Desperation by The Neon Gang

Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #12, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace, Michelle Fortado and Erica Michaels were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 6-23-2008. Art by Shiloh

Authors' Note: the slash version of this story appears in Seven Card Stud #12 and that version was written as a 2006 birthday story for Wolvie. It is rendered here as a gen tale for your enjoyment. Oh, and Vin's shoulder injury occurs in another story, "All Good Things," by Grace Fortado.

The old man gazed down into the boy's large blue eyes, which were imploring him to produce a miracle. "Vin, come sit," he said kindly, walking over and patting the rough trunk of a felled tree.

The boy scuffed his way over, reluctant, but climbed up and settled beside the older man. He straddled the tree trunk like he was sitting on a pony's back, his dangling feet kicking in frustrated arcs while he stared belligerently at the frayed holes in the knees of his jeans.

"Is Toby dead?" Vin demanded.

"I don't know."

"What if he's hurt?" Vin asked, twisting his finger around the loose threads that surrounded one of the holes in his jeans. "He's waitin' for us t' find 'im."

"Vin, have I ever told ya about the Comanche Healing Lake?"

The child shook his head, refusing to look interested, but his feet stilled and the old man knew he had the boy's attention.

"Mmm," he said, "I thought I had, but it's a good day to tell a story…"


1845 Hours

Five men hurried into the hospital waiting room, the comfortable furniture and subdued colors surprising them. But their worried gazes sought out the lone occupant of the space, standing near a corner, leaning against the wall and staring out the large picture window. They crossed the thick carpet, joining him in the rapidly fading light of dusk.

"Vin?" Josiah called quietly.

He turned to face them and Nathan stopped. Vin was… different. The former medic's eyes narrowed as he studied the man. Vin looked well rested, his eyes bright and there were no dark circles beneath them. That was a marked improvement over the last time they had seen Vin at the hospital in Denver.

When was that? Nathan wondered. Two days ago? Had everything really happened that fast?

The stress lines around Vin's eyes and mouth were gone, too, Nathan noted. And he was definitely more relaxed, moving more fluidly… "Your shoulder," he realized suddenly. "How is it?"

"Fine," Vin replied, quickly turning his attention back to the scene beyond the window.

Tanner was hiding something, but what? Nathan exchanged a look with Josiah and the big profiler shrugged, as confused by what he was seeing as Nathan was.

The former medic's examination continued. In profile Vin looked… younger, he decided. Younger? But how's that possible after what he's been through?

Reaching out to Vin, Buck rested his hand on the sniper's arm and asked, "Why didn't you tell us where you were going?"

Tanner's head dipped. "There was no time," he explained quietly, the words still haunted by the fears of what might have been. "He was dyin', Buck. There was nothin' anybody could do. I thought…" He trailed off, shaking his head. "There was one more possibility, but I didn't want t' raise anybody's hopes. I mean, it was… impossible…"

"Vin, we've all seen you pull off the impossible often enough to go along with whatever you wanted," Josiah told him. "You should know that."

Tanner shifted his weight enough to turn and meet the big man's eye. "It was something I had t' do alone, J'siah."

"But why here?" JD asked, looking around. "I mean, where'd you take him out there?" he asked, wanting to hear him explain the legend Ezra had told them about. Was it actually possible? Could something like that still happen in the modern world?

Vin's lips pressed into a line, telling JD he wasn't going to get an answer. At least not right now.

"Never mind," JD said, leaning forward to give Vin a quick hug. "I'm just glad you're both okay. You are okay, aren't you?"

Vin's cheeks and ears turned a darker shade of red.

"Vin?" Nathan questioned.

Tanner nodded. "Yeah, 'm fine now."

October 30, 2000, a Monday

0700 Hours

Chris followed Buck as closely as possible, wishing for the umpteenth time Vin was along with them. The borrowed Team Three sniper knew exactly what he was doing, but it just didn't feel as safe without Vin there, watching his back.

He and Buck moved along the weathered wall of a large barn, pausing at the end of the building before crossing to the cover of several smaller equipment sheds twenty yards away.

When they reached the last of the smaller buildings Buck and Chris stopped. Across the space of about thirty yards was a hothouse Larabee guessed must be as large as a good-sized airplane hanger. It was constructed out of a simple wooden frame that had been covered with green, corrugated plastic sheeting, the roof made up of more of the same material.

"Everybody in position?" the blond asked into the lip mike he was wearing.

He received a series of affirmatives from his team, and the members of Team Three. "All right, sit tight, boys. We'll let you know as soon as it's clear."

"Looks like the last of the trucks are leaving," stated Josiah's voice into his ear.

"Roger that," Chris replied, just able to make out the growl of the diesel engine as the vehicle rumbled back down the delivery access road.

Larabee paused, letting the sound fade completely away, then glanced at Buck, who nodded he was ready.

"Okay," Chris said, "now we wait until Brubaker and his guys show up…" He hated this part of the mission – the waiting was interminable – but if it netted them Brubaker and his merry band of white supremacists, it would be well worth it. And Ezra was sure he'd sealed the deal…


0745 Hours

Larabee leaned back against a beat-up old pickup, trying not to fidget as he continued to wait. He and Buck scanned the area regularly, their weapons ready in case of trouble. Ezra and Brubaker were finally inside the hothouse, bickering over the last details of the sale. But the rest of them had to wait until the money actually exchanged hands.

An explosion at the far end of the hothouse prompted both he and Buck to dive for cover along the side of the equipment shed where they hid, but they immediately came up on their knees, their weapons ready. There was still no one between them and the hothouse.

"We have contact," Nathan's voice announced over the communications units they all wore. "Moving in."

"Everybody move!" Chris snapped. "Ezra, report!"

A second explosion and then the low growl of the agents' automatic weapons filled the air. The melee lasted 96 seconds, according to Larabee's watch.

"We have the building," Buck announced over the com-link.

"Exterior is secure," the borrowed sniper reported.

"Roger," Chris replied. "Team Three, set a perimeter. We have structural damage and it looks like they've booby-trapped the hothouse, so everybody be careful."

"Roger, that," the Team Three commander replied.

"Ezra, you all right?" Chris asked again.

"I am unharmed," the undercover man said over his own com-unit.

Chris sighed with relief and glanced around the devastated structure. Plants and soil dusted the twisted pieces of corrugated plastic sheets torn free by the explosions. Sprinklers sputtered here and there, spitting out a fine mist that added to the already stifling humidity. But at least the rich smell of mulch hid the stench of blood.

Chris carefully picked his way through the debris, searching for clues to the militia group's activity, but found nothing obvious.

Stepping around a shattered table that had once held trays of orchids, he spotted something in a pile of potting soil. "Nathan," he called.

Jackson, directing the clear-up efforts nearby, broke away to join the man. "You have something, Chris?"

"What do you make of that?" Larabee asked, pointing.

Nathan leaned closer, examining several plastic bags floating in the middle of a pool of water that had collected from the broken overhead sprinklers. "Looks like they might have been hiding the grenades in bunches of the bulbs, doesn't it?"

"What I was thinking, too," Larabee agreed, nodding. "Point some of the crime scene techs over here, will you?"

Jackson nodded.

