"Hey, Chip," Buck greeted as he walked up to the bar in J. Watson's, otherwise known as "the saloon" to the men of the ATF's infamous Team Seven. "You seen Vin Tanner?"
"Oh, yeah, I saw him," the bartender said, shaking his head. "I saw him come in and I saw him go out."
Buck's smiled faded. "Go out?"
"Yep, and I have to tell you, I was damn glad to see him go, Buck. He was starting to scare away some of the customers. But then he came back in again. He's been in the back room for a while now. Inez thought he'd be, uh, safer back there."
Buck sighed heavily. "Yeah," he agreed. Lord knew Tanner could be deadly when provoked and, having never seen the man drunk before, Wilmington wasn't sure what might goad him into action in that state. "I'll go get him; take him home."
"I'd appreciate it we all do. Inez call you?"
"Yeah. Hell, I thought he was Well, it doesn't matter."
The bartender's gaze swept over the tall agent. Buck looked more than a little haggard himself. "He, uh, looked pretty upset earlier. What's going on?"
The ladies' man shook his head. "Story's too long, Chip, but he's just upset. We had us a bad day today." Wilmington pushed away from the bar without elaborating and headed for the back room where private parties were usually held. When not in use, it doubled as a private pool room for the lucky few Inez allowed in, but this time of day, no one would be playing, unless Vin was.
Buck paused just inside the door, his mouth falling open. Vin was most definitely not playing pool. Tanner was sitting on a stool at the second, smaller bar, leaning heavily on one elbow, his chin in his hand while he smiled dopily up at a tall, shapely redhead who was smiling indulgently back at him.
Wilmington blinked, thinking, Now that is the definition of beautiful, as he stared at the woman. He started over to the pair, saying loudly, "Hey, Junior, you been here all day? Hell, son, we've been lookin' all over for you."
Tanner glanced over at Wilmington and smiled drunkenly. He gestured Buck over to join them. "Sandy, this here is Bucklin," he slurred. "He works wiff me."
The tall redhead glanced at Buck and smiled invitingly. "Oh, are you an ATF agent, too?"
Buck grinned back at her, his gaze sweeping over the woman's ample figure. She was most definitely easy on the eyes, but he wasn't here to find a date for later this evening, although there was no reason not to kill two birds with one stone
He glanced at his teammate, knowing that Tanner had to be hurting, but he really hadn't expected the sniper to try and drown his pain in booze. That was more Larabee's style, maybe Josiah's too.
"Come on, Junior, time to get back to duty," he said, then flashed a smile at the woman. "If you'd, uh, like to give me your number, I'll have him call you when he's sobered up."
"Or you could call me," she offered seductively.
"I suppose I could, yeah," he agreed with his most winning smile.
At the same time as Buck spoke, Vin drew himself up indignantly and stared hard at Wilmington. "I's never dunk when 'm on duty," he informed the ladies' man, then reached out his hand, missing Wilmington's shoulder completely and falling sideways right off his barstool.
Buck heard the thudding smack as Tanner hit the floor behind him and winced. He glanced around, then immediately turned back to the pretty redhead on his left. "And if I did call you, maybe we could go to dinner, then some dancing?" He reached out and took a gulp of Tanner's beer. "We could have some drinks afterward and"
"Uh, I think your friend's hurt," the girl said, looking worriedly down at Vin, who appeared to be dead, he was lying so still.
"Oh, he always does that whenever he gets drunk," Buck lied, never having seen Tanner take more than a single drink at a time before. "So, do you want to give me your number?" he asked hopefully.
"But he's just lying there. Are you sure he isn't hurt?"
Buck glanced down. "Naw, he's just resting. You know, he even sleeps on the floor at home, too."
"He lives with you?" she asked suspiciously.
"Vin? Oh, no. No. He lives over in Purgatorio."
Her eyes rounded and her gaze shifted between Buck and Vin as she squeaked, "Purgatorio?"
