by LT and Niteowl

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7


"Gently, boy. Gently..."

...he heard the paramedic say to his partner as they loaded the broken, barely alive body of Buck Wilmington into the ambulance. As the doors closed and they sped away, he saw the deputies walking toward him. He felt someone next to him and he turned, looking into angry and disbelieving blue eyes.

"Don't you remember anything?" Vin asked.

He started to speak, then slowly shook his head. He rubbed his hands on his jeans, trying to get the blood off - there was so much blood!

The deputy took his arm, snapping the handcuff on. "Chris Larabee, you're under arrest. You have the right to remain silent..."

+ + + + + + +

A sudden hush fell over the police station as the deputy opened the door and guided Chris Larabee through the back hallway and into the processing room. Chris could feel the eyes, the glares of fellow law enforcement personnel as he and Deputy Phil Moran made their way down the hall. He tried to stand tall; his mask of indifference in place, but his heart had been crushed by a child's question. "Why, Chris? Why did you hurt Buck?" He sagged noticeably when the door shut and once again he was alone with the deputy.

"You know your rights and you don't have to say anything until you get an attorney. Right now, I'm going to print you and then take your picture. I have to get your full name and address for our arrest form." Phil sat down behind the desk and pulled out a set of arrest forms. "Chris, sit down."

Chris stood, staring at his jeans and the dark stains that covered them. He made no move to sit opposite the deputy. He tried to touch the largest of the stains but with his hands cuffed behind his back, he couldn't reach it. "I need to get to the hospital. Somebody needs to be there with him when he wakes up." He never lifted his head, even as Phil made his way around the desk to come up behind the distraught man. The handcuffs fell away and then a hand pushed down on his shoulder, and reluctantly he sat.

"You're not going anywhere for a while, Chris. You want to call the Judge or Josiah or one of the others? Maybe they can go to the hospital." Phil Moran had known Chris and Buck for over fifteen years. He had worked with them on the Denver Police Department, had gone to parties with them, toasted lost comrades with them. He had never imagined that he would be sitting here processing a legendary man in the Denver law enforcement community for the attempted murder of his closest friend.

"What would I say?" The green eyes were dead, the voice mechanical as Chris looked up finally. "Do you know where the boys are, Phil?"

Phil shook his head. "I'm not sure, Chris. I'll find out for you, though. Would you like me to call Josiah?" A small nod was his answer. Phil got up and left the room. He was sure the thin blond wouldn't be going anywhere with half of the force on pins and needles wondering what in the world had happened out at the Larabee ranch this morning. Moran got out his personal phone book and dialed the big man who had become a good friend. "Josiah, it's Phil. Yeah, I know it's been a while. I'm calling on behalf of Chris. God, Josiah, I don't know how to begin. Chris is here at the station with me. He's under arrest for battery and attempted murder. Josiah, let me finish, okay? The paramedics took Buck to Four Corners Mercy; he's bad off, Josiah. You need to call the others and get down there. Maybe one of you could stop by later and I'll fill you in. For now, Buck needs you guys more than Chris does. No, I offered to let him make this call but he's out of it. I have no idea what happened to make him do such a thing, but the way it looks, he took a baseball bat and beat Buck to a pulp. I know, pal, I can't believe it either, but there was no one else there. Yeah, call me when you find out how he is, okay? Sorry about all this, Josiah."

He returned to the processing room to find Chris had his head down on his folded arms, resting on the desk. Phil could see the blood in the blond hair, a big goose egg on the back of Larabee's head. "You should let me take you to a doctor, Chris. You might have a concussion. You definitely shouldn't say anything until we know you're in you're right mind."

"Forget me, Phil. Let's get this over with." Chris raised up and leaned back in his chair. "Did you get a hold of Josiah?"

"Yeah, I did. He'll contact Ezra and Nathan. If you're sure you don't want a doctor, let's get the paperwork out of the way." For the next hour, they filled out forms, got a set of fingerprints made and finished with the mug shots. Phil took Chris to an interrogation room. "Sgt. Rompala will be in shortly. Do you want some water or coffee?"

Chris shook his head. He wanted this over. He wanted to get to the hospital where his best friend lay dying. He wanted his boys with him so he could comfort them. God, they must be scared out of their minds, especially JD. They had both seen the blood, the broken body. Tears streaked down his face, his shoulders trembling with silent sobs. Finally he took a deep breath and looked over at the other man. "I just want to know the boys are okay."

"I'll go find out where Vin and JD are," the deputy offered. "Try to collect yourself. This won't be easy."

Phil left the room and Chris was alone with the vision of Buck Wilmington, lying on the dirt floor of the barn, his broken arms partially covering his face. Blood pooled beneath him as well as soaked his shirt and jeans. A large cut from the bat striking his forehead had still been bleeding profusely when the paramedics got there. Chris wondered who had called the sheriff's department. Had Vin done that?

