Vin made his way slowly across the lobby to the elevator. It was well after one p.m. on Thursday. He'd been tied up at the hospital all morning. He had taken his last blood test and was disappointed in the doctor's refusal to okay him to return to work. He fingered the note in his pocket, advising light duty effective a week from Monday.
Vin knew the team would be out, still working on the Prescott case. The office was empty and needed to do some background work on Delgado. He put the fast food bag in his mouth and flipped the lights on as he entered the office. He made his way to his desk and set the cold quart of Coke down. He turned the computer on and got to work. Reaching in the bag on his desk, he plucked out a Bronco Burger and Fries. He was starving, and the aroma was tantalizing.
He rummaged in his desk and pulled out a bottle of aspirin. His head was pounding; hospitals never agreed with the lanky sharpshooter. A new strain of the flu had crippled the city, overcrowding the rooms, ER's and clinics. Vin's nine o'clock fast check-up, had turned into a three-hour ordeal. The packed waiting room seemed to get smaller and smaller, as he sat on the floor, wedged between hacking, moaning sick people. If the words 'rat fever' weren't so indelibly imprinted on his mind, he would have skipped the trip. But he needed the reassurance that the blood test brought.
Popping a couple of the painkillers, he took a gulp of soda. As he devoured his lunch, he pecked away at the keyboard. Delgado's release from juvenile hall at eighteen had led to brief stint in the army. His temper, drug and drinking problems and bar brawls had earned him a dishonorable discharge. The next few years were filled with an assortment of short-lived jobs, petty crimes and drug use. The paper trail ended two years ago.
Vin printed out what he found and sat reviewing it, circling addresses, places he frequented, even the lowlifes he bought the drugs from. The ringing phone jarred him, interrupting his mental map.
"Hey Vin, I found something!"
"Calm down, J.D.," Vin sat up, "Whatcha got?"
"Delgado had a ninety-seven year old aunt who died two years ago. He was her only heir. She had a house a few hours from here, near the mountains."
"Hey, that's great, Kid!"
"That ain't the half of it, Vin," J.D. plowed on, "Remember last year, when we got called out to take out those survivalists?"
"Do I...nearly got m'self blowed up."
"It was the same town. There was fifteen of them, seven died in the shootout, five were wounded and three escaped."
"Me and Nate chased them three, through the woods. They jumped us, I was out cold. Nate took off after a couple of 'em and caught them."
"I ran down the list of that outfit. You want to guess the name of the guy who got away?"
"Adams..." Vin seethed, slamming his hand on his desk, "They had masks on, but he seen me clear as day."
"He's been planning this ever since, Vin."
"You done good, J.D," Vin enthused, "Now we gotta figure a way to get 'im."
"Easier said than done. Buck and Chris are keeping us on a short leash. We're gonna need time to trail him."
"Yeah..." Vin mused, "I'll think of somethin' See ya at supper."
Vin hung the phone up and glanced at the clock. It was after two-thirty. He shook his empty soda cup and made his way to the cantina. He dumped ice in his cup and found two cans of ginger ale. After filling the quart container, he sat for a minute, rubbing his temples. The aspirin had little effect and his head was pounding. The doctor told him it was a grade 4 concussion and to expect the severe headaches, dizziness and blackouts for a couple weeks. He noticed the refrigerator door was still open. After closing it, he picked up his soda and started for his desk.
"Aw, shit," he dropped the soda and groped against the wall as his legs gave way and the black curtain fell.
The team had wrapped up early, taping a lot of illegal activity from Prescott's men. They hoped to wrap the case, the following day. It would be a bittersweet victory, as Aldo Trinadad remained safely out of the country. Ezra and his girlfriend were going to dinner and a movie with Nathan and Rain. Josiah was counseling at the center. Chris needed to do an outline of the day's events. He and Buck made their way into the office. Chris headed for his office, to get his voicemail messages. He flipped his computer on as he dialed.
"I'll call J.D., see if they want Chinese takeout," Buck said, heading for his phone, "Hey Kid, it's me, we're done for the day. No, I'm not kidding. Chris and me are bringing Chinese takeout home. You want your usual? Okay, Ask Vin what he wants. WHAT DO MEAN HE'S NOT THERE!"
Buck's roar and the sound of his chair flying back, hitting the edge of the desk, brought Chris Larabee to his oldest friend's side. He knew the fear on Chris' face, reflected his own.
"....damn right I'm gonna yell. Where the hell is he?"
Chris saw Buck nodding and rubbing his face. He pulled on the mustached-man's sleeve impatiently and glared at him. Buck held up a finger and put his palm up.
"I know he had a doctor's appointment, but it's after five o'clock. Flu epidemic...had to wait..."
