An Innocent Man

by Angie

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+ + + + + + +

When the others finally began to drift off to bed, Ezra slipped away. He drove over to the bar and sat outside watching the people as they left. He recognized Seth Fielder and stared hard at the young man with him. It was the same man from the other night, the one who was familiar somehow. The young man was still limping as he staggered out to his car.

It was the car that finally brought it back to the southerner. Was that the beat up Ford Escort from the truck stop where the man had glared at him when they were returning from Knoxville? Why should seeing that young man there stir such strong feelings? He watched until the last of the patrons left the bar before returning to the motel.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was wakened by the cry of anguish from the bunk below him. He rolled over and dropped to the floor, kneeling beside the bunk. He reached out and grasped the thrashing body of his best friend.

“Chris? Wake up, you’re dreaming.”

The young Texan leaned closer as Chris began to whisper in a pleading tone. He couldn’t understand all of the words but some were painfully clear.

“No, Wyn, no! Don’t hurt her, please?”

The words were barely a whisper. Vin felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up and he tightened his grip on the thrashing body.

It was happening again! He was in the car with her again. She was smiling softly as she lay in his arms. From outside of the car he heard footsteps approaching. He tightened his grip on the body in his arms. The cool breeze blew across his skin as she was pulled away. An image floated just out of reach, a face! The harder he concentrated on the image, the deeper the anguish was pushed into his soul. He cried out as he reached for her one last time.


Chris shoved Vin away as he sat up on the bunk. His heart was pounding and he felt sick to his stomach. He shook violently as he tried to hold on to the images from the dream. A gentle touch startled him, he had forgotten that he wasn’t alone this night.

“What was it, cowboy? What did you see?”

“There was someone else there. They took her from my arms and I couldn’t stop them! I can’t see their faces yet, but they were there.”

The more Chris struggled to remember, the worse he felt. Vin finally coaxed him into lying down and he sat on the floor so he could keep a hand on his friend. That was how the deputy found them in the morning, Tanner on the floor with his arm up on the bunk resting on the chest of Larabee.

+ + + + + + +

The team gathered at the jail and brought breakfast there to eat together. Chris and Vin were both subdued as they picked at their food. JD’s knee bounced any time he sat down until Buck lashed out at him. Josiah rushed to smooth the frayed tempers. Nathan sat silently watching the team leader as he appraised his emotional state. Ezra sat apart from the group, shuffling his cards over and over. His mind was already running the ‘what if he is found guilty?’ scenario in his mind. The facility Chris would be housed in was one of the best in the country and only an hour from Denver. He closed his eyes and hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

The phone rang around eleven and Wayman picked it up. He listened to the voice for a moment before hanging up.

“Jury’s back, we have to go.”

All eyes rested heavily on Perry Davis as he crossed the room and took the cuffs from the leather case on his belt. Vin took the hateful metal links and approached Chris apologetically. The blond only sighed and turned to offer his hands for binding.

As they left the jail, Perry nudged Buck toward the police car. He caught JD’s eye and looked toward the front passenger seat. Chris slid to the middle of the back seat and was bracketed by Buck and Vin. JD hung over the front seat, his hand resting on Chris’s knee as they rode to the courthouse.

+ + + + + + +

The jury foreman glanced around the room again, his gaze flicking over the powerful presence on the other side of the small room. He licked his lips again before opening the paper he held in his sweaty hand.

“We the jury find Christopher Larabee guilty of the murder of Wynsome Lightner.”

Chris’s shoulders dropped suddenly and he clung to the edge of the table as his knees started to fold. His attorney, Charles Wayman, grabbed his arm and leaned in close.

“It isn’t over. We can appeal. I’ll get a change of venue next time. Don’t give up hope!”

Ezra grasped the hand of Mary Travis as she burst into tears. JD came to his feet as his eyes filled with tears only to find himself in the embrace of a shaking Buck Wilmington. Vin sat, frozen, as the shock of the man’s words sank in. His own guilt caused adrenaline to course thru his thin frame causing him to tremble. He barely heard the bass voice to his left as Josiah whispered reassurances into his ear. The arm that tightened on his shoulders only served to keep him from coming to his feet. Nathan rested his elbows on his knees and dropped his face onto his hands.

