+ + + + + + +
"This is gonna help him how?"
Chris looked up as a cup of coffee brushed against his arm. He took the offering from Nettie as she pulled her rocking chair closer to the porch stairs on which he sat, staring into the night.
"Can't sleep," he said truthfully, taking a sip. He knew he should - knew he'd need his strength for the day ahead - but as soon as he closed his eyes he saw the image of Vin Tanner lying dead in a forest clearing with Prichett standing above him. Another death in his name.
"Stubborn, prideful, thinks he's invincible," Nettie said quietly.
"That's Vin," he agreed.
"Those are his words about you," Nettie said with a smile.
"That a fact?" Chris asked with a smile, taking another drink.
"Calls me up six months ago," she said, leaning back in her rocker. "Says to me, 'Nettie? Got me a new address, a new job and a new friend.' Tells me this friend's got his whole team thinkin' he's a lone gun, a force to be reckoned with, when the truth is he's one step ahead of losin' himself to guilt and anger and holdin' onto them to keep his balance. 'Just like me' he says with wonder. 'Just like me holdin' onto you all those years to keep from goin' crazy.'"
Chris sipped his coffee silently.
"How'd his folks die?" Chris asked, changing the subject.
"His ma was an angel. She died sick of cancer in the hospital," she said. She rocked silently for a while until Chris turned, looking to her to continue.
"Least that's what he believes," she said, staring hard at him. "Fact is she was an addict since she ran away from home at 13. Had Vin at 16, died of an overdose at 21."
"He doesn't know that?" Chris asked.
She saw the doubt in him, doubt that she should hold this from Vin.
"Believin' don't make a fact, but what good's knowin' when there's nothin' to be done?" she asked. "You believe maybe you could've saved your wife and son if you had been with 'em. What good would come of knowin' you could or couldn't have? Their deaths hurt any less knowin' for sure there's nothin' you could've done?"
"Vin's done a lot of talking," Chris said, levelling his gaze at her, challenging her right to talk about him, his life.
"Vin don't talk much 'cept where his friends are concerned," she answered back. "Known him six months - that's long enough for you to know he carries the burden of every man he trusts. He gets tired, he shares those burdens with me. That offend you?"
Chris looked away, admonished. He trusted Vin with his life. Vin trusted her. It should be enough.
"He know his dad?" Chris asked after a time.
"I doubt even she knew him," Nettie answered quietly.
Chris thought of Vin at five years old, alone. He thought of his own son, how vulnerable, trusting, hungry for security and affection he had been at that age. Thought of himself growing up -the way he had taken it all for granted.
"Someone should've been there for him," he whispered.
"You applyin' for the job?" she asked.
He looked at her.
"Little late, don't you think?" he answered. "He's already told me once he doesn't need a father."
"I'm not talkin' about bein' a father to the boy he was. I'm talking about bein' a friend to the man he is."
"Why do you think I'm here?" Chris asked her, irritated.
"Why's he here?" she fired back.
Chris' jaw clenched, he turned on her with fury.
"Because I screwed up. I didn't cover his back and he doesn't trust me anymore. And now some lunatic who's got a score to settle with me is using him to do it."
"He wrong to trust you?" Nettie asked sternly.
"Maybe," Chris answered back, doubting himself.
"Not good enough," she said, shaking her head. "He wrong to trust you?" she asked again. "Wrong to think you give a damn about more than his gun? Wrong to think you'll do whatever you can to find him? Am I wrong to think you might want to make a difference to a boy who's gotten nothing but the back hand of life since the day he was born?"
Chris eyed her defiantly.
She nodded and rose, taking the empty cup from his hands.
"Fine then. Go to bed. You got a lost boy to find in the morning."
+ + + + + + +
The night was cold. Vin's shirt had been soaked with blood and sweat and now clung icily to his body. His fingers and toes were numb. Occasionally he dozed, but would waken abruptly when he heard a foot shift on gravel followed by the soft rain of dirt and sand that fell from above.
Vin tried to concentrate on the situation. Who was his pursuer? Was Chris really coming? Vin couldn't stay where he was forever. Did the hunter really have him in his sites? Couldn't he slip away in the dark? If Chris was coming, Vin needed to warn him -but he couldn't do that if he was dead. And even if Chris was coming, how would he find him? It was a big forest - a lot of ground to cover. Unfamiliar ground.
Tanner looked around him. The shelf under which he was hidden ran a ways along the ridge. He could use the shelf for cover as far as possible, then start dropping down, out of range. There was no doubt he'd be taking a chance, but there was no chance for any of them if he stayed where he was. His best bet was to move at night when the cover of darkness would play into his hand as well. He gripped the rifle firmly, wiggling his toes and fingers to return the circulation to them before he moved. Then he took a deep breath, and silently crept along the ledge.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had Nettie's map of the area laid out on the hood of the jeep at the first sign of daybreak. Buck joined him as Nettie loaded the jeeps with blankets and food.
"Nettie says he's headed here," Chris said to Buck, pointing out Little Bluff. "Says he used to play there a lot as a kid."
"He's cutting himself off there," Buck said, looking it over.
"He's keeping Prichett away from the other cabins," Chris told him.
"Tell me again why we're not calling SWAT in now already? Asking this sheriff for all the firepower, jeeps and men he's got?" Buck asked.
"Federal Agents Hunt Crazed Federal Agent Hunting Ex-Federal Agent," said Chris, spreading his hands out in front of them. "Sound like a good headline to you?"
"So in the interest of public relations we're willing to put Vin's life on the line?" Buck wanted to know.
"His last official act was quitting, Buck, remember? Technically Orrin has no right to send us out here at all. Prichett hasn't done anything except leave a little graffiti behind. Probable cause? Maybe. But not for the kind of deployment you're talking about."
"No, administrative services would require a body first," Ezra muttered as he joined them.
"They already cost him his job - now they want his life," Buck added.
"Enough, both of you," Chris ordered. "Get your heads out of the could've-should'ves. It's up to us to get Vin out of this alive."
"What's the plan?" Buck asked.
"You and Ezra ride up to the north end, work your way down. I'll come up from the south. These bluffs aren't that long," Chris explained.
"And where am I in this?" Nathan asked.
"You're here," Chris said, nodding towards Nettie's cabin. "If Vin's wounded, I want to know for sure where I'm going to find a doctor. First one finds him, brings him here. I don't want Buck and Ezra to find him and then drive all over creation trying to find us."
Chris handed Ezra and Nate one of Evan Dean's cards.
"First one finds Vin gets in touch with the other and Nate. Once we find Prichett, get him in custody, we give Dean a call, bring him up to speed. Nate - you need anything - ambulance, Flight for Life, you're on the air to Dean. Questions?" Chris asked, looking around at his men. The faces that stared back at him were anxious, intense, and just a little stunned at his commands, at the thought of what may lie ahead, at the thought that they may already be too late.
