by Winnie


Chapter 9

Ella sat with her arms folded across her chest as three men stared at her. She’d made up her mind and there was nothing they could do or say to change it. Now it was just a matter of making sure they understood she was not to be denied in this.
“I told you I will not pay for shoddy workmanship and that’s exactly what Powderman gave me!”
“Ella, be reasonable,” Spikes tried.
“Reasonable, Robert!” the dark haired beauty spat, standing and striding towards the window. “I am being reasonable. That bastard received half his payment and that’s more than he deserves! I will not pay him for hurting Chris!”
“Ella, he’s not a man to cross. I’ve heard stories about people who crossed him and they tend to disappear. Pay the man his money before it’s too late, Ella!” Royal told her.
“My mind is already made up, Guy. Perhaps I should hire someone to take the bastard out before he manages to screw up any more lives!” Gaines spat as she turned towards the three men once more. She smiled then, one that did not deter the coldness in her eyes, and added to the hatred in her voice.
“Jack, I know I can count on you. Would you find someone who would be willing to find Powderman and take care of the bastard for me?”
“I think you need to listen to Guy and Robert here. No one knows Powderman’s true identity and I honestly don’t think anyone ever will. The man hides behind names and corporations and countries and no one can get close to him. That’s why they call him a Spook. He’s like a ghost who comes and goes as he pleases. For all we know he could be in this room. It could be Guy...or Robert...or me...or it could even be a woman.”
“Jack’s right, Ella, I’ve been dealing with Powderman for over ten years and even I don’t have a clue who he is. I’ve never even gotten close. He’s got things set up so every lead comes to a dead end! Believe me, Ella, this is not a man you want as an enemy.”
Her eyes grew cold with anger as she looked at the three men standing before her. Taking a deep breath she tried to remain calm as she looked at each one, but her ire continued to rise as she realized they were not going to support her in this.
“I thought you boys were better than this! I thought I could rely on you to help me out and back me up! If you have no backbone and are afraid of Powderman then you’d better tell me now, because I’m not paying that bastard another penny and am going to put a contract...”
“Ella, you can’t be serious!” Royal warned.
“You do and he’ll come after you!” Spikes told her.
“Good, then maybe we’ll find out who the bastard is!”
“Ella, I don’t want to see you hurt...”
“Jack, what makes you think I’ll be the one that gets hurt?”
“Because I trust Robert and he knows what Powderman is like.”
“There’s something else you should know about Powderman, Ella,” Spikes said softly.
“What’s that?” the irate woman asked.
“Powderman may not come after you directly, at least not at first. He’ll go after someone he knows you love...”
“He doesn’t know me well enough to do that.”
“Yes, I’m afraid he does. He studies his clients before he accepts a job. He’ll know the reason you wanted Sarah and Adam Larabee killed and he’ll also know that your weakness is Chris Larabee. I’m warning you right now that if you don’t pay up Chris Larabee will join his wife and son sooner than expected,” Spikes explained.
“Are you telling me he’ll come after Chris?”
“That’s exactly what ‘m telling you. Ella, look, you have more money than you’ll ever spend in a lifetime. Pay Powderman and then we can concentrate on bringing you and Larabee together!” Spikes told her and watched as the woman was still undecided about what she wanted to do.
“Ella, pay the man...and then forget about him,” Averil warned.
“Damn it! Alright, Robert, pay the bastard but make sure he knows I am very disappointed in his work!”
“I will, Love,” Spikes said, not bothering to hide the relief he felt.
Evie Travis heard the cars drive into the yard and hurried to open the door. The long day was drawing to an end, yet for the group of men walking towards her it still wasn’t over. She held the door as Wilmington stepped inside and waited for the others to enter as well. She studied the drawn faces and knew things hadn’t changed where Chris Larabee was concerned.
“Everyone is on the patio, Gentlemen,” she explained and led them across the foyer and through the main family room.
Orrin was on his feet instantly and quickly studied the four faces, noting how pale and drawn the ladies’ man looked he pointed to an empty chair next to him. “Buck, sit down before you fall down. JD, there’s a seat over by Casey. Nathan, next to Rain, Josiah, next to Nettie.”
“Thanks, Orrin, we won’t be staying long...”
“You’ll be here long enough to eat!” Evie warned them as she passed several trays of meat, cheese, and dinner rolls towards her husband.
“How is Chris?” Nettie asked as Josiah sat next to her.
“Well, his run in with Hank Connolly didn’t help things any,” Jackson said as he helped himself to several slices of glazed ham and Gouda cheese, nodding his thanks as Rain poured him a glass of wine.
“How bad?” Orrin inquired.
“The burns weren’t damaged any further...”
“Thank God for that!” Casey Wells whispered.
“But Hank did manage to send one of Chris’ broken ribs into his lung...”
“Dear Lord,” Nettie said, her voice laced with sadness and anger.
“That sonofa...sorry...” Dunne apologized.
“Don’t apologize for saying what the rest of us feel, JD,” Nettie assured the younger man. “Hank Connolly is a miserable SOB and I hope they throw him in jail for what he did today. That man took Sarah’s and Adam’s funeral and tried to turn it into a three ring circus and now he’s hurt Chris even more. What are they doing to help Chris, Nathan?”
“They’ve inserted a chest tube and re-bandaged his hands, arms and chest. They were also scheduling a CT scan for tomorrow morning to make sure there was no more damage from the blow to the head,” Jackson explained as he picked at his meal.
“Orrin, is there any word on what they’re charging Hank with?” Wilmington asked, sipping the glass of cold water Evie passed him.
“I spoke to Robert and right now it’s aggravated assault, but it could be dropped to a simple assault...”
“There was nothing simple in what he did! That planned this! He was deliberately absent from the church and he waited until Chris was saying goodbye before he attacked him!”
“We know that, Buck, but it may not be possible to prove it,” Travis explained. “Robert told me Hank is denying any culpability for what he did. He says it was grief...”
“That lying no good...”
“Easy, JD,” Casey told the irate Bostonian as he hit the glass of water and toppled it.
“Sorry...shoot...” Dunne said, anger evident in the young man’s eyes.
“Nothing to worry about, JD, it’s only water,” the younger Wells assured him.
“I think we need to get JD and Buck...”
“What did I do, Nathan?” Wilmington asked.
“You didn’t do anything, Buck, but remember Dr. Midland’s orders. It’s time you and JD followed through on them,” Jackson explained as he stood up. “Thank you, Orrin, Mrs. Travis...”
“But you hardly touched your food,” Evie told them.
“I don’t think any of us is very hungry right now, Mrs. Travis, but...”
“Alright, look, I know we’re all feeling pretty down right now, but we also need to keep in mind that Chris is going to need us to be strong for him. He’s the one who lost the most and he’ll need to know he’s not alone! Sit down and finish eating and then we’ll talk about who’s going where and who’s going to be watching them or have you boys figured that out yet?” Nettie asked as she looked at the solemn group. She smiled as they sat down and began picking at the food once more. These men were a part of her extended family, but there were three conspicuously absent. Two were at the hospital, while the other one was God only knew where doing God only knew what. She prayed daily for Vin Tanner’s safe return and right now he was needed more than ever. Something about the young Texan was like a soothing balm on the people around him and that was something Chris Larabee needed.
‘Bring him home, Lord...Chris is going to need that scruffy young man to help him deal with this. I honestly don’t think anyone else will be able to get through to him,’ she thought as she picked up her cup of tea and sipped the hot liquid. She listened to the conversation around her and sighed heavily as her thoughts turned once more to the Texan and how he’d touched her heart. ‘Stay safe, Vin, wherever you are.’
Chris became aware of the pain first, and as he forced his mind to clear he wondered what had happened to cause him to feel so lousy and confused. He forced heavy eyelids to open halfway and searched the room for any hint of why he was here. A light, too bright, shone in his eyes and he tried to turn away, but a hand held him fast. Words were spoken, but they didn’t mean anything to him. There was someone he needed to see...someone who was always there when he was sick or hurting, but he couldn’t find her. The light framed a woman’s face and he squinted, praying it was the face he needed to see.
“Sar...Sarah...what...what hap...pened?” Her words were soft and soothing yet it wasn’t the voice he wanted to hear. The uniform was right, his Sarah was a nurse, yet this was not his Sarah. Ignoring the woman’s touch he tried to lift his head, but all he succeeded in doing was setting off the fireworks again. Pain, swift and sharp stabbed through his skull and he cried out as again he tried to move.
Ezra had watched helplessly as Chris Larabee returned to consciousness. The blond eyelashes opened part way and then closed once more and he knew the man would soon be awake. He breathed a sigh of relief, knowing the doctors were worried about his remaining unconscious. At least this was a good sign, but the blonds’ words stabbed at his heart, tearing away his own defenses and making his eyes water. He moved to the opposite side of the bed and tried to capture his boss’ attention.
“Chris, sh, it’s okay, you’re in the hospital and the nurse is trying to help you.”
Larabee turned his head slightly and squinted as he tried to remember the man’s name. The green eyes were set in a friendly enough face, but the light flashed off something gold in the man’s mouth and Chris suddenly realized this man was a friend. The name returned with the memory and he tried to reach for the gambler, frowning as he saw the bandages covering his arms.
“Ez...Ezra. Where is she?”
“Who, Chris? Who are you looking for?” Standish asked, yet he knew who the blond wanted to see.
“Sarah...she should be here. W...where is she?” Again the pale man frowned as he tried to remember the events that lead to him being flat on his back in a hospital bed.
“Chris, Sarah’s...she’s...”
“She’s what, Ez? Ah shit...I for...forgot. She’s home with A...Adam. Call her for me. Te...tell her I need to s...see her okay?” the blond pleaded as he tried to get comfortable. He felt his eyelids growing heavy once more, but refused to give in to sleep as he stared at the conman.
“Chris, why don’t you go ahead and sleep. I’ll stay here with you...”
“No...need Sarah...okay...need her. You call her for me okay,” his eyes imploring the younger man to grant his wish.
“Chris, I’ll try okay...but you rest. Close your eyes and sleep,” the gambler said, hating himself for not being able to tell the other man where his wife and son really were.
“...okay...try...” His eyes shot open and he smiled in spite of his discomfort. “Ez...did I tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Sarah...we’re gonna have a baby...a new baby...Adam’s birthday wish...coming tr...God I’m so tired...”
“I know you are, Chris. Go ahead and sleep.”
“I will...Vin back yet...” He smiled weakly, his gaze steady on the gambler. “Ca...can’t wait to t...tell him ab...about the, God, Ezra!”
“Chris, what’s wrong?” Standish asked worried when the blond’s face contorted with pain.
“Ez....Ez...where is she? I can’t see her...I can’t feel her...SARAH!” Larabee screamed as he once more fought the returning memories. screaming... Buck...burning...stabbing pain...someone hitting him...heated words...Hank was there...blamed him for something...Sarah...Adam...two caskets...three roses...saying goodbye.
“NO!!!! Not gone...NO!”
“Chris, you have to lie still,” Patsy ordered as a second nurse hurried into the room.
“Patsy, what’s wrong?”
“Shelby, put in a call for Dr. Midland or Dr. Bledsoe!” Mullins ordered as she tried to instill a sense of calm into the injured man.
“Dr. Bledsoe is in a room with another patient. I’ll go see if he’s able to come!”
“Thanks, Shelby,” Mullins said as Larabee’s struggles continued.
“Sarah...God...Sarah...please...” he fought the touch of the nurse, ignoring the pain that shot through his injured hands and arms. His life was no longer the happy one he’d worked for...nothing mattered now...they were gone and he would never hold the newborn babe they’d conceived the day Vin took Adam fishing. He heard a man’s voice giving orders and soon felt the settling affects of drugs. Relishing the quiet pain free world that went with it he gave himself over, body and mind sinking into peaceful oblivion as his friend and medical personal looked on. 
