SPLIT SECOND by The Neon Gang

"Vin!" Chris yelled, but it was already too late.

The activity around Larabee slowed in his panic-altered perception, unfolding in painful, too-lucid detail. There was nothing he could do to stop the tragedy already fated to happen.

It was too late… too late. He'd lost his best friend this time…

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

Seated at a corner table at his favorite café, Chris looked up from his newspaper, his expression surprised. "Orin," he said. "What're you doing here?"

The older man tossed a thin file folder onto Larabee's table. "I need your help, Chris." He sat down and waited.

The blond picked up the file and opened it, reading quickly. When he finished he closed the file and let it drop back onto the table. "I'll need some updated satellite photos of the compound."

"It's being done as we speak," Travis said.

"How fast?"

"Tomorrow," Travis said. "We're afraid it'll be too late if we wait any longer than that. I'd rather it was tonight, but–"

"We might be able to pull it off tonight, but the extra day would be helpful," Chris said.

"It's your call," the older man said. "But we have to get those women and children out of there – quickly and quietly."

Chris nodded and then sighed and shook his head. "Where do these nuts come from?"

Travis shrugged, his expression tired. "It's getting close to the millennium, Chris. We're probably going to see more of this over the next four-hundred some-odd days."

Larabee stood and stepped around the table. "I'll contact the others and brief them. You get me those satellite photos and whatever else you can on the local terrain. And let's get a series of power outages started so they won't notice when we show up."

Travis nodded and left without a goodbye.

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

"How do we know these women are really in danger?" JD asked after Chris finished briefing them.

"We don't, exactly, but all the signs are there. Wilson Dobson lured in the men first. They're his followers. These women and children had no idea what was coming when they were forced into Dobson's compound the day before yesterday by their husbands, fathers, and brothers."

"This Dobson guy sounds like a real lunatic," Buck offered. "He honestly thinks that Jesus is telling him what to do?"

Chris nodded his agreement with the ladies man's assessment of Dobson's mental state. "So he says. He's cut off these women's contact with the outside world. And from the intel Travis had he's been stockpiling weapons for the last several months, not to mention chemicals that could be used for a mass suicide."

"Jonestown all over again," Josiah said softly, shaking his head. "You'd think we'd learn."

"He's also been writing to several local and national newspapers over the last week, announcing that Jesus Christ has told him that the world is coming to an end the day after tomorrow," Chris added.

Ezra's eyebrows rose and the corner of his lips twitched in amusement. "The day after tomorrow? Well, I suppose I should reschedule that massage appointment I've been trying to work in."

The others chuckled.

"I take it we're goin' in t'morrow?" Vin asked. "End it for him a day early?"

Larabee nodded. "Early in the morning, when they'll be tired and their guard will be down. But we're just going in to get the women and kids out. What these guys decide to do is up to them."

"Non-lethal?" Nathan asked the blond.

"That's the plan," Chris replied. "We don't want to create any more martyrs."

"We hope," Josiah replied. "This sounds a little too much like what happened in Waco for me."

"That's why we're the ones going in and not the regular ATF," Chris said. "The government isn't anxious to end up in another standoff. This won't be another Waco."

"Y' sure these women are goin' t' want t' be rescued?" Vin asked him.

"One was able to smuggle out a note, asking for help," Chris explained. "She said that they're afraid they and their kids are going to be killed. I think they'll cooperate."

"What kind of resistance are we lookin' at?" Buck asked. "From the men."

"Dobson's not going to want to let these women and kids go. He thinks he's setting up a new Eden. Some of his followers are ex-military, but most of them are just locals who bought into his delusion. They're not a well trained force by any stretch of the imagination."

"Score one for our side," JD said with a grin.

"What 'bout the weather?" Vin asked. "Estes c'n be colder 'n a witch's tit this time 'a year. If we have t' move any little kids very far they're gonna slow us down."

Chris glanced at Ezra, noting his slightly arched eyebrows over the colorful remark.

Vin followed Larabee's look. "Ah hell, Ez, y' know what I mean."

