DEADLY OBSESSION    

by Winnie

 

Chapter 7


Orrin drove along the country road until he came to the turnoff leading towards the Wells’ farm. He knew the man beside him was unusually quiet, but understood the necessity for it. Taking a deep breath he shook off the horror biting at his gut and drove up the tree lined driveway to the small, well kept house. He parked in front of the house and turned to see the younger man swipe at his eyes.
 
“Ezra, are you sure you want to come in here with me?”
 
“Mr. Travis, I assure you I am quite ready,” the gambler said as he placed the silk hanky back in his pocket and opened the door. He stood for several seconds, breathing deeply of the fresh country air before following the older man to the door.
 
Orrin took a deep breath and reached for the old fashioned door knocker. The sound was loud in the unusually silent air and he wondered if the animals were mourning the passing of a woman and child not far from this very spot.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Casey?”
 
“I got it, Aunt Nettie. JD, you stay where you are!” the young woman warned as Dunne tried to move past her.
 
“Dr. Midland said I’m doing fine, Casey...”
 
“No, JD, she said you were doing better. That doesn’t mean you’re fine. Now sit down while I answer the door before whoever it is grows too old to knock again!”
 
“Damn...”
 
“I heard that, young man!”
 
“Sorry, Ma’am,” Dunne said, sinking back in the chair and crossing his arms.
 
Casey smiled and kissed his forehead before she hurried towards the front door and opened it. “Oh!” she said, surprised to see the two men standing there. “Mr. Travis, Ezra, please come in.”
 
“Thank you, Casey,” the older man said, a weak smile on his face as he entered the country house.
 
“Who is it, Casey?”
 
“It’s Orrin Travis and Ezra Standish, Aunt Nettie,” the young woman answered. “Please, come in. JD’s in the living room.”
 
“Actually, we’d like to speak to all of you,” Travis explained as they moved into the house.
 
“Orrin, what’s wrong?” Dunne asked, noting the way the older man’s shoulder’s slumped. “Oh...shit!  Buck! Is he okay?”
 
“What’s going on?” Nettie asked, wiping her hands on a flowered cloth as she entered the living room.
 
“I’m afraid there’s been...”
 
“It is Buck, isn’t it? Where is he?” Dunne asked, worried about his roommate and best friend, standing and looking at the two newcomers.
 
“Sit down, JD,” Travis ordered. “Buck and Chris are in the hospital.”
 
“Oh, Lord in heaven. What happened? Does Sarah know?” Nettie asked, dropping the cloth on the coffee table. She looked at the older man and the solemn faced southerner and knew there was more they needed to say, but something told her she really didn’t want to hear it.
 
Orrin Travis moved towards the woman and took her hands as they sat on the flowered sofa. He looked into her eyes and knew what he was about to say would devastate her.
 
“Nettie, Sarah and Adam...”
 
“Where are they Orrin?” then woman asked softly.
 
“There was an explosion at the house. From what Robert Miller told me there were two people in the house when it happened. An adult and a child...we think it was Sarah and Adam...”
 
“But you’re not sure! It could be somebody else! Right? It could be!” Casey said, tears slipping from her eyes as JD pulled her close.
 
“We won’t know for sure until the coroner gets back to us. They need to perform an autopsy and will probably use dental work to identify the victims,” Standish explained as silent tears fell from the older woman’s eyes.
 
“Chris and Buck?” Nettie asked, feeling as if the world had just gone to hell.
 
“We’re not sure. Nathan and Josiah are on the way to the hospital,” Travis answered.
 
“Then that’s where I want to be...need to be,” Wells said, releasing the older man’s hand and looking at her own hands.
 
“I’m going too,” Dunne agreed and saw Casey nod as she wiped away her tears.
 
“Alright, Ezra, will you drive Casey’s car?” Travis asked.
 
“Certainly,” the conman said, standing and waiting for the others to get ready.
 
“My stars...I have a cake in the oven,” Nettie said as she walked into the kitchen and let the tears fall. She moved to the stove and opened the door. Pulling the partially cooked blueberry cake from the range she  placed it on the counter and watched as the batter dripped over the side. She knew she was moving on automatic right now as she turned off the oven and reached for the cloth hanging from the rack above the sink.
 
“Aunt Nettie...”
 
“Oh, Casey...Not Sarah and Adam!” she sobbed as the younger woman moved towards her. “They can’t be gone...Adam was coming over tomorrow to help me in the garden. Sarah and Chris were coming for dinner! God! NO! It can’t be them! It can’t be!”
 
“I know...I can’t believe it either,” Casey cried as she looked at the ruined cake on the counter. “And they could still be wrong. Maybe it wasn’t Sarah and Adam!”
 
“Who...who else would’ve been in their house, Casey? They found two bodies...adult and child...it...it had to be them...God help me I don’t want to believe it, but I know in my heart it was them and I know Chris is going to be devastated and he’ll need all of us to help him through this!”
 
“We...we’ll be there, Aunt Nettie...all of us...he won’t have to face this alone!”
 
“Thank you, Child,” the older woman said, wiping away the evidence of her tears and turning towards the door. “We need to get to the hospital.”
 
“Ezra’s driving us in my car. Mr. Travis is going to pick up his wife and they’ll meet us at the hospital.”
 
“Make sure the back door’s locked up, Casey.”
 
“Already done, Aunt Nettie. Come on...let’s go.”
 
“Okay...” the older woman said, flicking at the hair that managed to escape the tight bun at the back of her head.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Miller made sure there were officers stationed at the hospital to guard Buck Wilmington and Chris Larabee. The attempts on Wilmington’s life necessitated they treat this as attempted murder, arson until proven wrong. The hospital staff were ordered to report any calls asking about the condition of the two injured men. The Fire Chief was still inspecting the burnt out shell of Larabee’s home, making sure there were no more hotspots that could ignite what was left. The flames had been extinguished and the bodies removed from both the house and the patrol car. His next job would be visiting the wives of Jerry Preston and Roland Donaldson. It cut him to the core, knowing what he had to tell them was a police officer’s family’s worst nightmare. Donaldson and his wife were expecting their first child in about a month, while Preston’s family was fully grown. Two daughters studying in university, and one son ready to enter the navy. So many lives were affected by today’s tragedy, and he would be glad when the day was over. Taking a deep breath he moved back towards the Fire Chief.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Jacob, how bad?” Midland asked as the burn specialist came out of the treatment room.
 
“Bad enough, Stacey, we’re dealing with some pretty severe second degree burns over both arms and the right side of his chest. He’s also got a couple of broken ribs on the same side and took a hard blow to the head that required over a dozen stitches. I’ve started him on antibiotics and we need to keep an eye out for infections. We’re getting him ready to transfer to the burn unit right now.”
 
“What about his breathing?”
 
“He’s breathing on his own right now, but I’ve got him on oxygen and I’m also...”
 
“Dr. Bledsoe! He’s coming ‘round!” Collins called from the open door and held it as Bledsoe and Midland hurried inside.
 
Pain...hot...burning pain in his chest...his arms. Something fed moist cool air into his nostrils and he reached for whatever it was, gasping as he felt something pull at his arms. He tried to move, but cried out as the pain intensified and he moaned softly as his eyelids fluttered open. He knew he was hurt, but at first could not understand why or how. Images began to swim in front of his open eyes and he heard the screams of  the woman he loved so much.
 
“NO! SARAH! GOD NO!” he screamed and bucked against the hands that held him down.
 
“Chris...”
 
“NO! ADAM...Please God! NO!”
 
“Christ, this isn’t doing him any good! What’s his blood pressure?”
 
“110/70,” Hollister answered.
 
“Give him the morphine and Valium now!” Bledsoe ordered as the injured man fought against their hold.
 
“No! Damn you let me GO! I can save them. SARAH! ADAM!” the blond screamed as Collins slipped a syringe into the IV and injected the prescribed dosage of Morphine and Valium. Chris felt himself losing touch with the world around him as the pain eased and a sense of calm came over him.
 
“He’s under,” Bledsoe said, shaking his head at his patient’s strength. “Gail, I want him kept sedated for the next twenty four hours. Keep monitoring his breathing and make sure the morphine is given at regular intervals.”
 
“Yes, doctor!” Collins said as an orderly came into the room.
 
“They have his bed ready on the burn unit, Dr. Bledsoe,” the man explained.
 
“Good, I’ll be up in a few minutes to make sure the nurses know what’s to be done,” Bledsoe said as he and Midland exited the room. “Any word on his family, Stacey?”
 
“Nothing confirmed yet, but two bodies were discovered at the house.”
 
“Damn! I was hoping we could get his wife here and calm him without meds...”
 
“Doc, how’re Chris and Buck?” Sanchez asked, hurrying towards the two physicians.
 
“Nathan, Josiah, this is Dr. Bledsoe. He’s our resident burn specialist and will be looking after Chris.”
 
“Dr. Bledsoe, how is he?” Jackson asked.
 
“Chris suffered some severe burns to the arms and chest. His hands also sustained some damage and we’ve covered them with saline soaked burn sheets. His hands are wrapped in gauze to protect the fingers and hopefully they’ll heal without any permanent damage.”
 
“How bad are the burns?” the paramedic in training asked.
 
“Most are second degree burns and pretty deep, the ones on his hands are mostly first degree and that’s why I’m hopeful the damage is minimal. He also has three broken ribs on the right side and a deep laceration on his forehead. We’re just transferring him to the burn unit...”
 
“Can we see him?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Give us at least an hour to get Chris settled and you can see him. He was in a lot of pain and calling for his wife and son and so I’ve ordered Morphine and Valium to keep him as comfortable as possible. Second degree burns are extremely painful and the treatment doesn’t get any easier. He’s going to need a lot of support...”
 
“He’ll have that and more!” Jackson assured the physician.
 
“Good...Look, I have a few things to set up for my patient. Come up in an hour.”
 
“We will, Doc,” Sanchez told him and watched as the bed carrying Chris Larabee was pushed out of the room. Both arms were elevated and covered with gauze, a burn sheet covered Larabee’s upper chest and several IV lines ran into his body. The bandage covering the wound on his head did nothing to hide the discoloration caused by whatever object had struck him. They watched as the orderly and a nurse maneuvered the bed towards the elevator and pushed it inside. He nodded at the young policeman who accompanied them, grateful to Miller for making sure there was someone to guard the injured men.
 
“Doc, how’s Buck?” Jackson asked when the doors had closed.
 
“Buck broke open most of the stitches in his right arm, but I’ve replaced them. He was in shock when he got here and we’re treating him with IV fluids.”
 
“Can we see him?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Follow me. Has there been any word on Sarah and Adam?” Midland asked as she led them towards a small cubicle at one end of the ER.
 
“Nothing confirmed, Doc, but...”
 
“What, Josiah?”
 
“There were two bodies discovered in the house,” Sanchez explained.
 
“Shit!” Midland cursed as she closed her eyes and a vision of Sarah Larabee holding her newborn son flashed before her eyes.
 
“Robert is supposed to let us know as soon as they get confirmation,” Jackson told her as they stopped before the cubicle and acknowledged the police guard standing there. They’d met the man several times since Travis decided to form their agency and knew the officer would do his job.
 
“Alright, look, Buck was mumbling something about being responsible for whatever happened out there.”
 
“He would. Doc, someone’s been trying to get to Buck,” Sanchez explained.
 
“Are we talking about the first explosion?”
 
“That, plus someone took a shot at him out at Chris’ place,” the older man told her.
 
“If that’s the case and the explosion at the Larabee place was aimed at Buck we’ve got two men that are going to need all the support and help we can offer,” Midland said, looking from one man to the other.
 
