DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 18 


Chris knew he was being watched, but didn’t acknowledge them as every ounce of energy he had went to lifting the small weight in his hand. Every bend of his elbow signaled another victory, yet his gut and chest pounded with a life of their own. He knew he was pushing himself too far, but when he stopped, memories and images returned and the grief he was holding at bay threatened to drown him. His arms felt like lead weights as he forced his elbow to bend for the fifth straight time, but his thoughts were not on the pain, but on the swing set in front of him. Tears slipped from his eyes, but he didn’t notice the moisture as anger once more gripped him and he stood up toppling the chair in the process. The weight in his right hand flew across the patio and hit the metal pole of the swing with a solid thump that rattled the framework.
 
“Why the fuck couldn’t you have just taken me?” he screamed as the second weight followed the first. His hands clenched into fists as his chest heaved with the pain of loss and he pulled away from the hands that landed on his shoulder.
 
“Chris...”
 
“Leave me the fuck alone, Vin!”
 
“Sorry, can’t do that,” Tanner said, again reaching for his friend as Nettie stepped towards them. He shook his head and was relieved when she stayed just inside the doorway.
 
“Don’t touch me! Don’t you fucking touch me, Tanner!”
 
“All right, Cowboy, I won’t, but ya need ta calm down before...”
 
“Before what? Before I hurt myself, Vin! Is that what you’re worried about because if it is you might as well give it up ‘cause nothing can hurt me anymore! I got nothing left to hurt! God took everything from me!”
 
“Chris, God didn’t do this!”
 
“Maybe not but he fucking well didn’t stop it from happening! So much for a compassionate God! He’s as bad...”
 
“You don’t mean that, Chris...”
 
“Don’t I? How the hell do you know what I mean, Vin? Have you ever lost someone who gave you life? That’s what Sarah and Adam did for me! They gave me life, Vin. A reason to live!”
 
“Then don’t throw that away, Chris. If Sarah and Adam gave you life then how can you be thinking about givin’ that up? Would they want that?” The Texan watched his friend as the shoulders slumped and the eyes closed tightly.
 
“Not thinking about giving it up, Vin, least not right now...not until that bitch pays for what she did! I’m going to find her!” Larabee spat.
 
“We’ll find her, Chris...”
 
“Something I gotta do myself...”
 
“No, it’s not, Chris. What Ella did she did ta all of us. It happened ta everyone who knew Sarah and Adam and ya. That means yer gonna have ta let the rest of us help ya  ‘cause we all want ta see her brought ta justice.”
 
“She’s gonna face my justice, Vin. So help me God I’ll...I’ll...” He clutched his stomach and cried out as pain radiated out from the healing wound. He felt Tanner’s hands on his upper body as he was lowered to the chair. Air wheezed in and out of his lungs as he tried to ride out the pain in his gut. He heard Nettie and Vin talking, but the words were lost to him as his mind tried to overcome the pain.
 
“Easy, Cowboy, just concentrate on breathing.”
 
“Here, Vin,” Nettie said as she handed him a glass of water.
 
“Drink this, Chris,” Tanner ordered and held the blond while he took several small swallows from the glass. He nodded as Wells held out two white tablets and knew they were the prescribed pain relief. “Chris, Nettie’s got yer meds here...”
 
“D...don’t need...”
 
“Yes, Son, you do,” Nettie warned as the green eyes turned in her direction. She placed them in his mouth and watched as he drank a little more of the water. She had no idea how long they stayed there watching for any sign that the blond’s pain was easing, but she sighed in relief when Larabee seemed able to take a deep breath without gasping in pain.
 
“Feeling better?” Tanner asked.
 
“T...think so...just tired.”
 
“Well why don’t we get ya inside and ya can lie down?”
 
“O...okay,” Larabee acquiesced as he stood on shaky legs and grabbed for the crutches. The pain in his gut had eased to a more bearable level, yet his body shook as if a chill wind raced through his veins. It took longer than normal to make it to his room, but once there he sat on the edge and closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness assaulted him.
 
“Lay back, Chris,” Tanner ordered and was amazed when Larabee obeyed his command. “Ya get some sleep and call me if ya need anythin’.”
 
“I will...Vin?”
 
“Yeah,” Tanner said from the doorway and watched Larabee rise up on his elbow.
 
“Thanks...for everything.”
 
“Yer welcome...now get yer head down and sleep!” Tanner said smiling as Larabee obeyed his order before shutting the door.
 
Chris lay awake for a long time, but eventually sleep overcame his thoughts and he drifted towards a combination of dreams and nightmares.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
He looked down at his patient for a long time, wondering where she’d come from and what had caused the burns to her face and body. Her hair had been singed away on the right side, leaving in its wake scarring tissue that would fade with time, but would never be completely obliterated even with plastic surgery. The victim was heavily sedated and yet she still cried out in pain and horror. He looked up as his benefactor entered the room.
 
“How is she?”
 
“There’s no change. She keeps calling for someone named Chris and I think it would be beneficial to her recovery if we could find him and bring him here.”
 
“That’s not possible, Dr. Gerard.”
 
“But surely if he knew of her injuries he would come to her aid.”
 
“No,” the newcomer said, shaking his head as he sat in the chair beside the bed. “He’d never come here unless it was to...”
 
“But it sounds like she loves him. Surely he does not hate her so much that he would wish her to live like this. Did he have anything to do with the burns?”
 
“He caused them, Doctor and if it hadn’t been for me she would’ve died in the fire that did this to her. I pulled her out and got her away from there. So no, Chris Larabee would never go out of his way to help her, in fact he would probably kill her if he laid eyes on her.”
 
“What could possibly drive a man to do that? From the pictures you showed me she was very beautiful.”
 
“She still is...to me at least. Did you talk to the plastic surgeon?”
 
“Yes, Dr. Florence said she would be honored to take the case.”
 
“I’m sure she would be especially with the amount of money I offered for her services. When will she be here?”
 
“She is arriving on the ferry this afternoon. I sent Wilson to pick her up.”
 
“Thank you. Would you please leave us alone?”
 
“Certainly, Mr. Averil.”
 
Jack sat in the chair, waiting for the older man to leave before turning his attention back to the woman on the bed. He took her hand as his mind went back to the day he’d nearly lost her. The flames had been intense when Larabee had pushed her into the room. Without thinking about his own life he’d gone after her and grabbed her just as one side of the room collapsed and he was able to get them out, but not without injury. His own hands and part of his right leg were burned, but Ella had suffered so much more. The right side of her head was now burn tissue with little hope that her hair would grow back. The major scarring was along her right side and leg and Gerard was not very optimistic as to whether or not she would ever walk again. Averil remembered how he’d cursed Larabee when they’d reached the curb and found a place to hide out. Money talked and now he understood just how much. Their escape had been paved by the use of the money he’d stashed away in case of an emergency. Gerard had been eager to leave the country and grabbed the chance to accompany him and care for the woman’s injuries. The plane that crashed had been theirs, but they were lucky enough to have disembarked shortly before it crashed and now they were safe.
 
“No, ...Chris...please...I...I...”
 
“Sh, Ella, it’s okay,” Averil soothed, gritting his teeth at the rough sound that escaped the woman’s damaged throat.
 
“I...oh, Chris, please...” A harsh sound left her throat and Jack swore it was hysterical laughter.
 
“It’s me, Ella. Jack Averil.” He knew she probably didn’t hear him, but he continued to let her know he was there and that he always would be. He placed his lips against her bandaged hands and listened as she cried out in pain.
 
“Jack...where...where’s Chris. I...I can’t find him. I...I need him.”
 
“Sh, it’s okay, honey. Chris will be back.” Averil lied in order to calm the injured woman.
 
“No, he’s gone, Jack. He blames m...me. T...that b...bitch...her fault...dead now...Chris i...is mine.”
 
“Yes, he is, honey, but for now you need to relax.”
 
“Not until I...I see him. W...where is he?” She began to thrash on the bed and he called for Gerard.
 
