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Chris had never felt so alone in his life as he did now. He sat in the recliner and took a deep breath before closing his eyes and searching for the touch of the other half of his soul. There was nothing but a coldness that left him not only empty, but also angry. The Texan was shutting him out, ignoring the bond they shared and the friendship that had saved their lives more often than he cared to remember.
Sonofabitch! Larabee mumbled and beat his arm against the chair as the memories returned, flashing before his eyes while Taskers voice tormented his soul.
Control, Chris, its all about control. Can you control your pain and save your friend. Is Tanner going to pay the price for your weakness? Control thats the word, control!
No, damn you, Robert! Larabee whispered and gasped as sharp pain lanced through his skull, blinding him to everything but the need for control the need to forget. There was only one way for him to forget and that meant taking the pills. He ignored the niggling voices that warned him of addiction and inwardly smiled when his body began to shake with the force of firing synapses and unseen electrical surges.
B Buck God
Chris, easy ol son, the ladies man said. Hed been helping Ezra set up a lunch tray when he though he heard Larabee cry out. Ezra, get his damn pills!
Where are they? Standish asked.
Ah hell, I left them in the car
Im on it! the conman assured him.
Chris, listen to my voice. Its okay. Youre okay. Youre safe and youre home. Nothings going to hurt you here, Pard. You hear me?
Buck God I c cant m make it stop.
I know, but Ezras gone to get your pills and then well get you into bed and you can sleep. Okay?
O okay the blond whimpered, unaware of the fear the unfamiliar sound caused his long time friend.
Buck reached out and gently massaged the back of Larabees neck, pulling him forward until his head rested against his shoulder. Thats it, Pard, I got you.
Lost feel lost, Buck.
Youre not, Chris. Were here, Wilmington said, glancing over his shoulder in hopes of seeing the gambler returning.
Control...Taskers r right. I d did that to V Vin c control, Larabee whispered, concentrating on making his body do what he needed it to.
No, hes not, Chris
Here, Mr. Larabee, take these, Standish said, appearing as if by magic at the blonds side. He held the pills in front of the injured mans mouth. Larabee took them without argument and he held the glass of water in front of the quivering lips.
Youre good damn good, Larabee thought and anxiously awaited the relief the pills promised.
+ + + + + + +
Do you want me to come in with you?
No thanks, Josiah, I can handle this myself. Tanner said and knocked on the door. Hed closed his eyes when the familiar tingling sensation invaded his mind and shut down the quicksilver resonance before it took hold. The door opened and Paul Grogan motioned him into the room, quickly closing the door behind him.
Paul tried to hide the shock he felt at seeing the shape the young Texan was in, but his eyes kept wandering over the pale face and the dark shadows around the eyes.
What happened? Grogan finally managed.
Let someone in that I shouldnt have, Tanner answered sharply. He knew Grogan would jump to the wrong conclusion, but he was not going to explain what he really meant.
Have the police made any arrests?
Not that I know of, but thats not why Im here, Paul.
I understand. Does Chris know
Chris dont have nothin ta do with this. I need ya ta find me a broker and make sure the ranch is listed for sale.
All right is there anyone in particular youd like to list with?
No, dont make no difference. I just want ta get it done as quick as ya can.
Ill put in a few calls. It shouldnt take long to sell the place and youve got a lot of equity with the work you boys put into it.
I dont care how much it goes fer, Paul. Just get it sold and make sure all the papers are in order.
Do you want my broker to look for a new place for you?
No, I aint stayin round here. Thinkin bout goin back ta Vermont.
What about your job with The Firm?
Ill be givin Travis my papers soons I can get em drawn up, the Texan announced and this time the shock was plainly visible on the lawyers face. Look, Paul, someday Ill tell ya xactly what happened, but right now I jest want outta here. Want ta live my life makin my own choices and controlling my own destiny.
Okay, Vin, Ill get to work on this, Grogan said when the sharpshooter turned the wheelchair away, effectively signalling the end of the meeting. What the hell happened while I was gone? he solemnly thought.
+ + + + + + +
Orrin Travis looked at the five men seated at the conference table. It had been a week since Chris Larabee was discharged from the hospital and hed dropped by to see both him and Vin Tanner several times. Neither man seemed to be dealing well with what happened and theyd lost more weight than they could truly afford. Hed called the meeting in an effort to get an update on the injured Firm members, before leaving on a month long trip with Evie to visit Mary and their grandson Billy in Wyoming. Theyd moved there when Mary married Gerard Whitman after she and Chris decided to call it quits. Orrin thought shed moved too fast, but they seemed happy and Gerard treated Billy as his own.
Gentlemen, I called you here to get updates on the cases that are still pending and to find out how Chris and Vin are doing? Travis stated. He knew Nettie Wells was staying with Vin and Rain Goines was staying with Chris while the men attended this meeting.
Orrin, theres only two cases pending and both are in the final stages, Wilmington supplied. He knew there were others, but they werent pressing and could wait until after the Thanksgiving holiday. JD testified today against McGee and his crew and the judge will give his ruling within the next few days.
How does it look?
JDs testimony was strong and I think McGee will be convicted of extortion and the sale of illegal arms, Jackson added. Hed been at the courtroom with the youngest member of the team and was proud of the way the Bostonian handled the questions from both sides of the case. The defense attorney had tried to goad him into giving answers that were only half-truths, but JD had shot him down at every turn leaving the attorney red in the face.
Excellent. What about Peggy Morris and the charges against her?
Thats a case with a happy ending, Judge, Jackson said with a grin. The gambler had been the only one convinced that the woman was innocent and had gone out of his way to find evidence to substantiate her claims. Hed spent days interviewing people who knew the mother of four and had finally found a chink in the husbands arguments. John Morris had convinced everyone that his wife was having affairs behind his back and that on several occasions shed brought men into their home and even slept with them in their bed. Ezra, would you field this one?
