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Through the River of Fire by Deirdre
by Deidre

Disclaimer: The following is a work of fanfiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters, settings or song references. I don't own the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from anything contained in this story.

Note 1: I want to thank the kind, generous and understanding editor, aka KET, for effortlessly going through this with her red pen. Thanks Pard, you got no idea how relieved I am to have my 'assets' covered. I am very very grateful, KET, thanks a million.

Note 2: And thanks to Rosy for her gorgeous collage in honour of this story!

This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.


Part One

Central Utah Correctional Facility
April 2, 8:53 a.m.

Stryker "Bull" Savage paused outside of the gates of the tomb that had been his home for the last fifteen years. It was just over forty degrees and the sun greeted him anxiously. The denim pants and jacket that he wore snugly fit the body which had earned him his nickname many years ago. At five inches over six foot, most of his two hundred and fifty pound body was muscle. Peering through the sunglasses, his cobalt blue eyes spotted an older model Dodge Van parked about fifty feet away. It was the only car in the area. He waited and the driver's side door opened. He nodded once and began the journey he'd dreamed about.

"Hey, Pa!"

Bull embraced his youngest son, Arlee, just turned twenty-one. His short, almost marine cut hair, was pale blond and his eyes were hazel like his mother's. He was slim and at six foot, his body could use more weight.

"Where's your brother?" Bull asked, sliding into the passenger seat.

"Back at the cabin," he noted of rental unit in Green River. "Him and Uncle Linc are getting your present ready."

"Present?" Bull took a beer from the small cooler nestled between his feet and popped the top.

"Yeah," the young man grinned, "A real beauty. Troy and Uncle Linc been hunting for something special for you for a month now. We found her on the internet. She sure is sweet."

"You boys are mighty generous," Savage grinned, "You get that from your mother."

"Yeah?" Arlee frowned, easing on to the interstate. " ... can't remember her," he said of the woman who'd given birth to him. She died when he was three.

"She was a fine woman. She took good care of you boys ... and Uncle Linc ... " he noted of his insatible brother who never married. "Sweet, huh?" He eyed the landscape.

" ... like a peach ... young, firm, real juicy and ripe ... " Arlee laughed, recalling the lush guest, who was being well paid for her services.

"You got everything ready?" Stryker asked of plan. "I got this timed out just right."

"Yeah," the blond replied, pushing a CD into the stereo. "We lay low in Green River for awhile, then we make our first move." He noted of the banks and other 'stops' north.

"How'd Uncle Linc make out with the plane?" he asked of his younger brother by nearly six years. Although the both had dark hair and blue eyes, Linc was several inches shorter and slimmer.

"Good, it'll be ready and waiting at that private airfield your friend told you about," he said of his father's cell mate. "It cost us plenty, but Uncle Linc said it was worth it."

"Well," Bull said, draining his beer and belching, He slid his hand over and rubbed the nearly white blond bristles on his son's head. "Looks like after our vacation, next week the real fun begins." He noted of their robbery spree. "God, you like like your mother. She's was about your age when I met her." He sighed, scratching his crotch. "So what's this 'peach's name ... damn I got an itch."

"Candy," Arlee smirked, watching his father laugh. "For real! That's her name. Lots of red hair ... real sassy ... and parts that defy gravity!"

"You're making me hungry, boy," Bull growled, watching the landscape roll by.

"Pa?"

"Yeah?"

"How do you know this will work?"

"Uncle Linc and I had four more hits planned, before that trigger-happy swine killed Kevin," the felon replied of the large plans the three mapped out so many years ago. They'd buried those dreams with Kevin, their youngest brother, who'd been fatally wounded in the flight from the law. That's when they split up. Bull took Kevin with him, leading the cops away. It was decided when they were running out of luck, for Lincoln to take money and the boys out of the country and raise them. He'd invested the money they'd taken from the first two banks. Linc had a golden touch when it came to money and had done well. He'd remained hidden, the boys came on their own to visit twice a year until they finished school. Then they moved back to Montana, the family home for over one hundred and fifty years. The old cabin was still in good shape and the boys took care of themselves. He hadn't seen Linc since the night Kevin was pumped full of lead. His younger brother fled to safety, while he led the law on a two state chase. Now, after finishing the original job, 'written in Kevin's blood', they were picking up that dream. The plan was prepared and finalized through his sons, who contacted his brother. The other man was still on the F.B.I.'s most wanted list. "We're finishing it ... for Kevin."

"Hey," Troy Savage stood barefooted on the porch of the well hidden cabin. He watched the van pulling up the dirt path and grinned. His warlike whoop preceded his announcement. "Uncle Linc!" He hollered, sticking his head inside the doorway. "Pa's here!" He jumped over the railing and ran to greet his father.

Lincoln Savage finished his coffee and stood. He was a little nervous, not having seen Bull since they'd parted ways that fateful night. He'd done his best by the boys, raising them up in the wilds of Canada. Twenty-four year old Troy not only looked like Bull, he had the 'infamous' Savage wildstreak in him. The younger boy was quieter, like his mother, but loyal. He'd kept no secrets from them and they knew all about the crimes linked to their name. As far back at the 1870's the Savage clan always took what they wanted, caring not for who died in the process. He walked through the door as Bull approached.

"Good to see you, Brother," Bull eyed the short gray hair covering his brother's head. "You're getting old!"

"Yeah, well I earned them," Linc tossed back, "raising little 'savages' is hard on the body." He paused, "It's good to see you, Bull."

"Same here, Linc," he paused, finally stepping away from the informal embrace. "Thanks, for everything. How's the old man?" He asked of his father, who was in a nursing home near Wolf Lake. He would be eighty now and bedridden by a stroke.

"'bout the same, I guess. Arlee visits him alot. I saw him a couple days ago, first time in years. He didn't know I was in the room. Damn shame."

"Yeah, he kicked them fuckin' cops asses all over the state." He noted with pride. "I reckon there's still a few they never found," he grinned, thinking on the bloody bodies his father's stories aluded to. "Well, now, who do we have here?" He oozed, watching the beauty appear in the doorway.

"Oh, you must be Papa Bear," she cooed, untying the sash that held the short emerald green satin robe on. "I've been awful naughty ... " She hushed as the large man gripped her waist under the satin. His hands slid lower, cupping her firm backside.

"She's been sleeping in too many beds ... " Troy teased, elbowing his brother and giggling.

"She needs to be punished," Arlee agreed, recalling the wild night the three shared.

"I always believed in using the rod," he pulled her close, grinding against her, sliding his right hand up to fondle the ample chest.

"Oh ... you're a big one!" Her voice was husky as she felt the muscles rippling under his shirt. "But I don't like a crowd. Go play in traffic, boys. Your father and I are busy ... " she winked, as he heaved her over one shoulder, smacking her bare bottom.

"You heard the lady, beat it!" Bull ordered, "Be back for supper ... and be careful. Don't fuck up!"

"No, we'll leave that to you, Pa!" Troy wagged his eyebrows and watched his father shut the door with one boot. "Come on Arlee, let's put that raft in the water. Uncle Linc?"

"No thanks, I've got business in town," he noted, heading for the well appointed SUV.

+ + + + + + +

Two weeks later:

It wasn't your typical Friday in spring in the offices of Denver's highly decorated ATF team. Usually, the last day of the week brought a busy morning, finalizing reports and a lazier afternoon, catching up on interviews, going over lab work and preparing for the new week. This week, however, the team was split up. Josiah, Nathan and J.D. were doing follow-ups on a dangerous group who were targeting African-American churches in the southwest. Two strikes in nearby towns had them away on travel most of the week. Buck and Ezra were investigating a case against two importers of illegal forms of pyrotechnics. Chris was asked by a Senate Commitee in Washington to become part of an eight man team, a National Strategic Initiative. The best and brightest of the ATF divisions cross county, were called upon to form this unique group. They would meet every ten weeks to discuss ways to make improvements within the Bureau. Such changes in policy, techniques, investigations, forensics and all other arms of the Justice Department, would build a better federation for the twenty-first century. He asked Vin to help him prepare for the first meeting, a three day seminar in San Francisco on Monday. Although they'd been separated all week, this morning they were reunited. They were in the conference room, discussing their individual investigations and catching up. They were waiting for Chris, who wanted a fast unit meeting, before leaving for his own briefing with Orrin Travis.

The leader paused in the doorway, eyeing the five men sitting around the large table. J.D. was guzzling a quart of chocolate milk and wolfing down a large cinnamon bun drenched in vanilla icing. With his Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt, black jeans and clean-cut good looks, the dark haired youth could pass for a high school student. Buck and Ezra were discussing their double date later that night, at a posh French restaurant. The rogue was relaxed in faded blue jeans, a pale green Ralph Lauren shirt and chugging a large coffee. The top buttons were undone, revealing a strong, tan chest and housing a small, gold Celtic cross. The gambler was dressed down, too, Standish style. In lieu of an expensive Italian suit, he was wearing Kenneth Cole, dusty gray slacks and jacket with a matching shirt. Josiah and Nathan, both in jeans and polo shirts, were going over the photo evidence from the Baptist church that had been bombed the week before. It felt good to hear them all talking and joking.

"J.D. sit up, you're gonna slide right out of that chair!" Nathan elbowed his slumping neighbor.

"I think better this way, got used to it in college," the youth replied, chomping on his pastry while reading the sports section.

"It's a wonder you and Vin have any teeth left," Erza frowned, eyeing the sugar-laden meal.

"Jealous?" Dunne replied, grinning under his chocolate mustache and belching

"Nice, Kid!" Buck chuckled, eyeing his young friend. "You learn to burp on cue in that fancy college too?"

"If I guzzle enough coke without taking a breath, I can belch out the vowels in the alphabet," the Bostonian boasted. "Vin taught me."

"Another charming trait our illustrious sharpshooter has passed along," Standish noted wryly. "How did we ever get along without him?"

"Speaking of which, where is that weasel?" Nathan inquired.

"Morning Boss!" Josiah boomed, before finishing his bagel.

"What a motley bunch," Chris grinned, entering the room.

"You missed us!" J.D.'s eyes lit up.

"Yeah, that must be it," Chris grimaced, "all that peace and quiet." He punched the intercom button on the wall. "Vin, where's my coffee?" he paused, " ... while I'm still young, okay?"

"Shut the hell up, Larabee!" the Texan replied with hot sauce.

They all grinned when the cranky voice came through the speaker. There was nothing like Vin in the morning, before he got his caffeine-sugar fix. The others smiled and listened as the voice came up the hallway and into the room, still full of vinegar.

"Mornin' Slick, nice face!" Buck laughed, eyeing the disgrunted young man's features, which were trained on the team leader's stern features.

"If ya weren't s'busy makin' time with that hot number in the lobby, ya couldda toted yer own. Like ya had a prayer with her, she could'nda been more than twenty-one. Probably she was bein' nice; thought ya were some friend of her fathers." He paused, lost his scowl as he put a large brown bag down and drank in the warm laughter. He smiled and greeted his friends warmly.

"Hey y'all!" Then the scowl returned as he approached his best friend, "Here, I ain't yer fuckin' servant." Vin ducked Buck's hand, which was trying to poke him in the gut. He sat the large container of black coffee in front of the smirking team leader. "Don't choke on it. Ya owe me four dollars."

"Four dollars!" Chris eyed the other with a conspirital gaze. "Last time I checked the large was a dollar seventy five!" He watched as Vin's slim hand descended in the large brown bag and pulled out a large hot chocolate, a large sandwich wrapped in foil and a bag of fresh chocolate chip cookies.

"Hey, there the new ones, with cinnamon and macadamia nuts." J.D. reached over.

"Damn, they smell good," Buck added, trying to grab the bag.

"I love them," Nate joined in, only to have his hand slapped.

"Get the hell, 'way,' all o'ya!" Vin used his body to cover his food, "Yer like a pack o'rabid dogs. These is mine ... get yer own. Ya haul yer cheap asses past that shop every day!"

"What do mean 'these is yours'?" Chris inquired, palm out. "I asked for coffee, I can't afford your sugar fix." He did some mental math, "Besides, that doesn't add up. I gave you a five, where's my change?"

"It come t'nine somethin', with the Reese's cups and totin' fees and such." Vin decided, sitting down and shoving his cookies in his lap, between his thighs.

"I dare ya!" he grinned at the lingering hands still yearning for a cookie. He glanced briefly at his best friend, "Ya can gimme a five and we'll call it even,"

"Like hell we will," Larabee bellowed, reaching for the breakfast, only to have his hand slapped.

"Paws off, ya didn't say nuthin' 'bout a sandwich. I'm half-starved. Had to eat them peanut butter cups on the elevator t'keep me goin'," Vin complained, " damn near passed out ... " while opening his sausage, egg and cheese on a toasted roll and taking a bite.

"You're always half-starved," Nate laughed, "Don't make a damn bit of sense. You eat enough for three men and you still need some meat on them bones."

"That's cause I'm from the upper end o'the gene pool," Vin boasted, jutting his chin out, complete with dripping cheese and ketchup. "Ain't that right, Ez?"

"Did you say cesspool?" The southerner smiled, charmed by Tanner.

"Hell no, we're talkin' 'bout m'bloodline, not Bucklin's."

"You best hush up boy or you'll be wearing that hot chocolate." Wilmington teased.

Vin swallowed, wiped his mouth and saw Chris's hand still out. "No need t'worry 'bout that five now, Cowboy, ya can hit the ATM machine later. I know yer good fer it."

They all laughed then, not as much at Vin's line, but at Chris Larabee trying desparately not to laugh. Three times the laughter almost made it past his bitten lips, only to be denied. Until Vin looked up with choirboy-like innocence.

"'s'wrong with yer face? Ya got gas'r somethin'?"

That did it, Chris ducked his head and laughed briefly, before scrubbing a hand over his features to restore some sanity.

"Alright, enough!" He ordered of the hysterical laughter. That is what he missed all week, that natural camaraderie that this group shared. "Let get to business." He interviewed each team, taking their reports on their respective cases. He went over the agenda for the following week, placing Nathan in charge in his absence until Thursday. He added some adminstrative notes, the blood donor drive and the last sign-up date for the softball teams. "I guess that's it, I gotta meet Orrin at nine. I don't know if I'll be back today, I've got a seminar in Golden, but you all know to be at the ranch on Sunday at noon." He paused, "Touch football and a cookout, Larabee style!"

"Hey, Kid, you got the remote?" Buck asked, eyeing the television suspended from the ceiling in the conference room. "Turn up the volume." He, like the others, watched silently as the CNN reporter spoke.

" ... that makes the fourth robberty inside of two weeks. The bloody rampage started in Duchesne, Utah, a bank robbery that left three dead and netted over twenty thousand dollars. Verna was next, two more dead and twelve thousand five hundred. The murderous gang moved into Wyoming several days ago, hitting the payroll office of a large restaurant chain in Pinedale. This morning's bold robbery of a jewelry store in Gillette only confirms the police's suspicions that the blood thirtsy clan is headed north, through their land on the Candian border, en route to Canada. The viscious leader of the family is forty-eight year old Stryker 'Bull' Savage, only recently parolled from prison in Utah."

"That's one case where the name suits the man to tee ... " Nathan shook his head as J.D. turned the sound down.

"I can't believe they can't catch those animals," Buck scratched his head. "Hell, they've been leaving bodies all over the place."

"From what I've read," Josiah noted, "that family's name's been covered in blood since before the civil war. They take what they want, where they want and how much they want."

" ... nasty passel o'varmits," Vin agreed, " ... got more tatoos than teeth ... "

"A vile and disgusting lineage," Standish commented. "Still it's curious that they so easily escape."

"Their number's up," Chris predicted, "They'll never make it into Montana alive. Anyway, back to our business. Everybody all set?" He asked of the team division of food, beer and the like. A nodding of heads and murmurs sealed the meeting. "Okay, that's it then."

"Vin," Buck hissed, rolling his eyes as the shaggy head continued to eat, seemingly oblivious. "Vin!" he hissed louder.

"What?" Vin snapped, dunking his cookie into his hot chocolate. He saw Buck, Nate and J.D. all motioning to Chris. "Huh?" he asked, narrowing his eyes.

"Good Lord!" Ezra exasperated.

"Oh," Vin said slowly, holding the wet cookie, "Want some?" He offered it over, only to see Chris screw his face up.

"Thanks Vin, but I like my food uneaten and not dripping in Tanner spit."

"Oh My God!" J.D. thumped his head on the desk, while Josiah just laughed and patted his back.

"Don't you have something to share with Chris, Vin?" Ezra invited, then groaned at the furrowed face that met his eyes. If the chocolate mustache weren't bad enough, the peach cotton shirt had crumbs and bit of egg on it.

"Oh!" Vin's eyes lit up, as mental bells finally rang. "Hold on Chris," he stood, held the cookie in his teeth and fished through his pockets. Receipts came out, a paper with a phone number on it, two half done rolls of life savers and his keys.

"Hey, whose phone number? Do I know her?" Buck reached over, only to have a spitted-up cookie land on his hand.

"No ya don't know her!" Vin bellowed, grabbing his disappearing mess. Then he patted his back pocket and pulled out a slightly dented envelope. He made his way over to his smirking boss and handed it to him. "Ya done good, Cowboy!"

"I daresay the President needs your speechmaking skills in Washington," Ezra sighed. "Perhaps we should expand on that?"

"The Senate picks eight men from all the thousands across the country," Josiah toasted with his mug, " ... says a whole lot about what makes them special."

"Integrity," Nathan added, raising his coffee.

"Honor," Ezra nodded.

"Courage and leadership," J.D. noted with a wide smile, then waited, "Buck ... "

"Animal Magnetism," the rogue added with a wink to his oldest friend and a man he admired more than any other.

That brought a round of cheers. That left one more and Chris knew the devilish light in the blue eyes meant something less than sterling was about to be issued. He raised a single sandy brow and tapped the envelope against his palm.

"What?" Vin said innocently, "I ain't got any platitudes t'spout. Could be them other fellers got picked for heroism and such."

"Could be," Chris took the bait, a smile forming.

"Reckon there was a woman on that commitee that's partial t'boys in blue. That's why yer ass got took."

He said it with a straight face and kept it. Chris dropped his head and laughed, covering his mouth with is hand. Buck and Josiah followed suit, the former spitting out a mouth of coffee.

"What?" J.D. frowned, turning to Nathan. "I don't get it ... "

"I'll explain it later," the chuckling agent explained of Vin's reference to the team leader's tight pants and constricted groin.

"All kiddin' aside," Vin's somber tone cut through the brevity and brought the blond's head back up. He extended his right hand and took the other's, while gripping his shoulder with the left. "We're all real proud o'ya, Chris. Kinda feel sorry fer all them poor bastards that gotta work fer second best."

"Thanks," the leader replied, his throat tight. He eyed each of these men, all who offered his own unique talents to the team. This band of brothers had come to mean so much to him. He opened the envelope and frowned, pulling the card out. "With deepest sympathy in your time of need?"

"Aw, hell!" Vin stood again, having taken his seat. Hands slapped the table and laughter shot forth around him. "Sorry 'bout that, I musta got the cards mixed up. I'll get the right one, it's at m'desk ... "

The smile left the Larabee's face, when three twenty dollar bills and a ten fell out. "Vin?" his head rose.

"Uh ... it's fer Manny," he said quietly. "Ya know, that old fella who dumps the trash and vacuums every night. I'm usually the only one left when he gets here. I got t'know him a little bit, jes' passin' time and such. His wife died, she's real sick fer a long time. He's got a bunch o'medical bills ... he said he's gonna have t'get another job. Chris, he's old, he can't handle two jobs. It ain't much, it's all I had, but I figured it might help him a little."

"Is this why you've been eating peanut butter sandwiches all week?" the blond asked and saw the long-haired agent dip his head once. " ... and why you didn't go with us to the concert last weekend?" Again the head dipped, very slightly. "Vin, why didn't you say something?"

"Weren't nothin' t'say," he shifted uncomfortably, knowing they were all looking at him. "I'm the only one here at night. I couldn't ask any of ya t' put out money." He licked his lips and eyed the door, "I'll get yer card."

Chris's eyes followed him and lingered on the empty doorway after he passed through it. There were so many intangible qualities inside the proud Texan that it shamed him. If the world had more Vin Tanners, it would be a much richer place. By the time he looked back, a pile of money was on the table. He smiled then, picked up the collection of fives, tens and twentys, swallowed hard and nodded to each of them. "Thanks, guys ... "

"There must be somethin' in the water down there in Texas," Buck said with a soft smile, "there sure do grow 'em right."

"Amen!" Josiah agreed.

"Here, ya go," Vin handed the envelop and took the other, frowning at the thickness. He flipped it open and his face flushed. He was at a loss for words, but then his eyes spoke volumes. He met each pair of eyes around the table and nodded again. "I'll..uh ... tell ... him ... I know he can ... use ... " he paused again, taking a breath. "Thanks ... "

"Seriously, Vin, you ought to take up speechwriting," J.D. teased, gaining the laugh he intended.

"Here," Chris handed fifty dollars back to the sharpshooter. "That's too much ... you take some back, okay? We got it covered." He waited, then added , "Besides, If I have to look at another peanut butter sandwich ... " he grinned as the other man smiled and tucked his card away. Just then, the phone rang. Vin was near the door and picked up the extension. He frowned, scowled and shook his head.

"No, I don't need m'ducks cleaned," he snapped, "I don't need m'cows cleaned neither." He hung the phone up, shaking his head. "..the hell kinda crank call is that?"

Not realizing his mistake, he grinned proudly as the other men exploded in laughter. Taking it the hardest, was the leader. He sat down, dropped his head and tried to contain it. But it wouldn't stop. Sometimes, something strikes you funny for no reason and this was one of those times. No matter what he did, he couldn't stop. He looked up briefly as the phone rang again and Josiah answered.

"Ya like that, huh?" Vin beamed, clapping the now coughing blond's back. Tears were running down his face. "Hell, Cowboy, it ain't that funny!" He was laughing too now, overcome by the contagious blond's very unusual hysteria.

"No ... " Chris choked, having no breath left. " ... it's not that ... you ... don't understand ... "

"Chris," Josiah interruppted, covering the phone, "Orrin's waiting, he's says you're ten minutes late."

"On my way," the recovered man managed, wiping his eyes with napkins. He took a moment to read the card, and drank in every complimentary word his team wrote inside. "Damn," he said thickly, "you guys didn't leave much for my funeral." More laughter and they stood, each shaking his hand and wishing him well. Then they departed, Chris snagged Vin and gripped both shoulders. "Sometimes, Tanner, you put me to shame," he offered, watching the young man blush again.

"Get yer ass upstairs, yer gettin' t'be a sentimental old fool," Vin grinned, cuffing Chris's neck.

+ + + + + + +

While Chris went over his presentation with Orrin Travis, the rest of the team was scattered around town save Vin. He was at the office, updating the graphics on the final version of Chris's presentation. It was quiet and he was able to get a lot done. His rumbling stomach reminded him that lunch was approaching. He eyed the empty desks, trying to figure out which of his friends to call. Buck and Ezra were doing legwork for their case; the others were at a meeting with the local police department. Just as he was about to dial Ezra, the phone rang.

"ATF, Tanner."

"Hey, Vin!"

"Hey, Kid, what's up?"

"Buck just called me. We're gonna meet at the Lotus Petal for lunch. You in?"

"Yeah, sounds good. They got a buffet at lunch, don't they?" He inquired of the Chinese restaurant nearby.

"Yeah, it's six dollars I think," Dunne paused, "Anyhow, we're meeting there at noon."

"See you there, J.D. Thanks!" Vin hung the phone up and hit the print key. His stomach was already preparing for won ton soup, fried rice, shrimp lo mien and egg rolls. Minutes rolled by and the printer was acting up. By the time Vin finally finished, it was already twelve. He caught the elevator and stopped in the lobby to hit the men's room. He was almost done when a sneer rose behind him.

"Well, well," the other man chuckled, "If it isn't Huckleberry Vin. Would you look at that? Shoes and everything. Next thing you'll be wearing underwear and talking like a person of normal intelligence."

Eric McClendon was an arrogant F.B.I agent with whom the team butted horns recently. Vin wanted to put the arrogant bastard into the local intensive care unit, but he'd promised Chris that he'd keep his cool. He felt his face color as the anger rose up and nearly choked him.

"Damn," The rude F.B.I. man mocked, staring openly. "I heard about you boys from Texas. You must be some sort of a reject. Shouldn't you be next store?" he referred to the woman's room. "You and Dunne sure make a cute couple. That does surprise me though. Cute little faggots like him usually aren't the man in the relationship."

"If I didn't give Larabee m'word, ye'd be ridin' a gurney t' the ER," Vin snapped as he zipped up. He turned and directed his steely gaze to the laughing agent. "Once the trial's done next week, all bets is off!"

"Ohhhh," the tall agent jumped and waved his hands in mock-hysteria. "I'm shakin' in my boots."

He blocked the smaller man, not letting him pass. He could see the steam building, Tanner's face was red and the fists were balled up. Just a little more and he'd have him up on charges. "What's the rush, pretty boy? Late for Sesame Street? Pretty soon you'll be able to print your own name."

"Shut up and get the fuck away from me, McClendon," Vin snarled, shoving hard to pass by, but the large man shoved back, sending him into the edge of the stall door. He felt the metal hit him hard on his left cheekbone under his eye.

"Go on, Tanner. Wouldn't want you late for Bert and Ernie. I know you mentally-challenged kids have a hard time keeping up."

Vin felt his face flush as the other agents with McClendon laughed from the doorway. The cruel taunts, lip smacking sounds and wicked laughter stayed with the slim agent as he walked quickly to the restaurant. There was a large party in the entryway waiting to be seated. Frowning, he craned his neck, spotting his friends far across the room. He eyed the side passage that went past the rooms used for private parties. He ducked around, padding quickly through the passageway. This unseen entry would bring him out behind the large partition behind the table where his friends sat. He heard them laughing and smiled, needing that camaraderie right now desperately. He was surprised to hear Rain Jackson's voice. The pretty medical resident usually didn't get time off in the middle of the day.

" ... so Vin says, 'No, I don't need my ducks cleaned; don't need my cows cleaned neither!" J.D. repeated, shoveling fried noodles dripping with duck sauce in his mouth. Vin smiled just as Rain spoke.

"Oh, that's funny!" She shook her head. "So he thought they were talking about ducks with feathers."

"Yeah," Nate grinned, pouring Josiah and Ezra tea from the large stainless steel pot on the table. "You should have seen Chris. He couldn't stop laughing."

The smile disappeared from the sharpshooter's face. He felt the heat rise up again. Still out of sight, he quickly backtracked, ending up by the now deserted entryway. He thought on the words.

" ... ducks with feathers ... " He mumbled, his insides stinging a little bit " ... other kind is there?" He paused inside the empty catering room and felt his stomach jump. The loud laughter from the incident earlier this morning returned. Suddenly, he wondered what his friends had been laughing at when he issued the line. He heard McClendon's sneers and cruel taunts about his speech patterns. Every once and awhile, his informal education bit him in the ass. His appetite was gone now and he eyed the reflection in the mirror. Sometimes, he felt that their command of the English language and other merits gained in college, master's programs and the like, separated them from him. He waited several minutes until the high color left his face. Taking a deep breath, he made his way to the table.

"Hey, Vin!" Buck patted the empty seat next to him. "Where the hell were you? J.D. just called you ... sit down. They got Chinese pizza as an appetizer on the buffet today. You ever had that?"

"Vin, you okay?" Nate frowned, gazing at Vin's troubled blue eyes.

"I'm fine, Nate," he reassured. "My stomach's actin' up a bit. I just come by ... I just came by," he corrected. "T'tell ya ... you ... that I'm gonna ... going to," He stammered. This was going badly. They were staring at him like he had sprouted another head. "I need some air. I'm gonna ... going to take a walk in the park." There it was out. He turned away, feeling the heat rise on his face. He needed that fresh air now and almost got outside. Then a hand clamped on his shoulder.

"What's wrong?" Buck asked quietly. He knew this man well enough to see right off that the problem had nothing to do with his stomach. "Talk to me, Vin."

"I ... uh ... " he paused, taking a deep breath and eyeing a group of bikers riding by. He felt a knot reappear. It was a Bucklin knot; one that came from how much this man worried over all of them. "I'm okay, Buck," he said quietly. "I really do need some air. Been cooped up in the office all day. Go on back and eat."

Buck saw the defensive shields come up then. Vin didn't know it, but his eyes changed whenever he was hiding something. Whatever it was, he wasn't ready to share it. Buck respected that as long Vin remained healthy.

"You sure?" He asked, peeking at the troubled sky eyes. Then he frowned, spotting a rising bruise that was starting to swell. He moved his head, but Vin turned away. He caught the sniper's right shoulder with one hand and used the other to turn his face. "What the hell happened? Is this connected to why you're upset?"

"It's nothin', Buck," he managed, but couldn't prevent the flush of anger returning.

"It don't look like nothin' to me!" Wilmington snapped. "How'd you get that bruise?"

"I ... uh ... jes' slipped is all ... in the men's room."

"Bullshit!" the concerned agent replied, hands on his hips. "Who marked you like that?"

"Buck, look. It's done. Leave it ... " he tried to turn, but the hand clamped down again and spun him around.

"Seems that shot to your face affected your memory. We're a team; one of us is hurt, we all hurt. If somebody's hasslin' you, Tanner, you damn well better speak up."

That's when he saw the eyes slip. The voice came first, a snide echo in his mind. It was followed by an arrogant set of brown eyes and cruel words. Initially, the bad mouthing had been mild. Mostly while they were forced to work with an F.B.I team on an interstate gun-running investigation. J.D. and Vin had been working undercover doing a helluva job. But the F.B.I. charged in early, eager to get the collar and nearly got both young men killed. Furious words were exchanged in the parking lot outside the private home that had been raided. Later, outside the ER, a camera crew caught Vin dressing down the head of the F.B.I. team. It was a mistake that he'd been paying for since. The fury died down for a few months since the F.B.I. team was from another state. But now, they were in town for the trial and he'd been baiting Vin for weeks, taking advantage of the sharpshooter's short fuse.

"McClendon?" Wilmington clenched his teeth and balled his fists, watching the shaggy head dip once. " ... that son-of-a-bitch bad mouthin' you again?" He paused, narrowing his hot eyes, his voice rising rapidly. "Did he hit you?"

"Listen t'me, Buck ... " Vin tried, but the older man was irate and wouldn't be denied.

"Goddammit!" Wilmington snapped. "I know where that fuckin' asshole is staying. I'm gonna have a little talk with him."

"Ya ain't ... you weren't at the prosecutor's office last week."

Orrin Travis, Chris, Vin and J.D. attended, along with the involved F.B.I. team. McClendon gave both J.D. and Vin a hard time, cutting their work to shreds with his sharp comments. He made their undercover effort seem like amateur hour. His sly innuendoes sent Vin off the edge and he hauled off and popped McClendon. That got him in deep shit with Orrin Travis, the prosecution team and the F.B.I representative. He had to be forcibly restrained and led from the large office. Chris had a heated argument with Eric, dressing him down soundly. Still angry, he bawled Vin out too, citing his weak point, that damnable short temper. He made Vin promise not to retaliate, no matter what, until the trial was over. Since then, the irate F.B.I. agent tormented both himself and Dunne any time he cornered them alone.

"Hell, Buck, ya know me," he said softly, turning and letting the breeze lift his hair. "I don't give a flyin' rat's ass what he says about me. But I won't let him talk nasty 'bout the kid ... " he stopped then, already having said too much.

"Well," Buck warmed, placing both hands on the downcast agent's shoulders. "I don't like that scuzzball or anyone else badmouthin' either of my kids," he smiled, watching a Tanner grin born slowly. " ... or layin' a hand on 'em. You sure you're okay?"

"Yeah, he knows the score," Vin touted, " ... trials done in a week ... then that slug'll drag his slimy ass back across the state line and outta m'hair."

" ... and that's a lotta hair to mess up!" Buck teased, ruffling it lightly. He knew Vin hated that and sure enough, the other man pulled away.

"Cut that out! Don't be touchin' m'hair." Vin chided, " ... don't tell, Chris, okay?"

"Why? He won't blame you," Wilmington wondered aloud but saw the worry lines appear. "Okay, we'll keep it here," he promised with a good shake. "But, if you read in the Federal Digest that a certain F.B.I agent was forced to retire and is singing soprano ... " He gave a broad wink, gripped the shoulder and let it linger, watching the ex-bounty hunter's smile broaden.

Vin turned to leave then, wearing a warm smile. Buck was the kind of big brother every kid needed. Somebody who kicked ass in the schoolyard when the smaller kids got bullied.

"I'm fine. Go on and eat ... make me proud!" He teased, knowing that Buck always tried to out eat him at any given buffet ... and usually lost.

"Okay, Vin," Buck turned back inside, "I'll call you later."

"Hey," the Texan called back from the street, waiting until the tall agent turned. "Thanks, Bucklin." He was rewarded with a broad grin, the kind that Buck unleashed that went right through your chest. He carried that the rest of the day.

+ + + + + + +

The tension went from the base of his spine and all the way up his back. Its razor-like talons gripped the back of his head and dug in deep. The headache from hell had been building for a few hours, ever since he arrived in Golden. The hot conference room, droning speeches and overdose of caffeine didn't help. He eyed the clock, holding a cold soda to the back of his neck.

"Ten minutes, gentlemen. We still have much territory to cover," Grant Hoffman spoke from the head of the table.

"Wonderful," Chris Larabee grumbled, placing the can on the table and leaving the hot room. After washing his face with ice water, he went to the lobby, stepped outside and gulped in fresh air. He thought on the upcoming trip and how much time and work the efforts of the slim Texan saved him. He pulled his phone out and dialed Vin's number.

"Tanner, ATF," Vin yawned, eyeing the approaching hour of 3 p.m.

"Sleeping on the job again?" He teased but got no reply. "Vin?"

"Huh?" the sharpshooter blinked. "Sorry ... I'm beat. We're all done. I upgraded the graphics and spreadsheets. Printed out ten copies, color coded and indexed. I took one up t'Jane," he noted of Orrin Travis's secretary. " ... rest o'em ... the rest of them is on yer desk."

"You kicked ass, Cowboy."

"Ya seen 'em?" Vin sat up. " ... uh ... saw them ... "

"Yeah, they came by courier. Orrin showed them just before we broke away," Chris paused. "You busted your ass on this all week, Vin. It didn't go unnoticed. I felt a little guilty taking the bows; I made sure everyone knew it was your fine hand that scripted that report." He chuckled then, feeling Vin blush through the phone. "You sure do blush pretty, Tanner!"

"Cut that out!" Vin laughed. "It wasn't nuthin' ... nothing special, Chris."

"Yeah, it was, Vin, and I'm grateful." He sighed, eyeing his watch. "Hell, my time's up."

"Ya headin' back today?"

"Uh ... yeah," Chris projected ahead. "With any luck, five-thirty or so."

"I'll wait fer ya ... I need t'talk ... to talk to ya ... " he corrected.

"About what?" Chris punched the elevator button and wondered about Vin's strange speech. "Is something wrong?"

"Nothin' important. It'll keep. See ya later." Vin hung the phone up and stretched. He opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a CD envelope. Flipping through it, he picked out something soothing. Something that always lifted him. He slid the Eagles Greatest Hits into the CD player and relaxed for a few moments. As the tension eased off his back, he picked up the file on the corner of his desk and flipped it open.

+ + + + + + +

Three more exits and he would be home. The afternoon ran later than expected and his head was about to explode. Emergency vehicles tied up most of the highway. They were racing to the scene of an accident ahead. Several vehicles had collided only adding to his unending day. Traffic was backed up and not moving at all; he punched the numbers in his cell phone to pick up his messages. He bypassed the first three and then heard a familiar voice.

"It's me, Chris. It's almost seven. I guess ya got tied up. I'm headin' home. Call me," then a pause. "S'okay, I know yer tired. I'll uh ... never mind."

"Shit!" the blond cursed, moving to the right lane and heading for the next exit. He punched Vin's number, glad when the Texan answered right away.

"Hello."

"I'm sorry, Vin. My whole afternoon got fucked up. You eat yet?" He made a right turn at the first traffic light. "I'll pick you up, my treat."

"S'okay, Chris," Vin laughed. "I'm really tired. I was jes' ... just gonna cook here and watch the game. I got plenty ... "

"I'll pick up some beer," Chris offered. " ... thanks, Vin ... "

"I got beer," Vin tossed back, pulling a frying pan out. "Get somethin' chocolate and gooey fer after."

Twenty minutes later, he walked through Tanner's door. He put the triple chocolate cheesecake in the refrigerator just at the chef entered the room.

"I'm really sorry, Vin."

"We done that ... did that already, remember?" he paused, seeing pain radiating from the other man. "Larabee special?" he asked of the killer headache.

"Yeah ... started at lunch and it's into Godzilla zone now."

Vin physically turned the other man, pushing him towards the spare room. "Rest yer eyes ... I'll call ya ... "

Chris tugged his shoes and socks off, hung the suit coat up and took his tie off. Vin returned with a clean pair of sweatpants and a tee shirt. He also handed him a coke and two pills.

"Extra-strength Excedrin and coke ... works wonders ... "

"Thanks," Chris tossed them down, changed and fell across the bed.

+ + + + + + +

San Juan Mountains

"Hell, Son, you sure can pick 'em," Bull touted, clapping Troy on the back. He eyed the very remote cabin hidden in the dense terrain and grinned. "Yeah, this'll do just fine. You and your brother unload. We'll lie low until next weekend, then we'll head for the airstrip. Them dumb fuck's are chasing their tails up near the border," he chuckled, carrying a large bag of food into the cabin.

"Troy, you think this is gonna work?" Arlee asked his brother, each carrying a box of supplies.

"Sure it is!" The older one was annoyed. "Pa and Uncle Linc know what they're doing!"

They left a trail from Utah through Wyoming and a small skirmish on the Montana border. Then they pulled out, heading south and keeping quiet. Bull and his brother had shaved their heads bare the night before. The two younger boys followed suit that morning. The likenesses on the news didn't look much like them now, and the F.B.I had set up a net near the Montana/Canadian border. The state police in Montana were combing the hills near the large, rural Savage property. They had no idea how far off they were.

Troy eyed the horizon and the New Mexico border in the distance. Ten days, that's what his Pa said. Ten more days and they'd be heading for that plane and a new life, the high life, in Mexico.

Part Two

It seemed he'd barely shut his eyes when a hand shook his shoulder. He nodded, went to the bathroom and blinked. The headache was almost gone. He washed his face and followed his nose to the kitchen.

"Something smells good!" he exuded, peering over Vin's shoulder.

"Good timin'," Vin pronounced. "Grab a couple beers and head inside. I'll fix ya a plate."

Chris sat on the floor, pulling the coffee table in front of him. He flipped through the channels until the game came on. He twisted the top off the beer just as Vin put a napkin and a large plate of food in front of him. It smelled wonderful and he dove into it with gusto. Vin's laughter brought his head back up.

"Damn, Cowboy, come up fer air!" he laughed, settling a few feet away.

"Vin, this is great!" the blond moaned. "Where'd you learn to cook like this?"

"Hell, it's not like makin' a rocket," he grinned, stabbing a fork into his chicken. "If ya can read, ya can cook. It ain't so hard." He paused again, watching Larabee inhaling the food. "It's Chicken Vin... like it?"

"It's great."

"'Course it is. It's got m'name on it!" Vin beamed, picking up his beer.

The chicken was tenderized and sautŽed. Along with the flavorful meat, there was wild rice and broccoli. "Green food? I've seen it all," Chris teased. "What's in this sauce?"

"Can't give it up," the ex-bounty hunter grinned, wagging his eyebrows. "Old family secret."

"You're full of shit, Tanner!"

He laughed then, taking a huge mouthful. Upon swallowing, he spoke, "After they get brown, ya dump some fancy mustard, lemon juice, parsley and chives on 'em. Then ya add chicken broth. Cheap, fast and easy."

"Just like the chef!" Chris teased, gaining a laugh. "Wait until word gets out that a Tanner is eating green food."

"Doctor's orders," Vin shot back. "Last time I was sick, Rain read me the riot act. Some nonsense 'bout my immune system. Anyhow, if ya mix 'em up with other stuff, they're okay. Usually I dump a load of cheddar cheese all over 'em t'get 'em down."

"There's a heart healthy picture," Chris shook his head. Then he noticed the bruise and swelling under the chef's eye. "You get fresh with that hot law student again?" He teased of a friend of Rain's whom Vin was smitten with. His smiled died when instead of a sharp reply, the Texan turned away as if to hide. "Vin?"

Vin finished his plate and pushed it aside. He took a long draw on his beer and fiddled with the label.

"Spill it." Chris noticed the small pile of paper peelings and the Adam's apple bobbing.

"Promise ya won't blow a gasket," the younger man requested and saw the green eyes narrowing. "I run inta... ran into... McClendon in the men's room."

"Looks like he ran into you," Larabee's voice was clipped as he mentally painted a picture. "Did he hit you?"

"No," Vin denied. "He was trash-talkin' me again. I couldn't care less what he says 'bout me. But I won't let him spout shit about J.D. I warned him... then went to move past. He blocked me and I hit the stall post. That's all there was."

"I'm not so sure," Chris returned quietly, knowing how foul-mouthed McClendon could get. Undoubtedly, the sensitive Texan had taken a verbal beating. "I'm going call him and warn him again."

"Don't ya be wipin' m'nose fer me either..." Vin hissed.

"Either?" Larabee paused, watching the slim fingers now shredding a napkin.

"I was supposed t'meet the other guys fer lunch... but..." he paused. "...I wasn't hungry. I went t'tell 'em and almost got away 'fore... before Bucklin stopped me outside. Damn, interferin' cuss..." He took a swig of beer. "After I told 'im, he's ready... was ready to head over to McClendon and give 'im what for."

Chris smiled then. "Sometimes Buck's best work is while he's standing." He peered over and saw something else was still lingering. "...all of it, Vin. What else is eating at you?"

"This mornin' when ya couldn't stop laughin'..." he paused. "Why was... were... ya laughin' so hard?"

"Huh?" Chris sat up, scratching his chin. "The line about the cows, that was hilarious."

"So it was the joke ya were... was... laughin' at?" Vin asked without looking over.

"Of course it was," Chris's tone was almost annoyed. "Why?"

Vin sighed, pushed his hair back and sighed again. "Like I told ya... I was supposed t'meet the others fer lunch at the Lotus Petal. I got there late... they was... were... laughin' and such when I got there, tellin' Rain about that call and the cow line. They didn't see me." He stopped again and swallowed before turning back to his best friend. "I didn't know... there was another kind of d... d... duck." He flinched when Larabee's utensil dropped and connected with the plate.

"Vin, I wasn't laughing at you!" Chris turned sharply, studying the flush rising on the fine features. "Is that what you thought?" While the shaggy head didn't move, the eyes shifted sideways; that was enough. "Look at me!" He was angry now and didn't hide his ire. "I'd never... I repeat never laugh at you. Are we clear on that? How could you think that of me?"

"I... thought... I..." Vin stopped, shaking his head. "I didn't stay... they don't know I heard 'em. I looked it up, the word , 'duct'. Why didn't ya tell me, Chris?"

"First of all, Vin, I think you misunderstood them. They'd never hurt you like that. Second, I was going to tell you, remember? Josiah interrupted me. I'm sorry, Vin."

"...guess I overreacted a bit," Vin admitted. "Can I ask a favor?"

"Sure."

"Ye'll... You will let me know when I mess up... like that again? It's the only way I'll learn."

"Sure," Chris picked up his beer. "On one condition." He saw Vin's frown. "You quit trying to talk like Ezra." He stopped, watching the eyes soften and a smile fight to be born. "Yer makin' m'head twirl, Tanner. Ya are who ya are, Tex, and I'm damn proud t'call ya friend." He used his best Tanner accent and saw the effect. He moved back to his own voice then, resting a hand on the slumped shoulder. "Don't change, Vin. Who you are is in here," he tapped the sniper's heart. "Not how it comes out of your mouth." For a moment, Vin didn't move, his chest heaved a few times and his head dropped. Finally it rose and the shy smile appeared. "We over this shit now?"

"Reckon."

"Good, get that coffee on. I'll get the cheesecake."

"I ain't got no coffee," Vin stood and collected the plates.

"Why didn't you say something?"

"Ya didn't ask 'bout coffee..." Vin's head went into the fridge and he brought the dessert out. "We got plenty o'beer."

"Beer?" Chris wrinkled his nose. "You can't drink beer with chocolate cheesecake."

"That's cause yer Yankee ass is a snob," Vin touted, setting the cake down. He handed Chris a fork and sat back down. "Us Rebs ain't so fussy. What?" He paused, looking at the strange face.

"Aren't you forgetting something?"

"Don't think so," Vin eyed the table. "Got m'beer, m'cake and m'fork..."

"How about plates and a knife?"

"What fer?"

"So we can eat the fuckin' cake!" Chris exasperated.

"Fixin' on eatin' it now. I'm wearin' bare feet... I don't need no plate. This look like a five star restaurant?"

"Wearing bare feet?" Chris puzzled. "I'm gonna have to start writing these little Vinisms down." He was going to say something more, but the words died. He watched the Texan's fork disappear into the box. Several minutes passed; Vin took a long swig of beer and belched loudly. He turned back and there was a ring of chocolate and whipped cream on his lips.

"Somethin' wrong?" Vin asked, watching Chris's strange smile.

"No," Larabee replied. "You slay me, Cowboy, you know that?"

"Why ain't ya eatin?" Vin demanded. "Ya best dig in... I ain't savin' any..."

"Yeah, reckon I will," Chris grinned, picking up his fork. "After all, I'm wearin' bare feet too!" He proclaimed proudly, wiggling his toes.

"Now yer fryin' fatback!" Vin shot back, moving the dish between them.

Two hours later, Vin disappeared into the kitchen just as the phone rang.

"Hello," he paused, licking the knife in his hand. "Hey, Bucklin, what's up?"

"You busy?" Buck held one hand over his ear, blocking out the noisy lobby in the movie.

He frowned. "No, I ain't busy. Chris come over and I cooked dinner. We're watchin' the game." He frowned again as the blond came past on his way to the bathroom. "No, he didn't need his stomach pumped. Ya got balls!"

"Are you okay, Vin? I left a message at the office and your line's been busy."

Vin grinned then, hearing the sincerity and worry on the other end of the phone. "I'm fine, really. Is that why ya called? Ya worryin' 'bout me?"

"You still owe me ten bucks for Josiah's birthday gift. I just didn't want to get stiffed."

"Ya can't lie fer shit, Bucklin." Vin tossed back. "Sorry 'bout the phone line. I left the computer on. I'm fine, Buck."

"How'd Chris take it?" the other man inquired.

"How'd ya know I said somethin'?"

"It's not you as much as those eyes of yours, Slick. Chris can read 'em like a hawk."

"Well, we had a talk, I told what happened. Now, get back t'that hot number yer s'fond o'neckin' with."

"Debbie," Buck used his Barry White voice, "and the L-o-o-v-e-e- god."

"How's the movie?" Vin laughed, waiting for the reply.

"How the hell should I know?" Buck sent back, laughing, then slowed his tone. "Listen, you watch your back, okay? If that prick calls you again..."

"Goodnight, Mom!" He sent back, still laughing. "..thanks, I got the message."

By the time Vin got into the living room, Chris was sprawled on the couch. He sat up; his mouth flew open in astonishment when the slim Texan came by.

"What the hell is that?"

"What?" The blue-eyed man put his plate down and eyed the walls. "Hell, did ya see a critter? I'm payin' some terminator t'gas them little bastards once a month."

"Huh?" Chris slapped the lean leg. "No, what's that?'"

"Oh," Vin relaxed, popping the top on his Yoo Hoo. "It's ten o'clock, time fer m'little snack."

"Little?" the blond amazed. "You ate dinner two hours ago! How can you be hungry?"

Vin just shrugged and picked up the large creation. "Like some?"

"No, thanks," Chris winced. "I'm the sane one, remember? What the hell is it?"

"Tanner Special number 3. I gotta keep 'em numbered so's I don't repeat."

"That's smart thinking, Vin," the other quipped, shaking his head.

"Peanut Butter and banana club sandwich with mini-marshmallows, chocolate bars and raspberry jelly on cinnamon raisin toast." He paused, casting a mischievous look to his best friend. "Last chance?" He offered.

"Tempted as I am," Chris shook his head, "I'll pass. It's getting late and I gotta get moving." He rose, gathered his belonging and paused at the door.

"Hey, ya be careful if ya wash m'shirt," Vin muffled through a full mouth. "Ya got chocolate and stuff on the front. It's a Scooby classic, had it fer years."

"What?" Chris pulled the shirt out. He hadn't even looked at the front. "Christ, Vin, I can't drive in this." He peeled it off.

"Well, ya best find somethin' t'cover up yer chicken chest. Yer likely t'cause a pileup on the interstate. Folks'll be laughin' s'hard." He coughed and nearly choked when the sole fingered response came at him. "Nice, them folks in Washington don't see yer diplomatic side!"

"Night, Vin," Chris called from the door. "Thanks for dinner."

"See ya, Cowboy," Vin called back. "Don't be callin' me fer bail neither."

+ + + + + + +

Sunday was a beautiful day, perfect for a food frenzied football fest. The others weren't coming for hours yet. Vin arrived early, let himself in and had breakfast cooking when Chris came down at seven. After they ate, they cleaned up the house a little and Chris went to town to finish the food shopping, pick up the Sunday paper and get more beer. Vin was gathering up the last of the trash, dragging the large bag behind him. He stepped on the corner of the bag and yelped in pain.

"Shit!" He lifted his tender bare foot, eyeing the bottom. "No cuts..." he continued on his mission. He went through the kitchen and den, down the hall into the guest bathroom and back through the other way into the kitchen. He slid on the floor.

"What the hell?" he muttered, then saw the large amount of blood all over. "Aw, hell!" He picked his foot up. "Didn't even hurt... shit!" Blood ran out of the center of his foot and he headed for the small bathroom closest inside the utility room. He spotted a metal box on the shelf over the washer. It had Sesame Street characters on it with Big Bird holding a red cross. He sat on the toilet and examined his foot. He couldn't see any cuts, but blood was pouring out. He flipped the lid off and grabbed a stack of gauze squares. He blotted it and then ran some water in the sink. He added antibacterial soap and stuck his foot in the warm bath. Then he sat down again and dried his foot. Blood still poured out.

Grabbing the first aid spray, he doused it and then covered it with a stack of gauze, securing it with lots of tape. He waited and peeked and it seemed to work. Now to clean up the mess.

"Larabee'll have a stroke," he commiserated of the blood trails. He hobbled to the mop and bucket, pausing to fill it. He hobbled into the kitchen, eyeing the messy floor. He set the bucket down in the doorway and slid again, upending the bucket all over his new bandage.

"Goddamnsonofabitchtohell!"

He hobbled back into the bathroom, squishing on the tiles. "Can't find no fuckin' cut... where the hell is all this blood comin' from?" He sat down and eyed the empty tape dispenser. "Swell." He paused, raked a hand through his hair and thought on his options. Hunting the house would mean leaving more blood all over. He eyed the hair dryer hanging on the hook above the sink and stood up.

"Hey, Sam!" Buck whistled, getting out of his car. The large black Lab was on a chain, leaping and barking in excitement. "Hey, fella, where's Vin?" he asked, spotting Tanner's motorcycle. Chris was just behind him having turned off the access road right after him. "Where's Vin?" he repeated, watching the dog's keen ears come up. The large black head cocked and eyed the door. A mournful cry came out of his mouth. Sam was Chris's dog, but he loved Vin Tanner who was just a big kid when it came to animals. "Let's go find Vin..." he unsnapped the chain and the dog bounded up the stairs to the deck going right through the doggie door.

"Give you a hand?"

"Yeah, thanks Buck." Chris handed him some bags and they went up the stairs. They both froze in the doorway. Buck set his packages down and took Chris's. "What the hell?"

"Blood trail!" Buck noted. "It's all over the place." He eyed the scarlet marks in the den and trailing up the hall. "Vin!"

"Vin!" Chris hollered.

"Get the hell away! Too Goddamn bad if I'm sittin' on yer water dish. Can't ya drink outta a bowl like other dogs?"

Both men turned at the sound of the cranky voice and headed through the messy kitchen to the utility room.

"Vin, what the hell happened?" Chris demanded, grabbing the anxious dog who was trying to shove Vin off the toilet. "Buck..."

"Yeah, I got him. Come on, Sam." He pushed the animal through the door and closed it. "Somethin' burnin'?"

"...blow dryer..." Vin replied, trying to pick the wet tape from between his toes.

"You were blow drying your foot?" Chris's face screwed up.

"Hell, no! I wasn't usin' a blow dryer on m'foot!" Tanner snapped. "I's dryin' the bandages and sparks come shootin' the hell out."

"Why were you blow drying bandages?" Larabee questioned.

"'Cause they's wet!" Tanner growled. "...from the bucket." then saw the green eyes firing up. "I run outta tape... I couldn't go huntin' more, blood was shootin' out."

"Hell, Vin, who would have noticed?" Buck smirked.

"How'd you cut your foot?" the blond asked.

"..on the trash bag..."

"Let me see," Chris tried to examine the injury.

"No! I'm doin' fine."

"Fine?" Larabee screeched. "Was that before or after you damn near started a fire?"

"Weren't no fire... just some sparks is all." Tanner peeled the soggy pink cotton off. "Aw, hell, ya got it bleedin' again."

"Me?" Chris shot back, taking a paper towel and pushing on the center of the foot.

"Yeah... all that hollerin' ya done, busted it out..." He grabbed the towel. "Leave me be. gimme that Boo boo spray."

"Boo Boo Spray!" Buck laughed so hard he choked.

"Aw, hell, thought ya left," Tanner sighed, taking the bottle. "I won't hear the end o'this fer months. Look, it says it right on the front," he defended weakly.

"That's Adam's box, he was four, Vin." Chris shook his head. "There's a real first aid kit on the deck."

"Vin, you didn't step on metal did you?" Buck asked, still lounging in the doorway.

"No."

"How'd you cut your foot, Vin?" Chris asked again.

"I told ya, on the trash bag," the angry Texan replied. "Quit houndin' me..."

"Oh, I haven't started yet," Chris shot back. "Why did you track blood all over my house?"

"I didn't know it then..."

"How could you not know/" Larabee's voice rose. "You bled like a stuck pig."

"Quit bellyachin'! It's yer fault I'm squatted in here bleedin'..."

"My fault!" Chris shouted.

"O'course it's yer fault... on accounta the pasta..."

"What?" Chris blinked. "Pasta...?"

"Oh, this is priceless," Buck was gasping for air now.

"Ain't ya got some big-breasted woman t'torture!" Vin growled of the lingering agent.

"A team of wild horses wouldn't move me. I can't wait to see where this is going."

"Where was I?" Vin frowned, relieved that the blood was finally slowing.

"Pasta," Buck supplied, watching two veins in Chris's neck beginning to pop out.

"Oh, yeah," Vin remembered, his anger rising along with a flush.

"Vin, I'm trying to remain calm here," Chris said in a low, lethal voice. "How did you cut your foot?" He saw the words forming and stopped them. "Don't say it... if 'I told ya' comes out of that mouth..."

"...on the lid..."

"What lid?" Chris scowled, rubbing his temples.

"The one in the trash... pay attention!" Vin hissed.

"Yeah, Chris, try to keep up!" Buck needled.

"Shut up, Buck!" Larabee swatted the smirking figure. "There wasn't a lid in the trash earlier. How'd a lid get in there?"

"...got blowed up..." Vin winced in advance.

"Blown up!" Chris clenched both fists. "Why can't you just answer a straight question?" he roared, pounding his head on the doorframe. "Oh, my God! I'm in the fuckin' Twilight Zone!"

"Quit shoutin' at me!" Vin threw the soggy bandages at Chris hitting his cheek. "Ya said t'cook the pasta so I got out that big pot and when it boilt, I shoved it off only I didn't know there was a pile of lids on the other burner they hit the knob it turned the heat on and the fuckin' lid blew the hell up I put the pieces in the trash. If ya didn't want the fuckin' pasta cooked, I wouldn't have a hole in m'foot. Does that answer yer fuckin' question!" He stood, eye to eye with the homeowner and finally came up for air.

For a few minutes, the only sound in the room was running water. Buck was holding his laughter back so hard, he was tearing up. His pained gaze went from one set of angry eyes to the other.

"He's got you there, Chris."

"That made sense to you?" Larabee turned incredulously to Wilmington.

"It don't have to make sense, it's Vinlogic!" Buck winked at the flush-faced sharpshooter. "Come on, Slick, let's get you outside and fix that foot." He paused in the doorway. "Aw, hell! I just lost my best wide receiver."

"It don't hurt none," Vin padded through the room. "Besides, Ezra's coverin' me and he can't catch his own shadow." He saw the water sloshed on the floor and the bloody mess beyond. He watched Chris bending over to pick up the bucket. "Leave it, Chris. I'll get it soon as I get patched up."

"It's okay, Vin. I got it."

"No, I made the mess. I'm cleanin' it up."

"I said I got it!" Chris snapped, shoving the mop on the watery floor. A hand grabbed the handle, stopping the motion.

"Leave it be!" Vin growled. "It's my blood. I'll mop it up!"

"Let go!" Chris shoved at the arm. "Get your foot cleaned up. Go sit down."

"This would make a great picture for the ATF newsletter. Two of the toughest agents carryin' a badge fighting over a damn mop!" Buck intervened, prying Vin's fingers off the mop. "There's plenty of Tanner blood to clean up. You'll get your turn. Go on outside and get your foot patched up." It took a few more glares, but the hot-headed Texan finally left.

While Vin went outside to repair his foot, Buck got a roll of towels and wiped up the kitchen floor. He noticed the water was cleaned up and Chris was examining the bag in question. There in the corner was a thick, broken piece of glass. He watched the blond head go to the window and then move outside.

"Give you a hand?" Chris asked quietly.

"Thanks," Vin replied, staring at the bottom of his foot. "It's not a cut, it's like a puncture... can't hardly see it."

"You sure do have rich, red Tanner blood!" Chris teased but got no smile. "It was an accident Vin. I didn't mean to blow my top. Sometimes your Tanner answers drive me crazy!"

"I'm sorry, Chris." Vin doused the area with antibacterial spray. "Can ya hold this fer me?"

"Yeah." Chris held the thick wad of gauze in place. Vin then taped it securely.

"I'll clean up the hall and rugs..." Vin paused. "Think I'll put sneaks on first."

"Good idea," Chris grinned, cuffing the Texan's neck.

+ + + + + + +

It was early on Friday morning when Buck Wilmington pulled into the federal building's parking garage in downtown Denver. He was belting out the chorus of an ELO tune when he spotted an old friend. His smile was born easy as he locked his car and strode over.

"Well, well, girl, you haven't aged a day... no sir!" he boomed, casting an appraising eye on the sleek black beauty. He kept that image in his head as he sauntered into the office he shared with the rest of Team Seven. He frowned, eyed the empty desks, and then the clock fast approaching eight a.m. He heard the clinking of a utensil against pottery and made his way to the cantina at the end of the large room. It was set up like a small kitchen, housing a table, refrigerator, sink and microwave. The lone occupant was reading the paper, absentmindedly tapping his spoon on the lip of a mug of coffee. His bewilderment grew upon spotting the relaxed attire of blue jeans and a casual cotton shirt. Nearby, a short black leather jacket was tossed over a chair.

"Seen Beauty in the lot," Wilmington noted of the ageless classic sixty-eight black Ford Mustang. "You and the widow stepping out?"

"Which widow would that be?" Chris replied cryptically.

"Well, now I am impressed," Buck laughed, pouring coffee and dropping a box on the table. "How many widows are you dating?" He saw the scowl forming as the lid on the box was lifted. "It's in there, tucked under. Hell, you're the only fool that likes spinach bagels." He grabbed a garlic bagel, slathered cream cheese on it and sat down. "Well?"

"Well, what?" Chris returned, slicing his green bagel.

"Why'd you bring 'er today? The truck acting up?"

"Nope."

"Dammit, Chris, you're hanging around that Texan too much! You're startin' to sound like him." He grumbled at the frustrating answers. "Where is everybody?"

"Nathan and Josiah are heading to Grand Junction; another church got hit last night. Ezra's off on payday and J.D. and Vin are headed south."

"South?" Buck recalled the youth's endless stream of chatter the night before. The bar was noisy and he was trying to catch the eye of a pretty brunette. He did recall the words 'dirt biking' coming up. "Where'd them weekend warriors get to now?"

"Carson National Forest, the South Boundary Trail. They need to let off some steam."

"Yeah," Buck munched his bagel and thought on the anxiety and anger both younger men fought off all week.

The trial concluded, but the daily run-ins with Eric McClendon had grown to a fever pitch by Thursday. Chris got the call from Orrin Travis to come and 'collect' the pair from the courthouse. Buck went with him and saw by the disheveled clothing and the split lip Dunne wore that something happened. The usually chatty youngest team member was pensive and brooding. Vin took an ice pack off his jaw, looked at Larabee's furious green eyes and said quietly, "It's done."

With that, he moved to J.D. and the two walked towards the car. Orrin's version, courtesy of the security guard, was that the two had 'pummeled' the F.B.I man. Larabee knew better; whatever McClendon got, he deserved. Later, after more than a few beers, Dunne broke the vow of silence. They'd been in the elevator; it stopped on the tenth floor and McClendon got on. He sneered and scoffed at them for several floors, making lewd gestures and remarks. But then he made the potentially fatal mistake of insulting Vin's mother. They literally 'spilled' out of the elevator onto the floor of the lobby. By the time the shocked onlookers parted to let the security guards in, the F.B.I. agent was out cold. It was on Orrin's word to the police department as well as a private conversation with McClendon and his superiors that no charges were filed.

Buck blinked his way out of the past and eyed the usually GQ'd Larabee's totally relaxed attire. "You're startin' to take this 'dress down Friday' too seriously."

"I'm headin' out," the blond replied, flipping to the sports section.

"Out?" he paused. "Oh, you're takin' the lovely Mrs. Travis for a romantic getaway?"

"No!" Chris frowned, shaking his head and eyeing the clock. "I got a division meeting, then a teleconference, then I'm heading back to the ranch. After you get done with Mike at Forensics and finish your profile," he noted of the pyrotechnic case he was concluding, "pack a bag and pick me up at the ranch at 1 p.m." He drained his coffee and took his bagel. "Oh, and eat first. We have a lot of road to cover."

"We? Cover?" Buck sat up, cocked his dark head and let a slow grin form. "Vin took your truck to tote their bikes and gear?" He saw the back of the blond head bob, "...and we're going to Taos to offer moral support?"

"Among other things," Chris turned, a grin splitting his handsome face. "I got two rooms at the Sagebrush Inn," he noted of the picturesque Taos hotel. "I picked it special."

"Because of its historical significance, quaint charm and atmosphere?" Wilmington's smile deepened.

"Yeah, there's that too," the leader challenged, raising a sandy eyebrow.

"Too?" the rogue puzzled, scratching his chin.

"NAPWA is holding a conference in Taos," Larabee noted rakishly, "their fifth annual. Some of the hotels in town overbooked and the Sagebrush is housing some of the members."

"NAPWA?"

"North American Professional Women's Association," the green eyes teased. "Mary mentioned having to cancel because of her sister's anniversary party. But you're right, Bucko," he winked, easing his lean frame from the room. "I picked it because of its historical standing."

"Hey!" The six-foot plus frame launched off the chair. "Wait up... wall to wall smart women? Damn! Why we waitin' 'til this afternoon?"

"Because I'm in a generous mood and granting you three hours of annual leave," the supervisor shot back, "or we'd be leaving at four-thirty."

"Why didn't you warn me? I need to pack specialty items. Hell, I hope I have enough time..."

"Specialty Items?" Chris grimaced, taking his notes from his desk, two CD's and a spread sheet. "I know I'm going to regret asking this... what specialty items?"

"None of your business!" Buck hollered, rummaging through his desk. So intent was he on his task, he didn't hear the other man approach.

"The loin cloth of Kings?" Chris's nose wrinkled and then he burst out laughing, reading over the broad shoulder.

"Hey, that's private!" the womanizer slammed the drawer shut. "I don't like jumpin' off a plane without a parachute. Do I pry into your shorts?"

"I'm not touching that, Buck," he gasped, shaking his head at the colorful ad on the paper Buck held for custom made prophylactics. "Long live the King of Latex!" he wheezed, trying to grab the ad that featured a male hunk with a 'crown'.

"Get the hell away!" Buck defended, shoving it back into the drawer. "It's a scientific process."

"Scientific my ass, Buck. You're not eighteen anymore..." he wiped his eyes. "A box... a whole box... custom made. God that's funny!"

"You say one word to that mangy Texan..." Buck warned, seeing the wheels spinning behind the green eyes. Then he saw the evil smile the blond wore all the way to the door. "Chris! Chris, I'm warning you... Damn!" He slammed his fist onto the top of the desk sending the paperclips into a frenzied dance.

+ + + + + + +

By six p.m., they were on the last stretch of their journey. All around them the beauty of the New Mexico desert in late day rose in a majestic display of color and shape. The sky was deep blue, rammed against the clay-colored earth, dotted with bright green cactus. White adobe buildings dotted the perimeter and rising up ahead was a gorgeous cluster of brick colored adobe buildings.

"There it is," Chris noted of the historic Inn nestled in the desert three miles from town.

"There's your truck," Buck nodded, as he pulled his Chevy Tahoe into the parking area. The spruce green all-wheel drive vehicle handled the road well. "Looks like the young-uns' arrived okay. Wonder what they're up too?"

Chris glanced at his watch. "J.D.'s up to his ass in junk food, face buried in a magazine. Tanner's lying flat on a rock somewhere, like any other lizard," he noted of his sun-worshiping friend. He stood, stretched, grimaced and rubbed his back. Squinting through his dark aviator glasses, he rubbed his nose and raked his eyes around the pool area nearby. A smile eased on his face and he moved to the rear where Buck was unloading the bags. "Hey, Buck," he elbowed his oldest friend and pointed. The other man laughed easily, shaking his head in amazement.

"That's why you get paid the big money, Boss," Wilmington joked, eyeing the pair. J.D. was lying in a lounge chair, his body and hair wet from a recent dip in the pool. Beside him was a plate of nachos dripping with cheese and a large, quart-sized soda. Vin's chair was flattened, his slim body browning nicely in the hot sun, clad only in faded blue swim trunks.

"Looks like he made a few friends," Larabee nodded to the bevy of beauties sharing a lounge chair next to the handsome agent. They were sitting sideways, not hiding their appreciation of the lean Texan.

"Well now, that is damn nice of him, warming them up for the old Buckmeister." The dark blue eyes widened as one of the group, a redhead smiled and waved at him. "A box might not be enough..."

"Come on, Casanova. Let's get checked in," Chris groaned, picking up the bags.

+ + + + + + +

In the Shadow of the New Mexican Border:

It was well past midnight and the others were asleep. Bull Savage drained his beer and eyed the mountains peeking over the desert. A few more days and they'd be riding down that road to where a well paid pilot would be waiting on a private strip of ground. Then, after a few more hours, they'd be in the land of milk and honey. Visions of a sprawling hacienda appeared along with a ripe senorita with large eyes and a beguiling body. Hell, he could have as many as he wanted; it was Mexico and the dollar was worth a lot more. Maybe he'd even marry again. He chuckled to himself and tossed the bottle away. He leaned back in the patio chair and listened to the sounds of the night. He intended to have that dream and nobody would stop him. He'd kill any fool that tried.

+ + + + + + +

Carson National Forest, High Noon

Breathtaking scenery flew by their eyes as they continued their long trek through the rough trail. Spectacular vistas of mountains and meadows bowed gracefully before them. Teaming with wildlife, they shared the land with marmots, elks, mule deer, golden eagles and other creatures. It was for advanced bikers as the relentless climbing was a skill only the best possessed. The two-wheeled pilots blazed onwards oblivious to danger. The turnaround point was 22 miles up the trailhead. They passed hikers who grinned at the war whoops the leader was shrieking at the top of his lungs. His long hair was tied back and secured under his helmet. His adrenaline shot up and past his shining sky eyes, leaving a sloppy grin on his partner's face.

J.D. moved ahead, screaming as he shot past the stunned Texan.

"Eat my dust, Tanner," Dunne called back, maneuvering his bike over the rough, uphill terrain like a hot knife through butter. Never one to be seconded at any task no matter how great or small, the competitive devil in the blue-eyed one was born. Despite his inferior ability to the outstanding biker ahead of him, he growled and accelerated. He realized his mistake too late on a particularly tough rise.

The youth had topped it and blasted ahead heading for the wondrous view from Devisadero Peak. This 'lookout' was once used by the Taos Pueblo Indians to stand guard against invading Apaches. A carpet of wildflowers framed his view. In the distance, the outline of Taos could be seen along with the Rio Grande Gorge and the San Antonio Mountains. The loud noise of the motor and the helmet on his head prevented him from hearing the sharp cry. He finally pulled over, his eyes drunk at the sight of the majesty before him. He took his throw away camera from the pocket of his jacket just after he pulled his helmet and goggles off

"I think I died and went to heaven, Vin," he gasped, out of breath. He took several pictures, replaced the camera and took out his water bottle. After taking a long drink, he turned and realized he was alone.

"Vin?" He snapped the cap on the bottle and shoved it back in its holder. "VIN!" He panicked, not hearing a motor or anything else. "Shit!" He pulled his gear on and turned around, deftly retracing his path. He stopped when he saw the deep skids that marked path in the dirt. He eased off his own bike and jogged over to the side, eyeing the uneven incline. "VIN!"

"What?"

"Where are you? Are you okay?" He asked, although the cranky voice was strong and unwavering, which gave him a breath of relief.

"Jes' dandy!"

He half-walked and half-slid down the incline for several yards. Then he spotted the bike, on its side near a patch of trees. He skidded to a halt, grabbing a tree to stop his motion. "You're bleeding!" He eyed the crimson streaks on the angry face. His concerned gaze raked over the prone body. "Is anything broken?"

"Jes' my pride!" Vin growled, still lying on his back. "I landed on it... 'fore I rolled over."

"Oh," J.D. grinned, squatting next to his friend. "Can you walk?"

"No... not jes' yet..." Vin said through clenched teeth, balling his fists against the pain in his groin. "...m'barely able t'form words." He closed his eyes, blocking out the bright purples and yellows that danced boldly in front of him. He felt the youth's fingers moving around his neck and shoulders before gently taking the helmet off.

"I'm fine!" he insisted, a protest which fell on deaf ears. The padded gloves were eased off his hands and the elbow pads as well. He moved his arms, wrists and fingers freely. Nothing was broken or sprained, but he'd be hurtin' like hell come morning. He knew his back and legs, especially his inner thighs, would be mottled and discolored.

"Sit up," J.D. hooked his hands under the arms in the black and royal blue long-sleeved jersey and tugged. He gently rested the dazed man against the tree and lifted the closed lids. "Your eyes are okay. Your chest hurt?"

"No, Nurse Nancy!" Vin growled, annoyed at his mistake. "Only thing that hurts is m'peeshooter and ya ain't foolin' with that."

"No," J.D. grinned, wiping the blood from the cut over the irate blue eyes. "Looks like nobody else will be fooling with it either!"

"Hell," Vin slumped, "Had my eye on that big blond gal..."

"The Swedish banker?" J.D. recalled of their poolside encounter that ended up with drinks later. "I thought you liked the small, dark-haired girl. She sure had pretty eyes and a great smile."

"Had her lined up too..." Vin winced, licking his lips. "I'll be lucky if I can get from the bed to the can," he noted miserably of the bathroom in their room. "Ya got any water? It's gonna be awhile 'fore I can move t'good. Might as well rest here a bit."

"Sure." J.D. got Vin's water bottle from its cage. He took off the side bag, getting out a power bar and a piece of fruit.

"Can't stomach that yet," Tanner denied, his queasy insides piping up. "Jes' water..." He took the bottle and drank as the younger man poked at his legs. After several minutes, he flinched as J.D. moved them, finally bending the left leg. The right leg was sore and when J.D. tried to move it, he stopped him. "Leave it be! If ya weren't s'hell bent on bein' Evil Kneivel, I wouldn't be lyin' here!" He grimaced, slamming his eyes shut as his head began to throb. It was several minutes before the silence forced the lids open. He rested his bottle against his face; the coolness felt good. He watched the younger man's skilled hands moving the bike around.

"Bike's fine," J.D. said in a quiet voice before heading up the hill.

"Kid? Kid, wait..." Vin shouted after him. "Dammit t'hell Tanner!" he chastised, "Why can't ya leave yer mouth shut." By the time J.D. returned, he could see the hurt in the hazel eyes. The youth sat next to him, not hiding his guilt.

"I'm sorry."

They laughed at the dual proposals, spoken in the same genuine tone. Vin recovered first, offering his hand. "I didn't mean that, J.D. I ain't no Dunne, that's fer sure. Hell, y'ed make them professionals on ESPN look bad. Yer good, Kid, real good. I shouldda known better. Let m'pride get the best of me."

"Yeah," the dark-haired youth teased, eyeing Vin's aching groin. "I can see that." After they had a good chuckle, he turned again, giving praise. "I might ride like a pro, but you landed like one. On your side, stayin' with the bike, not fighting it and going over the handlebars. That's why you aren't hurt worse."

"Well," Vin smiled, raising his right leg and pleased that it moved well. "I reckon when they form a league for 'accident-prone-Texans' I'd qualify fer sure."

"You gonna be able to make it back?"

"Yeah," Vin shot out with pained confidence, "Piece o'cake!"

"You gonna be able to sneak past Chris?"

There were several minutes before the dejected raspy voice aired.

"Aw, hell..."

+ + + + + + +

The late afternoon sun was dropping fast leaving an orange glow on the water. The two old friends were taking a respite from the heat. They were sitting under cover at the poolside bar, enjoying cold beer and hot wings. Both heads turned at the sight of Larabee's black truck ambling onto the property. Two sets of eyes were trained on the vehicle. The dark blue eyes crinkled in anticipation when the youngest of their team slid from behind the wheel. Chris's heart sank a bit when the youth walked around the truck to open the passenger door.

"Fuck!" the blond swore softly, watching the rogue's eyes dance as his wiggling fingers appeared before his face.

"Hand it over!" Buck demanded with a sharp grin.

"He's not out yet," Chris tried, even though in his heart he knew the truth. "Maybe he was sleeping." Yet his hand was already on his wallet, peeling off a ten dollar bill.

"Yeah," Wilmington snorted, "and maybe I'm still a virgin. Give it over!" He chuckled, watching the green eyes burn. "I believe the bet was a 'busted up Tanner' for twenty bucks."

"Shit!" Chris swore, slapping another ten onto the open palm. "That's gotta be some kind of record," he noted of his accident prone friend.

With Dunne's help, a string of curses in several languages and a bit of luck, Vin Tanner landed on terra firma. He moved painfully out of the way so the other man could shut the door. Every fiber in his body throbbed, from his toes to the top of his head. Even his hair hurt.

"Heads up," J.D. whispered. "Here comes Papa Bear and he looks pissed."

"Damn," the blue-eyed bruised man clenched. "Why ain't he got his face in one of them books he's always totin' around?" He managed to stand straight and moved the supporting arm. "I'm okay, Kid." He sucked in a breath just as the two older members came around the back of the truck.

"You two youngsters have a good time? We were worried, no calls from the Forest service, state troopers or the sheriff."

"Ha-ha!" J.D. made a face. "If you weren't so far over the hill, you could have come to. It was awesome, Buck," he moved in front on Vin hoping to block their view. He plowed onward, telling of the beautiful sights, sounds and action.

"Hey, Cowboy!" Vin gushed with a false smile.

"Nice face," Chris paused in front of his best friend, squinting at the swollen eye under a neat row of stitches. "How many?"

"Six," Vin admitted, touching the sore eye. "I only done it cause I didn't wanna worry the Kid."

Chris crossed his arms in front of his bronzed chest and smiled. "Ten dollars for each push-up you can do."

"Maybe later," Vin was struggling now, the only objective in his throbbing skull was a hot bath. A long hot bath. A very, very, long hot bath and a soft bed. "Right now, I got plans."

"Well, hell, Son, don't let us hold you up!" Buck exuded, clapping the smaller man on the back with a knowing wink to Chris Larabee.

This caused both sky eyes to bulge and air compressed so tightly in the sharpshooter's mouth that steam nearly came out of his ears. But he remained silent... barely.

"How much later?" Chris hid a smile seeing Vin slipping fast.

Vin's face creased and wrinkled, trying to conquer the pain. He was fighting a losing battle and raised his eyes, meeting the cool green gaze. "Wednesday?"

"Come on, Slick," Buck held onto the Texan's elbow. "The bar's hoppin' and I'm buyin'. I just came into some money."

"What!" Vin pulled away, eyeing the pair, eyes narrowed. "Ya bet on me? Yer a pair of fuckin' buzzards," he glared, shuffling painfully ahead. "...met vultures with more compassion."

"Now, Vin, you can't blame me," Buck lamented. "It was money in the bank." He caught up to the sad soul. He took one arm, Chris the other. This act of contrition was short-lived. Their aid was shirked off.

"Get the hell away from me!" the bounty hunter growled. "Don't be touchin' me, neither of ya jackals. Don't want no part of yer blood money!"

They chuckled as he shuffled towards the elevator, mumbling the whole time. Buck ruffled J.D.'s hair and got an idea. "Hey, Vin, do you need your 'boo boo spray'?" One finger rose over the shoulder of the injured man as he entered the elevator. This caused all three to laugh aloud.

+ + + + + + +

Eight P.M., In the Hotel

"Hey, Vin!" J.D. waved from the table the other three were sharing. The restaurant wasn't so crowded now having thinned out. They'd already consumed two platters of appetizers waiting for the fourth member to join them.

"You sure you're...." Chris backed off, putting both hands up defensively as the sky eyes flashed. "Okay."

They ordered another round of drinks; Vin got a coke. He was given Tylenol with codeine by the first aid personnel at the Ranger's station. He intended to take some later and sleep well into the next day. He drained two glasses of water and his coke. Nearby, J.D. and Buck argued over a controversial call in the hockey game they watched on television earlier. He inwardly cursed his shortsightedness and began to squirm.

"What's the matter? You got worms?" Chris declared, watching the wiggling body across from him.

"No!" Vin hissed, standing painfully and biting his lip. He moved a few inches, gripping the table top, groaned and staggered. In a flash, two bodies were next to him. He shoved both sets of arms away. "Get away... been goin' on m'own since I was three," he grumbled, taking baby steps gingerly. "Don't need no parade t'shake the dew off the lily."

Buck had already sat back down and taken a mouthful of beer which was a mistake. For as soon as Vin's last comment left his lips, the ale went airborne. He doubled over, choking and laughing, with J.D. pounding his back.

"What's that mean?" the youth frowned as Buck wrote the phrase down on a cocktail napkin.

"What are you doing?" Chris moved, reading over the tall man's shoulder.

"Oh," J.D. saw Vin enter the bathroom. "I never heard of that."

"Another Vinner," Buck wheezed, still recovering. "That boy's loaded with 'em." He tucked the napkin into his pocket carefully. "Me an' Ezra are gonna make a mint off this book."

"Book?" Larabee took his seat, narrowing his eyes suspiciously.

"Yeah, it's a sure fire hit, can't miss!" Wilmington oozed. "Ezra even did geographic projections. Hey, you got any of his expressions to add? You spend a lot of time with him. We'll cut you in on a share."

"You're a real humanitarian, Buck," the blond head shook. "...and a dead one, once he finds out."

"Never happen, we're being real careful," he paused as the leader nodded to J.D. who was buttering a roll.

"There goes that bullet on the New York Times bestseller's list," Larabee projected, noting the loose Dunne lips.

"What?" The dark head came up, the nimble fingers shoving a piece of fry bread into his waiting mouth.

"Ezra's gonna kill me," Wilmington lamented, picking up his beer. Minutes went by, piling up and the waitress appeared with their food. Twice, Chris stood, wanting to check on their missing friend. Twice, Buck's hand tugged him back with a knowing look. Then the slow moving Texan's image appeared. By the time he got to the table and sat down, Buck was ready.

"Hell, Vin, why didn't you wait a few more minutes? You'd be in time for breakfast." He chuckled at the failing glare he got from the sweating body. He moved a glass of water closer, but the long -haired man denied it.

"Aw, hell, it's cold," Vin shoved the plate back, his mood darkening by the minute.

Chris got the waitress's attention and had them reheat the chicken and rice dish. Just as he turned back, Vin reached for a roll and knocked the large glass of ice and water into his lap.

"Dammit!" he soured as the cold water and mountain of ice soaked his pants.

"Here, let me get that!" Buck moved with a napkin only to be shot down by two fired-up blue bullets. "Maybe not..." he backed off, chuckling as J.D. moved his chair away from the seeming jinx.

"Sorry, Vin, but you're riding under a black cloud," Dunne apologized as the other's laughed.

Vin gave up then, tossing in the 'towel'. "Well, at least it ain't a total loss. It cooled the boys down some. They's all fired up... had plans fer later." He didn't hide his smile when Buck's 'brotherly' arm draped over his shoulder.

"You tell them little fella's not to fret, Slick. Being the kind, generous soul that I am, I'll step in and pinch hit for you."

"Saint Buck," Chris shook his head.

"...patron saint of..." J.D. left it blank but his wagging eyebrows coupled with their imaginations gave all four a good laugh. The incident was forgotten as the quartet shared a meal and made new memories.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat up in bed eyeing the red digital numbers on the clock. Three a.m. He stood and walked to the other bed, staring at the heaving chest. He gave his young friend credit; he'd tried hard. How long had he been lying there trying to fall asleep? In the dim light cast by the moon, he saw the fine features coated with sweat. He could imagine how much pain Vin was in and moved to the bathroom.

"Huh?" Vin grunted, squinting at a body near him. He saw a palm, some pills and a large glass of water. He took the pills and nodded gratefully. He'd tried to get up, but the pain in his right side was too bad. "Thanks... Chris?" he recognized the body. "Where's J.D.?"

"We switched." The leader sat down on his own bed, yawning. "That kid can sleep through a hurricane. Better Buck stumbles in there making a racket."

"Sorry... didn't mean t'wake ya."

"That's okay. I needed to, uh... 'shake the dew off the lily anyway!" He laughed, then relaxed as a soft chuckle came from the other bed.

"Night, Chris," Vin yawned, feeling the room fading away. "...than...ks..."

A scream brought his eyes open; his heart was racing and he moved too quickly. His body didn't cooperate and every muscle and bit of flesh screamed in protest. Bent over, he moved stiffly across the room towards the bathroom. It wasn't just a scream; it was Chris's scream from the bathroom. It wasn't just any scream; it was too sharp and vivid. He shoved the door open and ambled inside.

"Chris? What's wrong? What hap..." His words died at the sight that met his eyes. Even his swollen eye was stretched to the limit, bugging out in shock at the scene.

Part Three

NOTE 1 - I want to thank the kind, generous and understanding editor, aka KET, for effortlessly going through this with her red pen. Thanks Pard, you got no idea how relieved I am to have my' assets' covered. I am very very grateful, KET, thanks a million.

NOTE 2 - I want to thank very good friend and wise ,wise lady for all the priceless medical information for both Eye of the Deceiver and Through the River of Fire. Julie, without you my story would have huge holes in it! Thansk for being so very generous.

NOTE 3- A wise sage, in the guise of my editor, KET, advised me to warn y'all not to be eating or drinking near the keyboard when you read thebeginning of this next part. So, fair warning is issued... Don't spew!

+ + + + + + +

What the hell happened?" Vin demanded, eyeing the mangled remains of something in the tub. "Cut that out!" he interceded, moving himself between the irate blond and the obviously dead creature. "Hell, it ain't got no head left. Ya keep smashin' it and there's gonna be nothin' left t'send t'the lab." He yanked the bashed cordless phone from the tense leader's fingers. He wrinkled his nose and tossed it aside. "I ain't payin' fer that, it's on yer half o'the bill."

"Fuckin' thing bit me!" Chris panted. "Christ, that hurts!" he vented, bending over the sink and gritting his teeth.

"Where?" the half-asleep roommate inquired, his own body throbbing from moving too fast.

"Where do you think, Einstein!"

"Huh?" Vin blinked, cocked his head and then smiled, seeing Larabee's hand pressed to his ass. It started as a smirk; he tried to suppress it but couldn't. The laughter snuck out and then doubled.

"You think this is funny!"

"Yer tight ass gettin' chomped on by a rat," Vin wheezed from his lack of breath. "That poor critter died o'shock long b'fore ya mashed it to kingdom come. He picked the wrong ass to chomp on. I'm what ya call tender like... real digestible." He stopped laughing then, seeing blood trickling down the blond's inner right 'cheek'. "I never thought I'd hafta be sayin' this t'ya," he tried to keep a straight face. "Bend over and spread 'em, Princess."

"Vin, I'm warning you!" Larabee growled, bending over the sink. His mind kept seeing that devilish light in Tanner's blue eyes. He knew he'd never, not ever, hear the end of this. "OW!" He shoved away from the basin. "Get away from me."

"Shut up," Vin countered, blocking the path to the door. "Listen t'me. That rat could be carryin' rabies. It's a nasty lookin' bite, he chomped ya right good, must have been desperate. I'm gonna clean it up with soap and water then rinse it with whiskey. We can patch it up and then we're visitin' the ER."

"ER?"

"Yeah," Tanner supplied, "The hospital, not the television show."

Great," Chris mumbled. The only consolation was that they weren't at home where the ER personnel knew them. Had that been the case, by the time he was taken care of, the whole hospital would know. "Alright, but be careful!"

"I'll be gentle," Vin whispered, winking seductively, grinning as the green eyes rolled. Chris never moved during the soap and rinse process.

"How the hell did it get in there," he hissed, eyeing the toilet bowl.

"Come up through the out door, so t'speak," Vin countered. He took a clean white cotton facecloth and put hot water on it. "Here, hold it tight," he pressed the rag over the wound. "Lie on the bed, belly down and I'll find yer whiskey."

Chris lay on two pillows, his upper body flat and his backside raised. He saw Vin pass by with the bottle of whiskey and clenched his teeth, preparing for the burning sensation.

Nothing happened. He frowned and had his head half turned. He saw a series of flashes and then the camera.

"What the Hell are you doing?" He roared, stood and yanked his briefs up.

"Takin' pictures," Vin replied innocently. "Fer insurance purposes only, o'course. Took some of the critter too." Then he smirked, his eyes dancing. "Then again, with the right moves, I could retire a wealthy man. Lots o'women would pay top dollar fer a shot of yer ass, even with an extra hole in it. With Ezra's darkroom and Bucklin's string of fillies, hell, maybe I could post 'em on EBAY."

"The day after your funeral!" the wounded man replied, eyes glowing. "Just get it done..." He turned back around, moving stiffly and painfully to the bed. The wound was throbbing relentlessly.

"Buck, we got a problem, ya see..."

"Put that phone down!" Chris drilled the smaller body, sending both of them onto Tanner's bed. The wiggling Texan was pressed hard into the blankets, his face obscured by a pillow. The phone fell away and the leader grabbed it.

"We gotta tell them somethin', they're gonna be waitin'," Vin muffled, trying to dislodge the weight pressed against him.

"I'll take care of it. You say one word and it'll be your last!" the injured man declared.

"Hello?" Buck winced. "Vin, is that you?"

"What's wrong?" J.D. asked from the chair by the pool. They were waiting on the other two men. After a quick stop in town to hit a few stores, they were starting the long trek back to Denver, over six hours of driving.

"I don't know, I could have sworn, I heard Vin..."

"Buck, does J.D. have the keys to the truck?" Chris panted, trying to contain the squirming body and hold onto the phone.

"You got the keys, Kid?" He waited and saw them produced. "Yeah, he's got them. Why?"

"You two head on out. We'll get a... rental... and..." He fell backwards as Tanner freed himself, but the fight was painful and his injuries from the day before were pulsating. Chris eyed the damp hair clinging to the Texan's face and the heaving chest.

"Buck, ya there?" Vin's eyes searched the bed for the phone. "Chris got..."

"What?" Buck cupped his ear, hearing bangs, crashes, two sets of curses and then a voice. "Are you two okay?"

"Fine!" Chris scorched, one hand holding the sniper's face into the bed and his left side pressing the body there.

"Ben, the two of us need look no more..." Vin sang off key. "We both found what we were looking fer..." he warbled before a pair of socks was shoved into his mouth.

"I swear, if I didn't know better," Bewildered, Buck turned to his companion, "I'd say Vin's drunk."

"This early? No way... he's too loaded with codeine. Maybe he's having a reaction. Why?" J.D. puzzled.

"He's singing that rat love song from the movie... you know, the Michael Jackson song?"

"Ben?" Dunne flinched.

"Yeah. Hey, Chris? You there? Hello?"

"Yeah..." the blond panted, out of breath and in pain. The Texan was gagged and he was using his body weight to keep him down. "Vin's... he... can't talk right now..." he shoved the muffled cries further into the bed.

"He sick?" Buck paused.

"He's sick alright!" Larabee snarled, wincing as Vin's elbow hit his abdomen. "We... I gotta go... we'll get a rental. We'll come back tonight."

"Hell, Chris, we'll wait..."

"No!"

"Damn," Buck held the phone away, both for the loud noise and even more crashing sounds.

"Gimme that fuckin' phone!" Vin hollered, on the bottom of a pile of limbs on the floor. His bruised body was burning, the muscles agitated. He was totally out of breath and Chris had him twisted like a pretzel. "Buck! Help! I'm bein' assaulted by Ratman. Get me outta here 'fore I get..." He coughed, then began to sing a unique version of an old Cat Stevens song, "...rat scratch fever..."

"What?" the rogue cupped his ear again. "Chris? Are you there? What the hell is wrong with Vin?"

"He's out of his fuckin' mind!" Larabee yelled, having shoved the soggy socks back in Tanner's mouth and holding him on the floor. "Don't wait on us, Buck. I mean, Vin's not up t'travelin' any time soon. He's sick!"

"You sure?"

"Positive. Besides, Josiah's expectin' you two at the kid's charity bowl-out tonight." The preacher organized many benefits during the course of the year to raise money for impoverished youth.

"Hell, I forgot about that," he eyed his watch. "We better get moving. I'll get Nathan to pitch in for Vin. Listen, don't rent a car. I'll drop my keys and registration off, okay?"

"Yeah, fine..." he pressed, out of breath and bearing the brunt of a throbbing butt

"Be right up!" He updated J.D. and stood up. "Vin must have had some bad reaction. He's carryin' on likes he's delirious. I'm leavin' my keys, be right back."

Chris hung up the phone and dragged his body upward, gingerly pulling on a pair of sweat shorts. He eyed Vin who'd rolled over and spit out the socks.

"...damn near suffocated." He spit his tongue out, wrinkling his face up. "Get me up, Cowboy!" He raised a hand but was denied. "Come on, Chris. I can't move," he panted, his body screaming in protest. The bruised muscles, battered body and tender areas were all throbbing. The adrenaline rush died and left him unable to move. He closed his eyes, not hearing the door shut.

Chris stood in the hall, holding the keys to the room and maintained a frozen smile. His ass was on fire. He nodded to several women who passed by, wondering how bad he must look. His hair was sticking up at all angles; he hadn't shaved and he was wearing filthy shorts, inside out. Finally, he saw the elevator open and Buck stepped out.

"What's goin' on?" Wilmington demanded, eyeing the green-eyed man suspiciously. "Why are you out in the hall? Where's Vin?" He tried to move past and was blocked.

"You don't want to go in there, it's not pretty," Chris managed between gritted teeth.

"Oh, damn, he's that sick?"

"Sickest little fucker I know," Larabee clenched, hearing Vin's laughter in his ears. "I'll take care of him. You don't want to catch anything what with all those phone numbers you got last night."

"Aw, hell," Buck backed up defensively. "Don't breathe on me. You might be totin' Tanner germs. Here," he handed the keys and owner's card over and backed up several feet.

"Thanks, Buck, 'preciate it," Chris paused. "I don't know when we'll be back. Late tonight, maybe not. Could be sometime tomorrow. My registration's in the glove compartment."

"Check in, okay?"

"Will do," Chris nodded as Buck padded off. Then he saw the ice machine and got an idea. Vin was still on the floor when he returned. He frowned, seeing the eyes closed and both arms splayed out to his sides. "You alive?"

"...barely..." Vin whispered, then unleashed an unearthly howl when something cold was dumped down the front of his shorts. He shot up, doing a wicked dance and dispelling the ice cubes. "That ain't funny!"

"From where I'm standing it is!" Chris laughed, then winced, grabbing his butt. "I made an executive decision to get that mangy body up."

"Well, get yer 'executive ass' over t'the bed and let's get this done," he growled, moving to the closet and taking out the bottle of whiskey. He returned to find his friend bent over the pillows and waiting. A cruel smile appeared, as he unscrewed the bottle and picked up a clean, white washcloth. He soaked it and moved it to his left hand, gently patting the bronzed flank before him with his right. "Don't ya fret none, yer jes' another pretty face, nothin' t'be embarrassed at." He paused, "Course ya ain't got a Tanner ass, but we can't all be perfect."

"I gotta six foot Tanner ass I gotta look at every day," Larabee shot back as his eyes rose and caught the devilish light in the blue eyes reflected in the mirror. Vin didn't see him looking and he watched the fine features light up. The slim Texan began to bob and move in a soul-like dance.

"Who let the rats out? Who... who... who... who... who..." he warbled, shuffling his shoulders and dodging his head. "Who let the rats out? Who... who... who... who..." he mimicked the Baha brothers classic song.

"Why me?" Chris groaned, dropping his head back onto his arms on the bed. "I should have taken up golf... like normal guys do. No, I gotta follow a fuckin' lunatic cycle-ridin' Texan," he moaned as another song drifted past the would-be singer's lips.

"Stray rat sittin' in a toilet bowl," Vin mimicked the Stray Cats rockabilly hit 'Stray Cat Strut.' "...ain't got enough sense t'pick the right hole. Chris's half 'wake and he don't care. He squats on down with his tail in there..." He laughed, wagging his shaggy head. "Hell, I got a million of 'em!"

"Lucky me," the blond head shook and dropped even lower. "Christ, I'm never gonna live this down."

"Drop yer drawers, Cowboy!" Vin used a low, seductive voice and arched an eyebrow to where Larabee's gaze met his in the mirror. "I need t'inspect the merchandise I'm buyin'..."

"Shut that Tanner mouth up and get it over with!" Chris moved his abdomen, tugging his shorts down. He resumed his position. "You enjoyin' yourself?"

"Hell yeah!" the guileless blue eyes fired up. He moved the whiskey saturated cloth over the nasty wound. "Jes relax now, I'll be gentle, I know it's yer first time."

"Quit foolin' around, Vin! I mean it," the wounded pride surfaced. "Just stick it in there and get it over with.":

"I ain't rushin'," Tanner touted, prying the cheek open and wincing at the nasty wound. "Never did this b'fore and I need t'make sure I'm doin' it right. I don't wanna hurt ya." He lowered the cloth. "I'm puttin' it in now..." He winced, then frowned as Chris's scream was joined by a woman's.

"Christ Almighty!" Larabee groaned between clenched teeth. The liquor seemed to burn a hole right through his skin. His smoldering gaze lingered on the maid briefly before he buried his head back in the pillow. How long had the woman been standing there? "Can this day possibly get any worse?"

"Mornin' Ma'am!" Vin crowed, keeping one hand on Chris's lower back and pulling the sheet over his pride. "Lovely day, ain't it? Don't mind Chris, he's shy, it bein' the first time an all... ain't that right, Cowboy!" He slapped the cloth-covered backside, grinning at the lethal growl that seemed to foam under the pillow. "Damn! Yer frothin' at the mouth." He rubbed the tense neck and shoulder. "He's a real tiger, ya know what I mean?" He winked at the blushing maid who blessed herself, kissed the cross around her neck and moved her supply cart out of the room.

"Get your affairs in order, Tanner!" Larabee hissed and felt the Texan's hand prodding him again. "Move it or lose it," he warned, trying to rise.

"Shut the hell up!" Vin sassed, slapping a large, square bandage on the wound. "That'll do 'til we get there. I'm takin' a bath. Get the water runnin', find yer face and get dressed."

"A bath!" Chris yanked his shorts up and stood, green eyes flashing. "I got a hole in my ass and you're takin' a bath?"

"'scuse the hell outta me fer bein' thrown inta' a tree yesterday!" Vin hollered, limping painfully towards the bathroom. "I ache down t'my bones and I'm the one drivin'. Take a fuckin' bus if yer impatient ass can't wait. Hell, I can barely walk."

Chris flinched as the door slammed and he quietly got washed up at the sink in the foyer. He scrubbed his teeth, gargled and got dressed. He tried sitting down and quickly found out that was not possible. So he put more ice in a plastic bag and placed that onto the chair, then gently eased himself down. Twenty minutes went by and he got worried. Flinching painfully, he rose and approached the door, tapping gently. "You okay, Cowboy?"

"'s'open."

Chris paused a second, hearing the dejected voice and then entered. He walked over to the tub and eyed the large amount of Tanner flesh mottled in shades of purple, black, deep scarlet and blue. He'd been in more than a few accidents himself and knew all too well how painful the day after was.

"You take all the time you need," he decided, despite his own fear of rabies coursing through his body.

"...been done..."

"Well... why... are..." he stopped when one damp arm came up; the head didn't. Without a word, he hooked his own hand under Vin's arm and helped him stand. "Vin, the water's cold. What were you waiting on?"

"Couldn't get out." Vin winced and hissed, lifting his right leg over the edge of the tub. He grasped Chris's forearm in a death grip, then got his left leg out. "Gimme a... second..."

"Why didn't you call me?" the blond scolded, not hiding his anger at the pain he saw radiating from the younger man.

"Yer hurt."

"Dammit, Vin," he sighed softly, rubbing the wet curls. "What am I gonna do with you?"

"Well," the Texan managed a sly grin. "I could sit down and wait... could be that hairy bastard'll have some kin come lookin' fer supper."

Chris smirked and reached for a towel. "You okay?" he offered and saw a grateful smile.

"...am now, thanks." Vin carefully took the towel and began to slowly dry off, using one hand on the wall to support his battered body. He saw Chris heading out the door and stopped. "Hey, Chris?" He waited until the head turned. "I'm sorry, fer blastin' at ya b'fore. That wasn't right..."

"That's okay, Vin," he smiled. "If I was painted up like a Welch's grape juice ad," he noted of the vast colored areas on the lean body, "I would have shot first too." He got the soft smile he was so used to and returned to his ice pack.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stared out of the glass feeling the heat of the day penetrate his throbbing skull. The ice pack beneath his butt had long since melted, soaking that area of his pants. What started out as a simple trip to the Emergency Room had taken a bad turn. The road construction was bad enough, but add to that a major accident and navigating down unfamiliar side streets, and his patience was wearing decidedly thin. His ass pulsated with pain. The frustration spilled over when they passed a restaurant.

"Looks like a table opened up since we passed the last time," he vented. "Maybe we ought to stop in this time around!"

Vin remained silent; he knew Chris was beyond the point of reason. He tossed the directions the kid at the desk gave them and pulled over. He ignored the string of curses from the other occupant as he climbed out. He was only inside the cafe for a few minutes, then got behind the wheel again.

"It ain't far," he answered the six foot pile of exasperation.

"You said that a half hour ago,"

By the time they pulled up to parking lot next to the red sign with "Emergency' written over it, the driver was in a lot of pain as well. It had been over twelve hours since his codeine and everything below the middle of his back throbbed without mercy. Plus, the confusing drive and the hot-headed patient had his skull doing a frenzied dance as well. He bit his lip as his back and hips protested the move from the car. The rest of his muscles were still angry at just being in the car. He made a sour face as Larabee's surly voice was heard.

"'bout fuckin' time."

He grabbed the bag off the seat and hobbled painfully behind the limping Larabee. Even the large wet spot on Chris's backside didn't draw a smile. He stopped twice, gritting his teeth as his back flared up worse. Whatever damage that he'd done yesterday had been aggravated by the shenanigans in the room earlier.

By the time he got to the sliding doors, Chris Larabee was well past the red zone. A monster headache had exploded inside his head adding to the pain radiating from his right posterior cheek.

"Should have stayed home," he vented, "should be relaxing at the ranch..." He flinched when the bag was slapped hard into his chest and the lean Texan shuffled painfully past him.

Carmela Toscana looked up from the admissions window and saw the two men approaching. She stood up, moved around the desk and intercepted a body limping the wrong way.

"I'm Carmela. Let's see if we can get you taken care of."

"Ain't no 'we',' Vin pulled away, his ears still stinging. "He's yer patient." With that, he limped past the small waiting area following the green signs marked 'Cafeteria'.

"Vin?... Vin, wait a minute!" Chris hissed, juggling the bag, a clipboard and trying to answer the clerk's questions.

"Is that a sample, Sir? Sir?"

"Huh? " Chris paused, sighed in frustration and raked his gaze over the crowded room. "No, it's a dead rat. I got bit, it needs to be checked for rabies."

"Okay, follow me. I'll get Doctor Televado for you."

Four hours later, Chris pulled his pants on and fingered the bottle of antibiotic pills. The rat was sent to a local animal control facility. Rabies wasn't suspected, but he'd get a full report of the results. He'd been given a shot and the wound was cleaned and covered. The pills were very strong and needed to be taken for seven days. They had a rather harsh effect on the digestive system though. The doctor warned him to eat well with the pills and be prepared to sit on the toilet a lot. But under no circumstances was he to defer; a serious infection could result.

"A real vacation..." he murmured, slipping them into his pocket. He slipped into the waiting area and scanned the faces but didn't find the one he sought. Frowning, he limped to the desk.

"Hi, I came in a few hours ago, with my friend. I don't see him..."

"I'm sorry," Carmela apologized, juggling a ringing phone, a squawking intercom and a line of impatient customers. "Long hair, sad eyes... I remember him. I haven't seen him all afternoon. Try the cafeteria, follow the signs," she jerked her head to the left.

Chris padded through the corridors until he saw the cafeteria which was surprisingly empty. He sighed and was about to try the car when he spotted the missing man through the window. There were a series of cafe tables outside and Vin was sprawled at one of them under an umbrella. He made his way toward the door, pausing beside it as he heard the soft drawl.

"Hey Bucklin!" Vin yawned, eyeing his watch. How long had he been dozing? "Ya got back okay? Me?" he sat up, raking a hand through his hair and rubbing his pulsating eyes. "Oh, yeah. Listen, I'm sorry 'bout that. I got a bug 'er somethin'. Naw, nothin' t'worry on, Buck. I'll be okay in a couple days. Stomach feels like two wet cats fightin' on a hot griddle." He closed his eyes; the harsh sun was like a knife. "Chris? Oh, uh, he ain't here... most likely he's at the pool."

"Damn," Chris whispered, hearing Vin cover for him.

"The phone in the room? Oh, I never heard it. Sorry. I had the pilla over m'head. I jes' happened t'be headin' fer the bathroom and heard m'cell phone. Yeah... Okay," he nodded. "I'm fine, Buck. It's jes' a virus. I'll have him call, okay? Thanks."

He tossed the phone on the table and stared at the bottle of codeine-laced Tylenol. He took out the two much needed pain pills and laid them on the table. He'd checked on Chris several times, the last time the nurse shooed him away sternly. The patient was being released and she had other things to do. He thought on the long drive ahead, over six hours worth. Chris wouldn't be able to sit; he'd be lying in the back. He sighed again, drawn by the lure of relief from the pain. Then he sighed again and put them back in the bottle. He shook the empty can of soda and rose to throw it away, cursing softly and gripping the edge of the table. Gingerly, holding his aching back, he wobbled to the trashcan and back. Vin settled in, resting his head for just a minute. He laid his head down and closed his eyes.

Chris remained frozen in place, having heard the call and seen Vin deny himself relief from his pain. A mental calculation told him just how long it had been since his young friend took his pills. He recalled the horrid bruising and added the headache often brought on by too many hours in a waiting room. He dropped a dollar bill into the soda machine, pushed the cola button and took the icy can over to the table. He rested it against the back of the tense neck and slid the pill bottle closer, nudging the slack hand.

"Go on, I'll drive."

Vin didn't move at first; the cold, wet can felt damn good. Then he sat up, taking the soda and pressing it to his temple. He eyed the bottle and shook his head.

"It ain't s'far..." he rasped, eyeing the other. "Nurses was gettin' a mite pissed at me. Said I was bein' a pest. I kept checkin' back..." He let his voice trial off but locked eyes. He didn't want Chris to think he'd been lounging the whole time.

"I know, Vin," Larabee returned quietly, watching the wet rivulets running down Tanner's face. "Headache bad?"

"Truth be told," Vin popped the can and took a gulp. "I'm feelin' kinda poorly, Chris. I hate t'ask but... I don't think I'm upta drivin' six hours tonight. I'll take m'pills and hit the sheets. I'm sure by tomorra I'll be okay."

"Vin, I wouldn't expect you to drive," Chris placated, resting his hand on the damp shoulder. "My ass isn't ready for a six hour trip either. How 'bout we lay low a couple days? Head out Tuesday night? I got a divisional meeting I can't miss early Wednesday."

"Thanks," Vin sighed, totally relieved.

"Listen, Vin, about before, when we got here," the blond paused, remembering his harsh words. "I was in a shitty mood. I'm sorry for bein' such a jackass."

Vin tucked his pills away and let a slow grin form. He eyed the hand in front of him and handed the half empty soda over. "I'm partial t'sharin..."

"Thanks, Cowboy," the green eyes softened, both understanding that the gratitude was for far more than the soda.

+ + + + + + +

Tuesday, Southern Colorado

Bull watched his boys pack up the van and smiled. He draped an arm over each of his son's shoulders and whooped.

"This time tomorrow, we'll be in the land of milk and honey!" he crowed. "Freedom! Your Uncle Linc found some nice real estate on the Internet. We're gonna live like fuckin' kings!"

"Did he talk to the pilot?" Arlee asked, still not used to his father being bald.

"Yeah, we're meeting him in a lonely stretch of the desert west of Silver City. A short flight into Mexico. He's puttin' 'er down outside Hermosillo. There'll be a car waiting," Lincoln updated as he joined them. He took a swig of bourbon and passed the bottle.

"Sweet, sweet rise of the sun!" Bull exuded. "After we eat and finish this baby," he tapped the glass encasing the amber liquid, "we hit 160 and New Mexico. To freedom!" He took a long drink and shoved the bottle skyward.

+ + + + + + +

Tuesday, Late Afternoon, New Mexico

It was a rough couple days for both men. The doctor's words were true; the pills kept the blond ATF man on a constant parade to the bathroom. Vin, on the other hand, rarely moved. He roused himself to eat and hit the bathroom, but the hot baths with medicinal salt, finishing his pills and resting helped. By Tuesday at five p.m., they checked out. Vin put the back seat down, placed a pillow on it and shoved the arguing blond towards its welcoming softness.

"Shut the hell up and get in," he directed. "I got a lotta road t'cover and yer cranky face fer six hours is gonna make it worse." He paused, seeing the green eyes narrow. "Ya know I'm right. That bite's still inflamed and tender. Ya been mashin' it t'much sittin' on the can."

"I can't help that, that's the pills!" Larabee countered of his 'runs' to the bathroom. "Okay, but only for half way. I'm comin' up front later. Vin?" He flinched when the driver's door slammed. "Dammit," he muttered as he climbed inside.

"Fuck!" Vin pounded the dashboard a few hours later and stopped, eyeing the blackness outside. He shut the engine off and jumped out.

"Vin?" Chris croaked, sitting up and feeling his bowels roar again. "Jesus!" He grabbed a roll of toilet paper and quickly slid out. After he was done, he approached his pensive friend. "What?"

"Take a look!" the Texan was distressed. His body was aching; his back felt like there was a knife in it and his head was pounding. They'd been detoured off of Highway 84 two hours before due to a rockslide. Now the detour road was washed out. "FUCK!" He kicked a rock and winced, grabbing again at his back.

"We're a fine pair!" Chris commiserated, eyeing his weary friend. "Where are we?"

"In the middle of nowhere." He eyed Route 64 with a grimace. "We got two choices. We can camp here in the car and head out in the daylight."

"Or?"

"I know these parts, Chris." Vin scrubbed his weary face. "It'll take a couple hours, but I can get us into Durango," he noted of the Southern Colorado town. "We can hunker down there and head out 'fore dawn."