The door opened quietly and Sgt. Peter Rompala stepped in. He had met the leader of ATF Team 7 numerous times. He had great respect for all the members of the team but Larabee always seemed so on top of everything. How had this happened?

"Chris, do you want an attorney?" he inquired before asking about the assault.

"No." Chris stared at his hands as they lay on the table. He couldn't remember what had happened, so he wasn't going to confess to anything. "I don't know what happened, Pete. I woke up and Buck was lying there. That's all I know about this morning."

"Deputy Moran says you have a big lump on the back of your head. Were you unconscious for any length of time?" Pete sat opposite Chris and took out a pad of paper. He needed to take very careful notes today. "Can I tape our conversation?"

"Yes. And I don't know how long I was out of it. I don't know how I got hit on the head. I don't know what the hell went on in that barn." His voice rose as he shook with adrenaline. "All I know is that my best friend got beat with a bat, my son's bat, and I was the only one there with him! I need to be at the hospital with Buck, not here, GODDAMNIT!"

"Chris, calm down. This won't get us anywhere." He waited patiently while the distraught man across from him composed himself. It took several minutes. "Now, state your name for the record please."

"Christopher Larabee. My birth date is October 4, 1965. I am a Special Agent in Charge for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, in Denver, Colorado. What else do you need to know?" Chris spoke with no emotion in his voice. He was numb. He couldn't believe any of this was happening.

"What do you remember about this morning, about the attempted murder of Buck Wilmington?"

"I don't remember anything. I remember last night, going to bed, but nothing about today until I woke up to find my best friend lying in a pool of his own blood, a bloody bat beside him. I crawled over to where he was and threw the bat away. I put my head down by his chest, looking for a heartbeat. I could hear a bubbly breath and figured he was choking on blood, so I lifted his shoulders and head a bit. His arms fell to his side. I could tell one of them was broken. The barn door opened and our boys stood there, stunned. They disappeared but I stayed with Buck, trying to keep him breathing. The boys came back and JD was crying and screaming. Vin kept asking me what happened. There was nothing I could do or say that would make it better for them, so I just hung on to Buck. I don't know how long it was, but I heard sirens, then footsteps, then two paramedics were taking Buck away. F-K! Why can't I remember anything?!"

"The victim, Buck Wilmington, lives with you and the two small boys in your foster care, is that correct?" The balding veteran officer asked in an even tone. This was an official interrogation, one that could be used in a court of law.

"Yes, he's lived with me for about ten months, since Vin and JD came to live with us. They're orphans we are trying to adopt. We get along great, he's my best friend."

"So, the two of you haven't been arguing? Everything was cool between the two of you?" He had interviewed the seven-year-old boy, Vin Tanner. The boy had been terribly shaken by the whole ordeal but he had imparted some information to the sergeant.

Chris was suddenly quiet. His head dropped, his chin rested on his chest. When it came up, a look of fear and anguish was front and center in his eyes. "We had words both Thursday night and last night, but we sat down and worked it out late last night. Did one of the boys say something to you?" He suddenly felt fear like he hadn't known since the death of his wife and son. Had he and Buck pushed both boys away from them permanently with their outbursts?

"I talked to the older boy just briefly. He said he didn't know what happened today but he did say you two were arguing last night. He said that he and the younger one locked themselves in their room because the two of you were fighting." The sergeant waited for Chris's explanation.

"It started Thursday..."

It was just after two o'clock and Ezra was set to meet with Joey Cueves. The man was a major player in the Denver area. He regularly sold unlicensed cigarettes and alcohol to the seedier bars in and around town. Ezra had been working this bust for two months and Thursday was the day they were going to take him down. Ezra gave Cuevas the money, but the over-ambitious criminal was reneging on the alcohol. He ordered one of his henchmen to kill Ezra and that's when the lead started to fly.

Cueves himself ducked down and made his way between cars to the back of the warehouse. Chris spotted him and followed. He didn't see Buck coming up the other side. As Chris came out from between two of the cars parked inside, a two by four came crashing into his side. While not injuring him, it did knock him off his feet, his handgun spinning away underneath one of the vehicles. Joey had the drop on him.

Pointing his silver-plated .44 magnum at Chris's head, the criminal grinned wickedly. He was enjoying the glare that Chris was shooting in his direction. Out of the blue, a voice boomed out.

"Cueves, you puke ass sonofabitch!"

Chris recognized the voice as Buck's, but the reason didn't fully make itself clear until Joey turned his head and then brought his gun around towards Buck. The two shots were almost simultaneous. Chris saw Cueves fall out of the corner of his eye. His line of sight was on his oldest and best friend. He watched in horror as Buck was thrown backwards by the force of the bullet hitting him squarely in the chest.

