by Deirdre

ATF Universe

Part 23

"Mr. Tanner wrote that?" Ezra broke the silence, "I had no idea..."

"Why don't you use this?" Buck threw a steak knife at Chris's feet, "...cuttin' out his heart won't hurt nearly as bad."

"Stay out of it, Buck," Chris hissed, standing and glaring into Buck's eyes, "It's none of your business."

"I'm making it my business," Buck retorted, "Somebody has to knock you off that sanctimonious throne your royal ass is perched on."

"Back off, Buck..." Chris shoved him, "I'm warning you..."

"The hell I will," Buck grabbed Chris's shirt and backed him into the wall, "You need to learn some manners you self-righteous son-of-a-bitch."

"He can't afford this, Buck. I've been collecting this stuff since High School. I've been to a lot of shows and auctions, visited dealers...I know what this stuff sells for. That sword's in pristine condition. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. We're talking thousands of dollars, Buck, Vin don't have that kind of money. He's riding around on that beat-up Harley, cause he can't afford to replace his Jeep since it was totaled." "Time out," Josiah edged between the two pitbulls, "Chris, that isn't your decision to make. Vin didn't base this magnificent token of friendship on money, and neither should you. Don't be so disrespectful."

"It would be like putting a pricetag on your friendship," Nathan added.

"That's not what I meant...I'd never..." Chris faltered.

"That's why it hurt so much," Buck pushed himself away, "You know Vin better than anyone, Chris. With him, it would never be about money. It's about this..." He tapped Chris's chest, "Seems despite your fancy college degree, that boy is a whole lot smarter than you."

"You will not only accept this spectacular piece of military craftsmanship with the dignity the giver deserves," Ezra's voice was as cold and cutting as this icy stare. "But more to the point, you will do well to thank a Higher Power for bestowing upon you, the real gift, the priceless one, who as we speak, is bleeding in your barn. Quite frankly, at this moment, you are not deserving of such a gift as he, you thick-headed, prideful Yankee Mule," Ezra laid the scabbard at Chris's side, "You might want to take your foot out of your mouth long enough to read this."

Ezra stormed out of the room and the silence in his wake was deafening. Chris sat forward, leaning closer to the lamp, and read the engraving. The others exchanged a curious glance as all the color drained out of Chris's face and his jaw dropped. He swallowed hard and his hands trembled so badly, he dropped the scabbard.

"My God..." He choked, shaking his head and stumbling out of the room.

Mary started to follow, but thought better of it, realizing Chris wanted to be alone. Curious at what caused such an uncharacteristic emotional reaction, she studied Nathan.

"What's it say, Nate?" Mary asked, spotting the dark man's astonishment upon reading the inscription.

"I can't believe it," Jackson amazed and shared the information, "Major Adam J. Larabee, Pennsylvania Volunteers, 5th PVSC."

"You shittin' me!" Buck bellowed, reaching to take the scabbard, "I'll be damned. How the hell did Vin pull this off?"

"You remember the day we were late and Chris got really pissed off?" J.D. stated as Chris returned, still shaken, but composed, and took a seat, "We went to an auction downtown, full of Civil War and Old West stuff. That old lady, who's father we visited in Silverton," J.D. continued, "...she was one of the contributors. He was pushing a hundred when he died. Turns out," He turned to eye Chris directly, "You ain't gonna believe this...that her grandfather served under Chris's great-grandfather. He lost his legs from a cannon blast, knocked Major Larabee out of the way. After the war, the Major tracked him down and presented him with it. Vin was so excited when he got it," J.D. laughed, "He whooped so loud, they asked us to leave, claimed we were disturbing the atmosphere. He was on cloud nine, right up until we got to the garage."

Chris flinched, remembering the dressing down he'd given the two younger men in front of an audience. He remained silent, reflecting on his actions and how to amend his grievous mistake. He lifted the sword and placed it across his lap, studying the sheer beauty of it. He was drowning in a sea of overwhelming feelings. The thought that his great grandfather held this very sword and used it in battle, left him dizzy. His thoughts went to another warrior, whose blue eyes, at this moment, were lost.

"Talk about the hands of fate," Josiah marveled, "What are the odds?"

"Where's Ezra when you need him?" Buck joked.

"I'm sorry," Chris's voice was barely audible, as he looked at the group of men, good friends, and met their eyes, "I guess I was being a bit obstinate and short-sighted."

"Just a tad..." Nathan grinned.

"That's all fine and good, Pard," Buck spoke, "But you're aiming that delivery in the wrong direction."

"Where is he?" Chris pained of Vin.

