DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 6

“Do you hear that, Vin?” Maynard asked as she watched the shoreline.
 
“Yeah...sounds like a cat...close too. Best keep movin’.”
 
“I didn’t think cats attacked humans,” the woman whispered as the continued northward, the gorge was ahead of them and they could make out the shape of the rope ladder high overhead.
 
“They don’t, not usually anyway, but this one could’ve scented the blood on my arm. We just gotta keep movin’ and stay ahead of it. Maybe it’ll scent something else and lose interest in us,” the tracker explained, knowing the cat was probably a big one. Again he heard the loud snarl, this time a little closer and to their left.
 
“Shit, Vin, it’s getting closer!”
 
“I know, just keep...”
 
“What’s wrong?”
 
“Listen,” the sharpshooter whispered. The silence was absolute as insects and birds alike remained quiet in wake of the deadly predator in their area. Two male voices could be heard hurrying towards the river, the sound of a dog snarling excitedly was also heard.
 
“Vin, that’s...”
 
“I know...come on!” he ordered racing out of the water at the same time a huge Jaguar showed itself on the opposite shore.
 
“But...”
 
“Just do as I say and follow me!” Tanner ordered as they raced out of the river and into the trees. Vin heard the cat enter the water and knew the animal was an excellent swimmer in spite of most felines having a fear of the water.
 
Maynard heard the snarling animal, the barking dog and two men snapping orders to each other. Everything happened at once as the dog was released, Tanner attacked a man coming through the trees and grabbed the gun from the man’s unsuspecting hands. He turned and fired at the second male and grabbed Jackie’s arm before once more racing towards the edge of the cliff.
 
Jackie couldn’t believe how quickly things happened. The dog had been a dark blur racing past her as the cat snarled and the two were soon battling like the predatory enemies they were. She barely registered the Texan releasing her and slamming into the man nearest them. In no time she heard a shot and was being pulled to her feet and raced through the forest once more. Her breathing grew ragged as the thinner air of the mountains didn’t quite satisfy her body’s craving. She needed to stop, but Tanner seemed determined to keep up the pace he set. They reached the bottom of a narrow trail and he pointed upwards.
 
“...n...need t...to re...rest...”
 
“No t...time...we need to climb...”
 
“Vin!”
 
“That cat may still have our scent, Jackie....” Vin turned back the way they’d come as a man’s scream echoed through the gorge and turned to see Jackie’s terrified face. “Come on!”
 
The sound of the man’s screams died away even as the duo raced up the treacherous trail. If they could make it to the top of the trail before the cat lost interest in it’s new prey they would be safe. It was just a matter of crossing the rope bridge and cutting it. They were both exhausted and breathing was becoming more of a problem. Vin listened instinctively for sounds of pursuit and was relieve when all he hear was the returning sounds of the daytime creatures. He stopped and placed his hands on his knees as Jackie dropped to the ground beside him. 
 
“We c...can re...rest for a...”
 
“...w...week...”
 
“...few minutes,” Tanner finished, looking up and seeing the steeper grade they needed to cover before they reached the top.
 
“Tyrant!”
 
“Better than be...coming the ja...jaguar’s next meal,” the Texan said with a grin as he plopped down beside her.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck and Adam were both sleeping soundly as the clock beside the bed showed the time as eleven fifteen. Chris watched his wife slip her negligee off her shoulders and smiled as she moved past the window. The moon shone off her hair and skin, a subtle reminder of the beauty he married. With the passing of time she grew more beautiful than the day they’d met, yet there was a glowing quality about her tonight that he just couldn’t put his finger on. She joined him in the bed and slid on top of his lean body. Without a word he felt her lips brush up against his own and his body reacted to the touch as if making love for the first time. His cock grew rigid as she continued to lie across the top of him.
 
Sarah felt the stirrings of his engorged shaft as it was trapped between their bodies. She loved the fact that he was as lean and hard now as he’d been the first day they made love and she smiled as her body heated with the thought of him burying his cock deep inside her. She ground her hips against him, relishing in the soft moans that escaped him. She felt him rise up to meet her and laughed softly as a frustrated groan met her ears.
 
“Problems, big boy?” she asked mischievously, knowing what her body was doing to his.
 
“Hell, yeah, but not for long,” he said as he tried unsuccessfully to turn her on her side.
 
“Uhuh, Lover, tonight’s mine...and so are you. Relax and...”
 
“Relax...hell, honey...”
 
“Sh!” she said, pressing her mouth to his as she spoke. “You don’t want to wake Buck or Adam do you?”
 
“N...no...not a good idea right now!” he whispered as his cock seemed to grow even harder as he felt the heat of her pressing against him. “Sarah...please...”
 
“You know I love it when you beg,” Sarah whispered teasing him as she kissed his chin and moved to his neck. She continued to lavish attention on the virile body stretched out beneath her, smiling as Larabee fought to let her keep setting her own pace. Since marrying this man she’d learned so many ways to pleasure him and receive pleasure in return and she knew he was nearing frustration as she rose up and spread her legs for him to enter. She sat back, impaling herself on his cock and moaned as he thrust deep inside her. His thick shaft plundered her body, marking her as his own as he’d done every time they made love. She felt him drive deeper, lifting his body off the bed as he strived to bring them both to the ecstasy of release they both craved.
 
Chris wanted their lovemaking to last and continued to plunder her body, thrilling in the soft moans of pleasure escaping her sensuous mouth. He reached up and gently placed his hands on her hips, striving to bury himself deeper than ever before. He felt her body clenching around his cock and knew she was nearing completion. His own body reacted instinctively and he felt the rippling waves of overwhelming need built through his shaft. His thrusts deepened as he felt her react to his own body’s orgasm. She cried out and he knew she climaxed as her body shook with fevered intensity. As his own cock emptied he felt her lean against him, sated and relaxed in each other's arms.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Raul Espinoza was a man of many talents, one of which was entering apartments, homes, or hotel suites without benefit of a regular key. Tonight was no exception and he waited silently for Richard Barker’s return. He sat in the darkened suite of the Rio Internacional Av. Atlantica, a glass of the finest brandy in his hand. The soft chair he relaxed in soothed his senses, but even in a semi sleeping state his body was ready for any sound out of the ordinary.
 
Espinoza often worked for numerous drug lords, but Mendoza was the one who he pledged his loyalty too. The man saved his life more than once and now he was gratefully performing a favor for him, one that would go far to proving his own loyalty. Sipping at the amber liquid he relaxed even further. He smiled as he heard the key in the lock and placed his drink on the table as the door opened. He picked up his weapon and waited for the man to close the door and turn on the light. It didn’t take long and he motioned for the terrified DEA agent to enter.
 
“What the hell are you doing here, Raul!” Barker asked, trying to sound more angry than afraid for his life. He recognized his guest from several meetings during which Mendoza had given him his orders. The scar that ran along Espinoza’s right cheek was one he’d been present to see. It was done by one Carlos Molinero’s men and healed without benefit of stitches, leaving a jagged line from the nostril to the ear. The gun pointed directly at his chest and he knew the silencer was there to make sure any shots would not be heard.
 
“Hector wanted me to speak with you. Come on over and take a seat!”
 
“If you’re go...going to kill me do it n...now!”
 
“What makes you think I’m here to kill you?”
 
“The g...gun!”
 
“Oh, this is just to make sure you’re willing to listen to reason. Now sit down!”
 
Barker moved across the suite and sank onto the sofa, aware of the gun on him at all times. He faced the man seated across from him and waited for him to speak.
 
“Hector’s very upset with the way things are going...”
 
“I have done nothing to...”
 
“That’s not what he says. It seems he’s upset with the heat surrounding your accounts right now. I’m afraid he no longer has need of your services...”
 
“...but...” his voice sounded like a mouse squeaking as he watched the other man slowly pull back on the trigger. “Please...d...don’t...”
 
“I hope your affairs are in order,” Espinoza leered as he fired the gun and watched Barker’s voice react to the deadly missile that entered his heart.
 
Blood dripped from Barker’s mouth as he tried to speak, his eyes grew panicked as he felt his body shutting down. He was dying, there was no doubt of that, but surprisingly there was no pain, just a creeping numbness as he tried to speak.
 
“...some...day...you’ll b...be m...me...ser...vice no l...long...er need...ed...”
 
Espinoza smiled as he watched the light go out of the man’s eyes and then reached for the bag beside the table. He quickly cleaned the weapon and placed the glass in his bag. Next he pulled out several of Carlos Molinero’s files and other damaging evidence. The police would receive an anonymous call from a concerned citizen as soon as he was out of the city. One that would make damn sure Barker was tied into Molinero’s drug cartel. The most damming evidence would be the gun, hidden in the garbage that would lead back to Mendoza’s biggest competition. Looking around the room once more he made sure nothing would give away his presence, before finally leaving the room by the window, leaving the door locked from inside.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin and Jackie reached the top of the cliff as the sun continued its trip across the sky. Both were exhausted, yet also exhilarated at being able to scale the cliff face without further injury. The rope bridge stretched out before them and they looked at each other uncertainly.
 
“I hate heights,” Maynard said matter of factly.
 
“I don’t usually, but I’ll make an exception in this case. But what choice do we have? Mendoza’s at the compound and if we try ta find another way around it we may lose the bastard!”
 
“Guess there’s no other choice...”
 
“Ladies before gentlemen,” Tanner said, smiling as he pointed towards the bridge.
 
“I believe I’ll make an exception this time, Tex. After you,” Maynard said.
 
“Coward!”
 
“And damn proud of it! Move...but go slow, okay?” the woman warned nervously.
 
“Hell...” the tracker said, stepping out onto the swaying bridge and closing his eyes against the vertigo threatening to rob him of his breath. He felt Jackie move out with him as they started across the gorge. He moved one foot at a time, knowing that any false move could drop them to the river once more, but this time he doubted they’d be lucky enough to survive as he saw the heavy rapids below. He lost track of time as the trekked across the bridge, his gaze steady on the unsafe rotted wood and rope. When he finally lifted his head he was surprised to find they’d passed the halfway point and were only about twenty feet from the opposite side of the gorge. A jeep stood parked against the edge, but he gave little thought to it as he continued to move one foot in front of the other. A sharp cry from behind him caught his attention and he reacted instinctively, turning and dropping to his knees as he grabbed the straps of the backpack with his left hand.
 
“I gotcha!” he groaned as he tried to hang onto the bridge with his right hand, hoping for enough leverage to hold her as he legs flailed and her body swung back and forth beneath him. His eyes caught sight of the pieces of broken wood as they dropped away, but he kept his gaze on the dangling woman as she fought to swing her legs up to the next rung. His hand slipped, the strap biting at his palm as he managed to hold on. He couldn’t take the time to speak as he watched her trying to get back to semi-solid ground.
 
“V...Vin...I can’t...” Jackie called as she watched his own precarious hold start to slip.
 
“Yes ya fuckin can! Get those legs up here...”
 
“Let me go!”
 
“Fuck that! If ya go then we both go! Now get those fuckin’ legs movin’, Maynard!” He sucked in a relieved breath as he watched her swing her legs upwards with renewed vigor and concentration. He groaned as his muscles protested this newest mistreatment, but finally her legs snagged one side of the rope bridge and some of the weight was taken off his own arms.
 
“Now all ya need ta do is catch hold of the rope and I’ll help pull ya up!” The sharpshooter manoeuvred his own body backwards until Maynard could reach for the underside of the bridge. It took a lot of time and cursing from both of them, but she was soon lying full length along the bridge in front of him.
 
“Thanks...”
 
“Anytime...just gotta remember ta watch that last step...”
 
“I see that...one hell of a drop,” Maynard agreed as they waited until they could both move before finishing the final fifteen feet of their journey. They stood on solid ground and looked at the jeep sitting near the edge.
 
“Any good at hotwiring, Tex?”
 
“Does a bear shit in the woods?” Tanner asked as they moved to the vehicle. It took less than twenty seconds for the sharpshooter to start the engine and they both breathed a sigh of relief.
 
