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Part Twelve - Under the Influence

Where the hell *was* this place? It was hard to see much out here in the country in the dead of night.

Vin felt like he'd been driving forever. It had been the longest day, and he was exhausted. That would have been enough to make him irritable, but, add to that Ezra Standish wired, and you had the makings of the ride from hell.

". . . and then Maude proceeded to separate me from my amassed fortunes by swindling me out of the deed to my holdings in Ft. Smith. Well, it was not a swindle per se. I confess that I had been short of funds at the time I bid on the property, and I included my less-than-sainted mother's name on the deed. She in turn took out a mortgage against the property to offset a lien on her wages for . . . "

"EZRA!!!" Vin yelled.

The gambler sat with wide, truly innocent eyes. "What?"

Vin started to snap at his friend, but restrained himself. "Slow down a bit," he said, keeping his speech deliberately calm.

"Huh?" Ezra asked, and Vin chuckled. He'd never, *ever* thought he'd hear the well-spoken Southerner say "huh."

"I'm not following your story very well," Vin said quietly. "Tell me slowly."

Ezra paused for a moment. He seemed to be confused. Then he started his story again.

Vin rolled his eyes and smiled. It was going to be a long night.


Thea watched as Buck walked over to JD's bed. He was moving slowly, almost hesitantly. It was as though he couldn't grasp what he was seeing.

He stopped about a foot away from the bed. Thea picked up a chair from beside the door and carried it over to him.

"Sit with him . . ." she said, and he looked back at her. The look in his eyes was heartbreaking. She wished she could do something to ease his suffering. Words seemed so . . . inadequate, but she had to try. "It's all right. You can stay a few minutes."

The tall man nodded and sat down. He reached out to touch the young man's uninjured hand, but then halted. There was an IV needle there. Buck looked back at her. "Will this hurt him more?"

"No," Thea said. She walked over to him and gently lifted the unconscious boy's hand and laid it in Buck's. Buck in turn held it very tenderly.

"I'll be right outside if you need me," Thea said.

Buck nodded. "Thank you," he said, softly.


The door closed behind her, insulating them from the din of activity outside the little room. Buck bit his lip and looked closely at JD for the first time.

//Oh, God . . .//

The blue-tinged skin was almost ghostly. How could that be JD? His forehead should be smooth, but it was scraped raw and red on his right side and swollen blue-black on his left. Buck resisted the urge to touch JD's face, to brush back his hair. Yet, he wanted so badly to comfort the kid.

"JD . . . " he said softly. Buck's eyes filled, and he blinked quickly. "JD, son, it's Buck . . ."

JD lay so still. Could he hear? Did he know Buck was with him? If only the long lashes would move and the sadly still face would come to life again. But JD's eyes were closed.

//Please, God . . .//

"JD, you've held on this long. You gotta keep trying. You've gotta hold on."

Buck wished he could keep his voice steadier. He needed to be strong . . . so JD wouldn't be so scared.

Tubes and monitors overwhelmed the little room. It seemed so unnatural seeing the kid in that environment. The smell of alcohol and antiseptic surrounded them and for a moment, Buck thought he might lose his lunch.

Maybe it wasn't the strange hospital smell that overcame him.

//What have they done to you?//

The browbone over the kid's left eye was misshappen and a long gash cut across his face from his hairline, through the horrible bruise and into his left brow. Someone had hit him with . . . something. Brass knucks? A pistol butt? God . . .

Both of his high cheekbones were bruised--one was certainly broken--and his nose was swollen at the bridge. He'd been beaten so badly.

How was it that six trained federal agents hadn't been able to protect him?

Buck squeezed JD's hand ever so gently. How was it that *he* hadn't been able to protect the kid?

"I'm so sorry . . . " Buck whispered. "I'm just . . . so sorry."

He felt a tightness in his chest as he continued to study his friend's face more closely now.

Tiny blisters covered JD's lips, more on the right side than the left, then they trailed down his chin--a result of the caustic "cocktail".

//Damn the bastards!!// Buck's own lips trembled, and he stroked JD's hand. He leaned back and stole a glance out the door, as if by looking away, the scene would change when he turned back around.

But it didn't.

One side of JD's mouth was swollen and cut, further evidence of the unthinkable beating he had endured. Thankfully, with the kid's mouth closed, Buck couldn't see where several of his teeth had been knocked out, although the hollow of his cheek was much deeper than it was naturally. Dr. Lansing had said he'd lost two or three teeth. The bleeding from his mouth and from the gash on the same side gave the impression that he'd been bleeding all the way down that side of his face.

Buck frowned.

Why hadn't anyone tended to JD's face? Why hadn't someone cleaned him up? Maybe they thought he wasn't gonna live so why bother?

//Damn them all!// He looked around for a cloth. There was a little sink behind him. He'd just get up . . .

But then he'd have to let go of JD's hand. And he wasn't ready to. He wasn't ready to let go.

He watched JD sleep and thought about the horrible afternoon--the horrible shootout in the ER. The ER, for God's sake. What kind of people were they dealing with?

Buck studied JD's bloodied face again. Probably with the incredible carnage everywhere, and with the shortage of doctors and nurses, the doctors and nurses had taken care of JD's major injuries and didn't get to clean his face. Thea would take care of it in a minute. Besides, Buck still wanted a few moments alone with his partner.

There was bruising near JD's neck and collarbone that disappeared beneath the institutional hospital gown. Only his arms and hands were visible. They lay above the thin blanket.

