Carlino drew in several breaths and opened his eyes. He pulled himself up into a sitting position. "Chris..." he laughed, "You're the one that the bastardo was crying for?" He continued to laugh and saw Chris turn, his green eyes white hot with rage. He smiled evilly over at Chris Larabee and dangled the bait, "We thought he was calling out for his whore...so we did him like one."
"Noooo!" Chris screamed ferally, like a wounded animal. He picked up Carlino and threw him across the room. The two resumed their slugfest, each weakened and weary. Blood dripped from Chris's nose, lip and eyebrow. Carlino reached behind him and grabbed a broken chair leg. He swung an arch and slammed it into the blond's head.
Vin was on his hands and knees, trying to make the room stop spinning. He saw Carlino's arm raise and tried to warn Chris but no voice would emerge. With the little strength he had left, he launched himself at Carlino.
The drug lord turned just as Vin's body came at him. He moved out of the way and Vin slammed hard into a support post. He watched the dazed man curl up and clutch his side, gasping in pain. He was amazed Tanner was even alive.
"You're my personal fuckin' nightmare, Bastardo," He spat, "I can't get rid of you...until now." He said lifting the heavy piece of wood over Vin's unprotected skull.
Vin looked up weakly through a blur and saw the club. He wanted to move but the black spots wouldn't let him. "Chris..." he whispered, fading away before the blow came.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan exited the sheriff's office and shook his head at J.D. who exited the telegraph. Buck did the same, coming out of the livery. A shot filled the air and all three froze.
"Saloon" they chorused and charged up the street.
+ + + + + + +
Chris fell to his hands and knees and let the gun drop. The bullet went through Roberto Carlino's throat. He eyed the dying man, his green eye's sending a final message to the gurgling felon. He shoved the body aside and crawled over to Vin. Blood ran down Chris's face and he knew he would lose consciousness soon. He collapsed against the wall and fell sideways.
"Vin..." He coughed, wiping the stream of blood away long enough to find Vin's face.
The younger man's eyes were blue slits and Chris heard the pain in his moans. He eyed Vin clutching his side and pulled him upright. That brief action left him weak and he collapsed, sliding down onto Vin's lap.
Vin put a protective hand over Chris and grabbed his bloodied hand. "Ya...with...me...Cowboy..."
Chris nodded and looked up at Vin, "...ought to fire...your sorry ass..."
"...the hell fer?" Vin scowled.
"...gimme a second...I'll remember..." Chris frowned, grasping at his fading thoughts.
"Thanks...Reckon I owe ya..." Vin said recalling the potential deathblow.
"s'okay..." Chris grinned, "You still owe me a bottle of tequila. Couldn't let a thing like that go by."
"I'm sorry Chris..." Vin whispered, clawing to remain conscious, "'bout the other day, screaming like I done...I's so ashamed at lettin' y'all down...thought Ez was dead."
"Don't Vin...it's done." Chris tried to move but the room was flying too fast. Vin pulled him back.
"Y'all mind not bleedin' so damn much on m'new clothes?" He wheezed, then went into a painful coughing spell.
"Fair enough" Chris gripped Vin's hand and heard the painful moans. "If you..quit..spitting crud all over...me..."
"There they are." J.D. called out, flying through the batwing doors. "I'll update Ted sent for a medivac." He called, passing Buck and Nathan.
The pair stood for a second, absorbing the scene. Vin was sitting up, leaning against the wall. His skin was wet and flushed. His chest heaved in painful short bursts. Chris was on the floor, his bloody head and face on Vin's lap. His hand was gripped by Vin's.
"Damn..." Buck rubbed his face, "If that ain't a sight." He kicked the unseeing eyes of Roberto Carlino as he went by, resisting the urge to spit on him.
"One ain't bad enough," Nathan complained dropping to the stricken men's side. "I got have the two most stubborn fools in the whole department on my team. He eased Chris from Vin's grasp and turned him sideways, finding the jagged laceration on his scalp.
"Here, Nate," Buck produced a piece of cloth, torn from Carlino's shirt. "I'll see to Vin."
"He hit?" Nathan asked, applying pressure to the bloody head wound.
"No, I think he's wore out." Buck said, gently examining the sharpshooter. His fingers probed the arms and legs and found no wounds. But as they pressed against his ribcage, Vin cried out and his eyes shot open.
"...the hell ya doin' to me." Vin wheezed. "...leave me be..." He tried to move Buck's hand.