"Buck!!!" Larabee called out as he rushed to the big agent's side. Within seconds, Nathan was also by the injured man's side, taking his pulse and looking in his eyes. It didn't take long for Buck to open his eyes and look straight at Chris.

"You... okay?" The voice was a shaky version of the agent's normal intonation. All the leader of Team 7 could do was nod. Fear had stolen his voice.

"The vest and breast plate stopped the bullet, Buck, but you're sure gonna have a bruise. You lay still until the ambulance gets here." Nathan patted the downed man's shoulder and smiled at him.

"I don't need an ambulance, Nate! Just get me up!" Buck started to rise, but the severe pain the movement caused made him think twice. "Ah hell, guess I'll just lie here and let the rest of you wrap this up. Did I get the bastard?"

"You stupid sonofabitch. Yeah, ya got him, but what kind of a stunt was that? Ya couldn't just shoot him?" Chris grabbed Buck's arm, squeezing hard to get the man's attention. Fear was still plainly visible in the green eyes.

"If I'd'a fired, his finger could'a jerked and he would still of got you in the head. Chill, Chris, it worked out. I ain't even hardly injured." He winced in pain, but tried his best to hide it from his boss.

"Yeah, right. Ezra, can you handle the paperwork and tell the police to catch me at the hospital? I'll ride in with Buck." He still had his hand on the wounded man's arm, but his grip had loosened. He looked down at his friend and saw the relieved look on his face. "I'll call Gloria as soon as we get to the hospital, see if she can stay with the boys until we get home." A smile and a nod from Ezra acknowledged his statement.

After spending several hours at the hospital, where he was poked, prodded, x-rayed and tested, Buck was released. A huge, dark bruise had already appeared on his chest, but the doctor declared that his heart had not been affected. She had given the ladies man a shot to dull the pain, which made Buck drowsy and pretty much out of it. Chris had also picked up a prescription of painkillers at the hospital pharmacy. The ladies man had been instructed to take it easy for a few days, as the pain would probably be severe if he tried to push himself. Chris, after glaring the big man into silence, had guaranteed that his friend would stay at home, in bed, until at least Monday.

Buck dozed most of the way home. As Chris pulled into the carport beside Gloria's old Buick, the lights came on over the back deck. Two small boys and a middle-aged woman came out to watch as Chris helped Buck out of the Ram. Buck was walking bent over, as it hurt to stand straight. His arm was over his slightly shorter friend's shoulder, although he wasn't leaning heavily on it.

"Da, what happened?" The small boy, who had obviously been crying, ran full tilt at his foster father. Chris put out a protective arm and the boy came to a skidding halt. "You okay, Da?"

"Just fine, Little Bit. Why don't we go back in the house and let Mrs. Potter get home." He was tired and wanted nothing more than to get in bed, but the boys were his first concern as always. He tried to stand up straighter and he took his arm off of Chris's shoulder but the pain that movement caused made him flinch. JD didn't see it, but Vin did.

"Buck, can I help ya inside?" The seven-year-old moved to walk beside the mustached man. He looked up and blue eyes met blue eyes.

Buck smiled in spite of the pain. "Yeah, you can help me up the steps, Junior. Were you boys good for Mrs. Potter?" Buck put his hand on the slender shoulder and put just enough weight on it to show the boy he was a welcome aid in climbing the four steps to the deck.

Behind them, Gloria turned questioning eyes to Chris. "Is he truly all right?" She had tried to hide her fear for the man she adored like a son, although he was only a few years younger than she, since Chris called and asked her to stay until they got home. He had implied that Buck had been injured, but she didn't know to what extent. She had no desire to pass her worry on to the two orphaned boys she cared for and loved like her own.

"He will be in a couple of days but tonight, he's hurtin'. Thanks for staying, Gloria, we really appreciate it." Chris gave her waist a gentle squeeze that told her he had been very worried also.

Once inside, Gloria gathered her things and bid them all a good night. She placed a tender kiss on Buck's cheek and received a genuine Wilmington smile in return. She left the four males and headed home.

"Boys, Buck needs to get in bed before he falls asleep standing here in the middle of the kitchen. Why don't you two go pop in a movie and I'll be down in a few minutes, okay?" Chris and Buck had agreed that their two foster sons didn't need to hear that Buck had been shot. They were going to tell them that Buck had had an accident and that he would be fine in a couple of days. Both boys were already leery of their fathers' jobs with the ATF. Their Uncle Ezra had already been shot and almost killed, making the two cling to their fathers' side whenever they heard of a bust going down.

Vin looked at Chris with a combination of fear and determination. Slowly, he nodded and took a squirming JD by the hand. He pulled the younger boy with him as he tried to leave the room.