The hand that Buck held looked normal. So did that arm, except for the track marks on the inside. But the wrist was cut and bleeding where wire had dug into it for . . . days, it seemed.

The other arm was bandaged, but the hand was not. That bloody wrist seemed to set it off from the rest of his arm. His hand, strangely tinged and too large, looked as though it had been detached from his body. Dr. Lansing had said JD would lose it--the circulation had been cut off from it for too long.

But he'd been wrong. Isn't that what that other doctor said? Hadn't they been able to do something?

It looked bad to Buck. But what did he know?

"JD . . . your hand's gonna be okay. The doctors said it'll be fine." Was Buck just trying to convince himself? "You're gonna be just fine, JD."

The tears finally spilled down Buck's face. "Come on, kid. You gotta hold on, you hear me? Everything's gonna be okay. The guys are all gonna be fine. Everybody made it, kid."

Buck leaned very close to JD's ear. "I need you, boy. You understand? You gotta wake up. Just . . . wake up and I'll take you home." Buck's breath hitched and his voice cracked. "I need you to come home. . ."


Chris Larabee sank into the sofa, sighing heavily. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes. God, what a day.

"Me too, my friend," Josiah said, sitting beside him.

Judge Travis sat in a straight chair at the table across from them.

"Have you boys eaten anything today?" the judge asked.

Oh, not food, Chris thought. He looked up at Travis and shook his head.

New topic. "Can you keep Millard off our backs?" Chris asked. "For a while anyway?"

Judge Travis nodded, but he was frowning. "He's gonna cause a stink. Do you have any idea why?"

Chris looked at the ceiling as though the answer were there. "No . . . "

Josiah's low voice sounded damn near menacing. "He wouldn't do anything to help JD. His office took a position of 'official denial' the whole time JD was missing."

"Millard denied us back-up when we went after him," Chris went on, that familiar anger stirring his stomach.

The judge snorted. "Mr. Standish called me this morning to alert me to the situation." Travis paused before continuing soberly. "I went by your office and picked up the video."

Chris sat up. The video had been a lifetime ago. His eyes met the judge's. "Did you watch it?"

"Yeah." Travis lowered his voice. "I'll help you any way I can," he said. "Whatever it takes."

Josiah sat forward. "We need your help with Millard," he said. "We got the bastards that hurt JD."

The judge shook his head. "No you didn't."

"What do you mean?" Chris snapped.

"Answer me this," Travis said. "Why would that little pissant Millard declare Mr. Dunne 'persona non grata'? Why would he do it right then? What would he possibly gain?"

"If he's been investigating JD and Ezra for a while . . ." Josiah began.

"He hasn't been," Chris said. This whole argument made his head ache. "He'd never find anything against either of them. I investigated every detail about them before we hired them. And if they had gotten involved in something like that since they've been on my team, we'd know."

"How well do we know Ezra?" Josiah asked.

Damn him! Chris stood up, furious. "What the hell is that supposed to mean??" He leaned over the preacher. "You're playing right into their hands, Josiah! This is exactly what Millard wants! He wants to destroy us from the inside. Next thing, you'll be saying you think JD is an addict."

Josiah stood up and squared off with him. "What if he was at one time?"

Chris' fist shot out and connected with the big man's jaw. It was the only answer he could come up with.

Josiah teetered like a redwood which hadn't quite started to fall.

Then the preacher landed heavily on the floor.

"Shit . . . " Chris muttered and he knelt beside his friend. "Josiah . . . hey." The big man didn't answer. //Damn// "Josiah, I'm . . ."

"He's out like a light," the judge said, leaning over Chris' shoulder. "I'll get help."

Travis left quickly. Chris cursed himself and he slipped his hand up to Josiah's throat. His friend's pulse was strong. Thank God. Chris patted the big man's chest, then left his hand there, the heart beat beneath his hand a comfort to him.

Hit a man who should have already been admitted to the hospital. //Way to go, Larabee.// "I'm sorry, man . . . "


". . . and, of course, I had already committed funds to the project, not knowing that Maude had already dipped into the coffer. That was during her wine-tasting phase. She was procuring the finest spirits and hiding them in her own makeshift cellar under the house on Polk Boulevard. . . "

Vin's head pounded. //Come on, Ezra, you've gotta be getting tired.//

". . . but what she didn't take into account when they foreclosed on her. . ." Ezra tilted his head toward Vin, as though confiding something very precious to him. "She used the mortgage money to invest in a gambling establishment in Reno."

Ezra paused, trying to recall where he'd been in the story.

"They foreclosed . . ." Vin supplied, squinting at street signs as he spoke.

"Ah, yes, they foreclosed on her." Suddenly Ezra chuckled. ". . . and she forgot that she had a half a million dollars worth of vintage wine in the basement."

Ezra laughed--a very "non-Ezra" laugh that stuttered along.

"Poor Maude," Vin said, and Ezra's staccato chuckle kept going. Vin grinned, and Ezra laughed more.

"Poor indeed!" Ezra said, still laughing, though never really raising his voice.

And it was the funniest laugh Vin had ever heard.

Vin spared a glance at his friend, and then found himself laughing--belly laughs. He laughed until tears rolled down his face. He was laughing so hard, he almost drove right past Cable Road.

"Whoa!" Vin yelled, laughing even yet, and he turned the wheel hard. "Hold on!" he told Ezra . . . and the gambler reached over and grabbed Vin's arm.

"Don't hold on to me, you idiot," Vin chuckled. His friend was now alternating between laughing and yawning. By the time they reached the doctor's office, Ezra was sleeping like a baby. ********************************************************************

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