“Patsy, I’m changing the orders regarding his medications. I want the Valium given on a regular basis until I say otherwise. I’d also like Dr. James to have a consult with Chris once he’s allowed to be awake for longer periods,” Bledsoe said before turning towards the gambler. “I’d like for you to wait outside while I check the injuries to your friend. You can come back shortly.”
“Yes, Dr. Bledsoe. He is going to be okay isn’t he?”
“I hope so, but we need to keep him calm and make sure he doesn’t do anything to make things worse.”
“How long will you keep him...”
“At least a couple of days. I don’t want him hurting himself and from what I saw that’s a distinct possibility. If we can keep him calm there’s a better chance of him making a full least from the physical injuries and hopefully Dr. James will be able to help him with the mental stress and pain he’s going to undergo over the loss of his family. I’m sorry, I just wish I had better news, but right now the pain and infection from the burns have got to be my top priority. We need to keep debriding the wounds in order to make sure he heals with minimal scaring.”
“I understand, and I appreciate your being candid with me. We’ll be here for him and hopefully Vin will be back by the time he’s released from the hospital,” Standish said, before leaving the room.
Powderman  paced the floor of his hotel room, kicking at anything that wasn’t nailed down. His anger stemmed from the last report on his bank account. The final payment for the job he’d done had not been deposited and he would not let this client screw him over for the cash he earned. His job had been to take out the woman and child and he’d done that in a spectacular manner and he would be paid for that blood...if it came down to it. He marched to the bar, poured himself a stiff drink of Black Label Whiskey and downed it without a thought.
“That bitch is going to find out she fucked with the wrong man!” he spat as he filled the glass once more. Powderman prided himself on being a man who knew his client as well as his target. Ella Gaines wanted Chris Larabee to herself, but she would not have him...not after what she’d done to him. He would see that Larabee died, or better still was given the information on the woman who hired him to murder his family. Somehow he knew the latter would be the choice for him, but if it came down to it he was not adverse to taking The Firm’s leader out of the picture totally. He hated killing without monetary compensation, but made exceptions in some cases. This would be for his own gain, personal instead of financial. Pouring another glass of Whiskey he flicked on the TV and tuned into the news coverage of the day's events.
Mendoza worked at freeing his hands, yet the tape continued to hold him fast. He knew Tanner and Maynard were sleeping, and his anger and hatred grew with each passing minute. His back was pressed up against the tree and each time he moved it put pressure on his shoulders, and his body screamed in protest.
‘I’ll fucking make you pay, Tanner! That bitch with you will not enjoy what I have planned for her, but you’ll watch every fucking minute of it and know it’s done because of you!’ he thought as his struggles continued.
Vin had been awake for some time, but kept his eyes to half mast. He’d been awakened by Mendoza’s struggles and muffled curses and watched the man closely. He smiled at the man’s inability to get free and knew from experience duct tape was next to impossible to get out of. He shifted slightly, trying to relieve the throbbing pain of his own body, but succeeded only in making it worse. He raised his head and looked at the woman sitting against the jeep and was glad he hadn’t woke her. She’d been through a lot in the last weeks and it seemed like they’d gone from the frying pan into the fire with Mendoza as their prisoner and no gas in the jeep. He continued to study her face as she relaxed in deep sleep. The hard lines that sometimes crossed her features were no longer in evidence and he thought the woman had a soft beauty none could compare to. She reminded him of the things life seldom gave, the chance to love and be loved by another and he briefly wondered at the way his heart rate quickened at her nearness. Vin felt his body react to his wayward thoughts and he forced himself to look towards the prisoner once more.
Mendoza had finally ceased his struggles and was staring across the small space separating them. There was an evil intensity about the way he studied Vin and the Texan finally pulled away from Maynard. He picked up the weapon sitting beside her and hurried towards their prisoner. He checked the tape, pleased that the man hadn’t been able to work anything loose. Vin looked into the hate filled eyes and smiled as he none to gently slapped the man’s face.
“Ya need ta take a piss?” the Texan asked and saw the head bob once. “Alright, I’m gonna cut yer hands loose and take ya over there. Just remember I ain’t in the best of moods and I’d sooner slit yer balls off than anythin’ else. Understand?”
Mendoza nodded, wincing as his bladder was close to letting go. He felt the Texan cut through the tape around his wrists and cried out as his arms dropped to his side and blood rushed back into them. He reached for his ankles, but his hands were slapped away.
“Ferget it...ya can hop over there!” Tanner watched as the man struggled to his feet and pointed his gun for Mendoza to keep moving.
The drug lord’s anger intensified as he was forced to hop the short distance to the trees. He turned an angry glare on the tracker, but the man continued to smile and gesture with his gun.
Tanner waited until the captive was finished and gestured for him to return to the tree. He heard the man mutter something, but could quite make it out. Reaching out he caught the edge of the tape and pulled it sharply, smiling as Mendoza cursed a blue streak and fell to the ground as his bound ankles refused to hold him any longer.
“You fucking bastard, Tanner!”
“Insults like that’ll just make me gag ya again. Now what were ya tryin’ ta say?”
“I want something to eat!”
“Whatcha think this is...a gourmet restaurant and I’m the fuckin’ waiter? Just shut the fuck up and sit down!”
“Everything okay over there, Tex?” Maynard asked. She’d been awake and alert the minute Tanner moved away from her.
“Yeah! Just lettin’ this jerkoff relieve himself.”
“I’d of let him piss himself,” Maynard told him.
“Never thought of that...might’ve covered his normal stench!” The tracker agreed.
“Yeah, maybe next time...”
“You can’t do this! I have rights!”
“Not out here ya don’t! Now shut the hell up!”
“I’m hungry and thirsty and...”
“And I don’t give a fuck!” Tanner said as he reattached the tape to the man’s still protesting mouth and shoved him back to the ground. “Now git yer fuckin’ hands back here!”
Mendoza knew by Tanner’s tone he meant business and he shifted backwards until he was at the base of the tree. He felt the younger man wrap several strands of tape around his wrist and grunted against the restraints. ‘You’ll pay you pathetic little bastard!’ he thought.
“Vin, you okay?” Maynard asked as the sharpshooter swayed on his feet. She hurried to him and lead him back to the jeep where she made him sit down and watched as his eyes closed. “Vin...”
“Sorry, Ja...Jackie...head hurts!”
“I’d make no wonder. Look, Tanner, leave Mendoza to me. You need to rest and let your body catch up on some healing.”
“Sounds like a go...good idea ri...right now.”
“You need to eat something first, Tex.”
“Not hungry...”
“Don’t matter. Here! Try a little of the bread and then I’ll leave you alone.”
“D...don’t...leave me a...lone. In this tagether,” Tanner whispered as he took the small amount of bread and forced it down, following it quickly with a few small sips of water.
“Yeah, we are, Tex. Now go to sleep. I got your back!”
“...tha’s usually Chris’ j...job,” the tracker said, drifting off to sleep once more.
Jackie stood up and looked around the small clearing. She knew they were safe for the moment, but they could not stay here indefinitely. Sooner or later Mendoza’s men would come looking for him and when they did, Maynard did not want to be vulnerable and caught out in the open. She felt someone staring at her and stalked over to the drug lord. She stood looking down at him and let the storm of hatred wash over her face.
“You may think your men will rescue you, Mendoza, but rest assured if they get within one hundred feet of us I’ll cut off your balls and shove them down your fucking throat! Comprende?” She didn’t wait for his answer as she turned and walked to the jeep. Her next course of action was to see what was salvageable in the vehicle.
Standish looked up from the magazine he’d been reading as Josiah Sanchez entered the room. He closed it and stood up, stretching the weary kinks from his back.
“Hello, Mr. Sanchez, I do hope things went well at the Travis residence.”
Sanchez knew the younger man was trying to hide behind his upbringing in order to keep his emotions in check. He turned and looked at the sleeping blond and wondered if they’d ever get him back to the strong man they knew and loved.
“Yes, they did. Buck is staying with Nathan for the night. JD is at the Wells’ place. I’m sure we’ll see them all here first thing in the morning.”
“Anything happen with Chris?” Sanchez asked and turned to face the younger man when the silence stretched out longer than necessary. “Ezra, what happened?”
“After you gentlemen left Chris woke up...”
“That’s good news...”
“Yes, it is...but.”
“At first he was confused and kept asking where Sarah and Adam were...”
“Damn, I thought that might happen.”
“Yes, well, it was quite surprising to me when he realized they were gone and he tried to get out of bed, Josiah! Dr. Bledsoe is worried about him re-injuring himself and has ordered that he be kept sedated for a few days.”
“That’s understandable under the circumstances.”
“I agree, but it didn’t make it any easier to see.”
“I’m sure it didn’t, Son, and we’ll probably be looking at a lot more of it as his physical wounds begun to heal.”
“He’s going to have a lot to deal with once he realizes what he’s lost, but he won’t be alone.”
“Amen to that, Ezra. Now go on home, eat and get some rest.”
“I will, but I’ll be late getting here tomorrow.”
“Sleeping in?” Sanchez teased light heartedly.
“No, actually I was going to stop by the office and see if there’s been any contact from Vin,” Standish explained.
“That sounds like a good plan. Maybe I’ll see you there,” Sanchez said and watched as the younger man dejectedly left the room. He moved to the bed and watched the slow rise and fall of the sleeping man’s chest and prayed things would not be as hard as he expected.
Hank Connolly looked up as the door opened and his lawyer entered the room. He’d been in jail over twelve hours and the sour smell of stale beer wafted off him, a sickening stench in the small closed in room. He glared at the other man as he slammed his fist on the table.
“It’s about fuckin’ time you got your thumbs out of your ass and showed up, Riley. If I spend another hour in this place I swear I’ll kill someone...”
“Hank, threats like that will not get you out of here any faster,” Gary Riley said as he placed a silver briefcase on the table between them.
“Yeah, well, you try sleeping in a cell where no one’s had a bath in weeks! Stink’s enough to kill a man!”
‘You don’t smell like a bed of roses right now either, Hank. Now tell me what the hell you thought you were doing yesterday?”
“I went to my daughter’s funeral...”
“Bullshit, Hank. You disowned Sarah when she walked out with Larabee! What you did yesterday was the most despicably cold thing I’ve seen done! I’m telling you right here and now that this is the last time I do you a favor...”
“You owe me, Riley!”
“Not anymore! I figure this should mark us as paid in full! I can’t believe you went to the cemetery and struck that man! Jesus, Hank, have you seen today’s paper? You made front page!” He shoved the Billings Gazette across the table and watched as the other man looked at the picture. It showed Larabee being loaded into an ambulance and an inset of Hank Connolly being led away in handcuffs.
“Bastard got what he deserved...”
“ he didn’t. It’s time you admitted that Chris Larabee was the best thing that ever happened to your daughter...”
“You sonofabitch! Don’t you take up for Larabee! You’re my lawyer and you...”
“Yes, I’m your lawyer, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like you, Hank. To be honest I loath the day you walked into my office and should’ve turned you down flat...”
“But you needed the money...”
“I was stupid. If I’d have waited a little longer I could’ve been part of a big corporation, instead I listened to a no good...”
“You may not like me Riley, but as you said you owe me. Now get me the hell out of here!”
“You’re facing an aggravated assault charge, Hank...”
“Aggravated assault! Thought that was when you used something to hit the other man with. I just used my fist...only hit him twice...not like I did any real damage!”
“Hank, Larabee was burned in the fire that took his wife and son. You hit an injured man and may have caused more damage...”
“I don’t give a damn. Just tell me how to get out of here!” Connolly spat and smiled as an idea began to form in his twisted mind. “I know...tell them I was out of my mind with grief and wasn’t thinking properly. Tell the judge my only daughter was killed and I wasn’t in my right mind. Yeah, yeah, that’ll work. I plead temporary insanity and they’ll all feel sympathetic towards a father’s grief.”