It would be my pleasure. John Morris has been keeping a secret from his family since his days at Harvard University.
What kind of secret? Travis asked.
John Morris has been living a dual life, one that has caught up to him at a very inopportune time. Morris has a second family
Hes married to two women? Sanchez asked.
Not exactly, Standish explained. It seems that John Morris is gay and his partner is living in a small town in southern California. Morris used his business trips as an excuse for spending so much time there.
What tipped you off? Wilmington wanted to know.
Morris neighbor is home bound and spends his time watching everything that transpires in his community. He told me hed seen several men at the Morris home, but most of the time it was while Mr. Morris was at home and his wife was conspicuously absent. This alone was not enough to go on so I questioned Donald Gardener, Morris neighbor about the frequent callers. From his description of the visitor I had a composite drawing done and discovered the identity of our visitor.
Morris partner? Travis asked.
That is correct, Standish said.
Seems like the old saying while the cats away, the mice will play certainly applies to John Morris, Sanchez observed.
You have no idea. Further investigation into John Morris affairs uncovered a third family complete with three teenage children. The woman involved this time is in fact Mrs. John Morris and that makes his marriage to Peggy Morris null and void.
It also makes John Morris a hypocrite, Travis said. He insisted that his wife was having illicit affairs while he was away on business, but he was the one with the dual or triple life. What does Mrs. Morris lawyer have to say?
Hes confident that the judge will see things Mrs. Morris way and give her custody of the children plus a rather hefty monetary settlement, Standish finished.
Well done, Ezra. Actually Id like to congratulate all of you on keeping things in motion especially with these two cases.
Just doing our job, Dunne said.
Sometimes that job puts you in dangerous situations, Son, so dont make light of what you do, the former judge warned. How are Chris and Vin?
You know how Chris is, Orrin. Hes pushing himself too hard and sooner or later hes going to need to blow off steam, Wilmington explained.
How is he dealing with physiotherapy?
Its hard on him, especially with that leg. Dr. Parker and Dr. Silverman say hes pushing too hard, Jackson answered.
Has he spoken with Stacey Midland?
Not since leaving the hospital, Standish answered.
I spoke with her yesterday and shes still dealing with her own feelings about the decision she was forced to make, Travis explained. It seems Taskers actions have hurt more than just Chris and Vin and you boys.
If its the last thing I do that bastard will pay, Orrin, the ladies man vowed.
I think we all feel that way, Buck, Dunne agreed.
I want your promise that if and when he is caught, you boys are going to let the law handle him, Travis warned and looked at each member of his team. The older man knew from experience that these men looked after each other, but Tasker had managed to pull them apart and it seemed there was not much to be thankful for this year. What about, Vin?
Josiah, guess youre the only one who can answer that one, Jackson said.
Vin still blames Chris for all of this
Sonofabitch, Wilmington growled and slammed his fist onto the table.
Buck, you want that hand in a cast before you get the other one off? the medic asked seriously.
Theres more, Sanchez said. Hed spoken with the reserved Texan and was told he could tell the others about his plans. The ex-preacher reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope, which he slid across the table to his boss.
What? Dunne exclaimed.
He cant quit! Wilmington spat.
He can and he is, Sanchez explained with a heavy sigh. Hes also spoken with Paul Grogan about selling the ranch.
Sweet Jesus, Wilmington whispered and fought to control his warring emotions.
What a mess! Jackson agreed. We need to slow things down until Vin has time to deal with what happened. There has to be a way to make him see that Tasker is the monster here, not Chris.
Perhaps we could intervene and hold off on giving Mr. Travis his letter of resignation, Standish said.
Too late for that, Travis said holding up the envelope. But, I believe I have more pressing matters than to read this missive and act on it.
What are you saying, Orrin? Wilmington asked.
Well, Im leaving tomorrow to spend a month with Mary and Billy. I really dont have time to give this the thought and attention it deserves, the older man answered with a slight grin.
A month thatll give us a chance to change Vins mind, Dunne said.
Precisely, Mr. Dunne, Standish said, admiration in his eyes at the former judges quick decision.
So, boys, Im leaving this in your capable hands. You have exactly one month to set things right and you have my sympathies because I know damn well this will be one of the toughest assignments youve ever been given.
But it is one we shall excel at, Standish blustered.
I certainly hope so, Travis said and the meeting broke up.
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard Rain moving around in the living room, but did not want to talk to anyone. He remained in his bedroom with the TV tuned to a channel that showed old black and white movies. How many times had he sat through this type of show with Vin? How many times had they laughed at the antics of the movie cowboys and wondered what the old west was really like?
In the week since being released from the hospital hed spent his time regaining the use of his leg. Most times he went beyond what the therapist expected of him, working until he his body ached with the pain of physical stress. Hed take his pills and eat his meals, but more often than not he lost the meals when he went into his bathroom. The taste of blood continued to remind him of Taskers words and send bile rising in his throat.
Chris, would you like some lunch?
Larabee was startled from his thoughts by the softly spoken words and he looked at the woman standing in the doorway. Not hungry, Rain.
Chris, you need to eat.
So they tell me, the blond said softly and regretted the tone hed used. Rain was a friend as well as a doctor and often he forgot those two things went hand in hand. Her relationship with Nathan Jackson had grown during the last year and shed accepted the medics proposal of marriage during the fourth of July celebrations in his back yard. Im sorry, Rain, I just dont feel like eating right now.
All right, Chris, but if you change your mind just let me know.
I will, Larabee said and looked at the bottle of pills on his nightstand. Hed already taken more than he normally would have, but sometimes the pain was beyond his ability to cope with. The pills were becoming a lifeline, a means of escape, and he reached for them once more as his hand began to tremble. He opened the bottle and dropped two into his hand before reaching for the glass of water sitting next to the lamp. He chased the two pills down with the liquid and lay back against the pillow to wait for the numbness the medication provided.
