by Winnie


Chapter  8

Nettie smiled as she watched her nephew in law’s eyes open and blink as he tried to focus on her. The doctors had already been in and done a thorough job of checking the  burns and making sure the treatments were underway. She knew Larabee would be in the burn unit for at least a week and possibly as long as two.
“Ne...Nettie...okay?” Larabee asked with tears glistening in his eyes.
“I’m fine, Chris. It’s you we’re all worried about. How are you feeling?”
“Thirsty...tired...” the blond whispered and accepted the straw the woman placed on his lips. He drank the cold liquid and nodded when he had enough. Shifting slightly he tried to get comfortable, but the burning sensation in his chest and arms reminded him he would be wise to remain still.
“Let me know if you want more.”
“I will...thanks...Buck okay?”
“Buck’s doing better and is being released this morning. He’s going to stay with Josiah until he’s up to doing things on his own.”
“T...tell Buck...not his...not his fault,” the injured man whispered.
“I have, Chris...and it’s time you realized it’s not your fault either.”
“W...wish I c...could be...lieve that,” he said, turning his head away from the older woman. “Hank was right about me being no g...good!”
“Don’t you say that, Chris Larabee. Hank Connolly is a mean spirited man who couldn’t see past his own nose to what was before him. You and Sarah were meant for each other and what you had was something that only comes once in a lifetime and most people don’t even find that. Sarah loved you unconditionally and I hope you felt the same way...”
“Always and for...ever...”
“Good, because I don’t want you ruining her memories by letting Hank get to you now that she’s gone. She defended you every time he tried to talk down about you and she...she loved you, Chris! She told her father he was giving up more than he knew and that stupid, selfish man gave up the chance to meet the miracle your love conceived. I won’t let him sully their memories with his own bitter hatred and I want your word that you won’t either!”
“I want your word, Chris Larabee. Swear on Sarah’s love and memory that you won’t let Hank Connolly ruin what you had...have in here!” She placed her hand gently over his heart as tears streamed from her eyes.
“I swear...I won’t let him,” the blond whispered, wishing he could hold her. He turned his head and frowned as he looked at the pillow, something was wrong, but at first his drug dampened mind could not grasp what it was. A pin was locked in place a short distance form his face and he tried to remember its significance.
“Chris, is something wrong?” Nettie asked as she saw the frown form on the pale face.
“I know...I’m missing them too,” Nettie answered misconstruing what he’d said.
“’s mis...missing. Pin...” he frowned as memories of the night before came back to him. Josiah had been there and they’d talked and he wanted something.
“’t think...Josiah was Ga...gave me some...thing...something I nee...ded...Damn!” he cursed, closing his eyes again as he tried grasp the elusive memory. Suddenly his eyes shot open and he turned to glance at the pin as the memory cleared and he saw the big man’s hands pin the symbol of love to the pillow. “Nettie...God, ring...”
“Your ring?” Wells asked of the fear and sorrow warring for dominance and the too white face.
“My ring...was there...Josiah pin...pinned it there...where is it? Please, Nettie...ask Ask the nurse where my ring is...God!” Chris cried as pain erupted through his chest.
“Hold on, Son,” Nettie said as she stood and hurried towards the door.
Chris heard her talking to the nurse and the officer outside the door, but his gaze remained fixed on the pin. The ring, the symbol of his love and vows to Sarah was gone and he tried to fight back the tears that threatened to fall. He heard the sound of the infusion pump kick in and knew the medication would soon lull him towards sleep. He couldn’t let that happen, not now...not until he knew what had happened to his wedding band. He tried to sit up, leaning heavily on his damaged arms, gritting his teeth against the agonizing pain as he finally made it to a sitting position and tried to slide down in the bed.
“Chris...No! Lie down!” Jackson warned as he hurried into the room. He’d only just arrived at the hospital and heard Nettie Wells asking the staff about the missing ring.
“Na...Nathan...please...find it...find it...I need...”
“You need to lie still before you cause any more damage...”
“Nathan,” the green eyes pleaded as he lost what little strength he had and let the other man ease him back on the pillows. “My ring...”
“I know, Chris. Nettie’s talking to the nursing staff and the guard...”
“Guard?” the blond frowned as he tried to lift his head.
“Yes...a police guard. There’s one on Buck’s room as well...and they’ll stay there until you boys can protect yourselves,” Jackson explained as Nettie came back into the room.
“...any...anything...” the injured man groaned as his body reminded him of the injuries he’d sustained. 
“Not yet, Chris, but the staff is trying to find out what happened. The officer is going to check with the man who was on duty last night and the nurses are going to check the notes from the night staff and hopefully we can find out what happened to it.”
Chris swallowed the painful lump that formed in his throat and knew beyond a doubt that the ring was gone. He turned away from the two people in the room and closed his eyes as a deep seeded sadness cut him to the core. He felt alone, cut off from the ones he loved by the sense of loss that chilled his heart and sapped his strength. He would not cry...not now...maybe not ever again...nor would he smile, for there was nothing left of the happiness that he’d known since meeting and marrying Sarah Connolly. Life was a living hell for him now, but there was one thing he would do before he allowed himself to think of anything else. He would find and kill the sonofabitch who’d taken his soul and twisted a knife in his heart.
“No...not now, Nathan...I wanna be alone...”
“That’s not gonna happen, Chris. I won’t let it...we won’t let it,” Nettie vowed as she moved so that Larabee faced her.
Chris didn’t answer and kept his eyes closed as she continued to talk. His mind drifted towards sleep and he heard the soft laughter of a little boy, saw the warm smile of a face he loved, and felt the gloom wash over him. He wanted to reach out to the familiar sights and sounds, but there was something he had to finish first. Sleep, although a long time in coming, was not as deep as he needed and the nightmares continued to plague him.
Jackie’s progress was slow, hampered by the darkness and the knowledge that she needed to be careful and avoid capture. Several times she’d nearly been caught, but was able to duck under cover before they spotted her. While trekking through the undergrowth she’d formulated a that meant she’d literally be flying by the seat of her pants. She needed to wait until she came across a single patrol of one or two men, preferably one, but she could take two out if she had to. The sound of an approaching vehicle sent her back into the thicket and she watched as the headlights came closer. She held her breath and watched as it went several feet beyond her hiding spot and came to an abrupt halt.  She kept her eyes and ears open, listening for voices and was surprised when only one man stepped from the jeep and came to the edge of the narrow trail. The sound of grunting and a sigh of contentment reached her ears and she soon heard the steady stream as the man urinated into the brush. Without thinking, Jackie dropped the back pack and reached for the gun. She couldn’t afford to use it, but as a club it could still be useful. She looked down at her shirt as she tucked the weapon into the back of her pants. Without a second thought she tore open her top so her ample breasts were bare and staggered out onto the trail.
“” she cried and heard the curse from the man as he tried to zip up his pants.
Guerrero quickly stopped in mid stream and tucked his penis back into his pants as a slight figure staggered onto the ill kept trail. He smiled as the bright light from the overhead moon shone on her bare white breasts, his tongue flicking out past dry lips in appreciation of what he saw.
“Oh I’ll help you, darlin’....and then I’ll take you to Mendoza!” Guerrero smiled as he removed his cock from his pants and walked towards the woman.
Jackie watched as the leering man came towards her and continued to pretend she was injured.  She waited until he reached for her breasts and reacted immediately as his fingers brushed against her nipples. The gun she’d tucked into her pants was quickly in her hands and pointed directly at the man’s head.
“Kindly remove your fucking hands or you’ll be drinking from a new hole in the center of your forehead...comprende?”
“” Guerrero stammered as he dropped his hands to his side and tried to speak through a suddenly too dry mouth.
“Turn around and get on your knees!” Maynard ordered and watched as the man quickly complied. Without another word she lifted the gun and brought it crashing down on the man’s head. A hard grunt was her reward and she knew the man was unconscious. She quickly turned him over and pulled at his clothes, removing both his jacket and pants. The man was a little broader and maybe two or three inches taller, but she knew she could make this fit her slight frame. She pulled off the remainder of her shirt and used it to tie the man’s wrists and feet together. Looking around she knew there was only one thing she could do. Grabbing the man under the shoulders she dragged him deeper into the underbrush.
Jackie quickly picked up the discarded clothes and dressed in the uniform. Finally satisfied with the way she looked, the young agent moved to the jeep and climbed into the driver’s seat. Smiling as she took the man’s hat from the seat and placed it on her head.
‘Sheesh, Tanner, at this rate we’ll have every jeep Mendoza owns!’ she thought as she put the jeep in gear and drove back towards the compound.
“Just hang on, Tex, I’m coming,” she whispered as she drove along the lonely road.
Vin had no idea how long he’d been out, but as he opened his eyes he noticed the sky above had begun to brighten. He reached up and touched the back of his head, wincing as his finger’s touched a pronounced lump just above the hairline.
“Gotta learn ta keep my mouth shut!” he mumbled, painfully aware of the danger he was in. His clothes were still dry and he knew the rain Mendoza said he felt hadn’t occurred since his prison was still dry. His mind drifted back to the dreams he’d been having. There was nothing concrete, yet he’d known a loss more shocking than any in his own life and he knew something was definitely wrong back home. He also understood that whatever was happening was centered around his best friend. Somehow he had to get out of the mess he was in and fast, or he might be too late to help Larabee. Forcing his legs to support his weight he stood up and leaned against the dirt wall. He blinked as a few fat raindrops began to fall and realized this might be his best opportunity for escape. If the rain was heavy enough Mendoza’s men would seek shelter, leaving him alone in the dampness.
Vin began inspecting the sides, searching for an area he could make foot holes in. He knew his best bet was under the gate and slowly began making a hole, digging with his fingernails in an effort to escape. A flash of lightning and a loud clap of thunder heralded the arrival of the storm and he smiled. He’d been wet and injured before and in worse shape than he was now. The rain was something he could live with and he knew he could escape as long as he made it to the gate. Calling on whatever strength he had left he began to dig harder as the rain began to pool under his feet.
Josiah looked up from the file on his desk as Orrin Travis entered the office. He’d called the older man earlier to find out if there’d been any word on Vin Tanner’s whereabouts. So far the DEA agents were still in the dark and nothing new had been heard from the wayward tracker. Travis continued to be updated by Gerald Coltrain and the man was supposed to be heading the investigation himself.
“Josiah, you didn’t need to come in here.”
“I know, Orrin, I was just checking on a couple of numbers I thought I had. The coroner’s office released the bodies and I want to make sure I’ve called everyone who needs to know the church and cemetery.”
“So you’ve made the final arrangements?”
“Yes...tomorrow. Father Thomas will say the Rosary tonight and services will take place at two at Saint Joseph’s Church and from there we’ll go to Holy Cross Cemetery on Mullowney Lane.”
“I was out to the house this morning. Evie and I drove by and we couldn’t believe the flowers lining the driveway.”
“Chris and Sarah had a lot of friends,” Sanchez said softly, remembering the flowers he’d placed there himself the night before.
“Yes, they did. How are you doing with all this, Josiah? I know when Chris asked you to help him with these arrangements none of us expected to have to deal with it so soon.”
“No, Orrin, we didn’t and no parent should ever outlive their child,” Sanchez whispered as he found the phone numbers he needed.
“I agree, Josiah, and I wish there was something more I could do.”
“You’ve done enough already, Orrin. We need to stick together and be strong for Chris. I have to go over to the hospital now and make sure the doctors are going to let him out for several hours tomorrow afternoon.”
“I wish we could spare him’s going to be painful for him, both physically and mentally.”
“It would be worse if he wasn’t there, Orrin. Man needs to say goodbye to his family,” Sanchez said, standing and walking towards the door.
Travis watched him leave, wondering what drove the man. Sometimes he detected a sadness that spoke of a terrible past, and he often wondered what could have caused Josiah Sanchez so much pain. Someday he hoped the ex-preacher would confide in him. Turning out the lights he left the office, locking the door behind him.
Buck knew his friend was on the verge of waking up and sympathized as a soft moan issued from Larabee’s throat. He knew Josiah was on the way in to speak with Bledsoe and Midland and looked up as the two physician’s entered the room.
“Buck, I thought I told you I’d release you if you went straight home and went to bed!” Midland scolded.