Buck smiled and chastised the feisty, fevered man as his hand laid on Vin's forehead, "You best quit while you're ahead, Junior. Nathan's ready to shoot you."
"How's he doing" Nathan asked, hearing Vin's cry and the painful breathing. "Busted ribs?"
"Yeah, feel's that way. He's burning up again." Buck answered, eyeing Vin's eyes sliding shut. "Vin you hurt anywhere else?"
"Y'all okay?" Vin asked, tugging at Buck's arm.
"We're all fine, Vin. Except you and Batman over there." He nodded to their unconscious team leader.
"Chris..." Vin tried to look around Buck. "Let me go..." He protested, but Buck held firm.
"He's okay, Vin." Buck eased, "Hell, his head is harder than yours."
J.D. reappeared with Ted Dempsey. "Vin...Chris...you guys okay?"
"Looks like they'll both live to fight another day." Ted said, squatting by Vin's side. "Young man, I'm grateful. Thanks to you, we netted the biggest bust in recent history."
"I smell an award." J.D. teased.
"...ain't no award...ya smell...that's Bucklin...he ate eggs fer breakfast..." Vin teased, as his eyes drooped shut. He rested against Buck, with the sounds of his friend's laughter cascading around him.
+ + + + + + +
She buckled her seatbelt and waited for the engines to pick up. She glanced at her watch and calculated in four hours or so, she'd be safe in Boston. She'd never been to the historic city, but it held great possibilities. She frowned, wondering why they weren't airborne.
"Going my way?"
Her face lost all color at the sound of the Southerner's drawl. "You...but that's impossible."
"Improbable, my dear," He said pulling her out of the seat, "Nothing is impossible to Ezra P. Standish. Let alone a third rate whore like you." He smiled at the beauty, whose mouth issued a long stream of curses in Italian. "Temper, temper, my dear." He oozed, watching Josiah slap the cuffs on her wrists. "You would be well advised to save your energy. You have a long flight to Rome and two counts of murder awaiting. You'll make a lovely corpse." He watched as the Federal Agents led her to the waiting plane. "Rot in hell you bitch." He issued, feeling Josiah's hand on his shoulder.
"You alright. Ez?"
"I will be, Josiah," He said, with a tinge of sadness. "This one really hurt. Speaking of which," He turned as they headed for the car. "How did our comrades fare?"
"Vin's back in the hospital. He's running a high fever and busted some ribs."
"Mr. Tanner must someday learn that his body is flesh and blood and not steel." Ezra sighed.
"Well, Vin's got himself a new roommate. Chris busted his head up some, has a nice concussion."
"Mr. Jackson will need a tranquilizer by the end of this week." Ezra grinned, thinking of the two friends who were equally stubborn.
"Maybe Brother Jackson needs a night out and some spirited libations."
"You read my mind, Brother Sanchez." Ezra slid into the car.
+ + + + + + +
It was dark outside and he watched the visitor's leave. Finally, he was able to get out of the bed. He slid across the room and eased himself painfully into the chair. He lowered the bedrail and cried out in pain. It took several minutes of short breaths to steady himself. He gripped the limp hand and rested his aching head against the patient's arm.
Chris blinked and woke up, instantly regretting the decision. The wonderful dream he'd been lost in, with Mary's silken limbs and haunting eyes, faded away. He moved his head and was sure it split in two. He hissed painfully, sucking air in through his teeth. He blinked again and the hospital room came into view. A small bedside light on the other side of the room cast a dim glow. The blackness outside told him several hours had passed. He felt the bandaged side of his head with his left hand. His whole face hurt. He heard a series of rattling noises and tried to clear his head. Why couldn't he move his right arm? Why was it warm...and...wet? He frowned and painfully looked to his right.
"Dammit...Vin..." He nudged the wheezing form, and saw the head rise, "Thanks for sharing..." He croaked, wrinkling his nose at the yellowish glob now resting on his forearm.
"Sorry" Vin rasped, wiping the mess off. "Here, hold on..." He turned carefully and got the water cup and slipped the straw into Chris's mouth. "Better?" He asked and saw the battered face nod. "Y'all is one ugly dude." Vin theorized, eyeing the bruises and cuts.
"...scrawny bastard..." Chris countered, taking more water. "How long?"
"Dunno." Vin shrugged, "Ain't got a watch or a clock. Ain't been up that long m'self. Thought Buck would never leave. Good thing he drank a lot of soda. Reckon he'll be back soon. Nate's as mad as hornet. Damned if I can figure why."
