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Chris leaned heavily on the cane as he strode across his property. The little sapling had grown since Tanner had planted it and he knew the strong tree would continue to thrive in the rich soil. No matter what happened between him and Vin, the tree would always symbolize their friendship, their brotherhood. By the time Chris reached his destination, his leg was throbbing and he was glad hed popped two pills before leaving the house.
Intertwined, the blond whispered and reached out to touch the tree. The branches were thick and full of life and Chris looked at the places where the tree had grown apart and back together again. It felt as if the strange growth pattern mirrored his relationship with the Texan, as he saw that the trunk of the tree was again showing signs of coming apart.
Chris, are you all right?
Larabee jumped as the voice sounded beside him and turned to see the ex-preacher standing next to him. Im fine, Josiah, just needed to check on Vins tree.
Dont you mean your tree? As I recall Vin planted it as a symbol of your friendship.
A strong symbol Vin said, but I guess it wasnt strong enough, Larabee said tiredly.
Have you given up on him?
I dont have much choice, Josiah. There was a time when I could feel him I know how that sounds, but its true. I could sense when he was there knew when he was in trouble, but hes closed himself off from me, Larabee explained.
I wish there was something I could say or do to make things right between you, Chris, but dont give up. The Good Lord does not forsake those who have faith, Sanchez said.
My faiths been tested so much lately, Josiah, Im afraid its going to break pretty damn soon.
I dont think so, Chris, your faith has always kept you strong and no matter what happens, it will continue to be that way because of how you feel in here, Sanchez said, placing his hand over Larabees heart. Right now things seem pretty bleak, but I for one am not about to give up on either of you and Im betting therell be plenty to be thankful for
Dont make bets youre going to lose, Josiah, Larabee said grimly.
Id better get back before Ezra sends out a search party.
I take it you didnt tell him you were going for a stroll?
No, I just needed to get out for a while, the blond told him.
Come on, Ill walk you back, Sanchez offered.
Thanks, Josiah, but Im okay. My legs not bothering me much and I could use the time alone, Larabee told him.
All right, Son, but Ill be calling if I dont hear from you in an hour, Sanchez warned and stood watching the solemn young man. Chris Larabee was holding his emotions in check and the ex-preacher knew if hed mentioned the For Sale sign in front of Tanners property the blond would have lost it totally. The slump of the usually taut shoulders and the hands in the pockets were a dead giveaway to how the blond felt. Shaking his head, the ex-preacher turned and made his way back to the Texans ranch.
+ + + + + + +
Chris looked at the calendar and sighed heavily. In two days Thanksgiving would be upon them, but this year would see so many changes in his life and not much to be thankful for. He knew Nathan had gone to see Vin, but was sure the Texan would refuse his visit as hed done with all their advances of friendship. Chris could hear Buck and JD arguing in the living room and smiled at the familiarity their jibes caused. He heard the door open and then hushed tones once more reached his ears, a muffled curse alerting him that something was wrong. The curious blond quietly made his way to the living room and listened to the four men talking.
+ + + + + + +
Vins anger continued to fester as Thanksgiving grew closer and he could find nothing to be thankful for any more. Josiah had gone into town and Nettie Wells was sleeping on the sofa. Hed managed to get past her and grabbed his coat, hat, and gloves from the closet and maneuvered his chair through the front door. He made it to the barn and was going to check on Peso when the sun glinted off the sharp head of an axe. His heart skipped a beat and something flashed through his mind. There was only one way to sever all ties with Chris Larabee and Vin knew what he had to do. Reaching for the axe, he placed it across his lap and used the controls to aim the wheelchair in the direction that beckoned to him.
+ + + + + + +
I cant fucking believe he did it! Wilmington spat.
We all knew Mr. Tanner was planning on selling the ranch, Standish told him.
I know, but this kind of puts a damper on our talking some sense into him, the ladies man stood and strode toward the kitchen, stopping when he spotted the blond framed in the doorway.
Whats going on? Larabee asked, fire in his sea green eyes.
Ezra and I were out at Vins place, Jackson started.
Did you see him?
No, hes still refusing to see anyone, but Josiah and Nettie Wells, the medic answered.
All right, so whats got you upset?
No, Buck, let them talk, Larabee ordered.
Im afraid it is official. There is a for sale sign on Mr. Tanners property, Standish said and saw anger, resentment, fear, and horror flash across Larabees face.
Sonofabitch! Larabee spat and trudged toward the front doors of his home.
Where are you going, Chris? Wilmington asked.
Where the hell do you think Im going? Larabee spat and reached for his jacket.
What are you going to do when you get there? Jackson asked.
I dont fucking know, but its time that fucking Texan realized what hes throwing away!
Just how are you going to do that if Vin doesnt want to see you? Dunne asked.
Ill shake him until he listens to reason, Larabee spat.
Dont you try to stop me, Buck!
I wasnt planning on, just wanted to tell you were all in this together. Lets go boys! Wilmington said with a grin and led the way out to Jacksons car.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah entered the house to find a desperate woman nearly in tears. He reached for her shoulders and looked into her moisture-laden eyes. Whats wrong, Nettie?
