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"What happened to you, Cowboy. Ya just look like hell!"

Vin Tanner, the man's best friend and the tracker for their business firm, had found Chris Larabee in an Emergency Room cubicle of Phoenix General Hospital after Nathan Jackson, the head surgeon and a trauma expert, had let the team at Mag7Agency know that their leader was there, again. Chris had been there for hours now, miserable, but finally beginning to settle into just irritable, cranky, and cantankerous. Nathan, who served as the agency's physician, had finally alerted them that Larabee wasn't hurt that bad this time, but still they couldn't rescue him until all the checks were over, and Larabee was over most of his spell of being incredibly annoying.

"You're next, Tanner! Little demons," Larabee hissed. "You two just shut up and get me the hell out of here before this bunch decides to do something else. Trust me, they try anything else, they try to pin me down again, they'd better hope THEIR major medical is paid in full. Anybody touches me, they're gonna need it...especially that lunatic Nathan!"

"What the hell happened to you, Chris?"

"Don't ask, Buck. Just give me a hand and help me up. Nathan's coming back, and I'd rather not let him get his hands on me twice in one night."

"I am back, Chris."

Dr. Nathan Jackson, the man's physician and friend, could be Chris Larabee's worst nightmare. Anytime Larabee showed up at the Emergency Room, Jackson tended to run a complete diagnostic series because the doctor knew the man wouldn't be at his office any time soon for any kind of check up. "You stay put. You just rest. We think you've got at least one broken rib and the techs are still looking over the x-rays of that ankle."

"They're just sprains, Nathan...ankle and rib. Everything's just a SPRAIN! Let me the hell alone. I'm leaving!"

"I've got a few more tests I want to run while you're here. Right now, sit where you are so I can tie up those ribs." The doctor was just as determined to get him checked as Larabee was to get out of the place.

"Buck, give me a hand up. I'm going!"

Buck Wilmington, the Agency munitions expert, and Larabee's oldest friend and partner, pulled him up fast, making his head spin. "Sure, Chris, you look like a sprain. ALL of you's just a big sprain." Wilmington helped his boss stand, biting back a laugh at the collar wrapped around Larabee's neck. "It's just a whole body sprain, ain't it. I don't think I've ever seen you this 'sprained' when Nathan's wasn't making you stay put for a day or two."

"NO! There's nothing connected to me that won't move. All I need are a couple of Tylenol and I'll be fine, and Nathan's not doing any more tests...not now, and if I can help it, not EVER!"

"You gonna tell us what happened?" Tanner asked, giving in to his own grin.

"NO!" The snapped word from the tall blond man brooked no argument, but Tanner and Wilmington were used to his moods, and nothing would stop them from digging for the story. As Larabee stood and threw the blanket and hospital gown in a heap, they finally got a real look at the black and blue, green and purple bruises covering his face, neck, shoulders, arms, legs, hips, and back. The man looked like he'd been in a train wreck.

"Damn, Cowboy! Was it a gang?"

"Just find my clothes, Buck. Vin...find my socks and boots! Give 'em to me, now, or I'm liable to just walk out of this torture dungeon like this and embarrass the hell out of us all." He was pulling on clothes in random order. Buck noticed he didn't ask about his underwear, just forced his lower, undressed body into his tight black jeans...with a serious groan slipping out as his legs slipped in. "I'm leaving, Nathan!" Larabee took a step and found the ankle wasn't ready to move, no matter how much he wanted to go.

"Come on, Chris," Vin grabbed hold of one arm, Buck the other. Larabee stubbornly removed his arms from their grasp. "It's not that bad. I just need to warm up a bit. I'm freezing in here."

"Yeah, let him move! Let him just walk on that right now. No brace, no Ace bandage, no cane. It's going to give, and when it does he'll be back soon enough, and then I'll get to run ALL the tests I want to run. Man never learns! But then, I'm talking to you two, and you're just the same as he is."

"Look, you two, if you're out of here with me, you best move now. He'll be checking you out fast enough if I slip out of here! And I AM OUT OF HERE!"

"Nathan," Vin looked at him, "I've seen him want out of here real bad before, but what the hell did you do to him tonight to make him this mad?"

"Now, Vin. You know that's a doctor/patient confidence. He'll tell you if he wants it told."

Chris's back was turned, but while he talked, Nathan, jerked his head toward the cart beside the examining table. Lying there was a pair of latex gloves, one with a small streak of blood, a tube of ointment, and a proctoscope.

Vin blanched, and glanced at Chris. "Damn, Nathan. He didn't kill ya?"

"Threatened. Vin, he's more than a year overdue for it. I had him here tonight! How many times I get him here when he's not busted up real bad? This tonight's just small stuff. Never feel like he ought to have to take this procedure when he's really hurt. Tonight...I finally had him! And I did the full yearly checkup along with the rest. Even got in a complete MRI, EKG, and checked out his abdomen and stomach."

"How many times did he puke?"

"Enough."

"He ain't gonna forget any time soon."

"Well, just try to keep him out of trouble, don't let him wind up back here, until he does forget a bit. Oh, and make sure he takes the Tylenol I'm prescribing. He's gonna be sore, six ways to Sunday. It's the one with codeine in it. Make sure Terry knows."

"Are you two coming, or do I leave you to Nathan's sneak attacks?" He knew Nathan had told them, somehow. The other three saw that Chris's hand was resting on his stomach. He was getting a little more pale as he stood there.

"We're with you!" Having seen the cart, Buck and Vin quickly followed the man out of the Emergency Room cubicle.

"Come on, Pard," Tanner begged as they walked out of the room, "Whatever you did tonight's gotta be good. You're beat to a pulp, but you're still moving."

"Exactly how big was the train that hit ya, Stud? And is she still able to move?"

Chris turned on them both. "SHUT UP, BUCK!"

"Uh-Oh, listen to him, Vin. That made him mad...really mad...this WAS from a SHE!" Buck was laughing loud and proud of his jest. "Dang, Chris, Terry take to beating ya lately?" Buck grinned at the first sliver of news he'd been able to get. He knew that Chris must have done something to get himself banged up; his wife Terry hadn't hurt him. An emergency specialist, she would have had to deal with the man's injuries herself, and she knew what a grouchy reprobate he could be when hurt. And besides, she loved him. "So, who was it, Chris?"

"Chris, are they certain you're alright? I'm so sorry you were hurt."

Buck's question was answered. She walked up to Chris and put a hand familiarly on his arm. She looked up, and up, into his green eyes. Larabee smiled at her and just shook his head and laughed at the condition of the parts of his body she could see. She gently touched the bruise on his forehead.

"Who's that, Buck?" Vin asked quietly, watching the beautiful young woman standing there, talking to their leader. From the blush that brightened the color in the man's face, it was obvious that Chris knew her. The way Vin's own heart was suddenly beating overtime, he hoped he would get to meet her before the night was over. But Larabee wasn't making any introductions.