Chris nodded, hearing the unspoken words clearer than those uttered. Vin was wiped out and very sore. His body language told the blond his back was killing him. Sleeping in a car would make it much worse, although his own injury was also throbbing as he rejected the bed in the back and headed for the front passenger seat. "Let's roll."

"Ya sure?"

"Said so, didn't I?"

+ + + + + + +

The quartet were celebrating wildly as they drove. The two older men were in the front; the boys were in the back of the van.

"Hey, Pa? Can we stop and eat? I'm starving," Troy decided, heady from the joint he'd shared with Arlee earlier.

"Yeah, Pa, I need a few burgers and a pile of fries with cheese melted on 'em," the blond boy added.

"Linc?" Bull asked, knowing his brother knew their schedule by heart.

"We got plenty of time." He spotted a deserted diner approaching. It was nearly ten p.m and there was only one car outside, most likely the owner's. "Looks like Ramblin' Rose's Cheap Eats..." He eyed the blinking sign as his brother pulled in.

The door was locked and they saw a small man behind the counter.

"I'm closed!" he hollered, then noticed they continued to rattle the door, banging and shouting.

"Unlock it, now!" Troy screamed as Arlee whipped out a gun and aimed. The nervous owner dropped the keys twice before he got the door open and backed up.

"No, please!" the owner cringed as the bullet split his eyes.

"Put him in the freezer, Troy. Linc, get that grill fired up. I got a itch for a thick steak. Arlee, check the register and I'll see if there's a safe."

+ + + + + + +

"Shit!" Chris grabbed his abdomen.

"Again!" Vin said too harshly.

"It's not exactly my idea of a good time, Vin!"

"Sorry, Chris."

"Just pull over, hurry."

"Hold up!" Vin eyed the red beacon in a long stretch of nothingness. "Jes' my luck ye'll squat over poison ivy 'er somethin'."

"Sayin' I'm a pain in the ass?" Chris smirked, trying to ease the other's tension.

"Statin' a fact is all," the blue-eyed one replied. "Looks like a diner..." He squinted. "Ramblin' Rose's Cheap Eats."

"Hurry!"

"Okay!" Vin pulled in, jumped out and grabbed Chris, shoving him through the open door. He saw the Rest Room sign on the left and propelled him towards it. His pained friend ran for the Men's room.

"Howdy," Vin said, spotting a young man behind the counter who was frying something. "Cain't believe our luck. Ya'll bein' open and in the middle of nowhere. My friend's sick..."

"Yeah," a voice from behind him leered, grabbing the back of his shirt collar. "You're one fuckin' lucky prick!" Troy spun him around before slamming the long-haired stranger's abdomen with a rifle butt, sending him to his knees. Then he watched as his Uncle Linc rammed the man's face into the wall, sending blood pouring from his nose and mouth.

By the time Vin's foggy brain reacted, he was on his side, a rifle to this throat. Someone was tying his hands up and groping him. The faces were distorted and he blinked off the black wall that was falling. It was hard to breathe and he felt a familiar fire in his chest from injured ribs. He opened his mouth and blood spilled out.

"Shit!" Arlee spouted, eyeing the wallet he found. "Get Pa! We got trouble."

"What kind of trouble?" Linc asked, grinding his boot into the stuperous man's groin.

"The Federal Pig kind!"

"What?" Troy grabbed the worn leather jacket bearing a shield. "Fuck! Hey, he said he had a sick friend."

"I'll take care of him," Arlee vowed, caressing his gun.

Chris was still drying his hands, his head down, when he trotted back towards the entry, lost in thought. Because his eyes were trained downwards, he saw Vin's bloodied face first and reacted from his gut.

"Vin!"

Arlee wheeled and fired in one motion, sending the blond man flying backwards and toppling the sad, salad bar.

"No!" Vin choked, spitting more blood out. The last thing he saw before passing out was two of the killers standing over Chris's bloodied body, a rifle aimed at his blond head.

+ + + + + + +

What the fuck is goin' on!" Bull Savage thundered as he flew out of the office. He grabbed the rifle and moved it from the face of an unconscious blond man. "Somebody talk to me! Who is this? Where'd he come from?"

"He came in with the other pig," Arlee nodded to the other stilled form. "They're both Feds." He tossed the badges on the counter near the cash register. "We'll do 'em both and put 'em in the deep freeze with the other stiff." He placed the rifle against the wounded agent's temple and readied his shot.

"Hold it!" Bull roared. "I'm givin' the orders around here. I gotta think about this. Until we're on that plane and airborne, we're not home free. They could come in handy."

"How? Why?" Troy demanded. "You're the one that says the only good cop is a dead one..."

"Truer words were never spoken." Savage moved past the one body, dropping down next to a long -haired man. He cupped the chin, eyeing the blood covering most of the young man's features. "It's not a matter of them being dead," he grinned as the young man began to stir. "It's a matter of when." He smiled, tapped the sticky face and saw two blue slits appear. "Maybe we toss 'em out of the plane at 30,000 feet."

"Splat!" Troy exuded.

"I don't like it, Bull," Linc shoved his body from the counter where he'd been reclining. "Cops spell trouble. It's a straight run from here to the airstrip."

"It was a straight run." The leader turned, eyeing the trio. "The weasel that owns this place had a television. There's a large part of route 64 washed out. That means a detour and I don't know this area. But maybe pretty boy here does." He eyed the pair and decided the long hair, deep tan and rustic clothing bespoke an outdoorsman. "How 'bout it, Sweetheart?" He grabbed the prisoner hard between the legs and felt a leg lash out, striking him, and the head moved trying to bite his arm.

"I'm gonna slice yer balls and skewer 'em 'tween that large hole in yer head where brains oughta be," Vin rasped, kicking out again.

Bull laughed loudly and backhanded the growling victim. "Well, how about that, boys? We got us a real live Texan."

"Feisty little fella, ain't he?" Troy moved over, raking the rifle up the worn denim clad legs and shoving it under his chin. "I heard about backwoods boys like you, sleepin' with your kin."

Vin bit his tongue; his keen eyes saw the bloodied white shirt Larabee wore rising and falling. He was still alive. It was up to him to keep them both alive any way he could. He eyed the foursome, sizing them up. Once he figured out the weak link, he'd work on him.

"That right, boy?" Bull leaned over, enjoying the fire shooting from the blue eyes. "You one of them wild types from the hills that fuck your own sister?"

"Leastwise they're real women on two feet." He spit a wad of blood onto Bull Savage's chest. "I'm not on my knees behind a pile o'hooves."

"You gonna let him get away with that, Pa?" Troy flared, kicking the prisoner hard in the back.

"You two move Harvard over there," he nodded to the unconscious, well-groomed blond man with a designer shirt. "Into the supply room. I checked it out; it's clean, one door and no windows or phones. Go." He jerked his head and grabbed the struggling Texan by the back of his worn blue denim collar, yanking him up. "Me and Texas here are gonna have a nice talk... in private. Get moving." His answer was an elbow to the throat and a boot in the shin. He slammed the fighting agent onto the smooth top of a booth. He pressed his full weight on the slim man, hearing the sucking sounds as the air was taken from his lungs. He pressed his mouth close to the damp head. "We can do this two ways, Tex, easy or hard. I got a taste for pretty boys like you in the joint. I bet that ass of yours," he groped the young man freely under the table, "would be a real sweet piece. You understand?" Getting no reply, he moved, jerking the long hair up and pressing a knife along the exposed throat. "Of course, I got a taste for GQ blonds, too..."

"Ya lay a hand on him and I'll slit ya from yer belly t'yer balls..." Vin gritted, then curled his lip up. "My mistake. Most likely ya ain't got any..."

"Let me cut him, Pa!" Arlee moved in, his eyes glowing. "Me and Troy haven't had us a good tic-tac-toe game in a while."

"Yeah, I bet he'd bleed real pretty," Troy added. "We could mark a nice board on his back."

"You can play with him later." Their father yanked the still struggling man up and shoved him towards the office. "After I talk to him. You do as I tell you and move Harvard to the supply room. Go!"

Vin was thrown onto a plastic sofa and glared up at his captor. As long as he hid his fear for Chris's life, he'd have the upper hand. He swiped the blood running off his chin on his shirt and winced as his injured body began to throb. His ribs weren't broken, but they were bruised pretty good and his back was killing him. He watched the tall man eyeing a map on the wall of the state of New Mexico.

"Get your mangy hide over here, boy!" Savage ordered.

"Go t'hell, ya sick mother fuckin' loser." Vin coughed, spilling more blood.

"You talk a good game, Texas, but know this," Bull turned. "I can make that blond friend of yours bleed... hard... without a knife." He grabbed his crotch and saw the other man pale. "They don't call me 'Bull' for nothing. Now get over here!"

Vin shoved off the cheap couch and walked to the map.

"We gotta get to a stretch of road near Silver City, right about here," Savage moved his finger. "Sixty Four is washed out. How long and how far?"

Vin made no reply; he was configuring a bargaining chip. Maybe he could convince them to leave Chris behind. If the highway patrol did rounds, they might find him in time.

"I'm talking to you!" Bull rammed his fist into the lean abdomen sending his prisoner to his knees. He waited for a moment, listening to the harsh coughing and seeing blood hit the floor. He yanked him up by the scruff of the collar. "Quit fuckin' with me, boy. I'm short on patience. I bet that blond friend of yours smells real nice. I'll bet he puts a lot of time in at the gym. I got a taste for muscles like..."

"All right!" Vin rasped. "Shut yer filthy trap up." He pulled free and let his hot eyes bore into the other man. "Ya so much as breathe near him and ye'll never see that plane." He saw the eyes narrow and laughed. "Ya ain't that smart, Savage. Yer faces'r plastered the hell all over. No way yer drivin' over the border. I know them roads and there's a lot of old air strips left over from the war. Ya let me patch Chris up and leave him here. I'll take ya south, take three hours'r so. That's the deal."

"You're in no position to be making demands, Texas," Savage snapped, not liking the fact the slim prisoner was not the least bit intimidated by him.

"That's the deal, take it'r leave it. Even stupid fuckin' sideshow freaks like them demon seeds ya fathered oughta be able t'understand that."

Bull snarled, pushed him forward and shoved him over the desk. He pressed his victim's neck down with one hand and squeezed his backside with the other. "You think on this, Sweet cheeks. I'll decide about any deals. You're one uppity young-un and need to be taken down a peg. Linc!"

Vin's breath came in pants and his eyes widened in panic. He struggled and kicked and his head was slammed down again causing him to see stars. He felt his pants lowered and air caress the skin on his back and buttocks. He flinched as a harsh smack crossed his backside. His heart leapt to his throat as visions of what was sure to transpire appeared.

"Damn, Bull, this boy's already marked." He saw the bruised back and legs. "Looks like somebody already rode him."

"He's got a loud mouth," Bull moved back, letting Linc hold down the prisoner's upper body from the other side of the desk. He took his belt off, wrapped it around his meaty fist. He left the razor sharp edges on the custom made belt buckle hang loose. With a cruel sneer, he let the leather fly.

"Bull, he's had enough!" Linc moved around the desk as soon as the victim passed out. He never uttered a sound but bit his lip bloody. That only infuriated his brother more and Bull yanked the groggy man's head up and wrapped the belt around his throat. "Bull, we need him alive for now, right?"

"Get him out of my sight!" Savage kicked the trashcan over. "I need to think."

"Okay, but that detour is gonna add time... we need to be out of here by one a.m."

"I'm not stupid, Linc!" He snapped, watching his brother pull the pants up over the bleeding welts on the prisoner. With little effort, Linc lifted the unconscious man and left the room.

+ + + + + + +

Vin waited until the door slammed shut before rolling onto his side. He rubbed his wrists where the ropes had cut off his circulation. Both hands were numb and he flexed them to restore circulation. He'd lost count of the lashes, fifteen, before he passed out. His lower body down through his backside and upper legs was raw and stinging wildly. He didn't dare roll on his back. He took small breaths trying to quell the pain in his ribcage. His face was bloody and he swiped at it, feeling dried blood sticking fast. He eyed the room slowly, taking in the shelves of food, dry goods and other supplies. Water. It could be worse; they could be in the freezer. Here, at least, he had tools to help himself and Chris. He rolled onto his knees and pushed off the blue-tiled floor, gaining his feet. He remained bent in half and slowly straightened up.

"Son-of-a-bitch!" he hissed, seeing stars of every color explode in front of his pained eyes. He grabbed the edge of a tall shelf and clenched his eyes shut until the wave passed. Then he turned stiffly, seeing the dark legs and bloodied shirt of his best friend. He walked to the shelf with dry goods and got towels, a large container of antibacterial soap with a pump, a twelve pack of Evian water and a straw. He placed the items on the empty crate near Chris's head. He then got a pile of tablecloths and folded them, giving the injured man a pillow.

Kneeling down carefully and biting his lip in pain, he cleaned his face off first, glad that none of the cuts were serious. Then he unbuttoned Larabee's shirt and examined the wound. It was on the right side of the ribcage and a crimson tide saturated the previously white cloth. Gently, he eased the prone body over, his nimble fingers seeking an exit wound.

"Thank God," he sighed, finding it and lowering the body down. He washed the wound with water, then soap, then water again and packed wet strips of soapy cloth in the front and back. He ripped the table cloth into several pieces then fell back, the effort shredding the raw wounds on his lower body. Tears pressed into his eyes as the wall of pain threatened to explode. Taking several breaths, he continued until the bronzed chest was securely bandaged with white linen and tied off tightly. He buttoned Chris's shirt and raised him, shoving the large pile of cloth under him. Now, his body was in an upright position, the wet neck resting on the edge of the crate.

Vin saw packets of sugar in a clear plastic bag and ripped it open. He mixed them into the water and took a swig. Tapping the pale face, he nudged the slack lips. He saw the familiar scowl crease the handsome features. He smacked harder then saw the brows crease more, this time in anger.

"Chris, open up. I got water fer ya." He held the damp hair with one hand and tilted the bottle with the other. The lips worked and the mouth suckled just as two green eyes blinked. A hand rose up, grabbing the bottle and shoving his assistance away. Vin popped his own bottle and sat on a crate full of large juice cans. The white pain ripped through the flesh on his back and buttocks. His wide-eyed stare and death grip on the bottle went unnoticed.

Chris eyed the room, frowning as he tried to match the burning pain in his side with the unfamiliar walls. He turned slowly, cocking his head and studying the dried blood rimming Vin Tanner's fingernails. He lifted his throbbing skull and saw the marred face above him. New bruises joined the older ones. A swollen lip covered bloodied teeth. The whole left side of his face was swelling rapidly. But it was the reddened impression of a handprint on the right cheek that stopped him. His mind's eye saw the bloody face on the floor and then... then...

"Shit!" He rubbed his side, feeling the explosion of pain and then nothing. A bullet wound. They stopped in a diner and he hit the bathroom. Vin was hurt. He turned again, seeing that hand print marking the Texan.

"...put... hand... on... you..." He demanded, sipping his water.

Vin managed a soft chuckle. If Chris only knew what he'd endured. The backhanded slap was the least of his worries.

"Hurt... Vin?"

"I picked up a couple o'new dents." He paused, "Leastwise, I ain't sportin' any new holes." He saw the leader's slim fingers reaching for his side. He moved, intercepting the shaking hand. "Don't touch it, ye'll ruin m'fancywork. Bullet went right through, it stopped bleedin', but ya need t'keep still. We're in the storeroom in the diner. They kilt the owner." He ripped open a box of chocolate cookies and handed one over. "Ya need t'eat... sugar'll help some..."

"How bad?" the wounded man inquired, rinsing the cookie with a dose of sugar water.

"Don't get much worse," Vin replied, shifting Chris's body so he could sit up straighter.

Chris saw something he didn't like in the expressive blue eyes. He snagged the sniper's wrist and held it firm. Their eyes locked and he waited.

Vin slumped a little when he saw the green eyes despite the pain zoning in on him. His gaze lingered on the strong grip on his wrist. He felt the power this man held coursing through him. He'd need every bit of that indelible Larabee grit if they were to survive. He blew out a long, slow breath tinged with defeat and turned away.

"Bull Savage and his kin..."

"We're fucked..." the blond agent anguished, mentally drawing up a body count. He dropped Vin's hand and pounded a fist to the floor. The bloodthirsty clan had left a bloody trail of bodies in many states and he was sure they'd be next on the tally sheet.

"Pretty much," Vin stood, not able to relax. He paced the small pantry, kicking a large can of spaghetti sauce in frustration.

"Breaking your toe isn't going to help..." Chris coughed, biting his lip as pain ripped through his side. Then he saw Vin cock his head and the blue eyes working. "No."

"Ya ain't even heard it yet," Tanner scowled, hands riding the slim hips.

"No."

"I got a plan..."

"Why does that thought scare me more than bleeding?"

"From where I'm standin', Larabee, ya ain't in any position t'argue." He paused, thinking on it again. "It'll work... maybe."

"That's what the pilot of the Hindenburg said," the older man argued of the ill-fated air ship that crashed in New Jersey in 1937.

"Who?" Vin screwed his face up.

"Never mind... let's hear it," Larabee asked.

"I'm still workin' the kinks out..." Vin stalled, knowing his best friend would blow a gasket.

"Oh, that's encouraging."

"They're runnin' scared, Chris," he moved back to where his injured friend sat. "They got our wallets. Hell, they even took yer rat bite pills."

"Don't mention them," Chris pained, anxious about the familiar gut rumble. "I got three days worth in me, it'll do. Scared how?"

"They got a pilot waitin' on 'em, down sixty-four, near Silver City. They're gonna fly into Mexico. But the road's washed out. They're losin' time..."

"...and..." Chris frowned, seeing something he didn't like in Tanner's blue windows.

"...and that's the only reason we're still breathin'," he sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "They don't know these parts... I do... I made a deal with that ugly bastard. They keep us breathin' until they get on that plane. We got us a short stay of execution."

"What kind of deal?" Chris didn't like this face he saw, not one bit. Vin was hiding something. Worse, he was scared, something rare and something that he'd seldom seen on the handsome face. "Vin, talk to me..."

But he couldn't let Chris see so Vin turned away. Turned too quickly and the pain ripped through the raw wounds on his body. The blood was stuck to the cotton on his underwear and shirt. Every movement was like razors slashing him. The damage from the accident didn't help and he had to grab the metal lip of the shelf.

"Oh, God..." He hissed, his knees buckling.

"What's wrong?" Chris demanded. "Start talkin' or I'm gettin' up..."

"No!" Tanner panted, white-knuckling the shelf. "Jes' gimme a... min...minute... okay? It's m'back... from the accident," he partially lied.

A sudden bang on the door interrupted them. Vin handed Chris another bottle of sugar water and squeezed his shoulder.

"I'll be back, ya got m'word."

"Vin, what aren't you telling me?"

"Hey, Texas!" Arlee sauntered into the doorway, brandishing a gun and a surly grin. "Get movin'..."

"Fuckface ready t'take m'offer?" Vin snarled, seeing the anger rising in the other man.

"Nice move, get on his good side!" Larabee hissed as the younger Savage's fist flew, sending the sniper flying hard into a shelf full of canned goods. "Vin!" He struggled to sit up, only to see the irate Texan leap forward, using a flying kick to send the criminal through the door. "...don't!" His warning fell on deaf ears as Tanner went to his knees, his faced locked in pain. Then a beefy arm shot into the room and yanked him by the scruff of the neck. He flinched when the door slammed, shutting him out. He moaned in frustration, pounding his bloody fist on the floor. His heavy eyes fought hard to stay awake. `

"Get offa me," Vin growled, taking advantage of the lone captor in the narrow hallway between the kitchen and the dining room. He turned and delivered a stiff shot from the heel of his hand to the other's nose. Coupled with a sharp downward boot motion to the top of Troy's foot, the other was stunned and the weapon fell. His own battered body waning, he leapt for the stray weapon, only to find his forward motion intercepted. A solid blow to his side, sent him on his belly.

"You don't listen good, do you Texas?" Bull pressed his boot hard onto the back of the blue cotton shirt. "Troy?" He asked of his son, who had recovered and was getting to his feet.

"I'm okay, Pa," he pulled himself up and gripped the snarling agent by the back of his shirt. He jerked the squirming body up and pushed him forward hard, sending him skittering into the first cluster of booths off the kitchen. "Can I do him? I got a dull knife in the back of the van? I'm gonna cut his prick off and make him eat it!"

"No, not yet!" Linc ordered, turning the bleeding man over. Blood ran from his nose and split lip. The eye was already swollen from the beating earlier. "We might need him... and that badge."

"You listen up, Texas," Bull ordered as he ran the shotgun up the leg of the lean man, jamming it into his groin. "You I need alive, that blond friend of yours ain't looking so good. You pull one more stunt like that and I'll let Troy make some tattoos on him before I make a woman out of him, comprende?" He spit a large wad onto the coughing man's cheek.

"Ya spit on me again and I'll teach ya some manners," Vin squirmed, kicking out at the youngest man who tried to grab his leg. Finally, he was secured. Arlee stretched and tied his legs to each of the chrome supports on the counter stools. Linc forced his hands above his head, kneeling on them, before securing them as well.

Troy used his knife to slit the buttons on his shirt, exposing his bare chest. The sinister look on the other man's face as he used the knife made Vin wince.

"I can get ya out o' the country..." Vin paused, reading the icy-eyed killer who stroked his most intimate area with malicious glee. "Into Mexico where yer headed... without any cops..."

"Hey, how'd he know we were going to Mexico?" Arlee piped up, pouring beer onto the prisoner's face, grinning as it stung his eyes and cuts. He laughed as the prisoner sputtered and choked.

"Shut up, Arlee," Troy issued through clenched teeth. "Pa?"

"Lucky guess," the leader replied. "He knows these parts... claims he can get us to Silver City."

"Seems obvious t'anyone with half-a-brain," Vin sputtered, spitting out a wad of blood. He blinked back the beer running into his eyes as the four killers surrounded him. He was tied, spread eagle between them and totally at their mercy. "Ya made an arrow in them towns," he noted of the robberies, "pointin' up t'Canada... in the wrong direction."

"...and?" Linc asked, curious as to how this young man figured out their plan.

"...and ya got a shit load o'money hid down... there..." he gasped as the rifle moved, shoved brutally into the soft side of his abdomen.

"Get him!" Arlee squatted down, using his knife to trace a line across the naked, sweaty throat. "...like you got anything to bargain for." He moved the blade carefully around the fed's nipple, leaving a ring of blood. "I could pop it off real easy," he predicted.

"Roads is closed, airports, bus terminals... they got shoot t'kill," he snarled at Savage, ignoring his son. "Yer fried and ya know it..."

"...and you're doing this out of the goodness of your heart?" Bull squatted down and moved the gun again, tracing a lazy circle around the bellybutton and easing the barrel under the waistline. "Well, now... I heard they grow 'em big in Texas." He laughed, enjoying the flush of color over the already bruised face.

"Oh, I get it," Linc laughed, jabbing the young man's knee hard with his boot and gaining the groan of pain he wanted. "You noble fucks' make me sick." He shook his head. "You're tradin' on that blond guy?"

The other man didn't move. Bull moved the gun again, running it along the bloody lips. Laughing, he pulled the gun away and nodded to his men.

"It'll work. Ya got nuthin' t'lose," Vin steeled, glaring openly at the man.

"You got balls, Tex, I like that!" he paused, chugging on his beer. "Linc, we got some plannin' to do. Arlee, you and Troy, keep the little prick company while we pack."

"Hey, Troy," Arlee said, moving to where they had thick steaks on the grill. "I can't find any clean plates..." Pressing down on the meat, he sent up a steam cloud over the sizzling metal. "These babies are done... whadya think?"

"Well, now," Troy caught on, picking up two steak knives and forks from the utensil caddy. "How about a picnic, piggy style.?

"Onions, brother?"

"By all means..." Troy grinned, watching the blue eyes darting as the still sizzling meat approached. The frantic bobbing of the victim's Adam's apple made his mirth grow.

Vin flinched as the dripping grease hit his unprotected skin. His mouth went dry when the first of the two large cuts of hot meat was lowered over his flat abdomen and navel. But when the second piece of red hot meat hit flesh, he cried out.

+ + + + + + +

Chris's eyes shot open as a scream pierced his senses. His breath came in pants and he blinked through the fog in his brain. Forgetting where he was, he shook his head free just as another muffled scream sounded. That wasn't a dream... it was real. It had a name.

"Vin!"

He turned and rolled, sitting up and biting his lip as his side exploded. "Fuck..." he hissed, watching blood seeping through the makeshift bandage. Breathing heavily, he felt sweat running down his face. The sticky fingers pressed to his side reminded him of what transpired. The blood thirsty killers had his friend. Their loud laughter, coupled with his friend's screams, paled him more than his own pain. He was locked in a storeroom, bleeding badly, unable to help his friend, who was being tortured.

+ + + + + + +

The first steak had sent a burning wave of pain through him; he hadn't recovered from the intense fire when another was laid to his chest. The fried onions came next. Then they began to eat, leaving tiny razor-like nicks and cuts in his skin where the blades fell. The grease from the meat ran into the wounds causing more fire. He bit his lip, the pain from the burn causing his eyes to tear. He shut them, panting heavily and praying Chris hadn't heard him. He felt the pressure easing up as they finished.

"Damn, that was good," Troy burped, slapping the burned chest of the captive. "Did you like your dinner, pig?"

"Yer gonna fuckin' die..." Vin panted, his chest and naval ringing with stinging burns and cuts.

"Shut up," Arlee kicked him hard in the side, enjoying the cry of pain. "You got a bad mouth..."

"Hey, I got an idea," Troy said, popping the cork center out of a coaster. "Open up, pig."

Vin didn't know what they were planning, but he clenched his jaw tight. He braced himself for another blow, watching Arlee's steel-tipped boots moved to the sensitive area between his legs. Vin tensed up, but instead, the young killer bent down, tossing an open salt shaker over the bleeding cuts. Vin kept his lips clenched until the hand began to grind the salt into them.

+ + + + + + +

"Leave him alone, you sick son of a bitch!" Chris hollered, tossing a can of peaches at the door. After what seemed like an prolonged amount of silence that frightened him, he heard Vin scream again. "It's gonna be slow... and painful..." he vowed, flinching as Vin's cries ceased.

+ + + + + + +

"That's better!" Troy said, forcing the round white plastic ring inside the prisoner's mouth and creating a human bulls-eye. "Hey Arlee, twenty dollars says I can piss in that ring from back here."

"No fuckin' way!" the other laughed, sitting on a stool over the bound Texan and dropping small pieces of ice into the open mouth. He enjoyed the gagging and flexing.

"Oh, yeah." Troy's first attempt missed, hitting the eyes. This brought laughter and the next attempt hit the nose and cheek.

If there was a time in his life when Vin Tanner was more humiliated, he couldn't remember it. Unable to move or defend himself, he jerked his head away when the second stream hit his face. Then the boots clamped down on either side of his head, securing him.

"Quit moving around!" Arlee ordered. "Go on, Troy..."

He shut his eyes when the warm urine invaded his mouth. He closed off the back of his throat, letting it build up and spill over his jaw. But that upset the brothers and someone, he knew not which, planted a hard fist into the soft side of his belly. That forced his lungs to work. He gagged and coughed, vomit mixed with the urine which was spewed all over his exposed chest.

"Hey, that little bastard puked on my boot," Arlee howled, kicking him again.

Vin nearly blacked out then; the voices were far away and his whole body went slack. He felt the tension leave his legs and arms and heard a buzzing in his ears. Voices hovered above him, like circling vultures. He felt his bound limbs freed and tried to recover.

"Okay, you two had your fun," Bull eyed the battered body. "Get him off the floor and dump him with the blond. We're leaving in a couple hours."

When they sat him up to lift him, Vin rebelled. His martial arts training kicked in and he sent one boy hard into a table. He lashed out at the other one, using the heel of his hand hard, driving it up against the second one's jaw. A blinding pain exploded in his head, then Vin knew nothing.

"I thought I taught you two better!" Bull ordered, shoving the pistol back into his belt. "What if he got your gun? Never take a chance. Now move him!"

+ + + + + + +

Chris's head jerked when the door opened. He felt sluggish and hot; his eyes were barely able to stay open. Then he saw Vin's limp body being hauled into the room. The two brothers dropped him from waist level. He flinched when the Texan hit the ground and didn't move. His eyes flashed in unbridled rage when he saw the burns and cuts on his best friend's chest and the crystal salt glistening. Then he saw blood running down Vin's neck and nearly frothed at the mouth.

"Now, don't you fret, Harvard," Bull teased. "I didn't hit him that hard. I need him to navigate. Had to teach him a lesson. He hurt my boys." He saw the green eyes flashing again, taking in the marred chest. "Nothing like a sizzling steak hot off the grill. Just ask Tex when he comes to... he was nice enough to provide a table..."

"...fuckin' lunatic..." Larabee vexed, now having a clear picture of where the screams he heard came from. He raised his stone cold face, leveling a stare that ripped right into the core of Bull Savage.

Bull's smile faded and he felt a chill run up his spine. It wasn't often someone could unnerve him as easily as this cool blond did. He shifted his weight, pulling out his pistol.

"The only reason you're still breathing is because that badge totin' hippie made a deal." He jerked the blue shirt up and yanked the back of the loose pants down, exposing the raw, bleeding welts. He got what he sought; the body rippled in rage and the green eyes grew molten. The long-haired kid was this guy's Achilles' heel. "He's got a cocky attitude. I had to take him down a peg. He's lucky all I used was a belt. I could have used my meat and split him in half."

Chris didn't speak for several moments; then he raised his head again, leveling an icy stare at the brutal killer. "Mark it down," he said calmly. "I will be the one who takes you and the rest of your freak show out..." he paused, keeping his voice low and lethal. "Permanently."

The door closed; Chris moved to Vin's side, ignoring his own pain. "Vin? Vin?..." He tapped the face but got no reply. He eased the injured man onto his back and made three long trips across the room. Staggering badly, his own wounds protesting, he managed to get water, soap and bandages into a pile. As he gently cleaned the grease and salt from Vin's burns and cuts, he killed Bull Savage slowly, gutting him like a fish. By the time he eased Vin onto his belly to treat the horrid lashes, he was cutting the head off both offspring with a dull hatchet. Finally, he pulled Vin's pants up and moved him over.

Chris pulled his own knees up, rested his back against the wall and felt himself drowning in his own sweat. There was little air in the close room and it was brutally warm. He tugged Vin closer, soaking a cloth and wiping the filth and blood from the bruised and battered face. He spotted blood running from Vin's lips and frowned. Prodding the slack mouth open, he gently probed the area, noted cuts on the gums, then he smelled urine and realized what had been done. He saw the cuts then formed a circular pattern. He continued his tender ministrations, his calm hands betraying the volatile storm that brewed inside.

Finally finished, he rested, one hand on his throbbing side. He drew Vin over, tugging the upper body across his thighs and sideways. He threw his other hand over Tanner's collarbone, vowing his vengeance with fire in his eyes.

"They'll pay, Vin. You got my word."

He was dozing, still protecting his friend, when the door opened and Bull appeared.

"We're pulling out in five minutes." He leaned into the room. "You make sure he's awake and on his feet, or I'll find a way..." His sick laughter remained behind even after he shut the door.

Part Four

It wasn't just that something cool was eased down his throat; it was sweet. His mind's eye made a picture of a large glass of coke, pregnant with ice and almost too cold to lift. He started to gulp it, eager to quench his thirst and it was taken away. This action met with his disapproval and he scowled, forcing his eyes open.

"...gimme..."

"Slow down!" Chris ordered, tipping the can of coke to Vin Tanner's lips. He saw the eyes narrow and roam the room. Confusion soon gave way to pain and the eyes shut again; both fists balled up and a prolonged hiss slid free. "...I got a long memory..." the blond vowed, seeking revenge. "Here, it's not much..." he offered a handful of cookies. "We're pullin' out..."

Vin stopped munching, swallowed a wad of cookie, drained his soda and shook his head.

"Ain't no 'we'..."

"We stick together, it's our only chance." Larabee leaned on the chair and eased his wounded body upright. "They'd never leave a witness behind, Vin." He saw the head drop and the cheeks flush. "I didn't mean it that way..." He rested his hand on the soft clothed shoulder. "Hell, it's only 2 to 1 odds, for us, that's a piece of cake." Still there was no reply. He watched his injured friend rise slowly, clutching his head. "You got a knot the size of Texas, but it's not bleeding bad." Then he saw Vin's color deepened again, as his hand rode over his lower back and backside. "Vin..."

"Don't," he denied, embarrased that Chris knew. "They gotta listen t'me. They got no choice. Roads is washed out and they're runnin' low on time. They'll miss that plane."

"Can you stall? Buy us some time?" the blond buttoned his shirt and finished his water.

"I can try... as long as I don't find that airstrip, we gotta a chance. They won't kill us 'til they get on board. Worst gets to worst, we're their 'ace in the hole'. "

Chris saw the smirk forming on the Texan's battered face and began to grin in anticipation.

"Damn shame ya didn't think to use that extra hole in yer ass... couldda hid a weapon up there."

"Go to hell, Tanner!"

"Thought we's goin' together, Cowboy?"

Chris's grin broadened and he gripped the back of Tanner's neck, gaining an immeasurable degree of strength from those blue eyes. Before the two could debate further, the loud sound of footsteps signaled the call to arms. Not knowing if this would be their last trip together, they locked forearms instinctively and shared a brief intense stare. Then the door opened and the huge mountain of muscled flesh appeared.

"Move!" Bull ordered. "Texas, you ride up front with me." He pushed theslim man ahead, shoving the staggering blond backwards. The motion caught the injured man off guard and he went to his knees.

"Get offa him!" Vin snarled, reaching to help Chris up. It was the smallest sliver, but he recognized the brief glint of panic in the pale green eyes. The bloodied hands moved over the raging gut, still feeling the effect of the strong antibiotics. Wordlessly, he propelled the leader toward the bathroom.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"Ya ain't the brightest bulb in the lamp, are ya?" Vin scoffed, shoving Chris into the men's room. He felt Arlee behind him and turned, blocking the doorway. "Back off!" Despite the fact every inch of him was pulsing in pain and his legs felt like jelly, he rose and stood tall, squaring his steely gaze at the defiant villian.

"Arlee!" Linc clamped a hand on the arm raised, bearing a pistol. "Cool your heels. Get the gear stowed. Go!"

While staggering towards the cubicle, Chris eyed the bathroom, desperate to leave a message. He shut the door and saw the cardboard box that held the toilet paper covers. He eased it off the grips, flipped it and used the only 'ink' he had - his own blood. He heard Linc and Bull's voices rising and feared for Vin, so he was brief. When he heard Bull threaten to break Vin's fingers, he flushed and got to the sink. He washed his bloodied hands just as the eldest Savage entered. Chris walked slowly to the door, wincing as the stall doors were slammed open and shut.

"All clear!" Bull yelled. "Let's go."

Vin was already in the front seat, tensing as Troy's knife slid next to his ear. The younger Savage was sitting behind him and enjoying the blade play. Bull jumped in front and turned the ignition on. He tried to turn his head only to have the knife prick his neck and the large leader laugh.

"Now, don't you go worryin' on Harvard, he's uh... tied up..."

"Chris!" Vin hollered, then turned two hot blues on the killer. "Ya fuck with him and ye'll never see that plane."

Sixty prickly seconds hummed through the air before Bull blinked. "Take the gag out, Linc."

Vin didn't ease his defiant look; he heard Chris gagging and coughing, then the breathing slowed down.

"I'm okay, Vin."

While the dark beauty of the Land of Enchantment passed by, Vin Tanner's mind was spinning. He'd stalled as long as he could; any more delays and he was sure Bull's short temper would blow and they'd end up dead. He was trying to fight off the aftereffects of a probable concussion; the dizziness and nausea was gripping him severely. His back and ribs were throbbing and his burned chest was on fire. Most of all, he was worried about Chris. He'd flipped his visor down and could keep eye contact with the blond in the mirror. The green eyes were fading fast and he willed them to open. Vin used his best judgement to guide the van through the rustic countryside. Finally, they were on NM 15, a steep, narrow winding road that would take them to Silver City.

Nestled in the foothills of the Pinos Altos Mountains, Silver City bordered the Continental Divide. The sky had turned from black to dark blue announing the new dawn approaching. Lincoln pulled out a cell phone once they passed Lake Roberts.

"We're here... south side of the lake," he paused. "Okay," he cupped the mouthpiece. "He said look for a sign of Dead Gulch Mine and follow the arrow." Five minutes later, they eased down the remote road on the way to a ghost town. Vin saw the tail of the small, silver plane and his heart began to pound. His eyes slid to the mirror and he saw Chris reading his thoughts. It was now or never. Through eyes glazed with fever and pain, he saw the slightest tilt of the head and replied in kind. They pulled up a short distance from the plane and the door slid open. Arlee's hand grabbed him and pulled him out. He was relieved to see Chris emerge from the back of the van, on his own feet. He then eyed Troy, the man next to Chris, and he spotted a pistol tucked in his jeans and a knife in the top of his boot. A smaller gun was pressed to Chris's neck. The two older men went to speak to the pilot and inspect the plane. Troy and his brother exchanged sick details of how they would 'off the pigs'.

Anxiety gave way to nervous energy and Chris felt a rush of adrenaline as they stood waiting to be executed. Despite the fever he felt coming on, his eyes were slowly sizing up the situation. Vin was swaying and blinking, as the aftereffects of the concussion rose up. Arlee seemed to notice this and let his guard down. He kept one hand on Vin's neck was twirling the gun haphazardly with the other, eyeing the plane. Larabee's anger broiled, when he saw the interior light from the van hit the silver badge pinned to the killer's belt. Vin's badge... something that the fiery Texan was proud as hell of. When Vin's eyes met his, Chris dipped his head once, keeping two fingers at his waist. He saw Vin's gaze glued to his hand and he went one finger, then none.

"What the hell?" Linc spun around hearing scuffling from behind the van. He and Bull dove for cover and shots rang out. "Shit!" He ducked when the blond captive appeared, rolling on the ground under the back of the van, firing a gun.

"Drop it or I'll pick his dinner out the hard way!" Arlee yelled, shoving the point of the knife into the now semiconscious tracker's naval. He saw the blond hesitate and pressed harder, getting a sharp cry. "I've done this before, Larabee. I can make him suffer for hours, pull his intestines out real slow and easy. Your choice."

"Yella ain't yer color, Larabee," Vin gasped, trying not to pass out. He wanted the blond to get mad enough to shoot. If he didn't, they'd both die. His weakened condition caused him to stumble at the moment of impact. While Chris was able to disarm Troy and kill him, Vin started to black out and his knees buckled. He'd been slammed into the side of the van hard. Blood now ran from a new cut on his hairline, high above his right eye. He sucked air in hard as the blade entered his belly slightly; his eyes widened and his fists curled up.

His will to survive was the only thing keeping the leader conscious. Blood from the wound in his side was sticking to the bandages and pulling his skin. His pounding head swam and sweat poured from his fevered body. A few feet away to his right, his best friend was prone, writhing in agony as a madman was trying to eviserate him. He ducked as two bullets whizzed over his head from the left where Linc and Bull were taking cover by the plane. Then he heard Vin cry out and saw the evil grin on Arlee's face. The gun rose and wavered; he made his choice. He'd take that animal out or die trying. Fate intervened as the gun clicked with no discharge.

"Shit!" He rolled over, seeking to reach the dead boy's body to get the knife from his boot. A heavy foot stomped on his hand and another yanked him up by the hair.

"It don't matter none which one of you pigs killed my boy," Bull seethed, eyeing the place where his son's face used to be. He slammed a fist into the twisting blond's back. "You're both gonna pay! " He knelt down in front of the semi-conscious ATF man who then spit into his face. "I'll make you and that pretty friend of yours wish you were never born. Get them on the plane!"

"What?" Linc shoved a boot into the still struggling blond man's chest, pinning him to the ground. "Are you crazy? Let's do 'em both here."

"Come on Pa," Arlee begged. "I wanna gut 'im..." He sliced a little more of the gasping man's lean flesh.

"If you were doing your job, your brother wouldn't be dead!" Bull raged. "Get him on the plane! They'll die when I decide and it won't be quick or pretty. Until we land in Mexico, we still might need them alive. Move!"

Vin's glazed eyes met his best friend's briefly. He blamed himself; Chris's actions were precise and dead on. He didn't stumble and fail; he took his man out. It would have worked... if he'd done his job right. The pain of that - failing the one person who meant more to him than breathing, hurt worse than all the cuts, abrasions and abuses on his body. They were gonna die and he'd thrown away their last hope. He sighed heavily and didn't fight the black tidal wave. He was already unconscious when Arlee rolled him over and tied his hands.

"No, Vin..." Chris whispered painfully. The depth of shame and guilt from the battered blue eyes wounded him far deeper than the bullet did. Defeat in Tanner was so rare he couldn't get a grip on it. Like his partner, he was rolled over and flinched as the brittle ropes cut into his tender wrists. He staggered along, the only feeling of satification was that Bull Savage was in pain. The look of anguish as he cradled his dead son, was fuel for him. Chris was shoved on the floor in the back of the Beechcraft next to the unmoving Texan. His concerned eyes couldn't see how deep or long the knife wound was. He did see blood seeping onto the floor and hissed in frustration. Arlee helped his father lift his brother into the plane. He was laid on the floor in the back. As the engines sounded and the small plane took off, Chris Larabee watched the journey to hell begin.

+ + + + + + +

Six a.m. Denver

In the middle of the chorus or 'Lola', the Kinks classic hit, the would-be-crooner rinsed the soap from his lean body and paused. Shoving the shower curtain aside, he stepped out onto the bathmat and tucked a towel around his well-muscled waist. He turned the radio off and pulled the door open, wiping his face with a hand towel. As he entered the bedroom, he heard a strange voice on his answering machine.

"... of the sheriff's department. It is urgent that you call here as soon as you get this..."

"Hello!" Buck grabbed the phone, his heart hammering. "This is Buck Wilmington. I was in the shower. I missed the beginning of the message.'

"Mister Wilmington," the deputy watched the crime scene team enter the diner and moved aside, nodding to his partner. "I'm Antonio Barnes of the San Juan County Sheriff's Department in New Mexico. Do you own a 1999 green Chevy Tahoe?"

"Yeah... I lent it to a couple of my friends on Sunday. Why?" Buck's heart was hammering and his mouth went dry. He clenched his eyes shut, fearing the worst, as the lawman read off the digits on his licence plate.

"It was found at the scene of a homicide on route 64..."

"Homicide!"

"Yes sir, at a diner on a lonely stretch of road about thirty miles from Farmington."

"Oh, God!" Buck raked a hand through his wet head. "They were driving up late last night from Taos. Vin was sick..."

"Vin?"

"Uh... I'm a... federal agent, ATF, here in Denver. Chris Larabee, my boss and Vin Tanner, another agent were driving that car. Are they dead?"

"No, the owner of the diner was shot point blank... but it looks like your friends were kidnapped. We'll inform the F.B.I. since they're feds." He paused, cupping the phone and signaling the sheriff.. "Dan, I got two positives, they're feds from Denver. Wilmington is their partner... ATF... uh... Larabee and Tanner. Okay."

"Kidnapped?" Buck sat on the bed, grabbing the pen and pad by his phone. "Slow down a minute." The news that his friends were not in a body bag allowed him to breathe again. "What happened?"

"Can you describe your two friends?"

"Uh, Chris is the taller one, about six feet with short blond hair. Vin is younger and a little slimmer, long brown hair... what's going on?"

"Near as we can tell, they arrived here last night before eleven p.m. They stumbled into a hornet's nest. The owner usually closes at eleven and uses a video camera to record the interior. He'd been robbed several times overnight."

"...and Chris and Vin were on this tape?"

"I'm afraid so. The blond man was wounded in the side," he paused, hearing the sharp hiss on the other end.

"...and Vin?"

"I'd rather not go into details now, Sir, but he was injured as well. They were both walking when they were forced to leave just after one a.m. How soon can you get here?"

"I'll be on the next plane." Buck stood. "What about the kidnappers? How many? Are they local? Do you have any leads?"

"They're from Montana way. Four men," the young deputy nodded to the sheriff who was waving to him. "No, Mister Wilmington, we have no leads yet. We have an APB out on them. They're on the top of the F.B.I.'s most wanted list."

"Most wanted..." Buck's quick brain did the math. Four men... most wanted... Montana. His face drained of color and he closed his eyes, his heart sinking fast. Just as the name entered his brain, the young lawman uttered the words he didn't want to hear. "Fuck, no..."

"Bull Savage and his family. I'm sorry. The sheriff just alerted the Border patrol. It looks like they were taken as shields. I'll have a one of our men meet you at the airport."

"Yeah... thanks..."

For a moment, he was paralyzed. The water ran from his plastered head down his face. He heard Vin's cranky voice as the slim Texan shuffled up the aisle every morning. He saw that winsome smile, too long missing, that Chris Larabee found again when the Texan entered his life. He fingered the tiny gold cross on his neck, a Celtic design, the last gift his mother gave him before she died. He bowed his head and said a prayer, the most heartfelt one he'd ever offered up. Then he picked up the phone.

"Hello, Orrin, it's Buck," his shaken voice had the other man's immediate attention. "I got bad news..."

+ + + + + + +

The sick feeling in his stomach was due to more than his injuries. The blond hostage awoke with a start, annoyed that he'd dozed off. His first gaze went across the aisle to where Vin's dull eyes were fixed into space. Something was wrong. He could hear Bull up front somewhere, screaming at the pilot. The other three men were in seats up front. He, Vin and the dead body were on the floor in the rear where cargo was usually stored. He twisted sideways but couldn't move; his legs were tied to a metal bracket on the wall.

"Vin? Vin?" he whispered, rolling his eyes as the plane dropped again and his stomach shot up to his teeth. "Something's wrong... Vin?" The eyes blinked and the brown brows furrowed. He noted that the sniper's normally fine featured, handsome face was swollen, cut, bruised and discolored. But it was the defeat in those normally bright eyes that worried him. "Get your ass in gear, I need you! Fuckin' look at me!"

"Engine's failin'," Vin replied tonelessly, "we're goin' down." His legs weren't tied down and he sat up painfully, his eyes glazed in agony.

"Jesus..." Chris swore, seeing the large amount of blood riding the blue shirt above Vin's waist.

"I'm sorry, Cowboy, I fucked up..." he rasped painfully, trying to kneel, using his shoulders as leverage. He bit his lip, trying to worm his left hand free. He twisted and grunted, each movement causing more ripples of fire to stab his ravaged body. Finally he felt three fingers shift and tugged hard.

"Bullshit!" the angry blond tossed back. "Guess I fucked up too. My ass didn't get bit by that Goddamn rat and we'd never have been on that road."

"Ya took out yer man, all I hadda do was..."

"Shut up!" Chris hissed over the loud voices of the now panicking passengers. "Can't think of anyone else I'd rather ride with," he said in a thick voice, not masking how he felt for this man. They locked eyes and he managed a small smile. "To Hell or anywhere else." He saw the excruciating pain on the other man's face as he slowly inched his way forward. Unable to go on alone, the freed bloodied hand reached out and the shaggy head came up.

"Chris..." Vin's voice was almost prayerful. He knew the plane's rapid descent and the angry argument up front spelled out their fate. Then the engine sputtered and died. With all the strength he had left, he reached out for his brother. "Chris!"

"No!" Chris screamed as Vin's fingertips barely brushed his chin, just before the deafening sound tore them apart. He felt a brief, explosion of hot pain in his head, then nothing.

+ + + + + + +

Seven a.m., Denver

Team Seven's youngest member was stumped. His chocolate doughnut was only half-eaten and his coffee was black and strong. The steam drifted past him as he studied his problem. His hazel eyes were crossed in perplexion.

"J.D., did you hear me?"

"Huh?" he blinked when a dark-skinned hand appeared on his desk. "Aren't they beauties?"

"If you say so," Nathan Jackson chuckled. "I wouldn't know one end of a fishing rod from another. You buying a new one?"

"It's a present, for Casey, for our anniversary," he bragged of the pretty twenty-two year old law student who lived with him. "Six months ago she moved in, best six months of my life!"

"Fishing rod?" the older and much wiser married man laughed and shook his head. "You best pick one with the right grip. I wouldn't want it to slip out of her hands before she breaks it over your thick skull."

"What's wrong with a fishing rod?" Dunne defended. "We're planning on a long camping trip near the river and..."

"J.D.," the former medic laid a 'fatherly' hand on the younger man's shoulder and left the grin on his face. "We gotta talk. You might be a computer whiz, but when it comes to romance, you need some schoolin'."

"She likes outdoors stuff, she's not fussy like most girls."

"She's not a girl, she's a woman. If she's that special, you give her something that will take her breath away. Something that comes in a velvet pouch from the jewelry store."

"She's not much for jewelry..."

"No thanks to you," Nate sighed, waving to Ezra who appeared with his cafe au lait. "Speak of the devil..."

"Has our sharpshooter returned?" the gambler looked around the office.

"Not that devil..." Jackson bobbed his head. "J.D. and Casey are celebrating an anniversary."

"Ah," the southerner placed the cup on his desk. "Young love, how very nauseating. Six months of co-habitation?"

"Yeah, I'm buyin' her a ..." His voice was interuppted by the dark hand on his mouth.

"What would you give a special lady to celebrate the event?" Jackson posed, removing his hand.

"I'd start with a nice dinner, soft music, some chablis and lots of candles," Ezra mused, "a nice comfortable area under a moonbeam."

"The gift, Ezra, get to the gift..." Nathan pressed.

"Six months," he rubbed his chin. "Too soon for a ring, earrings wouldn't do... a gold charm, yes, for that pretty bracelet her mother gave her. A rose perhaps..."

"Charm bracelet?" J.D. frowned. "When did you see that?"

"Most recently at the charity ball for the Widows and Orphans Fund. As I recall, it was for her graduation from High School. The last gift she got from her mother, it holds great sentimental value no doubt."

"See?" Nathan thwacked the dark head. "Guess what Einstein came up with?" He jerked his head and grinned as Ezra chortled.

"The last of the great romantics!" Standish grinned. "If you'd like, I can recommend a good jeweler. Another fine choice might be an antique timepiece given her chosen profession."

"Thanks, Ezra..." J.D. looked up, startled at the man in the doorway. "Orrin!"

"Gentlemen," the veteran nodded and moved into the room. "Where is Mister Sanchez?"

"He's coming..."

"Get him on the phone, please." Travis walked to the speaker phone on Buck Wilmington's desk. "Have him call here now."

"What's wrong?" Nathan's blood ran cold for some reason; it wasn't often he saw the senior ATF man so upset.

"Josiah?" J.D.'s eyes never left the shaken Division Head. "Orrin's here, he wants you to call Buck's phone. No, I don't know why... okay..."

When the phone rang, Travis pushed the 'speaker' button and motioned them to come closer.

"Orrin?" Sanchez frowned at the unmoving line of traffic. "I'm stuck on the interstate. Did I miss a meeting?"

"No, Josiah, Buck called me this morning and I wanted you to hear this together."

"Is Buck okay?" J.D's voice died, fearing his best friend had been hurt.

"He's on his way to the airport. Nathan, there's a squad car outside waiting for you. You and Buck are taking the 8 am flight to Farmington, New Mexico."

"New Mexico?" Ezra pursed his lips. "Have Chris and Vin been in an accident?"

"They've been taken hostage."

"Hostage?" Sanchez spoke over the horns honking outside his window. "By whom?"

"Last night they stopped at a diner not far from the Colorado border. Apparently right after a pack of blood thirsty animals killed the owner. The surveillance camera recorded some of what transpired. They've both been injured and were taken out at gunpoint around one a.m. The border's been alerted and the F.B.I has obtained some disturbing evidence."

"What is it you're not saying?" Nathan frowned.

"They have an A.P.B. out?" J.D. asked.

"How disturbing?" Josiah inquired.

"The kidnappers are already wanted in several surrounding states for robbery, assault and murder, among other charges. I spoke with the sheriff who is still on scene. Chris appears to have been shot .A portion of the tape contains these animals torturing Vin." He wasn't surprised at the silence. Nathan's face was a mask of molten anger; J.D.'s simmering rage. Ezra's was unchanged save for the fire in his eyes and one fist clenched to white knuckles.

"Orrin, who took Vin and Chris?" Josiah asked point blank, adding up the clues.

"Bull Savage." He turned to Nathan. "Get going, keep me posted and use some of that talent you have to keep Buck under control."

Wordlessly, the stunned agent collected his badge, gun and cellphone and left.

"Orrin, what about us?" J.D. stood up. "I can't sit here while some lunatics have Vin and Chris."

"You have a job to do," he said. "All of you."

"But..." Dunne protested only to be cut off.

"A job you were trained and hired for. You are an ATF agent, Mister Dunne and I expect you to continue in your investigation." He paused, eyeing the scorched hazel eyes. His tone softened and he let out a small breath. He moved next to the dejected youth and placed a hand on his slumped shoulder. "I know it's frustrating, J.D., I want to find them too. But you know the rules. You're not working for the F.B.I or trained as such. There are people whose lives depend on you finding that arsonist," he referred to the rash of church bombings. "Keep your chin up, Son." He turned away, addressing the others. "Ezra, Josiah, unless I hear anymore, we'll meet in my office at one p.m. The sheriff will arrange a conference call."

+ + + + + + +

The sound of the door closing was the only sound in the room. Suddenly, it seemed so large and cold. Without the barb-wired bantering that filled the air each day, the office seemed stagnant and lonely. Then the phone rang and Ezra took the call he was expecting from the lab in Colarado Springs. Josiah tossed the cell phone onto the passenger seat and felt a headache coming on. J.D. didn't move for several seconds then slide his desk drawer open.

He lifted out an antique frame bearing a photo of the seven. It was sepia-toned, one of those photo's that is styled to look like the old west. He was the one who spotted the Time Lost Photography Studio in a small town near the spot where they went river rafting. It was the first trip they'd taken together after Vin joined the team. None of them wanted to put on the antique cowboy gear, but they did it for him, grumbling all the while. It was a favorite of his; his eyes raked over the figures of the two men on the far left. Chris was dressed in black duster with a low brim black hat. A pair of pearl handled Colts rode his hips. One was trained on the slim man in front of him. Vin was on his knees wearing hand cuffs. He'd already been in his trademark buckskin coat and only agreed to pose if he could be the 'outlaw'.

JD studied every feature on their faces, stunned to realize it was the only shot he had of all seven of them. He remembered the bawdy humor, endless teasing and bad jokes over the campfire. It had been a weekend to remember; they basked in the light of brotherhood. He hoped and prayed it wouldn't be the last trail they rode together.

+ + + + + + +

"Get to the back of the plane and brace yourself ! We're going down!"

Bull listened to the pilot's harsh words in a daze, his heart slamming into his chest as the engines sputtered and coughed. It couldn't end this way; he'd waited so many years for this taste of freedom. Time was slipping past and his numbed fingers fought the restrictive seatbelt. Through a haze of disbelief, he heard Linc somewhere in the background, screaming at Arlee. No, it couldn't end like this. He took out his frustrations on the busy pilot, screaming at him.

As the engines died and the body of the plane began to shimmy, Roberto Carrion's lingering thought was that he should have been fishing. That was what his original plans were - a nice relaxing morning off Baja. Now the ten thousand dollars in his pocket wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. The fifty-year old pilot had been running drugs since he was a teen; this was an easy run or should have been. Now, it a cruel twist of fate, he gazed for the last time at the spectacular beauty of Candamena Canyon. The jewel of the magnificent but treacherous area was the Basaseachic Waterfall, rushing down over 800 feet. He made a lightening fast choice; his time had run out. It was an isolated area, reachable only by foot and then only by an experienced guide.

He ditched the last of the fuel, ignoring the angry Americano's abusive behavior. The odds were slim enough but a little higher without the threat of a fireball. He pulled hard, gritting his teeth as the fog rolled up off the tops of the trees. The ground was rising rapidly, ready to greet them. He never saw the tree limb that crashed through the windshield taking his head off.

+ + + + + + +

The expensive, dark green sunglasses did nothing to quell the raging headache. He shifted in the seat, eyeing the passing desert with little interest. He took the back seat on purpose, leaving his partner to get the details. To his credit, Orrin had chosen wisely. Nathan's quiet strength was the perfect compliment to his own inner storm. His stomach was suffering the most from the battle his heart and brain were waging. One voice speaking in words of 'faith' and 'resolve' and 'optimism'; the other recalling the bloody carnage that the killers left behind. Men with no souls who hated law enforcement. Men without guile who would slit a throat as easily as peeling an orange. Animals who had the lives of two of his closest friends in the palms of their filthy hands.

"Buck?"

Nathan laid a gentle hand on the tan jacket and saw the shoulders jump. He pulled back, letting the tall man regain his senses and ease from the car. A parade of vehicles was splayed in front of the modest silver coated diner, a relic from the 1950's. The patrolman was talking on the radio as a young man of perhaps twenty-five or so approached. His short dark hair lifted slightly in the morning breeze.

"I'm Antonio Barnes; I spoke with one of you on the phone earlier."

"I'm Nathan Jackson, a member of Chris Larabee's team," the dark man began, nodding to his silent partner. "This is Buck Wilmington. Can you give us a 'walk through'?"

"Yeah, the sheriff's inside," the young man moved, nodding to the green SUV. "Is that your vehicle? Is that how you left it?"

"Yeah," Buck whispered, finding a sad smile at the huge empty cup where Vin's trademark coke resided. "Damn that chocoholic, he left a mess..." he choked up, eyeing the graveyard for silver foil wrappings of the sniper's favorite snack. He could so easily see that choirboy-like smile and the blue eyes softening. He inhaled painfully, hearing the raspy, aw, hell Bucklin...

"Easy, Buck," Nate saw the crack forming. He touched the other's elbow and nodded to the deputy who continued.

"At approximately five a.m., a trucker pulled in here. Normally, Clem Johnson, the owner, opens up at five. The driver saw the blood and mess inside and the door was open. He couldn't find the owner and called us. We found him in the freezer, a thirty-eight buried between his eyes."

"What's the ETA on Chris and Vin's arrival?" Nathan asked, approaching the door to the tiny eatery.

"You could set a clock by Clem," Barnes stepped thru the tiny entry and moved towards the small cluster of booths to the right. "He locked up at ten p.m. By the way we found the place, we surmised he was ready to lock up when the Savages arrived," he paused, nodding to the doorway. "They shot him in the head and dumped his body in the deep freeze." He waved to a tall, lean man with silver hair whose features bespoke a hint of Native American ancestry. "Jim, these are the ATF guys from Denver. This is Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson."

"Jim Whitefeather," the sheriff nodded. "Gentlemen, let's get to it. The hotel confirmed your two friends checked out at five p.m. They were off course, but most likely due to a series of washed out roads. This would have been a detour, perhaps to Durango. In any event, it's apparent they arrived shortly after the killers. From the videos we've viewed, it's fairly certain that the blond man was shot. The force of the bullet sent him there," he pointed to the toppled salad bar. "We found blood over there. They were held for awhile back here," he moved to the store room where a young Hispanic woman was taking pictures. "The lab found traces of two kinds of blood back here, on the tiles, floor and discarded bandages."

"Vin?" Jackson frowned, disturbed by night of Hell his friends endured.

"I'm afraid so," Whitefeather paused, eyeing his young deputy. "Tony, are the tapes ready?"

"I'll check." The other man nodded and left.

"What was that look?" Buck finally spoke, his eyes leaving the small pile of cookies and coke cans lying side by side with the bloodied linens.

"I don't have to tell you how Bull Savage felt about lawmen," the sheriff's dark eyes grew hard. "Unfortunately, your Agent Tanner got the brunt of that brutality." He watched the tall man with dark hair and a mustache coil up like a cobra. The dark blue eyes were shooting fire and both fists were clenched. His friend's dark eyes were full of helpless rage. "We found two videos. Clem had been robbed several times, sometimes when he wasn't here. So he installed one camera at the far end of the dining room, another in the office. Your friend is abused on both."

"All set, Jim," the deputy called out.

"These go on at eleven p.m. when Clem locks up and heads for home. This first shot, from the tape in the office, occurs shortly after they arrived."

Nate nodded as the young deputy put mugs of coffee in front of them. They were seated a table for four in the back of the dining area. A small portable monitor was set up at the end of the table. Jackson's eyes saw the time in the corner of the screen, fifteen minutes past eleven p.m. He listened as Vin was verbally assaulted, then dished it right back.

"This friend of yours has guts, I'll give him that," the veteran sheriff noted, having seen the tapes already. "Whether he figured out the camera was here or not, thanks to that mouth of his, we got two leads. It's the needle in the haystack, a big haystack."

They listened as Vin goaded Bull into a discussion and the town of Silver City was mentioned along with 'flying' out of the country.

"He's smart, thinks good on his feet," the deputy added.

"They broke the mold," Buck managed, flinching as Vin's battered face was suddenly thrust into view. The angle of the camera showed the safe and one half of the desk. "Damn that hot head of his..."

"God..." Nathan hissed, fingers curling around the cup. They couldn't see what the brutes were doing; all that was visible was Vin's upper body pressed onto the desk. Then they heard the unmistakable sound of leather hitting flesh. The sharpshooter's eyes bulged in pain, yet he never uttered a sound. A single line of blood ran from the lip which he bit through. Then the shoulders rolled once and the eyes shut.

"...sick fuckin' bastard..." Buck shoved a chair. "Turn it off..."

"From the clues he drew out, we've got the Highway Patrol working the whole route. The F.B.I sent a team to scour the Silver City area. It's in the desert and there are a ton of little ghost towns, it's a lot of ground to cover..."

"Then get more men!" the angry agent demanded, his blue eyes on fire.

"Buck, you ain't no rookie, you know the drill..." Nate tried to placate.

"What I know is that a pack of animals has Chris and Vin, that's what I know!" He fumed, pacing around the table.

"The second tape gives us the departure time," Jim hesitated, eyeing the storm that passed to his right. "This isn't easy to watch."

"Do it," Buck issued frostily. His face was set in stone as the whooping maniacs laid Vin spread eagle and tied him down, baring his chest. He never flinched when the gun and blade probed the sensitive man's body. He clenched his jaw, curled his hand up into balls of rage, when the sizzling meat was laid on the lean chest. But when Vin finally cried out, his agonized features ripped the large man's gut. "Goddammit!"

"Let him go." The local lawman grabbed the dark-skinned agent's arm. Three sets of eyes watched the tall agent stalk through the door and outside into the sunlight. "His heart is too large..."

"Yeah," Nate agreed. "Do we need to see this?" His stomach turned when the urination began.

"No, not all of it," Barnes stopped the tape, then forwarded it until a digital readout showed. "Here's where they leave, just after one a.m. They're both still on their feet."

Nate nodded absentmindedly, lifting his lips when the battered, but not beaten Texan defied the others there, guarding the men's room. "You give 'em hell, Vin!" he said softly.

"Your friend, Larabee, left a note," Jim said, rising and signaling the brooding man outside.

Buck ducked back inside and eyed the men's room with a curious stare. He following Jackson as they approached the door.

"Chris left a message," Nate said, sliding into the bathroom. He paused behind the sheriff who used a pen to show them the bloody lettering on the back of the large rectangular toilet seat cover holder.

"NM... Sil Cty... X..." Wilmington frowned, then spotted the crude image of a plane. "Same thing Vin pulled, they're headed over the border. You done with my car? We need to get to Silver City."

"Yeah," Sheriff Whitefeather pulled out a notepad.

"I'll be outside, Nathan," Buck said, suddenly needing fresh air. Seeing Chris's desperate message churned his insides.

"There's a Holiday Inn on Superior St, we'll check in there. The F.B.I is HQ'ing there..." Sheriff Whitefeather wrote down a few more things and handed the paper over to the tall agent. "My numbers, office, home and cell. That's the F.B.I. agent in charge. He's coordinating things down there. Problem?" He heard an audible groan and watched the dark man's head shaking.

"I don't believe it," Nate exasperated, walking to the door. "Our luck can't get any worse."

"Tony will lead you back into town, get something to eat. I got a chopper coming at noon. We'll fly up to Silver City. We'll meet with the F.B.I. team and arrange a conference call with your people. He's gonna authorize the photos be pushed on television and in the papers. We want high visibility. Questions?"

"Anything from the border patrol?"

"Not yet, but they're on high alert." He rested a seasoned hand on the downcast shoulder. "Hey, they walked out of here, there's still hope."

"Yeah," Nate sighed, slipping his glasses on, "but the odds suck." He eyed the paper given to him and shook his head. "How the hell am I gonna tell him...?" He slid into the car and tried to keep a composed face. He told Buck about the plan to drive to town and then fly to Silver City for the meeting.

"Nathan?" Wilmington turned the ignition and studied the anger set in the other's jaw. "You keepin' somethin' from me?"

He sighed, turned and dropped the bomb. "Buck, the F.B.I is calling the shots. They got agents in the field, combing the hills around Silver City and others on their way to the border."

"So? We knew that before we flew here. That's their job, finding missing people, especially other agents." Then he saw it, or rather he felt it hit his chest. This was New Mexico and a leering face appeared in his mind's eye. "No, no fuckin' way. You're shittin' me? McClendon?"

"I'm afraid so, he's the senior field agent, he's in charge."

"Goddammit!" He slammed his palms on the wheel. "Does Orrin know?"

"He does by now, I'll call him from town." He clipped his belt. "Buck, I know that McClendon's a prick and it's no secret how he feels about Vin. But we gotta tread carefully here, or we'll get booted off the case. The most important thing, the ONLY thing is finding Chris and Vin. If that means swallowing my pride, I'll do it. Don't blow your cool..."

"I'm not promising that," he vented. "If that SOB says one word, just one, about Vin, I'm gonna send him into orbit."

"You're not gonna do a damn thing!" Jackson issued sternly. "That won't help either of them. We need to keep on top of every piece of information and evidence they get. I don't trust him, Buck, and getting sent back to Denver won't help. You do this for Chris and Vin. Buck! You got that?"

"Yeah," he muttered, feeling his stomach acid churning.

+ + + + + + +

Enrico Figueroa eyed the blond captive with a wide smile. Normally, the rebels found little of interest in their patrols of this remote area. Today, Lady Fortune smiled on them. A small plane made a forced landing, splitting into three sections. One went towards the cliffs, over the river. They'd been able to eye that area with field glasses. It was empty. The second was just behind him, a piece of the luggage compartment. It's the section they found first, with an unconscious blond man chained to the wall. The third part, the largest, was the front part of the plane. Smoke drifting skywards is what attracted them. This part was smoldering as they arrived. They put the fire out and found a dead pilot and a half dead occupant. The last prisoner was found in the tall grass nearby, having been thrown. His nasty mouth was as large as his body. They had two prisoner's, American's most likely and that would make their leader happy. He watched the lean blond man's body stirring on the ground before him.

+ + + + + + +

Over the pain in his head and chest, the sensation of suffocating was causing a 'red alert' alarm to sound in his brain. No air was coming into his lungs and that forced his eyes open. His foggy memory allowed no illumination into what occurred. He tasted blood, dirt and grass in his mouth and coughed, sending a mouthful free. He twisted his throbbing head sideways, sucked in some air painfully and tried to rise. He groaned and hissed when the unmistakable end of a rifle was shoved between his shoulder blades. The words that were screamed at him were loud and harsh - and Spanish.

"What the fuck?" He murmured, wiggling uncomfortably. He was on his belly in the dirt in the tall grass. His hands were tied and he heard voices, lots of them, all hollering in Spanish. "Hey, what the hell is going on?"

"Silence, Gringo dog!"

He cursed inwardly as a heavy boot slammed into the underside of this belly near the hip. This wasn't good. He lifted his face and squinted through the blood running down it. He saw legs encased in jungle fatigues and lots of rifles. The air was full of acrid smoke and the lingering scent of burning rubber, brush and flesh. Flesh? He blinked and shut his eyes, trying to remember. Then a voice broke through his shaky field of concentration.

"You listen to me, you grease ball! My boy's in there..."

Bull Savage. He groaned again as the loud voice was silenced by the screaming hostile voices and the thuds of boots and rifle butts hitting muscle and flesh. Then the images came back, broken and distorted. The loud sound and the explosion of pain. They'd crashed.

"Vin!" He screamed, unable to contain his concern. His head was jerked back and he then realized why he couldn't breathe. He had a leather collar on, thick and constricting each breath. A short lead was attached allowing the guard to choke him at will. His eyes bulged and he gulped air like a sick guppy as he was hauled to his feet. Then the pressure was relieved and he gulped air noisily before the tidal wave of pain descended. His head was cut; he felt air causing abrasive pain on the upper right side. The gunshot wound on his side had opened again and the burning pain in his ribcage told him he'd broken a few ribs. All of that paled in comparison to the twisted pile of smoldering debris several yards away. His frantic eyes swept the landscape. A dozen Mexican guerillas were milling about, laughing and drinking. Bull was unconscious, blood covering his face and a gaping wound in his thigh. He was tied and blindfolded. There were no more bodies.

"Vin?" He called out, wincing as a fist hit his back.

"Did I not warn you, Yankee pig? You are a prisoner of the Army Of The People. You do not have the right to speak."

"The others... on the plane..." Chris blinked back tears as sweat and blood stung his eyes. He scanned the grounds seeing open backed trucks.

"Only that big gringo... the rest are dead," he smiled cruelly, "...or will be..."

"What? No!" Chris jerked, hissing as the leather collar tightened on his throat. He watched two soldiers enter the smoking pile of debris and raise a gun. "Is there someone else in there?"

"His injuries are too severe... burned over most of his body and..."

"Jesus!" Chris flinched as a scream was followed by a series of gunshots. "Who... who was that? Who, I have to know!"

"I am tired of your gringo tongue!" The soldier yanked on the collar, forcing the battered, bloodied man to his knees, and then the wet blond head lolled forward. He was unconscious. He released the 'leash' and hollered for two of his men. "Load them in the truck... we will take them to camp. Juan Xavier will be pleased. Two Yankee dogs will bring money... much money from the ugly American Government."

"That could take months," the grumbling soldier replied, tossing the bound blond captive into the back of the truck.

"So what of it? We have much work to do at the camp. They will work like the dogs that they are. Is it done?"

"He's dead." The soldier eyed the burned corpse and kicked it before leaving the smoking ruins. "Let's move out!"

The hum of the engine and the motion of the large wheels jostled the ATF agent to rouse. Through green slits, he saw the smoke rising and wondered about that statement. Who was dead? Was it Vin whose scream he heard? Or had his friend been spared a horrific body of burns? Had he been killed on impact? The soldier's words came back to mock him then. The rest are dead... are dead... are dead. That took the fight from his abused and battered body. Vin was dead and that pain drove him back into a black void.

+ + + + + + +

Wet. Cold. Wet. Cold. Pain. Hurt. Dead. Wet. Cough. Cough. Breathe.

The words formed images and his brain worked when his body wouldn't. He rolled over, shivering in pain and shock. His entire body pulsated in a shrieking chorus of agony.

Water. Lots of water.

Blink. Blink. Moan. Move. Move. Can't. Hurts. Die. Die. Hurts. God.

More orders from his brain. He couldn't move. He didn't even know if he was breathing. He opened his eyes as the rushing water forced him to react. It was cold and it hurt. One eye wouldn't open at all. The other observed the world above through a large blurry scope.

Trees. Water. Rocks. Birds. Loud Birds. Snakes. Snakes? Move. Move. Pain.

The shock from the pain prevented him from thinking beyond the basic need to stay alive. That meant breathing. Water was under him and brushing over him. The sun moved sending a razor sharp shard into his one working eye. He closed it and let his body go limp.

Trees. Water. Hurts. Pain. God. God hurts. Die. Please.

+ + + + + + +

"Whoa, Pepe..." the priest reined in his horse and squinted into the sun. "What is this?" He studied the riverbank and frowned. There among the rocks and tall grasses, lying in the shallow water, was a body. He climbed down from the seat and made his way down the steep incline. He knelt down next to the young man and laid his fingers on the exposed throat. "So, my young friend, you live. Madre Dios, what a mess!" He eyed the nearly naked body covered with cuts, bruises and burns. A sharp gash splayed open some of the right thigh. Blood covered most of the face and upon tipping it slightly, he exposed the most dangerous injury. He blessed himself and said a silent prayer, eyeing the torn scalp, which exposed part of the skull.

"Where did you come from, my Son?" He eyed the rushing river and wondered about a hiking accident. The face was strange to him; he knew most of the locals. This boy's skin was too pale. He was a visitor. American most likely. That meant trouble if the rebels found him first. He would check the news when he got back to the church. He lifted the upper body gently, easing him from the frigid water. He eyed the steep hill and frowned. Tapping the stilled face, he made a vow.

"I am Father Carlos Romero and I'll be back. I need to get a rope."

By the time the battered young man was in the back of the wagon, wrapped in a soft blanket, the priest was worried. He was a medic many years ago in the army and had read as many medical books as he could. Often, the poor had no money for a doctor or no means to get to a town. So he was their only source of help. But he feared this young man's injuries were beyond his humble hands. As he rode for the church, he prayed for guidance.

+ + + + + + +

Grimacing and cursing, he crawled from the river. Standing was impossible. The left leg was broken and the pain caused him to black out. When he next awoke, the sun was high in the sky and his tattered clothes were drying. He sat up, rubbing his throbbing skull. He threw up, then used the cold river water to rinse and then drink. Memories invaded his injured head of a forced landing. The plane broke apart, skittering in different directions. He vaguely recalled someone grabbing him as they were tossed in the river. The rushing water tore them apart. He eyed the landscape and crawled up a hill, securing a long tree branch. With his crude crutch, the young man began to limp, his battered body protesting each step. He paused, spotting tire tracks and followed them. He found the wreckage and the dead inside. Two dead... that meant the others were still alive, maybe. Taken away? His pained eyes lingered on the tire tracks. He found shells from rifles and cigarette butts. He saw blood on the ground. He knew this area had rebel troops. After using some debris to make a crude splint, he used his crutch and followed the tracks. He wouldn't stop until he found their base - and hopefully, the one he sought was there, still alive.

Part Five

The thick walls of the church provided much needed relief from the heat. The Madonna and her holy child looked on in sympathy, as Father Carlos carried his young patient into the back of the building and down the stone stairs.

The church was small and simple, but to the poor people in the mountain area, it was a beacon of hope. It was the quiet shelter they sought to ride out their emotional storms. Inside the one story Spanish stucco building, they offered prayers and gained strength from the much beloved priest who resided there.

At eighty years of age, the gray-headed man looked much younger. His hair was thinner and his stride a little slower, but Rico Romero felt as strong as he did when he wore a younger man's clothes. He heard the wagon pull up and dropped the armful of vegetables into the large bin. The garden was his pride and joy; it provided them with food and gave him many hours of pleasure. It was out back of the church, just beyond the door of the small kitchen. In addition to the simple chapel, there were two small bedrooms, a living area, a bathroom and kitchen upstairs. Downstairs, there was a good sized clinic, where his son tended to the poor parishioners. By the time Rico got to the front of the churchyard, the wagon was empty. Frowning, he entered the chapel and saw the open door leading to the clinic.

"Carlos?" he called out, easing his slight frame into the dark stairwell.

"Down here, Papa," the priest replied, easing the young man onto an examining table. The torn cloths came off easily and he began his examination. In addition to the severe head injury, there were older bruises, cuts and burns. A deep slash mark on the right thigh would need tending. Frowning, his skilled hands traced the outline of a stab wound in the lower right abdomen.

"You are lucky I was returning from San Pedro," the priest noted of the nearest town. "You will be keeping me busy this morning, my young friend."

"Who is he?" the older man asked, eyeing the muddy, bloodied, limp body.

"I don't know. I found him at the riverbank," the medical missionary replied, eyeing the horrid wound on the young man's head that exposed his skull. He moved his trained hands through the long, brown hair and clucked his tongue. "Papa, get me a basin of warm, soapy water," he requested, pulling a sheet up to the patient's waist. He tilted the pale man's head to the side and then turned it back.

The clinic was a good size, running half the length of the building above. There was an examination room where his medicine and tools were. Next to that, a gathering of several cots for those patients who remained overnight or longer in his care. There was a small washroom and storage area at the far end. He went into the washroom and scrubbed his hands and arms up to the elbows. Returning to the clinic, he noted his father already at work. He smiled upon seeing the tools he'd already used in the sterilizer and the older man bending over the patient.

"Someone hurt him on purpose," he called out, hearing his son return. "The Federales might be looking for him..."

"He's safe here, within the sanctuary of the church," the priest replied, patting his father's back and noting the worry. "What do we have here?" He saw a glitter of silver in the limp hand and uncurled the fingers.

"He guards it still," the old man said, noting the death grip the young man had on the object. "He must value it highly."

"Ah," the priest sighed, finally prying the treasure loose. He held up the muddy chain and eyed the disc on the end. "St. Christopher, a fine choice," he cupped the square jaw of the unconscious man and smiled. "The chain is broken; maybe I can find someone to fix it for you?" He saw his father's head turn and he handed the chain over to the gnarled fingers.

"Hmmph!" The old man slid the medal in to his pocket, "I suppose after all my other chores, I could find some time." He didn't see his son's wide smile.

For the next ten minutes, they worked on either side of the injured man, scrubbing the mud and blood from his battered body. The priest cleaned and stitched the nasty cut riding above the pale brown eyebrow first. While his father tended to the minor wounds, applying hydrogen peroxide and covering the deeper ones with bandages, he set about to take care of the serious head injury. He used a large syringe to squirt hydrogen peroxide into the nasty, gaping wound. It sat just behind and high above the right ear. Taking a long, thin pair of scissors, he cut the hair from the area around the wound. He used tweezers to gently remove the foreign objects sticking to the pink tissue within. He rinsed the area thoroughly again before suturing it with close to twenty stitches.

"Papa, hold him for me?" He moved to get the bandages while his father lifted the slim young man's upper body. This allowed the priest to wrap the sterile white gauze around the head wound. He nodded and his father eased the boy back down. Then he turned his attentions to the other two more serious injuries. Both the thigh and abdominal wounds were doused with peroxide, before being stitched and bandaged. Lastly, the burns on his chest were cleaned and he laid cold wet clothes over the red and blistered area. Finally, their frighteningly still young charge was ready to rest.

"Will he live?" the older man asked as he helped carry the unconscious, pale man to a cot in the next room.

"I hope so," the priest replied, pulling the sheet up and laying a hand on the pale forehead. "He has fever coming." He pulled out a stethoscope and listened to the labored sounds from within the battered chest. "I will pray for him. I must get ready for the morning mass. Do not leave him, Papa."

"Yes... yes..." the other replied, taking out the tangled chain and beginning the process of cleaning and fixing it. "We will be fine, this young Americano and I."

They both turned when a long, heavy sigh slipped through the bloodless lips of the patient.

Carlos patted the exposed naked shoulder and smiled.

"Rest easy, my young friend, you are in God's house."

+ + + + + + +

"That's another beer you owe me, Mate," Jack Lynch goaded of the driver of the jeep. His blond hair was long and shaggy, which suited his clean-shaven face. The heat of the day was already simmering in the early hours of the morning. It was a far cry from the climate he'd been raised in, just south of London in England. His smile widened when he saw the tense jaw of the driver. The short dark curly hair matched the brooding, hooded dark eyes of his American friend. Both were news reporters covering wars, uprisings and other rebellious activity south of the border. Thrown together in the middle of an uprising ten years prior, they'd paired up and now traveled together.

While his sunny friend continued to goad him, Pete DiTullio clutched the wheel of the battered jeep and pressed the accelerator. They'd heard a rumor in San Pedro the night before that the rebels were breaking camp and moving again. The car broke down twice and a washed out road had led them on this detour. He'd wagered, unwisely, that they'd be at the falls before noon. That was the area that the rebels were spotted near. His concentration was broken when the chipper tone of the Englishman changed.

"Slow down, Pete!" Jack called out, sitting up and sending his alarmed line of vision through the cracked windshield. "Look!"

"Who the hell is that?" The cranky Italian-American inquired spotting a young man sitting against the base of a tree ahead. "Great... another delay... of all the fuckin' luck."

"Spoken like a true humanitarian," Lynch winced, "one of your more endearing qualities, Yank." He tapped the denim clad knee of the driver. "Pull over... he's hurt." He frowned when the speed didn't decrease. "Pete!"

"Yeah, yeah, okay," DiTullio barked, easing his booted foot off the gas pedal. He pulled up and gripped the tanned arm of his friend. "Could be a trap, watch that skinny ass of yours."

"He's half-dead," the Englishman retorted with a wicked wink, "Like most of the senoritas you sleep with."

"Just go!" the other tossed back, pulling a small gun from under the seat.

"Easy, Mate!" Jack put both hands up defensively when two blue eyes shot open and a fist flew at him. He'd knelt by the fallen young man, eyeing the crude splint. "We're not the enemy... neither are you. Where'd you come from, then?"

"...don't know..." Arlee Savage replied, trying to recall just how he got to this spot. His head was pounding and his leg was on fire. He remembered bits and pieces of the plane crash and his journey to find his father, but little else. He didn't know how long he'd been sitting here or just where he was. More importantly, he was hurt and needed help. Here were two non-natives, friendly, with a car and offering help. His cautious eyes told him these men were not military. He gazed at the jeep and spotted a bulky camera in the backseat. Reporters of some kind... he would have to be careful. "...can't remember... accident maybe... don't... know... busted my leg, I think..."

"Well, we'll get you back to San Pedro, there's a clinic there. The chap that runs it is quite handy with a needle. I'm sure Doctor Lorico can patch you up. Shall we have a go at it, then?" He asked, ignoring the string of nearly silent curses coming from his partner.

"Thanks..." Arlee allowed the tall Englishman to help him into the jeep. He eyed the terrain and made a vow to return.

+ + + + + + +

Silver City, NM, Holiday Inn

The staff of the conference room acted quickly, setting up for the important meeting. The Video Teleconference was scheduled for noon and the F.B.I was already on the scene. In the corner, a table was set up with coffee, hot water, decaf packets and tea bags. Next to the creamers, sugar and artificial sweeteners was a large tray of sandwiches and a big bowl with individual bags of potato chips. The house staff tested the video, cables and connections, filled the water pitchers with icy H20 and then adjusted the piles of plates, napkins and utensils.

"Thanks, that will be all," F.B.I. agent Ted Harris nodded, placing note pads, pencils and status sheets on the table. He looked up several minutes later when the door opened. "Hello, Jim," he greeted the tall sheriff whom he worked with before.

"Ted," Whitefeather replied, taking the hand offered. "This is Buck Wilmington and Nathan Jackson. They work with Larabee and Tanner in Denver."

"Gentlemen," Harris nodded, shaking the dark-skinned man's hand. He frowned when he saw simmering rage in the dark blue eyes of the other man. "I'm Ted Harris. This is my boss, senior agent..."

"Eric McClendon," Buck spat out, fisting both hands.

"Small world, Wilmington, isn't it?" McClendon sneered, not hiding his smirk.

"You arrogant son-of-a-bitch!" Buck leapt, only to be hauled back by the Navajo lawman.

"No! Not here... remember your purpose!" He growled, directing the comment at the smug F.B.I man.

"Buck, get that hot head of yours together," Nathan hissed, grabbing the tan jacketed arm and shoving him into the wall. "Vin and Chris, remember?"

"Yeah," the tall agent replied, shaking off the restraining hands. "But you keep that slime-infested, foul mouth of yours shut, McClendon." He made the threat in low, feral tone before taking a seat. He shoved the offered plate of food away only to have it returned.

"You're not a child, quit throwin' tantrums," Jackson warned. "It's gonna be a long enough day, I don't need your belly growlin' along with that mouth of yours. Eat!"

Buck scowled and took a sandwich. His jaw worked in short order, dutifully chewing without tasting anything. The harder he tried to block out the vivid images of the tape he'd seen, the clearer they became. The cruel pictures of Vin being tortured replayed in his head, causing his fist to ball up the napkin he held. He felt a nudge to his leg, as Nathan pointed to the large video display unit.

"Ted, I think we're ready," McClendon issued, as the distinguished image of Orrin Travis appeared.

People who didn't know the thirty-year veteran agent, wouldn't be able to tell just how angry he was. They would only see a hawk-like, penetrating gaze burning a hole through the screen. But his men knew those eyes were on fire and they exchanged a cautious glance. Nathan caught the Travis's eyes and nodded, sending a silent message of accord.

"Good afternoon, Director Travis," Eric McClendon oozed. "We meet again."

"Just lucky, I guess," Orrin managed, keeping his distaste far below the surface. He saw the bodies gathered and frowned, eyeing the tense face of Buck Wilmington. He sighed heavily and leaned forward as the F.B.I. man introduced his partner and the local lawman. "Buck," he said, not hiding the warning in his tone.

"I'm okay, Sir," the mustached man replied before opening the file in front of him. He cast a side glance at his partner and offered a weak smile. "Thanks, Doc." He got a smile in return and took a deep breath before beginning to review the evidence.

As they ate, they watched the tapes and went over the evidence compiled by the agents in the field and at the scene. They discussed the most likely path taken and the increased number of lawmen along the border. A beeper sounded and Ted Harris stood and went to the phone on the wall, punching in the numbers. He nodded and turned back to the group, cupping the mouthpiece.

"It's Jenkins and Santiago, they found the van... at an airstrip about ten miles from here. No signs of life but lots of blood and bullets."

"We done here?" Buck asked, rising from his chair and eager to pursue the first sign of a lead.

"Yes, I believe that concludes our meeting," McClendon nodded. "I'll keep you informed of any new information, Orrin."

"That's Director Travis." The ATF man's clipped voice gave both his agents a brief smile as they watched Eric McClendon flush. "And I'll hold you to that. Buck, Nathan," his voice and eyes spoke volumes. "I'll check with you later."

"Yes, Sir," Nathan replied, tapping Buck and moving towards the door.

+ + + + + + +

Sierra Tarahumar, Mexico

Amidst the canyons, mesas and plateaus of the beautiful but deadly mountainous area were a scattering of winding trails. Like the threads of a spider web, they wove through the intricate terrain making a natural map. Traveled by goatherds, smugglers, hikers and a few ranchers, the forested area was both a paradise and a paradox. Without a reliable guide, or firsthand knowledge, getting lost in the deadly arms of the dense area was almost guaranteed.

The truck wound its way through the geographic maze, bouncing through the rambled highlands near a tumbling waterfall. Then it began its descent, skirting the misty cascade of foam and following the thickening forest into the rocky terrain below

Behind the driver, a half dozen armed soldiers sat on benches, kicking and spitting on the gringo prisoners lying on the floor. They passed a bottle of tequila around, laughing and discussing their prisoners. Finally, they arrived at a deserted mining village buried deep in the embrace of the moutain. Known only to the rebels, it was the perfect base of operations. The truck coughed and sputtered before stopping in front of a large, flat adobe style building.

Far beneath the thick, black blanket that held him snug, a sharp, burning pain in his side brought his eyes wide open. Through a blurry veil, he saw a muddy boot pressing its toe into his wounded side. He curled his lip into a nasty snarl and twisted his body, kneeing the offending foot

"You know, Pedro," the guard turned to his companion, elbowing his green-fatigued chest. "This blond gringo has huevos!' He laughed, grabbing his crotch and then shoved his boot on the prisoner's neck. "Maybe when we're done with you, we'll cut them off and send them back to your compadres up north, Si?"

"Try it and I'll break your fuckin' arm," Chris choked, spitting a wad of blood on the boot pressing into his tender flesh.

"Oh, I like this gringo!" Hector Alonzo laughed, rolling him over and grabbing him by the back of his wet blond hair. He heard the hiss of pain as he lifted the prisoner and shoved him off the truck. His friends got the large, unconscious gringo into the barracks, laying him on a bunk and securing his wrists and feet to the bedrails. He shoved the blond forward, towards a set of double doors. "Get your feet moving, Dog! Doctor Delgado does not like Americanos to begin with..."

"Doctor?" Chris's blood ran cold as he was mercilessly shoved ahead, landing on his knees. He managed to get to his feet by rolling sideways and using the bottom of a bunk to get leverage. He was grabbed by the hair again and shoved through the doors into the back. He squinted at the bright light, eyeing a stout, middle-aged Mexican man who was smoking a cigar at a small metal desk.

"He is not clean, Hector." The swarthy man rose, clenching the cigar tightly between his jowls. "I cannot examine him until he is cleaned up."

Chris's hackles rose when they both laughed. Hector shoved him forward towards a small ante chamber at the edge of the room. The intense ache in his wounded side was unyielding, matching the livid fire in his battered skull. A new pain arose, from his lower back this time, where the heavy boots of the soldiers had drilled him. The burning pain with every harsh breath he drew told him his ribs were damaged. He fogged out briefly as his tattered clothes were cut from his ravaged body. He felt his arms drawn up and attached to metal clamps hanging from the ceiling. He barely got his eyes open when the force of icy, cold water blasted him from a hose. He screamed in agony as the hard, razor-like force hit his injured side. He was dimly aware of a rough set of hands scrubbing him with a stiff bristled brush. He felt himself slipping away only to be roused by the deadly blast of water again.

"Welcome to your new hacienda, gringo dog!"

He blinked at the guttural voice and shook the water from his face. His hands were freed and he fell to his knees, naked, shivering and cold. He was dragged by his wet hair towards an examination table. His limbs were made of lead and wouldn't obey his commands. Once they settled him onto the table, clamping his hands to the corners above his head and his ankles to the corners below, he saw the bearded face of the doctor appear. His glazed eyes saw the filthy tool in the physician's hand. The fear pounding in his chest nearly choked him.

"Don't... touch..." His plea was cut off when a filthy, sour-tasting gag was shoved in his mouth.

"Now, Senior Dog, we will see to that wound." The doctor grinned at the fevered-tinged green eyes darting back and forth. His smile widened as the metal tool probed the wounded side, causing the man on the table to produce a muffled scream. "Hector, hand me that brown bottle, it's a very powerful disinfectant."

A horrific tidal wave of pain exploded from his gagged lips when the burning liquid was poured into his side. Tears of agony ran down his face as the pair laughed above him. He felt the cigar ashes hit his chest as the beefy hand lifted the metal tool again. He would have welcomed unconsciousness now, but it was not to be. Chris remained semi-alert as his journey into hell continued.

As his scream rose up again, a pair of sky eyes appeared above a winning Texas smile. Vin was dead and he was in the bowels of hell with little hope of escape. Vin was dead... .Vin was dead. He screamed again as the burning liquid was poured over the wounds on his head. He saw the needle coming and felt the jaws of the devil biting his skin, as he screamed the name of his best friend.

+ + + + + + +

It was dark and hot, so very hot. He couldn't see or feel or taste or touch. All he knew was the heat that roasted him. A burning fire so intense it took his breath away. He tried to fight it... but couldn't find it. He was lost in a sea of turmoil; thick black waves of hot lava engulfed him.

Rico Romero moved from the chair, putting the old Bible down. He stood over the frantic boy who was twitching. The fever roared to life, its power sending a fine line of moisture onto the injured man. The old man wrung out the cold cloth, wiped the scowling features, then the neck and carefully around the bandaged chest. He put fresh cold towels on the burns and then gripped the face gently.

"Easy now, young one. Do not fight so." He saw the lips moving and bent closer. A brief blue slit appeared in lieu of an eye. "Who are you?"

Vin felt himself succumbing to the deadly tide when something pierced his ebony world. A sharp call to arms... a voice he knew better than his own... his own name came slamming into him, breaking the waves and freeing him. He reached out in the dark, seeking and desperately needing that part of his soul that screamed for him.

"...Chris..."

Rico Romero frowned at the weak whisper and the now closed eye. He eased the sick man up and turned the pillow before lying him down on the fresh side. Then he began the task of reducing the fever again, humming an old song from his childhood.

+ + + + + + +

Sierra Tarahumar, Mexico

Something startled him and forced him to pull himself from the thick river of mud that gripped his throbbing body. He felt the heat of the day, which rivaled the fever within him. A distant scent of spicy food drifted past, causing his empty stomach to growl. He sighed in relief as a cold cloth was wiped over his face, neck and chest. It was a soft touch, a gentle touch and he let his tension ease up. Cautiously, he opened his eyes, squinting into the mid-afternoon sun. Dusty wooden barracks greeted his gaze, as his green eyes swept over the room. Frowning, he scrubbed a hand over his face, wincing when he encountered stitches. Jagged images interrupted his murky awakening, his body tied down and a mad doctor with a scalpel.

"Shit!" He hissed and sat up, only to have the room spin around him at a dizzying pace. He fought a wave of bile rising and began to gag. He felt two hands, soft but firm, forcing him back down.

"No, Señor, you must not get up. You are ill..."

"Who... are... you..." Chris grunted, shoving the helping hands off his fever-slick skin. He fingered a lightweight pair of clean, tan cotton pants that covered his lower body. On the hook at the wall across from the foot of his bed was a shirt that matched. He gripped his side, hissing through clenched teeth as a hot pain exploded.

"Please, you must keep still..."

He blinked and lifted his head, spotting a pair of faded blue jeans and a silver concho belt with a white tee shirt tucked into them. The slim waist gave way to a most decidedly female form. He forced his gaze upward and saw a young, pretty face with large dark eyes. A very young face, no more than eighteen.

"Who are you?" He repeated as the pain intensified and threatened to send him back into his former unconscious state. He licked his dry lips and felt a cold mug pressed to them. He took the mug and drank slowly, letting the cool water relieve his parched state. Wiping the excess moisture from his mouth, he nodded to the young girl.

"Thanks... Is that for me?" he nodded to the food nearby.

"Sí, I have brought broth for your fever and some fresh bread and fruit." She helped him move back on the bed so he was sitting up, resting his back against three pillows on the wall. She set a tray with legs across his waist. It held a bowl of chicken broth laced with some vegetables and rice, a generous portion of fresh bread and several pieces of fruit. As he picked up the spoon, she refilled the mug of water. "I am Maria Delgado. My Papa said if you woke up, to get some..."

"Delgado!" Chris roared, dropping the spoon and not hiding his revulsion. "You're related to that quack?" He jerked his head towards the room where he'd been tortured. He saw her lip quiver and her head drop. She turned away; her dark hair was gathered in a single braid which hung down her back.

"He is my father. He was not always this way..." her voice drifted off, "Things were different before my mother died. He never got over her death... he began to drink. We were forced to move when the money ran out. We lived in my Grandfather's old house in the mountains not far from here. The soldiers came, demanding he treat their men. It was not a hard choice, Señor, we had nothing."

"There's always a choice," Chris grunted, breaking a piece of bread to dunk into the flavorful soup. "He shouldn't have done that to you... he's supposed to be your father." Then he realized his roommate was missing... or maybe dead. "Where's Savage?"

"Who?"

"Big son-of-a-bitch I was brought in with. He's wanted for murder back in the States."

"He needed surgery, he is in the back still. Papa is with him..."

"There is a God after all..." Chris mumbled, thinking of the brutal attacks Vin had suffered. He hoped the murdering bastard was being skewered to the table. His eyes flickered for a moment as the pain of the unfathomable loss returned. Vin... he pushed the image of the Texan's face away; it was much too painful to dwell on.

"Juan Xavier can be very persuasive when he wants to be." She turned to look back at the handsome American.

"Who is he?"

"He was in the army of Mexico once, but forced out in a dishonorable discharge after a bar fight. The bartender was killed. He claimed he was innocent and never got over the banishment. He is about fifty or so, in excellent shape. A tall man with short graying hair and a pencil thin mustache. He is fair but very strict; he would never tolerate the actions of these men. When he's gone, they act like wild boys."

"He's never earned their respect or that would never happen." Chris broke off a piece of bread and took a healthy bite.

"They fear him; he is the leader of the People's Army; there are branches all over Mexico. That is where he is this week. He's traveling in the south, gathering more support."

"Why don't you leave? He's not here to stop you."

"Papa is a weak man... the money they offered is very generous. He's gotten lazy; he isn't strong enough to walk away."

"But you could," the blond tossed back, picking up a banana. "Why do you stay here?"

"He's my father, I can't leave him. I still remember the man he was and hope one day, I can look at that man again. I want to go to America, to take him away from this... these animals."

Chris eyed the pretty girl and saw the fire in her eyes. He saw the small fist clench and made mental note. Could be he'd found his one and only ally. He saw the clean bandages on his side and wondered about the clean clothes and good food.

"I'm Chris," he left off his last name, too wary of his shaky status as a law man. "I don't get it?" He offered up the bowl and she moved across the room, filling it again from a large metal container. "Why all this? He tortured me back there..."

"Juan Xavier called. He will be returning in a week and he wants you in shape to travel. They will be breaking camp here and heading deeper into the mountains. You are American and worth a lot of money to him... alive..." She replaced the bowl and sat on the edge of the bed. She tapped two pills from a bottle and slid them over. "For your infection," she coached. "You are lucky they radioed ahead. I got some food in him and got him to sleep. I hid his bottles. He was angry... at me... I'm sorry, I know he hurt you. I thought if he had sobered up..." She shuddered, recalling the sound of Hector's laughter and the sight of the unconscious American on the table. "I got... Hector to leave... made Papa promise not to hurt you."

"Leave?" He saw her blush and his anger rose. "Jesus," Chris snarled, then saw her flinch. "Sorry, it's not your fault."

"It wasn't... it's not what you think. It doesn't go beyond groping and I say the rosary until he passes out."

"Fuckin' animal," Chris recalled the brutal soldier and recoiled when he thought of that beast touching this brave girl. "You stay away from him."

"He wouldn't try anything more. Juan Xavier would shoot the first man who got out of line. He's strict that way. Miguel and Dominic are outside on guard. Nicolo is in charge when Juan Xavier is away. Nicolo is a mean man. Do not cross him, Señor, he will hurt you."

The intense pain of the headache, a result of the building fever, gripped the back of his damp head. He moaned and pressed his fingers over his throbbing eyes. He felt the tray being lifted and firm hands guiding him flat onto the bed. The cold cloth returned, bathing his chest and neck.

"Here, let me," she massaged his temples and neck, watching the tension lines disappear. Finally, the pills took effect and he was sleeping again. She pulled the sheet up to mid-chest and stroked the side of the handsome American's face. She felt a warm spot as she replayed the protective roar in his voice. She bent and kissed his cheek.

"Thank you, Señor Chris." She studied his face again before leaving to prepare the evening meal. "I will take good care of you."

+ + + + + + +

San Pedro, Mexico

"Ah... it's good to be home!" Jack goaded, knowing the driver was beyond the human zone. He was too angry to growl and that only made the sunny Englishman's grin wider. "Still buzzin', then?" He elbowed the decidedly 'unhappy' face and winked. His partner said nothing, but pulled into the curb next to a white stucco two-story building. He slammed the door, headed across the street and never looked back.

"Who pee'd in his Cheerios?" Arlee sassed, eyeing the brooding male who entered a bar called Santino's.

"Don't mind him, Mate, he's always narky," the chipper blond noted of the driver's bad mood. "He'll find his smile again after a pint or two. Here, give us a wing, then," He held out his arm and supported the stuperous young man. "Let's see if Doctor Lorico is about."

By the time the tall Englishman got him inside and onto a narrow white examination table, Arlee was about to pass out. The pain in his leg was unbearable and his head was throbbing. He shut his eyes, drowning out the babbling man's words, until someone made the mistake of touching his injured leg. He screamed and dove forward, grabbing for the throat of the misfortunate soul.

"You do that again and I'll cut your nuts off and shove them up your ass!"

"Easy, Yank, don't go nutter! He's the only doctor for several hundred miles..." Jack shoved the angry man back down. "Sorry, Doc, this is... uh..."

"Kevin Lincoln," Arlee supplied, for his dead brother and uncle. The doctor looked angry, but Arlee kept right on glaring.

"Righto," Jack nodded, "Me and Pete found him not far from the falls, he can't remember much. I'd wager he's put a knock in the old melon as well as that broken leg."

"I'm Jose Lorico, Señor Lincoln, and this is my clinic. I do not tolerate violent outbursts. You have been injured and require medical attention. I can provide that, but if you are foolish enough to attack me again, I'll have the authorities take you away. I do not have to tell you how easily a misguided American can become lost in the Mexican prison system. Comprende?"

"Yeah," Arlee rasped, suddenly realizing just how alone he was in the foreign country. Until he was able to maneuver on his bad leg, he'd play it cool. He'd become a fuckin' choirboy. "Listen, Doctor Lorico, I'm really s..s...sorry," he hissed, rolling his eyes as the pain rose up. "It's been a bitch of a day..."

"We'll take some x-rays of your leg, it looks like a simple fracture. Have you been experiencing double vision, blurred vision or throwing up?"

"No, just really dizzy and a bad headache."

"A minor concussion, I'll have the orderly take you to the x-ray room and see you later."

"Good luck, Kevin," Jack gave the doctor's shoulder a smack, "Thanks, Doc. I think I'll plant me arse in front of a nice pile of tacos and a pint."

He found Pete easily. The handsome American, whose brooding dark looks were a trademark in San Pedro, had two 'waitresses' fawning over him. Terita and Rosa weren't too hard on the eyes, and Pete was their favorite source of attention. One was planted on his lap, the other hanging over his back. Neither was shy with their hands... or their intentions.

"Beat it!" Pete growled, smacking the ample backside of the fleshy woman on his lap. They left, after hissing and complaining, and the cranky man slid the bottle of tequila across the table.

"Ahhhh..." Jack sighed, taking a long drink, "that's the mutt's nutts it is..."

"You're buyin'," Pete snarled, watching the smile forming. "You cost us a lead today. You know how much money we lost? Saint Jack the fuckin' humanitarian!" He tossed a shot back and his eyes burned, "What the fuck are you grinnin' at?"

"I didn't know ye found religion, Yank. I'm moved..." Jack winked and rose, patting the tense muscles in the older man's back. "Order us a couple of specials while I go point Percy at the porcelain," he noted of his full bladder.

While his chipper friend was in the men's room, the angry man downed two more shots. The waitress reappeared, putting down a full platter of tacos, refried beans and corn bread. He slid her a hefty tip, making sure the bills were 'nestled' securely between her ample bosoms. His eyes strayed to the television where the grainy image of two men was displayed. He cocked his head and leaned forward, hearing the translated words of 'missing American government agents'. He didn't get the blond man's name, but the long-haired man in the other photo was identified as 'Tanner'. The static covered most of the audio portion, but he put together the clues from the snowy pictures shown. They'd been kidnapped somewhere in New Mexico and there was a plane involved. Before he could see the rest of the report, the picture faded out altogether.

"So what'll be, then?" Lynch asked, shoveling the food down and taking a swig right from the bottle. "Are you going to lollop around here and get trolleyed?" he noted of the potential path of drunkenness. "Or shall we have another go of it?"

"It's a long haul between bunks..." He finished his platter and took out a cigarette. Through the blue smoke that curled up, he eyed the smug Englishman.

"What?" the blond blinked, then narrowed his blue eyes, shaking his long blond hair. "Have I lost me goolies?" he used a wounded tone of the insinuation that he was 'soft'.

"The last time we took off into the mountains, it was a week before we got back. You bitched and moaned the whole time about your fuckin' cold."

"Codswollop!" Jack defended, irate. "Me lungs were full of muck and I was waitin' for the angel Gabriel to come down and..."

"Hah!" Pete snorted, drawing on the cigarette, "If anybody was goin' to the pearly gates, it would have been me. Some obit... 'brilliant reporter nagged to death by a Limey wuss."

"I think me heart's broke..." Jack thumped his chest and chuckled. "What's got ye bloomers in a bunch?" He knew the dark eyes as well as his own and saw the wheels turning.

"Two feds were kidnapped in New Mexico. I couldn't hear the whole thing, but it seems they were taken somewhere by plane."

"Yanks?" Jack asked, eyeing the clinic across the street.

"Yeah, but not him." Pete rose, capped the bottle and moved toward the door. "Let's go."

"Maybe lightning will strike twice, eh?" Lynch noted of their lucky find earlier.

+ + + + + + +

Outside Silver City, NM

Nathan sighed and slid the phone back onto the leather pouch on his belt. He just completed updating Josiah on their arrival. Orrin had shown the rest of the team a copy of the tape. They were all chomping at the bit to get involved, but were bound by their badges. The dark-skinned medic knew they'd be working the computers and phones on their own time trying to find leads.

He squinted in the hot sun, wiping the sweat from his brow. There wasn't much else to do. The F.B.I lab crew was taking samples from the interior of the van. Another agent was on her knees outside the abandoned vehicle taking samples of what had been blood in the dirt. There was a larger amount of blood several feet away and a bevy of footprints. He was bent over a box that was found in the van, when he heard a pair of voices grow hostile.

"Shit!" He hissed, drawing his head up just as Buck Wilmington's hands found Eric McClendon's jacket. The tall ATF agent's force sent the other man hard into the side of the rental car.

"Buck!" He made short work of the distance between them and pulled the still hostile Wilmington off the smug F.B.I. man. Nate would have liked nothing more than to wipe the arrogant grin off his face.

"Knock it off!" He warned his partner, seeing the veins on his temples bulging. The dark blue eyes were black and stormy and the normally tan skin was bright red with rage.

"You keep that dog collared, Jackson, or I'll have him up on charges." McClendon poked the hostile ATF agent's chest. "...and I don't make idle threats."

"You're not gonna be makin' any threats after I break your fuckin' jaw, you shit-eatin' prick."

"Buck!" Nathan had to use all his strength to hold his irate partner at bay. "That's enough... that ain't gonna help us find them."

"No, but it will make me feel a helluva lot better," he growled, lifting his snarling upper lip. "You call either of them anything but Agent Tanner or Agent Larabee and I'll put you in traction, if you're lucky." He saw Nathan's dark eyes narrow in suspicion. "He called Vin a filthy name... was trash talkin' Chris, too."

"I'm a patient man, McClendon," Nathan said quietly, using every inch of his six foot five frame. He leaned in, not masking his intent. "You don't want to make me angry. This is a professional investigation. You keep it that way or you'll lose that badge and your pension. I can guarantee that," he warned, his eyes dripping fury, before putting his index finger above the other man's collarbone. He exuded just enough pressure to make the coward squirm in discomfort. "One more thing, I have a black belt and I'm undefeated in the boxing ring. I'll make you hurt..." he whispered before shoving off and leading Buck away.

"I swear to God, Nate," Buck vowed, still hearing the crude remarks in his ears. "Once we find them and this case is over, I'm gonna beat the shit outta of that animal."

"You'll have to get in line!" Nathan tossed back, walking over to the crew. He stopped next to a young man carrying a clip board. A drawing was sketched and he was setting down red markers next to spent bullets. "Whaddya got?"

"Fire fight," Bill Wheeler replied, "By the footprints and bullets we found. There were two by the van, two over here and two more by the plane tracks."

"That's a lotta blood," Buck noted of the large amount of congealed liquid staining the ground.

"...and brain matter..." Bill recalled of the samples of gray material taken in lab bags. "Whoever went down here, didn't get up."

"Dammit!" Nathan gripped his hips. "Anything in the van?"

"Lots of prints..." Tia Kimiko replied, joining them. The Japanese-American woman shifted her sunglasses. "The plates are registered to a Troy Savage from Wolf Point, Montana."

"Doesn't that figure," Buck scoffed of the 'wolf pack'. "What's that?"

"A mistake," she noted, "somebody got sloppy, it's a flight plan. They're headed to Hermosillo. We called it in... they're checking all the airstrips near there. So far, only commercial flights, nothing private."

"What?" Nathan asked, eyeing Buck's suddenly pale face.

"Nothin' maybe," he sighed, rubbing his neck and trying to shake it off. "But I got a bad feeling that plane didn't make it."

"Mexico's a big place, Buck, maybe they changed their plans," Nate offered.

"Or maybe this was planted," Tia replied. "The phone number on the back was a pay phone near Baja. Highway patrol reported a couple of ghost town hunters near Dead Gulch saw a low flying silver plane take off early this morning. They got partial numbers. We're checking it..."

"Thanks..." Nate said. "Let us know as soon as you get word on that blood type."

"Will do," Bill replied, nodding and walking away.

"Come on, Buck," Jackson offered, "Let's get back to the hotel and start making some phone calls."

"They're dead, Nathan," he whispered, dropping his head.

"You don't know that!"

"Don't I?" Wilmington shot back. "I've been totin' a badge for fifteen years. I know a thing or two about hostages. Once they got over the border, they had no reason to keep them alive. Chris and Vin were insurance... in case they got caught."

