by Winnie


Chapter 17 

Chris opened his eyes and noticed the older man sitting in the chair between his and Tanner’s bed. Josiah Sanchez seemed to be reading, but Larabee could tell the ex-preacher was watching him through hooded eyes. He frowned as he noted the empty bed and licked his lips in an effort to moisten them before speaking.
“Where’s Vin?”
“He’s gone for some tests and should return any time now. How are you feeling?”
“I’m okay, Josiah. Just feel sore all over.”
“Well, the doctor’s seem to think that’s probably the result of a right hook...”
“Someone hit me?” the blond asked, frowning at the news Sanchez imparted.
“Not exactly. I’d say you hit someone...”
Chris tried to remember, but his mind was fogged down and his thoughts were like a jumbled jigsaw puzzle that was impossible to solve. He looked down at his hand now encased in a soft cast.
“W...who’d I hit?”
“You don’t remember?” Sanchez asked worriedly.
“ Please tell me it wasn’t one o...of boys?”
“No, it wasn’t one of us or one of the medical staff. The person you hit deserved what he got and then some.”
“Who was it, Josiah?”
“What do you remember about yesterday?” Sanchez inquired.
“N...not much. D...don’t really know w...what’s real and what’s not.”
“Do you remember having visitors late in the evening?”
“Think so...a doctor...and I think t...there was a lawyer there as well. What d...did they want?”
“That’s right and there was one more man with them. He wanted the doctor...”
“H...Hank! Shit, it was Hank! He’s t...trying to t...take control o...of life, Josiah. I h...have to stop h...him!”
“Chris, I think we may have a way to stop him, but we won’t do it without your permission.”
“A...anything that’ll k...keep that b...bastard away f...from me I’ll a...agree to.”
“Well, right now you need someone to manage your affairs until you’re out of that bed. Hank has tried to have you declared incompetent and have himself declared legal conservator while you’re incapacitated.”
“That bastard w...won’t stop, J...Josiah.”
“I know, Son, and that’s where I come in.”
“You? How?
“Now, Chris, remember that none of this will be done unless you approve of it. No matter what happens we’ll be there to back you all the way.”
“What are you proposing, Josiah?” Larabee asked, wincing as he sat forward in the bed.
“How would you feel if I spoke with your lawyer and asked him to draw up papers giving me power of attorney? Now hear me out, Son. I wouldn’t make any decisions about your holdings or your life without speaking with you first. We just thought this would be the best way to keep Hank Connelly out of your life!”
Chris knew the older man was just trying to help, but his anger quickly surged at the thought that someone else could control his life, that they would know everything about him, including his legal business. He stared at the man seated next to him and let the resentment and anger eat at him.

“Josiah, my business is my business and I don’t need anyone looking after it but me! I’m not incompetent and I c...can m...make my o...own d...decisions!”
“Chris, listen...”
“No! You l… listen.  Damn it! I...I...” he moaned and clutched at his stomach as the movement jarred the wound in his abdomen.
“Easy, Son, just try to relax.”
“God, Josiah, it h...hurts.”
“I know it does, Chris. Just hang on and the nurse will be right in with something to help okay?”
“O...okay...s...sorry. Shit! Didn’t m...mean to y...yell you. K...know you’re trying help!”
“It’s okay, Chris, we’ll talk about it later.”
“No,’re right. N...need someone stop H...Hank. S...sign papers...Paul Grogan.”
“I’ll go see him, Chris,” Sanchez assured him as the nurse entered the room.
“Chris, where does it hurt?” Pamela asked as she hurried to the patient’s side.
“E...everywhere,” the blond stammered as he tried to get comfortable.
“I’m going to give you something to help with the pain in a few minutes. Dr. Silverman will be here shortly,” Pamela explained.
“O...okay,” the blond answered as the nurse began taking his vitals. Chris could hear her talking, but the pain was overwhelming and again he tried to curl into a ball. 
“Just lay still, Chris...”
“What’s going on?” Silverman asked abruptly as he entered the room.
“He’s experiencing a lot of abdominal discomfort,” the nurse explained.
“What’re his vitals?”
“Temperature is 102.3. Blood pressure is 120/70.”
“Chris,” Silverman called as he tried to get his patient’s attention. “I’m not sure what’s going on right now, but I’m going to do everything I can to find out. Pamela, call CT and tell them I’m sending down a patient with severe abdominal pain and I want a full series.”
“Yes, doctor,” Pamela said and hurried to the wall phone.
“How long since he had something for pain?”
“I was just going to give him a shot...”
“All right,” Silverman said as he listened to the patient’s breathing. He heard the nurse make the call and leave the room.
“Doc how is he?” Sanchez asked.
“I’m not sure what’s going on right now, Mr. Sanchez, but I believe it may be an infection causing the discomfort. I’ll know more when I get the results of the CT scan.”
Pamela returned with the syringe and an orderly and quickly injected the medication into Larabee’s IV. “CT is setting up for him now,” she told Silverman.
“All right, page me when the results are in. Chris, the medication should help.”
“O...okay,” Larabee said, not really listening as he tried to ride out the pain. He heard the physician leave, but didn’t acknowledge anything else.
“Chris, we’re going to transfer you to a stretcher. Do you think you can scoot over?” Pamela asked as the orderly pushed the stretcher between the two beds. She moved the wires and helped him move from the bed to the stretcher before covering him with a warm blanket and raising his head slightly.
“I’m here, Son.”
“T...tell P...Paul d...draw u...up the papers.”
“I will, Chris, you just let them help you. I’ll be here when you come back.”
Sanchez held the door while the stretcher was wheeled past him and he leaned heavily against the frame as his worry surfaced once more. He prayed that whatever was wrong with the blond could be easily fixed, but something told him that was not the case. Turning back to the room he waited for the other occupant of the room to return and knew this would only add to the younger man’s worries.
The waiting game was one they’d grown used to, but was also one they’d rather do without. Four men were anxious to get word on the missing member of their group, but it would be some time before word on Chris Larabee’s condition was disclosed. Silverman and Midland had looked at the results of the tests and the CT scan and found there was infection in the abdominal cavity that was not explained by the peritonitis. Larabee was undergoing more surgery to rid the wound of the infection and make sure there were no other surprises waiting to be sprung.
Josiah watched each man, knowing there was nothing he could do to ease their minds until the doctors assured them that Chris was okay. JD and Ezra were already on stakeout and would be waiting for his call, but again that would not be for some time. Vin was back in the room and in bed with his eyes closed yet Sanchez knew the man was not sleeping. Buck stood at the window looking out over the city with fear and worry etched on his pale features. Nathan was seated in the chair next to Tanner’s bed and met Sanchez’s eyes across the room.
“Nathan, you should be resting,” Sanchez suggested, knowing the man wasn’t about to be budged.
“I will, Josiah, but not until we get word on how the surgery went,” Jackson said, wincing as he moved on the uncomfortable chair. 
“Face it, Josiah, no one’s going anywhere until we hear from Dr. Midland,” Wilmington said as he turned away from the window. The four men were quiet again as time seemed to drag on. Each time the door opened they jumped, but it was usually one of the nurses coming to check on the patient. At one point Ezra and JD entered the room, but no one bothered to ask why they were there. They knew the two men belonged with them as they continued to wait for news.
Casey shifted the tray of coffee until it was easier to handle, glanced at the woman walking beside her and wished she could take some of the pain away. Nettie seemed to have aged in the last few weeks, the wrinkles on her face becoming more prominent as the days went by. She hoped and prayed her aunt would come through this the same person, but she also understood that there were too many changes for that to happen. Losing Sarah and Adam had taken a toll on the older woman and now Chris and Vin’s health were also an issue.
“Nettie, why don’t I take you home and get Josiah to call us when they have news?”
“No, Child, I’m not leaving until I know Chris is all right. I owe it to Sarah to make sure he’s not alone.”
“He’s not alone, Aunt Nettie. He has JD...”
“I know he does, Casey, but I promised Sarah when she married Chris that I’d always be there for them both and that’s what I’m going to do. These old bones are not as brittle as you might think and I’m as strong as an ox.”
“You’re not old, Aunt Nettie,” the young woman said as her aunt pushed the elevator button.
“Thank you, Casey, but right now I feel older than the hills and probably look even older than that,” Wells said as they stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the third floor. Once it stopped they moved out into the hall and walked towards room 323. The door was open and they noted the solemn group of men in the room.
“Hello, Boys,” Nettie said and was greeted with a round of hellos. She moved to the bed, her eyes taking in the gaunt features and dark circles that signaled the worry and fear this man had for his friend. “How are you, Vin, and please don’t tell me you’re fine!”
“Hi, Nettie, I’m not feelin’ too bad...jest...”
“Worried,” the older woman finished for him.
“Yeah, wish they’d let us know what’s happenin’.”
“We all do, Vin, and I think right now we could use a prayer.” She turned to the ex-preacher, eyes pleading as she asked. “Josiah, would you?”
“I would be honored, Nettie.” Sanchez put his coffee on the table as the group closed their eyes and listened as his baritone voice sent a prayer heavenward. “Lord, you’re probably getting tired of me lately, but I know you’ll always listen. We’d like to ask for your help and guidance for Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. Please give them both the strength and courage they need to face whatever tasks you put before them and keep them safe so they can continue to help those who cannot help themselves. Give us, your children, the courage and help we need to help bring them back to our flock and see them healthy once more. Amen.”
“Amen!” the other occupants of the room spoke as one voice and all eyes turned to the door as it opened and Stacey Midland entered the room.
“Hmm, I believe this is a little more than two visitors at a time,” Midland said, smiling to let them know she understood the need for them all to be there.
“Doc how’s Chris?” Tanner voiced the question that was on all their minds as he slid his legs over the edge of the bed and sat up.
“That man has to be one of the most stubborn men...”
“Yes, I believe I’ve said that about him many times,” Nettie said with a warm smile.
“Dr. Silverman found a small pocket of infection near the incision and we’re pretty certain that’s what was causing the pain and discomfort. It would also explain the nausea and vomiting, but we’ll know more when he’s awake and able to eat. He’s in recovery now and will probably be brought down in an hour or two. He’s going to be groggy and will probably sleep for the next eight to ten hours. Now I know there’s no point in telling you all to go home, but I would like you guys to let Vin and Chris get the rest they need.”
“Doc, he’s really going to be okay?” Wilmington asked.
“Well, Buck, I think we found the culprit and I’d say his chances of making a complete recovery are vastly improved. Now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me I believe it’s time for me to go home.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Jackson said.
“You’re welcome and Nathan?”
“Yes, Ma’am.”
“I want to see you in my office first thing in the morning.”
“I’ll make sure he gets there, Doc,” Sanchez assured her, smiling at the chagrined look on the medic in training’s face.
Midland looked from one face to the other before leaving the group alone once more.
“Vin, you didn’t eat much,” Nettie gently scolded as she looked at the tray on his table.
“Wasn’t hungry, Nettie,” Tanner told her.
“Well now that’s a first. How long have I known you?”
“Guess it’s gettin’ close ta a year now,” the Texan answered.
“That’s right and I don’t remember there being a day go by that you weren’t hungry. Maybe we need to call Dr. Midland back in here and get her to take a look at you!”
“No,” the Texan shook his head and smiled as the woman placed her hands on her hips and knew she was not letting this go. “I’m okay, Nettie, I just wasn’t hungry.”
“Casey, would you mind going to the deli across the street and getting Vin a bowl of soup?”
“Sure, would anyone else like something?” the young woman asked.
“I think you’d best bring back some sandwiches because I’m betting none of these boys have eaten since they got here,” Nettie told her.
“I’ll go with you, Casey,” Dunne said and reached for her hand before leaving the room.
“Ah, young love is like a ray of sunshine,” Sanchez said, smiling as he heard murmurs of agreement from the others.
