by Deirdre

ATF Universe

Part 15

J.D. shifted, his aching limbs tingling from lack of circulation. It had been hours since he'd be trapped in the small closet. His frantic whispers to Vin, went unanswered. He'd caught up to the pair, just as Delgado threw Vin into the back of the large RV. An action, which caused the dizzy hostage to hit his, face hard on the floor. Vin never moved. J.D. lost his footing on the thick sheet of ice and slid precariously. By the time he regained his balance, Delgado was behind the wheel. J.D. made a dash for the back door and it popped. He slid inside, spotting Vin's body. He was laying face down, blood running from the spot where his teeth smashed into his lower lip. He wasn't moving. J.D. knelt next to him, tapping his face and calling him. Vin was out cold and the searing pain in J.D.'s chest, told him his bruised ribs were likely broken. He couldn't lift the sharpshooter. He spotted a bottle of spring water nearby and uncapped it. The movement of the van caused him to lurch, spilling the water on Vin's nose. The injured man began to sputter and cough, causing the RV to halt. J.D. heard the door slam and looked around the cabin frantically. He placed the bottle on its side, appearing as if it slipped off. He spotted a small closet and jumped inside.

"What the hell?"

J.D. held his breath as Delgado leaned over Vin's body. He winced as he peered through a crack and saw the gun trained at Vin's head. The other hand unmercifully lifted the matted hair and banged it on the floor. Vin never moved.

"You have a nice long nap, Vinny-boy," he leered, "You're gonna need it. Once we get to Derning, we're gonna take a trip down memory lane, and you're gonna suffer. I got hours worth of ways to teach you some manners."

Delgado moved Vin's body over, so now it blocked the door of the closet, trapping J.D. He'd been calling Vin for hours now, without response. He spotted Vin's jacket and got an idea. If he could somehow snake his arm out and get the cell was worth a try. Painfully, he managed to get his jacket off, making his arm easier to slide through the small opening in the door. He leaned against the door and stretched as far as he could, gritting his teeth against the fire in his chest. His hand felt cloth, denim, and he groped upwards. Finally, he snagged onto leather, and snaked his hand into the pocket.

"Come on...come on..." he breathed aloud, "YEAH!"

Retracting his hand, he spent several minutes trying to control his uneven breathing. Finally, he flipped the phone open.

"Damn," he spotted the low battery signal, and frantically punched Buck's number.

+ + + + + + +

The driver slowed, spotting the rotating neon letters ahead. The red 'E', on his dashboard, told the driver it was time to refuel, both car and bodies. The truck stop had a couple pumps and a small cafe. Pulling in, he heard the irate growl emerge.

"Nathan, why are we stopping?"

"Gas, we're all out," The weary driver replied, eyeing the rearview as Josiah pulled in behind him, "Buck, you and Ezra scare up some food.

"I'll take the wheel," Buck nodded as Jackson stretched.

"Ya ain't gonna get any argument from me," The weary driver replied.

Josiah waited and watched Chris staring at the sky. Nathan spotted Buck and Ezra approaching waving from the door of the cafe. The trio made their way over, joining their friends inside. Buck saw the stone mask Chris wore, accented by green fire in his eyes.

"We gotta eat, Chris," Buck guided the tense frame to a table.

Buck and Ezra had ordered burgers all around and the waitress appeared, just as they sat down. The sandwiches were consumed in a frenzy, out of hunger and desire to regain the hunt. Everyone froze when Buck's phone rang. Buck took a long swig of Iced Tea and flipped open the phone.


The shout caused the few patrons to turn and stare. The quartet at the table, sat back in anticipatory silence.

"Where are you? Are you all right? Is Vin with you?"

"Shut up Buck," the injured youth commanded, "this battery is dying. I don't have much time. We're headed south. I'm trapped in the closet of the RV. Vin's body is lying in front of the door, I can't get out."

"Vin's body? Jesus, J.D. he ain't..."

"No, he's just out cold, been that way since Delgado dumped him in here. He's planning on taking Vin back to Derning."

"Ezra figured that out, we're headed that way." Buck interrupted, wincing as the transmission started to die, "Kid...Kid..."


"Damn it!" Buck slid the phone back in his pocket , "The battery died. J.D.'s okay, he's trapped in a closet in the RV, Vin's lying in front of the door, he can't get out. Vin's been out since they left."

"That ain't good..." Nathan's instinct spoke outloud, before he could bite off the words, spotting the color drain from Chris's face.

Chris got up and left, the others followed. Ezra was the last out of the booth. Shaking his head and expelling a long breath.

"I was born under a lucky star, that much is for certain," As he once again was left with the bill.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. woke up with a start, biting back the stabbing sensation that radiated through his body. He blinked in confusion, for several minutes, until he realized where he was. He heard the strains of country music and realized they'd stopped moving. He peered out of the crack in the door, into virtual darkness. Then he heard a spasm of coughing.

"Vin! Vin!"


"'s J.D...Can you move your legs? I'm stuck in here."


