Shadowline

Chapter 15 - Recovery

Vin Tanner, crumpled in a dusty corner and in obvious pain, still held his gun in an unwavering grip and his fever-bright, tired eyes bored into Raylan’s like lasers. A man kneeled beside him, pressing a scarlet-stained cloth against Tanner’s upper arm. A gauze roll unraveled on the floor by the man’s knee where it had fallen as he drew his weapon with unimaginable speed. The trio froze, unwilling to engage quite yet.

“U.S. Marshal Raylan - “

“Givens,” Tanner finished for him in a raw voice. His weapon, though, remained trained on its target.

“So you remember me.”

“Yeah.” A few heartbeats passed and Vin’s weapon wavered.

“Vin?” The second man’s voice lilted upward at the end in question, his gun holding fast when he flicked a sidelong glance.

Raylan saw an entire conversation in the action, surprised that the Tanner he knew allowed such closeness. “You must be Chris Larabee,” Raylan surmised. His reward was the full heat of Larabee’s scrutiny.

Vin chuckled and his gun arm sagged to the floor. “Been readin’ up on me, Raylan?”

“Well, it’s been a page-turner, that’s for sure.” Given’s drawl wasn’t quite up to Vin’s Texas version, but it was enough to quirk one corner of Chris’ mouth.

“Hell, another good ol’ boy.”

“He’s okay,” Vin breathed. “Shoots good, too.”

It was Raylan’s turn to chuckle. “Can you tell your boss there to put his gun down?”

“Yeah, but it won’t happen,” Vin sighed.

“What are your intentions?” As usual, Chris shot from the hip.

The wording of the question amused Raylan. His eyes brightened with humor. “Well, I do not intend to ask for his hand in marriage, Dad.”

Vin chuckled, causing a hiss of pain. Chris, decision made, holstered his gun and resumed wrapping Vin’s bloody arm, eliminating any levity. “If you’re gonna shoot, at least let me finish this before he bleeds to death.”

Raylan considered a moment before holstering his gun. “I do have an unsuspecting partner out there so we better get on with it.”

“’We’?” Chris growled as he worked on the wound.

“I need some questions answered first,” the Marshal said as he stepped in to help by picking up the roll of gauze and straightening it out. He squatted beside Chris.

“Me too,” Vin mumbled, squirming.

“Make it quick,” Chris snapped.

Raylan addressed Vin, waiting until they were eye to eye. “Did you shoot Munos?”

“No.”

“Did you shoot Adrian Carnicero?”

“No, but I wish I had.”

“Did you shoot Judge Mitchell Conklin?”

“No.”

“Any idea who did shoot at the Judge?” Givens narrowed his eyes in thought for a second before adding, “I don’t really have any qualms on the other two.”

Vin dropped his eyes and hissed when Chris hit a sensitive spot, then said, “Yeah,” he stretching out the word in obvious consideration in spite of the pain. He didn’t look back to the Marshal.

Raylan leveled an expectant look at Vin. All he received was silence. “Always knew you weren’t much of a talker, Tanner.”

That made Chris snort as he worked.

“I want ‘im,” Vin croaked. When his eyes reconnected with Raylan’s they were dark with anger. “He’s mine.”

“Well, leastways we know it’s a ‘he’ but the pool of suspects is still a tad large.” Raylan stood, adjusted his hat and handed Chris scissors and tape before taking a step back.

Chris finished the bandaging and hurriedly packed away the debris before turning his attention to getting Tanner on his feet. Raylan moved to Vin’s other side and between the two of them, managed to get him upright. Tanner swayed on his feet as he tucked his handgun away.

“Hand me that, will ya?” He pointed to a banged up rifle case off to one side and Givens retrieved after a significant look that yielded no more words. Vin tried to take the case, but Chris intervened and slung it a shoulder.

“You need to find your partner and go,” Chris suggested in a fashion that sounded like an order.

The look Marshal Givens gave him suggested a disrespectful comment. Vin started to laugh but cringed in pain and issued a sharp gasp instead.