“Josiah’s on his way in now, Doc, and I’ll go home with him then.”
“Alright, just make sure you don’t overdo things, Buck,” the physician warned as Bledsoe moved to examine his patient. “Would you mind waiting outside, Buck?”
“You gonna treat the burns?” Wilmington asked of the painful procedure.
“Yes...we have to. There’s no need of you being here to see this.”
“I can stay...”
“G...go...Buck...d....don’t wa...want you wa...watching this...I’m okay,” Larabee said, opening his eyes and looking towards his friend.
“Chris, I don’t mind.”
“I do...come ba...back after.”
“Alright, Pard, I’ll be right outside the door.”
“...okay...” Chris let his eyes close as the doctors examined the burns and treated the blisters. He gritted his teeth and knew without the pain medications it would be far worse than it was right now. He answered the questions they asked, but otherwise remained silent as nausea made his head swim. He felt new dressings being placed on the burns and breathed a sigh of relief.
“I know it hurts, Chris, but we need to keep on top of everything,” Bledsoe ordered.
“G...guess so,” the blond wheezed as he tried to calm his rebellious stomach.
“Looks like Buck and Josiah are waiting to see you. Do you feel up to visitors?” Midland asked.
“...y...yeah...”Larabee answered and watched as she signaled for the duo to come in.
“Hello, Chris,” Sanchez greeted and came forward to look into the pain glazed eyes.
“ it...did you arrange every....everything?” Larabee asked.
“Chris, we’ll leave you to your friends...”
“No, Doc,” Sanchez interrupted. “This concerns you and Dr. Bledsoe as well. Can you stick around?”
“I have a few minutes before I see my next patient,” the burn specialist told them and folded his arms across his chest. A stance that warned the others he already knew he wasn’t going to like their next questions.
“Jo....Josiah?” Larabee stammered as he watched the older man’s face pale with sadness.
Sanchez moved to the side of the bed and looked at the blond. He saw the same pain and longing in the blond’s eyes that he’d seen in his own mirrors since he lost his own family. Taking a deep breath he held onto the rail and spoke so everyone could hear him.
“The coroner’s office released Sarah and Adam today.” He saw the tears forming and the hard time Larabee had holding them in check. “Father Thomas has everything ready and the service is tomorrow at two at Saint Joseph’s...”
“I’ll be t...there...” the blond vowed, painfully aware of how uncomfortable he would be.
“Now, Chris, I don’t think that’s a wise...”
“Nothing you c...can say or to st...stop me, Dr. Bledsoe. I’ll sign my....self out if I ha...have to!” Larabee warned, sea green eyes glaring dangerously.
“Chris, if you do this you could end up with all kinds of complications. Those burns on your hands, arms and chest are severe enough that your immune system is probably affected making you highly susceptible to infections and...” Midland tried, yet understood there’d be no changing this man’s mind once it was made up.
“Then make s...sure they’re cov...covered up. I’m going to be there, Doc,” Larabee felt the tears on his cheek as he looked at the people in the room. “I was....wasn’t there when they needed me, but I’ll damn we...well be there for them now...too late to save them...but at least I can do this!”
“Chris, Sarah wouldn’t want you blaming yourself for any of this,” Jackson said and turned to find Wilmington’s face also darkened with guilt. “You either, Buck. None of this is your fault and when we find the sonofabitch who did it you’ll see that yourselves!”
“Josiah, is everything arranged at Holy Cross?” Larabee asked.
“Yes, Chris, the procession will go to the cemetery following services at Saint Josephs.”
“Thanks...for ev...everything,” Larabee said as Bledsoe came to stand on the opposite side of the bed.
“You’re determined to do this?” the burn specialist asked, and watched as Larabee’s head dipped once.
“I have be th...there,” the blond mumbled tiredly.
“If I agree to this I’ll want assurances from your friends that they’ll bring you right back here. I can arrange for an ambulance...”
“ ambulance. Can go with one of the guys,” Larabee told him.
“I’ll be taking the club van, Doc, there’ll be plenty of room and the others will be there to make sure Chris doesn’t do anything stupid,” Sanchez explained.
“You don’t call leaving the hospital with second degree burns, broken ribs and a head injury stupid, Mr. Sanchez?” Bledsoe asked, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“May be st....stupid, Doc, but it’s also important. I need to do this!” Larabee insisted.
“I can see that...and I understand, Chris. I’m not the cold hearted bastard some think I am and I think if it was me in that bed I’d be planning to be there for my family as well, but, and this is a big but. If I do agree to it I want you back here right after the services are over...then I want you in that bed and you don’t argue with anything I tell you to do from now on. Understood?”
“Good. Stacey, can I speak with you outside?”
“Certainly, Jacob. I’ll be right out! Chris, I wish there was some way to get you to reconsider. Sarah...”
“Doc, I’ve heard it all, okay. I know what you’re gonna say and it’s not gonna change my mind. Sarah would under...” he clenched his teeth and eyes as pain lanced through his chest and head. “Goddd!”
“Easy, Chris,” Midland said as she adjusted the infusion pump and watched as pain medication was delivered into his body through the existing IV line. It took several long minutes for the lines of strain and pain to leave the pale features and she knew the funeral services would take what little strength he had from him. She’d been their family physician since before Adam was born, and she’d grown to admire both his strength and courage, but this was more than anyone should have to deal with.
“Doc?” Wilmington asked.
“He’s sleeping, Buck. Between his own stubbornness and the medication he’s exhausted. He’ll probably sleep for most of the day and I’d like you boys to let him rest,” Midland explained.
“We will, Doc,” Jackson said.
“Doc, is there anything new on his ring?” the mustached man asked.
“His ring?” Sanchez asked, turning back to the bed and seeing the empty space where he’d pinned Larabee’s wedding band the night before.
“ disappeared sometime last night. The staff have all been questioned and we’re just waiting to hear from the officer who was on duty outside the door last night,” Jackson explained.
Sanchez closed his eyes, remembering the look of relief on Chris’ face when he’d pinned the ring to the pillow the day before. Having the symbol of the love he shared with his wife back had given him something to hold on to, now it seemed even that had been stolen from him.
‘Lord, I know we all have our penance to do, but hasn’t this man done his and more? That ring meant so much to him, and it was something real he could hold on to. I pray that it’s not lost to him forever and you see fit to give it back to him and him back to us...’
“Josiah, are you alright?”
“I’m fine, Nathan...just making sure the Lord knows it’s time to stop testing this man!” The ex-preacher answered. “I’ll be staying here with Chris...Nathan, will you take Buck back to my place?”
“I’ll stay...”
“No way, Buck. Come on, we’ll go to Josiah’s house and you can get some sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day and Chris’ll need you there to help him through it!” Jackson ordered softly, wondering if anyone could really help either man through the next 24 hours.
“Go, Buck, I’ll be there later this evening to pick you all up,” Sanchez told them.
“Alright, Josiah. You’ll if anything happens?”
“Of course. Go get some rest,” Sanchez ordered.
“Dr. Midland, I’d like to talk to you about accompanying us tomorrow. I’d feel better knowing you were there if Chris runs into any problems,” Jackson said as they left the room.
Jackie cursed the rain that soaked through the clothes she wore, making her cold and damp in spite of the warm air. The rain made it impossible to drive over ten miles an hour and she wondered if the Texan had that much time left. She drove along the trail, ducking when overhanging branches threatened to hit her, and wiping at her eyes when the rain ran into them. Several times she had to pull over as the torrential rains threatened to wash away what passed for the rough trail she was on, but she didn’t let it stop her. She continued along the road, smiling as the rains finally began to slow down. As suddenly as the rains began they stopped, leaving the air smelling fresh with an earthy tang, and the wondrous smell of the rain forest itself.
Back, legs and arms aching, Vin Tanner continued to dig his way up the side of the hole he was trapped in. He’d managed to dig a few hand and foot holes, but most crumbled before he climbed to the top. The water he stood in was steadily climbing, combining with the earth to form a thick mixture of water, dirt, twigs, and long dead leaves. The smell was sour and he knew the remains of a trapped animal also blended with the scum of his prison. The rain was keeping his captors from checking on him as often as they were supposed to, and he smiled as he realized he could make it out on his own. The Texan refused to believe the gate was locked...if it was there’s be no way out for him and this would all have been in vain. Taking a deep breath, Vin swiped at his eyes and again turned his attention to climbing out of the pit.
Reaching for the handhold he’d dug the tracker pulled himself up until he clung to the walls. Grabbing the next one his foot slipped as the edge crumbled once more, but this time he managed to hang on and made sure his foot was in a solid hold before moving upwards once more.
Hank Connolly had drunk until he passed out on his couch, his breath fouling the air around him. The house that was kept immaculate when Sheila Connolly was alive had slipped into disrepair and dirt and dust lay thick on the floors and tables. Dirty dishes attracted flies in the kitchen, the stench of spoiled food mingling with the stench surrounding the bitter man sprawled across the couch.
Connolly slowly opened his eyes, cursing as the phone on the end table resounded through his skull. He reached for it, his fingers slipped several times before he grasped the receiver and put it to his ear.
“What the hell do ya want?”
“Hank, you damn well better sober up by tomorrow!”
“That you, Nettie?”
“Yes, it is...”
“What the hell do you want?” 
“Believe me I don’t want to waste my time talking to a bitter excuse for a man like you, but I thought you might want to show some respect for your daughter and grandson. The services are tomorrow at two at Saint Joseph’s Church.”
“Why so soon...that bastard Larabee probably wants them buried fast so’s he doesn’t have to be there himself!”
“I should’ve known better than to call you. Chris is going to be there and so will all the people who loved Sarah and I guess that means it’s okay for you not to show up you miserable...”
“Spare me, Nettie! We both know Larabee was no good...” the phone clicked and the hungover man cursed the woman who’d hung up on him. He reached for the beer bottle and cursed when he found it empty. Struggling to his feet Hank staggered across the room, smiling as he thought of coming face to face with his daughter’s traitorous husband. He would confront Larabee at the funeral and let the man know what he really thought of him. That settled he reached for a warm beer and made his way towards his bedroom.
Jackie was grateful when the rain eased up a little more and she continued through the darkness until she came to the edge of the field of marijuana plants. She pulled to a stop, listening for any movement or sound that would indicate a patrol in the area. When none came she drove through the field, parking half a mile away from the compound. She didn’t take the time to hide the jeep as she grabbed the gun and hurried towards Mendoza’s stronghold. As she neared the clearing Maynard slowed her progress, watching the rain swept land around her as she moved. Instincts kicked in as she moved into the clearing and straightened up, praying if anyone spotted her they’d think she was just one of Mendoza’s men completing his rounds.
Moving towards the back of the compound she searched the area for signs of Vin Tanner. The main house was dark except for one light on the ground floor. The other buildings were also in darkness except the one at the very edge of the clearing and she knew this was probably where the bulk of Mendoza’s soldiers were sleeping. Shying away from both buildings she hurried to check the hut they’d been in earlier and found the door now boasted a padlock. Cursing she moved away and stealthily made her way along the edge of the compound. A muffled curse reached her ear and she smiled.
‘I’m coming, Tex?’ she thought as she moved towards the area the sound came from.
Vin continued towards the top, and wondered why things like this always looked easy in the movies. He grabbed for the beam on the outside of the gate and held tight, just as his feet slipped from the muddied side of the trench. He gasped as the abused muscles of his arms and chest protested the new stress put on them and wondered if the moisture on his right arm was rain or blood, yet knew it was a mixture of both. He blinked rapidly as the rain eased, but didn’t stop. Ignoring the pain enshrouding his body he swung his legs until his feet caught and held onto a beam and he hung by both legs and his left arm. He looked at the gate and taking a deep breath reached for the bars.
“Alright, Tanner, ya’d better hope yer luck has...hasn’t run out!” he said, pushing upwards just as a hand caught hold of his arm.
James Graham walked towards the small group of men with a mixture of trepidation and fear. He’d received a call from Robert Miller telling him to meet him in the hospital cafeteria. He knew from that conversation that Larabee’s men would also be there with pictures for him to look at. When Miller called to ask if anything strange happened the night before he’d told them nothing out of the ordinary. The nurses had made their usual spot checks on Larabee, other than that nothing new had happened. He didn’t know what happened to Larabee’s ring and felt bad about it. Miller asked if any of the nurses were acting strange or if any had been unfamiliar. He’d thought about it for a few minutes and a vision of an exotic blond swam before his eyes. He’d told Miller about her and how she’d worn the right identification and seemed as if she belonged on the floor...those words were what brought him to this point.