Chris was only vaguely aware of the voices surrounding him. He remembered a soft voice asking if he was in pain and he’d barely managed to nod his head before it exploded in a vast array of fireworks. He’d felt her pick up his left hand and knew she was injecting something into him. He licked at dry lips and a sponge was quickly wiped across them, giving him some relief. He felt a tube running down his throat, but it wasn’t obstructing his breathing and he knew he wasn’t on a ventilator. He turned his head to the side and forced his eyes open, blinking them in rapid succession as the bright lights stabbed at his skull.
“Chris, we’re going to take you back to your room now, okay?”
“O...okay,” the blond stammered sleepily, letting his eyes stay closed as the bed began to move. He knew he’d drifted off for a while because the next sounds he heard were the sounds of the men he called friends.
“All right, Chris, we’re going to shift you onto your bed now.”
“Hmm,” Larabee mumbled and tried to shift his leaden body to the edge of the gurney.
“On three,” the nurse told the two orderlies who were helping her.
Again Chris was only vaguely aware of the people around him, but his mind was jolted awake as his body was lifted and placed onto his bed. The pain that was only an annoying twinge slammed into him with a vengeance and he fought to keep the mounting nausea at bay. He swallowed several times and blinked the tears from his eyes as he curled slightly on his right side.
“Chris, I’m going to send your nurse right in.”
“O...okay,” Larabee managed as the nasal canulas were again put in place. He knew the others would be back as soon as his nurse was done, but there was a man in the next bed that needed to know he was okay. Opening his eyes he forced a thin smile to his face.
“Hey, Cowboy,” Tanner acknowledged the gesture.
“Not a cowboy,” Larabee answered as an older lady entered the room and walked over to his bed.
“Hello, Mr. Larabee, my name is Sylvia and I’ll be taking care of you and Mr. Tanner tonight. I’m just going to get a set of vitals on you both and then I’ll send your friends in for a few minutes. Visiting hours are almost over and I think you and Mr. Tanner need to get some rest.”
Chris nodded once as he felt her wrapping his arm with a BP cuff. He hated the NG tube and was tempted to ask her to remove it, but he knew it would stay in place until the doctors were sure he was able to eat on his own. He heard her talking once more, but the words didn’t register as the affects of the anesthetic and pain medication combined to drag him towards sleep. He managed to open his eyes once more and smiled at the bedraggled group in the room.
“M...must be a w...waking n...nightmare,” he stammered and heard the soft laughter just before giving up the fight to stay awake.
The next time Chris woke up the sun was shining in through his window and a nurse was moving the table closer to the bed. He groaned as he reached for the button to raise his head and was grateful when the nurse fluffed the pillows behind his back before she left.
“Good mornin’, Cowboy.”
“Morning, Vin, what t...time is it?”
“A little before nine. Ya slept over twelve hours, didn’t even wake up when the vampire came and made a withdrawal.”
“Shit, still feel tired.”
“Guess so considerin’ everythin’ ya’ve been through. Gonna take time ta heal, Chris. Looks like we’ll be roomin’ tagether fer some time ta come.”
“How much longer are they keeping you?”
“A few more days. Dr. Midland wants to make sure the antibiotics have knocked the hell out of my system.”
“Good. Now why don’t we eat breakfast and maybe we can both get out of here and get back to work,” Larabee suggested as he lifted the lid off the simple breakfast. “Hope yours is better than this.”
“Probably is. I’ve got pancakes and maple syrup.”
“Want to trade?”
“Not on your life. You’ve probably got prunes or some other shit!”
“Shit is exactly what it is,” Larabee said, but picked up his spoon and began eating.
Vin watched the blond for several minutes and knew something was wrong. There was none of the remorse and pain in the sea green eyes. It was almost as if nothing had happened and the blond had forgotten the events of the last two months or so. Not wanting Larabee to know he was being watched, Vin tore his gaze away from his friend and started to eat. He knew the man could not have gotten over the tragedy so easily, but for now he didn’t want to remind the blond of his loss.
“Vin, are the boys coming in today?”
“Wild horses couldn’t keep them away, Chris.”
“Need to get Josiah to call Paul Grogan and have him come in and set up the papers so Hank doesn’t try to fuck me up again,” the blond spat as he pushed the tray away.
“Want me to call Josiah?”
“No, I can do it! ” Larabee winced as he tried to sit up more.
“Chris you had surgery yesterday, might be better if ya jest laid still fer a while,” the tracker suggested.
“I’m okay, Vin! I can do this!” Larabee reiterated and managed to get himself into a sitting position.
“I’m not the only one...”
“No, but ya wrote the book...”
“Maybe, but you have the movie rights,” Chris couldn’t help but smile as he slipped into the familiar banter with the younger man. He picked up the phone and placed it beside him before using his left hand to hit the numbers and pick the receiver up once more.
“Josiah, it’s Chris.”
“Chris, how are you feeling?” Sanchez sounded surprised at hearing his voice and Chris realized he probably was.
“I’m okay, but I need you to do something for me.”
“Anything, Son, all you have to do is tell me what it is.”
“I know we talked about you looking after things for me while I’m in here and keeping Hank Connelly away from me. Are you still willing to look after my affairs for me while I’m stuck in here?”
“Most certainly.”
“Can you phone Paul and have him join us here this afternoon?”
“Of course. Are you sure you’re all right, Chris?”
“I’m fine, Josiah, just a little tired. I think I’ll see if the nurse will give me something that’ll help me sleep.”
“Sounds like a plan, Chris. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
“Okay,” Larabee said. He hung up the phone and put it back on the table before lying back in the bed. He buzzed the nurse and asked if he could have something for pain. Closing his eyes he missed the worried frown on his roommate’s face.
‘What’s really going on with ya, Chris?’ he thought. He watched as the nurse entered the room and proceeded to give Larabee the prescribed medication. He knew something was going on with his friend, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. Deciding that he’d speak with the others he stood and held the IV pole before limping to the chair and sitting down. From this point he could watch Larabee and maybe get a feel for what was going on inside his troubled mind.
Chris knew Vin was worried about him, but he didn’t trust himself to speak right now and so he kept his eyes closed and tried to block the connection he usually coveted. Right now he wanted his thought to be his own, but somehow he knew Tanner was able to feel his depression and that was something he didn’t want anyone to see right now. He’d asked for the pain meds and hoped they would help him sleep without the nightmares that usually plagued him. He slowly drifted towards sleep, not really expecting his dreams to be any less horrifying.
Josiah Sanchez held the door for Paul Grogan as they entered Larabee’s room. He knew Tanner was outside with Ezra Standish, leaving them the privacy to discuss matters with Chris. He’d spoken with the sharpshooter and knew he was worried about Larabee’s state of mind. Something wasn’t right because it seemed as if the blond had simply forgotten about his wife and son’s murders. He moved to the bed and caught sight of the grief in the sea green eyes before Larabee shut it away from him.
“Chris, Paul’s here.”
“O...okay,” Larabee said and began the fight to sit up. With painstakingly slow movements, Chris used his left arm to push his upper body further up in the bed and slid his legs over the edge. Biting his lip against the pain his struggle caused he continued upwards until he sat on the side of the bed and fought to get his breathing under control. Finally perched on the mattress he tugged the blankets until they covered his legs. His whole body seemed to be awash with pain and he tried to conceal it from the two men in the room.
“Can I get you anything, Chris?” Sanchez asked.
“Water,” the blond answered through clenched teeth.
“How are you doing, Chris?” Grogan asked.
“Better Paul, thanks for coming down.”
“Did Josiah explain what I wanted done?”
“He mentioned something about a power of attorney giving him the right to look after your affairs until you’re ready to take over again. Is that right?”
“Yes, I don’t want a repeat of what happened with Hank, Paul. I don’t want that bastard having any control over me!”
“He won’t, Chris. I’ve drawn up the documents and all you have to do is read them and sign them.”
“Did Josiah read them?” Larabee asked.
“Did he agree to what’s in the papers?”
“Yes he did,” Grogan said as Sanchez returned with fresh water and placed it on the table in front of the blond.
Chris drank several mouthfuls, grateful when there was no repeat of the nausea from the day before. “Thanks, Josiah. Where do I sign, Paul?”
“Aren’t you going to read them over?” Grogan asked in disbelief.
“No need. I trust you both to do what’s best. I’m tired so just show me where to sign so I can get some sleep,” Larabee told them.
“All right,” the lawyer agreed and showed his client several places that needed his signature. Using his left hand Larabee signed with a shaky hand before looking at Sanchez.
“Thanks, Josiah.”
“There’s nothing to thank me for, Chris. You just make sure you get well so we can rip those up. Understand?”
“Yes. Thanks again for coming down, Paul.”
“You’re welcome,” Grogan said. He picked up the papers and looked worriedly at his friend and client once more before leaving the room.
“Chris, are you okay? Is there something you want to talk about?” Sanchez asked.
“I’m fine, Josiah, just want to sleep,” Larabee said, grunting as he lay back in the bed and closed his eyes.
Sanchez watched his friend for a few minutes and knew the man would not say anything else. Turning away he headed for the door, but glanced back in time to see Larabee’s tear stained face as he turned onto his side. Moving into the hallway, Josiah leaned heavily against the wall before spotting someone he hoped could help him figure out what was going on with Chris.
“Dr. James, could I speak with you for a minute?”
“Of course, Mr. Sanchez. Why don’t we go to the doctor’s lounge and grab a coffee?”
“Sounds good,” the ex-preacher agreed and walked beside the psychiatrist. He knew she wouldn’t be able to answer all of his questions, but there were things he needed to tell her and he hoped she could shed some insight on how they could help Larabee.
Once inside the lounge Susan gestured for him to sit down before she moved to the coffee pot and poured two cups of the strong smelling brew. “How do you take it?”
“Black,” Sanchez answered and watched as she walked back to the table. The lounge was empty and for that Josiah was grateful as he tried to form his thoughts into words. “Doc, I know you can’t tell me everything about what you and Chris discuss, but I want you to know I now have power of attorney when it comes to making decisions.”
“That’s good to know, Mr. Sanchez. I can tell there’s something troubling you and I suspect it has something to do with Chris Larabee.”
“Yes, doctor, it does. He just seems to have suddenly forgotten what’s happened. I don’t mean he’s forgotten about Sarah and Adam, just that he seems to have forgotten the grief he’s been feeling.”
“I’ve seen that happen in cases like this quite often, Mr. Sanchez. Chris has been through so much and he’s trying to be strong right now. I’m guessing that he’s normally a very private man...”
“Good guess,” Sanchez agreed.
“He’s going to go through spurts of anger, resentment, and he’s probably going to go through survivor’s guilt. If what you say is true he could very well be trying to keep his pain and grief to himself now that he’s had time to adjust.”
“How do we help him?”
“By talking to him, by letting him come to you at his own pace and by not pushing him into a conversation he’s not ready for. Right now he seems like he’s okay and he’s trying to make all of you believe he’s stronger than he actually is, but...”
“But he’s going to crash...”
“That’s one way of putting it and when he does he’s going to need to lean on all of you.”
“We’ll be there for him, Doc.”
“I know you will and more often than not it’s the knowing that he has support from his friends that brings a patient back. Now, I have a couple of patients to see before I call it a day, but rest assured if Chris needs to talk and asks for me I’ll be there. Otherwise I’ll see him at our regular appointment tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Doc.”
“There’s nothing to thank me for, Josiah, not yet anyway,” James said as she stood up and reached for her briefcase. “If you need anything just call my office.”
“Thanks Doc, I will,” Sanchez assured her and continued to drink his coffee and think about the injured man in Room 323.
In the next few days Vin improved enough that Midland was ready to release him into the care of Nettie and Casey Wells. The sharpshooter was now dressed in a comfortable tracksuit and perched on the edge of his bed while he waited for the two women to pick him up. Buck and Ezra were also due any minute and they would stay with Chris. Vin looked at the sleeping man and worried about the seemingly relaxed features and knew it was something Larabee was fighting to maintain. He’d talked with the others about Chris’ sudden turnaround and knew they were just as worried as he was about the man’s mental stability. He watched as several times pain and sadness escaped the mask the blond fought so hard to preserve. The eyes moved rapidly beneath the lids until they finally fluttered open.