The doctor quickly administered a sedative and watched as the lines of pain left the woman’s face. Shaking his head he again left the room and wondered about the cruel man who would leave this woman in such pain. 
 
~~~~~~~~~~
 
Josiah looked at the man seated in the passenger side of the Suburban and wondered if this was really the right time. A week had passed since the blond was discharged from the hospital, but Larabee seemed paler than ever. He looked at the other occupant of the van and was struck by how many people had been hurt by Ella Gaines and her cohorts. The only man who seemed to have escaped unscathed was Ezra Standish.
 
“Where is this place, Josiah?” Larabee asked tiredly as Vin handed him the crutches and closed the door.
 
“It’s on Old Pear Tree Road,” Sanchez answered and wondered why Tanner frowned before moving further back. He’d explained to the Texan what he wanted to do, but hadn’t told him about the location of the property.
 
“Josiah, did you say Old Pear Tree Road?” Tanner asked.
 
“Yes. Why” Is there a problem?” Sanchez asked.
 
“No, …not really,” the Texan answered and moved back once more.
 
“Vin, what’s going on?” Larabee asked.
 
“Nothing, Chris. Just enjoy the ride.”
 
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours, Nettie,” the ex-preacher explained as he put the vehicle in reverse and backed out of the drive.
 
“Vin, are you okay?”
 
“I’m fine, Nettie. Why do you ask?”
 
“I heard what Josiah said. Do you think it’s the same place you were looking at?”
 
“I don’t know, but I’m betting it is.”
 
“What’ll you do if it is?”
 
“Take back my offer.”
 
“But you loved the place.”
 
“Yeah, I do, but if’n it’s the same place as the one Sarah picked out for Chris then it should be his.”
 
“He may not even like it, Vin?”
 
“Maybe, but I’m gonna call Mrs. Richards and ask her to hold off on finalizing the deal.”
 
“Vin, you can’t. Chris wouldn’t want you to give up something you really wanted.”
 
“He won’t know, Nettie. This stays between us. Okay?”
 
“I guess, Vin, but...”
 
“No buts, Nettie. Promise me you won’t say anything to Chris.”
 
“I promise, Vin, but I still think he should know.”
 
“Maybe, but not right now. Think I’ll take a little walk.”
 
“Where?”
 
“Just up the road a spell,” Tanner explained and walked towards the gate leading out onto the access road.
 
Nettie shook her head as she watched him go. Her heart ached for the young Texan who seemed to have found a place to call home, only to have it snatched from his grasp once more. When Tanner disappeared beyond the gate, she walked back into her house with tears slipping from her eyes.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris knew they were trying to get him back into the life he’d been trying so hard to avoid. When Josiah and Nathan had shown up at the house he’d refused to go with them, but Nathan’s request that he take a look at the property in question for him was something he couldn’t refuse. He kept his eyes closed during the ride and listened to the soft music on the radio. Josiah was a man who could listen to any music and enjoy the nuances of each sound. Right now it was soft rock and the easy strains of an old Eagles tune played through the speakers.
 
“Chris, we’re here,” Sanchez said as he turned down the long driveway.
 
Larabee opened his eyes and lifted his head, blinking rapidly as the bright sunlight stuck daggers through his skull. He frowned as he looked out the front window and spotted a single story ranch style home. A barn stood just to the left and Chris suddenly wondered why Nathan Jackson wanted to look over this property. The medic in training had never been one for the outdoors, preferring to live in the heart of the big city.
 
“You sure this is the place?” Larabee asked.
 
“Chris, Nathan’s not really the reason we came out here.”
 
“He’s not? I thought he was looking to buy it?”
 
“Not me, Chris. You know how I feel about living in the wilds...”
 
“This is not exactly the wilds, Brother,” Sanchez said as he opened the door.
 
“Be that as it may, Josiah, but it’s got bugs and snakes and lots of other things the city doesn’t.”
 
“The city has bugs...”
 
“I know, but not like out here in the boonies.”
 
“Okay, so if we’re not here for Nathan then why are we here”
 
“Chris, Paul Grogan had some papers he showed me and asked me if I would show you this place. Now, before you say anything you need to know Sarah was looking at this ranch.”
 
“Sarah?” Larabee asked bewildered by the news he’d just been given. “How?”
 
“Paul said she saw the place a few weeks before she...well, before she died. He said she thought it was the most perfect place she’d ever seen and she wanted to show it to you. He didn’t know whether he should show you or not, but I think it’s something you should consider.”
 
“Chris, it’s like a gift she wanted you to have,” Jackson added as Larabee reached for the door handle. He grabbed for his own and stepped down, annoyed at the twinge of pain in his back as he stood next to the blond. He saw the car parked in front of them and knew the real estate agent was somewhere on the property.
 
“Ah, Mr. Sanchez. I’m so pleased you could make it. My name is David Shelby and I’m here to show you around.”
 
“Thank you, David. This is Chris Larabee and Nathan Jackson. I told you they’d be accompanying me.”
 
“Of course. Would you like to take a look around?” Shelby asked as Larabee moved towards the house.
 
Chris didn’t hear the others as he moved towards the house. The door stood ajar as if in open invitation and he used the crutches as he made it up the two steps and stood framed in the door. The inside was painted in soft tones and a faint trace of musk clung to the air as he moved deeper into the home. A closet with two double-mirrored sliding doors stood on his right while a single window admitted light through sparkling glass on the left. He walked further down the hall and looked into a sunken living room with a fireplace dominating one wall and a set of patio doors were set to the left of it. A second hallway led towards three bedrooms and he hurriedly checked them out. The master bedroom had a fireplace and a large full bath. The two smaller rooms had bay windows and a deep closet for storage and clothing. He returned to the living room and found his way into the spacious kitchen. The cupboards were tastefully done in an off white color and accented with gold trim that matched the marble topped island in the center of the kitchen. The place was spotless as if someone had cleaned it just before they arrived and he moved to the counter that separated the kitchen from the glass-enclosed dining room. A door also led from the dining room onto the raised patio at the back of the house.
 
Chris moved to the patio and shifted one crutch out of the way so he could use his hand to guide his way down the stairs. He’d be glad when the cast came off and he could have full use of the hand again, but didn’t regret the reason for the break in the first place.
 
“Chris, want some company?”
 
“No thanks, Josiah. Just taking a look around,” Larabee explained as he moved across the lawn towards the barn. He eased the bar off the double doors and observed how easily they swung open. The musty smell of hay and leather assaulted his senses and he smiled as he stepped into the dusty interior. He looked at the ladder and realized there was no way he would be able to go up to the loft so he moved to check out the six stalls before returning to the front and looking over the land. Something about the place called to him and he quickly realized it was because Sarah had been the one to find it and even after her death it was beckoning to him. This felt like home.
 
“What do you think, Son?”
 
“It’s beautiful, Josiah, just like she was.”
 
“Yes, it is and it’s still available if you want to make an offer on it.”
 
“I don’t know. The place is going to cost a lot and, yes, I know about the insurance money, but it doesn’t feel right using something that I wish...God, I don’t know how to explain it, Josiah.”
 
“I know, Chris and I understand, but you and Sarah took out the insurance policies in case something like this happened. Let's say the roles were reversed and she was here, would you want her to buy this place?”
 
“If it was what she wanted...yes, yes I would.”
 
“Then you should look at this place for what it is and enjoy the gift she gave you.”
 
“I know, Josiah, it’s just...”
 
“Chris, Sarah left you a letter and I brought it with me. She sealed it and gave it to Paul the same day she asked him about buying this place. Do you feel up to reading it or would you rather I hung on to it?”
 
“I’ll take it, Josiah,” Larabee said and reached for the envelope Sanchez quickly produced. “Thanks.”
 
“You’re welcome, Son. Just come up to the house when you’re ready. There’s no hurry.”
 
“Thanks, Josiah,” Larabee said as he recognized the writing on the pristine white envelope. Sarah’s handwriting was easy to read and he ran his fingertips over the letters of his name before moving to sit under a tall oak tree that stood to the right of the barn. It took several minutes for him to slide his fingers along the edge and open the letter. A faint scent of lilacs wafted up from inside and he smiled as he felt close to his wife once more. He gently pulled the letter from inside and opened the folded pages and started to read as tears began to flow.
 
My dearest Chris, if you’re reading this then something has happened to separate us. I know your heart is breaking and you feel as if God has let you down, but believe in him, Chris, for he is the reason we will be together again. I love you so much and no matter what happened, I will always love you. You are my heart and my soul and the very reason for my being, and as long as you hold me close to your heart I will live on. Adam will need you to be strong...
 
“How can I be strong, Sarah? How can I go on when everything I loved was taken from me?” Larabee cried as the folded pieces of paper crinkled in his hands. He quickly swiped at his eyes and continued to read.
 
Adam will need you to be strong for him and show him how much you love him. So hold him and don’t be afraid to cry. I know how you hold things inside until you’re ready to explode, but it won’t help to do that. I need your promise that you will go on and you will love again.
 
“Never, Sarah, I could never love anyone else, not the way I love you,” he vowed as he closed his eyes and held his hands to his head. “Don’t ask me to do that!” he said and began reading once more.
 
I’m sure you feel as if everything has been taken from you, but if you close your eyes I’ll be there. If you laugh, I’ll be laughing with you. If you cry, the tears that fall will come from my heart. If you get angry think of me, and our time together. I know my fiery Irish temper was a perfect match for your own brooding ire and so I’m asking you not to give in to your anger, but to reach out and love those around you instead.
 
I know Buck will be there for you and if you lean on him you’ll find yourself held aloft by a brother you didn’t know you had. He’s a good man, Chris, and we both know how much he cares for us. He’s also Adam’s Godfather and Adam will need that…
 
“But Adam’s not here, Sarah,” Larabee sobbed, but continued to read the words from his wife.
 
Adam will need that. He’ll need all of you...your team. Oh, Chris, your team has a strength of its own and through them you’ll find a way to continue your life in the best possible way. They’ll be there and all you have to do is reach out to them. I know how close you’ve become to Vin Tanner and I hope he is able to help you during the time you grieve for me...for us.
 
Paul has given you this letter because I’m no longer able to hold you close and I pray these words are a comfort to you. I love you, Chris Larabee, and even death can’t take that from us. I wrote this poem for you and maybe some day I will get the nerve to actually show it to you, Please know that the words come from my heart, the one you wrapped in love.
 
Flowers, trees
A summer breeze
None can compare
To the one I hold dear.
 
Green eyes to watch over me
Strong arms to hold me
To keep me safe in the light
And guide me through the darkest night.
 
When I cry
You make me smile
When I’m filled with sorrow
You tell me things will be better tomorrow.
 
Roses and lilacs are fleeting things
They are what the spring sun brings
The love we share will keep us warm
And bring us through the darkest storm
 
If somehow our lives are parted
I’ll wait for you where it all started.
The wound that day was healed with time
And suddenly you were mine
 
I’ll be with you forever my love
I’ll hold you closer than heaven above
I’ll be your rock, and make you strong
And be with you when the nights are long.
 
So reach for me and I’ll be there
Whenever the road is filled with fear.
My heart belongs to just one man
And it flows between both our hands
 
My love for you is stronger than
The widest chasm made by man
So if by chance we are parted
Remember to go where it all started
And I’ll be waiting forever there.
 
I love you, Christopher Adam Larabee…Sarah Connelly Larabee.
 
Chris sat with the papers in his hands, tears flowing from his eyes, heart beating a staccato rhythm in his chest as he crumpled the paper once more. He’d lost so much in the months since Ella Gaines came back into his life and vowed that some day she’d pay for what she’d taken from him.
 