"Ezra went to find him," Buck replied, leaning over Chris's back and speaking low, "You need some solitary, Pard?"

Chris nodded and Buck motioned to the others, who piled out of the room. Buck paused for a moment, watching the emotions run wild over his oldest friend's face. Chris walked over to the fireplace, brandishing the sword. Thrusting it, testing the grip and pausing to eye a picture of Adam as a baby. He touched the image of the cherubic grinning infant and wiped his eyes. Then he spotted a picture of the seven of them at the lake. Smiling, he took the photo, his sword and scabbard and a half-empty bottle of Sangria and disappeared into the study.

Ezra entered the handsomely appointed barn and walked to the end. He stood under the far loft, knowing that is where Vin Tanner would feel safe.

"Mr. Tanner? Might I have a word with you?"

He heard the shuffling of boots above and saw the slim legs glide down the ladder. Ezra noticed that the expressive blue eyes were hollow and red-rimmed.

"Damn allergies," Vin complained, spotting the conman staring at his eyes.

"My thoughts exactly," Ezra nodded, "Allergies aside, are you okay?"

Vin's head bobbed as he made his way over to Charger's stall. Stroking the fine Bay, he turned slightly, as Ezra began to speak.

"Since your departure, Mr. Larabee has had a change of heart. His actions, although out of line, were not without a small amount of merit. His caustic reaction, was not out of displeasure, quite the opposite. I've never seen him so moved. Rather, it was out of fear."

"Fear?" Vin's head turned sharply, "Fear of what?"

"Of you, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said quietly, "and what you've become to him. I trust for a long time, years in fact, Mr. Larabee has kept himself tightly hidden in a small box. Not letting any light penetrate the dark void. Your arrival has cracked that box wide open, allowing light inside. I think, Vin, deep inside, he's frightened of the power of the emotion that now resides in his heart."

"I know just how he feels..." Vin's voice trailed off.

"I believe he now realizes just how fortunate he is to have such treasures. That magnificent armature and the most priceless gift of all- your magnanimous self. Shall we?" Ezra pointed to the house.

Vin nodded and started to follow. Ezra had to bite back his laughter, upon seeing Vin mouth the word 'magnanimous' and screw his face up.

"Hey, Ez...that mean I'm good with girls?" Vin asked of the strange word.

"Quite, Mr. Tanner," Ezra laughed, clapping the Texan's back, "...and then some."

Chris sat alone in the study. Mary had visited briefly, on her way to bed. He heard the others laughing boisterously from the den. He hadn't put the sword down since he'd arrived in the makeshift office. He felt a slow burning in his chest and let the smile ride on his lips. He knew, without turning, he wasn't alone.

"Bucklin made shome... wicked sort of Jungle Jush," the twang slurred, "they're fixing to play strip poker."

"You stay away from that stuff," Chris warned, "it can paint off. You haven't experienced true pain, until you've lived through the aftermath of that crap."

"'s a little late..."

Chris turned, and didn't hide his smile. Vin was clutching a quart container with a straw. It was half-empty. He managed to stagger into the room and aim unsuccessfully for a leather wing chair. He ended up, sitting on the floor, legs splayed, eyes glassy. Chris crossed the room and sat next down next to him. He took the bottle and put it out of harms way.

"How much of this stuff did you drink?"Vin just shrugged, "I's a mite parched, when I come in...reckon I guzzled a bit."

"Vin, you're gonna be sick as a dog tomorrow."

"Can't feel the pain no more..." Vin dropped his head and Chris winced, "It hurt, Cowboy..."

"I know it did, Vin, and I'm sorry. I regret every word." Chris lifted the fallen head, "It's beautiful, Vin, I've never seen anything quite so fine." His voice grew husky as he held the sword up, drinking in the majesty of it, "I've been sitting in here, trying to find the right way to say Thank You....but..."

Chris choked up, and they sat silent. Vin sat up and leaned over, studying the emotions playing on Chris's face. Chris felt him staring and locked his gaze.

"That," Vin said, sobering up, nodding to Chris's face, "said it just fine. Made it all worth while. Ya know," Vin's eye's widened, "Ya look almost human when ya turn that damn glare off."

"Shut up, Tanner," Chris elbowed him, sending Vin sideways onto the floor.

"Get me up, Cowboy," he lifted an arm, "Let's find the saloon."

Chris hauled him up and they stumbled to the door, where Vin walked into the doorknob.

"Dammit, Larabee," he growled, batting Chris's hand, "Watch where you're aimin' me. I'm amagamouse, Ezra said so...means I'm good with girls."

"Ezra would know..." Chris agreed, steadying the swaying body.

