COUNTIN' ON A MIRACLE by Chris and rosyvin

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SEPTEMBER 28 – Late Afternoon – The Ranch

Two hours later Chris arrived at the ranch. As he walked along the narrow path leading to the house the afternoon heat enveloped him and he smelled the sweet, weighty scent of honeysuckle and grass. He glanced at the peaceful, green landscape, at the mountains so beautiful that it seemed as if God himself had shaped them with his Almighty strength and sighed in despair.

He went into the house and walked straight to Vin’s room. He stopped just inside the doorway and, almost as if his thoughts were elsewhere, he scanned the bedroom. His gaze lingered on Vin’s rusty brown leather jacket on the chair, then on Vin’s harmonica on the desk and a coldness spread over him as he looked back at the pool of blood on the wooden floor: dried blood, now brown, caked and cracking. Suddenly he was aware of the lump growing in his throat. At first as an ill–defined sensation that didn’t require his full attention and then as something he couldn’t ignore. He closed his eyes, overwhelmed by this strange feeling. There was a sense of panic and desperation in this feeling, for in his own house, in the safe harbor of the ranch he suddenly felt the chilling presence of death.

SEPTEMBER 29 - Noon – Office

At twelve fifteen J.D. entered the office. He had been in the next building at the crime lab to check on specimens found at the ranch.

Chris sat on the edge of Vin’s empty desk, his eyes bloodshot and his face haggard and worn. He had not shaved.

Ezra was busily typing at his computer and Nathan was wandering around the office. Everyone was pursuing, or pretending to pursue, his own thoughts about what had happened.

“C’mon, kid,” Chris ordered, “Fill me in!”

Taking a deep breath, J.D swiftly reported, “For starters, the hypodermic syringe in the bedroom had contained a sulfate of morpheme. About the blood on the floor - it isn’t Vin’s blood.”

“What‘ve they come up with?” Chris grumbled. An edge had crept into his tone, a touch of anger mixed with impatience.

The young agent pulled out of a plastic bag the mare’s–leg and positioning it on Chris’s desk he went on, “Well, this gun was under the bed, forensics found Vin’s fingerprints on its butt, and it’s still loaded. Someone was killed with this gun in the room and the corpse taken away. Whoever did it, did a helluva job not leaving them not too much to work with. He seemed to know just what to clean up and why.”

A pang of anxiety that he was unable to stifle washed over Chris - the anxiety of someone who has run against a post in the dark and wonders for a spell whether he has been hurt.

Scrubbing a hand through his hair, he stepped back to his desk and his eyes widened as he looked at his computer’s screen.

“F… that’s sick!” he shouted out, slamming his hand on the table. All the men turned to him as he began to read the message on the screen.

One little ATF cop
Is sitting now at work
He’d better stand up
For I want in a word
To shoot his friends dead.

Your life for theirs’… Larabee…

I’m waiting for you. You know the place.

Under the message was the photograph of carved white gate.

Thinking back Chris remembered a man called Franco Licata, the owner of that house, a respectful banker he had arrested five years ago, discovering his links to the ‘Mafia’.

Unable to face a trial the man had killed himself.

This mobster had a daughter, a little girl, with piercing dark eyes, Chris had met her the day they discovered the corpse, as a nun came to pick her up… a nun! The ATF leader shuddered, holding his breath as he thought of a pair of dark, large eyes.

Without a word he rose from his desk and grabbed his gun belt. He hissed between clenched teeth, “Keep out of this! It’s my business!” And before anyone could stop him he stepped through the door, slamming it shut behind him. They heard the sound of a key turned into its lock and then footsteps fading away.

“Damn, he locked the door!” J.D. cried out.

“Help me pick this lock, my friend,” Standish smiled.

He knelt beside the door, fumbled with the lock and after a few minutes he opened it.

They jumped into the elevator and rode to the ground floor.

+ + + + + + +

They reached the parking lot in no time.

Ezra slapped the blue light on the top of his black Porsche, slid into the front seat then stepped on the clutch, shifted into first and pulled away.