"I wanna know what happened! How'd ya get hurt, Da? Are ya gonna be okay? How come you're so tired? Did ya have to go see the doct'r? Did he give ya a shot? Was it in the arm or the butt, Da?" JD asked in rapid-fire succession.

The curious child was persistent, but the older boy was determined to obey his father. "JD, be quiet! Good night, Buck." Vin yanked and both boys were out of the room.

The two men could hear JD's "Night Da!" and they grinned.

Chris offered his shoulder and the tall man accepted. They made their way up the stairs and down the hall to Buck's bedroom. The dark haired man fell ungraciously onto the bed with a grunt and a sigh. He was sure that by the morning he would be feeling much better, but Chris doubted it. The blond bent down to help Buck with his boots. Neither one heard the small five-year-old enter the room. Buck unbuttoned his shirt and tugged it off, revealing the black bruise on his chest.

"Jeez, Da, what did you do?"

Both men turned to see two wide-eyed boys standing just inside the room. Chris stood to shoo the boys out of the room but it was too late. From behind him he heard Buck's tired voice.

"I got shot, Little Bit." Whatever else Buck said went unheeded as both boys turned deathly white and Chris turned red with umbrage. Turning back to his friend, Chris shot him a glare that shut the man up instantly. Buck realized what he had casually blurted out and felt the size of an ant, but he was unable to come up with any words that would take away the damage that had already been done. His head dropped and he closed his eyes against the pain in the blue and brown eyes that stared in shock at him.

"You stupid idiot, what the hell did you say that for? Boys, go to your room!" Fear, anxiety, and agony over Buck's injury came flooding out as anger. He approached the bed, his hands clenched in fists, ready to beat some sense into the younger man. "I told you not to tell them that. I told you to never do that again. Are you trying to get yourself killed? Is that it? Huh, Buck, is that what you're trying to do? Or are you addicted to the adrenaline rush of a gunfight? You like being in the line of fire? I can't believe you acted so stupidly today!"

Buck's head snapped up and angry eyes blazed back at Chris. "STUPID! I saved your sorry ass and this is the thanks I get? You're the one who went after Cuevas by himself, you're the one that got caught with his britches down. What would we have done if you had died, huh?" He stood and took a step towards the irate blond. The pain shot through his chest and suddenly, he couldn't breathe. He grabbed his chest and gasped for air. His knees buckled and down he went to the carpet.

Chris flew to Buck's side, as did the two little ones who had never left the room. Six hands reached to help the big man back into bed. When he was back in bed, Chris moved to get a pain pill while the boys hovered by the man's bedside.

"Don't die, Da, please, don't die!" JD implored frantically. He leaned into the man he loved above all others, throwing his small arms around Buck's neck. Vin stood next to the bed, where he couldn't help but notice Buck's strong hand clenched tightly as he fought the wave of pain.

Gathering his breath, Buck tried to console the two orphans. "I'm alright, JD. It's just a bruise. I had my vest on and it stopped the bullet. It's just a bruise, I'll be fine in a couple of days, you'll see."

"Did you try to get shot, Buck?" Vin asked quietly, having picked up on his father's vocabulary. Hurt and anxiety were clearly visible in the sky blue eyes.

"Oh God, no, Junior, I would never do that! I just didn't want the bad guy to hurt Chris, okay? Chris knows that. He didn't mean it, honest." He reached out and rubbed a gentle hand up and down JD's back. "I love you guys and I plan on being around for a long time, I swear."

Chris stood back and watched the scene in front of him. He had scared JD and Vin much more than the sight of the bruise had done. He had let the worry of the day cloud his thinking and the boys were paying for it. "Vin, JD, let's give Buck some space, huh? He needs some sleep, he'll be better tomorrow. Here, pard, take this, I'll take care of them." He handed Buck the pill and a glass of water, which his friend took gratefully.

Chris steered the boys to their bedroom where he tried his best to comfort them. He knew that they were scared, both because Buck had been shot and because the two of them were fighting. The two boys didn't need either fright. He let them climb into JD's lower bunk and he sat with them until they eventually fell asleep. Neither had said a word but Chris clearly saw how they clung to each other.

The next morning, Chris tried for normalcy. He fed the boys breakfast and then took them to school. He explained to both teachers that Buck had been shot the night before and that the boys, JD especially, might be distracted that day. He gave each of them a hug and promised he would see them for supper.

He arrived at work about an hour late, but he didn't care. The others were there and his mind was still back in Buck's bedroom where the fight had taken place. He decided not to call until after lunch, not wanting Buck to think he was checking up on him. Around one-thirty, he called home and Mrs. Potter answered. "Hi, Gloria. How's Buck doing?"