“They’ll have it, Doc,” Jackson assured her as the physician pushed across the heavy ivory colored drape that separated the cubicles.
 
“Josiah, the paramedics took this off Chris...would you...”
 
“I’ll keep it safe for him, Doc,” Sanchez assured her, taking the gold wedding band and reading the engraving inside. C/S and the date they were married. Sarah wore the matching band and the two never took them off. Placing it in his pocket he turned his attention to the man in the bed.
 
Wilmington was lying on his back, his right arm strapped to his chest, an IV running into his arm and a pulse oxymeter attached to the index finger of his left hand. The monitoring equipment was the only sound in the tiny space as Jackson and Sanchez watched their friend breathe.
 
“He looks so pale,” Sanchez observed.
 
“He’s been through a lot,” Midland told him.
 
“Yeah, and if that was Sa...Sarah and Adam it’ll only get worse,” Jackson muttered as he moved to the chair beside Wilmington’s bed.
 
‘I’d say that goes for all of you,’ Midland thought as she watched the two men take up protective places beside the injured man.
 
“Are you keeping him in, Doc?” Sanchez asked.
 
“I’ve admitted him. It’s just a matter of getting him a room. I’m going to check how long it’s going to be and I’ll let you know.”
 
“Thanks, Doc,” Jackson told her.
 
“You’re welcome,” Midland said before leaving the room.
 
“I can’t believe this is happening, Josiah.”
 
“I know, Brother, it’s a never ending nightmare.”
 
“Buck’s gonna be full of guilt when he wakes up and Chris...well, we both know what this is gonna do to him.”
 
“Yeah, I do. No man should have to live through the death of his wife and child. Especially in a senseless act of violence.”
 
“How could God let this happen?” Jackson asked bitterly.
 
“Sometimes we blame things on God, Nathan, when he has nothing to do with it. The devil can be a dark influence on this earth and often it’s the innocent who are his victims. God will be here to help us with those that have been left behind to deal with the aftermath. He will not forsake any of his children.”
 
“I sure hope not, Josiah, ‘cause if he does we may not ever get Chris or Buck back!” Jackson said. The two men were silent as they watched over their injured friend.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie kept glancing sideways at her partner and knew something was definitely wrong. Tanner moved without thinking, sometimes moving out into the open and nearly getting them both caught. She heard a patrol coming towards them and grabbed the Texan’s arm. She saw the anger in the blue eyes and pointed across the trail.
 
“Tanner, I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but you need to focus on what’s going on here or we’re going to end up as guests of Mendoza. I, for one, don’t want that!” she whispered, yet the anger was evident in her voice.
 
“Shit! Sorry,” the tracker apologized, knowing she was right, but unable to rid himself of the feelings invading his mind.
 
“Sorry won’t cut it, Vin. I need you at your best and if you can’t do that then you’d better stay here and let me take care of Mendoza!”
 
“Look, Jackie, I’m sorry...it won’t happen again!”
 
“I want to believe you, but...”
 
“Come on...”
 
“Vin!”
 
“I’m okay, Jackie. I’m handling it!”
 
“I hope you’re right, Tex, ‘cause if you’re not we’re both in deep shit!”
 
“Thought we already were in deep shit, Queenie,” Tanner quipped, trying unsuccessfully to ease the tension.
 
“Yeah...deep shit and it’s only going to get deeper. You sure you’re okay?”
 
“Yeah...I’m fine, Jackie. Come on, lets find that munitions dump and see if we can’t send this bastard’s operation straight to hell!”
 
“Sounds like a plan to me, Tex,” Jackie said, as the patrol moved out and they continued towards the compound.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ezra, JD, Nettie and Casey hurried into the ER just as Buck was being moved form the cubicle. They spotted the two Firm agents and hurried towards them.
 
“Nathan, Josiah, how are they?” Dunne asked, wincing as his head began to pound once more.
 
“Easy, Son, sit down for a minute,” Sanchez said and steered the youngest member of the team towards the waiting room. He knew Nathan would get the others to follow them and the group of solemn faced individuals were soon seated in the quiet room.
 
“How are they, Nathan?” the older woman asked worriedly, her face paler than they thought possible.
 
“Buck’s going to be okay, but Dr. Midland is keeping him at least overnight,” Jackson explained.
 
“Thank God,” Casey said softly.
 
“What about Chris?” Dunne asked tiredly.
 
“Chris was taken to the burn unit. He’s got second degree burns to both arms and the right side of his chest. He’s also got three broken ribs and a head injury. Dr. Bledsoe wants to keep him sedated for a day or two just to get him past the worst of the pain,” the paramedic in training explained.
 
“Does he know about...” Casey let her voice trail off and reached for the box of tissues.
 
“We’re not sure how much either of them know, but Chris was screaming for Sarah and Adam. Buck was saying it was all his fault,” Sanchez told them as Nettie stood up to pace the room.
 
“Has there been any confirmation on who the two bo...bodies?” the older woman asked.
 
“Not yet. Robert said he’d let us know as soon as he gets the coroner’s report,” Sanchez answered.
 
“Has anyone called that miserable excuse for a father?” Nettie asked, angry that she’d even thought of her brother in law.
 
“Not yet...we didn’t know what to tell him,” Jackson answered.
 
“When can we see Chris?”
 
“Dr. Bledsoe said it would take an hour to set him up in the unit. We can probably go up in about twenty minutes,” the ex-preacher told her.
 
“Alright, I’m going to call Hank and then I’m going up to see my nephew...”
 
“Nettie, would you rather one of us called him?” Jackson asked.
 
“No...thank you, Nathan. I can handle Hank Connolly,”  the woman assured him.
 
“Nathan, when can I see Buck?” Dunne asked.
 
“I can take you up to his room now, JD,” Jackson answered.
 
“Nathan, I’m going to stay with Nettie,” Sanchez said as he watched Casey move in beside the younger man.
 
“Alright, Josiah. I’ll be up as soon as I check on Buck. Let’s go, JD.”
 
“Are you coming, Casey?”
 
“Nettie?”
 
“You go on with JD, child. Josiah and I will be up shortly. Let’s go, Josiah. I’m not much for talking to Hank, so the quicker we get this done the better.”
 
“I have my cell phone, Nettie. We can call from the bench outside,” Sanchez suggested as he held onto the trembling woman.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Hank Connolly was a hard man, always had been and he didn’t give a damn who knew it. He’d loved Sheila and Sarah in his own way, but had never really showed them. The pictures of his wife were still in place, but the ones of his daughter had been taken down and stored in a shoebox in the back of the broom closet. He seldom looked at them, not wanting to be reminded of what he’d lost. Sarah had been a beautiful child and that beauty continued to shine through in her teen years. She’d been blessed with the voice of an angel and often sang in the church choir. She’d always been a good kid, listened to what she was told, did her homework and scored high marks in all her school work. When she told him she was going to become a nurse he’d been a little upset, telling her she should not stop singing. She assured him she could do both and excelled in each task she assigned herself. Sheila’s death was hard on her and he wondered if that was the point where she started to rebel against his authority.
 
Hank reached for the half empty bottle of beer on his table and swallowed the rest without taking a breath. He looked at the TV dinner and shoved it aside, preferring to drink instead of eat. He hurried to the ancient refrigerator and pulled out another beer and popped the cap off. Taking another long swallow he walked back to the weather beaten chair and belched as he sat down. His thoughts turned to his son in law and the hatred he felt towards him.
 
Chris Larabee would never be good enough for his Sarah and when she told him she was seeing the bastard he’d cursed her for a fool. She’d left soon after and only spoke to him one time since then and that was when he called to disown her. He remembered her cries, but they no longer affected him. He knew they had a child together, but would not acknowledge him as a grandson. As far as he was concerned Sarah Connolly no longer existed...and would remain that way until the day she realized how wrong she was and came home where she belonged.
 
The phone beside him rang and he jumped as he spilled some of the beer. Reaching for the receiver he held it to his ear and snarled.
 
“It’s your quarter...talk now or shut the fuck up!” he cursed impatiently.
 
“You’ll never change will you Hank?”
 
“Why should I? Who is this anyway?”
 
“Maybe if you were more civil to people who cared about you you’d know what a treasure you gave up...”
 
“That you, Nettie? Might have known I’d be getting a lecture from you. Well, guess what? I still don’t want to see Larabee’s kid. He’s nothing to me and...”
 
“Hank, shut up and listen for a change!”
 
“Don’t go getting snippy with me, Nettie, told you before...”
 
“Hank Connolly, what Sheila ever saw in you I’ll never know, but she married you and her daughter is part of you and as much as I hate to admit it, that makes us related.”
 
“Not in my book!”
 
“Hank shut up and listen!” said a deep resonant voice.
 
“Who the hell is this?”
 
“Josiah Sanchez....”
 
“Larabee’s preacher friend. What do you want? You gonna plead his case? ‘Cause if you are then I’m hanging up right now!”
 
“I’m not defending anyone to you, Hank Connolly. You’ll have to face God and talk to him about your sins...”
 
“Sins! Preacher man! What the hell do you know about sins? My daughter is living in sin with that bastard...”
 
“Hank, shut up! Sarah and Adam are...”
 
“Are what?” Connolly spat angered at having his quiet evening interrupted.
 
“They may be dead, Hank. There was an explosion and we’re pretty sure they were in the house. The police found two bodies and we think it’s Sarah and Adam.”
 
“Knew that bastard was no good! Knew he’d get my little girl killed! Didn’t even have the guts to come here and face me himself!”
 
“He’s in the hospital, Hank! He was burned trying to save them!”
 
“That bastard should be dead! Not my Sarah...my little girl!” he said, his voice filled with remorse.
 
“Don’t go trying to show any warmth to Sarah now, Hank. You should’ve been there to see her get married and to see her son born, but no! You sat back and let your anger and resentment keep you bitter and you lost out on a wonderful little boy! You have only yourself to blame for not being in their lives since Chris and Sarah were married. She loved you, Hank, and you threw it away! You miserable sonofabitch don’t ever blame Chris for your not being in her life!”
 
“What do you know about what I lost, Sanchez? She should never have gone against my wishes...”
 
“Sarah was a grown woman, Hank, and she went with her heart. I’ll let you know when the services are...”
 
“I’ll take care of everything myself...”
 
“No, Hank, Chris and Sarah made sure everything was in place in case something happened.”
 
“He had no right!”
 
“Yes, Hank, they did. I have to see my friends now. You go ahead and drink and wallow in your self pity!”
 
Hank Connelly dropped the receiver back on the cradle and finished what was left in the bottle. Tears shone in his dark eyes as he threw it across the room and let the news sink in.
 
“God damn you, Chris Larabee. You’ll pay for taking my baby girl from me!” he vowed as he grabbed for the dirty cloth on the end table and wiped at his eyes.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ella paced back and forth, anger evident in the way her shoulders shook and the clenching and unclenching of her fists. She was alone in her room, and several times caught herself picking up her cell phone to call the hospital and find out about Chris. Finally, unable to hold off any longer she picked up the phone, called information and asked for the number for Saint Vincent’s hospital. As soon as she had the number she hung up and made the call.
 
“Saint Vincent’s hospital. How may I direct your call?”
 
“Patient inquiries!” Ella snapped impatiently.
 
“One moment, please while I put you through.”
 
Ella continued to pace as she waited for the call to go through and stood before the window overlooking the well manicured lawns of Guy Royal’s property. ‘come on...pick up-pick up!’ she thought.
 
“Saint Vincent’s patient enquires ...how may I help you?”
 
“I’m looking for information on a patient who was brought in this afternoon. His name is Chris Larabee.” There was a long pause and finally the woman’s voice came back on the line.
 
“Are you family?”
 
“Well no...not yet...but I will be soon. Is he okay?”
 