“I love you so much,” he whispered as the tears finally stopped. He looked at the paper in his hands and knew his mind was made up before he opened the final paper. Again he ran his fingers over the picture of the ranch and surrounding grounds. Sarah’s handwriting was clear and concise and he smiled at how meticulously she’d included notes. The master bedroom, Adam’s room, the nursery, and she’d even made notes on the arguments she would use to make sure Chris fell in love with the place.
 
The barn with the stalls also held some notes including how much they would save by not having to board Pony at the stables to the north. There’d also be extra stables when they were ready to purchase horses for her and Adam.
 
Chris closed his eyes and let his mind drift as he thought about the hopes and dreams they’d shared and the devastation that was now his life. He understood the depth of his grief and knew he would have all the support he needed to make sure he climbed out of the pit of despair, but there would always be that empty space that no one could fill. A soft breeze tickled his cheek and a warmth spread over him as the scent of lilacs reached through his defenses. Again the tears came and again he let them fall as he heard the soft whisper of a summer breeze through the trees. Sarah, Adam, and the unborn baby were there, were part of this and, therefore, part of him. His decision made he stood up, grabbed his crutches and made his way towards the main house.
 
“Josiah, tell Paul to go ahead and make an offer,” Larabee said as the trio came towards him.
 
“I take it you like the place, Mr. Larabee,” David Shelby asked hopefully, his mind on the healthy commission he would make with the sale of this particular property.
 
“Yes,” was Larabee’s simple answer as he walked towards Sanchez’ vehicle.
 
“I’ll have the papers drawn up immediately and forward them to you.”
 
“Send them to Josiah,” Larabee ordered as his friends joined him.
 
“Certainly, Mr. Larabee,” Shelby agreed, smiling as the trio got into the car and drove away.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Tanner watched as Sanchez pulled to a stop in front of the house. He’d called Thelma Richards and told her to hold off on finalizing the deal for the ranch. If it turned out to be the same one Larabee was looking at he didn’t want Chris to know of his own interest. As the injured man exited the van, Vin could tell Larabee was tired. The man manoeuvred the crutches into position and slowly made his way to the house.
 
“You look like hell, Cowboy,” the Texan observed.
 
“Feel like it too, Vin.”
 
“I knew you’d overdo things, Chris Larabee! Now you get in this house and I’ll make you some lunch and then you can get the rest you need!” Nettie cajoled from the doorway.
 
“You won’t get any arguments from me, Nettie,” Larabee said as he stepped inside and she linked her arm in his as she led him towards the kitchen.
 
“Good! The rest of you might as well come on in. I’ve got plenty of food and the coffee’s hot.”
 
“Sounds great, Nettie,” Sanchez said, frowning at the weary look on the Texan’s face. He touched his arm and asked him to step outside for a few minutes. “Something wrong, Vin?”
 
“Nothing,” Tanner lied.
 
“Vin, I saw the look on your face when I told you where the ranch was. What’s going on?”
 
“It’s nothin’ Josiah.”
 
“Vin, don’t give me that crap. Tell me what’s going on.”
 
“The ranch Chris was lookin’ at...was it anywhere near the old quarry?”
 
“As a matter of fact it is. There’s an old access road that runs behind the place and leads up to the quarry. Why?”
 
“I was lookin’ at a place out that way a week or so back. Thought I’d put down some roots and maybe have a place ta call home.”
 
Sanchez knew instinctively what was bothering the younger man. Somehow the place he’d been looking at was also the place they’d just come from. “Vin, have you made an offer on the place?”
 
“Yeah, I did, but I called the real estate place and told her ta hold off on it.”
 
“Vin, I’m sure if you talked to Chris...”
 
“Can’t do that, Josiah. If that ranch was the one Sarah was lookin’ at then it was meant ta belong ta Larabee.”
 
“Maybe it’s not the same one.”
 
“What’s the chance of two ranches being up fer sale on the same road, Josiah? Ain’t no way I’m gonna take that place away from Chris.”
 
“Well, before you totally withdraw your offer why don’t we check it out...what’s the address of the ranch you were looking at?”
 
“Old Pear Tree Road,” Tanner answered.
 
“Yes, I know that, but what number?”
 
“Oh, sorry, 1093 Old Pear Tree Road,” the Texan answered and watched as a smile was born on the older man’s face. “What?”
 
“Call the agent back, Vin, and tell them to make that offer firm.”
 
“Why?”
 
“I think there’s a lot more than coincidence happening here.”
 
“What do ya mean?”
 
“The place Chris is looking at is at 1091 Old Pear Tree Road.”
 
“Ya mean me and Chris are lookin’ at buyin’ two di’frent parcels of land.”
 
“Yep, sure looks like fate to me,” Sanchez explained as he patted the Texan on the right shoulder.
 
“Are you two coming in?” Jackson called.
 
“We’re comin’,” Tanner said smiling as he entered the house.
 
“Are you okay, Vin?” Larabee asked as the younger man sat next to him.
 
“He’s fine, Chris, or he will be as soon as he makes a call,” Sanchez said and watched Tanner pick up Nettie’s cordless phone. He heard him ask for Thelma Richards and smiled as the Texan told her to make the offer and that it was firm.
 
“Okay, want to tell us what that was all about?” Larabee asked and waited for his friend to look his way. Something about the sparkle in Tanner’s eyes told him it was good news. “Well?”
 
“Hold yer drawers fer a minute, Cowboy,” Tanner said and took a deep breath before meeting Larabee’s eyes. “Ya know that place ya went ta see taday?”
 
“The ranch?”
 
“Yeah. You gonna buy it?”
 
“I was...why?”
 
“Well, if’n ya do it’ll make us real close neighbors.”
 
“What? How?”
 
“Last week I put in a bid on a ranch at 1093 Old Pear Tree Road.”
 
“1093? That’s...”
 
“Just up the road from the place ya were lookin’ at taday. Seems like we’re gonna have adjoinin’ properties,” Tanner said with a grin.
 
“You’re kidding right?” Larabee asked.
 
“Nope,” the Texan said simply and reached for a warm biscuit to soak up the gravy on Larabee’s plate. “Hope ya don’t throw none of them noisy parties. I’d hate ta have ta call the cops on ya fer disturbin’ my peace.”
 
“Oh, hell, Tanner, I don’t know if I can handle you as a neighbor,” Larabee said as he slid the plate towards his friend. Somehow the news that his best friend would be living next to him was like a soothing balm on his soul and again he felt Sarah’s influence.
 
“Chris, are you all right?” Nettie asked.
 
“Ask me again in about a year,” Larabee said only half jokingly as they relaxed and enjoyed the meal set before them.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Over the coming weeks the seven men spent a lot of time together going over the plans that would see the two men moved into their new homes before the first winter snow. Vin’s shoulder healed and the other wounds faded as each new day dawned.
 
Chris’ physical wounds were healing and he’d undergone surgery to his knee once more and was well on the way to having full use back, but it would still be a hard fought battle until he was back on two healthy legs. The deeper bruises were finally disappearing and he was taking each new day as it came. The sale of both ranches had been finalized and Josiah and Buck were with him at his new home while Nathan, JD and Ezra were with Vin. The new furniture would be arriving within the next day or two and Chris was already looking forward to staying in his new home.
 
Reaching for his crutches the blond limped into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. There were half a dozen cold beers at the back and he pulled one out and twisted off the cap. Taking a long swallow he licked his lips and placed the bottle on the counter. He looked into the yard and watched Sanchez take something from the back of the Suburban. He knew it was a plant of some kind and he wondered why Sanchez would be planting it on his property. Hurrying to the back door Chris stepped outside and watched the ex-preacher move to the front of the house. Turning the corner he spotted the older man kneeling in the dirt beside the front steps.
 
“Josiah, what are you doing?”
 
“I’m planting a rose bush,” Sanchez answered.
 
“Sarah loved roses,” Larabee said, realizing he hadn’t even thought of flowers for the front of the house.
 
“I know she did, Son, and that’s why this one is so special.”
 
“What do you mean?” Larabee asked as he eased down on the front steps and looked at the healthy plant.
 
“Well, this was one of Sarah’s favorites.”
 
“What? How?” Larabee asked, awed by what he’d been told.
 
“I stopped by your old place not long after the funeral and this little baby was growing up through the debris. I figured it was a sign and dug it up and planted it in this pot. I kept it at my place, but I didn’t plant it because I knew it belonged to you and that eventually it would have a permanent home. I hope you don’t mind.”
 
“Mind, Josiah...no, not at all. Thank you,” the blond said softly as he watched Sanchez lift the plant from the pot and place it in the hole he’d prepared.
 
“No thanks are necessary, Chris.”
 
“Chris, the truck’ll be here any minute with your furniture. Nice plant, Josiah,” Wilmington said from the doorway.
 
“Sarah’s roses, Buck.”
 
“What?” Wilmington asked as he made note of the unshed moisture in his friend’s eyes.
 
“Josiah got it at my old place. Said it was growing and he knew I’d want it. A little bit of Sarah is right here and I think we need to stop by the house and maybe take a couple of those lilac trees and plant them out back by the patio.”
 
“Sounds like a plan, Chris. Sarah’d be happy knowing you’re still caring for her plants,” Wilmington observed as he sat next to the blond.
 
“Yeah, she did love her flowers.”
 
“Yeah, remember the day you forgot Valentine’s Day.”
 
“Oh shit, don’t remind me.”
 
“I’d like to hear about that,” Sanchez said as he packed the dirt around the plant.
 
“Well see, Sarah and Chris had been married a little more’n a year and I remember going to their place and talking to Sarah. She seemed a little ticked about something and you could see her Irish showing through when she talked.”
 
“You call that talk, Buck. I’d say she was screaming like a banshee.”
 
“Yeah, she was, but with good reason. Imagine Josiah, a newlywed forgetting his beautiful wife on the most famous day of the year for lovers.”
 
“I didn’t forget, Buck, I was kind of busy...”
 
“Busy? Is that what you call stripping for a bunch of lovely ladies...”
 
“Stripping? Oh I know I have to hear the rest of this.”
 
“I don’t think so, Josiah. It’s not what you think! The young ladies were a bunch of student nurses who got it into their heads that I needed medical attention. That’s it! End of story!”
 
“I think I’d rather hear Buck’s version,” Sanchez said.
 
“Thought you might, Josiah. See Chris got himself into a little altercation at a bar just before he went off duty. He was in a bar on the south side and well being a Friday evening they were having a wet t-shirt contest. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ladies with those tight shirts and the boys with a hose soaking ‘em down.”
 
“Yeah, I know the ones, Buck, do go on.”
 
“He will not,” Larabee said, but gave up when he saw the twinkle in the mischievous blue eyes.
 
“See, ol’ Chris was there on his own...”
 
“I was waiting for you, Buck!” Larabee corrected.
 
“Yeah, okay, but you were still on your own with no back up since I was kind of busy with a certain lady cop, but that’s another story and not nearly as interesting as this one. Anyway, Chris is at the back of the bar enjoying a beer or two...”
 
“I had one...”
 
“When they announce the contest and this group of young nurses decides to get up there. From what the bartender told us Chris was enjoying the view as much as anybody.”
 
“A man can look, Buck, as long as that’s all he does,” Larabee said.
 
“Yep, shows a man’s healthy when he can still look and appreciate. Anyway things were going along just fine until two men walked in and tried to get real fresh with the ladies. Chris here didn’t appreciate them getting in his way...”
 
“Buck, they were trying to grab the women...”
 
“And making it hard for him to see what was unfolding...”
 
“Buck!”
 
“So he gets up, slams down his beer and gets up on stage and starts shouting about his being a cop and that they were all gonna be arrested for drunk and disorderly if they didn’t get off the stage and keep their hands to themselves. That’s when I walked in and the music changed...”
 
“That song started the whole mess!” Larabee spat.
 
“Oh come on now, Chris. There’s no way that song was to blame. It was all you...and them ladies were certainly fixated on you. Think I heard one of ‘em call you Bareback Larabee when they pulled your shirt off. That’s when the cops showed up and arrested him for indecent behavior or some such.”
 
“And that’s when I vowed to get even with you, Buck. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about that either!”
 
“What did I do?” Wilmington asked, feigning innocence as he looked from Larabee to Sanchez.
 
