COUNTIN' ON A MIRACLE by Chris and rosyvin

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SEPTEMBER 26 - Evening - The Ranch

Vin woke to warmth and quiet. As his eyes fluttered open, he recognized his own room at the ranch and sank back into the bed with a contented sigh. The moonlight was streaming through the slats of the venetian blinds to make a pattern of lines on the floor. He managed to force another pillow under his back. He was nearly upright in bed now. Gamely, he pushed himself off the side of the bed, lurched across to the bureau turned the switch on and looked at his image in the mirror. Damn, he really was a mess: deep circles under his eyes, and his usual tan replaced by an unhealthy pallor. His body, like the soul inside him, was worse for wear.

Studying the long scar on his bare chest, he felt something sink deeper and deeper into his soul. It left him empty and wondering. His confidence was gone, and a creeping anxiety had taken its place. He dressed in a t-shirt and an old pair of jeans. The pants hung low over his hips and once more, he sighed deeply. He glanced at the table–clock, it was 8 p.m. Chris would be on the way home with the boys, he had called about two hours ago, ordering sharply him to stay in bed and let J.D take care of the horses.

Retrieving his battered boots he put them on and rose to his feet. The effort left him out of breath. He paused , wiping beaded sweat from his upper lip and as soon he felt that he had enough energy to move he crossed slowly the dining room and opening the front door. He exited onto the porch: J.D.’s bike was parked in front of the house but the kid was nowhere to be seen. Vin crept quietly alongside the bike, pausing at intervals, inspecting the quiet corral and the white building of the stable - not a movement out there. He frowned; his sixth sense was telling him that something was wrong. And suddenly a high scream abruptly broke the silence of the night. The Texan rocked to his feet, listening and the scream came again this time followed by a furious squeal. “Peso!” Vin hollered, rushing into the darkness outside toward the stable. His still weak legs stumbled twice under him. He grimaced at the stabbing pain in his chest, but managed to regain his footing. He approached the door and pulled at it with all his strength. It swung open and a dreadful sight appeared in front of his eyes: J.D. was pinned against the wall as an enraged Peso, blowing and thrusting his head, was trying to kick him with his front legs “Peso! Stop it! Peso!” Vin cried out.

Tilting his head the powerful horse, his nostrils flaring with steam, bared his teeth and snorting in challenge turned to him.

Unmoving the Texan stood in the middle of the stable.

“What’s wrong with ya, boy?” he soothed in that soft voice of his, slowly putting his arms forward.

“Ain’t nothin’ to fear. Nothin’ at all. It’s only me and the kid.”

Carefully he stepped forward.

“It’s me, Peso, it’s only me,” he repeated in a mild, gentle tone.

Pawing the ground with his hoofs, the big black stopped a little distance away, his sensitive ears moving back and forth. And then lowering his head to adjust his vision he recognized his master. He whinnied softly in response, tossing his long mane.

“C’mon, Peso, calm down,” Vin said persuasively and came nearer, till he laid his right hand on the beast’s sweaty muzzle and let the other one slide down the horse’s neck, patting it slightly. The beast nickered as Vin gently caressed his powerful neck, nuzzling at the sharpshooter’s long hair. “Here, here now. It’s over, Peso, yer‘re safe, safe,” Vin murmured, passing a lingering hand over his mane and slowly pinning the horse’s ears forward.

“Let me take you back, now.” Peso let himself be guided to his stall and stood still, his big brown, intelligent eyes on his master.

With a light, soft towel Vin gently stroked the horse‘s tense body and then turned to J.D. “Bring me his blanket, kid, and help me ta cover him.” he ordered.

As they finished their task Vin leaned on the wooden wall gulping air. He felt awful as if he had scarcely enough energy to breathe. His head was spinning and a squeezing pain had begun to mushroom outward from beneath his breastbone and up into his neck.

“J.D. … need ta rest, fer a spell,” he panted.

J.D looked up at the Texan: beads of sweat were running from his forehead down his sunken cheeks and he was deathly pale.

“You okay, Vin?” he asked in concern.

“Yeah, fine, J.D. Everythin’s fine,” Tanner whispered as his consciousness wavered then faded and he collapsed to the ground.