"Geez Vin," Chris croaked, "You don't talk this much when you're healthy."
"Reckon it's the painkillers. Got a pretty good buzz goin'" He took the cup from Chris and turned to replace it, causing his painful ribs to awaken. He dropped the cup and grasped air, until Chris grabbed his airborne hand. Vin's head sank again as he fought for a breath.
"Easy, Vin. Go on back to bed. I ain't goin' anywhere." He eased out of the grip and rested his hand on Vin's face. "You damn fool...you got a fever. If Nate don't kill you, I'll will. Runnin' around barefoot and bareassed. Get back in that bed. What are you doing over here anyway?"
Vin finally got himself under control and stood up. He nodded and gave a soft smile to his best friend. "I needed to see yer eyes. I needed to make sure y'all was okay. I couldn't see 'em from over there."
Chris returned the smile and the two instantly moved to lock forearms. Vin shuffled back to bed and eased his aching body onto the mattress.
"See, I told ya they'd be okay." Buck said to Nate as they reentered. "That's five more dollars you owe me. Vin's too weak to get out of bed."
"I ain't so sure." Nate said, spotting the perspiration on Vin's brow. "If I didn't know better..." His voice trailed off as he wiped Vin's flushed face.
"Nate...that you?" Vin offered weakly, causing Buck's eyes to roll. The tall agent had to hide his laughter. "I can't hardly see ya..."
"Don't even try that, Vin Tanner." Nate said crossly, "Y'all was wanderin' around. He's fine, ya didnt need to go marchin' over there. Ya got pneumonia and three busted ribs. Don't think I won't get them to put restraints on y'all. Ya never pay a bit of attention to what I tell ya. I don't know why I bother." He snapped, handing Vin his med's and a cup of water.
Vin swallowed and handed the cup back, giving the dark-skinned healer his best smile. "'cause ya love me, Nate."
Buck burst into laughter and Chris joined him. Nate fought hard against the smile that was tugging at his lips. He was doing fine until Vin wagged his eyebrows at him. Then the laugh spilled out.
"Well, I'm glad you two are such a good mood," A matronly, stout nurse issued. "It time for your bath."
"Uh-oh" Buck sympathized, patting Vin's knee. "I'm just turnin' green all over, Junior." He winked.
"Shut the hell up, Buck..." Vin wheezed, cowering under his sheet as the nurse pulled the curtain around.
Nate and Buck stood by Chris bed for a minute as laughing at the Texan's feeble protests.
"I ain't been nowhere...ain't dirty...can't ya find some other unfortunate soul to torture...how 'bout Chris...he's stinks pretty good."
"I heard that..." Chris managed, over his laugh.
"Fine friends y'all are...ain't none of ya gonna help me?"
"NO!" they chorused, still laughing.
"...damn yer hands is cold..." Vin hissed. "Ow!...cut that out...Aw, hell..."
The chuckling subsided and Buck glanced at his watch. "We best get moving if we want to meet up with Josiah and Ezra." He saw the question on Chris's bruised face, "It took some doing, but they caught up to that bitch. She's on her way to Rome to a nice prison cell."
"Good riddance to bad trash..." Nate murmured.
"You two behave." Buck grinned, pausing to catch Chris's eye. Chris nodded and sent his oldest friend to the door. He caught Nate's sleeve.
The healer turned and saw trouble brewing in the brooding green eyes. "What is it, Chris?"
"Nate," Chris spoke softly, and Nathan had to lean in, "You read the report on Vin that day we found him, right?" Nathan nodded, not sure where the blond was headed. Chris rubbed his eyes, trying to the pounding pain. "Nate, they didn't...he wasn't...it was just burns right?"
"Huh?" Nate frowned and then realized what Chris was so troubled by. "No, Chris he wasn't assaulted like that. Why?"
"Somethin' that maggot said before I punched his lights out...I had to know."
"He was just baitin' ya, Chris. Get some rest, now, ya hear?" "Yeah...thanks Nate."
A cool tropical breeze chased the strands of hair off the handsome young man's tanned face. His eyes were a startling blue against the deep tan. His lean legs were crossed in front of him, encased in crisp khaki shorts. A short sleeve tropical shirt was unbuttoned, revealed a simple chain with one-half of a Roman coin.