"True, but your colorful vernacularisms are a never-ending source of amusement."

"Travis is arranging for a bus to meet us just beyond the main gate," Chris cut in before Vin could reply. "They shouldn't have to travel far."

"What's the game plan, Chris?" Nathan asked Larabee.

Chris took a deep breath and laid out his general plan of attack, soliciting feedback from each of the others in order to hammer out a final plan. Several hours later they were ready to gather their equipment and go.

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

And the operation had gone according to plan. They drove to a deserted spot three miles from the compound and hiked the rest of the way through broken woods and the occasional farm field without incident. Having memorized the layout of Dobson's compound from the high resolution satellite photos, they chose a small wooded rise near the only entrance from which to launch their attack.

The team lay on the rise, using night-vision gear to peer down on two men standing guard at the gated entrance to the only approach road. The two men, unaware of the seven black-clad operators watching them, were not particularly alert. In fact, they were sitting on folding stools, talking, smoking cigarettes, and drinking from steaming mugs of coffee.

Larabee and the others waited while JD set up a small parabolic mike so they could eavesdrop on the men's conversation. They were running on routine. There was no alert out, and no indication that the team's arrival had been detected – or was even anticipated. Evidently Dobson had told the men that Jesus himself had insured their safety.

Quietly Larabee laid a hand on Vin's arm and squeezed. The team's sniper brought up his rifle and fired two tranquilizer darts, striking the men in rapid succession. They both slumped over, coffee mugs slipping from their fingers before they fell off their stools.

Chris tapped Buck on the shoulder and the ladies' man crawled forward. Near the gate he found where the power lines for the compound entered and cut them. The lights that illuminated the grounds around the buildings blinked out. Buck opened the gate, and then quickly rejoined the others. The team backed off the rise, disappearing like shadows into the darkness of early morning.

Chris knew Dobson would have generators, but it would take him a while to get them fired up and running, enough time for the team to slip unseen inside the compound. And, with luck, they wouldn't even bother with the generators. The day before Travis had arranged for several short power outages to occur, getting Dobson and his people used to the idea. The local news even covered the problem, blaming a faulty panel at the local power station. It was supposed to be fixed overnight, so an early morning blackout should, hopefully, raise no suspicions.

Travis' intel placed the number of men in the compound at thirty. Two were already down. From the satellite photos they knew that fourteen of the men would be in their barracks, sleeping, while the other fourteen were scattered around the grounds, standing guard.

Chris keyed his Motorola MX-300 communications unit and said softly, "Okay, follow the plan, keep a body count going so we know what possible resistance we're looking at."

Buck and JD silently moved off toward the men's sleeping barracks. Vin took another direction, tasked with taking out as many of the remaining fourteen men as he could on his way to a position to cover the women's retreat. Nathan and Josiah would keep the exit secured. Chris and Ezra headed for the women's barracks.

Several minutes later Larabee heard a click in his earpiece, followed by Buck's voice. "Target alpha has been neutralized," he said. The sleeping men would remain unconscious for several hours, thanks to the gas he and JD had released into the building. "Moving to locate the rovers. We'll converge on the gate in seven minutes. Blue clear."

"Roger Blue," Chris replied.

Another click and Vin said, "Green here. Four tangos down. Movin' int' final position."

Chris and Ezra reached the women's barracks, finding two men standing guard. The pair split up. Larabee dropped his man first with a dart from the tranquilizer gun he carried.

Seeing his friend fall, Ezra's target spun, looking for his attacker. The last thing he expected to see was a man dressed in a black uniform with black cammo paint on his face. He grabbed for his sidearm, but Ezra was already moving, bringing up his weapon and firing. His dart caught the man in the neck and he dropped to his knees and then collapsed face-first into the short-cut grass.

"Six and counting," Chris announced over the radio.

"Eight and counting," Buck corrected a moment later.