“Vin!” J.D. cried out leaning over his now unconscious friend.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was driving at a good speed on the road to the ranch, at his side was Nathan and in the back seat were Josiah and Buck. He was filling the team in on what had happened that morning between him and the sharpshooter.

“So he told Rain he wanted to get back to the hospital. He is trying to slip away. I feel it and that frightens me.”

“I know what you mean, Chris, the boy is confused and depressed. His body is healing but too slowly and so his anxiety about his own recovery turned to fear, and his fear into despair,” Nathan explained.

In a low, shaky voice the team’s leader went on, “Since last week he has refused to do his breathing exercises and to take his walks. I’ve found pills hidden everywhere, in his room, in the bathroom, even in the stable. And just yesterday the fourth nurse Rain had sent asked to be relieved from her duty. She said she was used to dealing with every kind of patient but that Vin was the most stubborn and nastiest ‘child’ she had ever met.”

“That’s fine. She wasn’t exactly my type… I like pretty women. She was just… a voluptuous, but rather ordinary looking blonde,” Buck pointed out, licking his lips. “What about a brunette next time, Chris?” He boomed, tossing aside his empty can of beer.

Chris shot at his old friend a dirty look, as he pulled up at the ranch’s front door.

The four men got out and entered the house.

“Hey, kids! We're home with a whole ham from Nettie with all the fixings and lot of beer! Get ready for the best dinner in your life,” Buck hollered.

The TV was flickering in an empty dining room.

“Maybe they are in the bedroom,” Chris suggested heading for the little room, but he found it empty. “Chris, Buck, there’s light in the stable.” Nathan called out from the porch.

"Damn, I'm going to give J.D the lecture of his life, and I’m gonna hog-tie that Texan stubborn mule to the bed this time,” Chris growled.

"Chris, please don’t be too hard on them!" Buck said softly.

"I can only promise not to shoot them!" Chris shouted rushing to the door.

As Larabee and Nathan entered the stable, they froze: J.D. was sitting on the floor and in his lap rested, the tousled head of a pale, motionless Vin sprawled on the hay, his grunting respirations barely moving air.

“Nathan!” The younger man cried out, looking up at the healer in despair, “Help him!”

In a minute Jackson was at Vin’s side.

He felt Vin’s neck, then the arterial pulses at his elbow and wrists.

“He’s in a state of shock and he’s having some trouble breathing. Chris, help me get him back to bed.” Nathan ordered efficiently. Then casting a glance at the boy he said in concern, “You look a bit pale, J.D, let me have a look at you.”

“I’m all right, Nathan, please take care of Vin first.”

“What happened ?” Chris urged.

“Vin saved me from Peso,” J.D. murmured.

Buck hurriedly entered the stable. He was holding a sheet of paper in his hand.

“Another poem?” Chris asked, frowning.

Buck nodded, his face sullen and wary.

“Read it out loud!”

With a trembling voice unusual to him, Wilmington complied.

Five little ATF boys
Standing at the stable’s door
A huge horse kicked one
And then they were four
Four little ATF boys
Wanted all the cards to see
One drank too much
And then they were three

"It didn't happen, boys. Vin is still alive." Josiah said.

"How long he will be, preacher? They attempted to end his life twice now." reasserted the blond.

"The target was J.D, this time, Chris."

"I know, but it doesn't make me feel any better."

Sanchez turned to the horse. Peso was strangely quiet now. He stepped into the stall and for several minutes, he examined him carefully. His sharp gaze fell on a strange glittering object half covered by the straw, he bent down to the ground and picked it up. It was a sort of syringe.

"Chris, have a look at this," he said showing it to the team’s leader and pointing at a small bloody hole on the animal's neck.

"They drugged him. This is from a particular kind of weapon they use to knock down wild animals. A friend of mine, a ‘curator’ in a Rocky Mountain park has one of them." he explained. And with a smile he added, “But they didn't figure out that this stubborn mule won't ever hurt his master.”

In the meantime, Buck and Nathan had carefully lifted Tanner’s limp body and were carrying him out of the stable to the house.

"He gonna be alright, Nathan?" Chris asked.