“So...where to now?”
 
“Think we both need ta get cleaned up and maybe grab some shuteye.”
 
“What, one swim in the river wasn’t enough for you, Tex?” Maynard said, her eyes twinkling mischievously.
 
“yeah, what I wouldn’t give for a bar of soap next time,” Tanner said as he placed his left hand no the steering wheel.
 
“You gonna be able to handle this thing?” she held up her hands as he turned towards her. “I know...I know... a bird shit in the woods?” Setting off shrill laughter from them both.
 
“Alright, Jackie, I think we’ll go south as far as we can on the old trail.”
 
“What if we run into one of Mendoza’s patrols.”
 
“Terminate with extreme prejudice,” Tanner said, amazed that he hadn’t lost the weapon he took off Mendoza’s man.
 
“Sounds like a plan to me, but maybe I should handle the gun while you drive.”
 
“Can you handle...ah hell...does a bear shit in the woods?” he repeated at her upraised eyebrows.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Two days later Chris walked into his office, relieved and feeling better after having two good nights of solid eight hour sleep, the second without benefit of a sleeping pill. Sarah and Adam assured him they could take care of Buck Wilmington and Chris knew his wife could handle herself. There’d been nothing further from Ella Gaines, but he still had a niggling fear that she wasn’t far away.
 
“Hey, Boss, how’s Buck?”
 
“He’s better, Josiah. Still gets those headaches and cursing the sling,” Larabee explained.
 
“He still wearing it?” Jackson asked.
 
“Are you kidding, Sarah’s threatened to keep him from his lady friend’s phone calls if he takes it off.”
 
“Always said your wife was a smart lady, Chris,” Sanchez said with a grin
 
“That she is, Josiah...she married me didn’t she?” the blond asked, hurrying into his office as the phone rang. “Larabee...yes, sir...I’ll be right there!” he answered before hanging up the phone.
 
“Something wrong, Mr. Larabee?” Standish asked.
 
“I hope not. That was Orrin. He wants to see me right away!” Chris hurried out of the main door and into the elevator. He’d been worried about the lack of communication from his friend, and Travis’ phone call added to his fears. He nearly collided with a young woman as he exited the elevator, apologizing as he hurried down the corridor. He stepped into the outer office and smiled at the secretary as she looked up from her keyboard.
 
“You can go right in, Chris.”
 
“Thanks, Peggy,” the blond said, opening the door to find not only his boss, but also Gerald Coltrain. “Orrin, Gerald, what’s going on?”
 
“Chris, have a seat,” the older man said pointing to the chair across from him. He waited for Larabee to be seated before sliding a Brazilian newspaper, O Estadao de Sao Paulo, across to him. Chris looked at the front page, frowning as he looked at the other two men.
 
“Alright, what does this have to do with Vin?” Larabee asked, wishing he could read the words on the page.
 
“The dead man is Richard Barker,” Coltrain told him.
 
“Maynard’s boss?”
 
“That’s right. It seems a drug lord named Carlos Molinero decided to take him out. One shot to the chest, but the bastard didn’t count on someone, a witness calling it in. They have the weapon, registered to Molinero complete with fingerprints. The bastard’s in jail awaiting trial as we speak.”
 
“Alright, so what does this mean to Vin and Jackie? Do they know about Barker’s death?” the blond asked.
 
“I was hoping you could tell me since you’re the only one with any contact with either of them.”
 
“Vin was supposed to call two nights ago. I haven’t heard anything yet,” Larabee explained, standing and pacing the room worriedly.
 
“Do you have anyway of contacting Vin?” Travis asked, knowing Larabee and Tanner seldom went anywhere without some kind of failsafe.
 
“I tried calling his cell phone and left a message, but there’s been nothing so far. I’m not saying anything’s happened, but it’s not like Vin to ignore this particular message. What’s your agency doing about this mess, Gerald?”
 
“We’ve sent a couple of agents in to investigate Barker’s death and hopefully they’ll find out whether he was on the take or not. As for Maynard and Tanner there’s nothing more we can do until they contact my office or you. Will you let me know if you hear from them?”
 
“Only if I get your word that you’ll do the same,” Larabee said softly, still not quite trusting the DEA agent.
 
“My office...”
 
“Not talking about your office, Gerald. His is one man to another. Will you let me know if you hear anything about Tanner and Maynard’s whereabouts?”
 
“Yes,” Coltrain said seriously, and saw Larabee nod in understanding.
 
“Orrin, I have a few things to clear up in the office before I head home. Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra are all available if you need them, or you can contact me at home.”
 
“Alright, Chris. You take it easy, okay? Evie said to bring Adam over this weekend to play with Billy before he goes home.”
 
“We will, Orrin, and thanks again.”
 
“You’re welcome, Son,” Travis said, shaking hands with the younger man before he left the office.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Standish looked up as Larabee returned and knew it was not good news. He watched as Larabee sat on the edge of Sanchez’ desk and looked at each of them in turn.
 
“Coltrain was with Orrin when I got there.”
 
“Does he have any news about Barker’s activities?” Jackson asked.
 
“Barker won’t be a problem anymore...he’s dead.”
 
“Well, that would be good news if we could tell Vin. I take it you still haven’t heard from him?” Sanchez inquired.
 
“No...still nothing. It could be just a simple problem...cell phone could be dead or damaged,” Larabee explained, accepting a cup of hot coffee from the gambler. “Thanks, Ezra.”
 
“You’re welcome. Does that mean I should stop investigating Barker?”
 
“No...I have a feeling Barker’s the key to finding Mendoza. The fact that Barker’s dead is a plus for Vin and Jackie, but only if we can get the information to them.”
 
“I’ll keep digging then,” Standish assured him.
 
“Well, Boys, I’ll be here for another hour or so, but I’ll be leaving just before lunch. Josiah, Orrin will let you know if there’s anything pressing that needs to be taken care of.”
 
“No problem, Chris,” the ex-preacher said as Larabee stood and headed for his office. He stopped and turned towards the empty desks, sighing heavily. “Ezra.”
 
“Yes, Mr. Larabee?”
 
“Anything new on Ella Gaines?”
 
“I’ve checked the airport arrivals on a daily basis, but so far the bit...woman hasn’t returned.
 
“Bitch is more appropriate, Ez,” the blond assured him as he finally entered the office and closed the door. He sat at his desk and looked at the phone as if willing Tanner to call would make it ring. Opening his desk he pulled out several files from recently wrapped up cases and opened the first one.
 
~~~~~~~~~~
 
Several times they stopped to figure out where they were and make sure they were driving away from Mendoza’s compound. By unspoken agreement both knew they were in no shape for a run in with the drug lord or his men. They stumbled upon the abandoned shack around midnight. Both were exhausted and Tanner had taken an old wagon path, barely wide enough for the jeep to drive through. Overhanging branches struck at their exposed skin, scratching their arms as they tried to defend their faces.
 
“Vin, we really need to stop,” Maynard explained nearing exhaustion.
 
“I know...was kind of hoping ta find someplace ta hole up fer a day or two,” the Texan said, fighting to stay awake. He kept the lights on low beams and drove slowly along the wagon path. It took several moments for him to realize the headlights were shining on a dark shape set back off the trail up ahead.
 
“Vin...”
 
“I see it. I’ll pull the jeep into the brush until we can see if anyone’s living there,” Tanner explained. It didn’t take long for him to park the jeep and the duo cautiously made their way along the dark trail.
 
“Shit!”
 
“What’s wrong?” the Texan asked.
 
“So tired we’re not even thinking straight, Tex. We should’ve checked the jeep for supplies. There could be matches there or a flashlight and maybe a first aid kit. If that place is abandoned we need to see if any animals have made it their haven.”
 
“Damn, alright, come on,” the tracker said, leading her back the short distance to the battered vehicle. Jackie groped around the passenger seat while Vin searched the area behind the driver. He felt a metal case and pulled it from under the seat, placing it on the ground before returning his attention to the back. He leaned in and felt his way around but blinked rapidly as a strong beam of bright light flashed across his face. He reacted instinctively and grabbed for the object with one hand, the fingers of his right hand wrapped around a slender throat, stopping only when he heard a muffled curse.
 
“Shit, Tanner, it’s just me!”
 
“Good way ta get yer fuckin’ neck snapped!” the sharpshooter cursed.
 
“Didn’t know you had an aversion to light! Didn’t do it on purpose, Tanner, hit the wrong button. Sorry,” Maynard apologized.
 
“It’s okay...just thought it was Mendoza’s men. Shine the light back here for a minute!” Tanner followed the beam and looked around the small compartment in the back. There was nothing of any real consequence and he reached for the item he’d placed on the ground, smiling as he spotted the red cross stamped on top.
 
“Well, at least we can fix up your arm,” Maynard told him, frowning as she spotted something tucked into the wheel well. She reached into the back and pulled out a tattered blanket and smiled as she tucked it under her arms. “...and we won’t be sleeping on the bare floor.”
 
“If the place even has a floor,” Tanner said as he grabbed the case and reached for the backpack, shaking his head as Maynard grabbed it first.
 
They turned back towards the trail and Vin listened, aware of any change in the night sounds as he moved towards what he hoped would be a haven for their weary bodies. By the time they made it the fifty yards to the shack the two were ready to drop. Forcing one foot ahead of the other they stepped through the broken door and Jackie quickly shone the beam around the small one room structure. Several large spiders were in evidence in the upper corners, broken furniture pieces were spread around the floor, even a broken dinner plate lay next to a window who’s shutters hung at a precarious angle. Both laughed as they spotted a familiar object leaning against the far wall, a broom, handle intact, half the bristles missing, yet looking as if it had stood the test of time.
 
“Looks like we can have a clean floor to spread our blanket on,” Maynard said as she grabbed the splintered handle and swept the spiders, webs and dust out of the shack. Before long the duo sat on the blanket while Maynard checked the contents of the first aid kit from the jeep. There were several sealed packets of gauze, a roll of white tape, a few small band aids, and a tube of antibiotic ointment. She recognized the writing and knew the best used before date was still good. “Wish I had some water.”
 
“Thought we agreed we had enough of that in the river,” Tanner quipped.
 
“Don’t want to go swimming, but I’d like to clean this wound. You feel a little warm.”
 
“It is warm...”
 
“I know, but this is fever warm not weather warm,” Maynard said as she spread the ointment on the gauze and quickly taped it over the angry wound. Some of the stitches were gone and blood seeped from the edges of the gash.
 
“Nothing we can do, Jackie, the aspirin was in my pack,” Tanner groaned as he lay back no the hard floor. He reached for her arm and pulled her down beside him, smiling as they shared the battered backpack as a pillow. Vin listened as the woman gave into her body’s need for sleep and found his own mind beckoning for him to do the same. Since switching off the flashlight the night sounds had returned to normal, while his body remained tense. A soft almost imperceptible ripple seemed to flow through his subconscious and a picture formed in his mind. Chris Larabee stood framed in a halo of white light, the darkness surrounding him seemed to be a harbinger of danger and Tanner wished he could contact his best friend. A man who from the very first meeting seemed to be a missing part of him. There’d been an instantaneous burst of subconscious chatter between the two, but never real words, just gut feelings and instincts. Right now his guts were telling him that Chris Larabee was in grave danger, but there was no way to warn him of the trouble barreling his way.
 
‘Hell, Chris, watch yer back!’ he thought as he finally dropped off to sleep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Mendoza looked at the O Estadao de Sao Paulo newspaper on the table next to a glass of cold beer. Normally his tastes ran to more expensive libations, but today he wanted something different. The front page showed two pictures, both males, one dead and one screaming at the reporters. The dead man was Richard Barker, the other man was Carlos Molinero. Both men were now out of the picture and would not cause him any new problems. Molinero’s family did not want a large scale drug war and were more than willing to become part of his cartel, making him the single biggest drug lord in South America. Things were clearly going his way, except for two very big problems. Vin Tanner and Jackie Maynard.
 
Ernesto had returned with the news that Guerrero had returned and confirmed Miguel and Manual were dead. Not much of a loss, and the news was what he expected. What he hadn’t expected was Ernesto returning from patrolling the gorge with the news that Lopez and Martinez were dead as well. Martinez died of a gunshot wound, but Lopez had been the victim of a large cat, probably the Jaguar that had been bothering the outlying farms in the area. Lopez’ dog had been torn apart and there were signs that Lopez had tried to escape the same fate, but the cat stalked him, taking him down at the base of the mountain.
 
Mendoza knew this cat was a rogue, having tasted human flesh and blood it would continue to chase anyone it sensed a weakness from. He ordered Guerrero to take several men and take care of the cat once and for all.
 
That still left him the problem of Tanner and Maynard. The two seemed to have disappeared along with the jeep Lopez and Martinez had left with. Somehow he had to make sure they did not get off the mountain alive. Reaching for his drink once more he picked up the newspaper and read the article once more, before standing and stepping outside as darkness began to close over the mountains once more.
 
“Where are you, Tanner?” he whispered softly.
 