He took to the highway as if it was Indianapolis 500. The landscape became a blur as the passengers could feel the seats moving out from under them.

“Any idea where Chris’s heading?” the black agent asked.

“Well, Mr. Jackson, a couple of years ago my mother had in her mind to buy a new house, so we kept looking at some suitable estates all around Denver. One of those was a rather unusual building, a sort of Italian villa, with a carved gate. When I saw the picture they sent I recognized it at once, “ the southerner explained.

“You’re amazing, Ezra!” J.D blurted out.

“I must say I’m fully aware of this, J.D.,” Ezra replied, pushing the accelerator to the floor.

SEPTEMBER 29 – Evening – The Villa

Having the three agents in her hands was the most stimulating thing that had ever happened to Ligeia. She had complete and total control over their lives. She could do anything she wanted to them. Murdock was dead. She had these three trapped and now she was ready to deal with the man who deserved to die more then any of them: Chris Larabee.

The very thought made her happy and content.

She stared at the young man tied to the bed and delicately lifted the blanket and sheets from his chest, tilting her chin towards him. He was a handsome sight – if one ignored his paleness and his gaping, drooling mouth. His arms and upper chest were strong and muscular and his brown curls a perfect match for his face, which had high cheek–bones and a short, arrogant nose.

Slowly regaining his senses, Vin knew that he was being watched. He tried to open his eyes just a slit, feeling his eyelids quiver as he eased them apart and looked fuzzily at the white ceiling. He was on his back, secured to a bed with straps at his wrists and ankles. He felt sick. He vaguely remembered the sharp voice of a woman and of the sting of an injection being given deep into the muscle of his neck. Then motions, touches, a glimpse of a deep blue darkening sky, his body being folded into the trunk of a car and the thick darkness oppressing and stifling him. He took a deep breath that hurt his healing scar and moaned softly.

“Are you awake, sugar?” Ligeia cooed, leaning in close to him. “Are you awake, my pet?“ She whispered, smoothing the lock of hair which habitually fell over the young man’s forehead.

Vin blinked rapidly and stammered but then memory dawned, and he emerged more fully from his slumber, stiffening as Ligeia moved closer and crawled beside him on the bed, putting her long, fingers on his blanketed thigh, “Hush, honey, take it easy, very easy,” she purred.

As he was bound to the bed frame, Vin knew he couldn’t get away from her but he flinched involuntarily at the touch.

“Get off him, bitch!” Buck growled, cocking his head and raising it slightly. Tanner could see him bound to a chair in front of him and, at the opposite side of the room, Josiah lying on a narrow cot, secured to it by his wrists and still unconscious.

With a chilling laugh Ligeia looked up at the ladies’ man, “Don’t worry, agent Wilmington. You are next. We have all the time in the world,” she said sternly, again bending over Vin.

She leaned forward, her face just inches from his. “Don’t pull away from me, handsome,” she murmured, reaching out a shaking hand, and turning the sharpshooter’s chin toward her. “Oh, my. I do love those wide, blue eyes of yours!”

Tanner shot a quick glance at Buck, over Ligeia’s shoulder as she paused, caressing his cheek. He had a plan, having noticed a glassy look in the woman’s black eyes and a tiny red, mark on the smooth skin just above her pulse.

Forcing his mouth into a little smile, he cautiously rasped in that soft voice of his, blushing hard at his own teasing words,” So, how ‘bout untying me, ma’am?”

“Oh, of course, sweetie,” she whispered, smiling in anticipation.

She removed the restrains holding the young man’s wrists and embraced him, searching eagerly for his lips.

As soon as Ligeia’s arms encircled his neck, Tanner tried to hit her face. But with his legs spread apart and his ankles still tied securely to the corners of the bed in which he lay, he was off - balance and with little cry of surprise, she avoided the blow, when somebody banged on the door.

“Miss, you had better get out here.”

“What’s going on?”

“The man we were waiting for … he’s here. We took him to the dining room.”

Ligeia’s face changed and a satisfied grin spread on it.

She brought her eyes back to Vin and smiled. It was a strange smile, pleasing but crooked and not too properly coordinated.