“Hank, we both know you don’t give a damn about what happened to Sarah and Adam...”
“Don’t matter none...I’m a good actor, I can turn on the water works if need be, Riley. When do we see the judge?”
“Arraignment is in an hour, but...”
“No buts, Riley, I want out of this fucking place and I want you to help me!”
“Last time, Hank!”
“Fine, just do it! here’s something I need to do!”
“Hank, I want your word that you won’t go near Larabee.”
“I don’t need to see larabee, already did what I wanted to him, but there’s someone else I’d like to tell off!”
“Hank, don’t you think you’ve got enough problems?”
“Probably, but it never stopped me before!” The spiteful man said as he looked down at the newspaper and saw the woman he needed to speak to. ‘You and me got some things to settle, Nettie!’
Josiah walked into the office and shook his head in surprise. He knew Standish said he would be at the office, but believe he would still make it in before the gambler. He looked at his watch and realized it was not quite nine and evidenced by the empty coffee pot, Ezra had already been there for several hours. The young man looked exhausted, yet seemed enthralled in whatever he was reading on the computer screen.
“Ezra, how long have you been here?”
“Hello, Mr. Sanchez, how is Chris?”
“He was still sleeping when Orrin came in last night. So, are you going to answer my question?”
“What question?”
“How long have you been here?”
“I came in at six...why what time is it?” the gambler asked, rubbing tired eyes.
“It’s almost nine. Did you find anything?”
“I found a file on Barker’s activities and we can definitely tie him in to Mendoza. I know it’s a moot point since Barker is dead, but this file chronicles a lot of the items Barker did for the drug cartel.”
“I thought we already had all of that,” Sanchez observed.
“We did, but this is in Barker’s own personal files. I hacked into it about an hour ago.”
“Is there anything in there about Mendoza’s compound?”
“Yes, there is. He’s drawn a map to the location and also indicated who his contacts are here in the States.”
“Please tell me Coltrain wasn’t one of them.”
“There’s no mention of his name, but there are several names in the DEA who are mentioned as being on the take as well. The way I figure it is Barker wanted to make sure when he returned home there was no way his own boss could make him take the fall on his own. He’s given times, names, dates and money amounts here and I believe Mr. Patterson is going to find himself behind bars once these files come to light.”
“I wish there was some way we could help that along,” Sanchez said, pulling a chair closer to the computer.
“Actually, we don’t have to.”
“We don’t?” Sanchez asked, eyebrows rising curiously.
“That’s correct. It seems Mr. Barker covered his behind by sending this file to several people with orders that on his death it be sent to the DEA as well as several other agencies. It appears that Mr. Barker was a very nervous man since his divorce.”
“Alright, so Barker and Patterson have been taken care of. What about Mendoza? Have you contacted anyone at the DEA with this?”
“Not yet, but Orrin Travis knows and is on his way here. He called to say he’d be checking his messages before going home.”
“I guess Nathan and Buck have already relieved him at the hospital.”
“Yes, strange he didn’t mention that’s where he was. Anyway, I’ve been checking into Mendoza’s holdings and it appears he’s made a lot of enemies since taking over for his uncle. He’s also managed to get rid of most of his competition either by having them killed or making sure they end up in jail, and we both know how easy it would be for him to put out a hit on one of the men he’s helped indict. He’s the type that believes in getting rid of his enemies as evidenced by a drug lord named Jose Moreno de Velazquez. The man was found with a necktie similar to the Sicilian version.”
“Not a man to cross.”
“That’s an understatement. Anyway the last known whereabouts of in and his DEA partner was at the Pousada Vrajabhumi Hotel in the Rio De Janeiro mountains. I’ve been speaking with a couple of people there and have found out they left to go hiking to the northeast. One of the staff members said they took back packs and sleeping bags.”
“Alright, so we know they went northeast. Does Barker’s map show that’s where Mendoza’s compound is?”
“ a matter of fact he gives complete details on the trails leading up there.”
“Good morning, Josiah, Ezra.”
“Morning, Orrin, how was Chris this morning?” Sanchez asked.
“Sleeping. Dr. Bledsoe got there just as Nathan and Buck arrived. He wants to make sure the arrangements for Chris’ treatment were in place.”
“He seems to know what he’s doing,” Standish observed.
“Yes, he does, now what have you two found out?”
“We know where Mendoza’s hideout is,” Sanchez informed him.
“We do?”
“I was able to ascertain several maps of the area that seem to have an added feature not on the ordinary maps of the Rio De Janeiro mountains,” the gambler told him.
“Ascertained? I take it they were not found by strictly legal means?”
“No, they weren’t, but I can assure you that I have nothing to do with how they end up in the hands of the DEA, FBI, and several other bureaus.”
“I’ll take your word on that, Ezra. Were you able to find out if Vin is still there?”
“No...not yet. I’ve been cross referencing the data we’ve catalogued so far, but there’s no sighting of Vin or his partner since they left the hotel.”
“Alright, look, print me out the information you have and I’ll call Gerald Coltrain. I know he’s supposed to be leaving for Rio sometime in the next few days.”
“Certainly, Mr. Travis,” Standish said and hit the print button on the computer.
“Josiah, I want you to take over as The Firm’s leader while Chris is on temporary leave.”
“Orrin, I think Buck is supposed to take over if Chris or Vin is incapacitated.”
“Yes, he is, Josiah, but Buck is not exactly up to par either. As of right now there are three agents who can still do their job. Buck and JD are still on sick leave until Monday. Chris is out indefinitely and Vin’s missing in Rio. That leaves you, Ezra and Nathan. As of right now we’re not taking on any new cases and several of the ones that need in depth work have been turned over to other agencies with the permission of the clients. If and when we’re back up and running at full scale most of those clients have voiced their desire to return to The Firm.”
“This is costing you a lot, Orrin...”
“Cost doesn’t matter, Josiah. You boys know Evie and I don’t want for anything. We have more than enough to keep us comfortable for the rest of our lives even if there’s another Wall street crisis. So, please, don’t let what’s happening bother you. Right now I think we all have to take the time to grieve for what we’ve lost,” the older man said, tears filling his eyes as he thought of the two people so tragically murdered.
“Thank you, Mr. Travis,” Standish said as he handed the older man the printed pages.
“You boys go home and get some rest,” Travis ordered as he followed the men from the office.
“Could say the same about you, Orrin,” Sanchez said as they made it to the elevator.
“I will as soon as Gerald gets here and we go over these files. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some leads no Vin’s whereabouts,” Travis said as he entered the elevator and the door closed no the other two.
Josiah and Ezra moved towards the stairs and descended towards the garage. Neither man spoke, thinking instead of the injured man in the burn ward and the missing tracker. Somehow the group would not be whole and able to heal until they were all together again.
Powderman looked at the information on the computer screen and smiled as he saw the remainder of his fee had been paid. He sipped at the cup of black coffee beside him and licked at his lips. The money was there, but it was late and someone would have to pay for even thinking about double crossing him. There were several ways he could do this, but for him an explosive spoke the loudest. Before he left to go home he would make sure the woman received a warning that she would not soon forget. He would wait, watch and bide his time until the right moment presented itself. Turning off the computer he moved towards the bed and sat down.
“Nobody double crosses de Powderman...NOBODY!” he vowed as he turned on the TV and watched the news from the day before.
Jackie continued to worry about her partner as she watched the area. A full twenty four hours had passed since they’d been forced to hide out in the small clearing. So far there was no sign of Mendoza’s men and she was beginning to believe maybe they’d done a better job of destroying the compound than she originally thought. Perhaps Vin’s well placed explosives destroyed not only the jeep but communications as well, but she understood that even if it was true, they couldn’t stay here much longer. The nights were cold and although her search of the jeep had turned up several ratty blankets they didn’t do much to ward of the chill in the air. She’d slept the night before cuddled into the Texan’s back and knew the heat that was keeping her warm was a dangerous sign that her partner was ill. She’d managed to keep him eating and drinking, but began to wonder if staying there and resting was such a good idea after all. She kept Mendoza trussed up, releasing him only long enough to relieve himself and eat, before using the tape to secure him once again. She moved to check on the sleeping captive and was pleased to see he was still as she’d left him.
The DEA agent turned as a soft moan escaped from her partner and she hurried to kneel down beside him. She felt his forehead and found it slightly cooler, but still hotter than she would like.
Vin knew he had to be dreaming as he felt the heat of the flames as he watched the fire consume everything around him. Two caskets were set in the circle of fire and he watched as Chris Larabee tried to reach them. The blond was screaming for someone to help him, but Tanner could not get close as the wall of fire rose up to engulf the caskets. He moaned as he fought the lethargy holding him down, but soon felt a hand touch his forehead and a persistent voice reached his ears. Taking a steadying breath he watched as the last remnants of the dream receded and fought to open his eyes.
“Hey, Tex, it’s about time you woke up,” Maynard said as the eyelids finally lifted to reveal fever glazed eyes.
“Glad to see your memories still intact. How are you feeling?”
“Like I went ten rounds with a grizzly,” Tanner answered.
“You kinda look like it too. Do you need anything?”
“Muh be...bed...”
Maynard laughed as she helped him sit up and frowned as she heard the heavy wheeze coming from his lungs. “Me too, Tex.”
“Ya’d share muh bed?”
“I think I already have been, but I’d rather we had a soft feather mattress...”
“Should’ve asked Ezra ta be yer loves them feather beds...any water le...left?”
“Nah, think I’ll stick with my scruffy Texan...I’m kind of getting used to his accent and jokes,” Maynard said as she opened the bottle of water and handed it to the injured man. She watched as he took several swallows before handing it back to her.
“Thanks...bastard givin’ ya any trouble?”
“Nope...he’s sort of tied up with other things at the moment,” she said with a grin.
“Good...keep him that way. How long’ve I been out?”
“Nearly five hours...”
“Shit...we need ta get moving! Have ya seen or heard anythin’?”
“No...nothing at all. Vin, just stay put and I’ll get you something to eat. Then we’ll decide on what to do next.”
“Nothin’ ta decide. We have ta get movin’. We’re lucky those bastards ain’t found us yet!”
“Alright...but first you eat. Then we get moving. We’ve got several hours of daylight left so I figured we could make our way downstream and hopefully we’ll find the main roads some where south of here.”
“Yeah, but we stay off the main roads until we reach someplace that’s got a phone...maybe we can call someone ta pick us up.”
“What if Barker finds out?”
“He won’t...we’ll make sure we call Chris first...wanna see what’s goin’ on with him anyway. Keep gettin’ the idea somethin’ bad’s happened.”
“Is that what you were dreaming about?”
“Dreaming?” Tanner asked as she handed him the last of the bread and several pieces of salami.
“ were talking about caskets and funerals and fires.”
“Damn, I don’t remember,” he said as he bit into the bread and fought to keep his stomach from rebelling against the much need food. He watched as Jackie moved to check on Mendoza before she packed up the pack she found in the jeep.
‘What’s going on, Cowboy?’ he thought as his body trembled with an unnatural coldness he’d never felt before. Something had happened and it was through the bond he had with Chris that he knew it was bad, and right now there was nothing he could do about it. He had to get Mendoza back to Rio and fly back to Billings as quickly as possible.
Two days after the funeral of Sarah and Adam Larabee, Madonna Tobin sat on her son’s bed and let the tears fall. She looked at the picture on Danny’s taken when the boys were only two. Chris, Adam, and Sarah Larabee, Gary, Danny and herself, all smiling and laughing as they played at the beach. Now there would never be any more memories like these and she cried as she felt the baby move inside her. She knew this child was a gift, and would cherish the life growing within her and vowed to hold him or her close.
“Mommy, are you okay?”
Madonna wiped her eyes on her apron and hugged her son close. “I’m fine, Danny. Don’t worry, Mommy’s just a little...”
“Sad...I’m sad too. I miss Adam....he’s supposed to come over and play with me this weekend.”