“I’m afraid I can’t give out that information to anyone but family. You’ll have to speak with a member of his family!”
 
“I just want to know how he is? Please can’t you just tell me if he’s going to be okay?”
 
“I’m afraid hospital policy...”
 
“Of all the stupid policies! Can’t you make an exception. I’m worried about him and just need to know if he’s okay!”
 
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, I can...”
 
“Look, get me someone who’ll answer my fucking...”
 
“I’m hanging up now, Ma’am, call back when you’ve calmed down....”
 
“You stupid little bitch!” she spat as the line went dead. Throwing the phone across the room she hurried across the floor and pulled open the door.
 
“Ella, is something wrong?” Averil asked as he looked up from his hand of solitaire.
 
“What could possibly be wrong, Jack. Spikes hires this sonofabitch who botches everything and hurts Chris. I call the hospital and this stupid twit...”
 
“You called the hospital? Ella, they may be monitoring calls about Larabee and his friends. Did you give your name?”
 
“Of course not, Jack! I just needed to know how he is!”
 
“Did they tell you anything?”
 
“No! She said she could only divulge that information to his family. Well, I’ll soon be his wife and that makes us family. I can’t believe she wouldn’t tell me how he was doing! I should go down there...”
 
“We’ve been through this, Love, if you go down there they’ll start thinking you were involved in it. You have to give it some time. Let everything cool down and maybe you’ll get your wish,” Averil said, holding the woman close.
 
“But I want to be with him...I need to see him, Jack,” Ella pouted against the man’s shoulder.
 
“I know you do, but for now we need to lay back and bide our time. Perhaps we will be able to disguise you and sneak you in for a few moments.”
 
“Disguise....oh yes.” She lifted her head and wiped at her eyes. “I could dress as a nurse and take care of him...I could kiss him and be there with him when he’s hurting...”
 
“Ella, if we sneak you in it will only be for a minute or two. We can’t chance you being seen,” Averil explained.
 
“It’s not fair, Jack, he’s finally free of that woman and her kid and I still can’t get near him. I want him to know I did this for him...for us. We belong together and I know he’ll understand I had no choice but to do what I did.”
 
“Ella, perhaps you would be better off not telling Chris about your involvement in his wife and son’s deaths. No man wants to hear something like that.”
 
“Perhaps you’re right, but I so want him to understand just how much I love him!”
 
“Oh, I’m sure you can think of other ways...like taking him to bed and showing how well versed you are in the art of pleasuring a man,” Averil whispered, his voice filled with lust.
 
“Are you asking me to make love with you, Jack?”
 
“Hmm...you know I can never get enough of you, Ella.”
 
“That I do, lover boy, but you know we may have to be a little more discreet once I become Mrs. Christopher Larabee.”
 
“You know I’ll do anything you ask, Ella,” Averil said, burying his face between her breasts.
 
“I know, Jack, and perhaps we can come to an agreement on how to deal with Powderman!”
 
“Hmm...talk later...I want you now,” the man said, pushing her towards her bedroom once more.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Selene Morrison made a note of the call concerning Chris Larabee and reported it to her immediate supervisor. She quickly wrote down what the woman said and handed it to the man standing before her.
 
“That’s all she said?”
 
“Yes, Mr. Cooper. She specifically asked about Chris Larabee and wanted information about his condition. I told her we couldn’t give it out except to family members.”
 
“Thank you, Selene. You did everything according to procedure. I’ll see that the police get this and they may want to ask you some questions.”
 
“Yes , sir, I’ll tell them everything I know.”
 
“That’s all you need to do, Selene. Good work.”
 
“Thank you, Mr. Cooper.” She watched as her immediate supervisor left the office and relaxed in the chair. This job was new to her and she was glad she’d done everything expected of her.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“Jackie...”
 
“Right beside you.”
 
“See that building set back against the trees?”
 
“The one with the two guards?”
 
“Yeah...I think we may have found where he hides his weapons.”
 
“Or, it could be where he keeps the drugs.”
 
“Wither way we need ta destroy it and that damn field. Might not be a bad idea ta blow the compound if we can!”
 
“Just one problem with that idea...what do we use to blow it?”
 
“Whatever we can find. Most of Mendoza’s men seem ta be sleepin’ right now. We make our way around back, take out the guards and get inside the building. If it’s the weapon’s hut then we take what we need, and make sure that place is wired ta blow. Mendoza’s probably got contacts with his country’s military and if he does ya can bet he’s got the most up ta date weapons available.”
 
“Alright...you sure you’re okay?”
 
“Yeah...I’ve got it under control!” Tanner said, leading the way towards the building. They stayed in the deeper shadows of the field until they came to the edge twenty feet from the hut. Vin pointed towards the two guards and then the trees to their right and waited to make sure Jackie understood what he wanted her to do. He waited until the guards attention was taken up with something and smiled inwardly as one leaned down to light a cigarette from the other man’s lighter. Without a word the duo raced across the twenty feet and entered the thick underbrush. They waited to make sure they hadn’t been seen and moved towards the hut under the cover of brush and trees. Reaching their destination Tanner knelt down and silently signaled his intentions to this partner. He passed her the weapon and knew she could handle it..
 
Jackie nodded that she understood what the plan was. She was going to take the one on the left while Tanner took out the man on the right. Separating, they made their way to the sides of the wooden structure and slid along the wall until they were positioned at the front corners. Jackie spotted the tracker and nodded that she was ready. Lifting the weapon she moved forward and struck the guard as he turned towards her. She knew he was still conscious and hit him again as Tanner clubbed the second guard. Both men hit the ground and she watched as the tracker checked the two men and made sure they were out cold. Between them they dragged the unconscious men to the back of the hut and Jackie tore of strips of her blouse to tie their hands behind their backs.
 
“Here,” Maynard said, handing Tanner one of the weapons she confiscated from the unconscious guards.
 
“Thanks, come on, let’s see what’s in there,” the sharpshooter suggested, grabbing the man’s lighter and moving cautiously around to the front of the building.
 
Jackie reached the front door and eased it open, stopping when she heard a dog in the distance. She turned towards her partner and knew he’d heard it too.
 
“Let’s get this done,” he ordered and pushed her inside. The darkness was absolute and Vin knew he had to be careful. If this place was indeed a munitions supply shed, then he couldn’t chance using the lighter. He heard Jackie moving around and knew she was searching for anything they could use.
 
“Vin?”
 
“Right here,” Tanner whispered.
 
“I think you were right.”
 
“What have ya got?”
 
“Not sure, but it could be grenades,” the woman explained.
 
“Shit! We need some light in here.”
 
“I think one of the guards had a flashlight...wait here and I’ll check,” Maynard told him.
 
“Alright...but be careful...okay?”
 
“Okay...just don’t shoot me when I come back!”
 
“Try not to,” Tanner said as the woman slipped out the door. He stood his ground for several minutes, listening to the compound and froze as a cry of alarm went up. He pushed open the door and saw several men racing across the compound towards him. ‘Sonofabitch!’ he thought as several shots were fired, barely missing him. He prayed Jackie would stay where she was and keep out of sight as several more guards showed up.
 
“Drop the gun!” a man’s voice snapped and Vin knew he had little choice, but to obey. Releasing his hold on the gun he heard it hit the ground as two men came up behind him.
 
“Lock your hands behind your head and kneel down!” another voice ordered.
 
“Vin knelt on the ground and linked his fingers behind his head, wincing inwardly as the movement pulled on his injured arm.
 
“Well, well, hello, Vincent. It’s good to see you again!”
 
“Wish I could say the same, Hector. I’d sue that bastard who operated on ya if’n I were ya?”
 
“What are you talking about, Vincent?” Mendoza asked as Ruiz pulled the man’s hands from behind his back and snapped on a set of handcuffs.
 
“Yer still an ugly sonofabitch!” Tanner spat, and found himself flat on his back, pain exploding in his shoulder as Mendoza struck him.
 
“Watch your mouth, Vincent. Now where’s that lovely piece of ass you had with you?”
 
“Don’t know w...who yer talkin’ ‘bout!” Tanner spat, as blood seeped from the corner of his mouth.
 
“I’m sure Miss Maynard is close by, but I’ll deal with her in my own time. Ernesto, get him on his feet and bring him to my home. Guerrero, take several men and find out if Miss Maynard is in the area. If you find her bring her to me! Perhaps I can make use of her supple body after all!”
 
“You bastard!” Vin cried and lunged at his old nemesis, crying out as a rifle butt struck his lower back and he went down hard.
 
“I see your temper hasn’t gotten any better, Vin,” Mendoza laughed as Ernesto Ruiz and another man pulled the Texan to his feet. They dragged him towards the main house and he turned away from the woods and followed them inside.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie raced away from the compound, tripping several times in her headlong dash for freedom. She knew they’d captured her partner, and understood there was nothing she could do, but move back and regroup. She cursed as she tripped once more and again made it to her feet, nearly losing her grip on the weapon.
 
‘I’ll get you out, Tanner,’ she silently vowed as she pushed on through the thicker brush. Several times she thought she heard Mendoza’s men, but didn’t take the time to stop. She knew where the jeep was parked, but there was no way she could find it in the dark. Jackie continued her headlong plunge until she crossed the trail they’d followed earlier. Not taking the time to think she started running down the center of the trail, hoping her panicked flight would give her time to escape.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Nettie sat beside the bed where Chris Larabee lay on his back in a jumble of tubes and monitoring equipment. His arms were elevated and rested on pillows to help alleviate the swelling caused by the burns. His hands were totally covered in gauze and a bandage covered the wound on his forehead.
 
Christine Jacobson, a burn unit certified nurse, moved around the bed, checking to make sure everything was running as it should. She smiled at the elderly woman seated across from her and knew how hard this was on her. The patient was being kept sedated and the burns, although painful would heal in time.
 
“Mrs. Wells.”
 
“Yes, Christine?”
 
“I’m just going out to the desk for a few minutes. Is there anything I can get you?”
 
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Nettie assured her tiredly.
 
“Okay, but...”
 
“I’m okay, Christine.” Wells continued to watch her nephew in law, sorrow and pain warring for emotional control. Several hours had passed since she spoke to Hank Connolly and still her anger had not dissipated.
 
“Aunt Nettie.”
 
“Yes, Child,” Wells said, turning to see her niece walk into the room.
 
“I came to see if you’re ready to go home. The nurse said Chris will sleep through the night and probably most of tomorrow. He’ll need you more when he’s awake,” the young woman said as she stood beside the bed and looked at the pale man lying there.
 
“I am kind of tired, Casey. Is JD coming back with us?”
 
“No, he’s going to stay with Nathan. Rain just came in and she’s with them. Ezra is going to drive us home.”
 
“Okay,” the woman said and leaned over the bed to place a gentle kiss on the Larabee’s cheek. “Sleep well, Chris, I’ll make sure Sarah and Adam are taken care of,” she vowed, before following the younger woman out of the room.
 
“Nettie, we’ll make sure Chris is okay,” Sanchez vowed as he hugged the woman close.
 
“I know you will, Josiah. You boys have always been close and he’s going to need that if...if...”
 
“Sh, Nettie, let’s wait until we know for sure.”
 
“You’ll c...call me?”
 
“I will,” Sanchez vowed as Standish came towards them.
 
“Come on, Mrs. Wells, let’s get you home,” the gambler said.
 
“Thank you, Ezra,” Casey said as they took up position on either side of the elderly woman.
 
Josiah walked into the room and placed his hand on Larabee’s forehead. He closed his eyes and fought back the tears forming in them. He knew in his heart that Sarah and Adam Larabee were gone from them. Taken in a senseless act of violence that had long reaching connotations.
 