“You’ll pay for that!” she uttered in a low, dangerous tone and then slapped Vin violently across the mouth, splitting open his lips with the ring she wore.

The Texan sucked at the blood, closing his eyes, painfully aware that lying on his back and tied up made him vulnerable to anything Ligeia wanted to do. Moreover he was too weak to defend himself.

She reached over, opened a drawer in the table nearby and retrieved a club. She stepped back to the bed and drew the bedclothes down to the prisoner’s feet, entirely exposing his body. Her finger traced around the scar on the smooth naked chest and then lowered, following the line of Vin’s ribs. Vin sucked in a breath as her touch sent a flash of pain into his chest, making him cry out in pain.

“You know where I’m going to hit you?” she asked coldly.

The sharpshooter kept silent but tensed, holding his breath painfully and keeping his eyes tightly closed.

“Darn bitch, stop it, he’s hurt! Just stop it!” Buck cried out.

“I guess he is healthy enough to be punished. Besides I’m going to kill him anyway. Your boss will be here soon. The fool accepted the trade, his life for yours but he won’t find you still alive,” she stated and tried to smile again, but what came out was just a smirk.

Without warning, she took two steps to the right where she could get a better angle and then she brought the club repeatedly swiftly down into Tanner’s exposed rib cage, one, two, three times. Vin felt his ribs crack. He gasped and coasted on the blackness and the pain spreading up into his still tender chest.

The woman looked down at him. Her crooked smile was back.

”I’m going out and check Larabee over. Then I’ll bring him here and we’ll have some fun. Stay with us, Tanner.”

She went over to the door unlocked it and went out.

Almost instinctively, Vin bent down to untie his ankles. He felt nauseous and dizzy. Taking a deep breath, he started again unwrapping the rope and succeeding, eased himself to his knees. A groan was wrenched from between his teeth as he pulled himself off bed and onto his feet. Looking around the room he saw his jeans on a chair. He grabbed them and after a struggle he pulled them on. Then, barefoot, he headed stubbornly towards the door.

“Vin! Get back and untie us!” Wilmington shouted, straining at the cord bounding his hands.

“Be damned if I will! Chris’s in trouble. I have ta find help,” Vin growled as he eased the door open and peered down the hall.

“If he is, you’ll only get killed. Git back here you darn Texan mule! That’s an order!” Buck hollered again, twisting desperately on the chair and pulling at his bounds. Vin turned to him, a mischievous half grin on his face as he drawled, “Ya know, Bucklin, cain’t stand the orders… see ya!” And tipping the brim of an invisible hat, he slipped out of the door.

+ + + + + + +

Once outside he started moving slowly down the stairs. He reached the ground floor and continued to tiptoe down the hall towards the back door and from it he exited.

The burning sensation in his chest was getting worse, but he bit his lips and stared into the dimming light of the upcoming evening and at the huge open gate, just in front of the house. I have ta git there, I can do this, he murmured. However sick he felt, it didn’t matter. Fuelled by adrenaline but slowed by injuries and staying close to the bushes, he slowly headed for the gate. The thought of getting help spurred him along as he stumbled, moving through the heavy undergrowth as fast as he could.

Random thoughts raced through his restless mind. He knew that as soon as they discovered him missing they would be after him.

He slid like a dark shadow across the open spaces between the bushes and the trees. Once outside the garden he reached the end of a small driveway and found himself on a dirty road cut into the hillside – a rough terrain of overgrown shrubbery and grass. The sharpshooter gave a look around, hoping to see other houses, but there were none up here in this lonely place. He paused, listening, and then he heard the faint noise of traffic to his left. With a desperate effort, staggering on his bare feet, he turned and continued his journey. After what it seemed to him a very long time, he staggered into the street. There was a steady stream of traffic traveling up and down, but nobody stopped. He waved his arms frantically in the air.

Drivers averted their eyes and kept going. Damn, they must think I’m plumb drunk or crazy he thought.