J.D. heard the labored breathing and more coughing. Pressing against the door, he felt it give little by little, until he was able to squeeze through. He glanced forward into the cab, spotting the empty seat and open door. Dropping by Vin's side, he hauled the wheezing form upright. "Jeez, it's good to see you. I thought you were dead."

"Thanks, Kid..." Vin croaked, "Cut me loose. We gotta move, 'fore he gets back. Where are we?"

"I dunno, Vin...we been travelling for hours. I got through to Buck, they're behind us somewhere. They know he was headed for Derning."J.D. fumbled in the darkness and spilled a drawer of utensils on the floor. He found a small steak knife and sliced through Vin's bonds. Vin was already standing, when the door opened.


Vin used all the strength he had to shove his slight frame against Delgado's muscular one. The two went flying backwards, sprawling on the asphalt parking lot. Vin was fighting a losing battle, trading punches against the larger opponent. J.D. jumped in to help.

"No, J.D....Run for help." Vin rasped, his strength ebbing.

"Dunne?" Delgado wheeled, slamming J.D. hard onto the ground, "Where the hell did you come from? No matter, the more the merrier. You'll get a front row seat at the show."

Vin slid back, fighting for breath and watching the world spin around. J.D. wasn't moving. He managed to get on his hands and knees and push himself upright. He staggered toward the discarded steak knife, lying nearby.

"Oh no, you don't," Delgado issued, grabbing the weakened man around the throat

Vin struggled briefly, but soon felt the world slip away. Voices woke him up. He squinted into the darkness, letting his eyes adjust. He spotted J.D. looking at him, bound and gagged. J.D. managed to nod that he was all right. The shots caused both to jump slightly, and a few minutes later, the door opened.

Delgado hauled J.D. out first, then appeared a few minutes later for Vin. Vin was dragged through the dirt towards a car. His eyes widen in revulsion at the dead body of a middle-aged man. He was shoved into the back seat, next to J.D. Delgado spent the next several minutes, moving articles from the RV into the car. Then he threw a gym back onto the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel.

"Can't say enough about the local hospitality," he leered, "Nice of that guy to donate his car. As for you, Runt," he glared at J.D., "You're gonna pay for your interference. I heard the APB on the radio. We're gonna make a little pit stop, so as I can find out just what you told Larabee and the rest of those losers."J.D. shrank back against the seat, eyes darting back and forth. Vin caught his frantic gaze and sent a steady blue beacon. J.D. nodded, gaining strength from Vin's confidence. He could almost hear the Texan drawling 'Don't let him see you sweat, Kid'. For several miles they rode in silence, Vin coughing against the gag was becoming a problem. J.D. feared he would vomit and choke. He saw Vin trying to loosen the gag, by rubbing his face against the doorframe.

Delgado pulled the car up to a seedy, rundown motel off the highway. He eased the car around the side and glanced back at his two victims, both sleeping. He slipped inside and quickly silenced the patron. A shot rang out. J.D. blinked himself awake, squinting at the darkened building. He saw that Vin was slumped onto his lap. He jiggled his leg, trying to rouse the sleeping man, but Vin didn't wake up. He felt the passenger door open and a large, beefy hand haul him out by the hair. He was thrown to his knees. He was dragged towards a dark room and thrown inside. His chest was on fire and he felt tears of pain rolling down his cheeks. Vin was thrown on the bed above him, and didn't stir.

J.D. flinched as the lamp was turned on, his eyes blinked rapidly. He was hauled into a chair and his gag was removed. He painful bursts of breath, only caused Delgado to laugh outright. He hovered over the still form on the bed and undid the filthy gag. Vin curled up and started coughing. J.D. noticed the sheen on his friend's face and the flush of color to his cheeks. J.D. watched him take a machine out of a case with handles. He saw the cable like attachments and felt his blood run cold. He watched as Delgado pulled Vin's sweater up. Grinning evilly, he picked up the phone.


Part 16

They rode in silence, each lost in thought. Nathan remembering a cocky stranger, with an eye like an eagle who saved his life. Buck remembering J.D.'s first weeks on the team, how the overanxious recruit had grown into a first rate agent. How the exuberant, life-loving youth had turned into the little brother he never had. Chris felt nothing...his heart was an ice block, void of all emotion. He felt Vin slipping away...the soft voice was fading. He glanced at Buck and saw the tall man flinch again, rubbing his arm.

"Pull over, Buck. Nathan, you awake?" He tapped the dark cheek in front on him.

"I am now, something wrong?"

"Buck's arm needs looking to and I'm gonna drive."

Ten minutes later, Chris was driving, Buck dozing next to him. The phone jarred his senses. He flipped and answered before opening his eyes.


"Put Larabee on...."

"Who the hell?" Buck croaked, then his face turned dark, "Adams...You fuckin' animal. I'm gonna..." an ear-splitting scream, stopped Buck cold and caused him to drop the phone.

Chris and Nathan both heard the agonizing cry. Chris pulled off the road and grabbed the phone. He jumped out of the car, Buck and Nathan quickly joined him.