“I know honey, I miss him too, but as long as we remember him and the fun times we had with him and his Mommy.”
“Why did they die?” Danny asked and lifted tear filled eyes to look into his mothers.
“Well, honey, sometimes God needs to call his special angels home and when he does they have to go. They may not want to, but they know that God needs them to watch over others they care about.”
“Like Chris. Are Sarah and Adam watching over him now?”
“Yes, honey, they are and they’ll watch over us too.”
“Will I be able to see them?”
“No, sweetheart, Angels are in our hearts and will always be there. Sometimes we’ll hear something that reminds us of them...or smell something that just takes our breath away.”
“Mommy, I found something that reminds me of Adam.”
“You did?” Madonna asked as her son sat down beside her.
“Huh-huh, Adam left them here when he stayed for our sleepover. Want me to show you?”
“Yes, Danny, please show me,” the pregnant woman said, smiling as her son pulled back the blanket and lifted his pillow.
“I wanted to keep them un....til Adam came over again. They were his favorite, Mommy.”
“Oh, God,” Madonna felt the tears fall as she took the two items her son held out to her. She held them to her chest and let the soft sobs escape as her young son sat beside her once more. She pulled him close as she heard his cries and knew she held a treasure in her hands. One that went beyond money and reminded her of the advertising she’d once laughed at. This treasure truly was priceless and she knew she had to return it to is rightful owner.
“Can I keep them, Mommy?”
“You could, but I think I know someone who could really use them right now. Someone who’s in a lot of pain and missing his family,” the woman explained.
“You mean, Chris? You think he’ll want them back?”
“I think he’d like to have them back, Danny. Chris lost so much in that fire and this treasure you found might help him feel better. I really think you were meant to find them so you could help Adam’s daddy feel better. Do you think you can let him have them?”
“I...I want to keep them, Mommy, ‘cause I’s Adam’s best friend, but Chris is his best Daddy and I want him to have them back.”
“You’re a big boy, Danny, and you’ve made me very proud of you. Your daddy and I are going to visit Chris tomorrow and we’ll make sure he gets these.”
“Can I go too?”
“No, sweetie, not yet. Chris is too sick to have too many visitors yet.”
“Is he gonna die” the boy cried and felt his mother’s loving arms wrap him in a tender hug as his body trembled with the force of his sobs.
“No, Honey, Chris won’t die, but he’s going to need lots of help to make sure he gets better,” Madonna said and closed her eyes. ‘Oh, Sarah, I wish you were here,’ she thought sadly.
Buck could feel Nathan watching him, but couldn’t take his eyes from the man lying so quietly in the bed. Since Bledsoe and the nurse left, the ladies man sat in the chair watching over his long time friend. He felt the loss of Sarah and Adam Larabee and knew it would always be a part of him. Always and forever Chris and Sarah had vowed to each other on their wedding day...but how could forever be so short. They’d been so happy while he was with them and Chris was so excited about the prospect of the second baby. Now that dream was gone, blown away by a vindictive person who did not understand the happiness of true love.
‘Are you really behind all this, Ella. Are you so warped that you could not see how much Chris loved Sarah. How happy they were together?’ he thought as tears filled his eyes and a hand clamped down on his left shoulder.
“Are you okay, Buck?”
“, Nate, I’m h...heart is broken and I don’t th...think it’ll ever be mended again.”
Jackson moved around to the front of the gentle man and waited for him to lift his head. He could see the trail made by the tears and swallowed several times to keep his own emotions in check.
“Buck, I know it feels that way right now...we all feel that way. Sarah and Adam were special to all of us, but you had a connection to them we didn’t. Chris and Sarah chose you to be Adam’s Godfather and that shows the love they had for you. They asked you to be a part of Adam’s life...not just as a friend or uncle, but as someone he can look up to and ask questions of. They entrusted you with the role should anything happen to them. That’s a special trust and it comes from the heart.”
“I can’t...Nathan....I can’t believe they’re gone!’s Chris gonna deal with it when I can’t even begin to understand it? Sarah and Adam were everything to him and he’s lost them....we’ve lost them,” Wilmington sniffed and grabbed for the tissues on the bedside stand. He felt Jackson making small circles on his back, but didn’t acknowledge the comforting gesture as he again looked at the man on the bed.
“We’ll be there for him, Buck...all of us...he won’t have to face any of it alone and neither will you,” Jackson assured him.
“Not the one you have to worry about, Nathan. I’m not the one who just lost his whole world.”
“Aren’t you? Didn’t you just hear what I said. Adam may have been Chris and Sarah’s son, but he also had a special place in your life, and that’s going to make this just as hard as if Adam was your flesh and blood. I’m going to talk to Dr. Midland and see if she’ll arrange for all of us to talk to a psychiatrist...”
“Buck, have you looked in the mirror lately? I know I have and I know how hard it is to deal with grief. I think we should all speak to someone about how we feel. Chris is gonna need to speak with someone and he might find it easier if he knew he wasn’t going in alone,” Jackson explained.
“He’s gonna fight that, Nathan. Chris can be stubborn when it comes down to it!”
“I know,” Jackson agreed, realizing Larabee was not the only stubborn man in the room as Wilmington rubbed at his eyes.
“Head hurting?”
“Some,” the ladies’ man answered softly.
“Why don’t you let me take you home and you can get some rest?”
“No...I’ll stay with Chris. Hell, after seeing what he’s going through with the burns...feeling Doc. Bledsoe working on them even with the drugs they gave him. Even now it looks like he’s in pain. When are they going to stop sedating him?”
“Probably sometime tomorrow. Dr. Bledsoe wants to keep him unaware of things for a little longer. Give his mind and body a chance to rest.”
“God, I hate this, Nathan! We need to find out who’s behind all this. I know we’re looking at Ella Gaines, but what if Powderman was really after me? What if we give up looking at the lowlife pieces of shit I helped put behind bars and it’s one of them? Maybe they’ll go after JD next or you or Ez...I just don’t want to leave anything to chance.”
“Alright, we’ll keep checking the files, but right now, Buck, you need to lie down before you fall down!” Jackson ordered.
“Look, if you won’t go home then at least go across to the waiting room and lie down.”
“You’ll come get me if anything happens?” the rogue asked.
“I will, come on and I’ll make sure you get there alright,” the medic in training told him.
“Not a kid.”
“I know, but sometimes you boys act like it.” The two men walked out of the room and across the hall. Nathan opened the door and held it while the injured man stepped inside. He watched as Wilmington lay down on one of the long couches and turned back to the nursing station. Recognizing one of the ladies behind the desk he hurried over and smiled at her.
“Hi, Cindy, could I get a blanket and a pillow?”
“Sure, Nathan. Check on the cart over there. Glad to see you convinced Buck to lie down. He looks all do.”
“Thanks, Cindy,” Jackson said as he walked towards the cart and scooped up a warm blanket and pillow case. Next he grabbed a pillow off another cart and tucked it inside the case before hurrying towards the waiting room once more. He saw the older man shift, and knew he was nearly asleep, but smiled as Wilmington looked up at him.
“Thought you went back with Chris?”
“I was, but I thought I’d see if I can make you a little more comfortable first. Lift your head.” Jackson quickly eased the pillow under the injured man’s head and heard the mumbled thanks as he used the blanket to cover him.
“...mother hen...”
“Cluck, cluck,” Jackson whispered, smiling as his words brought a chuckle from the patient. “Rest easy, Buck, I’ll be right across the hall.”
JD stood looking at the devastation that was once the Larabee home. He knew Casey was watching him as he stepped up to the memorial of flowers sitting on the ashes of his mentor’s dreams. He swallowed the painful lump forming in his throat as he placed the bouquet of baby carnations and baby’s breath amongst the other flowers and stood up. There were no tears, he’d used them up earlier, but the sorrow was still there. He listened and could almost hear Adam’s infectious laughter as a gentle breeze tickled his senses.
“JD, are you okay?”
“Yeah, Casey, I’m fine. I just can’t help but wonder why God would let something like this happen...I mean I know it’s not God’s fault, but if only he’d done something to stop...”
“I know, JD, and I wish I had the answers for you, But I don’t. Perhaps no one does, but we have to keep the hope alive or there’s no point in living.”
“What was the point of Adam’s life. The kid didn’t do anything to hurt anyone or impact on the world and most people don’t know and don’t care what happened here.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, JD. Adam impacted on the lives of those who knew and loved him. Think of the happiness he brought to Chris and Sarah. Think of the times he made you laugh and the games he played with you. Remember the shadow game?”
“How could I forget,” the Bostonian asked, a wistful smile on his face. “He nearly drove me crazy repeating every word I said.”
“I know...and you were so frustrated and you said shit and...”
“...and the look on his face when he realized what he said. He thought he’d be in trouble with his dad, but Chris couldn’t keep a straight face...”
“...and Sarah trying to berate Chris and you, but neither one of you would listen and Adam just repeating that word as if it was the funniest word in the he’d ever heard. See, Adam brought happiness into all our lives, and that was only one of the reasons he was put here on earth. Don’t mourn his passing, JD, celebrate his life and the wonderful memories he gave us all.”
“Now you sound like Josiah,” Dunne said as he took one last look around and turned back to the car.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Casey said as she climbed in behind the wheel of her Mazda 360 four door. She watched as Dunne took another look at the ruined home before getting into the passenger seat. Without a word she drove away from the home, feeling as if her own hear had been ripped from her chest at the loss of her cousins.
Vin stood up and walked over to their captive, fighting to keep the pain from overwhelming him as he knelt in front of Mendoza. Using the knife from the pack he cut the tape binding the man’s ankles and roughly pulled him to his feet.
“We’re ready ta move, Hector and I’m warning you right now not ta try anythin’. Right now I’m kinda short on what they call patience and it won’t take much fer me ta put a bullet in ya. Comprende?” He smiled as the other man nodded once.
“Vin, are you ready to go?”
“Yeah, Jackie, just making sure this bastard knows what’ll happen if’n he tries anythin’.”
“Good, and between us we’ll make sure he has a miserable trip,” Maynard said with a grin.
“I like the way ya think, Jackie. Alright, give me something to carry...”
“No, I don’t think that’s necessary...not with that arm.”
“Fine, but we got us a pack mule ta help us out, Give me the pack.” It didn’t take long to put the pack on Mendoza’s back and re-tape his wrists. Smiling at the muffled cursing, Vin took the lead, Mendoza in the middle and Jackie took up the rear.
Josiah woke at a little after four in the afternoon and took a quick shower before dressing and grabbing his keys off the table. He’d managed to grab four hours sleep and wanted to pick up a coffee and sandwich before picking up Nettie Wells and heading over to Saint Vincents. Locking his door he hurried towards the club van. The sky was quickly clouding over and he knew they were in for a storm later in the evening.
“Wash away our sins and sorrows, Lord, but don’t ever let us forget,” Sanchez said as he drove away from his small two bedroom bungalow.
Hank cursed his luck as he stepped out of the courtroom and looked for a taxi. Riley had managed to get him released on bail, but it took longer than expected. He knew his car was still parked at the cemetery and hoped it hadn’t been towed. Spotting a taxi the irate man hurried towards it and climbed inside.
“Where to, mister?” the driver asked.
“Holy Cross cemetery!” Connolly spat. By the time they reached the cemetery the ride had cost him almost nine dollars. Grumbling under his breath he counted out the exact change and dropped it on the front seat before exiting the car.
It didn’t take him long to find his car, and he swore as he spotted the ticket stuck under the wipers. Tearing it up he opened the door and mumbled under his breath.
“Fuckin’ cops ain’t got nothin’ better to do than harass a man when he’s down!” He drove out onto the main road, smiling as he thought of the confrontation ahead. Reaching under the seat he pulled out the half empty bottle of whiskey and opened it. Taking several long swallows he kept one hand on the wheel and his eyes on the road ahead.