For one wild moment, he considered throwing himself in front of a car, but they’d probably knock him down and drive off. He swayed, almost falling, but forced himself to keep going and then he was aware that a car was just behind him. The driver seemed to be keeping pace with him more than trying to run him over. There was no air left in his lungs, only the quick spreading of exhaustion all over his body. Vin shuddered. He didn’t know what sounded worse his lungs or the car chasing him. As his legs failed, he wilted, dropped slowly to his knees and sank onto the ground.

He heard voices. He heard Nathan’s voice. “He just passed out.”

Hands gently turned him over on his back.

“Nate!” he murmured as he made an effort to get upright, then slumped heavily on his friend, his sweaty head pillowed on the black agent’s broad chest.

“Yes, it’s me. Take it easy, Vin,” the black agent said in a reassuring tone as he knelt next to him, holding him carefully, the tousled head laying against his broad shoulders.

Managing a deeper breath the sharpshooter looked through his eyelashes and saw Ezra and J.D., bending over him.

He bolted upright and looked at his friends with glazed eyes.

“They have..... Chris, we gotta go....” he stammered, catching his breath.

“Are they after you?”

The sharpshooter shook his head.

“You know, Nathan. Vin can disappear at will... just like a ghost!” J.D. pointed out proudly.

“I guess the comparison’d suit him perfectly, right now,” Ezra murmured, squatting beside the Texan and studying his ashen, sweaty face.

Vin’s brows furrowed and he gasped, his voice raspy, “Hell... Quit... jawin’ back and forth.…. The darn nun.... She’s gonna kill Chris. Gotta go back to the villa!” he huffed.

“What about Murdock?” Ezra asked.

“He’s dead. I shot him…” Vin blurted out, trying to sit upright but Ezra held him in place putting a hand on his chest.

“Please, Mr. Tanner, lie still. The Cavalry is on its way.”

Raising his head, Vin looked back at the highway and saw half a dozen blue and whites parked perpendicular blocking the street ahead, their red and blue lights flashing.

A cop appeared at Nathan’s side, looking at the fallen man.

“Damn! The boy sure has been knocked about! Need some help, Jackson? Should I call an ambulance?”

“An ambulance would be an excellent idea,” Nathan said sharply. The cop nodded and left.

“No! I won’t go back ta the darn hospital… Help me up… We gotta git to the villa... We gotta save Chris!” Vin cried out, fighting Nathan’s gently restraining hands.

“For Christ’s sake, Tanner, stay put!” Nathan hollered, tightening his hold on the lean, shivering shoulders and pinning the smaller man to the ground with all his weight.

“Git yer hands off me… lemme go!” Vin protested again, trying to push Nathan away from him, holding one of his arms back, but his strength was ebbing and he toppled backward, totally spent.

“Ya won’t save Chris without m’ help,” he mumbled under his breath.

“Got a new set of scratches and bruises, uh? Let me have a look at them ribs of yours,” Nathan murmured absently, skimming his hands from Tanner’s upper chest to waist. At the light touch of Jackson’s practiced fingers on his aching ribs Tanner paled and hissed in pain. Nathan frowned, “Listen to me, Tanner, you aren’t going back to the villa. The only place you’re going is the hospital, is that clear?” he growled.

Vin scowled. His intention was to stay awake, but his body had other plans and even the anger he felt wasn’t sufficient to keep his eyes open.

“Hell, Nate, stop fussin’ over me. I’m… fine,” he stubbornly whispered drifting off with a faint groan. Pulling the limp body forward Nathan settled the tousled head against his shoulder, wrapping his arms protectively around Vin’s chest.

The cop returned.

“Sorry, Mr. Jackson, the ambulance will late. There was a fire, just outside Denver, lots of people involved.”

Nathan sighed looking down at the Texan in his arms in dismay.

“Our young fallen comrade needs you, Mr. Jackson! Stay with him, I swear I’ll get the others back. Alive!” Ezra said softly tapping his friend’s back lightly. Then he rose to his feet, whirled on his heels and joined the policemen in the car. J. D followed him and the convoy roared down the road.

SEPTEMBER 29 - Evening - The Villa

Larabee was led to a large, well–furnished room. The man behind him, with a hand against his back, roughly urged him into it.

