The Tie That Binds
So much blood.
It soaked the discarded gauze pads, stained his clothing, and dried in rusty streaks under his fingernails and in the creases of his palms. The small, airless cellar reeked with the rich, coppery smell. Chris swallowed hard when his stomach responded with a slow roll. He closed his eyes and breathed through his mouth until the nausea passed.
Vin was out again; asleep, unconscious--Chris supposed it didn't much matter as long as he gained some respite from the pain. He'd held perfectly still while Chris attempted to clean the wound, and Chris had forced himself to be thorough despite the agony he felt thrumming in the rock-hard muscles under his hands.
"Go ahead and holler, you stubborn fool," he'd said, knowing full well Vin was holding back to spare his feelings. "Nobody's gonna hear you."
"'M fine." Vin's teeth were clenched, his hands knotted in the thin blanket.
The obstinate pain in the ass had hung on right up to the moment when Chris flushed the wound with peroxide. Even then he never uttered a sound, just jerked and sucked in a sharp breath before his eyes rolled back in his head and his body went limp. He'd been in and out ever since.
Chris leaned back against the post, fighting the urge to close his eyes. Though his head still throbbed and he was weary to the bone, he had no intention of falling asleep. If Vin needed him, he'd be there. And if by some miracle an opportunity to escape presented itself, he'd be ready.
He looked at Vin, marking the ragged rise and fall of his friend's chest, the bruised shadows beneath his eyes, and the translucent pallor of his skin. He didn't need to be Nathan to know the blood Vin expelled with each cough, coupled with his increasingly labored breathing, signaled serious internal injuries. Chris's throat tightened until he could barely swallow and a dull ache blossomed in his chest. His best friend was slipping away and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.
Vin moaned, his forehead creasing and his legs shifting restlessly. Eyes darted behind closed lids, his fingers twitched, and his respiration quickened to shallow pants.
Chris placed a hand on his friend's uninjured shoulder. "Easy, Cowboy. I've got your back."
Vin quieted, sinking into a deeper sleep. Amazed by the power inherent in that simple touch, Chris chose to scoot closer rather than break the connection. He understood the degree of trust Vin's response implied, and was humbled by it.
Chris recalled clearly the first time he'd witnessed Vin's skittishness with physical contact. Team 7 had completed their first successful bust with Vin as sharpshooter, and he'd more than proven himself, pulling their collective asses out of the fire with the deadly accuracy of his aim. While Vin had been helping Chris inventory the seized weapons, Buck had stopped by and gave him a congratulatory slap on the back.
It was just a flinch, the slightest recoil, but for an instant something that looked suspiciously like fear flashed in Vin's wide blue eyes. Then the walls came up, Vin was chuckling at Buck's bullshit, and Chris questioned whether he'd imagined it all.
Until the time he hooked an affectionate arm around Vin's shoulders and felt his friend stiffen. Once he began paying attention, Chris noticed Vin sidestepped most of the good-natured roughhousing common among the others. And though he enjoyed Friday nights at the Saloon as much as the rest of them, he always sat with his back to the wall where he could keep an eye on the room and avoid the bumping and jostling inevitable in such a crowded space.
Vin didn't like to be touched.
Chris had been in law enforcement long enough to form his own suspicions about the root of that discomfort. Late one night after the others headed home, he'd pulled Vin's personnel file and ran a little background check of his own that would've made J.D. proud. The results said nothing--and everything--about Vin's childhood. Orphaned at five. A string of foster homes. A habitual runaway living on the streets by the age of sixteen. Angry. Withdrawn. Loner. Nowhere were the words "child abuse" used, yet they lurked behind every painful description.
Nathan had fueled Chris's concern. He'd gotten a good look at Vin's medical file after the sharpshooter caught a stray bullet. The injury, thankfully, turned out to be a superficial graze, but routine x-rays revealed a number of healed breaks, and Nathan had glimpsed some disturbing scars while Vin was too woozy to keep up his guard.
After a long conversation with Josiah, Chris had decided against confronting Vin. Whatever may have happened in the past wasn't affecting his ability to perform his job. Unless that changed, Chris would leave Vin to decide just how much he wanted to share. And up until a few hours ago, that had been almost nothing.
That hadn't stopped Chris from beginning his own campaign to win Vin's trust. Not a particularly tactile person himself--especially since the death of his wife and son--Chris went out of his way to touch Vin. An encouraging pat to the back. An affectionate squeeze of the neck. A casual hand on the shoulder. Playfully ruffling his hair. And the firm forearm clasp that had become a signature for the carefully cultivated bond between them.
Chris shook his head. Ironic, really. He'd been so focused on breaching Vin's barriers he'd failed to notice how completely Vin had slipped past his own. Working side by side around the ranch, Sunday afternoons watching football, long rides into the hills... It felt as if he'd finally found his way to spring after wandering through unending winter. Somehow one long-haired, soft-spoken Texan had thawed the ice around his heart.
Vin licked his lips and cracked open his eyes. "Chris?"
"Right here." Chris leaned closer so that Vin could see him without effort. "How are you doing?"
Vin ran his tongue over his lips again. "Thirsty."
Chris grimaced at the froggy croak. "Vin..."
"Just...just one swallow."
He scowled but slipped a hand under Vin's neck and poured a little water into his mouth. Vin gulped greedily, and Chris felt like an ogre when he pulled the bottle away. The skin under his fingertips was too warm and there was a slight flush to Vin's pale cheeks. Wetting a towel, Chris bathed his friend's face and neck.
Vin was uncharacteristically passive under his hands, preoccupied with working for each breath. "Feels good."
"How's the pain?"
"Had worse." Vin evaded his gaze.
Translation: bad. Real bad.
Chris checked his watch. He'd given Vin a couple Tylenol before cleaning and bandaging the wound, but that was hours ago. Fishing some blister packs from the first aid kit, he eased Vin upright. "Here," he said, slipping three of the gel caps into his friend's mouth followed by a little more water.
Vin swallowed obediently, but clutched Chris's arm when he started to lay him down. "Want to...sit up."
Chris shook his head. "You're shocky, pard. Even if you could manage sitting up--and I don't think you can--it's only gonna make things worse."