Buck just sighed out loud looking at the petite young red-head who was staring at Larabee through crisp hazel eyes. She reached up and pushed the hair back out of his face, and kissed his cheek. "How does he attract them all, Vin? He best be remembering that he's a married man. Hey, Chris, why don't you introduce me to the lady, and I'll make sure you don't have any trouble from Terry."

"They know each other! Hell, you two. BACK OFF! This wasn't her fault! Leave her alone."

Chris stepped closer to the woman, ignoring his two harassing friends, lifting her face gently with his hand. "I'm okay. Let's get out of here!" Larabee told her and moved with her toward the Emergency Room door, trying to escape before his two friends demanded more in the way of explanation. "It's just bruises and a couple of sprains."

"You're sure?" She offered him her arm in tender support, and he took it. He moved slowly, but straight and tall. Neither of his friends heard any kind of groan or hiss.

"I'm just fine. Let's move. These two won't ever give up!"

She spoke to him quietly, but seemed unconcerned if they overheard. "Terry is just going to have a fit when she sees us!"

"Since when doesn't Terry have a fit when we get together?"

Wilmington couldn't take it anymore. "Wait a minute, darling. I'm Buck Wilmington. I'm Chris's partner, and a cop. I need to ask you a few questions about what happened to him."

"No," Chris shot him a look that Wilmington recognized very well. "You're not a cop anymore. And NO...you don't need to ask anything!"

Vin tried another track, "How are you two getting home, Chris? Want me to drive you both to your cars?"

They had all made it to the ambulance driveway, heading for the parking lot. "Celia will get me to my car, Vin. Hers is that little number over there. I TOLD Nathan not to call either of you." Chris instantly realized he had said her name...too late to take it back now.

"Well, half a name's better than none. Cowboy! Ma'am, Celia, my name's Vin Tanner. I'm one of that one's partners. It's nice to meet you. If this varmint won't introduce us, I will." Chris had never seen Tanner make a move as smooth as Buck Wilmington could, but he had obviously learned something in their years on the team. Vin took her hand, smiled nicely, and mixed in that distinctive Texas drawl of his. He stepped in close, so she could see how blue his eyes really were.

"Ah, hell!" He heard Chris's tone.

Celia took over, knowing the man with her could be a ogre when he was challenged or felt protective about someone. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Tanner. I'm Celia Singer. Chris should have introduced us. And you are?" She blinked up prettily at Buck.

"Buck Wilmington, ma'am. And may I say you are looking especially beautiful tonight. Where'd you meet Chris?"

"Oh, I've known him for years. He and I spend a great many nights together."

Chris choked on nothing and gave her a glare. She just smiled back at him, a hint of mischief mixed in. He pulled her toward the car.

"Buck, it's my business. How many times I have to tell you to keep your nose out of my business?" He pulled her after him, moving quickly towards Celia's little red MG.

"Now, Chris, you don't have to be mad at your friends."

"Celia..."

She could tell he was fuming, but he stopped himself from taking it out on her. "I know. Your business."

"Just don't go taking up for them. They don't need to know."

"Well, you don't need to be mad at me either. It wouldn't hurt a thing if they knew."

"It damn sure wouldn't help nothing!"

"You are such a diffident man. You keep EVERYTHING to yourself. How do you stay friends with them if you never share anything with them?"

"They know enough. It's best to keep our relationship between us."

"But Terry knows about us!"

"Yeah...you had to go tell her, and now I've got both of you in the mix. Now both of you think you've got free license to give me hell."

She laughed a little laugh that reminded him of his wife, then she teased him. "It does you a world of good. Keeps you on your toes."

"Shit."

"Now, Chris, that language has got to go. You know I don't like it, but then, there's always Terry to consider. Can you get in, that ankle's not even taped."

The other two had caught up again. "Yeah, Chris, don't you go convincing yourself that you're just perfect. Nathan's on a snit for you taking off without him signing you out. He yelled at me and Buck to make sure you know he wants to see you in a couple of days...to check that ankle and some other things."

"He can just wish! It ain't nothing, and I'm not coming back here anytime soon! And not to his office either."

"When he tells Terry, you'll be back soon enough."

"She can just check it out herself. Now, you two go home. I'll see you in the morning."

"You sure you don't need us to tag along, Stud?"

"Celia will take care of me, Buck. I don't need a chaperone, and Tanner...neither does she. Get gone before the three of us have to have a real 'conversation' right here in the middle of this parking lot."

They had finally vexed him enough. "Okay...til the morning then. But in the morning, pard. In the morning, you're gonna have to tell us something."

"Yeah, Cowboy. You don't tell Buck and me, we'll just confide this little secret to Ez and J.D. Maybe just have to go on our own hunt for the truth."

"Vin...you do that..." Larabee's look was definitely a threat now.

"Just remember, we warned ya." Vin winked at him, winked at Celia, and headed for his truck. He skidded to a stop, turned and tipped his hat at the woman. "Celia, is it okay if I give you a call? Can I have your number?"

She heard Chris growl under his breath. "Well, Vin...that's nice of you, but you'll have to ask Chris. If he doesn't mind, feel free to call."

Vin's face fell. He hadn't even considered that Chris would be involved. He was a married man, and this woman wasn't his wife. "Come on, Buck. Let's go get us a little beer."

The men's trucks were parked side-by-side. When they started to leave, they both looked back at where Chris and Celia were, still talking with their heads close together. The woman was leaning over Chris, helping him get comfortable in the tiny car. She said something that started the man laughing, and he pulled her down and hugged her.

Buck turned to Vin with a frown on his face. "If that don't beat all! Yessir...we're going to Ezra's place alright. Maybe we'll just get hold of J.D., too."

"Now that's a plan, Bucklin. You think we need to sort of sort out this side of Larabee? Ain't never seen this side of him, Have you?"

"No. Least not since he put that ring on Terry's finger. You thinking what I'm thinking?"

"Well, I wasn't until she said he had to approve me calling her! What the hell's all that about?"

"I hate to say it, but it looks like he's got claim on her, and according to them both, Terry knows he's cheating."

"And she either ain't done, ain't said, or don't care enough to say anything about it."

"How we gonna find out what that rascal's up to, Vin?"

"We do what we're good at...track him, hunt 'em down, get the truth. Then we make sure everybody knows what's what!"

"You mean we tell Terry?"

"If it's called for, we tell."

"He just might shoot us. She might do'er too!"

"Not unless we goof up and he finds out we're doing this on the sly. Buck, it's you that's got to keep his damn mouth shut. You can't do it, we best not jump in."

"We starting tonight? Now?"

"Sounds better than a beer to me!"

"Well, we can go get Ez, J.D., and at least one beer...can't we...and still have time to start the hunt."

"Fine. While you have a drink, I'm gonna keep my wits about me and locate our Ms. Singer. That's the part I'm interested in."