Ligeia sat behind a big, flat–topped desk. To her side was a heavy man with a brutal face. She had taken off her nun’s habit and was wearing a dark blue silk gown. Chris recognized her at once and shuddered in surprise.

“Well, Larabee nice to meet you again. I’m not going to tie you down but you know what will happen to you should you cause my men the least bit of trouble. They have their instructions and they will enjoy carrying them out.”

The woman said, smiling evilly. She had a brooding expression on her face. She lit a cigarette and drew on it hungrily.

Chris stood in the middle of the room, his nerves jumpy, and his glare steadily on her.

“Scared, Larabee?” she asked, and her eyebrows lifted.

“I want to see my men at once!” Chris hollered.

She stared at him, with a light-mocking smile.

“I guess it is Vin Tanner you are eager to see. They say you two are quite close and he is a real looker, isn’t he?”

Feral green eyes stared back at her. “What have you done to him?”

“We haven’t done too him much, yet. He played his hand pretty badly… I could say he refused…. to cooperate.” she said with a shrug.

“Let him loose. We had a deal, remember?” Larabee shouted.

“I happen to hold all the cards in this deal. Besides it is out of my hands now,” Ligeia said then she went on calmly as if she were discussing the weather. “The little bastard shot Murdock and a couple of friends of his took it very personally. So I can’t let Tanner go free. They are claiming him. He’ll have to be turned over to them. They asked for the privilege of finishing him off but I promise you I will see to it that they make it quick. I owe Tanner something. I’m grateful to him for getting rid of Murdock,” she went on, her voice cold and sharp,

”You’re a dangerous man, Larabee and the only obstacle left between myself and the kingdom I inherited from my father. You must die and the sooner the better. I’m good at arranging accidents. And I must say you are going to meet with an accident right now…” She moved closer and continued to look at the black clad man, her face as hard as granite.

“Don’t let kid yourself. You talk about an accident, but it won’t be an accident it’ll be murder,” Chris said, maintaining steady, level eye contact with her.

She laughed, moved away from him, and walked over to the window.

“This is what the police will report about your death. You saw your best friend and your mates worked over and killed and you knew you were caught. There was no way out for you. You walked to the window of the villa and kept walking. They found you lying on the terrace with a broken neck.”

“Would this story play any better with Judge Travis?”

“I don’t care about him… do you remember, Larabee? My father killed himself sitting on that divan, five years ago, because of you. Now it’s your turn.”

Chris glared at her. There was a ruthless look of triumph in her black, bottomless eyes and her colorless lips were parted.

She turned and waved her hand at her thugs.

“Bill, go outside and get the cars ready. We are leaving in about an hour and you ,Jeff, tell Shorty to bring Tanner in here. We are going to have a little fun.”

The men left the room.

Chris turned ice–cold. He had only to look at her to see she wasn’t bluffing.

He was licked and he knew it. Vin would be better off dead then tortured by those men.

Without looking at her he said, “Turn Tanner loose. After all it’s me you want!”

“I see. You are trying to save your little friend, aren’t you? How touching, Larabee! But you are wrong. For I wanted him as well as you and you led me right to him.”

“My men are after you and you’ll pay for that!” Chris growled.

“I’ve just told you Chris Larabee…. it’s your turn,” she laughed.

Keeping her eyes on the blond’s face, she moved across the room, smiling as she arched her back and stretched herself like a dangerous cat.

“You are a handsome man, Chris, so tall, so strong and well–built and I guess much more experienced than your younger, shy friend… We could have some fun and....” she continued almost cheerfully.

“I’m not in the mood for pillow talk,” Larabee uttered, holding her gaze.

“Well, maybe you’ll change your mind. Seeing my men at work on those friends of yours,” she abruptly stated. Then she brushed past him and headed for the door.

SEPTEMBER 29 - Night – The Villa

The car containing Ezra and his mates met up with two unmarked police cars at the bottom of the canyon. Standish sat in the front, giving directions. After a while he spotted the lonely house. It stood at the edge of the woods, a mile from the main road, down a narrow corridor that was more path then lane; a big house, ghost–white in the moonlight.