The rest of the courtroom was filled with jubilant celebration. Buck looked over Vin’s shoulder to see Seth Fielder smiling gleefully at the news. Ezra had pulled Mary’s head to his shoulder to shelter her as she cried. He glanced around the room at all the joyous faces until his gaze came to rest on the young man standing next to Mrs. Lightner, Wyn’s brother Johnny.

The judge banged his gavel several times to bring the room to silence. He looked critically at the ATF agent. All the life seemed to have left him as he sat staring at the tablet on the table in front of him. His attorney was talking into his ear and studying his face with a worried expression. Judge Travis had moved from the defense table to comfort his daughter.

“The court will come to order! Sentencing phase will begin at two o’clock this afternoon.”

Deputy Davis moved to take control of the prisoner and noticed that the vacant expression had returned. He gently guided the hands into the handcuffs and drew him out of the room. The three agents who had been in the car on the ride over were instantly at his side.

The group in the jail raged and fumed. The sheriff had refused to return their weapons as they left the courthouse. Buck and Vin paced back and forth in the narrow confines of the jail, shouting their displeasure into the heavens. JD slid to the floor in the cell and let his tears flow unchecked down his face. Josiah had taken charge of Chris and was sitting beside him in the cell as he tried to build up the devastated man. Nathan stood helplessly watching as he saw the vacant gaze that held the blond man’s face. Ezra had slipped, unnoticed, out of the jail and was sitting in the suburban making his phone call.

“Mother, they found him guilty. Will you make the calls for me, please? I would like to be with them to offer whatever condolences I may before they sentence him. I’ll be all right, Mother, you trained me well. No one will ever know how this horrendous miscarriage of justice is affecting me.”

After replacing the cell phone in his pocket, the southerner rested his arms on the steering wheel. He buried his face in his arms and wept.

Judge Travis also slipped away and made some calls. After getting the same answer from three different sources, he sought the undercover agent. He found him just as Ezra was climbing out of the vehicle.

“Walk with me, Agent Standish.”

As the two men walked away from the jail, the judge spoke.

“You seem to have beaten me to the punch. The Devonshire Facility is the best in the country. Would you care to explain to me how you arranged for Chris to be placed there?”

The green eyes never looked up from the road surface as he replied. “I had to pull in quite a few markers and make a few promises to my darling mother. One of her ex-husbands has a friend in high places and he would still do anything for her.”

“The United States Supreme Court is definitely what I’d call high places. How do you think Judge Hornbeck is going to take the news?”

For the first time since meeting the southerner, Judge Travis saw the tightly controlled mask slip. He actually saw the rage that lingered just below the surface.

“I really don’t give a damn how he feels about it. I did what I did for them. They can continue to pursue the guilty party and still be able to see him on a regular basis.”

“They can? Not you?” The judge sensed the cost of the Devonshire Facility had just increased tenfold.

“Judge Travis, I will be tendering my resignation. Maude has some position that she wants me to consider. I will wait until the team has had a while to adjust and until you can find a suitable replacement for me.”

“I hate to lose you, son. Isn’t there any other way for this to work out?”

“I’m sorry, Judge Travis, it has to be this way. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t inform the others until they’ve had an opportunity to recover from today.”

“I won’t say a word, son.”

The two men returned to the jail to find Dr. Flowers examining Chris. Nathan rushed over to explain that Larabee was in deep shock. His blood pressure was dangerously high and they were afraid that he might have to be hospitalized. Travis rushed into the cell while Ezra hung back. Josiah caught Standish by the arm and studied his face intently.

“What have you got on your mind, son?”

“How many times do I have to tell you how much I dislike that appellation? I’m fine, Mr. Sanchez. I just cannot believe they found him guilty. My concern is for Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne.”

“Not for Buck?”

“Mr. Wilmington will do what he must to preserve our merry little band in Mr. Larabee’s honor. He will be fine.”

Knowing he would get nothing more from Ezra, Josiah sighed and returned to stand outside of the cell while the doctor finished examining Chris. When Flowers left the cell the men gathered around him.

“Well, there isn’t anything I can do for him. He’s in a profound catatonic state. His mind has simply shut down to prevent him from dealing with the shock. He won’t be going to the sentencing hearing this afternoon. I want to try sedating him to see if he’s any better when he awakens. I’ll stay here with him while you go to the courthouse.”