"Cut it out!" the tall man ordered. "You're startin' to sound like McClendon." That got a reaction. The dark head jerked, the eyes flashed and two fists were raised. "Go ahead, I can finish whatever you start." Slowly the fists uncurled and the lips formed a grim line.

"Dammit to hell, Nathan..." Buck raked a shaky hand through his thick hair and eyed the horizon. The pain in his eyes was underscored by slashes of naked fear. He wanted to believe they were alive; he wanted to squelch that nagging noise inside his head. He felt a strong hand on his neck and used the deep voice to keep the demons at bay.

"I hear you, Brother. But you keep that Tanner motto in your head."

Buck frowned, then found a sad smile. "Life's too short to eat bad pizza?"

"No!" Nathan chuckled, "the other Tanner motto, the one on his coffee mug, about faith."

"Uh..." the other man mused, wrinkling both brows in concentration. "Something about... sunshine and shadows..."

"Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow," he repeated the Helen Keller quote. He kept that strong grip on the downcast agent's neck and watched the dark head slowly rise. "You keep lookin' at that sun, Buck, and chase them shadows away."

+ + + + + + +

Three days later, in the small chapel of Father Romero...

He pulled the clean sheet up and laid a hand on the pale brow of his patient. Sighing with a mixture of fear and exhaustion, the weary priest rose and went to the window. He winced as he stretched his back, rubbing the small area at the base of his spine. For over seventy-two hours he'd fought by the young man's side. He'd wagered a war against the devil and won, finally defeating the high fever. As the rosy sky started to awaken, blushing gold and streaks of blue, he thought on the last three days.

The young man, who they named 'Chris', due to the medal he clutched so fiercely, fought hard. He'd tossed weakly in the bunk, fighting the heated infections that plagued his battered body. Father Romero had bathed him, changed him and coached water and weak tea between the delirious man's lips. Most of it would come back up as the shivering body vomited. The small moans and grunts were weak and barely audible. The single blue eye, when opened, was clouded with pain and confusion. The lost world the battered American was trapped within left him near death. Now, at last, the fever was gone. But at what cost? Had this silent young warrior fought too hard? Would he be strong enough to recover from the battle? What of the head wound? What could the priest's naked eye not see? A small moan drew him back to the bed. The one blue eye followed him, then moved around the room. He felt a glimmer of hope; confusion was evident, but the gaze was a bit clearer.

"Hello, my young friend," he soothed, lifting the man's head to a mug of water. "Slowly, you do not want to become sick again."

Pain, unrelenting and wicked, painted red like Lucifer's harlot possessed every inch of his battered body. It slashed at his chest; it ripped up his sides and back and it drove with unmerciful force into his tender skull. He was in so much agony, he couldn't think, let alone speak. His throat was dry - dry, hot and scratchy. It hurt to swallow and he moaned, seeking relief. He tried to open both but only one cooperated. He saw thick plastered walls, a crucifix and a robed figure. He studied the kind face and felt his tormented head lifted.

Water. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank...I can't speak. Father? Who... Where... What... Water... more... He gasped and licked his lips, frustrated by his inability to communicate. He tried... he tried hard... creasing his brows in frustration. His lips opened, his thick tongue worked... trying to force the words out. Thank you... more please... Father... Dammit... why can't I speak?

"Shhhh!" The kind priest soothed, wincing at the unintelligible grunts coming from the man's throat. He saw the panic rise like a python, then warned as the guttural sounds met the injured man's ears, "No, don't do that, you'll upset yourself. You have a serious head injury and almost died. You've been very ill with a fever. I am Father Carlos Romero. My father and I have been caring for you here in my church. We are in Mexico, not far from San Pedro. Can you understand me?"

Understand? He nodded, conveying he did indeed understand. Through the fire walls of agony consuming him, he held onto the fragile shredded remnants of his mind. Why couldn't he speak? He thought hard, pursing his brows together. Maybe I can't speak? Am I a mute? He cocked his head, trying hard to remember. Remember what? Oh God... Oh God... Oh God...

"Calm down!" the priest ordered, seeing the eye darting frantically about, the weak hand fisted and the unmistakable panic in the grunts. "Look at me... do you recognize this?" He held up the St. Christopher's medal. "I found you near the river. This was clutched in your hand."

He stared transfixed at the gleaming silver medallion. His heart began to pound and his pulse raced. His fingers thumped on the mattress...itching to hold the medal. The glint of the medal went right through his heart. It drew up a powerful feeling. Uninvited words blinked rudely in his mind's eye. I need him... it... him? Who? Who? He tried to catch the nimble hint that was already gone. Who was it that he sought? Why couldn't he remember?

"Here," the padre lifted the weak man's head and slid the medal over it. "There, it rests over your heart. Is he perhaps your patron saint? Christopher that is..." He sat back as the young man tensed, his body stiffened and his eye went wide with excitement. "What? Is that it? Is your name Chris?"

Chris. Chris. Chris. Who. Who. God, I need to know. Who is Chris? I need Chris. Why? Who is Chris? Who am I? Why can't I remember? Chris? Chris?

"...r...r...tt...thhh..."

"Chris? Yes, we shall call you that. I have some broth ready. You are very weak and you need to start rebuilding your strength. You will not be leaving this bed for some time." He left the young man to refill the mug. As he returned, he saw the weak hand struggling to reach the medal. Smiling, he sat down, put the mug on the table and gently lifted the disc, placing it into the frail fingers.

"There now, is that better?" He heard the audible gasp and saw the sweet relief in the battered man's eyes. He gently lifted his patient's upper body, wincing at the small cries of pain. "I know it hurts and I am sorry for your suffering. I pray to the Lord that your tormentors are brought to justice. "Here," he offered, holding out a spoon and gently placing the nourishing liquid on the offered tongue.

Vin swallowed every bit of the warm broth, feeling the first slivers of strength return to his weakened body. He kept sliding sideways, too frail to support himself and the uncomplaining priest righted him each time. He kept staring at the medal, twisting the name around in his battered mind. The five letters brought a powerful feeling of peace to his heart and soul. He felt almost invincible when he said it silently. Why couldn't he remember? He opened his lips at each call for the spoon, dutifully eating while he remained mesmerized by the medal. Cold water and warm medicinal tea came next, followed by a call of nature. Finally done, a clean sheet resting on his cooled body, he felt his throbbing eyes sliding shut.

Thank you, Father. Thank you. Thank you. Angry at his inability to communicate and embarrassed by his uncooperative body, he snarled weakly, pounding his fist into the thin mattress.

"What?" Father Carlos paused, resting his hand on the side of the recovering face housing incredibly expressive blue eyes. One was a slit, still resting under a swollen lid. The other was incredibly wide and vividly upset. He heard the guttural grunt and saw the hand moving. It pointed weakly to the mug, bowl and then it batted his waist. The head lifted, the eyes sought his feverishly and the hand wobbled and rose. He smiled then, taking the hand and using his other hand to cup the man's jaw.

"You're welcome, Chris. I understand you just fine! You rest now and let your body heal. It's all right, my friend, I have been gifted in healing both body and soul. Sleep now, we'll talk later." He waited until the eyes were shut and the raspy breathing was even. The slim, bruised and bandaged chest continued to rise and fall as he turned away.

But Vin wasn't sleeping. Under the guise of closed lids, his eyes darted in rapid, stealth-like movements. Who was Chris? Where was he? How did I get here? Mexico? His skin was too pale for Mexico. His heart drummed frantically as if trying to escape his tender chest. The medicine in the tea finally worked and as he felt himself fading away, three scarlet words flashed repeatedly.

Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?

Part Six

Three days later, deep in the mountains.

Chris yawned and finishing washing under the watchful eye of the guard. It had been one week since he'd been brought here. The only time he was alone was when he slept. Every waking moment was spent under the scrutiny of a leering sentry. He had no privacy. He dressed and winced as the healing stitches in his side protested. The fever had lasted until yesterday, the battle leaving him weak and sluggish. His headaches were decreasing, but the bruised ribs still hurt like hell. He ignored the catcalls and whistles from the guard. He shuffled slowly towards the door, wincing as the rifle prodded him between the shoulder blades.

"Back off, asshole," he growled, turning and raising a fist.

"You tell him, Blondie!" Bull Savage called from the table inside the barracks. His injured leg was wrapped in heavy bandages. His face was marred by cuts and burns giving him an even more evil look.

Chris just glared at Savage, not wishing to waste the breath a retort would take. Living several feet away from the cowardly animal was bad enough. He tried to block out the vile remarks, except when the bastard made the mistake of talking about Vin. That only happened once and Bull ended up back in the infirmary. Chris settled at the table, as Maria entered bringing breakfast. His nose wrinkled as his fellow inmate's stench floated across the table. Bull refused to bath, only using the bathroom to relieve himself. Chris pushed back from the table, motioning for the girl to leave his tray on the other side of the room.

"Something I said?" Bull teased, watching the look of revulsion and getting a rush from it.

"The fact that you walk upright still amazes me," Chris sent back, walking past the ogre.

Wary of the guard, Bull moved his hand deftly, cupping the area between the girl's legs. Her slap was followed by a fist shoving his face into the hot cereal on his plate.

"You so much as breathe near her and I'll cut your balls off, you fuckin' animal!" Chris warned before the guard shoved him off.

"Don't!" Maria pleaded, not wanting the guard to hurt her new friend. "I'm okay, Señor Chris... please..."

He studied her worried features and nodded. "Get off me," he warned the guard, shoving the rifle from his neck. He shuffled to his bunk and pulled the wobbly bedside table closer. She laid a plate of ham, eggs, fried potatoes with peppers and apple fritters in front of him. A large glass of orange juice and a mug of coffee completed the meal.

"Thanks, Maria. You shouldn't go to so much trouble," he noted with a half-smile, picking up his fork.

"It's no trouble. I like you, Señor Chris," she squeezed his shoulder. "Thank you..." she whispered, catching his wink and smile. She carried the image of the handsome face all morning as she cleaned up the clinic and restocked the medicine.

It was almost one p.m. when she returned. She prepared a tray and took it into the barracks, only to find the room empty. Puzzled and worried, she put the tray down and went outside.

"Where is he?" she demanded of Hector. The lazy guard was lounging nearby in the sun.

"Who?" he asked arrogantly. "Your pretty blond boyfriend?"

"What have you done to him?" She shoved him hard, ignoring the other guard's laughter.

"I put him to work." He raked his eyes over her, "...and since you don't have to spoon feed him anymore, maybe you and I can..."

"Where is he?" she brushed past him and ran into Nicolo's office. "Where is he?"

"Who?" The brusque reply came from a man with broad shoulders and a chest full of muscle. His dark hair was short and thick, and his eyes were cold. He didn't look up from the paperwork in front of him.

"Larabee... Chris Larabee... one of the Americans... you know who I mean. Where is he?"

"Don't raise your voice to me, Maria!" he issued sternly. "Juan Xavier is returning tonight. We have much to do. I needed supplies loaded and some of the buildings emptied out."

"He is ill... his fever only broke yesterday. It's too hot today."

"I suggest you worry about your own job, Maria," he turned the page and continued reading. "The kitchen needs to be packed. We'll be traveling for awhile, so make sure you have all you need. Go," he ordered, then looked up. "And Maria, make sure you father stays sober. Juan Xavier will not tolerate his sloppy habits."

"My father is fine!" she defended, eyes hot. "I could tell Juan Xavier a few things about you that he wouldn't like. Like the fact his men get drunk while he's gone and..."

"Don't issue idle threats, foolish child!" he hissed, "this mountain isn't heavily traveled... a young girl like you could disappear."

"You pig!" she vented, her fear for her new friend outweighing her fear for herself. She ran among the village until she saw three large trucks. Most of the guards were loading them. Her dark eyes moved sideways, then she spotted the large one called Bull. He was carrying a large crate towards the middle truck.

"Where is Chris?" she asked him.

"He's dead!" Bull goaded with a sarcastic laugh, watching her face drain of color.

"Shut the fuck up, Savage!"

"Chris!" She turned towards the voice, which was coming from the interior of the truck. She jumped on the back and ducked under the canvas. He looked awful. He was covered in sweat and she could tell by the way he was holding himself, he was dizzy. "You're ill..." she dropped to his side, unstrapping the water bottle from her hip. "Here..."

"Thanks!" Chris took a long drink and used the rest to pour over his face. He lay back against the crate and shut his eyes. His head was pounding and he was extremely dizzy. He felt a soft touch, a cloth wiping his brow. He smiled and forced his eyes open. "Thank you, Maria." He touched the side of her face. "You were worried, huh?"

"Yes..." she stammered, eyeing his pale features. "I'll be right back."

She went outside and spoke with José, one of the few guards who was decent. She explained about the sick American and how if he wasn't able to rest, he'd not be well enough to travel. She emphasized how Juan Xavier wanted the Americans healthy. The guard agreed to allow Chris to rest until after supper. Then, with the sun down, he could return to work. She scooted back inside the truck and helped Chris stand, hooking his arm over her shoulder.

"I'm okay, Maria," he lied, swaying badly.

"I will be the judge of that," she returned, easing him out of the truck. "You will not argue with me."

"You sound just like Vin." He stopped and inhaled sharply, not sure how or why that snuck out.

She saw that face again, the one that she'd seen for so many days when he battled his fever. In his delirium, he called for this 'Vin'. His face twisted in agony, his eyes shining with grief. She didn't know who it was, only that the name brought unfathomable pain, like she saw now. "I'm sorry..."

"Huh?" He blinked, resuming his staggering gait. "No problem."

"You called out for him before, when you were ill. He is special?"

"He was." Chris's clipped tone closed the conversation. It was still too painful to talk about.

Finally, they were at the barracks. He eased his aching body on the bed, unconscious before his boots came off.

"Sleep," she whispered, stroking his face. She took his boots off and drew his legs on the bed. She used a whole bowl of cool water, bathing his face, neck and chest. She left his shirt unbuttoned and turned the fan on. She left briefly to pack some of the kitchen items and check on her father. When she returned, she found her new friend stirring.

"Hello," she smiled at the confused eyes and helped him sit up. "How do you feel?"

"I'd feel better if I wasn't a damn prisoner..." he snapped back, then recoiled upon seeing her look away. "I'm sorry, Maria, I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did and it's okay," she smiled, helping him to the table. "I'd feel better if you weren't a damn prisoner either!"

He chuckled and lifted the napkin, eyeing the simmering mixture. "Adam's favorite," he mused, picking up a biscuit and dipping into the large tin plate.

"Adam?"

"My son," he said. "Chicken and dumplings, he loved them!" He smiled, seeing the dark-haired boy's face in his mind's eye.

"You are married?"

"Was," Chris took a large bite of the food. "This is good, Maria, thanks."

"You do not have to keep thanking me, Chris," she blushed, "You are more than welcome."

"They died, three years ago," he answered the question in her eyes. "His mother was with him... he was only six... it was a fire... arson."

"Oh, no... that's horrible. I'm so sorry."

"Yeah," he paused, lifting a cold mug of ice tea. "I miss them..."

"What was he like?"

"He was a good kid," Chris commented, continuing his meal. "He loved sports, especially football. He loved swimming and camping; any kind of trucks, especially fire trucks. He was crazy about animals and hot dogs. That boy could eat you under the table..." he paused and smiled again. "He liked flying kites and painting pictures... wrestling with Buck. Buck sure spoiled him... he loved..." He stopped and took a drink, seeing Buck toss Adam high in the air and hearing that wonderful laugh.

"Buck?" She asked, watching his pretty green eyes light up.

"My oldest friend, Adam's godfather," he wore a wide drunken grin. "He's one helluva friend..."

"He is looking for you, no?"

"He is, yes," Chris admitted with pride. "He won't ever give up. He doesn't know how."

He finished the stew and drained his ice tea. "Adam had the most beautiful laugh..."

Chris shut his eyes and heard his child again; that music filled his head and gave him strength. He sighed and smiled widely, then stood, kissing her cheek. "Thank you, Maria... for bringing my boy to lunch. I hadn't heard his laughter in some time... it felt good... damn good."

"You are welcome and thank you for sharing that with me. He was a lucky little boy, your Adam."

"I was the lucky one." He swallowed and sighed, seeing Sarah and Adam fade away. "It's almost sundown."

"Sí, Juan Xavier called. You are to remain here. The other one is returning and Juan Xavier will meet with both of you. Rest now..." she nodded towards the cot and watched him lie back, rubbing his eyes. "Dream of your boy..."

+ + + + + + +

Silver City, New Mexico, seven p.m.

"What the hell do you mean?" Buck Wilmington roared, covering the length of the room in several long strides. He grabbed the smug F.B.I man and shoved him against the wall. "We're not giving up. There are two federal agents missing. Get your head out of your ass."

"It's been a week, Wilmington. We've exhausted all the leads. No planes with those partial numbers landed anywhere in Mexico. Nobody matching the Savage's descriptions have been seen anywhere, above or below the border. The State Department has advised the Mexican Government of the situation. It's out of our hands... I've got other cases to pursue."

"You fuckin' dog," Buck growled, leveling the arrogant Fed with two punches. His fist was raised for a third blow, but was snagged by a stronger force.

"Buck, that's enough," Nathan moved between them grabbing the wayward fist. "Orrin wants us back in Denver... tonight. He's still the boss... he's calling the shots."

"I expected him to go belly up, he's a worm," the dark-haired agent spat in contempt of McClendon, his blue eyes livid. "But you... how can you turn your back on Chris and Vin? They wouldn't give up if you were missing."

"I'm not giving up!" Nathan hollered, too tired to control his temper. "I'm following orders. I carry a badge, that's how it works. There's nothing left here, Buck. If they're still alive, they're in Mexico somewhere."

"If?" Buck shoved his partner hard, then turned when Eric McClendon snorted from the floor. "Shut the fuck up, McClendon or you'll end up in an MRI tube..." he warned with a swift kick. Turning back to Nathan Jackson, he bristled, "There's no 'ifs' in this scenario. It's 'when'... When we find them, not 'if'. Don't ever let me hear you say 'if'..."

"Orrin's flying down to Mexico tomorrow, Buck, to meet with the consulate. It's out of our hands...for now."

"No," Buck shoved off and strode away. "I won't give up... the rest of you can go to Hell. I'll find them if I have to walk to Mexico."

Nathan winced as the door slammed, shaking his head. Both of his tense hands rested on his hips. The brief glimmer of hope earlier in the week faded fast. The lab report showed that the brain matter and blood found pooled out at the airstrip wasn't from Chris or Vin. But then with each passing day, the leads died out. After meeting with the F.B.I and D.E.A, Orrin pulled them out. The D.E.A. had lots of field agents in Mexico. They would be on the lookout for the two missing men. The Mexican government was being cooperative as well, promising to give their photos extended exposure. His frustration at not being able to soothe Buck's wounded psyche was growing stronger every day. The man was shattered. His mood swings were getting dangerous. He had a need to fill and nowhere to fill it.

"I'll have that clown up on charges," McClendon managed, spitting out a wad of blood from his mouth as he rose. His vertical position was temporary. He never saw the dark man move. Suddenly, he was on his hands and knees, courtesy of two sharp blows. A strong forearm was pressed to his throat.

"You listen to me, McClendon," Jackson's voice was low and lethal. "I meant what I said. Now, it's done. You crawl back under that rock you live in, in Albuquerque. You so much as whisper Buck Wilmington's name and I'll find you... and make you hurt." He applied enough pressure to cut off the air slightly, releasing his hold when he felt the panic set in. He left the coughing coward on the floor and left the room.

Nathan spent two hours checking the local bars for his irate partner, after packing the rental car with their things. Buck wasn't answering his cell phone. Finally, he entered a dive called Hot Shots and saw a familiar body slumped at a corner table. He sighed and walked across the room, stopping beside the forlorn man.

"Come on, Buck," he said quietly, tapping the slumped shoulder. To his surprise, the other man offered no resistance. He nodded mutely, rose and staggered. Nathan grabbed him and got him outside. They rode in silence to the airport. The flight was at eleven p.m. He went to the counter to get them checked in and left Buck at a café with a large mug of coffee. Returning a few minutes later, he sat down across from the tall man, wincing at the red rimmed eyes.

"Why?" Buck finally spoke, his eyes mirroring the agony in his heart. Why had Fate ripped his heart out? Why were two of his best friends lost to him? Why had they suffered? Why couldn't he at least find them and bring them home... if only to bury them? Why? Why?

"I don't know, Buck." Nathan sighed and sipped his own coffee, keeping a silent vigil beside the drained man. The emotional burden combined with lack of sleep and frazzled nerves had worn out the big-hearted agent. He remained there, keeping guard, until their flight was called. He tapped the rumpled jacket and winced again at the anguished eyes.

"Let's go home."

"Why?" Buck repeated. "What for?"

Chris wouldn't be there; he wouldn't see that cocky, shit-eating grin again. Vin... He inhaled painfully, hearing the raspy drawl and seeing that wonderful choir boy smile that broke hearts.

Buck didn't eat... but dozed as the plane reached altitude. His sleep was troubled, a violent blend of his own worse fears and images of the tapes they'd seen. Vin was bloody and reaching out to him. The large sky eyes were full of fear and pain. Chris was lost and struggling; battered and bleeding.looking for help. Then Bull Savage's face appeared, leering as his beefy arms drew back. The axe gleamed, held high above Vin Tanner's unsuspecting head. The sky eyes were wide and full of hope. The bloody lips formed his name and a hand snaked out, just as the axe swung downward.

"No... Vin!"

"Buck!" Nate shook his partner, watching the vivid eyes fly open. His hands were trembling and for several minutes, he couldn't speak. "You okay?"

"No," Buck answered, raking a shaky hand through his matted hair. "I won't be... until I bring them home. One way or the other, Nathan, I'm finding them... and bringing them home." He gazed past Nathan's concerned face to the black sky outside. "You got my word on that, Chris," he choked, hearing that cocky familiar voice inside his head.

"Wilmington's word is as good as done!"

+ + + + + + +

Father Romero paused in the doorway of the clinic and shook his head. It was just after nine p.m. and his infirmed young patient was not in his bunk. He put the pot of herbal tea down and walked past the empty bed and out into the garden. He stayed in the shadows for a moment, watching the young man's face as he eyed the heavens above. The slim fingers were always stroking or gripping the sacred medallion.

The injured young man was so troubled, it was interfering with his healing. His headaches were crippling, bringing agony and tears. Then he would sleep for hours, thrashing and restless, fighting unknown demons. When he woke, his blue eyes were wide and full of fear. He didn't know who he was or how he came to be in this place.

Tomorrow, Father Romero was going into San Pedro for supplies. He would keep his ears open; perhaps someone in town would have heard about the American.

"You should be resting, Chris."

"...s'all I do is rest..." Vin complained, squinting as the pain in his back flared up.

"They are beautiful, no?" the priest raised his eyes, studying the stars.

"Yeah... jes' might follow that North star and head home..." Vin paused, his shoulders slumping, "...don't know where the hell that is..."

"You will, my son, give it time. You suffered a dangerous injury. Head wounds are very tricky."

"It's been a week, Padre," Vin shuffled back to the stone wall and sat down. "...damn headaches make me sick... passin' the hell out... bad dreams keep me from sleepin' right... I'm tired... Father... I ain't never been so worn out."

"You are trying too hard!" he scolded mildly. "You are trying to force the memories back. They will return when you are ready."

"What if they don't?" Vin whispered. "I don't wanna be lost forever...." his fingers went to the medal again. That was where he found the only shard of peace - even if it was slim. He didn't know why, but it gave him hope.

"Tomorrow I will go into San Pedro. I will ask around town. You didn't just drop from the sky, Chris. Someone may be already looking for you. Keep the faith, my son. We'll get you home."

"I'm sorry, Padre," Vin sighed, shutting his eyes against the wall of nausea rising fast with the wicked pain. "Ya done more than I could ever repay... yer Pa's been takin' good care o'me. Hell, half the time I'm pukin' up the little bit o'food he gets in me."

"Don't, Chris," he saw the faded bruises on the handsome face flush with shame. "I am a healer. That is one of the gifts I received from our Lord. I receive great joy from helping the ill and injured. To see you here, standing again and walking, that is my reward. Come, you need to take your medicine, I don't want your fever to return."

"It might not stay put..." Vin warned. "Ya best stay up wind o'me, 'else ye'll run outta clean robes."

"I have plenty of clean robes," Father Carlos laughed, taking the lead. "Chris?" He turned when he heard a short gasp.

"Aw, hell..." Vin managed when the garden began to spin around too quickly. "Father!" He managed to gasp, as the world tilted sideways.

"Easy, now," he caught the slender man as he fell. "I have you... relax... Chris?"

"...m'sorry, Father...!" Vin cried out, locking his arms on either side of his head. He sank helplessly to his knees, rocking and moaning. The pain roared up, like a vile beast, sinking rabid fangs into his brain. It exploded inside his head sending him into darkness.

The worried priest sighed and lifted the young man into his arms. The door opened as he approached.

"I was only gone a moment," the elderly man apologized. "He slipped away..."

"It's okay, Papa," Father Carlos laid the unconscious man on the bunk and felt his brow. "He's warm again. He's so weak already... if his belly continues to rebel..."

"I'll make some more soup," the older man offered, tugging the blanket up. "Maybe you should have Doctor Lorico look at him."

"I will talk to him tomorrow, when I get to San Pedro. In the meantime, you get some sleep. There is time for soup in the morning. I will say the rosary with our young visitor. I will pray to Our Lady to guide him home."

Unaware of the beads just inches from his face, Vin Tanner dreamed. It was the same dream. Strange faces looming in the dark, shaved heads with leering grins. Pain ripping through him. Fire and pain in great roaring waves. Then a thundering echo broke through, trying to guide him.

"Fight... fight... get your head up and fight back!"

"I'm tryin'..." he mumbled, tossing his sweat-soaked head. The images got worse; the faces changed to hideous animals with sharp yellow fangs and scaly, slithering reptilian bodies. He tossed his head when the many fangs sank into his neck, chest and back. "No... no... God, it hurts..." The voice came back, from beyond the shadows of doubt.

"Fight ... fight back... fight... fight... don't give up, dammit!"

The strong voice in his head slayed the demons and he felt the pain lessen. "Don't go.... no... don't... leave me... alone... please... no...no..."

"Easy, Son," Father Carlos lifted the slurring man and winced at the rising heat. "Madre de Dios, you are burning up again." He sighed, held the shaking body until the devilish dreams left and then lowered him down again. He filled a bowl with rubbing alcohol and water. He pulled the sheet down and began to bathe the fevered body. The moans died down and the weak form began to shiver. The glazed eyes opened at intervals, dull and unfocused; they lingered long enough for him to coach water between the pale trembling lips.

It was near dawn before the fever died down. The last cup of water had medicine in it, enough that the troubled man would rest for awhile. His father entered the room and pointed to the cot nearby. He nodded, gave a pat to the weathered shoulder and sought some sleep.

"Wake me at nine a.m., Papa," he managed, letting his weary body rest. He wanted to be in town by noon. Maybe, just maybe, someone would have the key to this puzzle. As he drifted to sleep, he prayed for his young friend. He prayed for the lost soul to find his way home. He liked the soft-spoken man and sensed immediately he had a good heart. That fighting heart and the soulful blue eyes that mirrored it needed solace.

+ + + + + + +

Six a.m. in the guerilla camp

"Wake up, gringo dog!"

Chris grunted and rolled over, squinting through the sun streaked halo around the guard's face. His features were dark, but the voice he knew all too well.

"Fuck off." The fist to his midsection sent the blond to the floor of the barracks. He spit on Hector's shoes, earning him a strong backhand. His clear eyes saw only one set of boots. Coughing and doubled over, he sucked his breath in and charged. He slammed the sadistic guard against the wall, sending the rifle skittering across the worn floor. He sent a strong fist to the throat of the guard that sent him to the floor. He nearly had his hands on the rifle when a new voice stopped him.

"Very impressive, Mister Larabee. I enjoy a show before breakfast. Also, it is good that your spirit was not broken."

Chris stole a glance over his shoulder, then cursed as a tall, distinguished man with piercing dark eyes stood in the doorway. Behind him, three armed guards, all with their weapons trained on him.

"So you're the big prick," Chris grunted as a guard gripped the back of his shirt and hauled him upright.

"I am Juan Xavier," the leader smiled, recognizing a peer. Then, armed with the information he'd gained from the television and his sources in the States, he sought the open wound. It didn't take long to find the spot and he took out the salt, eager to rub it in. "And my condolences on the loss of Mister Tanner. My sources tell me you two were compadres, no? Such a painful death, being burned alive."

"Shut up!" Chris hissed, sliding his fingers into to angry fists.

"...I am told he screamed like a puta... at the end." He smiled, seeing the naked rage in the icy green eyes. He knew the blond captive thought the dead man was Tanner, so he pressed onward. "...he died yellow, like a woman... begging... and..."

"Shut up!" The blond struggled in vain, baring his teeth. It took two guards and rifle butt in his gut to cease his fight.

"Bind him and bring him to the small supply room."

Chris was dimly aware of the dirty ground passing inches below his face as he was dragged along. He coughed and wheezed as he was slammed into a chair and his arms were tied to the arms of the chair. He kicked out at the guards, gaining another backhand that split his lip. They secured his legs as well then left. He spit out blood as the tantalizing aroma of sausage, peppers and eggs filled the air. Coffee assaulted him next, followed by hot corn bread.

"It would appear as if you've stolen Maria's heart. She is quite fond of you. She prepared this meal for you. It would be a shame to waste it, no?" He smiled and began to eat. He saw the eyes dart around the room and to the window. "Not to fear, Mister Larabee, she is safe. She is a good girl, very loyal and an excellent cook. If you behave, I will allow her to bring you dinner."

"Dinner?" Chris gasped, his split lip stinging.

"S’, dinner, the meal at the end of the day. Are you not familiar with that in your country? I thought all of you American swine overindulged. You are a race of lazy, fat contented cows..."

"...beats the hell out of being a greasy rat with no balls..."

"TouchŽ," the leader continued to eat, pouring a cup of coffee. "They have called off the search, you know. Your government." He updated the confused eyes. "Apparently, you and your dead compadre are not worth as much as I thought. No matter, eventually, I might consider ransom." He cut the bread and took a piece. "I have much work to do, roads to clear and new trails to create. With you and your large friend, I will not have to waste any of my men."

"He's no friend of mine," Chris repulsed of Bull Savage.

"Oh, but he will be." The soldier completed the meal and stood up, smiling cruelly. "...he'll become a close friend. You'll have no choice... the leg irons are old and not very long."

"Shit!"

"Which brings up another point," he stood, knowing the call to nature was nearing. He knew the man had battled a fever all week. Maria would have plied him with water and juice the night before. His bladder would undoubtedly be very full and need emptying. "Just how strong are you, Mister Larabee?" He pressed the lower abdomen of the bound man and saw his face blanch. "We are still packing and preparing. I must update my men. Hector will be outside... should you need him to assist you..."

"Hector needs help finding his own equipment..." Chris shot back. "I'm guessing you don't have any."

"Oh, I do enjoy your sense of humor, Mister Larabee." He paused behind the bound man, pulling out a knife. He slid it gently over the stubbled face. "Once we reach our new camp... then we'll have some fun. I am quite talented with a knife." He reached around and pressed his hand onto Chris's lower abdomen again, laughing at the hissed air forced through the prisoner's teeth. "Tsk... tsk..." he clicked his tongue. "Do not wet your pants, Señor. That is a punishable offense."

The showers were in the next room and the sound of running water entered. The arrogant rebel smiled again, knowing that would only push the bound man's need even higher. He turned the small television on and then eyed the struggling blond.

"I am not a man without heart," he smiled curtly. "I thought you might enjoy seeing the news from your country." He opened the shades on all the closed windows in the small room. He smiled as the prisoner ducked to avoid the sun in his eyes. Over the next several hours the heat would build in the small room. Satisfied, he left to update his men and prepare for the trip.

It took all the strength Chris had to control the rising pressure of his full bladder. The running water in the wall behind him was like a loaded gun. He grit his teeth and bit down on his lip trying to hold on. Then the blue fuzzy screen cleared up and the tape began to play. His eyes narrowed when a twin set of photographs appeared.

"...identified here as Senior Agent Christopher Larabee. The young man next to him, Agent Vincent Tanner, was vacationing with the ATF leader when the kidnapping occurred." The reporter's voice droned on, giving a brief account of their trip, complete with photographs of Vin being tortured.

"Son-of-a-bitch!" he swore of the brutal force used by the Savage's on his dead friend. Then his pained eyes saw another familiar face. "Buck..." his voice trailed off as the tall man spoke.

"No comment!"

"Agent Wilmington, is it true that the F.B.I. has called off the search? Have you given up hope of finding them alive? How did it feel to view those tapes from the diner?"

"Why don't you bend over and I'll stick that camera up your BLEEP, you little BLEEP... BLEEP..." Buck vented. "Then we'll see how it feels."

"Buck, calm down!"

"Josiah!" Chris's voice died, seeing his oldest friend being barely restrained by Josiah Sanchez. It looked like the airport in Denver. They didn't wait long. They zoned in on Buck; you'd have to be blind to miss the raw agony on his features.

"We spoke to F.B.I. agent, Eric McClendon, from the New Mexico Division of the Bureau," one reported pressed on, seeing he'd struck a raw nerve. "He said they're dead. Is that true? Do you think..."

"Buck!"

Chris found a half smile as Buck popped the whining reporter. It took both Nathan and Josiah to restrain the irate agent.

"Good for you, Buck," Chris whispered, barely controlling the agony of his internal pressure. Then the picture went black. The full bladder was painful now, creating beads of sweat on his face and body. He eyed the clock on the wall. It had only been ten minutes. How long could he hold out?

+ + + + + + +

It was nearly eleven a.m. when Father Carlos pulled up in front of the clinic. He saw Rosa Dominguez, a nurse who was also a parishioner, standing outside. He exited his jeep and strode over.

"Good morning, Rosa," he greeted, taking both her hands. The fifty-year-old woman helped out at his own small clinic in her spare time. "I have not seen you all week. Has the clinic been busy?"

"Yes," she sighed, "Also, José was sick."

"Not serious?"

"No," she said of her husband. "He is fine now. How are you, Father?" She spotted the tired face. "It looks like you are not sleeping?"

"I have a patient, he was hurt badly. I almost lost him... a bad fever and a terrible head injury. He's an American..."

"American!"

The word hit Arlee Savage like a bullet. On the other side of the window, resting on a cot, he was now fully alert. But now, the fever that had plagued him all week seemed to disappear. He sat up, pressing his face to the wall beside the screen.

"...he's a nice young man, very spiritual. From Texas, I think, by his accent. Such blue eyes..."

"Tanner!" Arlee mouthed silently, his heart pounding. Maybe his father was with the old priest too! Or maybe Tanner knew where he was. He continued to listen, his head spinning.

"American, with blue eyes!" Rosa sat forward. "We have an American here! Pete and Jack found him in the mountains. He has a broken leg and a concussion. The leg was infected and he's been ill all week. I think I heard Doctor Lorico say that they found him near the falls. He only remembers bits and pieces of an accident. He's been calling for someone named 'Troy' in his fever dreams."

"Troy?"

Arlee frowned; he didn't remember calling out. Of course, the last three days were a blur; he'd been so sick. What else had he revealed? He snapped back to attention as the priest spoke.

"Did he mention any other names? Who he was with? Where they were from?"

"No, just Troy and words like 'look out' and then screaming... terrible nightmares. We had to sedate him." She paused. "What of the young man you found? Who is he?"

"I do not know," Father Carlos noted. "He has amnesia, poor boy. He has a chain, a Saint Christopher's medal. It was clutched in his palm when I found him. He is quite attached to it, it's been his life line. He said the name 'Chris' once, when I first brought him in. Either he is Chris or someone he knows and is close to is Chris. Is your young man named Chris?"

"No, Kevin Lincoln."

"Is Doctor Lorico here? I am worried about my young patient. The head injury is quite serious."

"No, I'm sorry, Father, he is in the high country today, visiting the clinic that Sister Agnes runs. He'll be back tomorrow."

"Okay, will you tell him I was here? I will bring Chris with me tomorrow. I think I'd be more comfortable if he had his head x-rayed." He paused. "Is the young man strong enough to have a visitor. I would like to see him."

"Certainly, Father... this way."

"Shit!" Arlee hissed, lowering himself back in the bed. He was still weak and the room spun around. His mind was still whirling even after the room stopped.

Think... think... think... the words flashed. Tanner was a tracker... he could find Pa. His heart began to pound as the pieces fell into place. Brothers, no... they didn't look enough alike. Friends on vacation? No... closer... cousins. Yes, that would work. 'Cousin Troy' lived in Texas. They were on vacation, exploring and hiking. He needed to figure out how to solve the 'Chris' problem. His fevered mind worked overtime as the footsteps in the hall grew closer. Then he got an idea and an evil smile spread on his face just as the door opened.

"Brilliant!" he lauded himself.

"Kevin, this is Father Carlos Romero. He has a church nearby. He'd like to speak with you, if you're able."

"...Father..."

The priest moved closer to the bed, eyeing the feverish patient. He took the raised hand and smiled.

"I'm glad to meet you, my son. It looks like you've been ill and far from home."

"...fever... from... leg... " Arlee poured on the 'weakness'. "...vacation... with Troy and Chris... and Pa. Oh God... Oh God..." He turned away, eyes large with pain.

"Please don't upset yourself so," the priest moved closer. "Who are Troy and Chris?"

"...cousins... from... Texas..." He closed his eyes, not wanting the priest to catch him lying. "...hurts..."

"Here," the nurse moved in, giving him a painkiller and a long drink. She used a cold cloth to wipe his face. "Better?"

"Yes, thanks..." He took a few shallow breaths.

"Were your cousins with you?"

"Yeah... with my Pa... near water... I think..." He swallowed. "I can't remember much... it seems there's a big gap... something happened... to us... but... I can't..." He inhaled sharply, his eyes growing wide. "Troy... they hurt him... he's screaming..."

"Who?" Father Carlos pressed, recalling the marks of torture his young charge bore. "Who hurt Troy?"

Arlee moaned and rubbed his head. "I don't know, it was a flash, it's gone. I think hard but... I try to... remember... there's screaming and pain and water... lots of water... some reporters found me... I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I can't... I don't... they're dead, aren't they? Why can't I remember more?"

"No, no, don't, son," the priest soothed, seeing the tears falling.

"...Chris... good man... raised Troy after their folks died. Their Ma was my Pa's sister. Since that time... when they died... my Pa... he started taking them on our vacations."

"And Troy?" Father Carlos hedged.

"...he's got an easy voice," Arlee managed. "...a soft drawl... raspy-like." He chuckled then. "...he'd try to pull stuff...

but couldn't fool Chris. Not with them big blue eyes... I can't believe they're gone!"

"Blue eyes?" The priest felt a glimmer of hope. His young friend had a family.

"Yeah... Chris was always after him to cut all that hair, but Troy liked it long."

"Kevin," the priest waited until the young man turned. "I think I have good news..."

Arlee listened quietly, letting the false tears fall freely, as the priest told him about Tanner. By the time this was done, he'd win an Oscar for his acting. He heard the priest's voice fade away as the sedative took effect. He'd get Tanner away from the priest, then install plan 'B'. For the first time in over a week, he slept without nightmares, wearing a smile.

+ + + + + + +

Eleven a.m. in the camp

"Well, well, it looks like our guest has broken the rules, Hector," Juan Xavier goaded, entering the hot room which reeked of urine.

Larabee weakly lifted his head, having been overcome by heat, and lack of food and water. The intense heat in the small room was stifling. It stole all his energy and his throat burned for water. Still recovering from a fever, he was groggy and lethargic. He was panting, trying to find any stray air from the opened door. He didn't see the metal instrument in the leader's hand.

"Pull the truck around, Diego," he called out, tapping the weapon in his hand. "By the time you arrive, Mister Larabee will be over his punishment."

"What?" Chris croaked, his tongue too large for his hot mouth. He blinked when Hector's hand appeared, a large knife pressed to his throat. He swallowed hard, blinking again as the beads of sweat ran into his eyes. The knife moved, severing the buttons on his shirt and exposing his bare chest, slick with sweat. He was watching Hector and the knife, the guard drawing his attention to the left. Chris never saw the metal move from the right, touching his bare skin.

Maria heard the scream and dropped the glass she was holding. Her slim legs tore through the camp. She'd been looking for Chris all morning; Juan Xavier wouldn't tell her where he'd been taken.

"No... no... you promised!" She panted of the false pledge he'd given not to harm her friend. "Chris!" Three more screams tore at her before she flung the door open. His head was dropped down, chin hitting his chest. He wasn't moving, but she saw his shoulders rising and falling with every breath. "What's wrong with...?" Her large brown eyes froze, watching the metal instrument rise again.

"No, you promised!" She moved in, throwing her slim body over his exposed one. She cried out when it hit her arm, the shock stunning her, but she held on fast.

"Such devotion, Maria, this gringo means that much to you?" The arrogant leader grabbed the wet blond hair and pulled the now unconscious man's head up. "Perhaps you are right, child. He has been punished enough. You know I have strict rules. He soiled his pants... he had to be taught a lesson."

"Filthy pig!" She spat, standing up, tears of pain rimming her eyes. She moved in front of her new friend, protecting him.

"Watch your mouth, Maria, or your lazy father will be punished!" Juan Xavier warned.

He handed the electric cattle prod to Hector and smiled as the truck rumbled to a stop outside. "Bind him to the other..." He put on his cap and nodded to the soldiers saluting from where they'd gathered.

"Gentlemen, the time has come!" His brisk pace took him outside the room and towards the caravan.

He strode to the open flap and watched dispassionately as Chris Larabee's body was dumped in the back. The blond head began to stir just as the rusty manacle was snapped on his exposed ankle. He saw a flash of white as the teeth were bared, but otherwise, no sound came from the tough American. The other leg iron was attached to the larger man's lower leg. It had been specially welded to accommodate his large ankle.

"Hey, I ain't being saddled with him!" Bull complained of the two-and-a-half foot length of chain. "He stinks..."

"You would be advised to bite your foul tongue, Mister Savage, or you will be punished as well."

Chris's eyes opened a slit after the flap dropped and the truck was cloaked in darkness. He was lying on his side, his hands bound tightly behind him. His chest throbbed from the bruising shock and his throat was on fire from thirst. The rumbling motor, swaying motion and heat of the day lulled him into a doze.

The road to Hell had begun.

+ + + + + + +

From beneath a herd of elephant's feet, he cried out and rolled over. Still they came, treading on his tender skull. He crawled away; someone was calling him.

"Chris..." he moaned, furrowing his brows.

"Easy, son," the old man shook the slim man's shoulders. He saw two confused eyes blink up at him.

"Mis...ter... Ro...mer..o..."

"Sí, it is I," Rico helped the young man sit up. "Come, we will eat supper in the garden. It's cool tonight. Here, I have a cool bath ready..." He waited patiently while the injured man used the clean water to wash his face, neck and chest. He slipped on a large white shirt and got to his feet, swaying slightly. "Okay?"

"Yeah... thanks..." Vin shuffled along, his head pounding. His leg was healing, but it hurt like hell. He smelled roasted chicken and saw a simple platter filled with potatoes and carrots. He eyed the small pile on the plate next to it and his hand went out.

"No," the old man smiled, gently pulling the hand away. "Sit down... here..." He handed him a tall glass of ice tea. "No chocolate cookies until you eat dinner. You have to regain your strength."

"Aw, hell..." Vin pouted, then smiled as another voice joined them. "Hey Padre! I missed ya today. Me and yer Pa was plantin' stuff..."

"Papa!"

"Don't go hollerin' at him!" Vin defended, then gave a sheepish grin. "It weren't his fault. I snuck out... a couple times. I reckon I wore him out... chasin' me an' such. He give up and let me help. I done real good. Only passed out once and that was after I got back inside." He snaked his hand out, but it was slapped.

"No sweets," Father Carlos laughed.

"Aw, hell," Vin repeated, bowing his head as they said Grace.

As the plates were being passed around, Father Romero eyed the young man. The bruises on his face were healing. The marks on his back and chest were healing as well. He had a good sense of people and his instincts told him this visitor was special. The quiet conversations they shared were full of hope and faith. There was a kind light shining from those blue eyes; it reflected a strong moral fiber from deep within. He waited until those mirrors caught his smile.

"Somethin' wrong?" Vin frowned at the smile. "I got somethin' stuck in m'teeth?"

"No!" the priest laughed. "But I have some good news. While I was in town this morning, I met an injured American in the clinic. He is not much younger than you."

"Does he know who I am? Come on Father, I gotta know." Vin's heart began to pound hard against his bruised ribcage. "Who is he? What's his name?"

"Kevin Lincoln."

"Huh?" Vin's nose wrinkled and his brows creased. "I don't know him."

"Troy?" He flinched as the fork hit the plate and both hands went to the injured man's head. "So that does strike a chord?"

Pain. Pain. Pain. A faceless demon ripping his insides apart. Flashes of the sky and a stranger's hidden face. A face he knew as well as his own...but yet it remained a mystery. He reached out to grab... grab... grab... for... for..

"Chris..." he whispered, his eyes clenched shut. Then the face and the body were gone, sucked into a sea of blue. "Oh God... he's dead..."

"Your cousin thought you were dead too." The priest moved to his side, rubbing the tense neck. "Do not give up hope, Troy..."

"Don't call me that!" Vin snarled, "I ain't... him... I'm... I'm... I'm... Dammit!" He shoved his body away from the table and staggered, falling to his knees. Who was he? He thought hard... pressed every fiber in his hot brain. Nothing, and then the shadow figure appeared, wrapped in the dark cloak in his mind. "Chris..."

"Your brother," the priest winced at the prayer like texture of the name as it came from the agonized lips. "He may still be alive. Kevin said you were traveling with your uncle, his father, on vacation. It seems something bad happened to your group. He can't remember exactly, only pain, screaming and water."

"River!" Vin's head snapped up. Pain. Pain. His head slamming into a rock. Wet. Wet. Water rushing in his mouth and nose. Water. A river. Maybe... maybe Chris was alive. Maybe his name was Troy.

"I want Doctor Lorico to examine you, Chr... Troy," he corrected. "Tomorrow at the clinic. Then, if you want to, we can visit with your cousin. He was overcome with emotion when I told him of you. He wept in my arms."

"Yeah?" Vin's head rose and the pain began to subside. "How come I can't remember him? ... Can't recall any of 'em...?" He paused, feeling a huge powerful force sweep through his system. It was the awesome power his brother possessed, to reach him deep inside. "Chris... his eyes... eagle's eyes... he could see m'soul... we was close, Padre... he was everythin' t'me..."

"Yes, I know. Your cousin spoke highly of him... Come, finish your meal. You won't get well if you don't eat." He helped the injured man back to the table. He and his own father began to eat; he paused as a sad smile crept onto the young man's face. "What is it?"

"Kin, Padre," Vin said, eyes shimmering with tears. "I got kin... I ain't alone..." He wondered about this cousin, suddenly anxious to see him. "Maybe... we can find Chris... Would ya help, Father?"

"You know I will do all I can, Troy," he reassured. "I'll pray for him tonight. You must go to bed early. We will leave after breakfast."

"Yeah," Vin whispered, hearing the sound of the river in his head and seeing the smiling face of his lost brother. "I'm comin', Chris... I'll find ya..."

Part Seven

The sun was cruel and without mercy. The intense rays burned his skin and caused his still injured body to protest. The lack of proper food and water made his actions slow and sluggish. Then there was the hulking giant sharing the chain that bound their legs together.

He ignored the taunts. Bull Savage spent the first several hours of their work duty making filthy comments about Vin Tanner. But he underestimated Chris Larabee. It wasn't that he didn't care, which is what the sweaty mass of flesh next to him suggested. It was that he cared too deeply for the lost Texan. Images of Vin burning alive in the twisted metal wreckage plagued his days and slashed through his dreams at night. Bull would pay for what he did to Vin. For every bit of torture inflicted on the young man at the diner. For forcing them on the plane that led to his death. He'd pay dearly. Not with bullet or blade, but by fist.

"You got my word, cowboy," he croaked weakly, lifting another rock from the new path they were creating. Juan Xavier needed a trail from the river to the new base camp he created. But the distance between the two points was overgrown with trees, rocks, twisted vines and the like. Dynamite had cleared the trees and some of the guards were hacking at the vines. Bull and Chris did the hard work, clearing the heavy rubble. They began at dawn and now, six hours later, were still at it. A single break every three hours for water and fruit. A sharp whistle brought his head up. Three armed guards appeared with a basket and a canteen.

"Thirty minutes... eat, drink and shit... then back to work."

Before Chris could reply, the basket and canteen were dropped. Bull lurched violently, causing the blond to stumble. Angry, Chris yanked hard on the chain from where he sat in the dirt.

"Fuck off, Larabee!" Bull growled, lifting the canteen and drinking greedily.

"Give me that!" Desperate and beyond thirsty, Chris stood, wincing as his healing ribs and side protested. He tried to take the canteen and got a beefy fist slammed into his face. He went down hard.

Bull saw the damp blond head start to lift and kicked the midsection, ceasing all movement. He heard the guards laughing and ignored them. He didn't intend to be chained here much longer. He had a plan and if Larabee protested, he'd kill him and be done with it. He flipped the basket open and ate all the food.

"Five minutes, gringo dog,"

"Fuck you, asshole," Bull muttered at the leering guard. He stood and urinated on Chris Larabee's face, laughing when the injured man rolled away, eyes blazing.

Chris crawled to the empty basket and then tossed it away in frustration. He shook the empty canteen and growled. Then he launched his weak body at the wall of muscle. He slammed a fist into Bull's groin and then followed with a double fisted slam to his throat. The giant wavered and fell. Chris used his feet then, kicking the exposed belly peeking through the rough work shirt.

"No, Diego," Enrique, a new guard held his partner back. "Let them fight."

"Fine, but when this section isn't cleared by tonight, Juan Xavier will not be happy. You have not been here long enough to see his wrath. He'll hurt you and set an example."

"Fine," the cocky guard agreed as the larger American roused and jumped on the smaller one. He blew his whistle and approached with his partner aiming a rifle. "Get back to work!"

"This isn't over," Chris warned, swiping blood from his split lip. He eyed the guard and nodded to the canteen. "I want water."

"Three o'clock is the next scheduled break," Enrique replied and saw the blond's bloodied lips parting in protest. "One more word and you'll get nothing. Get your lazy gringo ass back to work."

With every rock, tree stump and tree limb he cleared, Chris killed Savage over and over again. He eyed the terrain, trying to calculate where they were. He heard water to the east and took note. He knew this road they were making was on no map. So any hope of rescue was out of the question. He listened to the water again and decided that would be his best option. Then a tug from the chain on his sore ankle spoke a cruel reminder. Wherever he went, Savage went as well.

"But not for long," he vowed, tossing a large rock.

+ + + + + + +

Midday, San Pedro

"Well, young man, you are very lucky," Dr. Lorico noted, eyeing the x-ray. "Your skull was not fractured. You did suffer extensive bruising, however. It will be several weeks before you are healed. Your leg is coming along nicely. Continue to change the dressings and don't strain it. The other bruises and cuts are healing too. What you need most is good food and lots of rest."

Vin buttoned his shirt and eyed the people on the road outside the clinic. It looked like a very poor town; there were no modern buildings. The roads were dirt and there were no paved sidewalks. The children were barefoot and just like the adults, dressed in poor cotton garments. He didn't know how long he'd been here. They left the church early, but the trip had been rough. Every bump in the road sent a jarring pain through his head. At one point, he must have passed out. He awoke inside the clinic with a nurse by his side. His headache was pushing its way back and he winced as the sun hit his eyes. He slid from the table and shook the doctor's hand.

"Thanks... fer checkin' me out, Doc. The padre's been takin' good care o'me."

"He's a fine man," Lorico admitted, releasing the slim man's grip and reviewing his notes. "I'm giving you some pain medication..."

Vin wasn't aware of the physician's words. He saw Father Carlos speaking with a young man outside the window. The youth had long dark hair and wide eyes. The priest's hand rested on his shoulder. Then he moved the large cross around his neck and it caught the sunlight. A flash caused Vin to cry out. Through a strange fog, he saw another cross, large and hanging from leather straps on a broad chest. The eyes were smoky, the hair graying and the smile true. The more he looked, the harder it hurt.

"Easy, son." The doctor caught the young man when his knees gave way. He led the stuperous body to a chair and eased him down. He examined the starry eyes and waved a hand in front of them. "Troy, can you hear me?" He saw the Saint Christopher's medal and lifted it. A hand shot out and shoved him back. The dazed eyes caught blue fire.

"S'mine... get away..."

"You're having flashbacks?"

"..jest tired..." Vin mumbled, eyeing the walls which seemed to be getting narrower. He felt sweat beading on his forehead and running down his back. The image came back with the man wearing the cross. Smoky gray eyes and a wide smile, that cross twisting and glittering in the sun. The voice of the doctor seemed so far away.

"Troy!" Dr. Lorico moved quickly, catching the man as he fell forward. He managed to get him back onto the bed and took his vital signs. His pulse was racing and his blood pressure too low.

"How is he?" Father Carlos entered the room, his worry lines increasing at the pale face with closed eyes.

"No fracture but the wound was serious. He had a flashback of sorts and passed out. I don't think he is up to riding back through the jungle in this heat to the church."

"I agree. I have several sick patients I've been neglecting. Tomas," he nodded to the boy waiting, "needs me to visit his mother. She's overdue with a child and bleeding badly. She lives in the hills. I won't be able to return by nightfall."

"Go, Father, he will be safe here."

"Very well," the kind priest moved to the bed blessing his young friend. "God keep you, son," he made the sign of the cross on the injured man's head, finished his prayer, then departed.

+ + + + + + +

Arlee couldn't believe his luck! The overly protective priest was leaving. The doctor was already overworked and understaffed. He knew the night routine. It was the coolest time of the day and when the physician usually did surgery. That would buy him the time he needed. He scooted back to bed, sweating from the exertion. He no sooner hit the sheets when the priest came in the room.

"You're awake?"

"Yeah, Padre." He sat up, looking around and putting on a crestfallen face. "Where's Troy? You promised..."

"He's down the hall. Dr. Lorico wants to keep him overnight. He's been passing out."

"He's okay, isn't he?" The concern was genuine; he needed the tracker.

"No fractures... but a bad head wound. He needs time and good care to heal. "

He watched the injured man get out of bed and limp towards the door. "I wanna see him..."

"Very well, but he needs to rest. You mustn't disturb or upset him. It's crucial that he remains calm."

"He's my cousin!"

Something about the way the man reacted caused the priest to pause. But then the moment passed and he guided him to the room.

"Troy!" Arlee bolted for the bed, wincing as his injured leg protested. He sat on the bed, resting his hand on Tanner's shoulder.

"No, don't!" The priest pulled him back, angry. "I warned you. He must not be disturbed."

"I'm sorry, Father, but I thought he was dead... I didn't mean... I wouldn't hurt him..." Arlee thought of his dead brother and did produce tears. Tanner would pay for that... his fingers flexed as he drew up a grisly image. Staking the federal agent out and gutting him slow, pulling the knife from his balls upward. A hand on his shoulder caused him to shake it off.

"I'll try to return tonight. Until then, I want your word. Don't upset him."

"Okay, Padre," Arlee lied, sliding into the bedside chair and picking up Tanner's hand. "I'm here, Troy."

As soon as the priest left, he dropped the hand and zoned in on the injured leg. He ground his palm hard, causing the unconscious man to cry out, twist his head and jerk.

"You listen to me, pig," he leaned over, grabbing the square jaw. "You're gonna pay for killing my brother." He lowered his hand, gripping the exposed throat and applying slight pressure. He smiled when the victim began to struggle weakly, seeking air.

"Is there a problem in here?"

"No, Ma'am..." Arlee released him and stood. "He was having a bad dream."

"You better return to your own room," she ordered, ushering him out.

Arlee trotted to the window, just as the priest got a medical bag from his jeep. The holy man tossed it into a large sac and tied it to the horse. Then he climbed on behind the boy and they headed out of town. He knew some of the staff lived in those hills, where there were no paved roads. He smiled and eyed the priest's vacated jeep, which seemed to wink at him. His smile widened and he planned his escape. He'd lure the unsuspecting fed into his scheme and use his tracking skills. Then once he found his father, they'd have some fun with the Texan, then kill him slowly.

+ + + + + + +

Five p.m. in the Sierra Tarahumara

Jack Lynch eyed his partner's sour face and hid a smile. So far, the trip had been a bust and their leads dried up. They had hoped to find the hidden camp of the rebels but only netted a flat tire, sunburn and a stubborn mule, the latter having been in the middle of a narrow road and not moving. Jack suggested they coax him off the road. Pete wasn't so patient. He'd shot at the poor beast after cursing a blue streak. The animal fled then and five miles later, the flat arrived. Now, while the new tire was being prepared, he decided to goad his irate friend.

"Keep your pecker up then, mate," he tried to be optimistic, resting a hand on the kneeling man's shoulder. "It could be worse..." He jumped back when an unearthly growl, two hot eyes and a jack flew at him.

"Fuck off!" Pete snarled, raising the tool in a threatening manner. He was hot, tired and hungry. Most of all, he wanted good whiskey and a hot woman and a soft bed.

"Hmmmph!" the Englishman scoffed, offended. "Next thing you'll be blamin' me for this..."

"I did that ten miles back," the dark-haired man seethed, swiping sweat from his eye. "Let's take the river road, Yank..." he used a mock English accent. "Fuckin' mule..."

"He didn't do that," Jack argued, amused by the short temper.

"If we weren't on that road, I wouldn't have run over whatever the hell did this..." He hit his hand and cursed again. "Go play in traffic..."

"Righto."

Pete had just tightened the last lug nut and lowered the vehicle when his name was bellowed in an unnatural high-pitched cry.

"Fuckin' Limey's gonna put me in an early grave," he snarled, then grabbed his gun and ran, worrying about the unlucky, injury prone blond. "Jack!"

"Over here..."

He halted not far from the river, spotting the blond covering his face and backing up.

"What's wr...?" He rocked back then, the stench nearly causing him to vomit. He jogged back to the clearing and fished a couple of t-shirts from the duffle bag in the car. He tossed one to the shaken blond who was on his knees throwing up. He got a bottle of water and stood behind him. Finally, the dry heaves ended and he slid the bottle down.

"You okay?"

"I'm fuckin' great!"

The astonished dark-haired journalist stood up and frowned. It was not like his normally sunny friend to become so volatile. It didn't last long. The shaky hand pushed through the long blond hair and he shuddered twice, then the hand came up. Pete didn't hesitate; he hauled the shaken man up, resting one hand on the other's shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Pete... I didn't mean..."

"'S'okay, Jack." He eyed the riverbank, wondering what the photographer had found. The stench was one they'd experienced before, having covered grisly scenes of corpses in war and other events. What could have shaken the seasoned veteran up so much? "Was it a kid?"

"Hell, if I know... what's left... Christ... I..." Lynch paused, sucking on the water and shaking his shaggy head. "Bent down to wash me hands... knelt on a log... it moved... fuckin' head... no face... skin... just... shit... it popped up ..."

"Stay." Pete tried to lead his shaken friend to the jeep.

"Gimme a minute..." Jack took the shirt and tied it around his face. He caught the concerned eyes of the other and felt a tug in his gut. For all his cursing, drunken bouts, rows with women and the legendary bad temper, he wouldn't ride with anyone else. "It does a body good to be loved..." He gave a reassuring wink and nodded.

"Don't be lookin' this way, Romeo, I'd never be that drunk or desperate," Pete tossed back, tying the shirt around his face.

He took the lead, gun drawn and proceeded to the river. He flinched at the decaying corpse. Between the brutal sun and the damage done by wild animals and insects, there wasn't much left. He kicked the log and exposed the rest of the body, sending hundreds of insects scurrying from every opening. Then a glint of silver caught his eye. Sucking in a breath, he knelt and pushed the dirt off the object.

"Fuck."

"What?" Jack asked, watching the dark head shaking.

"It's a Fed... badge says ATF..." He stood, his mind rewinding quickly. "A couple weeks back, the day we found that kid." He coughed and backed up, the stench was overwhelming. "There was something on television about two Feds being kidnapped. They showed an airstrip in New Mexico."

"Could be he floated down..." Lynch surmised, "...from a plane wreck... let's have a look then..."

"Get your camera, Jack, we'll take some pictures and tag this place. How far is Vincente?"

"Couple hours, if we push..." the blond noted of the next town. He smiled then, watching the grizzly, brash man some thought of as arrogant pull a small silver cross from beneath his shirt. He said a prayer, blessed himself and made the sign of the cross over the dead man.

"What?"

"They broke the mold, Yank," he choked, grinned, then started back to the car. After taking several photos, including a close up of the badge, they marked the site. They made their way up the river. Pete drove slowly, so they could rake the dense landscape with their eyes. Twenty minutes later, they spotted it. Jack's stomach wasn't up to the trip. The stench was overpowering. But he took a breath, picked up the camera and followed the leader.

"How many?" Lynch croaked.

"Two... I think..." Pete coughed. "Hard to tell... one's charred, the other one... poor bastard has no head... animals got to him." He ran towards the river, throwing up violently, then rinsed and scrubbed his ashen face. When he got back, Jack wasn't there. He followed the path back to the Jeep and found the other man, pale and sweating.

"Jack?"

"I got it..." he stammered, patting the camera. "The bloke that was burned... had a badge... ATF..."

"Goddammit!" Pete kicked the tire in frustration.

"Pete, I think..."

"Jack?" He turned as the smaller man slid sideways in a dead faint.

"You're turning into a woman!" the dark-haired man complained, lifting the camera and securing it. He eased the slack man into the Jeep and belted him in.

He marked the scene, wrote the coordinates down and then eyed the numbers he'd written hastily. Jogging around the twisted metal, he spotted several items lying on the ground. He picked up a wallet, which was void of money. It did contain the pilot's license and likeness. He spotted a piece of yellow paper and a phone number tucked in the fold. It had a date, a time and Silver City written on it. He wrote the number down and placed the city.

"New Mexico..." he murmured, recalling the grainy images he'd seen on the television the day they found the stranger. Maybe he was linked to this plane and the dead feds somehow. The phone number would be a lead. He sorted through his thoughts on the way back to the car. He'd call that number and scare up a lead. Then he'd call the F.B.I.

Vincente happened to be the home of a famous Mexican soap opera star. He got a kick out of Jack and Pete and they visited whenever they were in the area. More importantly, he had a big house, with a computer. He climbed behind the wheel and gave his unconscious friend's knee a pat.

"Hold on, Mate," he mimicked the other's accent and hit the gas pedal.

+ + + + + + +

Seven p.m. San Pedro

Someone was calling him. A voice floated just beyond his reach. He was swimming in a clear blue lake. The sun was out and it was beautiful. He didn't want to leave. He frowned and scowled, shoving his hand in protest. Yet the voice persisted and he swam harder.

"Come on, Tanner..." Arlee hissed, tossing away the small paper envelope with Tanner's pain pills.. Time was essential and the Texan needed to be awake, not doped up. The doctor and most of the staff were tied up with surgery. It was now or never. The jeep was tucked in at just the right spot. He could push it down the slight incline and cut into the main road down further.

Usually there was a large gap of time between dinner and the night medications being given out. Today, the few nurses on duty were busy with the extra surgeries to be done. So he'd waited until they were elsewhere, leaving the hall free. The darkness brought the cloak he needed to flee. Now he needed Tanner awake and on his feet. Frustrated, he ground his hand into the injured leg. That worked. Two eyes shot open.

"What the hell... where... shit..." Vin hissed, blinking in the darkness. Someone was pulling him up. Shoes were shoved on his feet. "...doin'...." he slurred, his head thick and still pounding.

"We're leaving, Troy. I'm Kevin, your cousin. You remember me, don't you?" He paused, pulling out the salt shaker and rubbing the spot he knew would sting most. "Chris is missing and we need to find him."

"Chris!" Vin's head shot up. His eyes were bright with pain and his heart was hammering. "Aw, hell, he's dead..."

"We don't know that. I thought you were dead and here you are. Chris is out there, hurt, bleeding.he's looking for you, Troy. You're his only hope... he'd never give up on you."

"Who are ya?" Vin blinked in confusion and felt the man bring his arm over his shoulder, half dragging him out of the room. "What are ya doin'?"

"I told you, Chris needs us. We can't wait. Do you want him to die out there? Or maybe have animals eat him alive?" Arlee dragged the sluggish man through the deserted hall and out the side door. It was cool and the night air surrounded them.

"Shit!" Vin's knees buckled. He couldn't seem to wake up and he was dizzy and nauseous. He swayed and staggered, fell twice, before the stranger shoved him into a car. He felt motion first, a gentle rocking, then the motor spring to life. The sudden change in speed and the bumps in the road caused his stomach to lurch. He hung out the window, leaving a trail of vomit in the wind. From his throbbing eyes, he saw a small figure glued to the dashboard. Something troubled him. Something was wrong. He tried to put the fragmented pieces of his mind together and lost. He slumped back, letting a black curtain fall.

"You rest up, Tanner," Arlee hissed, eyeing the bobbing head. "You're gonna need it. You're gonna find my Pa if you have to crawl through the fuckin' jungle," he vowed, heading for the spot on the river where he'd seen the tracks leading away from the plane. He'd follow the path back from where the reporters found him.

+ + + + + + +

Mexico, 8 p.m. High in the Mountains

Every inch of his tortured flesh screamed for mercy. His side throbbed with wild abandon and his head ached. He swallowed and tried to slash his way through the thickness in his head. His hand moved and felt cotton. A bed? He tried to pull himself up and couldn't. He was too whipped. He tried again and a sharp pain exploded in his healing side. He cried out and grimaced, then felt a pair of small hands help him. He blinked as his feet hit the floor, shivering in the night air. He smelled her before he saw her. A gentle floral scent greeted him as a blanket was wrapped around his naked chest.

"Maria?"

"I've been so worried... the guards brought you back hours ago and you never moved. You collapsed. They took the chains off so the other one could continue. I cleaned and bandaged your wounds again." She held up a cup and nudged his lips, frowning at the sluggishness in him. "Chris?"

"Sorry," he muttered, taking a pill from her hand and nearly guzzling the cold water. "More..."

"Sit back." She helped him rest upright against the bunk, placing two pillows behind him. "I have some dinner for you."

Weak from hunger and thirst, he was trembling so badly, he couldn't find the fork. She placed the tray over his lap and came back with a tall cold pitcher of juice. She refilled his mug and warned him.

"Slowly," she coached, taking the fork from his hand with a smile. She saw the flush of anger and maybe embarrassment and reassured him. "Friends help each other... when one is down the other supports, okay? Let me help you?"

The roast chicken, potatoes and carrots were wonderful. He drained several mugs of water, then she brought him some herbal tea along with fruit. Sated, he sat back, feeling stronger and wiser. He took her hand and rubbed the knuckles, casting a half grin.

"Thank you, Lady Maria..." His smile widened when her blush grew. "You blush prettier than Vin."

She saw the smile leave his face and eased her hand from his. She brushed his hair back and rubbed his shoulder. His face was turned away, every fine feature twisted in pain. She saw his fist ball up, clutching at the worn cotton blanket.

"I'm sorry."

"No need, not your doing," he managed, trying to find some way to overcome the grievous loss of Vin Tanner. "He was..." He paused again, his mind's eye seeing the animated Texan dancing around the hotel room singing about rats. That brought a painful chuckle and his eyes burned.

"Special?" she guessed, and he nodded, unable to speak.

"How far's the river?" he asked hoarsely, trying to escape the pain of his vast loss. Also, his backside hurt. He wondered about the rat bite, vaguely recalling the ER doctor's warnings about infection. That seemed like a lifetime ago.

"About four miles... why?"

"Cause I'm gettin' the hell outta here..."

"No, you mustn't, they'll kill you. His men... the guards... roam the whole area. He is always worried about the government finding them."

"Dammit..." He shifted again, his backside stinging.

"It was infected... I purged it." She noted of the bite on his posterior and paused, watching his face fly up and color.

"Great..." he muttered, then chuckled softly, hearing Tanner's convulsive laughter. "Shut the hell up, Vin..." he whispered painfully, taking a shuddering breath.

"You must promise you won't do anything foolish!" She bent over and from a small cooler pulled out a Coke. "I saved it for you..."

"You got whiskey in there?" he teased, nodded and drank the sweet liquid. "It's good... thanks, Maria." He watched her pretty face and moved his hand, taking a long strand of hair from her eyes. "Without you, I'd be dead. I'm very grateful..."

"You have given me new hope, Chris. Maybe, I could come to America... and go to college."

"If we get out of here alive, Maria," he vowed, "I'll make it happen. You pick whatever school you want."

"Let me work on it," she decided. "I know his ways... how he operates. I will find the ... weak link... and then we will go together... yes?"

"You bet your sweet ass," Chris vowed tipping his Coke, then frowned. "What about your father?"

"I cannot trust him... because of his drinking..."

He saw the tears pooling in the beautiful eyes and took her hand. Someone so young shouldn't have so much pain. She shouldn't have to live in fear like this. Then he saw something else, a bruise under her eye.

"What happened?" he growled, thinking of the roaming hands of the guards. "Who did that?"

"It's nothing..."

"It doesn't look like nothing to me!" he hissed with a father-like rage . Through the open flaps in the large tent, he saw Hector grinning like a wolf. Their eyes met and the loutish guard grabbed his crotch. "I'll fuckin' kill him!"

"NO!" She pushed him back. "It wasn't what you think. I'd kill myself first."

"Did he do that?" He saw her head nod and drop. "Did he touch you?" Again the head nodded and her hands locked together.

"He... tried... to... he got my zipper down... and... put his hand..." She bit her lip and the tears fell. "I used my knee... and he hit... me..."

"You're mine, you bastard..." he snarled, gathering her close and stroking her hair. "Cut that out, he's not worth your salt."

"I'm ..s..s...s...sorry..."

"You're incredibly brave," he corrected, using his thumb to take the last stray tear. "I'll get you to America, Maria. You got my word."

+ + + + + + +

Vincente, Mexico, 11 p.m.

Jack Lynch eased his slim frame through the sliding glass door. Their host, Miguel Colon, was a silver-haired Cary Grant type. He was a star on the country's leading soap opera and also did films. They met him years ago and often stayed at his large home. He wasn't home tonight, but Marita, the housekeeper, knew them and let them in. They stayed in the guest room by the pool. Jack was ill upon their arrival and slept for an hour. Now, after a hot shower and a sandwich, he felt better.

He nodded to his partner and let his gaze wander around the pretty plants and flowers that were in large ceramic pots around the oval pool. He sighed, rubbed his eyes and sat down next to the intense dark-haired man. He knew the signs and gave a sympathetic smile. The headache lines were forming over his brow and the dark eyes were stormy. He reached for the bottle before the fingers snapped and poured a double shot of tequila.

"Anything yet?" the blond whispered.

"No, fuckin' feds..." Pete growled. "I'm on hold..."

"Hold?" Jack shook his head and poured a shot for himself. "Did you tell them what you found?"

"I didn't get a chance..." He sat up and nodded. "Yes, ma'am... my name's Peter DiTullio and..."

Jack grinned when the dark eyes rolled.

"Yes, ma'am..." he sighed and pushed his finger and thumb into his aching eyes. "...Annette... yes... that Pete DiTullio. No, ma'am... uh... Annette... I've never thought about doing a movie... I'm glad your mother thinks I'm sexy." He turned and kicked his laughing partner who was nearly choking. "I need to talk to the agent in charge of the missing ATF agent's case. This is urgent. I need to speak to someone right away. No, I don't know his direct line, or I would have fuckin' called him!"

"Uh-oh..." Jack laughed, watching the blood pressure rise.

"Too fuckin' bad if you don't appreciate my language..." He stood and fished out his wallet, fumbling badly. "I've had a bitch of a day, lady, live with it."

"What?" Jack tried to help.

"...a name..." Pete whispered, watching the other's nimble fingers working. Several pieces of paper fell out. He snapped his fingers and pointed to one. "Thanks... Yes... his name is McClendon, Eric McClendon. No, don't put me on..."

Jack flinched as the hand smacked on the glass table.

"Goddammit!" Pete vented, slamming his body back down. "She put me on hold again!"

"Is that the bloke you called before?"

"Yeah, bastard never called back..."

"Did Nicki verify that?" he noted of the service they maintained in Texas. They called a few times a week to pick up messages.

"Yeah." He shoved the glass aside and picked up the bottle, taking a good swig. "I called the F.B.I. when we brought that kid in."

"Missing persons?"

"Yeah, I used the toll free number. I told them where we found the kid and they connected me to a southwest district office. I asked the operator who answered who the division head was... I left him a message too."

"You think that kid is connected to the plane?"

"Don't you?" He sat back and began to drum his fingers on the table. "He turns up in the middle of nowhere, just about the same time they disappeared."

"You don't know it's them."

"It's them... I can feel it."

"There are a lot of tourists piddlin' about there. It could be a coincidence."

"Yeah, and I could be a virgin." He sat up, cupping his ear. "Yes... McClendon? DiTullio, that's right."

Eric McClendon yawned and nudged down the volume on the television. Turning on the light by his dining room table, he sat down at the kitchen desk and rummaged around in the drawer, finally pulling out a legal pad.

"Yeah. Go ahead." He picked up a pen.

"We found a body wearing an ATF badge, not far from Candamena Canyon, Mexico." He flipped through his notes and gave the number and the coordinates of where the discovery was. "Then we moved up stream and found part of a plane and two more bodies. A pilot and a passenger. He had a badge too."

"When was this?" The bored agent wrote down the other badge number.

"About five o'clock tonight. They've been there awhile. Between the heat and the animals, it ain't pretty."

"No, I don't imagine it would be," McClendon noted with a touch of sarcasm. "Do you have any info on the plane? It might be border jumpers or drug runners."

"No, but the pilot is a Roberto Carrion, his license was from Baja..." He paused, frowning and getting annoyed with the blasŽ attitude. "What's with you? You got two missing men. You could show a little interest."

Jack eyed the other number on the paper, a phone number, and frowned. He pointed to it and Pete shook his head.

"What I know is you found three dead bodies. It might not even be Tanner and Larabee."

"I found their badges for Christ's sake!" Pete vented, rising along with his blood pressure. "You think this is some kind of game? I called you weeks ago with a missing person's report. It could be that kid we found was tied to this. You never even followed up."

"I get hundreds of tips every day and don't have time to follow up every crack pot who..."

"Fuck you, asshole!"

Jack winced, dropped his shaggy blond head and shook it. "Ever the diplomat," he muttered, watching the veins bugging out on the dark-haired man's temple.

"Look, pal, I got the information. We'll be in touch." McClendon was preparing to hang up.

"Oh, sorry..." Pete snapped. "What did I interrupt? You banging your nuts against Betty the blowup doll?"

That comment sent the mouthful of tequila he'd been trying to swallow across the table, and Jack coughed for several minutes, then saw the other man slam the phone down.

"Arrogant bastard hung up on me!"

"I can't imagine why," Lynch wheezed. "Calm down before you have a stroke."

"Dammit!" Pete pounded the table, strangling the neck of the bottle as he took it from the blond.

"Betty the blowup doll?" Jack tried, but couldn't help it and dissolved into convulsive laughter.

"Shut the hell up!" Pete smacked the back of the blond head and moved the lantern over to read the number. He dialed and waited, then nodded, cupping the phone. "... call forwarding..." He stopped when a voice mail came on. "Shit!" He hung up and turned.

"What?"

"The lead on CNN tomorrow morning, that's what!" he exclaimed. "Lincoln Savage!"

"Those blokes that were running around shooting up the states?"

"Yeah... they must have hired that pilot to fly them down here."

"And somehow they ran into those ATF agents... and kidnapped them." Jack tapped his fingers on the glass. "What now? Another call to the F.B.I.?"

"Hell, no!" Pete rose and collected his notes. "Let's see if the computer is up yet." He went inside, the blond on his heels. He padded through the Spanish style house into the study and flipped the computer on. It only took a few minutes and the news bulletins about the missing men came up.

"You were right!" Jack read over the other man's shoulder and wrinkled his nose. "You stink, Mate..."

"Denver." Pete wrote down the name of the senior ATF agent in the home office where Larabee and Tanner were from. "...kidnapped from a diner and driven to an airstrip in New Mexico... " He read through the article. "It's them... I'm gonna call this Travis guy." He flipped through a few more articles, then saw a familiar name. "He even looks like a prick!"

"Looks like he left Betty at home." Jack's lips quirked at the smug shot of Agent Eric McClendon. "Nasty lot, those Savages..." Lynch read about the younger agent being tortured. "Do you think they're still about?"

"No... You saw how that plane was torn up..." He dialed and waited, then got the Denver ATF operator. "This is CNN." He paused and gave his credentials. "I need to speak with Orrin Travis and it's urgent!"

+ + + + + + +

Mexico, on the river road, 11:30 p.m.

He hid the car off the side of the road and made camp. He hadn't taken much from the hospital. Just blankets, some food, a knife and fork from his dinner tray and a plastic pitcher. He jogged down to the river and filled the pitcher with water. He ate a sandwich, saved from his lunch tray, and washed it down with water. Tanner was still out cold. He left him in the car, belted in. They would sleep for a few hours and then start out again. He knew he was close; he felt the wreckage couldn't be too far ahead. A soft cough brought his head up.

"Troy?"

"Huh?" Vin blinked in complete darkness and shivered. It was freezing. He was... was... he cast his eyes around, seeing dense trees. He heard water rushing nearby and the cool air was a result. "... hell are we?"

"By the river." Arlee rummaged in the bag and found a small tin of orange juice. He picked up the packaged crackers and walked towards the jeep. The injured man was trying to get out. "Hold on..." He popped the top and handed the stuperous man the juice. It went down fast.

"I gotta piss..." Vin slurred, wondering why his tongue wouldn't work. He fell out of the jeep and felt someone catch him. His head was pounding. He shoved off the help and staggered a few feet, relieving his throbbing bladder. Then he stumbled over to a rock and sat down hard. A pair of jeans appeared. He followed the body up, staring in dusky moonlight at a young man's face.

"Troy?" Arlee squatted down, glad for the totally blank features. He hugged Tanner, controlling his fueled emotions and the urge to beat him. He had to play the part of the overjoyed relative. "God..." he choked, "I thought you were dead..." He felt the body stiffen and pulled back. He rested a 'comforting' hand on the other's shoulder. "It's okay, the doctor said your memory was affected by that head wound. Don't you worry, I'll take care of you. We'll find Pa and Chris and then go home."

"Home," Vin rasped, his heart aching. He wanted that too, badly. But he didn't know where home was. A group of crackers and an orange appeared in his hands.

"It's not much, but..."

"It's fine," Vin nodded, "thanks... uh..."

"Kevin," Arlee lied. "Lincoln, just like you. Our Pa's were brothers. Your Ma and Pa died a long time ago."

"Aw, hell." Vin slumped, swallowing the dry crackers. The orange was sweet and he devoured it.

"Chris raised you up..." He prodded, seeing the dull eyes shine.

"Chris!" Vin hissed, his heart hammering. "Chris... I gotta find 'im..." He stood and was shoved back down.

"I know, I know," Arlee persisted. "But it's too dangerous to be on this road at night. We're in the mountains in Mexico. There are rebels all over. They'd kill us as sure as looking at us. We gotta be careful."

"Yeah," Vin nodded, "Where we headed?"

"Up river... to the place where..." He paused, thinking of his uncle's body and the tracks. "I can't remember much but I know we were near water and something bad happened."

"Bad?"

"A mercenary... and his men. A mean dude with yellow hair and green eyes..." He waited and saw nothing in the other's face. "He used his knife on you... his men, they beat you."

"Hell..." Vin shuddered, "I can't recall..."

"With that chunk out of your head, it's a wonder you can remember anything."

"What about the others?"

"Chris and Pa? I don't know... I remember getting you free and us trying to jump in the river to escape... there was gunshots... Chris... I think he covered you with his body... somehow... I don't know ... I woke up all wet... got to the road and some reporters found me. Troy, I thought you were dead..."

"He's dead," Vin said flatly, a pain inside resurfacing. He felt a loss so profound it took his breath away. He knew, somehow, Chris was dead. He couldn't see the face, but he felt the loss. He clutched his beloved chain and felt tears brimming.

"Hey," Arlee wanted to laugh at the emotive face. "Don't get upset. I'm counting on you. You're the best tracker..."

"Tracker?" Vin cocked his head.

"Yeah, you read the land... You can find Pa and Chris. Maybe they got away... they could be hurt... looking for us. It's up to you. He's depending on you. He saved your life."

"All right... all right!" Vin shouted, causing his head to explode. "I don't wanna hear no more." He stood and went back to the jeep, sliding into the seat. His eyes went to the dashboard and his fingers followed. "Couldda swore..."

"What's that?" Arlee had yanked the small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the dashboard. He'd found other stuff belonging to the priest, the car registration, some rosaries, a sick room set and Bible. He'd tossed them all out of the car.

"Nothin'..." Vin mumbled, his headache forcing his eyes shut. Then the image of the priest swam by. "Aw, hell..." he sat up, clutching the side of the window. "The padre... where's the padre?"

"He's back in San Pedro. You said goodbye... hell, you damn near broke his ribs, you hugged him so hard. Don't you remember?" he goaded, watching the guilty face and enjoying it.

"No... can't recall... anythin'..." Vin mumbled.

"What's the last thing you remember?"

Vin thought hard, pressing a hand to his tender temple, but nothing came up. A meal with Father Carlos and his father. Then... then... blankness.

"Eatin' breakfast with the padre and his Pa... but... .nothin' else..."

"That was a few days ago," Arlee lied, resting that comforting hand on Vin's shoulder. "You were in the hospital for awhile. Then the doctor released us... remember?"

"No..." Vin sighed, wanting the pain and black box where his memories should be to leave.

"Never mind." The killer pulled the blanket over him; he couldn't afford for the tracker to get a fever. "You just get some rest. I'll take good care of you," he vowed, already seeing the naked chest, hands bound over his head and a knife slowly pulling out his entrails.

"Thanks... Kev...in..." Vin slurred, his eyes falling shut.

Arlee waited several minutes, watching the chest rise and fall. The Texan's mouth went slack, and the lips parted slightly. The soft snore brought an evil smile. He tapped that pale face and took out the small knife. He ran the dull side along the white throat and felt his excitement rise.

"Oh, yeah, 'cousin', I'll take gooood care of you..."

Part Eight

Midnight, Denver, CO

"Orrin... who is it?" Evelyn Travis sat up and blinked at the digital numbers on the clock. She turned on the lamp on her nightstand. She knew by the ashen complexion of her husband that it was bad news. Her first thought was of their family and an accident.

"Mary? Billy?"

Orrin shook his head and flipped the top off a pen and pulled over a tablet of paper to write on.

"Yes, this is he. Who? Yes, I know who you are. I recognize your voice from CNN." He began to write and felt his stomach churn. His wife rose and went into the bathroom, leaving him alone. With every word he heard, he felt a knife-like pain in his gut.

"When? Tell me all of it..." He wrote down every bit of information the caller gave. "You called the F.B.I.?"

"Oh, yeah, I had that pleasure," Pete growled. "Some prick named McClendon. He actually yawned on the phone. He didn't give a rat's ass... pissed me off. I can't get the sight of those bodies from my mind and he was pissed off 'cause I called again."

"Again?" Orrin frowned. "You called him before?" He nodded and continued to write down notes, his anger rising. When this investigation was done, McClendon would be history.

"Listen, Agent Travis, from what we've read online... it sounds like those two agents were damn good. I'm very sorry... to have to tell you this. Jack's got the videos cued up. What's your email? We can send it..."

"Thank you." Travis was still in shock and gave the information. He also got the phone number of their service. "I'll be in touch." He immediately dialed Washington, to the main office of the F.B.I., and relayed the information. "Yes, I understand. How long before the bodies can be brought back?" He nodded, continued to write. "I see..." he sighed deeply. "Thank you, Mitch, I'll call you later today."

"Orrin?" She came out of the bathroom and walked around to his side of the bed. The phone was still in his hand, now filling the room with dial tone. She eased it out and returned it to the cradle. He looked up then, his eyes full of raw agony. "What?"

"A God-awful mistake I hope," he managed, his voice wavering. "That was a reporter. He was one of two journalists in the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains...."

"Where?"

"...a remote area in Mexico..." He stood. "I need a drink."

She followed him downstairs into the den where he poured himself a healthy shot of whiskey. He tossed it back, turning the glass in his fingers. Impatient now, she moved forward, took the glass from him and set it down.

"What?" She demanded, taking his hand. "For heaven's sake, Orrin, talk to me."

"They found a... decayed remains... the first one near a river bed... they followed the river and found wreckage... and two more bodies. One charred beyond recognition... they had badges..."

"No," she denied, her heart wrenching. "No, Orrin... Oh, my God, no..." She began to sob, falling into his arms. She knew both agents well. She cared for them, considered them family. She'd prayed all this time for a miracle.

"I have some phone calls to make. Go on back to bed. I won't be up for a while yet."

"I'm sorry, Orrin." She kissed his cheek.

"So am I, Evie." His voice broke and he rubbed his eyes. "They weren't just two of the finest men I've had the privilege of working with... they were special. They were family."

After she left, he went to his study to begin the phone calls. But he didn't call the team. That wasn't the type of news you break over the phone. He eyed a photo taken a few months back at a charity event for the hospital Rain Jackson worked for. The seven men were in tuxedos and looking very dapper. Chris was to the far left and naturally, at his right hand, was Vin Tanner. He was glad that Chris found Vin, even if only for a brief time. The quiet Texan had brought peace to the troubled agent.

+ + + + + + +

Eight a.m. Team Seven Headquarters, Denver

"Dammit to hell, J.D., turn that shit down!" Buck complained of the loud music blasting from the youth's radio. The music went dead so fast, he stuck his dark head out of the cantina, still holding an empty cup. Nathan and Josiah were standing behind J.D. Ezra had just arrived and looked perplexed. Then Buck saw the reason why. He didn't have to hear the words. He knew by the haunted look in the older man's eyes. A sobering reflection which left his own tone flat and cold.

"They're dead, aren't they?"

"What?" J.D. blurted at Buck's words. His wide eyes going from Wilmington's ashen face to Orrin Travis's. "Is that right? No, they can't be. Chris isn't dead... Vin..." His small voice trailed off.

"Can we go in the conference room?" The graying division head walked by, pausing briefly and resting a single hand on Buck Wilmington's slumped shoulder. In all his years of service to the government, over forty now, he'd never seen such raw agony as was reflected in the dark blue eyes. He watched the bottom lip disappear into a tense bite and nodded. Then the mustached agent's eyes clenched shut and an anguished whisper slipped past the firm lips.

"God... both of them..."

"When?" Ezra asked, eyeing the folder the older man held. Orrin motioned to the conference room and they all filed inside. Ezra waited for the agonized Wilmington. Buck moved past him and took the vacant seat on the end.

"Yesterday afternoon, late... two journalists in the Sierra Tarahumara mountains found... a corpse in a bad state of decomposition by a riverbank. I think you're aware of the intense heat in the area and the wild life."

"Oh, God..." J.D.'s stomach lurched and he swallowed his breakfast as it came back up.

"There was a badge on the... remains." He paused, eyeing each horrified face. They'd worked so hard, using their own time, to find their missing friends. That made this even more heartbreaking. Tirelessly, they had called Mexico and tried to track down any leads. "It was Vin Tanner's."

"No!" J.D. remained in denial. "Vin's the toughest... nobody could..."

"Easy, son." Josiah moved behind the distressed younger man who was fighting hard to remain still. He rested his hand on the faded blue denim shirt.

"They followed the river and found wreckage... and more bodies... one with another badge was badly burned..."

"Ah, fuck!" Buck pushed his chair back and stood up. "Not that way... not after Sara and Adam..." He shoved away from the table and glared accusingly at Josiah. "Some God you have..."

"How many bodies?" Ezra remained outwardly calm, but the vision of Vin Tanner being eaten by animals caused a nuclear meltdown in his gut.

"What the hell difference does it make?" Buck roared.

"How many?" Ezra persisted, drilling Orrin.

"Three."

"Well," Nathan struggled, "then it might not be them. Four Savages... Vin and Chris... a pilot... there's four people unaccounted for..."

"I told you!" J.D found new hope. "They're not dead."

"Hold on, J.D.," Josiah warned, "I know that area. It's brutal. There are few roads, fewer towns and little help. Even if they did survive, with the heat, snakes and wildlife, no medical help... they wouldn't be able to..."

"They're not dead!" Dunne stood, and Orrin did as well.

"Mr. Dunne, take your seat!" Travis ordered. "Josiah is right. Also, only a part of the plane was found. It apparently broke apart before the forced landing. Even if this isn't Chris and Vin, we may never find them."

"I'll find them!" Buck vowed, eyes flashing. "If it fuckin' takes the rest of my life, I'll bring them... ho... home..." He blew out a long breath, clenched his frustrated fists and felt a hand on his back. He nodded silently to Ezra and took the bottle of water he offered.

"Are there photos?" Standish guessed and the other man nodded.

"They were downloaded an hour ago...." He saw Buck and Ezra walk over and kept his fingers on the folder. "It's grisly..."

"I'm not a rookie, Orrin," Buck noted of the many different crime scenes he'd encountered.

With a nod, the senior agent slid the folder over. Buck remained passive, eyeing each photo without emotion. Ezra blanched and backed up slightly.

"Sweet Jesus..." he swallowed hard, eyeing the horrific shots.

"Don't!" Buck advised, standing before J.D. Nathan and Josiah moved quickly past, each as torn up as the southerner was.

"I'm not a kid, Buck, I carry the same badge you do." J.D. wiggled past and made it only through the first photo. It was unimaginable; a bug infested, rotted chest cavity with Vin Tanner's badge. Josiah shoved the gagging young man over the trash can and Ezra took the half bottle of water from the spot where Buck had been .

"It will take awhile before they can be flown to Fort Bliss," Travis noted of the airbase in El Paso. "For confirmation. It's in a bad place, tough to get to... and the Mexican government is playing hardball." He keyed up the computer and downloaded the film the journalist sent.

"Why?" J.D. asked, pale and shaking. "They're Americans and..."

"The plane was Mexican and so was the pilot. They want to investigate. We have to proceed carefully. I'm flying down to Chihuahua with representatives from the F.B.I. and the State Department. We'll meet with the Mexican officials and get it ironed out."

"I'm going with you..." Buck said, but he knew better. He averted his eyes when the charred corpse came into view.

"I'm going alone. You have jobs to finish here. I know how shaken you are. Finish your reports and take the day off. The F.B.I wants DNA samples from Vin and Chris. I'll need some hair."

"Vin's..." J.D. paused, his heart wrenched. "I'll get it... I have a key to his place. I've been getting his mail and taking care of the plants."

"Why don't we meet at Chris's?" Ezra suggested. "I think we should be together."

"Yeah," Buck said. "I need some air. I'll be up later." He slipped his hand in his pocket and took out a ring of keys. He slipped one off and handed it to jade-eyed southerner. He and Vin each held spare keys to Chris's house. He didn't say another word, just headed outside. He needed air.

"Buck... wait up!" J.D stood to follow, but Nathan stopped him.

"Let him go, J.D., he's hurtin' worse than all of us. Him and Chris go back a long time."

He didn't see the nasty glares of the pedestrians he bumped into. He didn't hear the loud horns honking when he crossed against the light. He didn't hear the loud curses from drivers he walked in front of. He was only aware of two things, the clear green eyes of a warrior and the soft, drawling laugh of the bounty hunter who saved his soul. That was Vin Tanner's finest bounty.

He found the small church easily and dropped to his knees in the back pew. His Catholic upbringing came back and he began to recite a rosary. As the prayers drifted above, he found the ivory face of the Lord above the altar. His prayers ended and his questions began.

"Why?" His shuddering whispered accusation floated over the cold church. "Why them? All the scum that's walkin' around... I don't understand? Unquestioning faith..." He denied of his roots. He collected his thoughts, rose, blessed himself and left. His long strides took him to the parking lot at work and his car. A half hour later, he was at the first of his destinations. He walked slowly, his mighty heart constricting with every painful step. He couldn't face her... he was ashamed.

He finally stopped and knelt down, gripping the smooth marble of the stone. As he ran his hands over the marble wings of the angel, he let the tears fall. He sobbed without abandon, angry tears that fought hard to be born.

"Why?" he screamed at the clear blue sky. Finally, the shuddering stopped and he swiped his eyes. He stared hard at the scattering of letters and traced each one with his hand. He took a rose from the grave and marveled at its texture. Without fail, once a month, the florist brought them. Chris set it up that way. He touched the pink bloom to her name and his voice broke.

"I'm sor...ry... S...ara..." he whispered in agony over his broken vow. He'd pledged on her grave the day of the funeral to be her eyes and ears. To keep the man she loved so deeply, safe. "I failed..."

He crushed the rose, welcoming the pain of the thorns buried in his fist. Somewhere deep inside, they pierced the mighty Wilmington heart... and he bled.

+ + + + + + +

Six p.m. The Saloon, Denver

Except for Buck, the numbed team plodded through their paperwork. After agreeing to meet at The Saloon at five, they scattered at noontime, each seeking their own chapel of grief. Nathan went to his wife, breaking the news gently and supporting the sobbing woman in the ER where she worked. Ezra went to the mountains, seeking out Vin's favorite spot and mourned in the cathedral the tracker loved best. Josiah went to his cabin, tossing his bulk into chopping wood, clearing brush and cursing the wisdom of God. J.D. went to Vin's place, pulled on the tracker's Avalanche jersey, embracing the scent still clinging to the fabric. He put on an Eagle's CD, called Casey to come over and grieved in her arms.

"Ezra?" Josiah pressed against the left side of his ear and pushed the phone closer to his right. "Where have you been? We're gonna head up to Chris's."

"I'll meet you there." The southerner shoved the half-eaten sandwich across the kitchen table. It soured in his stomach. He rubbed the bridge of his nose , pressing the headache back down

It had been the worst day of his professional career.

"You seen Buck?" the preacher asked. "We can't find him."

"Not to fear, I'll find him. We'll see you up there. Is Orrin coming?"

"Yeah, he's gonna try to call the reporter back at nine. He wants us all there."

"Until later," Standish signed off, threw the sandwich away and grabbed his jacket. He paused by the door where a black and white five by seven photo in a malachite frame sat. He picked it up, smiling at the two men on the far left. They'd taken a ski weekend and the photo was in the Swiss-style lodge. They looked so healthy and vital, skin pink from the cold air and eyes shining.

"What a fucking waste!" he lamented, eyeing Vin Tanner's wide grin. Vin and Buck were the two he felt closest to. Losing the Texan would leave a horrid wound inside. The leader's cool green gaze burned into his soul as well. He sighed, replaced the photo and nodded. "I shan't forget either of you... "

"You get hold of Ezra?" Nathan wiped his mouth and watched the somber profile of the team's eldest.

"Yeah, he's gonna find Buck."

"Where?" J.D. drained his Coke, his face ashen and lined with grief. "I've looked... we've looked everywhere."

"Brother Standish does have a gift for finding the elusive," Sanchez noted, watching the owner of the bar approach. Her pretty eyes were red and swollen.

"Can I get you anything else?" She paused behind J.D. and rubbed his back.

"No thanks, Inez." Jackson stood up. "Don't worry, we'll find him."

"Until I see him..." Her voice trailed off, thinking of the handsome rogue's face locked in agony.

"I know," Jackson hugged her. "He's strong... he'll be okay."

"He's got four brothers to hold him up," J.D. vowed, taking her hand. "If he calls you..."

"I will let you know," she vowed, letting out a shuddering breath. "I can't believe they're gone..."

"We don't know for sure," Dunne persisted. "It might be a mistake... they can't be dead."

"J.D...." Nathan started, but Josiah shook his head.

"Leave him be, Nate. You know how he looked up to Chris. I'm sure being at Vin's today wasn't easy."

J.D. slid behind the wheel of his car and sighed. He gripped the wheel and felt the hatred rising again. If they were dead, and he didn't want to believe that. It was too final... to difficult to comprehend. He glanced at the plastic bag on the passenger seat. He lifted it, fingering the comb through the clear plastic. The long strands of brown hair burned his hand. Going through Vin's things was hard. The aura of the Texan was everywhere. Vin was a good friend and they'd done so much together. He felt a huge hole inside where Tanner's smile should be. He put the bag down and turned the ignition. The numbness from his heart quickly spread, engulfing him.

+ + + + + + +

The conman slid from behind the wheel of his silver Porsche and squinted. He adjusted his sunglasses and zipped up his cashmere jacket. He approached slowly, wincing visibly at the raw agony on the handsome man's shadowed face. His eyes were the worst. Usually a bright blue, sparkling with mischief, they were dull and riddled with anguish. Ezra waited several moments, then saw the face finally turn towards him. He wished it hadn't.

"How'd you know?" Buck whispered, his throat raw.

"Logical deduction," Ezra moved a little closer and saw the signs of the raw, cold day. "It's freezing out here. My car is still warm." He'd had the heat on during the ride up to this spot on the mountain. Buck nodded and staggered, finally settling inside the southerner's car. Ezra joined him, turned the ignition out, releasing the heat. Then he offered his antique silver flask. "... and we've looked everywhere else." His haunted gaze went to a flat rock and he watched the sun setting over the mountains. Orange ripples fanned across the lake and gave this spot its heavenly aura.

"He loved it here," Buck whispered, before sipping the fine brandy.

"I know," Ezra agreed of Vin Tanner's church. This spot, with an unequaled view and far from the noise of the city, was where he renewed his soul.

"Did anything else... turn up?"

"Not yet. Orrin is meeting us at Chris's. Why didn't you turn your cell phone on?"

"I didn't want to hear voices," he repeated simply. "I went to see Sara... to apologize." He took another swig; this time the liquid wasn't as hot. "I spent a lot of time there with her. I went to that warehouse where me and Chris first met..." he chuckled painfully, recalling the magic moment during a raid. "I didn't think we'd last six months together. He was the best friend I ever had..."

"I know," Ezra sighed, eyeing the haunted profile. "For what it's worth, Buck, he admired you. More than all of us, for that great heart you are gifted with. He told me once that he envied your capacity for guardianship."

"Guardianship?" Buck found a weak smile.

"My word, not his." Standish found his own waning grin. He found the voices from the radio disrupting and moved to distinguish them.

"At least they were together." Buck eyed the spot again where Vin Tanner had loved to perch. "I can't imagine either one..."

Ezra had his hand on the radio dial, attempting to turn it off, when Buck stopped talking. He started to push it off and his wrist was gripped.

"Don't!"

Frowning, he turned it up and watched the dark-haired man gasp audibly, as if someone punched him. The blue eyes darted and filled again as the words caressed the air.

"God..." Buck rasped, clenching his eyes shut, recalling the first time he was at this very spot and how this song was tied to that moment.

"A vivid memory?"

"Yeah... that first weekend in June, after Vin came. He disappeared after lunch and we went huntin' for him." He smiled then and relayed the story to Ezra.

He and Chris were riding in Buck's SUV, looking for the Texan. The song came on at the same time they spotted him. He didn't see them and that made the difference. But he saw the light shining from Chris Larabee's eyes and the easy wide smile that was born. A pure light that died with Sara and Adam's tragic deaths. Vin Tanner restored it and it gleamed brightly.

"I hope you never lose that sense of wonder.
I hope you get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger.
May you never take one single breath for granted.
God forbid love ever leave you empty-handed.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance.
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance....

I hope you dance."

It was about two months after Vin joined the team. Having sampled the beauty around Chris's ranch and ridden the horses, he became a frequent visitor. It was a Sunday in early summer and the sun was set like a diamond in a cerulean sky. Deciding to take a swim in the water, the sharpshooter, who they thought was on the shy side, was basking in the sun... in his birthday suit.

They'd been searching for quite some time, on a lonely stretch of private road on Chris's property. Unable to drive on the narrow road any further, they pulled over and got out. Then they heard the whooping call and splashing sounds. They jogged down the dirt path and grinned. They watched him splash and swim, hooting and hollering the whole time, then shake the water from his shaggy head. Then he disappeared into a cluster of rocks, laying himself out to dry. The music drifted from a radio the Texan had with him.

"Fuckin' Texas lizard," Chris grinned from the inside out and right to his eyes.

It was the first time he saw that look, the 'Vin' look. He found himself grinning as well, seeing Chris Larabee reborn. The drawling, raspy-voiced sniper from Texas had a profound effect on the blond.

They quietly made their way up to the rocks, grinning at the slender man sunning himself. Buck lowered his voice and snuck up behind the unassuming skinny dipper.

"State trooper, boy, you're under arrest."

Ezra's laughter drew him back and he chuckled as well.

"He damn near jumped five feet, skinned his knees and his ass. Cursed me up one side and down the other. He had curses I'd never heard of. Chris was laughin' so hard I thought he'd pee. Of course, that made Vin even madder. I thought I'd never hear that sound again" He sighed then as another verse came on the radio.

"I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance.
Never settle for the path of least resistance.
Living might mean taking chances, but they're worth taking.
Loving might be a mistake but it's worth making.
Don't let some hell-bent heart leave you bitter.
When you come close to selling out, reconsider.
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance.
And when you get the chance to sit out or dance.

I hope you dance."

Ezra saw the change as the smile fell. Buck's face grew somber and he eyed that burning orb as it fell lower, giving his face a golden tone. After swallowing twice and collecting his scattered emotions, he spoke, his voice full of wonder.

"Later, Vin disappeared again. I came up alone and saw him," he pointed, his hand trembling, "right there. It was sunset and as beautiful as you'd ever seen. Ezra, the look on his face... I got no words, especially them eyes..."

"Poetry... pure poetry," the southerner agreed.

"I asked him about that look which went way beyond bliss and peace." The mustache curled up over a warm smile. "He turned to me and said 'Bucklin, I'm honorin' Him fer sharin' his majesty with me..." He choked up then, his mind's eye seeing Vin's soulful blues gazing at the celestial heavens. "It was the first time he called me that."

"Let it out, Buck," Ezra saw the other man's white teeth chewing on his bottom lip in an attempt to hold back a sob. The eyes were burning and the face was a mask of pain.

"I... asked... him..." he swallowed it down, "What did you call... me...?" He took two large breaths as the sun slipped lower. "He said... Bucklin... in tone like I should know what he meant. Then... he... smiled... Ezra, you never saw the likes of it. He cocked that shaggy head and said 'Anybody can have them a Buck, I got me a genuine Bucklin'."

"He was quite a linguist." He saw Buck laugh, then break into a wide grin, "..and..." he goaded.

"...and then he smacked me, got that cranky Tanner face on and cussed me out. Said the boys hadn't forgivin' me for interruptin' their sunbath... said they were all fired up..."

"Spoken like a true Tanner." Ezra took the flask and saluted.

"The first time... that day we watched Vin splashin' and hootin' like a fool boy in that water, that song was on the radio. Chris said... and he had that wide smile and the light comin' from his eyes... he said..." Buck's voice cracked. "Look at that, Buck, he's celebratin' life'" The rogue smiled then, his heart warm. "Chris's voice... he was in awe, Ezra."

"Perhaps, for the first time in a long time, our drawling nomad found home," Ezra noted, handing the flask back.

"After that, whenever that song came on, Chris's eyes would drift back to that place and he would get that same look on his face." He lifted the flask then, drawing up the pure angelic smile Vin gifted him with at that sunset. "Thank you, Vin Tanner, for teaching Chris Larabee to dance again."

"I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean.
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance.
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

I hope you dance."

+ + + + + + +

Midnight, Denver

"All right... all right..." Inez turned her bedroom light on and padded to the living room door. She held a solid marble rolling pin and peeked through the keyhole. "God... oh, my God...!" She unlocked the bolts and threw the door open. "Where have you been? You never heard of a phone? What the hell is the matter with you?"

He lifted his face then and she lost her heart. He opened his mouth to speak and no words came out. Two slits of blue peered at her through red rimmed lids. His lips trembled, his hands shook and he took a shuddering breath.

"I'm sorry..." he croaked. "I didn't want to go home... alone... tonight."

"Oh, Buck!" She opened the door wider and he stumbled into her arms. "I'm so sorry..." "It hurts, Inez... Jesus God, it hurts..." he choked, so glad for her support. He staggered inside the dark room, following the path towards a small light. He sat on the bed, dropped his head into his hands and broke. He felt her sit down beside him, her small hands on his neck and back, rubbing them.

"Why?" he whispered painfully, finally seeking out the beautiful dark eyes. "Both of them, Inez... why?" He dropped his head on the soft shoulder and finally let it out.

"Shhh...." she soothed, rocking him in her arms and stroking his hair. "I have you, Buck... I'm here."

And she stayed. Long after he fell into an exhausted sleep, she pulled his shoes off and got him stretched out on the bed. Then she curled up next to him. She pulled the blanket over them and smiled when his arm moved protectively in his sleep, drawing her near.

"Do you know," she whispered, drawing a finger over his cheek, "how much I love you...?" She kissed him softly and snuggled closer, vowing to mend that broken heart.

The dizzying pace of the flight stole his breath. He swooped low over majestic waterfalls and lush green trees. The sun winked at a hint of silver, sending him even lower. He paused over the first body, blinded by the light from the badge. Then the rotted flesh moved and a hand came up.

"...Bucklin..."

The raspy voice sent him back into the sky, this time at an uneven pace. The trees hit his face as he swooped down again. Through the twisted metal of the plane, a charred body moved. From the blacked sockets, two green eyes popped out.

"I needed you..."

"NOOOOOOO!"

'Madre Dios!" Inez sat up, flipped on the bedside lamp and then jumped from the bed. The scream was followed by a thud as Buck hit the floor. He was crawling, trying to escape.

"Buck... no... oh my God..." She caught up to him and knelt down, tapping his face. "Buck, wake up..."

He blinked and gasped, sat down and shook all over. Finally the soft voice brought his dazed head up. With thick confusion, he eyed the room and then zoned on the beautiful face in front of him. The pretty dark eyes were full of concern... and something else. He opened his mouth to speak, but paused, his mind working. Then he heard the words of her heart again and he sighed. He reached a trembling hand up, brushed the long, silky hair from her cheek and marveled at the incredible soft texture of her skin.

"I thought..." he whispered, his hand on her cheek. "...it was a dream..."

"Perhaps it is," she pressed her cheek into his palm. She raised her hand and found the back of his neck. "and I don't want to wake up." She pulled his face closer and kissed him softly. She groaned when he returned it, stronger and more defined.

He broke away, dropped his head and sighed again. The grisly images of Vin and Chris returned. He scrubbed a hand over his weary face and felt his eyes burning again.

"Come," she offered, stood and helped him up. "You will sleep and I will watch your back. No more bad dreams."

"I need a drink." He rested against the headboard, pressing his fingers over the headache building behind his eyes. He felt the bed move and squinted, then felt a glass pressed to his hand. "Thanks..." he sipped the whiskey too quickly, it burned a slow path inside.

He was at that maddning waystation just past exhaustion. When you're so tired, you can't sleep. Despite the light going off, he couldn't rest. He turned left, then right. He punched the pillow in frustration and flopped onto his belly. Then two small hands began to massage his back. The firm fingers worked magic, right up to his neck. He felt the tension leave and surrendered, just as the soft body pressed close.

"Sleep."

He sighed at the feathery voice tickling his ear and let himself go. There were no more nightmares. When the new dawn came, he'd be ready. He'd shed his last tear and would bury the grief deep inside. He polished his armor and readied himself for battle. He would find his two friends and bring them home. Even if he had to go through the whole Mexican government to do it.

+ + + + + + +

6 a.m. Denver

The strong aroma of coffee tickled his nose and pulled his eyes open. Lethargy that comes with grief cloaked him heavily. For several minutes, he remained in the bed as the images of the day before repeated. Sighing deeply, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, forced his limbs to move and headed to the bathroom.

Inez turned the flame down on the stove where an omelet was busy heating up. She wiped her hands on a towel and made her way toward the ringing telephone.

"Hello?"

"Inez, it's Josiah. I got your voicemail," he said of the message left a half hour before. "I was down the hall. Is Buck okay?"

"No, his heart is broken," she whispered, still seeing those bruised eyes. "He's in the shower. I'll have him call when he gets out."

"Tell him Orrin's trying to hook up another line with those reporters again," he noted of the lost transmission from the night before. "We're shooting for eight a.m... in the conference room here at the office."

"Okay, Josiah." She paused and thought of the handsome man in her shower. "We'll stand by him... get him through this, yes?"

"Count on it, darlin'," he returned, gently hanging up the phone.