"Buck? He's not here, Chris. I thought he had convinced you he was okay and had gone to work." Gloria knew trouble was brewing. She could almost hear the glare that Chris was shooting at the telephone. "Look, why don't I check outside, maybe in the barn. I'll call you back in just a few minutes, okay?"

The silence was deafening. Finally, the man on the other end of the phone gave in. "Yeah, okay. Thanks, Gloria."

Gloria found Buck in the barn, contentedly working on some of the leather goods. He smiled at her as she came inside. "How are you feeling today, Buck? You aren't pushing yourself too much, are you?"

"Nah, just reworking some of the bridles and saddles. Mostly just putting some saddle soap on them. And how are you this fine day?" He grinned up at her from the bale of hay he was sitting on as he worked.

"Why, Buck, I'm just fine. I'll leave you to your work. I'm baking cookies, would you like some?" She would call Chris when she got back to the house. There was no sense getting this man riled up too.

"You bet. I'll be up in another fifteen minutes. You can take off any time you want today, Gloria. I can handle the boys when they get home." He went back to work on the last bridle.

Gloria shook her head and made her way back up to the house and called the ATF office. As calmly as possible she told the Special Agent in Charge that his friend had been out in the barn doing some tedious but not hard work. The silence that followed told Gloria all she needed to know. Buck was hurt more than he was letting on. Chris suggested that she try to get him to take a pain pill and rest before the boys got home and she agreed.

The later the afternoon got, the quieter Larabee became. Both Ezra and Nathan had noticed and had tried to talk to their boss about what was upsetting him, but to no avail. The man seemed to be on the edge of boil and there was no apparent reason.

The more Chris thought about Buck out in the barn doing manual labor, the madder he got. The man had almost been killed the night before and Chris could not get over the fact that his best friend had been shot because he himself had been careless. The guilt and worry ate away at him like piranhas on a feeding frenzy. He never for an instant considered that Buck was a grown man and that, when left alone, would never do something that he knew he couldn't handle. He left that evening with three worried agents watching him on tenterhooks.

He arrived home to find Gloria's car gone and Buck and the boys in the living room. The big man was reclining on the couch with both JD and Vin lying on the floor, their pillows tucked up under them, watching "Home on the Range".

"Gloria left supper in the oven. Just needs to be heated. How'd it go today?" Buck asked but kept his eyes on the movie. He had never seen the video before and he was enjoying it.

"Why isn't Gloria here?" Larabee growled.

"I ain't crippled here, Chris. I got everything under control. Why don't you turn on the oven and grab yourself a drink, relax for a while?" Buck didn't want to upset JD and Vin, especially after the scene last night.

The blond stared daggers at his old friend, but turned and left the room. He returned after changing clothes, starting dinner and grabbing a beer. The scene before him blew the lid off his smoldering temper. Buck was on the floor, grimacing, with a young boy on either side of him, trying to help the big man stand.

"Goddammit, Buck, I've had it with you! I don't want you here, living under my roof, if you can't stop with the self-destructive bullshit you constantly pull!" He threw the bottle against the front wall, beer and glass spilling everywhere. "You're a friggin' jackass and I'm through with you, you hear me?!"

Three startled faces stared up at the angry man in the doorway. Buck sat back on his haunches, JD holding on to his arm for security. Vin didn't know where to turn; his sanctuary was exploding before his eyes.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Larabee? Where did this come from?" Buck tried to diffuse the situation, but Chris had two days worth of tension built up and he wasn't about to calm down now.

"What's wrong with 'me'? What's wrong with you, you suicidal son of a bitch? I'll kill you myself the next time you pull a bullshit stunt like yesterday. I will NOT stand by and watch you kill yourself. Do I make myself clear?!" Chris took two steps towards where the three remained on the floor.

The anger-filled words hit the other residents of the ranch house like a bombshell. Buck, knowing Chris as well as he did, took the words themselves with a grain of salt. He knew Chris was feeling guilt mixed with anguish and it was coming out as his usual anger, but he was upset that Chris would act this way in front of JD and Vin. They certainly would not understand that Chris wasn't really mad at Buck, but at himself.

Vin stood shakily, his eyes never leaving his adopted father. He didn't say a word but held out his hand, his lower lip trembling. Instantly, JD took the outstretched hand, and together the two orphans fled the room, going out the front door.

"Oh God. Vin! JD! Please, boys, come back. I'm sorry, I didn't mean what I said. Buck, tell them to come back inside. I didn't mean it." Chris went out on the back porch, watching the two small forms flee into the interior of the barn.

His tall friend was by his side in an instant. "I ain't diggin' you outta this hole. You did it this time, pard. You stew in your own juices for awhile." He turned and went back inside and up the stairs.