+ + + + + + +
Buck looked around the office and sighed tiredly. Travis was a good man and one who cared about the people who worked for him. Hed told them to concentrate on Larabee and Tanner and not worry about the cases on the docket because their minds were not on the problems of other people. Dunne was going to stay with Larabee tonight and hed swing by first thing in the morning. He knew the others were updating their paperwork before leaving and needed to clear something up before they left for the day.
Boys, we need to talk, Wilmington said.
Problems, Buck? Sanchez asked.
No, just need to make something clear. I dont think Chris needs to know about Vins plans just now, the ladies man explained.
Hes going to find out sooner or later, Buck, Jackson added.
I know, but he doesnt need the added burden right now. You know damn well hell blame himself for this just like he blames himself for every other fucking thing that goes wrong.
Easy, Buck, we all know how Chris likes to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, Sanchez assured the younger man.
Thats something were all guilty of at times, Jackson said.
It seems to go with the territory, Standish told them.
Dont I know it, Wilmington added. Look, I know Chris will have to be told, but let me do it when I think hes ready to handle it. I just dont think now is the right time.
All right, Buck, we leave Chris to you, Sanchez agreed.
JD, are you going to be able to keep from blurting this out tonight?
I Buck I wouldnt, Dunne said and nodded his head.
All right then. Nathans driving you out to Chris place and Ill pick you and Chris up in the morning.
Whats going on tomorrow? Standish asked.
Chris has an appointment with Dr. Parker at eleven, Wilmington reminded them. Josiah, youre staying with Vin?
Until he kicks me out, the ex-preacher assured them.
Guess wed best get moving then, Jackson said, grabbing his coat from the back of his chair. The others quickly donned their jackets and locked up before heading toward the elevators. The day was only half over and yet it felt like the longest day of their lives.
+ + + + + + +
Vin knew he was being watched, but did not acknowledge the womans presence. Since their first meeting, Nettie Wells could read him like an open book. She knew when things were troubling him and more often than not understood what he was going through. He sighed as her footsteps came closer and knew he was about to get a lecture as he pulled his jacket closer around his body.
Vin, are you warm enough? Would you like a blanket?
Im fine, Miss Nettie. Thanks, he said, smiling when she handed him a cup of rich hot chocolate with marshmallows.
Youre welcome, Son, but dont stay out here much longer or Ill have to defrost you.
I wont, Tanner assured her and took a deep breath. There would never be a better time to tell her his plans and he knew she would be hurt by his decisions. Miss Nettie, I need ta tell ya somethin.
This is not something I want to hear is it, Vin?
No, dont spect it is, but its somethin I gotta do fer me.
All right, Son, Im listenin, the elderly woman said and wrapped her shawl tighter around her body.
I been thinkin a lot on this and its I aint gonna say it was an easy decision. Im goin home
Home? As in back to Texas?
Yes, maam, Tanner answered.
For how long?
Im sellin the ranch and already sent Travis my letter of resignation. I need ta do this, Miss Nettie.
You dont need to explain your actions to me, Vin, Nettie said trying her best to hide her disappointment.
I know I dont, but I need ta do this sos ya understand. I cant stay here any more. Cant live a lie
A lie? Nettie asked incredulously.
Yes, Maam, cause thats what this is. All of this. The ranch, the job, bein part of a team, lettin people care
We do care, Vin
I know you do, Miss Nettie, and maybe the others do too, but not Chris. Hes behind all this hes ta blame fer me bein in this damn chair. Hes the reason I cant stay here!
Dont try to change my mind or tell me it wasnt Chris, cause Im tired of listenin ta stories about Saint Chris! I aint gonna try and make ya see him fer who he is, but I aint bout ta listen ta ya try and change my mind.
I wouldnt dream of it, Vin, but I pray someday you will be able to look at this in a new way. Chris is a victim
No he fuckin aint and maybe its time the rest of ya saw him fer the coward he is. All he had ta do was control his emotions and reactions! Thats it and if hed done it I wouldnt be stuck in this damn chair! Tanner snapped, immediately regretting the harsh tone and language. Im sorry, Miss Nettie, ya didnt deserve that.
Ive heard a lot worse, Vin, but I want you to listen to me and think on things before its too late to change your mind.
I wont be changing my mind, Tanner told her. Ill be leavin as soons the ranch is sold and things are settled here. Im getting kind of tired, Miss Nettie, so if yall get the door fer me Id like ta lie down fer a spell.
Certainly, Son, Nettie said opening the sliding glass doors. She watched through moisture-laden eyes while the Texan awkwardly maneuvered the chair inside. She knew the young mans decision would have a devastating effect on her nephew in law, but there was very little she could do to lessen the blow.
+ + + + + + +
Rain kept checking on her charge, but Larabee seemed to be sleeping and for now that was what he needed. The health care nurse had been out just after lunch and between them they cleaned the wound to Larabees thigh and cajoled him into eating a bowl of soup. She eased the door shut and hurried to the front door when she heard it open. She held her finger to her lips in a signal the two men recognized and reached for her coat. Her shift was due to start in two hours and Jackson was taking her to their home to change before driving her to Saint Vincents.
JD, Chris is sleeping right now, but when he wakes up make sure he eats something, the physician ordered.
I will, Rain, Dunne said and hung his coat in the hall closet. He hurried toward the back bedroom and checked Larabee, before moving to the kitchen and making a sandwich and grabbing a soda. He carried his snack into the living room and sat on the end of the couch, before turning on the television and flipping through the channels.
+ + + + + + +
How did he seem to you, Rain? Jackson asked, backing the car out of Larabees driveway.
Remember how he was after Sarah and Adam died?
Thats something Ill never forget, Jackson answered.
Well, thats about the worst Ive ever seen him this may not be as bad, but its hard on him. Chris blames himself for what happened to Vin and with Vin believing Chris hurt him
It makes it two blows for the price of one, the medic finished.