+ + + + + + +

6 a.m. in the mountains in Mexico

"Wake up, dog!"

Chris blinked into the near darkness as a large bulk hovered over his bunk. He didn't need any light. The smell was enough to kill an average man.

"Fuck off, Savage."

"You listen to me, blondie," Bull growled, grabbing the other man's collar and hauling him upright. He slammed the still healing and half asleep body against the wall and curled his face up in anger. "You'll do as I say. I'm not taking any more shit from these greasers. We're gonna be near the river today and once it gets dark, I'm getting the hell out."

Chris shifted his weight, pulled his eyes open and slammed his fist into the other man's groin. He followed up with another fist to the throat, sending the larger man to his knees. He leaned in, using his forearm around the massive throat.

"First of all, let's get one thing clear. You don't fuckin' tell me what to do. Second, we'll go when I say. With a plan... you try runnin' without one and they'll shoot us both down, you stupid son-of-a-bitch. "Chris panted, his ribs aching and his side throbbing. "And finally, you ever touch me again and it'll be the last fuckin' thing you do, got it?"

"Get off me!" Bull sneered, trying to break free. "Okay, wiseass, we'll wait. You sweet talk that little Mexican piece of ass you're so fond of and ..."

"You must have a whole lot of air between your ears," Chris growled, placing his knee on the other man's back and forcing him further onto the floor. He twisted an arm behind Bull's back and pulled hard, hearing a soft gasp of pain. "You ever make the mistake of talking about her again and you won't be walking straight fora week. Don't breathe near her, don't look at her and don't even think about her."

The 'discussion' was interrupted when the door opened and two guards appeared. A gun pressed against his throat brought Chris back to his feet. The barrel shoved hard into the soft area above his collarbone and he pushed it back.

"Yeah, okay..." he backed off.

"Eat... we leave in ten minutes," the second guard said as Maria entered.

Chris immediately put himself between her and the other three males. He couldn't hear what the two guards were saying, but he knew it was filthy by their leering laughter. Bull heard them and began to laugh, causing the ATF man to release a low growl and curl his fist's up. The guard's gun appeared again, but it was the soft voice from behind him and a small hand on his arm that stopped his actions.

"They are not worth it, Chris. Come and eat..." she implored, waiting for the guards to leave. He was in pain, his eyes reflected that. She helped him sit and gripped both shoulders, until his damp head nodded. She lifted the cloth over the dish on the table. His hand rested briefly on her cheek and that made her smile.

"You are just like the knights I read about in my fairytale books as a little girl," she teased, watching the lean man sit and pick up a fork.

"I'm not that noble." Chris ate quickly as Bull joined them. "What?" He saw something in her dark eyes when he looked up.

"Tomorrow, we will be turning away, leaving the area close to the river. The road will turn..."

"I told you, pig!" Bull argued, pointing a spoon in defense.

"There's too many guards, we'd never make it," Chris returned but thought on her warning. "If weget further inland, we'll never get out."

"Maybe... I have an idea," she implored. "Juan is leaving later today for a meeting with two of his lieutenants. There is trouble... with the government. There might be more fighting in the next few days. He won't return. We'll meet up with him at the new camp tomorrow afternoon."

"How many guards?"

"Well, some will leave with him... others to ride ahead to prepare the new camp. I'm guessing... maybe six or seven here. I have taken something from my father's bag. It's a strong sedative. I can put it in their food. If I time it right... just as the sun sets..."

"Okay, that might work," Chris mused.

"There's no 'might' about it, Larabee," Bull hissed, tired of the manacles, hard work and having the Mexican guards telling him what to do. "We're doing this tonight. If she's right, we're gonna be shot down..."

Reluctantly, the blond head nodded. He finished his food as the door opened and the guards returned.

"Time's up, gringo dogs."

Sighing, he shoved his boots on, buttoned his shirt and waited for the manacles to be put back on. The sun was barely yawning, but it was hot already. It would be another brutal day in the heat. Thinking of how sick he'd been the day before, he hoped this day would be better. He'd need all the strength he had to conquer the river... and then there was the iron leashing him to Bull Savage. He eyed the dark blue of the morning sky as they were forced ahead.

"I didn't forget, Vin," he whispered, thinking on his vow. He'd make Bull Savage pay for the torture he'd put the Texan through. He'd pay... and with his life.

+ + + + + + +

Eight a.m. Denver

Buck paused in the doorway, squared his shoulders and ducked inside. He'd had breakfast with Inez, thanked her again and left his heart with her. He saw her in a new light at dawn. Once this mess was settled, he intended to court her properly. He wanted to take it slow and easy, seeing so much in the beautiful dark eyes he'd nearly drowned in them.

J.D. saw him first, moved over and embraced him lightly.

"You should have called... I was worried."

"Yeah, I'm sorry, kid," he admitted, nodding to Nathan.

"You would have kicked my ass if I didn't call in..." the youth countered.

"I can still kick your ass," Buck teased. "Hell, you ain't got much of one..."

"Casey don't think so... she likes my ass..." the dark-haired youth tossed back defiantly, glad for a little of the old Buck Wilmington returning.

"Reminds me that I have to talk with that little girl!" He winked and then shook Ezra's handin a silent heave of gratitude. The other man merely nodded, patted his shoulder and moved toward his own seat.

"You look better, brother," Josiah stated, recalling the sad, withdrawn figure at Chris's the night before.

They'd shared stories, filling the night with both sorrow and mirth. Buck had been a shadow, lurking in the corner, huddled and alone. They weren't able to speak with the reporters. The connection was too poor. Today, however, was a new story. Orrin was already speaking to Pete DiTullio, and now that Buck had arrived, he stood up.

"Hold on, Pete, I want to put you on a speaker phone. Larabee's unit is all here. Nathan Jackson, John Dunne, Josiah Sanchez, Ezra Standish and Buck Wilmington. Gentlemen, this is Pete DiTullio. I'm sure you're familiar with his work. He and his partner found the remains."

"How'd it go down?" Nathan said. "I'm Nathan."

"Well," Pete sipped his coffee, watching Jack emerge from the pool and amble over. He flicked his dark eyes to the chair and nodded. The other man hurried, taking the time to towel off and then sit. "We've been hearing rumors for weeks about the rebels planning a hit on a government facility. Juan Xavier is the leader of the strongest arms of the rebel faction. He's a former army leader and a very smart and dangerous man. We've been just behind them for months now and hope to find out where their new base camp is in the mountains. That's where we were headed the day we found the American kid."

"What American kid?" J.D. asked. "I'm John... J.D."

"A couple weeks back, we found a kid... an American... not far from the falls. He was hurt, dazed... had no idea where he was. We took him to San Pedro to the clinic there."

"How old? What did he look like?" Buck interrupted. "Buck Wilmington."

"Early twenties," Pete declined more coffee. "Clean shaven... head, too. Light eyes... tall... well-built..."

"Had to be Arlee or Troy..."

"Savage?" Pete nodded. "That fits... I found a cell phone number in the dead pilot's pocket. I called and got Lincoln Savage's voicemail."

"Where's this kid? I want him..." Buck stood up and placed both fists on the table. "Why didn't you call it in? Two weeks... dammit to hell..."

"I called it in right away," the dark-haired journalist defended. "Don't bust my balls, chief, okay? You want to be pissed off, talk to that F.B.I. prick, McClendon. I called him that day... I thought the kid was missing. Cold-hearted, son-of-a-bitch... he pissed me off. Not only didn't he return my call that day, but when I talked to him last night to update him, he was annoyed that I bothered him. That's your tax dollars at work... what a waste of space."

"MCCLENDON!" Buck roared, springing to life. "GODDAMMIT! I'M GONNA FUCKIN' KILL HIM."

"Buck, take it easy!" Nate grabbed the irate collection of flesh and bones and held on. "Let him finish!"

"We have a number... a toll free one... to use down here for missing persons. It tracked to his territory. I got his number too, from the operator and called him personally. He never called back."

"Buck," Orrin silenced the pulsating wall of anger with one steely, Larabee-esque gaze. He waited until the mustached man shook off the dark-skinned agent's grip and regained control. "What about the plane?"

"We only found the front piece," Pete supplied. "They forced landed... the rest could be down river or you might never find it. There were two bodies on the plane and the one further down the river. When I heard that voicemail, I connected the badges to Tanner and Larabee. I'm really sorry..."

"Thank you," Orrin nodded.

"Did the authorities find any other bodies... over the last two weeks?" Josiah asked. "Are there any unidentified dead?"

"Not that I could track. I'm sure they're checking on that now. Missing American Feds make them jump," he noted of the army.

"Can you send me a likeness of the man you picked up?" Orrin asked. "If that's either Troy or Arlee, that means it's possible Bull or his brother are still alive and I want them. " He didn't hide his strong intent.

"...maybe Vin and Chris..." J.D. offered.

"We'll know soon enough," Pete sent back. "I heard on the radio this morning that the army has moved into the area, taking over the crime scene."

"I hope they don't fuck it up..." Buck worried, not liking the foreign government taking over.

"I'm meeting with the F.B.I in Silver City today, then flying to Chihuahua with the director and other personnel from the government. This is a sticky situation and we need to be careful."

"I didn't tell McClendon about the phone number," Pete said, then relayed it. "Maybe you guys can track the calls. I sent you everything we found so far. We're moving on today. Rumor has it Juan Xavier has a big meeting going down."

"Thank you," Ezra said. "This American you found, who we'll presume to be a member of the Savage clan and I do mean that..." he paused, sipped his coffee and continued, "Where is he now?"

"Jack, my partner, took him to the clinic in San Pedro. It's run by a Dr. Lorico. His leg was broken and he was banged up good. It's not a hospital, so whatever treatment he did get would have been slower."

"Is he still there?"

"That, I don't know, but I will find out and call you back. He was as of yesterday afternoon. I called... I thought maybe he knew something. Some nurse confirmed only that he was a patient and the line was bad. I'm sure by now the army has contacted them. It's the closest village to the wreck."

"Great!" J.D. sighed. "There goes our interrogation."

"Our?" Josiah raised an eyebrow.

"....figure of speech." The youth raked a hand through his dark hair.

"If your travels in the interior create any new leads, you'll call?" Standish winced at the burst of static on the line.

"Yeah, give me some cell phones," DiTullio asked, copying down several numbers. "Okay... I'll be in touch. I feel tied to those guys. I can't get that sight out of my mind... I hope to hell it isn't them."

"Join the club, brother," Josiah said as they signed off.

While the others discussed the information, aired verbal assaults on Eric McClendon and J.D. left to track down that phone number, Buck moved to the window. Once Orrin left, he intended to get his own flight to Silver City. He'd find Eric McClendon and have his own 'discussion'. If the arrogant F.B.I man had notified them that day, things might have been so different. What if Vin and Chris had been alive? What if whichever Savage was found knew where they were? Two weeks... he shook his head in disgust. He had to play it up, make Orrin think he was under control. It took all the strength he had to quell the lava flowing in his gut.

Eric McClendon would be sorry he pissed off Buck Wilmington.

+ + + + + + +

3 p.m. New Mexico

The desert spread out underneath him, grower larger as the plane drifted down. The meeting with the F.B.I. team assigned to the case wasbeing held ata hotel near the airport. That way, they could board their flight, make the connection in El Paso and then onward to Chihuahua. They were to meet with the Ambassador to Mexico, representatives from the president, and General Tomas Santiago, the head of the Mexican army. It was his men that were protecting the crime scene.

Orrin Travis's mind wandered yet again as it had during the flight. The men, for the most part, would be fine. Chris Larabee trained them well. They'd do their jobs, honor that badge that meant so much to him and not let him down. Except for one tall, blue-eyed maverick named Wilmington.

He sighed and clipped his belt as the plane began its final descent. He'd spoken to the younger man alone after the conference call. He looked awful and the director granted him leave. Buck nodded and wandered away. J.D walked with him to the parking lot. The senior agent suspected the youngest on the team needed to talk alone with Wilmington too. The lack of any emotion was worse than a fiery outburst. He wondered about the smoldering inside of Buck Wilmington.

What Travis didn't know was that while meetings with the Denver ATF, FBI and Justice Department representatives kept him from flying out until 1 p.m., Buck Wilmington left at 11 a.m., taking only enough time to change his clothes. He wanted a meeting with the F.B.I too. A private one with Eric McClendon.

+ + + + + + +

4 p.m. near the crash site in Mexico

Vin leaned back against the tree, hidden in the dense area near the rushing river, and sighed. He wiped his face with a remnant of a tee shirt, doused by river water. His head hurt so much, he couldn't see straight, let alone think. He wanted to rest... to sleep... to get away from the throbbing pain in his skull, but it was not to be — not yet.

With an arm weighted heavy by fatigue, he lifted the canteen and drank a little water. His lunch was back a few miles, spewed on the side of the road. He kept his burning eyes on the spot where Kevin disappeared. They had to leave the car a few miles back, having spotted army vehicles.

They had an argument then. Vin wanted to approach the guards and ask for help. But hearing his cousin's reasons made some sense. They weren't in America and had no idea if these soldiers were friendly or not. What if the guards detained them for questioning? How could that help their missing family members? Worse yet, what if these soldiers trumped up charges and they ended up in jail?

So it was decided they'd follow carefully on foot, try to find out what they could and pick up information that way. It was a slow process, his head injury caused him to manuever awkwardly. His cousin's casted left leg gave him an uneven gait. But he was able to move fairly well on the injured leg.

That was how he came to rest against this tree. His legs got this far and turned to rubber. Kevin sat him down, left the backpack of food, water and tools from the Jeep and headed up river. A soft hiss took his eyes left. Kevin's face appeared. The hand beckoned to follow.

With leaden limbs, he went on all fours and pushed with all his might. He staggered, righted himself, took a deep breath and parted the red wall of pain that surrounded him.

"...one st...step... at... a... time..." he murmured, keeping upright.

"There's a body," Arlee said, grabbing the wavering man and slinging an arm around his shoulder. "You have to be quiet... there are soldiers all around. I think..." he paused, real grief in his eyes, knowing from the tattered clothing it was his own brother's body. "...it might be... Chris..."

"No!" Vin started to protest, then a hand clamped over his mouth. Two angry eyes warned him soundly.

"Look, I don't like it any better than you! You keep it together... or we'll end up dead. These are mean men... brutal killers. This isn't Main Street USA, okay? "He saw the damp head nod and let his hand go. "Come on..."

+ + + + + + +

5 p.m. San Pedro

"Nothing yet?"

"No, Padre, sorry."

Father Carlos sighed, pushed the untouched plate of food away and fingered the cross on his neck. Guilt weighed heavy on his normally broad shoulders. Now, they slumped in worried defeat.

A blood red sun began to leave the sky. His old eyes trained on it... then took in the meager collection of buildings. He was sitting outside the small clinic at a tiny table, weary from far more than the full night and half day put in with the laboring new mother.

Upon his return to town, he'd been shocked to discover his young friend was missing. No one at the clinic could recall exactly when they'd last seen him. No doubt, Kevin Lincoln had persuaded the confused 'Chris' to accompany him on a trip to find their family. But why? Why sneak out in the dead of night? What did he fear?

He felt a hand on his shoulder and nodded as Dr. Lorico stood up. They'd been sitting outside, the physician taking a break. He'd had an emergency surgery that afternoon and needed to check on his patient.

"I called this morning at first light, when the phone lines came up. The local magistrate," the doctor noted of the small police office responsible for a large part of the impoverished area. It was not close by and they were understaffed. "He took the report and passed it on to his men. He also notified the surrounding towns. I believe he was going to call the American Embassy as well..."

"Thank you..."

"You did nothing wrong..."

"I shouldn't have left him..." Father Carlos felt a stab in his gut when the lost sky eyes appeared in his mind's eye. He opened his hand, still feeling that lost soul's grip in it when he'd been so ill. He had become the young American's lifeline... in a storm of doubt and pain. Now, the line was cut... cut sharply and too severely.

"You had no way to know!" The physician needed to go but felt awful for his friend. "Would it be better for the woman and child to die?"

"No."

"Well, then, you have faith in that cross you wear so well. He is protecting your young friend..."

"I hope so," the priest sighed, raking a trembling hand through his hair and felt that nagging doubt grow stronger. "Because I feel something is very wrong..."

He remained in that spot, meditating and praying long after the sun went down. He was so lost in thought, he didn't see the two men approach. He startled and jumped slightly when a hand rested on his shoulder.

"Sorry, Father," Pete DiTullio apologized for clearly upsetting the older man. "Is Dr. Lorico around?"

The pair of journalists drove back to San Pedro from Vincente to check out the status of the possible murderer, Arlee Savage. From here, they could regroup, both updating the ATF men and following Juan Xavier's next move.

"He is inside... with an ill patient, recently out of surgery. Why?" He recognized the pair having seen them around town quite often.

"We need to ask him about an American he treated... Arlee Savage. Do you know if he's still here?"

"Arlee Savage?" He wrinkled his nose. "No, that is not a name I know. Wait! American...?" He stood up, gripping the brooding, dark-haired man's forearm. "What did he look like? Please, I must know. I found an American, badly injured. He nearly died. I tended to him... he became special to me. He disappeared last night... with the American that was here... uh... uh... Kevin Lincoln..."

"Is this him?" Jack Lynch handed him a photo of Arlee Savage taken off the Internet.

"He didn't have any hair..." The priest moved his fingers over the hair in the photo... "Yes... I think that is him."

"How about these blokes?" Jack shuffled the photos, producing one of Tanner and Larabee.

"Chris!" He exclaimed, tapping the photo of the long-haired man. "That's him!"

"Easy, Padre." Jack eased the man back down, not missing his severe trembling. "Take a good breath, then... that's a good lad... Where did you find him?"

"Vin Tanner," he read the name and description. "...uh... near the river... he had no memory of what had happened to him. He has amnesia... I called him Chris. He wore a medal, a silver one of St. Christopher... he was very attached to it."

"But he was alive?" Pete said, "When you left him?"

"Yes... I took him back to my church. He was gravely ill... too severely injured to be moved. His skull was exposed... a horrid laceration. His leg... too... but there were other marks... signs of torture."

"That fits..." Jack nodded, recalling the information that they'd been sent by Nathan Jackson.

"Father, what about Tanner? When did you last see him?"

"Uh..." He rubbed his eyes, unable to get the pleading sky blue ones from his mind. "Last... uh... yesterday. I brought him here... to meet... the other one... He was very convincing. I met this 'Savage' earlier... he was grieving... upset... looking for family members. He claimed 'Chris' was someone named 'Troy'. That they were cousins. He said... 'Chris' was my friend's brother. They were traveling with Kevin and his father... Something happened... but he couldn't remember. He described my young friend so well... right down to those blue eyes."

He paused, painfully recalling those emotive orbs. "The trip to town was too much for Chris and he passed out. The doctor examined him... the wound is serious and he needs to rest. There was an emergency... a mother in labor... up the mountain. I had to leave him here... I only returned this afternoon. Dr. Lorico told me they left sometime last night."

He read the rest of the information on the paper and an icy knife traveled through his bowels. He looked up, saw the ashen faces of the two journalists and his heart sank. Suddenly, the gravity of what had transpired slammed into him hard. He had given that trusting soul right into the hands of the enemy — the brute that tortured him.

"Oh... My... God..." he gasped, squeezing his eyes shut. "He trusted me... What have I done?"

Part Nine

Eight p.m. Denver

J.D. put the phone down, brows crossed in frustration. A beer sat next to him, lukewarm and half empty. Across the room, the sound was down on 'All the President's Men'. He sighed, rose andwalked to the window. He eyed the lights from the city; the tall buildings winked at him.

"Where are you, Buck?"

His voice was raspy; he was worried. He'd left four messages on Buck's machine. He even drove over to Buck's apartment and checked all his favorite haunts. He called the guys; nobody talked to Buck all day. Josiah got a message from the ailing soul stating he was 'going for a ride to clear my head'. The ex-preacher said not to worry.

J.D. worried.

He sighed, pressed his throbbing head against the cold pane of the window. He nearly felt Buck's large hand ruffling his hair and teasing him. He knew the older man was grieving deeply, but he had a feeling Buck was hiding something.

A slim pair of hands wrapped around his waist from behind and a soft pair of lips nuzzled his neck.

"You okay?"

"No," the youth sighed without lifting his face. The cold glass felt good and dulled the throbbing pain somewhat.

"Headache?"

He nodded and finally gave in to the gentle tug of a hand on his. He let her lead him back to the sofa. She sat down first. He followed, resting his head on her legs. He closed his eyes and let her fingers massage his tense neck and irate temples.

"He'll be, okay, honey," Casey whispered, wincing at the tension she encountered. "He's hurting... he had almost twelve years with Chris. That's a long time..."

"I know... I know!" J.D. hissed in frustration. "You sound like Nathan and the guys. But you don't know Buck like I do."

"I know more than you think..." the second year law student pressed. "He's got close to sixteen years wearing a badge. He's tough, J.D., and he's smart. That's kept him alive... in tight spots. You know how many times he's been undercover, odds against him? Twelve years is a long time... a lot of memories... he needs to say goodbye his own way..."

"They're not dead!" J.D. sat up, shoved her hands away and stood up."You're all wrong. They're out there, I know it..."

She sighed, waited five full minutes while watching him pace around their apartment. They'd dated over six months before the overnight stays became harder to manage. So when J.D. suggested splitting expenses and sharing a home, she fell into his arms. That was three months ago and she'd never been happier. She loved him and they'd marry one day when the time was right. Finally, he stopped, looking out the window again.

She moved then, slowly, and did not speak. She embraced him, kissed him softly and used a trio of fingers to push his dark hair from his face.

"Did I ever tell you, John Daniel Dunne, just how much I love you?" she whispered, stroking his cheekbone and kissing him again.

"Not nearly enough..." he replied huskily, holding her close. "I knew... when I joined the ATF... this might happen. But... it... I can't..." He began to choke, his breath coming in short pants.

"Get it out..." she coached, rubbing his back with her head nestled on his shoulder.

"...believe I won't ever see them... again..."

"I know," she replied, her mind drifting back in time. "...when my folks died..."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Casey..." He pulled back, tipped her face up and wiped the tear running down her cheek. "I didn't mean to cause that..."

"You didn't,a drunk driver did a long time ago," the S. A.D.D. chairperson for the Denver area pronounced. "But I know that shattering inside. The disbelief... the numbness... denial..." She stared hard at those large hazel eyes and could drown in them. "We'll ride this one out together, okay?"

He kissed her forehead and hugged her again. She smelled great... felt good too. Warm and fuzzy... fresh from the shower.

"You're amazing, Casey," he managed. "I must be the luckiest man alive." The flowery aroma from her damp hair floated up. "You smell great..."

"Herbal Essence," she noted of the shampoo. "And Caress...." she added of the soap.

"Hey," he teased, smiled and snaked a hand under her robe. "I thought that was my job..."

"Come on, sailor," she teased back, reluctantly pulling away. "You rewind the tape and I'll make some hot chocolate."

+ + + + + + +

9 p.m. Mexico

Despite the backbreaking work they'd endured all day under a brutal sun, neither man slept. They lay like statues on the canvas bunks inside the tent waiting for a signal. Sweat poured freely, both from the heat of the stifling night and the mounting tension.

Chris closed his eyes, ran a hand over his face and cocked his head. Somewhere just beyond the tent flap, a radio was playing. It wasn't loud, but he was able to hear the song. A slow smile formed, quickly turning into a chuckle, as his mind went back in time. The tune was the same, but the words of his memories were all Tanner.

"Who let the rats out? who who who who... who let the rats out..."

The visual image of the cocky Texan doing a strut-like dance gave him a wide smile. He saw the bobbing shaggy head and the smooth body motions again. Then the antics that followed, right down to the maid's entrance, her face at their positions and Vin's misleading dialogue that brought another chuckle.

"...wiseass..." he murmured, his heart heavy.

"What?" Maria leaned forward from her spot on the floor. She had seen the changes in his expression and wondered about the memory playing in his mind.

"You know that wound... the, uh... bite?" He peered sideways and saw her head nod in the semidarkness. "I sat on a toilet... but it wasn't empty. Rat came up through the hole..."

"Ouch!" she sympathized with a smile.

"Vin thought it was the funniest damn thing he'd ever seen. He carried on like a nut... singing 'Who let the rats out', 'Ben' and the 'Stray Rat Strut'..." He chuckled again seeing the devilish light from the animated blue eyes. "Then, just when I was bent over and he was ready to put the patch on... the maid walked in."

"Oh, no..." She covered her mouth, stifling a laugh.

"Oh, he played that up ...dropped every innuendo he could think of... wiseass..."

She saw the smile die so quickly from his face that it startled her. Gone was the softness around his eyes, replaced by a burning pain. His deep sigh told her before the brief words came out... slow and forced... heavy and wrought with pain.

"I'll never see..."

"I'm sorry, Chris." She reached out and took his hand."He sounds like a wonderful friend..."

"He was a helluva lot more than that..." he choked. "He was that knight you were talking about, right down to the fuckin' armor..."

"...some armor..." Bull leered, rubbing salt in Larabee's wound. "...didn't stop me from takin' that long-haired freak down a peg or two. He cried like a woman... beggin' and... snivelin' like the yellow dog he was..."

"No!" Maria hissed, throwing herself on the growling blond as Bull Savage's sarcasm invaded their privacy.

Chris gritted, baring his teeth and fisting both hands. "You'll be having a reunion in Hell with that demon seed you spawned by sundown... mark it down!"

"No!" She stood between them, trying to placate them." Listen..."

Chris cocked his head and heard a thump... then another one. Maria went to leave and he pulled her back, put one hand over her lips and the other one up, gesturing to wait. Five minutes went by. They stood, lost more sweat and waited. Finally, silence reigned and he nodded, pointing to the tent flap.

It seemed like forever until she returned. She shook her head when Chris held his hand out.

"Where's the key?"

"Shhhh!"She motioned for them to come closer. "There are only three of them out there... unconscious. The others didn't drink the coffee I left. Jose did not have a gun or the key, he is out back. Manny and Diego were too far away. The others... I heard them returning... I..."

A series of curses and footsteps interrupted. She pointed to the back of the tent.

"Go!"

"Not without you..."

"Go, I will distract them... Go..."

It happened so fast, Chris didn't have time to react. Bull's large hand came out, backhanding the unsuspecting girl and sending her to the floor.

"You fuckin' ani..."

"You talk too much, blondie..." Bull answered verbally after his fist sent the smaller man into oblivion. Effortlessly, he took the man bound to him by a chain and heaved him over his shoulder. He ducked out the back way, skirting past the fallen soldier and heading for the river. He heard the anxious call of the other three men and thought for a moment. Maybe the river wasn't the best idea. That would be the first place they looked. He splashed a few moments, then ducked back into the thickness. He kept going, heading back towards the path they came up several days prior. He heard the guards in the water and hoped his ploy worked. He shifted the weight on his back, vowing to find a way to break the chain and free himself. Even if it meant hacking off Larabee's foot to do it.

+ + + + + + +

10:30 pm Denver

Later, long after the movie ended, his roommate went to bed. She had a test early the next morning and had been studying for days. He couldn't rest. He went out on their patio, ignoring the cold night air nipping his bare chest. He eyed the stars and wondered about Chris and Vin. After all, if Arlee survived... they might be alive despite the badges found. A distant musical medley drew him back. He frowned, then his eyebrows shot up. It was his cell phone.

"Buck!" he panted, having scrambled through the apartment to his coat.

"Hey, kid!" the missing man called back. "I tried callin' you a few times and your line was tied up..."

"Where are you? Why didn't you call me here? I have a machine!

"I used your cell phone so I wouldn't disturb Casey..." Buck intoned of the youth's loud voice.

J.D. moved back outside, sliding the door closed. He shivered in the night air and gripped the phone tighter.

"...and a computer too..." Buck recalled of the busy signals. "Casey still preppin' for that test?"

"Oh," J.D. sighed, raking a free hand through his hair."Are you okay? Where are you?"

"I'm fine," Buck answered from his rental car, hawk-like gazed fixed on the figure walking from the building across the street.

The meeting went overtime and Orrin and the delegation finally left for their flight. McClendon didn't. He and three other agents departed in a dark sedan with federal plates. They went back to their office and he followed. Hours passed and he'd found the coffee shop across the street. He ate and freshened up before returning to his car.

"Fine where? Orrin called from the airport before he left for Mexico. He wanted to talk to you."

"I've been out... I went for a ride to clear my head..."

His voice trailed off as the man he sought finally lost his three friends. They left in separate cars. McClendon was alone. For a few minutes, the solitary figure didn't move... then he headed for the opposite street.

"Buck?" J.D. frowned at the distant voice. "You okay?"

"Fine... just tired... been a long day..." he said distractedly. "I gotta go, J.D. I'll see you tomorrow."

"You better call Inez... she's called here four times... she's worried..."

"Damn," Buck hissed. He thought she would have bought his message. "Thanks, kid... I'll give her a ring..."

"Where are you?" JD pressed, worried. "I'll come to you. If you're tired... maybe you shouldn't be driving..."

"I'm fine," Buck vexed, watching the F. B. I rat slink into a bar on the corner. "And I'm gonna take a walk... to, uh... work out my tension. "He heard the deep sigh of frustration on the other end of the phone and found a genuine smile, deep and firm. "Hey... thanks, kid.for worryin' on me... "

"Well," J.D. went back inside, it was too cold. "It's a dirty job but somebody has to do it..."

"I'll see you, tomorrow," Buck replied, flipping the phone shut. He dialed Inez and was relieved when she answered. "Hey, darlin!"

"Where are you?"

"I told you, I'm takin' a couple days to think... I took a long ride... I'm fine."

"Then you should be able to tell me where you are..."

"I'll be home tomorrow... no cause for that pretty face of yours to get worry lines. I talked to the kid ..he's pissed... "

"If he did something this thoughtless..."

"I'd tan his hide..." Buck finished. "But I'm not a kid... and not as reckless..." He paused, seeing her face in his mind. "Wipe that frown off..." he teased. "I miss you... your touch... your warmth..."

"Then come home... to me..." she whispered, frightened.

"Soon... angel... soon..." he vowed, tapping his chest. "I put a claim on that heart... it's mine now."

"Buck..."

"Shhh...." he soothed, wincing at the soft sob. "Aw, hell, Inez, don't go cryin'... I'm not worth you spillin' salt."

"Yes... you are... to me..."

"You are one fine lady..." he whispered. "I gotta go... I got last night's memories to keep me warm. You do the same... until I come home."

+ + + + + + +

10:30 p.m. Mexico, near the falls.

It made little difference, this trek through Hell. Darkness... light... it was all the same now. The undefinable explosion of pain in his head made all that should be real seem terribly distorted. The sky twisted, the ground swirled, and the air choked him. He staggered blindly, two steps sideways for every one forward he managed. His only point of focus the limping body somewhere in front of him. Sweat clung to every inch of him. His rebellious gut was on fire and his leg throbbed. The loud, gasping sound he heard was himself, trying to find air.

Finally, he took the last step beyond the point of endurance. He fell to all fours, shaking his head and waiting for the ground to stop spinning so fast. His shoulders jerked twice as his already empty gut constricted. He bit back the pain and tried to remain awake.

"...no... more..."

"Okay," Arlee whispered, taking the fallen man's canteen. Tanner had done alright today. They'd stayed hidden, listened when they could and taken advantage of the soldier's absences, however short. Tanner was able to see the tire tracks, footprints and the ragged trail. But with darkness came the unknown. Now, with soldiers blending in, armed and full of venom, they were the prey. He was returning from the river when he heard muffled voices. Limping quickly, he dropped down, pressing the gasping man flat.

Vin heard too and kept his face buried, sucking up the dirt. The voices became clearer and the footsteps, crunching twigs and gravel, got closer. Much to his amazement, Vin understood every word in Spanish they spoke.

Arlee frowned; it sounded like Greek to him. He remained flat, soaking wet from sweat and trying to quell the urge to cry out in pain. His leg was killing him. They remained stock still for an immeasurable amount of time. Finally, he sat up, listened and tapped the other man.

"They're gone... I think..."

"They went t'find their captain. They're movin' out. Somethin' t'do with some fella named Juan Xavier bein' spotted east o' here. He's the leader of a... a... bunch o'rebels... sounds like we walked int' a hornet's nest..."

"We're not giving up!" Arlee raged, grabbing the shaken man hard. "My Pa's out there... them bastards have him... and you're gonna find him!"

"What the hell's wrong with ya?" Vin scuttled backwards a little, like a crab, his heart pounding. Something just beyond his failing memory flickered briefly, then extinguished. "I'm on yer side..."

"Sorry... Troy... I'm ... just... worried... I didn't mean that... " He fumbled badly, cursing himself inwardly for nearly blowing it. He'd have to control his temper... just a little longer.

"Okay, jes' don't let it happen again." Vin was angry, tired and in more pain than one man should have to bear. "Them tracks... they lead up int' the mountains... they must have a camp up there..."

"Why didn't they follow that up?"

"I dunno," Vin yawned and scratched one of the dozen places where bugs of all kinds were having a party on his tender flesh. "Could be this Juan fella's troops is split up... maybe he left the camp... I dunno."

"Okay," Arlee sighed. "Get some sleep. I'll take first watch. We'll pull out at dawn."

What neither man knew was that in twenty four hours, they'd find that which they sought... and the ground beneath them would run red with blood.

+ + + + + + +

Eric McClendon tossed back his third shot and glared at the bartender.

"Mind your own business..."

"You trashin' up my place is my business," he noted of the famous temper. It wasn't the first time and wouldn't be the last. The short-fused agent often 'unwound' here and drank too much. That led to fights, broken furniture and insurance claims.

"You shut your trap or I'll put you out of business..."

The barkeep grunted, shook his head and turned away. It was a quiet night, only three other patrons in the small taproom. He'd hoped to close early, but it looked like McClendon was in for a long sit. His eyes went to the clock, nearly ten p.m. Then they shot to the door as a stranger entered. He was tall, dark-haired with a mustache... and wearing a mask of revulsion and rage.

"Somethin' for you, pal?" he inquired, putting the dishrag down and moving towards the man.

"Satisfaction."

Eric McClendon's lips turned into a jagged smile as the familiar voice hit his ears. He poured downed another shot, letting the fire burn a hole to his gut. This was just what he needed after being dressed down by his superiors and suspended. Fools. They all had their heads up their asses. Now he needed to hit something... get out the venom. He couldn't think of a better target.

"Well, well..." he turned, raked his eyes over the other man and sneered. "Come for a pound of flesh, Wilmington?"

"I came to separate your pinhead from the rest of your pathetic body, you stupid fuckin' prick."

"Glad I saw Tanner and Larabee in person." McClendon stoked the blue flames dancing before him in the other man's eyes. "Their pictures don't do them justice!"

"You arrogant son-of-a-bitch!" Buck vented, grabbing the other man and slamming him hard into the wall before burying two fists into the slime ball's gut.

"Hold it!" The bartender jumped over the bar and snagged the left arm as it rose again. "I don't want trouble..."

"It's a little late for that," Buck kicked the downed man. "He's leavin' a slimy trail on your floor..." He flicked his jacket back, exposing the badge pinned to his belt.

"Take it outside..." the owner backed off, jerking his head. "I can't afford my premiums now..."

"Get up you piss-piddlin', stench-reekin', spineless pile o'shit..." the ATF man panted, rage encompassing him.

He heard every cruel taunt that McClendon heaved at Vin Tanner and J.D. when they first met. The cruel discussions when they were kidnapped and now the filthy remarks about the photos from the wreck. His arrogant and callous tone, his negligence and lack of duty that might have cost the two agents their lives... and he was going to pay for that.

"...or I'll throw you through that window..."

"Okay, candyass," Eric stood. "I hope your hospitalization is up to date."

"...the only thing you better be worried about is drinkin' all your meals through a friggin' straw..." he noted of the potential broken jaw. Buck grabbed the struggling body and propelled him towards the door.

The cold night air hit McClendon hard, right before he was shoved hard into the side of a car. He tasted blood as his bottom lip hit the window frame.

"Travis know you're out of your cage?" He panted, turned and squared himself away. "I'd like to know what fuckin' story your imbeciles fabricated that got me suspended."

"You're lucky you're not makin' license plates for a living, you stupid son-of-a-bitch!" Wilmington vented, "That reporter called you the night the plane went down. They picked up Arlee Savage, you stupid, fucked-up loser..." His right fist found the soft belly of his opponent and his left found the side of the man's face sending blood from the nose and lips.

McClendon wheeled and fired back with a flurry of punches to Wilmington's gut and face. For several minutes, they exchanged blows, careened off cars and a nearby mailbox.

"Why?"Buck seethed, fists flexing. "...didn't call him back? Why didn't you call us? Even you can't be that stupid..."

"You know how many calls our office gets...?" McClendon panted from the ground, spitting out blood.

"You're bein' paid to answer those calls, you maggot-infested pile of shit..." Buck vented, holding his aching side. "That's your job... or it was..." He read the shifting eyes well.

"I didn't waste them! Now back off!"

"You didn't give a rat's ass... you're a disgrace to that badge. Chris and Vin..."

"...long-haired, fuckin' freak... couldn't even speak English..."

Too furious and far too deep into the danger zone to reply verbally, Buck's line of vision turned into a hazy red inferno. His fists replied instead and he didn't stop even when the distant wail of sirens scored the macabre ballet. He didn't see the red and blue lights flashing or hear the order to freeze. He finally blinked when he was thrown to the ground by three policemen, all using their combined strength to contain the hurricane.

"Enough!" Gary Zimmaro ordered, getting a choke hold.

"ATF!"His partner identified the badge and wallet tossed to him by the pair struggling with the flailing body. "...from Denver..."

"You're under arrest." Zimmaro cuffed him, hauled him to his feet and shoved him towards the car.

Buck looked at the broken body sprawled under a cement and wooden bench at the bus stop. Blood covered his face and both eyes were swelling over the broken nose. He felt blood running down his own face and his bruised body would pay the price in the morning. But he also felt partially satisfied.

"Was it worth it?"

Buck looked up at the doe-eyed boy in the glass. Younger than J.D., no more than twenty-two perhaps. A rookie... so green it hurt his eyes.

"Ask me in ten years, kid... when you got more miles."

He turned away, let his head rest on the back seat and closed his eyes to the garish glare of the lights.

+ + + + + + +

Midnight, Denver

The shrill call in the inky darkness caused both slumbering bodies to jerk. One hand fumbled out, reaching blindly and hitting the sharp edge of the night stand.

"Dammit!"

"I got it, honey." Rain Jackson picked up the phone. "Hello... who? Pete? Pete who? I can't hear you... the line is breaking up..."

"Gimme that!"

"What's wrong with you?" She jumped at the unnatural high voice and handed over the phone.

"Pete? Yeah... yeah..." His heart hammered, his throat went dry and he was now fully awake. He shut both eyes, saying a prayer of thanks and breathing again. "Say again? You're sure?... Thank God... When? Where? Is he okay? What?" He winced as a burst of static came through. "Pete?... Pete?... it's gone..."

"What was that?" she asked, hanging up the phone. She moved as he climbed over her, sat on the edge of the bed and flipped the light on.

Nathan sighed, scrubbed his face with his hand and took several deep breaths before turning to his wife. The smile was soft and easy, one from the heart.

"Vin's alive... at least, he was a couple days ago. Some priest plucked him out of the river."

"What about Chris?"

"I don't know... the line went dead."

She saw a frown line forming and sat up, tapping his arm.

"What else?"

"I think... I couldn't hear clearly... I think he said Arlee's got Vin... they're missing... "

+ + + + + + +

One a.m. Denver

beep.

"Hey! I sure wish I was there... damn shame I missed your call. You leave your number and I'll call you back."

"Buck!" Josiah waited several seconds, but no one picked up. "Buck, when you get this, you call me, right away. Vin's alive... we don't have all the details yet but a priest found him... Nate got the call and he thinks Arlee's got Vin... Listen... Call me! I tried your cell phone and it's turned off..."

Click.

The only sound in the well-kept condo was the ticking of the clock. The red light blinked as the eager machine waited for the homeowner to receive the message. It would be a long wait....

+ + + + + + +

Four a.m. New Mexico

"Wake up!"

"Huh?" Buck squinted up into the light casting a dark silhouette in the cell door.

He sat up slowly, his aching body stiff and sore from the beating. One eye was swollen shut and his lip was puffy. He felt sick, the combination of urine and bleach was not a pleasant one. The door slid open and the tall cop came closer.

"Get up! Come on, dog meat... I ain't got all night..."

Buck felt the tap of the baton on his leg and frowned.

"Where?" he croaked, his dry mouth tasting of blood and night breath.

"Captain wants to see you."

"Now?"

"No, next week!" The angry guard hauled him up and shoved him towards the door. Two more armed guards were in the hall.

Buck stopped, his veteran senses reminding him of the small town he was in. Could be the kind of place a rat like McClendon was owed favors. Could be the kind of town where an accident could happen. A convenient accident.

"No way." He stopped.

"Look, we can do this easy or hard. Whatever's up, it's past our level. Someone got the Captain out of bed and down here in the middle of the night. He's pissed off and that's not good... for us or you. Now move it!"

Reluctantly and with his one working eye taking in every angle, corner and space, he shuffled along. Finally, they reached a row of doors. He was shoved inside the third one and onto a hard bench. A disheveled, red-faced, angry policeman sat across from him. For several seconds, neither man moved. Then the disgruntled cop shoved the phone to the edge. Buck's eyes saw the blinking button.

"Pick it up."

He eyed the doorway, the guards and then the man who spoke.

"What's goin' on?"

"You're one lucky prick, Wilmington. You got friends in places I can't name."

Puzzled, Buck picked the phone up.

"Wilmington."

He heard the voice and couldn't believe it. The color drained from his face. His heart began to hammer and his dry throat shriveled up. His reeling mind took in every word and he sat stunned into silence for several moments. It didn't ... couldn't... be... possible. Yet it was. His tongue finally found some composure and he parted his lips, allowing it to work.

"No... I'm fine, sir..." he managed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "Actually, I'm stunned. Yes, sir... I know... now?" He shook his head. "I don't think so... there's charges and... dropped?" His eyes shot to the irate Captain, and he could almost see steam coming from his ears. The man was clearly not happy.

"No, sir, I guess that's not a problem after all. No, sir, it won't happen again. Yeah, I'll keep my head out of my ass... yes, sir..." Then he stood, sucked in a shocked gasp of air and felt the room sway a bit. "Can you repeat that, sir?" The words hit him like bullets.

"You'll be picked up at 0600," the voice barked, angry and stern. "Don't fuck this up, Wilmington. You keep that hot head of yours on straight. Are we clear on that?"

"Yes, sir... but I need to call home. They'll worry and..."

"It's been taken care of... 0600... be ready to roll."

"Yes, sir... and thank you."

He was still holding the phone when the dial tone bit his ear. He felt someone take it from his hand and sat down hard. He still couldn't believe it, the how's and why's swirling around inside his fuzzy head. He heard the captain order one of the guards to get him some food and clothes. He ate without tasting, drank a coke and was ushered to the shower. He'd just completed dressing when the tap came.

"They're here for you."

He exited the police station in Silver City, New Mexico, and ducked inside the vehicle. It was the first leg of a journey that he'd never forget.

Part Ten

Eight a.m. Denver

"ATF, Dunne."

"J.D.?"

"Josiah, where are you?"

"In Silver Hills, I got a call at three a.m. from Orrin. Buck got arrested and..."

"Arrested!"

The youth sat up, turned his radio down and caught Ezra's eye. "Get Nathan!" He pushed the speaker button so they all could hear. "What's he doing in New Mexico?"

"When Buck goes for a ride to think... he's not foolin' around," the preacher noted, sipping coffee from a greasy spoon on the main street of the town.

"Josiah, did you check your messages?"

"Nate?" he replied. "No, I was on a plane and drove right here. I came to bail out Buck, but he's not here."

"That's what I've been trying to tell you," the part time EMT noted. "Orrin called you at home several times and here. He got me in the car on my cell. Buck got bailed out a few hours ago."

"By who?" Sanchez noted with worry. "McClendon's group?"

"No, but they're not happy. He's really busted up."

"My heart's bleeding," Josiah said wryly. "So where's Buck?"

"Orrin wouldn't say. Just that it was way above his level and not to worry. He's gonna call us back at one p.m. He said he'll know more then."

"Above his level?" J.D. quizzed. "The head of the Justice Department? Why would he get involved?"

"You're thinking too small, J.D.," Jackson replied. "I think Orrin meant WAY above us."

"Washington? That's curious," Standish mused.

"Well, I'm gonna ask around and see if anyone here was nosy and up at that hour. The cops won't say squat. Everybody's pissed off..."

"Just make sure you're back here by one..." Nate said. "You better get on a flight."

"Taken care of," Sanchez said, flipping the phone shut.

"Who would want Buck that bad?" J.D. pushed the speaker off.

"It's gotta be tied to this Juan Xavier and the crash... somehow..." the dark-skinned agent noted.

"I agree," Ezra said. "...and no doubt someone who knew Buck when he was in the service."

"He was pretty young... what eighteen?"

"Eighteen to twenty-two," J.D. said. "Then he left the military and went civvy.joined the Feds."

"We'll find out soon enough," Ezra commented, eyeing the clock.

+ + + + + + +

Daybreak in Mexico

Dirt. Mud. Pain. Birds. Bugs.

Into the blackness where he was lost, those images forced their way inside. He frowned, moved his hand to his eyes, rubbing life into them. He tried to sit up and groaned which caused pain in his face. Fleeting images returned and his eyes pried open. He saw a centipede and other ground dwellers just inches from his face. That would account for the stinging sensations he felt on his body. He rolled over and sat up, eyeing a blue sky. Water rushed nearby giving the already hot day a brief breeze.

"Mornin', blondie."

Chris Larabee turned to view the monster looming over him. He held the other man's gaze for a moment, not hiding the hatred coursing through his aching body. Slowly, he got to his feet until he stood just inches from the beast.

"Enjoy it." He eyed the sky, nodded to the terrain and the colorful birds flying. "It's gonna be your last."

Bull laughed, cupped the grimy man's chin with one large paw and spit into the ground. He laughed when the federal agent jerked his head away in disgust.

"You got balls, blondie. I like that. I'm gonna miss that flappin' jaw of yours after I split that pretty head like a melon."

"Where are we?" Chris tossed the idle threat away and his voice showed it. He had made a vow to Vin and he intended to keep it.

"I'm not sure," Bull admitted. "I headed back the way we came, following the river."

Chris gauged the distance and time, taking account for the fact that Bull was carrying him.

"Not far enough. They'll be lookin' for us. They're gonna shoot first..." Larabee winced as his jaw reminded him of the fist that sent him into Neverland. Then he remembered that brutal fist and Maria. He turned, casting eyes so icy they sent frost showering over the other man.

"You hurt her," he warned. "...bad idea..."

"Oh..." Bull shook from head to toe in a mock gesture. He saw the look of intense hate and stoked it. He grabbed his crotch and leered. "She sure is a sweet little piece... .young and firm... she sure felt good..."

Chris knew he was lying and controlled his anger. He knew Bull wanted to get him unnerved to gain the upper hand. It wouldn't work. He calculated the time they were missing and hoped that Orrin and the F.B.I. would be searching by now. Someone had to have found the plane. If not, he'd kill Savage and get to civilization. One way or another, he was going home.

"We're wastin' time," Chris spoke quietly, turning to find what direction would be the best to take.

Angry that Larabee didn't take his bait, Savage moved too quickly. Chris wasn't ready. He tumbled to his hands and knees. Angry, he moved his leg and used both hands, jerking the chain hard. Not hard enough to topple the massive mountain of flesh, but it staggered him.

Chris stood up and jabbed an index finger in the brute's chest.

"Listen up, fuckface! In case it escaped that pinhead of yours, we're connected by this fuckin' chain. So we move together, faster and cover more ground."

Bull hated to admit it, but the Fed was right. He almost hoped one of the guards did catch up to them. That way, after killing him, he could shoot the leg iron off and then break the sharp-tongued pig right in half. His fingers itched to crush those bones and watch those green eyes pop right out of that skull. He nodded, burying his anger and concentrated instead on moving.

+ + + + + + +

Near Washington D.C.

It was almost ten a.m. when Buck Wilmington felt the plane descending. The dull headache matched the painful ribs and his mouth was swollen and sore. One eye was discolored and shut, but it was worth it. He couldn't see where they were. There were no windows. He had a rough idea though from the identity of the phone caller earlier that morning. They were near the capital, most likely Virginia.

He waited until the motor died and unclipped his belt. Three soldiers dressed from head to toe in black stood in front of him. He ducked outside, making sure he didn't bump his already tender head on the frame. A soft hiss escaped through those swollen lips as the sun hit his eyes.

The sprawling, one story building was lost inside a heavily wooded area and past many checkpoints. Very few people were aware of its existence. The man in question whose call startled him so was in charge. He ran a tight ship and put the 'd' in discipline. But there were few men that Buck Wilmington respected more.

He paused and raised his arms, letting the first guard frisk him. His wallet was examined and another guard approached with a wand, moving it over his body to detect metal or foreign objects. He entered the first set of doors where his photo was taken and his hand scanned on an infra-red device.

Within seconds, every detail on his career was displayed. Some things he'd even forgotten about were on file in the futuristic computer.

"They're waiting, sir."

The young man returned to his duties, keying in more info, and Buck followed the three remaining men through a door. Twice they paused at heavy metal doors without knobs to punch codes. Once the digital entry was established, they continued. Finally, the third door opened to reveal a conference room of sorts.

Buck ducked inside, his weary eyes going around the wood-paneled walls. In the far corner, a 32-inch television was nestled into the ceiling with CNN on mute. Under the short side wall were two young men viewing a bank of eight monitors covering the interior of the complex, a top notch security installation.

A dozen chairs, high-backed black leather issue, sat empty around a long oval table. In front of six of those chairs rested a single manila folder. Before Buck could think on the unbelievable fact he was actually standing in this place, a deep voice hit his ears.

"Good to see you again, Lieutenant."

"Sir!"

"As you were."

Buck waited until the other two men dropped their salute and sat down. He then turned slowly and held his own salute.

"Same here, sir."

"You look like hell, Wilmington." The older man scrutinized the battered face.

"Well now, sir, that's damn near impossible." Buck smiled warmly and shook the offered hand. Then his smile died and his tone grew serious. "Thanks for bringing me onboard." He held the dark gaze for several moments, sending a silent message. The slight dip of the head and the extra twinge in the grip, gave him his reply.

"You read the brief?" The dark head nodded. "Good, then you know you were chosen for specific reasons to be an essential part of my five man team. I need that head clear. Can I count on that?"

"Yes, sir!" Buck stood straight and cast his shoulders back.

"We have a full briefing at noon at the Ramada with the press. I'm on my way to the Pentagon for a meeting. You don't have much time. You've been reactivated, so from this moment on, you're under my command, no exceptions."

"Yes, sir... uh... my team... Orrin Travis?"

"I spoke with Orrin and he'll update the men." Turning, he called out, "Major Chelsea?"

The black man who entered the room was about forty or so, lean and handsome with a body chiseled out of stone. Buck watched the two men salute and the older man beckon him over.

"This is my second in command, Robert Chelsea. The Major will be bringing you up to date in the next hour or so. You'll be fitted with gear, go over the tools and weapons and view the videos, review the new status sheets..."

"Major." Buck saluted, then shook the strong man's hand, wincing slightly at the steel grip. "Video, sir?"

"Sergeant, cue it up on five."

Buck's eyes moved to the end of the sleek console where a young man worked. A series of computers, a keyboard and a digital panel were at his disposal. A twenty-inch monitor sat in front of him.

Buck watched the young man's fingers flying and the gray screen came to life. He squinted through trees and rough mountainous terrain. It was an aerial shot of some kind. There were figures, dressed alike, scurrying like ants around a series of trucks.

"Mexico?" Buck guessed.

"Very close to our target area," the Major noted. "It was taken about ten days ago by the CIA. Take a good look." He tapped the screen with a pointer.

"Bull Savage!" Buck hissed as the kid zoomed in a bit and the 'ants' got larger. "That son-of-a-bitch is alive..." He paused. "We got word Arlee is alive too..."

"Look closer, Buck," the eldest advised.

"I can't see anything..." He squinted, eyeing the grainy image.

"Can you zoom in again, Wilson?" the CO inquired.

"Yes, sir"

"There!" he instructed and waited. He heard the hiss as the air left the younger man's lungs. The one eye that was working went wide in shock and the skin turned a pale shade of white. The picture continued to crop and then the person in question turned his face.

"Jesus!" Buck jerked back, his breath leaving his chest in a rush. He reached his trembling hand out, needing to touch the image. Then pulled it back as disbelief settled on his face. The grainy black and white picture didn't do Chris Larabee's fine features justice. But it looked sweet to the rogue. Oh, did it look sweet!

Chris was alive!

The awful weight left him, his shoulders slumped and his breathing went shallow. Buck dropped his head to his chest, feeling his eyes burning with tears. Twice he tried to gain control of his wayward emotions but failed. His breath shuddered, his hands shook and he swallowed hard.

The men in the room eyed each other in disbelief at what happened next. Most of them had served under this man for years. He was the toughest SOB walking, demanded more than humanly possible and didn't show emotion. He barked orders and they moved. No one was respected or feared anyone more than he. So when his hand went out and gripped the back of the newcomer's neck hard, they were stunned into silence. For a brief scattering of seconds, his dark eyes, nearly coal black, shimmered with emotion.

"S...s...sorry... s...s...sir..." Buck managed, finally getting his rampant emotions corralled.

"Don't be, Buck. I'm not." He met the emotive blue gaze and gave a nod of support. Men like Buck Wilmington were few and far between. He was lucky enough to have some of the best on his elite squad. That's why he never wavered in his decision to pick up Wilmington for his mission. He was far beyond qualified. And he housed several things not tangible that were needed. It started with guts and the fire he saw in those eyes.

"What's this?" Buck asked when the older man handed him a note. He stood up, brushed his eyes and scanned the letter. "DAMN! Is this confirmed?"

"I verified it through the hospital in San Pedro and spoke with the priest. Vin Tanner was alive as of a couple days ago. "

"But..." Buck supplied the unspoken word.

"It's not all good news. He has amnesia. The priest found him in the river, he was badly injured. The most serious was a bad head injury. He could have died."

"...and..." Buck narrowed his one working eye.

"...and Arlee Savage apparently convinced him that they are related. They left the hospital and we're presuming Savage stole a jeep. If he knows where the plane went down, chances are he'll head back there."

"That sick fuckin' bastard!" Buck fumed, pounding his fist on the desk. "He's usin' Vin..."

"Using?" Chelsea turned.

"Vin's got a rather unique background." Buck's tone was warm and full of admiration. "In addition to being the best sniper wearin' boots, bar none," he paused seeing a mental image of the long-haired man at work, "he can track ant piss in a snowstorm. He was a bounty hunter for a lot of years. He brought in the ones the F.B.I gave up on."

"Savage is leading him into a death trap," the General concluded, eyeing the clock.

"As soon as he finds his father, he'll kill Vin..." Wilmington's anger rose again. "You saw the video from the diner?"

"I did," the older man nodded.

"So you know..."

"That those barbarians tortured him? Yes."

"Then you better hope we get them back first." Buck paused, "If Chris busts out, there won't be anything left of Bull to arrest," Buck advised.

"I'm late for my meeting with the President." The dark eyes raked over the younger man. "I'll see you at the Ramada for the briefing."

"Sir?"

He paused at the door, his escort waiting. Buck eyed the medals decorating the uniform, thinking of the old movie title 'None But The Brave'. The general was that and so much more. So much so, Buck felt like a kid again, just after he enlisted - green to the gills.

"Wilmington?"

"I won't let you down!" Buck vowed, squared his aching body and saluted.

"Preachin' to the choir, son." The General returned the salute with a wink and a smile before leaving.

"He thinks a lot of you." Chelsea stood next to the dumbstruck newcomer.

Buck nodded, feeling weary and the effects of little sleep as the adrenaline rush wore off.

"They broke the mold," the dark-haired ATF man choked.

"Come on." Chelsea clapped his shoulder. "You can eat while I bring you up to date."

+ + + + + + +

Noon, Mexico

Arlee limped to the river, dropped down and used his cupped hands to draw water out. He drank greedily, then doused his face, neck and chest. It was brutally hot. His leg was throbbing and he knew he was overdoing it, but he had no choice. He was on a mission to find his father.

His pale eyes went back several yards to where Tanner was sprawled under a tree. The tracker was fading fast; the headaches were causing blackouts and vomiting. He didn't give a rat's ass if the Fed died out here, just as long as it was after he got his father back. Sighing, he moved clumsily, slowly, over to the body. He sat up him, got a hold of him under the arms and dragged him to the river. He shoved Tanner's head under the cold water and felt the body jerk to life. He hauled him up, slapping the wet, dazed face hard.

"Troy! Wake up... you with me?"

"Huh?" Vin blinked, watching the blurry twin faces above him.

"Get some water..."

"Huh?"

"Water... drink... we gotta keep moving. The soldiers are all over the place. You wanna get us caught?"

"No... caught... no..." Vin rasped, wishing he could sit up. He'd never felt so sick; it was overpowering. Between the pain and the nausea, he could barely remain upright. He turned slowly and lowered his face, drinking slowly. He paused, waited for the water to settle and tried again.

"Hurry up! Between you passin' out and pukin' we lost a lotta time... them soldiers..."

"Shut up!" Vin hollered, holding his aching head. "Ya don't like how I'm movin'... git ahead. Who the hell needs ya?" he panted, curling up and rocking, fighting against the pulsating monster inside of his skull.

Arlee kicked the dirt. Fine mess this was... he needed the tracker. He eyed the thick undergrowth and the hot sun. Maybe with some rest, the Fed would move better at night or at least after sundown. Truth be told, his leg wouldn't last too much longer. They'd been at it since 5 a.m.

"Okay... we'll rest awhile. Come on..." He helped the other man stand and got him to the bushes. Tanner melted, his legs giving way as he slid bonelessly to the ground. Arlee sighed, leaned back and saw the pain ridden eyes of the other man darting around. "You okay?"

Vin didn't hear Arlee. Something was causing his heart to jackhammer. A feeling, the intense one, returned. He felt a driving need to... to... reach Chris. He felt his brother's invisible arms around his trembling body. Where was he?

"...Chris...?"

It was as good a time as any to stoke that fire. Arlee grinned and began his tale, embellishing it carefully.

"I know, Troy. I'm sorry about that... he suffered so much. That blond bastard with the green eyes made him hurt. But he made sure you were safe... got you in the water... before..."

Vin looked up then, seeing the other man's face screwed up in pain.

"Before... what?" he whispered. Trying to talk any louder caused his delicate head to fire up. "I thought ya said ya couldn't remember what happened?" A small note of alarm went off deep inside Vin.

"I uh..." Arlee backpedaled, caught in a lie, "I didn't want to upset you. I didn't remember a lot of it, until I saw that body near the wreckage. It was Chris... then it... came... back... God... it was awful.."

Arlee 'sighed' painfully, eyeing the captive audience. Oh, this was going to be fun.

"... he was tortured... burned alive most likely... after that blond bastard with the green eyes hurt him..."

"No...no... no...." Vin gasped, rocking again as the pain descended. Not Chris... he'd rather die himself that have anyone hurt Chris. Oh, God... tortured... and burned.

"I didn't want to tell you, upset you..." Arlee rubbed the salt into the new raw wound. "But I saw his body... fingers were cut off... and other parts were too... his gut was opened up... that blond guy really made him suffer..."

"...shut up..." Vin whispered, covering his ears and rocking the pain away.

"...then to burn alive..."

Shutupshutupshutup!" Vin screamed, the images too grisly to bear. Chris... his Chris... it couldn't be.

"...suffered like that for you... you're only here cause he let that blond..."

"SHUTTHEFUCKUP!" Vin screamed just before the explosion inside his head.

"All you had to do is ask." Arlee laughed at the now unconscious body. He cupped the slack jaw and grinned. "...cousin..." He laughed harder, took his knife out and 'practiced'. He let the dull side trace over Tanner's sweat-ridden shirt. He'd start at the navel, slowly work the knife in good. He could see those blue eyes bulging. He'd stake him out, of course, so his back would arch just the right way in agony. He tipped the blade under the slack jaw and laughed again before putting it away. He leaned back and allowed himself to rest then, unaware of the danger lurking nearby.

+ + + + + + +

Noon, Ramada Inn outside Washington

About a dozen members of the various branches of the military along with a few members of the State Department and the Justice Department were waiting. They talked in low murmurs, each having read the brief given. They quieted down when the door to the far left front opened. There was a podium with a microphone. Six men dressed identically in black boots, fatigues, t-shirts and berets filed inside before taking an 'at ease' posture. Two men continued to the podium. The first was an African-American male, forty-something and mean looking. Beside him stood a five-star general with jet black hair and the darkest eyes any of them had ever seen. The only sign of age on the handsome face was a slight graying at the temples.

"Good morning. I'm Major Robert Chelsea of SAT," he noted of the elite military special action team. "I'm sure you've all read the briefing and are up to date on the mission at hand. Our sources inform us that Juan Xavier is planning a major coup. If successful, it could prove to be detrimental to the stability that our country shares with Mexico. He is a ruthless, bloodthirsty killer and he and his army need to be stopped. We have a solid lead and a good idea of where he is. Our mission is to eliminate him and his immediate guard."

Several hands went up and Chelsea pointed to one. "Colonel Firth."

"I know your team has an uncanny success rate, but isn't taking on a large rebel force with a half dozen men rocking the boat?"

"If you cut off the head of the snake, there is no body," the general issued from the Major's left.

"Speaking of which, General, isn't this really all a smokescreen? An elaborate cover up for a suicidal recovery mission? You can't really think that those two Fed's are still alive?" A smartass from the State Department asked, already annoyed at being detailed here.

"It's a rescue mission!" Buck jumped in, ignoring the black look from his new boss. "They're not dead..."

"Lieutenant Wilmington!"

"Sir," Buck conceded to the black eyes burning a hole in him. He resumed his position, jaw clenched and hot angry eyes on a low burn.

"Wilmington?" One of the aides in the audience asked, flipping through his notes.

"As in Buck Wilmington?" a Captain in the front row asked, suddenly very aware of two missing federal agents. "From Larabee's unit? You're kidding me?"

"Pensworth is right," a snide comment from the back shot out of the State Department Representative's assessment. "This is a cover up... and a rather expensive one. How can you possibly think we would be that naive?"

Colonel Firth stood, silencing the heated debate with one raised hand. He turned to the imposing figure on the dais. A man he'd known for all of his career, over thirty years now. A man whose reputation was unblemished... until now.

"I've known you a long time." His eyes went to the other man who was red-faced with anger. It made those dark eyes glitter like black diamonds. "Are you sure? It's not just your life you're risking. I think the objection is a fair one. This is one helluva risk... separating the man from the uniform. Can you..."

"How dare you impugn my integrity!" the General roared. "Major!" He turned over command and strode out, slamming the door and rattling windows, lights and chairs.

While Chelsea restored order to the buzzing of tongues in the briefing room, the irate commander went into the bathroom. He washed his hands and face, then dried them. He looked long and hard at his reflection. Frank Firth's question came back to haunt him.

"Can you separate the man from the uniform?"

Could he? Shaking fingers drew out a small wallet-sized photo from his breast pocket. It was taken about five years prior. His own image, without the gray, was on the left. His grandson was in the middle and next to him, his crowning achievement. His finger traced over the handsome young man's face. His son, his flesh and blood. The finest gift God saw fit to bless himself and his wife with. He took a breath, a long one, and put the photo away. He squared his shoulders, eyed the man in the mirror. The image was clear and sharp. He was 'The General' and his mission was clear. With that, General Adam Jamison Larabee left the room.

+ + + + + + +

Eight p.m. in the darkness, in Mexico

"Shh!" Vin put his hand up, halting the pair. Keen eyes went around the perimeter. His wet, shaggy head cocked and his ears tuned in. He motioned to the right, waving his hand. His cousin nodded.

"Company?" Arlee whispered.

"Yeah, alone I think," Vin returned and they split up, circling the prey.

Vin moved slowly, so dizzy it was hard to walk. He heard movement. Bushes being loudly thrust upon and several grunts before a single cry of pain. His heart hammered, he held up his knife and waited. His large eyes trained on the path where the noise ceased. Then he heard the limping gait and relaxed. Arlee emerged with a gun tucked in his belt. He had two candy bars, a lighter and some cash.

"Here," Savage handed over a candy bar. "Guess this is supper."

"Alone?"

"Yeah... dead..." Arlee paused. "He wasn't from the army. He was a rebel. He was hunting something."

"Could be a scout."

"Yeah...." Arlee sighed, shoving the larger of the two candy bars in his mouth. After the brief meal, the pair continued, keeping close to the river.

+ + + + + + +

"Hold it!" Chris held his hand up. "Somebody's up there!"

"I can hear!" Bull hissed, shoving the other man hard.

Chris held up two fingers. He heard two distinct patterns of walking. Neither seemed normal and then he heard labored breathing. Sounded like one of the pair was hurt. He picked up a large piece of branch and saw Bull take a rock.

They moved towards the clearing near the river where the two were approaching. They held their breath and waited, sweat and dirt covering them. Closer... closer... closer...

Chris's nose twitched; he smelled the distinctive stench of body odor and lost fluids coming nearer. He raised his club; Bull followed suit, ready to attack... to defend. The brush parted... two figures staggered into their path, one holding a gun, the other a knife.

For a few seconds, nobody moved. Four sets of eyes locked, hearts hammered and the rush of the kill began. Four men breathing heavily, all exhausted examined the other. Then the full moon broke through the light cloud cover, casting a silver beam on the quartet.

"Pa!"

"Arlee!" Bull gushed, dropping his rock. "Sweet Jesus, boy! I thought you were dead..." He accepted his son's embrace, slapping his back and then gripping his shoulder.

Chris was shocked into silence. He stared in disbelief. His chest heaving from exhaustion now seemed to clear. The heart that had been heavy with grief now rose in exhilaration.

He was there, not three feet away. He looked like shit; the damn hair was in wet rattails clinging to his face. His eyes were dull and rimmed with pain. But he was alive! Vin Tanner was alive! Alive... alive... alive... The impossible word bounced off every chamber of his stunned mind.

Eager to be rid of the blond pest once and for all, Bull tapped the gun tucked into his son's waistband. His eyes also questioned why the other agent would be traveling so loosely with his son, the enemy. The younger man shook his head and smiled, then pointed.

"That's him, Troy... he's the one..." Arlee ground the last grain of salt into the raw, throbbing wound in Tanner's soul.

The older Savage turned, still puzzled, just as the blue-eyed tiger sprang, knife held high.

Vin didn't see Bull Savage. The only thing he saw was the 'blond-haired bastard'. The mad, heartless mercenary who had tortured and burned his beloved Chris. The roar of vengeance screamed inside his head, already riddled in agony.

"Vin! No!" Chris screamed as the body flew at him, accompanied by a high, almost inhuman cry of pain. The blue eyes he knew so well were gone, replaced by the fevered eyes of a killer. What the hell did Arlee do to him? He had no time to think or react. He saw the silver blade in the clenched fist making a lethal path - straight to his heart.

+ + + + + + +

Bull Savage grunted when the impact of the flying attacker caused the iron connecting him to Larabee to tug at his ankle. He eyed the gun in his son's hand.

"How many bullets you got?"

Arlee diverted his attention for a second, checking the chamber.

"Four in here, half a box in my pocket..."

"Shoot this damn thing off!"

Larabee's normal lightning fast reaction was toned down by his injuries and weakened state. He moved deftly but not quick enough. He hissed in pain as the blade skimmed his left collarbone and shoulder. The impact had him on the ground with the leaner body on top. His arm shot out, gripping Vin Tanner's wrist. The blue eyes were glazed with a degree of fury that the blond had never seen.

"Vin!" he grunted. "What the hell are you doing? It's me... dammit, look at me!"

"Shut the Hell up, ya murderin' bastard!" Vin screamed. "I know a thing or two about cuttin' a man. I'll peel ya like a fuckin' orange fer what ya done t'Chris."

"What?" he gasped, his left arm clenched to Tanner's right wrist. The duo battled for control of the blade, each man bared teeth, panted and grunted in frustration. Sweat poured freely from each lean form, stinging cuts and abrasions on their wayward path. "Vin, it's me! I'm Chris... Whatever... shit... he ... told you... were... lies..."

"Shut up!" the raging blue-eyed inferno hollered. "Don't ya say his name. I'll carve out every fuckin' tooth in yer head... he was everythin' t'me... and yer gonna pay fer what ya done..."

The sinister laugh caused the green eyes to slide sideways. He caught Arlee's menacing face and sneered.

"You're a dead man!" he vowed while wrapping his legs around Tanner's slim waist and flipping him. He gained the upper hand, but the blade found his flesh again, glancing across his ribcage. He needed to disarm Vin; he felt his own strength waning. He felt the difference as soon as the injured sniper's head hit the ground. The eyes blinked rapidly and the wrist was weakening. Several small grunts of frustration and pain snuck out and his breathing became quick and rapid. The eyes were frantic, darting to and fro, and the slender body was losing it's adrenaline.

"Come on, cowboy..." the blond panted as defeat rose up in the blue eyes. That hurt a bit. That Vin would show such bloodlust, risk his life to avenge the death of 'Chris' ate at him. Those blue eyes were fading; the body was shutting down and the younger man felt he'd shamed his best friend. "Vin, stay with..." The body beneath him went limp; the eyes rolled once and shut. The blade started to slip. He grabbed for it but not fast enough.

The shot startled him; it took the blade from his reach. Chris moved on instinct, shielding Tanner with his own body. He flinched at the second shot but felt no pain. Then a chain wrapped around his neck. Both hands shot up, green eyes bulged as the metal tore the flesh on his throat and took his air away. He rammed his right elbow hard into the attacker's soft groin. The chain slipped and he turned, pulled it hard, sending Bull to the ground. He snarled and kicked at the offender's throat, never seeing the gun butt that sent him into the black void. His body landed half on Tanner's.

"What now?" Arlee asked. "We need Tanner. He's good at reading the land. He can get us out."

"What the hell did you do to him?" Bull gasped, still reeling from Larabee's attack.

"Nothin', just moved in," he smiled, "the plane crash did all the work. " He squatted and picked up the knife. "He thinks he's our kin... and Larabee here tortured and burned his beloved brother - Chris. He's got amnesia. We can have lots of fun with him."

"He can use the knife to play with Larabee, but I get to kill him!" Bull vowed as he eyed the ratty cast on his son's leg. "We need to rest... how's it look where you came from?"

"Crawlin' with army... they found the wreck. I'm guessing since the army is involved, they know at least one of the Fed's is alive. We need to lie low for awhile."

"There's a cave back there, set off the river. We can hide there..."

"I don't know, Pa... I think we need to cross over. How'd you bust free? Won't they be looking for you?"

"Maybe you're right," Bull agreed, watching a group of insects swarming over the bloody chest of Chris Larabee. "We'll use the cave tonight and you and Tanner scout out the river in the morning."

"Troy, Pa, he thinks his name is Troy and he thinks I'm Kevin Lincoln. You're my Pa, his uncle. Chris was his brother who Larabee here tortured and burned. He's a mercenary."

"Yeah...okay..." he nodded. "I'll take Larabee first." He eyed a vine nearby, cut a long length and rolled the unconscious man over, tying his hands. "Keep and eye on Tanner, in case his memory returns. I'll be back."

"Oh, don't worry," Arlee squatted, grinding his palm into the still healing wound on the groggy man's thigh. It brought a cry of pain that delighted him. "Me and Vinnie are good buddies..."

+ + + + + + +

9 p.m., Misty Falls, VA

It was a short ride south, not quite an hour. Even at night the rolling hills and mountains had a calming influence. He never got tired of the approach, passing the white fence line, turning up the winding drive under spectacular trees to the graceful white-columned nineteenth century farm.

Built in 1828 along the banks of the Shenandoah, it withstood the changes of time and politics and served briefly as a confederate hospital during the Civil War. Next to the charming residence was a large stable with a half dozen horses. Fine animals, every one and Kathryn's pride and joy.

He smiled, still able to recall the first time he saw her over forty years past. Just turned eighteen and the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Blond hair glinting in the sun and that radiant smile over the blue ribbon. She was an award winning equestrian who rode frequently with her older sister and her sister's close friend, Jacqueline Kennedy. He was new to the Pentagon, fresh out of West Point and serving under the Secretary of Defense. He met Kathryn through the President at one of Mrs. Kennedy's charity events.

He missed this place and the peace it brought him. Waking up in her arms, watching the sun rise through the large bay window and the soft mist rolling over the fields. He sighed as they pulled into the carport on the side of the house.

"How can you leave this place?" Buck wondered aloud. "It's like living in heaven."

"It's getting harder," Adam Larabee agreed, getting out of the car. "Come on, son. The bride doesn't like to be kept waiting."

"Still the bride?" the younger man teased, knowing full well the two were still celebrating a love affair that spanned forty years.

"Always!" he touted. "The finest creature God ever created." He unlocked the kitchen door and stepped inside. The tantalizing aroma of roasting meat filled the room.

"You're late!"

Buck smiled at the warm voice then paused, letting the General embrace and kiss 'the bride'. There was no mistaking that look. The man simply adored the ground she walked on. Although Chris inherited his blond hair and green eyes from his mother, his features, every one, were all Larabee.

"I had to turn the pork down. I grated apples into the sauerkraut and there's peach cobbler warming in..."

Buck grinned and opened his arms then as the beautiful woman's smile lit up the entire, large colonial kitchen.

"Buck!"

He caught the trim, petite woman who could easily pass for forty. Her hair was the same shade as Chris's but wavy. It was cut short and framed her small face perfectly.

"Buck Wilmington! Oh my..."

"Didn't I tell you?" He winked at the General who was pouring them all a glass of Rhine wine. "All woman just melt in my arms... it's a powerful weapon."

"She's just tired..." he defended with a sly grin. Then he saw Buck's face blanch, seeing the photo of Chris on the wall. "She knows..."

"Kate, I wanted to call... but..." he paused, gripping her shoulders. "I was a mess. It was the worst pain I ever felt, like someone ripped my guts out..."

"I know," she rested one hand on the handsome man's face. "You're family, honey... and nobody hurts like you."

"I'm gonna bring him home, Kate," he vowed, taking the small hand and kissing it. "You got my word!"

"Wilmington's word is as good as done!"

"My reputation precedes me," he winked at her.

"No, I read that on the ladies room at the Country Club..."

Buck laughed and put his bag down, hearing Chris's natural sense of humor coming from his mother's lips. He was a lucky man. He was raised in a home full of love by two people who trusted and respected each other. Buck paused next to a table where an old photo of Chris was in a five x seven frame. He was about ten, sporting a short buzz cut and muddy football uniform. The tenacity in the green eyes was familiar.

"He had the glare even then..." Buck mused.

"He was born with it," his mother smiled. "He scowled at me the first day we brought him home." She motioned to the table. "Do you need to wash up?"

"No, ma'am, I'm fine. The General thought of everything." He was glad for the jeans and flannel shirt. The General really had thought of everything, even having a grunt go to Wal-Mart and pick up supplies for him.

"I hope you're hungry?" the elder Larabee inquired, sitting at the large pine table that dated back to the Civil War.

"Aw, hell," Buck patted his waist. "Did you make roasted potatoes and carrots?" He eyed the antique pottery housing steaming food. "I'm not gonna fit in my uniform."

"You finish all of that or you get no dessert!" she scolded, rubbing his back then paused to squeeze his shoulder. "It's so good to see you, honey. You don't visit enough."

"Same here, Kate. Chris's been after me to come back... but the last six months have been brutal. One case after another... now this." He swallowed a mouthful of succulent pork and sauerkraut, took some wine and paused. "I can't believe they both survived. I can't imagine the pain if one didn't..."

"His letters and phone calls are full of Vin." She smiled, thinking on how unwittingly her son showed his emotion. "It's as if God sent Vin to him, to help heal that broken heart."

"They're a pair, that's for sure," Buck smirked. "That cranky Texan can work Chris's nerves like nobody's business. Then just when his face gets red and you think he's gonna explode, Vin just flashes a smile or makes some smart-assed Texan comment and Chris loses it." His fork paused, a carrot dangling. "Vin's a good man. He sorta reminds me of them knights I read about when I was a kid."

"From what Chris tells me, Vin Tanner is quite an asset to the team," the General noted. "It would appear he has many unique abiilties..."

"Unique?" Buck smiled again, chomped his carrot and took a hunk of hot sourdough bread, slathering butter on it. "Yeah, he's that... course he also curses like a sailor, can get downright cranky and keeps the sugar industry in business."

The outstanding dinner was capped off by a wonderful dessert and strong coffee. Kate went up to bed, leaving the two men to discuss their early departure for Mexico. She slide beneath the old quilt, feeling the same tension that crept up before every mission he went on. He was so a part of her, she couldn't imagine living without Adam.

It was close to midnight when he slipped in beside her. She sighed as those strong arms encircled her, drawing her back against that broad chest. She felt him nuzzle her neck and turned to give him a soft kiss. She cupped that handsome face and stroked his cheek.

"You bring my boy home, Adam," she whispered in a mother's choked voice. He kissed her forehead, brushed the tears away with his fingers and held her close. She felt that strong heart beating against her own and fell into an uneasy sleep.

+ + + + + + +

10 p.m. Denver

"Yes, sir, we're all here," J.D. Dunne announced and handed the telephone to the acting team leader, Josiah Sanchez. They were at Ezra's condo waiting for Travis to call.

"Orrin," he pushed the speaker button so they all could hear. "Anything new?"

"The meeting went well. General Larabee was able to join us via teleconference. Did you get the video I emailed?"

"Yes, sir," Nate exuded, puffing on a cigar. "I can't believe both of them survived. We got a real good chance..."

"We have favorable odds," the older man agreed. "Did I hear my secretary correctly? You've all been approved for annual leave?"

"Well," the preacher noted, his deep voice full of 'sincerity'. "We're all caught up and four isn't much of a team. I checked with Mike Ryan and Bennie Evans," he noted of the other two ATF teams in the area. "They don't need us."

"We thought a brief respite from the travails of our ordeal was in order," Standish added, handing Nathan a brandy.

"Yeah," J.D. nodded. "Mexico is a great place to tour this time of year."

The exasperated sigh on the other end gave each man a smile.

"It's all by the book, Orrin," Nate added. "I'm looking peaked... Rain likes me with more color..."

"Be that as it may," Travis paused amidst the chuckles. "You realize once you leave the United States, you are just ordinary citizens. You're not on duty..."

"Why, Orrin!" Josiah tapped his chest. "I'm wounded..."

"That you would question our motives," Standish agreed.

"...is highly offensive," Dunne added in an Ezra-esque voice.

"I'm just along for the tan," Nate chimed in and getting ribbed by J.D.

"Sometimes I wonder," Orrin mused of how this odd collection of manpower had melded into an exceptionally successful and highly decorated federal fighting force.

"Aren't you gonna guess where we're going?" J.D. piped up, chugging a pony bottle of Miller Lite.

"San Pedro?"

"Give the man a cigar!" Nate awarded.

"Don't call me for bail money," the elder advised, shaking his puzzled head. "I'll be in touch."

+ + + + + + +

Midnight, in the mountains in Mexico

He tried to move but couldn't. He spent several moments shivering in the cold and letting his pained eyes adjust to the dimness. Cold, damp and musty, he knew the flavor. His fingers felt the walls and earth. He tilted his nose, scenting the air.

"River ain't far..."

"You hungry, Troy?" Arlee asked, kneeling by the roused man. He offered a piece of fish. "I caught some fish. It was hot before..."

"No..." Vin repelled, the scent of the water creature soured his delicate stomach. "Ya best move that thing or I'll hurl on ya..."

"Damn..." Arlee moved back as the other man sat up, rubbed his head and picked up the canteen. "How you feeling?"

"Like m'head got trampled by a buffalo." Vin began to rock, clutching his aching skull. Then he caught sight of the pale face of the prisoner, bound and blindfolded in the light from a small, dying fire near the cave entrance. He hissed, rose and attempted to move in again, fists clenched and teeth bared.

"Hold on, Cochise!" Arlee laughed, intercepting the irate, squirming body. "Plenty of time for that... you get some rest."

"He's mine!" Vin warned, his blood racing. "Ya git in m'way and I'll carve a piece outta ya!"

Arlee held up both hands in defeat and retreated, winking at his dozing father. Oh, this was going to be fun! They both watched and grinned as the lost soul examined his prey.

Vin dropped down, lifting the short blond hair harshly. He felt the other man tense up, and he leaned in, his lips curled in disgust. The stench of blood assaulted him and he eyed the new wounds, scoring red through a tattered shirt.

"Yer mine, ya maggot-eatin' dog. Ya ain't known pain yet... I'll make ya beg... "

Chris heard the voice and could imagine the fire in those blue eyes. But how could he reach Vin? He knew Arlee and Bull would kill both of them.

"Vin... listen to me..."

"Quit callin' me that!" The angry man jerked the wet head harder. Every time the blond said the name 'Vin', it felt like a knife was ripping his skull open.

"I'm just..."

"Ya look thirsty!" Vin panted, not liking the powerful and painful storm inside him. He grabbed the canteen and poured the cold river water all over the wounded man's face. The sputtering and choking didn't give him the satisfaction he sought. He shoved the body hard, kicking the soft side of the man's belly and taking his air away. The body went limp and he retreated, curling up in the corner. He rocked and clutched his throbbing skull until darkness overtook him. He moaned and twitched in his troubled sleep, slashed by vivid images of the blond man with piercing green eyes.

The man who took his beloved brother Chris from him. A mistake that would only be rectified when the earth ran red with his blood.

Part Eleven

Daybreak, the Mountains of Mexico

A voice broke through the thick walls of muck that filled his mind. He blinked, coughed and squinted upward, seeing daylight entering the damp cave. He sat up, rubbed his throbbing temples and tried to quell the rolling in his stomach.

"Come on, Troy," Arlee tapped the filthy shirt. "We need to find something to eat..."

"Yeah..." Vin grunted, his eyes snaking around the damp enclosure. They honed in on the blond captive who was sitting up, still blindfolded and bound. He cried out as the image of this man taking a knife to his Chris appeared.He snarled and stood on shaky legs, trembling with rage.

"Easy, tiger!" Arlee winked at his amused father who was holding a gun on the prisoner. "You can play with him after we eat..."

They trudged across the river which was waist high in places and over to the other side. Vin forged ahead. The cold water invigorated him, heightened his senses. He scoured the terrain, carefully choosing particular berries and even managed to find some root plants. He shucked his outer shirt and used it as a carrier.He had Arlee making spears with the knife, hacking away at branches.They spent about an hour spearing fish with Vin catching most of them. He also climbed on the highest rock and used his keen gaze to find a trail through the dense forest.

They returned just as easily and Vin dropped the plants and berries in a pile while Arlee started a fire.He speared three fish and while they roasted, he moved over, flexing his fists.

"You hungry,Troy?" Arlee held out a piece of seared fish.

"Not fer that..." he hissed, fingers flexing. He couldn't contain himself. He needed to slay the beast inside. This prisoner had to suffer like Chris did; he wanted to inflict that pain. He needed to feel the bones break and hear the animal beg. He stood over the filthy man who moved and lifted his battered face.

"Vin, you okay?"

"Quit callin' me that!" he screamed, backhanding the man hard enough to draw blood and sending him sideways into the dirt. He forced himself to move away, needing to put some food into his weak body.

Chris didn't get up. He tasted blood mixed with dirt and sighed in frustration. He was weak from hunger and thirst and moreover, had no idea how to get Vin Tanner back. He was able to use the position of his face in the dirt to nudge the blindfold a bit. He could see the three men and heard Bull's obnoxious voice. His heart sank. He knew once they got close to a city of some kind, even a remote one, they'd kill Vin.Chris didn't have much time and thought again on the chances of rescue. If the plane wreckage was found, they might be searching.Maybe they knew about the escape from Diaz. The faces of his men appeared, one in particular as clear and sharp as if in person.

"...Buck..." he whispered, knowing the large-hearted man wouldn't give up.

Vin shoved a handful of berries into his mouth and swiped the excess. The pressure was rising and he needed to sate the beast. He stood, eyeing remnants of the thick vine nearby. He tapped Arlee and motioned to the unmoving blond.

"Git 'im up..."

"Party time!" Bull laughed, chomping on the extra fish.

"Get up, dog!" Arlee yanked him up by the hair and tugged the blindfold off.

Chris cried out as the light stabbed his eyes. He hunched over, trying to shield his tender corneas. He was still adjusting when his hands were loosened.

"Tie our left hands together," Vin ordered.

"Shit..." Chris swore, knowing what the other man was doing. He'd seen the Texan do this before and he was deadly accurate. His black belt training coupled with what he had learned from his adopted Cheyenne Indian grandfather took the odds down even further.

That done, Vin motioned for the knife. He tossed it hard, blade down in the dirt.

"Yer gettin' more of a chance than ya give m'Chris. I'm gonna use that t'carve his name in yer hide..." Vin snarled, sending his uninjured left leg into the abdomen of the blond.

Chris grunted and moved, trying to get Vin in front of him so that he could wrap his arm around his throat. It didn't work.Vin tread hard on his instep, elbowed his gut, then rammed his head backward into Chris's nose, spraying blood.

He had no time to react; he saw the glint of the blade that the deft sniper grabbed from the ground now arcing towards him. He rolled, grabbing a handful of dirt and tossing it into Vin's eyes.That deflected the knife's descent towards its target, but the blade still nipped his outer wrist.

They rolled over and over, grunting and hissing, coming dangerously close to the flames. Chris felt the blade jabbing at his leg. He moved his hand, catching Vin's wrist before the knife hit his gut.

"Shove his face in there!" Arlee hooted, watching in delight as his master plan came to life.Tanner's blue eyes were blazing in fury; he didn't seem to hear them.

Chris felt the heat of the fire on his face and felt his grip slipping. He grit hard, wincing in pain and tried to find Vin's eyes. They were lost in time, wide and painted in war blue. He had his 'back to the wall'... there was no other choice. The blade got closer, pressing against his collarbone. He saw Vin flinch and moved, using his legs and sending them both across the fire. He cried out as the flames hit his side and heard Vin cry out as well. The knife skittered away and he chuffed out a small breath of relief.

The touch of the flame to his back caused Vin's hand to slip. He bit his lip against the pain, moved his body deftly, twisting the blond around in front of him. Using his left forearm across the man's throat, cutting off his air, he used his right to punch the lower back several times.

Chris's face grimaced in pain as his kidneys were assaulted. It caused him to slump a little which was what Vin wanted. His left arm moved back hard, connecting with the gut and taking all the air away. Chris gagged and brought his right hand up, desperate to free himself. Blood ran freely from his wounds, mixing with Vin's and hitting the flames, causing a hiss and a drift of smoke. He used what little consciousness that remained to feel where the irate attacker was. Then he moved his right arm, sending the hardest elbow he could into the underside of Tanner's ribs.

Over the roar of vengeance in his ears, just as victory was at hand, a pain in Vin's side caused him to slip. Already dizzy and nauseous, his head reeling, the new blow stunned him. He fell forward as a sharp black curtain covered him. His last thought was that he'd failed the one man he sought to revenge. He let his brother die in vain.

"...m'sorry... C...hrissss..."

Chris didn't hear Vin's agonized plea; he was already unconscious.

"Didn't I tell you this would be fun?" Arlee kicked both men, delighting in Tanner's pain.

"Tie up Larabee again and revive that bastard," Bull nodded to the mangy-headed Texan. "We need to put that river between us and Xaviar... and the army."

"Yeah," Arlee agreed, cutting the cord that bound the two men. "I don't think we're far... he seemed to think we're only a couple days from civilization."

"He'll never live to see it..." Bull predicted, shoving the now bound Larabee over his shoulder. He watched his son pouring cold water on the marred, bearded face of the other. As the brows twitched and the blue eyes started to open, he smiled down. "Could be we'll bury him alive... that might be fun..."

"Troy, you with me?"

"Yeah..." Vin gasped, crawled outside of the cave and vomited his breakfast. He used the river water to wash, rinse and drink. With Arlee's help, he crossed the river.Vin blazed the path ahead, not realizing he was forging the road to his own demise.

+ + + + + + +

High noon, near the crash site

Seven hours after lifting off from Virginia, the General eased his lean frame from the helicopter and moved toward the clearing.The six men spilled out behind him, each clad from head to toe in green and black fatigues and well aware of their job.

"Captain, the map..."

"Sir," the man came forward, holding a palmcorder with the digital image on the screen.

"Three kilometers east..." He moved his finger."Larabee and Savage were taken by truck through this area..."

"Okay, let's move."

Buck was in the rear, the thrill of the hunt coursing through him.It had been so long since he'd been on a military mission, he'd forgotten about the feeling. The tightness in your gut, the tension in your body and the adrenaline rush you kept under wraps.He clutched his weapon and eyed the terrain, his blue eyes scanning the perimeter in a constant motion. He'd said a prayer when they took off just before five a.m. That when the helicopter returned, they'd be fuller by two more-Tanner and Larabee.

"Where are you, Chris?" he whispered to the wind.

+ + + + + + +

Three p.m., San Pedro, Mexico

"I thought I knew remote," J.D. mused, eyeing the dusty collection of shabby, outdated buildings.

"It's a poor area," Ezra commented, climbing out of their rental vehicle. It wasn't much of a Jeep but was the best they had at the tiny airport. He winced and flexed. "My back may never recover."

"I'll bet it will before my ears do..." Nathan shook his head recalling the southerner's nonstop complaints. He adjusted his glasses and scanned the half-dozen buildings. "Whaddya think?" he tossed to Josiah Sanchez who looked almost cartoonish getting his large frame out of the tiny car.

"Well..." the graying agent decided, wincing and stretching. "I think I lost six inches..."

The other three eyed the buildings, each other, and then zoned in on a single one.

"Saloon!" they chorused.

Jack was dozing, his face on his crossed arms on top of the sticky table. Behind him, the waitress was giving him a massage.

"Be a good lass and put some spit in it..." he advised, then felt the fingers rub harder and lower, slipping beneath his waistline. "Ah... that's a good girl, then..."

"We got company."

"Who?" He didn't move upon hearing Pete's words.

"Americans..." The dark-haired one narrowed his gaze.

"Yanks?" Jack's voice rose in disbelief. "Down here? It's getting to be a real tourist trap." He paused with a frown. "I hate when that happens."

"I know them..." DiTullio craned his neck trying to peer past the motley group assembled at the bar. He saw the tall man then with the short graying hair and it struck him. "They're Larabee's team..."

"Here?"

"No, in Denver..." Pete snapped, then shoved a coin down the open shirt of the well-endowed woman. "Beat it, sister, we got business..."

Jack's shaggy head came up and accepted a deep kiss and grope before the dark haired woman left. He shifted painfully trying to get comfortable.

"Christ, you're not a sixteen-year old!" DiTullio snapped at the irritated man next to him. "Get it under wraps."

"Easier said than done, mate," the blond hissed, squirming in the chair. "I got no time to bash the bishop now..."

Pete nodded to the bartender and saw the four men turn in his direction. They each got a bottle of beer and ambled over. He took the first hand offered from the dark-skinned agent.

"Nathan?" he guessed, trying to recall the photo from the internet research they'd done.

"Yeah," Jackson returned. "I've admired your work for years. I wish we were meeting under different circumstances."

"Thanks." He cast a suspicious eye at the handsome, green-eyed man who looked out of place.

"Standish," the southerner charmed. "Ezra P."

"Ezra?" Pete winced. "Your mother must have been pissed off but good at your old man..."

"Ezra don't have a father, he was sired by a snake." the preacher said solemnly, turning to a shaggy-haired blond man.

"Jack Lynch." The blond took the gray-haired man's hand. "You're a tall one, then..."

"Height challenged." Josiah grinned and saw the blond's brows furrow at the youth beside him. "J.D. Dunne."

"You out of nappies, lad?"

"I'm over twenty-one!"

"In dog years," Nathan teased, winking at the youth. "You heard about General Larabee?"

"Who hasn't?" DiTullio was very familiar with the legend. "I thought he was in China somewhere..."

"He's here," J.D. stated. "He came back to find Chris..."

"Helluva family tree," Lynch noted with admiration. "I met him once, the General that is, in Morocco. He was all that, he was..."

"Indeed," Standish agreed. "It would appear to run in the family. Where do you theorize Juan Xavier's last camp to be?"

"You're a handy chap to have about." Jack eyed the small computer the flashy-toothed man held.

"Yeah,," J.D. snorted in agreement. "That's why we keep him around. He can con us into great hotels, free meals at nifty restaurants and score concert tickets."

"You sentimental fool," Ezra responded humorously.

"Uh... north of there." Pete eyed the small rivers and towns on the digital map. "It's hard to call. He usually disappears into the dense, unpopulated areas and makes his own encampments. They found tracks... here..." he pointed out.

"What about the Jeep? The one Arlee stole?" Nate asked.

"No trace... yet," Jack said as Pete left to talk to some locals at the bar.

"But if Vin is with him," J.D sipped his beer and winced. "What the hell is this?"

Jack took the bottle and winked at Josiah but kept a straight face. "Ah, ye got the wrong bottle, lad. That's what the birds use to wash their naughty bits and pieces with..."

"What?" J.D.'s brows drew together then his face flushed Tanner-red, but then he saw the others smirking and wrinkled his nose. "That's disgusting..."

"You asked." Josiah ruffled his hair.

"...anyhow... if Arlee took him to the crash site..." The dark head moved following Ezra's map movement.

"...and our keen tracker is on the mark..." Ezra followed.

"...then we can follow their tracks..." Nate concluded.

"You may have something," Pete agreed, nodding to the men at the bar. "Julio just got back from north of Vincente. He says the area is crawling with both army and rebels. One of Xavier's men was found murdered and robbed. The army found a jeep nearby..."

"The padre's?"

"Yeah..."

"Let's go!"

+ + + + + + +

It was a couple of hours past sunset. His empty and biting stomach added to the constant throb of his battered body. He now knew what bugs felt like after the windshield wipers squashed them. The tight vines that bound his wrists were limp and saturated with sweat and blood. He grit his teeth and began working on them.

Through green slits, he assessed the situation. They were camped by the river, in a dense thicket of trees. A small fire kept warmth on the chilly night air and he smelled meat of some kind. He eyed the trio and kept tugging on his left wrist that was now nearly free.

Bull was eating. Vin was curled up on his side, not moving. Chris eyed the reddened blistered area under the charred shirt where the tracker was burned. He flicked an eye to the flushed cheeks and realized his friend sported a fever. With a grimace, he yanked his wrist free but made no other move. He would have to time it right when one of the guards was sleeping. He knew Vin was waning and was no longer a threat.

Arlee. Chris frowned and scanned the other man hidden in the shadows. Like Tanner's, the young man's face was covered in sweat and his breathing was off. He saw the hand clutching the leg and heard a moan.

"You hold on, son." Bull moved to the stricken man's side. "By tomorrow we'll find a town... some help."

"...don't sweat it... prick..." Chris whispered, his internal storm raging for what had been done to his friend. "...you'll be dead long before... then..." he vowed, shutting his eyes and waiting to spring.

Bull yawned and fought the urge to sleep. His son and the pig were already under and he had to stay awake. He was tired and weak from hunger; the rat-like thing that Arlee caught had netted little meat. Twice his heavy eyes closed causing his chin to hit his chest. He jerked up, eyeing the others, all not moving.

"...third time's the charm..." Chris noted silently as the large man's head went down and didn't rise. He waited several minutes, eyes watching the gun slip from the brute's hand. He rolled onto his knees and stood, taking several breaths. Then he crept closer, eyes still on the gun, his whole purpose to gain control. He bent down, biting his lip as his back and chest screamed in pain. His fingers brushed the metal, then the beast rose.

"Arlee!" Bull screamed as the blond's fist hit his throat. He gurgled and felt intense pain, then the jarring blow of the gun to his head sent him to the ground.

Chris had no time to draw before Arlee plowed into him. They rolled and grunted, each in pain, weak and fevered. The gun skittered away and neither paid attention to the wobbly hand that picked it up.

"Git offa him..." Vin croaked, barely able to stand. He blinked hard as the blurry pair rolled and exchanged blows, not hearing his order.

"Even... if you... get... me..."Arlee huffed, trying to choke Chris Larabee. "...that dimwitted Texan will put a hole in you..."

"Shut up!" Chris lashed out, leveling a vicious backhand that sent the other man to his knees.

The shot caused them both to jump. Chris dove for cover, watching Vin blink and shake his delirious head.

Arlee took advantage of the wobbly man, slamming into his knees and sending the battered body to the ground. He watched the half-mast blue eyes close and then scanned the ground for the gun. He spotted the metal and scrambled, reaching and pulling it up, but not in time. His eyes widened in shock when the blade hit his throat.

"Rot in hell, you maggot-eatin' rat!" Chris growled, grabbing the knife and yanking it free. "Give my best to your brother..."

Tucking the knife in his pants, he eyed the two downed men. He flinched as rain began to fall. He was looking for the pile of vines that Savage used to bind his hands when he noticed Vin's chest wasn't moving.

"Shit!" He scrambled over, turning the half-twisted body. "Vin? Dammit, don't you die on me..." He slapped the face hard and got a gasp. A raspy breath hit his hand and he sighed in relief, tapping the bearded, bloodied face of the sharpshooter. "One down and one to go, buddy..."

"Well, if this isn't a Kodak moment."

Chris sneered and rose, turning to meet the full height of Bull Savage. He drew the knife out, bared his teeth and stared hard at his opponent. It was then that the older man noticed his son wasn't moving.

"Arlee? Arlee boy, get up..."

"You're gonna have to shout louder, it's a long way to Hell." Chris enjoyed the pained look on the other man's face. "He died yellow like the other demon seed of yours I put down."

"You won't get off this mountain alive!" Bull warned, fisting both hands.

"Let's do it!" Chris taunted, waving his left hand, wiggling every finger.

"Shame... I was hopin' to do you last, let you watch that pretty fella get skinned alive..."

"You won't even get the chance to breathe near him," Chris predicted, unconsciously moving his body in front of the prone ex-bounty hunter.

The rain fell, creating a strange arena for the two combatants. Bull charged and Chris slashed at him, getting a chunk of the massive right arm. The ex-con grabbed a thick piece of wood from the ground and swung hard, catching the knee of the blond. He smiled at the crack and the hiss of pain. So focused were they on their battle that neither one noticed the shaggy-haired man stirring.

Vin rolled onto his back and licked the rain. He was so hot and thirsty and it felt so damn good. He opened his lips, trying to catch the moisture. Then he heard a sound, flesh hitting flesh and a cry of pain. He turned his head and saw two blurry figures seemingly dancing in slow motion. With great effort, he got to his knees and watched the world spin at a crazy angle. Then he saw the gun.

Chris's injuries and weakened condition were making his reactions slow and off kilter. Although he nicked the larger man several times with the knife, he couldn't get the upper hand. The club that Savage swung had done damage to his knee and back. He saw it coming for his head and dodged, shoving the blade where he thought the belly should be. He missed and went to his knees. He felt the wood come around his throat and his air was cut off.

"I'll... break... it..." Bull promised.

Chris saw the spots dancing before his eyes and knew he had little time left. Then he saw Vin's wavering form and reached out.

"V..i...n..." he choked in a hoarse voice. "...sh...oot..."

"Well, here's your chance boy..." Bull grunted, hauling Chris Larabee up using the wood as a lever. He winced when the other man's sharp elbow found his groin. It caused the club to fall and he eyed the ground, searching for the knife. A shot caused both men to turn to the delirious soul across the camp.

"Vin, listen to me..." Larabee tried to reach the lost eyes.

"I thought you wanted to kill him," Bull panted. "He tortured your brother... he killed Chris!"

"He's lying, Vin... I'm Chris. You were hurt... they're using your memory loss to..."

"Shoot him, boy... shoot him now!" Bull shouted.

"Shut up!" Vin screamed, clutching his head with one hand and waving the gun with the other. If there was a worse pain than this one, he didn't know it. His back was on fire, his leg throbbed and his head felt like it had a jackhammer driving inside of it. He couldn't see too well and he felt his world caving in. Their voices mixed and he didn't know what was right. He had no sense of time or space, just pain. He didn't know what to do or who to believe. He just wanted the pain to stop.

Bull saw the blond's eyes flick sideways to where Tanner was staggering dangerously close to the edge of a cliff. He elbowed the blond hard and dove forward, seeking the gun.

"Vin, look out!" Chris screamed, vaulting hard and taking the back of Bull's legs out.

They wrestled again and Chris felt himself weakening. The rain caused the dirt to turn into muddy rivers giving them a slick, unbalanced surface. He grunted and used his legs to flip the other man off of him. Both were spent and slow... their lethargic movements doing little new damage.

"Shoot him!" Bull ordered, watching the Texan jump, his whole body startled. He saw confusion pouring from the blue eyes and doubt beginning to form. "Do it! He killed Arlee..."

"Who?" Vin rasped, then saw his cousin's body. "Aw, hell..." He raised the gun, the weapon wobbling badly in his shaking hands. He needed both to steady his aim.

"Vin, he's lying. That's Arlee Savage, this is his father, Bull..."

"Shoot him! Didn't that brother of yours mean anything to you?" Savage pleaded.

"...they kidnapped us... brought us down here on a plane..." Larabee continued.

"Shut up!" Vin screamed, staggering again, not sure of what to do or who to believe. "Make it stop..." he pleaded, cradling his head and stumbling badly. "...Jesus, make it stop..."

Bull used his large hand to scoop up a hefty fistful of mud and heaved it at the unsuspecting gunman. He dove at him, ramming his head into the slender body.

Vin felt the air leave his lungs, after the mud hitting his face and terrific force hit his chest. He looked up as a beefy hand picked up the knife. His foggy brain saw a blond man... not the one on the ground dazed, but another one. He was smiling in a barn, near a black horse. The split second flash was gone, but it made a mark. Vin didn't have time to make any connection; his reflexes took over. He raised his arm and made his decision.

The gun went off and the body reacted, sending a beefy forearm back hard. Vin's head snapped back and the force of the mighty blow took a lethal turn.

"Vin! Nooooo!" Chris screamed, watching in horror as Tanner's body flew backwards over the cliff.

The whole episode seemed to happen in slow motion. For a few seconds, from where he was lying, he'd seen the light of reason in the sky eyes. Vin Tanner saved his life, but at what cost?

For a few seconds, he couldn't move, then Chris forced himself to get up. He winced as the torrents of rain stung his eyes. He saw the broken body below, lying at an odd angle. He stared hard and saw no chest movement. It was dark and the rain clouded his view, but his heart sank.

Vin Tanner was dead.

Chris clenched his eyes shut and turned his face to the sky. He felt every needle-like shard of the teeming rain pierce him, seeming to shred his soul. His eyes raked over a flicker of silver in the mud. He bent and picked the knife up. Then, a new strength coursed through him and he turned slowly, walking over to where the wounded man lay bleeding.

"Get up."

Bull blinked into the rain and paled beneath the stubble he wore. He was lying against a tree, having crawled over after the bullet hit his gut. He'd seen this man in a variety of moods, positions and conditions. Never, not once, had he been afraid of Chris Larabee.

Until now.

"Get up, you bastard, or I'll carve your heart out..."

"Go to Hell."

"Enjoy the family reunion..."

Bull screamed when Larabee's foot ground hard into the large bleeding wound in his side. He saw the knife and then made the mistake of looking at those lethal eyes. Through the dirt and beard and swollen, bruised flesh, were killer's eyes, color flint and rimmed with deadly intent.

"Please..." he begged, "...don't..."

The cry was short lived. It died when that knife was shoved in his open mouth. It rammed hard to the back of his throat. He twisted sideways, bloody froth pouring from him. The wrist holding the blade never lost its grip.

"...hate a beggin' coward..." Larabee grunted, jerking the knife, twisting hard until the Grim Reaper tapped his shoulder.

He kicked the body over and paused, taking huge mouthfuls of air. He jogged over to the cliff then, eyeing several paths downward. Twenty feet to the left was a steep, rocky decline, but the rocks made a ladder of sorts. It was a painful descent, the sharp edges tearing the flesh on his hands, but Chris didn't feel it. The only pain he felt was the piercing pain where his soul once resided. He dropped exhausted by the body of his best friend. He eyed the odd angle, wincing painfully as the rain beat down on the battered, grimey face. Even with the new beard, Tanner looked too young. Chris rested his hand against that fever flushed cheek and felt his eyes burning.

"I'm sorry, cowboy."

The whispered plea fell on deaf ears. He sighed hard, eyeing the unnatural position of the other man's body. Still on his knees, Chris leaned over the motionless form, yanking out a large rock that Tanner's back was wrapped around.

"Dammit!" His hand twitched; he wished he had a gun to shoot the damn thing to pieces. Vin was now lying flat, every inch marked. Burns, cuts, scrapes, insect bites and other wounds marred the areas now already black and blue. He eyed the rocky road he took down and scowled. It would be a long way back up. Sighing, he lifted the battered hero, wincing as the head flopped against his chest. He raised his hand, cupping the back of the matted rat's nest in the guise of Tanner hair.

"You and your fuckin' nobility..." he whispered painfully, his numb body not able to comprehend the vast loss. There was no word for the pain he felt. It didn't exist in any language. He shivered in the cold rain and realized he'd never be warm again.

Then it happened.

He held his breath and froze. Did he imagine it? Chris pulled back and supported Tanner's upper body with his leg. He cupped the slack jaw and it fell open. He lowered his face, placing his cheek close to the open cavity.

"God... Jesus... God..." His voice cracked and he pulled the Texan close again, shielding him from the cold and rain.

It wasn't his imagination.

Vin was still alive!

+ + + + + + +

Midnight, on the Mountain

Buck Wilmington shifted restlessly on the ground. Dawn would come soon enough and another eighteen hour day with it. He was exhausted. Any other man would be sleeping now, taking advantage of the few hours allotted him to rest.

But he wasn't any man.

He was driven by inner demons. Insatiable, heartless creatures that drove pitchforks in his gut, twisting them until he wanted to cry out at the pain. He needed to voice his anger and frustration. Somewhere in these mountains, two of his closest friends were dying.He knew that. He felt it in his bones. But Buck wouldn't let the beast win. He'd find Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. . . or die trying.

He sighed, turned over and eyed the black sky. Some nights the stars seemed close enough to touch. Tonight they seemed to mock him. They winked and then hid behind the clouds. It seemed to parallel their mission.

They'd found tracks, followed leads that led to deadends and skirted the river. They stayed in the shadows, moving deftly through the mountains and avoiding the soldiers. Americans were not eyed favorably in these parts and that coldness just added to the plight.

But they were close; he felt it. He rubbed the tension behind his eyes and listened to the river rushing by. When the morning came, they'd head north again, to the place where the locals rumored Juan Xavier to be hiding out. The sun would rise in about five hours, but they'd be on the road again by then. As sleep overtook him, the faces of his missing brothers plagued his dreams causing an uneasy rest.

+ + + + + + +

Midnight, Small Canyon in Mexico

Endurance.

It was a word that was used frequently but seldom applied in its truest sense. By definition, it was the ability to withstand prolonged pain or strain. Other words filled his pain-logged head. With every uneven, staggered step, they fell into place. They became his mantra in this truest test for survival: staying power, stamina, perseverance, persistence, resolution, fortitude and tenacity. That was perhaps the one he kept firmly in his jaw. Like a pit bill, he had his prey in his teeth and he was not about to let go. He was going to survive this hell hole and keep Vin Tanner alive too.

He leaned back against the tree, closed his throbbing eyes and sucked in air over his burning ribcage. There was not a spot on his body that wasn't screaming in pain. Cuts, bruises, burns and other assorted injuries scored flesh and bone. Added to the dehydration and lack of food, the fever that was steadily rising and the throbbing knee that he could barely put weight on, Chris Larabee slumped, nearly defeated.

"Get your head up, you're not a dog. I've taught you better!"

"...tryin'..." He snarled at the phantom in his head. "...s'hard... I can't..."

"Not good enough!"

The voice screamed at him, causing him to curl up and fist both hands to his temples. He groaned and hissed, but the strong tone persisted. It bounced off every corner of his aching skull and drove him into a furied state.

"Can't! That's not a word in your vocabulary and you know better! You're in charge... he's depending on you. You know the drill... get your ass up and get moving!