"You can't hide," Chris's low and lethal voice slid across the line, "I'll find you and send you to hell in small, bloody pieces."

"I thought that would get your attention. It's a shame you're not closer. Me, the Bastard and the Runt are having a little party. Mr. Tanner doesn't want to join in the activities. Must be the shy type. Come on Skinny Vinny, it's party time."

Vin's tormented voice split the air once more, the scream sent a wave of pain through the trio. Chris felt as if his heart were being ripped out. He balled his free hand into a fist and closed his eyes, pounding the roof. He dropped the phone, shaking with fury.

"What the hell is he doing to him?" Nathan seethed.

"...leave him alone.." They heard J.D. screaming, "Chris...hurry...he's shocking him...Oh God, Vin...Buck! Help..."

The line went dead. For a few seconds, nobody moved. Vin's anguished cries still rang in their ears, following by J.D.'s desperate cry for help. Chris walked a few yards away, off the side of the road.

"He's ready to explode," Josiah noted of the leader's tense body.

Buck patted Josiah's shoulder and walked over to where Larabee stood, scanning the heavens. He laid a hand on the downcast shoulder, and saw anger and fear written on the worried face. Buck followed Chris's intense line of vision, to a cluster of stars.

"What's going on?" Buck asked, not liking the defeat in Larabee's eyes.

"Wondering," Chris replied, dropping his head.

"Wondering what?" Buck studied the features he knew as well as his own.

"Wondering how a sorry-assed, raspy-voiced, no account, long-haired Texan," he paused, drilling Buck's eyes with his own, his voice barely audible, "became as important to me as breathing."

Buck chuckled softly and gripped the back of Chris's neck. It would have been easy for him to be jealous of Vin Tanner. Chris was Buck's oldest friend, and both knew it would be forever. But even in their best times, before Sarah and Adam were murdered, it was never what Chris and Vin shared. The soft-spoken Texan had easily penetrated the inner sanctum that was Chris Larabee. Vin not only understood the black moods and penetrating silence, he embraced it. Buck was glad someone was there to share the load. He didn't want to think of what Chris would revert to, should Vin not escape the clutches of the madman. Sighing, Buck offered only thing he could and always had. He'd give himself to Larabee, let Chris lean on him.

"I'm losing him, Buck...he's slipping away. I can't feel him."

"You're upset, exhausted and probably lugging around a concussion. Hell, it's a wonder you can feel anything," Buck ducked to catch Chris's eye, "They don't come any tougher than Vin Tanner. Don't you sell him short. Pick that chin up, get the grit back in your eye. We got us a snake to skin. Ain't no room around this campfire for a quitter's blanket. You coming?" Chris felt Buck's hand on his back and felt the energy that he'd lost a few minutes ago, return. God Bless Buck. Chris wondered if he ever told Buck just how much his friendship meant. Buck had seen him through hell and back; from their early days in the Navy, through the good times with Sarah and Adam, and the devastation of their deaths. He caught Bucks arm and gripped it tightly.

"Damn, Buck. What the hell would I do without you?"

Buck saw the heartfelt gratitude in the green eyes.

"If I had a dollar for everytime you said that," Buck grinned, leading Chris back to the group, "I'd be living on a tropical island, with a flock of beautiful women, fulfilling my every need."

Chris gave Buck a half grin and rolled his eyes. He climbed in the driver's seat with Nathan riding shotgun. Buck slipped in the back. Ezra and Josiah returned to their vehicles

They rode in silence for a few miles, when Buck's phone rang. He caught Chris's eye in the rear view mirror and paused before answering. Taking a deep breath, and getting a nod from Nathan, he answered.

"Wilmington. Where? A dead body?" Buck winced, seeing the alarmed response he'd caused, "Yeah, I know where that is, we're only a couple miles from there. Okay, thanks Officer Dillon."

"What!" Chris demanded.

"State troopers found the RV up, just up ahead. Found a dead body inside. Some older guy. Delgado took his car."

"There it is," Nathan nodded, spotting the flashing lights.

The five-team members surrounded the veteran trooper, assaulting him with questions. He raised a hand and silenced them. He took a quick study and his eyes rested on a blond man, dressed in black.

"I'm Larabee," Chris replied to the gray-haired man's look, "It's my two men that this lunatic has kidnapped. What can you tell us?"Frank Dillon walked over to where the open back door of the RV. Josiah and Nathan stuck their heads inside, both wincing at the bloodstains on the floor. Ezra took a look at the pale face of Chris Larabee, knowing what he was thinking.

"That's much to fresh, Mr. Larabee," Ezra answered the silent fear, "it's highly unlikely it belongs to Mr. Tanner or Mr. Dunne. It would appear to belong to the unfortunate gentlemen who

donated his car to that animal."

"He's right," Dillon agreed, "That's where we found him. There was some rope, a dead cell phone and a small knife. It looks like you're two friends were trying to escape and got caught."

"What was he driving?" Josiah asked.