Oh, Josiah, thank God
Josiah, I need to talk to Vin! Larabee said from the open doorway.
Chris, you boys know how he feels, Sanchez warned.
I dont give a damn how he feels any more. Its time he listened to us for a change!
Hes not here, Nettie told them.
What do you mean hes not here? Larabee asked, anger changing to worry at the three words the woman had said.
I fell asleep and when I woke up I went to check on Vin, but I couldnt find him. Where could he have gone? the woman asked fearfully.
I dont know, but he couldnt have gone far. Buck, you and JD, take Nathans car and drive north. Ezra youre with me in the van. Well check west. Nathan, stay here with Nettie and Chris
Im going, the blond spat.
No, youre not, Chris. Now you listen to me. Right now youre too angry and if we find Vin, hes not going to listen to anything you have to say, Sanchez explained.
Josiahs right, Chris, Vin is still filled with anger and a lot of ha hatred, Nettie said and watched the blond drop dejectedly into the chair.
How could everything get so fucked up? the blond asked quietly. He heard the others making plans on their search for Vin Tanner and he took a deep breath before trying to use the quicksilver resonance that signalled their connection was there. Again he was met with nothing but the deep emptiness that had surrounded his heart since Tasker had entered their lives.
Chris, would you like some coffee? Jackson asked.
No, thanks, Nathan, think Ill go out to the barn and check on Peso, Larabee said flatly.
All right, Chris, the boys will call if they find him, the medic assured his friend and watched Larabee walk miserably from the house.
Well, Nathan, Chris may not need a coffee, but I certainly need something strong, Nettie said and smiled as she motioned the medic toward the kitchen.
+ + + + + + +
Chris strode toward the barn and heard the soft whiney as if Peso was welcoming him. At least someone wants me around, the blond whispered, frowning when he noticed a shallow depression in the soil leading away from the structure. He knew without a doubt what the small treads meant and began following the same path the wheelchair had recently made.
God, dont let me be too late, Larabee thought desperately as he picked up his pace.
+ + + + + + +
Vins nostrils flared, his hands clenched tightly at his side and he fought with everything he had to stand on his own two feet. With a strength born of anger and desperation, the Texan managed to get out of the chair and held the axe tightly in his trembling hands. The little tree stood before him and his breath came in hitching gasps as he placed one foot in front of the other.
Ill fucking show you, Larabee! the Texan thought and raised the axe above his waist.
Jesus, Vin, dont do this, Larabee pleaded breathlessly.
What the f fuck are ya doin here, Larabee?
I followed you
Ya had no fuckin right. This is my property and yer trespassin, ya bastard! Tanner yelled, chest heaving as he fought to draw enough air into his lungs.
Not until you tell me what youre doing, the blond stated.
Wha the fucks it look like Im doin? This fuckin tree ya member why I planted it here?
How could I forget, Vin? Its a symbol of our lives a strong symbol, Larabee said and stared into the icy blue orbs that promised no warmth.
Some fuckin symbol, Larabee ya fuckin threw away everythin its supposed ta have meant! Ya killed it and now Im gonna kill whats left of it! the Texan cried, raising the axe above his head. His body shook with the effort it took, his anger gaining momentum when his vision blurred and a man stood between him and the tree.
Dont do it, Vin, itd be killing an innocent living thing and thats not what you do not who you are, Larabee reasoned, amazed that the sharpshooter was still on his feet. If you really want to cut something down, Vin, then cut me down because I havent felt like a living thing since the day I saw you lying on that hospital bed with those tubes and wires all over you. I couldnt help you then, no more than I could help you escape from Tasker and everything he did. Jesus, Vin! I had no control and I keep seeing those fucking spikes so kill me if itll stop the pain, because Im already dead in here!
Vin Tanner stood before the blond as the man placed a hand over his heart. He listened to every word, trying to stop the trembling from getting worse and fighting the anger that flowed, like ice water through his veins. With a scream of rage and desperation he swung the axe at the man standing before him. He knew it connected with something solid and felt the darkness swim before his vision as his legs began to collapse. Strong arms enfolded him as he tried to breathe past the pain of weeks of endless emptiness and he shook from the effort.
Chris held tightly to the Texan, lowering them both as gently as possible to the ground. He held the quivering form and rocked slowly back and forth, listening to the other mans anguished words as Vins walls finally came crashing down.
God, Chris, I Im sorry you dont you dont know what it was like
Tell me about it, Vin Im here Ill listen, the blond vowed.
Is so sick and he didnt give a fuck. Jest strapped me down like a fuckin stuck pig and slit my throat. Bastard didnt cut ta deep cause he wanted me ta be live when ya got there. Said he was gonna teach ya bout control, Chris God Is so sick and he kept sayin and doin those things! The spikes were bad real bad and and I knew when they were gonna release cause there was this little clicking sound as if a delayed wire was tripped. I started thinkin maybe it was all yer fault maybe ya really didnt want ta stop hurtin me
God, Vin, I tried really I did, Larabee pleaded, feeling bitter tears run down his cheeks as the cold wind threatened to freeze the liquid to his face.