“That’ll show you,” Raylan snipped. He turned on a heel and walked away, pausing in the door frame. “Listen, I can’t promise anything if we cross trails again.”

“My team has information that may flush out the shooter. After this is over, Vin may need a friendly escort home.” Chris maneuvered Vin toward the exit.

Raylan ducked his head once in acceptance, then stepped to the nearest window and peeked between the boards covering the frame. “Which way you goin’?”

“East,” Chris replied, his full concentration on Vin.

“Wait five minutes before leaving. I’ll clear the area.”

“It’ll take that long to drag his scrawny ass down the stairs.”

Vin puffed once. “Ain’t scrawny. I’m svelte.”

It was Chris’ turn to laugh. “You been talkin’ to Ezra too much.”

“Thanks, Raylan.” Vin’s gruff whisper earned him another nod from the Marshal.

“Good luck.” Raylan then slipped away.

“You trust him?” Chris asked, directing Vin along the same path as the Marshal.

“He shoots as good as me. I gotta trust him.” Vin muttered before sagging against Chris.

“Damn, you’re burning’ up.” Chris shifted Vin’s weight more to his side and listened to his friend’s raspy breathing until five minutes passed. “Let’s go, Pard.” No response, verbally or consciously. “Oh, now you don’t contribute.” Chris tucked him into his side and walked him to the door, where “walked” was a relative term. “Damn Texas slacker!” he grunted as he dragged Vin down the stairs and out of the building.

He stopped on the run-down porch and hitched Tanner higher at his side. “Speaking’ of Ezra, where the hell is he?” Chris scanned the area. “He’s supposed to direct Buck in. We’re too exposed out here.”

Cursing softly, Chris dragged Vin down the questionable steps with the intention of tucking the both of them into the corner where the stairs met the house. Dead vines clung to the siding and an abundance of dead bushes and a tumbleweed or two made scratchy, but adequate, cover. Before he could reach it, though, Vin’s weight seemed to double suddenly when he passed out.

“Shit!” Larabee huffed, dropping the rifle case so he could use his arms to slow Vin’s descent. Just when he thought things couldn’t get worse, he heard a car approach and saw a black sedan jerk to a stop in front of the house. Still juggling Vin’s weight, Chris reached for his gun when he heard the car door open. Relief flooded through his veins when he saw Ezra step from the car, but anger flared. “Where the hell have you been?”

Standish trotted over and latched onto Vin’s other side. “Quickly, Mr. Larabee, our time is short. I will explain everything very soon.”

“Whose car is this?” Chris grunted as they dragged the unconscious Vin to the idling car.

“I suggest we ensure Mr. Tanner’s safety first,” Ezra said. “The tale is a wee bit . . . involved.” He left Chris to get Vin in the back seat while he retrieved the rifle, threw it in the trunk and slid in behind the wheel. Chris crawled in next to Vin and closed the back door. Once inside, he positioned Vin across his lap, glad that the vehicle had tinted windows. His friend was hot against his thighs.

Ezra accelerated smoothly from the curb and headed east, avoiding the main road. “I will leave you and Mr. Tanner well out of town and return the vehicle. I will rejoin Mr. Wilmington and regroup when I am sure it is safe. The Marshals were getting closer than is desired.”

“One of ‘em knows Vin. In a good way,” Chris said. He looked up and saw the slash of Ezra’s green eyes in the rearview mirror. They sparked with rarely seen glee.

“I realize that, Mr. Larabee. Where ever do you think I got the keys to this car?”

Chris frowned, opened his mouth to demand more, but his attention returned to Vin when he began to shiver. “I can’t wait to hear that story, but he needs Nathan - now!”

The sedan accelerated with a muffled growl and Ezra weaved his way around a maze of streets and away from the main clump of buildings that a vivid imagination could call downtown. Chris didn’t pay attention to the scenery but when the car came to a smooth stop and he looked up, he saw that Ezra parked the car out of sight behind a deserted, tumble-down structure that vaguely resembled the Bates Motel minus the charm.