“Morning, Cowboy,” Tanner greeted softly.
“Morning,” Larabee frowned and reached for the glass of water. “Thought you were getting out of here?”
“I am. Just waitin’ fer my ride.”
“Are you still staying with Nettie and Casey?”
“Yep, seems like we’ll probably be roommates again once ya get out of here.”
“Wish they’d let me go today,” Larabee said, but his tone was flat and lacked the emotion Vin needed to hear. Chris Larabee was definitely trying to shut out the pain of his loss and Vin suspected it was doing more damage than facing it head on. Several times in the last few days someone broached the subject of Sarah and Adam only to be brought up short when Larabee had simply turned away and ignored the conversation. Buck explained to all of them how Chris could be like a dormant volcano that was showing signs of life and that sooner or later he would blow his top with just as much force as the volcano. He’d rip into anything or anyone that stood in his way, but until then Larabee would keep everything bottled up inside.
“It won’t be long now, Chris. The docs just want ta make sure there’s not goin’ ta be any more surprises.”
“Hell, I don’t think I can handle any more surprises, Vin. All I want to do right now is go home and sleep for a week. Maybe Sarah will be there...” his voice trailed off and embittered tears filled his eyes as he realized what he’d been about to say. Turning away from the Texan he tried to keep his emotions in check.
“It’s all right, Chris,” Tanner soothed as the door opened and Susan James entered the room.
“No, Vin!” Larabee shouted as he sat up and looked at the other man. “It’s not all right! It’ll never be all right. I keep thinking she’s going to walk through that door and tell me I’ve been in a coma and it’s time for me to wake up but I can’t. The fucking nightmare is always there and I want it to end, Vin! God I want it to stop!”
“I know, Chris,” the tracker said, crossing the short distance between the two beds and sitting beside his friend. Larabee’s shoulders shook with the strength of his grief and Vin pulled him close. He hadn’t heard the door open again, but he was aware of another presence supporting Larabee on the opposite side. He nodded to Wilmington as the blond continued to shed some of his grief.
“I c...can’t do this anymore! I want them back, Buck!” Larabee said as he lifted his head and spotted his long time friend.
“I know you do, Chris, and I wish I could bring them back to you,” Wilmington said, wrapping his arms around his friend’s heaving shoulders.
“P...please, Buck, tell me it’s all been a bad dream! Tell me Sarah and Adam are not dead...not burned!”
“I wish I could, Chris, but I can’t do that right now. All I can tell you is someday you’ll be with them and there’ll be no more tears in heaven,” Wilmington soothed, his hand making small circles on Larabee’s back.
“Tears, Buck, God I don’t think I have any more tears left! WHY? Why didn’t God just take me? What the hell did Sarah and Adam do to deserve to die like that? It should have been me, not them!” Larabee raged, his hands clenching and unclenching as anger, pain, and sorrow combined to send him into a spiraling pit of rage.
“Chris, God had his reasons for taking them and leaving you with us. We may not know right away what the reasons were, hell, we may never know, but he kept you here to do something and until that’s done you’ll stay here...”
“Not if I can help it!” Larabee spat without realizing how damning the words sounded.
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” Tanner cursed as his eyes met those of the psychiatrist. He knew she’d caught the anger behind the blonds’ words and hoped she would be able to help them all.
“Just what I said, Vin! I don’t want to do anything for a God who doesn’t care! He let them die in a fire, Vin! He didn’t have to let that happen b...boy! It should have been me, Buck! Not Sarah and Adam! God damn it why didn’t he just leave them alone? Why did he let that bitch do that to them? You want to know why, Buck? I know why! Because he’s cruel!” Larabee screamed and pulled away from his two friends as Susan James moved closer.
“Chris, you know that’s not true,” Wilmington tried, but knew Larabee really did believe what he was saying and he felt his own heart lurch upwards in his throat as he looked at the psychiatrist.
“How the fuck would you know, Buck? You didn’t lose your wife and son! You didn’t lose your unborn baby! No, you just stopped me from helping them! You bastard! You should have let me try!” Larabee cursed and struck out with his fists. He didn’t hear James calling for help as he pushed his friends away. His soul could be damned for all he cared. Deep down he knew he was hurting the ladies’ man, but his own pain overshadowed everything else and his heart seemed to pound painfully against his ribs.
“I’m s...sorry, Chris,” Wilmington said and turned away as moisture-laden eyes burned.
“Chris, Buck did what he had to do and you damn well know it! You would’ve died with them...”
“Then he should have let me, Vin! What do I have left here? Huh? What’s left for me! I hate...”
“We’re here for you, Chris!” Tanner interrupted as a nurse and an orderly entered the room.
“Oh, that’s a good one, you’re here for me! What if I told you it’s not enough? What if I said to get out of my fucking life and leave me alone? What are you doing, Dr. James?” Larabee asked as rage filled green eyes lit on the syringe the nurse was holding.
“Chris this is a sedative...”
“I don’t want it! I don’t fucking need it!”
“All right, if you calm down and get back into bed I’ll reconsider....”
“I’m not getting back in the bed and you’re not giving me that fucking sedative or anything else! Where are my clothes?” Larabee spat and began pulling on the IV tubing. His chest heaved with the effort it took to breathe as pain erupted in his abdomen. His legs trembled with the effort he was expending just staying on his feet as he continued to glare at his friends. His right knee was weakening and began to give as he fought the people in the room.
“Go away, Buck! I don’t want to see you right now!, Buck why couldn’t you have just left me alone? Why did you have to stop me from going with them?”
“Because I...I’m supposed to be your friend,” Wilmington said, his voice filled with pent up misery.
“A friend would have let me go!” Larabee turned just as the nurse delivered the medication into his IV. “I told you I didn’t want it!”
“You need it right now, Chris. Come on, let them get you back into bed before you fall down,” Tanner advised as he saw the hurt in Wilmington’s emotive blue eyes.
“I don’t need anything from any of you!” Chris’ legs began to give out as he looked at the people in the room. The sedative began to take affect and he knew he wouldn’t be on his feet much longer. The orderly moved in and eased him onto the bed and he sat there while the room began to tilt. His gaze came to rest on the man whose heart was often worn on his sleeves and he saw the effect his damning words had on him. He closed his eyes and tried not to let the other man’s grief reach him, but his wounded soul was not that far gone and he reached for the shaking body standing before him.
“God, Buck, I...I’m s...sorry. I didn’t mean it...”
“I know, Chris, but it still hurts. I loved Sarah and Adam so much.”
“I know a...and I understand if you...if you kick ass o...out in the cold.” Larabee felt himself drawn into the other man’s arms and felt the warmth that came with unconditional friendship.
“I’ll gladly do that, but I’ll wait until you’re able to stand on y...your own two feet! Deal!” Wilmington held tight to the lean body and knew in the time since his wife and son were murdered, Larabee had lost more weight and understood they had a lot of work cut out for them.
“ never k...kick a man w...while he’s down do you, Buck?”
“Not unless he’s being a jackass.”
“I’ve been that more than once.”
“And then some,” the gentle rogue said as he felt a shudder run through Larabee’s body. Still he held him close, not wanting to think about how many more times they’d go through this. He closed his eyes as he clung to his friend and soon felt Tanner’s hand on his shoulder. He opened his eyes and nodded to the younger man.
“Buck, I think he’s sleeping,” Tanner advised.
“I know,” Wilmington answered softly.
“He didn’t mean what he said before, Buck.”
“I know, Vin. Believe me if he meant it I’d have left a long time ago. He’s just in so much pain right now.”
“Yes, he is, Mr. Wilmington, and I’m sure you all know we’ll see mood swings like this for a long time. Chris will need the support of his friends and family, but he’ll also need psychiatric help. What we just saw will probably happen quite often until he deals with his loss.”
“How long?” The ladies’ man asked, as he eased his friend back on the bed. Reaching for the blankets he gently covered the sleeping man to the waist and flicked back the stray locks of blond hair. He heard Susan James talking, but the words barely registered as he silently prayed that Chris Larabee would somehow get past all that had happened to him.
“I wish I had a definitive answer for you, but right now there’s no way of knowing. Normally I would have let him go on, but with his injuries it would’ve done more harm than good,” James explained as the door opened and two women entered.
“Vin, are you...” Nettie started and looked at the people beside Larabee’s bed. “What’s wrong?”
“Hi, Nettie, Chris just got a little down...”
“A little down? How little?” the woman asked, walking to the bed and looking at her nephew in law. She placed a gentle kiss on his cheek and bit back the tears that threatened to fall.
“Mrs. Wells, have you heard of PTSD?”
“Of course. Post stress or some such!”
“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After everything Chris has been through it’s natural for him to have mood swings...anything from anger one minute to happy and smiling the next. There will be times when you’ll find you’re better off to just leave him alone, while at other times you might want to hold him close. Chris has suffered both physically and mentally over the last two months and this is probably only the beginning. Chris will have good days and bad days. Now I’ve started him on an antidepressant called Zoloft, but it takes some time for the medication to kick in. Until then he’s a lucky man because I can see he’ll have lots of support from all of you.”
“That he will, Dr. James,” Nettie assured her.
“He’ll probably sleep for several hours and that’s best for him right now. I’ll be seeing him again tomorrow, but the staff knows to contact my office if there’s any problem.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Wilmington said when the psychiatrist told them she was leaving.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Wilmington, just keep doing what you’ve been doing and things will turn around.”
“Buck, are you okay?” Casey asked.
“No, not really, but I will be Casey. You and Nettie need to get Vin home before he falls over.”
“I could stay...”
“No, Nettie, it’s okay. You’re ‘bout the only one that can handle Vin if he gets it into his head to do something foolish...”
“Ain’t plannin’ anythin’ foolish, Bucklin...”
“That’s right, he’s not, because if he does I’m liable to mix up a real nice old fashioned tonic...”
“Ah hell...”
“She’s got your number, Vin,” Wilmington smiled as Nettie hugged the Texan.
“Yep, sure does. Think maybe she’s got all our numbers...”
“Yes she does,” Casey agreed as she reached for the small duffel bag that held the Texan’s personal effects.
“I can take that, Casey...”
“I don’t think so, Vin. Now get rid of that look and let Casey handle the bag. No one’s gonna think any less of you for letting a woman carry your stuff when you’re hurt like you are. Buck, call me if Chris needs anything at all.”
“I will, Nettie.”
“Buck, watch him!”
“You know it, Vin,” Wilmington assured the sharpshooter and watched as the trio left the room. Buck turned back to the sleeping man and sank onto the chair as sorrow and pain washed over him once more. He knew in his heart Chris would never deliberately hurt him, but right now his heart felt like it had been torn from his chest once more. Alone in the room, with only the unconscious man as a witness, the gentle rogue sobbed out his grief.
“God, Chris, I’m so sorry!”
The drive to Nettie Wells’ house seemed to take forever as Vin Tanner gazed out over the area he’d grown to know so well since moving to Billings. He loved the country and had been looking into buying a house before the DEA asked him for help with Mendoza. He wondered if the place was still available and if so were they considering his offer or had they simply refused it and sold to someone else. Leaning his head back against the rest he closed his eyes and let Wilmington’s words wash over him.
‘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.’
Vin knew Wilmington had spoken from the heart when he’d said those words to Larabee. He also understood that if the gentle rogue knew he’d been overheard he never would have poured his heart out like he did. Somehow knowing how Buck felt was easier to deal with than wondering what was going on inside his head. He wasn’t about to give up his own friendship with Chris Larabee or any of the others, but he’d be careful when it came to Wilmington where Chris was concerned.
“Vin, are you all right?” Nettie asked from the back seat.
“I’m fine, Nettie, jest tired,” Tanner assured her and smiled as he looked at her in the rear view mirror. The woman held a certain kinship to him and he knew there’d be many times when he’d look at her and wonder if this was how his mama would look if she were still alive. Her hair streaked with silver, wrinkles under her eyes, and yet there was a youthful quality that lived on in her eyes and he knew her heart was made of gold.
