AUTHOR - TJ
FEEDBACK - Yes, please! - MajesticAU@Yahoo.com
RATING - General... Except for a little language, I believe it's suitable for all readers
WARNING - As noted above, just an occasional bad word or two. Sorry, but boys will be boys!
PAIRING - As I'm trying to base this AU on 'series' canon as much as possible, my intention for the characters is purely heterosexual. Nathan and Rain being married is a good example. As such, and for this story anyway, I'm not exactly pairing anyone up and I'm not doing anything descriptive, so it's safe for all readers.
UNIVERSE - 'The Majestic' Alternate Universe
As much as is plausible, I've tried to incorporate plenty of series canon into this Alternate Universe. As with all new AU's though, twists are necessary.
(Please Note: This will be a closed AU only until I can get all of the introductory stories posted. After that, and if you are so inclined, you'll be able to join in.)
SERIES - Welcome to The Majestic
PREVIOUS STORIES - Nope! This is the beginning...
SPOILERS - As this is the beginning, there are none. However, if you're planning on consulting the Majestic AU Bible, be warned, there are spoilers for this story contained in the character bios provided at Page 2. It might be suggested that you learn more about the boys, only after finishing this read.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS - As previously mentioned, I have done my best to incorporate plenty of 'series' canon into this Alternate Universe. The Magnificent Seven fandom however, would not be the same without Mog's brilliant 'ATF AU' as well. These are the original, and the most popular depictions of our boys, and as I have utilized them as the basic building blocks for my characterizations, I gratefully acknowledge the creators of these two canon 'concepts'.
I would also like to take this opportunity to send along a very big Thank You! to Nancy. Without her patience and dedication, the staging of these AU pages wouldn't appear anywhere near as professional as it does. Making my vision a reality is all her doing.
To Joy and Gina, and the rest of the Blackraptor team, a big thank you, too. You all make this possible and let's face it... our lives just wouldn't be the same without a place to play.
Many thanks once again, to Antoinette, for her keen and critical eye. Your beta was excellent, as usual, and the questions you posed helped make the story that much better.
And to my second beta, Marnie... Lady, your help is always thought provoking, mostly relevant, and usually entertaining as hell. I'll never say never, but maybe, one day, I may see the world as you do. Until then, keep up the terrific work. You keep trying and I'll keep smiling. It is laughter after all, that makes the world go round...
ARCHIVE - Yes, but ask first please
SUMMARY - There are some people in this world who experience more than their fair share of ups and downs in life. For one man, the last few years have been a roller coaster existence, but he's about to come to a fork in the road. Deciding which path to follow could mean the difference between finally finding peace, and continued turmoil.
DISCLAIMER - If only wishes did come true... Reality is harsh
John Watson and CBS own The Magnificent Seven and all of its characters.
I seek, nor shall receive, profit from this narrative.
I claim All Original Characters as my own.
Please, do not use them without my express permission.
WRITER'S NOTES - An introduction to this AU can be found in the Majestic AU Bible. However, as indicated above, unless you like spoilers, consult ONLY Page 1 before reading this story. Character information for our Seven, as well as the mentioned spoilers, is contained on Page 2. The 'other' character bios will be on Page 3, but there are a lot of spoilers for particular individuals and story arcs in that one, so I'll add it at a later date.
In stories of all types, there is often a very fine line between fact and fiction. Obviously, there is a great deal of fiction in this story. The foundation however, is deeply seated in fact. It is my hope that the blend proves both entertaining and intriguing.
"Thank you for coming, Mr. Larabee," Sylvester Newel said as he entered his office and extended a greeting.
Waiting in one of two large black comfy chairs, Chris stood and politely shook hands, all the while trying to ignore the fact that he really didn't want to be here. He was tired and anxious. His long journey had been made against his better judgment, and the sudden remembrance of his contempt for this man wasn't helping the situation much either... but here he was just the same.
For weeks, the insistent invitations had kept coming. Eventually, Larabee had decided to accept, justifying his decision with the idea that it wasn't Newel's fault who he worked for. As he sat back down, Chris tried hard to keep this fact in mind. He had also recognized, despite the present circumstances, that his long-standing grudge against the man's client might actually have waned a little with the passage of time.
And time was supposed to 'heal all wounds', right?
Feelings of resentment were still there however and Chris was still unsure if he could truly forgive. He did know he was starting to forget though and that idea scared the hell out of him. Three years was a long time, and yet, being here again was obviously bringing back some unwanted memories...
Now seated behind his large desk, the lawyer was shuffling papers. Chris watched through narrowed eyes, wondering for the hundredth time why he'd been summoned.
Newel was all work. He reminded Larabee of a peacock, all dressed up in his fine tailored suit. Past meetings had certainly proven the man could strut, and the fancy décor littering his office only added proof to the claim. Such a contrast from the badly maintained apartment building Larabee now lived in...
Blinking away his momentary lapse in concentration, Larabee's impatience grew as his questions gradually returned. What was going on anyway? Why was he really here? The entire trip he'd had nothing to do but wonder about the motivations behind the unrelenting requests. Finally, Chris just had to know, "What's this all about, Newel?"
Glancing up at his guest, Sylvester did his best to be cordial as he smiled and set his paperwork down. "You got my letter, Mr. Larabee?"
"All of them... And the plane tickets," Chris added pithily. "Which explains how I got here... but not the why." Sitting forward over his knees, he eyed the man suspiciously. "I'm also real curious as to why the travel documents were only good for one-way fare."
"Ah, yes, well..." Newel stuttered uneasily. He was quickly being reminded of the fact that his visitor didn't like him very much. Clearly, pleasant conversation wasn't going to change this particular detail, so he decided he'd better come straight to his point. "As you may remember, Mr. Larabee, this office has represented the Connelly family for several generations..."
"I thought that was all dealt with," Chris interrupted rather indignantly. The memories assaulting him this time were angry resentful ones, which came across clearly in his tone. "Hank wanted his little girl back and I sure as hell wasn't in any position to argue. What's he want now... the few things I have left?"
Rolling his shoulders against the gruff accusation, Sylvester shook his head as he continued, trying to remain calm. "I am once again representing your father-in-law, Mr. Larabee, but Hank Connelly doesn't want anything anymore. He... He's dead."
To say he was taken aback would be putting it mildly. Chris Larabee had never liked being put in his place. He bore the ultimate 'take charge' personality and it was perhaps exactly this fact which had put him at odds with Hank Connelly in the first place. He had resented the man almost from the first time they'd met, and that had continued even after they'd become kin. In the end though, he'd come to hate Hank as well.
Three years ago they were two men caught in the most horrible of circumstances. Fighting over a woman who deserved their memories of love, not their growing hatred for one another. Looking into Sylvester Newel's eyes, acknowledging such unexpected news, Chris was finally forced to admit that the severity of those feelings had indeed lessened over time.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Sarah Elizabeth Connelly was such a beauty. She'd caught Larabee's eye from the very moment he'd walked into the main greeting hall of Hank's resort ten years before. Chris was there with three friends, out doing what he loved, but rarely got the chance to do. Having such a stressful and outrageous schedule did that to a man. But such was the life of a senior FEMA agent and he did love his job as much as he enjoyed his time away.
Where the hell Buck got the idea to come to Canada, Chris was never sure. The two men had been friends since high school and followed that by joining the service together. A few years later, they'd managed two tours on the same SEAL team. Bottom line was... if he could trust Wilmington with his life, he could trust him to plan a vacation... couldn't he?
Eight hours, two plane connections and a bumpy four-wheeled adventure later, Larabee and his friends found themselves staring at a Canadian Bush-Pilot standing on the edge of a lake in the middle of nowhere. Glancing beyond the stranger, his eyes narrowed as he spotted the means of transportation waiting to take them to their final destination. "You are kidding me, right, Buck?" he glared at the six-foot-three frame smiling down at him.
Settling his backpack to the ground, Wilmington pursed his lips as he spied his boss and best friend. "Don't you go aimin' them eyes at me, partner. You said you wanted to be where no one could find us. Like I said before, I found such a place, and you agreed to come. Remember?"
"I don't think he meant the ends of the earth, Buck," Jake Percell added his two cents. Working closely with Larabee and Wilmington for more than two years, he'd gained a good perspective on their relationship and felt safe contributing his thoughts.
"I... don't think he meant our destination," Warren Beach pondered aloud. Climbing out of their vehicle last, the junior agent had been fumbling with his own backpack before finally turning around. He was now staring at the same plane he assumed Chris was questioning, although his eyes eventually wandered back to Buck.
"Ah, you're all a bunch of wusses," Wilmington huffed, but before he could say another word, their four-by-four transportation interrupted the conversation by starting and then revving its engine. The truck then did a rather awkward u-turn before peeling off back down the trail they'd come in on.
As the loud engine faded into the distance, an unfamiliar voice drew everyone's attention. "You boys plannin' on comin' with me, or... were ya ponderin' the joys 'a keepin' company in my old shack until Dwayne comes back for ya in a week?"
All four men had turned to face the well-worn dirt path they'd arrived on. As this voice beckoned them though, they quickly did an about-face, finding themselves staring into the blue eyes of a rough, yet worldly looking man.
At thirty-two years old, Larabee stood an even six foot in height and had a lean but athletic build. He figured their bush pilot matched him in size and strength but having a full beard, Chris wasn't sure about his age. "Been doing this long, Mr....?"
"Potter," the man answered as he extended a hand to shake. "Toby Potter, but most folks around these parts call me True."
"There are other people up here?" Chris asked teasingly and then smiled his apology.
"Interestin' name," Buck said as he took up the hand his best friend had just finished shaking.
"Got a good meaning, too, I suppose?" Warren asked as he took his turn.
Greeting the last of his four patrons, Potter cocked his head as a hand played in his whiskers. "My wife, Gloria, she works at the resort you're goin' to... She gave me the name the first time I came home to her."
"Sounds like a story in itself."
Chuckling right along with the youngest of his new group, the pilot continued. "Suppose. Was one hell of a storm, too, but I did manage to find a place, God knows where, ta set my plane down. Two days later, long after they all thought I was dead and gone, I flew old 'Margie' back ta Gloria and damned if that stubborn woman hasn't called me True ever since. Says my bones know True North without even lookin' and I'll always find my way home to her."
"Sounds like a damn fine woman if you ask me," Buck grinned mischievously.
Knowing directions wasn't the only thing Potter could do without looking and he quickly sized up at least one of the new clients. "She is... and she's taken. So don't you go gettin' no fool-hearty ideas whilst you're out there in the middle of nowhere."
Understanding his warning, Buck smiled his acknowledgment. He was suitably put in his place until another thought suddenly occurred to him. "There are other women where we're goin', right?"
It was Jake who quickly interjected, picking up his backpack and stepping between Wilmington and Potter. "Well, I don't know about you three, but True sounds like a pilot who can get us where we are going. Wherever that is...."
"Anyone else coming?" Warren concurred as he, too, slung his pack. He knew a cue when he heard one and the last thing he really wanted to do was listen to Larabee giving Wilmington another lecture about where his mind spent far too much time.
Trying to ignore his companions and retrieving his own gear, Buck looked over his shoulder and raised a questioning brow for his best friend to see. "Well, Chris? You trusted me this far, now you can trust True and 'Margie' the rest of the way."
"Margie is the plane, right?" Larabee was asking as he gathered his things...
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
'Margie' was the plane and Toby Potter was True to the very end.
A little more than six years after that first faithful meeting, he had done everything in his power to get his aircraft home one last time. Being incapacitated the way the plane was though, there was only so much Potter could do. Sadly, it just wasn't enough.
In both countries, the FAA cleared Toby Potter of any wrongdoing... his mechanic, too. It was definitely sabotage they concluded, but who the saboteur was, no one had ever found out. Not that Chris hadn't tried to find the bastard mind you. He'd hoped and wished and prayed at first, but finally, he'd had to accept the fact that the same plane crash which took True, also took the life of his wife and child.
The news was like a knife to the heart.
His father-in-law, Hank Connelly, took it much worse. He blamed Larabee. Blamed him for falling in love with his little girl. Blamed Larabee for taking her so far away from home, and then he blamed him for letting her come to visit him so often.
Chris blamed himself...
After years of whiskey, woman and too many wild nights, Larabee had finally been at peace, content in a new life. Almost ten years later, Chris could still remember so clearly... walking into the main greeting hall of the Majestic Resort and spotting the petite brunette behind the reception desk. Her hazel eyes sparkling and when she smiled, the whole world was brighter. For Chris Larabee, that first smile ignited a desire. The week that followed had been far too short...
Despite the distance between British Columbia and Nebraska, Chris made a second trip back.
Hank Connelly wasn't a dumb man, but raising a daughter alone in the middle of nowhere, had left him with a protective streak as wide as the Rockies were long. No one was good enough for his little girl and this especially applied to some hotshot American tourist who figured credentials and reputation were enough to impress. Of course, Hank didn't know that his daughter had already fallen in love. She'd spotted Larabee's lean muscular physique when he'd walked into the main hall that first time. The dirty blond hair and pale green eyes were bonus points and she'd found herself staring as she checked his party in. In the week that followed, she discovered the true depths of the man's soul.
Sarah and Chris were passionate and had such an easy relationship. Unfortunately, this was not the case where her father was concerned. If Larabee's second visit to the resort didn't have Connelly realizing he'd lost his little girl, then her making a reciprocal visit a few short weeks later, did. She was of age and no matter how much he hated what was happening, there was nothing Hank could do to stop it.
Sarah did come back to The Majestic several weeks later. She came to talk, but her father wanted no part in a decision that would forever change their bond. A new husband was bad enough. Moving to America, so far away, was a great deal worse.
Hank Connelly was devastated and he never forgave Chris Larabee for taking his little girl away from her home.
Sarah had always hoped her father and husband would eventually work out their differences. She did her best to stay in touch, writing to inquire about what was happening at the resort. Rarely did she receive a reply.
Sarah also constantly sent out invites for special occasions and holidays. All went unanswered. And even the birth of his grandson couldn't bring Hank out of his self-imposed discontent.
Eventually Sarah did force the issue. For their son's sake she insisted, but Chris knew better. For a year he'd watched his wife try, and fail. He knew her sadness and begrudgingly, he understood. So much of Sarah was wrapped up in her father and the life he had created for the two of them, out there, in the wilderness. And as silly as it might sound to some, for his wife's sake, Larabee understood Adam needed to know some of that life, too.
Eventually, it had almost become a routine. Sarah, with Adam as her constant companion, went to visit her father often. Two or three times a year in the later years. Hank was content during those periods, doing his best to hide his unhappiness. Each time they left however, his resentment was obvious. Nothing could blast Connelly from his judgment. There would always be a great bitterness between him and the other man in his daughter's life.
Larabee enjoyed six years of wedded bliss with the beauty he had the pleasure of calling his wife. She wasn't a city girl of course and adjustments to his life were called for in those first few months. The changes came easy though. Chris wasn't a city boy at heart either, but it took Sarah to remind him of his roots in Indiana. Together, they found a place outside the city to call their own. The sprawling acreage housed many animals. Chris rekindled his love of horses again and was more than content to spend his spare time in his new residence. Having Sarah there made it right. Having Adam at their side made it a real home.
And then came that horrible day...
Their trip had been planned for weeks, but Larabee's family never made it into Hank's arms. Chris pointed unwarranted blame at his father-in-law and Connelly reciprocated in kind. As the investigation unraveled, both men grew increasingly bitter, and this only escalated when Hank brought his lawyers into play.
Six years of building a life together and Larabee lost everything he had ever loved in a few short weeks. That terrible day had taken them, but in more ways than one, Sarah and Adam never came home to Chris.
Amidst his own grief and devastation, Hank proclaimed his rights and Sylvester Newel worked his lawyer trickery. Sarah was still a citizen after all and the plane had crashed in Canada. As such, both sets of remains were returned to her father to be buried in the Connelly family cemetery and, barring his visit for the funeral, Chris had never set eyes on them again.
Anguished, overwhelmed, and faced with such an ambitious, well-financed challenge, Larabee had been unable to dispute the ruling that took his family away from him one last time. Instead, he had forged a path leading straight to the liquor cabinet...
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Chris had gone to the brink and then dragged himself back again. The heartache and turmoil had slowly waned and as best as he could, Larabee was now starting to rebuild his life. He had steady work, which kept a roof over his head and food on his table. The job and small apartment weren't much, but they kept him alive.
Of course, the last three years of his life might not have turned out this way if circumstances had been different. He had been trying to forget this fact, but instead, he was here... back in Vancouver, listening to the same lawyer who had helped him begin that downward spiral in the first place. "Dead?" Larabee repeated. "Hank is dead?"
Sylvester Newel nodded his concurrence, "Yes, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Connelly died nearly eight weeks ago. He had been suffering from a form of dementia for some time and he... Well, he wandered away from The Majestic without notifying anyone of his plans. He was shot, Mr. Larabee. A hunting accident."
"Hunting?" Chris quirked a brow. "The resort is on a protected nature preserve. How is that possible?"
With a heavy sign, the lawyer answered. "Poachers... The, eh... Guide Foreman had been tracking them for more than a day when the alleged accident occurred. Hank was shooting more of his pictures and... they were shooting something a lot more deadly I'm afraid."
"Alleged?" Chris spat out. The legal term left a bad taste in his mouth. "Did they catch the bastards?"
Surprised at the apparent concern he was detecting, Newel nodded, "Yes! Thanks to Mr. Tanner, the three men are in custody awaiting trial on several counts, including second-degree murder. And Hank... well, he's finally at rest. He was, eh... laid to rest beside your wife and son, Mr. Larabee."
Listening to the story, a flurry of emotions had struck Chris in succession. At first, an odd satisfaction had welled deep inside him. Knowing his old foe was dead, pleased him... But then, strangely, he grew both angry and upset about his father-in-law's demise. No one deserved to die like that. At another man's hand was bad enough, but out there, in the middle of nowhere, alone. A brief thought had him wondering if Hank had suffered, but now, Chris found himself oddly at peace with the idea of Sarah having someone to watch over her again.
Finding himself now standing and staring out of Sylvester's office tower window, Larabee turned back to the lawyer, washing away his latent thoughts. "You brought me all the way up here to tell me Hank is dead?"