Ezra waited at the bar impatiently and studied his friend. These last five days in St. Thomas had done the recovering man a world of good. After his hospital stay, Vin had gone to Chris's ranch for a week, until he was stronger. Then he spent a week with Josiah in a retreat in Sedona, Az. Men like Josiah, who had been prisoners of war, founded the peaceful, healing place in the desert. It had healed the emotional wounds left behind. Ezra had invested in the condo in St. Thomas on the beach, years before. He usually used in for two weeks in the winter. But being out of commission with a bad arm, and needing some healing himself, he decided to fly down. He invited Vin and was surprised the young man agreed so readily.
Looking at the relaxed face of his teammate gave Ezra pause. He looked so young, and could easily pass for a college student. He saw Vin's fingers nervously toying with the medallion on his neck. Vin found the coin several years ago, and had the twin chains made. The other half hung on Chris's Larabee's neck. He watched the Texan smile politely as two young woman offered to buy him a drink. Ezra shook his head and grinned, Buck would have made a killing off of Vin's daily visitors.
The beachside bar was crowded and a band played. One end opened onto the beach, the other in to the lobby. He turned and glanced into the lobby of the beachside resort and smiled. He left a note with instructions, with the waitress and crossed into the lobby. He graciously accepted the warm embrace and kissed her cheek.
"I still can't believe this," She smiled, "I don't know how to thank you."
"You already have, My Dear," He disarmed, "Just by being here. Go on, now. I have a plane to catch." Ezra slid into the waiting cab and paused long enough to watch the reunion.
The band took break and a disc jockey rifled through his playlist. Vin shifted in his seat and sighed, eyeing the crowded bar. He couldn't help wonder what was taking Ezra so long. He stood and craned his neck, not seeing the smooth-talking Gambler. He took several steps as the sultry voice of Van Morrison filled the air.
"Want to dance, Cowboy?"
All the breath inside him was stolen and he spun around. There she was, right in front of him. His lower lip trembled as he desperately tried to reclaim his lost air. He wanted to say something profound. He wanted to pour his heart out to her.
"Sierra?" He squeaked. "How...where...God, I can't..." He took a deep breath and steadied his frazzled, flying nerves. "I thought ya said it was over."
"I never felt a pain as deep as when I saw you in that hospital. I truly thought I couldn't live with the daily fear of you being hurt like that. But being without you, the pain was overwhelming. I love you, Cowboy."
"God Sierra..." He touched her cheek, "I can't...ya got no idea...Aw, hell." He choked.
"You talk too much," She hushed, melting into this arms. The kiss was long and full of the pent up passion lost for so many weeks. Their bodies swayed in time to the haunting song that danced through the air around them. Her head resting on his shoulder. His chin crested the top of the auburn waves. His eyes were shimmering as he felt her heart beating against his. A waitress left a bottle of chilled champagne on the table and brought Vin a glass.
"Compliments of the 'Silver-tongued Devil'?" The waitress relayed, unsure of the meaning. Vin laughed and accepted the glass. He glanced over the row of tropical fauna and spotted Ezra face in the window of the cab. He managed to nod, catching his friend's eye and held the glass high, saluting his friend.
"You're okay, Ezra." He toasted.
"Have I told you lately that I love you? Have I told you there's no one else above you? Fill my heart with gladness, take away my sadness, Ease my troubles that's what you do. For the morning sun in all it's glory. Greets the day with hope and comfort too. You fill my life with laughter, and somehow you make it better, Ease my troubles that's what you do."
Ezra watched the beautiful couple swaying in time to the haunting song. He saw Vin look over and met his eyes. The blue eyes were full and that just made Ezra smile broader. He nodded and watched Vin steal another kiss.
"Well done, Mr. Tanner." He spoke softly, "Absolutely exceptional."
+ + + + + + +
Six weeks later at Seanachie's, an Irish Bar near Buck's place.
It was a Friday night and the boy's were out to howl. The end of a busy week meant beer, bragging and bawdy humor. The seven were sprawled around a long table. Pints of Guinness littered the table, along with remnants of Hot Garlic Roast Beef Sandwiches and other belly fillers. The six-piece band ended another rousing set of Irish Rebel music.
"Aw, hell," Buck complained loudly, "I was just getting warmed up."
"Maybe theyre trying to tell you something, Buck," J.D. teased, taking a sip of the dark brew. "You're barely old enough to drink that, Kid," Buck retorted, "and most certainly not old enough to comment. I'll have you know this golden voice was breaking hearts while you were eating crayons in kindergarten."