Buck nodded. "It's not as bad as they say. Why, there hasn't been a shooting in his building for more than a week now."
She frowned, clearly having second thoughts about the passed out sharpshooter. "Are you, uh, are you just going to leave him lying there?" she asked.
"Well," Buck said, thinking fast as he saw her allegiance slipping away, "he can be a really, really stupid drunk, and "
With a look that could have incinerated the ladies' man, the girl slid off her stool and knelt down beside Vin, scooping the sniper's head up in her hands.
"Hey!" Buck warned her. "Don't pick his head up like that, you'll break his neck!"
Frightened, she immediately let Vin's head drop back to the floor. It bounced once. Tanner groaned.
Whatever he'd had going for him earlier was gone Buck knew, so, with a disgusted snort, he yanked Vin up from the floor and dusted him off, even though he wasn't dirty. Inez kept her place spotless.
Tanner stared at the multiple Wilmingtons swimming through his field of vision and tried to force his eyes to focus. But when they finally did the man's mustache still continued to swim in and out of focus like a disappearing caterpillar. The effect left him feeling slightly nauseous.
Vin carefully reached out, carding his fingertips into Buck's mustache, the feel of the thick hairs almost tickling him. He giggled and Wilmington jerked his head away.
"Vin, what the hell are you doin', son?"
"Where's m' jacket?" Vin asked him.
"You're wearing it, Junior," Wilmington growled, knowing Tanner was so drunk he could barely stand. They were never going to get out of the bar at this rate. So, holding Tanner steady, Buck crouched over and pulled Vin's right arm across the back of his neck. Then, slipping his own right arm between Vin's legs, he gripped the sharpshooter behind his knee and heaved him up across his shoulders. "Another time?" he asked the now wide-eyed girl.
"Adios, bay-bee," Vin slurred drunkenly, his dangling left hand flapping against Buck's rear end as he attempted to wave to her.
"Come on, Junior," Buck sighed, shaking his head. He carried Tanner out the back to the parking lot.
"Momma, don't let yer babies grow up t' be cowboys," Vin sang as Buck located Tanner's Jeep parked at the curb and carried him over to it. Then he fought to wedge the sniper into his miserable excuse for transportation.
"Let go of the door," Wilmington ordered him.
"Take me back, Buck-in," Tanner slurred thickly. "Didn't finish m' beer."
"Get in the Jeep," the ladies' man growled.
"'M already in th' Jeep."
"Your foot, damn it!" Buck cried in exasperation.
"M' foot? Which one? I's got four 'a 'em, ya know."
Buck sighed heavily, his eyes dropping closed for a moment. Then, picking up the foot in question, he bent Vin's knee and heaved, toppling the sharpshooter into the passenger seat of the beat-up vehicle. He slammed the door shut.
Vin gripped the dash and tried to pull himself up to a seated position, but he wasn't having much luck.
Buck slid in behind the wheel and, irritated, roughly obliged Vin, yanking him up and throwing him over into the corner of the seat.
"Thank ya, Buck-in," Vin said, then belched loudly. "'Scuse me." He giggled.
"You're welcome." A twinge of guilt prompted Buck to lean over and lock the door so the inebriated man wouldn't fall out. "Okay, give me the keys."
"Keys? What keys?" Vin asked, looking dumbly around. "We home already?"
"The keys to the Jeep!"
"Oh, them keys Where we goin', Buck-in?" Tanner asked, leaning over in order to wedge his hand into his pocket. But he quickly lost his balance and toppled over against Buck. "'Scuse me."
"Somebody should, but it ain't gonna be me," Buck muttered, shaking his head and impatiently drumming his fingers on the steering wheel as he braced against Vin's weight. "Jesus Christ, Tanner, what the hell are you doin'?" he snapped when the younger man's head slid off his shoulder and down his arm.
"Vin, sit up!" Buck barked. "Where are the keys?"
"What keys?" Vin asked as his head slipped out of the crook of Buck's elbow, thumping down onto the man's thigh.
