buck?” Dunne asked.
 
“I don’t know, Kid, but if I see him I’m sure my fists could be persuasion enough!” the rogue warned as he retook his seat. They listened to the tape and knew Connelly was a real threat where Chris was concerned, but with only the tape there wasn’t much the police could do.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris licked at dry lips as he woke up to the sounds of familiar voices in the room. His friends were there, but they were unnaturally quiet and he knew it was because they didn’t want to disturb him. He pressed the button to raise the head of his bed and smiled in spite of the lingering sense of loss.
 
“It’s about time you woke up, Pard. Thought you were going to sleep through until tomorrow. How are you doing? Can I get you anything?”
 
“Yeah, water, Buck,” the blond said, feeling every bit as old as Tanner sometimes teased him he was. His body ached and he knew a lot of it had to do with the time sitting on the floor the night before. He accepted the glass of ice water from his friend and took several long swallows before greeting the other men. “Nathan, shouldn’t you be resting?”
 
“Yes, he should be, but it seems Brother Nate is just as stubborn as he accuses the rest of us of being,” Sanchez said.
 
“I’ve been taking lessons in stubbornness,” Jackson said, shifting slightly on the chair and smiling at the injured men. “It’s good to see you without so many accessories, Chris.”
 
“Thanks, Nathan, just wish they’d take everything out and let me go home...home,” he stammered and was hit by the shock of that single word. He felt the now familiar anger and despair warring for dominance and clenched his fists in the blankets.
 
“Chris,” Tanner called as he slid off the bed and stood on shaky legs.
 
“Home...I don’t have a fucking home anymore! That bitch took it from me! Took everything from me.”
 
“We know, Chris,” Wilmington tried and was caught like a deer in headlights by Larabee’s ferocious glare.
 
“Do you, Buck? I don’t f...fucking think so! I don’t think any of you do! That bitch died too fucking easy! Tell me they haven’t buried her yet! Tell me I’ll get to see her body lowered into the ground or better yet burned in a fire like she did to Sarah and Adam and our baby!”
 
“Chris...”
 
“Josiah, don’t try to talk to me about God and vengeance ‘cause right now God’s not one of my favorite topics. Where’s Ella’s body?”
 
“Chris, the police haven’t...”
 
“Haven’t what, JD?” Larabee asked, his chest tight and his heart aching as he looked from one worried face to another. He saw five faces turn to the youngest member of the team and knew they were trying to keep something from him, something to do with Ella Gaines.
 
“Chris, we’ll tell you, but right now ya need ta calm down,” Tanner said and saw the anger flare in the green orbs once more.
 
“Vin, I’m fucking tired of people telling me what I need to do!”
 
“Chris, we’re only concerned...”
 
“Right now I don’t give a fuck what you’re concerned about, Ezra. I need to know what’s going on. Tell me that bitch is dead!”
 
“I wish we could, Chris, but the police never recovered her body,” Standish explained.
 
“God damn it! When were you planning on telling me this?”
 
“We didn’t think you were in any shape to deal with it right now,” Tanner explained to the irate man.
 
“Oh...oh, wait I get it!” Larabee laughed, a hysterical sound that cut through the hearts of his friends. “You gotta protect me from myself is that it? Gotta make sure Chris doesn’t lose it and decide to do something stupid. I’ll tell you boys something right now! I’m going after Ella Gaines!”
 
“Chris, the police think she drowned in a plane crash!” Wilmington tried, but was again caught in the deadly glare.
 
“I won’t believe it until I see her body, Buck!” the blond swore as anger took over and drove his senses into a tumultuous uproar. He threw off the covers, ignoring the worried faces and voices of his friends as he tried to drop the side rails.
 
“Where do you think you’re going, Cowboy?” the Texan asked, reaching for Larabee’s arm.
 
“I’m going after that bitch!”
 
“Chris, you’re not going anywhere!” Jackson said as Dunne hurried from the room to alert the nurses. 
 
“You can’t stop me, Nathan, none o...of y...you can!” Larabee vowed as he pulled the nasal canulas from around his head. Without thinking he pushed the man standing beside the bed and missed the gasp of pain as the tracker landed heavily on his injured leg. While the others were busy stopping the Texan from further injury, Chris managed to get the rail down and slid over the edge of the bed. He felt a hand on his arm and turned his head to see who had the nerve to touch him.
 
“Chris, you’re not going anywhere!” Wilmington told him as Susan James, Sandra Thomas, and JD Dunne entered the room.
 
“Get away from me, Buck! I’m getting out of h...here n...now!”
 
“You need to calm down and get back in the bed...”
 
“Fuck you, Buck Wilmington! Get out of my face!”
 