Buck headed towards his Jeep while Chris folded up the map.
"I wonder if I might take one moment..." Ezra said, following behind Chris as he made his way around the Jeep.
"Make it fast Standish," Chris answered over his shoulder.
"Just a moment...to apologize," Ezra finished.
Chris swung into the seat, then turned to face his agent.
"I never should have insinuated...to have even proffered the hint of suggestion that you would knowingly have placed Mr. Tanner in jeopardy..." Ezra stuttered. "I must confess a rare state of tunnel vision as regards Mr. Tanner's welfare," he concluded.
"Yeah," Chris nodded, accepting the apology. "I've found myself in that same tunnel on occasion." He looked at Nate, nervously pacing outside of Nettie's, at Buck, engine running, hands gripping the steering wheel, anxious to leave. He thought of the men left behind, J.D. and Josiah, could almost feel their desire to be here. His attention focused back on Standish.
"In fact, it's getting pretty damned crowded in there lately."
+ + + + + + +
Vin had moved quietly along the ridge throughout the night. The sun was coming up when he paused finally, cautiously raising up on his knees to peer above the overhang. Everything was still. His side ached from where the bullet had grazed him, but the bleeding had stopped long ago. He worried that his legs would cramp on him after having had to crawl and hide among the rocks for the past twelve hours. There had been no sign of his pursuer and he began to hope the cover of night had masked his escape.
Whoever was after him said he wanted Chris. That could be for any number of reasons, and Vin had no doubt there were many men who would relish the opportunity of paying Chris Larabee back. But this one also seemed sure Chris would come after him, and Vin. That, Vin wasn't so sure of. He had made his break with Larabee. By now the team leader probably knew about Ezra, too. Why would Chris risk his life for someone like him now?
Vin thought back to the past six months - how sweet they had been. He'd followed the rules, worked the job, and as always, his gun had not let him down. There had been pizza with the guys, practical jokes, and J.D.'s birthday party. Small things, but important just the same. They were things that spoke of normalcy, belonging, family. A short, sweet dream...
He was startled awake when his head dropped down on his chest. He'd been dozing again. This wasn't getting him anywhere. He needed to act. But how? Was Chris really coming? Would he put Larabee's life in danger by confronting the mysterious man who was hunting him? The possibility that help was coming became less real to him with each passing hour. If he was to get out of this alive, he'd have to make it happen on his own. The idea wasn't new to him.
+ + + + + + +
"Stop! There!" Ezra cried, pulling himself up on the rollbar that ran across the top of the Jeep. Buck stood on the breaks, skidding to a hault. Wilmington reached for his gun.
"No, no, it's nothing - a felled tree," Ezra said, sitting again.
"Damn it Ezra, that's the third time!" Buck said, putting the Jeep into drive again. "You're one hell of a spotter, you know that?"
"I'm sorry," Ezra apologized. "I know, I just - I don't want to miss anything. I'm afraid my desire to locate Mr. Tanner is overwhelming my reason."
Buck sighed as he drove, his eyes stinging from staring hard at the forest about him and the cliffs below.
"Yeah, I know," he agreed. "I keep seein' the look on Vin's face that day at the office...we let him down, Ez, and I don't plan on doin' that again. J.D. was right. We gotta do everythin' we can to bring Vin back to Denver."
"I agree," Ezra said. "And I for one will be the first to attempt to convince Mr. Tanner of his need to fight."
Buck threw a glance at the agent.
"Even though it means him havin' to prove himself? I didn't think you were in favor of pressin' that issue with him."
"I was wrong. There are...circumstances that will need to be addressed. But they are not insurmountable. The fact is that belonging to this team is more important than personal pride. I learned that myself long ago. I seemed to have forgotten it recently. I need to impress that fact upon Mr. Tanner. If anyone deserves the acceptance, the sense of purpose I have enjoyed as a part of my association with this unit, it's Vin. I will consider it my personal challenge to convince him that the prize is worth the fight."
Buck hazarded another glance at Ezra.
"He's a grown man, tough as they come - ain't a more dangerous man I know with a rifle. And yet there's that lady, Nettie Wells, and the six of us - what do you suppose it is about Vin that makes us want to protect him so much?" he asked.
Ezra smiled slightly.
"Perhaps it's because we know no one else has ever bothered to try."
+ + + + + + +
It was the second time Chris had nearly driven the Jeep into a tree that made him stop and cool down before he continued. Getting himself killed wasn't going to help Vin. And Nettie was right - they were Vin's only chance.
His mind was filled with the unsettling thought that all of this was his fault - his fault for not getting anything in writing that covered Vin's academic record, his fault for not convincing Vin to stay and tough it out - his fault Prichett was after Vin.
"And this is gonna help him how?"
Nettie Wells' voice echoed in his head as he drove. Beating himself up over the situation wasn't going to help Vin. He had to keep his mind on the business at hand. It was up to Ezra, Buck and himself now - the others were counting on them. Vin was counting on him -and this time he wouldn't let his friend down.
+ + + + + + +
Vin took a cautious sip from the rainwater that had collected in the hollow of a rock from the day before. His throat was parched and his stomach was growling. He thought longingly of one of Nettie's "welcome home" breakfasts - biscuits with syrup, eggs, bacon, coffee, sweet rolls - he groaned at the thought.
He'd covered a few slow miles creeping along the outcroppings along the bluffs, careful to keep out of sight of the trail above. He was working his way south - back down the mountain. It was all he knew to do. There had been no contact with his pursuer since he had crept along the bluff in the middle of the night. Soon he knew he'd have to take the chance of climbing back up towards the trail. He'd never make it all the way back down to the foot of the Capitan mountains climbing along the bluffs. He'd die of thirst inching his way along like this.
Once again he chanced a glance above the rocks, and again, all was still. He took a deep breath and came out into the open. He'd inched along farther below the trail edge than he'd thought. It was a long way to the top - a long time to remain exposed.
Best get a move on then, he thought, and began quickly to ascend the bluffs. He'd covered less than 30 yards when he felt it, like a deer in the crosshairs of a hunter's rifle. He ducked almost at the same time as the bullet ricocheted off the rock he was climbing. Vin skirted around, his back to the bluffs, and aimed for the ridge. He saw the flash of the hunter's scope in the early sun and fired.
Prichett's rifle went up and he swung behind a tree as the bullet from Tanner's gun plucked at the shoulder of his jacket.
Good, Tanner, but not good enough, Prichett thought. He crouched down and peered around the tree.
Vin stood and took another shot, scrambling up the rocks for a better hiding place. Prichett tried to follow the bobbing blond head and fired, once again missing his mark.
Vin was only 20 feet from the rim, firing and ducking as he ran. He had Prichett's location to his right and as soon as he saw the head bob up he fired and ran again.