Leaving Nathan to continue his work, Larabee wandered farther into the building, sidestepping to avoid a shower, compliments of another broken plastic sprinkler pipe, and bumping into another splintered table. He cursed, then jerked and threw himself away from the table.

In Chris' mind the explosion took place in slow motion. Wood, dirt and plants erupted past him in a kaleidoscope mix of colors. A rainbow shower of flower petals was the last thing he saw before the blackness engulfed him.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin watched his grandfather from the corner of his eye. Normally one of the old man's tales would enthrall the boy, but today it couldn't hold his attention. He wanted to find Toby, and telling stories wasn't going to help.

The large retriever mix belonged to his grandfather, but Vin considered the dog his, and when Toby had failed to greet the six-year-old when he'd crawled out of bed that morning, the search had started. It was now nearing lunchtime while his grandfather droned on, and Vin was getting scared for the animal.

What if a coyote found Toby?

What if Toby tried to tree a bobcat?

What if someone driving by saw him and Toby climbed into their car? Toby liked everyone, after all…



His grandfather's eyebrows climbed slightly, a signal of amusement. "I asked you if you know where the animals go when they get hurt."

Vin shook his head, his overlong blond hair spilling across his forehead and eyes.

"They find the Healing Lake, and they walk out into the water – water so blue it's purple – just sitting there in the hills. And the water heals all their wounds."

"You think Toby's hurt?" Vin asked, hoping to get his grandfather back on track.

The old man stood and brushed off his pants. He sighed. "Come over here with me, Vin."

The boy slid off the tree trunk and trailed his grandfather, following him into the tangled brush of a hillside. Stopping next to the old man, he started at the blood-splattered leaves he was pointing to. Tangled among the curling leaves was Toby's faded green leather collar.

Vin squatted down and picked it up, the long expired licenses jingling. "What happened to him, Grandpa?"

"I'm not sure," the old man said, letting his hand rest on the boy's head. "Looks like somebody might have thought Toby was a coyote, or maybe a deer, and took a shot at him." He pointed at the drops of blood on the leaves again, then at a small bullet hole in a nearby tree trunk.

"He's dead, isn't he?" Vin asked, already feeling the hot tears filling up his eyes.

"I don't know, Champ," his grandfather said. "Maybe he's off lookin' for the lake. If he finds it, he'll be fine."

"But you said the lake is far away. What if Toby gets lost? What if he can't find it?"

"The lake will call to him."

"What if he finds it 'n' gets lost comin' home?"

The old man dandled the boy's hair. "Good questions. I guess the best thing we can do is make sure we call his spirit back."

"How do we do that?"

The old man steered the boy back toward the cabin. "The first thing we do is go eat the lunch Mrs. Dumas has got waitin' for us. To build up our strength," he added quickly. "Then we'll go out to that old stump Toby likes to sleep on and we'll call him."

"Y' mean like we've been callin' his name?"

"No," his grandfather explained, reaching down to scoop the boy up and tossing him over his shoulder like a small sack of potatoes. "We'll call to him inside our heads. No words."

"Like talkin' t' yourself?"

"Just like that."

"An' Toby'll hear us?"

"If he found the lake and healed himself he will."

"What if he couldn't find the lake?"

"He'll still hear us, Champ, but he won't be able t' come home."


"He'll be chasing squirrels in the Spiritland."

"But I want him t' come home."

"I know do you, Grandson."

"If I call real loud will he hear me better?"

"There's no loud or soft, Champ, just calling."

Federal Building, Monday

1000 Hours

Vin sat behind his desk, staring out the window. It was all so familiar, so… normal, he decided.

Two weeks… He'd been back to work for two weeks now, and it felt more like two months. Still, he knew he shouldn't complain. He still had a career, even if it was behind a desk for the time being.

At least I'm still on the team, he reminded himself.

He felt a twinge of jealousy over the fact that he'd been so easily replaced for today's mission. But he knew that wasn't really fair. He hadn't been replaced. Chris had just "borrowed" one of the other teams' snipers. But, sooner or later, Larabee was going to have to replace him…

He glanced over at the picture sitting on the corner of his desk – a group shot of the Team Seven members: him, Chris, Josiah, Nathan, Buck, JD and Ezra, out at the ranch.

God, he missed them.

Not that he didn't see them on a daily basis, but it just wasn't the same as working with them out there… in the field…

He shook his head. He'd let himself get too involved. Way too involved. And he knew better. Any one of them could be killed or lost, and, damn it, he was supposed to be the first. But knowing that didn't cut the anger, or the pain he felt over the situation.

His phone rang and he picked it up, gaze automatically checking for the extension number. "What can I do for ya, Buck?"

"Vin—" The ladies' man's voice caught.

Vin leaned forward, his gaze locking on the photo. Everyone was smiling, happy… "Buck, what's wrong?"

"It's Chris… He's… He's been… hurt."

"How? Where? I wasn't—"

"They're on their way to Summit right now – a flight for life chopper. Nathan's with him and the medics."

"I'll meet y' at the hospital."

"I was hoping you would. It's bad, Vin, real bad. I don't think… I don't think he's gonna make it this time…"

"Like hell he won't," Tanner snapped. "He'll be fine."

"Not this time, Vin. He's—"

"I've got t' go," Tanner said, cutting the man off. He didn't want to hear the truth, he already knew that.

"We'll be there as soon as we can," Buck said, but Vin had already hung up.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin waited until his grandfather settled down at the kitchen table with the evening newspaper before he crawled out his bedroom window and headed into the woods. He knew Toby was in trouble, and he was determined to find him.

He knew it when he'd called and called and called and still Toby hadn't come home. The dog needed his help.

When he was away from the cabin, he pulled his flashlight out of the old flour sack he was carrying. It was full of everything he'd need to find Toby – a flashlight, an old biscuit in case Toby was hungry, his collar, a length of twine to serve as a leash, and a slice of cornbread in case Vin himself got hungry.

Shining the narrow light beam into the darkness, he headed to the north, hoping to find Toby on his way home from the Healing Lake his grandpa had told him about.


1130 Hours

Vin stalked across the waiting room at Summit, joining Nathan. "What the hell happened?" he demanded.

"They'd set out booby-traps in the hot houses. Chris accidentally tripped—"

"Why weren't the traps—?"

"He was looking for something to tell us who or what Burbaker's target might be."

Vin turned to glower at the Black man. "Damn it, Nathan, I—"

"Look, before you go ballistic on me, understand that we had the building secured, but there was structural damage. Chris had to move quickly, before the whole damned thing came crashing down on top of us."

Vin sucked in a deep breath, forcing his anger away. "Okay," he said. "Sorry, Nate, I wasn't there… Is everybody else okay?"

"Ezra and a couple of the Team Three guys have some nasty wood and fiberglass splinters, but they'll be fine."

"What exactly's wrong with Chris?" Vin forced himself to ask.

Nathan's gaze immediately dropped to the carpet. "He, uh…"

"Damn it, Nathan, tell me what's going on!" Vin snapped.

"The explosion… It looks like some severe skull damage." Jackson fell silent as a stranger stepped into the waiting room.

Vin turned.

"Agent Jackson?"