"Shut up!" Chris Larabee screamed to the howling wind in the dark night. "Don't fuckin' tell me what to do! I'll show you..." He sucked in a long breath and shoved his aching body from the ground.

He was alone, but the spirit of 'the General' was everywhere. It pushed him far beyond where his body could go. His father's high standards and discipline were as much a part of him as breathing. The very essence of what made him tick, he owed to his father. Under the older Larabee's guiding hands, molded carefully with love and pride, he was formed. At the very core of the engine inside him that fueled his thoughts and moves, was the framework built by Adam J. Larabee. There was not a man he loved and respected more than his father.

As he scavenged the upper campsite where the bodies of the Savages were now stripped, he felt the older man's presence even stronger than ever. As he tied another bundle containing berries, roots and plants, he saw a boy in his mind's eye. Chris staggered badly, nearly falling and dropped the bundle over the cliff where it joined the others he'd tossed ahead of it. His eyes went to Vin Tanner's still form and then back to the blond boy.

As he lifted the canteen to his parched lips and took a drink, he saw the ten-year old, alone in a place not too unlike this one. Survival training was something he'd been raised on from as far back as he could remember. His father drilled it into him from the time he could walk. When he was ten, he was left in the middle of a large area near the base. It was part of the land used to train the men his father commanded. Unknown to the boy, he was never out of his father's sight.The General was in the woods, waiting and watching, ready to step in. But that never happened. He'd proven his mettle that weekend. He swallowed hard and still felt that enormous tide of emotion when he met his father's embrace at the end of the trial. The words scored his soul and he held them still.

"You're a Larabee..."

"Damn straight!" he whispered to the black, barren campsite.

Chris blinked and capped the canteen, watching the ten-year old blond boy with new eyes. Now that he'd been a father, he felt a different kind of pride. He saw himself through his father's eyes and recognized that swell of pride. He hadn't let rain, cold and mud stop him that weekend, and he wouldn't be defeated now. He'd survived then, passed the General's test with flying colors and he'd do it yet again.

"You lose again... old man..." He grunted with a weary smile, thinking of the competitive spirit he inherited from the older man.

He pushed onward, zoned everything out but each goal that must be met. His mental checklist was prepared and his dogged determination kicked in. Shoving the phantom aside with a burst of green fire, he pushed forward, leaving his father's guiding spirit to chase him.

+ + + + + + +

Near Dawn, on the Mountain

J.D. shivered in the early morning breeze and finished up. He was just zipping his pants when he felt a blade against his throat. His audible gasp and inward shock nearly caused his bladder to erupt again.

"It'd be just that easy for one of the rebels or the soldiers to slit your green throat!" Pete DiTullio hissed and released the startled young man.

"What the hell kind of prank is that?" Dunne snapped, raking his long dark hair with a trembling hand.

"Prank?" the dark-eyed reporter growled, using his index finger to pin the young man to a tree. "You think this is some kind of joke? This ain't Kansas, Toto, and you need to understand that. You gotta take a piss, you do it in the dirt, not on a pile of dried leaves," he snarled. "I heard you clear across the camp. We all did... get my drift?"

"I... didn't... realize..." the embarrassed youth stammered.

"Don't fuck up out here, kid, there is no second chance!" Pete ordered, his eyes hot. "Maybe Jack's right, you need diapers!"

"Look, I made a mistake, it won't happen again!" J.D. shirked the hand off his shoulder and eased from the intense glare. It made him shiver; it was nearly as lethal as Larabee's.

"See that it doesn't or your sorry ass will be headed back to town!"

Dunne's eyes flashed in anger to the older man who sheathed his knife and then walked off, barking orders about eating fast and breaking camp. He turned away, walked a few yards to the river and squatted down, splashing cold water on his face.He felt a tap on his shoulder and a cloth appeared.

"Thanks," he muttered, recognizing the worn wrist watch at his eye level.

"He's right, J.D.," Josiah said quietly. "You know we passed rebel camps last night..."

"Don't you start too!"he flashed, dried his face and balled up the towel. "I'm not a fuckin' kid... I carry the same badge as you!"

"Then act like it!" Sanchez leveled sternly."You're a little big for temper tantrums, J.D."

"I'm not having a tant..." He paused when one gray eyebrow shot up. He sighed, kicked the dirt and his shoulders slumped. "Yeah, okay... sorry..." He eyed the dark-haired reporter who was still giving orders. "He's as bad as Chris..."

"You best be thankful that he is, it might have kept you alive." Josiah nodded across the river where in the semi-darkness of the fading night light, several figures were crossing upstream.

"Shit!" Dunne hissed, paled and rocked back on his heels. He felt the tug on his shoulder and shook his head clear. He could practically feel Buck's boot kicking his ass. He squared his shoulders, tucked his shirt in and followed the preacher back to the waiting vehicles.

+ + + + + + +

Early Morning, in the Canyon

Warmth.

He sighed and moaned, reluctantly prying his eyes open. The heat of the new day was tapping to get inside. He was exhausted, his injured body pushed far beyond the boundaries of endurance. His first glance went to the stilled body next to him. His hand shot out automatically, covering Vin Tanner's nose and mouth. Warm air danced on his dirty fingers. Sighing in relief, he eyed their new home, more than satisfied with his efforts.

Above them, tied by vines to two trees gracing a ten foot by ten foot area, were large fan-shaped leaves. He'd used sap from the trees as glue, overlapped them and tied them together. The thick leaves not only made a fine respite from the intense sun, it would protect them from rain as well.

Next to him, skirting the walls of the humble abode, were piles of fruits, plants, roots and all he could scavenge from the bodies up above them. He'd taken two canteens, the clothes, knife, gun, ammo, a crude spear and shoelaces.

Next to the tall plants that housed the fan-shaped leaves in abundance was another strange plant. It was in clumps, like thick grass with blades over three feet long. He'd yanked on and found them very sturdy and flexible. He'd taken some, tied them together and tossed them down from above.

The texture of the odd grass lent itself to crudely shaped baskets, a trio of which he'd managed to fashion. One held water, thanks to the glue-like sap that held together the large leaves on it, the others housed the fruit, including the only one he'd recognized, the prickly pear. Once Vin woke up, he'd have the expert eyeball his collection and find what was edible and what wasn't. . Most of this vegetation was unknown to him and Tanner's background and prior travels in this area would give him the expert's eye.

Although his body cried out for sleep, his short nap would have to suffice. He edged closer to his partner and laid a hand on the slack cheek.

"Shit..." he croaked of the rising fever.

He stood on wavering legs, munched on a pear and wobbled badly to the small arm of the river that flowed nearby. Laid out on rocks to dry in the sun were the garments he'd cut from the corpses above. He'd scrubbed them in the icy water at dawn before gathering the fruit and plants. He selected a two foot by three foot section of shirt and carried it back to the hut. He eyed the marred body of the tracker and frowned before dropping carefully by his side.

"Let's see what we got..." he sighed, cutting Vin's ragged pants along the side seam, exposing the badly mottled and discolored flesh.

New bruises from their fight and colored blue and purple meshed with the older, healing ones in green. Chris flinched then gently touched the swollen, reddened area on Vin's right thigh near a deep wound. The heat that met his fingers told him the leg was infected. The minor wound in his gut, caused by Arlee Savage's knife the day they were taken, was healing okay. He eyed the scattered bug bites and cuts, too numerous to count, and hoped that none were venomous. He knew this part of the country was littered with spiders and other dangerous predators that could be aiding in the fever now encompassing his fallen comrade.

Chris temporarily pulled the pants back up, realizing that he'd have to open the infected leg soon. Next, his eyes went to the cuts, abrasions and other damage on Tanner's upper body. Most of his chest was blue and purple and the gentle touch of his hand to the rib area caused the unconscious man to cry out.

"Sorry..." he murmured, hissing in anger when his eyes saw the healing burns on Vin's chest and his mind replayed the two Savage brothers torturing his friend.

Leaning forward, he gently turned the restless man's head, exposing the ragged scalp wound. Through the matted hair, it was difficult to follow the track, but his fingers felt heat under the skin and the slightest touch brought a sharp cry as the weak body protested.

"Easy, Vin," he whispered, pressing the shoulders down. He knew the sniper's back was injured and didn't want him moving around. His breath caught when two muddled blue eyes looked up at him. "You hurt your back, I need you to lie still, okay?"

Vin eyed the stranger above him and nodded, hearing the warning but not understanding anything else. His eyes moved sideways, spotted the nearby piles of fruit, plants and roots. He felt heat around him but not directly on him. His pained gaze took in the green ceiling and his fingers felt a woven mat beneath his body.

Shelter and food.

Despite the world of confusion and pain he was lost in, that much he knew. Those two words added up to another that escaped his dry, cracked and bleeding lips.

"...safe..."

"I got your back..." Chris replied quietly. "Here, you need to drink..." He gently lifted the matted head and tipped the canteen. "Slow... and easy..." he coached, then the head fell back.

"...anks..."

"You're welcome." He tried to ease the reign of confusion in the pain-ridden gaze. "We're somewhere in Mexico, on the coast, up in the mountains. You got hurt... Vin... Vin...?" He tapped the face when the eyes slid shut. "Sorry..." he answered the angry furrow. "Vin, you..."

"...call me that... name..."

"I didn't give it to you, your Ma did. You're Vin Tanner, I'm Chris Larabee and..."

"Chris!" Vin cried out, an unbearable pain lancing through his entire body. His beloved brother was dead. "No... he's dead... aw, God... he's dead... Chris... Chr...!"

"Vin, I'm not... Vin?" He tapped the slack face. "Dammit!" He balled up both fists and felt his anger swell like a tidal wave. If he wasn't so ridden with injuries himself, he'd haul his ass up that slope and beat the tar out of Arlee's corpse for tormenting his friend. That Vin was suffering such grief over his apparent demise both touched him deeply and worried him. How would he reach the lost soul?

He used the water in the bowl to wipe down Vin's face, neck and chest with cold water. Then he rested and drank more water. Partially satisfied at the water he'd gotten into the fevered man, Chris decided to address his own injuries. Stripping his torn clothing, he eased his aching, battered body into the water. He eyed his swollen knee with concern. It was grossly misshapen and he suspected possible ligament or tendon damage. He used the scrap of cloth to wash the dirt from the cuts that covered him. The recent ones, inflicted by Vin, were red and swollen. He pressed those areas, near his left collarbone and across his navel, carefully. His side wound, from the bullet in the diner, seemed to be healing okay. No sign of infection was apparent.

The only other two pressing concerns were the burns on his lower right side where he went over the fire in the fight with Tanner and the throbbing ache in his buttocks. He remembered the doctor's warning in the clinic the day his rat bite was treated. The words 'serious infection without full completion of the antibiotics' were stamped in his brain. He'd only taken them for a couple days before they were kidnapped.

What injuries, cuts and bruises, concussion notwithstanding, didn't do to his body, lack of food and fever was quickly devouring. Chris knew he had to stay alert for Vin's sake. He stood up, staggered to a rock and lowered his throbbing body down, letting the sun warm and dry him. He was dozing when a weak voice called out.

The murky dark waters were churning beneath his failing body. The vivid nightmare left the battered man wet and thrashing weakly. He saw the bubbling hot pool and felt its fiery touch. He gasped in pain as the acid in the water rose up and invaded his nose and mouth. He couldn't breathe... he couldn't move... he needed help.

He was dying.

He felt his head sink beneath the flames dancing on the water and cried out, his burning brain going far beyond where reason and logic ended. With his dying breath, he reached out to the only one he could.

"Chris!"

"Vin!"

He sat up too quickly and put weight on his bad leg. "Shit! Dammit to hell... fuck..." he swore as the pain shot through his knee and up his thigh. Hobbling badly, Chris sank to his good knee inside the hut next to the gap-mouthed Texan. Vin's eyes were wide open as was his mouth, but there was no movement of air. "Snap out of it!" he ordered, slapping the face as hard as he could. A huge sucking sound led to the marred chest heaving and the eyes blinking in stupor. "Jesus, Vin!" He sat back, rubbed his throbbing leg. "You scared the shit out of me. You okay?"

"...thought... I was... dead..."

"Not on my shift."

Vin turned slowly, startled by a trio of strong emotive elements: the words, the deep conviction behind them and the slight pat on his leg. He stared hard at the other man whose pale hair was dingy and matted. A sandy beard covered his jaw and the face was riddled with pain. Then he saw the head turn and the eyes looked right at him.

"...green..."

"Huh?" Chris leaned closer, not understanding the almost wonder-like tone. "I got some food. I need your help to ID 'em..." He scooted over, holding up two different berries.

"...yellow's good... red ain't..." Vin rasped painfully, his chest on fire. Every breath was hard fought and he was struggling. But he couldn't take his eyes off that face. Something stirred deep within him. Every time he saw those eyes, his gut shredded. This man was his enemy. He killed Chris... didn't he? He eyed the shelter again and the words came back. Shelter, food and safe harbor. Why would this man help him? The voice drew him back and he stared hard at those eyes. He didn't hear the voice calling to him, rather he was listening to the one within.

"...trust him..."

"Okay..." he sighed, deciding to follow his heart, hoping it didn't steer him wrong.

"Okay what?" Chris frowned, holding up several roots. "Vin, what about these?"

"Uh..." He blinked and squinted at the three colored plants draped in front of him. "White's good... mash up... heat... brown one's okay... good fer..uh... fever... and... pain. Purple one's poison... get rid..."

"Okay, good ... thanks Vin!" he exuded. "How 'bout these?" He held up three pieces of fruit.

"Orange one's good... sorta like ... mangoes... green one's bitter... don't taste s'good..." He stopped to catch his breath, taking several minutes to regroup. He eyed the remaining fruit and nodded. "Tumbo..." he recognized. "S'good... carve out... bits and pieces." He nodded to the tubular growth with a spout-like handle. "...use it t'tote water... s'hard... ya can heat up..."

"Good... that's great. Thanks, Vin," he relayed with concern, turning to get the canteen. A tiny tap on his arm caused him to pause. "What?"

"...s...s....s..." Vin pointed to a cluster of white bell-shaped flowers.

"Huh?" The blond turned, lifted the indicated plant and frowned. "What about this?"

"...s...s...oap..." Vin hissed, relieved that the word got out. "...roots... use..."

"You sayin' I need a bath, cowboy?" he teased and then his smile died when the other man looked up at him with anguished eyes. "What?"

Vin couldn't speak; the word paralyzed him. Why should that word affect him like this? It was just a word. Six letters, no more no less. Yet spoken by the grubby blond with the green fire eyes, it ripped his gut. He was trembling all over and didn't understand any of it. He was struggling to breathe now and raised a hand.

"Cow...boy?" he whispered painfully, latching on to the other man's forearm. Why had he done that? What caused him to make such an odd gesture?

The confused stare told the older man that his friend was fighting hard to find answers. Simple gestures that had come to mean something far beyond tangible to the pair were now pushing through the dark world Tanner was lost in. The muddled blue eyes didn't understand the reaction in his body.

"Yeah, I gotcha," Chris soothed, gripping the arm and gaining a sigh of relief. "Vin, I need to know about your back. You landed on a rock. Any pain when you move your head, neck, arms?"

"Uh..." Vin laid still, moved his head to the left and right and cried out in pain. "...head hurts..." He reached up and touched the jagged wound.

"That's from the plane crash..." Chris saw the eyes widened and dart about frantically. "We survived, it's done. What about your neck?"

"...no... s'okay..." Vin managed, then his eyes widened in panic. He snaked a hand out, grabbing air, until another hand latched on.

"What? What's wrong?"

"..I can't...I ... can't... Oh God!... I can't feel m'legs..."

"Cut that out!" Chris ordered harshly, gripping the moving jaw. "You can't breathe like that and moving around might pop a lung. You got broken ribs..."

But it wasn't okay. Something was wrong. His mouth opened and closed, but no air would come. He tried to call out and felt the panic begin to close around his throat. Then several harsh slaps to his face caused the juggernaut to burst and air exploded from his lungs.

"....I couldn't... there weren't no... air... I ..."

"Easy, Vin..." he leveled, then watched closely until the breathing was steadier. "Better?"

"Yeah... thanks... sorry..."

"Vin, you got some nasty burns on your lower back..."

"...and..." The blue eyes saw something else lurking.

"Your leg's infected, I need to open it..."

"Okay," Vin nodded, then his heavy eyes closed.

Chris worked quickly, feeling his own strength fading away. He used the spear to catch several fish and the indicated shell of the fruit to boil some water.

Then he made a bed of tinder and formed a small wigwam of kindling around it. Next, he reached for the box of ammo he found in Arlee's pocket. He used the knife to pry the bullets open, spilling the black powder under the tinder mass. Then he laid two stones with gunpowder, striking them together until the flame sparked. He used larger pieces of kindling to stoke the fire and moved to use the frame he'd constructed. He positioned two large sticks into the ground, forked the ends and laid a third across them, over the top of the flames. Upon this, he staked the gourd holding the water.

While the water heated, he staggered to the river and took the empty basket with him. He filled it with water and then began crushing the tiny roots of the soap plant. He scrubbed his own body as best he could, getting rid of most of the lingering dirt. Pausing on the rocks, he rested for sometime, allowing his injured body to recover some much needed strength

Next, he dropped to the fallen man's side. Wary of the back injury, he carefully manuevered Vin onto his side, keeping his back straight. This 'log roll' was accomplished by using one hand on the shoulder and one on the hip and then easing him onto his side, keeping his spine straight. As luck would have it, the large rock Tanner landed on was there. He gently rested Vin against it, giving him clearance to work on the exposed lower back. He washed the tempered red flesh carefully with lots of water, taking the dirt and debris from the red and blistered flesh.

"Okay..." he sighed, sat back and rested as the landscape began to tilt a little. He took several steadying breaths and waited until the dizziness stopped, then he picked up the aloe plants he'd found. Along with the crushed pulp of the prickley pear, they would make a good burn cream. Once that was slathered onto the tracker's burned back, he eased the moistened section of cloth over it, tying it loosely. Then he carefully eased Vin back onto the ground, grateful that he'd slept through the ordeal.

The remaining pulp and cream were applied to the burns on his side. Then he rested, taking time to drink and eat. He took a long draw of water, ate some of the yellow berries which tasted a little like blueberries, and watched the steam rise from the now empty gourd. He stuck the knife inside, letting it boil good. Then he cleaned Vin's leg again with soap and took the knife out. He paused to eye the sleeping man and laid the metal to flesh. Greenish-yellow ooze flowed out along with a horrid stench. He flushed the open wound with soapy water and rinsed it, before pressing the blade on either side of the gash trying to get all of the poison out. He poured some of the steaming water into the half empty canteen and used the warm fluid on a clean cloth. He pressed this to the wound, drawing out more debris. Finally, the yellow fluid turned clearer and he tied a loose bandage around it, allowing it to drain.

Exhausted, but not yet ready to give in, despite his throbbing head and aching limbs, he diced up the brown root and mashed it with the hot water. He tapped the fevered face, watching the familiar scowl form.

"Fuck off!"

Chris smiled at the cranky Tanner tone, one the whole team had come to appreciate. He tapped again and the eyes half opened. Confusion gazed back at him and a hand came up to swat him away.

"Don't piss me off, Tanner, I'm having a bitch of a day. You need to eat this, it's the brown stuff for fever..."

"You... first..." Vin offered in a soft rasp.

"That's my cowboy!" Chris gripped the back of the neck gently and smiled at the typical Tanner reaction. "But I'm still the boss..."

He scooped up two fingers full of the pulp and slid it between the parted lips. He got quite a bit into the dazed man, adding some chopped fruit and water as well. He tossed the large clean shirt taken from Bull over the now shivering man and finally eased down to let his own body rest. He ate the remaining pulp, some fruit and eyed the fish nearby. He'd rest a bit then get dinner started

Chris sat next to Vin, staying close and keeping a single hand in contact with the bruised and shivering body. The trembling finally slowed as he eyed the surrounding terrain. As his eyes drifted shut, Chris saw a worried face appear in his mind's eye. Two piercing blue eyes and features full of determination over a chiseled chin and dark mustache.

"Where are you, Buck?" he prayed, needing his oldest friend more than ever.

Part Twelve

Normally, sitting by a river and watching the sun set would be something he very much enjoyed. He inhaled deeply, letting the lingering scent of the nearby flowers fill his lungs. He imagined Inez relaxing against his chest with his strong arms curled around her. They'd watch the sunset together, letting the fiery colors bathe them in a reddish-orange light. Then he'd kiss her and caress her and they'd become lost in each other.

"Buck?"

"Yeah." He sighed heavily and the sweet image faded away, leaving the harsh slap of reality in it's wake. He turned to meet the weary face of Major Chelsea, the General's second in command.

"The General's taking the others a few miles north to make camp. You and me are gonna pick up the rear and take the high road. Wilson's monitor picked up some movement." He paused. "It might just be some animals but it seemed too large... We'll rendezvous in one hour."

With every step he took, Buck's thoughts were on his missing friends. With every passing hour, the plight to find Vin and Chris was becoming more urgent. Were they injured? And if so, how badly? Would they be able to survive? Or had Arlee met up with his father and then killed them? He shuddered at that thought, that his friends were lying dead in a hole somewhere.

He paused on top of a hill and took out his field glasses. Skimming the horizon, he saw the tiny village. Located in a valley where two rivers joined to form a single waterway, La Rosa was a tiny farming town. The rich soil was used to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as cocoa plants and coffee.

"Left, Buck, about sixty degrees..." Chelsea noted, his eyes on the sensor detector.

"We got company!" Wilmington hissed, his eyes taking in the four forms trooping through the thick cover of trees about a half mile ahead. "They got rifles... but... they don't look like army..."

"Rebels? Maybe some of Xavier's men?"

"We'll find out soon enough. They're headed this way." Buck packed the glasses away. "We should take them here and find out. We don't want to walk into a hornet's nest..." He pressed his lean form against the large tree across from the Major and waited, his rifle poised.

The tall African-American soldier caught movement from the corner of his eye and turned. Three men and a young Mexican girl were approaching. They were rebels; he recognized the tan pants and shirts they wore with the logo of a snake on the left forearm.

As they got closer, it was evident to both men that the young woman was a prisoner of some sort. Her slender arms were bound behind her back and her face was bruised. She tripped and fell, going to her knees. Without the use of her arms, it was hard to keep her balance and she weaved, hitting a tree stump. The man closest to her grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and made a lewd remark. She pulled away and they laughed at her.

"Don't..." she pleaded but couldn't move. Another guard grabbed her face and pressed it tightly against his groin. She jerked away and butted him hard with the top of her head. A harsh slap to her face quickly followed.

"Get offa her, you Mexican cockroach, or I'll blow your balls into the next village."

Hector looked up to find a rifle trained at his throat. A pair of blazing dark blue eyes met his own. The tall American stepped from the shadows, his handsome face a mask of revulsion.

"You will mind your own business, Se–or Gringo Dog, and remove that gun from my face. She is our prisoner and we will do as we wish with her. She is not your concern."

"You don't ever lift your hand to a woman," Buck hissed. "Consider this your second warning." He slammed the rifle hard against the man's ribcage, sending him to his knees.

"Uh-uh" Chelsea waved his gun at the others, flanking Buck. "Drop your weapons and kiss the dirt. We're gonna have us a little talk..."

While Chelsea took the knives, guns and other weapons from them and tied their hands, Buck untied the ropes binding the young woman's delicate wrists. She didn't look to be more than seventeen or eighteen. He helped her rise and the girl scooted behind him. He could feel her shaking badly and tried to reassure her.

"Are you okay, Miss? Did they hurt you?"

"No..." she replied, her tears tumbling down. "I'm sorry..."

"Honey, you don't have any reason to apologize." Buck scooped her closer with his free hand. He kept his gun trained on the trio as Chelsea searched their pockets.

"You are American, yes?"

"Yeah, Lieutenant Wilmington, at your service." He helped her sit on an upturned log, keeping his weapon on the prisoners. "That's Major Chelsea..."

"They're Xavier's." Chelsea strode over. "That big one had this on him. It looks like they broke camp and are on the move." He held out a rough drawn map. "He said Xavier is on the run. There's too much heat in the area. Buck, I think we..."

"Buck?" she blurted, eyeing the handsome mustached man intently. "Your name is Buck Wilmington? You are his 'Buck'? Se–or Chris's 'Buck'?" she implored, recalling the stories Larabee had told her.

"Chris?" Buck squatted down, leveling a hot pair of eyes on the terrified girl. "How do you know Chris?"

"Larabee," she whispered, her heart hammering. "I cannot believe you are really here. He said you would come. He was so sure and he was right."

"Describe him," Chelsea demanded, not convinced this wasn't a trap.

"Uh... six foot or so, slender, blond, green eyes... magnificent green eyes." She took several breaths to steady herself. "He is very intense and extremely strong. He was a prisoner, taken from the broken plane. He is with another American, very large and ugly... Chris said he was a murderer."

"Bull Savage," Buck noted.

"S’, he's very mean and he tries to hurt Chris. They escaped from the rebels a few days ago..." She spent the next several minutes telling of how the two Americans were taken from a plane wreck and Xavier's plans. She concluded with their escape.

"Escaped?" Chelsea cocked his head. "Can you show us on the map?"

"S’." She nodded, eyeing the rough map the rebels had drawn of the area. She followed the river, noting the small towns marked off. "Here... we were camped north of this fork in the river..." She pointed to a crooked line that veered off the main artery. "They searched the area for several miles but found nothing."

"Okay," Chelsea nodded, turning to Buck. "Maybe they crossed? It's shallower down that way, less heat on the other side," he noted of the rebel troops.

"It's worth a shot," the ATF agent agreed. "You better update the General."

While Major Chelsea called his commander, Buck got a very genuine embrace.

Maria heaved a sigh of relief while hugging her handsome rescuer. "Thank you, Buck Wilmington. I am so weary of fighting their hands. They would have gotten drunk tonight and..." She didn't finish the vulgar thought, but her horrified face spoke volumes.

"They won't hurt you again. You got my word on that," Buck vowed. "Are you hungry?" He saw the dark head bob and she began to weep again. "Hey now, don't be wasting your salt on the likes of them," he hushed, wiping her tears away and giving her a soft smile. Gaining a small one in return, he took a protein bar from his backpack and handed it to her. "Here... it's not much but..."

"Thank you. It's fine," she smiled. "I am Maria Delgado. My father was one of them... a doctor."

"Was?" Buck squatted down, swabbing a cut on her cheek with a disinfectant patch.

"He was killed two days ago. I was being taken to Juan Xavier. I am... was... to be punished for helping Chris escape."

"You got any other family? Someone we can contact to..."

"No," she interrupted Buck. "It was just the two of us. I have an aunt and uncle in New Mexico. I had hoped one day to go to America and study..."

"Darlin'," Buck gave her his best smile, cupping her chin. "Once we find Chris and Vin, you'll have a first class ticket."

"Vin?" She frowned. "The one he spoke of with such affection? It caused his heart to break. He is not dead?"

"No, he's alive... well, he was a few days ago. He has amnesia and he's out here somewhere..."

"Chris thinks he is dead. He was grieving..." She reflected on the handsome face she recalled. "You cannot imagine his sorrow..."

"Yeah," Buck sighed, thinking on Larabee's internal pain. "I can." He handed her a canteen and let her drink and clean up a little. Then the movement in the underbrush brought both soldiers around.

"Sir!" Buck snapped to attention when the General appeared shortly thereafter.

"Lieutenant..." He glared at the prisoners briefly before walking to where a young girl was eating. Her tear-streaked face and the marks on her skin caused him to bristle.

"Uh... Miss..." Buck started and she looked up. "This is Maria Delgado. She was a prisoner of the rebels. She got caught helping Chris escape from them."

"Hello," she managed, staring at the intense black eyes of the tall man who had just entered the clearing.

"This is General Larabee." Buck moved aside as the older man moved in. "I'd like you to tell him everything you know about Chris..."

So they listened again as the young girl told of the two prisoners who had been brought to their camp. She told of every hardship that her blond friend had been forced to endure. Her voice filled with pride when she recounted the fire in his eyes.

"He's alive... I know he is..." she vowed, her story complete. Her eyes went to the fierce dark ones of the General. "You are his Papa? You have the same name and he has your face..."

"He's my son," the older man nodded. "Is Xavier still hunting them?"

"No, they gave up. They searched for several days along the river. As I told your Se–or Buck, I do not think they are there. I think perhaps they crossed over and headed toward the valley."

"Where's Xavier now?"

"He's in hiding," she noted. "There are many soldiers in the area. The government is looking for the missing Americans. There is a place. . . I can show you... on the map. It is not far from here but is well hidden. He may be hiding there."

"How many are with him?" Chelsea asked.

"Only six. The rest he sent to update the others. He has many small bands hidden in the mountains."

"Looks like we get two birds with one stone," Buck noted of the rebel leader and his missing friends.

"Here," she relayed, eyeing the map of the area. "It's not far and I know a shortcut. We can surprise them. From there..."

"We?" Chelsea shook his dark head. "No, ma'am, there ain't no 'we'. You're going in to La Rosa..."

"I will not!" she pouted. "You cannot find it without me and I am not a child. I know this land and how it turns and bends. Things you as a stranger cannot know. Things you do not see on your maps. I will find Chris... with or without you..."

"Alright, alright," Buck placated, then gazed at the leader.

"It's rough going. You'll have to keep up..." Adam J. Larabee stated, his eyes intently peering at the young woman.

"No!" She rose, brushed her jeans off and cast defiant eyes at them. "You will have to keep up with me!"

"Wilson, get them on their feet," the General ordered of the prisoners. "Let's move!"

+ + + + + + +

Nightfall, in the Canyon

He didn't move. Or rather his body didn't move. Even the slightest motion brought intense pain to his skull, so he rested. He needed to save his strength. Actually, the numbness from his waist down worried him more than the pain in his head. His eyes constantly shifted, adjusting to the darkness. The fire was dying. He thought on that for a moment and moved his hand, feeling the lean body next to him. His blond companion had moved his body closer to keep them both warm. How long had it been since he'd heard that voice? He panicked briefly, fearing the worst. Was the other man alive? Visions of animals or other predators preying on his helpless body flared up. What was the blond man's name?

"Hey..." he rasped painfully through cracked lips. "...Lar...bee..."

"Huh?" Chris sat up too quickly and the whole landscape tilted.

"S'okay..." Vin's hand weakly grabbed the swaying body above him. "Ya ain't dead yet?"

"Nope... only feels like it...," Chris grumbled. "Here." He lifted the matted head and guided the canteen to the waiting lips. "Don't guzzle..." he ordered and waited until the tracker was sated. Then he took a swig for himself before capping it. He nearly grabbed a handful of the yellow berries but denied himself. He was glad that they had plenty of roasted fish. Cooked on spit sticks, it provided a pretty good dinner.

"..fire's dyin'..."

"Yeah..." Chris stoked the ashes, carefully adding timber until the orange flames danced. He eyed the neat piles of fruit, plants and roots which were dwindling. His own body was slowly being consumed by injuries, fever and exhaustion. He couldn't make another climb up the steep hill to get more. They'd have to start rationing. Right now, even moving a few feet to get the food seemed a feat too hard.

"I ain't hungry."

He turned then, his lips curled into a weak smile at the tracker's uncanny ability to seemingly read his thoughts. He gave the shivering shoulder a pat and replied as he moved slowly to the fruit.

"You can't lie for shit, Tanner."

Vin sighed and let his eyes close. Now that Larabee was awake, he could rest a bit. He wondered about the man beside him. He pressed hard, chasing cobwebs from every corner of his aching skull. He saw letters forming the word 'CHRIS' and waited. Feelings coursed through him, strong and true. A friendship deeper than most, something far beyond the bonds of brothers even. Something so strong it caused his soul to tremble. A man he'd give his life for without question. He knew all those feelings represented Chris.

But who was Chris? Was he a beloved brother lost forever, taken from him by this man? Or was this blond man Chris? His Chris? It was all so confusing and the more he thought, the harder his head hurt. He felt a gentle tap on his face and the blurry features appeared.

"I got some fruit... I cut it up small for you."

Chris laid the small bits of fruit on Vin's abdomen and lifted his head. Something snagged in his hand and he frowned, tugging at the metal chain that twisted in Vin's hair. Out of nowhere, a burst of molten fury exploded as his hand was snagged.

"No... s'mine... git off... ya can't have it...!" Vin screamed, ignoring the explosion of burning pain in his chest, while shoving the wrist away. His fingers found the disc and he gasped loud, shaking his head slightly, trying to rid himself of the awful ache inside. "Chris... Chris..."

"I'm sorry, Vin..." he stammered, both moved and shaken by the fierce tone in the younger man's voice.

By the firelight, he saw the medal. Not just any medal, but the one given to him by his father when he graduated with honors from West Point. His own hand snaked to his throat and the place where the medal had rested every day since. After the plane crash, he thought he'd lost it forever. His muddled mind recalled Vin's hand latching onto his neck.

"I didn't mean to upset you."

"...jes' gimme... a... minute..."

Chris winced at the deep grief in the sky eyes. By firelight, the face looked haunted, in such agony that no words could aptly describe it. He felt a fierce fire surround his soul, that his 'demise' could cause this deep set anguish in Vin Tanner awed him. He let the younger man recover somewhat before offering more fruit. He pushed his feelings aside and picked up some berries, nudging the slack lips. They parted and the food was slowly consumed. He sat back and ate some of the mashed white root, his eyes lingering on Tanner's slim fingers still clutching the disc.

"We're dyin', ain't we?"

"What?" Chris blinked, leaning forward.

"We ain't gonna git found... hell, even varmints ain't scoutin' us out," Vin sighed. "Can't even scare up a rat..." His eyes roamed until they settled on a canteen nearby.

"Hold on..." Chris lifted his head, allowing him to drink. Then the blond sank back, letting his throbbing body rest against the rocks. Just that slight movement nearly exhausted him. A long cold night followed by a brutally hot day. Vin was right; they couldn't last much longer. As if sensing his thoughts, the younger man spoke.

"Reckon we gotta make a choice." He coughed and his broken ribs screamed at him. His audible hiss of pain brought a weak hand to his shoulder. He sighed and leaned into it, grateful for that touch.

"What choice?"

"We could squat here and give up..." He paused, taking several breaths. "Or we could fight our way through the river o'fire..."

"River of fire?" Chris let his eyes close; the effort to keep them open was too great.

"Yeah... s'all around us... closin' in..."

"Or?"

"Or we bust through it..."

"Cross the river of fire?"

"Yeah..."

"To where?" the exhausted blond asked.

"The Valley of Dreams..."

The words came with a soft grace that kissed his ears like butterfly wings. It brought his green eyes open and he trained his face on the other man. The expression Tanner wore was full of wistful want. It reminded him of a child at Christmas, looking at the sky in wonder.

"Where?"

"...'s a beautiful place... in the mountains... grass like green velvet... sky a blue that ya ain't never seen b'fore." He paused to gain some much needed breath. "...water fresh and clean skiddin' over the rocks... snow-capped peaks outside... cabin... cozy and warm... smoke curlin' from the chimney... and... and..." Too many words in too short a span of time took his breath away and he began to choke.

"Easy, cowboy." He gave the coughing soul a gentle pat. " I ain't going anywhere."

"...they's horses there... in the corral... they're beautiful..."

"I know that place, Vin." Chris took a deep breath and let his own mind wander. The place Vin described was somewhere they'd both been. Vin's amnesia only let him see the nameless pictures, but the older man knew the whole scenario. "I'll take you there... when we get home," he vowed of the piece of land at the very edge of his property. A place where Vin Tanner loved to visit. He'd fish and hike and sleep in that tiny cabin. It was on the property when Chris and Sara bought it and they'd never really used it.

"Home?"

The painful tinge in that voice made Chris wince. It must be a helluva feeling not knowing who you are or where you're from. Home meant a lot of things, especially when you were hurt and longing. Home was the place you fought to get back to, safe and secure.

"Yeah, those mountains you're seein', that's home, Vin, in Colorado.. I'll take you there."

"Can ya tell me 'bout it?"

So by the soft glow of the fire and with the deep twilight blue of the night sky cloaking them, Chris laid back. He rested his body and let his voice do all the work. He spoke of the ATF team in Denver, not hiding the deep pride in his voice. He told Vin of the men they fought side by side with who'd become so much more than a team. He spoke of each man individually, then let some of the funnier antics the team shared in downtown give the injured man a laugh.

As the blue bled out and the sky turned pitch black, not even a star to be found, Vin Tanner listened, entranced. With every warm word that left Larabee's lips, he tried to make a mental photo album. Josiah Sanchez, the eldest, a man who wielded a gun and a cross with equal measure. John Daniel Dunne, the youngest, a whiz kid from Boston whose computer savvy and enthusiasm had no match. Nathan Jackson, a former marine medic who'd found a wife and a new life in Denver. Ezra Standish, a former CIA and Interpol operative whose undercover work was well documented within the agency. The smooth talking southerner's entire background was still a mystery.

"...and then there's Buck."

Vin turned his head at catch in Larabee's voice. By the orange glow that the fire cast on the older man, he saw admiration in the eyes and a brotherly glow in the smile. It was clear he and Buck had a deep bond.

"He means a lot t'ya..."

"That he does," Chris grinned. "Buck Wilmington, they broke the mold!" He chuckled, scratched his chest and sighed. "We met over a dozen years ago. He was brought in as my new partner. There's no better man to have as your right hand in a gunfight. He's good and smart, thinks fast on his feet. He's loyal to a fault and he's got a heart bigger than Texas. Buck fancies himself to be quite the ladies man... oozes charm and bullshit..."

"Is he?"

"Yeah," Chris admitted with a smirk. "Women looove Buck... he draws them like flies. Before I got married, me and Buck were quite the hell-raisers... Damn, we had fun." He sighed, recalling their bawdy adventures.

"Yer married?" Vin shifted, then felt something with more legs than he could count crawling down his chest toward his navel. It was longer than a bug and the tiny feet bothered him. "What the hell is that....?"

"Hold on..." Chris sucked in his breath and shoved his body up on one elbow.

"Can't ya move no faster?" Vin hissed, his weak hand fumbling. "Time ya get yerself up, it's likely t' be pesterin' the boys..." He flinched and narrowed his eyes as the centipede was deftly flicked away just as it passed his navel. He heard the laughter and scowled. "What's s' damn funny?"

"Them damn boys of yours!" Chris laughed harder, recalling how many times Tanner's 'boys' had given the entire team a good laugh. "Fuckin' centipede wouldn't be that desperate..."

"Yer jes' jealous!" Vin touted, settling back. "So ya got kids? Is yer wife..."

"They're dead!" Chris blurted faster than he intended.

"Aw, hell... I'm sorry..." Vin managed and felt a deep sorrow blanket him.

"Thanks, Vin. No call to get upset. It was a long time ago. I grieved for three years, but finally I put the darkness behind me. You were a big part of that... when you joined the team. It was like the sun finally came out." He paused, fishing for the right words. Did those words even exist? How do tell someone they'd given you back your soul?

"I know how that feels." Vin saw the deep emotive expression in the shadows cast by the fire and gave a small smile. "I can't find the pictures yet... everythin's all black... but..." He rasped, feeling the strong emotions wash over him. "... My Chris, he put a light in here..." He tapped his chest with his free hand. "...I think I was alone somehow fer a long time... empty and cold... he put a fire inside... gimme a light... warmth..."

"Dammit, Vin..." Chris turned away, not comfortable with letting his feelings show so easily.

"What are ya hidin' from?" Vin demanded. "I don't understand... the way ya talked was like we was close... now... yer turned away... like I shame ya..."

"No!" He forced himself up on his elbow to stare hard at those intense blue eyes. "Jesus, Vin, I would never be ashamed of you. It's hard for me..." He wrinkled his brow. "I'm not the touchy-feely type." He smiled then as a scattering of words formed in his head.

"The wind carries your song, your spirit echoes through the silence. I breathe it in and exalt in the wondrous rapture you've bestowed upon me. In rage and fear, in peace and prayer, in laughter and sorrow, you paint my soul. With colors rich and alive, so pure they blind me, your glorious song restores my spirit..."

He choked up then as he always did when he recounted Vin Tanner's moving testament to their friendship. From the first time the quiet Texan spoke the words, and every time since, it stole his air. Then, as he was trying to regroup, to finish the poem and let Vin know just how much those very same words applied to him, the soft rasp encircled him.

"...the... e...e...eagle swoops down through the snowcapped mountains and over the blue streams... his wings broad and strong... his eyes clear and green."

Vin gasped, startled to the core by the words that flowed so easily from his mouth. Not just words... every syllable was heartfelt and his chest clenched. From what place he didn't know, but the words had to become airborne, so he continued.

"...He soars down the hillsides and through the majestic canyons, burstin' forth through thunder and spillin' free in healin' rain. It awes me... this gift o'm'heart. Yer m'brother in spirit who's freed m'bound soul..."

Vin was gasping and trembling visibly. Chris didn't miss the moisture in the troubled sky eyes. He rested a hand on the trembling shoulder, but it was shirked away.

"...don't touch me..." Vin croaked, panted heavily while his chest heaved. He didn't understand the words and they hurt his head. Every one of them piercing him deeply and causing him to bleed. "What the hell was that?"

"That," Chris swallowed hard and waited until the muddled blue eyes met his, "is the gift of Tanner. Something I thank God for every day." He choked, then regrouped. "You're so many things... people see a long-haired, denim and leather totin' drawling Texan. They see a world class sniper with keen eyes and precision second to none. A skilled tracker who can," he paused to grin, "to quote Buck 'that boy can find ant piss in a snowstorm'."

He heard the soft chuckle and saw Vin's trembling hand rubbing his eyes. "A skilled federal agent who can read a crime scene better than anyone I've ever met. They each see pieces but they don't see you... Vin Tanner. The real you... the gifted poet whose gentle spirit takes my breath away. The valiant soul whose kindred spirit is something that I thought only existed in Camelot at Arthur's right hand."

"Why... are... ya... doin'... this..." Vin gasped as his insides were torn apart.

"So you'll know," Chris said quietly, resting his aching head on the ground, "that in you, Vin Tanner, I found the very best of me. You wrote that poem for me... and I can't even get through the whole fuckin' thing without breaking up."

For a moment, the only sound was the crackling of the fire. Each man drew a ragged breath, trying to fight through the effects of the moment as well as the fever and weakness plaguing them. Chris turned when the raspy voice rose again.

"...won't change... nuthin'..."

"How's that?" Chris turned his head, hearing a hint of mischief in the weak voice.

"...yer still jealous of the boys..."

"Fuck you, Tanner!" Chris shot back, then his smile died when Vin's fist clenched and his face started to dissolve as if in mourning.

"Vin?"

"I... want..." he started, not sure of how to make it come out right. "I got feelin's... about m'Chris... they's jes' like them words in the poem. But I got no pictures t'match up with 'em. I want...."

"What?" Chris turned, hearing the crack in his voice.

"I want ya t'be m'Chris..." Vin choked, needing to get the weight off his chest. "I want m'pictures back..."

"Damn..." Larabee issued softly, feeling the pain of that black hole his best friend was lost in. As if all of the injuries and pain weren't bad enough, he had no memory to boot. He thought on Arlee's cruel words and how they'd mentally tortured Vin. Having him believe that he had killed 'his Chris'. Now the poor soul didn't know what to think, but he was trying hard to find a light in his storm.

"What if I never find them pictures?"

"I've got copies... I'll remember for both of us," Chris offered, snaking his hand over in the dark and gripping Vin's forearm. "...and we'll make new pictures, Vin." He heard a startled gasp and painfully turned his head.

Vin turned at the quiet voice and leveled his blue eyes on the other man's face. He stared long and hard into those bottomless green eyes and felt his breath catch. Images flashed before him, of this same man in a barn with a horse. Then on a raft, with a helmet shooting white water and grinning like the devil. He was there too! Other images appeared, of this man lying in a hospital bed, a monitor beeping and IV lines running in his arm. He saw his own face over the bed, riddled with concern and fear. The IV'd hand reached up, snagging his own forearm. That image took his breath away. He knew then by the strong tidal wave exploding inside his aching chest. It pierced every fiber in him, like a hail of bullets. He didn't have all the pictures yet and his mind was still blank, but without question he knew. The revelation lifted his soul and he felt stronger, and now hope hovered nearby. This wasn't just a man named Larabee.

"Yer... Chris... yer really... him..."

"You bet your scrawny ass I am!" the blond grunted.

"I ain't hardly scrawny," Vin whispered, fighting a wave of dizziness. He found such comfort in that hand on his arm, that he let his fevered body go. "From... wh...what... I seen... yer ass... ain't... much ta... brag... on..."

Chris laughed weakly, then his smile died when the other man sighed blissfully and his heavy eyes shut. He kept his grip on that arm for awhile, needing to feel the pulse. It was his lifeline... their lifeline. Come morning, they'd fight through the river or fire together. They'd get to that Valley of Dreams. If he had to drag Vin on a litter with his last ounce of strength, he'd get there. The last image he had as he drifted to sleep was of Vin sitting outside that cabin. Two horses pranced in the corral and the new sun basked his face in a rosy light.

+ + + + + + +

Predawn

As the first hues of the new day bled into the black night, Ezra Standish began to rouse. Soon they would break camp and continue their quest. Nate and Pete had left already to get supplies from the next village. Pete wanted to call their service to check on leads and Nathan was to call Orrin Travis. There was a small clinic in the town that had a radio. They were to meet the others mid-morning. But Ezra lingered a moment, thinking on his two missing friends.

Vin Tanner and Chris Larabee were as different as night and day. Tanner was born of the colors of early morning, soft blues and earthy sands, blending into the landscape. Larabee, a child of the colors of night, sleek blacks and slivers of silver moonlight. Yet like the day and night, they were inseparable, joined by fate and entwined for eternity. One completed and complimented the other, seemingly unable to exist or survive whole at the absence of the other.

Chris Larabee was also the most intelligent man he'd ever met and the luckiest. Born of affluent parents, he'd been raised in a fine home with the best education and extracurricular activities that money could buy. Moreover, he'd been blessed with two parents who showered each other with love and respect. This true rain fell onto their only child, a golden boy who grew and blossomed in their bath.

He was a gifted athlete who excelled at every endeavor he competed in. Competition, that fire inside that fueled him to not only survive but conquer, that was something to be envied. Until he met Tanner, Larabee was never bested that way. But Tanner had the same fire inside and when they clashed, whether it was on a hockey rink, a ball field or a boxing ring, sparks showered the onlookers. Those same heated flames also flew around the conference room on more than one occasion when they argued.

From the expensive clothes to the natural grace that followed his every move, Larabee made heads turn. He carried himself with a confidence that Standish seldom saw. The fluid body movements were never without purpose. Each step was for a reason, every action precise and every word carefully chosen. He didn't waste them.

Ezra recalled their first meeting. He was in St. Thomas at his mother's condo, suspended yet again from the home federal office in Atlanta. Another long undercover assignment was completed but not without repercussions. So when he opened the door that day and first saw those smoldering eyes, he felt defensive.

"Larabee, Denver ATF. We spoke on the phone."

As Larabee sat on his patio, he'd been surly and cocky, going well past rude. The blond man listened, and those eyes seemed to burn right through him. As he rambled, he theorized internally that Chris Larabee knew who he was. Surely he'd spoken with his employers both current in Atlanta and over the Atlantic with Interpol. Yet here he was, offering him a job, a new start. Finally, his ranting was over. The blond coolly assessed him and he felt nearly naked under the scrutiny of those cold green eyes. For some reason, he felt ashamed. Something stirred in him, a need to make this man proud of him. He'd never encountered that before.

Larabee just nodded and walked to the door, paused and turned.

"Orientation on the tenth, two weeks of school, field qualifications and processing. Then you're mine. One warning, Standish, don't fuck with me, you'll never work again."

"Why me?" he'd countered and still recalled the swift but sure reply.

"I don't work with seconds..."

Then expensive dark shades covered the smoldering gaze and he was gone. The rest was history.

And there was no one he respected more.

+ + + + + + +

Tanner came from a less privileged background in Texas. He lost his mother early and his father when he was a teen. His adopted grandfather who was an old friend of Vin's father was Cheyenne. Vin never really talked about him; he didn't have to. But the few times he did, with less than a handful of words that were soft and wistful, his eyes spoke in volumes. The catch in his voice as the mention of the old man's name told them everything they needed to know. From this wise man, Vin had learned more about life than all the books and colleges Ezra himself had spent money on. All of Ezra's fancy degrees and expensive schooling paled in comparison to the master of the school of life. Having spent time with Vin in the wild, he'd seen just how smart the man was. He could read the land, pick the time of a storm by the wind and track his prey by the most miniscule of evidence.

Vin lived simply. Happiest in time-worn jeans and a faded leather jacket, riding on his bike with the wind blowing in his hair. Material things didn't matter to him. He had few possessions, but those he did were held precious to him. He was the most complex man Ezra had ever met. Those blue eyes seemed to understand all the riddles of the universe. There wasn't a conversation he'd had yet with the raspy-voiced man that didn't leave him with a smile.

Then there was the poetry. The magnificent collection of words that he shed so easily. They slid off of his tongue with a natural grace that left Ezra speechless. He envied that ability and he said as much to Vin. That brought a sharp retort, a soft laugh and a gentle nod.

And then there were those eyes. There were no adequate words to describe them. A shade of blue that could move you to tears when overflowing with emotion or chill your blood when they turned deadly. He'd heard, like the others, when Vin joined the team that he was a world class sniper and watching Vin Tanner work was a study in grace and beauty. He caressed a weapon like a woman, sucking his breath in, keeping his taut body stiller than air. Then the slim fingers gently pulled and the enemy was brought down. Standish found out later in passing conversation with Josiah Sanchez that Vin Tanner was the best bounty hunter the government ever had. He brought in the ones nobody else could find. With one careful sweep, those eyes read a crime scene like no one Standish had ever met.

They could also capture the beauty of the mountains through a camera lens.

Ezra sighed, scratched his chin and recalled the day not long after Tanner joined the team when he'd been invited to come along. They were alone, working late in the office. Tanner completed his task along with a dinner of chocolate covered doughnuts and Oreos. He smiled then, recalling that his junk food addicted friend seemed to enjoy the look of disdain the junk food junkie left with him. He'd gotten his jacket and paused, saying he was 'goin' t'catch a little heaven in the mornin'... wanna come?'

Heaven indeed. When those photographs were developed, Ezra had been floored. That those skilled eyes could capture on film God's gift of nature astounded him. Vin Tanner could sell these magnificent photos to the highest bidder and retire. He recalled the Texan's face splitting into a wide grin and the shaggy head cocking when he'd told him. But Vin didn't sell them; he gave them as gifts, taking specific shots that he felt best fit each of his friends. Ezra treasured the two that now graced the walls of his condo.

So when those who didn't know him or chose not to see the man for who he was, looked at Vin with disdain or voiced their negative opinions, it bothered Standish deeply. They didn't take the time to see who Vin Tanner really was. Rather, they judged him on the tattered clothes, worn boots, his informal speech and his accent. It startled him the first time Ezra vocally aired his anger. He'd asked Vin to join him for dinner. Vin was running late and met him at the restaurant. He was already seated and heard the remarks by the other diners when his denim-clad, scruffy friend sat down. Tanner never blinked an eye, just tucked his napkin in and read the menu. But Ezra was livid, at both the waiter's face and rude remarks to those of the snooty diners. He'd told them off and left, never to return. They'd walked in silence to an Italian cafe down the street.

Sighing, Ezra Standish drew himself up, stretched like a cat and rolled up his blanket. He trotted to the car and tossed them through the window in the back. He heard the river nearby and sought it out to rinse the fog of the night from his face. He eyed his right palm, still seeing the warm flush of friendship Tanner wore that night. He felt the strong grip of that hand in his own and the single, soft word that the other man spoke.

"Thanks"

"No, Mister Tanner," he answered quietly, eyeing the new day being born and feeling a deep void for the lost Texan. "Thank you."

+ + + + + + +

J.D. yawned and completed his task quietly. Then he zipped up and trotted to the river. He saw Josiah filling a coffee pot and Jack Lynch beside him talking quietly before taking a drink of water. He turned back to scan the other direction, waiting for Standish to wake up. So when a hand touched his shoulder, he sighed defensively, thinking it was the southerner sneaking up on him.

"Dammit, Ezra, you shouldn't sneak up a man."

"No, chico..." The soldier spun him around, clapped a hand over his mouth and shoved him against a tree. He warned the wild eyes with a knife and a finger to his lips. "Shhh... you will keep your tongue or I will carve that pretty face, S’?"

J.D. swallowed hard and nodded, his heart gyrating wildly in his chest. He saw a gun come up and train on his neck while another set of hands frisked him. He didn't have any I.D. on him, just his clothes. He was shoved to his knees and his hands were bound behind his back. Then the one who warned him moved closer.

+ + + + + + +

"That's an odd piece." Jack eyed the homemade cross dangling from the large man's neck.

"My father's."

"He was a man of the cloth, then?"

"Yep. We went all over the world."

"How'd you end up with the badge, mate?"

"Well..." Josiah started to reply and heard Jack cry out. He turned around and saw the blond man fall. Then he saw the six soldiers. He dropped the pot and bent over Jack, seeking a pulse. He was pulled off and searched as was his new friend.

"Nothing..." The soldier tied up the unconscious man and stood.

"You travel light, Señor. Where are you from?"

"I'm a priest from America." Josiah turned, flinching as his hands were tied. He saw J.D. on his knees and the terrified doe-eyes.

"You and your two compadres are far from home, no? Or are there more of you?"

"No, we're alone..." Josiah directed loudly, eyeing Ezra's dark silhouette in the underbrush. He saw the chestnut head bob once and disappear.

"We will see..." the soldier directed, shoving the man forward.

+ + + + + + +

"So, chico," the foul mouthed leader eyed the shaken youth. "Who are you? Why are you here?"

His hazel eyes darted about and he tried not to look at the river. Did they know about Josiah and Jack? He sighed hard and tried to make his tongue work around his dry mouth. He felt the need to pee again brought on by frazzled nerves.

"I asked you a question, chico, and you don't want to make me angry... isn't that right, Miguel?"

J.D. flinched when a hand caressed his cheek from behind and two other soldiers made remarks in Spanish. He didn't understand the slang or the dialect but picked up enough to learn they were talking about his body.

"Uh... uh..." he stammered, then saw Josiah shoved forward, a rifle between his shoulder blades.

"He's with me and get your hands off of him."

"You are the Papa?" Tomas Santiago, the leader of the group turned towards the large American.

"I'm a missionary, he's a student. We're not a threat to you."

"...and the blond..." Miguel nodded to the unconscious man dumped at the large man's feet.

"He's Jack... our guide..." J.D. managed. "We didn't do anything... we're just..."

"You have offended me with your vile American stench!" Tomas hollered, hitting the boy hard in the abdomen, hard enough to topple him over.

"J.D.?" Josiah warned softly and saw the flushed face nodding between gasps. He hoped Ezra got to Nathan and Pete in time.

The camp was searched and the three men were put into the back of a small truck. By his eye, Josiah counted a dozen soldiers. Orders were given and six continued on foot, following the river north. He listened carefully and met J.D.'s worried face.

"Joisah? Who are they?"

"Xavier's men... we're being taken to him."

"Shit."

"That pretty much covers it," Josiah agreed as the truck motor sprang to life.

+ + + + + + +

Early Morning
In the Mountains

Vin watched the night turn from black to dark blue and finally light blue. >From the edge of the homemade canopy, he could see a snippet of sky. Rose and gold streaks slashed the heavens and cast a glittering ripple on the water. His fingers groped and he winced, trying to reach the canteen. Just a little closer... he stretched and nearly got it, his fingers brushing the fabric, then it wobbled and fell over.

"Dammit t'Hell!" he croaked, withdrew his hand and then found a crooked smile at the bearded, disgruntled blond whose dirty face was now scowling.

"...ain't no fire..." He disarmed the anxious look. "...jes' thirsty..."

Chris took several breaths and inched over to the canteen. He eased Vin's head up and let the other man drink, then took a swig for himself.

"It's done." He shook the empty container. That was the last one. He'd have to move his beaten and exhausted bones to the river. He knew they couldn't survive much longer without help. Weakened and ill, it would become difficult soon to wake at all.

"We'd best get started anyhow..." Vin added. "Get me offa this thing. We can use it... ya string them gourds to the edges, it'll help float..."

"We eat first," Chris decided, mulling Vin's words. He sat up, then crawled over to the meager pile of fruit, berries and plants. He selected some, tossed them into a bowl and crawled back. He divided it evenly, putting Vin's half on his chest where he could reach it. "Okay?" he questioned, and the head bobbed. "I'm gonna get some water..."

Vin watched, munching a few berries while Chris got to his knees and then stood. He sucked in a breath when the lean frame wavered. Then the body staggered, slowly, one canteen in each hand and one around his neck. His eyes never left Larabee's form as he made his way to the water's edge.

Chris thought on their plight carefully. He eyed the branch of the river and then thought of Vin. He didn't know how serious his back injury was. Moving him could spell trouble. Then again, if they didn't leave, try to find help... civilization, they'd both die. How would he hold onto Vin and the raft? Maybe he could leave Vin on it and pull it somehow. They'd float easy enough. Sighing, he finished his job and stumbled badly, falling twice on his way back.

"...ya dance that smooth?"

"Shut up... T...ta...nner..." Chris coughed, dropped down and steeled himself against the pain. He clamped his eyes shut, fighting a wave of dizziness. He remained like that until a small tap on his hand brought his eyes open. One canteen was uncapped and a wavering hand held it out. Beyond that bruised arm were the blue eyes that were his beacon. He managed a half grin and took the canteen, then let his own eyes wander to the river and then to Vin's legs.

"...better then dead..."

"Stay outta my head, Vin, headache's already takin' up too much room," he chided softly of the tracker's ability to read him.

"If ya tell me about where we are... might... help..." Vin croaked, chewing on some roots and tapping Chris's hand again. "...need a drink..."

So as he held the matted head up and allowed the fevered man to drink, he told Vin about the crash. He told him all the landmarks he could remember from the encampment and the cave and the river they crossed. He waited, watched the blue eyes darting about and then spoke.

"What's the score, cowboy?"

"We're losin'... and th'two minute warnin's already sounded..." Vin replied.

"But..."

"I think I know where we are... maybe." He frowned, squinted against the pain in his head and wondered again about the slivers of memory and why they came through at such odd times. He wanted all the pictures back, not just some. But, for now, he'd take what he could get. "If I'm right, there's some fishin' villages up river and a bunch o'farms. Coffee and cocoa... lots o'farms... near the river..."

"I think I'll tie the gourds to the edges of your mat." Chris eyed the woven thrush piece under the injured man. "I can use some of Bull's shirt to tie you to it... then we'll float..."

"It ain't far... don't think..."

Chris lifted one of the hollowed out gourds and weighed it in his palm. He frowned, eyed the other three and sighed. He then shoved the gun in Vin's hand and tucked the knife at his own waist. He eyed the gourds again and sighed even louder.

"...it ain't enough..."

"I know!" he barked and balled his fist. Chris eyed the hill and started to feel the first pangs of defeat.

"Ya best get yer ass movin' then... 'fore the heat o'day."

"Anything else?" he tossed in a nasty tone and shoved himself upward. The whole landscape danced around him.

"...need six at least... eight iffen ya can find 'em... big as ya can get..."

His knee was throbbing. His lower back and entire backside were painful and his head felt ready to explode. He was so dizzy it took all of his resolve not to pass out or throw up or both. Every inch of his battered, bruised and burned body was in agony. His nerves were fried and he knew finding the pieces to complete their meager raft would take hours in his condition. He was already well past the point where most men would have succumb. Behind the pulsating, red pain in his head, he heard the raspy orders being given. They stung his tormented brain like shards of hot glass.

"Yer wastin' time we can't afford, " Vin pushed, something inside him telling him the other man needed that anger he saw now to fire himself up into moving. So he continued to push Chris as hard as he could to keep them alive. "Get yer ass movin'... follow the river... hill's likely t'drop some... that's if yer sorry ass can find it... ya ain't s'good with directions and ya might get lost and keel over..."

"My sorry ass is keepin' that broken body of yours alive!" Chris shot back and then turned, limping slowly toward the river. With every uneven step he got angrier, then he felt his resolve return and his strength renewed. He paused, realizing what the other man had done. He turned back, but the blue eyes were closed and the bandaged chest rising and falling. He squinted painfully, seeing the slim fingers wrapped around the chain that had become Tanner's lifeline. Then he turned and straightened his body, limping again towards salvation.

+ + + + + + +

Late Morning

"Hold up!" Nathan called out, whipping his dark head backwards. He craned his neck as Pete put the jeep in reverse.

"What?"

"A mirage I hope..." The healer's voice trailed off as the image became flesh. "Shit..."

"Guess that rules out a mirage..." Pete pulled up, put the jeep in park and eyed the body staggering between the trees. He grabbed a canteen and followed Jackson who was now kneeling beside the fallen man.

"Ezra!"

"Mis...ter... Jack...son... impecca...ble... timing..." Standish heaved, taking the canteen and sating his thirst.

"What the hell happened to you?" Pete asked, eyeing the cuts and bug bites on the raggedy man.

"Where's the car? Where's the others?" Nate pressed, ripping the foil off of an antiseptic cloth and wiping the cuts and bites only to have his wrist pushed away.

"...no time... waste... soldiers... a dozen or so... took... them..."

"Fuck!" Pete kicked a tree and grimaced. "What'd they look like?"

"Vermin."

"Can you be more specific?" DiTullio shot back.

"...tan... uniforms... snakes on arm..."

"Xavier's men..."

"That ain't good!" Nate helped Ezra stand and shoved away the protesting hands. "Cut that out and let me finish! You hurt anywhere?"

"No, Jack was..."

"Jack was what?" Pete's dark head whipped around. "What'd those bastards do to him?"

"Knocked out... Josiah and J.D. were manhandled but not hurt."

"Where'd they go?" DiTullio demanded, his eyes hot.

"Six continued on foot, going back the way we came." The conman paused and took a drink. "Two took our car and followed four more in a small truck with our missing comrades. They headed into the hills. It's been..." He glanced as his watch. "...almost three hours."

"They're taking them to his base camp," Pete hissed. "I'd bet on it."

"We don't know where that is..." Standish sighed wearily, wiping his face with the towelette Nathan offered.

"I do."

The startled trio turned towards the welcomed voice and looked on stunned as Buck Wilmington stepped from the thatch of trees.

+ + + + + + +

It seemed to the exhausted blond that it had been days rather than hours since he left. To lighten his load, he'd taken the pulp from the gourds and tied only the large hulls together. They were trailing behind him, dragging in the dirt. With every ragged, uneven step, he kept Vin's face in his head. Every time he faltered, he saw two sets of eyes, one the color of morning sky and the other the color of the heavens at night. His father and Vin pushed him, giving every inch of his battered body a reason to keep trudging forward.

Then he froze in his tracks. He cut the gourds loose and flattened himself to the rocky hill. His heart began to hammer and his breath was jagged. Sweat poured down his face and stung his eyes. Approaching the humble thatched hut were two armed soldiers. Was Vin conscious? Did he see them? He waited, hoping the Texan would fire his gun, but no shot came. Then he saw one soldier take his rifle and aim it towards the pallet.

"Vinnnn!" he screamed, causing the two to turn.

Vin's eyes jerked open and he turned, confused by the strange scenario. He heard Larabee's voice but saw a rifle, fatigues and black boots. The boots turned, heading towards the bend in the water.

"...ris..." he croaked and fired, taking one soldier down. He fired again and the fatigues dropped, then limped away. He couldn't see where the other pair of boots went. He grit his teeth and turned, crying out in pain as his head threatened to explode. He moved on his elbows, dragging his helpless legs behind him.

They were struggling. Two bodies turning over and over in the dirt. He saw a knife rise and blinked rapidly through blurry eyes. It seemed that the black boots were winning.

He fired.

Nothing moved. He kept watching but the two forms remained still in a pile by the edge of the water. His exhausted body wouldn't budge. Vin stared helplessly at the twisted pile of broken flesh lying in the dirt. One hand reached out... hoping... seeking... needing...

"Ch...ris...?"

Was he alive? Then a horrid thought crossed his tortured mind. Had he shot Larabee? Had his third bullet hit his friend instead of the stranger?

"Oh God...!" he cried and his head sank back, as the enormous weight of what he might have down pressed down hard. He panted hard, unable to catch his breath. The fire in his ribcage seemed to be dueling with the pain in his head for the upper hand. The gravity of the potential consequences of his actions hit him harder than the harsh sun overhead. He felt a coldness inside and his fevered brain caused his heart to break.

He eyed the sky and heard the comforting voice in his head. The one that vowed to travel with him to the valley of dreams. Suddenly the blue sky overhead was too painful to look at. The Valley disappeared, the horses were gone and the pure bliss of his heart dissolved. He was thrust heart first into the river of fire, alone and stripped of all the mettle he'd held onto.

"NOOOOOOOOOO!"

Part Thirteen

Nathan's whole body sagged in relief. He'd never been so glad to see his tall, mustached friend. From the corner of his eye, he saw Pete's hand move to his gun and he snagged the wrist.

"Mister Wil...ming...ton..." Ezra coughed, still trying to find his air. "I may... have to... kiss... you..."

"Hah," Buck chortled. "Damn, Ace. You look like ten miles of bad road. What the hell happened? What are you doing here?"

"DiTullio." Nathan answered Buck's questioning gaze and saw the two men exchange nods. "We ran into him in San Pedro."

"San Pedro?" Wilmington's head cocked.

"...taking... an... extended period of relaxation..." Ezra supplied.

"Vacation?" Buck translated in a voice tinged with disbelief. "In the same area where Chris and Vin went down?"

"A mere coincidence..." Standish drawled.

"Josiah and the kid?" Buck eyed the road and the empty Jeep. Then he saw Nathan's head turn and a soft curse escaped his lips. His gaze went to Ezra who lost the little color he had and made his cuts and bruises stand out brilliantly. "Ace?"

"We were camped by the river... and accosted by about a dozen men... soldiers..."

"Xavier's?" Wilmington hissed and snarled when the chestnut head bobbed. "Did they hurt them? Did they do that to you?"

"No, they were fine when I left. In my efforts to find Nathan and Pete, I was accosted by every upturned tree root, tangled vine and an army of winged insects..."

"How long ago?"

"Several hours..." Ezra paused. "Have you had any luck?"

"No," Buck sighed and then turned as the rest of his unit joined them. "Sir!" He snapped to attention. "This is Pete DiTullio, the reporter who clued us in to what happened. These are..."

"Jackson and Standish," the General nodded, having recognized the two from photos his son sent with his letters.

"It's an honor, General. Chris's told us a lot about you," Jackson nodded.

"Uncanny..." Ezra managed of the strong family resemblance. "Absolutely uncanny..."

"You still owe me fifty bucks," Pete shot out along with his right hand.

"I think not." The General took the hand and managed a half grin, recalling the two fearless reporters who'd risked their lives to get two of his own injured men to safety. "I believe that transaction was handled by an... uh... rather skilled undercover operative."

"Hah," Pete laughed, recalling the beautiful Oriental girl who'd arrived unannounced into their campsite in northern Thailand. They'd been covering the border wars between Burma and Thailand. Jack still had dreams about her and that night. "I stand corrected. It's good to see you again, sir."

"Same here, DiTullio." He saw the reporter's dark eyes travel to the slim young girl who stood behind him. "This is Maria. She's a very valuable asset. Not only did she help my son escape from Xavier's men, but she knows all about Juan and his past moves and future plans. She knows where his camp is."

"I know this area better than anyone," Pete charged. "I've got a stake in this too. Those bastards took Jack. Where are they?" He glared at the defiant girl who pouted back at him.

"I will take you there... You will not tell me what to do..." She backed up when the brash American reporter grabbed her arms.

"If you know what's good for you, you'll tell me where they are!" Pete bristled, only to encounter a wall of ATF agent.

"Take it easy!" Buck moved in front of Maria and paused. He knew Pete was upset and gave the other man a moment to compose himself. "She's not the enemy! Show a little respect..."

"I'm sorry," Pete raked a hand through his hair. He turned and gave the girl a genuine smile. "I didn't mean to bark at you. I know you're tired... you've done a great job so far. But I think maybe I'm better qualified..."

Maria paused, eyeing the group of men and suddenly feeling very tired. As much as she wanted to go on, all her energy was spent. Then the General's voice, sounding a lot like her missing blond friend's broke through her fatigued mind.

"This changes things, Maria. He not only knows this terrain, but he's been in war zones before. How about it?"

Reluctantly, the words came out, slow and halting. She wasn't happy but she was exhausted. Try as she might, keeping up with the American soldiers was hard and they'd been forced to stop several times to let her rest. He was right and she slumped with fatigue after giving them the information. Then she felt her chin tipped up and saw understanding and admiration in the reporter's dark eyes.

"Thanks, Maria," Pete said quietly, then turned to the General. "We need to scale down. I've got a safe house in Vincente. It's not far. Nathan can take Ezra and the girl there." He turned to the medic. "There's a first rate computer set up and a radio. You can update Orrin and we can contact you there."

There was no reply. The General saw the disappointment and a little resentment in Jackson's dark eyes. He stepped forward, taking the girl's arm and leading her to the angry man.

"She's a valuable witness and I need her protected. Xavier will do anything to prevent her testimony. Understood?"

"Yeah," Nate managed, then turned to Buck. "Find them, okay?"

"You got my word, Nate." The mustached man nodded, knowing that Jackson was concerned for all their missing friends, including Josiah Sanchez, his best friend.

"Wilmington's word's as good as done," Standish parroted and took the hand up, giving Buck's shoulder a tug.

"You bet your sweet ass..." Buck retorted, with a wink to the grinning southerner.

+ + + + + + +

The heart wrenching scream pierced the thick, pulsating wall of pain. It tore through him as sharp and lethal as a blade. His eyes shot open and with a force he didn't know he possessed, he shoved the massive weight of the corpse from his body. He rolled onto his side, gasping free air greedily. His unfocused eyes adjusted and he saw Vin Tanner's prone body. His lips formed the name, but no words would come. He tried twice, but he had not the strength to produce them. So he began to crawl, inch by inch, like a worm. Despite the sweat pouring down his face, mixing with blood and stinging his eyes, he kept going. He ignored the screams of his injured body, the shrieks from his burns and the loud protests from his throbbing head. His burning eyes never left the stilled and bloodied face of Vin Tanner.

Gasping, heaving and coughing, he kept going. A trip of a few yards that should have taken just minutes took forever. He stopped, he chugged air and pushed his body beyond the pain.

"One more inch for Vin... One more inch... for... Vin" became his mantra.

Finally, he was close enough. He reached a hand out. It wavered badly before thumping on Vin's chest. He dropped his head, choking and gasping, his lungs on fire. His fingers fumbled across Vin's face, then over his nose and he waited. He held his breath and waited, concentrating with all he had.

Was it there? Had he imagined it? His numb fingers moved again, pinching flesh. He pinched harder and heard a weak cry. He sighed in relief. It was there. Vin was still alive. It was faint, but warm breath danced across his fingers. He gave the stilled cheek a pat and rolled over, trying to find the gun. His right hand inched along the narrow space between them and he felt the metal. It seemed to weigh more than he could lift.

Minutes passed. His fingers were numb and slick. Finally, he got a grip and pulled it onto his thigh. His pained eyes raked the landscape and flitted over the corpses. There would be more soldiers.

But how many and how soon?

He swallowed the pain and took several shallow breaths, trying to remain alive.

+ + + + + + +

Major Chelsea was several yards behind Buck Wilmington when suddenly the man in front of him stopped. He tossed his hand up, signaling those behind him to pause. Then he jogged closer, watching the eyes of the man in front. His own gaze went to the sky and a circle of predatory birds.

"It might not be them..." The Major pulled out the scanner and the luminous dial showed no movement. "I'm not picking anything up... well..."

"Don't say it!" Buck snapped. "And that damn thing could be wrong!" Buck managed, but he wasn't convinced. The girl said Chris was injured and they knew Vin was. How long could an injured man last out here? "We need to check it out."

"It's in the other direction..."

Buck's eyes lingered on the birds for several seconds before training on the dark-skinned man's face. He knew what he was asking and it was a Solomon-like decision he couldn't fathom. If he turned away, to seek Xavier's camp, they could rescue Josiah and J.D. If he took the other road, even if he found Chris and Vin alive, it might cost them the lives of the others.

"It's the General's call," Chelsea noted and picked up his radio.

+ + + + + + +

Small canvas tents were set about in close proximity with a dozen armed guards on the perimeter. Several more were in trees and still more hidden in the woods along with booby traps. His heart was beating wildly as he was shoved forward, a rifle slamming between his shoulder blades. With his arms tied behind him, it was hard to keep his balance and he went to his knees. That brought a harsh edict in Spanish from his captors and a hard blow to his already aching back.

"Goddammit! I can't go any faster!" he railed and that caused them to laugh harder at him. He was prodded forward and staggered badly into the clearing.

"Oh God..." he murmured, his hazel eyes widening at the horrid sight. Josiah's large frame was suspended between two trees, his arms pulled high and tight. Blood streaked the ropes that bound his wrists. It ran down his face and there were bluish bruises on his chest. His eyes ran around the foreground and he spotted the unmoving body of Jack Lynch. He was shoved forward and down onto his knees, an unwilling witness in the bizarre arena.

J.D. flinched as yet another blow descended, the loud thwack leaving another bruise on Josiah's face. One eye was swollen and the graying agent was nearly unconscious, his head hanging low. From the time they were brought in, Xavier and his two right hand men had been suspicious. Jack was dumped in the corner, kicked several times and spit upon. He drifted in and out of consciousness. J.D. and Josiah were questioned together, then separated. He was questioned by two filthy soldiers whose foul stench gagged him. They used fists on his face and lower back which created a horrid dull ache. But he'd remained silent, only telling them of his college courses and ministry work.

J.D. was grateful he volunteered with Josiah at the church the older man was restoring. The Saturday afternoons went by faster with Sanchez telling him of his travels as a youth.

Josiah hadn't uttered a word, just recited various Bible passages and asked God to forgive them. That angered the soldiers and they were brutally beating him. J.D.'s eyes widened in shock when the soldiers parted and Juan Xavier walked up to Josiah, gripping his hair and yanking his head up.

"No more games, gringo! I am tired of your foolish babbling. I know you and your friends are spies and I will find out the truth!"

"Huh?" J.D. eyed the two men who hauled him to his feet. He was tied like his friend and watched an evil smile split the soldier's lips. Then he saw the gun come out and a single bullet placed in the chamber.

"Josiah?"

The smoky eyes were barely open but met his dead on. The bloodied lips parted and a single word was mouthed.

"Faith."

Did he have that capacity in him? Could he face what may be certain death and have the strength that his friend did? J.D. watched as Josiah never flinched when Xavier ran the gun along his face and body. He continued to pray as the younger man felt his bladder tremble. Then with one last warning and a blow to the abdomen, leaving the youth breathless, the madman turned.

"Very well, we shall begin!" He turned to his aide. "Toss the dice... the boy, he is even and the older one, he is odd..."

"Four!"

"Oh God..." J.D. whispered, heart hammering as the gun was brought up.

+ + + + + + +

"You all understand your mission?" General Larabee eyed the four men and then turned to his right hand man. "Major, we'll rendezvous as soon as we get confirmation," he paused. "One way on the other."

"Sir!" Chelsea nodded, gripped his rifle and nodded to the path. They would let Pete show them where the camp was. The General, Buck, Weston and the medic, Dillon, would check out the circling birds ahead.

Twenty minutes later they had their answer. The stench told them well before they reached what was left of the bloated bodies. What animals and other predators didn't get to, the hot sun did. Buck was in the lead and radioed back. Putting a mask on, he approached and nearly gagged at the sight. He saw tracks and jogged to the edge of the cliff. He spotted the familiar fatigues on the dead bodies of two rebels.

But there weren't alone.

He blinked in disbelief. His mouth went dry and his fingers froze on the radio. It was almost too painful to look at. There, far below, lying in the dirt under the hot sun were two filthy, bearded, bloodied men. The clothing was tattered and rough hewn bandages peeked out between lines of mud and blood. But he saw through the grime and his heart trembled.

They weren't any two men... they had names.

"Chris! Vin!"

There was no reply. His heart sank. Was he too late? Were they already dead?

His chest constricted in pain when he looked hard at the pair. Larabee was on his back, his arm flung over the side of Tanner's chest. The younger man was turned on his side, facing his friend.

How strong was that bond that linked them? Was the combined forces of their will to live enough? Could that faith they shared endure when their injured bodies gave out?

"Sir! I have a visual." He recovered and screamed in the radio. "I repeat, I have a visual."

"Confirm!" Larabee barked, racing towards the clearing as he put on his mask. The air was that foul.

"It's them, sir! Tanner and Larabee. I'm going down to check." After giving the coordinates, he climbed down the rocky hill.

Something loud invaded the tracker's senses. It parted the thick black mud that his brain was encased in. With Herculean effort, he forced his eyes open and tried to focus. He gasped in pain as every move tore through his already damaged body.

Air.

He couldn't seem to find any. The harder he tried to breathe, the worse the pain in his chest became. The fire in his ribcage was preventing the air he needed so badly. Desperate, he sucked greedily through his mouth. The short, ragged breaths over his dry throat felt like he was swallowing rusty nails.

Shredded by a raging fever and a jackhammer-like pain, his brain struggled hard to work. Where was he? What was wrong? Why was he in such pain? A dark fear gripped his heart, seeming to squeeze the life out of it. His small breaths came in short pants like poisoned bullets as the fear intensified. He was drowning in a tidal wave of agony.

A face appeared in the mists above the world of confusion he was lost in. Suddenly, fear had a name.

Chris Larabee.

Or rather, the utter and total loss of someone he couldn't see clearly but felt with a depth he didn't know he possessed.

Chris was dead.

Chris was dead?

"...no..." he whispered, shifting his arm as if to ward off the unthinkable.

His hand moved and brushed against something. It was soft... not dirt... not rocks. He moved his head and blinked. His eyes widened and his heart began to race. There was a body next to him. The brother who had the face of a stranger. He moved his hand painfully up the chest and over to the neck.

"Please... please..." His mind screamed. "...don't be dead... please..."

Then he felt it; that which was the very essence of life. It moved beneath his fingers and he choked in relief. Chris Larabee was alive. The pulse that ran under his trembling fingers seemed to move through his skin and jolt his old failing body.

A voice from faraway overtook his weak state. It was a vow sent on the wind for all eternity. It traveled through time and space, curling inside him and spreading. It gave his body the warmth he needed to remain alive. It fueled his soul and painted his destiny.

"I got yer back..."

Then he saw movement beyond the bandaged chest his hand rested on He blinked several times and saw boots in the dirt.

Boots.

Boots?

Black boots.

His heart raced and his delirious mind knew one thing. Guns came with boots. Guns came with boots and hurt Chris. His head turned and his eyes spotted the gun in Larabee's slack fingers. His own weak body reacted and he shoved over, tossing his left side and arm further on the prone man and grabbing the gun with his right. He saw the black pants tucked into the boots. He watched the soldier's boots hit the ground as the body turned.

The words came to him, giving him strength and purpose. He grit his teeth, he put his armor on and he stood his ground.

"I got yer back..."

Vin never hesitated. He sucked in his air, cried out weakly and raised his arm. Chris was depending on him and he wouldn't fail.

He aimed and fired.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah sagged in relief and let his heart cry out in silent thanks at the swift reply to his prayers. The staccato echo of gunfire in the near distance caused the rebel leader and his young prey to jump. J.D.'s gasp was audible and the preacher then heard him gagging. Xavier barked out orders and left a single armed guard with the bound prisoners.

J.D. never felt such internal pressure in all his life. His eyes still saw that gun just inches away from his face. His blood ran cold and his bladder was throbbing. He didn't know who fired the automatic weapons in the woods, but he wanted to kiss them. His stomach was still doing flip-flops and he fought hard to control himself. Taking several gasping breaths, he finally raised his battered face.

"What's... going... on... Josiah?"

"The Lord provides..." the older man sighed as the exchange of gunfire continued."Keep the faith, son."

"I'm tryin', preacher," Dunne managed. "But it's awfully hard on my kidneys..."

+ + + + + + +

"They're alive!" Richardson put his field glasses down and called out to his acting C.O., Major Chelsea. "Looks like they got worked over pretty good..."

"Where are they?"

"Two are tied up just beyond that ring of tents. There's one guard watching them. The blond guy isn't moving. He's curled up by a tree."

"Damn..." Pete slumped, raking a hand through his dark hair.

"Xavier?" Chelsea asked the returning scout.

"He's not going anywhere. We took out his jeep and the two trucks. We nailed four of his men in the woods..."

"Parker?" The leader hit his radio and waited.

"We took out three on the east side... looks like the main nest is in the camp."

"How close to the hostages?"

"I can take 'em out... I'll toss a couple eggs in there..." His hand slid towards the grenades.

"Hold it!" Chelsea took his eyes to the field glasses and zoomed in. "I don't see him..."

"Sir? Do I have a green light? We need to take them out now...before they shoot the hostages. They're looking that way..."

"Do it!" Chelsea boomed.

"Josiah!" J.D. screamed over the explosion as the guard turned, aiming the rifle at the preacher. But before a shot could be fired, the rebel's eyes bugged out as a bullet came through the back of his neck.

"That, son, was the sound of Gideon's trumpet!" the older man managed, coughing through the smoke stinging his eyes. Then a sound so sweet it brought a smile of relief to both men.

"Drop it, you Mexican cockroach, or I'll blow your balls off!"

"God Bless America!" J.D. sagged in relief at the distinctive American accent that belonged to one of their rescuers. Apparently the rebel didn't obey and the single gunshot answered the threat.

"Jack!" Pete charged into the clearing cutting Lynch's bonds. Moving quickly, he released J.D. Dunne. "Here... get Josiah!" He handed the large knife over and dropped to the side of the stricken man. He gently turned the prone man onto his back and tapped the stilled cheek. They'd been down this road before and it never got easier. Every time the injury-prone man was stricken, he felt a part of himself die.

"Quit fuckin' around, Lynch..." He tapped the face harder. "Don't you die on me...I'll leave your ass here and let the rats eat it..."

"...be a sweet treat then, eh..." Jack winked and wagged his eyebrows.

"Goddammit!" the dark-haired reporter seethed, not amused by the grinning face. "I thought you were dead. What the fuck's wrong with you? That's not a damn bit funny..."

"It is from here, mate," Jack grinned weakly. "Your eyes are all crossed..." He sighed, resting his throbbing eyes as he lifted his arm and waited. "Give a hand, then... Pete? Pete?" He peeled his blues open, eyeing the retreating back of his friend. "Hmmm... he's gettin' t'be a crotchety old bugger..."

"Here, son, let me..." Josiah lifted the younger man up and steadied him. Then he saw the gun on the ground. "That was your work?" He nodded to the soldier who'd been ready to kill him when a shot took him down.

"The other bloke dropped it when the bomb went off..." He nodded to a dead rebel nearby. "He was doubling back to kill us... I think."

"I owe you a beer," the smoky-eyed man smiled, then frowned when the other's leg buckled. "Jack?"

"Nice face." Chelsea winced at Josiah's battered features, marred by blood and rapidly swelling. "Anything broken?"

"No..." Josiah eased Jack down. "But he's got a bad head injury. He's been in and out..."

"Okay." The Major's eyes went around the camp. He watched his men piling up the dead rebels and their weapons. Before he could formulate the next phase of the plan, his radio sounded.

Josiah Sanchez listened and felt his battered body gain new life at the sound of General Larabee's voice. The head of the elite team updated his men that their two missing friends had been found. Buck was now in the process of checking on them. He let his thanks to go airborne.

"Praise the Lord!"

"What's that?" J.D. raised his face at the sound of Josiah's proclamation. He handed the other man a canteen, wincing as his back protested the slightest movement.

"General Larabee called, they found Vin and Chris." Sanchez took a drink, swirled and spit out a mouth of blood. Then he took more swallows, trying to sate his thirst. "Buck went down to check on them. He thinks they're alive but he's not sure. They're at the bottom of a steep hill..."

"Let's go!" J.D. shot up too fast and cursed as his back spasmed.

"Hold it!" Major Chelsea waved his hand. "You're not going anywhere. This is a military operation. Vincente is the nearest town and your other friends are there. Richardson!"

"Sir!" The young man appeared.

"Are any of the vehicles operational?"

"Yes, sir... we can fix the tire on the Jeep and get one truck up."

"Do it. DiTullio, you use the Jeep to take these men to their friends in Vincente. We'll put the dead rebels in the back of the truck and we'll notify the army. We'll take the other truck back to where the General is and take that injured man with us. He can be medivac'd to El Paso from there."

"El Paso?" J.D. paused, pulling up a mental map of the border between Texas and Mexico.

"If Larabee and Tanner are alive, that is the nearest trauma center. It's on the army base in El Paso. It's not far, just over the border," Chelsea stated. "We should know in a few minutes..."

+ + + + + + +

Upon hearing the words of the younger man, General Larabee radioed his second-in-command. He got an update on their situation and gave the order to stand by. He positioned his men around the search perimeter, always wary of stray rebels, and jogged to the edge of the cliff.

"Chris..." he whispered, his heart breaking at the sight of his only child, battered and bloody, marred by bruises, dirt and rags. Was Chris even alive? He saw movement then as Tanner's head came up and his eyes blinked. Hope was born. If Tanner was alive, given the position of their bodies, Chris might be alive as well. "Hold on, son..."

Buck was nearly down when the General began his own rapid descent. He was just a few feet away when the shot rang out. He heard Buck curse and saw his hand grab his thigh. He moved slowly, cautiously, wary of the wobbly gun trained on Wilmington's chest.

"You're lucky he's in bad shape. You could've been dead..." he warned, coming up just behind the younger man.

"Lucky, hell!" Buck clenched his teeth against the fiery pain along his inner thigh. "He put that bullet just where he wanted to. Delirious or not, he's the best damn shot I've ever seen," he noted with pride and gazed painfully at the stilled body of Chris Larabee. He trained his eyes on the flat abdomen and saw it rising and falling ever so slightly. He sighed in relief and turned his attention back to the sharpshooter.

Buck's heart broke when he looked at Vin Tanner. His upper body was strewn across Larabee's. His left hand was clamped on the blond's chest, the right wobbling badly and holding a gun. The long hair was filthy and matted; a beard and mustache covered his lower face. He saw crude bandages peeking through the tattered shirt. But it was the eyes that caused more pain than his own leg. Those blue eyes that were usually so animated and alive were full of fear and bright with fever.

Vin Tanner was lost. Between the amnesia and his delirium, he had no idea what was going on. That hand resting on Chris Larabee's chest was his only lifeline.

"Vin, I'm not gonna hurt you. It's me...Buck. I'm a friend of Chris's. This is Chris's dad...we came to take you home. You're hurt, Vin...you need help..."

"...back... the... hell... off..." Vin warned, the voice causing his throbbing head to ache worse, his blurry vision only letting him see black legs, boots and two figures. "...next one... goes... a mite... higher and ...dead... center..."

"Ouch!" Weston winced, realizing the 'delicate' area that the shaky sniper intended. From his post above, he had a clear shot. "Sir... don't take any risks... I can disarm him from here..."

"You stand down or I'll shoot you myself!" Buck hissed, eyeing the man above.

"Buck... Weston..." Larabee warned both of them just as he got the answer he sought. "He's alive... thank God!"he sighed, watching Chris's lips move and his muddied head follow suit.

"...quit... talkin'... move... th'hell... 'way..." Vin ordered.

"Chris? Chris, can you hear me?" Buck said quietly, then saw the green eyes open.

"...trick..." Vin muttered aloud to himself. They were trying to get him to believe they were friends of Larabee's. "...no worry... 'ris..." He gave the chest a thump. "...won't let 'em... hurt... ya... watchin'...back..."

"Damn..." Buck swallowed hard and heard the intake of breath behind him.

"I had no idea..." General Larabee said quietly, awed by the blue-eyed watchdog that guarded his son's life.

"Chris...?" Buck said louder, then the eyes blinked and the gun came up again. "No! Vin, don't!"

He knew he wasn't under water, but nothing was clear. Not his vision, nor his hearing. Everything was wet and blurry. It was hard to breathe. He blinked twice and saw a hand nearby, hovering above him. Then he saw dark metal and trained his eyes on that shape.

Gun.

He turned his eyes, following the arm, and saw long hair and the familiar grubby face of Vin Tanner. Then he realized that noise he heard wasn't a dream. It was a shot. Vin was shooting at someone. His brain seemed to be full of hot mud and he found it hard to put his thoughts in order. He heard a sharp cry and turned his head, moving his hand to rub his eyes. It wasn't a mirage... that was a mustache!

"...you dead too... B...b...buck?"

"Hell, no!" the relieved man shot back with a waning smile. "I'm too young and pretty!"

"...took your fuckin' time getting here... " Chris noted and locked onto that dark blue gaze. He gave a slight nod, letting his oldest friend know just how much it meant to see him.

"Now that's gratitude for you! Risked life and limb trooping through these mountains to find your sorry ass and..." Buck paused, then frowned at the odd angle of Vin Tanner's body. Something hit him then and it hit him hard. The tracker's legs weren't right and then he noticed that Vin was only moving his upper body. He shot a gaze back to Chris who understood immediately and nodded his head, indicating Vin's legs were affected.

"Damn..." Buck slumped, then felt a hand on his shoulder. "...and I brought some company."

"Dad?" Chris's voice was half-prayer and half-shock. There was no mistaking that face, his own features refined with age. The dark hair was just beginning to gray and those black eyes were still mesmerizing. He was really here...just a few feet away. His muddled brain did the math quickly, realizing that his father flew halfway around the world to find him.

"You should have gone to medical school..." The older Larabee's voice was clipped and then his heart rose at the weak smile.

"Vin..." Chris turned away then, wincing at the lost soul above him. "Vin, put the gun down. It's okay. That's Buck and my dad. You remember me telling you about Buck Wilmington..." He saw the shaggy head cock and the eyes darting.

Vin's frazzled brain was working too hard, and like a machine that was in overkill, it felt like it was beginning to overload. Steam rose above the flames in his brain and caused him to shake his head. The stories came back, the ones Chris told about the men they worked with. Names began to form and then he found it.

"Skirtchaser!" he blurted loudly.

"Thanks, Chris!" Buck mocked derisively. "I do have other qualities, you know."

"...name... better..." the injured man tossed back, then reached his hand up, palm out. He saw Vin clearly then, more so than he'd ever seen him before. Here on this Godforsaken stretch of ground, under the bruises, cuts and bloodied mask, he saw Tanner. He saw a man who was willing to die for him. That intensity was born from something deep within. Vin still didn't know who he was or where he came from. What he did know, what he held close to his heart was his faith. That faith kept them alive and now was struggling hard. He rested his fingers on Vin's wrist and took a deep breath.

"They're here to help... take us home. It's time, Vin, to cross the river of fire, remember? We can go to that valley of dreams. I'll take you there, cowboy, I promise..."

"...they hurt ya... I seen 'em... I tried... t'help..." Vin panted, desperate to find the right answer. "...fuckin' legs wouldn't work..."

"Look at me..." Chris commanded and saw the troubled face turn slightly. "You got 'em, Vin. You saved my life. You took care of business. It's over...and it's time to go home, okay?"

"...black boots... guns..." Vin denied, still seeing the soldiers attacking his friend.

"Trust me."

The General started to move and Buck shot his arm out, hitting the other man's chest. He shook his head and let the moment play out. He knew these two well enough to know those two words were more powerful than the bullets in the gun.

Adam Larabee's eyes lifted from his son's face, full of so much emotion that it nearly blinded him. Those green eyes were locked on the lost blue ones. He watched in awe as the wobbly hand holding the gun stopped shaking. Some of the fear left those troubled eyes and without questioning it any further, the gun dropped into his son's palm.

"Chris!" He moved in, dropping to his son's side.

"Easy, Vin... I don't want you to hurt your legs any worse." Buck gently laid the Texan down and straightened him out. He saw the lost eyes darting frantically and didn't need a stethoscope to know the heart was gyrating wildly. "Here, I got some water."

He gently lifted the matted head and felt that weak hand covering his own. He smiled and took the canteen away, lowering Vin's head again. "You're gonna be fine, Slick..." His words died when the use of his nickname for Vin caused the younger man to flinch, gasp and jerk his shoulders.

A picture came to Vin then. Of a sunny day in a beautiful park. Bright green grass covered the ground and a glorious blue sky was overhead. There was the sound of laughing. The good kind that comes from deep inside. The kind you share with your brothers or best friends. The hum of voices interplayed with laughing. Then a football sailed through the air and the voices called out.

"Heads up, Slick!" the voice warned and he saw himself catch the football and run like the wind.

"...touchdown!" Vin gasped as the image faded.

"Huh?" Buck's eyes narrowed at the delirious rendering. "Vin?" He watched as the confused eyes slid shut. Then he pulled out his radio as Dillon, the medic, approached. "What's the ETA on that chopper?"

"Ten minutes. I radioed as soon as we had the first visual. Let me check 'em over..." He moved in, then saw the crimson stain on Wilmington's leg. "You okay?"

"...Bactine and a bandaid'll do it..." Buck eased his grazed thigh down.

"Bactine?" The young man cocked his head and gave Buck his first laugh in some time.

"Damn, I'm gettin' old..." he commiserated, eyeing the touching reunion between father and son.

"Easy, son," Adam choked, gently lifting his son's head to let him drink. His hands trembled and he had to swallow back the waver in his voice. Then one hand came up and touched his face and that's all it took. So close... he'd come so close to losing this precious gift from God. He closed his eyes, trying to push back the tears that burned there. Then he felt those weak fingers brush his cheek and he gasped.

Chris heard the sob and slid his hand to the back of his father's neck. He didn't need to hear it. He saw it painted on every agonized feature of his father's face. Although his own time in that domain was too short, he knew that pain. The kind only a parent can feel. Now he saw it displayed in living color. There was no man he loved or respected more than Adam Larabee. The older man then dropped the canteen and lifted his son, gingerly embracing him

Chris gasped, feeling invincible in his father's arms. Suddenly, the hands of time slipped away and he was nine years old again in the woods. Burned into his memory, those first lessons came back to him.

"...food... shelter... fire... water..." he managed as his father finally broke the hold and pulled back. "...pays... havin' best... teacher..."

"And the star pupil." The older man grinned, "...best I ever laid eyes on..." Adam didn't hide his pride, gripping his son's neck. "You're a Larabee, every inch..."

"...you're the virtuoso, sir. I'm still a student..." Chris sent back, eyes locking on his father's. "I hope one day to earn that mantle."

Shaken by the close brush with death and the moving testament by his only child, Adam J. Larabee dropped his head and wept silently.

The distant sound of an airborne motor brought Buck's head up. He scanned the sky and saw the chopper approaching in the distance. He watched until it got closer, setting down on an area of open solid ground above them. He moved then as the medic working on Vin Tanner completed his short assessment.

"How is he?"

"Well," Dillon sighed, eyeing the battered man, "he's pretty beat up and his fever is over 102. His blood pressure's too low. His pulse is weak and rapid, respirations labored, and I can't tell how much damage that head wound did. Then there's his leg. . . it's badly infected. . . hot to touch. . . red. He's got some second degree burns on his back that look to be infected too." He turned to look at Buck, his gaze almost apologetic. "He's a mess," the medic advised, his frustration obvious. "Christ! I don't even know how this guy is still breathing!"

"They broke the mold," Chris hissed and then grimaced as he motioned weakly with one hand. "...he got thrown from up there... landed on a big rock... on his back.." Then he turned to Buck and his voice trembled. "I thought he was... d..d..dead..."

"Okay, that explains his legs," Dillon grunted and saw the other injured man nod. He eyed the hut and the marks in the dirt where the Texan had painfully pulled his crippled body across the ground. "..and that certainly didn't help..."

"...sorry, Vin..." Chris laid back, realizing Vin had moved to save his life.

"Sir, you need to update Major Chelsea..." Buck limped to his C.O. and waited. "Are we moving out? That son-of-a-bitch is still loose..."

"Yeah..." He cupped the side of his son's face and gave a bold wink. "I'll see you at home, son. Don't give those doctors any trouble, you hear?"

"Me?" Chris gasped, "...never trouble... hospitals love me..." He turned and scowled as Buck Wilmington choked on a stiffled laugh. "Shut up... Buck..."

Buck stood back then full of admiration as the 'father' left and the 'general' returned. The older man moved a few feet away and pulled out his radio. Buck saw the medics from the chopper dropping down. The men above lowered equipment and two stokes to be used to transport the injured. He watched the medical officers moving rapidly to kneel next to Vin and Chris while Dillon gave them a quick assessment.

Buck stayed back, eyes wide, his heart pounding with anxiety as the efficiency of the medical crew took over the care of his injured friends. As Dillon cut the area around his injured thigh and treated it, he watched the other medics working. Chris and Vin were given a quick examination, the extent of their various wounds and injuries noted and documented. As they attached the portable life-monitoring devices, the medics spoke with their patients, started IV lines and applied oxygen masks.

Chris answered their questions, his eyes heavy with pain and fatigue but fighting hard to remain open. Vin, however, remained unresponsive in spite of the loud voices calling to him and the gentle taps upon his battered face. Following established protocol, both agents were then placed in cervical collars and strapped securely to hard backboards even as their injuries were given a cursory cleaning and bandages applied. The small monitors beeped softly, giving continuous readings on their heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen levels.

Just as the two patients were being secured inside their individual stokes and vital signs relayed to the medical team waiting at the trauma center, Buck moved in, kneeling gingerly on his good leg beside Chris Larabee. He felt his own chest constrict and lightly grabbed the injured man's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. He followed with a wink and a nod.

Chris didn't say anything at first, then lifted his gaze to meet the dark blue one above him. Despite the restraints holding him down, he moved his hand, reaching for his oldest friend.

"...you done good, Bucko..."

Buck chuckled softly, his handsome face breaking into a wide smile. He took the weak hand of his oldest friend and gripped it hard. "I was just protecting my ass. You up and die and Orrin'll assign some fuckin' college slide-rule champion to be our team leader." His smile died then when Larabee's face nearly broke. Chris's chin wavered and the eyes shimmered lightly.

"I knew... you'd come..." Chris gasped, the pain in his body beginning to overtake him. He let it out then, every bit of gratitude he felt for this man. How many times in his life could a man be so blessed? To have a friend who would march through hell and back for you. No questions asked. He felt so privileged...to call Buck Wilmington friend.

"...thank... you..."

"Aw, hell..." Buck choked, swallowing hard. He held onto that hand even after it went limp and those magnetic green eyes closed. And he felt that special tingle long after the two men were airborne, winging their way homeward. Then he saluted as the chopper disappeared over the distant horizon.

"Come on, son, the others are topside." He noted of Chelsea and the rest of the team. The injured reporter was waiting in the chopper. "We've got a job to finish..." Adam clapped Wilmington's back.

"Yes, sir..." Buck recovered, sucked his breath in and began the trek back to the jungle.

+ + + + + + +

The phone rang and Nathan hesitated, not sure if he wanted to hear the news it would provide. On the third ring, he picked it up.

"J.D., if you don't sit down I'm gonna nail your ass to that chair!" Josiah grumbled, his head throbbing.

"And might I add, Mister Sanchez, that your constant thrumming of fingers on that glass is beyond irritating?" Ezra managed, trying not to scratch his many bug bites.

"Shut up, Ezra... you're givin' me a headache!" J.D. shot back, pacing the tiled patio of the home they were waiting in. The motrin Nate gave him took some of the pain from his back, but his nerves were jangled.

"Christ, how does Larabee put up with all of you?" Pete hissed, shooting from his chair.

"Shut up!" Jackson roared, cupping the phone. Then he pushed the speaker button and put the phone back on the cradle. "Could you repeat that?"

"The chopper just took off. Chris and Vin are on their way to the army medical center in El Paso. They're in bad shape but they have a first rate trauma center on the base and they'll get the very best care."

Adam Larabee winced as the loud burst of cheering broke into his earpiece.

"Silence!" he ordered, gaining immediate quiet. "I spoke with Orrin Travis. The army is sending a car to pick you up and take you to the airport in Chihuahua. From there you'll be flown to the army base in El Paso sometime tomorrow. There are no flights scheduled until then."

"Thank you, sir. Will you be returning?" Nathan asked.

"When the job is done. Larabee out."

Part Fourteen

Fairchild Industries, VA

On the fourth floor of the sprawling complex, a team was working. Eager to accomplish their goal before the deadline, they completed their tasks in quiet compatibility. There were ten men and women whose talents had made the company a huge success. The voice on the intercom broke their concentration.

"Kathryn Larabee to the Q, Kathryn Larabee to the Q..."

The other nine looked up from their consoles but the attractive, petite blond woman didn't move. Eyeing each other, one of the team left her console and approached the worried face.

"Want me to come with you?" Pat Holiday offered.

"No," Kate rose, smiling at her best friend. She'd known Pat for over twenty years and there wasn't much they didn't share. She accepted a hug from the brunette and sighed heavily. The 'Q' was the communication center on the first floor. Usually being summoned meant an international call, and normally, it was just business. But this time, the blond knew something was different. This call was from Mexico. She'd bet on it. "But thanks, Pat."

"Hey, those two are a cut above," she praised of Chris Larabee and his father. "They'll be fine. I got a feeling it's good news."

"I hope so..." Kate replied, taking her I.D. badge and swiping the monitor that allowed the automatic door to open.

Ten minutes later, she was at a desk and eyeing the blinking button on the phone. She took a deep breath, eyed her wedding ring and picked up the phone.

"This is Kathryn Larabee."

"My name's Nathan Jackson, ma'am. I work with your son." A heavy sigh sounded across the long distance phone line as the former Marine continued, "I got good news."

She smiled, closed her eyes and let the tears roll freely down her face. She nodded, listening intently to every word the man spoke. Finally, she found her voice although it wavered badly from the intensity of her emotions.

"Thank you, Nathan. You've given this mother her first smile in two weeks. I'll be on the first plane to El Paso. Give my thanks to all the men...for all they've done."

Later, as she drove to the airport, she couldn't help notice the sun was shining just a little brighter and the air smelled a little bit sweeter.

+ + + + + + +

William Beaumont Army Medical Center, El Paso

While the two gravely injured men lay limp and unaware, the busy ER team bustled around them. Orders were given, vital signs were taken and recorded, intravenous fluids noted and the extensive injuries catalogued and assessed. Life sustaining oxygen, antibiotics and more of the desperately needed fluids were administered to the unresponsive and horribly battered bodies. The tattered clothes were cut away, the wounds given a superficial cleaning and examined for further treatment.

Terry Miller zipped quickly between the two tables taking blood samples from both men. She attached the printed labels and handed them to the orderly to take to the lab for analysis. She returned as the medical resident was examining the head wound on the long-haired man.

"He needs a full skull series as soon as possible," Hasem Malik directed, then eyed the blue and purple chest. "Let's get the radiology tech in here for a portable chest film too. Have you gotten a temperature on him yet? He's burning up.."

"One-hundred two point five..." Terry replied, eyeing the latest reading.

"Let's put him on a cooling blanket and give him some rectal Tylenol, 650 milligrams," the resident dictated. "We need to get that temperature down before he has a seizure."

The veteran ER nurse nodded and and watched the skilled resident continue his analysis.

"Oh, and Terry, would you help me turn him on his side? I need to take a look at his back," the doctor then requested. "Be careful though. The medic said he wasn't moving his legs so we may be dealing with a spinal cord injury."

"Sure," she nodded, assisting the resident as they carefully rolled the injured patient. Seeing the large black and purple bruise as well as the angry second degree burns on his lower back, the nurse commented, "...that doesn't look good..."

Malik carefully palpated the injured area but did not find any signs of obvious deformity in the spine. Signaling to the nurse, they again gently turned the young man and settled him back down on the stretcher. "As soon as X-ray gets here, I also want C, T and L-spines done and let MRI know we'll probably be coming up for both a head scan and a complete spine series as soon as possible."

"Yes, doctor," she replied before leaving the exam room to carry out his orders. Returning a moment later, Terry found the resident still examining his newest patient, frowning with concern at the numerous bug bites, contusions and abrasions.

"Who's on call for the burn team?" he inquired without looking up.

Terry consulted a list she kept in the pocket of her nursing jacket before she replied, "That would be Dr. Johansson. Want me to page him?"

"Yeah," Malik replied. "Tell him we've got about a fifteen percent second degree burn I want him to look at. And you might as well get plenty of saline for him to clean and irrigate the area with. There's a lot of debris that needs to be removed and the wounds look infected. I don't imagine he'll want to put any Bactroban on it but you might get some of that special antibiotic ointment they use from pharmacy. And while he's down here, have him take a look at these wounds on the chest as well. They look like burns too except they are older than the ones on his back."

His dark eyes then moved down to the patient's thigh. "This leg wound is grossly infected as well. It needs to be opened up and drained but he's not in any shape to take to the OR right now. Let's get a minor wound tray up and lots of betadine and irrigation and let me see what I can do down here. Did he get any IV antibiotics?"

The nurse nodded her head, "Two grams of IV Cefazolin," and then added, "We also gave a tetanus booster in the shoulder."

"Okay, good," the resident exclaimed as he removed his gloves and went to the sink to wash his hands. "See what you can do about getting this guy cleaned up and let me know when you've got the preliminary films and blood work back. Did MRI say how long it would be before they're ready?"

"The tech said to give them at least twenty minutes."

Malik nodded his head. "Okay, let me take a quick look at this other guy and then if I've got some time, I'll see about opening that leg up before he goes upstairs." Having completed his initial exam, he moved away, leaving the nurse to take charge of the injured man. The young doctor moved to the second gurney, his second patient an unconscious blond male.

"How's he doing?"

"Not a whole lot better than the first one," another nurse replied. "His blood pressure is one-hundred over sixty with a pulse of one-fifteen. Respirations are twenty-four and shallow, breath sounds somewhat diminished on the right. Temperature is one-hundred and one and he is still unconscious."

"Looks like he took one in the side," Malik responded, then slipped on a pair of examining gloves and sighed heavily. "Okay, let's start with the basics. I need a portable chest and C-spine. It's possible he may have some broken ribs on the right so I need the films back ASAP. Let's also insert a nasogastric tube and give 500cc's of contrast. Let CT know we need an abdominal scan for possible penetrating trauma."

He then eyed the many wounds on the man's upper torso. "These cuts aren't too deep..." and examined the burns on his side. ". . .looks like second degree again. Have Johansson take a look at this guy too. In the meantime, let's get him cleaned up and put a moist dressing over the site."

Moving downward, he gently examined the grossly swollen right knee. "We need some plain films here as well and possibly follow that up with an MRI depending on what we find." Looking up at one of the nurses and an orderly, he said, "Okay, let's turn him..."

"Minor cuts and bruises..." He eyed the exit wound of the bullet and then saw another wound. "That's an odd place for a wound... looks infected..."

"...rat... bite..."

"Mister Larabee?" The nurse responded to the weak voice and bent down to look at his face.

"..Chris..." the dizzy man managed. "...I got bit... awhile... don't know... how long... a few days before we got kidnapped. I was... was... taking... pills... ER in... Taos..."

"Okay, not to worry," Malik teased, relieved that at least one of his patients had regained consciousness. "I don't think we'll have to amputate. I'll clean it up good and get you some antibiotics for that."

"...where...?" he began, pausing to lick his dry lips. Then he saw the other limp body lying across the way. "V...Vin...?"

"You're in El Paso at the army base. Your friend is here too." The nurse moved so he could see a trio of staff cleaning up Vin Tanner's wounds. The green eyes furrowed as if troubled and then stared hard at the other man's chest, watching it slowly rise and fall.

"How... bad...?" he hissed as the doctor probed the infected area.

"I won't know until we get all the test results back but his head wound seems to be quite serious and I don't like the look of his leg." The doctor reached for some peroxide and a cotton-tipped swab to explore the wound. "I'd say you have a few battles of your own to fight. I'm putting you on some antibiotics for the infection and that should help bring down your fever."

The resident continued working as he inquired, "What happened to your leg and what can you tell me about the wound in your side?"

"...leg... walk... hurt... then... numb... uh... I... was... it... was... hit by a... a... large... piece of wood... on... the... side.."

"Okay, but you were able to put weight on it?"

"Y...yeah... couldn't bend..."

"All right." He tapped Chris's abdomen close to the region of the bullet wound. "Have you been passing blood or had pain in this area?"

"...no... blood... all... clear... uh... ribs hurt... belly okay..."