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

Vin hunched over, his right eye pressed against the rubber-rimmed eyepiece of his low-light sniper-scope. From his vantage point on the small rise he had a clear view of nearly the entire area inside of Dobson's compound. To his right, along the base of the rise, was a long, low building that the satellite photos had identified as the women's barracks. To the left was a smaller building, the men's meeting house. Directly opposite the rise was a small two-story Victorian house topped by a small satellite antennae. Dobson's house. And next to Dobson's private quarters, another barracks for the men.

He saw Chris and Ezra enter the women's barracks, but he was watching a man moving stealthily toward the building. Vin eased the muzzle of his tranquilizer rifle to the right, the scope crosshairs centering on the magnified image of the man, who carried a general-purpose machine gun in his hands like he knew how to use it.

Part of Vin's pre-mission preparation had involved going over dozens of satellite photos with calipers and a scale, measuring out ranges. This target was close, as sniping went – about sixty meters. Tanner drew down slightly, since his rifle was sighted at the lowest possible adjustment of eighty meters.

Aim… hold… squeeze…

Vin watched the man stagger, then fall into the grass. "Nine down," he drawled into his lip mike.

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

Inside the building Chris woke the woman who lay in the first small bed they encountered. The woman gasped, but didn't scream.

"It's all right," he assured her. "We're here to get you and the others out."

"Oh, thank God," the woman breathed, climbing out of bed and moving to wake two children in the bunk beds next to her.

"Ten," stated Buck's voice in their earpieces. "This is almost too damned easy."

Chris and Ezra quickly moved down the two rows of bunk beds, waking the other women, cautioning them to remain silent while they quickly dressed or pulled on bathrobes and then helped their children prepare. Swiftly the two agents lined the women and kids up in the center of the barracks, between the two rows of beds.

"Hammer is ready to move," Chris announced into his lip mike.

"All clear, Hammer," Vin replied. "Y' can go. All clear t' move. Repeat, all clear t' move; the chariot's in place."

Chris walked over to an older woman who had been helping to keep the others calm, speaking to them in soft, low tones that seemed to soothe their nerves. "Ma'am, I'd like for you to help us make sure these women and children stay together."

She nodded. "I'll do my best."

Larabee raised his voice so the others could hear him. "Ladies, I want you to make sure you keep a tight hold on your children. If anyone gets separated, we might lose them in the dark. Understood?"

Heads nodded and many of the women clutched their children closer to them. A few soft sobs echoed through the large room.

"Ladies, listen carefully, please," Ezra continued. "When we go outside I want you to run straight to the gate on this side of the meeting house. That's on this side of the meeting house. Head straight outside the compound, continue down the road. There will be a bus waiting for you around the first turn."

Larabee watched the women nod and took a deep breath. This was it. It would be dawn soon and they needed to get moving. Vin said it was clear, but there were still four men unaccounted for.

"Eleven," Josiah's voice announced, his tone deeply satisfied.

Okay, three left. Still, that's enough to cause some damage with the weapons they're supposed to have.

"Ax, what's the situation?" Larabee asked into his lip mike.

"All clear, Hammer," Vin replied. "But it's startin' t' get light."

"Roger that," Chris replied, then looked back to the women. "Let's go, ladies. And remember, don't stop for anything. Clear?"

The heads nodded again.

Ezra opened the door, making a quick check before he waved the women through. He moved with the women at the front of the line, Chris moving out with those at the rear.

Ezra led the women between the barracks and the meeting house – as far away from Dobson's quarters as possible – making a straight line run for the open gate where Josiah and Nathan waited to cover their escape.

"Twelve," Chris heard Vin say in his earpiece. "Movin' t' my second position," he added, letting them know that he was heading down off the rise to cover their retreat from the rear of the column.

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

Chris wasn't quite sure when he realized what was about to happen. Everything was going so smoothly. Most of the women had already passed through the gate and were running down the road with their children toward the waiting bus. But a few of the women were moving slower, burdened by one or two children who couldn't run fast enough to keep up. One in particular was lagging further and further behind, slowed by the burden of carrying a small girl with leg braces.

Buck and JD joined them, helping some of the straggling women, grabbing children and charging for safety.