Nathan stepped forward, meeting the doctor as he joined the two men. "How is he?"

"Come with me," the man directed.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin settled onto the edge of a chair across from the physician's desk.

"I'm Dr. Randell, Mr. Larabee's attending physician."

"How is he?" Vin demanded.

Dr. Randell leaned forward, resting his weight on his elbows. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Larabee is brain dead."

"What?" Vin slid back, needing the support the chair offered as his bones seemed to turn to soft wax.

"The explosion damaged Mr. Larabee's frontal lobe. His body is still working, there was no damage to the brainstem, but the chances are he's never going to wake up." Dr. Randell stood and stepped around the edge of the desk. "According to his files, he's requested no heroic measures… We haven't placed him on a respirator…"

"How long?" Nathan asked, not liking the sudden paleness of Vin's face.

"I really can't say."

"And there's nothing you or anyone can do?" Nathan pressed.

Dr. Randell shook his head.

Nathan stood and extended his hand to the doctor, who shook it. "Thank you, we appreciate you being honest about the situation."

"I wish I had better news."

"Me, too," Nathan replied.

The doctor looked down at Vin, then back at Nathan. "I'll, uh, leave you here until you're ready."

Nathan nodded. "Appreciate that." He waited until the physician had left, then turned to Tanner. "Vin…"

The sniper stood, his entire body shaking slightly. "Gotta get some air," was all he said before bolting out the door and disappearing down the hall.


1230 Hours

"Ohmygod," Buck breathed, his knees going weak.

Vin wrapped his arm around the ladies' man's shoulders, helping him to sit down and wincing as the man's weight sent shards of hot agony ripping through his still-healing shoulder.

"What do we do?" Wilmington asked.

Nathan stepped closer. "Chris has always said he wanted to be an organ donor if—"

"No," Vin snapped, stepping away from Buck.

Josiah glanced over at the man. "Vin—"

"I said no, damn it." Turning, Tanner stalked out of the waiting room.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin crouched down in the dark, his back pressed tightly against a tree trunk. Above him, an owl eyed him curiously. Then the low whine sounded again.

The dim flashlight beam flashed over the bushes, teasing out mysterious shadows that tickled the boy's fear. He scrambled to his feet when he saw the tawny-colored lump.

"Toby?" he called softly, forcing himself over to the lump.

The dog looked up, his tail thumping a greeting against the ground. Vin dropped down and gave Toby a hug. "I knew I'd find ya, y' ol' dog" he told the lab.

Toby whined.

Using the flashlight, Vin checked the dog over, finding the blood and then the wound where he'd been shot in the side.

"Y' haven't found the lake yet, have ya," he said. "Y' gotta find the Healing Lake, Toby – now."

Standing, he dug through the sack, taking out the collar and the twine. Placing the dog's collar around his neck, he knotted the twine on the metal D-ring, and tried to lead Toby off, but the dog refused to move.

"Come on, Toby," he urged. "We have to find the lake. It'll make you all better."

The dog whined again, his tail thumping weakly in the dirt.

Vin sighed heavily. Reaching into the sack, he took out the old biscuit and the cornbread. Toby's head came up and he sniffed.

"Hungry, boy?" Vin asked, handing the dog the biscuit.

Toby sniffed the offering, then took it and ate it while Vin finished off the cornbread. The sack now empty, Vin laid the flashlight down and spread the material on the ground. With that done, he carefully maneuvered Toby onto the cloth. Then, picking up the flashlight, he shoved it under his belt so the light shone down on his feet and the ground where he was stepping. He grabbed a corner of the sack and pulled, but he couldn't see where he was going well enough, all bent over like that.

He sat down to think.

Unknotting the twine from Toby's collar, he tied the ends of the thin rope to two of the corners of the sack, then put the twine over his shoulders. He stood and tried again. This time he found he was able to drag Toby along on the sack, using the flashlight to illuminate his way. He only stopped when he had to retie the twine when it pulled free of the sack.


0600 Hours

Sitting, staring helplessly at Chris as his best friend lay in the hospital bed, Vin made his decision.

Reaching for his cell phone, he called an old friend from his Army days.

"Hey, Chance, it's Vin Tanner… Yeah, I know, too long. Look, I need a favor, no questions asked… Appreciate it, man. Okay, so, I need to take a chopper flight quick as you can get here… Denver, at Summit Hospital. They've got a life-flight pad… If you can make it sooner, I'd appreciate it… Okay, I'll see y' then, man… Yeah, 'bout as important as it gets – life and death."


0830 Hours

Josiah walked into Chris' room, coming to an abrupt halt when he saw the empty bed. Spinning, he hurried out, waylaying the first nurse passing down the hall.

"Where's Chris Larabee?" he demanded.

The woman looked confused. "Pardon?"

"Chris Larabee, the patient in room one-eleven."

"I'm afraid I don't know. Check at the nurses' station. I'm sure they can help you."

Josiah reined in his rapidly fraying emotions and headed for the semi-circular counter. "Where's Chris Larabee?!"

A middle-aged Black woman sitting behind the counter looked up from her work. "Room one-eleven?"

Josiah nodded.

"He was checked out by a Mr. Vin Tanner about twenty or thirty minutes ago."


"That's all I know," the woman said, her sour expression telegraphing her opinion of the situation.

"Thank you," Josiah said, already turning. What the hell was going on?


0945 Hours

"I want an answer, and I want it now," Buck growled, looking at the other five men. "If one of you knows anything, I better hear it."

Ezra shifted uncomfortably. "I'm afraid Vin didn't tell me where he was going…"

Buck stomped over to stand in front of the undercover man. "Ezra," he said, redirecting his ire, "I want an explanation! Where's Chris?"

Standish shook his head, his hands coming up in a placating gesture. "I honestly don't know."

"What do you know?" Nathan demanded.

"Whoa, easy, boys, this isn't helping anyone," Josiah said, trying to smooth the ruffled feathers. "Let's just sit down and talk this out like the friends we are." He gestured for them to sit, and they did.

Ezra settled onto a chair, wondering if he'd escape with his skin intact. "This is all I know. Vin checked Mr. Larabee out around eight this morning. He took him up to the life-flight pad on the roof—"

"Life-flight?" Buck echoed.

"There was a chopper—"

"Chopper!?" Buck bellowed. "Why? Doesn't he understand that—"

"He knows, brother," Josiah interrupted.

Buck huffed out a frustrated sigh, then looked at JD. "Find out where that chopper went."

The younger man gave a nod and stood. "Uh, somebody'll call me if…?"

"We'll call you," Josiah reassured him, then he looked back at the others. "We might as well go back to the office with him, there's nothing more we can do here."

For a moment it looked like Buck might argue, but then the ladies' man sighed again and nodded.

They stood, Nathan looking at Ezra. "Why did you let 'em go?" he asked, not really expecting an answer. "With Vin's shoulder the way it is he can't take care of Chris. I just don't understand."

"I don't know what the hell he thinks he's doing," Buck grumbled, but he fell silent when Ezra finally replied to Nathan's question.

"It was his expression, Mr. Jackson," the undercover man said. "It was– It– I couldn't have stopped him, even if it had cost me my life; that look…"

Josiah gently rested his hand on the man's shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "I think we understand, Ezra," he said softly and even Buck had to nod.