+ + + + + + +

Mary pried herself from the warm, strong arms and made her way to the shower. Twenty minutes later, dressed and ready to depart, she hovered over the bed. Chris reeked, as only an inebriated body can, the morning after.

"What I suffer through for you, Larabee..." She whispered, kissing him.

"Reckless women take desperate measures..." He coughed, sending her backward.

"Uhh...Chris don't talk," she waved her hand, "please..."

"...time is it?" He mumbled, face buried in the pillow.

"Almost seven, go back to sleep," she issued, heading to the door.

Chris was just resuming his dream, when a burst of laughter, roused him. Turning and squinting, he saw Mary convulsed, red-faced and beckoning. He stumbled out of bed and made his way to the door. His deep laughter soon joined hers.

"What's he doing?" Mary asked.

Chris wiped the tears from his eyes and managed to control his mirth. There in the doorway was Vin Tanner sound asleep. He was clad only in his briefs, still gripping the sword, which was across this lap. Chris had a vague image of memory of the two of them crawling up the stairs and Vin volunteering for first watch.

"He's on guard duty."

"Where are his clothes?"

"Lost 'em...strip poker..." Chris grinned.

"Shouldn't we move him?"

"Nah..." Chris replied, studying the body, before leaving, "He's looks kinda cute, don't ya think?"

"Chris..." Mary's only response was a wave, as the blond disappeared under his blanket.

She went to wake Billy up, only to discover his bed was made. She made her way downstairs and the smell in Chris's room returned, stronger. She stepped past the two slumbering bodies, J.D. and Buck, and resumed breathing. The kitchen was immaculate, trash gone, floor, tables and counters scrubbed well. She smelled coffee and set her bag down by the back door.

"Good Morning, Mrs. Travis," Ezra greeted, "Coffee?"

"Thanks Ezra," she took a seat, amazed to find the Southerner, looking fit and in fine spirits.

"Hi Mom!" Billy bounded into the kitchen, Sam on his heels, "Me and Sam were watching cartoons, but Josiah started to growl, so we left."

"Smart move, Young Master Travis," Ezra ruffled his hair and handed Mary her coffee, "Finish your breakfast," he said, handing Billy a plate of pancakes.

"Yes Sir," Billy picked up his fork.

"Ezra, did you do all this?" She indicated the clean room.

"It would not be fitting for the lone sober member, and the fairest by far, of our gathering to encounter the chaos that my comrades left behind."

"I appreciate that Ezra," she patted his shoulder, "Who said chivalry was dead?"

"It is and remains very much alive in the South, I assure you, Madame."

"Ezra, I have a favor," Mary asked.

"At your service, Ma'am" Ezra tipped an imaginary hat.

"It's about Vin..." She paused as Ezra's handsome face beamed with a villainous grin.

"I have already encountered Mr. Tanner, respondent in his finery," Ezra crowed, reaching in his pocket and pulling out a Polaroid shot, "something that will forevermore, be preserved."

"Ezra, you didn't..." She giggled, taking the photo, "Vin will never live this down."

"Oh, the possibilities are endless," Ezra oozed.

"Blackmail?" Mary nodded, "Seems there's a big dent in your armor, Lance..."

"I never professed to be pure of heart, it's much too burdensome. Mr. Tanner is more suited to such lofty acclaims."

"Come on Billy," she stood, "We're gonna be late. You have a game this morning. Tell Chris I'll call him tomorrow."

"Thanks Ezra," Billy paused, hugging the startled man, "See ya later."

"Good Day, Travis clan, keep safe."

Part 24

It was past noon when Chris finally woke up. He took a cold shower, easing his throbbing head against the cool tiles. Once dressed, he headed for the door, his dry mouth seeking orange juice-lots of it.

J.D., Buck, Josiah and Nathan were at the kitchen table. Each was huddled over a glass blood red mixture. Buck's cure was now famous among the group. Nobody but Buck knew all the ingredients, and most of them didn't want to know. Buck's deep voice, full of mirth, caused the group to look up.

"Morning there Reb," Buck boomed, "You still on duty? Seems you lost your stripes."

"That's a sight you don't see every day," Nathan managed between gasps.

"Vin, what are doing?" J.D. squealed.

"Huh?" a voice squeaked, staggering through the room, seeking liquid.

Chris heard the laughter cascading through the room. Approaching the kitchen, Chris found his voice joining the rest. Vin's face was a shade somewhere between gray and green. His eyes were no more than slits, red and angry. The sword hung at his hip, pulling his briefs partly down. He was about to lift the quart of orange juice to his lips.

