Magnificent Seven ATF Universe
A Dish Served

by The Neon Gang

OC'S: Dr. Megan MacKenzie, Cletus Wilton, Michael Keagan, Lonnie Mahoney, Dr. Devlin Matthews, Dr. Lynn Abell

Art by Shiloh!

Denver, Colorado

Wednesday, 1 p.m.

Sitting in what they fondly called "the saloon," the remaining three members of Team Seven sat in silence while Jessica, Nancy, and Bridget Sanders slowly explained the details of what was going to be the focus of at least a portion of their two week vacation. The rest of the team had already headed out of town on their various adventures, Buck and JD to do some whitewater rafting on the Animas, Nathan and Rain off to California and the various amusement parks the LA area had to offer, and Josiah up to Boulder for a week-long retreat being hosted by the Naropa Institute.

The three stunning sisters' story was laced with just enough tragedy and selflessness that the ATF agents knew that they couldn't turn them away, even if it did mean an unplanned trip out of town. Not that it mattered, really. They hadn't made any specific plans for the two-week hiatus. Chris had been looking forward to getting some repairs done around the ranch, with Vin's help, but that would wait, and Ezra had only been hoping to get caught up on some reading out by the pool.

Larabee decided that the change in plans was all his oldest friend's fault. After all, it had been Buck who had introduced them to the women, or two of them, anyway. In fact, Buck had been dating Jessica for several weeks now, while Nancy and Ezra had been out a few times over the same period.

"Look, ladies," Chris said, his voice soft with sympathy, "we'd be more than happy to look into this for you, but why haven't you spoken to the police?"

"We tried," Nancy said, frustration clear in her voice as she reached out for Ezra's hand. "They just refuse to take us seriously; maybe because gram doesn't live here in Denver. We even called the State's Attorney's office." She looked to Bridget, asking, "Wasn't that it?"

"Oh, I wish Buck were here," Jessica moaned, wringing her hands and interrupting any reply Bridget might have. "He'd know what to do, I just know he would."

"If you could provide us with a name of the man who defrauded your grandmother, and the address of his business office in… Woverton, was it? We will be more than happy to drive out there tomorrow and see that he's confronted on this issue." Ezra looked to the other two men and added, "Isn't that right?"

"Yeah, sure, guess we would do that," Vin agreed, finding it difficult to pull his attention away from Bridget's large, tear-dampened green eyes. "We'd be happy t' help ya, ladies."

Bridget looked up and offered the sharpshooter a watery smile. "Would you? Gram's just beside herself, and at her age…"

"No need to worry any longer, dear ladies," Ezra added, leaning forward to gently pat Nancy's back. "I'm sure we'll be able to bring this scoundrel to justice. Taking advantage of a lovely woman like your grandmother, why, it's criminal!"

"Ez," Vin said with a slight grin, "it is criminal. Local authorities ought t' come 'round and take a look at 'im if we drop in."

"Why don't you drop off whatever information you have on this guy tomorrow," Chris added. "And–"

"We can do better than that," Jessica broke in, pushing a single tear off her smooth, tanned cheek. "I have all the information right here." She reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope and handed it to Chris. "And five hundred dollars. Will that be enough for you to start?"

Larabee opened the envelope and pulled out a picture of a kindly-looking older woman, a business card for Adam Ricoco, investment analyst, and a cashier's check for $500. "All we'll need is the picture and the business card," he said, handing the check back to Jessica.

"Thank you. That's the man, that's the card he gave my poor, sweet grandmother," Jessica said, sniffing softly. She dabbed her eyes with a damp tissue.

"Can't you start today?" Nancy pleaded, her expression sweetly imploring Ezra. "It's only noon. Couldn't you get there today? What if he runs away?"

"Yes, of course we can start today. I'm sure we can be ready to leave in an hour or so."

Chris and Vin exchanged half-annoyed glances, but the profuse gratitude expressed by the three women cut short any ideas they might have had about waiting until the morning to leave.

"Sure," Chris finally said, forcing a smile. "We'll leave this afternoon."

"How can we ever thank you?" Jessica asked, leaning forward to kiss the blond lightly on the cheek. "If Buck were here, I would've asked him, but I forgot about the rafting trip, and–"

"It's no trouble," Larabee told her, deciding Buck was going to owe him – big time – for this one.

"We'll get this miscreant," Ezra assured the sisters, helping Nancy to her feet. She reached out, resting her hands lightly on his shoulders, then leaned forward and kissed him.

"You're so wonderful," she breathed as they parted.

Vin extended his hand, helping Bridget to stand. Taking a step forward, she gave Tanner a hug. "We really can't thank you enough," she whispered into his ear. "But when you get back, we'll try…" She pressed her hips forward slightly, suggestively, adding, "…real hard."

Vin felt his cheeks begin to burn and cleared his throat, gently pushing her back. A tingle of doubt raced down his spine. The large green eyes staring back at him looked sincere, but the buzz in his gut told the former bounty hunter that this woman was trouble.

"I'll give you a call from Woverton," Ezra assured Nancy, walking with her to the door of the bar.

Standing there, the three men watched the sisters until they were out of sight.

"I can't imagine how Buck ran into them. They're such nice young ladies," Ezra said. "Don't you agree?"

"Yeah, they're nice enough," Chris agreed, adding, "but why the hell didn't Buck mention this before he left?"

Vin folded his arms over his chest and stared after the threesome, frowning.

"And you, didn't you think they were enchanting, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked, curious about the man's lack of response.

He shrugged. "Don't know 'bout that, but somethin' don't feel right 'bout their story."

Ezra shot his friend a disapproving glance. "What? Not another one of your 'feelings,' Mr. Tanner. It really isn't that uncommon for a younger man, a con artist really, to take advantage of older women like dear Mrs. Saunders," the former con man said.

"I know that," Vin defended himself, "ain't stupid, but I'm tellin' y', there's somethin' up with those girls."

"Jealous?" Chris teased Tanner with a grin.

"Hell, no," Tanner snapped back. "Look, if we're gonna do this, we better get ready."

"Well, I for one am looking forward to bringing this rogue to justice," Ezra proclaimed as he started for the door. "The nerve of the man, defrauding a wonderful woman out of her entire life's savings… For shame!"

"For shame," Chris echoed with a grin, following after Standish.

With a heavy sigh, Vin shook his head and trailed after the pair, the buzz only growing louder with each step.

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

J. Watson's parking lot

"Keagan?" Jessica asked into the cellular phone while Bridget drove their silver BMW out of the parking lot.


"They'll be leaving this afternoon," she said.

"Nice work, cupcake. We'll take care of the rest. See Mahoney tomorrow afternoon – the usual place – and pick up your money."

"Ten thousand apiece, right?"

"That's what we agreed to, sweetheart. But you and your 'sisters' gotta take a vacation for a few weeks, understand? Go down to Mexico or someplace."

"I hear the Caribbean's nice this time of year," Jessica said with a smile, then disconnected the call. She smiled. "Thirty thousand dollars, ladies."

The three women squealed with delight.

"I can't believe they fell for that!" Nancy giggled. "Ezra is sooo gullible!"

"Buck, too," Jessica said. "But I was worried Chris and Vin might not buy it."

"All men are gullible, honey," Bridget said with a predatory grin. "All it takes is the right story… and the right storyteller."

"I think a long weekend in a Bermuda beach cottage sounds just heavenly," Jessica said, leaning her head back against the seat and sighing deeply.

"Mmm," Nancy concurred dreamily. "But we'll absolutely have to do a little shopping first."

"Of course," Jessica replied. "That's the second stop we'll make tomorrow."

"The second?" Nancy asked her.

Jessica nodded. "First we stop and pick up all that money!"

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

Wednesday, 9 p.m.

"How much farther to Woverton?" Chris asked as Ezra checked the Colorado state map that he had spread out across their restaurant table.

"Well, if the scale is accurate," he reported, double checking the distance for the third time, "I'd say we have approximately seventy-five more miles to go."

"Ain't too bad," Vin said, finding his coffee cup under the map and checking it. It was empty.

Standish carefully folded the paper back up.

"More coffee?" Chris asked when Vin reached for the plastic decanter at the far edge of the table only to find that empty as well.

"Could use some, how 'bout you?"

"Yeah, sounds good," the blond agreed, catching sight of the pie menu behind the salt and pepper shakers.

"Yes, more coffee would be nice," Ezra added.

Vin flagged the waitress, requesting a refill. The young woman took the carafe, returning a couple minutes later. "Here you are," she said, seeing Chris still looking at the pie menu. "You guys want some dessert to go with that?"

"Hmm, this sounds good, doesn't it?" Ezra asked his associates, smiling widely at the pretty young woman. Chris handed him the list and he skimmed it, saying, "I'll have a piece of 'fresh banana cream pie.'"

"Okay," she replied with a grin, "'fresh banana cream pie,' we get 'em right out of the can every day – can't get any fresher than that."

"Lemon meringue," Chris said, grinning.

"Apple, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream," Vin finished.

"I'll be right back," she promised.

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

Wednesday, 10 p.m.

Ezra sat in the back seat of Larabee's Dodge Ram and gingerly rubbed his stomach. "I don't know about you gentlemen," he said, "but that last pot of coffee tasted a little odd, and my stomach's suddenly unhappy. Or perhaps it was the pie. Or the coffee and the pie… Then again, I suppose it could be a virus. You can never be sure these days."

"Weren't the best coffee I ever had," Vin replied from behind the wheel, "but m' pie was good an' I feel fine."

"Me, too," Chris added.

"Maybe it's just me then, a mild case of stomach flu."

"Is it bad?" Chris asked, turning slightly in the passenger seat to get a better look at their undercover specialist. Standish looked fine, if a little tired.

"No, not yet."

"Well, hang in there, we're almost there," the blond said. "We'll find a hotel and get started in the morning."

Ezra nodded, frowning and gingerly palpating his abdomen.

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

Wednesday, 11 p.m.

The threesome rode in silence, the dark State Highway deserted except for the Ram. Vin shrugged his shoulders, then twisted his head side to side in an effort to ease the tension in his neck.

"You doing okay?" Chris asked quietly, not wanting to wake Standish, who was sleeping.

"Yeah, m' neck's just gettin' a little stiff is all."

"Want me to drive for a while?"

"Naw, the last sign said Woverton's just twelve miles, I c'n hold out that long. Should start seein' a motel or two pretty soon."

Chris peered out at the dark countryside. The land was mostly flat, with occasional rolling hills, like most of the northeastern plains of Colorado. "Looks like this place is pretty remote."

"Yep, might as well be in Nebraska out here."

A pickup, its headlights off, rumbled out of the darkness, cutting them off and nearly scraping the side of the Ram as it passed. Vin jerked the wheel to the right in order to avoid hitting the truck, wheels squealing on the pavement before they caught in the loose dirt along the shoulder.

Despite Vin's frantic efforts, the Ram drifted into a slow revolution, the tires spinning on the loose dirt and rocks until they reached a shallow ditch and caught, flipping the truck over once. The outline of someone flashed by in the beams of the headlights and Vin thought he heard a scream as they hit and the images shattered into blackness.

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

Woverton, Colorado

Thursday, 6 a.m.

A deep, stabbing pain attacked Vin's head and side, each warring for supremacy as he slowly climbed toward consciousness. His thoughts were disjointed and confused, but the same images kept flashing through his consciousness: a pickup roaring out of the dark, a wild flip of perspective, dancing colored lights, voices, hands, and a cold, barking laugh like one he knew he'd heard before…

He groaned and forced his eyes open, only to close them again in order to shut out the glare from a bright overhead light that came on in response to his groan.

Raising a hand to block the light, he tried blinking again. His vision was blurred, but it wasn't hard to identify his stark surroundings. "Jail?" he groaned disbelievingly, glancing around the otherwise empty grey cell.

Despite the pain, Vin pushed himself up to a seated position, worry helping him along. "Chris? Ez?" he called, but the words echoed hollowly and remained unanswered.

He reached up, gingerly touching the left side of his head and his fingers came away sticky with blood. "Great, just great," he sighed, leaning back against the cold wall. His throat began to close and he swallowed several times as his stomach threatened to turn over. "Not now," he moaned softly to himself, glancing around, looking for a sink or a toilet, and finding nothing.

He felt terrible, but it looked like there was no help coming for a while. Closing his eyes, he tried to concentrate on his body, wanting to know if there were other injuries, but the constant pounding in his head made it impossible to tell and he quickly gave up.

Where were Chris and Ezra? He wondered. Were they all right? He hoped so, but he wanted to know for sure.