+ + + + + + +
Chris pulled the Jeep to a stop and listened. Had he heard a gun fire? He waited, resisting the urge to push forward, then cut the engine completely. There! Another shot, just ahead. He turned the key and gunned the Jeep into action, racing across the ground as the cliffs loomed ahead. Another shot. He slammed the Jeep to a halt, grabbed his gun and jumped from the vehicle.
He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw Vin making his way up the ridge.
Tanner looked to his left and saw Chris racing towards the edge of the bluff. For the first time Vin saw his pursuer clearly as Prichett came into the open, his gun aimed at Larabee.
"No! Chris!" he shouted, and spun on Prichett as the rifles fired.
+ + + + + + +
"Usually at this point I add a touch of whiskey."
Nathan smiled as Nettie opened a flask and poured a generous dollop into her coffee mug. She held the bottle poised over Nathan's.
"Or do you hold alcohol to strictly medicinal purposes?" she asked.
Nate tapped the top of the bottle to release a similar dose into his own cup.
"With this crew? It's a wonder I'm ever sober," he said.
"Vin says you take good care of everybody," Nettie said. "I appreciate that. I know my boy must add to your burden."
"It's one I'm proud to carry for them," Nate acknowledged. "They're an unusual breed, this team. Tough as they come and fiercely loyal. Gotta know when to push and when to ease off. They're not stupid men. I may wish they'd take it easier once in a while, but I know they won't put the team in danger by being foolish."
Nettie nodded with understanding.
"Takes a wise man to walk that line," she said with approval. "I remember nights back in Houston when Vin'd come home..." she paused, and Nate saw the pain in the shadow of her memories. "I knew he'd been in a fight. Black eyes, bruised knuckles, sore ribs," she shook her head and took a sip of the coffee. "First time I made such an almighty fuss about it. Tried to get him to tell me who did it, took him to the emergency room, raised hell all over my office in social services. Next time he got hurt he didn't come home for two days."
Nate looked at her sympathetically. Two days. If one of the team were missing now for two days he'd be desperate. And they were grown men.
"Finally limped through the door -told me he was waiting for the swelling to go down so I wouldn't take him to the ER again. From then on we only made the trip if there was blood flowin' or bones broken." She swallowed hard once more and looked away from Nathan to the trees beyond. "Lord knows we saw enough of that place even then."
The medic watched her and waited as she composed herself, then chose his words carefully.
"Must have been hard keeping him in school with all that going on," he said.
Nettie looked back at him sharply.
"He never skipped a day of school in my care," she said fiercely. "Only reason he didn't graduate is 'cause he got it in his head to join those special forces soon as he turned 18. We had hard words over it and finally I had to decide whether to let him go six months shy of graduation or cause a rift that'd keep him away from me forever. I knew he hated school, knew how hard it was for him, what with...what with him changin' schools so much. But he stuck with it 'til he joined the marines."
Nate watched her carefully. The whiskey had loosened her tongue enough to talk to him about the painful memories of Vin's past - but not enough to reveal his secrets. Whatever Ezra knew about Vin's education, whatever Nettie had known first, would be left up to Vin to reveal.
The old woman sighed deeply.
"I thought all this trouble was behind him now. I thought this job in Denver was going to turn things around in his favor for a change."
"Don't give up on us yet," Nate said, resting his hand on hers. "Chris has become pretty determined where Vin is concerned. I have a feeling Vin'll be toting an ATF badge again." He smiled at Nettie, hiding behind his own fear. If we find him before Prichett does.
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched in horror as the events before him seemed to play themselves out in slow motion. One moment Vin was running up the cliffs towards him, shouting incoherently. The next he saw his friend raise his rifle to fire. Chris turned toward the direction Vin was shooting and got a glimpse of Prichett whose gun was raised, pointing at Larabee. Before Chris could think to react, Prichett swung the rifle around to aim at Vin. He pulled the trigger just as the bullet from Vin's rifle slammed into his chest and sent him sprawling backwards. Chris turned to look at Vin and saw...nothing.
He raced to the edge of the cliff and searched for any sign of Vin. Tanner's rifle lay discarded twenty feet below the rim.
"Vin!" he called desperately. Chris glanced back towards Prichett. He'd seen the man take a shotgun blast to the chest - he wasn't going anywhere. Quickly Chris began to scramble down the cliffs calling to Vin and straining to hear any response.
VIN! He heard his name through a fog of pain and confusion. Chris! He'd seen Chris. He was here. But where was here? The pain was overwhelming, yet something else was nagging at his brain, somewhere beyond the blinding red agony that consumed him. Something else about Chris - in danger - his mind almost grasped the thought, and then darkness fell.
+ + + + + + +
Blood. There was no denying the crimson stain that splashed against the rocks. Chris followed the trail with his eyes, eager to see, yet afraid to find where it ended. There - a hand lay still and lifeless against the stone. Chris scrambled down a few more feet and groaned as he took in the sight of his friend.
Vin lay unconscious, his right leg bent crazily beneath him. Blood spattered his face and neck. Tanner's shirt was torn in several places and Chris saw blood seeping against the side of it. He peeled it back to see the ugly, raw wound along the ribcage.
Carefully Chris maneuvered himself next to Vin, balancing precariously on the ledge the agent had landed on after his fall. He held his breath as he checked for a pulse, closed his eyes in a prayer of thanks when he felt it. A hole just above Vin's right knee showed the entrance wound of the bullet, but there was no exit. White bone protruded just below the kneecap which pushed its way crazily against taught skin. Chris felt Vin's head and neck gingerly and pulled away bloody fingers.
Working quickly and carefully, Chris shed his coat and placed it over Vin. He took off his shirt and T-shirt, then put his shirt back on. Ripping a seam of the T-shirt, he created a longer bandage and tore it in two, one to wrap around Vin's head, the other around the bullet wound in his leg. He stared sickeningly at the leg. Should he straighten it, or leave it?
+ + + + + + +
"Your phone is ringing!" Nettie called to Nathan. He ran into the kitchen and flipped it open.
"Chris?" he asked anxiously.
"I've got Vin, Nate, he's hurt," Chris answered. "Prichett's dead - Vin got him."
Nettie eagerly watched Nate for any reaction to the news he was receiving. Jackson wore his game face, revealing nothing until he had the full report. He'd been here before. He motioned to her for pencil and paper.
"Vin fell -he's unconscious. He's been shot in the leg, just above the knee -entrance no exit. Leg's also broken underneath him. His head's bleeding, also his side - looks like an older wound, bullet scraped the skin. I've got a pressure wrap on his head and knee. There's bone sticking out under the kneecap. Do I straighten the leg or leave it?"
"Does the bullet wound look to be angling up into the thigh, down into the knee or straight on?" asked Nate, concentrating fiercely as he wrote.
"Okay. He's out? Let's move it now. We're going to be working hard to keep him from going into shock as it is. If you have to move it when he's conscious the pain would do him in for sure."