“Are you sure, Son? You’re looking a mite pale,” the older woman explained and knew she was probably being a mother hen.
“I’m sure. Looking forward ta gettin’ ta yer place and maybe watchin’...”
“You won’t be watching anything except the backs of your eyelids, Vin Tanner! If you even think about setting that scrawny butt of yours in front of the television I’ll get out the wooden spoon!” Nettie scolded and saw the smile being born on the handsome face. Shaking her head she couldn’t help but return the smile as she placed her hand on the Texan’s right shoulder. “You do know how to get a person’s dander up!”
“He sure does, Aunt Nettie. I haven’t heard you talk about the wooden spoon since it went into retirement!” Casey said with a grin.
“It may just come out of retirement with these two men stayin’ under my roof,” the older woman said as she leaned back in the seat and continued to look out the window. This young man had come to be the son she’d never had and she knew he thought a lot about her. She was grateful for everything he’d brought into her life and somehow felt that he’d come into their lives because of the tragedy waiting to befall them. Sighing heavily she thought of the two lives snuffed out by an assassin’s explosives and she cursed Ella Gaines to the very depths of hell and beyond.
Josiah looked at the papers he held in his hand and finally lifted his head to look at Paul Grogan. At first he didn’t really understand what the man why the lawyer was showing him pictures of a ranch and the lands that went with it, but he was more than willing to listen to an explanation.
“I don’t understand, Paul. Why are you showing these to me?” Sanchez asked, fanning the pictures out on the big desk.
“I wanted to ask your opinion on these because they will have an impact on Chris’ decisions about the future. That ranch is on the market and has been for some time.”
“What makes you think Chris would be interested in this particular ranch?”
“Sarah found this place a week or so before she died. She loved the ranch and the grounds and even planned on gardening if Chris agreed with buying the place. She thought she would surprise Chris with it. I know it might seem a bit on the steep side, but Sarah believed they could afford the payments and upkeep on the place.”
“It is beautiful...and there’d be a place to keep Pony so Chris wouldn’t have to pay for the stable he’s at right now.”
“That’s what Sarah was thinking as well. I just wasn’t sure if showing it to Chris would be a good idea. Since you have power of attorney I wanted to ask your opinion. Should I throw those out or should I show them to Chris? Or would you like to show them to him?”
“Let me hang on to them, Paul. Chris should be getting out of the hospital in a week or so and this just might help get him out of the depression he’s in. If he knows Sarah found this place it could very well be a miracle in the making.”
“All right, Josiah, take them with you. I know it’s probably not a good time to tell him, but with the insurance claim on both Sarah and Adam there’s more than enough to buy the place and have money left over for emergencies. It doesn’t make Chris a wealthy man, but it does make him more comfortable than most.”
“The money won’t mean anything to him, but this will. I’ll get back to you and let you know when to have the realtor meet us out there,” Sanchez said as he closed the folder containing the pictures and papers on the ranch. 
“Thank you, Josiah. Chris is a lucky man to have friends like you and the others.”
“That goes both ways, Paul!” Sanchez said before standing up and shaking the lawyer’s hand.
“Has Hank tried anything since that fiasco with Murray?”
“No, we haven’t seen him around.”
“Good. I brought charges against Murray, but I’m not sure they’ll go anywhere.”
“At least they’ll be on record, Paul,” Sanchez said as they walked out of the office.
“Very true. Look, call me if there are any further problems.”
“I will,” the ex-preacher agreed and hurried towards the stairwell.
It was two days later when Gary Tobin looked at his wife and smiled as he held his baby son. His wife was even more beautiful today than he’d ever seen her and he knew he was looking at the effects of being a new mother. The baby girl in her arm was snuggled against her as they stopped in front of room 323.
“Gary, are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Madonna asked, tears evident in her eyes.
“Buck is with him, Honey, and Chris said he really wanted to see the babies. Now if you’re not feeling up to it I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“No, I’m okay. I haven’t seen Chris since before the babies were born and I owe him an apology for that.”
“No, you don’t. Chris knows how challenging it is with one baby, we’ve got two and then there’s Danny.” Tobin explained.
“I know, I just wish...”
“I know, Sweetheart,” Gary said, taking his wife’s hand and squeezing gently. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“Yes,” Tobin said with a mixture of trepidation and hopefulness as she watched her husband knock on the door.
Buck heard the knock and looked at the sleeping man in the bed before beckoning the visitors inside. He smiled as he spotted the two newborns cradled in their mother and father’s arms. He reached for the child in Madonna’s arms and nodded towards the bed.
“How is he, Buck?” Gary asked as his wife moved towards the injured man.
“He’s doing better, Gary, but it’s gonna take a long time before he’s back to any semblance of himself,” Wilmington answered in a whisper soft voice.
Madonna heard the two men talking as she looked at the sleeping face of her best friend’s husband. She could see the haggard lines that were etched by sorrow’s hands and wondered if they would fade with time. The eyes were sunken and she could tell by the gaunt cheeks that he’d lost more weight than was healthy. Most of the equipment had been removed, leaving only a single IV line leading into his left hand. Without thinking she reached out and touched Larabee’s forehead and watched as the eyes moved beneath closed lids. She heard a soft moan and soon the sea green orbs opened and stared up at her.
Chris came awake feeling groggy and disoriented as he tried to focus on the woman’s face above his bed. He licked at dry lips and smiled as the light kept the face in shadows, but outlined the radiant beauty of her hair.
“S...Sarah, I...I thought I lost,” he whispered and reached up with his left arm, touching the long tresses and sighing contentedly.
“Oh, Chris,” Madonna whispered, her heart breaking as she tried to control her emotions. She knew he recognized her voice and saw the change come over him immediately.
“I’m sorry, Chris.”
“Don’t be,” Larabee said, using his hand to raise the head of his bed. “How are you doing?”
“I’m fine, Chris. I’m going home today.”
“The babies going with you?”
“Yes, they are. Gary’s taking some time off to help me take care of them,” Madonna explained.
“Good, I remember the day Sarah and I took Adam home from the hospital. She was so tired, but she wouldn’t admit it. Kept saying she was fine and could take care of him. We used to sit in front of the and lie him down between us. He was so much like his m...mother. God, I miss them!”
“I know you do, Chris, and I won’t tell you I know how it feels because you’re probably getting tired of hearing that, but I will tell you I’m always here if you feel like talking. Sarah is...was my best friend and I know she’d do the same for me if things were reversed.”
“Yes,” Larabee’s eyes glazed over with moisture as his mind conjured up a picture of his wife. “Yes, she would. Did you bring the babies with you?”
“Buck and Gary are holding them.”
“Tell them to bring them over.”
“Are you sure you’re up to this, Chris?” Madonna asked.
“I’m sure. Please, let me see them,” Larabee said.
“Gary, could you bring the babies over?”
“Sure, Sweetheart,” Tobin answered as he and Buck made their way to the bed.
Chris watched as the two men pulled the blankets back from the babies’ faces and felt the tears he’d kept at bay slip from his eyes. He felt a warmth spreading inside him as he realized that two lives were taken and two were given. The two before him would never replace his Sarah and Adam, but they were a reminder that life was always changing.
“Can I,” Chris swallowed the lump in his throat as he looked at the woman standing beside his bed. “Can I hold them?”
“Are you sure you can, Chris?” Gary asked.
“If you guys stay close by I’ll manage,” Larabee said as Buck stepped closer and placed the baby in his left arm.
“Chris, meet Sarah Louise Tobin,” Madonna introduced the newborn.
“S...she’s beautiful,” Larabee said sincerely and looked to the right as another baby, this one just beginning to waken as he was settled into Larabee’s arm.
“And this young man is Adam Christopher Tobin. I can only hope they both live up to their namesakes,” Gary said and saw the look of gratitude on the pale face.
“I don’t know what to say, Gary. What you and Madonna have done is worth more than words can ever express. I’m humbled by your gesture.”
“No, Chris, it’s us who are humbled that you would agree to letting us do this,” Madonna assured him.
Chris looked down at the two innocent faces and knew he held the greatest treasures ever gifted to men and women. They came without a price tag and gave their love unconditionally and forever. All they asked in return was the love of a parent for his or her child and often times they didn’t receive that. Looking up at the man and woman who would raise the babies he smiled and spoke from his heart.
“Take care of them and treasure each precious moment you have with them. Love them with every ounce of your being and never let a moment go by without telling them how you feel. Thank you both for giving them the names you’ve chosen and I know they have two angels looking out for them and D...Danny too.”
“Those two angels are watching over you too, Chris, and don’t you ever doubt that,” Madonna said, sobbing as she kissed the pale forehead.
“I know, Madonna, I just wish I could hold them one more time,” Chris told her and blinked away the tears.
“Hey, Pard, you will. Might not be today or tomorrow. Might not be for many, many years to come, but they’ll be waiting and you can be sure their love for you will be stronger than ever.”
Larabee nodded, placed a soft kiss on both foreheads and gestured for the Tobins to take the children. His heart was aching as the babies were taken from his arms and he fought to keep his words even.
“Thanks for bringing them,” he whispered as he turned away. He laid back against the pillows feeling the emptiness where the babies had once been. Chris kept his emotions in check as he heard the two visitors leave the room and then footsteps returning to his side. He felt a hand on his shoulder, but didn’t turn to his friend.
“Hey, Pard, I know that was hard to do, but you did Sarah and Adam proud.”
“T...thanks, Buck, I wish...I wish...”
“What, Pard?” Wilmington asked softly.
“I wish I could’ve seen the baby, Buck. I bet she would’ve looked like Sarah.”
“I do too, Chris,” the gentle rogue agreed as he felt the ripple of sobs course through his friend’s body. ‘God, I wish that could’ve happened for you, Chris!’
Buck silently watched his friend as he slowly woke from the deep sleep he’d drifted into after the Tobins had left. He knew seeing the babies had been hard on the blond, but also understood Larabee’s need to see them. He silently sucked in a deep breath of air as green eyes opened and focused on him. He smiled in spite of the weariness he felt.
“Hey, Pard, how are you feeling?”
“I don’t know, Buck,” Larabee answered truthfully. With so many drugs running through his body he didn’t know how he felt anymore. His mind and body seemed numbed beyond comprehension and he wondered if he’d ever be himself again. Shifting on the bed he tried to find a more comfortable spot, but there didn’t seem to be any position that didn’t awaken a dormant pain in his body. Giving up, Chris settled back on the bed and closed his eyes.
Again Buck studied his friend’s face and thought he’d drifted back to sleep, but a soft word reached his ears.
“What?” Wilmington asked, unsure what he’d heard.
“You asked how I was feeling and I just told you. I’m feeling numb, Buck, like there’s nothing more for me.”
“Chris, don’t go talking like that. There’s plenty here for you.”
“I know, Buck, but it’s not the same. There’s a part of me I can’t find anymore, a part that made me whole. Sarah and Adam did that, Buck. They made me whole, but they’re gone now and so is that part and what’s left is not worth a damn!”
“No, don’t you go talking like that, Chris Larabee! Don’t you go giving me that kind of shit, you’re the same man you always were. Sarah and Adam may have helped you to see that man, but they sure as hell didn’t make you the man you are. That’s something that starts in here,” Wilmington touched Larabee’s chest in the area of his heart. “And it continues to grow in here!” this time the hand went to Larabee’s head. “You’re who you are because you were meant to be one of the good guys, Chris. Ain’t no one out there could’ve changed that!”
“What makes you so sure, Buck?” Larabee asked tiredly.
“I’ve known you a long time, Chris. Seen you do some stupid things and even helped you with a few of them, but you’ve never quite crossed that line.”
“What line?”
“The one that keeps a man sane when the world around him has gone crazy. Sometimes it may seem like you cross over, but the fact that you have doubts shows you’re still the man I want as my best friend, Chris. Don’t cross that line, okay?”
“I’ll try not to, Buck, but I’m not making any promises.” Larabee sat up in the bed and eased his right leg over the edge.
“Going somewhere?”
“Actually, yes. Could you hand me my robe?”
“I could, but not until you tell me where you’re going?”