His patience gone, Wilmington levered Vin up to a seated position a second time and slammed him back against the seat, hissing, "Get your hand out of the way."
Long seconds passed as Buck leaned over Vin, trying to extricate the car keys from Tanner's pocket. "Goddamn it," he finally growled, "your pants get any tighter, you'll have to peel 'em off at night. Straighten your damn leg!"
"Hey, there's a" Vin began.
"Lift your ass now," Wilmington snapped, wondering how in the world Larabee ever dealt with the man.
Suddenly there was a tap on the Jeep's window and Buck looked around just as the blinding beam of a flashlight caught him square in the eyes. "Ahhh!" he cried, shutting his eyes as he cranked the window down. "Get that damn thing out of my face!" he snarled.
A voice from behind the glaring light replied, the tone low and mistrustful. "And just what're you two boys doing, hmm?"
"He's molestin' me, off'sir," Vin slurred and Buck had to fight to keep from killing the sniper right then and there.
"All right, you two, out of the vehicle."
"I'm a fuckin' fed!" Buck yelled.
"Yeah, I can see that much," the voice replied dryly.
"I'm a federal agent," Wilmington hissed.
"Right, and I'm Governor Romer. C'mon, buddy, get out." Then the voice called, "Hey, Roof, come over here, man. We've got a real comedian here."
Buck stepped out of the Jeep, muttering hotly to himself, and was immediately grabbed and slammed down across the hood.
"Roof," who was nothing more than a shadowy figure in the darkness, peered into the car at Vin, who had turned toward the locked passenger side door and was trying to get out that way.
Buck went through the humiliation of being frisked a little too roughly between the legs by the man behind the flashlight. "Hey, watch it!" he warned.
"You, in the car," Roof called, "come on out."
"Hey, Roof, this joker's got a freakin' gun!"
"I told you, I'm a federal agent. ATF, ever heard of it?" Buck bellowed as Roof spun quickly away from the Jeep's open driver's side door to back up his partner.
"Bucklin! Help! 'M trapped in here!" Vin howled, rattling the door. "Bucklin! Get me out! Get me out 'a here!"
Ignoring Vin's cries for help, Officer Roof quickly stepped in front of Buck when he was roughly yanked up off the hood of the car and spun around.
"You just stand right there. Keep your hands up," the voice cautioned as he slid his hand inside Buck's jacket.
"Try my back pocket," Buck said, turning slightly to offer his right hip to the officer.
"I think you might like that too much," the voice replied.
"It's my ID!"
Extracting the ID, the officer handed it back to his partner as he flipped open the leather case.
"Jesus Christ, Manny, he is a fed! What the hell's this country coming to?"
"Look, that drunken fool in the Jeep is my teammate," Buck said in a tone that clearly conveyed he'd taken all the abuse he was going to. "I was trying to get the car keys out of his pocket so I can drive him home. It's his damn Jeep."
His comment was met by silence from the two officers.
"Look, damn it"
"Wilmington, Wilmington," Officer Roof muttered, as the realization finally hit him. "From Team Seven? That Tanner in the car, your sniper?"
"Yeah, Vin Tanner," Buck said, a little surprised that the story had already circulated down to the level of the beat cops.
Roof started laughing and Manny clapped a hand on Buck's shoulder. "Sorry, man, we didn't know. And you have to admit, it did look a little kinky. Man, that was one helluva shot he made today. Guess you were out celebrating, huh? Glad your boss made it out okay. Well, hang in there."
"Yeah, thanks," Buck replied, but he didn't miss the sound of their snickers as the two men sauntered back to their cruiser. He shook his head and walked around to the open driver's side door. He looked inside and found Vin holding up the car keys between his thumb and forefinger.
"Fooled ya," he said happily. "They's in m' other pocket."
Gently, with teeth clenched, Buck took the keys from him, inserted the correct one into the ignition switch and fired the engine. He switched on the headlights, pulled his door shut with a bang, and leaned back to see around Vin. Waiting for a break in traffic, he spotted an opportunity and pulled away from the curb, muttering under his breath.