I didnt want ta believe, Tasker, Chris, but the pain and his voice and every fuck ing time a spike was released I knew it was ya doin it. I couldnt take no more! Dontcha see?
I do, Vin, but youve got to believe me I tried I tried to stop tried to control my own pain, but I couldnt, Larabee said. I couldnt and I failed you, Vin. I failed us both failed us all
No, Chris, Tanner argued, shaking his head, the icy breeze wreaking havoc with his own tears as he placed a hand over his friends. I know that now. Ya didnt fail anyone, specially not me us. Tasker he fuckin failed the bastard tried to do his damndest to tear us apart almost did too, but he failed.
Chris used his left hand and pulled out the crumpled piece of paper from his pocket that hed placed there before leaving his own house. He waited for the Texan to read the words and felt the lean body tremble with the force of his sobs. The blond knew they would have to get back to the ranch soon, but he needed and wanted to be selfish a little longer. He needed this time alone with Vin, to make sure they were all right and that things could and would get better.
God, Chris, I nearly threw it away
You didnt, Vin. Im here and no amount of Texan stubbornness is going to push me away.
Aint got the strength ta push a fly way right now, Cowboy, the sharpshooter replied quietly and let his eyes close with the force of that single nickname.
+ + + + + + +
Chris looked down into the face of his friend. Guess that makes two of us he whispered.
Sorry pair Vin replied, opening his eyes and meeting his friends gaze.
Sorriest, but I think we better get back to your place before the others have a
Conniption fit, the Texan said with a grin.
Jesus, Vin, youre hanging around Ezra too much, Larabee laughed.
Seems ta me I aint been hangin round anyone cept Nettie and Josiah. Ive missed ya, Cowboy, The softly spoken words tore down the last of the strained tension and the two men awkwardly clasped forearms in the familiar shake that meant more than a simple touch. A signal passed between the two men as if a spark had been re-ignited and they knew things really were okay.
Chris held his breath as he tried to keep the tight grip on the other mans arm, but the Texan knew instinctively something was wrong. He reached for Larabees darkly clad arm and a vision flashed before his eyes. He felt the axe in his hand and saw it descend toward Larabee, feeling the impact as it travelled along his own arms.
Its okay, Vin
Like fuck! Look, we need ta head back and get Nathan ta come out ta my place
Theyre already at your place, Larabee supplied.
We figured it was time someone kicked your ass and I
Ya wouldnt dare
Try me, the blond warned.
Sonofabitch! the Texan said and moved away from his friend. Come on, Larabee, its time ta let the others know were okay before one of em takes a notion were not worth the trouble.
Chris stood, reaching out to help the sharpshooter to his feet and again gasped as he put pressure on his arm. He smiled sheepishly in spite of the pain and offered the other man a shoulder to lean on.
Sorry isnt quite the word ta describe us, Tanner said and stood on Larabees left side. He placed his arm over the blonds shoulder at the same time Chris put his arm around the Texans waist. The two men looked at each other and began to laugh as relief settled on them and they realized theyd truly come home.
+ + + + + + +
Im going to shoot them both! Jackson said when the others returned to the Texans ranch. He stood in the front yard as four men exited the two vehicles.
Vins not back? Wilmington asked angrily.
No, and Chris has disappeared too. I take it you didnt find Vin? Jackson asked.
We havent seen either of them, Dunne answered.
Nathan, I see them! Nettie Wells called from the back of the house and five men raced around the side, only to stand in shock at the sight coming toward them.
Hot damn! Wilmington said with a grin.
Thank you, Lord, Sanchez whispered.
It appears that our illustrious leader and sharpshooter have mended some major fences, Standish supplied and began to walk toward the two men who staggered toward the house. He felt the others move in beside him and smiled widely when he realized what this meant. His family may have been separated like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but those pieces were coming together again and he felt a weight lift from his heart.
+ + + + + + +
Dont look now, b but I t think the cavalry i is here, Tanner said and smiled in spite of the aches and pain he felt.
They dont look too pissed, Larabee added.
Is that a good sign or a bad one? Tanner asked, breathlessly.
Hard to tell, but I dont see any smoking guns, the blond answered tiredly.
I should kick your sorry asses to hell and back, Wilmington said, but the smile on his face belied his words.
Been there Larabee started.
Done that, Tanner finished.
Hot damn theyre back, Dunne whooped as the five men closed up ranks around the two friends.
Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner, are we correct in assuming
Never assume anything, Ezra, cause the Texan said.
When you assume something you make an ass out of u and me, the blond finished and joined in the relieved laughter from the others.
Boys, that is worthy of the same groans we give JDs jokes, Sanchez said.
Chris and Vin continued to support each other until they reached the house. Both men were grateful to the others for not taking control and even more grateful for the fact that theyd been there to offer help if needed.
I oughta Nettie began and soon found herself folded in two pairs of strong arms. She felt the tears slide down her cheeks and did nothing to hide them from the seven men. Thanksgiving would soon be upon them and now there was truly something wondrous to be thankful for.
Sorry ifn I worried ya, Miss Nettie, Tanner said.