"Hey," he called, but his voice was too weak to carry to someone outside the cell. "Ah hell," he breathed.

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

Chris flexed his fingers and toes, glad to feel them respond. He wasn't dead. At least he didn't think he was, not if his fingers and toes were moving. Would he even have fingers and toes after he died?

"Hey, you awake? Hey, mister, can you hear me?"

"Yeah, I hear you," Larabee growled, forcing his eyes open. A large grey-haired man in a green uniform started down at him, a slight grin on his lips. "Where am I?"

"Woverton County Jail. You Chris Larabee?"

The agent nodded, sitting up to face the man. "Where are my friends?"

"In their own cells."

"Why are we here?" he asked, confusion adding to the generally fuzzy feeling in his head. "We were run off the road just outside of town… Who found us?"

"You say you were run off the road?"

"That's right," Chris replied, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his neck; looked like he was all in one piece, just a little sore where the seatbelt had bruised him. "A pickup came out of nowhere – no lights, drivin' like a bat out of Hell. Vin swerved and we caught the shoulder and rolled."

"We didn't see any signs of another truck. All we found were your tracks."

"That's impossible," Chris stated flatly, rubbing at his bruised and aching shoulder. "There had to be something."

"Looks like you and your friends are in a little bit of trouble."


"Your truck hit someone."

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

"Being in an automobile accident is no reason to put someone in jail!" Ezra argued with a young deputy who was obviously enjoying the agent's agitation. "We should've been taken to a hospital, not here. Now, I'd like to see my friends. Were they hurt?"

"No," the deputy snapped, then grinned. "Well, not too bad, anyway. And you're not goin' anywhere. When you rolled into that ditch you hit a little girl, jack. That's why you're here – for murder."

"What? That's impossible."

"Leann Gleason was walkin' home from her sister's house. She was down in the ditch alongside the road so she wouldn't be up with traffic, just like her daddy told her. You hit her all right; killed her dead."

The blood drained from Ezra's face, leaving him as grey as the cell walls. "That's terrible, a tragedy, I'm sure, but Mr. Tanner didn't mean to hit anyone–"

"She was fourteen years old. Pretty as a picture, too."

"Mr. Tanner couldn't have seen her. He'd never–"

"He killed her."

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

"There's nothin' I could'a done!" Vin yelled at the leering deputy, anger, pain, and frustration evaporating what little patience he had left. "I told y', a truck forced me off the road. I can't remember what happened after that!" He stopped, rubbing at his aching head. "Think we flipped over."

"Nobody forced you off the road," the deputy said.

"I'm tellin' y', there was a truck. Didn't have his lights on. I swerved. I didn't have time t' look an' see if there's someone in that ditch. I don't remember seein' a little girl. Y' think I wanted t' roll the Ram? I didn't see that girl, an' I couldn't've stopped if I had!" he yelled his accent getting thicker.

Vin sucked in several deep breaths, trying to force the dizziness away and settle his stomach. Was that what happened? he wondered. It was hard to remember the details, but there had been a truck, a truck without lights, of that he was absolutely sure.

"Well, Mr. Tanner, I might've believed that you and your partners were tired. I might've even believed you fell asleep at the wheel. Standish admits that he was sleeping when it happened. It was late, you'd been driving for a long time."

"Yeah, he was sleepin'. But I wasn't. Chris an' I were talkin' when that pickup came up on m' left. Damn near rammed right int' us. I had t' swerve. The tires caught along the shoulder an' we rolled. That's it – end 'a story."

His stomach threatened to rebel and Vin leaned back, breathing deeply through his nose, willing it to settle. No way was he barfing in front of the glowering deputy.

"One more question, Mr. Tanner."

"What?" Vin snapped, his eyes dipping almost closed as his vision began to blur again.

"How do you explain the fact that all three of you had cocaine in the blood samples we took?"

The man's blue eyes popped open, his gaze immediately going to the crooks of his elbows. "What? Blood samples? There's no–"

"And," the deputy snapped, "how do you explain the pound of uncut coke we found in your Ram?"

"A pound 'a cocaine? There's some kinda mistake here," Vin growled, wishing the throbbing in his head and side would go away long enough to let him think through this new turn of events. "M' friends an' me, we don't do drugs. We're ATF agents. Call our director, Orin Travis, in Denver, he can tell ya."

"There's a mistake all right, Tanner, and you and friends are the one who made it. We don't tolerate junkies and drug pushers around here, especially junkies and pushers who kill little girls!"

"Didn't kill anybody!" Vin argued. "An' we don't do drugs! How many times d' I have t' say it? Now, I wanna know if m' friends 're all right? Were they hurt?"

"They're fine. We'll be moving the three of you to the Woverton Penal Facility later this morning."

"What?" Vin asked, then snorted and shook his head, instantly regretting the move. "Guess y' guys never heard a' due process, or a trial? How 'bout innocent 'til proven guilty?"

"You watch your mouth, boy," the deputy snapped, stepping up to grab the front of Vin's T-shirt and giving him a shake.

The sharp motion sent shards of fiery agony through Vin's head and chest and he brought his hands up to fend off another attack, moaning softly.

The deputy released him and took a step back, his hand coming up to rest on the butt of his revolver. "You'll get your damned trial soon enough, Tanner. In the meantime, we don't post bail for drug dealers, or murderers."

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

"Wait a minute!" Chris yelled, climbing to his feet. "I told you, we're federal agents, you–"

"I don't care if you're the freakin' Queen of England."

"Fine. We have the right to make a phone call and have a lawyer appointed to us. I want to make that call – now."

"Well now, I see you watch television," the grey-haired deputy said. "But we don't do things here in Woverton County like they do on TV. You'll go to the Facility until your trial. And don't you worry, we'll make sure you have a lawyer present for that. Judge Murphy should be back from his fishin' trip in a week or two."

"A week or two? This is completely illegal, you know that, don't you?"

"And once you're convicted you'll be sent back to the Facility to serve out your sentences."

"I don't believe this!" Chris snapped.

"Well, you'd better believe it, son. You screw up at the Facility, you'll never leave this county."

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

"People 'round here are real fond of their own, Mr. Stand-swish and little Leann was a real favorite, so you're going to be here a while."

"I assure you, Deputy, you will not get away with this," Ezra said. "We are federal agents; we have friends and coworkers who will be looking for us."

"Let 'em look," the young deputy smirked. "They won't find a thing they can identify."

"I want to see my friends. I want to ensure that they are still breathing," Standish stated firmly.

The deputy chuckled and shook his head. "You're a real mouthy son-of-a-bitch," he said. "You'll see 'em soon enough – when they take you to the Facility."

Ezra watched the deputy leave, locking the door behind him, then dropped onto the cement bench that served as chair and bunk. He shook his head. This is wrong, very, very, wrong. It looked like Vin's evaluation had been right after all.

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

Thursday, 10 a.m.

The three ATF agents were herded across an almost empty parking lot toward a small school bus that someone had painted lime green. Chicken wire covered the windows and large black letters spelled out "Woverton Penal Facility" across the side. The chains that linked their feet together made it necessary for the three men to shuffle along single file toward the vehicle. Another length of chain ran up from between their feet to handcuffs that were attached to leather belts, securing their hands near their abdomen. Relief at finding the others relatively healthy was evident on each of their faces.

When they reached the small bus, the older, grey-haired deputy unlocked the chain securing their feet and tugged it free while the younger deputy stood guard, a shotgun leveled on them in case they tried to bolt. Once they were freed from one another they were waved into the bus.

They took seats in silence, another man locking a mesh door to confine them before leaving to gas the bus.

"We've been set up," Chris said softly.

"And yer first clue was what?" Vin moaned, panting slightly as he sank back against the seat and closed his eyes.

"It appears to be a rather expert job," Standish offered.

"You okay?" Chris asked Vin, frowning. Tanner was pale and sweating, his complexion grey.

Tanner shrugged. "Anybody leave a note so someone knows where we are?"

Larabee shook his head.

"That was my fault," Ezra moaned softly. "If I hadn't been in such a rush to help Nancy and her grandmother–"

"If there even is a grandmother," Chris interrupted. "Look, it's no one's fault."

Vin leaned forward slightly as another wave of dizziness swept over him. He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed convulsively, silently commanding his stomach to stop climbing up the back of his throat. "We were all too quick t' help those girls… Josiah will start lookin' for us when he gets back from Boulder."

"He won't be back for another day," Chris said and sighed.

"No. I called him an' left him a message – told him we was goin' out 'a town an' we'd be back in two or three days, and that I didn't like the feel of it. I figure he'll start worryin' in four," Vin said.

"I hope you're right," Chris told his friend, watching Vin rub at his temples and then noticing the dried blood for the first time. "Christ, this is like something out of a really bad movie."

Tanner shifted, grimacing as he did.

"Vin, you sure you're okay?" Chris asked again.

The sniper nodded, opening his eyes. "Think I might've bruised some ribs. An' m' head's killin' me." He glanced around the bus and frowned. "Where are we?"

Chris frowned, but answered, "Woverton. We were arrested, remember?"

"This is wrong," Ezra said, shaking his head. "Mr. Tanner should've been taken to see a doctor."

"Shut up!"

The three men looked up to find a large, red-haired man standing at the front of the bus. He held a thick nightstick in one hand and was pointing it at them. "There'll be no talkin' unless you're spoken to, ladies. Understood?"

They refused to say anything, but they nodded.

The man opened the mesh door and sat down, stretching out along the first seat, turning slightly so he could watch the three federal agents. The man who had gassed the bus returned, sliding into the driver's seat.

"You boys better take a good look," the red-haired man said, grinning at them, "gonna be the last view of freedom you're gonna see in a good long while."

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

Woverton Penal Facility

Thursday, near noon

"They should be here any time now," Warden Cletus Wilton told his guests as he smoothed down the few strands of hair that traversed his otherwise bald head from temple to temple. The pair made him nervous. Wilton could be a vindictive, vicious man, but he prided himself on being straightforward. These two were much more subtle and that set him on edge.

One of the two men nodded, a self-satisfied smile spreading over his handsome face. Turning to his companion, he chuckled. "So, Matthews, what do you have in mind for my entertainment?"

"From our conversations on the phone it's my understanding that you want these men destroyed, correct?"

"Yeah, but I want to see them suffer in the process. It can't be too fast. They're responsible for my brother's death, for ruining my career. I want to see them pay, and pay dearly for both."

"The mind is a wonderful instrument, Mr. Keagan, and I guess you can say that I'm a master conductor. Do you have the rest of the files I requested?"

Keagan nodded toward a small building marked: Warden Wilton. "They're in Cletus's office."

"Good," Matthews said. "I'll need a day to read them over and come up with something you'll enjoy. In the meantime, Warden, see to it that they're placed in isolation cells."

Wilton nodded and walked off, glad to escape the pair. He was being paid well enough to help Keagan and his partner, Lonny Mahoney, and even if he wasn't, he'd have to help the former ATF agents anyway; they knew too much about his illegal gun sales for him to risk saying no.

"I'm going to drive back into town. Would you like to meet me and my partner later for dinner?" Keagan asked the psychologist.

Matthews nodded. "Just let me pick up the files."

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

Thursday, noon

The bus passed by the Woverton Penal Facility's main gate, a set of double chain-link rolling partitions topped with razor-wire. Two men stood guard at the entrance, each holding a rifle. Towers stood at the four corners of the large compound, fifteen feet high, each with two more armed men keeping watch on the prisoners below. Three large Quonset-style buildings dominated the center of the enclosure, labeled: A, B and C. Next to building C sat three smaller wooden structures, stenciled on the outside: Warden, Infirmary, and Mess Hall. At one edge of the compound sat a large three-story Victorian house complete with a wide lawn, trees, white picket fence, gazebo and several outbuildings. Several smaller houses sat on either side of the Victorian.

Two more lime green buses sat parked behind the Mess Hall. Next to building A were three other small buildings, but the angle made it impossible to see what they were. Beyond the chain-link fences were acres of cultivated fields. Chris made a quick count, finding twenty men dressed in pale-blue overalls working in the fields while five guards watched them.

"Get up," the redhead snarled.

Chris and Ezra complied, Vin moving a little slower, favoring his ribs and fighting lightheadedness. The deputy immediately stepped forward, shoving Standish out of the way and reaching to grab Vin's shirt, roughly jerking him the rest of the way to his feet.

Vin grabbed for the back of the seat in front of him, the world suddenly spinning out of control. His legs went weak and he leaned over the back of the seat to help support his weight.

"Hey!" Chris barked, taking a step toward his friend.