Vin slid down in the seat and, after a few unsuccessful tries, managed to get both of his feet up onto the dash.
"You're an irritating pain in the ass, Tanner," Buck said. "Anyone ever tell you that?"
Vin swiveled his head for a glance at the ladies' man then returned his gaze to the road beyond the windshield. "Yeah," was the serious, almost sad reply, "been told more 'n a few times." Then, before Buck would follow upon that, he added, "I gotta take a piss." He reached down for his fly.
"Tanner!" Buck yelped. "Oh my God," he moaned, shaking his head.
"Trickle, trickle, drip, drip," Vin sang off key, "y' better get me t' a toilet quick "
Frantically, Buck scanned the passing businesses, looking for a service station. Spotting a Texaco on the other side of the road, he hit the brakes and furiously cranked the steering wheel.
Vin popped off his seat, fell over against Buck's shoulder, then bounced away as one wheel of the Jeep lurched over the curb and came down hard. With fingernails scratching across the dash, Vin slid off his perch and onto the floorboards, cracking the side of his head against the door.
"Where's m' flasher?" the sniper snarled, crawling back up onto the seat. "'M gonna shoot that bastard."
Buck screeched to a halt in the station parking lot and Vin slipped back onto the floorboards again.
"Goddamn it, Tanner, would you stop clowning around?" Buck snapped. "Now, go, before you piss yourself, the Jeep, me and everybody else!"
"Ever'body else?" Vin squeaked, rising up just far enough to peer around nervously.
Wilmington rolled his eyes and climbed out. He walked around and, after unlocking and opening the passenger side door, grabbed Vin beneath the armpits and dragged him up onto the seat, then out the door to the pavement. Righting him, Buck escorted the man across the lot to the restrooms. "Get in there and go, damn it!"
"Oh my God, don't tell me I'm going to have to Tanner, I'm gonna" He angrily grabbed the sharpshooter by the front of his jacket.
"No, don't, Buck" Vin whimpered. "When yer dead, ever'thing lets loose, y' know. I don't wanna go with wet pants."
"Where you're goin', they'll be dry in no time!" With that he manhandled Vin into the restroom and shoved him into a stall, waiting not so patiently as Tanner took care of business, all the while singing, "The itsy-bitsy spider, climbed up the water spout 'long come the rain 'n' washed the spider out."
Back in the Jeep once again, Vin moved on to "Zippity do-dah zippity-day "
Buck wished he had an extra pair of hands so he could cover his ears. A member of the team for only four months, who in hell would ever have guessed that the efficient, usually taciturn sniper could be such a complete ass when he was drunk?
"Christ, Vin, would you please shut up?" Buck pleaded.
The drive to Vin's building took considerably less time than getting the sharpshooter up the four flights of stairs to his apartment did. At first Tanner attacked the steps with dead-eye concentration, making it up two flights before he went down and started crawling on his hands and knees.
"You're sad, you know that?" Buck asked him, gripping his teammate from behind and straightening him up. "Now, just walk ahead of me," he instructed, hugging Tanner around the waist to keep him on his feet.
Vin giggled and immediately held his arms out in front of him, then bent his elbows and twisted both of his wrists back and forth.
"Well, go on, move!" Wilmington snapped, wondering what the hold-up was. "What the hell're you doing now?"
"Var-room! Var-room!" Vin roared. "We'll take m' mote-a-sickle! Hang on, Bucklin!" He leapt forward, yanking free of the grasp Wilmington had on him.
Buck went down on the stairs, catching himself on the palms of his hands.
"Screech!" Vin hollered. "Shit, I lost Bucklin!" He looked around at the ladies' man, who was pushing to his feet. "Told ya t' hang on, Bucklin m' clutch slips."
"Your brain's slipped," the ladies' man muttered. "Turn around, Junior," he directed, then turned the man himself, none too gently, and encircled his waist once more, giving him a nudge in the rear. "Now, walk!"