"Good... we'll get some x-rays and probably a CAT scan of your abdomen..." the doctor noted. "Do you think you could drink some contrast for us?"

Chris gasped as another wave of pain and nausea rolled over him. His parched lips parted and a groan escaped.

"Hey, stay awake!" A nurse tapped the sunburned face. "You gonna get sick?"

"No... don't think... so..." the blond managed, his eyes trained on Vin Tanner's battered body. The Texan's cranky voice filled his head. "...feel like... stir-fried shit...!"

The nurse laughed and wrinkled her nose, hearing the others chuckle. "That sums it up nicely, I'd say!"

"...another Vinner..." he whispered of Tanner's many quaint expressions that kept them in stitches.

Doctor Malik paused and eyed the younger man who was still being cleaned up. "What can you tell me about your friend?"

"...he's got am...nes...ia..." Chris coughed.

"Mister Tanner has amnesia?" Malik gently cleaned the wounded posterior and then bandaged it before rolling the blond man over onto his back.

"...flashes... of stuff... but mostly he can't remember anything... he sort of knows me..." Chris paused, hearing the nurses across the aisle reciting Vin's vital signs.

"What else?" The physican asked.

"...fell on a rock... can't use legs... burned back..."

The doctor listened as the feverish man slowly recounted as much of the other's injuries as he could.

"Sounds like we have our work cut out for us..." He paused as the nurse brought in the container of liquid contrast. "After you finish your scan, we're going to push your IV fluids... that will help ease the dehydration."

"...don't... let... him... die..."

"He's critical but stable at the moment and I don't plan on letting him die on my watch," Malik assured him with a gentle smile. "Does he have any allergies or other medical conditions we should know about?" the resident asked, thinking of the amnesia.

"...hypo...gly...cemic... uh... shellfish... and he's AB negative..."

"Good, thanks..." Malik removed his gloves and reached for Chris's chart. "I'm going to put you on some IV Flagyl. It's an antibiotic for your bite wound. After that, the nurses will get you cleaned up and have you drink some contrast for your scan." Handing the order sheet off, he continued, "Once we have the plain films back on your knee, we may or may not need to get an MRI as well."

"Sur... surgery?" Chris managed to rasp.

"That's always a possibility but I doubt the orthopedic surgeons will want to work on it tonight." Malik saw the exhausted green gaze eyeing the other injured man. "We'll be admitting you both to ICU after your tests are done and as long as your abdominal scan is negative, I'll see about ordering a light tray of food for you if you feel up to it."

The blond barely managed to nod, worry and fatigue fighting for dominance on his bruised and sun-burned features.

The young doctor placed a hand on his arm, bringing those green eyes to meet his own. "Try not to worry," he advised. "He's made it this far and he'll get the best medical care possible."

After a moment, Chris nodded. "Thanks..." he sighed and let his aching eyes rest.

+ + + + + + +

Denver, The Saloon

Late afternoon was usually a busy time for the festive drinkery. Half price beer and free appetizers from four to six p.m. usually had them two deep at the bar. Today was no different. As the owner gave instructions to her barkeep, scanned the empty containers at the buffet and moved back towards the kitchen, an excited voice broke her train of thought.

"Inez! Inez look! It's them!"

"What?" She turned, meeting the excited body of Casey Wells, J.D.'s live-in love interest. The law student worked part time at the busy tavern. She walked closer, turning her dark head to follow the red painted fingernail pointing to the television over the bar. The words 'Special Report' in white on a blue screen broke into normal programming. Then she saw the photos at the bottom of the screen.

"Madre de Dios!" she screeched, flying to the rail. There above were images of Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner. "Turn it up!"

"...go to our correspondent, Bob Mitchell in El Paso. Bob?"

"Thanks, Jim," the silver-haired reported responded while standing in front of the Army Base. "Earlier today, we received word that the two missing ATF agents from Denver were found alive. That call came from our foreign correspondent, Pete DiTullio, who was in the region. He informed us that Larabee and Tanner were on their way here. Behind these gates is the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, one of the best trauma facilities in the state. A large Medivac helicopter landed about an hour ago and we have just received confirmation from Captain Mary Carcino that indeed, the two missing men were admitted."

"What condition are they in, Bob? And what about the Savages?"

"Well, Jim, details are sketchy about the Savages, but we're told the two ATF agents are both in critical condition. The hospital public relations department has scheduled a news conference for later on this evening when more information should be available. To repeat our breaking news story, ATF agents Chris Larabee and Vincent Tanner, who were kidnapped in New Mexico close to two weeks ago and presumed dead, have reportedly been found alive. Jim?"

"Thanks, Bob... and we will continue our coverage of this breaking story as more information becomes available."

"Thank you...!" Inez kissed the cross around her neck and sighed in relief. Then the handsome face of Buck Wilmington rose up and her heart clenched. Was the mustached rogue safe? She ached to hold him again in her arms and continued her prayers as she resumed her duties.

+ + + + + + +

In the Mexican mountains

The day was bowing out gracefully, leaving her blue gown to her sister, Eve. Twilight was fast approaching and the shadows in the canyons and forests grew taller and darker. A small bridge appeared in the clearing leading the way across a wide body of water. The banks across the way were lush and green, covered by fruit bearing trees. Something about the tranquil scene caused the leader to halt.

"Chelsea..." Larabee barked and nodded.

"Pretty, isn't it...?" the black man muttered, wiping his brow.

"Too pretty... and too perfect," the dark-eyed commander shot back.

"Them tracks were too clear... he's leading us into a trap," Buck added, joining the duo.

"He's close... he's that arrogant," Larabee cautioned. The variety of footprints led them to believe that Xavier was on foot with three men. "Weston, you and Richardson get a closer look. Buck, you take the perimeter. I think we're being watched."

As the trio moved out, Chelsea took his binoculars out and scanned the bridge. Twice his steady gaze followed the line to the other side and back. Then he backed his sight up.

"Well... well..." He handed the field glasses to his commander. "Looks like our boy, Juan, left us a present..."

"It's probably a trigger spring..." Larabee noted of the explosives tied to the underside support. "Weston, we spotted a bomb near the mid point. See what else is under that bridge."

"Sir..." the reply came back.

"We got a friend in high places..."

Chelsea and Larabee exchanged a curious look at Buck Wilmington's transmission. Then Chelsea's eyes went to the treetops.

"A sniper?" Larabee whispered into the radio. "How far?"

"Close enough that I can smell him." Buck paused, eyeing the rebel whose rifle was trained on the bridge. "He's lookin' at something near the bridge."

"He's gonna light the fuse... he's waiting for us..." Larabee sent back. "Take him out..."

"Yes, sir..." Buck replied.

"Quietly!" Chelsea shot back.

"...caution is my middle name..." Buck whispered, creeping towards the tree. He screwed a silencer onto his weapon, aimed and fired once. He searched the body but found nothing. "One down, three to go..." he updated the others, limping closer to the river.

+ + + + + + +

7 p.m., ICU, Beaumont Medical Center

Still savoring the white pizza with spinach and tomato slices that had been dinner, Michelle Thomas and Rick Dankowitz entered the quiet area of the hospital. This twenty bed unit was for those patients who needed the most critical care. The three-to-eleven shift was usually busy with meals and bedtime medications to get situated and doctors requesting test results.

"Go on Helene, Connie..." Rick stated, easing his six-foot-three frame behind the console. "Skip the chili, looks nasty..."

"Anything we should know?" Michelle asked, scanning the many charts that were in metal bins on the top of the console.

"We received two new admissions," Connie stated. "Larabee's in 12. Tanner's in 11. Oh, and they're those two Feds they found in Mexico."

"Yeah..." Helene grabbed some cash and stood, stretching. "Larabee's vitals are stable, but his fever is up a little. He ate a little bit of supper and awakens easily, answers questions. Tanner, though, is a mess and his fever isn't coming down."

"How long has he been on ice?" Rick asked, scanning the chart.

"A couple of hours now... his respirations are labored and his blood pressure isn't too stable. We're also hearing some congestion in his lungs. Keep an ear out..."

"Okay," Michelle nodded as the pair left. She went in to check on the first patient, Chris Larabee. She took his vital signs, recorded them and moved to check his knee. The injured limb was elevated and encased in ice and a splint. "They gonna operate?"

"Hello." She turned at the weak voice and moved, picking up a cup of ice water that held a straw. He drank gratefully, his eyes heavy-lidded. "I'm Michelle. My partner, Rick, is next store checking on your friend. And to answer your question," she took the cup away, "Yes, it appears so. You have a tibial plateau fracture that needs to be repaired. But then with some physical therapy and rest, you'll be ready to kick field goals."

"...not me... quarter... back..." Chris managed.

"Oh, Big Man on Campus?" she teased and saw a slow grin.

"...get the best lookin' cheerleaders..."

She saw the eyes fighting and leaned down. "Get some shuteye. That's an order."

"Vin?"

"Hold on. I'll check..." She left his bedside and entered the next cubicle. "How's he doing?"

"Not too good. His temperature isn't going down and his breathing is ragged. I'm gonna call Doctor Malik and see if maybe he can order some nebulizer therapy..."

"Okay." She eyed the pale face in the bed and brushed back an errant lock of hair that fell over his forehead. "You fight, sugar..."

Chris kept his heavy eyes trained on the door until the nurse reappeared.

"He's holding his own...but his fever is high and he's having some trouble breathing..."

"...head... bad?"

"No fractures but a very bad wound and from what the report says, a bad concussion."

"...leg..."

"All cleaned up... it was badly infected..." She paused and saw a flicker of fear in the green eyes. "Hey!" She tapped his hand and got his attention. "He fought this hard...don't lose hope."

"He can't die..." Chris mumbled, his eyes sliding shut. "...kick his ass... back... Texas..."

She smiled and waited for his breathing to level out and pulled the blanket up. With a final check to his IV line, she left the cubicle.

+ + + + + + +

9 p.m. in Mexico

He knew they were close. He felt them. Many years in these mountains running from the enemy had given him a second sight. He motioned to Miguel and Diego, the two soldiers that remained with him. They moved in separate directions, forming a triangle. Each man took careful aim and waited.

They crossed the river after Weston disarmed the explosives, then picked up the trail again and the signs were fresh. They were close, maybe too close.

"Sir?" Buck whispered, biting his lip over the dull throb in his leg. He pointed to the clearing ahead and shook his head, running his finger left to right under his chin, indicating a 'suicide'.

Adam Larabee frowned and eyed the terrain carefully. Buck was right. It was a trap. He could feel it too. They'd split up, each team of two taking a section. His skin pricked, his heart began to hammer and his senses went into overdrive. He took a step closer to Buck and the ground gave way.

Buck's head whipped around at the strangled gasp. Under the silver light of the moon, he could see the older man's face locked in pain. Both hands were gripping his left leg, the lower half of it obscured by a hole.

"Shit!" Buck whispered, theorizing that possibly inside the pit were tiny spear-like pieces of wood now embedded in the other man's lower leg. Before he had the chance to move, the tall body of Juan Xavier dropped from a tree. With lightning fast moves, the rebel's hand jerked the General's head back and a long silver blade flashed in the pale ghostly light, his obvious intention to slash his victim's exposed neck.

+ + + + + + +

William Beaumont Medical Center, 10 p.m.

The sun was brutal, scorching his tender flesh. His head and leg screamed in dual voices of agony. He shifted his load, dragging the needed gourds behind him. He could see Vin lying helpless ahead of him and tried to pick up his pace. Then he began to sink and frowned. Frantically, he tried to reach for something, anything to stop his decent. His heart thumped like a jackhammer and he gasped, clawing at the dirt.

Quicksand!

It crept past his chest and enveloped his neck. Tearing his eyes from the claw marks in the soft earth, he cast one final look at Vin who was surrounded by soldiers with guns. Those terrified blue eyes were the last image he saw as the liquid death invaded his nose and mouth, choking him.

"Chris! Wake up... Come on, son," she coached, tapping his sweat-ridden face.

She saw it coming, recognizing the abdominal convulsions and the shoulders jerking. She grabbed a kidney-shaped basin and turned him sideways just as the bile spilled forth. Finally, after the painful dry heaves, the coughing began and his hand clawed at his throat and mouth.

"Stop it... listen to me!" Her voice was firm and she placed the dish behind her and grabbed his chin. A pair of muddled green eyes peered at her in a mist of confusion. "It's me, honey. You were having a bad dream."

"M...m...om? Chris sighed heavily, running his fingers over his eyes before absorbing the wonderful feeling that only comes from a mother's touch.

"I came as soon as your friend Nathan called. They're all fine, they'll be here tomorrow." She watched the damp blond head nodding and felt the hand clasped in her own tremble a bit. "You okay?"

"...bad dream..." He coughed. "I was choking on quicksand... Vin needed me... the soldiers came... I couldn't get to him..." His trembling fingers found the button and brought the bed upright so that he was in a sitting position.

"Here, sweetheart." She handed him some tissues and then got up to retrieve a little bit of water to clean up with. She wiped his face with a cool cloth, running it along his damp hairline and then behind his neck. She smiled at the low moan and bent down to kiss his forehead. "Better?"

"There are many gifts which God bestows that enrich our lives so very much. But none that shines brighter or is quite as fine than the miracle of a mother's touch."

"That's beautiful!" Kate smiled, stroking the spiky blond hair.

"That's Vin, guess he's rubbing off on me." Chris eyed the water pitcher and she moved, pouring him a large cup. He drank slowly, savoring the cold liquid. He paused, recalling the day the gifted Texan spoke those words. "You know, Mom, he does that without even trying. You should hear some of the poems he writes. Comes as natural to him as breathing."

She smiled at the mixture of pride and envy in his voice and watched his eyes light up. She poured him more water and waited as the rest of the story unfolded.

"A guy we know from the lab, Steve Kinnaly, had a sick kid. His boy was just four and picked up E. coli. Vin and me stopped by the hospital to take him a card and gift. Steve's wife was there. She'd been there for four days. We stopped just inside the door. The little guy looked awful...she was singing to him, rubbing his back. Then he smiled, opened his eyes and reached up, touched her face. When we got closer, Vin hugged her and spoke those words. I'm telling you, sometimes he puts the rest of us to shame."

"Thank you, for sharing both those words and the meaning. You are a true gift, Chris," she rubbed his cheek, "and I thank God every day for you. I thought... when that call came two week ago... I thought I'd lost..."

"Don't, Mom." Chris reached up to her and embraced her. He sighed as the soft sobbing continued for a few moments, soothing her gently. He knew he was luckier than most men. Most of what he knew, what he woke up with every morning and carried with him each day, was a product of two very special people. Two strong, loving intelligent beings who found each other in this vast universe. The result of that powerful union left a shower of golden light that he'd bathed in for eighteen years before leaving home to go to college. He still wore that rain and wore it proudly.

"I love you," he whispered into her ear and she pulled back.

"Not as much as I love you, son." She cupped his chin and kissed his cheek. "...my golden boy!"

"You hear from Dad?" He settled back, resting his aching head.

"No. I spoke with Colonel Johnson, but they haven't checked in yet."

"Buck's with him..." Chris noted, as much to convince himself that his father and oldest friend were backing each other up.

"That does help me feel better." She patted his hand. "I checked on your Vin. He's having quite a battle. His fever is resisting the medications and cooling blanket."

Chris didn't reply right away; he was savoring the words 'your Vin'. When did that happen? When did a cursing, short-fused, cranky Texan with a shaggy head become as important to him as breathing? He sighed and pushed the effort away. When didn't seem to matter anymore. The only thing that mattered was for Vin Tanner to fight.

As if sensing his thoughts, she gave his hand a pat and moved away.

"I'll check on him..."

"Thanks."

Moving next door, she paused at the foot of the bed, wincing at the very definition of the word 'frail' that was lying in front of her. The tubes and IV lines, oxygen and monitors seemed to dwarf him. They'd cleaned the grime and filth away, leaving him looking far too young. She moved closer, nodding to the nurse who was writing in his bedside chart.

"Any change?"

"No, and I'm worried about his breathing. He's having some trouble."

"Vin?" Kate leaned over, calling out to him. She touched his face and recoiled, gasping. It felt like the face of a corpse "Oh...!"

"I know. It's a shock. He's like ice on the outside." She nodded to the quiet figure in the bed. "Talk to him, Mrs. Larabee, it seems to help. He might hear you."

"Vin," she stroked the cold cheek and then cupped his chin. "It's Kate Larabee. I'm Chris's mother. You're safe, son, but you need to wake up. You need to fight, Vin. Chris is looking for you..."

"See?" the nurse smiled. At the mention of the name 'Chris', the stilled face changed. The brows furrowed and the eyes darted frantically behind closed lids.

"That's it, son, you fight...we're all here for you." She took the limp hand and gave it a squeeze.

"I have to check on another patient. Will you be here?" the nurse inquired and the petite blond woman nodded, sitting by the bed's edge.

"Will you let my son know?"

"Sure..."

"Come on, Vin," she coached. "I don't have all night. Get those blue eyes open..." Kate felt the weak fingers move in her hand. "Good boy..." She continued to speak to him, recalling his poem and the power it expressed.

+ + + + + + +

Back in Mexico

Although the pain in his lower leg was excruciating, the shot startled Adam Larabee and he gasped as blood and brain matter spilled onto his neck and cheek. He heard another shot and fired on instinct, taking down the approaching rebel soldier. He blinked and grimaced as the fire shot up his leg. He saw a figure rise and stagger, one shoulder held lower than the other.

"Buck, behind you!" he screamed and the body whipped around, firing twice.

"...and that... makes... four..." Buck coughed and staggered towards his fallen commander. He paused briefly, kicking the corpse of Juan Xavier. "...fuckin' animal! Rot in hell, you sick son-of-a-bitch!" He grimaced and holstered his weapon, clutching his left shoulder. "You okay, sir?" he asked, dropping down.

"No! I'm not okay. You damn near shot me!" the loud growl proclaimed.

Buck laughed at that, both impressed and amazed that Chris's voice was here with him in this thicket of trees in a foreign land.

"...never... happen...." the rogue predicted, putting a shaky, bloody hand out. "...hands of gold. I had it... all... planned..."

"You're full of shit, Wilmington!" Adam gruffed, then grabbed the bloody paw. "Helluva shot, son. I'm grateful."

"My mama didn't raise no fool." Buck drew his light out and handed it to the older man. With the light on the hole, he used the hilt of the knife to spring the small animal trap that was hidden in the hole. "I come home without you and Kate will skin me alive." He eased the other man's injured leg out and sat down next to the elder Larabee. He turned as a soft laugh floated by.

"I'm scared of her too, son," Adam laughed. "She's the real 'general'..."

"Yes, sir, I believe that." Buck hissed and grabbed his shoulder, applying as much pressure as he could. He turned and saw the dark eyes coming to bear on him and felt himself flush under the intense glare. He shifted uncomfortably as those mesmerizing eyes landed on his wounded shoulder. "Aw, hell, sir, the ladies love a good battle scar," he disarmed just as the words came. They came in a voice, strong and true, the tone and pitch more familiar to him in the guise of a younger man's face. He felt a hand grip the back of his neck and send chills running down his spine.

"Thank you, Buck..."

He smiled then, casting up a real "Buck Wilmington special."

"...guess this means I got my head out of my ass, huh?" he teased of the irate voice he'd heard in the warden's office.

"Just a little!" Adam teased back and reached for his radio. "...and I didn't raise no fool either," he said with pride of the son who'd chosen his friend so well. He saw the slight flush appear and smiled. "You save that color for the ladies, son. I'm not your type."

Buck laughed and sat back, resting against a tree. He heard that strong voice and envied Chris Larabee. What must it feel like to have a father like Adam Larabee?

"Major, get your ass over here and get me a chopper. The bride's waiting on me!"

+ + + + + + +

El Paso, Eleven p.m.

"Annie, you cut your hair!"

"Yeah, I needed a change..." the new nurse stated, tossing her handbag into a drawer and eyeing the ICU ward. "Whadda we got, Michelle?"

And so the shift change transpired, with the three-to-eleven crew departing, save Rick who was working a double, and the eleven-to-seven settling in. When every patient's chart had been reviewed and the last report taken, Annie took over. She checked on all her patients, saving the two new admits for last.

"Chris Larabee..." She eyed the sleeping man and took his pulse. She cast a gaze on the fair man's features and noted how much better looking he was in person. She'd seen his image on the television just hours before on the evening news. She was pleased that his fever was coming down and he was resting comfortably. She changed his burn dressings without disturbing him and inspected the wounds on his chest.

While his best friend was resting peacefully, Vin Tanner wasn't as lucky. On the outside, his frail, limp body was still and unaware, every feature slack. Inside, however, a storm was brewing. The dark void he was lost in was starting to fill with flashes of bright lights. Then the blackness peeled away and he was in a strange land. Heat descended on him as the sun boiled his skin. His dry lips parted, seeking a single wisp of moisture. Every inch of his tormented flesh screamed in agony. He tried to move but found he couldn't. His legs were dead, the useless leaden appendages turning him into a worm.

Then he looked across the hot earth.

Then he saw it.

The image was so horrifying, it took the little air he had gained away. A fire exploded inside his chest and it seared his lungs. He couldn't breathe; the grisly sight was scorching his horrified senses. A group of soldiers, dressed in tan with menacing eyes and black boots, were laughing. There, amidst the group, was a body tied to a tree. Next to the body, a soldier laughed loudly, raising his left hand. His right hand held a bloody machete. In the left, held high and dripping blood, was the head of Chris Larabee, the green eyes wide and accusing.

"Chris!"

+ + + + + + +

"Vin!" Chris croaked, sitting up in the dark room. His heart was hammering and he saw a blur fly by as two nurses ran into the next room. He hadn't dreamed it. Vin's terrified scream broke the night air. Just as his heart began to return to normal and the sweat ran in streams down his face, another scream split the stillness. It was weak and ragged, but full of such woe, it tore his gut.

"No!"

"Vin, wake up!" Kate commanded, tapping his face. She'd been at Vin's side for about a half hour, dividing her time between the two rooms. From a corpselike state, his weak call scared her right out of her chair.

From behind her, one nurse turned the light on and the other stood on the opposite side of the bed. She gripped his cold chin and talked to him in a harsh, severe tone.

"Mister Tanner, I need you to wake up!" Kelly Davis ordered. "Annie, his heart rate's racing..." she eyed the other nurse.

"Vin!" Kate rested her hand on his cheek and bent lower. "Vin, it's Kate and I need you to open your eyes. You had a bad dream. Chris is fine. Can you hear me? He's fine..."

Just as his eyes burned from the horrid image, he felt sharp talons dig into his flesh and he was torn away, swept high above into a whirling vortex of color and sound. The breathless pace left him dizzy and sick. He was lost and had no idea of where he was or what to do.

Then he heard her voice. She was back, the angel who found him before. She wanted to see his eyes.

"That's it..." Kate soothed, brushing her fingers through his hair. She saw the unfocused eyes blink and remain fixed on air. "Look at me, Vin." She tipped his face and the eyes blinked again. "It's Kate Larabee, Chris's mother. Can you understand me?"

"Chris's dead...." His first thought invaded with a nasty backslap. "What's his ma doin' here? Where is here? Where am I? Who am I? Vin...she called me Vin. That's right...I'm Vin...Chris said so... Chris?"

"Yes, he's here too." She saw the lips part under the oxygen mask and saw the lost eyes pool up in terror. "He's fine, Vin. Look at me. Focus!" she directed sharply and he responded, zoning in on her. She felt a weak tap against her leg and smiled, taking his limp hand. "You're in a hospital in El Paso. You and Chris were brought in earlier today. You're very sick, Vin, but you have to fight. Chris needs you, do you understand? He's waiting..."

"...ris..." Vin huffed into the mask and swallowed painfully. It felt like razors were in his throat. "...hurts..."

"Can I give him some ice?" she asked.

"Can you step back a moment, Mrs. Larabee? We need to check his lungs."

She kept a grip on the trembling hand and talked to him soothingly while they gently maneuvered him and ordered him to cough and breathe. Once completed, they secured him in the bed again and she picked up a spoon. She lifted his mask and nudged his lips. She felt a tug inside as those lost blue eyes never left her face. "I'm right here, Vin. You're not alone, honey, okay?"

"...kay..." Vin wheezed, sucking on the ice. "...yer... sure... he's okay... I seen... his head... they's holdin' it up... laughin'..." His voice broke.

"It was an awful dream." She stroked his face and gave him more ice. "Only a dream. He's right next door."

"Annie, I think you should call Doctor Malik. He's really struggling..." Kelly advised of the pulmonary check they'd completed. They continued to discuss the critically ill man as they departed.

Soothed by her soft words and gentle touch, he relaxed. Kate chased the tension away and he felt his fear dissolve. His breathing improved a little and his heart settled down. His eyes grew heavy and slid shut, guided by her soft humming and the gentle stroke on his face. It was such a wonderful feeling, something he hadn't experienced in such a very long time. He needed to tell her and cracked his eyes open.

"What is it?" She saw the emotions exploding in a blue flame from those luminous eyes. Chris was so right; this young man could disarm you with one gaze. She felt the hand flopping and the lips move. She moved his mask as the fingers brushed her cheek.

"...thank... thank... ya got... no idea... how much... needed... ya... Mrs. ... ma'am... uh... God didn't waste... gift... yer special..."

"It's Kate, honey, and you earned it." She kissed his cheek and drank in the soft sigh. She kept a hold of that hand and brushed her tears away with the other. Once she was sure he was deep in sleep, she went next store to check on her son.

"Is he okay? What the hell happened? Goddammit! Nobody will tell me anything!" Chris cursed.

"You watch your language, young man!" she chastised, giving him a drink. "He had a bad dream, something about someone cutting your head off." She saw the scowl and the fist on the bed and stroked his shoulder. "It's okay. We had a little talk and he's sleeping."

Chris eyed her face carefully and saw it then. He put the cup down and found a small smile.

"Vin shoots down another one... I told you he was a sharpshooter. Those eyes of his are deadlier than his gun."

"It's more than that..." she mused. "I can't explain it. But when he spoke, he touched me... I felt something... inside.."

"The power of Vin..." Chris sighed, sliding his own eyes shut. He could rest easy; his best friend was being cradled by a mother's touch.

+ + + + + + +

10 a.m. El Paso

"It would appear someone phoned ahead and relayed my arrival."

"Yeah," J.D. scoffed. "Like them reporters would be that desperate, Ezra!"

"Looks like our lost lambs arrived safely," Josiah noted of Chris and Vin as their car pulled up. The driver, a young soldier, spoke briefly to the sentry and they were allowed to pass. Cameras and microphones appeared near the windows and a buzz of questions burst forth.

"Damn vultures!" Pete hissed.

"You're one of them," J.D. tossed back and got a low growl.

The five men spilled out at the hospital entry and quickly gained the lobby. They zoned in on the reception desk and waited for the white-haired volunteer to look up.

"Good morning. Can I help you?"

"Morning, ma'am," Nathan nodded. "We'd like some information on three of our friends. Chris Larabee, Vin Tanner and Jack Lynch?"

"Hold on..." She typed quickly and scanned the blue screen. "Larabee was moved out of ICU this morning. He's in Room 515." She paused, then resumed typing. "Tanner's in ICU, room 11 and Lynch...he's in 514."

"Thanks!" J.D. nodded and turned to leave.

"Hold it, young man."

The others stopped as well and the clerk motioned for them to remain.

"The ICU has restricted hours, unless your immediate family. You can only visit from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Also, you need a visitor's pass and I have to call upstairs and let them know you're coming. They have digital locks on the unit doors to ensure patient privacy."

"We might as well head up to the fifth floor first. Chris might be up to talking," Josiah decided.

"Yeah," Nathan glanced at his watch. "Then we can stop back down here for the passes."

"I'm gonna go see Jack," Pete advised as they headed for the elevators.

They made their way down the hall and paused in the space between the two rooms.

"Top of the mornin', mate!" Jack eyed the cranky face of Pete DiTullio and wagged his eyebrows. "Ye look like me Uncle Dan when he's had a few too many. Rough night?"

"I'm gettin' too old for this shit!" Pete gruffed, approaching the bed. "Get that shit-eatin' grin off your face, Lynch. You keep these places in business. I swear you must have stock tucked away," he noted of his blond friend's bad luck.

"Aw, ye love me!" Jack tapped his smocked chest. "I'm touched..."

"Yeah, you're touched alright!" The dark-haired man scowled and shook his head. "So when can we leave?"

"Ye just got here!" Jack sassed. "Didn't ye miss me then?"

"Like crotch rot..." he griped. "So what did the sawbones have to say?"

"Some nonsense about a grade 4 concussion. It's right serious." Lynch eased back, sliding a sly glance sideways. "Ye can't be yellin' at me or raisin' yer voice. I need lots of rest and quiet. I think he said a flock of private nurses to bathe and massage me battered body was..."

"Don't hold your breath!" Pete slid into the chair.

+ + + + + + +

While the two reporters were reuniting, the ATF agents entered an empty room that held two even emptier beds. The one on the far right had a nametag over the headboard with 'Larabee' printed on it and showed signs of recent use. A large bouquet of flowers rested on a side table.

"Excuse me?" Nathan returned to the nurse's station. "Larabee, Room 515?"

"He went down to surgery about an hour and a half ago to have his knee operated on. You just missed his mother. She's been here with him all night and went to shower and change. I anticipate Mr. Larabee should be back in a couple of hours or so. He's doing much better today."

"Thanks!" Nathan nodded, glancing at his watch. "It's only ten-twenty-five..."

"Cafeteria?" J.D. suggested. "I saw a sign, it's off the lobby."

"You have a first class radar system when it comes to food, J.D." Ezra shook his head as they headed back to the elevators.

Forty minutes later, having eaten cinnamon rolls, doughnuts and coffee, they approached the desk. The volunteer issued them passes and alerted the ICU unit clerk that Tanner was having four visitors.

"Let's go see Brother Vin." Josiah pushed the button at the elevator.

The unit was quiet, echoing with only the sound of muted conversations between doctors and nurses and the beeping of critical life-affirming monitors. The four men moved around the squared-off floor very quietly, eyeing the rooms, some of which were darkened.

"He's not here..." J.D. shook his head as they came full circle. "Maybe they moved him again?"

"Or maybe he's down in x-ray or something..." Nathan added, approaching the desk. "We're looking for a patient, Vin Tanner?"

"In 11," the nurse nodded and saw them eyeing each other in confusion.

"How'd we miss him?" Sanchez asked aloud.

"How's he doing?" Ezra asked and saw a dark-haired man stand.

"I'm Doctor Malik. I was on duty when your two friends were brought in yesterday. Mister Tanner is still critical. He suffered a bad head injury and a severe spinal cord contusion. Currently, he has no sensation from about the waist level down and we have no way at present to know if that will be permanent or not. His right leg was also badly infected and he seems to be on the verge of developing pneumonia. He's been running a fairly high temperature all night and despite our best efforts, he's not rallying."

"It's not fair," J.D. slumped. "We just got him back... he can't survive all that and die here... he just can't..."

"Easy, son." Josiah's troubled voice matched his battered face. "Is there anything we can do?"

"You can talk to him, that will help," the doctor lifted the chart he'd been reading, "and it wouldn't hurt to pray." He paused, scanning their ashen faces.

"Oh, God..." J.D. whispered brokenly.

"Don't lost hope, the x-rays and MRI studies look promising. There's no evidence of broken bones or fractured vertebra which leaves us with just a very serious back and spinal cord contusion. He's young and was reasonably healthy at the time of his accident. Based on that alone, I would hopefully anticipate a full recovery, but there's currently no way to be sure. We'll just have to wait and see."

"Thanks, Doc!" Nate nodded.

When they made their way to room 11, they froze in the doorway. Three men then moved forward, surrounding the bed, while J.D. lagged behind.

"Damn, who'd have figured all that hair gave that boy ten years..." Josiah eyed the stilled body in the bed.

Surrounded by IV lines, monitors and other life-saving medical equipment, the slight body seemed too small for the bed. The fine features were slack and pale and the beeping of the monitors gave the scene an ominous air.

"Indeed!" Ezra took Vin's right flank, eyeing the wavy, short brown hair. "It would appear his new look has rendered him barely old enough to vote!"

"It's a good thing he has amnesia," J.D. announced and got three puzzled faces. "Well, I mean, if he can't remember how important it was to have his hair long then he won't miss not having it...get it?"

"Sit down, J.D.!" Nate rolled his eyes as the nurse came in.

"We had to cut it," she offered. "Whatever he was lying in, before he got here, dried. It was like cement. And you know..." She studied his face. "I think he looks better. Kelly, she's on eleven-to-seven, she used to be a stylist. She did a great job...of course, with a face like that..."

"That's our boy! He's got 'it' without even being awake." Josiah winked and Nathan grinned as Ezra rolled his eyes.

The nurse checked on the patient's vital signs, then left the room. The others gathered around the bed, each struggling inwardly with what none would speak aloud. Despite their best efforts, the heavy cloak of 'what if' hung in the air.

What if Vin Tanner died?

"Nathan, what do think his chances are?" The youth eased his bruised body into the plastic chair and eyed the medic. He felt Josiah's strong hand gently touch his shoulder and relaxed.

Nathan thought on the doctor's words, while his trained eyes lingered on Vin. Just how much could the human body endure? Had the ordeal in the mountains, coupled with the brutality at the hands of the Savages and the horrific airplane crash been to much to overcome? He moved closer, wincing at just how frail Vin Tanner looked. Surrounded by a jungle of plastic tubes running into just about every part of him, he seemed especially fragile. He cocked his head and lifted the limp hand, gripping it in his own. He winced at the icy fingers and drilled the stilled Texan's face. He zoned in on the delicate, closed lids, trying to will those emotive blue eyes to open.

"I don't know, J.D...it's up to Vin now...and the Man upstairs."

Part Fifteen

10 a.m. Chihuahua, Mexico

"It's about damn time!"

Buck smiled at his less than civil roommate and eased his lean body off the bed. The room swayed a bit and he paused before easing his tall frame into the wheelchair. As the chair turned, his dark blue eyes lit up with mischief.

"Wanna race?"

Adam Larabee continued to scowl even as the rogue's dark eyebrows wagged.

"It's not my practice to take advantage of cripples!" He sucked in a breath and eased his own body into a second wheelchair.

"From where I'm sittin'," Buck mused as the pair was wheeled toward the elevator, "you got a lot of nerve callin' the kettle black."

"You've got two new holes," the general noted of the dual wounds on the inner right thigh and shoulder. "A clean break beats a pair..." He tapped the splint supporting his broken ankle.

"Now that's what I call a pair!" Buck winked as the elevator doors opened and a very shapely nurse whose figure left little to the imagination walked past. He heard a chuckle and turned just in time to see the older man's dark eyes crinkle in mirth.

Chihuahua Hospital had been an unintended pit stop. The military chopper had a mechanical problem and they made an emergency landing at Chihuahua airport. The medical center was close by so both men were taken in for treatment.

The General suffered a broken ankle which was stabilized and then splinted. He would need surgery later on once he was back in the States. The bullet in Buck's shoulder was removed and his thigh wound was treated. His right arm was now encased in a sling.

The helicopter crew had efficiently completed repairs and the chopper was now ready to get under way. Most of the team would head home, but Buck and the General were flying to El Paso to be reunited with their missing family and friends.

Finally, they were strapped in and ready to go. Adam Larabee's dark eyes went to the horizon where a dusty image of his blond wife and son rose to greet him.

"Carson!" he barked to the pilot. "Let's get the hell out of here!"

+ + + + + + +

One p.m. outside the William Beaumont Medical Center
One thirty p.m., fifth floor, Medical Center

His mother's scent was gone; the light and slightly Oriental floral fragrance that had been dusting his room was replaced by something decidedly male. Something born of perspiration and funk. Something God invented windows for. He wrinkled his nose and turned his face as the dull headache woke up as well.

The low buzz turned into voices. Not just any voices, but voices he needed to hear. He relaxed and exhaled, trying to scare the brain dust away.

"You bums never heard of a shower or cologne?"

"Always pegged you as the Chanel type, boss..." Josiah managed, easing his large frame into the small chair. Remaining on his feet was too painful. There wasn't a place on his body that didn't hurt and it showed.

The reluctant patient peeled an eye open and immediately regretted it. He blinked in confusion at the swollen, discolored and battered mess where J.D. Dunne's face should be.

"Kid?"

"Hey, Chris!"

"...nice face..."

"You want pretty?" The youth moved to allow his partner in crime to be seen. "Now that's pretty!"

"Josiah?" Chris eyed the two marred men and scowled. "...the hell happened?"

"We picked the wrong side of the mountain in Mexico to go camping on." The preacher leaned forward, watching the wheels in Larabee's head turn. "You didn't think we'd let you and Vin have all the fun?"

"Xavier..." Chris guessed and Sanchez nodded. He shot a look to J.D. who nearly dissolved under the still potent glare.

"I'm okay, Chris... some rebels caught up with us..."

Josiah turned to the groggy face and rested one hand on the cotton fabric over Chris's shoulder.

"Sure is good to see that happy face of yours, boss..."

Chris didn't miss the catch in Josiah Sanchez's voice. He took a steadying breath and winced as his injured ribs protested even the slightest movement. He studied each face carefully, seeing the unlikely combination of stress, worry, fatigue and relief. Not to mention Dunne and Sanchez both looked like they got hit by a truck.

"How's Vin?" he croaked, wincing and rubbing his dry throat.

"No change. He's having a difficult time with that fever and his breathing is somewhat impaired. We stayed until they took him for x-rays. We'll return as soon as visiting is permitted again at five..." Ezra offered quietly.

"Shit!" Chris hissed, laying his aching head back on the cool pillow and balling up a fist.

"The fact that you both have returned to the fold with all of your limbs relatively intact and still breathing is nothing short of a miracle." The southerner saw a brief flicker of reflection in Larabee's eyes and received a small nod from the damp blond head.

Nathan moved in then, recognizing the frustration and anticipating the questions that were forming in their leader's head.

"He's fightin', Chris. He's been through Hell. You both have. It's just gonna take him a little while longer. His vitals are holdin' steady and he's not worse. Fever's are strange that way... Once he breaks that hold, he'll pick up again. You'll see."

There was no reply, but the strong gaze that went beyond them to the window told the visitors it wouldn't be alright. Until Vin was over the worst of it and on the road to recovery, Chris Larabee would remain in Hell too.

Nathan moved closer, pouring a cup of water and offering it, along with exceptionally emotive brown eyes. These men had become family to him and nearly losing two members had taken its toll.

"Buy you a drink?" he asked, lifting his lips into a half smile.

"Thanks, Nate."

Chris leaned forward and let the healer give him a drink. He didn't miss the slight tremble in the skilled dark fingers and raised his own hand, steadying it. Their eyes met and he nodded once, completing his drink.

"Sometimes it's good to see those worry lines..." Chris offered, realizing the other man was emotionally overcome.

"I don't need gray hair this young," Nate admitted, taking the cup and then shaking the hand. "But it sure is good to..."

"Yeah..." Chris rescued the broken sentence, allowing Jackson to compose himself. "You okay?" he turned to J.D. who was struggling in the plastic chair.

"Yeah..." the youth replied, then shook his head. "No... you and Vin scared the shit out of me. I thought... we thought... they told us... you died. It was awful." He swallowed hard, averting his gaze.

"John Daniel."

Dunne moved his head up slowly, totally in awe of the deep affection in the tone of that voice. He cocked his head and saw Chris offer his hand. He stood awkwardly, taking the hand and wincing at the weak grip. Chris Larabee was the strongest man he knew. From the time he joined the team, J.D.'s ambition was to be like their tenacious leader. He sought to have that 'holding court' appeal that drew people to Larabee, to be that mentally tough and possess a spirit of discontent that made him constantly strive to find a better way. Too see him so frail, so hurt and weak, was hard.

Then he looked up and saw those eyes. They were unnaturally bright but not from fever. That glint and the reassuring grip came from something else. He felt it course through him just as the pale lips on the sunburned face opened.

"You did one helluva job." Chris paused, watching the flush rise on the young man's face. "I'm proud of you."

"But you don't even know what happened..."

"I know you..." Chris sent back, releasing the hand. "And I thank you."

"We'll fill in all the details later, Chris," Josiah noted, watching the pain-lined face. "But suffice to say, the Lord provided... and your dad's outfit took care of Xavier. He's dead."

"Wait a minute!"

Chris eyed the room, then his brows drew together. Every time he was injured, it was that mustached face he first saw when he came around. "Where's Buck?"

Unless Buck was bound and gagged, or possibly wounded himself, he'd have been squatted in the chair next to the bed. There was only one answer.

"He get hit again?" Chris vaguely recalled the thigh wound the taller man received from a delirious but determined Vin Tanner.

"Yeah, took one in the shoulder," Sanchez added. "He's in a room downstairs. He's doing good."

"What about my dad?"

"Busted his ankle," J.D. supplied.

"Fill me in," Chris demanded, laying back and covering his eyes with his unencumbered arm. The other was attached to an IV.

"Buck and your dad found Xavier and his men. Between the two of them, they took out Xavier and three of his guards. Your dad stepped in a hole that was baited with an animal trap."

"But he's okay!" Nathan answered the flashing green eyes and the hard swallow by the patient. "Just broke his ankle and they're setting it now. He's gonna be your roommate..."

"My mom know?" Chris asked. "I don't want her hearing that on TV..."

"Orrin called her. She's coming over," Ezra answered.

"Of course, by the time Buck gets his ass down here to tell you the story, I'm sure the four men they took out will blossom into about twenty..." Nate laughed.

"...and Buck will have fended them off with his bare hands..." J.D. gushed and saw the blond man find a smile. "From what he said," the youth continued, "after the chopper took you and Vin away, your dad and the rest of his unit scoured the hills looking for Xavier."

"Orrin said Buck also saved your father's life," Ezra provided and saw the leader's smile disappear. "Apparently, after stepping into the hole, the reptilian rebel leader had a knife against your father's throat when our humble rogue split his forehead with a bullet."

Nathan chuckled softly, watching Larabee's facial expressions change. From shock and anger at the outset to pain, disbelief and amazement.

Chris scrubbed his aching face with his hand and took a long drink of water. He set his head gingerly back into the pillows and closed his eyes a moment. As long as he could remember, his father's nearly larger-than-life aura had filled his world. As a boy, he'd wait anxiously until the moment the 'mission' was done. He'd watch for the black government car to pull up and for 'the man' to step out. He could still feel his father's touch, hoisting him in the air as a child.

How great that felt... words couldn't even describe it!

He always came home but the threat loomed in the air during every mission. One day, he just knew that car would pull up and another man would step out. A man with the dreaded words, 'We regret to inform you...' He shook off the pall and blinked, inhaling sharply, while saying a small prayer of thanks. He tapped his heart and nodded, thinking of another 'Father' far above.

"Thank you..."

"Chris?" J.D. moved closer. "You need to rest, we can swap stories later."

"Nathan, can you check on my dad?" he consented, his eyes fighting hard to remain open.

"Sure, Chris."

"Ezra, keep tabs on Vin and make sure none of those press people harass my mother."

Chris saw the conman nod once and turned his half-mast gaze to the other two. "You two get some rest... you look like shit."

"Are you saying I lost my boyish good looks?" Sanchez winked and held the door, letting the others out. He paused and caught the awful mask of disquiet that settled on the sunburned man's face.

"Chris?" He waited for the eyes to open wider and focus. "That boy's tough." He paused and raised the homemade cross around his neck. "Besides, I got an inside connection."

Chris nodded and let his head ease into the pillow. Although the creeping fear nagging at his brain and gnawing his gut wouldn't die until Vin Tanner was out of the danger zone, he felt better. Having his team, his 'brothers' around him was good medicine. As he drifted to sleep, he felt their collective strength surround him like a familiar comforting blanket.

+ + + + + + +

Four-thirty p.m.

"So there I was bleeding and barely able to stand. We were surrounded and the smell of death was in the air..."

"Death?" Ezra scoffed, eyeing the recovering rogue. "Is that the distinct odor that permeates the air when one soils their pants?"

"Show a little respect," Buck growled, wincing dramatically and sliding his good hand to his sling-encased right arm. "I could be permanently damaged..."

"I thought you drank equally from both hands?" Josiah said straight-faced.

"It ain't drinking that worries me..." the injured man moaned.

"You don't need two hands for that, Buck," J.D. deadpanned, gaining two snorts, a smirk and a chuckle. "What?"

"The voice of experience," Ezra grinned.

"I was leaving a trail of swooning women in my wake when you were busting out of diapers," Buck tossed back. "You're not seasoned yet. You don't know about 'the move'."

"Here we go!" J.D. rolled his hazel eyes dramatically. "Another lesson in Conquering Women 101 by Professor Wilmington."

"That's right!" the mustached man tossed back over the laughter. He thought on his injured arm and frowned. "My right hand is the one that travels and creates the shudders... this could be the most serious blow to the female world since Elvis got married."

"Buck, some of us just ate..." Josiah leveled, holding up his hand.

"Anything new on Vin?" Buck's tone turned somber as Nathan joined them. He'd spoken with Chris on the phone and felt every bit of the internal pain. Tanner was critical and Larabee was scared. Jackson had gone to check with the ICU again. His heart sank when the dark-skinned man's head shook negatively. "Damn..." he sighed, pressing his body back into the pillows.

"His fever's still up, his breathing is worse..." He paused, thinking on the nurse's carefully chosen words over the phone. "It doesn't look good..."

"Well, what are you squattin' in here for?"

Three heads turned at the crack in the normally jovial man's voice. They saw the dark blue eyes darting and one fist crushing the fabric under the blanket. Ezra moved in, pulling at the fist beneath the cotton.

"Don't..."

"We were so close..." Buck managed. "When I think of it now... with a few adjustments, we might have found them sooner."

"What you did was above and beyond the call, my friend, " the southerner stated with quiet awe.

Buck cocked his head sideways and regarded the other man. Then he nodded, brought the hand up and shook the one offered.

"Thanks, Ace..."

"All in a day's work," Ezra sent back with a smile.

"Go on... you're crowdin' me... there's a dozen nurses fightin' to give me a bath..." Buck recovered.

"Bath?" Josiah's brows drew together. "You got a shower right here," he eyed the bathroom.

"Best not to take chances," Buck sunk lower, tugging the blanket up, "with me being so weak and all..."

"I'm gonna be sick..." J.D. shook his head, winked at his best friend and held the door for Ezra.

"Hey, you got my number, right?" Buck noted of the phone. "Either way..."

"We'll be back later," Nathan soothed, "and you know they don't come any tougher than Vin Tanner."

"Enjoy your bath," Josiah grinned, letting the door close.

"Don't let him die..." Buck whispered once he was alone, his fingers on the small cross around his neck while his eyes skirted the ceiling, seeking a higher source.

+ + + + + + +

Five p.m.

He was sleeping. She ran her fingers through the pale hair and winced. In her mind's eye, she still saw the little boy with sun-kissed hair whom she tucked into bed every night. Where had the years gone? Still, when he slept, she saw glimpses of that outgoing child who grew to be a man she was so very proud to call her son. She bent and kissed his forehead, then turned to the window.

It was a brilliant sunset. The sky exploded in a burst of orange with crimson and blue shooting waves. She shivered when she thought on how close she'd come to losing both of them this time. She knew she was more than just lucky. Not just to have beaten the odds for so very long, but for having found her perfect soul mate. And ofthat love was born a child. But not just any child, one she knew was special from the first time he glared up at her just a few hours old.

"I'll be loving you, always."

At the first word, her breath caught in her throat. As the rest of the melody tumbled forth, her pulse quickened and her heart began to race. Chills ran up her spine and caused her to shiver and gasp.

"With a love that's true, always..."

She took a ragged breath, raked a trembling hand through her short blond hair and gathered up her jangled nerves. Then she turned and saw his face and lost her heart all over again. Her legs carried her over, propelling her across the room. Those eyes... those magnificent black eyes... drew her like twin coals of fire.

"...dreams will all come true... growing old with you..."

Then she was at his side, sitting on the bed, tears running down her face.

"...not for just an hour... not for just a day... not for just a year..."

Then his hand came up and rested against her wet cheek, one calloused thumb tracing the path of her tears. She gasped audibly at his touch.

"...but always..."

"Adam."

It was the only word her trembling heart allowed her to produce. He kissed her softly, sending a shower of tingles through her body. Then she was in his arms, the one place in the world she claimed as her own.

Four men stood transfixed in the doorway, watching the powerful scene unfold. None of them could speak, each rendered speechless by the moving scene before them.

"Wow!" J.D whispered, wide-eyed at the poignant moment.

"Indeed, Mister Dunne..." Ezra agreed, equally moved. "Well said."

"Could be we should pop in on Vin first," Josiah suggested, winking at Chris inside the room. He knew the Larabees needed some time alone.

"How's our boy?" Adam asked quietly, blissfully unaware of their audience as he briefly tasted the silky texture of her throat before she pulled away.

"Just a little embarrassed..." Chris scowled, but sending a chagrined half-smile to his friends as the door closed.

"Oh, I don't know, son," the older Larabee boasted, intertwining his fingers with his wife's. "This old dog can still teach you young pups a thing or two about romance."

Chris laughed then, letting the glint of pride in those black eyes take all the tension and hell that had been stored up inside his body away.

"Wanna compare scars?" he teased.

"Didn't I teach you never to make a bet you can't win?" Adam bragged, tugging his sheet down.

"NO!" Kate caught his wrist, then her voice trembled and she felt that warm hand grip hers tightly. "I thought ... I'd lost both of you..."

"Hell, Kate," Adam bragged. "I made that boy, put my mark and my name on him. Nobody takes him out, not while I'm drawing a breath."

She leaned in then and kissed him, feeling the familiar slide of his hand against the skin on the small of her back.

"Why in the hell didn't you two get a private room?" Chris groused playfully, eyeing his parents, then he narrowed his green gaze, drilling his father's eyes. "You're not wearing the dew of youth anymore. You might hurt something."

"Hah!" Adam laughed, smacking his wife's leg. "I feel a toast coming on..."

"Hold on." She rose, poured three glasses of water and distributed two.

Sorting through the many qualities that made his son so special, he chose that which shone brightest this day. Adam raised his cup towards his only son.

"The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out and meet it," he quoted of Thucydides, a 5th century historian.

A smile of pride graced his lips as he absorbed his father's words. He thought for several minutes, sorting through the many quotes he knew from the various books he'd read. Then he thought about his own life and choices and the words came. Not words from a celebrated author or poet, or a military leader or a king. His words came from a proud son's heart.

"All I know, from the simple joy of watching the sunrise to the pride I feel when I see the flag, I learned at his feet. From the grace of his mantle and wearing of cloak of courage that is eloquent in its natural ease, the man I hope to become is the one who gave life to me."

Kate felt Adam's grip on her hand intensify as a soft gasp escaped his lips. The dark eyes shimmered lightly and she smiled, turning to her fair-haired son.

"Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair but manifestations of strength and resolution,"Kate quoted Kahlil Gibran.

"She trumped us again, Dad..." Chris lauded quietly.

"Who do you think taught your father about betting?" she teased, then frowned when her son's eyes were painfully seeking shelter from the sun pouring in. She rose and drew the blinds at the window.

"Better?"

"Yeah, thanks, Mom..." He clucked his dry tongue. "You think you can scare up a soda...?"

"Ginger ale?" she asked and got a nod. "Be right back."

"I'll have a Jack Daniels straight up as long as you're buying," Adam tossed with a bold smile.

"One ginger ale and one coke," she added, leaving the room.

As father and son each examined their feelings and thoughts, of what had come so close to being lost, the full weight it hit the younger man hard. His father had crossed half the world to come and find him. How do you thank someone for that? Where do the words come from? Then another face, a small one,blossomed in his mind's eye and whispered the words to him.

"Dad?"

"Yeah?" Hearing a catch in the voice, puzzled, Adam turned and saw the green eyes fill briefly before closing.

"I had a boy once... put a name on him ... Adam Larabee..." Chris's voice cracked. "...finest name I knew..."

"My God!" Adam rasped, hearing a tone of pride he'd never encountered before. "He wore it well, Chris, just like his father." He paused and felt his chest swell. When he was able to speak, he chose the words he'd heard Robert Kennedy deliver of his late brother, John, a passage from Romeo and Juliet.

"When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars. And he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun."

Chris couldn't find any air and wheezed softly in desperation until finally he recovered. He didn't trust his voice. He turned and locked eyes with the man whom he cared so deeply for. Too overcome to speak, he let his wet eyes remain fixed, nodded once and then leaned back into the pillow.

"Sleep, boy, I got your back..."

And he did, filled with a healing power that didn't come from any bottle.

+ + + + + + +

11 a.m. ICU, William Beaumont Medical Center

Ezra paused in the doorway briefly before making his way to the bed. He placed his gourmet cinnamon dusted coffee on the bed stand and leaned over the bedrail, examining the pale features carefully.

"Deja-vu, old friend," he said quietly, wincing slightly at how fragile the normally tanned outdoorsman looked. "It would appear neither of us is new at this game. At least this time, you've managed to attain a gown that is more suited to your eyes," he noted of the baggy blue garb. "Usually when I'm bending over these chrome rails, you've donned an unsightly grayish garment."

Vin heard a voice and strained to listen. It was hard. Listening meant you had to pay attention. He hurt so much and he was so tired, he just wanted to sleep. He didn't want voices or anymore prodding and poking to his body. He wanted them all to leave him alone. Yet this voice persisted. It had a smooth tone, like warm honey. He decided to listen. He relaxed. He decided he liked this voice.

"You are in arrears to me for another twenty dollars," Ezra continued, tapping the chilled hand. "It would seem you never get tired of parting with the little currency you seem to attain albeit briefly. Your birthday is still several weeks away and here you are..." he noted of Tanner's foolhardy bet from a few months prior. "Double or nothing if you'll grace me with that choirboy smile and an 'aw, hell, Ez'." He mimicked the drawl and sighed heavily, watching the blanketed chest rise and fall. Vin looked so frail. That was a word he'd never associated with Tanner. He was as tough as they came.

A slow smile gradually spread on his features as he took in the stylish short hair. It was well suited to the fine features, all traces of his part and long tresses were history. It looked almost GQ.

"It may come as a shock to you, but although your natty haircut suits your face and bone structure, I prefer my scruffy Texan." He gave the hand a final tap and settled in the chair, popping the lid of his coffee. "Of course, if you tell anyone, I'll deny it."

He sat in silence for several moments, drinking the strong brew and thinking about his silent friend.

"Josiah and J.D. will be along later, they're moving a little slowly today. Our resident medical expert is quizzing the staff on every detail of what's been done to that scrawny body of yours. You really must eat better... you suffer four times as many colds as the rest of us," he prattled nervously, finally glancing up and eyeing the placid face. "But I guess that being the 'Junk Food King of Denver' comes with a price."

He smiled then and a soft chuckle escaped. A mental image of the groggy, cranky Texan shuffling up the aisle between the agent's desks in the morning appeared. Buck, of course, egged him mercilessly just to get the crusty cursing to start. Josiah would be more subtle but pushing the right buttons nonetheless. Nathan would ease his tall body into the cantina ahead of Vin and purposely dally at the coffee pot, making the caffeine-seeking Texas missile more worked up. J.D. would ramble non-stop. They all timed it so that at the right moment, Vin would explode.

"A morning without the air split by your salty string of curses is like a day without sunshine." He furrowed his brows and inhaled painfully. It was unnerving to see his friend lying so unnaturally still. He cast a glance at the closed lids where those soulful blues should be. "You know, you made me break the rule. I vowed many years ago, when I first began my career, never to let anyone get close and it almost worked." He thought on the unlikely six men who'd become like brothers. "Until I transferred into this rather motley group. I've learned so much from all of them... but none so much as you."

He looked away for a moment, trying to compose himself. How was it that one short-tempered, hockey playing, cranky, cursing chocoholic who was so totally guileless had penetrated the inner Standish sanctum? A place he didn't even allow his mother to touch.

"...and you did it without even trying. To have the ability to render me speechless with one casting of those telltale eyes is quite a feat indeed. I pity the misguided fools who don't look beyond their short sight and long noses," he bristled of those who maligned Vin Tanner due to his informal roots. "... and that is their loss. They haven't been as fortunate as I, the beneficiary of so many of your gifts. Just knowing that eagle eye is watching from above has given me a whole new perspective on the word 'sharpshooter'. But your true gifts are not confined to the arena of justice. Rather, they flourish in here..." he tapped the sleeping man's heart. "I don't think you realize just how very fine your prose is." He swallowed hard and nodded once, lifting the limp hand. "Please don't leave, Vincent, the world is far too short on heroes."

He stood up and moved away then, unaccustomed to the strong emotions that threatened to spill over. His usually staid, composed self was in real danger. He walked to the window, fingered the blinds and eyed the new day, wincing at how harsh the sun seemed to be.

Far beneath the troubled sea Vin drifted in, the silent voyager felt a ripple of change. The smooth, warm tone was gone. He was alone again and he didn't like it. He searched and sought... but couldn't find the voice. He tried hard, pushing and fighting and then the black sea was gone.

"Hmmm..." Ezra turned, hearing an odd sound. It was a cross between a muted moan and a cough. "Vin?"

He froze, seeing two half-mast blue eyes trying to focus. He quickly moved to the bed, leaned over and peered down. He waved his hand in front of the dazed eyes that blinked lazily. Then the brows furrowed and the mouth moved, but no sound came out. One hand flipped up, banging against the bed. He grabbed it and narrowed his eyes.

"What's wrong?" He didn't hide his concern and saw the waxen lips part and the square chin moving. The hand weakly moved within his, trying to grip.

"...no... go..."

"I'll waive my usual fee," he rasped, totally undone by the helpless eyes. "But you must fight back or I'll leave..."

"...please..."

That almost did it. That one word, barely audible and sailing on a hint of a wispy drawl. The eyes were melting him, but he called upon his reserve. It almost made him give in, but he held firm. He pushed his emotions aside and got stern.

"I want your word," he issued with a glare. "Will you fight?"

Vin considered the voice for that's all it was. He couldn't see much else but a peach and brown blur. But the voice was not new; he knew it and needed it. He tried to focus; he didn't want the voice to leave. Was the picture that belonged to the voice locked inside the box in his head? Was it like Chris? Would he ever remember where the key to that box was? He felt himself fading and nearly lost the hand. What was the voice saying? Fight? Yes, he could do that.

"Good man," Ezra soothed, seeing the short-shorn locks bob. He sat back down, picked up his coffee and saw the sun peeking through the blinds. Perhaps it would be a good day after all.

+ + + + + + +

2 p.m.

The final seconds were counting down and the crowd was on its feet. Thousands of screaming fans sent their voices high above the ice. Below, a dozen men were battling for the division title. The score was tied and the clock was running down. But one player wasn't moving down the ice with the rest. Rather he was at mid-ice eyeing the locker room.

"Goddammit, Vin, fight!" Chris yelled from his seat. The blue eyes found his above the rest and his heart sank. Total and utter defeat met his scrutinizing gaze. The referee's sharp whistle interrupted him.

"Huh?"

He groaned, eyeing the daylight pouring into the room. He rubbed his eyes and blinked at the ringing phone next to the chair the nurses put him in. He reached out and found the receiver.

"Hello."

"Good morning, or I guess I should say good afternoon."

"Orrin?"

"How are you, Chris?"

"Better. Where are you? I can barely hear you."

"I'm at the airport. I'm flying to Washington for a meeting but I'll be back in the morning. I'd like to speak to all of you then. I've arranged for some time in the conference room on your floor."

"What's up?"

"We need to tie up the loose ends and fill in the details. I'm preparing a report about the incident." He paused, watching the clock. "It's just past two and I have to go catch my plane in about twenty minutes. Oh, I heard from the F.B.I today. Eric McClendon has a string of charges facing him. Buck had a little altercation with him in New Mexico, shortly after your disappearance. It caused a ripple and other law enforcement agents and even some civilians contacted the District Attorney about run-ins they had with McClendon."

"Buck's altercation?" Chris paused and heard a long, drawn out exhalation of air.

"Buck got the first call. The state police found his car at that diner. I sent him and Nathan to investigate. Since it was in New Mexico and with federal agents taken by force..."

"Shit!" Chris hissed.

"Precisely. McClendon was in charge of the investigation and botched it up. With Nathan's help, Buck was able to hold it together for awhile. But the day after your plane crashed, those two reporters found Arlee Savage on a road in the mountains. DiTullio had already seen a CNN report about missing Americans and a map of New Mexico. So he called the toll-free number and got the operator to connect him to McClendon. He left a message but McClendon never followed up."

"Son-of-a-bitch!" Chris vented. "That slimy bastard... all that time... wasted.."

"When the word came about the plane wreck, they found charred remains with your badges..." He heard the chuffed breath and paused. "Although we had no DNA evidence, I had to tell the team. Buck... well... Buck took it very hard. Then he found out about McClendon and that message and paid him a visit."

"...and..." Chris's head came up.

"...and he's still in the hospital. You know how 'persuasive' Buck can be when he gets his mind made up. That was about the same time your father called me. He'd gotten a CIA tape of rebel movement and you were in the video. He wanted permission to take Buck with him."

"Good thing he did..."

"Buck's a good soldier. It's his passion that gets in the way."

"Yeah..." Chris choked, thinking on the numerous times the tall man had saved his life without a second thought. He couldn't fathom the depth of pain the other man must have felt, having heard of his demise.

"So, they'll be transferring McClendon to a prison hospital until the arraignment."

"Good. I hope that lock up that arrogant bastard and toss the key away."

"He'll do time," Travis sent back. "How's Vin? I haven't spoken to the nurse since this morning."

"Holding his own. Temp's down. He's pretty weak," Chris recounted of the update he'd gotten a short time prior.

"Keep the faith, Chris. That power you two have is as much responsible for your survival as medical treatment you've been given. He needs you to be strong for him."

"I think you have that backwards, Orrin. Vin's the strong one. He's always been stronger. But I'm gonna try and see him later."

"Good. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Safe flight," Chris signed off.

He squirmed in his chair, trying to find a comfortable spot. Leaning one way, his head and leg felt more comfortable but his healing ribs protested painfully. Leaning the other way was easier on his damaged chest and side, but his head ached.

"Damned if I do and damned if I don't..." he mumbled, then scowled as the cotton fabric of the gown under his robe ran up his butt again. "Goddammit!"

"Afternoon, Boss. Problem?" Josiah stepped into the room, glad to see the ailing man sitting up.

"...fuckin' gown ridin' up my ass..."

"Now that's the face I've missed," Nathan grinned, placing a bottle of peach iced tea in front of the blond.

"Thanks." Chris popped the top and took a hearty sip.

"You up to signing autographs?"

"What?" Chris eyed the medic who placed a newspaper on his lap.

Under the headline screaming of the 'miracle rescue' was a grainy picture of a helicopter and a half dozen soldiers escorting two stretchers into the medical building.

"Flip it over," J.D. suggested, sitting on the empty bed. "Where's your dad?"

"...out... somewhere," Chris muttered. "...told my mother he needed to stretch his legs..."

"Is that what they call it now?" Nathan chortled.

"Could be they needed a nice private spot..." Josiah teased and got a mini-glare.

"How old is that file shot?" J.D. grinned.

"It's not that old..." Chris complained, eyeing the likenesses of him and Vin in the paper.

"You're kidding!" Dunne shot back. "That's gotta be like ten years ago. That's okay, Chris," he addressed the green glare. "Lots of guys put on a few pounds when they hit middle age."

"I wouldn't know," Chris sent back. "I'm not middle-aged and unless you want to be saying 'would you like fries with that' instead of 'Freeze ATF' you'd be well advised to keep your comments to yourself."

"Aye, aye..." the team's youngest saluted with a sloppy grin.

"Vin's better." Chris pushed the paper away and picked up his iced tea. "If he keeps it up, they'll put him in here tomorrow after my dad checks out." He paused and eyed his dormant phone. "You sure Buck's number is 6857? I've been trying all morning..."

"He's been on the phone a lot. First the F.B.I called, then Orrin, then the F.B.I. again, then reporters... he finally took it off the hook."

"Tell him to put it back on!" Chris drilled, then raised his eyes. "Orrin talk to any of you?"

"I was in Buck's room when he called," J.D. offered. "We can wait until then to put the pieces of the puzzle together." He thought on the harrowing adventure his two friends shared. "No sense wearing you out today." His keen gaze didn't miss the features beginning to pinch in pain.

"He told me about Buck's run-in with McClendon." The injured man paused, rubbing his eyes. "I never trusted that son-of-a-bitch."

"Yeah... sounds like he'll be making license plates for awhile." Nathan agreed, not missing Chris's discomfort.

"Wish I could have been there..." Chris grunted, sipping his tea. "Orrin said Buck cleaned the floor with his face."

"How about you get some rest," Josiah suggested, "so you don't fall face first into the pizza."

"Is that where Ezra went?" the blond inquired, noticing a missing man.

"He needed some air," Nathan replied, nodding to Josiah. "Chris, how 'bout we adjust you there? You're slipping."

"Yeah..." he agreed, holding out his arms. His two strong friends carefully maneuvered him. "Much better... thanks..." He adjusted his blanket over his leg and eyed Josiah. "Is he alright?"

"No... he spent some time alone with Vin this morning. It shook him up, he offered to get the pizza."

"Go on and rest your eyes." J.D. noticed the green eye squinting and saw the hand with the IV lift twice to rub them. "It'll be awhile until the pies arrive."

"I'm not tired," Chris protested, even as his eyes slid shut. "...well... maybe just for a minute."

Smiling, the two older men each took a chair and settled in. Josiah was aching himself and had spent a restless night. He leaned his head back and rested his own weary body. Nathan pulled the newspaper from Chris's slack fingers and resumed his reading.

"I'm gonna call Casey, I'll use Buck's phone."

"Okay, be back in an hour," Nate eyed his watch, recalling the three p.m. pizza arrival.

+ + + + + + +

6 p.m. ICU

"Hello!"

"Mrs. Larabee!" Nathan left Vin's bedside, took the tray in her hands and set it down on the stand over Vin's bed. Then he shook her hand. "It's nice to see you again. It's been a couple years."

"Chris's ranch, a Fourth of July party I believe," she recounted. "How's your lovely wife?"

"She's fine, ma'am..."

"Charmed as usual, my dear lady," Ezra nodded.

"Mister Standish, ever so civil," she smiled, then eyed the bed. "How's my boy?"

They exchanged a smile behind her back as she went to the bed. The nurses told them how she visited often, speaking softly to Vin and stroking his face. Even though he slept, his body responded and they gave her credit for his improvement.

"He's doin' better. His fever's down to 100 and his breathin's much better. He's in and out still..." Nathan updated.

"I saw the dinner trays coming, I thought I'd try and give him some broth..."

"He's in good hands," Ezra noted. "Shall we, Nathan?"

"Yeah, it's been a long day and I want to check on J.D. and Josiah. Them two don't know what the word 'rest' means. Ma'am..."

"See you soon," she waved and pushed the button, moving the upper part of the bed up a little bit. "Vin? Wake up, son..." She tapped his face lightly and saw the light brown brows furrow. A scowl formed and she took the square chin in her hand. "Don't you curse at me, young man."

She was back. She smelled good, like fresh flowers and soft rain. He breathed as deep as his injured ribs would allow and sighed in contentment. He felt the soft tap on his cheek and forced his heavy eyes open.

"...m'tired..."

"You can sleep later. You need to eat. I've got some beef broth for you."

"...soda..."

"Apple juice."

"Aw, hell..."

"Excuse me?"

"...sorry... ma'am..." Vin whispered sheepishly, parting his lips for the straw. It tasted like nectar from the hills of Mount Olympus. He drained the whole four ounces and gasped audibly, then burped. "... 'scuse me..."

"That's alright," she smiled, brushing the good side of his short hair. "How do you feel?" She placed the back of her hand on his forehead and smiled. "They took your cooling blanket away. Your fever is coming down nicely."

"...feel like a herd o'buffs was tap dancin' on me with metal cleats..."

"Open up." She eased a spoon in, glad that his eyes were clearer.

"How's Chris, ma'am?" he rasped, blinking at the rising headache. He hoped he wouldn't get sick, not with her taking care of him.

"He's much better and looking forward to seeing you."

"I miss him..." Vin blurted then looked away, his hand groping his chest. He couldn't believe he'd lost it. He felt the void acutely; he needed that medal. It was an undefinable link to something he couldn't see or touch. But he needed to feel it. Now it was gone.

"Vin?" She saw the emotions rising and the eyes darting frantically. "What's wrong? Are you sick?"

"No."

But he was and not from the food. He needed that chain and medallion; it was a part of him. A part of where he belonged. It was a link to his murky past and the key to his unknown future.

She watched his fingers moving and wondered on the odd motion. Nerves? Perhaps. She lifted the lid revealing lemon jello and saw the face scrunch up.

"No thanks, ma'am... don't care fer it..." He saw one sandy eyebrow rise and felt a shimmer of something he knew well. Chris's face flashed before him then, from a place far away. Another hospital room, snow outside the window. He was standing over the bed, the same brow raised. Vin blinked and the image left. Her determined face was still there as was the spoon. "... but I reckon I could learn."

"Good boy..." she coached, guiding the jello inside.

At last the tray was done and she moved it away. She poured the tea and put sugar in it, snapping a lid on and putting a straw in place. He sipped slowly, then one hand moved over hers. He peeped up at her almost shyly and she felt herself blushing.

"What?"

"It's been s'long..." he whispered, squeezing her hand. "I was only a little feller when my ma died. I forgot how good... it... feels..." He tried hard but he couldn't stop a tear from spilling. "I'm sorry..."

"I'm not." She leaned in and brushed the tear from his cheek, drinking in the audible gasp. She rested one hand there and lost herself again in those eyes. "I'm honored. It might have been a short time, but the few years your mother guided you were well spent. She must have been a fine woman to raise such a boy. I'm so glad you found Chris... he finally has the little brother he always wanted."

"Don't, ma'am..." Vin said softly, watching her tears build.

"It's Kate, Vin, and when I get you home, I hope we'll have plenty of time to talk. There's so much I'd like to learn about you."

"Home?" Vin gasped, shuddering visibly. "I don't know... where..."

"Home is here, Vin," she tapped his heart. "That's where Chris is, his father and I, and all your friends. You'll never be lost as long as you can find that place. Okay?"

It was like a supernova exploded inside of him. He drew on that wondrous pulsation of warmth and color. His gaze never left her green eyes and he felt a ripple of emotion rise. She was right. He had Chris; he had family and that was a powerful compass. He wanted to thank her, to tell her just how much she had come to mean to him.

"Ma'am... uh... Kate..." he corrected, his voice shaking badly. He moved his hand, taking hers gently. "I was lost in a storm, unsure and afraid. Then I seen an angel, shinin' with God's grace. She reached out and cradled me, holdin' me close. Her powerful heart chased away the storm and created a rainbow... keepin' me safe."

"Thank you, Vin, that's beautiful," she choked, bending and kissing his cheek. "You rest now, I'll be right here."

She saw the change then and it made her warm inside. He relaxed, a nameless pain that had been hiding in the blue eyes fled the room. He laid back and she moved the bed back down. His hand never left hers. She leaned over the bed, brushing the waves of his hair in a slow motion. She sang an old lullaby that Chris liked as a child. The eyes slid shut, the breathing evened out and she lifted her face to the heavens.

"Thank you," she offered, then thought of another mother whose spirit she felt so strongly. "He's a fine boy... I'll watch out for him now. You rest in peace."

Part Sixteen

7:00 p.m., William Beaumont Medical Center.

Buck limped slowly down the hallway, watching the numbers on the doors. Finally, he was standing outside the right room. He heard a soft wave of laughter and smiled, thinking of the healing power that Kate Larabee held. He ducked in the doorway and cast a quick glance towards the bed where Chris Larabee was dozing. Then he moved towards the other bed.

"I should have worn shades. Your beauty is blinding me."

Kate smiled and turned, smacking her husband's hand as his gruff throat clearing critiqued the rogue's comment. She crossed the room and snuggled into the one-armed embrace. She then stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. Then she looked deeply into that handsome face. Her eyes filled with tears and she swallowed hard.

"Don't, Kate..." Buck brushed a stray tear with his finger and held the pretty woman's gaze.

"You hush up, Buck Wilmington, and let this grateful wife and mother say her peace. Adam told me... what you did... all of what you did." She sighed and swallowed hard, tears cresting and spilling over. "If not for that foolish heart of yours..." She moved one hand to his chest and gave a pat, "I'd have lost them both... I can't imagine how I'd have..."

"Aw, hell..." Buck whispered, totally undone by the shaken woman. "I told the General if I came back without him, you'd have skinned me alive. It was self-preservation... that's all."

"You're a bad liar!" She hugged him again and then took his face in both hands. "Thank you..." She punctuated her words with another kiss.

"Damn... it was worth it!" he winked, limping slowly to the bed. "Heard your bail's comin' in the morning."

"Not a minute too soon." Adam took the hand offered and shook it, not missing the wince. "Sorry..."

"No, sir," Buck shook his numb hand and grinned. "Now I know why Chris whips everybody's butt at arm wrestling."

"Have you been released?" Kate fretted, her mother's eye spotting a face still too pale.

"Yeah... Josiah's comin' in a little bit. I'll bunk with them for awhile. Orrin and I will go to New Mexico for that..." He hissed, gripping the rail with a death hold.

"Easy, Buck... he'll pay." The General saw the rage in those eyes and was grateful again that his son was so well protected.

"...the arraignment..." Buck finished. "When do you think you'll be able to go home?"

"When my boys are strong enough," Kate stated, sitting on the bed and taking Adam's hand. "My poor Vin... he's so lost. I sat with him while Chris and Adam ate. I got some broth in him but he's so weak."

Buck smiled at that, at how easily Vin had become one of Kate Larabee's 'boys'. He thought of that fine spread in Virginia and the powerful force of love that these two people showered over their home. Chris was the outstanding example of that rain and now Vin would be a benefactor.

"Can't say's I'm surprised," he chuckled, shaking his dark head. "That boy's blushin' and 'ma'am' power are more potent than his gun."

"I feel very strongly that we can help Vin find his way back," she predicted, still feeling those blue eyes melting her.

"Speaking of your boys," Buck eyed the slumbering blond in the next bed. "I think I'll have a word with the older cuss."

"The offer's still open." Kate met his gaze. "You're my boy too!"

"I know, Kate." He kissed the top of her head. "Thanks. But I've got business at home..."

"What's her name?" Adam recognized the faraway look and the softening in the blue eyes.

"Inez Recillos..." he replied. "I've known her for some time, but it was only recently I truly saw her..."

"She's a lucky girl!" Kate took his hand. "And I'm happy for you, Buck."

"Aw, hell, Kate, I'm not rentin' a monkey suit just yet... " Buck fended with a wink and moved to Chris's bed.

While the older Larabees talked softly amongst themselves, Buck considered Chris Larabee. He revisited their initial meeting, through their many years as partners and the good times. The carousing days before Sarah, then the wedding, Adam's birth and the joyous years that followed. That longing in Chris's eyes when they'd come back from a trip and that call of 'Daddy' splitting the air. He'd never forget that look, like glimpsing a ray from heaven, not as long as he lived. As if sensing him near, the sunburned face moved and a soft cough sounded.

"Fine thing, man hauls his busted up body here to see you and you're sleeping."

One green eye peeled open and a crooked smile followed. A hand came up and he clasped it, gripping it hard. Neither man uttered a word at first; the lingering gaze spoke volumes. He watched Chris swallow hard and his eyes fill. He graced his oldest friend with a dazzling grin and a soft chuckle. The voice drifted up and it never sounded so fine.

"We're gettin' too old for this, stud."

"Speak for yourself, old man..." Buck sent back, patting his abdomen. "This here is a lean mean, fighting and female-swooning machine..."

"Don't encourage him!" Chris shot over to his parents who were both laughing. He pushed the button and let the bed rise. "Take a load off..." he nodded to the vacant chair.

"Don't mind if I do." The recovering man eased down and stretched out his bad leg. "Josiah's comin' at eight to pick me up."

"Who let you go?"

Buck laughed and eyed the crabby features. "I'm fine, 'Pa'! Besides, hospital beds and me don't get along."

"Since when?" Chris chased, eyeing the pitcher. "Hit the tap, will you?" He drained one cup and waited while Buck unsteadily filled another. "You love them sponge baths... you made a career laying on your back for nurses."

"Chris!"

"I didn't mean it like that, Mom..." He flushed even over his sunburn and Buck laughed harder.

"Yeah, well, I got an itch..."

"Really?" Chris studied the face with keen interest. "I know her?"

"Am I that invisible?" Buck wondered. "Or just to Larabees?" He settled back, scratched at his leg and sighed. "Inez."

"Our Inez?" Chris's voice rose and then he grinned as it was Buck's turn to flush. "Well, I'll be damned. When did she get a concussion?"

"Very funny!" Buck shot back, then his face softened again. "It was the night I thought you and Vin had died. I drove for hours... can't remember all of it... ended up at her house... it just sort of... happened..."

"That's the way it usually does," Chris recalled, enjoying a flashback to his first meeting with Sarah.

The tides of time closed and he turned his attention to the man next to him. He struggled to find the right words to convey just how deeply grateful he was. Not just for the heroics that Buck Wilmington exhibited so easily but for the bonds that ran far and deep. He sighed and his face grew solemn.

"I knew you'd come, right through the worst it. I knew you'd bring me... us... back."

"...one way or another..." Buck nodded, seeing the relief and admiration pouring from the telltale green eyes.

"That..." the leader choked, overcome by emotion, ".kept me alive. Through the beatings, the sun, the pain... all of it. I knew... Buck... that you would... find..."

"Chris, don't..." Buck's own chest tightened and he found it hard to speak. He'd seldom seen his friend like this and it both upset and comforted him. He reached out and gripped the blond man's shoulder, fighting to control his own emotions.

"I'm okay." Chris let out a long slow breath and welcomed the hand on his shoulder. "Thanks to you..."

"I gave that boy my word," he rasped, recalling his godson Adam's new face the day he came home. What a fine day that was! "...the day you brought him and Sarah home and laid him..." He sighed again and regained his voice. "...right here." He held out both hands. "We had us a real good talk... I promised... to watch your back..."

"Wilmington's word's as good as done..." Chris's lips turned up at the rogue's famous vow. He, too, recalled Buck's face painted with wonderment as Adam stared up at him, hiccupping. Of course, he couldn't see yet, but Buck swore that the boy was gifted. Buck sure did love his son... and someday he hoped to repay that favor. He'd hold Buck's son and make that same pledge.

"Damn straight!" Buck teased, then his smile left. "I would have, you know." He wore his loyalty deep and held it dear. "... brought you two home. No matter how long... and even if it meant..." He couldn't say the words; the image was hard enough - remains zipped into body bags. He exhaled deeply, rubbed his eyes and shook it off.

"I know, Buck," Chris whispered, suddenly very emotive. Nobody was nobler than Buck Wilmington. "... I know..."

Buck nodded, found a warm smile and sat back, just content to watch Chris dozing. The blond was still weak and tired easily. His own body was aching to sleep in a real bed. The pain killers he'd been given with dinner were kicking in. So he settled back and sighed, watching the blanketed chest rise and fall.

+ + + + + + +

Chris looked up as the door opened, blinking and yawning. He'd drifted off to sleep again. It was almost nine p.m. His mother had gone home. Although she protested, she looked drained and both men insisted she get a good night's sleep. His father was asleep already.

"Hey boss!" Josiah whispered, slipping into the darkened room. "No T.V.?"

"Gives me a headache."

"You're losing your touch." The preacher nodded to Buck Wilmington who was stretched out, head resting on the edge of the chair, asleep. "I found a Starbucks down the road apiece." He saw the slight pause and commented. "It's okay, it's decaf."

"Thanks!" he nodded, taking the lid off and sipping the rich brew. He noticed the second cup and watched the gray-haired agent pop the top.

Josiah had his first sip down when he saw the patient put the cup down. The blond's face screwed up and one hand reached out, touching Buck's. The frown deepened and the older man smiled. Like it not, Chris Larabee had become a mother hen of sorts. He knew before the lips parted; he saw the concern.

"Get a blanket from the closet, it's chilly in here." Chris turned and saw the smug grin on the other's face. "What? Just my luck he'll get a cold and be a whinin' mess."

"If you say so, Chris," he chuckled, retrieving a blanket and carefully placing it over the sleeping man. He then settled in his own chair, enjoying his Latte.

They enjoyed the silence for a few moments, then Chris saw Josiah studying Buck's face carefully and thoughtfully.

"What?" he inquired.

"I've read the definition of 'intense sorrow'," the wise man replied, his eyes trained on the heroic mustached agent. "I've read about it in 'the Book'," he noted of the Bible. "But never in all my born days, did I actually see it in living color and feel it through my bones, than when that man thought he'd lost you."

He paused, took an awed breath and smiled softly. "Grief. It covered him like a colossal shroud. It painted his features and speared his heart. He was utterly and totally comsumed by agony. I've never seen anything like it."

Chris struggled for several moments, his mind playing up painful images of Buck's face twisted in pain. Had the situation been reversed, he knew how torn up he'd feel. Losing Buck would create a void that could never be mended. He'd become such an integral part of his life; he couldn't imagine existing without the chivalrous rogue. He'd known during all those lost hours, during the worst of the pain, that Buck would come. Buck would have never given up, not for DNA or any forensic science. He'd have found him, even if it meant just bringing him home to be buried with Sarah. His loyalty went far beyond where the border of friendship stopped.

"Sometimes, Josiah," Chris lauded quietly, turning his face to the handsome Wilmington's profile next to the bed, "I wonder how I got so lucky? He's always been there," he smiled at the bedside spot. "And I mean there. Every time I got shot or hurt, his face was the first I'd see. When Sarah and Adam died, my folks and Buck... well... there isn't a word in any language that can define what they did for me. . I knew, through the worst of it... I knew he'd come." He choked, then took a moment to collect himself. "They don't come any finer than Buck Wilmington."

"You're a lucky man, Chris Larabee," Josiah toasted with his coffee.

"That I am."

"You two women done weepin' yet?"

Josiah laughed and his smoky eyes crinkled with mirth as two dark blue eyes opened and a yawn followed lazily under the mustache. He watched Chris and Buck exchange a momentary glance reflecting the unique and timeless alliance forged long ago. A gaze held steady by intangible elements not confined to time or space. Most men dreamed of what these two shared. Then with a wink, the grinning Wilmington turned to him.

"Hey preacher, I'm puttin' in my reservation now. When my time comes I want you to toss some words over this humble body as it's lowered into the grave."

"Here comes my dinner back up..." Chris groused, with a begrudging grin.

"I'll do my best brother," Sanchez tossed with a nod.

"'Course," Buck continued, helping himself to Chris's coffee, "we may need to travel a bit. I figure, I started wooin' women when I was about twelve. That's a lot of broken hearts... the final count could be staggering. We may need that Cathedral in Washington... even then, there'll be spillage..."

"Spillage?" Josiah laughed, shaking his gray head. "Humble to the end!"

"Wilmington?"

"Yes, sir?" Buck turned to the dark side of the room where Adam Larabee's voice drifted from. Even half-asleep, he had a commanding air.

"Don't make me get up!"

"No, sir..." Buck chuckled and winked at Chris. "Sorry..."

"Spillage..." Adam grinned, trying to drift back to sleep.

Josiah lifted his cup and enjoyed the light shining from Chris Larabee's eyes. It was a strong light, a healing beam of brotherhood and it looked damn good.

+ + + + + + +

11 p.m.

"Mister Larabee?"

"Hmm?"

Chris squinted and coughed over a dry mouth. He adjusted his sight; the light from the hall spilled inside the dark room. A nurse was next to the bed. Abigail? Annette?

"Alex...?"

"Yes," she smiled. "I'm sorry to wake you. I got a call from ICU... it's your friend."

"Vin!"

"Hold it!" She pushed the struggling body gently and held firm until he stopped moving. "Calm down. He's fine. Hold on." She poured him a drink and held it out, watching the stormy green eyes regarding her.

"If he's fine," Chris took the water and drained it, then handed the cup back, "you wouldn't be waking me up."

"He's having bad dreams... thrashing around..." She paused. "He's terribly upset and calling for you. It's not our usual practice but your mother said you two were so close. If you could talk to him... reach out... maybe it would calm..."

"Get me a wheelchair," he interrupted, waiting for the bar to be lowered. She helped him into a robe and went out into the hall.

Of course, the elevator seemed to take forever and then they had to stop on another floor to let a lab technician out. He huffed and grunted, shifted in the chair and scowled.

"He's not going anywhere." Alex gave his back a pat, hearing and seeing the impatience.

"Good thing, we get held up any longer and breakfast will be arriving."

He waited while she spoke with the nurse and then his gaze roamed around until he saw the name Tanner on a marker next to a door.

"Alex..."

"Okay, Chris, I know you're anxious," she moved back. "This is Kelly, she's Vin's night nurse tonight."

"How is he?"

"His vital signs are stable and the fever is almost gone. He's still very weak and has difficulty staying awake. The head injury is probably contributing to that and fighting the infections in his leg wound and lungs hasn't helped. He's been too sick to take notice of the fact that he can't move his legs but the doctor is coming by around 8 tomorrow morning to talk to him now that he seems to be past the worst of it."

"I want to be here."

"I'll see if I can arrange..."

"Maybe I didn't phrase that right." Chris's voice matched the determination in his eyes. "I will be here. He's been through Hell and back and I won't have him hearing that kind of news alone. Got it?"

"Your mother said you were tough..." Kelly smiled. "Okay, you visit for a while and see if you can settle him down. Alex will come back to get you in a bit. I'll update her then and she can bring you back down in the morning, 630 or so. His breakfast tray will be here about that time."

"Let's go..." Chris turned, leaning forward and trying to will his injured limbs to work.

"He's quiet at the moment, but he's been having nightmares all night. We need to keep him still because of his legs." Kelly pushed the chair through the doorway and up next to the bed. A dim light revealed the injured man who slept fitfully. "He's really out of it and we can't seem to make him understand where he is... he keeps calling out for you."

"Vin?"

Chris's voice rose in shock at the short haircut framing the ashen face. Then he laughed softly, examining the 'new' Tanner look. "Damn, somebody stole my cowboy and left an 'Obsession ' ad." He eyed the new curls that seemed to peel even more years off the youthful agent.

"I did it... the clay or dirt or whatever it was he was lying in got wet and turned hard. I hope he's not too upset. His other friends seemed shocked."

"Vin's hair is important to him. It's his gift to Gray Eagle, his grandfather." He paused, recalling the emotion shining from Tanner's eyes when he shared the story of the old man with him. "... it's a long story." He cocked his head and laughed again, thinking of Buck's reaction when he saw the shorn locks. "Buck's gonna ride this for weeks."

"I'll be just outside, push that if you need me."

"Thanks, Kelly."

Chris sat facing Vin, his chair right next to the bed. He eyed the plastic tubes carrying oxygen and vital fluids into the battered body and wrinkled his nose at the catheter behind him taking fluid out. He slipped a hand through the side rail, reaching out and laying his fingers against the exposed throat. Bruises peeked over the loose fitting gown and he was again painfully reminded of Vin's brutal treatment. The ragged cut stuck out under the new curling hair and he thought on Vin's lost days. He sighed and studied the quiet face, feeling an overwhelming rise of emotion inside. The right cheek was still discolored and swollen from the brutal backhand from Bull Savage.

A word came to him then, stabbing his heart and chilling him to the core.

Loss.

That horrible void that comes when you cease to have. To be unable to find. To be deprived of. Each group of thoughts came with horrifying images of Vin's coffin being lowered into the dirt. His own grief-stricken face turned to heaven, two fists raised in accusation and anger. His body consumed by the white fire of bereavement as he denied what was and sacrificed his soul forever.

Cold.

Alone.

Shattered.

"God..." he hushed, his trembling fingers hovering over Vin's hand while his eyes raked over the waxen face.

He shook it off, totally unnerved by a feeling he'd only felt once before, when Sarah and Adam were buried. But Vin wasn't lost. He was here; he was real and he wouldn't be alone. Whatever hellish world claimed his dark nights, he'd not battle those demons by himself. Chris rubbed his stinging eyes and shifted in the chair, his aching body protesting any kind of movement.

Unaware that his safe harbor was near, Vin Tanner fought alone. The screaming came first as it always did. An unholy cry as if Lucifer himself was ripping his balls off. There was a horrific noise and pain exploded in his head and leg.

Then the water came, choking him and he saw a flash of silver metal tearing through blurry green forms. A flash of orange flames and black smoke split the blurry vision. The screams came again and a face rose up. A man with blond hair and piercing green eyes. A man who was more than a friend. He fought against the water, trying to reach that man. Was he the one screaming? Was he trapped in a fire?

"Vin?" Chris sat forward, hissing and grabbing his side.

The body in the bed jerked and the breathing became frantic. Gasping pants split the slack lips and a sheen of sweat broke out on the fine features. The face twisted and dissolved in a mask of agony. Both hands rose up and began to grab air as if he were digging.

"Vin! Cut it out!" Chris ordered, grabbing a wayward hand after it clipped his face.

A vine snagged his hand and prevented him from reaching the burning object. He heard his name called. It was a voice he knew, pleading with him. Chris needed him and he couldn't save him. He pushed hard, fighting to get there in time.

"Vin, snap out of it!" He waved his hand over the unseeing, wide eyes. The blue gaze was filled with panic, the eyes darting. His gasping pants were interrupted by the frantically bobbing Adam's apple. He leaned closer, tipping Vin's face to the side to face him.

"Vin!"

No, it couldn't be!

Chris was so close, he could see his face. The flames were licking up, consuming the blond's features. He saw the skin melt and the garish muscle and skeletal remains scream at him in fury. Then the green eyes exploded and he screamed.

"No... no..." he cried out, tears cresting his eyes.

"Vin, you're scaring me." Chris tapped the wet cheek.

"Chris! No... no...!"

"Jesus!"

Chris got a deathgrip on the square jaw of the lost soul's face and shook it gently. Then Vin's body went limp and that scared him more. He didn't like the corpse-like state and gave the slack jaw a tap.

"Vin, wake up!" He charged, sliding his fingers to the pale neck, marked by bruises.

Vin blinked and eyed the cold desert terrain. He loved it here and with the wise old one guiding him, he had learned about the universe. He respected Mother Earth and all her children. He could read the land better than most and was a student of the sky as well. He felt the hand on his neck and smiled, looking up at his grandfather.

He wanted to tell him how much he'd learned. He wanted Gray Eagle to be proud of him as he was of his own father. He wanted to see those dark eyes shining with pride. But he was so tired. His body hurt too much and he felt a cold, emptiness inside. He lifted his wounded eyes to his beloved grandfather, calling to him.

"...nameseme..."

"Huh?" Chris puzzled of the weak whisper. "Come on, Vin, wake up..." he tried, tapping his cheek.

Gray Eagle was worried; he could hear it in his voice. The timbre changed and he felt a tremble in the hand that held him. He sighed and closed his eyes. He was so tired and told the older man.

"...nakahaneotse..."

"What?"

Chris pulled back then, an inner alarm sounding. He didn't know the words, but he knew the dialect. Vin was seeking out Gray Eagle and the defeat in his voice gave the blond a sinking weight in his gut. "Dammit, don't you quit on me! Wake the hell up!" he demanded, shaking the squared jaw.

Didn't Gray Eagle understand? He couldn't fight the pain anymore. His body hurt too much and he was so tired. It was time to say goodbye.

The blue eyes parted halfway and one hand rose up, tapping the slender chest. Chris grabbed it just as the frail voice emerged, colored a scary shade of farewell.

"...nestaevahosevoomatse..."

"What?" His voice disappeared into a shocked shell. He shook his head, dumbfounded at the total and utter defeat in the tone. Then he got angry.

"All right, Vin! That's enough! Snap out of it!" he demanded, raising his voice sternly and putting pressure on his grip. "I didn't drag my ass all the hell over that fuckin' mountain and keep you alive only to have to up and quit on me. I won't let you give up! Open your goddamn eyes and look at me!"

The wind shifted, swirling around him and sweeping into a churning tunnel. The sky exploded into a million colors, showering him with a hot rainbow bath. He gasped and choked, clawing and digging his way out. He heard a voice and it was angry. It wasn't Gray Eagle. It was... it was...

"...ris...?" he rasped, peeling his eyes half open. He saw a blurry face, a pale one with yellow hair. It couldn't be. He was dead. It was all so confusing. The images stormed through his frazzled brain. Silver metal on a mountain, a fire, a brother calling to him, in pain and the horrific vision. The water swallowing him up and then Gray Eagle by his side. But this wasn't his grandfather. This was Larabee. But he was...

"...dead... Chris..."

"Hell, no! I'm not dead," he addressed the fragile question. "I'm right here... I'm..."

He paused then, pulled his hands down and watched the terrified eyes roaming around the room. The breathing was still labored and the arms of the shaken man were trembling badly. The shuddering gasps were punctuated with soft, shuddering cries. Finally, the eyes locked onto him. He didn't speak at first, not wishing to startle the obviously dazed man. Then the damp face cocked and the eyes studied him closely. He never broke the gaze, not even as one shaking hand moved upwards, touching his face. The trembling fingers traced over his eye, the side of his nose and jaw, then his chin.

"I'm real, Vin," he said softly, taking that wobbly hand and gripping it hard. "And I'm not leaving. We made it, cowboy... we're home."

Home.

Chris.

Safe.

Warm.

Chris.

Home.

So many things assaulted his fragile mind. But the feel of the flesh under his fingers took all the pain away. Chris was really here, not in a burning wreck. He swallowed hard, letting his breathing slow down and felt an almost electric charge course through him. He felt that strong grasp and weakly returned it before letting the prayer out.

"Ch..ris...!"

He smiled then, watching the play of emotions unfold on Tanner's face. Fear fled as uncertainty took over, then that was replaced by a healing shade of contentment. He felt the hand trembling still and then a weak tug.

"...it was... s'real... silver... metal... and fire... yer face... I tried t'get t'ya... the water's t'cold... I couldn't breathe... yer face melted... I tried... yer eyes exploded... I couldn't reach ya... I tried..."

"I know, Vin," Chris soothed as the nurse finally moved from her spot in the doorway.

"Vin?"

"Yeah?" He blinked, then coughed a few times, opening his mouth to accept the straw she held. He drank slowly, refusing to let the hand go. He couldn't just yet. He still saw that face melting. It was too real. "Thanks..." he managed, nodding at the concerned health care worker. "I'm okay... sorry fer the fuss... didn't wake nobody, did I?"

"No," she smiled, eyeing the death grip he had on Chris Larabee's hand. "I'll be right outside if you need anything. Okay?"

"Yeah..." Vin nodded, still refusing to relinquish his grip. He eyed the marred face, the injured leg and the cuts adorning his friend's collarbone above the neckline of his gown."... yer hurt...?"

"Yeah, I collected a few more dents."

He paused again, eyeing the room and furrowing his brows. More images returned and he relaxed. A pretty woman with Chris's blond hair and green eyes. A kind voice, a gentle touch... a mother's touch. He pulled his hand free and rubbed his eyes, trying to push the pain back.

"Yer ma?... was... she... here.?" He paused and let his breathing catch up.

"Since they brought you in. She likes picking up blue-eyed strays..."

"Thank God..." he sighed heavily. "...'fraid I dreamt 'er..." He recalled the wonderful angel. "... I felt her... touch... Chris..."

"The power of Vin strikes again..." he teased and then frowned, watching the slim fingers absentmindedly searching his chest. He puzzled at the darting eyes. "What's wrong?"

"I lost... can't find... it..." he paused, sorrowfully glancing at the older man. "...I'm sorry, Chris."

"Sorry?" He scowled and reached for the water, giving Vin another drink. Then he realized what Vin was searching for before his own mind went blank. He remembered little of the journey back. Had one of the medics taken it? Or perhaps someone in the ER? He'd ask his mother to find it. Vin needed it. "I'll find it, okay?"

"Ya ain't sore?"

He sounded so young, and the eyes went so wide, it gave the blond a wide grin. He shook his head and chuckled softly.

"No, cowboy, I ain't sore."

"I like that," Vin decided of the warm feeling that word caused whenever the other man said it. "How come ya call me that?"

"Well," Chris sighed, scratched at his leg and put the empty cup back on the bed stand. The image of the former long-haired Texan donned in faded jeans, a black t-shirt and denim jacket with timeworn brown boots on his Harley, cuttin' loose and riding the wind came to mind. That free spirit, who at times seemed to be from another era, who held justice close. "Because it suits you."

He saw the puzzled face and tried to explain. "It started after a run-in with a bunch of drunks who took offense at my clothes. After we cleaned the floor with them, I was still counting the stars over my head and saw your busted up face. You started to haul me up and said..."

"Give ya a hand, cowboy?" Vin rasped in a daze, his face drawn into a puzzle. "How come I can't see the pictures yet? They're just beyond... I can't get the box open... I want m'pictures back..."

"They will come back, Vin. You have to give it some time. You busted that thick head of yours pretty good this time."

"I don't like it," Vin decided with a pout, "It's like livin' in a black and white television show and everybody else is in color. What if I got a wife somewheres..."

"God forbid!" Chris joked, then saw the frightened gaze. "I told you already, you're not married. Where do you live?"

"Denver."

"Where do you work?"

"Uh... DEA... no, that ain't right... it's another bunch o'letters... FBI... aw, hell... " He peeked over and got no help. "... guns... explosives... ATF!"

"Attaboy!" Chris praised. "How many men on our team?"

"Seven... and there's horses somewheres and a ranch... and a... a... big black... dog..." He rambled too fast, losing his breath and getting a pain in his chest.

"That's my place near the mountains. You freeload there... Sam's the dog..."

"Yeah!" His voice rose. "Hey... hey... I remember him!" He scrunched his brow. "...I got a... a... bike... a Harley..."

"Death trap!" Chris's smile faded when Vin's eyes filled with distress and he choked out a cry of pain. Both fists curled up and he pushed his head into the pillow. "Vin? Vin?"

"...hurts... God!" he choked, eyes tearing. "...it... hurts...!"

"Damn...!" Chris fumbled, trying to find the button for the nurse. He grabbed Vin's hand and held on, but with a final stifled cry, the body went limp.

"You're gonna kill me or cure me, Tanner..." he hissed, slumped in his chair and rubbed his own aching head.

"Time to go, Chris." Alex appeared, Kelly flanking her.

"I'll keep an eye on him," the nurse vowed. "You reached him, Chris. That's a big step. Knowing you're here, feeling you and talking to you, will help him conquer the fear and get rid of those dreams."

She got no reply and watched as he reluctantly but gently placed the limp hand back under the blanket. His gaze lingered on the now serene face in the bed. Hopefully, he'd be able to sleep in peace now, without fighting demons.

"Sweet dreams, cowboy..."

+ + + + + + +

7 a.m.

From the deep black sea he was riding in, something called to him. He turned and inhaled the breeze, the tantalizing scent of meat and something sweet beckoning. His empty stomach replied, growling in earnest. He swam for shore, breaking the waves easily.

Chris turned at the moan next to him. He shifted uncomfortably in the stiff chair and eyed the waking patient. He'd pushed the button on Vin's bed, allowing his upper body to rise up halfway. The brows furrowed and a slip of tongue navigated dry lips. A series of coughs followed before the fuzzy eyes opened. Satisfied Vin was alright, he resumed his meal.

The drowsy man quickly woke up as a fork with pancakes dripping in maple syrup danced before him. He opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out, but the tempting food went past. He frowned and waited, then the fork reappeared with a piece of sausage on it. Again, he parted his lips and waited but the fork went past. The third time, the utensil was over laden with pancakes and sausage drizzled in syrup. He moaned, his stomach was screaming for food and he pulled his head up higher and opened his mouth wider, only to be passed by again.

"Gimme m'fuckin' food!"

Chris grinned and turned, waiting for Vin's blinking eyes to find him and then he let the fork go into his own mouth, licking his lips. There was something very satisfying about the return of the cursing, cranky Texan. It was the best medicine he could take in and he swallowed gratefully.

"Damn, that's good!"

"It outta be... forbidden fruit always tastes better."

"Forbidden?" Chris squinted, letting the fork down momentarily to retrieve his coffee. Two small breakfast trays were sideways on Vin's stand which was positioned over his abdomen. Chris had already begun eating his own meal before the grouchy patient woke up.

"Hell, yeah... ya stole it... it's mine!"

"Yours?" Chris took another sip of coffee. "How do you figure?"

"My room... my... my... stuff..." he defended weakly, one hand fumbling under the blanket. "Give it over... what kinda rig is this? Where's m'fuckin' hand?" He wiggled as best he could.

Chris's smile faded and he leaned over, pressing Vin's upper chest.

"Listen to me, Vin, you need to stay still. You hurt your back, your legs were affected."

"Huh?" Vin's eyes were rimmed in suspicion as they studied his friend's face. "Whaddya mean 'hurt'?"

"It's a long story, Vin and we will..."

"Fuck!" Vin vented, suddenly realizing he couldn't move his legs. He moved his hand and pinched the flesh on his thigh and felt... "...can't feel nuthin'... I'm crippled! Goddammit, why didn't ya tell... shit..."

"You finished your tantrum?" Chris directed pressing Vin harder and forcing him to submit. He waited and watched the younger man struggle for breath. His still healing chest wasn't used to that much activity. The face that turned to him was full of anger and venom dripped from the telltale eyes. He loosened the sheet and pulled Vin's hand out. "First of all, nothing's broken, the doctors are confident you'll recover. A specialist is coming in a little while to explain it. It's gonna take some time and rest, but you'll be back ridin' that deathtrap on my mountain in no time." Still the anger was shouting at him from those wide eyes. He felt the ragged breathing bouncing off the walls of Vin's bruised chest. Patience was not his strong suit, so he pushed forward. "You got tossed off a short cliff and landed on a rock. You're lucky to be alive."

"Yer squatted over there, ya got all yer parts workin'. Ya ain't the one layin' like a lump o'clay..." Vin accused, needing somebody to be angry at. "Don't tell me how t'feel!"

"I damn near died on that mountain saving your ungrateful ass!" Chris fired back, "How about you acting your age and not like a whining four-year old."

For several minutes, the only sound was harsh breathing. Both men still had some inner wounds to heal. Chris knew Vin was scared, but he didn't want him drowning in pity. Finally, the face turned back to him with half the flash gone from the eyes. Now where anger once reigned, the blues were bruised.

"I'm sorry, Chris, it's a bit unsettlin', not feelin' anythin'." Vin sighed and nervously tapping his fingers on the sheet. "I wasn't ready fer that..."

"I know you're scared, Vin, hell anybody would be. You're not fightin' this battle alone, okay?"

"Yeah..." Vin managed, then found a half-smile. "...jest fer the record, this ass is mighty grateful."

Chris returned the smile and gave Vin's upper arm a tap. "Scrawny too! Nothing says "Thank You' better than freshly minted bills."

"Well than I reckon yer shit-outta-luck, cowboy!" Vin chuckled, exhaling deeply and feeling incredibly lucky having Chris Larabee by his side.

Chris waited a few more moments, until Vin seemed to be breathing better and some of the naked fear left his eyes. As if sensing his thoughts, the other man spoke.

"I got... some... pictures... I need help with..." Vin confessed. "...been shootin' the hell all over m'dreams... could be talkin' 'em out might help."

"What do you remember?" Chris soothed quietly, "Lay your head back and shut your eyes, it'll help."

"Uh..." Vin obeyed, closed his eyes and tried to snatch at the images passing by. A large bald man with menacing eyes and the sting of leather on his skin. "...some bastard whipped me... a big ugly fucker."

"That's Bull Savage, we ran into him in a diner in New Mexico. That's where we got caught. They were on the run from the law and took us as insurance, right out of the country into Mexico."

"..can't recall... jest feel the leather..." He paused and saw a plane... and Chris being tied up and tossed in the back. "...plane... yer tied up..."

"Go on..."

"Uh... uh..." Vin began to pant and twist his head. "...aw, hell... somethin's wrong... they's screamin' and it's bustin' up..."

"We crashed." Chris moved his hand, gripping the side of Vin's neck. "Get past that...." He didn't want another pain splitting the younger man's head just now.

"... a man with a cross... he's real nice... can't see his face... jest hear his voice... soothin' like..."

"That's the padre who found you. He saved your life, took care of you. What next?"

"...uh..." Vin swallowed and coughed, then peeled an eye open. "Chris, I'm drier than a buzzard's butt..."

"Sorry." The blond moved and picked up his untouched juice, popped the top and stuck a straw in it. "Here... slow and easy..."

"Thanks," Vin gasped, having drained the cold liquid. He settled back, closed his eyes and saw green trees... and felt pain, lots of pain. "I'm hurtin'... uh... marchin' near trees... somebody's with me... he's got no hair... but it ain't the big feller..."

"Arlee, his son, he brainwashed you. Sick fuckin' bastard... died too quick..."

"...his Pa's dead?" Vin opened his eyes again, questioning.

"They're both rottin' in Hell!" Chris fumed, eyes glowing like coals.

"Then ya ain't gotta get so worked up, 'kay? "Vin fretted, seeing too much pain in the green eyes.

"Just releasing steam, Vin," Chris offered, then found a half grin. "But thanks..."

"Uh... uh..." Vin sighed but saw nothing. "...I'm drawin' blanks again..."

"That's okay, Vin, you did good.It's not gonna come back all at once. After we crashed, we got split up. You met up with Arlee in San Pedro in a hospital. He convinced you he was your kin and that I killed your brother, Chris. He used you, tortured you, twisted your mind all up."

"I'm sorry..." Vin blurted, gripping the sheets under his fingers hard. He didn't see a picture but felt a horrible thing had been done to his friend. He felt an explosion of rage and saw his own face full of fire. He felt such guilt and fear wash over him, it choked him. He'd done something bad and he had the feeling Chris was on the other end of that wrath. "I'm sorry... Chris... I hurt ya? I can't see the pictures... I done somethin' awful... didn't I?"

"You had amnesia, Vin," he addressed the soulful eyes which were burning a path right through his gut. Damned blue beacons were worse than a jagged knife. "It wasn't your fault. You have a long, tough road ahead and you need to save your energy for that. Don't be burnin' it up worryin' on that shit. It's old news, okay?"

"But..." Vin rasped, seeing brief flashes of the blond man's face twisted in pain. Then he saw his own face, painted with rage and hate, and he saw the knife. "What the fuck?" he denied, turning away. "I tried to slit yer throat... aw, Jesus..."

Vin slammed his eyes shut, trying to deny what he knew was true. His breath came in short pants and his head was full of red hot fire ants that seemed to be eating his brain. A cold sweat broke out, dancing down his face. He tried to stop the cries of pain but a few slipped out. That he could have killed this man, so easily, scared him. He heard a strange noise and turned his damp face. The back of a blue robe was moving away in the wheelchair.

"Yer leavin'?"

Chris's hand froze on the wheel rims; the small empty voice that was trembling had a chokehold on him but good. He took a breath and kept his eyes on the door. He didn't have to turn around. He knew those blue eyes were large and full of unfathomable pain and guilt.

"You gonna quit draggin' your chin around? You gonna lose that hair shirt?"

"Huh?" Vin furrowed his brows and managed to free one hand from the tight blanket, rubbing his chest. "I ain't got any shirt on..." He wrinkled his nose and felt his skin. "...ain't got any hair neither..."

Chris chuckled at that and shook his head. "It's an expression, Vin. It means to bear guilt unnecessarily. I won't be a party to that. You quit fuckin' around or I'm leaving."

There was a pregnant pause and the only thing he heard was several jagged breaths.

"Don't... go..."

"Damn..." His shoulders slumped. He didn't know if he could face those blue eyes and the riddled agony they'd be shimmering with. He took a deep breath and pulled his head up, tipping his face sideways. "I'm waiting..."

"I'll try... but it's hard, Chris. I can't pick the pictures that come out of the box. They just shoot up in m'head. It hurts like hell."

"Okay, that's fine,Vin. It's a part of the healing. But that guilt isn't and you need to come to terms with it and let it go."

"I want t'hear what happened."

"Okay." Chris turned back and awkwardly got himself to the bed. He leveled an honest stare at the suffering soul and began. "Arlee busted you out of the hospital somehow, and used you... your tracking skills... to follow our trail. Bull and me had gotten picked up by rebels. They held us prisoner but we broke out, with some help." A brief and painful glimpse of a young brave girl with dark eyes lingered. What had happened to Maria?. "By the time we met up with you two, Arlee had you convinced that I was some maniac who tortured and killed your brother 'Chris'."

Chris paused a moment, collecting his thoughts.

