DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 5


“Okay, Ezra, what have you found out?” Larabee asked as he took the seat at the head of the conference table.
 
“Who should I start with. Jacqueline Maynard or Richard Barker? Or do you want to know what Miller had to say about the explosion that injured our comrades?” the conman asked, looking from Larabee to Sanchez, to Jackson. The team was suffering the effects of missing men, but they still had a job to do and would put everything into finding out what was happening.
 
“What did Bob say?” Sanchez asked, reaching for the cup of coffee in front of him.
 
“It seems the explosion was no accident...”
 
“Hell, we figured that much,” Jackson said. “Does he have any information on what caused it?”
 
“There was very little evidence for them to find. Miller says the explosive device was probably handmade and the explosives themselves contained an incendiary trigger. Whatever was used as the explosive burnt hotter than normal explosives and that’s why the car burned so quickly. They’re running through the files to see if any of the suspects they’ve come up with uses this or something similar.”
 
“This is where Buck’s expertise would come in handy,” Larabee said of the team’s explosive expert.
 
“Yes, well, for now we’ll have to rely on Bob and his men,” Sanchez said. 
 
“What have you turned up on Jacqueline Maynard?” the blond asked.
 
“ Jacqueline Maynard was born and raised in Chicago Illinois. Her parents, Michael and Doreen Maynard were nearly killed two years ago while on vacation in the Everglades. Not sure of the exact cause, but foul play was not ruled out. They are still living in Chicago, but not in the house they originally owned. There’s one sibling, a brother, Jamison Maynard, deceased...foul play suspected once more as he died of a gunshot wound...”
 
“Sounds like Murphy’s been living with Miss Maynard,” Jackson observed of the string of bad luck.
 
“Yeah, I just hope she kicked Murphy out before Vin became her partner. What else have you got on her?” Larabee asked.
 
“There’s some reference to her being involved in porn, but there’s also something about her brother having been involved...”
 
“Her brother got her into porn?” Sanchez asked incredulously.
 
“No...her brother saved her form being an unwilling participant in a porn snuff film while on vacation in the Cayman Islands. He found her and got her out of there before filming started. It wasn’t long after they returned stateside that he was murdered in their living room. Shot several times in the chest and died in Maynard’s arms. Parents found her holding him in her arms and rocking back and forth.”
 
“Damn, this woman’s been through a lot,” Larabee exclaimed of her history.
 
“There’s more,” Standish said.
 
“What else is there?” Jackson asked.
 
“The man behind Jamison Maynard’s death is none other than...”
 
“Hector Mendoza?”
 
“You win the prize, Mr. Larabee!” the gambler told him before continuing. “She has been with the DEA for nearly ten years and  worked on several major cases  in the last four years. She’s well known for being a stickler for details and making sure she’s got everything she needs for a conviction. There are a couple of major drug kingpins on her dossier and she’s mentioned in several other cases. There are three commendations on her record and she knows what she’s doing. I believe our sharpshooter is in good hands!”
 
“Sounds like it, but keep digging in case this is all a front!” Larabee ordered.
 
“Certainly, now we come to Richard Barker.”
 
“Tell me you found something concrete?” the blond asked hopefully.
 
“Have I ever let you down?” Standish asked, smiling as he opened the third file.
 
“No...can’t say that you have, Ez,” The Firm’s leader assured him.
 
“Thank you, Mr. Larabee. Okay, here we go. Richard Barker, fifty four years old, married for twenty two years to Rosalie Barker, but it ended five years ago in a messy divorce. Barker lost everything and stated it was the fault of his lawyer. During the next year, Barker struggled to live on his meager salary and continued to berate his lawyer for costing him everything. At the end of that year he was transferred at his own request to Rio De Janeiro. Since then he’s worked to bring down several drug cartels and his records show he’s doing a commendable job of doing just that with six major arrests and four convictions. The other two didn’t make it to trial and were supposedly murdered by clients or angry family members who lost siblings to bad heroin amongst other things. There are several notations about him being seen with unsavory characters, but he’s always managed to explain it as doing groundwork for taking a drug lord down and he’s had enough convictions to throw off the scent. If anyone checked his file they’d find nothing  that could tie him into any criminal activities...however...”
 
“You found something?” Sanchez said of the look on Standish’ face.
 
“That I did. It seems Mr. Barker has been on the take, but it would be extremely hard to prove unless you knew what you were looking for. JD laid the ground work on this and I just continued to dig where he stopped. Barker is doing his job as far as it goes. He’s getting rid of drug cartels by taking down the man behind them. According to his own files...which Mr. Dunne managed to hack into...we found out he’s been making huge deposits into accounts under an alias. One such account contains nearly one point two million dollars...”
 
“Wow! Seems a little much for a DEA agent...even if the man’s in charge,” Jackson observed.
 
“Can you tie him in with that account, Ez?” Larabee asked.
 
“I can, but it wouldn’t be admissible in a court of law, at least not until we can find a way to present it without showing how the information was acquired.”
 
“At least we’ll be able to warn Vin. When is he supposed to call again, Chris?” Sanchez asked.
 
“He said he’d call by the end of the week,” Larabee answered, he saw the conman ruffling some papers before stopping at a simple spread sheet. “What else Ez?”
 
“There’s a definite tie in between Richard Barker and Hector Mendoza!”
 
“Dammit! Can things get any worse?” Jackson asked.
 
“I think Murphy has definitely followed Miss Maynard to Rio,” Sanchez observed as he filled his coffee cup once more.
 
“Yes, and it appears as if he’s there to stay,” Standish said.
 
“Alright, Ez, what have you got that ties Barker and Mendoza together?” Larabee asked.
 
“Well, it seems that every time Barker brings down a major drug lord there’s a corresponding deposit into his account. It usually takes place within a week of a conviction and the depositing account is registered in a dummy corporation called Bryant Pharmaceuticals which in turn leads to a company owned by Hector Mendoza!”
 
“So Mendoza is paying him to take down his competition,” the ex-preacher suggested.
 
“That’s what it looks like,” Standish agreed. “I just wish there was some way we could prove it without having to use the information we uncovered.”
 
“At least we can give Vin a heads up on Barker’s and Mendoza’s dealings,” Larabee told him.
 
“Okay, so we give Vin the info, but is there anything else we can do?” Jackson asked.
 
“I’ll talk to Orrin, see if we can trust the agent who recruited Vin,” the blond told him. “If he’s on the up and up we’ll give him what we have and hopefully he’ll be able to find a use for it without bringing us into it.”
 
“Sounds good, Chris, are you going back to the hospital tonight?” Jackson asked.
 
“No, I was, but I need to check on Sarah and Adam.” Larabee answered.
 
“Are you still worried about Ella Gaines?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Yeah, Josiah, just seems like she left town too easily. I know her and she wouldn’t give up that easily.”
 
“Do you think she had anything to do with the explosion?” the medic asked.
 
“I wish I could say no, Nate, but it’s a good possibility and until I find out for sure I’m going to make sure Sarah and Adam are not in danger. Right now they are with Evie Travis, seems their son is in town and he’s got a three year old with him. Evie wanted Sarah to bring Adam over to play with her grandson. I’m going to pick them up after I talk with Orrin.”
 
“Mr. Larabee, would you like me to continue checking for her name in the hotel registries?”
 
“Yes...Ezra, don’t forget to check not only Gaines, but Larabee as well. The woman is obsessive and believes it’s her right to use my name,” the blond said, standing and moving towards the small dishwasher and placing his empty cup inside.
 
“She certainly does seem to have an obsession when it comes to you, Mr. Larabee,” Standish said as they moved to the outer office.
 
“Wish she could take no for an answer. Okay, boys, which one of you is going to the hospital?”
 
“Josiah and I were going to drive over as soon as we finished up here,” Jackson told him.
 
“Good, look it’s nearly four now so you might as well get something to eat and head on over. Ezra, what are your plans?”
 
“I was going to visit our fallen comrades, but if there’s something you’d rather I do then I will gladly change those plans!”
 
“No...that’s okay, Ez. You boys go on. I’ll see you all at the hospital in the morning and be warned we’ll probably be toting those two out of the hospital.”
 
“Damn, that should be fun,” Jackson said as he moved towards his desk.
 
“A barrel of laughs,” Sanchez agreed. “Chris, take care and try not to worry too much.”
 
“Thanks, Josiah, see you boys tomorrow.”
 
Josiah watched as his boss stepped into the elevator and the door closed behind him. He knew the blond carried a heavy load, and wondered if there was some way they could help ease it.
 
“What are you thinking, Josiah?” Jackson asked, sitting on the corner of the ex-preacher’s desk. 
 
“I was thinking Chris is carrying a heavy burden,” the older man said.
 
“Yeah, it sure seems that way. I had a talk with Buck once and it seems Ella’s is a deadly obsession. She’s dangerous, Josiah, but until we can find evidence that shows how dangerous she is there’s not much we can do, except...”
 
“Help keep Sarah and Adam safe for him!” Standish finished.
 
“Exactly, perhaps we could make sure someone is watching over them at all times,” Sanchez suggested.
 
“This is one time I think Chris will agree to our being underfoot,” Jackson said as they made plans to help keep the Larabee family safe.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris stepped into the outer office and smiled at the woman behind the desk. Peggy Rollins had worked for Orrin Travis for nearly twenty years and knew everything that went on in the office, both Travis’ and The Firms.
 
“Hello, Chris, how is that wonderful family of yours?”
 
“They’re fine, Peggy, how about you. That granddaughter of yours must be getting big now.”
 
“She sure is and she looks just like her grandmother I might add.”
 
“Ah, than she must be gorgeous,” the blond said, smiling as the woman blushed at his compliment. “Is Orrin in?”
 
“Yes, he is. Hold on and I’ll see if he’ll see you,” Rollins told him, pressing a button on the switchboard in front of her.
 
‘Yes, Peggy?’
 
“Chris Larabee is here to see you, Sir,” the woman said.
 
‘Send him right in!’
 
“Yes, Sir. You heard him, Chris. Go on in,” the woman said, smiling as she watched the man walk towards the office door. ‘No wonder the ladies stop and look,’ she thought as she watched the blond move away from the desk.
 
Chris opened the door, closing it again once he was inside.
 
“Have a seat, Chris. Is everything alright with Buck and JD?”
 
“Buck and JD are doing okay, Orrin. Hopefully they’ll be discharged tomorrow.”
 
“Good, I’m glad it wasn’t more serious.”
 
“Yeah, we all are,” Larabee agreed.
 
“Have you heard from Vin?”
 
“Not since the last time we talked, but that’s why I’m here.”
 
“What’s wrong?”
 
“What do you know about Gerald Coltrain?”
 
“I know he’s a damn dedicated agent!” Travis assured the blond.
 
“But is he trustworthy?”
 
“I would vouch for him, Chris. Gerald and I have known each other a few years. I wouldn’t say we’re friends as such, but if I needed someone to back me up in an unknown situation I’d take him above a lot of men! Now what’s going on?”
 
“The DEA agent Vin was to contact in Rio...”
 
“Barker?”
 
“Yeah. Vin asked us to check into his dealings and we uncovered a few things.”
 
“Uncovered...how?”
 
“That’s the problem, Orrin, what we’ve uncovered was obtained illegally, but it’s proof that Richard Barker is not as up and up as he’d like people to believe. There are several connections that can be traced back to Hector Mendoza.
 
“Mendoza! Shit, that’s the bastard Vin’s after!”
 
“Exactly, now Vin’s partner is an agent named Jacqueline Maynard and she’s been suspicious of Barker’s dealings since being assigned to Rio.”
 