“Jim, thanks for coming in early,” Miller said as the younger man moved towards the table and took one of the chairs.
“Yes, Sir,” Graham said, placing his hands on the table as he tried to make eye contact with the other men in the room. He knew most of Larabee’s men and knew what a close knit group they were.
“I want you to look at these pictures and tell me if any of them look like the nurse you saw enter Larabee’s room last night,” Miller explained.
Ezra watched as the nervous officer picked up the pictures and began going through them. Miller provided most of them and some were of the nurses who were actually on staff, but there were several he’d manipulated and added to the pics. These were the ones he hoped the man homed in on. He’d taken shots of Ella Gaines and added a blond wig and green eyes. The difference was amazing, but if Graham picked out one of the doctored photos they would have confirmation that the woman was back in town and as the old saying went, forewarned was forearmed.
James Graham took the stack of pictures and began going through them. Several were blond, but none looked remotely like the nurse he’d seen until the second to the last photo. The hair was different, but the eyes and features certainly matched. He placed it aside and continued searching through the stack until he had two separate piles. He picked up the shorter one and fanned them out on the table.
“This is the woman who was in Larabee’s room,” he said as the others moved in to look at the pictures.
“Ella Gaines,” Standish said.
“What...I thought Ella had dark hair?” Dunne said, rubbing at his temples as an annoying ache began to build behind his eyes.
“Sit down, JD,” Jackson ordered, steering the younger man to one of the chairs. “Ezra doctored the photos when Robert told us about the blond nurse going into Chris’ room. We figured it was the only way to find out if Ella is really back in town.”
“Well, at least now we know who we’re looking for,” Standish said.
“It also looks like your theory was right and Buck was not the intended victim at all,” Jackson supplied.
“Yes, it certainly seems that way, but I believe we would be prudent if we keep treating the threats against Buck as real,” Standish told them.
“Yeah, I agree, and the reasons are twofold...that way if it is a real threat we’re still on top of things and if not we keep Ella thinking her ruse is still working,” Jackson explained.
“Exactly,” Standish agreed as Miller talked to his officer.
Chris lay awake in the semi-darkness, staring at the ceiling as he struggled to control the emotions racing through him. He’d woken, alone, in pain and filled with a sense of remorse. Silent tears slipped from under closed lids as pictures of his wife and son played like an eight millimeter film through his mind. Adam as a precocious two year old...wanting to play cards with Daddy and Mommy. Sarah, eight months pregnant and insisting she was fat, while he assured her she was still and always would be beautiful. The scene shifted to a hospital room...two broken legs...him and Adam lying in the beds...his prayer of thanks that the car accident hadn’t been more serious. Adam having his tonsils out and insisting a month later that all he could eat was ice cream and Jell-O. Sarah planting the rose bush beside the front door and her reaction when the first flower bloomed. Sarah telling him she loved him...kissing him...her tender hands...hands he’d never feel again. Her soft laughter...his son’s excited voice in the mornings or after he accomplished something...Sarah’s declaration of love...her soothing voice when he or Adam were sick...sounds that meant the world was alive...yet he would never hear them again. They were lost to him now...taken away in a savage act of violence. He opened his eyes once more and let the tears fall, if there was such a thing as hell, he was living it now. The soft sound of the infusion pump let him know that meds were being delivered and he longed for the numbness those medications gave him. Sighing heavily he looked at the spot where his ring was supposed to be and closed his eyes.
‘God, Sarah, I’m so sorry. I should have been there...I should have been able to save you. Hank was right...I should never have loved you...wasn’t good enough...failure at everything,’ he thought as he relaxed towards sleep.
In a corner of the room a soft light flickered as if the flames of a candle had been kissed by a gentle breeze. A soft whisper floated across the room and a smile formed at the corners of Chris Larabee’s lips.
‘You’re not a failure, Chris Larabee. Adam and I will be waiting for you when God deems it your time. Don’t let it make you bitter, Love, for you are a better man than most. We’ll find each other again and when we do our love will make us whole once more.’
Vin gasped as he blinked the rain out of his eyes, cursing his luck at being discovered so close to escape and dropping back into the muddied water. He surfaced and struggled to his feet sputtering to rid his mouth of the brackish liquid. He heard the gate being lifted and readied himself for whatever punishment was about to be implemented, but was shocked as a soft voice spoke to him.
“Hey, Tex, ready to get the hell out of there?”
“Jack....Jackie?” he gasped.
“In the flesh. Hang on and I’ll drop the ladder over the side. We’d damn well better hurry before the rain stops and the guards come out of hiding again,” Maynard said.
Vin waited for the ladder to be lowered and quickly grabbed onto the rung at shoulder level. Wincing at the effort it took he quickly climbed out of the hell hole he’d been trapped in. He rolled over the edge and lay on his back for a few seconds until he caught his breath.
“You look like hell, Tex!” Maynard told him as she helped him sit up.
“Glad ta say ya look like an angel ta me right now.”
“Thanks...think you can walk?”
“Yeah, hell, I’ll run if it means gettin’ outta that shit!”
“Guess so,” she mumbled as she looked towards the main building.
“Jackie, we could set those explosives and grab Mendoza, but how do we get him out of here?” Tanner asked, knowing what was on the woman’s mind.
“I have a jeep...”
“Parked it about a half mile back in the fields. If we blow the hut and several of the other buildings we could grab Mendoza and get out of here.”
“Think that’s going ta be a little more difficult than it sounds,” Tanner said.
“Maybe, but hell, it always works in the movies,” she said and the tracker couldn’t help a soft laugh as he heard his earlier thoughts mirrored in her words.
“Well, if yer up ta it...”
“Tanner, you looked in the mirror lately?”
“No...can’t say I have. Mendoza didn’t have one in my,” Tanner quipped as the hurried across the compound to the hut.
“I could shoot it off,” Maynard said.
“That’d bring the whole damn compound down on us. Ya any good at pickin’ locks?” 
“Not much...but hell, there’s always this!” Jackie said, using the butt of her rifle to break the lock. It took several tries, but she finally broke the mechanism and pulled the padlock from the door.
“Works for me,” Tanner said, stepping into the hut once more.
“You check and see if there’s anything useful in there. I’ll stay out here and maybe they’ll think I’m one of the guards.”
“Just be careful...”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way, Tex. Here, take this,” she ordered, tossing the pack inside and closing the door before walking around the side of the smaller building.
Vin waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the hut and slowly began searching the crates around the sides. He found a crow bar leaning in the northeast corner and pried open the top one on the first couple of rows. There were several crates of weapons, including knife sheaths and lethal looking blades. He grabbed one of the belts and wrapped it around his waist, making sure there were a couple of the blades tucked into each compartment. Next he moved to the crate filled with weapons and withdrew two small caliber weapons and a semi automatic weapon. Tucking the guns into his belt he searched for ammunition for them and found several boxes under the straw. Next he moved to the crate loaded with grenades and several dozen sticks of dynamite. The grenades he wired as Wilmington had shown him until they were hooked to one of the timers in the box. These he placed underneath the remaining sticks of dynamite, grabbed a couple of extra grenades and hurried to the door. Something on the floor caught his eyes and he moved to pick it up, shoving it into the backpack and stepped outside as the sky began to lighten.
Jackie spotted Tanner moving towards her and smiled as she saw the weapons in his hand. The duo knew they needed to make sure Mendoza’s gorillas could not follow them and hurried to set several timers on the jeeps parked near the main house. Once that task was completed, Jackie pointed towards the main house and they moved through the shadows towards the now completely dark building. Once they reached the side door, Jackie took up position on the right side, while Vin stayed to the right, eyes constantly searching the area for unwelcome guests.
Not knowing what to expect once they were inside, Vin handed Jackie one of the weapons and the backpack. His right arm was all but useless and he needed to keep his left hand free in case of trouble. He held the semi automatic in his hand, making sure it was loaded and the safety was no longer in place, before nodding that he was ready.
Jackie touched the handle and gently eased it down, smiling as she heard a soft click and the door opened easily. Silently counting to three she pushed it open and waited to see if any alarms went off. When no shrill sound was forthcoming she watched as Tanner moved inside, and then quickly followed him. They stood on either side of the door, listening for any movement...the only sound the loud ticking of the grandfather clock somewhere to their right. They advanced along the corridor, checking the rooms with open doors, and shying away from the ones that were closed. Jackie remembered seeing a light on when she entered the compound and pointed to the door she thought would reveal that room. She reached for the gold flecked knob and quietly turned it, easing the door open until it revealed a spacious bedroom with heavy oak furnishings. Soft snoring emanated from a man lying under a thick blue down comforter and she fought the urge to kill him where he was.
Tanner knew by the look on her face that she realized who the man was and he reached for her, placing a hand on her shoulder in an effort to calm her trembling body. When he knew she was ready he moved with the grace of a cat stalking his prey. Without waiting to see what Jackie would do he moved to the bed and ignoring the agony it caused placed his right hand over Mendoza’s mouth as he pressed the semi automatic against the man’s temple.
“Make a sound and ya’ll need a new set of sheets...comprende?” He watched the hatred in the man’s eyes and smiled as Jackie moved to the opposite side of the king sized bed. Asked ya a question, Hector...wha’s the answer?”
“Bassstarrrddd,” came the muffled reply.
“Maybe, but ya still didn’t answer my ya gonna be quiet or should I just blow yer fuckin’ head off now?”
“Right here, Vin.”
“Open the pack...there’s a roll of duct tape there.” Tanner said, his gaze never leaving that of the captive.
“Got it.”
“Good, use a knife and cut some off. I hate havin’ my hand anywhere near this bastard’s mouth...might catch some kinda disease. Bastard never heard of a toothbrush,” Tanner spat as Maynard tore off a piece and cut it with a knife.
“Here,” Maynard said.
“Now, Hector, I’m gonna lift my hand and Jackie’s gonna place a little tape over yer mouth. Ya make a sound and she’s liable to make a mistake and cover yer nose too. Make it kinda hard ta breathe then. Comprende?” Again the head bobbed and Vin lifted his hand as Jackie quickly placed the tape over the man’s mouth.
“That’s better. Alright, Hector I’m gonna let ya turn on yer back. Jackie, I wantcha ta bind his hands good and tight.”
“No problem, Vin,” Maynard said pulling a long strip of tape as she waited for their captive to do as he was told, amazed that Tanner’s hand was still so steady in spite of the pain and blood loss he’d suffered. Once the job was completed she stood back and placed the tape back inside the pack.
“Alright, Hector, get up!” the tracker ordered and watched as the drug lord struggled to obey. It took some doing, but the man finally sat on the edge of the bed. Vin held the gun in place once more and sneered down at the man. “Now, I’m gonna let ya stand up and walk on yer own, butcha best remember I got the gun and I ain’t afraid of usin’ it. Don’t make the mistake of thinkin’ we won’t shoot cause we’re afraid of yer men catchin’ us, cause we ain’t. See we got this idea that if they do catch us we’re’s good as dead anyway, so we’re gonna make sure ya die first. Now, stand up and let’s get movin’. Jackie, ya got point.”
“Got it, Vin.”
“Good, cause we got maybe five minutes before all hell breaks loose,” Tanner advised, pulling the captive to his feet and moving towards the door.
Ezra Standish sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the clock on the nightstand. The glowing green numbers read 5:11 and he knew there’d be no more sleep for him this night. The day ahead would be wrought with sorrow and pain for all of them, but none so much as the man lying asleep in a hospital bed across town.
The decision had been made to keep the new information from their boss until he was well enough to deal with it. They knew that choice would probably come back to haunt them, but if Larabee knew Ella was probably behind his family’s death they would not be able to keep him from going after her. Chris Larabee had taken a chance on him, and for that alone he was grateful, but there was so much more to the man. He remembered the day Larabee stood up to his mother and told her to let her son make his own decisions. That day had changed him forever and he’d left behind so many facets of himself while keeping the things that he now came to count on. He could and did still cheat and con with the best, but it was no longer the main concern in his life. Now he might have to call on those traits once more, but this time it would be to help someone instead of for his own personal gains.