0915 Hours

Vin pulled the rented Chinook over, parking alongside the road, deep in the Comanche National Grasslands. He hadn't been here since he'd lived with his grandfather, just a short distance over the border, in Oklahoma… It was more than a lifetime ago, as far as he was concerned.

A crisp breeze swept down the empty road, carrying with it the rushing sound of the wind sweeping through the shortgrass prairie. He paused for a moment, listening to the sound. The years with his grandfather had been good ones, for the most part, the last good ones really, until he'd met Chris and the others…

Walking to the back of the small recreational truck, he opened the rear door and climbed inside. Larabee lay exactly where he'd left him on the bed.

Vin took a deep breath, suddenly unsure of his decision. The chances were slim… Hell, they were impossible. But there was nothing left to be done. And he couldn't lose the man…

He dipped his head, feeling the tears beginning to sting his eyes. He didn't have a choice. He had to try. Chris Larabee was his best friend, his brother, his boss… He was so damn many things, none of which Vin thought he could survive without.

So, sitting down, he quickly put together the rig he'd come up with to carry Chris. By the time he'd finished, his shoulder was throbbing and his elbow and wrist ached with a vengeance. But it didn't come close to matching the agony in his heart.

Slipping the rig under Chris, Vin checked his light field kit, then tugged the man up so he was more or less sitting up in the bed. Sitting down in front of Larabee, between the man's legs, Vin leaned back against Chris' chest and slid the straps along his arms and over his shoulders, snapping the latch on his chest shut. With a grunt, he sat up, then pulled Larabee in tightly against his back, secured the straps around his hips and thighs, and stood. The man's weight sent a fiery pain shooting through his shoulder and back, and down his arm, but he ignored it, grabbing the field kit and stepping out of the Chinook.

Closing and locking the door, he turned and headed off into the hills.


1220 Hours

"What've you got?" Buck asked, joining the others who were already gathered at JD desk.

"Okay," JD said, taking a deep breath before he continued. "The chopper landed in Springfield, Colorado. Vin rented a Chinook there. I got the information from the rental place and contacted the State Patrol. The vehicle was found, abandoned, along a road in the Comanche National Grasslands."

"Where in the world is that?" Ezra asked.

"Middle of nowhere," JD replied. "It was actually a couple of national park Rangers who found it. They were out, checking some of their remote stations."

"Lucky for us," Josiah said.

"Where are Chris and Vin?" Buck asked.

"No clue," JD replied.

"You don't think…?" Buck started, then trailed off. "I mean—"

"What?" Nathan asked.

"You don't think maybe Vin got some crazy notion to bury him out there, do you?" the ladies' man asked.

"Seems a bit extreme, even for Mr. Tanner," Ezra replied, but he didn't sound so sure about that himself.

Josiah shook his head. "Seems to me he's taking Chris somewhere. Somewhere specific."

"Any clue where that might be?" Nathan asked him.

Josiah shook his head again, then ran his hand over his short, graying hair. "It has to be an Indian-related thing, though… Didn't he say that's the area where he lived with his grandfather? The old man was part Comanche and Kiowa, right?"

"So maybe he's taking Chris to see a medicine man or something?" JD suggested.

"I don't know," Josiah said, shaking his head and shrugging. "But we're not going to find out waiting here."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Toby whined and Vin stopped. Dawn shone dimly across the landscape, casting faint orange-lavender shadows across the canyonlands.

The dog stood on trembling legs and started off into the undergrowth. The boy followed, his stomach rumbling. He was tired, and thirsty and hungry.

He was also lost.


The dog barked, and the boy followed the sound, hoping Toby knew where they were going, and how to get home.


1230 Hours

The first five minutes of the walk were tolerable, then the gnawing ache began in Vin's shoulder, refusing to subside, and eventually escalating with every step that carried him farther into the hills. After several hours each step over the rough terrain sent stabs of agony shooting through the man's injured shoulder.

But he gritted his teeth and forced himself on, placing one foot in front of the other. Sweat rolled into his eyes, blurring his vision and finally forcing him to use a bandanna to catch the sweat. Throughout the entire ordeal, Chris rested limply against his back. Occasionally, his bandaged head bumped against the back of Vin's neck, urging him on, despite the almost blinding agony that had become his world.

Hang in there, Chris, he thought. Please. Just hang in there a little longer…

Then, catching himself as he started to slip in the loose dirt, Vin strangled back a cry, tears immediately filling his eyes.

Finding a large rock, he squatted so Chris was sitting on the rough surface, relieving some of the pressure on his shoulders. Vin's hands shook uncontrollably as he tried to lift the straps off his shoulders, but he couldn't do it. Hunger and thirst demanded his attention, but he knew he could neither eat nor drink and still find what he was looking for.

He just had to keep going, without food, without water and without anything for the pain. There was simply no other choice. He had to continue, no matter what.

In the distance, birds called and he looked up, scanning the skies for the source. Off to the west he spotted them.

"'Kay, Chris, here we go," he hissed, standing, taking the unconscious man's weight back onto his back and shoulders.

Sagging under the weight, Vin shuffled off slowly toward the west.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin stumbled along after Toby. Above them, wild ducks circled, quacking down at the pair. The boy tripped and fell.

On his hand and knees, Vin stared down at the cougar tracks pressed into the dirt. Scrambling to his feet, he saw wild ducks and pigeons walking along the edge of a purple lake. Frogs sang, and he could hear fish breaking the surface, looking for a morning meal.

Toby trotted straight into the water and lay down, disappearing from the neck down. He panted happily as a duck swam past, ignoring the interloper.

Stumbling to the edge of the water, Vin stood and clapped his hands. "Toby. Come here, Toby."

The dog bounded over to the boy, shook, then jumped up and knocked him down. Vin giggled as Toby snuffled and licked his face.

"Toby!" he scolded, but the dog ignored him, licking him some more.

Giving the dog a hard squeeze, Vin was forced to chase after the lab when he ran off, barking.

"Toby!" Vin called, chasing after the dog for several steps, then he stopped and turned around. The lake was gone, an empty field of short prairie grass the only thing left.


1550 Hours

Vin shuffled forward as best he could, and above him several ducks circled. The sun hung low on the western horizon, the light playing tricks on his eyes. He sucked in a rattling breath and fell to his knees. His head tilting back, Vin sobbed. He couldn't go on. He couldn't even regain his feet.

He leaned heavily to the side, his hand slipping on a ridge in the dirt. Blinking back the tears of pain, frustration and hopelessness, he stared down at his fingers. They rested in the depression of a cougar paw print…

His head snapped up. Several feet away, deep purple water lapped quietly, ducks swimming silently across the still surface.

"Lord," he breathed, "please… just a couple… more… steps. Please…"

With a tormented groan he freed the latch, letting Chris drop back onto the ground. As fast as his fumbling fingers could manage, Vin removed the rig from himself and from Larabee.

Then, standing, he bent over the blond, scooping the unconscious man into his arms. With what little strength he had left, Vin lifted the man, crying out as he did. Chris' heels bumped in the dirt, Vin's bad shoulder unable to support the weight. But he made it to the edge of the lake.