"I'll tell you when I have a good look at him."

+ + + + + + +

Half an hour later, the young sharpshooter was in his bed, the small mask over his shiny with sweat, sallow face fed him oxygen.

Nathan leaned over him, listening to his light, regular breathing

“He’s asleep. This sleep is the greatest blessing: the first he has had in a long time.”

"Don't you think we should take him to the hospital ?" Larabee asked

"The boy is only exhausted, Chris. What he did to save J.D. was physically and mentally too big an effort for a man that only a few days ago endured open heart surgery and suffered cardiac arrest. I wonder how he managed even to stand in his present weakened condition.”

" 'cause he's Vin, our defiant Vin, and his heart's the size of Texas." J.D murmured glancing at he still form of his friend.

Jackson turned and looking sternly at the men crowding the little room, he ordered, "Get outta here, now, Vin needs his rest. You all need some rest."

"As you wish, Nathan," Chris said. He would like to stay but he knew he first had to take care of his Team. He shot a last glance over to the blanketed body on the bed and then left with the others.

SEPTEMBER 28 – Morning - The Ranch

The phone rang insistently as Chris was having his first cup of coffee. He put the empty cup on the table and picked up the receiver quickly, “Larabee.”

“This is Sergeant Griffin at Second Precinct.”

“What is it, Sergeant Griffin?”

“Well, sir, last night we placed a man under arrest. He was driving an expensive European car and acting as if he were high on something–grass, alcohol, who knows? Before losing consciousness he claimed to be an agent for the ATF. His name’s Standish, Ezra Standish.”

Chris stiffened “Where’s he now, Sergeant Griffin?”

“They took him to the hospital: he had a sort of seizure while they were transferring him to the police station.”

“I’m sending agent Wilmington to check on him, thanks Sergeant Griffin,” Chris uttered slamming down the receiver.

“What’s wrong, Chris ?” Buck asked.

“It’s Ezra, he has had an accident, take my truck and get down to the hospital at once!” the blond ordered.

+ + + + + + +

As Buck drove away, a taxi pulled in and parked at the front door. A little nun got out of it.

She walked to the porch, stepped in and looked at the men with dark, wonderful eyes, then asked in a sweet voice, "Is this Mr. Larabee 's ranch?"

"Yes, sister, it is. May I help you?" Josiah asked smiling at her.

"My name is Sister Carrie. I’m the professional nurse you asked for.”

"Nice to meet you, Sister Carrie. We were waiting for you," Chris said with a slight bow. "Please, come in and have a seat," he continued, guiding her to the dining room.

The little pretty woman sat and again smiled at them.

Josiah stared at her as J.D burst into a muffled laugh.

She glanced at him and asked, "I was told you were Federal Agents, but aren’t you, boy, a bit too young for such a dangerous job?”

J.D. stiffened and was about to shoot something as Larabee prevented him.

"When I introduce you to your patient you will be surprised, he is a young man, too, as is my friend J.D. here, but in spite of this, he’s a very skillful agent."

"Can I see him?"

"He's sleeping at the moment. Mr. Jackson is with him."

"Is Mr. Jackson his doctor?"

"No, Sister. He's a special agent, too. He's going to be a doctor."

Chris' cell rang again.

"Excuse me, Sister," Chris said. He retired to a corner of the room and listened intently.

When he got through he put down the receiver.

"Judge Travis asked me to meet him in his office for a meeting. I'll take J.D. with me," he said turning to Josiah, then he paused, as if deciding something.

Vin had been, ever since they had met, his confidant - his rock, and now he was lying in a bed barely able to breathe and Chris suddenly felt with a vengeance the lack of his silent, reassuring presence at his side. He slowly headed for the door but on the step he turned again to the older agent.

"Josiah, please, keep an eye on Vin.”

"Our young brother is in good hands, Chris, go in peace."

"Thanks." Chris said, “ I’ll be back soon." Then he strode out with J.D at his heels.

The little nun stared at the cross dangling from Josiah's strong neck.

"I have heard your words and I see the cross you are wearing. Are you by chance a religious man, Mister Sanchez?" She asked in a gentle, tiny voice.