“Can she be trusted?”
 
“I think so...Vin trusts her and you know his instincts are usually right on. Her dossier seems to be clean as well.”
 
“So Vin’s not in any danger?”
 
“Not from her, but if Barker’s dirty as the information we have shows, then he’s involved with Mendoza and Vin’s and Jacqueline’s presence there has been compromised.”
 
“Damnit! Alright, let me have copies of what you’ve uncovered and I’ll see if Coltrain will be able to act on it without bringing you boys into it.”
 
“Thanks, Orrin, I’ll have Ezra bring the information to you,” Larabee said, standing and shaking the older man’s hand.
 
“You’re welcome, Chris. How are you doing?”
 
“I’m okay, Orrin...”
 
“Are you? It doesn’t look like you’re sleeping very well,” the older man observed.
 
“To be honest, I haven’t, but I’m really alright...or will be when Vin’s back where he belongs and Buck and JD are out of the hospital.”
 
“Alright, Chris, just take it easy and remember you’re under a lot of stress and need to get some rest.”
 
“I will, see you tomorrow, Orrin,” Larabee said before leaving the office.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Mendoza cursed as he paced his office. Two men hadn’t reported in and he knew something was wrong. He slammed his fist against the wall before turning to Ernesto.
 
“Have Juan and Guerrero take their men and search the sector Manual and Miguel were supposed to be patrolling. Tell them to report in every half hour.”
 
“I will see to it, Hector!” Ruiz said, hurrying from the room.
 
Mendoza sat at his desk and typed in several code words into the computer sitting on his desk. Barker was beginning to be a liability, one he couldn’t afford to keep around. Over the last few days there’d been a lot of activity dealing with Barker’s activities and his own dummy corporation of Bryant Pharmaceuticals. He knew he would have to deal with the DEA agent before it all lead back to him. He continued to check his assets, noting that someone had tried several times to get past his safeguards, looking up when the door was opened again.
 
“Juan and Guerrero took four men and are searching the area south of here. I told them to make sure they checked everywhere for Miguel and Manual!”
 
“Very well, Ernesto. Now there is something else I need taken care of as soon as possible.”
 
“What is it?”
 
“Richard Barker...”
 
“The DEA agent?”
 
“Si, I want you to send a couple of your best men to dispatch him. He has outlived his usefulness and is a danger to my organization. Tell whoever you send to make it look like an accident if possible, but I want him dead by tomorrow. Understood?”
 
“Si, Hector. I shall send Raul Espinoza.”
 
“Ah, si, Espinoza is very good at taking care of things such as this. See that he leaves immediately. I believe Barker is at Rio Internacional Av. Atlantica, 1500 – Copacabana. Room 12B.”
 
“Si, Hector, I will make sure he knows what’s expected of him,” Ruiz explained.
 
“Actually, Ernesto, perhaps I could use this. Tell, Raul to make it look like he was murdered because of his involvement in drugs...make it look like Carlos is behind the whole thing. It will rid me of two problems at the same time!”
 
“Very well, I will see to it.”
 
Mendoza put his hands behind his back and walked to the window. The moon was just beginning to peek through the overhead covering of trees and he smiled as he thought of Espinoza and how thorough a job he would do. Now all they had to do was find the two missing men and hopefully Vin Tanner and Jacqueline Maynard as well.
 
‘Ah, Jacqueline, if you are as lovely as I remember perhaps we can still make you a star,’ Mendoza thought as he returned to his desk and the computer files he was working on.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris drove onto the tree lined street, wondering why Orrin held onto the large home. With only him and Evie living in the spacious six bedroom home at 961 Gold Dust Circle it seemed like a lot of work for the older couple. He knew they had several maids and groundskeepers, but Evie and Orrin both dallied in the yard work and the upkeep of the house. The red, yellow, pink, and white roses were in full bloom as Chris drove along the driveway and stopped in front of the house. Exiting the truck he walked up to the front door and rang the bell. It wasn’t long before a young woman answered, smiling as she recognized the man standing in the doorway.
 
“Hello, Mr. Larabee. Mrs. Larabee and Adam are out in the back with Mrs. Travis. Would you like me to get them for you?”
 
“Thanks, Jane, I think I’ll join them for a few minutes.”
 
“Very well, Mr. Larabee. Would you like something to drink? I just made a fresh pitcher of lemonade.”
 
“Sounds wonderful...thanks, Jane.”
 
“You’re welcome,” the maid said as the blond walked through the foyer and opened the patio door.
 
Chris smiled as he watched Sarah playing a game of tag with the two boys. Adam helped the younger kid chase after her and made sure he caught Sarah at the same time. Identical squeals of delight came from both boys as Chris moved to join them.
 
“Hello, Chris, how are you?”
 
“Hello, Evie,” Larabee said, placing a kiss on her cheek. “I’m doing okay. Billy’s certainly getting big.”
 
“Yes, he is. He’ll be four next month and has already decided Adam will be coming to his birthday party.”
 
“Is Steven around?”
 
“No, he had a couple of meetings to attend at the newspaper office. He said to say hello and that he’s sorry he missed you.”
 
“So, when do we get to meet Mary?”
 
“I’m afraid she’s still in the middle of getting her paper to work. Steven will be heading back to Denver first thing in the morning.”
 
“Hi, Sweetheart!” Sarah said as she hurried over and wrapped her arms around her husband. “Adam, you and Billy stay out of trouble.”
 
“We will,” both boys called as Jane came out with a tray of lemonade and fresh baked cookies.
 
“Thanks, Jane, you can just leave it on the table,” Evie said.
 
“Yes, Mrs. Travis,” the young woman said.
 
Chris moved to pour the juice and sat at the table, watching the two boys play hide and seek through the children’s toys the Travis’ kept on hand for their grandson. Billy was an only child and his grandparents doted on him, yet he wasn’t spoiled like some kids.
 
“Chris, you look tired,” the older woman said as Larabee rubbed his eyes.
 
“I’m fine, Evie,” the blond assured her and looked up to see his wife frowning at him. He shook his head at her concern, hoping she wouldn’t pursue it further, at least not while they were in the Travis home. He sipped at the lemonade, wondering why all of a sudden he felt the bone weary tiredness that came with lack of sleep.
 
“Are you sure? You’re not sick are you?” Evie asked.
 
“No...I’m feeling fine,” Larabee assured her as Adam and Billy ran towards them.
 
“I’m thirsty!” the youngest boy said.
 
“Me too, can we have some lemonade too?” the older one asked.
 
“Sure,” Evie Travis said, pouring both boys a small glass of the fresh juice.
 
“Can we have cookies too, Nana?”
 
“Sure, Billy...but only two each. Dinner will be ready in an hour.”
 
“Mommy, can Billy come play at our house?”
 
“Sure, maybe Evie can bring him out tomorrow if she doesn’t have any plans,” Sarah suggested.
 
“Sounds good...”
 
“Hmm, tomorrow may not be such a good idea,” Larabee said, hating the look of disappointment on both faces. “Sorry, boys, but I’m probably gonna be bringing Uncle Buck home from the hospital and he’s going to need some rest. Maybe we can do it on Saturday, okay?”
 
“Uncle Buck’s coming home?” Adam asked.
 
“Yes, Sport, I believe he is. So I need you to help me make sure he gets all the rest he needs,” Larabee said.
 
“I will, Daddy,” the boy said, finishing the cookies and lemonade.
 
‘Buck’s not the only one who needs rest,’ Sarah thought as she noted the dark smudges under Larabee’s eyes. She knew he hadn’t been sleeping well since the run in with Ella Gaines, but now understood that it was worse than he’d let on.
 
“Well, Evie, I think I’d better get my guys home and start dinner.”
 
“Alright, Sarah. Adam, stop by the kitchen and ask Jane to give you some cookies to take home with you,” the older woman suggested.
 
“Thanks, Aunt Evie,” the boy said as Billy hurried into the house with him.
 
“Evie, thanks so much for today,” Sarah said, hugging the woman.
 
“Make sure your husband gets some rest, Honey,” Travis whispered softly.
 
“I will,” Sarah assured her.
 
“I’ll call you tomorrow, Sarah,” she said turning her attention to the man who’d made a distinctive impact on their lives. “Chris, try not to worry so much!”
 
“I will, Evie, thanks.” He led his wife inside and smiled as his son rejoined them
 
“Daddy, I gots lots of cookies!”
 
“That’s good, Son, ‘cause you know your old man loves Jane’s chocolate chip cookies.”
 
“Don’t forget Mommy loves them too. Bye, Billy,” Sarah said.
 
“Bye, Aunt Sarah. Bye Uncle Chris. Bye Adam.”
 