"An eighty-nine Buick Century," he handed the description and license number to Nathan, "We've got a net up, he won't be able to get across state lines. He's gonna have to hold up somewhere."

"Thanks." Chris nodded, "Let's go...we're losing time."

+ + + + + + +

J.D. fought every painful minute, his eyes pleading with him for sleep. Vin remained on the bed, curled sideways, breathing heavily. He faded in and out. J.D. would see his head move, every time the raspy coughs emerged. Delgado was eating, keeping the rifle trained on Vin's knees. J.D. saw the large bottle of whiskey, and the sluggish eyes of the kidnapper. Vin turned and laid flat on the bed, wincing as another spasm of coughing, left him weary. He saw the fevered blue-eyes blink and meet his hazel ones.

"I'm okay, Kid...quit worrin'" He rasped, reading J.D. like a book.

"Shut up Tanner," Delgado slurred, prodding Vin with his gun, before taking a long swig of liquor, "Or I'll spark some life in the Runt," he threatened, eyeing the cables.

"Coward..." Vin spat, with blue-eyed hate, "Yer still a balless wonder..."

"You don't know when to keep that hole of yours shut, do ya Tanner? You need another lesson. Guess old Hill didn't learn you good enough."

J.D. watched as Delgado stuck his hand in the gym back and brought a three-foot whip, with several tendrils on the end, laced with metal. He felt all the color drain out of his face. He saw Vin's eyes widen, and watched his friend try to turn away. Vin kicked at Delgado, slowing him and enraging him more. He winced as Delgado backhanded the fevered man across the face and stunned him. He felt tears stinging his eyes, realizing Vin was about to relive his worst nightmare.

He struggled against his bindings, causing Delgado to slap the whip against his leg. He bit back the pain, as the whip made contact.

"Don't worry,'re next."

Turning turned Vin's limp body over, and hooked his bound hands to the bedpost. He pulled Vin's sweater up over the back of his head, leaving his back exposed. J.D. watched Delgado raise his arm and saw the maniacal glare in his eyes. He shuddered, as the metal teeth made contact, causing Vin to wake up, face twisted in agony. J.D. didn't see the rest of the blows, his tears formed a blurry veil. He couldn't block out the sound, and flinched every time the sickening smack filled the air. J.D. was stunned, Vin never made a sound, maybe he was already unconscious. He blinked his eyes and his vision cleared. His heart sank, as Vin's blue-eyes, alert with agony, were pleading to him. The rage he felt was overcome by Vin's silent cry of agony, which burned a hole right through his soul.

Delgado's demented game gave him a thirst. Seeing the sweat and blood mingling on Tanner's back, gave him reason to celebrate. He pulled the sweater back down, enjoying the sound of Tanner sucking in air as the rough fabric made contact. He pulled the half-conscious man's arm down and roughly threw him on his back. Vin bit back the pain, not giving him the satisfaction he craved. Delgado resumed his seat and took several long swigs of whiskey. He eyed J.D. and Vin and took another swig. His eyes fell, and his head drooped.

J.D couldn't believe it, as he saw Vin's head rise. Vin eyed the bottle and then saw J.D. nod. Maybe...if we can hold out. He caught J.D.'s eye and nodded. Stay awake, Kid...he signaled. Vin head was pounding, his throat was raw and he ached all over. His back was on fire. The chills that left him shivering, only made things worse. He didn't need a fever now or a muddled head. Shaking his head, he forced his eyes wide and glued to J.D. Poor Kid was in a bad way. Finally he saw J.D. sit up straight, his eyes bright. Vin lifted his wet head and saw Delgado's head slump. The rifle was still gripped too tight.

The minutes dragged by and Vin blinked away the sweat that poured down his face, stinging his eyes. He bit his lip bloody, tears welled in his eyes, as the scratchy sweater made contact with his torn flesh. Finally, Delgado's arms relaxed and the rifle slipped. Vin saw up slowly, his eyes never leaving the monster. He managed to stagger over to where J.D. was, trying not to fall. The whole room was spinning around. His eyes widened and blinked, as he tried to focus on J.D.'s hands. He managed to loosen up the ropes enough for the boy to get free.

J.D. pulled off his gag and quickly untied his feet. He sat the staggering sharpshooter on the chair and untied his hands. J.D. felt the fever radiating from Vin. He grabbed edge of the curtains, next to the chair, and wiped Vin's face. He tapped the flushed cheeks, until the blue eyes slid open. Vin moaned, causing J.D. wince and cover the sick man's mouth. Turning, he spotting Delgado stirring. Hauling Vin upright, he threw the dizzy man's arm around his shoulder and made for the door. They were just outside when the rifle shot came and took the window out.

They ducked behind the side of the dark, one story building. Vin was alert and squatted, peering around the wall as Delgado emerged, rifle in hand. J.D. peered around the wall, from Vin's back, and saw the felon headed the other way.