Vin walked, one tottering step at a time, step after step after step. They were nearing the landing on the fourth floor when he suddenly lifted both feet, braced them against the top of the next step up and pushed back with all of his strength.
Both of them went tumbling, end over end, down the stairs. Buck executed a perfect off-the-shoulder somersault off the last stair and landed flat on his back on the third floor landing. He stared up at a dimly lit ceiling and wondered if he could plead justifiable homicide.
"God, why me?" he moaned, and stayed right where he'd landed until Vin's head came into view above him.
"Told ya we shoulda took m' mote-a-sickle."
At the end of his patience, Buck rolled over and pushed to his feet. He marched Tanner up the stairs, one arm encircling the sharpshooter's slim waist, his other hand gripping the top of Vin's faded jeans, literally dragging him on his side, one hip bumping into his with every other step.
"Hell, Bucklin, I ain't no cripple! Put me down!" Vin complained.
"Shut up, ya crazy, long-haired, drunken Texas-reject."
Along the hallway on the fourth floor, doors opened and eyes peered mistrustfully at them through the cracks.
"Evening," Buck said pleasantly to each one he saw, continuing to drag a whimpering Vin Tanner along the floor. The doors closed.
Finally inside the sniper's apartment, Buck literally picked Tanner up off his feet and slung him onto the sofa. Vin landed and bounced forward, knocking the coffee table onto its side as he fell to the floor.
"Thank you," Tanner said, his voice muffled by the carpet.
Wilmington stomped off to the kitchen and helped himself to a beer from the refrigerator. He twisted off the top and leaned heavily against the counter draining it in a series of long swallows. He sighed heavily when he heard Vin rattling around in the living room.
What now? the ladies' man wondered, closing his eyes and shaking his head.
Seconds later, Buck heard a guitar being played proficiently. He grabbed another beer and walked back to the living room only to find his drunken teammate playing the instrument.
Buck stood there, listening as Vin began singing "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." With the guitar accompaniment he actually sounded pretty good. That or he'd finally become immune to Tanner's voice.
He carried his beer over and sat down on the sofa beside the man and, when Vin sent him a questioning glance, Buck joined in, singing along as he opened his second bottle.
The song came to an end and Vin pushed wearily to his feet. He set the guitar aside. "'M goin' t' bed," he mumbled, taking off his jacket and starting to pull off his shirt.
"Oh, no you're not!" Buck said, grabbing Vin by the back of his jeans and yanking him back down onto the sofa.
"Y' keep yankin' on m' backend 'm gonna think yer a fraud, Bucklin," Vin growled, trying to work his pants back down where they belonged. "I wanna go t' bed."
"Listen up, Junior, I'm gonna sit here finish my beer, and you're gonna sit there and tell me why the hell you thought you had to go get drunk in the first place. This is something I'd expect JD to do, not you."
"Y' mad at me, Bucklin?" Tanner asked, his voice sounding very much like a little boy's as he dropped back onto the sofa.
"Hell yes, I'm mad at you!"
"'M sorry," Tanner said, his expression as hangdog as Wilmington had ever seen it. "Didn't mean t' piss ya off "
"I know you didn't," Buck said and sighed, scrubbing his hand over his face. "Why'd you disappear from the hospital like that anyway?"
Tanner looked away, blue eyes filling with tears.
"Christ, Vin, what's goin' on in that thick head of yours?" Buck asked him, although not unkindly. He reached out to rest his hand on the back of Tanner's neck, giving it a squeeze. "You know Chris is going to be fine, right?"
"Damn near got himself dead," Tanner said hotly, but softly.
"What are you talkin' about? Vin, you saved his life today."
"I let him get shot, Buck!" Tanner blurted out, head coming up, blue eyes full of pain and regret. "He trusted me t' watch his back 'n' I let 'im get shot! He could 'a gotten killed!"
"Hell, Vin, you're just a man, not some damn magician. Chris knew the risks going in there. You saved his life. He knows that, and so do the rest of us."