~~~~~~~~~~
 
Guy Royal smiled as he spotted the raven haired beauty coming towards him. The form fitting cream colored suit did little to hide her shape and he felt his body reacting to the sway of her hips as she hurried towards him. He spotted Jack Averil pushing a luggage cart behind her and hurried to take the woman’s arm.
 
“This way, Ella,” the dark haired man said, kissing her cheek as the other man caught up with them. “Welcome back, Jack.”
 
“Thank you, Guy. How are things going?”
 
“Proceeding according to plan,” Royal said as they stood on opposite sides of the woman and made their way out of the airport and to the waiting sleek black limousine. Guy held the door for her while the chauffeur helped Averil load the luggage into the trunk. Once the trio was settled in the spacious seats, Royal made sure the barrier was closed and they were assured of privacy.
 
“Okay, Guy, tell me what’s happening,” Ella said as the older man passed her a glass of champagne.
 
“Robert is meeting us at my place. He will explain what Powderman plans to do with the woman and child and when it will take place.”
 
“Very well, I hope it’s soon, I am getting tired of knowing she’s in the arms of my property.”
 
“Well, tonight is too soon, we have to lead Larabee to believe Wilmington is the actual target. I believe Powderman is going to take a shot at the target tonight.”
 
“Tell him to make sure there’s no doubt as to who the target is. I want Chris to believe that his family is safe and that I’m no longer a problem. He still believes I’m out of the country doesn’t he?”
 
“Yes he does, Ella, and with you both using an alias he shouldn’t know you’re here unless he finds a way to view the security videos, but that’s harder than one would think,” Royal explained.
 
“Will Powderman inform us of the day and time he takes care of Larabee’s family?” Averil asked.
 
“Yes, I believe Robert mentioned it would probably be in the next day or two.”
 
“Excellent, I can’t believe my dreams will soon come true...”
 
“Ella.”
 
“Yes, Guy?”
 
“What if Larabee figures out you’re behind all this?”
 
“I’ve thought of that and I just know he’s going to be so pleased about being back with me that he’ll want to celebrate and maybe even marry me as soon as possible.”
 
“But what if he really does have feelings for his wife?” Averil asked.
 
“He doesn’t...right now she’s just cast a spell over him, but as soon as he’s rid of her evil influence he’ll remember what it was like between us. In the years since we parted I’ve never met anyone who can make me feel the way he does. In his arms I knew I’d always be complete and never have to go away feeling as if I was missing something.”
 
“Ella, I thought we were good together,” Averil told her.
 
“We were, and we still are, Jack, but I have told you and Guy and Robert that Chris is the other half of my soul. He’s the only man who can make me squirm by just standing near me. I need that danger I feel when I’m in his arms...there’s something of a coiled serpent hidden inside Chris Larabee and I’m the only one who can make the serpent strike.”
 
“You’d just better watch he doesn’t strike out at you!” Royal warned.
 
“Chris would never hurt me,” Gaines said coyly as she passed the empty glass back to the older man.
 
“How can you be sure?”
 
“Jack, I told you...Chris loves me and will realize that when the bitch is out of the way. She’s just clouded his judgement, but that won’t last long once he knows he’s free and I want him, perhaps I should tease him as he’s teasing me. Sort of like playing hard to get, but I don’t know if I can do that to him. Now, enough of this, tell me more about how badly Wilmington was hurt in the explosion,” she said, licking her lips in anticipation.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
He knew his friends would be shocked to find out about his dual life, but he would keep it from them no matter what it took. Even his clients were unaware of his real name. They knew him only as the Powderman and contacted him through several layers of e-mail addresses. Neither address could be traced back to him, and the final one was sent to several recipients whose names and addresses change every few days. His contact was a man who received the coded e mails and sent them on to him via an ad in the newspaper and he would simply answer the following day. Even the money never went into his hands directly and his Swiss bank account held several million dollars in untraceable funds. In this age of computers and transfers done in the blink of an eye it was easy to hide behind a business facade. He traveled extensively, which made things so much easier in his line of business. His wife never questioned him about his activities, content in the knowledge that he always returned to her and their three boys. Yes life was good, for those who had no qualms about taking what they wanted or doing what came naturally. The thrill of the kill made it worthwhile, but the money made it an easy choice for him. He sat in the thick brush, waiting patiently for the right time to make his move. Strange as it seemed he was not to kill this man, not to harm him at all, but his fee was the same either way. He watched the back yard from his perch on the hillock, waiting, silently unmoving as the softly whispered tune escaped his unmoving lips. He was the Powderman and the Powderman never failed.
 
“De camptown ladies sing this song, doo da, doo da.
Rifle instead of bomb this time, doo da, doo da.”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck felt better than he had since the explosion and smiled as he walked into the kitchen and smiled at the woman standing at the counter. To say Sarah Larabee was beautiful was an understatement, and yet, her beauty wasn’t only on the surface. She had so much love inside her, such a giving heart, and was the perfect match for his long time friend. Sometimes he felt a twinge of jealousy because of the unique love the two had found, yet he didn’t begrudge Chris Larabee the happiness he’d found in the arms of the nurse who treated him at Saint Vincents. 
 
“Something’s burning,” Sarah said, smiling as she turned to face her house guest.
 
“Huh...what?’
 
“I said something’s burning...there’s smoke coming out of those ears of yours. What were you thinking about?” She asked as she reached into the fridge and pulled out a pitcher of fresh squeezed orange juice.
 
“Thinking how lucky Chris was when he got shot.”
 
“What?” the woman asked incredulously.
 
“The day he met you...if he hadn’t been shot we wouldn’t have been at Saint Vincents and you two wouldn’t have met. Lucky SOB met and married every man’s dream.”
 
“Oh, Buck, that’s sweet,” she said, kissing his cheek as her own blushed furiously.
 
“It’s true, Sarah, Chris is a very lucky man...”
 
“Don’t I know it. The most beautiful woman in the world, a son, and the best friends a man could want,” Larabee said as he entered the kitchen and moved to kiss his wife.
 
“Oh you two,” Sarah said, tears in her eyes. “Get out of here and let me finish getting dinner ready.”
 
“She cooks too,” the blond teased.
 
“And makes juice,” Wilmington said.
 
“Fresh juice, not frozen concentrate,” Larabee said as Sarah stood with her hands on her hips.
 
“Now if she’d only give me a beer,” the rogue said.
 
“You can have a beer,” Sarah told him.
 
“I can?”
 
“Sure...”
 
“Should’ve seen this coming, Bucklin...”
 
“Root beer...”
 
“Ah hell...”
 
“...or teddy bear...”
 
“Shit, I quit,” the rogue said, picking up his glass and heading for the patio.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Target’s in my sights right now, doo da, doo da,
shoot the glass and take a bow, doo da, doo da...”
 
His finger eased back on the trigger as he sighted down the rifle.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Is Adam still at Danny’s house?” Larabee asked.
 
“Yes, he’s staying there for dinner. Madonna’s taking him and Danny to see Finding Nemo tonight.”
 
“He’s wanted to see that for a while now,” Larabee said tiredly.
 
“Everything okay, Chris?” Sarah asked.
 
“Yeah, looks like the man Vin was worried about is dead and the DEA is sending in new agents. Now if Vin would call we could let him know that he can have Maynard contact her office.”
 
“You still haven’t heard from him?”
 
“Nothing, and you know that’s not like Vin.”
 
“I know, sweetheart, but it’s only been two days. Maybe he’s having problems with his phone...What’s so funny?”
 
“I said the same thing to the boys at the office,” Larabee told her.
 
“Trying to convince them or you?”
 
“Both, I guess.”
 
“Didn’t work?”
 
“No...not at all. How’s Buck been?”
 
“Antsy. He wants to go back to his place, but I told him not for a few...” she didn’t finish the sentence as the sound of breaking glass interrupted them. Larabee raced ahead of her and spotted Wilmington on the patio stones.
 
“Buck, are you okay?” Larabee asked as he looked at the shattered glass and the spilled orange juice.
 
“Shit, get down!,” the injured man shouted, turning a terrified gaze on his friend.
 
“What the hell happened?” the blond asked as he pulled his wife in behind the table.
 
“Someone shot at me! Hit the fucking glass just as I lifted it to take a drink!”
 
“Did you see where it came from?”
 
“N...not sure...think maybe that hill to the north!” Wilmington explained.
 
“You two stay put...”
 
“Chris!” Sarah said, not wanting her husband to go alone.
 
“Honey, stay with Buck. I’ll take the jeep and circle around it and see if I can spot whoever it is!”
 
“Be care...ful...”
 
“I will. Stay put!” he warned the injured man, before heading back into the house and around to the front. Vin’s jeep was still parked beside his truck and Larabee quickly climbed in behind the wheel, reaching into his pocket for his keys. Shoving the key in the ignition he drove out of the yard drive and headed towards the hill to the north.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ezra impatiently picked up the phone on the first ring, frowning at the whistling from the other end.
 
“Who is this? Hello, I do hope you know this is not the least bit funny.”
 
“Something wrong, Ezra?” Sanchez asked.
 
“I don...”
 
“Buck Wilmington’s gonna die today....doo da, doo da...”
 
“Who the fuck is this?” the gambler cursed and slammed down the phone as the caller hung up. He quickly picked up the receiver again and dialed the Larabee home.
 
“Ezra, what’s going on?” Jackson asked.
 
“Some bastard was whistling and then this weird voice said Buck’s gonna die today. Come on! Pick up, dammit!”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The phone began to ring in the house, but Sarah had no intention of leaving the relative safety she’d found with Buck. They stayed seated on the patio, praying that Chris was okay as time seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace. The phone continued to ring and neither really noticed when it stopped as they concentrated on listening to the sounds around them.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Come on, Ezra, we’ll try again in the car!” Jackson ordered, grabbing his keys and heading for the door. The trio hurried across to the elevator and Sanchez impatiently pressed the button several times until the doors finally opened and they stepped inside. They entered the underground parking lot and raced to Jackson’s Ford Aero Star. It didn’t take long for the worried men to drive out of the lot and onto the busy street. Jackson driving, Sanchez on the phone to Miller, and Standish continuing his mission to get through to the Larabee home.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris drove the jeep through the back of his yard, his eyes scanning the area as he sped up the slight incline. There’d been no movement, but that did not mean someone wasn’t waiting in the thick brush at the edge of his property line. Every nerve felt on end and he knew someone was watching him, but there was no sign of movement as he pulled to a stop above his patio. He turned off the jeep, leaving the keys in place as he got out and searched the area. He found several places where the grass seemed to have been trampled and slowly followed the trail through the brush. It didn’t take long for him to come to the end of the trail where the grass gave way to the paved back roads leading away from Billings.
 
“Dammit!” he cursed in frustration as he headed back to the jeep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Bob’s sending a patrol car out,” Sanchez explained as they drove north towards the Larabee house.
 