"You could say that, Sister,” Josiah said humbly with one of his broadest smiles.

"It's so rare to find that kind of man nowadays that I think it’s a sort of blessing to have met you here," she whispered, lowering her long lashes and clasping her white little hands on her lap.

Before Josiah could answer, Nathan rushed into the dining room.

"What's up, brother Nathan?" Josiah asked in alarm.

The healer tossed his head in dismay.

"Vin’s feverish, I’m going to the hospital to pick up Rain. I want her to see him as soon as possible.”

"Nathan, may I introduce you to Vin’s new nurse, Sister Carrie?" Sanchez said.

Jackson looked up at the pretty nun.

Sister Carrie rose graciously to her feet, ”Your friend will be fine with Mr. Sanchez and me, don’t worry about it, doctor.”

“Well, I will go then.” The black agent said and hurried to the door.

SEPTEMBER 28 – Late Morning – St. Joseph’s Hospital - Parking lot

Buck drove quickly on the way to the hospital. He arrived in no time. He turned into the parking lot and parked under some trees and there he paused wiping his sweaty forehead, then he saw a girl, coming toward the truck.

Buck leered at her light dress stretched tightly around her body, and sighed. The girl waved at him, "Please, mister, can you help me? Something is wrong with my car."

"A damsel in distress, my favorite situation!" The ladies' man said to himself.

"Here I am, young lady, " he said aloud launching himself out of the truck.

With a strikingly, white smile the young woman looked up at him. “My car is just over there,” she said, leading the mustached agent to a yellow convertible parked on one side of a large alley.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, three cars roared to the curb, surrounding them. Doors opened and four figures in black stocking masks leapt out.

Then everything seemed to happen at once. Buck heard the swish of a descending club and a blinding light exploded inside his head and then all went dark.

The girl knelt over the fallen man then she smiled evilly. "He's out! Good job, boys. Take him to the car." Two men lifted the unconscious agent, cuffed his wrists and tossed him in the back of the car.

SEPTEMBER 28 - Afternoon – The Ranch

Slowly opening his eyes and cautiously taking a deep breath, Vin moaned softly at the usual twinge in his chest, then he blinked as Josiah’s face peered at him.

He seemed to him so anxious that Vin screwed up a grin to reassure him.

"…hat happened?" he croaked.

"Don’t you remember? You saved J.D. from Peso.”

Vin furrowed his bow, looking confused, then nodded slightly, “How is the kid?” he asked warily.

“He’s fine, a bit shaky but just fine.”

“The others?“

“You don’t have to worry about them, right now. How do you feel?”

“Thirsty,” Vin exhaled

“I’ll bring some water, Mr. Sanchez,” a feminine voice said and for the first time, Vin noticed the little nun, standing behind his friend.

She smiled at the sharpshooter, handing Josiah a full glass from a tray.

“May I introduce myself? I’m Sister Carrie, your new nurse,” she said.

The sharpshooter didn't utter a sound, suspiciously scanning the woman's triangular face and as he met her dark glare he stiffened, his bow knitted, a sense of unease growing in his gut.

“Is your chest bothering you?” Josiah thoughtfully asked.

“I’m fine,” Vin said, his sharp gaze still on the woman.

“Sure you are!” Josiah laughed, helping the weary young man to sit up and lifting the glass to his lips.

The Texan took a little tentative sip and gasped.

“Damn, it tastes jist like horse–piss…” he blurted out, then blushed, biting his lips. “I'm sorry, ma’am,” he whispered, looking up sheepishly at the nun.

“Never mind, Mr. Tanner, I put some drops of the medication in it that your doctor prescribed to help you to sleep,” the nun explained.

“Don’t need ‘em. I’ve had enough of’ ‘em, I’m still drowsy ‘cause of ‘em!” Vin stubbornly growled.

“Please, brother Vin. Drink this down. If you could sleep, you’d be better in no time.” Josiah urged.

The sharpshooter turned his head, shutting firmly his mouth.

“Please, Mr. Tanner. Try to take a few sips of this,” the nun insisted.

Vin knew he had better drink, but something was wrong with that woman, his sharpened instincts were warning him against her.