Nettie sat in her rocking chair, her hands motionless as she looked down at the afghan she’d begun for Chris and Sarah. Her aged fingers were shaking as she added another row of stitches and let the tears fall. She knew Josiah Sanchez would be there soon and they would head over to the hospital and see her nephew in law. This was something she would finish and make sure Chris received it, the colors were the same as their wedding colors and she knew it would be a reminder of what he lost. Nettie also knew how little Chris had left, at least in the way of material things. Everything was destroyed in the explosion and there was little she could offer him, but whatever he wanted she would give freely.
A sound outside the front door made her look up from her task and she removed her glasses after laying down the half finished afghan. She made her way to the door as a loud banging sounded and a harsh voice called her name.
“You open this fucking door, Nettie, or I’ll break the damn thing down!”
“Go sleep it off, Hank or I’ll call the police!” the older woman called, refusing to pen the door as Connolly pounded on the outside, the force of his blows rattling the pictures on the wall.
“What’s the matter? You afraid of me?”
“No...but I’m not stupid either, Hank! I saw the marks you left on Sheila when you drank. She made me promise not to say anything, but you come in here now and I swear I’ll make sure everyone knows just what a miserable sonofabitch you really are!”
“You’re a real bitch you know that, Nettie? I’m not letting you get away with all the shit you’ve put me through...”
“Oh, that’s rich, Hank Connolly, coming from a man who beat his wife, drove his daughter away, ignored the beautiful grandson she gave him, and topped it all off by striking a man when he’s too hurt to defend himself. You’re a coward, Hank, always have been and always will be!”
“You bitch!

Josiah turned down the long driveway leading to the Wells home and frowned at the unfamiliar car in the driveway. The beat up Chevy had seen better days, evidenced by the rust eating at the rear and side panels. Dirt seemed to be embedded on the car, so thick it was hard to tell where it ended and the car began. He looked towards the house and cursed as he recognized the man standing on the porch, fist raised as if to strike it once more. Pulling the car to a stop, he exited before the forward motion was completely halted. Anger flooded his senses, making his eyes look colder than any of his friends had ever seen as he shouted at the unwelcome guest.
“What the hell are you doing here, Hank?”
“What business is it of yours, Sanchez?”
“It’s always my business when a man gets his kicks out of hurting someone who’s unable to defend himself. Bad enough what you did to Chris, but this shows just what kind of lowlife scum you really are. Get off Nettie’s property before I throw you off!”
“Go ahead and try, Preacher man, I’ll kick the shit...”
“You’re forgetting something, Hank...”
“I don’t think so. I can...”
“Do nothing!” Sanchez snarled as he grabbed the man by the collar and dragged him off the porch. He held Connolly as close to his own face as he could, gritting his teeth at the sickly sour smell of cheap liquor and dried sweat. He heard the door open behind him and knew the woman had come out of her home.
“Get your fucking hands off me or I’ll...”
“What, Hank. Breathe on me. Hell, you’ve already done that and I do find it hard to keep from puking, but I’m not gonna let you hurt anyone in my family anymore. I’m gonna let you go in about one minute and you’re going to get in your car and drive away. You’re never to come back here and if you do I’m sure Nettie won’t be adverse to pressing charges.”
“I’m not waiting for a next time, Josiah. I’ve already called the police...”
“What the hell for? I wasn’t doing nothing!”
“Yes, you were...starting with trespassing on private property. I told you to leave and you refused,” Nettie told him.
“I swear I’ll kill you...”
“Guess we can add threatening another person to your list of transgressions, Hank!” Sanchez said. “Now I’m going to let you go and you’d better get out of here before the police arrive.”
Connolly felt the vice like grip released and took a deep breath, before turning away. He felt the two people watching him and turned back, swinging his fist at the ex-preacher. His hand was caught and held in mid air and in a bone crunching move Sanchez had him sinking to his knees.
“I have to admit I didn’t think you had it in you, Hank!” There was no admiration in his voice, just contempt for the man before him. “You’re a coward and you just made your last mistake. Now get out of here before I teach you a lesson you won’t ever forget!” He punctuated his warning by shoving the man backwards until he landed in the dirt.
“I’ll get you for this, Sanchez. You and that old crow behind you and Chris Larabee are all gonna pay for crossing me!”
“Don’t make threats you can’t follow through on, Hank, because I’ll damn well make sure you pay the price!”
“Get off my property, Hank, and if you show your face around here again I’ll just dig out that old Spencer Carbine my husband loved so much!” Nettie warned and watched as the man hurried to his car and got inside. The sound of the engine started and she frowned as Josiah walked to the door and pulled the man out once more.
“What the hell are you doing, Sanchez?”
“We’ll add driving under the influence to the charges when the police get here...”
“You told me to leave...”
“Yes, I did, but I did not mean in your car. You’ve been drinking and from the smell I’d say you’re over the legal limit. I’m exercising my duty as a honest citizen and making sure you don’t drive under these conditions and maybe take someone’s life. Sit down, Hank and wait for the police to arrive!”
“You can’ do this!”
“I can and I am,” the ex-preacher said, smiling as the sound of a siren reached his ears. “Looks like this piece of trash won’t be here long, Nettie.”
“Thank God, I don’t know if can handle the stench any longer.”
“Bit...” Connolly never knew what hit him, but found himself looking up into the irate face of the ex-preacher.
“You say that one more time and I’m going to make sure you won’t be able to talk for a week,” Sanchez warned as the police car turned into the driveway. Within half an hour Connolly was cuffed and in the back seat of the police car. A tow truck had been called and would be there within half an hour. As the police car left Josiah turned to see the tears on  Nettie’s face. He pulled her close and felt her body relax even as soft sobs emanated from her throat.
“Thank you, Josiah.”
“You’re welcome, Nettie. He won’t bother you anymore, but to be safe we’ll take a restraining order out against him.”
“ know I can’t understand what Sheila ever saw in that bastard.”
“Love makes for strange bedfellows, and I’m sure he loved her in his own way...”
“I don’t think he loved her...I think he wanted her so that he could boast about marrying the most beautiful girl to ever attend a school prom. Sheila paid the price for saying I do and there was nothing I could do to help her. Now, I’d best go powder my nose so we can get on over to the hospital.”
“You sure you’re up to it?”
“Yes, Josiah, I’m fine. Hank doesn’t scare me...not anymore. He’s a coward and will always take the cowards way. Now enough about him. Will you wait here for me?”
“Yes, ma’am, I sure will,” the ex-preacher said with a toothy smile.
Nettie took a deep breath before entering Larabee’s room. She hated how pale and still the younger man was and kissed his cheek as she watched the nurse set the rate for the antibiotics to be delivered to the blond.
“Oh, Chris, I know this is gonna be hard on’s hard on all of us, but we’ll be there to help you. Josiah’s just grabbing some coffee and he’ll be right in. The others are going to make sure no one gets to you while the doctors keep you sedated. I just wish there was more I could do to ease the pain you’ll go through. No one should ever have to deal with the death of a one...but you’re proved that so many times over the years that I’ve known you.”
She sat down beside the bed as Josiah returned and handed her a coffee.
“He looks so pale,” Nettie said softly.
“He’s been through a lot, but he’s strong, Nettie and he’ll fight.”
“I know, but sometimes the fight doesn’t seem worth it. He’s lost more than any person should ever have to deal with and he didn’t get to say goodbye to them.”
“He his own way...when he’s ready and feels like visiting their graves he’ll find a way to cope with the loss. He won’t forget, God knows we never do, but he’ll learn ways to make their memory be a part of his life without having it tear him apart.”
“I hope you’re right,” Nettie answered and the silence lengthened between them as they watched over the injured man.
By the time darkness descended over the mountains, Vin Tanner was ready to call it a night. His body ached in places he’d never felt before, and the fever was once more upon him. He pushed on, knowing the more distance he put between themselves and Mendoza’s compound the better. The drug lord continued to try to slow them down, but a quick lesson with the knife against the man’s balls had stopped that. The Texan smiled as he remembered the look of real fear in the man’s eyes.
“Vin, it’s getting too dark,” Jackie said as she moved up beside the tracker. “We need to find a place to hole up for the night.”
“Alright,” the weary man said, watching as Mendoza glared at them. “ ‘spect our pack mule needs a rest too...don’t want ‘im givin’ out ‘fore we get him ta town.”
They continued on until Maynard spotted a small alcove in the base of the cliff just before a bend in the rapidly moving river. It was far enough off the trail to keep them hidden from Mendoza’s men, but they would still be unable to chance a fire.
Shoving Mendoza ahead of him, Vin waited for Jackie to walk beside him. He knew she had to be exhausted and was not about to let her take first watch tonight.
“I’ll stand first watch.”
“Vin, you need to rest...”
“I’m okay...been worst than this b’fore and stayed awake for three days straight. Ya haven’t had much sleep since we took Mendoza while tha’s all I been doin’. We make sure that bastard ain’t gonna escape and then you sleep. I’ll call ya in four hours.”
“Look, Jackie, I’s trained for shit like this and I can handle it! If’n I can’t I’ll wake ya.”
“You promise?” Maynard asked.
“On muh word as a Boy Scout,” the tracker said giving her the scout’s salute.
“Didn’t know you were a Boy Scout.”
“Ya’d be amazed at the things ya don’t know ‘bout me, Jackie,” Tanner said, watching as the young DEA agent took a couple of cans from the pack.
“Well, looks like you’ve got a choice between sausages or...let me see, sausages,” Maynard joked as she tossed a small can towards the sharpshooter. She tore open a small packet of crackers and divided them between her and the tracker, saving half a dozen for Mendoza.
By the time they finished the meager meal and made sure the drug lord had eaten and was secured to a small outcropping of rock, Jackie was feeling the weariness in every part of her body. Using the pack as a pillow she settled on the ground and looked through hooded eyes at the Texan. She wished there was something she could do to ease the fever and lower the pain, but it seemed like Tanner had his own pain management plan.
“Goodnight, Tex, she whispered tiredly.
“Night, Jackie. I’ll be wakin’ ya in four hours so keep muh place warm,” Tanner told her.
“Ah, so that’s the real reason for you taking the first shift. You want me to make sure the ground’s warmed up and soft enough for you.”
“You go ta sleep. Mendoza’s not goin’ anywhere on muh watch,” the Texan assured her. He sat on the edge of the rock face and listened to her soft snoring as she drifted towards sleep. Her face was framed in moonlight as she turned on her right side and he suddenly remembered the feel of her soft lips on his own. The touch of her hand as she tickled his senses and he knew he had to keep his mind from going any further as his jeans suddenly seemed a little too tight.
“Damn,” he muttered and stood up, wincing as every part of his body screamed in protest. His arm was stiffening up again and he knew he should’ve had Maynard change the bandage, but he wasn’t going to wake her up now. Glancing around in the moonlit splendor he breathed deeply of the mountain air as his mind wandered to his home in Billings and the family he’d become part of.
Chris Larabee was a man he’d trusted instantly, and in spite of his vow to remain on his own he’d taken the blond’s offer of a job. He remembered his first meeting with the rest of the team and how they’d shaken his hand, all except for one man. Buck Wilmington had seemed standoffish and Vin couldn’t understand why. It took several weeks to find out the man was a long time friend to Chris Larabee. The two men had a history together and now Vin seemed to have intruded on that, not by choice, but by something beyond their control. His connection to Larabee could not be denied and now that same connection was telling him his best friend needed him more than ever before. The feelings left after his own nightmare chilled him to the bone and he knew there was a sense of truth to his nightmares. Something was missing, something that was part of the man Chris was and Vin could only guess what that was. There had to have been a major upheaval in Larabee’s life, because right now, Vin Tanner could not sense him, and that left an empty space in his heart. Taking a deep breath he walked the perimeter of the small clearing, hoping and praying his instincts were wrong, yet knowing they seldom were.