"Ah, hell. You're not worried about Chris and Terry and the possibility that this could ruin both their lives. You're only doing this cause you're green eyed with jealousy, Vin."

"I ain't green eyed for nothing Buck. I'm blue eyed, but Larabee's got one woman already. She don't deserve it for him to be as big a scoundrel as you are, and I don't want him chasing after the one I've picked as mine."

"I guess we go get the rest and get on the hunt."




She drove him to her place, where he had met her in mid-afternoon. His antique black Jaguar was in the driveway. After a slow limp inside, she helped him settle into a chair. She gave his shoulder a pat, propped his foot on a pillow, and went to get him a glass of water.

"Are you sure you feel like driving home, Chris?"

"Sure...it's my left ankle. It's late enough there won't be much traffic. I won't have to use the clutch much if I stay around eighty on the interstate, and I can find a place on the floor board to stabilize it. At eighty, if Roger's not the county mounty on duty the last few miles, I can make it in less than an hour."

"I'd say you've really got it planned, Cowboy!"

"Don't YOU start that! It's one reason I don't want you hanging around that wild and wooly bunch of mine. They've got WAY too many bad habits, including calling me 'cowboy' when they want to pull my chain."

"That one named Vin's sure cute." She laughed, "Will you fall asleep if I give you the Tylenol?"

"And these days, he seems to know it. He spends too much time with Buck! What kind of Tylenol? With or without codeine?"

"With...and they're BIG pills."

"Just great. I best not take them until I'm home. Otherwise, I might fall asleep behind the wheel."

"You're not telling me that man is gay are you?"

"No. Vin's anything but gay. He was really shy when I first met him, but he's spent too much time around Buck. I have to admit that there are some people out there, some that don't know us, who think he and I are a couple. We've played it on some cases before, and we must be damn good at it. Buck won't even play the role. What did we decide about that Tylenol?"

"Promise me you won't take them then until Terry says it's okay. You know you can stay here tonight."

"I know, honey...thanks...but I don't like to spend the whole night away from my home and bed too often. Would you get me some more water, and some regular Tylenol. I'll take that before I head home. At least that will take the edge off it."

"So you admit that you're hurting?"

"Sure, but it's no big deal. I'm just going to be sore as hell tomorrow. I'll probably just do paperwork...if I can get the others out of the office long enough to think paperwork."

"EEEEW! I hate paperwork, and so do you. Are you sorry you were with me tonight?"

"Of course not. When we're together, it's always fun. Terry just doesn't like getting that physical, so I don't get to do it as much as I like. I'm glad she really doesn't mind us spending so much time together. I figured she'd cut me a new one when I told her about our nights together...but she just said somebody ought to give me what I wanted... and it might as well be you."

"I just about passed out when she said for us to go ahead...that she really didn't mind at all. I thought she would beat me and you both to death, but she was absolutely happy to see us start it up." She headed into the kitchen for water and pills.

He didn't rise from his seat, he just talked louder. "She's a remarkable woman. I never know what she's going to do or say, but it's always something really different. Look, get me some water and the Tylenol. She doesn't mind me coming here, but she doesn't want me spending too much time. She likes to remind me that I'm still hers, and I better not forget it."

"I don't blame her. As great as you looked in that Gi tonight...a girl with no scruples just might get too interested in you."

"Funny thing is...people tell me that. Every once in awhile a woman will look a little, but nobody's ever wants me the way Terry's wants me."

"Does that bother you? You do realize you're wrong about how many look, don't you?"

"No, it doesn't bother me. I've got my woman. I don't need or want anymore." He downed the pills with the water, got up and hugged her to his chest. "Thanks. I'm heading home now, while I'm still alive. She does tend to change her mind about what makes her mad. She takes it real personal when I pull a stunt like I pulled tonight."

"Yes, she does." They both had a nice laugh. Then she walked with him toward his car, making sure the ankle didn't give way as he moved. They got to the edge of the front porch, where he gave her another kiss on the cheek just before he got settled in the car. He started the engine, and turned to back out of the driveway. Then, he let out a incredible curse.

"What? Are you having trouble? Does your ankle hurt too much? Do you hurt too much"

"No, I'm gonna be fine. Do you see that 4x4 truck across the street...about a half block?"

"You're eyesight's too good!"

"Evidently, he forgot."

"Who?"

"Vin. And I promise you Buck's on the other side in the passenger seat. And that round, shiny thing sticking out the window? It a parabolic microphone! Damn!"

"What is that? What does it do?"

"It's for surveillance. That's part of what they do. We're all detectives. Sometimes we listen in on conversations. Sometimes they get to listening in on things they shouldn't be interested in."

"What?"

"Me. They've been listening in on our conversation, spying on what I'm doing. It's none of their business. Now, they'll be watching you and me all the time."

"Why?"

"The way Buck's mind runs, and with Vin's current interests, they've figured out that we're having an affair."

"If they only knew just how 'hot' this affair is!" She laughed and Chris blushed bright red.

"Oh, my! Now, what are you going to do?"

"I'm gonna make 'em pay for sticking their nose in my business!"

"You're not going to fight with them over this, are you? I mean, after all, Terry knows all about us."

"Nah. I won't fight with 'em, not physically, but I've got another way to make 'em pay."

"You keep it civil. You've got a weird sense of humor sometimes. I don't want you being too hard on those two."

"Or on Ezra and J.D. If Vin and Buck are tracking me and you...Ezra and J.D. are up to something too. Trust me, I'm not going to hurt 'em. Shoot, in our bunch, it's hard to tell who has the weirdest sense of humor, one-upsmanship, or payback. We're all a pretty good match for any of it...but, of course, I am the best. Well...bye. See ya tomorrow." He started backing again, and stopped again. "If I was to call you, would you help me get even?"

"Chris Larabee...sure, if it's not too bad."

"I'll keep it tame...maybe." He grinned and this time he didn't put on the brakes.




"Good morning, honey. Are you feeling any better?"

"Yeah, it's fine. Grouchy, but I can manage. Thanks for putting on the Ace last night."

"If you had let Nathan do it, it wouldn't have gotten so swollen. I can't believe you drove all the way home without having someone put on a bandage. Celia could have done it."

"I just didn't want to mess with it. I knew if it really needed it, you'd do it."

"Anything else hurting this morning?"

"I'm sore from all the bruises...but I've had lots worse before. I'll be fine, but I do think I'm going to do paperwork this morning at least. I've got my other life late this afternoon and early this evening. I'd better be ready."

"And you won't go looking up Nathan because of the other, will you? You've been due for it for a long time."

"Son-of-a-"

"Chris!"

"Sorry. I hate it when he pulls that stuff on me! He knows I hate it."

"That's why he has to pull it on you. You are totally unflappable when it comes to dealing with getting hurt at work...but you are a total BABY when it comes to a little annual checkup! I don't understand you!" She laughed a little and kissed him. "Come on. You hate being late, but you haven't eaten breakfast yet. I'll cook if you tell me what you want."