Hesitantly he drank but as a bitter taste filled his mouth, he couldn’t help himself throwing up the unpleasant liquid. “Oh, hell!” he panted.

“Mind your language, your tongue, there is a nun here.” Josiah scolded.

“Sorry,” the sharpshooter murmured again as his face and ears flushed impossibly scarlet. He shut his eyes to avoid the two.

“Invalids, Mr. Sanchez, are all the same,” the nun said shaking her head and wiping the young man’s strong jaw and neck with a little towel. At the touch of her white, cold, professional hands, Vin shivered but held his eyes firmly shut. He suddenly felt tired again and he was overcome with sleep.

With a secret sigh of relief, the nun let herself fall on a chair, looking at the slumbering man. She had to change her plan and quickly, she thought, she couldn't figure out how but the damn Texan had been able to see, by some sort of preternatural instinct, the menace, so carefully hidden in her eyes. Licking her lips, she studied Vin’s fine features under the two-days’ growth of beard, wondering how attractive he might have been when washed, shaved and healthier.

She waited as Tanner’s breath heaved, bent over him, listened intently, then turned to Josiah.

“He’s having some trouble breathing,” she lied, and reached for the oxygen mask. She placed it over the young man’s slack mouth. The sharpshooter tossed his head back and forth weakly, mumbling in his sleep, but didn’t awaken.

She turned to Josiah.

“So, Mr. Sanchez, what about some sandwiches?” she offered cheerfully.

“I’ll be pleased, Sister Carrie. And we’ll have some white light wine to go with them. You'll find it in the refrigerator,” Josiah said, with a twinkle in his smile.

“This won’t take a minute,” she said.

+ + + + + + +

She went into the kitchen and made her preparations, then took from the refrigerator the green bottle of wine, uncorked it and poured the amber liquid into two glasses. She took care to slide some drops from a little vial into Josiah’s glass.

She exited the room with her tray and crossing the dining room, she approached Chris’ computer’s desk and read the fax just now printed.

Three little ATF boys
Were sitting on the pew
One followed a " vision "
Then they were two
Two little ATF boys
Were chasing a dreadful man
One was lost in the sun
And then there was one

You are all alone … Larabee!


She smiled and her eyes fell on one of the photographs on the wall by the doorway. It was the official photo of Team 7 taken just before Christmas. She looked at the tall, blond figure of the team’s leader standing with a big smile on his handsome face in the middle of the group, his right outstretched arm on Vin’s shoulders. She repressed the sudden urge to slam her fists into the photo.

That man had chased his father, that man had compelled him to kill himself, discovering the respectful banker’s strange “liaisons” with “the Mafia”. Holding his cold hand while he was slipping slowly to his death, having poisoned himself on a cold winter night, five years ago, she had promised her beloved father to avenge him.

“You’ll have your vengeance, Daddy,” she whispered and with a broad triumphant grin walked back to the bedroom. She set down the tray on the table.

“Go ahead, Mr. Sanchez and fix yourself a drink,” she invited. “If you feel like eating, there’s plenty!”

+ + + + + + +

Vin was dreaming: it was a peaceful, beautiful day and he was walking on the path leading to the ranch when a black panther rushed out from behind the bushes with a low growl looking at him with dark, glittering eyes. He reached for his gun and realized that he was naked… gasping; he awoke in a pool of sweat in his bed.

Letting his eyes open only a slit he could make out Josiah slumped on the chair near his bed, in a sort of deep slumber and the little woman with dark, large eyes, bent over his friend, the dark pupils glittering like the glare of a panther ready to grab its prey, a sharp blade in her hands.

Vin shuddered: he had to warn his friend! But the darn oxygen mask was on his mouth again. He looked down at his hands, they were pasty white and gaunt, he raised both of them and reaching for the straps of the device, he forced his trembling fingers to work on them and felt them loosening. Gritting his teeth he took the nasty thing off his mouth, then forcing his uncooperative lips to open, he shouted. "Josiah! Lookout!"

With a hiss, the nun slowly turned her head until she was looking at Tanner. Her face softened as she lifted her well-shaped eyebrows, examined him, and smiled secretively. She moved closer and stood at the foot of the bed.