Chris watched Buck's hand moving in a rolling motion and knew J.D. was rambling.
"He's here?" Buck's voice rose, sending Chris to Vin's desk, "Vin...Vin...you here?" Buck hollered, craning his neck. Chris came forward holding the fast food bag. "Take it easy J.D., maybe he's on his way home. Did you try his..."
Chris saw Buck's face freeze at a spot behind the team leader. He eyed the tall man for a minute, then slowly turned. His heart sank at the sight of a hand, sticking out of the door to the cantina.
"J.D., I'll call you right back," Buck hung the phone up and followed Chris.
Chris ran to the doorway and stepped carefully over the prone body. He gently turned Vin over and was relieved not to find any bullet holes, blood or signs of attack. He knelt beside the unconscious man and took his pulse. He felt his head, relieved to find no temperature. He held Vin's head in his right hand and tapped the still cheek with the other."He's okay...passed out," Chris sat back on his heels and saw the fear fleeing Buck's face.
"For a minute there, I thought..."
"I hear ya, Buck..." Chris agreed, "Let's move him to the sofa in my office.
Vin was carefully placed on the sofa. Buck dug a sweatshirt of Chris's out of the closet and folded it, placing under Tanner's head. Chris covered him with a cotton throw blanket and brushed back the wavy hair that had fallen over his face.
"What the hell was he thinking?" Buck asked.
"Gonna be my first question."
"Wasn't Nettie supposed to pick him up at the hospital after his appointment?"
"Yup. I called her after I dropped him off there at a quarter to nine. J.D. say he got held up?"
"Yeah, something about overcrowded waiting rooms and the flu..."
"Read about that in the paper. Nettie would have never brought him here."
"One way to find out," Buck replied, dialing the phone on Chris's desk, "Hey Nettie, How are you?"Chris motioned to Vin and shook his head. He didn't want Nettie to get upset. Buck shook his dark head, reading Chris's thought.
"Vin call ya?" Buck nodded, making a face, "No, he's fine Nettie. We knew he was held up and wanted to make sure you weren't worried. Uh...the doctor? Vin's sleeping right now, we'll get the update later. Sure, I will...have him call you tomorrow. Sorry to bother you, Bye now." Buck frowned, "He called Nettie just before noon, knowing she had city council members coming in to the center at lunch. He was still waiting and told her one of us was coming to pick him up."
"I swear to God, Vin!" Chris expelled a long, angry breath.
Chris went to his desk and did a fast outline of the day's events. Buck went to Vin's desk to turn off his computer. He spotted a small yellow handwritten note and a larger piece of paper, with the doctor's address. He read the note quickly and scanned the letter on his way back to Chris's office.
"Somebody needs to learn this boy how to follow orders," Buck growled, handing Chris the doctor's letter, "...that Grade 4 looks serious...bed rest...no activity...I'll bet he walked here. Gotta be close to two miles."
Chris's black mood got deeper. He eyed the sleeping body and heard a low moan. The shaggy head began to move back and forth. Chris moved across the room. Buck stood at his shoulder.
"Gives a whole new meaning to the word stubborn," Buck sighed, as another low moan interrupted his sentence.
"Wasn't the word I had in mind..." Chris gritted.
Vin licked his dry lips and swallowed painfully. He moaned and turned his head, peeling his eyes open halfway. Knees? Black knees and tan knees...His eyes moved up...belts...shirts...two pairs of arms, folded across...
"Aw, hell," he croaked, eyeing the two heads glaring at him, unsmiling.
He sat up and swayed, keeping his eyes glued to the floor. Once the room stopped spinning, he noticed the black legs were gone. He felt the sofa depress and felt a hand rubbing his back.
"How mad?" His scratchy voice asked of Larabee's mood.
"Shooting green fire..." Buck eyed the suffering soul, "You're lucky you ain't fried to a crisp."
"I think that's our question, Junior."
"Musta passed out...been awful thirsty. I was gettin' a soda."
"That's where we found you, you damn fool. What about the words, 'bed rest' and 'no activity' don't you understand? What if you passed out on the street in this weather...or at the top of a flight of stairs? Did you walk here?" The lack of a denial only made Buck angrier, "God damn it, Vin!"
"It weren't supposed to be this way..."
"No kiddin'. You want something to drink?" Buck asked, rubbing the slumped shoulders and gaining a nod.
Vin stared at the floor, hoping that a hole would open, allowing him to escape. He could feel the anger radiating off of Chris Larabee. He flinched when a small object hurled past him, landing on the sofa. The keys...he'd forgotten about them. Must have slipped from his hand when he went down. Right where Buck found them.