“Hell, Buck, can’t a man take care of business without it turning into twenty questions.”
“Shit, sorry, Chris. Hang on and I’ll get your robe and crutches.”
“Yeah, seems the docs have decided your knee’s been seeing a little too much action. They want it to be minimum weight bearing from now on.”
“Shit! I’ve been walking on the damn thing since they moved me down here.”
“Don’t I know it and Dr. Gregory from orthopedics is a little ticked off that no one bothered to check the chart and see his updates on it.”
“I don’t remember seeing any Dr. Gregory.”
“Probably because he went on vacation just after that first surgery. He just got back this morning and boy was he ticked when he checked the charts and saw his notes were missing. He came by to check on you and ordered a new immobilizer and the crutches. I think he tried to chew on Dr. Midland’s hide, but she’s too tough for him. Told him he should have made damn sure she knew what he wanted done and not just make notes on your chart. Think it ended in a stalemate, but you’re stuck with the crutches if you want to walk around.”
“Just how the hell do I manage that with my hand in a cast?” Larabee spat anger overwhelming him once more.
“Well now, I guess you could use one crutch and lean on me with your right arm.”
“Buck, what do I do when you’re not around?”
The gentle rogue smiled at his friend as he offered his help in getting the robe on the injured man. He eased the blond off the bed and took most of the weight, slight as it was, on his own shoulders. Again he noted the loss of weight as the once lean form could now be described as scrawny and bordered on skeletal. He knew Larabee was getting dangerously close to being called emaciated and that was something he could not deal with right now. 
“Buck, if we don’t get moving there’s gonna be a mess here and I won’t be taking the blame for it,” Larabee groaned as his kidneys and bladder felt ready to bust.
“Oh, sorry, okay, ready when you are.”
“Now, Buck, I’m ready now,” the blond said as he tried to steer the IV pole towards the bathroom. If anyone had looked in they would have called it a comedy of errors, but the two men managed to make it the short distance to the bathroom without mishap and Buck smiled as he closed the door on his friend.
“Call me if you need any help with...well, you know.”
“Shut the fuck up, Buck,” Larabee groaned at his friend’s joke.
Buck couldn’t help but laugh as he made his way towards the window and looked out over the city he’d come to call home. He knew what Chris meant when he said he felt numb, because right at that moment, Buck Wilmington felt the coldest kind of numbness, one brought on by the loss of something brighter than life itself. He knew what Chris felt towards God and that same anger was building around his own heart, yet he knew he could not let his friend see that. Chris already carried the weight of the world on his shoulders and didn’t need him adding to it.
“Buck, where’s Chris?”
“Oh, hi, Josiah. He’s in the...”
“I’m right here, Josiah,” Larabee answered, opening the door and exiting the bathroom.
Sanchez could see the difference in the man since his last visit and knew their friend and leader was doing his damndest to put on a good front. He knew that was exactly what it was as Wilmington brushed past him and went to Larabee’s aid. He watched as the injured man was helped to the bed and smiled inwardly at the open show of affection between the two men. There was something about the way Chris and Buck acted around each other and he hoped they’d always feel this at ease when in the company of others.
“Josiah, is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine, Chris. You look better than you did earlier.”
“I feel better...okay, maybe not better, but I’m handling things. Is everything okay with the papers?”
“Everything’s fine. Paul has the original document and I have two copies, one for you and one for my files. Chris, are you sure about this?”
“Yes, Josiah, I’m sure. There’s no one else I’d rather have looking after my affairs. I trust you and Buck and well, our team and I know you won’t do anything that’d ruin that trust.” Larabee bit back a sharp groan as he lay back in the bed and closed his eyes. The truth was he did trust these guys with his life and right now his life both physically and financially had been laid at Josiah Sanchez’s feet.
“Is there anything we can get for you, Chris?” Wilmington asked.
“No, not right now, Buck. You guys might as well go home because as of right now I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open.”
“All right, Son, but if you need anything...anything at all don’t hesitate to call.”
“Thanks, Josiah, I will. Buck, go home. You look worse than I feel.” He said the words lightly and was rewarded with the laugh he’d been searching for.
“Now, Pard, we both know that’s just not possible.”
“Get out of here!” Larabee said with a smile. He listened as the two men left and opened his eyes once he knew he was alone in the room. He had no idea how much time passed before the tears he’d kept at bay manifested and once more slipped past his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. He bit his bottom lip and clenched his left hand into a tight fist as he thought about his lost loved ones. How could his life have gone to hell so quickly? How could so many things go wrong in such a short span of time? How could God take the people he loved from him?
“God Damn you why?” he cried out and shoved the table away from him. The single glass of water shook with the force and water spilled over the brim as Larabee pushed his body up in the bed and stood beside it. Anything that wasn’t nailed down was met with a malevolent force that could only be described as a cyclone of epic proportions. With strength he didn’t know he had, Chris Larabee systematically destroyed anything that wasn’t nailed down. He didn’t see the nurse who ducked just as a bedpan flew past her head. He didn’t hear her call for help or see anything beyond the fierce pain that gnawed at his gut. Breathing deeply, nostrils flaring with undisguised hatred, Chris Larabee could only see one face, and that face was one he needed to destroy.
“I hate you, Ella Gaines! I’ll fucking gut you alive when I find you!” Chris heard something crash to the floor and as quickly as the anger manifested it dissolved in a brutal display of sorrow that left him weak and drained as he saw the IV fluid spilling from the bag. He swallowed as he watched the growing spot and realized it was a sign. The spilling liquid was his own life and it was slowly seeping from his body in much the same way as the fluid seeped from the bag.
Larabee continued to stare at the floor as several hospital personnel entered the room. He heard their voices, but could not tear his eyes from the symbol of his life. He knew when the bag was empty his life would end and the sorrow and pain would end with it. He saw a hand reaching for the bag and tried to stop them from interfering, but strong arms held him fast and pulled him towards the bed where they eased him back down.
“No, don’t touch that! Damn you let me go!” His struggles were met with gentle, yet firm force as his hands were placed at his sides and something was fastened on each wrist. He recognized the restraints and renewed his efforts to free himself. He kicked at the people who grabbed at his legs, but soon felt the restraints around his ankle and knew he’d been defeated once more. Gritting his teeth, Chris Larabee opened his eyes and glared at the four people in the room with him. He recognized the two nurses and knew two of the men were orderlies and were the ones that had placed him in restraints. With renewed strength born of determination, Chris tried to pull his arms free as a newcomer entered the room. He knew this woman and understood why she was there, but he wasn’t going to give up, not this time, maybe not ever. This was his life and he could do what he wanted with it.
“Chris, you need to calm down or...”
“Get these things off me!” Larabee snarled.
“Not until you calm down. Pamela, bring me...”
Chris’ rage continued to escalate as he heard the psychiatrist order a strong sedative. The bag of fluids had been replaced and Chris felt some of the fight drain from his body. With the loss of adrenaline and anger came the pain of reawakened fire in his gut and he cried out as the sedative was added to his IV. He lay on the bed, shivering and in pain, but refused to ask for their help as the doctor on call entered the room.
“Dr. James, what’s going on?”
“Chris just got a little upset,” James explained, looking around the room as if seeing the destruction for the first time.
“I’d say that’s an understatement. Why wasn’t this patient restrained in the first place?” Robert Lewis said as he looked into his patient’s reddened eyes.
“Dr. Lewis, do you know the background on this patient?” Susan James asked, slightly irritated with the man examining Larabee.
“I looked at his chart...”
“The chart doesn’t give you all the details,” James said, seeing the pain in Larabee’s gaze. “He’s been through hell and doesn’t need you coming down on him. If you can’t treat him properly perhaps you should leave and let someone with a modicum of bedside manners take care of my patient!”
“Dr. James, you and I have never seen eye to eye, but rest assured I will do what’s best for this man...”
“Good, because he is a man and deserves to be treated like one!” James said, her tone growing calm as she realized they had an audience. “Treat his physical wounds, Dr. Lewis and let me take care of his other needs.”
Lewis glared at the woman before turning his attention back to the patient. He knew he’d let his feelings of contempt for this woman show through and forced a calming breath into his lungs. Without another word he turned his attention back to the wound he’d just uncovered.
The sedative had the desired affect and Chris languished in a sea of calm as the physician examined his wounds. He felt the pain as if it belonged to another, but a part of him cried out for the hands to leave him alone. Weakened in both body and mind, Chris Larabee slipped into a deep sleep as Lewis completed his examination and left.
“That man has no compassion!” James exclaimed as she looked down at the sleeping man. The only person left in the room with her was Pamela Metcalf and she knew their conversation would stay in the room.
“Dr. Lewis has always treated his patients as if they were below him.”
“Yes, he has.” James agreed as the nurse gently eased the covers over Chris Larabee. ‘What is it going to take to get your life back on track, Chris?’ she thought as Pamela adjusted the flow on the IV and once more took his vital signs. Satisfied that the patient was well taken care of Susan James left the room.
Vin lay awake until the early hours of the morning when he began drifting in and out of sleep. The medication Nettie had given him had done little to dull the pain spreading throughout him, but he refused the need for more. The house was quiet, yet he could hear the normal sounds that went with an older home and briefly wondered if the ranch he’d seen before going to Rio De Janeiro was still available. Sighing heavily he turned on his side and looked out at the brightening sky. There were still some stars visible, but they were rapidly disappearing with the onset of a new day.
‘If only our problems could disappear so easily,’ Vin thought as he shifted again. His mind wandered back to the times he’d spent with the Larabee family. A time where he’d witnessed more love than he’d thought possible between two people. His own father had never been in his life much, and for that the Texan was eternally grateful. The short time he’d had with his mother had shown him just how much one person could care for another. She was long gone now, yet she lived on in his heart and would always be there. The same could be said for Sarah and Adam Larabee, for once a person is well and truly loved, they can never be forgotten.
Knowing there would be no more sleep for him, Vin slid his legs over the side of the bed and sat up. He ran his fingers through disheveled hair, stood up and moved to the window. A soft breeze blew through the opening and he reveled in the scent of late summer air and the intoxicating scent of wildflowers. More and more his mind turned to the ranch and suddenly his mind was made up. The ranch would be perfect for him and would also give him a place where he could keep Peso and kick back and enjoy the outdoors the way he did in Texas. The place was well outside the city of Billings, but he didn’t mind the commute so long as it provided him with a home once more. Money would not be an object since his great uncle had left him a small fortune and with the money he made at bounty hunting he had a nice little nest egg to draw from.
His mind again wandered back to the small home he’d shared with his mother in Vermont, Texas and he sighed as he remembered that was where he got his love of the outdoors. Her love had kept a small boy sane and more often than not it still did. Her voice had been soft and soothing and had chased away a small boy’s fears, leaving him with more love than most kids ever knew possible. A soft knock brought him back to the present and he walked to the door and opened it.
“Hi, Nettie,” he said softly, a small smile on his face as he saw the displeasure in her eyes.
“I thought I heard you up and around. Why didn’t you call me?”
“I’m a grown man, Nettie...”
“Be that as it may, Vin Tanner, but sometimes even grown men need someone to look after them. Now I know there’s no point in telling you to get some sleep so come on out and I’ll get you some breakfast.”
“Don’t want ta put ya ta any trouble.”
“You’re not, now put something on before you catch a cold,” the older woman said of Vin’s T-shirt and boxers. She smiled as a slight blush came to his cheeks and turned away from the room and hurried towards the kitchen where a pot of tea sat on the counter. She’d woken the moment she heard him move and set about making breakfast before going to check on him. Vin had filled a place in her heart and he was more of a son to her than a friend and filled a void that sometimes felt as wide as the ocean. Chris and Sarah had given her a wonderful grandson and she’d loved him with all her heart and soul, and now this Texan seemed to be working his way into her life in much the same way. By the time Nettie poured tea into two cups and dished up a plate with scrambled eggs and biscuits Vin had joined her at the breakfast nook. She handed him a plate and smiled at the boyish grin he sent her way.