“Lord Jesus, You heal all who come to You. At this time of special need, may YOUR healing hand rest gently upon Chris Larabee. Give him the strength he needs to get through the trying times ahead. Help him heal from not only his physical wounds but the emotional ones he has yet to face. I know for a while I lost faith in your abilities, Lord, and I’m not asking for me, but please guide us in what the future has to bring and help us keep Chris larabee the man we know. Don’t let this be the final straw that breaks his back, Lord. Help us to help him!”
 
Josiah sat in the chair and opened his eyes, letting the tears he tried to keep at bay make a trail down his cheeks. His newfound family was hurting, and it would be a long time before the healing could truly begin.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck knew he wasn’t alone, but he did not want to talk to anyone. Since waking his mind was inundated with visions of the last week or more. Starting with the explosion that sent both him and JD to the hospital, up to and including the hell he’d faced on returning to the Larabee home. He knew his life would never be the same, that a part of him had been destroyed, burnt out of him in much the same way the flames had burnt the house and contents and the two people trapped within the walls. He knew he was crying, felt the tears as they slipped past tightly clenched lids, but he didn’t fight them anymore. A worried voice broke through his thoughts and he knew who was in the room with him.
 
“Buck...I know you’re awake. I need to know you’re alright.”
 
“Not alright, Kid...not unless you tell me I’ve been having nightmares.”
 
“Buck...”
 
“I know, JD,” the older man said, keeping his eyes averted. “Is Chris...does he...you know?”
 
“Chris is in the burn unit, Buck,” Jackson explained from the opposite side of the bed.
 
“How bad?”
 
“Second degree burns to both arms and his chest. Dr. Bledsoe is keeping him sedated. We’re still waiting for confirmation on whether the bodies found in the house were Sarah and Adam,” the paramedic in training explained.
 
“They were in the h...house, Nathan,” Wilmington’s voice hitched on the words as he relived the final moments in the truck. “I can s...still hear Chris telling them to get out, but they didn’t make it. God! Nathan, I had to stop...stop h...him from...from going into the flames...had...had to...”
 
“Easy, Buck, you did what you had to do,” Dunne said as his friend’s body trembled uncontrollably.
 
“Did I, Kid...ma...maybe...but I c...could’ve tried to g...get to Sarah and Adam,” Wilmington spat, self hatred obvious in his voice as the tears continued to stream from his eyes.
 
Buck, you did what you could...”
 
“How do you know, Nathan? You weren’t there!”
 
“No, I wasn’t, Buck, but I’ve known you long enough to know you did everything you could. If you’d gone after Sarah and Adam we’d have lost you and Chris as well!” Jackson told him.
 
“Have you?”
 
“Yes I have. We all have. Don’t go taking the guilt for this, Buck...”
 
“I am guilty, JD. Sarah and Adam are dead because of me! I knew better than to stay with them when someone was trying to kill me, but I stayed. I stayed and I put them in danger and they died because of it. And Chris...oh God, what am I going to do about Chris?”
 
“Chris is going to have a hard time dealing with all this, Buck, but he’s not going to be alone and neither are you. We’re all going to do everything we can to make sure you both have the support you need,” Jackson assured him.
 
Wilmington clenched his eyes tightly as he felt an overwhelming sense of loss. His shoulders shook with the supreme effort it took to hold himself in check, and he felt himself lifted forward. Two strong arms wrapped around him and he sobbed uncontrollably against the slight chest. Another hand rubbed circles on his back and he accepted the show of comfort and concern from both men.
 
JD held the older man tight and looked at the man standing on the opposite side of the bed. Buck Wilmington was an emotional man, and those emotions were at the forefront right now.
 
“They can’t be gone, JD...they can’t be...I...I...” again he was quiet and they thought he’d fallen asleep until he pulled away from the younger man. “Sorry, Kid, wrecked your shirt!”
 
“That’s okay, Buck...you can buy me a new one when you get out of here,” Dunne said as a nurse came into the room.
 
“Hello, Buck, I’m glad to see you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
 
“I’m fine, Kelly...”
 
“You don’t look fine...would you like something for pain?”
 
“Only if it can take away the pain I feel in here,” Wilmington answered, pointing to the left side of his chest.
 
“I wish it could, Buck, but that’s something that only time can help with.” Kelly Lewis explained. She’d been a nurse at Saint Vincents for nearly four years and had heard through the grapevine about the tragedy that occurred the day before.
 
‘Time, if only I could get the time back,’ the injured man thought.
 
“Buck, are you okay?” Dunne asked.
 
“Fine, Kid, just tired.” He turned onto his left side, and closed his eyes as the misery of what happened washed over him one more. He knew sleep would not come easily for him, but he could not face the others with the knowledge that he was the cause of the pain he saw on their faces.
 
“Buck...”
 
“Leave me alone, JD...just leave me alone, okay?”
 
“No, it’s not. I’m staying right here,” Dunne said forcefully.
 
“No, JD, you’re not. I’m taking you home with me now. Buck, Ezra is here now and we’ll be back later today.”
 
“Okay...just gonna sleep anyway,” the injured man told them, and listened as they left the room.
 
“Buck, your call button is by your hand. Just push it if you need anything at all. Dr. Midland prescribed something to help you sleep if you want it.”
 
“Not right now, Kelly...maybe later.” He heard her leave and opened his eyes, fighting off the images of Chris Larabee fighting to go into the flames.
 
“God, Chris, I’m so...so...sorry,” he sobbed into the pillow. Alone with his misery he closed his eyes once more and entered the nightmare he fought so hard to keep at bay.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin swallowed back the bitter bile rising in his throat as he looked up at the hated man standing before him. His back throbbed painfully as he was forced to kneel in front of Hector Mendoza, but he would not show this man any weakness.
 
“Still can’t fight yer own battles, Mendoza!” he spat as one of his captors grabbed a fistful of hair and pulled his head back painfully.
 
Mendoza moved forward until he was standing over the bound man. He placed a finger under his enemy’s chin and smiled as he looked into the pools of ice blue he remembered.
 
“You still don’t know when to quit, do you, Vincent?”
 
“Not against yer sorry fuckin’ ass!” He bit back a moan as his head was pulled further back and Mendoza placed a knife against his bobbing Adam’s apple.
 
“Ah, Vincent, I have missed your wonderful way with words. Too bad I’m the last one that will ever hear them.”
 
“Ya kill me and ya’ll have the whole fuckin’ DEA down on yer head!”
 
“Do you think that scares me, Vincent? I’m afraid it just shows how gullible you are. You see, Barker was working for me...”
 
“Think I d...didn’t know th...that? Barker is under investigation...”
 
“Hmm, well, it doesn’t really matter since he’s dead anyway. He overstepped his bounds and outgrew his usefulness to me. So, that means there’s no one here who can help you,” Mendoza smiled as the blade broke the skin and a droplet of blood appeared no the tip of the blade. “Not even that blonde bimbo you’ve been working with. My men will find her before long and deliver her to me. I had planned to kill you now, but I believe I’ll keep you around long enough to watch when I take the little bitch to my bed.”
 
“Si...sick fuckin’ bas....bastard!”
 
“Ernesto, I believe Vincent is in need of a little rest. Would you kindly make him comfortable in the hole?”
 
“Si, Hector. I will see to it!”
 
Mendoza smiled as Ruiz and a second man pulled Tanner to his feet and dragged the struggling man from the room. The hole he referred to was in the center of the clearing and was seven feet deep, a five foot by five foot hole with iron bars over the top and set deep into the ground. No one had ever escaped from the hole and it was a miserable place to be when it rained.
 
‘Perhaps a few days in there will make you a little more pleasant, Vincent,’ he thought, reaching for the bottle of brandy on the table and smiling as he poured himself a drink.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie had no idea how long she kept running, but her legs were screaming for her to stop. She’d crossed several small streams and backtracked in an effort to throw her pursuers off the trail. She trudged through a wider stream, choosing to go downriver for nearly a mile before exiting the water on the opposite side. She backtracked and re-entered the water, hoping to throw off the scent. As the sun began to rise she knew she needed a place to rest for the day and figure out a way to get her partner out of the trouble he was now in. She looked around until she spotted a tree hanging out over the river. Several of the branches were thick enough to support her and if she could climb high enough she could probably find a place to rest and sleep without being spotted. It would also allow her to get out of the water without leaving a trail on either side. She jumped several times until she grabbed onto the thickest of the overhanging branches and fought for a better purchase. She swung back and forth several times until her legs wrapped around the inner part, wincing at the rough edges as she finally pulled herself up. She remained still long enough to catch her breath before climbing higher into the tree and finding a place that would serve as a refuge. Ten minutes later she was sleeping soundly, tucked away from the prying eyes of the four men walking along the edge of the river.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Orrin and Evie Travis looked into the burn unit and saw the haggard look on Josiah’s face. They entered the room quietly and heard the man sit forward in the chair.
 
“Hello, Josiah, how are you feeling?”
 
“I’m okay, Mrs. Travis, just a little tired.”
 
“I’d say a lot tired is more like it, Josiah. Evie and I are going to stay with Chris for a while. Why don’t you go on home and get some rest. I’ve cleared the docket for the next week and have talked to several of our clients. They understand and are willing to wait or hire another firm,” Orrin explained.
 
“I could use a little sleep,” the ex-preacher whispered.
 
“Good, then it’s settled. You go home...we’ll call if anything happens,” Evie said.
 
“Okay...has there been any word from Miller?” Sanchez asked.
 
“No...nothing yet, but these things take time,” Travis answered.
 
“Buck was awake for a while and he told Nathan that Chris was talking to Sarah before the house exploded,” Sanchez explained.
 
“So it was Sarah and Adam,” Evie whispered, her voice filled with sorrow as she looked at the sedated man.
 
“It looks that way,” Sanchez agreed, before standing up and stretching the kinks from his back. He turned to look at the injured man and said a prayer once more. “I’ll be back later.”
 
“Okay, Josiah, but not until you’ve had enough sleep,” the woman warned.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
 Jacob Bledsoe stepped into the room housing his newest patient. He nodded to the older couple as he stepped up to the bed.
 
“We’re going to check the burns now and I’d like for you to wait outside. I’ll let you know when you can come back in,” he told them.
 
“Alright, Doctor,” Orrin said, taking his wife's arm and leading her from the room. They watched as the nurse closed the door and drew the curtains across. He looked down the short corridor to see Nathan Jackson and Rain Goines hurrying towards them.
 
“Orrin, is everything okay?”
 
“Dr. Bledsoe is in there with him and asked us to wait out here for him,” Travis answered.
 
“Dr. Bledsoe is considered one of the best burn specialists in the country. He knows what he’s doing,” Rain assured them.
 
“I hope you’re right, Rain,” Evie said, watching the closed door tiredly. These men were a close knit group and since Orrin hired Chris Larabee she’d grown to think of them as her extended family. When one of them hurt, they all hurt and she knew this was going to be even worse since two members of their family were no longer with them.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Josiah and Ezra walked into the police precinct at 220 North 27th Street. Miller had left a message on Sanchez’ answering service to meet him there. Josiah called Ezra, knowing everyone else was at the hospital and told him he’d pick him up along the way. The drive was made in silence as both men realized why Robert Miller had called them personally. The coroner’s results were back in and yet they knew now there was little if any doubt who the bodies were.
 
Ezra held the door for the older man as they entered the station and were shown directly to Miller’s office. The officer was on the phone and he signaled for them to sit down until he finished with his call. It wasn’t long before the man hung up and turned his attention to the newcomers.
 
“Josiah, Ezra, I wish I could tell you I had good news, but I’m afraid the coroner has positively identified both victims.”
 
“Sarah and Adam?” Sanchez asked when he finally found his voice.
 