“Are you worried about your friend, Vin. Aren’t you?” she asked with that strange light voice of hers.

The sharpshooter favored her with a steel–cold blue glare.

“Well, let’s not worry about him, my pet!” she said.

She let her weapon fell onto the ground and swept upon the bewildered young man.

”Don’t look at me like that, honey,” she said as she reached down and ran her fingers across Vin’s cheek, looking intently at him, “Maybe for one of your kisses I might spare that old fool.” When she bent over him and let both hands slide on his bare shoulders, Vin stiffened.

“All right, break it up, Ligeia,” a stern voice said from the doorway.

Murdock was standing just inside the room a gun in his hand.

“And you ‘hero’ don’t try any silly moves!” he went on as came further into the room and closed the door with his heel.

He jerked the gun toward an armchair near the bed. “Sit down, Ligeia.”

The woman looked as if she were going to faint but sat following the order.

“Good,” Murdock murmured as he moved to the center of the room, the gun pointed to a spot just between Vin and the ‘nun’.

“I came to take care of my own business, and I see it’s a good thing I did. I shouldn’t have let you come here. I was told that Larabee’s young friend was a pretty one and that you have quite a reputation…”

“How dare you talk to me like that!” Ligeia cried out in anger.

Murdock smiled and stepped over to her, slapped her hard on the face three times, she staggered and collapsed on the armchair as blood flowed from her lips.

“Shut up, bitch!” he hollered, and then he half turned his head to look at Vin.

“Well, we are going to have a little trip to a safer place, so Tanner stand up and get dressed or I’ll drill your friend, ” he said gesturing with the barrel of his gun to the unconscious Sanchez. “Hurry up, boy, time’s wasting.” He hooked a chair toward him and sat down with the gun in his lap.

Vin didn’t say anything, furiously racking his brain to find a way to get out of this mess. Cautiously he lowered his feet to the floor and stood up. His legs felt weak and wobbly but nothing so bad as he thought he was going to feel. It took him over ten minutes to get dressed and he was feeling pretty bad by the time he was through. He had to sit on the bed until his heart stopped racing. But this gave him the time to look around and on the night stand near the bed he saw the gun: the mare’s–leg Chris had brought him as Christmas present to add to his collection of Old West items. The old weapon hadn't been fired in years and it had taken Vin a whole week to clean it up, but now the gun was as good as new. Swiftly the sharpshooter made his plan. With a loud moan, he let himself fall again onto the bed face down.

Murdock turned to him “What’s wrong, boy?”

“Let me breathe…” Vin murmured and he wasn’t so far from telling the truth. He thought that he was going to pass out. He was shaking like a leaf, and there was an awful swirling going on inside his chest.

“Take your time, then.” Murdock said, ”I need you in one piece for the last of act of this comedy.” He rose to his feet, put the gun on the table and lit a cigar, then turned to the window.

Vin took hold of the corner of a sheet and wiped the sweat off his face, his arm was sore, his fingers half-numb but he could feel pins and needles as he tried to move them, he looked at them dubiously. And with a shrug ordered himself, Damn, Tanner, cut it out, ya have ta try!

Glancing at the broad man’s back in front of him, he slowly stretched his arm towards the gun, and his fingers closed on its butt. Collecting his strength, he rolled on his side and shouted out, “Murdock!”

The man turned abruptly and Tanner pulled the trigger. The old gun barked and the bullet exploded on the man’s cheek–bone with the impact of a hammer. He went down, a surprised look on his face, his body coming squarely on the table in the middle of the room that smashed like matchsticks.

A thick silence hung in the air as the sharpshooter let himself fall onto his back, holding the mare’s–leg against his aching chest. He could hear his own breathing, quick short gasps, rasping in his throat. The woman was near the corpse. Vin stared at her. There was no fear in her pale face stained with blood.

She squatted on her heels and looked down.

“He’s dead,” she said, baring her sharp teeth in an awful smile, “It’s all right, isn’t it?” A chill ran up Vin’s spine. She wasn’t human.

With a quick movement Ligeia was in front of him “Are you going to shoot me, too, boy?” she asked warily.