Vin and Buck both stepped forward together.

“We’ll stay with him.”

“Fine, I’ll go tell Judge Hornbeck.”

The courtroom was packed when Team 7 arrived. Charles Wayman and Judge Travis sat at the defense table. The four remaining members of the team sat with Mary on the front bench. Nathan and Josiah were holding Mrs. Travis between them as she was nearly in shock herself. Ezra still held himself away from them, watching the people in the room.

Judge Hornbeck swept into the room with a distinct scowl on his face. He didn’t even call the court to order, he just strode into the room and took his place on the bench. He opened a folder on the desk and glared the gallery into silence.

“First of all, I have been advised that Mr. Larabee has suffered some kind of breakdown and will not be able to attend the sentencing hearing. Second, I have … decided … to set aside the jury verdict and render a verdict of not guilty by reason of mental defect. Mr. Larabee is therefore ordered to be confined to the Devonshire Facility in Longmont, Colorado.”

The gallery erupted into angry protest. Wayman and three of the four remaining members of the team came to their feet at once with Mary, expressions of shock on their faces. Only Judge Travis and Ezra appeared nonplused by the sudden change in the situation.

Josiah and Nathan immediately began to guide the others out of the courtroom. The angry crowd pressed close upon the small group until Sheriff Wilhelm appeared in the doorway and glared. The gallery immediately fell silent and the ATF team was permitted to leave unmolested.

The team returned to the jail to inform the others of the sudden change. Charles Wayman was called back into the courtroom to receive the official copy of the verdict as well as the papers that placed Chris into Judge Travis’s custody for delivery to the Devonshire Facility.

“I don’t know how they did it, Mr. Wayman, but I would heartily suggest that your client and his friends avoid my little corner of the world in the future. The phone call that I received over my lunch break was quite explicit. I was instructed to set aside the verdict of the people who put me into office so that your client might go free.”

“He’s not going free, he’s going to a hospital. His job and his life as he knew it are over. He has lost everything over a murder that he did not commit. What more do you want from him?”

JD jumped from the suburban even before Ezra had it in park. He raced into the jail shouting the news at the top of his lungs.

“He set aside the verdict! We’re taking him back to Colorado!”

Buck came to his feet and grasped the bars.

“He what? Are you sure, kid?”

Vin pulled on Chris’s arm and tried to make him listen.

“Did you hear? You’re going home! He set aside the verdict!”

“It is not quite as simple as young Mr. Dunne would have you believe. Mr. Larabee is to be committed to the Devonshire Facility. Until such time as we are able to prove his innocence by capturing the cretin truly responsible for Miss Lightner’s death, he will remain confined.”

Mary turned on Ezra as understanding dawned on her.

“You had something to do with that, didn’t you? You and Orin were the only ones not surprised by the change in the verdict. What do you know about this, Ezra?”

The green eyes widened as an innocent expression lifted his brows.

“Why would you think I had something to do with it? Might not your own father in law have had a hand in applying a little jurisprudence to the situation? Isn’t it more important that the obstacle to Mr. Larabee’s eventual freedom has been removed? There now exists the possibility for him to be set free.”

Wayman arrived with the court papers a short time later and pulled the judge aside to pass along the information he had gotten from Judge Hornbeck. He also handed off the custody papers, Chris was to be released immediately to Travis’s custody. The sheriff nodded and allowed them to remove Larabee from the cell.

They left the jail and settled in at the motel for the night. All of them gathered in one room except Ezra, who sought solace in the burning embrace of a bottle at the bar. Knowing he was armed, the locals left the southerner alone in the corner booth as he drank himself into oblivion.

Deputy Davis dragged the ATF agent out of the booth at closing time and returned him to the motel. The man was so drunk that he could barely stand. Perry fished in his pocket for the key to the motel room and settled him on one of the beds before relieving him of his weapon and placing it on the nightstand.

While Nathan and JD went to get breakfast for the others, Orin made the arrangements for them to fly out that afternoon. Josiah went in search of their missing sheep. He found Ezra in his room, still passed out. A gentle hand rolled the southerner onto his side and brushed the hair from his face.