“Yes, I’m afraid so. He used dental records and x-rays for comparison analysis and there’s no doubt of identification. His report also indicates that Sarah died when the roof collapsed and Adam’s death was caused by the explosion itself. Neither one of them died from smoke inhalation or from the fire itself. I know that doesn’t mean much in light of what’s happened, but at least Chris doesn’t have to live with the thought of them being alive when the fire engulfed their bodies.”
 
“At least that’s something. We didn’t think there would be any doubt about identity. Chris was talking to Sarah before the explosion and him and Buck were there by the time that happened,” the ex-preacher explained.
 
“I’m sorry, I wish I had better news,” Miller told them.
 
“It was inevitable once Chris confirmed our worst fears,” Standish told him.
 
“I’d like...actually the whole precinct would like to know when final arrangements are made. You boys have done a lot for the men here and they do appreciate it and would like to show their support.”
 
“Thanks, Bob, I’ll be talking to Father Thomas O’Neill at Saint Joseph’s Catholic church. Most of the arrangements were made by Chris and Sarah shortly after Adam was born and they asked me at that time to make sure everything went according to their plans. I just wish it wasn’t this soon.”
 
“We all do, Josiah,” Standish said.
 
“How are Chris and Buck doing?” Miller asked.
 
“Buck was sleeping when we left last night...or was it this morning? I’ve lost track of time...can’t even tell you how long it’s been since this happened,” Sanchez answered. “Chris was being kept sedated...at least he was when I left.”
 
“Has there been any new word on the explosion and how it started?” Standish asked.
 
“No. The fire chief hasn’t sent his report yet. I’ll let you know as soon as he gets back to me. We’re treating it as arson right now and will keep Buck and Chris under police protection,” the officer assured them.
 
“Thanks, Bob. Any word on Powderman?” Sanchez asked.
 
“No...nothing new. We’ve had a file on him for years, but I swear the man doesn’t exist,” Miller said frustrated at the lack of information.
 
“He exists and the bastard will make a mistake. He came after the wrong man when he singled out Buck Wilmington!” Standish vowed.
 
“Buck’s going to feel guilty as hell if Sarah and Adam were killed in an explosion meant for him,” Miller observed.
 
“Yeah, he is, but we’ll make damn sure he doesn’t wallow in the guilt. This is not his fault...at least not amongst us. It belongs to Powderman and whoever hired the sonofabitch,” Sanchez told them.
 
“Any idea who that could be?” the officer asked.
 
“No...not yet. Buck’s got a lot of enemies out there and it will take time to go through the list and come up with the most probable suspects,” the gambler said, frowning as a new thought entered his mind.
 
“Ezra, what’s wrong?”
 
“Nothing, Josiah, just thinking.”
 
“About?”
 
“What if the attempts on Buck’s life were meant to throw us off the real targets.”
 
“Where did that come from, Ezra?”
 
“I’m not really sure, Josiah, but something tells me there’s a lot more going on than what’s before our eyes.”
 
“Are you saying Sarah and Adam were the intended targets from the start of this mess?” Sanchez asked.
 
“It’s a thought...maybe someone who has a grudge against Chris...or possibly some other reason to get rid of his family.”
 
“Ella Gaines,” the ex-preacher whispered.
 
“Exactly...what if she’s back in town.”
 
“You haven’t found anything in the airport records yet have you?”
 
“No, but she could have came back using an alias.”
 
“Jesus, Ezra, if that’s true...”
 
“Would you two mind telling me what you’re talking about?” Miller asked.
 
“Sorry, Bob, it’s something we hadn’t thought of. On the day of the county fair an old flame of Chris’ showed up and wanted to start things up with him again. Sarah caught her trying to kiss Chris and well, she told her straight out that she and Chris were married and she could keep her hands to herself. From what Chris and Sarah told us she was angered by Sarah’s possessive nature when it came to her husband.”
 
“You want me to check her out?”
 
“We’d appreciate that very much, Bob,” Standish answered.
 
“Alright, give me whatever information you have on her and I’ll see what I can find out. Is she still in Billings?”
 
“Not that we know of. She left just after the fair...just after Chris told her off at the hotel!” Sanchez said, smiling as he remembered Wilmington telling them of Chris’ confrontation with his ex.
 
“I’ll check my computer and send you what we have on Ella Gaines, including pictures of her and a man named Jack Averil. They been an item for several years now,” Standish told the officer.
 
“Okay, you know my e mail address, just send it to me and we’ll get to work on it. You know the hospital did report a call concerning Chris,” Miller said, searching through the stack of notes on his desk. “Here it is. Caller was a woman and requested information on Chris Larabee’s condition.”
 
“No mention of Buck?” Sanchez asked.
 
“No...just Chris.”
 
“Kind of reinforces what you’ve been thinking about, Ezra,” the older man explained.
 
“It certainly does,” Standish agreed as Sanchez read the message Miller received.
 
“Thanks, Bob, we appreciate everything you’re doing.”
 
“Anytime, Josiah. You boys have helped us out when we asked for it...and even when we haven’t!” The policeman offered his hand to both men and watched them leave.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Bledsoe gently checked the wounds on his patient’s upper body and tried to ignore the soft moans emanating from the man’s throat. Over the years he’d learned to turn a cold heart to the cries, knowing what he was doing had to be done for the good of the patient.
 
“..don’t...”
 
“We’re almost done, Chris,” Bledsoe offered as his only comfort.
 
“...pl...please...hurts...”
 
“I know it does,” the specialist said and looked across at the nurse. “Increase the...”
 
Chris heard the man speaking, but did not understand his words. He forced his eyes open and realized he was in the hospital. Fear gripped his heart as he tried to remember what happened to put him there. His gaze swept the room, searching for someone he knew should be there, but was not. Licking his lips he moaned and turned towards the man dressed in white standing beside him. This was the source of his pain, yet he also knew he was trying to help him. Calling on every ounce of strength he had left, Chris forced the words through his dry throat.
 
“...where’s...S...Sarah...”
 
“Sh, Chris, close your eyes and sleep,” Colleen Newland suggested as she helped Bledsoe care for the patient.
 
“...can’t...not ‘til I...I s...see Sarah,” Larabee said as he fought past the haze caused by the drugs in his system. “Goddd...stop...please...”
 
“Almost done, Chris,” Bledsoe assured him. “Colleen, continue with the orders and make sure he’s kept comfortable.”
 
“Yes, Doctor.”
 
“Chris...”
 
Larabee no longer heard anything, his mind conjured up visions he didn’t want to have. His breathing became erratic as vague memories cleared and he knew why Sarah was not with him.
 
“...no...no...it can’t...I can’t. Please, Sarah...Sarah...come back...Adam!” He cried and bucked against the hands that tried to soothe him.
 
“Christ, he should be out! See if one of his friends are out there and ask them to come in!” Bledsoe spat as Larabee fought against him. He knew the nurse did as he requested even as he kept talking calmly to his patient.
 
“...they can’t be dead!” the blond cried, tears forming in his eyes and sliding down his cheeks.
 
“Easy, Chris...”
 
“Doc, what’s wrong?” Jackson asked hurrying to the opposite side of the bed as Larabee’s breathing became more erratic.
 
“Talk to him...see if you can get him to calm down!”
 
“Chris, it’s Nathan...look at me!”
 
“N...Nathan...please...gone...Sarah...Adam! Gone...fire...can....can’t sa...save ‘em...” the blond raised his injured arms, crying out as pain erupted throughout his upper body.
 
“I know, Chris,” Jackson assured his friend and carefully helped the specialist hold Larabee down on the bed.
 
“...please...Nathan...they...they...ne...need me,” Larabee panicked as he looked around the room.
 
“This isn’t helping!” Bledsoe said of the panic in the sea green eyes. “Colleen, prepare an injection of Valium.”
 
“Yes, doctor...”
 
“No...no...Nathan, don’t let hi...him put me out...don’t...”
 
“Sh, Chris...you need to rest,” Jackson spoke calmly as the nurse prepared the medication.
 
“No...don’t want t...to sl...sleep, Nathan...”
 
“Then tell me what you want,” the medic said, running his fingers through the sweat soaked blond hair.
 
“Wa...want Sarah and A...Adam...can’t be gone...they can’t be...NO! I don’t want that! Tell him no, Na...Nathan...”
 
“Chris...”
 
“don’t l...let him put m...me o...out. Please, Doc...w...won’t fight. Gotta make s...sure we f...find ou...out wh...who did this!”
 
“Colleen, wait,” Bledsoe ordered and looked at his patient. “Chris, if you promise to remain calm and let us take care of you I won’t have Colleen give you the shot, but, and this is a big but. If you show signs of getting upset again I will have her put you out, understood?”
 
“Y...yeah...” the blond said, turning his attention back to Jackson. “Nathan, I’ve lost them.”
 
“I know, Chris, but you’re not alone,” the paramedic in training vowed.
 
“Jo...Josiah kn...knows what to do...Sa...Sarah and I talked to him about what we w...wanted...t...took care of ev...everything. Tell him...ma...make arrange...ments...”
 
“I will, Chris. Now why don’t you close your eyes and sleep?”
 
“Can’t...too mu...much to d...do.”
 
“We’ll take care of everything, Chris.”
 
“...i...i know...God, Nathan...Buck...is he...”
 
“Buck’s okay, Chris, he’s just shook up. Probably want to come see you when he wakes up,” Jackson assured him. He heard Bledsoe talking to the nurse and understood the Valium would be given if Larabee showed any signs of becoming hysterical again. He watched as the lids slowly dropped over the green orbs and hoped his friend would sleep, but it was not to be as the eyes shot open and once more turned towards him.
 
“Did they fi...fi...find them?”
 
“We think so,” Jackson answered, knowing honesty was the only way to answer this man.
 
“I want to see them...”
 
“Chris...”
 
“No...Nat...Nathan...I want to see them!” the blond said, a little more forcefully.
 
“That’s not possible, Chris.”
 
“Y...yes it is...”
 
“You won’t be able to identify them, Chris. The coroner’s office is using dental work...”
 
“I don’t care! I nee...need to do this!” Larabee insisted, an underlying edge of anger in his voice.
 
“Chris, think about this...”
 
“I have...damnit, Nathan. I...it’s my right!” the blond struggled with the emotions tearing him up inside and watched as the nurse reached for his IV. “NO...damn you...I need to see them!”
 
“No, you don’t, Chris. Sarah wouldn’t want that to be your last memory of her and Adam.” Jackson watched as the medication was added to the IV and knew Larabee would soon be sleeping once more.
 
“Al...ready b...burned into m...my mind, Na...” the weak voice trailed off without finishing his thought and Nathan knew the image would be with them all for the rest of their lives. Taking a deep breath he looked up as Rain entered the room.
 
“Nathan, how is he?”
 
“Hurting...gonna be that way for a long time,” Jackson answered as the beautiful woman wrapped her arms around him.
 
“I know, and it’s going to be hard on all of you. I just talked with Dr. Bledsoe and there is a little good news.”
 
“Good news...I don’t know what that is anymore. What did he have to say?”
 
“Chris’ burns are not as bad or as extensive as originally thought. Oh don’t get me wrong, they are serious, but most of them are not as deep as he expected them to be. They’ve taken care of the blisters and will soak the burns before debriding them, but at least he shouldn’t have too many physical scars.”
 
“Wish there was something we could do about the emotional ones,” Jackson said, as he turned his attention back to the sleeping man.
 
“I wish we could do something about that for all of you. It will take time, Nathan, but eventually the loss will be easier to deal with, especially with all of you standing beside him.”
 
“I know, Rain, but first we have to get him through the next few days. I’ve got to talk to Josiah about making the arrangements and Chris is going to want to be there.”
 