Vin looked anything but convinced as he glanced away from the ladies' man. "Know better 'n t' get close t' folks," he said softly. "Stupid. That's what I am. Stupid, stupid, stupid "
"Vin, we're not just 'folks.' We're family, son," Buck told him.
"Family don't let each other get hurt like that!" Vin bellowed. "Hell, Larabee's prob'ly gonna can m' sorry ass. Have ever' right to, too Twice!"
Wilmington sighed heavily. Tanner wasn't going to believe a word he was saying, not until he heard it from Chris, but he had to try, because he was sure the younger man would hear the same words from Larabee.
He looked at the Texan, realizing that it was guilt, and nothing more, that had driven him into the bottle. But he had nothing to be guilty about. He'd done his best. The shot he'd made, the one that had saved Chris' life, was one Wilmington would have sworn couldn't have been made.
"C'mon, Junior, let's get you to bed."
Tanner stood, his shoulders sagging, the picture of utter defeat. "What'd the doc say 'bout Chris?"
"He said Chris was going to be just fine. Hell, he'll be back to work, riding our tails in no time."
"Not mine "
"Yes, yours too."
Tanner shook his head.
"Vin, listen to me," Buck said, stepping up next to the smaller man. "Chris is your friend. And so am I. And so is JD and Josiah and Ezra and Nathan. We none of us expect you to be perfect. We don't expect you to perform miracles. We know that you're up there, watchin' our backs as best you can, and we know you'll do everything you can to keep us safe and alive. And, if something goes wrong, we'll all know you did everything you could to prevent it, or fix it. We know that, Vin, and so do you."
Tanner drew in a long, shuddering breath. "I tried, Buck, I really did, but I just didn't have a shot 'til Carr stepped out "
"I know that, Vin, I do. And Chris is going to be fine. He had his vest on. It just bruised him up some, that's all."
"Thought he's dead," Tanner said softly, starting to shake.
"I know you did, son," Buck said, slipping his arm around the smaller man's shoulders. "But he isn't. Hell, ol' Chris is too damned mean to get himself killed like that."
Vin looked up, meeting Wilmington's eyes. "JD's right yer full 'a crap, Bucklin." Then he pulled away. "We's all jist human, an' it's too easy fer us t' get killed. I don't wanna be the one responsible, Buck. I don't want t' hurt like that. Don't think I could live with it "
"You're not responsible, Vin. You can't be responsible for everything. You have a job to do, we all do. You just do that job the best you can, and if anything ever does happen, you won't be alone, I swear to you. We'll be there all of us. We'll hurt together and we'll survive, together."
"There's no use borrowing trouble, Vin. Believe me."
Tanner thought for a moment, but then nodded. "'M too drunk t' think straight Must be why what yer sayin' makes sense."
That brought a soft laugh from Wilmington. "That you are. I didn't figure you for a drinker, Junior."
"Ain't. First time I's ever got drunk Don't think I like it much."
Buck nodded understandingly. "You'll like it even less in the morning."
Vin took a step toward his bedroom, then stopped. "Aw hell, I ought t' get over t' the hospital, tell Chris 'm sorry fer runnin' out on 'im like I done."
Wilmington shook his head. "I let Chris see you like this and he'll kick my butt all the way into next week."
Vin snorted softly. "In the mornin'?" he asked the ladies' man, the little boy voice back.
Buck nodded. "In the morning, Junior. I'll drive you over myself." He glanced down at the sofa. "Looks comfortable enough, you got any extra pillows?"
"Yep," Tanner replied. "Extra pillows 'n' blankets."
"Hell, Junior, you're a regular Boy Scout!"
Vin staggered off, returning a few minutes later with a pillow and two blankets, which he handed to Wilmington. Looking up, he met the older man's eyes. "Thanks, Bucklin."
The ladies' man smiled. "Hell, Vin, that's what family's for."
Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #6, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 10-31-2005. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org)