"I was only gonna work for a couple hours, trying to find something on Adams. I was gettin' ready to leave when it happened." Vin whispered.
"LEAVE! ON YOUR BIKE! Not bad enough you'd have gotten your fool self in an accident, what if you plowed into some school kids...or the people that cross in front on you to get to the train..." Buck raged.
"I ain't had a spell since Monday, it wouldn't been that far. That mechanic called yesterday and said it was done, that he leave it here."
Buck stopped his frantic pacing and grabbed both of Tanner's shoulders and shook him hard,
"You haven't passed out, cause you rested and took medicine...like you were supposed to. What do think it would have done to Miss Nettie? Seeing pieces of you splattered all over the road?"
Buck's cell phone rang and he flipped it open. He told J.D. that Vin had been found and they'd be home later. He saw that the Texan's face was flushed with color and his eyes were full. He sat down next to him and eased his tone.
"Jesus, Vin, I saw you're hand stickin' out of that door...scared the shit out of me." Buck rubbed the brown curling hair, "You're family, Junior, you mean a something to a whole lot of folks."
"I'm sorry, Bucklin." Vin managed, dropping his head.
"Sorry ain't gonna cut it," a low lethal voice made itself known.
Buck looked up startled, he hadn't realized Chris was in the room. He started to the door, where Chris stood against the far wall. Chris put his coat on and got his car keys. He never looked at his best friend. He was so angry, he didn't trust his reactions. His cold eyes met Buck's dark ones.
"I'm headin' to the ranch, Buck. I'll see you in the morning."
"Chris..." Buck started, but the team leader shook off his grasp.
Vin watched his best friend through the glass office walls. He managed to stumble over to the clear barrier and press against it, tapping.
"Chris....Larabee....Chris...." He rasped.
Chris never turned around, and tried to control his mixed emotions as he sat in his car. What if Adams had followed Vin? His heart almost stopped when he saw the motionless body on the floor. Didn't Vin realize the impact he had? A motorcycle wreck...Vin's mangled body.
"Damn sorry-assed Texan," he smacked the dashboard and started his car.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's shoulders slumped and he laid his face against the glass, palms still pressed there.
"I fucked up good this time..."
"That you did, Junior," Buck agreed, "Come on over and drink this. You and me are gonna have a little talk."
Buck chose his words carefully, making sure Vin understood how irresponsible and thoughtless his actions were. He wasn't a solo act anymore, he was part of a family. Families care for each other, stand by each other and kick a butt when it's needed. He saw the atonement in Vin's blue eyes, as well as the furtive glances the young man stole towards the office doors.
"He ain't coming back, Vin."
"Reckon he's really pissed."
"You hurt him, Vin, " Buck said gently, "He's the kind of friend every man should have. I feel privileged to have had the honor for over a dozen years now. But what he shares with you, Vin, that's something special, deep down to the core. You've given him something he lost when Sarah and Adam died, " Buck tilted the chin up and penetrated those lost blue eyes, "You gave him his soul back, and I don't intend to let it shatter again. So you best mend this and don't ever pull a selfish stunt like that again."
Dinner was eaten in near silence, the only voices belonging to the television anchorperson. Vin excused himself and went to bed. He didn't sleep, he stared at the ceiling, hands behind his head. He was torn, he never meant to hurt Chris. He was just so used to doing for himself. The pain in his gut had taken a solid hold, since the keys landed next to him. Buck's angry eyes...Chris icy ones...J.D.'s look of guilt. There was a high price to pay for being family. He never knew it could hurt so much.
He couldn't afford to let Delgado get away. The more time that passed, the harder it would be to find him. The team would be tied up for the next day or more, with the Prescott case. He felt the walls closing in, he couldn't just sit still. He needed some space, to think and heal. He drifted off into a troubled sleep.
"Vin, little early, ain't it?"
Buck was surprised at the sight of the lone figure in the kitchen at four a.m. Vin was still in the clothes from the night before, sipping coffee and looking forlorn. He glanced up with weary eyes when Buck set his own coffee down and straddled a chair.
"Hey Buck...couldn't sleep." He ran a hand through his tangled hair.
Buck saw the dark circles and confusion in the blue eyes. He knew part of the problem, and was about to guess the rest.
"Walls closing in?" He guessed, seeing the head nod, "I know you're frustrated, Vin. We should wrap this case sometime tomorrow. By Monday, we'll be able to concentrate on finding Adams."
"Where ya headed this early?"
"To Ezra's to get dressed. We gotta go over a lot of material before our morning meeting with Prescott."Vin folded his arms on the table and rested his head. He heard Buck rummaging around the kitchen and the clatter of plates and utensils.