‘I’m here, Larabee, ya just gotta reach fer me and I’ll be there. Shouldn’t take much longer ta get this bastard back where he belongs,’ the Texan thought, leaning wearily against a tall tree and looking out over the mountainous terrain. The bright orb of the moon shone across the river, bathing the thick foliage in a luminescent hue as the lonesome call of a single bird echoed across the valley. The scene before him was one that normally thrilled him with its beauty, but tonight all he felt was the emptiness inside.
“Keep safe, Chris...won’t be long now,” he whispered as the soft wind rustled the trees and flicked at his hair.
Larabee was beginning to feel things he didn’t want to feel, to hear things he didn’t want to hear, and tried to force the sensations away. His chest and right arm felt on fire, and something stabbed at his left side as he shifted on the bed. His mouth was drier than he thought possible and his tongue stuck to his lips as it searched for any kind of moisture. A soft moan escaped his parched throat as he turned slightly onto his left side. Chris knew he was hurt, but again his mind could not grasp how or why. Several times he’d been on the verge of waking up, but had simply fought to stay in the almost white void where nothing penetrated and nothing mattered. He thought he heard someone calling him, but couldn’t quite make out the voice.
“V...Vin...” he mumbled hopefully as a hidden sense reached out for the connection that should be there.
JD stood beside the bed, watching as his mentor showed signs of waking up. In the three days since the funeral, Larabee had never been left alone and there had been no further sign of the female visitor who’d managed to sneak into his room. Bledsoe ordered the sedation be eased off that morning and now, with the hands of the clock moving towards four in the afternoon, the injured man was waking up to a world he probably wouldn’t want to face. He heard movement behind him and turned to see Nathan and Rain enter the room.
“Hello, JD, you’re looking much better than the last time I saw you,” Goines greeted the young man.
“Hi, Rain, thanks. I’m fine now.”
“Good, how is Chris doing? I hear Dr. Bledsoe ordered the sedation stopped,” the exotic beauty said.
“Yes, and it looks like he’s starting to wake up. I thought I heard him call out for someone earlier, but I’m not so sure now,” Dunne explained as Jackson moved to the opposite side of the hospital bed. Again a soft moan sounded in the room and the trio watched as Larabee fought to open his eyes.
This time there was no escaping the pain that came with waking. There was no easy escape back into the relative pain free world of unconsciousness. Whatever else was happening, he knew he was not alone as his dulled senses picked up muffled words and the smells he associated with hospitals. Eyelids slowly lifted, blinking several times in an effort to clear the fuzziness on the edge of his vision.
“Come on, Chris...that’s it open your eyes. You’re in the hospital, but you’re going to be okay.”
“Na...Nathan?” Larabee stammered.
“That’s’re you feeling?” the medic in training asked.
“Not m...much of anything right now...what happened?”
“What do you remember, Chris?” Rain asked, watching as Larabee frowned and closed his eyes again. She pressed the button on the bed in order to let the nurses know the injured man was awake.
“Not” the green eyes widened as Larabee tried to sit up in the bed. “Buck and J...JD...hurt...”
“Easy, Chris. Buck and JD are fine. JD’s right there beside you,” Jackson explained.
Larabee turned his head and breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted the smiling young man looking down at him. “JD...okay?”
“I’m fine, Chris. Buck’s all right too. He left a little while ago, but he’ll be back after. So will Ezra and Josiah...”
“Where’s...Sarah...” Chris asked, frowning as a vision swam before his eyes. Again there was the vision of an explosion, the sound of screaming, the sensation of something burning as it struck his chest. He tried to control his breathing as his eyes shot open and he looked towards the medic in training.
“ is she? I ca...can’t f...find her!”
“Sh, I know, Chris,” Jackson said, smoothing the sweat soaked blond hair back from the pale forehead. 
“ know where she is? Is Adam with her...I keep seeing them...hear them...” Again Larabee frowned and closed his eyes, but this time he saw Hank Connolly at a cemetery and the man was screaming something at him.  ‘You killed her, you bastard!’ The words were clear and their meaning was like pouring salt on an open wound.
“Nathan...” the name was spoken softly, but there was no doubt of the pain the blond was feeling. “I ke...keep seeing the house...they were in it...Buck...Buck saved me...wanted to...God, NO!”
“Easy, Chris,” Dunne tried as a nurse entered the room and the youngest member of the team moved out of the way.
Pamela Metcalf knew Bledsoe’s orders were to let the patient wake up, but if necessary she was to sedate him again. She knew by the look on his face, Chris Larabee was reliving the emotional trauma of the last week of his life. She didn’t want to sedate him again, but if there were no choice she would do it.
“Could....couldn’t get to th...them, Nathan...I tr....tried...Buck...he kn...knows...” Larabee let the tears fall, knowing there was no way of stopping them even if he wanted to. His physical pain was nothing compared to the pain of knowing his wife and son were gone from him, buried in the cold ground...along with his hopes and dreams.
“We know you tried, Chris. Buck told us how you wanted to go in after them, but he stopped you and we’re glad he did. There was no way you could’ve saved them and if you’d gone in after them you’d be dead too.”
“L...least I...I’d be with them...”
“Chris, would Sarah want you talking like that?” Jackson asked as the nurse checked the monitors.
“ my a...ass...” Larabee said, remembering a time when his wife was at death’s door and he’d said some stupid things. She’d threatened to kick his ass to hell and back if he didn’t smarten up. The memory brought a slight smile to his face, but it was quickly replaced by sadness as the full extent of his loss hit home. Swallowing past the lump in his throat was proving to be more difficult than he’d imagined and he felt the others watching him closely. He closed his eyes once more as an overwhelming sense of despair and grief washed over him. His body trembled of its own accord and he heard the nurse talking to him, but turned away. He felt her at his IV and watched as she readied a site for injection.
“Chris, this will help you sleep...”
“No...don’t want it...”
“No...Nathan, Pl...please don’t want to sleep...”
“Why?” Rain asked softly.
“Dreams...see ‘em them” he turned away and closed his eyes so they couldn’t see how deeply saddened he was. “...always too l...late to them. H...Hank was ri...right ‘bout me...”
“What are you talking about, Chris Larabee!” Nettie Wells asked as she stepped into the now crowded room, anger evident in her voice.
“I sh...should have st...stayed a...way from Sarah...alive now if I did...”
“Now you listen to me, young man!” the older woman said, hands on her hips as she waited for Larabee to look at her.
“Killed her su...sure as if I s...set the bomb...”
“That’s a load of crap and we both know it...”
“Mrs. Wells!” Dunne tried, surprised by the woman’s tone and words.
“Now, Chris, that kind of talk stops right now! You’re the best thing that ever happen to Sarah. She had more happiness with you than she ever had with that miserable SOB of a father of hers. You gave her something she never had since Sheila died. You gave her a family again, Chris. You made her see that she didn’t have to stay under her father’s wing to be loved and needed. If you hadn’t married her we never would’ve been gifted with that angel of a boy of yours.”
“It hu...hurts so much, Nettie...”
“I know it does, Son,” the woman said, sitting down next to the bed and listening as the others left the room. “And it will for a long time, but the pain will ease and when it does you’ll be able to remember all the wonderful things the three of you did together. The love you both shared and the child...children that love produced will continue to live on so long as you keep them in your heart and think about them often. Sheila once asked me a question that has kept me going during the times when my memories get overwhelming. She said ‘Cos you lost ‘em are you sorry you ever had them?’ Think about it, Chris, would you give up the years God gave you with Sarah and Adam.”
“ I wouldn’t, but’s not right...never know the baby...never hold her...or...or...”
“I know, Chris...and it’s something we have to live with. You may not have seen or held the new baby Sarah was carrying, but I can see how much you loved her already. They’ll be waiting for you when your time comes and until then you’ll have us to help. To lean on or scream at or to just plain listen...whatever you need we’ll be there.”
Larabee watched as the older woman leaned down and placed a kiss on his forehead. He knew she was right, but it didn’t make it any easier. His life was in a shambles, his world torn apart, and it felt like there was nothing left for him...yet he would not give up...he did have a find the bastards who destroyed his life.
“Chris, are you okay?”
“No...not really, but I will be, Nettie...I will be,” Larabee sighed and let his eyes close, thinking back to the day of the funeral as he drifted towards sleep. He didn’t hear the others re-enter his room as in his mind the hospital room was replaced by the cemetery and two caskets. Something caught his attention just before his head exploded and his body went flying over the coffins.
“’ he whispered as he dropped into the nightmarish world once more.
Nettie stood beside the bed and soon felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned to see JD and covered his hand with her own.
“You certainly have a wonderful way with words, Mrs. Wells,” Rain said, smiling at the woman she’d only known a short time.
“Thank you, Miss....”
“Please, call me Rain,” the woman said.
“Thank you, Rain. Chris is going to have a hard time dealing with this...but as long as he keeps their memory intact he’ll be least I think he will,” she said, sinking down on to the chair JD pushed in place.
“We’ll make sure he does, Nettie,” Nathan assured her as the nurse adjusted the IV flow before leaving them alone with the injured man.
“I know you boys will...I just wish Vin was here. He knows Chris...knows how to get him to open up,” the older woman said softly.
“They do seem to have a special friendship...more like brothers than friends. Always wondered how Buck saw it, what he thinks of their closeness,” Jackson said softly.
“Buck and me talked about that after Vin and Chris got so close. It hurt him...but it also made sense to him,” JD explained. “See Chris and Buck go way back and at first Buck thought Vin was intruding on his place with Chris, but he realized that wasn’t true. There are things between Chris and Buck that none of us know. Buck says Chris will always be his best friend. He told me that his history with Chris will always be there and no one can take that away from them. He knows Chris and Vin have a bond that sometimes makes talking unnecessary, and sometimes he wishes he had the same sense of things, but he got over it. Do you know how?”
“No, JD, and I’d like to hear it if you feel like sharing it,” the medic in training suggested.
“Buck figures Chris has room in his life for more than one friend and he won’t argue that he’s the same way. He says Chris will always be a part of his life and he’ll fight tooth and nail to be the kind of friend he needs. He thinks Vin is good for Chris...brings out the lighter side of his nature and is a counter balance to a darker side of Chris he hopes none of us ever sees. I remember Buck talking about Ella Gaines and what Chris was like during the time he knew her. I know they’ve told us some of it, but Buck says there’s a lot more involved, but he won’t betray Chris’ confidence.”
“Is there anything new on her?” Nettie asked, wondering if the woman was back in town or out of Larabee’s life for good.
“We think she’s back in town, Nettie, and is probably the one who has Chris’ ring.”
“What?” the woman was irate as she looked from Jackson to Dunne, watching as they lowered their eyes. “Does Chris know?”
“No, and we’d rather he didn’t yet. We still haven’t confirmed the information yet, but according to Officer Graham, Ella was the woman who entered Chris’ room the night before the funeral. She was dressed as a nurse and fooled him,’ Jackson explained.
“So why haven’t the police arrested her?” Goines asked curiously.
“They’ve been unable to find anything that confirms she’s returned to Billings. We’re still getting information that says she’s in Monte Carlo, but something tells me it’s all a smoke screen and Ella is somewhere in the city.”
“Damn it, we have enough to deal with, without her coming anywhere near Chris.”
“Nettie, the police know she could be around and the staff here at the hospital has also been warned to keep a lookout for her,” Dunne explained.
“That didn’t stop her from getting in here before and taking his ring,” Wells whispered, watching the sleeping man for any signs he was listening to them. “I don’t think we should talk about this right now, but I want to know everything that concerns my nephew’s well being. What about Vin? Is there anything new about him?”
“Not much I’m afraid, but we have found some new information on the compound he was searching for,” Jackson assured her.
“He never should’ve agreed to go,” Wells spat as she reached for the cloth and gently washed the sleeping man’s fevered face.