Stepping into the water, Vin was only vaguely aware that it was warm. He shuffled forward until the limp body in his arms slipped free of his weakening grasp, floating face up on the calm, deep purple water just out of his reach.

The warm liquid surrounded and buoyed Chris, which was good, because as determined as Vin was to ensure his friend's face didn't slip beneath the smooth surface of the lake, Vin felt himself being pulled down, his knees finally refusing to hold him up. He felt his face break the surface, his eyes closing as he submerged into the darkness.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *


"Over here, Grandpa!"

The old man pushed through the brush, scooping the boy up into a tight hug. "Where've you been, boy?" the old man demanded.

"Toby," Vin said by way of explanation. "I found Toby."

Hearing his name, the lab barked.

"He was shot."

"He was, was he?" the old man asked, petting the dog's head. "Looks fine now."

"We found the magic lake, Grandpa. It fixed him."

"I see."

His grandfather chuckled and Vin gave him a defiant scowl. "It's true!"

Eyeing the boy, the old man considered the child's words, then grew serious as he thought back on the blood he'd found earlier. "Well, then, that's very special, but we better get home."

"But the lake," Vin said, pointing back the way he'd come.

"It'll be there, Champ. Right now, I think Mrs. Dumas has got a stack of hotcakes waitin' for us."

"I'm hungry," Vin announced, settling down against his grandfather's shoulder.

Three steps closer to home and the boy was sound asleep.


2030 Hours

"There," JD called, pointing.

The ladies' man nodded, already breaking to slow down. A moment later, he pulled Josiah's Suburban off the road, parking behind the state patrol car.

JD turned in the passenger seat to wake the other men, saying, "Hey, guys, we're here."

Josiah, Nathan and Ezra each woke and stretched, easing the kinks from their limbs and backs. They climbed out and walked over to join the patrolman who was waiting for them. Across the road were two forest service vehicles.

The patrolman waited until they had identified themselves and showed him their ID badges before he said, "Forest service guys are out looking for your friends. They said it looks like Tanner carried Larabee into the woods."

"Carried?" Nathan asked. "That's impossible. His shoulder—"

"He's not going to give a damn about his shoulder," Josiah said quietly.

"Did they have any idea where he's going?" JD asked. "I can't find anything in this area on the maps. No towns, no communities, nada."

"I don't know what he's looking for, but we're going to find out," Buck said, turning to start off.

Josiah reached out to stop him. "They rangers will call if they find something, Buck. We're going to have to wait for first light before we go after them or we'll just end up getting lost out there ourselves."

"Damn it, Josiah, Chris might—"

The big profiler held up his hand to stop him. "I know that as well as you do, but don't you think Chris would rather die out here than in a hospital?"

Buck sighed heavily. "Yeah, I know he would, but—"

"Oh my Lord. I think I do know where Mr. Tanner might be going."

The men turned to stare at Ezra. Buck shook his head. "Damn it, Ezra, you said—"

"I did not lie to you; Vin did not tell me where he was going, but when JD mentioned the Comanche National Grasslands… I kept thinking I'd heard that somewhere before. And Josiah mentioned Vin once lived near here… It just came to me."

"What, damn it?" Buck snapped.

"Vin told me a story once, when we were out on that long camping trip up in Rocky National Park."

"What did he say?" Wilmington demanded, wishing the man would get to the point.

"He told me about a lake, a healing lake."

"A healing lake?" Nathan echoed.

"That's a load of—"

"Let the man talk," Josiah said, interrupting Buck's tirade.

Ezra took a deep breath and continued. "I think he said it was in this area. The story had something to do with a magical lake that healed injured animals… a dog… I'll be honest, I wasn't really paying that much attention at the time."

"But it was just a story, right?" JD asked.

"No, not to Mr. Tanner," Ezra argued. "Evidentially he found this enchanted lake once when his dog – or maybe it was his grandfather's dog – was hurt."

"He told you that?" Nathan asked. "That he saw it heal this dog?"

Ezra nodded. "It is my opinion that Mr. Tanner has gone to find this miraculous lake from his childhood memories, in an attempt to heal Mr. Larabee."

The others exchanged nervous glances. They all knew Vin had some interesting connections to the land, and to both the Comanche and Kiowa peoples, even if they weren't too sure what they were, or how they had come to be.

"You don't think he could really do something like that, do you?" JD asked the others.

Surprising everyone, Nathan shrugged and said, "Given the options we have… I hope so. I mean, you all heard the doctor, there's no hope. Chris is as good as dead."

"Brothers, we all know how close Vin and Chris are… If Vin felt he had to do this, whether or not it works, then it's for the best…"

"Look," JD said, mostly to Buck, who still seemed determined to fight the idea, "if it works, great, and if not—"

"We're right where we were to begin with," Nathan cut in.

Buck stood, his hands on his hips as he studied the men. They were willing to give Vin the benefit of the doubt… And God knew the man had his moments. "So, what do we do?" he asked them.

"We wait," Ezra replied.


0700 Hours

Vin woke first. Rolling over, he stared out at the empty field of prairie grass, shimmering brown and gold in the dawn light. With a frustrated grunt he rolled back and sat up, then stared at the sight that met his eyes.

Chris struggled to untangle the gauze encasing is head. "Well, don't just sit there," he growled at Vin, "come help me. And where the hell are we, anyway? What happened?"

Vin felt the smile tugging painfully at the corners of his mouth. Standing, he walked over to Larabee and, using a small field knife, helped cut the bandages free. Beneath them, the man's dark-blond hair lay pressed against his skull, lank and matted. He could see no signs of an injury.

"Vin," Chris said, looking around again, "where are we?"

"Uh, Colorado… close t' the Oklahoma border, maybe over it."

"Oklahoma?" Larabee twisted to look back over his shoulder. "Why?"

Vin opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. Open. Close. Open. He would have to explain it now, wouldn't he? Oh, shit. Oh damn. Damn, damn, damn.


"Uh, you were… uh, hurt."

"Hurt?" Chris echoed. The last thing he remembered was… what? The hothouse. Yeah, that was it. Going inside… the bulbs with the grenades… and… "There was an explosion," he said, brow furrowing.

Vin nodded.

"Okay, but why am I out here?" He looked around at the countryside again. It was beautiful, in its own way; a little stark for his tastes.

"I, uh, I brought you out here."

"Where are the others?"

"Uh, Chris, listen, why don't we just worry 'bout gettin' y' back right now, okay?"

"But I—"

"Please?" Vin implored, looking like he was facing his execution.

"Uh, all right," Chris conceded, standing with some help from Vin. He stretched, feeling better than he had in recent memory. A glimmer from the corner of his eye piqued his curiosity and he walked over to the edge of the field and blinked, an unsettling vertigo washing over him. He rubbed his eyes.

The effect reminded him of a picture he'd seen once – one that shifted from a human skull to a woman, brushing her hair, and back again as he stared at it. He could swear that, if he looked just right, he saw a lake instead of a field. "Uh, Vin?"


"What is this place?"


"Vin…" he prompted. Tanner had said he'd been hurt, was this bizarre double-vision somehow related to his injuries?