It wasn't that he wasn't hungry, it was the sore throat he'd acquired overnight. Felt like there were razors in his throat. The stiffness and soreness in his limbs hadn't gone away, since his arrival in the kitchen an hour ago. His head was heavy and he felt chilled. Not now...can't get sick.
Buck eyed Vin cautiously, as placed his omelet and toasted bagel on the table. Frowning, he laid a hand across the snoozing man's forehead. It was cool...he was just worn out. Buck contemplated Vin's depressed state. Maybe if they wrapped the case early, he'd talk Chris into moving the boys to the ranch or even the cabin.
+ + + + + + +
The sound of the phone jarred the sleeping figure. Vin squinted painfully at the wall clock, which read nine a.m. He stumbled across the kitchen and grabbed at the shrill sounding device that was sending pain waves through his aching head.
"Wake up, Skinny Vinny...time to play ball."Vin's head shot up and he became instantly awake.
"Delgado, you putrid sack of..."
"Now, now," The voice interrupted, "temper...temper. You ever watch 'Let's Make a Deal?", Delgado goaded, "Well let's pretend I'm Bob Barker. Face down in stall number one, I got something blond and slightly damaged. How about a trade?"
Vin's heart nearly stopped. Chris...Delgado had Chris out at the ranch. Or did he?
"Ya hurt him," Vin seethed, "and I'll make yer last days on this planet, slow and painful."
"You ain't in any position to make threats, Bastard Boy," Delgado teased, "You got an hour to get to Larabee's ranch...alone. I see another car or any hint of cops, and I'll put a bullet between these pretty green eyes of his."
"I see ya in hell first," Vin's voice was surprising even, "I want to talk to him."
Vin strained and heard Delgado's foul mouth, a thump and a painful cry. Finally he heard labored breathing. "Chris...ya okay?"
Then silence and another thump and cry. The voice was Larabee's and Vin's blood began to boil.
Nobody laid a hand on Larabee...nobody. He'd make Tony Delgado sorry he was ever born. He saw J.D. shuffle into the room. The boy saw the look on his face and knew something was wrong.
"An hour...no more."
"I can't get there in an hour...its rush hour."
Then the line went dead.
J.D. knew before Vin even moved. The rage on his face broke into a growl. J.D. watched Vin
bare his teeth and unleash a feral cry. A coffee mug flew across the room and shattered, sending brown tears down the wall. J.D. made his way over to Vin's tension filled form.
"Delgado's got him at the ranch...he's hurt. He'll let 'im go, iffen I trade places."
"We gotta call the guys."
"Can't, they're meeting with Prescott. We're losin' time, J.D. He's gonna kill Chris if we don't get there in ninety minutes. We gotta move. We'll try callin' Josiah from the car."
Fifteen minutes later, dressed and armed, the pair made their way outside. J.D. shook his head when Vin asked for the keys.
"No way...I'm driving. You get Nate or Josiah on the phone."
J.D. wasted no time in getting to the highway. It was a straight drive for most of the trip, before turning off on an access road, to get to the ranch. He saw Vin frantically dialing numbers and swearing.
"Talk it easy, Vin..."
"No answer. Josiah must have his phone off. I'll try Nate..."
+ + + + + + +
The two figures watched the scenario from behind a stack of crates. Team 2 was assisting, two men inside and several more outside. Josiah glanced at his watch and frowned. It was after nine, Chris was late.
"Maybe he had a flat..." Nate read the ex-preacher's expression.
"Maybe..." He paused, listening to Ezra's exaggerated New Orleans accent, "He scares me sometimes."
"I know what you mean..." Nathan grinned, "Ezra missed his calling...some of his performances are Oscar worthy."
The low beep in his pocket caused him to move quickly. He winced, and glanced across the room, they hadn't heard. Josiah threw him a scowl, phones were supposed to be turned off during a raid.
"Jackson," Nate whispered, turning his head.
"Nate, we got trouble. Adams has Chris at the ranch. He's gonna kill 'im, unless I show up."
"Vin, you can't do that. It's suicide!"
Nathan's anxious tone caused Josiah to turn from his post. He tugged on Nate's sleeve and the dark man waved him off.
"Ain't gotta choice, Nate..."
Nathan heard the pain in the slight pause. Nobody would be able to talk Vin Tanner out of this suicide mission. He wouldn't think twice about sacrificing his life for Chris's.
"He's hurt Nate..."
"Vin, get the police out there."
"NO! He'll kill Chris, iffen he sees anybody but me. We ain't got time, got an hour or he's gonna shoot Chris. Been in tighter spots...I don't aim on gettin' killed, Nate. I'll be fine."
Josiah heard Buck's voice raise and spotted trouble. He smacked Nate's leg and pointed. Nate nodded.