“It’s what you didn’t do that’s the problem, Buck.”
 
“Don’t tell me,” Sanchez laughed. “He didn’t back you up.”
 
“Exactly. Sonofabitch left and went to my place.”
 
“Well, I thought she’d need to know what her new husband was up to on Valentine’s Day when he should be home wining and dining...”
 
“I would have been if I hadn’t been waiting for you, Buck. So it really was all your fault that I forgot what day it was.”
 
“So what happened?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Well, I finally convinced the officers of my identity, but by the time I got out and headed for home it was after midnight. Sarah was asleep on the couch and Buck was watching TV eating the remnants of my romantic dinner.”
 
“It was damn good too. No one could make chicken and dumplings like Sarah. Could they, Chris?”
 
“No, …no they couldn’t. It was my favorite from the start. She made them every Sunday...and sometimes on special occasions.”
 
“So what happened when she woke up?” the ex-preacher asked.
 
“She woke up as soon as I came into the house and told me dinner was cold and then walked toward the bedroom. Buck told me he’d explained what happened, but that he’d been teasing her. He apologized and turned off the TV and left. I went into the bedroom and found her already in the bed and turned away from me. I knew she’d been crying and I sat on the edge of the bed. I didn’t say anything and she turned over and looked at me. God, she had the most beautiful eyes...and that night they were filled with tears. We never spoke...didn’t need to...we trusted each other. I climbed into bed with her and pulled her close and we made love...sweet, tender, slow...the kind that only came when a man and woman loved each other. I tried to explain what happened and she said Buck told her everything and that there was nothing to forgive. She said there would be other Valentine Days and I could make it up to her then. I think that’s the first time I realized how lost in her I was. By lost I mean I could never love another the way I loved her. She was my soulmate and that’s what makes this so hard...knowing I’ll never have her back...that I’ve lost the other half of what made me who I was.”
 
“Chris, Sarah loved you unconditionally and she wouldn’t want you to let her loss change you in any way. I know that seems impossible right now, but there will come a time when the pain is not as bad and you’ll be able to think about Sarah without feeling as if your world has fallen apart,” Sanchez assured him.
 
“Thanks, Josiah,” Larabee said as he stood up and began to walk away.
 
“Where are you going, Chris?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Just need to be by myself for a while, Buck. I’ll be back,” Larabee assured his friend.
 
“He’ll be okay, Buck,” Sanchez spoke softly as Larabee walked around the corner of the house.
 
“Yeah, I know he will, Josiah, but this has burnt half the soul out of that man and I just hope we can put out the flames before we lose the rest of him.”
 
“We will, Buck.” Sanchez said hopefully. “With God’s help we’ll all get past this and be able to find closure.”
 
“I hope you’re right, Josiah.” Wilmington said as a furniture truck pulled into the yard.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Ella, can you hear me?”
 
“Jack, w…where’s Chris?” the tortured voice asked.
 
“He’s not here, Honey. It’s just you and me now.”
 
“But he loves me, Jack. W...we’re going to be m...married. I...I’m going to be his bride and we’ll l…live in a...a big h...house and I...I’ll even have a child for h...him if h...he wants t...to. When i...is he g...going to...to come home?”
 
“Ella, Chris Larabee doesn’t want to be with you...”
 
“No, Jack! Don’t...”
 
“He doesn’t love you and it’s time...”
 
“You say that! Chris l…loves me...he loves me! T...that b...bitch just p...poisoned his mind a...against me!”
 
“Ella, calm down...”
 
“Please, J...Jack, I w...want m...my Chris...I...I need h...him...I l…love him!”
 
“I know you do, Ella, but it’s time you opened your eyes and saw what’s in front of you and forget about him. He’s no good for you and he’ll just cause you more pain. Please, Honey, don’t let him do that anymore!”
 
“But he’s my s...soulmate, J...Jack. O...our love is written i...in the s...stars,” the scarred woman cried as she felt his arms wrap around her once more.
 
“Maybe the stars are wrong this time, Ella. I love you,” Averil told her and held her while she sobbed over the loss of another man. He felt her relax at his touch and knew she was finally asleep.
 
‘You don’t know what you’re giving up, Larabee, but I won’t be a party to you hurting her anymore.’ Averil thought as he looked at the bandages still covering the right side of her body.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris returned to the house as the last of the furniture was put in place. He’d walked for more than two hours and his leg was letting him know that he’d overdone things. The ache that was always there had now turned into a sharp pain and he limped to the bottom step where he transferred the crutch from his right hand to his left and leaned heavily on the handrail. He held his breath and gasped as he put even a miniscule amount of weight on his leg and forced himself to take one step at a time.
 
“Where the hell have you been?” Wilmington’s irate voice asked and Chris lifted his head to look into worried pools of limpid blue.
 
“Walking...lost t...track of time,” the blond said by way of explanation.
 
“You’ve been gone over two hours and if you were walking that long your knee must be killing you.”
 
“It is, Buck, and if you’ll move I’ll go inside and sit down!” Larabee told him as Wilmington took the place of the handrail. Chris nodded his thanks as he leaned into the other man. They passed Josiah and two deliverymen in the hallway and made it to the living room where Larabee plopped down on the comfortable recliner.
 
“Well, Chris, looks like everything you ordered is here,” Sanchez said and signed the papers as he walked the two men towards the door.
 
“Place looks great,” Larabee said as he looked around the room. The furniture was done in earth tones and was placed around the fireplace and the bar that stood to the left of the bay window. The walls were still bare and he suddenly realized they would remain that way because all of his pictures, ornaments, and anything else that meant something to him were gone. Destroyed by the same fire that had taken his family. His hands clenched into fists and he hit the arm of the recliner as anger and resentment surfaced once more.
 
“Chris, are you okay?”
 
“I’m just fucking great, Buck! What the hell could possibly be wrong? I mean I got this great place to live with lots of s...space on the walls and shelves for the things that make a house a home, but I don’t have any of that stuff! She fucking well made sure of that didn’t she?”
 
“Chris, we need to talk,” Wilmington said softly, watching the rage and pain war for dominance on the blond’s face.
 
“About what? Where to put my pictures?  In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have any pictures! Hell I don’t have anything except the small picture of Sarah and Adam in my wallet.”
 
“You have more than that, Chris,” the gentle rogue insisted, smiling as Larabee’s face showed his confusion.
 
“What are you talking about, Buck? Everything I had was in the house when it exploded.”
 
“Everything you had yes, but what about the things I have or Nettie or any of the other guys. Even Orrin had some stuff.”
 
“What kind of stuff?” Larabee asked hopefully.
 
“Nettie and me got together a few weeks ago...just after you finalized the deal on this place. We knew how much you lost and well, we started going through her attic and the stuff I had at my place. It’s amazing the things we kept over the years. Did you know Nettie Wells is a pack rat?”
 
“She does like to keep things,” Larabee agreed.
 
“Well, she’s got so many negatives of pictures she took over the years and she had two albums of your wedding and Adam’s birth. She even had that little sonogram picture you and Sarah gave her.”
 
“I...I can have copies made of everything,” Larabee said, a lump forming in his throat as he listened to his friend.
 
“No, actually you don’t have to. We’ve already done it. Rain had a friend who works in the business and he’s already made the copies. Nettie will be bringing them over this evening. She’s the one who insisted on having everything framed in Terra cotta...whatever that is. So, those walls won’t be bare for long.”
 
“God, Buck, how can I thank you...”
 
“By enjoying the memories, Chris, and I have something else for you when you’re ready to look at them.”
 
“What?”
 
“Home movies. I’ve got all the ones you and Sarah made for me and well, I just might have everything you and Sarah had. They’re yours, Pard, all you have to do is say the word and I’ll bring them over.”
 
“Buck,” Larabee said, swallowing painfully as he reached for his friend and drew him into a hug. “If ever you need anything...anything...I’ll be there.”
 
“You’d better be, Pard, ‘cause I ain’t in the mood to go chasing you to hell and back unless I’m sure you’ll come back with me.”
 
“I will, Buck. I promise.”
 
“I’m gonna hold you to that promise.”
 
“Chris, I made up the bed in your room...”
 
“Thanks, Josiah,” Larabee said as Wilmington pulled away.
 
“You go on and lie down, Chris. I’ll be right in with your pain meds...don’t give me any shit about not needing them!”
 
“Wasn’t going to say a word, Buck.” Larabee smiled as he stood, leaned heavily on the crutches and made his way towards the hallway leading to his room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
As time passed the hatred continued to grow in Hank Connelly. He cut off ties with those who knew and worked with him as he wallowed in the self-pity and hatred that consumed each waking moment. The gun remained on the table beside him, fully loaded and ready when he thought the time was at hand. Several empty beer cases were strewn across the room and the smell of stale beer and filth permeated through every room of the house.
 
Hank stood and walked to the window, barely catching himself as his foot landed on an empty whiskey bottle. Once there he stared out at the street beyond his yard and waited to see if today was the day. He wasn’t stupid, no, merely cautious and able to bide his time until he was ready. He looked back at the gun, smiling once more as he thought of the feel of the cold, deadly metal against his skin. The sound of the hammer hitting the firing pin and the final impact of the projectile slamming into his son in law’s body.
 
“Soon, Chris Larabee, very soon!” he whispered, pressing his head against the greasy window as his foul smelling breath invaded his nostrils.
 
“Yes, you’ll pay for taking everything from me, Chris Larabee, pay with your life!” With those words Hank went in search of anything that could cool the raging fires burning through him until it was time for his son in law to pay the ultimate price...his life.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin looked at the little thirteen inch TV on the stand and flicked it on. He’d been living in the house for over a week now and was still getting used to the noises that came with his new home. He placed the sandwich and Pepsi on the little table beside his chair and sat down. Reaching for the remote, he flicked on the TV and jumped as the phone beside him rang. He fumbled for the cell and pressed the button without looking at who the caller was.
 
“It’s your dime...”
 
“It’s slightly more than a dime, Tanner...”
 
“Jackie?”
 
“Give the man a prize. How are you doing Vin?”
 
“I’m okay...”
 
“I heard about the problems you had when you got home. How is your friend?”
 
“Chris is doing better. It’s just gonna take a lot of time.”
 
“It often does when you lose someone you love. Dad and Mom and I talked about what happened to Jamie and why I left. They understand why I blamed myself, but they told me it wasn’t my fault. That Mendoza had a reputation for going after young naive girls and that’s what I was, Vin, but I’ll never be that naive again.”
 
“Mendoza’s dead, Jackie, and he won’t be able to hurt you or anyone else any more. You helped see to that!”
 
“I nearly got you killed in Rio, Vin.”
 
“How do you figure that?” Tanner asked.
 
“I tried to go into the compound before we even had any ground work done. You were the voice of reason...”
 
Vin couldn’t help laughing at her choice of words and he wished Chris and the others had been there to hear it. “That’s funny, Jackie, I don’t think I’ve ever been called the voice of reason.”
 
“Well, this time you were just that, Vin, and I thank you for that,” Maynard said.
 
“How are you doing, Jackie?” Tanner asked, wanting to hear the truth from the woman he cared about.
 
“I’m okay, Vin, just taking it one day at a time. The guilt about what happened to Jamie has been on my shoulders for so long I can’t let it go that easily, but it’s getting better. I’ve been accepted at the collage near me and I’m looking at a course in childhood education. Maybe I’ll be teaching children in a few years.”
 
“You’ll be good at that, Jackie. I’m happy you’ll be doing something you enjoy.”
 
“Thanks, Vin, I’m just glad to be out of the DEA. I mean they do good work with taking down the drug cartels and trying to keep the filth off the street, but sometimes the rewards don’t always justify the means.”
 