Tanner sighed and dug through his field kit, pulling out a pair of condensed meals. "Uh, I know you're not gonna buy it, but… it's a magical lake."

"A magic lake?"

"Hungry?" Tanner asked hopefully.

Chris thought for a moment, then answered. "Yeah, actually, I am. Very."

"Here," Vin said, handing him a small olive drab plastic bag.

"Gee, thanks."

Vin ignored the sarcasm. "We can eat while we walk back."

"Back where?" Chris asked.

"Back to the car."

"How far is that?" he inquired as Vin shouldered the field kit and started off.

"'Bout ten, maybe twelve miles, I guess."

"Ten…? Twelve…?" Chris jogged to catch up to his companion. "wait a minute. How'd we get all the way out here?"

Vin felt his cheeks starting to burn. "Uh… I, uh, I carried you."

"You carried–? Vin, your shoulder! Are you all right?"

Tanner stopped dead in his tracks. "It's fine," he said.


"Uh, yeah… it's, uh, fine."

"Vin, what the hell is going on?"

"Oh, for cryin' out loud, Chris, it's a beautiful mornin', can't we just enjoy it?" Tanner pleaded.

Larabee couldn't disagree with the assessment, but he wanted to know what was going on. How had he been hurt? Why were they out here? How had they gotten here? Magical lakes? "All right," he finally agreed when he saw just how uncomfortable Vin was looking. "But I want some answers."

"Yeah, I know. Just ain't sure I got any…"

Chris frowned. Vin looked like he'd just seen a ghost or something. The blond looked back down at the pile of bandages and swallowed hard. It had to have been some kind of a head wound… Something bad enough that Vin had brought him all the way out here… To a magical healing lake… Just how badly hurt had he been?

He turned and hurried to catch up with Vin. Reaching out, he grabbed the man's arm and stopped him. "I was… bad, wasn't I?"

Vin hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, you were bad."

"You brought me all the way out here…" Chris frowned, more fragments of memories coming into focus. "Was I… dead?"

Vin's face paled. "Not exactly…"

Not exactly… Now there was a comforting thought. Not. "But close enough, right?"

Tanner nodded, his eyes getting shiny with tears.

Jesus, Larabee thought. Vin had saved his life, somehow… Chris stepped closer, then wrapped the younger man in a hug that was immediately returned, fierce and desperate.

"Whoa, easy," Chris said quietly, "I'm okay now." He felt Vin nod, and realized that Tanner's arms were wrapped around him. "And you are, too, aren't you?"

Vin froze for a moment, then one arm moved. He nodded again, saying, "Hell, I think so…"

Chris squeezed him a little harder and then released him. He met the man's wet eyes. "How are we going to explain this?"

Vin blinked, looking stunned as his face went completely white. "Shit…" he breathed. "Beats the hell outta me," he managed.

"Well, you better come up with something," Larabee said.

"Me?" Tanner squeaked in reply.

"Hey, I was the dead one, remember?" That put a slightly green tinge on the sniper's face. "Sorry," Chris apologized. "I'm just saying I'm not the one who's going to get asked all the questions."

Tanner groaned. "Maybe I ought t' stay out here… become a hermit."

Larabee chuckled softly. "Come on," he said. "We've got ten or twelve miles to think of something."

"Ain't gonna do no good," Vin muttered. "I'm screwed… totally fucked… should've left y' in that damn hospital."

"Gee, thanks," Chris said, making a face.

Vin stopped, staring at the man. "This is all your fault, Larabee!"


1500 Hours

"There!" JD shouted when he saw Chris and Vin appear around the end of a hill.

"Oh my Lord," Ezra breathed, coming to his feet.

"I'll be damned," Buck muttered, staring at the approaching men.

But Josiah just glanced up at the sky and grinned. "Thank you, Lord."

Nathan didn't say a word, just stalked out to meet the two men, performing a quick check on both of them as they made their way back to the others.

"They're fine," Nathan announced when they reached them.

Josiah stepped forward and gave Vin a quick, but heartfelt hug. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, son, can't you tell us what the hell you're planning?"

"Sorry," Vin replied, his gaze on the ground. "It was a… last minute decision."

Josiah snorted and shook his head. He turned to Larabee. "Chris, you're looking a whole lot better than the last time I saw you, brother."

"And how'd I look then?" he asked, curious and still confused. "Vin's been pretty close-lipped on the subject."

"Uh," Ezra hedged, "I think that's need to know, Mr. Larabee."

"Well, I need to know!" Chris almost bellowed.

"Later, Chris," Buck said, walking over to give his oldest friend a fierce hug of his own.

"Promise?" Larabee asked when the ladies' man released him.

They all nodded.


1830 Hours

Vin sat stiffly on a gurney in the hospital examination room while the doctor continued to check his shoulder for the third time. "Well?" he asked.

"I still can't find anything wrong," the man said. "As far as I can tell, you're perfectly healthy. In fact, I'd say you're in better shape than the majority of men your age."

Vin shifted uncomfortably. "Uh, yeah, well, thanks, Doc."

"I don't understand this. The records we received from the hospital in Denver lists several old injuries – gunshot to the left shoulder, knife stab to—"

"I'm familiar with the list, Doc," Tanner said, interrupting the long list.

"Yes, well, there are no signs of any of these injuries, Mr. Tanner. In fact, there's nothing except a faint scar across your lower back. I can't explain any of this, and I sure as hell don't understand it."

"But m' shoulder's fine?"

"Yes, your shoulder's fine."

"That's all I needed t' know," Vin said, pushing himself off the gurney and grabbing his flannel shirt.


"I can't explain it either, Doc, okay?"

The doctor shook his head, but he left.

Vin dressed quickly, then headed to the waiting room to kill time until he got some news on Chris.


1845 Hours

Five men hurried into the hospital waiting room, the comfortable furniture and the subdued colors surprised them. But their worried gazes sought out the lone occupant of the space, standing near a corner, leaning against the wall and staring out the large picture window. They crossed the thick carpet, joining him in the rapidly fading light of dusk.

"Vin?" Josiah called quietly.

He turned to face them and Nathan stopped. Vin was… different. The former medic's eyes narrowed as he studied the man. Vin looked well rested, his eyes bright and there were no dark circles beneath them. That was a marked improvement over the last time they had seen Vin at the hospital in Denver.

When was that? Nathan wondered. Two days ago? Had everything really happened that fast?

The stress lines around Vin's eyes and mouth were gone, too, Nathan noted. And he was definitely more relaxed, moving more fluidly… "Your shoulder," he realized suddenly. "How is it?"

"Fine," Vin replied, quickly turning his attention back to the scene beyond the window.

Tanner was hiding something, but what? Nathan exchanged a look with Josiah and the big profiler shrugged, as confused by what he was seeing as Nathan was.

The former medic's examination continued. In profile Vin looked… younger, he decided. Younger? But how's that possible after what he's been through?

Reaching out to Vin, Buck rested his hand on the sniper's arm and asked, "Why didn't you tell us where you were going?"