“Bye, Billy,” Adam said as he followed his parents out the door.
 
~~~~~~~~
 
Ella smiled as she looked out over the city of Paris. So far everything was going according to plan and she watched as Averil spoke into the phone. She knew he was talking to Robert Spikes about the next phase of the plan and sipped at the glass of Chablis in her hand. She felt warm inside, her night’s sleep having been filled with wonderful dreams of being in bed with Chris Larabee, of making love to him and causing him pain. Making him pay for spurning her love and staying with the bitch and her whelp.
 
‘They’ll pay, Chris, and then it’ll be just you and me and the most pleasurable sex you can ever imagine!’
 
“Ella! Ella, did you hear me?”
 
“No...sorry, Jack, I was thinking.”
 
“About him?”
 
“Of course, who else would I be thinking of. He’ll soon be mine, won’t he?”
 
“Certainly, I mean we both know what Ella wants...Ella gets,” he said as he pulled her into his arms.
 
“Yes, I do. So what did Robert have to say?”
 
“He’ll talk to Powderman about your new orders, but he doesn’t see any problems as long as you’re willing to pay.”
 
“Money is not an object, Lover.”
 
“That’s what I told him,” Averil said, knowing the woman in his arms had enough money to make all her dreams come true and more. He knew some came from an inheritance from her first husband, and wondered if the car accident had been an accident after all. Other money came from illegal activities that kept them both wealthy.
 
“Powderman may have to bring in a couple of his people to make sure it looks like Wilmington is the target. He knows of a man who can and I quote here ‘...Shoot the ass off a fly at one hundred paces...’ So I’m guessing Wilmington’s in trouble.”
 
“Good, bastard deserves it. Did they find out when he’ll be released from the hospital?”
 
“He could be released as early as tomorrow morning,” Averil informed her.
 
“Tomorrow morning and I bet he’s staying with Chris,” she whispered, her voice laced with deadly vehemence.
 
“Probably, Bob will let us know when he’s got more information.”
 
“You did tell him I don’t want Wilmington dead...at least not yet...right?”
 
“That’s right, my ice queen, Bob knows you want to toy with him for now, but to make it look like there really is a threat to his life.”
 
“That’s perfect,” Ella said as Averil kissed her lips and placed his hand on her breast.
 
“And so are you,” the man said as he lavished more attention on the willing body. ‘Larabee, you don’t know what you’re missing,’ he thought as he felt her respond to his touch.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin opened his eyes and tried to figure out why his body felt so stiff, and where the pain in his right arm came from. There was a warmth next to his left side and he turned his head slightly, wincing as the movement jarred his shoulder. He felt the body next to him move and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
 
“Vin...”
 
“Hi...”
 
“Hi, yourself. How are you feeling?”
 
“Okay...little sore.”
 
“How’s the shoulder?”
 
“Numb mostly,” Tanner answered. “What time is it?”
 
“Not sure, can’t see...”
 
“Oh, yeah, hang on,” he lifted his left arm and pressed the button with his right, ignoring the worsening pain caused by the movement. “It’s 5:13...looks like we slept through the night.”
 
“Sure seems that way. Do you think you can move today?”
 
“Yep, just need ta work the kinks out,” the Texan explained as he sat up and waited for the dizziness to pass. “Need ta call Chris.”
 
“Alright, you do that and I’ll make sure everything we need for today is in my backpack...”
 
“Jackie, I can...”
 
“Not with that arm. Look, I’m not gonna say I’ll be able to do it easily, but I can handle it. If it gets too heavy we can take what we need and hide the pack until we can come back for it. Okay?”
 
“Guess so, just hate having ta...”
 
“Rely on a woman?” Maynard asked as she handed him the cell phone.
 
“Nope...wasn’t what I’s gonna say at all!” the tracker told her. “Was gonna say hate havin’ ta leave any of this here...there’s probably more patrols out there searching for those two.”
 
“Well, there’s nothing we can do about that, so just make your call and we’ll get moving...”
 
“Yes, Boss,” Tanner said, grinning as he picked up the phone and hit the light up button.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 
 
Chris looked at his sleeping wife before slipping out of his bed. It was just after midnight and he was still wide awake. His worry over Buck, JD, and Vin was only part of the problem. More and more of his life with Ella Gaines came back to him. Things he’d repressed were now being seen in a new light and he remembered just how close he’d come to being wrapped in the women’s web of deceit. He stood and moved to the open door, stopping at Adam’s room to check his son. He smiled at the sleeping boy, moved into the room and covered him with the blankets before walking to the kitchen. He poured himself a glass of juice and carried it towards the patio doors and into the back yard, just as his cell phone began to ring. Grabbing the small device he stepped into the back yard and closed the door behind him.
 
“Larabee!”
 
“Chris...it’s Vin.”
 
“Thank God. I was beginning to think you’d never call. Everything okay?”
 
“Yeah, everythin’s fine. Did ya get anythin’ on Barker?”
 
“Yes, Ezra came up with some new information. You’ll be glad to know your instincts were right about Jackie and hers were right about Richard Barker.”
 
“So he’s dirty?”
 
“Dirty as they come, but we can’t prove it legally. Stay away from him if possible.”
 
“We w...will.”
 
“Vin! What’s wrong?” the blond asked, hearing the pain in the man’s voice.
 
“Nothing...”
 
“Tanner...”
 
“Chris, it’s really nothing...”
 
“Cut the crap, Tanner. What happened?”
 
“Two of Mendoza’s men discovered our hideout. One of ‘em had a knife and got lucky...got me in the right arm.”
 
“How bad?”
 
“Not bad. Jackie stitched it up and cleaned it. We’re just about ta do a little more reconnaissance... maybe see if there’s a way ta get Mendoza out if he’s there.”
 
“You be careful, Vin...check back with me tomorrow night. I’ve got Orrin checking into things with Coltrain to see if there’s any way of using the evidence we uncovered.”
 
“Alright, Cowboy...try not ta worry...”
 
“With a bunch of yahoos like you guys?”
 
“How are Buck and JD?”
 
“Better, should be getting out of the hospital sometime tomorrow.”
 
“That’s great...they stayin’ with ya?”
 
“Buck is...JD’s staying with Nettie and Casey.”
 
“Nettie okay?”
 
“She’s fine, Vin...worried about you.”
 
“Tell her I’m fine and will need one of her apple cobblers when I get home! I gotta go, Chris.”
 
“Alright, just be careful and watch your back!” Larabee finished with the usual warning. He hung up and settled back in the comfortable chair. The light breeze cooled his flesh and he felt goosebumps form on his body. The soft sounds of the night lulled him into a sense of calm, but he knew there was no point of going back to bed. His thoughts turned to the past once more as he watched the clouds drift across the night sky. Ella was a beautiful woman, one who knew how to use her charms and Chris had been a gullible young man. He knew that was no excuse for the things he did with her, but it was too late to do anything to change the past. Now he had to look to the future and the woman he was married to. The strength of his love for Sarah Connelly Larabee far surpassed anything he’d ever felt for Ella Gaines. He sat there and felt exhaustion pulling at him, but each time he closed his eyes the dreams invaded and he’d snap awake before his mind was taken back in time.
 
“Chris.”
 
Larabee turned to see her standing in the doorway, the bright beams from the moon giving her brown hair an iridescent gleam as she moved towards him. He didn’t say a word as she knelt before him and looked up into his eyes and understood she was seeing deep into his soul. He could never keep anything from her and didn’t want to.
 
“I’m sorry, Honey, didn’t mean to wake you.”
 
“How long have you been having problems sleeping, Chris?”
 
“A while...”
 
“Since Ella or since Vin left?”
 
“Started after Vin left and got worse when E...Ella came back into my life.”
 
“She’s not in your life, Chris. I won’t let her do anything to break up our marriage.”
 
“She won’t...can’t, Sarah. I love you and have never loved anyone like this. Sometimes I think God gave me more than I was meant to have. You and Adam are a part of me...a part I never want to lose.”
 
“You won’t,” Sarah assured him. “Come on and we’ll go back to bed. I want you to do something for me, Chris.”
 
“Anything.”
 
“When we go to the hospital tomorrow I want you to let Dr. Midland take a look at you...maybe she can give you something to help you sleep.”
 
“I don’t need...”
 
“Chris, not getting enough sleep can lead to serious problems. It’s not like you’ll have to take it every night...but right now you’re carrying more baggage under your eyes than the Billings Airport luggage handlers.”
 
“Sound like Vin...He just called.”
 
“Is he okay?”
 
“Think so. Hurt his arm, but Jackie took care of it.”
 
“Did you tell him what turned up on Barker?”
 
“Yeah, hopefully Coltrain can do something about the bastard...sorry,” Larabee apologized.
 
“Chris!” Sarah said, smiling in disbelief. “This is me...you have nothing to apologize for. Come on, Honey, you really need to try and sleep. I’ll drive you into the hospital first thing in the morning.”
 
“Alright,” Larabee said, standing and wrapping his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “I love you.”
 
“I love you too,” she said as they moved into the house, locking the door behind them before making their way to the bedroom. She smiled as he climbed under the covers and pulled her close to him. She snuggled up against his body, drinking in the scent of the man she married. She felt his strong arms holding her and silently thanked God for giving her someone she could love and be loved by in return. 
 
‘Sarah.”
 
“Yes, Love?”
 
‘Sing that song...”
 
“Which one?”
 
“Garth Brooks...Unanswered Prayers...”
 
“Are you sure you want to hear that one?”
 
“Yeah...I’m sure,” Larabee said and listened as her soft voice sang the wondrous words.
 
“Just the other night at a hometown football game
My wife and I ran into my old high school flame
And as I introduced them the past came back to me
And I couldn't help but think of the way things used to be
She was the one that I'd wanted for all times
And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine
And if he'd only grant me this wish I wished back then
I'd never ask for anything again”
 
Chris felt tears in his eyes as he realized how this song mirrored his life. During the first few months he was with Ella Gaines. He thought this was it, that love was his and the dark haired woman would always be with him, but his prayers went unanswered and now he thanked God for that fact. Sarah’s lilting voice continued to sing the words as tears flowed from his eyes.
 
“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn't answer doesn't mean he don't care
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”
 
He knew the next verse said it all...as if Garth Brooks had been living a scene from his life when he sang the lyrics. Ella had turned out to be anything but an angel and she’d nearly destroyed his life.
 
“She wasn't quite the angel that I remembered in my dreams
And I could tell that time had changed me
In her eyes too it seemed
We tried to talk about the old days
There wasn't much we could recall
I guess the Lord knows what he's doin' after all
And as she walked away and I looked at my wife
And then and there I thanked the good Lord
For the gifts in my life
Some of God's greatest gifts are all too often unanswered...
Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers...”
 
“Sarah?”
 
“Yes...”
 
“Thank you...”
 
“Anytime, honey,” she whispered against his bare chest, hoping he would finally be able to sleep. She felt his heart beating beneath her and knew her own was tuned to his as she felt sleep calling to her.
 
Chris knew the instant she fell asleep and turned to look at the glowing green numbers on the digital clock. Three am and he was still not asleep, and probably wouldn’t but as he looked at his wife he knew this was real, and their love stronger than time itself.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
It was slow going, and between Vin’s injury and the added patrols they were nearly caught several times. They neared the northern edge of the field and stayed hidden just beyond the trail as a jeep with one man inside drove past them. They waited another fifteen minutes before racing across the open and into the field of plants. Once there they waited for the second patrol to pass them before moving deeper into the plants. The wind had picked up during their trip and it went a long ways to hiding their presence as the plants swayed in the breeze. Hoping the patrols would remain on the outside as they’d been wont to do so far, Vin and Jackie weren’t worried about discovery until they reached the buildings themselves. They spoke in whispers and hand signals as they stumbled through the fields.
 
Jackie kept glancing at the man beside her. She knew he was in pain, yet he chose to ignore the discomfort and keep moving a trait she knew all to well from her own previous injuries. When he thought she wasn’t looking the mask fell, and the pain was evident on his handsome face. She reached for his arm and pressed him to the ground.
 