"I gotta go Vin, it's going down...Vin?"
The burst of static broke the transmission. Josiah's eyebrows raised at Nathan Jackson's uncharacteristic use of several profane words.
"Adams has Chris...he's gonna kill 'im. Vin's giving himself over."
The loud argument on the floor drew their attention. Ezra was disgusted with Prescott's treatment and accusations and threatened to walk out, taking his money. Buck asked Prescott for a few minutes to confer with his partner. Prescott's men had their guns drawn and several had itchy fingers, suspicious of the green-eyed Southerner. Prescott reluctantly agreed to a five-minute caucus.
Nate used the break to dial information, requesting to be put through to the sheriff's department that governed the area where Chris lived. He tapped his fingers impatiently, eyeing Josiah, who was on the phone to Buck's house. He shook his head as the answering machine came on. He called for J.D. to pick up, but there was no reply.
Nate got the secretary at the sheriff's department and explained the situation as briefly as he could. She said she'd get word to the deputy, who was with the sheriff, at the scene of a multicar pile up on the interstate nearby. Nate stressed the urgency of the situation, hoping for a miracle.
Prescott's voice ended the call. He told Ezra and Buck that the meeting would be transferred to his home, across town. He was suspicious of the pair and wanted them in a more controlled environment.
Josiah and Nate both swore softly, when the pair where escorted into a car with Prescott's two bodyguards. One car pulled out ahead and two more behind. The team scrambled to their own vehicles to follow. Neither was comfortable with the choice. The lives of their friends were in jeopardy. They needed to stay with the assignment and save Buck and Ezra. Chris and Vin's lives were now in the hands of the sheriff's department.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee blinked rapidly, dispelling the blood that ran into his eye. He was bound hand and foot and lying on the straw next to Charger's stall. The brown bay whinnied in sympathy and stomped in frustration. Chris closed his eyes, trying to ward off the blackness from falling. He'd entered the barn as he did each morning, to throw down hay and check on the livestock. He was only a few feet inside, when something hard slammed into his head.
Guilt flooded into him, hurting much worse than the abrasion on his scalp. Even if Vin alerted the team, they couldn't help. He knew his feeble attempt to stop the stubborn sharpshooter, fell on deaf ears. Vin would never consider any other option. He could see the determined blue eyes, and hear the colorfully, salted drawl. He inched his way over and peered around the stall, spotting Adams hovering, rifle in hand, near the barn door. The sands of time were quickly running out, and he was powerless to stop the massacre.
"Pull over J.D.," Vin requested, as they approached the turnoff.
It was another fifteen minutes to Chris's ranch on a utility road. J.D. would take the guns with him in the trunk. He helped the youth climb inside, wincing as J.D.'s breath caught, and the dark head dropped in pain. J.D. secured the trunk lock from the inside, holding it down in place. Vin climbed back in the car.
"Damn," he swore, reading the digital figures on the clock, "We're late..."
Tony Delgado felt a sense of euphoric glee. In less than ten minutes, Tanner would be his. He replayed in his mind, all the ways he'd planned to torture his long sought adversary. Tanner thought he was riding into an ambush, he was so wrong. Glancing back, he spotted Larabee inching his way forward. The green eyes glared at him filled with nothing short of homicidal hate.
"I know what you're thinking...don't worry yourself none. Much as I'd like splatter that no account bastard's brains all over your pretty face, I got other plans," he squatted and grinned evilly at the struggling figure, who growled underneath his gag. "You'll never know...you'll always wonder what happened to him. How many pieces I carved his hide into."
He backed up and laughed outright as Chris Larabee buckled against his bindings, his muffled howls of rage filling the barn.
"I've been waiting a long time for this...the whore's son is gonna pay. He ruined my life and I'm gonna make his last days, long, slow and painful. In the end, he be reduced to a whimpering, pathetic dog, begging for death."
Chris screamed in rage as Adam's eyes took on a maniacal gleam. He didn't want to kill Vin, he wanted to torture him. Chris strained with all he had against the ropes, feeling Adam's staccato laugher all around him. The screech of brakes ended the rain of Adams' gibberish. He ran to the barn door and disappeared.
Chris got to his knees, leaned against the stall post and pushed his way upright. He hopped forward, falling and landing hard on the dirt floor. He began to roll, fast and furious, until the end of a stall near the door, stopped him. The world spun around like a carousel and he shook his head to clear it. He saw Vin approaching Adams and started to shout a muffled protest.
"That's far enough," Adams kept his rifle trained on Tanner, "Take off your coat."
"I ain't packin' " Vin growled, taking off his brown leather jacket and lifting his sweater, "Where is he?"