“I know what you mean. Sometimes there’s a fine line between right and wrong and we often step over it before we even realize what we’ve done. I’ve seen it happen and know I’ll see it again.”
 
“Mom’s calling me for dinner, Vin, but I want you to know that I’ll never forget what you did for me. What we had together.”
 
“Me too, Jackie. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll get together again.”
 
“I’d like that, Vin. I love you...”
 
The line went dead before he had a chance to acknowledge her words and Vin wondered if he should call her back, but something stayed his hand and he placed the phone on the table before rubbing his tired eyes. So much had happened between him and Jackie Maynard in the short period of time they’d been in Rio, and Vin understood she still needed more time to come to grips with her feelings. He sat in his chair, staring at the blank screen as thoughts of what could have been raced through his mind.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris woke to darkness with just a hint of white light from the moon outside his window. He lay still for several long moments, listening to the sounds of crickets and night birds as they called to each other. He looked at the clock and knew he would not be getting back to sleep this night. Sliding his legs over the edge of the bed, Chris reached for the knee brace and placed it around his right leg. The physiotherapy was going well, but the knee brace would stay in place until the doctors were sure he could do no more damage to it. The crutches were beside him and he took one in each hand before standing and walked towards the bathroom. Washing his face and looking in the mirror made him realize just how much weight he’d lost since he’d been injured. Taking a deep breath, Chris walked out of the bathroom and made his way to the kitchen where he flicked on the fluorescent light over the sink.
 
He leaned against the island at the center and stared at the picture hanging above the arch leading into the dining room. It was a picture of Sarah on their first Christmas together. She was making mincemeat pies and her face was covered in flour and other spices. She’d been unaware of his presence until he called her name and looked up. She’d cursed him in both English and Gaelic and what followed was a fight that went from flour and sugar to snowballs in the back yard.
 
“God, Sarah, I miss you,” Chris whispered to the empty room as a wave of despair washed over him. He strode through the kitchen and back into the living room, forgetting the crutches in the process. His mind was set on ridding him of the pain and emotions racing through his battered soul. He knew where his gun was, and now understood why the others were reluctant to leave it there, but he’d assured them he was fine.
 
Turning away from the area where he knew the gun was housed Chris made it to the bar and stepped behind it. He grabbed the bottle of Jack Daniels and poured a stiff belt into the glass. He downed it and gasped as the liquid burned a fiery trail down the back of his throat. He lifted the bottle and looked at the glass as more memories flashed through his mind. This one was of chasing Adam through the house when his son wanted to play hide and seek in the dark. He swayed and grabbed at the bar as a vision of his wife in a white negligee replaced the one of his son.
 
“Fuck it!” Chris cursed and threw the glass towards the fireplace where it shattered as if taking the visions from the man behind the bar with it. Chris lifted the bottle of Jack Daniels and drank until there was no breath left in his body. The whiskey escaped from both sides of his mouth and trailed down his bare chest.
 
The memories returned as he heard his wife’s laughter as she held their son out to him and he knew what he had to do. He looked at the picture on the wall that covered a vault holding his valuables and quickly came to a decision. Reaching the safe he quickly spun the dial and opened it. His gaze fell on the handgun placed so carefully on top of the papers that gave him possession of the ranch. His hand reached for the weapon and he smiled at the feel of it against his skin. Where his family’s memories were warm, this gun held only coldness, so absolute that he began to wonder if it was freezing his heart to what he wanted to do. Walking across the room he made his way to his bedroom once more and caught sight of himself in the mirror that hung on the open bathroom door.
 
Chris did not like what he saw and fear threatened to throw him over the edge once more as the light from the moon reflected his image in the mirror. He walked to the door and lifted the nearly empty bottle of liquor as if toasting himself.
 
“You’re a real bastard, Chris Larabee! Hank was right! You weren’t good enough for his daughter! No one was!” He placed the gun to his temple and took another swallow of whiskey.
 
“I should’ve been the one to die, Sarah, not you and Adam!” He screamed as he leaned against the door with both hands and placed his forehead up against the mirror. The whiskey bottle and the gun were icy to his touch as he caught a glimpse of something reflected by the moonlight. He sucked in a deep breath as his hands dropped down to his side and he reached out to touch the wisps like images.
 
“Oh, Sarah, if only I could touch you one more time.” The tears fell as he turned and slid down the wall, the whiskey and gun forgotten as they hit the floor beside him. His body was racked with sobs as he let go of the grief in the only way he could. He cried, not only for what he once had and what he’d lost, but also for the unborn child he would never know. As his eyes began to close the ghostly image solidified and reached out to touch him.
 
‘Oh, Chris, don’t do this to yourself, for we’re not gone from you forever. We’re waiting and we’ll be there when your precious time on earth is through. For now, live and love and let the pain go.’
 
“I can’t let you go, Sarah...God I can’t let you go!”
 
‘Yes, you can, Chris, because it’s not forever, it’s just for now. Remember that we’ll be waiting...because for now you’re needed here. I love you, My Darling, and that love is forever. Sleep now and wake up knowing you are not and never will be alone.’
 
“Not alone,” Larabee mumbled as he gave in to his body’s need for sleep. He missed the soft kiss she placed against his forehead before she left him alone in the dark once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sleep had been a fleeting thing for Hank Connelly and as the sun began to rise and give promise of a new day, the man smiled and picked up the gun. This was the day, for he had nothing left in this world except the need for revenge against the man who’d taken everything from him. Running his fingers along the handle he felt the power of the metal as he placed his finger on the trigger and checked to make sure it was loaded.
 
Reaching for the clean clothes he’d found tucked away at the back of the closet, Hank smiled as he moved to the bathroom and placed the gun on the back of the toilet. He would shower, put on the clean clothes, eat his breakfast and leave the house for the final time. He’d spent the day before cleaning the place from top to bottom and made sure everything was where it belonged including Sarah’s bedroom. Her pictures were back on the dresser and hanging from the walls. The picture of Robert Spikes sat next to Sarah’s graduation picture and Hank regretted that he’d never really known the man who should have been his daughter’s husband. Somehow, the events of this day would see things were set right, as if she’d never left his home. Chris Larabee would be wiped out and his own life would be over, but not before everything was as it should be.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ezra drove the black Jaguar into the yard and wondered again what had possessed Chris Larabee to buy such a remote place. He knew part of it had to do with it being a ranch Sarah was looking at, but for him it just didn’t suit the blond. Stopping the car he quickly got out and put the key in his pocket before making his way up to the front door. He rang the doorbell three times, but there was no answer and he began to wonder if maybe one of the others had come to pick up the blond for his Physio appointment. He moved to the window that opened into the living room and got as close to the glass as he could. Sunlight shone through the partially opened drapes and Ezra looked around the silent house. His gaze swept over the floor and he frowned as he caught sight of the broken glass scattered across the floor in front of the fireplace. His worry intensified when he spotted the open safe and he knew he had to get inside.
 
“All right, My Friend, let’s see what you’ve done before I make any rash decisions,” Standish spoke aloud as he raced around to the back of the house and hurried up to the patio doors. He tried both sets, but neither budged and he hurriedly tried the other windows to find them locked as well. Blowing out a breath of air he walked around to the front doors once more and pulled out a small black case. Selecting a special tool he moved to the main door and quickly inserted it. He played around until he heard the tell tale sound of the locking mechanism give way.
 
Opening the door, the gambler stepped inside and immediately smelled the whiskey as he hurried across the living room and down the hallway to his boss’s bedroom. He caught sight of Larabee’s long legs and took a deep cleansing breath.
 
“Courage, Ezra, courage,” he thought aloud as he entered the room. “Oh hell!” he cursed as he spotted the gun and the empty bottle of Jack Daniels beside the blond. He pushed both objects away and quickly began examining the unconscious man. His fingers quickly sought and found the strong steady pulse before he continued his examination, eliciting a soft groan from the man on the floor.
 
“Yes, well, you’ve brought this on yourself, Chris. Now where are you hit?”
 
“Hit? W...who hit?”
 
“You, Chris. Where are you hit?”
 
“S...somebody hit m...me?” Larabee asked as dazed green eyes fought to open.
 
“Not that I know of, but I had thought you used that vile weapon on yourself.”
 
“What? Ezra, look I got a headache as big as the one your mother causes...”
 
“That bad?” Standish asked as he ran his hands along the back of Larabee’s neck.
 
“Yeah, … mind keeping your voice down and your hands to yourself?”
 
“Oh, sorry, look Chris, I just thought...well the way I found you...”
 
“Yeah, I guess it looks pretty bad. Mind helping me up?”
 
“Certainly,” Standish said as he reached for the blond’s hands. “Let’s just go slow and easy okay?”
 
“Slow and easy I can do,” Larabee winced as he made it to his feet. “Shit!”
 
“I bet. How’s the knee?”
 
“Don’t ask. Where are my crutches?”
 
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” the conman answered as he took most of Larabee’s weight on his shoulders. “Bed?”
 
“Bed!” the blond agreed and was soon lying stretched out with several pillows behind him. He rubbed at his eyes as he fought down the nausea churning through his stomach.
 
“How’s the head?”
 
“You mean I still have one. Thought it exploded when you got me on my feet.”
 
“Just how much Jack Daniels did you drink?”
 
“Not sure...think maybe Josiah had a shot when he was out here a couple of nights ago.”
 
“Chris, you consumed the full bottle?”
 
“Probably,” Larabee answered.
 
“Did you take your medications yesterday?” the gambler asked worried about possible effects of mixing alcohol and the prescription medications.
 
“The only one I took was the damned Zoloft and it doesn’t seem to have had any side effects except maybe intensifying this damn headache!”
 
“That one you deserve. Why don’t you try to sleep and I’ll see if they’ll reschedule your Physio session for later this afternoon.”
 
“Thanks, Ez, appreciate it.”
 
“I’m not doing it for you, Chris, I’m taking pity on the poor therapist who would have to put up with a grizzly of a hangover named Larabee! Sleep, I’ll take care of everything.” He didn’t wait for an answer as he moved to pick up the gun and the empty bottle. He walked out of the room, along the hall and finally entered the kitchen where he dropped the Jack Daniels bottle into the garbage and placed the gun on the center island before hurrying into the living room to clean up the broken glass. He looked at the open safe and left it as it was until he went back for the gun. By the time he finished cleaning the living room he forgot about the weapon and turned the stereo onto his favorite station.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Hank spotted the Jaguar parked outside Larabee’s new place and knew he was not alone, but that was of little consequence. Today would end with Chris Larabee’s death and anyone who got in his way would also find a bullet with his name on it. He’d taken the bus as far as it would take him and walked the remaining distance to the property Larabee had purchased. He placed his hand in his pocket and smiled at the feel of the metal in his hand.
 