Chris knew this night would be a long one for him, and the day ahead would only be worse. The dull light over his bed reminded him that it was still night and that he was alone in the room. His thoughts turned to the day Sarah had taken his hand as they walked through the back of their property. She was nearly eight months pregnant and things were going so well for them. Closing his eyes he suddenly felt as if he’d been transported back in time and wondered why they hadn’t gone ahead with their plans...
Chris reached for her hand and breathed deeply of the clean air as he pulled her to him. Her body so close to his own sent signals to his groin and he knew he wanted her then and there, but first he had to listen to what she wanted to say. Her body was changing with the pregnancy, and he loved every bit of their life together. His hands wandered to her rounded stomach and he smiled as he felt a tiny kick.
“Chris, I...”
“Sh, Honey, I think I know what you want to say.”
“You do?”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking the same thing.”
“About our will...and what will happen after the baby is born?” She asked as he eased her down on the ground and sat behind her. She leaned against his chest as they watched the sun slowly begin to dip below the horizon.
“Yes...I’ve been meaning to talk to Carl about it....”
“Good, because I’ve already made us an appointment for next week. We need to make arrangements for our baby if anything ever happened to us. I don’t want some stranger deciding who takes care of him or her. I want it down on paper that our child should be raised by someone we trust.”
“Me too, Sweetheart, and we both know who that should be.”
“Buck,” she whispered of her husband’s long time friend.
“Exactly. I know he can sometimes be a bit of a rogue...”
“And a scoundrel,” Sarah laughed as she continued. “But there is no one I’d rather have take care of our child.”
“I know. Buck’s great with kids. You should see him at the hospital during the kids shows. He’s right there, helping them, taking care of anything they need. He’s a natural and it would definitely ease my mind to know our little miracle is in good hands.”
“Yes he will be...Chris, I’ve also been thinking about our home.”
“It’s big enough for us...”
“I know that, but I’ve always dreamed of living on a big spread...a ranch...maybe raising some horses.”
“You never told me that,” Larabee said, smiling as he realized his wife had just envisioned his own dreams.
“I know...but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I mean I’ve got a good job and so do you. We’ve been able to save some money and well with the equity in this home we should be able to afford it. I figured we could sell this place in ten years and have a good down payment on a ranch.”
“You have been thinking about this and I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
“You do?”
“Of course. I’ve always wanted to raise horses. Dad used to say I should’ve been born in the old west,” Larabee explained of his father’s reaction to his childhood dreams.
“Oh, Chris, I’m so glad you like the idea of a ranch. Someday we’ll be teaching our kids how to care for horses and how to ride and...”
“Easy, Cowgirl, let’s have this one first before you go talking about a whole herd of kids,” the blond said.
“You don’t want a big family?” Sarah asked as she felt his hands making circles no her stomach.
“Didn’t say that, Love, just want to enjoy this one right now...but hopefully we’ll have enough to fill a bunkhouse someday.”
“So, you want a big family too?”
“Hell, long as they look like, there’s something else we need to discuss,” Larabee said, knowing they had to take care of everything at the same time.
“What happens if something happens to us?”
“Yes, I know it’s a subject no one likes to discuss, but if something like that was to happen it would be easier on our friends if the arrangements were already taken care of.”
The couple talked about their future and the future of their unborn child as darkness spread over the land. The air cooled a little, but was still warm enough for them to be comfortable.
Sarah leaned her head back against his shoulder as she felt his hand slip down the front of her maternity dress. She sighed as her supple breaths ached with need and turned her head slightly. His mouth soon captured hers and she felt the warmth spread throughout her. She moaned as his fingers tweaked her nipple and tried to turn her body further, but was stopped as he moved to kneel in front of her. She lay back on the soft grass, smiling as her husband lavished attention on her body. His fingers teased open the buttons down the front and opened the pink bra and suckled her breasts. She moaned and placed her hands on his head making sure he understood she wanted this as much as he did.
“Sh, sweetheart...”
“We could go back to the house...”
“ you now.”
“The ground...”
“Chris, it’s summer and it’s warm and I want you now so quit talking and make love to me!” Sarah ordered, smiling as she heard her husband's soft laughter. She felt him kiss his way down her stomach and sighed contentedly as he touched her mound and used his fingers to bring pleasure to her body. She felt him slip inside and pressed up against his hand as her body reacted instinctively.
Chris heard her soft moans and knew his wife was enjoying the attention he bestowed on her body. Her pregnancy added a warm glow to her beauty and he lifted his head to kiss her even as he stroked her womanhood. He peeled her underwear off and smiled as he looked at the beauty before him. Not wanting to lean on her stomach, he pulled her on top of him and entered her moistened vagina, moaning as her body captured his cock in her velvety sheath. They began to move together, making love under the blanket of stars as a soft gentle wind whispered of the love they shared.
Chris moaned as the memory faded and knew he would never make love to his wife again. That the miracle that was conceived and growing inside her would never be born. Tears came unbidden to his eyes as he lay back against the pillows, feeling the utter despair of his lost dreams. He looked around the small hospital room and was glad he was still alone as he felt the sobs rock his body.
“God, I miss you both so much,” he whispered.
Jackie took the time to grab whatever she could see sitting on the counter in the kitchen and throwing it into the pack she carried. A half loaf of bread, several cans of meat, and a full salami were thrown in. Knowing time was growing short she held her weapon in one hand, pointing it at Mendoza as Tanner reached for the door handle and pulled it open. She watched as he checked the watery world outside and nodded when he pointed towards the treeline to the north. She watched him duck to the side and shoved the drug lord ahead of her.
Tanner smiled as Mendoza came through the door and nearly stumbled off the top step. He caught their captive’s arm and began dragging him towards the trees and underbrush. Once across the clearing he turned and watched as Maynard raced towards him and bent down beside him and Mendoza.
“How much time do we have before the fireworks begin?” Maynard asked softly.
“Figure it should start right ‘!” he said and smiled as the first of several explosions began. He knew with the onset of dawn they’d have to move swiftly through the trees in order to escape detection.
“Follow me!” Maynard said as the first shout went up from Mendoza’s soldiers’ quarters. She raced along the edge of the clearing, keeping to the shadows as much as possible until they entered the field once more. She knew Tanner was in no shape for a long drawn out escape plan and took a direct line to the jeep she’d hidden earlier. She glanced over her shoulder several times in order to make sure the tracker was still with her, smiling as she heard the muffled grunts form their prisoner as Tanner shoved him forward. She ducked through the plants, and hurried towards the waiting vehicle.
Vin shoved Mendoza towards the jeep and made him climb into the area used for storage. He could hear the drug lord’s angry voice, muffled by the duct tape and smiled as he made quick work of securing the man’s feet before climbing in beside Maynard. He heard the jeep start up and shivered as a deep chill ran through him as his partner gunned the vehicle out of the plants and along the makeshift trail. He listened for signs of pursuit, relieved when the only sound came from the area they’d left behind. He knew the grenades and other explosives would take care of the compound itself and leaned his head back against the seat. The adrenalinee rush that kept him moving was rapidly disappearing and fatigue weighed heavy on his mind and body. His eyes slid closed and he heard Jackie talking to him, but did not have the energy to answer her as she pulled out of the field and onto the main trail. Something pulled at his subconscious and he felt the small thread of the connection he shared with Chris Larabee. There was something terribly wrong and he felt it across the miles.
‘Don’t you give up, Larabee, I’ll be there as soon as I can get this bastard back to Rio,’ he thought as he slipped into a deep sleep.
Chris thought he was alone, but at the edge of his mind he felt something very real. A touch that meant more than friendship and he sighed as he felt someone reaching out to him. He knew who it was and felt a small amount of relief that the tracker was still alive.
‘I hear you, Vin,’ he thought as sleep finally beckoned to him.
Jackie turned to look at her companion and knew the sharpshooter was in worse shape than she originally thought. She knew the knife wound was probably infected, but he also sported several dark bruises on his face and she wondered what other injuries he had that she couldn’t see. She searched the brightening sky, cursing as she looked at the gas gauge and realized they had less than a quarter tank. There was no way they were getting back to Pousada Vrajabhumi Hotel with only that amount of gas, but at least they could put some distance between themselves and Mendoza’s stronghold. Sighing heavily, she continued down the mountain, searching for a place to hold up and give Tanner a chance to get his strength back.
Chris opened his eyes as someone softly called his name. In spite of the medications he hadn’t slept well and the lines of strain were clearly written on his face. The voice sounded again and he opened his eyes as a nurse settled a breakfast tray on the table in front of him.
“Good morning, Chris, my name is Mildred and I’ll be one of the nurses looking after you today. I’ve got your breakfast here and will be right back to help you with it.”
“Not hungry,” Larabee whispered, turning his head away from the newcomer.
“Chris, you need to eat...”
“Problems, Mildred,” Midland said as she entered the room.
“He says he’s not hungry,” the young nurse supplied.
“Chris, you’ve got a long day ahead...”
“I know, Doc, and right now if I eat anything I’ll just puke and that’s not something I want right now, Doc. I’ll eat later...when...when everything’s over......when I sa...say good...good bye...I can’t...I don’t want anything right now. What time is it?”
“It’s eight thirty. How’s the pain?”
“Same’s it was last night...”
“I wish you’d reconsider and stay here...”
“No, Doc, I need to be there...for Sarah and Adam...for me...”
“Sh, Chris, I understand. Just think about letting us take you there by ambulance...”
“ ambulance. Just get me dressed and give me something to keep me on my feet...”
“I can’t give you any drugs, Chris...”
“Then get rid of the damn IV and the morphine! I don’t want drugs in me that’ll knock me out. I have to be awake...I have to be there...I have to tell them I love them and I’m sorry...sorry I let them die...God, help me I have to say good...bye...bye...but I can’t...I don...don’t know how!” Larabee turned away before the women saw the tears in his eyes and heard Midland tell the nurse she could leave. He soon felt a hand on his shoulder and he turned to face the woman who’d cared for his family since meeting Sarah Connolly.
“Chris, you’re not alone here. Buck, Josiah, Ezra, Nathan, JD and even Vin are going to be there for you. All you have to do is let them...let them be there...lean on them and don’t ever be afraid to cry, Chris. Tears can sometimes help how you feel inside. Sarah and Adam were loved by so many people, but none loved them like you that’s what you need to remember. They love you and although they are not here to tell you that, let your heart hear them...let your mind see them and know they are never far away.”
“Wi...wish it was that easy, Doc, but right now it just hurts so much,” Larabee said as he looked into her warm eyes.
“And it will, Chris. You’ve lost two people you loved, but they are not gone forever. They’ll be waiting for you...”
“Yeah...yeah, I know...Sarah always said she’d be waiting for me if anything ever happened to her...but why now...why...she...she...”
“She what, Chris?” Midland asked, concerned at how pale Larabee grew.
“She was pregnant, Doc...gonna have a baby...found the was positive and I lost them all...Sarah, Adam, and our baby...all gone...all gone...”
Midland looked up as Wilmington entered the room and she eased away from the injured blond. She patted his shoulder gently and left the room.
“Chris,” Wilmington said softly and waited for Larabee to look at him. He saw the dark circles that signaled the blond wasn’t sleeping...and understood his own eyes sported the same telltale signs.
“ okay?” Larabee asked as the gentle man sat beside the bed.
“Was gonna ask you the same thing,” Wilmington said softly, rubbing at his temples as he tried to rid his head of the pounding jackhammer that had taken up residence in his skull. He felt the tears form in his eyes and let them fall.
“God...Chris, I’m so sorry...I should’ve...they could’ve been...”
“Don’t, Buck...don’t blame yourself...I don’t...Sarah wouldn’t,” Larabee said in an effort to sooth the other man’s guilt.
“I love them, Chris...loved them and would do anything to change places with them...should’ve been me...not them...not Sarah....not Adam and not the new baby. I’d do anything to change what happened. Anything!” he vowed.
“I know, Buck...and I’d do anything to wipe the guilt off your face,” Larabee said, closing his eyes against the reminder of what he’d lost. He was honest with Wilmington about not blaming him, but there was a part of him that could not meet the blue eyes.
