Chapter 28 - Berserker

Alberto Zamora was used to getting what he wanted. He had enough money to buy his desires in just about every arena and the businessman part inside him never slept, so disappointment was a rarity.

When he had all the information regarding the Carnicero debacle at his fingertips, Alberto saw nothing but opportunity. Years ago, he'd stepped aside and allowed the Butchers to plunder their way from Mexico City up the west coast of Mexico to Tijuana; he'd done that to preserve his workforce. Now he had the opportunity to regain lost ground and he needed a bartering advantage.

With the two unpredictable and more vicious Brothers out of the way, Alberto knew this was the time to deal. Gustavo, the most reasonable of the bunch, needed to save face with Cartel members and he needed to do it quickly to hold his ground; Vin Tanner - American, usurper and undercover mole - was the perfect sacrifice to attain that goal. A very public execution would do a lot to save face for Gustavo and Alberto planned to be the one offering up Tanner on a silver platter.

Even if Gustavo didn't want the sacrifice, Americans always paid hefty ransoms. Alberto knew a win-win situation when he saw one.

Obtaining Tanner was an investment, pure and simple. Successful businessmen spent money to make money and the bounty on Tanner would be substantial because of Tanner's training and skill; brute force - and lots of it - was the only way to bring him in alive.

The inland parts of Mexico were Alberto's stomping grounds and putting out the word to find Tanner came easy. All he had to do now was wait, allowing the time for his dogs to hunt. Tanner would be his within the day because all roads north from Mexico City crossed through Zamora territory.

Alberto Zamora settled back in his Tecate office and glanced at his Rolex. Twelve hours ago, the Carnicero compound burned to the ground. Tanner - surely running on the eighth of his nine lives - should be under his control soon. A generous bounty guaranteed results in Mexico every time.

"Money well spent," he murmured, leaning back to enjoy a fresh Cuban.

Nothing in Chihuahua went the way Ronnie planned. From the moment she stepped into the mini mart/gas station at the edge of town, she felt eyes watching her. The eyes of the clerk and the girl stocking the shelves lingered a bit too long on her and the Jeep. Asking about burner phones was too risky so she grabbed some food, topped the tank and fled.

Two hours from Juarez the feeling was stronger than before so Ronnie stopped to rouse Vin. She dampened his face with water, ran her fingers through his hair and called to him. The heat she felt was frightening but he roused with a reasonable amount effort. "I think we are being followed," she said to his blinking gaze. "I don't know what to do."

Vin's eyes cleared but Ronnie could see the struggle to get there. He moved slowly as if each limb were made of concrete and a burden to maneuver. Vin slowly eased upright to sit straight and then, panting, tried to unzip his door.

"Hold on." Ronnie jumped out and ran around to help. Once the panel opened, Vin twisted around with a groan and sat sideways. "What do you want? I can get it. Tell me." He held out the lanyard and vial necklace and she draped it over his neck. He tucked it away under his shirt. Vin spoke as he moved to exit the Jeep.

"Floor panel. In the back."

"Stay!" she ordered sharply, stopping him with one hand on his shoulder. With his exasperated/pained/angry look, she softened her tone. "I'll look. You stay here."

Ronnie moved to the back and lifted out the red cans and the duffle, then shoved everything else aside. All she saw was carpet. Frowning, she picked at the long edge along the back and the thick cloth lifted. She tugged it up, the short sides stubbornly resisting, and folded most of it back. She saw a rectangular cut in the bed that was not standard in any car she'd ever seen.

One notched corner allowed her to lift the panel. Her heart fluttered nervously at what she saw: One huge hand gun, a short stocked rifle of some kind, loaded magazines for both and a box snuggled comfortably in foam. She lifted the box lid, finding a phone, cash, a smaller box with a red "X" on it and three passports: Mexico, the U.S. and Guatemala. "Guatemala?" she muttered, noticing how her hand shook when she picked them up. Chewing on her lip, she replaced the passports, picked up the phone and quickly tucked it away in her bra. Then she replaced the lid and walked back to Vin. Once there he lifted his eyes and she saw they were alive with questions.

She fished the phone from her bra. Vin's eyes widened in what looked like shock and she laughed. "Really? You have guns and knives stashed everywhere and a phone in my bra shocks you?"

His pale cheeks flushed. She shook her head and, smiling, held up the phone. "Will this reach your friends in America?"