A lamp burned feebly in a corner room on the second floor and another spilled light from the main room. Otherwise the place was dark.

“It’s up here,” Ezra said, “Keep on going – it’s way at the top.”

The first vehicle in the convoy slowed down.

“There is a truck up ahead,” the driver said.

“Looks like it could be Chris’ truck!” J.D. pointed out.

In a flash Ezra was out of the car, pulling his gun.

“I’ll go first,” he said.

They stopped near the black truck parked on the grass near the end of the driveway and stood for a spell, letting their eyes adjustto the darkness. Then Ezra pushed open the gate and they entered a wilderness of trees and shrubs. They made their way from tree to tree around the left side of the house until they came to the back. Standish discovered a side door. He pressed gently and the door swung open. “Wait here!” he ordered turning to the policeman.

Moving carefully he entered a sort of little, empty kitchen and then he heard the shuffle of heavy footsteps. He swiftly looked around and spotted at his left side a little door. He slipped behind it; leaving it half open and flattened himself against the wall, holding his breath. Minutes ticked by and a huge man entered the kitchen.

He picked up a bottle from the table and poured himself a shot of whisky.

“Shorty!” someone called out from the hall. “Where the hell are you?”

“Damn, Bill, give me a break!” the big brute hollered. Slowly he put down the half – finished whisky and moseyed out of the kitchen.

The undercover agent leaned on the wall, his gun gripped firmly, waiting.

After a while he heard something that brought him to attention: the sound of footsteps in the other room and a woman’s voice, screaming, getting closer, entering the room.

“Shorty! Bring Tanner in here! It’s time we got started!”

“Yes ma’am. I’m comin’,” the thug replied.

Peering into the hall, Ezra saw the mountain of man climbing the stairs, muttering.

Everything was silent for a moment and he heard the footsteps fading and the sound of another door being opened. There was a pause and then the man swore, “Damn! The little bastard’s gone!”

Doors slammed and the feminine voice asked, “What’s going on?”

“Tanner slipped away, ma’am!”

“Idiots! Search for him! He can’t have gone too far the shape he is in!” the woman ordered.

“What about the other two, ma’am?”

“I’ll take care of both of them after!” the irate woman cried out.

At this point there were a lot of jumbled noises, swearing, yelling and footsteps running.

Standish waited until all the men were gathered in the hall, and stepping back flung himself into the kitchen, opened the back door and gestured the policemen to get in.

Then hefting the gun in his right hand he launched himself into the hall hollering, “Freeze - ATF!”

+ + + + + + +

Ligeia standing at the doorstep, stiffened as a voice from a loudspeaker filled the night, heard thousands of yards away. “All inside throw down your arms or be killed. Come outside and show yourself without your weapons. You have two minutes to comply with our demands!” Trembling she backed out.

Her face was pale and her eyes wide and shadowy. She moved into the dining room, grabbed her purse from the table, dipped her hand into it a brought out a 38 automatic.

“You stay where you are, Larebee!” she growled pointing the gun at Chris’s chest. Light fell directly on the barrel of the huge gun in her little, unsteady hand.

“Don’t do anything stupid!” she said and her voice was cold as ice. Chris knew he hadn’t a chance to reach it before she fired, and she would fire, the mad look in her eyes told him that.

“See you in hell, Chris Larabee!” she hissed as the shotgun exploded into sound.

Larabee whirled away from the blast and collapsed onto the ground, blood coating the left side of his chest. For a minute or so the woman stood, over him then turned, opened the terrace door and quickly walked out.

+ + + + + + +

When Ezra, J.D. and the cops rushed into the room they found only Chris Larabee, lying pale and unmoving on the thick carpet soaked with blood.

“Chris!” Standish cried out, bending over him. He lightly touched the artery in the unconscious man’s neck: a steady pulse answered him and he drew in a quick gasp of relief.

“Mr. Larabee. Chris!” he repeated tapping the unconscious man’s cheek. Larabee’s head dropped back and his eyelids lifted.

“Ezra! What… In the hell are you doing here?” The team’s leader harshly whispered.