He tried again and met the same resistance. "Damn it, Vin! Did you listen to a word I just--"
"'S eas...easier...to breathe."
Shit. Of course lying flat on his back would make it harder to pull in air. Chris touched the hand gripping his shirt. "Sorry. Wasn't thinking. Let's see what we can do."
Vin had lost ground in the last few hours. A dead weight, he was too weak to do more than hang on while Chris shifted him to lean against the support post. Unfortunately, the movement provoked a round of coughing that left Vin slumped in a semi-conscious tangle of limbs, fresh blood on his chin, the blanket, and Chris's shirt.
'Hurts," he panted in a raspy whisper. "Oh God, Chris...hurts."
"I know. Hang on." Chris's voice wavered and he blinked to clear his blurred vision. Vin never complained. He had to be in agony.
Slipping between Vin and the post, Chris pulled his friend's body against his chest. He wiped away the blood, pushing tangled hair back from Vin's sweaty face. "Just relax and breathe," he soothed, hoping Vin wouldn't notice how badly his hands shook.
"Trying." Vin rested his head on Chris's shoulder and sucked in air. Eventually his labored respiration steadied a bit. "Sorry."
"What the hell have you got to be sorry about?"
"Got us...into this. Shoulda...listened...you."
Chris snorted. "If anyone's at fault, it's me. I'm the one had his head up his ass concerning the boy. And I never should've let you talk to Sinclair alone."
"Not your fault. Knew he was...bastard...not a gun runner." Vin coughed and more blood bubbled from the corner of his mouth. He dug his fingers into Chris's arm and squeezed his eyes shut.
"No more talking." Chris wet the towel and stroked it across Vin's lips.
"Don't want you...blamin' yourself." Vin looked up at him with bleary eyes. "Promise me, Chris."
Chris's heart stuttered at the resignation in Vin's voice. "Nobody's gonna do any blaming. Now shut up and breathe while I figure how to get us out of here."
Vin was silent for so long that Chris wondered if he'd nodded off again. Despite his best efforts, he started to drift himself.
"Been a...helluva ride...Cowboy."
"Don't." He ground the word between clenched teeth, grief and rage lumped together like a rock in his stomach.
"Got things...need to be said."
"You can tell me later, over that steak I owe you."
"Save your breath, Vin."
The trap door rattled, then swung open, and Jonah crept down the steps. Pinned by Vin's limp body, Chris settled for a glare.
"Come to help? Or just watch?"
"I brought you some more water." Jonah shuffled a few steps away from the stairs and rolled three more bottles across the floor. "I w-wanted to s-see if you were okay."
"Do we look okay?"
Vin lifted his head, tightening his grip on Chris's arm. "Please."
That single, weak plea quenched Chris's anger, leaving only weariness in its place. "It's the middle of the night, kid. Why are you really here?"
Jonah bit his lip, his gaze settling on Vin. "I kept thinking... How...how did you know?"
Vin tensed, but his voice was gentle. "Been in your shoes...once."
Evidently not what Jonah expected. He widened his eyes and moved a little closer. "Y-your dad hit you?"
"Never knew my pa. Ma died...when I's just a little feller."
"Got passed around a lot. One foster home...things were bad."
Closing his eyes, Chris wondered how much horror lay hidden in that simple statement.
"He didn't always used to be this way." Jonah looked from Chris to Vin. "He had a t-temper, sure, but he never hit me. When my mom died..." He broke off and tears spilled down his cheeks. "He j-just misses her and I...I don't make it easy."
"Grief doesn't give you the right to beat the hell out of someone, Jonah. Especially not your own son."
Vin looked up at Chris, surprise and gratitude shining in his eyes. "He's right, kid."
Jonah scrubbed away the tears with the sleeve of his shirt. "He's all I've got. And he's still my dad. I-I owe him."
"Y' owe yerself. He ain't...gonna stop...'n y' can't fix 'im. Y' haveta...save yerself."
Chris frowned at the heavy drawl, more evidence of Vin's weakness.
Jonah shook his head. "I don't know how."
Vin sagged, his head dropping to Chris's shoulder as if too heavy to hold up. "Yeah. I think ya do." He coughed up more blood, his body trembling from the effort.
Backing away until he bumped into the steps, Jonah quickly turned and ran. "I gotta go."
"Jonah, please!" Chris called, hanging onto Vin.
The boy froze on the top step, and Chris could hear his ragged breathing. "I...I'll think about it." Then he was gone.
More coughing, and Vin moaned between each spasm. Chris wiped away tears and blood, rocking and murmuring encouragement until the attack finally passed. And Vin, the man who hated to be touched, leaned into the support, one hand clutching Chris's tee shirt and his face pressed into the hollow of Chris's throat.
"Can't," he gasped, shivering. "No more."
Resting his chin on Vin's head, Chris tightened his grip. "Yeah, you can," he said calmly, though it felt as if Vin's words had shattered something deep inside. "I'm here, Cowboy, and I'm gonna get you through this. Just...don't give up on me."
The warmth on his neck might have been blood or tears. Chris decided he'd rather not know which.
Gasp...catch...wheeze. Gasp...catch...wheeze. Gasp...catch...wheeze.
Chris shut his eyes, absorbing the rhythm of Vin's battle for air. The sounds were both gut-wrenching and reassuring. It hurt to hear his friend struggle so hard for each breath. On the other hand, every gasp, every wheeze, meant Vin was still breathing. And for that small favor Chris was desperately grateful.
I know I said I was finished with you, God. But I'll give you one more chance. Don't do this to me, to him. The way I see it, I've given up more than any ten men. Go collect your damn blood sacrifice somewhere else.
Chris twisted his lips into a sardonic smile. How long had it been since he first turned his back on God, declaring he had no use for him? Nothing, not even Josiah's Bible quotes, had been able to change his mind. Funny how a bullet in Vin's chest suddenly put Chris on speaking terms with the Almighty.
Or not so funny.