“Anything, Ezra?” Jackson asked.
 
“No...still no answer!” the younger man said as the answering machine picked up once more.
 
“We’re almost there, Ezra, maybe they’re just out back and have the phone turned off!” the ex-preacher suggested.
 
“Mr. Larabee turn off the phone? I don’t think so,” Standish said, hitting the speed dial once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck heard the jeep returning and lifted his head above the deck rail. He spotted Tanner’s familiar vehicle and tapped Sarah’s arm.
 
“Chris is coming back,” he said, using his left hand to pull himself up. He cautiously moved away from the protective cover and breathed a sigh of relief when no shot rang out.
 
“Buck, are you okay?” Sarah asked, seeing the way the man held his injured arm tight against his body.
 
“Yeah, just remind me not to hit it again,” the ladies man answered sheepishly.
 
“I should check it...”
 
“Not yet...wait until we hear what Chris has to say,” Wilmington said as they headed through the house. Sarah held the door for him and he smiled at the woman’s concern for his well being. Tanner’s jeep and Jackson’s van pulled into the driveway at almost the same instant and the men converged on him and Sarah.
 
“You guys okay?” Jackson asked.
 
“Yeah...we’re fine. What are you boys doing here?” the ladies’ man asked. 
 
“Ezra got a call saying you were going to die today,” Sanchez explained.
 
“Came damn close. Did you find anything, Chris?” the rogue asked,” sinking into the porch swing.
 
“There was definitely someone there. Grass was trampled and I followed the trail to the back road. Whoever it was is long gone.”
 
“Where’s Adam?” Jackson asked.
 
“He’s at the Tobin’s house. Won’t be home until later tonight,” Chris explained, relieved his son hadn’t been there when the attack occurred.
 
“Nathan, we need to take a look at Buck’s arm. He fell pretty hard and I want to make sure he doesn’t need to have it checked,” Sarah explained.
 
“Alright, come on, Buck, let’s get you inside,” Jackson said.
 
“In a minute. I want to know who called Ezra...”
 
“I have no idea who it was, Buck. He was whistling an old tune...and then he made the threat against you,” the gambler explained.
 
“Did you recognize the tune?” Larabee asked.
 
“I think so...heard it a long time ago from a gardener who worked for my mothah. I believe it was Camptown Races,” the conman told them as the sound of a siren met their ears.
 
“Camptown Races?” Jackson asked and noticed the frown on Wilmington’s face. “Does that mean something to you, Buck?”
 
“I’m not sure...could be...then again I thought he died long ago.”
 
“Who?” Sanchez asked.
 
“A spook, least that’s what the rest of us thought he was. No one in our group knew his real name. Hell half the time we thought he really was a spook since no one remembered ever seeing him. But we heard him, late at night, in the jungle all you could hear was that tune whispered over and over and over. It drove old Benny crazy and he gave our location away one night by shooting into the woods where he thought the sound came from. Next day we found Benny tied to a tree a shitload of dynamite strapped to his chest. It had a timer and there was like fifteen seconds left. No way we could save him so we ran...the blast damn near killed us anyway. Knocked me out cold and I remember opening my eyes and hearing that tune again. Except he was singing the words this time.”
 
“Do you remember the words, Buck?” Jackson asked.
 
“Yeah...don’t think I’ll ever forget that voice or the words. Powderman blew Benny skyhigh, doo da, doo da. You gonna join him bye and bye, doo da, doo da,” the ladies man answered, shivering at the long ago memory.
 
“Powderman?”
 
“Yeah, he was an explosive expert,” Wilmington explained as the police car pulled into the driveway.
 
“Ez, when you get back to the office I want you to see if you can find out anything about this Powderman,” Larabee ordered.
 
“I shall do my best, Mr. Larabee.”
 
“Mr. Larabee, is there a problem here?”
 
“Hello, Mike, Danny, someone took a shot at Buck,”
 
“Chris, you boys go ahead and show the officers where it happened. Buck, Nathan and I are going to take a look at your arm. Let’s go...”
 
“But...”
 
“No buts, Buck. You heard the lady. Let’s go,” Jackson ordered as Sanchez, Standish, and Larabee headed for the back.
 
Sarah and Nathan flanked Wilmington as they herded him back into the house and to the bedroom he’d been using.
 
Buck reluctantly sat down, listening as Larabee and the others explained what had happened earlier. He winced as Jackson eased his arm from the sling and helped him out of the shirt.
 
“Sorry, Buck,” Jackson apologized as he began removing the bandage and Sarah returned with a glass of water and two pills.
 
“Shoot, Sarah...”
 
“Take them, Buck!” the woman ordered.
 
“I...damn!” he swore as he saw the stubborn set of her shoulders and the firm look on her face. He took the pills and drank the glass of water, cursing again as Jackson finished with the thick padding protecting his arm.
 
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Sarah said as she cleaned the wound with saline and made sure the wound was not infected.
 
“Compared to what? Sure as hell feels pretty bad right now!” Wilmington snapped, apologizing to them both when he realized how angry he sounded.
 
“Apology accepted,” Sarah said as Jackson began to re-bandage the wound. She held the sling and watched as the other man helped Buck put his arm back into the strapping. Next she checked his hand to make sure there were no cuts or slivers of glass.
 
“Better,” Jackson asked.
 
“Yeah...think so...thanks.”
 
“You’re welcome. You were lucky there’s no glass in your hands although there are several lacerations that need to be cleaned, but none look like they need stitches. Now why don’t you lie back and get some rest,” Sarah suggested, as she cleaned the small cuts.
 
“Don’t need to rest...” Wilmington protested even as he closed his eyes laid back against the pillows and lifted his legs off the floor. He opened his eyes and smiled as Sarah pulled the shoes from his feet and lifted the blanket up to his waist. His eyes closed once more and he heard the man and woman leave the room as he drifted towards sleep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Robert Spikes drew a deep breath of air into his lungs as Ella Gaines came towards him. She wore a black streamlined bathing suit that set off her curves perfectly. The low cut did very little to hide her ample breasts and both sides were cut high on her hips, leaving very little to the imagination.
 
“Hello, Robert,” she greeted, wrapping her arms around his neck and brushing her lips against his.
 
“Ella, I must say that suit was just made for you...you should’ve been a model, with legs like those,” Spikes said as she released him and walked towards the deck chairs. He watched as she poured two glasses from the frosted pitcher and added a slice of lime to each one. She held it to his lips and smiled sweetly as he sipped the tangy drink.
 
“So, Robert, what news do you bring me?” she asked, stretching out on the lounge chair.
 
Spikes sat next to her and ran his hands down her legs, sighing contentedly as she looked at him, her lips pouting, her eyes filled with lust.
 
“Powderman succeeded in his mission today. It looks as if Wilmington is the actual target.”
 
“Excellent. Wilmington wasn’t hurt?”
 
“No, Powderman said he shot the glass out of his hand. Guess he might have some cuts from the glass shards.”
 
“That’s okay...So when is Powderman going to take care of Chris’ baggage?” Ella said, sipping the whiskey sour.
 
“Guy found out Wilmington has a doctor’s appointment tomorrow afternoon. Powderman will take care of everything while they are gone.”
 
“What if Chris isn’t the one driving Wilmington into town or the bitch and her whelp go with them?”
 
“Then Powderman will wait until the time is right. He knows what he’s doing Ella and he’s the best in the business.”
 
“I hope you’re right...how did you meet this Powderman anyway?” the woman said, placing her arm under her head as she moved her body seductively. She knew she was beautiful, that she could have any of these men, ready and willing to please her, but she wanted Chris Larabee. She smiled as she realized even when she had Chris there was no way she would stop enjoying sex with Spikes, Averil, or Royal. Chris would just have to realize she’d waited for him and now he had to share her with those who helped bring them back together.
 
“I’ve never met him...not face to face anyway. Powderman is just a code name to get in touch with him. I found him through a friend fifteen years ago and have used him for several jobs since then. He’s never failed me yet,” Spikes explained.
 
“Good, I can’t believe I’ll soon have my love back with me,” Ella said, standing and walking to the edge of the oval shaped pool.
 
‘Oh, Ella, if you only knew how many men would pay to have you as their lover,’ Spikes thought, licking his lips as he watched her dive into the pool. He refilled his glass and watched her swim several lengths of the pool before she came to the edge and placed her arms there while watching him.
 
“Care to join me, Robert?”
 
“I don’t have any trunks with me,” Spikes answered.
 
“What a shame...you know I could discard mine and maybe you wouldn’t feel so shy about skinny dipping,” Ella suggested and smiled as Spikes quickly began to undress.
 
“What if Royal and Averil return?”
 
“They can join us,” Gaines said as she pulled off the skimpy swimsuit and threw it on the deck, laughing as Spikes dove in and began to chase her across the pool.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris, Sarah, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra sat on the patio. Wilmington still slept soundly as the night sky became brighter with a luminescent moon surrounded by a blanket of crystalline stars. Adam was spending the night with the Tobin family but would be returning the following morning. The police had done a thorough job of going over the patio and finding the spent slug, but had turned up nothing on the hillside where Larabee had discovered the evidence of the hit man.
 
Sanchez and Jackson would be staying for the night in an effort to keep the family safe. The police would have a patrol car in the area at all times and be on the alert for suspicious people near the Larabee property. They’d been talking about ways to keep Wilmington safe and knew whoever was after him could make another attempt at any time.
 
Chris walked Standish to the door, thanking him for everything he’d done so far, including the information on Richard Barker. He stood in the doorway, watching the gambler walk to his Porsche and open the door. He knew the younger man would stop by Nettie Wells’ place and check on them.
 
“Ezra, call and let me know how Nettie is coping with her houseguest.”
 
“I will, Mr. Larabee. I will also endeavor to find out more about Ella Gaines and her cohorts. So far I’ve turned up nothing new on her newest beau.”
 
“There’s got to be something in there about Averil, besides that damn moniker he’s taken,” Larabee cursed.
 
“Yes, well, I was kind of thinking of adopting it. Handsome Ezra has a certain ring to it,” Standish said, smiling as he finally got into the car.
 
Chris shook his head as he turned back towards the house, hurrying towards the kitchen as he spotted the pale figure standing there. He grabbed Wilmington’s arms as his legs threatened to buckle and eased him into the kitchen and onto a chair as Jackson came into the house.
 
“Buck, you okay?” the paramedic in training asked.
 
“Head’s killing me,” the concussed man whispered, using his left hand to rub his temples.
 
“I’ll get you something...”
 
“Not...not yet, Nate. I’m okay...just need something to drink and talk to Chris.”
 
“What about?” Larabee asked, taking a bottle of water from the fridge as Jackson stood next to the trembling man.
 
“Time I went back home...”
 
“Don’t even think about it, Buck...”
 
“Chris, if someone’s trying to kill me I don’t want you, Sarah or Adam getting in the way. If I go back to my place at least it’ll only be me in danger.”
 
“Stop talking stupid, Buck. You can’t defend yourself...”
 
“I can get police protection, Chris,” Wilmington insisted taking the glass from his friend’s hand.
 
“You have that here, Buck. Look, we’re doing everything we can to make sure everyone’s safe. Josiah and Nathan are staying the night and the police are patrolling the district. You’re not going home...not until Dr. Midland gives you the okay and then only if the threat is no longer a problem. Shut up and listen, Buck!” Larabee warned as the man went to protest. “How long have we known each other?”
 
“More years than I want to admit sometimes,” Wilmington admitted.
 
“Right...years ago we made a pledge to always be there when we need each other whether the other man wanted it or not. Right now you need my...our help and whether you want it or not you’re stuck with it so sit back and stop arguing. This has and always will be your home as well as mine and Sarah’s. That goes for the rest of the guys too, Buck. I won’t let you turn your back on our friendship by letting you go home in an effort to keep us safe. Ain’t gonna happen, So take your pills and we’ll get you back to bed.”
 