“Thanks, Nettie,” Tanner said, digging his fork into the fluffy eggs. “It’s good, but ya still didn’t have ta go through so much trouble.”
“No trouble to making scrambled eggs and toast, Vin, especially when I’m making them for someone who needs to gain some weight back. Between you and Chris you don’t have an ounce of fat to spare.”
“We’re lean...”
“You’re skinny...downright scrawny and I aim to see you both gain some weight while you’re staying with me.”
“Ain’t much sense in havin two of us ta take care of, so I figured I’d go home once Chris is out of the hospital.”
“Now see here, Vin, you’ll be staying here until you’re well enough to take care of yourself and I’m not about to argue the point with you. Got that?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Tanner said. “I need ta check out a couple of things this mornin’ before I go in ta see Chris.”
“All right I’ll take you wherever you need to go...”
“I can drive...”
“Dr. Midland doesn’t want you using that arm much and she wants you to rest. So it’s either I drive or we stay home.”
“Guess you’re goin’ ta be my chauffeur.”
“Guess I am, now eat up,” the woman said with a grin. The Texan had a good appetite and she knew it wouldn’t take long to put some meat on his bones. Chris Larabee would be a different matter altogether, but she would see that he ate properly.
Josiah knew the younger man was on the verge of waking up and reached out to touch his shoulder. The blond had been drifting in and out of sleep, never really waking up until this moment. He watched the eyelids flutter and finally open and waited for his friend to focus on him.
“J...Josiah...what?” he tried to move and looked down at his hands fighting against the restraints wrapped around each wrist and ankle.
“Easy, Son, just relax.”
“Why?” Larabee asked as he met the blue eyes of the ex-preacher.
“You were upset last night and the doctor didn’t want you to hurt yourself,” Sanchez explained.
“Can you take them off?”
“I’m afraid they won’t let me until Dr. James gets here. She’ll be here in a little while, Chris.”
“Please, Josiah, I d...don’t. I won’t hurt...break anything. Hate this.”
“I know you do and if I could I would, but right now we need to do as your physicians ask and that includes leaving these in place for now...”
“Mr. Larabee, I need to take a sample from you,” a lab tech explained as she entered the room.
Chris turned away as the woman inserted a needle and withdrew several vials of his blood. He refused to acknowledge her presence even as she placed a bandage over the puncture wound and left the room. He knew Sanchez was still there, but kept his eyes closed in an effort to hide how he was feeling. He felt helpless and knew that feeling would be with him a long time.
“Chris, Dr. James is here.”
“Tell her to go away,” the blond spat as anger overwhelmed him once more.
“If I do you’ll be stuck with those restraints until you’re willing to talk to her.”
“Seems like I have no choice in the matter either way, Josiah.”
“Yes, you do, Chris,” James said as she placed his chart on the table and waited for him to look at her. “Chris, I know you’re feeling as if...”
“You don’t have a fucking clue how I’m feeling, Dr. James! None of you do!”
“What, Josiah? Are you gonna tell me again that you know how I feel?”
“If it will help,” Sanchez said, sighing heavily as the weight of the world seemed to land on his shoulders. He watched as Susan James took a seat on the opposite side of the bed and knew she was leaving this to him. She’d be there if he needed help, but she also understood there were some things a man talked about with his friends and in this instant he was going to bare a part of his own soul. A part he’d nearly lost many years ago. He looked down at Larabee and took a deep breath as he gathered his courage about him.
“It’s a long story, Chris, but if you want to hear it I’ll tell you.”
“Josiah, I...I’m don’t have to.”
“I know I don’t have to, but it might help. Want me to raise your head a little?”
“Y…yeah.” The blond answered and nodded when he was comfortable. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Sanchez said and began to tell his tale. “It happened a long time ago, Chris, but Lord knows it’s still as fresh as the dark days that followed it. I’ve only spoken about this to one other man and he’s taken a vow of silence that he won’t talk of it with anyone else. I trust Dr. James because she’s a psychiatrist and understands a man’s need to keep personal things to himself. I trust you because you’re Chris Larabee and in the time I’ve known you you’ve never betrayed a confidence.”
“I’m sorry, Josiah,” Larabee whispered.
“Don’t be, Chris. Maybe I’m doing this as therapy for myself. I need to talk about it and you need to know you’re not alone in your grief,” Sanchez explained. I think I was a little older than JD when I first saw her. Miss Carolyn Jamison was her name and she had the fiery temper to go with the red hair and green eyes and oh, the freckles. We were both enrolled in the same Tae Kwon Do class and let me tell you that girl could kick. Anyway I knew she was the other half of my soul and we married shortly after. I don’t know why we were so anxious, but I guess we both felt as if we had to take advantage of the time we had. We went to the Catholic Church and met the new priest there. Any guesses as to who he was?”
“Father Thomas?” Larabee asked, enthralled by he tale he was hearing.
“One and the same. He listened to us and heard what we wanted and then told us we would be his first marriage ceremony and he would do his best to get us off on the right foot. Carolyn and I were married shortly after and since we couldn’t afford a honeymoon we decided to go camping. It was cold in the mountains and we spent a lot of time snuggled together in our sleeping bag. Did you and Sarah ever do that?”
“Yes,” Larabee smiled in spite of the sorrow he felt. “I think we spent a few nights like that.”
“Sure is a fine way to get to know a woman. I think maybe it should be listed in the top ten honeymoon vacationing ideas.”
“Yes, it is,” the blond agreed, sighing wistfully.
“Anyway it was shortly after that when Carolyn started feeling sick in the mornings and we found out she was pregnant. It was the most wonderful gift a man and woman could receive and I tell you Chris, I felt bathed in light. I loved Carolyn and loved the idea of being a father and yet there was something always in the back of my mind. I felt as if all of this was a fleeting thing. Something we’re given to show us what heaven could be about only to have it snatched away and leave us in hell.”
“I know what you mean, Josiah,” Larabee agreed. “Feels like hell is right here...right now...”
“I’m sure it does, Son, but even that will fade with time. You’ll start to appreciate the gift of their lives even if it was only for a short time. It’s not going to happen right away, but one day you’ll wake up with the realization that they are still a part of you and that there’s only a locked door separating you. When the time comes you’ll find that golden key that opens up a whole new life. Anyway, Carolyn and I were ecstatic and we even attended the baby classes because we wanted to experience everything.”
“Sarah and I went to those too. The lady teaching the class had a wicked sense of humor and she told us a story that happened to her. She said she was in the supermarket and had her newborn in the cart and she was in the dairy aisle. She said a young stock boy tapped her on the shoulder and told her that she was leaking. She covered her breasts with her hands and he pointed to the cart and said, ‘No Ma’am, I mean the milk in your cart.” Chris couldn’t help but laugh as he remembered the woman’s story and he watched as Sanchez roared with laughter.
“Yes, I can see that as being a little embarrassing. “Good thing she had a sense of humor.”
“Yes, it was,” Larabee said, yawning tiredly. He waited, silently hoping the older man would continue, yet understanding how hard this was for him.
“We went through all the fears of new parents,” Sanchez explained. “At ten weeks she spotted and we rushed to the emergency department only to find this happened quite often and usually stopped and it did. We celebrated with dinner at this little Italian place she loved and everything was normal from then on. I didn’t think it was possible, but she was even more beautiful during the months she was pregnant. She had that glow and her eyes just danced when she placed her hand on her stomach and felt the baby moving.”
“There’s n...nothing like it,” Larabee said, his eyes misting with unshed tears.
“No, there isn’t, Chris. The feel of a life growing inside a woman does make everything else seem inconsequential in comparison. Amanda Jamison Sanchez was born on Christmas Eve and she was the most beautiful baby. I swear her eyes were bluer than the sky on the clearest day of the year. It was like looking at a little Carolyn and I was so pleased she looked like her mother. For nearly seven months we lived our lives not knowing that things could go so wrong so fast,” Sanchez said as he wiped the moisture from his cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Josiah,” Larabee said, swallowing his own pain as he watched the older man. “You don’t h...have...”
“I know I don’t have to, Chris, but I need to tell you this. I think maybe it’s time for me to talk about it and right now I think you need to hear it. Carolyn began experiencing these headaches and I finally convinced her to go to the doctor. It took several weeks and countless tests and specialists before we found out she had an inoperable brain tumor and that it was growing at an alarming rate. God, I didn’t know it could happen so fast, but Carolyn died on September 18th 1970 and I buried her in St. Francis Cemetery in Phoenix, Arizona. I go there every chance I get and talk to her, Chris, and you’ll do the same and you know what? It helps. I tell her everything that’s happening in my life and how much I miss her and…and…,” Sanchez became silent as James handed him a box of tissues and he thanked her before turning his attention back to his friend.
“I’m sorry, Josiah,” Larabee said of the sorrow he was making the man relive.
“Don’t be, Chris, I said goodbye to her that day and have made my peace with God since then. He gave me two miracles and took them both away, but I am forever grateful I had them in my life. Amanda was sick as well and it wasn’t long before I found out just how sick she was. She was born with a genetic defect that went undetected. I don’t know if she’d have survived now with the medical advances, but there was nothing they could do for her back then. She died in my arms on November 28th 1970 and I buried her next to her mother. She...she’s always going to be a part of me, Chris, just like Sarah and Adam and the baby are a part of you. They’ll always be alive as long as you keep their memory and their love intact. Love them with your heart and soul, Chris, because that’s what they are,” Sanchez told him as tears ran down his cheeks.
“I will, Josiah,” Larabee vowed as the older man bared his soul to him. Chris seldom saw this side of Josiah Sanchez and he knew he had been granted a gift, one that he would cherish for the rest of his life.
“I know you will, Son, and when you start feeling like there’s nothing left for you here then you go visit their graves and you tell them what you’re feeling and they’ll listen...they always do,” Sanchez silently sobbed, his own grief very real and almost too much to bear. His eyes locked onto the emotionally turbulent green ones set in a too pale face and he knew Larabee understood what he’d gone through so long ago, yet so near in his soul.
“Chris?” Larabee tore his gaze from the older man and looked at Susan James. “I’m going to have the nurses remove the restraints and bring your breakfast.”
“Thanks, Doc,” Larabee said and smiled weakly as she turned away. “Josiah, if there’s ever anything and I mean anything you need or want, all you have to do is ask and I’ll be there.”
“That goes both ways, Chris. Someday we’ll both be reunited with our loved ones and when that day comes there’ll be much to celebrate. I just hope it’s not for many years to come.”
“Mr. Larabee, Dr. James said we can get rid of these,” Sharon Kolbecek said as she entered the room.
“Thanks,” the blond said as his wrists were released and his ankles quickly followed.
“I’ll be right back with your breakfast and medications,” the woman said and changed the IV fluids over his head.
“Wonder what kind of liquids they’ll bring today,” Larabee said closing his eyes as Sanchez stood and moved to open the curtains covering the windows.
“You have my sympathy,” Sanchez said, wincing at the idea of a liquid diet as the nurse returned with his meds and an orderly delivered his breakfast. They left quickly and the two men were alone again. The ex-preacher lifted the lid off the plate and smiled as he waited for Larabee to open his eyes again. “I think they made a mistake. Maybe I should get your nurse back in here.”
“What?” Larabee asked as he opened his eyes and looked at the food. The smell of fresh coffee, scrambled eggs and whole-wheat toast sent his taste buds into a feeding frenzy.  “You do and I’ll get my gun.”
Sanchez watched the younger man eat and was pleased to see some of the gusto return to the man’s face. He sat back and thought about the story he’d just got off his chest and felt a little of the pain lift from his own chest. Sighing contentedly he relaxed in the chair and knew this might just have been the best therapy for his own loss.
Vin smiled as Nettie followed the Real Estate agent along Old Pear Tree road. The ranch was still available and he wanted to see it before making a bid on the property. From the pictures he knew there was a single story house and a barn on the land and his excitement mounted as they drove further from Billings. He looked at the homes they passed and relished in the idea of being away from the crowded city.
“Vin, are you sure you want to be this far out?” Wells asked.