“No! Now you listen here, Chris. I made Sarah a promise a long time ago and I’m gonna keep that promise.” Wilmington heard Susan James tell the nurse to bring Valium and continued to try and hold the irate blond in place as Sanchez joined him on the other side of the blond.
 
“Come on, Chris, let’s get you back to bed,” Sanchez suggested as a second nurse moved to help the Texan who seemed to be in a lot of pain from the stumble he’d taken when Larabee pushed him.
 
“No! Damn it, Josiah! G...get the f...fuck away from me!”
 
Susan James nodded as Sandra and an orderly entered the room and the trio moved towards the patient. She watched as Larabee turned away from his friends and caught sight of her.
 
“What the hell are you doing here? I don’t need you! I don’t need any of you!”
 
“Chris, you need to calm down and let the orderly help you back into bed!”
 
“No!” Larabee protested, but soon found himself held in the firm grasp of the ex-preacher and the ladies’ man. “What is that?”
 
“It’s a sedative to help you calm down, Chris,” James explained as Sandra injected the medication into the IV juncture closest to her patient’s hand.
 
“I don’t want it!” Larabee spat, fighting against the two men holding him.
 
“Easy, Chris,” Wilmington soothed as he felt the body begin to relax. He felt the man trembling as they lifted him back on the bed and eased the blanket up over him.
 
“Y...you’re wrong, Buck. N...nothing’s easy...nothing ever w...will be a...again,” Larabee mumbled as the strong sedative took effect and the nurse began taking his vitals.
 
“It will be, Chris, I promise you it will get easier and until it does I’ll be here to catch you when you fall,” the gentle rogue vowed as the green eyes lost the fire and slid closed.
 
‘And the rest of us will be there to catch you, Buck,’ Standish silently promised from the opposite side of Tanner’s bed.
 
“Vin, I’m going to get you something for pain,” Julie Weston said as she finished checking the patient’s thigh.
 
“O...okay,” the young man winced as she left the room. “Doc how is he?”
 
Susan James moved towards the second bed and smiled at the Texan before growing serious once more. “Chris is suffering from anger and depression due to the accumulated effects of the trauma he’s experienced over the last month or more. Right now what you’re seeing is a natural reaction to the stress of the mental and physical wounds. PTSD is very real and you’ll probably see Chris go through moods that change from one minute to the next. He could be calm one minute and screaming at you the next. He’ll go through times where he won’t eat and can’t sleep and I’m afraid we’ll also have to watch him for signs that he’s in real trouble emotionally.”
 
“What kind of signs?” Dunne asked.
 
“I’m not saying it will happen, but I’ve seen patients who would normally be unflappable contemplate suicide...”
 
“No way, not Chris, doc! I’ve known him a long time and that man would never think of taking his own life.”
 
“Buck, what about the whiskey?”
 
“Nathan, that was an accident! You said so yourself!”
 
“It could have been an accident, but it could also have been an unconscious attempt to take his own life,” James explained.
 
“From drinking? Come on, doc, how would drinking be considered a suicide attempt?” Wilmington spat out, angered by the unfounded accusations.
 
“Chris was taking pain meds, Buck, and he knew mixing them with alcohol could have devastating effects on his system. I’m not saying he did it consciously, but I think he was crying out for the help he needed,” Jackson explained as the nurse returned and injected the morphine into Tanner’s IV.
 
“So how do we help him, Doc?” the Texan asked.
 
“By being there for him. By letting him rant and rave about everything. By listening to him when he wants to talk or just keeping him company when he doesn’t feel like talking at all. Sometimes just knowing someone is willing to listen is enough and from what I’ve read Chris is a quiet, private man and as such it will be hard to get him to open up,” James explained.
 
“He’ll have all the support he needs, Dr. James,” Sanchez promised.
 
“I know he will,” the psychiatrist said smiling encouragingly at the six men. “Chris is a lucky man to have friends who care so much. I‘ll be in to speak with him again tomorrow afternoon and I want you all to know my door is open if you need to talk about the feelings you have over the tragedy that has befallen all of you.”
 
“Thanks, Doc, we may just take you up on that,” Jackson said.
 
“Just call my office.” James said before leaving the five men to watch over the two injured members of their flock.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Hank Connelly smiled as he looked at the papers gripped tightly in his hands. He knew the writ would probably not last long, but right now he held Chris Larabee’s life in his hands and could make it a living hell if he wanted to.
 
“Who am I kidding? He’ll wish he was in hell by the time I’m done with him,” he vowed as he waited for the ambulance that would transport Larabee to the private hospital outside Billings. He knew Frank Murray and Michale Filbert would be accompanying him to the hospital and Larabee would have no choice in the matter. Filbert was a formidable doctor and had the licenses and power that went with it. The man’s weakness was money and Murray used that weakness whenever he could. He smiled as a limousine pulled up in front of his house and the chauffeur opened the door for him. He shook hands with Frank and extended his hand to the physician when Murray introduced them.
 