“Dr. Bledsoe won’t agree to that.”
 
“He won’t have a choice, Rain. We can’t shut Chris out of this...he needs to be there to say goodbye to them.”
 
“At what cost, Nathan? Chris can’t afford to get an infection...”
 
“I know, Rain, but if we keep him from this it would probably kill him anyway. Bledsoe can make sure the wounds are covered and we’ll bring him right back to the hospital as soon as the services are over.”
 
“It’s going to be hard on him no matter what you do.”
 
“I wish there was some other way, but there’s not...he’ll need the time to say goodbye and we have to make sure he gets it or we will lose him too.”
 
Rain had only known this man a short time, but already her feeling had grown and she knew he would do anything for his friends. She knew about the dangers to Chris Larabee and understood that if anyone knew what was best for him it was his closest friends. She gently touched Nathan’s arm and waited for him to turn towards her. Seeing the tears in his eyes she pulled his head down on her shoulder. No one should have to face such loss, not friends, not family and definitely not a husband and father. Chris Larabee had some hard times ahead and she hoped he would come out of it the same man, but knew in her heart it wasn’t possible to go through such tragedy without being affected by it.
 
‘God never gives us more than we can handle,’ she thought, and prayed the old saying was true.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin groaned as he turned onto his right side and his shoulder came alive with pain. Cursing under his breath he used his left arm to push himself into a sitting position. Clenching his eyes tightly, the tracker tried to ignore the pain in his lower back and the bile rising in his throat. He had no idea how long it took, but the nausea finally eased and he lifted his head and opened his eyes. He couldn’t tell what time of day it was, but the sun was still shining and the heat in his prison was sweltering. Vin swatted at the mosquitoes and flies that pitched on him and licked at dry lips as he forced his way to his feet. Once again he glanced at the bars overhead and tried to figure a way out of the hole he found himself trapped in.
 
“Nice to see you awake, Vincent. How are you enjoying your new accommodations?” Mendoza asked, smiling down at his prisoner.
 
“Jest yer fuckin’ speed, Hector!” Tanner spat, sliding back to the ground and refusing to look up at his captor. He’d never been a man who cowered from anyone or anything and he refused to give the other man the advantage of height.
 
“If that were so I would be the one sitting in a hole with just the bugs and spiders to keep me company.”
 
“Ya will...soon’s I get outta here!”
 
“Oh, I’m afraid that’s not going to happen, Vincent. You see when I’m done with you that hole will be your final resting place!”
 
Vin refused to be baited and leaned his head back against the cold dirt wall. His hair and beard itched and he wanted to scratch, but would not show this man how uncomfortable he really was. He felt a strong sense of hope in the fact that the man did not bring up Jackie Maynard and knew instinctively that she’d escaped capture so far.
 
“Well, I’m not ready to kill you just yet, Vincent, so I guess you need something to keep you going. I believe the diet for the prisoner is bread and water. Ernesto, would you lift the gate?”
 
“Si, Hector,” Ruiz agreed and held the small gate open for the other man.
 
“Better make that last, Vincent. Prisoners are only fed and watered once a day,” Mendoza warned, dropping a canteen and a small piece of bread into the hole. “Enjoy your feast, my friend.”
 
Vin heard them laugh and the gate was slammed back into place. He waited five minutes before opening his eyes and reaching for the bread and the water. The bun of bread was covered in dirt, but he wiped it off as best he could. The canteen was half full and he realized he was better off now than he was during his captivity in Iraq during his days as a Top Gun pilot. Breaking the bun down the center he placed half inside his shirt before eating the other half. The bread was overly sweet, and a little dry, but he managed to force it down before taking a few sips of warm water. Alone with his thoughts his mind wandered to the images that continued to haunt him.
 
“God, Chris, what the hell’s going on?” he whispered as a burning sensation erupted on his chest. Something was definitely happening to his best friend, and he could do nothing to help him until he escaped this hell hole and brought Hector Mendoza in for trial. Sighing heavily, he recapped the canteen and placed it beside him before giving in to the call of sleep.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Josiah dropped Ezra Standish at Saint Vincents before driving towards the church the Larabee family attended. Saint Josephs was located at 320 Main Street and he knew Father O’Neill would be waiting for him. He pulled into the parking spot next to the battered suburban used by the priest to shuttle people from place to place. The suburban was a gift from a wealthy parishioner who knew it was needed for the poor who could not make some of the church trips. O’Neill seldom used it for his own personal use and often walked to the places he needed to visit. He opened the door of the club van and slowly walked towards the church doors, knowing the priest would be there when he entered. He moved inside and blessed himself from the holy water font at the front of the church before moving inside. Thomas O’Neill stood at the front of the church, but spotted him immediately.
 
“Josiah, it is good to see you, but I wish it was under different circumstances,” O’Neill said as his long time friend sat on the front pew.
 
“I do too, Thomas...Lord knows how hard this is going to be.”
 
“So it truly was Sarah and Adam Larabee?” the priest asked sadly.
 
“Yes. I just saw Bob Miller and he confirmed it.”
 
“I am so sorry for their loss. The death of a family member is hard on everyone, but even more so when there’s a child involved. Chris is dealing with the loss of both his spouse...his soulmate and his child. It is a burden that you have dealt with before, Josiah.”
 
“I know, Thomas and they are never far from my mind. Carolyn and Amanda were as much a part of me as Sarah and Adam were of Chris, but at least I knew I was losing them and was given the chance to say goodbye. Chris wasn’t given that time and it’s going to eat him up inside.” Sanchez felt the bitter memories return, and tried to fight them back. Soon after meeting and marrying Carolyn Jamison they’d found out she was pregnant. Amanda Jamison Sanchez was born on Christmas Eve, the perfect Christmas gift for the newlyweds. Unfortunately, the happiness was short lived as Carolyn was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor. Amanda was less than a year old when they lost Carolyn and problems began showing up soon after. The baby wasn’t doing things normal children did at that age and before long it was found that she had a genetic defect. Josiah remembered the doctors explaining everything to him, but it didn’t make sense then and still didn’t. Amanda succumbed to her problems six weeks after her mother and was buried next to her in St Francis Cemetery, Phoenix, Arizona. Josiah had been twenty two at the time and never married again. 
 
“Josiah, are you okay?”
 
“I’m not the one you need to ask, Thomas.”
 
“Right now, I think you are. Carolyn would not want you letting this eat you up, Josiah.”
 
“I know...I just...sometimes there’s a hole where my heart used to be, Thomas, and I wonder if it was all worth it!”
 
“I believe it was, Josiah. Would you have given up your time with them?”
 
“No...not for anything, but I would’ve liked more time with them.”
 
“We all would...especially when it’s someone we loved. Keep strong and have faith, Josiah.
 
“That’s easier said than done sometimes, Thomas. We need to make arrangements for the services,” Sanchez said and rubbed at the bristle on his chin.
 
“I believe Chris and Sarah made all the arrangements several years ago. They wanted to be interned at Holy Cross Cemetery.”
 
“Yes...I have the papers with me and I believe they also arranged for their plots,” Sanchez said.
 
“Chris and I talked at length about this, Josiah, but I don’t think he expected to be having this type of service at this point in his life.”
 
“No...he didn’t...”
 
“I talked with Nathan earlier and I know Chris’ condition. When will he be able to attend services?”
 
“I’m not sure, Thomas. I’ll call you after I see him today and speak with his doctors.”
 
“Are you going to the hospital now?”
 
“Yes...”
 
“Would it be okay if I came with you? Maybe we could hold a small service in the chapel and pray for those who are hurt by this.”
 
“Thank you, Thomas, I would appreciate that...we all would,” Sanchez assured him.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck swung his legs over the edge of the bed and glared angrily at Jackson. The man didn’t understand how hard this was for him. To know his best friend was lying in a burn unit because of him angered the rogue and he wasn’t going to let anyone stop him from his goal.
 
“Buck...”
 
“Nathan, I told you I’m going to see Chris.”
 
“And I told you I’d take you there as soon as the doctor okayed it!”
 
“Well where the hell is she?” Wilmington spat, his head turning towards the door as it opened and Stacey Midland stood there.
 
“Is there a problem here, Gentlemen?” the physician asked, letting the door close behind her.
 
“No...”
 
“Yes! I want to see Chris...”
 
“Well, I’m sure that can be arranged, but you do realize he’s probably sleeping?” Midland asked.
 
“Yeah, Nathan said they’re keeping him sedated...but I need to see him,” Wilmington said, sinking dejectedly back onto the bed.
 
“Well, let’s see if we can get you into a wheelchair...”
 
“No, Doc, I’m okay. I don’t need a wheelchair.”
 
“Are you sure, Buck? You’re still pale and I don’t want you falling over...”
 
“I won’t, Nathan’ll make sure of that and I can lean on this damn thing,” he said, pointing to the IV pole.
 
“Alright, but make it a short visit and then I want you back here.”
 
“Sure, Doc,” the injured man agreed, frowning as the door opened and several people entered. “What’s wrong? Is it Chris?”
 
“No...Chris is okay. Evie and Rain are with him,” Travis answered.
 
“Then why are you all here?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Ezra and Josiah met with Robert Miller this morning,” the owner of The Firm explained.
 
“What did he say?” Dunne asked the question on all their minds.
 
“There is no doubt as to the identity of the victims. They were positively identified as Sarah and Adam Larabee,” Standish explained, leaning wearily against the wall beside the partially open window.
 
“Ah, hell,” Wilmington cursed at having his worst fears confirmed. He knew Sarah and Adam were in the house, but a small part of him...hidden deep in his subconscious, hoped he was wrong.
 
“Buck, sit down,” Jackson told the trembling man and watched as he dejectedly did as he was told.
 
“How can I face him?” the ladies man asked as Dunne sat beside him, offering and accepting comfort in return.
 
“None of this is your fault, Buck,” the youngest member of the team said.
 
“Wish I could believe that JD.”
 
“Buck, Josiah and I were talking about that. It’s possible that this whole thing with you, the attempts on your life and the threats, could be a smokescreen to hide the true targets...”
 
“What are you talking about Ezra?” Wilmington asked.
 
“Well, I was thinking about everything that happened since that day at the State Fair. Chris running into Ella and the confrontation at the hotel. Ella Gaines just does not seem the type to give up so easily.”
 
“She doesn’t,” the injured man agreed.
 
“So what if she came up with a plan to take you out of the picture and make it look as if you’re the target of someone out for revenge. She hires Powderman to make several attempts on your life and throw the trail off her real plan.”
 
“To kill Sarah and Adam,” Orrin said.
 
“Exactly, thereby freeing up Chris once more,” Standish suggested.
 
“That’s a rather elaborate ruse even for Ella Gaines,” Wilmington observed.
 
“I agree, but from what you and Chris have both told us it’s something she would do to get what she covets,” the gambler said.
 
“Yes, she would and she’s got the finances to pull it off. Do you know where she is?”
 
“Last information we have is that she is in Rio with Jack Averil. She’s staying at some ritzy upscale hotel and supposedly betting and winning,” Standish explained.
 
“Have you checked that, Ezra?” Dunne asked.
 
“Several times, but that does not mean she’s really there. Mothah and I used a ruse similar to this when we didn’t want anyone to know where we really were. I would say Ella Gaines could very well be here...in Billings. In spite of the information we’ve gathered it would be easy for her to use an alias and come back here. According to Buck she certainly has the resources to pull it off.”
 
“Damnit, if she’s back...and is behind this, then she’s worse than I ever gave her credit for,” Wilmington said.
 