He could feel the familiar rage bubbling up inside. When would he learn? Once the paralyzing agony of losing Sarah and Adam had given way to a constant dull ache, he'd promised himself that he'd never endure another such loss. Walls firmly in place, he moved through each day in a protective cocoon. He had the job and he had the boys, and he made damn sure neither one penetrated the comfortable numbness surrounding his heart.
And then along came Vin Tanner. Aloof. Soft spoken. Fiercely independent. A tough, confident exterior hiding so much vulnerability beneath.
It was like looking in a mirror.
Chris had never had a friend like Vin. He loved Buck like a brother, but dear God, the man was work. Plowing through life, a whirlwind, sucking you into his boisterous, joyous existence. Buck burned bright, and that light had saved Chris during the dark days after Sarah and Adam's deaths. But that fire could be both exhilarating and exhausting.
If Buck was a whirlwind, then Vin was the eye of the storm. From the first, their connection had been instant, effortless. It didn't require words or gestures--in fact, was best felt in shared glances and companionable silences. Vin wasn't put off or intimidated by Chris's dark side; after all, he had his own demons to battle. Buck could bring Chris joy, but Vin...Vin brought him peace.
A moment passed before Chris's sluggish brain registered the deafening silence. He snapped open his eyes and looked down at his friend. Skin ashen, Vin lay utterly still.
"Vin!" Gripping his friend by the shoulders, Chris shook him, hard. "Don't you give up on me. You breathe, damn it! Breathe!" He punctuated the command with a sharp slap to Vin's pale cheek.
Vin's eyes flew open and he lunged upright. He pulled in a deep gulp of air and then coughed weakly. For long moments he choked and gasped, tears trickling down his face. Chris supported him as best he could, his own heart pounding wildly.
"The hell ya...do that for?" Vin sagged against him, shoving aside Chris's hand when he tried to wipe his face.
"Just thought it best you keep breathing. It'd be an awful nuisance to train a new sharpshooter."
"Got a helluva...bedside manner."
"Yeah, well, I already told you I'm no Nathan." Chris brought the towel back to Vin's face and this time Vin submitted.
"Nearly four. Should be light soon." Chris frowned at the bluish tint to Vin's lips. A surreptitious peek at his nails revealed more of the same. Cyanosis. Vin was slowly suffocating.
"Wish I...see the sunrise. Bet 's...real pretty here." The words were slow and slurred. Vin's eyelids drifted to half-mast.
"We'll catch the next one." Chris worked hard to keep his voice steady. "We can ride up to that spot on the ridge--the one where you can see for miles? We'll bring a thermos of coffee and some of those sugar-laden doughnuts you're so fond of and catch the show."
"Sounds like a plan." Vin's lips curved and his eyes slipped shut. "Just hate bein'...locked in. 'S the only thing he did...could make me cry." He grew heavier in Chris's arms. Only the shallow flutter under his hands reassured Chris that his friend still breathed.
He gritted his teeth and stared up at the ceiling. So Vin's fear of closed in spaces had darker roots. Looking back, he guessed he shouldn't be surprised. He thought about Vin's penchant for taking the stairs instead of the elevator. The way he got jittery whenever forced to attend a meeting in the small conference room without windows. And how he'd eventually convinced Vin that taking a Valium before he got on a plane wasn't a sign of weakness.
What had always troubled Chris wasn't Vin's claustrophobia itself, but the shamed, self-deprecating little smile he'd give whoever witnessed it. Amazing how since meeting Jonah so many things were becoming clear.
As if summoned, the trapdoor opened and Jonah slipped down the stairs, silent as a wraith. When several minutes passed and he showed no sign of speaking, Chris sighed.
"What do you want, son?"
Jonah shrugged, his gaze fixed on Vin. "Been thinking," he said. "Was wondering how he's doing."
Chris found he could no longer muster the energy to be angry. "He's dying, Jonah."
Jonah's lip quivered and his eyes filled with tears. "Been thinking... The p-police...w-what if they shot my d-dad?"
Chris's heart lurched but he kept a poker face. "The police will do everything they can to make sure no one gets hurt. It's their job."
"But people d-do get hurt! They get hurt all the t-time! Get killed, even." He tore his gaze from Vin and looked pleadingly at Chris. "He's all I've got."
Remaining calm took every shred of self-control Chris had left. Jonah was poised on the knife's edge. One wrong word, one hint of the Larabee temper, and Vin could lose what might be his only chance for survival.
"Jonah, do you know where your dad put my cell phone?"
Jonah went very still, narrowing his eyes. "Maybe."
How many times had he seen that same wary expression when something knocked Vin off balance? "Do you think you could get hold of it?"
"Maybe...yeah, probably, but I d-don't... He'll be getting up soon. I c-can't risk coming b-back here."
"You don't have to. Listen to me, Jonah. You take that phone somewhere you won't be overheard. Hit speed dial three and ask for Buck Wilmington. Tell him everything."
The little line between Jonah's eyes deepened. "Is he another agent?"
"Yeah, he is. But more important, he's a friend. He'll do the right thing, I promise." When Jonah still looked unconvinced, he added, "Please. Trust me."
Vin moved restlessly, mumbling gibberish. Chris rubbed a hand up and down one limp arm. "Shhh, easy, Cowboy. I'm right here."
When he looked up, the indecision had vanished from Jonah's face. He squared his shoulders and tipped up his chin. "I'll try."
He was halfway up the stairs before Chris found his tongue. "Jonah?"
The boy paused and peered down at him. "Yeah?"
"Watch your back, pard."
Jonah widened his eyes, one corner of his mouth turning up. "I will."
Chris leaned back and closed his eyes, hoping it wouldn't be too little, too late.
Last chance, God. Make it count.
Who the hell was calling at 4:30 in the morning? On a Saturday? Buck yanked the receiver to his ear while still trying to pry open his eyes. "This better be a matter of life and death unless you're a damn sight prettier than I am."
"Well? Cat got your tongue?"
Cursing under his breath, Buck tossed aside the phone and plumped his pillow. He'd barely closed his eyes when the piercing trill jerked him back from the cusp of sleep. Rolling over with a groan, he grabbed the phone off the floor.
Silence again, broken only by someone breathing. Finally a soft voice stuttered, "Is this B-buck W-wilmington?"