“Now, Hank, I do believe it’s in your own best interest to stay in the limo while Michale and I retrieve your son in law...”
 
“Don’t call him that, Frank! That bastard never was my son in law!”
 
“I’d rather not hear you speaking like that, Mr. Connelly. This man will be my patient and as such I would rather he not be upset, at least not until he is safely in his room at the institution.”
 
“Okay, but, Doc, don’t call it an institution, least not while you’re in his room. See he’s got some mighty powerful friends and one of them is in the room with him. Tanner’s not gonna accept this easily and if any of the others are there they’ll kick up hell to stop you!”
 
“I have the papers signed by Judge Schroeder giving you medical and physical power of attorney and until they find a judge to overturn it Larabee will be my patient. You do realize that if they’re as powerful as you say it won’t take them long to do just that!” Schroeder explained.
 
“Yeah, but it’ll be worth it if Larabee thinks I have control of his life. He hates me as much as I hate him and this will be my little cherry on top of the sundae revenge. You know, I think I’ll come with you. I mean the longer I can piss Larabee and his friends off the better.”
 
“Hank, are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
 
“Hell, yeah. I want to see his face when you show him the papers. All nice and legal like!” Connelly’s grin was feral as they drove towards Saint Vincents.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck sat between the two beds and sighed heavily. Twenty four hours after Larabee’s outburst found the man subdued and withdrawn as if what little fight he had was extinguished with the news that Ella Gaines could very well be alive and out there somewhere. The two men were sleeping now and he wiped at the tears that threatened once more. He knew he was probably suffering from depression and had already made an appointment to speak with Susan James about the grief that sometimes paralyzed him. He looked from one patient to the other before his gaze finally came to rest on Chris Larabee’s slack features and a lump formed in his throat.
 
“Hell, Chris, I don’t know what to say right now,” he said and laughed softly. “Hell, that’s something I bet you never thought you’d hear. Buck Wilmington at a loss for words, but that’s not really true. I have a lot of things I’d like to say and you being unconscious makes it easier for me, but it still hurts. I see how close you and Vin are and sometimes I wish we were still as close as we used to be. I’m not saying we’re not close, Chris, I’m just saying we’re not as close as we once were. I remember a time when you came to me about your problems or when you needed to talk and you know I can’t remember when that changed. I ain’t saying it was when Vin came into the picture, but that’s when I first noticed the changes. I’d be a hypocrite if I said I wasn’t jealous of the way you two seem to talk without saying a word so I won’t lie about that. I know there’s plenty of room in your life for me and Vin and all the guys, but I miss the times when it was just you and I and we could talk about anything. I know most of that changed when you and Sarah got married and that didn’t bother me so much, but for some reason this thing between you and Vin does. I’ll get over it though and you know why, Chris?” Wilmington asked, not really expecting an answer as he looked from one bed to the other and again settled on his long time friend before answering his own question.
 
“It’s because he’s good for you. He knows when to be quiet and when to talk and he says more with a single word than I can in a god damned wordy sentence. See, I’m not doing a very good job of this and it’s a damn good thing you’re both sleeping because I don’t want to step on any toes. It’s not like I don’t like Vin, Chris, it’s just I don’t like the fact that he’s taken my place in your life. He’s the one you turn to when you need to talk or just need some peace and quiet. God, how many times have you asked me for that? Peace and quiet were never words attached to me were they, Pard? I mean I could talk the ears off Dumbo and still have enough left over to chew you out.”
 
Buck continued to talk softly, unaware that one of the occupants of the room was awake and listening to every word he said. Vin Tanner knew the ladies’ man was speaking from the heart and the words were meant to be private, but he also understood the man needed to get his feelings out in the open. He kept his eyes closed and his breathing even as the voice finally grew quiet.
 
‘I’m sorry, Buck, I didn’t mean for any of this to happen,’ the Texan thought as the damning words continued.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Can I help you, gentlemen?” Shirley Peterson asked as the group of men stepped off the elevator.
 
“I hope so, Nurse Peterson. My name is Michale Filbert and I run a small private hospital on the outskirts of the city. I’m here at the request of a distraught man whose son in law is one of your patients. I have the proper papers to remove the patient from this facility and take him to...”
 
“I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about. We have not been advised of any such orders and they certainly wouldn’t discharge a patient at this hour,” Peterson told him.
 
“I’m afraid this is official business and these papers will prove what I say is true. We would have come earlier, but I had an emergency and I would not condone the pick up of a patient without my being here. Now, if you wouldn’t mind I’d like to take a look at my patient. His name is Chris Larabee.”
 
“Excuse me!” the nurse stated incredulously. 
 
“I said his name is...”
 