"Buck, don't let him drink that..." Chris warned.

"It's gotta come out, Chris," Buck replied, standing.

"Not all over my clean kitchen, it don't," Chris hollered, as Buck reached for pained younger man.

"Hold up, Junior, don't to do that," Buck grabbed for the container, but not before Vin got a good mouthful.

Vin doubled over and started to moan. Chris and Buck each grabbed an arm and ran him into the powder room, off the utility room. Chris unclipped the sword and handed it to Buck.

"I'll stay with him," Chris looked up, "You got any more of that cure left?"

"I'll make some more, Vin's gonna need it," Buck replied, handing Chris several wet towels and a some water.

Twenty minutes later, Chris steered the still green Texan through the utility room. He sat Vin on a crate, and rummaged through his clean wash. He pulled out sweat pants and a flannel shirt, and left it beside him. He patted the painful hunched back and turned to leave.


Chris paused at the croak, "It'll pass, Buck's whipping you up some of the cure. Get dressed, it's chilly in here."

Vin finally emerged, stumbling into the blinding light. Nathan moved so Vin could slide into the nearest chair.

"Here you go, Junior, drink up." Buck left the glass in front of Vin, who hadn't moved or opened an eye. Buck rummaged through Chris's drawers and pulled out a straw. "Here," he nudged Vin's lips with the straw. Vin sipped, made a face, braced himself against the table and sipped again. It took two and half glasses before he spoke.

"Y'all seen my head," he whispered, "Should be bouncin' about somewhere..."

"I warned you, Vin," Chris said unsympathetically, "Is this a face you can trust?" Chris sat grabbing Buck's grinning mug.

"Yer gonna pay, Buck," Vin croaked, laying his head on the table.

They left him dozing and went outside, the storm had passed and it was crisp, sunny day. J.D. and Ezra weren't as hung over and went riding. Buck kept Chris company in the barn, where he was putting down hay and water. Nathan was watching a movie and Josiah was sleeping in the den.

The leftovers were put out at four p.m. and the bodies gradually returned, filling their plates. They took to the table, and eyed Vin.

"He still breathing?" Josiah asked, nodding at Vin's still body.

Ezra grinned evilly and grabbed an ice cube, preparing to tuck it under Vin's shirt. A black clothed arm shot out and stopped him."Leave him be, Ezra." Chris warned, as the noisy group ate.

"Damn Vin," Buck leaned over and studied the bleary face that finally roused, "Your eye's look like roadmaps."

"What are y'all starin' at?" He growled, eyeing the grinning group, "Can't a body die in peace?"

J.D. slid a cold coke in front of him and he nodded. Nathan motioned towards the food, and Vin's face turned green and he shook his head. "Shut up Larabee," He growled, reaching for more soda.

"Chris didn't say anything..." J.D. stated.

"Yeah he did," Vin defended, "Y'all can't hear him like I can." Vin shuffled out of the room and returned a moment later, thrusting an envelope at Chris. He returned to his chair and slipped on his sunglasses.

"Too damn bright in here," he complained, "Go on an open it. I found it while I was lookin' for the sword."

Chris pulled out a printout of an old letter. It was three pages long. He glanced at the date and his eyebrows raised. He spent the next few minutes reading it, before looking up at Vin.

"Thanks, Vin. This means a lot to me. Where did you find it?"

"I's trying to find out about your Great-Grandpa and come across a collector who had lots of letters. I wrote to him, mentioned the outfit I was lookin' for. He had an index of names and such and found Major Larabee's name. So he sent me that."

"I'll be back," Chris rose, leaving the letter.

He returned a few minutes later, with an old photograph. He placed it in the center of the table, flat, so they all could see.

"Is that him?" J.D. pointed to a figure on a horse.

"Yeah, this is what started me collecting," Chris said, "My grandfather gave it to me, right before he died. I was a senior in High School. He told some stories about the Major and had a box of his things. Uniform buttons, a glove, a hat, some letters he wrote to his Ma, and this photo."

"He's got the sword..." J.D. studied the photo close, "Gives you kind of a chill..."

"There's a strong family resemblance," Nathan noted, spotting Chris's features clearly on the Major's, "He's got dark hair, but the face is unmistakable."

"Got the blond hair from my Mom," Chris answered.

"What happened to him?" Josiah asked.

Chris spoke slowly, telling a tale of a young man from Pennsylvania, who recruited his friends and the best volunteers he could, and marched south, proud and tall. His leadership, skill and courage quickly moved him up the ladder. He was decorated several times for valor at Bull Run and Antietam and was captured at Fredericksburg. He was a P.O.W. for seven months, before escaping.