Shoot, it sounded like a kid, and a scared one to boot. Buck reined in his temper. "Last time I checked. Who's this?"
Was that supposed to mean something? "Well now, I don't exactly recollect knowing a Jonah. Mind refreshing my memory?"
"You d-don't know me. Agent Larabee said I c-could trust you."
Buck sat up straight, all his alarm bells ringing. "Chris Larabee? He told you to call me?"
"He said I could trust you," Jonah repeated.
Buck scrubbed a hand through his hair. Talking to this kid was like wading through molasses. "Is Chris there with you?"
"Not exactly? What the hell does that mean?"
"Don't yell at me! I'm t-trying to tell you."
This was why he didn't have kids. Though come to think of it, sometimes J.D. was a darn close substitution. Buck sucked in a deep breath and blew it out.
"Okay, okay. Take it easy. I just get a little riled when I'm worried about my friends. How about you tell me how you know Chris?"
"He and Agent Tanner c-came by my house t-to ask my dad some questions."
Buck frowned. "Wait a minute. Is your daddy Raymond Sinclair?"
"Yeah. They left, b-b-but then Agent Tanner c-c-came back and-and...something bad happened." Jonah's voice grew higher as he began speaking faster. "He sh-shouldn't have come in the b-barn. He saw the g-guns and...and my dad g-got angry, and wh-when he g-gets angry, he loses his t-temper. They started fighting and D-dad just... He... P-p-promise me you w-won't let anyone h-hurt my dad!"
Damn. This sounded bad.
"Jonah. Jonah!" Buck cut through the boy's panicked rambling. "Son, you've gotta calm down. I want you to tell me exactly what happened to Agent Larabee and Agent Tanner. Are they all right?" But he already knew the answer. If they were, Chris would be the one on the phone.
"Buck?" J.D. leaned in the bedroom doorway, rubbing his eyes. "What's going on?"
He waved him to silence. "Jonah?"
"M-my dad... He shot Agent Tanner." Jonah's voice cracked. "He...he's bleeding real bad."
Buck pinched the bridge of his nose. "Does your dad have 'em locked up somewhere?"
"The cellar under the b-barn. You gotta c-come quick or Agent Tanner might... I...I gotta go. Dad will get real m-mad if he finds out I c-called you."
Buck thought he'd lost the kid until he heard a shaky reply.
"You done a real brave thing calling me. Now I want you to promise me something."
"What?" Suspicion dripped from the word.
"I'm gonna be coming out there, and I'm gonna bring help. Now I'll do everything I can to see no one gets hurt. But I want you to find a place to hole up and don't come out until you hear me calling for you. Got it?"
Silence. "Agent Larabee said you'd d-do the right thing."
Buck swallowed the lump in his throat. "I'll try."
He stared at the phone for long minutes after Jonah disconnected, still hearing that wary, hopeful voice.
J.D. cleared his throat. "Ah...Buck? Just what in the heck is going on? Are Chris and Vin in trouble?"
He shook himself out of his daze. "I'll explain as soon as we round up the others. Get dressed and let's ride."
"What do you mean, we can't move in yet?" Buck scowled at Ezra. "The kid said Vin was hurt bad. Every minute we wait could put him closer to..." He glared through the trees at the farm a half-mile down the road and thought about the EMTs waiting a few miles back. "I ain't about to let Vin bleed out while we stand here with our heads up our asses!"
"And I share your deep concern for both our compatriots, I assure you. If you'd just calm yourself and listen for a moment I'll endeavor to explain why I believe we should proceed with caution."
"Let him speak, Buck," Josiah said.
Buck growled wordlessly, but waved Ezra onward. "Fine. But if ya cut a few of those ten-dollar words things might move along faster."
"It's quite simple, really," Ezra said, brushing an invisible piece of lint off his black shirt. "My reconnaissance uncovered a suspicious amount of activity at the Sinclair farmstead. There seems to be some sort of business transaction taking place, and from the appearance of the participants I doubt very much that it involves hay or wheat."
"He's right." Nathan slipped from the cover of some trees, his expression grim. "I don't know what's goin' on, but there's a truck parked out back of the barn with two fellas that look like hired muscle sittin' in it."
"The two gentlemen inside the barn, on the other hand, arrived in a Porsche." Ezra sniffed. "A Cayenne Turbo. Deplorable waste of money, if you ask me."
"Sure does sound like a deal going down," J.D. agreed. "But for what?"
"He saw the g-guns and...and my dad got angry..."
Buck sucked in a sharp breath. "Guns."
Four pairs of eyes bore into him.
Josiah raised an eyebrow. "Something you neglected to share, brother?"
"The kid--Jonah... He was pulling a J.D. at the time, talking a mile a minute, so I could hardly keep up, but... He said somethin' about Vin seeing guns. And that his dad got real angry because of it."
"That's it," Nathan said.
Ezra nodded. "I concur."
"'He was pulling a J.D.'? What the hell's that supposed to mean?" J.D. spluttered.
"Looks like Chris and Vin landed themselves in a world of trouble." Josiah said. "The question is, how do we get them out?"
"I can help."
Buck spun, reflexively reaching for his weapon. A lanky, dark-haired boy wearing ripped jeans emerged from a thicket of trees. His gaze darted to the men at Buck's back, then fixed on Buck's face.
His heart still hammering, Buck removed his hand from his gun. "Damn it, kid! Don't you know better than to sneak up on a group of armed men?"
Cringing, Jonah ducked his head. "S-sorry."
"Geez, Buck, jump all over him, why don't you?" J.D. shouldered past him. "I'm J.D. Don't let this guy scare you. We're all really glad you called us about Chris and Vin."
"It was indeed a bold move worthy of our gratitude," Ezra said, touching his fingers to the brim of a nonexistent hat.
"Where exactly was Vin shot?" Nathan moved closer. "Do you know the caliber of the gun? And has Chris been able to stop the bleeding?"
"Easy, Nate," Josiah murmured. "Give him a chance."
"This here is Nathan, our medic," Buck said, placing a restraining hand on the man's shoulder. "The big guy's Josiah, and Mr. Fancy Pants over there is Ezra." He walked to Jonah. "And as you've probably figured by now, I'm Buck, the jackass you spoke to on the phone. It's good to meet you, son."