As soon as the engine cut off, Vin became alert, struggled against Chris’ grip and sat up.

“Lemme go,” he muttered, twisting around as he scanned the car with fever-bright eyes. His disjointed motion became frantic. “Where is it?” he said, growing more frantic as the seconds passed. “WHERE IS IT?”

“What the hell are you doing? Sit still!”

“What did you do with m’ gun?” Vin writhed in the seat as he checked the area. “I gotta go,” he mumbled.

“You aren’t going anywhere, Vin. Sit still or you’ll bleed to death.”

Chris’ stern voice could freeze a grown man but Vin was oblivious and becoming hard to handle. Chris’ options were limited, so when the door opened and Ezra shoved the rifle case into Vin’s arms, he was pleased to see his friend calm. Vin latched onto the case and wormed his way out of the car. Ezra grabbed his shoulders and turned him toward the decrepit, low-slung building.

“Take him, Mr. Larabee. I really must return the vehicle.”

By now, Chris was out of the car. He took Vin’s elbow in a firm grip and directed him toward the building. “We’ll be in one of the rooms. Hurry back.”

Ezra snapped off a two-fingered salute and slid back in the car, dropping it into gear and fanning a spray of gravel from the tires as he departed. Vin weaved heavily under Chris’ hand and lost power with each step. The afternoon sun, now directly in their eyes, did little to warm Chris and the infrequent breeze was cold. Vin, however, was alarmingly hot to the touch and the poor bandage job sodden with blood and dust.

They rounded the corner between two low, ranch style building and Chris pushed open the first door he saw. He stuck his head in and smelled rotten wallboard and rat urine. Vin resisted his pull and tried to duck away, but Chris tightened his grip on Vin’s elbow and stopped him.

Then, Vin froze, every muscle tense and hard. His stance rang alarms in Chris’ mind; he stood stiffly straight with his knees slightly flexed and protectively hugged his rifle case as his wide eyes swept the interior of the old motel room. Chris could see his nostril flare as he sniffed the air like a bloodhound.

Something tipped Chris - a breath, a twitch, a change of focus in Vin’s eyes - and he drastically adjusted his grip and wrapped both arms around his friend from behind. A heartbeat later, Vin exploded.

Even weak from blood loss and fever, Vin was an armful and Chris worked hard to get him into the horrible room. Vin’s breath wheezed from his raw throat as he twisted to gain his freedom in eerie silence. He didn’t seem to hear any of the reassuring words Chris uttered near his ear.

Afraid of hurting Vin even more, Chris frantically scanned the room and spied an old-fashioned, iron heater still secured to the floor with rusted piping. He forced Vin down, cringing at the dirt and filth but knowing he had no other choice. He yanked his handcuffs from the back of his belt and slapped one cuff on Vin’s good wrist, the other to the heater, then stood back to catch his breath. His stomach was queasy at what he had to do.

Vin struggled to a sit. The Spanish words that spewed from his mouth were hoarse, incomprehensible and definitely not polite. Once the realization sunk in that he wasn’t going anywhere, Vin stopped struggling and leveled Chris with a deadly look, fogged with fever. He clutched his rifle case like some kind of life preserver while a bright red line trickled from beneath the grimy bandage and dripped from his elbow. It was a scene from a Stephen King novel.

Finally, Vin caught his breath and seemed to settle some. His bright blue gaze cleared a little and remained locked on Chris as recognition slowly returned.

“I’m not done,” he rasped. “I’m going back.”

“You need help, Vin.”

“I’m fine. Lemme go.”

“I seem to remember that you called us,” Chris pointed out, crossing his arms and leaning against the door frame. In reality, he wanted to sit down next to his friend and clean his wounds but he needed to reconnect with Vin, especially in his precarious state.

“LEMME GO!” Vin yanked on the cuff, then seeing it did nothing to gain his freedom, he began fumbling with the latch on the rifle case.

Chris raised a brow in concern, dropped his arms to his side and balanced his weight on his feet. “Are you going to shoot me because I’m tryin’ to help?” He spoke slowly. At the same time, he monitored Vin’s poor progress with the latches.