Tanner's head dipped. "There was no time," he explained quietly, the words still haunted by the fears of what might have been. "He was dyin', Buck. There was nothin' anybody could do. I thought…" He trailed off, shaking his head. "There was one more possibility, but I didn't want t' raise anybody's hopes. I mean, it was… impossible…"

"Vin, we've all seen you pull off the impossible often enough to go along with whatever you wanted," Josiah told him. "You should know that."

Tanner shifted his weight enough to turn and meet the big man's eye. "It was something I had t' do alone, J'siah."

"But why here?" JD asked, looking around. "I mean, where'd you take him out there?" he asked, wanting to hear him explain the legend Ezra had told them about. Was it actually possible? Could something like that still happen in the modern world?

Vin's lips pressed into a line, telling JD he wasn't going to get an answer. At least not right now.

"Never mind," JD said, leaning forward to give Vin a quick hug. "I'm just glad you're both okay. You are okay, aren't you?"

Vin's cheeks and ears turned a darker shade of red.

"Vin?" Nathan questioned.

Tanner nodded. "Yeah, 'm fine now."

"We returned the Chinook," Josiah said, "and the forest service is happy now that they don't have two lost hikers to deal with."

Vin nodded, glad they had apparently taken care of everything for him. He could vaguely remember them finding him and Chris out there, but it was all a little blurred in his memory now, like it had all been a dream.

"Vin," Buck said, taking a step closer to the man, "Ezra said you told him about some kind of a magical lake… Is that where you took Chris? Did it work?"

Vin looked up at the big ladies' man, wondering why he felt so damn tired. "I… I think so," he replied.

"Has the doctor finished with Chris? Are they keeping him?" Nathan interjected.

Vin opened his mouth to reply, but a voice cut him off. "The doctor says I'm fine – one hundred percent. No injuries."

The others turned to watch Chris walk up and join them, their own memories of finding the two men striking them all as slightly dream-like now. But here they were, alive and whole and apparently unhurt. It just wasn't possible.

Chris studied the looks on the faces of his team, then offered them a small grin. "Hell, I can't explain it either, but this time I think I'm just going to say 'thank you' to whoever, or whatever's responsible, and leave it at that."

"Probably the wisest course of action… given the circumstances," Ezra said, his gaze shifting between the two men. "Perhaps the doctors at Summit will have more light to shed on this… miracle."

"Tomorrow," Chris said. "Right now I just want a steak, a soft hotel bed and eight hours of uninterrupted sleep."

The others heartily agreed

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The meal the men shared passed quickly and with little conversation, all of them seemingly going out of their way to avoid talking about what had happened in the grasslands. Instead, they focused on Burbaker and what he might be planning, which suited Vin just fine. The longer he could avoid talking about this, the happier he'd be. And, if he was lucky, they'd just let the matter drop.

Too bad he'd never been particularly lucky.

Tanner concentrated on watching Chris from the corner of his eye, reveling in every smile, scowl and snort the man offered. It felt good to just watch him, moving, talking, eating, arguing… It really was a miracle. One he didn't understand, but one for which he was wholeheartedly grateful.

And when they had finished their meals they drove over to a local hotel, taking four rooms for the night. Buck and JD were across the hall from Josiah and Nathan, who were next door to Chris and Vin, with Ezra next to them on the other side.

Once inside their room, Vin suddenly felt a little shy, and the feeling wasn't helped by the looks Chris was giving him. The man's expression wasn't easy to read, and that made Vin all the more uncomfortable.

"So, you gonna tell me what happened now?" Larabee asked after Vin emerged from the bathroom, ready for bed.

Vin drew a deep breath and walked over to one of the two double beds in the room, climbing onto it and sitting cross-legged in the center of the mattress. He looked at Larabee, still marveling at what he was seeing: Chris, alive and well.

"Well?" Larabee prompted, his expression almost amused.

Vin took another deep breath and started talking, beginning with the day at the hothouses, and ending with when Chris had woken up in the middle nowhere, leaving out the magical lake.

Larabee remained quiet throughout the entire saga, but when Vin finally fell silent he cleared his throat and said, "So, let me get this straight, they said I was brain dead?"

"Uh, more or less," Vin replied, his gaze locked on the pattern of his bedspread.

"Sounds more like more than less."

Tanner shrugged. "Must've been a glitch with the machines…"

"Okay, I was apparently brain dead, so you decided to take me to a national park…"

Vin nodded, still not looking up to meet the man's eyes. It already sounded crazy, and it had been. But it had worked, too.

"Why?" Larabee asked him.

Vin hesitated, then said, "Guess I reckoned y' rather die out there than in some hospital…"

"Vin, there was plenty of wilderness in our own backyard," Chris said. "Why'd you bring me all the way out here?"

"Uh, yeah… guess that was kind 'a crazy, huh," Vin agreed, plucking at a loose thread on the bedspread. Larabee wasn't buying a word of it.

And that was fine. Because he just didn't know how to tell him the truth.

"Guess, I wasn't thinkin' real clear," Vin added.

"Okay, suppose I buy that – which I don't, but we'll get back to that, later – how do you explain your shoulder?"

"Uh," Vin said, "guess the doctors were wrong 'bout that, too. It wasn't near as bad as they thought…"

Chris stayed where he was, sitting on the edge of the second bed, thinking about how he was going to explain all this to AD Travis and deciding he was only going to try after he and the man had shared a stiff drink, or two, or maybe three…

But there were a few facts that couldn't be disputed. One, he was alive. Two, he'd been given a clean bill of health from a physician – was in "perfect health," according to the man, in fact. And, three, Vin had also been given a clean bill of health by a doctor, something he would have sworn was impossible, given the recent injury the man had sustained in the line if duty.

So, here they were, both of them just fine… and Vin determined to evade every damn question he asked about how he'd managed this pair of miracles. Larabee sighed softly. Well, there was no use harassing the man any more tonight. He'd just pick it up again in the morning. More, maybe he'd just wait a few days, let Vin get comfortable with it in his head, then ask. Yeah, that sounded like a better course of action.

"You look tired," Chris said.

Vin nodded. "Feel tired, too."

"Me, too. Let's get some sleep. The rest'll keep."

Vin looked up then, meeting Chris' eyes. "I'm glad you're all right."

Chris grinned. "Me, too. Glad the shoulder's okay."

Vin nodded. "Me, too."

Denver, Friday

0915 Hours

"I have no earthly explanation for this," Dr. Randell stated, shaking his head. "I've never seen anything like it, and, to be honest, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes."

That made Chris' eyes widen slightly. Somehow it all seemed more real somehow, the true depth of this miracle Vin had pulled off. He glanced back at the X-rays, studying the damage that had, for all intents and purposes, taken his life. He really had been brain dead… But he didn't remember any light or life review or anything else he'd heard some people experienced when they died – and then came back to talk about it.

But maybe those memories had been wiped away, along with his injuries. Not that it mattered. He was just glad he was alive. But still, it sure as hell gave you something to think about. And, one way or another, he was going to get to the bottom of the truth. And that meant Vin.


1100 Hours

Vin heard Larabee's approach long before the blond found him sitting on the shore of the small lake. He watched a bird gliding on the breezes blowing above the tiny waves and smiled to himself, thinking about Toby. The friendly old dog lived as long as his grandfather had… And, after a few years, their trip to the Healing Lake had become nothing more than a vague dream to him, but it hadn't been a dream. It had happened, just like the trek with Larabee had happened. And, this time, he had the missing scars to prove it.