They sat silent, each examining the photo and J.D. picked up the sword.

"Probably a Tanner what done 'im in," Vin finally spoke, giving the group a good laugh.

"In your dreams," Chris retaliated, "No Tanner could ever take a Larabee, not then, not now..."

"You wanna bet," Vin said, rising, "I'm a mite scrawny, but I'm tough."

"Speaking of which," Nathan prodded, "You ought to eat something, Vin. How about a turkey sandwich? Or maybe some rice, that should stay down."

Vin managed to make a meager platter, and took to his chair. Picking up the letter, he tapped Chris's arm.

"Is it okay if I read a little bit of this?"

"Sure, Vin,"

"This letter is from a feller who was in the Major's outfit. It's to his Pa, back in Erie, Pennsylvania." Vin stated, "There's a part I found interestin'...

"You'd like Major Larabee Pa, he ain't much older than the rest of us, but he some kind of soldier. He's so sure of himself, real smart too. He gets a feel for the enemy, scatters us up real good. One night last week we were under heavy fire and I was trapped. There he was, pulling me back to cover, came out of nowhere and disappeared just as fast. He's like that...always ready to take one for us. I tell you what, Pa, I ain't never seen anybody braver than the Major. He got hit twice last night, and kept right on fighting. He pulled four guys out of a mess, and got 'em to the medics. We didn't know he was hit, until he fell over. Soon as they patched him up, he disappeared again. Some fancypants General tried to split us up, spoutin' some nonsense about breaking some damn rules. But the Major stood toe to toe with that turkey, told him he wouldn't stand for it. Said we were the best damn outfit in the Union and where he could stick his orders. Me and the boys whooped it up but good. We been talkin', we're followin' the Major, even if it means marchin' through hell.

"It would appear our illustrious leader inherited more than his good looks from the courageous Major." Ezra pointed out.

"How scary is that..." J.D. astounded, of the similarities.

"Damn," Vin grinned, studying the photo, "He's got the glare too. Guess that's in the blood..."

"Bet he shot a mean laser over those battlefields," Buck concurred.

"I also have a photo to share," Ezra charmed, sliding the shot on the table.

"Ezra, you got no shame," Nathan laughed, shaking his head.

"Hey Ezra, how much you want for this," Buck asked, nudging the grinning Chris.

"Gimme that," Vin lurched, "Ezra yer a dead man."

"Don't rip it up, Vin...I didn't see it yet." J.D. dismayed, as the recovering man tore the revealing photo into many pieces.

"Not to worry, Mr. Dunne, there are plenty more where that came from..." Ezra said confidently, heading for the door, "I believe you all know where to reach me. I offer a fair price. See you in the morning."

"If you live that long," Josiah offered, watching Vin sprint after the Southerner.

Part 25

It was an uneventful Thursday afternoon, when J.D. was at the copier. The office was quiet, each man working on their computers. The youngest observed Chris, through the glass wall of his office. He'd seen Chris starting at Vin when he wasn't looking and the distant look in the green eyes. Buck noticed too, and thought Chris was trying to think of someway to thank Vin, for the generous gift. J.D. suddenly got an idea.

He spent the next two days and most of Saturday, hacking at his computer. The printed moaned from the laborious efforts, the dark-haired youth put it through. He organized the paperwork, stapling the appropriate copies and took out his highlighter. Scanning each sheet, his hand moved, and soon there were several yellow fields that required further checking.

By Sunday afternoon, he was anxious, pacing the floor of the condo. Buck threatened to tie him to a chair. He scowled and continued to wait for the phone to ring. Monday, he popped his computer on and checked his email. There it was...hopefully. He clicked the open command and began to read. He didn't realize how loud he shouted until Josiah appeared.

"You okay, Son?"

"Huh...Oh yeah, sorry."

He burst into Chris's office, without knocking. Something the leader didn't approve of. Before Chris could follow through on the sharp look he gave the young man, J.D. shut the door.

"I'm sorry for bustin' in like this, but I need your help."

Chris examined J.D.'s glowing face with caution. He took the papers the boy offered and scanned them. He looked up, incredulous and motioned for the boy to sit.

"Are you positive? Because unless you're absolutely sure..."

"That's where you come in," J.D. explained, "I thought maybe, you'd like the follow through. That you should make the phone call. If it's true, you know what it would mean. Coming from you..."Chris gave the youth a smile and nodded. "Thanks J.D. It's a great idea. I'll keep you posted."

Three weeks later, at the office.