"You do the coffee, juice, and sausage, I'll do fresh pancakes. Do we have that low calorie fruit stuff?"

"Yes, we have the fruit, and no, I won't make sausage for you."

"Just one link, maybe two, to spice up the pancakes? I'm a poor, beat up, old man." He hugged her and then he looked her in the eyes. "Have mercy?"

"One link, then...just to pity the 'old' man."

"Hey, I'm just kidding about the 'old' stuff. Don't you go saying it too much...I might just have to be late and prove to you how 'young' I am."

"You're an injured man. We can wait for tonight."

"Or you can take the lead now. I won't be here early tonight, remember. I've got a date with Celia."

"I'm beginning to regret that I agreed to this arrangement! I think you're having TOO good a time."

"Now...you can't go back on your word now. It's set, and I'm going to finish this...and so are you."

"Okay...but try to get home early today...okay?"

"Yeah. We won't be that late."

"Good. I'll make what you want for dinner and have it ready when you get home. I don't want anything in our way tonight."

"That sounds like a WONDERFUL plan. It's been way too long. Oh, if I need you to come to the office early this afternoon and help me with something, will you come?"

"Sure, I'm not working today. I can come." Then she noticed his wonderful green eyes; the ones filled with mischief. "What are you up to, Mr. Larabee...and which one of them are you going after this time?"

"All of 'em!"

"Oh, dear. What did you do to set them off, and what do you plan to do?"

"The numbskulls accused me of having an affair!"

"You're WHAT?!" He had anticipated the reaction. She was a jealous woman.

"I said they THINK I'm having an affair. You KNOW better...right?"

"I know."

"Good. They think I'm being unfaithful to you, and they've decided you're not even concerned. That bothers them more than the idea of me cheating. And Vin's jealous."

"Vin's jealous? Of what?"

"Of me and my new 'aficionada'." He grinned.

"Who is she? And why do they think you're having an affair with her? Those two better NOT know anything I don't know, Chris Larabee!"

"Terry...Terry. Don't you go wacko on me, too. She's Celia, of course. She was at the hospital last night, and you know her. When she gets concerned or excited...she tends to be just a little demonstrative."

"She was kissing on you?"

"A little, nothing flashy, but she was being really helpful and supportive."

"And why is Vin jealous?"

"Not so much jealous of me as interested in her."

"Oh, dear. He's in for a hard fall."

"I tried to make him back off, but he's got the bit in his teeth, now."

"What did he do?"

"Well, he and Buck were outside her place last night when I came out. It's bad enough they were following me, but there they were using surveillance tactics on her. It would have been funny, except they were messing in MY business...and hers...and yours, too."

"You call me...tell me when you want me. I'll be there. Is Celia coming, too."

"Yeah...she's coming. And I think you're coming to kill us."

"I like this! Hurry up! Let's finish our breakfast!"

"Just don't decide you like my plan TOO much."

"And why not?"

"If you kill me? It'll kind of mess up tonight."




He was at his desk when they came in at 8:30...later than usual for all of them. Chris had completed some calls and started in on the most pressing report. He had a couple of phonebooks under his desk to prop up his ankle. His face was still purple in spots, but none of the other injuries were visible. None of them asked how he was. In fact, none of them even spoke to him.

"Hey, Vin, Buck...all you guys...get in here!"

"What do you want, Boss?" Buck was first to arrive. Chris was amazed that the man, who was a world-class lady's man, and who knew Chris's own thoughts on that subject so well, could be so angry with him. Buck's use of the appellation 'Boss' was NOT a term of respect.

"You have a bad night after you came to my rescue last night? Morning, Vin. By the way, thank you both for coming to bail me out. You two look like yesterday's wreck...more than I do. Anything I can help with."

"No." Tanner didn't look so much mad and he looked heart sick.

"Morning Ezra, J.D. What's wrong with you two? Everybody in this office looks like hell today. I was the only one that got stomped on, wasn't I?"

"Mr. Larabee...would you please...please...tell these two gentlemen exactly what it was that descended on your person last night...what happened to you...so they will cease banging on my door in the wee hours of the morning with an obviously odious and insane assertion."

"Chris...they woke up me AND CASEY! Three A.M.! I don't really understand what they were trying to say, but it didn't make sense. I finally threw them out."

"You threw them out?" Chris was amazed at the last two. Ezra Standish he could understand for being angry with the disturbance, but for J.D. Dunne to throw out Buck Wilmington, his mentor and friend, and to throw out Vin Tanner, who always caused him great professional anxiety.

"You REALLY threw them out? Way to go, Kid."

"I threw them out because I knew Casey was going to give me hell for losing a full night's sleep. She's pregnant and she doesn't get much chance to sleep. She's got morning sickness again."

"Casey's pregnant...again? WAY TO GO, KID! Number two on the way!"

"Somebody's got to produce the next generation for Mag7! You've got the leader coming along just fine, but these other three are just dead weight!" Dunne grinned.

"Well...we try to find suitable help in that matter, J. D., but a certain somebody's always getting in the way."

If Vin Tanner could pout, he was doing it now.

"Buck got your girl?" Chris tested him.

"Yeah...right...it's always BUCK!"

"Okay, down to business. I want Ezra and J.D. on a case today. It's a private matter, and I think it can be finished today. You two got anything else on your list that can't wait?"

"We are at your disposal, Mr. Larabee. And for one, I am most joyous to be away from those two. I feel, from his testimony this morning, that Mr. Dunne is of the same opinion where they are concerned. Are you willing to launch our investigation, sir?"

"Sure, Ezra. Let's get going." J.D. loved the chase.

"Well, young sir...we will embark on our endeavor as soon as our fearless leader tells us what the endeavor requires."

"Oh, yeah. Chris, what do you want us to do?"

"I want you to run a check on a woman for me."

"A woman?"

"Celia Singer. I want to know everything there is to know about her." He caught the looks that passed between Vin and Buck, and he managed not to laugh.

"Do we need to know upon whose behalf we are conducting the search, Mr. Larabee?"

"No, Ez. That's not your business...it's mine."

"I see. No problem. Well, this should be a miniscule assignment. She's not wanted for anything, I assume?"

"No. She's not in any trouble that I know of. I just want to know more about her."

"It shall be done, sir. Mr. Dunne...as Mr. Larabee would say...let's ride."

They had barely closed the door when Vin approached him, temper flaring. "Why are you putting out a hunt on Celia, Chris? What's going on?"

"My business, Vin."

"Now, pard," Buck joined the non-discussion. "Ain't you gonna tell us NOTHING about last night? How you got hurt? Who that woman is?"

"Buck, I told you last night to BACK OFF! Now DO IT!"

"You owe us, Chris!"

"No, Vin. I DON'T...not about any of this. If it gets where it needs to be something you're concerned about, I'll tell ya. It's bad enough you're in my business if it's something you think I've done that's not right, but just because your hormones are in overdrive...just leave it alone."