Vin ignored him, growing frustrated with the latch and his limited movement.

“You’re sick,” Chris said softly. “Let us fix you up first. I don’t want to shoot you because you won’t listen.” One latch clicked open. Chris gauged the distance to the rifle case. “You know I will get to my gun before you get to yours.”

Vin paused a moment, then remembering his revolver, moved a shaky hand to his waist band.

“Looking’ for this?” Chris drew Vin’s Sig from the small of his back. “I can get that case from you, too, but I do not want to hurt you any more than you already are. Come on, Vin. Settle down.”

Vin narrowed his eyes - Chris wasn’t sure if it was from pain or concentration.

“Please?”

Vin blinked, confused. It was a word Chris rarely used and it surprised Vin enough to stall his destructive motions. Chris squatted down so their eyes were level and they waited like that, faintly feeling the connection they once had.

By the time he heard the sound of gravel under tires, the heat of exertion was gone from Chris’ body and he pulled his jacket tighter to his body. He wanted to give Vin his jacket, knowing he had to have a chill even with the fever, but judging from Vin’s body language that wasn’t happening without a fight. Keeping his face toward his friend, Chris rose, backed to the open doorway and glanced out to direct the others in. Buck spotted him first and jogged over.

“We got to get movin', Chris. Not a lot of time. . .” Buck cleared the doorway and his eyes immediately found Vin. “Jesus, he okay?”

“Physically? No. Mentally?” Chris gave Vin a sideways glance and then met Buck’s eyes again. “No.”

“Fuck you!” Vin croaked.

“Damn, Junior, you sound like a sick frog!”

“Fuck you too, Bucklin!”

Buck broke into a huge smile. “Good to see you too!” He pushed past Chris and strolled up to Vin, crouching down just out of kicking range. “Really, Vin, it’s good to see you. Now please tell me what’s going’ on here and why you’re bleedin’ all over the floor of this fine establishment?”

“I think fever’s making’ him delirious. He thinks I’m letting’ him walk away alone.”

Buck’s evaluating look covered Vin from head to toe. “That true?” he asked as he shed his coat. Vin didn’t reply but challengingly returned Wilmington’s stare. When Buck held out his jacket, Vin snatched it from his hand.

“Thanks.” Vin’s voice was a tortured whisper and he winced using it. He awkwardly worked the jacket over his shoulders so it covered his chest.

“You don’t look so good. Why don’t you let us fix ya up before ya leave?”

“Buck!” Chris barked. “He can’t leave!”

By this time, Nathan and Ezra also crowded the doorway, wise enough to read the room and hold their ground. Chris held them back with a partially raised arm and saw that Nathan’s eyes reflected sympathetic pain as he scanned their lost member.

All the while Buck maintained eye contact with Vin, keeping his voice low and even. “Well, he can’t leave right this second, that’s for sure. There’d be a blood trail as visible as one of Ezra’s flashier jackets in a crowd. Then he’d pass out, and then the circling’ buzzards would be like the neon ‘Vacancies’ sign this place had in its heyday. You’d be rounded up like sheep to slaughter.”

Chris chuffed and shook his head. Vin didn’t respond, but the lines of anger faded until he just looked sick and weary. His head fell back and hit the radiator in resignation. Buck pulled his handcuff key from his pocket.

“Leave him a minute, Buck. Let’s talk first.” Chris lowered his arm and Nathan pushed past him.

The “fuck you, Larabee” flared clearly in Vin’s eyes before the lids slid closed and he surrendered to Nathan’s clucking and prodding.

Buck chuckled. “Yup, good to have ya back, Junior.” He rose and followed Chris through the doorway.

Outside, the sun ducked below the hills and a cold breeze bit Larabee’s and Wilmington’s necks and cheeks. Chris turned up his collar but all Buck could do was hug himself and hunch his shoulders.

“Damn. At least Vin’ll warm up my jacket for me.”

“He’s sick and stubborn. He needs some downtime.” Chris stared out across the empty lot. A tumbleweed rolled by, bouncing airily over the pitted asphalt.