Jonah studied Buck, biting his lip. "You p-promised my dad wouldn't g-get hurt."
Scrubbing a hand over his face, Buck grimaced. "I said I'd do my best, and I will." He narrowed his eyes. "If I remember correctly, I also told you to make yourself scarce until I had things under control."
"I want to help."
Buck laid a hand on the boy's shoulder. "You already have, Jonah. But now it's time for you to stay out of the way and let us do our jobs. Believe me, we know what we're doing."
Jonah shrugged free of his grip. "You were just s-saying you didn't know how to g-get your friends out. I heard you."
Buck opened his mouth and then snapped it shut, sending the others a silent plea for help. To his surprise, Ezra stepped forward.
"Don't underestimate the boy, Mr. Wilmington. I suspect he may possess knowledge that could be extremely crucial to our success or failure. For instance, he could perhaps enlighten us as to what exactly is going on inside that barn." He waved his hand over his shoulder, giving Jonah a slight nod of encouragement.
Jonah's gaze darted to the barn, and he winced. "He
m-made me p-p-promise never to t-tell."
"We know he's your daddy, son," Josiah rumbled, his voice low and soothing. "But I also think you realize that what he's doing is wrong."
"And the more we know goin' in, the better chance we have of makin' sure nobody else gets hurt," Nathan added.
"You said Vin saw some guns," Buck said. "Is that what this is all about?"
His chin tucked to his chest, Jonah nodded.
Buck glanced at the others, carefully choosing his next words. "Is your daddy buying, or selling?"
A long pause. "Selling," Jonah finally whispered. He turned wide, dark eyes on each of them. "He swore it's the last time! He...he's... Things have b-been real hard since my mom d-died. My dad...he drinks sometimes and the f-f-farm wasn't doing so well. The b-bank is gonna take it away. We'll lose everything. He n-n-needed the money for a n-new st-start for us."
Buck sighed and rubbed a hand along his jaw. He was beginning to see how Vin had landed himself--and Chris--in such a mess. Their tough-as-nails sharpshooter had a soft spot as big as Texas for troubled kids.
"It's all right, son. We're gonna handle this. J.D.'ll show you where you can wait in the van and--"
Jonah shook his head. "No! If you all bust in there carrying guns my dad's gonna get hurt. I can help. I can get them to come out. Then you can grab 'em."
"We can't place you in the line of fire. You need to wait where it's safe."
Jonah skittered away from Buck's outstretched hand. "No. I agreed to call you, but I didn't agree to let you get my dad killed!"
Buck's temper flared. "Now listen here, pard. You ain't the one runnin' this show, so you-- Hey! Jonah! Get back here!"
But Jonah was off and running, easily evading J.D.'s and Josiah's attempts to grab him. They had to turn back or risk being seen.
"Shit, shit, shit!" Buck paced back and forth, finally stopping to draw a calming breath. "Okay. Best we can hope for now is some damage control."
"We'd better decide quickly upon a course of action," Ezra said, "since it appears our young friend is determined to render aid--whether or not we want it."
"Nate and I will take care of the boys in the truck." Josiah clapped Nathan on the back, grinning when his friend glared in return.
"Fine. Ezra, J.D., you're with me. We'll get into position and hope the boy can deliver what he claims." Muttering under his breath, Buck followed the others as they collected their gear. "Damn fool kid is gonna get us all killed."
"Tell me...yer best day."
The breathy rasp startled Chris, pulling him from his dark brooding. Vin had been silent for so long, he'd feared the man had lapsed into a coma. He tilted his head to get a good look at Vin's face. "What?"
Vin blinked up at him. "What was...best day...ya ever had?"
Irrationally, anger sparked inside him. Damn fool was lying on the floor of a cellar, sounding like every breath could be his last, and he wanted stories?
"Need ya...to anchor me, Cowboy. Feels like...'m driftin' away."
The soft admission snuffed out Chris's anger, and he was horrified when his vision blurred with tears. That Vin, a man who worked so hard to be self-sufficient, would confess his fear, was both humbling and agonizing.
"Let me think on it a minute." He tipped his head back and blinked hard, already knowing his answer. "I guess that would have to be the day Adam was born."
Vin stiffened. "Chris, you don't have to--"
"It's okay." And he was amazed to realize it really was. He could do this, for Vin, and down deep maybe a part of him was grateful for the excuse. "If a man can't remember the best day of his life, what good is it?"
Vin didn't respond, but a little of the tension seeped out of his muscles.
"First thing you've got to understand about Sarah--she was as stubborn and pigheaded as...well...you." He grinned when Vin mustered a weak, one-fingered salute. "From the moment we found out she was pregnant, she fought all my attempts to get her to take it easy."
"Sounds like...real spitfire."
Chris laughed, shaking his head. "You have no idea. About three weeks before her due date, I came home to find her crawling around on the floor, putting together the crib. I guess you can imagine my reaction."
"Bet you'd've made...rattlesnake look cuddly."
"You've got a way with words, pard. I lit into her something fierce and she responded with both barrels. We were yammering at the top of our lungs when all of a sudden Sarah cut off mid-sentence and stared at me with this funny expression on her face." He chuffed. "Then I saw the puddle on the floor. Her water broke."
"Guess that...shut ya up."
"It turned me into every cliché of an expectant father. Sarah very calmly packed a bag for the hospital while I proceeded to run around like a chicken with its head cut off. She finally took away my keys and threatened to drive herself if I didn't get a grip."
Vin's chuckle turned into a gasp. His body went rigid and he dug his fingers into Chris's arm where it lay across his chest.
"Sorry. Oh God, Vin, I'm sorry." Chris rubbed Vin's arm, ran his fingers through Vin's hair, searching for something, anything, to ease the pain. Slowly his friend relaxed, except for the occasional tremor.
"'M okay." Vin's voice was little more than a wheeze. "Keep...keep talkin'."
"Sarah..." Chris cleared his throat when his voice wavered. "Sarah was one of the lucky ones. By the time we got to the hospital she was well into labor. Adam was born about three hours later."