“Yes, she is. I’ve sent all the information we have on her to Robert Miller and he’s going to see what he can come up with. There’s something else he told us that may or may not be relevant, but I find it too much of a coincidence.”
 
“What’s that, Ez?” Dunne asked.
 
“There was a call concerning Chris’ condition. A woman who wouldn’t give her name and said she just wanted information.”
 
“You’re right, that is too much of a coincidence. Was there anything else?” Travis asked.
 
“No...but Miller did say he’d  let us know if anything new turns up,” the gambler explained.
 
“We need to keep on our toes and watch for her,” Jackson told them.
 
“The officers on duty at the doors will be given recent pictures of Gaines and Averil. They’ll be warned to make sure neither of them get anywhere near Chris,” Standish explained of Miller’s newest plans.
 
“We’re going to owe Bob big time after this,” Travis said of the policeman’s offer of aide.
 
“Robert said to tell you he expects nothing in return and is glad to offer any help with this,” the gambler assured them as Midland quietly left the room.
 
“Buck, are you alright?”
 
“I’m fine, Kid. Nathan, take me to see Chris.”
 
“Alright, Buck, you sure you’re up to it?”
 
“Yeah...have to see him.”
 
“Nathan, tell Evie and Rain we’ll be in the cafeteria,” Orrin told him. “Ezra, JD, no arguments.”
 
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Mr. Travis,” the conman said as they followed Nathan and Buck through the door.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Josiah and Father O’Neill arrived at Larabee’s room at the same time as Nettie and Casey Wells.
 
“Nettie, Casey, Can I speak to you for a minute?” Sanchez asked.
 
“Certainly, Josiah,” the older woman agreed, hiding the fear she felt at seeing the priest.
 
“I spoke with Captain Miller and the corner’s report confirms that it was Sarah and Adam in the house.”
 
“Oh, Lord,” Nettie cried and found herself wrapped in the gentle arms of the ex-preacher as she let her grief show. She pulled Casey closer and held her tight as the young woman’s body trembled with the force of her own sobs.
 
Father Thomas offered support and comfort to the grieving women, yet understood there was no way to ease their minds. They would have to deal with their sorrow in their own way, but he could show his support of the family.
 
“Mrs. Wells, I am sorry for your loss,” he said as Nettie finally dried her tears.
 
“Thank you, Father Thomas...could you say a few prayers for Chris...he’s going to have a hard time dealing with this?”
 
“Of course, Mrs. Wells. Perhaps we can all meet in the hospital chapel in an hour. Will that be enough time for you to let the others know, Josiah?”
 
“Plenty, Father Thomas,” Sanchez agreed, looking up as Buck and Nathan stepped off the elevator. “Buck, how are you feeling?”
 
“Better, Josiah. Hello, Nettie, Casey, Father Thomas.”
 
“Hello, Buck,” Nettie said, hugging the man carefully as he stood watching her.
 
“Buck, why don’t you go on in and see Chris. Tell Rain and Mrs. Travis we’re waiting for her. Josiah, Orrin and the others are in the cafeteria. Father Thomas, would you like to join us after you see Chris?”
 
“Thank you, Nathan, but I think I’ll go in with Buck if that’s okay. I will see you all in the chapel in an hour,” O’Neill assured them.
 
“Nettie, did you want to come in with us?” Wilmington asked.
 
“No...you two go on and I’ll see him after. Buck, try not to overdo things, okay?”
 
“I will,” the ladies man said and walked into the room where Chris Larabee lay in a drug induced sleep state.
 
“Hello, Buck, Father,” Rain said, standing and motioning for the injured man to sit down.
 
“Thanks, Rain. The others are waiting for you outside. Orrin is in the cafeteria and then we’re all gonna meet in the chapel.”
 
“Buck, you rest,” Evie Travis ordered as she kissed the gentle man on the cheek before following Rain out of the room.
 
Father Thomas watched as Buck Wilmington reached over the side rail and touched Larabee’s forehead, flicking back the stray locks of blond hair. The tenderness of the simple touch spoke of years of friendship, of caring and the priest knew their relationship went beyond friendship to brotherhood. Strangers might think the two were lovers, but he knew that was not so. Their friendship had survived a lot and neither man was gay. He listened as Wilmington finally spoke, his voice filled with sorrow.
 
“Hey, Pard, looks like you’re hurt pretty bad here. Hate seeing you like this...wish I could make it all go away. You know I loved Sarah, Chris, not in the same way you did, but she was the sister I never had. God, how she loved you...and Adam. Well you know how I felt about that boy...My God...Godson...he’s like my own kid...and what about the one Sarah was carrying? God didn’t even let us see him or her...we’ll never know...but we’ll love them all anyway. You and me have been through a lot, Chris, and God knows we’ll have to lean on a lot of people to get through this, but we will...somehow we will. Father Thomas is here...he’s gonna take us all down to the chapel in a little while...say some prayers for Sarah and Adam, the b...baby and y...you too, ‘cause I know you’re gonna need them.”
 
The priest moved forward and placed his hand over Wilmington’s, resting it against Larabee’s forehead as he repeated a prayer he’d said many times over the years in the hope that God would listen once more.
 
“Father of goodness and love, hear our prayers for the sick members of our community and for all who are in need.   Amid mental and physical suffering may they find consolation in your healing presence.  Show your mercy as you close wounds, cure illness, make broken bodies whole and free downcast spirits.  May these special people find lasting health and deliverance, and so join us in thanking you for all your gifts.  We ask this through the Lord Jesus who healed those who believed. Amen”
 
“Amen,” Buck repeated as he opened his eyes and turned to the priest. “Thank you, Father.”
 
“You’re welcome, Buck. Why don’t you stay with Chris and I’ll send one of your friends back with a wheelchair. I know you could walk, but I believe the good Lord would rather you accept a helping hand for now. Okay?”
 
“I’ll be here, Father...thank you for coming.”
 
“Chris and his family were upstanding members of my parish and I will do everything in my power to help all of you through this. I’ll see you shortly.”
 
“Okay,” the injured man said and turned his attention back to his best friend.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Jackie wasn’t sure what woke her, but years of undercover assignments and the danger that went hand in hand with it, made her cautious. She remained still, listening for any change in the area surrounding her and heard the unmistakable sound of voices close by. The thick branches kept her hidden from anyone below her and she waited for them to pass under her hideaway. She caught a couple of Spanish words and understood they were searching for her. Taking a deep breath she parted the leaves slightly and watched the trio walking along the bank of the stream. She let the leaves close over once more and laid back against the thick trunk of the tree. Closing her eyes she thought about Vin Tanner and knew she needed a plan to get him out of Mendoza’s clutches. How long would Mendoza keep him alive? Did she have time to go for help? She knew she didn’t have much time and again wished she still had the cell phone. Frowning she sat forward and realized she still had the backpack and the gun. Now all she needed to do was come up with a plan of attack.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Buck looked up as Jackson entered the room pushing a wheelchair in front of him. Sighing heavily, and knowing he’d lose any arguments he stood, looked at the still sleeping man and moved to sit in the chair.
 
“Thanks, Nathan.”
 
“You’re welcome, Buck. The others are waiting at the chapel. There are two officers outside Chris’ door and his nurse will be keeping an eye on things as well.”
 
“Okay.” The men were silent during the trip to the chapel and as Nathan pushed the wheelchair inside, Buck was overwhelmed by the amount of support from their friends. There was standing room only as Nathan pushed him towards the front. He felt the tears form in his eyes as he watched the priest look out over the gathering. Father Thomas had always been a man who could use his voice to enthrall his congregation and he seldom used a microphone to do it. The silence of the people in the small room set the tone of the solemn group of friends and family. Now he made the sign of the cross and Buck automatically spoke the words with him.
 
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
 
“Amen.”
 
Father Thomas again looked at the people seated and standing in the chapel. Some he knew and some he didn’t, yet he knew they were here for help, not only for themselves but for their friends as well. His steady gaze was filled with a warmth for his fellow man and he slowly spoke to them as friends, not strangers.
 
“We’ve come here today to say a special prayer for several members of our congregation. We mourn the loss of Sarah Rachel Connelly Larabee and Adam Jonathon Larabee, taken from us in an act of violence, yet remembered with love and warmth. They will be sorely missed, but we know they are wrapped in the arms of the Lord and will wait the day they reunite with their loved ones. Christopher Adam Larabee has suffered a loss that most men would rather not think about, but he is not alone in his grief. They will be missed by those who knew them and our hearts are filled with the sadness of their loss. Please join me in a moment of silence for the passing of Sarah and Adam.”
 
The small chapel was silent as the group shared their loss and grief. Tears were shed and eyes dried for the man lying in the bed in the burn unit, as well as the friends and family of the victims. Finally Father Thomas looked up and spoke once more.
 
“For those who suffer, and those who cry this night, give them repose, Lord; a pause in their burdens. Let there be minutes where they experience peace, not of man but of angels. Love them, Lord, when others cannot. Hold them, Lord, when we fail with human arms. Hear their prayers, Amen.”
 
“Amen,” Buck said and looked up as a hand touched his shoulder. He smiled weakly at JD and knew the younger man was hurting too. The prayers were finished and JD took the handles of the wheelchair and turned him towards the people in the chapel. He acknowledged each one, thanking them for showing their support for his friend.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Ella looked at the man sleeping beside her and knew he could never give her what she had with Chris Larabee. Although handsome, Jack Averil had none of the subtle nuances that made up Chris Larabee’s features. She closed her eyes and pictured the face that haunted her dreams. The soft sun kissed blond hair, the sea green eyes that held so much depth of character, the pouting lips, the voice that could drive her insane when she heard him whisper her name. The soft laughter, the well honed muscles, the lean chest, flat abdomen, the firm globes of his ass and the wonderfully strong legs. The strength of the man shone through in his stamina and she remembered the hours of lovemaking when they were together. Chris Larabee was so damn sexy it made the others seem inadequate. She smiled as she thought of the black jeans pulled tight over the perfect buttocks, the rippling muscles and laughing face as they teased each other after having sex.
 
‘I need you, Chris...I need you to give me what only you have ever been able to,’ she thought as the hauntingly handsome face floated before her closed lids and the heat of longing rose inside her. Drifting towards sleep, a smile formed once more as she devised a plan that would get her in to see the man she loved.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
“...Sarah...” the word was whispered from dry lips, but it was easily heard by the man seated beside the bed.
 
“Easy, Son, everything’s going to be okay,” Sanchez soothed as the sweat soaked blond head tossed from side to side.
 
“...no...Sa...rah...need y...you.” Chris shifted on the bed, reaching for the woman who stood back in the shadows, yet seemed to be framed by a halo of white light. He tried to touch her, to tell her he loved her, but something was wrong. Something was different about her. Her eyes were filled with sadness and he wanted so badly to put the happiness back in them. Again he reached for her, but she drew further back as a small hand formed in hers.
 
Josiah stood and placed his hand on the injured man’s forehead and continued to speak to him, hoping to pull him away from whatever dreams he was lost in.
 
“Adam...come b...back...son....do...don’t go...” Again the white halo of light rose to engulf his wife and son and he felt a tightness in his chest that had nothing to do with broken ribs or second degree burns. He knew they were gone from him and watched as Sarah’s hand touched her stomach and knew the gesture so well.
 
“Our Ba...baby,” he cried as his eyes opened and he looked up into a set of intense blue eyes. “V...Vin?”
 
“No, Son, it’s not Vin, it’s Josiah. How are you feeling?”
 
“Ti....tired....Josiah,” Larabee whispered, and felt a lump form in his throat, nearly choking off his air. “...lost...”
 
The older man poured a small amount of water into a glass and helped him drink his fill, before settling him back on the pillows.
 
“That’s understandable, Chris. You’re bound to feel lost right now.”
 