“I need to check that wound and you need to drink some water!” she whispered and was grateful when he didn’t argue. She eased his arm from the sleeve of his oversized shirt and winced as he grimaced at the movement.
 
Vin held still as she lifted the bandage and gently pried it from the wound. He sucked in air through clenched teeth as he waited for the verdict. Turning his head to the side the tracker saw the wound and was glad there seemed to be no evidence of infection. He watched as her fingers prodded the area, making sure there was no pus and the stitches were still in place. He reached for his canteen and sipped the tepid liquid as he felt her dabbing antiseptic onto the injury and re-bandaging it.
 
“It looks good, Vin, but I’d still rather we had a doctor look at it,” Maynard whispered.
 
“We will, when this is all over I’ll see ta it. Right now we need ta check out those buildings.”
 
“Are you sure you can keep going? I mean you have lost some blood...”
 
“I’m fine, Jackie, had worse’n this shaving.”
 
“Sure you did, except you haven’t shaved in a hell of a long time,” she whispered as she stroked his heavily whiskered jaw.
 
“Razors are in short supply lately,” the tracker whispered, accepting a hand up and smiling as he looked into her concerned face. “Ready?”
 
“Yes...you?”
 
“Ready as I’ll ever be! Come on...let’s see who’s waiting at the base.” With those simple words they moved out once more, staying close to the ground as they moved towards the structures at the center.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sarah knew her husband was awake and slowly turned to face him. His eyes were bloodshot and his handsome face was grim as she pulled him to her and let his head rest on her arm. She felt his breath on her breast and knew at any other time it would be hard to resist making love with him.
 
“You didn’t sleep at all did you?”
 
“Closed my eyes for a while,” Larabee mumbled tiredly.
 
“Closing your eyes and sleeping are two different things, Chris. You’re going to see Dr. Midland today...”
 
“Sarah...”
 
“No arguments, Chris. You need to get some rest before you pass out at the wheel and hurt yourself! I’m driving us all into town today. You’re calling Josiah and telling him you won’t be in!”
 
“Honey, I have to. There are some things I need to check into...”
 
“Tell Josiah what they are. I am sure between the three of them they’ll be able to do anything you needed done. I’m not going to argue about this, Chris. I love you too much to see you go on like this.”
 
“Ah, hell, Sarah, you know Midland will probably want to do a physical or some other shit if she gets me in her office.”
 
“Probably and you know what?”
 
“What?”
 
“You’re overdue for your yearly physical anyway so this is the perfect time to have one. We’ll drop Adam off to Aunt Nettie while we pick up JD and Buck. You’ll get your physical done while I make sure Buck and JD are ready for release. Then we’ll drop JD off at Aunt Nettie’s, pick up Adam, come back here and get Buck settled...”
 
“Sounds like a busy day.”
 
“It will be and Chris?”
 
“Yeah?”
 
“You will tell Dr. Midland about the trouble you’re having sleeping!”
 
“I will,” he said, smiling at the mock sternness in her voice. “What time is it?”
 
“Six thirty. Guess we’d better get up...”
 
“Or we could just lie here and make...”
 
“Daddy...Mommy...I’m hungry!”
 
“...breakfast,” Chris finished as the boy’s appearance in the doorway stopped any thoughts of making love to his wife.  “Come here, Sport!”
 
Adam held onto his stuffed toy and ran into the room. He jumped on the foot of the bed and crawled slowly in between his parents. “Whatcha doing?”
 
“Sleeping,” Larabee answered and smiled at the frowning boy.
 
“Then why’re your eyes open? They gotta be closed if you’re sleeping...right, Mommy?”
 
“Right you are Adam. Now what would you like for breakfast?”
 
“I want toast and peanut butter!”
 
“I would like toast and peanut butter,” Larabee corrected.
 
“You want toast and peanut butter too, Daddy?” the boy asked.
 
“No, Sport...I meant the right way to ask is to say I would like, not I want,” the blond said, ruffling his son’s bed tossed hair.
 
“Oh...sorry...I would like toast and peanut butter.”
 
“How about we let your father get a shower while we make breakfast?” Sarah asked.
 
“Okay,” Adam said, jumping up and down between his parents.
 
“Alright, Sport, make sure Mommy doesn’t burn the toast,” the blond whispered as he climbed out of bed, kissed them both and made his way towards the bathroom. Once inside he closed the door and leaned wearily on the door for several minutes. He looked into the mirror and cursed under his breath. There was no use denying it, the dark smudges and the blood shot eyes contributed to his haggard appearance. He needed sleep, craved it, but his mind and body just didn’t seem to be in tune with each other. Forcing himself to move he made it to the shower and turned on the spray, selecting the massage cycle on the showerhead before stripping himself of his CKs and climbing into the shower stall. The water hit his tense muscles, feeling like small needles against his skin.
 
Chris felt the warmth running down his body and sighed as he put his head under the hot water. The massaging effect was wonderful and he began to feel almost human again as he poured a small amount of shampoo into his hand and rubbed it into his hair. He lathered and rinsed, watching as the soapy residue slid down his body and towards the drain. He reached for the liquid soap and poured it onto the soft blue face cloth and rubbed it over his body, relaxing as the steam enveloped him. Chris stepped back under the water and relaxed as the water sluiced down his body, taking some of the exhaustion with it. Finally finished he stepped out and reached for the white towel setting on the counter, blinking as he tried to rid his eyes of the water dripping into them.
 
“Looking for this?” Sarah asked as she held out the towel to him.
 
“Hmm,” Larabee said as she stepped inside and closed the door.
 
“Want me to dry your back?”
 
“Hell yeah...my back, my front, and anyplace in between,” he said with a smile.
 
“Very well, Mr. Larabee. I think I can manage that,” Sarah said as she used the soft material to dry his soft blond hair. She worked her way down his glistening chest and used her fingers to tickle the area around his navel.
 
“Watch it, Honey...don’t want to start something we can’t finish! Where’s Ad...am?” he asked his breath hitching as she blew on the area around his cock.
 
“He’s eating breakfast and watching Dora the Explorer,” she blew on his cock once more and reluctantly stood up and used the cloth to finish drying his groin. “Turn around.”
 
Chris felt the material gently glide down his back, and was shocked when she pinched his ass. “Hey!”
 
“Nice...ass...ets, Love,” Sarah whispered mischievously.
 
“I owe you...” he said turning and pulling her into his arms.
 
“Yes, you do, and I’d love to give you a chance to collect, but it’ll have to wait until tonight. I called Dr. Midland’s office and she’ll see you at eight in her hospital office.”
 
“Damn...”
 
“Chris, you need to see her,” Sarah warned.
 
“Yeah...guess you’re right.”
 
“Aren’t I always?”
 
“Hmm, I’ll have to think about that one,” the blond said, shoulders slumping as a bone deep weariness settled over him. “Maybe I should go back to bed...”
 
“Not likely, sweetheart. Get dressed and go eat. Coffee should be perked and the bread is sliced for toast. You’re not getting out of this appointment with Dr. Midland. Now get moving while I grab my shower.”
 
“Could stay and help you wash...”
 
“Oh, yeah...we’d never get out of here if you stayed to help...go!”
 
“Yes, Ma’am,” Larabee said, a small smile on his face as his wife dropped her robe, revealing the body he loved so much.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
They were close, too close and Vin pulled his partner back into the field just as a patrol came running towards the main building in the middle of the clearing. Their words were nuclear as several men came running out of the house and the tracker cursed softly as he recognized the backpack in the man’s hand. He turned and saw the same fears on his partner’s face as she watched several more men join the group outside the door.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Hector!” Ernesto Ruiz called as Juan came forward holding a backpack and a bedroll in his arms. “Where’d you find these?”
 
“In a cave just south of here. Someone’s been using it as a camp...a base of some kind. There was also evidence that whoever it is was hurt. We found several bloodied pieces of cloth to the east of the cave,” Juan answered.
 
“Did you find Miguel or Manual?”
 
“They are dead!”
 
“Where?”
 
“Their bodies were thrown into a ravine near the cave. Guerrero has taken several men to retrieve their bodies.”
 
“Ernesto...what is wrong?” Mendoza asked, stepping out into the sunlight.
 
~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie turned at the sharply indrawn breath from her partner as the newcomer stepped into the light. There was little doubt that he recognized him, now it was just a matter of verbal confirmation. The man didn’t look at all like the man she’d met at seventeen, but knew it was because of the face change.
 
“Is that Mendoza?” she asked softly.
 
“Yeah...yeah, that’s the bastard,” Tanner said in a voice strained with hatred. He wanted nothing more than to take a gun and kill Mendoza where he stood, and if alone he would’ve taken the chance and shot him. Unfortunately he had a partner with him, and in spite of her being in this same business, he would not chance anything happening to her.
 
“What do you want to do?”
 
“Like nothin’ better than ta put a bullet in his skull, but...”
 
“We’d be just as bad as he is,” she finished as she continued to watch the scene in the clearing.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Juan found these in a cave near here! Whoever it is was injured and we think they killed Miguel and Manual,” Ruiz explained, handing the back pack to the his friend.
 
Mendoza smiled as he took the backpack, knowing his nemesis was out there somewhere, watching him, waiting for the right moment. He held the pack up and turned it over, dumping the contents on the ground as he laughed.
 
“Tanner, I know you’re out there somewhere. Is that pretty blond bitch with you? Has she spread her legs for you? Come on, Tanner, we’re old friends...you can tell me how good she is in bed, although I intend to find out for myself once we find you! My men will be watching for you now! They’ll find you and when they do I’m going to enjoy raping the women...might even let a few of my men have a go at her while you watch! I do believe my men could use a good fuck, Tanner! Bring the girl out and maybe we’ll even let you have some fun before you die!”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin seethed as he heard the vulgar words spoken from the man he once considered a friend. He looked towards Jackie and pulled her to him as tears slid down her cheeks. She trembled in his arms as he braced her against his chest and listened to Mendoza calling him.
 
“The bastard’s dead, Jackie, he just doesn’t know it yet!” Tanner vowed, images of a bound and gagged Mendoza pleading with his eyes as Tanner slit him from groin to neck. “Jackie, are you okay?”
 
“Yes...his voice just brought back too many memories. Bastard’s gonna wish he’d never laid eyes on that innocent teenager!”
 
“Come on, let’s get out of here until we come up with a game plan.” He watched as she stood on shaky legs and he moved to join her. They heard Mendoza shouting for them to show themselves even as they hurried back through the field. They needed to find a new place to hole up, and figure out their next move...Vin knew he’d lost one of the main items they needed...his cell phone was lost on the ground with the rest of the contents of his backpack.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Chris, come this way,” Cheryl Higgins said as she opened the door and held it for him to enter. She watched as the handsome man slowly made his way towards the examination room door. ‘Why do men always look as if they’re walking to an execution when they need a physical?’ she thought as she handed him a gown.
 
“Everything off and tie this at the back. I’ll be in to take some blood in about five minutes,” she told him, closing the door and leaving him alone in the room.
 
Chris took a deep breath and slowly removed the blue T-shirt and jeans. He knew he was being silly, but he truly hated physicals. Hated everything they did to a man, but he knew they were necessary. He pulled off his Nike runners and socks and pulled on the paper thin gown. By the time he tied it at the back the nurse was there with several vials and a length of rubber tubing.
 
“Okay, Doctor Midland wants an EKG as well, so when I’m finished taking your blood just lie back while I get you set up.”
 
“Okay,” the blond said as she wrapped the tubing around his arm and tapped on his inner arm in search of a good vein.
 
“This one looks good,” she said as she inserted the needle and drew the blood. “Okay, just lie back while I send these to the lab and we’ll get the EKG done.”
 