Having tracked the blond's path to his window, the lawyer's eyes followed him back and then watched him sit. It was only then that he began to explain why he'd summoned Chris, "No, Mr. Larabee, I requested your presence so we may attempt to settle Hank Connelly's estate."
Chris had a questioning look on his face a mile wide and Newel took it as his cue to continue. "You know Hank was a wealthy man, Mr. Larabee. The Majestic Resort has been in his family since the Nature Preserve was willed to his great grandfather more than a hundred years ago. It's twenty-five thousand acres of prime timber, mining assets, and unsurpassed, untapped fishing and hunting grounds. There are a lot of people out there who would love to get their hands on it."
"You're not telling me anything I don't already know, Mr. Newel," Chris answered a little indignantly. "He was a powerful man. It was useless for me to fight him. He took my wife and son... or have you forgotten that?"
Bowing his head, Sylvester took a moment to clear his throat before looking back at his visitor. "I was only doing my job then, Mr. Larabee. Just as I am trying to do it now."
Leaning back into the large black chair, Chris crossed one leg over the other, allowing his ankle to rest on the opposite knee. "All right, Newel," he asked coldly. "Just what is that job now?"
He was unprepared for the lawyer's reply...
With the slight hint of a smile and great meaning suddenly in his voice, Sylvester Newel answered quite simply, "Preserving a legacy, Mr. Larabee."
Taking a breath, the lawyer then opened a folder and retrieved a single sheet of paper. "If I may?" he indicated the document.
Seeing neither objection nor concurrence in the blond's expression, Newel slowly began to read...
I don't have an heir anymore, Sly.
Your Dad was so good to my Grandfather and Father. You... You've done everything I ever wanted you to do... even when it was against your recommendation.
That just proves I'm a stubborn old man and I've had two long years to realize it. What I did to him... Well, I don't want Sarah to hate me forever. I don't know if this can ever be made right, but I want to leave him something when I'm gone...
Having relaxed his previous callous stance, now leaning forward in his chair, Chris interrupted, "What are you reading?" He was still somewhat annoyed but more than curious.
Setting the document down, Newel clamped his fingers together and gently tapped the desk several times with his fists. Pursing his lips tightly, he took another deep breath before answering. "About fourteen months ago, Hank flew down here and informed me he'd made a decision about The Majestic stock."
"Stock?" Chris asked, puzzled. "I thought the resort was privately owned."
"Oh, it is," Newel quickly corrected, "But Hank's grandfather used some outside investors back in the twenties to... invest new capital? Just after starting up, the resort went through some hard times, as did most of North America during the Great Depression. British Columbia wasn't hit as hard as some places but people weren't exactly arriving in droves to take a vacation. The only way for the Connelly clan to keep going with the resort was to... diversify."
Chris narrowed his eyes. "I know what that means, Mr. Newel, but I've always hated the implications."
"Quite right, Mr. Larabee," the lawyer agreed. "Particularly in this case."
Seeing Chris sit back in his chair again, Newel continued his story. "Among other things, silent partner stock in The Majestic has a very specific non-interference clause written into it. It has never been a problem and no one has ever considered it a necessity to buy the shares back. As I said, it was never a problem... until about a year ago. One of those partners... Well, his son died, leaving him with a grandson to take care of and a daughter-in-law who's using that fact to her own advantage. She's taken a very unhealthy interest in her father-in-law's assets."
Larabee was suddenly very curious. "She started causing Hank problems?"
"No," the lawyer answered, shaking his head. "Not really. Not directly and not in the open anyway. What she did do however was to quietly buy off all of those other old investors. I'm assuming most of them had no idea what the stock was worth, but... Well, the long and the short of it is, one silent partner now holds the other thirty five percent controlling interest in The Majestic Resort."
"But Hank owns the rest, right?" Chris asked without thinking, "So there isn't a problem."
One pondering look from Newel and Larabee quickly realized what he'd just said. He shook his head, rubbing his brow at the same time as he sighed. "Okay... so the remaining sixty-five percent is safely locked up in Hank's estate then?"
"Not exactly," Newel said hesitantly. Looking at the folder, he tapped it lightly. "After Sarah died, Hank knew he had no heir to pass The Majestic onto. He felt confident in certain employees though, and around the same time as he wrote this... he had me draw up some papers. At that time, we weren't aware the silent partner shares had been amalgamated and Hank had me transfer thirty percent of his stock to six of his most trusted friends, five percent each. He maintained the other thirty five percent under his name."
"Hank didn't trust a lot of people," Chris reflected quietly. He then looked back at Sylvester and cocked his head. "These friends must be something special if he trusted them to keep The Majestic intact."
"Yes," Newel smiled. "They all live at the resort... permanent fixtures I'm afraid. And just as his grandfather did with the silent shares, Hank stipulated some very specific requirements. Each of their shares must remain with the men, or any family that may come along."
"It's in their blood," Chris recited unintentionally. Cocking his head, he lowered it briefly before once again looking back into the lawyer's eyes. "Something Hank and Sarah always said about The Majestic..." reflecting solemnly, he sighed. "You've probably heard it before... that it was in their blood. Hank swore blind anyone who ever owned it would have to feel the same way, or they could never do it proud."
Sylvester was smiling now. "Yes, Mr. Larabee, which now brings me to you." Retrieving the letter again, he looked at Chris. "If I may be allowed to continue..."
Now totally confounded and confused, Chris nodded his consent and then sat back to listen. At this point, he didn't know what else to do.
"Let's see," the lawyer muttered as he looked for the spot he'd left off. "Ah, yes..."
... and I've had two long years to realize it. What I did to him... I don't want Sarah to hate me forever. I don't know if this can ever be made right, but I want to leave him something when I'm gone. It was in Sarah's blood. I can only hope she passed a little bit of that love onto him.
"What's he talking about?" Chris figured he knew, but the inquiry just came stumbling out of his mouth before he could stop it.
Holding up his hand, Newel signaled his intent to carry on rather than answer Larabee's question. His eyes then went back to the paper.
The other thirty percent is safely in good hands, Sly. Thank you again for that. My thirty-five percent... I need you to make sure he gets it. But more importantly, I need you to make sure he'll keep the dream alive. If he can't do it... then you divvy it up between the boys. Vin gets ten percent and then split the rest evenly, just like before.
That recommendation I ignored way back when... I never knew what regret could do to a man's soul, but these past two years... it really has worn on me.
I'm writing this down because the doctors are telling me I eventually might not remember what I've said and done in my life. Right now I'd like not to remember the things I said and did to Chris Larabee...
"Me..." Meeting Newel's eyes, Chris looked at the man questioningly. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Hank Connelly admitting he was wrong? Never in his wildest imagination had he ever envisioned hearing these words. And okay, so it wasn't Hank reciting them, but like it or not, he understood that whatever the lawyer was conveying was actually fact. Accepting that made Chris sit back again, waiting for the lawyer to continue...
Chris Larabee is an honest, hardworking man who loved my Sarah more than life itself. So many times she tried to tell me, and I just wouldn't listen. I even took it out on poor little Adam. I wasn't the grandfather I should have been to that boy. I always loved him, but I know I could have shown it more... hugged him just a little more.
Watching Larabee's eyes close, Newel understood how Hank's confessions were affecting his visitor. He pressed on though, just the same...
Make sure Chris Larabee can understand I'm sorry for everything I ever did to him, Sly. I'm a bitter old man and a fool for punishing him. It wasn't his fault he fell in love with Sarah. Everyone did... but those two...they were so good together. I knew it, but I could never admit it. And that accident wasn't his fault either, but I blamed him... for everything. I let my anger and pain control me in those horrible weeks afterwards. My heart knows Sarah has always belonged here. She was born here and she was supposed to be laid to rest here. I was blind to anyone else's ideas... to his ideas, but I know all he wanted to do was take her home. To the home they made together... alone... because I was too stubborn and too proud to be part of their lives.
I don't regret my decision, Sly, but I do wish I'd let you talk to him instead of at him. Chris Larabee was never my enemy and I had no right to take my pain out on him. I just hope he can forgive me when the time comes.
Before he came, The Majestic was Sarah's life and I want him to be able to truly understand why I brought her back. She belongs here! Always did... but I know I took them away from him. I know it's too late to undo what I did, but I'd like to allow him the right to be with them again. I'd like for him to eventually be laid to rest beside Sarah if he so chooses. And maybe, in the meantime, he can find a little bit of forgiveness for this stubborn old fool.
Sarah and Adam are here, Sly. The Majestic is their home. It should be his home, too. Chris Larabee deserves a place to call home...
Silence enveloped the room as Sylvester Newel slowly returned the letter to his folder.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Several hours later Larabee was sitting on the end of his bed contemplating the hotel's mini bar. He so needed a drink but knew the only thing he'd find inside the small fridge was pop and beer. Nothing substantial enough to quench the sudden urgent need he felt to chase away reality.
Of course, reality as Chris understood it, had changed today. He'd spent almost ten years of his life resenting a man for loving his own daughter and then, after experiencing the most horrific of tragedies, he'd combined 'survivor's guilt' and resentment, into something much more destructive... an addiction.
As if losing his wife and child wasn't bad enough, being unable to bring them home one last time had made Chris want to die, too. He wasn't the type of man to curl up and fade away though. Instead, he succumbed to a dangerous new habit... alcohol.
Hard and fast was the way Larabee always liked his whiskey. Just a few shots and, once again, all was right with his world. Chris didn't have to think when he was drinking, and if he did... Just the thought of how disappointed Sarah would have been in him, was enough to keep the whiskey flowing. And so often, the whiskey flowed unencumbered.
In the weeks following the funeral, most people chalked his binging up to the tragedy and hoped things would settle down soon enough. Weeks turned into months though, and things at work weren't going so smoothly anymore. Friends slowly found other places to be during their off-hours and eventually, even Larabee's closest friend was forced to admit defeat.
Buck Wilmington had conveyed his pain and sadness one last time though, and it was still a very distressing memory for Chris...
Driving up to the Larabee home, Buck had sighed heavily. Chris hadn't been at work in four days and repeated phone calls had only succeeded in confirming the man was still alive. It was Saturday finally, and Wilmington had come to check on the man he'd called friend for so many years.
Getting out of his truck, Buck walked across the front yard and up to the door. He knocked once, twice, and then a third time before finally reaching for his wallet. He kept a spare key there but always hated the idea of intruding when he wasn't welcome. This was different though... He was willing to risk receiving one of Larabee's famous glares, if it meant he could at last get his best friend back on track again.
Chris had been devastated by the loss of his wife and child six months ago. Sarah meant more than the world to her husband. She'd somehow managed to change a work-obsessed over-achiever, into a calm, content, and loving husband. Dedication and duty didn't seem so important anymore and Chris would actually admit he enjoyed life away from the office. Nothing else mattered.
And then along came Adam. Even before he was born he was loved. Having his dad's pale green eyes and his mom's dark hair, he was a visible reminder of their union. If it were possible, Adam made his parents love one another even more, and together, the Larabees were the perfect family.
Sarah and Chris being together was all Buck's fault. He'd spent more than six years touting the accomplishment. 'Without me draggin' him off', he would say, 'ol' Chris would still be a lonely old grouch'. Knowing how devoted and focused to his work Larabee had been before, most people would never disagree. The truth was undeniable... Obscured beneath years of hard work and training, Chris was a real family man at heart.
Advertising his obvious connection to the Larabees helped mask Wilmington's true feelings for the couple. He'd always loved Chris like a brother. Since their senior year in high school, they'd been inseparable, and come what may, Buck felt he and his best friend would always be there for one another. Adding Sarah to the mix didn't change things much. Wilmington was Best Man at their wedding and when he came along, Godfather to little Adam. He also did his level best to act as an emissary between Chris and Hank Connelly when needed and Buck was the only one Larabee trusted to take care of his wife when he wasn't around.
At first, the plane crash that took Sarah and Adam away from Chris, affected Buck more than he was willing to admit. He'd always felt it was his responsibility to stay strong in the face of the tragedy and truly hoped one day, he and his best friend could remember the happy times without falling apart. Things had gone from bad to worse though and here he was, six months later, staring at the worst.
Walking into the Larabee home, Buck was immediately struck with the stench. Something was rotting or... someone had thrown up. Either way, the benefit of a good cleaning had been ignored.
Of course, Wilmington knew who... he just had to find out where. "Chris," he called out, not really expecting an answer. Checking the living room and dining area, Buck continued through the kitchen and into the family room. He stopped at the back of the couch, shaking his head at the sight before him.
Chris was sprawled out, his half-dressed body half on and half off the large beanbag cushion Adam used to lounge in. The case of whiskey Larabee had been working on this month was devoid of content and as proof, several of the empties lay around on the floor. The coffee table was littered with glasses and debris. Some of the clutter was food containers, emitting some of those foul smells. On the floor lay a half-empty pizza box that made Buck wince in disgust. At least the contents of Larabee's stomach were contained.
Throwing a blanket over Chris, Buck went about the business of discarding weeks of garbage.
He'd tried to help out more than once before, but Larabee had been adamant that he would take care of things. He rarely had of course, and this only served to make Buck mad. A large part of Wilmington understood his friend's grief. He was feeling it, too, but yet, felt compelled to keep his anguish inside until he'd helped Chris deal with his own. That wasn't happening though and Buck was growing less and less complacent with the idea of the drinking and meanness passing...
"What the hell are you doing?"
Garbage bag in hand, Wilmington had turned to look into the haunted eyes of his friend. The pale green revealed a spark of anger that Buck had rarely seen and he was cautious as he spoke. "Bout time we got you back on track, don't you think, Chris?" He'd added a smile for good measure
Reaching out to the kitchen's island, Larabee steadied himself as he got closer. "My business is my own, Buck. I told you before and I'll tell you again... Back off! I don't need your help. I can take care of my own problems."
Setting the bag down next to the fridge, Wilmington reached into one of the upper cabinets and pulled out a coffee mug. Finding the machine, he then poured a large dose of the brew for his best friend. "I know you can, Chris," he nodded as he turned and walked around the island to present the blond with the hot liquid. "But seein' as you've been passed out in the family room for who knows how long, I didn't see the harm."
Glaring all the while, Larabee took the offered mug but quickly realized it was too hot to hold and set it down. The sting in his fingers added to his ire and, still drunk, he continued his verbal assault. "You don't see the harm in anything you do, Buck? You're always so fucking happy-go-lucky. You make me sick sometimes... always so fucking happy."
As the insults faded, Wilmington forcefully massaged the back of his neck. He was quickly losing his cool. Months of denial was coming to a head and he could no longer hide the disgust he felt over the idea of his best friend throwing his life away. "This isn't what she would have wanted, Chris."
"Leave it alone, Buck!" Larabee warned in a low menacing tone.
"I have, Chris," was Wilmington's sad reply. "For six months now, I've left you alone to wallow in your hurt. Fuck, Chris... six months! You can't expect people to wait forever. They re-assigned your paperwork and open assignments months ago and McGill is about ready to fire your ass if you don't show up soon."
"Fuck, McGill!" Larabee shot back. "Fuck work! I don't give a shit anymore."
Looking into his best friend's angry eyes, Wilmington could see Larabee was telling the truth. He'd given up on work, taking care of himself... on life itself maybe, and that thought scared the hell out of him. "Don't you go talkin' like that, Chris. Nothin' is gonna bring them back, but I know how Sarah would feel if she knew you were givin' up."
"Chris Larabee doesn't quit nothin'!"
"Get out, Buck," Larabee growled, his body tensed and ready for a fight.
It wasn't that Wilmington didn't know the signs. He'd seen the posture more times than he cared to admit, but always, the aggression was aimed at someone else. He never once guessed he could ever be on the receiving end.
Safe in that knowledge, he pressed on, still hoping to talk some sense into a man he cared about so very much. "I can't, Chris," he answered solemnly. "I love you too much to just walk away. That boy of yours, and Sarah... I loved them, too, Chris. Too much to let you turn their memory into something... tainted and destructive..."
Buck never got a chance to finish what he had been trying to tell Chris.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Still sitting on the bed in his hotel room, Larabee closed his eyes as the memory of his verbal and physical assault came rushing back. He hadn't let Buck get a word in edgewise and he'd beat him far more than he deserved.
In the end though, it was Wilmington who got the last word, and to this day, Larabee wished he could thank the man for being so stubborn.
It wasn't to be though...
Lying on Larabee's kitchen floor, bruised and bloody, Buck had, understandably, lost all composure. He didn't fight back though. Instead, he simply spoke, telling Chris exactly how he'd felt for all those months. He admitted how he'd cried in private, for the loss of his best friend's wife and a little boy who meant the world to him. He also confessed his growing anger and resentment about what Chris was doing to himself. Wilmington acknowledged how he'd tried to imagine the devastation from Larabee's point of view, but also came clean about not understanding how such a strong, tough, proud man could just give up on life so easily, refusing to carry the memories of his family with the pride and love they so deserved.
After the heart-felt speech, Chris had watched his best friend drag himself up from the floor and walk away.
Soul-searching wasn't something Larabee had done lately, but watching Wilmington leave, and knowing him the way he did, Chris had had no choice but to finally acknowledge how deeply he'd wounded Buck. That knowledge went far beyond the assault he'd just rendered though. He also had to admit the cruel treatment he'd subjected the man to in the past six months. And for all of it, Larabee was suddenly, so deeply sorry.
Chris never got a chance to express those feelings though.
Larabee was shocked back to reality that day. Unfortunately, it wasn't soon enough... The damage done was irreparable. The bank foreclosed on his mortgage in an effort to recoup some of their losses. Chris had tried to return to work to halt the process, but he was too late. His job was gone, and so too was the pride and reputation he had fought long and hard to establish.
For the second time in his life, Larabee experienced great loss. This time it was the remnants of everything else that had ever meant anything to him. It was a turning point for Chris. He could have curled up and died, but instead, he reached deep down into a soul that was barely alive, kick-starting his own drive and determination. With Buck's parting words as his constant companion, he became resolute in his decision to forge a new beginning. Work was the first step and, despite the different kind of reputation that now dogged his name, he did eventually find a job.
State Park maintenance wasn't exactly an exciting career but it was work nonetheless. It had been the stepping-stone to better things, too, and Chris Larabee did slowly forge a new life. Small though it was, he had an apartment to rent. He put food on his table and worked hard at regaining his previous pride, extending that to the image of a man whom he could once again be proud of.