“I never shoot in cool blood,” Vin said but his voice sounded miles away. Clutching at the cold barrel of the gun, he shook his head in an effort to clear his blurring vision. The room was whirling around him and he fought the dizziness, staggering on the edge of consciousness. She leaned over him and breathed on his face, “Vin, I won’t kill you, my child, I’m going to take you with me!”

He looked up at her dreadful black eyes and stared at her as she lifted a syringe, and then he felt the burning sensation of the liquid shot into his veins, he wanted to move, to avoid it, but he was so tired he thought. He went to sleep, just like that.

SEPTEMBER 28 - Afternoon – St. Joseph’s Hospital

The smell of iodoform and ether told Ezra he was in hospital. A nurse was standing over him. He looked up at her quizzically: there was a bored, harassed expression on her pretty face. He cautiously looked around, collecting his thoughts, staring at high white screens surrounding his bed and they worried him. He seemed to remember they only put screens around a bed when the patient is going to die.

A doctor came around from behind the screen and peered at him.

“You don’t have to tell me that you are better,” he said. “I can see that myself,” he said cheerfully.

“How long have I been here?” Standish asked.

“You were admitted at eleven–thirty on the night of September 27. Today is September 28. So you have been here a day. You had an accident. A speed–cop heard the crash, although he didn’t see it happen. You were found wandering beside your car, in a dazed condition. They thought you were an addict who had taken an overdose. But they were wrong. Someone doped you with a very strong opium derivative.”

“And how am I doing, doctor?”

“You are doing well, just take it easy,” he said glancing at the paper on the foot of the bed. “You are still suffering from narcotic poisoning, but you’ll be all right soon, Mr. Standish.”

“I’m obliged, doctor, when I’ll be allowed to get out of here?”

“Oh, you keep on like this and we’ll have you up in a couple of days.”

“A couple of days?” Ezra shouted, jumping out of the bed.

“Please, Mr. Standish, you have to rest all you can.”

Ezra frowned, but looking at the doctor he decided not to argue with him, he was a nice guy and he was doing his best for him. So he grinned at him.

“Well, so I’ll stay, it’s a nice place here, after all,” he said.

”Good, Mr. Standish. If you need something you have only to ask your nurse. Have a good night,” the doctor smiled back very pleasantly and walked out quietly.

Before Ezra could even start to think about what happened to him, a nurse came in.

“Your dinner, sir.” she said cheerfully. He looked at the offering from the cooks of the St. Joseph Hospital. He wrinkled his nose in disgust, but he swallowed some “broth” and then turned to the girl.

“Tell me, young lady where are my clothes?”

“They are in the closet over there. Did you want something? Mr. Standish, I’m beginning to get the feeling you re someone very important.”

“What gives you that idea?”

“Well, there are two federal agents outside and an older man. They called him ‘judge’. They told me they were looking for you. I guess you must be important.”

“Let them in, please, miss.”

“Of course, Mr. Standish.”

A few minutes later Chris Larabee, J.D. and Judge Travis stepped into the room.

Larabee pulled up a chair beside him and crossed his long legs.

“They say you had a car crash.”

“What about my car? Is it damaged?” Ezra asked in concern.

“Nah, one of the headlights is out, that’s all.”

The southerner sighed in relief and closed his eyes. His head was throbbing unmercifully.

“Damn! Standish, wake up!” Chris hollered jumping on his feet.

Blinking the irate man into focus, Ezra mumbled, “Sorry, Mr. Larabee. I must have drifted off!”

“So, spit it out. What happened to you?” Larabee blurted out impatiently.

“Well, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra said. “I met my informant last night. He invited me to join him for some drinks and a game of poker and so I went. He talked a lot about Murdock and his plans of vengeance on a cop named Chris Larabee… The last thing I remember is that I was walking in the parking lot towards my car...”

“Did you talk to Buck about this?”

“Buck? I’ve haven’t seen him!” Standish stammered.

Chris’s eyes narrowed and the con man expected him to start yelling at him again. But he didn’t. He just scratched his head.

“I guess there’s been a misunderstanding or something worse.” he whispered after a while.

Then he grabbed his cell and dialed the ranch’s number.