“Wish it could be that easy, Chris, but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself...should’ve stayed away from your family...”
“Don’t you say that, Buck...they were your family too! You were my best’re Adam’s Godfather and Sarah always said you were the brother she never had! Don’t keep blaming yourself...I do...don’t!”
“Thanks, Chris...can’t say it’s gonna happen anytime soon, but I’ll try,” the ladies’ man said, swiping at his eyes before lifting the lid from the tray. “You gonna eat this?”
“No...not hungry right now. What time is Josiah picking us up?” the blond asked tiredly.
“He’ll be here at twelve. JD and Nathan are going straight to the church to make sure everything is ready.”
“He’s going to pick up Nettie and Casey. Orrin and Mrs. Travis are meeting us at the church at around one thirty. Now if you’re not planning on eating this why don’t you try and get some sleep?” Wilmington suggested.
“Not tired...get someone in here to take these damn things off,” he said, knowing the ladies’ man would understand he meant the IV lines and other tubes attached to his body.
“Chris...the pain’s gonna be bad once they take the pump off!”
“I know...but I have to be awake, Buck. Tell the doc I want them off now!” Larabee ordered.
“Alright, Chris, but I wish you’d reconsider....”
“I can’t Buck...I have to be there and I don’t want to feel too doped up to move. Just get the doc okay?” Larabee closed his eyes and listened to the retreating steps of his friend as he left the room. The day stretched ahead of him, a long narrow corridor wrought with grief and guilt and he wondered if it would ever end.
Ezra knew he had to be at the Wells’ place to pick up Nettie and Casey by eleven and made sure he was up and ready to go at eight. His tailor, Nicholas Dumont, a man who’d worked closely with him since his move to Billings, had been more than willing to help him out. Chris Larabee had lost everything in the fire...and there would be nothing for him to wear to the funeral that afternoon. Dumont had immediately gone to work on one of his suits in an effort to make the pants and shirt conform to Larabee’s size. He would also work to accommodate the bulky bandages he knew would be used to cover the burns.
Ezra pulled into the parking space outside Dumont’s private showroom and knocked at the door. The man did not open until four in the afternoon, but was making an exception because Standish was a regular customer and spent an exorbitant amount of money at his shop. The door opened and Dumont motioned him inside.
“Good morning, Mr. Standish.”
“Hello, Nicholas, I hope everything is ready for me.”
“Yes, I can only hope that it will be adequate. I am sorry to hear of your friend’s loss and pray that the good Lord helps him get through this trying time.”
“Thank you, Nicholas. Would you please show me what you have?”
“Certainly, come this way,” Dumont led him into the private showroom. There was no one else there, but the table was loaded with clothing and personal articles. Dumont picked up a pair of soft wrinkle free black slacks and Ezra nodded approvingly. Next came an oversized shirt of white cotton, the sleeves had been cut above the elbows, again making room for heavy bandages. Several pairs of underwear were also present, some boxers, some briefs. Socks and shoes were the final items on the table and Ezra was once more pleased with this man’s efforts.
“This will do nicely, Nicholas, thank you for accommodating me on such short notice,” Standish said as the man began placing the items in the proper bags.
“You are one of my favorite clients, Mr. Standish, and I am pleased I was able to do something as simple as make a few adjustments in the clothing. Please offer my condolences to Mr. Larabee for his loss.”
“I will, thank you,” Standish said, picking up the packages and walking out of the shop.
Ernesto Ruiz looked out over the ruined buildings that once made up Mendoza’s stronghold. Maynard and Tanner had to be behind the destruction and if not for the rain he knew they’d have lost the fields as well. Two jeeps were mangled beyond repair and the weapons cache was also destroyed. The main house was the last to be destroyed, but they now knew Mendoza was not inside it. He looked towards the one building that was still any ways usable and recognized the figure striding towards him.
“Anything, Raul?”
“Nothing, Ernesto. The rains have washed away the trail and what was still there was over run by our own men searching for Hector. Do we know for sure he was not inside?”
“No one was in there. Tanner was in the hole last night, but he’s not there now. I believe he had help from that woman DEA agent and they are out there somewhere with Hector.”
“He is a prisoner then?”
“I would think so. He would not have gone willingly. Was there any sign of Guerrero or his jeep?”
“Nothing, are you sure he was searching the northern perimeter?”
“Si, Hector wanted the search to include the northern slopes. I have a feeling Miss Maynard may have surprised Guerrero and taken the jeep.”
“This bitch is very good, Si?”
“Si...I believe she is very good at what she does, but we will catch her and Tanner and when we do she will be taught a lesson she will not soon forget.” Ernesto said, cupping his crotch as he smiled lewdly.
“Si, I believe Hector will be pleased to share the little bitch!” Espinoza agreed as they walked side by side towards the men waiting for orders beside the burnt out shell of Mendoza’s home.
Jackie kept her eye on the gas and knew they didn’t have much left. She could hear Mendoza’s muffled complaining, but ignored it as she kept an eye on the road and the unconscious man beside her. So far Tanner showed no signs of coming round and she was beginning to get anxious about his condition. She knew the longer he stayed out, the worse things could be. Keeping one hand on the wheel she used the other one to touch Tanner’s shoulder and tried once more to rouse him, again with no success.
‘Damn you, Tex, don’t you go giving up on me. I need you to get Mendoza back to Rio and make the bastard pay for everything he’s done to both of us. You hear me?” She removed her hand from his shoulder and placed it back on the steering wheel.
The trail loomed ahead of her and she knew the next series of turns would take her to the steep incline they’d traipsed up several weeks ago. Taking one last glance at the sharpshooter she turned all her attention to the road ahead and the treacherous drive down into the lower valley. Once they reached that point they were a little less than halfway back home, but they would be making the rest of the trek without the use of the jeep as the first of several sputters signaled the end of the trail. 
Chris felt the hopelessness and despair rise up once more as he looked around the room. The IV lines and Foley catheter had been removed, but he still leaned wearily against the pillows. He’d thought everything would be fine for him to go to the church, but there was one thing he hadn’t thought about. How could he go if there was nothing for him to wear. He asked one of the nurses for a pair of scrubs, but the shirts were not made to cover burns.
“I’ll wear a fucking hospital gown if I have too, Buck!” he insisted.
“I know, Chris,” Wilmington agreed and heard someone entering the room. It was a little after ten and he was surprised to see the gambler walk towards the bed carrying several packages. “Ez?”
“Hello, Buck, Chris. I’m hoping I can help you today, my friend. I know you lost everything...and I’m hoping you will accept this small gift from me,” Standish said, placing the packages on the table and pulling out the gifts he had for the injured man.
Chris swallowed the lump forming in his throat and looked with gratitude at the conman as everything he needed was spread out on the bed. He reached for the pants and the shirt, momentarily forgetting the gauze covering the injured limbs, and finally lifted his head until the two men could see how much this meant to him. He knew he should say something, but could not form his thoughts into coherent words. Finally able to speak he looked into the green eyes set in the sad face before him.
“Ezra, I...I don’t know what to sa...say...”
“You don’t need to say anything, Chris. You’ve been there for all of us for different reasons and it is good to finally return some of those favors, although I do wish it was under different circumstances.”
“I’ll pay you...”
“Chris, please, don’t say anything...I did this for our friendship, not for money. These are my gifts to you, so please, accept them as such,” Standish told him, smiling as he watched the blond head dip almost imperceptibly.
“Thanks, Ezra.”
“Anytime, Chris. Now I have to hasten in order to be at the Wells’ home on time. I shall see you both shortly,” the gambler explained.
“Don’t drive too fast, Ez,” Wilmington warned and knew the other man understood his message. He nodded as the gambler left and turned back to his long time friend.
Chris looked at the clothes and felt at a loss for words once more. His body was starting to react to the lack of pain medication, but he would not admit it. He knew he would need help getting dressed and looked up to meet the blue eyes watching him closely.
“Buck, what time is it?”
“It’s ten forty five, Chris. Still plenty of time before Josiah picks us up. Why don’t you lie back and try to sleep a little longer?”
“No...not now.”
“Why? You’re going to need it to get through today.”
“I know...but I can’t. I keep hearing Sarah’s voice, Buck. I hear her and Adam screaming for me...and...and I can’t get to them...can’t find them.”
“I know, Chris, and I understand. If you can’t sleep, at least try to rest...”
“Anything new on Vin? I h...haven’t even thought of h...him and the dan...ger he’s in.”
“Nothing new...Orrin’s been speaking to Coltrain, but the new director in Rio still hasn’t come up with any info on his location.”
“Some friend...should be d...doing something find help...”
“Chris, Vin would understand.”
“I...I’s just...God, do I go on without them?” Larabee sobbed as he looked at the other man and felt Buck pull him into an embrace. His body shook with grief and pain as his head rested against the strong shoulder. He knew Wilmington’s arm was injured, but right now he needed this touch, needed to know someone cared about his loss, his pain, his grief.
“I know, Chris...God I know and we’ll get through it together. Starting with today,” Wilmington’s own voice was edged with pain and sorrow as he held on to his friend. He wasn’t sure he could get through the day, let alone help this man deal with the funeral that would end with the two people he loved most in the world buried and gone from him forever.
“My can I say good bye to her? How can I say goodbye to Adam and the baby growing inside Sarah? So a....alone...”
“No, Chris...not alone...never alone. You’ve got’ve got me...always have me...”
“Always been there for me, Buck...”
“And I always will, Chris. You just hang on to me...okay...just hang on and somehow we’ll help each hear me, Chris? I won’t let you face this alone.” He held Larabee for sometime before the sobs eased and his breathing slowed down. Buck thought he was asleep, but a soft moan from the injured man told him Larabee was far from the sleep he needed. 
“Thanks, Buck...guess we’d better start getting re...ready.”
“Are you sure, Chris?”
“Y...yeah...we’ll be strong for ea...each other...hold our he...heads high...make Sa...Sarah and Adam proud.”
“They already are,” Wilmington assured the blond as he stood up to help his friend. “Oh, hell!”
“What’s wrong?” Larabee asked, concerned by his friend’s words.
“I’m not gonna be much help to you...between us we got one good arm.”
“Shit,” the blond said, laughing hysterically as he looked at his hands and Wilmington’s bum arm.
“Damn, guess we wait for Josiah.”
“Guess so, call him and tell him we need him here earlier than we t...thought,” Larabee advised and watched as his long time friend picked up the phone on the stand beside his bed.
Hank Connolly reached into the closet and pulled out the old suit jacket he’d placed there so long ago. Whether it would still fit or not, he didn’t care. He was not going to the church, but would be at the gravesite because he’d long since given up thinking there was a God. His baby girl had been taken away from him years ago when she married that worthless piece of trash and now he’d proven he wasn’t man enough for her. He felt nothing right now, having dealt with his grief years ago, but now he was being given the opportunity to make sure Chris Larabee understood it was his fault. Sarah Connolly had ceased to exist when she became Sarah Larabee, well now he could show the bastard that he’d been right from the start. That Larabee did not deserve his beautiful angel, no one did. Sarah should’ve stayed home and took care of him, but instead she’d left home and married. Pulling the jacket over his white t-shirt he looked in the mirror and cursed the bastard who ruined his life.
“You’ll see you worthless sonofabitch. I’ll make you see that you killed her...that you’re responsible for her death!”
Picking up the newspaper he saw the devastation that was once Larabee’s home. Nothing remained, but a few blackened pieces of wood, burnt grass, and a small melted yellow tractor at the top of a pile of dirt.
Josiah looked at the younger men and took a deep breath as he watched the orderlies help Larabee into the  wheelchair. It had taken some time, but they managed to get the injured man dressed and Midland was there to make sure he didn’t do anything he wasn’t supposed to. The blond was paler than he’d ever seen him and his eyes misted with tears as the pain from the burns and injured ribs took its toll on his body.
“Chris, Sarah would understand if you weren’t there,” Midland said as she knelt in front of the injured man.
“I kn...know she would, Doc, but I wou....wouldn’t. I have to do this,” Larabee insisted.
“Then please reconsider and let me give you something to help with the pain.”
“No...nothing un...until after...I can do this.”
“I’m sure you can, but you don’t need to be so stubborn about it.”