Chris reached for one of the two twins another woman struggled with, but stopped, barking at her, "Run!"

The woman's eyes flew wide, but she picked up speed, not looking back.

"Vin!" he yelled, but it was already too late.

The activity around Larabee slowed in his panic-altered perception, unfolding in painful, too-lucid detail. There was nothing he could do to stop the tragedy already fated to happen.

It was too late… too late. He'd lost his best friend this time…

The woman with the older girl in her arms stumbled and fell. She climbed right back up and scooped up the girl, her braced legs flapping wildly as the woman ran. But one of the two remaining men stood less than thirty yards away, his rifle moving to target the woman and child. Vin, moving up to protect their rear, saw the man. Chris also knew that the sniper was aware of the second man, Dobson, who had exited his house and was now bringing up an old Colt revolver on the sniper.

The woman and child were in Larabee's line of fire and, as he sprinted for an opening, he saw the choice Vin had to make: Shoot the man aiming at the woman and girl or shoot the man aiming at the sniper himself.

Dropping his tranquilizer rifle, Vin drew his sidearm, dropping the man with the rifle. A split-second later Dobson fired.

Chris didn't see his friend fall as he took another step forward, his own sidearm drawn, and fired on Dobson. The man flew back and fell. Without hesitation, Larabee veered and charged to the fallen sniper. Dropping to his knees beside the man, Chris reached out to check where Vin had been shot. "Vin?" he said, slipping his hand behind the sniper's head to try and help him sit up, but as soon as his fingers touched the warm, sticky liquid that coated the man's hair he knew where the injury was. "Oh no," he managed before his throat tightened too much for words to escape.

With trembling hands he checked for a pulse and found it thready. Into the lip mike he barked, "I need an ambulance, now!"

"Chris, what's wrong?" Nathan's voice asked.

"Vin's been hit! Get over here – now!"

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

The bus rumbled down the road, carrying the women and children to safety, government officials riding along with them, taking statements. But Team Seven waited at the gate, listening to the wail of an ambulance growing louder in the dim pre-dawn light.

Nathan pressed a dressing over the back of Vin's skull, but he was too afraid to probe the wound to see if it had actually penetrated the man's skull. If the bullet had broken through the bone he didn't want to add any contamination.

The sniper panted in short, wheezing gasps, and his lips were slowly turning a frightening shade of blue.

"Come on," Nathan urged the ambulance softly under his breath. "Come on."

The vehicle arrived and two paramedics climbed out, jogging out to join them. In minutes they had Vin on a gurney and were rolling him to the rear of the ambulance and loading him inside. Chris climbed in the front, riding to the hospital with the injured man while the others ran back along the road to their van.

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

In the ambulance, Chris twisted around in his seat, watching the paramedic working over Vin, remorse rising in his throat like bile.

"Step on it, Mike," the medic called to his partner. "This guy's pulse is getting real erratic back here."

"What does that mean?" Larabee demanded.

"Don't know for sure," the driver said. "But he took a helluva blow to the head."

The medic with Vin slipped an oxygen mask over the sniper's mouth and started on another set of vital signs. Larabee scooted closer to the edge of his padded seat and leaned over so his mouth was as close to his friend's ear as possible. "Hang in there, Vin," he said. "You're gonna be just fine. You hear me? You just hang in there, damn it."

"I'm losing him, Mike!" the medic called.

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

At the hospital, Vin was rushed into an ER treatment room. Chris tried to follow, but he was stopped by a young nurse who was clearly intimidated by his uniform, black face, and weapons.

"I'm– I'm sorry, but you can't go in there," she said, then swallowed hard. "We need a clean environment."

"Get out of the way," Larabee said, his voice low and dangerous.

A short, older woman stepped in front of the major, her natural red hair liberally streaked with grey. "You're not going in there," she stated matter-of-factly, her jaw jutting out slightly and her head tilting slightly to the side.

Chris pulled up, her words surprising him. "Lady–"

"Doctor," she corrected, her grey eyes narrowing. "Now, you listen to me, young man," she said. "I'm going to go in there to treat that man. And you're going to go wait. Wait nice and quiet. Is that perfectly clear?"