“Come on, son, wake up. We have a long day ahead of us. Wake up.”

The green eyes opened slowly and winced painfully at the light in the room. The drawl was filled with exquisite agony as he whispered.

“Oh please, Mr. Sanchez, just leave me to expire in peace. I don’t think I can bear to move, let alone ride and fly today.”

“You did this to yourself, son. Now you are going to get up and pack your bags. We are all going to see Chris to this new place. Then we are going to devote our full energy to finding the bastard who killed that girl so that we can clear his name.”

Ezra rolled off the bed with a groan and wobbled over to the dresser. He pulled clean clothes from the drawer and tossed them onto the bed. The rest of the clothes were shoved into a suitcase. Josiah stayed in the room just long enough to make sure that Standish was not going to collapse on the bed again before he went to tell the others that he had found the missing agent.

Chris had not moved independently or spoken all night. He lay down when told to and got up when asked but he didn’t appear to notice anything that happened around him. Vin gave him clean clothes and Larabee sat ignoring them. The two agents closest to him decided to try to coax him into taking a shower. They got him cleaned up and dressed before the others returned with the food.

All the luggage was loaded as soon as breakfast was finished. There was some confusion as to who was going to ride where on the way to the airport. The suburban would only seat eight of them. Everyone wanted to be close to Chris for as long as possible. The judge had to ride with Larabee because he had custody of the man who was still technically a prisoner. Ezra settled the problem by offering to drive the other rental car by himself.

The team stopped at the diner before leaving town. Vin wanted to say goodbye to Libby. The older woman had been kind to him and he wanted to thank her. His blue eyes were filled with tears as he embraced her. She pressed a bag into his hand and wished him well. Inside the bag was a final container of the baked apples that the Texan had grown so fond of during his brief stay in Spencer, Tennessee.

Josiah took the first shift driving so that Buck and Vin could sit with Chris. The ladies man draped his arm around the blonds shoulder and pulled his head onto his shoulder. Later, they shifted Larabee onto Vin’s shoulder for a while. At a rest stop, they traded places so that the others could take a turn holding Chris against them.

They arrived at the airport late in the afternoon. They had a chartered plane and were immediately escorted on board. Mary Travis took the seat next to Chris and reclined both of their seats. She covered them with a blanket and snuggled up on his shoulder for a short nap.

Josiah sat next to the subdued southerner and stared at him for several minutes. Finally, with an exasperated sigh, the green eyes turned and shot emerald fire at the older agent.

“What is it that you want from me, Mr. Sanchez? Have I not done everything asked of me? I even gave up my opportunity to spend some last quality time with Mr. Larabee so that the rest of you would not be discomfited. Right now, all I want is to close my eyes and rest for a couple of hours.”

“After all we’ve worked to pull you in close, suddenly you’re pulling away from us again. Chris would not want that to happen. We need you, Ezra. Don’t pull away now.”

“Mr. Sanchez, I have not gone anywhere. I am here with you, with all of you, we’re heading back home together. I am still a member of this merry little band of misfits.”

Closing his eyes and shaking his head, Josiah moved to take an empty seat next to Nathan. He reclined his seat and, after throwing one last glance back at Ezra, tried to go to sleep. His tension actually communicated itself to the man next to him and Jackson tossed a hateful look back at the apparently sleeping southerner.

The plane landed in Denver just after dusk. Buck and the others had begged Judge Travis to let them have one night with Chris at the ranch before they took him to the hospital. The judge reluctantly agreed. They had called ahead and had a 15-passenger van rented for them at the airport. They quickly loaded their luggage into the van and piled inside. Buck drove the van to the ranch.

They climbed out of the van and entered the house. It had been closed up for most of a month and held a musky odor. The men busied themselves with unloading the luggage and opening the windows to air the house. Ezra slipped out of the house and went down to the barn to check on the horses. He knew that Chris would have had someone to tend to the animals during his absence. The southerner stood, scratching the nose of his horse, as his thoughts raced.

Maude had pulled rank on him. He had never been especially close to her third husband and had needed her intervention. She had seen this as the perfect opportunity to finally separate him from the distasteful employment. He had pleaded with her but she stood firm, she would only help him on one condition.