“I heard what you said, Dr. Filbert,” she said, her voice laced with sarcasm as she reached for the phone. “Surely you know this patient is in no shape to be moved?”
 
“Nurse Peterson, I am fully aware of the condition of the patient and I assure you I’ve done everything possible to see that the transition from here to Sunnyvale is as easy as possible for him.”
 
“Doctor, this man has...”
 
“I know what this man has been through and you are upsetting his father in law. Now please direct me to his room and let me get on with my duties.”
 
“I’ll have to clear this with the hospital committee first, Dr. Filbert!”
 
“Fine, you do that and while you’re at it Mr. Connelly’s lawyer will be readying a lawsuit against this hospital for non conformance with a legal order from a judicial court! Now what room is Chris Larabee in?”
 
“He’s in 323, but...”
 
“You make your call while we get him ready for transport,” Filbert said, signaling for the ambulance drivers to follow him with the gurney. He could hear the commotion at the nurse’s desk and knew Peterson would soon follow him to Larabee’s room. He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he owed Frank Murray and this would wipe the slate clean. The money involved would also help buy new equipment for his facility. He knew he was trying to justify his own unscrupulous acts, but the equipment would go a long way towards saving the lives of his patients.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin turned towards the door as the sound of footsteps met his ears. Wilmington had left a short time ago, but he was expected back any minute. He could hear several voices raised in anger and one hit him like a jolt of ice water in his veins. He sat up and turned towards the other bed relieved to see Larabee’s eyes were still closed.
 
“I’m coming with you, Dr. Filbert, after all I do hold the power of attorney.”
 
“Connelly!” Tanner whispered in a deadly voice as he held fast to the IV pole and limped towards the door. He cursed his own weakness as the door was opened and three men entered the room.
 
“V...Vin, what’s w...wrong?” Larabee asked, his voice heavy with sleep.
 
“Nothin’ Chris, just got ta get rid of a rat. What the hell are ya doin’ here?”
 
“I’m here to make sure he’s getting the treatment he deserves,” Connelly answered, brushing past the Texan before the injured man had a chance to stop him.
 
“Excuse me, Sir, but would you mind moving out of the way?”
 
“Who the hell are ya?” Tanner asked as he tried to get between Connelly and the bed as two security guards and a nurse entered the room.
 
“My name is Michale Filbert and I’m a licensed physician. I’ve been asked to take over the care...”
 
“Hank, get away from him!” Tanner spat as the older man slipped past him and stood beside Larabee’s bed.
 
“Of this man by his father in law. I have an ambulance ready to transport...” Filbert explained, but was interrupted by a security guard.
 
“You’re not taking this patient anywhere until a member of the hospital board gets here!”
 
“They aren’t taking him period!” the Texan warned as Filbert stood between him and Connelly.
 
“We have the legal right to take him out of here. I have all the proper documentation right here!” Murray explained.
 
Connelly took advantage of the other’s preoccupation with the papers and leaned down over the bed. He looked into the glassy green eyes and realized Larabee was under the influence of some powerful drugs. He smiled as the eyes finally focused on him and knew he had the man right where he wanted. Now was the time for him to exact his revenge.
 
“You killed my daughter, Chris Larabee, and now I control everything you own. I have every right to take you out of here and put you in an institution! I’ll spend every cent of money you have and no one will be able to stop me!”
 
“N...No!”
 
“Yes...”
 
“Get away from him, ya bastard!” Tanner shoved past the doctor and made to grab for the hated figure, but was stopped short as his leg gave way.
 
“I own you, Chris, body and soul...”
 
“What the hell is going on here?” Wilmington asked as he entered a room that was filled to overflowing with bodies. His gaze came to rest on the man standing beside Chris Larabee’s bed and he sprang into action. He shoved security guards, lawyer, and doctor out of the way as he covered the short distance and latched onto Hank Connelly’s throat. His fingers began to tighten even as strong hands began to pry them from the man’s neck. Breathing through clenched teeth, Buck was pulled back and watched as Connelly’s hand went to his throat and rubbed the bruised flesh.
 
“I could charge you with assault, Wilmington, but I’m not that kind of man, besides my son in law has been through enough. Now if...”
 
“Get out of h...here Hank!” Larabee warned, but there was little strength in the words.
 
“Now, Son...”
 
“Don’t you fucking call me that! Get out of here before I kill you!”
 
“See, Frank, I told you they were poisoning his mind against me. Please, Dr. Filbert, let’s get him out of here before they cause any more damage!”
 
“You’re not taking him anywhere, Hank!” Wilmington spat as he helped the nurse get Tanner back on his feet.
 
“You can’t do anything to stop me, Wilmington. I have been granted temporary power of attorney until Chris is able to make his own decisions. Right now he’s too distraught...”
 