"Chris," Buck said, walking up behind him and resting a hand lightly on his arm. "Let them do what they have to. They know what they're doing."

"I'd listen to him if I were you," the doctor said, turning away.

Larabee looked at Buck, his eyes pleading with him to let him disobey the doctor, but the ladies' man refused. Besides, there was no way they would get past the older woman. The brief image of her standing on a pioneer cabin porch, holding a shotgun to warn off outlaws, sprang into Buck's mind.

"There's, uh, a waiting room down that hall to your right," the young nurse said, her gaze locked on the weapons the team still carried.

The doctor stopped, her hand resting on the door to the treatment room. "I think these folks might be more comfortable in the physician's lounge, Stacy. Why don't you show them the way?"

"I want to know what's going on!" Chris called to her.

"As soon as we can," the physician agreed, then pushed through the door and was gone.

Chris and the others tromped down the hall behind the nurse to a small lounge, which was thankfully empty. When he dropped into one of the chairs the blond noticed that there were two orderlies standing out in the hallway, watching them. Great, just what we need, trouble from the locals.

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

In the treatment room doctor and several nurses moved around Vin in a flurry of activity. Two of the nurses worked to strip the sniper down while a technician positioned a portable x-ray machine over his head.

"Jesus, this guy's armed to the teeth!" one of the nurses exclaimed, hastily laying aside two sidearms and twice as many combat knives.

"Who do you think he is?" the other asked. "One of those militia guys?"

"It doesn't matter who he is," the doctor interrupted. "We just have to keep him alive."

"Doctor, he's going into V-tack…"

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

The steady beat of heavy footsteps captured the teams' attention and they stood as two police officers entered the lounge. The officers glanced nervously at the weapons lying on one of the sofas.

The older of the two officers said, "I'm afraid that we're going to have to ask you to turn over those weapons. And any others you might be carrying."

"No can do, officer," Chris replied, watching both men tense. "We have the necessary clearances to carry our weapons."

"Yeah? I'd like to see that, G.I. Joe," the younger officer snapped.

"Okay, look," Chris said, "I'm going to reach into my pocket and take out a badge and a business card."

"A business card?" the younger officer echoed.

"There's a name and a number there. You call it. The man at the other end will explain everything."

The older officer nodded, and Matt carefully reached into one of his shirt pockets and pulled out his ID and the card, which he handed over to the man. "You call that number. Talk to Orin Travis."

The officer's gaze flickered down to the card and back to Chris. "ATF? What are you doing here?"

"That's need to know, Sergeant…" Larabee checked the man's name tag. "Price."

"Let's just say that we have the highest possible clearance," JD added with a taunting smile.

"Ned, you stay here with these folks, I'll be right back," Sergeant Price said.

The younger officer nodded, but he didn't look very comfortable with the idea.

"Can I get you some coffee, Officer… Ames?" Ezra asked, nodding toward the machine in the corner of the room and smiling. The effect with his blacked out face was something akin to a shark's grin.

"Uh, no. No thanks," Ned replied, feeling his knees begin to shake.

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

Sergeant Price returned a few minutes later, his face red. "Ned, come on, let's go."


"Everything all right, Sergeant?" Buck asked, a suppressed smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

"I talked to this Travis guy, and he promptly got the city mayor and the sheriff on the line with me. They said to leave you people alone, so we're gonna leave you alone. But I think you ought t' take those weapons out of here. You're gonna scare the staff and the patients to death decked out like that."

"What would you recommend, Sergeant, that we lock them in the car?" Josiah asked, his tone half-amused, half-challenging.

"You could put them in the trunk of my unit," Price offered. "I'll take them back to the station and you guys can pick them up there."

Chris considered the offer for a moment and then nodded. "Buck, JD, round up the weapons and take them out of here. And bring in our gear from the van."

"Will do, Chris," JD said, heading for the rifles.

Buck grinned malevolently at the younger officer, enjoying the terror that flashed across his face, and then stepped over to help JD.