At first there was no answer, then Nathan‘s voice murmured, “Jackson!” in a distant, husky sound.

“Nathan! It’s me, Chris…”

“Chris?” the strained voice repeated.

“Jackson, can you hear me? What’s going on?” Chris cried out. He had never heard the black agent sound the way he did this afternoon.

“They are gone, Chris. The room is a mess… blood on the floor… I’ve called the Fed’s. They will be here soon,” Nathan said.

“What about Vin?” Chris repeated as a chill swept through him.

“Chris, Vin’s not here…” Jackson sounded feeble and uncertain.

“Damn! What the hell happened?“ Larabee urged, his mouth as suddenly gone dry.

“Well, when I came back with Rain, half an hour ago we found the house empty and a pool of blood in Vin’s room. That’s all I know.”

“Hold on, man, we are coming.” Chris cried into the phone and hung up. His chest was tight, adrenaline casting aside any lingering fatigue.

“Something happened at the ranch,” he growled. This mess was steaming him up but good and he was barely aware of J.D.’s question.

“Chris, what about Buck?”

A deep sense of shame and guilt owerwhelmed Larabee: he was worrying only about Tanner but also his oldest, loyal friend was lost, he could be dead as well, and what was he doing? Tottering and growling like a she-bear that has lost her cubs, he sighed realizing that he was now thinking of himself in terms of one of Vin's own nicknames for him.

“We’ll find them. Don’t worry, kid,” he said with a steadiness he didn’t feel.

“Chris! Let me go; I’ll try to find him, please! You know Vin has been teaching me!” J.D pleaded.

“No, I’m am in charge of all of you and I say we are going to work on this together,” Chris snarled, silencing the younger man.

“Mr. Dunne, we are dealing with a sort of plot against us all and we must face this as a team, as they say, ‘United we stand, divided we fall’,” Ezra said smiling at J.D.

Chris stared at the southerner in surprise because Ezra, for the first time, was admitting that he felt himself a member of the team and was offering his support.

“Thanks, Ezra!” he murmured.

“My pleasure, Mr. Larabee.”

In the pause that followed Judge Travis spoke for the first time, “I’ll try to get in touch with a friend of mine from the police department. He could help us by providing us a car and some men. We must go to the ranch to appraise the situation. According to our information, special agent Tanner and special agent Sanchez were kidnapped and Wilmington has disappeared as well, right?”

“Yes, sir, and Murdock is the cause of the whole thing,” Chris stated.

Travis shook his head. “We don’t know enough to even start theorizing. We have no evidence. I mean no solid evidence.”

“Maybe someone else is involved, judge. I charted every scrap of information about Murdock, gambling, dope, extortion. The man controls all kinds of dirty businesses. The most important member of the gang is Ligeia Licata, Murdock’s right hand, a psychopath with a quick temper. She is skilled in poisoning and stabbing people. They say she met Murdock when she was very young and down to her last dollar and the man had money and he threw it around..… I have a feeling about her if you know what I mean,” Ezra said.

“We must head to the ranch as soon as possible,” Chris stated. “I know how the Feds work. I want to check the house myself; to go over it thoroughly!”

He looked down at the streaming, late afternoon traffic filling the street and swore. “We’ll never get there in time!” he shouted in anger. His nerves were jangling.

“Well, time to go!” The con man said with a wry smile as he sat on the bed and pushed the button to call the nurse.

In a few minutes the girl was there.

“Do you need something, Mr. Standish?”

“Of course, young lady, I want to speak to my doctor, at once, and please bring the necessary documents I need to sign to be released.”

“I’m going to find your doctor, sir.” The nurse answered and quickly stepped into the corridor.

“What on hell do you think you are doing, Standish?” Chris snapped.

“I guess we need a car, don’t we? And a fast one, too. How about an... ambulance?”

“And you think to be able to fool the doctor?”

“Mr. Larabee, you have no idea how many things a clever man can learn playing poker. When you gamble there is no such a thing as second place. Either you win it all or you lose it all... and I’ve never lost it all... besides I was blessed with the gift of eloquence.”

“Well, you are a fountain of words, Ezra!” J.D. laughed.

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Chris & rosyvin