"Yeah, they were the good old days," Chris said with a straight face and twinkle in his eye, "Friday nights when you serenaded helpless, bedridden women at the Golden Age Home."
"Shut up, Chris," Buck laughed, joining his friends who were already in stitches.
"Hey, wait a minute," Buck said, "Awww, this is one of my favorites." He slid his hand in his pocket and put his dark glasses on. The tall, mustached agent was sitting at the head of the table. Flanking him on either side were J.D and Vin. Buck's shoulders and head began to bop in time with the music. His deep voice kicked in, giving smiles to all around. Vin slid his chair over and popped his dark glasses on. He used his hands to beat out the pulse on the table. J.D. caught on and followed suit. Nathan jumped up, and Josiah followed.
"Come on, Erza," Nathan poked the staunch Southerner in the ribs, "Cut loose a little."
"Debase myself in public," He retorted, "I think not."
The DJ was a friend of Buck's and turned the sound down, allowing the five friends to sing a cappella. The patrons provided a rhythmic clapping, adding to the beat.I don't need a whole lot of money
I don't need a big, fine car
I got everything a man could want
I got more than I could ask for
Now, I don't have to run around
I don't have to stay out all night
Cause I got me a sweet, a sweet lovin' woman
And she knows just how to treat me right.
Well my baby, she's allright
Well my baby, she's clean out of sight, don't you know that...she's
She's some kind 'a wonderful
She's some kind 'a wonderful, Yes she is, she's a
She's some kind 'a wonderful, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
With each stanza the song grew and Buck's voice rang true. By the time the last refrain of the chorus died out, he was standing and covered in sweat. The crowd roared with applause, banging beer mugs and stomping their feet.
"Whooooeeyy!" Buck cried, slapping J.D. and Vin on the back. "Go buy us another round." He ordered the two youngest.
"Why us?" J.D. griped, pushing his chair out.
"Hell, Kid, You don't think Jagger or Daltry ever buy their own. The Do Wop Boys always do the buying." Buck crowed, wiping his sweating face with a bunch of napkins.
"Do Wop Boys?" Vin grumbled, trying to squirm out of Buck's grasp on his shoulder.
"Yeah, Pretty little fellers like you," Buck boomed, rubbing Vin's curls and getting a blue glare. "Go on now, Junior, I'm practically passing out from thirst."
Buck dropped into the chair next to Chris and let out a deep breath. "Damn, in college I could do a whole set." He complained.
"That's before you were old and unsightly," Chris grinned, smacking Buck's gut.
"Unsightly..." Buck boomed, "That there is the temple of desire." He patted his hips.
"More like the House of Limp Noodle." Ezra spouted, sending Nathan and Josiah into a fit of laughter.
Chris just shook his head. He eyed the men gathered around the table, good friends every one. Letting loose, easing the tensions of their job with colorful humor and taunts. On these nights out the flying bullets, devasting bombs and casualties were forgotten for a few hours. He saw Vin and J.D. making their way over.
"Damn they're young..." He muttered, seeing Buck nod.
"Look like a couple of college kids," He agreed, taking a beer from J.D. "Thanks, Kid." Vin dropped into the seat next to Chris and was greeted with an uncharacteristic Larabee smile.
"Hell, it's gonna snow fer sure." He teased, earning a cuff to the head.
"Shut up, or I'll have you transferred," The older man threatened.
"Looks like a female is crashing our party." Buck whispered to Chris.
The blond in turn elbowed his best friend. Vin looked over startled and made his way to the door. He greeted her warmly and stood talking for a minute. Buck jogged over to the DJ and made a request. Vin smiled as the song came on and saw Buck lift a beer, saluting the pair.
"I think they're playing our song, Lady." He whispered, kissing her and leading her to the dance floor.There's a love that's divine
And it's yours and it's mine, like the sun
And at the end of the day
We should give thanks and pray
To the one, to the One.
Have I told you lately that I love you?
Have I told you there's no one else above you?
Fill my heart with gladness
Take away my sadness
Ease my troubles that's what you do.
Buck leaned back in his chair, wearing a broad smile. "The boy done good, Pa." He noted to Chris, who was watching Vin with a warm smile.
"That he did, Bucko," Chris clinked glasses with his oldest friend, "That he did."
Buck slid over to harass Ezra and the team leader continued to watch the pair glide across the floor. Another smile tugged at his lips as the lovers kissed. "Looks like you found the end of the rainbow, Cowboy." He saluted.
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