"I never saw you so worked up, you were like a rabid dog. Yeah, you tried to slit my throat, but you passed out. They laughed." His face darkened and he pushed his rage down. "We fought again. That's how we both got burned. We rolled through a fire." He scratched his chin and felt a swell of pride rise in his chest. "It was a crazy feeling. I was scared and proud at the same time. That you would have such bloodlust in your eyes, to kill, avenge, 'Chris's' death... it really got to me, cowboy."

"Don't cotton on havin' t'go there again, if it's all the same..." Vin whispered, feeling a smothering loss.

"Me either." Chris sighed, rubbed his eyes and continued. "Your head was getting worse and your fever was rising. I had to do something. I knew come morning, after we crossed the river, Bull would be close to civilization and he'd kill us. So I took out Arlee while Bull was asleep. Then he woke upand we fought. You got the gun... you didn't know what to do. Bull was screaming at you to shoot me... but you couldn't. For whatever reason, despite the agony you were in... " Chris's voice caught then, seeing that awful picture of Vin screaming in pain, one hand on his head. "...you shot Bull instead. He backhanded you, sent you over the edge and you landed on a rock."

He took a long breath then to steady himself.

"I thought... when I saw your body on that rock... I thought you died on me... I was pissed off at you but good." He frowned, then eyed the startled man who was trying to piece all the jagged edges together. "Don't scare me like that again!"

"Yer jest lucky I was busted up..." Vin countered, not liking the uneasiness Chris wore. Try as he might, he couldn't get the image of himself with the knife at Chris's throat from his head. "It wouldn't take much t'put down yer skinny Yankee ass."

"Comin' from a scrawny Reb," Chris smiled then, moving the blanket to free Vin's hand. It came up on its own, locking with his in a grip of brotherhood, "I'll take that as a compliment. Thanks, Vin."

"What happened after that? How'd we get here?" Vin rasped, letting his throbbing skull rest on the pillow. The action didn't go unnoticed.

"We'll finish later. You're pressing too hard."

They rested for a few minutes, each recovering and sifting through a pile of jangled nerves and exposed emotions. Chris felt a headache coming on. His concussion was rearing up again. He rubbed his eyes, trying to push the pain back.

"..'s'that mean I can eat the rest of m'food, afore ya scarf it all up?" Vin settled back, closed his own aching eyes and waited. "...and don't put no more syrup on the sausage... get some ketchup. But don't put it on 'em. Jest dip up once, nice and easy... but not too..."

Something soft, mushy and paste-like invaded his mouth, clamping off the end of his orders. He screwed his face up, shoved his heavy eyes open and swallowed reluctantly. He didn't like it and decided to let the smirking blond know.

"What the hell is that? I ain't eatin' that shit!" the blue-eyed irate man declared, eyeing the congealing oatmeal. "Hell, it looks like somebody already ate it and tossed it back. What are them clumps? I want real food. I got rights..."

"No, you don't," Chris sent back with another spoonful of oatmeal. "...not while you're in here. You're gonna eat every bit of that and like it, understand? I ain't puttin' up with your cursin' mouth. You can't leave ICU until you keep food in that complainin' body of yours. You want to be my roommate, then shut up and eat."

Vin digested the words and grabbed the spoon. He scowled; he cursed; he shoved Chris's hand away and cursed again. He made three different faces, wrinkled his nose and gagged dramatically with every bite. He shot several hot glances at the smug blond before finally finishing, both the oatmeal and the fruit.

"Shut up, Lar'bee!"

"I didn't say a word."

"The hell ya didn't!" Vin fired back, not happy. "I heard ya clear as dirt... spoutin' from them green eyes... could be I don't want yer naggin' ass fer a roommate." He jutted his chin out defiantly.

"Could be you don't have a choice." Chris finished his meal and dumped sugar packets into Vin's tea. "Could be I wouldn't wish the worst patient in this hospital on your ornery, cussin' ass."

For a few minutes, Vin let the familiar tone of Chris Larabee's voice embrace his wounded spirit. It felt good, damn good and he sighed, settled back and tried to sort out his tangled insides. The only reason he was laying in this bed, alive and back home safe, was because of this man. He didn't know all the answers yet, but he would, in time. What he did know was that he was going to thank God again tonight for that privilege.

"Could be," Vin rasped, his hand moving to where the medal should be and then pausing, his fingers nervously tapping his chest. "I'm the luckiest son-of-a-bitch breathin' free air..." He choked, his eyes filling. "I ain't got all the pictures yet... but they'll come. I done some talkin' with the Man upstairs last night. I wanted t'make sure He knew... how much ya mean... t'keep an eye out fer ya... extra-special like..."

"Don't, Vin!

Chris gripped the struggling man's arm and watched him fight hard to control his ragged emotions. Amnesia was a tough thing to handle and coupled with the fight to mend the other physical wounds, it was hard on a man, even a Tanner.

"Funny thing, I tried talkin' to the Man myself last night. His line was busy..." He smiled and let genuine gratitude shine freely through his warm green eyes. "...so tonight you keep them Tanner gums from flappin' too much, you hear? I got my own thanks to give..."

Vin nodded, full of wonderment and anticipation at the ease of which he knew he could naturally trust this man. It was as if an incredible weight was lifted and he could breathe better. He reached for his mug of tea, took a sip and winced. He put the cup down and his eyes carefully scoured both trays until he saw what he needed. He moved his hand but it got slapped.

"Ouch!"

"No."

"It needs more dousin'..."

"You're a diabetic accident waiting to happen," Chris chided. "It's got four packs of sugar in there now. It's only an eight ounce mug. No."

"...goddamn ornery old bear..." Vin mumbled, then wrinkled his brow and sipped the lukewarm tea, coughing in exaggeration.

"I heard that!" Chris shot back, watching the familiar cranky face and liking it.

"I can barely get it down..." Vin complained.

"Well, there's a first time for everything."

"Good morning!"

Both men looked up at the new voice that sailed through the doorway. A white-jacket physician moved inside, pulling the curtain closed behind him, ensuring privacy.

"Mr. Tanner, I'm Dr. Jacobs from Neurosurgery. The ICU Intensivist has asked me to evaluate your back and leg injuries. I dropped by to see you yesterday but you were still unconscious." The man was tall and on the reed-thin side, his hair a mix of salt-and-pepper gray that spoke of long years spent practicing his craft. He turned to greet the blond. "You must be Mr. Larabee?"

Chris turned stiffly in his chair, grunting a little with the effort and extended a hand. "It's Chris and this is Vin," he offered with a nod, hearing Vin's politely murmured greeting as well. The new arrival's grip was firm, the handshake terse but professional.

"Chris told me ya'd be stoppin' by, I reckon we're both anxious to hear what ya have t'say." Vin confessed.

"That's certainly understandable given the circumstances," the doctor sympathized. "But before discussing your injuries, Vin I need to do a complete neurologic exam before I can draw any conclusions. Chris, if you don't mind, could you leave us alone for a few minutes?"

A mutinous expression immediately appeared on the patient's face. The doctor was surprised when a mirrored image appeared on the blond man's face, just as he aired his reservations.

"I'm staying," Chris replied flatly, his tone of voice brooking no argument.

One gray eyebrow lifted appraisingly before he acceded to Chris's demands. "All right, but I'll need for you to move back from the bed, please."

With a quick glance at Vin, noting the slightly nervous look in those deep blue depths, Chris did as the doctor requested. His hands gripped the wheel rims of his chair and he moved backward to create space next to the bed. Then Dr. Jacobs moved forward, sliding the tray table out of the way. Gently, he peeled the blankets and sheet off, exposing the patient's body. One of Vin's hands fluttered restlessly, betraying his anxiety and anticipation of pain.

"This won't hurt, Vin. I assure you, I'll be very gentle," Jacobs soothed.

Calm? Vin's heart was gyrating and he felt cold. His flinched and gasped when the physician's fingers deftly began turning his neck.

"Sorry..." Vin whispered, "yer hands is warm."

The doctor nodded, that having been one of his questions. This gentle rotation was also applied to his elbows, knees, ankles and hips.

"Can you feel my hands? Are they still warm?"

"No..."

Chris winced at that small voice and watched Vin's saucer-like eyes darting from left to right. He watched as the doctor took out a wooden applicator and broke it, creating a jagged edge. He prodded the soles of Vin's feet and watched his face. It remained fixed, there was no response to stimulation. But the fists clenched at either side of his body betrayed his frustraton.

Vin heard a twanging sound and watched the doctor apply a strange looking fork to his legs. He chuffed out another breath and swallowed hard. Prognosis be damned, he couldn't feel a thing. He couldn't feel hot or cold, sharp or blunt or the vibration from the fork.

"Doc?" His voice quavered and his face flushed beneath his sunburn, embarrassed by how weak and frail he sounded.

"Just a minute more, Vin," the doctor requested. "I'm almost done." He missed the look of concern, anxiety and unspoken comfort that passed between the two close friends, Vin needing to see Chris's face and feel his solid presence.

Finally, just when Vin thought he could stand it no more, the neurosurgeon straightened and put his instruments back into the pocket of his white coat.

"Well?" Chris asked the obvious question; Vin's throat was too dry to form any words.

"First of all," the expert began, "the good news is that all of your tests are negative for any fractures or broken bones. Considering what I've been told about the fall you took, that's nothing short of a miracle."

"So how come m'legs is fu... messed up. Why can't I feel nuthin'?" Vin pressed, his anxious tone sending the words out in a hurry.

"You've sustained what, in medical terms, we call a spinal cord contusion."

"Aw, hell..." Vin rasped, eyes like wavering blue saucers. "What the hell's that?"

"It's a bruise to the spinal cord which causes swelling of the nerve fibers. The result is an interruption in transmission of neural impulses from the brain to the lower extremities. The end result is that you can't feel or move your body below the level of the contusion."

"Shit! Aw, shit..." Vin hissed, pounding a fist into the mattress. On the third attempt, his hand was snagged.

"Vin! Calm down!" Chris thundered. "Let him finish!"

"There's a very good chance that this is not permanent. Do you hear me? It may not be permanent."

But Vin's numb brain was still smothered by the words. They echoed in his mind ,stabbing at his worst fears.

'...you can't feel or move your body...'

He swallowed hard and felt a hot rush of color to his face. His breathing began to become troublesome and he felt cold all over. He began to shiver, even his teeth rattled. Then a warm hand covered his cold one. The heat of that touch spread through him and created a fire inside. It glowed, embers long dormant stoked up and he felt a surge of hope. He turned his face and locked onto the other's.

Green eyes met blue.

His breathing regulated and his heart stopped jackhammering. The shivering stopped and he licked his dry lips, took a deep breath and nodded his thanks. He heard the doctor clear his throat and reluctantly left Chris's gaze to concentrate on the assessment.

"More than likely, the paralysis you're experiencing is only temporary. Once the swelling in the spinal cord goes down, you should.and I emphasize the word 'should'..get full return of function."

"When? How soon?" Vin begged anxiously.

"If there's going to be any signs of improvement, we usually start to see them at least by about seventy-two hours after the injury. By that time, the body is working hard to repair itself and decrease the swelling. Have you noticed any tingling sensations, muscle twitches or sharp, shooting pains down your legs?"

"No."

Chris winced visibly at the wispy echo of a whisper that the Texan managed to slip between his tense lips. He let out a long breath and tried to find the right words to take Vin's doubts and fears away.

"That's okay. It's probably too soon to see any improvement just yet. We've got to give your body more time to rest and heal," the doctor noted.

"Are ya sure? What if it don't? What if m'legs never come back?" The anxious man babbled nervously.

"There are no one-hundred percent guarantees in medicine, Vin. I can only give you probabilities and my best guess based on years of extensive clinical experience. I'm very optimistic for your full recovery and I don't anticipate any long term disability as a result of this injury." The doctor paused, still seeing the doubt and uncertainty in his patient's eyes. "What I'm trying to say, Vin, is that I believe you will be just fine. It may take a few more days but eventually, you'll be back to your old self again."

"Ridin' that deathtrap and driving me nuts." Chris barbed, trying to dispell Vin's tension. "Making midnight runs to the store for chocolate and ruining the coffee at work."

Vin knew Chris was trying hard and managed a weak smile, but inwardly he was terrified.

"All right, in the meantime, Vin, I'd like to get you started on some physical therapy once you're transferred out of ICU. We don't want your muscles to atrophy or the joints to stiffen up while the nerves are out of commission. I'll write my recommendations on your chart and have one of the therapists see you as soon as you get to the floor."

"What about the headaches he's been having?" Chris inquired.

"Those are probably a result of the severe concussion that Vin sustained. Those will go away in time, but it might be several weeks before he's symptom free." He turned to the quiet patient, " You just need to give yourself some time and don't be afraid to take something for the pain. You'll only make it worse if you try to fight against it. Any other questions I can answer for either of you?" the surgeon inquired solicitously.

"Yeah..." Vin croaked, fear gnawing greedily on his nerves. "I ain't go no... I can't remember nuthin'... when's my pict... uh... memory comin' back?"

"Amnesia is a difficult thing to predict. Sometimes it's a matter of days, sometimes weeks..."

"Sometimes never..." Vin gasped, shivering as the chills returned.

"Yes, I'm afraid that is true."

"But Vin, you've been remembering pieces of the past. You gotta believe, cowboy..." Chris paused, then gripped the frantic hand. "You gotta try, okay?"

"Yeah," Vin agreed and eyed his useless legs. Despite what both his friend and the doctor said, he was fearful. But he didn't want Chris to worry on him. He had his own injuries and pain to recover from. He turned and managed a weak smile of confidence.

The doctor was fairly certain of a good outcome for the frail-looking patient lying in the bed and he couldn't quite hide the smile of pleasure that lit his face. So often he had to be the bearer of bad news. Today was a welcome respite from the sometimes burdensome duty. "I'll be on my pager if you think of anything and I'll also be stopping by to check on your progress, Vin. I'd like to have you up and at least walking with assistance before we discharge you home."

"Thanks, Doc."

"I'll see you later, Vin. Try to get some rest and let that body start to heal."

It was after the doctor left and Chris was by Vin's side where he felt most comfortable. It wasn't his imagination. The younger man was sleeping easier. Perhaps purging some of the demons helped. Now that Vin had an idea about what had happened, maybe that box inside would open a little freer. Until then, he'd be on guard, keeping those demons at bay.

Part Seventeen

The spring air was alive, seeming to glow in brilliant colors of blue, raspberry and peach. Cotton candy-like clouds floated by, puffy and white and the sun glowed in golden splendor. The grass was so rich and green, it made his eyes hurt. He ran through a carpet of wildflowers, bursting in purple, scarlet, blue, white and rose. He paused on the top of the hill, looking down at the cozy cabin by the rippling blue water. Beside him were the snow-capped mountains. A curl of smoke beckoned from the chimney and he smiled, then made his way home.

"...home..."

"Vin?"

He'd lain so quiet and still for so long, Chris checked twice to make sure he was breathing. The painkillers the nurse brought in were put to good use. He needed to rest and the fact he slept nightmare free was a relief. Maybe he was finally putting that darkness behind him. Chris leaned over and watched the fine features move. The brows drew together and the lips parted, letting a deep sigh of contentment leave. Finally, two eyes peeled open and a lazy smile followed.

"She must have been good," Chris teased of the contented grin and got a soft laugh.

"She'd have to be since I got no movin' parts workin'..." Vin shot back and clucked his tongue. "Is that pitcher empty?"

"No, hold on." Chris poured water into the plastic cup and snapped the lid on. He adjusted the straw and held it, allowing Vin to drink. "You were so quiet, I thought you checked out on me. No more bad dreams?"

"Nah," Vin sighed, resting his head on the pillow. "I was... somewhere... beautiful. There was mountains and flowers on the hill and a stream and a cabin."

Chris smiled and poured himself a mug of water, thinking on the place Vin Tanner loved to visit. A place, when they returned, he would take his friend to. A place from now on, Vin Tanner would call home.

"The Valley of Dreams..." Chris noted and saw Vin's eyes narrow.

"Yeah..." Vin rasped as the words found their way back into his heart. They weren't strange and neither was the beautiful place. "...we been there?"

"We have," the blond head nodded. "...and we'll go back. I know that place, Vin. We crossed the River of Fire together and we found..."

"...the Valley of Dreams..." Vin repeated, nodding thoughtfully. He yawned again, blinked several times and tried to stay awake.

Chris eyed the clock and the approaching hour.

"Ya got a hot date?" Vin teased, watching the green eyes move from the clock to the doorway.

"Not for an hour yet. Orrin and the boys. We're going over the whole thing, start to finish. You'll be moved to my room. I'll see you for lunch, okay?" He waited and the blue eyes slid shut again, the head bobbing and the lips parting slightly. Within minutes, he was once again asleep. Chris felt the cold hand on the bed and frowned. He tugged at the blanket until it was up to Vin's neck. Then he took the newspaper from the bed stand and flipped it open.

+ + + + + + +

Kate smiled at how alike her husband and son were. Impatience was their middle name. Despite the fact that the doctor released him, Adam was still restless. He was bathed and dressed, sitting on the side of his bed and scowling. She moved from the bathroom doorway, put the toiletries in his bag and zipped it. Then she sat next to him, stealing a quick kiss.

"We have some catching up to do." She smiled wickedly and slid her hand up his thigh.

"You're a naughty girl!" he rasped, drinking in the beautiful face. "...and I like naughty."

"I hope we can leave soon. I want to get my boys home," she noted, intertwining her fingers with his.

"I don't think they'll release Vin until he's at least on his feet. I'm sure he can do his rehab at the medical center at home. I hope he likes Maggie."

"Of course he will!" she chided, thinking of the pretty redhead. "And she'll be crazy about him. What's not to like?"

"Good morning."

"Orrin!" Kate greeted warmly, standing and crossing the room. "It's good to see you again," she added, shaking his hand.

"Always a pleasure, Kate." The ATF division director moved forward, nodding to the general. "How are you?"

"Better now that I'm leaving." Adam let the other man help him up and into a wheelchair. "Thanks... everything all set?"

"Yeah, Orrin called on the way over. They're all there," Buck noted of the others at the meeting in the conference room, as he entered the room. "Except us and Chris." He eyed the empty bed. "Where is he?" "He went up to Vin's room very early." Kate moved beside the rogue, taking his arm. "The nurse told me Chris was up there last night too. It seems Vin is not as restless and his nightmares aren't as severe when Chris is nearby."

"I'll get him," Buck offered. "I want to see Vin anyhow. I'll be right back, Orrin."

"You're on duty, Buck, don't stop for phone numbers," Adam teased and saw Orrin Travis grin.

"I'll see you later, dear." Kate kissed her husband. "I'm going down to the coffee shop. Then I'll stay with Vin until your meeting ends." She then turned to Orrin, "I want to thank you again for all you did to get my son home. It's reassuring to know he works for someone who cares so much."

"That works both ways, Kate." Travis gave the grateful woman a hug. "Your son is the cream of the crop. I've been in this business for forty years and I've not seen a better leader. He's a good friend as well." He smiled at the beaming father. "Then again, he comes from good stock."

+ + + + + + +

The time passed quickly and he eyed the clock again. Satisfied, he moved to turn and his chair hit the bed, shaking it.

"...'s'wrong..." Vin mumbled, trying to focus. Lord, his head hurt this morning. Just keeping his eyes open was painful. Every movement from his bruised body brought pain to his ribs and back. He felt like shit and eyed his useless legs, which caused his headache to explode. All the stress was causing his already thin nerves to fray even further.

Before Chris could reply, Buck ambled into the room. His sharp blue eyes zoned in on the spot on Vin's neck and shoulders where Tanner's locks usually resided. The mustache danced and a smile split the handsome face.

"Looks like you got bushwhacked by a mad barber," Buck chortled, absentmindedly tapping Vin's knee.

"Buck..." Chris warned, but the tall man pressed on.

"...that's okay though, there's plenty of girls back home lookin' for prom dates." Buck's gaze swept across the pain-rimmed eyes and stiffened body. "You look like shit, Vin..."

"Well, don't fuckin' look then!" Vin hissed angrily at this stranger. "Who the hell invited ya in? Ya get yer rocks off pickin' on invalids? It's m'room, get yer arrogant ass the hell outta here!"

"Calm down, Vin!" Chris moved and got a hand on the middle of the irate man's sternum. "Buck didn't mean that..." He paused and saw a blank face. "Buck Wilmington... he's on the team, I told you about him." He waited a few seconds and the telltale eyes slammed shut while a hiss of pain escaped. Then he turned back to face Wilmington, his eyes like hot coals. "What the hell's wrong with you?"

"Vin... I'm sorry. Honest to God, I'd never hurt you..."

Chris winced at the pain radiating in Buck's voice and he saw the haunted eyes. Buck, of all people, who had a heart bigger than Texas. Buck, whom Vin admired so much and usually followed that line with a snappy comeback. Sighing, he rubbed his own aching eyes.

"He's got amnesia, Buck," Chris said quietly. "It's gonna take some time." He eyed the dark blue eyes sweeping over Vin's legs. "...he can't feel anything yet..."

"Aw, shit... I forgot... how stupid is that?" Buck managed, terribly uneasy. "I was just so anxious to see him... came so close to losin'..." He flinched then when he touched Tanner's arm and the frail body pulled the other way. Vin's eyes were closed and his face turned away, pressed into the pillow. Buck moved closer, shifted on his bad leg and opened his mouth twice, but no words came out.

"Come on, Buck, Orrin's waiting with the others in the conference room upstairs." He studied the infirmed man for a moment, carefully examining the tense jaw and the fists clenched. "Remember what we talked about, Vin. Funnel that energy in a postive way. I'll see you as soon as the meeting is over."

There was no verbal reply, but the fists relaxed into flat palms and Chris nodded. It was enough for now. He tugged the blanket up and gave a single pat on the neck. Then he turned away, wheeling himself to the door.

"I'm sorry, Vin. Usually you... well, we joke around like that all the time. Hell, I didn't mean anything by it. Vin, you know I'd never hurt you." Buck paused, hoping for a sign, even a brief turn of the face. He could barely get the word out. "Vin?"

Nothing.

The face remained closed and turned away and the tall man's heart slid down and hit the floor with a resounding splat. He sighed painfully and turned away, his head hung low.

"Take it easy, Slick..."

Slick?

Vin's brow furrowed and his troubled mind was invaded by pictures. All of them full of life and flashes of six men, men who were strangers with familiar faces. One face seemed to cause his chest to hurt. His heart ached when the handsome man with the winning smile and the mustache invaded his airspace. He saw the lips part and that large man calling to him.

Slick?

The pictures moved faster, bursting forth in brilliant colors that caused his headache to intensify. He moaned and moved his hands, pressing them against throbbing temples. Yet they continued to flicker, like a screen from a silent movie. The same man running with a gun, firing at someone. Then he was singing on a stage, strumming a guitar, and he was playing quarterback for a ragtag football team. Chris was tackling him and there was laugher. Deep rich and vibrant, it echoed through his brain, causing a sizzle.

Then he heard it.

It started as a whisper and grew, stroking his brain and calling up warm and wonderful feelings of brotherhood. A big brother with a heart of gold. A man who'd take a bullet for you and shrug it off later. The kind of friend most men dream about.

The whisper changed, rising in volume and his lips parroted the word. It rolled off his tongue easily and it felt good. It felt right. It nestled in his heart where it belonged. He peeled his eyes open, squinting against the offensive light. Pain exploded and sent a hot shower of rain over him. He cried out and pushed the button clipped to his blanket.

"Vin?" Annie pried his hands away and saw tears in his eyes. "It's Annie. I can't give you any more medicine just yet..."

"...s'okay... ain't... s'bad..." he whispered, swallowing hard and gritting his teeth. "...sorry... bother... yer busy..."

"You're not a bother," she soothed, massaging his temples for a few minutes. She felt the tension begin to leave and moved, getting a white cotton cloth from his drawer. She soaked it in cold water and wiped his face which was covered with a fine layer of sweat. She loosened the ties on the gown and eased it down, then soaked the rag again, wringing it out and wiping his neck and chest. His moan told her how good it felt. "Better?"

"Ya... got... wings... under... there..."

"No." She lifted a cup and nudged his lips with a straw. "But thanks, Vin, that's a lovely thought."

"...s'true... thanks..."

"Anything else I can get you?" She pulled his gown back up and saw him start to reply and then hesitate. "What? Come on, handsome, out with it."

"I got a favor..." Vin said, eyeing the telephone on the bedside table.

+ + + + + + +

A dozen chairs were spread around a long rectangular table. On the far side of the room, a smaller table stood, bearing a thermal carafe of hot water, a large urn of coffee, plastic bowls with creamers, sugar and Sweet-N-Low packets and lots of napkins. Then there was a second table bearing food.

J.D. was lining his chair up right next to the long table with pastries, bagels and doughnuts. In addition to his teammates, Jack Lynch and Pete DiTullio were present as well as Adam Larabee, Orrin Travis and Ted Harris of the F.B.I.

"Ye sure yer close enough, lad?" Jack goaded, watching the youth eyeing up the cakes.

"If you are smart, you will stay out of his way. Otherwise, you might find yourself missing a vital body part," Ezra advised as he handed Nathan a cup of coffee.

"Very funny!" J.D. shot back. "Where's my coffee?"

"In the pot." Josiah eyed the youth. "And while you're up, I'll have one, black."

"I swear sometimes I think Chris only hired me to be the gopher," he complained, taking two white Styrofoam cups and heading for the coffee urn. "Go for coffee, go for bagels, go for Chinese food..."

"...go for hookers..."

J.D. turned at the sound of his best friend's voice and the others exploded in laughter. Buck winked, following Chris into the room.

"Don't answer that, J.D. There's some things it would be better if I didn't know." Chris nodded to the others who greeted him as he moved the wheelchair into the room.

"Hell, Chris, I'm gonna teach that boy everything I know..." Buck predicted, moving past the injured team leader to get some coffee.

"Lord, have mercy on us all..." Josiah sighed. "Mornin', boss. How's Brother Vin?"

Nathan was the only one who saw Buck's face. He was on the far side of the room where the tall man had gone to get a cup of coffee. The medic flinched as Buck's face drained of color and his blue eyes filled with pain. Before he could move to inquire on the other man's problem, the mask went up, covering up the turmoil.

"Give yuh a hand, Buck?" he offered and saw a brief opening. He waited and the eyes locked onto his and then a slight nod.

"Thanks, Nate... I got it..." Buck knew the other man wasn't asking about the coffee. He was glad for the hand on his shoulder and sighed, collecting his scattered emotions.

"Let me." Nate saw the unsteady hand fumbling badly and got a cup secured. He hit the tap and filled it, then put two sugars and a cream in it.

Eyeing the individuals gathered, the ATF team leader saw a pair of intense dark eyes studying him. He moved his chair closer and nodded. He recognized the face, having seen it for many years on television. But after his own personal experience and what he'd learned from Orrin and the others, he held a new respect for the tought reporter. "I'm Chris Larabee," the blond held his hand out. "I've been a fan for many years. I never realized just how much guts you guys have. I'm indebted to you both."

"Chris." Pete shook the hand and chuckled at the intense eyes. "Man, I'll tell you, the apple don't fall far from the tree. He's your kid, alright." He eyed the older Larabee who was seated at the end of the table. "You got some team, Chris, above and beyond the call and all that..."

"I think I'll keep 'em..." Chris accepted the compliment with a grin.

"It's not like there's a big line to claim them," Orrin said with a straight face.

"I think my feelings are hurt." Josiah's deep voice was followed by his hand on his shirt. "Ezra, check for blood."

While most of those gathered spent the next few minutes getting acquainted, coffee and cakes were passed around and then the phone rang. It was on the far end of the room where Josiah was passing through on his way to the bathroom.

"Hello?"

"Uh... hey... uh..." Vin frowned, trying to find something, anything that would bring the name to his mind. What if the nurse got the wrong room? "... s'this... uh... Chris... uh... Lar'bee's meetin'?"

"Vin?" Josiah's brows knit together. "It's good to hear your voice. The Lord smiled on us again." He paused, thinking on Vin Tanner's tenacity and a verse from II Timothy 4:7. "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."

"Nathan?" Vin guessed and frowned. "Aw, hell..." His fuzzy brain added up some clues. This man wasn't the healer. The deep voice and the Bible quote brought up an image. Gray hair, smoky eyes, big smile, big silver cross on a leather tie. "...that ain't right, yer the cross toter..."

"Josiah Sanchez," he smiled, touching the homemade cross he always wore. "I hear right? You're gonna be Chris's new roommate."

"I got the short straw..." Vin liked the deep voice; it was very comforting.

"What can I do for you, brother?"

"Is Buck there?"

"Hold on, Vin." Josiah looked across the long room and nodded at Buck, then held the phone up. The puzzled man put his coffee down, stood and ambled over. Josiah left the phone on the ledge by the door and eased out into the hall, headed to the men's room to answer's nature's call.

"Hello?"

"Bucklin?"

It wasn't the word that brought his head down, caused a long held breath to release and the crack in his heart to mend. It was the voice, small and far away, shaking and frail, with a hint of worry. It stole his air.

He smiled, dropped his head to his chest and let a soft chuckle escape. Never, in all the time since Vin had christened him with that wonderful nickname, had he so desperately needed to hear it. It fluttered on a soft drawl, caressed his ears and slid all the way to his heart. . It invaded his senses, wrangled up his jangled emotions and got a warm fire started, chasing the frost away.

"Yeah..." he choked. "It's me. You got no idea how sorry I am. How much I needed to hear..."

Vin swallowed hard when Buck's voice died off and he heard the gasp. More of the missing pieces were supplied. Words came in a dazzling parade. . .courage, honor, pride, integrity and unflagging loyalty. He struggled to find his own voice which seemed buried deep under those wonderful sentiments.

"I jest wanted... t'say... t'say... " Vin was struggling now. His eyes had weights on them and his skull had a jackhammer in it. But he needed to say it. It had to come out. The word 'Slick' brought something else out of his box. Something that took the chill from his body and stoked the fires of his soul. "... f..f..fuck yer sorry ass... fuck... t'hell n' back?"

Buck laughed outright at that. He could imagine Vin's face screwed up in puzzlement. The words came out but the confused man didn't know why or where or even how. But they were there... and that's all that mattered. "You sure about that, Slick?"

"Hell... yeah..." Vin managed in a gruff whisper. "...can't figger it out... but since ya left... ya called me 'Slick' and a bunch o'pictures come out of m'box. Them words come out too... was that right?"

"You bet your scrawny Texas ass!" Buck sighed, wiping his damp eyes. "Good for you!"

"...ya okay then?" Vin fretted, hearing his loud words and Buck's broken voice earlier. "I didn't mean t'shout at ya..."

"Yeah, you did and I deserved an ass' kickin' for being so thoughtless... and I am sorry, Vin, really."

"...it was burnin' a good hole in m'gut..." Vin decided.

"What gut?" Buck teased, then his smile faded when he heard the small cries of pain and several minutes worth of shallow gasping. "Vin? You need a nurse or something?"

"... yeah..." he whispered, letting his eyes shut. All his energy was tapped out and he was fading fast. "...got it now... jest hearin' ya..." He paused as another image came up, of his friend by a body of water, smiling and laughing. He heard his own voice then and repeated it without knowing why, but with each word, another part of him healed. "...anybody... can... can... have... a... a... Buck... I... got... a... gen...genuine...

Buck...lin..." He gasped, coughed and sucked a breath in. "...feel sorry fer the... poor bastards... who's doin' without..."

"Sometimes, Vin Tanner," Buck's voice was rich and full, "you leave the rest of us way behind. You get some shuteye, son, that's an order." "...sandman's tryin' t'drown me..." Vin agreed. "...later... Bucklin?"

"Yeah, I'll bring you some ice cream," he promised. "...put some weight on that skinny ass of yours."

"...yer... jest jealous... ya ain't got a Tanner ass..." Vin decided, then before he faded out, "...if ya happen... t'pass some chocolate..."

"You got it!" he laughed and heard a woman's voice. She was speaking softly to Vin and then he heard a click.

"Are we ready to proceed?" Orrin asked, watching Buck walk slowly across the room.

"Who was on the phone, Buck?" J.D. asked.

"An old friend," Buck managed, winking at Chris. "A good friend whose voice I needed to hear."

"A cowboy maybe?" Chris guessed at the emotive face next to him and saw a break of even white teeth under the mustache.

The dark blue eyes crinkled in warmth as he replied, "Yeah, the blue-eyed variety," in a wistful tone of voice.

Buck tapped his fist on his heart once and gave silent thanks for all the men he was blessed to call 'friend.'

+ + + + + + +

After all the introductions were made, the men gathered around the long table. Orrin waited for the murmurs to die down and cleared his throat.

"Gentlemen, we've gathered here this morning to piece together this incident that thankfully concluded with Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner being rescued and returned to American soil. Mister Dunne, could you start?"

"Me?" J.D. quizzed, sending a puff of powder from the doughnut he was eating.

"You're down right embarrassing, J.D.," Buck chastised.

"Nevertheless, you're the starting point. You and Mister Tanner were in Taos, dirt biking?" Travis opened a leather valise and took his pen out. The F.B.I man followed suit, taking notes for the final report.

"Oh, yeah," the youth recalled. "We went down for a long weekend to ride the trails. Vin took a spill and hit a tree. And, well, some parts got bruised worse than others..."

"Ouch!" Jack Lynch winced.

"Exactly," Dunne nodded, then smiled. "Vin said the boys got shook up 'right good!'"

"Like them damn boys of his are anything to write home about," Buck chuckled.

"He looked like he took a bath in grape juice," Chris recalled of the purple-mottled body.

"We were supposed to come home on Sunday, but Vin got sick," Buck stated. "So J.D. and me brought the trucks and the bikes back. I left my car with Chris."

Chris heard Buck, but the room seemed to fade away and an image of Vin bopping around the hotel room singing "Who let the Rats Out... who... who... who..." filled his head. The whole ass bite scenario replayed, including the look on the maid's face and his partner's bold explanation. That brought a smile and then a chuckle that turned into a laugh. Lost in thought, he was unaware that the others were watching him. A tap on his robed arm brought him back.

"Chris?" Buck raised an eyebrow. "Did I miss something?"

"Uh... no..." he decided, keeping his secret smile. "Vin was sick all right." He took a sip of his coffee and then a deep breath. "Vin was pretty stiff and sore, sucked up coke and painkillers for a couple of days. We left late on Tuesday, right after supper. But there were detours and roads out due to a storm. Vin drove for hours and was exhausted. We decided to hit the next town and call it a night. I had to hit the john so we pulled over at a diner."

"That would be Rambling Rose's Cheap Eats on Route 64 in San Juan County, New Mexico?" Ted Harris interjected.

"Yeah, I ran for the bathroom, and when I came out, my head was down," Chris recounted. "First thing I saw was Vin on his knees, blood running down his face. I think I called out to him... can't be sure. Next thing I knew I was waking up in the storeroom." He paused for another swallow of coffee. "One of them had shot me and the bullet went right through my side. Vin was cleaning me up. He told me Bull Savage and his kin..uh family had taken us hostage."

"Okay," Orrin leaned forward, eyeing the F.B.I. man, Nathan and Buck. "Ted, you have the sheriff's statement?"

"Yeah." The other man flipped through some papers before handing a copy to the ATF director. "Jim Whitefeather. A trucker reported something wrong. Jim and his deputy were called out to the scene. They found the owner dead and lots of blood, signs of trouble. The vehicle outside was registered to Mister Wilmington. Then they watched the security videos and the deputy contacted Mister Wilmington."

"Buck and Nathan were dispatched to investigate the apparent kidnapping," Orrin advised, then turned. "What happened next, Chris?"

"They were gonna kill us, but Vin made a deal. They needed to get out of the country. They had a pilot meeting them outside Silver City. But the roads were blocked because of the storm. Vin bought us some time, told them he knew the area and could get them there."

"Vin Tanner," the F.B.I man continued to write. "Perhaps we should get his testimony?"

"No," Chris denied. "Vin's in ICU and he has amnesia, he's not up to it."

"Very well," Harris nodded. "The tapes showed Mister Tanner was tortured. Were they trying to get information from him?"

"No, they were scum-sucking lowlifes, they didn't need a reason." Chris frowned. "I was in the back, I couldn't see... but I heard him screaming."

"You have that," Buck leaned over the table, "and it's on tape. Move on."

"Easy, Buck." Orrin saw the color rising on his cheeks as he defended his absent friend. "Chris, pick it up when you were taken out."

"We drove for awhile, ended up in a deserted area near a ghost town. Bull and Linc met with the pilot. Arlee and Troy, his demon spawn," Chris spat out, eyes hot, "kept an eye on me and Vin. I looked at Vin and he knew the score too. Our time was up, they had their plane... they were going to execute us. So we moved on the count of three. Problem was, Vin stumbled and Arlee stabbed him. But I got Troy, that sick mother-fucker."

There was grim satisfaction evident on the blond's face. "There was a lot of confusion after that and then Bull slammed into me. I remember waking up later on board the plane. I was tied up and there was something obviously wrong. Vin's voice, it was flat, no emotion at all. I heard him say 'we're goin' down' and that's when I realized the plane was in trouble. There was a lot of noise and screaming. Vin reached out for me..." He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"Chris?"

"I'm okay, Dad..." he answered the worried tone of the man who flanked him along with Buck. "Next thing I remember was waking up on my belly, tied up and with a collar around my neck. Rebels found the wreck. Bull was alive and already tied up. Someone was in the plane... screaming... They shot him, said he was badly burned. I thought... it was... V...Vin." Chris forced the words out and swallowed hard. He nodded at the strong hand on his shoulder, grateful for his father's touch.

"The tests aren't back yet, but due to process of elimination, we suspect that was most likely Lincoln Savage. Now that we know you killed Troy, his was apparently the body found downstream." Harris eyed his report.

"Jesus..." Nathan shook his head. "So when did you realize he was alive?"

"A few days before my dad found us..." Chris paused, staring across at the vacant wall. He still saw that look in Vin's eyes. "He damn near killed me. Arlee got a hold of him in San Pedro. Sick fuckin' lunatic convinced him he was related to them and that I killed his brother, Chris. Vin was all twisted up inside, hurtin'. He felt things about 'Chris' but had no memory of him."

"...and you were the man who took his brother away?" Josiah shook his head. "Poor Vin."

"Poor Vin damn near slit my throat," Larabee recounted. "I never saw him so enraged. It was like his eyes were on fire. Only reason I'm breathing is because he was hurt. They just used him..." Chris gritted out, recalling the painful fight in the cave, "...like a fuckin' puppet. Egged him on, told him things, horrible things that I'd done to 'his Chris'."

"So how'd you escape?" Nathan diverted, then saw the green eyes close and the hand rise again to stem the pain. But he also knew it was a miracle both of men had survived.

Chris paused and took several breaths. He thought on all the possible answers to that question. How had he and Tanner ended up on that desolate spot in the mountains? Had either one not been present, the other would have died. Was that fate? Or perhaps destiny? He gave a short chuckle and shook his head.

"Dumb fuckin' luck..." he mused and lifted his soda in a mock toast. "And I got Arlee Savage to thank for that. His plan backfired. He was using Vin to backtrack his trail. We met up with them in the mountains. And all that time, I thought Vin was dead."

His voice caught as he got a mental image of the Texan's wild eyes and the knife in his hand when they were first reunited. He rubbed his shoulder as the memory of how close he'd come to dying then and there returned. How would Vin have ever recovered from a memory like that?

"Vin was wild, out of his head... I've never seen him so worked up. He jumped me with a knife, damn near killed me." Chris's voice dropped into the low and lethal range. "And they just laughed at him."

The others exchanged worried glances as the injured man struggled to control the raging battle of emotions tearing his guts apart. His face colored and his eyes caught fire. Both hands curled into fists and his lips formed a thin white line. Finally, after several heaving breaths, he was able to continue.

"They knew Vin could track, they were usin' him to find a way out of there. But it went south. Bull fell asleep and I jumped Arlee. We fought and I killed him.Then Bull came charging in. While I was tanglin' with him, Vin got hold of the gun. Bull started screaming at him to shoot. Vin..." Chris bit his lip and swallowed hard, seeing Tanner's wild eyes and his hand clutching his skull. "Vin was a mess. He didn't know what to believe... he was hurtin' bad, had one hand on his head... his eyes..." He bit his lip and shook his head. "Then something happened, his face went blank, like he was faraway..."

"Flashback!" Josiah noted.

"I guess," Chris managed, weary of speaking. "Then he managed to wing Bull, but he was near the edge of the cliff. Bull backhanded him, sent him over the edge." He shut his eyes and took a moment to get some strength back. "I looked... down... he was twisted over a rock. He didn't move... he looked... I thought that bastard killed him."

Chris's voice dropped and his eyes turned a deadly shade of steel. "So I took care of business..."

"...and you got to Vin..." J.D. guessed.

"Yeah, I don't know how the hell we're still alive. I made a shelter, got some fruit and plants... water. What I couldn't ID, Vin could. He even knew the ones for burns and fever... He saved us..."

"Sounds like you had a hand in that, Chris," Nate offered with a sincere tone.

"He was so lost... confused... he didn't know me... " He dropped his head a moment and felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Maybe not by name, son, but I bet it didn't take long for him to 'see' you," Adam testified of the bond.

"No," the blond leaned back, curving his lips up. "We... got each other through the storm..."

He fell silent then. His eyes softened and his face was painted with a blissful peace. His lips quirked up into an easy smile. Theyknew that was all they'd hear about those days the injured pair spent alone and possibly dying. Whatever powerful elixir the two shared would remain between them. And that's how it should be; that was part of the mystery that forged them together.

"I'd like to backtrack for a moment and clear up some loose ends." Harris eyed the reporters. "You two found both bodies, one in the plane and one by the water?"

"We found both," Pete said. "They were burned beyond... they had badges, I called it in." His dark scowl hit the F.B.I. man. "As a matter of fact, I called that arrogant asshole, McClendon, the day we found Arlee Savage. He never called back, stupid son-of-a-bitch could have made a difference."

"He'll have to answer for that." Orrin attempted to restore order. The reporter's hot words had Chris upset and the team seething.

"He laughed." Buck's voice was distant. "He knew... and he laughed."

"Buck had a little chat with the vermin in question," Ezra supplied to Chris's confused face.

"Oh yeah," the blond nodded, turning to his oldest friend. Then he found a crooked half-grin. "I hear you owe my old man bail money."

Buck chuckled and then saw identical amusement on both Larabee's faces. He scratched his chin and nodded. "The way I see it, the general knew without these hands of gold," he held up his one hand, "well... you get the idea..."

"You need glasses, son," Adam deadpanned, getting a group chuckle.

"We were headed south into the mountains," the dark-haired CNN reporter continued. "We heard Juan Xavier was on the move. We found an American kid, hurt, on the side of the road. He couldn't remember much.or so he said. We took him to San Pedro, to the clinic. They operated on his leg."

"Apparently, the plane broke up into pieces," Orrin noted, scanning his prior report. "Vin and Arlee Savage were in the section of the plane that ended up in the water. Vin somehow got to the bank where Father Romero found him. We have a statement from him."

"I got it." Josiah pulled out the folder in front of him. "He's got medical training. He saved Vin's life. He had a nasty wound on his leg and a lacerated scalp. The padre said Vin had no memory, but because of the medallion he wore, they called him 'Chris.' He was in a bad way for several days and the priest was concerned about his head injury."

"The padre was in town and met one of the nurses from the hospital," Pete recalled. "She told him about Arlee and the padre met with him. For some reason, he knew about Vin being alive. He must have somehow overheard the nurse...."

"Could be," Jack Lynch agreed. "If they were out front, most of the windows were open. The padre tells the nurse about Vin.and that bloke happens to hear.."

"So he finds out Vin has amnesia and decides to use him to find his father," J.D. finished. "Sick bastard!"

"...dead bastard!' Chris hissed. "I kept my word." He sighed and got his anger under control, felt his father's hand on his shoulder again.

"So, the padre decided to bring Vin to town?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah, we met him later, he was terribly upset," Pete recalled. "He wanted the doctor to examine Tanner's head injury, do some tests. Tanner was too weak and worn out to make the trip back to the Padre's church."

"Yeah," Jack nodded, "plus there was an emergency. A woman up in the mountains having a breech birth. The doctor wasn't available..."

"So he left Vin and when he returned, both Arlee and Vin were gone?" Buck inquired.

"Yeah," Chris supplied. "I heard Arlee tell Bull he convinced Vin he was related to them. That I was a mercenary who tortured and killed his brother. He fed Vin this shit for days. Vin kept calling out for me in his dreams and that sick fucker twisted the knife..." Chris vented. "Goddammit!"

"It's done, Chris," Buck supplied quietly.

"Is it, Buck?" The blond turned, eyes full of fury. "Vin's in ICU and can't walk. He's got fragments instead of his memory. He's having nightmares straight from Hell..."

"He's alive!" Nathan caught the green eyes and let his soulful brown ones melt the icea bit. "..and we each got two hands."

Adam took a deep breath, a sip of coffee and stared at the men who worked for his son. Without question, that glint in their eyes was far more than a reflection of determination. That these men had risked their own lives, on their own time, save Buck, to find his son, spoke volumes. He was so proud of Chris, he didn't have adequate words.

"At this point, before we continue," Adam spoke, his voice full and his dark eyes shining, "on behalf of Mrs. Larabee and myself, I'd like to thank every one of you for what you've done. Everything I have, the honors, the awards, the medals, all of it... mean nothing. This..." He moved his hand, gripping his now emotive son's neck, "is a treasure far greater than any of you can imagine."

There was a long pause as each of the men absorbed the moving words that ended with a slight break in the general's voice. There was not one among them that didn't envy the strong bond between father and son.

Chris knew his father was struggling and lifted his face. He found a small smile and his pale eyes lit up in warmth.

"Does that mean I don't have to fork over twenty bucks from the poker game yesterday?"

"Hell no!" Adam roared, dark eyes full. He took his son's extended hand and sent his gratitude silently, then felt an equal measure given back the same way.

"Buck, can you pick it up?" Orrin nodded, realizing the general needed a moment to collect himself.

"Well," Buck finished his bagel and took some coffee, wiped his mouth and continued. "Like I said, the general was lost without my keen skills..." He paused as the older man cleared his throat. "We landed in Mexico, following up on information the general's team received from a CIA surveillance tape. They had video of Juan Xavier's rebels on the move. Chris and Bull were identified on the tape."

"...and that's when you decided to take a vacation?" Chris eyed his team, his chest swelling in pride.

"Seemed like good idea at the time," J.D. noted.

"A capital suggestion," Ezra agreed, lifting his mug in a mock toast.

"We landed at the exact coordinates for a wide perimeter around an area with the largest number of rebel camps," Adam joined in. "The government put pressure on them after finding the wreckage of the plane. That made Xavier's life tougher and we knew he'd head for the hills, the remote areas. We headed off at a brisk pace, made good time and closed the distance, then we got lucky." He nodded to Orrin who pulled out his cell phone.

"Yes, Captain, it's Orrin Travis. Do you have my witness? Good. Ten minutes, very well." He hung the phone up. "Gentlemen, while we're waiting, why don't you tell us about your 'vacation'?"

"We met up with Jack and Pete in San Pedro and picked up the trail at the plane wreck," Josiah noted. "We must have gotten too close. Me, J.D. andJack got caught by a band of Xavier's men. A nest of rebels found our camp. Ezra got away and hooked up with Pete and Nathan. Then some of the general's team found us..." The preacher touched his bruised face, complete with one eye still swollen shut. "Just in time..."

"We had split up at that point," Adam explained. "I took Buck and two men with me. My second-in-command, Major Chelsea, took the others with him. We found remains that Chris later confirmed were Bull and Arlee Savage. Then Buck checked the area and found both Chris and Vin at the bottom of a steep hill. He rappelled down right as Tanner woke up..."

"...and tried to use that scrawny Texan hide as a shield," Chris choked, still seeing the fire in the blue eyes above him at that moment. "He crawled... over to me... he dragged himself with his arms... threw one hand over..." He paused and took a shuddering breath. "...my chest... his right hand had the gun... shaking so bad he damn near dropped it."

"He wouldn't let us get anywhere near Chris," Buck noted, rubbing his thigh and chuckling softly. "Some sharpshooter, he damn near took out Buck Junior."

"T.M.I!" Ezra's hand came up as he smiled. "Spare us the details, please!"

"What happened after that?" J.D. asked.

"I started down, then I saw..." Adam began, "...and heard my son. Chris never raised his voice. He looked up at that poor boy's eyes, full of fire and delirious. He'd have shot us both before he'd let us near Chris." He turned his head to regard his son. "You said two words..."

"Trust me," Chris whispered, replaying the incident in his head.

"I've never seen anything as strong as the look that transpired between you two. Vin dropped the gun..."

"The medics got down there and cleaned them up," Buck recalled. "Poor Vin didn't even know where he was... his damn eyes..."

"The military chopper picked them up and brought them here," Adam continued. "Then Buck and I set out to find Xavier. He'd escaped with a handful of his men. I stepped in a booby trap." He patted his injured leg. "And Buck saved both our lives."

"You are aware, of course, he collects battle scars like trophies to dangle before unsuspecting women..." Ezra drawled, toasting his mustached friend.

"Jealous, Ace?" Buck wagged his brows in reply.

A knock on the door had Travis on his feet. He nodded to Adam and made his way to the door, opening it partially, then smiling.

"Our witness is here." He turned and allowed entry. His gaze went to Chris Larabee who was rubbing his eyes, trying to push a headache away. The agent's recovering body was far from well and he needed to be back in his room. Travis spotted the carafe of cold orange juice and poured a glass, then handed it to the witness.

"Gentlemen, I think a ten minute recess is in order,"Travis ordered, eyeing Larabee who had his head back, eyes closed. "Chris, you stay put for a few minutes." He waited until they'd all gone, save Buck, who was hesitant to leave Chris's side. Some things never changed. Then he nodded to the witness who silently crossed the room.

"You are thirsty, Señor Chris?"

"Yeah, Maria, my head's killing me."

Chris's eyes shot open and his head turned slowly. His body jerked in shock. The pretty girl before him smiled and blushed before setting the glass down.

"Hello again," Buck offered, along with his chair. "And thank you." He kissed her forehead and moved away, giving Chris's back a light tap.

"You are most welcome." She sat down and took the blond man's trembling hand. "You look awful!" she teased, then bent forward and kissed his cheek. "...and I have missed you.

He was numb and his mouth gaped slightly. She was real and she was here. She was alive!

"Maria..." His voice was a soft whisper. He'd thought perhaps she was dead. But here she sat, clean and healthy and smiling like an angel. He suddenly felt the gravity of just what this young girl had done for him, both during his imprisonment and the brave sacrifice during his escape. His larger fingers covered the smaller ones on the cup.

"Thank you,"he choked in a tight rasp, eyes filling.

Her breath caught in her pained chest when a single tear fell, running down his cheek. She knew the two words weren't for the juice. She brushed the tear away and his hand rose snagging her wrist. His hand felt so good, so warm. She'd feared for his life and when the news came, she'd rejoiced.

"When they told me... that you and your Vin were alive... I wept..." she choked, letting her own tears fall.

"Don't..." He shook his head and kissed her hand. "God, I can't believe you're here. You got guts, Maria, more than I've ever seen. You're something else, lady." He swallowed hard, drained the cold juice and stared at the beautiful face. She looked fit and healthy; her eyes were shining. "Are you okay?"

"I am fine now. I couldn't wait to see you. Your Se–or Travis, he pulled a lot of strings, but I am allowed to stay. He even said there is reward money and I can live with my aunt and uncle in New Mexico and go to college!"

"That's great!" Chris smiled. "How'd you get away? When we busted out, all hell broke loose..."

"It is a long story..." She eyed the pain lingering in his eyes and paused, resting her hand on the side of his face.

"I like long stories," Chris returned.

"Perhaps later, in your room, when you have rested. Se–or Travis wants me to tell the F.B.I and your father about the rebels. I can give them information that will help." She took a steadying breath. "I can't believe it's over. For so long I have wanted to come to America. I feel so lucky."

"Lucky for me St. Peter gave the green light and heaven lost an angel," Chris offered up, "or I'd be dead now... Vin, too."

She smiled at the warmth in his voice that matched the gentle touch on her wrist. Then as his eyes filled up, she bent down and kissed his cheek. She let her fingers brush the spot.

"Welcome home..."

Part Eighteen

The spring was especially wondrous. He inhaled deeply, trying to capture the vitality and sheer breathtaking essence of the color and majesty around him. A blanket of wildflowers surrounded him on a hill that was lush and green. The water in the river nearby was calling to him, lending its own music to the birds that observed him from the aspens and pines. The sky... there was no way to describe the rich blue harmony that greeted his eyes. At the end of the glorious carpet was a path to a cabin. He felt a longing inside, moving him to that little piece of heaven. He lifted his face to the new Dawn, letting her kiss him and bathe him in her special light.

The low moan brought her to her feet. Kate put her book down and leaned over the railing. She smiled and brushed her fingers through his hair. A slip of pink tongue peeked out shyly before disappearing. The fine brows furrowed and then two blue eyes peeled open and confusion rained down.

"Welcome back, Vin. How do you feel?"

"Uh..." Vin whispered painfully, regarding the antiseptic environment with distaste. He needed that meadow, that wonderful magic by the cabin. His eyes took in the pale walls and IV lines that surrounded him. His heart sank and he sighed deeply and painfully.

"What?" she puzzled, turning his face by the chin. "You're out of ICU and I know Chris will be happy to have a new roommate."

"It's..." He paused, then looked at her face. He saw the deep concern in the pale green eyes and felt their warmth. "...silly..."

"Try me."

"I was ... been... havin' a dream." He moved his lips to accept the straw and cold water, draining the cup. "Thanks, I's drier than a buzzard's butt..."

She laughed and moved her hand, rubbing his shoulder in a soft group of circles. "You do have a way with words, Vin Tanner. What about that dream?"

"It's a beautiful place." His voice was faraway and full of wistful hope. "In the mountains by a river. The water's singin' and the bird's is keepin' harmony. The sky... it's a color I ain't never seen before. I'd like to drown in it..." He paused, taking a breath into his aching chest. "The sun's kissin' m'face and there's flowers, Kate, beautiful flowers in all kinds of colors. They got their little faces turned up, smilin' at me. There's a cabin... nothin' fancy, but... I want to get there so bad... it hurts. I need that place... I wake up before I get there..."

"You're healing," she said, eyeing the expressive eyes. "When you sleep, that beautiful place is becoming your safe haven. It chased those nightmares away."

"Yeah," he nodded. "Reckon it did." Then he tossed a shy smile at her. "Reckon yer hands and that smile helped. With all ya got t'do 'tween Chris and the General...." He paused, feeling a swell of emotion rising, causing his voice to crack. "... yer here... worryin' on a busted up Texan with scrambled brains..."

"That 'busted up Texan'," she said quietly, moving her hand to stroke his cheek, "tossed a lasso around this lady's heart." She smiled then, watching him struggle for control as his eyes filled up.

It took Vin several minutes to compose himself. He wiped the moisture from his eyes and thought on Kate Larabee. This was one very special woman whose capacity for caring and nurturing knew no bounds. What he knew of Chris Larabee through those dark days they shared and what he felt inside, he somehow traced back to the influence of this strong woman.

He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking on the word 'mother'. Several words and thoughts came to mind. The strongest of which was 'giver of life'. God bestowed his most precious miracle on women, not only of that wondrous gift to create and bear a child, but that special bond that their heart formed at the moment of birth.

His own mother's image appeared. He knew her face only by the single photo he had of an undersized five year old with lost blue eyes next to a frail woman in a bed. He couldn't remember her voice, but her song played in his heart every moment of his life. He sighed deeply, calling up that magic he felt inside, still fueled by her touch. Then the mist of time invaded his senses again and he smiled and welcomed her back.

"...cinnamon and soft flannel... lavender and a laugh ticklin' m'ear..." He opened his eyes and moved his fingers, taking Kate's hand. "She's here..." he choked, not bothering to brush the tears away. "I was only five... when she died. I don't know her voice, but her song fills m'heart every day. Now..." His voice cracked and he took a shuddering breath. "...fer the first t... t... time... since... I lost..."

He had to stop and swallow a sob. "Aw, hell..." he hissed weakly and his tears fell. He felt her fingers tighten on his hand and finally turned and stared up at her, not hiding his heart. "...I felt her touch... fer real... T..th...ank... ya, Kate... Larabee... fer... gracin' me..."

"Oh, honey," she sobbed, bending to kiss his forehead and let him embrace her weakly. "It's an honor and thank you for sharing that lovely memory with me." She waited a few moments until she felt his trembling stop and then pulled back, cupping his chin. "I see her too, Vin. She shines right through those eyes of yours."

+ + + + + + +

The lobby was crowded with midday visitors. Chris shifted in his wheelchair, eyeing the sun in the distance through the large doors. Orrin and Buck had departed for the airport, catching a flight to New Mexico for McClendon's arraignment. The others went to his room to visit with Vin for awhile. His father sat next to him and they were waiting for his mother. He watched Maria talking with the waitress in the coffee shop in the lobby. He wanted his parents to meet her and since his dad was leaving, lunch together seemed like a fine idea.

With the buzz of fragmented conversation still ringing in his ears, he felt the miracle cloak him once again. That they survived the plane crash and brutal aftermath and found each other on that mountain was his proof that God existed. His fingers went to his throat and he turned to his father . "Dad?"

Adam turned and saw concern on the features he knew so well. "What's wrong?"

"I need a favor. Do you know what happened to my St. Christopher's medal? Can you see if somebody in the ER put it away?"

"Sure, I'll have your mother check before we leave."

"Thanks," he nodded as the doors opened and his mother came towards them. His eyes narrowed suspiciously at the evidence of her tears.

"What's wrong?"

"Are you okay?"

Kate smiled at the two Larabee men, one dark and one fair, whose identical features were masked with concern. She kissed her son on the cheek and took her husband's hand.

"Actually, no, I had a rather remarkable visit with a 'busted up Texan'," she choked, those lost blue eyes breaking her heart. She smiled then and turned to Chris. "I think I've been adopted!"

Chris chuckled and looked up as Maria approached.

"Speaking of remarkable, strong and beautiful women," he praised his mother, "I'd like you to meet someone very special."

+ + + + + + +

The buzzing was back but not the same. It wasn't the soft voice, the new mother's voice. It was warm but stronger. He sighed and wished somebody would take the weight from his chest. It was so heavy and made it hard to breathe. Somebody was calling him and touching him. He scowled and tried to move away.

"You quit sassin' me, Vin Tanner!" Nate spoke loudly, gripping the square chin and lowering his own face. "Open them eyes... come on now, quit cussin' and look at me!"

"Hey, Vin!" J.D. hung over the opposite bedrail as two unfocused blue eyes blinked rapidly, adjusting to both light and new faces.

"I think we need to back away and let Mr. Tanner adjust. His senses are no doubt reeling," Ezra noted and moved back a little.

Slowly, his pained eyes adjusted to the harsh light. It hurt... it hurt a lot and he cried out and flinched. Then the bright light dimmed and he sighed.

"Better, Vin?" Nathan asked as Josiah adjusted the blinds, casting the room in shadows.

"Yeah..." Vin mumbled, his throat on fire. "...drink..."

"Hold on..." Josiah moved aside to allow Nathan to hold out the cup.

"Easy, now... don't rush it, or you'll get sick!" Jackson ordered.

"Thanks..." Vin gasped, eyeing each face again.

Blank.

His mind was blank. Not one feature or voice brought back a memory. These four men, two of whom had battered faces, were here to see him. Yet he didn't know them and that hurt. He frowned and continued to breathe heavily, then the dark-skinned man smiled and took his hand.

"I'm Nathan Jackson, Vin. I know that head of yours is a touch confused right now, but you'll get your memories back."

Vin stared at the handsome face and waited. The words rolled by... Nathan Jackson... Nathan... Chris's voice came back, from a faraway place. He vaguely recalled the blond man speaking of this other man... of several that they worked with.

Jackson... Jackson. He mulled it over until a single word exploded.

"Healer!" Vin blurted, startling himself and giving the others a laugh.

"You bet your ass!" Nathan teased. "See, you're already getting some memories back."

"J.D. Dunne... " the youth offered, tapping Vin's arm and taking the hand to shake it. "I sure did miss you, Vin!"

Dunne... Dunne... more words... images... and Chris's voice again, tinged with pride.

"Whiz kid!" he gasped and got another round of wide grins.

"Josiah Sanchez, son," the preacher moved in, making the sign of the cross and giving a short blessing. "Lord, help him on his way back. Cradle him carefully in Your healing hands."

Those words along with the others in his fuzzy brain from Larabee brought an image quickly.

"Preacher!" he coughed, grabbing the large strong hand.

"Amen!" Josiah winked and moved aside as Ezra approached.

"Ezra P. Standish, at your service," he offered in a sincere voice.

"Yer kiddin'!" Vin blanched and the others laughed hard.

"I assure you, my mother has a wicked sense of humor," he sent back and saw the handsome face wrinkling up. "Please don't burn out the few brain cells you have left..."

"Weasel!" Vin croaked and gasped, trying to find air. It exploded from his lips with no warning at all, from a place he didn't know. More images came to his frazzled brain and he heard his own voice from a time in the past. "...slicker than snakes wrasslin' in a bucket of spit..."

"Charming!" Ezra managed over the riotous laughter.

"That's my boy!" Josiah bragged, smiling broadly.

Vin flushed eight shades of red and his chest constricted tightly. He turned away, hiding his eyes and wondering where that awful phrase came from.

"What the hell was that?" he whispered as his stomach acid rose in what felt like World War III. His lunch was threatening to return. "I'm sorry... Edgar... I don't know where that come from. Hell... I didn't mean..."

"Edgar?" Josiah ducked his head as his deep laughter boomed.

"Dammit" Vin rasped, turning his scarlet face away.

"Look at me!" Ezra commanded, moving close and offering his hand. Slowly, the shaggy head rose and two agonized blue beacons burned a hole right through his chest. "To hear that familiar drawl, complete with biting sarcasm and honed with an edge that only one Vincent Tanner can produce, is the best reward. Anything less would not have been acceptable. No apology is necessary." He paused, smiling warmly and shook the wavering hand. "Welcome home... my friend. I've missed you!"

"Aw, hell..." Vin rasped, suddenly overcome with emotion.

He blinked rapidly as his sore chest tightened and his heart began to swell. Fleeting images of other moments with these men, scored with deep and heartfelt laughter, assaulted his reeling senses. Coupled with the nearness of the cold hands of Death and the horrid ordeal he'd been through, it overpowered him. His emotions went into overdrive, exploding in a rush of anxiety and relief. His chin wavered and he felt the tears burning. He closed his eyes and turned his head on the pillow, his heavy chest heaving.

They formed a circle then, protecting their fallen comrade until he was strong enough to break through. Ezra gripped one shoulder, Nathan the other and Josiah's deep voice became a wave of comfort.

"You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrows that fly by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you," he quoted of the strong bond that came with brotherhood from Psalms 91:5-7.

J.D. moved past then, Vin's troubled cries luring him like a magnetic vortex. He picked up a cloth that was lying with some new linens on the bed stand. He used one hand to tip the emotionally overwrought man's face and the other to wipe the salty streaks of endurance away.

"You go ahead, Vin, get that mess out. We're right here... we'll always be right here. That's what brothers do..."

Like the jubilant sun after a dark storm, a beam of light engulfed him. He felt a powerful surge inside and his troubled soul steadied. He took several shallow breaths and felt such a wave of relief pouring over him that it forced his eyes to crack open halfway. He eyed each face carefully and wrapped in the blanket of brotherhood, he rejoiced.

"...ain't seen an uglier bunch o'varmits in quite some time..." His voice wavered and threatened to break. "...reckon I'm runnin' in the right pack... I'm h...h...home..." He forced it out and then let his eyes shut. The headache was overpowering and he felt a hand, whose it mattered not. It belonged to a brother; that was all that mattered. He let that strong grip carry him through the waves of pain until he slept.

Nathan smiled at the crack in the words when Vin fell silent. He, like the others, saw the two fists that had been gripping both the sheet and his own hand in a death hold finally let go. The long slender fingers relaxed. The collective force of their powerful shield had risen proudly yet again.

+ + + + + + +

The television was dimmed to low volume allowing the injured agent to rest. Sprawled around the room in a semi-protective circle were four of the brotherhood. Josiah was working a crossword puzzle. J.D. was talking to Casey on the phone. Nathan was watching the movie and Ezra was watching Vin. They all looked up when the door opened.

"Hey, Boss." Josiah flipped his paper shut.

Nathan turned the television off and moved around the bed to see to Chris. He lowered the guardrail and pulled back the blankets. He took one side of the injured man and the escort took the other.

"Thanks," Chris nodded to the orderly who assisted him then left.

The others exchanged small grins as the intense green eyes studied the figure in the other bed. The gaze swept from head to toe then back up to the relaxed profile. Finally, satisfied that Vin was resting, he allowed himself to relax.

"He's been sleeping for a couple hours now," J.D. spoke up having completed his phone call.

"He didn't know us at first, but he worked on it and some stuff came back." Nathan helped Chris get into a comfortable position in the bed and pulled the blanket up.

"Thanks, Nate," Chris grunted, his body aching and his head throbbing.

What he needed was some sleep. He'd not admit it, but having Vin trapped in ICU without his memory and nightmares invading his injured mind had created uneasy rest for him as well. Now, with the Texan close by, he'd be able to relax. His yawn brought movement.

"I'm okay, Nate," he reassured. "...just tired. So it went okay? Vin didn't get upset?"

"Well," J.D. noted, hazel eyes twinkling, "he studied us hard, one by one, and we introduced ourselves."

"Then descriptor words popped up in his head," Josiah finished, tapping his chest. "Preacher."

"Healer," Nathan smiled, nodding to J.D.

"Whiz kid," the youth beamed, then snorted and winked at Ezra who rolled his eyes and cleared his throat.

"What?" Chris grinned, seeing the others smirking.

"A small, flesh eating mammal of the unsavory variety," the southerner announced over the chuckles.

Chris frowned, his eyes narrowing as his brain worked. He cocked his head, cast a gaze at the innocent, almost cherubic Tanner features, then at the smug undercover agent.

"Rat?"

"Certainly not!" Ezra shot back over the laughter.

"Ferret?" the blond guessed with a sly grin.

"Close but no cigar," Dunne noted with a small raspberry-like sound.

"Hmmm...."

"Allow me to relieve your weary brain," Ezra replied, remaining by Vin's side. "Weasel." He watched in amusement as Chris ducked his head and laughed while covering his mouth.

"Buck always says that boy has a way with words," Josiah noted.

"Speaking of which, anything yet?"

"They're still in court. Buck's gonna call back," J.D. answered Chris's question.

"You look beat, Chris, we can come back later," Nathan advised as yet another yawn was born.

"Besides, we didn't have lunch yet." J.D. stood. "And I'm hungry."

"You're always hungry," Jackson tossed back.

"Come on, Edgar, we'll let you free those moths in your wallet." Sanchez tapped the southerner's back.

"Edgar?" Chris's head came up and he heard snorted laughter.

"Mister Tanner had some difficulty with my name," Ezra huffed, rising and peering down at the bed.

"Edgar?" Chris repeated then chuckled.

"What's the word on when you two will be released?" J.D. asked.

"I'm not sure, kid." Chris yawned again and rubbed his eyes. "I know that one of the doctors wants Vin on his feet first. He said something about getting him in therapy."

"He's gonna walk again? They're sure?"

Chris studied the concerned youth's features. J.D. and Vin, as the two youngest on the team, had forged an active friendship. They played on the same adult hockey team and a half dozen other sports, the more rigorous the better. J.D. introduced Vin to dirt biking and the Texan returned the favor by showing the Bostonian white river rafting, kayaking and rock climbing. There weren't too many Sundays when the two didn't disappear into the mountains to cut loose.

"Yeah, he's gonna be fine, J.D. He'll be collecting cuts and bruises with you in no time," Chris assured with a wink.

"We'll be back later," Nathan said. "Your mom coming back?"

"Yeah, she wants to get my dad settled in and make him dinner." He flushed in color when they began to whistle. "Just dinner... give me a break, will you?"

"That ain't nothing to be ashamed of," Nathan teased. "Your mother is a beautiful lady. Can't blame the general one bit for..."

"Enough!" Chris put his hand up. "Edgar, before you leave, make yourself useful..." He recovered and handed his empty pitcher to the smug conman.

"My station in life has been diminished," Standish clipped, taking the yellow plastic pitcher and heading for the door.

"I don't know, Ez," J.D. announced from where he stood next to Josiah. "This could be a new career for you. You have the legs for it."

"The boy's got a point, Ezra," Sanchez announced, casting a 'brotherly' arm on the stiff Southerner's shoulder. "You looked downright fetchin' in that red dress you wore workin' the Koslowski case," he teased of the undercover assignment.

"Fetching?" Ezra harrumphed, shaking his chestnut head.

"Yeah," J.D. rubbed it in. "That old guy at the bar sure thought so!"

"I fail to see the humor in that!" the chagrined southerner paused.

"You must be blind, it was fuckin' hilarious," Chris laughed, recalling quite well his spot across the large after-hours club. "He had his hand halfway up your ass before he grabbed a peak instead of a valley."

"I think Buck's got photos of your face somewhere..." Josiah recalled. "Vin laughed so hard he damn near choked."

"It would have served him right. He was three feet away and did nothing to intercept that vile creature." He paused, hand on the doorframe and tilted his nose in the air, recalling the 'grope'. "I bruise easily..."

"Then you best get your ass in gear," the blond growled playfully, "before I die of thirst."

Later, although the room was empty, the energy in the air remained. Chris knew Vin had taken the first shaky step towards his recovery. Now, with his friends to lend a hand, the road would be shorter. He yawned and let his eyes slide shut, confident that the days ahead would be as bright as the afternoon sun that cast an almost golden glow on his face.

+ + + + + + +

Sunset, on the base

"Magnificent!" Adam Larabee proclaimed while sitting outside the base house they'd been assigned.

The deep blue sky was bleeding orange and red over a golden sunset. Kate stared in awe as well, drinking in Mother Nature's beautiful display. They were sitting on a bench outside the house waiting for dinner to get done.

"There is something magical about a sunset..."

"I wasn't talking about the sunset."

She smiled at the raspy voice and felt her small hand tighten in his grip. Then his free hand moved and cupped her chin, tipping her face up. The kiss was deep and prolonged, evoking a rush of heat inside her. Finally, she broke away, tracing his cheek with one finger and gasping as he caught it in his teeth when she brushed his lips.

"Show you a good time, soldier?" she teased and saw the dark eyes crinkle in mirth.

"I'm a married man..."

"I like a challenge..."

"I like blond coeds..." he murmured, burying his face in her neck and then yelping when a hand thwacked him. "Ouch!"

"You'll pay for that," she warned as his tender ministrations continued. "...later..." she baited, waiting for his caresses to grow in ardor, then she stood up.

"Dammit, Kate!" he growled when she rose. "You're a tease!"

"Cry on the shoulder of your 'blond coed'," she sent back with a grin before going in to check on the lasagna.

+ + + + + + +

It was a warm summer day and the small blond boy sat proudly next to his father. Surrounded by the trees and with the river under his toes, he was glowing. He didn't think a boy could be much happier. His green eyes shot sideways at his father who was showing him how to cast his fishing line. He eyed the tall, strong man and wondered if he'd ever be so tall and powerful. Then the dark eyes turned to him, full of love and affection. He pressed closer when that hand ruffled his golden hair.

"Having a good time, son?"

"Yessir!"

"Adam, Christopher," a voice beckoned from the campsite. "Dinner's ready..."

The seven year old turned and ran towards his mother who was frying the fish they'd caught overa campfire. He was starving and his stomach growled hungrily as the aroma attacked him as he drew closer.

Chris groaned as the dream faded and the sounds and smell of the hospital returned. He didn't open his eyes right away. He was savoring the rich dream. It basked him in the same golden light he'd been raised with. Sometimes he wondered if he thanked God enough for giving him such wonderful parents. He inhaled again and then frowned. He wasn't asleep anymore but he still smelled something fishy. He peeled an eye open and turned, slowly watching a fork rising to a pair of unsuspecting lips.

"Noooo!"

"Jesus!" Vin choked, dropping the fork as the bellow caused his whole body to jerk. He saw the shocked face of his roommate. "What the hell's wrong with ya? Ya damn near gave me a heart attack."

"What is that?" Chris demanded, sniffing the air.

"Huh?" Vin's face wrinkled, then he followed the green eyes gazing intently at his plate. "Supper..."

"No shit, Sherlock!" Larabee growled. "What is it?"

"I dunno... mushed up macaroni and cheese, some green beans and a crab cake or lumpy fish cake... why?"

"Goddammit!" the blond shouted, pressing the nurse call button frantically. Then he saw the hand move again, towards the fork. "Put that fuckin' fork down!"

"Why?" Tanner demanded, now getting annoyed. "I'm starved. I been waitin' all afternoon."

"You take one bite of that crab and you'll find out why," he vented as the door opened. "You can't eat shellfish, you're allergic."

"Aw, hell," Vin pouted, dropping the fork.

"How the hell did this happen?" Chris stormed at the nurse, then pointed to the tray. "I told them in the ER and the chart nurse again this morning to be careful. HE CAN'T EAT SHELLFISH! Is that too difficult a concept for you people to understand?"

"Chris, take it easy," Vin tried to soothe.

"I'm sorry." The nurse turned to a second nurse in the hall. "Get dietary, find out what happened."

"Do you know what would have happened if I hadn't woken up and smelled that crab cake? He would have gone into anaphylactic shock!" Chris's irate voice shook the room just as the clerk from dietary who delivered the tray appeared. "How could you make a mistake like that!"

"Chris..." Vin tried, flushing in embarrassment as the poor kid in the doorway matched him for color. "Chris..." He tried again over the Larabee roar. Then he got angry and gripped the rail hard. "Chris, shut up!"

Chris turned, still wearing the mask of anger. The hot blue eyes burned a hole in him and he saw the thin chest heaving in anger.

"She's a kid... what the hell's wrong with you? I'm fine... I didn't eat any and I ain't in no prophylactic shock..." he hissed. "So shut the hell up..."

"Anaphylactic shock, Vin!" Chris rolled his eyes and saw Vin scowl, then flush a shade of red yet unknown to Tanner.

"'scuse me," Vin managed, nodding to the amused nurse and the confused clerk. "I didn't mean to offend ya..."

"None taken." The nurse eyed the chart handed to her by the clerk. "Heather, this is bed A, that is B. The crab cake was supposed to be Mister Larabee's. Mister Tanner gets the chicken parmesan and spaghetti."

"Oh!" She dropped her head and bit her lip. "I'm so... sorry..."

"Aw, hell," Vin hissed, seeing the tears splashing on the teenage girl's cheeks. He scowled again, turning to his roommate. "Proud of yerself? Look what ya done!"

"I'm sorry, kid. I didn't mean to upset you," Chris managed, still angry.

"Heather?" Vin said softly, watching the girl's head rise. "That's a beautiful name, jest like them little purple flowers over in Scotland. It suits ya... yer a real pretty young lady." He paused and then a small smile formed and her head finally came up. "Ain't no harm done, no call fer ya t'hang yer head."

"I just started this week. I guess Igot mixed up." She moved closer to the bed where the handsome blue eyed man smiled. "I'm really sorry, Mister Tanner. I promise I'll be more careful."

"Mister?" Vin smiled broader, extending his hand. "Ain't no 'Misters' here. I'm Vin." He shook her small hand. "I got a favor, Heather, if it ain't too much trouble. My stomach ain't upta spaghetti... I was wonderin' if ya could scare up something else that won't fire up my innards."

"Sure I could!" she gushed, eager to make amends. "Hey, they have omelettes tonight too..."

"That'd be fine and maybe some soup, extra crackers?"

"I'll take care of it, Mis... uh... Vin," she beamed before exiting.

"I'm very sorry, Mister Tanner," the nurse apologized. "It won't happen again. Do you need something for your stomach?"

"Nah." Vin laid back as the nurse moved the tray to the other man's bed. "Stomach's fine."

"But you said..." Chris started and saw Vin smile, then he smiled back. "Cowboy, you ever hang up your guns and you could do public relations."

"Nicely done," the nurse agreed. "You're a good guy..."

"Wasn't nuthin' special," he shrugged. "Ya get more bees from sugar than vinegar..."

"Flies, Vin," Chris corrected.

"Them too," Vin decided, missing the correction.

"If you need anything..." the nurse noted, then left.

+ + + + + + +

Seven p.m., hospital lobby

"I talked to Maddie Fisher today," Kate updated Adam as she pushed him through the lobby towards the elevators.

"Fisher?" he muffled, eyeing the contents of the tin container he held.

"From the base back home. She runs the rehabilitation facility. She spoke with the staff here and got the paperwork started. You, Chris and Vin can do your rehab there. She said..." The blonde paused, sniffed and lowered her face, then slapped her husband's hand. "Stay out of there. They're for Vin, I made them special. Buck says he loves chocolate."

"There's plenty here," he growled. "Hell, Kate that's fightin' dirty. They're still warm..."

"There's another tin at the house." She popped the lid back on. "For later..."

"Later?" He sat up, eyes alert. "I might not be up to it, being weak and all..."

"Good thing you have an all night nurse who's skilled in hand feeding," she teased, kissing his cheek. "Anyway, once they get Vin on his feet here and he takes some steps, gets his legs back so to speak, they'll release him to travel home. Maddie said that they told her they hoped by Friday..." She paused as the doors opened to their floor. She pushed the chair out, watching the numbers on the door carefully. "I certainly hope he's able to complete the tests here. I want all my boys home..."

"Kate?" He turned, hearing the catch in her voice. Then he saw the tears in her eyes and took her hand. "What?"

"This morning... he was having a dream about a beautiful place in the mountains... he told me when I touched him... he felt his own mother. He called it 'her grace'..."

"Chris said he was a smart one," Adam smiled, lifting his fingers to brush away the tears. "...and he's right, Lady Grace..."

She kissed him and got herself together before preparing to enter.

"You have it?" She asked and saw her husband's head bob as he patted his chest pocket. "Okay." She pushed the door open and held it wide so Adam could enter. "Hello?"

"Mom!" Chris smiled, tossing the magazine aside.

"Hey, Kate!" Vin's voice rose as he drank in the sight of the special woman, already scenting the delicate perfume she wore. "I missed ya! Ya sure smell better than Chris."

"I hope so," she grinned, making her way to her son. "How are you, son?"

"Good. Dad?"

"Chris," he nodded and moved the chair towards the other man. "Son, I'm Adam Larabee. I don't know if you remember me from the rescue."

"No, sir." Vin shook his head, startled by the strong resemblance the man had to Chris Larabee. "How's yer foot?"

"Ah," he shrugged, "piece of cake. I'll be up in no time." Then his dark eyes turned serious as he watched the expressive face. "Son, I've spent my whole life serving this country. What that flag represents weighs heavy in my book in all walks of life, not just the armed services."

Vin's brows furrowed as he felt a tingling begin in his chest as the commanding man's rich tone invaded him. He couldn't take his eyes from those intense dark ones no matter how hard he tried.

"Yes, sir," he managed to squeak. "Them colors flyin' in the breeze gets my gut in a bunch too."

"I'm not surprised," he smiled. "Chris told me what you did on that mountain. How at the risk of your own life, you saved his."

"He talks t'much..." Vin mumbled, suddenly uncomfortable.

"He spoke the truth," Adam sent back along with his hand. "It would mean a lot to me, Vincent Tanner, if you let me shake the hand of a man with ideals that fine."

Vin's jaw worked but no words came out. He felt his face flush with color and tears prick at his eyes. He shot a look to the other bed where Kate beamed and Chris glowed, sending a wink his way.

"That's my cowboy!" Chris exuded, full of pride.

"It's my honor, sir," Vin whispered, taking the strong hand and wincing at the grip. "Helluva grip..."

"Don't ever challenge him to arm wrestling," Chris warned with a sloppy grin.

"I have something for you, Vin, from his mother and me with our deepest gratitude." He paused, turning to his wife. "Kate?" The General took the silver disc and handed it to his wife. She put it around the stunned young man's neck. He moved the chair back slightly, totally captivated by the explosion of emotions on the startled man's face. His wife moved in, kissing the shocked man's cheek and fixing the chain properly.

Vin felt like a bullet tore a hole in his already shell-shocked frame. He couldn't speak or move; it was all he could do to breathe. He gasped audibly, seeking air and not caring about the pain in his healing ribs. His fingers wrapped around the St. Christopher medal and a rush of emotions exploded and took his breath away.

"Easy, son," Adam frowned at the ragged coughing.

He felt her hand on his face and nuzzled against her when she bent to hug him. He bit his lip in a desperate attempt to quell the tears that burned. It was right here in his hand, next to his heart. He couldn't believe it. He didn't fully understand the power it held or why he needed it so badly. He trusted his gut and it told him to hang onto the silver medal for all it was worth.

"Ya... got... ya..." he stammered, hiccupped and sent his chest heaving. "Ya... got... no... i..idea... "

"You're wrong, son," Adam smiled, watching the slim fingers holding the medal in a death grip. Chris was right. Vin needed that medal. It was written on every stunned feature, especially those telltale emotive blue eyes thatwere now burning a hole in him. "I don't know when I've seen a stronger exhibition of gratitude."

"It's alright, Vin." Kate held the trembling body, stroking his hair and smiling at the warm tears that splashed onto her.

"I'm s... s... sorry..." Vin whispered, trying to fight the uncontrollable emotions. "It ain't like me t'spring a leak..."

"I'd say you're more than entitled." Adam moved away, giving the struggling man some room. He left the tin on the side of the bed and went to his son's side.

"Thanks, Dad." Chris's voice was tight. "I think we both needed that medal."

"Here," Kate handed Vin a tissue and reached for a mug of water. "Better?"

"Yes, ma'am," he nodded, wiping his eyes and drinking the water. Then his eyes caught sight of the silver tin with American eagles and flags on it. His keen nose twitched and his still damp eyes widened.

"Chocolate!" he announced, eyeing the tin.

"I made some brownies..." Kate began and watched the blue eyes light up.

"Ya brung 'em fer me! Damn... them's m' favorites..." He inched the metal tin to his side and popped the lid, nearly passing out from the wonderful aroma. "Oh, God, I'm gonna die right here."

"You sure you're up to it?" Chris warned. "Your dinner didn't sit too well."

"Were you sick?" Kate moved her hand over the tiny brown squares, causing him to scowl. "Maybe you should wait until..."

"I'm fine!" he growled at Chris. "Shut the hell up! Who asked ya? Weren't m'fault them runny eggs didn't have the sense t'stay put. My insides is used t'chocolate. Was raised on it... wouldn't never send it back..."

"I don't know, honey. If you threw up, it might be better to wait until tomorrow," Kate advised, moving the tin away.

"No!" he pouted, then threw an irate glare to the other bed. "Look what ya done. Damn interferin' blond varmint."

"I'm doing this for both of us, Vin," Chris sent back past his amused parents who were enjoying the 'brotherly' spat. "You're a mess when you're sick, moanin' and groanin' and cussin'. I intend to sleep tonight, all night, without hearing 'Chris... m'belly's fired up... best buzz that nurse fer a pan'!"

He paused, seeing guilt splashed on the other man's features. "Then I have to suffer through a parade of nurses all breaking their necks to be the one to bathe you and clean you up. Then Huckleberry Vin shows up. 'Aw, hell, ma'am, don't go t'no trouble fer me. I'm sorry... didn't mean t'cause a fuss. Yer like little angels... them hands feel real good''

"I ain't hardly that bad," Vin defended weakly but was already chuckling. "Yer jest jealous and I can't help it if women like t'fuss over me."

"Jealous?" Chris scoffed, taking the soda his mother offered from the tote bag she brought. "Of what?"

"Jealous," Vin sent back, smiling angelically for Kate who gave him a coke with a straw. "Thanks, Kate."

"You looked drier than a buzzard's butt," she proclaimed.

"Not you too!" Chris groaned. "Please, Mom, one Texas philosopher is enough."

"Jealous!" Vin repeated, sucking his soda. "It's as clear as dirt!"

"Clear as dirt!" Kate repeated, thoroughly charmed.

Chris groaned and rolled his eyes as his mother and father laughed.

Kate didn't only see the magic in the room, she felt it. Chris and Vin did belong together. It was if Fate did what Mother Nature didn't; bringing them together in a torrid world that needed heroes. Vin was good for herson. To hear Chris laugh and see that handsome face shine was what she'd prayed for since Sara and Adam died. Yes, she couldn't wait to get her boys home.To a place full of love that both of them needed to heal from their ordeal.

Part Nineteen

Lyrics and music to Truly by Lionel Ritchie. Magic supplied by Buck Wilmington! The role of Doctor Magee is played tongiht by the wise KET, whose talents are endless.

THANKS MUCH TO KET FOR PROVIDING A DUAL ROLE IN THIS PART, EDITOR AND GUEST STAR.

Warning: For those who've been asking about our favorite rogue, and his lady... well let's just say there's a romantic devil on the loose...

His eyes peeled open suddenly, almost expecting 'Old Blue Eyes' to be in the corner crooning 'In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.' Young blue eyes adjusted to the near darkness before shifting to the next bed. He saw the sheets rising and falling in a steady rhythm and turned his head back.

What woke him up?

Before he could think any more on it, something took his breath away.

"What the hell's that?" he hissed as his legs twitched. His heart began to pound like a runaway jackhammer and his pulse imitated a race car at the Indy 500. "Shit... shit... " he rasped as the erratic jerking continued. "Call somebody..." he reminded himself, his nervous fingers fumbling on the sheet. "...fuckin' button..." He panicked as the odd sensations continued.

Then the need to find the call button became moot. A cry split his lips when a rippling pain began to shoot up and down his dormant limbs. His hands wrapped the bed sheets in a death grip, sweat pouring down his twisted face.

"Vin!"

A light flipped on over his head and his eyes jammed shut, not welcoming the harshness. He was gasping and fumbling, then a hand hit his shoulder. He heard his name called softer and cracked open an eye.

"...'spensive hair..." he panted, blinking his eyes into focus and seeing two concerned green ones under that chestnut cut. "It's... it's..." His mind faltered, only drawing up the word 'weasel'. "Uh... uh..." he fumbled badly despite the enormous relief coursing through him. He found his hand gripping the other man's in a vise-like hold. Then the pain ripped through his legs again, shooting up into his back.

"G..a....a...ah...ah.hhhh....dddd...." he screamed. "Elmer, git somebody..."

"Elmer?" The befuddled blond went on guard, then saw who Vin was talking to.

"Stay where you are!" Ezra commanded Chris Larabee who was sitting up, blinking in confusion and eyeing his best friend.

"Where the hell did you come from?" he asked.

"I happened to be in the neighborhood..." the southerner replied.

"At one a.m.?" Chris sent back, then eyed the rumpled shirt. Never on his worst day, even after being shot, did Ezra appear wrinkled. He saw the odd angle of the chair and frowned. "How'd you pull that off?"

"It's not important." He eyed the door. "Apparently the hired help is deaf!"

"Get a doctor!" Larabee ordered.

"We appear to have a slight problem."

Chris sighed when he saw the iron grip Vin had no intention of relinquishing. He saw the muscles in Vin's legs dancing with spasms and knew the younger man was frightened.

"Vin, let him go. Vin... he needs to..."

"Is there a problem?"

"Where the hell have you been?" Chris thundered at the two nurses while releasing his call button. "Get a doctor! Something's wrong with Vin. He's in pain and his legs are twitching."

"I'll page Magee," the brutish one noted of the resident on call and moved to the phone to page the doctor.

"Call Dr. Jacobs too," Annie noted of the neurosurgeon who attended her patient. "I know you're scared, Vin, but you need to calm down," she soothed, skirting the bed to get to the other side. She saw the late night visitor wincing under the white-knuckled hold Tanner had on his hand.

"How'd you get in here?" a stern voice addressed after hanging up the phone.

"That's not important," Ezra dismissed, not liking the short, clipped voice of the new nurse. "My place is here."

"Your place is at a hotel or home," she sent back tersely. "Visiting hours were over at 8 p.m. You leave now or I'll have security escort you out!"

"Connie, did you page Dr. Magee?" Anne interrupted her rude coworker.

"...and Jacobs. Doctor Magee should be here in a few moments." She moved closer, trying to worm out the immovable force. "Sir!" she said with disdain, "You have to go..."

"No!" Vin panicked, suddenly seeing too many bodies and feeling his air space invaded. He began to pant, unable to get enough air inside. "...t'many... o'ya... can't breathe..."

"Vin, look at me." Annie used a calm tone and turned his chin towards her. She met those telltale eyes and smiled. "That pain you're feeling is common in injuries such as yours. It's most likely the nerves waking back up. But you need to stay calm and breathe. Don't you dare faint on me."

"...faint?" Vin hissed, blinked and scowled. "...ain't no girl..." he insisted, then his hand was suddenly jerked free. His lifeline was cut and he twisted his head, only seeing a massive white uniform. Where was he?

"Chris!"

"Right here, Vin, calm down," Larabee called over, annoyed by the loutish nurse.

Vin wiggled and tried to move his arm. Where was he? Again the name didn't come, just the word 'weasel'.

"W..e...." He stopped. "Ephraim... where are ya?"

"He was just leaving!" The nurse eyed the bedside monitor, assessing his pulse and heart rate. "You need to calm down."

"Ya need t'move yer iron-girdled ass and git the hell out!" Vin spat in anger, gasping frantically. "...Chris... can't breathe..."

"Get out!" Larabee ordered, trying to stand, only to have Ezra appear at his side.

"Don't. Six weeks with no weight, remember?"

"Settle down!" the nurse ordered.

"Connie, I have it under control," Annie pressed, annoyed that the overbearing nurse was creating such a panic.

"Ephraim!" Vin hollered, hearing his voice arguing with Chris. "What's wrong? What ain't ya tellin' me?" He feared, thinking they were holding back.

"What's going on here?" A new voice broke into the chaos.

"Doctor Magee," Annie sighed in relief. "This is Vin Tanner. He's one of the federal agents admitted earlier this week."

"Spinal contusion... head injury..." Teresa Magee flipped through his chart, scanning the notes. "You called Dr. Jacobs?"

"Yes," Connie nodded. "And I'm calling security to escort this intruder out."

"Intruder!" Chris growled, having seen firsthand how effective Ezra's presence had been to the panicked Texan. "Lady, and I use that term very loosely, you know what your problem is? You need a good..."

"I think we all need to calm down." The medical resident hid a smile and winked at the handsome blond whose feathers were obviously ruffled. "Connie, your presence is not required. Mister ...uh...?"

"Standish," Ezra replied, his face masked in anger as the bullish nurse went by him.

"I will notify security," she hissed.

"That's not required!" the doctor shot back. "We don't need this patient any more upset. Can we agree on that?"

"Yes, doctor," the beast managed, retreating.

"I'm very sorry." The resident moved to the stricken man's side, reading every bit of his anxiety. She saw the other nurse stroking his hair and watched his breathing slow. "Good. Can you some water? I think a drink and cool cloth on his face will help."

"Elroy? Where are ya?"

"Elroy?" Chris shook his head, finding a thin smile. "Go on, uh, Elroy, I'm okay."

Ezra nodded and moved next to the bed, grabbing the wayward hand.

"Plant yerself..." Vin whispered, feeling dizzy and sick.

"As it turns out, my evening is free," Ezra soothed, moving slightly so Annie could get next to him.

"That's better, huh?" she asked, wiping his face and seeing him nod. "Thirsty?" She offered a cup with a straw. She handed it to the bedside visitor and turned to check his vital signs.

"Yeah..." Vin croaked, lifting his head slightly to accommodate the straw. All the actions and unnecessary movement caused his healing ribs to scream in protest, dueling with the pain in his head. He was decidedly lightheaded and nauseous. Feeling the steadfast body by his side was the light he needed. "Thanks... Emory.."

"My pleasure," Ezra returned, placing the cup down and remaining steadfast. "Doctor?"

"Now, what seems to be the problem?" Magee inquired pleasantly.

She listened patiently as the distraught blue-eyed man described the symptoms that had awoken him from sleep. Nodding her head sagely, she moved over to his bed and did a quick neurological exam of Vin's lower extremities. Pleased by his responses and her own findings, she gave him her most professional smile and reassuring gaze.

"I know how distressing this must seem to you, but in actuality, I believe the pain and shooting sensations you described are a good sign."

"Good how?" Chris pressed, cued by the doctor's voice and actions that Vin was in no danger.

The resident turned so that she was able to address both patients. "We'll have to wait for Dr. Jacobs' opinion, but I believe the symptoms are a result of decreased swelling around the spinal cord."

"So that reduction will create a passage in which the circulation will be restored?" Erza guessed.

A broad grin crossed Teresa Magee's face. She loved to be the bearer of good news. "It means that the swelling around the nerves is going down to the point that the nerve fibers are starting to fire." Catching the bewildered look on Vin's face, she added, "It means you'll be walking again before you know it!"

Seeing the relief that flooded the faces of the three men gathered there, the resident felt her heart swell and her chest flood with warmth. It was times like these that made all her long years of education and work seem worth it. "I'm going to order some medicine to help ease those muscle spasms and see if we can't get your pain under control. Try and get some rest tonight and I'll be back by with Dr. Jacobs first thing in the morning."

"Doc..." Vin's arm fumbled, until his hand met her's. "Thanks... I feel like a hunert butterflies is flappin' like hell in my gut."

She laughed and took his hand in both of her's.

"Vin, that's about as apt a description of getting good news as I ever heard!"

She turned to the door, already writing in Tanner's chart with the low murmur of voices sounding from behind her. Anne followed her out a moment later, taking the chart from the resident's hands and sending the orders down to pharmacy to be filled. Returning as quickly as possible, the nurse administered the medications and left the three men with a final warm smile.

At last the room was quiet again. Ezra remained long enough for Vin to fall into a deep, sedative-induced sleep. With a final glance of inspection, he started to leave. A voice caught him by the door. He peered into the dark room, seeing a warm light reflected in the green eyes.

"Emory?" Chris's whispered guess to the last misnomer Vin produced.

"At your service," Ezra nodded his head.

"You pick up a bottle of that imported rot-gut you swill," Larabee's voice directed in gratitude. He knew Ezra had stayed because of the possibility of nightmares. The bad leg made it impossible for Chris to reach the troubled sleeper. "Send me the bill."

"As it turns out, I've a good supply already on hand," Standish declined, then released a glint of gold tooth at the surly reply.

"Then I'd suggest you find some room on your shelf."

"Duly noted," he nodded, slipping out the door.

+ + + + + + +

The next several days slipped by quickly, filled with visitors, phone calls from home and for Vin Tanner, physical therapy. With each day that passed, he got more sensation in his limbs and his coordination and strength continued to improve. It was after lunch and he was in the elevator, anxiously eyeing the moving numbers.

"You okay?" the orderly asked.

"Jest itchy..." Vin replied. "Can't this damn thing move faster?"

"We're almost there..."

At last the floor came and the doors slid open. Vin beamed on the way past the nurse's counter, holding up his hand.

"Hold on..." He turned and sat up straight in the wheelchair, grinning from ear to ear. "Hey, girls..."

"Vin!"

"How are you, blue eyes?"

"Congrats, handsome!"

"Y'all heard?" His brows furrowed as one smiling face leaned over the counter and the two in the aisle bent over his chair. "Aw, hell, wanted t'surprise ya..."

J.D heard the drawl and stuck his head out the door, then laughed. He retreated to the bed stand near Tanner's bed and wiggled his fingers for the phone.

"Hold on, Buck." Josiah handed the phone over.

"Buck?" the youth grinned. "He's back. He's out in the hall getting fondled by two pretty nurses."

"Fondled?" Nate's dark eyes narrowed.

"Well, kissed anyhow."

"Damn!" Buck grinned, leaning back in the chair of his condo in Denver. "Even with amnesia that boy still has it..." His smile broadened when warm greetings were issued and he heard Vin's voice.

"Hey, yer all here!" the returnee boomed, eyeing the bodies sprawled in various places in the sunny room.

"How'd it go?" Nathan asked, seeing a hint of something flashing in the blue eyes.

"Ready?" the orderly asked, moving the chair closer.

"Where's the other guy?" Chris turned from his bed, watching the solo escort put brakes on the chair right next to Vin's bed. Normally, two men brought Vin back and got him settled.

The room was then filled with cheers and clapping when the escort got the young man on his feet. He remained in place as they offered encouragement. Then he let the sound die away, concentrating hard on the task at hand. With the strong arms supporting him, Vin took two small steps before sitting on the bed. He heard the clapping, but his eyes only saw one thing. A face across the room, a drunken grin and a blinding light from those green eyes he'd come to depend on.

"You all set, Vin?" the orderly asked, easing Tanner's legs up and pulling a blanket over him.

"Yeah, thanks Mike," he nodded as the other man left.

"Every journey starts with one step," Josiah praised.

"Looks like you're on the road home," Ezra offered warmly with a wink. "Well done, sir!"

"Thanks, Zeke..."

"Zeke?"

"Ezekiel," Vin answered the chorus. "What's wrong with all o'ya? Like ya never heard his name."

"Ezra?" the southerner offered, amused.

"Naw, Vin Tanner," the blue-eyed culprit frowned, pointing to the spot above his head behind him. "Ain't it wrote up there?"

"It is," Ezra sighed amidst the laughter. "My pardon, it was an oversight."

"S'okay," Vin decided. "Reckon yer hive ain't quite buzzin' yet," he said of the tired visitor's brain. "Seein' s'how ya been campin' out over here." He lifted his head so Nathan could put another pillow behind him. "Thanks, Nate." He frowned and picked up the tan phone receiver that was on the bed. "What's this?"

"Oh, I forgot!" J.D. gushed.

"Hello? Anybody there?"

"Hey, Bucklin!" Vin smiled as the voice came through. "How's yer arm?"

"I don't get it," J.D. asked Josiah and Nathan. "How come it's only Ezra's name he can't remember?"

"He's bound to hit it eventually," Jackson replied. "He's gonna run out of names soon."

"You know, it's rather amazing that he is able to come up with so many unusual ones," Ezra noted.

"You're a good sport, Brother Standish," the preacher proclaimed, watching Vin hang up the phone.

"Somethin' wrong, Vin?" Nathan asked, watching the blue eyes skirt the room.

"Didn't none of ya bring food?" Vin chirped.

"Chris said you ate a good lunch," Josiah noted.

"Yeah, Vin," J.D. tossed in. "He said you ate his too..."

"Woudda gone t'waste..." Vin defended, rubbing his flat abdomen. "I'm down a few anyhows..and he's t'damn fussy."

"Up yours, Tanner!" Chris snarled. "...and you got balls calling me fussy. At least I'm honest. I don't hide the vegetables in napkins and throw them in the trash."

"Vin!" Nathan ducked his head and chuckled.

"Them mushed up green stuff ain't worth eatin' .'sides, I don't wanna upset that little girl none. Ya already scared 'bout five years offa her," Vin decided, eyeing the shelf in the closet.

"No."

"Ain't yer call," Vin snapped to the blond who was reading the New York Times.

"No."

"Kate brung 'em fer me..."

"...and I'm the one who has to suffer through your moaning and groaning when you do a Hoover," the blond tossed back, scanning the stock market.

"Hoover!" Nate grinned. "That's good."

"That's Vin," Josiah agreed of the bottomless Texas pit.

"What?" J.D. interrupted.

"Brownies with little bitty peanut butter chips inside 'em and fluff icin'..."

"Good Lord," Ezra repelled.

"Awesome!" J.D. bounced across the room.

"One moan, Vin, even a hint of discomfort and I'm changing rooms. You puked in my air space for the last time," Larabee threatened, recalling the night before too readily.

"Like rats huddled in the bowels of a ship," Ezra noted of the two youngest, hovering over the tin.

"Some cold milk sure would taste good," Vin announced, scanning the group before settling on his would-be guardian. "I'd hate t'choke... seein's how I worked up a good thirst whilst I was doin' m'therapy." He paused and saw the green eyes narrow. "I think I seen a machine downstairs that's got them milk cartons." He saw the southern man's lips fighting hard not to grin. He pressed on, wearing a pious face. "'Course, I was all twisted in pain and all wore out from them fella's wrasslin m'legs..."

"Before the violin chorus begins," Ezra moved from his spot, drinking in the impish grin sitting slyly under a fluff mustache, "I'll go on a milk run. Mister Dunne?"

"Yeah, thanks!" J.D. muffled.

"Scare up a few, Elvis..." He paused, drowned out by loud laughter. "Elvis... Earl?" That only brought more laughter as the milkman left.

Vin waited patiently, eyeing the half brownie sitting in front of him. Nathan put the tin away after giving him a lecture. He was thirsty now and needed that milk. Then the door opened and in walked salvation.

"Took ya long enuf!" Vin eyed the half dozen small containers. "I can't drink them pink ones..." he decided. "S'worse than water..."

"Skim," Ezra put them down. "I got all they had, four whole, two skim."

"Thanks, Ethan." Vin took the container offered and drained it. "Nectar of the Gods..." He eyed the smirking faces. "What?" He punctuated with a wet burp under his snappy white mustache.

"My mother named me after a great figure in history." Standish waited, seeing the face scrunch up.

"The guy who invented paint?"

"NO!" Ezra hollered over the riotous laughter filling the room. "Of course he didn't invent paint."

"Well, he invented somethin' with paint... the cans?" He thought of the television commercials for Ethan Allan paint.

"Ezra?" Standish pleaded, plopping another container down.

"Naw, it's Vin, remember?" Tanner rolled his eyes. "Yer brain ain't worth shit today."

"I think I saw this on a Twilight Zone episode once," Josiah said with a straight face, resting a brotherly arm on Ezra's shoulders.

"I think I was in it." Standish shook his head and gave up, laughing, as the contented cow rested. The weary head went back and the blue eyes were fading fast.

"Ya can toss them dead soldiers," Vin waved at the three empty cartons, letting his eyes slide shut over a long yawn. "...'preciate it, E...E...Elmo."

Ezra ignored the snickering Dunne and made his way to the bed. He eyed the placid face, noting the relaxed features. The lips fell open and the soft breathing began, lifting the injured man's chest in a steady rhythm. He hoped these restful naps would soon take over at night as well, replacing the nightmares. The road ahead would be hard enough and until his friend was mentally sound, his vigil would continue.

+ + + + + + +

Ten p.m., in the mountains outside Denver

The handsome man sent his blue eyes skyward, amazed at how much more alive that star field seemed this last week. He'd probably gazed at it thousands of times in his life, but never had it been so real. Every glittering star seemed like a diamond and that silver moon was mesmerizing. Or was it seeing it through the eyes of the beautiful woman at his side that created the night magic?

He exhaled deeply and she nestled closer. He wrapped his free arm around her and kissed the top of her head. He used his good leg to move the large swing to and fro, creating a steady rhythm. The soft body pressed against him under the blanket felt so good... so real and so right it scared him. He never wanted to lose this feeling or the tingles it left in his heart.

What a week it had been!

From the look on Eric McClendon's face as the charges were read, to the sound of the jubilant cheering when Vin Tanner took those first steps and to the explosion of sensation in his body when Inez spotted him in the doorway of the Saloon.

Sometimes, life was damn good!

The last six days were a blur. Because of his suspension and the requisite medical leave, Buck wasn't due to report back for duty for a month. He'd checked on Ezra's and Josiah's places, seeing to the mail, plants and Miss Euphemia, Josiah's sassy large gray cat. He'd spent a good part of every day with the beautiful brunette who now lay so contented in his arms. She was magnificent; there was no other word for it. He loved the smell of the soap that lingered on her silken skin. Her musical laughter caressed his ears and he loved the naughty scolding tone she used when he pushed himself too hard. Her beauty was blinding, without the need for any false paint or polish. Kissing her was like drinking in the nectar spun by Zeus himself. He couldn't get enough of her kisses and soft caresses.

From the casual strolls in the park in downtown Denver, to eating hot dogs, to the large Caesar salads at Cafe Italia, through the picnic lunch at a private spot in the park where he first tasted those lips through the romantic dinner she'd made the night before, it was like living in heaven.

He'd rented this cabin in the mountains under the stars for a special reason. He wanted to love her the way she deserved, worshipping every inch of her. This weekend was something they both needed. Nearly being killed changed the way a man thought. He didn't want to waste anymore time; there was no need.

She shivered despite the blanket and snuggled closer. She loved this very special, handsome man so much it made her heart ache. His smile was so powerful it rendered her speechless. His laughter and animated stories gave her the sun to hold inside. Then there was the beautiful super nova that exploded every time they kissed. She wanted to share his life, to always feel that magic.

"It's gettin' cold," Buck said, stopping the swing and rising. He turned and stood before her, offering his naked soul. He held out his hand and smiled softly. "I need you, sweet lady, to keep me warm. Tonight and always..."

Tears crested in her eyes and she drew them away from that magnetic smile long enough to look at the open hand. She nodded, lifting her own hand up and feeling the electric-like jolt when his palm touched hers. He drew her up and close, kissing her tenderly.

The fire was snapping, sending a wonderful scent into the room and filling it with a special glow. She picked up the bottle of wine that was chilling in a clay wine cooler and walked towards the hearth. An old quilt was spread before the orange and amber lights where he laid waiting. Adonis never looked so fine, of that she was certain. The shifting shadows of the flames danced across his bronzed and lean body and she felt herself melting.

She dropped her robe, kicked it back and knelt before him, gasping as his hand touched her cheek. She poured a single glass of wine and set it down on the tiny table near his head. The strong arm guided her down by his side and his lips nuzzled her ear causing her to shiver.

"Close your eyes..." Buck whispered, his senses heating up like the flames nearby. He pulled the rose out, a perfect coral queen like the vision before him. He started at her ear, letting the silken petals begin their parade.

She gasped audibly and shivered again as his rich voice followed the path of the flower.

"Girl, tell me only this, that I'll have your heart, for always. And you want me by your side, whispering the words 'I'll always love you'..."

He sang softly, moving the flower of love over her eyelids and under her nose. He smiled at her tears and the soft cry that came from her lips as he moved the flower lower, caressing her neck.

"...and forever, I will be your lover... and I know if you really care... I will always be there..."

It was all she could do to control herself as the words circled her and his lips followed the path of the rose that softly caressed her own buds. The trail that he traced left her skin ablaze and a small roar filled her head.

"...Now I need to tell you this... there's no other love like your love... and I, as long as I live... I'll give you all the joy... my heart and soul can give..."

Buck paused long enough to rest his face against her soft and supple abdomen. He felt her hand move over his cheek and heard her weeping. He smiled, nuzzled the lean tender spot and resumed his love path. His words, lips and that special flower moved again as her thighs parted.

"Let me hold you... I need to have you near me... And I feel with you in my arms... This love will last forever.."

For several moments, she was rendered speechless. She'd never felt anything so powerful as the fire inside her body created by his touch. As his lips and fingers gently removed her last defenses, a whole new world appeared. Then his magic pressed closer and she gasped, raking her hands through his hair and shuddering all over.

"Buck... Oh, God...!"she hissed, melting in the heat.

Then his face appeared over hers, the soft rose tracing a trail over the tears on her cheek. He took the wine and sipped it before offering the glass to her. As she sipped the fruit of the vine, he finished his heart's pledge.

"Because I'm truly... Truly in love with you, girl... I'm truly head over heels with your love... I need you, and with your love I'm free..."

She silenced the last line, taking that face and kissing him with a passion she didn't know she possessed. She heard him growl and felt his growing need. She pushed him on his back, letting her hands move on him and pressed her own body over his, joining him in exhilaration.

The wine spilled over his neck and chest and she licked it up, then grinned naughtily and picked up the bottle, her eyes wicked.

"Inez?" Buck gasped, overcome with desire.

"Lil' Bucklin is thirsty, no?" She raised an eyebrow saucily and moved again, tipping the bottle.

"No... don't... Jesus...!" Buck clenched, then slapped her backside lightly as she moved. "You're a bad girl..."

"Yes," she snuck a backwards glance and wagged her eyebrows. "I am very naughty... you will see..."

Outside the magical cabin, the stars kept their vigil beside the sultry moon, all of the heavenly bodies enraptured by the lovers who played so well to their music of the night..

+ + + + + + +

Five Days Later:

Twice, the X-ray technician looked up from the nurse's station. She peered down the hall in the direction of the visitor's lounge. The unmistakable sounds of male voices and laughter punctuated the air.

"What's going on?"

"Farewell party..." the nurse answered the curious technician.