Chris tipped his head back, absently stroking the hair from Vin's sweaty face. "I'll never forgot holding him in my arms that first time. He was so tiny, and so perfect, and I... I just thought... This is the best thing I've ever done in my whole mediocre life. I made a vow, right then, that I'd be there for him. That I'd..." Chris swallowed and closed his eyes against a hot rush of tears. "...I'd never let him down."
Vin squeezed his arm--this time in reassurance. "You didn't, Cowboy."
"Didn't I? The time he needed me the most, I wasn't there."
"They died alone, Vin! Alone and terrified, while I sat in my office sipping coffee and working on some damn meaningless report. So don't presume to tell me I'm wrong. You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
Vin's fingers threaded through Chris's in a crushing grip. "You weren't in that car. But you were here." He placed their joined hands over his heart. "They knew, Chris."
Chris choked out something between a laugh and a sob. "How can you possibly be certain of that?"
"'Cause I... I still feel her."
Chris angled his body so he could see Vin's face, noting the slight flush on his pale cheeks. "Your mother?"
His friend nodded. "Know it sounds...crazy. But whenever things...was at their worst...I always knew...she was there. Got me through...times I didn't think...could take another step." He blinked hazy eyes and his voice sounded almost dreamy. "She's real close...now."
Chris's stomach did a slow roll. "Yeah? Well you tell her to back off, pard. I'm not ready to hand you over just yet. You're a pain in the ass, but I've gotten used to having you around."
"Trying." Another blink and Vin's eyes stayed shut. "So tired."
"I know you are but-- Vin? Vin?" Chris shook his friend gently, but Vin was out cold again.
Chris hugged the limp body close, floundering against a wave of pure helplessness and despair. Swiping his eyes with his sleeve, he glared upward.
"You can't have him--you hear me? We--I--need him right here. You want to be his guardian angel? Then send us some help."
The words had hardly left his lips when Chris heard a distinctive pop, followed by several more in quick succession. He jerked upright, heart pounding as he strained to listen. Screeching tires, men shouting, and more gunfire.
Chris eased Vin to the ground and walked as close to the stairs as the chain allowed. Cupping his hands around his mouth, he yelled, "Help! Can anyone hear me? We're trapped down here! Help!"
He shouted until his voice cracked and became a wispy rasp. Grabbing a bottle of water, he took a long drink, hoping it would soothe his abused throat.
"Chris? Chris, you down there?"
The water bottled slipped from Chris's fingers, hitting the floor with a thud. "Buck?" His lips formed the word but at first no sound came out. "Buck?!"
"Chris!" Buck's voice radiated relief. "It's me, old son. Hold on; the kid's getting the key."
Kid? Jonah, Chris realized, a little shocked by the confirmation that the boy had come through. "Buck we need an ambulance! Vin was shot. You've got to hurry."
"Nathan's right here, practically foamin' at the mouth, and EMTs are standing by. Hang in there, pard."
Chris's knees were weak and his legs trembled with delayed reaction. He staggered over to Vin, dropping onto the floor. "Hear that, Cowboy? Help's on the--"
He trailed off, staring. Vin's lips no longer had a bluish cast--they were blue. Chris placed a hand over his friend's still chest, then his parted lips. Nothing, not a whisper of air.
"NO! Damn it, Vin, don't do this to me!"
With shaking hands, Chris tipped Vin's head back, checked his airway, and began CPR. A corner of his brain heard the trap door bang open and the thunder of descending footsteps, but he ignored it.
One, two, three. Breathe. One, two, three. Breathe.
"Chris? Oh, God, no." Buck clasped his shoulder, but he shook it off, leaning over to deliver another puff of air past Vin's slack lips.
One, two, three. Breathe. One, two, three. Breathe.
"Chris. Chris, paramedics are here. Let 'em in, now." Nathan, his tone as smooth as honey, his large, dark hands moving Chris gently aside.
Chris didn't see the healer exchange a pointed glance with Buck as his friend fumbled the chain off his ankle. He couldn't take his eyes off Vin as the EMTs called out vital signs, started an I.V., and inserted a tube down his friend's throat.
"Sucking chest wound, right quadrant. B.P.'s 40 over 30 palp; pulse 130 and thready."
"Chris." Buck again. "Let's get out of their way, all right?"
Chris resisted briefly, then allowed himself to be guided to the steps. He submitted to Nathan's cursory exam of the knot on his head, letting the man's fussing flow past him without bothering to decipher the words.
The EMTs had Vin on a gurney now, his face a lifeless mask. "We're taking him to Denver General," one tossed over his shoulder as they clattered toward the stairs.
"Got room for me?" Nathan asked. When they nodded, he turned to Buck. "Get Chris to the E.R. The head wound's superficial but he should have a CT scan just to be safe." He waited for a nod from Buck, then raced after the paramedics.
Buck slipped an arm around Chris's shoulders. "He's in good hands now, pard. You done your best."
Chris stared at the dark puddle on the dirt floor and wondered if his best would be enough.
"Someone should talk to him."
"He's sittin' right over there. Be my guest."
"Unless I'm mistaken, I believe you are the someone he has in mind."
"You're one of his oldest friends."
"What's your point?"
"He'll listen to you."
An indelicate snort. "When pigs fly."
"You must admit you and our esteemed leader share a great deal of history. Surely that gives you some leverage?"
"I'll tell you what it gives me. It gives me the smarts to know that when Chris Larabee digs in his heels ain't nobody gonna make him move. The man's got more pure cussedness in his little finger than most do in their whole body."
Chris lifted his head from the cradle of his hands and glared at the men. "I tell you what else he's got--ears. You three can't whisper for shit."
Buck stood and sauntered over, J.D. and Ezra on his heels. "Well, hell, pard. We'll just bring our little parlay to you--you bein' the key topic of conversation."
"Mighty considerate of you."
"No." Chris glared at J.D. and Ezra. "And before you open your mouths, no to you too."
"Nathan worries like an old woman. I've been knocked on the head enough times to know when it's serious--it's not." Chris stared at the door to the trauma room. He could just make out a flurry of activity through the small pane of glass.