Eventually ready to face the man he would always credit with saving his life, Chris made some inquires about his best friend. He was disappointed to find out that Buck had resigned his position with FEMA months earlier. No one there even knew where he was.
Undaunted, Larabee headed to Wilmington's apartment. He found it leased to new tenants. There was no forwarding address.
As a last resort, Chris called in a favor and managed to track down Wilmington's truck. Finding it for sale at a used car lot was his final disappointment.
It had been more than two years and Larabee was still hoping his best friend would walk through his door so that he could tell him his news. He wasn't thriving in this world but he was surviving day to day. Surviving to remember a wife and child with the pride and love they so deserved... even though he still had his moments.
Memories of both good and bad times always made Larabee a little wooly, and now was no exception. Being here, in Vancouver, closer to Sarah and Adam than he'd been in three long years, just made the loss of his best friend even more poignant. "And if that doesn't deserve a drink... then I don't know what the hell does," Chris concluded his own thoughts with a resounding huff.
Getting to his feet, he grabbed his key-card on the way out. Perhaps the hotel bar could afford him a little company so he wouldn't have to drink alone.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
With the dawn of a new day shining through his window, Chris cursed it, and his forgetfulness. If he'd drawn the drapes he could have at least got another hour of sleep. He could use the rest, too. His head wasn't exactly happy with him at the moment. His eyes refused to open and he was having trouble remembering what he'd done the night before. Rolling away from the sunlight however, all of that changed in an instant.
"Good morning," a bright cheery female voice offered.
Eyes opening quickly, Larabee took in the lovely woman beside him. It took a moment, but he did reply. "Knew it was morning just... didn't know how good it was."
She smiled for him and he smiled back. Slowly though, her expression turned to one of suspicion. "You... don't remember last night, do you?"
Too many times before Larabee had found himself in this position. Not of late mind you, and that idea made him angry and disappointed. Going back to womanizing and drinking was not something he wanted to do. Determined not to pass along his feelings though, he continued to smile. "Oh, I might be missing a detail or two, here or there, but I remember." Chris was lying but figured he was covering his tracks quite nicely.
"Is that right?" she asked, not convinced. Shrugging and showing the slight hint of a knowing smile, she then turned from his gaze, got out of bed and, naked, sauntered seductively towards his bathroom. "I'm going to take a shower... care to join me?"
All man, Larabee was watching her display, but still wasn't sure if he wanted enough to take her up on the offer. Her mid-length blonde hair and green eyes were more stunning than his own. Her long legs went all the way up to reveal some very shapely curves. Certainly very enticing and yet, not knowing how they'd got together, something was still holding him back. "Sounds good, darling," he called out as the water started, "But if you don't mind, I think I need a little more shut-eye instead."
Hearing what he thought was disappointment in her reply, Chris then rolled back over, pulling a pillow over his eyes.
For the next forty minutes, Larabee fought to remember the previous night. He listened to the woman singing softly to herself in the shower, and a glimmer of memory revealed her dancing with an older man inside the hotel's club. When the water eventually stopped, his imagination filled in the pieces as she toweled off, blew dry her hair, and then searched around the room for her clothing. In his mind's eye, he could see her saying goodbye to her companion and then checking him out from the other end of the bar. It was she who had approached him, of that Chris was sure. What he still couldn't remember though, was how they'd ended up in bed together.
"Do you even remember my name?"
Knowing she was now sitting beside him on the bed, Larabee slowly removed the pillow from his eyes. Looking up at her questioning expression, he tried to hide that what she was insinuating was in fact, true. "Did you ever tell me?" he asked cagily.
Sighing and shaking her head, the woman nodded. "Yes, I did. But then, when I did, I... probably also knew you were too drunk to remember it."
Shrugging just a little, Larabee now didn't feel any need to be making excuses.
Leaning down for a quick kiss, the blonde shrugged back and smiled. "Oh well, it was fun meeting a fellow American in a foreign country." Standing, she grabbed her purse, preparing to leave. "I have to meet someone for breakfast. Thanks for the good time, Chris," she cooed. "At least you weren't too drunk for that!"
As she walked towards the door, Larabee sat up and followed her with his eyes. He grinned proudly at her comment, stopping her as she opened the door to leave. "So... what is your name, pretty lady?"
"Oh... pretty lady is good," she answered, walking through the portal.
Chris could have sworn he heard her say 'Mary' as the door closed behind her.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
The blonde in his bed long forgotten, Chris now stood looking out of Sylvester Newel's eighteenth story window. In the afternoon sun, the office tower offered a spectacular view of Vancouver and the surrounding mountains, but Larabee wasn't exactly looking at the view. Instead, he was listening to the lawyer as he reiterated Hank Connelly's wishes...
"As I've already explained, Mr. Larabee, Mr. Connelly changed his will to include the stipulations he hinted at in the letter I read to you yesterday. The letter was... Well, he wanted you to hear the letter first. He thought it gave a better sense of where his mind was at when he made the decision."
Without turning around, Chris muttered, "I always knew that old man was crazy."
Newel cocked his head but held his disappointment at bay. "If you don't want the shares, Mr. Larabee, I am empowered to distribute them accordingly, but you must first meet the stipulations Hank laid out."
"Why?" Chris turned and glared at the man who stood on the other side of the office. "Just to prove he can still control me, even from his grave? Hank Connelly never did a damn thing I ever wanted. Why the hell should I do what he says, just to turn down something he wanted me to have?"
"There have been a lot of changes up there, Mr. Larabee."
"I don't give a shit!" Chris shot back. "I..."
Watching as his visitor briefly closed his eyes, Newel decided to speak his mind. "I understand your reservations, Mr. Larabee, truly I do. I know that's where you met your wife and I know that's where she died."
"Don't forget where's she's buried," Chris practically spat out. Walking back across the room, he did his best to turn his back on the lawyer and slumped into one of the two big black easy chairs. "You made certain of that, or have you forgotten already?" he was saying as he did so.
Slowly returning to his desk, Sylvester took up his own chair. Waiting patiently for the blond to settle, he finally continued. "Yes, Mr. Larabee, where she is buried. I won't apologize for my client, or his belief that his daughter was at home at The Majestic. I won't even apologize for making certain she was laid to rest there, against your wishes. But what I will say is this... In the three years since Sarah passed away, Hank Connelly came to believe he was wrong in the decisions he forced upon you back then. He acknowledged to me, and in that letter, that he wanted to make amends. He wanted you to be able to go visit your wife again, Mr. Larabee. He knew you belonged together."
As a hand slowly pawed at his forehead, Chris considered the proposal. 'Too little, too late' was his initial thought, but figuring he'd already said enough, he held his tongue. Remaining silent didn't stop his mind from reeling though. Just sitting here listening was hard enough. The idea of going up there, seeing the resort again, seeing all the places Sarah had introduced him to... seeing the gravesites. "I don't know if I can," he eventually whispered.
Newel gave Chris a moment before responding. He understood too well this was very hard on Larabee. Acting on his client's behalf, three years ago the lawyer had taken the last shred of dignity from this man and then fallen victim to his anger. Sylvester didn't hold that against Chris mind you, but the incident had given him a much clearer picture of the passion Larabee had in his heart. "You must at least go there, Mr. Larabee," he said quietly. "To fulfill the terms and conditions of the will. You must go back one last time before you give it up forever."
Chris glanced at the man before sending his eyes to the floor. Could he do that, he wondered. He'd fought so hard for Sarah. He'd fought so hard for the life they forged against unkind odds and then, fought so hard to keep her close when all was lost. Giving all of it up had sent him down a terrible road...
Three years ago, after saying his final goodbyes to the two people he cared most about in the whole world, he had turned to alcohol to ease his pain, eventually perpetuating the loss of everything else he ever cared about... The respect of his peers, his job, his friends, his life-long best friend and even the land he and Sarah had owned and the house they'd made into a real home.
The last two years had been an uphill battle. Chris had been moving steadily forward in the process of regaining his life though... even if he still had his moments. And perhaps he would never really be ready to quit drinking entirely... but he had cut back significantly. One small step after another and eventually, the rest would have to come, right?
Larabee did have a steady job. It was nothing spectacular, but it put a roof over his head and paid the bills. He'd made contact with old friends, too, even though one still eluded him. Things were okay, but... could they be better?
Could he bring himself to sit with Sarah and Adam again... talk to them again?
Could Chris bring himself to sit beside his wife's grave and admit he'd lost everything they'd ever had together? And if he could... visit with them every day... would it make a difference in his life? Was some sort of closure really as important as some people touted?
So many things went through Larabee's mind as he considered the possibilities. What did he really have to lose? There really wasn't much to keep him in Nebraska anymore, but the reservations he felt weren't about leaving all that behind. They weren't even really about the disappointment he felt in himself. He'd admitted that, and come to terms with it a long time ago.
Chris knew he had doubts, but the more he thought about them, the less clear they became. So many emotions, thoughts and feelings were floating around inside his head that he heard himself answer, but didn't really believe he had until Newel spoke.
"Yes? As in, you're willing to go back to The Majestic, Mr. Larabee?"
Looking up into the lawyer's eyes, Chris realized he really had answered. "Yes, Mr. Newel," he confirmed. "I'll go whenever you can make the arrangements." With a resounding, yet perplexed sigh, he then added, "Let's get this over and done with."
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Newel had told him some things had changed and, a day later, Larabee was finding that out first hand. The small plane that took him north was much the same, but the airport facilities and greeting counter had been vastly improved. The Majestic was now, apparently, a well-established cornerstone for business in the Williams Lake area and, although not accessible for guests, limited satellite and Internet communications with the resort management were actually now held on a scheduled basis.
The next leg of his trip picked him up at the airport as before. Again, the four-wheel-drive vehicle was much the same but, where a bumpy old dirt trail had once been, a graveled and much smoother path now snaked its way through some very pristine forest. Chris had forgotten just how beautiful and unscathed this country really was.
As his ride came to a stop, Larabee hesitated, remembering the next part of his journey. This was where Sarah and Adam had stood three years ago and although he'd been here shortly afterwards, the impact of that realization hadn't affected him then, as much as it did now. Swallowing hard, he took a deep breath and exited the vehicle.
Looking at his wristwatch, Roger, the vehicle driver, groaned, "That crazy old man is late again!"
As he watched the young man turn and start checking over his vehicle, Chris couldn't help but smile.
He remembered again how he and three friends had had similar reactions to True Potter the first time they'd met him. As it turned out though, that 'crazy old man' was only in his early thirties, just as most of them were almost ten years ago. The whiskers he'd sported threw everyone off but, as it also turned out, True liked it that way. He had always thought it heightened the mystery of his image...
Smiling at the fond remembrance, Larabee retrieved his gear from the vehicle and then walked it to the edge of the dock. He stood looking out over the lake. The clear cool water sparkled and for some strange reason, Chris finally found himself at peace with the idea of coming back up here again. His thoughts were interrupted though, when he heard an engine high above.
Shielding his eyes from the sun, Larabee watched the slow graceful decent of his ride. Whoever the new pilot was, he knew what he was doing. He barely created a wake as he landed and then slowly brought his plane to the dock. As the engine shut down, a plaid-clad burly man stepped out and then came forward to greet his passenger. "Afternoon," he offered a hand to shake. "You must be the new boss?"
Slightly taken aback by the announcement, Chris replied, "Is that what they told you?"
"You aren't Larabee?"
"No, I am," Chris answered, but he was still puzzled. "I'm just not sure if I'm staying is all."
"Oh... So you're a little nuts then?" Presenting a big toothy grin, the man grabbed Larabee's pack and then headed for his plane. "Name's Sanchez by the way... Josiah Sanchez. But if you aren't staying, you don't need to know."
A little confounded, but amused, Chris followed the pilot and boarded his plane. Like it or not, he was ready to see The Majestic again.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
With an initial flight path high over the coastal mountains, the plane trip was so magnificent, the twenty minutes never seemed like enough time. Once over the ridge, the aircraft swooped down and took its passenger through a gently rising picturesque river valley before climbing just a little more. As it rounded one last large rock outcropping, the brilliant clear waters of the high mountain lake became visible. The surface sparkled, almost blindingly, but nothing could prevent yours eyes from discovering the large Majestic Lodge Resort situated at the far end of the lake.
As he'd done for almost three years, Josiah Sanchez leveled the wings of his aircraft and gradually descended, landing gracefully on the still waters. Carefully, he then guided the plane to the main dock. "Weeee're heeeeere!" he grinned as he turned to Larabee. "Want me to leave your pack onboard, or are you at least staying one night?"
Larabee raised an eyebrow. "Do you treat all of the guests to your wit, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Nope!" Josiah answered as he climbed out of his seat and then exited the plane. When Chris came to the door, he added, "Just the crazy ones."
Finding his smile again, Chris cocked his head as he watched Sanchez walk up the dock and head towards the main lodge. He noted the man had indeed not taken his pack and, jumping down, he gave due consideration to the question. Was he at least staying one night?
Bordered on all sides by nature, Larabee took a good long look around. He had somehow forced himself to forget but, standing in the middle of it all again, he was struck by the beauty...
Set on the shores of this high mountain lake, surrounded by a protected nature preserve, The Majestic Resort was truly... majestic. Near-by glaciers fed the crystal clear blue-green lake year-round and the many inlets along its shores provided great spots for those who came here to fish. Beyond the lake lay the forests and hiking trails this area was famous for, and still further out, were the mountains so many came here to climb.
Beyond his range of vision, Chris remembered that the landscape was dotted with overnight cabins for those adventurous enough to take two and three day excursions with the lodge guides. Most of those units were self-sufficient and had no power or modern-day conveniences, but visitors rarely complained. In fact, most complimented the lodge for maintaining environmental standards and preserving a way of life that had sustained a population of hearty pioneers in the centuries before. Of course, most of those same modern-day visitors were happy to return to the main lodge and associated smaller cabins, most of which contained most every modern convenience they expected.
As he turned to face The Majestic's main lodge, Larabee once again remembered what Sylvester Newel had said about things changing and he wondered what new items he might find. The question didn't seem so important as Chris took a good long hard look around...
The Majestic lodge was one of the largest mountain chalets ever built and was constructed completely of the native lodge-pine logs. The many roof peaks and vast sweeping windows allowed nature in, whilst keeping the weather out. And yet, for those who enjoyed the elements, large decks were available. They could keep you cool, allow you to take in the spectacular view, or let you experience a good storm.
Chris had known what normal log cabins looked like before coming here almost ten years ago, but his understanding of log construction had changed so dramatically since then.
The Majestic, truly was...
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Inside one of the lodge offices, two men were looking out one of the large windows. The taller man nodded, answering, "Yep! Didn't think I'd ever see the day... but there he is."
Noting the apparent apprehension in his friend's voice, the younger man asked another question, "You gonna be alright with this?"
Turning to face his companion, the bigger man nodded again. "I know you've asked, Vin, but I want you to judge Chris for the man he is now, not the man I..." Looking into the sky blue eyes studying him, he shrugged a little, braving a tiny smile. "Truth is, I want to judge Chris for the man he is now, too. I just can't... do that right away. You go say hello. I'll wait... till the time is right."
Shooing his companion towards the door, the big man was wearing a real grin now. Vin Tanner was a good friend to have, under any circumstance, but now it was particularly meaningful. Larabee could be a hard man to acquaint yourself with and, knowing both men the way he did, he would judge any significant change on the way the two got along. Seeing the other off, the tall man offered a heavy sigh, his reservations clear in the sound as he turned back towards the window to watch.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
With his pack now slung over one shoulder, Chris had made it off the dock and across the beachhead. He noted strategically placed planking in some spots made the journey a little easier for not-so-sure-footed guests and the simplicity of the idea brought a smile to his face. Curiosity was certainly rearing its head and, with that thought in mind, he took a deep breath, finally mounting the steps to the main lodge. A pair of old cowboy boots appeared in his path though and Chris looked up to see an unshaven, longhaired young man sporting a slouch-style cavalry hat in the same color as the tanned hide clothing he was wearing. Indian scout was the first thought that came into his head, but then the man spoke...
"You Larabee?" a strong accent questioned.
Nodding and extending a hand as he came up to stand beside the man, the blond answered, "Yes, Chris Larabee."
"Name's Vin Tanner, the young man offered as they shook hands. Me and the boys are runnin' the place until that fancy lawyer fella back in Vancouver figures out who the new boss is gonna be."
Distracted by the strangely familiar twang, Chris completely overlooked the fact that this man wasn't already assuming he was taking the vacant 'boss' position. "You're eh... not from around these parts, Mr. Tanner?"
"Nope!" Vin grinned as he wandered to one of the stairway supports. Leaning against the upright beam, he seemed to relax into his element. "Long story. Mighty far from my roots I know. Never thought I could call any place home but Texas, but here I am! I came, I saw... and I fell in love with this land. The wilderness out here... it's a pretty powerful thing."
Following the man's gaze, Larabee had to agree. Standing on the large wrap-around porch, he was seeing things from a visitor's point of view now. The blue-green of the crystal-clear lake loomed imposingly in front of him. Beyond that, the mountains that gave it life, seemed just a little bit bigger, and the endless miles of forest, surrounding them in every direction, provided color contrast, intrigue, and the promise of adventure for anyone willing to experience it. Who wouldn't be struck with the majesty? 'Tanner has it right,' Larabee thought. The brief moment of musings however, gave remembrance to something Sylvester Newel had said just two days before. "Tanner? Chris questioned. You're the man who found Hank's body?"
Leaving his deep appreciation of nature behind, Vin tipped his hat to some patrons as they went by and then pulled Chris a short distance down the porch. "Hank was alive when I found him," he corrected. "But that didn't last long. I was close enough to hear the shots, about a half mile out."
"He... wasn't alone then?" Larabee said quietly. Back in Newels office he had wondered, and for some strange reason, knowing the answer actually consoled him a little.
Everyone up here knew Hank Connelly well, and there were a few people around who remembered Larabee. Although Vin had never met the man, hed heard the stories about how much Chris and Hank didn't get along. He also knew first hand how much Hank actually regretted the estranged relationship he'd had with his son-in-law. Somehow though, Tanner just wasn't expecting to hear the same type of regret from Larabee. "Nope," the Texan confirmed solemnly. "Afterwards... took more than a day, but I brought him home. He's up yonder with his kin... if you care to pay your respects."