“We all agree with you on that, Nettie, but there’s nothing we can do about it now. I can tell you that the DEA has sent several agents into the mountains to find the compound and hopefully they’ll find Vin as well,” the medic in training told her.
“He’s needed here...and that’s not meant as a slight against you boys, but Vin and Chris have something special between them and I think Vin could help Chris deal with all of this,” Nettie said, sighing wearily as she looked at the too pale face.
“Nettie, why don’t I take you home? We could pick Casey up along the way,” Dunne suggested.
“Nathan, are you going to be here with him?”
“I’ll be here, Nettie, he won’t wake up alone. You go on home with JD and get some rest. We’ll call if he needs anything, okay?”
“Okay,” the older woman agreed and stood up. She looked down at the sleeping man and placed a gentle hand against his cheek. “Sleep well, Chris, Sarah and Adam and the baby are watching over you now and we’ll be here when you wake up.”
Vin continued to watch over his partner and their prisoner. Nearly four hours had passed since Jackie curled onto her side and closed her eyes. He knew she was still sleeping and one look at Mendoza told him the drug lord was also in slumber land. He stood up and again circled the perimeter, pushing apart the heavy brush in order to check the trail they were following. The moon was well past the halfway mark and he was glad there was still no sign of pursuit. Taking a deep breath he looked at his watch and realized it was time to let Jackie take her watch. As much as she needed the sleep, he knew he needed it more right now.
Vin admired the young woman, seeing something of himself in her actions. She was a fighter, a survivor, and a woman who believed in justice. Taking a few steps away from her he checked Mendoza once more and was grateful the man remained asleep. Turning back to the woman once more he sat down beside her and tapped her cheek lightly.
“Leave me alone, damn it...”
“Easy, Jackie, it’s me,” Tanner assured her as she struck out at him.
“Yeah, I know, and I wish I could...but...” He winced as her hand came in contact with his injured arm. The sound finally penetrated Jackie’s sleep drenched mind and she sat up.
“Shit, Tex, sorry...”
“It’s okay...jest caught me off guard.”
“What time is it?”
“A little after one...gonna need ya ta look at muh arm. Damn thing’s hurtin’ like a sonofabitch!”
“I bet it does. Hang on and I’ll get the first aid kit. That bastard give you any trouble?” she asked as she opened the backpack.
“Hasn’t moved...just checked him and he’s still trussed up like the prized turkey in a shooting contest.”
“Good. Alright let’s get you outta that...ah, Vin, there’s not enough left to call that a shirt.”
“Ain’t nothin’ I can do ‘bout it...”
“Did I sound like I was complaining, Tex. If it wasn’t for the company we got I’d find a way to sooth the aches and pains...”
“Ah, hell, Jackie, wish the hell I had the energy ta take ya up on that offer.” Tanner said, wincing as she wet the bandage before removing it from the wound. The wound was swollen and Jackie could smell the stench of pus and blood. She looked worriedly into the Texan’s eyes and shook her head. “Vin, I need to get this cleaned up...”
“I know...damn thing’s infected...”
“Yes it is,” Maynard said, listening to the sound of running water off to her right. “Think maybe we can leave that bastard alone long enough for you to maybe take a dip in the river.”
“You offering to wash muh back?” the tracker asked, smiling weakly as she helped him stand.
“I’ll wash your back and your arm, anything else would be tempting fate and right now you’re in no shape for that. Come on...let’s see if there’s maybe a shallow pool you can sit in...probably gonna be cold...”
“Yeah...but cold’s somethin’ I’ve been before.” Tanner moved to check on the drug lord, making sure the tape still held him secure. Nodding to the DEA agent he followed her towards the river. She carried both the backpack and his weapon and knew there’d be no point in asking if he could help her.
They walked a hundred yards upstream and stopped when Vin found a suitable place. Several large trees had fallen across the river and seemed to have dammed it off, causing a small pool to form. He watched Maynard struggle with the pack and drop it onto the ground.
“Alright, Tex, strip...”
“Well, that’s the only clothes you have and I don’t want you having to put it back on wet. Take it off and see if you can scrub some of the layers of dirt off. Wait...”
“I’m going to take out the damn stitches and see if I can drain the wound.”
“You can say that again, but at least this way it’ll make sure it’s clean. Hang on and I’ll get the knife from the pack.”
Vin stripped the tattered clothes from his body and waited for Maynard to cut away the stitches before moving into the pool. The water was cool, but not as bad as he thought it would be and he smiled as Maynard called to him.
“How is it?”
“Not so bad...wanna join me?”
“Not on your life. Now hurry up and get clean.” Jackie watched, awed by the way the moonlight caught the lean body standing hip deep in the mountain pool. The water glistened in the luminescent glow and her breath caught in her lungs as she watched the man dip below the water and rise above the surface a minute or so later. She couldn’t drag her eyes away from the sight as Tanner flipped his wet hair back and revealed the heavily bearded face.
‘Eat your heart out, Jane. Tarzan’s got nothing on this man.’ she thought as she watched the handsome man bathe in the moonlit pool of water. She felt her body reacting to his nearness and reached down to dip cold water into her hands. She washed her face, several times in order to calm her body’s demands for relief.
“Jackie, are ya okay?”
“Huh...what...did you say something?”
“I asked if ya were okay?”
“I’m fine...just thinking it’s time for you to get out of the water before you catch a chill.”
“Alright,” Tanner said, dipping underneath the surface one more time before joining the woman on the bank of the river.
“Here, use this to dry off with,” Maynard said, tossing the remainder of an old blanket towards him. She watched, enthralled by the rippling muscles and well-built form standing before her. Shaking her head she realized Tanner was finished and was pulling the jeans back on. “Feel better?”
“Yeah...arm’s not hurtin’ as much.”
“Good, hang on and I’ll put some ointment on it and a fresh bandage,” Maynard ordered and quickly made sure the wound was clean before spreading the ointment over the injured area. Five minutes later they headed back towards camp and Jackie watched as Tanner settled on the ground. She placed the pack under his head and watched as he slipped towards sleep. She felt Mendoza’s eyes on her and again made sure he was secured before walking the perimeter of their camp.
Madonna looked into Room 4A, unaware of how badly her hands were shaking. Visiting hours would be over soon, but she wanted to make sure her son’s gift was where it belonged. She hoped and prayed what she was about to give Chris Larabee would not have an adverse affect on him. Somehow she doubted that very much as she stepped through the door. She recognized the man sitting beside the bed and returned his smile when he glanced in her direction.
“Hello, Mrs. Tobin.”
“Hello, Mr. Standish...”
“Only when you agree to call me Madonna,” she told him as she walked up to the bed. “How is he doing?”
“Better...Dr. Bledsoe is very pleased with his progress. I believe I’m in need of a little refreshment. Would you like something, Mrs...Madonna?”
“No thank you, Ezra. I’d just like to visit with Chris for a while.”
“I won’t be long.”
“Please don’t hurry on my account,” the woman said, sitting in the chair the gambler vacated. She heard someone else enter and watched as a nurse hooked up a small bag to the IV pole and ran it through the monitor. “How is he doing?”
The nurse checked the monitors and smiled at the pregnant woman seated beside the bed. “He’s still running a bit of a temperature, but that’s normal at this point in time. I have a couple of other patients to check but buzz the nursing station if there are any problems.”
“I will, thank you,” Tobin said, watching Larabee’s face closely as he showed signs of waking up. She could see the lines of strain evident on the handsome face and wondered what he’d been dreaming about. Somehow she knew it had to do with his recent, devastating loss and she fought back her tears as her own memories reached up to overwhelm her. She reached for the box of tissues, grabbing several and closing her eyes as the grief assaulted her.
“ okay,” Larabee’s throat was dry and his voice came out as a rasping croak, but he knew she heard him as she lifted red-rimmed eyes to look at him.
“I’m okay, Chris,” she sniffed and fought to get her emotions under control. “How are you feeling?”
“Empty,” he answered simply and knew she understood.
“I...I, God Chris I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could say or do to help you...but there’s not...not right now anyway,” she dropped her gaze to the gift bag sitting on the floor beside her.
“Madonna, just b...being here is en...enough...” Larabee whispered, coughing painfully.
“I’m o...okay...just n...need some...thing to drink,” the blond said and accepted the straw she place in his mouth. He drank several swallows before turning away. “Tha...thanks.”
“You’re welcome...Chris...”
“What’s wrong?” Larabee asked, hearing the change in her voice as she fought against her tears.
“Nothing...I just...Danny found something in his room and I...Chris I think ma...maybe you sh...should have it, but it can wa...wait until you’re out of here.”
“What did he find?” the grieving man asked, not really sure if he was ready for this, but hoping it was something he could cling to.
“Remember the night Adam stayed at our house...just after Buck was hurt?”
“I remember...wish he’d been with y...” he stopped when he saw the pain in her eyes.
“I do too, Chris,” she explained, wiping at her eyes once more. “I miss them both so much.”
“I know...God do I know...” Chris closed his eyes and waited for the grieving pain to ease, but it didn’t, wouldn’t for a long time to come.
“I was cleaning Danny’s room yesterday and he came in, Chris. He misses Adam so much and when he found this he wanted to keep it, but he knows you need it more than he does,” the distraught woman said as she reached for the bag and placed it on her diminished lap.
“What...what is it?” the blond asked, unaware he’d been holding his breath.
“Adam left these at our place,” Tobin said as she reached into the bag and pulled out the first treasure.
Chris felt the lump in his throat as it threatened to cut off his air supply. He lifted his arms, reaching for the familiar object as his heart broke in his chest. His breathing became erratic, but he was unaware of anything but the object clutched in Tobin’s hands.
“Oh...God...” he cried as she placed it on his chest and he used his bandaged arms to cling to the small brown horse.
“Oh, Chris...I’m sorry...I should’ve waited...”
“ need this.’s part of him...part of my son....God,” he cried as she watched him, but there was no shame in the tears, no weakness in the sobs that escaped his throat.
“Chris...I know how much it hurts...”
“ don’t think anyone does, but...thank you for caring, Madonna...”
“There’s one more....”
“What...what is it?” Larabee asked, his gaze glued to the bag as if it contained a lifeline for a drowning man.
“Are you sure you...”
“Please, Madonna...if it was Adam’s I want...I need to see hold it. It’s all I have left of him...”
The pregnant woman nodded and finally pulled the soft blanket from the bag. Again she saw the tears in Larabee’s eyes as she placed the small NASCAR  blanket on his chest. She watched as he pulled it up against his face and a soft whimper of pain escaped his slack lips.
“God...I can sm...smell h...him. It’s his...his special blanket...and he...and I can smell him...Oh, Adam...Adam...Why? God why? Why did you take THEM?” he screamed, his mind filled with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss.
“Chris, I’m sorry...I shouldn’t have...”
“No,” the green eyes widened and stared at the sobbing woman beside him. “Do...don’t say that. You’ve given me part of him...don’t see? I can sm...smell my son...I can feel him right here!”
“Chris, are you okay?” Regina Quaid asked as she entered the room and checked the monitoring equipment.
“, I’m not...but at least I’ve something to hold on to,” he turned pain filled watery eyes towards the pregnant woman and forced a half smile to his face. ‘Th...thank you...and...and Da...Danny.”
“You’re welcome, Chris,” Tobin said as she watched Larabee’s bandaged arms cling to the two items she’d given him.
“I...I can sm...smell him,” Larabee repeated as physical pain joined the psychological pain he was feeling. He gasped as the agony of the burns grew and turned a hopeful gaze towards the nurse.
“Chris, I’m giving you something to help with the pain, it’ll also make you sleepy. Would you like me to put those items...”
“No...leave ‘em be. I’ll hold my so...son...” the blond said as his eyes closed and the medication and gifts allowed him to sleep.