"He thinks we went to the office. Maybe to use the phone," J.D. urged, "Vin, think we can make it to the car? We can hotwire it..."Before Tanner could reply, Delgado staggered out of the office. Standing unsteadily, he raised the rifle and started hollering. Shouting obscenities about Vin Tanner. J.D. felt his face color with rage.

"I'm gonna shut that loud mouth of his," he started, only to have a hand clamped on his shoulder.

"Ya aimin' to get us killed?" Tanner slurred, shushing him.

"He's leaving," J.D.'s voice went up a pitch, "Let's go, we can get to the car."

Tanner saw the man stagger across the highway, screaming his name. He fell to his knees and recovered, disoriented. He tripped onward, seeking to find his prey. Vin blinked, as the images whirled in his fevered mind. Delgado disappeared and Hill appeared, leering at a terrified boy. Vin saw the whip, and Hill grinning. Nicky...where was Nicky?

"Y'all get back in the room and get help, " Vin ordered on unsteady legs.

"Where you going?"

"I'm gonna after 'im. I ain't lettin' Hill get away. That son of bitch ain't gonna get Nicky." Vin walked slowly, concentrating on keeping his balance."Hill? Nicky?" J.D. puzzled, "Vin that's not Hill, its Tony Delgado. Vin, you can't. You don't have a gun and you're sick. Let me go."

"NO!" Vin wheeled, his blue eyes full of fury, baring his teeth, "I promised Nicky...I gotta save him. That's what I intend to do." Vin paused rubbing his aching head, not understanding how J.D. got here. "Y'all call for help, now. Go on, J.D., you're losing time."

Part 17

"Wilmington," Buck rubbed his eyes and sat up, answering the phone.


"Kid? You all right? Where are you?"

"South of Carlsbad, on 285, at a flea ranch, called Desert Rose. Only thing on the road, you can't miss it."

"What happened? Did you and Vin get away from him?" He leaned forward, squeezing Chris's shoulder.

"Sort of..."

"What do you mean 'sort of'?" He frowned uneasily.

"He got drunk and fell asleep. Vin managed to get me untied and we just barely got out of the room. He came after us with a rifle. He went the other way. I wanted Vin to wait, Buck, I begged him...but he went after him. He's all mixed up...he thinks he's chasing Hill, the head of the home...he's the guy who..."

"I know who he is, J.D." Buck interjected, "We read your printouts."

"He's trying to save Nicky. He thinks Delgado...Hill has him."

"Vin's hurt, tailing this guy on foot, in the dark without a weapon?" Buck hollered, "Dammit, J.D..." Buck saw Chris face darken, and almost heard him dressing down the stubborn sharpshooter."I'm sorry, Buck, I tried." J.D. pleaded, biting back a cry of pain, "He whipped him, was awful. I had to watch."

Buck sighed, seething inwardly, not wanting to upset Chris, "Yeah, okay...I'm sorry Kid. You stay put, we'll be there in no time. Did you call the police?"

"Called you first. I'll call them now."

Chris motioned for the phone and Buck handed it over.

"You okay, Son?"

"Chris?" J.D.'s voice sounded very young, "I'm okay. Hurry Chris, Vin's in a bad way...he's burning up."

"Damn you Tanner..." Chris swore, "Did Delgado hurt either of you?"

"Just get here," J.D. pleaded, sidestepping the question.

Despite the weakened condition of his body and the lack of a weapon, Vin felt he had the edge. Not just because Delgado was drunk, but because he didn't know the wilderness, and Tanner did. He staggered and took several ragged breaths, trying to clear his head. He eyed the rocks on the desert floor and sent his eyes scanning. He spotted the uneven gait of the figure in the distance. He dropped to all fours again, as the world began to tilt. Wiping the wetness from his face, he took several deep breaths and found his legs. He couldn't see Nicky. Was he too late?

"You're mine now, you murderin' son of a bitch," he muttered, staggering onward.

"There it is," Nathan cried, pointing out the neon sign.

The gravel flew from under the skidding tires, as the two cars screeched to a halt. The five flew from the vehicles, pouring into the office.

"J.D.! J.D.! Where are you, Kid?" Buck boomed, racing through the small office to the living quarters in the back.

Nathan squatted beside an older man, lying in a pool of blood. He shook his head, taking the blanket Josiah found in the back and covering the victim. "Phone's dead..." Buck said, from the desk, "Let's have a look around."

They made their way outside and began calling for Vin and J.D. Spotting the lone room, lit up and door wide open, they broke into a run. Ezra reached the room first, his eyes spotting the discarded whip and electric cables.

"Good Lord..." He managed, as Chris and Buck piled in behind him.

Chris paused for a moment, hot eyes burning a hole in the voltage meter. He heard Vin's screams of agony, echoing in his head. His clenched jaw matched his fists, enraged and ready to strike. Then a green laser shot forth, as he spotted the leather torture device.

"Chris, don't..." Josiah warned, spotting the leader picking up the discarded whip.