"But Chris..."

"But nothing. Drop it, Buck. What's on your schedule today? You both gonna get me those follow-up reports on Nogales? And I want your details and plans on that gang in Tucson. Mr. Lipsey wants to know what we've found out, and so far, since you two don't have a clue, I don't have a clue. Today's paperwork...for you two, and for me. As far behind in your work as you too are, that's how far I'm behind too. I ain't trying to be on your back...we've been busy...it's just time we paid the price. You got anything you've GOT to finish this morning, say so now."

"No...I can do it, Chris. Sorry to be in your face."

"It's okay, Vin. It'll work out."

"Me too, Stud. But you ain't being a totally stupid cuss, now are you?"

"No, Buck. I'm the good guy, remember...you're the stupid cuss."

"Let's just keep it that way. Okay."

"Buck. It's none of your business. Shut up and get to work!"




Chris was thankful for the small restroom located in his private office. It was the only real perk he had allowed for himself when they had remodeled the warehouse for the agency. Today, he was more than grateful for the little privacy the room added. The hours of sitting, hunched forward, clicking computer keys had him stiff and sore, and eye strain and the aftermath of the kick to his head had given him a lingering headache. He had an excellent office manager, but he preferred to record details of cases for himself, and he wasn't a man to generally baby himself because of small discomfort.

He got up and instantly admitted that he needed his cane to make it the short distance to the restroom. He willingly and quickly took the heavy-duty Tylenol to make his ankle get more cooperative. He hadn't made an attempt to go for coffee...and he was missing his coffee. He wasn't one to disturb his office manager for something like coffee either.

He came back to his desk, dreading the next hour of being trapped at his computer. As he tried to stretch the kinks out of his back, he heard another set of computer keys stop, and within a few minutes found Vin in his doorway.

"Hey, Cowboy."

He seldom minded being called that by his best friends. "Hey, yourself."

"Aren't you ready for a break? I thought you might want a sandwich, coffee and a slice of baklava. I picked one up on the way in this morning."

"You trying to fatten me up, Tanner. Make me less of a threat to your physical handsomeness?"

"You're fat enough, Larabee. But this is the first time you've even stood up this morning. I know you're not much for lunch most days, but with that stuff you're taking, I figured ya might just need a little energy boost. Remember, too much of that stuff tends to make you puke."

"Thanks. I remember. I'll take you up on the food. Bring some for yourself?"

"Yeah...matter of fact I figured I needed a little boost myself. You got a few minutes we can talk about Nogales?"

"Sure." Chris recognized the offer of food and coffee, and the request for help on a case, were both signs that his best friend was ready to get past the argument they were having.

"I'll get the stuff. Back in a few." Vin smiled at the ease of getting Chris's forgiveness or apology, whichever a situation warranted. He was fast at getting their boost.

Chris hadn't taken a seat, waiting for Vin, letting his hip stretch and his ankle ease, he was just propped on the side of his desk. "Come on, let's sit in the good chairs. My butt's numb from sitting at that monstrosity. Maybe that ottoman will help it ease off a bit."

"You hurtin?"

"Bit...just sore. I'll take the pills with the food. It'll probably all back off by tomorrow anyway."

"Hope so. Ain't you goin' to let me in on what happened?"

"Vin..."

"Alright...you know I just worry when you get hurt."

"I know, honey. You love me!" He grinned at the blush that instantly leapt to Vin's face.

"Shut up, Cowboy!"

"Don't you two start that stuff! Gives me the damn willies."

"Our business, Buck!" Chris shot him a look.

"Right." Buck let it go. "What you two doing in here?"

"Talking about Nogales. You might just want to sit in. You were sure there, got hurt just like we all did."

"Yeah. Always did want to go over some of the details of that operation."

Vin smiled, knowing the man would show up when he and Chris settled into chairs to talk. Buck wouldn't take a chance of missing out on the story of Chris's latest injuries. "Well, I figured we'd all be here. I brought you a sandwich. Go get coffee, and get some of the baklava."

Chris just smiled at him. "But hurry up and get back. We're going to run out of time."

"What's coming?" Buck and Vin said it together.

"Curiosity got the cat!" He said it low, and both of his friends missed it. Chris just savored the score. More loudly, he added, "I've got someplace to go at three."

"Want us to go with you? You're not a hundred percent." It was an offer Vin or Buck would have made any day.

"No. I won't need any help with it. And don't go asking me a bunch of damn questions, Vin. It's my business."

"You can't walk, but you can handle whatever it is!" Buck sounded disgusted.

"Yeah, I can handle it. Buck...let it go. If we're here to talk my business, I'm gone. If we're here to work on Nogales, somebody take a bite and then start talking."

The two friends realized they weren't going to get a thing out of the stubborn man, so Nogales and food won out. At least they could finally find out, maybe, what had happened to him while he had been involved with that gang of drug runners.




He had trouble just sitting there, just focusing on what had happened in Nogales. He had survived the heart attack, induced drugs, being shot...shoot, he didn't want to think about it any more. He was well. He pushed them off the subject of what had happened to him, and talked instead of what they had done to try to find him, and how they needed to change Agency operations to avoid such a big problem in the future.

His office door opened without a knock. His office manager, Abigail, walked in completely, a worried look on her face. "Chris, there's a woman out here. She says her name is Celia Singer, and she looks worried. Have you got time to see her. She says it's got to be now."

"Sure, send her in. Vin, Buck...go someplace else...but don't leave the office."

"What's this about, Chris?"

"Move! I haven't got time."

They left...she came in past them, tears streaming, falling against his chest as he kissed her hair and held her. They hovered in the coffee room trying to hear and make sense of what they heard.

"Oh, Chris...she knows just how far we've gone. She's changed her mind!"

"How do you know, Celia? We've been so careful to do everything just right. How did she find out?"

"She said some woman named Casey called her and told her that Buck and Vin had been to see J.D. somebody, and they told this J.D. everything about us. That we're having an affair. Why would your friend try to ruin your life like this?"

"Vin would listen to Buck...and Buck would think the worst. Buck only tends to think below his belt buckle."

"She called me on my cell phone, and she said you'd pay for what happened last night, and that she planned for me to pay for it too. Chris, I'm so sorry. I never meant for our relationship to go this far, or for anyone to get hurt. I think she's on her way to see you now!"

"You get out of here. I'll talk to Terry. I don't want you here when she gets here. Maybe I can talk with her...tell her the whole truth. Now, honey...you just go. I'll call you later."

"Later? If you can!" The woman sobbed and turned for the door.

Vin and Buck, listening to the two lovers as their voices rose in fear and dread, never heard the outer door to Mag 7 open. She was just there, moving past them into her husband's office. She walked up to Chris and slapped him...but it wasn't a Terry Horton Larabee slap...it was a shotgun-type blast. His head rocked back.

"Terry, I can explain! Calm down."

"You can't explain this! Neither of you deserve the right to try to weasel your way out of what you've done!"