“Okay,” Larabee said as she exited the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sarah entered the hospital room to find Buck and JD both sitting up and eating their breakfast. She smiled at the two men and held up the tray she had in her hands.
 
“That’s not...” Dunne’s eyes lit up as he reached for the offering.
 
“Starbuck’s best,” Sarah said as she handed each man a cup of the strong coffee.
 
“Thanks, Darlin’...I owe you,” Wilmington said, wincing as he tried to take the lid off.
 
“Let me get that, Buck!” the pretty woman said, lifting the lid and depositing it on the tray with the half eaten breakfast. 
 
“Thanks, Sarah,” Dunne said after sipping the hot liquid.
 
“You’re welcome, JD. Now how are you boys feeling?”
 
“Sore, but better than I did yesterday. Any idea when the doc will sign us out?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Did you see her this morning?”
 
“Yeah, she came in around seven and said we could go home if we managed to eat breakfast and not get sick,” Dunne said, smiling as he pointed to his empty plate.
 
“Looks like you’ve done just fine,” Sarah said as she turned a stern gaze on the rogue. “Buck, you need to eat.”
 
“I will, Sarah as soon as we get back to your place...you know I hate hospital food, especially that stuff they call soft foods. Hey, where’s Chris?”
 
“He’s getting his yearly physical done,” Sarah said with a smile.
 
“Uh oh, Dr. Midland got him in her hands. You sure you trust that barracuda with your husband?”
 
“Oh, Buck, Dr. Midland is no barracuda except when it comes to her profession. She’s very diligent in what she does and as of right now you’d better hope she didn’t hear that comment...or maybe I’ll just make sure she knows!”
 
“Ah, Sarah, you know I run off at the mouth...ow...I don’t feel so good...”
 
“Buck, that may work with your many paramours, but it doesn’t work with me. I know you probably have a headache and you’re in some pain, but the twinkle in your eyes is not from tears caused by pain!”
 
“Owwww!”
 
“Give it up, Buck, even I’ve heard you use that one,” Dunne said.
 
“Ah, hell!” He smiled, before growing serious once more. “So what’s really going on with Chris?”
 
“Not much Buck...he’s just not sleeping well since...”
 
“Running into Ella at the fair. I’d make no wonder he can’t sleep. So how did you get him to agree to see Midland?”
 
“It’s me, Buck. Chris knows I’m not going to do something that makes him too uncomfortable. I’m a nurse and just because I’m not working in that field right now does not mean I don’t recognize the signs of a man in trouble. If he doesn’t get some sleep...and I mean real sleep he’s going to end up collapsing and the consequences could be devastating. I’m hoping Dr. Midland prescribes something to help him sleep and we both know that mild sedatives don’t work on Chris.”
 
“Has it really gone that far?” Dunne asked worriedly.
 
“If Chris has slept ten hours in the last week he’s lucky and even that sleep was filled with nightmares. I’m worried about him and I just want to make sure he gets the rest he needs. Dr. Midland knows what she’s doing and she won’t let Chris tell her things are fine when they’re obviously far from it!”
 
“Sarah,” Buck’s voice was filled with worry.
 
“Yes, Buck?”
 
“My coming out to the house is putting too much on...”
 
“Don’t even go there, Buck Wilmington! You know how Chris and I feel about you and we’re not going to let you worm your way out of this because Chris can’t sleep! Besides if I’m correct Dr. Midland will prescribe something to help him and you’ll both sleep the afternoon and evening away!”
 
“Damn, here I thought I’d be taking Adam fishing!”
 
“Not likely...now finish eating and I’ll check the desk before I go to Dr. Midland’s office. Maybe we’ll have you both out of here before lunch!”
 
“Sounds good, Sarah,” Dunne said, rubbing at his eyes.
 
“Want me to pull the drapes, JD?”
 
“No...no...that’s okay,” the younger man lied and sighed as she closed the drapes and turned off the main light. “Thanks...”
 
“You’re welcome,’ Sarah assured him before leaving the room.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris sat on the edge of the chair as Midland went over some of the test results with him. They were in her office and all he seemed to be able to do was fidget as he waited for her to finish. He felt her studying his face and knew she could see right through him. She’d been his family physician since the day he and Sarah were engaged and he was comfortable with her examining his body. She’d put him through it all, and he was glad when the intimate examination of his privates and prostate was over.
 
“So want to tell me why you can’t sleep?”
 
“It’s nothing serious, Doc.”
 
“Chris, how long since you’ve had a good night’s sleep and I’m talking eight solid hours here?”
 
“A week,” he mumbled, feeling the headache building once more.
 
“A week...okay, just how much sleep have you had in the last week?”
 
“Enough,” the blond answered irritably.
 
“Is that right? Have you looked in a mirror lately. Sarah wasn’t kidding about the extra baggage you’re carrying around. I’m going to prescribe a mild sleeping pill and I want you to take one at night and see if it helps. If it doesn’t I’m going to recommend you see someone and maybe find out what we can do about it. The sedative will be in oral form, Chris, but for today I’m going to have Sarah give you a shot...”
 
“Hell, Doc...”
 
“...as soon as you get home and into bed and I would advise you to be lying...”
 
“Doc...”
 
...when she administers it because it will work quickly!”
 
“Shit!”
 
“Chris, you really do need to sleep,” the concerned physician told him. Midland watched as the exhausted man rubbed his eyes and leaned his head back. She waited for him to look at her and smiled thinly at him.
 
“I know I need to sleep, Doc, just hate the damn nightmares.”
 
“Bad?”
 
“Yeah, sometimes I have these dreams and they’re right there...right at the front of my mind and I know the things that happened in them are bad! I want to get away from them, and the only way to do that is to stay awake!”
 
“That’s not possible...”
 
“I know...I just wish I could make her go away!”
 
“Her?” Midland asked curiously.
 
“Yeah...her...someone from my past. Ever have anyone say to you ‘I’m your worst nightmare?’.”
 
“No I can’t say that I have. I take it that this ‘her’ is your worst nightmare?”
 
“And then some,” Larabee told her, smiling at the frown on the woman’s face. “Don’t worry, Doc, me and Sarah are getting along fine and she knows all about Ella Gaines. Knows how that woman makes my blood run cold.”
 
“Not too cold, Chris. You’re already run down and getting sick right now would really overtax your immune system.”
 
“I hear you, Doc.”
 
“Okay, so are you and Sarah taking those two trouble makers out of my hospital today?”
 
“You released them?” Larabee asked hopefully.
 
“Sure did, but there are a lot of dos and don’ts...make sure they look after themselves.”
 
“Sarah will make sure Buck behaves himself and I’m sure Nettie and Casey Wells have their own way of keeping JD in line.”
 
“Good, alright, Chris, here’s the prescription for the sleeping pill and I’ll speak to Sarah about the shot. Now why don’t we walk to Buck and JD’s room together so I can say goodbye?”
 
“Thanks, Doc, for everything!” Larabee said, standing and holding the door for her.
 
“You’re welcome, Chris. Now remember what I said about going home and letting Sarah give you this shot. You’ll feel better and I know she will too.”
 
“I will, Doc...soon’s we get Buck settled,” Larabee said heading towards the elevators.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“You two ready to get out of here?” Larabee asked as he opened the door and smiled at the two patients.
 
“Hey, Stud, ‘bout time you got here. Hey, Doc,” Wilmington said as Midland came into the room.
 
“Hey yourself, Buck. Hello, Sarah, these two giving you any problems,” the physician asked, smiling as the pretty woman shook her head.
 
“They know better,” Sarah said, smiling sweetly at both men. “After all, I have their discharge orders right here and there’s something about an enema if needed to make sure they have the right attitude.”
 
“No way!” Dunne spat, unsure whether Larabee’s wife was telling the truth or not.
 
“She’s pulling your chain, JD...”
 
“Buck, I thought you knew Sarah better than that. She doesn’t make false threats. I’d make sure I was on my best behavior while you’re at the house,” the blond said with a tired smile.
 
“Hell, Chris, you’re the one who looks like you should be in bed. Are you okay?” Wilmington asked, effectively changing the subject.
 
“I’m fine...”
 
“No, you’re not, but it’s nothing some sleep won’t correct. Sarah, I have a prescription for you to pick up, and I’ve also arranged for a shot that you can give him as soon as you get him home and into bed. Should put him out for at least eight hours depending on how much sleep his body needs right now!” Midland explained as she passed the nurse the prescriptions.
 
“Thanks, Dr. Midland,” Sarah said.
 
“You’re welcome, now do you have the prescriptions and appointment times for these two?”
 
“Yes, and Aunt Nettie is all set for JD,” Sarah smiled as she looked at the young man. “I do believe Casey has taken a few days off to make sure he’s taken care of.”
 
“Ah, hell,” Dunne said, feeling the hot flush come to his cheeks.
 
“Okay, Buck, JD, you two need to rest. I’ll see you both next Friday, unless there are any problems. Any excess dizziness or nausea make sure you come back in. Buck!”
 
“Yes, Doc,” the rogue said, fingering the sling on his right arm.
 
“I better not hear of you going without the sling,” Midland warned as the ladies’ man shook his head.
 
“You won’t, I’ll make sure of that,” Sarah told her. “Chris will help you two get dressed so we can get you out of here.”
 
“Rather have you...”
 
“Buck, you value your arms you’d best not say that!” Larabee warned as the two women left him with his friends.
 
“Thought the guys were gonna come help us,” Dunne said, slowly sitting up on the edge of the bed and accepting his clothes from the blond.
 
“I told them we could handle you.”
 
“You mean Sarah could handle us don’t you?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Yeah...hell, she’s gonna make damn sure you adhere to Midland’s orders, Buck!”
 
“Ah, shit, maybe I could stay with Nettie...”
 
“It’s not gonna be any better there...between Mrs. Wells and Casey I may never get out of bed...least not until the doctor okays it,” Dunne told him.
 
“Damn, Kid, you got double indemnity for sure,” the ladies’ man said as Larabee helped him into his shirt.
 
“Watch it, Buck, or I’ll tell them you said that!”
 
By the time the duo were dressed, both were nearing exhaustion and Chris went to the door, not surprised to see his wife and a nurse standing there with wheelchairs. He held the door for them and smiled at the injured men.
 
“Looks like your rides are here, Boys,” Larabee smiled as he helped them into the chairs and made their way out of the hospital.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
They were nearly out of the field when Vin heard the distinctive baying of dogs. He turned to the woman beside him and knew she heard them as well. He heard her soft expletive even as she picked up her pace. They ran through the last hundred yards, stumbling over long dead undergrowth in their effort to escape.
 
Vin’s arm screamed in protest as they made it to the trail and raced south along the edge no longer worrying about whether they were seen or not. His breath grew labored as he grabbed onto Jackie’s arm and the duo did their best to keep as far ahead of their pursuers as possible.
 
~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Tell me you’ve got something!” Mendoza said as the dogs began to pull at the leashes, dragging their handlers with them.
 
“They’ve definitely caught scent of something that’s piqued their interest,” Pedro Lopez said, holding tightly to the leash as he watched Alonzo Martinez do the same with the large Doberman he owned.
 
Mendoza smiled as he looked out over the fields swaying softly in the breeze. He placed his hands behind his back and sniffed at the air as if he could also smell the scent of prey on the wind.
 
“Pedro, you and Alonzo get after them. If you capture Tanner and Maynard I promise you will be rewarded,” he said, a sneer lighting up one side of his face.
 
“Dead or alive?” Martinez asked.
 
“Doesn’t matter, but I’ll add a bonus if you bring them back alive...don’t matter what kind of shape Tanner’s in, but the girl must be unharmed or the bonus won’t be awarded. Get them and bring them to me!”
 
“Si, Senor Mendoza,” Lopez said as he gave the animal his lead and they rushed into the fields.
 
“Think it’s wise to keep Tanner alive, Hector?” Ruiz asked.
 
“Oh, he won’t be alive for long,” Mendoza assured him. “Just long enough for me to see his face when he realizes I’ve beaten him again!”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Th...they’re getting closer Tan...Tanner!” Maynard stammered as the race through the hellish mountain terrain continued.
 
“N...no sh...shit!” the tracker cursed as they literally flew down the trail. The sharp baying of the dogs was definitely closer and the Texan knew they could not outrun them. There was something familiar about the dangerous curve up ahead and his instincts headed him in that direction. He knew the woman beside him was quickly losing energy and his own body was screaming in protest to this new mistreatment.
 