“...am lost...don’t k...know how to find them...” Chris lifted his hands and frowned as he saw the heavy bandages covering his arms and hands. A look of fear covered his pale features as he looked up at the ex-preacher.  “Josiah...where...where is it?”
 
“Where is what?” a concerned Sanchez asked, holding his hands up to stop the nurse from interfering.
 
“My...my ring...where is it? I can’t...Sarah...”
 
“Sh, Chris, I’ve got it right here,” Sanchez said, reaching into his pocket and taking the gold ring out.
 
“...my r...ring...I n...need it, Josiah,” Larabee cried then, racking sobs that had little to do with the ring and everything to do with the loss of the two people who meant more to him than life itself.
 
Josiah knew who the tears were for and reached for the cloth in the basin. He rung it out and washed the evidence of tears from the pained face. He placed his hand on the forehead as Larabee’s eyes locked with his and showed how much this cost him.
 
“Chris, what do you want me to do with your ring?”
 
“I wa...want to w...wear it.”
 
“I know, but right now that’s not an option,” the older man said.
 
“Put it...put it on a string around my n...neck,” Larabee pleaded.
 
“Jenny, do you have any kind of string I can use?”
 
“Yes, Josiah, but I’d rather you didn’t put it around his neck...we’re going to have to be careful of his bandages and the IV lines.”
 
“What if we pinned it to the pillow beside you, Chris?” Sanchez asked.
 
“...okay...”
 
“I’ll make a note of it on his chart so that they know it’s there in case they change the sheets,” Jenny Riggs told them.
 
“Thanks, Jenny,” Sanchez said as she hurried from the room.
 
“Josiah?”
 
“Yes, Son?”
 
“Buck okay?”
 
“He’s okay, Chris...he was here earlier, but you were sleeping. He’s worried about you...we all are.”
 
“I’m f...fine...just tired,” the blond said, letting his eyes close once more.
 
Sanchez watched the younger man and wondered what was going through his mind. He remembered his own grief and the numb feeling that came over him during the first week after the loss of his family. The devastation their deaths wrought was nearly his undoing, but he made it through with the support of friends like Thomas O’Neill.
 
“Josiah.”
 
“Right here, Son.”
 
“The funeral ara...arrangements,” the blond whispered.
 
“I spoke with Father Thomas today. He said everything is ready and he knows what yours and Sarah’s wishes are.”
 
“I w...want to be there...”
 
“I know and you will be. You have my word on that,” Sanchez said as the green eyes opened and stared at him. If the eyes truly were the windows to the soul, then this man’s soul was being torn apart.
 
“I miss th...them...so...so much,” Larabee sniffed, fighting back the unshed tears once more.
 
“I know son, but take comfort in the fact that they are with God now...”
 
“D...don’t t...tell me that, Josiah! I don’t have a...any fa...faith in him right now...”
 
“Chris...”
 
“NO! Don’t try to placate me, J...Josiah!” Larabee spat, his teeth bared as his words dripped with venom as he tried to come off the bed. “What kind of God lets a woman and child burn to death?”
 
“Chris, the coroner’s office said Sarah and Adam were dead before the flames reached them. I know that’s of little consolation, but at least we know they didn’t suffer.” Sanchez watched the blond’s reaction and reached for the trembling body, carefully laying him back on the bed as Jenny re-entered the room.
 
“What’s wrong?”
 
“What’s wrong? What the hell do you think i...is wrong? I lost t...them...I lost them...I...I...oh, God...Josiah! I lost my Sarah...my Adam and our unborn B...baby.” The tears came then, hot and heavy as the force of Larabee’s grief sank in.
 
Josiah was shocked by the man’s open admission, and also by the news of the unborn child. Chris Larabee had lost not one, but two children to the fire and now he was faced with life without ever knowing if the child would’ve been a boy or girl. He let the younger man cry out his rage against God and made sure he understood he was not, and never would be alone. 
 
“Th...they didn’t bu...burn t...to death?”
 
“No, Son, they didn’t,” Sanchez explained, seeing a look of something akin to relief in the sea green eyes. Josiah took the pin from the nurse and pinned Larabee’s ring next to his head, smiling thinly as the other man turned his head to look at it.
 
“All...all I have le...left of them, Josiah.”
 
“No, it’s not, Chris. You have them in here and here,” he explained, pointing to Larabee’s head and the left side of his chest. “They’ll always be a part of you as long as you stay true to their memory.”
 
“T...thanks...”
 
“Anytime. Why don’t you try to sleep for a while?”
 
“No...not yet. Need to know when w...we c...can ha...have the ser....service?”
 
“We can talk about that after you rest.”
 
“Y...you wo...won’t let t...them ha...have it w...without me?”
 
“No, Chris, I’ll make sure you’re there.”
 
“...o...okay...” the blond said as the infusion pump delivered pain medication to his body. It wasn’t long before his eyes closed and his features relaxed.
 
‘A baby,’ Sanchez thought sadly, remembering the glow on Sarah’s face when she looked at her husband and son.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
The hospital was quiet, the lights turned down low, the night nurses walking softly as they went about their duties. Ella stepped out of the back stairwell and looked up and down the semi-darkened corridor. She smoothed the form fitting nurse’s uniform and checked her hair in the darkened window. The blond wig and green eyes made her looked totally different. The badge she’d confiscated from the lockers on the first floor would stand up to a simple spot check. She walked along the corridor, checking several rooms until she spotted the nursing station. She knew from information she’d gathered on the schedules that hung in the meeting room that the nurses were taking their breaks now and would leave only a few to check the patients. She looked at her watch and knew there would be only minimal staff right now. Her information said that Larabee was on the fourth floor burn unit, room 4A and she knew she had to be careful as she made her way towards the room.
 
James Graham, an officer with three years of experience sat in a chair outside Chris Larabee’s room. He hated this shift, and the boredom that went with it. He held a magazine in his hands and a cup of steaming coffee sat on the floor beside him. He smiled as a blond nurse came towards him, hips swaying in a taunting display of her body.
 
‘Things are looking up,’ he thought as she came towards him. She all but ignored him as he looked at the identification on her uniform, and he felt somewhat disappointed when she stepped into Larabee’s room. No alarm bells went off as she stepped up to the bed since this was part of the nightly routine.
 
Ella walked past the guard and into the room and knew he was watching her. She moved to the bed, her heart hammering against her chest as she saw the bandages covering his chest, arms, and hands.
 
‘I’ll make sure he pays, Chris,’ she whispered as she pretended to check the monitoring equipment. She glanced sideways and was pleased to see the officer’s attention was back on the magazine. She turned back to the man she longed to possess and smiled as she brushed her lips across his.
 
“Oh, Chris, we’ll be together soon,” she vowed as her gaze was drawn to the shiny object pinned to the pillow. Smiling she reached for the pin and removed the ring, dropping it into her pocket before checking the guard once more. He was turned towards her and she smiled as she pretended to make sure the IV line was secure as he turned away and reached for his coffee. She kissed the pale lips once more, hating the fact that he didn’t respond to her touch. She knew she’d stayed longer than she should and hurried from the room, nodding at the guard as she hurried down the opposite side of the corridor towards the stairs.
 
‘Oh, Chris, we’ll have everything we always wanted,’ she thought and smiled once she was out of the guard’s sight.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Darkness had just begun to descend over the mountains again when Jackie opened her eyes and listened for approaching footsteps or voices. When none came she slipped out of her safe haven and landed in the stream, water splashing up over her tattered clothing. She looked up and down the stream, then watched the trees on the banks of the river to make sure her movement went undetected. Reassured when the night sounds continued she moved to the west bank and prayed she could find her way back to the trail. She knew she was not the same caliber tracker as the Texan, but she’d been on her own in the jungle growth before and knew enough to keep her from getting lost. At least she hoped she did, settling the pack on her back she moved silently in the direction she’d come, praying Vin Tanner would be alive when she made it back.
 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 
Vin sipped the dwindling amount of water in the canteen and knew it was getting low. He wanted to tip it on his head and drink every last drop, but he would need to stretch it out. Mendoza’s men continued to stop over the hole and look down at him, but he chose to ignore their taunts and remained silent. He’d eaten the last of the bread earlier in the day and now his stomach grumbled, making him painfully aware of his lack of food. He lifted his left arm and checked the bandages covering the knife wound and winced as he prodded the painful wound.
 
“Damn,” he cursed as wondered where Maynard was. “Stay safe, Jackie,” he whispered as a bright light shone down on him.
 
“Hello, Vincent, I do hope you are enjoying your accommodations.”
 
“Fuck ya, asshole,” the Texan mumbled in his best Schwarzenegger imitation.
 
“Ah, I guess it’s as good as any of the sleaze bag hotels you used to stay in. Man like you is used to this kind of existence and doesn’t know the meaning of first class,” Mendoza laughed as he felt the first drop of water touch against his skin. “Looks like we’re in for a storm, Vincent. Perhaps it’s a good thing because you certainly do need a bath. You stink, my friend!”
 
“At least I can wash my stink away, Hector. Ya’ll never wash away the stink of sewer ya were born inta!” 
 
“Shut your mouth, Tanner! Or I’ll have my men shut it for you!” Mendoza spat.
 
“Lowlife scum sucking leech...”
 
“Shut up!” Mendoza snarled, lifting the gate as his anger got the better of him.
 
“Truth hurts don’t it?”
 
“Ernesto! Get down there and teach the bastard a lesson!” the irate man ordered.
 
“Si, amigo,” Ruiz smiled as he looked at the prisoner and grabbed for the rope ladder. “You ready to apologize?”
 
“Go ta hell!”
 
“I think you are already there. Juan, come give me a hand!” Ruiz ordered as he moved to climb into the hole.
 
“You want I should shoot him?” Juan asked seriously.
 
“No, I can handle this sonofabitch!” Ernesto said, dropping over the edge. He smiled as the younger man stood up and faced him, anger evident in the blue eyes as the flashlight shone on him.
 
Tanner knew this man could easily take him in a hand to hand fight, but the Texan knew some tricks he’d learned at an early age. He’d taken down bigger men before, but not when his strength was severely depleted and one arm was all but useless. Knowing he could not show any weakness, Vin met the man’s gaze, smiled confidently as he began to move around in the close quarters. He waited, his stance catlike as the other man moved to grab him. Tanner ducked under the attempted blow and brought his right fist up into the other man’s gut. He heard the hiss of air, but Ruiz quickly recovered and once more made his move. This time he wasn’t so lucky as the bigger man grabbed for him and threw him against the dirt wall. Vin could hear Mendoza and his men overhead and the cheers for his nemesis to take him down.
 
Ruiz smiled as Tanner managed to duck away from him once more, but with nowhere to go, he knew he would have the upper hand in no time. Kicking out with his right foot and hoping to connect with the Texan’s knee he suddenly found himself on his back with the other man on top of him. Strong fingers wrapped around his throat and he felt a moment of panic as his air supply was cut off. He wrapped his callused hands around the other man’s wrists and tried to break the choke hold, but the man would not let up.
 
Vin smiled as he watched the fear come over the other man’s face. Fighting in close quarters was something he’d learned at an early age and when Ruiz kicked out he reacted instinctively. Grabbing the other man’s uplifted leg he pulled him to the ground and pounced on him. Ignoring the agonizing pain that ripped through his arm and shoulder his fingers quickly encircled his enemies throat and began to squeeze. Above them he heard the others shouting and knew he didn’t have long before someone interfered. Slamming the man’s head into the ground he renewed the pressure just as something slammed against the back of his head. Darkness quickly reached up to capture him and he gave into the blinding pain in his skull, missing the kick that landed against his side before he was pulled from the semi-conscious Ruiz.




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