Nettie melted slowly onto a kitchen chair.
Chris took a deep breath and a firm hold of Vin's leg. With one hand he rolled Vin's body as gently as possible to take the pressure off the leg as he pulled it free with his other hand. He felt bone grate against bone as he straightened the limb, fighting back the nausea that roiled within him.
"Okay. God, don't ask me to do that again," he whispered.
"His head still bleeding?" Nate asked - and waited.
"No. The wound isn't too deep. But he's been out since he went down so I'm guessing he's got a helluva a concussion."
"Yeah," Nate agreed. "What's your ETA?"
Nate winced when he heard the frustrated sigh on the other end of the line.
"We're down about 30 feet from the edge of the cliff," Chris answered. "I can't get him out alone. And I'm not exactly sure where we are right now. I'm going to have to go up top, get my position and call it in to Ezra and Buck. Then we're going to need help getting him out of here."
"You want me to call the sheriff now? Get a chopper out there?" asked Nate.
"Wait until I get topside. I'll call you after I call Buck and Ezra. Dean will need coordinates and I'm in no position to give them to him right now," Chris answered.
"Alright Chris, I'll wait. Be careful - he needs you in one piece, right?" Nate reminded him.
"Back in a minute," Chris assured Jackson.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin?" Chris asked quietly, his hand on Tanner's shoulder. "I'm going up to the Jeep, but I'll be right back." He hated leaving him here, hated the thought of Vin waking up and not knowing Chris was there for him. Larabee reached into the pocket of the jacket covering Vin and took out his wallet.
"I'll be right back," he repeated.
+ + + + + + +
"He's alive," Nate said to the woman as he clicked off his phone.
"It's bad," she said. It wasn't a question.
"Chris is with him," Nathan told her, surprised at how much that fact alone kept him calm. "He'll call us in a few minutes and we'll get a chopper out to him. As long as Chris can keep him warm and calm, there's no reason to think Vin won't come out of this. None of his injuries is life threatening."
"What about the man who...what about that agent?" she asked.
"Dead," Nate answered her. "Chris says Vin got him."
She raised her quivering chin, fighting the tears that brimmed her eyes as she looked at Nathan with fearful pride.
"Bet it was a helluva shot."
+ + + + + + +
Chris pulled himself up over the edge of the cliff. The Jeep was just a few feet away and he ran to it, pulling the map from the glove compartment and spreading it out over the hood. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket - and stopped. Something was wrong. His heart was pounding from the climb and his anxiety over Vin. His shirt stuck to him, soaked with perspiration. He wiped the sweat that beaded on his forehead as he paused, trying to figure out what was gnawing at him - and then he had it. The engine wasn't running.
Spinning around, Chris put one foot in the Jeep and reached for the keys in the ignition. Keys that weren't there.
He turned in the direction he had last seen Prichett. But Prichett was dead. He'd seen him take the hit. He knew...nothing...until the pain that seared his left arm told him he'd been shot and the ground rushed up to meet him.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan checked his watch again. It'd been over half an hour since Chris had called. Jackson didn't want to tie up the phone calling Chris back when he may be finishing his conversation with Buck any minute and trying to reach Nathan. How long would it take Chris to climb back up to the ridge? To get his bearings? What if Chris had called Dean himself? His finger paused over the ON button, at war with his emotions. He nearly dropped the phone when it rang in his hand.
"Chris! Thank God," Nate practically shouted into the phone.
"Nate? It's Buck."
"Buck - where's Chris? Did he give you coordinates?"
"Coordinates? Why?" Buck asked, confused. "Did he call in?"
Nate felt his blood run cold.
"He didn't call you?"
"No. I haven't heard from him since we checked in about two hours ago. Why? Nate, what's going on?"
"Listen," Nathan said quickly, "Chris found Vin. He's hurt. Chris said Prichett was dead. He was going to call you when he figured out his coordinates, then call me back with instructions. That was almost an hour ago now. I'm hanging up and trying to call him back. If I don't get an answer, I'll call you right away."
Jackson didn't wait for a response. He punched the phone off, then on again and tapped in the speed dial to Chris' phone.
Please - please - please...
+ + + + + + +
"Nate? Nate! Damn it Jackson!" Buck shouted into the phone. He thumbed it off and pounded the steering wheel with his fist.
"What's happened?" Ezra asked anxiously.
"Hell if I know," Buck shouted back. "Nate said Chris called. Vin's hurt. Prichett's dead. He was going to call us with his location, then call Nate back. That was an hour ago."
Ezra pulled his cell phone and checked. It was receiving. He checked the battery -charged.
"Why did he hang up?" Ezra asked.
"He's going to try to call Chris. If he doesn't get an answer, he'll call us back," Buck explained.
Ezra looked at the stricken face of his partner and voiced the question that haunted them both.
"Why wouldn't he get an answer?"
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee awoke as the sun was reaching a late afternoon sky. He was cold. Slowly he sat up, pain shooting through his arm. He reached a hand around the wound and tried to clear his head. One thought slammed suddenly and violently into his head -Vin!
Dragging himself painfully to his feet, Chris looked around him. The Jeep was gone. So was his rifle.
Chris stumbled the few feet to where he had seen Prichett fall. There was nothing - no body, no blood. He pulled a bloody hand away from his arm and searched his pockets frantically and uselessly - the phone was gone.
+ + + + + + +
Vin woke slowly to blinding agony. His head felt as though it had been split in two, the pain matched only by that which radiated from his leg and throughout his whole body. He looked down at his hands and blinked in confusion. He was wrapped in something - a jacket -and a black object lay open on his chest. Vin crept one hand out from under the covers and reached for the object, turning it over in his hand to reveal a badge - an ID - a face. A faint smile stole across his face as he whispered - Chris.
+ + + + + + +
"Nate?" Buck shouted as he clicked the ringing phone on.
"No answer Buck."
"Shit," Buck swore, shaking his head at Ezra. The younger agent looked back at him - there was silence on the other end of the line. Well, hell, Buck here you go, he thought. This is what Chris gets to deal with every day. There's a whole heap of trouble, hardly any information and all of a sudden everyone's looking at you. He took a deep breath.
"Alright. Nate? This is what we do..."
+ + + + + + +
Chris sank to his knees, dazed, trying to think. How many more mistakes was he going to make before this was over? Always - ALWAYS -check to see if your man is down and disarm him. How many times had he yelled at J.D. for just that? But he'd been so focused on Vin. Vin! Now what? Prichett was still out here and Chris had no phone, no Jeep, no medical supplies, no gun...
Vin had a gun. It wasn't much, but so far it was the only plus on his side. Chris took out a handkerchief and removed his belt, using it to strap the cloth to his injured arm. The bullet had gone clean through. He lowered himself down the edge of the cliff and carefully made his way back to Vin. On the way he grabbed the rifle and inspected it carefully. The scope was shot, but it looked as though the rest of the gun was intact. Hopefully Vin had more ammunition on him.