The deputy smoothly slid his billyclub out of its ring and shoved the tip under Larabee's chin. "Back off, blondie," he hissed.

"Look, uh, officer, he's hurt," Ezra tried. "He–"

"Hurt?" the man interrupted. "Well, ain't that just too damn bad." Using the club to keep Chris at arm's length, he jerked Vin out from behind the seat and into the center of the bus. "I said let's go."

Using the back of the seats to guide and support him, Vin made his way to the front of the bus before everything whirled again and he swayed on his feet.

"What's the matter?" the second deputy asked, a taunting smirk on his face. "The junkie-kid-killer a coward? Afraid of doin' a little hard time, pussy?"

Tanner tried to focus on what the man was saying, but the words made no sense. He didn't do drugs. He hadn't killed anybody. Why was he in jail? Nothing made any sense. He tried to put it all together, but the soft buzz that filled his head escalated into an overpowering roar, sweeping all the fragmented thoughts away in a surge of pure agony. He tried to raise his hands to his ears, but the cuffs stopped him far short.

"Come on, get out," the second man ordered them.

Chris's hands pressed gently against the middle of Vin's back and the sharpshooter moaned once, then staggered, half-blind, down the bus steps, feet landing in the dusty earth. With no breeze, it was hot at the work farm and Tanner squinted against the glare that seemed to be lancing straight through his eyes and into his head, adding to the building agony. He sensed more than heard Chris and Ezra step down behind him and take up positions on either side of him.

"Move," Red commanded, gesturing toward the building labeled: Warden Cletus Wilton.

Chris leaned closer to Vin, asking, "You okay?"

Tanner tried to nod, but the slightest movement made the pain unbearable. "Think so," he said thickly. "M' head jist hurts… bad."

Red gave Ezra a shove that nearly knocked the man off his feet, but he pulled himself up and started forward, leading the way. Vin ground his teeth together and forced himself to take a step, then another, managing several more before his stomach finally rebelled at the pain. He stumbled and fell to his knees, heaving bile into the dirt.

Chris knelt, reaching out to help his friend the best he could. "Easy, Vin," he soothed. "Come on, maybe we can get you some help."

Forcing himself to straighten, Tanner stood soundlessly. With Chris's help he shuffled painfully after Ezra.

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

The warden studied the three men carefully, wondering what they'd done to deserve what was coming. Not that it really mattered; he was being paid well enough not to think about it too much.

"Gentlemen, Woverton Penal Facility might not look like much, but let me assure you that it's run tight. We do not tolerate any insurrection. You follow orders and stay out of trouble and you'll find that the time will pass a whole lot more pleasantly," he said, delivering his well-memorized speech for new inmates.

"Warden…" Chris said, glancing at the name on the building, "Wilton, my friend's hurt. He needs to see a doctor."

Wilton's eyes narrowed as he looked at Tanner. The man's grey complexion, hunched shoulders, and wheezing breath suggested that Larabee was telling the truth. "What's wrong with him?"

"It might be a concussion," Ezra volunteered. "We were in an automobile accident, and he has the right to be seen by a physician."

Wilton grunted. It wouldn't do to have Keagan's and Mahoney's fun interrupted, for any reason. Glancing past the three ATF agents to the guards, he said, "Tork, take him over and have Dr. MacKenzie take a look at him. Red, put these other two in isolation."

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

Red escorted Chris and Ezra to one of the smaller mystery buildings near Building A. Stepping inside the small structure, they were all struck by stale, hot air. The deputy gestured Chris into one tiny cell and Ezra into another, leaving an empty cell between them.

Another guard entered, tossing a pair of light blue overalls into each cell. "Put 'em on," he growled. "Shove everything out through the window. Hold anything back and you'll be breakin' rocks."

Red slammed the solid metal doors shut, sealing both men into a silent, oppressive darkness. The guard opened small six-inch by six-inch windows at eye-level in the doors, taking their clothes and belonging, and then left.

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

Vin stumbled into the dark, cool building and slumped down into one of the two plastic chairs in a small, stark waiting room. He clutched the chair arms, squeezing them as his throat began to tighten again. His left arm trembled and he tried to bear down on his grip, but the muscles refused to obey, his hand slipping off the plastic.

"Hey, Doc!" the deputy called.

A young woman entered from another room. "What is it, Tork?" she asked, her gaze flickering from the leering guard to Vin and back again.

"Says he's hurt. Take a look. We'll be back for him later." With that the deputy turned and left.

The doctor crossed to Vin. "Do you think you can make it back here so I can take a look?" she asked, helping Vin to stand.

"Think so," he said thickly. "Feel kinda sick."

"Okay, we'll just go easy." She slipped an arm around his waist, which had him flinching away.

"Ribs," he gulped.

"All right," she said, guiding him by the arm as he shuffled into the treatment room where she helped him climb carefully onto the examination table.

He sat, glancing around the room. The infirmary wasn't exactly state of the art; in fact, it looked more like a kitchen with a sink, stove, and refrigerator. But there was some medical equipment scattered across the counters as well. Glancing through the door to the small waiting area where he had been, he realized that there were bars on the only windows and multiple locks on the door.

"What happened?" the woman asked, stepping up to him with a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope.

"Almost got hit by a truck on the highway, our Ram rolled over," he said through gritted teeth as she helped him lie down on the table. "Now my ribs hurt an' I got a headache that won't quit. Dizzy, too, an' m' stomach's tryin' t' crawl up m' throat."

"Okay, just relax and I'll have a look," she assured him, raising the head of the examination table to help ease his nausea. She retrieved a small rolling table and placed a silver kidney-shaped basin on it. "If you get nauseous–"

"Thanks, Doc."

He watched as she took his blood pressure, checked his pulse and respiration, then lifted his shirt and checked his ribs. She wasn't exactly what you could call pretty, but there was something captivating about her appearance. Her light, reddish-brown hair was cut boyishly short, and she had pale, jade-green eyes set above high, prominent cheekbones. Her angular-shaped eyes were almost too big for her heart-shaped face and gave her a startled-doe kind of look. Too-large pale-blue coveralls hid her figure, but her touch was light, efficient, and caring.

She paused to make notes on a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard, then said, "It looks like you have a couple of bruised ribs, although they might be fractured. There's definite tenderness and swelling of the overlaying tissue. Does it hurt when you breathe?"

He nodded. "Some."

"I'm going to take an x-ray, just to be sure."

Vin lay still as she rolled the portable machine over, set up the film and took the picture of his ribs, then one of his head as well. Finished, she pushed the machine back to its corner, saying, "I don't want to bind your ribs unless I have to. It makes you breathe shallowly and that can lead to pneumonia. I know it'll hurt, but the best thing you can do is take several deep breaths while you're pressing against the injured ribs. Do it three or four times a day for several minutes."

"Okay, Doc," he agreed, then offered, "M' name's Vin. Vin Tanner."

"Megan MacKenzie," she supplied blandly, without looking at him.

"Work here long?" he asked as she used a penlight to check his pupils.


"Guess it's against the rules to talk to the doctor, huh?" he rasped.

She paused, meeting his gaze, and he could see her trying to decide how much to trust him. "Mr. Tanner, I'm a prisoner here, just like you. And after a while you'll learn, like I have, that it's better not to get involved with the other inmates."

She walked away, gathering several items onto a tray that she then carried back and set on the wheeled table. "It looks like you might have a concussion, too," she said, cleaning the laceration along the side of his head. "Still dizzy?"

"Comes 'n' goes."

"Blurred vision?"



"Yeah," he said emphatically. "That's been pretty constant."

"Do you remember the accident?"

"Sorta, but it's more like a dream. I remember bits 'n' pieces, but 'm not sure if it's what really happened or not."

She nodded. "That's not unusual. You need to rest for a day or two, long enough to make sure there's no bleeding or swelling between the skull and the brain. I'll speak to Warden Wilton. I have one bed here you can use."

She walked over and retrieved the developed x-rays. Sliding them under a metal clip, she turned on the backlight to illuminate it. "Looks like you're lucky. No broken ribs, just bad bruises. And no skull fracture either."

"Guess that's somethin'."

"Around here, it's more than something. Do yourself a big favor, Mr. Tanner. Don't draw attention to yourself, and don't piss off the guards. They enjoy inflicting pain on the inmates and you're not up to that, not yet."

As the room tilted slightly, Vin grabbed for the edges of the exam table and snorted. "Guess 'm not."

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

Red stalked into the infirmary an hour later. "Hey, Doc, where's Tanner?"

"In here," Megan called from the treatment room.

The deputy tramped in, scowling. "All right, Tanner, let's go."

"Go?" she echoed, stepping up to the side of the treatment table. "But he can't leave, not yet."

Red shook his head. "My orders say different, Doc," he growled at her. He threw a pair of pale-blue overalls at Vin, the sharpshooter catching them with a fumbling gesture. "Get 'em on and let's go."

"Look," she tried again, "he has a concussion. He needs to rest for–"

"Take it up with the Warden," Red snapped, the hard edge to his voice forcing her to take a step back.

"Fine," she breathed, turning away.

Sitting up, Vin watched Megan leave the room. Despite her claims about not wanting to get involved, she still had a professional ethic, if not an ability to care. Sliding to the floor, the sharpshooter stepped out of his clothes as quickly as he could and pulled on the overalls.

Dressed again, he started for the door. The guard gave him a shove as he passed and Vin stumbled outside, the landscape tilting dangerously. Grabbing Tanner's arm, Red escorted the ATF agent to one of the outbuildings, pushing him into the empty cell between Chris and Ezra.

Red slammed the metal door shut and Vin flinched as the sound echoed in the small space. In the cool darkness, he sank down to the cement floor and drew his knees up, resting his forehead on them. His skull pounded, his chest burned, his shoulder and hip were starting to ache, and he wanted to throw up. "Shit," he muttered aloud.

Lifting his head, he looked around, but the darkness made it impossible to make out anything. I should've listened, he chastised himself. I should've listened t' m' gut. Wonder where Chris 'n' Ezra are. Hope they're all right.

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

Thursday, 6 p.m.

Michael Keagan, Lonnie Mahoney, and Dr. Devlin Matthews sat at a corner table, enjoying their dinner at Woverton's nicest restaurant. Around them, the café buzzed with customers.

Matthews savored another bite of his roast beef, then took a sip of the strong coffee. "I've skimmed the files and Warden Wilton called me earlier. It seems Tanner's hurt. The doctor thinks he might have a concussion. This is going to be much easier than I anticipated."

"What do you have in mind?" Mahoney asked, finishing off his meal and pushing the plate back.

"Tanner's the weakest link right now. We'll use his death to break the other two."

"How?" Keagan demanded, leaning over the table slightly, his dark eyes flashing. "I want details, Matthews. Those bastards are responsible for my brother's death. For us being fugitives. I want to hear, exactly, how they're going to suffer."

The behavioral psychologist chewed another bite, nodding. "Fine, fine, Michael, you want details, I'll give you details. We'll start by having the guards focus their attention on Tanner, wear him down. He's already hurting, so it'll be more obvious and heighten the protectiveness in the other two. If Larabee and Standish try to interfere, Tanner will pay the price. They'll back off, of course, wanting to spare him, and Tanner will feel abandoned. Once we create a wedge between them…"

"I think I like the sound of this, Devlin," Keagan interrupted, glancing at his partner.

Mahoney shrugged. He would have preferred to have killed the seven bastards from Team Seven, but Keagan had other ideas and he'd gotten used to letting Keagan make the decisions.

Dr. Matthews smiled. "I thought you might, Michael." He sipped his coffee again. "But this is contingent upon Tanner being able to survive anything long term. If not, Larabee and Standish will watch him die rather quickly, and then we'll be forced to start on them…" He paused, regarding Keagan and Mahoney momentarily before continuing. "If you don't mind me asking, what exactly was the relationship between these men and your brother?" Noting the dark look that crossed Keagan's face, he added hastily, "It might help me prepare their… treatment."

Keagan drew a deep breath and nodded. "My brother was involved in some… questionable, activities, shall we say?"

Matthews nodded.

"Lonny and I were helping him and somehow Larabee caught wind of it. These seven assholes set my brother up to get at us, and in the process Johnny was killed by Tanner. Mahoney and I are fugitives, and most of the money we'd set aside for our retirement has been seized by the government. It's payback time."

"Yes, it's as they say," Matthews said, nodding.

"Yeah, payback's a bitch," Mahoney chuckled.

The psychologist's eyebrows rose slightly. "I was actually thinking of the old saying that revenge is a dish best served cold."