“Mister, I think you all better come with me until the board member and Mr. Larabee’s physicians arrive,” the bigger of the two security guards warned.
 
“I’m not going anywhere w...with you, Hank!” Larabee warned as he swung his legs over the side of the bed, wincing as his injured right leg hit the floor.
 
“You don’t have a choice. I own you, remember?” Connelly leered as he showed Larabee the legal documentation.
 
“Never!” Chris acted before thinking and all the anger and pent up grief that came with it gave him the strength he needed. He drew back his right arm and let it fly towards Connelly’s face. Adrenaline lent even more power to the blow and he watched as Connelly flew backwards over the chair and landed on his back in the corner and didn’t move. Chris tried to get to him again, but found his movement stopped by his long time friend.
 
“Wow, Stud, it’s good to see you haven’t lost your right hook. Sonofabitch is out cold!”
 
“G...good. I...is Vin okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Chris,” Tanner said, staying back to let the two friends have the time they needed.
 
“W...will someone g...get that piece of s...shit out o...of my f...face?” Larabee asked as his chest heaved and the adrenaline rush abated, leaving him weak and trembling.
 
“Mr. Larabee, I’m afraid this changes nothing,” Filbert advised. “You have to come with us...”
 
“Not o...on y...your life,” the blond warned as he struggled to catch his breath. The effort it took to hit Connelly had taken more out of him than he realized.
 
“I’m afraid you have no choice,” Murray said as Connelly moaned and tried to stand.
 
“Yeah, he does. Hank is here illegally and he knows it,” Wilmington said. “There’s a restraining order that’s still in effect that says he’s not allowed within a hundred feet of Chris. I think he was a lot closer than that. Would one of you boys mind calling the police and telling them Connelly has violated the order?”
 
“I’m on it,” the smaller security guard said as he flipped the button on his radio and made the call.
 
“Now, Doctor, if you and that lawyer would get out of here we’ll make sure we get to the bottom of this,” Wilmington advised, smiling condescendingly at the three men. He looked to the right as Vin Tanner took up residence on the other side of Chris Larabee.
 
“Buck, call Orrin and tell him what’s happened!” Tanner advised.
 
“You okay?” Wilmington asked as he reached for the phone on the bedside table. He stayed beside Larabee as Tanner answered that he was fine.
 
“G...get him o...out of here!” Larabee repeated as Connelly stood and shook his head.
 
“We’ll be back as soon as the board members verify this document is legit,” Murray said.
 
“Don’t bet on it!” Tanner spat as the security guards escorted the three men from the room.
 
“Vin, why don’t you get back to bed and let me take care of Chris,” Sandra asked as two more nurses and a doctor entered the room.
 
“I’m okay,” Tanner lied and felt Larabee turn towards him.
 
“D...did that b...bastard h...hurt you?”
 
“No, Chris, I’m fine. My damn leg gave out!”
 
“I...I...” the blond stammered as his vision began to blur. “I w...won’t g...go w...with t...them! P...promise m...me y...you w...won’t l…let them t...take me,” Larabee pleaded as his weakened body began to wilt towards the floor.
 
“I promise, Chris,” the Texan vowed as Sandra and another nurse manoeuvred the injured man back onto his bed.
 
“Orrin’s going to have the order overturned. Then he’s going to start an investigation into Connelly’s lawyer and that so called quack they brought in,” Wilmington explained, as the nurse examined Larabee’s right hand.
 
“T...thanks, Buck...t...tired.”
 
“I bet. You go on and sleep. Me and Vin got your back.”
 
“A...always d...did, Bucklin,” the blond said, wincing as the nurse touched a tender part of his hand.
 
“I’m sorry, Chris, but I think you may have broken a couple of bones,” Sandra explained as more footsteps sounded outside the door.
 
“What happened?” the doctor asked as he looked from one pale patient to the other and moved to Larabee’s bed.
 
“Some lawyer came in here with a bogus paper saying they were taking Chris out of here. Security escorted them out of here a few minutes ago.”
 
“Must be the men who are arguing with Stacey Midland, Susan James, and Charles Reynolds. They’ll be here shortly, but asked me to check on Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner. What happened to his hand?”
 
“I...I hit t...the s...sonofabitch!” Larabee answered.
 
“It looks like you may have a few broken bones here,” Steven Marcus explained.
 
“W...worth it. K...knocked h...him o...out.”
 
“You sure did, Chris,” Wilmington agreed as he stood beside Tanner’s bed.
 
“We’ll need to get this x-rayed,” Marcus explained.
 
“L…later! S...sleep now. W...watch b...back.”
 