He heard the weak whisper coming from a few feet below him and scrambled down quickly to kneel beside his friend.
"Hey Vin," he said as he checked over Tanner's wounds. The bleeding from his head and leg had stopped.
Vin's eyes went wide and he struggled to sit up, only to gasp as the pain from his head and leg flattened him. His eyes squeezed shut, he spoke through gritted teeth.
"He's after you - wearin' a flak jacket."
"Yeah, I know," he said. "He found me. And I blew it."
Vin opened his eyes slowly to stare at Larabee.
"How bad?" he asked, glancing at the blood that stained the cloth around Chris' arm.
"In and out. Hurts like hell, but I'm hardly in a position to swap war stories with you right now," Chris answered. "You got any more ammo for this?"
Vin squinted at the object Chris held in his hand.
"Aw, damn," he moaned as he took in the damage to his precious E-9.
"Vin? Ammo?" Chris prodded. "I hate to be pushy but I've managed to get us in one hell of a jam here."
Vin shifted painfully.
"I think I'm layin' on it," he said. "Hey - what are you doin' here? And who the hell is after you?"
"What I'm doing here is a shitty job of trying to rescue you. And who's after me is a long story."
Chris eased Vin up enough to slide the ammo bag out from under him. Vin tried to raise himself up enough to peer down at his throbbing leg, falling back into Chris' hands as he succumbed again to pain and nausea.
"It's a bad break. And you caught a bullet just above the knee," Chris told him.
Vin closed his eyes and swallowed.
"I think I got time for that story."
+ + + + + + +
Vin had faded in and out as Chris sketched out his past with Tom Prichett and ended with the dire circumstances they were now facing. The sun was edging its way slowly down the sky and a cool wind had picked up. Chris cursed himself for the thousandth time -he didn't even have a blanket, a canteen -
"Not even a damn granola bar," he muttered furiously.
Vin peeled open an eye to stare at Larabee.
"You about done beatin' yourself up over all this?" he asked. "Cause I gotta tell ya, it ain't doin' neither one of us a damn bit'a good."
"If Ezra or J.D. had pulled even one of the half-assed stunts I've accomplished today I'd have them suspended so they could sit home and think about it," said Chris.
"You wouldn't be up here at all if I hadn't bucked and ran," Vin told him.
"Yeah - and why'd that happen? Because I didn't cover your back with Administration."
"How would you do that, Chris? Falsify some documents? Lie? I'm the one who tried the end around. Been doin' it all my life. Just ask Nettie."
"Hell, the sun rises and sets on you with that woman," Chris smiled. "She'd no sooner say a bad word about you than cut off her own arm."
Vin's brow suddenly furrowed.
"You seen her? She alright?" he asked.
"She's fine. Nate's with her."
"Nate?" Vin asked. "He come too?"
"And Buck, and Ezra, for the fat lot of good it's doing us without a phone. They're working their way down the trail from the north. Right now everything's riding on Buck's hunting skills and good sense."
"You should be up top," Vin said. "Watchin' for 'em."
"I'm not leaving you down here unprotected," Chris argued. "Prichett's still out there, too, thanks to me. And my guess is he's not far away. He doesn't want us to get any help."
"Then you should be up there to warn Buck and Ezra," Vin countered again.
Chris looked out at the steadily setting sun. He'd thought about that. Vin was probably right. It was getting colder, darker, and Vin needed help. He had hoped Buck would've been here by now - that he would've heard the approaching Jeep. He couldn't leave Vin alone, but he felt sure Prichett was watching them, and he needed to warn Buck.
"You know you gotta go," Vin said, reading his thoughts.
"Damn it Vin, the whole reason for coming out here was to protect you from Prichett, bring you back to Denver."
"Prichett isn't going to come out this far in the open," Vin reasoned. "He'll hang back in the woods for better cover. Ezra and Buck come racin' up that trail he'll have 'em in his sites. You gotta go, Chris."
Larabee looked down at Vin. His face was streaked in dried blood, his color a sickly white. He could hardly bring himself to look at the mess of flesh and bone and blood that made up Vin's right leg.
"I'll go up there on one condition," he said finally. "When we get out of this, you're comin' back to Denver and takin' that test."
Vin managed a weak grin.
"I reckon if I don't want to end up a permanent part of the landscape here I'd better agree."
+ + + + + + +
Chris made his way back up to the ridge. It was a climb he was getting all too familiar with. He kept the E-9 strapped over his shoulder. As he slowly eased his way up to the top of the ridge, a shot rang out, flattening him back down against the rocks.
"Far enough, Larabee," came Prichett's voice from the trees to his left.
"What do you want, Tom?" Chris called out, easing the rifle off his shoulder.
"I figure that's obvious by now, Larabee. I'm gonna take all the time in the world to let you watch your precious sharpshooter die in agony - suffer the way I did when I found my John. Only difference is, I'll put you out of your misery then. A quick end for you and then me. Tanner's the only one who'll suffer. He'll die cursing your name."
"He's already dead, you son of a bitch," Chris shouted. "He died in my arms - cursing you, Prichett. Only you. It's between us now."
Chris waited in the silence. He hoped the years of poker with Ezra would pay off on the most important bluff of his life.
"He was never better than John," came an anguished cry from Prichett.
Bingo! thought Chris.
"He was the best," Chris answered violently, emotionally, playing the bluff for all it was worth. "I wouldn't have used John as a backup on a panty raid," he goaded.
"Shut up! Shut up!" Prichett screamed. He fired another round in Chris' direction, then ran out into the open. Larabee shifted his position for a better angle, flattening his back against the rocks while working for a view of the trail above him.
"Come on, Larabee. Stand up and do this. Face to face."
Chris froze as a familiar sound drummed its way up the bluff from around the end of the cliffs. Prichett wheeled as a helicopter rose up sharply along the cliff wall, its searchlight splitting the night. Chris scrambled to his feet and fired, clipping Prichett in the arm. He screamed and ran, the helicopter gliding in behind him sending dust and leaves dancing furiously about them.
Chris ejected the shell and loaded another into the chamber to fire on Prichett as the man ran into the woods to evade the chopper. Larabee pulled up his gun as he saw the bright lights of a Jeep crashing down the trail, heading straight into Prichett. Standish stood in the back, his rifle aimed at Prichett as Buck bore down on the fleeing man.
"Give it up! Give it up!" Chris shouted after Prichett.
The helicopter alighted on the edge of the cliff and Evan Dean jumped out, shotgun in hand. Ezra trained his site on Prichett as the man stopped and turned. Tom Prichett pulled his rifle around and aimed at Chris as bullets assailed him from in front and behind. Ezra's finger settled on the trigger again, his gun following Prichett down to the ground as Chris raced ahead and kicked his rifle free.