Chris walked down the shore, taking a seat in the grass next to Tanner. "Vin, I think it's time we talked, don't you?"

Tanner nodded, knowing he wouldn't be able to escape, not this time.

"So talk, tell me what happened out there – the truth this time."

"I don't know," Vin said quietly, looking out at the water and wishing Chris didn't know him so well he'd come looking for him here.


"I'm not trying t' be a pain in the ass about this, Chris. I honestly can't explain what happened."

Larabee nodded. "I talked to the doctor again this morning, and Nathan… Saw the X-rays, too. I was… royally fucked." He reached up, rubbing absently at his forehead. "When all was said and done, I was dead."

Vin nodded. It was true. "I wouldn't've tried somethin' so…"


"Crazy is more like it, but that's close enough."

"I called Josiah… He's been trying to figure this out, too. He told me he found a story about an ancient healing lake that the Comanche believed in… You told me once your grandfather worked with them… That's where you took me, isn't it? To that lake."

"Yeah," Vin said on the tail end of a long sigh. It was a shame his friends were so blasted smart, too.

"But how'd you find it?" Larabee asked, his curiosity rising. "I mean, it's just a legend, right?"

"M' grandfather told me the story when I was a little kid… said the lake was out in the grasslands, so the wounded animals and warriors could find it when they needed it… When they said y'– So that's where I took ya."

"But you knew where you were going, right? I mean, that area's huge! That lake could've been anywhere."

"Prayed I did," Vin said quietly. There was no getting out of it now, so he told the man Toby's story.

Chris leaned back on his elbows when Vin finished, his head tilting back as he squinted up into the clear blue sky above them. "I've never believed in much of anything… especially things that are impossible…"

"Chris," Vin said, still trying to make peace with the events himself, "this is… special. It's a matter 'a faith, I guess. But maybe the doctors were wrong. Maybe y' weren't hurt as bad as they thought y' were, or, maybe I did find a magical lake. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is you're all right. You're family, and I couldn't just sit there and watch y' die…"

That sent a blush racing across Larabee's cheeks. "And you're all right now, too. That's what's important to me. The rest…? Hell, maybe this was all some kind of collective nightmare we got caught in…"

Vin grinned, looking a little sheepish. "This ain't leadin' t' some 'a that 'I'm Okay, You're Okay' shit, is it?"

Larabee chuckled. "No. Just tell me the truth, that lake healed you, too, didn't it?"

"Guess so. M' shoulder's fine now and it was busted up when I took y' out of the hospital. Didn't think I was gonna make it there for a while…"

Chris shook his head. "Damn, Tanner, you telling me you carried me all the way out there, with that busted-up shoulder, looking for a magical healing lake?"

"What I had t' do."

"I know," Chris admitted, knowing if he'd been in Vin's shoes he would have done anything he could think of to save the man, too. Then a thought struck him. "Could you do it again?"

Vin shook his head.

"Even if one of the others got hurt, or me again?"

"Damn, Larabee, now you're just beggin' for trouble."

"But if they were, if I was, would you try it again?"


"So you do think you could find it again."

"I didn't say that!"

Larabee sat forward, smiling at Tanner's embarrassment. "Vin, if I've never told you… you're a damned amazing man."

Vin's blush deepened and he looked away, but Larabee could see his ears had turned a deep crimson. He just had the feeling there was something else going on here, something more than embarrassment over saving a friend's life, but he wasn't at all sure what.

"What's really bothering you about this?" the blond probed.

"What makes y' think something's botherin' me?"

"Call it a hunch," Chris said with a small grin. Vin could never hide the truth from him; it was always right there, in his eyes.

"Can't y' just be grateful y' ain't dead and leave it at that, y' ungrateful bastard…" Vin grumbled under his breath.

"Come on, what is it?"

Vin drew in a long, deep breath and silently counted to ten.


"It's the scars," he finally admitted.

"The scars?" Larabee echoed. "I don't understand."

Vin pushed himself to his feet and stalked off several paces. He turned to face the blond. "Damn it, Chris, I have medals and commendations for some of those scars!"

Larabee blinked, letting that sink in. "And now they're gone… so it's like you haven't earned them?" he guessed.

"The medals ain't got nothing t' do with it… not exactly, anyway… All right, damn it, I took you out there. It was you the lake was supposed to heal, not me."



"That doesn't answer the question, Vin."

Vin rested his closed fists on his hips. "I don't walk the kind 'a path that should've let me– I ain't a holy man, Chris. Hell, I ain't even a Comanche, just a little Kiowa on my mom's side, and Grandpa worked for 'em."

That prompted a chuckle from Larabee.

"It ain't funny!" Vin snapped.

"No, it's not… Vin, faith… it's a sacred thing," Chris told him, enjoying the way Tanner's accent thickened whenever he got upset. "I guess the Spirits, like you call them, knew you believed, knew you wanted to help someone you cared about, called family. Maybe that was all they needed."

"Maybe," Vin allowed, but then he turned imploring eyes on Chris and asked, "But how the hell 'm I gonna explain this t' Dr. Chandler?"

Larabee started to reply, but then realized he didn't have an answer. "I– I don't know."

"Neither do I, and y' know he's gonna grab hold of this like a dog with a bone."

The blond smiled. "That's the real problem, isn't it?"


"You are embarrassed!" he said, a smile erupting across his face. "You're embarrassed because the lake found you worthy."

"I am not embarrassed! I just don't want t' have t' explain this to– to– to every damned doctor I see fer the rest 'a m' life! I can't! I don't have an explanation!"

Larabee stood and stepped up next to Vin, wrapping his arm around the man's shoulders and giving him an affectionate squeeze. "Well, I suppose we could always classify this under 'need to know.'"

"Damn it, Lar'bee, they're gonna say they need t' know."

"I guess you're right."

"But they're never gonna believe me."

Larabee's smile widened and his eyes danced with amusement. "Ezra left a message on my voice mail. He suggested we tell anyone who asks that it was aliens who did it…"

Tanner's blue eyes narrowed. "Aliens?"

"Hey, it was just a suggestion."

"Sounds more like somethin' JD'd come up with."

Larabee smiled, deciding not to tell him what JD and Buck had come up with… "Vin, I really don't care what we tell people. We're both alive, and we're both healthy, and that's all that matters… Thank you."

"It's what someone who cares y' is supposed t' do."

Reaching out, Chris squeezed Vin's shoulder again. "No, pardner, this was above and beyond. Trust me."

Vin blushed again, then shook his head and gave Larabee a slap on the back as he stepped away. "Aliens, huh?"

"Yep – bright lights, strange probes, lost time…"

"How the hell does Ezra know so much about that crap?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Chris replied as they headed toward the parking lot.

Vin nodded. "Think I'm warmin' up t' the idea. Little green men…"

"I think they're supposed to be gray."


Larabee nodded.

"Green sounds more… alien."

Chris snorted. "Hell, Vin, let's just say it was an act of faith."

"A faith healing!" Vin shouted.

Larabee rolled his eyes. But he was grinning. "Why not."