Keagan shook his head. "You have it your way, I'll have it mine. Besides, just thinking about these guys makes my blood boil. And when we're done with these three, there are four more to go."

"Well, then, I'll go make a call," Matthews said. "We might as well get the ball rolling."

Keagan nodded, a heinous grin curling his lips. Mahoney just grunted and shoved a piece of his apple pie into his mouth.

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

Thursday, 7 p.m.

Vin jumped when his cell door creaked open. He looked up, squinting against the raw glow from the bare lightbulb that hung in the hall outside.

"Let's go, Tanner."

Vin stood, wondering if he was being taken to eat. Despite his surly stomach, he was hungry, and as he stepped out of the cell he realized that he hadn't eaten in almost twenty-four hours. A milkshake sounds good, he thought as he was grabbed by the arm and shoved roughly outside.

Red led Tanner across the dusty compound to what looked like a small outhouse. Several other inmates passed them by, their heads down, eyes averted.

"Inside," the guard snapped, gesturing to the structure.

Vin reached for the handle, but Red stepped in front of him, forcing the sharpshooter to stop.

Tanner sighed heavily, in no mood to play games with the man. "Y' want me in or not?"

Red grinned. "Nice friends you've got, Tanner," he chuckled.

Vin refused to respond.

"Larabee and Standish… they're pretty smart."

Vin's eyes narrowed, but he still refused to reply.

"They traded you, pigeon."

"Don't know what you're tryin' t' pull–"

"They traded you. It was you or them out here for the night, and they said you. Guess we'll get to do whatever we want with you, pussy, and they'll get it easy. That's the way it works in here – them on top gets it easy, provided they've got something to trade. Your friends traded you."

"Like hell," Vin hissed.

Red shrugged. "Believe whatever you want," he said. "You'll see." He shoved Tanner into the small metal box and padlocked the door shut.

Inside, Vin examined his new lodgings. He guessed the shed was about three feet by five feet – cramped by any definition. The walls were corrugated metal sheeting that would absorb the heat during the day and the cold at night. An A-shaped frame at the top of the structure was covered with the same metal, but a foot high opening about eight feet up allowed air to circulate through the enclosed space. A man wouldn't suffocate inside, but he might wish he could.

Leaning back against a still-warm wall, Vin slid down slowly to the concrete slab that served as a floor, trying to minimize the jarring to his head. He couldn't stretch his legs out, but he could settle down, and he knew he needed the rest. His head continued to pound, his ribs still ached, and his stomach seemed to be in a permanent state of revolt. Resting his head in the corner, Vin licked his thick lips and wished for a cold glass of water. A moment later, dry heaves forced him over onto his hands and knees.

It was going to be a very long night and he hoped it was going better for Chris and Ezra, and that they were coming up with a plan to get them out of here.

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

Friday, 8 a.m.

Chris squinted against the bright morning sunlight and watched as Ezra was pulled out of his isolation cell. Together they were led to the Mess Hall for breakfast and then herded outside to stand with the rest of the prisoners, who were also filing out of the Mess Hall. He sighed. The situation had a vague echo to his bootcamp days, but at least there he'd known the drill instructors were trying to teach him how to stay alive in combat. This is more like being a P.O.W.

He glanced around. Where the hell is Vin? he wondered. Why haven't they brought him out yet?

Maybe his injuries were worse than I thought.

Maybe the doctor kept him in the infirmary.

Yeah, that would be the best-case scenario at this point.

The men continued to line up while another guard stalked out from the Mess Hall. Tall, with almost snow-white hair, the man radiated a coldness that immediately raised Chris's hackles. "Line up!" he commanded from a foot in front of Larabee's nose.

Chris did what he was told, knowing that any resistance would just open the door to punishment, and that wouldn't help them to escape.

"Now!" the man barked to the rest of the men, pacing along the line of inmates. "We haven't got all day, ladies!"

Chris kept his eyes focused straight ahead, hoping Ezra would do likewise. He blinked, sweat already running down his temples. It was going to be a hot day on the plains.

The rest of the inmates quickly fell into formation, their continuing silence eerie. Several guards kept watch over them, prowling the lines, shotguns in their hand. And still no sign of Vin.

Chris sucked in a deep breath, knowing he was about to tempt fate, but still said, "Excuse me, sir, but where's my friend? Vin Tan–"

The tall, white-haired man whipped his billyclub from the ring on his belt, driving one end into Chris's midsection. Larabee doubled over, clutching his abdomen and sucking in great gulps of air.

"No talking," Ice said flatly.

Red walked down the line, stopping when he reached Ezra. He grabbed the sleeve of the man's overalls, yanked him out of line and led him away without a word.

"Unhand me!" Ezra yelped, but one threatening glare from the burly man silenced any further comments.

Forcing himself to straighten, Chris watched Red escort Ezra across the compound to the infirmary. Maybe he'll see Vin, he thought, but that notion died when a wiry, blond guard walked over to what Larabee realized was a sweat box, pounding on it with his billyclub for several seconds. Then, grinning, he unlocked the door and reached inside, dragging Tanner out.

Chris almost took a step forward when his friend crawled out and promptly threw up in the dirt. The guards laughed, and Blondie reached down, jerking Vin to his feet.

One arm pressed against his ribs, Vin shuffled over to stand in line with the other prisoners.

"Okay, listen up, ladies," one of the guards barked. "Green, Larabee, Vickers, you're on clean-up. McBride, Price, Tanner, Wilson – rock pile. The rest of you, out to the fields."

The announcement hit Chris like a second blow from Ice's billyclub. You goddamn bastards, he thought. He's hurt! Can't you see that?

He watched the sharpshooter step out of line along with the other three men. Vin looked terrible, his face drawn, skin sallow. Dark circles clung under his eyes and pain radiated from his hunched shoulders and compressed lips. Red gave Tanner a rough shove and he stumbled forward, not even bothering to glare at the guard.

Ice gave Chris a nudge. "Come on," he said, jerking his head to the side. He and the two other men followed the guard away.

Risking a quick glance over his shoulder, Chris managed to catch Vin's gaze and they exchanged furtive nods. Damn, he thought. What the hell are we going to do? He sighed heavily. For the moment there was nothing they could do except wait, and survive.

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

Ezra was shoved into the coolness of the infirmary. He found it hard to believe that it was already getting hot outside, and it wasn't even mid-morning. He blinked to let his eyes adjust to the dim light inside the building and then looked around.

"And just what, exactly, am I supposed to do here?" he asked the young guard who had escorted him to the building.

"Whatever the doc tells you, pigeon."

"I'll take over now, Craig."

Ezra turned, surprised to find a young woman standing in a doorway, her hands on her hips.

"Okay, Doc, but you keep him in here. Understand?"

"I understand," she said simply, nodding toward the door.

Craig turned and left the two alone.

The woman moved to the window, watching to be sure the guard had actually left before turning to face Ezra. "Whatever you do, don't get Craig mad at you. He might look like a teenager, but the man's a sadist. He likes to hurt people and if you give him an excuse, he'll hurt you, bad."

Ezra nodded. "Thank you for telling me, Doctor…?"

"Doctor is fine," she replied. "Come back here, I'll show you what to do."

He followed her into a treatment room. "Doctor, I believe you treated my friend yesterday – Vin Tanner?"

"Yeah, I saw him," she said, pulling out a metal bucket, gloves, and a scrub brush from under the sink.

"Is he all right?"

Twisting the faucet, she let the bucket fill with hot water. "No."

Ezra moved closer, glancing around the room. Could they be watched? Listened to? "Could you tell me what's wrong with him? Is it a concussion? Will he be all right?"

She turned the water off and lifted the bucket out, carrying it over to the stripped treatment table. Walking over to a cabinet, she removed a bottle of disinfectant and returned to the bucket, pouring in a cup full. She replaced the disinfectant in the cabinet.


"Concussion," she said with a sigh. "Bruised ribs."

"Why isn't he being kept in here? A concussion–"

"Look, Mister–"

"Ezra Standish."

"Mr. Standish–"

"Please, call me Ezra," he interrupted.

She sighed. "Fine, Ezra. I'm a doctor, but I don't work here. I'm a prisoner, just like you are. I do what they tell me, and they told me to examine your friend. I did. What they do to him, or why, isn't my business. And if you're smart, you won't make it yours either."

"I'm afraid I can't do that. He's my friend. My–"

"Scrub this table down – every inch. I have to get my paperwork caught up."

She turned and started for her small office, Ezra scrambling to block her path. "Wait, Doctor, please, if he's hurt–"

"Mr. Standish, there's nothing we can do," she insisted, her voice dropping. "If you want to help your friend, then do what you're told and stay alive. And my name's Megan MacKenzie" With that she brushed past the man and escaped into her doorless office. "Call me when you're done," she instructed, then sat down at her desk, ignoring him.

Ezra turned back to the table and bucket, but found himself wandering back to the tiny waiting area. He stared outside, spotting Vin standing near the far end of the line, his shoulders pinched and his head down. He was obviously hurting and Ezra wished he could do something to help him. Chris stood at the opposite end of the line, looking healthy, but concerned. Standish continued to watch as the men were herded off in three different directions, then turned back to the treatment room and the task waiting for him.

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

Friday, 11:30 a.m.

Vin concentrated on the job at hand, carrying cantaloupe-sized rocks from the site where two of the inmates broke them up to a row of waiting wheelbarrows. The fourth man pushed the full wheelbarrows from the site to the men conducting clean-up of the grounds so they could use the rocks to line flower and garden beds at the Warden's home, walkways, and rings around the various trees scattered across the facility grounds.

Each trip was an ordeal for Vin. His arms were weak and shaky, forcing him to cradle each stone against his chest as he staggered from the rock pile to the wheelbarrow. As the morning wore on the trips grew harder and harder as muscle cramps began in his arms, then spread to his back and legs, making each step an agonizing trial. When the pain grew too severe his stomach rebelled and he stopped to throw up. Whenever that happened, the guards quickly descended on him, pushing him, slapping him, forcing him onto his feet and back to work. White and yellow spots exploded in front of his eyes, but he didn't pass out.

After a few hours the clean-up detail shifted and Vin could see Chris as he worked, whitewashing a picket fence that edged the Warden's front lawn. Not for the first time he wished he was there, helping his friend. Really got ourselves in a fix this time, Cowboy, he silently told Chris. Just hope we c'n find a way out, an' soon.

Vin dropped another rock into the wheelbarrow and wiped the back of a shaking hand across his forehead. His head throbbed painfully and he realized he was flinching slightly with every heartbeat that shot pain through his skull. He tried to draw a deep breath, but his ribs burned with an insistent fire that flared agonizingly each time he bent down to heft another rock. Damn 'm gettin' soft, he chided himself.

He guessed he'd been working for less than four hours, but it was already gruelingly hot. It was hard to imagine what it would be like in the afternoon, when the heat would be at its peak. They had been promised water at noon, and that thought motivated him to continue.

Licking his dry, cracked lips, Vin forced all other thoughts away, concentrating only on the seventeen steps that carried him from the wheelbarrow back to the rock pile.

He stumbled as his calves cramped again and a guard was there, giving him a shove with the butt of his shotgun. "Move it, pigeon," the man snarled.

Vin ground his teeth together and forced himself to take the remaining three steps to the rock pile. Bending, he grabbed another stone and tried to straighten, but his muscles refused, beginning to tremble uncontrollably. He dropped to his knees, the cramps twisting his leg muscles into small, excruciating knots. He released the stone, grabbing at his legs, groaning.

The guard roughly shoved his shoulder. "Get up, pussy," he growled.

Vin tried, but his legs refused to move. Ah hell, he thought, they're gonna kill me…

The guard grabbed Vin's overalls, screaming, "I said, get up! Get up, you shit! Get the fuck up!"

Vin nodded, forcing himself onto his hands and knees.

"Get up, asshole! Now!" the guard screamed, slamming the butt of his shotgun into Vin's shoulder.

The sharpshooter blinked, his vision blurring. Where 'm I? What the hell's goin' on?

The guard grabbed Vin's overalls again, pulling him up. This time, Vin managed to regain his feet, but swayed dangerously as he tried to meet the guard's gaze. Sweat poured off his forehead, nearly blinding him.

"Get movin', asshole!" the guard snarled, using the butt of his shotgun to push Vin forward.

Tanner shuffled closer to the rocks, panting shallowly. He bent over and grabbed the next rock, snugging it close to his chest while his arms shook uncontrollably.

"Move, damn it!"

Vin turned and tried to focus on the wheelbarrow. Seventeen steps. Just seventeen steps. One… two… three… four… five…

He pitched forward, collapsing.