Chris felt deflated, his anger instantly deserting him. In its place was a deep, gnawing dread that he had just undermined the best thing that had happened to him in years. Would Vin ever forgive him? The terrified face of his son came back to his mind, a single tear in his bright blue eyes, the trembling lip. Chris knew the boys would not speak to him right now, even if he could find them, which he doubted. He turned back inside and cleaned up the broken bottle. He was certain that Buck would forgive him if it was just between them, but he would never forgive Chris if JD and Vin decided they would be better off somewhere else. He prayed they could make the boys understand that no malice was intended. He sat down, his head in his hands and waited for JD and Vin to return.

It was after eight when the boys came in the back door. He could hear them in the kitchen, opening and closing the refrigerator door. He barely heard their footsteps as they came through the dining room towards the living room. He sat still, figuring they would want to talk to him, ask him why he was throwing their beloved Buck out of the house. His words had been replaying themselves in his mind since he had plopped unceremoniously on the sofa. He knew what they would be thinking. He had attempted to find the perfect words to explain but there weren't any. If only Buck would help him in explaining to their sons!

The footsteps stopped. "Boys, can I talk to you for a minute?" he called out hopefully.

Without a word, two little boys ran up the staircase and locked themselves in their room.

"I lost it, I guess." Chris was talking more to himself than the detective in the room with him. "I yelled at him but I didn't mean anything by it. It's just, he does this stuff without thinking."

"Larabee? Chris?" Finally getting the man's attention, he continued, "What stuff? Scaring the kids?" Rompala knew the reputation of Team 7 and how they protected one another. He had also seen the two men with the orphaned boys. They seemed to be good guardians for the discarded children.

"No, not scaring the boys. He sacrifices himself when he doesn't have to. He could have just shot the perp, but instead, he distracts him first so he doesn't shoot at me. He could of been killed, and for what? To save my sorry ass? I'm not worth it. The boys, especially JD, need that big oaf. Hell, I need him. I guess all the worry and agony over his getting shot just came out as anger. I started yelling at him and he yelled back. Scared the shit out of the boys, but it was more my fault than his."

Rompala nodded. He had kids of his own and they worried about him getting shot or injured doing his job. "What happened after that?"

"Both Vin and JD ran to their room and locked themselves in. They didn't see the two of us settle things later that evening. We were gonna talk to them this morning, show them that there were no hard feelings between us, that it was only worry that made me act like that. We never got the chance." Larabee turned and looked into the eyes of his interrogator. "Does Vin know what happened this morning?"

Pete had heard from those closer to Larabee how bright and savvy the Tanner kid was, but he had never spent any time with the boys himself. So he shared with Chris what he had learned from his son earlier that day.

After the deputies had taken Chris away, the boys had once again retreated to the sanctuary of their room. Pete found both boys helping their housekeeper, Mrs. Potter, pack a small suitcase for each. They were both subdued and working mechanically, nodding or answering quietly as the sympathetic woman would ask them a question or offer a gentle suggestion. He nodded a greeting at Gloria, then approached the older boy.

"Can I ask you a few questions, Vin?" he asked softly, squatting down at the boy's level.

Blue eyes narrowed at him in suspicion, but finally he swallowed and allowed a small nod. Vin looked over at Gloria, then let his gaze drift to JD. Gloria instantly picked up on the worry in the older boy's eyes. She walked up to the dark-haired child. "JD, why don't we go see if we have any snacks for the nice policeman?"

JD looked up, noticing the man for the first time. Instead of his usual friendly acceptance of strangers in his home, he looked to Vin for guidance. When his older brother nodded it was okay, he scowled up at the man before taking Gloria's outstretched hand.

"I know you guys are scared," Pete started quietly. "But I need to ask you some questions so we can figure out happened."

"I don't care what you say, my dad wouldn't do that to Buck," Vin said, his blue eyes blazing. "Not even if he was mad. He just wouldn't!"

"I'm not saying he did, son," Pete replied. He couldn't help but notice the way Vin bristled at the familiar term.

"Then how come you arrested him?" Vin demanded.

"That's what we have to do when somebody gets hurt and somebody else is the only one there," Pete tried to explain. "That's what we have to do until we know what really happened."

"Me and JD were here," Vin challenged. "Are you gonna arrest us too?"

"No, Vin," Pete answered patiently. "I think you're old enough to know better than that."

"Yeah," Vin said, scuffing his toe into the carpet. "I know."

"Okay, so can you tell me what happened this morning?" Pete prompted, standing up and releasing the pressure on his cramped legs. "Was Chris mad at Buck? Were they arguing or anything?"

Vin shrugged before reluctantly meeting the man's eyes. "Not this morning. Last night, before we went to bed, Chris was real mad and they was arguing."

"What were they arguing about?"