"From Juarez," Vin croaked. "Find Celia. I sent phone numbers to her."

Vin described Celia's location on the north east edge of Juarez and Ronnie saw what that effort took out of him. Still, he insisted on getting out and walking around. He tucked the knife in his waistline and after relieving himself several steps from the vehicle without falling down, tried to access the guns on his return.

"I'll get it," she said, seeing that every movement pained him and that exhaustion dragged on his shoulders and eyelids. Ronnie lifted the panel but before reaching in, she carefully scanned the surroundings and met his foggy gaze. "You feel it too, don't you? We aren't alone." He nodded, so Ronnie crowded the back of the Jeep to hide the handgun she retrieved. Vin took it and tucked it in the small of his back, unable to hold back a breathy groan. She looked at him worriedly.

"The little box," he said softly.

She pulled it out the box with the red "X" and handed it to him. It was the size of a pack of cigarettes and he gripped it so tight she thought he'd crush it. Then, he shuffled painfully back to the Jeep. "Let's ride," he panted after she helped him inside.

She didn't comment on the new, bright red flower on the shoulder of his shirt.

Ronnie glanced at the gas gage, noting that the needle hovered close to the "E" with little worry. She was so hyper-alert at this point that there was no room for worry. In fact, worry at this point was a luxury; for the last hour her entire body balanced precariously between fight and flight modes.

Vin, somehow, also managed to stay alert, too, and the cost of the effort showed. Every line in his face carved deep shadows of pain. Under his scruffy beard, his hollow cheeks made his clenched jaws more pronounced as he ground his teeth in pain. The wide, blue of Vin's eyes looked grey and flat. The crimson stain bloomed slowly at his shoulder. Dehydration became a real possibility. Ronnie marveled at the fact of his consciousness; Vin's determination was palatable and it was what kept her going.

She circled the outskirts of Juarez at a casual pace but the tension in the Jeep was heavy. Ronnie's hands hurt from her death grip on the steering wheel.

"Go straight," Vin rasped when they approached a "T" intersection. Straight took them off road, but a well used path was clear.

Forced to slow along the bumpy dirt, Ronnie didn't like the dust rooster tail that followed them. It was as obvious as a large, blinking neon arrow pointing at them proclaiming "Here They Are!" Ronnie shook her head at the absurd vision - she must be losing her mind.

"Bear right." Vin's whispery voice sounded like dust, too.

They rounded the base of some low foothills and Ronnie saw a haphazard collection of buildings that could be called a village. A nostalgic yearning rose from within at the homey feel of the place - it had a close knit, community feel that Tijuana lost long, long ago. Being so close to crime-ridden Cuidad Juarez and having such a community feel was a rare thing. She stopped the Jeep near a small market.

When she turned to Vin she saw a feeling of peace in his eyes and noticed how his features looked more relaxed, but his rapid, shallow panting revealed his pain. She touched his forehead and felt the dry burn under her fingertips.

"Hurry," he croaked. "Take the phone. Find Celia. Call Raylan Givens. No one else."

Ronnie fled.

Vin knew the noose was drawing closed. It wouldn't take Zamora's men long to figure out where he was; this was the last haven before the border and he was known here. He twisted his neck aside and spotted the jutting rock formation in the distance that marked the edge of a shallow river just beyond. This shore was Mexico, the far shore was America and it was heavily patrolled and dry as desert-roasted bone. He wouldn't make it very far in this condition, but it was a good place to wait for Givens.

The edges of the small box cut in to his hand. The content was a last resort for his final push. Vin knew the infection was bad, but the pain was the most debilitating. When the time came to move, he had to move, and move quickly. The ampoules within the box would help him do that and it scared him because he'd overcome morphine's cloying call once before, but he wasn't sure he could do it again.

Vin eased from the Jeep and immediately collapsed, the jarred wound sent icy, razor pain down his arm and across his chest. His vision narrowed, a gray tunnel closing in. He heard muzzy voices and the scent of dust invaded his nose.

"I have you." Ronnie. Vin allowed himself to let go and everything went black.

He awoke in small, white-washed room that had green ivy stenciled around the window and doorway. Lacy yellow curtains twitched with the faint, hot breeze. Late afternoon light stole in the edges of the window. Vin smiled. He knew this place.

"I'm glad one of us can smile."