From her handbag, she pulled one of Chris's Glock-90 pistols and without a word, she fired point blank into the left of his chest, and then she turned on Celia. Chris was a heap of blood on the floor, when bloody Celia crumpled on top of him.

"So much for you, Cowboy...and you too, Celia. I never thought I'd have to take betrayal from both of you. Well, not any more...this won't ever happen...ever again!"

"Terry!" They rushed up behind her and took the hot gun from her hand. Buck knelt beside Chris, expecting the worst. But he felt a pulse. "VIN, 911, he's alive." He moved to Celia's side, and again found life. "Two for transportation, stat. Tell them to alert Nathan and his team. Thank God you're a lousy shot, Terry. Why?"

There were no tears running down Terry's face, her lower lip just quivered just before she covered her face in her hands. Vin held her. "Why, Terry? Why?"

"You know why! How could he...with my friend! How could she?"

"I don't know. She seemed like such a nice, caring woman." He was in serious shock. Two of his best friends, and the woman he had wanted to know, now with lives in ruin.

Ezra and J. D. showed no surprised at all to find Larabee dead on the floor with his paramour at his side. "And from all we can find, Mr. Tanner, she is that...all of that. And she's married, and she's pregnant to boot!"

Buck was stunned. "WHAT? He's got a child coming with her? How long's Chris been carrying on like this? How did we miss him being involved with another woman? I mean he keeps to himself...but with this?"

"Hell! Believe what you want, Buck...you can't make me believe this at all. It's just too stupid for Chris. Chris might maybe get sidetracked for a little while, but we've been with him and Terry too many times to miss tell-tale signs about something like this." Vin glanced at his friend and his supposed 'lover.'

"You'd think, but it's happened to people before. I just can't believe Terry could kill him...and kill a woman? A pregnant woman?"

"Yeah, Bucklin', you're supposed to know him longer than any of us...and you don't see nothing wrong with this little scene? Hell, he's blushing. I ain't seen a blushing corpse too damn often!" Vin pushed Terry back in his arms, and knew that there were no tears on her face, because there was a impish smile there behind her hands instead.

"Yeah," J.D. chimed in, with an odd, half-smile on his face, "Buck, if it was Chris, he'd a been having those serious, heart-stopping guilts of his, and we couldn't a stayed around him fer nothing. When he gets the guilts, he gets to be mean as a prairie rattler."

Vin suddenly hauled off and kicked Chris on the left leg.

"AWH! Hell, Vin. You'd kick a dead man?"

"Okay, Cowboy...get up and tell us what you're up to and why we shouldn't shoot ya."

"Owed ya a few!" Chris sat up and then shifted his ankle in better line, rubbing his aching thigh. With strength from his shoulders and muscular arms, he pulled himself up and propped against the desk. "You okay, Celia. We got 'em good." He rubbed his nose, "Hell, Terry...did you REALLY have to HIT me?"

"Oh, Chris. You just moved when I swung. I'm sorry. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Just let it heal with all the rest. You've got some punch there, lady!"

"So I've been told. Just be happy I knew the truth about this before I decided to go in on the trick. Celia, get up dear. You didn't fall too hard did you?"

Celia just giggled. "Of course, not. We're both just fine. That was fun!"

"Who in the hell is she, Chris?" Vin was totally confused, but she was still beautiful...maybe there was still hope.

"She's Celia Horton Singer."

"Horton? Horton? Like Terry?"

Buck exploded. "Will somebody please tell us what happened to Chris last night? And why'd you decide to go after all of us. We just wanted to know that you weren't in danger again."

"Yeah, right, Buck. That's what you wanted all right."

"And I want to know who she is!" Vin wasn't mad, but he was back to being interested again.

Terry put her hand on Vin's shoulder. The agency tracker could feel sympathy in her touch. Somehow, he knew something with seriously wrong with his hoped-for love life now. Obviously, Chris had known nothing was going to happen with the redhead, but he hadn't felt a need to tell him anything.

"Okay, Terry. You want to save that spouse of yours a dismal future, one where I track his no good self til he drops, you best tell us something about all this! Who is she?"

"I don't have any sisters, Vin."

"But..."

"She's got brothers, Mr. Tanner!" Celia smiled at him. "And her brothers have daughters...at least my father has three daughters. I'm his youngest. Terry's niece."

"Awh, hell. Why didn't you tell me, Cowboy?"

"Stop calling me that, Vin. It's getting just a little old today. Shoot, it just never came up. You've never up and told me about your brother...now have ya? I ain't the only one that keeps my business close to the vest. Thing is, I don't mind being in the dark, cause if I don't want to be in the dark, it don't take you telling me to find out what I want to know"

"Ah, hell. You know about Quint? But her last name's Singer. What's that all about?"

"You want to know so bad...figure it out!" Chris began to laugh. He noticed a few minutes later that Vin had reached the stage of being irritable, cranky, and cantankerous. The five in this firm ALL tended to reach the same point They just had different boiling points. Still, boiling point was boiling point and Chris knew he was going to pay for this one eventually.

"You're married. That's it, ain't it?" Vin felt his hopes turn to dust.

"Married and pregnant! See...that's what this little belly's about." Celia kissed him on the side of his cheek and watched him blush.

But Larabee being Larabee didn't know when to stop. "Yep, pard, she's taken. This is all still my business, boys...you best just learn to live with it." Chris laughed. Then suddenly, for some unknown reason, he slipped off the desk and landed hard on the floor, his foot underneath him. He figured it out fast enough. "Damn! BUCK!"

"What happened to you, Stud? Get a little off the plumb there?"

"You pushed me!"

"You reckon, Chris? Why would I want to do that?"

"Buck, don't kill him...even if he is a miserable polecat. Chris, you get that foot out here straight so Terry can look ya over."

She hit Buck's arm, then knelt by Chris instantly. "Where do you hurt?"

"Damn skunk made me turn it again. Awh!"

"You big doofuss!" She scolded him. "At least it had the Ace this time. You just have to keep on, don't you?! Somebody would think you were all of two...all of you!"

"Awh...you don't have to break it!"

"No, I don't...you already did it. Be still."

"It's just a sprain!"

"Look, Chris. So she's married, and she's pregnant. But you still haven't told us what happened to you. Spit it out! Or you want me to maybe bust the other one too."

"Awh! At least get me off of the floor! If you had to dump me on the floor, did you have to make me miss the rug?"

"Not til you tell me what I want to know!"

"This floor's brick you idiot. I could have broken something!"

"You did break it, Cowboy. At least Terry says so. You're not doubting her words are you?"

"Vin...with all the spying you two did on me last night...you're supposed to be a detective. From the way you were sticking your nose in my business, you should have all the information you need to know EVERYTHING."

"How would we know all that?"

"Figure it out! And the first one of you who thinks I'm shacking up with ANYBODY besides Terry, dies!"

"How would we know? You tell us that!"