“And after that?” Buck asked. “Look what bein’ on his own has done to him, Chris. He needs us.”

“I know that.” Chris kicked a termite hollowed rail as he replied. “I just don’t know what to do next. He can’t be on this side of the border.”

A few yards away, Ezra leaned against the warm hood of their car parked between two buildings and hidden from the street. He shot his sleeves, one at a time, as he listened to his teammates with his head cocked to aside. As usual, his expression was unreadable. Seeing the level of frustration rising in his teammates, he pushed off the car and ambled over to the pair. They looked to him on his approach.

“Well, I do believe the only thing we can do at this moment is to wait for the results of Mr. Jackson’s magic.” He tipped his head to the door. “As much as I abhor the thought of entering that cockroach den, I do believe it will cut the wind. Our show of support may sway Mr. Tanner’s inclinations.”

Before moving, Chris studied Ezra; something did not feel right, but he couldn’t pin it down. “When did you come across Givens, anyway?”

Buck looked surprised. “Who?”

Chris quickly brought him up to date on meeting Givens while watching Ezra for any outer clues to his question. When he was finished, Buck, too turned to Standish.

“Well, I covered the outside and saw him enter the building. I did not dare cause a scene outside, not knowing if there was another about. I followed him in and upon hearing your conversation, deduced that there was no danger, so I retreated to my previous post. We conversed during our walk back to his vehicle.”

“He told me he was going back to the train station, where his partner was.”

“Yes, well, our path altered when I suggested that Mr. Tanner needed additional distance from the station.”

There was a stand-off of sorts while Chris, suspicious, pinned Ezra with his glare. Ezra, as usual, remained unflustered and merely returned the look with cool confidence. Buck, after several long moments of splitting his visual exam from one to the other, suddenly laughed and slapped Chris’ shoulder.

“We both know he’s up to something’, Chris. We also know he ain’t spittin’ a word until he’s ready. Let’s go check on Vin.” He shoved Chris toward the door, breaking the connection.

“’Spittin’ a word’?” Ezra disdainfully repeated. “I have never ‘spit a word’ in my life, Mr. Wilmington!”

“Yeah, well you better do something soon or you may be spittin’ teeth.” Buck gave Chris another shove when Larabee threw Ezra another pointed glare over his shoulder.

“Yes, well, I will certainly keep that in mind.” Standish smoothed the collar of his jacket and then quickly touched his chest, checking that the contents of the hidden inner pocket were safe. “Indeed,” he muttered quietly as he followed along.

The only improvement to the situation inside the room was the quiet. Nathan barely offered a glance at the men as he worked on Vin’s limp arm.

“I knocked him out. He bitched too much.” His large, dark hands belied their size with their quick, sure motions. The ugly wound was already cleaned, but bright red and oozing steadily. Nathan changed gloves and prepared to suture. An I.V. trailed from Vin’s other arm. “I’m rehydrating and pumping him with antibiotics. Don’t ask.”

Buck shrugged, “Hell, Nate, I ain’t one to pry.”

Nathan snorted. “Right. Now get down here and hold up his arm. Gloves first! Ezra, I need some light. Chris, move that rifle case across the room. Vin here’s a little too squirrely at the moment for my taste.” He tossed Chris his handcuffs. “I waited until he was out to take ‘em off. Good idea.”

Everyone shifted around, attending to their assigned duties without comment - they knew who was boss for the moment. Chris cleared a spot on the floor and spread out a thin blanket he found in the trunk of the car and when Vin was cleaned, sutured and wrapped, the three of them moved him to the area and laid him down.

“He should be out for at least six hours. I suggest we all take advantage of that.” Nathan repacked his bag then sat next to Vin, crossing his legs with a tired sigh. Chris and Buck arranged their own spots on the floor, but Ezra refused to comply and with a wrinkled nose, offered to stand watch from the car.