"Dad... Chris was yelling at Buck 'cause Buck got shot at work the other day," Vin replied. "And then he didn't stay in bed like he was supposed to and he let Mrs. Potter go home early 'cause he said he could take care of us by himself. Only when he got up, he tripped on JD's pillow and he fell down. Then Dad came in and got mad again and told Buck he wanted him not to live here anymore."

"You know he didn't mean that, don't you?" Pete said. He had a pretty good idea where the anger Chris was displaying was coming from. It hadn't been all that long ago that he himself had been hurt in the line of duty, and he could still remember the day his wife had unloaded all her pent-up fear and anxiety on him when he had been overdoing it in order to get back to work.

"That's what Buck said this morning," Vin agreed. "He said that sometimes Dad says things he doesn't mean when he's in a... a black mood." He nodded to himself as he remembered the exact words Buck had used earlier.

"So what happened this morning?" the detective asked. He sat down on the bottom bunk, patting the space next to him. "I want you tell me everything you remember."

Vin took a seat, but sat as far from the man as he could, then began a halting recitation of the morning's events. He woke up early and took JD into the kitchen for a breakfast of cold cereal. He had to keep telling JD to be quiet, not wanting to wake either man. As soon as they had finished, he took JD back to their room and locked the door again. The smaller boy had whined about wanting to watch cartoons, but Vin told him he would have to wait until Chris went out to feed the horses. Even as the said it, the small blond had bit his lip and frowned. That was supposed to be his job, to help his dad on the weekends. But he didn't know if he wanted to be with Chris if he was going to be yelling and breaking things. The months he'd spent on the street had taught him many things - one of them being when people yelled like Chris did last night, they didn't just break things, sometimes they broke people.

After they heard Chris going out to the barn for the Saturday chores, Vin remembered Buck coming to their room and knocking lightly on the door. 'You can't stay in here all day,' Buck said through the closed door. 'Why don't the two of you go on outside and play? I'll go help Chris finish up with the horses, then we want to talk to you both. I guess we need to have us a powwow.'

'Can we play in the tree house?' JD piped up. Before Vin could stop him, the younger boy flung the door open and held his arms out to be picked up, and Buck gladly obliged, biting his lip as JD's weight pulled on his still-aching chest.

'That sounds like a real good idea,' Buck had replied, stepping into the room and reaching out to ruffle Vin's hair like everything was okay.

'You aren't really gonna leave, are you, Buck?' Vin asked him fretfully.

'Nah, Junior,' he had replied with a reassuring wink. 'Chris really didn't mean it. It'll be okay, Vin. I promise.'

Pete couldn't help the tug he felt on his heart as the boy's blue eyes looked deep into his.

"Buck promised it would be okay," Vin said, his bottom lip trembling as the tight rein he had held on his emotions began to give way. "I don't want... Buck to... die." He choked out the last word as he slumped forward and buried his face in his hands.

Acting on parental instinct, Pete reached out and gathered the boy close to him. For once, Vin didn't pull away and allowed himself to be comforted by the adult. Pete gave the boy time to release the tears before questioning him again. "What happened after Buck went to the barn?"

"I don't know!" Vin almost wailed. "JD and me took Ringo and Elvis and Torkus to the tree house, and Buck walked out to the barn. We waited a long time, then we heard Dad yell like he was really scared. He just kept yelling 'Buck'. JD got down and wanted to go see if Buck fell down again. I tried to stop him! I chased him all the way to the barn, then when we opened the door..." Vin's eyes darted to the doorway, making sure the younger boy hadn't come back. His voice was lower and downhearted. "Dad was holding Buck... and there was blood everywhere. Dad looked up at us, but it's like he didn't even see us. Buck didn't move and JD got scared and started crying and I made him go with me to the house to call 9-1-1. Then the ambulance came and the deputies came... and they said Buck was gonna die and Dad was gonna go to jail." Finally he took a shuddering breath and hung his head sadly.

Had Pete known Vin well, he would have been proud of the way he got that many words out in one breath. He reached over and lifted the small chin and raised the face toward his own. "Right now, Buck's in the hospital, and the doctors and nurses are trying very hard to help him so he doesn't die," Pete explained. "And after I talk to your dad, he might get to come home, too." Pete was surprised to see the flash of fear in the blue eyes before it was quickly replaced with sadness.

"We won't be here," Vin said, slowly shaking his head.

Pete blinked as his attention returned to the present and to the man in front of him as Chris began speaking.

"Thanks - for not being too hard on him," Chris said, his voice tight with the effort of speaking as the consequences of his actions were coming back to haunt him.

Pete nodded in return. "That's one bright boy you have there, Chris. After he called 9-1-1, he found your housekeeper's number and called her. He asked her to come over so the police didn't take him and the little one away."

Chris nodded mutely, his heart breaking with the knowledge of just how terrified Vin would have been at the thought of being taken away and separated from everyone he loved.