Youd better be and if you if either of you even thinks about another disappearing act youll wish you were back in restraints! the elderly woman scolded.
You tell them, Nettie, Wilmington readily agreed.
God help me, but I dont think I can stand anything like this happening again, Boys, Wells told them and again pulled them into a tight embrace. Good heavens, youre both freezing. Come on into the house and Ill make some hot chocolate!
Cant, Tanner said.
Why not? Nettie asked with a frown.
Chris needs ta have his arm checked, the Texan answered.
My arm can w
What happened? Jackson interrupted.
I hit him with an an axe, the sharpshooter stumbled over the words as pain flashed across his face.
What the hell for? Wilmington asked, anger easily read in his eyes.
Easy, Buck, it wasnt like he planned to do it it just happened and Im glad it did, Larabee said simply.
What? Dunne asked incredulously.
I said Im glad it happened, the blond repeated.
Thats what I thought you said. Jesus, Chris, why would you be happy Vin hit you? the ladies man asked.
Because if he hadnt I think wed have lost him forever, Larabee answered, but offered no other explanation as the two men headed into the house. Once inside they moved to the kitchen and sat at the breakfast nook before removing their jackets, hats, and gloves.
Whats wrong, Vin?
I left the damn wheelchair out by the tree fergot all bout it, the Texan said sheepishly.
Kind of wondered where it was, Sanchez said. Ill take a walk out there and bring it back, but I must say I was glad to see you on your own two feet.
I think we all were, Jackson said.
Damn good thing I had Chris ta support me or Ida been on my ass long ago, Tanner supplied.
Chris, let me take a look at that arm, Jackson ordered and reached for Larabees injured limb. He silently cursed the heavy bruising that marked the impact area and gently prodded around it.
How is it, Nathan? Nettie asked.
The plates have shifted, Jackson said and knew Larabee could feel his touch. The blond tried valiantly not to show the pain he was feeling, but was unsuccessful in keeping it from his friends. Chris, were going to have to go to Saint Vincents and have this x-rayed.
Im goin with ya, Tanner said.
Vin, you must be exhausted, Jackson tried.
Nope, actually feel better than I have in a long time and I think its time ta eat some crow, the Texan said and looked at each man before speaking. Im sorry, Boys, aint much of a speaker, but I need ya all ta know how sorry I am I pushed ya out of my life. Yer the best thing ever happened ta this sorry Texan.
Jesus, is it ever thick in here! Wilmington said in an effort to ease the tension.
Got a knife I can cut it with? Dunne asked.
Hell of a thing! Man tries ta bare his soul
Vin, theyre telling you that you dont have to bare your soul, because we already know, Larabee said and again locked forearms with the other man, groaning when his arm throbbed relentlessly.
That does it. Come on, Chris, Saint Vincents is waiting, Jackson ordered and held Larabees coat out to him.
Nathan, think we should be getting frequent flyer miles, Tanner said.
The only flying you boys do is when youre flying high on those pain meds the doc gives you, the medic said.
Well, I dont know about you boys, but Im getting hungry. What do you say to taking Chris to the hospital and stopping at Delvecchios afterwards? Sanchez offered.
Sounds like a plan, Josiah, Wilmington said with a grin.
All right. You boys go on ahead. Ill get Vins wheelchair and meet you at Saint Vincents, the older man said.
Miss Nettie, are you gonna join us? Tanner asked.
No, the woman said with a smile. I think today is for you boys. Ill come with you next time. Besides Im thinking its time I checked things at my house.
Ill drop you there before going into town, Sanchez offered and watched as the other six got ready to leave. It felt good to see not only Larabee and Tanner basking in the return of their friendship, but the others as well. Thank you, Lord.
Amen to that, Nettie said, glad shed been there to see the healing begin.
+ + + + + + +
Chris sat on the edge of the bed waiting for the physician to show up. He knew Stacey Midland was nearly finished her shift and hoped the woman would put in an appearance. His arm throbbed incessantly and he tried to keep it still.
Nervous? Tanner asked.
Why should I be? Larabee asked.
Not every day ya get ta eat crow jest glad Is around to see it, the Texan said.
Youre all heart, Larabee said and looked up when the curtain was drawn back. He saw her surprise at Tanners presence and was glad the sharpshooter had accompanied him. Hi, Doc.
Hello, Chris, if you want another doctor I can
No, thanks, Doc, think its time I apologized for being such a
Jack Ass, Tanner supplied with a grin.
Just tryin ta help.
That kind of help I can do without, Larabee told him with a glimmer of mirth shining in his eyes. He turned to Midland, his expression turning serious. Doc Stacey, Im sorry. I know you did what you had to do and I wish I could take back the shit I said, but I cant. What I can do is tell you how sorry I am and if it happens again
Ya can stitch his mouth closed
Vin, youre really not helping, the blond said, but couldnt help smiling when he saw the look on Stacey Midlands face. The physician seemed to be laughing and for a second he thought he heard her chuckle, but that didnt seem right. Doc, is something wrong?
No no, I dont think so, Stacey replied, swallowing hard. Smiling, I take it you two have finally come to grips with what happened? Midland asked.