The hours passed slowly in the cold, dark and smelly room, but the three agents spent the time cooking up, and then throwing, out several plans. Any way they looked at it wasn’t good for Vin. The lack of evidence was painfully apparent; the only plan they had was to stash Vin somewhere and reconnect with JD and his stack of information.

Right now, though, they could not contact anyone and give their position away so all they could do was wait. When Vin was hydrated to Nathan’s satisfaction and the infection under control, they could move. Until then, they would stay put and survive the night on Nathan’s collection of protein bars and water, under the white light of their MiniMag collection while Vin soundly slept.

Near midnight, the wind picked up, howling through loose boards and rattling the shingles. They waited in silence at this point, all plans talked out. The full moon was sharp-edged and clear as it rose over the inky mountain line, perfectly framed in the broken out window. It was bright enough for the team to store their flashlights. The beam stretched across the frightful floor, the scattered trash raising stark shadows.

“Nathan, you and Buck grab some sleep in the car. The seats have to be better than this.” Chris’ comment was accented by a faint skittering noise in one corner. “Ezra and I will keep watch.”

“I ain’t going’ anywhere,” Nathan stated with a yawn. “I’m lying right here.” He claimed space next to Vin on the meager blanket. “Don’t think I’ll sleep much, though.”

Chris stood, silently cursing the stiffness in his knees. He was pleased to see a twitch in Buck’s face that said he had the same issues. He grinned.

“Don’t be laughing’ at me, stud,” Buck said with a groan. “I know you’re in the same boat.”

Chris did not even try to deny the fact as he hobbled to the door. When they reached the car, he felt pretty good and those cloth car seats looked damned inviting. He tapped the window and pulled open the door.

“Sorry, Ez,” Buck interjected with glee. “Time to share. What the hell have you been doin’ out here all this time? Playing’ with yourself?”

Ezra snorted in disgust. “Hardly.” He stepped from the car without complaint. “Enjoy, gentlemen.”

Buck and Chris watched him enter the building without another word. Chris frowned.

“Well, that’s refreshing,” Buck said cheerily and he sat down. “Ahhh, almost heaven. Would be heaven if Bitsy Cummings was here. Such an appropriate name.”

Chris turned his frown to Buck. “Please. No details. Just sleep.”

Buck snuggled down in the seat with a smile and shut his eyes. “And sweet, sweet dreams.”

Chris rolled his eyes and shut the door, falling asleep within minutes.


Inside the room, Ezra leaned against the only clean spot on the wall and watched Vin closely. Nathan dropped off in no time, his deep, steady breathing adding a steady calm to the gusting wind outside. As he watched, Ezra considered his well-spent time in the car. Overall, he was pleased and sure Vin would take the deal that had taken so long to arrange. The untraceable burner phone in his pocket was dead forever, but it was no longer needed.

He kept his eyes on Tanner, walking a shiny silver dollar back and forth across his knuckles, the rhythm familiar and soothing. The bright moon beam swept across the floor in a slow march and when the first edge struck Vin’s face, Ezra noticed animation returning - a ripple of his eyelids followed by frowning creases deepening across his forehead.

Ezra pocketed the coin and quietly made his way to Vin’s side. He knelt on the blanket by his friend’s shoulder without a second thought, waiting patiently until Vin opened his eyes fully and met his.

“I have an offer for you, Mr. Tanner,” he said quietly. “Are you ready to listen?”

Vin nodded and Ezra leaned in to whisper in his ear.


Chris jerked awake with an unsettled feeling. Buck snored in the front seat, unaware of the sun poking over the mountains. The wind died sometime during the night, but the outside chill caused their breath to fog up the interior. Before kicking the door open, Chris carefully looked around - they were still alone.

Satisfaction was brief and did little to vanquish the unrest in his gut. He reached for the door and pushed it open just as Nathan burst from the room, looking around frantically. He saw Chris and charged over.

“He’s gone!”

Chris’ heart jumped and Buck lurched awake with a “huh?”

“He pulled out the I.V. and took off!”

Leaping from the car, Chris raced by Nathan and looked in the room.

The thin blanket was empty and the rifle case, gone.


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