“I’ll miss you, Chaucer. Vin and JD will take good care of you. I’ll try to get back and visit you whenever I am able.” He slipped into the stall and wrapped one arm around the magnificent steed. He cared for the animal in a way he had never cared for most of the people he knew.

The men sat on the couches in the living room. Chris remained in the recliner where they had put him, he never moved. Buck had hoped that being in his home would snap his friend out of whatever had hold of his mind. The complete lack of response only served to deepen the sadness the team was feeling.

They looked up as Ezra closed the sliding door. JD offered out one of the cold longnecks that they had found in the refrigerator. Nathan moved over on the couch to create a place for the southerner to sit. Every so often, one of them would draw a breath as if to start up a conversation only to look at Chris and fall silent.

It was Mary Travis who finally called an end to the gathering. She took Chris by the wrist and led him to his bedroom. When the door closed and they heard the sound of the lock turning, they began to stand and try to figure out the rest of the sleeping arrangements. The judge was given the spare room with the other full bed. JD and Vin took Adam’s old room with the bunk beds. The other four men would share the hide-a-beds in the living room.

Josiah brought out blankets from the trunk in the corner of the room and began to make up the beds after they were pulled out. The men took turns changing into their pajamas and then settled into the beds. They lay awake for a long time, each troubled by their thoughts.

Mary guided Chris to bed and curled up beside him. Her tears dampened his tee shirt as she wept onto his chest. The even rhythm of his breathing eventually lulled her to sleep. Her hand remained on his chest, clutching his shirt as she slept.

+ + + + + + +

Images of Adam Larabee filled his mind and he allowed himself to cling to them. His mind refused to accept the verdict. He felt his knees folding and withdrew from the situation. With Adam and Sarah in his mind, he felt safe. He watched in a detached kind of way as his body went on about whatever the outsiders wanted him to do. He had almost allowed himself to slip out of his safe place when he arrived at the ranch but the sense of sadness that he felt coming from the others caused him to hold back. He was aware of Mary’s presence in a peripheral kind of way but he could not reach out to her.

+ + + + + + +

Breakfast in the morning was stressful for the team. Tempers were on edge as the team tried to deal with the coming events. JD lashed out at Vin when the Texan bumped him in the kitchen. Nathan had only just managed to get between them before they came to blows. Buck was silent and withdrawn as he sat drinking his coffee. Josiah had left the house before sunrise and was sitting on the dock watching the sunrise when Tanner stormed out. Mary brought Chris out dressed casually in jeans and a flannel shirt. Her red-rimmed eyes spoke eloquently of how she felt.

Judge Travis remained apart from his men, trying to allow them some privacy. He had been alarmed when the two youngest had erupted in anger. His mind was already racing ahead to the days and weeks to come. He was beginning to doubt that they would be able to remain together once Chris was separated from them permanently. He hoped that Wilmington would step into a leadership position but it appeared that would not be the case.

Ezra watched everything that morning with a detached kind of fascination. He, unlike the judge, had no doubt that the team would pull together. He understood the need for them to hiss and growl at each other as they dealt with their anger and sadness. The bitter coffee scalded his mouth as he sipped at it to avoid meeting the eyes of his teammates.

At ten that morning, the judge finally announced that it was time to leave. He followed the miserable collection of souls to the van. There was a little jockeying in the back as each man tried to sit where they could reach out to Chris. Ezra climbed into the drivers seat and sighed as he looked in the rear view mirror.

JD’s eyes were filled with tears as he slid in next to Josiah. Vin and Buck were seated on either side of Chris in the middle of the group. Nathan and Mary Travis sat in front of Larabee so that they could reach back and rest their hands on the blond man’s knees.

It was just after noon when the van arrived in front of the Devonshire Facility. The huge, red brick building was surrounded by a lush green lawn and towering trees. You would never guess from looking at the place that it was a mental hospital. There were wrought iron fences surrounding gardens and walking paths. The staff moved quietly among the patients, their expressions tender and encouraging.

The judge left the van and stood at the side while the others exited. He reached out and took hold of Chris’s arm and led him toward the doors. The team formed up in pairs as they followed him with Ezra bringing up the rear, as usual, alone.