“We’ll speak about it later, boss!”

“We must free Vin. and the others…”

“Don’t worry about Tanner, Mr. Larabee. Our elusive sharpshooter somehow managed to slip away and to find us. I must say you owe him one. Without him we wouldn’t have been able to get here in time.”

“Where is the damn fool, now?”

“Nathan is taking care of him!”

“Good,“ Chris whispered.

“What about Buck and Josiah then?” Larabee asked again.

“We are here, Chris,” Buck said limping into the room, followed by a weary Josiah.

Chris smiled and relaxed, his team was safe.

“You’ll have to help me, I can’t walk far…” he mumbled weakly, trying to push himself to a sitting position. Laying a hand against the man’s broad chest, Standish pressed him gently back.

“You are not going to walk at all, Mr. Larabee. Please lie still, and don’t worry about anything,” the southerner soothed.

Chris couldn’t help but smile and then abruptly he looked around.

“Where is she?” he asked, shuddering.

Ezra ran to the window. In the moonlight he saw Ligeia running down the long drive towards the gates. She was staggering as she ran. She jerked open the gate and scrambled into the blue Mercedes parked near the truck.

“Damn!” the undercover agent swore.

“No need to bother about her,” one of the cop said. “The general alarm will be out in a few minutes and every patrol will be looking for her.”

SEPTEMBER 29 - Night – Parking lot

Nathan was pacing back and forth in the parking lot looking up at the hill in the light of the huge moon shining in the deep blue sky still waiting for the ambulance. Vin had regained his senses and now was sitting up against a tree truck, a disgruntled expression on his pale face, fully awake. He had repeatedly begged Nathan to let him go but having been met with flat denial he had withdrawn himself in an outraged silence.

Two patrol cars pulled in and two cops tumbled out from the first car. Nathan greeted them then asked, “What’s up?”

“Well, sir, we had an alarm call from the villa. They reported that the woman shot Larabee, then took her car and ran away,” one the patrol boys said with concern. “This is the only way from the villa to the interstate so we came back to catch her.”

“How is Larabee doin’?” Vin asked, frowning.

“He’s alive,” the cop said.

On the top of the hill the pool of light of two headlamps appeared, shining in the darkness. “Here she is!” the cop shouted out.

Nathan turned back to find Vin struggling to get to his feet.

“Tanner, what do you think you are doing?”

“Reckon I'm still the team's sharpshooter,” Tanner growled.

He managed to gain his feet, and stood, swaying slightly and with a firm nod at the cop, he ordered in a deathly drawl, “Gimme yer gun, boy!”

The younger man complied and Vin positioned himself right in the middle of the narrow street.

The car coming towards him was running like hell, too fast on a road like this, and its blinking light hit him as it roared down the street. Tanner calmly lowered the gun, aiming at the windshield, fired, and at the very last second, before the car could run over him, he jumped aside, tumbling about on the grass. The windshield suddenly turned into a spider’s web of cracks and lines.

There was a high squealing sound of tires biting the tarmac and the car slidded across the road then crashed into the thickets with a grinding noise of splintering wood.

“I’ll be damned!” the young cop blurted out in wonder.

Nathan ran towards Vin sprawled face down on the ground. He knelt beside him.

“Vin! You all right?” he asked.

“Never better,” Tanner grumbled in a muffled voice.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself the black agent smiled as the Texan lifted his head and glanced at him with that crooked lopsided grin of his.

“Damn fool, I nearly had a fit seeing you in front of that car!” he snapped slipping a hand beneath Tanner's elbow and helping him to his feet.

They looked down the side of the hill at the car compacted by its impact with a trunk. It had caught fire and an acrid smell was filling their nostrils. The flames were high, red and scalloped and the smoke black as oil. The car wasn’t just burning from inside, it was all on fire at once, walls, hood and roof melting.

“I’ve seen this kind of fire before. If she is not out now, she’s dead. If the crash didn’t kill her, the smoke did,” the young cop said.

No one talked for a while looking at the roiling smoke that the wind blew away.

Vin paled, lowering his head.

“It had ta be done,” he murmured.