Madonna smiled as she looked at the sleeping man. He’d lost so much, more than any man should, but somehow she knew he was not alone. Three angels were watching over him and although it would take time they would make sure he survived the pain of his loss. Sighing heavily she leaned down and kissed the sleeping man’s cheek before hurrying from the room.
Ezra smiled as he saw the group of men coming towards him. He’d been expecting Josiah, but the others were there as well. He waited for them to catch up to him and pressed the button as they joined him.
“How’s Chris, Ez?” Wilmington asked worriedly.
“He was sleeping when I left. Madonna Tobin was with him and I thought she’d like to spend some time with him.”
“How is she doing?” Jackson asked of the pregnant woman as they entered the elevator and JD pushed the button for the fourth floor.
“She seemed a little pale and nervous, but that’s to be expected. She lost her best friend,” Standish explained as the door opened on the burn unit. The five men hurried along the corridor stopping in front of the room and speaking to the officer present before entering the room. The sight before them caused them all to stop in their tracks as they fought to keep their emotions in check.
Chris Larabee slept amidst the monitors, leads, IV’s and blankets, but it all disappeared in light of what he clutched tightly to his chest. A small brown horse lay against his left cheek and a faded NASCAR blanket was spread over him, partially covering his chin. There was something peaceful in the way the injured man clung to the items, as if he was holding a missing part of his life and in a sense he was. Buck was the first to find his voice, but he could not hold back the emotions the sight evoked.
“Th...those are...were Adam’s...Chris made him the horse and Sarah made the blan...blanket...but how did he ge...get them? I th...thought they we...were lost in the”
“Perhaps Mrs. Tobin brought them,” Standish suggested, seeing the gift bag lying beside the bed.
“Madonna? How would she have gotten them?” Wilmington asked.
“Seems I remember Chris saying something about Adam staying at the Tobin house the day someone took a shot at you, Buck. Maybe he left them there that night,” Sanchez suggested.
“Adam slept with them every night. He’d have known if they weren’t at home and would’ve had a hard time sleeping,” the ladies’ man explained as he moved to sit beside the bed. “It’s like he forgot all about them...”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, Buck. Perhaps this was his way of giving Chris something to hold on to,” the ex-preacher told him, placing a comforting hand on his left shoulder.
“Maybe...I don’t know if I believe in God right now, Josiah, but if what you say is true then at least Chris has something Adam loved. Now if we could only get his ring back from that bitch...”
“Hey, Chris, how are you?”
“Sl....sleepy...nurse ga...gave me a shot,” the blond explained, his eyes at half mast as he took in the five men standing around his bed.
“Well, why don’t you go ahead and sleep, Chris. We’ll be here when you wake up,” Jackson suggested.
“No...need to know who took my ring?” Larabee said, yawning as he pulled the blanket closer. “Heard Buck say....bitch...what bitch?”
“Chris, I was just...”
“No, damn it, Buck! Who were you about?” Larabee clenched his eyes tightly as his mind again wandered back to the funeral. There was something tugging at him...pulling him towards a vision he wasn’t sure he wanted to face. He saw the caskets, the flowers, the mourners, his friends, Hank’s fist coming towards him, but none of this registered as he spotted the two figures in the background. He heard the others calling his name, but concentrated on the picture forming behind closed lids. Averil’s face was the first to become clear, and Chris gasped as he realized who the slighter figure was.
“BITCH!” he screamed struggling with the pain and anger the memory evoked. He felt hands touching him and fought against their hold as he realized his family’s death had been by his own hand. Painted on an easel years ago because of his infatuation with Ella Gaines.
“Chris...come on, Son, you need to calm down...”
“That bitch, Josiah! She was there...she killed them!”
“Who, Chris...who killed them?” Jackson asked, worried about the damage Larabee’s struggles were doing to his injured body.
“Ella...God, Nathan, she...she was the funeral...”
“What? Are you sure?” Wilmington gasped, anger evident in his cold blue eyes.
“Yes...yes...know that bitch any...where, Buck. Her and Averil...saw them...saw them just before Hank...just before he hit Ella’s behind all this...she’s gotta be the one. I need...”
“What do you need, Chris?” Standish asked when the blond grew silent and still, grief evident in his moisture-laden eyes.
“I need to get out of here and find her,” Larabee whispered, his words soft, but with an underlying edge of coldness.
“We’re already looking for her, Chris,” Dunne supplied and watched as Larabee’s eyebrows furrowed.
“You’re looking for Ella? Why?” the blond asked and watched as his friends all glared at the youngest member of the team.
“JD, you need to learn to think before you speak,” Wilmington advised at the look on Larabee’s face.
“Buck...leave him alone!” Larabee snapped, wincing as he shifted on the bed. “Why were you looking for her, JD?”
“Chris, we can talk about this after you’ve had some sleep,” Sanchez advised.
“No, Josiah, we talk ab...about it now. Why were you already looking for Ella? I thought she was still in Monte Carlo.” Larabee watched the faces of his friends and saw the truth in their eyes. “She’s here isn’t she?”
“According to our sources, Chris, she’s still in Monte Carlo,” Standish observed.
“Your sources are wrong...I saw her at the funeral and I want to know everything you boys kn...know.”
“Alright, Chris, we’ll tell you everything...but it’s still not a lot,” the ladies man said, rubbing at his injured arm. “The officer on duty here the night your ring disappeared identified a woman with blond hair from the pictures the police provided.”
“Blond hair...Ella’s is black...”
“I know...just let me finish okay?”
“O...okay,” the blond said tiredly.
“Anyway, He was looking through the pictures, unaware that one of them had been doctored. Ezra used the computer to enhance one of the old shots we found of Ella. He gave her blond hair and as soon as the officer saw it he identified her as the nurse who came into your room that night. Since then we’ve been trying to find her, but nothing yet.”
“She’s somewhere close by, Buck. I can f...feel it and I’m going after her...”
“No, Chris, we’re going after her!” Sanchez warned. “You’re going to lie there and let the doctors and nurses look after you. Those burns are going to take some time to heal and...”
“Josiah, I’m going to help...I need to help,” Larabee corrected.
“You will, Chris. We won’t leave you out of the loop anymore,” Wilmington assured him. “But, right now you need to get some rest.”
“Do you need something for pain, Chris?” Jackson asked.
“No...already had something...just tired...promise me...”
“Anything, Chris, you know that,” the rogue stated.
“Te...tell me everything...hap...pens...” he said, his eyes closing as he cuddled the blanket and horse close.
“We will, Chris,” Standish vowed.
“...and do...don’t blame JD...needed know...”
“We won’t, Son,” Sanchez assure him.
“Good...find V...Vin...”
“We’re trying,” the ladies’ man said as Larabee gave into the sleep his body craved.
“Buck, are you okay?” Standish asked.
“Not me you boys need to worry about. We need to nail that bitch to the wall and get his ring back. He’s got his reminder of Adam, but until he has that ring he won’t have anything of Sarah except her memories and he needs more than that right now.”
“We’ll find her, Buck,” Dunne vowed and saw the pain in the emotive blue eyes of the gentlest man he’d ever known.
“Thanks, Kid,” Wilmington said, standing and moving towards the door. He heard Dunne move to follow him, and was grateful when Sanchez stopped him. Buck walked slowly along the hall until he came to the window at the south end of the hospital. He stood for several long moments, watching as the city lights came on and people went about their business, seemingly unaware of the suffering of those in the hospital beds. He knew life went on, no matter how much it hurt and he swallowed the painful lump in his throat as he leaned his forehead against the window and closed his eyes.
‘I’m coming for you, Ella Gaines, and this time there’ll be no escaping the judgement you deserve. God may have final say in your sins, but I’m gonna be there to prove the old saying You Reap What You Sow,’ he silently vowed as he sank down onto the chair and placed his head in his hands and cried out his grief.
Ella stood on the patio, drinking a glass of Chablis as she waited for Averil and Royal to return. The payment was made, but she still felt cheated by the Powderman. She flipped on the patio lights and felt a chill run down her spine. The sense that she was being watched sent shivers of apprehension through her and she searched the darkness beyond the well-lit pool. A gentle wind sent ripples across the water, but there was no denying how cold she felt as she pulled her wrap close around her. Ella knew she was alone, but somewhere, someone was thinking about her, and her instincts told her the thoughts were on the darker side. She turned towards the door and hurried inside in an effort to rid herself of the chill seeping into her bones.
“Stop being stupid!” she spat as she hurried to the well stocked bar and refilled her glass. She downed the liquor and repeated the actions twice more until she felt warm again. Taking the bottle with her she made her way towards the bedroom she shared with Averil and removed her wrap. Lying naked across the bed she sipped at the liquor and let her thoughts drift to the man she loved. She moaned as she remembered the passionate man who took her to bed and brought her to heights no one else ever had. She let her mind wander and felt like she was reliving that night so long ago when passion took over and inhibitions were dammed.
“Oh, Chris,” she thought her hand going to her breasts as she remembered the feel of his lips on them, the sweet pain as his teeth grazed her nipples. She felt the heat spreading throughout her and writhed on the bed as a ghostly memory worked it’s way into her mind. She moaned as spectral hands touched against her and wished the real man was here, holding her, working her body towards the ultimate climax only he could provide. Her hands moved rapidly over her own body, but there was none of the heat she felt when in Larabee’s arms. Her touch was cold, calculating, bringing her to climax without the fulfillment she needed and leaving a bitter taste in her mouth as she cried out. Bitter tears fell from her eyes as she laid breathing heavily in the darkness.
“You should have been mine, Chris. We were meant to be together and I’ll see that no one ever gets between us again!” she vowed as she drifted towards sleep, shivering as she felt the ghostly touch once more.
Gerald Coltrain looked at the files spread out on the desk before him. Barker’s records were intact and he named names, times, dates and amounts. The ramifications of the information were far reaching and he knew the affects would be felt and investigated for years to come. Richard Barker was dead and William Patterson was already behind bars, indicted because of the evidence provided by Barker. Shoving several files out of his way, he looked at the report that had just come in from Rio. The DEA had made a clean sweep of the compound, finding the place burned and the fields destroyed. There was no sign of Mendoza, Tanner, or Maynard, but they found several dead bodies burnt beyond recognition. Another body had been found with his arms and legs tied together, his throat slit. If Tanner or Maynard were behind it they’d be facing charges, but right now there was no evidence to prove or disprove their involvement. Pushing the papers away he reached for the phone and dialed Orrin Travis’ number. He waited for the man to answer, tapping a pencil on the desk until he heard the other man’s voice.
“Orrin, it’s Gerald. I’ve got some news for you.”
“Tell me you’ve found Tanner and Maynard!”
“Not exactly, but we did find the compound. It looks like someone decided to destroy it before we had a chance to. The place was abandoned and burned...the team found several dead men, but Mendoza wasn’t amongst them. The director in Rio is trying to widen the search parameters to see if there’s any sign of them, but so far nothing!”
“Damn, is this new man trustworthy?”
“Actually the question should be is this woman trustworthy and I’d have to say yes, she is. I’ve known her a lot of years, Orrin, and I know she’ll give your boy a fair shake...if and when they find him. There’s also evidence that several other agents were involved here, and there are more arrests planned, but I can’t go into the details right now.”
“I understand completely, Gerald, and I’m grateful for the information you’re supplying us with.”
“I wouldn’t have the information I have if it wasn’t for your team...How is Larabee?”
“He’s awake more now and in a lot of pain from the burns. I don’t know how long they’ll be able to keep him down...”
“He didn’t seem like the type to just lie around, especially when it comes to his family. I hope the hell you boys find out who did this to him and make damn sure they pay for the crime.”
“Thanks, Gerald, we’re working on it and have several new leads. Let me know as soon as you have any more news from Rio.”
“I will, Orrin, and good luck with your investigation,” Coltrain told him and hung up the phone.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7 | PART 8 | PART 10 | PART 11 | PART 12 | PART 13 | PART 14 | PART 15 | PART 16 | PART 17 | PART 18


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