"Chris, you're...um..." J.D. took in the nervous glances of the other waiting room occupants. "Your clothes are covered in blood."
He snapped his head around. "Were you listening to Nathan? Vin's heart stopped twice on the way here. Why the fuck should I care about clothes?"
"Perhaps because they make you look like a deranged serial killer to the other occupants of this waiting room. A misconception your current behavior does little to disabuse," Ezra murmured.
"Translation: You're scaring the hell outta everyone," Buck added.
"I understood what he said."
"Then stop being a jackass to the people who just want to help you."
Anger flared white-hot inside Chris, quickly dying when he read the affection underlying Buck's rebuke. He ran his fingertips over the rusty blotches splattering his tee shirt and pants, and suddenly he was back in the cellar, feeling the warm stickiness of Vin's blood against his skin, hearing each ragged gasp for air, smelling the rich, coppery odor. He squeezed his eyes shut. He could still taste the metallic tang on his lips.
Warmth covered his knee and Chris opened his eyes to Buck's compassionate gaze. "You're running on fumes, pard. You need a shower, a hot meal, and at least four hours of sleep."
"I'm not going anywhere until I know he's going to be all right." The words came out harsher than he'd intended, and he gentled his tone. "I'm wearing his blood, Buck. I've breathed my own life into his body. Do you really think I could leave him now?"
Buck looked away, working his jaw. "You've got to be the most pigheaded bastard God put on this planet. But you sure do have your moments."
"He'll be all right." J.D. made the pronouncement with the naive certainty that alternately amused Chris and drove him nuts.
Ezra slid into the chair beside him. "Our Mr. Tanner is nothing if not tenacious. Though his situation is grim, I have the utmost confidence he'll eventually be restored to us in perfect health."
"Damn, Ezra, why couldn't you just say he's too stubborn to die?" Buck slapped Chris's leg and stood.
The doors to the trauma room burst open and Vin was wheeled out, a variety of medical personnel clustered around the gurney. Chris caught a quick glimpse of his friend's chalk-white face and a tangle of tubes and wires before he disappeared into an elevator.
Nathan halted Chris's attempt to follow with a hand to the center of his chest. "Let 'em go, Chris. They're taking him up to surgery."
"How is he?"
Nathan shook his head. "It's not good. The bullet clipped a piece of his lung. Between that and a chest cavity full of blood, his lung collapsed and he went into full respiratory arrest. They got him on a ventilator; right now he can't breathe for himself. They need to remove the bullet, repair the lung, and suture the chest tube in place."
Chris swallowed, his mouth desert dry. "Nathan is he, ah...is he going to make it?"
"I can't answer that. Dr. Callaway's one of the best cardio-pulmonary surgeons in the state, but Vin lost a lot of blood and he's real weak. He may not make it through surgery, and even if he does, infection could kill him."
"You're acting like he's already dead," J.D. said, arms folded across his chest. "Vin's tough; he's a fighter. He needs us to believe in him, not write him off as a lost cause."
Nathan rounded on the boy. "Did I say I was giving up? I want Vin to make it just as much as you do, but wishin' ain't gonna make it so. This is the real world, J.D., and in the real world folks die from injuries a lot less severe than Vin's. All we can do is wait. And pray." He looked around. "Speaking of prayer--where's Josiah?"
"He took the kid over to Sherry in DCFS. Said he'd come by as soon as the boy was settled," Buck said.
Nathan frowned at Chris. "You get that head wound looked at?"
"Chris, how many times I got to tell ya, a blow to the head is nothin' to mess with! You could wind up--"
"What is it about 'I'm fine' that you all find impossible to understand? I've got a headache--that's all. I'm not the one bleeding into my chest. I'm not the one who can't breathe on his own. I'm not the one who might... Shit!" Chris stalked across the room and out the automatic doors until he was standing in the ambulance bay, breathing hard.
Damn it, Vin, don't you die on me. You die on me and I'll never forgive you.
The door whirred softly and a moment later he felt Buck at his back. His lips curved in spite of his grief. That was right where Buck always stood, through thick and thin, good times and bad. Chris had grown to more than just expect it. He depended on it.
They stood in silence for a long time. Chris turned his face into the sun, letting the breeze ruffled his hair. He thought about Vin's passion for the outdoors, the way his whole face lit up when he rode Peso into the hills or hiked a particularly difficult trail or watched a sunrise. It hurt to know that passion had roots in a dark closet. That his empathy for the street kids in Purgatorio sprang from a childhood of loneliness and despair.
"How can anyone hurt a child?" He hadn't really intended to put voice to the thought, and it hung there, oddly, in the silence.
If he was puzzled by the question, Buck didn't comment. He shuffled his feet and sighed. "Guess it all depends. Some are just pure evil, no two ways about it. Some, well, I guess they're so full of pain themselves it just spills onto others."
"It's a crazy, messed-up world when a son of a bitch like Raymond Sinclair is given a gutsy kid like Jonah." And my son is taken away.
Buck's gaze was sharp, as if he'd heard Chris's thoughts. "Way I figure it, we each touch a lot of souls during our lifetime. Don't have to be kin for it to be something special. Jonah, Vin--just 'cause Adam's gone, Chris, don't mean you haven't made a difference."
Chris swallowed against the tightness in his throat. "You've got to be the most pigheaded bastard God put on this planet. But you sure do have your moments."
Buck's grin was as warm as the sunshine beating down on Chris's head. "Second-most pigheaded. But who's counting?" He gripped the back of Chris's neck. "Now let's get to work on that list I mentioned earlier."
It took Chris's weary brain a moment to process Buck's words. "I already told you--I'm not going anywhere until I know Vin's going to be all right."
"I'm not askin' you to. Ezra's picking up some food, J.D. went to get you clean clothes, and Nate arranged for you to shower and grab a few winks in the doctor's lounge."
"He's gonna be in surgery for hours, pard. It's after that he'll need you. You ain't gonna be any good to him covered in blood and about to keel over from exhaustion."
He couldn't argue with Buck's logic, and he was too tired to try. Truth was, it felt damn good to let go and allow someone else to run the show for a while. Chris let the tension flow from his shoulders, nodding. "All right. You win."