“W...what the hell?”
 
“Hope ya can sw...swim!” the sharpshooter screamed as several shots kicked up the dirt around them. He heard several voices shouting for him to stop and knew one of them was the woman beside him, but it didn’t deter him from his destination.
 
“Jesus! Vin...”
 
“Jump...”
 
“Hold it right there!” Lopez screamed as he spotted the duo racing towards the edge of a sheer cliff.
 
“Set the fuckin’ dogs on ‘im!” Martinez screamed when he saw the chance of losing his bonus.
 
“I...I c...can’t....”
 
“Yes ya fu...fuckin’ can!” The tracker spat as they reached the edge of the cliff and spotted the water several hundred feet below.
 
“Vin!” Jackie screamed trying to pull away from him.
 
“J...jump...on...ly chance!” Tanner screamed as he pulled her closer to the edge. He turned his head just before he leapt off the cliff just in time to see one of the dogs go sailing over them. The animal’s panicked barking followed their own cries of terror and exhilaration as they dropped towards the waiting pool of cold blue/green water.
 
Jackie tried to hold onto the man she was with, but nearly lost her grip as sheer terror overwhelmed her.
 
“Ha...hang on!” Tanner screamed as they neared the water. His mind registered the splash of the dog just before his body hit and was engulfed by the cold water and sucked downward, spiraling as his hand was pulled from Jackie’s arm. He didn’t have time to search for her and prayed she was okay as he turned and swam upwards. By the time his head broke the surface he was gasping for air and was close to blacking out. Even as he gulped in the much needed oxygen he searched for signs of his partner as his body was carried downstream. He spotted the Doberman swimming towards shore, and hoped the animal made it. He knew the dog was trained for pursuit, but that was not its fault. Turning quickly he spotted what could only be Maynard’s body surfacing just to the north of his position. Ignoring the pain it caused his arm he swam towards her, strong strokes slicing through the turbulent river.
 
Vin had no idea how long it took for him to reach the unmoving body. He swam southwards, hoping to intercept her before she drifted out of his reach. His own body was beyond tired now, beyond exhaustion and he stayed afloat through sheer stubbornness. He looked up and reached out for the backpack as she floated by to his left and cried out as he gripped the strings with his injured arm. Ignoring the agony ripping through him, he pulled the inert body towards him and held her. There was no time to check for a pulse as the water dragged at his wet clothes and the pack Maynard wore. Using the remainder of his dwindling strength he struck out for the near side of the river. The shore looked to be at least forty feet from where he struggled against the current, and he willed his body to obey his commands. Struggling against the current and the pull against the woman’s body he used his arm and legs to drag them both towards land. His lungs burned as he tried to suck in enough air to satisfy his aching body, and he didn’t realize he’d made it to shore until his legs struck the hard surface that signaled ground.
 
Vin didn’t bother to stand up, but dragged Jackie with him as he crawled onto the grassy ground just above the water line. he looked at the pale wet woman and reached up to touch her neck, relieved when he found a strong steady pulse. He saw a small bruise on her forehead and wondered if this was the reason for her unconscious state. Without thinking he turned her on her side as she coughed and water escaped through slack lips. The tracker watched as her eyes opened, focused, a smile formed on her face and she slipped into unconsciousness once more. Exhausted and in pain Tanner scanned the area in search of someplace they could hole up. He spotted a small overhang and dragged Jackie’s unresponsive body towards it. With a final look around he dropped down beside her, pulled off the backpack and fell into an exhausted sleep, unaware of the sharp barking across the river.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
At the top of the cliff Lopez hung onto his animal while Martinez watched the area downstream using powerful field glass. He saw the dog make it to land just before searching the river slightly downstream.
 
“Anything, Alonzo?”
 
“Paco made it to shore, but I haven’t see...wait...got ‘em...”
 
“Both of ‘em?”
 
“Yeah, one’s out cold and one is dragging the other to shore. We need to head back to base and get one of the jeeps and go after them.”
 
“Are they on this side of the river?”
 
“No...looks like we’ll have to take that old rope bridge that crosses the gorge!”
 
“Damn things not safe...maybe we could tell Mendoza they drowned,” Lopez suggested.
 
“You really think we should do that?” Martinez asked seriously. “Remember what happened to the last men who tried to lie to Mendoza. They got a vein full of pure heroin!”
 
“Oh fuck, I forgot. Okay, so we grab a jeep and head downstream and cross at Devil’s Gorge!”
 
“Si, it looks like Paco is barking at Tanner and Maynard. If he stays put we’ll know they’re still there when we get back! Looks like Tanner’s the one conscious and he’s dragging the woman towards a small overhang. Come on, let’s get moving!” Martinez explained.
 
“I can feel that bonus burning a hole in my pockets already,” Lopez said, smiling as he patted his dog.
 
“You and me both, Pedro!” Martinez said as they hurried back the way they’d come.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sarah glanced across the seat at her husband and grinned as he smiled tiredly at her. She looked into the rear view mirror and smiled at the sight of her son watching over Buck Wilmington. They’d dropped JD off at the Wells’ home and given Nettie and Casey  the instructions they’d need to look after him. Now she needed to get the two men into the house and in bed, yet she knew her husband would not give in until Buck was safely ensconced in the guest bedroom. She turned into the driveway leading to their house and stopped directly in front of the main door.
 
“Sarah, you get the door while I get Buck,” Larabee ordered as soft snores continued form the back seat.
 
“Can you handle him alone?”
 
“I won’t be alone. Adam’s gonna help me, right, Sport?”
 
“Right, Daddy,” the boy said in a soft, yet excited voice. “Uncle Buck, we’s home!”
 
“Hmm...” the rogue mumbled, wincing as his skull pounded with the return of consciousness. He heard the little boy’s voice, but could not find the energy to answer him. The sound of the door beside him opening brought him closer to consciousness and he finally forced his lids to open. and smiled at the big hopeful eyes looking at him. “Hey, S...sport...”
 
“Hey, Uncle Buck, we’s home and Mommy says we needs to get you in bed!”
 
“So...sounds like a pl...plan, Pard,” Wilmington said, turning as he felt a hand on his arm.
 
“Think you can slide your legs out?” Larabee asked.
 
“Y...yeah,” the injured man winced as he forced his aching body to obey his commands. He felt his friend grab onto his left arm and support him as he stood up. Buck concentrated on staying on his feet as the bright sunshine threatened to cause his head to explode. He felt Larabee wrap his right arm around his waist and pull his own left arm over the blond’s shoulders.
 
“Adam, could you grab Buck’s case?” Larabee asked, knowing the boy wanted something to do.
 
“Sure, Daddy,” the child said and grabbed the small bag from the floor.
 
Chris took all his friend’s weight as they made their way through the door and towards the back of the house.
 
“Wa...wait!” Wilmington said tiredly.
 
“What?” the blond asked worriedly.
 
“B...boots...”
 
“Don’t worry about your boots right now, Buck. We’ll get them off once we get you in bed,” Sarah said as she watched the two men moving slowly towards her.
 
“...but...” his voice was steadily getting weaker as his strength gave out. He didn’t protest as Larabee steadied him through the final steps to the bed and eased him down. He saw the concern and worry on both faces as Larabee began to pull off his boots. The shirt was a little harder as the blond slowly slid it off his shoulder and carefully laid him back on the pile of soft pillows. A soft moan escaped his lips before he could cut it off and he heard Sarah say she was going to get his meds.
 
“Easy, Buck, I’m just gonna get your pants off before Sarah gets back.” Larabee said, frowning when the usual joke wasn’t made. The rogue had to be in considerable pain if he couldn’t find the strength to muster even a weak retort of ‘you’re not my type’.
 
“...thanks...Chris...every...thing...”
 
“Anytime, Buck,” the blond said, easing the blankets up over his friend’s bruised body. “Buck, Sarah has your meds here. Think you can stay awake long enough to take them?”
 
“...y...yeah,” the injured man stammered as the pretty woman sat on the edge of the bed, put the pills in his mouth and held the glass of cold water for him. “Thanks...guys...”
 
“No thanks needed, Buck, go to sleep.”
 
“...okay, Sarah...”
 
Sarah Larabee smiled and kissed the pale forehead, mindful of the head wound there. She turned to her husband, tears in her eyes as she stood and led him from the room. She closed the door partway and sighed heavily as Chris pulled her into his arms.
 
“He’s okay, Sarah.”
 
“I know, Chris, it’s just...you know...Buck’s usually so...”
 
“Boisterous?” Larabee said with a small grin.
 
“Exactly, I kept expecting him to flirt or something. He knows you understand how I feel about him...he’s like a big protective brother and I’m not used to seeing him like this.”
 
“I know, sweetheart and I don’t think it’ll be too long before he’s feeling better. By the time he leaves here he’ll have lots of ladies lining up at the door.”
 
“I know...who could resist a gentleman like Buck?”
 
“I sure as hell hope you can,” Larabee said with mock severity, smiling as his wife lifted her head and kissed him. “Where’s Adam?”
 
“Playing in the backyard. I told him Buck needs to sleep and so we have to try to be quiet. He says he’s going to play outside until uncle Buck wakes up.”
 
“Okay...maybe I’ll go see if he wants to toss around a baseball,” the blond suggested.
 
“Sorry, Chris, but the only place you’re going is our room and into bed. I’ve got your shot...”
 
“Shit, Sarah, I don’t need...”
 
“And will be in to give it...”
 
“Honey...”
 
“...to you as soon as you’re undressed and in bed!”
 
“Look, Sarah, I’ll lie down, but I don’t need a shot. I feel so tired right now I could probably sleep for a week,” the blond protested weakly.
 
“Chris, we’ve been through this. Dr. Midland and I discussed this and it’s something you need to do right now. You’ve been without a real night’s sleep for too long and it’s time you let me help you. Better hurry and get in the room, Larabee, or I’ll give it to you here and now. I don’t think the floor is the best place to be for a nap though.”
 
“Shit!” he cursed and turned towards his room.
 
By the time Sarah came in he was lying on his side, the blankets pulled up to his waist, exhaustion and worry etched on his handsome visage. She placed the small tray on the table and looked deep into her husband’s troubled gaze.
 
“Chris, hopefully it won’t be long and we can get you back into a normal sleep rhythm and you won’t need to take the sleeping pills, but for now you need this.”
 
“Guess so,” the blond said dejectedly as his wife readied a site for injection. He didn’t flinch as the needle entered his body and the medication spread a warmth throughout him. It didn’t take long for his eyelids to close and he felt himself drifting towards sleep.
 
“I love you, Christopher Larabee,” she whispered as she brushed her lips across his.
 
“...love you too...” was the mumbled reply as he felt the welcoming draw of sleep.
 
Sarah sat watching the tension slowly seep from her husband’s body. The sedative she’d given him was a mild one, yet he’d been deprived of real sleep for so long his body had quickly given into it’s calming effects. She knew her husband was a worrier and in the last few weeks, month in fact since Tanner left she’d seen the lines on his face get deeper. The meeting with Ella Gaines hadn’t helped and the explosion involving Buck and JD had added to that worry. She looked out the big bedroom window and spotted Adam playing on the swing her husband had hung for him. She looked again at her husband, made sure he was comfortable and covered him with the blanket before leaving the room. She walked out of the room, checked on Buck and finally walked out into the back yard.
 
“Mommy, can you give me a push?”
 
“Sure, sweetie,” she smiled, seeing the excitement on his face and the wondrous green eyes so like her husband. She stood behind him and pulled back on the rope swing before letting it go and watching him sail through the air.
 
“I’m flying high as the sky!”
 
“You certainly are.”
 
“Higher, Mommy, higher,” the child shouted.
 
‘You’re going to be a risk taker just like your father!’ Sarah thought, smiling as she thought of the two men she loved more than life itself. Memories of her father flooded her and she wished he’d give in and come see his grandson, yet she knew that would never happen. Hank Connelly had disowned her the day she said her vows, but she would not let it make her bitter. She loved her father, but she would not waste anymore energy in an attempt to get him to see reason. It was his loss, she’d done all she could and had nothing to feel guilty about.
 