Yeah, we worked it out, Tanner answered simply.
Im glad and I will accept your apology, Chris, if you and Vin accept mine.
Fer what? the sharpshooter asked curiously.
I had to make some decisions when you two were brought in and I wish to God the choices had been easier, but
Stacey, you did what you had to do. I know that now
We know that now, Tanner interrupted. Dont go second guessin things, Doc. Aint no place fer woulda-shoulda-coulda in our business and Im bettin theres no place fer it in yours either.
Hindsights twenty-twenty, Doc, were all human and have our faults, but we also have the ability to admit when were wrong. I was wrong, Doc, and Im sorry.
Apology accepted, Chris, now why dont you tell me what happened to your arm, Midland said and saw the guilty look on the Texans face.
It was an accident, Larabee answered.
Some accident .I hit him with an axe
An axe handle, Vin. I was pushing you pretty damn hard
Not hard enough shoulda shoved me on my ass
Then youd both be in need of medical attention, Midland offered and continued to examine her patient. Chris, Im going to send you for an x-ray.
Figured as much, Larabee said.
Hmm, are you up to walking or should I get a wheelchair?
Not for me, Doc, but
I can walk, Larabee, Tanner snapped.
I know, but you gotta be as tired as I feel, the blond said. Look, Vin, stay here and Ill be back as soon as the x-rays are done.
All right, the Texan agreed, truth was he didnt think he had enough energy to stand up, let alone walk to the x-ray department.
Ill be back, Larabee said and followed Midland out the door.
+ + + + + + +
Well? Jackson asked when Larabee and Tanner walked into the waiting room.
A hairline fracture, Larabee answered sheepishly and showed the air cast he now sported.
Well, thats just as bad as a break, Chris, you need to take it easy
I know, Nathan, she read me the riot act, the blond answered.
Dr. Midland was still here, Tanner answered.
So I guess youre not hungry, Chris? Sanchez asked.
Why wouldnt I be?
I believe Mr. Sanchez is referring to your feast of crow, Standish supplied and fought to keep from smiling.
He did real good, Tanner said and spotted his wheelchair next to Sanchez.
Might as well sit down, Cowboy, dont need ta push things, Larabee offered. The throbbing of his arm was no longer bothersome since Midland had given him an injection of Demerol to help with the pain. Shed also advised him they would need to remove the plates as soon as the cast came off.
Guess so, Tanner said and sat down reluctantly. Sanchez took control of the handles and pushed the chair toward the main doors.
Stacey Midland stood at the main desk and watched the seven men closely. No matter how often she saw them it always amazed her that their friendship could easily stand the test of time. They would have other hurdles to overcome, but somehow they would always come through a little worn, a little stronger, and a whole lot happier if they leaned on each other. Sighing contentedly, Midland closed Larabees file and handed it to the nurse before leaving the hospital.
+ + + + + + +
Chris, are you boys sure youll be okay?
Josiah, were fine. Look, if theres a problem well call, Larabee answered. The others would be coming out early in the morning to get things going for the Thanksgiving Day feast. The turkey was in the fridge and Nettie Wells would be returning to the ranch to get it in the oven. They knew she was also bringing along several apple and pumpkin pies for dessert. Nathan and Rain were going to bring along sweet potatoes and candied yams. JD and Casey were bringing wine and alcohol free beer. Buck and Inez were bringing paper plates, napkins, forks, knives and anything else to make things easier when it came to cleaning up. Ezra was bringing along caviar and several other appetizers that only he could pronounce. The celebration was going to last all day and culminate with them watching the televised football game.
Josiah, me and Chris gotta talk and we cant do that with the rest of ya watchin our every move, Tanner explained.
You mean youll talk in your own way and the rest of us wont know there was an intelligent conversation happening right in front of us.
Something like that, the blond assured the older man.
All right, but
Well call, Larabee and Tanner said in unison. They watched the ex-preacher hurry out to his car and stood on the front porch steps for several long minutes.
Gonna snow, the Texan said.
Think so, Larabee agreed.
Makes everythin look new.
Feels new too The blond paused and looked into the emotive blue eyes, feeling a new warmth spread through him in spite of the frigid temperatures. Feels good.
Damn straight, Vin replied, meeting his friends gaze. Im hungry.
When arent you? Larabee asked, smiling as the first soft snowflakes landed on the Texans shoulder.
Told ya. Tanner said.
That you did, Larabee agreed. The two men continued to stand side by side at the front of the house as the snow began to fall heavily. The ground soon held a mantle of white and a crisp evening breeze blew across the yard. They seemed oblivious of everything except the true sense of brotherhood between them. Finally, without a word, two forearms came together, and the silent connection glowed with a renewed intensity. Nothing needed to be said as the brothers turned away from the snowy landscape and headed into the house.
+ + + + + + +
Chris looked at the bottle of pills and fought the urge to take one, but the throbbing in his arm and the subsequent tremors that began in his hands proved too much. Silently cursing his own weakness, the blond popped two pills into his mouth and stood in the dark kitchen with his eyes closed. The house was still and silent, the only sound being the soft snoring emanating from the Texans bedroom.