Vin carefully rolled his head against the fire-shots of pain blazing from his shoulder. Ronnie held up a cup in one hand and a spoon with the other.

"Ice chips."

She offered a spoonful and Vin gratefully accepted. The cold wet was glorious trickling down his throat. After two more spoonfuls, he felt able to speak. "Thank you."

Ronnie nodded once and tried to smile, but she was clearly scared. Vin felt a rush of alarm.

"Celia is quite a woman," Ronnie said softly. "She is respected here. I can see why."

"What happened?"

Ronnie rested the cup in her lap and twirled the spoon in her fingers as she spoke. "You passed out and opened the wound when you fell. It started bleeding again." She choked, wiped an eye with the back of a hand and continued. "I helped clean you up." At that point, Ronnie met his gaze. "It looks bad, Vin. The bullet's still in there. Celia cleaned it as well as she could and you have new bandages but . . ." Unable to finish, she bit lower lip and ducked her eyes. "I finally got Givens on the phone. He's a Deputy U.S. Marshal!"

"I know."

"He's on his way to get you. Can he do that? Cross the border?"

"Yeah." Vin shifted in an unsuccessful attempt to ease the deep throb in his joints. "One way or another."

"Will he take you to jail?"

"We'll see."

"Vin - I'm worried!"

Vin worked up a smile and even that hurt. "I'll be all right. You've done enough, Ronnie. You need to go home now. There's nothing else you can do. I'm grateful -"

Ronnie's eyes turned stormy. "I can't leave you like this. I can't! Don't ask me to!" She surged to her feet, anger replacing fear in her eyes. "This isn't over. We both know that."

Just then, Celia swept in, her tiny form seeming to claim more room than it should. "Awake, I see." She smiled and approached the bed, opposite from Ronnie. "You have been asleep for hours, Vincente. I will not ask you how you feel." She felt his forehead.

"Thank you for all you've done. Ronnie? When did Givens say he'd be here?"

She glanced at a small, antique clock at the bedside. "Anytime now. He flew into Las Cruces and is driving in."

"If he is not here within the hour, Vincente, I fear the worst." They both looked at Celia. The smile was gone, replace with a grim expression. "My boys tell me that armed men are on their way from Juarez."

"How much time until they are here?"

She shrugged apologetically. "One half hour at the soonest."

Vin pushed to a sit and felt his wound tear. His stomach rolled and the burn of his injury made him hiss in agony. "I'm going now. To the river. Send Givens there, I can't stay here."

"No, I have guards outside . . ."

"Celia, they are your friends and neighbors. I will not put them at risk. Please."

No amount of pleading stopped Vin as he dressed, Ronnie handing him clothes one piece at a time. She didn't even try to persuade him to stop because she knew exactly how he felt; she would do anything to keep her home town safe, too. In fact, that's exactly what she'd been doing for years now.

Ronnie laced the used boots on his feet and helped him to stand. He zipped up the clean, worn jeans, but she reached over and buttoned them for him. Vin's flushed cheeks darkened. She forced a smile and quickly kissed the rosy patch. "For luck," she whispered in his ear as she eased the Denver knife sheath around his shoulders, followed by a clean shirt. Vin pressed his lips together and studied his toes until the shirt was fastened.

Then, he glanced around the room. "Knife?"

Ronnie retrieved it from the bedside drawer and he carefully slipped it home. Every movement agonized. He felt light headed. Ronnie pressed the automatic into his hand and he slipped it in the waistband at the small of his back and pulled the shirt tail over it.

Then he locked his eyes on hers. "Box?"

She studied him for a moment before fishing out the red marked box from the very depths of the drawer and held it against her chest for a moment as she studied him. Vin held out his hand, ignoring the tremble, and met her stare. After several seconds, she placed it in the palm of his hand. Then she pulled the phone from her bra and slipped it in his back pocket.

"Thank you. I can't thank either of you enough. It's time for me to go."

Vin shuffled to the door, knowing the two women were right behind and waiting for him to fall, but he wouldn't. He couldn't allow it. Cartel bounty hunters would be here soon and then no one would be safe. He found the Jeep outside and walked a shaky line to it.

"I'll drive you. Just to the edge of town." Ronnie slipped between him and the Jeep. "You can't work the gearshift."

Vin frowned at her, knowing she was right. "Then you head home. Take the money in the Jeep and go home."

There was a small stand off as they stared at each other, but it broke off at a far away yell.