Glancing along to the far end of the porch, Chris knew Vin was pointing him towards the cemetery. He cocked his head and shrugged weakly, knowing full well he wasn't ready to visit there just yet. "I will," he said, and then paused. "Before I leave."
A mere moment passed before Tanner, nodded. "Alright then...." He wasn't a man to comment on other people's business, so he brought up a hand and indicated the main entrance instead Can I get you settled, Mr. Larabee?"
One look in Vin's eyes and Chris knew their conversation was safely tucked away. He also knew instinctively that he liked this man. "It's Chris," he reminded his companion. "And no, thanks. I know the way. I'm sure you have things to do."
Briefly shielding his eyes with the brim of his hat, the Texan seemed to check the sun's position in the sky before sighing. "Yeah... Might just have to go on a rescue mission if another fancy fella I know, don't get his group back before sundown. Best go saddle my horse."
Hearing a strange mixture of annoyance and amusement from the wiry young man, Larabee quirked a brow. "Well..." Chris started to say. The military officer and civil servant in him was always ready, willing, and able to help in any way possible, but then he realized it wasnt his place to interfere. Instead, he said, "I'll assume you have things under control then, Mr. Tanner. Let me know if youre in need of assistance though. If not, I'll see you later perhaps. I'm always up for a... a long story."
Allowing himself a brief grin, Tanner nodded, acknowledging the easy manner in which Larabee seemed to grasp his meaning. If first impressions meant anything, and they usually did, he knew he could get to like this man. "It's Vin," he reminded Chris with a wink, "And thanks! A helpin hand is always welcome. Credentials like yours ain't offered to me everyday so Ill definitely keep it in mind. As though it were a normal part of his day to impart words of wisdom, he then added, And do yourself a favor... dont never assume nothin up here. Especially when it comes to him. Then, without further explanation, the Texan simply smiled and, as he had done earlier to the passers-by, tipped his hat to Chris as he left.
Curiosity was bombarding Larabee by now. Referencing his credentials the way Tanner had, obviously meant that someone had told the Texan something about him. And what about Vin... This was truly an out-of-the-way place to meet a fellow countryman, and one who proclaimed such a strong bond to his new home, too. One thought lead to another and Chris found himself smiling. He'd only met two of The Majestic's employees so far, but he was already assuming the rest where just as unusual as Sanchez and Tanner. He suspected there was a story to be told by both men.
Searching out the Texan again, Larabee's gaze found him strolling casually towards the tree line. Chris noted that the young man once again checked the sun's position in the sky, and he was suddenly very inquisitive about this other fancy fella Vin had spoken of. A fancy lawyer was one thing, back in the big city, but just who was Tanner referring to way out here? His 'especially when it comes to him' advice was also very curious and for some strange reason, had Chris just a little bit concerned, too...
Not knowing details always made the former FEMA agent apprehensive and Larabee assumed it was this fact that was driving his uneasiness. What went on here really was none of his business though, and it took a minute to come to terms with the idea. When he did, the blond finally shrugged away his interest, adjusted his pack, and then turned for the entranceway.
Stepping through the large wooden and glass doors of the resort's main meeting hall, all of his previous musings were soon forgotten...
This foyer was no different than a lot of modern hotel lobbies. It opened wide as the door closed behind you, welcoming its guests with a unique grandeur. Any other similarities quickly faded though because The Majestic was truly one of a kind. Decked out in a rustic décor that complimented the lodge-pine construction exceptionally well, the casual old-world atmosphere of the resort was immediately imprinted. Solid wood furniture, rock fireplaces, First Nations carvings and tapestry, and other period items, all reminded visitors of The Majestic's long history. The aged pictures in old-fashioned frames were charming. The quilted fabrics and white linen doilies were traditional, and while the candle arbors and lanterns added an authentic touch, they also provided light and heat when the generators were silent. Topping it all off, the high vaulted ceilings and ample windows allowed you to bring a little of the outside world in, whilst still keeping it at bay. That wilderness could be not-so forgiving if not treated with respect, but, standing in the main meeting hall of The Majestic, you knew you were in good hands.
The grandeur of this entranceway aside, Chris was struck with both expectation and sadness as he stood frozen in time. Ten years earlier, it had been Sarah Connelly greeting him, her smile finding him in the vastness of this great hall. For just a moment, he anticipated her doing the same as his eyes found the reception desk across the room. Realization was like a blade though, cutting through his dreams like a hot knife through butter and, just as quickly as his hope came, it vanished in an instant, replaced with a hollow empty gloom.
This was exactly what he had been afraid of and, for all the wrong reasons, Larabee was suddenly sorry he had agreed to come back to the resort. There was a rational cause for him to be here and yet, all of that motivation and incentive escaped him in one brief moment. Chris was ready to turn and leave, but a voice out of nowhere, abruptly stopped him.
"Lordy, lordy... I must be seein' things."
The voice was strangely familiar and Chris couldnt stop himself from searching out the speaker. A quick look around the room ended when a big smile curved his lips. In that same instant, too, all of those previous misgivings vanished. "Miss Nettie...? Are you still here?"
"Where else would I be, son?" the elderly lady greeted, her arms surrounding her newest guest. "You haven't forgotten... The Majestic is my home. I couldn't live anywhere else."
"No," Chris nodded with a smile, "I remember. Sarah always said you were the Mother she never had."
Hands on her hips, Nettie scowled at the tall blond. "Sarah always said I was the grandmother she never had. You wouldn't be trying to get on my good side now would you, Mr. Larabee?"
Caught in his little white lie, Chris tried to act abashed but there was just no getting anything past Nettie Wells. If Hank had been Patriarch of this resort, then Nettie was certainly the Matriarch... even talking about Sarah seemed to come so naturally.
There were no blood ties between them, but as Hank always said, The Majestic was in your blood... the Wells' blood as much as it was the Connelly's perhaps?
Nettie's parents had raised four children here. She was the only one who had stayed, although they had all come back for visits from time to time. The arrangement suited Ms. Wells just fine. She was easily at home here in the main lodge as she was out in her small cabin off the point. That one had no power most times, but this also suited Nettie amazingly well. She was the toughest old lady Larabee knew and although it was never spoken of, he also knew she took great pride in that fact.
Seeing she could still embarrass him just a little, Nettie grinned, although the smile slowly softened. "How have you been, Chris? It's been a while."
"It has," Larabee nodded as a deep breath found his lungs.
"You here to take Hank up on his offer?" Nettie asked quietly.
Chris couldn't help the quizzical expression. "Does everyone know about that?" he inquired just as softly.
Looking rather nonchalant, Nettie shrugged. "Hank didn't care for secrets, Chris, remember? And besides, someone has to keep The Majestic going. What better choice than the only kin Hank has left? And like it or not, you are kin."
"He sure never acted that way," the blond said gruffly. Looking around, he was suddenly uneasy. "Nettie... It's uncomfortable just being here. I get what Hank was up to, no matter how hard it is to believe, but from what I can tell, The Majestic is in good hands already. I'm told he trusted six men enough to run the place when he wasn't around and enough to... give them equal shares. Maybe it's just best I give them the rest."
Looking Chris straight in the eye, Nettie raised a brow. "Maybe its just best you think on it a spell, Chris Larabee. Before you make that final decision.
Hearing his name pronounced out full made the hairs on Larabee's neck stand on end. Hank had always addressed him like that. He'd forgotten until now, but before he had a chance to answer, Nettie was talking again.
"The Connelly is all yours now, Chris, but... until youre ready, Ive fixed you a single upstairs.
Following Netties gesturing arm, Larabee nodded his concurrence. She was assuming a lot about his intentions to stay, but he wasn't ready to disappoint her just yet...
The smaller lodge Ms. Wells was referring to was the original homestead built by the Connelly ancestors back in the late eighteen hundreds. When they'd first established the resort in the early twenties, it had been converted to accommodate guests. However, once the main lodge was constructed, it was converted back into a home for the year-round residents and bore the name of those first settlers. Sarah had been born there and Hank had spent his final days in its splendor. But... could Chris live there?
A single will do just fine, Nettie, Larabee said solemnly, not wanting to give his silent question any further thought.
Well, good! came the reply. Number seven. She then indicated the big staircase again, Do you remember the way?
Ill find it, Chris leaned in to kiss the lady on her cheek. Thank you!
Waving her old friend off, Nettie watched Larabee wander to the large staircase and then disappear up the stairs. She sighed, cocking her head. It was good to finally see Chris back here, but she couldnt shake the feeling that the man himself wasnt exactly reveling in the idea. It occurred to Ms. Wells that she might just have to do something about that in the coming days.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Life at The Majestic was always on the go. Sitting at the large window in his room, Chris had been observing that fact over the past hour or so. It kept his mind busy, wondering and watching. Anything was better than trying to decide if he should unpack or not.
The first thing to catch Larabees eye was Sanchez. The bear of a man was hard to miss as he happily wandered up and down the waterfront. He interacted remarkably well for someone who came across so brazen and Chris was left to question if it was just him who found the pilot that way.
Out on the beach a short while later, Josiah greeted a dark-skinned couple and then the visitors who followed them. All but the lady were dressed in bathing attire or wetsuits, and as they boarded the canoes lined up on the sand, Sanchez took great pleasure in pushing them all out into the water. Assuming the one lead man was their guide, Chris watched the group slowly paddle away.
The lady stood with Josiah and waved the group off before eventually parting company. They'd stopped to chat for just a little while and there was an obvious easy manner between them Larabee couldn't help but recognize. He wondered about relationships here, and remembered...
After his companion had returned to the lodge, Sanchez, too, checked the sun's position before heading towards the dock. He climbed aboard his plane, firing up and then backing the aircraft out just a ways before coasting it out and eventually, around the point... to the old tie-down berth if Chris remembered correctly. He'd make a point of checking this fact in the morning.
Finding his eyes still focused on the far-off headland, Larabee then noticed a small group of what looked like cycling enthusiasts. Wishing for a pair of binoculars, he tried to pinpoint the group leader, assuming, for some unknown reason, it was the rider who appeared to be traversing some rather steep terrain with a little more enthusiasm than he thought warranted. He wondered about the identity of the daredevil and was quickly reminded of the waivers that had been in place as of his last visit. Each guest was required to agree to all stipulations.
No one was permitted beyond the visual boundaries of the Resort Lodge - clearly visible white flags posted within sight, on eight sides of the main lodge - without an experienced and knowledgeable escort.
Given the topography, isolation, and varied climate of the resort and its surrounding wilderness, it was a rule few had dared challenge. Common sense for most, but then there were a few...
Still focused on the rider and the gusto he was witnessing, Chris had to wonder about how the waiver applied to this particular enthusiast. Was he guest or guide? Did Larabee really want to know?
When the cycling group disappeared back into the tree line, Chris allowed his eyes to track back towards the lodge, and then continue along the opposite shore. Where the forest turned to the low shrubby of the coastline, his focus settled on the obvious outline of a man on horseback and Chris found himself smiling. Although they had only met briefly, something told him this man would be Vin Tanner and he amused himself with the thought of finding a true homegrown Texas cowboy in the middle of the Canadian wilderness.
That cowboy way was something he had fallen in love with all over again. His roots in Indiana had been a simple life. Sarah had revived that for him, allowing Chris to pass his own love of nature onto Adam. Life with the horses on his farm, with his wife and child... it had been a good life...
Seeing Tanner suddenly jump down from his horse drew Larabee from his musings. He blinked away his momentary sadness and then watched as the Texan led his mount over to a group that had emerged, on foot, from the forest in front of him. At this distance, Chris wasnt entirely sure, but he could have sworn Vin was having words with the man he had separated from the cluster of people. The expanse between them did little to obscure the rather flamboyant colors of the other man's attire though, and the Texan's words from their earlier meeting, came to mind. Was this the same fancy fella Tanner had been referring to before?
Chris now suspected the offered long story might be longer than he'd first thought, but his queries were lost as a knock at the door prevented him from pondering further...
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"Yes," Chris returned the happy smile of the young lady at his door. He was fairly good at sizing people up at a glance and guessed her to be somewhere in the late teens early twenties range. She was petite, but looked to be rather athletic. She was certainly dressed as such, her tight-fitting bicycle shorts and layered tank T's accented her figure nicely.
"Hi," she greeted again, this time letting her eyes give the man a quick once-over. Apparently satisfied with the results, she stated her reason for interrupting Larabee's afternoon. "Aunt Nettie sent me to tell you supper would be ready in about a half hour. Vin's arranged for you to meet the rest of the boys."
"Aunt Nettie?" Chris asked curiously. He knew Ms. Wells had an extensive family but was positive none of them resided at The Majestic.
The young lady certainly wasn't shy and looked a little indignant at this man's question. "Yeah, I'm Casey Wells. My Ma and Pa passed on two years back and Aunt Nettie is... was my guardian. I'm old enough to make my own decisions now, but...." Bowing her head for just a moment, her chin came back up and revealed another happy grin. "Well, I kind 'a like it here. The Majestic grows on a person, ya know. Once you've been here a while, you don't want to leave."
"Is that so?" Larabee asked curiously. He could tell by her tone that Casey was far from lying. She was obviously happy and perhaps a little too enthusiastic for his mood. However, before Chris could say anything further, the young lady was talking again.
"Yep!" she announced cheerfully. "You'll see," Casey continued as she turned to leave. "See you later, Mr. Larabee."
Watching her wave and then eagerly bound down the hallway, Chris couldn't help but smile. Despite her youth, it was abundantly clear that Miss Wells had a passion. A passion for life was obvious. A passion for her home was something she seemed to share with others he'd already met. And, once again, Larabee was left to wonder about this place. Could he, too, call it home?
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"There you are," Nettie smiled as Chris came down the grand staircase a short time later. "Thought perhaps you'd gone a wonderin' and lost your way."
"Unless that's changed around here, too, I thought people weren't supposed to be able to do that."
Cocking her head, Ms. Wells raised a brow. "Too wild out there to change that particular rule, Chris. You know that better than most."
Acknowledging the woman's comment with a slight nod, Larabee then raised a finger to his lips. "That's our little secret though, right?"
"I wouldn't count on it," Nettie laughed as she took Larabee by the arm and walked towards the back of the great hall. As the large expansive wall got lower, it began to break up into smaller archways, and eventually, individual rooms could be seen. "Renovations?" Larabee asked.
"Just a few," Ms. Wells responded. "Ezra's idea on running a business and Vin... Well, that young man is good at a lot of things, but... As he puts it, our 'southern dandy' comes in handy from time to time."
A frown creased Larabee's brow as they came to a halt at a set of double doors. "This is as far as I go," Nettie announced with a tap of the man's arm. "I hope you make the right decision, Chris. The Majestic needs you."
Without another word, Ms. Wells was gone, leaving Larabee to turn and face the large twin doors. He had a pretty good idea what lay on the other side. Whether he was ready to confront it or not, was entirely another matter.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Four men were seated, busily eating, when Chris entered the dining room. They all looked up, some smiling a greeting while one waved his welcome. A fifth, rather well dressed man was at the bar pouring himself a drink and it was he who chose to speak.
"Well, well, well... This must be the infamous Mr. Larabee. Adventurer extraordinaire, vanquisher of the fair maiden's heart, slayer of great acquaintances, and all around fool."
"A bad day with the guests ain't call enough to be rude, Ezra," the dark-skinned man answered loudly. "You'd best sit and wash your brandy down with some food."
Observing the exchange with a quiet reserve, Vin Tanner finally stood and stepped towards Larabee. His hand, wiped on his napkin, was then offered in greeting, "Welcome, Chris." Momentarily distracted with a glance towards the bar, the Texan then added, "Don't mind Ezra there, he's a little peeved. Ain't often I have call to take a strip off a fella, even if he did have a good reason. They were more than two hours late today though and we don't take that lightly around here."
This 'Ezra' was proving to be an interesting individual from what little Chris could surmise. He was definitely another fellow American though... that or the decidedly southern drawl the man had spoken in was a well-manufactured ruse. Giving credence to the authenticity of the accent wasn't a far stretch though, especially when put along side the immaculate emerald green evening coat the man wore. A ruffle-sleeved shirt and gold pocket watch completed the picture to perfection. "The eh, rescue team you mentioned this afternoon?"
Tanner acknowledged Larabee's question with a slight nod before showing him to the empty chair at his left.
As Chris sat down, so too, did Ezra.
"We serve ourselves around here," the Texan said as he handed Chris an empty plate. A large 'Lazy Susan' at the center of the big table wasn't hard to miss. "The cooks and wait-staff have guests to take care of. That's the way it should be, don't ya think?"
"And if I remember correctly," Larabee offered back, "So few take care of so many."
Vin merely nodded again before going right back to his dinner. It was piled conservatively, although a large helping of mashed potatoes barely concealed the roast beef below.
As he helped himself to a portion of the offerings, Chris made mental notes about the table's occupants. As expected, Vin was enjoying his plate. Josiah, too, was clearly hungry, although he did manage to breathe between bites. The same might not be said for the young man seated beside his older companion.
Hazel eyes sparkled below a mop of black hair as each mouthful came home. Satisfaction was something men were supposed to gain from a meal, but Chris suspected all this young man gained was a full stomach. He didn't leave time for anything else.
Across the table from the young fellow sat Ezra. The contrast between their eating habits was painfully obvious, the southern man wincing each time his younger cohort swallowed down more water from his glass. Ezra had cause to look at the dark man between himself and Larabee, expressing his exasperation with a glare. The look pleaded, and the other man finally spoke.
"I swear, JD, you're gonna give yourself an ulcer. Slow down, boy. I know Miss Nettie packed you a huge lunch. She was complaining all the while."
"As usual," Ezra added, his emerald eyes sparkling with begrudging amusement.
While finishing his mouthful, the young man studied the two men addressing him. Finally, when his mouth was empty, he responded. "Ah, come on guys! We had a really great day on the mountain and I'm hungry."
A voice from the doorway came to the young man's defense. "He's a growin' boy, Nathan. Leave the kid alone."
A fork aimed at Larabee's mouth slowly made its way back to his plate. Larabee's eyes quickly followed. He knew that voice. He recognized the playful love and concern in the tone and instantly acknowledged the bond this man had with the others at the table. He had been a beneficiary of that bond for more years than he could count... and then he had thrown it away. "Buck?"