“Sor....sorry, Doc...I do...Come on, Josiah. Let’s get to the church,” the injured man insisted as the small entourage left the hospital room.
Saint Joseph’s Church was filled to capacity when Josiah pulled to a stop in front of the main doors. He knew the caskets were already inside and nodded as JD, Ezra, and Nathan came forward to help them. Midland continued to watch the injured blond, knowing he was close to the end of his reserves, yet understanding that he would find the strength to get through this solemn day.
Chris sat in the passenger seat, watching his friends and knowing they would be there for him. The sun shone through the trees on the opposite side of the street, casting deep shadows over the group. Taking a deep breath he waited for Sanchez to open the door and release the seatbelt. The wheelchair was pushed up beside the passenger door and he nodded that he was ready as the ex-preacher helped him from the seat and into the chair.
“I know, JD,” Larabee said as the youngest member of his team let his emotions show.
“We’re here, won’t be alone,” Jackson assured him as they formed a protective half circle around the blond.
“I know...I’m grateful...” the blond said as Wilmington’s hand moved to squeeze his shoulder.
“Guess we’d better get inside,” Standish suggested as Sanchez took the handles and maneuvered the chair up the ramp.
Larabee nodded as the smell of incense reached his nostrils and his friends continued to surround him. His eyes were dry and his face lacked emotion as they entered the main church and spotted the two caskets covered in crisp bouquets of flowers. His arms rested on the arms of the chair and he knew if his hands were free he’d have a death grip on them. He saw the priest at the front, a bible in his hand as he looked over the congregation.
Nettie turned in her seat and spotted her nephew in law being pushed towards the front of the church. She felt the tears forming again and stood up. Moving into the aisle she waited for Larabee’s friends to stop beside her.
Chris saw the gentle woman stand and turn towards him. Of Sarah’s family, this woman was the one who’d always been there, a pillar of strength and courage in their lives. He waited for Josiah to stop and pushed himself from the chair. The church was quiet except for the sound of soft crying, as Nettie reached for the injured man and held him in her arms.
“Sit with me, Son,” she whispered as she felt him tremble in her arms.
“Sh, Chris, I know...they know. Now it’s time for us to say goodbye and I want you to know Sarah was a lucky woman the day she said yes to you.”
“Thank...thank you,” Larabee said as he moved to sit with her. He looked around him, not surprised to see so many friends and family. The front row was taken up by members of his team and the pallbearers. He looked up to see Father Thomas watching him and smiled weakly as the older man began the service. He felt the woman beside him start to cry and ignoring the discomfort it caused, reached for her, drawing her close as the first hymn began. They stood together as their friends and family sang the first hymn, chosen years ago by Sarah and himself should something happen. Chris took a deep breath and began to sing, his voice shaky and filled with pain as he stood next to Nettie Wells.
“If I’d survived all the goodness
That comes to me from above
And would I count all the blessings
From out of the storehouse of love
I simply ask for a favor
Of Him beyond mortal king
I’m sure He’d grant it again and again
I want to stroll over heaven
With You some glad day
When all our troubles and heartaches
Have truly vanished away
There we’ll enjoy all the beauty
Where all things are new
I want to stroll over heaven with You
So man places of beauty
We’ve long to see here below
But time and treasure have kept us
From making plans as You know
But come the morning of rapture
Together we’ll stand anew
And then I’ll stroll over heaven with You.
So many places of beauty
We’ve long to see here below
But time and treasure have kept us
From making plans as You know
But come the morning of rapture
Together we’ll stand anew
And then I’ll stroll over heaven with You.”
Chris bit back the pain the hymn brought him and knew how dear this one had been to Sarah. It was one her mother had sung when she was a little girl and he’d often heard her singing it to their son. He closed his eyes and sank back onto the pew as Father Thomas began the services and tried to listen to the words offered to sooth his soul, but for him that would not happen...not for a long, long time...and maybe not ever. He moved as if on automatic as he stood and sat when he was suppose to, yet he remembered nothing of the words spoken after the first hymn and could only swallow a moan as the final hymn began. Again he felt strong hands enfold him as the pallbearers moved to take the casket out of the church.
Josiah, Nathan, JD, Orrin, Ezra, and Robert Miller moved to the casket bearing the body of Sarah Connolly Larabee. Buck, Gary and Danny Tobin, Adam’s teacher, Colin Tucker, and two police officers moved in beside Adam’s casket. They began moving out of the church and Chris again felt the overwhelming support of his family and friends as they moved to surround him. Evie Travis and Nettie Wells stood on either side of him, while Stacey Midland and Casey Wells walked directly behind him, as their voices rose through the rafters of the church.
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The world shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun refuse to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Shall be forever mine.
When we've been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we'd first begun.”
Jackie slammed her hand onto the steering wheel when the jeep came to a stop at the bottom of the incline. She’d managed to pull off the main trail and knew the vehicle would not be seen from above or from anywhere close by. The overhanging cliffs and trees made a perfect niche for them to hold up, but until Tanner woke up they would be unable to get Mendoza out of the mountains. The indigenous danger of the area, coupled with the manmade ones made it imperative that she keep Mendoza trussed up and muzzled. Looking over her shoulder she saw the angry drug lord and knew if he were to get free he’d slit her throat as easily as he cut into a steak. The man gave her the chills, but she would not let him see that.
“Well, it looks like you’ll have to stay like that for a while yet. Hope you don’t have the urge to answer the call of nature for a while, because until Vin’s’re staying put. Don’t think it’s because I’m afraid of a lowlife piece of shit like you, ‘cause it’s not. Just figured a little payback is due for me and Vin. Looks like your boys roughed him up some, so payback’s a bitch and so am I. Sleep well, Hector, I know I will,” Maynard said, testing to make sure the man could not loosen the tape from his wrists, ankles, and mouth. Finally satisfied, she walked to the passenger seat just as a soft moan escaped the tracker’s slack lips.
“Right here, Tex. Welcome back.”
“...back...didn’t know I’d gone somewhere...where are we?”
“Somewhere southeast of Mendoza’s compound...”
“Mendoza! Sonofabitch! Where is he?”
“Relax, he’s in the back...trussed up like the thanksgiving turkey.”
“Good...bastard deserves it.”
“How are you feeling, Vin?”
“I’m okay...head’s ready ta explode though...”
“Figured as much. You’ve got quite the knot on the back there. Bastards worked you over good.”
“ ta return the favor...”
“Yeah, so would I, but right now we have other, more pressing matters to attend to.”
“What happened ta the jeep?”
“Three little words...out of gas.”
“Not very original with yer pickup line, Jackie,” Tanner said with a smile.
“Hmm, best I could do on a moment’s notice. Looks like we’re in for a long walk, Tex, hope you’re wearing your hiking boots.”
“Damn...long hike...”
“Yes, it will be, but we’re not going to attempt it tonight. Right now you need to eat something and then get some more rest.”
“Have ta watch Mendoza!”
“ don’t. Duct tape makes a wonderful deterrent...the harder he tries to get it off the more messed up it becomes and the tighter it is around his wrists.”
“We gonna leave him like that?”
“Don’t tell me you feel sorry for him?” Maynard asked, eyebrows arching worriedly.
“No...hell no. Leave him like did I hear you say something about food?”
“Yes, I sort of raided his cupboards, remember?”
“Yeah...yeah, I do, and I think I smell salami...”
“You do, and bread and a couple of other things I thought we could use,” Maynard said as the sharpshooter climbed out of the jeep, clinging to the sides as a wave of dizziness washed over him.
“Ella, this is nuts,” Averil said as he knelt beside the woman dressed in a black suit and wearing a veiled hat.
“I have to be here for Chris, Jack. Why don’t you leave!” she spat, angered that this man did not understand her need to be close to Chris Larabee. She fingered the ring on the chain around her neck and envisioned the blond placing it on her finger.
“What if someone sees you?”
“They’ll think I’m a grieving woman come to pay respects to a lost loved one.” She said as she fingered the red carnations and watched the vehicles come to a stop on the drive.
“You don’t even know this person’s name, Ella. Someone could still recognize you!”
“Not likely, Jack. My face is covered and everyone will be watching the funeral procession...”
Hank looked around the well kept cemetery and listened as several birds whistled in the trees lining the drive. There were several mourners standing or kneeling by graves surrounding the two freshly dug ones and he felt nothing for their loss. Grief was something he’d long since given up feeling and he was here today for one reason, and one reason only. Chris Larabee had taken away his daughter, and now he would gloat when they lowered the bastard’s family into the ground. He knew he had to bide his time in order to get close to his son in law, and that was something he was good at. Larabee’s friends could not protect him from a father’s right for vengeance. 
Hank looked towards the big wrought iron gates as the first vehicle entered the hallowed ground. He had no qualms about what he was about to do, and damn anyone who tried to interfere.
The drive to Holy Cross Cemetery seemed to go on forever, yet Chris was numbed to everything around him, except for the two hearses carrying the caskets of the two people dearest to him. He swallowed back the pain and bitterness that accompanied the loss, but it still weighed heavily on his mind and body. He closed his eyes, picturing the glowing smile on Sarah’s face when he left that morning, Adam’s happy laughter as they waved goodbye. If he’d only known it would be the last time he’d see them he would’ve shielded them both in a protective box, one nothing or no one could destroy. Instead there was now an empty space where his heart used to be.
“Yeah, Doc?”
“I wish you’d let me give you something to ease the pain?”
“Nothing in that bag of yours could do that...I’m okay,” the blond lied as they drove along the tree lined drive to the final resting place of his heart and soul.
“At least use the chair, Chris,” Sanchez suggested.
“No...I’ll walk. I need to be on my own two feet.”
“Just don’t go trying to do it all on your own, Chris,” Jackson warned, worried about the near lack of emotion on the pale face. Since leaving the church Larabee seemed to have cocooned himself inside a shell. The medic in training understood it was a self-imposed defense mechanism designed to keep his feelings hidden.
The club van came to a stop behind the hearses and Larabee closed his eyes as he tried to put on the so-called brave front. This was it...he was about to say goodbye to the two people who made his life worthwhile. How could he do that? How could they expect him to stand and watched as the caskets were lowered into the ground? Forcing back the raw pain eating him up inside he waited for Standish to open the door and slid his feet out. He nodded as his friends moved to the hearse and Stacey Midland and Nettie Wells once more stood beside him. He heard soft sobs and knew Evie Travis, Rain Goines, and Casey Wells were directly behind him. Taking a deep breath he began the final walk towards the freshly dug graves.
“Oh, look at Chris! Look what Powderman did to him. I should go to...”
“Ella, Jesus, don’t make a scene or you blow everything you’ve worked for!” Averil warned, grabbing the woman’s arms and pulling her back to the grave.
“But he’s hurt...I wish I could smooth the lines of pain, but at least he’s putting on a good front. His friends and family will think his physical pain is really  the pain of losing them, but it’s not you know? He can’t grieve for them, not when he’s going to be back in my arms where he belongs.”
“I hope you’re right, Ella, but from what I see he’s really grieving their loss.”
Gaines smiled under the veil, watching through hooded eyes as the large group of mourners continued the solemn trek through the graves. She felt her heart skip a beat as Larabee’s head came up and turned towards her, but the elderly woman beside him moved to stand before him and held him, something she wished she could do.
“No, Jack,” she smiled under the veil. “He’s just putting on a brave front for those idiots with him. You’ll see, Chris and I belong together!”
“Oh, God,” he whispered as he felt Nettie reach for him as tears slid from his eyes.
“I know, Son,” the woman said, feeling the strong man tremble as she held him.
“How can I...I live with...out them, Nettie?”
“You’ll grieve for them, Chris and then after a while you’ll find your heart is not filled with pain when you remember them. You’ll hear their laughter and know they are in your heart and will always be a part of you.”
“I...I don’t know if I...I can do th...this...”
“You can, Son, just think of the love you shared with them and you’ll...we’ll get through it. You’re not alone...remember that. Are you ready to go on?”
“Y...yeah...I think so,” the blond said, straightening up and looking at the large group of family, friends, and acquaintances who’d come to show their respect for his wife and son. He swallowed the lump in his throat and slowly followed the caskets once more. He didn’t know how he made it, but somehow one leg followed the other again and again until he stood to watch the caskets being placed side by side.