“We will, Chris. You go ahead and sleep,” the ladies’ man vowed. He continued to stand watch over his two friends as the two key medical personnel continued to examine the now sleeping blond.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Stacey Midland could not believe her ears. Hank Connelly, a man she’d met only briefly was still insisting on moving Chris Larabee from Saint Vincents. The lawyer was adamant that the papers were legit and Charles Reynolds, legal representative for the hospital was on the phone with Judge Schroeder. Susan James was in a heated argument with Michale Filbert, and she knew things were not going well for Filbert. James could hold her own and then some. Each time Filbert made an attempt to speak, the psychiatrist cut him off.
 
“I don’t know where you got your credentials, Dr. Filbert, but in this country you need to go to school and not just to some vending machine that hands out phony degrees! Chris Larabee is my patient and he’s in no shape to deal with the shit you’re piling on him!” James explained.
 
“I wholeheartedly agree, Susan,” Midland said as she stood shoulder to shoulder with the other woman.  “I think maybe the ethics board would be interested in your recent activities. Did you bother to check on Hank Connelly’s story?”
 
“Look, Dr. Midland, I’m acting on behalf of a worried father in law...”
 
“Oh, hell,” Midland laughed. “Don’t you read the papers?”
 
“Of course I do! What does that have to do with this patient?”
 
“Chris Larabee recently lost his wife and son in a fire. To be specific they were murdered.”
 
“All the more reason he needs the one on one care I can provide him with!” Filbert spat.
 
“Look, Doctor,” Midland continued. “Hank Connelly showed up at the funeral...”
 
“Well of course he did. His daughter and grandson were being buried.”
 
“No, that’s not why he showed up! Was it Hank?” Midland asked as Connelly came back into the room. His right eye was black and nearly swollen shut, but he refused to go down to the ER.
 
“I was distraught...”
 
“Like hell you were. You went to the funeral for one reason, Hank, to hit a man who couldn’t defend himself.”
 
“What?” Filbert asked, seething with this new information.
 
“I didn’t...” Connelly began.
 
“Oh, Hank, don’t try to deny it. We were all witness to your act of cowardice and I don’t think I’ve seen anything so low in my life. Well, until now that is! Charles, what have you found out?” Midland asked as the lawyer hung up the phone and turned towards her.
 
“Judge Schroeder said he did make the order and that it would stand up in court.”
 
“Now, Dr. Midland, would you please get out of our way so Dr. Filbert can collect our patient and we can be on our way?” Murray asked, a smug grin plastered on his face.
 
“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Midland said and turned back to the hospital’s legal representative. “Charles, there’s no way Chris Larabee can be moved. It’s detrimental to his health if he were to be taken from this hospital tonight.”
 
“Are you willing to swear to that, Doctor?” Reynolds asked hoping for a way out of the problems facing the hospital.
 
“Yes!”
 
“I agree with Dr. Midland. It is imperative for Chris Larabee’s mental well being that he remain in this hospital and not be put through the trauma of being moved to another facility.”
 
“Mr. Murray, I’m afraid we can’t abide by this writ. This hospital has to honor the opinions of the staff and as such I will now ask you to leave.”
 
“This is preposterous!” Murray blustered, but there was little real fight in his voice. He knew they’d lost and by the time morning arrived new papers would have been drawn up and the ones he held would not be worth the paper they were written on.
 
“I’m going to check on my patients,” Midland said as the security guards escorted Connelly, Filbert, and Murray out of the conference room.
 
“I’ll come with you, Stacey,” James said and followed the physician out of the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“How are they, Doc?” Wilmington asked as Steven Marcus finished examining Vin Tanner. Before the man could answer Midland and James entered the room.
 
“How are they, Steven?” Midland asked of her colleague.
 
“Mr. Tanner was in a great deal of pain and I had Sandra give him a shot of morphine. Mr. Larabee seems to have broken several bones in his hand.”
 
“How did he manage that?” Midland asked, smiling as she suddenly remembered Hank Connelly’s black eye.
 
“Right hook! I don’t think ol’ Hank saw it coming!” Wilmington answered, returning the smile as he stood next to Larabee’s bed.
 
“Have you ordered x-rays?” Midland asked.
 
“Yes, I didn’t think he needed to be moved around anymore and put in a call for a portable x-ray.”
 
“Thank you, Steven.”
 
“Sure, Stacey. By the way, Mr. Larabee’s temperature is a little higher than the last time it was taken.”
 
“What is it?” Midland asked, concern evident in her eyes.
 
“100.9. I know it’s low grade, but I thought you should know about it.”
 
“Yes, thank you, Steven.” Midland said before the man left the room.
 
“What do you think is causing this, Stacey?” James asked.
 
“I’m not sure, Susan,” the physician said and turned to the nurse. “Sandra, I want you to repeat the last blood tests and put in a call for an abdominal ultra sound. I’m worried that the antibiotics are not fighting the peritonitis as they should.”
 