"Little thing called a parabolic microphone? Outside Celia's townhouse? You and Vin playing I Spy? You best be real happy I wasn't having an affair. Then I would have had to shoot you...both of you. I'm not real sure Celia's not going to try it now!"

"Larabee, we're gonna get ya. You just wait!"

Vin had no sympathy for the man. "What say, Buck. Phoenix General? Pronto? Let the ambulance boys have him?"

"Awh! Vin, you didn't really call the ambulance? Did you? It's just a sprain."

"Buck said to."

"And you do everything he tells you to do! Right, Vin?"

"Okay, Pard. You've had your fun...way too much fun. Wouldn't you say, Vin?"

"'Spect so. I mean, I guess those boys in the ambulance will understand it's not a gunshot wound when they get here, Buck. We'll have him back in Nathan's tender loving care in no time flat. He'll be more than happy to get you back, Cowboy. What was it he said...next time, he'd check everything?"

"Ah, hell, Vin. Call 'em off...if it's just my ankle, somebody can get me to an Emergency Room someplace that doesn't have Nathan on staff...maybe without having to pay for an ambulance. Right, Ez?."

"Mr. Larabee...you do realize that you are attempting to appeal to my mercenary nature. I am not deficient in brains, my friend. But you, my dear friend, are ONLY concerned about our financial well-being when you want us to remove you from Nathan's vile clutches, or you intend for us to save your proverbial skin."

"Look, Ezra, it's only a sprain! You know it's a sprain, don't you, J.D.?"

"But, Chris. You always say I've got to take care of anything that happens right away. I mean you've put me in Phoenix General before. You know you need to serve as my example...now don't ya."

"Nobody's gonna get me out of this?"

"Hell, no."

"But Buck!"

"As long as you're not talking, we're not helping."

"Come on, Vin. You know you both had it coming for following us last night. We weren't doing nothing!"

"Sir, if you would refrain from being a curmudgeon and would let slip a few slivers of information to assuage their insatiable need for gossip and pandemonium, they might be persuaded to help you out of this despicable situation. The shame of being dumped in one of Nathan's cubicle...a pity to be sure for such a capable gentlemen as yourself."

"I can be reasonable. Look, I'll answer questions...you two figure it out. I could talk a bit! At least I won't be blabbing everything like an idiot."

"I'm not sure it is within your nature, Mr. Larabee."

"Shut up, Ezra."

"I will most assuredly cease my prattle, Mr. Larabee...and by the way, the paramedics have arrived."

"Ah, hell!"

The paramedics were both huge, and they were focused. "We have a report of gunshot wounds at this location. Who's the patient?"

Heaven help him, he tried to get out of it. "Nobody...not for gunshot wounds. I've just got a bad ankle."

"You're Chris Larabee? Dr. Jackson said to make sure we strapped you down. We're to start ringers, start whole blood, get you prepped for surgery in route, including heavy sedation. Said to tell you he'd wake you up for a nice spinal when you get to the hospital."

"No...no gunshot wounds...just a bad ankle. I don't need to be prepped for surgery."

"Doctor's orders, Cowboy. Let me and Buck get you on your gurney."

"Not gonna need..."

"Chris...just enjoy the ride." Terry patted his arm and kissed him. "You did get even...just like you wanted."

"Not you too! You're supposed to be on MY SIDE, and it was their fault! They started it!"

"No we didn't. We just showed up to get your gnarly ass out of Phoenix General! You two started the mushy stuff!"

"Look, Honey. Chris, it IS broken, but you'll do fine. They'll only keep you a week or so. I'm sure you won't even have to get out of bed. He'll have a catheter waiting, and there's always a bed pan. I'm sure he'll finish all your checkups while you're there too." She gave Vin and Buck a conspiratorial grin.

"Look, you're Nathan's back up in Emergency...tell them I don't need any prep for surgery."

"Get on the board, Stud. It's a short ride, and you could use the rest."

"Look...you win. I'll talk. Just tell them I'm not going...not to Nathan."

"You've got all of ten to tell it, or we let em take you to Nathan's dungeon."

"Karate! It was Karate!"

"That ain't gonna do it, Stud. You know Karate, and we know you know it. But that's just the half of it. Just how did you manage to get yourself beat to a pulp?"

"And who is Celia?"

"And what were you doing that made these two despots land in my home last night, Mr. Larabee...or early this morning...whenever!"

"Shoot...and why'd they come barging in at my place and wake up Casey?"

"And please tell them we are NOT having an affair before George comes home and they run their mouths to him." She laughed.

"Who's George?"

"He is my husband, Vin...you know, the father of my baby?"

"You could 'a told me, Chris. Ya' left me hanging out to dry. I feel like a dang fool!"

"Please, Vin...don't be angry. He was trying to protect me."

"He's just being his own damn tight-mouthed, ornery, mangy cuss self!"

"Well, Chris...we've used two...you've got eight, or Nathan's got you."

"I'll start with the easy part. Celia is my niece."

Buck banged him on the head. "We know that! She said as much. But WHAT niece? You don't have brothers and sisters...unless that's something else you've been hiding!"

"No...I haven't been hiding anything else. Well...not much..."

"I didn't think you had any sisters?"

"I don't. That's Terry's business...or Celia's." Chris's smile was smart and meant to harass. It worked perfectly, and made Larabee extremely happy.

"Cowboy...you start more of that...you keep this up..."

"No...I don't have brothers or sisters, but Terry does."

"Oh."

"Shut up, Buck. I've got seven to finish and it may be a long story."

"Let him talk. This is going to be good."

"Shut up, J.D."

"It just ain't nothing. George is gone to finish up on his doctoral dissertation. He's gonna be gone for about four more months."

"And..?"

"And, Celia's a black belt expert."

"A pregnant black belt?"

"Yes. She teaches at her own place downtown. I've been going down there every Thursday afternoon that a case didn't take up. Been going for almost six months now. She's been helping me to tone up and polish my moves."

"So that's where you got involved with her!"

"Shut up, Buck. I've known her since she was born. She's MY NIECE! She's a high degree black belt in Karate."

"So that's one you haven't told us."

"You guys are the reason I don't tell you much. Look at what I go through when you get told anything...I got accused of having an affair. Maybe that'd work if you were looking into Buck's life...but hell...it sure don't work when you look at mine! If my wife hadn't known what I was doing? I just might be dead about now!"

"Five minutes, Chris. Them boys are ready to rock 'n roll. I know SHE didn't beat you up." Buck pointed at Celia.

"No...could have if she wanted...but I won't be able to take her for long."

"Cause she's pregnant?"

"No, J.D. Because she's good. Well, she is pregnant."

"That has been established, Mr. Larabee. Would you please finish this."

"I'm trying. She teaches at her club...but her doctor said she couldn't teach the hardest classes any more until the baby comes. Celia asked me to help her with the Thursday night classes...the black belts. She knew I could handle students at that level. Terry and I talked it over and decided I'd help. Terry's known about our 'nights together' from the git go!"