Ella smiled inwardly as the crowd seemed intent on watching the scene before them. She lost sight of the man she loved several times and had to stretch her neck to find him. She caught sight of him in the midst of his friends, his head down, his hands and arms wrapped in gauze, yet to her he was still the handsomest man she’d ever laid eyes on.
“Ella, we really should leave. Someone is bound to spot you and wonder why you’re watching them,” Averil suggested.
“I don’t  think so, Jack. I think I’m going to go over and watch...”
“No one would know, Jack. I just stand on the edge and leave before anyone notices!” she said, taking several steps towards the group of mourners
“Are you willing to take the chance of being spotted before you’re ready to make your move on Larabee?” Averil asked seriously.
“I...I just want to take care of him, Jack.”
“I know...and you will. Just let him get through this and then we’ll start the rest of the plan. Okay?”
“I guess,” Ella reluctantly agreed as she watched her loved one standing beside the graves.
Chris heard the priest’s words, but as if from a distance. His gaze remained locked on the two caskets, his grief cutting deeper than anything he’d ever felt before. He’d lost loved ones before, but none had ever left him feeling this devastated, this empty...this alone. He clenched his eyes tightly as a fleeting memory crossed his mind. Sarah’s voice, so loving, whispering the words of the song he’d loved so much. Everything around him blacked out as he let the words wrap around him.
“If tomorrow never comes
Will he know how much I loved him
Did I try in every way to show him every day
That he's my only one
And if my time on earth were through
And he must face the world without me
Is the love I gave him in the past
Gonna be enough to last
If tomorrow never comes
So tell that someone that you love
Just what you're thinking of
If tomorrow never comes...”
The words had never meant so much to him as they did right now, here, in this crowd, where he realized he would never be able to tell his wife and son just how much he loved them. His legs grew weak, but he fought to remain on his feet as the final words were said, and soft sobs emanated from those around him.
Hank moved quickly between the strangers surrounding the mounds of dirt. There was only one man he wanted to face and that man would know just how much he hated him for what he took. Shouldering the protesting bodies out of the way he closed the distance between himself and the unsuspecting Chris Larabee.
Larabee turned to see Nettie Wells holding the two red roses, and a single perfect white rose with a spray of baby’s breath for him. He remembered her questioning him when he asked her about the roses, but told her it was something he needed to do. She placed the red rose and the white one between his gauze covered hands and watched as he placed them lovingly on his wife’s casket.
“I miss you so much, Sweetheart, and pray that there is a heaven and someday we’ll be allowed to walk together again.” He swallowed past the pain of his loss and let the words come from his heart. “Take care of our baby, sweetheart. I know I’ll never have the chance to see her, but I already love her because she is a part of us.” He knew those around him heard his declaration as several whispered ‘baby...Sarah was pregnant’ reached his ears.
Chris turned and saw the new tears in Nettie’s eyes and tried to assure her that things were going to be okay.
“Oh, Chris...she was...was...”
“Yes, Nettie, Sarah was pregnant,” he whispered, tears spilling from his eyes as he accepted the second perfect rose and stood in front of the smaller coffin. He placed the flower on top and rested his cheek next to it as his body trembled with loss. “Oh, Adam...I love you, much. need to take care of your Mommy and your baby sister or brother for me...okay...I’ll be with all of you...but for now have to be the man until I...I come for you. I love you, Little Man....God only knows how much.” Chris tried to keep his grief bottled inside where the others wouldn’t see it as he stood and turned to face his friends. He knew by the sympathy written on their faces they understood just how much he’d lost. Before he could speak he caught sight of a man and a woman just beyond the crowd. He recognized the man and instinctively knew who the woman standing beside him was.
“ELLA!” the blond cried as an irate man stood in front of him. Chris barely had time to recognize his father in law when the man spat in his face.
“You killed her, you bastard!”
Everything happened at once and Chris tried to keep his eyes on the retreating couple even as Connolly’s fist was drawn back and aimed for his face.
“You miserable sonofabitch, Hank!” Wilmington cursed as Sarah’s father struck Chris, once in the face and again in the chest. He watched helplessly as Larabee was thrown across his son’s casket even as the blond tried to speak above the angered crowd of mourners.
“Buck...Ella...Buck...” the injured man gasped as he somersaulted over the coffin and landed hard on the opposite side. He struggled to stand, ignoring the men around him as he tried to find the woman he knew had been watching him.
Ella kept glancing over her shoulder as she listened to the group of mourners. Something had happened to her lover and she was desperate to find out what. She tried to pull her arm away from Averil’s tight grip as they reached their car.
“I warned you someone would recognize you!”
“It doesn’t matter! Chris was calling for me and I have to go to him. Let me go!”
“Ella, don’t be a fool! He wasn’t calling to you he was calling for someone to catch you! You have to face facts...”
“What fucking facts? What the hell are you talking about, Jack?”
“Don’t you get it? Chris Larabee doesn’t love you! He doesn’t want anything to do with you!”
“He loves me!” Gaines pouted.
“Does he? Does he really?”
“Yes, He always has and now that that bitch is out of the way ‘m going to show him exactly how much we love each other and that we were meant to be together!”
“I’ll debate this with you later...right now we need to get out of here! Get in the car!” Averil ordered and held the door open until she gave in and climbed into the passenger seat. He slammed the door and hurried to the other side, smiling as he thought of the angered woman already inside. Today may be a sad day for those in the cemetery, but for him, an angered Ella Gaines, meant rough sex and that was something he was looking forward to.
“Chris, just lie still!” Midland ordered as her patient continued to fight those who were trying to help him. She saw blood spilling from the split lip, but it was Larabee’s breathing that bothered her right now. He seemed to be having trouble catching his breath and she wondered if Connolly’s blow had done any internal damage. She could hear a man screaming as he was pulled away, and knew it was Sarah’s excuse for a father.
“Bastards leave me alone...Got what he deserves...Killed my baby girl!”
Chris’ recognized the angered voice, but chose not to acknowledge it. His eyes grew wide with fear as several sets of hands held him down and Midland began to examine him. He spotted Miller and two officers taking Hank away, but there was no sign of Ella Gaines or Jack Averil. He heard Midland tell someone to call 911 and someone else telling her an ambulance was already on the way. Shaking his head, he tried once more to escape the caring hands holding him as tears welled up.
“Do...don’t...let go. Bitch...bitch is here...”
“Sh, Chris, Josiah and Ezra have gone to make sure Hank doesn’t come back here,” Wilmington explained as Midland’s expert hands examined her patient. Larabee continued to fight, but his struggles were growing weaker as the sound of sirens sounded in the distance.
“...Ella...she...she’s here,” the blond mumbled inaudibly as pain welled up in his chest and his eyelids slid closed. Breathing was becoming more of a chore than a necessary part of life, but he had to make someone understand. No one seemed to hear him as several pairs of hands touched him. He recognized the physician and knew she was giving orders to the people surrounding him. It was getting hard to think and concentrate, but there was something he had to do. Something he had to say. His eyes shot open and he tried to move as he remembered saying goodbye to the people he loved most in life.
“Get that IV started!” Midland ordered as she listened to her patient’s breathing.
“It’s in, Doc,” Parsons told her as his partner quickly hooked up the monitoring equipment. It felt strange for him to be working on a man between two caskets, but he concentrated on doing his job as the deceased friend’s and family looked on.
“Doc, how is he?” Wilmington asked.
“...Buck...say...say go...goodbye...have to...have to say goo...goodbye...”
“Sh, Chris, you already said goodbye and now it’s time to let Dr. Midland take care of you,” the rogue assured his friend.
“Doc...Doc...Sarah...Sarah’s preg...nant...make appoint...ment...okay?” Larabee whimpered as the pain increased.
“Doc, can’t you give him something?” Dunne asked.
“Not right now, JD, he’s having breathing problems...”
“Wh...where’s Adam? Buck...get him. I can’t find him!” Larabee’s head came up as if searching for someone. He tried to move his hands and arms, but the dirt encrusted gauze was being removed even as he lost consciousness.
Larabee’s friends watched as the physician and two paramedics readied their patient for transportation to Saint Vincents. Two IVs had been set up, and an oxygen mask was in place over the blond’s mouth and nose. They transferred the unconscious man to a stretcher and raced towards the ambulance with Stacey Midland hurrying along beside the gurney.
Buck watched helplessly as his long time friend was taken away in an ambulance. He wanted to go with him, but knew with Midland and the paramedic there would be no room for anyone else. He turned back to the caskets and bowed his head as he unconsciously rubbed at his injured arm. He turned towards the other members of the team and knew they were as devastated by this as he was.
“Buck, Ryan is taking Connolly to the precinct...”
“He damn well better pray I don’t get my hands on him!” Wilmington said as Father Thomas moved towards them.
“Violence is not the answer, Son. All it does is make matters worse. Hank Connolly will have to face up to his sins and he alone will have to live with what he’s done. Go to your friend. Chris needs all of you with him right now. There’s been so much sorrow and loss and you will all need to be strong for one another. Josiah, I will come by the hospital later this evening if you want to talk.”
“Thank you, Father Thomas, I...we all appreciate what you’ve done here.”
“No thanks necessary, Josiah. Take care of each other and trust in God...”
“Trust in God he says...seems to me we’ve already been doing that and look what it’s cost Chris! He waited until Chris was finally happy and drops the floor out from under him. It’s not right, Father. God’s been cruel...”
“God didn’t do this, Buck...”
“He let it happen, Josiah! He didn’t stop those bastards from killing Sarah and Adam and the baby. He took them away...and I can’t help Chris anymore. I’m...I’m as guilty as whoever did this!”
“How can you say that, Buck?” Dunne asked as the large crowd began to leave.
“They were after me, Kid...hurt you too...hurt everyone I love and Chris is gonna hate me when he realizes that!” Wilmington said, his heart aching with pain.
“Buck, we’ve been over this. Even if you were the target no one blames you for this,” Jackson assured him as they walked away from the two caskets.
“Doesn’t matter, Nathan. I blame myself.”
“Don’t try to carry a burden that may not be yours to carry, Buck,” Standish said as he thought of the investigation into Ella Gaines’ activities.
“Ezra’s right, Buck, this may not have anything to do with you,” Jackson explained as he watched Josiah gather Nettie, Casey, and Rain together with them. Orrin and Evie Travis also joined them and plans were made to meet at the Travis home once they knew how Chris Larabee was doing. Nettie would go to the hospital with the members of the Firm, while Orrin, Evie, Rain, and Casey would head over to the older couple’s estate.
“Josiah, make sure you call me as soon as you have any word on Chris’ condition,” Travis ordered.
“I will, Orrin. We’ll see you soon.”
“Nathan, try not to worry to much. Chris is in good hands,” Rain said, hugging the man she was growing to love close.
“JD, you need to rest,” Casey warned as the group of men climbed into the club van. Nathan helped Nettie into the front seat before moving to the back with Ezra and Buck and JD took the center seats.
Vin smiled at the woman sitting on the ground beside him. They’d moved Mendoza out of the jeep and the man was now sitting with his arms around the base of a fair sized tree. The duct tape was once more wrapped around the drug lord’s wrists and after giving him some water they’s replaced the tape covering his mouth. The man’s mumbled protests were completely ignored as Tanner moved to sit on the threadbare blanket they found in the jeep.
“How are you feeling, Vin?” Maynard asked softly, worried about the pale man sipping from the canteen. She’d managed to tease and cajole him into eating a small amount of the bread and several slices of salami, but she knew it wasn’t nearly enough. Tanner had lost weight since they left the hotel and now with the added knife wound and beating he was sporting a fever that could be dangerous if it rose any higher.
“Jest a little tired, Jackie...”
“Yeah, right. I believe that too. Look, Vin, we’re stranded in the middle of the mountains with one of the biggest drug lords in South America! We’ve got a jeep, but no gas. We’ve got enough food for maybe two days! Mendoza’s men are probably scouring the area looking for us and you’re just a little tired! Well, hell, why don’t you just lie the hell down and get some sleep!”
“Sorry, Jackie, feel like shit...that whatcha wanted ta hear?”
“No...not really, but at least it’s the truth. You go ahead and get some rest...I’ll watch that bastard!”