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

Buck and JD returned a few minutes later, the pilot carrying a nearly empty black deployment bag. Chris crossed to the men and took the bag, carrying it to one of the chairs and setting it down. Opening the main compartment, he fished out several towels, tossing them to the others so they could wipe most of the black face-paint off.

That done, they each stripped off their assault vests, Chris loading them back into the bag along with other gear they carried. When they were stripped down to their uniforms he zipped the bag closed and dropped it onto the floor beside the chair and sat down himself.

"Wish we'd hear something," Nathan complained softly, rubbing the back of his neck.

"It's only been a half-hour," Josiah replied from where he sat at one end of a sofa, his eyes closed as he tried to center himself and dispel the worry that gnawed through his guts.

His attempt to reassure the black man didn't work.

"At least we know he isn't dead," Buck added. "Hell, he's too damned hard-headed for it to be anything really serious."

The others smiled briefly, but worry quickly snuffed out the brief flash of humor.

"You think we ought to contact Nettie?" JD asked Larabee.

"No," Chris replied. "At least not until we have something concrete to tell her."

"Times like this, I'm really glad none of us have kids," JD replied, then shot Larabee an apologetic glance. "Ah hell, I'm sorry, Chris."

The blond nodded. "I know what you mean, JD. It's all right."

"I hear that," Buck echoed, nodding his agreement.

Josiah rubbed a hand over his eyes and asked, "What happened, Chris?"

"He had to make a choice," Larabee said softly. "Dobson and the last man came out of nowhere. The guy was aiming for the woman and the little girl with braces. Vin saw him. He saw Dobson, too, who was aiming for Vin."

"And in typical hero fashion, our intrepid sniper chose to save the woman and her daughter," Ezra summed up, and then sighed heavily. It wasn't fair.

Chris nodded.

"You got that right. The man's a genuine hero," Josiah said quietly.

"An annoying, stubborn, order-ignoring-pain-in-the-ass," Buck corrected with a sad smile, "but a hero nonetheless – most definitely."

"I couldn't get a clean shot at Dobson until he'd pulled the trigger," Larabee continued, his tone angry.

"That's not your fault, Chris," Josiah told him.

"Maybe not, but tell that to Vin."

"I'm sure he was well aware of the risk when he made the choice," Ezra added.

"He'll be fine," JD said firmly, but his eyes were bright.

Nathan nodded and forced a smile, echoing, "Yeah, he'll be fine."

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

Stripped down and cleaned up, Vin lay unmoving on a treatment table. A small rolling table next to the sniper's gurney was stacked high with bloody gauze squares.

The doctor took a step back and shook her head. "I'll go talk to his friends," she said.

One of the nurses still present nodded, her expression sympathetic. She was just glad it wasn't her who had to face the six men.

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

Chris paced across the doctor's lounge, then stopped, growling, "That's it, I'm going to go find out what the hell's going on."

JD spotted the doctor first and bounced off the sofa.

"What?" Larabee asked him.

"The doctor," he said, nodding.

The older woman glanced around the room, taking in the sight of six worried, anxious… commandos? Still in their black uniforms, their faces were at least wiped off, but still shadowed by black paint. But at least their weapons seemed to have disappeared – compliments of Charlie Price, no doubt.

She walked up to Chris and extended her hand. "I'm afraid I didn't have the chance to introduce myself earlier. I'm Maggie McDonnell," she said, "Mr. Tanner's doctor."

"How is he?" Larabee asked her, his concern obvious and genuine.

Maggie gestured to the sofa and sat down, waiting for the others to do the same before she explained, "Mr. Tanner sustained a glancing blow to the back of his head."

"Glancing?" Nathan echoed, his voice hopeful.

Dr. McDonnell nodded. "However, the force of the bullet that grazed him slammed him to the ground pretty hard. He has two good-sized knots on the back of his skull."

"But he'll be all right, right?" JD asked her.

"I think so, but we're going to monitor him closely for the next twenty-four hours, just in case there is any swelling."