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

Chris worked steadily on the three-foot tall picket fence, his brush moving mechanically up and down while he stole as many glances in Vin's direction as he dared from under the brim of the pale-blue baseball caps he and his fellow prisoners had been given to protect them from the sun. Once he was finished with the front of the fence it would be easier to keep a concerned watch on his best friend.

He knew Vin was struggling with the heavy stones he had to carry to the waiting wheelbarrows. Several times he'd seen the man stumble and once he'd fallen. Two of the guards had responded immediately, yanking Vin to his feet, slapping him. Tanner doubled over, heaving and almost collapsing again. Chris finished the last few swipes with his brush, his jaws tightening against the memory. If he ever got time alone with those guards…

He picked up his paint bucket and walked around to the inside of the fence. Kneeling on the well-manicured green grass, he dipped the brush and started to work, keeping a close watch on Vin.

Goddamn it, he looks like hell, he thought, grinding his teeth. I have to do something. Why the hell weren't they given baseball caps? This sun is brutal.

He glanced at the two guards who watched over him and the other two workers. The shotguns they carried ensured complete cooperation.

Then, an angry scream from across the yard drew his attention and Chris saw the guard strike Vin with the butt of his gun. He scrambled to his feet, fists curling into two tight balls of fury.

The baby-faced guard continued to yell at Vin, shaking and finally violently dragging the agent to his feet.

"Whoa there," Ice said, moving to stop Chris from bolting to join his friend.

Larabee trembled with indecision. He knew the man wouldn't hesitate to shoot him. Looking back at Vin, he watched his friend struggle to the rock pile and heft another stone. Five steps later he was lying face down in the dust.

"Show's over, back to work," Ice hissed.

Chris ground his teeth together to keep from saying anything that might get himself killed and watched two guards drag Vin across the compound and into the infirmary.

Damn it, Vin, you'd better be all right, Chris thought, squatting back down and picking up his paintbrush again. We've got to get the hell out of here…

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

"Vin?" Ezra gasped, bolting out of the chair he'd been occupying for the past ten minutes while Dr. MacKenzie carried in several bottles of chemicals from cabinets in her office. When she was done she told him he would be mixing solutions for her. He reached the door just in time to open it and allow the guards in.

Craig lowered his shotgun, gesturing for Standish to move back. Ezra scrambled away, calling, "Doctor! Hurry!"

Megan rushed into the waiting room, wiping her hands on the stained labcoat she wore. She looked from Vin to the guards. "In here," she instructed, turning and leading the way back into the examination room.

The guards dragged Vin in, Craig standing to one side while his companion hefted the agent onto the table.

"I'll take it from here," Megan said, reaching for her stethoscope.

"Come on, pigeon," Craig said, grabbing Ezra's arm. "The rock pile's short a man."

"No," Megan snapped, "he's mine; I'll need him." She looked up, meeting Craig's hard-edged gaze.

"I said I need 'im."

Normally she would have backed down, knowing full well what the young man was capable of if she didn't, but this time she couldn't, not and still call herself a doctor. "I said I need him. This man could die," she hissed.

The muscles in Craig's jaw twitched while he made his decision. He knew Wilton wanted the three men kept alive, even if they did have the okay to give Tanner a hard time. He shoved Ezra toward the table, forcing Megan to catch him. "Fine, he's yours," the man growled, "but it's gonna cost ya, Doc."

She ground her teeth together to keep from saying something she knew she'd regret later.

Craig motioned to the other guard and the pair left.

Megan turned to Ezra, instructing, "Mix up a quarter teaspoon of salt in a liter of tepid water."

Ezra looked from Vin to the physician, honestly frightened for the injured man, then nodded, moving to the sink counter. "What's wrong with him? Is it the concussion?"

"I'm not sure. I think it might be a mild form of heat exhaustion exacerbated by the concussion," she said, checking Vin's heart, blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration. "Damn," she breathed.

"What is it? What's wrong?" Ezra asked immediately, stirring the salt into the water while trying to watch her.

"His lungs are a little congested, his pulse is rapid and weak, and his respiration's fast and shallow–"

"What does that mean?" Ezra interrupted, his tone demanding an answer.

"It means he's in trouble," she said, reaching under the table to a shelf there and pulling out a tubular, padded roll. She slipped that under Vin's feet, saying, "Pour a glass of the salt solution and see if you can get him to drink it. Just a sip at a time – any more and he'll just throw it back up."

"Why weren't Vin and those men out there given caps like the rest of the prisoners?" Ezra asked as he did as instructed. "It's sadistic. Can't they see he's hurt?"

"The men sent to work on the rock pile are being disciplined for infractions," she said. "It's part of their punishment."

"It's barbaric!"

"Tell me about it," Megan mumbled, going for a thermometer. "I see a lot of heat-related problems in the summer."

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra said, slipping a hand under the sharpshooter's head and lifting it slightly. "Vin, can you hear me?"

"E-Ezra?" he slurred, blue eyes cracking open slightly.

"Yes, it's me," he assured the trembling man. "Vin, you have to drink this," he stated firmly, bringing the glass to the man's lips.

Vin took a sip, then made a face. "'S salty," he grumbled.

"I know it is, but the doctor says you need it."

Vin rolled his eyes and tried to shake his head, but his body refused to cooperate. He met Megan's gaze and she grinned, then checked his temperature. "Elevated, but not dangerous," she told both men. "Keep working on that salt solution, Mr. Standish." She looked at Vin. "And you – cooperate."

Ezra pressed the glass to Vin's lips again, saying, "It will help, Mr. Tanner. Honestly."

With a soft sigh the agent took another sip, the briny concoction not tasting so bad the second time. With a little coaxing, Ezra was able to get Vin to drink the entire glass.

While Ezra worked, Megan moved off, grabbing several plain white towels and tossing them in the stainless steel sink. After running warm water over them until they were soaked, she turned the faucet off, then wrung each towel out and stacked them on the counter. When the last one was prepared she carried the stack of damp cloths over to Vin and blanketed him with them.

As the coolness penetrated his overalls, Vin sighed and closed his eyes. "Feels good, Doc."

"How's your head?" Megan asked, rechecking Vin's vital signs.

"H-Hurts like h-hell," he mumbled. "W-Why 'm I–"

"Shivering?" she asked as his teeth chattered. "Don't worry, it's a natural reaction. Your internal thermostat is off-line. How does your stomach feel?"



"D-Dark," Vin replied, "m' eyes are closed."

Ezra rolled his eyes and shook his head.

Megan tried not to smile as she half-growled, "Mr. Tanner."

"B-Better, but s-still a little f-f-fuzzy, Doc," he amended. "S-s-spins sometimes."

"I want you to just lie there and rest. Drink as much of the salt solution as you can."

Vin's face twisted into a complaint, but he nodded his acquiescence.

She looked at Ezra. "Stay with him, keep him sipping that solution. If he starts having any trouble breathing, or starts cramping, call me."

Ezra nodded, walking over to fill the empty glass.

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

Less than twenty minutes later Megan was running back into the treatment room in response to Ezra's call for help. She came to a stop at the edge of the examination table where Standish was trying to hold his friend down. Vin, his legs and back cramping, groaned and tried to grab the edge of the table, but even his hands were out of his control.

She leaned over his legs to help keep him from rolling off and ordered, "Vin, deep breaths, take deep breaths."

He drew in a bottomless gasp, his face twisting with pain.

"Easy," Megan soothed, "it'll pass soon."

Ezra met her gaze, the concern flashing clearly on his face.

She nodded to him. "He'll be all right."

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

Friday, 2 p.m.

Wilton waited for Matthews and Keagan to settle into the comfortable leather chairs in his living room before he handed Devlin Dr. MacKenzie's medical report on Tanner. As he sat down, he noted the sadistic gleam that sparked in the psychologist's eyes as he read.

Matthews finished the report and handed it back to Wilton, then turned to Keagan. "This is perfect. Tanner's concussion is magnifying his condition."

"Which means?"

"Killing him will be much easier than I expected." He turned in his chair to meet Wilton's unreadable gaze. "Tomorrow I want you to work Tanner – hard – until he collapses. He'll be working himself to death, and watching his friends skate by every moment of it."

Wilton nodded. "And then?"

"With luck, Standish will watch him die in the infirmary. I'm guessing your physician doesn't have an extensive treatment facility, correct?"

Wilton nodded again. "Our doctor's just an intern we, uh, picked up. She's got the basics in there, but nothing fancy."

"Perfect. If we can drive Tanner into shock, I doubt she'll have the equipment or wherewithal to save him."

Keagan grinned and nodded. "That'll send Standish and Larabee into a tailspin."

Matthews nodded. "I would suggest we target Standish next. A few days hard labor for a man of his breeding should do the trick. We can use the sweatbox for a day or two beforehand to hasten the process."

"All while Chris Larabee watches," Keagan said softly. "I want to kill Larabee myself. I owe my brother that much."

Matthews turned back to Wilton. "Tell your men to enjoy themselves with Tanner tomorrow, Warden."

"Whatever you say," Wilton replied, his throat tightening at the casual way the two men talked about suffering and death.

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

Friday, 4 p.m.

"Dr. MacKenzie?" Ezra called, walking up to her doorless office and stopping just outside.

She looked up from where she was working at her computer, asking, "Yes?"

Ezra's attention immediately focused on the machine and he slipped into the room, searching for a modem line. There was none.

"May I?" he asked, sidling up to her chair.

"Uh, I guess. . ." she said, glancing around as she stood, and let the man take her place at the keyboard. In seconds data like she'd never seen was scrolling across her screen. "What is that?" she asked him.

"Yes," Ezra cheered softly. "Yes, this will work."

"Mr. Standish."

He looked up at her. "What? Oh, excuse me."

"What is that?" she asked again, pointing at the data on the screen.

"Your computer came with an internal modem. All we need is a phone line and a phone–" He stopped, reaching for the instrument at the corner of her desk.

"But I can't call out on that. It just connects me to Warden Wilton's office. It's not a real phone."

"But we might be able to use it, and the computer, to dial out, but I'll need another phone cord…"

She shook her head. "I don't have another one. They won't give me anything I might be able to use to escape, or help someone else escape. Or call for help." She noted the time. "Mr. Standish, you need to go. They'll be coming for you soon. Neither of us can afford for them to find you in here."

Ezra noted the trepidation on her face. "Will you be all right?"

Megan nodded, escorting him back to the examination room. Vin was resting peacefully, minus the blanket of damp towels, all signs of his earlier cramps gone. She checked him one last time as the door opened and Red stepped into the room. "All right, boys, time to go."

Ezra shook his friend's shoulder, waking him.

"Wha–?" Vin asked, jerking slightly.

"The guards," Ezra said softly as he helped Vin off the table, slipping an arm around Tanner to support and protect him.

The pair made their way to the door without a backward glance.

Red led the two men across the hot, dusty yard, stopping at the sweatbox. He opened the door and motioned for Vin to enter.

"Now wait one minute," Ezra said. "He was just treated for heat prostration."

Red backhanded Ezra, knocking him off his feet, but Standish scrambled up, his eyes flashing.

Vin held up his hand, stopping any further complaints or actions. "Ain't worth it, Ezra," he said softly. "Don't do nothin' stupid."

"But, Mr. Tanner–"

Vin stepped inside the hot box and Red locked the door behind him. "You better listen to your friend, pigeon," he said darkly, then lowered his voice and added, "Or I'll see to it Tanner meets with the business-end of a billyclub. Understand?"

Ezra's glare was deadly, but he nodded.

Grabbing Standish's arm, Red escorted the man to the Mess Hall where the rest of the inmates were assembling outside in two long rows. "Get in line," the guard snapped, giving him a shove forward.

Ezra looked for Chris and, spotting his friend, walked over to stand next to him, neither man speaking while they waited to be ordered inside.

Once they were in and their trays were filled, the two men sat at one of the long tables, each attacking his meal, hunger overriding their guilt over Vin's absence.

"I suppose we must keep our strength up," Ezra stated just before devouring the rest of his greasy chicken. When he was almost finished with his grayish mashed potatoes, he glanced casually around, checking the locations of the guards. He watched one man move over to pour himself another cup of coffee, then leaned forward slightly and said softly, "I think I may have found a way to call for help. But I need a phone cord."

Chris glanced around to make sure no one was listening to them as well, then asked, "How?"

"Dr. MacKenzie has an internal modem in her computer," Ezra said, then shoved the last of his bread into his mouth and chewed as Ice passed by.