Doctor Fullerton set aside the chart he was reading and moved toward the group standing near the security desk. He had gotten the notice of the commitment of Christopher Larabee late the previous evening. His eyes were kind as he studied the group of men. He could almost feel the tension surrounding them.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen, I’m Dr. Fullerton. Would you be Orin Travis?” He spoke to the graying gentleman who held the arm of the man with the vacant stare.

“Yes, and this is Chris Larabee and these are his friends and co-workers. You were notified of the situation?”

“Yes, we received the court order yesterday. If you’ll come this way, we can get Mr. Larabee settled in his room and I can give you a little background information on our facility.”

As the judge and Chris moved to follow the doctor thru the security gate, alarms began to sound. From several directions, security guards and orderlies came and surrounded the group. The members of Team 7 responded as if they were under attack, they encircled Larabee standing shoulder to shoulder.

“Gentlemen, please, calm down. Leroy, shut off the alarm. It would seem that one or more than one of you are carrying some metal object that the security gate has detected. If you will kindly surrender the object, we can be on our way.”

The doctor was not at all prepared for the sight of the six men drawing their weapons from their holsters. The security guards drew their weapons and aimed at the group. Tense eyes darted around the large, open room. Several nurses shrieked in fear at the sight of all the hardware.

Judge Travis held his hands out widely and called to his men.

“Put them down men. This is a hospital! Come on, now!”

One by one, the men lowered their guns and surrendered them to the security guards. The tense shoulders slumped as the men turned to face Travis and the doctor. When all the weapons were safely stowed, the guards returned to their positions. Fullerton swallowed the knot of terror that had sprung into his throat. He coughed softly before turning and starting toward the elevator.

The team followed the doctor to a brightly lit room on the third floor of the east wing of the building. They had passed thru four security checkpoints to arrive on the ward. The sun streaming thru the large window brightly lit the room. A single bed stood next to the wall. The dresser was built into the wall, as was the closet. The room was done in subdued shades of blue and dark gray.

“Each patient has a private room. Medications are dispensed by the nursing staff, under the direction of our physician and psychiatric staff. Meals are served in several dining rooms. The patients are assigned to the dining rooms according to their diagnosis. Group therapy and individual counseling are the cornerstone of our treatment methods.”

“How do you deal with patients in catatonic states?” Nathan asked as the other men looked around the room.

“We will try anti-psychotics for a couple of days. If that doesn’t work, there are more direct ways to break down the mental barriers. We will do everything humanly possible to snap him out of it so that we can treat the underlying cause.”

“Do you use ECT?”

“Only as a last resort.”

“ECT?” Buck asked.

“Electro-convulsive therapy.” Nathan supplied.

“Shock treatments? You would strap him down and use shock treatments?” There was no mistaking the anger and disbelief in Buck’s voice.

“As I said, only as a last resort. We rarely have to use ECT on anyone and it isn’t the same as it used to be in the old days. It is administered under sedation.”

Fullerton backed up a step as the wall of angry flesh pressed closer.

“Have you ever had it done to you?” Buck’s voice was dripping with rage and threat.

“No, I have not. But, as I said, it is only used as a last resort.”

“Well before you consider doing that to my friend, you better try it yourself.”

“Agent Wilmington! Stand down! Immediately!” Judge Travis issued the orders in a calm tone of voice.

The broad shoulders heaved once before Buck turned from the doctor and moved to stand beside Chris. Travis smiled apologetically at the doctor.

After a complete tour of the facility, the group found themselves back at the security desk. It was apparent to the doctor that none of the men wanted to leave. The judge quietly spoke to Chris before stepping away, providing a format for the rest of the team to follow.

One by one, the men approached their leader and spoke to him quietly. Buck crushed Chris against his chest as he fought back tears. After firmly squeezing the flannel-covered shoulder, he quickly walked away, snatching his weapon from the hand of the guard before he left the building.

Vin went next, grasping Chris’s forearm for a long moment before pressing his forehead against the blonds. His voice was tight with tears as he whispered.

“Take care of yourself, cowboy. I’ll visit as often as I can. We’ll take care of the ranch for you until you get well.”

The Texan bolted past the guards without bothering to reclaim his weapon. He wanted to get out of the building before the tears got away from him.