Wilmington's head was lowered when Larabee turned to face him. Buck had purposely sent his eyes to the floor, both dreading and anticipating this moment, not knowing if he could face his old friend again. The history between them was ripe with friendship and conflict. Any good rapport had both of course. Human beings weren't meant to live their lives in total bliss. And this was Wilmington's strong suit anyway. He could always find reason and rhyme enough to solve every problem in life... almost every problem. "Yeah, Chris... it's me."
Larabee was on his feet by now; his chair pushed back, his path clear to the door. And yet, he was once again frozen in time.
There were so many emotions and memories Chris had both denied and confronted on this short journey. Some he had been prepared for, others he was aware of but never expected to face. Still others were a possibility he would deal with if the time and place came to pass. This however, was completely unexpected.
Never in his wildest imagination had Larabee anticipated the discovery of the man he had been searching for, for so long. There was so much he wanted to say. So much he needed to tell. So many things he had denied.
They shared a long past these two. It was a history filled with great joy and accomplishment, love, success, and happiness, but there was a deep sadness there, too. Great loss did that to a man, and when coupled with regret. "It's... good to see you, Buck."
The honesty in Larabee's voice was something Wilmington was familiar with. The hesitation he'd actually expected. Slowly, he met his old friend's eyes, searching deep into a soul he wasn't sure still existed. What Buck found in an instant, actually made him smile.
There was actually more than a presence reflecting back at him. The hollow shell of the man he had left so long ago was now filled with purpose again. The lust for life wasn't quite back to its previous level, but it was there just the same. Larabee was back, or at least on his way. In time, the rest just might well be forgiven. "I'm surprised to see you, Chris," he said.
The seemingly awkward moment wasn't missed by any of the room's occupants, and Buck quickly corrected that. Clearing his throated, he then added, "But don't let that spoil a good meal. Sit! Eat!" Casually rounding the table, Wilmington took up the empty chair between his young friend and Ezra. The former exchanged a knowing grin and then went right back to eating as Buck had indicated they all should.
Before the remaining occupants of the round table all began to eat again, Wilmington and Tanner shared a brief look, each fully understanding its meaning.
As he sat back down and watched the hesitant resumption of activity, Chris became painfully aware of the fact that all of these men probably knew of the history he and Buck shared. He wondered just how much his oldest friend had communicated. The dismaying thoughts occupied him as the meal continued...
Banter went back and forth over the next half hour and Larabee continued to observe, feeling somewhat of an outsider. They tried to include where possible and although he knew nothing but a few names, he quickly came to realize that each of these men had a special place within the group. Despite their obvious differences, they appeared to work well as a cohesive unit and he could see why Hank had entrusted The Majestic to their care. Where he might fit into all of this though, was still a mystery...
"Join us, Chris?" The question came from Vin who was now standing at the bar.
Plates had been cleared or piled and most of the food at the table had been eaten. A mug of beer in his hand, Josiah was already seated over by the fireplace. Ezra was there, too, his brandy refilled and in use. The young man, JD, was behind the bar serving Nathan what looked to be soda water. He then poured three beers for himself, Buck and Vin.
Chris stood, pushing his chair in at the table. One last glance around and then he was wandering to the bar. Once there, he looked into Buck's eyes before focusing on Vin. "Don't mind if I do," he smiled.
"What's your poison?"
Before Larabee could answer, Wilmington asked a question. "You... still drinkin', Chris?"
The momentary silence once again confirmed for Chris that Buck had related at least some details of their past.
Taking a deep breath, Larabee smiled at his old friend and then looked briefly around the room. "Mostly a social drink now and then, Buck," he answered, refocusing on the man. "And this is a social gathering, right?"
"It is," Vin replied, stepping slightly between the two men. Buck had confided in him some. Larabee's bout with alcohol was one such detail. It was information Wilmington had felt important enough to share, especially after Hank had announced his decision. The others had been told a few details, but only Vin and Buck had discussed it openly. Vin understood instinctively there was more to the story than Wilmington had confided but he also knew Buck had predicted his old friend would never set foot on The Majestic Resort again. If he was wrong about that, then perhaps there was hope for change after all. "Trust has to start somewhere," he suggested. "Now seems as good a time as any."
Seeing Buck and Vin exchange glances again reminded Chris of the way he used to communicate with Wilmington. It made him smile inside. Knowing Buck had found a confidant was a good thing and he nodded his appreciation to Vin, as well as to Buck for his apparent acceptance of the Texan's idea. Then, refocusing on the barman, Chris answered the young man's question. "Well... JD is it?"
Realizing the momentary tension had been broken, the kid smiled. "That's me!" he answered. "John Daniel Dunne. JD for short."
"Short being the operative word," Wilmington teased, trying to go with the flow, despite his apprehension. Standing next to Chris when he ordered a drink was something the two men had done for years. It used to be a commonplace event in their lives, but then things had gone so horribly wrong. Buck didn't know for sure if Chris had recovered, but he understood what Vin was saying. He had to at least give Larabee the benefit of his doubt.
"Not all of our Mamas put manure in our boots, Buck," JD teased right back.
"Nothin' wrong with bein' little, Kid," Vin tried to appease the conversation. "Don't ever let Buck tell you otherwise. I'll take agile over clumsy any day."
Knowing Wilmington was about to counter the playful insult, Chris interrupted with his drink order. "Whiskey, please, JD. Just a finger or two."
"Coming right up," the kid answered and true to his word, the drink was served in short order. He handed it to Chris, who purposely didn't look back to his oldest friend. Vin was right; they would have to trust one another sometime.
Raising his glass, Vin indicated the circle of chairs over by the fire. "Time for you to meet the boys," he grinned. Not waiting for a reply, he then made his way over to the assorted seats and sat back into a large old brown recliner.
Laid out like a large private study, the room was homey and even the modest fire in the hearth didn't seem too out of place. After all, it did get cold in the mountains, even in summer. Despite the relaxed setting though, Larabee quickly got the idea Tanner wasn't one to beat around the bush. One by one he formally introduced everyone, starting with himself.
The descriptions he used were both amusing and informative...
"We already did some introducin' earlier, Chris, but for the record, these are the men you'll have the pleasure of workin' with... if you so choose."
No one batted an eyelid at Tanner's statement. Secrets at The Majestic were hard to find and word had spread quickly about Larabee's hesitation. Whatever course of action the man chose to pursue though, they were all ready.
"So... we've met up a time or two by now. I do my best to keep things runnin' smooth around here and I'm first and last contact for any guests who might have a comment, be it good or bad. Outside daily operations, I try to stay up on what all the fellas are trained in. I'm also partial to trail rides, and hikin', year round. The high meadow sure is pretty, no matter what time 'a year you catch it."
Chris could only nod as Vin continued with his introductions. "I know you met Josiah. He was born and raised in these here mountains so being our chief pilot comes natural. I don't know of another man who can do with a plane what he can, but I'd trust him with my life, anytime, anywhere."
Meeting the pilot's eyes, Chris offered a fleeting smile and nod. He was pretty sure this man stood a few inches taller than him, around Buck's height he imagined. But while Wilmington's size had never really been that daunting, coupled with Josiah's broad shoulders and barrel chest, you got a very imposing man. His graying hair only added to the image but Chris suspected Josiah was only a few years his senior. His bright blue eyes however, reflected back wisdom and knowledge beyond those years.
"Josiah knows all of the good fishin' spots and takes care of those guests who want to catch a bite or two. Two is still the limit by the way," Tanner continued. "As winter sets in, you'll find him leadin' a snow shoein' expedition or the occasional dogsled adventure."
"Versatile," Larabee raised a brow, to which Sanchez offered a broad toothy grin.
"We have to be up here, Chris."
"Buck's right," Tanner agreed without missing a beat. "No one is left out of the load and we do our best to double up for safety reasons, too. That's where Buck comes in."
Looking at his oldest friend again, Larabee quirked a questioning brow.
"We all know you and Buck go way back, Chris." When the man met his eyes, Tanner continued. "Details ain't important."
"For some," Ezra said quietly.
Everyone heard the comment, including Chris, but decided better on commenting.
"I'm told you're like Buck though," the Texan pressed on. "You... pretty much know it all."
Wilmington was impressing no one with his broad cocky smile but he had to let it loose anyway.
"Among other things, Buck's our backup pilot when the need arises."
"Which is never!" Josiah put in for good measure.
"He also aids Nathan and Rain in an emergency."
"Thankfully, those times have been few and far between as well," the dark-skinned man continued. "Nathan Jackson, Mr. Larabee," he introduced. "I'm the doctor up here. Rain is my very capable nurse and my beautiful wife of two glorious years, and you couldn't drag us away from these mountains if you tried... such a contrast from urban Toronto where I grew up." There was an unmistakable respect unleashed in Nathan as he told his story. "It sure didn't take long for Hank to convince us that we belonged here. He needed a good doctor around he said. I needed a job, but more than that, Rain and I needed a place to belong. Hank was right. We belong here."
Warm dark-brown eyes reflected Jackson's connection to The Majestic and Chris could tell every word this man spoke was the truth. There was an instant trust forged as well, and in many ways, Nathan reminded Chris of Buck. Sure they were of similar stature and build, but more importantly, they seemed to share an honesty and integrity rare among most men.
Tanner continued where Jackson had left off. "And in his spare time, Nathan takes care of our boat lovers. Canoes on the lake... there's a stretch on the river good enough for a kayak or two. Further down, the white water kicks in and he loves that, too."
"That one takes most of us to handle," JD contributed. "You just gotta love the adrenaline rush of a good white-water ride."
"Down, boy, down," Wilmington teased his young cohort again.
"JD... he ain't much for slowin' down, as you've probably gathered," Vin winked at Chris.
"And unless I miss my guess," Larabee grinned back, "He likes to put that theory to the test on two wheels."
"Ah, mountain bikes are the best!" Dunne raved in reply. "A good run is when you can get down without stopping, but... I have to slow down for the tourists." Looking the Texan square in the eyes, the kid seemed to calm all of a sudden. "Vin said so."
A sly smile crossed Tanner's lips as he cocked his head. "It's your job to keep all our guests safe, JD. You do a real good job, too." When the kid smiled his thanks, Vin turned back to Chris. "In the winter, JD turns his wheels in for a snowboard. And up there, he does his level best not to trigger any avalanches."
Larabee understood the humor, but suddenly remembered, "Right! I forgot about Majesty Peak. Still good skiing up there?"
"Fantastic!" Jackson answered with an enthusiastic smile.
"Skiing is Nathan's winter specialty," Vin acknowledged. "Boardin' is..."
It was the southerner who interjected his thoughts this time, "A much younger man's sport."
With a curious nod, the Texan took a deep breath. "Which brings me to Ezra."
Seated comfortably in a tall-backed evening chair, the southerner continued Vin's train of thought, "Ezra P. Standish to be precise." Raising his tumbler in salute, he then swallowed down a swig.
Somewhat embarrassed by the southerner's persistent attitude, Tanner tried to make amends as he continued. "As you heard, Chris, Ezra had a bad day with a guest. That being said though, if it weren't for his business sense, I'm sure Hank would have opted out of their arrangement years ago..."
"One must not sully the man's reputation, Mr. Tanner," the southerner protested. "Hank was a shrewd businessman in his own right. He is to be credited with the continued success of The Majestic right up until his unfortunate demise."
"Don't you go sellin' yourself short now, Ezra," Buck offered his thoughts. "Ol' Hank leaned on you more and more as the months wore on. He... weren't exactly thinkin' straight for months before... it happened."
A solemn silence enveloped the room and Larabee could see from the varied expressions that his oldest friend was conveying a heartfelt truth. Clearly, this close-knit circle of friends had developed individual relationships with Hank and he couldn't shirk the uncomfortable feeling that left him with. Acknowledging that Buck was very much included in this group only emphasized the uneasiness of the situation. After all, Wilmington knew of the bitterness between Hank and Chris, and yet, here we was...
Needing his thoughts to be elsewhere, Larabee quickly refocused on Standish. His need for distraction aside, Chris really couldn't help but wonder about Ezra. Everyone seemed to take their shots at the southerner, and yet, it didn't seem to faze him at all. There was an oblivious air about him, and for some strange reason, Larabee thought it might actually be something Standish enjoyed. It seemed a reasonable assumption to speculate that there was perhaps, more to this man than met the eye.
"Ezra... He takes care of the business end of things around here," Tanner eventually continued. "Shrewd might be the right word... I ain't positive on that fact. It's a fact that he's a pain in the ass though."
"I merely speak my mind, Mr. Tanner," Standish objected with pursed lips and a scowl. "If I am to be condemned for my honesty, then so be it. But at least I can say I will depart this world with a clear conscience."
"And a full purse," Wilmington grinned.
Looking rather indignant for all of two seconds, Standish responded. "My extensive skills at a gaming table have never been in question, Buck. Need I remind you though, neither is my proficiency on a shear rock face." Focusing on Chris, the southerner now smiled as he continued. "Numerous patrons, on a weekly basis, are treated to my expertise, Mr. Larabee. In the winter, I am able to indulge the most adventurous of our clientele with the north face of Majesty Peak. The ice cliffs are a wonderful excursion from the norm. The glacier, too, provides some exquisite exploration. The views offered from the top are magnificent."
"Those facts we don't question," Sanchez offered. "It's just Ezra's timing, wisdom, and better judgment, we question from time to time."
Enthusiasm still very evident, JD added, "Ezra's great in the office, but he likes a good challenge, too."
With a raised brow, the southerner smiled his concurrence and thanks. "Life cannot be all about business though, my young friend. The excitement to be had in a good game of poker is a distraction. The unassisted ascent of an as-of-yet unscaled rock face is indeed a challenge."
"Just not with guests in tow, right?" Vin asked pointedly. "You wanna go off and break your fool neck, you need to do it without witnesses."
"Of course, Mr. Tanner," Ezra smiled politely before focusing on Chris. "And I would, of course, do it without the necessity of rescue... unlike others of my brief acquaintance."
Watching the southerner's green eyes as he spoke, Larabee could see clearly a definite flash of confidence... over-confidence perhaps. The man's smile bore witness to that, as did the way his auburn topped head moved with his animated speech. And just what was it Ezra supposedly knew? Accepting the logical answer wasn't Larabee's immediate focus. How Standish was using his knowledge... now that required his attention.
Boasting wasn't exactly becoming, and maybe the others were used to the interaction, but Chris wasn't convinced. There was a definite perception of a challenge in the man's words, too. It had started more than an hour earlier with the same biting comments that hinted at Larabee's past. Maybe Ezra just liked to stand out in a crowd. Maybe he believed everything he heard and everything he bragged about. Whatever the case, Chris had already decided he didn't like it much. If it was a challenge the southerner wanted, then Larabee was his man. "I get the feeling you don't like me much, Mr. Standish?" he said outright. "We've just met but... from the colorful introduction you gave... you presume a lot. You think you know a man... But you don't know me at all."
Understanding he now had Ezra's full attention, Larabee confronted him on his own level. "And then you sit there boasting about your accomplishments... It's all hearsay in my book. Or am I just supposed to be as impressed, as you obviously are with the things you've heard about me." Sitting forward in his chair, Chris provided the southerner with a challenge he may or may not have wanted. "I don't impress easily, Mr. Standish. Worse yet, in my book, hearsay isn't worth the air wasted on spouting it. I have the same opinion on bragging as well. It doesn't do a damn thing to prove what a man can or cannot do." Sitting back, Chris took in a calming breath. "That's the type of man I am, Mr. Standish. I believe what I see. So... I guess you'll have to show me."
As JD had hinted, Ezra Standish was never one to back down from any challenge. He raised his glass in salute again, and then set it aside, bowing gracefully from his chair. "At your convenience, Mr. Larabee." Snapping back to meet Chris' eyes though, he continued with a slight cock of his head. "But let me make myself perfectly clear. What you say is indeed true. I don't like you. I don't trust you. The reasons... hearsay, or fact? Time, it seems, is the only thing that might provide a resolution for us both."
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"So, tell me... what on earth brings a Texas cowboy to call the Canadian wilderness home?" Standing in the small office, drink in hand; Larabee was looking out the window at a darkening sky. Nighttime had finally settled around the resort and people were following in short order.
Introductions after dinner hadn't exactly gone as well as Vin had hoped so he'd invited Chris back to his office to continue their conversation. Ezra had bid everyone goodnight after his display. Nathan and Josiah had followed fairly close behind. And Buck and JD, always up for a good game of pool, were still indulging in the games room.
"You decide to stay, Chris," Tanner hinted, "And I'll tell you sometime. All you need to know right now though is, I am here, and I'm not goin' anywhere."
"Fair enough," Chris answered as he turned.
Gesturing his guest to the chair behind his desk, Vin decided to sit on the other side. "Like it?" he asked after the man had made himself comfortable.
"Only until you make your decision."
The Texan had already proven easy to talk to so Chris just said the first thing that came to his mind, "And if I don't stay?"
Lowering his head momentarily, Tanner answered. "Then I'll call you a fool," he glanced back at Chris. "I might even help you pack. I'd be sorry to see you leave but I won't be puttin' that welcome mat back out again. You only get one chance at this, Larabee."
Considering the honesty of their conversation, and his whiskey, Chris swirled it a couple of times before taking a sip. He then focused on his companion, considering the man for quite some time before he spoke. "I met you this morning, Tanner, and already I know I like you. Same goes for the rest of your bunch. Except maybe that Standish fella... I'll wait and see on him."
Vin had an easy look on his face as he, too, took a sip of his whiskey. Giving Chris a truer picture of Ezra's strengths was a consideration he thought on briefly, but quickly decided against. Larabee was a smart man. He would figure Standish out soon... if he stuck around long enough that is.
"As for The Majestic..." there was a long pause. "I don't know, Vin." When blue eyes met green, there was a clear understanding. "I don't know what you know... and maybe it's better I don't, but... The Majestic houses more than good memories for me. Just being here... it ain't easy."
The Texan could see Chris was fighting for each heartfelt word he spoke. There was purpose in his search though. This man clearly wanted to speak his mind and be sure he was understood, no matter how painful the words. Vin appreciated that honesty and gave Larabee all the time in the world to formulate his thoughts.