“Nettie, ya know me and crowds. Ain’t one fer the hustle and bustle of the city. Figure this place is far ‘nough out ta make sure I can get a good nights sleep without havin’ ta listen ta horns honkin’ and fire trucks and all that racket.”
“No, instead you’ll hear crickets and owls and God knows what other creatures.”
“Yep, sure sounds like a piece of heaven ta me,” Tanner said as Nettie turned into the tree lined driveway. The pictures didn’t do the property justice and Vin sighed as the car stopped behind the agent’s Mazda.
“As you can see, Mr. Tanner, there’s plenty of room and the land has been well cared for.”
“It is beautiful,” Nettie agreed as Vin silently walked towards the barn.
“Mr. Tanner...”
“Mrs. Richards, you’d be better off to let him look the place over at his own speed. Vin’s a man who knows what he likes and goes for it. Why don’t you show me the house?”
“Are you sure?” Thelma Richards asked as the young man continued to walk away.
“Oh yes. He’ll come find us when he’s ready,” Nettie assured her.
Vin walked past the house and smiled at the feeling that came over him. This was a place he could call home and without having looked at the property he knew it felt right. The barn was well kept, as was the corral that ran along one side. He stood still and closed his eyes, enjoying the scent of fresh air and the solitude that surrounded him. Opening his eyes, the Texan made his way to the small door next to the set of heavy double doors and opened it. He stepped inside and inhaled the scent that spoke of horses and leather. Along one side hung leather straps, an old saddle and a pair of silver spurs. There were three stalls on the opposite side and Vin walked towards them. He checked the wood and was amazed at how strong it felt to his touch. He knew he’d have to get a professional to look it over, but somehow he knew the report would be a good one. Moving to the ladder that led up to the loft he quickly climbed them and moved across the darkened area until he found the small door set above corral. He opened it and unconsciously rubbed at his arm before sitting on the edge and looking over the land he hoped to call home.
Nettie knew the house would suit Vin’s tastes. It was by no means small, but it could be called cozy and she could picture the Texan living here. The living room was tastefully done in a light brown paneling that set off the hardwood floor perfectly. There were three bedrooms and she knew they would get plenty of use from the other members of the team. The kitchen was done in medium shades of brown with a perfect spot for a breakfast nook. There was a second door that led into a glass enclosed dining room and as she stepped through she spotted the young man sitting above the corral.
“Mrs. Wells, is he okay?”
“He’s fine, Mrs. Richards.”
“What’s he doing?”
“I believe he’s getting a feel for the place,” Nettie answered, smiling, as the Texan seemed to fit right in.
“He’s what?”
“Getting a feel for the place. Vin’s loves the outdoors and I think this place suits him perfectly.”
“Do you think he’s really interested in it? He seems kind of young.”
“He may be young, but he knows what he likes. I think you’ll have your answer momentarily.” Nettie watched as Vin walked towards the house and knew she should have made him wait, but he’d been so excited about seeing the place she just couldn’t bring herself to stop him. She opened the patio doors and called to him, smiling at the look on his face.
“Nettie, this place is great.”
“You haven’t even seen the house yet, Vin,” Wells said with a smile.
“Don’t need ta. Got a bedroom and a bathroom and a kitchen and that’s all a man needs.”
“Actually it’s got three spacious bedrooms and one and a half baths,” Richards explained.
“As long’s it got a place I can put my bed and fix somethin’ ta eat that’s all I need,” Tanner said. He quickly went through the house, but knew his mind was made up as they walked outside and stood between the two cars. “This is the place for me, Nettie.”
“It does seem to suit you, Vin,” Wells said with a smile.
“Did you want to make an offer on the place, Mr. Tanner?” Richards asked.
“Sure do, Ma’am. Figure the sooner we close the deal the sooner I can move in and show Peso...”
“Peso?” Richards asked.
“My horse. He’s being boarded at a stable north of here and I figure this’ll save me having ta do that.”
“Very wise, Mr. Tanner,” the real estate agent said as she shook his hand and moved to the car. “I’ll meet you back at the office at two.”
“Sounds good,” the Texan said and watched her drive off.
“This place suits you, Vin.”
“Yeah, sure feels like home.” Tanner said, reluctantly getting into the car.
Chris sighed contentedly as he lay back against the pillows. He was alone in the room for the first time in what seemed like an eternity. Josiah had left earlier to go into the office while Chris had gone for several tests that had left him exhausted, both physically and emotionally. He was grateful to the ex-preacher for telling him of his own loss and yet there was still a difference in their similar stories. Chris felt a slight resentment in that the older man had at least been given the opportunity to say his goodbyes, where he had been granted no such time.
Turning his head, Chris gazed longingly out the window and finally let his eyes slide closed, only to force them open as visions of Ella Gaines flashed before his closed lids. The woman was out there, waiting for another chance to strike, but Chris was not going to give her that chance. Whatever happened he would make sure she paid for what she’d cost him. It might not be right away, but somehow, sometime, somewhere he would be given that chance and when he did Ella Gaines would rue the day she’d came into his life.
Tears came to his eyes as Chris realized he was letting his need for revenge cloud the memories of the people he cared so much about. Forcing himself to concentrate he closed his eyes and fought off the nightmarish images of Ella Gaines and smiled inwardly as they were finally replaced by the images of his wife and son and thoughts of his unborn child. He knew in his heart they were looking out for him and promised he would not let them down. As an imaginary blanket of warmth spread over him, Chris Larabee succumbed to the sleep his body craved. Where before there were nightmares, now there were dreams of warm summer nights and soft voices.
Hank Connelly cursed his son in law with every breath he had in his body. He blamed him for everything including this newest torment. He’d gone into work, hung over and angry and had been fired on the spot. It didn’t matter to him that his own history of drinking on the job had been behind his dismissal, what mattered was that only one man could have been behind all his troubles. There was a restraining order out against him and he’d spent several nights in jail because he’d gotten close to Larabee when he wasn’t supposed to. He reached for the warm beer on the table beside him, took a long swallow, belched and grimaced at the bitter taste it left in his mouth.
Standing, Hank walked to the window and looked at his ill kept lawn. The grass needed mowing, the hedge needed trimming and Chris Larabee needed killing. Those three things became a mantra to him each time he looked outside. His son in law was the cause of all his problems and soon he would be made to pay. Walking back to the chair he sat down and looked at the item on the coffee table. The gun was black and sleek and had cost him plenty, but at least now he had the means to an end, Larabee’s end. If the police were to come for him now they’d find him well prepared to look after himself, but he knew they wouldn’t come. They were cowards when faced with someone who knew what he wanted and wasn’t afraid to take it.
“You’ll see, Chris Larabee! I’m not afraid of you or the bastards you work with. Kill ‘em all if that’s what it takes to get to you! Wilmington’ll pay to. Bastard never did listen to me when I warned him you were no good for my baby girl!” Connelly grumbled aloud before finishing the beer and walking to the kitchen to get another one.
Nathan turned over on the bed and slid his legs over the edge. He knew Josiah had gone to see Chris and would then be going to the office. Rain was on dayshift which left him pretty much on his own. For the first time in days he let the pain show on his face as he stood up and headed for the kitchen. He knew his pain meds were in the cupboard above the sink and right now he needed a couple. He’d been in to see Midland the day before and she’d removed the stitches and left him slightly uncomfortable and itching around the healing wound. He reached for the bottle and felt a slight tug on his back as he extended his fingertips and touched the bottle. It slipped from his grasp and landed on the edge of the counter before bouncing to the floor and rolling under the table.
“Damn it!”
“Problem, Nate?”
“Josiah?” Jackson gasped as the older man entered the kitchen. “Thought you were going into the office.”
“I was, but I figured I’d stop by here first and see how you’re doing.”
“I’m doing just fuc...fine,” the younger man answered, unconsciously rubbing at his shoulder.
“Looks that way.” Sanchez reached under the table and picked up the bottle of pills. “Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll get you some water?”
“Thanks, Josiah,” Jackson said as he walked slowly to the table and sat down. “How’s Chris?”
“He’s okay. Was a little down, but we had a long talk and I think he’s going to be okay,” the ex-preacher explained as he opened a bottle of water and brought it to his friend. “I don’t mean he’s miraculously cured or anything, but I believe we talked through some sore points.”
“I bet he’s anxious to get out of there,” Jackson said, accepting the medication and drinking several mouthfuls of water.
“Yes, that he is and can you blame him, but at least they brought him real food today so I guess it means he’s getting least physically.”
“It is a good sign, Josiah,” Jackson said. “I think it’s time I went back to my own place.”
“There’s no rush, Brother,” Sanchez assured him.
“I know, but well see there’s this pretty pediatrician...”
“Ah, so Dr. Goines will be taking care of you.”
“Yeah,” Jackson smiled as he thought of the exotic beauty that was quickly wrapping herself around his heart. ‘She’s as beautiful as the Goddess of Love.”
“Uhoh, I do believe you’re smitten,” Sanchez observed.
“ could be right.” Jackson smiled as he watched his friend bring out the makings of a sandwich and knew his appetite was coming back as his stomach grumbled. The two men lapsed into silence as they thought about the damage to body and soul caused by Ella Gaines.
Buck whistled softly as he walked towards Larabee’s room with a jaunty step and he smiled as he heard Larabee arguing with one of the nurses. This was something he’d been wanting to hear and a sign that Larabee was getting better. He wondered what was aggravating the blond this time as he stepped into the room.
“Hey, Pard, something wrong?”
“Buck, tell her I can get dressed on my own!” Larabee snapped.
“Well now, Chris, normally that’s true, but it seems to me you’re in need of a little assistance. Between your wrist, ribs and leg I doubt if you’ll be able to do much of anything on your own. Pamela, are you sure he’s ready to escape this place?”
“The doctor signed his discharge papers, but maybe you’re right...”
“Pamela, I’m getting out of here whether you talk to the doctors or not!”
“Well, Chris, you know a man needs to be able to do some things on his own,” Wilmington said and leaned close to Larabee’s ear. “Gotta be able to shake it...”
“Shut the fuck up Buck!” Larabee winced as a small chuckle escaped the nurse. “Sorry.”
“I assure you I’ve heard much worse. Said a few choice words as well,” Pamela said as she eased the sweat pants over his injured leg and smiled sympathetically as he stood on the floor and tried to pull them over his hips.
Sweat broke out on his forehead as Chris clenched his teeth in an effort to hide the pain the movements caused him. His breathing became erratic and he clutched the edge of the bed with his left hand. When he finally had himself under control he smiled at the two worried people in the room with him.
“Damn, Chris, you sure you’re ready for this?” Wilmington asked.
“Hell yes, Buck. I need to get out of here,” Larabee said as he sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the soft green shirt on his pillow. His ribs were throbbing and he waited until he was sure he wouldn’t pass out before easing his arms into the sleeves. He felt the other two helping him and smiled as Pamela did up the buttons. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Chris,” Pamela said as Wilmington reached for the Nike runners beside the bed. “Now there are a couple of things we need to go over before you leave.”
“Thought the doc already gave me my orders,” Larabee stated.
“Yes, they did, but it’s part of our job to make sure you understood what they said. We find that once a doctor tells a patient he or she is being discharged, everything else they say goes in one ear and out the other. Now I have your prescriptions here and several follow up appointments with Dr. Bledsoe, Dr. James, and Dr. Midland. There’s also an appointment for physiotherapy on your leg.”
“Damn, Chris, might as well just stay in here,” Wilmington said with a grin.
“Buck, have you any idea how close you are to being shot?”
“Hot damn, he’s back!” the gentle rogue grinned as he stood up and stretched the kinks from his back.
“Chris, are you sure you understand everything you’re supposed to do?”
“I think so, Pamela, and if I don’t there’s plenty of people who’ll remind me.”
“You got that right, Pard,” Wilmington said seriously.
“All right,” the nurse said. “Why don’t we get you into this chair and get you out of here?”