JD was not at all shy about the tears that streamed down his cheeks. He threw his arms around Chris and wiped his tears onto the flannel shirt. His throat was too tightly constricted to permit words to escape. With one last look into the lifeless hazel eyes, the kid turned and walked away, pausing only long enough to receive his weapon and to take Tanner’s from the guard.

Nathan looked at the others before moving toward Chris. He embraced the man for a moment before turning away. Accepting his gun from the guard, he hurried out to check on the others. As he stepped out of the door, he saw the other three clinging to each other. The soft sound of Vin and JD’s sobs carried on the gentle breeze.

Mary wiped her tears away and approached Chris. She cupped his face between her hands and softly kissed his lips. Putting her mouth close to his ear, she whispered that she loved him and would never give up on him. A shudder ripped from her chest and she ran from the building. Once outside, she was enveloped in Buck’s arms as she sobbed loudly.

Josiah went next. He approached Chris and embraced him gently. Tipping the smaller man’s face up slightly, he looked into the blank gaze.

“Take care, Chris. I will pray for you. Nathan and I will look after the others.”

With the words to prayers racing thru his mind, the oldest member of the team turned and walked away.

The judge looked at the southerner for a moment before approaching the blond man. He took the limp hand in his grasp and squeezed it firmly before walking away.

Ezra approached Chris with a heavy heart. He didn’t begrudge this man the sacrifice he was making. Larabee had given him something the southerner had never had before, a sense of family. Leaving this new family was the most painful thing he had ever had to do. More than anything, he wanted to explain what he had done. He wanted the blond to understand that it was something he was willing to do for his ‘brothers’ for that was the way he thought of them.

“You will be safe here, Mr. Larabee. Have no doubt that they will work tirelessly to clear your good name so that you can return to your life. I don’t want you to feel guilty about what I have done. I will be tendering my resignation from the team in a few days to join my dear mother in some scheme that she has cooked up. Be well, my brother.”

Fullerton watched as the green-eyed agent wiped away his tears and touched his fingers to his forehead in a salute before retrieving his weapon from the guard and leaving the building. The doctor took the arm of his newest patient and tried to steer him toward the elevator. All afternoon, Larabee had moved easily at the slightest touch from his friends. Now he was frozen in place as tears rolled down his face. Nodding to himself, the doctor felt that it wouldn’t take much to break down the man’s barriers.

+ + + + + + +

Despair! Sadness! Pain and misery ripped thru his soul like barbed wire. In spite of the images of Adam that he held in his mind’s eye, anguish burned in his chest like the fire that had claimed his family. An unfamiliar touch pulled at him and he resisted it weakly before retreating once again into his safe place of memories. Except that now, for some reason, even that place was bubbling with desolation.

+ + + + + + +

The ride back to Denver was a silent one, broken only by the sniffles and the blowing of noses. Ezra surreptitiously wiped his tears away with the back of his hand as he drove. The judge studied the undercover agent in profile. The other men wept openly and sought comfort from each other while the southerner suffered alone in silence. Vin’s head rested on Josiah’s shoulder. JD shrugged off Buck’s arm twice before surrendering to the touch. Nathan and Mary sat in the seat closest to him, she sobbing softly and he staring out the window with a scowl.

+ + + + + + +

Fullerton led Chris to his room and left him with an orderly to get him settled. He had gotten the man’s medical records from his doctor in Denver early that morning. After reviewing the file, he had chosen a mild course of anti-psychotic drugs to begin his treatment. A mild sedative was prescribed for the first couple of nights.

When the doctor returned to the room, Larabee was standing at the window staring down at the road that left the facility. The orderly remarked that the patient was docile and compliant as he had been changed into the clothes that identified him as a ward of the facility. Resembling a prison jumpsuit, the pale blue material indicated to the staff that he was nonviolent. Taking the man by the arm, the doctor steered him toward the bed to examine him.

+ + + + + + +

The judge drove Ezra home after dropping off the van. The two men rode in silence for a few minutes before Orin reached out and turned on the classical music station. There was so much he wanted to say to the man sitting in the other seat but he couldn’t bring himself to broach the subject. He let Standish off outside of his condo.

“Will you be in on Monday?”

“Yes. I told you that I would give the team a chance to pull themselves together before I go. There are a few leads I want to look into for my own peace of mind.”

“I sure wish you would reconsider.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t possible. A deal is a deal.”

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