“Don’t blame yourself, Mr. Tanner/ She deserved to die,” a voice said in a broad southerner accent. Vin slowly turned and saw Ezra in front of him. “By the way,” the undercover agent continued with a smirk. “You are going to enjoy the company of our defiant leader on your trip to the hospital.”

“How is Chris?” Tanner asked warily.

“Not too bad, he took one in the shoulder, lost some blood, but he completely lost his temper as he heard about your brave deed, Mr. Tanner, so if you don’t want to experience one of those dangerous Mr. Larabee’s emotional outbursts, I think you had better to behave yourself and obey Nathan’s orders.”

“And I’m ordering you to sit down and rest,“ Nathan said sternly, lightly touching Vin’s forehead, “You’re running a fever.”

“I give up. Reckon I’m outnumbered,” Vin said, rolling his eyes.

“You bet, Tanner,” Jackson laughed and pulling his own jacket off, he slipped it over the Texan’s shoulders.

EPILOGUE: Three weeks later – Morning – The Ranch

When Vin woke early the next morning, there were frost flowers on the window panes. During the night it had snowed. He had slept soundly. He didn’t wake. He didn’t dream. He didn’t move. He got out of the bed and stretched. As he dressed himself, his healing ribs painfully monitored every movement and he sat again on the bed, holding his breath.

Damn, Tanner yer pantin’ like a worn – out horse! he snapped to himself. But he felt a lot better. The pain in his chest was gone.

On his last visit to the hospital the doctor, after having poked and prodded at him for almost an hour had exclaimed, “Well, I could find absolutely nothing wrong with you. You are seriously under weight but in every other way very fit!” Then with a wry smile he had added, “See, Mr. Tanner, I don’t believe in miracles, but I’ve been seriously thinking on changing my mind about them, for there’s no scientific explanation to your quick recovery.”

Remembering the good doctor’s stunned face and smiling he made his way through the silent dining room toward the kitchen. The sharp, cold air caressed his cheeks as he slowly came down the back steps and struck his head around the corner of the porch.

Chris coming from the stables looked at him. Vin’s still gaunt face, lighted by the soft glow of the winter morning, had the relieved and dreamy expression that was natural for him when he was at the ranch. They stared at each other. It was a peculiar stare they exchanged between them, like the look of two brothers who meet each other after having gone some distance away. Though the snow fell no longer, there was a gentle wind from the spruce trees that swept up delicate flurries from the ground. Vin sat quietly on the rocking chair on the porch.

“What are you doing outside? It’s cold, and you aren’t recovered yet!” Chris said as he approached.

“Hell, Larabee, I’s bin nailed ta the darn bed all the week long!” Vin groused, shutting his eyes.“Wanna ta stay here... jist ta sit in th’ open and take it easy.”

Without a word the older man entered the house and returned after a while carrying a warm blanket.

He wrapped it carefully around Vin’s slim body and stood at his side, savoring the warm feeling of his friend’s presence.

The sky was a mild shining gray and again dim flakes started falling softly on the ground as the soft quietness of falling snow enveloped the ranch.

They shared the deep silence for several minutes then Vin spoke. “Chris, ever had the wish I used ta have as a kid – that you could look inta the future?”

“Yea, sometimes... what are you thinking about, Vin?”

“Well, after the operation I's scared since I couldn’t see any future ahead fer me... without the team.” Tanner’s voice flickered, but he went on in a husky, low whisper, “In my life I have lost most of my secret dreams and Team 7 was my last dream... the one I’s hangin’ on to, protectin’ it, seekin’ shelter in it… all these months layin' on my bed at night over and over again I’s thinkin'. ‘Should I quit?’ But y’all came up, y’all helped me ta find the place I‘s looking for, a place to hang my hat,” Vin paused and tilted his head back, his deep blue emotive eyes met Chris's and a slow smile lit up his handsome features as he murmured, “Thanks fer everythin', cowboy!"

“You’re welcome , pard !” Chris smiled back, as he laid a hand on his best friend's lean shoulder, clasping it in a firm grip.


Chris & rosyvin

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