Exactly. Did you know Chris is still not eating properly and what he does eat doesnt always stay down?
No, Buck mentioned Chris had been sick once or twice, but thats it. Did he say anything to you?
No, he didnt even realize Id heard him. It was just after you left this morning. How did the meeting go?
Travis told us to take some time off until Chris and Vin are back on their feet. A fat lot of good thatll do.
What do you mean?
Josiah gave Orrin Vins letter of resignation.
What? Why would Vin quit?
Thats not all hes selling the ranch.
Oh God, what a mess, Goines said and leaned her head back against the seat. So many things were changing and it did not look good for the agency her fiancé worked for.
Tell me about it, Jackson agreed. The couple remained silent through the rest of the trip, both thinking how easily things could change and praying that there was an answer to the problems facing the two men they cared about.
+ + + + + + +
Sonofabitch! Larabee spat. He knew the young Bostonian would come running and felt sorry for the deception he was about to play on him. Hed been taking the pills more often than he should and knew the reason had little to do with physical pain. He took them to forget to ease the guilt that gnawed at his gut and left him restless and irritable. Hed switched the few pills that were left in the bottle with a nearly full bottle of regular Bayer Aspirin and dropped the bottle into the toilet before cursing angrily.
Chris, what happened? Dunne asked.
Stupid! Larabee snapped.
I dropped the fucking pills, JD!
Let me help you pick them up, Dunne offered.
Wont do any good. I dropped them in the fucking toilet!
All of them?
Except for the two on the cabinet, Larabee said and let the young man enter the bathroom.
Dunne saw the open bottle floating on top of the water in the toilet and knew the pills were beyond salvation. He looked at the trembling blond. Youre seeing Dr. Parker today, right?
Bucks supposed to take me, Larabee answered.
Well, if I tell him what happened hell give you a new prescription. Right?
I guess so, maybe I can do without them, the injured man said, but couldnt meet the other mans eyes.
I dont think so, Chris. I saw you last night and theres no way you can control Shit
Cant control anything, JD, Larabee said and reached for the two pills on the counter. He popped them into his mouth and chased them down with the cold tap water before looking at the young man as he flushed the ruined pills.
I got breakfast made, Chris, Dunne said.
Not very hungry, JD
But maybe a piece of toast and coffee, Larabee finished and followed the Bostonian out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Buck drove his car as close to the door as possible and hurried into the house. Dunne knew Larabee had an appointment with Tom Parker and Wilmington would be driving them both into town before stopping by the office and checking for new messages.
You boys ready? the ladies man asked and inwardly winced when he saw Larabee limping toward him. He knew the Physiotherapist had been there earlier and could easily read the pain and weariness in the familiar sea green eyes.
Guess so, Larabee answered.
Rough night, Chris? Wilmington asked worriedly.
More like a rough morning, Dunne interrupted.
Damn, wish there was something we could do to make it easier. Are the pills helping?
Most of the time, Larabee answered, grabbing his cane and locking the door before limping toward Wilmingtons green Mustang. He settled into the passenger side and put on his seatbelt before Buck drove out of the driveway.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah helped the somber Texan into his wheelchair and knew the younger man was not looking forward to this. Then again Vin always did hate going to the doctors even if it was only for a check up. Annie Preston had been out earlier and was pleased with her patients progress and would soon be visiting only once per day.
Vin, Im just going to park the van. Ill be back in a couple of minutes. Are you going to be okay until then?
I can take care of myself, Josiah, Tanner snapped indignantly.
I dont doubt it for a minute, Son, but it never hurts to check, Sanchez said and hurried back to the van.
Vin used the controls on his wheelchair and maneuvered it inside the main doors to wait for the ex-preachers return. Ignoring the tenderness of his right shoulder, he removed the gloves from his hands and stuffed them into his pocket. A sound behind him made him gasp and he slowly turned in his chair. His throat constricted and his heartbeat grew erratic as he tried to remain calm in the face of his tormentor.
Are you okay?
What the hell do ya care, Larabee. Get the fuck away from me!
Vin, hes just asking how you are, Dunne tried.
None of yer fuckin business how I am!
You what, Larabee? Want ta kick me while Im down too. See yer up and round while Im still stuck in this fuckin chair! Make ya feel any better seein me like this? Yer a fuckin coward, Larabee!
Vin, thats enough! Dunne snapped when the blond turned and strode toward the door.
Tanner turned the wheelchair until he faced Larabees retreating form. No, JD, its not! I aint gonna be here fer ya ta kick around no more, Larabee!
Vin! Stop! Chris didnt do this to you! Dunne spat angrily.
What the hell do ya know bout it, Kid? Ya werent there none of ya were! Tanner snapped. Yad best get after im, JD, but dont turn yer back on im cause yer liable ta find a knife or two stickin outta it!
Dunne shook his head and hurried out the door to find Larabee standing near a garbage can. He knew the blond had been sick and placed a hand on his shoulder. He didnt speak, just stood where he was, lending support to a man whod always offered it freely.
JD, what did V Vin mean about not being around any more? Larabee asked softly.
He I mean he Hes selling the ranch, Chris, Dunne answered when smoldering green eyes met his own.
Damn it! Larabee turned and strode back inside the building to find the Texan red-faced with anger. So, yer calling me a fucking coward yet youre the one whos running with your tail between your legs!
Fuck you, Larabee! I dont need you!
Stay the fuck out of this, JD! Tanner snapped. This is between me and Larabee. Aint that right, Chris?
Yes, thats right, the blond said, fighting to keep from showing how much he was hurting.
How many times ya gonna hurt the ones ya care bout, Larabee? How many more people are ya gonna pretend ta call friend and stand by while theys hurt? Ya got Sarah and Adam killed
God damn it, Vin, thats enough! Dunne spat when he heard the gasp from the trembling man standing beside him.
Why? Because it might hurt him? Well let me tell ya somethin, JD the truth hurts! Dont it, Larabee?