“Hell, Larabee someone wound you up real tight. Damn near talked my head off.”
 
“Good, as long as you understood what I said!”
 
“Yeah...I did, and thanks, Chris. Just hope you don’t regret it!”
 
“I won’t...family, Buck, and you damn well better not forget it!” Larabee smiled as his long time friend smiled weakly at him.
 
Jackson stood back and let the two men talk things out. He knew Larabee would not allow their injured friend to leave the protection of his home and understood it would be the same if it happened to any of them. The seven really had become a family since Larabee hired the final member of the team. He just wished he knew where the hell Vin Tanner was and whether he was safe or not.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin opened his eyes and shifted his body, wincing with the effort it took to move. He frowned when he noticed the empty spot beside him and quickly got to his feet. He searched the empty shack, cursing the weakness that had kept him dead to the world around him.
 
“Jackie!” he called as he hurried through the door.
 
“Jesus, Tex, give a girl a heart attack why don’t you,” Maynard said when she was nearly bowled over by the injured man.
 
“Sorry, didn’t know where you were...where were you anyway?”
 
“Went to check the jeep to see if we missed anything last night. How’s the arm feel?”
 
“Stiff. Did you find anything?”
 
“A few year old candy bars, but at least they should still be edible. Found a small creek on the other side of the trail...found some fruit there too,” Maynard said, handing him the red cross case filled with small purple fruit. “They are edible right?”
 
“Yes, they are,” Tanner said as he sat on the step. “How far is the creek?”
 
“About a fifteen minute walk. Here,” she said, handing him a bottle of cold water.
 
“Where’d you find this?”
 
“Hey, I still have my pack and I kept the bottle from the day we left the hotel. Figured we might need something to carry extra water in. Drink what you want and I’ll use the rest to clean your arm before we leave.”
 
“Alright,” Tanner said, tipping the bottle on his head and drinking half the bottle before taking a breath. He handed it back to the woman and smiled as he smacked his lips. “Thanks, I needed that!”
 
“You’re welcome.”
 
“Was there any sign of Mendoza’s patrols?” Tanner asked as she wet the bandage and eased it from the wound.
 
“No...I didn’t see anyone,” she told him. “Vin, this may hurt a bit.”
 
“Okay,” the tracker said as he felt her press against the tender area. He held his breath until she’d finished her ministrations and was glad when she placed a new piece of gauze over the wound.
 
“Done,” Maynard told him as she secured the bandage to the arm.
 
“Thanks, Jackie,” Tanner said as he pulled what was left of his shirt back on. He wiped at his forehead and smiled as she looked at him in concern.
 
“Maybe we should stay here a while longer?”
 
“No...need ta finish this and get back home. Got a feelin’ somethin’s gonna happen,” the sharpshooter explained.
 
“Need to finish this and get you to a hospital,” Maynard mumbled under her breath as she helped him to stand. “Are we taking Mendoza out tonight?”
 
“Gonna try. Slip in under cover of darkness and find out where he’s holding his main weapons. The man’s gotta have some explosives there and if we set some of it around the compound we might just have the element of surprise on our side.”
 
“The element of surprise won’t do us any good if you fall flat on your face. You know I could go in...”
 
“No!”
 
“Vin...”
 
“Yer not goin in alone, Jackie...ferget it. I can walk and use my arm, that’s all I need.”
 
“You always this stubborn, Tex?”
 
“Been told that a time or two. Now pick up that pack and let’s move out!”
 
“Bossy and a bear all at the same time. Alright, Tex, but don’t you go passing out on me!”
 
“Try not ta,” the injured man said as they hurried towards the jeep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sarah threw the wrapper into the waste basket, and watched impatiently as the home test ran its course. She looked at the test on the counter, smiling contentedly as she rubbed her still flat abdomen, knowing the results had confirmed her beliefs. The blue line was clear, and a new life was just beginning to grow inside her. Tomorrow night she would tell her husband and son. Her smile widened as she remembered telling Chris she was pregnant with Adam. She thought back to the day Vin took Adam fishing and wondered if she’d gotten pregnant that very day. As she smoothed the material of her negligee across her stomach she smiled and sighed happily.
 
‘Looks like we’ll be giving Adam his birthday wish after all,’ she thought as she placed the test  in the second drawer of the vanity. Turning out the lights, she missed seeing the wrapper fall on the floor as her negligee brushed against it. She returned to her bed and snuggled up to her sleeping husband, kissing his shoulder as she relaxed and closed her eyes.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris woke up at a little after four, wincing as his full bladder made itself known. He slid his legs over the edge and hurried across the room, closing the bathroom door as he barely made it inside.
 
‘Damn, shouldn’t have had that third drink,’ he thought, frowning as his eyes caught sight of something on the floor. He bent down and picked it up, realizing instantly what he was looking at and feeling the excitement building inside him. 
 
“Sarah,” he whispered and sat down on the toilet, a smile forming on his face. He didn’t know what the results were, but his gut told him they were going to have a child. He looked into the waste basket, but didn’t see the test itself. He stood up and looked in the mirror, smiling as he realized they could very well be having a baby. Chris looked towards the door and wanted so much to wake his wife and find out if she was truly pregnant, but stopped himself. He threw the wrapper in the waste basket and sat down once more as the thought of being a father again overwhelmed him. He felt tears in his eyes and reached for the box of tissues, but found it empty. Opening the second drawer his gaze fell on the home pregnancy test and the positive results.
 
“Oh, God, Sarah,” he thought as the tears slid down his face. They were going to have a baby, a new life to nurture and love. Chris closed the door quickly, washed his face and hurried back to bed, where his wife lay curled on her left side, facing the window as the bright moon framed her face in a perfect halo. He caught his breath at the almost serene beauty he beheld and knew he could never love anyone as much as he did this woman. She’d given him one child and now was carrying a second and he understood why she seemed to glow the last few days. Sliding down beside her he kissed her cheek before spooning up against her back and wrapped her in the protective circle of his arms.
 
“I love you, Sarah Connelly Larabee,’ he thought as he closed his eyes.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
He moved like a ghost, neither making a noise nor disturbing the earth underfoot. He was at one with the night, a dark soul that could never be cleansed, and didn’t expect any rewards in the afterlife if there was any. He lived for today, content in his dual life and hummed inaudibly as he set to work around the Larabee home. Several times a patrol car nearly caught him, but he’d ducked into the darker shadows as the car passed by. He could see two men inside the house and recognized them as part of Larabee’s team. If they were there tomorrow they would die with his targets, if not they would live to see another day. He slid a dual bottle under the front porch and set it to his remote timer. When the moment came the two liquids would mix thereby setting in motion and explosive that would destroy everything around it. There were six set up around the house and he knew once he hit the button it would be like an implosion in that the walls would fall inwards, causing the roof to collapse. However once that happened secondary explosions would be triggered, blowing some of the debris outwards away from the home. Finally done he placed a small tape deck near the open kitchen window. It was wired to his remote and would begin to play just before the Larabees found out just how dark the dark side could really be. He stood up and smiled as he walked away, whistling softly as the darkness swallowed him up.
 
Powderman was ready...death was just around the corner.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ella Gaines and Jack Averil stood just inside the tree line overlooking the Larabee home. She’d convinced the man to bring her out here to watch the explosion that would soon take care of Sarah and Adam Larabee. She needed to see their demise for herself and she felt the excitement building in her body. Their car was parked over a mile down the road, away from prying eyes and nosy neighbors.
 
Ella lifted the binoculars to her eyes, but there was still no sign of life at the Larabee home. She felt Averil’s hand on her arm and smiled as he pointed across the street.
 
“I saw that and I’m sure so did Powderman. Robert says the man knows everything about his target and will make sure things go according to plan.”
 
“I hope he’s right, wouldn’t want anything to spoil your fun, Lover,” the man said as he continued to watch the woman’s body move in the clinging material of the mint green sundress she wore.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris watched as the two police officers parked their car across the street. They’d be there until he returned from the hospital with Buck Wilmington. Josiah and Nathan were already at the office working with Ezra to search for anything they could find on the elusive Powderman. He turned towards the back of the house, smiling as he watched Sarah getting Adam his breakfast. He walked into the kitchen, pulling his wife to him and kissing her lips possessively as their son laughed.
 
“That’s gross...you’re too old to kiss!” the boy said, turning away and holding up his hands.
 
“Don’t knock it, Sport, Your mom’s one sexy babe,” Larabee said, wincing as Sarah smacked his shoulder. 
 
“Don’t mind your father, Adam, he’s being a bit of an...”
 
“Not being a bit of a nothing, but would love to have a bit...”
 
“Chris!” Sarah said, slapping his shoulder once more.
 
“Sorry, there’s just something about the way you look this morning...you’re practically glowing.” He looked towards the door as footsteps came towards them. “Good morning, Buck, how’re you feeling?”
 
“Feel okay, Chris...what’s got you in such high spirits this morning?” 
 
“Well, let’s see, I’m married to the most beautiful woman in the world and I guess I’m just in a good mood.”
 
“Damn, Sarah, you’d better get those cops in here!”
 
“Why? What’s wrong?” the woman asked, not sure if he was serious or not.
 
“Cause someone replaced our Chris with one of them Stepford wives...er husbands,” Wilmington said, sitting in the nearest chair.
 
“You’re just jealous Buck.”
 
“Jealous? Me? You should know I don’t have any reason to be jealous. I can have any woman...”
 
“Wrong, Buck,” Larabee said, wrapping his arms around his wife and placing his hands on her stomach. “You can’t have the one woman who God made perfectly. I already have her and I don’t have any plans of letting her go,” Larabee insisted.
 
“You won’t get any arguments from me there, Chris. She’s definitely a keeper...”
 
“Mommy’s a fish?” Adam asked, frowning at the ladies’ man.
 
“What makes you say that, Sport?” Larabee asked, smiling as his son looked confused.
 
“’member when Vin took me fishing?”
 
“Yes,” the blond answered.
 
“Well, that’s how I knew whether we had to throw a fish back. Vin would say it’s a keeper if it was big ‘nough, but Mommy’s not as big as Danny’s Mommy so why did Buck say she’s a keeper?”
 
“Hmm, Buck, care to explain that one?” Sarah asked, covering her husband’s hands with her own.
 
“Nope, think I’ll leave that one for Chris.”
 
“Adam, size doesn’t matter when it comes to a woman. If a man really loves her then that’s all that matters and your mother will always be a keeper to me...goes for you too, Sport. You’re a keeper too.”
 
Buck watched as Adam smiled and raced towards his father and mother. Larabee was the luckiest man in the world, and he felt a pang of jealousy as he looked towards his long time friend. ‘Will I ever meet a woman who captures my heart the way she has yours, Pard,’ he thought as Larabee scooped up his son and the trio embraced. A shudder raced through his body as he watched them, but he quickly shook it off as the clocked chimed nine times.
 
“Buck, do you want something to eat?” Sarah asked.
 
“No...stomach’s a bit queasy this morning. Think maybe I’ll wait until after I see Midland.”
 
“Alright, but you make sure you eat something light as soon as she’s finished. Chris, will you...”
 
“I’ll see to it, Honey,” Larabee assured her as he picked up the coffee cup and downed the contents.
 
“Alright, I’ll have lunch ready when you return. Anything in particular you’d like, Buck?”
 
“Well, I know it’s not Sunday, but I’d sure love to have...”
 
“Chicken and dumplings,” Chris and Adam finished for him and the four laughed.
 
“Chicken and dumplings it’ll be,” the woman said, smiling as she and Adam walked her husband and Wilmington to the door. They stood on the step, waving as the duo made it to the truck.
 
Chris opened the door and was about to climb into the driver’s seat, but was struck by the beauty of his wife and the innocence of his child. Without a word he walked back to the porch and up the three steps. He pulled her close, kissing her once more and smiling at the look on her face as he hugged his son and ruffled his hair.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jack knew by the harsh breathing that the woman next to him was past angry as Larabee kissed his wife and son. He understood beyond a doubt that the blond haired man would pay for showing any emotions concerning his wife and son. Ella was not a forgiving woman when it came to her property and she considered Chris Larabee her property.
 