Chris waited until Ice's attention shifted away from them before he asked, "You think you can reach the authorities?"

Ezra nodded. "Just bring me a phone line."

"From where?" Chris asked him.

"The Warden's house?"

Chris's eyes widened. He'd already been told he'd be painting the man's house tomorrow. Maybe he could slip inside, but he doubted it. They were watched so damned closely… "Maybe."

"Try," Ezra said seriously. "Mr. Tanner is sick, very sick. We need that phone line."

The blond nodded, his expression turning hard. "I'll get it." He wanted to know about Vin, but he didn't dare ask. Not yet, anyway.

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

Saturday, 8:00 a.m.

Vin shivered in the sweatbox, and wished fervently for a glass of water – or, better yet, several. He was thirsty, hungry, sore, and mad. And another night in the cramped box had left him weak and despondent.

I'm lettin' this get t' me, he scolded himself, but the memory of the traitorous thoughts that had crept up on him during the long night refused to go away. They clung tenaciously to the edges of this thoughts and added guilt to his already crowded conscience.

Hell, maybe they did sell me out

That was that mutinous refrain, which had started as a soft whisper, deep in the night, and kept echoing through his thoughts again and again.

But I know they didn't, Vin argued with himself. Chris 'n' Ezra 're both wishin' they could trade places with me right now, I'd bet. They'd never sell me out.


But what if they did?

They didn't!

Hell, maybe this is what I deserve, Vin considered. Maybe I did kill that little girl…

The pounding began, the sharp noises lancing through his skull and disorientating him. He pressed the balls of his hands against his ears, trying to shut out the sound and the pain, but it was a useless gesture. His stomach immediately began to tighten, but before he got sick the door opened and he was dragged out into the too-bright glare of morning.

"On your feet, pussy," Ice growled.

Vin stood, the landscape rippling and twisting in front of his eyes. He swallowed and closed his eyes momentarily, but the end of a billyclub shoved him forward and he shuffled along to join the line of waiting prisoners.

One step at a time, he told himself. Jist one step at a time.

He looked for Chris and Ezra, but his distorted vision made it impossible to distinguish them from the other inmates. Come on, fellas, think of somethin'. 'M ready t' get the hell outta here.

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

Ezra stepped into the infirmary and Craig closed the door behind him, a nasty grin on his face. Standish watched the man go, then shook his head, worry clawing through his mid-section. Vin had been absent from breakfast. Were they trying to starve the man to death? When they had dragged him out of the sweatbox he'd looked terrible. Ezra shuddered, forcing the image out of his mind. Chris simply had to secure that phone cord today.

With a deep breath he went looking for Dr. MacKenzie, finding her at the sink, filling the bucket again.

"Good morning, Doctor," he said.

"Mr. Standish," she greeted without turning around. She turned the water off, then added the disinfectant. Lifting the bucket out of the sink, she was forced to face him.

Ezra gasped. Her face was bruised, lower lip cut. "My God, what happened?" he asked, rushing over to take the bucket from her and carry it to the treatment table.

She shook her head.

"It was that guard, from yesterday, wasn't it," he stated, already sure of the facts. "When he said you would owe him. . ."

"Look, Mr. Standish," Megan said with a sigh, "it's just the way it works around here, okay? The female prisoners are perks for the guards. So long as we can still do our jobs the next day, Wilton doesn't care what happens to us the night before. Just forget about it."

"But that's–"

"Look, just forget it. I don't want any more trouble."

Ezra opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again. What could he say?

"I'll get started on the cleaning," he said, adding, "but believe me, I realize that this happened because you chose to help us. I know it probably doesn't mean much, but I am sorry. . ."

"Thanks," Megan said, giving him a sad half-smile.

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

Saturday, 1 p.m.

Chris watched as Vin struggled for a second day with the melon-sized rocks. At least the sharpshooter was still on his feet, although given his grey complexion, Larabee couldn't imagine how.

And for how long? he wondered, reading his friend's body language with ease. The hunched shoulders meant Vin's head still hurt, badly. The lowered chin meant the sun was too bright for his eyes. The careful, shuffling walk meant his ribs still hurt, and his vision was blurry.

Bottom line, he's hurting, and hurting bad.

Fake it, Vin, he solemnly commanded. Pretend to pass out and let them take you back to the infirmary. But even as he thought it, Chris knew it wouldn't happen.

He watched Vin's hand come up to push the sweat off his forehead and knew that, sooner or later, he was going to collapse again. And they have to know that, Chris fumed silently. It's like they're trying to kill him.

He swallowed hard. Maybe that was exactly what they were trying to do. The realization struck him as hard as Ice's billyclub: That's why we're here. Someone wants us dead.

And they want us to watch it happen to each other, he realized, noting Ezra standing at the Infirmary window, watching Vin as well. Why else would we be put someplace where we can see Vin? But why aren't we out there with him?

Chris shook his head. Maybe they want to kill us off one by one… Shit, we've got to get the hell out of here – today.

He might not understand exactly what was going on, but he knew he had to get that phone cord for Ezra, and get it quickly. He glanced at the other two inmates who were working silently at their painting tasks. Two guards stood under the branches of a tall tree, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the shade while they kept an eye on the working men.

Chris dipped his brush and put the finishing touches on the shutter he'd been working on for the last half-hour, then picked up his equipment and moved to the next window. Someone had already stripped the paint off the wood and sanded it smooth – another inmate, he realized and wondered if that man was still a prisoner.

Probably, given the expressions on these men's faces.

The guards watched him as he set up his paint and started to work on the wood, but they quickly lost interest when one of the female inmates who worked in the Warden's house carried out two tall glasses of ice tea.

Chris inched further away, rounding a corner and looking for a way into the Victorian. An unlocked French door a few feet away was his ticket.


He quickly stepped back into sight. "Yeah?"

"Stay where I can see you, boy," Ice snapped.

"I was going to start working on the big shutters around the French doors while this coat dries," he said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible.

"I said you stay where I can see you," Ice repeated, raising the shotgun to emphasize the point. "And you better show some respect, boy."

Chris nodded. "Yes, sir. Can I go get some paint to work on the window trims while these shutters dry?"

Ice nodded.

Chris walked across the lawn to one of the small storage sheds. The door was open, giving Ice and the other guard a clear line of sight into the small building. He paused inside, looking for paint cans labeled "raspberry" and spotting them on a shelf. He reached up and pulled one can down. Setting it on the workbench, he pried up the lid with a screwdriver and looked inside. The reddish-purple paint looked fine.

Reaching for another brush hanging on a pegboard he noticed a wall phone with a sign taped over it that read "Tough luck, don't work."

He glanced over his shoulder to find Ice watching him. Great, how do I do this without an audience?

"Hurry up!" the guard called.

Think, damn it!

"The paint's getting thick, I need to add some thinner, sir," he called back.

"Then add it, goddamn it! Don't just stand there jerkin' off!"

"Yes, sir. Where is it?"

"How the hell should I know? Look around and find it!" Ice snapped.

Chris nodded and turned back to examine the shelves. He inched closer to the phone, reaching up to turn cans around so he could read the labels. When he was standing in front of the phone he reached up with one hand to grab a can while he unhooked the cord from the receiver with the other. The cord fell to the floor.

He pulled a can down and carried it back to the bench. Okay, half done, he thought, following the cord back to where it was plugged into the wall.

He opened the can of thinner and added a tiny amount to the paint, then stirred. He resealed the can of thinner and re-shelved it. Returning to the paint, he shoved the brush into the pocket of his overalls and grabbed the can's wire handle, then started out. As he neared the door he purposefully stumbled and the brush fell out of his pocket. He bent down to grab it and unplugged the cord, quickly wrapping it around his hand.

"What the hell are you doing, Larabee?" bellowed Ice.

Chris stood, shoving his hand into his pocket as he did and slipping the cord off. He bent over again and picked up the brush. "Sorry! I dropped the brush," he explained, waving it. "I've got to get a clean one."

"Just hurry the hell up! This ain't Club Med!"

Chris tossed the brush on the workbench and grabbed another, then headed immediately back to the first floor windows and set to work painting the trim. The other two inmates finished their shutters and headed into the shed to prepare the paint for the detail work around the warden's front door. Chris sighed; at least now they wouldn't know he was the one who'd taken the cord – it could be any of the three of them. Maybe lady luck had finally found them.

Now, all I need is a way to get into the infirmary before they pat us down before supper…

Ice walked up to join him, his eyes narrowed.

Chris continued his work, his heart trip-hammering in his chest. Even a cursory search would turn up the cord.

The guard snapped gruffly, "Make sure you get that coat on nice and smooth."

"Yes, sir," Chris said, his brush never pausing.

Ice walked back to the shade of the tree and Chris allowed himself a soft sigh – so far, so good. Spotting a nail sticking up in one corner of the window frame he smiled thinly. Go directly to the infirmary, he thought, do not pass go, do not collect two-hundred dollars.

Leaning his weight over the hazard, then jerking his hand forward, Chris ripped a furrow in his palm. "Damn!" he gasped.

"Now what?" Ice demanded.

Chris dropped the paint brush into the bucket and turned, blood already beginning to fill his palm. "I cut myself on a nail I didn't see."

"Ah, Christ, he's gonna bleed all over the porch," the second guard moaned.

"Get your ass over to the infirmary!" Ice snapped. "Move! And don't drip on the porch!"

"Yes, sir." Whatever you say, asshole.

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

When the door opened, Ezra jumped and looked up from where he was scrubbing the waiting room's linoleum floor on his hands and knees. "Mr. Larabee? Are you all right?" he asked, scrambling to his feet.

Three large drops of blood splattered onto the clean floor. "Sorry," Chris said sheepishly, "but it's all I could think of to get in here."

Megan stepped out from her office. "Chris Larabee, I presume?"

The blond nodded.

"In here," she said, escorting him to the sink in the treatment room. She turned the water on low and had him hold his hand under the stream. "Looks like a nasty cut."

Fishing into his pocket with his free hand, Chris pulled out the phone cord and handed it to Ezra, who had trailed the pair in.

"Perfect," the undercover expert breathed.

"Hurry up and get some help out here," he hissed as Megan turned off the water and checked the wound.

"Well, no stitches, but this hand isn't going to be much use for a few days."

"A few days from now we'll be home," he said, meeting her skeptical gaze.

Ezra reached out, resting a hand on the woman's shoulder. "I'm going to go see if I can make this work, but it might take me a little while. Can you help us?"

She nodded. "Might as well. If you hear someone come in, grab the iodine and get back in here quick. Find the bottle before you start so it's ready to go."

Ezra nodded and headed for the waiting computer.

"Wait," she called, hurrying after him. "Let me call Wilton first about your friend. That might buy us some time."

She picked up the phone and waited for a moment before saying, "Warden Wilton? I just wanted to let you know that I'm treating Chris Larabee for a bad cut on his palm. I'm going to have to put some stitches in so it's going to take me an hour or so since I'll need to make sure it's debrided first; can you please inform his detail guards? Yes, sir. No, sir, he'll be able to do light work once I'm done. And I should see him again tomorrow, to check for an infection. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

She hung up and glowered at the phone. "I hate that man," she hissed. Looking at Ezra, she whispered, "Good luck."

Returning to Chris she explained, "I told the Warden that I have to stitch your hand. I'll put in some shallow ones, just for show."

Chris nodded. "We appreciate all your help, Doctor."

"I don't think I could live with myself if I let another man die here without doing something. I just hope you can get someone out here before they kill your friend."

"Ezra will take care of it."

"I hope you're right."

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

Vin worked on auto-pilot, moving from rock pile to wheelbarrow and back again without thinking. It was hotter than it had been the day before, but he felt a little better, at least until mid-day.

Across the dusty yard he had watched Chris working on the Warden's three-story house, painting the man's shutters and window trim.

And watchin' me, Vin noted, warmed by the concern he'd seen in the older man's eyes. No way in hell Chris 'n' Ezra sold me out, these assholes are just playin' mind games with me.

He had watched Chris's "accident," and his hike across the compound to the infirmary, one hand clutched in the other, but that had been a couple of hours ago and nothing had changed. I hope you an' Ezra've got a plan–

A hard slam between his shoulder blades forced Vin to his knees. "Get up, pigeon," Craig snarled, a malicious grin on his face. "You gotta move faster, pussy. This ain't no garden party."

Vin grabbed the rock he'd been carrying and struggled to his feet. "No kiddin'," he mumbled under his breath, wishing he could use the stone to smash the guard's skull.

Craig waited until Vin had taken two steps, then brought his foot up and kicked the back of the sharpshooter's thigh.