Adams nodded his head towards the barn door. He grabbed Vin by the back of the collar and hurled him forward, sending him to the ground.
"I ain't heartless. I'll give you one minute to make your last goodbye. First, we're gonna check out your car."
Vin's mind raced, his eyes darted to the trunk, still down. He felt the rifle in his ribcage and heard the marching orders. They made their way to the car and Adams peered inside, before shooting the tires. He then paused and shot a couple rounds in the trunk. He watched Vin's face, which was unreadable, as he opened the trunk. Vin kept his face set in stone, but was sagging in relief at the sight of the empty trunk. Smart Kid...jumped out right off. The rifle never left Vin's head. They marched back to the barn.
J.D. shook off the stars that danced in front of him. His hasty retreat had sent him painfully into the underbrush, and he couldn't breath. Searing pain raced through his ribcage. He took slow and even breaths, until he was able to stand. He glanced out into the deserted yard. He didn't think he'd blacked out for that long. He edged his way forward.
Chris pulled his head up painfully, when he saw the familiar blue jeans and boots. He felt a set of hands pull him upright and felt a cloth wiping the blood off his face. He felt the gentle hands, prodding his ribcage and felt something slipped inside his shirt. He blinked rapidly, trying to focus. He was leaning back against the barn door, and trying to open his heavy eyes.
The face belonging to the soft voice, finally came in clear. For several seconds, the two sets of eyes met and spoke volumes.
Vin looked at the battered face of his best friend. He took a bunch of napkins, safely stored from the yesterday's lunch, from his pocket. He carefully wiped the blood running freely down Chris's face. Finally, the eye's peeled open, and one thing was shining through, loud and clear. Guilt.
"Don't go there," Vin ordered, squeezing the back of Chris's neck.
Chris watched Vin's eyes and heard every word of the silent transmission. Neither ever needed a lot of words to say what they're hearts knew. Vin message was brief...full of gratitude and pride. He felt the warm hand squeezing his neck and the gentle eyes...his brother's eyes...full of warmth.
"Time's up, Bastard Boy, let's go."
Vin threw off the beefy hand and glared, the compassion changed to lethal hatred. The rifle trained at his head, never caused him to flinch.
"Get your hands offa me, Delgado," the low and lethal voice issued, "Ye'll pay..."
Adams saw the fire in Tanner's eyes as he hovered over Larabee, "Maybe I ought to put your friend out of his misery," he teased, raising the rifle and taking aim.
Vin stood and placed himself in front of the rifle. Batting off Chris's weak attempt and moving him with his bound legs.
"Don't worry, Tanner, killing him would ruin the years of anguish he'll endure. The guilt haunting him, never knowing what happened to you. Such unwarranted devotion," Adams grinned, kicking Larabee hard in the leg, "For him?"
"For him, I'd ride to hell and back," Vin growled, "With yer head mounted on a spike."
Vin turned back to catch Chris's eye. The guilt was replaced by a burning pride, and it gave Tanner a small grin. He never saw the rifle coming and felt the slam into his gut. Dropping to his knees, he spent several seconds, trying to find air.
"That wasn't very nice..." Adams tied his victim's hands securely.
Gasping, he felt his head, raised painfully, by the hair. His eyes went past Delgado's legs to the yard beyond. Where was J.D.?
Chris saw Vin's quick glance to the car. He wasn't alone! J.D. was with him. Was he hurt? Chris remembered the gunshots earlier. He felt himself slipping and forced his eyes open. He saw Vin hauled up and staggering forward. Delgado...Vin called him Delgado. That's why Adams had no past. He watched until they turned past the corral and out of his vision. The possibility that this was the last time he'd see his best friend was overwhelming; he lost the strength that had been keeping him conscious. He slid sideways, finding a small smile at Vin's defiant image.
J.D. broke into the clearing, and crept along the side of the corral. Lifting his head, he spotted Chris's body, lying near the barn. He gazed around the perimeter, the silence gave him a chill.
He heard a noise and spotted Delgado pushing the staggering, bound Tanner forward towards a large RV. He trotted quickly towards Chris, and saw the blond's head lift.
J.D.? Chris blinked and saw the youth at the end of the corral. He was coming forward. Chris shook his head, silently urging the youth to get after Vin. He managed to sit upright, despite the world tilting, and throw his head towards the direction Vin went. He growled as loud as he could under the gag. J.D. stopped in his tracks, eye's wide, and rocked on his heels. He saw the fury in Larabee's eyes, it was an order. Without thinking twice, he turned and ran towards the retreating figures.
"God, what a fix," Chris thought as he fell back into a black void.