“What’ll you do if it’s not, Doc?” Wilmington asked, worried about this newest crisis.
 
“If it’s the antibiotics we’ll need to put him on a stronger cocktail and hopefully ward it off before things get any worse.”
 
“What if it’s not?”
 
“Buck, let’s not go there until I get the results back on the blood work and the ultrasound. Now, visiting hours will be over shortly and I think you need to go home and get some rest.”
 
“I’m okay, Doc…”
 
“No, you’re not, Buck. Look, it wasn’t that long ago that you were in here as a patient and to be honest having these two here is enough of a trial for the nursing staff without adding you to the list. You either get out of here now or I have you banned for twenty four hours.”
 
“Damn...”
 
“Now, Buck!”
 
“All right,” Wilmington said and looked at the two sleeping men.
 
“They’ll be all right, Buck. No one will be allowed in here tonight,” Midland vowed.
 
“Doc, you think maybe one of the boys can stay with them? I mean security can’t keep an eye on everything and we’d feel much better if someone was here with them,” Wilmington said as Sandra returned and gently lifted Larabee’s left arm.
 
“As long as it’s not you or Nathan, one of the others can stay with Chris and Vin,” Midland said and turned to the nurse. “I’ll clear it with the board in the morning. Sandra, could you have a chair brought in.”
 
“Yes, Doctor,” the nurse said as she expertly inserted the needle into Larabee arm.
 
“Okay, Buck, call one of the others and then get out of here,” the physician warned.
 
“Sure, Doc,” the rogue said before making the call.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The hospital corridors were dark and the only sound was the soft-soled shoes of the nurses as they checked on their patients. Pamela Lewis eased open the door and smiled at the handsome man seated at the window. She knew he was here with the hospital’s permission as she shone the flashlight on the sleeping men as she entered the room. Moving to Larabee’s bed she wished she didn’t have to disturb him, but she needed to do his vital signs and record them every two hours. She pulled the small cart towards the bed and gently lifted Larabee’s left arm.
 
“Lemme be,” the blond mumbled and tried to pull his arm away.
 
“Easy, Chris, she’s just doing her job,” Standish explained as he moved to place his hand on Larabee’s right shoulder.
 
“L…later.”
 
“Later?” Standish asked.
 
“D...do job later. Tired...feel s...sick,” the blond moaned, clutching his abdomen as nausea churned through his stomach. 
 
“Pamela?” Standish said, grabbing the basin as Larabee’s stomach rebelled and he lost what little was inside him. The gambler rubbed his friend’s shoulder in a soothing motion as the nurse hit the call button. He heard her ask one of the nurses to help her as she turned on the overhead light.
 
“W...what’s w...wrong?” came a sleep drenched voice from the other bed.
 
“Pamela is simply checking on Chris,” Standish tried to keep his voice calm in order to keep the other man from panicking.
 
“H...heard him, sick?”
 
“Yes, he was, Vin, but the nurse is taking care of him,” he assured the tracker as a second nurse entered the room.
 
“Chris, I’m going to give you some Zofran to calm your stomach okay?” Pamela stated as she hurried to get the prescribed anti nausea medication.
 
“O...okay,” the blond moaned and tried to get comfortable in the bed. He felt the nurse at his IV and knew she was injecting the medication. He knew from experience the Zofran wouldn’t take long to work and he tried to relax as the nurse continued to talk to him.
 
“Chris, we’re going to change the gown and the bed sheets as well,” Pamela said, knowing they couldn’t just cover it up. They helped the injured man out of the bed and into the chair beside the window.
 
“T...thanks,” Larabee said as the second nurse covered his legs with a blanket.
 
“You’re welcome,” Pamela said as they quickly stripped the bed and remade it before helping Larabee into clean hospital pajama bottoms and helped him back to bed.
 
“Is he okay?” Tanner asked softly.
 
“I...I’m fine, V...Vin, j...just tired,” Larabee answered as the nurses made sure he was comfortable and left the room.
 
“Hmm, I could believe that if you weren’t whiter than the sheets you’re lying on, Chris,” Standish said.
 
“He’s right, Pard, you really are pale,” the tracker agreed and watched as Larabee turned to face him.
 
“You’re one to talk, Vin. Have y...you looked in a mirror lately? Casper would be jealous of your coloring.”
 
“Oh, Hell, guess we could go out as spooks for Halloween,” the tracker said.
 
“Huh, huh,” Larabee mumbled as sleep overtook him once more.
 
“Damn, wish I could do somethin’ ta help him,” Tanner said.
 
“We all do, Vin, we all do. Now why don’t you join our illustrious leader in dreamland? I’ll be here to watch over you both.”
 