Tanner went down with a cry.

The guard laughed, his booted foot contacting soundly with the man's bruised ribs in a series of swift, hard kicks.

Vin cried out, curling into a ball and trying to protect himself.

Craig pounded the agent's shoulder with the butt of his shotgun, yelling, "Get up, fucker!"

White and yellow spots flashed dangerously in front of his eyes, but Vin managed to regain his feet. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry, the guards refusing to allow him any water until he'd filled five of the wheelbarrows. He still had one more to go.

"Now, you get your ass in gear, bitch," Craig instructed, "or I'm gonna beat the shit out of ya, y'hear me?"

Vin didn't bother to reply as he picked up the stone he'd dropped and carried it the remaining seven steps to the waiting wheelbarrow. He dropped it in.

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

Saturday, 3 p.m.

Two more hours, Chris told himself. His hand throbbed, but he ignored it, concentrating on watching Vin and finishing the window trim one-handed. Not for the first time he wished Ezra had been able to work some magic in the hour he'd been in the infirmary. At least he was able to dial out and leave some messages, he reassured himself. Someone will find them and get the ball rolling.

He watched Vin stagger back to the rock pile. I just hope it'll be in time.

Even from across the compound he could see Vin was shaking like a signpost in a strong wind. They have to get here in time.

Damn it, Vin, go down – now. I swear, you let that damned pride of yours kill you and I'll track you down in Heaven or Hell and kick your ass for the rest of eternity!

Vin stooped and gathered another stone into his arms, immediately dropping it. One of the guards slapped the back of the sharpshooter's head and Vin slumped to his knees. Chris ground his teeth, wanting very badly to beat the baby-faced guard into a bloody pulp.

Vin tried to stand, but his legs gave out and he pitched forward into the dirt. The guard kicked him in the lower back, hard, forcing Vin to curl up.

Chris dropped the paintbrush as Baby-face raised his shotgun to use as a club. "No!" he bellowed.

Ice and his companion bolted for Chris, catching him as the blond lunged off the porch, headed for the man who was attacking Vin. They tackled Chris in the grass, holding him down while Craig proceeded to beat Vin with the butt of his shotgun.

"Stop him!" Chris yelled at the two men who held him down. "You've gotta stop him! He's gonna kill him!"

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

Craig stepped back, panting. He wiped his face and grinned at the unconscious man lying in the dirt. Blood trickled from Vin's nose and the corners of his mouth. "Think that'll do it?" he asked one of the other guards who had watched the beating.

"Looks dead to me," the man replied.

"Take him over to the Doc so that other guy can watch his buddy die."

The second guard nodded and dragged Vin away.

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

The door to the infirmary slammed open and Megan rushed into the waiting room, her gaze immediately going to Vin.

"What the hell did you do to him?" she demanded.

The guard smiled. "He wasn't workin' fast enough."

Ezra stepped out of her office and the guard's eyes narrowed. "What was he doin' in there? You know the rules."

Megan drew herself up, her eyes narrowing. "He's typing in medical reports," she snapped. "He's also not allowed to handle certain chemicals, is he, and I can't do two things at once!"

The guard's jaw muscles twitched, but he didn't argue the point. "Looks like you're gonna have another report to write when this one dies," he said snidely, then left.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra said, moving to his friend's side.

"Here," Megan said, lifting Vin's feet. "Let's get him into the treatment room."

Ezra reached down and grabbed Vin under the arms. Together they managed to maneuver the injured sharpshooter onto the table.

"What did they do to him?" Ezra breathed, turning away from the sight of his battered friend.

"They tried to kill him," Megan said flatly, already working. "And if you don't help me, they might succeed."

"Tell me what you need me to do," Standish said.

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

Saturday, 4 p.m.

Chris's hands shook with the anger he was still fighting to hold in check. Getting himself killed wasn't going to help Vin, but if he didn't find out something soon, he was going to explode.

From the way his two guards were shifting from foot to foot, he guessed they had maybe an hour before the work detail ended and the inmates were marched over to the Mess Hall. Maybe Ezra would be able to tell him how Vin was then.

He damn well better, Chris decided. Or I'm gonna go see for myself.

It was a cry from one of the tower guards that broke through Larabee's dark, brooding thoughts. He looked up from his painting, noticing the plumes of dust rising from the road that led to the main gate. Glancing around he spotted other dust clouds rising from along the sides of the prison fields as well.

He did it!

Ice and his partner quickly rounded up the workers and herded them into the center of the compound where Wilton joined them, racing from his office. "Put them in their cells," he ordered the two guards.

Ice gave Chris a rough shove and took him back to his cell while the second guard followed the other inmates to one of the Quonset huts.

"What's wrong?" Larabee asked the man, unable to keep the gloat out of his voice.

"Shut up," Ice snapped, pushing Chris into the small cell and immediately closing the door.

Sitting down, Chris took a deep breath and wiped the nervous sweat off his face. Hang in there, Vin. Help's on the way. You just have to hang on a little longer.

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

Ezra worked alongside Megan until an unintelligible, angry command from a bullhorn caused her to jump and drop the BP cuff she was about to wrap around Vin's upper arm.

"Are you all right, Doctor?" Ezra asked her.

She nodded, laying the cuff on the small wheeled table and heading into the waiting room. Ezra hesitated a moment, then trailed after her.

"What is it?" he questioned.

"I'm not sure," she said, watching the guards scurrying around the compound. "It looks like a lock down."

Ezra allowed the first stirrings of hope to enter his thoughts as he moved closer to the windows to watch.

"There's someone at the front gate," she whispered. "Do you think…?"

He nodded. "I sincerely hope so, Dr. MacKenzie."

She reached up, grabbing his arm and squeezing lightly. "I can't believe it," she said, her throat going tight.

He nodded. "I knew Judge Travis would do something about this travesty of criminal justice."

Megan looked back toward the treatment room. "I just hope they're in time."

Ezra felt the fear constrict his heart and prayed they were as well.

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

Chris stood as his cell door was opened. He blinked and squinted against the brightness outside, then sucked in a sharp breath. "Josiah?"

"Come on," the big man said, reaching out to take his arm. "We've called for a medical chopper to take Vin."

"How is he?" Larabee demanded, suddenly leading the way toward the infirmary.

"Not good, I'm afraid. The doctor's done all she can, but–"

"He'll make it," Chris snapped. "He will make it, damn it."

Josiah nodded, but his expression was far from reassuring.

Reaching the infirmary, Chris headed straight for his friend. Vin lay on the treatment table, covered with a light blanket. The sharpshooter's face was discolored and puffy, and each breath he took ended with a nerve-grating wheeze. Larabee looked up, meeting Megan's gaze. "Will he–?"

She offered him a small smile. "I hope so. I did all I could, but they won't give me the equipment I need."

"You did more than anyone could expect, Doctor," Ezra reassured her, then stepped up alongside his boss and rested a hand on Chris's back. "And you know how strong Vin is," he said softly. "He's fighting."

Chris nodded. "Yeah, I know." Needing to change the topic before he lost control of the tangle of emotion twisting in his gut, the blond grinned at Ezra. "You did it."

The man's chest puffed slightly. "I went back to try again, and I was able to reach Mary Travis while she was on-line. I told her about the situation and she took it from there. It is she who we need to thank."

"Mary called Orin, and he got in touch with me," Josiah said from behind them. "It didn't take long to get the state authorities moving."

An officer leaned into the waiting room, calling, "Agent Sanchez, the chopper's here."

Megan released the wheel brakes on the table and, with Ezra's help, they rolled Vin outside. Chris reached out, resting his hand lightly on the unconscious man's shoulder as they went. Then, when they reached the chopper, he leaned down so he was only an inches from Vin's ear and said, "Listen to me, Vin, you have to hang in there, you hear me? It's over. We're going home, Cowboy. Just hang in there."

Two paramedics stepped up and Megan filled them in on Tanner's condition. Together she and the two medics maneuvered Vin into the chopper. Chris started to follow, but Josiah grabbed his arm. "There's not enough room, Chris. Come on, they'll be taking him to Burlington Community Hospital. I'll drive you and Ezra."

Chris looked back to the chopper, watching as the doors were closed, then nodded. "All right, let's go."

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

Saturday, 8 p.m.

Showered, compliments of the hospital, and dressed in their own clothes, compliments of Josiah, who asked one of the state troopers to see if the agents' personal belongings were available at the Facility, Chris and Ezra sat across a small desk from the doctor who had treated Vin.

Chris leaned forward as the middle-aged man explained Vin's condition: mild concussion, heat exhaustion, fractured ribs, and the trauma of the beating. He swallowed hard as the physician explained that they would be flying Vin back to a Denver hospital with a head trauma unit.

"How bad is this?" he asked the physician.

The doctor shook his head. "Not as bad as you may be thinking. There's been no sign of internal pressure and his neurological work-up was well within expectations. But concussions can be tricky, Mr. Larabee. Symptoms can surface weeks after an injury, and they can linger for months."

"What kinds of symptoms?" Ezra asked him.

"Limb weakness, lethargy, headaches, mood swings, personality changes," the doctor recited. "With these kinds of injuries it's really day to day. But I can tell you this, Mr. Tanner is out of immediate danger."

Chris slumped back into his chair and glanced at Ezra, who looked as relieved as he himself felt. He glanced back to the doctor. "When will you be moving him?"

The man checked his watch, "In about forty minutes."

"Is he awake? Can we see him?"

The doctor hesitated, but then nodded as he stood. "I suppose it wouldn't do any harm. Mr. Tanner's still unconscious, but if you'd like to see him–"

"We would, Doctor," Chris said, hastily standing. Ezra did the same. "We appreciate this."

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

Stepping into Vin's room, Chris paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. The noise from several monitors filled the small room with muted beeps, chirps, and whirrs. Larabee took a step closer, the ever-present smell of the place making his throat tight.

Reaching Vin's narrow bed, he studied his friend's battered face and the multiple IV's that replenished the man's body fluids. It looks like someone tie-dyed your face, Cowboy.

"Vin? How many times have we been in places like this?" Chris shook his head and sighed deeply. "Sometimes I wonder if it's worth it . . . sometimes I think we should look for work where no one's going to be shooting at us." He reached out, carefully pulling the cover up from where it had slipped off one of Vin's shoulders. "But I know what you'd say. 'What else are we gonna do?' And I've never had a good answer to that one."

"Good," Vin mumbled softly, his eyes still closed.

Chris's eyes widened. "Vin?"

"'Cause if y' ever suggest… we sell shoes, or som'n'… I'll flatten ya."

Chris grinned. "You will, will you?"

"Swear it."

"How're you feeling?"

Vin's eyes opened and he blinked owlishly. "Like hell."

"Least that matches how you look," Chris offered.

"Thanks," Vin muttered, a small smile tugging at the corners of the man's puffy lips.

"You're welcome." The blond reached out, taking Vin's hand in his own and giving it a light, reassuring squeeze. "Next time, go down a little sooner, okay? You had me scared to death."

Vin snorted softly. "What happens t' me next?"

"They're flying you back to Denver in a little while. Ezra and I are driving back with Josiah. We'll see you as soon as we get there."

"Who did this?"

Larabee shook his head. "I don't know – yet. Travis said someone from the state prison board is checking the whole place out. I think some of the prisoners will probably be released pretty quickly."

"Somebody was tryin' t' kill us, y' know."

"Yeah, I know. I was thinking the same thing," Chris admitted. "But whoever it was, they missed."

"This time."

"We'll find out who it was, Vin. Look, don't worry about that now, you just concentrate on getting well, okay?"

"Can't concentrate on a damned thing," the sharpshooter complained.

"That's the concussion. The doctor said you might have a few side-effects for a while, but they'll fade over time. Look, I better get out of here. You rest and enjoy the flight."

"Think they'll have a pretty flight attendant?"

"I don't know," Chris said. "I'll see what I can arrange."

"Yer a real friend, Cowboy."

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

Sunday, 10 a.m.

Vin leaned back against his pillows and waited for the bed to finish its contortion, delivering him to a seated position.

"Knock, knock?"

Vin looked and then grinned. "Hey, come on in."

Chris pulled the door open the rest of the way, he and Ezra entering, Standish almost completely hidden behind an enormous bouquet of flowers. He staggered to a nightstand and carefully set the large hula-girl vase down, then stepped away, giving the display a disgusted look.

"So, whatdaya think?" Buck asked Tanner as he barreled into the room, JD on his heels.

Vin studied the well-endowed, scantily clad woman with a wild collection flowers erupting from the top of her head. "It's, uh. . ."