"It's clear the Hank Connelly you knew, isn't the same man I knew. Maybe he changed. Maybe he didn't. Me... I've changed, but you don't know that any more than I know if Hank did. Truth is, Vin," Chris looked at his host. "I don't know if change, any change, is enough to make anything right... especially what went wrong between Hank and me. Saying it would... well that's really sad, ya know." There was a strained laugh as Larabee continued, "'Cause the two people in this world who would have benefited most from us getting along... they aren't here to see it."
Despite never having met this man, Tanner knew exactly what he was talking about. He had the benefit of knowing Hank Connelly on his side, and notwithstanding that fact as Larabee saw it, Vin also knew Hank's confessions and beliefs. "Your father-in-law might disagree with you there, Chris," he countered with a gentle smile. "He used to go up there and talk to them, practically every day. I ain't countin' his dementia neither. Them talkin' back... well I don't know about that, but... maybe your wife and boy can help you decide."
There was suspicion in Larabee's eyes as he stood. The conversation had instantly become very uncomfortable, and his mood changed just as quickly. Forcing down the last of his drink, he set the glass down and prepared to leave. "My wife and son are gone, Mr. Tanner. I don't believe in any God... or the afterlife. I... stopped believing in a lot of things after they were gone. It was Hank Connelly who didn't give me much choice." His piece said, Larabee then left Tanner alone to contemplate his meaning.
Staring at the empty glass on his desk, Vin inhaled long and deep, wondering exactly what he had said that had caused such a strong reaction. Up until that point, he'd thought he and Chris were getting along well. Clearly though, he'd broached a topic on the high side of painful. Was it talking about Larabee's wife and son, he wondered? Or was adding Hank Connelly to the mix a catalyst Larabee wasn't yet ready to deal with? Both scenarios bothered the Texan, mainly because, if he did choose to remain at The Majestic, his new boss would have to deal with both prospects on an almost daily basis. And then he'd have to deal with Chris...
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
A worse night's sleep Larabee couldn't remember. As the first glimmers of light entered his room, he finally gave up on the idea of rest and went out for a run. The beachfront wasn't exactly conducive to the activity though and, finally making it to the point, he turned inland to see if his return trip could be any smoother.
It wasn't long before Chris decided he was on one of JD's biking trails. Smooth was far from the word he would use to describe it but he could somehow see the young man having a ball as he traversed the path. Dunne could certainly grow on a man real quick and that thought made Larabee smile. The fact that Buck had obviously taken to the kid wasn't surprising at all. Buck liked to protect people... when you let him.
Thoughts of Wilmington again had Larabee pondering just how long his old friends had been at The Majestic. It had been two and half years since they'd parted company...
'Ha!' Chris chastised himself silently. They hadn't parted company. He'd forced the man away, not wanting to listen to any more of his self-righteous pep talks... not wanting to hear the truth really. The truth, it seemed, hurt... no matter how late you realized it.
Occupying himself with his original question, Chris tried to piece the puzzle together. He knew Buck had resigned his position with FEMA shortly after their... falling out. The clothes he'd shown up in last night resembled the attire Tanner was outfitted in. More of a western-style than the casual jeans & t-shirt Chris was used to seeing Buck wear. And last night, Wilmington had defended Standish; referring to the support he gave Hank 'as the months wore on'. All of those things implied Buck had been at The Majestic for quite some time... months, if not years before Hank passed on.
Deciding he'd have to ask his oldest friend directly, Larabee slowed his pace, eventually realizing where he was...
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"You alright, Chris?"
Larabee didn't answer and Wilmington decided he should chance venturing closer. "Chris?"
Wiping the latent tracks from his cheeks, the blond tried to hide any trace of his tears. He knew he wasn't succeeding though. Not that it mattered much. Wilmington could see through any façade he might try to construct. He always had been able to. It was one of the most annoying characteristics the man had. It almost won out over his inability to walk past a beautiful woman without stopping to say hello... almost. "I'm fine, Buck," Chris finally answered.
"Yeah, right," Wilmington said plainly. He was trying to be helpful but understood he couldn't help as much as he wanted to. Instead, he relied on his most maddening trait... his honesty. "You always were a really bad liar, Chris. And you should know better than to do it in front of your wife. She could always tell."
Shades of last night's conversation with Tanner flashed in his mind and Larabee was instantly on his feet, turning to face his oldest friend with fire in his eyes. "Don't Buck! Don't play those games with me. They're... gone...."
The fire in his heart had instantly vanished and Buck allowed Chris to turn away without further confrontation. He gave his friend a few minutes to compose himself before talking again. Speaking words he decided, Larabee needed to hear... "They're here, Chris. And I really don't care whether you believe that anymore or not but fact is, Sarah and Adam are right here, right in front of you, right now." Taking his own calming breath, Buck allowed one more thing to slip from his lips, "I... I was pretty damn sure that's exactly the reason why you'd never come back here. So sure in fact, I told Vin you'd never take Hank up on his offer...."
Being edgy, Chris seriously wanted to forget his feelings and he quickly seized the opportunity to change the subject, deciding he'd try to get some of his earlier questions answered at the same time. "What made you come here, Buck... back to The Majestic? When... how long?"
Buck was feeling the same kind of edgy. It had happened to them a lot over the years, that same 'gut instinct' kicking in. It made for an emotional roller coaster inside his head, and heart, and Wilmington scrubbed the back of his neck, hoping to ease his apprehension. Larabee's question didn't help. He knew he'd have to answer eventually. Here, now... in front of his reasons... A more appropriate time, maybe, but this was definitely the place. "I came because of them, Chris," Buck replied with a gentle smile towards the two graves. "That... last time I saw you... So much of my life has been wrapped up with yours ya know. I never realized it until then." Taking the time to swallow back his feelings, Wilmington turned to look out over the bay The Majestic's cemetery kept watch on. It was a truly beautiful vista and a befitting resting place for those folks who had come to call this place their home.
"I tried to tell you back then, Chris, how much I loved them. I thought... if you weren't gonna tell them anymore, then at least someone should."
The momentary reprieve from his emotions over, Larabee choked back the lump in his throat. He was suddenly sad for the time he'd lost, but also, suddenly curious about his oldest friend's statement, "You came to take my place?"
Ignoring the questioning tone, Buck took no offense to the question, instead simply turning his head to briefly glance at his friend. "No one could ever do that in their hearts, Chris," he answered before returning his eyes to the view. "I ain't never been that kind 'a jealous neither, but they meant the world to me, and... losin' all 'a you. You... didn't want me around, so...."
Larabee swallowed hard this time, finally realizing what Wilmington was saying. Truth was, it was the same message he'd tried to convey for six long months so long ago, but Chris had been in no state of mind to truly understand then. Now he did... "You came to take my place," he said again as he approached and set a hand to Buck's shoulder. The gentle squeeze finally acknowledged a fact that had for so long been denied.
Chin down, Wilmington sucked at his bottom lip, trying to quell any sign of emotion. Humor, it seemed, would once again come to his aid. "Ya know... seein' your name on those gravestones, practically everyday... it ain't the easiest thing in the world to do."
Now standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hands stuffed deep in his sweatpants pockets, Chris took a deep breath, understanding better than most, what Buck was trying to do. "I can imagine," he said. "Especially knowing how much of an ass Larabee can be."
"Last time I knew him."
Chris smiled, pondering for a moment. Eventually though, he turned just his head, "You really told Vin I wouldn't come?"
"Yep," Buck answered without meeting the eyes he knew were looking at him.
"I shouldn't have you know," the blond stated as his focus returned to the bay.
It was Wilmington's turn to look at his friend, "What I know is... I ain't never come clean on my reasons for being here, until now, Chris." Turning fully to face his oldest friend, Wilmington waited until Larabee did the same. "And you've made a liar out 'a me now and... and I deserve to know why."
Raising his eyes to the light morning clouds, Larabee searched for answers but was unable to find any. "I don't know," he finally said, shrugging as his hands dug deeper into his sweatpants. "Less than a week ago, Buck, I thought I had answers. Not the kind I had years ago mind you, but I've come to accept that."
"Yeah," Chris smiled for his friend. "I owe you my life, Buck," he added, meeting the man's eyes for just a second before turning them away. "Leaving me, against everything our friendship has ever stood for, was the best thing you ever did for me." A long pause gave way to the continuation, "You're the last person in the world I expected to find out here in the middle of nowhere, but... for what it's worth, I'm glad you're here. I am sorry... really... for every lousy thing I ever did to you. What I put you through..." Once again looking directly at his oldest friend, Larabee smiled, "I never got the chance to thank you for saving my life, Buck... until now."
As their eyes met again, Wilmington cocked his head a little. Apologies and explanations weren't something he did openly, and knowing Chris was much the same, he figured one honest moment deserved another. "I came here shortly after I left you, Chris. Like I said, I came for Sarah... Maybe you should be thankin' her, instead of me."
An audible breath found it's way into Larabee's lungs as he allowed his focus to drift to his wife's headstone. Shortly thereafter, his chin dipped as he choked back his feelings.
Seeing Chris was now at a loss for words, Wilmington took solace in the fact that he'd made his point. "If I'm gonna be made a liar out of," he said quietly, once again changing the subject, "You'd best be doin' it right, don't ya think?" His shrewd suggestion conveyed, Buck walk slowly out of the cemetery.
As Larabee watched his friend depart, he couldnt help but smile. It was strange to think of 'wisdom' and 'Wilmington' in the same sentence but this time, as painful as it was to admit, the pair belonged together. Of course, the idea of some sort of conspiracy from beyond the grave was ludicrous...
The love of one woman, bringing three men back together again... maybe that wasn't such a silly idea though.
A new set of thoughts now running amuck in his head, Larabee returned to his wife's grave, reaching out to touch the headstone as he sat down beside it. "You never cease to amaze me," he whispered. "And... I have so missed telling you that...."
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"Mornin', Mr. Larabee."
Walking across the main meeting hall, Chris turned to search out the face that went along with the cheerful greeting. He smiled when he saw it, "Well hello there, Miss Wells. And how are you this fine day?"
Casey giggled; quite amused with the greeting she'd received. "I heard you knew, Buck," she grinned. "Didn't know you took lessons from him though." When Chris frowned, she laughed outright this time. "I'll ask Gloria to save some breakfast for you, seein' as how you're so late gettin' up and all."
Before Chris could correct the assumptions Casey was making, she'd skipped off to the far end of the main counter and then disappeared behind it. Deciding it was in his best interest not to pursue the young lady, he shrugged and continued on his way to the stairs. Once again though, he was greeted...
"You... like 'em that young?"
Stopping dead in his tracks, Larabee raised a brow before turning to face Sanchez. "Not exactly my style," he replied sincerely.
"JD will be glad to hear that," the pilot assured him with a smile. And then added, "Nice morning! Didn't know if I'd get to say that to you but, glad I could. Winds of change perhaps?" Raising his own brow questioningly, Josiah didn't wait for an answer, "Nice talking to you, boss."
Again left without being able to answer back, Larabee watched Sanchez move across the floor and then exit through the side doors. He couldn't help the grin that creased his lips as he stood there shaking his head.
"Don't worry too much about Josiah, Chris. He has that effect on a lot of people he meets."
"Does he call them nuts and crazy, too?" Larabee asked quizzically as he turned to address Nettie.
"Hell, no," the lady grinned as she took her old friend's arm. "He only does that to the folks he likes."
Laughing as they walked, Chris suddenly wondered where they were going. "Mind telling me where you're taking me?"
"Shhh," Mrs. Wells answered, still moving her friend along.
It wasn't long before Larabee laid eyes on what Nettie wanted to show him. Four men and two women, all wearing green vests, were trying their level best to organize what looked to be several dozen guests. Mass confusion might have been another name for it, but standing off to one side, looking calm and reserved, was Vin Tanner, quietly answering the questions people were coming at him with. Buck stood at the Texan's side, carefully making notes and counting folks as they gathered with a particular guide. The occasional word between the two, along with the intermittent nod or point, all seemed to indicate things were going as planned.
"How can you tell it's Friday?" Nettie asked.
Frowning, Larabee added a shrug when the lady looked his way.
Shaking her head, Ms. Wells hinted, "Extra guests and lots of newcomers. Always makes for an interesting start to the weekend."
It had been on a Thursday some ten years ago now that Buck, Chris, and two of their co-workers had first made the trek to The Majestic. It had seemed strange at first that they had needed to take two days off of work instead of just the Friday, but once on ground, the reasons had become abundantly clear. Remembering his own experience with that first chaotic morning after their arrival, Larabee grinned. "Looks like they have it all well in hand though."
"Would be a might easier if Vin were freed up. The boy does what he can of course, but he'd just as soon not."
Feeling suspiciously like a caged rat, Chris pursed his lips and eyed his own personal conscience. Wisely though, he didn't say a word. Instead, he went back to watching, taking in the goings on.
The first thing that caught his eye was, to one side of the back porch, Dunne was... patting behinds?
Wide-eyed, Chris looked at Nettie and she didn't even try to conceal her grin. "JD covers some pretty rough terrain out there and requires all his participants to wear those fancy biking things. You know, the shorts with the padding built right in."
Larabee didn't know from experience mind you, but he'd heard that the extra padding in specially designed biking shorts provided much needed protection for certain parts of the anatomy.
Signaling his understanding with a hesitant nod, he then glanced back at JD, seeing him give another young man the 'two thumbs up. With a sly, somewhat disbelieving grin, Chris continued to look around at the crowd.
Jackson was busy checking life jackets and Larabee understood that one with no problem.
Seeing Casey Wells handing out binoculars to her group, he asked, "Your niece is certified?"
"She's got a green vest doesn't she?" Nettie said flatly.
Larabee smiled his apology. He should have known better than to ask, but the question just slipped out before he could think. A green vest, colored to mimic the majority of the surrounding landscape, was meant to indicate someone certified to escort guests beyond the white warning flags. Sarah had told him a long time ago and it wasn't as if he had forgotten... but he hadn't exactly been thinking about The Majestic lately.
"Ezra," Vin hollered above the crowd. "Ezra, I need to see you before you head out."
A wave from Standish indicated he'd heard the instruction but, for the immediate moment, he went back to checking harnesses.
A loud 'Whoa' from the opposite direction refocused Larabee's eyes on Sanchez. An overzealous guest had cast his fishing line into the crowd and Josiah had now taken possession of the rod and was reeling it back in, obviously giving corrective directions to the man. Chris raised a brow, wondering exactly what the big man was saying to the rather intimidated looking patron. No one else seemed overly concern though, so he assumed Josiah had a tactful side to him as well.
"Who's the other woman?" Larabee asked. His eyes had found the last of the green vests covering a young brunette. Her long bouncy hair was tied back in a high ponytail and sunglasses, propped up on her head, were waiting to cover her pretty brown eyes.
"Oh, that's Inez Recillos," Nettie replied. "She's Mexican. A geology student. She came from the National Autonomous University of Mexico to study our rocks."
Larabee considered the information carefully and then just had to ask. "She's got a vest on, Nettie. How long has she been studying our rocks?"
Fully understanding the question posed to her, Ms. Wells tried to be casual. "Well... she came on a NAFTA work visa but has since applied for her landed immigrant status."
If Chris understood it correctly, you had to declare yourself a permanent resident and have been in Canada for at least 6 months to apply for status. Putting that information together with the extensive and rigorous training Majestic guides were put through in order to earn their vests...
"She also works bar in the evenings," Nettie added far too casually. "Keeps the guests happy. Dynamite cook, too. Gloria can't say enough about the added little touches Inez put in her recipes."
Larabee looked at Ms. Wells incredulously but was prevented from saying anything further by the loud discussion happening between Ezra and Vin.
Instinct drove his reactions in the moments that followed and, thinking it better this type of talk not happen in front of patrons, Chris quickly stepped down off the steps, shushed the men and then scooping them by the shoulders, directing them further along the path.
Standish quickly shirked off the hand that had chosen his route, "Quite frankly, Mr. Larabee, I don't see that this is any of your concern."
"I'd have to agree, Chris," Wilmington advised as he came up behind the trio. "You don't have any legal responsibilities here, therefore, it ain't your say."
"I don't give a shit about any legal hoo har, Buck," Larabee answered without thinking. "I don't really care what you two were arguing about either." Looking at Vin and Ezra, he refrained from pointing a finger but continued with his line of reasoning. "It ain't professional is all I'm trying to point out. There may be a time and a place for insubordination, but in front of the guests is not it."
"Insubordination infers the establishment of a hierarchy," Ezra said flatly. "And when it comes to my specialized endeavor, the... buck stops here."
"When it comes to safety and security, Ezra, the buck stops here, you got that?"
With the two men back to being at a stand still, Larabee turned to Wilmington for help. "You, eh, mind filling me in... Buck."
Not exactly appreciating the play on words, Wilmington gave his oldest friend a snide sneer before answering. "Accordin' to Ezra, one of the guys in his group hasn't been followin' directions. He's been actin' reckless, doin' crazy things..."
"Endangering his life and the lives of others," Standish interrupted.
"I've had words with Abledale," Tanner defended. "I have to take the word of my guides over any guest, any day, especially when my guts agrees..."
"Then why, pray tell, are you allowing him to accompany me again today?"
A quick glance at Buck told Chris his friend agreed. Ezra had a point.
With all eyes now on him, the Texan pulled at his bandana as though it were strangling him. Pushing the hat back on his head, he took a deep breath and looked at Chris. "Like I said, I've had words with the guy. Told him about Ezra's concerns, and mine." There was a slight pause as Vin looked at his three companions. "He's said he's going to behave and I'm makin' the call, right or wrong," he said focusing on Standish. Returning his attention to Larabee, he then added, "Makin' the call is what the guy at the top gets to do, right? I don't take it lightly bein' second-guessed... unless 'a course, you're plannin' on fillin' these here boots."
The fact that Chris had seen his fair share of commands was obvious, given the take-charge interference he'd just provided. He'd made some choices in his time that hadn't always work out for the best as well. He understood it wasn't always the decision that counted, but evaluating the situation and being able to come to that decision... that's what really made a good leader. Tanner clearly had those attributes, although he didn't envy him this task. Good or bad, dealing with consequences wasn't always easy.
Wilmington had obviously assessed the situation in the same way as his oldest friend and he quickly back Vin up, "Ain't your job to question the big boss, Ezra. If Vin says Abledale goes, then he goes."