"They are here," Celia said. "Run. Now."

The seconds seemed to race faster as Ronnie practically dragged Vin to the passenger side of the Jeep and shoved him in. She got behind the wheel and spun the tires in her haste, leaving a billowing cloud of dust behind. Ronnie weaved around a few houses, using them as cover, and then broke into the open and roared north.

She'd gone less than a mile when a black sedan charged across their path from the east. Ronnie tried to go around, but the car counter matched her moves and gently tapped the Jeep and pinned it against a rocky swell. Ronnie fought to throw the vehicle into reverse.

"It's okay," Vin snapped, grabbing her hand on the gearshift. "It's Givens."

Raylan's lean form unfolded from the sedan and he jogged over, adjusting his Stetson and then opened Vin's door.

"You don't look much better 'n the last time I saw you, Tanner." He scowled. "Can you run?" He took Vin's elbow and glanced at Ronnie while he dragged Vin from the Jeep. "Ma'm. You best get outta here. Comprende?"

Vin realized then that Givens suggestion was in English. He repeated it in Spanish. Ronnie glanced from him to Givens - unsure.

"Go," Vin said, allowing Raylan to guide him. "Thank you, Ronnie, for everything. Now go!"

As Vin turned from her, he collapsed against Givens. The worry in Raylan's wide eyes vanished as he set his jaw. "In the car." He shoved Vin in the back seat and jumped in, reversing the large sedan to release the Jeep. Ronnie turned sharply south and fishtailed toward Juarez.

A half-dozen of vehicles formed a broken line heading their way.

"I don't think they're friendly," Raylan noted quietly as he shifted. "We need to cross the river, here. Now."

He glanced over to Vin just as Tanner pulled a peculiar vial away from the crook of his arm. Vin dropped the ampoule and lifted his sorrowful, fevered eyes to Givens. Vin Tanner looked like walking death.

"I c'n move now," he gasped, and rolled his eyes as the wonderful, hated warmth spread through his veins. Pain retreated, swallowed up with an enveloping fuzziness. In his last microseconds of clarity he pushed open the car door and stumbled north. Although Givens was on his heels, the only thing Vin saw was the over-bright sparkle of water that marked the way home.

"Here they come."

Josiah's rumble of a voice issued the statement with an eerie calm. Chris stepped out from the rocky protuberance and looked south. Two forms moved unevenly across the sandy plane that dropped into a water-scarred bed dirt, bisected by a wide, shallow and lazy stream of water too sluggish to be called a river. Evidence of past flooding scarred the dry banks: Stumps of cottonwood, sun-dried trunks, exposed boulders and carved sandstone humps shaped by rushing water.

It was the only cover or concealment between them and the two stumbling forms heading their way. Beyond them, a line of cars bore down. The six of them stood.

"Border Patrol is on their way, Chris," Nathan reported.

"I do not think they will be arriving in time for the party," Ezra said quietly after gauging the movement across the river.

"Spread out," Chris barked. "We need to hold 'em back. Give them time."

JD glanced at the team leader. "There's an awful lot of 'em."

"And there's a lot of us. Let's go." Buck grabbed JD and moved into position behind a rock. JD set up just beyond, behind a huge boulder.

The moment they moved, the gunfire began. It started slowly, sporadically, and then grew exponentially as the distance between the running men and the cars shortened.

Vin and Raylan dodged and weaved, stumbled, slipped and tripped but kept moving. Chris didn't have time to think how they managed that; he was too busy taking shots and realizing his friend might not make it.

Their line held, returning fire that, at this distance, was really only for cover. Vin needed to be closer, a lot closer.

The pair hit the ridge of the mild slope to the water.

"Come on, Vin," Chris yelled, taking aim. He shot and moved forward - a spray of bullets raked a boulder and shrapnel ripped Chris' cheek. "GET DOWN!" he yelled across the river. "GET DOWN!"

Vin did not seem to hear but Raylan obviously did; he launched into Vin and shoved him down behind a wide tree stump that clung to the riverbed with octopus roots.

The other side of the stump exploded with bullets, but held.

"VIN!" Chris called, shooting as he moved forward. Then a bullet seared his temple and he half-fell, half-dove behind an edgy point of sandstone. His ears rang.