"I told you he wouldn't like it," JD said, slapping the ladies' man's arm.

Vin managed to keep a grin hidden as he said, "Sure is colorful."

"I talked to your doctor," Chris told him, "and looks like you'll be able to go home Tuesday, but there's going to be some restrictions."

Vin nodded carefully, quick or sharp motions still triggering flashes of blinding pain inside his skull. "Yeah, I got the same speech earlier."

"The follow-up tests and therapy sound interesting," Nathan added. "I'd be glad to drive you."

"Only to you, Nate, but thanks, I'll take you up on that," Vin replied. "Right now, I just wanna go home 'n' get back t' normal, y' know?"

"I know," Nathan assured him. "But head injuries–"

"Ain't something t' fool 'round with," Vin finished for him. "I know, I know." He reached for a glass of water, but Josiah beat him to it, handing him the glass. "Thanks, J'siah. Any news on who set us up?"

"The only name Wilton's given the authorities is Devlin Matthews," Chris said. "Ring any bells?"

"Nope," Tanner replied, his brow furrowing.

"I ran a check on him," JD said. "He's a behavioral psychologist, but he's been in trouble with the authorities in three states. They even suspended his license in California."

"Why would a psychologist want t' kill us?" Vin asked the group.

"I don't know," Chris sighed. "But the Sanders sisters turned up dead."

"He must have been employed by someone else, whoever killed those girls," Ezra added. "They found files for all three of us in the trunk of his car."

"I couldn't find anything in the records that would link Matthews to any of our past cases," JD said.

"But that doesn't mean he might not be working for someone," Buck grumbled.

"Guess y'all checked if anyone we put away is out?" Vin asked them.

"I did," Josiah replied. "Nothing panned out. And Matthews is refusing to talk. We might never know who was responsible for this."

"'Til they try again," Vin replied.

Chris nodded, his expression somber. "Travis said they're doing all they can to find out what happened, but…"

Vin swallowed hard, his eyes focusing on Chris's. "There's one thing I gotta know, that little girl, did I–?"

"No," Chris interrupted him. "You didn't kill anyone, Vin."

"It was all part of the ruse Dr. Matthews was perpetrating on us," Ezra said. "Dr. Matthews was set to play with our minds, and your injuries were all that stopped him."

"Little Leann was just part of the psychological scenario Matthews had attempted to set up," Josiah reiterated. "What he really wanted to do was pit you against each other."

"But the accident–" Vin started.

"The accident was real," Chris said. "The Ram's totaled, but there wasn't any girl and there weren't any drugs in our blood or in the Ram."

"I knew they were lyin'!" Vin said, his eyes flashing. "What's gonna happen t' Wilton 'n' his thugs?"

"Wilton's under arrest," Chris told him. "And all of his guards are under investigation."

"Some are already in jail," Buck added.

"A lot of the people there were being held illegally," JD said. "The state review board is going through each case."

"I'm sure everything will be sorted out, and rather quickly from the looks of it," Josiah told him. "The press picked up on this and they're following it closely."

"Which will keep everyone's feet to the fire," Nathan concluded.

Vin closed his eyes, suddenly feeling drained. "Good. That's good."

"Get some rest, Vin," Chris said, giving the man's arm a light squeeze. "We'll drop back later, okay?"

"Yeah . . . thanks, guys," Vin said, not bothering to open his eyes. "I'll see y' later…" He was asleep before they reached the door.

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

Tuesday, 9 a.m.

"Where is he?" Vin grouched.

Ezra ignored the question, carefully checking the drawers and closet for items Tanner needed to take with him.

"Ezra, where's Chris?"

"He's picking up some additional items from the doctor," he replied, stopping to rearrange the slightly wilted flower arrangement. "I suppose you want me to throw the flowers away so you can take the vase with you?"


"No? Could you have acquired some modicum of style and sense as a result of your injuries?"

"I promised it t' one of the guys down in x-ray."

"I see," Ezra replied. "Another mental Neanderthal. Well, I guess Mr. Wilmington won't be too upset if he knows it went to someone who will appreciate her."

Vin reined in a grin. "Come on, let's get the hell out of here. We c'n meet Chris in the lobby."

"Not so fast, Mr. Tanner."

Vin turned. "Dr. Abell," he greeted. "Ezra, this is Dr. Lynn Abell, m' neurologist. Doc, this is Ezra Standish, one 'a m' partners."

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Standish," she said, extending a hand.

Ezra grinned, smitten by the young woman's engaging smile. Petite with red hair, green eyes, and a spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks, Dr. Abell looked more like a student than a doctor. "Please, call me Ezra, Doctor."

"It's Lynn," she corrected him, then turned to Vin. "I just wanted to drop by and give you a list of do's and don't's, and the schedule for your first week's appointments."


"Afraid so. Then we'll see how you're doing and go from there."

He nodded. "Appreciate all you've done, Doc."

"You're welcome. Now, do you want a wheelchair for the trip to the lobby?"

"No," Vin said quickly, "I feel pretty good – just a little weak. I'll be fine."

"All right, but if you start getting dizzy, call for a nurse, okay?"

"I will," he promised.

"Good, then I'll see you day after tomorrow." With that the young woman left.

"Enchanting," Ezra sighed, looking after her. "She's…"

Vin grinned. "Come on, let's go find Chris an' blow this place."

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

Tuesday, 11 a.m.

Out at Larabee's ranch, Vin sat on the patio, enjoying the mild sunlight that warmed him. In his hands he held a can of 7-Up and two aspirin, both delivered by Ezra before he headed out to his own place.

His head was hurting, but not too badly, and he took the pills, then rubbed at his temples.

"Feeling okay?"

Vin looked up, a sheepish expression on his face. "Yeah, just a little throb."

"Want some aspirin?" Chris asked him.

"Naw, Ezra brought me two just before he left. If it gets worse I'll take some more." He looked out over the property and drew in a deep breath. "It's good t' be home."

"I know what you mean," Larabee said, sitting down next to Vin. "For a while there I wasn't sure we'd– Well, you know what I mean."

Vin nodded, still staring out at the mountains. "He's out there, Chris."

"I know."

"He'll try again."


"Part of the game they were playin' with us was 'divide and conquer.'"

"What do you mean?"

"They told me you an' Ezra sold me out; traded what they did to me so you'd get it easy."

"We did no such thing! We–"

"Chris," Vin interrupted, meeting his friend's eyes, "hell, I know y' didn't."

The blond relaxed slightly. "Guess we really pissed somebody off."

"Reckon so. Been thinkin' it might be Keagan and Mahoney. They're still on the run."

"Yeah, the thought crossed my mind, too. The guys are working on it."

Vin nodded.

Chris reached out, lightly clapping Vin's shoulder. "I'm just glad you're all right." He dipped his head, saying, "You had me pretty damned scared. I–" He stopped, forcing himself to look up and meet Vin's steadfast gaze. "I thought I was going to lose the best friend I've ever had out there."

Vin looked away, but then back again. He nodded and smiled. "Hey, why don't we go out tonight? Celebrate."

"Vin, the doctor said you're supposed to take it easy."

"I'll take it easy. We can go to The Peaks, get some steak, maybe some steak 'n' lobster."

Chris grinned. "Whatever you want."


Chris stood, trying to look benevolent. "Well, within reason. Somebody's gotta watch out for you."

"Watch out for me?"

"Yeah, for you, I'm not the one with the concussion, remember? Not to mention the cracked ribs, the bruises. . ."

"Watch out for me, huh?"

Chris grinned.

Vin put his thumb over the soda can opening and shook it, an evil grin spreading across is face.


"Y' know, one of the things y' gotta watch out for is mood swings." He shook the can again.

Chris scrambled back several steps. "Vin, you wouldn't."

"I wouldn't?" Vin asked him. "Y' gonna mother hen me t' death, Larabee?" he asked, shaking the can a third time.

Chris's hands came up. "No. Never. You know me. None of that stuff mother hen crap. No hovering, no playing mom, you have my word."

"Yer word?" Vin repeated, shaking the can once more.



"Goddamn it, Tanner, if you– Ahh! Shit! You–"

"Ah! Concussion, r'member?"

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

Wednesday, 1 p.m.

"I can't believe it's been a week since all this started," Chris said, shaking Megan's hand after she'd stepped into his office.

She glanced up at him, her eyes damp. "I can't believe I'm actually free. And I have the three of you to thank."

"Well, if it wasn't for you, Vin wouldn't have survived, so it's me who's saying thank you."

"He was strong. He would've been okay."

"Come on, I know he'll want to thank you himself, too." Chris led her out of his office and into the open space where the other desks were. They found Vin and Ezra in the cantina, Tanner lounging on the couch while Standish poured water into the well on the Mr. Coffee.

"Hey, look who's here," Chris announced, leading the way inside.

Vin forced his eyes open, then smiled broadly, sat up, and ran a hand over his hair. "Hey, Doc, it's good t' see ya."

She grinned, her cheeks turning rosy pink. "Please, call me Megan."

Stepping further into the room, Megan was immediately greeted by Ezra, who shook her hand and then wrapped her in a hug. "They dismissed your case?" he asked, leading her, his arm still around her shoulders, to the couch and having her sit down.

"Yeah, the review board released me. I'll be testifying against Wilton in the grand jury investigation."

"Yeah, us, too," Vin said. "We get our subpoenas today."

She glanced nervously at Vin, asking, "How're you doing?"

"I'm good," he said. "'M glad y' dropped by. I wanted t' say thank you."

"Like I told Mr. Larabee, it's me who needs to say thank you. If it wasn't for the three of you, I'd still be in that place."

"If it wasn't for Chris an' Ezra, y' mean," Vin corrected. "They were the real heroes. All I did was lay there."

Megan shook her head. "No, it was all three of you. It was your courage and strength that gave me the strength to stand up to them. And Mr. Larabee's and Mr. Standish's loyalty and determination – they made me remember I was a doctor." She looked up at Ezra. "I'd lost hope." She stopped, her voice catching and her eyes filling with tears.

Chris reached over and handed her a tissue. She accepted it, wiping her eyes.

"So, what now?" Vin asked her.

She took a deep breath and said, "Now I go back and finish my internship and practice medicine."

"That's great," Chris said.

"That is wonderful," Ezra agreed. "And we expect to hear from you, a progress update."

She nodded. "I think I can do that; I'll be finishing up here."

"In Denver?" Vin asked her.

"St. Joseph's," she explained. "And I wish I could stay longer, but I have to get going. I'm supposed to meet the head of the intern program to go over my schedule. With the grand jury it's going to be a little tricky, but he knows what happened and he's willing to help me work around it."

Vin stood and offered Megan his hand. She accepted it and he pulled her into a hug. "Y' take good care of yerself," he said softly. "Put this behind y' an' make sure y' have a good life. Y' deserve it, Doc."

She squeezed him, but not too tightly, remembering the bruised ribs. "Thank you," she whispered thickly.

He patted her back, then gripped her shoulders and pulled her back so he could kiss her cheek.

"My turn," Chris announced.

Megan laughed, but the tears were on her cheeks when Chris pulled her into a tight hug. "Stay in touch, Doc."

"I will," she promised, stepping back.

"I would be most happy to walk you out," Ezra offered.

She nodded and the pair left.

Vin brushed his fingers over his eyes and cleared his throat. "I'm glad she's gettin' her life back t'gether," he said. "Ezra told me– That guard– She–"

"I know. She has a lot more courage than she thinks she does. She'll be fine," Chris said, taking a step closer to his friend. "I have a favor."

Vin looked up. "Sure," he said, his emotions under control again.

Chris took another step, closing the distance between them. Then, without hesitation he opened his arms and folded Vin into a hug that was readily returned. They moved apart a moment later, both of their faces red.

"What was that for?" Vin asked him.

"I just needed to make sure you're really here."

"Chris, I've been eatin' and sleepin' and lyin' in your way for two days. I'm here."

The blond chuckled. "I know, but–"

Vin held up a hand to stop him. "I know what y' mean."

Chris nodded. "So, what do you say we go out? Celebrate."

Vin grinned, recognizing the ploy. "Sure," he replied. "Whatever y' want."

Chris draped one arm over Vin's shoulder and together the two friends headed for the door.


"Within reason," Vin amended.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
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Author's Note: This story was originally submitted to the zine A Small Circle of Friends, a multi-media recycling zine, because it is a recycle of a published fan story done with the original author's permission, but then published in Let's Ride #5, 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 Erica Michaels is the primary author of this story, she 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 – Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 8-8-2005. Art by Shiloh (