Im glad one of us can sleep, Larabee whispered. Hed been able to sleep very little and knew the reason had to do with his memories of the time he spent in the hospital. His own words echoed and re-echoed through his pounding skull as Buck Wilmingtons dejected face swam before his eyes.
Isnt it?! Youve always been jealous of my relationship with Vin! Was that your way of finally getting him out of the way?! Hoping that he would die from the blood loss if those last two units were used to save my life?! Get out of here you fuckin murderin sonofabitch! Get out! I never want to see you again!
God, Buck, Im so sorry, the blond said and vowed to make the same apology to the rogue. Buck Wilmington was a constant in his life and had been for more years than Larabee cared to remember, and sometimes he took advantage of that friendship. It was time to mend the fence hed broken and prayed Buck would forgive him. Feeling the drug begin to work, Chris made his way to his bedroom and dropped heavily onto the bed. In spite of the medication, sleep was a long time in coming to the weary man.
+ + + + + + +
Does it hurt much, Vin? Your whole body is in agony, isnt it? Your wounds are on fire arent they? Throbbing? Stabbing pains? It hurts to breathe doesnt it? You want it all to end dont you?
~Oh God please no make it stop ~
Hes hurting you, isnt he, Vin?
Blue eyes stared upward and tears welled once more. Another nod more apparent this time.
Chris has always wanted to hurt you. You know that now, dont you Vin? Chris wont listen to me, Vin. Ive tried to tell him to stop. But he just keeps on and on, causing you more pain agonizing pain doesnt he?
A weak nod and a low moan was the answer.
Oh yes, I thought so and I know it hurts. Only he wont stop until you tell him to, Vin. Do you want Chris to stop? Do you want him to stop hurting you?
What was that Vin? I didnt hear you and I know Chris didnt.
P please stop C Chris.
Chris stood in the doorway of his friends room, listening to the terrifying cries from the Texan. Hed woken to the first shouted pleas for him to stop and knew he was behind Tanners lingering pain and nightmares. No matter how often he told himself the blame was with Tasker, it all came back to this. Tears filled his eyes when he heard the woefully bleak voice, triggering the memories of Taskers threats and his own inability to control his pain.
God, Vin, Im so sorry, the blond thought and hurried toward the kitchen. His salvation was there, sitting on the table where hed left it and with trembling fingers he reached for the bottle. He hated childproof caps and thought the inventor had really meant adult proof when the lid still hadnt come off after several attempts.
+ + + + + + +
P please stop C Chris. Vin gasped as he said the words, sitting straight up in the bed and sliding his legs over the side. He ran his fingers through his hair and tried to calm his breathing. He knew it had been a dream, but for a brief second he found himself hating Chris Larabee with every ounce of his being. Rubbing at tired eyes he sat where he was, listening to the familiar sounds of his house and frowned when he heard a soft curse.
Chris, the Texan whispered and forced his weary body to stand. His refusal to use the wheelchair seemed rather stupid at that moment as his legs threatened to give out. Clothed only in a pair of long pajama bottoms, the sharpshooter made his way toward the kitchen, moving faster when he heard another curse. He stood in the kitchen doorway, watching Larabee pick up several pills. Need some help?
Jesus! the blond croaked at the sudden appearance of his friend.
Nope, He aint here jest me and you. Lose somethin?
Couldnt get the lid off! Larabee said by way of explanation. He placed the bottle on the counter and reached for the last of the spilled tablets. Chris saw the Texan reach for the container and could easily read the look on his face. He turned away, hiding the shame he felt at his own weakness.
The pains bad, Vin.
Why didnt you tell Dr. Midland? She wouldve given ya somethin stronger! The Texan counted the pills in the bottle and compared it to the number prescribed. The prescription had been filled three days ago and said take one pill twice daily as needed. Given that there were supposed to be thirty pills, Vin knew the mathematics and the facts told him Larabee had already taken close to twenty of the pills.
Didnt take them for physical pain, Vin, Larabee finally admitted and felt a hand on his right shoulder. His resolve to keep his pain inside broke and with it came the release of pent up tension and guilt. He shook with the force of the grief he felt, not only for what hed done to the Texan, but also for everything else in his life.
Talk to me, Cowboy, Tanner said quietly and led the blond into the living room. They sat on the couch, in the darkness, the only sound coming from Larabee as he tried to get his emotions under control. Unnerved by the unusual display, the Texan waited for the blond to speak.
God, Vin, I keep seeing you strapped to that fucking table and thinking you were dead. Tasker kept telling me what he was doing and that it was a test Jesus, some test I thought what he did to Richard Powell was bad, but it was nothing compared to what he did to you. I should have killed that bastard long ago.
Ya aint a murderer, Chris.
Oh, I dont know I think I could murder Robert Tasker and not bat an eye, Larabee said. I dont give a damn about what he did to me, Vin, but what he did to you goes beyond insane. The man needs to be taught a lessen in pain and Im at the head of the line.
You and me both, Tanner said and the silence stretched for several long minutes before Larabee spoke once more.