Chris stood, saying, "We'd like to see h–"

"No," Maggie interrupted. "Not now."


"We think he's out of any immediate danger, but I want him quiet and resting for at least the next six to eight hours. So, why don't all of you go get cleaned up, eat some breakfast, and get some rest. You can check back with me around six tonight."

"But–" Chris began again.

"That's the best you're going to get," the doctor interrupted.

"Come on," Buck said, flashing Maggie an understanding smile. "Let's go get cleaned up and eat."

Larabee hesitated a moment, but then sighed and nodded. "Six o'clock?"

Maggie nodded. "Don't worry. He should be fine. We're just being careful."

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

Taking over a suite at one of the local hotels, Chris and the others quickly showered and changed into civilian clothes. Room service delivered their breakfasts, and the team ate while they watched the local news, which made no mention of their pre-dawn raid.

"…Members of Reverend Dobson's church were arrested after it was discovered that they were holding friends and family members in the New Eden Compound against their will. While attempting to arrest Reverend Dobson, he and his Deacon, Alfred Williamson, were killed by police. A spokesman for the sheriff's department stated that Dobson and Williamson were armed with illegal automatic weapons, and deputies were forced to shoot the two men in order to protect their lives and the lives of innocent bystanders. . . . Coming up next, a wily pig has locals guessing whose garden might be next on the porker's hit list…"

Chris poked the remote control at the smiling newscaster's face and pushed the power button. The screen blinked to black.

"Looks like the government's PR guys were on top of this one," Josiah said, shaking his head slightly.

"Don't know if the local sheriff's going to appreciate his people taking the blame," Nathan added.

"The press didn't play it up," Buck countered.

"Just made it sound like Dobson and his people were a bunch of crazies," JD said, adding, "which they were."

"No argument here," Buck stated, reaching for another buttermilk biscuit from the small basket.

"I think I'll give the hospital a call," Chris said, starting to stand.

Buck reached out and put a restraining hand on his arm, keeping him in his seat. "Dr. McDonnell said she'd call if there was anything to report," he said softly. "He'll be fine."

Chris flashed the ladies' man a half-angry, half-frustrated scowl, but Wilmington took it in stride, asking, "More pancakes?"

"No," Larabee snapped.

"Must've been a helluva choice," JD said quietly, staring at his plate. "I don't know if I could've done the same thing in his place."

"Knowing you're gonna get hit," Nathan added, shaking his head, "that's gotta be the worst. You know what you have to do, but you're just waiting to finally hear the bullet with your name on it."

"He didn't even think about it," Josiah said.

"What do you mean?" JD asked the older man.

Chris leaned back in his chair, waiting for his explanation as well.

"Vin's not the kind of man who thinks about what he should do. He knows what he has to do and he does it."

"And damn the consequences," Ezra added softly.

Josiah shrugged.

"It's what makes him a good sniper," Buck stated. "Hell, if I had to look a man in the eyes through a sniper-scope I don't know if I could off him. Not if he was just sitting down to supper."

"You could, if you had a reason," Chris countered.

"Vin had a reason, too," Josiah said. "He was keeping that woman and her daughter alive. Which is why he ignored the threat to himself," he told Larabee. "He knew he might die, but that wasn't as important as saving that woman and child… And that's why you're mad at him."

The others looked from Josiah to Chris, waiting for an explosion that never came.

After a moment Larabee grinned, then chuckled. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I was mad."

"Mad?" JD questioned.

"Hell, yes," the blond replied. "I had to watch one of my men, my friend, damn near get himself killed, and that pissed me off."

"Because…?" Buck asked him.

"Because I couldn't do anything to stop it. If I could've covered him, or stopped Dobson from firing–"

"You wanted to be in control, Chris," Josiah explained. "We all do. And this time Vin was. He got to decide what was going to happen, not you."

"And when he's out of that hospital bed I'm going to kick his ass for scaring me like that," Chris added teasingly.

"Now I'd like to see that," Buck said, chuckling.

"My money is on Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.

"What?" Chris cried.