The pop-pop-pop of gunfire grew to a singular roar. The air sizzled with bullets and the burning scent of gunpowder. Chris looked left and saw Buck dive behind a boulder, bullet peppered dirt erupting at his heels obliterated the boot prints in his wake. JD, covering Buck's movement, ducked to avoid rock shrapnel from multiple strikes. One cheek dotted red.

When Chris looked right, he saw Ezra reloading as he pushed his body farther behind a dirt knoll slowly chipping away in a rain of fire. The gambler's eyes were hard with determination. Just beyond, Nathan belly crawled away from his position behind a Manzanita splintering away to nothing. Josiah hunkered behind another huge boulder covering Nate's wild scramble.

The reality of the firepower they faced washed over Chris as he reloaded – plan after plan raced through his mind in those seconds, each one mentally dismissed as futile. Vin and Raylan cowered down just on the other side of the sluggish creek, half in algae ridden water and half on the clay based mud, sharing the same low, cottonwood stump for cover. Each time Raylan moved to take a shot, return fire forced him back and down. His Stetson rested at the water's edge, upside down. Chris hadn't seen Vin move since the Marshal dragged him behind the stump.

Suddenly, all noise faded in Chris' ears and time slowed. His breathing sounded loud when he slammed his last clips home. Outgunned and pinned under a deluge of bullets, Chris gripped fully loaded weapons in both hands and was completely helpless; there was nowhere to go. The idea of defeat sparked, but when Chris looked once again at his best friend lying so exposed in the mud, a furious fireball of anger and rage exploded within and he reacted without thought.

Chris rose to his feet with a roar, "NO!" He raised both guns shoulder high, firing with absolute focus, each shot hitting its mark with gory finality.

Two went down. Then it was four . . .

"NO!" he screamed again, advancing with each pull of the trigger. Two determined strides put him in the creek, a few more beyond that found sluggish water soaking his thighs. The roar of the firefight rose and deafened.

"CHRIS!" Buck's call followed seconds after the reality of the situation unfroze his shocked mind. He scrambled to his knees and stretched his arms over the top of the bullet-scarred boulder and fiercely covered his friend's advance.

Chris moved forward step by deliberate step, each shot from his unwavering weapons accurate and deadly until he reached the center of the creek that marked the border of the two countries. There, he paused, set his jaw, and picked off shooters one by one with Buck's help.

Eight down. Nine.

The others of his team roused from their astonishment to back him, the noise of the firefight shifting to their side of the river.

Ten down and Chris still stood unscathed like some kind of avenging angel.

Raylan's incredulous look broke off at Vin's short, sharp laugh. "Your friend's over the top crazy. I've never seen anything like that!"

Vin, grinning, nodded once and then his eyes slipped closed and his body went limp. The spent gun slipped from his grip.

"God damn it, Tanner, don't you die on me now!" Raylan shifted his position and entered the fight with a vigorous adrenalin surge, rising quickly to join Larabee's stand. He saw bodies scattered on his side of the creek and another bunch retreating, shooting wildly as they ran. Behind him, a line of six men stood their ground with steadfast strength.

A swirling dust cloud on the horizon announced the arrival of their back up.

The shooting slowed and became sporadic, and then stopped altogether, leaving only the sound of retreating vehicles. Then there was a charged pause as they evaluated; no one moved until Chris put away his guns and slogged to Vin's side.

"Agent Larabee," Raylan greeted. "And I thought this one was a handful." He nodded at Vin as he holstered his weapon.

Chris spared him a glance of acknowledgement, his features softening as he dropped to his knees. "God, Vin," he whispered hoarsely. Chris' hand trembled as he brushed back the filthy hair from Vin's stubbled face. "Vin?"

Nathan appeared at his side and felt Vin's neck. "He's got a hell of a fever and his pulse is racy, but it's there. Let's get him out of this dirty water."

Without another word, Chris slipped his arms under his friend and stood, tipping Vin close to his chest.

"Hell, Chris I didn't mean this second!" Chris ignored Nathan and crossed the lazy creek in an unwavering line to bring Vin home.

Raylan and Nathan followed while the others held position and kept watch, ensuring a save crossing. Chris struggled a bit when he left the water as the stubborn mud grabbed his boots, but Nathan and Raylan each held an elbow and steadied him. Once clear of the creek and its banks, Chris kept moving until they reached the safety of their vehicles and even then, he was reluctant to let go.

Vin's long ride was done and they were seven again.

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