"Vin is not the one who must risk life and limb to keep the cretin under control," Standish huffed as he narrowed his eyes, clearly exasperated. Not daring to push the subject further however, he then barged passed his companions and returned to his tour group.
"You sure about this?"
Shrugging slightly at Buck's question, Vin looked at Chris. "You got any other words of wisdom, boss?"
There was no way he could have missed the invitation just handed out but, holding his hands up as though surrendering, Larabee shook his head. "I'm not the boss, Vin. As Buck here pointed out, I may have a misguided opinion now and then, but I have no legal responsibilities for anything that goes on at The Majestic. You made the call and if you say its a good one... so be it. Just... never second guess yourself in front of your men."
Deferring to his humor and referring to their time in the military, Wilmington nudged Tanner on the arm, "He was an officer, can you tell?"
Raising one brow, Chris tried to discount his oldest friend and concentrate on the Texan instead. "That's ethical and moral advice, Vin, not legal. In some cases, it's far more important."
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
After all of the hubbub with getting the tour groups off for the day, Nettie had accompanied Chris to the main dining room for the 'late' breakfast Gloria had set aside for him. While grateful for the food, he did manage to politely inform both ladies that he was prone to early morning runs and that today's had been, eventful...
Mrs. Wells kept Larabee company for a while but eventually wandered off to attend to some business. Seeing his opportunity to chat with another old friend, Chris smiled at Mrs. Potter when she came to offer a top-up for his coffee. "Thanks, Gloria," he smiled as she warmed his cup. "How have you been?" Tapping the table, he indicated his wish for her to sit.
With a gracious smile, the widow slipped into the chair opposite Chris, setting her coffee pot aside. She then took a moment to just look, knowing there was an undeniable link between them. "Life goes on, isn't that what they say?" she shrugged. "Up here it does anyway. Watching Matthew and Rebecca grow and learn..." Momentarily lost in the thought of her children, Mrs. Potter quickly refocused on her guest. "There aren't so many distractions in a small community like The Majestic, Chris, and from what I've heard, I've fared far better with losing my husband than you have, losing your wife."
It was an unfortunate twist of fate they were forever linked by the same accident. Gloria was a close friend to most of the people at the resort though and just as Hank had advocated, secrets weren't exactly realistic up here. Chris assumed he knew the source of Mrs. Potter's knowledge, especially knowing Wilmington the way he did. Not that he could really blame his old friend for confiding whatever he had. "Buck's got a big mouth," he offered with a smile on his lips.
"Buck's got a big heart," Mrs. Potter countered, understanding full well there was jest in the man's comment. Before continuing though, she reached across the table and took Larabee's hand. "I also happen to know that you do, too." Smiling, her conversation then took on a more serious tone. "And for whatever it's worth, Chris... I'm glad you're back on track again and I'm glad you've come back here... You do belong here you know. It's just... it shouldn't have taken this long is all."
Shaking his head quizzically, Larabee responded to Mrs. Potter's grasp. "There really are no secrets up here, are there?"
Focused on their clasped hands, Gloria spoke quietly. "Hank didn't like them, Chris, you should remember that. And besides, you didn't exactly make it a secret when you came for the service."
Lowering his chin, Larabee was suddenly embarrassed by the memory the widow was referring to. He had come back to The Majestic that one last time, for the memorial and burial service. True Potter, along with Sarah and Adam Larabee, had all been laid to rest that day, but he had shown little respect. He was so angry and resentful at Hank Connelly's actions; he'd made a scene, marring what should have been a solemn occasion.
"True deserved a better send-off, Gloria. I am sorry for how I acted."
Mrs. Potter didn't miss a beat. "Your wife and child deserved a better send-off, Chris," she offered with a gentle smile. She took a deep breath before continuing. "Sarah knew what kind of man you were from the very beginning you know. She knew you were passionate, about a lot of things. I learned it that day. I learned about your heart that day, too... how truly broken it was. I think Hank did as well."
Conversations about a lot of things hadn't come easily for Chris in the last few days. Hank Connelly's apparent emotional lapses were topping his list. "You don't really expect me to believe that, do you?" he asked defensively.
Gloria didn't take a lot of guff from people and now was no exception. She did try to present a softer tone when answering though, hoping Chris would follow suit. "Hank was really good to me after True... after the accident." The lady paused, again taking a deep calming breath as she looked into Larabee's pale green eyes. "I don't know, Chris. I spent a lot of time with him afterwards. He spent a lot of time with the kids... It was almost like, what he couldn't do for you; he did for us. In some strange way, I think helping... reinforcing our bond with this place and helping us through the loss, realizing what he was doing was really helping... I suppose, it helped him heal." Before separating their attached hands and sitting back in her chair, Mrs. Potter squeezed Larabee's fingers one more time. "My kids were born here, Chris, just like Sarah. They love it, just like she did, and I think Hank... took comfort in that knowledge."
A confused jumble of emotions reflected back from Larabee's eyes, but the widow persisted just the same. "You've probably heard this a million times before, from everyone you've met or got re-acquainted with in the last twenty-four hours but, Chris... Hank really did mean for you to take over The Majestic. It was the one last thing he could do to heal... letting you be close to Sarah and Adam again, letting you belong...."
"Letting me?" Larabee repeated irritably. He was emotional, just as Mrs. Potter suspected. Her quiet tone hadn't escaped him but her words were more biting than she understood. "He still wants to be in control, Gloria... to control me, and he's using Sarah to do it." Shuffling uneasily in his chair, Chris felt all right being honest with this woman. "Am I really supposed to believe that mean old man, was suddenly so... so damn remorseful? He never owed me anything, except maybe, acceptance... if only for their sake."
Watching the emotions play across his face, Mrs. Potter nodded gently, realizing Larabee was being as honest with her as Hank had once been. Perhaps it was time for her to do the same. "True and Hank were friends for a long time, Chris," she offered as her answer. "Sarah was... well, you know, Hank's life, even though Nettie had a big hand in raising her. It was my shoulder she cried on though. How many times, I don't remember, but each time she met a boy and it was time for him to leave... All that teenage, puppy-love stuff... Growing up in a place like this has its hardships, too."
Despite his preceding mood, Larabee's lips curled slightly. "I never knew," he offered, quieting somewhat with the woman's continual calming tone.
Gloria smiled, too. "Sarah was like a little sister to me."
A flash of memory made Chris nod his acknowledgement of that fact. He remembered how mixed emotions had clouded a wedding day so long ago. He would have done anything to make Sarah happier on that day, but having Gloria and Nettie at his bride's side just wasn't an option with Hank in the picture. Besides Buck, a justice of the peace and two strangers as witnesses was as cozy as it got.
Seeing hurt in Larabee's eyes, Mrs. Potter lowered her head as she continued. "Love is just one of the things in life that makes people do strange things, Chris. Regret is a pretty powerful emotion, too," she paused, looking back at the blond. "I saw first hand, what regret did to Hank... But he stopped second-guessing and finding fault in everything you ever did to ruin his life..."
Realizing Larabee was about to counter her statement with, most likely, a damning comment of his own, Gloria stopped him with a hand held up abruptly in the air. "Hank's love for Sarah and Adam was genuine, Chris, I hope you can believe that. He had no less love for The Majestic and the way of life we have up here. Those kinds of pure, unadulterated passions are hard to find beyond this land. The day we laid our kin to rest... Well, I saw it... I think Hank did it, too. That same kind of passion, but in the man his daughter chose to marry. I think he realized what Sarah knew all along... that you and he are exactly the same kind of man."
Being compared so blatantly, and in such rich, unquestionable terms, to a man he'd spent ten years of his life, hating, was... mind boggling to say the least. Larabee simply sat and stared, and listened...
"I'm guessing you already have some, Chris," Gloria said solemnly. "But don't add to your troubles. Regret has already taken enough of a toll around here. Don't let it do the same thing to you... I'm not saying you have to forgive or forget right away, just... just don't let this chance slip away. That big heart of yours deserves a break as much as you do."
With one last smile, Mrs. Potter took hold of her coffee pot, got up and then left, leaving Chris to follow her with his eyes. He lowered them afterwards, her words replaying over and over in his mind.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
Vin was once again pacing.
Across the room, aimlessly trying to piece together a puzzle he'd found half completed in the main greeting hall, Chris hadn't failed to notice. It was also a fact that Wilmington had come in and out of the front doors so many times Larabee lost count. Something was wrong and every bone in his body told Chris he should be ready to help. His head however, was at odds with him; still telling him it was none of his business.
Finally, annoyed with himself and the situation, Chris went over to one of the window seats and sat down to watch the guests on the beach. They were clearly oblivious to the tension he sensed... vacationers out for a good time and nothing more. That was what The Majestic was all about after all. It was a business venture, offering paying customers a retreat they couldn't find anywhere else in the world. There was nothing here for him but bad memories and, most likely, a job that would leave him with a bad taste in his mouth.
Hank had obviously left a very capable man in charge. Tanner was making decisions after all. Things were running just fine and, from what Chris could tell, the team Vin had working for him was more than competent as well.
Gloria was running the kitchen just as smoothly as she ever had. Nettie still managed the housekeeping department and her niece, Casey, manned the front desk when she wasn't out fulfilling her guide duties. Rain Jackson and this Inez Recillos, both clearly had a role to play. And, despite Larabee's reservations, Ezra Standish appeared to be doing a more than adequate job with all of the business aspects of the resort. Buck had ingratiated himself perfectly. Nathan and Josiah had important responsibilities and JD provided enough enthusiasm for the whole damn bunch...
"Vin... Vin!" Dunne came barreling through the front doors looking for his boss and he was clearly out of breath. "Vin... I came... as quick as I could."
Rushing to meet Dunne in the center of the main meeting hall, Tanner looked around cautiously, glad that there weren't too many patrons around. Remembering Larabee's advice from earlier though, he gently guided the worried young man to one side. "Where is your group, JD?"
"I told them... to stick together," the kid stuttered out between breaths.
"Slow down, Kid," Buck advised as he joined his two companions. Noticing there were guests showing an interest into what was going on, he waved a greeting for them, offering a reassuringly smile as well.
"Slowly, JD," Vin said. "Tell us what you know."
Grabbing for the water bottle he kept on a belt at the small of his back, Dunne popped to lid and took a good long swig. As his breath calmed, so did he, and when he finally closed the bottle, he was more under control. "I know it's getting late, Vin. We didn't mean to make you worry... The Anderson boys wanted to tackle The Divide before we called it a day and I knew we'd have time."
One of the reasons the Texan had been pacing was now explained, but being late was something the kid did on occasion. It usually required a reminder rather than a reprimand and it certainly wasn't something serious enough to cause the state JD was now in.
"We were on our way back, halfway across the ridge when we spotted Mr. and Mrs. Hayhurst on their way down."
"By themselves?" Buck asked, beating Vin to the question.
"Ah ha," the kid answered quickly.
Tanner hadn't waited for Dunne's reply. He was halfway to the operations counter by the time JD and Buck caught up with him.
"What's up, Vin?"
Grabbing the daily board from its hanger, the guide foreman tried to read Wilmington's penmanship. "Does that say Radiance or Radical?" he finally asked, confused by the lettering.
There were times when Buck took the opportunity to jest with Vin about his literacy, but now was not one of them. Looking at where Tanner's finger was pointed, Wilmington answered quickly. "Radiance, Vin," and then, looking at JD, he asked, "Are you sure you found them comin' down The Divide?"
Dunne had calmed enough now to know exactly what his two friends were talking about. "Yeah, Buck. They were nearly down. I didn't even think about where they were though, we spotted them alone and I knew something was wrong."
"Ezra took his crew to Radical Ridge!" Vin said to Buck, obviously very displeased with the information.
Before heading out, every guide was responsible to specifying his or her intended venue for the day's activities. It was one of their primary tasks, and knowing the intended location of a group meant everything, should a mishap occur, and rescue or recovery be needed. This had rarely happened of course, but it was still one of the most basic of rules, and all guides followed it without question.
Understanding what Vin and Buck were thinking made it all the more important for JD to relay the information he had come so quickly to provide. "It's not his fault, Vin, but that doesn't matter anymore. Ezra's in trouble. He needs our help."
"Ezra's in more trouble than you know, kid," Wilmington sighed, taking a deep breath. He was readying for the tirade he presumed was coming from Tanner, but the look in the Texan's eye had him second-guessing that assumption. He followed the man's gaze and, seeing how intently he was studying JD, just had to ask. "What is it, Vin?"
Tanner was indeed studying his younger friend and he didn't like what his gut was telling him. He hadn't really heard Buck's question and as such, asked his own instead, "Where is your group, JD. Where did you leave them?"
Over and over and over again, Tanner had drilled it into Dunne's head. He was a Majestic Guide. His first responsibility was to the safety and security of all Majestic guests, and especially to those out beyond the visual boundaries. In most cases, this meant the guests that left with him, were supposed to come back with him. "I made sure I got everyone together, Vin," JD tried to answer his boss's question. "I know I shouldn't have left them, but... Bobby Hatchel is bringing them back. He knows the way almost as well as I do."
Hatchel and his older brother had been coming to The Majestic for years and JD was most likely right with his statement. Right now though, this wasn't Buck's concern. He figured it wasn't Vin's either and he also figured he was cluing in to what Vin was really getting at. With Tanner's mind obvious racing, Wilmington took charge of Dunne. "Sounds like you handled everything real fine, kid. Just a little more detail is what we need though."
"Ezra and Mr. Abledale, they aren't with Bobby," JD said calmly. "I came as soon as I could."
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"You're here, Chris. Why not?"
"I'm not responsible, Buck," Larabee shot back. "You reminded me of that earlier, remember?"
Wilmington frowned, disbelieving what he was hearing. "You haven't changed a bit, have you?" he accused as his anger grew. "You're still runnin', hidin' from responsibility. Hell, you're probably still curled up inside that whiskey bottle of yours. Social drink my ass! You probably couldn't wait to get back to your room last night and enjoy a drink with your friends. How are 'Lonely' and 'Bitter' these day?"
"That's enough, Buck!" Tanner snapped as he came up between Wilmington and Larabee. Throwing another bundle of climbing ropes and carabineers at the taller man, he directed, "Go put those in your saddle bags. It should be enough."
"Do you have ascenders and belays? JD didn't give much detail."
Tanner frowned at Larabee's question, eventually ending up nose to nose with the man. "I don't get you, Chris," he said almost angrily. "This mornin' you were all worried about me causin' a scene in front of the guests. Then you sit back all day long, just watchin' the comin's and goin' s without concern. But the moment JD rushed into the lodge... Aah, there ain't no question you were listenin'. You're all over the map, Larabee. You either care or you don't. I ain't figured you out yet. What gives?"
"He's afraid, Vin."
The Texan would have spit venom if he were able. Listening to these two old friends confront one another was showing him a side of Buck he'd never seen before. Oh, he knew the man was passionate all right, but he'd never seen Wilmington like this. And to make matters worse, all the arguing was raising his own ire a bit, too, and now, more than ever, he needed a cool head. "Back off, Buck," he barked, once again trying to redirect the man back to the waiting horses.
Chris stopped that effort though. "Buck's right, Vin," he said, halting them both in their tracks. Looking at Wilmington and then refocusing on Tanner, Larabee tried to conceal his uneasiness. Damn! If Wilmington couldn't still read him like an open book... That fact pissed Chris off more than he was willing to admit, but as he'd already found out once before today, the truth often hurt when you had no choice but to face it. Two and a half years ago he had refused to listen to what Buck had to say. This was yet another shot at redemption and he wasn't about to screw things up again. "It's... been a long time since I took on that kind of real responsibility, Vin. I pretty much proved to the world I couldn't hack it."
Knowing Chris the way he did, Buck recognized the uncertainty in his old friend's voice. He knew it was now or never, and decided to take the chance. "You headed our Urban Search and Rescue teams, Chris. McGill couldn't have you in charge in the condition you were in. Hell, no director in his right mind would. Don't you be twistin' the story here though... it was you who threw the world away... not the other way around."
Seeing that Larabee's reaction to Wilmington's words wasn't as aggressive this time, Tanner kept his mouth shut.
"If you're still in that condition, Stud, just say so. If you ain't... we sure could use your expertise up on that ridge. Ol' Buck might need a hand," he smiled genuinely. "I ain't never been afraid to admit that."
Larabee's head had risen when he'd heard the familiar 'Stud' nickname. The moniker was something he hadn't heard in so long and he hadn't known he'd missed it that much, until that very moment. With the tiny grin that now creased his lips, came a renewed sense of self, evident in his answer, "For your information, Wilmington, I tossed 'Lonely' and 'Bitter' in the gutter the night my best friend left me. I don't miss them much. Him... well, that's a whole different story."
As two old friends looked at one another with renewed vision, a big part of Tanner felt like he was intruding. There was a serious job to be done here though and he needed to get to it as soon as he could. The more expertise he had on the case however, the more likelihood of a successful conclusion. Not knowing what they were up against just made that expertise even more imperative. "Ain't like I don't trust in Buck, Chris, but it might be helpful if we had your knowledge on this. In or out, I'm leavin' now."
Watching the Texan walk over to his horse, Wilmington looked at Larabee, indicating the other ponies. "Horseback is the quickest way out here. I eh... took the liberty of saddlin' one for you."
Chris watched as Buck quickly moved over to a waiting mount and then took his place beside Vin. JD and Nathan were already up on their horses and then Josiah followed in short order. Quickly drawn back to his musings of earlier, the blond once again acknowledged everyone seemed to have their place on this team. Where he belonged in the organization, he didn't know, but perhaps it was time he found out.
In just two steps, Chris crossed the sand to a waiting horse, took the reins from Buck and quickly mounted. Together, six men rode into the distance...
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"I can handle Abledale," Buck said callously.
"Without killing him?"
Quickly looking Nathan in the eye, Buck pursed his lips and, slowly, relented, clearing his throat to chase away his anger. "Yeah, without so much as harmin' a hair on the damn fool's head."
Checking the ropes and rigging they'd strung, JD and Josiah nodded their readiness when Vin looked in their direction. "Hook up, boys," he ordered, "You're clear to rappel down."
"You ready, Chris?"