“The time is now, Larabee. For vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord!” he whispered as he hurried across the lawn and up to the front doors of the house.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin smiled as he brushed Peso down. The animal seemed content in his new home and Vin was about to take him on the first tour of his and Larabee’s property. He knew Chris wouldn’t be able to ride for some time yet and wanted to make sure there was nothing in immediate need of their attention. He planned to ride just north of both properties and check the fences at the back before stopping by to see how Larabee’s Physio session had gone. He was shaken from his thoughts when Peso nudged him against the stall.
 
“Hey, watch it or I’ll rethink this move!” Tanner warned as he continued to saddle the beautiful animal. He frowned as a chill raced down his spine and picked up his pace.
 
“Maybe we’ll stop by and see if Chris and Ezra are back before we check out the back forty,” he said and shook his head as the animal whinnied in approval.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris groaned but sat up and rubbed the back of his neck. He could hear the soft strains of classical music coming from the living room and tried to clear his head. Finally able to stand without the room spinning he made it to his feet, reached for his crutches and limped out of the room.
 
“Ez?”
 
“Right here...can I interest you in some coffee?”
 
“Yeah, maybe you should just throw it in my face...might work faster!”
 
“Oh, I doubt that, but I believe a little food might help.”
 
“Ah, hell, Ez, food’s the last thing I need right now.”
 
“Actually, food is probably the best thing for you. Come on I was just coming in to wake you. Would you rather eat in the dining room or outside?”
 
“Outside,” Larabee answered and made his way to the patio doors. He moved to the chair and quickly sat down, blinking rapidly until his eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight. He listened to the sounds of nature and knew this place had some very therapeutic values. He had no idea how much time passed when he heard footsteps behind him and opened his eyes to find Ezra holding a tray of coffee and sandwiches.
 
“Looks great, Ez.”
 
“Thank you. I hope you don’t mind I used up the last of the honey ham and Dijon mustard?”
 
“Not at all,” Larabee said as he reached for a plate.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Hank moved to the side of the house and paused as two male voices reached his ears. Larabee was definitely not alone, but at least they were outside and would make easy targets for him. He didn’t care about anything but seeing Larabee’s face when the bullet tore into his body. Glancing around the corner Hank spotted the two men on the patio and knew the time to strike was now. He pulled the gun from his pocket and took a deep breath before moving out of his hiding place.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The closer Vin got to Larabee’s house the faster his heart pounded against his chest. There was something driving him, something that rippled along the intangible link he had with the blond. Icy tendrils of fear were now edging their way down his spine and he knew beyond a doubt his friend was in danger. Something dark and deadly was about to show itself and he needed to be there to help his friend. He reached for his cell phone and tried Larabee’s number once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Coffee?” Standish asked as he poured the aromatic liquid into a cup. The mug had been brought from the office and the gambler knew how special it was to Larabee. White letters across the black mug proclaimed ‘World’s Greatest Daddy!’
 
“Thanks, Ez. ...Damn!” He cursed as the phone rang.
 
“Sit, Chris. I’ll get it,” Standish said, standing and making his way towards the patio doors. He heard Larabee’s angered voice even as the sound of a shot echoed through his skull and something slammed into his left shoulder.
 
“You bastard, Connelly!”
 
“No, Larabee!” the angered man shouted as he fired a shot at the gambler. “Your son was a bastard and you’re going to meet him!”
 
Chris stood up as a second shot sounded and he felt the bullet enter his right shoulder. He went down hard and ignored the pain stemming from the wound as he tried to get to his feet. He heard movement behind him, but didn’t take the time to check on his friend as Connelly again advanced on him.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ezra knew he had to move fast and he thanked God that he’d left Larabee’s gun in the kitchen. Connelly seemed hypnotized by one thing...killing Chris Larabee and Ezra took advantage of the man’s hatred. He heard the second shot and the cry of pain from Larabee and let his rage take over as he raced into the dining room and through the kitchen.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris looked up at the irate man standing over him and tried to stand, but Connelly shoved him down once more. Blood flowed from the wound to his shoulder and Chris watched as the older man snickered as he once more pointed the gun at him.
 
“I could kill you right now, Larabee, but I think I’ll just show you how many ways there are to shoot a man before he actually bleeds to death.”
 
“Sick fucking bastard!” the blond ground out.
 
“Better watch that fucking mouth or I’ll shut it for you!”
 
“Big man when you’ve got a gun, Hank! Always knew you were a coward!” Larabee gasped and again tried to get to his feet. This time he made it as far as his knees, but went down again as Connelly struck his right cheek with the gun.
 
“Hank, put the gun down!”
 
Chris heard Standish’s voice through a haze of pain and prayed the other man was armed. He watched as Connelly’s confidence wavered and his finger began to squeeze the trigger.
 
“DROP IT!” Standish screamed and Chris thought he heard two shots at the same time and tensed his body for another bullet, but nothing hit him and he watched through blurry eyes as the gun dropped from Connelly’s hand.
 
“No! …No!” the older man stammered as blood pooled in his mouth before dripping down his chin and onto the patio.
 
“Chris! Ezra!” There was no mistaking the Texan’s worried call, as Ezra slid down to sit beside the blond.
 
“I believe the cavalry has arrived,” Standish said as he looked into the glazed green eyes. “How’s your head?”
 
“T...think you already a...asked me that.”
 
“Yes, I did, but it seems time to ask you once more,” Standish said as the Texan rode across the back yard.
 
“Head exploded this morning...think the rest of me just joined it. Damn!”
 
“My sentiments exactly,” Standish exclaimed as Larabee slid further down and rested his head in the gambler’s lap. “Chris, don’t go to sleep.”
 
“What the hell happened?” Tanner said dismounting and dialing 911even as he saw the dead man lying at the top of the stairs. “Connelly?’
 
“Very intuitive,” the conman said and listened to the younger man call for help even as he hurried into the house and returned with the first aid kit.
 
Vin knew everything he needed to help both injured men was inside the kit that was well stocked with everything Nathan Jackson thought they might need.
 
“Yes, one man dead...two wounded. That’s right 1091 Old Pear Tree Road,” Tanner explained to the operator as he opened the kit. “How bad?”
 
“Flesh wound,” Standish lied as Tanner pulled the shirt free and pressed a bandage to the wound at the back of the man’s shoulder.
 
“Sure it is. Ta bad it don’t got an exit wound! Can ya hold that for me?”
 
“Certainly...s...see to C...Chris...”
 
“I’m fine...hung...over,” the blond whispered.
 
“I bet it feels that way, Cowboy...”
 
“Not a cowboy,” Larabee hissed as Vin opened his shirt and pressed something against the wound. “Shit!”
 
“Sorry, gotta get the bleedin’ stopped,” Tanner said and reached for a second bandage to cover the wound on Larabee’s right cheek. “Yer a mess.”
 
“No shit, Vin...what about H...Hank?”
 
“Dead.”
 
“Can’t say as I’m sorry. Thanks, Ez, I owe you,” Larabee said softly.
 
“You don’t owe me anything, Chris, except maybe a few days off.”
 
“No problem...t...think maybe me a...and you’ll be roommates for that long a...anyway. Consider i...it a paid h...holiday.”
 
“Chris, you’re all heart,” Standish said as his eyes closed and he lost consciousness.
 
“Vin, is he...he okay?”
 
“He will be...both of ya will be as soon as we get ya ta the hospital.”
 
“Damn, was kind of hoping I was dreaming and all I had to do w...was pinch myself and I’d wake up.”
 
“Wish it was that way, but there’s no way you’re getting out of a trip to the hospital.”
 
“Shit, watch t...the place, T...Tanner...I’m gonna c...close...”
 
“Oh no ya don’t, Chris. Come on open yer eyes!”
 
“Why? You let Ezra sleep.”
 
“Ezra wasn’t hit in the head, Larabee, now stop yer bitchin’ and talk ta me.”
 
“You want me to talk then you can put up with my bitching! Get me some whiskey!”
 
“I don’t think so. Paramedics’ll get here and ya’ll be drunker’n a skunk and they won’t be able ta give ya anythin’ for pain.”
 
“Damn, Vin, if I had the whiskey I wouldn’t need anything for pain,” Larabee moaned as he tried to ignore the pain shooting out from the bullet wound.
 
“Yeah, maybe, but ya’d also be bleedin’ a lot more’n ya are right now. Nate says alcohol makes a man bleed like a stuck pig,” Tanner explained and moved to check on the unconscious gambler.
 
“How is he?” Larabee asked, turning his head to look at the unconscious man.
 
“Still out, but the bleedin’ stopped. Quit movin’ around or ya’ll start bleedin’ all over Ez’s Armani’s.”
 
“Well ‘scuse me for living, Vin!”
 
“Ain’t livin’ I’m talkin’ ‘bout. I’m jest tryin’ ta save ya from havin’ ta lecture ‘im ‘bout his cleanin’ bill.”
 
“You’re not making sense, Tanner. How is me bleeding all over his pants going to make me lecture Ezra about his cleaning bill?”
 
“Well, it’s yer blood that’s ruinin’ ‘im and they’ll need cleanin’ and Ez will say it was in the line of duty and the agency should pay for it. Right ‘bout then ya’ll get that glare of yers workin’ and ya’ll get in a snit...”
 
“I don’t g...get in s...snits, Tanner...”
 
“And ya’ll start yellin’ at Ez and then ya’ll be ticked at the rest of us and we’ll never hear the end of it and I jest might have ta get my gun...”
 
“Tanner?”
 
“Quit interuptin’ me.”
 
“Vin, gonna p...pass out...”
 
“I don’t think so, Cowboy. Now ya jest hang on a little longer,” Tanner warned as he shifted Larabee up wards and held him close. He grabbed for the cell phone and redialled the last number and soon had the 911 Operator back on the line. He asked for an update on the ambulances and was told they were on the way and should be there within fifteen minutes. He updated her on the condition of both men and was advised to try and keep Larabee awake because of the head wound.
 
“S...sick,” Larabee said and barely had time to turn his head when a thick stream of vomit left his mouth. “S...sorry.”
 
“No problem, Chris, just hang on okay?”
 
“O...okay. Vin?”
 
“Yeah?”
 
“Don’t mean to be so m...much trouble.”
 
“Yeah, well, ‘member that when I send ya my bill.”
 
“Like I said...all heart,” Larabee said and closed his eyes.
 
“Chris, come on, Cowboy, stay with me.”
 
“Trying...head hurts.”
 
“Yeah, I know. Ya know when ya get out of the hospital this time maybe we can get the boys and go fishin’ at the little water hole ya like.”
 
“Sounds good. Have a f...feed of trout...”
 
“Yep, might even letcha catch one or two this time,” Tanner said as his keen ears picked up the sound of sirens in the distance and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Looks like helps here.”
 
“Good...sleep now.”
 
“Uhuh, Chris, not until they get here,” Tanner ordered and continued to engage Larabee in conversation. The sound of the ambulance grew closer and he knew they were in the front yard. “WE’RE BACK HERE!”
 
“Shit, Tanner, you t...trying to d...deafen me?”
 
“Sorry, Pard, just makin’ sure they know where we are.” Tanner explained as he heard a flurry of activity from the other side of the house. He looked up as Miller and three other officers came around the corner from opposite sides with their guns drawn. They took in the scene on the patio and assessed that the danger was past.
 
“Send the paramedics back!” Miller ordered as he watched one of his men check Hank Connelly. There was no doubt that the man was dead, but he wanted to be sure. “Vin, how are they?”
 
“Ezra’s got a bullet in his left shoulder. Chris took one in the right shoulder and looks like he was struck in the face too.” Tanner told them as four paramedics hurried around the corner. “Hey, pard, looks like I have ta get out of the way.”
 
“Help?”
 
“Paramedics.”
 
“Oh...okay. Tell ‘em Ezra’s hurt.”
 
“They already know,” Tanner said and eased out from under the blond as a man and woman dropped down beside Larabee.
 
“Well, hello, Chris. I’m beginning to think you’ve got the hots for my partner here.”
 
“P...partner?”
 
“Beth, seems like you’ve been seeing her a lot lately,” Frank Parker explained.
 
“Not my c...choice,” Larabee winced as they cut the shirt away from the bullet wound and examined his shoulder. “H...how’s Ezra?”
 
“Will and his partner are taking care of him,” Elizabeth Clarke explained as she noted there was significant blood loss from both victims. She knew Will had checked the third victim and had already pronounced him dead.
 
“Chris, I’m going to start an IV and we’ll get you to Saint Vincents.”
 