He stood in the doorway, double-checking the room number, to make sure he was in the right place. He took a deep breath and ran a hand through his short dark hair. He wasn't the nervous type, but today his stomach was in his throat. Stepping inside, he looked around, spotting several workstations. He walked towards the first one, when a voice stopped him.

"Can I be of assistance, young man?" Ezra offered.

The Southerner took a quick assessment of the tall youth, who appeared to be J.D.'s age. He was well built, not an ounce of fat on him. He was wearing the distinctive blues of the Air Force Academy. He offered his hand.

"Good Morning, I don't mean to disturb you. I'm looking for Chris Larabee."

"He's not in yet," Ezra hedged, watching the young man's eyes dart nervously around the room, "Is there anyone else that might assist you?"

" about John Dunne?"

"J.D. is getting some coffee," Ezra waved his arm towards the Cantina, "Would you care for some?"

"Thanks," The dark head nodded, walking up the aisle.

"Who's that?" Buck mouthed silently to Ezra , who shrugged and motioned for Buck to follow.

Nathan and Josiah were at the table, fixing bagels. J.D. was already working on his second doughnut, pouring cream in his coffee. "J.D., you have a visitor," Ezra stepped aside.

"You made it!" J.D.'s muffled voice was freed as the cream doughnut in his mouth shot out, hitting Nathan.

"J.D.!" Nathan cried, jumping up, "Were you raised in a barn?"

"Don't answer that, Kid." Buck grinned, still wondering at the connection between J.D. and the Stranger.

"Sorry, Nate," he said distractedly, "Come on in, I'll introduce you to the guys.

J.D. pointed out each member of the team and the cadet shook their hands. Just as he was about to introduce the stranger, a voice beckoned.

"Where is everybody?"

"Back here, Chris, hurry!"

The blond entered the room and saw the reason for J.D.'s excitement. A grin slowly spread on his face as he shook the hand extended.

"I'm Chris Larabee. I can't thank you enough for coming. It means a great deal to me."

"Hello...Are we in the room?" Ezra confounded, waving his hands.

"Sorry..." Chris apologized, still wearing the grin. Standing next to the well built cadet, he continued, "Gentlemen, this is Nick McCarry, known to you as..."

"Nicky Redtail?" Buck guessed, eye's widened.

"In the flesh," Chris beamed, high-fiving J.D.

"No shit..." Buck bellowed, clapping the started boy on the back, "You'd be the healthiest corpse I've ever seen."

"It's a long story," Nick spoke, "Where's Vin?"

"He's on the shooting range, he'll be here in about an hour." Josiah offered, watching Chris frown, "Sorry Chris, I thought he told you."

"He didn't..." Chris pulled a chair out, "Sit down, Nick. J.D..." Chris motioned to the coffee.

"Oh yeah, here you go," J.D. poured a mug and slid it over, along with the box of doughnuts, "Just coffee, thanks."

"Hey, wait a minute," Buck puzzled, "You can talk...Vin said you couldn't speak."

"I couldn't, for a long time," He paused to sip the coffee, "I guess I should start at the beginning. When I was about five, my father murdered my mother. He was drunk, she hid me in the closet, afraid of his rage. He took a knife to her..."

"You don't have to share this, Son," Ezra said softly, when the boy paused.

"It's okay, that's always the hard part. He killed himself afterwards. I screamed for her, for a long time, to wake up. I stopped talking after that. They sent me to Derning, and it scared me to death. I was the only Native American kid there, and the youngest. Most of the boys were older, thirteen or more. They surrounded me the first day, in the yard. Calling me names, hitting me, especially a..." Nick's handsome face darkened in anger, "big kid named Tony Delgado."

"We had the pleasure..." Josiah agreed, "I understand your rage."

"Out of nowhere came this scrawny, long-haired boy, a little older than me," Nick smiled, "He took them all on, timed his kicks and punches, knew how to make up for his size. Smart as whip."

"That's Vin all right." J.D. agreed.

"They hated him too, called him awful names. We banded together. I can tell you, I wouldn't have survived those early months without him. He was my protector, big brother and hero, all wrapped into one. He took whippings for me..." Nick paused, taking a deep breath, glancing at Chris who had placed a hand on his shoulder, "I'd have nightmares, about my Mom, and he'd be right there. Sometimes they'd be really bad, and I'd wet the bed. Vin would get my clean pajamas, clean me up and switch beds. They didn't tolerate bedwetting, and Vin would get whipped, in front of everybody, to set an example. He'd never said a word."

"He hasn't changed much," Chris mused.