‘Oh, Daddy, you’re missing so much,’ she thought as a feeling of fluttering butterflies hit her stomach. She smiled as she rubbed her stomach, feeling the life only just beginning to grow within.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The three remaining agents worked at the office, covering the phones, and catching up on the never ending pile of paperwork. Josiah and Ezra deferred to Nathan when it came time to check on the injured men. Neither man was surprised when Sarah explained that Chris was sleeping with the aid of a sedative prescribed by Stacey Midland. The loud ringing of the office phone set fire to jangled nerves as the ex-preacher picked up the receiver.
 
“Sanchez...yes, Orrin...sure we can be there in a couple of minutes.” He hung up and turned to the others. “Orrin wants to see us in his office.” The trio made their way to the door and Standish locked the office before heading to the elevator. Travis owned and operated this building and kept his office on an upper floor, making things easier for spur of the moment meetings such as this one. When they reached the older man’s lavishly furnished office the secretary quickly ushered them into Travis’ office.
 
“Gentlemen, thanks for coming. Please have a seat. This is Gerald Coltrain from the DEA. Gerald, this is Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish, and Nathan Jackson.”
 
“Gentlemen,” Coltrain said, shaking hands with each man before returning to his seat.
 
“Chris asked me to speak with Gerald about Richard Barker. Gerald can’t do much about the evidence you boys turned up, but he’s got agents working on other ways to bring him down without bringing you boys into it.”
 
“Barker will pay for what he’s done, but until we find a way to disclose the evidence there’s not much we can do. Orrin told me Larabee already warned Tanner about Barker’s illegal activities,” Coltrain explained.
 
“Yeah, Chris spoke with him recently,” Sanchez said, not quite sure if he could trust the newcomer or not.
 
“I know you men don’t trust me and I don’t blame you for that, but understand that I’ll do anything I can to bring Barker down and make sure Tanner and Maynard get back here safely. Maynard should never have been on this case in the first place, but her prior knowledge of Mendoza was not on her file and we didn’t see any problems with her being there. Whether this is a good thing or not still remains to be seen.”
 
“Vin told Chris he trusts her and that’s good enough for me,” Jackson said.
 
“I take it Tanner has good gut instincts?” Coltrain asked.
 
“That’s correct!” Standish told him.
 
“Good, now I’m going to ask you to use your own instincts as to whether or not you trust me. I know you don’t know me, but there are some things you really need to know!” the DEA agent explained.
 
“Like?” Sanchez inquired.
 
“Well, it seems Jackie Maynard has not been in touch with anyone in our agency since disappearing into the mountains with your friend. We have absolutely no word on their location or what they’ve been doing since leaving Pousada Vrajabhumi Hotel, except for the information your friend gives Larabee. My office plans to send in a new agent to see if they can find Maynard and Tanner, but we’d rather not send them in blind.”
 
“What does your agency’s tactics have to do with us?” Standish asked
 
“We’d like to coordinate things through Tanner. If Maynard is with him we’ll be able to advise them about any new developments.”
 
“What if Vin and Jackie have already found Mendoza?” Jackson asked.
 
“Wouldn’t Tanner have let you know if he’d found him?” Coltrain asked.
 
“He would’ve called Chris,” Sanchez assured the other man. Something about talking to Coltrain felt like chewing on tinfoil, but somehow he thought the man was trustworthy, in spite of his dislike.
 
“Okay, so will you make sure you contact me when Tanner calls Larabee again?”
 
“I can’t guarantee it, but I’ll talk to Chris and let him know of your request,” Sanchez supplied.
 
“That’s all I ask. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure Barker doesn’t interfere with your friend’s mission. My agency wants Mendoza as badly as you do and we’re willing to bend over backwards in order to bring him to justice.”
 
“Orrin, if that’s all we’d like to get back to work,” Jackson said.
 
“Gerald?” Travis asked.
 
“I think that’s it, at least for now, but if you get any new information...”
 
“We’ll let Orrin know,” Sanchez told him.
 
“That’s all I ask,” Coltrain said, standing and leaving the office.
 
“You trust him, Orrin?” the ex-preacher asked.
 
“Yes, I do, Josiah, but I can’t really explain why,” the older man explained.
 
“Alright, then we’ll defer to you,” Standish said as the trio stood to leave.
 
“Did Chris and Sarah pick up Buck and JD this morning?” Travis asked.
 
“Yes, JD is at Nettie’s place and Buck is at Chris’ house. Chris isn’t coming in today because Dr. Midland wants him to get some rest,” Jackson explained
 
“He did look rundown when he came to see me yesterday,” Travis said worriedly.
 
“Yes, well, the good doctor prescribed something to help him sleep,” Standish said.
 
“Good, okay, you boys go ahead and finish what you were doing and take the rest of the day off. Perhaps you can help Sarah at the house or Mrs. Wells. If Chris hears from Vin let me know right away.”
 
“We will, Orrin, thanks again,” Sanchez said before leaving the older man alone.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Hello, Guy, how are things going?” Ella asked as she talked into her cell phone. She sat on a terrace overlooking the city of Monte Carlo, content to wait now that she had a timeframe for her return to the states. In three days she would be home, and she would watch as Sarah Connelly and her son were removed from her husband’s life.
 
“Wilmington is staying at the Larabee place,” Royal answered.
 
“I figured as much. He’s probably that whelp’s father. Chris never understood how dangerous that man could be. But I knew...I knew he always seemed to want what Chris had, including me...”
 
“He’d be a fool not to, Lover. So when are you coming back?”
 
“I should be leaving Monte Carlo tomorrow and be in Billings in two days. Have you booked a hotel for me?”
 
“No...
 
“Pardon?”
 
“I was hoping you’d stay with me at my estate,” Royal answered.
 
“But what about your wife?”
 
“She’s in Paris for two months and we aren’t sleeping together anyway.”
 
“And what of Jack and Robert? You know I like to play the field, Lover?”
 
“That’s what makes you so intriguing, Ella. You’ve never been satisfied with one man.”
 
“Except when that man was Chris Larabee. Will you pick Jack and I up at the airport?”
 
“Certainly, what name are you traveling under?”
 
“Sarah Marshall,” Gaines said, smiling at her use of the other woman’s first name.
 
“Call me when you’re about to land and I’ll pick you and Jack up,” Royal said.
 
“I will, Guy, keep me abreast of how things are progressing.”
 
“Of course, hopefully Powderman will make his next move within a day or two. Bye Ella,” Royal said.
 
“Thank you, Guy, for helping me with my dream,” she said before hanging up and smiling at her lover. “Wilmington is out of the hospital and staying at Chris’ place. Guy is going to pick us up at the airport. I’ll be so glad when they are out of the way.”
 
“I’m sure you will, Love. Would you like to take in a night of gambling?”
 
“Certainly, Jack, and maybe we could visit one of the massage parlors...I so need a man’s hands to work out the kinks.”
 
“I would gladly...”
 
She put her hand to his mouth and smiled. “ I know you would, but let’s pamper ourselves tonight, okay?”
 
“Anything you want...the sky’s the limit, Ella,” Averil said, linking his arm in hers and heading back inside the luxurious suite.
 
Ella’s body tingled in anticipation as she thought of the coming week. Soon she would have everything she’d ever dreamed of, the man she loved, the life she wanted, and the means to make him hers forever. There would be nothing to keep him in Billings, Montana once she rid him of the excess baggage. She shivered in anticipation at the thought of making love to Chris Larabee, of living on the edge and riding the dangerous roads once more.
 
‘We’ll soon have what we both want, Chris, and you’ll forget all about that bitch!’ she thought as she smiled sweetly at the man beside her.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Cold, that’s how she felt as her eyes opened to darkness. Something trembled beside her, but she wasn’t sure at first who or what it was. Slowly her head turned and Maynard looked into the pale face of a man who’s name eluded her for several long, agonizing seconds. She reached up to touch her forehead, wincing as her fingers made contact with a raised goose egg,.
 
“Alright, Maynard, not a smart plan!” She thought as she struggled to sit up, disgusted with the way her clothes felt stuck to her body. Grass and dirt clung like a second skin as she finally managed to get to a sitting position. She waited for the world to stop spinning and turned towards her companion. His clothing was torn and dirty in much the same way hers was and she shook her head at the thought of having to travel while the cooler night air dried the last of the dampness from them. She reached out and touched him with her right hand, frowning at the too still body.
 
“Hey, Tex, time to wake up!” she said, her voice raspy in the night air. She shook him, gently at first, then with a little more force until she heard him grumble something unintelligible under his breath. “That’s it, Tanner, open those baby blues.”
 
“...lemme be...” the tracker moaned feeling every bone weary muscle protest his movement.
 
“No way, Tex, it’s getting cold and we need to get moving. Some escape route you came up with!” she smiled as Tanner’s eyes finally opened and focused on her.
 
“Well, hell, coulda left ya up top and let the dogs getcha!”
 
“No...no...that’s okay. Rather the swim although that first drop was a doozy. How’s the arm?”
 
“Okay...sore, but movable,” the sharpshooter said as he finally sat up. “Damn, how long have we been out?”
 
“Probably three maybe four hours!”
 
“Shit, that fuckin’ dog’s still barkin’...should have laryngitis by now!”
 
“Yeah, guess we’d best get moving!”
 
“Alright, but we take to the river and head...”
 
“North!”
 
“Why north?”
 
“Read about a gorge north of here. We climb up to the edge of the cliff and there’s supposed to be a rope bridge there we can use to get back across,” she explained, smiling at the frown on his face. “I studied the tourist maps at the hotel, it was one of those routes they showed, but didn’t recommend using!”
 
“Sounds like just the type of route we need. Come on, Let’s get moving,” the tracker said, climbing tiredly to his feet. He reached for the pack and smiled as Maynard shook her head.
 
“Sorry, Tex, but you need to take it easy with that arm! Lead on!”
 
“Jackie...”
 
“Go...you’re wasting time and that fucking dog is not helping my head any! Feels worse than PMS right now!”
 
“Ah, hell, yer not...” the tracker swore and saw the smile forming on her face.
 
“Tanner, PMS can stand for more than that. Right now it stands for putting up with men’s shit...in this case you’re the man, now go!”
 
The tracker smiled as he led her towards the water. The night air was cooler and the water felt a little warmer to them as Tanner grabbed her hand and pulled her out into knee deep water. They started north, hoping the dog stayed put and would not give chase. Vin glanced at the woman every now and then, shrugging as his stomach grumbled hungrily.
 
“Shit, you’re gonna give us away!” Maynard cursed, only to smile as her own rumbled loudly. They moved through the water, listening for anything out of the ordinary as clouds began to obscure the stars shining overhead.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sarah spent the day outside with her son, only going inside to check on the two sleeping men. Twice she found Wilmington awake and brought him water and sat on the edge of the bed talking softly to him. She could tell he was sore and helped him get up and move towards the bathroom down the hall. She waited outside the door, relieved when he finally stepped out and smiled weakly at her. It took even longer to get him back to bed than it did to get him up, but eventually he was settled under the blankets once more.
 
Chris was a different matter, he slept soundly, unmoving in the bed as the sedative she administered kept him mindless of what was happening around him. She checked him often, kissing his forehead each time, and brushing back the stray locks of blond hair. She loved the way he looked when he slept, reminding her so much of the innocence of their son. Adam would someday grow up to be as handsome as his father, the same eyes and hair color, the same pouting mouth, the same boyish good looks. She looked out their window as a soft breeze wafted through the partially opened curtains, and quickly spotted her son playing with his Tonka trucks in the dirt. Taking a deep breath she kissed her husband once more and tucked the blankets around his waist before leaving the room.
 