+ + + + + + +

Chris leaned back in his wheelchair and eyed the group gathered in the room. Save Buck, who was back in Denver, they were all here. The rest of the group would be leaving in the morning for home. Duty called with three new cases that needed their skills. They would be working for Mike Ryan, a peer of Larabee's and very well respected by all. But tonight, they weren't on duty; they were brothers, laughing and swapping stories over pizza and root beer.

He'd savor this moment for the next month or more. In a few more days, once Vin was stronger, they'd be leaving for Virginia. He eyed the profile of his best friend and smiled. The blue eyes were crinkled in mirth as Nathan continued to torment Ezra. Vin didn't know it yet, but the time spent on the beautiful grounds of the Larabee estate would be the best medicine for him. The younger man thrived on green grass, blue skies and fresh air. Add the horses and rustic charm and he might lose the Texan to his folks permanently.

Truth be told, he needed this time as well. He thought on the strong man who'd raised him up and frowned. They each risked their lives as a chosen career path and nobody exemplified integrity better then Adam J. Larabee. The few stolen moments at holidays were all they seemed to have over the last few years. He was looking forward to spending some quality time with his father.

Then there was Vin. He knew his mother well enough to know she would be the loving force he needed to provide some light into the dark world where his memory should be. He also knew Kate was tough and wouldn't let Vin feel sorry for himself. Yes, he needed to go home to that magical place where he'd been born and raised.

"Hey... you okay?"

"Yeah." Chris took a can of soda from J.D. and studied the youth's face. The bruises were fading but he'd never forget. "So how's this compare to sharing a blanket and an old movie with the lovely Miss Wells?"

Ezra smiled at the groan and lost puppy look that appeared on Dunne's face. He draped a brotherly arm on the younger man's shoulder and winked at the blond in the chair.

"Ah... the painful longing of a lost love..."

"You sayin' we ain't fit to cuddle with?" Nate winked.

"You're married to a beautiful woman..." J.D. sent back. "How can you even ask that?"

"She's fine!" the dark-eyed man agreed, then slid a glance to their injured sharpshooter. "But she don't have a Tanner ass..."

"Aw, hell..." Vin wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "Ain't figgered out yet why yer all so fond of peekin' under m'britches."

"Hey there!" Josiah put both hands up. "I draw the line at britch peekin'..." He paused, then with a serious face, ".'course for you, I'd make an exception..."

"Smart ass!" Vin tossed a napkin and moved back in his chair, wheeling himself over to the far side of the room.

A small breeze was floating in from the vent and he welcomed it. He didn't want to spoil the fun, but his headache was building to a potentially explosive crescendo. His legs were aching as well and that lumpy hospital bed and his night meds suddenly looked good. He jammed his eyes shut and white-knuckled the chair. A gentle touch to his shoulder caused a hiss to escape.

"I was thinking about stretching my legs. Perhaps I could drop you off somewhere?"

Vin looked up at the bearer of the southern drawl and sighed in relief. The jade eyes showed nothing but concern. He still hadn't quite figured out why this man was so compelled to stand by him, but his gut told him it was safe, so he relaxed.

"Why didn't you say something?" Ezra pressed, eyeing the pain-laced face.

"Didn't wanna spoil the fun."

Ezra noticed that Chris had turned away from his conversation with Nathan and was staring at Vin. Nathan started to rise and Standish's hand went up. He motioned to the chair and the door, indicating he'd take Vin back to his room. He saw Chris Larabee's nod, then the leader's eyes slid sideways, meeting the squinting blue ones.

"I'm fine," Vin hissed of the intense green stare. "Turn yer damn lights down!"

"Shall we?" Erza turned the chair around.

"My ride's here," Vin announced and waited for the others to turn and face him. He studied each face, tucking away those warm smiles to a place inside. He'd need them in the days to come. "Thanks fer the pies..." he managed of the pizza feast. "...and fer everythin'. I wanted t'say somethin' special... but all the words is fallin' apart."

Nathan smiled at the wavering rasp and the fidgeting fingers on the injured man. He moved closer, resting a hand on the cotton-robed shoulder and waited for those telltale eyes to rise up.

"You keep that scrawny ass of yours out of trouble. We'll keep your desk warm."

"Thanks, Nate," Vin whispered of the offer. His still missing memory had him worried about his job. This man, along with the others forming the circle, was offering more than he could give thanks for.

"Yeah, I won't add any interest onto that forty dollars you still owe me!" J.D. teased and saw Vin frown, then slide a peek to Chris who shook his head.

"I was only kidding, Vin!" Dunne chuckled.

"I knew that!" Vin mumbled.

"The Lord's always home, son. You remember that when you hit those long nights."

"I will preacher." Vin took the strong hand and smiled. "Ya have a safe trip home." He paused, cocking his aching head. "I don't rightly know where that is... but I know it ain't a city as much as it's wherever y'all will be. Reckon that's a good place t'park m'boots."

"We'll be waitin', Brother!" Josiah patted the younger man's back and winked.

"You bet!" J.D. added. "The seven will ride again!"

"Don't you overdo it," Nate warned, gripping the extended hand. "You done good, Vin Tanner. Home is where the heart is... you've already found it..."

"Thanks, Nate!" Vin managed, eyeing them all again. He felt a hand on his back and another shaking his hand. He swallowed hard, drinking in the warm wishes. "Let's go, Elton... sandman's 'bout ready t'drown me."

"He's gettin' closer." Josiah smirked at the southerner who always dressed in the most current fashion. "You do dress the part."

By the time Ezra got Vin back into his room, the fine features were locked in agony. He set the brakes on the chair and assisted the ailing body. He carefully pulled the sheet up and leaned over, inspecting the white knuckles gripping the linens.

"You're overdue for your happy juice."

"...need a double... straight up..." Vin hissed. "Put it on m'tab... Emilio..."

"My treat."

Ezra shook the empty pitcher that was beside the bed and left the room. When he returned, he poured a mug full of ice water and popped the straw inside. He saw a single eye open halfway, bruised a deep shade of Tanner blue. The desire for the water was there but the hand gripping the side rail was having difficulty.

"Allow me," Standish offered, holding the mug closer. He saw the eye regarding him and frowned. "An exercise in futility. Stop burning those few brain cells you do have. I wouldn't be here if I didn't choose to be."

"I'm sorry... m'eyes must be wore out... that's not what I meant." Vin paused to drain the cup and then took several seconds to reclaim his breath. "Listen, Emmett, I wanted ya t'know how much ya bein' here means t'me. Yer face was the first I seen, leastwise I think it was yers. I was in ICU and mostly kinda out of it. I heard a voice, soft and warm, like honey. I felt ya... yer voice... yer words... they was all I had t'hold onta."

"Vin, you don't have to..."

"Shut the hell up and let me finish!" Vin shouted and winced, rubbing his temples. "Dammit. Where was I?"

"Hovering between life and death..."

"Oh... right..." Vin laid his head back on the bank of pillows. "Ya know I ain't got my box open yet," he noted of his memories. "But every now and again, it's like I can see inside... sorta like a winda. Sometimes I can snatch feelin's from there, but no pictures. When I heard ya... that first time.... one of them feelin's got loose and shot out. It settled good right here." He tapped his heart and saw the jade eyes becoming overly emotional. "I jest wanted ya t'know... without that voice of yers and them hands... I'd still be lost."

"You're..." Ezra cleared his throat which was as tight as his chest. "...more than welcome... Vincent."

"I like that..." Vin grinned. "Makes me sound real important."

"You... my friend..." the southerner managed, drilling the blue eyes. "...are most decidedly important."

"That ratty bag over yonder is yers..."

While Ezra crossed the room to the closet where a tattered brown bag laid on the shelf, the nurse appeared. He picked up the bag and turned back, then smiled as Vin sighed deeply.

"Damn yer hands is soft, Elgin," Vin whispered of the hand lifting his neck and raising his head up. "Jest like a girl's." He reached up to where he thought the side rail was only to encounter something equally soft and round. "Aw, hell!"

"Good evening, Vin." Annie grinned at the handsome face wearing a scarlet hue.

"Sorry, Annie!"

"That's okay, sugar." She held out her palm. "These will put you in LaLa land — got 'em?"

"Yep." Vin took the pills and then stuck his tongue out to accept the straw. "Thanks. In case I ain't awake yet when ya leave in the mornin', I want ya t'know how grateful I am. Yer an angel. I reckon it ain't easy totin' them wings around, but ya make it look that way."

"Honey," she cupped his chin and bent to kiss his cheek, "if all my patients were as sweet as you, I'd work 24/7. It's been a pleasure and I'll be in before breakfast to help you into the bath."

"Okay," Vin yawned, settling back onto the pillows.

"Goodnight!" She nodded to the two men and departed.

"Damn... this is... good shit..."

Ezra made his way to the bedside and eyed the wrinkled bag.

"It would appear this package went through the war."

"Naw..." Vin mumbled, trying to get his thick tongue to work. "...was nervous... kept fussin' with it. Like it?"

Ezra peered into the bag and pulled out a small carving in varying shades of gray granite. It was of two wolves. One was injured, lying on its side. The other was standing guard, protectively.

"...I... seen... it... in... the store... winda... lobby... af...ter... ther...ap...y."

"It's exceptional!" Ezra grinned, running his hands over the fine detail on the small sculpture. "It will have a place of honor on my desk."

"...time..." Vin whispered, barely audible. "El...li..ot..."

"ET?" the conman replied in turn and saw the sandy brows furrow in confusion. "Never mind. It's almost seven thirty," Ezra said, watching the slack jaw fall and the lips part. Vin's eyes were closed and he was nearly gone. "Why?"

"...hurry... ass... up... store... close... eight... told... her... ya'd be... by... pay... fer... it..."

He laughed then, leaning over the rails and shaking his chestnut head. He wondered if Vin Tanner knew just how much his friendship meant.

"Spoken like a true Tanner." He slid the tiny sculpture into the bag and into his pocket. "Good night, Vincent, and thank you."

He was several feet into the hall and approaching the elevator when he swore a drawl sailed by.

"...night... Ez..."

He retraced his steps and peered into the dark room. The face was totally relaxed and the breathing deep and sound. He narrowed his gaze and stared intently, but there was no sound or facial movement. He turned and stepped aside, then cast one last gaze into the room. The lips were turned up into a smile and the head popped up briefly and winked, then flopped back.

"Well done, Mister Tanner!" he saluted and laughed. He kept chuckling all the way back to the room where his friends were waiting.

+ + + + + + +

Daybreak would come soon. He could see the first signs of Dawn's embrace approaching. The sky was turning to serene blue. Sleep had been fitful but not because of nightmares. He sighed and scratched at the itching spot on his healing leg.

It was coming and he couldn't avoid it.

Today was the day.

In about five hours, he'd be leaving the cocoon for the real world. From the moment he'd roused from his coma, this place had been his safety net. People taking care of him around the clock. Gentle touches and reassuring smiles during his treatment. No harsh realities, just a healing place.

Healing.

He thought on the men who had been so much a part of that. Oh, he was very grateful to the doctors, nurses, orderlies and therapists. He thanked them so much he was getting on their nerves. But the men who stood by him, surrounding the bed like sentinels, meant more than words could say. Their laughter, warm voices and solid reassurance were overwhelming. Since they'd flown home to Denver, it seemed colder in the room. He missed them; the days seemed endless, especially when Chris was out of the room.

He sighed and tossed one arm behind his head, wiggling his toes. That brought a smile and he fingered the medal on the chain suspended around his neck. He said a silent prayer of thanks for the return of sensation to his lower extremities.

He turned his face to the other side of the room to where his lifeline was sleeping. That was what Chris Larabee had become. The only connection to his blank past and his unknown future. He so needed that voice, he couldn't imagine not hearing it. The tone was one he heard in his sleep. It broke through nightmares and brought him to safe harbor. But Chris had his own injuries to recover from. He had two months of grueling work ahead to rehab his injured knee. Was it fair to put that much responsibility on the blond?

He frowned, watching the placid features sleeping. Chris had yet to utter one word about his own fears. What if his leg didn't heal right? What about his nightmares? Wasn't he tortured and abused too? Guilt washed over him, forcing his head away. He'd been selfish, pulling too much from the stronger man. Chris needed to heal too.

He sighed again, shifted in the bed gingerly and cast his eyes to the light coming into the sky. Today was not just any new day. It was day one for Vin Tanner. He'd learned all over again how to walk on his own feet, so to speak. Now, he had to stop depending on Chris so much. He'd have to try to battle the inner fears that plagued him.

What if he never got his memory back?

The sound of Larabee's harsh shriek the day he nearly ate the crab cake revisited. What if Chris hadn't been there? How would he have known? Without knowledge of his past, how could he avoid such pitfalls? What about enemies?

"Damn..." he rasped, thinking on Chris telling him that he'd been a bounty hunter for several years.

It would be like walking through a dark place without a flashlight. How would he know if an approaching stranger was one of those demons from his past?

"Spit it out, Vin."

"Sorry... didn't mean t'disturb ya..."

"You didn't, my full bladder did."

Chris sat up, eyed his crutches and flipped the light on.

"Shit!"

"What the hell did ya turn it on fer?" Vin growled and squinted, turning away.

"So I'd piss in the toilet and not on your face!"

"Yer a grouch in the mornin'..." Vin decided, watching the disgruntled face head towards the bathroom. "Don't be gettin' any idea o'leavin' anythin' 'sides piss in that bowl. Annie's comin' in t'give me a bath. Ya wrassle them crutches down the hall t' some other bathroom iffen ya gotta make a deposit."

It took some extra energy and more than a few careful moves, but the smirking blond maneuvered over to the door.

Vin's eyebrows furrowed as twice a hand appeared on the bathroom doorframe, then disappeared. He grinned then, which gave birth to a giggle.

"Hell, Lar'bee, ya must be half asleep, yer trigger finger ain't workin'..."

No sooner had the words left his lips when a single-fingered salute appeared on the doorjamb. That brought a genuine laugh and the Texan happily settled his head back on the pillow. He was content for a few minutes, until the door shut.

"That ain't funny, Chris...." He paused, cocking his head. "Chris....?"

On the other side of the door, leaning against the jamb, the blond smirked, biting back a laugh. He could imagine the cranky Tanner face bearing down on the other side. He waited several moments, then used the end of the crutch to push the toilet flusher. He moved back, opened the door and exited, shutting the door behind him.

"Thought ya was my friend! I been waitin' all mornin' fer m'bath. Now ya went and..."

"Ahhhh!" Chris exaggerated a deep sigh of satisfaction.

"Good morning, fellas..." Annie bustled into the room, arms full of towels. She headed right for the bathroom door and went inside.

"Nooo""! Vin squealed, gingerly sitting up and easing his legs over the side.

"Something wrong, Vin?" Annie reappeared looking perplexed.

"That ain't a damn bit funny, ya glare happy jackass. Ya got no sense of humor!" Vin soured, only adding to Chris's contented grin.

Chris watched the cranky face disappear when the nurse approached. The features melted into an angelic smile that beamed up at her. He rolled his green eyes and groaned as the drawl escaped.

"Mornin', Annie. The sun don't shine until ya smile."

"Annie, you might want to wait on that bath. I think I'm gonna be sick!" Chris groaned. He turned somber when the shaky body rose, heavily aided by the nurse. "Vin, use the chair... it's too far."

"Leave me be..." Vin hissed, concentrating hard on every painful small step. It seemed like ten miles until he got to the edge of Chris's bed. Annie disappeared into the bathroom.

"Sit!"

"Ain't no damn dog..." Vin mumbled but did rest on the edge of the bed.

"I'm not so sure, you smell like one," Chris sent back, eyeing the fine line of perspiration on the sharpshooter's face. "You okay?" A single nod was the reply. He heard Annie running the water and then she reappeared.

"Come on, sugar... water's just right."

"Don't be a hog in there, Tanner. I got my eye on a bath too..."

Vin paused as Annie got him on his feet.

"I thought ya was m'girl? Ya cheatin' on me?" he rasped, using tiny steps.

"Never!" Annie sauced. "We have a new girl startin' this morning. She's from Canada, just moved a couple months ago. Her name's Winnie. She's doing Chris's bath."

"Canada, huh?" Chris called after them. "Just might be the right touch for this cramp in my leg."

"Any chance she's about seventy, a hunnert pounds overweight and sportin' a bunch o'hairy moles?" Vin hoped and heard Annie laugh.

"No... sorry, Vin."

Later, after both men were washed, dressed and had finished breakfast, they were waiting for the doctor to sign their release orders. Twice, Chris looked up from his paper, noting Vin was still staring at the same spot on the page in the magazine in his lap. The younger man was sitting in the chair by the window. Chris tossed his paper down and noticed the blue eyes were far away.

"You okay, cowboy?"

"What if...?"

Chris waited but no more words came. Vin's mouth formed a grim line and his shoulders hunched. Larabee sighed and raked a hand through his short blond hair. It was still damp and the scent of a spring breeze surrounded him, courtesy of the shampoo.

"I'll find you."

"What?" Vin looked over at the quiet soldier and felt the power.

"You can't hide... not from me. What's eatin' at you, Tanner?" Chris was perplexed. "This is the day we've been waiting for. We're going home and..." His sentence halted when clouds drifted over the handsome Texan's features. "That's it? Going home has you rattled?"

"I don't know where home is..." Vin hushed, dropping his face.

"The doctor said your memory could come back at any time. One song, one picture, any trigger might..."

"Yeah... yeah... yeah..." Vin dismissed, waving his hand. "Easy fer him t'say. He can remember his house, his car, his job. I got folks dependin' on me t'watch their backs. Ya said I was yer sharpshooter."

"Not 'was', Vin. You are my sharpshooter and one trip to the firing range will take that doubt away. Now quit fooling around and tell me what's wrong."

"It's been t'long... I'm afraid..." Vin paused, swallowed and brought his face up. "...afraid... I won't never get m'box open. I want m'pictures, Chris."

"I know, Vin. I wish I could open that fuckin' box for you." He paused and extended his right hand, palm up. "Every journey starts with one step, Tanner. How 'bout I give you what you gave me the first time we met. I'd say that's a good place to start."

Vin eyed that hand and all that came with it. He knew the next several weeks would be rough. Between his healing body and soul, he would need a light to guide him through the dark times. Suddenly, that healing light was radiating right on him, in an omnipotent shade of green. He slowly stood, took several small steps and they locked forearms. The force of that bond stole his breath away.

But he smiled and nodded, not soiling the moment with words.

"I'll be there when you fall. I'll carry you if I have to. But you'll find that road home, Vin. You got my word."

Chris released him then, seeing the azure eyes brimming. He settled back and rested his own eyes, letting Vin compose himself. He was dozing when a soft kiss graced his cheek. He knew by the wonderful light Oriental musk who it was.

"Good morning, sweetheart."

"Hey, mom!" He yawned and watched her move to the chair where Vin was huddled.

"Are my boys ready to go home?"

She watched in amazement as a myriad of emotions swept over the quiet young man's face. He struggled to remain composed. He took several breaths and his hands were trembling. She took each of them in hers and squatted down, squeezing them in reassurance. Then she released the slim fingers. Taking the troubled face in both hands, she found her mother's voice.

"I've been so very blessed in my life, Vin. I found a special man to share my life with. God blessed us with a golden child. My husband's given me many fine things over the years. But the finest gift, the most powerful and the one that gives me life..." She paused. ".that gift, the very finest thing a father can do for his child, is to love and honor his mother. I didn't have the pleasure of meeting your father, Vin, but I see by the fine man before me, the shining example of that gift he gave to your mother. Adam and I don't have a house in Virginia, sweetheart, we have a home. What holds those walls up is love, that's the mortar. So with these hands, you let me cradle your mother's son until he finds his light again. I'd be so honored."

Vin was too stunned to speak but two tears slid down his cheeks and he lifted his arms, accepting her embrace. He felt those hands rubbing his back and felt her kiss his cheek. He took several breaths, but it didn't seem to help.

"Do you need a minute to compose yourself?" Kate asked and felt the head bob against her shoulder. "Okay." She moved back and helped him stand. She watched his lips open and close without the benefit of a word issued. Then his hand came up and touched her cheek.

"I...." Vin began, his voice cracking severely. "...see her... in yer eyes... feel her... here..." he choked, tapping his chest. "Thank..." He had to turn away then, shuffling to the bathroom when his voice failed.

"I ever tell you how much I love you?" Chris smiled at the wonderful woman who'd cherished him. "Every time you smile, sweetheart." She hugged him and eyed the closed door. "He's still so fragile..."

"He's a Tanner," Chris predicted with confidence, then reached for his crutches. "Let's go home."

Part Twenty

Six p.m.
Misty Falls, VA

Through the tinted frames of the glasses that remained on despite the lack of harsh sun, he eyed the almost magical scene. The sky was that shade of blue that no artist can ever recreate. It comes at dusk, often accompanied by slashes of rose, magenta or crimson. Underneath the resplendent blue rendering were a cluster of mountains, their peaks cresting into the deep pink score of the sky.

As if sensing one of her favorite sons returning home to her bosom, Mother Nature blew a soft kiss. It sailed through the pine trees, past the winding drive and over the long white fence. It skipped over the moving vehicle and into the window, brushing his face. He inhaled deeply, nearly moaning at the almost heady aroma that only Mother Nature could wear.

It was beautiful here. Chris was right. During the plane ride to this place, his temporary home, the blond told him the history of the pre-Civil War stone farmhouse and the glorious acreage that surrounded it. His ears had perked up at the mention of horses and that gave his best friend a smile.

But riding horses wasn't on his mind now. Anxiety and anxiousness rebelled in his tender skull. The doctor warned him today would be difficult. The first day home from the hospital was never easy. Add a long plane ride and then another long car ride and his entire body was worn out, especially his head which was screaming. It didn't help that he'd spent most of the plane ride forcing his fuzzy brain to go on a scavenger hunt. He'd searched high and low, hoping something would turn up the key to his box of memories.

It didn't work.

All he got out of his efforts was a horrendous headache. The pain throbbed mercilessly, even causing his eyes to want to jump from his face. His stomach acids were conducting Olympic trials and he grimaced. His slim fingers curled around the paper in his hand. He sighed deeply, rested his face against the glass and let his burning eyes shut for a moment.

Chris's eyes shifted to the right and he didn't miss Vin Tanner twisting his plane ticket jacket into a pretzel. The knuckles were white and he saw the lines in that squared jaw clench several times. Under those long lashes, behind the aviator frames, he'd seen the agony riding in the sky eyes before they shut.

He knew Vin was in pain, and the weeks that were ahead of him wouldn't be easy. The concussion was a bad one and the doctor warned of bad headaches, dizzy spells and blackouts. Plus, Vin still had therapy ahead, physical for his back and emotional for the trauma.

Trauma.

Chris thought on his best friend. Vin Tanner was the strongest man he knew and also the most vulnerable. A very odd combination. Vin kept his hurts buried deep, perhaps too deep. He didn't doubt that until they met, the Texan harbored all his worries, guilt and fear deep inside. He hoped, in the time since, that he'd helped to alleviate some of that weight. Their quiet talks at the ranch, and especially at that old cabin, seemed to help ease the pain. He hoped their time here would mirror that. They both needed to heal and the love that supported this special place was just the right medicine. He moved his hand over, giving Vin's denim clad knee a squeeze of support.

Twice as she drove the car up the long, winding path towards the stone farm house she'd called home for these forty years, Kate eyed the rear view mirror. She saw the pain in her son's green eyes and it made her heart ache. Like most mothers, she'd sacrifice her own pain to take his away. But following that intense gaze, she knew his pain was for another. Would the sweet air in the meadows and mountains around their home be the elixir? Would the love and care she and Adam would surround their boys with be enough? What if Vin Tanner's memory didn't return? How could she take the pain from Chris's eyes? She slowed at the entry to the carport and let her hand rest on the ignition. A strong hand took her small one and held it tight. She moved her pale eyes sideways and fell into those dark ones.

"Home, sweet home." Adam kept his grip on her hand, trying to take her worry away. "No place on earth like it," he vowed, reading her mind.

"You boys stay put. I want to unlock the door and get the lights on," she assessed, taking the key from the ignition. "Everybody okay back there?"

"Fine, Mom," Chris sent back and nudged Vin's leg.

"Huh?" Vin blinked and realized they weren't moving. "Oh... uh... I'm okay, Kate."

"Did you talk to Jack?" Adam asked her about their neighbor. "Is he bringing Maggie over?"

"Maggie?" Vin mouthed silently, furrowing his brows.

"She's inside," Kate nodded, slipping out of the car.

"I can't wait to see her," Adam exuded, gingerly easing his tall body from the seat and standing on his good leg. He moved a few feet away, holding onto the car until he reached a sturdy post. Then he stretched, rubbing his back.

"Who's Maggie?" Vin asked, unlocking his door.

"A gorgeous redhead..." Chris grinned, opening his door and wincing as he eased his legs out. He braced his hands against the door jamb and stood, eyeing the pine bench nearby. He took several good gulps of the wonderful fresh air and stretched, keeping his injured leg off the ground.

"That's it, git yer Ma riled up 'afore we even git inside." Vin shook his head.

"Shut up Tanner," Chris hissed, pulling his body forward. "Anyway, you'll love Maggie. Silky hair, long legs and liquid brown eyes."

"Yeah?" Vin eyed the door at the end of the stone walk. He saw it open and Kate's slim legs moving. He slipped his glasses off and tucked them into the pocket of his denim jacket.

He fingered the worn fabric and saw the gold-toothed grin of the southerner. Buck had a spare set of Chris's keys that included a key to his own place. Ezra had borrowed them and packed some of his things, sending them overnight to the house on the base the Larabee's had rented. He thought perhaps that if he had his own clothes, comb, some cassettes and other personal things, it might spark Vin's memory. It hadn't, at least not yet, but that Ezra would have done that for him, gone to all that trouble, had really choked him up.

"Oh, yeah," Chris sent back.

"What is it about the words 'stay put' that you didn't understand?" she grilled, hands on her hips. "No weight... you heard that doctor," she hissed, opening the back of the wagon and pulling two sets of crutches out. "I should toss them in the corral and let you crawl in."

"Aw, Kate, that car was like prison. Besides, I didn't go far..." Adam protested weakly, lifting a hand out for his crutches.

"I can't stand being trapped in a car... I needed to stretch my back..." Chris tried and got swatted.

"I shouldn't have wasted my breath." She handed Chris his crutches and bent to shut the door.

"I listened, Kate," Vin rasped, smiling angelically.

"Well, it's nice to see one of my boys respects me." She walked around the car and opened the door. "Are you okay, honey?" she fretted, seeing the pinched features in a face all too pale.

"Jest tired," Vin managed, standing up and accepting her warm smile.

"Well, you don't look well to me." Kate shut the door and eased the strap of Vin's bag over her shoulder. "After you eat, you're going right to bed. I have a whole list from that doctor..." Her voice trailed off as she walked slightly in front of him towards the house.

"Hey? What about me?" Chris struggled to get to his feet.

"Honey, I can't reach my crutches," Adam called over.

"Well, now that is strange!" Kate turned around, eyeing the two men she loved so much. "Five minutes ago, you two couldn't get out of that car fast enough. Use some of that energy..."

"I listened, Kate," Chris parroted under his breath of the younger man's drawl. He saw Vin's lips quirk up and struggled hard, but he got to his feet and moving.

Vin paused, turned slowly and walked carefully to the car. He picked up the General's crutches and handed them to the struggling older man.

"Give ya hand, Sir?"

"Thanks, son." Adam stood, got his crutches situated and nodded. "...and it's Adam, remember?"

"Sorry..." Vin paused, letting him get ahead. He caught up to Chris and they headed for the door.

"Maggie!"

Vin stopped when the General's voice boomed through the air.

"I forgot to tell you, Vin," Chris smirked. "Maggie's a real outgoing girl. Affectionate, you know? She likes long, sloppy wet kisses..." He stopped and watched Vin's eyes panic. "...and she's gonna loooove you, cowboy." He moved past and heard that raspy drawl, causing his smile to widen.

"Aw, hell..."

+ + + + + + +

"No, honey," Kate corrected her blond son when he moved through the foyer towards the wide pine stairs that led to the upper floor. "You're in the guest room. You can't handle all those stairs."

Vin was several feet behind Chris and paused in the yard. He moved past the stone walls and slowly walked to the edge the building.

"Wow..." he murmured, eyeing the glorious expanse of grass, trees and sky. The whinnying of horses drew his eyes to the barn. As much as he wanted to visit the barn, it was a good distance from where he stood and there was too much open ground between them. Instead, he eased his body down onto a small stone fence post and let his thirsty eyes drink in the majesty before him.

"Where's Vin?"

"He's around somewhere," Chris replied. "Just open some chocolate, he'll find us."

Save the television hidden in an oak armoire in the corner, they could have been sitting in 1870. Pewter candlesticks held ivory tapers. Homemade pottery sat on knotted pine tables and on the shelves on the walls. Two period paintings also graced a room that was warm and inviting.

"That's not funny!" Kate swatted her son who was snuggled in a hunter green leather recliner in the large den. "He's our guest and he's not feeling well. He doesn't know this house yet."

"He can't get lost, he's a tracker. He can find ant piss in a snowstorm."

"Chris!" she warned.

"Sorry," he sighed, eyeing his mother and the pretty redhead who was sitting next to his father on the large leather sofa. She was excited to see them and didn't hide that enthusiasm. "I'm not used to having females around."

"Well, get used to it!" Kate warned. "No swearing, no trotting around without being dressed and no scratching."

"Damn..." Chris frowned. "That only leaves belching. Come on back, Vin," Chris yelled.

"I could have done that!" Kate exasperated, rolling her eyes and moving back to the foyer area. When she arrived to find it empty, she went through the large breakfast area and into the kitchen. Then through the window, she saw the back of his head. As she moved to get to the door, she saw his profile.

"Oh, Vin..." she sighed, seeing those lost blue eyes searching the horizon. Would he find his peace here?

It was a beautiful place and he felt comfortable. He shivered as the setting sun left room for a chilly breeze to kick up. His eyes went to the distance, past those mountains and the road to what was beyond. Would his path be true? Would he become whole again? Or would he be forever trapped in the shadows?

"You'll catch a chill..."

He smiled and turned his head a bit just as two small hands rubbed the back of his neck lightly.

"Nah... I missed 'er..." he replied. "Earth Mother... she's a terrible beauty."

"Well, she's got good taste." Kate took his arm and led him back inside. "Speaking of which, a little bird told me you liked lasagna and garlic bread."

"I reckon I could eat," Vin said, hoping his sour stomach would settle down. "Can I help?"

"Dinner won't be ready for about an hour. I have to get it from the freezer and put it in the oven." She took her jacket off and tossed it onto a peg on the wall. "You look tired, Vin. Why don't you lie down for awhile?"

"Wouldn't see me 'til breakfast if'n I did." Vin peeked into the small parlor next to the back door.

+ + + + + + +

A photo from the Civil War was framed and displayed on the wall just inside. It was the same house, without the additions added over time, with a regiment of Union Soldiers outside. He studied the photo and moved in, closing the door. He peeked to the left, spotting a large, warm open-hearth style kitchen, complete with a huge fireplace in the wall. Several cut-outs in the fireplace had clay doors on them. In the large center spot, an iron spit waited. He could almost see a large roast rotating in there. To his right, in the other direction, was a small parlor. He moved a bit, spotted the narrow passage that led to the rooms on the other side.

It was a beautiful home, filled with furniture, wall decor and style of the Civil War era. He heard Kate's voice just as he was about to investigate a large rifle hanging on the wall in the parlor.

She found him studying one of Adam's many treasured items. Like his son, he collected Civil War memorabilia.

"It's a beauty!" Vin whistled softly, eyeing the exquisite piece of craftsmanship. "That weren't toted by no foot soldier. That's a sniper's rifle... a Sharps..." He peered closer, pointing to the stock. "... this one was a custom piece... see that EAW... that's the mark the inspector made. The one's after 1862 were made different. Sure is pretty..."

"You've got a good eye," she nodded. "It's one of Adam's most prized possessions." She took his arm and led him to a small, ivory settee with a spray of flowers in needlepoint.

"No, ma'am... I'll git it dirty," Vin feared, knowing it was an antique.

"Nonsense!" She tapped the seat. "This is a home, not a museum. Sit." She waited for the slim young man to sit and bit back a grin, watching him totter precariously on the edge. "It won't break..."

"I ain't takin' chances. It's got more zero's behind it than I can scratch up," he noted of the worth and heard her laugh.

"I love to hear you talk." She rested a hand on his own and saw his face turn slightly. "Do you know how special you are?"

"Me?" Vin peeked shyly and saw the same emotive green light that her son possessed.

"You!" she nodded, cupping his jaw and kissing his cheek.

"What's that fer?" Vin blushed.

"For giving my son his soul back," she choked, eyes filling.

"Aw, hell, Kate. Don't be turnin' yer faucet on. It breaks m'heart t'see a mother's tears."

"After we lost our beloved Sara and Adam," she paused, curling her fingers into his and holding on, "I feared for him, Vin. I had no idea how to reach him. He had nothing left. No color in his eyes, no light... nothing. There were dark times... Buck... if it weren't for that man... I would have lost him. Then one day Chris called me on the phone. There was a change in his voice... a texture... something I'd missed for three years. It was just before my birthday and he was coming home."

She smiled then, watching the magnificent blue eyes studying her. "My, you are handsome." She reached up and brushed his hair with her fingers. She saw that blush rise again and saw his lips turn up a bit. "And your mother's pride and joy."

She sighed, recalling that visit from her son. "He came in that door," she nodded. "...and when I embraced him, my breath was stolen. The light was back in his eyes. It was a healing light, Vin. " She lifted her hand and tapped his chest under the worn denim jacket. "It came from here. Throughout dinner, every other word was about 'Vin'. I knew then that God brought you to him. I believe that... and in the time since, I've come to embrace it and rejoice in it."

Then she eyed the room and brought her eyes back to his. She cupped his face in both hands and smiled. "Know this, my sweet Vin, this home, this land..." She paused when his breath caught and the eyes began to dart. "...this family is yours now. I couldn't be more proud of you or care for you any more than if I'd been blessed to have carried you myself."

Vin's eyes closed when she stood and embraced him. He moved his arms, encircling her waist, took a cleansing breath, and then he stood. She was a few inches shorter and looked up at him, eyes shining with tears.

She saw so much in those sky eyes and sought to answer what she could. Fear, doubt and uncertainty were hovering nearby. But just past those glorious iris's, resting behind the shy smile and that engaging drawl, was a light called hope. That was what Kate Larabee reached out to and embraced that spirit.

"Welcome home," she managed, taking his hand and bathing in that blue light. "...son..."

+ + + + + + +

Vin was just about to enter the family room where Adam and Chris were having a beer and discussing the NBA playoffs. He heard a low growl and froze, then proceeded slowly. He saw the 'leggy redhead' seated next to the General and narrowed his eyes, casting them at his best friend.

"Wet sloppy kisses, huh?" he drawled. "Wise-ass!" He knelt down on one leg and held out an open palm. "Hey, girl.."

"That's Vin, Maggie," Adam coached, stroking the four-year-old Irish Setter's silky head. "Go on over and say hello. Go on now..." he urged, gently rubbing her back. Her fur was up and she continued to growl but slid off the sofa.

"Yer a pretty lady, yes, ya are," Vin oozed, watching the beautiful animal sniff his hand. "Good girl, pretty girl," he coached, then paused when she sniffed his face carefully before licking his mouth.

"You've been accepted," Kate said, entering the room and patting Vin's back.

"That's 'cause he smells like Sam," Chris noted of his own Lab, staying with Buck back in Denver.

"I'm Vin. Maybe we can go for a walk sometime," the smitten Texan said, scrubbing her neck and back.

"Uh-oh!" Adam moaned, hearing the 'magic' word issued. The excited animal began to yelp and dance, eyeing her master. "Sorry, girl," he apologized, patting his cast.

"She got a leash?" Vin offered, but Kate got firm.

"No way. The only walk you're going on is to your room."

"I'm okay, Kate. I'd love to walk her..." Vin protested but was denied yet again.

"And you will, honey, but not today. You've had a long day and you're taking your medicine and a nap. Dinner is in the oven, go on now."

"How come Chris don't gotta take one?" Vin pouted but followed the small woman towards the stairs.

"Chris doesn't have a Grade 4 concussion," she replied, turned into the hall and opened a door. "I put your things in the drawers. Underwear and socks on top, shirts in the middle, jeans on the bottom."

"Damn!" Vin gasped in awe, eyeing the cream colored walls of the large room. The carpet was a hunter green with flecks of earth tones like tweed. In one corner was a large four-poster, pine, double bed with what appeared to be an antique patchwork quilt. There was a matching chest of drawers, bureau and large trunk. A desk and chair by the large window completed the furniture. But the walls took his breath away. Every square inch was covered with plaques, trophies, awards and other sports recognitions.

"Division A Athlete of the year..." Vin eyed the nearest trophy for football. He moved slowly, his wide eyes drinking in every line and photo with admiration. "Football, basketball, soccer... damn."

"Chris was a very gifted athlete," the proud mother beamed. "We went to every game. His favorite was quarterback for the Wolves, his high school team. See this..." She moved to a 5 x 7 framed photo on the bureau. "The infamous 'Wolf Pack'." She watched the young man's face dissolve into a wide grin as he eyed his friend, wearing a younger man's clothes.

"Buzz cut, huh?" Vin shook his head at the crew-cut the eighteen-year-old high school senior in the photo was sporting. He was sitting at a long table with a half dozen other kids around him.

"Mike, Billy, Nick, Ted, Tyler and Steve," she recalled. "They were inseparable for four years."

"Reckon Chris got all the best lookin' girls." Vin could see the swaggering QB surrounded by a flock of females.

"Yes, he was quite the heartbreaker," Kate smiled. Then as she moved to put Vin's empty bag in the bottom of Chris's closet, she saw a bulky envelope. Taking it out, she noticed in neat black print the word 'personal'. Just as she turned, she saw Vin place the photo back in its place and head for the trunk.

"His?" Vin's voice was warm and full of mirth.

"Yes," Kate grinned, watching the young man lift the tattered, fur-worn-off-in-spots, but much loved large white stuffed sheepdog. "That's Buster. Chris got that from Adam's father on his first birthday. It was bigger than he was! But more often that not, when he was troubled and couldn't sleep as a boy, I'd find old Buster next to him in the morning."

"Good fer him," Vin decided. "Reckon we all need us a 'Buster' now and again t'talk with..." he agreed, gently replacing the toy.

"Down, Maggie! You know better than that!" Kate reprimanded as the silky animal attempted to settle on the bed. The dog trotted to Vin and nudged his hand and Kate smiled as Vin's soft words were readily accepted. "Looks like you have a friend."

"I love dogs... all animals," he said, accepting more kisses from the pretty canine.

"Honey, this was in your bag." She left the envelope on the bed. "You get some sleep. I'll call you for supper. Come on, Maggie... walk?"

A series of excited woofs led her with the dog to the door, but then a voice called her back.

"Can ya stay a minute?" Vin asked, sitting quietly on the bed.

If Kate had planned on leaving, once she looked at those large blue eyes, she was a goner. His hands were shaking and he wasn't sure of what reaction would occur when the contents were spilled. That he trusted her to share that moment meant a lot to her.

"Are you sure, Vin? It says personal..." Seeing the nod and the slim hand pat the bed, she moved back and took a seat next to him.

Vin took several deep breaths, his fingers feeling through the dark yellow business envelope.

"Ezra's doin'," he noted of the bag packer. "Feels like a picture..." he said and slipped the edge open. "...and somethin' else..." He drew out a tattered, old, ancient harmonica and inhaled sharply. His hands trembled as the room faded away and he was small boy again. He saw an elderly Native American man with the warmest brown eyes and strong hands. They held the same mouth organ, sending soft music into the night air. He felt warm and safe with this man and panicked when the image dissolved just as quickly. "No... don't go... grand... father..."

"Oh, honey," she whispered, watching his face melt and the Adam's apple bob. But he clutched the harmonica to his chest, then moved it up, sniffing it and sighing deeply. Then he placed it to the side and took the other item out. "She's beautiful!" Kate exclaimed. "It's your mother and that," she smiled, "is your father. You look like him."

"Yeah... I guess..." Vin's voice was distracted. He stared at the black and white image of a boy about five with a young blond woman and a man wearing his own face. "I can't remember..."

"Don't!" she warned, seeing his anger rise. "You were only five when she died, Vin. It's natural you wouldn't have sharp, clear images of her. As for your father, I'm sure once your memory returns.." She tried to recall Chris's history on that. Vin was about 12 or so when his father was killed. "That's a long time ago..."

Vin didn't reply. He was too hurt and angry. This was his mother, the woman who gave him life. Yet looking at the photo, he felt nothing. She was a stranger, this giver of life. He wanted to feel her, rejoice in her touch, but there was nothing. He put the photo on the bed stand next to the harmonica and sat, shoulders slumped. He felt a kiss on his cheek and one hand lifted, taken in turn by two smaller ones. "I'm sorry..."

"Don't be," she soothed, squeezing his hand. "You get some sleep. Here..." She moved to the bed stand where she left a bottle of ice tea and his pills.

"No pills..." Vin denied. "They're too strong. Besides, I'm wiped out, don't need 'em." He chugged some tea and slipped his sneakers off.

"Okay, I'll see you later." She left the room, closing the door behind her.

Vin pulled the quilt over his now shivering body and wept. He didn't know why he was crying. He had no idea where the tears came from. Perhaps they were just born of the storm he was lost in. Perhaps they were for the woman in the photo, lost to him for over twenty years. Or for the man wearing his own smile and an army uniform. Maybe for the old man whose presence was so strong. He reached over and took the harmonica, clutching it to his chest. He didn't rationalize. He simply let his exhaustion take over and Vin slept.

+ + + + + + +

Kate put a large Caesar Salad on the table next to a platter brimming with garlic bread. She already had four glasses of ice tea poured and a huge pan of lasagna, steaming and succulent, waiting to be consumed. She moved to the family room and shut the television off. She went to the sofa where her husband was sleeping. Maggie lifted her head from his chest and wagged her tail.

"Adam... Adam...?" She shook his shoulder and bit back a laugh when the scowl formed.

"What!" he barked.

"Dinner..." She brushed her fingers through his dark hair that was starting to silver. "...and you watch your tone of voice."

"I'm a bad boy..." he yawned, smiled and accepted a soft kiss. "God, that smells great!"

"Lasagna, garlic bread and Caesar Salad..." she recited, then saw his dark eyes dancing.

"I wasn't talking about the food..." he murmured, kissing her neck and caressing her.

"You are naughty!" She stood up and thwacked him. "Where's Chris?"

"I don't know..." He looked around the empty room. "Maybe he went back there." He nodded to the guest room.

"Here." She handed him his crutches and supported him until he was upright. "Go on and get settled at the table. I'll get him..."

She walked down the hallway and turned left to where a large guest room was situated. It had a wonderful view of the corral. It was done in dark red and blue with off white walls and decorated with colonial decor. Her hand froze on the doorknob when she heard the song playing on the radio.

"Oh, my..." she sighed, her eyes misting.

"...if I could make days last forever.
If words could make wishes come true.
I'd save every day like a treasure and again
I would spend them with you..."

She tapped on the door lightly as Jim Croce's moving ballad continued.

"Honey, can I come in?"

"Yeah..." Chris managed, not moving from the bed. He heard the door open but didn't raise his face. His eyes remained glued on the artwork in his hands. His finger lovingly traced the crooked lettering, 'I love Pop-Pop'. It was the last Father's Day gift his son made for his grandfather. Chris remembered how precise Adam was, picking out the colors of a white frame with blue stars. The matting was dark red. On the right hand side, under the glass, there was an oval cutout with a photo of his father and his son. To the left, the loving words printed on paper and glued to the mat. Red, white and blue, his pint-sized prize had ordered, because 'Pop-pop likes them colors... like the flag.'

"I'm sorry, Chris. It's normally on your father's desk at work, but when he goes away, he brings it home. I meant to move it..."

"Don't... be..." he managed, his voice raw and scarred.

He felt the bed dip as his mother sat next to him. He lifted his eyes to the window, recalling how wonderful that joyous day had been. The day when he held his brand new family in his arms on his bed. The first day home from the hospital, Sara nursing Adam and tears in his eyes. Then she pointed to the nightstand and he saw a cassette with his name on it. He slipped it in and a song came on. The words rocked him, and he managed to stumble to the bed to sit beside her, brushing his son's velvet skin with his finger. Tears had rolled down his face. She had kissed him then telling him, "..because I love you this much..."

"But there never seems to be enough time,
to do the things you want to do once you find them.
I've looked around enough to know that
you're the one I want to go through time with..."

And that's how it should have been. She should have been there, gliding on a dance floor in his arms on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Surrounded by their children and grandchildren.

"God... it hurts... mom...!"

"I know, sweetheart, I know," she choked, stood up and hugged him, drawing his head to her chest, rocking slightly and rubbing his back as he wept. Finally, she felt him move and she stepped back. He stood up, keeping his injured leg raised and with one crutch, moved to the chest, returning the photo to its place of honor. She watched him wipe his eyes and take several ragged breaths before turning around.

Chris crossed the room and kissed his mother, then smiled, gracing her with a Larabee winner.

"What's that for?"

"For loving her... truly cherishing her as I did," Chris said simply, for it was true. "My old man taught me how to pick the best." He saw his mother's eyes fill too. Then the tender moment was ended by a familiar growl echoing from down the hall.

"Where the hell is everybody? I'm starving!"

"He's class... all the way!" Chris teased of his father's bellow. "Come on, don't want the old man to pass out."

"I'll get Vin, you go ahead."

She turned left and made her way to the stairs, smiling as Maggie bounded up after her.

"You like Vin, don't you?" she whispered, opening the door. She turned the small light on by the bed and winced. He was curled up; only his head was showing. His long lashes were wet from tears and the pillow was stained as well. His slim fingers were curled around the harmonica that rested near his cheek. She picked up the photo and trained her attention on his mother who looked so very young.

"I need your help. Find him and guide him home. I care for your boy... our boy," she corrected. "I'll cherish him... keep his heart safe. I promise," she vowed, gently putting the photo back and retreating. She didn't know if Vin would want her to see him so emotional. She moved back to the stairs and saw the dog pause, her head cocked and confused.

"Go on, girl, go wake Vin up... go on... get Vin... give kisses... good girl..."

Maggie didn't hesitate. She ran into the room and nuzzled the slack hand, whimpering softly. Nothing happened so she nuzzled his face and leapt on the bed, raining him with wet, sloppy kisses.

"...the hell...?" Vin mumbled, blinking and coughing. Then he felt the flash of fur and smiled as the parade of kisses and excited yelps continued. "Yer likely to drown me... " he chuckled, wrestling with her and scrubbing her back. "Good girl..."

His nose caught the wonderful aroma and his empty stomach growled, causing the dog to cock her head and return the bark. "Ya like lasagna? I love it! How 'bout we get us some, okay?"

He stood, kissed the harmonica and put it next to the picture. "Hey, Ma..." he whispered, wanting to 'feel' her. Then he gave into his stomach and the excited dog and left the room. The door closed and a sweet air entered through the window, causing the ribbons and awards to flutter. It swirled and settled in, waiting for the lost soul to return.

Part Twenty-One

It didn't take long for a routine to settle into the now full house. Vin was an early riser and was washed, dressed and taking Maggie outside by sunup. Kate would come down next to the wonderful aroma of coffee. Adam would soon appear, sharing coffee with her and small talk. Then Chris would arrive about the same time Vin would amble back inside. All four would eat breakfast and the table was lively. Kate would then go to work and leave the three males to fend for themselves.

Healing bodies required rest and for the two younger men, the first several days included long periods of sleep. Vin quickly found that by pushing himself too hard and not resting, his headaches were worse, the recurring pain forcing him to lie down. And more often than not, he'd wake up later only to find twilight approaching with most of the day gone - all of which only just served to depress him even more.

Generally, the evenings were good, sharing a movie or a game on the television or both. Vin would excuse himself first, seeking some solace in his room. He had a lot on his mind and didn't want to weigh the Larabees down any further. And then the waiting game would begin. He'd lie in that bed, pushing off the pain medication. He'd try to force his brain to work, like a sifter in the sand, searching to find those hidden treasures. But his efforts yielded no harvest; his box remained closed.

As darkness fell, so would his hopes and the night became a garish enemy. A stealthy invader that stole his resistance. Fear would settle in, swirling around him and stoking his already tender brain. Tonight was no different. He moved gingerly on the bed, wincing as his weary body protested. Exhaustion pushed into the space behind his eyes, giving his headache a nudge.

"...hell's the use..." he muttered, sitting up and getting out of the bed.

+ + + + + + +

The cast on his leg was cumbersome and Chris couldn't get comfortable. Tonight, he was really exhausted and had a Godzilla of a headache. He punched the pillow and shifted but couldn't settle. He groaned, twisted and turned, thwacked against his good leg with the cast. Then just as he began to get drowsy...

"Goddammit!" he hissed, eyeing the ceiling over his head. His eyes followed the 'singing' floorboards above him that creaked with every step. All the way across the room and back again, each board vying for a solo spot. His eyes followed the pattern twice. Chris cursed and sat up, reaching for his crutches.

Silence.

He paused, frowned and waited.

Silence.

He sighed, eased his aching body down and drew the covers up. Just as his eyes closed....

"...creak... creak... creak...."

"Ahhhhh...." the blond growled, jerking his body up and grabbing his crutches. "Concussion, my ass! I'm gonna kill him," he vented, hobbling slowly into the living room and toward the stairs. "...don't have the sense to sleep at night... prowlin' around like some Goddamn hundred and seventy pound rat..."

By the time he got up the stairs, Chris's face was red from the laborious effort. He shoved the door open with his crutch and loomed in the doorway. His sweaty chest was heaving, his head pounding, and his anger boiled over, the intense emotions very clear on his livid and flushed features.

"What the hell are you doing? It's three fuckin' a.m...." he growled, squinting as the light from the bedside lamp hit his eyes. "Get your ass in bed!"

"Can't sleep," came the soft reply as Vin looked up from his spot by the window.

"Neither can I..." Chris grunted, entering the room and easing his lean body onto the bed. "For one scrawny-assed Texan, you sound like a whole fuckin' herd stampeding around up here."

"Don't be gettin' loud with me!" Vin tossed back, angry at himself more than his irate friend. He knew Chris was still recovering from serious injuries too. By the end of the day, those crutches must cause an awful strain on the back and shoulders. "Ya think it's easy sleepin' in here. Hell, 'tween the trophy glare blindin' me and the medals blinkin' at me..." he huffed, waving his hand at the crowded walls. ".'s'like sleepin' in the fuckin' Hall of Fame," he scoffed. "Wall to wall Larabees totin' medals and gropin' dopey girls."

"They weren't dopey!" Chris defended, then rubbed his tired eyes and grinned while eyeing the photo on the wall near his chest of drawers. It was from a picnic about two weeks before graduation. He was in swim trunks and hugging a very well-endowed brunette. "Well, most of them weren't." He nodded to the old photo. He chuckled when Vin looked closer and his blue eyes widened.

"Damn... she's a... a... real healthy girl."

"Yeah, she was stacked," Chris translated, recalling the object of his teenage lust. "Me and Bambi shared many hot nights by the lake."

"Bambi?" Vin laughed, sitting down next to his best friend and offering over the bottle of Snapple. "Yer makin' that up!"

"Swear to God!" Chris held his hand over his heart and took the raspberry iced tea. "Name she was born with."

"Calculus tutor?" Vin smirked and drank in the low, guttural laugh.

"Hell, no!" the former star quarterback grinned evilly, handing the bottle back. "But she was schooled in bodily arts and I was a goooood pupil!" he recalled with a wicked leer.

"Scored a few touchdowns by the lake, did ya?" Vin teased, swallowed the tea and handed the bottle back.

"I did okay!" Chris nodded, wagging his eyebrows. "Bambi was quite the gymnast..." He heard the infectious Tanner laughter and realized just how much he'd missed it. He drained the tea and put the bottle on the nightstand. When the laugh lines that rimmed his friend's eyes faded, Chris saw something he didn't like.

Fear.

"Talk to me, cowboy."

Vin sighed and tried to reply. He studied the carpet pattern for several minutes. Then he shifted his weight, trying to fend off the pins and needles. The doctor said not to worry... but he did. Tanner licked his lips and opened them, but no words came out. He huffed and shook his head, bit his lower lip and eyed both of his open palms.

"It's stupid."

"Not if I haven't heard it, it isn't."

Funny thing, Chris mused to himself, watching Vin going through his usual motions. Having amnesia, the younger man didn't know he was following his normal patterns. Chris knew those body signals as well as he knew himself. Vin Tanner was hiding. Hiding from what faced him in the morning, when he would go to the Medical Center to resume his rehabilitation. But it wasn't that physical workout that was troubling his friend. After the PT came the other therapy, where Vin was supposed to talk about his trauma.

"You'll do fine," he offered. "Look how much better you felt after we talked. Your headaches and nightmares aren't as bad since you and my mom..."

"Yer kin!" Vin exasperated. "They're a bunch o' tight-assed fuzzlebutts... it ain't the same."

"Give it a chance, Vin. They're trained pros... they can help you. Maybe even get your box open."

"I don't like it..."

"I know." Chris winced at the small voice that trailed off. He scratched his cheek and wondered just how to put some wind in the downcast Tanner's sails.

"They're gonna gimme that look," Vin objected. "I hate that."

"What look?"

"The 'I-got-a-fuckin'-sheepskin-and-yer-the-dopey-bastard' look," Vin sassed. "Fuckin' hairy eyeballs. I can see 'em now. Probably have fake glasses jest squatted so on his nose..."

"Well," Chris thought. "Hairy eyeballs do work up an appetite. Want me to give Bambi a call? Meet you at the lake?"

"Ya think yer smart, don't ya?" Vin laughed, shoving the smirking blond lightly. "Could be me and Bambi would score a few TD's."

"I don't think so..." Chris wrinkled his nose.

"Why?"

"Well, time hasn't been kind to old Bambi..." Chris sighed, scratching the back of his neck. "She's gained about two hundred pounds."

"Hell," Vin pouted. "My ribs ain't healed yet. Reckon she'd squash me like June bug."

"Reckon," Chris agreed, giving Vin's knee a pat. "You'll do fine. Don't force it. If you're not comfortable, say so. It's the first day. Nobody's expecting a cure. Don't paint a black picture, Vin, okay? Could be this guy's a good fubbleslut."

"Fuzzlebutt!" Vin scowled, arching an eyebrow. "....slut? Ya been off the circuit too long, cowboy. I think while I'm gettin' m'tongue untwisted, ya need to give yer boys a good workout. Ain't there a nursin' home out that way?"

"Thanks, Vin!" Chris made a face. "That's a great picture. You know I don't like wrinkles."

Vin laughed then, the image of Chris 'scoring' a touchdown with a very wrinkled octogenarian was too much too bear.

Twice, Chris saw Vin rub his eyes and flinch. He moved over and picked up the painkillers. He saw the brown head bob once and the body move, shuffling to the bathroom next door. While Vin was gone, Chris shifted to the chair beside the bed.

"Trust me."

Vin paused by the bed and eyed the open hand. He exhaled deeply and took that hand and the words that went with it. He stared hard into the clear green eyes and felt some of those worry lines fading.

"Okay, I'll give it m'best shot," he nodded.

"Just be yourself, you'll do fine," Chris guided, watching the weary face carefully. "Good thing though that doctor isn't getting paid by the word. He'd starve..."

"Shut up!" Vin chuckled. "Ya mind squattin' somewheres else?" He slid into the bed and pulled the blanket up. "Yer crowdin' me, go find yer own room to pass out in."

"This is my room!"

"Was..." Vin yawned. "Possession is twelve-tenths of the law."

"Twelve-tenths?" Chris shook his head, wearing a winsome grin. "That's my Rhodes scholar."

"Rose who?" Vin mumbled. "..'nother gal ya wrassled with?"

"Vin?" Chris leaned over, frowning as the lips parted and the light snoring began. "How the hell does he do that?" he wondered of the sharpshooter's uncanny ability to fall sound asleep while talking.

+ + + + + + +

It was five a.m. and Kate was showered and dressed. She left her sleeping spouse and went downstairs to start breakfast. Passing the first door in the hall, she paused and her breath caught. Her blond son was sleeping in the chair, keeping vigil by his troubled friend. Vin hadn't been himself the night before, eating little and going to bed early. She knew he was nervous about his appointment with the therapist. Somehow, Chris had eased those fears. She walked into the room and kissed her golden child's cheek.

"What?"

"Just like your father." She shook her head at the grumpy face. "Shhh!" She held his crutches out and waited for him to stand. She didn't miss him studying Vin for a moment. Satisfied, he hobbled out of the room.

"When did you come up here?" she asked.

"I dunno... three maybe... he was pacing the floor like a father with triplets on the way."

"My poor Vin," she fretted. "I wonder if it's too soon. Maybe I should..."

"No!" Chris paused, eyeing his mother. "I know you want to protect him and I'm grateful for the love you've showered on him. God knows, he needed it. He's been alone a long time. But he has to face this. Something's locked up inside his head and it needs to get out. If that doctor can find a key, we need that. He might not open up to a stranger, but the prodding might help."

"You think that will work? That he'll find his lost place? Talk to you?"

"I hope so," Chris said quietly. "I miss him, Mom. I want him to come back."

"I know, sweetheart!" She eyed the fatigue on his face, the price for being the big brother. "You didn't get much sleep..." She walked slowly, pacing him as they went downstairs.

"I'll catch up today. Nobody'll be home," he yawned. "Dad all set?"

"Yes, Major Chelsea is picking him and Vin up at nine a.m. They'll drop Vin at the Medical Center and go on to work. I'll pick Vin up at noon and hopefully, have some lunch with him, then bring him home. Sleep!" she ordered, holding his door open and lifting her face for a kiss.

"Yes, ma'am!" he saluted and eased his crutches inside the room, aiming for the soft bed.

+ + + + + + +

"That's a sin." Chris shook his head, eyeing the sleeping body on the floor. The flannel shirt rose and fell in even rhythm. Two slim hands were folded peacefully across the lean chest. The lips were parted slightly, allowing the warm breath to escape. The features were relaxed and serene. "He waited all day for this game," the blond noted of the NHL playoffs. "Vin's a hockey nut."

"Looks like therapy wore him out," Adam noted, scrutinizing the young man sleeping across the den.

"It's been a long week for him," Chris noted, thinking on the younger man's first week of therapy. He had known Vin would work hard at the physical therapy to improve his injured back and legs. But it was the other therapy that he worried about. He knew how hard it was for the defensive younger man to open up to strangers. But part of the healing process was speaking with therapists, to try to come to terms with the trauma. "But he's a Tanner," Chris noted with pride, addressing the fact that the blue-eyed man was trying to face his fears and move on.

Of course, it didn't take Adam long to become bored. Not a man used to sitting idle, by the end of the first week, he'd returned to work. His team was working under Major Chelsea in the field, but Adam's experience was invaluable and he soon became quite at home at headquarters.

Like his father, Chris was soon anxious to get back to work. He enjoyed the time with Vin since they rarely got so much time to relax in Denver. But Vin was going to therapy three times a week and wiped out when he got home, often sleeping the afternoon away. So one morning, when Orrin called to check on them, Chris pitched his boss an idea. Two days later, he was set up in his mother's old craft room with a pc, fax machine and printer. J.D. sent him overnight copies of the files on the three cases they were working.

+ + + + + + +

By the end of the second week, the three Larabees were busy and needed, their days full and vital which helped in the healing process. Nights were quiet, sharing a movie, conversation and laughter. The pieces of their lives were slowly fitting back together.

But for Vin Tanner, the road was getting murkier. He worked hard at therapy and didn't even mind talking to Doctor Peterson, the therapist. He slept most of the afternoon and with the General's extensive library, he had a great choice of books.

But the nights were awful. He'd wake up usually around two a.m. In the wee hours between dusk and dawn, when the valley was quiet, he was restless. The furies in his mind poked at him, driving his eyes open and causing his stomach acids to rouse. Knowing the floorboards were noisy, he didn't pace anymore. Vin never realized how loud digital numbers on a clock could be until the minutes and hours slipped by in front of his tired eyes.

Today had been another long day. He didn't want to bother Chris. The man had already carried him too far. Besides, he knew Chris needed time with his father. Hell, who wouldn't want the General for a father? Chris seemed to have a peaceful light in his eyes, no doubt from the healing place his parents created.

Vin paused in the doorway, watching Adam and Chris going over some schematics that Josiah faxed. The older Larabee's experience gave him a razor sharp edge. He watched the blond head nodding as the two sat side by side, taking apart evidence from an arson case.

To Vin's credit, he'd tried. He tried hard. And Chris was very generous, giving him plenty of time and space. But the more he read, the more everything looked like Greek. He didn't understand the code words, the procedures or routines. What began as frustrating several days before, when Chris first asked him to help, now turned to depression. What was the use of staying? So he'd get tossed a bone of pity? He shuffled away, not even seeing Maggie's mournful eyes following him.

Kate was dining with friends in town tonight. Adam, like his son, was driven and often worked through meals, and so Vin missed the petite blonde woman. She was so easy to talk to. He slipped outside, eyeing the dark blue evening sky and gingerly walked to the bench. He eyed the brilliant sky above; the newborn stars were winking at him. But he didn't see their splendor. He sat down, welcoming the cold night air. By his count, and the date on the newspaper, it was nearly a month since the plane crash. Of course, to him it was just a date. He had no memory of it, just flashes of events in the aftermath. Nothing existed before that.

All he had was just a big black hole.

The nightly parade of 'what ifs' surfaced and gnawed on his tender insides. What if he never remembered? What if his box remained locked forever? The fact that the job his blond friend claimed he loved so well was foreign to him terrified Vin.

At least Chris was healing, and more than just physically. The time spent with his father was giving him strength and fueling his soul. Adam too was benefiting from the time shared with his only son. Vin thought on his time here and reflected as the moon rose. His physical therapy was progressing well. His legs were getting stronger and he could walk farther without the numbness setting in. His headaches were still too frequent and the doctor wasn't happy about that. Sighing, Vin eyed the long curving road that twisted into the horizon.

What was down that path? What did his future hold?

+ + + + + + +

Despite the growing darkness and chilly night air that surrounded him, Vin remained rigid on the bench. His mind was heavy, fighting off the specter of the unknown future. Phantoms lurked in every corner of his beleaguered brain, snatching flickers of hope as they dared to cross his path. So lost was he, he didn't hear his friend calling to him. He finally saw lights blinking in a Morse code-like fashion and looked over.

"Vin! Vin!"

"Huh?" Vin blinked, spotting Chris balancing his weight on his good leg and waving from the kitchen door.

"Food!"

Vin nodded and shuffled back inside. He eyed the large pot on the stove that had beef stew inside. Carefully, he lifted it with a potholder and carried it to the table. The bowls, tall glasses with ice and a pitcher of iced tea were there already.

"Silverware," Chris read his mind.

"I'll git it..."

"That's okay, Vin, I can manage to..."

"I said I'll git it!" he hollered, yanking the utensil drawer out and sending silverware all over the floor.

"What the hell are you doing?" Adam growled, easing his crutches through the door.

"Well, hell, everybody else has a job... reckon even a backwoods boy like me can figger out how to ladle stew in a dish! I ain't good fer nuthin' else!"

"Who do you think..." Adam started to reply hotly only to have his blond son glare openly at him and hold up a hand in warning.

Chris didn't say anything. He watched Vin shoving knives, forks and spoons back inside the drawer. He saw the fisted rage and the telltale eyes exploding in a livid shade of blue. The handsome face was red with rage and the veins on his slim neck were screaming. He knew Vin had something to get off his chest. But Chris waited. Finally the drawer was replaced, save a handful of utensils.

"You done with your tantrum?" he asked quietly, watching the short, laborious breaths causing the chest to heave. He saw the wall of silence forming and took the utensils. "Fine. We'll eat first, then we'll talk."

"Don't tell me what to do!" Vin growled, needing something to hit. His pent-up rage was working overtime. He shoved Chris into the refrigerator. "I ain't yer child!"

"Sit down!" Chris hissed. "...and stop acting like one!"

"Don't fuckin' touch me!" Vin shoved the hand off his shoulder. "I ain't hungry."

"Dammit!" Chris hit the door of the refrigerator with his crutch as the slender body disappeared up the back stairs. He collected himself and made his way to the table. Dumping the silverware, he sat down hard and kept his hard face on.

"Am I allowed to talk now? In my own house?" Adam demanded, pointing to the stairs. "What the hell was that?"

"Frustration." Chris poured them each an iced tea.

"I want a beer!" Adam decided, rising and grabbing his crutches. Then he scowled, realizing he couldn't carry them back. "Shit!"

"Pockets."

"That's my boy!" Adam made his way slowly to the ice box, took two beers out and put one in each pocket before coming back to the table.

"God, I hope they're twist tops," Chris teased, taking the offered bottle, pulling the top off and drinking deeply of the full-bodied liquid. He studied the condensation rolling down the glass and thought of the angry body upstairs. "You have to understand, Dad, how hard this is for him. He's not used to sitting. The fact that he can squat in a tiny space for hours with that rifle without even breaking a sweat is amazing. Because when he's not on duty, he's never still long enough to make a shadow. Cycling, biking, ice hockey, jogging, racquetball..." He paused, sipping his beer. "Hell, even in the office he bounces. Desk to desk, in the aisles. If he's sitting, that damned knee gets to jiggling."

"I understand your need to defend him, Chris." Adam buttered a piece of sourdough bread. He dipped it into the stew and thought on their guest. "But I won't have him throwing tantrums in this house. It'll upset your mother. She's crazy about that boy."

"I know, Dad." Chris chewed his meat thoughtfully and took a long swig of beer. "He wouldn't do that with Mom here. He'd turtle up. He's tryin' so hard to find himself again, it hurts twice as much when he comes up short." He sighed hard. "Then those damn eyes..."

He recalled the large blue mirrors when he'd given Vin some information about a warehouse they were staking out. The old Vin could draw up mental blueprints of just about any building. He'd eye the building plans once, then make up his own map, study every angle. Seeing the lost soul earlier today eyeing a warehouse he knew like the back of his hand, like it was written in a foreign language, hurt.

"Dammit, he's trying so hard, it's not fair!" Chris vented. "I'd like to dig up Bull Savage and beat the shit out of him for doing that to Vin. I want the old Vin back. I need him, Dad. I want to feel that grin on my face watching the confident, ballsy sharpshooter who don't take shit from nobody. And the magnificent poet whose beautiful words can move me to tears. This isn't Vin..it's half of him..."

"I'm sorry, Chris, I hate to see you so torn up." Adam eyed his blond son carefully, not missing the fists curled up across from him. "We've only been home two weeks. Give it time..."

"Spare me the clichés, Dad. The crash was over a month ago. Most amnesiacs recover by now."

"So if worse case scenario unfolds," Adam shot back, "and he doesn't get his memory back, he can learn. That skill with the rifle you talked about, Chris, doesn't come from a book. If he's that good..."

"Best I've ever laid eyes on," Chris admitted. "Scary good."

"Then he was born with it and he'll get that back. Maybe we should take him to the range at the base. Maybe if he holds one, presses it to his cheek, feels that wood against his fingers..."

"Maybe... but it's more than that, Dad," Chris worried. "His mother, he can't remember her. That's tearing his guts up. Christ, you oughta see his eyes when he picks up that picture. I can't look at him..." Chris sighed hard, raking a hand through his hair. "And what about his grandfather? You can't find what he learned from that man in a book. It came from generations of Cherokees, passed down from the old to the young. He spent years in New Mexico absorbing all that man could give."

"Alright, son, I'm sorry. But he's young and strong and smart. He can learn and we'll help him. But he has to realize that it may be a possibility."

"He can't... not yet. Hope is all he has now. I won't take that away from him."

"You know," Adam lauded quietly, his dark eyes shining. "When I first saw him, bleeding and half-dead, all but naked, using his body to protect you on that mountain.." He paused and smiled. "My gut reaction was 'Christ, that kid's got balls'. He was ready to give his life for yours..."

"No question," Chris replied. "And he'd get it back, he knows that."

"That's more than most poor bastards find in a lifetime, son. You hold onto that, and you carry him if you have to. But he needs to feel that, to know that his stance hasn't diminished one iota in your eyes."

Adam let the words sink in, wanting to physically tear that disheartened look from his son's face. He knew how much his boy was hurting for Vin Tanner. He knew that if Vin didn't recover fully, Chris would be scarred too. His mind's eye drew up a picture of a cocky, blond kid with cool green eyes who made him proud every day. He'd watched that boy grow into manhood, take a wife and father a son of his own.

"Have I ever told you..." Adam swallowed hard, ".just how very proud I am... to have a son so fine."

"You wear it proud, like your father before you and his before him. You get it clean and respect it, honor it and pass it to your own boy." Chris nodded, thinking on his gift. He tipped his bottle up and smiled. "Thanks, Dad, for making Larabee something worth fighting for. You set the bar, sir. I'm still the pupil."

Adam stood and balanced himself, placing the dishes on a waist high, rolling laundry cart on wheels. He shoved it across to the sink, following slowly. He placed the dinnerware in the sink, filling it with hot water and suds. Eyeing his silent child, he then turned, moving to the other side of the table. He left the crutches and gripped the back of his son's shoulders. He didn't say anything, but let the strength of his touch speak for him. He heard the labored breaths and felt his own emotions rising.

"Why don't you check on Vin? Maggie and I will be outside."

"Dad?" Chris stood, grabbed his crutches. "How 'bout tomorrow we play hooky? Maybe go fishing?"

"Your mother could come home at lunch and drop us off by the lake," Adam thought aloud. "Might be a good dose of medicine for that boy."

+ + + + + + +

Vin paced in the large room, his eyes catching reflections everywhere of Chris Larabee. From the cherubic six-year old little leaguer to the twenty-two year old All American, he felt the power; it shrouded him. He didn't like losing control. He usually could keep his troubles buried. But frustration was building up and he had no where to put it.

Chris.

It wasn't his fault. He hadn't put the plane into the ground and caused this mess. Neither had Adam Larabee who'd opened his home to him. What about Kate? What if that strong woman with that kind touch got in the way of his raging temper? He continued to pace, then picked up his mother's photo.

"I don't know what to do. I got no past..." he whispered, eyes painfully trying to find her inside the woman in the photo. "Without that, I got no future." He kissed the photo and lay back on the bed, fingering the harmonica. He began to play a sad song, letting the gentle notes surround him.

"Saddest fuckin' song ever written," a voice from the doorway noted of 'Taps'. "Can I come in?"

"..'s'yer room. I'm only the half-witted boarder..." Vin tossed the harmonica aside and rolled over, facing the wall. He hunched up, almost fetal-like, curling his arms across his chest.

Chris chuffed out a breath of frustration and eyed his closet. An idea came to mind and he moved across the room. He opened the door with the bottom of his crutch and scrutinized the interior. Had he not been encumbered by the injuries, he'd have pushed the lean Texan into a physical match of some sort. An arena where he could put his demons to work, slamming a racquet ball or maybe even boxing. That brought an idea to mind.

"Aha!" He spotted what he sought high on a shelf. "If you're done wallowing in self-pity, how about putting your money where your mouth is?"

"I ain't got no money," Vin replied, but turned around, his blue eyes narrowing in curiosity.

"Get your whinin' ass over here, Tanner."

"Why?"

"It's time to put up or shut up."

Curious, the blue-eyed cat slid across the room, standing next to the figure on crutches. He looked past Chris into the closet, spotting footballs, basketballs and other sports gear. Then, he saw a group of games on the shelf. Although they were old, they were in pristine condition

"What the hell am I lookin' fer?" Vin rasped, then saw a crutch fly past. "Watch where ya swing that thing!" He waited until it tapped a large white box.

"Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots..." Vin read the box. "Hey, I seen them once on one of them old timer shows on TVland..."

"Don't make me hurt you, Tanner," Chris snorted of the insult. "Just set it up and be prepared to die."

"Hah!" Vin's eyes lit up, his competitive spirit rising to the occasion. He was very eager to challenge the smug blond. "Jest 'cause a chicken's got wings don't mean it can fly! Get yer ass in that chair"

Chris moved across the room and smirked as another one of Vin's Texas winners came out. He watched the younger man move the nightstand so that it was between the two of them. Vin then sat on the bed and put the box on the makeshift table. He pulled the lid off and took out the boxing ring.

"How's this rig work?" Vin pondered, eyeing the blue and red boxers. He began to fiddle with the levers, then saw the blue head duck and a fist shoot out, striking the red boxer and knocking his head off. "Hah! Glass jaw, most likely he's a Larabee, soft head n'all..."

"Ten for every knockdown, double up for the final round," Chris dished out. "Don't worry about cash, cowboy, I take checks."

"Ya shoot hot air like a corn-guzzlin' horse, Larabee!" Vin tossed back, wiggling his fingers. "Draw!"

For an hour, they traded punches and insults, and Chris watched as the anger melted and the familiar blue light came back. It wasn't the answer, but for tonight, it would do. It would give them both a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, they could conquer bigger things. Finally, the red boxer unleashed a rocket, sending the blue one over backwards.

"Sweet!" Chris gloated, rubbing his back, which was starting to nag him.

"Ya cheated!" Vin accused. "Ya gave me the retarded one."

"Retarded?" Chris retorted sharply, hackles rising. "They're plastic, they're both the same!"

"Hah!" Vin snarled, jerking his index finger at the smug blond. "Ya plucked that red one fer a reason, ya crooked bastard. Ye'd swalla nails and spit out a corkscrew."

"What?" Chris tried not to laugh but caved. For some reason, he couldn't control himself. It was one of those times when you're struck funny by something, and no matter how hard you try, you can't stop laughing. Vin got caught up in the infectious moment as well, collapsing back on the bed, mirth sailing in the air.

"Chris?" Vin panted, rubbing his eyes that were wet from laughter tears.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks," he offered along with his hand. "I'm sorry about bustin' up yer dinner. Seems the harder I try, the behinder I git. What if I don't never remember?" he hushed in a painful whisper. "I don't know how... I ain't got trainin' fer nuthin' else. I don't want t'lose y'all." He slumped a bit and dropped his head. He wanted Chris and the other five men he'd met briefly to be a part of his life. He felt a need inside, a longing for that camaraderie. He heard movement and looked over as the body dropped down on the edge of the bed next to him.

"We ride together, Vin, no matter what's down that road. I'll help you, but you have to see the whole picture."

Chris watched the shaggy head drop and the slim fingers twist themselves into knots. He didn't preach anymore; he just sat by the worried man's side. He couldn't explain it, but he had a gut feeling Vin Tanner would be fine. But 'gut feelings' only went so far and the younger man needed proof. So for now, he'd be the guardian, the keeper of Vin's hope. A familiar voice brought both heads up and towards the door.

"Hey, Kate!" Vin grinned, genuinely glad to see her.

"Hi, Mom, how was your dinner?" Chris greeted, accepted a kiss.

"Oh, we had a wonderful night!" She eyed the game board and put it back into the closet. "Who won?"

Vin thought for a moment, suddenly seeing very clearly the rules to the game. Rules that weren't in the directions. Rather they were the refrain of the brotherhood song. He ran a hand over his lean abdomen and felt that nasty hole shrinking up. He found a half-grin as he thought on that and the talk afterwards.

"I did, Kate," he managed, catching Chris's arm with a brotherhood grip. He offered his own laurel wreath with a winning smile and a blue beacon in the emotive eyes.

"That's my boy!" Chris noted with a wink. "It's late and you need your beauty sleep. If you're up to it, we were thinking of going fishing tomorrow."

"Fishin'?" Vin wrinkled his nose. "Me and two cripples... reckon m'odds could be worse." He yawned and winced, rubbing his lower back. He'd been in one position too long and now was paying the price. He stood and flinched again as pain shot from his calves to his waist. He resigned and slipped into the bed, resting against the backboard.

"What's that?" Chris paused by the door, watching his mother re-enter with a large tray. "Food? Is there food under there? We're upstairs! What happened to 'no food allowed'?"

"Your father told me Vin didn't eat. He can't take his medicine without food." She turned back to the younger man. "I don't know what else went on, but sulking isn't the answer. There's some soup and a sandwich... "

"Ya didn't hafta t'go t'any fuss, Kate. I couldda come downstairs."

"He's allowed to eat up here?" Chris repeated. "I lived here for eighteen years. Not sickness or surgery got me food up here..."

"Yes, dear..." Kate turned to replace the lamp on the bed stand. As she bent over, Vin stuck his tongue out at Chris, then settled back into a bank of pillows. Seeing an opportunity to devil the blond, his blues lit up.

"Ya watch yer mouth, Larabee, yer Ma's in the room. Show some respect."

"Chris!" Kate warned, without turning around.

"I didn't say a damn thing!" he flustered, face flushing as the sated prince gloated at him while wearing an angelic smile.

"Tsk... tsk..." Vin clucked his tongue. "There ya go again. It's disturbin' t'me. M'tender ears ain't used t'such noise."

"Your tender ears, my....!"

"Christopher Jamison Larabee!"

"Uh-oh!" Vin wagged his eyebrows as the tiny woman turned, backing up the flustered male.

"Aw, come on, Mom," the blond protested. "You can't be that blind, he's playing you!"

"Kate?" Vin whispered, sinking back on his pillows and placing his hands on the edge of the tray. His voice grew 'suddenly' weak as he continued, pious eyes on the blonde woman. "Maybe I oughta eat downstairs. Chris's likely t'bust a vein soon..."

"You'll do no such thing!" she scolded, not missing his true discomfort, before turning and shooing her son from the room.

Chris looked back just in time to see the 'patient's' head rise, his neck craning. Both eyebrows wagged and a mug of soup was lifted in toast.

"Gotcha!" Vin mouthed, enjoying every bit of the older man's disgruntled expression.

"What the hell just happened?" Chris eyed his mother who was walking toward the stairs. He followed slowly, carefully maneuvering behind her. "Hey, remember me? Your adorable son?"

"Adorable?" Adam wrinkled his nose from the sofa in the den. "You worry me, son."

"Don't pout, sweetheart." She waited for him to land on solid ground and cupped his chin before kissing his cheek. "You're still adorable. I did bring home a Dutch Apple Cobbler but if you're too upset..."

"From Grahams?" Chris's head whipped up as an image from his boyhood resurfaced. The small bakery in town had many wonderful treats, but their Dutch Apple Cobbler was his favorite.

"Coffee?" she smiled, patted his hand and eyed her groom.

"Thanks," Adam nodded.

"Two scoops or one?" She waited, watching her boy salivate.

"Two and toss some cinnamon on top..." He hobbled to the sofa, easing his body down. "Damn, I haven't had a Grahams Dutch Apple in... well, years."

"How are things on the frontlines?" Adam tossed his crossword puzzle down and rubbed his eyes.

"Good. Not great, but better. He knows the score." Chris eyed the movies lying on the table nearby. "Cape Fear? The original with Mitchum?"

"Yeah, that's a good one..." Adam nodded, smiling as his wife returned with a tray. Three mugs of coffee, two cobblers and one mountain of ice cream melting over a dish of cobbler were waiting.

"Worth coming home for," Chris grunted, reaching for the dish.

"I thought we could watch some of Titanic." Kate settled into the large recliner, frowning when both males groaned in twin pained voices.

"That's a chick flick..." Chris moaned.

"Well, honey, I am a chick," his mother sent back. Then she saw the twin scowls and laughed, shaking her head. "Alright, compromise." She moved forward and shuffled through the stacks of movies. "Primary Colors?" She held up the John Travolta movie and saw two heads nodding. She took the movie and slid it into the player, then sank back to enjoy another warm night of family

Part Twenty-Two

There are some places on earth that defy words. The sheer exhilaration that overpowers every sense leaves you speechless and breathless. As if God himself swept His mighty hand over the terrain and bestowed a magnificent aura.

From the silver-tipped mountains that stood against a sky of deep violets and blues, to the brisk river that swept past him and onto the rich, rolling hills behind him, he was humbled. He shut his eyes as the early evening air swept past. He inhaled deeply, letting the magical mist invade his very core. His fingers stroked the silky hair of the Irish Setter content to keep him company. She was a good listener. As if sensing his need, she moved her head and licked his hand.

"Good girl... pretty lady..." he cooed, scrubbing her neck.

A Healing Place.

He paused and eyed the three words he'd written on the top of the new page of his journal. He'd purchased it in town the day before. There was something about a new journal that excited him. Flipping through the empty pages, he felt a desire emerge. Those pale white bodies were starved for food and he was the master chef. He'd filled sixteen pages already, pouring his heart out.

The wind kicked up, sending his growing hair back in the breeze. He tilted his nose, scented the air and detected rain. Reluctantly, he rose, leaving this wonderful place behind. He brushed off his worn jeans and eyed the three words again.

A Healing Place.

"Come on, girl, we gotta make tracks."

The pretty animal thumped her tail, jumping up and playfully hitting him with her paws. She raced ahead, very familiar with the path home.

He tucked the soft leather journal into his jacket and headed back to the house. The short walk took longer due to his healing limbs. As he gingerly made the slow journey back to the house, he thought on his options. It had been nearly six weeks since the date of the crash and four since he'd arrived here. His therapy was nearly done and he had some rough choices to make.

He had to accept the fact that his memory was not returning. Vin paused, steadied himself against a small tree and flexed his legs, trying to dispel the oncoming pins and needles sensation. He pulled out his journal and flipped back four pages to the small list.

Options:

For several hours, that heading remained blank, like his past. What were his options? He didn't know where he came from, so how could he find his way to the future? He knew he loved the outdoors and wrote that down. He loved history; he'd found that out pouring through the General's library. He loved to write, poems and thoughts, ideas and dreams. He jotted that down too.

But it wasn't enough. Inside was a need to fight justice and right the wrongs done. Chris said he'd been a bounty hunter for many years. Vin also knew by the uniform on the man bearing his face in the photo in his room that his father had been in the armed services.

ATF

Three initials. That's all they were now. He'd studied the evidence and the documents that were compiled in Chris's makeshift office. He'd scoured through the blueprints of warehouses, especially those the blond leader stated he'd worked in before. He'd searched and prodded through his mind, poking and stoking embers in every corner.

Nothing.

Not one word of the terms, rules of procedure and all of the other things that composed his world as a federal agent made sense. The things he needed to govern his tenure, the rules by which he was required to conduct himself were now invisible. Could that be rectified? Sure, if he had the ways and means of doing it the hard way.

School.

That opened an ugly can of worms. They wiggled and squirmed, spilling over in his gut. Books, studying, writing essays, passing tests and giving oral reviews. Thick manuals to be memorized and only the very best cut the grade. He furrowed his brow, seeking an answer. He debated himself, reasoning back that he must have done this before, he as an ATF agent. If that was so, why did the whole idea of books and school cause such a pain?

He was good. Even without Chris's words, he had a gut feeling about that. His fingers itched to hold that rifle against his cheek. What he knew, the tools of his trade, didn't come from books, wasn't learned in a classroom. His gut told him that and he trusted it.

He slid his hand into the pocket of the denim jacket and brought out the worn harmonica. He ran it under his nose, inhaling the metallic residue. He hissed in pain as Virginia slipped away and he stood in the cold night of a New Mexico desert. He closed his eyes and felt his grandfather's hand on his shoulder. Vin held his breath, felt the power of the man course through him. He felt his fears dissolve and his pride grow.

Then it was gone.

"Don't... go...." he whispered, clenching his eyes and the mouth organ.

Nothing.

The shards that sprang from his locked box were painful as they ripped into his tender soul. Was it better to just not remember anything? The dreams, both in day and eve, brought nothing but pain. Oftentimes, the nightmares left him weak and his skull throbbing. Then he'd be so blue, totally wiped out by not being able to hold the image. Like a flickering picture on an old Sylvania television, it flipped endlessly, not allowing the eye to see the image. He carefully replaced the harmonica and rubbed his throbbing eyes.

He paused at the top of the knoll and through the trees, cast his eyes upon the beautiful home. He sat on a rock, resting his tender back. The small boy inside peeked out through those magnificent blue orbs and he was transported back in time. It was 1863 and the Union Army was in a firefight with a tough bunch of Rebs. Bullets flew through the air that was thick with the scent of gunpowder and smoke. The screams of the wounded and dying caused his ears to flinch. He saw them spread out on their bellies, behind rocks and trees, using their weapons.

Vin blinked and the hazy curtain closed, taking the ghost away... for now. He felt the dog's cold nose nudge his hand and he gave her neck a pat. Then the endearing animal lifted her head to kiss his face. He gave her a hug and patted her side. Taking a deep breath, he rose and walked very slowly down the hill and towards the familiar path. This place, this healing place had become home. The warmth of love that radiated through the historic home was like floating in a warm sea. It started with Kate, the mother, the giver of life. Adam was a strong man, the father, shaper of dreams. Of that union, came the gift.

Chris.

There was no definition that would suit. No words that could script what he felt every time he held that intense green gaze. Those cool eyes burned away his fears, calmed his turmoil and solidified his soul. The first weeks spent here, he'd been fragile and unsure. He'd lashed out time and time again, but the rock held firm.

Now he had to be strong for Chris. In a couple of weeks, the cast would come off. A brace would replace it and then intense therapy would start. Painful sessions that would leave his friend worn and frustrated. He hadn't said much, but Vin knew he was worried. The fracture had been bad, and in order to get full motion back, weeks of intense work — grueling sessions- were ahead. Now, it was his time to be there for Chris, to be his rock.

"Vin?"

"Evenin', General!" Vin nodded to the man who was sitting outside, sipping a cup of coffee with Maggie yelping and leaping by his side.

"Was about to send out the cavalry to find you, son."

"Sorry!" Vin eyed the clock through the kitchen window. It was almost seven and dinner was late. Kate was working overtime and Chris was in Washington, meeting with Orin and Paul Webber, the Deputy Director of the ATF. "Didn't mean t'hold up the vittles."

"That's okay, son. Sit down a minute." The dark eyes didn't miss the pain etched on the fine features. "She calls to you, huh?" he nodded towards the lake beyond the hills.

"Yeah, it sure is pretty out there," Vin agreed, settling on the bench. "Didn't realize how late it was. I got t'scratchin' in m'book and lost track..."

"No harm done." Adam patted his knee. "Chris tells me you're a very gifted poet."

"Don't know 'bout gifted," the Texan smiled shyly and eyed the dark blue sky. "I see pictures in my head and jest write 'em down."

"That's a gift," Adam nodded. "Those 'pictures' of yours mean a lot to my son. He told me your words can move him."

"So can Josiah's chili," Vin laughed, then cocked his head. "Hey, I remembered that! Hey!"

"Good for you! See how something small can be the key to open your lost memories? Don't give up."

"I ain't givin' up, sir," Vin said calmly. "But Chris told me, I need t'see the whole picture. I might not git my box open. So if I want t'keep my job... I'll have to start all over..."

Adam turned at the dejected catch in the soft drawl and saw doubt cropping up.

"You're young, Vin, and strong. Once you're completely healed, you can try. You have to if it's what you want. I know the training is rigorous but..."

"Ain't the trainin' what worries me, I can do that. It's them damned tests. I ain't much fer book learnin'. Them manuals is thick and rules and regs... thousands of 'em. I don't know if I got it in me t'do that.."

"Vin, you may be a lot of things, but you're not a quitter. Chris wouldn't have hired you. That much I do know. My son only picks the best. I taught him that, never settle for seconds."

"Thanks," Vin smiled, hearing Chris's tone in the older man's voice. "Reckon ya learned him a lot. Seems to me I oughta be thankin' ya. He got me through that River o'Fire in Mexico. He had faith in me... even when I doubted m'self. He never did."

They sat in silence for a few moments, enjoying the night air. The night creatures called out, their songs creating music on the cool breeze. Adam was just about to suggest they go inside and eat when that soft drawl tickled his ears.

"The wind carries yer song, yer spirit echoes through the silence. I breathe it in and exalt in the wondrous rapture ye've bestowed upon me. In rage and fear, in peace and prayer, in laughter and sorrow, ya paint my soul. With colors rich and alive, so pure they blind me, yer glorious song restores my spirit," Vin whispered in awe. "The eagle swoops down through the snowcapped mountains and o'er the blue streams. His wings broad and strong, his eyes clear and green. He soars down the hillsides and through the majestic canyons, burstin' forth through thunder and spillin' free in a healin' rain. It awes me... this gift o'm'heart. Yer m'brother in spirit who's freed m'bound soul."

"My God!"

The older man's shocked voice brought a sly grin to the younger one. He peeked over and widened his smile.

"Naw, jest Vin," he shifted. "I wrote that fer Chris. It was the first thing I wrote in m'book last night."

"It's beautiful, Vin," Adam paused. "I have a favor. I think Mrs. Larabee would love to hear that. She loves beauty in all things, art, music and words. I think she'd be honored if you shared that with her."

"Mebbe I'll scratch it out fer 'er... put it on one of them fancy papers in the desk upstairs."

"Sounds like a plan!" Adam slapped the leg again. "But first, you have chores to do."

"Chores!" Vin's voice rose.

"Chores!" Adam repeated, gingerly rising and getting his crutches. "Beginning with dinner. So get your lyrical ass inside and cook, boy."

"Yes, sir!" Vin laughed, heading for the door with Maggie scampering in ahead of him.

Thirty minutes later, Adam was dozing in the recliner chair with ESPN on in the background when a light tap interrupted his snooze. He frowned, pulled away and continued his nap.

"Sir... uh... General..." Vin waited, but the body didn't move. "Mister... uh... Adam..." Vin tapped thelean body but the scowl only deepened. "Hell," he sighed, tapping the arm yet again. "Sir...?"

"What!" Adam bellowed, sending the would-be chef three feet back. Maggie lifted her head from her spot on the sofa, then dropped it back down, content to snooze.

"Damn..." he shivered. "I thought Chris was bad... Dinner's ready."

By the time Adam got into the kitchen, he was greeted by a wonderful aroma.

"Something smells great!" He eased himself down at the table. "Doesn't smell like hamburgers."

"No ,sir. It's Pizza Soup. Old family recipe..."

"Old family?" Adam eyed the tureen that was placed in front of him and hid a smile. "Where'd you get this, son?"

"Dunno... I started gettin' the meat and such out and next thing I knew, I's makin' soup. Musta made if before..." he recalled of the delicious soup. "Kate had all the innerds I needed, b'sides the meat. Smushed up tomatoes, beef broth, 'talian seasonin's, pepper bits and onions, pepperoni..."

"I'm sure it'll be fine," Adam hid a smile. "I meant the container."

"Huh?" Vin placed two bowls and two soup spoons down along with a loaf of hot garlic bread. "What container?"

"This," he tapped of the old cream colored tureen with a chip in the top. It had no real value other than it was the first thing Kate bought when they had gotten married. She'd paid about twenty-five cents for it at a church sale. It had been sitting on top of the refrigerator for years.

"Oh... I figgered it'd be easier if I loaded all the soup in somethin' and toted it over. Iced tea, sir?"

"Fine," he smirked, waiting for the slow moving young man to return. "How's your back?"

"It's sassin' me a bit, but I got pills upstairs somewheres... reckon I'll pop 'em once I eat."

"Good." Adam lifted the lid on the ceramic tureen and frowned. He fingered the chip and watched the blue eyes widen. "Hmmm... that's a damn shame..."

"Aw, hell..." Vin rasped, leaning over the table. His right hand shot out, slim fingers tracing the large chip at the top of the rim. "I'm sorry... how'd that git there? I was real careful."

"It belonged to Martha you know," he said with a straight face, ladling two hefty dips of the tempting soup. "Vin, this smells great!"

"Martha who?" Vin asked, watching his appetite flee the room.

"Washington," Adam deadpanned. "Pass the grated cheese..."

"Huh?" Vin squeaked, his stomach lurching.

"Cheese."

"Washington. Like George?"

"Her husband." The dark-eyed trickster kept the ruse up. Keeping the grin off his face was hard. The poor guest looked like a rat caught in a trap.He sunk down in his seat and his eyes began to dart around. His Adam's apple began to bob and his voice disappeared. "Dig in, son, before I eat it all."

"Reckon my appetite's headed fer the lake 'bout now," Vin managed, swallowing hard. "How much... I mean... can it git fixed?"

"I don't know." Adam took a bite. "Vin, this is great. I wouldn't worry about fixing it, once they're damaged the value plummets."

"Aw, hell..." Vin slumped, his chest constricting.

Adam couldn't contain himself any longer and hid a chuckle behind his napkin. He was about to let the guilt-ridden soul off the hook when the phone rang.

"I'll git it," Vin whispered, shaky legs taking him to the phone."Hel... lo?" He closed his eyes and rubbed them, leaning against the sink. "No, ma'am... we just sat down. I'm fine... well... truth be told, my stomach just slunk out the door. Ain't no easy way t'say this, Kate."

"Whaammf?" Adam muffled over a mouth full of soup. He choked it down and grabbed his iced tea.

"It was an accident and I'll pay fer it, no matter what it costs. I'm really sorry, Kate. I busted a piece o'that soup dish that Martha Washington gave ya... "

"What soup dish?" Kate frowned, putting down her container of yogurt.

"Vin..." Adam began to wave his arms but the younger man was turned away. "Vin... wait...!"

"The one on top o'the fridge. I was real careful, Kate. I didn't know it was one of them fussy pieces that them fuzzlebutts on the PBS talk 'bout." Vin paused, wondering why Adam was coughing and red-faced.

"Vin, I don't know what..." Kate paused, smelling a rat as the wavering, guilt-ridden voice continued. She could just imagine those large blue saucers and the panic-stricken face.

"It might take a while fer me t'pay it all off, but ya got m'word. I'm awful sorry, Kate. I feel like I'm totin' buckshot in my gut."

"Honey, listen to me," Kate said sternly. "I don't have anything that belonged to Martha Washington. I paid a quarter for that tureen at a flea market long before you were born. That chip came with it."

"What?" Vin's head popped up and his stomach crept back across the floor and up his leg.

"It's junk, Vin. It's got sentimental value but little else. Can you put the crippled rat on the phone, please?" she demanded.

"Sure, hold on." Vin crossed the floor, thrusting the phone out and smiling evilly. "She's riled up but good."

"Uh... I can explain, honey..."

"Don't you honey me! How could you...?"

"Aw, hell, Kate, I was having some fun with the boy!" Adam bristled, watching Vin Tanner gloat.

Vin ladled himself out a full bowl and tore off a hunk of garlic bread. He nearly choked himself when the phone suddenly flew several inches away from the wincing husband's ear.

"Now, Kate..." Adam pleaded. "I was just gonna tell him when you called." He paused, then sat up straight. "What do you mean?"

"I think you heard me clear enough!" Kate replied. "Maybe you can call 'Martha'... I'm sure she'll be free. You can return her tureen..."

"Aw, hell, Kate, it's Friday. I've been waiting all week." His disgruntled face looked up when his dining companion began to laugh. "Something funny?"

"No, sir."

"Okay, okay..." Adam winced. "What happened to your sense of humor?" he scowled. "It was so funny! You should have seen his face."

Vin continued to chuckle all through the rest of the one-sided call, easily 'hearing' between the lines. The General might wear the stars and bars, but Kate Larabee ruled this roost, that was for sure. He took the phone and hung it up, enjoying the egg now so elegantly draped on the older man's face.

"Sounds like the boys is in fer a long night."

"Truer words were never spoken," Adam lamented of his fate. "Listen, Vin, I've been thinking. How about Monday you come to work with me? At the Ops center, we have a world-class firearms training center. You can start in the fundamental arena with the handguns, move up to marksmanship and world-class sniper drills, judgmental alley... we'll leave out the survival training."

"Really?" Vin sat up, swallowed his bread and wiped his mouth. "Ye'd do that fer me?"

"Said so, didn't I?"

Adam sounded so much like Chris at that moment, Vin couldn't speak. He blinked several times and remained mute. It was the same pitch as the gruff tone Chris used. The one that always wormed its way into his gut.

"It's time, Vin. You're strong enough for most of the course. No obstacles or harsh physical elements, just the basics. If that goes well, you can visit the forensics training unit and the investigative and behavioral units. We have an excellent crime scene evaluation layout..."

"I don't know what t'say..." Vin sat back stunned.

"Yes, would be a good start," Adam teased. "Where's that fire Chris talks about?"

"Hell, yeah!" Vin nodded with a wide grin.

Vin cleaned up and went upstairs, taking a hot shower and his pain medications. He slid into a clean sweat suit and socks, then headed back downstairs. He heard a familiar voice as he entered the den.

"Field of Dreams," Adam stated, watching Vin's face. "There's cake left from last night if you want some."

"Yeah, sounds good. Coffee?"

"No thanks, Vin, I'm fine. Help yourself."

Several times during the movie, Adam noticed how silent Vin was. He didn't move an inch which was highly unusual. Normally, the wiggling fidget switched chairs several times, ending up on the couch, after both he and Chris threatened to tie the younger man down. But tonight he'd not moved at all, not in the hour since he'd arrived.

"You okay, Vin?" he asked, wondering about the large amount of chocolate cake he'd eaten.

"Yeah..." Vin managed, eyes glued to the picture. Over the roar in his ears and the heart gyrating in his chest, the words came. He heard them through a fog, as he always did, with his eyes rimmed with tears. The phone rang, jarring him and he jumped.

"I got it." Adam picked up the cordless and pushed the button. "Vin? Vin?" He craned his neck as the body headed for the kitchen. He heard the door open and shut and then frowned.

"Dad? What's wrong?" Chris asked, rubbing his aching back. He'd be glad to be rid of the heavycast and the sore arms and shoulders that went with it. He was doubly glad to be out of his suitand into sweat shorts and a t-shirt. He turned the news down and waited for his father to answer.

"I'm not sure, nothing maybe," Adam returned. "How'd the meeting go?"

"Good. We got a lot done. Orrin has the committee convinced that we need those funds to do our job better. You want the best, you have to pay for it." He sighed. "What's wrong with Vin?"

"He's been quiet all night. Well, since the movie started. Now he just up and bolted out the door."

"What movie?"

"Field of Dreams, why?" the older Larabee puzzled.

"Shit," Chris hissed, rubbing his aching eyes. It had been a long day and he was exhausted. All he wanted was his pain pills and a soft bed.

"What?"

"Let me guess, it's near the end," Chris recalled of the experience he and the team shared when they viewed the movie at Buck's one night. "Kevin Costner turns to his father and says, 'Hey, Dad, wanna have a catch?"

"How'd you know that?" Adam puzzled.

"Happened the last time too. We were at Buck's. Anybody who's seen that movie... well, that's the scene where you get choked up. Vin lost it... couldn't control himself. Ran off... embarrassed. It took me hours to find him. He didn't talk about it much, but it's tied to his father. Something in that scene rocks him. Is he there? Let me talk to him?"

"Uh?" Adam didn't want Chris to worry, not from that distance. He heard the exhaustion in his son's voice and knew he needed rest. "He's upstairs, Chris, I can't get to him. Can he call you back?"

"Yeah..." Chris yawned, eyeing the bathroom. How could such a small distance seem so great? "I gotta go, Dad. I drank too much coffee," he grunted of his full bladder. "Have Vin call... no matter what time."

"Got it! Goodnight, son."

Adam hung up the phone and got his crutches. He made quick time getting to the door. He flipped the powerful outside lights on and stared across the rolling hills.

"Vin! Vin!" he hollered, moving towards the barn. The large building was empty save the horses. The corral was empty too. Where was he?

"Vin!"

Adam called out again but only the rising wind replied.

+ + + + + + +

Denver, CO

The Saloon was crowded; the thirsty patrons were three deep at the bar. Nathan paused in the doorway, using his height to scan above the throng of humanity. He nodded to Casey who was busy taking orders. Then his brown eyes found the others and he ambled over.

"Business is good!" he called out to Inez who gave him a smile. Seems she smiled a lot these days and he knew the answer to that. Buck was pink with bliss most of the time and spent half his days at the pretty tavern owner's apartment.

"Hey, Nate!" J.D. hollered, shoving an overloaded nacho into his mouth.

"Did you get it?" Buck asked, eyeing the package tucked under Nathan's arm.

"Yup, where is he?"

"In the head," Buck nodded to the bathroom.

"Here." Josiah poured a glass of beer for the tired agent. "Take a load off, brother."

"Thanks." Nathan dropped into the seat and took a sip. He slid the gift out and put it on the seat next to him. Then he turned his eyes to Wilmington. "What did the doctor say? How's the arm?"

"Okay," Buck hedged, wearing a small smile that didn't meet his eyes.

Before Nathan could act on that, Ezra reappeared.

"What's this?" He took his seat and moved his glass of wine over. "It's not my birthday."

"Open it," Nathan suggested, then rolled his eyes when Ezra moved several inches back and poked it with a fork. "It ain't gonna bite you."

"Or explode," J.D. added.

"It's not alive," Josiah noted.

"I'm the pretty one," Buck finished, not having a 'quote' to spare.

"A less trustworthy lot I've yet to meet," Ezra stated doubtfully. "Your reputation precedes you."

He carefully slid his fingers under the seam of the silver paper. Inside was a slim box. He shoved the paper aside and opened the lid. He turned the box lengthwise and pushed the tissue aside.

J.D. elbowed Buck when the slow grin started to form. By the time the conman's jade eyes got to the bottom, the gold tooth was glistening.

"Gentlemen," Ezra looked up, tapping his chest. "I'm touched."

"Hell, Ezra," Buck chugged his beer. "We knew that before you got the present."

"Poor Brother Nathan wore himself out finding that for you," Josiah remarked.

"'Poor Brother Nathan'," Jackson lamented, "never wants to see a tee-shirt shop again. Do you know how hard it is to find that shade of gray? Your ass is too fussy."

"I have a reputation to uphold." Ezra held up the long sleeved tee shirt and then examined the label. "Egyptian cotton..."

"Like I said," Nate took a nacho and loaded it with cheese and salsa. "Your southern ass is too fussy. Half of them kids that work in them stores didn't know what the hell I was talking about."

"Thank you, Mister Jackson," Ezra nodded, scanning the charcoal shirt with the long list of over a dozen names on the front. "Ethan... Elroy... Emory... Elmer..." he chuckled, hearing Vin Tanner's drawl in his mind. Each name was in white letters and crossed out. "Ah, my personal favorite, 'Elvis-Earl'.."

"We had an argument about that," Buck said. "I wanted to go separate. Nate said it needed the hyphen."

"Grammatically correct as well." He nodded his chestnut head to the dark-skinned agent. "My deepest gratitude to all of you. I shall wear it in good humor. Speaking of our missing comrades, has anyone heard from them?"

"I talked to Orrin today," Josiah said. "He said Chris did great at the meeting. He blew them away."

"When Chris wants to make a point, he can get very persuasive," Nathan agreed.

"I'll drink to that," Buck said. "Still feels funny, them not being here."

"Yes, there is actually food left unconsumed," Ezra said, eyeing the empty chair where Vin Tanner should have been sitting.

"Ezra, you ain't hardly that good," Nathan grinned. "You miss him too. It's too quiet in the office."

"We need to tape Vin in the morning," J.D. decided. "When he's all cranky and cursing. Then we could play it back when he's out."

While the others discussed some of Vin's more 'colorful' pre-caffeine episodes, Nathan saw that strange look on Buck's face again. He caught the rogue's eye and saw something totally foreign to him - fear. Buck met his gaze and shook his head slightly. Whatever was bothering him, he didn't want it brought up here. Nathan nodded, but made a mental note to corner in later.

+ + + + + + +

Misty Falls, VA

He ran.

Pain drove his wobbly legs forward. Invisible demons surrounded him, penetrated his throbbing head. Tears burned his eyes and he stumbled and fell. He curled up, shivering in the harsh wind. It ripped through his shirt and the icy fingers raked across his skin. His wild eyes went around the strange terrain.

Trees.

Long and tall, dark and menacing, they surrounded him. His terrified eyes, wide with fear, darted again around the unfamiliar surroundings. This wasn't Texas. He shivered in the cold night air and tried to remember where he was.

Nothing.

What was he doing here? Where was here? Why was he alone? How come he hurt so much? They surrounded him then, the phantoms. They speared him with anxiety, fear and pressure. Then something sailed across the land, carried on the night air.

"Vin!"

Someone was calling him. He wasn't lost! Someone was here... looking for him. Someone needed him. The phantoms heard the call too and scattered, taking the fear away. He stood on unsure feet and turned, listening again.

Hoping.

Praying.

"Vin!"

His choked cry of glee pushed him forward. He followed the wonderous call of his name. He stumbled after the sound. It beckoned him like a beacon from a lighthouse in a dark storm. He tripped over rocks and stumbled. He ran pell-mell, needing to find ...

"Vin!"

"I'm here!" he choked, hissing as a branch hit him in the face and startled him. He kept moving, putting one foot in front of the other.

Then he saw it. His heart hammered, his throat went dry and he cried out again. He went down. He couldn't get up; his legs were numb. Pins and needles began to assault his lower body. So close ... so close... he slumped, then his heart rebounded.

"Vin!"

The voice was desperate, tinged with worry and concern. Somebody needed him! He sucked in his breath and began to crawl. His pained eyes never left the light that burned over the doorway.

Adam closed the door and ran a hand through his dark hair. He sighed heavily and glared at the cast, nearly searing a hole in it. Useless. He felt utterly useless. Vin was lost somewhere and God knows in what state and he could do nothing. His eyes went to the clock, forty -five minutes. He had to get help. He used the crutches to take him to the wall phone in the kitchen. He had his hand on the dial when the door flew open.

"Vin!"

He put the phone down and labored across the room, his anger building out of fear. "Where the Hell have you been? Didn't you hear me calling you? My God, I swear they heard me in Washington..."

His anger dissolved into genuine worry when he saw the lost blue eyes. They were wide and fearful, darting to and fro. He eased himself closer, noting that the dazed young man was on his hands and knees. Sweat poured down the face, clinging to every terrified feature. His breathing was labored and short. He saw a cut over one eye and a bruise forming on the right cheek. Worst of all, the slim body was trembling.

"Vin, can you hear me, son?" he asked quietly, reaching a hand out. Then the face lifted, full of such pain that it nearly tore his heart out.

"Son?"

Vin swallowed hard and looked around. It wasn't fancy like the houses of some of his friends. Base housing never was. But it was clean and warm. It didn't have a mother's touch, but his father tried hard to make up for that. He eyed the small television with the crooked rabbit ears, then his eyes moved to the tiny kitchen where something was overcooked and tossed in the sink. Bandit's dish was empty. At least he ate. A mournful cry and a wet tongue turned his head as his beloved terrier greeted him.

"Hey, boy... hey, Bandit... s'okay, fella... s'okay..."

"Bandit?" Adam frowned as Maggie rained kissed on Vin, her tail wagging in wild abandon. "Maggie!" he commanded and pointed to the den. The dog quickly obeyed. He moved closer and reached out, touching the lost soul's shoulder.

Vin Tanner gasped and pulled back. He was lost in time, in another home built with love. A small base house in Texas. There was another worried father's face peering intently at him. A slim man with short brown hair and wearing his own face. Panic rode hard in the father's eyes. Frantically, blues met fearful ones.

Vin shuddered at the touch and looked up. Everything seemed to be in slow motion and his vision was distorted. He saw such fright in the large blue eyes above him that it scared him. Then he understood. He knew why his father was hollering at him.

"Don't you ever scare me like that again, Vin. Do you hear me, son? You're all I have left..."

The voice broke then and Vin's resolve did with it. He wept. The tears fell for a mother gone too soon and the man she loved left with a hole in his heart. He lifted his arms up, his eyes pleading and his own heart full.

"I'm sorry, Dad... I'm sorry. Don't be mad. I didn't mean t'put the worry on ya. Please don't cry, Dad. I miss Mama too... I miss her... it hurts... D...d...ad..." he stammered, his heart breaking. "I'm sorry... I love ya, Dad... Don't be mad. I waited... waited fer ya... at the field. I had my glove. We was gonna play catch... remember?... remember, Dad?... I waited... the storm came... I couldn't find... I'm sorry... I messed up... Don't be mad... Dad... please!"

It wasn't bad enough that the voice coming from the man's mouth was that of a young child. It wasn't bad enough that every word hit the General's chest like bullets. It wasn't bad enough that the lost blue eyes were burning a hole inside him. His mind went to the scene in the movie, where Kevin Costner sees his father.

"Hey, Dad, you want to have a catch?"

Whatever happened, long ago on a stormy night in Texas, had forever buried itself in Vin Tanner's mind. N