"We would play outside town, among the rocks. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was always Sundance. One day, we caught Tony and his friends raping and murdering some girl from town. They almost caught us, but the mailman saved the day. Later that night, Vin woke me up, shoved some shoes at me, and put his jacket on me. We managed to keep one step ahead of them until Vin slipped on an embankment. It was during a terrible storm, and it was hard to see. We managed to get a hold of a log or something, and float for awhile. The current was strong and there was a group of rocks coming up. Vin tried to steer us clear, but...we hit, and my hand slipped out of his."

"Vin thought you drowned," Nathan remembered

"I almost did. Vin tied me to the log with his jacket, it kept me from going in the river. I woke up in a New Mexico hospital. I was desperate to find out about Vin, but couldn't talk or write yet. I was placed in foster care with a wonderful family, headed by a boisterous, broad-chested Irishman, named Sean McCarry. They didn't have their own kids, just kept adopting strays, like me. I have four brothers and three sisters, all different colors," he beamed, "My Dad's quite a guy."

"Eight kids...Hell, he's a damn saint, so your mother," Buck laughed.

"It took a months of therapy, and patience," Nick recalled, "My God that man was patient with me. Finally, I was able to talk about my mother's death. Over time the rest came out. My Dad tried for years to find Vin. When I got Mr. Larabee's call, well, I cried, barracks or no barracks, I was shocked. You have no idea what this means to me, Mr. Larabee," Nick's voice broke.

"I think I do, Son," Chris rubbed his shoulder, "and the name is Chris."

"How did you get hooked up with the Air Force?" J.D. asked.

"I'm a senior. I'll be studying Aeronautical Engineering, getting my Doctorate." Nick grinned at the exclamations of admiration, "I owe that to Vin, too. We'd lie on those rocks outside town and stare at the blue sky. The eagles, hawks and other birds would soar away to freedom. We both envied that. I've wanted to fly since then."

"Excuse me," Chris stood and dialed the phone on the wall, trying to get Vin on his cell phone, "No answer."

Vin was having a bad day. He was late for the range and didn't score his best. He stopped to get coffee and got a ticket. The bottom of the coffee cup broke, spilling the steaming liquid onto his chest. He pulled into the lot at the Federal Building, and parked his bike. He went five feet and saw the elevator doors open. Hurrying to catch the ride, he slipped in an oil slick, slid on the gravel, tearing up his knee and putting his teeth through his lip.

Wiping his bloody lip on his shirt, he limped through the doors to the office. Peeking around, he was glad nobody was there, especially Buck, who seemed to thrive on his misfortunes. His entrance didn't go as unnoticed as he thought. He had a spare pair of jeans in the bottom drawer of his desk. He was just opening the drawer, the first bellow sounded, over the intercom.


"Damn it," he muttered, "Hold on, Chris."

"NOW Vin, no excuses," Chris used his worst voice, "In the conference room. We got something to talk about."

"It's gonna have to wait..." Vin didn't need Chris on his back too.

"What about 'now' don't you understand?" The voice grew steely.

Vin slammed the drawer and bundled the jeans under his arm. Cursing swift and sure, he hobbled back to the conference room. The door was open and when he entered, all he saw was Chris's back.

"Where's the fuckin' fire?" He demanded, "What the hell's got a bug up yer ass now? I ain't got time for a 'Black Larabee Moody Moment', so spit it out."

"You haven't changed one bit, Sundance, still taking on all comers."

"Sundance?" Vin whispered, eye's widening in recognition, "It can't be..." He froze, not able to move his limbs.

"You still need a haircut," Nick advanced, laying a hand on the trembling jacketed shoulder, "Been a long time, my friend."

"Nicky?" Vin finally turned and was embraced his long lost friend, "I thought ya were dead...I couldn't save ya. Hey, ya can talk..."

"But you did save me, Vin," Nick pulled away, releasing the shaken man.

"Vin, what the hell happened to you?" Chris demanded, seeing the sharpshooter's appearance.

"Vin, you look like shit..." Buck announced.

"Shut up, Buck," Vin retorted, watching the tall man grin, "I ain't havin' m'best day."

"You look like an ad for a detergent commercial," J.D. laughed, "Blood, coffee, grease...the big three."

"You forgot one," Nick said, wrapping an arm around Vin's shoulders, "You forgot grit."

"Nicely done," Ezra agreed.

"Damn, yer tall," Vin blinked, eyeing the uniform, "What kind of rig is that?"

"Air Force, in training to be an astronaut. Here Vin, I've been saving this for a long time," Nick opened the plastic bag he'd been carrying.

A small denim jacket was revealed, with the name 'Tanner' in marker in the neck. "My jacket..." Vin rasped, brushing the tears from his eyes, and taking the small coat.