Whats going on here? Sanchez said upon entering the building to find the three men arguing. He reached out a hand as Larabee turned and walked away from them.
Vins being an asshole, Dunne said and hurried after the fleeing blond.
Dont say anything, Josiah, just get me into the office and get this over with! the Texan said, breathing hard in an effort to get enough air into his burning lungs.
Sanchez knew something had happened and hoped JD could handle Chris Larabee. There was nothing he could do except bring Tanner to his appointment and call Dunne when they were finished.
+ + + + + + +
JD cursed when he saw the cane sitting near the door and hurriedly picked it up. He looked up and down the street, but there was no sign of the blond and he knew it was impossible to know which direction Larabee had taken. Grabbing his cell from the inside pocket of his coat he hit the speed dial for Buck Wilmington.
Come on, Buck, answer the fucking phone! Dunne spat impatiently.
Buck, where are you?
Im just finishing up at the office. Whats wrong, JD?
Chris ran into Vin
Jesus, I didnt know hed be there. How is he?
I dont know
What the hell do you mean you dont know? Where is he?
After the run in with Vin he took off and I dont know which way he went. He doesnt have his cane either!
Damn stupid all right, Kid, Im pulling in now. Lets go find the sonofabitch, Wilmington said, hanging up when Dunne pulled the door open and slid into the passenger seat.
+ + + + + + +
Chris walked away from the building; his good hand tucked into the pocket of his jeans. The wind had picked up since theyd left the ranch, but the biting cold hardly registered as Larabee walked away from his friends. He had no idea where he was going, just that he needed to be alone. Needed time to think about his life and the people he cared about. Was Vin right? Was he the problem and if so, how could he make sure nothing happened to anyone else he cared about?
Chris cut through the park and ignored the people who passed him. His leg throbbed and he suddenly realized hed lost his cane somewhere along the way. He stumbled several times, but didnt go down as he fought back the bitter tears threatening to escape from his eyes. The wind howled and became his only companion as dried up, brittle leaves whipped around his feet. He stumbled out of the park and wondered how long hed been walking.
+ + + + + + +
Stacey Midland watched her patients face as she examined the wounds to his body. There were so many and although they were healed for the most part, there were still several that would need to be watched. The ones at the back of his right leg were giving him the most trouble, but she knew how stubborn he could be.
Youre doing very well, Vin, Midland said, taking her stethoscope and listening to his lungs before helping him sit up.
Fer a gimp ya mean, Tanner spat. His anger had not dissipated since his emotional outburst with Chris Larabee and he didnt give a damn that his words continued to be sarcastic.
Thats not what I said, Vin. Look, youre doing very well and I believe youll be out of that chair before you know it.
Dont make promises ya cant keep, Doc. I aint lookin fer pity or pep talks so keep it fer someone who gives a damn, the Texan snapped.
I dont pity you, Vin. I do feel sorry about what happened and I wish there was something I could do to change things, but theres not. All I can do is patch you up and hope never to have to do so again, Midland stated.
Ya wont have ta, Doc, Im goin home ta Texas as soons the ranch is sold.
You are? Midland asked unable to keep the surprise from her face.
Figure Ill go back ta bounty huntin wont need anyone then. Are we all done now?
Yes, Ill send Josiah in to help you get dressed and I want to see you in one week, Midland ordered and hurried from the room before her warring emotions made her say something she might later regret.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan, its JD, Dunne said when Jackson answered the phone.
Whats wrong, JD?
Im with Buck Chris took off.
What the hell do you mean he took off?
Ill explain later. Look can you call Ezra and start looking for him around Midlands office building? Check the parks?
All right, Son, call me if you find him before we do.
I will, Nathan, Dunne said and put his cell away.
What exactly did Vin say to Chris? Wilmington asked.
You dont want to know, but it was enough to hurt Chris. He called him a coward and told him he wouldnt be around for Chris to kick any more.
Sonofabitch, I was hoping we could hold off on letting Chris know Vin was leaving. The ladies man sighed heavily as he turned the corner and slowly drove along the tree-lined road.
+ + + + + + +
Wont have me to kick around no more control, Chris, always control you did this to me, Larabee you put me in this chair you bastard
The words echoed and re-echoed through his mind as he put one foot in front of the other. He knew where he was now and wondered if something or someone had been guiding him. This was the one place he could come to and feel close to the two people he loved more than life itself. Pushing open the heavy iron gate, Chris walked along the well kept graves until he knelt between the matching plaques. The fingers of his left hand traced the words forever etched in stone.
SARAH CONNELLY LARABEE ADAM JONATHON LARABEE
BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER BELOVED SON
JULY 26TH 1970-MAY 17TH 2001 MAY 31ST 1995-MAY 17TH 2001
IN GODS HOUSE YOULL BE SAFE
AND WELL BE REUNITED THERE
The words brought the tears to his eyes once more and he sat down with a gasp of pain as the movement tugged at the healing wound to his thigh. The ground was cold beneath him, but he didnt notice as grief took hold and he felt as if his heart had been ripped from his chest.
God, Sarah, what am I going to do?
+ + + + + + +
Buck took a steadying breath as he waited for Dunne to fill the gas tank. Theyd been driving around for nearly two hours and had not seen the missing blond. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel in frustration and closed his eyes.
Where the hell are you, Larabee? he spat and was surprised when the answer came to him. JD, hurry up. I know where he is.
Im done, the Bostonian said and slid into the passenger seat. Where is he?
Where does Chris go when hes upset, Son?
I dont he stopped as the answer came to him. The graves.
Exactly, Wilmington said and quickly pulled away from the gas pumps.
Should I call Nathan and Ezra?
Not until we check it out, the ladies man answered.
+ + + + + + +
Chris closed his eyes and said a silent prayer as his body began to shudder violently. He knew he shouldnt have left without telling JD where he was going, but the truth was he didnt know himself until he found himself standing in front of the gates to the cemetery. He looked up at the sky as pellets of cold rain struck the exposed skin of his hands and face.