+ + + + + + +
Nate called the command center and told them about Vin's problem. They would alert the state police. Nate called the sheriff's department again. He glanced at his watch, it was after eleven a.m. The secretary told him the deputy and a state trooper was on the way to Chris Larabee's ranch. Nate told her they'd be in touch.
The afternoon plodded on mercilessly. Josiah and Nate, along with the members of Team 2, followed the action to Prescott's estate. Prescott seemed more relaxed in his home. After Ezra's complaints about their mistreatment, the host decided to make them wait until after lunch.
Nate and Josiah remained outside, watching and waiting. Finally lunch was over and the deal was sealed. The leader of Team 2, gave the ready command. Ezra and Buck made their way outside, eyeing the perimeter cautiously. As they walked behind a large van, the orders came down."ATF Freeze!" Both men dropped and rolled. Ezra sought safe harbor behind a retaining wall and immediately began firing. Buck wasn't so lucky, slipping in the loose gravel, he went down backwards, leaving himself exposed. He heard Ezra's voice and scrambled to take cover. He felt a sting on his arm and winced. Ezra stood and took out the attacker, hauling Buck behind the wall.
"Thanks Ez...owe you one."
"You need an arithmetic lesson, Mr. Wilmington. I've lost count of your highly climbing debt," he saw Buck's look of chagrin, as they returned fire, "However, as it would be ever so burdensome to break in a new partner, the choice was an easy one."
"You ain't much of a conman, after all," Buck smirked, seeing the hint of mirth in the green eyes as Ezra made a face.
The volley of gunfire halted as those not dead or wounded, surrendered. Ezra took off his scarf and attempted to tie a tourniquet around Buck's arm.
"Oh no you don't," Buck fended him off, "And have to suffer through your miserable complaints about some fancy designer pricetag, I'll live."
"Over here, Nate..." Buck called, allowing Ezra to sit him on the retaining wall and take his jacket off.
"How bad?" Nathan asked, spotting the bloody sleeve.
"This? Just a scratch." Buck batted the EMT's hands away, "Cut myself worse shaving."It was just a graze, why was the healer's dark eyes full of worry. Ezra read this too and exchanged a concerned glance with Buck.
"Mr. Jackson? Can you enlighten us as to the source of your concern?"
Nate nodded to Ezra as he tied off a crude bandage on Buck's arm. Sighing, he leveled a somber gaze at both of them.
"Vin called this morning, while we were still at the warehouse. Adams jumped Chris at the ranch. He gave Vin an hour to turn himself in, or he was gonna kill him.":"Fuck!" Buck swore, pounding a fist into the side of the wall.
"Have you contacted the police?" Ezra asked, "Mr. Tanner surely wouldn't"
"No, Vin was dead set against outside help. Said Adams warned him, he'd off Chris if there was a hint of anyone else with him. I called the sheriff's department, and downtown. They got word to the State Troopers. They're on their way."Josiah had been waiting on his phone and finally spoke."Yes..." He breathed a sigh and nodded for several minutes, "Thanks...keep him there. Tie 'im up if you have to. Tell him, the team is on their way."
"Well?" a chorus of voices asked the ex-minister.
"They found Chris, he's got a nasty head wound, but he's okay. He's at the clinic in town, getting stitches."
"What about Vin?" Buck asked
"Don't know Buck...they got a team of cops at Chris's, nothing yet. Found Buck's Blazer, tires shot out, holes in the trunk."
"J.D!" Buck swore.
"He's okay...well they didn't find blood or any bodies. Maybe he's tracking them. We're losing time, let's move."
Chris swallowed the aspirin and eased himself off the examining table. The pounding in his head kept time with the pressing of his heart against his chest. He had to put the image of Vin being led away, to a torture chamber, out of his mind. He needed to be cold and impartial. Walking into the corridor, he spotted a deputy. He recognized the ginger-haired young man.
"Ben..." he nodded, crumpling up the paper water cup and tossing it away.
"How you feel, Chris?"
"Been better...find anything?"
"Tire tracks headed south...looks like an RV...a big one. One shot up Blazer...no bodies."
What happened to J.D.? He couldn't have followed them on foot. His heart sank at the other possibility. Delgado caught the youth. He didn't need to picture what the armed man could do. He'd seen the lunacy in his eyes.
"Can you give me a ride back to my ranch?"
"Your men said to wait, we called them about an hour ago. They should be here anytime."
Chris walked up to the desk by the front door of the small clinic. Spotting the phone, he dialed Buck.
"Buck, where are you?"
"Chris! You all right? We're just up the road. Hang tight, Buddy, we'll be there in about five minutes."
"He's got Vin, Buck..."
Buck closed his eyes, feeling the pain in Chris's voice, "I know Pard, I know..."
"Chris okay?" Nate asked from the driver's seat.