Buck had seen Chris through bad times before, but couldn't recall ever seeing the unbridled rage that filled Larabee's being. He felt his own anger welling, as the whip was flung across the room, Chris's hand still wearing the blood that remained on the tendrils.

"He better have a breath left in him," Larabee's voice was low and feral, " 'Cause I'm want to see his face when I crush the life out of him."

"Where's J.D.?" Buck fretted, emerging from the small bathroom.

"Maybe the State law enforcement arrived and Mr. Dunne is with them," Ezra thought aloud, "...searching the perimeter."

"No, he ain't," Nathan frowned, handing Buck a letter, "Look what I found under the phone."

"What it's say, Buck," Chris said, from the doorway, spotting a blinking red light in the distance.

Buck scanned the note before flinging back at Nathan, "I'm gonna fuckin' shoot the both of them. He's run off to help Vin..."

"Nathan, you wait and update the cops." Chris nodded, "Josiah, you and Ezra search around the hotel and behind it, out across that field. Buck and I will go across the highway. Watch your backs."With that, the foursome headed out. Nathan walked to the roadway, watching the distant police vehicle draw closer. Josiah grabbed a flashlight and tossed it to Ezra, as they headed around the back of the hotel.

Chris started across the road and let his eyes draw a search line across the horizon. The full moon emitted light enough to see outlines of trees, rocks and buildings in the distance. He saw no signs of life. Buck caught up to him, bearing a flashlight from Nathan's trunk.

"Damn fools, what the hell where they thinking? Taking off alone...unarmed," Chris seethed, "When we take care of that piece of slime, I just might shoot Batman and Robin," Chris growled, referring to the team's two youngest, "You want in?"

Buck nodded, scanning the terrain, "Time to put an end to this," he growled, checking his gun.

The anxious pair disappeared into the night, their eyes adjusting to the still life around them. Chris patted Buck's shoulder, sending him to the right. "Stay close," he whispered, "Signal if you see anything."

Vin stumbled onward, oblivious to anything around him. His tunnel vision only saw one target - looming straight ahead. J.D. spotted Vin staggering and raced to catch up to him. Vin was only a few yards from Delgado. By his uneven gait, J.D. knew his friend's usually razor sharp instincts were dulled by pain and fever. If Delgado turned and saw him, Vin would be cut down. He had to distract the armed man, somehow. Staggering in a semi-circle, he got slightly in front of Delgado, several yards away. He darted quickly, spotting some rocks nearby. It was enough, Delgado saw him and turned, away from Vin.

Vin saw the sudden movement and realized what his friend was doing.

"No, Nicky," his hoarse voice strained, as he staggered forward and threw himself at Delgado, "Run...Run..."

J.D. saw Vin topple onto Delgado and the ensuing struggle to gain control of the rifle. He tore his eyes away for a second, as the blinking lights of a police vehicle caught his eye. He turned back and couldn't see Vin anymore. He ran around the other side of the rocks and doubled over, pain crashing into his chest. He staggered forward and started to fall, only to have a strong set of arms catch him.

"Kid? You okay?" Buck whispered, sitting the gasping boy down, "Where's Vin?"

He squatted next to him, cupping the disoriented boy's chin and waiting for a response. J.D.'s eyes were glazed over and Buck tapped his bruised cheek. Finally, J.D. looked up and gasped, recognizing his rescuer.

"Buck! Thank God! Buck, you gotta find him. I only took my eyes off of him for a second. They were wrestling for the gun. He's all mixed up, Buck. He don't know where he is...he's thinks I'm Nicky. You gotta find...Oh God!" J.D. gasped, as a shot rang out.

"Stay here!" Buck ordered, flashing his light once in Chris's direction. He spotted the headlights of the police vehicle come, casting a light on Chris's speedy figure. Drawing his weapon, he took off in the direction of the shot.

Chris heard the shot and saw Buck's signal. His heart nearly stopped as the image of Vin's dead eyes, blue and unfocused, came into view. His heart felt like horse hooves, pounding against his chest, so much so, he felt pain. He heard a motor and turned slightly as the police car flew forward, it's headlights illuminating the two figures. He slowed his pace, and sent a silent prayer of thanks heavenward. Vin was standing, pointing a rifle at Delgado, who was sprawled on the ground.

Buck sighed a huge breath of relief, when he saw Vin standing. He was only a few feet away and slowed his pace as he approached. Vin looked awful, face flushed and wet with fever, eyes glazed. His trembling body and shaking hands, gave Buck pause.

"You got him, Vin. He can't hurt you no more. Put the gun down," Buck eased his voice into a warm tone, as Vin looked at him, brows furrowed.

"Y'all back off, Mister. I don't who ya are, but this here's my affair. I aim to send this black-hearted dog straight to hell."

"Vin, look at me," Buck poured all the emotion he could into his gaze, hoping his troubled friend would recognize him, "It's Buck, I'm your friend, Pard. I ain't gonna hurt ya."