Buck guided him back through the sliding doors. "Not bad for the second-most pigheaded bastard on the planet."
Chris hated the ICU. Everything was washed of sound and color, from the muffled whisper of the respirator and the nurses' crepe soles to the sterile white walls and Vin's too pale face. The chair was too hard, the lights too bright, and the clear-walled cubicle left him feeling as exposed as a bug under glass.
He sighed and curled his fingers more firmly around the warm, limp hand. Vin, at least, was oblivious to his surroundings. Dr. Callaway was keeping him sedated, giving his body time to rest and regroup until he could grow strong enough to breathe on his own.
Listing his condition as critical, Callaway had warned Chris that Vin surviving the surgery was only a first step; he faced a long and uncertain road to recovery. Though they'd successfully removed the bullet and re-inflated his right lung, the chest tube was still producing bloody drainage and he was showing the beginnings of a serious infection.
"Hey, Mr. Larabee."
Cara, Vin's night nurse, hung a fresh unit of blood, discarding the empty bag. Tugging his chart from a pocket on the end of the bed, she recorded Vin's pulse and respiration, examined the chest tube and catheter outputs, and checked his temperature with an aural thermometer, her touch efficient but gentle.
Chris sat up straighter when he saw a line form between her brows. "How's he doing?"
"He's holding his own."
Chris scowled at the vague answer. "Cara."
She hugged the clipboard to her chest, the dimples in her cheeks betraying her attempt to look stern. "Mr. Larabee, we've been over this. I'm Vin's nurse; Dr. Callaway will update you on--"
She blew out a long puff of air. "You must be hell to work for."
He grinned, but it slid quickly off his face. "Please, level with me--and call me Chris."
Cara smoothed a lock of hair off Vin's forehead. "He's doing better than we expected, but not as well as we'd hoped."
"You're a cop, Chris. You know how serious a gunshot wound like Vin's would be even if he'd been rushed immediately to the hospital. But delay treatment for almost 18 hours, and add to that the filthy conditions... "
"But you're giving him those high-powered antibiotics." Chris tilted his head toward the I.V. line. "Won't that take care of the infection?"
She nodded. "It's just taking some time to find the right drug," she explained. "The problem is that in his weakened state, Vin doesn't have the reserves he needs to heal and combat an infection." She replaced the chart and brushed her hand against Chris's arm. "He's a fighter, that's obvious, or he never would have made it this far. Have faith."
Chris watched, bemused, as she returned to the nurses' desk. Have faith. Cara had no idea he'd lost his faith in a fiery explosion over four years ago. If faith was what it took to bring Vin back, well, Chris was the wrong man for the job.
Somehow, when Vin slipped so effortlessly into Chris's world, faith crept in behind him. And had been making itself more at home with every passing day. Faith in his teammates--allowing them to be a part of his life, not just as coworkers, but trusted friends. Faith in Vin--allowing him into a heart he'd vowed would remain closed forever. And faith in himself--that he deserved to receive love and happiness. And that he was capable of giving both in return.
And now here he was, struggling to remain standing while once again the ground crumbled from beneath his feet. All faith seemed to do was screw him over every chance it got.
Chris stood and leaned on the bedrail, touching the backs of his fingers to Vin's cheek and frowning at the heat. Vin's normally bronzed skin was so pale Chris could see the tracery of fine blue veins, and there were bruised crescents beneath his eyes. His only movement was the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest as the ventilator pumped oxygen in and out of his lungs. He looked like a battered wind-up toy, not the strong, vibrant man Chris considered his closest friend.
A cup of coffee floated into his line of vision. Startled, Chris looked into Josiah's smiling face.
"That pretty little nurse said we could each have five minutes." He placed the cup into one of Chris's hands and a sandwich into the other. "Thought you could do with a bit of sustenance."
"Thanks." Sipping the hot liquid, Chris set the food on the tray table.
Josiah moved to the opposite side of the bed. Chris watched as he placed a large hand on Vin's forehead and closed his eyes.
"I hope He hears you."
Opening his eyes, Josiah quirked an eyebrow. "He hears all of us, Chris. I don't have a corner on the market."
"If that's true, then He's not paying attention to what I've got to say." He shook his head. "Or He just doesn't like me very much."
"And what exactly gives you that idea?"
Chris scowled, irritated that Josiah was being deliberately obtuse. "He took everything from me, Preacher. Everything that mattered. There were days I couldn't find reason to draw another breath, let alone get out of bed. He took them, but He wouldn't take me."
"You wanted Him to."
The quiet words cut deep. Chris recalled the endless nights spent in a bottle, the days of reckless, risk-taking behavior. He couldn't bring himself to take his own life. But he'd done everything to insure something else would.
"Yeah. I guess I did." He looked at the still form in the bed. "When I read Vin's file, saw the way life had knocked him down again and again... Guess I figured if he could keep standing and dusting himself off, then so could I."
Chris paced to the window and stared at the twinkling city lights. "And now here I am, back on the floor again. And I'm damn tired of being God's punching bag, Josiah."
"Chris... Have you ever considered maybe you're the one who's not paying attention?"
Chris narrowed his eyes but Josiah held up a hand before he could speak.
"I don't presume to understand why God allows terrible things to happen to good people." Josiah smiled. "Guess if I did, I'd be God. But I do know that sometimes it's the pain in our lives that's the strongest tie binding us together. If you hadn't lost Sarah and Adam, do you honestly think you'd have gained what you have with Vin?"
Chris opened his mouth to argue, but found he couldn't. Shared loss had drawn him to Vin, an understanding that went beyond words. It bound them together in a friendship deeper than any he'd ever known.
"He's better off for knowing you, Chris," Josiah said, coming to stand beside him. "And so are you. You said you were asking God for a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Don't you think maybe He was listening after all?"
Chris's eyes burned. "And if in His infinite wisdom He sees fit to take Vin?"
"Then I guess you just keep listening." Josiah squeezed his shoulder and walked to the door, pausing. "That's where the faith comes in."
Chris folded into the chair and watched Vin sleep. Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to hold onto faith. He just wasn't sure he had any left.