“O...okay,” the blond said and felt the paramedic swipe something cold across the top of his left hand. He turned his head and forced his eyes open as he watched the two men working over Standish. A bandage had been placed over the gambler’s shoulder wound and an IV was now flowing into the man’s left arm. As he watched Chris noted the eyes flutter open and a soft moan escaped from the injured man.
 
“Easy, Mr. Standish, we’ll be ready to transport in a few minutes,” Will said, having been given all the information he needed from Vin Tanner.
 
“What happened?” Standish asked, his face showing confusion that quickly cleared as he tried to sit up. “Chris!”
 
“R...right beside you, Ezra,” Larabee answered and saw the relief in the other man’s green eyes.
 
“Connelly?”
 
“Dead. Ez, I’ll drive your car to your place and have one of the guys pick me up there,” Tanner said as the gambler was transferred to a stretcher.
 
“O...okay,” the gambler readily agreed until Tanner’s words sank in. “Wait a minute, Vin! The Jag is fine where it is. I’ll come pick it up once I’m...”
 
“It’s okay, Ez, I’ll take real good care of it. Trust me!” the Texan said with a wink as he jangled the keys in his hand.
 
“Vin! Tanner!”
 
“Mr. Standish, you need to calm down!” Will warned.
 
“Calm down! Not when Leadfoot is going to drive my Jag. Vin it’ll cost you more than you earn to pay for it if anything happens!”
 
“Now what could possibly happen?” Tanner asked as the conman was wheeled away.
 
“I’m almost set,” Parker said as he secured the IV in Larabee’s arm. “All done, Beth.”
 
“Good,” Clarke said as she secured a bandage to Larabee’s right cheek. “Let’s get him on the stretcher.”
 
Chris closed his eyes and smiled as he heard Standish’s warning continue even as he was placed into the back of one of the ambulances. He knew Vin would take care of the Jag and that he was teasing the other man in an effort to keep his mind off the painful shoulder injury.
 
“I’ll call the others and see you at the hospital, Cowboy?”
 
“T...thanks, Vin,” Larabee said as they moved him into the ambulance and closed the door.
 
Vin watched the ambulance pull away and flipped open his cellphone once more. This time he called Josiah Sanchez and placed the phone to his ear.
 
“Sanchez.”
 
“Josiah, it’s Vin.”
 
“Hello, Son, everything okay?”
 
“No, it’s not. Look I’m at Chris’ place?”
 
“Chris’ place? What happened?”
 
“I don’t know everythin’, but Hank Connelly is dead and Chris and Ezra are both on the way ta the hospital.”
 
“How bad?”
 
“Ezra was shot in the left shoulder. Chris in the right, but he’s also taken a blow ta the face that’ll probably need stitches.”
 
“I’ll call the others and get over to the hospital. What are you going to do?”
 
“I need ta stay here and answer whatever questions I can.  Then I’ll drive Ez’s Jag ta his place and call a cab from there.”
 
“No need to call a cab. When you leave the ranch call me and I’ll meet you at Ezra’s condo and we’ll go to the hospital from there.”
 
“Okay, thanks, Josiah.”
 
“You take it easy, Vin, they’ll be okay.”
 
“Yeah, I know, tell Buck not ta worry.”
 
“That’ll be the day. See you in a few, Vin.”
 
“Okay,” Tanner said and hurried around back to speak with Robert Miller once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ezra frowned as the gurney was taken from the back of the ambulance and pushed through the emergency doors. He heard the paramedics talking to the nurse and doctor that met them and finally forced his eyes open.
 
“Would you mind not talking about me as if I was a piece of prime beef?” he grumbled as the bright lights stabbed at his eyes.
 
“Oh, I can see you’re going to be just as much trouble as the rest of the team. David, he’s all yours,” Midland advised the ER resident as she hurried to the second ambulance.
 
“Dr. Midland, I a...assure y...you I will en...endeav...”
 
“Save the energy, Ezra, Dr. Midland has already gone to check on your friend,” Sandra Mullins explained as she helped maneuver the stretcher into the room. Once there the physician began examining the patient as the paramedic finished reading off the steps they’d taken to care for
Ezra Standish.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Stacey Midland helped pull the second gurney from the ambulance and looked at the familiar face as the eyes finally opened. She listened as Frank Parker read off the last vitals and accounted for the treatment Larabee was given during the trip to Saint Vincents.
 
“Hi, Doc,” Larabee whispered tiredly.
 
“Hello, Chris, you do realize if you keep coming in here we’re going to put a revolving door in just for you,” Midland teased as she checked his eyes.
 
“Wasn’t my first choice of places I wanted to be, Doc,” Larabee explained as his stretcher was wheeled into one of the available rooms.
 
“Well, right now it’s the place you need to be. I thought you knew bullets are harmful to a man’s body.”
 
“I did...just wish I’d been able to stop Hank from...”
 
“Hank? Your father in law?” Midland asked as she began examining her patient.
 
“Yeah, s...sonofabitch s...showed up at the r...ranch...shot Ezra and me before Ez g...got him.” Larabee’s face twisted with pain as he felt the bandage being removed from the wound. He heard Midland order a mild pain reliever and opened his eyes. “Mild w...won’t cut it, doc. Head’s ready to explode.”
 
“I bet, but that’s the reason I can’t give you anything too strong. Any dizziness or burred vision?”
 
“Yes...and y...yes,” Larabee answered as one of the nurses placed something into his IV.
 
“Were you sick to your stomach?”
 
“O...once...still churning. How’s Ezra?”
 
“Ezra’s in the next room. I’ll check on him as soon as I’m done here.”
 
“Thanks...Doc?”
 
“Yes,” she said and saw the panic in his eyes. She eased him onto his left side as his stomach once more expelled what was left in it. Finally she eased him back on the bed and smiled sympathetically at her patient. “Better?”
 
“N...not really,” Larabee answered honestly and felt a warm cloth washed over his face just before he lost consciousness.
 
Midland continued to examine the blond and ordered 0 negative blood until they had the results of his blood work. She knew they’d be taking the blond to surgery as soon as portable x-rays were taken and the location of the bullet was ascertained. Looking up at the monitors she knew he’d lost a lot of blood, but should be all right for the bullet extraction.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck, Nathan, and JD hurried through the ER doors and strode towards the desk where they were intercepted by a nurse they all knew.
 
“Gentlemen, could you follow me please,” Nin said and led them towards the waiting room.
 
“Nin, how are they?” Wilmington asked worriedly.
 
“The doctors are with them now and if you’ll just stay here I’ll check with them,” Ninheve assured the trio, smiling as she looked from one man to the other.
 
“Thanks, Nin,” Jackson said as he moved to the back of the busy waiting room and sat in the only empty chair. It wasn’t long before Stacey Midland entered and hurried over to them.
 
“Gentlemen, I must say I was hoping I wouldn’t be seeing any of you for a while.”

”Doc, how are Chris and Ezra?” Dunne asked.
 
“They are about to be taken to the OR where the bullets will be removed. Chris has also been showing signs of a concussion and we’ll be monitoring him closely. Both of them lost quite a bit of blood, but barring any more complications I’d say they’ll be out of here in a few days.”
 
“Can we see them?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Well, Ezra’s awake so one of you can go see him for a few minutes. Chris is unconscious...”
 
“Doc, I’d like to see him anyway,” Wilmington said.
 
“All right,” Midland acquiesced.
 
“Nathan, I’ll wait here for Josiah and Vin.” Dunne suggested and watched as the medic in training smiled at the younger man’s words.
 
“All right, JD, I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Jackson said and followed the duo out of the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck eased the door open and looked into the room in time to see the nurse adjusting the IV flow in Larabee’s hand. He nodded to the nurse as he made it to the side of the bed. Nasal Canulas were now in place and a thin line of blood showed through the bandage that covered the wound on Larabee’s right cheek. He could tell there was swelling and was also able to see a deep redness that signaled a forthcoming bruise. A bandage covered Larabee’s shoulder and he knew there was a savage wound underneath.
 
“How is he?”
 
“He’s doing okay, Mr...”
 
“Wilmington, Buck Wilmington. You take good care of him okay?”
 
“I will, Mr. Wilmington...” Brenda Temple assured him as the door opened.
 
“They’re ready for him upstairs, Brenda.”
 
“Thanks, Jenna, I’m afraid you’ll have to leave, Mr. Wilmington.”
 
Buck placed his hand on Larabee’s left shoulder and wished the green eyes would open and look at him. After everything Chris had gone through in the last few months, Buck wasn’t sure he had the strength left to fight back one more time.
 
“Mr. Wilmington, you’ll have to leave.”
 
“Yeah, I know. Chris, we’ll be here when you wake up,” the gentle rogue vowed before leaving the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nathan entered Ezra’s room to find the younger man lying on his left side. An IV was delivering fluids and another was giving him blood to replenish what he’d lost. He couldn’t see the conman’s face, but something told him his friend was awake. He nodded to the nurse and moved to the opposite side of the bed in time to see Standish’s eyes open.
 
“Hey, Ezra, how do you feel?” Jackson asked.
 
“Deplorable, Nathan, you would think a hospital of this size would at least provide a patient with adequate coverage.”
 
“Are you cold?”
 
“Frostbite will soon set in,” the gambler grumbled.
 
“Can you get him another blanket?” Jackson asked and the nurse left him alone with the patient.
 
“Thank you,” Standish said, shifting slightly and producing a lot of pain in his shoulder. He moaned and closed his eyes and felt a comforting touch on his arm.
 
“They should be taking you upstairs at any time,” Jackson assured him.
 
“Another trip I am not looking forward to. How is Chris doing?”
 
“Doc says he should be fine once they remove the bullet. He also has a concussion and they’ll be monitoring him closely once surgery is over,” Jackson explained as the nurse returned and covered him with a heated blanket.
 
“How’s that, Mr. Standish,” she asked.
 
“Much better, thank you,” Standish said.
 
“I’m glad. Mr. Jackson, they are coming to take Mr. Standish to surgery right now so I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”
 
“We’ll be here when you wake up, Ezra!” Jackson stated before leaving the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ezra heard voices and wondered why he couldn’t make sense of what they were saying. It felt as if cotton had been stuffed into his ears making it impossible to hear the words spoken by those in the room with him. Slowly but surely he let his mind wake to more and more sensations. There was a numbness throughout his body and he suddenly remembered where he’d felt that sensation before. Someone was feeding him drugs...heavy pain medication from the extent of the numbness. He shifted on the bed and realized his left shoulder was immobilized and something was attached to his left hand.
 
“Ez, you awake?”
 
“No, I’m thinking I must be dead and this is hell,” Standish moaned without opening his eyes.
 
“Nope, sorry, Ez, yer not dead, but I’m bettin’ ya wish ya were.”
 
“Mr. Standish, my name is Toni and I’ll be looking after you and Mr. Larabee...”
 
“Larabee...Chris! Vin where’s Chris?” the gambler cried, wincing as the quick movement sent shards of pain through his shoulder.
 
“Easy, Ez, don’t want ta be movin’ around ta much right now,” Tanner warned.
 
“I’m fine, Vin! But Chris! Where is he?”
 
“He should be down any minute and they’ll be putting him in the bed by the window. Looks like you two will be spending the next few days as roommates.”
 
“He’s okay?”
 
“He will be, but ‘spect he’ll have one hell of a headache though.”
 
“Mr. Standish, you have a patient controlled analgesic pump hooked up and it gives you control of how much medication you need. It’s already programmed to deliver the required dosage, so please don’t worry about overmedicating because it won’t happen.”
 
“Thank you, Toni,” Standish said as the door opened and an orderly looked into the room.
 
“We have Chris Larabee here, Toni.”
 
“Thank you, Barry. Mr. Tanner could you come to this side of the bed and stay out of the way?”
 
“Yes, ma’am,” the Texan said and watched as they barred open the door.
 
“He’ll be in the bed by the window,” Toni explained as she moved Standish’s bed back to make room for the stretcher. She helped maneuver the gurney into position and made sure it was the same height as the bed. A second nurse entered the room and moved to help them with the patient.
 
“Make sure the brake is on, Sylvia,” Toni ordered.
 
“It’s set.”
 
“Thanks. Mr. Larabee, can you hear me?”
 
“Hmm,” the blond mumbled and licked at dry lips.
 
“We’re going to transfer you to your bed.”
 
“A…already in bed,” Larabee whispered tiredly.
 
“No, you’re on a stretcher and I can assure you the bed will be more comfortable,” Toni explained and then looked at the orderly and the other nurse. “Okay, he’s still out of it. Let’s move him on three. One, two, three.”
 