"Chris, we haven't found any evidence so far that anyone else was there at the ranch this morning. You have two dogs, don't they bark when strangers come up to the house?"

"Not if they were with Vin and JD in the tree house. Somebody could have walked up the drive and straight to the barn without the boys seeing them." He stopped and looked the police detective straight in the eye. "I swear, Pete, I wouldn't have done that to Buck. Even in my darkest hours, I never hurt him that bad. I wasn't angry with him anymore! I swear I wasn't."

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Phil Moran stuck his head inside. "Sorry, Sarge, don't mean to interrupt."

"It's all right, Phil. What is it?" Actually Pete Rompala was glad for the intrusion. The story Chris Larabee had told was completely plausible. The two men, although best friends, were total opposites when it came to emotions. Chris was mercurial; he could lose his temper with just the touch of a match. However, Larabee usually yelled, cursed, or glared to get his point across. With his friends he might punch, but Rompala sincerely doubted he would lose it to the extent of beating his best friend with a bat. Buck, on the other hand, simmered. When he blew, it was something to behold, but it took a lot, especially from his teammates, to get him to lose it. Pete just couldn't believe the two of them would go at it like that. And then there was the blow to the back of Chris's head. How did he get that?

"I just wanted to tell Chris that JD and Vin are at Nathan's. Raine and your housekeeper, a Mrs. Potter, they have them. Josiah said that Ezra and Nathan are with him at the hospital. Buck... Buck's in surgery. He has a collapsed lung and heavy bleeding inside his skull. The doctor told Josiah and the others that they don't hold too much hope for him. I'm awful sorry, Chris."

"Nooo, nooo. I couldn't do that to him, I couldn't." The indomitable leader of ATF Team 7 broke down and cried like a baby.

The two fellow law enforcement officers stepped outside and closed the door behind them, giving Chris a few minutes of privacy.

A young Officer walked up to Phil. "Sir, there's a call for you on line three."

"Would you mind keeping an eye on the prisoner 'til we get back?" Pete asked the Officer.

"Yes sir," he replied, stepping over to stand in front of the door.

Pete followed Phil into his office, taking a seat when the other man picked up the phone and spoke quietly. "It's Keith at the Crime Lab," he whispered as he was also listening. "Are you sure?" he finally asked, a small grin breaking across his face. "Here, tell Sergeant Rompala what you just told me."

Pete looked as though he was going to argue, but something in Phil's expression made him think better of it. He took the phone and listened to the man on the other end. "Well I'll be damned," he finally said, then sighed as he handed the phone back.

"I knew he didn't do it," Phil said, a small bit of triumph in his voice.

Pete shook his head. "For a minute there, it sure looked like he did. Why don't you go give him the news? I'll take care of the paperwork."

Chris looked up with dry but red-rimmed eyes as the Phil came back into the interrogation room. The deputy put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, causing Chris to look at him quizzically "You should be out of here shortly."

"What happened?" Chris asked, his eyes suddenly narrowing in suspicion. "Is it Buck? Is he..." He couldn't even bring himself to say the word.

"No!" Phil hurried to assure him. "As far as I know, Buck's still hanging in there. I think the Crime Scene team found what they were looking for," he explained. "Have either you or Buck started smoking cigarettes?"

Chris looked at the detective in confusion. "Absolutely not! Why?"

"They found a pile of cigarette butts in the barn," Phil replied. "That set off a few alarms, since most of the guys around here know you don't smoke anything but those cheroots, and most of us have never seen Buck smoke. Anyway, that gave them the idea that someone else might've been in the barn. They started looking around and found tire tracks in the dirt where somebody pulled off the drive leading to your place about a quarter of a mile from the house. There was another pile of the same kind of cigarettes in the dirt by the tracks, like whoever it was must have been there all night. Before daylight, he probably got into the barn and waited, then got past the house without the boys seeing him after..."

"Yeah, after," Chris said with a frown. "So why don't I remember?"

"That bump on the back of your head," the deputy offered. "If whoever it was knocked you out first, it might be you have a concussion. You know as well as I do that it messes up your memory sometimes."

For the first time that afternoon, the light of hope shone in Chris's eyes.

A few minutes later, Pete came back in the room. "Let's get you out of here, Chris," he said, taking Chris's arm and helping him stand. "Phil, can you give him a ride to the hospital? Make sure he gets that bump on the back of his head looked at before you turn him loose on the medical staff."

Chris nodded, rubbing the sore spot on his skull. "What now?"

"Right now, they're fingerprinting the bat," Pete answered. "We might get lucky there. In the meantime, you're going to be released on your own recognizance. It's not like we're not going to know where to find you." The detective held the door open. "When he wakes up, tell Buck we're pulling for him."

Chris didn't have to be asked twice. He bolted for the door, not waiting to see if Phil was following.


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