“Thanks, Ezra,” the tracker said and drifted off to sleep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Five men sat in the conference room at The Firm’s office. Sanchez would be heading for the hospital shortly, but for now an off duty police officer was standing guard outside room 323. The man was a good friend and had been warned about Hank Connelly. The meeting this morning was to figure out a way to keep the embittered man from causing any more harm than he’d already done.
 
“Buck, you said you had an idea on how to keep Hank out of Chris’ business.”
 
“Yes, Orrin, I do. I think we should talk to Chris about having Paul Grogan draw up papers that gives one of us power of attorney while he’s hurt.”
 
“Do you really think Chris would go along with that, Buck?” Dunne asked.
 
“I think so, JD. Chris is no fool and he knows Hank’s a real mean bastard right now. He might not agree right away, but once he has time to think it through he’ll realize it’s the best way to go.”
 
“Do you think Chris would let you do that, Buck?” the young Bostonian asked.
 
“Well, Kid, I wasn’t really thinking about me. See, right now I think I’m too close to it and I’m not saying you guys aren’t, but I’ve known Chris a lot of years and I know how he thinks. Him and I agreed a long time ago that we wouldn’t ask what assets the other one has, but we’ve also always made sure if one needed something the other one was right there to give it. Right now I think Chris needs someone who can handle his anger and resentment and I think there’s only one man who can handle him right now.”
 
“Who did you have in mind, Buck?” Standish asked.
 
“Josiah, would you consider doing this if Chris is okay with it?” Wilmington asked hopefully.
 
“Buck, if Chris wants to go this route, then yes, I will gladly accept the responsibility,” Sanchez explained.
 
“I’ll talk to him about it this afternoon,” Wilmington said, relieved that the older man was willing to do this for their friend.
 
“Actually, Buck, I think it would be better coming from me right now. I’ll explain it to him and then I’ll go see his lawyer.”
 
“Want me to go with you?” the rogue asked, somewhat relieved that it was out of his hands. He knew in his heart Sanchez was the best choice, but he also knew it would be hard for him to talk to Chris about it.
 
“All right, now that we’ve settled that I wanted to update you on the police investigation into the crash off the Dominican Republic,” Travis explained.
 
“Tell me they found her,” Wilmington asked hopefully.
 
“I’m afraid not, Buck, but the pilot was positively identified using DNA and x-rays. They’ve found several large pieces of the fuselage and more evidence that there were two passengers, but again there’s no way to get a positive ID unless the bodies are recovered.”
 
“Damn it! That means she could still be out there planning her next move!” the ladies’ man cursed.
 
“She could be dead, Buck,” Standish tried, but knew he wasn’t very convincing.
 
“I wish I could believe that, Ez, but Ella Gaines is like that stuff you can’t scrape off your shoes and the smell just follows you everywhere you go,” Wilmington explained and realized truer words were never spoken. The men were silent for some time before Travis finally spoke.
 
“I know it’s not much consolation, Buck, but at least we know if she does come back Chris and the rest of us are forewarned and know what to expect. Now, Ezra, you and JD have to coordinate with Robert Miller on tonight’s stakeout. Buck, you’re still on light duties so I guess that means you get to update the files...”
 
“Ah, hell, Orrin,” Wilmington said, shaking his head at having to do a job they all loathed.
 
“Wouldn’t want to be in your shoes, Buck,” Dunne teased, holding his arms apart in an effort to show how much file work was waiting for his roommate.
 
“JD, I could always use a hand and you don’t need to be at the stakeout until eight tonight. I think that leaves you several hours and I know you’d really love to help me out...”
 
“Uhuh, Buck...”
 
“Actually, JD, most of the files belong to you and I think Buck is right about needing your help,” Travis explained and turned to the ex-preacher before the youngest member of the team could voice a protest. “Josiah, let me know what happens with Chris.”
 
“I will, Orrin,” Sanchez assured him, as the meeting seemed to break up.
 
“Come on, Kid, let’s go dot those Is and cross those Ts,” Wilmington said with a grin.
 
“Me and my big mouth,” Dunne said.
 
“Yep, it sure is and you know you can take that foot out whenever you’re ready,” the rogue said as they left the conference room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Hank polished off his forth beer and threw the bottle on the growing pile next to his chair. The papers drawn up by his lawyer were worthless now and were saturated with the drops of liquid that spilled from the Budweiser bottle. His anger at losing to Chris Larabee in everything he did continued to grow, festering around his heart and leaving him with a coldness that would not quit. He looked at the gun lying on the table and the bullet sitting next to it. One bullet-one man, that’s all he needed to insure revenge and the time would be soon. He just had to wait and be patient, but Chris Larabee would be dead before he had a chance to spend the insurance money.
 
“Damn you, Chris Larabee! Damn you straight to hell where you belong!” he vowed as he reached for the weapon and felt the strength in his hands.




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