"You tied it good, Vin, it saved my life. The rescue workers found me, unconscious, but that saved me," he paused, unfastening a chain from his neck, and placing it on Vin's, "You can have this back now, I haven't had it off since that night..."

Vin stared mutely at the gold cross dangling in front of him. He tried to speak but no words would come. Nathan saw him trembling and got up, gently easing the shaken man into a chair.

J.D. immediately got a glass of water, which Vin drank. Tears ran down his face unchecked, as he fingered the cross.

"It was hers..." He gasped, "She gave it to me, right before she died. I put it on Nicky's neck that night, I asked her to keep him safe."

"She did, Vin." Nick said softly

Thanks, Nick..." Vin choked, "...thought it was lost forever."

"No, Vin, I thank you," he sat down, facing Vin, "I've been waiting a long time to say that. To thank the child who's courage was unparalleled and to the man he's become, who was and is, my hero."There was more than one moist eye in the room and Chris cleared them out with a nod of his head. He hated to disturb the reunion, and waited until he felt Vin was recovered. Nick caught his eye and stepped up.

"I'll think I'll get another cup of coffee."

"Okay, but don't leave..." Vin's eyes bore into the dark ones.

"Not a chance, Sundance," Nick grinned, as he exited, "I've been waiting a long time. I don't intend to lose you twice."

"Vin, you okay?" Chris knelt and looked at the mashed lip, "You need stitches?"

"Nah...I'm a Tanner," he boasted.

"Listen, Nick doesn't have to be back until Sunday night. You let Nate clean up that lip and knee. Then you take him up to the cabin. We'll come on Sunday for some touch football and a cookout. Here," Chris handed him keys, "You take the truck, the cabin's fully stocked and your stuff is in the back of the truck."

"Y'all been plannin' this?" Vin asked, seeing the blond nod, "Damn, yer good." "You're better..." Chris said quietly, standing up, "Come on, let's get the First Aid Kit."

"Chris," Vin gripped the forearm tightly, "I'll never forget this. I want you to know...Aw, hell..."

"I told you I had a soft spot for orphans," he grinned, "Go on and see Nate, have a good visit."

Vin disappeared with Nathan into the Cantina, and Chris walked back towards his office. He heard Buck chuckle.

"Black Larabee Mood," he chuckled.

"Black Larabee Moody Moment," Ezra corrected.

"Thanks, Ez," Buck erased his writing, "I'm writin' that one done. Another Vinner."

"Vinner?" Chris stopped between Ezra and Buck's desks.

"Hell yeah," Buck crowed, "Vin's full of 'em. He's got you pegged three ways from Sunday."

Sunday Morning at the Ranch.

"Chris, you ready?"

"Be right down, Buck."

Chris jogged down the stairs, and whistled for Sam.

"Grab his leash, Buck," Chris squatted as the dog sat in front on him.

"Thanks," he clipped the lead.

"Hey, Chris," Buck complimented, "Nice job, Pard."Chris smiled at the admiration in Buck's voice. They were standing in the den in front of a glass display cabinet on the wall. Inside mounted, was the sword, with the scabbard under it. The photo was in the near corner, and the gloves, and other items were also displayed, with identification cards.

"Guess that answers your question, huh?" Buck eyed his oldest friend.

"What question?"

"About that sorry-assed, long-haired Texan," Buck opened the door, greeting the sunlight.

"Yeah, I put that to rest for good," Chris admitted, locking the door.

"Come on, Pard," Buck boomed, "Let's go show them youngsters, how to play football."

"You sayin' I'm old, Buck?"

"Well if the shoe fits..." Buck appraised, sliding behind the wheel.

"Buck, what's in that bag?"

"What bag?"

"The one Sam has his head in," Chris turned, eyeing the back compartment.

"His breakfast," Buck said innocently, "You know, a couple of them sausage sandwiches. He likes them."


"Aw cut off the glare, Chris. I know ya love me!"

Only Buck could get away with it. Chris couldn't help but laugh at the wiggling eyebrows and broad grin. Chris rummaged around the glove compartment, fishing for a cassette. He pulled out a handful, and a piece of blue fabric. His eyes shot up and he smirked at the superman emblem on the briefs.

"Damn, I've been lookin' for them," Buck laughed, "Thought Marie took 'em...or was her name Louise? Hell, maybe it was Marie-Louise."

"Marie and Louise," Chris suggested, with a straight face.

"Nah, I'd have remembered that...It was quite a night. Wait until you hear about the handcuffs..."

"Oh, it's gonna be a long ride..." Chris moaned, closing his eyes and reclining.


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