"He won't be okay until we get Vin back."
Josiah was with Ezra in the car behind them. Buck dialed Josiah and updated him.
"There it is," Buck nodded to the clinic, spotting a pacing figure in black out front.
Buck jumped out and got to Chris before the rest caught up. Chris allowed the short embrace, needing his oldest friend's strength. Pulling back, Buck saw a hint of surrender in the green eyes.
"We will find him, Chris," Buck shook the shoulders slightly, "Adams won't get away this time."
"What?" Buck quizzed as the other three joined them.
"His name's Delgado. Vin called him that." Chris squinted into the sun and reached in his pocket, "Vin slipped me this, pretended to be checking my ribs."
"Was J.D. with him?" Nathan asked, looking at the bloody, stitched gash.
"He was riding shotgun in the trunk. He came up the driveway just after they left. I sent 'im after Vin..."
"Dammit Chris!" Buck hollered, walking away.
"He's a member of this team, Buck, same as any of us. I didn't have any other choice."
"Did you read this?" Josiah asked, scanning the information Vin printed out on Delgado.
"What are them notes on the back?" Nate asked.
"Vin must have called J.D. and the Kid had info too. Turns out Delgado was a member of that survivalist clan we busted last year. He was the only one who got away. He changed his name when he moved here. His house is up that way. Let's go..."
"Hold on Chris, we don't know where they're headed. We need some help."
"We already lost a couple hours. I don't know how much time Vin has." Chris bellowed.
"Mr. Jackson is correct," Ezra said, laying a hand on Chris's shoulder, "We need to give the state police all the information we can. They have resources we can utilize. Mr. Tanner's life is at stake. Do you wish to jeopardize that by an act of foolhardishness?"
Chris didn't speak, finally acknowledging with a nod of his head. The five set off down the street to the sheriff's office. While Chris filled them in, the others went over the notes. Ezra kept flipping the paper over.
"It would appear our young computer expert had information on this cretin at home. Do you suppose it's accessible?"
"Worth a try..." Josiah agreed, signaling Chris.
"Can you call Mary and have her get over to my house? J.D.'s information might be in the printer or by the computer." Buck asked.Chris agreed and took Buck's cell phone, dialing Mary. He rejoined them, soon thereafter, as two State Troopers arrived.
"She's on her way...she'll call us."
Chris nodded, and leaned against the wall, rubbing his eyes.
"We got an APB out on Delgado. DMV gave us a description of the RV and the plates. We got it red-flagged to all surrounding states." The taller of two troopers stated.
"Would this be an accurate description of Mr. Tanner," the other said, handing Chris a clipboard.
Chris skimmed it and nodded, handing it back, "There's a possibility J.D.Dunne, another member of the team, is with them. We haven't heard from him. Buck..." Chris nodded and Buck proceeded to give them a description of J.D.
"We'll notify the FBI that two Federal Agents have been kidnapped. We'll be in touch."
The trooper nodded to Chris and left.
Finally, the five stepped out into the afternoon sunlight. The glare off the ice and snow was a painful reminder to the leader's head injury. He staggered slightly, and Ezra grabbed him.
"I'm all right," he argued.
"Well then I don't suppose you would mind assisting me to the car?" the Southern conman kept his firm grip.
"How far's Delgado's house from here?" Josiah asked.
"Less than an hour," Chris replied, easing into the back seat of Nate's car, "What is it, Ezra?" He said, spotting the wheels spinning.
"Why would he drive all the way back there? If he wanted to kill Mr. Tanner, he'd have done so at the ranch. He's planned something else."
"He's not gonna..." Chris stopped, biting his lip, "He wants to make it slow...he's gonna torture Vin." Chris's low voice cracked.
For a long painful moment, there was silence. Then Ezra spoke.
"Well if it's painful retribution he has in mind, what better arena than the place of origin?"
"The orphanage?" Buck guessed, but Chris shook his head.
"No...that foster home for boys...on the border. Damn, I can't think of the name."The cell phone in Buck's pocket rang and they listened as he greeted Mary.
"Hey that's great...can you fax it to us. Hold on, I'll get it from the sheriff."Buck replied, jumping out. "Mary found something, I'll be right back."
Ezra slid in the car, next to Chris. The leader left his guard down long enough for the gambler to see the fear and hurt in the lost eyes. Hope. A word that offered so many, so much in so little time. He remained silent, offering his strength by his presence. Buck slid in the passenger's seat, with a fistful of paper.
"Derning Home, on the Texas-New Mexico border. We're headed South. Nice work, Ezra."
Ezra went to leave the car, and felt his arm snagged. Two sets of green eyes locked, one offering gratitude, the other sending hope.
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