Having briefly checked Wilmington's harness over, Larabee was just completing his own check when his oldest friend asked. "Yeah," he answered. "As ready as I'm ever gonna be."
Fastening himself into the Figure 8, Buck snickered. "I'm goin' first. If anythin' ain't gonna hold, I'll be the first to know." He didn't wait for a response.
Watching Wilmington back up and then jump off the cliff they were standing on, Larabee took a deep breath and backed up himself. "Trust is a big part of this job," he said, looking Vin in the eye.
"We've got your back," the Texan answered with a wink. "Go bring me back my man. The guest, too, if you think he's worth it."
Grinning as he again checked his rappel line, Chris nodded once to Vin and then over the side he went.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"Abledale, if you don't hold still, I swear..."
"He'll have a harder time doing what he needs to, Mr. Abledale," Chris interrupted Buck. "You need to hold perfectly still until Mr. Wilmington can get the secondary line onto your clip. We wouldn't want you to accidentally slip during the exchange."
Abledale eyed his rescuers belligerently...
Buck and Chris were hanging about half way down Radical Ridge. Richard Abledale, their Majestic guest, was hanging out with them, conscious, full of attitude, and apparently suffering from some sort of knee injury. Nathan would be able to assess him better once they'd successfully arrived at the top of the cliff. Then they could concentrate on extricating Ezra...
Finding a ledge on a practically vertical cliff face was both a blessing and a hindrance. The blessing had come when the ledge had stopped Ezra's sudden freefall. The hindrance had arrived shortly thereafter in the form of falling debris. While Buck had assessed Abledale, Chris had continued to rappel down and done his level best to clear most of the rocks from the prone body he found. He had been particularly careful around Ezra's unprotected head.
They knew why Standish had removed his helmet. Why he had yet to regain consciousness, they did not.
Abledale's account of his guide's botched rescue attempt was of course, all one-sided. Shortly after leaving The Majestic though, the six men had met up with both of Ezra and JD's returning groups. The Hayhursts, repeat visitors to Ezra's climbing tours, had related a different version of events...
Abledale had gone astray sometime during their trek up to the Radiance rock formations they were supposed to climb that day. Once he'd realized the man was missing, and after referencing his topographical maps, the southerner had deduced Abledale's most feasible trail. With a head start however, they hadn't arrived in time to stop the man's ascent. Nonetheless, when it became apparent that his guest was unable to safely descend, Ezra had done the responsible thing and gone after him, leaving his group in a safe position to observe. Disregarding Vin's explicit instructions in an effort to save time, Ezra had free-soloed his own ascent, intending to belay their joint return. He had roped in immediately and, after a quick check of Abledale's condition, began the belaying.
It was at this point that something had gone wrong. First one, then another of the anchor bolts Abledale had set, gave way. Ezra had managed to stop his guest's freefall, subsequently tying him in as a precaution while he reset the rigging.
It was the Hayhursts' theory that the added weight on hastily laid anchors, coupled with Ezra's continued attempts at rescuing both himself and his guest, which may have triggered the secondary accident. High above his position, the primary anchor gave way, plunging Ezra to the ledge he now rested on. He had been conscious and shouting orders at that point, expressing his intention of lowering Abledale down to join him. He had then loosened ropes to get to his pack for his first aid kit. Removing his helmet, he had seen to a cut on his cheek.
An impatient and dangling Abledale had apparently caused the final mishap. He had been yelling something about his leg, kicking with the other, and had dislodged some rocks from the face. They had tumbled, triggering a larger slide, all of which had come down on top of Ezra.
With one of their number hanging precariously, and their guide unresponsive, Mr. and Mrs. Hayhurst had set off down the mountain to find help. It was there they'd thankfully come across JD and his group, setting the present chain of events in motion...
"Are you sure these carabineers are sound?" Richard Abledale asked rather snootily. "I've never seen them before."
"They work best with the gliders on these static ropes, Mr. Abledale," Chris assured, glancing at Buck. "Trust me, I used to work with FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue units and we used them all the time."
"FEMA? In America?" The credentials offered were obviously enough to make Abledale relax to some extent. He was offering Buck a little less resistance to his efforts anyway.
Ignoring their guest's questions, Chris refocused on the job at hand. "How many anchors did you set on the way down?"
Looking up from the chest harness he was adding to Abledale's rigging, Buck glanced up, thought briefly and then answered, "Four, boss. Should be enough for this but... they won't work with the stretcher, right?"
For the first time since arriving at The Majestic, the appellation Wilmington had offered didn't faze Larabee at all. He was in full 'rescue' mode now, his mind completely and utterly focused on a man in need. "Take him up when you're ready, Buck. Once you've handed him off to Nathan, send the stretcher down on a separate rappel line." There was a momentary pause and Wilmington knew full well his best friend was plotting. "Add a swivel bearing and a trolley brake block to the rigging ropes, too, Buck. It'll make Ezra's ride back up a whole lot less bumpy."
Yep! Larabee was in his element. Was it now possible to make him realize he could stay that way...?
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
The last time Chris had been in this part of the resort, he wasn't a happy camper. Medical facilities did this to most men of his caliber but at least now, he wasn't the patient... and there was no smiling, teasing, annoying little brunette to rib him mercilessly about it either...
"I can so remember the last time you were here, Chris. Talk about embarrassin'."
Okay, so the other brunet present at the time wasn't so little!
Grinning from ear to ear, he was.
Annoying he most definitely was, and as for teasing, "Buck, don't make me shoot you."
Buck laughed openly, slapping his oldest friend on the shoulder for good measure.
JD however, wasn't as amused. "Shoot you?" he repeated, wide-eyed at the very idea.
"It's an American thing, son," Josiah offered with the cock of his head. "Some of them still think they're cowboys."
"Oh," JD acknowledged, but he was still frowning.
Vin however, didn't take the pilot's interpretation so lightly. "Some of us are right proud of our cowboy ways, Josiah."
"Present company excepted," Sanchez then added with a courteous tip of his imaginary hat.
Amused with the whole conversation, Wilmington decided he should end any further speculation. "Actually, Josiah, the whole thing started when Chris and I enlisted. Hell, we were just kids but Chris was, well, kind 'a scrawny, too." Ignoring the exception Larabee was taking to his statement, Buck quickly continued. "He got laughed at a lot and... well, I had to toughen him up somehow."
"You threatened to shoot him?" JD inquired with a puzzled look.
"Hell, no," Buck snickered. "I laughed at him right along with the others. But I was the only one he'd answer back to. To start with anyways... soon though, the whole platoon swore blind if they pissed Larabee off, he'd shoot them, lookin' or not."
Chris was shaking his head, only slightly amused with the rendition of their history. Josiah was quietly enjoying the story as well and JD, it appeared, was finally starting to understand the unusual bonds of friendship Wilmington and Larabee had.
Tanner... he had a question, "You sure you're wantin' him back in your life, Chris?"
Finally, everyone in the room was smiling.
It was a welcomed sight for Nathan as he came out of his Medical Inspection Room. "I'm glad to see everyone is so happy," the doctor offered, adding his smile to everyone else's.
"Good news, Nathan?"
"Yep!" Jackson answered Sanchez. "Ezra's cranky!"
Congratulatory handshakes, smiles, excitement and laughter encircled the room and this time, Larabee was very much a part of the celebration.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
As it turned out, the southerner had reason to be cranky. He had been whacked on the head by several large rocks after all, one of which had rendered him unconscious and left him with a concussion. The rocks had also left numerous contusions that would take time to heal. And, and worst of all in Ezra's view, there were cuts, two of which could potentially scar his face forever.
"It's only skin, Ezra," Nathan sighed, shaking his head all the while. "And only the deep cut on your back required stitches. Medically speaking, you came out of this with nothing more serious than a concussion. In my estimation, that's pretty damn lucky, considering."
Lying in one of the two hospital-type beds Nathan had comfortably arranged into a room format, Standish pursed his lips. "No one wants to spend an entire evening viewing the misshapen visage of their opponent, Dr. Jackson."
"Maybe you should give up poker then!"
"Are you mad?" the southerner hollered back as he bolted up straight in his bed. The mistake was immediately evident. The room began to spin violently, and even grabbing his head and easing back against his pillow did little to still the motion.
Rushing to his patient's side, Nathan adjusted the pillow and slowly peeled the taut fingers from the man's skull. "I should be asking you the same thing, Ezra," Jackson snickered. "I told you before, no sudden movement... unless you really savor the idea of ending up flat on the floor, puking your guts out."
"You have such a wonderful bedside manner, Dr. Jackson."
A sly grin crossed Nathan's lips faster than Ezra could prepare a rebuttal. Not that he was in any shape to execute one mind you, but certain thoughts had still made their way into consciousness. Instead, he relaxed, settling back into his pillow and turning his head away from the copious amounts of affection he knew were soon to arrive.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't nurse Jackson, and not a moment too soon I might add." Encircling his wife's hips as they met up halfway across the floor, Nathan scooped her up and proceeded to kiss her soundly.
"A deeply professional greeting," Standish groaned from his bed. He still wasn't watching, but he didn't really need to.
"Problems with the patient, Doctor?" Rain asked with a grin as Nathan set her back on the floor.
"Nothing you can't handle," Jackson replied. He then went to the wall and retrieved a clipboard. "His stitches are in and dressed. I'm classifying the concussion as a Grade 3, despite the apparent cognizance of the subject. CT shows slight swelling and X-rays are negative. Irritability is present, but, well..." Nathan and Rain exchanged a quick glance, both smirking. Clearing his throat, the doctor then continued, "A persistent headache is the only reported symptom at the moment, but I suspect we might see other neurological indicators in the days to come. Vitals every hour please and be sure to check pupil dilation when you wake him."
"And how often will that be?"
Glancing over his shoulder, Nathan rolled his eyes at Ezra. "The patient needs to be receptive when you take your readings, so every hour if you please. Call me immediately is you get no response. Call Vin immediately if you get too much of a response."
With a huge smile on her face, Rain answered, "Yes, Doctor," and then added. "Vin and the boys are waiting for a report from you. I told them I'd send you right over, so you'd best get."
"Yes, Ma'am," Jackson grinned as he made his way out the door.
Turning to spy at her patient through narrowed eyes, Rain tapped the clipboard, intentionally letting the southerner know he was being watched.
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"So he's gonna be alright then?" Tanner asked as Jackson took another bite of his supper. Gloria had been gracious enough to keep it warm and he was doing his best to eat it while it was.
"Not so fast, Vin," Nathan answered before taking a drink from his water glass. Once he was done, he continued. "Like I said, he should be, but he ain't gonna be happy staying at the clinic for a couple of days while I find out for sure. You boys are gonna have to help spell Rain and I off. You know how he can be."
"A pompous ass comes to mind."
Pursing his lips at the pilot's profound, if not correct, statement, Tanner looked back at the doctor. "Anythin' special we should look for?"
"Well... I did a scan. Any increase in the noted swelling will precipitate increased drowsiness or confusion. I need to be notified if you see anything like that. And if you do, it's important not to let him go to sleep."
"That's the more serious stuff though, right?" the kid asked. He was hanging on Nathan's every word, more than curious and definitely concerned about his friend.
"Mostly, JD," Jackson answered with a smile. "Dizziness, forgetfulness, and vomiting are also common with a concussion and he could be restless, agitated or irritable as well."
"Hell, Nathan, that's practically normal for Ezra."
Snickering a little, Jackson grinned at Wilmington, "Rain and I had that same reaction, Buck, but this is serious business. Ezra lost consciousness and we don't have a timeline on that. Things could go from good to bad very easily."
"But there's no guarantees they will?"
"For either prognosis, JD," Nathan answered, cocking his head. "We just wait and see."
"Praying might help," Sanchez offered.
With a gentle nod, the doctor smiled. "For those inclined, Josiah. I always welcome the help."
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
"Something I can do for you, Chris?"
Turning from the window, Larabee met Tanner's eyes with a somewhat hesitant look. Yesterday, roughly about this same time, he and Vin had shared a drink in this office. Whether things that evening had gone from bad to worse was debatable. Just like his reasons for coming back now...
Chris wasn't sure why he was here... but then again, maybe he was... "Last night, Vin, I told you The Majestic held both good and bad memories for me. That... being here wasn't easy."
"I remember," Tanner nodded as he leaned casually against the doorframe. Remembering the way Larabee had practically stormed out of the room wasn't hard to do either. Nor were the doubts it had left in his mind. Had those same doubts finally brought Chris to a decision, Vin wondered.
Thinking this hard made Larabee squint. He was looking for just the right words, but somehow they were escaping him. He breathed deep, annoyed with his indecision and his inability to express himself clearly. Blaming it on The Majestic seemed logical. He'd been so edgy since arriving, and yet... today had ended on such an incredibly positive note.
Scrubbing his chin, Larabee cocked his head to look at Tanner again. The Texan seemed so relaxed. Why couldn't he be like that? Instead, the emotional jumble inside his head still hadn't found a way to truly untangle itself and it was messing with his judgment. Maybe... just spitting it out was the best idea... "In and around the resort today, Vin, I confronted some of those memories. That sure as hell wasn't easy for me, but I found out that... that maybe I just might be able to do it... again. Face them I mean."
Tanner studied his guest intently. It had been a strenuous afternoon and emotions were running high for all of the resort staff. Larabee had played a part in that... a good part though. Perhaps it was this fact that had his new friend so unsettled, but he couldn't be sure. "It's been a long day, Chris," he said quietly. "Mornin'll come soon enough. We can talk about it then."
Despite his search for the right words, Larabee was sure he had a purpose in being here tonight and he wasn't about to be put off. "Is Josiah flying Abledale back tomorrow?"
With a raised brow, the Texan surrendered his position on the doorframe. Nodding, "Yep," he came closer as he answered. The cock of his head indicated he knew there was more to the question though.
"He's lucky all he got was a busted up knee."
"Yep," Vin replied again. There was a definite hesitation in the word this time, almost as though he knew what was coming next.
Facing one another, with the big desk once again between then, Chris and Vin were silently staring and yet, there was so much being exchanged in their eyes. Tanner could see indecision reflecting back at him, but there was one specific question clouded in deep uncertainty. "Why don't you just spit it out, Chris," he suggested, with a wiry smile. "Ain't nothin' wrong in askin'."
Narrowing his eyes again, Larabee studied Tanner intently, wondering if the young man had just read his mind. Such things were impossible of course, but he still couldn't chase away the fact that he felt a strange connection with this man. He exuded a rare confidence, and there was something else, too. Honesty, integrity, reliability... all of these admirable qualities and much more, yes, but... "I'll be accompanying Josiah tomorrow, Vin," Chris said plainly.
Slowly bowing his head, Tanner acknowledged Larabee's words with a nod, trying to hide his disappointment. He was truly saddened by this announcement, especially after the leadership and teamwork he'd seen Chris display today. Work ethic and experience of this caliber were hard to come by traits anywhere, let alone way out here. But it wasn't just that... he had been hoping the rescue today would make him realize he could make a valuable contribution at the resort. Clearly though, it wasn't his decision to make. And, looking back, Vin tried to remain casual, "If that's what you want, Chris," he shrugged. Despite that fact, his true thoughts on the matter weren't about to remain hidden. "Too bad, though. You did good work out there this afternoon... you... made a real difference."
There was a strangled silence in the room as the two men stared at one another...
For Chris, this afternoon had brought to a head, all the emotions he'd been suppressing for so long. The last twenty-four hours had seen him face a lot of things in his life he figured he'd never get a chance to. Newel's summons had started it all. Hank's letter just made things worse.
All the questions and doubts had come rushing back. Facing them alone in his hotel room that first night, he had gone right back to that damned bottle of his again, although he hadn't been quite so indulgent the following evening.
Rethinking those two nights in the long hours before dawn this morning, Chris was now willing to admit he knew why he'd found the bottle again so easily. Buck said it... Buck Wilmington was the last person in this world he had expected to find up here in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, and yet, here he was. Buck's explanation... he'd come to keep Sarah company. What kind of lame excuse was that?
Stupid thing about it though, was the fact it all made sense. When Sarah was alive and Chris had to be away from home... Wilmington was the only person Larabee trusted to take care of her.
And then there was Chris' conversation with Gloria Potter this morning. Funny, really... An uninformed observer might think otherwise, but if a tragic fate had not chosen one day in their lives to bind them irrevocably together, they would be nothing more than casual acquaintances, joined only through their cherished bond with Sarah Connelly Larabee.
Gloria had first-hand knowledge of how being raised at The Majestic had made Sarah into the special woman she had become, and, just how strongly Hank had felt about that. Larabee had always seen his clash with his father-in-law in those black and white terms... until this morning that is.
This morning he had finally come to realize why Sarah could never chose between her husband and her father. Not that Chris had ever asked her to of course, but he had perhaps resented her choices just a little bit. It pained him to realize now, why Sarah had deemed it so vital Adam be exposed to both of the truly important men in her life. Not because of some strange idea of loyalty or love but because of how truly passionate both of those men were about the really important things in their lives. Sadly, two people topped each man's list and yet, because of this misguided feud, Sarah and Adam never knew the true benefits of that passion.
All of this emotional overload had been brought to a head this afternoon though, with one simple statement... 'He's afraid, Vin.'
His oldest friend hadn't changed in all the years Larabee had known him and now, more than ever, he was truly thankful for that fact. If Wilmington hadn't called him out, accusing him of being afraid... then Tanner's request for assistance might not have been answered. Chris was sure the rescue would have happened though. Buck was more than capable, as were the rest of the men Vin had behind him, but that doesn't mean things would have gone as smoothly. The Texan had confirmed this hypothesis, just a few seconds ago. Had Chris really made that much of a difference? Could he continue to do so...?
"Actually, Vin," Larabee interjected before Tanner could say another word. All of his confusion had suddenly cleared and there was a genuine smile of his face as he spoke, "I still have a few things to work out in my head, especially where Hank is concerned, but... I think I'd like to take him up on his offer..."
Bowing his head, Chris sighed heavily, chewing at his bottom lip before finally looking back into the warm blue eyes of his newfound friend. He wasn't afraid anymore. He wasn't exactly sure what he was mind you, but he was willing to take a chance and find out. "If you'll have me that is," he added with a smile. "It's been a while... since I had a real place to call home."
~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~ 7 ~~~~~~~
To Be Continued...
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