“She’ll pay for kissing him.”
 
“Ella,  hate to point this out, but I believe he was the one kissing her,” Averil said and realized he’d made a mistake when she turned a heated gaze in his direction. 
 
“He has to make her believe he loves her! Chris is a gentlemen and that’s why he married her. That kid is probably not even his. I’m going to free him from that bitch and we’ll be able to pick up where we left off. He loves me and just needs to get rid of them to realize it. That woman will not have her talons in my man much longer. Where is Powderman?”
 
“We won’t see him, Ella. He’s probably already set everything up and is just waiting for the right time to take them out!”
 
“Yeah, well, it won’t be soon enough for me!” the woman spat as she continued to watch the scene at the small house.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Look after your mommy for me, okay, Sport?”
 
“Ah, Daddy, ya messed my hair,” the child said.
 
“Well it looks more like your daddy’s now, Adam,” Sarah explained of her husbands too short haircut.
 
“Hey, I’m letting it grow,” the blond said, kissing her once more before releasing her.
 
“Chris, we’ll be fine,” Sarah said as she saw the worry hidden beneath the smile on his face.
 
“Yeah...I know...the police are just across the street. If you need them just call them okay?” Larabee told her.
 
“I will, Chris. Now get going or Buck will be late for his doctor’s appointment.”
 
“I’m gone,” Larabee said. “I love you, Sarah.”
 
“I love you too, Chris Larabee,” the woman said, pulling her son to her side and waving as the blond finally got into the truck. They watched until the vehicle drove out of the yard and disappeared down the tree lined street. She looked towards the police car, waved at the plain clothed officers and went back into the house.
 
‘Oh, Chris, I can’t wait to tell you that you’re going to be a daddy again,’ she thought as she moved back to the kitchen, unaware of the danger headed their way.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris had watched through the rear view mirror until he drove out into the street. He saw the smile on his wife’s face and the hand that dropped to her stomach and wondered at the new life growing there. He wondered how long it would be before she told him and would it be with the same meal she’d made the first time. Baby beef liver, baby carrots and baby broiled potatoes. He’d never been a liver fan, but that night it tasted better than any T-bone steak he’d ever had.
 
“Penny for your thoughts, Pard.”
 
“Huh...what?” Larabee asked, smiling sheepishly as he realized he’d been thinking and missed what the other man was saying.
 
“You seemed like you were miles away,” the rogue said.
 
“Nah, just thinking about what it would be like to give Adam a brother or sister.”
 
“Uhoh, Chris got the daddy itch again. You talked to Sarah about whether she wants another one or not?”
 
“Yes, we’ve talked...and maybe even gone a little further,” the blond whispered.
 
“What? Hell! Is she pregnant? Why didn’t you say so?”
 
“Calm down Buck before you bust them stitches,” Larabee warned. “I found a home pregnancy test early this morning and it was positive...”
 
“Well, hell, STUD, congratulations. Just wait until we get home!”
 
“No! Buck, don’t say anything yet. I’m not supposed to know.”
 
“Shit,. Gonna be hard...think you can wait until she says something?”
 
“I don’t know,” Larabee said, a shiteater’s grin on his handsome face as he drove towards the hospital.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“He’s gone...it must be time,” Ella said, smiling expectantly at Averil.
 
“Robert said Powderman has a flair for the dramatic...so it could take some time, besides he’ll need to take care of those two cops first since he won’t want anyone near enough to help the woman and boy,” Averil explained.
 
“I just want them gone so Chris and I can get on with our lives. I can’t wait to see his face when he realizes we’re both free and can do as we please.”
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jerry Preston and Roland Donaldson watched as the elderly man walked towards their car. The man had long white hair hanging to his shoulders and carried a bronze lion head cane. They smiled as they heard the raspy voice whistling an old tune and the uttered curse as he dropped his cane at the back of their car.
 
“Hey old timer, you okay?” Roland asked as the old man came abreast of his window.
 
“...jus’ fine...dropped muh cane...cain’t move real quick no more...de camptown ladies...”
 
“Poor old coot can’t move very well,” Jerry said as they watched the man disappear just past the Larabee hone.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Policeman’s gonna go bye bye...doo da...doo da. No more left of either boy...doo da, doo da,” Powderman continued to whisper the tune as he made his way towards the back of the Larabee home. He would make sure the police car went up just before the Larabee house did, and his tape would start to play at the same time. Within  a minute of the tape starting to play the first explosions would signal the end of the Larabee woman and her child. Timing was everything and he wanted to make sure, Chris Larabee was there to see the final demise of his hopes and dreams. It was part of the games he played and he would not deviate from those plans. He sat back to watch and listen, knowing it would be at least an hour before Robert Spikes contacted him to say the men were returning.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Stacey Midland smiled at the handsome man seated on the edge of the examination table. She’d been pleased to see things were healing properly and agreed to his going back to light duties by the end of the week. Buck argued that he was ready to go back now, but Midland insisted his body  needed a little more time. JD would also be returning to work, but had been given the same instructions. Sighing heavily, Wilmington slid to the floor and shook his head at the pretty physician.
 
“Now I know why Chris don’t like coming in here...”
 
“He doesn’t...you could’ve fooled me. I’m sure I’ve seen him several times over the last year,” Midland said.
 
“Ah, hell, doc, you know what I mean,” the rogue said as the woman helped him into his shirt.
 
“Yes, I do, Buck. You just take it easy on that arm. How are the headaches?”
 
“Not too bad...” The rogue smiled as Midland crossed her arms and stared at him. “Really, Doc, they’re getting better. I had one heck of a one yesterday, but it eased off pretty quick after I took one of those pills.”
 
“Are you resting like you should be?”
 
“Are you kidding? Sarah won’t let me lift a hand to help with anything.”
 
“Good. Alright, I want to see you back here in a week.”
 
“Okay...thanks, Doc.”
 
“You’re welcome,” Midland said as she watched the handsome man leave the room. She went back to her desk as she heard Larabee’s question.
 
“Well, Buck, what did she say?”
 
“She said everything’s going well and I can go back to light duties on Monday.”
 
“When do you come back to see her?”
 
“In a week. Amanda, can you make me an appointment for next Tuesday...late as you can, darlin’.”
 
“Sure, Buck,” the pretty blond said as she checked the appointment book. “You want to come in same time as JD?”
 
“Sure...makes it a lot easier,” Wilmington answered and waited for her to give him the card with the time and date on it. “Thanks, Darlin’.”
 
“You’re welcome,” Amanda Perkins said and watched the two handsome men left the office. ‘Nice...assets,’ she thought wistfully.
 
~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin looked at the woman next to him as they finished hiding the jeep a mile south of the compound. They talked about the best way to get into the compound and get to the munitions building and then to Mendoza during the disturbance created by the explosions. It would be hard to get the man out of the compound, through the fields and finally to the jeep without being caught by his patrols, but they were ready to try it. The plan was to get within striking distance and then wait until the cover of darkness to strike fast and furious.
 
“You sure you’re up to this, Tex?” Maynard asked worriedly.
 
“Yeah...yeah, I’m fine,” the tracker lied. Truth was his entire body ached and his head felt ready to explode, but years of mental training had long since taught him to ignore his body and let his mind work overtime at keeping him on his feet.
 
“Sure, and I’m Queen Latifa...”
 
“Ya are...damn...pleased ta meetcha, Queenie,” the Texan teased as they moved through the thick undergrowth.
 
Jackie couldn’t help but smile at the way Tanner turned her quips back on her so easily. She was amazed at the man’s instincts and understood he could read the trail as if he was born on it. There was something about this quiet man that set her at ease and she wondered just how he’d come to be so good at the things he did.
 
“Coming, Queenie?” the sharpshooter asked.
 
“Right behind, you, Tex,” she answered and fell into step with him. Something told her that it was going to be a long day.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris looked at the man seated next to him and smiled as he drove towards his home. He’d made a quick stop at Delvechio’s and picked up a bouquet of roses and a box of Belgium chocolates for his wife. He’d also picked up a kite for his son and looked forward to flying it in the backyard that afternoon. Buck simply smiled and shook his head at his best friend’s expressions of love.
 
“She’s gonna know that you know when she sees the flowers and chocolates,” the rogue said as they neared the street where the Larabee’s house was located.
 
“Yes...probably, but right now I’m just so damned excited I need to do something special for her and Adam.”
 
“Guess so, Stud, they deserve to be spoiled and you’ve been doing a wonderful job of that.”
 
“God, Buck, things have been going so well for us,” he whispered as the phone on the seat began to ring.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“The time has come to see the fire...doo da, doo da. Powderman done his job for hire....doo da...doo da. Goin ta push the button now...doo da, doo da, send them both to the hereafter now...oh de doo da day...” he pushed the first of many buttons on the remote and watched as his work blossomed before his eyes.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Sarah moved into the bedroom and looked at the bed she shared with her husband. They’d made love so many times there and she never tired of his hands touching her body, his lips pressed against hers, and most of all the feeling when he buried himself deep inside her. Her hand instinctively went to her stomach once more as if she could feel the life growing inside her. Tonight she would tell her husband and son of the miracle given to them.
 
“Mommy,” Adam called hurrying into the room.
 
“What’s wrong, Adam?”
 
“I hear something.”
 
“You hear something? What is it?”
 
“I’m not sure, Mommy...a funny voice and he’s singing about you and me and Daddy.”
 
Sarah frowned as she saw the fear on her son’s face as she hurried out of the room and moved towards the kitchen with her son. She heard the distinctive sound of a male voice with a strange accent singing a familiar tune, but the words were wrong. She grabbed for the phone and hit the speed dial as she grabbed Adam’s hand and hurried towards the front of the house.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Chris reached for the phone and held it to his ear as he drove towards his home. “Larabee...”
 
“Chris...”
 
“Sarah, what’s wrong?” the blond asked, hearing the tension in her voice.
 
“I don’t know...something...someone’s singing...”
 
“Singing...”
 
“Campdown races...OH MY GOD!” Sarah screamed as the sound of an explosion ripped through the air.
 
“Jesus Christ! Sarah, where are you?”
 
“Chris what’s wrong?” Wilmington asked as they drove nearer the street and a fireball shot up from the car parked across from the Larabee home.
 
“Chris...the car just exploded!”
 
“I know...where are you and Adam?” the blond asked as he turned into his yard.
 
“We’re in the house...the song is louder...threatening us with an explosion....Where are you?” her voice trembled with fear as she pulled her shaking son towards her.
 