"Flak jacket!" he shouted to Ezra as the agent jumped from the jeep. Buck grabbed his gun and both men kept them trained on Prichett as Chris rolled him over. One side of Prichett's neck was gone, disintegrated by a shotgun blast.
Evan Dean reached the small gathering of men and looked down at his handiwork.
"Damn," he said, looking up at them. "Paperwork."
+ + + + + + +
For the third time Vin tried to pull himself up, hearing the gun shots, seeing the helicopter rise up from the outcropping on his left. He heard the shouting, the sound of the Jeep - Chris, Ezra, Buck.
"Hey Nate," he smiled tiredly as the concerned face of the medic suddenly appeared above him. "That you flying in?"
Nate scrambled down the rocks to get to Vin's side. He set up two halogen lanterns and pulled a stethoscope out of his bag. His eyes traveled quickly up and down Vin's battered frame.
"Buck told the Sheriff to pick me up on the way in," Nate explained.
"Shhhh," Nate admonished him, listening to Vin's shallow and labored breathing.
"Damn it, Vin, I have no idea why you ain't in shock or just plain dead, but if you'd shut up long enough to let me do my job I'll answer everything in a few minutes."
Nathan worked quickly and efficiently, his skillful hands moving rapidly across Vin's battered body causing him to flinch and moan as he probed the painful injuries.
"Nate, please," Vin said finally, his patience at its end. "Is Chris okay?"
"Ask him yourself," came a voice from above.
Vin looked up to see Larabee himself, a new, neat bandage around his arm.
"Chris! You okay? The guys? What happened to Prichett?"
"Sheriff Dean took Prichett out. Everyone else is fine, Vin. Let's just get you out of here now, alright?" Chris answered him. He handed Jackson a walkie-talkie.
"Dean's waiting on your word, Nate," he said.
"Sheriff?" Nate said into the walkie-talkie.
"Go ahead," came Dean's voice.
"I'm going to need a stokes and a medivac chopper as soon as you can arrange it," Nate told him.
"Chopper's already on its way. They'll have a stokes on board," said Dean.
"Here," Chris said, handing Nate a canteen. "It's just water."
Nathan took the canteen and helped Vin to sit up enough to drink.
"Damn, that's sweet," Vin said between gulps.
"Easy, now, don't overdo it," Jackson admonished him. He laid Vin back down and began to carefully remove the crude bandage Chris had wrapped around Vin's knee.
"Shit, Chris, this leg is a mess," Nate muttered to the team leader.
"Ain't you supposed to say stuff like without me hearin' it?" Vin asked, grimacing as Nathan used water from the canteen to soak away the cloth sticking to the wound.
"He's got a bad crack on the back of his head, too," Chris told the medic.
"Yeah, I noticed. The bleeding's stopped. There's not much I can do about that here other than change the bandage. This leg is going to have to get a soft splint before we move him." Nathan looked over Vin's head at Chris. The leader read volumes in the medic's eyes. So did Vin.
"How bad is it, Nate?" Vin asked.
"I don't know, Vin. It depends where the bullet ended up."
It was one word, but the tone of the voice begged the healer for the truth - for as much of the truth as Jackson owned.
"The kneecap is gone for sure, Vin. It'll have to be replaced - maybe the whole knee as well."
Vin swallowed hard and felt the heavy hand of his friend as he gripped his shoulder.
"But I'll keep the leg, right?" he asked in a fearful whisper.
"That's what I'm ready to believe right now, Vin," Nate told him. "I don't have the knowledge to say otherwise, so I'm going to believe it'll be alright."
"Sounds like a plan, Nate," Chris said confidently, pressing Vin's shoulder again.
Vin looked up at Chris, drawing on his strength and smiled, then shivered.
"Aw, hell, Vin, I'm sorry," Nate said scrambling behind him for several blankets. He put one under Vin's head and draped the other over the top half of his body, handing the coat back to Chris. "Better?"
Vin nodded as Nate opened up a bag and pulled out a soft splint and IV setup. Vin's eyes followed every movement the medic made as he prepared to place the splint on his leg.
"Best to just get it done, right Vin?" Chris asked.
"Get what done?" came another voice from behind Chris.
"Buck!" Vin said with a genuine smile. "And Ez!" he added as Standish made his appearance as well.
"Looks like a wait yet for that chopper. We figured you could use some company besides Smiley here and the doc," Buck said, nodding at Chris. "Sure is good to see you, Vin."
"I can't believe ya'll came out here," Vin said with wonder.
"Yes, well, we could have saved everyone involved this greater inconvenience by convincing you to remain in Denver to begin with," Ezra said. He glanced at Buck as the two of them watched Nathan lay the splint next to Vin's badly mangled knee.
"Hell, Ez, you know I..." he broke off into a strangled cry as Nathan prepared to lift his knee.
"Sorry, Vin, but it's got to be done," Nathan said. "Chris? Maybe if you and the guys gave me a hand we'd have a better chance of keeping his leg stable as we move the splint underneath it."
Ezra took Chris' place behind Vin, holding his shoulder and one of his hands, as Buck and Chris prepared to lift the leg. Nathan held the splint ready to maneuver it as quickly as possible.
"On three," Nate said. He nodded at Vin. "You ready?"
"Go," Vin said, gritting his teeth.
Chris and Buck lifted the leg as a cry escaped Vin's lips. Nate slid the splint in place and didn't stop moving until he had secured it.
Nate put the canteen to Vin's lips and he drank again, his forehead soaked in sweat from the ordeal.
Buck sat down on a rock and looked at Chris. He held his shaking hands out before him, his face white. Chris nodded his understanding. His stomach had rolled over twice as they held the leg in place - the look on Vin's face one of pure agony.
Ezra pulled out a handkerchief and soaked it with water, then wiped down Vin's face.
"Thanks, Ez," Vin murmured.
A burst of static startled them all as the walkie-talkie came to life.
"Chopper ETA is five minutes or less," came Evan Dean's voice. "How's your man?"
"Less is better, Sheriff," Nathan answered. He glanced worriedly at Chris, then back at Vin who was slipping out of consciousness.
"He's going into shock. The leg is pretty bad and he was as close to dehydrating as he could get without having his system shut down completely. I've started an IV. We need to get him on that medivac and into a hospital as soon as possible." Nathan clicked off the walkie-talkie.
"Shit, Nate, can't you give him something for the pain?" Buck asked, his hand slick with sweat in Vin's grip.
"Don't you think I'd do that if I could?" Nate asked tersely. "He's got a concussion, Buck, you can't..."
"Easy, easy," Chris said. "Buck knows you're doing everything you can, Nate. We all do. We're just tired, worried and a little strung out right now."
"Yeah, well, sitting back there in that cabin while you three are racing around doing something -trying to keep Nettie's hopes up when I'm thinking myself that...hell, it's hard on the nerves, too," Nathan finished.