I keep hearing him tell me every fucking time I released a spike into your body, Vin, but he didnt need to, Larabee said, wringing his hands and slowly rocking back and forth. I knew every time I lost control and no matter how hard I tried to keep from showing any reaction I couldnt stop it.
Chris , Tasker was givin ya lectric shocks and there aint no way ya couldve stopped from reactin ta it. I seen a lot of shit in my life and some of it Id rather forget, but I aint gonna let it beat me. Tasker almost did with those lies Is believin bout ya, but I aint ever gonna let Tasker come between us again.
Taskers a fucking bastard, Vin, and hes still out there! Larabee spat.
I know, but hell be caught and when he is, me and yous gonna make sure he dont hurt no one else, Tanner vowed.
Damn straight we are. Think maybe Buck and the others will have an idea or two ta throw in with ours, Larabee said.
Chris, that aint all of it, is it? Tanner asked a few minutes later.
No not even close, Larabee replied and turned moisture laden eyes on his friend. I knew what was happening to you before they told me. I could feel you giving up, Vin, and it was killing me.
Vin nodded solemnly and watched the blond stand, pacing the floor as if trying to contain his emotions, but he could not let him stop. Holding it inside would only make it fester and grow and he would not lose Chris Larabee again, not without a fight. Gon.
You were on life support and they were going to shut it down. I knew it was my fault and that you blamed me for everything that happened. I knew you were leaving knew you were blaming me felt you shutting down pushing me away cutting me off and I wanted all the pain to stop. God help me, Vin, I would have followed you to Hell and back if I had to.
Im sorry, Chris.
What the hell are you apologizing for, Vin? You werent at fault in any of this.
Neither were you, Chris, the Texan argued and waited for the blond to look at him. It was cold where I was. I couldnt feel anything except ya and I couldnt fight Taskers words any more and I blamed ya fer everythin and that was wrong. I know that now. The dreams still come, but I can stop the pain when I wake up. I jest gotta listen and feel and know youre there. It may sound crazy, Cowboy, but I think Id be fuckin nuts by now if ya werent there ta talk ta even if ya dont say a fuckin word.
Better not let anyone hear you say that
Its somethin private tween us and I aint plannin on sharin it just needed ya ta know.
Thanks, Vin, Larabee said and sank back down on the couch. Again he began to wring his hands and felt the emotional release the Texans words provided.
Chris, ya know ya need help.
Ill go with ya.
Hoped youd say that, Larabee said relieved, leaning his head back against the couch and closing his eyes to stop the tears.
Ya gonna talk ta Nathan?
Figure Id better. Hell know who I need to see, Larabee reasoned and turned to his friend. Im sorry, Vin.
Think the apologies are over, Chris, long as ya do whatcha gotta do.
Jesus, I dont have a choice not with you in here, Larabee said, smiling as he pointed to his head.
Yad best member that, the Texan chuckled and tried to stifle a yawn. Damn.
Very, but I got one more thing that needs to be set right, Larabee stated firmly before standing and walking to his bedroom. He returned in less than a minute and held something out to his friend. Had this with me since I got out of the hospital. Found it on your pillow t-that night and prayed Id be able to give it back to you.
Vin recognized the object immediately and reached for it as a smile dawned on his face. June 17, 2000...Two spirits, one soul...Cowboy. The words inscribed on the inside were forever burned on his memory and the Texan felt as if hed finally come home.
Thanks, Chris, thought Id lost it for good, the sharpshooter said and slipped the gold band onto his finger. He looked into the familiar sea green eyes and realized that like the ring, they truly had come full circle.
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Chris patted his stomach and smiled at the people seated around the Texans living room. The food had been perfect and the drinks, although hed been stuck with non-alcoholic beverages, were cold and thirst quenching. Hed spoken with Nathan Jackson about rehab for drug abuse and the medic, although understandably upset at first, had been supportive and agreed to set up an appointment for him the following day.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe its time to wager on the outcome of todays game? Standish said and pulled out a black notebook and gold pen.
Cowboys with a thirty point spread! Tanner said and handed the conman a twenty-dollar bill.
All right, Mr. Tanner, but I thought you would have gone for a much larger spread, Standish said.
Im bein conservtive, the Texan said with a grin.
Anyone else? The game starts in thirty minutes.
I say itll be the Cowboys with a 15 point spread, Larabee said and handed over his twenty.
Give me twenty on the Dolphins with a 19 point spread, Nettie Wells said.
Traitor! Tanner quipped.
Nope, just playin a hunch. Make sure you keep my money safe, Mr. Standish, the elderly woman said before carrying several plates into the kitchen.
Im not as confident as Aunt Nettie, so Ill say Dolphins with a ten point spread, Casey said.
Ill take the Cowboys with a ten point spread, JD said and moved to help with the clean up.
Put me down for twenty on Dallas and a spread of seven points.
Put your money where your mouth is, Mr. Wilmington, Standish said and rubbed his fingers together.
Im a little short Im good for it.
Sorry, no IOUs allowed, the conman told him.
Damn, aint like I can run out on you, Wilmington said and dug into his pocket to come up with enough to cover his bet.