Vin wavered, eyeing the tall man with the mustache carefully. His vision was fuzzy and it was hard to focus. He squinted, his aim never leaving the prone villain. Buck's eyes darted momentarily to Delgado, who had a massive chest wound. He was dying, and quickly. Buck stomach turned as he thought of the injustice of Delgado's speedy demise. He cast his eyes back to Vin, who was leaning over the grinning body.

"Where is he?" Vin wheezed, rocking, "What did you do with Nicky?"

"I sent him to hell, he's waiting for you , you worthless bastard," Delgado coughed up blood, "I made sure it took him a good long time to die."

"NO!" Vin screamed, his blue eyes glazed with pain.

"Vin...take it easy. It's all over. That was a long time ago, when you were a kid. Let old Buck help you now. Come on Junior," Buck was almost with arms length and ready to grab the rifle, when the police arrived. Vin wheeled, and Buck saw terror and confusion in his fevered eyes.

"Lee done that Indian kid in," Delgado gasped, nodding to Buck, "He made that little redskin suffer good."

Vin unleashed a feral cry and turned, eye's burning, to face the tall man. He now looked at Buck with hatred and raised the gun.

"Vin, he's lying. Look at me, Boy, I'm your friend." Buck put both hands up and continued to speak in a low tone.

The car screeched to a halt and two policemen flew out. Drawing their weapons, they flanked the shaken Vin, from several yards away. His frantic eyes took in the arrivals, but his trembling gun never left Buck's chest.

"Drop the weapon!" The older officer ordered.

"No! You'll spook him. He's delirious," Chris hollered, stepping in front of the cop, "He won't shoot me, I'll talk to him."

"I can't let you go over there," the burly cop ordered, "Get behind the car!"

"I'm not asking your permission," Chris leveled, low and hard, turning and walking towards Vin.

"Easy Pard," Buck warned Chris, "He's wound up tighter than a drum."

"Put the gun down, Vin, I won't let anybody hurt you," Chris said softly, stopping a few feet from his flushed friend, at Buck's shoulder.

Vin stared at the stranger. He kept the wavering rifle and made frantic moaning sounds, clutching his head. He blinked, trying to keep the fuzzy figures in focus. The unending throbbing in his head and the wicked stinging on his back, made him dizzy. He didn't know what to do. He heard the laughter from his feet, sick and evil, it crept up his leg, taunting him.

"Stop it...stop it..." He screamed, waving the gun.

Buck and Chris sprang in one motion. Buck took Vin's weak body down, Chris grabbed the rifle. He saw Delgado move towards Vin and shoved his foot down hard on the groveling coward's chest. Delgado's eyes widened and a spray of blood, bubbled from his lips.

"Have a nice stay in Hell," Chris hissed, digging his heel into the wound, as the light of life left the body.

Buck turned Vin over and held him close, wrapping his strong arms around the weak protester. He felt the scorching heat blazing from Vin's body. He rocked back and forth, shushing the frightened form, realizing he was cradling a terrified nine-year old."Get an ambulance," he barked to the pair of policeman, "Vin, ya gotta calm down," Buck tried, amazed that the fevered body had any strength at all. He felt the trembling ease up and the frantic breathing slow. "That's it, Old Buck's got ya, you just rest," he eased the sopping wet head back onto his shoulder. Vin kept a wary eye on him, and Buck knew he didn't recognize him. Suddenly, he shot forward, fighting Buck again.

"Nicky...Nicky..." His eye's lit up, he hugged the startled Buck and pointed, "Look Mister, it's Nicky."

"What the..." Buck squinted and saw J.D. hobbling over. He saw the puzzled look on J.D.'s face and motioned with his head, for J.D. to play along. J.D. eased himself down and was engulfed in an emotional embrace.

"He said ya was dead. I thought I lost ya. I'm sorry, Nicky." The hoarse heartfelt greeting, sent a stab of pain into J.D.

J.D. held onto Vin and rocked him. Stroking the matted head that lay on his shoulder. He was too exhausted and in too much pain to speak. Vin didn't seem to care. The look of joy in Vin's eyes made the pain bearable. He smiled down at the lost soul and held him close.

Vin finally allowed himself to slip into the darkness that had been shadowing him. Nicky was safe, that's all that mattered.

Buck knelt behind J.D. and rubbed his shoulders. J.D. looked up and smiled, tears running down his face. He was exhausted and every breath caused a fire in his chest. He saw a familiar set of black legs and look up to see Chris next to him.

"I'll take him, Son," Chris offered, "Buck's gonna help you breath a little better. Sounds like you busted some ribs."

"No," J.D. argued, tightening his clutch on the heated body, so much so, he yelped in pain, "He needs me, I'm not leaving him."

"Look J.D., I understand how you feel..." Chris started."No, you don't," he protested loudly, his voice steady and sure, "None of you do," he eyed Ezra, Josiah and Nathan, who'd joined them, forming a circle around the two battered youngest. "You weren't there. You didn't see what that bastard put him through," he rubbed Vin's arms and eyed the others, wet eyes hot. "You don't know what they did to him, when he was little, the abuse...and tonight, when he took that whip..." His hazel eyes found Buck's emotional ones, "He never cried out, Buck, not once...How'd he do that?"