+ + + + + + +
Want me to come with you, Buck?
No, just stay put, JD. Let me talk to him.
All right, Buck, Dunne agreed.
Keep the motor running, Wilmington said and closed the door. He walked to the gates and entered the graveyard. He knew where Sarah and Adam Larabee had been laid to rest and moved quickly toward them. Buck spotted the dark clad figure sitting between the graves, and felt something stab at his heart. How often since the murders had he found his friend in this position? Sitting beside the graves, tears trailing down his cheeks, and sadness evident on his face.
Chris, the ladies man called softly and saw the immediate change in the blonds body language.
What are you doing here, Buck? Larabee asked without turning around.
I came to take you home, Wilmington answered.
I would have taken a taxi, Buck, Dont need you playing Boy Scout.
Maybe not, but you wouldnt want me to go back on a promise would you?
What promise? Larabee asked unconsciously pulling his jacket tighter around his body.
I promised Sarah and Adam Id look out for you, Chris. Id be going back on that promise if I left you here. Its cold.
Is it? the blond asked unaware his teeth were chattering.
Yes, Pard, it is. Come on, lets get you home.
I miss them, Buck.
I know, ol son, so do I, Wilmington said softly.
I wish I had just one more day with them. Just want to tell them how much I love them how much I miss them how sorry I am for what happened.
They know, Chris. Sarah and Adam know none of it was your fault.
Yes, it was, Buck. If it hadnt been for me theyd be alive.
Would they? Hank planned on having Sarah marry Tophat Bob Spikes. That man was a lowlife scumbag and you know damn well what he did to women. Sarah would have died at his hands and what about Adam?
What about Adam? Larabee mumbled.
He never would have been born, Chris. Adam was a result of the love you shared with Sarah and he may not have been on this earth very long, but cause you lost them are you sorry you had them?
God no, Buck. No, I loved no thats wrong, I still love them, Larabee said. I just miss them.
Me too, Chris, come on, lets go home, Wilmington said and helped the blond to his feet. Looks like you forgot your cane.
I think I left it at the building, Larabee said, leaning heavily on the gentle rogue.
Its in the car, Wilmington answered. They walked side by side until they reached the car and Buck helped Larabee into the front passenger seat, while JD moved into the back. He heard the younger man speaking into his cell phone and knew Jackson would be meeting them at Larabees ranch.
+ + + + + + +
Nettie heard the two men return and frowned when she heard the wheelchair go right by the kitchen without stopping. She stood and walked to the door and waited for Sanchez to join her. The elderly woman knew instinctively that something had happened to increase the tension between the men.
Josiah, whats wrong?
Vin had a run in with Chris, Sanchez explained.
A run in?
He wont tell me what happened, but from what JD said Vin called Chris a coward amongst other things. Im not really sure, but I intend to find out.
Maybe you should let it be until hes had some rest, Nettie suggested.
Maybe but he needs to understand this was not Chris fault, Nettie. He needs someone to knock some sense into his head.
I believe hes already had enough knocks, Josiah. I think now is the time for talking not knocking. Let me see if I can find out what happened. Why dont you help yourself to coffee and chocolate cake?
Thank you, Nettie, perhaps youre right, Sanchez grumbled and hurried into the kitchen.
Nettie walked to the partially open door to the Texans bedroom and stood watching the young man through the crack. She knew he was thinking and prayed he would find answers as he held the bible in his hand. It was a gift shed given him last Christmas and one she knew hed read over and over. There were passages in there that could help even the most troubled soul. She knocked softly and waited for him to look her way.
Can I come in?
Yer always welcome, Miss Nettie, Tanner assured her and watched the woman move to the bed and sit on the edge.
Is there anything I can help you with?
No, just got a lot on my mind.
I see, care to tell me what happened?
Aint much ta say bout it, the sharpshooter told her. Saw Larabee today.
Nettie cringed at the use of her nephew-in-laws last name. The word was said with enough venom to kill and she knew they were still a long way from resolving the pain and betrayal the young man felt. She waited for him to continue and knew he was fighting an inner turmoil.
Told him Is leavin and called him a coward.
What did Chris say to that?
Not much he could say. My life my choice.
Was there anything else said?
I said something about him always hurtin the people he claims ta care bout like Sarah and Adam
God, Vin, you know better than anyone how their deaths affected Chris, Nettie said, fighting to keep her own anger from boiling over. So much had happened in the last few weeks and there didnt seem to be any way to mend the fences. It seemed like destructive forces had banded together to tear apart a friendship built with just a single glance.
If hed stayed away from Ella Gaines theyd still be alive
Oh, so this goes back to Chris life before he met my niece and fell in love. You know, Vin, hind sights twenty-twenty, but youre batting a thousand when it comes to hurting Chris
Oh thats real good, Miss Nettie. Im hurtin Chris well maybe its bout damn time someone made him face up ta what he did!
I aint in the mood ta talk no more. Could ya close the door on yer way out?
If thats what you want, the woman said, sighing disappointedly when she realized shed probably done more bad than good.
+ + + + + + +
Chris opened his eyes when they turned into his driveway. Hed let the two men think he was sleeping, but Tanners words added fuel to the guilt hed always believed true. No matter how you looked at it he was guilty of causing his wife and sons death. If he had only turned away without speaking to Ella Gaines, perhaps their lives would never have crossed paths and his family would still be alive.
Chris, were home, Wilmington said and opened the passenger door.
Looks like Nathan and Ezra are right behind us, Dunne observed.
Tell them Im fine! Larabee stated, grabbing his cane and hurrying toward the house.
What the hell? Chris, wait!
Leave me alone, Buck. I dont need you any of you! Larabee said, reaching for the door handle, but was stopped by a hand grasping his arm.