"So that's why you've been turning down long distance cases!"

"So that's why he's been disappearing every Thursday afternoon before three!"

"It wasn't going to be for more than a few months, and I needed the training, and Celia needed the help. It wasn't going to ruin us financially or nothing. And Buck, Vin...pay attention. J. D.'s the only one who's noticed. Maybe he ought to get the harder cases. You two couldn't find out nothing in the sun...about Celia...or about me."

"No reason to insult us! We did teach him everything."

"Mr. Larabee! Now I understand why we have not been taking on the real money-makers low these last months. You could have at least let me in on your ruse. I could have cut costs."

"It's not like I haven't been working, Ezra. Not like we're broke!"

"Three minutes, Chris...and you haven't said one word YET about how you got hurt. That will be the only thing that saves your butt from Nathan! Now, talk!"

"I'm tired, Buck. My ankle hurts. Can't this wait?"

"Come on boys. He says he's tired. Time to get him to Nathan!"

"VIN! WAIT! I've still got three, I can do it."

"Three, Cowboy. And countin'."

"Ask him questions or we'll never get it out of him!" Chris glared daggers at J. D. The kid always did ask too many questions.

"My turn. I'm gonna ask, Pard...you just better answer fast, and true! You tell me some kind of nothing, I'll know! Now...here we go...Where were you, Chris?"

"At the Karate School."

"What were you doing?"

"I'd done my workout. I was teaching a class with Celia."

"What were you going over?"

"Shoot...I'll tell it...if you're going to hold me to this! You know I don't like being 'it'."

"Gurney!"

"I was teaching 'em how to work as a team. I wanted them to know how we work...that we're always backing each other up. They really seemed to be listening, and enjoying the things I was telling them about our work on some of the cases."

"What's this got to do with you getting beat to hell?"

"Buck...they just learned a little too much, a little to fast. I'd told 'em how we could fight together and take the bad guy down. That we always knew how to do things as a team...didn't have to do a lot of talking."

"And?"

"I taught 'em that they needed to be able to take on a whole gang by themselves, if they had to. Just like we do."

"What did that have to do with..?"

"What?"

"All of it. They did it. I had them in a circle around me, and I was showing them how to follow the action of a gang...how to have a chance to win...and..."

"Spit it out, Cowboy."

"They teamed up and kicked the hell out of me. One minute I'm in control...next minute I'm in a world of hurt...a big world of hurt! Celia had to call the little demons off me." His face burned in embarrassment.

"Great job, Pard. And how old did you say these demons were?"

He was red faced, a little angry, quickly going for belligerent. "I didn't say. It's MY business."

"And your Nathan's business...right. He's about ready, boys."

"Twelve!"

"YOU got beat like this by a bunch of KIDS? How many?"

"Four."

"I told ya it had to be a gang to get him like that."

"Four and twelve don't count for a gang, Vin. Four and twelve don't count for much of nothing. Should a taken 'em down easy! He's gettin' plum old! It's just embarrassing, Stud."

"THEY'RE BLACK-BELT TWELVE, BUCK."

"And they did get to him about four times each!"

"DAMN, CELIA!"

"You're about as old as Methuselah, Cowboy!"

"Not til that girl kicked me in the head! Ah, shit!"

"GIRL!" The room got absolutely quiet.

"Oh, that class is all girls...and we had two of them absent last night."

"Celia! Celia...Celia. SHUT UP, Celia...you're not helping anything...least of all ME!"

"Oh...we're sorry, Chris. I know that HAD to be something...getting your ass kicked by a bunch of girls.

"Buck! Shoot. Last night was damn embarrassing enough without Nathan, and then you two having to go think up that I was having an affair with Celia. You could a got me killed all over again."

"And you could have ruined my marriage before my child's here. When Chris decided to get revenge on you two, I was glad to do it."

"So he dragged you into this. It wasn't funny, Chris. I thought you were dead, and Celia was dead, and Terry had killed ya both."

"But you caught on. I saw the look in your eyes change."

"Yeah...you never could act. You always have to peek when you're supposed to be the possum. You peeked."

"Have to work on that." He finally smiled. "Got Buck real good though."

"Laugh all ya want, Pard. I'll get ya back."

"Now, look, Buck. I paid the price you asked...we're square. Just let it go."

"Guess you're right, Chris. Guess it was all my fault."

"Good...now send these guys back to the barn. I'm not going to see Nathan."

"Chris...cowboy...pard."

"What Vin...you're not gonna..?"

"Go back on my promise? Well...I'm sorry, but it's really busted. Ya got to go." The four of his 'partners' scooped him onto the gurney, and two of them held him down, and two of them tightened the straps.

"And Pard...Terry's not that bad a shot on her worst day. She'd a wanted to kill ya...she'd a KILLED ya."

"SHUT UP, BUCK! UNDO THESE THINGS AND PUT ME DOWN!"

"Sorry, Chris."

"Tanner...I'm NOT going. Hey, look, make 'em turn me loose! Vin, you called 'em...you can call 'em off! Terry...Terry...come on...get me off this."

"Calm down, honey. You'll be good as new in no time. I'll be right there to help Nathan get you through it. Surgery won't take long...and I'll be sure to get you some nice, cold, green Jell-O!"

"Ah, geez...look, Terry...honey."

"Yes, Chris. What is it now?"

He blushed as he motioned to her and whispered in her ears, "Look...you make me go see Nathan...well...it's sure going to mess up tonight! We did have plans, didn't we?"

"Chris...honey...I'm sorry, but...well...for a while...I think you've just had all the women you can afford to have...even if they are twelve!"

"But..."

"Gentlemen, you can load him in the ambulance now...and remember, he's got at least one broken rib, a broken ankle...oh, and he's been bruised everywhere...and he's also been kicked in the head."

"In other words, he's just about normal."

"SHUT UP, BUCK!"

"Mr. Larabee...the situation you find yourself in at this moment? I would suggest you express yourself in a much more conciliatory and pleasant fashion. You have managed to tell every last person in this room, with the exception of these nice gentlemen, to shut up...and you have given wonderfully colorful monikers to us all. The odds now stand at, I believe, seven to one, and nobody seems to appear especially pleased at the moment to come to your aide."

Terry smoothed his hair back from his eyes, and she kissed him. And then she said, "I think what Ezra wants to say, honey...is Shut UP! Gentlemen...I think he's ready to be moved. Phoenix General, Dr. Jackson."

"Come on, Terry...honey. YOU'RE not mad at me, are you? I mean, you know I wasn't fooling around...don't you? You know me. Hell...you agreed to this...you thought it was a good thing. I can't help it if Buck and Vin got this stupid idea in their head. Right? Ah, hell...Terry, wait! Look...it's just a SPRAIN, boys. You could just take me home. Terry... Terry...call 'em off, Terry! Don't nobody take me to NATHAN!"

THE END
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