All of J.D.'s strength was spent. Buck and Chris both squatted down, as they spotted J.D. wavering. Ezra saw the hazel eyes fluttering and nodded to Buck, who caught J.D. as he slumped sideways. Chris eased Vin from J.D.'s grasp and sat down, holding him across his lap. Nathan immediately sprang forward. He knew before he placed the well-trained hand on the damp forehead, that Vin was dangerously ill.

"He's burning up..." Nathan placed his ear close to Vin's mouth, "He's really struggling, must be full of congestion."

"How bad, Nate?" Chris held his best friend a little closer, unconsciously rubbing Vin's chest.

"Bad enough," Nate turned to the policeman, "What's the E.T.A on that ambulance?"

"I just checked, should be another twenty minutes or more."

"Twenty minutes!" Josiah's head spun, "Which way are they coming? Can't we meet them?"

"We sure can," The senior lawman advised, spotting Vin's sweat-soaked face, "You ride in the back and hold onto him. I'll strap the other boy up front. We'll cut the time in half. Let's go."

Buck and Josiah carried J.D. to the police car and eased him into the front seat. Nathan and Ezra carried Vin over and waited for Chris to climb in the back. He pulled himself across the seat until his back rested against the passenger door.

Nathan saw Ezra's face melt into an uncharacteristic emotional pool. He let the gambler cradle Vin, while he leaned in to give Chris some instructions.

"I'm gonna put him upright against your chest, he'll get more air that way. Get him to cough, if you can, expel some of that mess," Nathan saw a flash of fear in Chris's normally steely gaze. He patted the black-clothed shin, "Hey, he needs you to be strong now, okay?" Chris nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving his failing friend.

"Mr. Jackson," Ezra's voice was low, "Could I burden you to take Vin for a minute? Hold him under the arms, upright." Nathan paused, not so much at the request, but at the velvet concern in Standish's voice and the use of Vin's first name.

"Sure, Ezra...What's wrong?" He asked, pulling Vin forward, under the arms.

"This sweater must be causing unrelenting pain...on his wounds. My suit jacket is lined with silk, it might ease his discomfort. I'm sure the good officer's have a blanket. He needs warmth."

"Good idea, Ezra," Nate agreed, holding Vin's narrow waist, while Buck leaned down, helping Ezra to take the sweater off. Vin cried out in pain, bucking against Nathan and Ezra. Chris, whose view was obstructed, immediately protested loudly.

"What the hell did you do to him?" He roared, glaring at Ezra and Nathan.

"Take it easy, Brother," Josiah issued, "The sweater too rough for him. Ezra's putting his jacket on Vin."

"Good Lord..." Ezra's voice choked, spotting the bloodied lashes, shuddered at the boy locked inside Vin, "You my young friend," he stroked Vin's face gently, pulling the tangled hair away, "are unspeakably brave."

Ezra stood up, somewhat shaken, and allowed Josiah to ease Vin onto Chris, resting the fevered face against Chris's shoulder. Nathan covered Vin with a blanket and handed Chris a bottle of water.

"If he comes to at all, try to get him to drink," Nathan advised, handing Chris some paper towels, "Here, you can squirt a little on these and wipe his face and neck."

Chris managed to nod through as the door was slammed. He felt the policeman slide behind the wheel and the motion of the car turning. He finally brought his gaze down to Vin's face, wiping a damp towel across the hot skin.

"I got you, Cowboy. You just keep breathing," Chris soothed, hoping the pain in his chest would subside. It seemed to ache in time with every wheezing gasp and cough Vin uttered.

The four stood in silence, as the car disappeared down the highway, towards Carlsbad. The disgusting sight of Vin's back, indelibly imprinted on their minds. Buck noticed Ezra shivering and retrieved the Southerner's coat.

"You okay, Ezra?" he asked, holding the coat open.

"I think not, Buck," Ezra's eyes were laced with rage as he glanced at Delgado's dead body, "What a terrific injustice, that he should slip from this world, in such an expedient fashion. I would have preferred a more medieval method."

"I hear ya, Ez," Buck agreed, leading the group back to the cars, "that bastard died way too quick."

"How's Vin gonna handle all this emotional baggage?" Nathan wondered aloud, "You know how he don't open up. He's gonna bottle this in and that ain't good."

"Maybe it's time Vin used his brother's shoulders," Josiah decided, "He's got six of 'em. Plenty of muscle to spread around."

They approached their cars and noticed two more vehicles had pulled up. Buck recognized the Feds, they have a style all their own. They were milling about in the office and in the hotel room.

"Hey, you the ATF guys?" a voice hollered from the doorway, "We need a statement."

"You boys go ahead," Josiah suggested, "I'll meet you at the hospital. Give me your keys, Ezra."The trio set off, leaving Josiah to deal with the F.B.I and state police. The kept an eye on the flashing red light in the distance, and their hearts with their two injured friends.


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