"Gentlemen, help has arrived," Ezra said as he heard the stutter of helicopter blades against the dark sky. The searchlight found them quickly and set down next to the helicopter that had brought in Nate and Dean.
"Buck," Chris said.
Wilmington nodded and made his way quickly up the side of the mountain to meet them.
It took only fifteen minutes for the medivac crew to get a stokes down to Vin, but to Nate and the others it seemed an eternity. Vin was completely unconscious now, his breathing rapid and shallow, shock having set in completely. With the help of the sheriff's deputies, the team pulled Vin Tanner up the side of the mountain and loaded him into the chopper.
"Nate and I are with Vin," Chris shouted above the whir of the chopper blades. "Get the Jeeps..."
"Sorry Sir," one of the medivac paramedics interrupted. "There's only room for one of you in here. Who'll it be? We need to get going now."
"Chris, your arm, you could..." Nate began.
"No," Chris said, obviously torn by the decision. "You're the doc - they may need to talk to you. You go with him. I'm fine. I'll follow behind with the boys."
"Now, gentlemen," the paramedic urged, holding the side door open as his partner began to run a strip for doctors at Mercy General.
"Go," Chris said with a slight shove to Nathan's shoulder.
"Nettie," Nate called over his shoulder as he climbed aboard the chopper.
"Done," Chris acknowledged with a nod. He shielded his eyes as the chopper rose in the night, its running lights and beacon casting eerie shadows of the men who watched its ascent. Larabee followed the lights as long as he could, until the chopper swung around the outcropping from which their rescue had appeared just hours before.
"He'll be fine, Chris," Buck said, watching his friend with concern.
Larabee wiped a hand across his face. Buck watched as the concern melted from his face to be replaced by the leader's countenance he knew so well.
"Sheriff?" Chris called to Dean. "We've made a mess of your backyard. How can we help you clean it up?"
Evan Dean spoke quickly to his men who were working on the crime scene. He turned on his heel and walked back to where Chris, Ezra and Buck stood waiting.
"Found our other Jeep just a half-mile down the road there," Dean said. I'll have one of my men drive it back. We'll take Prichett with us in the chopper. You boys able to make it back together in the other Jeep?"
"No problem, Sheriff," Chris acknowledged. "We've got your card. We'll meet you at the station to start on the paperwork."
Dean looked at Chris, at the tired and concerned faces of the other two men in his command.
"I'll tell you what, Mr. Larabee. I got a top citizen of my little corner of the world, and a very dear friend, waiting back at her place worryin' on that boy. I'd count it as a personal favor to me if you'd stop by and put her mind to ease on this situation." Dean stopped to sign off on a crime scene report for one of his men, then handed the clipboard back to the deputy and returned his attention to Chris.
"Then I'd be much obliged if you'd head to Mercy - I'll give you that address - and check on this agent who got himself shot in my backyard. I'll need a medical report on him, I expect, so you might just spend the night there to be sure I get everything I need."
"Sheriff, we..." Chris began.
"I'm talkin' yet, Mr. Larabee," Dean said, putting his hand before him to stop Chris from continuing.
"Then come sometime tomorrow afternoon, maybe you or one of your men here could come in and put their John Hancock on the report I put together for my boss and our mortician. Take maybe ten minutes or so. And then," he said, brushing his hair back with his hand as he put on his hat, "we can talk about what exactly we're going to say to the brass you got waitin' for you in Denver."
Chris swallowed hard and shook his head once. He looked over at Dean's deputies who had paused in their work and stood watching the exchange between the two men, the pride and dedication to their leader evident.
"You know, Sheriff," Chris said, "If things ever get too hot in Denver, I think I just might come out here and see if I can sign on with you. Looks to me you'd be a good man to work for."
Dean smiled and shook his head.
"I don't know, Mr. Larabee. There's a sayin' about havin' too many roosters in the hen house, you know," Dean glanced at Buck and Ezra, saw the concern for Vin, the loyalty to Chris evident in their eyes as well. "Looks to me like bein' a leader's in your blood, too. Be best we each just stick to our own coop."
Larabee smiled, his concern for Vin robbing him yet of easy laughter.
"You may be right, Sheriff," Chris said, extending his hand. "I do thank you for bringing in the cavalry. John Wayne couldn't have timed it better."
"See to your man, Mr. Larabee," Dean smiled. He flicked the brim of his hat to the others and turned back to the crime scene. Two of the deputies walked off towards the Jeep Chris had been driving.
"Mr. Larabee? Shall we?" Ezra said, motioning Chris to their Jeep. Buck was already sitting behind the wheel and gunned the engine to life.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan Jackson was sitting in a waiting room at Mercy General. He stared down at the cup of coffee in his hands and thought how they were all alike. Downtown Denver or middle-of-nowhere New Mexico, the hospital waiting rooms, the coffee, the chairs, they were all alike - and sitting in them hurt like hell.
He knew little more than he had on the side of the Capitan Mountains. The doctors had confirmed a concussion, dehydration, and shock. An orthopedic surgeon had been called in to consult on Vin's knee. Nathan took a sip of the coffee and winced, remembering the look on the man's face as he examined the damage. There was no need for a medical degree to read the meaning of the look that passed between the surgeon and the attending physician. Whatever the final outcome, the road back was going to be a long and painful one for Vin.
Jackson looked up as he heard the doors open and watched as Chris, Buck and Ezra entered.
"You get that arm looked at?" Nathan asked as Chris approached.
"As soon as you tell us what's going on," Chris answered.
"He's dehydrated, in shock, with a concussion," Nate reported.
"The knee?" Buck asked, taking the burden from Chris.
"Don't give me that crap, Nate," Chris said angrily. "I'm tired, sore, and sick of worrying. What did they say? Is Vin going to be alright?"
"They didn't say anything, Chris," Nate shot back, his exhaustion and frustration finally getting the best of him. "Not a single damn word. You want specifics? You'll have to wait just like everyone else. You want me to tell you what was in their eyes? What I read on the face of that orthopedic surgeon they called in? 'Cause that I can tell you. I read it plain as day. It's a mess, Chris. You want the medical term? It's an unholy mess. And whether they save the knee or have to replace it entirely, it's going to mean a long, hard, painful walk back to the Vin we knew before this. And before you ask me for some assurance that he'll work in Denver again, let me tell you I don't know that, either. It was going to be hard enough just getting him to face that damn review board - take those written tests he's so afraid of. Now he'll have to pass a physical, too. So don't come to me lookin' for reassurance and absolutes, Chris. I'm plumb out."