What the hell are you trying to prove, Chris? Wilmington asked.
Nothing! Just dont want to hurt anyone else. I dont need anyone watching out for me! Not now not ever again! Get the fuck out of my life!
Why? So you can fall into a fucking bottle again wallow in self pity and maybe put a bullet in your head one night when youre so fucking drunk you cant remember why youre drinking in the first place?
My life my business! Larabee spat and pulled his arm from the other mans grasp.
Not any more, Larabee! I told you before theres no way in hell Id let you drink yourself senseless and Im not backing down now. I know youre hurting, Chris, God knows I can see it in your eyes, but pushing the rest of us out of your life is not going to make you feel any better, Wilmington said, his voice filled with remorse as he looked into the twin beacons of pain.
Chris, Bucks right. Were not leaving so that means youre stuck with us, Dunne said, joining the two men at the door.
Mr. Larabee, I believe you created this makeshift family of misfits, Standish began. But Im afraid it is no longer in your power to absolve it.
What Ezras trying to say is youre stuck with us, Chris, Jackson said.
Hey, even I knew what he was saying, Dunne teased.
Chris, dont push us away, Wilmington said.
Dont know why youd want to stick with me, Larabee stated and pushed open the door to his house. Buck, Im going to lie down for a while
Chris, I want to take a look at your leg, Jackson said and saw the blond head nod once. He followed the blond into his bedroom and helped him remove his clothing. The blond shivered and for a minute, Jackson thought he was having another attack, but realized the problem had to do with being out in the near frigid temperatures. The cold spell had come in with a vengeance over the last week and many people had been caught unprepared.
How does it look?
There doesnt seem to be any bleeding so I guess that walk just made it pretty sore, Jackson observed. Im not going to put anything on it right now, Chris. How are you feeling?
Cold, the blond said and eased his aching body under the blankets.
Can I get you anything?
I think Buck or JD have my pills. Could use a couple right now, Larabee said.
All right, Ill be right back, Jackson said. He walked out of the room and made his way to the kitchen where the other men were busy fixing a late lunch.
How does our illustrious leader fare, Mr. Jackson? Standish asked.
Hes hurting, Jackson answered and turned to the other men. Who has his pills?
I have them, Dunne said and hurried to get the bottle from his coat pocket. He handed it to Jackson who frowned at the new prescription. Whats wrong?
I just had a prescription filled for him
I know, but Chris was opening the bottle to take a couple this morning, only he dropped the bottle into the toilet.
You saw him do that, Son? Wilmington asked suspiciously.
I never actually saw it, but I did see the pills in the toilet and Chris was angry with himself, Dunne explained.
All right, Jackson said and looked at the newly filled prescription. He was slightly unnerved at the need for a new prescription, but the fact that Dunne had seen the pills eased his mind slightly. He poured a glass of cold water and hurried into Larabees room. The blond was sitting up holding something in his hand and Jackson could not believe the utter grief and sorrow written on the pale face. He hurried to the bed and watched the shaky hands for a few seconds before sitting on the edge of the bed. Chris, whats wrong?
I remember the day Vin gave me this, Larabee said, forcing the words past the lump in his throat.
What is it?
A poem. He wrote it for me the day I found him out by that tree. Guess its not worth much to anyone else, but these words meant something to me, Nathan, Larabee said.
Why dont you read it for me? Jackson asked, hoping he could get Larabee past some of the guilt he was feeling.I walked alone on dark paths unknown,
through the trails of this life, with no hand to hold.
I stumbled and fell, as the burden too strong,
caused my heart to ache and my soul to grow cold.
Then the road broadened and the sun led the way,
A lusty river called my name and hearty wind kissed my face.
I inhaled the sweet air, my eyes full of wonder,
My spirit soared like the eagle, bursting with grace.
Into the special place, I now know as home,
You walked by my side, restoring my soul.
The ease of the gifts of which you bestowed,
Caused a strength to surge through me, filling the hole.
The strong open hand, showering peace in my heart,
The green light of faith, so clear and so true.
Guided by trust, and a deep caring flow,
Shone from your eyes, giving me hope anew.
What I offer seems pale in return,
A vow that blood couldn't make stronger.
It's given with newfound pride and honor,
You are forever my brother, I am alone no longer.
Powerful words, Jackson said, handing Larabee the pills and taking the paper from his hands. He could tell that Larabee had read it often for the paper was tattered around the edges and several creases ran at different angles from each other.
Vins a powerful poet. Larabee whispered. What I offer seems pale in return, he repeated. Hes always putting himself down, Nathan.
I know, but we dont, Chris, we know his worth.
More than life itself, Larabee said and popped the pills into his mouth. He swallowed them with the water and fought back the tears Vins poem always evoked. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift toward sleep. Unaware of the silent prayers being whispered by the four men under his roof and the fifth man under Tanners, who wanted more than anything to keep their family together.
+ + + + + + +
Vin looked at the calendar hanging in the kitchen. It was a western theme with cowboys on horseback riding the open range. He knew a similar one hung in Chris Larabees house, a gift given to them both by Nettie Wells at last years Christmas party. Each scene had two men on horseback carrying out different jobs during a cattle drive. One man was blond, one a little darker with longer hair. He felt a lump form in his throat when he thought about Netties comment that the two men could easily have been stunt doubles for Chris and Vin if theyd been actors.
It was less than a week until Thanksgiving and he wondered what was there to be thankful for this year. His frustration with his slow progress at fully recovering was leaving him short tempered and frustrated. No matter how hard he shoved, he could not make Josiah or Nettie leave him alone long enough to do something that had been gnawing at his gut since the run in with Larabee the week before. He reached for the controls of his wheelchair and slowly made his way toward the patio doors leading to the back of his property.