“I’m just coming into the yard honey...GET OUT NOW!” As the words left his mouth a scream followed right behind it as Chris saw his life, his world, his reason for living crumble before his eyes.
 
~~~~~~~~~~
 
As if sensing imminent danger Sarah pulled her son to her and raced towards the front of the house just as the first of several explosions shook her home to its very foundations.
 
“CHRIS!” she screamed as an invisible force threw her and her child across the room. She landed hard against the coffee table and felt the air leave her lungs. She looked at her child as tears of pain and fear formed in her eyes. Adam’s eyes were closed and she grabbed him to her as a screeching sound came from above. She tried to stand, but her body refused to obey the demands she gave it. She pulled her son towards her, crying for him to wake up, yet knowing in her heart the body she held was lifeless and her wonderful child, her gift from above had been taken from her as fire began to engulf everything around her.
 
“I LOVE YOU CHRIS LARABEE!” she screamed as the screeching sound from above grew in intensity and the ceiling groaned as the walls collapsed and it rained down upon her. Sarah Connelly Larabee died clutching her son to her breast and never felt the flames that soon engulfed her and her child’s lifeless body.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ella smiled as she watched the scene below her. Powderman had promised the woman and child would die and from the minute the first explosion sounded she knew he would accomplish what she hired him to do. The sound echoed and re-echoed around her as the second, third, fourth and fifth explosions sounded, engulfing the house in flames as the walls seemed to crumble in on itself. She felt a ripple of excitement race through her as she watched her hopes and dreams come true. Chris Larabee would soon be free of his so called loving wife and child, clearing the way for her to take her rightful place in his life. She watched in horrified fascination as her future husband ran towards the house.
 
“Stay back, Lover!” she called and turned an angry glare at Averil as he placed his hand over her mouth.
 
“Someone will hear you!” the man warned and watched her relax.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“SARAH!” Chris shouted as he heard her scream his name. The first explosion ripped through the air as he pulled the truck to a stop and climbed out.
 
“CHRIS...NO!” Wilmington cried as Larabee moved towards the house. He couldn’t tear his eyes from the crumbling building...the deafening sound of explosions echoing through the air as he fumbled with his left hand to open the door.
 
Larabee raced towards his home, oblivious of the man screaming his name behind him and the debris that shot past him. His eyes on the house as fire shot through the windows and the walls crumbled to the ground. A third, fourth, and fifth explosion sounded, as the distraught man raced towards the front door. With twenty feet between him and the death of his dream a sixth explosion occurred sending the front door straight at the running man.
 
Wilmington finally made it out of the truck and called Larabee’s name as the burning door flew towards him. He watched the blond’s arms come up and would never be able to understand how he survived the blow that struck both his arms. The blond was thrown backwards and landed hard on the driveway as the scent of burning wood, plastic, and other material reached him. Sirens sounded in the distance as he made his way towards the struggling blond.
 
“STAY DOWN, CHRIS!” Wilmington ordered as Larabee pushed the door from his body. Buck grabbed his sling and quickly put out the flames that were eating away at the material of his friend’s shirt. He watched in horror as the blond tried to stand and move towards the house once more. Tears flowed from his eyes as he pulled his arm from his sling and wrapped both his arms around the man’s chest.
 
“GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF ME BUCK! I GOTTA GET TO THEM...THEY’RE ALIVE!”
 
“NO, CHRIS!” Wilmington screamed above the roar of flames and approaching sirens.
 
“GODDAMN YOU, BUCK...THEY’RE ALIVE...YOU HEAR ME! I NEED TO GET TO THEM!” Larabee sobbed as he continued to fight his friend’s hold on him. He broke free for a second, but Wilmington’s quick action brought them both to the ground.
 
“...get off me you bastard...” the hysterical man moaned as tears flowed form his eyes. “I can...I can sa...save them...Buck....Please!”
 
“You can’t, Chris...they’re gone...” the big hearted man cried as he tried to keep the blond on the ground.
 
“NOOOOOOOOO!”
 
The scream was one of anguish and pain, so filled with hatred it burned Wilmington to the core. He held his friend as Larabee’s struggles grew weaker.
 
“...can’t be gone...can’t...gonna have a baby...please, Buck...”
 
“I know, Chris, I know,” the ladies man said watching as the fire destroyed his best friend’s hopes and dreams. He knew his friend was unconscious and he sat back, pulling the injured man into his arms and letting the tears flow. Blood and tears covered most of the handsome face, and Wilmington also noted burns on the blond’s bare forearms.
 
“I’m sorry, Chris...so sorry...DAMN IT HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO HIM!” he screamed as he tightened his grip on his friend’s body in his arms. The day had started out with such promise and had been shattered by the explosions that rocked the usually peaceful neighborhood. Buck looked up as he heard the police car and fire trucks turn into the driveway, but he didn’t move. He didn’t hear the people speaking to him, didn’t feel anything but a numbness so deep he was sure he’d never feel anything again.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“He wasn’t supposed to be hurt! How could Powderman let this happen? I want that bastard dead!” Ella screamed as Averil pulled her towards their car.
 
“Ella, he couldn’t have known Larabee would get there so quickly!”
 
“He fucking well should’ve known! That sonofabitch is being well paid to do the damn job and do it right. He’s going to pay for this mistake, Jack, and I’ll see to it myself if I have to!”
 
“Ella...”
 
She rounded on him, eyes glittering like ice in the sun, nostrils flaring as she took a deep breath. Her hands motioned to the scene they just left as her face shone with anger.
 
“He could have been killed!” she snarled, refusing to believe that her beloved could already be dead for all she knew.
 
“I know, Ella, but there’s nothing you can do about that right now! We need to stay out of the picture for at least another month. If anyone realizes you were in Billings when the Larabees died they’ll focus their investigation on you! You’re this close to having the man you say you love...”
 
“...I do love him!”
 
“Then stick with your plan and wait until the heat dies down,” Averil warned and saw a smile form on her face.
 
“That’s too funny, Jack,” she laughed.
 
“What?”
 
“Heat...dies down...hmm the heat is the reason they died down there,” she said as she linked her arm through his once more and hurried towards her car. She’d have to find out how Chris Larabee was doing and she’d go into the hospital to do it if she had to.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Sir!” a policeman said, touching the dark haired man’s left shoulder. He’d been the first one on the scene and while his partner checked the burning patrol car he’d moved to speak to the man seated on the ground. There was no response, not even a flicker of recognition as the officer knelt in front of him. James Richardson knew the signs of shock and also understood the importance of getting the man to release the body next to him. He looked up as the firemen began to work on putting out the flames behind him.
 
“Sir, we need to get you and your friend away from the house. Do you understand?” Still no answer as an ambulance pulled into the yard. He recognized the paramedics and motioned them over.
 
“What have we got, James,” Frank Parker asked as he hurried towards him.
 
“Not sure, looks like they’re both hurt, but this guy won’t let go and I can’t get a response from him,” Richardson explained, reaching out to take the gun from the shoulder holster on the unconscious man.  
 
“Do you know his name?” Parker asked as his partner joined him.
 
“What’ve we got, James?” Elizabeth Clarke asked, placing more equipment beside the two injured men.
 
“Beth, you guys need to get them back!” the Fire Chief called as the second squad arrived.
 
“We’re trying, Craig!” Clarke assured her husband.
 
“Sir! Can you hear me? I need you to let us take your friend and get you both out of the way so the firemen can do their job,” Parker explained.
 
“What’s your name?” Clarke asked softly, smiling at the handsome, soot covered face.
 
“...Buck...”
 
“Buck...I need you to let us look at your friend okay. He’s hurt and we want to help him,” Clarke told him.
 
“...can’t...all gone...burnt his so...soul outta h...him...”
 
“Who burnt his soul out of him,” Parker asked not understanding the mumbled words, yet knowing how important it was to keep the man talking.
 
“In there...Sarah...Adam...baby...in there...” Wilmington said, nodding his head as he felt his heart breaking as the firemen fought the blaze.
 
“There are people in there?” Richardson asked, turning and swallowing the lump that formed in his throat.
 
“...yes...burned...tried to save them...but...he got h...hurt,” Wilmington’s flat toned voice continued to speak of the tragedy tearing at him.
 
“Let Craig know there were people inside, James!” Clarke ordered as she tried to examine the injured blond.
 
“On it!” Richardson agreed, standing and hurrying towards the Fire Chief.
 
“Alright, Buck, we’re going to get you both out of here now, okay?” Parker asked as they pried the man’s fingers apart, releasing the blond into Clarke’s waiting hands.
 
“Get a backboard and C collar over here now!” Beth called as a second paramedic squad joined them. She ducked as a small explosion sent debris skywards once more.
 
“Beth, you really need to get them back!” Clarke shouted.
 
“We’re doing our best, Craig. Just need to get this one on a backboard!”
 
“...Chris...”
 
“Pardon me?” the female paramedic asked.
 
“Chris...his name is Chris...he’s hurt...gonna be hard on him...don’t know where V...Vin is...”
 
“What have we got, Beth?” Bill Thorne asked as he handed Parker the C-collar.
 
“Not sure yet, need to get...” again she moved to cover her patient as another whistling explosion sounded from the ruined structure. “We need to move them now. You and Gary take Buck,” she said pointing to the dark haired man.
 
“Right,” Gary Smith agreed.
 
“He’s in shock,” Parker told them as he wrapped the C-collar around the patient’s neck and helped logroll him onto the backboard.
 
“Buck, are you hurt?”
 
“No...from before,” the ladies man said as he tried to stand.
 
“Let us help you,” Smith told him.
 
“Can’t leave...Chris...”
 
“You’re not. We’re just moving back so the firemen can do their job, okay?” Thorne assured him.
 
“...Chris coming t...too...?”
 
“Sure is...Beth and Frank are putting him on the stretcher right now, but we need to take care of you. Okay?” Bill explained as he moved away from the heat of the fire.
 
“I’m f...fine...”
 
“Why don’t you just let us take a look,” Smith told him as they settled the man onto a stretcher and began setting up an IV. He knew his partner was taking vitals and watched his patient’s reactions. The man was definitely in shock, and needed to be treated for it. He also needed to check the right arm as blood showed through the bandaging there. He looked at the man’s face and shook his head. There were tears running from the blue eyes as Wilmington watched the other team working on his friend.
 
“I’ll get his vitals, Frank,” Clarke said as she watched Parker set up an IV.
 
“Shit!”
 
“What’s wrong?”
 
“His arms are burnt pretty bad...second...maybe even third degree,” the paramedic warned as he showed his partner the injured arms.
 
“There’s some on his chest as well. Take his wedding ring off!” Clarke said as she opened the short sleeved shirt. She continued to get the vitals, noting his oxygen saturation was low, while her partner searched for an area to start the IV. “We need to let Saint Vincents know we have a trauma burn victim...” she was cut off by a harsh moan from her patient as she slipped an oxygen mask over the blond’s mouth and nose.
 
“He’s coming round,” Parker said as the eyes began to move beneath the closed lids. He removed the ring and knew he had to get the IV started. The hands and arms were out and he checked the neck, setting up for an IV in the outer jugular. He knew he’d have to cut away the pants to get a second one going in the leg. Without a word he knew what his partner was up to and continued to work on his part. He monitored the injured man’s airway, making sure his breathing was still okay.
 
Chris knew he was waking up, but didn’t understand why his arms and chest burned with a heat that seared his skin. He tried to move, yet something seemed to restrain him and he frowned, wincing at the pain lancing through his skull. He heard voices speaking to him, but nothing was clear, except the burning sensation, worse than a thousand needles sticking into his skin. He heard harsh breathing and suddenly realized it was escaping from his own throat as he fought to open his eyes. Something cool washed over his heated skin and he moaned at the simple effort to relieve the burn. His eyes finally opened and he gazed into concerned brown eyes as he tried to move.
 
“W...what hap...happened...God....” he groaned as the burning pain continued unabated.
 
“Easy, Chris, you were hurt...but we’ll get you to Saint Vincents as quickly as we can,” Parker soothed as he established the IV and secured it in place.
 
“Sarah...kill me...told her not hu...hurt a...again,” the blond mumbled as more cool liquid washed over his chest. He felt tears in his eyes as the pain intensified and his left arm was examined. He closed his eyes as the woman placed a gauze pad on his head and wondered what happened this time. He gritted his teeth and felt the welcoming blackness reaching for him, but something kept him from reaching the pain free safe haven and his eyes shot open as a strangled scream escaped his mouth.
 
“SARAH!”
 
The sound tore at Wilmington’s heart and he tried to come off the stretcher as Larabee struggled with the restraints and paramedics tending him.
 