"Alright, Nate, Chris," Buck said. "Let's all just sit down and take it easy. Ain't one of us that's not beaten down tired and full of worry about this. We need to think through what needs to be done to help, not hinder. Miss Wells is gonna want to come down tomorrow. I'll get a room reserved for her, and us. We're gonna need a place to stay until things are worked out. Then there's J.D. and Josiah. Ezra, why don't you call them, bring them up to speed. Chris, you need to talk to Travis."
"First Ezra, now you. I don't remember relinquishing command," Chris said, irritated.
"Aw hell, Chris, just shut up, okay?" Buck said shaking his head. "You're tired, hurt, and worried sick about Vin. We all are. You ain't been thinkin' clearly since Travis walked in with that damn order for a qualifying exam. What Dean said is true. You're a born leader. And part of being a good leader is knowin' when to rely on the strengths of the team you've built. Right now you've got your head so full of guilt and worry you're bitin' off the heads of the very people you need to lean on. So cut it out already. You don't have a corner on guilt and you ain't the only one here who cares about that kid. You best be figurin' that out pretty quick before I forget I don't just work for you, I'm your friend, too."
"Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra asked.
"What, Ez?" Buck said, his eyes still riveted on Chris.
"The phone is ringing," Ezra answered.
"What phone?" Buck asked, shaking his head and turning to stare at Standish.
"Your phone. Or rather, Mr. Dunne's phone. The phone at your home," Ezra said, holding his cell phone out to Buck.
Buck stared at him.
"You said to call..." Ezra said with a shrug as Buck took the phone from him.
"Damn," Chris said, grateful for the interruption of Buck's justifiable diatribe, "you never follow my orders that fast."
"Mr. Wilmington's directive to call our associates was unequivocal," Ezra explained.
"And just what the hell's equivocall about my telling you to get to work on time?" Chris wanted to know.
"I must admit my actions tend to be somewhat colored by personal interest at times."
"Not all times, Ezra," Nate said with a smile, "Just early morning times."
"J.D.?" said Buck into the cell phone.
"Damn, Buck it's 2 a.m.! What's...Vin! Did you find him? Is he alright? What about Prichett? D'ya call Josiah? Should I?"
The men standing in the Mercy General waiting room smiled as the exuberant voice of their youngest spilled out of the phone Buck was holding away from his ear in self-defense.
Buck smiled at them and then put a hand over his ear and walked to a corner of the room to fill his friend in with the details.
Chris, Ezra and Nate sat at one of the tables to continue their vigil.
"What are we going to do to convince Vin to take those tests, Chris?" Nate asked quietly.
Chris looked at Ezra who turned away from his gaze. He continued staring at Standish.
"Whatever it takes, Nate," he said, not taking his eyes off Ezra. "Right, Ez?" he asked.
Ezra turned back to look at Chris.
"Mr. Tanner is my friend. I will do whatever is within my power to convince him to remain with us, where he belongs. I will do whatever I can to assist him in preparing for this academic farce with which he has been presented. However," he said to Chris, "the decision remains his to make. And whomever he chooses to confide in with a request for that assistance, is his decision as well. I trust that is something we can agree to unequivocally, Mr. Larabee?"
+ + + + + + +
All four men looked up as a doctor entered the room, clipboard in hand, reading the name of his patient off the top of the chart.
"Yes," Chris answered, rising. Buck finished his conversation with J.D. quickly and joined the others as they gathered around the physician.
"I'm Dr. Richards, head of orthopedic surgery," he told them, shaking hands.
"Chris Larabee," Chris said. "Buck, Ezra, and this is Nathan Jackson," he said, introducing his men and his medic.
"We've met," Richards said, shaking hands and nodding as he came to Nathan.
"Mr. Tanner is recovering nicely," Richards said, motioning to the chairs for all of them to be seated.
"The attending is Dr. Paris. He asked me to speak with you because basically, aside from maintaining Mr. Tanner's care, his job is done."
"And yours is just starting," Nate said.
"No, at this point, my job is done, too," he said, noting the confusion on their faces. "I've cleaned and packed the wound," he told them. He put his clipboard down and leaned forward, his arms on the table.
"It's never easy to admit your limits," Dr. Richards said. "Especially in this profession. It takes a good doctor to admit when a case is beyond his ability to assure the best possible outcome. I like to think of myself as a good doctor."
"You're referring him," Nate concluded.
"You're originally from the Denver area?" he asked.
"Yes," Chris answered. "There's someone there you'd recommend?"
"You've got a great orthopedic clinic there with one of the best surgeons in the country - Adrian Matthews. I've spoken with him already and he's agreed to accept Mr. Tanner as his patient. He's top-notch, Mr. Larabee." Richards shifted uneasily in his chair.
"And he only takes cases that will teach him something," Nathan said, watching for Richards' reaction. "Cases that will be a challenge. Right?"
"Are you a psychiatrist or a medical doctor, Mr. Jackson?" Richards asked with a wry smile.
"I'm just a field medic, doctor," Nate said. "But I've been around these guys long enough to read between the lines of a tough diagnosis."
Dr. Richards nodded again.
"We'll fly him to Denver. The knee has been packed open according to Dr. Matthews' instructions. He'll be removing the bullet and making any further decisions about Mr. Tanner's recovery. They'll take him tomorrow morning."
"That late?" Buck asked. "Why not today?"
"Dr. Paris would like to keep him still for 24 hours following that head injury, make sure the fluids are getting into him, that he's processing everything internally."
"Wants to be sure he pees first, right?" Wilmington asked.
"Tact, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said with a withering glance.
"Hey, I've been in these waiting rooms a lot too, you know. I know what they all look for."
"Your medical acuity is duly noted. As is your subtly - or lack thereof," Ezra said.
"Guys?" Chris said, understanding the need to break the tension they'd been living with for the past few hours, but anxious to get back to the details.
"When can we see him?" Larabee asked.
"First we'll have Dr. Paris take a look at your arm," Richards said. "I'll see if I can rustle up a room for all of you to wash up in."
"We'd like to see Vin first," Chris answered.
"Those weren't suggestions, Mr. Larabee," Richards said. Buck, Ezra and Nate watched with satisfaction as their leader was drilled by the physician.
"By the time you're all ready, he'll be ready to see you. It's my medical opinion that the two stages of readiness will coincide beautifully."
"You've been talking to him, haven't you?" Chris said of the doctor's vocabulary, jerking his thumb at Standish.
"Never met the man," Dr. Richards said as he stood, smiling at what was obviously an inside joke with the men before him.
"Yeah," Chris sighed longingly. "What's that like?"
Nathan laughed, relishing the release.
"Where do we take him, doctor?" he asked, his hand on Chris' shoulder.
"Room 115. I'll call Dr. Paris," Richards answered as he left the room.
Chris watched the doctor walk away and turned back to his men.
"He'll be okay, Chris," Buck said, assuring his friend again. "Whatever happens, he's got us to lean on now."
Chris nodded, grateful for the support he knew was his in this company.
"I'll be sure to remind him to take advantage of that."