Knowing Nettie Wells would scold him for doing anything that could set back his recovery, Vin grabbed his jacket and scarf and slowly dressed. Finally ready, he shoved open the door and used the controls to maneuver outside. The crisp Montana air was a soothing balm on his heated temper and he looked into the distance. Somewhere out there was a tree, not much more than a sapling, but it had once represented the promise of a future filled with the things hed craved all his life. Family, friends, brotherhood, but now the deformed tree was simply a twisted reminder of the stinging betrayal that felt like an icy slap to the face.
Vin, arent you cold?
Im fine, Miss Nettie, Tanner answered a little too sharply.
Ive made hot chocolate with marshmallows. Would you like a cup?
Thatd be fine, the Texan answered, not really interested in what she was saying as he watched Sanchez puttering around Peso in the corral. How many times had he woken in the night and wanted to go out to the barn and care for the horse?
Here, the Wells woman said and handed him the cup of heated liquid. She knew how hard it was for him to watch Sanchez and wished there was some way to make it easier for him. It wont be much longer, Vin.
Wish I could believe that jest seems like Ill never get outta this damn thing!
Dont give up on yourself, Son, because I wont let you. I heard your therapist say it would not be long before youre ready to try walking without the aid of the walker.
I want ta believe her, but even makin it outta bed is a chore, Tanner said.
Why dont we go see if Josiah needs some help with Peso? Nettie asked and smiled when she saw the young mans reaction. Without a word he placed the barely touched cup of chocolate on the patio table and pressed the button on his chair.
Josiah lifted his head from brushing Pesos forelegs and smiled at the two people moving toward him. Well, Boy, dont look now, but I think you have a visitor.
Hows he doin, Josiah? Tanner asked and smiled when the horse moved toward him. He patted the strong neck and laughed as the head nudged against him.
Id say hes doing much better now that youve come to see him, Sanchez answered and handed the young man the brush. Think you can give me a hand with him?
He bein cantankerous again?
Cantankerous ornery pure cussedness, Sanchez said with a grin and was amazed at how easily the Texan handled the horse. The young man leaned forward and spoke into Pesos ear, but not loud enough for anyone else to understand what was being said. The animal bobbed its head as if in answer and the ex-preacher laughed appreciatively. Whatever you said seems to have done the trick, Vin.
Just reminded him whos in charge, the Texan said and patted Pesos neck before beginning the rubdown.
Nettie watched man and animal and was glad shed suggested they join Sanchez at the corral. These were things the young man needed and maybe the healing would be faster with Vin reaching out to the familiar beast. Please, God, help them both heal the rift that is between them.
+ + + + + + +
Chris knew he was taking too many pills, but he craved the numbness they provided. This prescription had been filled that day and he knew his friends were beginning to worry about his dependency on them, but hed managed to convince them he was only taking them as needed. Nathan was the only one he really worried about, but hed shown him the full bottle of pills before tucking them away in his dresser. If the medic had looked closer he would have seen they were mostly aspirin and not the prescription pain killer/muscle relaxant.
Buck had driven him in to see Tom Parker and had filled the new prescription without comment, thinking the bottle JD had filled the week before had lasted him the right amount of time. His friend was unaware that Chris also had the original prescription from his discharge from the hospital. Because to put it bluntly, he mused, the guilt over what had transpired in the warehouse was constant and the resulting loss of friendship, of brotherhood, ate at his soul.
Nights were the worst, when he lay awake, or when leaning heavily on his cane and staring into the darkness. How many times had he wanted to just walk away from it all? To say to hell with everything and do what the old westerns did. Walk off into the sunset without a care in the world, but that would never happen. He was stuck with the empty loneliness, not only in his home, but in his soul as well. The loss of the intangible connection with Vin Tanner also meant the loss of his spirit and he felt as if he was losing everything hed ever fought for.
Chris looked down at the healed surgical incision on his arm and wondered when theyd be removing the plates that had helped hold the broken bone in place while it healed. The cumbersome cast was no longer present and physiotherapy was proving to be harder than hed ever thought possible. His arm often felt as if it was made of lead and the exercises he was doing didnt seem to be having the desired affect. Taking a deep breath, he made up his mind to get away on his own for a few minutes and knew exactly where he wanted to go.
Chris walked out of his bedroom and looked into the living room. Ezra Standish sat in the black leather recliner with a set of headphones on and Chris knew he was listening to the collection of classical jazz. There was a crystal goblet in the conmans hands and a small amount of amber liquid swirled around the bottom as Standish moved to the beat of the music. The blond hurried toward the front of the house, ignoring the slight tremble in his right leg when he reached for his coat and gloves and opened the door.
+ + + + + + +
Nettie, I wont be long, Sanchez assured the woman when theyd finally settled an exhausted Vin Tanner under the heavy covers. The young man had enjoyed the trip to the barn and rubbing down Peso, but as always hed overdone things and needed the relief of pain medication to help him rest comfortably.
All right, Josiah, the elderly woman said and continued to prepare the roast for their dinner.
Josiah donned his coat, hat, and gloves and moved out the front door. A chill wind swept up the last of the leaves before depositing them near the front of the property. Sanchez pulled his jacket tight around his body and began the walk that would bring him to the back of Tanners property, ending near the tree that marked the border on both properties. The newly erected For Sale sign sent a cold shiver down his spine and he wished there was some way to mend the fences that had been erected between the two friends.
Lord, if there was ever a time Your devine intervention was needed its now, the ex-preacher thought. So far it appeared that Robert Tasker and his men had completely disappeared and there was no way to track them. Miller and his men, as well as the Forensics team had gone over the warehouse inch by inch, but there was nothing that could help them find Tasker. The bastard was out there somewhere, probably celebrating what hed done and making plans on his next encounter with Chris Larabee.
Josiah had his own plans for retribution if Tasker ever showed his face again, but he knew that would not be for some time. Larabee and Wilmington agreed that Tasker was a hit and run type of coward, that probably had a mile long yellow streak in his gene pool. Sanchez picked up his pace in an effort to keep the cold at bay.