Chris didn’t argue as he eased off the bed and slid into the wheelchair. He watched as Wilmington picked up the overnight bag and the crutches. He took a deep breath and winced as the ribs reminded him they were still there as Pamela took the handles of the chair and wheeled him into the hallway where she handed him off to an orderly.
“Take care of yourself, Chris.”
“I will, Pamela, thanks for everything.”
“You’re welcome,” the nurse said and watched as the patient was wheeled into the elevator. He’d been through hell, but hopefully his recovery was well underway.
Ezra leaned against the driver’s side door of Jackson’s Cherokee and smiled as Buck Wilmington exited through the patient discharge door. He’d borrowed the vehicle because his own Jaguar was too small to accommodate the injured man comfortably. Jackson was quick to tell him to take the Cherokee and Ezra was surprised and pleased by the ease with which he drove the jeep. He quickly opened the passenger door and moved out of the way as the orderly pushed the chair as close as possible.
“I must say it’s good to see you’ve managed to escape from the confines of this institution,” Standish blustered.
“Good to see you too, Ez,” Larabee said as he levered himself out of the chair and used the door as a means of support. He eased himself onto the seat and winced as he lifted his leg into the car. Once inside he let his head sag back against the rest and heard Buck and Ezra talking. He knew they were worried about him, but at that moment he was in too much pain to acknowledge them. He held his arms against his chest as the two men got into the car and forced a smile to his face as the twisting agony subsided.
“Chris, are you okay?” Wilmington asked from the seat behind him.
“I’m all right, Buck, just remind me not to breath, okay?”
“That bad huh?”
“Sometimes, but it’ll ease off. Pamela gave me a shot just before you came and it helps.”
“Why don’t you close your eyes and Ezra and I will get your prescriptions filled and get you out to Nettie’s place.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Larabee agreed and closed his eyes. He heard the Jeep start up and move even as his mind drifted towards sleep. It wasn’t long before his soft snoring signaled that he was asleep.
“He looks better than he did yesterday,” Standish observed as he glanced sideways at the injured man.
“I know, but he’s hurting, Ezra and I don’t think we’ve seen the last of his blow ups.”
“Well, Buck, I guess that means we’ll have to be diligent where Chris’ well being is concerned.”
“That’s not going to be an easy job.”
“No, but it’s one we shall undertake. Chris is a friend and as such deserves the best possible care we can provide.”
“Yes he does,” Wilmington agreed and grew quiet as he thought about the events of the last few months, a time that had changed them all and touched their hearts forever.
Nettie knew Vin had wanted to go to the hospital to bring Chris home, but she’d convinced him she needed his help to make sure Chris’ room was ready for him. The bed was made with fresh sheets and the comforter folded down at the foot. She poured a glass of lemonade and made her way out to the porch where the Texan waited for the arrival of his friends.
“Vin, I thought you might like some lemonade.”
“Thanks, Nettie,” Tanner said accepting the glass and drinking half of it before placing it on the table.
“Vin, I know you’re anxious, but have you heard the old saying about a watched pot...”
“Never boils,” Vin said with a grin. “Heard it a few times.”
“That’s the one. They’ll be here soon.”
“Yeah, I know. I think that’s them now.”
“Car comin’,” Tanner observed and pushed open the door.
“I don’t hear noth...How did you?” She asked as the sound of a car reached her ears.
“Ain’t never had a problem with my hearin,” Tanner assured her.
“No kidding,” Wells smiled as she followed the Texan out into the front yard just as the Jeep Cherokee turned down the side road towards her home. She watched the Texan closely as he leaned against the porch rail and waited for the vehicle to come to a stop.
Vin hurried towards the jeep and smiled as he opened the door. Larabee’s head was tilted to the side, his eyes closed and a look of peace on his face. “How longs he been sleepin’?”
“Since we left the hospital,” Wilmington answered softly.
“He’s gonna get a crick in the neck...”
“He’s already got one,” Larabee said, opening his eyes and rubbing the back of his head.
“Nettie’s got yer room ready fer ya,” Tanner explained, moving out of the way as Larabee slid his legs over the edge and stood up.
“Come on, Chris, let’s get you settled in,” Nettie suggested.
“I’d rather sit outside for a while, Nettie. Been cooped up for so long I hardly remember what fresh air smells like,” the blond explained.
“All right, Son. Why don’t you go on out back and I’ll make some sandwiches and...”
“Did you make lemonade?” Larabee asked hopefully as Wilmington and Standish joined them.
“I certainly did,” Wells said as she watched the three men form a protective circle around Larabee. She saw Buck hand the injured man a crutch and then stand right next to him as they walked slowly to the house. There was no way her son in law would be able to do much on his own and she felt sorry for those who would offer their help. Larabee was normally an independent man, but for now he would have to lean on others until his wounds healed.
“Ya sure ya wanna do this, Cowboy?”
“Vin, I need this more than a bed right now,” Larabee said when they made it outside and the blond dropped into a chair beside the table.
Standish hurried inside and returned with a soft stool and eased it under Larabee’s injured leg.
“Thanks, Ezra.”
“You’re welcome, Chris. Is there anything else I can get you?”
“No, thanks, think I got everything I need right now,” the blond said basking in the warmth of the sun.
“Perhaps I shall offer Mrs. Wells my expertise in culinary arts,” the gambler said and hurried back into the house.
“I didn’t know Ezra could cook,” Larabee said.
“I’m thinking there’s a lot about Ezra we don’t know,” Wilmington suggested.
“He does seem ta keep ta himself a lot,” Tanner said of the conman who seldom let the others into his private life.
“He gets that from his mother,” Larabee told them, remembering the first time he’d met the woman. He’d offered Standish a place in The Firm and the young man had accepted it until Maude Standish showed up. Chris smiled inwardly as he thought of the confrontation at Ezra’s apartment and how he’d told Ezra it was time to cut the apron strings and be a man. Maude’s blustering pride was shot down when her son decided to join Chris’ team and defy her for the first time in his life. The result was that Chris got a man who was capable of far more than he ever gave himself credit for and for that he was grateful.
“Chris, you okay?”
“I’m fine, Buck, just thinking about the day Ezra decided to join the agency. The man does add a certain flair to the team,” Larabee answered.
“I think Ezra would call it finesse or elegance,” the gentle rogue told him as Standish returned carrying a tray of glasses and plates.
“Mrs. Wells will be joining us with the rest of the repast,” the gambler said as he placed the tray on the table.
Chris accepted a glass of the tart liquid and smiled as he took a sip. “Nettie is the only person I know that can make lemonade.”
“Thank you, Chris. I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Nettie said as she joined them. She handed out several plates and watched as the men helped themselves to the roast beef sandwiches. She knew her nephew in law’s appetite wasn’t very good and was please to see he did take half a Kaiser bun and several cherry tomatoes.
“How are things at the office?” Larabee asked.
“Well, between me and JD we’ve brought all the files up to date and JD’s even rearranging he files in the basement,” Wilmington answered.
“JD? Buck, do you realize with JD’s idea of arranging files we’ll be looking under P for Carlton because the case involved pizza. Or the Reynolds case will be under M because we solved it over lunch at McDonalds,” Tanner shook his head as he reached for another sandwich.
“That may be, Vin, but I tell you the kid knows what he’s doing. I asked him to find a file I’ve been searching for, for a couple of months...”
“The Willow case?” Larabee asked.
“That’s the one. You know he found it within ten minutes and now it’s updated and on your desk,” Wilmington explained.
“JD does have a way with filing things. It’s like he has a photographic memory for the systems,” Standish agreed.
“But you knew that, didn’t you, Chris?” the ladies man asked.
“That’s one of the reasons I hired him. That and his computer knowledge,” Larabee answered.
“JD is a natural when it comes to computer programming. Did you know he could hack into any...”
“Do I really want to know this, Ezra?” Larabee asked, placing the half eaten sandwich on his plate.
“Well, it could be of value in certain cases,” Standish suggested.
Chris nodded and rubbed his eyes tiredly. The food was good, but his stomach just couldn’t handle much at the moment. Without a word to the others, Chris stood, reached for his crutch and limped to the edge of the patio. He knew the others were watching him, but he needed to be alone as he slowly maneuvered down the steps and walked towards the swing set. Tears came unbidden to his eyes as he touched the bars that had given his son so much pleasure. He closed his eyes and let the sun bathe his face in warmth even as he imagined Adam’s laughter as he shouted... ‘Higher! Daddy, higher! I want to touch the sky!’
“Oh, Adam, if only...if only,” Chris whispered as grief washed over him once more. He stood where he was, eyes closed, tears streaming down his face, and feeling lost to the world around him. This was only the beginning and he knew his life would never be the same. A part of him was lost and he wasn’t sure he could ever get it back. He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see his friend as he placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Chris, I know it’s hard, but you know you don’t have to go through this alone.”
“I know, Buck, b...but if I close my eyes I can hear him...feel him. I know it’s not real, but I can’t seem to let them go. I...if I...if I could just hold them one more time...just to say goodbye, Buck, I n...never got to do that...I n...never got to say goodbye,” Larabee sobbed and felt himself engulfed in his friend’s strong arms. He’d never been one to show his emotions or let someone hold him, but he’d never before lost so much. Buck understood that and for that very reason, Chris Larabee was able to let go for a little while.
“I know, Chris and I wish to God I could do something to change what happened, but I can’t and all I can offer is a shoulder to lean on and a heart that aches as much as yours does,” Wilmington forced the words through the lump in his throat as he felt the trembling in his friend’s body begin to subside. He felt Larabee fighting for control once more and watched as the blond stood on his own two legs.
“Thanks, Buck.”
“Anytime, Chris.”
“Where did the others go?”
“Ezra’s gone back to the office, Nettie and Vin are inside. What do you want to do?”
“Truth is, Buck, I’m tired. Think I’ll take Nettie up on that bed now,” Larabee said and leaned heavily on the crutch. His body ached and his head pounded as they made their way back into the house. Chris knew which room he’d be staying in and when they entered the house he turned down the hallway towards the bedrooms.
“You go ahead and lie down, Chris, I’ll bring in your meds,” Wilmington said.
“Thanks, Buck.” Larabee heard the others talking as he made it to his room. He leaned on the edge of the door and let the crutch rest against the night table as he rubbed tired eyes. He knew he’d bared his soul by letting Wilmington see his tears, but he didn’t regret it. Buck was always there, more brother than friend, and that was exactly what he needed right now.
“Chris, I have your meds here,” Wilmington said, worried when his friend took them without protest. He helped Larabee get his clothes and shoes off and eased him back on the pillows. Next he reached for the comforter and lifted it over the injured man.
“Thanks, Bucklin,” Larabee mumbled tiredly.
“Anytime, Chris,” the gentle rogue said before closing the blinds and leaving the blond alone.
Chris closed his eyes and imagined the scent he associated with his wife. Lilacs and a summer breeze followed him into his dreams.
Vin stood in the doorway and watched as the blond carefully manoeuvred around the patio furniture. He knew Larabee was overdoing things and that he shouldn’t be on his leg so much, but Vin understood what motivated the man. In the three days since he’d been released from the hospital Larabee had strived to do more than he was supposed to and Vin shook his head as he remembered the earlier conversation about men and their stubborn pride.
“Is he still out there, Vin?’
“Yeah, Nettie, seems like he’s tryin’ ta get his strength back,” Tanner said as Larabee sat in a chair and reached for the weights on the table.
“He keeps doing that he’s going to end up undoing everything the doctor’s put back together.”
“He’s okay, Nettie. He’ll stop when he needs ta.”
“Well he needs to stop now.”
“Nettie, right now Chris is tryin’ ta ferget what’s happened...”
“Forgetting is not that easy, Vin.”
“I know that and so does he, but he’s usin’ whatever he can ta keep his mind focused on gettin’ better. Ain’t easy when all ya see is what ya’ve lost. He’ll come through this...jest gonna be a hard fight, but he ain’t alone.”
 “No, he’s not and never will be,” Nettie agreed as they watched the injured man.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 8 | PART 9 | PART 10 | PART 11 | PART 12 | PART 13 | PART 14 | PART 15 | PART 16 | PART 18


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