The handsome dark-haired man grinned. "I've seen Mr. Tanner working out."

"And I haven't been?"

Ezra shrugged and Chris looked to the others. Buck held up his hands and shook his head. "Don't look at me!"

The rest of breakfast passed in companionable silence. And, when they were done, the team headed into their rooms to get some sleep.

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

Dr. Maggie McDonnell reached the information counter exactly thirty seconds ahead of the team. She smiled at the six men, adding, "Well, you clean up very nicely. I almost didn't recognize you."

"How's Vin doing?" Chris asked her.

"Fine, just fine. I don't think we have anything to worry about. If he remains stable, I think we can let him go home the day after tomorrow."

"That long?" Nathan asked her.

"We'd like to keep him for forty-eight hours, just to be safe."

"Can we see him?" Chris asked the physician, knowing his tone was more plaintive than he would have liked.

Maggie nodded. "He's in ICU, but that's just a precaution. I'm going that way myself, come on."

They rode the elevator to the third floor and followed Maggie to ICU. She pointed to Vin's room, saying, "One at a time, though."

Without hesitation Chris stalked down the hallway and entered the man's room. Inside, the sniper lay on a narrow bed, the head raised so he was almost sitting up. An IV dripped a clear fluid into the back of his hand, and wires attached him to at least two monitors.

"Hey, Cowboy," Vin said, his words slightly slurred.

"Hey, yourself," Chris replied, walking over to stand next to the bed. "How're you feeling?"

"Like somebody tried t' shove m' brains out m' ear," was the colorful reply.

"That bad?"

Vin grunted.

"Well, you'll be going home day after tomorrow – if you behave yourself and get well."

"Just a bump on m' head," he grumbled. "Hell, I've had worse." He closed his eyes and rolled his shoulders. "The woman–?"

"She and her daughter are fine. You got the guy before he got off the shot."

"Who shot me?"


Vin grinned. "I heard the news on the TV this morning. Thanks for takin' care 'a that."

"No problem," Larabee assured him, adding, "but next time you think you can find a little better cover?"

"I sure as hell plan on it," was the heartfelt reply. "Funny thing, it all happened so fast all I could see was you, looking like y' done bled t' death y' were so pale."

"Yeah, well, watching you get shot isn't my idea of a good time," he grumbled, reaching out to squeeze Vin's shoulder. "Gave me a bad scare. And believe me, you're goin' to pay for it."

"An' pay, 'n' pay," Vin mumbled, rolling his eyes.

Chris grinned. "Look, there's a few more people out there who'd like to say hello, you up to that? And you can say no."

"Sure, send 'em in," Vin said, his eyes blinking open again.

"Be right back," Chris said, then headed back into the hall. A young blonde woman stood with the others. She turned when Chris approached, her clear blue eyes filled with worry.

"Chris," Buck said, "this is Christine Allen. She's the woman who–"

"Christine," Larabee greeted her, immediately guessing who she was.

"I– I won't ask your names," she said. "I just wanted to say thank you."

Chris nodded.

"Do you think I…?"

Chris nodded again. "I think he'd like to meet you. How's your daughter?"

"Scared, but fine," the woman replied, a relieved smile lifting the corners of her lips.

"He's right in there," Chris said, pointing to Vin's open door.

She nodded and took several tentative steps toward the door before squaring her shoulders and striding into the room.

"Pretty lady," Buck said softly. "Wonder what she's doing for dinner?"

"She's had enough trauma in her life," Nathan teased, then looked at Chris. "How's he feel?"

"Like someone tried to shove his brains out his ear," Larabee relayed.

The other three cringed. "Ouch," JD summed up for the group.

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "But I think he's feeling a little better right about now."

"And you?" Josiah asked the man.

Chris grinned. "Me too, I'm feeling just fine. So, who's next?"


Author's Note: This story first appeared in the multi-media zine, Ouch! #15, 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 the multi-media zines that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Erica Michaels is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, and Lorin and Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 9-19-2005. Art by Shiloh (shigal13@excite.com).