“Least there’s a little good news,” Tanner said, letting his head come to rest in her lap.
“There is...what is it?”
“We got a full roll of duct tape ta keep the bastard quiet!”
“Ah, hell, Tex, never thought of that. Now close those damn eyes and go to sleep.”
“No need of ya stayin’ awake, Jackie. I don’t think we’ll have any unwelcome visitors tanight. Sleep...”
“I will, Vin,” Maynard said, leaning her against the jeep and closing her eyes.
Vin kept his eyes closed and pretended he was sleeping. His body ached, but his mind was clear and his thoughts continued to trouble him. Something was happening in Billings, and it was wreaking havoc with the connection he shared with Chris Larabee. The dreams of two caskets had returned, but in the newer ones there was a third, smaller coffin. One that could only hold the tiny body of a baby. Why he was now seeing three instead of two was unknown, yet his own instincts told him his best friend was living through a hellish nightmare and there was nothing he could do to help.
‘Ah, hell, Larabee, you’d best watch yer back ‘til I get back,’ he thought as sleep finally reached up and dragged him under. The sounds of the oncoming night mingled with the soft snoring of two people, while the third man’s muttered curses remained trapped behind the tape covering his mouth.
Bledsoe hurried into the burn unit where Midland was settling their patient back on the bed. He’d been in surgery when Larabee returned, but received an urgent message to meet his colleague in 4A. He’d taken the time to get rid of the blood covered scrubs before hurrying towards his patient’s room. He entered to find Midland and a nurse securing the newest tube protruding from the left side of Larabee’s chest.
“What the hell happened, Stacey?” Bledsoe asked.
“His father in law attacked him at the cemetery,” Midland explained as she checked the IV lines and made sure they were running properly.
“His father in law. Why the hell would the man attack Larabee?”
“It’s a long story, Jacob. I’ll explain it all over coffee once we’re finished here.”
“Alright, so tell me what’s going on. Why the chest tube?”
“Connolly struck him in the chest area and Chris hit one of the caskets hard before being thrown over it. One of the broken ribs punctured his lung and we nearly lost him on the way in.”
“What about the burns?” Bledsoe asked, concerned about the depth of the burns and any new damage that could have been caused by the blow.
“Dr. Mason had a look at them and he says they’re no worse than when he saw them yesterday.”
“Thank God for that. Has he been conscious?”
“He was at the scene, but lost consciousness before we left the cemetery...”
“Should never have let him leave the hospital.”
“You couldn’t stop him, Jacob. No one could.”
“I could’ve ordered him sedated...”
“Not once he was awake and coherent. I know this man, Jacob, and I know what he’s lost. If we stopped him from leaving here today it would’ve drove him over the edge. At least he had a chance to say goodbye to his family.”
“Yes, but he’s also in worse shape than he was before he left.”
“I know, but no one could’ve foreseen Connolly’s reaction. The sonofabitch never forgave Chris for marrying his daughter...even after Adam was born he refused to acknowledge them.”
“Sounds like a cruel man,” Bledsoe said as they finished checking the monitoring equipment.
“A cruel, unfeeling man,” Midland agreed.
“His blood pressure seems a little low,” the burn specialist observed.
“I know and I’m hoping it’s just the shock of being hit again. It’s improved since we’ve hooked him up to the fluids. Now we just have to make sure nothing else happens to set him back. His friends are in the waiting room and I told them I’d come out and speak with them.”
“Alright, Stacey. I’m going to take a look at his burns and then check on my newest patient. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”
“I will, Jacob, thank you,” Midland said as she hurried towards the waiting room across the hall. She opened the door and looked at the haggard group of individuals. She moved into the room and sat between Nettie Wells and Buck Wilmington.
“How is he, Doc?” the rogue asked as he watched the woman’s face for a reaction.
“He’s stable for now, Buck, but you boys have to realize what Hank Connolly did to him set his recovery back and probably caused the broken rib to puncture Chris’ lung...”
“Damn it, I should’ve...”
“Easy, Buck, getting upset at Hank Connolly is a waste of breath. I should know...I saw what he was like with Sheila,” Nettie explained.
“Nettie is right, Buck, don’t go looking for any more trouble than we already have,” Sanchez exclaimed.
“Right now we need to concentrate on Chris. We need to make sure he’s not alone and doesn’t get too depressed...”
“Hell, Nathan, we’d need a miracle worker to keep that from happening! Don’t you get it? Chris has lost everything and I’m not talking material things although he’s lost that too! But he’s lost his wife and son and the new baby she was carrying! Godamnit! It’s not right! How could God do this to him?”
“Easy, Buck, we may never know the reason God chose this moment to take Sarah and Adam...and the new baby. My mother always said ‘God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform’. If it means what it says, then we will always have questions that we may never find the answers to, but as long as we have faith we’ll be able to ask them and know that in asking we have been given a choice. To stop asking questions is to say that we can be led like lambs to the slaughter,” the older woman said, reaching for tissues and wiping at her eyes. No one spoke for a few minutes, but Jackson finally broke the silence.
“What about the burns?”
“The gauze protected them from further damage, but he’s going to be sore for some time,” Midland told them.
“Has he been awake yet?” Dunne asked.
“No...he hasn’t,” the physician replied softly.
“That’s not good is it, Doc?” Wilmington questioned softly.
“Is there any reason he would not regain consciousness, Dr. Midland?” Standish asked worriedly.
“There could be many reasons. I’ve arranged for CT scan of his head and hopefully we’ll get some answers. He’s had two blows to the skull, the first one at the house, the second today when Connolly hit him. We don’t know if he struck his head when he went over the casket, but if he did that too could be part of the reason he hasn’t come around.”
“Or he could just be thinking about everything he’s lost and decided that he doesn’t want to be here!” Wilmington suggested, realizing he’d voiced what was on all their minds.
“You can’t mean that, Buck. Chris wouldn’t just give up!” Dunne spat.
“How do you know, JD? Have you ever lost something more important than your own life. Chris has...I was there when he and Sarah exchanged vows and I can tell you I’ve never seen anyone so much in love as those two. It was like Chris found a part of himself when they met! Then Adam came along.” He turned to Midland. “You remember what Chris and Sarah were like when Adam came along Doc? They were just like kids at Christmas time who woke up to not only find Santa had been there but that they got everything on their list and then some. The day Chris brought them home he was like one of them nervous fathers you see in the waiting room. He paced while they slept. He’d open the door and look in on Sarah and Adam. He didn’t leave them alone for a minute. Sarah finally told him if he didn’t stop what he was doing he’d drive her crazy, but she loved him for it. Chris and Sarah were meant for each other and I don’t think anyone can argue with me about that! Chris loved her and she loved him just as much and now he’s lost them both...lost the three of them and he’s gonna wake up to a whole new where everything’ll remind him of what he’s lost.” Wilmington stood up and walked to the window. He knew he’d bared a part of himself, but hoped the others would understand. His own heart felt like it was being ripped from his chest. He’d lost a part of himself in much the same way Chris did and now he had to face the fact that he could very easily lose his long time friend.
‘I’m here, Chris, and I won’t run out on you. Damn, ol’ son, what the hell are we gonna do?’ he thought as the skies outside opened up and the rains fell on the world outside, mirroring the solemn mood of the people in the waiting room. Heart in his throat he turned towards the group, his gaze catching and holding Midland’s eyes. He knew what he needed and right now that was to see for himself whether his friend of many years was going to be alright.
“Doc, I want to see him.”
“I know you do, Buck, and if I agree to let you see him it’ll only be for a couple of minutes and then I want you out of here and resting. You’re not long out of the hospital yourself...” she turned to the Bostonian and included him in her speech. “...the same goes for you JD. Both of you should be resting...”
“I’m fine, Doc...”
“No, JD, you’re not! You suffered a serious blow to the head and right now it’s probably adrenaline that’s keeping you on your feet. You both need to go home...go to bed...and sleep. Nathan, I’m going to leave them in your capable hands. See that they do as they’re supposed to or I’ve got something in my kit that’ll knock them both out for a week. Understood?” Midland asked, her voice deceptively sweet.
“Buck, you want to see Chris?”
“Of course I do, Nate, but...”
“Then I’d say it’d be a good idea to just agree with Dr. Midland and for now,” Jackson warned.
“I don’t want Chris to wake up alone,” Wilmington said softly.
“He won’t. The police officer is at the door and I will stay here with Chris while you gentlemen get some much needed rest,” Standish explained.
“Ezra will stay with Chris until I come back to relieve him tonight,” Sanchez said.
“So he won’t be alone?”
“No, Buck, one of us will be here when he wakes up,” Jackson assured the injured man.
“Okay,” the ladies man acquiesced and waited for Midland to lead him to Larabee’s room. He knew the others were following him, and understood they’d stay outside the door, giving him a chance to see Chris for himself. He entered the injured man’s room to find a nurse attaching a new bag of antibiotics to the IV line running into Larabee’s body.
“Hello, Buck, come in...”
“Buck, remember what I said. Patsy, if there are any problems contact me!”
“I will, Dr. Midland,” Patsy Mullins assured the physician as Wilmington moved to stand next to the bed.
“How is he, Patsy?” Wilmington asked the redhead.
“He’s stable right now, Buck. I’m sure Dr. Midland explained about his injuries.”
“Yeah, she did. I just wish there was better news. He’s lost so much!”
“Buck, if I remember correctly you’ve lost a lot yourself. You were close to Chris and his family and I know how much you cared. Now, I’m going to check a couple of things at the nurses’ go ahead and talk to him. Okay?”
“Okay...thanks, Patsy.” Wilmington said and heard the sound of soft soled  shoes leaving the room. He turned back to the pale blond, shaking his head at the newest collection of wires and tubes. The blond’s upper body was swathed in bandages and Buck understood it would probably be that way for a while. The burns were being treated, but it would be some time before they were totally healed. Taking a deep breath he ran his fingers through his hair and tried to calm his wayward nerves.
“Well, Chris, looks like it’s back to you and that’s not’s not you and me anymore. It’s you me and the team. Josiah, Nathan, Ezra, JD, and Vin...God, know with everything going on I don’t even know what’s happening to him, but I promise you I’ll find out. I know how much he means to you...saw it the first day you two met and have seen it ever since. I knew he was taking something that I thought was mine, but you know it didn’t make me angry, sad...envious, yes, but not angry. There’s just something about that damn Texan that can make a man’s spirit smile through hardship and pain. Wish he was here right now, Chris...I know he’d be able to help you more than I ever could. You’re my best friend...always have been always will be and I can only hope there’s room in your heart for two best friends, Pard, but I know it’s Tanner you need right now. Sa...Sarah told me the first time she met Vin that it was like looking at your twin soul. Well, I’m thinking she’s probably right and I wish I could trade places with him right now...cause no matter what hell he’s going through it can’t be half as bad as what we’re going through. Doc Midland says I’ve got to go home and get some rest, but I had to see you first. Ezra’s going to stay with you...hope he doesn’t talk your ears off with those big words of his...then again maybe he should and hopefully it’ll make you wake up and tell him to shut up!” Wilmington felt an hysterical laugh leave his throat and swallowed painfully before swiping at his eyes. He dropped his hand and placed it gently against Larabee’s cheek, knowing the heat was from fever and wishing he could do something to make it all go away.
“Chris, I love you,’re more of a brother to me than my own flesh and blood ever was. Mom always told me my brother would come to no good and the bastard ended up in hell where he belonged. She also told me that sometimes family isn’t measured in blood, but by what you feel in your heart. Well, that makes you my brother...and I don’t want to lose you...okay? I can’t lose you...not now...stay with me, Pard, and we’ll get through this together. Nate’s calling me now so I’d best get going. You make damn sure you’re here when I come back or I’ll kick your ass. I’ll be back...” the ladies’ man said before leaving the injured man in the care of the gambler.
“I know, Buck. I won’t let anyone near him who shouldn’t be here,” Standish assured the older man.
“Thanks...I knew I could count on you. Nathan, let’s go before I change my mind,” the rogue warned as he straightened his back and walked away from the room 4A.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 9 | PART 10 | PART 11 | PART 12 | PART 13 | PART 14 | PART 15 | PART 16 | PART 17 | PART 18


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