Buck, thought you were learning to save your money, Jackson said and handed Standish a twenty. Dolphins twelve points.
Dallas, twelve points, Rain said and kissed Jackson on the cheek before going into the kitchen for game time snacks.
Anyone else? Standish asked.
Who did you take, Ezra? Sanchez inquired.
Dont tell Mr. Tanner, but I chose the Dolphins with a thirty point spread.
Another traitor, Tanner spat in mock disgust.
We cant all cheer the Cowboys, Vin, Sanchez said and made his bet. Dolphins by 9.
Ill stick with Vin and say Dallas by eleven, Inez said and handed over her money.
I believe all bets are in, Standish said, placing the money in the notebook and putting it back in his pocket.
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Damn good game so far, Wilmington said, pouring wine into a crystal goblet.
Not bad but it aint over yet, the Texan said and reached for the remote to turn up the volume as Toby Keith began to sing Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.
That man can sing, Nettie said, settling into the comfortable armchair.
Not bad looking either, Inez commented.
Wouldnt kick him outta bed for eating crackers, the elderly woman said, smiling when the men looked at her in surprise. I may be getting old, but Im not dead.
Miss Nettie, yer only as old as ya feel, Tanner said.
Guess that makes me twenty nine again, the woman answered accepting a glass of white wine from Buck Wilmington. Thank you.
Youre welcome. Anyone else need anything before the game starts?
Could use some more salsa, Dunne said.
Youre younger than me, Son, grab some more chips while youre at it, Wilmington said.
Ill get it, Larabee interrupted and turned to his long time friend. Give me a hand, Buck?
Sure, was wondering how youd get the salsa opened with only one wing, the gentle rogue said with a wink before following Larabee into the kitchen and closing the door. Hed known all evening that something was bothering the blond and hoped it wasnt something hed done. Whats up, Chris?
Have a seat, Buck, Larabee said seriously.
Oh, hell, what did I do?
You didnt do anything, Buck, but I did, Larabee answered solemnly.
Whatever it is cant be that bad, Chris.
Yes it is and I can only beg forgiveness and a promise that if it ever happens again you can kick my ass all over town.
What are you talking about, Chris? Wilmington asked worriedly.
Those things I said in the hospital. I wont make excuses for them because none of them would make what I said go away.
You may not remember them, Buck, but I do and believe me when I say I never meant them. I know you care about what happens to me and Vin, and the others, and wouldnt do anything to hurt any of us.
Damn right I wouldnt, Wilmington said, his heart aching with the memory of the day in the hospital.
I know that, Buck, and Im sorry. I know thats not much, but
Chris, its water under the bridge, Wilmington said, feeling the lump in his throat threatening to cut off his air supply. But if you ever fucking say it again I might just have to drown you in that water.
Thanks, Buck, Larabee said.
Anytime, Pard, you ready to get back to the game?
Think so. Better open a new bottle of salsa.
Will do. You got the chips?
Right here, Larabee said and joined the others in the living room. The game was in full swing and they sat down with more than a few grumbles of protest for blocking the view.
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Mrs. Wells, I believe youd be an asset at the racetrack, Standish said, carefully counting the bills into the womans hands.
Aint seen nothin like it, Tanner said, shaking his head. 40-21 exactly 19 points. Howd ya know?
A lucky guess, Nettie answered with a smile.
So, what are you going to do with your winnings? Inez asked.
Im not sure just yet, but with Christmas coming I may just do some early shopping, the woman answered and tucked the bills into her purse before turning her attention to the disaster area that was once Vin Tanners living room. Or I could hire a maid to come in here and clean this up.
No need fer that, Miss Nettie, aint gonna take much ta clean this place up. Most of it goes in the garbage or recycling, the Texan assured her.
Well, if we all pitch in, this place will be clean in no time, Casey offered.
Sounds like a plan, Casey, Larabee said and the group of friends worked together to put the place back in order. By the time everything was done, it was late and Josiah went to clean the snow from the club van. He would drive the others home, leaving Vin and Chris alone once more.
Nathan was the last to leave and he stood in the doorway looking at the two friends. It was good to see them as they were meant to be brothers of spirit and soul. Their wounds were mostly healed and although there were several issues to be dealt with, together they would snatch victory from Taskers hands.
Chris, Ill pick you up early Monday morning and well go to the rehab center. Okay?
Sounds good, Larabee answered.
I got them, Nathan. Dont worry, Chris wont do anything stupid. Right, Cowboy?
Right, Larabee vowed. One look at the Texan told him everything really was all right and he took a deep, cleansing breath of the night air.
They watched the van drive out of the yard before turning and walking into the house, content in the knowledge that their friendship had survived and the force of the bond of brotherhood between them, unseen to the naked eye, would flourish with renewed strength.
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Tasker smiled as he looked at the picture on the front page of the Billings Gazette. It was a featured article on an agency called The Firm and his finger touched the face of the man at the center of the picture. The headline read THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and underneath a caption that said, RIDES AGAIN.
Not for long, Chris, not for long, Tasker said with an evil laugh before cutting out the picture and placing it in a well used scrapbook.
Or just the beginning???