Chris held his breath as they lifted him from the stretcher to the bed. The movement jarred his shoulder and sent shockwaves throughout his body. He finally expelled the breath he’d been holding as the pain slowly subsided. He blinked his eyes in an effort to focus them, but the movement was unwise as it tugged on the stitches in his cheek.
 
“Damn.”
 
“Damn is right, Cowboy. Welcome back.”
 
“Mr. Larabee, I’m going to take your vitals and then we’ll let you sleep. Okay?”
 
“S...sounds good,” Larabee answered and finally spotted the man in the next bed. “Ez....you okay?”
 
“I’ve felt better, but at least I’m alive. You?”
 
“Same, I guess, but I can definitely say I c...could do without this damn headache.”
 
“Go ahead and sleep, Chris. Maybe our deplorable headaches will vanish while we are in dreamland.”
 
“Whatever you j...just said sounds good. Vin, tell the others to be quiet or I’ll find my gun,” Larabee warned and was soon sleeping once more.
 
“Mr. Standish, use your call button if you need anything,” the nurse explained before leaving the room.
 
“Vin, is he really okay?” the gambler asked as he watched Vin move to the second bed.
 
“Seems like it. He looks a little pale though.”
 
“Having a projectile impact your body has a way of doing that,” Standish said and closed his eyes.
 
“Yeah, that it does, Ez,” Tanner whispered and moved to stand by the window. He knew the others would be back within the hour and relaxed in the quiet while it lasted.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
It was three days later when the injured men were released from the hospital and placed under the watchful eye of their teammates. Ezra and Chris were both sporting shoulder immobilizers and Chris’ cheek was still swollen and a deep purple bruise now encompassed most of the right cheekbone. With his arm in a sling he could not use the crutches and was relying on his friends to help him get around. Josiah and Nathan had picked them up, signed the discharge papers and picked up the prescriptions for both men. Now both men were sleeping in the back seat as Sanchez pulled into the driveway.
 
“Well, looks like Chris and Ezra enjoyed the ride,” Jackson said, smiling as he opened the side door and climbed out.
 
“Chris, we’re here,” Sanchez said as he slid the side door open.
 
“Lemme be, J’siah,” the blond mumbled and turned away from the bright sunlight.
 
“I will when we get you and Ezra inside.”
 
“Get Ezra first,” Larabee ordered.
 
“Sorry, Chris, no can do. We need to get you out before we can help Ezra. Now come on. The faster we get you inside the faster you can go back to sleep,” Jackson explained and smiled as sleep drenched eyes finally opened.
 
“Not much chance of that, Nate. Gonna sit out back a spell...”
 
“Oh, I don’t think so. You’re going to your room and into bed...”
 
“Don’t think you can make me do that, Nate...”
 
“Oh, I’m not gonna even try, Chris.”
 
“Smart man, Nathan Jackson,” Standish said from the other seat.
 
“I suppose you plan on going out back too, Ezra?”
 
“I was thinking of soaking up some rays...basking in the sunlight...”
 
“That’s what I thought you’d say. Come on, Josiah, let’s get these two fools inside!”
 
“Chris, hold on and I’ll get the wheelchair,” Sanchez warned.
 
“I don’t need...”
 
“I’m sure Dr. Frost said he wanted you to stay off your leg for at least a week,” Jackson warned. The orthopedic surgeon had been in to look at Larabee’s knee and had warned him that he needed to adhere to strict precautions if he wanted to get full mobility back.
 
“Damn, Nate, were you there every time a doctor came to see me?”
 
“Most of the time,” Jackson said as Sanchez returned with the wheelchair.
 
“Figures, hope you plan on picking on Ezra for a while.”
 
“Chris, might I ask you not to change the subject from your recuperation to mine!” Standish exclaimed as he shifted across the seat.
 
“Oh, I have a few things in mind for Ezra. Now if you’d quit bellyaching we can get you in the chair and we can all go eat.”
 
“What’s takin ya so long?” Tanner asked as he came around the corner of the house.
 
“Chris and Ezra, do I need to say more?” Jackson asked.
 
“Not at all,” the Texan grinned as he moved to take the handles of Larabee’s wheelchair. “Knew you’d be in a snit before long...”
 
“Told you I don’t get in a snit, Tanner. Now wheel me around back.”
 
“Sorry, got orders ta bring ya inside!”
 
“Orders? Whose orders? Nathan...”
 
“Not mine, Chris,” Jackson said shrugging his shoulders and smiling innocently.
 
“Fine, then I’m countermanding those orders. Lunch on the patio, Tanner!”
 
“Nope, sorry, lunch in bed!” Tanner said as they maneuvered Larabee’s chair up the steps to the house.
 
“Vin, so help me...”
 
“Well, good afternoon, Chris, Ezra. I’m so glad you’re home.”
 
“Nettie, what are you doing here?” Larabee asked as she hugged him gently before moving out of the way.
 
“Well, Son, we figured you would need someone to make sure you listened to doctor’s orders and we both know I’m just as stubborn and bull-headed as you are.”
 
“I’d love to see those two butt heads,” Standish whispered.
 
“Well, Ezra, that just might happen, but I assure you I’ve butted heads with the best and right now I can handle both you and Chris. Now let’s get you both settled in bed and I’ll bring lunch...”
 
“Let me guess...broth and Jell-O?” Larabee said irritably.
 
“Not exactly...how does chicken and dumplings sound?” She saw the fight leave her nephew in law’s face and was rewarded by a pale, but thin smile.
 
“Sounds great, Nettie. Just what the doctor ordered. Come on, Tanner, get me inside...chicken and dumplings await.” With those words, Chris Larabee let them know that he was going to be okay. It would take time, but the healing process was taking place a few words and gestures at a time.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris stood over the two plaques that marked the graves of the two people he loved more than life itself. He couldn’t believe a year had gone by since he’d lost them and his reason to live. He knew now that there was more to life than just living on the edge and that someday he would be reunited with Sarah, Adam, and the unborn baby. In his hands he held a bouquet of red roses cut from the bush Josiah had planted at the ranch. A vase was set between the two names and he placed the roses inside before running his hands over the words engraved in the plaque.
 
SARAH CONNELLY LARABEE          ADAM JONATHON LARABEE
BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER        BELOVED SON
JULY 26TH 1970-MAY 17TH 2001          MAY 31ST 1995-MAY 17TH 2001
 
                         IN GODS HOUSE YOU’LL BE SAFE
                        AND WE’LL BE REUNITED THERE
                       
“Sarah, it’s been a year since I lost you and Adam and our...our baby and there’s a part of me that’s still ready to hunt Ella Gaines into the ground for what she did, but there are people here that anchor me to what’s important. I bought that place you loved and Josiah planted a rose bush from your garden out front. It bloomed for the first time last week and I know that’s unusual, but it’s also a miracle since so many bloomed at once. I cut them this morning so I’d have them for you...to show you that there’s still a part of you with me.” Chris reached out and touched the soft petals as tears formed in his eyes.
 
“I’ve faced some truths in the last year. Fought some demons that nearly got the best of me. Drank more Jack Daniels than I should have, but sometimes it just wouldn’t stop and I couldn’t keep going. I’ve been seeing Susan James and she just listens to everything I have to say. I told her about the night I nearly ate a bullet and how I saw you and knew I couldn’t do it. I’m easing off on the antidepressants now, thanks to Susan and the boys.
 
They’ve been there through all of this; Vin, with his quiet presence and Josiah, with his words of wisdom and divine intervention.  Nathan’s finished his course and is a fully trained paramedic, and well, the rest of the boys and I threw him a little party to celebrate. JD can be as quiet as Vin sometimes, and he’s lost a lot in his lifetime and I think it was quite a shock to him when you and Adam were murdered. Ezra’s back to playing cards and has full dexterity with his shoulder. Thought for a while there that Hank’s bullet had done more damage, but with a lot of physiotherapy he’s beaten the odds. He feels guilty about killing Hank, but he knows Hank was crazy at the last of it.
 
Think part of that is my fault. I took you away from him and he couldn’t face that loss. I can’t really say that I blame him...losing you was nearly my undoing, but I had the boys to help me out. I had Hank buried near your mother...Nettie and the boys were there when he was laid to rest. She doesn’t hold a grudge against him, and well his death sort of put an end to any reason to do that. I know I cursed him more than once since you died, but now I hope he’s resting in peace and his own demons have been exercised from his soul.”
 
Chris stood up and looked down at the graves once more before speaking again. “Buck was devastated by all this, Sarah, but he also stood by me through it all. He was stronger than I ever gave him credit for and I know I owe him an apology or two or three. Seems he owes me a few as well.” The blond laughed as he rubbed his chin.
 
“He’s still got that way about him. One punch and out I went. Deserved it too...was being an idiot and as Nettie would say I was throwing a tantrum…or, in Vin’s words I was in a snit. Well, Buck, he’s always there, Sarah, always knows when I need to talk or just someone I know I can talk to about you and Adam. Oh the others will listen, but in Buck I have someone who shares a lot of my memories, both good and bad. Guess I should tell you I’m doing okay, Sarah. I really am and I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m supposed to until God lets me be with you again. Don’t know how long that’ll be, but according to something Buck once told his great grandmother...only the good die young. Guess that means I’ll be here for a lot of years. You know that old saying is truer than I thought...because you and Adam and our baby were too young...too beautiful. God, I miss you!”
 
Chris felt rather than heard his friends surrounding him as he stood between the two graves. He knew they were there and he reached out to them, feeling the grief fade with their touch. He’d never forget the love he had for his lost family, but right now, right here, he could face the future with these men at his side.
 
“You ready to go home, Chris?”
 
“Yeah, Buck, I’m ready,” Larabee said as he turned away from the final resting place of his wife and children. He’d said his goodbyes, but they weren’t final. Someday in the future he would be reunited with his heart and soul, of that he was certain.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The mirror had been taken away and destroyed along with every other mirror in the villa. Ella Gaines stood on the veranda overlooking the harbor as the breeze blew in from the sea. For the last year this had been her home, but she was ready to move on. Her face was covered in a white silk material that kept the damaged flesh from prying eyes and sympathetic stares. They would be moving to Paris as soon as Jack and Dr. Gerard returned from the airport. Sometimes she had lucid thoughts, but most time she was kept sedated. When she came close to thinking on her own she envisioned a handsome blond prince who would someday rescue her from her captives. He would love her in spite of the horrible damage done to her by the flames and he would love her forever.
 
“You’ll come for me, Chris Larabee, and we will share an eternity together.”
 
Ella Gaines screamed as she threw her glass towards the ocean and sank to her knees, hoping and praying her hero would rescue her from the hell she was in.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris looked at the letter in his hands and felt a chill run down his spine. Somehow without looking he knew whom it was from and he swallowed before opening the envelope. He pulled two items from the envelope. One was a picture of Ella Gaines with her hand linked to his arm. They were both dressed for a formal gathering and where Ella looked happy, Chris looked uncomfortable. The second was a folded piece of white paper and he opened it and began reading.
 
My Dearest Chris,

I forgive you for not appreciating what I did for you...for us, but I cannot allow the jealous and the weak of heart to destroy the great love we share. If we have the courage of our true hearts, we will do whatever is needed to find our way back to each other, and the rest of the world be damned. Until that day, I remain faithfully, lovingly yours,

                                                                                                                                                  Ella Gaines Larabee

 
“I’ll be waiting, Bitch,” Chris whispered as he took a match and set fire to both the letter and the picture. As the flames quickly erased the images and the writing, Chris felt as if a darkness had been lifted from his soul. He threw the papers into the fireplace and turned to look at the picture on the mantelpiece. The smiling image of his wife and son was forever burned in his memory and nothing or no one could take that from him.

 
THE END




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