“Chris!” the gentle rogue let the tears fall as he heard his friend call for his wife.
 
“Easy, Buck, there’s nothing you can do for him right now,” Smith said as they moved the stretcher towards the ambulance.
 
“No...no...need to be here for him,” Wilmington said, but felt his own strength dwindling as he tried to sit up further. ‘I’m so sorry, Chris. My fault...all my fault’ he thought as he looked at the destroyed home, the shattered life...all because someone wanted him dead. He didn’t feel them lift the stretcher into the ambulance as his body and mind combined to send him into blessed oblivion.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Something was wrong, but he could not put his hand on what it was. The intangible connection he had with Chris Larabee was screaming through his mind. There was pain...some of it his own, but most belonged to his friend. He stopped, holding his breath as a feeling of terror and loss washed through him, leaving him weak and disoriented.
 
“Vin...easy...come on...breathe damn it!”
 
“Jack...Jackie...”
 
“Sit down!” she ordered, leading him towards a large rock hidden beneath the trees and off the trail.
 
Vin couldn’t think past the flames searing his skull. He’d known he shared something unique with Larabee, but had never felt it this much. Chris was in pain...of that he was certain, but there was more to it than just physical well being. Something was gone, something that made the man who he was and right now Tanner could not get past the feeling of total loss screaming through the connection. He held his head and tried to force his mind to clear, knowing a woman depended on him to help her with something.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“SARAH!” Larabee screamed again, his eyes wide open and staring. They were gone from him now...how could he live without his heart and soul. They’d been taken from him. He felt a warmth spread through his body and knew they’d given him something to help with the pain, but he didn’t want it. He deserved what he got...whatever physical pain he felt was nothing compared to the loss he felt deep inside and it cut him to the core.
 
Frank nodded that he was ready as Clarke covered the injured man with a sterile burn sheet. They’d cut away his shirt and revealed the angry burns to the man’s chest. Next they soaked the sheet in sterile saline, making sure his arms and chest were covered. Finally the patient was ready for transport and the two paramedics guided the gurney towards the waiting ambulance. He glanced at his watch, shocked to see less than fifteen minutes had passed since they arrived on the scene. The patient’s wounds were dressed, the burns covered with gauze, the IV secured in place, and oxygen feeding through the mask.
 
Beth climbed in with the patient as Frank closed the doors and raced to the front of the ambulance. He climbed in and turned on the siren as Beth continued to monitor their patient.
 
Beth checked the IV lines and made sure everything was secure as her partner called Saint Vincents to tell them they were on their way.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Vin, shit...come on, Tex, you need to breathe!”
 
“I’m...okay...” the tracker assured her as he was finally able to get his emotions and breathing under control.
 
“Sure you are. What the hell happened? Where are you hurt?”
 
“Not me...Chris...something’s happened ta him.”
 
“Damn, I hate to tell you this, Tex, but you’ve gotta cut that connection before it kills you,” Maynard told the pale sharpshooter.
 
“I’m okay, Jackie...whatever happened is over and I can’t do a damn thing about it. We need ta finish this and go home!”
 
“I won’t argue with you there,” she agreed and helped steady the man as he got to his feet. “Although it might be a better idea for me to go in alone and set things up.”
 
“No...we been though all this. We go tagether!”
 
“Alright, but you better be able to keep up with me!”
 
“I will...let’s go!” The tracker said, once more taking the lead.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Stacey Midland looked up as the first patient was wheeled into the ER. She’d been told what to expect, but was still surprised as she looked at the man on the stretcher. Not even the mask covering his face could hide his identity from her.
 
“Bill, put him in two!” Midland ordered as she followed the first team. “What have we got?”
 
Bill Thorne rattled off the vitals as Midland, Smith and another nurse transferred Wilmington onto the hospital bed. The physician knew they were dealing with shock and adjusted the IV flow accordingly as a nurse quickly removed the bandage from the right arm. She heard the paramedics leave, but didn’t acknowledge it as she watched the patient’s eyes flutter open.
 
“I thought I told you I wanted to see you in a week.”
 
“Did...oh God, Doc. Chris?”
 
“Easy, Buck. We’ll let Chris know you’re here...”
 
“...no, Chris is hurt...Sarah and Adam...”
 
“Well, I’m sure Chris will be here any minute,” she said, realizing the handsome blond must be the burn victim. She placed a hand on her patient’s shoulder as he sobbed uncontrollably. “Easy, Buck, we’ll do everything we can for Chris...”
 
“No...don’t under...understand, Doc...Sarah and Adam...my fault...my fault...never forgive myself...”
 
She knew the dark haired man was in shock and could not understand what he was saying. She watched as a nurse hooked up several monitors and took blood samples as Wilmington again lost consciousness.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jacob Bledsoe had been a doctor for nearly twenty four years. His specialty was burns and the treatment of them. He was a board-certified plastic surgeon with additional years of specialized training in burn therapy and six years experience in burn patient care. He was proud of the hospital’s Burn Unit and the doctors, nurses, and therapists who worked there. He knew the patient they were expecting had second degree, possibly third degree burns on his chest and arms and would need his specialty.  He signed the papers on the desk and handed them back to the nurse as the ER doors burst open and the gurney was pushed through. The special room for treating burn patients in the ER was already set up and Bledsoe hurried towards the stretcher.
 
“Trauma three has already been set up for him. Come on people, let’s get things moving. What have we got Beth?”
 
“Second, possibly third degree burns on his arms and chest. Some minor burns on his hands and face. Airway is still good but oxygen saturation is still registering at 93. Possible broken ribs and a laceration to the right temple.”
 
“Let’s get him on the table! On three, one, two, three!” the burn specialist ordered as Parker began reading off the vitals.
 
“Blood Pressure is 90 over 60, pulse is...”
 
Bledsoe listened to the readings and the treatments the paramedics had performed on site as he began his own initial evaluation of the victim. He watched as the nurses, Marilyn Hollister, and Gail Collins, cut the remaining clothes from the injured man’s body. A third nurse, Marcia Hillcrest, was busy taking blood samples. He heard the paramedic’s leave, but didn’t take the time to acknowledge them as he lifted the burn sheet from the man’s upper body. Blisters had already formed on both arms and the right side of the chest.
 
“Shit! We’re dealing with at least second degree burns here. Push the fluids and make sure there’s a room available in the burn unit!” the specialist ordered as the nurses continued to work on the unconscious man. He knew they were probably dealing with other injuries, but for now the burns took precedence.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Stacey Midland walked to the desk and picked up the phone there. She knew the number for The Firm’s office and hit the buttons impatiently. She looked at the ring in her hand and knew she could give it to one of Larabee’s friends and it would be kept safe until he was well enough to wear it again. The call went through and she leaned wearily against the desk as she waited for it to be answered.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Ezra, if you’re not doing anything would you mind answering that?” Jackson asked.
 
“Why, Mr. Jackson, I do believe Mr. Wilmington’s malady is affecting you,” the conman said as the phone rang once more.
 
“What malady would that be?” the paramedic in training asked with a smile.
 
“Why the malady of broken appendages,” Standish answered as he lifted the receiver. “Standish...yes Dr. Midland...How bad?...We’ll be right down...”
 
“Ez?” Sanchez asked as the young man’s face paled considerably.
 
“That was Dr. Midland...Buck and Chris...”
 
“What about them?” Jackson asked, his stomach roiling as he realized there could be only one reason for the younger man’s shocked face.
 
“There was an explosion...Chris and Buck are hurt.”
 
“They at Saint Vincents?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Yes.”
 
“Alright, come on!” the ex-preacher said, grabbing his keys and hurrying towards the door.
 
“Did she say where the explosion took place and does Sarah know?”
 
“No,” Standish answered.
 
“We’ll call her from the hospital as soon as we know what’s happening,” Jackson told him, punching the button for the elevator.
 
The phone rang behind them and the trio was unsure whether or not to answer it, but Sanchez hurried back into the office and picked up the receiver.
 
“Sanchez...yes Orrin...the hospital just called and we...yes...alright, we’ll be right up.”
 
“Josiah, what’s wrong?” Jackson asked.
 
“Orrin wants to see us.”
 
“Does he know about Chris and Buck?”
 
“Yes...that’s why he wants to see us,” the older man answered.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Orrin stood and walked to the window overlooking the city he loved so much. Normally this sight soothed his nerves, but today it only held sadness. He’d been unsure of how to handle telling the men of Larabee’s team, but knew it would have to be face to face. The call from Robert Miller had stabbed through his chest, sharper than any knife would’ve felt. How could this have happened? He turned towards the door as three men entered his office.
 
“Orrin, what’s going on?” Jackson demanded impatiently.
 
“Sit down, Boys,” the older man ordered, dropping wearily into his own chair as the men looked at him.
 
“Orrin...”
 
“Just a minute, Josiah,” Travis said, reaching across the desk and grabbing several tissues. Her knew the trio were anxious to get to the hospital, but they needed to know the devastation surrounding the injured men. “I just got off the phone with Robert Miller...”
 
“Did he have any information about the explosion?” Standish asked, frowning as their employer held up his hands.
 
“The explosion...God...”
 
“Orrin?” Sanchez said, nothing how hard the man tried to keep his emotions in check.
 
“Sorry, look, the explosion took place at Chris’ home.”
 
“Jesus! How bad?” Jackson asked.
 
“Bad. The house was totally engulfed in flames and the roof had collapsed by the time the fire department and police arrived. The patrol car assigned to watch the house was also destroyed and the two officers are dead.”
 
“Lord have mercy,” the ex-preacher whispered, crossing himself as he waited for Travis to continue.
 
“I know Chris and Buck were both taken to the hospital and I know you boys want to go there, but...” the older man stood up and turned away as his heart broke for the senseless loss of life.
 
“Mr. Travis, what are you trying to tell us?” Standish asked, swallowing the lump in his throat as he realized there was only one thing that could affect the man so badly right now. “Sarah and Adam?”
 
“Oh, Jesus!” Jackson said as the older man’s shoulders shook with the effort it took not to show his emotions.
 
“They found two bodies a few minutes ago. Robert said the coroner is there and that it was an adult and a child.”
 
“God, no!” Sanchez said, sorrow and pain evident in the moisture laden blue eyes.
 
“They were just inside the living room,” the older man explained as he turned to face the three men. “They haven’t confirmed it yet, but Robert says the child was clutched against the adult’s chest. The coroner will perform an autopsy to be sure, but...”
 
“Does Chris know?” Standish asked, swiping at the moisture evident in his eyes.
 
“No...least I don’t think so. One of Robert’s men said he was unconscious in Buck’s arms when he arrived.”
 
“Jesus, this is too much,” Jackson said, feeling like someone had gut punched him.
 
“I know...I wanted you boys to hear it from me...”
 
“We need to let Nettie Wells know,” Sanchez said.
 
“I was going to drive out there and pick them up,” Travis said.
 
“I’ll go with you, Mr. Travis,” Standish said and saw the grey haired man nod slightly.
 
“Thanks, Ezra. Nathan, Josiah, we’ll see you at the hospital in an hour or so.”
 
“Okay, Orrin,” Sanchez said as the four men hurried out of the office.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The drive to the hospital was a solemn one as Nathan and Josiah thought about the events leading them to this point in time. Buck and JD’s injuries, the second attempt on Buck’s life, and now an explosion that had devastating effects on all of them.
 
“Nathan, are you okay?” Sanchez asked, glancing sideways at his friend as a heavy sigh escaped him.
 
“Ask me again later, Josiah, right now I don’t know how I feel or what to think. I keep thinking about Sarah and Adam and how senseless this whole thing is. I feel like screaming...”
 
“I know what you mean brother, but we need to stay strong for Chris’ sake.”
 
“And Buck’s, ‘cause if this has anything to do with the attempts on his life he’s going to need help too.”
 
“Buck’s always been a part of Chris’ life and he’s been there from the beginning of his relationship with Sarah...”
 
“Shit!”
 
“What’s wrong?” Sanchez asked worriedly.
 
“Hank...”
 
“Oh, Hell, that sonofabitch is going to be trouble,” the ex-preacher said of Chris’ father in law. The man held a grudge and no matter what they did his hatred of his daughter’s husband had escalated to a point where he cut them out of his life.
 
“Chris won’t have to face the bastard alone!” Jackson vowed as Sanchez pulled into the hospital parking lot.
 
“Amen to that, brother,” the older man agreed.




PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 7 | PART 8 | PART 9 | PART 10 | PART 11 | PART 12 | PART 13 | PART 14 | PART 15 | PART 16 | PART 17 | PART 18

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