Making her way along the hall she heard the sound of a car pulling into the driveway and hurried to see who it was. Opening the front door she couldn’t help smiling at the two men headed her way. Both carried a brown paper bag of groceries from Delvechio’s and Sarah held the door for them to enter.
 
“Hello, Sarah. Are those two behaving themselves,” Sanchez asked, kissing her cheek as he entered.
 
“Sleeping like babies, Josiah. Hello Ezra.”
 
“Greetings, Mrs. Larabee, might I say you look lovely this afternoon?”
 
“Thank you,” she said, smiling at the way the gambler tried to retain an air of formality. She knew it was a defense mechanism, yet it wasn’t working with any of them. She’d grown to care for the conman, just as much as she did for the other members of her husband’s team.
 
“We’ve come bearing gifts from which we shall endeavor to create a delicious repast...”
 
“He means we’re here to cook dinner,” Sanchez said, shaking his head at the younger man’s chagrined look.
 
“I believe Mrs. Larabee understood my terminology perfectly,” Standish blustered as the duo made their way to the kitchen.
 
“Where’s the little man?” the ex-preacher asked as he looked around the empty rooms.
 
“He’s out back playing with the new truck Nathan gave him,” Sarah answered.
 
“Ah, yes, there is nothing so fine as a boy and his Tonka trucks,” Sanchez said, smiling as he placed the bags on the counter. “Ez, could you please take care of the groceries?”
 
“What, pray tell will you be doing while I am so engrossed in menial labor?”
 
“Constructing a new highway,” the older man said with a toothy grin as he moved out into the yard.
 
“Ezra, I can take care of this...”
 
“I’m afraid that was not part of the deal, Mrs. Larabee. Please have a seat and I shall see to the preparations for the delicacies we shall indulge in. Bye the way the Delvechio’s send their love and asked when you will be visiting their fine establishment once more.”
 
“Things have been kind of hectic around here lately,” Sarah said, dropping onto one of the chairs at the kitchen table. She reached for a tissue and swiped at her eyes, smiling as the gambler came forward and knelt in front of her.
 
“Mrs....Sarah,” he corrected as he saw the concern written on her pretty face.
 
“I’m sorry,” she whispered softly as the tears continued to flow.
 
“You’ve nothing to feel sorry for.” Ignoring the possibility of damage to his expensive Armani shirt he pulled the woman’s head onto his shoulder. “You have a right to cry...”
 
“I’m just being s...silly,” she sobbed as the tears continued.
 
“A woman’s prerogative...”
 
“A sexist remark, Ezra!” Sarah said, laughing and crying at the same time.
 
“No...no...I assure you it was not meant to be. My sainted mothah always said that...”
 
“It’s okay...really,” she said sitting up in the chair and wiping her eyes. “Thanks you.”
 
“You’re welcome,” Standish said, moving away from the woman once more.
 
“So where’s Nathan?”
 
“He’s meeting Rain for dinner. I believe your matchmaking was extremely successful where those two are concerned.”
 
“Yes, I believe you’re right,” Sarah said with a smile at the thought of the couple. “What are we having?”
 
“Filet mignon in wine sauce, baked potatoes au gratin and asparagus.”
 
“Sounds lovely, but Buck won’t be able to handle that...”
 
“Wanna bet?” Wilmington asked, smiling weakly as Sarah and Ezra hurried to his side.
 
“What do you think you’re doing?” Sarah asked an edge of anger in her voice.
 
“Needed a drink,” Wilmington answered sheepishly as they helped him to a chair.
 
“You should have called...”
 
“Didn’t want to wake Chris,” the rogue said by way of explanation.
 
“How do you feel?” Sarah asked, her anger slowly dissipating.
 
“Better,” the ladies man assured her as Standish pressed a glass of cold water in his hands.
 
“Drink that and we’ll help you back to bed,” Sarah ordered.
 
“Yes, Ma’am. Chris okay?”
 
“He’s fine...still sleeping and that’s what you need to be doing.”
 
“She’s correct in recommending that you require another siesta...”
 
“Ah, hell, Ez...cut that sh...crap out will ya? Head’s pounding and I can’t think straight.”
 
Standish bit off the usual retort in deference to the man’s head injury and watched as Sarah moved to get the meds he needed.
 
“Take these, Buck...no arguments!”
 
“Wasn’t gonna argue, Darlin’...thanks.” He took the two pills with the remainder of the water and smiled as the two people helped him stand. “Sorry, Ez, didn’t mean what I said.”
 
“Apology accepted...but unnecessary I assure you,” the gambler said.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris lay quietly in the bed, waiting for the final dregs of sleep to leave and his mind to clear. He knew from the dryness in his mouth he’d been asleep for quite some time. Shifting onto his right side he smiled as the familiar scent of his wife entered his nostrils as he pulled her pillow close. Soft laughter greeted his ears and he finally managed to get his legs over the edge of the bed and looked at the clock. It was nearly six and he’s slept close to seven hours, yet he knew if he laid back down he’d probably be asleep within a few minutes. More laughter had him smiling and moving towards the window.
 
Josiah Sanchez was sitting in the center of a mound of dirt with Adam driving a bulldozer close by. He chuckled at the site of the big ex-preacher driving a dump truck under the make shift bridge and waiting for the next load. Sanchez was covered in dirt from head to toe, yet the man looked more content than Chris had ever seen him. What amazed him even more was hearing the older man making the noises of the trucks and the smile on his son’s face. He watched for several minutes longer, before finally turning away and walking slowly across the floor.
 
Once inside the bathroom he leaned wearily on the vanity and looked into the mirror. “Still look like shit, Larabee!”
 
“Better watch what you say about the man I love!”
 
Chris turned and smiled at his wife as she stepped into the bathroom and wrapped her arms around his neck. He held her tight, sensing something was different, but unable to put his finger on what it was. He felt her pull back a little and soon found himself drowning in the depths of her eyes. They stood that way for several long seconds before Chris leaned down and kissed her slightly parted lips.
 
“I love you,” he whispered softly.
 
“Ditto...”
 
“Ditto...what’s ditto? Oh, hell, you’ve been watching ghost again haven’t you?”
 
“Ezra and I watched it,” Sarah said, smiling as her husband wiped away the last evidence of her tears. She always cried when Demi Moore said her final goodbye to Patrick Swayze and today was no exception.
 
“My wife’s a softie...”
 
“Oh, and you aren’t? This from the man who cried at his son’s christening and birthdays and Christmas and...”
 
“Ah, hell, honey, don’t go spreading that around.”
 
“Too late, Larabee, the others already know you have a big heart. Now why don’t you get a shower before dinner?”
 
“Alright...care to join me?”
 
“You know I’d love nothing more, but we have company...”
 
“Tell them it’s medicinal!”
 
“I’m sure they’ll believe that too...get!” she ordered and smiled as he turned away, swatting his backside before she left the room. She heard his promise of revenge as she made her way back outside. Dinner smelled wonderful and she watched Standish finish the wine sauce and sprinkle pimento over the asparagus.
 
“Smells wonderful, Ezra.”
 
“Why thank you, Sarah. I hope it tastes the same way.”
 
“I’m sure it will.”
 
“How is Mr. Larabee?”
 
“Awake and in need of a shower,” the woman explained. “I’m going to see if Josiah’s done playing and get them both to clean up.”
 
“Perhaps you would be wise to hose them off outside?”


“You might be right, Ezra,” the brunette said, moving to the patio doors and stepping outside. “Josiah, Adam, it’s time to put the toys away and get cleaned up.”
 
“Do we have too?” Sanchez asked, smiling as he pulled Adam to him and mussed his already ruffled hair.
 
“Yeah, Mommy, we’re trying to get a full day’s work in,” the child laughed as Sanchez tickled him.
 
“I’m afraid the workday is over and it’s time for two tired workmen to clean up. Now, you want to come inside or should I just grab the hose and see what we can do about cleaning off a few layers.”
 
“The hose!” both shouted as they hurried towards the side of the house.
 
“Need my help?”
 
“Nah, me and Josiah’s got it!” the boy called, looking up at the bigger man.
 
“Okay, I’ll grab the towels and a change of clothes for both of you. Josiah, there’s a basin and soap in the shed,” Sarah told them.
 
“Well, alrighty then...you ready to take an outdoor shower, Adam?”
 
“Yep!” the boy said, smiling as he raced along beside the bigger man.
 
Sarah heard them laughing as they rounded the corner and went back into the house. She smiled as she watched the gambler set the table. The man was an enigma to her at times, but she loved the  nuances that made him who he was. Hurrying to the linen closet she grabbed several large bath sheets and move to the laundry room where she kept at least one change of clothes for each member of her husband’s team. Bye the time she made it back outside Sanchez was washing her sons hair and catching the rinse water in the huge basin. She leaned against the side of the house as the duo finished washing off the dirt and handed them both towels.
 
“J’siah says we gots to change in the shed, Mommy,” the boys said excitedly taking the clothes from his mother.
 
“Are you sure?” Sarah asked.
 
“Yep, I think Adam and I have everything under control. We won’t be long,” the ex-preacher explained as he followed the boy towards the shed.
 
Sarah returned to the house once more just as her husband was coming into the kitchen, Wilmington walking along beside him. She shook her head at the picture, one she’d seen several times, except then they’d been suffering from hangovers and not physical hurt as the rogue was now.  She hurried towards them and smiled as they moved into the kitchen and helped the injured man into a seat.
 
“Thanks, darlin’,” the blue eyes twinkled as they lit upon the pretty woman. “you know if you ever get tired of the lug you married...”
 
“Ah, hell, he’s feeling better,” Larabee said, smiling as Sarah laughed.
 
“Sure, am, Stud...won’t be long before ol’ Bucklin’s back on his feet,” Wilmington said as Standish began placing trays of food on the table. “Sure does a man good to see you’ll make some woman a fine wife someday, Ez.”
 
“Too bad you won’t be able to enjoy this culinary masterpiece, but I believe there may be a thin broth ready for you...”
 
“Chris.”
 
“Yeah, Buck?”
 
“Got your gun handy?’
 
“Sorry, pard, I’m not doing anything to get on Ezra’s bad side...least not until I finish sampling this culinary masterpiece.”
 
“You’re all a bunch of damn comedians...”
 
“Don’t mind them, Buck. You can have some, but just watch you don’t overdo it, okay?” Sarah warned as Sanchez and her son came into the house. Adam’s hair had been patted down and he ran towards his father.
 
“Daddy, you still sleepy?”
 
“Nope, I’m wide awake,” the blond lied.
 
“You took a real long nap,” the boy said as if it was taboo.
 
“Sure did...I see you had Uncle Josiah helping you build a new highway out back.”
 
“Yep...he’s real good too, but not as good as you, Daddy,” the boy whispered.
 
“Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served,” Standish said as he poured water into each glass. The friends sat at the table, content in the knowledge that their friend was healing and things were looking up.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Lopez and Martinez had easily commandeered a jeep once they made it back to camp. Mendoza was surprised to see them, but elated at the thought of them being able to bring Tanner in. He sent several other patrols southward, with orders to come in from the other side, hoping they could trap his enemies between them.
 
Martinez quickly took the wheel and waited for Lopez to put his Doberman in the back and climb into the seat beside him. They raced along the trail before the other patrols were ready to leave. It took over an hour to make it to the gorge and park the jeep at the top. The viaduct stretched out before them and the duo looked at each other before making their way onto the unsteady bridge. The big Doberman balked at first, but was soon moving across with it’s owner. The noise from the river far below barely reached them and they were not looking forward to the trek down the narrow, overgrown trail.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Dawn was just spreading her wondrous blanket over the mountains with the promise of rebirth to certain plants and trees. Night time predators sought out their nests, ready to settle down until it was time for them to prowl the jungle once more. Daytime predators that were no less deadly than their predecessors soon prowled for their morning meals, stalking their prey as was nature's way. Mother Nature was spectacular in her vision of how the world should look, but she could also be deadly as people encroached more and more on her domain.
 
The two humans wading through the stream remained blissfully unaware they were being stalked by a deadly creature native to the area. One that had recently tasted and scented human blood and was already scenting the fresh blood on Vin Tanner’s arm. A sleek black shadow against the brightening skyline, ready to attack the weakened prey.




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